EVANGELION: Ascension of the Lamb
By: Dante Abbey

 Episode 42: On Your Behalf / "What Dreams May Come"

     Tokyo-3's rainy season was just starting to manifest itself in the drab, metallic storm fronts that appeared over the city with increasing regularity.  Each time, they never failed to wash the city anew in pouring rain, pelting every surface and person in the open.  The rain, as inventive and unpredictable as the Angels themselves, seemed to fall in a different form each time.  Certainly, the city's inhabitants had seen everything from the cold mist that sifted over the leaves to the heavy sheets that dropped like a blanket of lead against the streets before being forcibly funneled off into the already brimming gutters.
     This was only the second week of intermittent precipitation, and, as it worsened over consecutive showers, it didn't look like it was about to end any time soon.  A second wave of falling water fell against the long portico that ran between the two buildings of the school, rushing off the curved roof and pouring onto the asphalt in a steady cascade.
     Thunder tore the air, distant yet still potent, and the skies only seemed to darken further.
     "I cannot believe it's still raining!" shouted Asuka to no one in particular, fists pressed up against the glass.  Rivulets of water streamed down the opposite side of the glass, casting odd patterns of refracted light across her face.  "It was so nice yesterday, too!"
     Shinji, immersed as he was in his book, didn't look up.
     "Yes..."
     The school had already been closed for a little over an hour, the lights dimmed and doors locked.  Other than the bulb illuminating the stairwell where Shinji and Asuka waited, there was only the fluorescent overhead lamps of room 2-A.
     "This is her last extra class with the teacher, right?  I didn't think she was gone so long."
     This time, Shinji paused to pull at the wires of his SDAT player, disengaging the headphones from his ears.  "What was that?"
     "This is Hikari's last class, right?"
     "Um...I think so.  Are you sure you don't want to sit here?"  Shinji gestured downward, towards the small ledge upon which he was perched, wedged between the school's payphone and the wall.  He leaned forward, bringing his back away from the metal railing behind him that had been supporting him.  "It's the only place in here that's still dry..."
     Asuka turned away from the window, relaxing her fists and letting them fall from the pane.  "No, thanks, baka.  I'm fine."
     "You're sure?  ...I...I should be the one...standing."
     "Dummkopf...I said it was okay."
     Nevertheless, Shinji folded the covers of the book back together and placed it alongside the others in his satchel.  Then, lifting it over his shoulder, he slid down off of the shelf to stand beside her.
     Another distant crack of thunder rolled over the hills that stood sentry around the city, and the rain continued to fall.  At times, it struck with enough force to denude a healthy branch of several of its leaves, driving them to the ground where they were further flattened under subsequent masses of water.
     Her hair waved back and forth, synchronous with her amused shake of her head.  "Shinji..."  She reached over and pulled his hand away from his side as he joined her against the phone.
     Rain shook the glass in front of them, filling and over-flowing the ever-growing puddles on the sidewalk.  Just below the door, at the threshold, a tiny stream of water was beginning to form as it started leaking slowly into the school.
     As she let her fingers sink among his, she slowly leaned into the wall, closing her eyes.
     "Your fingers are cold," she said, finally.  Rain had a way of sucking heat out of everything, even that which should have been the warmest.  For her, at any rate.  She gripped his hand a little tighter, alternately squeezing and moving her fingers to encourage circulation and revive some of that warmth.
     "I...Asuka?"
     "Hmm?"  She opened her eyes and looked down.  His fingers weren't quite as pale any more.
     Shinji sought out her downcast eyes, bending down slightly to meet them from below.  As he found them, he could only confirm what his original impression had been.  There was a slightly hollow, sallow feel to them, for whatever reason, and it bothered him, gnawing mildly at his mind.
     "...I..."
     Asuka blinked once, understanding at once his affected stare.  "...I hate days like today...that's all..."  Shinji continued to stare at her, never quite breaking eye contact as he stood straight again.
     "Oh..."
     For the second time that day within the school's walls, the first having been just after lunch, Shinji lent himself to her comfort, placing his lips gently against her cheek just below her ear.
     The glass, previously blurred over by the thick film of rushing water, began to clear slightly as the downpour's power finally began to decrease, as if grudgingly allowing the city's scurrying populace some respite.  Even the cloud-imposed gloom seemed to give way, slightly, rendering the exterior slightly brighter.
     Resigning herself to the comfort Shinji offered and she took, Asuka allowed her head to fall indolently until it rested somewhat comfortably against his.  She noticed that one of the red neural transmitters that nested year-round amid her hair must have started digging into his scalp, but he seemed to be content with that.
     "Asuka?  Shinji?"
     A new voice broke the silence, calling Asuka back to her previously cheerful, albeit mildly annoyed, disposition.  "Hikari!" she called back, looking up the stairs and waving.  "Are you done?"
     "You didn't have to wait for me, you know...I could've..."
     Asuka giggled, abandoning Shinji's hand with a gentle press to meet her friend half-way up the stairs.  "Don't be silly!  That's what friends are for!"
     Still standing near the base of the stairs, Shinji watched bemused as Hikari fell to laughing as well.
     "By the way," she added, holding up one of the two umbrellas she carried with her, "you left this in the classroom, Asuka...I thought you might want it."
     Mild embarrassment coloured Asuka's face, as she took the portable cover from the outstretched hand.  It was Shinji's turn to laugh quietly.
     "I don't see you carrying one, dummkopf."
     Still snickering to himself, he reached into his bag and produced his considerably smaller, folding umbrella.  Not yet conceding defeat, Asuka moved on ahead to the door, preparing to open it.
     "I saw Touji walking you back from yesterday's tests, Hikari..."
     Hikari blushed slightly, but found it didn't bother her to respond.  "It's...not exactly news, Asuka...  I've been asking him all week."

* * *

     A harsh, insomniac glare lit the small office, reflected off metal walls and a polished floor mercilessly.  Paper littered the floor, no longer constrained by the bindings of cardboard folders or binders.  Organization had long since abandoned the place, leaving it entirely in the hands of work.
     Work that now threatened to overwhelm the long-toiling Tatsuo Yamashita, whose eyes stung from overuse and a marked lack of sleep.
     Staring down into the murky depths of his coffee cup, he slowly came to a pair of conclusions as quickly as his mind would allow.  The first was that the coffee in question was no longer palatable, having become both cold and having metamorphed into a solid state.  The second was that he could no longer work at this pace and expect to be alive much longer.
     Still, time demanded that he struggle on, even without pause.  The box containing the memory cards wasn't very large, not much larger than a shoebox.  He'd already worked through more than half of it, decrypting the files and sending them off.  The difficulty was that when lumped together, there was enough data to fill a library.
     Dr. Robertson, always too anxious to begin the analysis, had denied his request to extend the schedule, thereby forcing this never-ending succession of late shifts and drained coffee mugs.
     It seemed like far too much effort.  As he was no longer concerned about spilling, his arm went limp and dropped the cup to the floor.  It bounced once, then rolled to a stop, leaning against its handle.
     As he looked about his work area, he realized he could no longer find the datacard he had been working with.  The reader in question was empty, and it wasn't anywhere on the table.  He had been sure he'd put in down on the desk in front of him before Masaharu had come in for another of his quick visits.
     Masaharu seemed quite happy to have a fellow night-owl, albeit a reluctant one, and even Yamashita and his work-oriented mind wasn't bothered by the often refreshing bouts of companionship.
     Yamashita checked again, looking under his keyboard and the papers that covered every square inch of his desk.  This seemed to happen every time he was distracted, usually by Masaharu's arrivals, and it was getting to be particularly annoying, especially towards the looming deadline.
     For now, he put it down to lack of sleep, and blamed Dr. Robertson for pushing the project so far ahead.  He wondered how Masaharu was capable of maintaining these kinds of work hours himself...it seemed impossible that the man could survive like this.
     In any case, he wasn't going to let it bother him.  They showed up eventually, they always did.
     The plate-metal walls of the room blurred momentarily.  Yamashita fought for his consciousness briefly, then passed out in his chair.

* * *

     "Are you done your homework already?"
     Touji dropped his school bag by the door, so that he wouldn't have to look for it in the morning.  Mari, on the other hand, was long since finished, already involved with the television in the next room.
     "Yes!" she answered in a child's sing-song, "I'm done!"
     Looking through the doorway, he could see her head and most of her upper body hanging upside-down over the edge of the sofa, watching the inverted commercial on the television screen.
     "Doesn't your head feel funny when you do that?" he said, tickling her exposed stomach, then turning her around the right way when she doubled over, giggling.
     "Of course!  That's why I do it."
     "You're weird, sis.  Really."
     Touji laughed himself, and set her back down on the couch.  Almost immediately, she flipped over again.  It was hard not to be amused when Mari was around.  He sat on the floor, between her and the cordless phone.
     In any case, he didn't feel too pleasant.  He hadn't been feeling particularly well about quite a few things for some time, and it was beginning to grate on his nerves.  The weather wasn't helping much, either, what with the constant rain.  At least he couldn't hear it through the walls and over the television.
     He'd been Kensuke's friend for a long time, practically since he had first moved to Tokyo-3 for his father's new job at NERV.  He hadn't always been the athlete of the class, nor the tallest and strongest.  At the time, he'd been something of a runt, before his growth kicked in and he quickly outstripped the rest of them.
     Kensuke hadn't been much different from him then, either.  It was only logical, then, that they became quick friends, and stayed that way.  Both could commiserate with each other on the myriad disadvantages of being short, among other things.
     Even after Touji had indeed taken the figurative lead in terms of height, and after Kensuke had discovered his strangely addictive love for militaria, they were still extremely good friends.  Shinji's addition only invoked a single difference, in that they suddenly were referred to as the Three Stooges.
     So of course it was only normal that he should worry.
     Kensuke had been absent from school for far too long.  It wasn't the first time he'd skipped a few classes for his own purposes.  After all, he had always gone missing every time some new warship or aircraft deployed in the region.  Although...never without leaving a message somewhere.
     Touji, on the other hand, had been leaving messages on the answering machine in Kensuke's closet-room in NERV all week, and had never received any replies.  He couldn't even be sure if Kensuke was checking them any more.
     "Who're you calling?" Mari asked, her hair dangling from her head to the floor.
     "You're going to get your hair dirty like that.  Oh, Kensuke."
     "Ah."
     She turned back towards the screen, to her animation.
     Speed-dialing reduced the process to a single tap of a button, and Touji then lifted the receiver to his ear.  After a few seconds during which the call was processed through the various switchboards into the geofront, he finally heard the first ring.
     He started counting.  One after another, the rings seemed to echo slightly within his head, an absent, repetitive drone.  He counted fifteen.
     A woman's voice, pleasant but somehow slightly admonishing, came on the line.  "The person you are calling may not be available at this time.  If you wish to leave a message for..."
     Kensuke's cheerful voice filled the gap.  "...Kensuke Aida..," it said.  Touji had only heard this much from him, and it was ancient.
     "...please wait for the tone," the woman's voice concluded.
     The beep came.
     "Hey, Kensuke.  Call me back sometime, will ya?"  His thumb crushed down on the 'End' button, terminating the connection.
     He still wasn't there.
     Sighing disappointedly, he let the handset drop and roll a few inches across the carpet.  It came to a standstill on its side, just in front of him.
     "Not there again?"  Mari said, eyes still glued to the television screen.
     Touji shook his head, poking idly at the handset's antenna.  "Nope.  Nothin'."
     He leaned back against the couch and watched Mari's favorite characters do something inordinately silly.  It didn'treally register in his mind, as he was trying not to think too hard.
     He'd already decided that Kensuke must have gotten this way because of the Evas...he knew his friend too well.  Kensuke didn't typically allow things to bother him or discourage him.  He was too much of an optimist.
     All throughout the last year, ever since Shinji's arrival and the first Eva battle, he'd been fully engrossed with the notion of piloting the Eva.  During Shinji's first week of school, when he'd let slip that he was the pilot of Unit-01, and subsequently mobbed by the entire class, Kensuke had been taking notes the whole time.  Far more enthusiastically than he had for everything else, in any case.
     Kensuke almost stopped buying the models that decorated his room in his old house.  Now, for some reason, it seemed like the Evas just weren't very important to him any more.
     On top of all that, he hadn't shown up early for the synch tests when they resumed after Units-14 and 16 had been repaired.  Sometimes, it even seemed like Kensuke was avoiding them, just like like he did himself.
     He remembered Kensuke being probably the most enthusiastic of them all, even Asuka, who had once boasted about her position to all and sundry.
     In light of some of the more recent events, Kensuke's depression regarding the Evas almost made sense.  Starting, at first with Touji's fifth battle, where he'd been unable to prevent Unit-16 from being torn in half.  Kensuke had reacted quite badly, at first, to the news that he would be without an Eva for a month.  He'd also seemed almost desperate for advice following the failure of the activation test with Unit-15.
     It also might have been the fleeting return to piloting that had put him down.  There had been barely three hours between the end of the reactivation test and the last Angel's arrival.  After the battle, they were informed repairs would take at least another couple of days.
     Maybe that was what was bothering him.  There were too many possibilities to take into account, and even then, that considered only his first hypothesis that the Evas had caused this.
     In any case, he knew why he'd reactivated his Eva to follow him down into that pit, two battles ago, despite the fear and the common sense that had screamed at him not to.  Seeing those thick mauve-brown snakes crawling all over Unit-16's immobile form had sent a shudder of revulsion down his spine, followed by a frigid chill as he had realized that the entry plug was not lauching from the silent Eva.  He understood that Kensuke had blatantly disregarded explicit orders, and the recommendations of even his friends...he couldn't see why his friend would have done something like that.
     There seemed to be very little, if anything, he was able to do to reverse that.  His fingers began drumming in frustration on the arm of the couch.
     In the last battle...Unit-16 had just lain there, on the ground, unmoving.  He didn't think that was normal, ever.  Kesuke also didn't just give up on things without good reason.
     Heaving his body forward, he reached for the phone.  Shinji probably didn't know any more than he did...but it was worth the effort.  They couldn't really stand by the side and watch Kensuke peter out like this.
     And then, while he was at it, he might as well talk to Hikari.  While he didn't know much about dealing with situations like these, she was the expert.  He'd been talking to her a lot more recently, and she seemed to like resolving problems like this.
     If nothing else, talking to her would be good for his peace of mind.
     Once again, speed dail reduced the task to a single press of a button.  And since Shinji and Hikari both lived under the same roof, well, it was even simpler.

* * *

     "Hello?"
     "Shinji?  Hey."
     Shinji blinked once, placing Touji's voice on the other end of the line, and put his homework down on the kitchen table.  "Hi, Touji."
     "Has Kensuke called you guys at all?  'Cause I haven't heard anything from him all week...  It's kinda freaking me out a little."
     Glancing down at the swirling mug of tea in his hands, Shinji took one last look at the answering machine.  The little red diode wasn't blinking, so the tape was blank.  No messages, and no one had called that day save Touji.
     "No...why?"
     "Why..?  He hasn't been to school all week..."
     "Last time he was absent, didn't you say he went to New Yokosuka, or something?"  Shinji squeezed the phone between his ear and shoulder, and scratched absently at the back of his head.  "At least, that's what I remember."
     Touji paused for a moment, trying to recall himself.  "Ye...yeah, but that time he told me where he was going.  And he left a message at the school, too."
     "Oh..."
     "Say, maybe he did leave a message at the school, this time.  Maybe Hikari knows, d'you think?  She's the class rep, right?"
     "Um...I guess she might.  Do you want to talk to her?"
     Another short moment of dead air made Shinji wonder if the line had been cut, and he was about to ask Touji again when he answered in the affirmative.
     "Yeah, sure.  She there?"

     Sitting right next to where Asuka was sprawled out in front of the television, Hikari hadn't been expecting any kind of phone call.  Now that she was out of the hospital, her family had certainly increased the frequency of their checks on her, but they had already called once, and weren't likely to do so again until later on in the week.
     It was starting to amuse her, having to tell them every single time that she was sure she wouldn't return until this was all over.  Especially Nozomi, since she worried the most.
     When Shinji turned around in the kitchen with one hand over the mouthpiece and asked if she wouldn't mind talking to Touji, Asuka nudged her in the side with the corner of her elbow, trying not to giggle too hard.
     "Ooh...  Mr. Compassionate, Hikari.  Better hurry!"
     "Stop it," she said, annoyed, then released the penguin from her arms and went to trade places with Shinji.  Pen-Pen looked offended at having been abandoned.
     "So..," Asuka said, still watching the television as Shinji sat cross-legged next to her with his assignments on the floor, "what's this all about?  I didn't think he'd actually call her."
     "Who, Touji?"
     "Uh-huh."
     Shinji peered down at the slowly rotating leaves of tea as he put his cup down beside him.  "It's about...Kensuke.  He hasn't been showing up at school recently...and I thought he'd just gone to see a ship, or someth..."
     "You know we can't leave the city, baka."  Asuka punched him playfully in the arm.
     "...Oh.  Umm...right."
     Some commercials started on the television.  Glancing back to Shinji conspiratorially, Asuka dropped her voice slightly.  "What's this got to do with Hikari?"
     "Oh...  Touji thought Kensuke might have told the school where he was going, and since she's..."
     "Class rep?"  Asuka smiled and sat up, now facing into the kitchen.  Hikari certainly didn't seem to fooling around...

* * *

     A wall of pictograms and heiroglyphs, hundreds of feet long by twelve wide, had once been carved into the interior of a pyramid.  Now, it had been digitally transcribed, memorized by one of the most peculiar minds on the planet, and delivered, among hundreds of other religious and pseudo-religious texts, into the hands of twelve watchful eyes...which examined it as carefully as they had every other.
     Recently, owing to the tireless efforts of their agents to somehow obtain and deliver the files themselves out of the meticulous controls imposed by NERV's security forces, the influx of material had been greatly increased.
     Even now, the twelve had spent multiple waking nights inspecting and reviewing those texts that they found most pertinent, extracting the potential prophecies from the mire of descriptions of rites and sacrifices.  Still, none seemed to fit quite right.
     While hope was a word foreign to them, they had not yet given up on the possibility that the true prophecy was to be found within these files that slowly filtered into their hands through the world's communications networks every few hours.
     In a previous discussion, it had already been determined whether or not it was possible that Fuyutsuki was responsible for these hundreds of red herrings.
     "It is also possible that this is Ikari's work," replied one of the disembodied voices, emanating across the room in the form of an irritating, nasal whine, like that of an insect in flight.
     "Even if that were the case, has Fuyutsuki ever accessed this...databank...before?  If not, we can rest assured that the prophecy will not be among these."
     "Moses assures us that there would be no way to tell.  Other than the unconventional storage, there were no safeguards involved among the files themselves.
     "And there is still the possibility that he was able to reach them in another manner...perhaps through the other MAGI?"
     The prophecy was close...somewhere near either them or the Brothers...
     Kihl had quieted the discussion, and now the hunt for the prophecy continued continents apart; one in the physical realm, the other in a world of translation and interpretation.

* * *

     Night had fallen long ago, and still the storm raged on.
     What little light emanated from the lights within the skyscrapers was filtered through hundreds of individual falling droplets, dimming it to such a level that it could no longer be called illumination.  Nevertheless, that light that did penetrate the gloom struck the serpentine rivulets clinging to the window and projected their image upon Asuka's face, obscured in the shadows of the apartment's dark living room.
     She hated this weather.
     Perhaps not hate in the same sense that she had previously hated everything in the world, not the burning, consuming hatred that she had previously known.  Certainly not that kind of hatred...but still hate.
     She recognized the fact that the weather itself had done nothing to harm her -- it was nothing but falling water, a natural occurrence.  What it did do, however, was revive memories.
     It had been raining like this when that Angel had come.  An Angel that had shattered every facet of her mind, found what she'd hidden from herself and everyone else.  And showed it to her.
     Again, and again, and again.
     And then, with nowhere else to turn, she hated.
     It had taken a long time to recover from that.  If not for mama, she might have lost her mind forever.  If not for Shinji...baka that he was...she might not have been able to rebuild it.
     A long time.
     Not that it bothered her any more, persay.  She understood to some degree why everything had gone wrong so long ago, and she'd been able to share that with Shinji.  She just didn't like to be reminded.  The thunderheads above her occluded even the moon, blocked out every star...and she could still imagine a solid beam of pure light stretching out towards her, penetrating the clouds without parting them.
     Penetrating her mind.
     Lifting a hand and pressing it to the glass, she examined it, contrasting its silhouette against the trails of running water before her.
     She wasn't entirely sure what drew her to the window, to watch the rain; she should have gone straight to bed after dealing with her monthly nuisance, rather than stand here and watch the miniscule droplets spatter endlessly against the glass.
     Another one hit the transparent wall in front of her, landing behind the palm of her hand, hidden from her view.  And yet, she felt as though she could feel the glass vibrate beneath her fingers with the impact.
     The edges of the towers blurred, melting together and fusing beneath the water.
     She imagined she would have liked to have Shinji awake, standing next to her, sharing this with her...but he slept.
     Slowly, she turned away from the windows, heading back toward his room.  She smiled, an interesting thought suddenly crossing her mind: this was the only way she'd ever felt true pain in over a month, maybe even two.  Through memory...
     Not really a bad thing...so long as none of it was real.
     Reaching the door, finally, Asuka slid it open.  Everything was still as she had left it.  Shinji, slightly curled with his back to the wall, still had an arm laid across the warm set of creases in the bedding that were hers.  The blanket, crumpled where she had cast it off, doubled once over his body, except where his knee protruded from beneath.
     Tranquil, for the most part, she thought.  She wondered if Shinji, too, was content, hopefully not having suffered recently, either.  Pain seemed almost...distant, now.
     Even in the darkness, though, she thought she could make out a light frown gathering his forehead together...
     The mattress gave slightly as she sat down, and she carefully moved his arm away from where she would soon lie herself, among the shadows.  Leaning over him to find the neglected corner of the covers, she drew up her legs onto the bed behind her and promptly closed her eyes once she was comfortable.  Winding her hand between them, she sought out his hand, and surprised to find it strangely compressed into a fist.
     She began to curl up next to him, settling quietly into the curvature of his body, and enfolded the bony ball of his compressed hand in one of her own.
     Just as she began to close her eyes, Shinji muttered something incomprehensible in his sleep, a barely suppressed growl that clawed its way to becoming an unstifled cry of incredible chaos.  Something fierce and primal tore out from within him, from within his once-sleeping form.  It carried him upwards in a dull, silenced explosion that rose in flames before dying and settling to earth like a fistful of ashes.  Asuka, carried along with him, found herself kneeling amid the twisted beddings that now snaked around them like the arms of a hurricane.
     Amid the tortured, wrenching convulsion that had come unbidden, she was sure she had made out a single, harshly whispered word...father.
     Silence resumed, though not quite able to assert itself over the repetitive rhythmic pounding of the rain against the walls and glass.
     Stark against the quiet came Shinji's breathing, great rasping, clawing breaths that tore at the air, seeking nothing more than to replenish his suddenly burning lungs.  He sounded like a drowning man suddenly rescued and revived...panicking.
     Asuka caught his eyes in the half-light emanating from the window, and saw the fear and choking dread that filled them.  They darted around, unseeing in the night, searching for any means to evade the dark python that still consumed what basic comforts he could still enjoy.
     Unable to withstand the pressures that still crowded in on his mind, he sought to isolate himself, to close out everything, and deal at first with what obstructed and struggled within his psyche.  Agonized, his eyelids clenched shut, locking him in his own inner gloom, to fight.  He pitched forward against his bent knees, supporting his head against them and clutching at his aching temples with trembling hands.
     Suddenly paralyzed in shock, Asuka did nothing at first.  Slowly, as her own fear subsided, she discovered that the pace of her own respiration wasn't far removed from his.
     "Shinji..?" she managed, only barely, once she had calmed herself.  She wasn't entirely sure he'd heard her, because his fingers dug deeper towards his scalp, shoving his hair out of the way between them.  Hoping to offer some measure of comfort -- after all, he'd done it for her -- she rested her hand against the panic-moistened fabric of his shirt, stretched taut over his back as he leaned into himself.
     "Shinji..?"
     Gradually, the inner world evaporated, sublimating into nothingness, leaving him wholly in a realm whose realities he was far more accustomed to.  His hands began to relax, and his chest heaved one last, pained exhalation as he shook himself free.  The memory, nonethless, remained, and he maintained his knees curled up to his chest.
     He found his voice, finally, amid the still dancing fragments of his conscious, as he tried to put them back into some semblance of order.  His eyes still shut tight, he forced his mouth open.
     Rain drummed against the glass, running down until it poured into the tracks at the base, then overflowed and streamed down the concrete wall.  The sound filled his ears.
     "Asuka?" he whispered hoarsely, finally assembling at least one solid thought, "I'm...sorry...  I...must have woken you up..."
     His left hand dropped from its place against his temple and fell to massaging his eyes and face, wiping away the perspiration gathered there.  His right merely held his knees closer to his body.
     The sigh that followed had none of the usual frustration that she usually displayed when he used those words without good reason.  Rather, it bore a note of relief, a nuance that came to ears unhindered by even his own still heavy breathing.
     "Dummkopf," she smiled, and her hand fell down behind his huddled mass, bringing the weight of her arm to rest against his slumped shoulders.  Her fingers found his arm, and began working at forcing him out of the ball he'd wound himself into.  It wasn't long before he gave in.
     Without looking, he accepted her hand in his own, and his legs began to uncurl and extend to their true length.
     "I was already awake," she added softly, wanting to reassure him as much as possible.  Her free hand drifted across his body, hugging him to her and simultaneously trapping his other arm between them.
     Outside, the rain slowly began to peter out, the arrhythmic drumbeats against the sill rarifying until there was only the occasional splash to be heard.  The clouds were thinner, too, and the last growls of thunder could no longer be heard over the horizon.
     Already, the bravest of the cicadas harbored beneath the broad leaves of some low-lying bushes experimented with a tiny little chirp that seemed to bore through the thick, stifling cloak of night.
     Shinji didn't find her tight embrace restrictive in the least.  On the contrary, he reveled in the warm cocoon of comfort in which she had enclosed him.  He could breathe now, and his mind seemed to be in one piece again, held together by her joined arms.  No longer capable of supporting the weight of his sore head on his own, it drifted to her waiting shoulder, where it rested securely against her collarbone.
     "...Thank you," he said, his whisper no longer a raucous gasp, now more akin to the voice she recognized as his.
     More cicadas joined the first and the clouds began to thin.  Beyond them, where the narrower portions passed, the moon traversed the translucent shroud, casting a weak, pallid light over everything and gilding it in silver.
     The only thing breaking the stillness of night in the room was the shallow, synchronous motions of their combined breathing, visible only because of that very same light.  They hardly made a sound.
     Reluctant to allow him out of her arms, Asuka fought gently against his attempts to disengage himself at first, but gave in when he indicated his desire to recline with a simple kiss.  Understanding, but still cradling him with one arm, she let him return to his previously prone position while attempting to sort out the disturbed and twisted blanket.
     After accomplishing this, she let her weight sit on one elbow as she leaned over him, dangling her hair as a veil before whatever light the moon could push through the clouds.  Striations of shadow fell across his features, but still leaving enough light between the dark bands that she could still see him relatively well.
     Smiling weakly, he raised a hand to her cheek, touched it, brushing at some of her now-argented auburn mane.  It swayed slightly, moving and twisting the shadows, but they settled back as soon as he let his hand drop back to the mattress.
     "Your father..," she started, tentatively, unsure of what to make of that one word she had heard so clearly above the din of his rude awakening, "...why?"
     Shinji's head turned on the pillow glancing for a lost moment past her, beyond the rain-soaked glass to the vague white circle on the other side of the clouds.  If not for her faith in his openness and love, his willingness to be honest with her, if only her, she might have believed he had decided to keep this remembered pain to himself.
     His mind had only just finished collecting what few shards of the memory had not yet melted into dark oblivion, assembling what parts it could still recognize, and attempting to make sense of that.  The end result was a horribly scrambled mess of subconscious fragments, with missing or incomplete details, twisted events, and postulates about the past...hardly grounds on which to base an explanation.
     Still, she deserved one, even at this early hour...
     "...I..."  Even then, his concentration broke, betraying him, and he was forced to recapture it through her eyes.  "You already know...about my mother, don't you..?"
     She nodded slowly, her face contorted slightly in concentration.  She had known once, he and Misato had both mentioned one morning that it was the anniversary of his mother's death.  Entirely unsure why, she'd used it against him, conned him into a meaningless? kiss...  Thinking back, she felt her face reddening invisibly in shame, knowing it was likely one of the most hypocritical things she had ever attempted.
     Looking down onto him now, she knew that was gone, past...forgotten even by him.
     "...She died, didn't she," she answered, sliding back against him slightly to make herself more comfortable and lying against the full length of his torso.  Before setting her head down onto his shoulder as a pillow, she stole one last glace into his dark, wandering eyes.
     Had he, like her, been witness?  And how, exactly, had his mother perished? Still trying to keep himself in one piece, some obscure memory of a massive empty cavern of cold, dank air and rotting bone presented itself to him.  He remembered the place; Dr. Akagi had shown it to him and Misato.  He'd never understood her reasons, but he'd gone to see NERV, the true NERV, for himself.
     She had called the place a dumping ground, a garbage heap...a disposal site.  And yet, she also claimed it was the very place that his mother had been taken from him...  It had struck him there just how fitting it was, that his mother had taken by the very project that had once been slowly consuming his own soul.
     Later still, the memories had become more complete.  His father appeared, perhaps not as unyielding, cold, and calculating as he was, but still already showing the definite traits of sternness and gruff, meticulous distance.  He was sitting at a desk, a control unit of some kind.  The child Shinji, younger at that age than the child Asuka had been when she had seen the suicide, never understood the happenings at the time.  Even the warning klaxons and alert sirens were just another part of the great game of life...
     But these did not figure in that dream that had left him gasping.  They were merely related images, not clear enough to be salient to him.
     He might have been able to survive the coming years as a motherless child; hadn't Touji?  And Kensuke, for that matter?  If only...if only...
     "I...was left at the train station...after she disappeared.  After the funeral.  I still didn't understand anything..."
     "And your father..?"
     "He walked away.  Never looked back.  ...I hated him for that.  At least..."
     "You thought you did."  Asuka's voice softened, and she tipped her forhead against his chin.  "Baka."
     Shinji swallowed, feeling her soft warmth almost sinking down into him, her eyes closed but her ears open.  "...I...I don't know.  This time...it was like I was going to follow him," he said finally, remembering a different reality from the dream than that of his real life...  Would that have been what he wanted now?  He still didn't know if he could ever forgive his father or find any kind of peace, closure.  It would have to wait until he could follow, and confront.  Too late now...the man was gone.
     One of Asuka's long, tapered hands wormed its way beneath his shoulder blade allowing her the leverage to pull herself closer, tightening the already non-existent space between them both and pressing the heat of her chest against his ribs.  While the rhythmic, cyclic song of the cicadas buzzed through the night air, Shinji unconsiously placed a hand against the small of her back and held her.  He felt himself blush in the darkness as she gently rubbed the backs of her fingers against his face.
     "...Did you?" she purred, enjoying his warmth just as much as she tried to keep herself on the task of dispelling his dream...or nightmare, since that was more or less what it had to be.
     "I think so."  He winced, his grip on the memory already loosening as it faded.  "At least, I was going to.  And he told me to run...far away.  Because he knew that's what I did..."
     Shinji shifted a little, the rim of Asuka's hip digging slightly into the top of his thigh.  Accommodating, she, too, adjusted her position as he tried to find the blanket next to them, then returned to holding him as closely as possible.  Her hand that had caressed his cheek smoothed out the ruffled hair lying against his forehead, pushing it back.
     "It's not like you had a choice, or anything," she breathed as the movement of the wind in the trees momentarily drowned out the cicadas below, "Even if you did follow him, I don't suppose he would have kept you, would he?"
     Asuka lifted her head again, her eyes and expression serious.  Shinji met her gaze, heard reason in her voice.  "...I...I guess not."  He smiled again.
     She kissed him, letting her lips linger against his for perhaps a fraction of second too long, as it left them both slightly short of breath and with flushing faces and bodies.  She stared back at him for a moment longer, watching his eyes and lips.  He was feeling better now, she knew, from those momentary impressions, and decided she didn't need to ask.
     "Good night, dummkopf," she whispered, the red storm fanning out over him as her head subsided once more to his chest.
     "You...you too..."
     One quick glance at the clouded sky, and then nothing, as sleep picked up the reins once again.

* * *

     Bathed in a pale white light, the cavernous room of diagrams was vacant.  Directly opposite the desk, a the far end of the room, a single, square metallic obstcle rose from the matte surface of the floor.  This and the accompanying chair were the only forms of furniture in the entire room.  The desk was swept clean of the reports that had been accumulating on it, now presenting only a polished metal surface any who would look at it.
     A laquered knight, a flat, symbolic simulacrum of some long-superannuated warrior, hung obediently in mid-air, peering down onto the regular grid beneath it.  Immobile, it waited for its master's command, perched between his wizened thumb and forefinger.
     The silence was absolute here, like that of death itself.  The room could not exactly be considered a place of reflection; one of thought, certainly, but not reflection.
     The stillness in the air was broken by the click of wood against wood, as Fuyutsuki replaced his knight in its original position, slightly forward and to the left of one of his two silver generals.
     The game of shoji, laid out before him on the desk, was still in its infant stages, as far as he was concerned.  Very few pieces had been captured yet; his king had not moved much, as it was carefully guarded by several powerful pieces while the others were still setting up to strike.
     He decided, finally, it wasn't yet time to move his knight.  He would still need it for another purpose, for now.
     Beside him, in the top drawer of his desk, one of the phones rang, its trilling report filling the empty room.  He answered it.
     "Sir, a Lieutenant Arashio to see you, sir.  She's in the antechamber now.  Should I..?"
     "Send her in," he replied, carefully shifting the Shoji board to the side of the desk, and replacing the receiver in its cradle.
     Suddenly timid in the vast hollowness of the room, Arashio entered, staring in awe and utter incomprehension at the massive designs inscribed in the floor and ceiling.  Even after the fresh-faced corporal closed the door behind her, she couldn't make the pace of her approach any quicker.  Commander Fuyutsuki, his face obscured by the back-lighting, beckoned her forward.
     When she was within ten or twelve feet of the desk, he spoke.
     "I received your report yesterday morning.  Well done, I might add."
     "Thank you, sir...  What do you want me to do about it?"
     "Nothing, for now.  Continue your observations and keep me apprised of any significant developments."
     "Y..."
     He lifted a hand, cutting her off.  "I am, however, leaving this matter entirely to your own discretion.  If things get out of hand, don't wait for my approval.  Should you decide to, terminate the project immediately, by any means necessary.  Is that understood?"
     Arashio swallowed audibly, subduing the strange feeling of dread
     "Yes, sir."
     "Good.  If you have no further questions, you are dismissed."
     "No, sir."
     Turning on her heel, relatively unsteadily, Arashio headed towards the door, peering back only once, and then quickly.  For whatever reason, she didn't like the timbre of the Commander's voice.
     Fuyutsuki watched her go.  She was a good officer, and he'd been quite pleased with her performance, even under the most adverse conditions.  Sending away for those two months had been most profitable indeed.
     It was hard to find good officers these days.
     Carefully, he slid the shoji board back out in front of him, this time decisively electing to move a pawn forward instead.

* * *

     Not unlike the somber chamber where he had once been sorely chastised by an absent Commander Fuyutsuki for his futile rashness, the much, much smaller chamber in which Kensuke lay was dark.  Without the artificial lights that normally lit the closed room, a suffocating blanket of shadows filled the room.  Every physical object sank into its murky depths, disappearing from view amid the blackness.
     Kensuke had come to appreciate the invisibility of this inner space.  Unlike every other part of the world, he didn't need anything to help him see here...he was alone with himself, and that was still all he didn't want to see at the moment.
     Lying outstretched on the bunk, his arms and legs spread so that he wouldn't have to feel himself, he lost himself yet again in bottomless ceiling.  There was a light there somewhere, but he had only the vaguest of ideas where, exactly.  He wasn't entirely sure which direction he was facing.  There were no directions in oblivion.
     Time, however, still seemed to run its course.
     He was somehow sure that enough had passed...enough that he had missed some kind of test, exercise, or training session.  Something, at any rate.
     Sometime in the near future, he knew someone from NERV was going to tear open his living tomb, admit a blinding flash of light that would shock his eyes and consciousness.  Despite his planned protests, he would be dragged off, stuffed into a plug suit, then into an entry plug, then into an Eva, then, if he was still capable, into synchronization.
     And he would find out yet again how inadequate he really was.
     This was much more enjoyable.  The utter lack of sensation, simply because that was how he felt.  Empty, and hollow.  With nothing to offer to anyone.
     His glasses, sitting on the desk just above his head, were empty as well.  For them to be useful, light had to fill their frames.  And it was dark.  Very dark.

* * *

     "Touji?"  A covered wooden box was gently lowered onto the table in front of him, touching down as Hikari pulled her supporting fingers out from under it.  "You fell asleep during class again."
     Touji's eyes, open a mere fraction of an inch, started resolving the details of her face slowly.
     "...Oh...it's you.  I did?"  He scraped the side of his index finger against his eyelid, forcing it open.  Behind Hikari, a couple of the other students were either laughing or cringing, expecting Hikari to explode at any given moment.
     It didn't come when they expected it to.  "Mm-hmm.  And it's lunch, so I made you this.  It was my turn, and I still haven't repaid you for bringing food to my party."
     Something particularly interesting was in that box, from the smell of it.
     Hikari's voice dropped slightly lower.  "Of course, you know what I usually give you when you fall asleep, right?"
     Rolling his eyes towards the ceiling, Touji scratched his head.  "...Clean-up duty..?"
     "Mm-hmm."  Hikari waiting until he was looking at her again, ready to contest his sentence.  She shut him up with a look.  "But I know what you and Shinji have planned this afternoon, so you don't have to do it.  Like I said before, it's better to find out before this evening's test."
     "...Oh."
     "That doesn't mean you don't have to do it, though!" she almost shouted, provoking reactions from all, though most notably Touji, as he was knocked into full consciousness and nearly off his chair.  "Don't you leave after classes tomorrow!"
     Hikari turned, and headed back to where Asuka, and her own lunch, was sitting.  Touji, having recovered to some degree, leaned forward and lifted the cloth cover off of the box, peering into it.
     "Hey," he said, causing Hikari to turn around, "Hikari?  Thanks."
     "You're...welcome."  Hikari smiled a satisfied smile.

* * *

     Corridor after faceless metal corridor snaked down from the surface into the partly buried city that was Tokyo-3.  It was easy to get lost within these most exposed of NERV's myriad facilities, linked and interlinked again and again by still more corridors.  Even Misato, once, had admitted to Shinji that she frequently got lost in the unidentifiable and identical hallways.
     For the most part, the doors in NERV's primary barracks, built between the ceiling of the geofront and the pavement of the city above, were hardly ever marked, in any way.  Most of these rooms, barely worthy of the name cubicles, were unoccupied.  Except for those who were too apathetic about their living conditions to care, every NERV worker had moved out into the more spacious residences on the surface.
     Of course, with the Angels, it was always riskier on the surface, but at least it was more comfortable, for the most part.
     The barracks still had a purpose, however, or else they would have been dismantled long ago.  Not as housing for NERV's military personnel; in the tradition of soldiers, they bunked in communal barracks elsewhere.  Ironically, their shared space was seemingly more ample.
     The barracks served as transitional habitation for those new workers arrived from the other branches of NERV or even from the civilian population.  Almost no one lived here on a permanent basis, none could tolerate it.
     As Shinji and Touji crossed the transparent floor over the geofront, and entered the vast system of corridors, they at once noticed the absence of people.  The place seemed...unused.  Most of the metal surfaces in the corridor of raw metal still had a new, polished feel to them, deprived of the constant influx of grime the regular flow of human traffic would have provided it.
     It was still cleaner than Rei's old residence, Shinji remarked, upon entering the first of the halls and inspecting the label on the first door they saw.  At least this place was cleaned on a regular basis.
     Touji's only comment was in full agreement.
     The doors, those that actually opened on the rare occupied room, were marked with one of two colors: yellow, to indicate a temporary resident, and white, a permanent one.
     There was only one door with a white lable.
     "...I guess we should knock first, right?"  Shinji pushed the doorbell, once, twice, then let his hand fall back to his side.
     They waited.  Shinji pushed the doorbell again.
     This time, they were gratified by the sullen click of the door's automatic locking mechanism prising itself open.  Touji pushed the button next to the door, and it slid away to hide in the wall.
     Light spilled through the new gap, climbing with the perspective along the floor before splaying itself out on the far wall.
     Kensuke's voice, more than slightly dull, greeted them.
     "You must be from NERV, aren't you?"
     Touji frowned and looked at Shinji.  Shinji looked back, equally surprised and concerned.  The floor before them, unlike the pristine corridors behind them, was littered with garbage.  Crumbs and empty cans idled there, awaiting scavengers.  The smell of stale air mixed with the tangy odour of air conditioning wafted out from the small room, brutally invading the cleanliness without.
     "...No..," replied Touji, finally, taking his first step into the room and stepping squarely on an empty junk food wrapper, "...but then, aren't we all?"
     "Oh...it's you."  Kensuke didn't seem particularly interested.
     "...And me," Shinji added after a short pause, picking up the crushed wrapper and depositing it into the garbage can under the desk.  "...We...we just came by..."
     "...to see how you were doing."  Touji kicked some more garbage in Shinji's direction, and he swept it up into the bag.  "Man, this place is a mess."
     Kensuke's body looked like a corpse coming back to life as it tried to pull itself out of its languishing stupor.  His arms didn't seem to want to support his weight, buckling slightly as he leaned back against them.  By this time, Shinji had found the light switch, and the ceiling bulbs flickered and came on.
     In this light, Kensuke looked extremely pallid, not unlike Hikari after she had returned from the hospital.
     "Here," said Shinji, handing Kensuke's abandoned glasses back to him from their resting place next to the folded and inert school laptop on the desk.  Kensuke took them without looking up, and put them into his breast pocket.
     An awkward pause ensued, and the buzzing of the fluorescent lamps seemed to become supernaturally loud, resounding in the walls and overwhelming everything else.
     Kensuke didn't have anything else to say.  He wasn't expecting these two to show up instead of some more of those burly NERV brutes who never said anything.  "So..," he said, finally, breaking the silence, "why are you here?  If this isn't about NERV."
     "Well..."  Touji glanced down for a second.  Shinji was still on all fours, tidying up the floor.  "You haven't been to school for a while...so..."
     It was really Hikari's idea.  He didn't actually know where Kensuke had gone to, and he no longer lived at home, so it was impossible to ask his family.  The obvious place to look, of course, was here.  Even he could figure that out.  Nevertheless, Kensuke's other behavior prior to his disappearance had seeded doubts within him.
     And so, he'd talked to Hikari.  Mostly on the phone that one evening that he'd called Shinji, but again at school.
     She didn't know much about Kensuke, but she was strangely aware of his malaise.  Apparently, very few problems like this slipped past her, and he found himself admiring the intuitive empathy she had, even towards those she knew very little.
     He hadn't the slightest clue how she had caught on so quickly to the fact that he seemed depressed, but he needed whatever advice he could get.
     "So," Touji repeated, still resting against the wall, "why're you here?"
     Kensuke shook his head.
     "Hey," his friend said, uncrossing his arms and chastising himself, "c'mon!  We're your friends, here.  If you can't tell us, who can you tell?"
     "I just don't feel too good right now, that's all."
     "No wonder."  Touji rolled his eyes.  "Look at the garbage you've been eating all this time."
     Shinji made one last check on the floor for trash, then put the garbage can back under the desk.  "Well," he said, hoping to cheer Kensuke up, and possibly get him out of the room, "we've...got a synch test this evening...and..."
     Kensuke's blurry eyes narrowed.  "That's it, isn't it?" he asked, glaring, "they did send you, after all."
     "What?  No!"  Shinji looked stunned, and lost for words, looked to Touji.  "That's not..."
     "Not like you would understand, anyway.  You've never been bad at this.  You neither," he added, looking to the taller of the two visitors.
     "...what...what I meant..."  Shinji stammered aimlessly for a while, trying to think about exactly what he'd said, and what he did mean after all.
     It took a while, but they did find words, after all.  "Kensuke," they said simultaneously, before Touji took over.
     "...they didn't send us to get you, okay?  I swear.  This was Hikari's idea, okay?"
     Kensuke still looked slightly suspicious, and even more unnatural to him because he wasn't wearing his omnipresent glasses.
     Touji went on, hoping he wasn't going to make matters worse.  "Hey, you've just had some bad luck, okay?  And it's not that bad: look at Hikari, for example.  You remember what happened to her?"
     His friend was silent, playing with the protruding rim of his glasses, running his fingers over the metal.  Shinji tried again.
     "I guess...if you don't want to do anything with the Eva any more...that's fine.  I wanted to quit once, too, after..."  Shinji glanced up at Touji.  Touji shrugged.  "After what I did to..."
     Touji interrupted first, preventing him from finishing the sentence.  "...What your Eva," he corrected, "did to me."
     "Yeah...  I heard."  Kensuke slumped forward, holding his head in his hands.  "But that's not the point!  I don't want to quit!  I just have to because I can't do it!  Do you know how this feels?"
     "I...I don't think that entirely true..."
     Touji was cut off again.  "I haven't killed an Angel yet, have I?  I can't even help out!  Hell, Shinji and demon-girl here might as well just do it all!"
     "Last time, Captain Shigeru said you had the highest synch ratio you've ever had!  You're always improving, so what're you complaining about?"
     "De...demon-girl?"
     "I...really?  That's not right...it can't be."
     "Well...sure.  Why not?"
     They both looked to Shinji, who was glaring at them both.  "Is that what you've been calling her?"
     They both gulped.
     "Um...Shinji..."
     "She's not that bad!  You just don't know her!"
     Kensuke was the first to start laughing at Shinji's indignation.  Then, contagious, it began to spread.  Relieved that his friend was finally doing something other than moping, Touji lost control as well, and couldn't help snickering at his fellow visitor.
     Still laughing, Kensuke wiped at his pasty, cluttered eyes with a finger, drawing out the crystalline deposits of several eventless days.  His chest hurt as another spasmodic snort of amusement left it.  His mind seemed awkwardly clearer, and he was almost ready to crack another joke at Shinji's expense...or about...  "Demon-girl," he said again, shaking his head.
     Finally able to breathe again in the aftermath of the laughter, Touji turned towards the door, strangely confident that he'd done the right thing today.
     Kensuke stood up, donning his glasses for the first time in a few days.  "Hey, Touji?"
     "What?"
     "You up for some basketball?  Before we go down there?"
     Touji smirked, nudging Shinji.  "Always.  Shinji..?"

* * *

     Cold.
     So cold.  Metal shrank, skin hardened, water froze into ice.  There was ice, everywhere.  Ice hung from the buildings, from the vehicles, from the sky.  Ice formed the ground, kilometers of ice, so deep that the core samples had barely been able to find the rock beneath it.  An entire history of the world, preserved in ice.
     And more, being added on top of it.
     September was the last month of the polar night.  Six months of night, of darkness, in two and a half years of unerring cold.
     All spent here, on this tortuous isle of ice.
     And yet, from the people who inhabited the research facility, it didn't look like they cared.  Life was different, here, an escape from the rest of the world.  No one was embroiled in petty power squabbles or worrying anxiously about their stock portfolios.  Everything had been left behind, to do research here, in what was, perhaps, the natural world's last bastion.
     There was an ethereal beauty and tranquility, here.  She remembered it was the last time she'd truly felt happy.  Distant from anything and everything that had ever troubled her.
     Every morning, in the midst of a summer dark, she would rise and meet the new day.  She never had to worry about her rough family life, that was all behind her.  Not to say she didn't still participate.  She still held regular communications with her mother, and she always had some joyful news for her.  Her father, of course, was always on hand, whenever she felt like talking to him.
     She looked back now, finding herself slightly guilty at not having done so more often, but she knew it had made sense then.
     She remembered the other members of the expedition, the other scientists and technicians who loved her simply because she was.  She could always ask to accompany them on their frequent forays onto the glacier, or learn something new about the snowmobiles from a mechanic.  One Christmas, they presented her with the 'Cutest Teenager in Antarctica' award.  Of course, she knew it was a joke more than anything else, but she loved it.
     It was the perfect escape.  She had her own room, that wasn't even connected to her father's, and she liked being able to sleep without anything on her mind.  The utter release, the soothing howl of the frosted wind against the thick metal hull of the station singing lullabyes to her.
     The escape into this frigid waste was perfect.
     She was perfect.  Everything was perfect.

     Cold.
     So cold.  Ice, forming everywhere, even in the soft billow of her breath.  She found her room frigid and shaking even beneath the thick covers.  Not knowing why or how, she was scared.  She scrambled off her mattress, onto the floor, and threw on some more clothes and her parka.
     Outside, the winds were louder, no longer a gentle crooning but a harsh, hateful scream.  The outer wall cracked audibly, buckling.  She could see the wall deforming slowly under the influence of some supernaturally powerful force.
     She stared, aghast, watching as the indent in the wall grew and filled the entire space.  It, too, began to crack visibly as the metal was stressed beyond its limits
     Screaming in absolute terror, she ran blindly for the door, tearing it open and running...  Somewhere, anywhere.
     The lights flickered and shattered, showering her with glass or swinging dangerously from the ceiling.  Her lungs burned with the cold, agony filling her veins.  She could feel her heart going into overdrive, pounding in her chest continuously and charged with adrenalin.
     The safety of the station had been compromised, the announcement blared.  She didn't hear it, only the screeching sound of the outer walls being torn away by winds greater than those of a hurricane.  Plate after plate ripped away, flying off into icy black skies.
     She ran, kept running.
     Another light exploded directly over her, scattering sparks onto her.  She ducked her head into arms and kept running.
     The entire facility rocked violently again as she charged into the mess hall and slammed the heavy safety door shut behind her.  Wind stung her cheeks, wanting to rip those as it had already stripped down the station's protective coverings.  She pulled her hood up, over her head.  Escaping into her own dark world.
     She didn't realize it, but the mess hall's wall had already been breached by the latest explosion.  Wind rushed around her, chilling her and seemingly carving the flesh from her bones.  She screamed, whimpered, begged, pleaded...nothing helped.
     Another hollow roar echoed through the mess hall, and the far wall gave way, crumbling suddenly and buckling before her like a burst bubble.  Shrapnel and debris filled the air, and the sudden wind blew away the tables before her like cards in the breeze.
     The sting against her face grew stronger as tiny particles of ice and metal flew past, biting into her.  The buried her head under her elbows, shouting for help, and was rewarded by a fist sized rock hitting her in the arm.  The force was great enough that even crouching, she was knocked sideways.
     More debris bounced off her, hitting her and cutting her if it was sharp enough.
     Someone was shouting her name.  She called back, trying to curl up into a ball again, desperate for help.
     More of the wall gave way, and a pencil-length strip of steel spiralled into her, just between her chest and abdomen, winding her and tearing both the insulative fabric and her skin.
     She passed out, expecting to die.

     For the second time that morning, she was roused by the frigid world around her.  The second sensation was pain, incredible pain.  Blood, incredibly hot in contrast to her frozen and frost-bitten skin, was slowly losing that vital warmth and congealing rapidly on her hands and face.  Some incredibly powerful light even made the clouds glow a sullen yellow overhead.
     And she saw him.
     Unsure whether or not she was hallucinating, she called out to him.  Her voice halted, and she found it hard to concentrate on anything but the pain.  But he was there...so close...and...
     Carrying her.  All of a sudden, it no longer mattered what was causing that incredible light behind her, that enormous, glowing...thing.
     It moved, seeming to stare down at them, but all she could see was the face of the man she could've sworn didn't care.
     Then she was unceremoniously dumped into the oblong pod, and the hatch shut.  She began praying, something she hadn't done in a long time...praying for another escape.
     She passed out again, no longer expecting, but hoping for life.

* * *

     Asuka nudged herself closer to the warm body whose bed she shared, positioning herself so that his breath would brush against her forehead and eyelids even as she drifted closer towards sleep.
     For some reason, it seemed much easier to fall asleep tonight, even though the new storm outside was notably worse.
     Unconsciously, she pulled herself closer to Shinji again, pressing herself against his chest before relaxing against him.  It was much more comfortable this way.  He was already sleeping himself, lost to the vague, restful realm he found next to her, but still managed to find the small of her back with the palm of his hand.
     Asuka's face lit up with a faint smile as she, too, fell asleep.

* * *

     The massive screen on the opposite side of the Command Centre currently displayed an image from one of the geosynchronous satellites over the Pacific Ocean.  Somewhere to the west of Hawaii, a massive tropical depression had slowly coalesced into a tropical storm, and from there into a fully-fledged cyclone, the first of the year.
     "The MAGI have confirmed the meteorological bureau's prediction.  There's a forty-three percent chance that hurricane Alexandra will be heading in our general direction."
     Yamashita looked down at his keyboard, his eyes drowsy.  Maybe the hurricane would give him some excuse to lay off Dr. Robertson's pet project for a while...he would certainly appreciate it.
     "How long until it gets here?" asked Shigeru.
     "Approximately eight hours.  We don't have much time."
     "All right...  Issue some kind of advisory, and secure the central block until it blows over.  We can use the Angel shelters, if necessary.  Then we won't have to evacuate everybody."
     Yamashita nodded, knowing he was going to fall asleep again soon.  "Yes...sir."

* * *

     Her eyes snapping open in a burst of fear, Hikari discovered that she was once again wedged into the corner of her room, her blanket wrapped tightly around her body.  Breathing deeply for a few seconds helped to dispel a panic that wasn't rightfully hers, and she sat upright again.
     Somewhere inside her head, a throbbing, pulsing wave of pain was crashing against her skull, like a hammer being thrown against it repeatedly.
     Not again, she thought to herself, massaging her temples with the ends of her fingers.  At least I didn't wake up screaming this time.
     Outside, the wind was howling against the glass, like some kind of enraged beast.  Some part of her consciousness regarded it as extremely strange.  In her six years living in this city, she'd never heard a gust as strong as this one.  Normally, the mountains were sufficient to dull the edge of any wind.
     Rain accompanied it, as well, pattering against the pane in a gradual crescendo.  The next morning was going to be miserable, she thought.  Asuka wouldn't appreciate it.
     Groaning softly to herself, she sat up and headed to the washroom to find herself some painkillers.

* * *

     As the eye of the storm continued to approach the coast, the image on the main screen began to show a distinct abnormality.  A scarlet point began to glow within the centre like some bloody pupil in the still air that loitered at the core of the monster tempest.
     Lightning played off the inner walls of cloud surrounding it, dancing back and forth in supercharged arcs of pure electricity, burning visibly from within the clouds like a candle in a paper lantern.  Even in the earth's shadow, the light could be seen from space, distinct in the satellite's eye.
     It escaped no one's notice in the command centre, a moving point of light against a dark, swirling background.
     Yamashita was looked back from the main screen to his own, greeted by an innocuous seeming message.  He read it once, then again, aloud.
     "Analysis complete...the pattern...is Blue." 1