Episode 33: Reciprocity / A Soul Asunder
The elevator's high-pitched hum modulated to
an ever sharper pitch as it accelerated towards the bowels of the facility.
As it had been since Third Impact, its only passenger was a moderately
aging man who considered himself too old for his post.
It hadn't been that long since he last made this short trek. Barely a few days. But, nonetheless, it had to be done. Even though the MAGI had already completed the translation, the text was too cryptic to interpret in a single session. As well, he didn't want to risk bringing the translation up into his office, where security was lesser.
Instead, he used up the few liberties he had to complete his work and record it for future reference. He could usually escape to Terminal Dogma unnoticed for less than an hour, and then only once or twice a week. Still, it wasn't enough, and he found himself barely able to look further ahead than the current position in the chronology.
Fuyutsuki glanced down at his watch impatiently. He had managed to arrange some forty minutes of time with which to study the Scrolls. Any more, and the consequences could be disastrous. Who knew who was watching him and his actions?
As it was, he was already treading on dangerous ground. Kihl and the rest of the council were all horribly unbalanced, he thought. And since they had a goal, the means, and obviously, an insider...who knew what they were currently capable of.
Any unexplained absences, any lost time where his subordinates would not be able to find him could tip off SEELE's agent. Hence the need for his caution.
Sending Lieutenant Arashio away was not the solution to the problem, merely a deception on his part. From what Intelligence had reported, she had made no attempt to contact anyone, and had made no attempt to evade her 'keepers'. In all likelihood, she was by far the innocent party, the frame, the one set up to take the fall.
Intelligence was still working on the real spy, though. Even though Arashio had long since disappeared, no one had attempted to do further damage to NERV's operations. The battle with the last Angel had developed as expected, and there was no interference from anyone. Repairs to the Evas were now being completed, under heavy security, and it was doubtful the saboteur would act again soon.
In addition to that, he had ordered Dr. Robertson to begin work on a new firewall system for the security network. A system was required that could observe every part of the base, and that was immune to human hackers. Dr. Robertson had promised a brand new system with a watered down version of the 666 firewall, and it was due to be completed soon. No more would someone break into Terminal Dogma without first being noticed en route. Kaji, Major Katsuragi, and now, the new spy. All had done it before.
The elevator decelerated as it approached its destination, and the humming noise it made dropped into the tenor range. As it came to a stop, Fuyutsuki withdrew his key from the slot, the only one that could be used to access this area, and stepped out into the small room. Ahead, in the darkened hallway before him, he could see the tiny eyes of red light that indicated the lasers were still on.
After looking momentarily at his watch yet again, he stooped to the scanner.
* * *
Kensuke frowned in steady concentration, trying
to clear his mind and focus on synchronizing with Unit-16. He wasn't
actually in the Eva, of course. Harmonics tests didn't require the
pilot to be sitting within the Eva's body. Besides, all the peripheral
interference from the Eva itself could give faulty results.
Even though it was all still very exciting to him, progress could not be made without abandoning emotional impulses inside the entry plug. How else could he expect to get himself out of the supporting position?
Not that he'd done that badly during the last battle. From the records of the battle, almost everyone went down before demon-girl figured out the Angel was impersonating the Evas. No wonder they'd all been defeated so easily. The Angel, in its various guises, had been able to approach within a safe distance, then attack. Not only did it enjoy the advantage of surprise, but also had no fear of reprisal. And by the time the pilots did manage to figure out that the Eva attacking them was actually the Angel, it was too late to do anything.
What cowards, he thought. The Angels...a shame that such enormous and super-naturally powerful monsters have to resort to pathetic and lily-livered tactics. Disguising themselves, employing jamming... They should be coming out without all that, so we can fight them one-on-one.
Come to think of it, he thought proudly, he actually had done pretty well out there. Of the four who were attacked by the Angel -- that is, himself, Touji, Shinji, and class rep -- only he and Hikari had been able to defend themselves. And only he had counterattacked. Surely, the sniper rifle's massive, explosive shells had to have contributed to the Angel's defeat.
So maybe they would move him up for the next battle. Maybe he could even get to use one of the larger, more powerful weapons, like the palette rifle. Of course, he had yet to train with the progressive weapons, so there was still no chance of getting the point position.
Still, it was nice to dream.
The buzzing around him brought him back into the real world, where he was nought but a minor pilot with a low sync ratio. And if he didn't get back to concentrating, he was bound to get another scathing admonition from that asshole Dr. Robertson. He had half a mind to throw the insults right back, but being insubordinate usually didn't accomplish anything, anyway.
Hikari, too, was thinking.
I don't enjoy doing this. Not like Kensuke.
So far, she'd participated in two battles. In the first, she was given the massive positron sniper rifle, to destroy the Angel. But, at the same time, she never actually engaged the Angel. Line up the targeting reticules, squeeze the trigger.
All while Touji was getting torn apart, in front of her.
The feeling of helplessness she'd experienced then went unparalleled. Time and time again, she could only watch as he threw even more of his Eva's mass into the line of fire. But even if she had been closer to him, what could she have actually accomplished? Very little, and probably nothing.
She'd thanked him, of course, the first opportunity she had. He didn't seem to think much of it, though.
He must be pretty brave to toss off death like that so easily, she thought.
Unlike herself. She'd felt some of the pain this job could bring, in the last battle. The Angel's knife, cutting deep into her shoulder. She could have sworn she'd felt her collar bone snap, her shoulder bleed.
This last time, she'd literally been forced into close combat with an Angel. For a few seconds, though, she had been able to fight back. Something had let her defend herself long enough to keep the Angel from destroying her immediately and for Asuka to come to her rescue. What was it? The survival instict?
According to the many tests she'd gone through, she was supposed to be a better pilot than he was, really. But she couldn't even think of doing what Touji had done. She couldn't even perform in a stand-up fight with the beings they called Angels. She remembered, both from the incident and the analytic review that followed, that she had dropped the knife after being stabbed.
When the Angel suddenly produced its own prog knife out of thin air... Hikari could only remember fear. Even though she'd just done it herself, she'd never seen anyone or anything hold a knife in that fashion: the grip firmly in hand, the point and blade downwards, intent on cutting, maiming, killing. Much thanks to Asuka, for figuring it out on time.
But it was true, though. She had frozen up, like a deer in front of a pair of headlights. I just don't have the guts to do this.
It would be easy to quit. She'd already thought about it, even a few weeks ago. Just to walk up to Captain Shigeru, and say the words. And then, she'd never have to see the Evas again, never have to wear the too-tight and extremely revealing plug suit that she hated again. She could concentrate on being a student, on being the class representative, on being herself. None of this mucking around in a world that she couldn't understand, a world that scared her.
As well, there was always that strange little episode that had marred Unit-15's activation test...she still couldn't tell what had happened. Whether she'd fallen unconscious or simply couldn't remember whether or not she'd screamed... She was still being examined by NERV doctors for something, related to the accident.
So what was it that was holding her back? Why couldn't she just walk up to her CO, and say it? Say "I'm sorry, I'm quitting, bye,"?
Are you feeling better?
Of course she was. Of course Asuka was feeling better, a day and a half after finally apologizing to Shinji. Before, it was the pride, the false confidence, that filled the gaps when remorse tore at her. Such that she had never felt it before she finally caved in on herself. The apology...it helped.
Are you really feeling better?
Yes, she was. It was like a heavy burden had been lifted. If Shinji could understand that she had never consciously wanted to jerk away from him like she did, then it could be considered a good thing. If Shinji understood that she wanted to love him in entirety, that was wonderful. Of course she was feeling better.
Is he feeling better?
She supposed so. Hadn't he said so? "I'm...fine," he'd said.
Is he feeling better?
Is he feeling better?
What does that mean, anyways? "Fine" means good. "Fine" means everything is well, that Shinji was happy. "Fine" was what she wanted to hear, was what he said. "Fine" doesn't mean anything. He certainly didn't look "fine" when he said it. Asuka suddenly felt ground down for not noticing earlier. "Hikari, they're guys. Guys don't talk about stuff like that." She'd said it herself.
She wasn't sure. Couldn't be sure. At least, not any more. Shinji never really talked much about himself. Not with her, anyways. It was kind of her fault, she knew. After all, she'd shut herself off from him before, didn't realize how he felt, blinded herself with her own conceit. She wasn't even sure if he'd shared any of himself with Ayanami or Misato, even though they seemed to have been receptive to him, then.
What was he doing now? Was he closing himself off again?
So, is he feeling better?
She didn't know. Couldn't tell. Not for sure.
But she knew she had to find out. Or else she did face the very real possibility of losing him. And it scared her. Please, she begged him silently, don't abandon me...don't do that to me. I need you.
Are you feeling better?
No. Definitely not. There was a new burden sitting squarely on her shoulders, now, slumping them. She wanted to leave the test plug.
"Asuka, please concentrate. You do have a right to be cocky about your sync ratio, but honestly..."
She didn't like Dr. Robertson. That was for sure. Dr. Akagi would have been better.
* * *
"I think the Second and Third can tolerate
more depth. Push them down 0.1. And do the same with the Seventh.
He's improving, so it'll be interesting to find out." Dr. Robertson
leaned back in his chair, and penned down some of the other results.
Shigeru frowned momentarily, then ordered a countermand of Dr. Robertson's last request. Dr. Roberstson turned to look up at him with cool eyes.
"And why, might I ask?"
Shigeru stared back at him. "Correct me if I'm wrong, but that would push Kensuke beyond the maximum limit."
Dr. Robertson cocked an eyebrow. "Correct me if I'm wrong, but he's a whole meter and a half above the Second and Third. And they're the ones approaching the maximum depth."
"But the MAGI and Dr. Masaharu ordered that to be the limit for Unit-16. You read the report, Unit-16 is still considered to be unstable."
Dr. Robertson watched with cool interest. Neither he nor Shigeru appeared to want to back down. "Dr. Masaharu doesn't know what she's talking about. He can still stand the additional depth." And besides, he knew he was right.
Reaching over Yamashita's shoulder, he punched in the command himself. "I had a question," he said, before Shigeru could say anything else about the dangers of mental contamination and permanent damage, "What exactly is it you do around here? Paperwork?"
Shigeru took a breath, ready to lash out at any second. Normally, he wasn't angered this easily, but Dr. Robertson was really pushing the limits of tact and civility. Only Yamashita's presence, and that of the pilots, who could probably hear most of the argument, held him back.
"I'm no Katsuragi," he replied, nearly growling, "but you're no Akagi either."
* * *
Night fell. Gradually, as it always did,
waiting for the last glimmers of the reflected sun to fade from the sky
at the edge of the world. Finally, darkness set in, and the city
re-animated itself artificially.
Lights came to life, flickering on around, within, below, above, and along the walls of buildings. Still, despite its seeming life, it was a city waiting to go to sleep. Mere hours after the reawakening, the life began to fade again.
The streets emptied themselves, shutters fell over lonely storefronts, and the buildings buried themselves in the ground.
The evening, long as it was, seemed even longer to Shinji. Asuka, when she could get away from Hikari and everyone else, was more pensive and less of herself. He was sure she was still having difficulties with what he'd done only a few nights before.
Still ruing whatever had possessed him to unknowingly but essentially re-enact the most brutal and savage moment of his entire life, at least for her, he found himself unable to speak with her beyond the most basic level of communication. It was almost as though he was back, suffering through that first week again. In one way, it was worse. Before, he lacked direction; he couldn't tell what was going to happen, when, or where he was going.
Now, it felt like he'd lost any direction he had. He felt a definite, marked regression. It was only a week ago that he'd told her, not for the first time, but loudly and clearly, that he loved her. It was the most certain thing he'd ever said in his life, and certainly the one thing he would never go back on. Not like when he'd said he was never going to pilot Unit-01 ever again. Not like when he'd promised himself he was going to tell his father he hated him.
"Shinji?" Asuka, clad in her house garb, was standing in the doorway, one hand on the sliding panel that made up the door. "Can I..?"
As she turned to close the door, he glanced away, ashamed that she felt she had to ask. Only a week ago, she would have walked in without hesitation. Now...
She seemed...tired, too. But, he thought, looking back towards her as she joined him, she was still beautiful. The every aspect of her. And more than just her face, her eyes, her hair...
Most of the time, though, her true beauty was hidden. Buried under the masks, the exteriors she presented to everyone. To her teachers, she was a genius. To her friends, she was genial. To guys, she was a goddess. To her classmates, she was sociable. To those who annoyed or irritated her, she was -- though he hated to think about it -- a real bitch. To NERV, she was a pilot of exceptional talent and skill. To the world, she was a model of everything a child her age should be, and more. To Hikari, she was a true best friend: supportive, encouraging, motivating, helpful.
In short, she was everything everyone expected her to be.
Exception to the rule. You.
The voice cut through the darkness in his mind, and broke in upon his wandering conscious, bringing another layer of thought with it.
To him, she was simply...Asuka.
Without a doubt, the single most striking change he'd noticed was the sudden fragility she had shown him. Even in her coma, she'd seemed strong enough to be able to help him in his weakness. And after that, when she finally woke up, though he never saw her, well...she seemed yet stronger than before.
Before the day when they had first sat down at the kitchen table together, before the day he'd first seen her cry, openly, right in front of him, he could have sworn she was completely unbreakable.
Even after she was attacked, torn by the 15th Angel, she was intractable, insisting on standing alone on her gilded clay feet, surrounded by the waves of adversity.
But then it changed, when she finally broke. He only saw her once after that. And he'd been so broken himself that...
Don't deny it. It happened.
He caught himself. Yes, it happened. It still made him feel sick with himself.
He looked down at his hands. His scrawny, insignificant hands. Why was it, that after every horrible thing he'd ever done to her, in any way great or small, that she had chosen to uncover her fragility to him?
Whether it was because he'd tried to crush her delicate life out of her with his own bare hands to satisfy his demons, or had blatantly misused the inherent sensuality of her unconscious body to selfishly relieve his own tortured soul, or for having attempted to steal that one forbidden kiss in her sleep so long ago...why?
He didn't deserve any of this, he hadn't proved anything to her so that she should believe blindly in his heart like she did. If she knew what was good for her, she ought to have forsaken him, the one who had hurt her.
It's because she loves you, anyway.
So she did. She'd said it, many times.
Even her presence, here in his room, now, was testament to this.
Two days ago, she was the one who came, into the hospital as she had before, because she cared. About him. About the one worthless soul who had abused her because of some stupid perception.
She had come, not only to be there, but to apologize for his own transgression. To tell him she was sorry for something he had done. Because she was willing to forgive him?
But then, why him? Why Shinji Ikari, of all people?
And now, she still came to him, still asking to be with him, forgiving him. Why?
It's because you love her. She knows that.
So he did. He'd said it, too.
And it was truth.
Death was not a stranger to him. He'd had to live with it since childhood.
He'd never cried when Rei had died. He didn't cry for Kaworu.
For Misato, he'd cried. And probably for his mother, too. Each time, it was the same, though. He accepted the death. He accepted the loss. He understood that it had happened, and that there was no redeeming it.
For Asuka, it was different. That first time she'd...died, he had refused to accept it. Refused the inevitable conclusion that had to be drawn from the appallingly mangled corpse of Unit-02. And he'd screamed like a banshee, refusing the fact with his heart and soul.
Then later, on the beach, when he truly realized what it was he was doing, he cried there. Not for the loss. But for what it would have meant had he completed the act.
Later still, when she'd cried, before him, he'd cried too. Because it hurt him to see her that way, because it hurt to see what he'd done to her. Again, for what it meant.
And finally, a mere two days ago, he knew he had begun to cry. What for?
For himself, for the pain he brought her.
But what hurts her?
He knew he had. Certainly whatever memories of what he'd done before. That had been confirmed only days ago.
Shinji mulled that over for a while in his mind.
Her...mother? He wasn't sure, but that seemed to be what bothered her quite a lot.
He had to admit that he really didn't know. Obviously, there was something wrong, something deep and painful, there. He'd seen her cry at night, that one time.
How was he supposed to know? He didn't know anything about what drove Asuka. He didn't know what she feared, what she hated, what she wanted. All he knew was who she was, who she loved, and what he'd been able to figure out.
You admit you don't understand her, then.
Yes, he could admit to that. He didn't understand her. But couldn't he love her anyway? Without having to dig into her past, learn everything about her? Wouldn't that just end up hurting her more?
That's just a cop-out. And you know it.
No, it wasn't, he told himself. He could understand what she was without opening up what she'd already locked away, couldn't he? Couldn't he just wait, be patient, let her tell him, if that was necessary? She loved him, didn't she? Wouldn't he then be privy to the information that would let him understand?
That's another cop-out. You're waiting for others to give you what you need, again. Save yourself, for once. It's not like you've ever told her anything about yourself.
The virulence of his inner voice shocked him back into reality. What, then, was he supposed to do now? Both sides of argument were still valid. He didn't want to pry into her, look in at her naked soul just to see what made her tick. That was cruel, scientific, almost. That sounded like something his father would do.
But at the same time, it was necessary. It had to be done. In order for him to truly love her, he needed to be able to look into her, to understand her. It was true. He couldn't just wait for her to tell him everything. That would never happen.
What could he do to save himself?
Ask her now? Ask her about her mother, ask her about what had happened a mere two days ago, ask her exactly what it was that troubled her? No. Likely, she didn't know much herself. After all, that was precisely the case with him. She had tried to understand. She had asked him why he hated his father.
And he'd been unable to answer her at all. He didn't know why he hated his father. He didn't even know if he did.
This brought up a new question. How was he supposed to understand her, if he didn't understand himself?
Nonetheless, he was going to have to try. Some time or another. And now was good enough. She was here, with him, alone. She didn't have to wear any of her masks for anyone. Just the two of them.
Asuka shook out her long hair a final time, collected the neural clips in her right hand and sat down on the bed next to Shinji.
"Asuka," he began, surprised at how strong it sounded, "what's wrong?"
The question, stolen straight from her mouth, as it seemed, grabbed her attention and wrenched it towards him. Inwardly, she was both elated and astonished.
"What do you mean?" she asked back, trying to buy time and clarify the question.
Shinji shrugged, and looked downwards for a second. It seemed like he was worlds away from the last time he'd asked a question like this one. The last time, he remembered, he hadn't been able to put together a coherent sentence. He'd even been afraid of the answer, no matter what it was.
"You seem a little...sad," he said, not able to find a better word. He was still surprised that he hadn't fallen apart yet.
She let herself exhale, slowly and softly. "Are you happy?" she murmured, still troubled.
Shinji balked suddenly, not expecting this response. "I...I guess so..."
"Baka," she said, taking his arm, "you don't look it. At school, you almost looked like you were ready to die."
He looked downwards fleetingly. That wasn't the point. He reached over, and disentangled her fingers from around his elbow before gathering her hand in his own, tentatively.
He still needed to know, for sure, what was bothering her.
Asuka wasn't sure what to think at this point. Effectively, Shinji was still hiding himself from her. Maybe he just needed a little more encouragement.
Shinji's head came back up, and he looked back at her. His eyes flickered slightly, darting around her face, but finally came to rest, staring back into her own. The harried and anxious state she saw there was ten-fold that she'd seen in the hospital.
Both spoke at once.
There was a dumbfounded silence for a long time. Nothing stirred, and they both stared at each other, unable to say anything further.
Outside, the chirping cicadas sang their lullabye to the sleeping city.
To Shinji, it was as if there was something within the depths of those blue pools that was pulling at him, dragging him forwards to her. For now, he would fight it, refusing it until he was sure he understood the implications in her eyes. They were open, and honest...like before. Not fearful. Not anxious. But honest. Waiting for him to answer.
Why, then? Obviously, this was still linked to what had happened before. What was it she had said, in the hospital? Not to be sorry? Not to be guilty for picking open a wound that had already started to close?
Are you happy?
Baka. You don't look it. At school, you almost looked like you were ready to die. His mind put together her previous words, and the situation pulled itself together. As much as he didn't want her to suffer, so did she in return.
The light in Shinji's eyes changed, and Asuka caught it, heartened.
"I'm sorry," he said, drawing his gaze back to the floor. He still found he needed to release his guilt that way. It was still the simplest way.
A hand gently but firmly took the side of his face, and turned it back towards her.
"Shinji...you don't need to say that. Not for me."
Shinji remembered the feeling, the sensation of the previous times their lips had touched. Comfortable, really. And it always felt good. He never came away feeling bad about it. Sometimes, he wasn't sure whether or not it was a good idea to start with, but she never gave him reason to doubt it afterwards.
But this was different. There was a new depth and intensity here that made him want to hold his breath, to halt time and space. A few strands of the hair that so mesmerized him brushed against his forehead, but he paid it no heed, if he felt it at all.
Not until he needed to breathe again did he even risk trying to pull away in the slightest. Asuka, too, seemed unwilling to break apart, but eventually she allowed him to withdraw.
After slowly recovering his breath, he permitted his eyes to peer back out into the world. Before him, still unmoving, with her eyes open no more than his, sat Asuka. As it was previously, he felt the pull again, but he wasn't sure how far he could push his luck.
"I..." he began, but was cut off instantaneously.
"Shut up, dummkopf," she whispered, and took his face in both hands, bringing them together a second time.
For a fraction of a second, he protested the sudden movement, but surrendered just as quickly. Openly defying the law of sequels, Shinji simply leaned closer to her and let the embrace develop on its own.
Finally, reluctantly severing themselves from each other, they shared a smile that said more than anything either had originally planned to say.
Several long moments later, Shinji opened his mouth to say something, but a single finger pressed against his lips was sufficient to silence him. After he obeyed her motioned command to lie down, she followed suit, turning off the light and resting her head against his shoulder.
"Good night," he whispered.
"Gute nacht, baka. Thank you." she replied, her chin moving against the flesh above his heart.
A good night, indeed, he thought, suddenly realizing that she was actually going to spend a second night with him.
* * *
"It will not be long until Aaron will be able
to verify the nature of Fuyutsuki's tool. If indeed it is what we
suspect, it must be either obtained or destroyed."
"The capture is considerably more preferable," stated another monolith, stressing the importance of the artifacts. "Their destruction will benefit no one."
Kihl waited until the discussion petered out before speaking. "It matters not. Fuyutsuki is no fool. He most certainly has a contingency plan laid out. Even if he believes Aaron to be dead, he still knows he cannot ignore us." Hatred shrouded the name of NERV's new commander. "Depriving Fuyutsuki of the original copies by destroying them will not affect him in the least. Of this, we can be sure."
"Then Aaron and Moses must move to capture them."
"Of course. We cannot blind him, only match his eyesight."
Still, however, there was no indication from either of their agents that they had discovered where the tool lay. NERV was a large facility, and even if Fuyutsuki was inane enough to continue hiding things in Terminal Dogma, that wing was still enormous. There were hundreds of rarely used laboratories that could hide anything, hangars of empty space, unused offices, computer banks, rooms, equipment storage...
A full search of the premises by both agents working in tandem -- which they were not, as they had failed so far to identify each other -- would take a long time. It was easier to hack through the MAGI's database for their location.
Unfortunately, Fuyutsuki's serendipidous and unfortunate decision to reset the MAGI only a few weeks ago had removed the vast majority of files in the their memory. The most the pair had been able to find so far were fragments of records. From these, the conclusion had been reached that Fuyutsuki had spent much of his time decoding of translating a very large text with the MAGI's help.
Even Caspar, the supercomputer that had made it through the ordeal more or less untouched, had little record of the translation. Even there, Fuyutsuki was covering his tracks. Having accomplished his aims, he simply deleted any electronic traces of what he had been doing.
Even worse, operations in Terminal Dogma were getting harder and harder for Aaron and Moses. Fuyutsuki had increased security at the access points to Dogma, and no one was being admitted. While the guards were certain to attract attention, it seemed Fuyutsuki had weighed the benefits of having better security outweighed the need to maintain its secrecy.
* * *
Shinji woke up well before the alarm went off,
and discovered that he didn't feel any motivation to move from his current
position. Sunlight was streaming in through the large glass panels
at the far end of the room, bathing everything in a diffuse, golden light.
Nothing on the side of the room he was facing was spared its caress, not
even Asuka's own warmly glowing face. If that was indicative of her
being happier, that was good.
Looking towards his feet at the far end of the bed, he found that his left hand was still entangled in her fingers, strengthening his disinclination to do anything at all. He found it bizarre that something like that might have escaped his immediate notice, but he was just waking up, so his mind wasn't in the best of shape yet.
He remembered the first time they had done this...it had been slightly awkward at first, neither sure if such intimate and proximate contact was a good idea. But neither had wanted to give it up, either.
There had been something of an epiphany, that night. That they both needed each other. This lesson could only have been reinforced by this recent misunderstanding. And again, the lesson was accompanied by the reward provided by their mutual nocturnal presence.
After the first time, they had agreed that it wasn't something to repeat anytime soon, however painful it might be. Although, given this last night, Shinji wasn't sure that he would be able to give it up so easily again.
Several more minutes passed before he remembered that Asuka had forced Hikari to go to bed early over the past two nights and had even rearranged the schedule so that she could get even more rest. Therefore, he would be in charge of meals for today. He would have to get up soon...but he wasn't sure whether or not he should wake Asuka.
Eventually, he decided, she would have to get up too, and there wasn't really a difference between now or later.
"Hey... Asuka... Wake up..." he said softly, unaware of the nature of the circumstances that surrounded the last time he'd said those words and the irony of this new situation. This time, however, he got a response, as Asuka rolled forwards onto her elbows and opened her eyes tiredly.
"Good morning, Shinji... What time is it?" she asked as she gently squished his fingers together before letting him take his hand back.
"Er...I don't know..," he stumbled.
Shinji turned, feeling more than a little foolish as he felt his now free left hand. Asuka's clock-radio was sitting on the floor within arm's reach of the bed, its bright red LCD display and buzzer proclaiming it was the time Shinji normally woke up anyways.
"Dummkopf," she said lightly, as she yawned and sat up.
* * *
"I'm sorry, sir. Do you have a Terminal
A young lieutenant with sloppy, messy black hair looked up from his book.
"What was that? I'm sorry."
"Do you have a Terminal Dogma pass? I can't let you pass into this area without one." The guard lifted his ugly black submachine gun a little higher, letting Masaharu draw out the implications on his own.
Masaharu closed his book and put it back in his pocket. "Huh. I was just on my way to the Command Centre."
The guard nodded, understanding. "You're on the wrong floor, then. That would be quite a few levels up."
Masaharu laughed a little at his own error. "Must have missed my stop, then. It's a good book, you know."
The guard's face betrayed nothing.
* * *
"Asuka, cut it out. That's not for kids
like us. And definitely not in public like that."
Asuka finished her kiss with Shinji with an overly-romantic flourish, if only to exacerbate Hikari's discomfort. "Meanie. You sound just like Misato. There's nothing wrong with it."
Hikari's right eybrow began twitching in a scandalized tic, a sure sign that Asuka had crossed the line between Hikari's standards of barely acceptable and shameful behavior.
"Um...I think we should go in now," proposed Shinji, nervously anticipating Hikari's inevitable moralistic rage.
Incredibly, she didn't blow up. "Good for her," Hikari said, clearly bringing herself under control, "at least she had some good points."
On that, she turned and marched through the school gates, and headed straight for the classroom.
"Hey!" Touji's voice claimed their collective attention as he jogged up, Kensuke trailing not far behind. "The newlyweds! What's up with the class rep today?"
"Beats me," Asuka said, grinning, "why don't you just ask her?"
"Actuall..." started Shinji, before a quick look from Asuka cut him off. Touji shrugged, and looked back to find Kensuke.
As they headed into the school, Shinji couldn't help but ask Asuka what was going on. Asuka only smiled at him, saying, "I was right when I told her you were as dense as lead," and kissed him again.
Finally back in her place at the front of the
classroom, Hikari took a deep breath, stood, and called the class to attention.
She didn't find herself needing to exert quite as much control over the class as the previous weeks. After all, even with the last Angel incident, she hadn't missed a class for several weeks. So far, there hadn't been a need for her substitute to stand in for her. The teacher seemed satisfied with her record since, even though she still hoped he was seeing it as a rough spot that wouldn't be repeated.
Hopefully, that would ring true.
She'd finally decided that, for her own good, she would give up piloting the darn Evas after the next Angel or the one after, to give Commander Fuyutsuki the time to pick another replacement. Maybe. Perhaps.
She still thought it wasn't right to force someone else into the position in her place. Even though that had been part of the reason she'd accepted in the first place, who knew that they weren't building another Eva somewhere else, for another pilot? Whether she quit or not would make little difference to the next candidate in line, anyway. It had already happened to Kensuke, even though he was still enthusiastic.
Besides, she'd already come to the inescapable conclusion that she didn't have the spirit to put up the kind of fight her friends were capable of. She simply couldn't throw herself into battle the way Asuka did, nor stoically stand up to the sheer agony like Touji did. She couldn't persevere like she'd seen Shinji do on Kensuke's video, and she didn't have the attitude of the latter.
She did have the third highest sync ratio, and she was unsure NERV would allow her apparent talent to leave with her. And then, perhaps she did have a chance at providing some kind of supporting role to her friends, once she learned to develop a little courage. Thinking that way, in itself, was a kind of courage, she supposed.
Not a little unhappy with herself, she realized she was hesitant to drop it immediately. Much careful thought and not a few restless hours at night had produced a some rationale for staying with the Evas. And while they did appeal to what she hoped was her altruistic nature, she also knew most of them wouldn't turn out well for her in the end.
There was her family, as well. They were so proud of her, so happy she'd been selected to be an Eva pilot, a saviour. They'd all seen the destruction the Angels could cause with their own eyes. None of them would forget the day when they opened the shelter door to be looking out over a massive, steaming, water-filled crater. Because of them, what they felt she was doing...she didn't want to disappoint them.
Of course, even if she did quit, nothing would change. Probably, she thought, smiling, they would treat it no worse than if she came back from school one day with a mark below 90.
She stuck her hand into the air. "Present, sir."
Likely, though, she would be advised by everyone; Asuka, her family, her friends, likely even Commander Fuyutsuki and Captain Shigeru -- from what she thought she knew about them -- to do what was best for herself.
Finally, there was one other reason she was equivocating, and she knew it carried quite a lot of weight, even though it was evidently illogical and self-serving.
The teacher got down to the middle of the boy's attendance list. "Suzuhara, Touji?" There was a pause. "Suzuhara, Touji?" he repeated.
Hikari was beginning to develop a serious headache.
* * *
"There had better be a good reason for calling
me in here, now." Dr. Robertson was seriously irked. Recently,
he'd developed a mild case of carpal tunnel syndrome, from sitting in front
of a computer too long, and typing too much. On top of that, he'd
come across what looked like something of a dead end in Dr. Akagi's circular
quantum programming that made up the 666 system.
Fuyutsuki cocked an eyebrow. Dr. Robertson, he'd learned, only got annoyed when he was frustrated. And when he was frustrated, he worked like a donkey. And when he worked that hard, he solved problems at a frightening pace, and didn't ever seem to let off.
Dr. Masaharu had been, once again, an impeccable judge of character.
It looked like Dr. Robertson's discomfort was a sign that progress was being made, somewhere, on not a few problems.
"Here. It's a report from the Intelligence division," said Fuyutsuki, handing over a thin folder.
Dr. Robertson picked it up, shook out the single sheet, and dropped it back onto Fuyutsuki's desk. "Waste of paper," he mumbled, looking at the paragraph. "So what? The Sixth Child reports to her school's infirmary for two doses of acetyl salicyclic acid. Whoop-dee-doo."
"Aspirin. Right. It says she reported a serious migrane-type headache."
Dr. Robertson shrugged. "I know what you're thinking, I do believe. You think this has something to do with Unit-15, right? A girl with no history of recurrent head pain suddenly develops one.
"Anyone care to look into other environmental factors? She's a teenager. She's entering adolescence. She's probably got other things on her mind, too, that are giving her problems. She doesn't get enough sleep either. I doubt you can even remember that time."
Fuyutsuki remained unfazed by the suggestion of oncoming senility, and stared back at his insubordinate subordinate, prompting him to continue.
"Until I have more solid evidence, I don't think we ought to worry about mental contamination just yet. Unit-15 hasn't given us any problems since, so I won't recommend you lock it down just yet."
Dr. Robertson gave him a half-assed, irreverent salute, and left. Not that it bothered Fuyutsuki, of course. He didn't like Dr. Robertson, whose I-am-untouchable mentality mirrored Gendou's in a way. Gendou, of course, took his invincibility to heart, and felt no need to lord it over others. That, in his words, would have been useless, and unnecessary.
In any case, as a scientist, Dr. Robertson was good at his job, even if some of his choices were a little inconsiderate to man, and more dedicated to the science to which he was a slave.
Fuyutsuki picked up the folder again and re-inserted the page. In any case, there was no way he could lock down Unit-15 and it's pilot, even with a recommendation from Dr. Robertson. Not at this moment in time.
Fuyutsuki paused momentarily, and smiled, shaking his head. Dr. Robertson had not once said the word 'sir' in their conversation.
* * *
Something hard and sharp jabbed into Shinji's
back, waking him suddenly. He tensed with the pain, but somehow avoided
jerking away from it, seeing as how Asuka was curled up against his chest
again. Being careful not to wake her, he rolled onto his back.
"What the hell? Pen-Pen?" he muttered, rubbing his eyes. "What time is it?"
The penguin, frantic that his housemate couldn't understand what was wrong, tugged desperately at the hem of Shinji's shorts.
That was when he heard the screams over Pen-Pen's desperate squawking.
Asuka was here, next to him...leaving the only other person in the apartment...
"Asuka!" he shouted, shaking her as he realized exactly what their pet was so agitated about. "Get up!" Pen-Pen flapped his wings ineffectually, and returned to pulling at Shinji's leg.
Asuka, like him, took several seconds to become conscious enough to recognize what was going on as well. To Pen-Pen's final relief, they rushed together to the sliding panel that served as the door to Hikari's room. Her screams, unmuffled now, tore at their ears.
Asuka swatted the door to the side hard enough that it rebounded on the track and slid back partway. Hikari's bed, a futon in the centre of the room, was empty, and there was a trail of tangled sheets that pointed to the corner.
There, whimpering incoherently, sat Hikari.
Just as Asuka took her first step into the room, her friend began screaming again. This time, however, her words were unmistakable.
"Go away!" she howled, her head buried under her arms, "For God's sake...go away!"
Asuka paused, looking back at Shinji, who had stayed by the door, holding his hands over his ears. Complete and utter incomprehension was added to the long list of emotions they'd shared that week.
Undeterred, she pressed onwards, knelt down and took Hikari's wrists in her hands. Hikari fought back, fists clenched, but Asuka exerted enough control to finally expose her face.
"Hikari?!" Beneath Hikari's closed eyelids, Asuka could see her eyes flitting rapidly back and forth, indicative of a dream state.
Understanding was not made easier once Hikari
regained consciouness and was finally able to speak. After Asuka
sat down on the floor next to her and Shinji returned with the requested
glass of water, it quickly became apparent that she had no recollection
of even such a supernaturally powerful nightmare.
"You can't remember..?"
Hikari said nothing, and took the proffered glass from Shinji's outstretched hand without looking up. "No..."
Shinji took advantage of the ensuing lapse in conversation to gather and straighten the uncouth bedsheets, providing one to Hikari to wrap around herself.
"Sheisse," muttered Asuka, feeling her friend's arm, "You're covered in sweat. Do you think you'll be okay now?"
Hikari took a sip from her glass and signaled yes with a shake of her head. "Thank you," she whispered hoarsly, taking Pen-Pen's agitated body into her arms.
Pen-Pen squeaked, hugging her back.
"Huh," remarked Shinji, "he used to do that with Misato sometimes."
They waited until she'd finished her water, then Shinji took the glass back to the kitchen and Asuka helped her stand up again. "Asuka..," she said, once securely on her feet again, "I'm really sorry for getting upset with you this morning...it's your right, anyway."
Just like Hikari. She never could stay mad at anyone for very long, Asuka thought.
"Don't get me wrong," she continued, "I still think it's horrible that you actually sleep with Shinji now, okay?"
Asuka snickered, straightening out Hikari's tangled hair. "Yeah. You know, Mr. Compassionate did ask about you. Turns out he spotted you storming into the school," she said, knowing Hikari would find it comforting.
Hikari turned, suddenly brightening. "He did? Suzuhara?"
Hikari lapsed into a contented silence.
So, she thought, after they had departed, leaving
her alone again, he did ask.
Of course, more likely than not, that was just his nature, shining through again.
Mr. Compassionate, as Asuka put it. Not that there was anything wrong with that. She thought more guys ought to be more like Suzuhara. Kind, even if it was just underneath everything else. Problem was, several months of subtle hints hadn't done anything to help, and it didn't look like anything was going to change, either.
To be truthful, she envied what Asuka had with Shinji. Mostly, it was just the little things. The looks, the way they interacted, held...hands, talked...
Of course, she was still at odds with the way her friend went about flaunting, if that was the word, what she did with Shinji. Sometimes, it even looked like Shinji was made embarrassed by her being so forward. This morning, for example. Red as a beet, he was.
She chuckled a little at the image...even if Asuka was pushing the limits of taste, they did look really charming together.
Not that Asuka and Shinji dated, really. They spent most of the day within sight of each other, and spent enough time together after dark as it was. In any case, that wasn't what she wanted, with...Mr. Compassionate, as Asuka called him. Not that sort of thing. Yet. If only he would ask her out, or something.
Or something, repeated a little voice in her skull, whispering. With it came no small number of peripheral thoughts. Sometimes even complete ideas.
Suppressing them, she rolled over and squeezed her eyes shut, hard.
"Good night, Pen-Pen," she said, waving at the bird stretched out on the floor near her head.
* * *
Yamashita was on his way out after the night
shift, when he spotted Masaharu picking away at the keyboard at his station.
Not again, he thought, tapping his co-worker on his shoulder.
"What?" Masaharu stopped typing momentarily, deleted a line of code, and started up again.
"You're going to be doing overtime again?"
Masaharu shrugged, going on to the next two lines. "Say...can I use your station, while you're gone? It's faster."
"Like Lieutenant Arashio was saying, you're such a workaholic."
Masaharu was going to say something about it not being nice to talk about dead people, but got lost thinking about his task.
Yamashita got tired of waiting for a reply, and left, shouting, "Go ahead! It's not like I'll be doing anything other than sleeping!"
Masaharu got up, and sat down at the desk, opening a directory of database files.
* * *
Hikari never thought the ring of an alarm clock
could be so agonizing. It was as if a few dozen cymbal-equipped howler
monkeys were attempting a badly orchestrated and horribly coordinated rendition
of a Mozart symphony in her head while singing along.
Pain was an understatement, but at that moment in time, she couldn't think of a better way to describe what she was feeling. She knew the headache had begun somewhere around a quarter after six, too early for her to wake up, already. As it had grown steadily worse, even the ticking of the clock had begun to acerbate her affliction.
Moaning, she flailed her arm at the damned machine until it finally shut up and tipped over. The damned monkeys wouldn't shut up, though. Not for a while, they wouldn't.
After she discovered it was quite difficult to stand up, she opted on crawling, instead. Hopefully, she would feel better after a shower.
Next to her, Pen-Pen wriggled his slightly over-round body into a standing position, and squawked out a good-morning. In her head, the repetitive scraping of nails against a blackboard joined the screaming monkeys.
"Please...Pen-Pen..," she uttered. Pen-Pen nodded, his beak jerking up and down. He'd frequently seen Misato like this, especially the morning after she'd been out drinking a lot of the hard stuff.
He waddled off, out of sight, into the living room.
Hikari tried to follow, but she wasn't sure if it was her body that wasn't responding, or her mind that wasn't giving orders.
An eternity later, the monkeys abandoned their cymbals, allowing her to get back onto her knees, stand, and drag herself to the washroom.
Pen-Pen, obviously well-trained by Misato in some strange way, had already poured her a bath.
"Thanks...Pen-Pen," she said, patting the penguin on his head.
The bath was...warm, and, unlike the many other
things that seemed to be causing her pain this morning, was comfortable.
As she'd figured out that even the slightest noise could inflict distress,
she waited silently for the aspirin tablets to take effect.
Still, though, it wasn't preventing her from thinking to herself.
Where did this come from? she asked herself. I've had headaches before...but never like this...
In a way, she was proud of herself for hauling herself this far against the agony. Even if it was just a trip to the washroom, she had managed to muster enough resistance to do it. Since piloting the Evas was roughly this painful, it was nice to know that she might still withstand it.
It didn't really change much, though. She still couldn't really decide one way or another, whether or not to quit.
Outside, there was a little commotion. Much to her relief, it didn't spark an encore round of the Simian Percussion Cacophonic Orchestra. Asuka and Shinji must have woken up, she thought.
"Hikari?" asked Asuka, from outside the door, "How are you?"
"Better," she replied, her voice still a little hoarse from all the screaming overnight. "But I've got a killer headache."
Shinji joined in, from the kitchen. "Well...there are painkillers in the medicine cabinet..."
"I found them...thanks."
Pen-Pen waddled back in with a cup of tea gripped unsteadily between his flippers.
It's nice to have such good friends, she thought, taking the cup, and staring into its turbulent interior.
* * *
A most interesting development was beginning
to bother the shadow coucil. Over the last two days, they had received
reports from both Moses and Aaron pertaining to the location of the Scrolls.
They knew them to be thus, already. A careful sorting of Fuyutsuki's discarded personal files had yielded some of the contents of the Scrolls: several dozen lines accurately describing the arrivals of the last three Angels that Fuyutsuki's Evas had battled and destroyed.
The conclusion was unanimous. Fuyutsuki was far ahead of them. Aaron and Moses were going to have to act much faster, lest it be too late for them to correct and re-initiate Human Instrumentality.
The old Scrolls, the Dead Sea Scrolls, were useless to them now. That prophecy had long been fulfilled, but not to their liking.
"Moses has been fortunate enough to narrow down the possible area to a few levels within Terminal Dogma."
"And Aaron has already attempted twice to infiltrate, not to mention the work he is attempting through the databases. Unfortunately, the increased security in both places is hampering his efforts."
"We must have them, at any cost. If they require assistance, it will be provided."
* * *
Hikari finally emerged from the bathroom, and
deposited her cup on the table. Immediately afterward, she let herself
fall into one of the chairs at the kitchen table, and groaned slightly
as another pang of intense pain shot from one temple to the other.
Shinji pushed her breakfast over to her, as Pen-Pen looked on from the floor.
"If you're not feeling that well, Hikari, you should just stay home today," called out Asuka from behind the sliding divider that made up the door between the bathroom and the kitchen. "Is it still bothering you?"
"I can't do that!" Hikari practically yelled, then winced. After recovering, she continued at a more moderate level. "I've never missed a day of school in my life! I won't!"
Shinji picked up his own chopsticks and started on his food. "Well...she does have a point, Hikari... I mean...you didn't get much sleep last night, I don't think, and you seem to be in pain this morning."
"I'm going." she said, firmly.
Pen-Pen watched, disappointed. "Awwwww..." he keened, clutching at her leg.
"You too, Pen-Pen?" she asked, ruffling his miniscule water-proof feathers again. "I'm sorry. I'm going."
Dejected, the penguin pushed his empty food bowl over to Shinji, to get it refilled.
* * *
The school day began as any other. Those
who liked to arrive early, showed up early, arriving at their classes long
before the bell rang.
"We're not going to make it on time at this rate," muttered Hikari, walking alongside her two housemates. Her headache had finally subsided after breakfast, coming down to the level of a persistent annoyance. That development encouraged her even more, and she rushed through the rest of her morning routine to make up for the lost time.
"Hikari...we're still going to be fifteen minutes early."
For once, Touji was early, if not entirely pleased with it. Hikari, of course, took immediate notice, and Asuka steered Shinji away momentarily from his friend.
"Um...good morning, Suzuhara..."
"'Morning, class rep."
Someone or something was trying to drive a six inch spike out from inside her forehead. "I'm...sorry...I wasn't able to make you lunch this morning...Shinji took my turn."
Touji smiled, pulling himself into a cross-legged position atop his desk. "That's okay... My sister made me lunch. She said I shouldn't be living off your charity."
Hikari blushed a little, suddenly aware that Touji seemed to know his lunch was more than simple left-overs. "Well...it's nothing, really...I mean..." He didn't seem to notice.
"She's been acting pretty weird, you know. Even refused to let me walk her to school this morning. I hope she knows where she's supposed to go in case an Angel comes, or something."
Whoever it was with the mallet and chisel on the inside of her skull was really starting to make some headway. Wincing, she excused herself hurriedly, and returned to her desk. Once there, though, she allowed herself a small smile, as Shinji started to explain her problem to Touji. Shortly thereafter, Touji must have said something about the 'demon', because Asuka muttered something in German, and a resounding crack echoed throughout the classroom.
Finally, before the confrontation going on behind her could get any worse, she was relieved to see the teacher walk in. She stood suddenly, and turned on the class.
"Class!" she said, loudly, regretting it immediately afterward
"Stand up!" She swept a gaze across the room, checking to make sure they were all following.
"Bow!" As she obeyed herself, she realized that moving her head too much, or too rapidly, only worsened the pain.
"Sit down!" she shouted, as the bell rang. She was once again graced by the visit of an atonal band of apes she knew all too well. This time, it was too much for her to handle, and the world disappeared before her eyes.
The entire class, already silenced by Hikari's
regular commands, watched as she crumpled to the floor at the front.
"Oh, my," muttered the teacher. "If I could have two volunteers to take Ms. Horaki to the infirmary, please."
The hands of the entire class shot up. For most, anything was better than morning classes.
Touji stood, and Asuka was already next to Hikari, crouching.
"I guess it will be Ms. Sohryu and Mr. Suzuhara, then."
A general mutter of disappointment ran through the class, as Touji lifted Hikari's dead weight upright, and helped Asuka carry her out the door.
That was really weird, thought Touji, lifting Hikari into a more comfortable position on his shoulder. But, if Shinji was right, if she was suffering that much, well, this was actually normal.
Of course, the source of that suffering had yet to be determined.
Probably something to do with NERV, he thought, looking down. He wouldn't be surprised to see it had something to do with Unit-15 going haywire the first time. Or if NERV was actually conducting some kind of weird test on her. If they were, though... His free hand clenched into a tight fist at his side, and he looked down, bristling to himself.
* * *
"We have an unidentified aerial intruder on
a course for this area! Preliminary observations have concluded that
it may be the 21st Angel!"
"Already?" Shigeru asked incredulously, turning towards the main screen. "It's been less than a week since the last one! We still haven't completely repaired Units-14 and 16!"
Fuyutsuki appeared atop the command tower. "It doesn't matter. We can launch them anyway. The remaining repairs are incidental."
The image on the massive plasma screen showed the Angel to be moving very quickly. In less than a minute, owing to perspective, it grew from a speck to the size of a man.
"The American 3rd fleet is engaging at maximum range," the temporary operator said, reporting just as a massive strike of cruise missiles and guided air-to-surface missiles streaked in at the Angel.
The Angel, a spindle shape with multiple enormous, streamlined fins, paid the incoming ordnance no heed, and continued on its unstoppable course towards Tokyo-3. Explosions rippled over the surface of the AT Field, mingling their fire.
The smoke cleared. Everyone already knew, however, that even a firestorm like that could do nothing to the immensly powerful Angels.
"Call the pilots. Prepare the Evas for immediate launch in the vincinity of the central block."
Shigeru nodded. "Yes, sir."
Suffice to say Kensuke wasn't too concerned
about Hikari's fate, after it had become apparent he was going to have
another shot at the entry plug.
Hikari still looked a little pale, when she and Asuka emerged. Since she wouldn't let either Touji or Shinji touch her, being both conscious and in her plug suit, Asuka had to support her as far as Unit-15, alone.
Once she was sure her friend was securely seated in the command chair, Asuka stood back.
"Are you sure you'll be okay?"
Hikari nodded, running her hands over her face. Her wan smile did nothing to reassure Asuka. "I'll be fine. Don't worry about me."
Hikari nodded again. "Yes. We don't have much time, Asuka."
"You don't have to do this, you know."
"I know. This is the last time, I think. Maybe. I can't..." She cut herself off, and shook her head slowly. "You ought to go now."
Asuka walked back until she was standing on the umbilical bridge. A technician called the 'all-clear', and then the heavy hatch slid over the entry plug's opening. With a sound remniscent of heavy industry, the entry plug spun into place, the white armour plates closing after it.
"Don't do anything stupid, okay, dummkopf?" Asuka said, kissing Shinji before heading off towards Unit-02.
"Revision on enemy's ETA: four minutes.
Evas are in position and waiting."
"Final confirmation, the target's pattern is Blue. Repeat: Blue."
Shigeru took the lapse in the rhythm of commands to look up at Fuyutsuki. The Commander, as he now was, stood rigidly in his place, watching only the primary monitor, where the Angel was displayed slowing down during its final approach to Tokyo-3.
"Sir," Yamashita reported, "we're getting a really strange reading off the Sixth. I think you should see this."
Both Shigeru and Dr. Robertson peered over his shoulders at his screen.
"It's not her synchronization, or the Eva," Yamashita clarified, "it's her brain waves."
Shigeru didn't know what to make of it. "Is she panicking, or something?"
Dr. Robertson made a face. "Of course not. If she was panicking, it wouldn't be much different from this." He pulled up Touji's graph. "He's the one who's anxious. This girl's all over the map."
Shigeru thought about it for a while. "Do we pull her back, then? Take her out for evaluation?"
"There's no time," said Dr. Robertson, surprisingly grim, "look."
Already, the Angel was hovering over the harbour, moving ever closer towards the central block where the five Evas were positioned. Units-01 and 02, as always, formed the core of the defence. Touji and Hikari had been placed near the edges, facing each other from their respective hiding places among the armament buildings.
Over the top of the building where he'd been
instructed to set up the sniper rifle, Kensuke could see the Angel appear
around the edge of one of the mountains. Already, it was slowing
down, ready to engage them. From the looks of it, Kensuke surmised
that it would either stay airborne, or position itself on its posterior
end, much like he'd seen the 4th do.
But in either configuration, it didn't seem like it was capable of really doing anything. It's long shape and lack of powerful-looking appendages precluded physical attacks as being any sort of possibility. He presumed it must have some sort of energy-based weapon.
"Kensuke." He was so engrossed in the Angel's strange and seemingly purposeless design that he almost missed Shigeru's call.
"Yes, sir!" he replied, almost saluting to the box.
"The others will begin moving in in waves. Shinji and Asuka first, then the other two. However, there's a chance Hikari might not be able to participate. If that's the case, we need you ready to take over for her. Understood?"
Finally! Something real! he thought, bringing the sniper rifle down off the building's roof, and preparing to move closer.
Hikari grimaced as she fought the growing headache
that seemed to be bouncing around within the confines of her skull.
It was as if the two sides of her brain were having an all-out war with
each other, and using N2 weaponry to boot.
Suddenly, there was a fresh rush, and another layer of her resistance crumpled. Already, she'd cut off the communications lines to her friends. They had enough to worry about with the Angel, readying themselves. She didn't want them thinking about her, not now.
Whimpering, she doubled over in the entry plug's command chair, bringing her forehead down to her knees. She felt nausea, like she needed to throw up, but couldn't.
"What's happening with Hikari?"
"I don't know, sir. She's getting worse. But her sync ratio isn't dropping."
"It's not mental contamination, I hope," he said, thinking back to what had happened with Unit-15's initial activation experiment.
"To tell the truth," Fuyutsuki said, finally, looking down at them, "we don't know what mental contamination actually looks like. We've never had a case."
"What about the 15th Angel and Asuka?"
Fuyutsuki shook his head. "That was never confirmed, although it may have been. We can't rely on her any longer. If she can, order her to return."
With her eyes squeezed shut, Hikari never saw
the orange box appearing front of her. Nevertheless, she could hear
it, in between the pounding resonating in her head.
"Hikari, pull back if you can. Kensuke will take over for you."
The effort she was exerting not to scream was becoming particularly evident now, as she began to answer him.
With a last worried look, Shigeru disappeared. Hikari tore her fingers from her temples and gripped her command chair's control levers, trying to will her Eva back towards the emergence elevator.
On cue, the four remaining Evas stepped out of their hiding places, AT Fields raised to maximum. Two palette guns and a sniper rifle discharged themselves, screaming fire at the delicate-looking Angel.
Unit-02, which had been crouching in close proximity to Unit-01, rose and lifted up its progressive glaive.
"Cover me, Shinji."
"Wait! Asuka!" Unit-01 released the palette rifle, clawing out to grab the black band on Unit-02's upper arm.
"What the hell? What's this?"
"Sir!" shouted Masaharu, "we're getting a new reading! Right below the Angel! A new AT Field!"
"Another Angel? Two? At the same time?"
"No, sir! It's the same pattern, the same cycle!"
Yamashita looked up from his station, bellowing his new discovery. "It's inverted! The MAGI have identified it as a Sea of Dirac!"
Shigeru's command to pull back was nearly useless.
Already, Shinji, Asuka and their Evas were retreating. Touji, too,
had spotted the black shadow spreading out under the Angel. Only
Kensuke held his ground until the order had come through.
Unit-01 finally came skidding to a halt, more than a kilometer and a half away from the edge of the Sea, smaller than the last one.
Shinji stared out at the black expanse that had once swallowed him and Unit-01 whole. How he had gotten free, he never knew, and no one had ever told him.
No time to reminisce, though... Asuka, thankfully, was next to him already. Unit-14 and Touji had retreated to the edge of the mountains, and Unit-16 was standing at the edge of the black pool.
"Kensuke! Get back from there!" he warned, shouting.
Another shout broke through the comm lines. "Hikari! Where is she?"
Asuka panned her Eva's head back over the area where she had last seen Unit-15's white body. This time, it didn't interrupt the city's sinking skyline.
A small orange box lit up. "I'm...here," Hikari moaned, clutching at her forehead again, "I'm...fine...I..."
Asuka wasn't the only one to feel relieved, if not slightly pained at the sudden severity of Hikari's ailment.
Suddenly, it dissolved into static and disappeared.
Unit-15, still trying to crawl back towards
the egress port that had delivered it to the surface, collapsed as Hikari's
already mangled attention was redirected to answering Asuka than to controlling
Directly behind Unit-15's collapsed form, the Angel's ephemeral fins lit up, glowing brightly enough to compete with the sun, and it plunged into the Sea of Dirac, leaving no ripple, no trace.
"Sir! We just lost the Sixth Child's
ego-border! No reading! She's...she's gone!"
"What do you mean, gone?"
The scene many recognized. It had happened to Shinji. But then, his ego-border, the part of him that defined the very outline of his body and the presence of his soul, was still recognizable by NERV's sophisticated array of instruments.
Hikari's plug suit, still bright red even in the confines of the dim entry plug, was empty. Her interface clips floated lazily in the still LCL.
Hikari had disappeared. And not just her body. There was no trace of the ego-border anywhere in the plug. Or in the Eva.
Unit-15, already on hands and knees, slumped and fell prostrate on the shore of the Sea of Dirac.