EVANGELION: Ascension of the Lamb
By: Dante Abbey

 Episode 38: Hippocrates Weeps for Joy / Chasing Shadows in the Wings

     Light streamed in wide bands across the still air, painting swaths of yellow on the walls and floor.  For the most part, Hikari's room had lain undisturbed for over a month, in more or less the same state she had left it as she had hurried out to fight her third Angel with her house-mates.  Since then, she hadn't spent a single night there.
     The room wasn't in the exact condition she had left it in.  Shinji, for example, had taken the time and effort to clean it, even rearranging her books in squared-off piles next to her futon.  Even now, there wasn't any visible dust marring the room; it looked like something out of a magazine, nearly impeccable, even if the furniture wasn't quite consistent with the lastest fashions.
     This room had known both chaos and order in the last eight and a half months it had been occupied.  For the first six, Misato had been the occupant.  Even Asuka, with her hardly irreproachable personal habits, had referred to the lack of order as offensive and intolerable, on several occasions.
     As Misato grew more and more depressed, especially following Kaji's untimely death and Asuka's departure, the state of the room had grown increasingly fetid.  One entire wall collected the garbage created from ever more frequent and intense binges of alcohol and microwave dinners.  The rest of the room had been littered with loose clothes, and the bed was never made because the former guardian of the Children had hardly slept.  For the most part, she simply sat in petrified silence, reading page after page of information gleaned from NERV's seamy underbelly.
     And then, it all ended.  Misato never reappeared.  Shinji knew she'd been shot during that final day; how badly, he couldn't tell, but he'd had her blood on his hands.  Afterwards, after the Awakening, he could only assume she was dead.  So did everyone else.
     Still, though, she had been hoped for.  During the first two weeks, neither Shinji nor Asuka had dared to move her personal belongings, leaving them to sit in their perpetual entropy.  In a way, it would have been like desecrating an ancient tomb, or mausoleum.  What made it worse was that they had known the dead.
     Nevertheless, respect gave way to necessity, especially since Hikari had been assigned residence with them.  Asuka had never seen it in a bad light; during her effort to clear out Misato's dwelling for its new inhabitant, she was, in fact, relieved to remove these last reminders.  If Misato hadn't been a mother to them, at the very least, she acted as a sister, a guide.  A Director of Operations in more ways than one.
     Hikari's arrival had infused new life into an apartment, which, while structurally still new, was emotionally unsound.  Put succinctly, Hikari was normal.
     The change wrought by her presence was no less evident in the new order that could be found in Misato's room.  Hikari's printouts and texts, piled neatly on the desk, replaced the foul-smelling cans of stale beer; the floor could be seen easily, not obscured by days of unwashed clothes; and she maintained a continuous system of reorganization.
     Perhaps the order was only a reflection of the class representative's personality, but at the same time, the currently unoccupied room seemed...dead.
     This wasn't the first time Asuka had decided this, the thought had come to her while she was cleaning out Misato's room.  Anything that remains unchanged for any significant period of time ultimately begins to feel inert and lifeless.  Such was the case for Hikari's room, and, to a lesser degree, her own: she hadn't used it in months for anything other than storage.
     Likewise, this was not the first time Asuka had come to this door, across the living room from the short hallway that separated her room from Shinji's, to ponder this.  In fact, repeated visits had regularly confirmed the inanimate condition of the room.
     Asuka found it highly depressing, and why not?  She hadn't seen Hikari's little quirks in ages: her fondness for the class clown, her annoyed laughter, and preachy moral sermons.  All had been absent for too long, and memory couldn't replace her in the same way.
     Perhaps, thought Asuka, watching Pen-Pen toddle about the room's confines, her presence helped alleviate Misato's loss.  Hikari didn't just inhabit the room, in the apartment, she lived in it.  In some ways, there were a few traits she shared with the older woman.
     Despite her drinking and over-sleeping, Misato had always been a hard worker.  Much like Hikari, she wouldn't think twice about putting in a few extra hours of work into the night for better results.  Both were, it seemed, born leaders as well, even if the contexts were entirely different.
     And, both had gone out of their ways to make things as comfortable as possibly for herself and Shinji.  Of course, Hikari leaned more towards Asuka, but that was understandable, seeing as how they were confidantes and best friends.
     A hand fell lightly upon her left shoulder, generating a soft murmur that slowly washed away her meditations over several moments.
     "Thinking about Hikari again?" Shinji asked, kneeling next to her, his bag slung lopsided over the opposite arm.  Asuka only nodded morosely.
     She'd stopped drilling Shinji on her friend's state and prognosis a long time ago.  For one thing, despite his own experience, Shinji wouldn't be privy to anything she didn't already know.  And then, there was no way he could do anything about it.  It was illogical enough, but one couldn't deny someone as emotionally charged as Asuka that variety of wishful thinking.
     And yet, she had abandoned it, which Shinji hoped wasn't a sign she was giving up hope.  Because of the circumstances surrounding Misato's death, it wasn't too hard to accept that and move on, perhaps in part due to the horribly confusing and uncanny finality of the event in question.  This was not so for Hikari.
     Shinji sighed, and after less than a moment's hesitation, he let his hand drift down to her elbow.  He too, had stopped trying to explain Hikari's predicament or give her messages of hope.  He'd run out of things to say very early on, and everything else since then had been nothing but repetitive and well-intentioned drivel.
     After a while longer, Asuka stood, closing the door as she did so.  "We'd better go...or we'll be late for the test."
     Perhaps a little more confident of his limited empathy, Shinji lent her his lips in agreement and condolence.  Asuka returned them gracefully, drained in part, but allowing them to take their intended effects before they headed out the door.
     Pen-Pen continued to wander around in the empty room for a while longer, eventually falling asleep in a puddle of sunshine on the floor.

* * *

     Masaharu groaned as he fell back into the chair at the harmonics facility, shaking his head in mock disgust.  "They could have stayed with the schedule, but no, now they want to learn more about last week's crossover test...  I've just got too much work to do!"
     Yamashita, on the other hand, waited until his station was warmed up before speaking.  "If the good Doctor has been listening to you gripe all this time, there could be a reason you've got too much work."
     "That's no reason to kill a man," Masaharu said, preparing his own monitoring interface, "So what if I complain?"
     Yamashita laughed.  "Hardly.  But you'll have just brought it down upon yourself.  You know what they say about baiting the bear.  You didn't leave here until three last night, did you?"
     "How did you know?"
     A shrug was the first answer.  "I just took a peek in the personnel files in my spare time.  No one's keeping you here.  You just spend too much time on projects that don't concern you."
     A curt chuckle of derision broke from the younger man's lips.  "Feh...  What would you care?  Everything I see concerns me.  Maybe I'm just curious."  Masaharu leaned back against his chair.  "This whole place is like a huge machine.  I'd just like to see it work better."
     "Why bother?  You never know what could really be going on.  I mean, you've seen the Evas bleed, right?" asked Yamashita, trying to justify the lack of actual knowledge they had.
     "Call me an optimist, but it's all for a good cause, I guess."
     Through the observation windows, the two mock entry plugs marked 01 and 02 slid open with a hiss as Dr. Robertson and Shigeru took their places in the control booth.  Already, the two plugs had been put through extensive preparation for this test.  Shinji's auspicious result during the last week had prompted further interest in Asuka's potential to synchronize with Unit-01.  If it ever became necessary to have one pilot replace the other, it was probably a good idea to know if it was a distinct possibility, or just a theory that wouldn't function in practice.
     To that end, the powerful data transfer cables had been swapped by several teams of maintenance crew working in shifts over nearly the entire workday, such that these harmonics would be swapped in the same way Shinji had been inserted into Unit-02 the last time.
     The experiment and rationale had been forwarded to Commander Fuyutsuki, currently working in dyked-off Rome.  It had taken him nearly three days to forward a response back to NERV, and when it did, it was a short, formal approval.  Shigeru didn't think he'd even taken the time to write it himself.
     "You think this is really necessary?" Shigeru asked, watching as the two suited pilots were carried via crane to the empty entry plugs.
     "Why not?" came Dr. Robertson's answer, "After all, your highness needed to know last week whether or not we could exchange the two rookies into Unit-15."
     Shigeru grimaced.  "That was an operational concern.  These two don't need to be sitting in another Eva right now, so why bother?"
     "This," pointed out Dr. Robertson, "is a scientific concern.  You've started doing your job, at long last, now let me do mine.  Thank you."  With that, he turned back towards the window and the microphone.  "Shinji, Asuka?  Are you ready?"

* * *

     Another day, another essay.  Such is the law of school.
     And that, in truth, was just the half of it.  Of course, these weren't the only thoughts running through every student's head first thing on a Friday morning, not even necessarily the students finishing said homework before classes began.
     Touji, bereft of any kind of energy, could only muster up enough to toss his satchel onto his desk before collapsing into the flimsy chair provided for him.  "'Morning, Kensuke," he groaned, closing his eyes.
     "Hi..."  Not taking his eyes off the screen of his laptop and the last of his own unfinished work, Kensuke carried on the conversation.  "What's up with you today?  You don't look awake yet."
     "Mmm...  I slept in."  Touji yawned and stretched his arm back to scratch his head.  "And stayed up too late."
     Kensuke managed a thoughtful tilt of his head.  "And yet, you're here on time."
     Touji only nodded.  Indeed, even having slept twenty or thirty minutes longer than he usually did, he was getting to class on time, and regularly.  He didn't have to give in to his sister's scoldings, although it seemeed that every time she did, he found himself checking, re-checking, or even finishing his assignments.  The fact that she persisted in getting him to do it, even late at night, was fully responsible for his tiredness.
     In fact, Mari was also the cause of his punctual arrivals at school, too.  Touji had never been known for being able to lift himself out of bed by himself, and his little sister had a firm grasp of his capabilities.  Such that she wouldn't wake him up until it was too late for him to escort her to school as he insisted he should, and too early for either to leave the house.
     In that extra time, Mari would make their lunches, on occasion stooping to teach her goofball brother a thing or two about cooking.  Touji never did figure out who had taught Mari to do anything in the kitchen; being only eight years old, she could barely reach the stove without standing on a chair.  In order for her to actually do anything, she would use a phone book to raise her a few more inches.
     Their mother had died from complications in childbirth.  The child, premature as she was, had been saved, but the doctors hadn't been able to help the adult Mariko on time to provide similar salvation.  Therefore, unless such domestic knowledge was passed on genetically, that couldn't be the source.  Touji supposed his father hadn't been around frequently enough to teach her either, although he doubted he could really cook at all.  His father had hired someone to take care of the house, though, before they'd grown old enough to do it themselves...perhaps it was her.
     Not that Mari was a bad cook, either.  She seemed to do all right in the kitchen, with few serious disasters.  In fact, it wasn't too different from the bland but edible stuff Shinji seemed to be able to put together.
     On the other hand, she couldn't quite put together the surprises the class rep had been bringing him before she disappeared.  They were supposed to be leftovers, the scraps from the bottom of the pan, but there always seemed to be enough to satisfy even his ravenous stomach.
     "Hey, Touji!  Get up!"  A long and later embarrassing second passed, before he realized he was supposed to be standing for the teacher's arrival.  Apparently, the replacement rep had been calling him for some time, while the teacher himself waited for compliance.
     As they finished their bows and sat down again, he took a moment to sweep the room with his eyes.  "Kensuke!  Where're the newly-weds?"
     "Oh, Shinji and her?  They've got a synch test this morning.  Can you believe they still haven't fixed our Evas?  Otherwise we'd be down there too, instead of the teacher telling us all about life before Second Impact all over again.  Who cares?"
     Touji leaned back, agreeing wholeheartedly with his friend.  While he didn't care for either, synch tests were generally better than this.
     With any luck, he'd be able to catch a few quick winks, and he trusted Kensuke would catch him if he started to snore.  Improbable, though, as Kensuke dug into his desk for his copy of the training and operations manual, trying for the umpteenth time to see if he'd missed anything.

* * *

     Light streamed in wide bands across the stilled air, cutting through limpid curtains and spilling onto the floor and bed.  Nothing moved.  Despite the room's role as a place of healing, of recovery and health, it was as dead as any abandoned room.  Even the light seemed to die within its walls.
     Nevertheless, there was a flicker of movement that made the efforts of the hundreds who had constructed the room and equipment, and those who used them, worthwhile.
     Harrassed by a tickling strand of stray hair that had settled across her face when the nurse had last fixed the bedsheets, Hikari lifted a hand to brush it away from her closed eyelids.  Not much longer afterwards, she found herself opening her eyes, and straining atrophied muscles to sit up.  Tired from disuse, even her spine seemed incapable of supporting her weight.  She slumped forward, into a single ray of lukewarm light.
     Gradually, her eyes became adjusted to the presence of light, and she began to explore her surroundings carefully, checking every detail and object around her with utmost care.  Starting with her weakened hands, she discovered she still had numerous intravenous lines running out of her arms, and leads attached from her body to a machine that seemed to be monitoring her heart and lungs.
     Is this a dream too?
     It was hard not to ask.  For over five weeks, dreams had made up her world.  Dreams after dreams, in seemingly infinite succession.  And it was more than likely this was nothing more than another.
     Then again, the incoherent lightness to which she was so accustomed was lacking...this seemed too concrete and controlled to be an illusion.  Her body, the bed, the walls...the steadily beeping machine next to her; they were all to solid, too real.
     Testing her voice seemed to be the next logical thing to do.  Articulating a simple phrase, though, was considerably more difficult than she could remember.  Not that her vocal chords or lungs, even her tongue were as lacking in strength as the rest of her body; they responded well, moving fluidly and with typical control.  Rather, her throat was dry and her words emerged as unsubtle croaks, cracking harshly before she could stop them.
     This corrected itself in short order, however, as repeated practice rendered those same words soft and flexible again.
     She felt weak.
     Hikari's eyes darted up to the clock, mounted on the wall opposite the bed.  Even from this distance, in this imperfect illumination, she could make out the hands.  Already, nearly a good half-hour had passed entirely, and all she had done was check her speech.  Slightly put off by her lack of progress, Hikari began to laugh softly.
     Looking to her side, she examined the monitors a little more carefully.  The central unit had been attached to her body by several leads -- she began to notice how they stuck in places to her skin -- but the intravenous bags were suspended from a pole, unattached to anything.  If she needed to, she could use it to support herself.
     Carefully, she began to move her protesting legs.  They had lain unused long enough that they sent wave after wave of tingles up the entire limb whenever they brushed against anything.  A dull ache seemed to occupy every part of her body, pervasively resisting every movement with a sudden sharpening of its effect.  Hikari winced, pulling herself once more to the side of the bed with a force and determination that she now knew she possessed.
     Fixing her face into a steely mask, she reached out and took the intravenous support firmly in her left hand.  Forcing herself to move, willing each muscle into contraction in individual sequence, she took a quarter-step.  The leads monitoring her trailed behind her from within her hospital gown, but the machine did nothing more than register a slight increase in her heart rate.
     Her concentration wavered, ever so slightly, as her foot touched down on the floor a mere two inches ahead of her, manifested only in the pained smile that suddenly lit up her features.  Another step followed, shuffling towards the leading foot and beyond.  Ahead, behind the monitor that was registering a slight increase in her heart rate, she saw the window.  That was where the light in the room was coming from.  Most of it, at least.
     Hikari made it her goal.  She was going to reach that window at any cost, look outside, beyond the curtains, into the world.  A world she hadn't seen in over a month, one that she now felt strangely detached from.
     Whether it was her that had changed, or the world itself, she couldn't tell.  Either way, though, she was going to have to reacquaint herself with it.  Each step continued to close the distance, and she calculated every advance in her head.  She felt slightly silly, as it was less than two or three feet away...certainly enough for the wires and the intravenous line to stretch the distance.
     Three more...two more...
     She stumbled a little, causing her to lean more heavily on her impromptu crutch.  Hikari waited until her breath subsided in her chest, then righted herself and proceeded over the remaining two steps.
     Finally, leaning both against the window and the support, she marshalled the strength to part the curtain.
     Gradually, she brought her free hand, the right one, up to the light blue cloth, up near her face, and began to push the barrier aside.  Light crashed through the glass like water through a broken dam, and she was momentarily overwhelmed by the sudden intensity.  Again, her eyes were forced to adjust to a higher order of light, and she blinked while waiting for her vision to clear.
     Even though she could see now, the pane of glass separating her from the geofront beyond was still another obstacle, keeping her away from the world.  In the rising morning light, Hikari saw the world inside the geofront for what was possibly the first time.
     Ever since starting to pilot Unit-15, she had never taken any route through the geofront itself.  Always, the routine was nothing more than a long elevator ride into the deeper parts of NERV.  She knew, of course, that the geofront was a gigantic cavern; everyone who worked at NERV knew that.
     But she'd never taken the time to see what it looked like.  She'd always assumed it was a dark forbidding place, where the sun could not reach.  It was, after all, buried deep under the city of Tokyo-3 proper.
     Paradoxically, the vista she now watched with her own two eyes was sunlit, gloriously illuminated from above.  Even those places near the edge of the hemispherical cavity received enough light indirectly that they enjoyed a sort of perpetual twilight.
     There was a lake, a massive body of water in the centre of the geofront, on whose waves the reflected rays of the sun leapt and cavorted like a million fireflies in their courtship dances.  Next to it, a stark geometric structure, a monolith that coldly testified to man's presence in this strange cave.  The pyramid that formed the core of NERV stood solemnly watch over the entire grounds before her, and despite its artificial origins, it didn't seem out of place at all.  In a way, it, too, benefited from the sun's caress, becoming a golden triangle.
     Forests of pines covered the landscape, guarded from above by a glittering chandelier of inverted buildings hanging from the facility's ceiling.  Spiralling tracks descended from them, the brighter sections indicating the progress of either a car-train or a personnel shuttle.
     Hikari looked out over this like it was her dominion, and she wondered why she'd never been able to see it before.  And despite the definite artificial nature of the entire structure, it did have a natural beauty, much like the hills and mountains that surrounded the city itself, above ground.
     Perhaps this was what made it worthwhile to hate the Angels, to fight them.  Not only for the pain and suffering they wrought, but also because they seemed bent on destroying this, and those who would be able to appreciate it.
     Slowly, though, the pain from her agony-rent legs warned her it would be most prudent to regain her bed.  Reluctantly, she pulled herself away from the window and shuffled back to the place she had just left.
     Sighing, she let herself sink back into the mattress.  It had been so long, too long, since she had last been able to move under her own power, and she wondered how she had been saved, such that it was still possible.
     The last she remembered, she had been subjected to a horrendous level of bodily harm by the Angel who had temporarily abducted her soul, and she was almost loath to check her own body to verify if that had yet been corrected, and to what extent.
     Being very careful of the emplacement of the needles embedded in her arm, she began to draw up the sleeve.  And as more and more of her arm was exposed to the light, she marveled at the pristine state of the skin beneath, at the familiar contours, lacking any imperfections other than those she had borne before.  Rapidly, she felt for the crater in her shoulder, to find it filled with flesh; the trough above her knee, likewise healed.
     Apparently, she had not been dreaming either, when she had found herself in that dark place filled with LCL...she was fully whole again, and there was no longer any denying it.  Not, of course, that she would want to.  If it was really an illusion, it was a relieving one.
     Her worries satisfied, her mind began turning to other matters.  She was skinny now, nearly emaciated.  And hungry.  Starving.
     The thought triggered a low grumble from her stomach, and as she thought to her last meal, in the apartment with Asuka and Shinji.  It had been a long time since she had seen them out of the context of a dream.  It was almost hard to believe they were real people any more.  And then, she realized she had been so far removed from the rest of the world that she no longer knew what day or month it was, let alone whether or not they were still all right, or even alive.
     Her stomach wasn't the only thing screaming for attention and fulfillment.  She knew she was lonely, had been lonely ever since the Voice last departed -- even if it was just her losing her mind -- and she felt a thirst for human company.
     Anyone would have suited her purposes and quenched the thirst, but she thought either Asuka or Suzuhara would have been preferable.  Who knew?  Maybe she would be seeing one or the other, maybe even both, in the near future.
     On second thought...his name should be Touji, not Suzuhara.  After all, she hadn't referred to Asuka as 'Sohryu' in several months, and Shinji had stopped being 'Ikari' not too long ago, either, since she had moved in with them.  It was better to think of him as a friend, if not better than that, rather than as a simple classmate.
     Shakily, she reached up to the wall by the bed, looking for the switch that would call the nurse to her bedside...  With any luck, she could satisfy her first priority, that of sustenance, and soon.  Then, she could think about talking to nurses or friends.

* * *

     "How are they doing, then?"
     Shigeru leaned over to inspect the lines of data accompanying the graph on Masaharu's station.  Effectively, neither of the two were doing particularly well, in light of the spectacular performances they could give with their native Evas, but they were doing well enough.
     "See for yourself.  They've both leveled out around seventy points, even ten points above Shinji's test in Unit-02.  He might have been a little nervous about it the first time."
     Dr. Robertson looked satisfied.  Thus far, nothing untoward had occurred during the excercise, and it certainly would provide him with additional data.
     Shigeru raised an eyebrow for a moment.  "I guess we can't really predict these things.  Last year, Unit-01 was refusing Rei...and now, it seems to be working well with Asuka...  Are we done now?"
     His last question seemed to echo the exact sentiments of the two pilots, for whom the tedious excercise amounted to sitting quietly in a chair for several hours.  A mind-numbing experience at best, that, unfortunately, had to be done on a regular basis.
     "Yes," said Dr. Robertson, turning on the microphone as he leaned towards it, "We're done now.  You can leave."
     Sitting down in the chair provided for him, Shigeru brought up another question Dr. Robertson had been studying recently, one that seemed to be on everyone's minds since the last incident.  "Say...  Any progress on Unit-01's regeneration?"
     Dr. Robertson glared at his station for a few seconds, caught unprepared by this off-the-cuff query.  He'd been working on it quite intensively, and he could never bring himself any closer.  Commander Fuyutsuki, cryptically, had informed him that it was not a major concern, despite the opinions of everyone else on the command staff.
     Still, though, he had no progress to report.  Unit-01 seemed perfectly normal, and the pilot hadn't undergone any visible changes; at least, not yet.  It irked him to be forced into this position.  Admittedly, it was perhaps a little careless to be conducting a crossover test with Unit-01 at this time, but there were no indications that anything would malfunction.  Besides which, the harmonics tests never involved the Evas themselves.  At that moment, both of the Evas were standing inert in their cages, no longer connected to anything.
     "No," he replied, blunt as a flat stone.  Sensing a certain degree of evident malaise, Shigeru changed topics.
     "What about the Sixth Child?  What's her prognosis looking like, now that she's awake?"
     "Considerably better.  We expect her to be released within two weeks, and I would expect her to have the stamina for a reactivation test in about ten to twelve days."
     Nodding in agreement, Shigeru made a mental note to mark that on his schedule.  "That leaves us with Shinji and Asuka for now, then.  I hope they'll be enough."

* * *

     With a tired sigh, Shinji picked up his school bag and waited for Asuka to catch up with him.  It wasn't long before he heard the change room's door slide open and his companion's footsteps filling the hall.  "Is it just me, or did that test feel a little different?"
     "What do you mean?" he asked, falling into step beside her, as they progressed towards the elevators.  "Like...  A little, yeah.  Why?"
     Asuka tapped the call button between the two sets of doors and leaned against the wall.  "Oh, I don't know.  I guess since we're the only two who can pilot our Evas right now, it wouldn't be good if something were to change, right?"
     "Dr. Robertson and Aoba both said there's nothing wrong with our scores..."
     "Of course not, dummkopf!  It's just that...I mean, what if the next Angel is worse than the last one?  We almost lost, except that you...well..."
     Shinji blinked hard, once, twice, then looked up at Asuka with less than tranquil eyes.  For some reason, he felt a cold mass drop through his chest, some kind of otherworldly apprehension.  The premonition stayed with him, pestering him.  And then, there was always something about the way Asuka spoke when she referred to this Angel, something in the way her voice became tentative and timid, so different.  "...I'd rather...not..."
     Smiling, Asuka nodded.  "I'm sorry.  Anyway," she said, kissing him on the nose as the elevator's doors opened.  "...Thanks."
     She understood that however traumatic it may have been for the witnesses, it might yet be worse for him.  The berserker wasn't Shinji, and it didn't look like it was something he was proud of.
     Together, they rode the elevator back towards the surface, towards one of the many access pathways that led back to the city.  Despite the test, they would still be expected back at school for the remainder of the afternoon.
     During the ride, however, Shinji couldn't help think about what could have happened during that incident.  To date, no debriefing had been offered to him, and no one except Asuka had broached the subject with him...and even now, this was the first time in about a week.  Then again, he didn't think Touji or Kensuke had seen what had happened, and he didn't really want to approach them about it.
     Making Asuka the only one who would know, who would and could tell him, if he asked.
     "Um...Asuka?  Now that I think about it...I don't actually remember what happened, last time.  Could you..?"
     Asuka stared at him for a moment, confused.  "You don't remember?  Do you have amnesia or something?"  She found this absolutely absurd; how could anyone forget that, particularly him?  She realized, though, that he wasn't joking when he flushed in embarrassment and concern.
     "I...I don't think so...  I just can't remember."
     Asuka was rapidly struck with the possibility of mental contamination, but she dismissed it.  Mental contamination should have become fairly obvious after a short while, and this was still her Shinji, after all.
     With a confused sigh, she let herself rest against him, looked up at the ceiling, and tried to explain what she had seen.  It wasn't easy, seeing how undecided she still was about the event.  After a moment, Shinji took her hand.
     "Well...you killed it, really."  Understatement.  "...Destroyed it.  I mean..."  Visions of blood, of anger and the final, shrill screams of a dying Angel ran unchecked through her mind, blocking out the other thoughts for a moment.  And yet, she thought, she wasn't exactly frightened...  She'd seen Angels die before, and they, too, had bled.
     "But...I've done that before."
     "I know that.  Let me finish, okay?"  Asuka took a moment to wonder how she could describe the process of regeneration in itself, ask him how it was possible.  More memories, this time of a different ilk, those of the white Evas.  Not Hikari's, but the others, the Nine.  She winced heavily at that, but went on.
     "You saw Unit-01 today, right?  Before the test?"
     Shinji nodded.  He'd seen it a twice since leaving the hospital.  Once, just before the first crossover test, and the second time a few hours ago.
     "Do you remember what the Angel did to it?"
     Again, Shinji nodded.  He could remember the Angel tearing away his Eva's lanky arms, discarding them like one discards strips of lower quality meat before preparation.  He could remember being thrown to the ground.  And he could remember most of his systems cutting out before he'd first heard Asuka cry out.
     "So...  Why isn't Unit-01 in repair like the other two?"  Asuka turned slightly, to look him in the eye.  They flickered for a moment, uncomprehending, so she filled in the gaps for him.
     "You...you made its arms grow back, Shinji.  That's what has us all scared.  Baka."
     Shinji returned the unwavering stare, still confused.  "But...isn't that impossible?  And...how could I have done it?"
     Blue eyes continued to observe his, quietly.  She wanted to know as much as he did.  Evidently, there was a blank there.  Maybe the reason no one from NERV had told him anything was because they didn't know either.  Just like everyone else, he was frightened by it as well.
     Of course, there was a fairly simple explanation.  It could have been his mother...but then, he couldn't remember her presence near his mind like he had the other times she had helped him in the artificial monster.  He was sure he would have remembered that.  So then...how?
     "And then...you..."  She paused long enough to make Shinji wonder if he really wanted to know what she was going to say.
     "Well...I've never seen you get angry before.  Not like that, anyway."
     Unconsciously, Shinji began to caress the back of her hand with his fingers, as his mind worked to sort out what was going on.  This certainly wasn't the first time he'd heard stories about Unit-01, although he'd never imagined he was so tied to the supposedly unpredictable berserker events.
     He frightened himself, the possibility of emerging from such a state only to find the bleeding remains of one of his friends under his Eva, much as he had seen the last Angel.  Worse, if it was Unit-02...
     At that moment, the elevator slowed to a stop, and the indicator wheel stopped clicking.  They were at the ground level, at least within the geofront, and it wasn't far to the access escalators to the surface.
     Asuka thought for a moment that she might be treating the whole thing with a certain degree of hypocrisy...he wasn't necessarily unique this way.  She had, after all, lunged at the 18th Angel shortly after it had nearly destroyed not only Unit-01, but its pilot as well.  It wasn't exactly an emotion she was willing to revisit any time soon, the grieving and overwhelming anger, especially because of the circumstances required for it.
     First for Shinji, nearly an irrecuperable loss, then again for Hikari...whom she hadn't seen for too long.  Far too long.
     Still, she didn't think she had gone quite as far.
     Asuka backed away slowly, leading Shinji out by the hand.
     "Anyway," she said, trying to salvage some of the moment, "that's what happened.  Do you know why you reactivated Unit-01?  It was pretty helpless before..."  A simple question, but one that would, hopefully, let them forget the issue for now without changing the subject.
     "Well...I just thought...you were in trouble, so..."
     "That was pretty dumb, though," she said, grinning and delivering a swat to the back of his head for emphasis, "I guess you could have tried to kick it to death without arms.  Who knows?  It might have worked..."
     Shinji found himself with the barest hint of a smile and trying not to blush to hard at his own stupidity.  She had a very valid point, in that had the Eva -- or him, if he was the cause -- not regenerated through whatever twist of fate and dumb luck, most likely he would have only exacerbated the situation.  Then, there would be two more downed Evas...and defeat.  Nevertheless, the new confidence and flippant nonchalance in her voice did lift his spirits considerably.
     Shinji carefully kept her hand in his as they progressed through the geofront.

* * *

     Far from remaining immobile on the bed as she should have, Hikari had been exploring her surroundings on a regular basis.  By now, her limbs were in acute agony, screaming their opposition to her movement, and they hung on her body like sticks of lead.  Nevertheless, Hikari came close to completing her third circuit around the room, and stopped to rest by the window again.  The doctors had removed the monitors from the room, for her own convenience, and now she had free reign to explore unhindered.
     The sun above the actual ground must have started to set, because now the light came in along an opposing angle, sinking deep into the lake.  She wondered if someone underwater would be able to see the individual shafts of lights, as she retreated to the bed again.
     It hadn't been too long since the nurse had come in and spoken with her.  The last date she could remember had been a little less than a month and a half ago, even though she had assumed that her injuries would have kept her incapacitated for much longer than that.
     Again, she returned to inspecting her body...the lighting was better, and there was more natural light in the room.  Indeed, her entire body was whole, unblemished...  Just like Touji's.  She wasn't sure how she should feel, although gratitude was certainly drifting around her conscious mind.  Perhaps she would ask him, if she found an opportunity.
     And despite the fact that it was far to long to be a dream, her whole situation seemed so surreal that she still found herself wondering.
     A shout of joy mixed with incredulity and surprise shattered her reflection.  "Hikari?!"  The voice, this time, was familiar, one she knew as well as its owner.
     With about as much strength as she could gather, she turned her head towards the door.  "Asuka..?  You're...here?"
     It had hardly been ten minutes since the command centre had informed the other pilots of Hikari's recovery.  Nevertheless, the call, sent out to their respective cell phones, had sent Asuka tearing across the geofront like there was no tomorrow. Without further ado, Asuka practically leapt across the room to the hospital bed, trailing a slightly uncomfortable Shinji in her wake, who was mumbling something about getting the nurses' permission first.
     "Aren't...you supposed to be... at school?" she asked, barely able to get her words out before Asuka had her squeezed between her arms.  "It's not a weekend, is it?"
     Asuka let her go and made sure she was comfortably seated again before answering.  "Not really...we had a test this morning.  And try to cheer up a little!  You sound like Rei!  How are you feeling?"
     Hikari managed a weak smile, the best she could, given her state and lack of energy.  "Not too good.  I've been asleep for quite a long time, I think..."
     Asuka and Shinji both asked about her head simultaneously, drawing a short bout of laughter from all three.  Hikari wasn't able to keep up, though, and her own chuckles dissolved into a choked cough.  "Better, thanks," she replied, clearing her throat a little.  "I'm going to have to lie down again...Asuka?"
     Vacating her spot on the bed, Asuka motioned Shinji to steal some chairs from the waiting room as Hikari stretched out again under the covers.
     "So...what's been happening?  There must have been at least two Angels after...you know...  And if this isn't another weird dream..."
     Asuka shook her head.  "Just one, last week.  I don't know why there weren't any, but this one nearly beat us.  Shinji's two Stooge friends won't be piloting for at least another half a month, given what happened to their Evas."
     Definite concern betrayed itself on Hikari's face.  "They weren't hurt, were they?"
     "Not badly enough, no.  Kensuke and Mister Compassionate are at school right now."
     Shinji returned with two chairs, and sat down, beckoning Asuka to do so as well.
     "I guess it's good to know I'll be moving back soon," said Hikari, relieved, "I just hope you two were behaving yourselves while I was gone."  She giggled again, coughing.  "Oh, well...  Did I miss anything at school?"
     Before Asuka had the chance to respond, though, Touji made his presence known by knocking on the door.  Somewhat sheepishly, he poked his head around the corner, followed by Kensuke.  Kensuke, in particular, was all too glad to have the afternoon off, and another chance to check up on the repair schedule for Unit-16.
     "Hey!  Class rep!  Everyone's been worried about you!"  Asuka nudged Hikari in the side as Touji stopped behind Shinji's chair.  "We couldn't find you anywhere...  Kensuke an' me checked the hospital records after you disappeared, but you weren't there.  I guess you don't know much either, right?"
     Hikari watched as Kensuke nodded in agreement.  They'd gone to the trouble to search for her, apparently.  "Well...thank you.  What do you mean, 'disappeared'?"
     Asuka explained; after the battle, the fact that no one had seen the entry plug, and they couldn't get any of the NERV personnel to say anything.  "At one point, we thought you might even be dead."
     Hikari stared at her, never having imagined that possibility.  It was good to have such good friends.

* * *

     Arashio looked up from her coffee back towards her monitor, projected above the keyboard.  There hadn't been much to do all morning; Yamashita and Masaharu were both working in the harmonics test facility, and Captain Shigeru and Dr. Robertson were with them.  With the Commander gone on some kind of business, she had been the only person left on the upper levels of the bridge.  Boredom had overtaken her several times this morning, and if it hadn't been for the massive doses of caffeine she'd been ingesting, she likely would have fallen asleep long ago.
     An automatic window opened itself in front of her, jarring her tired state of mind into a more or less serviceable one.  After reading its contents, she reached out for one of the phones built into her console.
     "Dr Robertson..?  Sorry, Captain.  I think you should see this..."

* * *

     Shigeru reached the elevator first, cell phone still in hand as he authorized Arashio to call the alert and assemble the pilots.  To his mild surprise, they were all already in the geofront, in Horaki's hospital room.  He knew she was conscious, and that the others had recently been informed, so it wasn't really that shocking.
     "What do we do about Suzuhara and Aida?" she asked, since they didn't have functioning Evas yet.
     Shigeru held the door long enough for the rest of his bridge crew to evacuate the harmonics facility and join him.  "Have them come up to the Command Centre.  There's not much else we can do with them right now."
     The emotionless, automated warning rang throughout NERV's metal hallways, prompting the necessary technicians and scientists to take their places in the Cage.  The Evas could be easily prepared for combat within seconds of the first alert, as the entire procedure had been carefully planned, then streamlined with experience.  Effectively, the only thing left was the presence of the pilots.  It was lucky that, Shinji and Asuka were close by, because so was the pattern Arashio had detected.
     "Where is it, anyway?"
     "I don't know, sir!  There's a pattern, in the city!  The MAGI haven't pinpointed its location yet!  But it's been confirmed as Blue!"
     Great, thought Shigeru, the 23rd Angel.  We'll have to make do without the other Evas, then.
     "There's no chance we can use Hikari, is there?"
     Dr. Robertson shook his head.  "Technically, yes.  The First was deployed in Unit-00 several times with severe injuries.  I wouldn't recommend it, though.  Hikari wasn't brought up to be a pilot."
     Shigeru nodded, agreeing.  "We'll just leave her in the hospital, then."

* * *

     "Shinji?  Ready?"
     "...Um... Yeah.  I think so."
     "This sucks!  I finally get to see Hikari and it has to show up!  Inconsiderate!"
     "...I know..."
     The voices accompanying the orange communications windows on the massive screen opposite the command tower echoed slightly in the cavernous space.  Kensuke was seeing the battle and preparations from this angle for the first time.  Every now and then, he'd wondered exactly what it was like for the bridge crew, to watch what was going on on the surface.  The highest level of contact he'd ever had with them during an actual battle was through one of the aforementioned boxes.
     Of course, what he really wanted was to be out there on the surface, with them.  In his Eva.  This wasn't the same.  Nevertheless, he was resolved to learn as much as he could from these two, the experts, as they were.
     The next time, he would make a difference.  They could count on him, next time.
     Shigeru spoke.  "We don't have a fix on the Angel's position yet, but we know it's an Angel from the blood pattern.  We have two minutes left until the evacuation is complete, so hang on for now.  We'll be issuing you short range weapons, and be prepared for anything."
     "Roger," they replied simultaneously.
     Kensuke cocked an eyebrow.  When it was just these two, they seemed to work together much better than when they were part of the larger group.  Perhaps it was because they'd been working together for so much longer.  Then again, the battle hadn't started yet, so he couldn't tell for sure.  It just felt that way.
     Touji had insisted that either he go to his sister, or his sister come to him.  NERV security and Dr. Robertson had finally relented to his request; the bridge was far too sensitive for even an eight-year old civilian, and so Touji wasn't going to be joining them.  It didn't bother Kensuke much.  He understood Touji needed to make sure Mari was okay whenever possible.
     The two minutes until the green light for the operation could be given trickled by slowly, almost too slowly, for Kensuke's liking.  It seemed to be taking forever.
     Because there was no fix on the Angel itself, there was no external camera view.  The two large communications windows had been arranged to the side of the screen, and a bird's-eye view of the city transmitted from a geosynchronous satellite in real time dominated the rest.
     The MAGI had already pre-determined the exit points for the two Evas, and these were highlighted in red, as well as the two nearest equipment elevators.  A pulsing orange circle marking the projected extent of evacuation grew slowly, until it began disappearing in sections as the various shelters reported in.
     The launch order was given, and on the screen, Kensuke could see the appearances of both Unit-01 and Unit-02.  Even from space, their distinctive colours were a definite contrast against the uniform greys of the city.
     Slowly, they began moving out in a search grid, looking for any indication of anything that was out of place, anything that might resemble an Angel.

     On the surface, the sky was getting progressively darker.  It had already been fairly late in the afternoon when they had been informed that Hikari was well enough for visitors, but now, the sun hung low over the horizon, casting long shadows across the streets.  In some places, the black, tarry shade painted over the hundreds of buildings of Tokyo-3 seemed thick enough to smother all light and warmth that entered them.
     It did remind Shinji of the shadow Angel, and yet, he didn't feel that was going to be the case.  The Angels had tried that tactic twice already, and it wasn't likely that they were going to try it again.  Still, he had to be prepared for everything.
     "Asuka?  What do you think?"
     Asuka smiled at him through the window, and he had to force himself back to concentrating on the mission.  "It looks clear to me.  We'll move on, okay?"
     "Right."
     Unit-01 adjusted its grip on the huge handgun it was holding out in front of it.  Likewise, Unit-02 sported the same weapon, except that Asuka seemed quite comfortable to wield it in one hand.
     The Angel's signal seemed to be coming from everywhere in the city at once, according to the MAGI.  Either the Angel was actually spread out over the entire city, or it was actively twisting reality for NERV's sensors.  In the Evas, they couldn't see where the Angel was coming from.  The lock indicators danced at the edges of the pilot's field of vision.
     Asuka cursed quietly to herself in German.  If the Angel didn't show up soon, they'd likely spend all night hunting for it.

* * *

     The unused office was dark, dimly lit by a pair of underpowered overhead fluorescent lamps.  Like the rest of NERV's non-essential systems and rooms, the electrical supply was lowered during alerts.  This freed up more power for the other systems necessary for the battle above, on the surface, and the Evas themselves.
     Ironically, that power wouldn't be needed today.  The three Evas that functioned because of the electrical umbilical cable were unuseable, leaving the basically unlimited S2-driven ones to fight.
     Still, neither Touji nor Mari minded very much.  Mari had told him she usually slept.  She'd already checked the computer for games, and there was nothing on it other than some administrative programs.  What else could anyone do in a shelter, anyway?  She normally didn't have anyone to talk to.
     Even if Touji now felt a little guilty about depriving her of company during the Angel attacks, she couldn't change his mind.  He much preferred that she stay here, lonely, for a few hours, than dead among friends in a crushed official shelter.
     In this room, unlike the surface shelters, you couldn't feel the thundering steps the Evas took, or hear the low growl of the palette rifles.  Having been a civilian before, Touji knew what they sounded like both from the cockpit and from underground.  Not to mention his one close encounter with an Angel with Kensuke.  That had been stupid.
     "Touji?"  Mari was pulling on his sleeve.
     "Hmm?"
     "Why are you here today?  Don't you pilot one of the robots now?"
     'Robots'.  Touji didn't really like the term, it denied the fact that the Evas were much more than that, denied them a certain level of the horrifying grotesqueness that made them so much worse than simple robots.  Nevertheless, it was what Mari and most of the rest of the population understood, so he wasn't about to correct her.  Perhaps it was better if they stayed robots.
     "Nope.  My 'robot' is pretty busted up right now.  They don't have the spare parts to fix it."  He grinned, lifted his little sister up onto his lap.
     "Oh.  So who's fighting the Angel, then?"  Pure childish curiosity filled her voice, rather than apprehension that there was no one else.  Mari was well aware that there were other pilots.  "Are their robots broken too?"
     He shook his head.  "Shinji and Asuka are up there right now.  They'll do a good job, don't worry.  They're the best."
     Mari shook her head.  "Not better than you!"  She paused to think.  "Isn't Shinji one of your friends now?  I remember you didn't like him very much when you first met him."
     Touji frowned in the dim light.  He was sure he must have discussed his friends with Mari at some point in the last three months, although he couldn't ever remember it.  This was obviously not the case.
     "Yeah...we're friends now.  He's actually a really nice guy."
     "So who are the other pilots, then?"
     "There's me, Shinji, Kensuke, the class rep, and dem...Asuka."  He almost tripped over the last name, he'd been using the moniker too long out of her presence.  He smirked at himself.
     "I know Kensuke...and I met Ms. Horaki in the hospital...  I haven't seen the others, though.  You'll bring me to see them after this, right?"
     Touji nodded, although he warned her it might be a while, if they got hurt during the battle.  In turn, she reminded him that he'd been hurt once after the 19th Angel and the last one, and that she knew about the hospital's rules.
     "What's it like," she went on, changing topics, "in the big robot?  And what do the Angels look like?  Are they all the same?  I saw the first one," she announced proudly, almost daring him to talk about her accident with her voice.
     Deciding not to give in, Touji dug around the desk for a pen and paper, then set to work sketching out what he could remember of the Angels he'd seen.  There weren't many, and he didn't give her the details; for example, Hikari's disappearance or the viral properties of the 19th.
     After he finished drawing and describing the last one, the 22nd, she looked up at him, definite pride in her eyes.  "Is it scary, fighting them?  You're not scared, though, because you're my brother!"
     He looked from the paper back down to her, her child's optimism contradicting his real feelings once again.  He'd never really gotten the hang of dealing with her innocence, because he didn't want to break it for her.  In a way, she had lost it, in the first attack, when she had been exposed to the sheer brutality of the war.
     On the other hand, she seemed to think he was somehow braver or stronger for dealing with these threats...even if he still didn't want to.  Touji sighed.
     "Of course I'm scared, Mari.  I'm always scared..."
     She wasn't listening, trying to copy the Angels onto her own paper.  After that, she began to draw a childish version of the lanky humanoid she'd seen before being crushed.

* * *

     Asuka growled in exertion as she peeled the flexible, amoeba-like Angel off of Unit-01's back.  When the translucent grey Angel had leapt shrieking off the shadowed side of a building onto him, Shinji had gotten off three rounds, each puncturing, but never wounding it.
     Then, it had clung to him, slowly chewing away at the sides of the massive plate of armour that shielded his entry plug from the outside with chitinous plates that had appeared out of nowhere.  Yelling at the top of his lungs, Shinji raised the impenetrable, invisible wall known only as the AT Field to its full strength.  Light erupted between the Angel and its intended victim, exploding outwards with enough intensity to temporarily blind the cameras and chase away the shadows.
     Even with her eyes closed, Asuka was able to grasp a fair quantity of the Angel's gelatinous strength in both hands.  Straining, she began to pull.  It clung tenaciously to Shinji's armour, tearing it away even as Unit-02's colossal strength finally detached it from the rest of the Eva.
     Kensuke watched as the massive red Eva stumbled slightly, no longer being resisted.  He expected to see demon-girl's Unit-02 hit the ground sideways, but in a single, fluid motion, she twisted its hips and brought a leg forward so that she could slam the Angel with full force into the ground.
     He was sure that there was no way he could have done that in Unit-16, although he'd never had the chance to try.
     Unit-01, even bereft of the protective armour plate, stood again, and the two of them faced the Angel as it reformed itself into a more familiar humanoid form in the middle of the street.  Then, it darted off to the side, merging once more with the shadows.
     Asuka swore, and both pilots deployed their progressive knives to attack the shadows on the supply elevator building.
     Once again, the pattern was distributed all over the city, without any clue as to the Angel's new whereabouts.
     "Shinji!  Are you okay?"
     "What?  I'm fine! Why?  Where'd it go?"
     Squinting, Kensuke could just make out the writhing grey shadows that protruded from around the cap over the entry plug.  It looked like the Angel had been trying to break it open.  No more danger, however.  The fragments were bleeding grey profusely, and eventually stopped their death throes.
     "I don't know...  Check to see if your entry plug is still intact."  Shinji didn't dare counter her, there was enough concern in her imperative that he turned around to check for cracks or other discrepancies, despite the fact he was receiving no error or warning messages in front of him.
     "I...can't tell...  I can go on, though."
     "Be careful, okay?"
     With that, the two Evas began moving forwards again.  Kensuke nodded to himself; Shinji and demon-girl performed much more fluidly together than mixed with them.  So why, then, were himself, Touji, and Hikari even needed?
     Granted, Hikari had one kill to her credit, and she was the better of the three of them.  And Touji had proven his worth at least twice, with the 18th Angel and again for the next one.
     He felt nearly useless.
     He observed the scene unfolding in front of him in clinical detail, dissecting it for his benefit.
     Side by side, the two Evas progressed at roughly half walking speed into what Kensuke recognized as grid C-08.  Unit-01 held its progressive weapon in a loose forward grip, only partially mimicked by Unit-02, who held it to the side in preparation for a slashing maneuver.  He, in turn mimicked them with an imaginary blade, trying to discern any fine points of wielding the progressive knife he might have somehow missed.
     He could see that both Evas held their heads slightly to the sides, ensuring that both pilots could still see directly in front of them, but also maximizing their combined fields of vision.
     Their approach brought them straight into the sun, with the shadows directly facing them.  If the Angel wanted to attack them from the shadows, it wouldn't be able to attack from behind.  An intelligent decision, as Kensuke soon realized.
     There was much, much more to Eva combat than he'd ever imagined.  He couldn't understand why he was so far behind.

* * *

     The lights barely flickered, but enough such that Touji knew there had been a power surge somewhere.  That probably meant something had been destroyed on the surface.
 Mari stopped, lifting her picture of an amusingly distorted Unit-01 to the light and appraising it like an artist would a finished work.
     "Is this what yours looks like?" she asked, then holding it up for him to see.
     "Almost," he chuckled, wondering how they were treating it all so casually.  Without a doubt, the real-life Evas on the surface were probably causing untold damage in their heated battle with the Angel.  Shinji and Asuka -- and likely himself, had he been there -- were probably screaming in pain each time the Angel attacked, wounding their Evas, and indirectly, their pilots.
     With one finger, he covered up the exaggerated horn Mari had depicting jutting from Unit-01's forehead.  "It's more like this...and its black."
     "Oh..."  The little girl flipped her paper over, and started her drawing again on the other side.
     He watched in silence as she carefully repeated the lines to form a rough representation of his Eva.  To him, it signified quite a number of things, none of which he was particularly happy about.  It was fear, death, pain...a lot of things.
     It seemed to be a source of pride to her, though.  He found it strange, thinking she should have been terrified of them.  On the contrary, she seemed to like the fact that he was even a pilot of one.
     He hated them, and, like Shinji, hadn't really known why he'd accepted in the first place.
     "Hey, Touji?  Can you remember mama for me?"
     "What was that?"  He sat upright momentarily, bringing himself closer to the little girl sprawled out on top of the desk.  "Mother?"
     "Yeah!  What was she like?"
     Touji stared in amazement as Mari drew Unit-14's eyes, somehow humanizing them by giving them pupils and an iris.  It had a smile, too, not some malicious, demonic smile, but a vacuous, childish one.
     He couldn't remember very much of his mother, she'd passed on when he was barely six years old himself.  And of course Mari wouldn't know, being the powerless and unwitting cause.
     "Well...  You've seen the old pictures, right?"
     Mari nodded.  "Uh huh.  She was pretty, too."
     "Just like you.  She was...always nice to me an' Dad.  Except when I tried to steal things from the fridge."
     "Just like me," Mari announced, grinning.  "Just like me."
     It had been a long time since Touji had ever tried to think about his mother...he remembered crying for a very, very, long time when his father had told him one evening that she wouldn't be coming home any more.  He couldn't understand then, his juvenile mind too new to wrap itself around the heart-rending concept of death, the eternal sleep.
     He hadn't gone to the funeral, his father had decided it would be too traumatic for the boy.  Instead, he remembered staying at home with a babysitter.
     That was when his father had changed.  He saw less and less of him over the next two weeks.  He buried himself in work, bringing home boxes of lab reports and files to review and rewrite.
     A few weeks later, Mari came home.  She was nursed from a bottle from birth, and would never know maternal warmth as so many others did.  When he came home from school, though, he remembered playing with her.  Sometimes, his father would join in as well, temporarily abandoning the vast piles of work for his daughter.
     Mari would giggle and laugh.
     Touji tried to understand his father.  When they talked, on the few occasions, he stayed a father.  He treated them as he should have, and the two of them had learned to treasure those few moments.  Sometimes, he was frustrated with him for not coming home often enough, or for leaving them to fend for themselves.
     But more than once, he'd woken up in the middle of the night to discover his father crying over a picture frame in his study, amid the stacks of paper.
     Maybe that was why he was so afraid of dying, too.  Not just for the unknown beyond, the void, but for what he would be leaving behind.  He didn't want Mari to discover their father crying over mere pictures at dawn, either.
     "Tell me more!" the little girl asked, almost shouting in enthusiasm.  Touji tried to smile, and went on.  This was why he'd accepted.

* * *

     An Angel.  Another one.
     Hikari stood by her window, staring out into the darkened geofront, at the omnipresent shadows and the chains of artificial lights that glittered like necklaces strewn on the ground.
     Her back didn't hurt so much anymore; that was good.  And her legs seemed to have improved somewhat.  She was exhausted, having driven herself to stay up for the entire day, walking around and around.  Her legs ached fiercely, but she ignored the pain, knowing that they would only get better if she tried.
     For some reason, she felt herself longing for Unit-15, the white monster that probably stood at silent attention in the Cage, unused.   She wanted to do something, to help them kill that Angel.  She hoped it wasn't hurting Asuka or Shinji like she'd been hurt.
     For the last time, she looked back at the lake and forests, and half-walked, half-stumbled back to the bed.  She was asleep in minutes, her body too physically tired to support her thoughts.

* * *

     "Do it!"
     Shinji's shout rattled around the inside of the command centre as Unit-01 flipped the resisting Angel onto its back, pinning it to the street.  Once again, the Angel had attempted to penetrate the entry plug, hammering down onto it from the side of another of Tokyo-3's many structures.
     Thanks to Shinji having perceived it at the very edge of his field of vision, Unit-01 had just squirted out from under it like a bar of soap just as it first made contact.  Then as the Angel hit the ground hard enough to shatter the concrete into flying shards, the purple Eva deftly reversed its movement and smashed its entire weight into the side of the creature.
     Kensuke was awed.  He'd never even seen Shinji move like that in his own body, let alone in that of the Eva.
     Unit-02 was standing over them in an instant, knife at the ready.  Asuka dropped her Eva to one knee, lending all the mass of the gargantua into the force of the strike.  The blade sank in up to the hilt, and light began to spill out of the cut with the blood, lighting up the buildings.
     As she dragged the knife downwards, towards herself, the Angel's body began to sag open, revealing an heretofore invisible core that was cracked along one side.  Seeing this, Asuka brought the orange-lit blade flashing upwards into the dying rays of the setting sun, and back down into the Angel with all the power Unit-02 could generate.
     Screaming in pain and defeat, the Angel writhed one last time, then detonated upwards in a broad meniscus of pure explosive energy that bulged at its apex and fled to the heavens.

     It wasn't until the entry plug was withdrawn from the purple Eva's spine that the full extent of the damage was readily visible.  A definite spider's web of cracks emanated from the top end of the white oblong, and LCL was leaking noticeably in places.
     Still, Shinji was unhurt and conscious, and unlike the last time, when his entry plug had been shattered, more than a little alive.
     Nevertheless, he couldn't help wondering how close it had been this time.  If he hadn't managed to evade the Angel at the last second, he could have found himself in hospital or worse.  Asuka, too, upon entering the Cage, started to scold him for allowing himself to continue with an entry plug in that state.
     "I couldn't tell!" he protested, before being silenced by her lips covering his.
     "Don't let it happen again, okay, dummkopf?"
     Shinji found himself nodding mutely and meekly, agreeing.
 


* * *

     Light streamed in thick, glorious bands from a cloudless sky into a room whose inhabitant would, without a doubt, soon be returning.  Early spring air, blowing gently through the window, stirred up and swept away dust, refreshing and rejuvenating it with a cool draft.
     There was still no life there, although the very anticipation, the revived hope and dreams, feigned it suitably.  Asuka thought she could feel it, too, a rising warmth that infiltrated into her from the very room itself.
     She stood at the threshold, looking in as the morning sun lit up the entire dwelling as one, as she entertained thoughts of having her friend back in the apartment, among them.  She could already imagine Hikari's efforts to bring herself back up to speed on the homework and material missed in class.
     A pair of hands wound themselves around her waist, as she stood before the doorway, to embrace her.
     "Thinking about Hikari again?"  This time, Shinji didn't have to comfort her, and he was relieved that at least this would no longer be hurting her as it had for so long.
     "Hmm?  ...Yeah.  It'll be good to have her back."
     Looking at her, Shinji found a gleaming spark in her eyes, fully restored.  He smiled.  It was enough for him.  Kissing her, he reminded her breakfast was ready. 1