EVANGELION: Ascension of the Lamb
By: Dante Abbey

 Episode 40: Weaving A Story: Retelling / The Price of Failure

     Excerpted from the personal notes of Touji Suzuhara, the Fourth Child:
     Reference event: 18th Angel.

     I'm scared.
     No, really.  Mari can't see what's wrong with this...miracle.  I guess it's a miracle; I don't need the prosthetics anymore.  What with...myself being...healed.  I guess.
     I'm still not sure.
     I know I haven't written anything for quite a while.  When I wasn't in hospital, I was too caught up in the moving preparations and unpacking afterward.  It all seems so stupid, now, since I just got back to Tokyo-3 this week from the new house.  NERV says they'll help Dad move our stuff back to our old home.
     Mari's all excited, I don't blame her.  She has friends she hasn't seen in ages, and she says she can't wait to see them again.  I suppose I kinda missed Shinji and Kensuke, too, while I was gone.
     I saw Shinji in the change rooms yesterday.  He seemed real scared of me, like I was going to kill him or something.  Again, I can't blame him.  He couldn't have known it was me in there anyway, and I can't imagine him going berserk like that, either.  He's always so calm.  Just goes to show what a nice guy he is.  He started apologizing, too, like it was all his fault.
     I'd better say it now, before I get sidetracked.  Yes, I'm an Eva pilot...again.  I'm still the Fourth Child, no matter how many times I want to tell myself to wake up and realize I'm just Touji Suzuhara.
     The bastards called me at the other house last week, told me I had to come back.  Never gave me a choice, just straight out of the blue.  I was on the phone for hours, trying to make sure Mari could come with me.  Didn't really want to leave her behind again.
     I've been at NERV at lot, recently.  Training.
     Piloting Unit-14's a lot easier than it looks.  It's like it can read your mind, and always does what you want it to.  Dr. Masaharu tells me that's because I have a pretty good 'synch ratio' or something.  Whatever that means.
     Control is still a little difficult.  I can't really make it move as quickly as they'd like me too, but it's not like I'm not trying.  After a couple of tries, using the assault rifle -- I think that's what it is, Kensuke once tried to explain it to me -- was pretty easy, and I've just learned to use the...knife.
     I've got a 'harmonics test' tomorrow, for some reason.  They told me it's just a routine checkup, that demon-girl has to be there, too.  How many tests can they do?  I'll bet they've got a whole department for finding new ways to tinker with us.
     Whatever.
     There was an Angel, yesterday.  First one since the miracle happened.  First one that I, personally, have had to fight.
     Just like the other one, it was pretty weird looking.  Didn't have hands, just arms, and even they were kind of weird.  I didn't think that Captain Shigeru was going to make me go out there, just because I figure Shinji and demon-girl must be pretty good at this to have survived so long.
     They left the radio lines open, so I heard most of what was going on.  I think Shinji tried to save demon-girl from being attacked, and took it himself.  That's when they launched me.  It doesn't make a lot of sense, really.  They could have put me out there earlier, although I'm not sure I could have changed anything.
     By the time I got there, though, that...thing wrecked Shinji's entry plug as he was trying to eject -- I think he must have been terrified before he passed out.  I know I was.
     This time, it was demon-girl who lost it.  I don't know what she was screaming, it was all in German, or something.  Could have been Japanese, she was yelling so loud.  I can't tell.
     By the time I got there, her Eva was sitting on the Angel, beating it.  I swear, I practically saw myself under there, some kind of recurrent memory from before.  In the end though, I'm pretty sure I did get enough control back together to hit the core with the prog knife.
     The 'core' -- that's what they called it -- is really important, apparently.  If you kill that, the Angel dies.  Pretty simple.  I'm not going to complain, it makes our job a whole lot easier.
     Anyway, after we killed the damn thing, Asuka -- and I swear I am not making this up -- started crying.  Like, really crying hard.  Even Mari's never cried that much before, not even when the dog died.
     I was pretty sure she had a thing for Shinji, but I didn't think it was that strong.  I never was any good at reading people.
     We found Shinji a while later, another miracle.  There seem to be too many, these days.  He's okay, they sent him to hospital.  It's a good thing those entry plugs are so tough.
     I don't think I've ever seen her so happy, either.
     School starts in a couple of days.
     Maybe Kensuke will be there too.  I haven't heard from him in a while.
     Mari says I'm going to see all of my old friends again.  I want to believe her, but I heard a lot of people left the city shortly after we did.  Since they don't have a reason to come back like I do, I don't know why they would.  I don't want to tell her she might not see some of her friends, but I don't want to burst her bubble, either.  I guess I'll have to.  It's better that she go prepared, and pleasantly surprised, than disappointed.
     I've already met Shinji again, so there's just Kensuke.  I guess they're my best friends, really.  I've only really talked to them, Asuka, class rep, and...Rei, the one time she did talk to me.  What a weirdo.

* * *

     Excerpted from the journal of Hikari Horaki, the Sixth Child:
     Reference event: 19th Angel.

     This is all wrong!
     I don't want to be here!  I don't want to be a pilot!

     Why am I here?

     Suzuhara's in hospital, in the ICU.  They refuse to tell us if he's okay, and they won't tell us why they can't.  I hope they won't have to amputate again, he'll be devastated.  Asuka tells me he'll be all right; she says "Mr. Compassionate" will be out again without a scratch.  I know she's my best friend, and I want to believe her.
     I guess she must know what she's talking about.  (She hid the news about her and Shinji from me, though.  I'll have to keep an eye on them.)
     I guess this means I've killed an Angel.  Even if I never understood what was going on.  Commander Fuyutsuki just told me to pull the trigger when the light came on...I still don't know how these things work.
     Asuka congratulated me yesterday, for some reason.  Apparently I'm a good pilot, even though I have no experience whatsoever.  They gave me some manuals to read after the test, too, and I read them all on the train.  They're so vague!  They say 'concentrate'.  On what?  How does it work?  How am I supposed to know?

     I hope Suzuhara's okay.  I really do.
     I've never heard anyone yell like that before.  Ever.  I've never seen anything so...gory...in my entire life.  I know I'm going to have nightmares about this for a long time, too.  Forgetting is not going to be an option, I know.
     I'm not just talking about Suzuhara.  I'm talking about Shinji and Asuka, too.  I think they got hurt during the fight as well, I just don't know how.
     The Angel was invisible, I think.  I never got to see it.  The Eva's computer just told me I 'had a lock', and I pulled the trigger.

     Now I'm looking at that sentence, and it's making me feel queasy.
     I killed an Angel...I pulled the trigger.  I.
     I killed something.
     We don't even know what it was.  And I killed it.
     I know it was attacking us, and I saw what it did to Suzuhara...oh, God...
     Why is this happening to me?

     My God.  What it did to Suzuhara.
     I'm still not sure, I couldn't see too much through the shaft, and it was too dark.  I know it must have been extremely painful, at the very least.  And I'm sure I saw blood, when I...fired.  That beam of whatever it was lit up the passage pretty brightly.  I know it was red.  I know it.
     Captain Shigeru said his Eva fell half-way down the shaft before it got caught on something.  That's where they rescued him, I guess.  I'm too afraid to think about what happened to him.
     I asked Asuka about the neural link just before the battle.  She said it's just pain.  Still, I hope she's not hiding something else.  I don't want to get hurt doing this.
     What if Suzuhara's brain dead?

     I didn't want to think about that.  Shit.

     I think I want this to end.  I shouldn't have accepted in the first place.  I suppose it's just a matter of time before something like what happened to Suzuhara happens to me, and I'm really frightened.  I don't think I'll be able to sleep tonight, and if I don't, I won't be able to pay attention during classes tomorrow.
     Problem is, they could just pick anyone else to do it.  Stupid altruism.  Now I'm taking the hits for someone else, and Suzuhara's taking the hits for me.

     I hate this.  I think.
     I hate not knowing what's going on.  I hate not knowing how the Eva works, I hate not knowing how Suzuhara's doing.
     And I'd love everything else.  Why can't things just be the way they were, say, two years ago?
     Then I'd never have met Asuka.  And Suzuhara hadn't moved into town yet.
     I hate not having a choice.  I feel like I'm being moved around everywhere against my will.  And at the same time, I feel like this is not only something I have to do, but something I should do, and something I...want...to do.
     Now I want to throw up.  I don't know what I'm supposed to do, now.

     I've got to ask Asuka for more advice.  She always knows what to do.  Well, not always, but she has more experience dealing with all this NERV stuff anyway.  She has to know, she's been doing since she was eight years old, she tells me.
     At any rate, it shouldn't be too hard.  At the very least, I don't have to wait until school to talk to her any more, since we all live in the same apartment, now.
     Major Katsuragi's gone, now.  Her room's been turned into mine, but sometimes, I feel like she's still here, like I'm sleeping in her space.  Still, the room's becoming familiar ground for me.
     That sounds pretty silly, doesn't it?
     Asking Asuka for help these days is starting to feel familiar, too.  It's like talking to Kodama and Nozomi at the same time, except with more energy.  And, of course, Kodama's boyfriend doesn't live at home.

     Just talked to Asuka.  She was a great help, and she's right.  Maybe I am thinking too hard.  I need to get some sleep.  It was Shinji's turn to make lunch the day before yesterday, so it's my turn to get up early tomorrow.
     I still don't think I'll ever be able to shake off what I saw yesterday, though.  I know that was blood, and I have a feeling Suzuhara's worse off than anyone thinks.  Just this once, I hope my intuition is wrong.
     I hope I don't get nightmares about this tonight.

* * *

     Excerpted from the Operational Reports filed by Captain Aoba Shigeru, Director of Operations:
     Reference events: Unit-16 incident,

     This report entails my department's views and concerns related to the recent malfunction of Evangelion Unit-16.  Filed [date deleted].
     The incident in question is a Berserk type malfunction in Evangelion Unit-16.  This phenomenon has been noted several times in the past, most notably by Evangelion Unit-00 and Evangelion Unit-01.  In each of these cases, excluding external influence (cross-reference to 13th Angel, file [deleted]; and 17th Angel, file [deleted]), a pilot was present in the entry plug.  Loss of mental control on the pilot's part was considered to be the primary factor in the initiation of these incidents.
     What is most concerning about this particular incident is that it was both initiated and furthered by the Evangelion itself, in the absence of both pilot and entry plug.
     Evangelion Unit-16 is reported to have started up on battery power, an event normally possible only when a pilot has been inserted and synchronized.  It is still unknown at this time whether or not the Evangelion's core was involved.
     Evangelion Unit-16's movement was first reported by Lieutenant Shoji Masaharu, who was performing routine maintenance on Unit-02 at the time.  His report states that 'several low roars' were heard within the Cage prior to the Eva leaving the Cage proper.  Based on the maximum potential output of the Evangelion's battery at rest, he proposed that it was not until the second or third roar that the Evangelion actually initiated movement.
     Damage was reported in every Cage to the east of the Command Centre, and repairs are currently underway.  From our video records, Evangelion Unit-16 progressed rapidly past Evangelion Unit-14 into Evangelion Unit-01's cage.  We are uncertain as to why Evangelion Unit-16 paused there, as the cameras monitoring that Cage section were damaged by the collapsing wall.  Finally, Evangelion Unit-16 proceeded through the wall into the Command Centre, which was evacuated as per Commander Fuyutsuki's orders.
     On a related note, it must be mentioned that Lieutenant Tatsuo Yamashita's report stated that the MAGI did not note the Evangelion's activation until it began moving.  This may be the result of a maintenance error, as all Evangelions are to be connected to the MAGI at all times for monitoring when not in combat, via a hardwired link.  This discrepancy must be investigated.  If the Evangelion was indeed connected to the MAGI at the time of the incident, I would recommend that the MAGI's program be re-evaluated and corrected where necessary.
     Interim Chief of Scientific Development Dr. Akiko Masaharu and Lieutenant Tatsuo Yamashita have compiled a report stating how Evangelion Unit-16 was able to maintain control of its body without the entry plug being present (cross-reference file [deleted]).  They report that the ganglion nerves of the Evangelion's sypathetic nervous system were used instead of the central neural column.  This may also account for several of the Evangelion Unit-00 incidents, which were not looked into.
     They also report that there was no evidence of external tampering.  Suffice to say that this does not preclude that possibility.
     It is my belief that further analysis is required before Evangelion Unit-16 is declared fit for active duty and reactivated with the Seventh Child.  I also believe that a waiting period of at least a month should be instituted before deploying it in against the next Angel, should one arrive.
     Sir, I do not believe your orders to have it reactivated this week are prudent, in light of the damages caused by the rampant Evangelion.
     However, I do appreciate your solicitation of my opinion for this report.

     Reference event: Balthazar incident (1).

     This report entails my department's views and concerns related to the recent malfunction of MAGI Balthazar.  Filed [date deleted].
     As this report would normally originate from the Chief of Scientific Development, who was not present at the time of the incident, I will be as brief in my limited knowledge as possible.
     Power and control of all facilities on the surface, the geofront, Central Dogma, and Terminal Dogma was lost following the command of MAGI Balthazar at [time deleted].  Investigations carried out by MAGI Melchior and MAGI Caspar were able to determine that the instructions were, in fact, not originating externally, but were unable to penetrate Balthazar's defenses.
     Commander Fuyutsuki proposed a plan wherein the MAGI's neural processors were to be directly linked to each other as a network to be administrated by Lieutenant Tatsuo Yamashita in his role as MAGI Operator.  The repairs proceeded as planned, until MAGI Balthazar began reprogramming MAGI Melchior.
     MAGI Caspar isolated itself with the 666 firewall program.
     Ultimately, we were forced to reset the MAGI, a procedure which has not been used since the system's inception.
     All three members of the bridge crew were commended for their work on the evening of [date deleted].
     The permanent Chief of Scientific Development, Dr. Calvin Robertson, is currently looking into the event, and is developing a protocol for potential future incidents.
     I am not knowledgeable enough in the inner workings of the MAGI to make further commentary.

     Reference event: 20th Angel.

     This report entails my department's views and concerns related to the arrival of the 20th Angel.  Filed [date deleted].
     The Angel made its primary approach over the Pacific Ocean from the south, deploying wide-band ECM jamming with the aid of its AT Field.  The Command Centre was unable to contact the pilots throughout the battle because of this.  The operation was left in their hands throughout.
     Subsequent analysis from the Evangelion's mission recorders yielded the following.  (Files [deleted] to [deleted] contain the actual footage.)
     The Angel's specific properties include (as far as we can tell) shapeshifting on both a broad (e.g. general morphology) and specific scale (e.g. mimicry), and the capacity to energize its skin.  The Angel detonated upon destruction, and thus we were unable to discern further properties from the corpse.
     It is also believed that the Angel was capable of penetrating the human mind.  Based on the strongest existing friendships already established between the pilots, the Angel elected to assume the forms of Evangelions the pilots would not attack.  For example, it took on the form of Evangelion Unit-02 to attack Evangelion Unit-01.
     This pattern was repeated throughout the battle, with the Angel either directly attacking our Evangelions in its assumed form or in its original form, in which we believe it could energize its skin more efficiently.
     Confronted with two Evangelions at the same time (Evangelion Unit-02 and Evangelion Unit-14), it attempted to confuse the pilot of Evangelion Unit-02 by becoming an exact copy of Evangelion Unit-14, and engaging the latter in direct combat.
     A commendation is recommended for the Second Child, as she correctly determined which of the two was the actual Angel, and eliminated it.
     What with the improvement of the Angels' intelligence and capacities, we must be prepared for all eventualities.  I would recommend that we upgrade our communications systems to deal with ECM jamming, and expand the scope of pilot training to deal with these situations.
     Simultaneously, I believe that we should realize and assume that the Angels are indeed capable of reading our minds, and that we should be prepared to fight an enemy that knows our plans.
     I don't know that I can say anything more about this battle, sir.  I have no complaints about the performance of the pilots or the Evas.  The Seventh Child is still making slow progress, however.  I'm not sure if we should push him as hard as he would like to go.  We would do well to remember the incident with Unit-16 a while back.

* * *

     Excerpted from the notebook of Kensuke Aida, the Seventh Child:
     Reference event: 21st Angel.

     You call that a battle?!  What a disappointment.  We hardly had to do anything.  Heck, the Angel never even defended itself.  It just put out that big black shadow, and waited for us to step into it!  What kind of idiots does it think we are?
     Still, I shouldn't say it wasn't dangerous.  I'm still not sure, but I think it might have found a way to do something to the class rep.  I shut down Unit-16 before it happened, so I don't know really know what was going on.
     Shinji and demon-girl really tore up the Angel afterward, though.  I didn't think an Eva could jump that far.
     As for class rep, she hasn't shown up at school, yet.  Touji says she must be in a hospital, and he keeps bugging me to hack into the city's public network to find her, since they won't tell him where she is.
     I've been working on it, but it's not as easy as he thinks it is.  I've got to work my way around a bunch of new firewalls they put in since that big espionage scare, and I've been too scared of NERV to do any hacking since.  On top of that, I don't need to anymore, since I'm a pilot now too.
     But has Touji ever lost it this time.  He was practically begging me on the phone last night to get to work.  He says he's really worried, and I believe him.
     Anyway.
     Speaking of love affairs, I noticed Shinji was sitting in demon-girl's entry plug while we were waiting for the Angel to come back.  We've really got to do something to remind him what she's really like.
     No, seriously, just kidding.
     They way they cling to each other these days, you'd have never believed she used to want to kill him on a daily basis.  I can't see what made him fall for her, yet.
     Man...  I'm losing both of my friends here.  Gotta do something.
     Oh, yeah.  I broke the thirty percent synchronization ratio!  That means...you guessed it...progressive weapons!  Can't wait to get Unit-16's hands on those babies.
     Just the thought of holding something that can cut through steel like a hot knife through butter...
     Won't be long, now!  Yes!

* * *

     Excerpted from the Science Reports filed by Chief of Scientific Development Dr. Calvin Robertson:
     Reference event: 22nd Angel.

     Report from Science Division to Commander Fuyutsuki.  Sent [date deleted].
     The clean up operations are proceeding without too many delays.  Sample collection is somewhat substandard, however, and more care will need to be taken to ensure good results.
     Data taken from samples already being analyzed indicate that this Angel is not too different from what I have termed the 'typical' Angel.  I realize that there is no organizational relevance between Angels, however, there does seem to be a predominance of humanoid forms.  It has no particularly unique properties, and if they do, they were never displayed in combat, nor are they immediately evident from our samples.
     This battle, however, did provoke a specific state in Unit-01 originally termed 'Berserker' by one of my predecessors.  We have no indication as to why Unit-01 achieved this state, although it is suspected that the high-level emotions displayed by the pilot may have triggered it.
     Pilot Ikari has displayed similar performance before, yet we lack sufficient data from these previous examples to accurately draw a link between him and these 'Berserker' rages.  We also have evidence that other Evangelions are capable of this kind of behavior, so it would be a moot point.
     Most peculiar is the recurrence of Unit-01's regenerative abilities.  Most notable about this incident is the fact that pilot Ikari was both in his own body and in full control when this occurred.  Nevertheless, we are unsure of whether or not he caused Unit-01's regrowth consciously.  If this is the case we will assume it was for the purpose of preventing further damage to Unit-02, and by extension, its pilot.  For emphasis, I will append the transcript from the communications logs.  You may notice that portions of it do not make sense.  This can probably be attributed to his state of mind at the time.

     Ikari: 'No!  No!  Leave her!  Leave her alone!  [pause]  God dammit!  Help her!  Please!  Listen to me!'

     This section of the transcript includes ten seconds before the event.  After the regeneration, his speech degenerates to basic vocalizations, and I do not see the relevance in including it here.
     I have ordered tests of the new biological material in Unit-01's appendages, however, we have not been able to see any difference in the data collected previously and the data collected now.  Through some discrepancy, there are no records of similar tests being performed before and after the first two incidents.
     I should also mention the fact that there was a significant difference in the AT fields being generated around Unit-01 at the time of pilot Ikari's second attack.  MAGI records show that there were three distinct AT fields being generated simultaneously.  One, obviously, belonged to the Angel.  One, also quite obviously, belonged to Unit-01 itself.  The third has not been placed or identified as of yet.  My hypothesis is that it is actually a revived AT field from Unit-02, although I have not yet verified this to my satisfaction.  There is evidence from some of the surviving pre-Third Impact files that pilot Sohryu was capable of some limited manipulation of her Eva's AT field at one point, although it seems she has not seen fit to repeat it for our benefit.
     Do not confront her with this.  As with pilot Ikari, she may not have been conscious of that control.  It's best if they don't know what is happening.  It improves the chances they will happen again, especially if they are subconscious phenomena.  By extension, it improves our ability to collect data.  'A watched pot never boils'.
     Still on a dull note, I must say that the resulting damage from the battle will take much time to repair.  Furthermore, we have received notification from our installations abroad that they are very far behind schedule on the creation of replacement parts and new 'armour'.  We are not expecting delivery for at least another month.
     Unit-16 was the first Eva that was attacked.  Both parts (upper torso, lower torso) have been recovered and placed in a cryogenic cooling tank until we have recreated the required vertebrae, organs, muscles, etc. to reattach the two halves.  I suspect that pilot Aida will lose anywhere between five and fifteen percent from his synch ratio in the absence of repeated stimuli from the Eva.  When we do get Unit-16 repaired, I will be putting him through extensive reflex improvement excercises, as per Captain Shigeru's suggestion.  His reaction time to the Angel's attack was unacceptable, and it would be best for all parties involved if we didn't have to keep repairing it all the time.
     Unit-14 is also not operational, and will remain this way for some time.  We have placed it in a sealed Cage for the time being, awaiting both replacement parts and the technical staff to attend to it, as my workers are mostly occupied with Unit-16. If possible, I need to requisition this additional manpower.  120 technicians and scientists will suffice.
     As to the pilot, it would appear he still hesitates before entering battle.  Pilot Suzuhara may yet still have reservations about his role as a pilot.  Unfortunately, he is our only real choice for Unit-14, and therefore, I recommend psychological help and counseling.  If you'd rather leave him the way he is, then the least we can do is place experts among the security teams to observe him.
     Pilot Horaki is still recuperating well.  The treatment plan's schedule has been accelerated, it works much better than even I had hoped.  There is potential to utilize LCL as a standardized medical treatment in hospitals worldwide after its properties are appropriately catalogued and declassified.
     This leaves two operational Evangelions available to us until then, namely Unit-01 and Unit-02.
     Both pilots are in considerably better mental health from what I have read in last year's reports.  I don't anticipate any problems with them, and their synch ratios only prove how much better they are doing overall.

     Why aren't there any bloody reports on the previous regenerations?  I seriously doubt that any scientist worth anything, particularly one in this organization, at this time, would not be concerned about Unit-01's ability.
     If there are any reports about this, at all, that have been classified outside of my reach, I would respectfully request that they be brought to my immediate attention.  Sir.  I cannot work blindly like this.
     As you are, or were once, a respected scientist, you must understand my difficulty with this.  I need that data.
     Sir.

* * *

     Excerpted from the official reports filed by UN Chief Inspector Marcel Desaint:
     Reference event: 23rd Angel.

     The report was filed on the [date deleted].
     The 20th [23rd] Angel attacked Tokyo-3 today.
     As has been the case in many of the past incidents, the pilots of Eva-01 and Eva-02 successfully dispatched the Angel in a short time despite the Angel's chameleon-like ability to blend in with its environment.
     This raises the obvious question of whether or not it is cost-effective to maintain and deploy an additional three Evangelions.  While the first incident since my arrival (the 15th [19th] Angel, I believe) proved the value of having extra Evangelions and back-up pilots available, the combat with the 18th [22nd] Angel only proved that said pilots are not ready for front-line duty.
     As I understand the material helpfully provided to me by Commander Fuyutsuki and his staff, the ability to pilot an Evangelion is an inborn talent which cannot be developed in a child without it.
     If I assume the good men and women at the Marduk Institute have done their utmost to select candidates for piloting, we must therefore conclude that only pilots Sohryu and Ikari are the ones fully capable of being our front-line pilots.
     I propose to the council, as a fund-saving motion, that the other three pilots be designated reserves, and their Evas kept in cryostasis until they are required by crisis to respond.
     This proposal would have been made directly to Commander Fuyutsuki himself, but I have not seen the man in person over the last week, so I have not had this opportunity.  I have forwarded a copy of my idea to his deputy, Captain Shigeru, but I have not received a reply.
     I also understand that tests are being performed wherein the pilots will be exchanging Evangelions.  If this test is successful, it would allow us to remove at least one Evangelion from the roster, since we would have more pilots than necessary, and each one could stand in for another in the case that they are incapacitated.
     It appears that this is the rationale behind this particular experiment, as pilot Horaki is still out of action.  If they can activate Unit-15 with either pilots Aida or Suzuhara, it would justify reducing NERV's budget, thereby freeing up funds for other UN projects.

* * *

     Messages of all ilk generally can be sorted into two major categories.  There is good news, and bad news.  Good news for one person can be bad news for another, and vice versa.   For SEELE, the majority of their most recent information had been placed in the latter category, primarily the fault of Commander Fuyutsuki and his continuing vigilance.  While the word that he was no longer attending directly to the matters of NERV in Japan, this was not necessarily favourable to the council and their intentions.
     While it was true that in Fuyutsuki's absence, SEELE's agents, Aaron and Moses, would have much greater liberty in their actions, the Commander had effectively chosen a particularly bad time to leave.
     Serendipidously fortuitous for him, of course, but highly inconvenient those who would oppose or interfere with his aims.  Effectively, Aaron and Moses had as of yet been unable to contact each other, for fear of giving themselves away to NERV's extremely vigilant and severe Section Two.
     This had just changed.  Kihl classed this last dispatch as falling distinctly into the 'good news' category.
     "We have received word that the Brothers have located each other.  They have exchanged information via a secured medium, and will be coordinating their efforts from here."  His words carried on in the harsh and overwhelming darkness, echoing neatly off the obfuscated walls of the sealed, darkened chamber.  "This occurred some time before the arrival of the 24th Angel."
     A moderate yet nasal voice of piercing intensity and as insistent as a whining insect followed, speaking as the mouthpiece for a body that thought as one.  "Indeed.  As Fuyutsuki has not announced plans to return to Japan for some time to come, it will allow them to perform in their role most admirably."
     "However, they must not abuse of their freedom," uttered the next council member, sober caution colouring his speech, "Section Two's awareness has been considerably improved under Fuyutsuki's guiding hand.  Too much time and effort has been invested in insinuating them into the positions they currently occupy within NERV's hierarchy.  Placed as they are, they have many resources unavailable to our other agents."
     "Unrestricted access to the MAGI is a valuable tool indeed.  We must also alert them that Fuyutsuki's prophecy will not necessarily be found within the computers, however.  The recent spate of malfunctions in that system may have prompted him to relocate his material."
     After all of Fuyutsuki's duplicities and misdirections, his name now bore the same feverish, foul hatred that had once been reserved for SEELE's greatest betrayer, Gendou Ikari.  Fuyutsuki was never idle, it seemed, and was quite capable of playing mind games with the council.  He seemed much too happy to be leading them by the nose, as if he couldn't care less what they would attempt next.
     Had they not come within mere inches of their lofty goal?  After Ikari had made clear his objective of treachery, had they not already destroyed all of NERV, its weapons, defenses, members, in one master stroke?
     And yet, while Ikari had simply been content to sidle up to them before planting his knife in their figurative back, here Fuyutsuki danced insolently before them, openly defying them, and challenging them to best him.
     Frustrating, to say the least.
     "He is currently still in Rome.  He may be involved in activities involving his prophecy."
     While the simple solution would have entailed eliminating him then and there, and confiscating the prophecy from his possession, the risk of failure was too great, and there was no guarantee that Fuyutsuki had the text near him.  And, if he were eliminated, no one would be able to find the Scrolls.  Ever.
     As far as anyone could tell, Fuyutsuki was the sole proprietor of the secrets of the Scrolls, knowing both their content and location.  By making himself the only person with control over SEELE's most wanted knowledge, he had cloaked himself in such importance that dispensing of him was impossible.
     Even as the old men seethed, however, they were comforted by the work of their servants.  The sooner Fuyutsuki was divested of his power over them, the sooner he would be vulnerable.  Then, he would find that he was the one with a long knife pointed at his throat.
     In the mean time, events were progressing far too fast for the council's liking.  Too many Angels had arrived in recent times, causing worry that the prophecy would be fulfilled before their goals had been reached.
     News that Aaron and Moses had begun working in tandem put them another step closer to the evasive Fuyutsuki.  It wouldn't be long, now, before that cloak was torn...
     Kihl almost laughed at the thought.
     Almost.
     That was a sound rarer still than the song of an extinct bird.

* * *

     Shinji didn't have the time to take off the apron as he darted to the door, unlocked it, and ran back to attend to the stove.  Touji caught only a hasty "I'm sorry," and the blur of his body turning the corner at the end of the entrance hall as he looked into the apartment.
     "Hey," whispered a small voice next to him, "take off your shoes!"
     Obedient to the last of his sister's commands, Touji paused, and knelt to pick at his laces.  "Right...  Hey, Shinji!  It's us!"
     Mari looked up at her brother.  "That's...that's Mr. Ikari?" she asked, keeping her tone reverentially low.  "I'm going to meet him now?"
     Touji gave her a little grin, then bid her to follow him into the kitchen.  Both carried plastic bags in which their contributions were precariously balanced, so as to avoid spilling.  Touji placed these on the kitchen table, next to the half-prepared plate Shinji was currently working on.
     "Sorry," started Shinji, an embarrassed flush crossing his face as he lowered the heat and turned to face his visitors.  "You just caught me at a bad time..."  His attention was pulled downward, to the little face peering out from around Touji's waist with sudden timidity.  "This must be your sister, right?" he said, kneeling, simultaneously evaporating all of Mari's courage.
     With no small degree of pleasure, Touji guided her out in front of himself, introducing her.  After a moment's reflection, Mari allowed herself to be drawn from her cover.  Bowing deeply as she could, she succeeded only in intensifying the discomfort that public recognition brought about in Shinji's withdrawn mind.
     "Um...no, Mari..," he started, looking up to Touji for confirmation of her name, and, upon receiving it, "...you don't need to do that."
     The girl straightened up, still shy of him.  "Um...yes, Mr. Ikari."
     "Shinji," he corrected, not asking, nor wanting, to be too formal.  This was, after all, the poor child he'd inadvertently mauled somehow during his first sortie in Unit-01.  "I'm really sorry about what happened when the first Angel came here...  I hope you're better, now."  Taking her enthusiastic nod as a sign to go on, he changed tack.  "You take good care of your brother, don't you?"
     Pride beamed in her eyes.  "Yes, Mr... Shinji!  He still doesn't know how to take care of himself!"
     Touji gave his sister a funny look, as Pen-Pen waddled into the room, yawning out of sheer boredom.  Suddenly diverted by the bird's arrival, Mari took her leave of the two boys to play with him.  Pen-Pen seemed slightly ruffled by this unwarranted attention, but took it in stride, as she certainly wasn't as boring as doing nothing.
     After watching her a while longer, Touji pulled out a chair and sat down.  "Didja hear from Kensuke yet?"
     Shinji shook his head.  "No...  But I left another message on his machine yesterday, and again this morning.  I don't know if NERV's keeping him in for more questioning, or something."
     "So we don't know if he's coming, or not, then?"
     Shinji shook his head sadly.  "I made enough for him, if he decides to show up."
     Mari giggled from across the room as she chased a squwaking Pen-Pen across the kitchen into the living room, finally cornering him against the sliding door to Hikari's chamber.  This last had been tidied again, awaiting her return.
     Outmaneuvered, Pen-Pen submitted himself to the mild humiliation, allowing himself to be a part of the little girl's games.

* * *

     The geofront was never fully dark.  Even in the dead of night, it was filled with enough artificial light to make up the absence of true, solar light.  On rare occasions, if conditions were right, the moon could make its presence known, casting its silvery rays even into the bowels of the earth.
     Hikari had already been forewarned of her release from the hospital.  In fact, she had been waiting for it with some ardour since she had heard one of the doctors attending to her rehabilitation speculate that her leave might even take place within the week.
     Standing now before the somber pane of glass that overlooked the geofront, she could see a pale spectre of herself in the reflection.  She'd never really had skin tinged quite enough to be dark, but the absence of the healthy, ruddy glow she usually wore had worried her a little.  It was beginning to return now, though, perhaps even more so with the news that she was returning home.
     Not to her family, of course.  She had, after all, opted to remain with NERV, with Unit-15.
     Asuka had already returned the contents of her locker in the change room to the apartment, since they had lain there undisturbed for so long; much as she had remained alone, entrusted only to the attention of whatever medical staff and machines NERV had employed in her recovery.  In exchange, her friend had delivered a spare change of clothes in the morning.
     When asked why she'd only brought the drab blue uniform with her, Asuka had hurriedly explained that she was already late for school, and hadn't had time to look for anything else.  Hikari had laughed at once, knowing all too well Asuka's propensity for sleeping in.
     The doctor, a middle-aged man with a crumpled face who had apparently been a class representative himself, had finished his final examination mere minutes ago, and had gone to finish the paperwork that would free her from the confines of the medical community into the outside world.
     At long last.
     The door swept open without a knock, and Hikari didn't have to examine the lithe, excited silhouette standing in the doorway to know it was Asuka.
     "Ready to go?" she asked, hands planted on her hips.  "I'll bet you've been waiting for this."
     Bending down with renewed, rebuilt strength and confidence, Hikari gathered her small bag of toiletries, and walked steadily towards the door.
     "You don't know the half of it," she giggled, easily falling into step alongside her considerably healthier and still more robust companion.  "Have you ever been in the hospital this long?"
     Asuka looked up at the ceiling for a few seconds.  "Not that I can remember, anyway," she replied, opening the now unlocked ward doors and entering the central hub of the hospital.
     Hikari gave her friend a quick glance.  "Why the fancy dress tonight, Asuka?"
     "Oh, no reason," she replied, shrugging.  The corridor stretched onward before her, the elevator at the end of the hall beckoning.

* * *

     Something clattered off the metal innards of the computer known as Balthazar, bouncing several times before settling against the floor.  Dr. Robertson's harsh baritone shouted a curse in English, then fell into an inaudible mumbling as he continued to deride whatever tool had fallen onto him.
     Yamashita, sitting on the bridge tower with thirty-odd NERV scientists, had been assigned to Dr. Robertson's repair team.  Since Balthazar's failure during the battle with the last Angel, it was imperative that the MAGI be fixed on a permanent basis.  Risking another such incident, during an attack, no less, was unacceptable.
     As such, Dr. Robertson had assembled a large group of personnel to aid him in carrying out what he callously called his 'final solution'.  At that moment, most were seated in front of portable computers, either on the floor or at hastily erected desks, amid a tangled nest of snaking conduits and cables.  Some looked to the access passage at the MAGI's base into which Dr. Robertson had disappeared some hours ago, but most ignored it.  As always, he was best ignored when he wasn't directly giving orders.
     After the last, long, drones of the power drill wound down, his hand emerged long enough to appropriate one of the dozens of interface boards stacked around the tunnel's mouth, then withdrew.
     "Lieutenant!  C'mere!"
     Yamashita's ears pricked up at the sound of his rank; he was the only possible person Dr. Robertson could have been referring to.
     "Absolutely amazing," he heard the grizzled man say, as he entered the crawlspace himself.  As he rounded the corner to where Dr. Robertson was seated, facing the moist mass of neural material that was the MAGI's core, he could see the other man was staring down into a wide screen with limited holographic capabilities.
     Such a screen could only project images about a centimeter above the actual surface, but it was sufficient to demonstrate certain things, such as electronic circuits, or, as was the case, neural networks.
     Wires snaked out from the computer all around him, linking interface boards to Balthazar, and back again.  Yamashita could see a number of leads dangling out of the brain-like mass, dissappearing somewhere into the numerous pieces of electronic equipment gathered at Dr. Robertson's feet.
     Almost absently, Dr. Robertson handed him a memory card from the pile next to him.  "Give this to Captain Shigeru when you see him," he said, still staring at the mobile colours before him with fascinated, learning eyes.
     "Yes, sir," replied the Lieutenant, preparing to back out with the card in his left hand.
     "Wait.  This," Dr. Robertson added, pushing a box filled with at least thirty similar cards towards his subordinate, "you look at when you have the time.  I may need your help analyzing these.  It's incredible..."
     "Sir?"
     Dr. Robertson had just grinned, Yamashita realized, for the first time since meeting him.  "Biological memory.  The MAGI have a true memory..."

* * *

     Asuka gloried in the fact that Hikari had been able to support herself from as far as the train station, stopping to rest only once she had reached the lobby of the apartment complex that was currently her home.  Even that hadn't been very long, lasting only until she had caught her breath, and she hadn't complained once.
     Also, she thought, chuckling quietly to herself, this was a trait she'd never really seen before in Hikari.  In some respects, Hikari had drive; how else could she maintain her position at the head of the class?  This, unfortunately, almost never manifested itself outside of the academic realm, leaving her friend at something of a disadvantage when it came to other matters.
     Not to say that Hikari had spent the entire time concentrated solely on walking.  She'd also provided Asuka with a spirited and curious conversation partner, informing herself about all the gossip, events, and news of the past month.
     In any event, it was good to have Hikari back.
     Neither really noticed that Touji was trying hard to circumnavigate them with a pair of garbage bags as they entered, too busy catching up on what they hadn't had time to discuss during Asuka's many visits to the hospital.
     "Hey, Shinji!  Where do you want me to put these again?" he shouted over their chatter, unsure of what to do as there was no specifically marked location.  "And they're here!"
     "Really?"
     Shinji didn't have far to look, though, as Asuka drew him blindly into a quick kiss.  Mari, standing on a chair repositioned next to the stove, blushed and giggled.
     This, however, drew quick attention to her.  It had taken her nearly a quarter of an hour to get used to Shinji, and while she was considerably less shy than she had been upon first meeting him, she had yet to meet Asuka.
     "I'm...um...Touji's sister...  Are you..?" she asked, sliding into a sitting position on the chair.
     "Asuka Langley Sohryu, of course!  Touji's sister, huh?"  Asuka took a moment to look at the timid child, then gave her a wink and remarked that she was worlds away cuter than her brother.  Hikari shot her a dirty look.
     Ultimately, though, this made Mari laugh.  "You're not like Touji says you are.  Your hair is different, though...so I guess he wasn't wrong about everything!"
     Asuka shot him a dirty look.
     "So," interjected Hikari, finally, as she detached an emotional Pen-Pen from her leg, "why is everyone here?"
     "We just thought we'd have a little party to welcome you back, that's all," answered Touji, gently nudging his sister's chair to the side so that he could wash his hands in the sink.  "Asuka's idea."
     "Yep!  So, Shinji...are we ready yet?"
     Mari held up one of her dishes from the table for her to look at.  "Yes, Asuka!"

* * *

     The corridor was dark, shrouded in shadow.
     Even the lights that were mounted in the joint of the ceiling and walls were unable to generate more than a sickly pall over the two figures standing there.
     Kensuke had removed his glasses; he wouldn't need them here, it was nearly too dark to see anyway.  The vagueness of the lines and forms around him seemed almost comforting, at the moment.  To be blind was almost a boon, right now.
     Captain Shigeru said nothing as he escorted Kensuke into the Commander's office.  Right now, it was unoccupied.  Despite his role as deputy commander in Fuyutsuki's absence, Shigeru didn't use the office.  Besides, there was nothing that could really be done there.
     The guards, still watching over an empty room, nodded and let them pass.  The doors slid shut behind them.
     Kensuke, even lacking of his aids, could see that the room was enormous, perhaps even more poorly-lit than the hallway on the other side of the impenetrable blast doors.  Windows of some kind -- although he doubted they were windows, this level was too deep beneath the earth to have windows -- formed three of the four walls.  There was a desk at the far side of the room, a tiny, lonely desk, standing on a desert of plate metal.
     Shigeru, for his part, stared at the ceiling and floor.  Two diagrams, each different from each other, had been meticulously painted there.  He couldn't read the archaic languages that seemed to explain the pair of massive charts, but he presumed they were important in some way.
     Neither of the two had ever set foot in this room before, even in the Commander's presence.  To be summoned there while he was still supposedly half-way around the world simply added to the peculiar surreality of the moment.
     Kensuke said nothing as they proceeded towards the desk, the empty chair behind it.  As they neared it, his poor eyes began to make out the stacks of paper and files that framed the workspace in the centre.
     His taller, lankier counterpart saw these as well, and beyond the smaller piles on the side of the desk facing him, he saw something else.
     A shoji board..?
     Indeed.  Pieces were scattered over it, in the middle of some marathon game...almost as though the Commander had been playing against himself.
     Another step carried them over the border of the largest circle inlaid in the floor, another step closer to the desk.  As if on cue, a holographic projector built into the desk flickered and came to life, displaying only the words 'sound only'.  Commander Fuyutsuki was speaking to them either from a location without a camera, or had chosen not to allow his image to be transmitted over the communication lines.
     Silence reigned for a whole minute before the Commander's tired voice issued forth from the speaker into the room.
     "Captain Shigeru?"
     "Sir?"
     "I received your electronic report yesterday.  I trust you've left the original copy in the designated location?"
     "Yes, sir."
     Fuyutsuki's words, while definitely tired, were hued with no emotion, and almost no inflection outside of what was needed for clarity could be heard.  Quite peculiar, for Commander Fuyutsuki.
     "Good.  Then we shall discuss last Thursday's operation."
     Kensuke cringed visibly.  Shigeru gave him a worried glance, but kept his focus of the solid grey monitor before him.
     "'The Angel,'" read Fuyutsuki, "'made its initial approach from high orbit, according to the MAGI's retrospective extrapolation.  No warning signs were discovered prior to the attack.'  So.  The Angel hit the ground at a location west of the city.  You followed all standard protocols for the interception of the Angel?"
     Shigeru nodded, although he wasn't quite sure whether or not the 'sound only' option was one-way or two-way.  For all he knew, there might have been no image at Fuyutsuki's end either.
     "Yes," he added, in case the latter was true.  "As we were unable to establish a visual image of the Angel, or draw any immediate conclusions as to its nature or plans, I ordered that the Evas be deployed at short range to observe it."
     "Your report states that at this point in time, the MAGI suffered a serious malfunction, serious enough to incapacitate much of headquarters?"
     Kensuke noted quietly to himself that there had not yet been any reference to himself in the conversation.  Effectively, Commander Fuyutsuki was performing a serious debriefing on Captain Shigeru.  It was as if he wasn't there, or simply didn't exist at all.
     "Yes, sir.  That was true.  Dr. Robertson and some of our scientists are working on solving the problem, hopefully permanently.  He believes he understands why the malfunctions have occurred."
     "Inform him that I will be expecting a full report on the matter when the repairs are complete."  Here Fuyutsuki paused, and several soft clicks were heard, as he depressed the scrolling controls on the data reader at his disposal on the other end.  "We come, then, to your final suggestion to destroy the Angel?"
     Shigeru wasn't sure what to say, so, after a stunted pause, mentioned that he had included all the details in his report, currently in Fuyutsuki's own hands.
     "I can see that, thank you," answered Fuyutsuki, tapping the button once more.  "You ordered that Units-01 and 02 be airlifted over the Angel's weakest point, then released to perform an aerial assault.  Did this plan fall within the provided guidelines, or were you forced to take an extreme risk to accomplish the Angel's destruction?"
     "I was willing to go through with the plan because of the number of Evas that were currently available to me.  The MAGI reported nevertheless that the probability of failure was only 75 percent...acceptable risk, as stated by the guidelines."
     Fuyutsuki continued to pore over the details of the operation, looking into even the slightest minutiae, with Shigeru.  All this while, Kensuke, who stood directly in front of the grey rectangle, was neither referred to nor included in any of the conversation.
     It seemed forever until Fuyutsuki paused, and Kensuke would have liked it to stay that way, out of the light and forgotten.  In the sudden silence, a sudden cloud of dread seemed to envelop his entire body.  He forced himself to stay focused, his eyes locked straight ahead, yet unseeing, his body rigid as a pole.
     His voice, when it came, would respond with nothing more than the required answers.  There would be no pretense of guiltlessness, no words uttered in self-defence.  The mere facts would be sufficient.
     "Finally," said Fuyutsuki, breaking the ice, "there is the matter of the Seventh Child."  The man's voice displayed, at long last, the grating edge of true fatigue, as if he was tired of discussing the battle already.  Kensuke felt a frustration building in his invisible, far-removed Commander, and knew it was probably directed at him. "Is he there?"
     "Yes, sir," interjected Kensuke, before Shigeru could say anything.  "I am."
     "From the report Captain Shigeru provided me with, you defied explicit standing orders to hold your position and charged the Angel.  I am assuming this is correct information.  Am I wrong?"
     There wasn't much Kensuke could have said, even if he had wanted to defend himself more vigorously.  "No, sir."
     "Since that is the case, there are a number of charges that could be levied against you.  One of my aides was kind enough to provide me with a list of the relevant ones.  Beginning, of course, with disobedience of said order.  Misuse of Evangelion technology, endangering the lives of countrymen and fellow combat personnel; actions causing unnecessary damage to military materiel and installations; endangering mission objectives."
     Fuyutsuki sighed, and the sound of falling paper could be heard: he had just dropped the report back onto his desk.  It sounded heavy.
     "Have you thanked Touji yet?"
     "...No, sir.  I...haven't had the chance to see him yet."
     "I see.  If it weren't for him acting when he did, you would not be here today.  I've reviewed the footage from Unit-01's log.  Shortly after he removed the entry plug from Unit-16, the Angel completely overgrew both your Eva and his.  Rescue at that point would have been impossible.  Captain, what does the repair schedule look like?"
     Shigeru produced a data reader, and, scrolling through it, located the calendar.  "The technology division estimates that it will take five working days to fully replace all the digested armour.  The Americans made the delivery on time, so it shouldn't be a problem."
     There was no communication from Fuyutsuki for a few seconds, but Kensuke could have sworn he'd heard his commander mutter something about cost-justification.  If at all possible, it made him feel a little worse.
     Breaking the silence, he uttered, "Does this mean I'll be court-martialed, sir?"
     It took Fuyutsuki several more seconds to reply.  "No.  We can't afford to suspend Eva pilots.  It's much too risky.  Do you understand the importance of being the Seventh Child, Mr. Aida?"
     Kensuke was unable to reply, not knowing.
     "It means that we were unable to find anyone else.  You are the last of this select group to be positively identified.  Before, there were no available Evas to provide to the latter candidates.  Now that we have them, they must be piloted.  There is no replacement pilot for Unit-16, nor will there ever be.  You need to understand this.
     "Piloting an Evangelion is not a right alloted to certain individuals, nor does it form a part of your duty in defending your country.  By virtue of what you are capable of doing, it has become your responsibility..."
     "Shinji quit, didn't he?" he suddenly threw in, not realizing before it was too late that he was interrupting a senior officer, and breaking his resolution not to defend himself.
     Fuyutsuki went on, unfazed, but allowed Kensuke the luxury of an answer.  "Commander Ikari never intended to let him shirk that responsibility.  The only reason he allowed Shinji to leave is because he knew Shinji would be unable to stand by and watch his fellows get massacred.
     "Now.  By allowing you to pilot Evangelion Unit-16, we have placed the lives and fates of roughly three billion human beings in your hands.  You're lucky to be sharing this burden with others.  We don't expect you to perform perfectly; there is room for mistakes.  You are, however, expected to follow your orders.  Angels are not simple in mind or capacity, Mr. Aida.  This is why we always analyze before attacking.  Understood?"
     Kensuke nodded once, curtly, then bowed.  "Yes, sir."
     "If it makes any difference to you, I will tell you that your fellow pilots have made many decisions in defiance of their given orders.  I do realize that piloting Eva is extremely stressful, this will trigger emotional responses and rash judgement.  It is not always entirely their fault, as the Angels have fielded some of the strangest physical phenomena in the past.
     "What I cannot understand, however, are the stimuli that triggered your decision to attack the Angel.  Can you explain them to me?"
     This was what Kensuke had feared.  He'd had plenty of time, a whole twenty-four hours, to understand why he'd been so stupid as to fling himself into that crater to face a foe whose capabilities were fully unknown.  He should have known that the Angel had buried itself, if nothing else.
     "No, sir."
     There were no reasons.  It was his fault, entirely.  And why?
     Because he was still the only Eva pilot without a kill.  He supposed it must have been a combination of vanity and envy...  It was still inexcusable.
     And it didn't change the truth, either, he thought, nervously playing with his glasses in his breast pocket.  He was irreplaceable, yes, but useless.  Like some kind of precious ornament.
     Kensuke almost wanted to be stripped of the Eva; he'd been given his chance, and he'd burned it away into nothingness, wasted it.
     "I see," said Fuyutsuki.  Kensuke imagined him rubbing his forehead, like the principal of the school did whenever he was faced with a difficult child.  "This is a first in the history of NERV, but you will resume your pilot's duties once Unit-16 is repaired.  Try not to let this happen again."
     "Yes, sir!"
     He tried his best to sound enthusiastic.  As he'd expected, though, it came out of his mouth so forcibly he was sure Fuyutsuki could tell it was contrived.
     "That's all.  Mr. Aida, you are dismissed."
     Commander Fuyutsuki waited long enough for Kensuke to distance himself from the monitor, then spoke again to Shigeru.  "Captain?  Before you go, would you do me the favor of moving my knight into square C-6, please."
     Shigeru frowned.  What?
     He could almost imagine an amused smile drawing itself on Fuyutsuki's lips.  Not one to question his orders too deeply, he picked up the piece and moved it into the previously empty square.  Besides, it seemed so benign.
     "Thank you, Captain.  Good evening."
     With that, Fuyutsuki once again disconnected himself from NERV.  Shigeru stood alone in the Commander's office, at the head of the two massive white diagrams that decorated it.  The spartan design of the room precluded any possibility that they could be mere decoration, and he left with his mind furiously occupied.

* * *

     Keeping Mari out of trouble was considerably harder than Touji had previously anticipated.  While Pen-Pen could be trusted to occupy for short attention span every once in a while, she was never really occupied with one thing for very long, flitting around the apartment's living room like some kind of overly-curious sprite.
     Animated chatter was Mari's bread and butter when she was among friends at school, and it didn't seem like she was holding back here, either.  Over the course of the hours, she had gradually lost any inhibition from being in the presence of the other pilots.
     She talked nearly continuously with the two girls, occasionally dragging Shinji into conversation with a question or two, and Touji seemed to be the butt of every joke that had been told thus far.
     Touji just sighed, and rolled his eyes with every childish burst of laughter.  Hikari and Asuka, however, just laughed all the harder, not to mention looking and nodding knowingly at each other every time one of the little girl's cracks had a grain of truth in it.
     It was getting extremely late by the time Shinji noticed that the plates were almost all empty, and that no one, not even Touji, was eating any more.
     "Um...if you'll excuse me...  I'll start cleaning up, now," he announced quietly, beginning to gather the dishes into a neat pile next to him.
     Hikari, true to herself, immediately pitched in, collecting a few in her own pile.
     "Stop it!" interrupted Asuka, placing a hand on her arm and pushing it firmly away from the table, "This is your party!  I'll take those."
     For the first time that night, if ever, Touji agreed with Asuka.  "That's true...you just got back, after all."
     Hikari felt like saying she hadn't done anything in a month, and that she would love to do something, even washing up, but she decided not to.  Asuka was even taking the dirty dishes out from under Shinji's fingers, and, being her best friend, knew that once Asuka had set her mind on something, it was nearly impossible to dissuade her.
     It wasn't until Asuka invited Mari to come with her and Shinji into the kitchen that she suspected she was up to something.  Even Mari's constantly mobile attention was fully engrossed in watching Asuka embracing a now-aproned Shinji.
     Deprived of their usual conversation partners, Hikari and Touji sat around the low table with only Pen-Pen for company.  An awkward silence ensued.
     Hikari looked down at the penguin, locked in her arms.  He stared back at her quizzically, as if reminding her what she had intended to do.
     "I...really like your sister, Touji.  When I saw her, in the hospital, I didn't think she could be so, well, energetic," she said, glancing up from the bird at last.
     Touji started slightly, his attention drawn away from the kitchen where Asuka had employed Mari in drying the dishes from the sink.  Strangely enough, Asuka didn't seem to be doing much at all.
     "Huh..?  Yeah...she's a handful when she's excited.  I think she'll probably collapse in about half an hour.  I'll have to carry her home, I guess."
     "What about your parents?  Won't she be upset if you keep her up to late?"
     Touji smirked ironically.  "Nah...  I wouldn't worry about it.  Dad won't be home until tomorrow night anyway, and our mother, well...she died a long time ago.  Mostly I take care of her."
     "Oh...I'm sorry."  Pen-Pen made a strange squeaking noise, and she released him to waddle off in the kitchen.
     "Hey, whatever."
     Hikari couldn't help noticing how unperturbed he seemed by the discussion.  As it had been before she'd gone absent, he didn't seem to be troubled by the death.  She wondered if he never thought about it.
     In any case, it gave her sufficient reason to change the course of the conversation.
     "I...I have two sisters myself.  Only one of them's younger than me, though..," she began, looking at him.  It struck her suddenly that this was something they had in common, and she realized that she should have thought of this a long time ago.
     "Middle child, huh?"
     "Yes...  Well, sort of.  My older sister, Kodama?  She's in university now, in Tokyo-2, so I haven't seen much of her in recent years.  She's almost six years older than me.  Nozomi, on the other hand, is only two years younger, so we're a lot closer that way..."
     As she got into further detail, her voice picked up speed slightly, building itself on a germ of confidence.  Her eye caught Asuka's across the kitchen.  Asuka gave her a conspiratorial smile, and she blushed.  Touji didn't seem to notice.
     "I guess they don't live here, though...  Otherwise you wouldn't be living with these two, right?"  Touji jerked a thumb over his shoulder as the other two and Mari finished with the dishes.  Mari walked up behind him and threw herself over his shoulder, hanging there with one arm around his neck.  Wrapping his arm around her limp form, he lifted her off.  "That does it.  She'll be asleep any second now."
     "Are you going, then?"  Somehow, Hikari felt that the answer would have little impact on her.  Either way, she would find a way to finish the conversation some other time.
     "Yeah...  We'd better go home."
     "I'm not tired..!" protested Mari, stifling a yawn.  "I..."
     Touji stood, lifting her off the ground at the same time.
     "It was nice meeting you, Mari, but I think you'd better go with your brother," Hikari added, still kneeling.  "Take care, okay?  And come back again!"
     "Okay!  Bye!"
     After they'd left, and Asuka returned to helping Shinji clean up the counters, Hikari took a quick peek into her room, then returned to the kitchen.
     "Thanks, Asuka."
     Asuka shrugged.  "Just thought you might appreciate it.  It's been a while since we had a party.  Isn't that right, Shinji?"
     "What?"  Shinji stopped rinsing the bubbles out of the sink, and paused long enough to look up.

     Ten minutes later, Touji was standing on the sidewalk, shifting Mari onto his back once again.  She'd insisted on walking by herself, but as her pace progressively slowed to a crawl, he'd decided to lift her back up.
     Tired as she was, it didn't stop her from talking.  "I think I really like Ms. Horaki, Touji.  And Ms. Sohryu, and Mr. Ikari."
     "Yeah?" he replied, not really listening as he turned the corner.
     "Yeah," she said, closing her eyes. 1