EVANGELION: Ascension of the Lamb
By: Dante Abbey

 Episode 29: Subterfuge / Ghost Pain

     It had been a week since Fuyutsuki had spoken with the members of SEELE's council, since he broke NERV away from their covert organization.  He'd learned quite a lot at that meeting.  First of all, it seemed they were intent on actually trying Human Instrumentality again, to try their hand at ressurrecting the failed dream once more.  That would have to be stopped.
     The way in which he would be able to do this was still beyond the scope of his ever-tiring mind, but he did have one advantage: he had the Scrolls.  They weren't the Dead Sea Scrolls; SEELE maintained them separately in their own vaults.  While Gendou's last message had told him where to get them, and how they had come into his possession, it did not explain what was mentioned in the Scrolls themselves.  Even if the complex rhyme did not explicitly dictate what was going to happen, it opened a door to the future that anyone would have liked to look through.
     In the end, SEELE's pet project was of sufficient importance that it would have to show up in the veiled prophecy.  He would probably get to know ahead of time when and if another attempt would be made, and prepare adequately, even if it was only hinted at.
     With the help of the Scrolls, Fuyutsuki imagined that he would be able to keep SEELE at bay, to keep them guessing about the timing and methods to be used in the new Instrumentality.  While they were highly flexible in their methods, Fuyutsuki also knew them to be extremely conservative in their strategy.  They would not move without the prophecy in their favor.
     So, he would hide the Scrolls as long as possible.  That way, they wouldn't know either way, and would be paralyzed.
     Undoubtably, SEELE would eventually get wind of Fuyutsuki's impossibly early pre-emptive actions against the Angels, which could only make them suspect the existence of his aid.  Best to deceive them, when that happened, to give them something to distract them.  After all, had they not followed the original Dead Sea Scrolls to the letter?  The mistake in Nevada had them scrambling for weeks, since it was not on the schedule they had drawn up from the extremely detailed verses.  Events not on the schedule would no longer surprise them.  It would be child's play to pull the wool over their eyes.
     But SEELE was not the most pressing matter on the Commander's mind.  Rather, he had learned also of the existence of several other spies lurking within NERV's infrastructure.  Kihl knew about the Lance of Longinus that had reappeared in Terminal Dogma.  No matter how it got there, it would still be necessary for Instrumentality, and SEELE knew it.  The very fact that they knew implied that a double agent was acting within NERV, one smart enough to dupe the MAGI into forgetting he or she had infiltrated NERV's deepest section and glimpsed the Lance, poised in the massive reservoir of LCL.
     "You understand what needs to be done, of course."
     The man standing in front of Fuyutsuki's desk in the Commander's Office tipped his head in a slow nod.  "It's our first priority."

* * *

     Once again, the members of a shadow council convened.  The twelve's discussion this time was not focused on the ressurrection of Lilith and the Instrumentality of humanity, but rather on how to engineer the fall of their disobedient child.  This time, it would not merely be another attempt to discipline it, as they had tried to do in the past.  Ikari had regularly deceived and betrayed them, leaving them in this disastrous predicament, none of their dreams fulfilled, their formidable tools destroyed and scattered.  Fuyutsuki, doubtless, would endeavor to do the same as his mentor.  That could not be risked.  It had to be stopped.
     This time, NERV would be destroyed.
     However, their now limited resources pointed out the easiest path would be to introduce a virus, a cancer, within that child, and watch as it was slowly plagued by the disease.  Destroying it from the inside was the surest, safest course.  And to do that, they already had assets in place.
     "We are prepared.  One of our...agents...is already in a position to carry out his mission."
     "Fuyutsuki does not know that he has shown us the path to his own destruction."
     "And this one is loyal, dedicated.  He will not betray us as Kaji did.  He will play close to his chest.  There is no risk."
     The first task, to recover the necessary tools for the Work, would require the immobilization NERV's forces; namely, the Evas.  A full scale assault such as the one that had been previously employed would not work.  It would only create difficulties in the recovery of souls and the Lance.  Besides, the arrival of yet another Angel had created anxiety among their ranks: could the Angels still interfere with their plans?
     "Indeed.  Inform Aaron that he is to move towards our goal.  We have no knowledge of when the next Angel will come, so he must conceal his work so that it is invisible."
     "He is prepared."
     Perhaps some of them were frustrated at their impotence compared to the immesurable power they had wielded before, but the others strove on, unfazed by their more limited resources.

* * *

     "Class dismissed!"
     Hikari had been allowed out of NERV's hospital only last week, but she had already fallen back into her old routines, directing the class as easily as she had before.
     Maybe nothing is wrong.  Maybe I was mistaken to blame NERV so quickly.  Touji, from his usual spot near the back of the class, with Shinji on one side and Kensuke on the other, stood, stretching himself out after another long, boring, lecture from the teacher about algebraic equations.  As he did so, he heard a series of distinct cracks down the length of his spine as his bones adjusted themselves back to their normal positions.
     "Geez, Touji.  You're going to end up with a bad back if you keep sitting in your chair like that."
     "It's comfortable," he said, shrugging at Kensuke.  "I'm going to get my lunch now.  You guys coming, or did you pack lunches like usual?"
 Shinji and Kensuke held up their bags.  "We'll see you on the roof.  Bye!"
     Touji dug around in his pocket for loose change as Asuka grabbed Shinji's arm and left with them.  He watched them leave, trying to remember exactly how much cash he'd brought, and how much food he could afford.
     "Um...Suzuhara?"  Hikari was standing in front of him.
     He looked up from the thin wad of small bills he'd been counting.  "Er, yeah, class rep!  What can I do for you?"
     "Well, you're on correspondence duty again, and..."  The take-charge, buck-stops-here persona Hikari usually wore in class melted away gradually, making her tone modulate from an almost harsh command to a softer level, as if she were suggesting something.  "...and...  Do you remember what I said about lunch last year?"
     Of course he did.  It was the last nice thing anyone had done for him before that whole mess with the Eva.  "Yeah.  Why?"
     "Well...I'm still cooking for three, and I'm still making too much, so..."
     "Sure!  As long as I'm not eating what you made last year!"
     Hikari smiled, blushing barely noticeably, and handed Touji the box she'd already prepared.  Touji took it, more than a little confused.  His eyebrow rose on his forehead.  Hikari didn't notice as she'd already left, ostensibly looking for Asuka.
     "She's on the roof with Shinji!" he yelled after her, still shifting the warm wooden container in his hands, trying to figure out what had just happened.

* * *

     A young man with seriously messy hair picked up the phone built into the surface of his work station perched on the command tower in Central Dogma.  He knew the call would be coming, what with all the other repairs and preparations and general level of heavy activity going on around him, but he hadn't expected it to be so soon.  He'd just finished the last task mere minutes ago.
     "Hello, this is Lt. Masaharu...Yes, sir.  All of them?...All but two.  Understood..."
     After assuring his superior that he would do his best and be finished as soon as possible, he put the phone back into its cradle and leaned back in his chair.  This line of work was starting to get to him.

* * *

     The roof of the school was never really crowded.  Most of the students preferred to eat indoors or in the coutyard, beneath the portico that ran between the two buildings.  Kensuke had started the habit of eating up there, so he could get pictures and shots of the various pieces of military hardware visible from the vantage point offered by the school's elevated position.
     Later, Touji had joined him, just to see what was so damn interesting that Kensuke had to eat on the roof, even in the rain.  Finally, when Shinji had become friends with them, he'd joined them as well.
     "Hi, guys."
     Kensuke spotted the wooden box Touji was carrying under his arm, and gave Shinji a nudge and a knowing wink.  Shinji failed to comprehend the message.
     "I see class rep made you lunch today, Touji!"
     "So?" Touji frowned.
     Kensuke slapped his head into his palm.  "You guys just don't get it, do you?"
     The lunch break was long enough that they had time to finish eating and still have time enough to have a decent conversation afterwards.
     "So, Shinji...I heard they built another Eva.  Is that true?"
     "You're still spying on your father?"
     "Hey, I want to know!"
     Touji figured there was no way around this one, this time.  Kensuke would eventually discover who the pilots of the new Evas were, and it was best that he learn from them than from someone else.  Even if Kensuke had some obsessive quirks, he was a great friend.  He supposed that it really wasn't right to hide this from him so long.  Kensuke would have to learn to live without the Evas eventually.
     "Yeah...I'm piloting it.  They built another one, too."
     Kensuke's eyes lit up, unconcerned with whatever might have been concealed from him.  "Does that mean I still have a chance?"
     Touji glanced over at Hikari, to where she was eating with Asuka.  "It's already...the class rep."
     "Oh."  For some reason, Kensuke didn't look or sound half as disappointed as when he'd found out there already was an assigned pilot for Unit-03.  "I guess not.  I'm not really cut out for that kind of stuff anyways.  I can't see without these damn glasses, and I'd probably need corrective surgery before they'd let me in the cockpit.  I guess I'm not really a good candidate."
     Shinji and Touji looked at each other.  This was a surprise.  Kensuke, admitting that he had little chance of doing what he wanted most.  Shinji decided it must have something to do with the changes he'd seen in everyone since Impact.  It had to be.
     Kensuke's voice dropped almost to a whisper, as he let out yet another rumour he'd heard.  "I also hear you're getting it with Asuka."
     "What?!  That's not true!"
     "I heard that!"

* * *

     That evening, one rather tired Lieutenant Masaharu sat at the MAGI's controls, finishing the special task that had been assigned that morning.  He leaned back and rubbed his eyes.  What a mess his week had been.  First, the new Eva screwed up, and he'd been supervising some of the cleanup detail for a few days.  Then, the whole tedium of rehabilitating the Eva, repairing the damage, and analyzing the data, which had meant an additional three late nights.  Yesterday, the whole inquiry by Intelligence, something about rooting out spies, and then today's task, enormous in its own right.  It was like the universe had conspired to make his life the hardest.  Neither of the other two had had this much work.
     Arashio poked her head in through one of the access doors.  "Shoji!  What are you doing here?  Everyone else has gone home or out for dinner!"
     "Huh?" he mumbled, shutting down the screen, "What?"
     "I said, everyone else has already gone home.  You couldn't take a break, I suppose.  It's the night shift, now."  She cocked her head slightly.  "Besides, that's Tatsuo's station, isn't it?"
     "Yeah...I was asked to run a complete diagnostic on the launch systems and cage mechanisms this morning.  I guess I just got wrapped up in it.  And Yamashita's station is faster, it's got a more direct connection to the MAGI."
     "Diagnostics?  Already?  But everyone knows platforms 7 and 8 aren't working yet.  They're still being repaired.  That's not right.  Why order the diagnostic now?"
 He shrugged.  "I don't know, so I just didn't check those ones.  But, an order's an order.  Not much I can do about that.  Commander Fuyutsuki's some task master, hey?"
 Arashio snorted in amusement.  True, the workload recently had been fairly heavy, but never as bad as Masaharu always made it out to be.
     "Well, since we're here, you might as well tell me how it went," she said, sitting on the desk and down into the pit as the new crew filtered in and took their stations.
 Masaharu shrugged.  "It's all clean.  No screwups, anywhere.  What a waste of time."
     "You know, if you didn't push yourself so hard to get everything done early, you wouldn't get so much work.  Ambitious, aren't you?"
     "No!" Masaharu injected as much indignance as he could into his voice.  "I just like having more spare time so I can do other stuff!"
     Yamashita poked his head in through one of the access doors.  "Hey!  You two!  What are you doing here?"
     Masaharu groaned, and gripped his head, as if it were suddenly pounding with an intense headache.  "You tell him," he moaned, "and we have Unit-15's reactivation tomorrow!"
     Arashio gave one co-worker a sarcastic smile as she aped the other.

* * *

     "I hate these darn plug suits, Asuka!  Why do we have to wear them?"
     "They're supposed to help refine the Eva's motor control.  It helps amplify the signals running to different parts of our bodies in case the signal coming from your brain isn't strong enough.  And then, they have life support systems built in.  In case something bad happens, they can keep you alive longer.  I wouldn't complain about that."
     Hikari hadn't shown any fear of the reactivation test.  It didn't seem like Hikari had suffered in any way, even though she still had no idea what had happened.  Neither did anyone else, but Hikari had seemed in good health to them, so the test had been authorized.  Asuka, on the other hand, was reserving her judgement on that.  The doctors had cleared her, but she wasn't so sure.  Sometimes they missed important things, for example her mother's clearly obvious suicidal tendencies.  They should have realized what she intended to do, and acted on it.  They should have removed anything that could have been used to...  She closed her eyes for a second as her gaze was averted to the ground.  No.  I won't think about that right now.  I'm over it, but it still hurts.
     She drew herself erect again and tried to concentrate on getting Hikari out of the change room.
     "Just get used to it, Hikari.  It's not that bad...they could be making you go naked.  They already made us do it."
     Hikari winced visibly.  "Yeah, but you're not my first choice for moral advice on this thing, either.  Now that you're really living in sin with him." Hikari gave her friend a sideways glance that appeared deeply disapproving.
     Asuka smiled and shrugged it off, knowing Hikari was willing to live with it as long as she did not descend further towards the imagined depravities her new housemate feared would corrupt her own virtuous ideals.
     "I can't help it.  Let's go, you're late."
     Shinji, on the other hand, was good to think about.  That first night had been more than just pleasant.  So, Hikari didn't like it, but what did she know about Shinji?  Shinji would never try anything untoward, he was too tame.  No danger there.
     Hikari still hadn't moved, still trying to find some less revealing way to wear the plug suit, an impossible task.  Every time she got it to bunch up in one place, it was almost painfully tight and even more revealing elsewhere.

     "Going to second stage."
     She was more attentive, this time.  If the same thing happened again, she wanted to know exactly what it was that was screwing up the test.  As with last time, she watched the brilliantly glimmering colours, which became the black and white concentrics she'd seen in her mind's eye so many times.  They faded, revealing...the white paneled room of the test facility.
     Shigeru's electronically filtered voice reached her ears.
     "Hikari?  How are you doing?"
     "I'm...fine.  Nothing happened, this time, I don't think."
     She decided that something had to have changed between the last test and today.  It still felt funny to be half drowning in sticky liquid, but, this time, she felt much more comfortable in the plug's command chair.  Instead of an oppression brought about by the enclosed seat and the walls of the plug, she felt at ease, as if she'd just spent several hours in meditation.  It was an interesting feeling, almost womblike in its warmth.  Still, she found it slightly disconcerting.
     "That's strange...she's registering an almost fifty percent synchronization ratio, this time."
     Dr. Masaharu frowned, her greying eyebrows knitting together in concentration.  "That can't be right...  That's a jump of twenty-six points, in just over a week.  And it's better than what the Fourth is currently capable of.  I think that could be a record."
 Shigeru only raised his eyebrows in surprise.  "Maybe she's just another natural."
     "I can't believe it.  Reset the equipment and try again."
     "Yes, ma'am."
     With the flick of a switch, the entry plug's colour cycle returned to the amber of the LCL, the walls once again opaque.  Then, the switch was reversed, and Hikari was once again synchronized.
     "Excuse me," she said, timidly, "what's going on?"
 Shigeru leaned towards the microphone.  "Don't worry, just hang tight."
     "Same result as last time, ma'am.  Forty-eight point nine percent."
     Dr. Masaharu's frown remained, ever the scientific skeptic.  This deserved some investigation.  Still, would that research be allowed?

     "Congratulations, Hikari."
     "What for?"  Hikari was more than glad to be back in her school uniform, away from the exposed nakedness of the plug suit.  "What did I do?" she asked, emerging from the change rooms, finally clad in more modest garb.
     "You broke some records, today."  Unlike the praise Shinji had occasionally gotten from Asuka the previous year about his more-than-merely-competent skill which had improved tremendously with time, she meant it.  Besides, it would have been her best friend she'd be ragging on.
       Hikari couldn't understand the big deal.  "I don't know what it means, and you're still ahead of me by a hundred and twenty points, anyways.  So is Shinji.  But thanks."
     Asuka shrugged.  After all, the tests really meant nothing once the Evas were deployed in the field anyways.

* * *

     Shigeru stood at the window of the test facility, watching as Unit-15 was carefully detached from the restraints on the wall and the umbilical cord in its back.  The white Eva was a production model, a clone of Unit-03, like Unit-14.  And yet, the production models were supposed to be extremely stable, never going berserk.  There had never been a problem with Unit-02.  Other than when Asuka could no longer pilot it, but that wasn't really the Eva's fault, nor the pilot's really.  And still, it hadn't actually gone out of control.  So far, there had been no difficulty with Unit-14, either.  Unit-14 was perfect in every way, given that it had never malfunctioned.  The clone should have been similar.
     That's what you get when you don't do the work yourself, he joked, alluding to the fact that Unit-15 had been built overseas.
     So what was it that had caused 15 to go berserker during the last test?  Was it the pilot's fault this time?  No, of all the of the children, Hikari led the most balanced life.  Nothing could possibly be wrong with her.  She even had a caring family, according to Intelligence.  It had to be the Eva.  And yet, there was nothing visibly wrong with it, either.  These new models had been specially constructed to avoid feedback from the Eva.  To get an Eva-induced interference like the one that had occurred last time, it would have had to be an abnormally strong impulse, most likely even stronger than those that had frequently taken control of Unit-00 during tests.  Not to mention the fact that the personality transplant OS had been reconfigured for the new Evas as well.
     But what caused the interference anyways?  This question brought another to light, one he'd all but forgotten.
     What was that Fuyutsuki had said, that Touji had very little connection with the soul of either Eva?  He didn't seriously believe that the Evas had souls, did he?  Shigeru concluded it was a slip of the tongue.  He must have meant  'mind'.  But that wasn't right, either.  When the Evas took over control of themselves, when they went berserker, when the mind activated; that was the mind of an animal.  How could any of the pilots have any rapport with those minds at all?
     Maybe he had meant the Eva's neural system.  After all, that was the basis for the Eva's movement and activation.

* * *

     "Hey, Touji!  You're late!"
     Touji kicked off his shoes and trudged into the kitchen, where his sister had already finished eating.  He pulled out a chair and picked up his pair of chopsticks and his bowl of rice even as he fell into it.
     "I know.  I had correspondence duty again.  And then I had to drop off some stuff at the class rep's place."
     Mari was glad that Touji had come back from the last Angel incident unharmed, and that he seemed to have recovered some of his former self.  He had always been a good brother to her.  Especially over the last year, since the first Angel.  All last year he'd come to visit her in the hospital, after she was injured when the first Angel had come.
     Despite what he thought, she knew it was her fault, really.  She'd allowed herself to get separated from the rest of the family, and the nearby explosion had caused a piece of debris to land on her.  She was lucky it had been a fragment of a satellite dish, because most of her body and head was untouched due to the curved shape.  Had she been bigger, however, it might have injured her much more seriously, or even killed her.  It still gave her nightmares.
     Touji, however, seemed to blame himself.  And she blamed herself a little for that.  Touji had originally wanted to get revenge for her on the Eva's pilot, but she'd told him that whoever it was was only trying to protect the city in general, and that she shouldn't have been there anyways.  She'd felt pretty good when she'd found out that the pilot was Touji's new friend.
     So, after that, it looked like he felt guilty about not keeping a closer watch over her before she gone astray.  So now, he was deliberately making sure he was watching over her as frequently as possible.  This meant she was escorted to and from her elementary school on a daily basis, even if it meant he would be late himself.
     "Isn't Ms. Horaki your class representative?"
     Hikari had been the one to tell her Touji was in the hospital, but not with any serious injuries.  Apparently she had been to see him after he had lost the use of his arm and leg.  From the look on her face, Mari had been able to determine Touji had been more seriously hurt than she'd been asked to tell the little girl.
     Touji nodded, trying to swallow before answering properly.  "Umph...she made me lunch, and I forgot to return the box, so..."  He picked up another piece of fish.
     "Lunch?  Oh..."  Mari leaned forwards, resting her head on the tabletop and swinging her legs from the seat.  "That's why I don't have to make it for you, even though I'm better now?"
     Again, Touji had to deal with another unusually large bite.  Nor did her subtle hint break through his comprehension of the situation.  "No, I'm just used to buying it at the cafeteria.  Besides, it's less trouble for you, anyways."  He reached for the large rice bowl, filling his own again.
     Mari sighed and shook her head.

* * *

     "You must be Commander Fuyutsuki."
     Fuyutsuki bowed his head affirmatively.  The first of the UN observers were arriving, this week, and would probably end up getting underfoot frequently.
     The  mustached man continued, unimpeded by the less than favorable thoughts Fuyutsuki had running through his head.  "I am Marcel Desaint, Chief UN Inspector.  We have been given orders to observe and report on everything that goes on here.  I hope you will cooperate fully."
     Fuyutsuki gave him the most cheerful smile he could manage.  "Of course.  If you need anything, ask anyone."
     The man smiled back in an equally false manner.  "Thank you.  I must remind you, that it is the United Nations that is ultimately in charge here, so I cannot stress the importance of the relationship between your cooperation and future funding."
     Oh, boy, thought Shigeru as he came in.
     After the man had left the Commander's Office, Shigeru turned to Fuyutsuki.  "What do we do about him and the others?"
     Fuyutsuki shrugged.  "They don't need to learn anything.  Give them all the standard blurbs on the Evas and the MAGI, and flood them with useless information.  I'm sure the science division can muster up several thousand books on the development, manufacture and maintenance of the palette rifles alone.  I wouldn't worry.  If they run out of things to look at, give them more.  Oh, and check what it is you're giving them, we can't risk them falling on something important.  Just make sure it's bullshit before you feed it to them.
     "In the meantime, we have to worry about the delivery estimates for Unit-16.  It would seem that they've been delayed yet again, for at least two weeks.  That means we still only have four Evas for the next Angel, when it comes.  The Russians still haven't got their logistics worked out yet, and bad weather might create even more problems.  They still get snow up there."
     "Sir, if I could ask a question?"
     Fuyutsuki paused.  If there was anything he thought his Operations Director could rectify, it was his inquisitiveness.  Now that he'd been promoted, he'd been asking a lot of questions about everything.  Maybe it was his fault.  He just couldn't radiate power like Ikari had.  Maybe he ought to do something about it.  "Yes?"
     Somehow, Shigeru couldn't bring himself to ask his commander to clarify the bit about the Eva's souls.  He made up something else on the spot.
     "Um...why are we getting all these additional Evas?  With Unit-15, we're already 33% above last year's operational strength at its peak.  Do we really need this many Evas?"
     Fuyutsuki decided that the official line could be taken without danger.  "Without question.  The Angels are getting stronger and smarter.  We can't risk the kind of damage they are capable of anymore.  And, as you've seen recently, the 15th, 16th and the most recent Angel have been specifically targeting the pilots.  That's a risk we can circumvent by overwhelming them as quickly as possible.  Even the 17th could be interpreted as having chosen Shinji as a target."
     "Oh."  Even if Shigeru didn't look entirely satisfied, at least he was pacified, for the time being.

* * *

     Touji lay in his bed that night, looking at his arm in the moon's pale light.  This was the third week since he'd discovered his limbs had been restored, and he felt slightly angry with himself that he hadn't examined them in almost as long, taking them for granted again.  But three weeks was enough to convince him that they were real enough, and their unerring performance in general had brought about a gradual desensitization about the miraculous nature of their return.
     Now that he had begun thinking about them again, he found it difficult once again to accept them as being real.  How could they have returned so flawlessly that there wasn't even a scar to mark their regeneration?  And the skin was even tanned in the same way as the other arm, as well.  Things he hadn't noticed before came to his consciousness.  There had been a mole on his shoulder, he remembered.  It had been slightly raised.
     Slowly, he brought his right hand up to the round, bony lump that surrounded the joint, the point of amputation.  His middle finger worked its way around behind the flesh and discovered the raised lump.
     "Holy shit!" he whispered, sitting bolt upright on the futon.
     Not trusting his sense of touch, he dashed into the bathroom and slapped the light switch.  His eyes were overwhelmed by the suddenly glowing bulbs, but as they adjusted to the illumination, he turned his naked torso towards the mirror.
     And there it was.  The perfectly circular, dark brown patch contrasting clearly with the paler skin around it.  Seeing is believing.
     Touji had never been more scared in his life.  What the hell happened?
     He sank onto the toilet seat, staring at the dark circle reflected back at him in the mirror.
     What about Mari?  She was still healing, too.  He willed himself away from the image in the glass and crept into Mari's room as quietly as he could.  When she had returned from the hospital, her arm had still been heavily bandaged, because the edge of the satellite dish had bitten deeply into it when it had fallen on top of her.  The bone had been healed, but there the gash had healed badly, due to a loose bone fragment.  An operation had corrected it, and she'd needed a long course of antibiotics to flush out the infection.  Meaning she should have had a nasty scar on her arm.
     He lifted her arm carefully, trying not to wake her up.  The sleeve of her nightgown slid down to her elbow, and he was forced to kneel so as to inspect it.  Again, there was no scar, only pure, uninterrupted flesh.
     So this happened to everyone, then?  He dropped her arm, forgetting she was asleep.  He forced himself not to breathe as he hoped the mild shock wouldn't bring her to consciousness.  She rolled over and rubbed her nose.
     He quietly retreated to his own room, and began to think again about how this was possible.

* * *

     Shinji stretched and yawned, blinking out the rising sun that was streaming in through the glass, and covered his eyes so he wouldn't have to look directly into it.
     He'd had some strange thoughts during the night, before he'd fallen asleep.  Mostly, they had revolved around one specific person he hadn't seen in quite some time...his father, easily identifiable in the memories by his impassive expression and immovable stance.
     He'd gone through a reiteration of their first meeting, just before the first Angel that he'd fought.  Since his reawakening several weeks ago, he'd been trying to sort out the scraps of memory in his spare time.  The details weren't clear, they never are in recollections, no matter how vivid the original event.  But somehow, he now remembered an image of his father's face, bearing an expression he'd never imagined could have been present before.  It was less rigid, less stiff, less imposed than the image he held of his father.  Had it been sadness?  Concern?  Disappointment?  What was it?
     What did it mean?
     He closed his eyes, trying to recover it, but was unable to recall any more.  Memory springs from the past, but reality is now.  There were still too many questions he longed to ask his now-departed father.  Questions upon questions.  Questions about his past, about his mother, about him, about...everything.  He knew very little, almost nothing about the man who had fathered...well, might as well have sired him.  Definitely not raised.  And then, he'd never been able to ask this man whether or not he loved his son.
     If not, for what reason had he been conceived?  On his mother's wishes?  Had his father forseen his role as an Eva pilot and specifically prepared him for it?  No...that was ludicrous, impossible.  From what he knew, the Eva's hadn't existed when he was born.  Still, though...when it came down to it, his father had accomplished many things beyond the usual reach of man.
     In any case, he'd never received any kind of indication from his father about anything, and he'd been so desperate, once, that the one time his father had complimented his kill of an Angel, he'd interpreted it as being a true sign of pride in his son's accomplishments.  One which he had once been willing to look at again and again, if only to cheer himself up.
     He no longer needed that.  His father had never done a single thing that could have been construed as a sign that he even cared what happened to his son.  He was always the Commander, sturdy as granite, implacable in every way.  Never Dad, just Father.  Always distant.
     Then again, what about Rei?  She always seemed to be able to talk to him.  Sometimes, he almost seemed happy when he talked with her.  How could someone be so cold towards their own son and reserve all their warmth for another, unrelated child?  Shinji realized he used to get worked up, sometimes even angered, about the way in which he was so frequently ignored by his father, but he just didn't care as much any more.  Perhaps he'd come to accept that his father was really nothing more than a stranger to him.
     He also reminded himself that Rei had been much, much more than an ordinary girl, and that that might have had something to do with the way his father had treated her.
     But the questions remained.  Questions to which there would never be answers.
     He got up, and headed out towards the bathroom, greeting Hikari as she made the morning meal.  Tomorrow, he would be the one up early to make breakfast, he reminded himself.

* * *

     Clouds parted suddenly in the sky above Tokyo-3, leaving a perfectly circular gap through which came an almost perfectly transparent sphere.  Sunlight shone on its bald, featureless surface, scattering over the city and illuminating the buildings.  Gradually, it slowed its descent and came to a stop, hovering motionlessly.

     "Pattern Blue!  Angel confirmed!"
     "Go to first stage alert!  Prepare the Evas for launch!"
     Desaint burst in through one of the doors onto the bridge, still clutching one of the irrelevant reports Shigeru had given him.  "What's going on?  Why are there alarms?"
     Shigeru rolled his eyes.  "An Angel.  Why didn't we see it coming?"
     Masaharu turned around in his chair.  "It's generating almost no energy!  Sensors didn't pick it up until it left the stratosphere!"
     "Couldn't we get visual confirmation?"
     "No!  It was invisible to the Mt. Fuji observatory!  Radar passed through it!  No echo!"
     Shigeru swore.  The Angels were getting smarter.  Now they'd found a way to penetrate NERV's detection systems unmolested.  Maybe Fuyutsuki was right, maybe they did need the extra Evangelions after all.
     He shook his head.  "Where are the pilots?"
     "They're on their way."
     "What's the Angel doing?"
     The sphere hadn't moved an inch.
     "It's holding its position directly above us, over the central block.  Should we secure it?"
     Shigeru looked up at the Commander.  "Do we?  Could it provoke the Angel into attacking?"
     Fuyutsuki shook his head.  "I doubt it.  Go ahead, secure the central block."

     Shinji watched as the buildings descended into the ground as he waited for Asuka to get dressed so they could leave.  Hovering above the city, still and unmoving, was the Angel.  What was it doing?  Waiting for them?

     "Still no movement, sir.  It's been fifteen minutes since its arrival.  The pilots are all ready and they've all been inserted into the Evas.  The Angel still hasn't done anything."

     Hikari watched the colours again as she was synchronized with the Eva.  Once again, there was no error.  The sequence simply ended with her being able to see outside, and she watched as the restraints were drawn away and the Eva was rushed to the launch platform.
     So the Evas worked on a principle of neural feedback.  According to the training manual she'd been given, by concentrating on a movement mentally, the Eva would perform that movement.  Its dexterity, agility and speed depended on the level of synchronization, which would explain why Asuka and Shinji were so good at it already.
     "What?"  Asuka rubbed her eyes, trying to chase out the sleep that had been interrupted by the klaxons and the automated warning announcement.
     "Well, the Evas do whatever I think of doing, right?"
     "Yeah.  But you knew that already."
     "If the Eva gets...hurt, does that mean I do, too?"
     Asuka didn't reply for a while, not sure if she could accurately explain the answer to Hikari's question.  She knew now that the Evas were much, much more than simple weapons of war, at the beck and call of the pilots.  She could only partially remember what it was she had seen during the JSSDF's strike, an image of her mother, erased and smudged by time, but there nonetheless.  Well, not an image.  More an impression, an essence.  But she was there.  Her mother's spirit, anyways, was with her.
     And that epiphany had triggered the return of her abilities in full, with interest.  Those few, fleeting minutes of unparalleled joy, freedom, power and personal strength in which she'd done everything she knew she had to.
     But then it ended, and there was the pain that followed.  A horrifying agony, as if her organs were being torn from her body...first her eye, then her abdomen...and her arm...and then...
     "It's just pain," she said quietly.
     Hikari swallowed in fear, slowly strengthening in her gut and threatening to break out of her throat.  "A lot?"  Asuka's sudden change in attitude was very scary.
     Her friend's glittering eyes suddenly glazed and became unfocused as she nodded slowly.  The left eyelid twitched for a fraction of a second.
     Hikari looked up at the rapidly opening gates along the launch path, wondering if she'd truly made the right decision.

     So this is Theliel, thought Fuyutsuki.  The nineteenth Angel.  This confirms it.  Ikari knew exactly what is going to happen.
     "Launch the Evas!" shouted Shigeru from below him.
     Arashio's finger pointedly tapped the key out of reflex.  An electrical signal raced at nearly the speed of light towards the MAGI, which redirected it towards the Cages and the launch platforms.  And somewhere along the way, it was divided, part of it used to initiate something else.
     Units-01 and 02 disappeared from the monitor as they shot upwards towards the city.  However, not only did the platforms beneath Units-14 and 15 fail to launch, but they exploded, showering the vast launch room with debris.  Workers ran for cover, and the automated fire deterrent system came to life, spraying foam over the now burning equipment.

     Shinji heard the explosion over the communication links, even over the rumble of the rapidly ascending launch platform he was attached to.
     "What's going on down there?"
     Touji was looking down, trying to see past the Eva's jutting chest.  "I don't know...there's a lot of smoke, and some fire... I can't tell.  We're fine, don't worry about us."
     There was no more time to ask questions, as the two Evas burst out of the launch gates, hidden from the Angel's view by the armament buildings scattered about the city.

     "That surely was not normal," muttered Desaint, noting it carefully in his booklet.
     Nor forseen, thought Fuyutsuki.  I cannot allow myself to make SEELE's mistake, trusting implicitly and blindly in the Scrolls.  "Get the Evas away from those platforms.  There's no danger, but it needs to be cleaned up."
     Touji and Hikari walked them away from the burning mechanisms.  Hikari noted a gentle feeling of barely noticeable warmth around her toes.

     Unit-01 and Shinji remained ducked behind the weapons elevator from which he had drawn the palette rifle that he now cradled in the Eva's hands.  Just down the street, he could see Asuka doing the same, only with the positron rifle.
     "What's it doing?" he whispered.  Kind of silly, really.  There was no way the Angel could have heard him over the communication lines, even if he was yelling.
     Unit-02 shrugged with its pilot.  "Nothing."
     An odd thought crossed Shinji's mind.  This Angel had done nothing yet.  It hadn't attempted to destroy anything, nor had it made any move towards the two Evas that cowered in hiding with their AT Fields at full power.  Why were they attacking it, if it hadn't shown it was going to attack them?
     What if, his mind continued, even through his disbelief, what if this Angel is coming in peace?  What if we've beaten them enough times that they're giving up?  This was, what, the seventeenth? Angel they'd fought.  What if the deaths of their comrades had finally convinced the Angels that it was no longer necessary for them to attack humans?  But Angels are supposed to be messengers from God, he corrected himself.  They're under His orders.
     He was forced to correct his blatant misconception, one he'd never realized before.  No, the Angels are just the name we've given them.  We could have just as easily called them something else.
     Just then, Unit-02 burst out from behind the armament building and opened fire, discharging six shots in the direction of the Angel.

     "What the...?  Pattern Orange!  The AT Field has just disappeared!"

     The six supercharged balls of ionic energy passed unmolested through where the Angel's AT Field should have been, then flew straight through the transparent body of the Angel, and exited the other side, not damaging it in the slightest.
     Unit-02 returned to its hiding place.  "It didn't do anything!  It passed right through!" Asuka shouted.  "Shinji!  What are you doing?"
 But then, what was Third Impact about?  What was it Misato had told him about the nature of the Angels and the Evas?  It hadn't seemed important to him at the time, he hadn't cared, but he could still remember what she'd said.  No, the Angels needed to be destroyed.
     "Damn," he muttered, and Unit-01 took a step out from behind the building, firing the palette rifle continuously.  Unlike the positron rifle, the palette gun fired solid, explosive and incindiary shells.  Whereas the energy of the positron rifle had passed through the glassy body of the Angel without harming it, the shells impacted and exploded noisily against its surface, eating away at the suddenly fragile Angel.  By the time Shinji had emptied the rifle's magazine, the enormous bullets had bitten a large chunk out of the giant crystal orb, and fractured the rest of it.
     The Angel ceased hovering and crashed into the ground with a deafening cracking sound.  The fractures grew as it did so, and the glassy orb shattered, scattering fragments of itself over the city like a delicate vase someone had thrown against a floor.
     Asuka leaned back in the entry plug, frowning thoughtfully.  That seemed way too easy.  But why did Shinji hesitate to attack it?  He had more than enough time.
     It occurred to her that the spherical shape of the Angel might have reminded him of the shadow Angel, that had swallowed him whole before Unit-01 had burst free in a rain of blood.  Who knew what horrors he'd seen in the belly of that beast?  Had it entered and done the same to his mind as the other Angel had done to her?  It was a forgivable lapse.  He was allowed to have his fears, she decided.

     "Incredible!  Defeated in thirteen seconds, with only half the force available!  How very efficient!  Although, it seems you only need two Evas.  Perhaps a cost-effectiveness study..."
     Shigeru tried to ignore the gushing idiot beside him.  Something wasn't right with the expression on Yamashita's face.
     "Sir!  The target has not gone silent!  Repeat!  It has not gone silent!  Pattern Blue!  AT Field detected!"

     A glassy patina had suddenly spread over the surface of the road, connecting the fragments of the Angel, even coming close to the Evas' feet.  And between them, from this shining surface, rose a tapered cone, shaping itself into a point.
     "What the hell?"  Shinji had no time to react, as the tip glowed, and a massive burst of energy smashed into his Eva's chest armour with a sound not unlike breaking glass.  Warning messages popped up all around him, and the Eva shut down and the synchronization cut out.
     "Shinji!"  The red Eva bolted across the intervening space, kicking over the spur of glass as it ran.  It, like the sphere, bounced and shattered on the pavement, scattering fragments.  This time, though, the fragments could be seen almost melting into the glassy surface that formed the rest of the Angel.

     "Pull back!  Asuka!  Retrieve Unit-01 and retreat!"
     Shigeru swore under his breath.  This was one smart Angel.

     Asuka used her Eva's enormous strength to heave the limp Unit-01 into a partially standing position, braced torso to torso.  If it weren't for the fact that they were both titanic armoured bio-mechanical avatars, they resembled a combat medic carrying an injured soldier off the battlefield.  Ahead of them, one of the armament buildings opened up, a descent platform already in position.
     Asuka glanced down at the smoking gap in Unit-01's armour, to see that the outer surface of the rounded core had been melted away be the Angel's hellish blast, and had re-solidified in rivulets on the abdominal armour.
     Behind them, a second transparent horn had reformed on the street, rising ten meters above the concrete.
     "Asuka!  Behind you!"
     Unit-02 heaved the purple Eva into the elevator and turned to face the new threat.  It had only completed a half-turn when the tip of the cone lit up again and the burst of energy cleanly severed Unit-02's arm at the elbow.  Blood splattered over the street, covering cars and walls with a viscous purple blanket.  The arm flew off, bouncing into a department store and embedding itself in the building.
     "Scheisse!" she yelled, clutching her arm by reflex, and stepped onto the platform where Unit-01 was already slumped.  The platform rattled as it was pulled back into the bowels of the earth, carrying the two defeated Evangelions and their pilots.
     With the help of the other two Evas, Unit-01 was resecured in its cage, and the entry plug was withdrawn and opened.  Much to everyone's, particularly Asuka's, relief, Shinji crawled out under his own power and coughed up the LCL in his lungs.

     An hour had passed since the Angel's first attack.  Since then, various recon planes had examined the Angel from every conceivable angle and the MAGI were hard at work decyphering the Angel's plan of attack.
     Most recently, however, the Angel had been detected within the infrastructure of the NERV base itself, creeping down shafts, pipes and walls in much the same way as the 11th.  It did, however, lack the ability to traverse solid obstacles, and didn't seem to be making any move towards the MAGI.  Why would it have to?  It had an actual weapon.
     The analysis table had been extruded from the floor of the command bridge.  Yamashita read the MAGI's report.
     "First, the Angel penetrated our early warning system by appearing nearly invisible to our sensors.  It was dismissed by various filters and intelligent scanners as being an electronic artifact until it began generating an AT Field.
     "After its arrival, it maintained an immobile position at an altitude of three hundred meters, directly above us.  It made no move to attack, nor to penetrate the geofront."
     Arashio looked at the photos.  "It seems to me like it was waiting for us."
     Fuyutsuki nodded his assent.  "Yes.  It was waiting for us to make the first move.  It continued to remain immobile and unchanging, even when the two Evas were launched, and their AT Fields deployed."
     "Um, right," muttered Yamashita, skipping a page of the folder.  "Unit-02 made the first counter-attack, armed with the positron rifle.  As soon as the first shot reached the outer limit of the Angel's AT Field, the Field was lowered."
     On the brightly lit table, a transparency of a small portion of that first shot's energy being expended against the AT Field was displayed, then another of the same shot continuing unmolested.
     "All the shots passed through the Angel's crystalline body without damaging it, although a small fraction of the energy was noted as being refracted irregularily through the sphere's interior."
     "This would indicate that the Angel is not a solid crystalloid, but rather a large number of minute particles.  Which also explains the way in which it spread later," finished Fuyutsuki.
     Yamashita raised his eyebrows in surprise, and skipped two more pages.
     "It looks like it was expecting us to attack it with a ballistic weapon.  It should have responded in the six second delay between Unit-02 and Unit-01's respective attacks.  It took less than five seconds for the Angel to create a firing point," continued Fuyutsuki, "and would have given it enough time to attack before Unit-01 shattered it with the palette gun."
     "So it wanted us to believe that we'd killed it."
     "Correct.  It has covered the surfaces of the city and several of our shafts with a transparent surface, still in the hopes of remaining undetected.  It hasn't made any attempt at the MAGI, has it?"
     Yamashita shook his head.  "No.  Besides, Dr. Akagi has programmed it to adjust for such a situation, and the 666 firewall program can now be instituted at any time."
     "Very well.  What is the extent of the Angel's penetration?"
     "Level 13, it's moving rather slowly.  It hasn't progressed very far past the geofront."
     Fuyutsuki nodded thoughfully, moving on to the next step of the plan that was forming in his mind.  "In order for the Angel to generate a coherent beam powerful enough to seriously damage an Eva, the particles must somehow be aligned, so that they can combine their forces.  How much energy is each individual member of the Angel's matrix capable of generating?"
     Yamashita flipped through the printouts.  "Um...0.001 joules, sir.  Based on the two attacks made against Unit-01 and Unit-02, and microscopic investigation by polysomes."
     "And how many particles will we be facing in, say, an hour?"
     "Approximately six hundred trillion, based on current rate of spread and minimum calculated size."
     "So, it will generate an attack of six hundred billion joules.  We can deploy Unit-02, again with the positron rifle, to see if we can damage it with an energy based attack."
     "Sir, we've already seen that that won't hurt it."
     "No, we don't know if it hurt it or not; only that a large part of the energy passed through it unused.  The particles were not aligned properly to generate a beam, so Asuka's attack simply was not able to affect all of the particles.  And, if its still intent on keeping its AT Field up, Unit-02's should be enough to negate it."
     "One last question, sir.  How do we launch?  We don't know yet if the platforms are safe yet."
     Fuyutsuki shrugged.  "The least of our problems right now.  The platforms Units-01 and 02 used are safe, aren't they?"
     An ideal location for the test was established three-quarters of the way up to the surface.  There was a transversal maintenance shaft that ran in a straight line between three of the launch pathways at this point, which would give Asuka a clear line of sight as well as a thick wall between her and the Angel.
     When the one-armed Unit-02 arrived at the point, Asuka simply had to line up the positron rifle with the shaft, and fire, while MAGI controlled polysomes observed from the impact side.  True to itself, the Angel extrapolated a firing point, and Asuka had just enough time to fire a second shot before the Angel responded and she was returned to the cage, Unit-02 still relatively intact.
     Due to the now aligned nature of the Angel's particles, the firing cone was melted away, even under the relatively weak fire from the positron rifle.

     The other Evas had been secure in their Cages since Unit-01 and 02 had returned heavily damaged from the surface.  However, the Angel was still alive, so of course the pilots couldn't leave the two functional Evas that remained.  Hikari still hadn't gotten used to the LCL yet, and its odd taste was making her feel rather sick in the stomach.  Touji, on the other hand, had fallen asleep in the cockpit.
     Finally, an hour and a half after the return of the other two, they were given the order to equip and move out.  Hikari, due to a slightly higher synch ratio, would be armed with the enormous positron sniper rifle, seeing as how it was the only weapon in the arsenal powerful enough to maintain a coherent stream of energy that would refract and spread out to the edges of the Angel's body.  Touji would be responsable for goading the Angel into establishing its firing cone by attacking it again with the positron rifle.  It was assumed that the Angel wouldn't be able to understand Fuyutsuki's plan, because both Evas were blocked from its sight in non-infected passages.
     Because of the nature of the larger rifle's charging system, it was far too hazardous to have the weapon active while it was being moved.  The possibility of an explosive failiure caused by a misalignment in the capacitor system was too great, so the rifle would have to be in position before it was activated.  And even then, it would take approximatively seventeen seconds to fully charge it.
     The launch platforms delivered the Evas to the transversal maintenance shaft unmolested.  Then, the bulky sniper rifle was maneuvered into the shaft at Hikari's end.  Still the Angel did nothing.  The second they spread their AT Fields, however, the Angel developed a firing cone, which glittered in the shaft's dim light.
     "Touji!  Did you fire?"
     "No!  It just did it!"
     A burst of light sped down the already scorched hallway and melted away the shoulder mount of the positron rifle in a brillant explosion.
     Despite the heavily restricted view she had, Hikari knew something had gone wrong.  "Suzuhara!?"  She brought her mind back to the mission, and activated the big weapon.
     "I'm all right!  Just wait until you're supposed to shoot!"
     Unit-14's black arms rammed what remained of the now useless positron rifle into the shaft, hoping that it would be able to absorb at least a few hits before it was reduced to slag.  It took two before there was no longer enough debris to provide any sort of cover.
     Shit!  What do I do now?  It's got a clear line of sight to Hikari!  Without thinking, Touji shoved Unit-14's black hand into the fire-filled corridor as far as the shoulder.
     "Touji!  What are you doing?"
     Touji wasn't sure himself.  His mind screamed panicked questions at him, trying to determine why he was putting himself in such an obviously ill-fated position.  He had no knowledge of the kind of reciprocal damage the pilot could receive from an Eva, and he had to wonder if he was throwing away his gift.  The Angel's next attack vaporised the Eva's arm up to the elbow, pulling an agonized scream from Touji's lungs.  He grabbed at his arm and realized he no longer felt anything there.  Another beam of light filled the heavily carbonized shaft and destroyed the Eva's arm up to the shoulder.
     Hikari watched in horror as the shoulder joint exploded, sending the enormous shoulder structure bouncing off the walls of the vertical shaft.  She shuddered in sympathy as she tried to imagine the pain Touji must have felt in that instant.
     Am I taking this for granted again?  Why am I doing this?
     The Eva's still intact left arm clawed at and found the thickly armoured shoulder mount and slammed it across the opening through which the Angel was firing.
     "Suzuhara!  Are you okay?"
     He gasped, the burning pain still clouding his mind.  "I'm...I'm fine...just...concentrate..."
     Hikari.  If not for him, she would be the target.  His friend.  He wasn't going to allow the Angel to get a clear shot at her.  Not on his life.  I've already failed Mari, once...I can't let myself fail you.  Never again.
     The shoulder structure finally melted through.  The Eva's left arm reached up to the remaining shoulder unit, and tore it free.  That part, at least, wasn't connected to any nerve in his body, and the painlessness of the operation gave him strength.  He slammed it up against the opening.  This time, however, it only took a single shot before detonating, due to the less dense nature of the prog knife contained within.
     "Damn!" he shouted.  Do I sacrifice my other arm as well?  Will this leave me crippled again?  Hikari screamed at him from the edge of his consciousness.
     "Stop it, Suzuhara!  Just...stop it!"
     "I...don't...care!" he roared, and the left arm was placed in the line of fire.

     "What the hell is he doing?!"
     Arashio looked up suddenly from her console, a new sensor report troubling her greatly.  "The damage to the Eva has pushed him seventy-two percent beyond the theoretical pain threshold!  He'll be going into shock any second now!"
     "Unit-14 is past the Henflick limit!"
     "Pull him back!  Touji!  Retreat!"

     Touji felt the platform beneath his feet begin to vibrate even before it began to fall away beneath him.  No!  Not yet!  He swung the Eva's legs up, bracing it against the walls of the shaft, even as the Eva's arm was reduced to ashes by the Angel's hellish blast.
     He groaned in pain and despair as the feeling in his left arm vanished in a burst of burning pain.  "How much longer?" he yelled, sweat dripping off his face.
     "Two seconds...  Go!"

     "At this rate, it will be impossible to maintain activation.  If the Eva freezes up, it'll block the shaft completely!  Hikari won't be able to fire!"
     "Ninety-six percent past the threshold!"
     "Touji!  That was a direct order!"

     "I'm not going anywhere until you're ready, dammit!"
     The Angel opened fire again, the beam digging deep into the Eva's torso, buckling the chest armour and drilling a deep, partially cauterized hole through the Eva's chest.  Touji felt the pain pass from his armpit, through the centre of his own torso and end somwhere under his shoulder blade.  He felt suddenly winded, and his heart felt like it was going to explode.
     He was unable to scream, his lungs didn't work, and all that came out was a high-pitched hissing noise.  His body's self-preservation instinct finally overwhelmed his will and he curled up reflexively into a ball.
     The Eva did so, too, blood streaming from the gaping wounds, and fell halfway down the shaft until it relaxed and ended up obstructing the launch path.  It shut down, thankfully, freeing Touji from his agony, as he lost consciousness.
     Several hundred meters above him, Hikari took the shot, and it drilled straight into the Angel's firing cone.  Suddenly, a huge web of brillant white spread out from the point and along the surfaces of the walls in Central Dogma and the Geofront, and finally over the surfaces of Tokyo-3 and the Central Block.  The glittering, glassy surface darkened and dissipated, burning away into a thin smoke.

     "MAGI reports...that...the Angel is silent!  It's dead!"
     Shigeru wasn't interested.  "Status report on Unit-14 and the pilot!"
     "He's unconscious!  Heart failiure has already been rectified by closed chest heart massage!  Initiating stabilizing drug injections!"
     "Heart failure?" whispered Shinji, ignorant of his own medical condition following the 5th.  "That's possible?"
     Asuka said nothing, trying not to remember what had happened to her own body.
     Hikari silently wished he'd be okay, and wondered again what the pain must have been like.  She shivered quietly, and waited for the retrieval crews to help return her Eva to its Cage.  Why had Touji been so stubborn?

* * *

     "It's been confirmed.  Only one of their Evas is in very bad shape."
     "What of the other Evas?"
     "One is in perfect condition.  The other two can be repaired in less than a week.  That is not enough time."
     "Surely the heavily damaged one is either Unit-01 or 02."
     "No.  It is 14."
     "Then we must bide our time yet again.  NERV intelligence will obviously make an attempt to find Aaron: Fuyutsuki will not allow this to go unchecked."
     "Tell him to go into hiding.  Or remove the evidence."
     "He already knows.  He will be authorized to implicate another, should he come close to being caught."

* * *

     After convincing himself that he needed to get up, Shinji wandered out into the kitchen to see what Hikari was making for lunch.  After all, today was her scheduled day.  What the...?
     Hikari was slumped over on the table, with Pen-Pen sleeping in her lap.
     She lifted her head out of her arms, and it became evident she'd been sleeping there.
     "What?  What time is it?"
     "It's about seven.  Didn't you get to sleep last night?"
     Hikari gave him a blank look that only emphasized the sorry state of her tired mind.  "Look,  I'll make lunch, don't worry about it," he offered.
     Asuka emerged from her room as well.  "Guten morgen, everyone...  You look tired, Hikari," she said, yawning intermittently, then realizing Hikari hadn't changed from the night before.  "How long have you been sitting here?"
     "I...I don't know...  Do you think he's okay?"
     "Yeah...  He's been through worse."
     Shinji looked down at the pan and focused on the sausages, unwilling to remember the incident Asuka was referring to.  But the memory brought back another aspect of his father that he had strangely overlooked.  At times, his father wasn't just cold and calculating, but outright cruel.  Was it really necessary that Touji's life be forfeit just to kill the Angel?  No, there was no way his father could have possibly had any compassion.  For anyone.
     He realized he worried too much about his father, even though he was dead.  Why did his mind persist in thinking about the man who was the only blood relative he could remember?
     In the end, did he really want to have someone like that to be his father?
     It doesn't matter any more, Shinji told himself.  I don't have a family...all I have are friends, now.  I have Asuka.  That's enough for me.  He pulled himself away from the stove to put breakfast on the table.

* * *

     An insistent buzzing tone brought Touji out of a comparatively blissful state of oblivion, and the darkness that had covered his vision vanished slowly.  His eyes opened gradually, revealing that he was contained inside an Intensive Care Unit.  Had he really been hurt that badly?
     He also realized he still couldn't feel his arms very well, and maybe that was just the ghostly sensation of nerves receiving false input.  That was what had happened before.  Ghost pain, they called it.  His chest seemed hollow and burning.  Every contraction of his heart seemed difficult and forced, as each contraction sent radiating tendrils of pain throughout his entire being.
     Still, though, he was glad he'd been able to hold out long enough...or so he hoped.  Had Hikari destroyed the Angel?  Had he bought her enough time to do so?  He'd have to wait and see.  Really, he could be anywhere.  They could have sent him elsewhere if the Angel threatened to destroy the base.
     In any case, here he was.  A respirator attached to his face, various drug lines being injected into his arms... So I haven't lost them.  That's good.
     A doctor leaned over the now open box, checking some of the leads attached to his chest with sticking pads.
     The doctor stopped his work, and looked at Touji's face intensely.  "Ah.  So you're conscious.  Very good."
     "Did she kill it?" he asked, his voice still not properly supported by his sore chest.
     "The Angel.  Did she kill it?" he rasped.
     Comprehension dawned on the bespectacled face.  "Oh, yes.  Otherwise we wouldn't be here.  Now, just try to relax, will you.  You've been unconscious for about twenty-six hours, you know."
     "Twenty-six hours?  How bad is it?"
     "You'll be just fine, but we were afraid you might have overloaded your brain, turned yourself into a vegetable."
     Touji wasn't going to ask.  He'd just done something particularly stupid, and from the looks of it, he had barely survived.  He ought to be grateful for that much.  At least the Angel was out of the way, now.
     He wondered if Mari had gotten to school and home again safely, and wished he could send her some kind of message, to tell her he was okay.

* * *

     Mari had known something was wrong when a large, black-suited man had come to take her home from the abandoned office that doubled as her shelter.  The stony silence he answered her questions with only worried her more.

* * *

     Fuyutsuki steepled his fingers and leant forwards on the desk.  Desaint had been prattling on over the last half hour about the projected cost and schedule that had recently been circulated about the repairs to the various Evas and the weaponry.  Fuyutsuki was starting to get extremely impatient.  I have better things to do, he thought.
     The corporal standing outside the door signaled the arrival of another visitor.
     "Send them in," Fuyutsuki said, dismissing the ever angrier Desaint.
     A man in a dark suit and glasses entered the vast office.  Evidently, something about SEELE's spies had been discovered.
     "Yesterday morning's incident was no accident."
     Fuyutsuki had already decided as much.  Hundreds of tests and combat uses had never seen the launch platforms malfunction so spectacularly as they did.  True, an overloaded capacitor could have triggered a similar error, but the engineers had designed them with a fairly large margin of error.  And for two to go off simultaneously was near impossible.
     "Go on."
     "We managed to find a small number of powerful explosives attached to the iniator cables.  Instead of launching the platforms, the capacitors were destroyed."
     Fuyutsuki nodded.  Ironically, SEELE had actually been of help this time around.  Instead of isolating the Evas from each other and forcing him to commit them to an Angel piecemeal, the abortive attack they had forced gave the MAGI a valuable insight into the Angel's plan of attack and had provided the two new pilots with additional, valuable experience.
     Still, he couldn't imagine SEELE would remain inconsequential for long.  Preparations would have to be made.  SEELE would not remain in the dark about the Scrolls for very long, either. 1