EVANGELION: Ascension of the Lamb
By: Dante Abbey

 Episode 36: Sowing the Wind / Awakenings

     Unit-01 roared, the low, rolling, gutteral bellow of a being enraged beyond the normal limits of even the bestial mind.  Shrieking overtones resonated through the city's warm, damp air as its armoured mouth yawned open as far as it would go, exposing two curved rows of gleaming, sharp white teeth.  Its eyes, normally aglow, seemed to shine malevolently in the darkness from behind the helmet-like armour that still covered its head.
     As the beast's cry died in the air, so did Shinji's scream in the entry plug.  A fresh breath, the momentary acknowledgement of one of his basic instincts, and he screamed again, Unit-01 joining him in the performance of a hideous and poorly-balanced duet.
     "Leave her!  Leave her alone!"
     The stocky, humanoid Angel turned to face this menace it had thought put out of action, pulling its arm free from Unit-02's abdominal section, trailing the hundreds of tendrils and branches that sprouted off of it.
     Unit-01 charged.  Unit-02 fell to the ground, bleeding viscous purple blood in spurts.
     Hexagons of brilliant light lanced outwards in a perfect vertical plane from the point of impact between the three massive AT Fields, but the Angel never had a chance.  Unit-01 burst through the protective barrier without even slowing down, cocked its arm below the waist, and struck.
     The bare, fierce gauntlet of the manifestation of Shinji's will crashed into the Angel, aiming for the core.  In a powerful uppercut, Unit-01's arm battered its way through the exact centre of the forest of hard plates that formed an orchid-like armour shell over the Angel's upper torso, up through the tunnel towards the Angel's centre.  The bony sheets snapped and crushed, suddenly fragile fragments flying out in the wake of the assault, buckling under this single blow.
     The defensive plates the Angel had shown could protect its core snapped shut in front of the attack, but to no avail.  The punch went clear through them, too, fueled by a massive rage and shame that barely represented a full magnitude of his agony.  The splintered remains of the Angel's spiny coat buried themselves in the purple demon's arm, slashing its arm into ribbons.  Shinji paid the pain no heed.
     Ignoring the sensation of the dozens of lacerations along Unit-01's forearm, he lunged against the control lever in his right hand, forcing his way deeper into his foe.
     Unit-01's fist finally came to a full stop in the centre of the Angel's core, which was well on its way to dying.  Not enough to satiate the unstoppable pilot, it drew back, and was exchanged for NERV's monster's other exposed fist, which, in turn, slammed at full speed into the Angel's face, just as it unleashed its own counter-attack from what could be called its eyes.
     The angular features of Shinji's Eva melted and fused together, but the blast was insufficient to incapacitate or even delay it.  In return for the feeble riposte, Shinji made Unit-01 slam its hand into the Angel again.  The Angel's face plate cracked so badly that in places, small geysers of bone dust flew into the air.  Two more blows from Unit-01's bloody arms, and the huge creature lay still on its back, on a bed of felled pine trees.
     Again and again, Unit-01 tore at the Angel.  If it had had claws, they would have rent the Angel's flesh.  If it had had wings, it would have carried it high into the air, to dash it against a rock.  If it had had fangs, they would have pierced and drawn blood.
     It had none of these.  It was only human, a massive human, simultaneously directed and barely controlled by an enraged and unseeing soul within, craving only revenge.
     So it used its fingers, its hands.  It tore away what remained of the orchid, breaking the protective sheets of bone or ripping out them out intact and tossing them into the air so that they would land hundreds of meters away.  Then, when the Angel's entire body was exposed and vulnerable, Unit-01 began striking again with its bare, raw fists.  At times, the Eva's knuckles could be heard cracking with each impact that smashed into the Angel's tissue, so great was the force behind each strike.  As the Eva and pilot continued, the skin was broken, and the blood began to flow.
     It wasn't be until nearly ten minutes later that the pilot's rancor finally subsided, and the order was given to eject the entry plug and shut down the Eva.  There was nothing recognizable left of the once-invincible Angel.  Organs, armour and limbs lay in a festering pile, testament to a passion beyond even the comprehension of its proprietor.  Blood ran in streams to the lake, and thence onto the ocean.
     The cleanup crews would have an enormous job ahead of them.
     Shinji would be placed in quarantine, under observation.  Exhausted, he collapsed on the stretcher that had been brought for him, and fell unconscious.  Unit-01 was left in its position for the time being, kneeling over the Angel.  It would be days before it would be returned to the cage.  Until then, it would remain a monument to the day's battle, paradoxically still after such a barbaric and unholy display of untamed power.

* * *

     One boy, not far from where Shinji was being watched, woke up slowly, the unfamiliar scents and colours of the hospital ward flooding his poorly functioning senses.  Much time passed before he had to ask himself where his glasses were, and not able to discern them by fault of poor lighting and his own myopia, gave up and let his head sink back into the pillow.
     One thing was for sure, though.  Kensuke knew he felt horrible.
     That Angel...had been far too powerful.  An exponential step up from the last one.  Even more so from the one before that.  For some reason, he couldn't remember all the details of the battle yet.  Other than what the Angel looked like...or at least a vague approximation of what it looked like.
     At least he was in an ordinary hospital ward, as far as he could tell.  Unlike the poor class rep.
     Slowly, as he became more aware of his body and surroundings, he felt pain, lots of it, just above his waist.  Unsure if he really wanted to know the reason for it, he began to feel around his belly, searching.  There were no bandages, stiches, or even a wound.  Nothing to cause the pain.  Something from the back of his mind told him he should have known why it was there, but he couldn't remember what it was.
     He'd never been in a hospital before.  Not that he could remember, anyway, having been a fairly healthy and active kid.  He wasn't strong, but he went on enough camping expeditions that he got more than his share of fresh air and exercise, and he seemed to stand up fairly well to infectious diseases and the like.
     So he had no idea what to expect, although he'd heard the food was supposed to be terrible.  That had been from Touji.
     He still couldn't see anything, so he closed his eyes, as they were getting sore from trying to look at a ceiling that wouldn't focus.  He didn't really hate this blindness, it was more annoying to him than anything else.  After all, he'd had to live with it for his entire life, and something he'd learned to cope with very early on.
     While he was thinking about it, though...  He'd left his glasses in the entry plug, because he needed them to walk from the change room to the Cage.  He wondered if anyone had been nice enough to bring them to him, or if they were still there.
     He frowned with his eyes closed trying hard to dredge up what seemed like a distant memory, even though it couldn't have been more than a few days ago.  In any case, the Angel kill wasn't his to claim.  Not this time.  Gradually, he began to remember more, although he still had no idea who had killed the Angel.
     Actually, he thought, the reason he had so little recollection of the battle was because he'd been knocked out of it very early on.
     Another flash of pain lit up his gut.  And that, he thought, came from being knocked out of the fight.  He remembered, very clearly, exactly what weapon he'd been provided, a palette rifle.  He remembered, with more of less the same detail, emerging from the launch path into the forest of buildings.  The Angel had touched down somewhere near the centre of the massive circular area cleared out by the last one, and he had attacked it.
     The damned AT Field got in the way again, shrugging off the explosions as if his big grey Eva had done nothing more but throw a beanbag at it.  Then, through the flame and smoke...
     The Angel's eyes lit up, and his Eva was thrown backwards.  He remembered warning messages popping up everywhere and, just as he stabilized the colossus, the Angel fired again, and everything cut out around him.  That was where the pain had come from.
     To be perfectly frank, Kensuke was disappointed.  Already, three battles had passed him by, and he had barely even gotten to see any of the Angels.  Three battles, and he had not once done anything to contribute towards killing one.
     And worse still, he'd been defeated outright twice...not a particularly good record, as far as he could tell.  On top of that, he was still the lowest-rated pilot, if synchronization data meant anything.  If Hikari recovered and returned to active duty, she likely hadn't fallen far enough behind to do worse than him.
     He rolled his eyes under closed lids, breathing his frustration at not being able to do anything about it.  He tried, all right, and damn hard.  All the material he'd been given had been memorized twice over, if not more for the really interesting stuff.
     He'd always imagined being an Eva pilot would be nothing less than an exhilarating experience, but, while it nearly always was, he couldn't help but wonder if he was missing something.  Something that Touji and class rep were learning, something that Shinji and demon-girl had mastered.  He was, after all, only the Seventh Child; the seventh to be chosen.  A lower ranking candidate.
     Of course, there was nothing he could do about that.  He had been designated as such, and it would not change.  He could work at this as hard as he wanted, but like the foggy world he could see when his glasses were absent from him, it wouldn't ever change.
     That was disappointing, and very much so.
     Somewhere to his right, there was the hiss of a door opening.  He opened his eyes, but had to squint through the fog of poor vision.  He couldn't identify the visitor.
     It was a nurse.  "It's good to see you awake, Mr. Aida.  How are you feeling?"
     Kensuke cleared his throat a few times.  "It still hurts...  Other than that..."
     He thought she smiled.  "That should go away in a few hours.  Do you need anything?"
     "My glasses...has anyone seen them?"  He would need those, before anything else.
     "Of course.  Your originals were twisted out of shape during the battle, so a new pair have been made.  They conform to your prescription, I'm told.  Here."
     She handed him an oblong box.  He was used to dealing with these while his vision was still blurry.  With a practiced ease, he opened the case and put them on.
     "Thanks."
     "If you need anything, just ask."
     The world cleared in an instant.
     So he couldn't change the status quo.  But on the other hand, who knew?  Maybe his hard work and patience would pay off in his rising off the bottom of the data charts into a world where his Eva would move with grace and confidence, to defeat an Angel...
     The nurse waved and left, leaving Kensuke alone again.  Alone?  No, not entirely.  There was someone in the other bed across the room from him.  The light wasn't very good, but Kensuke knew he could positively identify Touji's short but unruly cut of hair.  And he'd know that face anywhere, under any conditions.
     Touji, it seemed, was still out of it.

* * *

     If it weren't for the bulky bio-hazard suit he was wearing, Shigeru would have felt much more uncomfortable than he already was so close to the scene of the battle.  He'd never had to see a cleanup operation like this one before.  As a matter of fact, of the five Angels who had shown up since he'd become NERV's Operations Director -- not his occupation of preference, mind you -- three had been nice enough to explode, saving everyone the trouble of having to mop up.  The first had been more or less intact, even after Asuka beat it into a pulp, but this one was broadly scattered over a circle with a diameter of several hundred meters.
     Right in the epicentre of the mess knelt Unit-01.  It still hadn't been moved, although scaffolding had been erected around its bare arms, so that bio-technicians could treat its massive lacerations.
     Beneath it, thought Shigeru, gagging, was a pile of slowly decomposing tissue.  Columns of steam and vapour rose over the areas being treated with enzymes and hot water, drifting off into the wind.
     Trailing Desaint behind him, he picked his way around one of the piles of bone the crews had created.  The speaker crackled in his ear.
     "How was this possible?"  Desaint sounded uneasy about the grotesque tableau around them, and Shigeru didn't blame him in the slightest.  "I thought Unit-01 was taken out of the battle very quickly.  How did it regenerate its arms like that?"
     Shigeru wanted to scratch his head, but the suit got in the way.  "We don't know.  This isn't the first time it's happened.  Or even the second.  The last time, though, the pilot was absorbed into the Eva, like the Sixth Child."
     Desaint, stepped over what looked like a deflated tube, simmering in a bright red sheen of blood.  It could have been a vein.  "But pilot Ikari didn't disappear, yesterday."
     "No, he didn't.  That's why we have him in quarantine, right now.  We don't have the slightest clue as to how it happened.  This is probably the first time Dr. Robertson's been able to admit that he doesn't know something."
     They looked up together.  Dr. Robertson was standing on the scaffolding, among the other orange-suited personnel, yelling sarcastic and less-than-subtle insults at everyone around him, berating them for this or that.  Finally, exasperated, he threw his hands into the air, and ducked under the tarp.  Evidently, someone had failed to do something properly for him.
     The Inspector laughed.  "Yes, he's certainly full of himself."  Then he tripped over a gelatinous mass of ichor, landing in another puddle of blood.  "How disgusting...  And there are now two Evas damaged beyond the Henflick limit."
     Shigeru looked up at the Eva as his companion was hosed down with bleach.  The sun peered over the top of the purple head, just between the crest of the forehead and the jutting horn.  The crews hadn't gotten that high up yet, and it was still covered in a smooth red coat.  "Disgusting...yes," he said, grimacing in distaste.  "What did he do?"

     The entire Command Centre watched as Shinji's Eva rammed its arm through the centre of the Angel's body.  Silence reigned supreme, at least until Unit-01 began butchering the Angel.
     "What's going on?  Is he..?"
     Yamashita tore himself away from the primary screen to check his readings.  "No, sir!  He's still within all acceptable limits!  Synchrograph stable at 171%!"
     Dr. Robertson shoved his way up to look at the MAGI operator's results.  "What about the AT Field?  He couldn't break through it the first time!"
     "It's reading as nearly double maximum strength!  Pattern is unrecognizable!"

     The sun rose a little higher, glaring down on the work site.  Shigeru moved on, unable to look at the huge monster any longer.  The more layers of sealed material between him and all this heavenly viscera, the better.

* * *

     In her dreams, Asuka saw Evas.  Three, to be exact, and an Angel.
     Almost casually, the Angel picked up the massive black and dismembered body of the Eva that belonged to Touji, and threw it to the ground, crushing concrete.  Streams of dark blood created swaths of colour between the impact site and the Angel's feet.  It seemed to grin maliciously, turning away from where the three fallen Evas -- grey, black and...purple -- lay in unceremonious heaps.
     Her Unit-02 drew the progressive knife from the shoulder mount and ejected a fresh blade.  The palette rifles had been abandoned long ago.  This Angel was fast, too fast, and it closed the range between them in less than a second, travelling over two thousand kilometers per hour.
     Still, Asuka's trained reflexes reacted as they should have and the shining, segmented knife slashed through the Angel's outstretched arm just above where the wrist should have been.  The extremity of the Angel's right appendage twisted off into the early morning sky, trailing its own gore behind it.
     Before she could react, the other slammed into her Eva's midsection.  She felt it burrow deep into the bowl of her pelvis, extending finger-like tentacles from the main branch throughout her abdomen.  A scream was torn from her throat.  Nevertheless, she didn't lose control of her Eva's hands, and stabbed the knife at the Angel's core, surrounded by an almost aesthetic arrangement of armour.
     Suddenly, the Angel slammed shut a series of serrated armour plates along the pathway to its power source, catching and snapping off the blade.
     More protrusions continued to eat at the innards of her Eva, and it brought back the memory of her defeat at the hands of SEELE's Eva Series.  Instead of scaring her, it only infuriated her more, and she stabbed again with a new blade, this time into the Angel's armpit.  The Angel ignored the damage, and the knife fell out of the cut to the ground, shattering.  She screamed again.
     Unit-01 came to life at the sound of her second scream, and stood, armless, blood still pouring out of the two massive wounds.  Shinji appeared in his little orange window, shouting "No!" at the top of his lungs.
     She tried to stop him.  Armless, what could he hope to accomplish?
     Further pain spread throughout her midsection, deep within her.  She screwed her eyes shut, and rammed her Eva's arm into the Angel's face.  Shinji shouted again, this time pleading, supplicating, and she dared look.
     Twin mounds of irregular flesh bubbled out of Unit-01's shoulders, and the giant roared in perfect time with its pilot.  The pain forgotten, she watched in awe as the repugnant stubs of meat managed to extend and form themselves into a pair of powerful arms.  Unit-01 howled once more, and the Angel abandoned her, switching its attention back to the resurrected demon it now faced.
     But the pain...the pain was still there.
     Her eyes snapped open, and she sat up on Shinji's bed.  She groaned, clutching at her flat stomach.  As she was reacquainted with the habitual environment around her, she also remembered that the residual pain the fight in the Eva had left her should have long since dissipated.
     Perhaps slightly annoyed at herself, she glanced down at the alarm clock.  The red numbers glowed faintly in the darkness, and she could just make out the numbers.
    Five-thirty, she thought, What am I doing awake?
     Slowly, she lay down again, rolling over to place herself closer to Shinji...except he wasn't there.  She grumbled something at herself; he was still in quarantine.  For all she knew, he was probably still unconscious.
     This wasn't the first time she'd missed him or felt sorry for him, although it was the first time it had hit her so harshly.  The difference, she decided, between being able to tolerate his absence and it actually hurting her, was like having an empty hole in her heart where there hadn't been one before.
     After a moment's reflection, she growled at herself and shook it off.  She'd survived years without him, and surely, she could do so again for the duration of this week.  She needed him, granted, but wasn't entirely dependent on him.
     Just missed him a lot.
     Instead of moping about it like a lesser girl might have, she simply turned onto her back and folded her hands behind her head on the pillow they usually shared.
     With Hikari still recuperating somewhere in the bowels of the geofront, she was, truly and unequivocably, alone.  She hated this, the isolation.  It had been a long time since she had hated anything like this.  She supposed, in a way, the hate was well warranted.  She was frustrated by her loneliness.
     Then, she closed her eyes again, hoping to recoup some of the sleep she'd just lost by waking up, but an image from her previous dream haunted her mind, and would continue to do so for some time to follow.
     Asuka had only seen one of Unit-01's now-legendary fits of uncontrollable bestiality with her own eyes before yesterday's battle, and that experience had left a firm impression of the horrors the Evas could be.  Nevertheless, she was sure hers wouldn't be able to go that far, as long as her mother was there.
     That time, though, no one had actually seen Shinji when the clawing purple fingers had burst out from the core of the Angel's 'shadow' in a heavy rain of blood.  There had been no communications line to either of the two other Evas, and the bridge crew wasn't actively monitoring his frequency.
     She'd only gotten a chance to glimpse him afterwards, when Misato had shoved aside the entry plug's hatch to hug him, and he still seemed to be himself.  Enough so that she had found it fitting to put forth one of her little sarcastic witticisms.
     For this incident, though, she wondered if she really was the only one to have seen exactly what Shinji looked like when his control broke, since everyone else was out of action at the time.  This, in particular, was what bothered her.
     When he yelled like that, his eyes -- that, for her, were always concerned, caring, or saddened -- seemed to radiate a pure and directed hatred from dilated pupils.  It seemed they could wither even the bravest and hardened souls.
     Maybe that was what had scared her before.  The hidden beast within.
     Actually, she knew for certain, it was what had scared her.  And maybe...however brave she might have believed herself to be...maybe it still did.
     Truth.
     He'd never been angry before...not that she had ever seen.  She was frequently angry, she knew, and could be at anyone or anything, should they be so unfortunate as to put her on edge.  But Asuka also knew what she looked like when she was angry...
     She didn't have that kind of disturbing power driving behind her, pushing her to the edge of sanity and beyond...like it now seemed Shinji was capable of.  What she had seen in him was something unearthly.  An almost preternaturally-pure emotion, like a tongue of flame.
     It scared her.
     But she knew that those burning black pools of surging anger were so very different from those eyes she usually saw.  The soft, kind Shinji everyone saw, all the time.  Those eyes, she knew, the ones that were so enraged and fanatical they could kill with less than a glance, would never, ever be directed at her.  That much she understood as an indelible truth, and had faith in it.  He couldn't hate anyone, it seemed, not with those eyes...eyes that could love and be happy.
     She smiled to herself.  Yes, he could love.  Her above everything else.  It had to be the only possible reason he could have to throw himself and an armless, helpless Eva back into the fray.  To help her with his rage.
     She thought back to a few evenings ago, when she'd finally decided to talk about mama, and explain it all to him.  A first, that; she'd never wanted to tell anyone about her mother's suicide and the murder of her effigy.  It was even now too painful even to think about, for the most part.  Still, Shinji was so nice about it that she had never had to cry during her narrative.  He just held her, taking in her story and her woe upon himself.
     Just like Shinji.  Stupid Shinji, who had always been like this for her.  Wimpy little Shinji, who could somehow stand through that and still comfort her like he had.
     She let that thought linger a while longer, and was amply rewarded with another gentle wave of heat and the pleasant and persisting memory of his hand flowing against the small of her back, and his lips against hers.  She could still remember how warm he had been...
     For the first time in nearly twenty-four hours, Asuka smiled in earnest, her eyes still closed.  For a few minutes, Shinji was there, next to her, helping her sleep.
     After a while, the memory gradually faded away into the silent night, leaving only the cicadas as company for a lonely and rather tired Asuka.
     All right, she thought, rolling back onto her side in the position she usually occupied, maybe I miss him more than I thought.
     It was, after all, an entire day since she'd caught him looking at her with those eyes of his.  Regardless of whether they were saddened or imbued with that loose sort of happiness he could occasionally muster, they were always filled with his love for her.  She missed his sad, caring eyes, for how much better they could make her feel, when she needed it.
     Even if she had seen the darkest part of his mind, the part he feared himself.

* * *

     In nearly two and a half months Fuyutsuki had been the sole visitor to Terminal Dogma, the only man to see and hear the cold, stale underbelly of NERV's entire operation.
     At least officially.
     He'd known for nearly as long that SEELE had a double-agent actively searching these lower levels for the Scrolls.  And even though Arashio had been sent away under pretext of making this other agent more confident and careless, not to mention the institution of Dr. Robertson's new security system, their activity hadn't been curtailed in the slightest.  They were still being as careful as ever, watching their moves carefully.
     Keeping his blindfold on.
     And yet, the Commander was still smiling as he turned around to look out the window upon the crucifix that once held what he had believed to be Gendou's greatest treasure.
     He continued to think about his situation and that of NERV, and he stared down at the Lance, still balanced after all this time.  It was absolutely incredible.
     The Scrolls, the Lance, the Evas, the cross, Terminal Dogma...all of them necessary, but insignificant, if the prophecy was to be believed.  And it could be.  Having witnessed the advent of twenty-two Angels, it was impossible for him to disregard it.
     Perhaps it was time to return Arashio to active duty.  Her departure had already served its purpose.  He could learn no more about SEELE's activity among his ranks, and Kihl would be infuriated to know he'd failed again.  And, on top of giving Captain Shigeru back his permanent bridge member, perhaps she could serve him in another aspect.
     He shrugged.  He still had to verify his interpretations and clear up several delicate points in the translation.  Already, he was preparing himself to execute that voyage.  Hopefully, Section Two would be capable of handling all of SEELE's activities until then.
     He turned, casting one last glance over the Scrolls, and left.

* * *

     Somewhere in the back of a slowly waking mind, a thought formed itself.
    I'm still alive, it said.
     Still, the body that the mind possessed refused to respond to the summons.  Touji thought that didn't matter for now: he could still feel his arms and legs, and the rise and fall of his chest under light blankets.  Somewhere to his right, someone was breathing, but he didn't care too much about that for now.
     Slowly, he began testing his body.  Meticulously, he flexed and released his toes and fingers, his wrists, his ankles.  As each part of himself responded with a fair degree of accuracy, he began to breathe normally again.  He was gladdened, perhaps, since he hadn't forgotten to make this little check; his body was too important to him now.
     Nevertheless, he had to accept that he was still scared, as much as he disliked it.  Still scared of not being able to wake up one day, of finding himself suffocating for eternity in the void.  Some part of his mind decided to chastise him, reminding him that the warriors of the past didn't fear death like he did.
     Or, he countered, they just didn't show it, like he tried to.  He knew death.
     And he appeared to have escaped it again.  This was the third cycle of resurrection that he'd lived through; his fifth battle against an Angel.  He knew this because he'd been counting.  And it seemed strange to him that he hadn't expired yet.  Fate, it seemed, had a strange sense of sadistic humour; constantly bringing him close to his grave and then dragging him violently back.  And always waking up in some kind of hospital.
     He was getting sick of this...  He felt like he was just going around in circles, like some pawn of circumstance.
     What about Shinji, though?  He'd frequently wound up in the hospital after various fights with the Angels.  Or that's what they'd supposed from his absences from school after an evacuation for days or longer.  He had to know something about this feeling, this fear
     There was a long break in his pattern of thought, and he lay there, on his back, letting his fears flow and ebb...retreating.
     So, what had happened this time?
     His memories began to work again, playing out behind his closed eyelids.
     This time, it was Kensuke who had been defeated first...another blow to the eager neophyte, he thought.
     He didn't feel so bad about this particular failure, not like when the class rep had nearly died.  And it was almost a month since she had disappeared, somewhere into NERV.  Kensuke claimed to have seen a NERV crew transporting her sealed entry plug back into the base, but he wasn't sure.
     Then, he'd felt nothing short of completely powerless and the futility of his situation at the time had been nothing short of torture.  He hated to see anyone get hurt, for any reason.  He was beginning to feel awkward about this last battle, too.  It was the possibilities, the 'what ifs' that bothered him above all.  What if he had been able to take one of those shots for Kensuke?  What then?
     Or what if he had been able to slow down the Angel when it had rushed like lightning towards Shinji and his Eva?
     The scene replayed itself in his closed eyes.  Unit-01, weaponless after abandoning the ineffectual grenade launcher, was still reaching up for the extended progressive knife when the Angel reached it, arms outstretched.  The two gargantuans collided with a sound like rolling thunder, and Unit-01 was driven backwards to the edge of the circle created by the previous Angel's attack.
     Unfazed by the Angel's charge, Shinji reared back and kicked the black and white being off of himself, and stood, giving it a backhanded swat as he did so.  His Eva's purple arm reached up to where the knife still hung, and drew it from the sheath.
     Unit-01 closed its grip around the hilt and stabbed it into the Angel's left eye, drawing the first blood of the fight for humanity's side.  The Angel didn't seem to feel it, even though its essence splashed out of the bony socket and ran over Shinji's knife arm.
     The Angel tipped its head forward, and the blade fell from its eye to the ground as it tore off Unit-01's black and purple arms with incredible speed.  Shinji never had time to scream properly.  Then it threw his Eva down next to the place where Unit-16 lay without its legs.
     It was then that Touji had moved to try to exact his revenge for his fallen friends.  Screaming more or less incoherently, he leapt onto the petal-like protrusions of armour that jutted out of the Angel's shoulders and spine.  As if mocking the ineffectiveness of his attack, the Angel didn't seem to notice the landing on the bony orchid it wore.
     Unit-14 lifted the big vibro-axe overhead, and brought it crashing down in a single-handed blow to the side of the invader's face.  The blade skidded against the smooth surface, and reverberated against hard bone, sending an unbelievable shockwave back through the Eva's hand.
     Suddenly, the Angel bucked forwards, throwing the black Eva hard onto its back.  The eyes, even the one that had been gouged out by Shinji's progressive knife, lit up with a hellish energy, and the feedback from his Eva's right leg disappeared.  The Angel's arms cocked backwards above him, and stabbed downwards, crushing the shoulders so badly that they were nearly separated from Unit-14's torso.  Touji lost the sensation from his arms as well, and he blacked out, just as Asuka's Eva had nearly reached them.
     What bothered him the most is that he could actually do something with the Eva.  Unlike Kensuke, who was still just marginally capable of fighting with the monster, he could do most everything with it.  He had been able to fight the Angel for a little while, before he was defeated on his own.
     Maybe, if he were just at Kensuke's level, he wouldn't have felt anything about it, since there was no possibility he could have done anything to help anyway.  The very fact that he had, at least for a while, carried the fight to the Angel made him think that he could have done more, somehow.
     He was alive, at least.  And, hopefully, so was everyone else.  Like the doctor had said after his second battle, they wouldn't have been there had the Angel survived.  He supposed Asuka had finished it, seeing as how her Eva was the last one standing.  Kensuke and Shinji should be all right, or at least not much worse off than he was.
     As far as he could tell, damage to the Evas didn't transfer to the pilots.  In all likelihood, his friends were probably here too -- if this was the geofront after all.
     There was another person in the geofront that he knew, too, but she hadn't been involved in this particular battle.  He hadn't seen Hikari in nearly a month, not since the last attack.  Neither had he heard anything from the Commander or Captain Shigeru.  If she was injured, she ought to have been in the hospital, although Kensuke's searches hadn't turned up anything for quite some time.  Either NERV had deleted her file, or stashed her away somewhere else.
     Incidentally, he wondered if she was still suffering from the headache that had felled her in front of the class so long ago.  No one had seen her since.  There was an upside to her being missing, though.  It meant she didn't have to participate in the last fight.
     Finally, his thoughts turned to his sister.  She had spent the time here, too, at NERV.  By logical extension, if he was okay, she had to be fine as well.  From the feel of it, he'd been lying here for quite some time, but Mari knew how to take care of herself.  At the very least, she was probably safe.
     He breathed out a small sigh of relief, and set about trying to get up.
     "Hey, Touji!  You're finally up!"
     Apparently, having his Eva cut in half hadn't bothered Kensuke too much, thought Touji, sitting on his palms and trying to work the kinks out of his neck.  "...Yeah.  What day is it?"
     Kensuke laughed.  "I think you've been out for at least one day, as far as I can tell.  I just got up myself, yesterday.  They're just keeping us for observation, I think."
     Touji leaned forward and rubbed his face, trying to clear his eyes.  "I'm starvin'.  Is there anything to eat?" he asked, without thinking.  Sure enough, he did feel pretty hollow inside.
     "Yeah...I think lunch should be coming soon.  You feel like a game of cards?"

* * *

     Light.
     Light?  In a way.  A lamp, to be more precise...a glowering red circle in the sea of ebony that surrounded it.  It passes, flying off to the left, beyond the field of vision, deeper into the dark.
     Light.
     Another.  Followed by another, and another.
     In one instant a pure darkness of abyssal intensity, followed immediately in the next by an explosive, suffusive light that flooded the entire compartment of this rocking rickety train in which he suddenly found himself imprisoned.  The sun burned a harsh path into the back of Shinji's eyes, setting his retinas aflame.
     It took forever for his vision to clear, for the passage of time to douse the fires of pain.  And, as his clenched eyes slowly opened on this world, he became aware of another himself.
     And, at the same time, a distinct entity, a separate individual.  The figure before him was the visual representation of himself at a younger age, from when he still had not yet discovered his life as it was now.
     He didn't look up at his older, tortured self, holding his head down, absorbed in his own, inner world.  In much the same way as the elder of the two Shinjis was doing now.
     This was odd, out of place, but it was familiar to him.
     "You're ashamed, aren't you?"  Shinji's representation of himself, the Shinji Ikari of his mind, spoke at once, mildly.
     Shinji stared at himself, eyes gaping again at this childish effigy of his own body that always had more reason than he did himself.  Nevertheless, it was right, as always.  Shinji nodded in slow assent...he could admit to this.
     "What could you possibly have to be ashamed of?"  It was his own voice, he could recognize it easily, but in this particular space that was always frozen in time, it seemed to have more clarity and presence than he could ever manage.
     It took him another infinite period of time to find his own muted voice, that of his conscious mind, and it still could not rival that of his minute alter ego.
     He still couldn't answer himself.  He stared at himself, then the child, then back to himself.  He felt something in his lap...his hand, his will.  His tool.  It closed, curling into a fist.  A tool for destruction.  He stared.
     "Filth..," he finally rasped, something in his throat catching the word and strangling the very life out of it.  "Filth...I'm..."
     The little Shinji almost didn't seem to notice.  The child repeated itself, frowning in the shadow cast by the eclipsed sun behind his head.  "What do you have to be ashamed of?"
     The adolescent continued to observe his hand, its design.  A design whose elegance was matched only by its utility...a tool of many uses.  Collapsing, like so, into a bludgeon...like so, into an oar...again, into a vice, squeezing over and over, wrenching...  Drawing breath in the darkness, Shinji looked up, at the child, a strange mixture of anger, fear, and disgust coloring his expression.  "I could have..."
     He paused, the fear growing stronger.  "No...I must have hurt her...hurt Asuka," he spoke, stringing together the essence of his pain into a chain of words.  He found his words woefully inadequate to explain his horror, but lacked the knowledge to express it further.
     The other part of himself seemed perplexed.  Logic denied Shinji's dull words.  "And yet, you do not know that.  You fight truth and honesty to subject yourself to more useless pity.  After all this time, do you still hate yourself?"
     "I know that!  I know I shouldn't hate myself!"  The train passed a screaming klaxon, and another.  The sun remained hidden, just at the edge of the horizon, barely peering past the younger Shinji.  "But I've done...all this...worthy of hatred."
     "Do you believe, then, that others hate you?  For what you've done?"
     No, others didn't hate him.  He had friends.  Touji, Kensuke.  Hikari.  Misato, once.  NERV personnel.  He shook his head, "No."  And then, the shout, desperate in the darkness: "But they don't know!  They don't know everything I've done to Asuka!  They should hate me for that!"
     "No one hates you, Shinji.  What about Asuka?"
     His hands...again.  The vice, the tool.  Pushing, squeezing...crushing life.
     Choking.
     Killing.  Not so ineffectual after all, this tool of destruction.  Tools that would have ended everything there, would have exclusively precluded any chance of this life coming to pass.
     Filthy tools.  Filth.
    She should hate me.
     His hands...  His will given form; his actions and their consequences, all tied to these hands and summarized therein.  What they did, what he did...one and the same.  In condemning his actions past, he must condemn himself.  No matter the changes.  He was filth, desecrating white sand.
    She should hate me.
     "What about Asuka?"
     The minute voice of himself as a child leapt back to the forefront of his mind, shocking him temporarily out of the loop of self-castigation into which he had introduced himself.  "What about Asuka?"  For a long few seconds, the phrase drew wide, unstable circles around his psyche, changing its meaning ever so slightly.
     "Does she hate you?"
     "She should..," he said, closing his eyes to avoid the revolted glare of the child on the train's bench across from him.  The sun was hurting his eyes, his retinas on fire, burning.
     Darkness...the cold, inhuman darkness to which he had once retreated...the sanctuary.  It was back.
     He breathed here, momentarily deprived of the exterior and interior pressures that were still nudging him closer to the brink of absolute and overwhelming despair.  He would not enjoy his luck much longer, though.
    And I don't hate you.
     The sanctuary, the dark, desolate, and deserted cathedral of solitude collapsed on itself, caving in to admit a violent white slash of light that twice bisected his field of vision, echoing loudly in the violated space.
     And yet...this unwelcome light was not horrible, sought not to destroy him or crush him under the weight of recriminations, for feeling properly guilty.  It didn't care, as it moved in time with its words.
     Words belonging to a voice...a voice he knew well, a voice he would recognize anywhere...  A voice that, to him, embodied a perfection beyond compare and a sad perseverance that wanted only to forget.
     Shinji's eyes suddenly cracked open, and the shrine of solitude crumbled into dust.  He was no longer alone.
     At his back, the fridge; at his feet, the shattered remains of a teacup, broken after falling from weak hands.  Before him, the table, and, seated at the table...her...
     "And I don't hate you," Asuka said, finally, her voice and body both wracked by some powerful emotion that threatened to overcome her entirely.  Her frail body shuddered in the sway of her regret, her remorse.
     And, after he did through memory, Shinji stood there like the idiot he knew he was, barely aware of the scattered pieces of ceramic at his feet.  Beneath her on the table, nearly curtained off from his view by the delicate and ever so beautiful veil of her hair, he could see them, glinting like gems in the oblique light.
     Tears.  The first time, ever, she'd cried before him.  And their presence had caused him to hold himself in distaste then, but not for the same reason he did so now.  Then, he couldn't bear to let himself stand there, watching her cry like that...unsupported and alone.
     As before, when her pain reached a point he could no longer stand, he rushed to fill that void...  He watched again through his own eyes as she accepted his hand, his aid.  The first step either had taken.
     His hand?
     "Correct."  Behind him, watching the two from afar much like he was, stood the younger Shinji.  The child was shrouded in darkness, but the perfect circle of light in which he stood lent more truth to his words.  "Your hand...  So...does she hate you?"
     Shinji remained there many moments longer, watching as he carefully guided her through the doorway, back through the living room.  Out of sight, around the corner...towards her room.  He watched it again...and again...
     "I don't hate you, Shinji."  Suddenly, her voice was no longer coming from the scene before him.  Startled, he turned in his darkness, to find her...Asuka...standing there, looking at him.
     His eyes panicked, unable to keep themselves fixed upon anything; the room, the child, Asuka, all blurred together as he was thrown into a storm, a whirling maelström of confusion.
     A burst of clarity.  "But..," he suddenly said, everything around him grinding to a halt again, "If I don't feel remorse for what I've done...then I would be a monster..."
     He was suddenly sitting in Unit-01's cockpit, staring up at the skyline of Tokyo-3.  Static filled his viewscreens, indicative of massive damage and major systems failures.  And there...amid the rubble, under the bright sun, grappled Unit-02 and the Angel.
     No, they weren't grappling.
     Not at all.
     Shinji's eyes widened in horrified comprehension as the Angel smashed its one good arm into the red Eva's midsection.  Blood collected in this rivulets along the lower edge of the Angel's appendage, collecting in massive purple drops that glimmered in the setting sun's light and splattered against the concrete at its feet.
     Asuka screamed.  So did Shinji, as, in his mind, he saw not the Eva, but a beleaguered girl in a bloodstained t-shirt...
     His viewpoint shifted abruptly as the Eva reared upright with him.  Something burned in his chest, igniting his breath explosively.  A thin veil of red covered his vision, and he became acutely aware of only one thing: this desire...no, need to see that disgusting thing removed from her at any cost.
     With no other options left available to her, he had to do it, free her from the pain.
     "No!"
     The giant beast leapt forward, screaming its bass roar as if it were Shinji himself, and struck without hesitation.  His fist collided with the Angel, driving into its very core, crushing it.
     Blood.
     His blood.  Welling up around the narrow thorn that protruded painfully from within his hand.
     "It's just a splinter, dummkopf."
     Looking up, he saw Asuka standing over him, examining the offending wound with a critical eye.  Carefully, she tugged the thorn free of his hand and gave it a casual and derisive flick onto the floor.
     Why?
     "Because...you love..."  Asuka smiled at once, cutting him off more powerfully and completely than as if she had said anything.  Shinji stared at his hand, at the tiny bubble blood sliding out of the broken skin.
     "Of course I do, baka.  Would I have done that for anyone except you?"
     Truth.
     The blinding sun burrowed directly into him, burning, biting at his eyes.  Through a haze of pain, he could barely make out her details against the light.  The silhouette was hers, though, and unmistakeably.
     Askua glanced down at the floor of the train.  "You're still ashamed, aren't you?  Why?"
     "Is it wrong?" he asked, "Is it wrong to feel shame?"
     The child standing next to him agreed in principle, and for a brief moment, it dropped its distasteful expression.  "No.  It's good to feel remorse and shame for transgression and act upon them.  But the question stands.  What do you have to be ashamed of?"
     Asuka looked up, looking for his face, his eyes.  He still refused to return her gaze, staring into his palms.  What did he have hands for?
     "How are you ashamed of a decision your heart made for you?  How can you love her if you would doubt everything you do?"
     The other version of Shinji disappeared in an eyeblink's span of time, and Asuka's face, marked with the drying trails of tears that were being threatened with fresh moisture, was suddenly a lot closer to him.
     "What do you want, Shinji?" she whispered, holding his hand, his murdering hand, up to her face...to touch it...to feel the very warmth of her cheek...
     Then again...his hands didn't have to be horrid weapons...  They could be used otherwise...
     "I...I just want to love you, Asuka...  Did I have to do that to you?"
     Asuka seemed to smile, in the light.  "Yes...you only tried to love me.  That's why you did it.  All you have to do is love me."
     Shinji opened his eyes, examined her face in the twilight.  The soft glitter of her eyes, the tangled wisps of scarlet that blanketed the pillow like cirrus clouds...  So innocent...
     "But...I don't want to hurt you, Asuka..."  His voice cracked again as he thought of his hands, broken on a sob.  He winced openly as she took them, bloody as they were, in her own.
     He watched himself wince.  Asuka watched him wince.  The child watched him wince.  "You believe it, don't you?"  The child looked from him to the pair lying under the covers, then back again.  "Are you ashamed of this?"  Scolding anger crept into its voice.  "Would you run from the only happiness you've ever known in your entire pathetic, empty life?"
     Asuka stood silently behind him, waiting.  Waiting for some kind of answer.
     Shinji's eyes caught fire.  "No," he whispered, then building in volume and force, "no...no!  Dammit, no!"  Now he turned angrily back towards the child, as if it had unjustly accused him of some kind of crime, strangely worse than murder.  "I'm not running anymore!  I can't!  I won't!"
     "Then why are you?"  The child's voice became flat, interrogatory.  His eyes dulled, narrowed.
     Shinji's voice dropped away, too, as he stared into the sun.  "I just...don't know what I should do now..."
     Silence.
     Silence long and dark.  Shinji stared as the child, who stared back.  "Help yourself for once," it said at last, but harshly.
     Silence again.  The silence of death.
     What was that?
     Something whispered in Shinji's ear...a light, teasing breath, barely audible above the clicking of the train car rushing down the rails, above the clatter of his own breathing.
    All you have to do is love me, it whispered.
    I don't want to hurt you, Asuka, he replied.
    Are you?
     Was he?  What was he trying to accomplish that day?  Why did he have to pry into her like that, and bring all her demons to the surface...where they could torment her?  Why, again?
     Shinji awoke to the sound of crying.  Slowly, he looked down.  Asuka was asleep...but crying.  He couldn't see in the dark, but he could feel the tears drop down onto him, through his shirt, onto his chest.  Burning at his heart.
    Love me.
     Gradually, he gathered her unconsciously weeping body in his hands and sat up with her, reaching up to her face.  In an instant of touch, lasting less than a few short seconds, the dream was dispelled, destroyed.
     "Shinji..."
     His hand...hand that could kill...comforted.  And did, because they were loved.  And because they were loved, and offered love, would not kill.  Hands that wanted to comfort.
     "Did I cry that night, Shinji?"  Asuka looked up, away from the floor of the train, meeting his eyes easily.  Open...and honest.  He saw her soul.
     "No."  This was truth.  She didn't cry that night...but... "But...normally you don't, either."
     "Then did I smile?  Was I happy?"
     "...Yes."  This, too, was truth.
     Asuka curled up next to him, the storm of hair fanning out over his chest, his shoulders.  The tears were missing.  So were the thorns, the pain.
     "Love doesn't hurt, Shinji...remember?"
     The hospital ceiling rushed into focus, braking and coming to a full halt several feet above his face.  Shinji sat up, breathing hard, listening to the sound of his lungs exchanging gases with the outside world.  This was reality...it had to be, although it took several long minutes before he could convince himself it was thus.
     Slowly, he lay down again.
     No, love didn't hurt.  Shouldn't.
     Why did it?

* * *

     The first true sensation was cold.  Pervasive, complete and enveloping cold.  And unwelcome, too, as it usurped the warm, womb-like feeling that had held Hikari in its embrace for so long.
     There were more feelings that joined in with the cold...she became incrementally aware of her eyes, most sensitive to the cold, although they were still blind.  Then her face and the remainder of her head emerged into her consciousness.  There was a sudden rush as she realized she was breathing, and she could feel the cold rush through her nose, down her throat, into her chest, momentarily chilling her core.
     She exhaled, took another breath, then another, and smiled when it dawned on her that she could actually control this body, that it was a body, her body.
     Even before she could fully feel her hands and lower torso, the saturating and coppery scent and taste of blood covered her tongue and filled her sinuses.  It was horrible, to have this disgusting taste be the first upon waking, but she would accept it for now.
     The return of sensation to her head brought with it the reinstatement of her hearing, and she found she had never taken so much joy from the simple sound of her own breathing.
     Slowly, Hikari opened her eyes...  She expected to be overwhelmed by the light of the real world, to have to adjust again.  Disappointingly, there was nothing but darkness.
     She blinked a few times, trying to make sure that she had indeed opened her eyes, and that it really was the outside world that was too dark for her to see.
     The general feeling that surrounded her was familiar, in a way.  Finally, she found she was able to positively identify it: LCL.  She was immersed in LCL.  Strange...but LCL meant NERV, and NERV meant other people...others that might know better what she was experiencing.
     A few minutes passed, and she decided to try moving.  She quickly discovered that it was impossible to do so: there was an impenetrable wall that surrounded her on all sides, leaving barely enough space for her to move her arms...  Unsure of what this meant, she panicked for a moment, thrashing weakly in the confining tube around her.
     Ultimately, she gave up, hugging herself in the darkness.  It was then that she realized that the burns that had covered her entire body in the Angel's world were not to be found, anywhere.  The painful, blistered pattern that had obscenely decorated her arm was gone, replaced by more or less smooth patches of skin that lay where it had been.  Also, the deep, charred pit in her shoulder had disappeared as well, although there was a rough circle of similarly textured epidermis there as well.  Counting her blessings, she wondered if the other injuries she had received would have healed likewise.
     In the meantime, though, she had yet to discover where she was, and what she was doing there.  She tried to turn around; perhaps there was something to be seen there.  Of course, she still couldn't tell if the cylinder around her was clear or opaque in the dark, but it was worth a try.  In its own way, it paid off.
     After completing the slow turn, she found a tiny light, glowing a faint blue in the dark.  This discovery did several things for the confused girl.  First, it served as something for her eyes to focus on, for one.  Second, it proved that her container was transparent, which, although negligibly important, was a comforting absolute.
     Third and last, as it blinked on and off with the pulse of her veins, it confirmed that this was indeed some kind of medical installation.  Hopefully, that meant she wouldn't have to be here too much longer.
     For some strange reason, the softly blinking diode reminded her of something she'd seen a while ago, while she was still in that place the Angel could not describe for her.  Just before the bastard Angel had shown up in Touji's guise, she could recall having seen a miniscule azure flash among the mists.  Maybe it had been the Angel, maybe it belonged to the voice...she hadn't heard it either, since leaving that place.
     Now that she was thinking, she wondered about it.  Where had it come from, anyway?  And how did it know so much about her?  Was it some strange denizen of the limbo?
     It had helped her, though.  Encouraged her, coached her through dragging herself back into the real world.  It had discussed Suzuhara with her, advocating some form of action on her part.  She remembered that quite well.  Strange, that, after having very little conscious thought for so long, her mental faculties didn't seem to have regressed at all.
     Such a long time, though...or was it?  For the moment, she didn't care too much about the time or day.  There was no way to figure that out given the absent resources she had available to her.
     With any luck, assuming she was under some kind of observation, she would soon be free to resume her life...  If she was lucky, she might still be the class representative upon her return to school, luckier still if she could catch up on everything she had missed.  She didn't like deceiving herself, and held some apprehensions about the worst-case scenario as a security net against being too disappointed or overwhelmed.
     Also, though, the prospect of release also brought the notion of having to return to NERV, to piloting Unit-15.  No doubt, she was still scared of the Angels, and how much they'd hurt her already, but those concerns were almost secondary to the strange new confidence she had about the Eva.
     She knew she could be a pilot now...and it wouldn't be too hard to fulfill her other duties, either.  The whole episode of misfortune preceding her awakening here was like a trial by fire, she thought.
     Piloting Eva entailed quite a few things.  Pain was one, an occupational hazard that had to be denied by the pilot.  And, she had successfully survived enormous quantities of pain, whether they had originated in her head or from some foul Angel.
     Another was perseverance, which she knew she had already.
     There was desire and fearlessness, which she had lacked.  Desire she now had, the Angel had given her reason to hate it, for the pains it had caused her.  And courage she felt...at least for now.  She wouldn't know for sure until she helped Asuka, Suzuhara and the others fight the next Angel.
     But she would.  There was no question about that.  She'd be there.
     Speaking of Suzuhara...
     She'd decided, perhaps in a dream, that she could think about him freely, now.  Obviously, what the Angel had done could not be representative of anything he would have.  He wasn't an Angel.
     In any case, she'd discovered a little more about how she felt.  It wasn't love...yet.  She'd thought she might be able to tell when she knew, when the time came.  And the Voice -- she called it that to give it more substance -- had raised a good point: she was, after all, always trying to get his attention some way or another.
     But then, what was it she really wanted?  When would she know she'd acheived this?
     Thinking back, she knew she envied Asuka in many ways.  There were the quiet talks and gentle hugs she could exchange with Shinji, the small but continuous tokens of affection here and there that added up to an immensely strong bond.  A love that it seemed nothing could break.
     Love again.  What was that, anyway?  Her older sister, Kodama, had told her never to worry about the definition; if you did that, you might never find it.  Good advice, and well-followed by the middle child of the Horaki family.  But this time, Hikari couldn't quite be sure if she could go on without knowing.
     So many maxims and popular aphorisms stated its nature, but none could quite capture the essence in the way she needed.  Frustrated, she let out a sigh, and was surprised to feel a small bubble of some breathed gas escape her trachea and float to the top of the tube.
     Also, what did Suzuhara want?  It had to be mutual; she wouldn't be satisfied, otherwise.  She smiled; he wasn't always the inattentive ass he always made himself out to be.  Not only did he care about some things underneath, there were certain passions that drove him.
     Kensuke had once tried to explain to her why Shinji hadn't returned to school after the second Angel to threaten the city: apparently his absence then might have been Touji's fault, for beating him up.
     And over what?  His sister had been seriously injured, then.  Apparently, he'd refused to pilot Unit-14 without the stipulation that Mari be specially cared for.  Also, it seemed the reason he was always late was not necessarily paresse or indifference, just an daily inability to make it from his sister's school to Tokyo-3 Middle School on time.
     On top of this, she still wondered from time to time his motive for so thoroughly wrecking Unit-14 against the glass Angel.  Defying orders and the like was just like him.  He didn't take to authority well, but she didn't necessarily buy his argument that it was necessary for the mission's success every time he stated it, either.
     Suzuhara was...Suzuhara.  And a mystery.
     Already, and seemingly too early, she felt tired, her eyes heavy.  Sleep would come again, soon.  Before it came, though, she decided to take on some more advice, this time that of the Voice.  The ball was in her court, always had been.  She just needed to find the courage to serve.
     Hikari smiled with the thought, and thanked the Voice.

* * *

     Asuka watched her fingers slowly disappear into the feather-weighted forest of chestnut hair crowning Shinji's head.  As she gently combed them free again, they reappeared, like miniature whales surfacing from the deep.  He was so fast asleep he didn't notice.
     Or, he was just holding himself completely immobile.
     "Asuka..?" he asked the wall in front of him, not moving an inch.
     She gasped slightly through her nose, pausing, surprised that he was actually still awake.  She decided not to make much of it.
     "I'm here," she answered for the wall, slowly putting an arm around him from behind.
     Minutes passed, slowly.  As far as Asuka could tell from experience, Shinji was still trying to think of something to say, so she spoke for him.
     "How long have you been up?"
     Shinji gave his first sign of life; a long, deep breath that moved his shoulders and ribs an eminently difficult distance.
     "Um..," he finally spoke, "...a few hours...I think."  He reached up with one hand and pulled his earphones out, pushing the pause button on his SDAT.  He continued.  "I was just thinking...about what you said..."
     He trailed off, suddenly aware of the fact that Asuka had pulled him a little closer to her.
     She breathed softly against the back of his neck, unwilling to make too much noise.  "I don't...I don't want to talk about that any more...okay?"
     Silently, Shinji tipped his head in assent.  Asuka's cheek followed the wind of her breath against the skin of his nape.  In a way, he now understood why it had to be there.  And yet, he felt uncomfortable...it shouldn't have happened that way.
     "I missed you," she continued, still whispering, as she looked up, out the window at the glowing crescent-moon that was slowly growing with the days.  In a week or so, it would be a perfect semi-circle, illuminated on one side by the sun, eclipsed on the other by its own shadow.  Strange that it always presented the same face to the denizens of the Earth, and that so few had seen its other side.
     Hesitantly, and painfully slowly, Asuka reached up, forcing him to abandon the cold, hard plastic of his machine for her warm, gentle hand.
     Shinji drew breath, almost the prelude to a sob, but he cut it short, again unable to say what was on his mind.  Asuka's hand moved around his, so that now she was holding it instead of him holding hers.  Her thumb pushed lightly against the superficial scab, the only remainder of the thorn's injury.  He still noticed the mildly different contour.
     "Hmm?"  It was too obvious that he wanted to say something.
     "I'm..."  Shinji dropped into the chasm of silence again.
     "...sorry?"  Anyone could have finished the sentence, but she did anyway.  "I know...you always are.  Don't worry about it, Shinji.  I love you."
     Shinji closed his eyes in acceptance.  There was truth in her voice...and she had missed him, too.  Gradually, he pushed his head back, looking upwards.  He would have seen the ceiling, but a dark storm of shadowy red blocked his view.  Asuka stared down at him, almost smiling.
     There was little light in the room, but the moon, slender and pale as it was, afforded enough illumination that she could see the accurate and defined edges of his eyes in the dark.  Sad, yes...but desperately loving.
     Outside, the cicadas chirped softly, singing in the night.
     Something in Asuka's eyes had changed, he could tell, even in the paltry light.  Something he couldn't identify, some expression of herself he'd never seen.  Some part of her soul he'd never touched.
     Or perhaps he had...in the kitchen...in the first week...perhaps he'd caused it.
     Fear?
     Shinji looked away, down to the pillow.  He felt her squeeze his hand, but he wasn't sure if she was trying to reassure him or herself.
     "I don't know why, Asuka..," he said, closing his eyes.  "but I'm sorry."
     Love doesn't hurt...remember?
     Shinji remembered, but could not act in this strangely sourceless agony.
     Asuka couldn't help but watch him suffer in silence, at what she perceived as possibly the most timid and self-conscious she'd ever seen him.  She began to say something else, something equally consolatory, but he cut her off again, apologizing for the third time.
     Her only response was to pull him closer to her.  He tensed momentarily, then again, permanently.

* * *

     Unit-01.
     This massive beast.
     This enormous colossus, this titan, this powerful representation of man's defiance against all odds.  Whose sole purpose was to win.  To garner victory, to crush its heavenly foes and smite those who would impede the survival of humanity.
     But at what price?
     Fuyutsuki stared at the monster, the hideous gargantua's face, whose head and unwavering malefic grin seemed to float on the shining red sheen of the cryo-fluid.  Monster that stared back at him with malevolent yellow eyes.
     Unit-01 had been brought back to the cage just days ago, its arms repaired, re-sheathed in the armour that normally held them in check.  Fascinating creature, beast though it was.
     Even though Fuyutsuki knew it was driven by a soul much greater, more capable, more worthy than his own.  One who possessed the power, the passion required to push this horrid work of man to its absolute maximum capacity for destruction.
     More fascinating that this child, this mere Child, Shinji Ikari, could be incited to do this by simple rage.
     The current state of interaction between the Second and Third Children was not unforseen, although Fuyutsuki knew it could be problematic in the future.
     Never taking his eyes off the beast, he turned and took the first step of his journey.  The prophecy was not yet entirely his.  Not yet. 1