[Okay, this is the final chapter. Really! I mean it this time!]
Gendo shook his head and looked at Futsuyuki. "Seal off NERV. That may buy enough time for the EVAs to recover." He knew that was fruitless; Azrael would simply ooze around any barriers. Unlike the others in NERV, Gendo and Futsuyuki knew exactly what the angel was after.
Washu rushed into the control room. "Hold on! I think I can cause a space-time inversion that'll get him!"
Ritsuko sighed. "What's the point, Washu? We can't stop death. No one can." She sagged into a chair. "We always knew something like this could happen."
Washu stomped her foot. "Well, we can't just throw in the towel now!"
Skuld looked around frantically. "Has anyone seen my sister?"
Misato ripped open the top of a Yebisu. "If I'm gonna die, I'm not going to glory sober." She tipped the can back. "Your sister's standing outside, kid. She went to go save her boyfriend."
Skuld bent over the monitor. "We can't give up."
"That goddess is our last hope." Skuld looked over and saw Gendo standing next to her. He pushed up his glasses. "We're trusting an angel to defeat one."
Azrael, despite Keiichi's best efforts, strode slowly towards NERV. With only slightly slower reflexes–and still faster than Keiichi–the angel reached forward and gripped Banpei's head. The angel's grin began to widen as its hand tightened around the robot.
The angel did not turn, but its eyes slid across the black mass that was its skull. Belldandy stood in front of NERV's main entrance. She raised her arms and turned slowly in place. Her clothes were transformed from her normal attire to a dazzling, royal blue plate armor. When she opened her eyes, they glowed with righteous fury.
"You may be an angel, or you may be a demon in this world," she said, her words reverberating on the surrounding buildings. "Now face one who is your equal."
"Belldandy! Get away! Get out of here!" Keiichi shouted over the loudspeakers. Banpei's arms feebly pushed at Azrael. Tendrils curled around the giant robot and held it fast, while the main mass of the angel's body turned to face Belldandy. "For heaven's sake, run!"
"For heaven's sake, I'm staying," Belldandy replied softly, though she knew Keiichi could not hear her. She looked into the angel of death's eyes and saw only darkness. Despite herself, fear rose up in her throat. The Azrael I know hates what he must do, she thought. This can't be him. This thing is insane. It only wants to destroy...
And suddenly Belldandy knew how to defeat Azrael.
She closed her eyes, her feet leaving the ground as she floated in place. She shut herself off to Keiichi's yells, to the whooping of the alarms from NERV's entrance, from the distant crash of masonry. She could sense Azrael coming closer, the stench of death itself wafting over her, the air turning noticeably colder. She knew the angel was reaching for her, and that it could snuff out even her immortal life. She could feel the alarm from her sisters, Skuld's terrified voice shouting in her mind, Urd's disjointed, and feeble thoughts. Belldandy knew she had to even shut those out. Instead, she concentrated solely on the image of Keiichi Morisato.
She remembered the first time she had met him, the very confused boy seeing her materalize out of his dorm room mirror. She remembered tending him through his fever, of watching that first sunset with him, the day at the beach when they had first kissed, when he had nearly worked himself to death to give her a ring, how he had risked his own life to give her that ring when Kami-sama had nearly called her home. She let that feeling flow through her body and felt her connection to Yggdrasil return. She smiled beatifically and raised her face towards the heavens, her eyes still closed.
The crowd gathered in front of the monitors inside NERV was silent. No one dared to talk. They could see the amphrous blob of blackness that was Azrael reaching forward towards the tiny, blue figure that stood between him and NERV's main entrance. Even when Belldandy began to softly glow, it seemed pitifully small compared to Azrael.
Skuld's hands were clenched so tightly that her knuckles were bone white. The three technicians gripped the arms of their chairs tightly. Misato's beer can was being slowly crumpled, though the major took no notice. Only Gendo and Washu looked calm.
Suddenly Belldandy threw her arms wide as Azrael's hand began to close around her, and her glow became more radiant. Skuld knew what was going to happen. "Don't look!" she yelled, though it was a little late for that.
The image disappeared as NERV's cameras were overloaded with white light. Even MAGI's internal dampeners could not compensate, and everyone in the control room instinctively threw arms across their eyes to ward off the light.
All except Gendo Ikari. He only smiled. "Let there be light."
And there was.
Above Tokyo-3, the skies opened and a single white cone of light, brighter than a nuclear flash, so bright that it registered even on instruments on Earth's nightside, flashed down, centered on Belldandy. The white cone expanded until it covered virtually the entire city. Yet there was no boom of an explosion, no shockwave that demolished buildings. It was entirely silent.
In the face of such light, darkness stood no chance. Azrael drew back at the first sign of it, but there was nowhere to run. The angel was not torn apart or blown up. It simply ceased to exist, vanishing under the onslaught of light.
The light expanded, then contracted back into its cone, then into a single thin line centered on the mark on Belldandy's forehead. Then that too faded, and she gently returned to the ground, still smiling. She staggered a little, then fell to her knees.
Keiichi was out of Banpei and down to the ground in what was possibly the fastest action of his life. He reached Belldandy's side. "Belldandy! Are you okay?"
Her smile remained, but it turned sleepy. "Are you?"
"Yeah." He cradled her, resting her head on his lap.
"I'm a little tired. Think I'll sleep a little." Her eyelids fluttered and then closed. Alarmed, Keiichi quickly checked her pulse. It was steady; Belldandy was simply asleep. He hugged her close, not afraid for anyone to see him cry.
The sun was setting on Tokyo-3, and the party in Misato's apartment was going full swing. Misato was happily getting drunk, but for once she did not drink alone; Urd was well on the way as well, and even the normally reserved Ritsuko was tipping back more than a few. Despite Asuka's insistence that she was German, and therefore had been drinking since she was five, she was allowed only one beer, which she promptly declared to be far inferior to Loewenbrau. Washu and Skuld were too engrossed in redesigning Banpei to be a far more effective angel fighter to do much drinking. Rei and Maya were also not partaking, busily discussing the merits of Tuxedo Mask. Makoto and Shigeru were also interested, though they acted as if they were not. Gendo and Futsuyuki had not attended, with too much cleaning up to do at NERV.
Belldandy had slept for a few hours, then awoke refreshed. She too did not drink, nor had she since a rather embarassing incident that had literally left her and Keiichi stuck together for a whole day. Keiichi and Shinji washed the dishes, having lost the toss, neither aware that Urd had used a double-headed coin.
Belldandy went out to the balcony to watch the sunset. To her surprise, she was joined by Shinji. "Keiichi's in the bathroom," he quickly explained. "He'll be out in a few minutes."
She nodded, sensing Shinji's nervousness. "You don't have to explain your presence to me, Shinji-san. I'm honored to watch the sunset with someone who is so brave."
"Me?" Shinji looked shocked. "You defeated Azrael, not me."
"That may be true, but I wasn't the one who has defeated all the others up to this point." She paused. "Or those that will come after Azrael."
Shinji let out a long breath. "You're not staying, then," he said at length.
"We can't, Shinji-san. The longer we stay, the more problems that could happen. Keiichi and my sisters and I don't belong here. Neither does Washu. Sooner or later, reality won't be able to compensate for us." She remembered the bugs that had so nearly separated her and Keiichi. "I don't like it, but we have to leave. Washu will help us."
"I wish you could stay," Shinji sighed.
Belldandy softly laughed. "I already had someone ask me that. Besides," she smiled, "it's obvious that you're waiting for someone else." As if on cue, there was a loud sneeze from inside followed by a distinct German oath.
"W-well, I, uh, didn't mean it like that."
"I know." She put a hand on Shinji's shoulder. "Shinji-san, there will be things that will happen in the future. Some good, and some bad. I don't know what they are; there are limits to even what I can do. But I can sense that you will be part of it. There are great and wonderful things in store for you, Shinji Ikari." Belldandy could sense that there might be a lot of pain in this young man's future as well, but now was not the time for that.
Shinji shyly returned her smile. "I-I sure hope so." He returned to staring at the sunset. It was quiet for a minute, the he asked, "So how did you defeat Azrael? I mean, I understand the whole light thing, but..."
Belldandy cradled her head in her hands, smelling the sea breeze. "I didn't realize it until it attacked Keiichi. Azrael, at least that one, was a creature made up of darkness. We hated it when we attacked it, and it drew strength from that hate."
Shinji's mouth dropped open. "You mean...you defeated it by love?"
"Not for Azrael, no. My love for Keiichi. I did not attack Azrael; I simply called on the light and not the dark. Give light, and darkness will go on its own."
Shinji sighed. He wondered if anyone could ever love him like that, ever. He looked down at the street, but his head jerked up when he felt gentle, feminine lips on his cheek. He turned to Belldandy, who winked at him. "Someday you will, Shinji."
Keiichi called out her name, and Belldandy turned to go back in. "Oh, Shinji! I almost forgot." She clasped her hands together. "I realize there was misunderstanding at the beginning, but part of what happened was kind of our fault, my sisters and I. We'd like to make up for it."
"You don't have to do that."
"No, but we're going to." Belldandy's smile seemed to envelop the whole apartment. "So what do you wish for, Shinji?"
* * *
Shinji Ikari walked down the catwalk, heading for the changing room, wanting to be out of the plugsuit as soon as possible. No matter how hard he tried, he still hated the smell of LCL. He also wanted to get back to Misato's apartment as soon as he could; there was homework due the next day.
Ahead of him he spotted his father. The usual mixture of anger and fear welled up inside him at the sight of Gendo Ikari, the same feelings of betrayal. Gendo was walking towards him, engrossed in a folder. How typical, Shinji thought angrily, doesn't even know I'm here...
They had drawn even with each other when Gendo spoke. "Shinji."
Shinji stopped: his father had referred to him by his first name, not as Pilot Ikari, and his voice actually carried with it a hint of affection. "Father," he replied warily.
Gendo took another step, then turned and faced his son. "Shinji, you did well."
Shinji's eyes widened. "But it...it was only a test to see how EVA-01's repairs were holding up a-after Azrael–"
"I know. But I was not referring to today's test. I was referring to..." Gendo paused. He seemed almost embarrassed, and looked down at his shoes in a very Shinji-like way. "I was referring to all of it."
Shinji was shocked, and then remembered Belldandy. "Er...well...Uh...
Father and son stood there frozen for a moment, then Gendo began walking away. "Keep it up," he said, a shade too quickly. Shinji did not try to stop him, or to answer him. For now, it was enough.
Gendo opened the folder, wondering why he had suddenly felt the desire to praise his son. The truth was, except for Rei, only Shinji had fought the angels longer, and he had not only survived, but was getting better. There was no margin for error in NERV's war against the angels, but Shinji had given them one thing they had lacked for so long: hope. Gendo stopped, nearly went back to tell Shinji more, but decided against it. It sounded too forced, and it would probably be better not to. There was still a lot of work to be done, and he had to be careful not to open up too much. Shinji would understand someday. The end would justify the means.
Gendo looked up into the face of EVA-01. "Soon," he said, feeling the eyes upon him. "Soon we'll be together again. You'd be proud of him, Yui."
Gendo opened the folder. No one was around, so he allowed the emotion to surface. If anyone had seen him, they would have probably died from shock. He was nearly in tears.
Inside was a photograph. It was of a young scientist and his bride, an intense young man far too dedicated to the work that would one day consume him, and beside him was a woman nearly as equally committed. She was the only one who had ever accepted Gendo Ikari completely, without reservation. The photograph had been lost in Second Impact.
But wishes sometimes came true.
"Urd..." Gendo chuckled. "No one's made me laugh like that in years. I almost gave in." He hurriedly looked up. "But I wouldn't have, of course." The holding tank had given one, dangerous rumble. He held up the photograph to the light. "This will do, for now."
Gendo replaced the photo inside the folder and turned around. "Yes, what is it, Rei?"
"I was wondering if you could answer a question for me, sir."
"Of course, Rei."
She looked thoughftul for a moment. "What is a ctarl-ctarl?"
Maya Ibuki nearly jumped out of her seat. The sudden peal of rather demented laughter had come from Dr. Akagi's office. She quickly scampered over and knocked softly on the closed door. "Sempai?"
The door flew open, and before Maya could react, Ritsuko swept her up into a crushing hug. "Oh, hello, Maya-san! It's so good to see you!"
"Urk," Maya replied, having trouble breathing.
"It's a wonderful day!" Noticing that Shigeru was staring at her very strangely. "Ah, Shigeru, my friend! How are you today?"
"Umm...I'm...doing...just fine, Dr. Akagi..." He was backing away as respectfully as possible, but Ritsuko was advancing on him, dragging a now somewhat bluish Maya with her. It was obvious that Ritsuko intended on hugging him, as well.
Makoto, coming back from a break, nearly dropped his soda. He quietly sneaked into Akagi's office. The lights were off, but the computer screen was on. "My God..." Makoto breathed. "She did it. She actually did it." He peered closer to the screen. "She beat Battle Cry."
"Oh, Makoto! You too must share in this wonderful thing!"
Makoto turned in horror as Ritsuko came after him, now dragging two technicians in either arm.
"I'm home!" Shinji called out, hanging up his raincoat.
"Hey," Misato called out. She sat sprawled in a chair, watching the television from the dining room. Pen-Pen sat across from her. Both had a can of Yebisu Dry in front of them. "How'd the test go?"
"It went–" He almost said fine, but then he remembered his father. "It went great, Misato. Just...great."
She raised an eyebrow, then decided against saying something. "Well, better get on that homework. I saved some pizza for you."
Shinji was in too good of a mood to let homework bother him. "Sure. Uh, where's Asuka? I was sure she got home before I did..."
"She said she was tired and went to bed. I don't blame her; Ritsuko had her doing synch tests and other stuff all day today, testing out the new legs on 02."
"Oh...okay." Shinji walked into his room and shut the door to change. Misato watched the door for a moment, then looked at Asuka's. "Kids. God, was I ever that young?"
Misato tipped her beer at the penguin. "Now don't you start." Then she grinned, got up, and opened the refrigerator. She sighed lovingly, took out another beer, and set it on the counter, then shut the door. The refrigerator hummed and made a clunking sound for a moment, then Misato opened the door once more. The beer she had taken out had been instantly replaced.
"Skuld, I think I love you."
"Wark," Pen-Pen sighed. But then he reconsidered. The boozehound had a point. After all, he was not likely to run out of fresh fish ever again.
In her room, Asuka Langely Soryu was curled up in her sheets, sleeping blissfully after a hard day at NERV. Her dreams were quiescent and happy, dreaming less of the tragic death of her mother and more these days of a certain Third Child, though she would not have admitted it under torture.
The main reason for her improved sleeping patterns was the teddy bear clutched to her chest. It was black, with sad eyes but a big grin, a grizzly bear–Asuka's brummbaer. Belldandy had been a little surprised when she had asked for it, but saw in it a perfect solution to a problem.
For Azrael had not been competely destroyed. The light had merely dissolved its corporeal form, and there was the chance that it could reform. So Belldandy had arranged for the angel to pay penance by being put into this form.
Azrael the Teddy Bear, clasped tightly to Asuka's breasts, decided that this wasn't such a bad idea after all.
* * *
"Some watermelon, Keiichi?"
Keiichi looked up into Belldandy's face. "Sure! Thanks." He took the offered slice as Belldandy sat down next to him on the veranda. The sunset was as beautiful as usual, but not as beautiful as the woman who sat beside him.
"I thought I was going to lose her," he said quietly.
"But you didn't lose me," Belldandy replied. "We have a contract, remember?"
Keiichi leaned over and kissed her, with a boldness he had not had before she had been pulled into another universe. He kissed her on the cheek, but then Belldandy surprised them both by turning at just the right moment so their lips came in contact. Before, he might have drawn back in fear, but now Keiichi was determined never to take her presence for granted again. He had nearly lost her, three times now.
They broke the kiss for a moment. "Is that all we have?" he asked, smiling.
"You know it isn't," she smiled back, and kissed him again. Somewhat intoxicated by the mere fact of being home again and being alive after facing an angel of death, Keiichi moved closer to her. The kiss deepened, and Belldandy felt herself falling backward, Keiichi on top, but didn't care. Let it happen, she told herself, I love him.
"WHAAAAT?!" Skuld's strangled shout obliterated the moment with all the effectiveness of a wave-motion cannon. Keiichi quickly looked up, but no Skuld stood over them, hammer in hand. Instead, she was stalking out of the house, not even noticing Belldandy and Keiichi.
"Get back here!" Urd yelled. "You owe me 500 yen!"
Skuld whirled on her older sister. "You cheated!"
"Oh, and how did I do that?" Urd cackled. "C'mon, kid, the Bucs won fair and square. I had nothing to do with it." Urd's eyes narrowed. "Though, that last quarter rally by Oakland was a little suspect, eh, Skuld?"
"Oh, now you're accusing me, huh? Well, I'll fix you, Urd! I'm going to my room, and when I come back, I'm gonna have something for you!"
"I'm sooo scared, kiddo! I'll be waiting for you, loser!"
Keiichi rolled over and rested his head on the deck. "Of course, they would start to fight..."
Belldandy touched Keiichi's nose. "Don't worry, Kei-chan. It won't take too long to clean up the mess...and we still have tonight."
Keiichi turned bright red.
Washu held up the control orb of the Space-Time Machine. "Finished!" She set it down carefully on her work table. "A work well done as always, Washu. You never cease to stop amazing me!" She walked over to another worktable and unrolled a group of blueprints. "No rest for the weary or the wicked. I want to get this started before Love Hina comes on tonight." Her eyes lit up. "I can't wait to see Tenchi in a plugsuit!"
As if on cue, she could hear Tenchi's voice through the slightly ajar door to her worklab. "Now, girls, just calm down–"
"What did you call me, you foul piece of interstellar flotsam!"
"What, you don't understand Japanese, Ayeka? I thought you princesses of Jurai knew everything. Well, I think I called you a flat-chested, stuck-up, overpaid, underhormoned–"
The end of the statement was interrupted by a titanic explosion, followed by the crack of shattering wood as Ryoko was blasted through the door. She sailed across the room and smashed into Washu's worktable. "Aaaagh!" Washu yelled. She picked up a slightly woozy space pirate and shoved her back towards the door. "Out! Out! Out! Get back into play!"
"You gotta cut me, Mick!" Ryoko staggered and toppled Washu over when she fell backwards.
Behind them, the control orb, having fallen to the floor of the lab, sparked.
"This is just great. Just when I had my hands almost on that sweet little bounty!"
"You?" The older man chuckled. "I think you mean we."
"Oh, stuff it, Jet." The woman looked around. "Say...did we take a wrong turn somewhere? This doesn't look like Mars anymore."
A younger man lit a cigarette and held up a match to a sign. "'Welcome to Tokyo-3. God is in His Heaven, and you are here.'" He looked at the rest of the sign. "NERV? What the hell is NERV?"
"Oooh, fig leaf!" A scrawny, almost emaciated young girl hopped up and down next to the young man. "Ed likes fig leaves." She bent down. "Does Ein like that Ed likes fig leaves?" And promptly, the girl began walking on her hands. "Trick or treat, smell my feet, give us something good to eat..."
[And so the story ends. Thanks to everyone who reviewed this and stayed with it! We'll have to do it again soon!]