For a moment, Touji couldn't remember if he had been asleep or not; and as he struggled to remember, he jarred himself fully awake, answering the question. He remembered his name and address. He deduced that he was in the entry plug of his EVA, and he remembered why. He looked around him. He could see nothing. The only light in the cockpit came from the emergency survival kit that was secured at his feet. Touji fumbled with the controls but got no response from them. _I must've lost power somehow,_ he thought. How? His last memories were from fighting the black circle Angel. There was no shred of memory after that. _The Angel...where is it?_ He didn't recall hearing sounds of battle from the outside. Touji made an extra effort to listen. The world around him was almost silent. From somewhere--above him?--was a thud-thud-thud that Touji guessed to be the muddy rain. _Well, I'm not doing any good sitting in here...I should try and get out._ He pawed about in the darkness until his left hand fell on the manual eject mechanism. He couldn't remember if it would work without power, but he decided that it didn't really matter. Touji lifted the protective plate, reached his arm inside, and jerked. The force of the ejection threw him, and only the mass of the LCL kept his arm from being broken as it collided with the edge of the mechanism's container. Smarting, Touji did nothing more than shake out his arm as the LCL drained away. He felt the fluid remaining in his lungs as he spat and gagged as much as he was able--but as Shinji told him it would, he could feel it evaporating away. Less than a quarter minute after he had ejected the plug, Suzuhara Touji felt back to normal. He was done. His first real battle was over. -- The door to the plug swung open, and Touji, carrying the emergency container, came out to look at the world around him. The sky was still very dark. Touji couldn't guess what time it was, somewhere between afternoon and evening, and it was darker than even a storm should have made the sky; but he thought that it was lighter than it had been when he left the school, a good sign. The wind had died away, and the mud rain had less force and less sediment in it. It was difficult to see with the darkness and the weather, but he guessed that his EVA was halfway down the side of the hill, prone, face downhill. At the foot of the hill, all in a jumble, were his comrades'. The purple one lay in a fetal curl on top of the red one's legs; the red one, in turn, was splayed out on top of the blue one. None was moving, nor could he make out any signs of life. All the EVAs, the hillside, and the plain around them were bathed in mud and debris. _I didn't think we kicked up THAT much,_ thought Touji. He spent a moment thinking how best to get down to Shinji's EVA before he remembered the Angel. There was no sign of it. The only sign it had ever been there was a trace of ozone in the air, smelling foul and electric. Clutching the emergency kit under his right arm, Touji scrambled down the muddy, slippery hillside. With his attention focused on his path, he was almost to the EVA cluster before he saw Asuka sitting on her EVA's head. "Asuka!" he shouted. She turned away from the point off in space she had been looking at and gazed down at him. "Oh, it's you," she said. "Glad to see you're alive and all that." "What're you doing up there?" "Collecting my thoughts." She shivered. "Put on your poncho if you're cold and wet. Where's Shinji?" "Poncho? What poncho?" "It's right on the top of your emergency kit. Here, take mine." He was talking up to her from the ground beside the waist of her EVA. He set his kit on the ground, extracted a sealed bag from inside, then replaced it. Awkwardly, he climbed up onto the EVA and walked over to where Asuka sat. "Here," he said. Asuka's face was expressionless, her hair was disheveled, and she moved less than seemed necessary. Slowly and carefully, she took the bag from him, and unwrapped the grey-green poncho. She stared at it for a moment before she tried to put it on. Everything Asuka did and did not do sent pangs of concern through Suzuhara Touji. At the same time, there were other things on his mind. "Uh, where's Shinji?" "Dunno." Asuka was straightening up the poncho. "I think he went off to look for the First Children. "Hey, where's the rescue team?" "Don't know. Shinji! SHINJI!" He raised his voice up as high as he could and got a response shout. "That's him! Come on, Asuka!" Touji dragged Asuka to her feet and led her to the head end of the red EVA. From there they could see the blue EVA. Shinji was in the mud at the base of the neck. He was toying with something near where the entry plug was inserted. "HEY, SHINJI! WHAT'S GOING ON?" Shinji looked up sheepishly from what he was working on, and stood to speak. "I'M TRYING TO EJECT REI'S ENTRY PLUG, BUT I CAN'T REMEMBER HOW TO DO IT!" "S'MATTER?" "I THINK SHE'S UNCONSCIOUS. SHE TOOK SOME NASTY HITS IN THE FIGHT." Touji turned to Asuka. "Do you know how to get the plug out of there?" "Uh...yeah, it's easy. You have to..." "Hey, Shinji! ASUKA SAYS SHE KNOWS! C'mon, let's get down there." Once again Touji led the way, slipping down the side of the EVA. Asuka staggered behind him, with the edges of the poncho flapping and fluttering in the lift from her descent. Like Asuka, Shinji was shivering and soaking in the rain. "I tried knocking on the entry plug, and she didn't respond. I don't know what's happened to her." Touji nodded. "Shinji, I want you to run back to your EVA and get your emergency supply kit. Asuka--hey, Asuka, pay attention!" "I am paying attention," she snarled. "Well, look at me, for cryin' out loud! Asuka, open up the entry plug, then you and I are going to get Rei out of there. Have you had first aid training?" "...no." "I guess I should take her head, anyway. Now, get the entry plug out of there." Sullenly, Asuka pushed open a hatch that had been covered with mud. She pulled at a lever inside of it, then stepped back. The plug shot out of the EVA and purged its LCL, splattering Asuka and Touji with the cool yellow fluid as Shinji returned to the group. He immediately started for the plug, but Touji held him back. "Shinji, Asuka hasn't had first aid training. How about you?" "Uh, no." "I'll go in first. Meantime, you get your--" "Hey, wait a minute!" Asuka said. "Who made you the boss around here?" She hadn't anticipated Touji's reaction: he sighed and smiled. "I was worried that you were becoming hypothermic, Asuka, but it's good to see you've got your temper back." "HEY!" "Now, let's you and me go get Rei. Shinji, get your poncho on, then come join us." Asuka was sucked up into the field of Touji's energy. She hurried behind him to where Rei's entry plug lay against the ground. Touji opened the door and the two Children crowded inside. Rei was still lying on her back with her head rolled against her right shoulder. Touji felt inside the kit for a moment or two, concentrating on his sense of touch, before he extracted a tiny flashlight. He switched it on, throwing a circle of milky light into the interior. Asuka stood behind him, next to Rei's feet, growing from uncomfortable and irate to bored. Shinji joined them. "I'm back. What's going on?" "One second." Touji pulled back Rei's eyelids and shined the light into each eye, resting the back of her head against his right arm. Then he carefully listened to her breathing and for her pulse at the base of her neck. He turned to the other two pilots. "She's unconscious, but I don't think she's got any brain damage. We need to move her out of here in case something happens to her. Asuka, are you still gonna help me move her?" "Yeah. I said I was, didn't I?" "Fine. Shinji, while we do that, get up and look for some cover where we can wait until the storm's passed." The boy disappeared from the entry way, and Touji gave Asuka his full attention. "We gotta move her, but we can't let her backbone or neck move in case she got herself injured in the fight." Asuka snorted. "I get it. She's unconscious, so she can't tell us if she's hurt or not...and we don't want to exacerbate any injuries she has." "What's 'exacerbate' mean?" "'Fuck up', to you." "Uh huh. Now why don't you get ahold of her ankles and swing them up and out of those stirrup thingies...that's good. Now, move up towards me and get ahold of her waist. Slide her towards me..." "Have you got her head?" "Yeah, and her shoulders...is that far enough for you?" "I think so. What do you want me to do now?" Touji's right arm was reached all the way across Rei's front; her head was supported by his right "bicep" and "shoulder". His left arm was stuck out for balance. "Now...I want you lift Rei's hips straight up, and remember, you have to keep her backbone straight..." "I know already! I know!" "...and I'll lift her head along with you. Then I'll move over to the side and you'll turn her hips, and we'll aim for the door. Got it?" "Yeah. Let's do this." "1-2--" "3-GO!" Asuka's arms were encircled around Rei's pelvis; the First Children's legs had been swung up and out of harm's way, but as Asuka lifted they became dead weight on the pelvis. "Shit! She weighs a ton!" "Shinji's gonna help us as soon's we get outside. Start backing up." "Shut up. How much further?" "You're almost there." "How much FURTHER, goddammit?" "Half a meter. I'm stepping over Rei's seat now...OK, stop right there. You're at the door." "Well, don't keep me waiting here!" "All right, I'm moved now. Back out slowly." -- Depression and a selfish desire for slumber battled in Katsuragi Misato's mind. Halfway through her second glass of whiskey she was on the verge of making up her mind, but lingered in the waking world. Strands of her purple hair stuck between the fingers of her right hand as it propped her head up, her elbow at rest on the back of the neighboring chair. Her left hand held the tumbler of nepenthe. Akagi Ritsuko was with her in the debriefing room of the Geofront; it was her bottle that they were sharing. Ritsuko held the bottle in both hands, resting its base against her knees. She joined in the delirium, interrupted periodically by unprovoked thoughts of fetal alcohol syndrome. Hyuuga Makoto wandered into the room with a sofa cushion under one arm. He froze in the doorway at the sight of two other people, two women, two superior officers. "Uh, I wasn't expecting...am I interrupting something?" "No." "No, come in, Makoto," said Ritsuko. She waved him to the row of chairs in front of her. "We're just sitting..." Makoto walked into the room without turning on the lights and seated himself facing the two women. "Uh, can I?" he said, pointing to the bottle. "Sure." Ritsuko handed him the bottle, and Misato followed with the glass. "I drank out of here, and Misato drank out of here. Drink out of here." "OK," said Makoto without a trace of ruefulness in his voice. He drank what remained in the glass' depths in one swallow. He winced at the burn in his mouth, throat and belly, then returned the glass and bottle. "Boy, that was strong. Thank you." "You're welcome." There was a quarter-minute's silence, then Makoto asked Misato, "How do you feel? Anxious?" She stared blankly for a little while, dead to the world, then roused herself enough to slowly provide the answer. "Anxious...scared...but, I guess it doesn't feel so bad...to know that I can't really do anything..." "That's a very strange thing to say, Major." She nodded, and the matter fell to rest. Makoto tried again with Ritsuko. "What's on your mind, Akagi-sensei?" Her answer was equally lethargic. "Well, there's nothing we can do, is there. The road's swimming in mud where it hasn't been destroyed. That leaves only aerial rescue, and they won't be able to fly until daybreak tomorrow. That's assuming, of course, that the mudstorm lets up." She got around to making eye contact with him. "Which it will, eventually. So we're just relying on their survival skills." "Oh," said Makoto, "what part of their training is this?" Nobody said anything. Makoto felt himself growing very hot, even as the temperature of the room slipped away degree by degree. The spell was broken with the sound of shattering glass. Katsuragi Misato had slumped forward and was crying hysterically. "I _meant_ to do it! I meant to do it all along, so that they wouldn't be in trouble, so that they wouldn't be abandoned if they got stranded away from us, and now it's too fucking late! I could've done it! Asuka's so smart, she's a genius, she would have learned those survival skills faster than anything, and Shinji's so sweet, he would've gone along with it, he would've even taught Rei and Touji, and it was all in my tactical detail, oh my god..." Ritsuko and Makoto forced Misato to take a drink of the whiskey, and then another; and by that drink, she had regained control of herself. They laid her out on the floor of the debriefing room with her coat as a blanket and Makoto's pillow to rest her head on, and they took turns watching over her and taking short naps of their own, so afraid of losing one of their own before their very eyes, and of a rupture within their group, their tiny subset of NERV. -- "Disobedient--no, traitorous. Wasteful." "Stupid. Ikari, what prompted you to recover Unit-03 AND allow the Fourth Children to pilot it?" Ikari Gendou spoke tiredly. "It is within the parameters of the Dead Sea Scrolls to allow this to happen." "Hell." One of the faceless voices broke in before Ikari had finished letting out his breath. "It is within YOUR INTERPRETATION, Ikari, never you forget that. You were only to use the Fourth Children in conjunction with the Angel of Hail, and as a means of advancing the Instrumentality Project...which, once again, you acted on your own initiative in regards to. You let him live." "The pilot of Unit-01 let him live. I admit that I performed some damage control, but it was of no consequence. I allowed him his second combat foray as a means of making some further progress on his original time line. "At this moment, he is isolated from the rest of civilization, exposed to the elements under conditions of a tropical storm. Death through exposure, or possibly hypothermia, will occur at a 75% chance. I have every faith that his original time line will run its course." There was a tense pause. The first voice spoke again: "Ikari, there will be no need for you contact us again before you have a cadaver." Then, like coffins being taken to the netherworld, the figures around the conference table faded and disappeared. Fuyutsuki and Ikari removed their VR goggles in unison; Fuyutsuki watched as Ikari massaged his face where they had rested. "Sir, are you tired?" Ikari exposed his weakness a moment as he said, "Yes. I am very tired." He rose from his seat and addressed his second. "How much time is left before the main staff returns to duty?" "29 minutes, sir." "Very well. Let's return to the control room." -- Ayanami Rei rested serene on a space blanket, her head supported by a pile of damp twigs and leaves. A poncho lay over her body to keep it warm. Up over her head, another space blanket was supported by two large tree branches driven into the ground. In front of the ersatz tent Ikari Shinji and Sohryu Asuka Langley held another poncho by their fingertips as high above the ground as they could reach. Underneath it, Suzuhara Touji had assembled a small pile of dry twigs and branches. In his hands he held a flare. "Don't look directly into it." He practiced swinging it twice; then he closed his eyes and set it off, following through into the center of the tinder. A moment later he tossed it blindly away from him and looked at the twigs. They had caught fire. He added larger twigs, then the smaller branches. The fire grew. Light and shadows appeared where only moments before there had been the dimming twilight and the overcast grey of the rainstorm. For the first time in an hour, the Children began to feel warm again. "All right, you guys," said Touji, "you can put the poncho down." Shinji and Asuka folded the poncho and followed Touji into the tent. They sat down huddled in a group next to Rei. Touji spoke quietly. "My guess is that the space blankets will reflect enough heat that we should be fine in here. The fire's strong enough for now, but somebody'll have to go out and get wood later. First thing, though..." "What?" said Shinji. Touji rooted through the emergency kit and brought out three nutrition bars. "First...it's dinner time!" He happily unwrapped his and took a chomp out of one corner. Shinji followed suit. "Hey, Touji?" "Yef, Afka?" "Where did you learn all this stuff?" She swept her arm around her, as if to gesture to everything that he had done before as well as everything around them. "We didn't have any kind of training like this in NERV. Where did you get it?" Touji swallowed his bite before he said, "Kensuke-kun." "WHAT?" shouted Asuka. Rei snorted, then drifted back asleep. "What on Earth does that idiot have to do with anything?" "Well, he's the outdoors type, likes to camp," said Touji modestly. "But he likes to camp by himself, or with his friends. No adults. So he's taught himself how to handle any emergency; he even told me he could survive two straight days with just a knife and a compass. After he told me that, of course I wanted to go with him. He said sure, but I had to take a first aid course so that I wouldn't panic and do something stupid if I got into trouble. "And now...I just saved your girly ass." Shinji froze. Asuka stopped her chewing. Then she looked long and hard at the nutrition bar she was eating. She swallowed and said, "Yeah. You did." Touji smirked. Asuka's eyes were dewy. "Touji-kun, I don't understand. How can you be so smart, and learn all these things, and be friends with Shinji, and still be the same person who humilitated Hikari-chan in front of our entire class?" The smirk fled far away. Asuka went on. "She was so scared for what you would say. She wanted to protect you and keep you away from it all. She didn't want to let you know that you were going to be the father." "Eh?" "That's right, Touji-kun. You were the father. You were her one and only. But she didn't want you to think that you had been irresponsible." Touji's gaze fell down to his right arm, the cybernetic arm. He opened and closed his fist again and again. Asuka crawled past the exceedingly-uneasy Shinji and took hold of the arm. "Listen, Touji. You've done a good turn for me, now I can do a good turn for you. I can talk to Hikari, she'll listen to me. Give me a message for her, and I'll deliver it. I promise." Finally, Touji managed to raise his head. He looked Asuka in the eyes for a moment, and then he broke away to bow deeply. "Asuka-chan, I thank you very humbly. You're too kind. I don't deserve your offer. I...I shouldn't have told her that I felt attracted to her in that way, and then I thought that the condom was fine..." "Spermicide? Reservoir-tipped?" "Yuh-yuh-yuh-yeah. Exactly. Even lubricated." "Oh, there's your problem. Most commercial condoms don't have enough lubricant on them. You should add a few drops more to allow smooth motion." "R-r-r-really?" "Yeah. Sometime Misato should give you the Cucumber Talk. She's given it to me three times since I moved in." "The wha-wha-wha???" "The Cucumber Talk. That's where you take a cucumber and you put a--hey! I'm talking to you! Get back here! You'll get wet out there!" Asuka watched as Touji disappeared off into the trees, running as fast as he could. "What a weird guy. He and Hikari will never last. Shinji, go get him. Shinji! Snap out of it!" She waved a hand in front of his face, plugged his nose, and poked him in the belly; but he was still petrified. He looked like a man watching a bikini girl jump out of a cake at a funeral. Asuka sighed and slumped down beside Rei. _What a sad state of affairs...when the only person I can relate to is Wonder Girl. Well, goodnight, world._ Daniel Snyder in his new abode at firstname.lastname@example.org If I wasn't such a strange person, this would all seem so confusing.