EVANGELION: Ascension of the Lamb
By: Dante Abbey

 Episode 28: A Salve for the Wounds of the Soul / The Sixth Child

     "That went...well, considering."
     Fuyutsuki nodded, agreeing that the battle had indeed been a successful one, ending in the destruction of the Angel.  "Yes, it did.  Unfortunately, the repairs to Unit-01 will divert resources from the construction of Unit-16.  This will delay its delivery even more than was previously anticipated.  The repairs, on the other hand, should be finished very soon."
     "What about Shinji?"
     "He'll be functional, soon.  Better news, though.  The Angel kill should be enough to persuade the UN to restore our funding as soon as possible, so we should be able to maintain the new Evas.
     "Also, seeing as how NERV itself isn't really responsible for any of Third Impact, we can pin all the blame on Commander Ikari, seeing as how he was kind of responsible for a lot of this, and no one else knows what happened anyways.  You can't punish a dead man.  The hearing's in Geneva next week.  It'll be as boring as the city council meetings were, but at least I'll be able to clear the air.
     "And, I've selected a new bridge crew.  Their folders will be in your office by tomorrow."

* * *

     "Hikari?"
     "What is it, Nozomi?"  She looked up from the textbook she'd been studying.  Even though school didn't actually reopen for another week, due to beauraucratic difficulties stemming from Third Impact, she still had her mind on study.  If anything, she was even more set upon her education since that strange morning.
     "Um..." her younger sister, Nozomi, seemed a little shaken by something, but that was normal.  She was usually pretty nervous about everything.  "There are some men in the kitchen who want to talk to you..."
     That didn't seem right.  "Why me?"
     Nozomi played with her hands and shrugged.  "I don't know...they're talking to Dad right now."
     Hikari got up, intrigued by these strange visitors, and was about to open the door when her father burst in, tripped over Pen-Pen and swept her up in a hug.
     "Hikari!" he exclaimed, "I'm so proud of you!"
     "What?" she hadn't done anything extraordinary within the frame of her memory.  "What's all this?"
     Pen-Pen returned her confused look, rubbing his backside with a wing.

* * *

     Whatever had happened two weeks ago was past, and the city, as well as the world, seemed to have stabilized.  Of course, had it fallen apart again, it would have amazed a scant few people.
     Asuka had been sitting alone in the kitchen, thinking about the previous week's events.  Culminating, of course, in their mutual admission in the hospital.  Asuka, while happy that Shinji cared for her so openly, still had to struggle with some of the implications her past was whispering at her.  The last person to tell her they loved her was her mother...and she knew all too well what had happened then.  It made little difference that she now knew where her mother was, and that she still loved her daughter...Asuka had felt abandoned and alone by her mother's insanity and self-hanging for those years, almost ending her life in a despondent, near-suicidal depression.  Not to mention the fact that her mother had invited her, even though it was only a proxy doll, to commit double suicide with her.
     While the prospects of being with Shinji seemed bright, the fear that he, too, might one day abandon her terrified her.  She shivered, hoping that Shinji loved her enough never to do that.
     The phone rang, thankfully, preventing her from returning to that line of thought.
     Slowly, and disinterestedly, she picked it up.  It was probably just NERV calling about some kind of stupid test.
     "Halo?"
     "Asuka?!"
     It was a voice she hadn't heard in quite some time, for at least a couple of months, and its presence overjoyed her.  "Hikari?  How are you?"
     "I'm...fine.  I've been ordered back Tokyo-3, but I think I might be staying with you, if you don't mind..."
     Asuka cocked her head slightly.  "Why's that?"
     "It's a long story.  You sound a lot better, Asuka."
     "I know...  Thanks."  Best not to tell her the specifics yet.  Strangely enough, Hikari, while sounding enthused at meeting Asuka again, didn't sound entirely the same when she had said, 'It's a long story.'
     Settling into her chair, Asuka asked about it, and waited for what sounded like a long, complicated narrative.

* * *

     "Good morning, Mari.  You seen Dad anywhere?"
     Touji groped in the fridge for the milk, but, not finding any, settled on juice.  Mari didn't look up from her letter.
     "He left early again.  About two hours ago."
     Touji filled his glass.  It didn't surprise him in the least.  His father was almost never home, always working on some new project at work, and leaving Mari in his care.
     "What's that you're reading?"
     "It's from school."  Her voice was suddenly bright.  "We're going back in a couple of days!  I'm so excited!  I'll finally get to see all of my friends and teachers again!"
     He sat down and picked up the letter.  "Anything for me?"
     "Yeah!  You're going back too!"
     Touji's mind drifted away from the table, and he wondered who else would show up.  Shinji and Asuka, obviously, he knew they were still around.  What about Kensuke?  Or class rep?  Kensuke, probably, just because of the Evas, he'd probably do everything and anything to come back.  But, of the class rep he wasn't entirely certain.  He didn't think her family was affiliated with NERV, so they might not have been recalled.  In some strange way, he hoped she'd be back.  She'd been really nice to him, especially right before the...incident, and her proposal would have saved him a fair amount of money for lunch.  Besides that, she'd been the only one to visit him in the hospital afterwards, and that she had spent the effort to get past the institution's regulations marked her as a particularily nice human being.
     It felt kind of funny that he hadn't thought of her before this, but then again, he'd been piloting Eva, and doing other things, like figuring out where the left side of his body had come from.
     On the subject of Eva, he realized he wasn't nearly as scared as he had been.  The victory over the Angel had been fairly easy for him anyways, and he didn't feel the same sort of dread as he did before.  Now that he'd been able to disassociate the Evas, even a little bit, from death and injury, he felt more comfortable.  Of couse, there was still what had happened to Shinji, who was still in hospital.
     "Touji?"
     His sister's voice brought him back to the here and now.
     "You haven't looked at your class list yet.  Don't you want to know who's coming back?"
     "Sorry.  Drifted off a bit there."

* * *

     Shinji's eyes opened again.  The same ceiling as before.  He knew Asuka had left at the end of visiting hours, but hoped she might have returned.  She hadn't, so he simply stared at the panels.
     He'd had a considerable time to think about the recent events that had more or less turned his entire life upside down.  How long had he actually loved her?  A procession of memories only served to emphasize the point, and he felt better about it every time he thought about it, even though comprehension was still beyond him.  Eventually he gave up trying to understand, coming to the conclusion that it didn't really matter when it had started, and that it was enough that she was there for him now.
     Smiling to himself, he thought he'd remind her when he got back home.  That word still had a funny ring to it...home.  He'd never really had one.  He'd lived in several different places over the course of his life, but never really considered any of them to be his 'home', as none of them ever really held any sort of sentimental value to him.  Even after the time he'd spent with Misato, he'd never truly regarded her apartment as 'home', despite the fact that he frequently referred to it as such.  And the night he'd spent in Kaworu's little cubicle...  At that time, the apartment definitely didn't feel anything like a 'home'.  The people it contained and the prospect of talking to them, then, frightened him to such a degree he didn't want to go back at all.
     But now, it was different.  Now, he actually wished to go back there.  Before, it hadn't really mattered that much to him.  Home is where the heart is, after all.  He thought he might even be what people he'd known had called 'homesick'.
     He fingered some of the places he'd managed to identify as being injuries, and found they didn't hurt nearly half as much as they did the day before.  If he was healing, that meant he would be able to go home and leave the antiseptic room in which he seemed imprisoned.
     After ten or fifteen minutes, he became very, very bored of poking himself, not to mention the fact that it was making him sore.  So, he closed his eyes, and tried desperately to escape the mundane realm of the room by sleeping.  If it wasn't more exciting, at least it would make the time pass faster.

* * *

     Asuka had spent the last couple days packing up Misato's things and moving them to the storage locker in the basement of the building, leaving the room empty for Hikari to move into.  During this time, spent looking and sorting through her belongings, it occurred to her that Misato had tried, as badly equipped for it as she was, to be a parent for them.  She'd given them privacy and time to themselves, but at the same time, she'd also tried to guide them every once in a while.  Asuka felt slightly sick at the cold hatred she'd felt for NERV's ex-director of operations towards the waning months of the last year.  She really tried to help us, didn't she?  There wasn't much she could do about it now, but it would have been better if she'd had the chance to apologize and thank Misato for all her help.

     Hikari had already seen the apartment before, if only infrequently, and it was much as she remembered it.  The layout hadn't changed, and things were more or less in the same condition they'd been in during her last visit.
     Pen-Pen moved directly into his compartment in the bottom of the second fridge.  Since his only belongings were his food bowl and a towel, it took less than a minute, compared to the two and a half hours it took Hikari to set up.
     Hikari found the place to be clean, and for some reason, she could no longer detect the lingering smell of alcohol in the air.  The change was slightly disconcerting, and the lack of scattered bottles and cans begged a fairly important question.
     "Doesn't Ms. Katsuragi still live here?" she asked, turning to Asuka.
     "No, silly.  You'll be living in her room.  She, ah..."  She began playing with her hair, unsure of how to explain her former housemate's conspicuous absence.
     Hikari frowned slightly, not understanding.  "Her name plaque is still on the door, though."
     Asuka shrugged.  "We haven't had the time to take it down," she said, hoping Hikari would leave that subject and get on with a less troubling one.
     That also bothered Hikari's rather proper viewpoint on life.  "We?  You mean...Shinji still lives here?"
     Asuka shrugged again.  "Yeah.  So?"
     At the same time, they both exclaimed, "That's disgusting!"  Asuka snickered.  Her friend hadn't changed after all this time.  Hikari was turning red, so she quickly explained the situation.  "Oh, come on, Hikari.  It's not that bad.  Besides, it's not like I can kick him out!  Where would he go?  And then, he does all the housework.  And I..."
     Hikari said nothing, and still looked a little upset, although somewhat pacified.  "It still..."
     Asuka realized she hadn't laughed in quite a while, and it felt good.  It seemed somewhat at odds with the personal experiences she'd had over the last two weeks, but it was nice to know she still kept some of her ebullient self.  She silently thanked Hikari for allowing that to resurface.
     Hikari had finally calmed down a little, concluding that Asuka's argument for keeping Shinji was a good one, even though she could easily usurp his role as housekeeper.
     After unpacking her things, she sat down at the table with the folder of information the school had sent her, as class representative, and sorted through it.  She came across Touji's name on the class list, and her heart jumped.
     That he was missing an arm and a leg didn't bother her.  She fancied herself understanding enough not to allow something like that get in the way of her feelings.  But, there was something strange about his name on the list.  There was no indication that he was now a special needs student, or anything.
     "Asuka, you wouldn't have seen Suzuhara anywhere, would you?"
     Asuka looked up from her magazine and wondered if she should tell Hikari about Touji's situation.  It had to be done, eventually, so she tried to deliver the news as casually as possible.  "Yeah, he got the last Angel kill."
     This hit Hikari like a lightning bolt, and she almost caused the chair to fall over backwards.  "He what?"
     Asuka finished the story.  "He's...better...now, and they made him a pilot again."
     Hikari was still shell-shocked.  "Him, too?  What is that, four active pilots, now?"
     Asuka returned to her spread.  "Three. Ayanami...well...I don't know."  She still didn't want to think about Rei.
     Hikari looked back to her sheet as well, and noticed that, yes, Ayanami was one of the few missing from the class list.  Overlooking her was easy, seeing as how her name would have been at the top of the list, and she was always a part of the background.

     Shinji returned to the apartment later that afternoon.  It was empty, save Pen-Pen.  That certainly puzzled him.  After all, penguins aren't generally known to teleport themselves home a couple of weeks after what amounted to the apocalypse.
     He turned his mind back towards Asuka, and reminded himself that he would have to give her some kind of token of his affection when she got back...some kind of sign.  A word, a look, a touch?
     A kiss?  Did he even have the courage to imagine doing it?
     Hikari was the first in through the door, suddenly explaining Pen-Pen's presence with her own.  Shinji offered his untouched mug of tea to her after very confused greetings, which he barely survived by splurting them out.
     This changes everything, he realized with a sinking feeling.  Now, with Hikari in the picture, Shinji found approaching Asuka for his original purpose much, much more difficult.  He poured another two cups of tea for himself and Asuka, and ended up sitting in Misato's spot, across the table from the two girls.  He found himself unable to say anything at all, much less do anything for Asuka.
     "Shinji," she said, taking the tea from him and sitting down again, "You don't mind if Hikari stays with us, do you?"
     His eyebrows shot skywards in surprise.  Nevertheless, it was no stranger than when Misato had announced Asuka was going to be living with them, either.  "Um...no!  Of course not!"
     "Thanks, Shinji!  If I'm not too much trouble..," Hikari said, smiling.

* * *

     The elevator's numerical display board stopped clicking, and Shigeru stepped out into the hallway that would lead him to the command centre.  A frustrated man stood near the door, swiping a passcard ineffectually.  He thought he'd never seen this man before.
     "Excuse me.  Who are you?"
     The man turned around sheepishly and saluted.  "Sir!  Lt. Tatsuo Yamashita rep...er, trying to report for duty, sir!"
     Now that his face was visible, Shigeru recognized him as being that of the new MAGI operator.  He snorted at his own shortcoming, and offered to open the door, reminding the other man that he needed to get a new card from security.
     The other two members of the crew were already assembled by their positions as they entered.  Fuyutsuki was already talking to them.  "Good evening, Captain," he said, greeting Shigeru, "I take it you've already met Lt. Yamashita."  He motioned towards the other two.  "Lt. Shoji Masaharu, Dr. Masaharu's son, will be taking over your station."  The young man with the seriously unkempt hair saluted.  Must be some kind of legacy for the spot, Shigeru joked with himself.  "And Lt. Kayo Arashio will manage Lt. Hyuuga's."  The young woman likewise saluted her new commanding officer.
     Shigeru raised his arm and saluted back.
     Fuyutsuki cast an approving look over his choices.  When he was satisfied that these three would suit his purposes, he then went on to the next item on his agenda.  "What's the operational update on Unit-15 like?"
     Masaharu was already sliding into his place.  "It's undergoing a final examination by the science division, sir, in the 4th cage."
     Shigeru looked over at the Commander.  "Do we have a pilot yet?  I mean...did the candidate accept?"
     Fuyutsuki shook his head.  "Not yet.  My selection wanted to talk to one of our existing pilots first, and have some time to think about it.  We haven't told the others yet.  Although it does look good.  The new pilot is already using the preassigned residence, so I think the answer may have already been decided."

* * *

     Shinji lay in a state of half-awareness, finally in his own bed.  Normally, upon his return from the hospital, or from most missions, it always felt...better, to be alone, a necessary recovery period from the day's, or the week's, events.
     This time, it was slightly different.  He felt somewhat ashamed, that he hadn't been able to summon up the nerves to talk seriously with Asuka in Hikari's presence.  It didn't seem right to be here, by himself, without having done something to establish exactly where they were going.  However straightforward the result of her visit to the hospital may have seemed, it was still quite vague to him exactly what was going on between them.  Even since returning to the apartment in the afternoon, they hadn't really had the chance to talk to each other.  Maybe it was just Hikari.
     He'd never been in this situation before, and, like quite a lot of things since Impact, it was uncharted territory to him.  He had no idea what he should be doing or thinking.
     It was dark, and very quiet in the room.  Only the ceaseless drone of the cicadas outside could be heard in the summer-like air, and even that was all but filtered out by his mind.  A gentle breeze ruffled the trees below his slightly open window.  Some of it even made its way into the room, circulating through the space and making it somewhat less stuffy.  He couldn't tell how much time had passed since he had gone to bed, since he began thinking, nor could he drift of into the oblivion of sleep, no matter how hard he tried.
     There was a whisper of movement, but, with his eyes closed, he put it down to the wind in the trees and ignored it, concentrating ever harder on trying to relax.  Until he felt a warmth on his face.  His eyes creaked open, almost reluctantly, and before him were a pair of blue irises, highlighted by the soft glow of the moon.
     "Asuka?" he whispered, "W...what?"
     Asuka had not been able to sleep either.  The same nagging doubts that had bothered her since several days ago continued to persist in her mind, plaguing her continuously, even throughout Hikari's arrival and her visits to the hospital.  She'd already decided that Shinji had changed enough to never try what she had seen him do in that waking nightmare of Impact, and also that she had changed enough and would never give him reason to even imagine it, either.  So that wasn't the problem.  She didn't fear him anymore, but rather, for him.  Should she lose him...
     After three hours of deliberation, she decided to go and see him.  If for nothing else, to settle the question.
     "Shinji..," she began, her voice catching slightly.
     Shinji hauled his slightly unresponsive body into a sitting position.
     "...I love you, Shinji...I just..."
     What is she looking for?  Her eyes were searching his face, for something that completely eluded Shinji's mind.  Frantically, he scanned through what he knew about Asuka, unfortunately not complete enough for him to draw out an answer.  Think...harder!  He cursed his sleep-addled brain and, in a panic-stricken moment of partial clarity, managed to think of saying something that made sense, given the situation.
     "I love you too, Asuka."  It was nice to say, even if he didn't understand what was going on.  What was she looking for, already?  His confusion and desperation grew as the look on her face changed slightly, but not entirely for the better.  There was something else she was looking for.  He'd already told her this, what else was there that she could possibly still be worrying about?
     Asuka swallowed slightly...words were words, but...she needed more.  She wasn't able to tell herself what it was, only that there was something missing.  Some indication that he truly cared for her as much as she hoped.  After all, he hadn't said anything about it since arriving home.
     Then again, neither had she, since Hikari had just arrived.
     Shinji's mind, which had been turning in frantic circles for the last little while, finally skidded to a halt on something.  He almost discarded the idea, given the emotional state she was in, but realized it might be necessary.  He wondered what she could have suffered to be so reluctant to accept him, and what he felt for her.  Was it similar to his past?
     I can't run away, he thought, not from her.  Not now.  Not after everything.
     There was nothing else he felt he could do.  He decided, striking up his courage to move forwards on his mind's ludicrous suggestion.
     "Asuka...can I...um..."  No.  He had to deal with this in a direct manner, so there could be no mistaking his reasons.  He swung his still slowly-moving legs off the bed and leaned towards her, placing a tentative hand on her shoulder.  She didn't flinch, but he was sure he felt a momentary trembling, testing his resolve yet again.  Internally, he braced himself, then asked "Can I kiss you?"
     There was a short pause, during which he wasn't sure whether or not he'd done the right thing.  Then her expression suddenly changed, her eyes brightening.  To Shinji's suprise, she craned her neck towards him, and their lips touched.  Shinji had been expecting it to be somewhat like that one time she'd invited him to kiss her, but it was different.  First of all, she wasn't holding his nose, meaning he could breathe, and second, it just seemed...so much more natural, and infinitely more fulfilling in some way he couldn't quite identify.
     After a long time that seemed much too short, Asuka reluctantly pulled away from him and managed a weak smile.  Shinji was still more or less confused as she squeezed the hand he'd rested on her arm.  "Can I sleep here tonight?"
     Alarm bells went off in Shinji's head, but he kicked the override before he did something stupid.  So quickly, in fact, that his own expression never changed.
     "I...I guess."
     He crouched next to the bed and reached under it for the extra blanket, so as to sleep on the floor.  Asuka, noticing this, took him by the wrist and pulled him back, drawing him onto the bed behind her.
     "That's not what I meant."
     "You know Hikari's not going to like this..."
     Asuka let out an odd cough of barely suppressed laughter.  "I know...she can freak out tomorrow."
     Her hair was finally unrestrained by the neural clips she still habitually wore, similar to Shinji's memory of that night that had first come to his mind when she'd asked him in the hospital, from the first week she'd lived in Misato's -- or what had been Misato's -- apartment.  As before, it glittered, almost, in the pale light.  As it framed her face, it cast ephemeral shadows past the high cheekbones and her delicate nose.  Damn, I knew she was cute, but...she's...beautiful.
     "I love you," he repeated.
     "I know."  And that simple reaffirmation made Shinji feel better than he could remember feeling for the past several years.  Asuka, too, had never felt so needed before in her life, and realized that she had never been so dependent, and depended on in her entire life.  The realization of their mutual need for each other felt particularily good.  Better than laughing.
     Sleep came easily now.

* * *

     Awareness returned slowly to another boy in the city.  The blurry status of the ceiling panels hadn't changed over the last few minutes, and didn't look like they were going to.  Clumsily, he flailed at the bedside table, and managed to locate his most important belonging.  Squinting, he managed to figure out which side of the somewhat delicate apparatus was up, and slid the whole thing over the bridge of his nose.  The world became clear in an instant, and he heaved himself upright, supporting his deadweight body on his palms.
     He glanced at his calendar, and saw that today had been circled with a thick black marker.  He shook his head, clearing it, and looked again.  No doubt.  Today was indeed the first day back to school.
     After showering and getting dressed, he opened his closet.  Such an occasion was surely deserving of at least two or three disks worth of recording time.  Taking four, just in case, he slipped them into one of the many pockets of his photographer's vest as well as a few extra battery packs.  No sense in bringing enough recording time, if you can't use the camera.  Finally, he picked up the camera, dusted off the lens with a soft brush, and installed the first disk and battery pack before heading downstairs to get his school bag.  An idea came to him, so he turned the camera towards himself, grinned and began recording.
     "This is Kensuke Aida, coming to you live from Tokyo-3, the city of Angels and Evas!  Young people all over the city are now returning to school after a short vacation brought about by the destruction of this very locale!  Now that it's been rebuilt..."

* * *

     Hikari was awake at six thirty, as was her habit, and she returned from the bathroom ready to meet the day in all its glory.  Usually, at this time on a weekday, she made breakfast and reviewed her work from the night before.  Of course, there hadn't been any school, and there was no homework to check, so she set about getting breakfast ready.
     She put on the apron, kept immaculately clean by Shinji, who never ceased to amaze her with his prowess around the house.  For a boy, of course.  She suddenly remembered yet another duty, that Asuka had asked her to get her up around this time.
     She strode down the hall, and flung open Asuka's door, exclaiming cheerfully "Good morning, Asu..." then going silent when she noticed the bed was made and empty.  Pen-Pen waddled up behind her, and looked curiously about the abandoned room.
     It crossed Hikari's mind that Asuka may have already woken up and gone into the bathroom while she had been getting ready in her own room.  Ever mindful of propriety, she knocked twice on the door after listening to see if the water was running.  There was no response, and the door was unlocked, so she opened it a crack and peered inside.  Also vacant.
     On a whim, she checked the common area, to find it in a similar state.  That left only one other possiblity.  Out of the question!  Her mind screamed out at this ridiculous thought, and she could only think of one reason for it.
     She turned ferociously on the door marked 'Shinji's Lovely Suite'.
     Shinji was summoned to consciousness by a loud cracking noise and a brutal explosion of pain in his left cheek.  "You pervert!  How could you!"  Hikari's well-aimed backhand would have been the envy of any tennis player, and its impact rebounded around the inside of Shinji's skull like an overinflated tennis ball studded with rocks.
     "Ow!" he yelped, rubbing the side of his jaw.  The noise also served to wake up Asuka, who tried to sit up, but found herself tangled in the sheets.  Shit!  I forgot!  "Hikari!"
     "You dog!  How could you do this to her?"  Two more shocks collided with Shinji's head, and he wished he was wearing Unit-01's armoured shell.
     "It's not like that!" he protested, lifting an arm to protect himself, and additionally wishing he could project an AT Field.  Anything to impede the hell-bent fury of the class rep.
     Asuka finally extricated herself from the twisted beddings, and stood to put herself between Hikari and the target of her rage.  "Stop it, Hikari!  What are you doing?"
      Hikari's fury hadn't yet dissipated.  "How could you let him take advantage of you, Asuka?  I thought you were stronger than that!  I'm so ashamed for you..."
     If it weren't for the fact that she was such an integral part of the situation, Asuka would have found it incredibly funny.  "It's not like that at all...I just...couldn't sleep, so I...  We didn't do anything!  Look, I'm even wearing...clothes!" she said, gesturing to herself.
     Hikari found the excuse and denial extremely hard to believe.  "I love him, Hikari."  Her face was an exact replica of the one Asuka had put on when she'd told her about Touji's 'compassionate' side.
     "Since when?"
     Asuka shrugged, and turned back to Shinji, who was groaning in agony.  "I don't know..."  After examining the blossoming bruise, she looked up at her friend and smiled.  "You're a good friend, Hikari.  Thanks for caring."
     Caught off guard, Hikari thought it best to retreat.  Not able to think of anything more to say, she apologized and backed out of the room, still trying to understand exactly what was going on under this roof.

* * *

     Fuyutsuki, comfortably ensconced in the wide leather chairs of the mostly empty first class section of an Intercontinental Suborbital Passenger Aircraft, had his mind set on the nature of the discussion he was about to enter.  Despite the optimistic picture he'd painted of his chances, he couldn't help thinking that something less perfect would come out of all this.
     Even if everything was deemed Ikari's fault, those working under him, such as himself and certain members of the science division, knew a lot about some of the more secret activities and their participation in his projects could be condemned as well.  Personally, he hated the bureaucracy and politics of the international government organization, and who knew what kind of under-the-table dealing might result in a ruling contrary to his hopes?  Even the existence of a new Angel, still being liquified in Tokyo-3's harbour, might not necessarily convince the UN tribunal to leave NERV intact for the defence of humanity.
     If worst came to worst and they were faced with another situation like the one that preceded Human Instrumentality, what would he do?  Would he hand over the facilities to the UN or JSSDF forces when demanded?  No, because the loss of the Evas and their maintenance programs would lead to untold disaster should another Angel arrive.  One already had, and Ikari had hinted at the existence of more, with his phrase "we've only come half-way".  Confirmation of this, of course, would have to wait until he could see what Ikari had been talking about.  Should NERV be attacked, it would be best to lock down all of  the upper levels as quickly as possible, and deploy the Evas.
     He sighed, a strange invisible load sitting squarely on his chest.  Preferably, he would rather not having to wipe out several divisions of troops.  It just wasn't right, since he was pledged to their defence anyway.  He hoped it would never come to that.
     But there was something else that had led him to his picture of his fairly good chances, wasn't there?  Something, or someone, he'd forgotten.  Of course.  Fuyutsuki smiled, and suddenly felt a whole lot better.  Kaji.  Ryouji Kaji.  The spy, sent by SEELE to keep an eye on Ikari, who gave Ikari certain pieces of information as well.  And, ultimately, had been feeding information to the Japanese Government.  If that information, any of it, were to find its way into the UN's hands, it might be enough to prove his point that it was mostly Gendou's fault.  Hopefully, Kaji was on the right side.  He was on everyone's side, really.  His was a dangerous game.
     Fuyutsuki stretched out his legs, and tried to get some sleep on the long flight.

* * *

     School reopened the way it always did, with every student greeting old friends and classmates out in the courtyard before going to classes.  Even for a school so badly underpopulated, it was pretty difficult to find anyone in the crowd.    Although this time, Shinji was thinking, it was taking a whole lot more effort.  Effectively, Asuka was dragging him from one section of the schoolyard to the next, and making a lot more fuss over him than Shinji felt he was personally worth.  He watched hopelessly as his dignity was cannibalized by his high-strung companion.
     During a pause in their whirlwind tour, Shinji, panting, splurted out "Why...are we...?"
     Asuka looked at him and smiled, pointing down at a note someone had stuck into one of the pockets of her satchel, marked very obviously with a large heart.  She retrieved it and tore it up.  "That's why, baka," she said, kissing him gently on the cheek and making him redden, "I just want everyone to know I'm attached to you now."
     "Can't you two be more discreet?" a terribly embarassed Hikari whispered harshly to them from the corner of her mouth.
     "Augh!  Shinji!  You've betrayed us again!"  Kensuke looked like something had just punched him from inside the camera's eyepiece, and he leaned away from it.  Shinji's flush vanished rapidly at the reappearance of his friend.  He'd ignore that little slight for the time being, coming as it was from the only person who hadn't yet seen what had happened recently.
     Despite all this, Hikari continued her covert search of the courtyard.  "You haven't seen Suzuhara anywhere, have you?"
     Kensuke shook his head, and continued to film everything.  "He's usually late, anyways.  Don't worry, class rep, your sweet prince will come..."
     Asuka growled in frustration at Kensuke's jibe and punched him for Hikari, who wouldn't have done it for herself.
     "Ow!  You messed up my shot!"  Then, to Shinji, "The demon-girl strikes again!"
     "Well...she's really not that bad," Shinji replied, finally.
     Kensuke just stared at him like he'd just turned into an Angel.  "Maybe Touji'll talk some sense into you...  Hey!  Touji!" he yelled, waving him over from the front gate.
     Touji caught up with them at a dead run, putting to rest any rumors that he had needed prosthetics.  "Kensuke!"
     "Finally," Asuka threw in, "the Three Stooges reunited."
     Hikari elbowed her to be quiet.  "Suzuhara...  I heard you were better...but I never thought..."
     Touji shrugged, throwing his bag onto the bench they all seemed to be clustered around.  "I know.  I'm still trying to figure it out myself," he said, an odd smirk twisting his face.  "So, Shinji!  How's the wife?" he asked, already cringing from the certain response his remark would draw from Asuka.

     Shinji had made lunch today, and wasn't aware there were supposed to be any leftovers, so Touji purchased his usual pile of food in the cafeteria after morning classes. They ate on the roof, just like they used to.  Kensuke, of course, was buttonholing Shinji on everything that had happened while he was gone: what news there was to tell with the Evas, what Angels had come, what things were like at NERV now.  Touji, while aware of most of what Shinji was telling him, didn't bother to fill Kensuke in with the details.  Doing so meant telling him that he was in an Eva again, and it wouldn't be appropriate to remind Kensuke of his forbidden dream.  So, he listened to Kensuke's interrogation and Shinji's guarded and reticent replies with half an ear.
     Suddenly, Kensuke changed tack.  "Say...where's Rei?"
     "Ayanami?"  Shinji's expression drooped.
     "Yeah...you pilot Eva, you must have seen her.  Even someone like her should be here the first day back, at least."
     Shinji looked down, and kicked the railing against which he was leaning.  "W...well...she...she died fighting an Angel."  Well, it was true, wasn't it?  Sure, she'd been resurrected into some kind of...goddess by his father and NERV, but that was too difficult to explain.  At least, that's what he thought.
     And then, there was the event known to a few as Instrumentality, which still bothered Shinji to no end.  The Rei he knew and missed in some awkward way was gone, likely forever.
     Kensuke looked fairly sobered, and not a little saddened.  He changed subjects again.

     Hikari finished her lunch, and looked up at Asuka, who had finished a while ago, and was now staring out at the city.
     "Asuka?  You know why I'm living with you right now, don't you?"
     "Yeah...you told me."
     "Well, that's the thing.  I haven't actually accepted yet, and I wanted to talk to you first.  I just...I'm not sure yet."
     Asuka turned her head towards her friend.  "Talk to me about what?"
     Hikari could still remember the pathetic state Asuka had been in when she had shown up at her doorstep in the waning weeks of the last year...depressed and bitter, and obviously hurt.  When she'd finally left, Hikari had been worried sick that Asuka had gone to commit suicide, or something equally horrific.  "It turned you into a wreck, Asuka.  I don't think I'm even half as strong as you are."
     "I can't deny that."  Asuka trembled slightly as she remembered what the Angel had done to her mind, tearing it open like a book and seemingly proclaiming its contents to the world, all her deepest, darkest secrets and fears.  The explosion of all the suppressed memories at once had certainly pushed her over the edge of a precipice on which her footing had already been unsteady.
     "And...look what happened to Touji..."  She let out a frustrated sigh.  "Do I really have to do this?"
     Asuka looked down.  "No, you don't.  You can refuse if you want to.  They can always find someone else.  They did give you the choice..."
     "And if I don't that other person will have to go through it all.  That...hell.  And at the same time...I want to help you...and Suzuhara and Shinji...because if I can really do what they said I can do...then..."
     Her friend was silent, and continued to examine the concrete.
     "But I don't know if I can do this, Asuka.  What should I do?  What do I do now?"
     Asuka jerked her head back up, and looked back at Hikari.  "What do you believe you should do?  It's not a decision I can make for you."
     Hikari didn't say anything for the longest time.

* * *

     Fuyutsuki strode somewhat confidently into the large, well-lit court room on the last day of a trial that had been running for at least a week.  It was almost ancient, now, having existed for several decades before being converted into the international court after the one at The Hague was flooded by rising waters during Second Impact.  It had a strange smell, a lingering odour of dryness and rot, of old paint and older wood.  The fifteen judges facing him, nine original, six who replaced those lost during Third Impact, were all stern-faced and seemed harsh.  Their minds, hopefully, weren't as closed as they had seemed.
     Fuyutsuki took his seat behind the long bench, and tried not to think too hard about what would happen should the tribunal deem NERV unsafe for humanity.  His problem was that NERV had previously been used as a tool of evil in the eyes of most of the people who knew about it (he himself hadn't decided whether or not to classify Human Instrumentality as good or bad), but as a beneficial one as well, destroying the attacking Angels and safeguarding the future of mankind.
     And, of course, there was a lot more that he knew that could never be disclosed, to anyone.  He steepled his fingers on the desk as the head judge began the conclusion of the trial, and tried to ignore the droning voices.
     "Based on the testimony of several witnesses, the information kindly provided to us by several intelligence agencies of the Security Council and other nations, as well as the deposition of NERV's Vice-Commander Dr. Kouzou Fuyutsuki, we have no choice but to..."
     Fuyutsuki held his breath.
     "...dismiss this case.  We have found no proof that NERV, as an organization, was directly or indirectly responsable for causing Third Impact.  Nonetheless, the projects secretly carried out by NERV's former Commander, Commander Gendou Ikari and his Chief of Scientific Development, Dr. Ritsuko Akagi, have shown us that it is possible for one to abuse NERV's facilities for non-philanthropic purposes.  We will exonerate the remainder of NERV's personnel, and given the obvious fact that the so-called Angels are still attacking, we will allow NERV to keep its Evangelions functional.
     "Seeing as how there are no others currently availiable with sufficient knowledge and experience to take over the direction of NERV, we find that we have no other option but to promote Vice-Commander Fuyutsuki to the position of Supreme Commander.  Of course, we will also attach an impartial UN observer to the command centre, and assign others to keep watch over NERV, so as to ensure that the UN's money is not misused for purposes contrary to the mandate under which NERV was formed.
     "Secondly, in order to determine where the true blame for Third Impact lies, we will recommend an investigative committee to the security council.
     "Finally, we believe that funding can be restored, pending the approval of those nations supporting NERV.  This court is dismissed."
     Fuyutsuki sighed, barely audibly, and stretched out on the hard, rigid surface of the chair.  Then, he rose and left, glad that nothing too serious would happen to NERV, other than a few observers without any power.  He snorted at the thought of an investigative committee.  They'll never find SEELE.  Not in a thousand years.  They've been in hiding for that long, already, and they'll continue to do so.
     Fuyutsuki shook his head, and left, heading for the official car that would return him to Geneva's small airport, from which he would go to Paris, and then catch the ISPA back to Tokyo-2.
     Finally, there was something very important he would have to deal with when he returned.  Something that would allow him to stay ahead of SEELE the same way Gendou had.  Something that had been lost for so long that even SEELE ignored its existence.  Something so powerful, it could spell the end for SEELE.  Gendou had promised him this, and he would have to investigate.

* * *

     Asuka examined her long mane of fine red hair in the mirror.  LCL could do some pretty nasty stuff to it, and she resolved to take a shower as soon as she got home, rinse it out as quickly as possible.  While the harmonics test, also involving Shinji and Touji, had already ended, Hikari's activation test was still to follow.  So her hair would have to wait until that was over.
     Hikari looked over the baggy red jumpsuit with a critical eye.  "It doesn't look too bad, although I don't suppose they could have picked a less flashy colour."
     Asuka sat down on the bench and placed her chin in her hands.  "There's a whole lot more to upset your sensibilities, Hikari.  Push the button," she said, motioning towards the switch on her friend's left wrist.
     Almost instantaneously, all the air was sucked free from the suit's interior, and it vacuum sealed itself to the contour of her body.  Hikari screamed.  "I can't wear this...out there!"  She tried in vain to cover her practically naked body, but found she was several hands short.  She collapsed against the wall, finding it much more effective at covering her back and letting her concentrate on her front.
     Asuka smirked, amused at her friend's reaction.  "Why not?  You should stop worrying, you've got a good body."
     Hikari looked shocked at Asuka's suggestion.  "What are you saying?!  Listen to yourself!" she half-shouted, shaking her head, "It's a complete violation of my personal moral code!  I can't go out there!"
     The hallway door slid open silently, and Asuka, gripping Hikari firmly by the upper arm, stepped out hauling the reluctant recruit after her.  Shinji and Touji, having a conversation in the hall while they waited for Asuka, were interrupted in mid-debate by Hikari's outraged protests, and turned their attention towards the source of the disturbance.
     Shinji gaped in surprise.  "Another pilot?"
     Touji did the same.  "Class rep?"
     They hadn't seen her come in while they were changing.
     Asuka braced herself against the deluge of questions, which inevitably fell in sheets around her.  True, she hadn't told them yet, to protect Hikari's anonymity.  That Captain Shigeru hadn't told them yet either was somewhat strange, but then again, none of them had seen him for the past week, too busy preparing the new Eva for today's test.
     Hikari, meanwhile, was cowering behind Asuka's more substantial school uniform, hoping to conceal herself and rescue her dignity.
     "You're such a prude, Hikari," Asuka muttered, steering her towards the elevator.

     The test began.  Shinji, Asuka and Touji eventually met up in one of the observation galleries, narrow ramped hallways running down either side of the giant room that imprisoned the massive white Eva and had a few small windows looking down into the test area.  The walls of the test facility, brilliantly illuminated in white, were actually heavily reinforced, in the case of a berserk Eva, as had so frequently occurred in the past with Unit-00, and several rows of Bakelite nozzles went around the perimeter, ready to immobilize the Eva in the case of emergency.
     From within the confines of the entry plug, Hikari, still slightly upset about the nature of the plug suit, waited for it all to begin.
     "Are you ready, Ms. Horaki?"
     Shigeru himself didn't quite understand the need for a new Eva, or the next one.  Save Shinji's error, the three pilots had done quite well against the last Angel, dispatching it almost as quickly as the 10th.  Nonetheless, orders were orders, and if Fuyutsuki believed an additional Eva to be necessary, he'd go along with it.  After all, another one could only strengthen the defence NERV was already deploying.
     Hikari couldn't quite get over being completely surrounded by liquid, and yet, not drowning.  "Um...yes.  The water...I mean, LCL...tastes...kind of funny."
     Shigeru shrugged.  "It's supposed to be like that."  Then, he turned to the bridge crew, now assembled at a different set of stations.  "Activate the Eva."
     Everything went according to the book.  The Eva powered up nicely, dismissing suspicions that the power systems were malfunctioning, and earning a sigh of relief from the engineers.  Then, verification of the entry plug's systems came up green, and they prepared to enter the crucial phase: the synchronization.
     "Beginning phase I," Tatsuo announced, lifting his head.
     "This might be a little disorienting," Shigeru warned, watching the graphs intently with Dr. Masaharu.
     "Opening neural connections...now."  There was a pause as they counted down to the minimum required synchronization for safe operation.  "Absolute borderline cleared.  Phase I complete."
     From inside the plug, Hikari felt a light, somewhat airy feeling, followed by the return of her senses to normal, although, it felt more expansive, like she occupied slightly more space than she really did.
     "How do you feel?" asked Arashio, her fingers poised over the switches that would engage the second phase.
     Hikari frowned.  "A little wierd, but nothing like they described before."
     "No nausea, no dizziness?  No pain?"
     She shook her head.  "No.  I think I can go on."
     Arashio flicked the switches.  "Beginning phase II."
     "Initiating A-10 nerve connections."
     Around her, Hikari thought she could see every colour of the world at once, flashing rapidly past her with a hollow roar, suddenly replaced by a series of white web-like concentrics on a black background, which faded to...
     A scream resonated out of the control room's speakers.  The pilot status graphs went dark, and there was no longer any data coming out of the Evangelion.  A second scream, this time louder.
     "What...what the hell?"
     The white Eva roared, then curled up in the foetal position, tucking its knees up across its narrow abdomen to its chest and folding its arms in front of it before ducking its head down, hiding its almost grostesque face.  Its enormous mass was now being solely supported by the two restraints, which had not been designed to withstand the strain now being placed on them.  Unable to hold the weight up, they were torn from the walls, and there was an enormous crash as the Eva collided with the floor hard enough to crush many of the white panels.  Uncurling from the tight ball it had rolled itself into, it got up on hands and knees and roared again.
     "What's going on?"  Shigeru whirled on the MAGI operator, who was rapidly typing in commands to control the damage and locate the source of the error.
     "Interference from the Eva, probability in excess of fifty percent!"
     What?  Impossible!  Commander Fuyutsuki assured me that this Eva would be stable!
     Just as suddenly as the disaster had begun, it ended.  Data suddenly began streaming in from the entry plug, the Eva and the pilot.  There hadn't even been time to eject the Eva's power cable.  "Hikari!  What's going on in there?"
     Hikari felt like she'd just gotten off a roller coaster she'd ridden with her eyes shut, and definitely felt sick in the stomach.  Disoriented didn't begin to describe how she felt.  She swallowed her bile, and managed a faint, "I don't know."
     Shigeru was slightly thrown off course.  According to what he'd just seen, the Eva had gone completely nuts for five seconds, taking over control of itself and threatening the destruction of the facility.  Now, suddenly, everything seemed normal.  The pilot's life signs hadn't changed, the Eva was reading nominal again, and the entry plug confirmed that the pilot's synchronization was around twenty-two percent.
     "Then...why did you scream?"
     "I...what?"
     Hikari definitely couldn't remember screaming.  Her throat felt fine, not that harsh, burning feeling you get after such a vocalization.  "I don't think I screamed...did I?"
     Shit.  It got to her memory.  Shigeru lifted his hand, preparing to terminate the test.
     "Wait...so what I think of doing will move the Eva?  My thoughts control the Eva?"
     "What was that?"  Shigeru paused.
     "I'll try to stand, now."  The Eva shifted its weight onto its toes, and rocked backwards as gently as the colossal monster could, trying to push upwards into a standing position.  This failed, and Hikari's massive avatar fell back against the fractured wall from which the restraints had been torn.
     "Darn," she muttered, and, using the wall as a brace, managed to force the Eva to its feet.
     Shigeru watched in stunned silence.  Obviously, she didn't remember anything, and took it all to be a normal part of the test.
     "Okay, Hikari.  We're done now."  He looked over at the rest of the personnel in the test room, who seemed as worried and confused as he was.  "Check in with the medical officer after you've changed.  We might want to keep you here for observation."
     "Um...yes, sir."
     Shigeru closed the link as the Eva was shut down and technicians swarmed out to extract the pilot and return the Eva to its Cage.  "Find out what happened.  And get the med crews to do everything.  Check her for mental contamination, memory alteration, abnormal brain waves, absolutely everything that could possibly be wrong with her.  Until we know, lock down the Eva.  And get a copy of this data into Commander Fuyutsuki's hands, I don't care where he is."
     Masaharu shook his head.  This was going to be a long night.
     Welcome to NERV.

* * *

     The NERV hospital ceiling.  Definitely not something she was very well aquainted with.  Obviously, something had not gone well during the day's test, otherwise she wouldn't be here.  She tried to think back to the blank space in her memory, between the fading visual indicators of the connection to the Eva, and the reawakening on the floor of the white room.  There had been the white circles on the black background, which faded to...her memories skipped again, leaving her once more clueless as to what had happened.
     She closed her eyes and tried again, this time attempting to visualize the exact instance of the disappearance of memory.  Had she actually been unconscious?  Impossible, they said she had screamed.  And yet, it didn't seem like she had.  Her throat hadn't been molested by any forceful eruption of air...maybe just not very loudly.
     Somehow, it didn't all quite fit together.  Something was missing.
     The doctors hadn't been able to help.  They had performed an entire gamut of tests and examinations, interrogations and interviews, none of which could dredge up either what had happened to her, nor what was wrong with her.  "No sign of mental contamination."  There didn't seem to be anything wrong at all.  And yet, nothing seemed right, either.
     She scanned through other memories, trying to see if anything had changed during that momentary lapse in the entry plug.  Touji, Asuka, Shinji, Kensuke, her other friends, school, Dad, Kodami, Nozomi, her house, other people she knew, Misato, her childhood, those friends, experiences and accidents...  They all seemed fine.
     She decided that she really wanted to talk to someone.  It would be nice to see Touji, but anyone would do, even if it was just another doctor.  Of course, they weren't going to allow anyone in, so as to prevent introducing someone that might disrupt their observations of her and any symptoms that might surface.
     Sighing, she resigned herself to the sleep she knew she needed badly.  For some reason, she felt a very powerful headache coming on, but drifted off before she could fully feel its effects.
     The following morning, she woke unrested and was unable to recall the details of her dreams, only that they were nightmares.  Very bad ones.

* * *

     Shigeru felt mildly betrayed by Commander Fuyutsuki.  Even after the presentation of the evidence, namely the records of the test, he had dismissed Shigeru's idea of locking down Unit-15 until they were sure it was safe.  Fuyutsuki had used the argument of not having removed Unit-00 from the roster, even though it was considerably less stable than Unit-15.  Also, the pilot hadn't suffered any harm, so there wasn't a problem.  Like with Commander Ikari, Fuyutsuki seemed to be hiding things again.  Eventually, Shigeru gave up trying, and went back to the command tower to finish his shift.
     Fuyutsuki, on the other hand, withdrew Gendou's final orders and directions from his pocket, reread a piece of it, and headed for the elevators.  There was something else he had to do.
     Up until now, no one had returned to Terminal Dogma, at the very bottom of the central shaft that ran through NERV's core.  Very few had ever penetrated to the full depth, Even fewer had done so with official permission or clearance.
     The elevator, contained within a structure that looked disturbingly like the double helix of DNA, shot down into the darkness at high speed.  Nonetheless, the ride was a long one, and it gave Fuyutsuki a lot of time to think.
     Since no one had come here so far in this month, he wondered exactly what it was he would find in its obscure depths.  Would it all still be the way he had seen it last, more or less orderly, but eerie and silent nonetheless, or would it be like some frankenstein experiment gone bad, irreparably damaged by its creations?  Who knew what might be lurking in this dark recess of humanity's hubris?
     The door slid open.  As before, it was silent, the corridor dimly lit.  There was no dust on the floor, all of those impurities were filtered out several levels above.  His breath condensed in front of his face in the chilly air.
     He ignored the laboratories, the massive cavern that held the decomposing corpses of the failed Evas, and the massive tanks of LCL from which spare parts were taken.  He reached the elevator at the far end of the facility, and entered it, descending yet again.
     The doors opened to a lower level.  At the end of this enormous hallway, wide and tall enough to accomodate an Eva's bulk, he could see the enormous hexagonal wall that had been named 'Heaven's Gate', and the small, automatic door for personnel.
     Walking faster, now, to keep himself warm, he noticed the strange rhythm of the air circulation system.  The noise resonated in the huge spaces of Terminal Dogma, and it sounded remarkably like breathing, like he was trapped in the bottom of some titan's lungs.  Each 'breath' sent a shiver down the length of his spine, and he decided he should leave as quickly as possible.
     Swiping his card through the slot next to the door yielded an affirmative chime, and the door opened vertically.  He stepped through the doorway onto the platform that overlooked the underground lake of LCL.  Before him, the giant red crucifix upon which Lilith, or Rei, or both, had once been crucified.  The massive nails were still present, and her mask, inscribed with the seal of SEELE, floated like a walnut shell in the liquid.  And there, before the cross, prongs down in the ground under the surface of the fluid, was a sight that surprised him absolutely.
     The true Lance of Longinus, in all its massive blood-red length, balanced perfectly on its tips among the gently lapping waves of the LCL and the buffets of chilly air.  Fuyutsuki held his breath, not wanting to disrupt the delicate equilibrium of the enormous weapon.
     Finally, he dared look down.  At his feet, on the cold metal, was a puddle of LCL that no one had cleaned up...no one had dared to come here to look.  A jacket, pants, shoes...a pair of kid gloves...Fuyutsuki recognized immediately whose body the now crystallized liquid had to belong to.
     Oddly enough, his glasses were missing.
     In any case, Fuyutsuki had a job to do.  He knelt next to the corpse -- if you could call it that -- and tore the pants free.  Its pockets were empty, except for a wallet.  This, too, was surprisingly empty, save a NERV ID card, a Terminal Dogma pass, and, strangely, a key.
     A metallic key, not a keycard.  One with the irregular surface that opened locks.  Fuyutsuki knew instantly this was what Ikari had been referring to in his message.
     He decided that it would be best to leave his former commander here, on his chosen deathbed.  Eventually, the crystals would degrade into dust.  Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, thought Fuyutsuki, reciting one of the phrases from the funeral rite in his head.  Looking back on the precariously balanced Lance, he departed, heading for the elevator.

* * *

     Shinji tossed heavily in his currently single-occupancy bed.  He knew that the previous night's experience was probably nothing more than some emotionally driven impulse, but nonetheless, her absence bothered him.  Not that he was upset that she wasn't there, or anything like that, but it was...less comfortable to be alone.  He missed the oddly fitful way she slept, and the whispered externalizations of dreams, despite the fact that they woke him up fairly frequently.
     And most of all, he missed the amazing feeling he'd discovered, that had coursed through his soul before last night's sleep took him.  He couldn't describe how being able to feel her pulse next to him had affected him, but knew it was one of the few truly positive experiences of his life.
     He rolled over again.  It was the same bed he'd used since coming to Tokyo-3, and he'd used it for the past six, almost seven months, without incident.  It was a relatively comfortable bed, of approximately perfect firmness, and his room was generally the correct temperature for him to fall asleep in.  Tonight, it just seemed impossible to get to the point of relaxation at which sleeping became easy.
     Because he never wore a watch, or had a clock anywhere in his room, Shinji could only guess that he'd lain there for an hour, unable to close his eyes longer than a few minutes, because he would then have to move into a different position.  He could no longer be content with what he had known before.

* * *

     Fuyutsuki, now standing in the elevator that had led him to the lowest recesses of NERV and Terminal Dogma, found the appropriate lock for the key, located between the two buttons that gave access to the main part of the area, and the lake of LCL.  He slid the key in, hoping what he would find wouldn't be too shocking or disruptive for his mind to handle.  Then, he turned it.  The elevator's course slowed, and it came to a stop.
     The doors opened slowly, and Fuyutsuki found himself staring down a hallway criss-crossed with low-level laser detection beams.  A waist high stand with a card reader was off to one side, and he passed his red Terminal Dogma access card through it.  In exchange, it made an electronic raspberry and gave him an error message.  He frowned, then tried his NERV ID card.
     It beeped, and what looked like the eyepiece of a video camera was uncovered.  A retinal scanner.  Even access to this area doesn't require this much security.  What could possibly be so important?  Only a tiny number of people knew about Terminal Dogma.  As a result of its secrecy, it was relatively poorly guarded.  Even someone untrained in special operations, like Major Katsuragi, had been able to enter it unmolested.
     That this area was under such heavy security was a sure indication that there was something here that needed to be protected even from those who had knowledge of the secrets of Terminal Dogma.  Something that needed to be protected from people like himself, Kaji, Dr. Akagi, and SEELE.
     Especially SEELE.  This must be what would threaten SEELE's very existence.
     Fuyutsuki pressed his open right eye up to the scanner.  Two lines of red, one horizontal, the other vertical, crossed his field of vision.  Even though he'd never been here before, his pattern was known to the MAGI, hundreds of meters above him, and recognized him as being the new Commander of NERV.
     The lasers disappeared, and the hallway was safe to traverse.
     Fuyutsuki stepped into the darkness, feeling his way along the corridor until he got to the end.  A door sensed his arrival, and opened, revealing a room.  On the opposite wall from him, were a series of large, floor to ceiling length windows.  Beyond them, he could see the expanse of LCL, the crucifix, and the still balancing Lance of Longinus.  The titanic breathing was absent, here, and there seemed to be a more womb-like atmosphere of warmth and stillness.  The air, too, was warmer, and seemed carefully controlled.
     He turned on his heel, wondering what else was in this empty room.  And there, mounted on the walls in series, protected by glass cases, were something he'd never expected to see.
     For almost thirty meters in both directions from the door, was a dull yellow-brown expanse of parchment, carefully pressed and flattened, the markings on them almost obscured by time but visible nonetheless.
     The Dead Sea Scrolls?
     These are Ikari's super-weapon?
     Fuyutsuki took a closer look.  And yet...they are in better shape than any of the scrolls I have seen.  These are not those from which SEELE drew their prophecy.

* * *

     Rather like his friend down the street, Touji found it quite difficult to sleep.  He'd never seen an activation test before, only participated in one, and that hadn't gone wrong, really.  Well, there was the time before, but that wasn't anyone's fault, or even the Eva's, from what he'd been told recently.  He preferred to push what little memory of that he still had out of his mind.
     Unit-15 going berserk, particularily with the class rep inside, had shaken him.  When they had withdrawn her from the entry plug, she seemed fairly sick indeed, and then, hadn't she screamed, as well?  What made him even more concerned was the fact that what he'd heard over the communications lines afterwards hadn't made any sense to him either.
     Hikari had sounded okay, but...the fact that she seemed to have forgotten the Eva falling down like that or having screamed really bothered him.  They had told him she was going to be fine, but he hadn't learned to trust NERV yet...  The entire organization seemed to be built around the business of deception, right from the very buried nature of the geofront and the facilities.
     They hadn't let him see her either, and he thought she must be pretty lonely, away from family and friends.  It seemed a shame that they had to go and pick someone as innocent as Hikari to enter what he saw as an extremely sullied world.  He decided he was going to help her get through it...keep her safe from whatever harm could be inflicted on her.
     Coincidentally, he also wondered how she was going to handle being class rep and an Eva pilot, given the number of absences Shinji, Asuka and Rei had racked up last year.

* * *

     After a relatively detailed examination of the scrolls, and what meaning he managed to deduce from them with his woefully inadequate grasp of the language, he decided that indeed, they were worth all the trouble and security, and that SEELE should never learn about them, ever.
     Gendou had done a good job of keeping them safe so far, so Fuyutsuki decided it would be best to keep them hidden here.  He'd get the MAGI to help him translate it, eventually, and see if this part of the prophecy maintained its truth.
     Casting a final look over the parchments and the enormous cavern outside the windows, he left.  The door slammed shut and locked behind him, and the lasers sizzled and came to life after his passage.  He reentered the elevator, intent on finally talking to a group he had not seen in a while.
     This other room was featureless.  The door was just like another part of the black wall that melded into the floor, and the only adornment was a small number of purple lighting strips that ran around the perimeter of the floor and ceiling.
     He cleared his throat and engaged the communications interlink.
     And appeared in the middle of a particularily important conference.  In his room, twelve flat, black monoliths, differenciated only by a number, appeared around him, bearing the text 'SEELE' and 'Sound Only'.  In their rooms, the holographic image of a haggard and tired man wearing the uniform of their brainchild agency.
     "Commander Fuyutsuki...it is good to see you again."  A voice, with a malicious undercurrent, broke the silence.
     "Yes, Kihl, it certainly is."  Fuyutsuki's reply was without any tonal inflection to correspond to his words.
     Another voice came in from behind him.  "While Instrumentality failed thanks to Ikari's meddling, the means still exist with which we can start again.  While the arrival of new angels does pose an unscheduled threat, it is not a serious one."
     Did they really believe that I ever supported their damned project?  They still believe me to be Ikari's pet.  Do they not realize that Ikari had me here only so he could keep an eye on me?
     From the seventh monolith came the following, brimming with hate: "Deliver Ikari unto us, Commander.  His hiding will only delay the inevitable."
     Fuyutsuki smirked at that comment.  "He is already dead, you know.  He no longer exists."
     "What a pleasant surprise."  There seemed to be a note of disappointment in the disembodied voice.
     "But on the agenda," interrupted Kihl, from the box marked with a '01', "we have need of the Lance, your Evas and the two souls you must have salvaged."
     The Lance?  How did he know about its return here?
     "I do not have the Lance," Fuyutsuki lied, trying to fathom the depth of Kihl's infiltration within the core of NERV.
     "Come now, Fuyutsuki.  No games.  It is in Terminal Dogma."
     So there are still spies.  And ones less obvious than Kaji.
     Still another voice broke out of silence into the room.  "You will, of course, relinquish these...items...to our control."
     "As you well know, our," the voice that issued forth this time stressed the word, implying Fuyutsuki's nonexistent participation, "project cannot be undertaken without them."
     Fuyutsuki allowed himself a short burst of laughter.  "Of course not!" he snorted derisively and contemptuously, smearing a patronizing smile across his aging features.
     There was a stunned silence for almost a minute.
     "What?"  The voice was shaking, even through the deformation afforded it by the vocal manipulators designed to maintain the true identities of the members a secret.
     Fuyutsuki turned around, not facing Kihl.  "You are all gravely mistaken.  I will not be your pawn in this game.  You will not attempt to control me the way you did Ikari, even though he broke all your bonds and proved to me and himself that you, like all of us, are vulnerable.  The reason I joined Gendou was not out of a common goal, but in search of the truth.  I have already told you this.  You did not believe me, obviously.  Now that I know and control the truth, I can follow my original mandate, as myself."
     Kihl's voice dripped with a new hatred and abhorrence.  "Which was?"
     Fuyutsuki turned back towards the voice belonging to very powerful man -- or remnant of one -- that he'd just made into an enemy.  He took a step forwards, fearlessly.  He knew, of course, what Kihl looked like, he'd seen him on the Project E Board of Directors.  It was much more difficult to be intimidated by a short, blind, white-haired man, who was somewhat thick around the middle, than by a towering, faceless black monolith that seemed to glow with a supernatural power.
     "I am dedicated to the protection, not destruction of the human race as we know it.  I seek to maintain mankind as it is now.  I see no need for us to progress beyond the limits of Darwinian evolution.  Your pipe dream, a regressive evolution, in reality, will only destroy everything we know to be good.  As such, I will use my Evas..."
     He was brutally interrupted by another panicking member of SEELE's council attempting to reassert control.  "Our Evas..."
     Fuyutsuki turned on the source of the interruption and calmly debunked that notion.  In a past time, perhaps his voice would have been poisoned by the vehement hatred he felt for them, but his time with Ikari had taught him that a calm voice in a time of crisis gave one a psychological edge over others.  "No.  They are technically NERV's property, not yours, and they will be used to defend mankind from both the Angels and the likes of you.  You have never been interested in the well-being of our species, and I find this reason enough to dislike you.  Consider this the official separation of NERV from your tainted selves.  Good day to you, sirs.  I hope we will never have to meet again."
     On that, he turned around, broke the link, and left the dark room.
     So.  All the cards are on the table.  He fingered the metallic key in his pocket.  All except my trumps.

* * *

     Far away from NERV and Terminal Dogma, the conference continued in Fuyutsuki's absence.
     "So.  Fuyutsuki, too, has betrayed us."
     "NERV has once again slipped from our fingers.  Unfortunately, we cannot move against them yet.  Our Evas are not ready yet, and..."
     Kihl broke up the discussion yet again.  "It does not matter.  We have already made the error of believing in the superiority of the Dummy Plug.  One Eva and its pilot were capable of nearly destroying them."
     "What of our Lances?  And the nature of the S2 organ?"
     "We were lucky to catch her by surprise.  And two of their Evas run off power supplied by their own S2 organs as well.  We have lost the advantage.  Once again, we need to wait."
     "Until they are weak."
     The second of the members of the board, thought of another solution.  "Or, until we can tip the scales in our favour."
     Kihl remained impassive.  "Or both.  But until then, we can do no more than molest Fuyutsuki until our time to rise has been identified."
     The council was cheered, as much as twelve bitter old men could be, by the promise of future resolution and retribution.

* * *

     When Hikari was finally released from the hospital the next evening, she returned to the apartment still intoxicated by the promise of sleep that had eluded her all day.  Upon entering, she returned Shinji and Asuka's greetings in a haphazard sort of way, and made a beeline for the fridge.
     Due to her state, she accidentally opened up Misato's side.  She frowned at the wall of beer within.  Shinji and Asuka hadn't known what to do with it, so it had stayed there.  Pen-Pen saw his chance, and grabbed one before she could do anything about it.
     Hikari, still sleepy, made a half-hearted grab at the penguin, and retreated to her room.  Shinji and Asuka looked at each other, perplexed. 1