EVANGELION: Ascension of the Lamb
By: Dante Abbey

 Episode 44: The Forest of the Harpies / Ex Tempora, In Utero

     Pain throbbed and swelled, boiled and grew, somewhere and somehow.
     And that was all he was conscious of.  In effect, that's all there was to be conscious of at all.  Through the dark haze of the numerous and heavy sedatives, Kensuke thought he could make out the ceiling, floating lazily several hundred feet above his head.  He had no sensation anywhere in his otherworldly body, save the pain.
     That's all there was...pain.  It seemed to define him for the moment.  He couldn't feel his body in the slightest, but he was sure that he could identify the origin of each wave of pain as they washed rapidly through his conscious.  The waves gave no respite, either, only growing steadily more intense until the troughs were indistinguishable from the crests.
     He sought to cry out and release the pain, but could not.  He wanted to writhe in agony, to shrivel up into a miniscule ball and do everything in his power to appease the pain that crawled beneath his skin and licked his bones.  Anything to make it disappear.
     Not even his eyelids would move, though, as the drugs had affected the movement of everything save those vital functions that kept him alive.  His lungs still breathed, and his heart still pumped.  Little else was functional.
     And for that empty, scalding pain, he felt deserving.
     He felt very much the fool.  How could he have believed he'd ever been important?
     No one saw him as such.  He had no impact on anyone's life.  Not even...not even his best friends.  His...only friends, really.  The only ones who had bothered to make sure he was still alive.
     No one else had come...not even NERV, the organization which had provided him with nothing less than an Evangelion, and had asked that he pilot it.  What did they care?  Especially since he'd proven beyond a doubt that he could not use it effectively.
     He still felt hollow and weak, his mind nothing more than a blur of broken and twisted recollections and partial memories.
     All he could do was reflect back upon himself, upon his uselessness, stupidity, and illusions.  What did it matter that he was improving?  So were the Angels.  He was still an odd ornament, a useless burden because he could do nothing to help himself.  And the one time he had, even in defiance of his superiors, he had failed anyway.  As a consequence, he had received his due punishment.  For a moment, though, when he had created a prison for himself in his quarters, he had felt a flicker of pride through the darkness.  As if he was proud for acting, finally, in a manner about which he had long dreamed.
     It didn't change anything for now, though
     There was nothing -- nothing -- that he could do to move himself, to propel himself forward.  It was as if he was rooted to the spot, like a plant.  Not like Shinji, who always overcame everything.
     Shinji, whose disinterest in the Eva program went uncontested; Shinji, who had drawn so much of the Angels' blood in its service.
     So much blood.  Blood everywhere, spilled and spread.  Over the streets, on the buildings, into homes...darkening the water.  And what was that, there, in the midst?
     Unit-01.  Drenched in blood.  Shinji.
     What more was there, with that great horned Beast?  Occasionally, the images were distorted, fuzzy, as if he were watching a screen from a great distance.  At the same time, he was intruigued and driven by curiosity to look closer, to find what lay at the heart of all the blood.
     There was an entry plug amidst it all, crushed and crumpled on the ground, its LCL spilled and diluted in the encircling red lake.  Marked 03.  03?
     So much hate, filling the sky, pouring freely from the blood-soaked gargantua.  Enough hate for him, for the others, for everyone.  An immobile demon of hate, covered in a slick outer coat of blood.
     Kensuke found he could hate it.  Easily.
     He felt oddly unnerved.  No one had ever explained to him what had happened with Unit-03.  Or Touji, for that matter.  Neither had ever been mentioned ever again at school.  Everyone who had anything to do with NERV eventually disappeared.  Even Hikari, who had been permitted to visit his friend just once, as the head of the class, had never said another word.
     Kensuke remembered his own first day at school, in Tokyo-3.  His own turn as the new kid.  Half a year late.  Entirely disoriented and luckless.  The bothersome stripling.  The repeated ignoring and exclusion.  The insignificance that was Kensuke.
     Touji.  He still remembered Touji, and very well.  Another child, as small as himself, but with a different outlook...a happy-go-lucky persona.
     Touji had been his singular friend for the ensuing years.  How he had learned to mock his stature, himself, all to release the bottled anger and the secret envies he held against those other classmates.  Within that entry plug, what was there?  Under the shadows between the fractured plates of metal, he knew it had to be his singular friend.
     But if this Beast...bathed in blood...if it was the truth...
     What was Shinji, anyway?  And why did Unit-01 obey him so efficiently?  Why had he mauled Touji from the comfort of his Eva?
     It was a betrayal.
     The Beast -- now patron of blood and fear in its own right -- looked up, turning its malicious grin towards him.  Kensuke found disdain and manipulation in those eyes and came to hate them.
     What was Shinji?
     Why be Touji's friend, only to destroy him later?  Would the same happen to him?
     He found himself staring lazily at the ceiling floating miles above him, unable to move a muscle.  Without any further memories save that of rancor, he watched for the reappearance of the blood-soaked rice paddies and the red sky.  Despite the fact that he had no recollection of it...he knew it would come.  He'd seen it all before, asked the same questions, drawn the same conclusions.
     It would come again, and he would wonder.
     What was Shinji?
     The pain that had replaced his body surged forth again, and he felt as though his chest had been pierced in its centre, even though he had no consciousness of his chest as yet.

* * *

     Abruptly and gracelessly, Shinji wrenched himself free of the nightmare, wiping tears from his face with the back of his hand.  His throat was still a little raw, and despite his repeated efforts, he could not stem the flow of tears.  Somewhere within him, a dam had burst, unlocking a bottomless reservoir of agony.
     He sat panting on the uneven hospital cot, breathing laboriously into the multiple shafts of blue light that rained into the room through the gaps in the curtain and filtered through the cloth.  Again, he raised a hand to his face, striking the trails of tears and sweat that ran in scintillating rivulets along his face.
     He was alone.
     The door to the hall outside was closed; locked, really, but he could not tell that from where he was seated.  His hands lay pressed into the bedding around him, digging creases and raising ridges of fabric around them just as his body created a depression in the mattress.  It was silent.  The room was empty.
     He welcomed the solitude, bathing in it, letting himself float in it momentarily, as he thought about the suffusive and acrid ache that had taken up residence in his body.  The solitude, finally, provided a state in which he could cry, and mourn.
     For a second, he was lost.  The sleep of unconsciousness had blessed him with the luxury of oblivion, but he was now forced to pay for that.  The flood of cathartic half-murders and lust-drenched abuse struck him down like the falling crest of a tsunami strikes shore, wiping away everything that had been built there and replacing it with the deep, torrid water that had once lay peacefully in the ocean.
     Shinji's eyes shut, and was reduced to wracking sobs.  He'd learned, long ago, not to hate himself, but was there truly any choice now?  No...there wasn't.
     The hypocrisy of it all sickened him.  Only a few months ago, he had convinced himself that he was worthy of loving Asuka simply because he'd found a way to forgive himself for the misdemeanors of his mind, and never once reflecting on those his body had physically exacted.  He'd made himself believe that it no longer need matter, regardless of what he had actually done.
     Like a recurring, waking nightmare, he was plagued by his self, in body and soul, taking forcefully what was not rightfully his, physically and spiritually stripping a fallen Asuka of both her defensive barriers and vital energy.  In making them his own, he'd left her in a state far, far worse than the simple act of killing her would have.  The embryo that still lingered in his conscious was right: he truly was a monster, a predator of the worst degree.
     And how could he not have known?  He had been aware of those subconscious desires since her first appearance, he knew.  Had he not attempted to catch a glimpse of her purity, her unblemished skin aboard the aircraft carrier?  Granted, she had caught him, but that did not mean the lust had died there.
     The first week she had moved in with him and Misato, had he not looked upon her sleeping body as it fell next to him?  Had he not attempted to touch her there, or at least entertained some fantasy of doing so?  What of the time at the pool, prior to the volcano Angel?
     He was certainly aware of them after the Awakening, and more so since the first night...together.  For nearly a month afterward, while they had remained separate, he had extremely fond memories of that night, as it was the closest he had come to fulfilling that drive to own her that he had experienced at that time.  He knew that the carnal demon within him had awakened with every fearful kiss, every trembling touch he received from her.  As a proud despot receives tributes from his subjugated nations, so had he imagined her love at those times.
     Worse still were the recollections of the times he had sated the hunger within, and the worst...the worst were those two times he had done so in her presence, whether or not she was aware of it.
     How could he have not recognized what he was truly doing?
     Simple enough, really.  He'd gone to no small lengths to convince himself that he could do her no harm so long as he could obtain forgiveness.  He'd taken Misato's final kind words, words of advice, of self-amelioration, and warped them, twisted them to serve his own perversion.
     What had she said, anyway, before she died?
     ...But each time, I believed I could get better...
     Had he?
     Had he really gotten better?  No...he was still the same.  For all the crimes he'd inflicted against Asuka, against her lively soul and lithe, graceful...
     He cut himself off with a curt gasp, turning his head away from the light that still crawled through the window, terminating the thought before any further depravity could stem from it.  He would not harm her any more.
     He had to change, he absolutely had to, and at any cost...
     What of her forgiveness? a small voice embedded in his mind spoke.
     Grimacing, he banished it from his skull.  Her forgiveness was tainted by fear.  This he knew.  Why wouldn't she fear him?  She had to.  He knew she did.
     Every time she looked upon him, upon his hands that were but the agents of his will and his very horrid tools, she would know that at some time he had turned that will against her, to crush the life out of her veins.
     Tainted forgiveness was not liberating.  He could not live with that.  It was as if she had sold her flesh to him in exchange for the security of her soul, so that it would not be violated.  And he had accomplished this as well, forcing her to bare for him her secrets in the same manner as he had bared her body and robbed her of both chastity and modesty.  Stripped them from her as the grape is torn from the vine, immature.
     He could no longer see her in his mind's eye as she had once been.  In her stead was nothing but a hollow shell, left to decompose on the stained white carpet with her eyes closed and her body broken beneath him.  He saw lifelessness.
     And what was lifelessness if not death?
     She was as good as dead, and at his hands.  Shinji wept uncontrollably until sunset, where the powers of his sight dimmed with the waning of the sun and he was forced by his tired body to rest at once.  His sleep was still sullied by a grotesque collage of his every depredation, and they were disjointed, uneven, and lacking cohesion.

* * *

     It was with some pity that Arashio peered down the long corridor that over-looked the Cage.  In each segment, she could see some protruding part of the Evas jutting out from the line.  They were silent now, parked like warhorses, awaiting only the next battle.
     And yet, she knew that the now-empty metal cylinders that protruded from each of their necks had been filled to overflowing with the screams of the Children and the pleas of the damned.
     Some days, she despised her job from the furthest, deepest depths of her heart.  Not a one of them deserved this.
     Her slow, plodding steps carried her out onto the gantry next to Unit-02's head.  The paint, once chipped and flayed by the crushing hail, had been replaced.  And yet, they were still hard at work cleaning the Eva.  She looked up to find Dr. Robertson overseeing the repairs.
     She was glad he was at least being civily solemn yesterday.  The red mark she'd left on his cheek two days ago was gone, faded behind his salted beard.  She'd lived out those two days in fear of retribution for striking a senior officer, but had never received more than a mild rebuke from either Commander Fuyutsuki or Captain Shigeru.  Really, she'd been unable to help herself, and she suspected that the mild response was because they sympathized with her.
     Shigeru, at least.  Fuyutsuki...was different, these days.  Other than a few curt commands, he hadn't said anything during the entire battle.  On top of that, he'd decided to leave the side project exclusively within her hands.  She didn't yet see herself as ready for that kind of responsibility, so she'd pushed up the rate of her own exercises.  If anything did happen, she would have to be ready for it.
     Even while the bridge crew recognized the futility of any efforts to help the pilots, only Dr. Robertson had been callous enough to continue his self-righteous griping and sarcastic invectives.  She had begun to hate the man very seriously a long time ago, but that had been the last straw.
     "Here, sir.  These are for you."
     Without a further word, she handed over the files she'd been asked to deliver, then stalked back towards the gantry.  Her shift would be ending soon, and she was looking forward to getting home again.  Headquarters was starting to bother her more and more these days.
     As she boarded the elevator and proceeded back down towards the locker, she nearly ran into Shigeru, his arms nearly overflowing with files and clipboards.
     "Oh...sorry, sir."
     Shigeru dropped the pen that had been gripped between his teeth and it fell onto the top of his stack of files.
     "It's okay.  I was actually just going to find you."
     She stared at the massive pile of paperwork incredulously, hoping that it wasn't work she would have to do.  "Um..?"  Arashio pointed timidly at the pile.
     "Oh, right.  They're expecting Asuka to return to consciousness tomorrow...and..."
     He lapsed into an uncomfortable hush, quelling himself.  "And..?" she prompted.
     "She's okay, they tell me...but it's not all good news.  Do you remember when we sent you to talk to Hikari?"
     Arashio nodded, blinking.  It was fairly clear what she was expected to do now.  "You'd like me to talk to Asuka?  But I thought she piloted no matter what, doesn't she?"
     Shigeru's hair floated back and forth as he shook his head.  "No, no...we figure she'll continue anyway.  It's more with regards to...an injury, I guess.  That's all I know."  The elevator stopped, and the doors opened on the same floor as Shigeru's office.  Still carrying his stack of paper, he stepped out and turned around.  "Anyway...there'll be a briefing paper in your office tomorrow morning."
     "Yes, sir..."
     The doors slid shut.
     An injury..?  Arashio closed her eyes for a moment and hoped it wasn't serious.  After all, they were still children, and Asuka...  She hoped harder.

* * *

     Hikari stood by the hospital's front entrance, staring out into the vastness of the geofront.  She wasn't sure what she was feeling.  There were no cicadas, no breeze, no people.  Less than fourty-eight hours after the end of the Angel incident, here she was.  So far, she was the only one to have been released.  And she was still standing there fifteen minutes later.
     The fight with the Angel was less than a blur to her.  In fact, it was as if everything after the launch sequence had been deleted from her mind.  All she could recall, and then only badly, was the horrific nightmare that had ensued.  She recalled being pulled in numerous direction by the bloodied and barely identifiable corpses of people that she knew.  There was more, but that was about all she could remember.
     There was the Voice, too, who had intervened near the end, dispersing the dream and replacing it with a deep, comfortable darkness.  In the ensuing blankness, she understood her other nightmares, and their origin.  The Voice seemed to be apologetic as well.
     Hikari even felt slightly light-headed, as she pulled the neural transmitters free from her hair and letting it drop to her shoulders.  Her proper belongings had been recovered from the locker room, but she hadn't had time yet to rearrange her hair.
     For a fleeting moment, she wished she had stayed a moment longer in the hospital, to use the mirror in the washroom, but she had felt so absurdly uncomfortable to be sitting for...the fifth? time in a hospital bed that she had departed as quickly as possible.
     Sitting down on the curb, she placed her school bag on the ground next to it and began fixing her hair into place with the pair of ornaments she had last used two days before.  Satisfied with her work by the feel, she stood up, lifting her bag, and walked over to the map of the geofront standing by the road's edge.  She didn't recognize this portion of the geofront, and she needed to get home as quickly as possible.  It had just dawned on her that this was the first time that Pen-Pen had been left on his own for so long...and he couldn't feed himself.
     The doors slid open behind her, disgorging a slightly ruffled Touji Suzuhara onto the sidewalk as well.
     "Hikari!" he nearly shouted, jogging up quickly to meet her, "Man, I've been looking all over for you...they told me you were just released, too."
     "I...yes.  You have?" she asked, slightly stunned.  "What...why?"
     "I..."  Touji was suddenly lost for words, an oddly dark expression filling his face and turning it away.  "I...I was gonna walk you back to your place.  Y'know...in case anything...happened."  For some reason, his voice picked up its pace, and he nearly started babbling, something she'd never seen before.  It was a definite contrast to his usual stolid confidence.  "I...I already checked in with Security...and they said Mari was already being watched at home...so...I oughta make sure you get...back okay too.  I suppose."
     "...Oh.  Oh...kay."
     She stared a moment longer at him, her mind lost and confused, but strangely clearer.  Touji stared back, his expression blank but anxious, and he took her hand when she offered it.

* * *

     Masaharu waited silently in the shadows as the doors hissed apart, revealing yet another long hallway that stretched onwards on both sides.  This was the third, and, if he remembered correctly, he had taken one right turn and two lefts to get here.  Come to think of it, he'd just performed a large loop.  Every once in a while, he'd taken the liberty of looking into some of the darkened facilities, but everything on this level was the same.
     It was decrepit, overrun with detritus and debris, and the floors were covered in shattered equipment and decaying chemical compounds.  It was as if no one had bothered to clean up the place since Third Impact, and everything had been left in the same state of disrepair.
     What really surprised him was the fact that the facilities, if they were simply refurbished, would be in excellent condition to continue whatever research had taken place here before.  There was no dust covering the floor, perhaps owing to a more efficient filtration system and the lack of anything that could create it.
     It hadn't been too long ago that he'd stumbled across the file in question during one of his typical rambling journeys through the MAGI...barely two or three days ago, in fact.
     Most people in NERV had heard of Terminal Dogma.  For the most part, NERV's staff had been told that it was simply the lowest part of Dogma, the central, and supposedly deepest part of headquarters.  Some claimed that the true Terminal Dogma existed even beneath that.  It was something of a legend, a place of rumours, a laboratory of Frankenstein.  Some dismissed it, others suspected it, and still others were convinced it was real.
     It was.  He was standing in it now.
     For some reason, several months earlier, heavy security had been placed all around the lower level of Dogma, guarding certain areas and preventing any access.  The layout file he'd found, purely by chance, indicated the existence of unsealed construction passages.  He'd been glad to exploit them, his curiosity taking the upper hand.
     Now he was facing the hallway he'd first come down, he paused to listen.  As always, the ventilation systems were going through their extended, steady cycles, breathing like some kind of organic being.  He felt oddly uncomfortable, and leaned back against the cold, metal wall.
     His concentration was abruptly fractured by another hissing doorway, back from the direction he'd come.  The cyclic pulse of the air ducts was now punctuated by a steady, decisive step that echoed up and down the hallway.
     Masaharu nearly panicked, but managed to keep his head in place long enough to escape further back into the shadows and flick off his flashlight.  Luckily, it had been pointing in the right direction, away from the hallway.  All the lights on this level, if it really was Terminal Dogma, were extinguished, and he was now left in a near-darkness.  For some reason, however, there was still some degree of illumination, a dark indigo penumbra that filled the air.
     As the footsteps continued their approach, he reached for his sidearm, still wrapped in the sock he'd used to muffle its report when he'd shot through the lock in the concealed doorway that had brought him here.  If necessary...no one would hear, and likely, no one would find the body.
     Or his, he thought, a bead of sweat trickling down from his brow to his nose.  He kept a hand clamped on the door sensor, blocking it so that it wouldn't shut and alert the other person to his presence.
     Luckily, that other person was so absorbed with his goal that he didn't even notice that a door was open where it shouldn't have been.  His mind dismissed it as another open corridor.
     As he passed, though, Masaharu could see the profile of the man's face, and recognized it immediately as being that of Commander Fuyutsuki.
     What the.., he thought, before realizing the only reason for the elder man's prescence, So they are hiding something down here...
     Masaharu made a mental note to come back later, then left as quietly as possible after Fuyutsuki stepped into another elevator and descended.

* * *

     "Touji?"  Hikari stopped by the door to the apartment.  She could hear Pen-Pen scratching from the other side.  "Are you feeling all right?"
     "Huh?  Oh...yeah...yeah.  Why?"
     Frowning, Hikari dug her hand into her school bag and found her keycard, lying near the bottom.  "I don't know...you're a bit jumpier than usual..."  She passed it through the reader, and the door chimed quietly in response, sliding open.  "Anyway, thanks for coming with me...would you like to come in?"
     Touji looked quickly at his watch.  "Uh...no...I gotta go back and check on Mari.  An' make sure you lock the door.  I'll...call you later, okay?"
     Hikari slipped off her shoes in the entraceway, and put down her bag carefully on the step.  "Well...thank you."
     "You're welc..."
     "I've never seen you this worried before," she said again, her forehead furrowing as she looked him over again.  "I just..."  Touji was already turning to leave, even if he seemed hesitant to.  Striking up her courage, Hikari took a step outside the door, stopping just short of him.  "Touji?"
     "Huh?"
     "If you want, you can always talk to me, okay?"  She looked off, down the hall, trying to hide her blush.  "I'll...I'll see you later.  Have a safe trip home..."
     Touji stared at the closing door, then pried himself away.  He still had yet to find Mari.  "Safe..." he muttered to himself, shaking his head against the falling sun.  "Sure..."

     The sun was close to setting, and Hikari had just finished making herself dinner when she heard the door slide open.  It was eerily quiet.  None of the usual laughing or teasing echoed down the hall, and she couldn't heard Shinji's typical muffled self-defence.  One or the other had come back, but certainly not together.
     She could have sworn she heard a quiet and momentary lament, but she put it down to her imagination.  Shinji walked slowly through the hall and into the kitchen, leaving behind his own bag as he did so.
     "I'm sorry," she said, still focused on the stove, "...I didn't think you were coming back so late...so I didn't make very much..."
     She also thought she heard him say he wasn't hungry.
     Plodding, steady footsteps continued on past her, disappearing as he crossed the border between hardwood and carpet.
     "...Shinji?"
     Somewhere in the hallway between the two smallerrooms, a door slid shut.  Hikari was left alone in the kitchen, a lone bowl of soup held in one hand, and a cup of tea in the other.  She glanced down for a moment at the tea leaves, roiling and spinning like rubble in a hurricane.
     The apartment was unnaturally silent.  Not a sound, even from outside, broke the deathly quiet blanket over it.  The cicadas, normally quite active at this time of the year, had all but disappeared, and the streets were empty of human life.
     Outside, those buildings and houses that did not have the fortune of hiding themselves under the earth had suffered incredible damages.  The vast majority had been designed to deal with certain natural disasters.  Earthquakes being one, since the island-nation of Japan sat above three or four separate tectonic plates in constant motion.
     Cyclones had never been anticipated, especially this far inland.  Those that still had homes returned to them.  The others stayed in the shelters, waiting for the reconstruction.  In some sense, this was no different from the aftermath of any other Angel...except that the damage had never been so general and widespread at the same time.
     Worried, Hikari put her food down on the table and followed.
     "Shinji?" she asked again.
     The silence carried for a while, but was broken by a jagged mumble.  She felt like she was listening to him talk through his pillow.
     "Nothing happened to Asuka, I hope..," she added, trying to figure him out.  "I..."
     Shinji persisted in saying nothing.  There were no cicadas to speak for him.
     Turning slowly away from the door, Hikari made a mental note to make sure she reported the broken glass window to the building superintendent.  For the time being, it was simply taped over with a piece of cardboard.
     A piece of hail must have struck it, she thought, returning apprehensively to the kitchen.

* * *

     "How are the pilots doing?"
     Shigeru slumped down into Masaharu's empty chair on the bridge, putting his back towards the inactive station.  Dr. Robertson didn't reply at first, finalizing some details with Yamashita at the control interface opposite him.
     "Fine...more or less.  You've already been informed about Sohryu, and the three that were already released.  Ikari got out yesterday evening."
     Shigeru's mouth twisted for a while.  If not for the way the battle had unfolded, he would have laughed long and hard when Arashio finally stood up from her station and immediately slapped Dr. Robertson's glasses off.  It had caught him completely by surprise, rare for someone so securely on the ball as he was.
     He didn't deny that the man deserved it.  Even Asuka's experience at the hands of the 15th Angel hadn't seemed as horrific as this one.  And it had gotten worse once the medical reports began scrolling in over the restored communications lines.  The Angels had never directly harmed any of the Children's physical bodies before...and there was no indication as to why it would have chosen her out of the five.
     "What about Kensuke?"
     "Still under observation.  We have him heavily sedated."
     "Still?"  He'd heard that Kensuke had been in this state since the end of the battle, but he hadn't expected it to drag on this long.  "Why?"
     Dr. Robertson looked miffed.  Arashio hadn't cured him of his apathetic wit, only put it into a short but welcomed remission.  "Why?  Because we're still monitoring abnormal brainwaves from the kid.  Either he's gone crazy or we're looking at mental contamination on a larger scale than we've ever seen before."  He tossed a hand into the air, as if it didn't really matter.  "Of course, if your highness' orders are to release the boy, that's okay by me, too."
     Shigeru was about to tell him to shut up when a slightly exhausted-looking Masaharu stumbled in through the doors for the beginning of his shift.  A few seconds of intensive thought made him revise that intetion.
     "So...it's from the Angel?  Like Asuka's injury?"
     "No...more likely from the Eva."

* * *

     Looking down on her now, Shinji could almost imagine himself the way he had been.  Scared, desperate...wanting.  How he'd begged her to defy the world again, rise from her death bed and call him those names he found endearing.  How he'd sought to see her eyes shine again, despite his pain, how he'd needed her to rise from her comatose state of unconsciousness and be herself again.
     And how, in the process of his desperation, he'd taken his first step towards becoming a rapist.  Trembling, he could almost see his hand turn her over, tearing open her loose hospital-issue shift as he did so, exposing her to the air and his eyes.  He remembered, in excruciating detail, the exact number of seconds he had spent in strict observance before seeking himself out for his own pleasure.
     It was nothing more than another selfish, shallow attempt to force some form of pleasure on himself, just to give him something to live for.  And it had failed miserably.
     He'd felt sick with himself then, but that paled in comparison with his current self-disgust.
     Looking down on the tangled mass of limp auburn hair, some detached part of his mind noted how pallid and ill it looked under the pale blue morning light filtering through the window.  She should never look like this, he thought.  Ever.
     But she did.
     Why was he still here?  What did he still want from her?
     Certainly, the last thing he wanted was for her to recover then, while was still standing there.  It would not be right if the first thing she was forced to see upon waking was the very person that had caused her so much torment.
     No, the best thing to do would be to leave before she woke.
     In which case, why was he still there?
     He waited, listening, unable to tear his eyes away from her prone, foetal form as she lay curled on the bed, the soft, steady monitors annoucing her every heartbeat to the world.  He watched her form, thankfully obscured under the blankets rise and fall with her breathing, and he was grateful that she had managed to survive him.
     He understood his fascination with her now, understanding that his love for her was no better than that of the pubescent males that threw themselves at her feet every day at school.  He'd only managed himself better, put himself in a position where he could safely act, where he could use her and he body to make himself supreme over her and over himself.
     It was her power, her life, her complex, exuberant beauty that he'd wanted, and nothing more.
     He was revolted.  Thoughroughly and utterly revolted.
     Asuka stirred a little in her sleep, moaning with some buried pain.  For a moment, Shinji froze, unsure of whether or not to remove himself from the room, and distance her from himself.
     Reduced to this single, driving desire that now defined him, Shinji came to recognize a much hated trait in himself.  He was very much his father's son, capable of the most disgusting and cold-hearted deeds known to man, and doted with the capacity to move on and live afterwards as though nothing had happened out of the ordinary.
     Was that, he asked himself, how he was conceived?  Perhaps it was the same story.  Perhaps his father had found some way of forcing his mother into the relationship, and then making her bear a child?
     That would explain his annual lack of emotion at the gravesite, and the way in which he'd methodically destroyed any tangible connection to her.  It might also explain why he, as a child, was unwanted.  Could it be that it was his father, the Commander, who had placed his mother within the pseudo-body of Unit-01?
     He, Shinji, was no different, no less cold.  He simply achieved his goals in a different manner.
     His eyes had not yet left her face, and he realized he was beginning to cry for the second time since he'd come into the room.  Tears of sorrow, of self-loathing.  Tears of remorse.
     Had Gendou Ikari felt this?  Had he understood?  Even if it was at the very end, at his death, had he finally understood why he'd taken his wife body and soul, and how wrong and unnatural it was?
     Slowly, Shinji collapsed into the chair by the bedside like a building being destroyed.  It wasn't much longer before the strain finally wore through and expressed itself.  He hunched over, pressing his palms to his eyes, and let himself weep fully.  At least in this he was better than his father.
     He was finally able to bring himself under control several minutes later, and he looked up at her sleeping form from his seat.  His father had spoken of the 'one, irreplacable thing' his mother had taught him.  What was that?
     Shinji knew he might never know, or maybe, just maybe, one day he too would understand what that meant.  For now, he only understood why he had come back.
     Slowly, aching, he stood, resting his weight on his hands pressed into the mattress.  Asuka slept, far from content, a mere shell of her former self.  Nevertheless, this was one recollection he wanted to keep, for it would always remind him of what he'd done, and how he'd accomplished it.  To forget would make him more of a monster than he already was.
     His eyes drank every detail, from the slightest strand of misplaced hair to the play of shadows on her cheek, and he knew and understood pain.  He took a deep breath, emptying his lungs and sullying the air around her for the very last time.
     He refrained from kissing her, for fear that he might wake the demon within again, and leant over the bed just long enough to whisper that he still loved her into her uplifted ear.
     It was time to leave.  He needed to put as much distance as possible between them, so that he could never hurt her again.  The only sound in the room as he left was the steady beeping of the cardiac monitor.  There were no cicadas left.

* * *

     Masaharu looked carefully up and down the hallway.  So far, so good.  It was clear, bereft of any passers-by.  Triggering the door control, he swiftly check to make sure that the memory card was still well-ensconced in the palm of his hand, invisible to any onlookers.
     This had been a lot easier when Yamashita had been plagued by sleep-deprivation.
     Luckily enough, his co-worker was currently absent from his office, and Masaharu quickly located the hidden stack of cards and slipped it in among the pile.  Recently, he'd noticed that Yamashita had been getting considerably more careful, labeling them and keeping a list of the ones he'd already reviewed.
     This, Masaharu thought gingerly to himself, was the last time.  He'd had enough of looking in places he shouldn't have been.  While he hadn't found anything concrete yet, he was now aware of a whole different aspect of NERV...one that scared him to no end.  This, he thought, was the last piece of evidence he had to dispose of.  Working quickly, he brought up Yamashita's log, and adjusted it for the new card.
     He wondered if Fuyutsuki was fully aware of this project.  He assumed the Commander must be, since he had ordered the repairs on the MAGI completed, and Dr. Robertson typically had to file reports on a almost daily basis.
     A quick hack job changed the file's 'last modified' date, and he walked briskly out of the office and back down the hall, towards the command centre.

* * *

     Asuka awoke, her hands already held over her stomach and a faint groan of suprise and pain fighting its way past her lips.  She grimaced, the dried tears on her face watered anew, their dry beds soaking up the new rain and flowing downwards.  She lifted a hand, wiping them away.
     Something was still stabbing away internally, cutting her apart from the inside, and she knew it wasn't wholly physical.  Still, she refused to give up even now, and began to struggle against it, sitting upright.  Her body spited her efforts by sending another surge of pain from her belly up her spine.
     She groaned, wondering how she was going to find Shinji in this state, and forced her body to move again.  She felt weak in every sense of the world, and wished she could have the strength her mama had lent her, to save her yet again.
     Furious with the pain and her inability to move with any speed, she threw the hospital's thin, malodorous blankets away from her body and slid her feet to the floor.  In the darkness, it was hard to tell just how far away the floor was, but she found it with her toes and struggled to stand.  The incredible pain impeded her, and she collapsed backwards.  With a growl of frustration, she stood again, and this time found a chair to support her.
     She felt something detach from the skin over her ribs, and immediately, the air was filled with a piercing alarm.  She heard feet rush to the door, and was nearly overwhelmed by the lights coming on and the shouting of voices.
     Snatches of the voices that had hailed upon her in the entry plug assailed her mind, bare echoes of their former aggression, but present nevertheless.  Asuka clapped her hands over her ears, and would have sunk onto her knees if not for the intervention of numerous pairs of hands that caught her and lifted her back onto the bed.
     "Please..," said one doctor, blurry through her teary eyes, "don't move.  You're not well enough yet.  Just try to relax, and stay here..."
     She gritted her teeth in pain, and snarled back at him.  "Can't...gotta...find..."
     "Don't speak," she admonished, taking a syringe from one of the nurses standing nearby and injecting a dose of sedative.  It didn't take too long to take effect.  Asuka's pain seemed to recede grudgingly, promising to return later, and she felt herself grow even weaker, if that was possible.  "You..."
     "Gotta...find...Shinji...talk..."  Her snarl, too, was losing effectiveness, and she struggled against the effects of the potent chemical now coursing sluggishly through her blood.  "Talk...to...him..."
     "You mustn't speak right now," the doctor repeated, helping the others lift her legs back onto the bed and covering her with the blanket.  "Someone will come to talk to you in a few hours.  Try to rest."
     "...Shin...ji?"
     With that, most of them turned to leave.  The last nurse activated a security camera hovering in the top corner of the room, its single red eye staring down onto the silently fuming Asuka.

* * *

     The holographic representation of a second century text faded out before the council, dropping the room into a slate-black shadow that swallowed the monoliths and left only their scarlet red insignas to glow in the air.  The hatred in the room had been strong to begin with, but it had now increased to the point where any stranger entering the room would have at once felt it and the very air would have seting teeth on edge.
     "We have received the last of the files from the MAGI's memory centres.  And we have lost another month."
     "Indeed.  We must inform both of the Brothers that their work is not yet done."
     "Fuyutsuki is still uncontrollable!  We are blind, and he sees!"
     Even Kihl was loathe to propose further patience.  Twenty-seven Angels had passed, there couldn't be too many more before it all came to a head and the truth was revealed.  Assassination was out of the question...it appeared Fuyutsuki was keeping every secret to himself, never once letting anything slip.
     He had isolated himself, as well.  Very few people came to see him, and he only presented himself on the bridge when the Angels attacked.
     SEELE truly was only a mere shadow of its former self.  For the first time in what seemed to be ages, the air had a tinge of desperation to dilute the anger.

* * *

     The doorknob turning was the first sign of the visitor.  Asuka blinked back the tear of pain and worry that still persisted in falling, smothering it behind a steely mask as she had been accustomed to doing.  Only Shinji had earned the right to see them.
     For a moment, the doorknob hesitated, keeping the bolt from sliding all the way back into the door, and two clear knocks resounded in the air.
     "Come in."  Asuka's words were now bereft of any weakness, replaced by a quiet defiance.  She recognized the face that entered.  It matched one from her restored bank of memories.  Lieutenant Arashio, she thought, putting a name to the face.
     "Um...ah...hello."  The Lieutenant gestured nervously at the chair, a quick, flitting motion with one hand.  Asuka nodded silently, and stared down into her hands as she sat up.
     Silence ensued, something Asuka didn't like.  She'd spent too much time, both real time and perceived time, in absolute silence.  It was making something in her writhe, reviving scenes and nightmares.
     "Well?!" she suddenly spat out, "What is it?"
     Arashio seemed to jump in her chair.  This meeting would be significantly apart from the one she'd had with Hikari.  Asuka was very different...and very much in pain.  She couldn't really blame her, though...poor kids.
     "I...well...I have some bad news."  Arashio winced.  "Quite bad, actually..."
     The blue eyes remained rigid and cold, but diverted their gaze far enough to focus on Arashio's face.  "Not...Shinji, is it?"  The anger dissipated, replaced suddenly by an intense concern.
     "No!  No...  It's...it's you.  This last battle..."  Asuka's expression did not change.
     "Unit-02, then."
     "No...you.  I...I was told to tell you this because I have...some...well...uh..."  Arashio trailed off, deciding it wasn't important.  "I have to tell you that...well, you've suffered some physical damage...in the last battle.  And...I'm afraid it's permanent."  Her face twisted in sympathy, and she swallowed the hard knot in her throat.  "You..."
     One corner of Asuka's lips turned downwards in disdain.  "I've been through worse," she muttered.  "So what is it, then?"
     If not for the utterly tired apathy in her absent tone, Arashio might have thought Asuka was genuinely curious.  As it was, though, she didn't seem to care.  "Well...we don't know exactly how, but you...well...you won't be able to bear children anymore.  You're...you're sterile now, Asuka."
     Arashio looked ready to cry in her own right, despite the apathy she saw in the girl.
     "They can't say anything for sure," she went on, hurting inside.  It was too cruel a thing to inflict on...on anyone, and especially someone as young as Asuka.  Arashio didn't yet have children of her own, but it was comforting to know that the possibility was there.  "They can't say...but almost your entire...reproductive system...has been...destroyed."
     Nodding once, Asuka realized why she was still in pain.
     She took a deep breath, not really thinking.  "Whatever," she mumbled, "it's not as if I wanted any anyway."  Still, Arashio noticed that the defiance and anger had slipped a little, giving way to a mild sadness.  She looked down at the file folder in her hands.  It was full of documents for Asuka to fill in and sign.
     Mostly, they were compensation applications, pre-approved and ready to be processed.  Arashio didn't like the idea of monetary compensation.  It seemed somehow appropriate.  They paid the pilots, but so what?  They'd never, ever require that kind of money in their entire lives, and it still seemed paltry in exchange for everything she'd seen so far.
     Gulping back her own anxieties, Arashio took another long glance at the paperwork, then gingerly left it on the bedside table.  "I...I was supposed to have you go over these, and sign them as your witness...but I won't do it now.  I'll leave...unless you'd like me to stay for a while..?"  Perhaps Asuka would be willing to talk it over...it might help.  A short shake of her head indicated that she would rather be left alone, and Arashio excused herself.  Just by delivering the news as per her orders, she felt as though she had already forced too much onto the poor girl.
     "Wait!" she heard, as she was about to open the door again, "Where's Shinji?  Is...is he all right?"
     Arashio turned around.  "Yes...yes.  He'll be all right.  Really...you're the only one..."  She trailed off.  Asuka took to looking at her palms again, then quietly asked Arashio to leave.
     Several minutes after the door closed, Asuka tipped forward against her knees and cried bitterly without even knowing why.

* * *

     Nothing less than a complete detachment occupied Hikari's mind as she stared down at the sheets of paper in front of her.  It was all there: math, Japanese, science, history...everything.  Printed out clearly on a half-dozen sheets of paper.
     The last of the homework.
     Hikari discovered, for the first time in her entire life, that she had no motivation to even start it, let alone finish.  The first page bore the only indication that she had even looked at them, a pale series of pencil markings that only half-answered the first question.
     Glaring at the thrice-sharpened pencil, but directing it at herself, she began to focus herself again.  The act proved impossible.
     Of what use was this, anyway?  The school had been partly demolished by the cyclone.  Exposed on the hillside and fragile, it now lay in a partly fallen heap of crumbling rubble, struck down by the winds and one of the many landslides the overwhelming rainfall had initiated.
     Regardless, it was not an excuse not to complete these assignments.  After all, more would follow, once the school was rebuilt in two or three months.  Although...it could be longer.
     From his perch on the chair next to her, Pen-Pen made a small whining sound.  Sighing, Hikari reached over and lifted him onto her lap, gently stroking at his tiny, water-proof feathers.  Eventually, she freed one hand to restore her printouts to her school bag and carried the bird into the living room.
     Not that long ago, Touji had called again.  And shortly before that, her family.  Everyone had been worried about her, and how she was doing.  Especially Touji.
     To be honest, she felt as though she should have been the one calling everyone instead...she seemed to be the one who had been hurt the least.
     Shinji hadn't returned since leaving in the early morning, and the exceptional silence that surpassed his usual level of introversion was a bit unnerving.  To Hikari, it could only mean that Asuka was gravely injured, or otherwise.  Despite her inquiries, he kept silent, only seeming to wither slightly at every mention of her name.
     Perhaps he'd found her, and was visiting...that could explain why he hadn't yet returned to the apartment...  Who knew?
     She ruffled Pen-Pen's head, drawing a pleased yet strangely unhappy keening from him.  She stopped, momentarily, plucking free a loose feather.
     She felt oppressed, repressed, or somthing.  As if something within her was being forcibly subdued.  She'd never felt this anxious about anything before, not even when she had embroiled herself in a debate about her own reasons for piloting Unit-15 and staying Tokyo-3.  No...that had just been simple indecision.  This was dread.
      Behind her, the door chimed, sliding away in its tracks to hide in the wall.
     For a moment, she listened intently, waiting for some kind of noise, anything.  When there was none, she ran, carefully dropped Pen-Pen back onto the floor and rushing to the entrance hallway on the opposite side of the kitchen.
     "Asuka?!" she shouted, almost gleeful.  Her smile died instaneously, annihilated by what she saw.
     Her face cast downward in a sick, wretched mask, Asuka watched her feet make several half-hearted attempts at kicking off her shoes.  Her eyes, now more of a sombre indigo laced with narrow, scarlet strands than the usual shining cerulean, seemed sunken and empty.
     Hikari's breath was broken neatly in half by the near-tangible misery before her, and for a long, aching moment, she was paralyzed and unable to speak or move.
     "Asuka..," she finally repeated, tearing herself free and moving to support her friend, whose weak attempt to shake her off met no success.
     Asuka finally managed to break one foot free of her soaked shoes.  She'd obviously made no attempt to circumnavigate the massive puddles of water left behind by the transient storm, and the toes of her socks were stained a dark grey with filthy water.  The other shoe followed suit, spiralling off to one side and striking the wall before coming to a stop several feet down the hall from its partner.
     "Where...where is he?" she asked, leaning heavily forward and doing her best to relieve the pain in her chest and abdomen with a single, purifying breath as she slumped against Hikari's arm.  Her lips were heavy and her words didn't sound right, almost foreign in her mouth.
     "...I..."  Hikari was stunned.  "I don't know...  I only saw him yesterday..."
     Asuka seemed to be expecting this news, and her eyes fell to the floor.  Almost subdued, she simply nodded.
     "...I can get you something to eat...would you..?"
     "Just...leave me alone...  For a while.  Please."
     The last Hikari saw of her was the hem of her school uniform disappearing into the hallway between her room and Shinji's.

* * *

     For the first time in nearly a month and a half, Fuyutsuki stood overlooking the vast lake of LCL from the subterranean aerie built into the wall that had once faced Lilith.  The cross still stood, built strong enough to support the pregnant weight of a giant and anchored firmly enough to withstand her liberation.
     He still didn't fully understand why Gendou had left this part of the story in his hands.  Of course, there could only be one reason, really...Yui.
     Ashes to ashes, Fuytsuki whispered to himself.  He'd said the same words several months before. Dust to dust.
     Only now was he beginning to understand the sheer magnitude of meanings and interpretations included in the Scrolls; his journey to the crypt-like libraries of the Vatican had not been in vain, and certainly had not been time wasted.
     In his mind, the translation was becoming clearer, like some vastly elegant and yet delightfully complex shoji strategy unfolding in his mind as he played.  Some days, he lived for that strategy.  Others, he couldn't stand it.
     You were right, Akiko, he pondered, I do spend too much time thinking, and not enough admiring.  But this is where it all ends, and I cannot afford to miss it.
     Turning, he walked towards the scroll he had chosen to illuminate, scanning his eyes over it.  The new familiarity with the long-deceased language had increased his comprehension and speed, and it was not long before he had refreshed his memory.
     As the lights dimmed and the lasers came to life gradually in the passage behind him, he crushed the last doubt in his mind as casually as he could.

* * *

     Despite the cyclone, and all the damage it had caused, there was still a healthy population in the city.  It was not yet as desolate as it had been, once.  Even as this late hour, the odd person could be seen milling about in the streets near the city's centre.  The shadows seemed almost warm, as if inviting passers-by to lie down and sleep.
     Of course, none needed to.  They had homes, places to go back to.
     None noticed the solitary figure sitting on the darkened park bench, staring as his hands.  Only the corner of his foot protruded out into the distinct circle of light generated by the road lamps, barely visible against the rest of the sidewalk.
     What leaves still hung from the trees rustled against each other, barely making themselves heard in the night.
     Had Shinji cared to look, he might have noticed that there were very few people standing alone on this street.  Most moved in groups of two or three, talking loudly amongst themselves, laughing and joking.  The couples -- although there were few -- moved slower, speaking in hushed tones.  The jokes were the same, but for whatever reason, they seemed to have more meaning this way.
     Thinking themselves invisible in the shadow, a man and a woman leaned against the wall next to him, whispering to each other.  Shinji found it impossible to ignore them; their proximity infringed upon the silent sanctuary he'd been building for himself.  Next to him, they began precisely what frightened him about himself.
     Without a word, he stood and shifted away from the bench, walking.
     He came across a bus.  He paid his fare and boarded, not thinking why.
     The bus' engines roared gently, groaning as it was set in motion, and moved on down the street, taking him far away from the blissfully happy couple.

* * *

     Above Tokyo-3, noon came twelve hours too early.  In less than three seconds, one twentieth of a minute, a new sun flared to life in the sky, rendering the wrought-iron dome of the sky into one of flawless sapphire.  The moon all but disappeared next to the brilliance of this intemporal alchemy, fading into obscurity as shadows lanced outward, cut from the black cloth of night and laid as embroidery on the already filigreed and multi-coloured ground.
     High, high above the sinking skyscrapers hovered a single, massive orb of light, intense enough to burn retinas and slaughter vision.
     In an instant, panic burned its smoking path through the command centre's skeleton crew like a firestorm, leaving only fear in its wake.  Curses and questions filled the air, and in moments, the entire geofront and city had been placed on a generalized evacuation alert.  Alarms sounded and announcements blared, proclaiming their message all over the once-sleeping city.
     Rudely roused, the general citizenry was considerably slower to evacuate than was their wont, and the panic-striken and chaotic rush for the shelters only made things worse.  The evacuation was taking considerably longer than was considered acceptable, and every passing second was laden with aniticipation as NERV's staff waited for the Angel to strike.
     No different from the other members of the bridge crew, Shigeru half-ran, half-stumbled onto the metal deck, still pulling on his uniform's jacket.  Fifteen minutes had now passed since the Angel's appearance, and they had now had ample time to confirm that the phenomenon was indeed an Angel.
     The Angel confirmed this itself by blasting a shallow crater in the centre of the city, collapsing four of the escaping buildings onto themselves and preventing them from burrowing any further into the ground.  As the dust settled, the heaping pile of rubble appeared as a small hillock in a plain of metal and concrete.
     "Where the hell are the pilots?  Where's the Commander?"
     "We're missing Shinji!  Kensuke's still in the hospital!"
     "Goddamn it!" Shigeru shouted, "Find him!  How long do we have until we can launch?"
     Unopposed, the Angel flickered again, brightening for a fraction of a second as it gathered and focused its energies, then dimming as it unleashed them at a seemingly randomly chosen target.
     "Unknown!  The pilots are still heading to the change rooms!"
     "Forget that!  Get them to the Evas!  Now!"
     "What about Kensuke?  He's still under sedation," Yamashita asked, checking the MAGI's reports as they came in.
     "We can't use him anyway.  There'd be too much mental toxicity coming out of Unit-16.  Launch them when they're ready!"
     "Belay that."
     Staring, Shigeru looked up as Fuyutsuki took his place on the bridge.  The Commander didn't look particularly rested, but he assumed that he had also been woken up by the alarms.
     "Bring the Seventh to the Cage, and have him prepared for launch.  Dr. Robertson, you will attend to bringing him out of the stupor."
 Dr. Robertson nodded once, then left the bridge.  Shigeru stared, uncomprehending.
     "...But sir..!  We can't use him!  He's not fit to..!"
     "We'll see."

     As Unit-14 breached the surface through one of the few remaining egress gates, Touji, did a quick check around himself, searching.  Hikari was there, close to him, while Unit-02 had surfaced on the far side of the city.  Their particular positioning didn't matter much, the Angel was so far above them that it wouldn't really matter.
     What mattered to him was that he was still close enough to protect her.  He didn't want anyone else lost or injured because of his own sloppiness or failures.  When Kensuke had nearly died in the 24th Angel's crater, it had been because he hadn't acted quickly enough to stop him from throwing himself into that pit.  He refused to let that kind of thing happen again.
     Above them, the Angel glowed a pure white, yet one that seemed replete with a hurtful malice.  Unlike the light of the natural, benevolent sun, this one was a harsh, artificial light, an angry burning that scorned and scorched the people of the earth.
     Next to him, Unit-15 hoisted its palette rifle into a firing position and squeezed the trigger back as far as it would go, sending hundreds of hot metal darts flying up against the Angel.  Its AT Field quickly became apparent, materializing wherever the shells struck, stopping them noisily in mid-air before they fell to the ground with similar fracas.
     The sullen white eye branded into the sky blinked at them again, and Touji began to panic as he deployed his own AT Field in response.  His massive black Eva rocked with the impact, but he managed to hold his ground and shield Hikari long enough for her to snap off another volley.
     Right now, he had no time for the pestering questions sent to him by the back of his mind.  Then and there, he was not concerned as to why Hikari was suddenly as important to him as Mari always had been.  Rather, it was what more he needed to do to keep her as safe as his sister who was currently protected by several hundred feet of solid rock.
     Unit-14 lifted its rifle as well, and fired, the staccato hammering of the weapon filling the air in tempo with Unit-15's.

     "Asuka, dammit!  Open fire!  You're not incapacitated!"
     For a moment, Asuka's attention drifted from her lap to the small orange communications window.  Then, nodding feebly, she looked up and took the control levers into her hands.  From the command centre, Unit-02 straightened its back, arching backwards and pulling the positron cannon into line with the Angel.
     As Unit-02 absorbed the weapon's recoil, the LCL was stirred, and Asuka's loose nightshirt rippled in waves as she fired again.  That was the only motion to be seen in her entry plug as she gave what could be considered her most lacklustre performance since the 16th.
     There was no response on the Angel's part, except that it lit up the screen with another explosive burst of fiery energy.  Unit-02's AT Field absorbed the shock handily, but staggered backwards a few steps.
     "What the...  Asuka's synch ratio has dropped to near eighty-five percent!"
     "It's not the Angel, is it?  Is it still dropping?"
     Masaharu shook his head, going over the reports on his monitor as they updated instantaneously.  "No," he replied.  At least it wasn't as serious as that.  "She...she started like that..."
     "It's hardly better than Hikari, but it'll have to do.  Status report on the other two pilots!" Shigeru demanded.  Unless they could get some more firepower out there, they were at a standoff.  Or so he imagined.
     This time, all three Evas were lit up with a simultaneous attack from the Angel, and they were forced backwards again.  Unit-02 stumbled and fell.
     "Dr. Robertson reports that Kensuke has been inserted into Unit-16!"
     Shigeru watched, stunned, as the other two Evas were forced to back off as well, retreating several steps.
     "Damn it!  Where's Shinji?"
     "He hasn't yet arrived," announced Fuyutsuki, not standing from his chair, "launch Unit-16."

     Asuka let out a nearly inaudible groan of surprise as the Angel's most recent attack overwhelmed her flagging AT Field and dissolved it instantaneously.  Bringing her arms up to shield her eyes, she realized only a second too late that Unit-02 had been sent airborne and was now flying backwards through the air.
     Unit-02 hit the ground rolling and sprawled backwards as it slammed into the mountain of rubble created by the Angel's very first attack.  Normally, she would have damned the Angel in German, then wrenched her Eva upright to press the attack.
     For the moment, she couldn't take it any more.  Unit-02's angular head fell backwards, hitting the debris behind it.  Asuka let her head fall into her arms, and for a moment, she imagined she was going to start crying again.
     "Not now," she pleaded with herself, "Not here..."
     Gritting her teeth and choking back a quick sob, Unit-02 struggled to its knees, then groped half-blindly for the positron rifle lying in the dirt next to it.
     Over the edge of the mound, she watched as Unit-14 took two, then three direct hits to its torso, stumbling and wavering like a drunk being beaten to death.  Hikari shouted something, then pulled the battered black Eva down next to it on the ground behind some low-lying armory structures.
     "Touji!" she could hear her friend saying, "Are you all right?"
     "Erk...aw, geez..."  Touji was pawing at his chest as if it were on fire.  "Yeah..."  He winced, and Hikari's expression darkened.
     Unit-16 surfaced, emerging from one of the long launch shafts in a single, rushing motion.  Touji shouted for him to get down, but Kensuke ignored the warning, opening fire.
     Strangely enough, the Angel did not return in kind.  As the powerless shells slammed into its AT Field again, and again, and again, it remained still, hovering immobile over the scene like a puppetmaster over his marionettes.
     Where are you, Asuka wanted to shout, as she felt her Eva being torn away from her for the second time in less than a week.  Where are you?
     The Angel dimmed, then brightened, then dimmed again, entering a rhythmic, syncopated sequence of intensities.  At first imperceptibly, and then in greater and greater amplitudes, it began bobbing steadily in the air, the puppeteer pulling his strings.

     "What the hell are you doing?  Move!"
     Shinji had definitely heard Dr. Robertson shouting before, but this was the first time he'd truly heard him roar.  He supposed he should have been moving faster; after all, there was an Angel on the surface, and he had a duty to destroy it.  And yet, he was so broken, so detached that his body no longer seemed capable of performing as they desired it to.
     Clumsily, and painfully slowly, he crawled into Unit-01's command chair.  Almost before it was safe, the hatch slammed shut and the immense tube was pushed into his Eva's neck.  As he waited for the synchronization cycle to complete itself around him, the infinite colours racing and warring with each other, he dropped his head into his hands.
     The Eva was already moving.
     He knew he was afraid.  Afraid of...of everything.  Asuka would be up there, fighting.  So would the others.  He didn't want to have to face them again, look them in the eyes.  He would be unable to do it, and they would know what he had done.  They would know that he had taken Asuka, violated her.
     And yet, he had to go up there, fight alongside them, defeat the Angel.
     It was necessary...it had to be done in spite of all the pain.  By not approaching Asuka, he hoped for only one thing, that she would have the benefit of time to heal and divorce herself from his murderous hands, to recover, and be herself.  This was necessary...simply because she wouldn't have that chance if he did nothing.
     The restraints parted slowly on either side of Unit-01's green-black arms, and Shinji and his monstrous other were shot towards the Angel on Shigeru's orders.
     Shinji looked up, leading the Eva's trajectory with his gaze.  Wide with apprehension and pain, his eyes saw the portal above him open, and he ascended into the world.
     Around him, the communications windows came to life, and then were abruptly filled with static.  Almost painfully, the other Evas were standing, dropping their now-useless rifles and lifting themselves to their feet.  Shinji saw the fused colours of Unit-02's banded face, and the melted rivulets of armour that ran down Unit-14's chest, and was at least partially relieved that he had not come too late.
     Overhead, the Angel was now embroiled in a silent yet chaotic spinning dance, revolving on itself and modulating the the faded hues that it gave off as it moved.  The cloudless sky seemed to twist and distort around the Angel, giving the sapphire lens the first flaw Shinji had ever seen.  Gradually, the Angel's hectic pattern carried it lower and lower towards the ground until it hovered only an Eva's height above the rubble.
     Floating above the centre of a rough circle formed by the five Evas, it finally stopped, and grew still.  As if it were an eye fallen from its socket, it stared at Shinji, its gaze burning through the armour and flesh of Unit-01 to find its hidden soul.
     Already acutely uncomfortable, Shinji stared back painfully, still unable to escape the horror of what he was.  He also began to wonder why the other Evas hadn't yet attacked the Angel.
     Satisfied with its examination, the Angel renewed its dance, floating erratically and stirring up the dust of the crumbling city with only the force of its will, of its soul.  Unit-16 finally moved, its grey arms slouching forward with the posture of an ape.  Its toothed mouth dropped open, and a low rumble filled the field.
     Unit-15 replied with its own hateful challenge, and then the black, injured beast next to it.  And finally...finally, a higher, more strident call emanated slightly muffled from behind Unit-02's mask.
     Shinji barely had time to recognize what was happening before the four Evas opposite him deployed and activated their progressive knives and AT Fields, and turned to face him.  Trembling slightly, he looked back from one to the next, finally resting his eyes on the Angel, hovering behind them.
 And as the armoured bands of Unit-02's helmet dropped apart to reveal four red, glowing eyes glaring at him through slitted eyelids, Shinji knew fear. 1