Rei could now feel and understand the world much better than earlier. But sometimes, that still wasn't enough.

The world used to be a grey blur to her, too indistinct to make out any details. Reaching out to people had been like trying to grip single pieces of water in a running river – always grasping at single aspects, never getting the whole picture. Now she knew why it had been so: She literally had not been fully there. She was now; now she saw the world with clarity.

And yet, she still didn't quite know what to do.

She understood the significance of Asuka's revelation. She understood how important their mothers were to Shinji and Asuka. Seeing the excitement and joy on the redhead's face had been wonderful. Rei wanted to see her loves happy. They were the bright points of light that had come into her life and deserved any joy they could find. But it wasn't that easy of course. Their mothers lived, but were now Evangelions, the very units they all piloted. And Shinji was unlikely to synch directly with EVA-01 again. So that joy was mixed with sorrow and anxiety, and Rei…

...Rei didn't know what to do about that. Seeing Asuka's fire dampened felt like an acute loss to her. Seeing Shinji hurt instinctively made her go and try to be of help. But she couldn't just make that sorrow and anxiety go away. And she was insecure about how to act around her partners in such a situation. She still felt disconnected from the world in such instances. She was seeing and feeling clearly now, but she had never learned how to deal with such situations. A clone raised for a decade in an underground lab with no contact with humanity. She still stood out, was still ill equipped for a 'normal' life. And she knew that.

And now, she would even have to hide her relationship entirely. She could not just walk over and take Asuka's hand, she could not hug Shinji when he looked lonely. She had to act out her old role again, behave like she did in her second body, be dead inside. It was harder than she had assumed it would be. She had gone through life like this for several years; she had assumed she could do so again, or at least pretend to. But now it hit home just how lonely she had been. It was a loneliness she never wanted to return to. She wanted to be with Asuka and Shinji, to feel them, both of them, to hold them and kiss them and…

…those were inconvenient thoughts on the car ride to the Geofront, but Rei was having them ever more frequently. Looking at Shinji or at Asuka or at both, she sometimes felt as if she should take them by the arms, smother them in kisses and then… and thinking about both at once – it was just breathtaking what she could imagine then. Rei didn't understand why Asuka kept shying away from that. The redhead clearly enjoyed being cuddled up at night, enjoyed holding and kissing Rei and Shinji… but whenever Rei pushed, Asuka recoiled. And yet Rei wanted to make her happy as well! She didn't want to see her anxious or afraid, so she had backed off and not tried anymore, but it really began to frustrate her.

That Asuka was sitting right next to her now didn't exactly help matters.

By the time Misato's car had parked in the Geofront, Rei's thoughts had returned to Shinji. He seemed tense, and she just couldn't help but feel worried for him. Over the last week, he had been outside once, buying groceries, and he had returned to the apartment quite a nervous wreck. And this was NERV, a place connected to many bad memories for him. Worst of all, she wouldn't be able to be there for him when he needed it.

She saw Asuka smile at Shinji and her own lips curled up a bit. But she will. And that was all that mattered: That someone be there for Shinji. He so deserved it, and so did Asuka. My two points of light…

Rei's face got slack again. She would have to start pretending from now on.

The pilots' group met Suzuhara and Kaworu in one of the countless lounges of the HQ building. Suzuhara was grinning ironically, while Kaworu seemed… off. He had his usual faint smile on his face, but even Rei could realize that it looked forced.

"So we're back in business, eh?" Suzuhara commented. Then he spotted Shinji, who had walked right behind Misato. "Oh, hey, Shinji! Didn't think you'd come! Man, I'm glad to see you. I was really getting worried about you, you know! Are you… are you feeling better?"

Shinji tensed further. "A bit," he mumbled.

Suzuhara's grin faltered. "Oh. Well, good to hear." The now enlarged group started walking towards the EVA cages. After some hesitation, Suzuhara added, "You take it easy now, you hear? No need to overexert yourself. We all want you… well, you are back on your feet now. But we don't just want you functional, we want you all healed up again. That's more important than whatever Akagi may demand. She's never satisfied anyway."

Rei was content. Suzuhara was a good friend to Shinji.

The entry of six people at once into the Pribnow Box naturally drew some attention; people at their terminals were turning their heads to see who had come. Only Ibuki looked away. Rei caught Asuka furrowing her eyebrows at the Lieutenant, but there were no comments coming.

Akagi walked up from behind Ibuki's terminal, where she had stood, to go address Misato. "So everyone has come?"

"The pilot corps is complete," Misato reported. It sounded stiff.

"Good, then we can get this started," Ritsuko said. "This will be a bog-standard synch-test, just to get into the routine again. Gods know I've missed out on regular data from Sh… from Pilot Ikari and from Pilot Soryu for too long. It will be quite an effort to update the Evangelions with the new data."

Ritsuko turned away again to get back to her work. Believing the briefing to be over, the pilots hence were also about to turn, to walk towards the changing rooms. However, Misato told them, "Wait, please." The pilots stopped. Misato walked one step forwards, turned to face them, and spoke up in a loud and firm voice. "There is another matter. The matter of the 'special' synch-test we tried to run – we tried to force you into. We tried to spring it on you, so you would have no defence against a degrading situation, and we took no measures to protect you from that degradation. And as Operations Director, as the person tasked with managing you, this is in large part my own responsibility and hence my own guilt." She bowed. "I apologize. I did wrong."

Suzuhara and Asuka both emitted surprised sounds, which actually sounded rather similar. They seemed shocked. Shinji muttered, "Misato...". Kaworu and Rei remained silent. Rei remembered that Asuka had told her about a public apology having been a talking point at the negotiations. The Vice Commander had decided that there would be no orders for such. It seemed Misato had decided to make one nonetheless.

Misato straightened up again. Asuka emitted a satisfied sound and then walked over to her and patted her briefly on the arm. "Let's just do it better in the future, okay? I can't speak for the others, but I won't further hold that test idea against you." She shot a provocative glance over to Akagi. The head of Project E was clearly showing signs of anger.

"As I've told you, Misato, I never disliked you," Kaworu told her. "And whatever missteps you might have made pale compared to..." He abruptly stopped the sentence.

"Yeah, let's call it even," Suzuhara said. Shinji and Rei just nodded.

Misato smiled. "Go change then," she ordered them in a surprisingly soft voice. "And thank you for coming to this test."

"What in the name of..."

Asuka grinned as she heard Misato's voice over the loudspeakers. The pilots had just, as a closed group, entered the gangways of the EVA cages, to make their way to the test entry-plugs.

"Like our new style?" she shouted, knowing that microphones would pick it up.

Every one of the pilots was now wearing a long-coat over their plugsuits – not just Touji. That was what Asuka had carried in her bag to the NERV HQ. Truth be told, she didn't quite like that style herself, but that wasn't the point right now. In any case, it certainly seemed to make an impression, and Asuka could always enjoy that. She liked being the centre of attention.

"Uh… just make sure to leave the coats behind before you enter the entry-plugs." That was Ibuki's voice on the loudspeakers.

"Yes, yes, of course," Asuka confirmed and then chuckled. Her plan seemed to have been a full success.

"Man, I still don't get it," Touji spoke up. "Didn't you say we should wear our plugsuits with pride? Mark of being a pilot, part of the elite, yadda yadda yadda?"

Asuka harrumphed. "And I still think so. I look ridiculous in this!" She looked around. Her own coat at least was a partial match to her plugsuit, being a pale, unobstrusive sort of red. Advantage of having a clear colour preference, I guess. But Shinji's was brown, thick and with way too many pockets, while Rei's was boring and grey and Kaworu's full of patches. None of them looked good in this nonsense. Maybe we really should try to get uniform coats… "But… like..." She hesitated. "Look. If you disagree with that, that's fine. It's okay if you have your coat. Or anyone else who wants it."

"I still don't think I quite understand," Touji admitted.

Asuka shrugged. "Everyone's wearing a coat over their plugsuits today. We're making doing that normal. Nobody will think twice now if one of us shows up in a coat to the tests – after all, we all have been at least once now."

"Huh," Touji just voiced. "Don't take that the wrong way, but I wouldn't have expected that from you."

Asuka gnashed her teeth. "Don't push your luck, meathead. Me, I'll show everyone that I am an elite pilot next time again. But… well…" She fumbled for words.

"You have been uncomfortable with the plugsuit," Rei spoke up. "Ashamed."

"And after what Akagi tried to pull on us… let's just say I can sympathize," Asuka continued.

"Huh," Touji voiced again. "I might've seriously underestimated you, Red." He grinned. "Or is that Shinji's influence?" He turned his head around and grinned at the boy as well.

Asuka dearly, dearly wanted to tell him it was Shinji's and Rei's influence and see how he would react. She wanted to brag, about how she had gotten not just one, but the two best people in the world. This secrecy bullshit is annoying… So instead, she just walked over to her test entry-plug. She noticed how neither Shinji nor Kaworu had said anything. Shinji she could understand. The poor boy was actually handling himself exceptionally well, all things considered. But Kaworu… No cryptic remarks? She took a look at him climbing into his test entry-plug. His body seemed tense all over; the plugsuits really allowed one an easy view on that. Something seemed to be on his mind.

Well, for now, let's concentrate on synching. Asuka shrugged off her coat and entered her own plug.

She had literally done this hundreds of times already, just floating in LCL, literally doing nothing. Sure, she was supposed to concentrate and she did – she wanted to succeed after all. Even now, it was still important to be the best. But after years and years of training, that now came naturally to her. In fact, it was a bit of a waste of time. One hour of boredom. A very familiar boredom by now.

Mama. I want to synch with Mama, not these test plugs. I want to tell her I know. I know she never abandoned me. Surely, synching with EVA-02 would feel much less boring these days. I guess I need to concentrate here so that I can eventually return to the unit… to Mama.

The previous day she had been devastated at the news of what the Evangelions truly were. But now, that fact actually promised hope. Yes, what was being done to Mama was terrible, but at least she was alive! And just like Rei she could get a new body maybe! Now, the nature of the Evangelions was a good thing, and Asuka was looking forward to the future.

"That's a great start, Pilot Soryu," Ibuki commented over the comms. "Keep it up."

Huh. Apparently her synch-score was quite good at the moment. So she closed her eyes, concentrated and tried her best to keep it high. Despite all, she still was an EVA pilot, and that still was a mark of pride. Moreover she was the best, and she would keep being the best.

...even though it was a pity that Shinji would now not be competition to her anymore. She would have enjoyed that competition. Even worse was the reason Shinji couldn't compete anymore. She realized, a bit to her own surprise, that she wouldn't mind losing her top position to him if only it meant he was okay. It would rankle a bit, but…

It's a silly what if anyway.

So right now she just emptied her mind and synched. Or… tried to empty it, anyway. Despite all the years of training, she found it surprisingly difficult now. This was her first synch-test in over two weeks, and it was also the first one since she, Shinji and Rei had entered their new arrangement. And with absolutely nothing to do or think about, her mind wandered. It wandered to Shinji's shy smiles, to Rei's serene gait… images and memories of looking at Shinji from behind, at looking at Rei's lithe figure… memories of his hands stroking her hair and her head nestled against Asuka's chest… fantasies of how it would feel to have more, see more, feel more…

But the truth of it was that she also feared this. Which was ridiculous! She was Asuka Langley-Soryu, she was not supposed to be afraid of such stuff! She was no small child, she was an elite EVA pilot!

...and yet, whenever she thought of actually doing those things with Rei or Shinji something in her stomach twisted and knotted. After all, once they had… done the deed, what more was there to her, anymore? Wouldn't they lose interest in her then? No, of course not, that's ridiculous! But even though Asuka knew the notion to be ridiculous that didn't make the fear go away.

Women used and then cast aside. She had seen that before. Had heard it in the neighbouring room before.

But Rei and Shinji are better than this! They're the best people in the world! And yet, the fear remained… so all Asuka could do was to imagine. Imagine how it would be if she grabbed Rei, kissed her, undressed her, let her hand wander over her…

"Pilot Soryu, your synch-rate is dropping," Ibuki reported.

Oops. Asuka shook her head inside the LCL. Time to get those images out of my head and my mind back on track.

"Pilot Nagisa, we're detecting unusual fluctuation in your synch," Ibuki continued. "Uh… at times you don't seem to be synched at all…"

"I am sorry, Lieutenant," Kaworu apologized. "My concentration must be slipping."

A moment later, Asuka could hear Ibuki mutter, "A perfectly stable synch-rate again…"

Asuka again wondered what was the matter with Kaworu. His apology had sounded distracted and absent-minded. Something is bothering him…

"Pilot Suzuhara, you're doing really great," Ibuki went on. "Your current synch-rate is the best you've ever had! Keep up the good work! Only a quarter hour more to go."

Touji merely sighed in response.

It became a long quarter hour for all of them. Asuka certainly didn't want to slip up again; not only was she driven to always do her best, who knew if the scientists couldn't maybe conclude what had made her synch-rate drop. So for fifteen long minutes, she had to keep her thoughts from returning to that topic, while at the same time having nothing to actually distract her.

After the time was up, Asuka had rarely been so glad to leave a test entry-plug after a synch-test as now. Synch-tests had never bothered her; after all that was part of being a pilot, and she was proud to be a pilot. But the last half hour of the test had been kind of harrowing, first having those thoughts, then having to suppress them… she picked up her coat, put it over her plugsuit and waited for the other pilots to emerge.

As they all were all walking on the gangways of the EVA cages, she smiled at Rei and Shinji. Soon, soon, she would have the two for herself again. The serious, supportive and quite sexy boy, and the serene and adorable girl. Mine, mine, mine! And it would be good for Shinji to be back at the apartment again. No. Back home. It is his home. And that was wonderful.

Meanwhile Touji looked just as elevated that the test was over as Asuka felt. And Kaworu… Kaworu seemed skitterish. That was something completely unheard of in regards to him. Yes, Asuka had always found his pseudo-enigmatic and pseudo-philosophical routine to be weird, but a Kaworu who wasn't like that, that was just not right.

Asuka walked up to him. "Hey. Uh… good thing the test is finally over, isn't it?" Kaworu looked at her oddly, then just nodded. "Uh… is something the matter?"

"Everything is perfectly fine," Kaworu told her. It sounded tense.

"Yeah, right," Asuka answered. "Look. You helped us with… that matter. So whatever is bugging you, just tell us so we can help you."

A grim smile appeared on Kaworu's face. "I'm grateful for the offer, and I'm sorry to have to say that, but I don't think you can help me."

"What makes you say that?" Asuka basically exploded.

Kaworu didn't seem to regard the outburst. "It is ironic, isn't it? We're fighting angels. But in struggles closer to earth, we have no power at all."

Asuka scoffed. "Look, if you change your mind about getting help, you know where to find me."

"Getting help," Kaworu mused. "Hm. Maybe you already have helped me." And suddenly his smile seemed to be his usual friendly one.

Weird as always.

The debriefing was held by Ibuki, but it was actually started by Misato… who once again thanked them for having come to here, and for the time and effort they were investing into EVA. That was definitely new. Akagi just sighed at it. Afterwards, Ibuki presented their results. Shinji's synch-rate had tanked, which meant Asuka now had a ridiculous lead over everyone else. Rei's synch-rate had fallen a bit, but remained well within variance. Kaworu's synch-rate was solid unchanging average as always, whereas Touji's had taken a big leap upwards.

Asuka breathed out. "Let's just get home."

"I'd like that," Shinji muttered. Ibuki had been very friendly in her explanations, and had tried to couch the report of the fall of his synch-rate in as many nice terms as possible, but Shinji still seemed to have been hit hard by it. It really was time for him to get out of the spotlight, pronto.

"Actually…" Kaworu spoke up. "Misato, you said I could turn to you if I need help. Well, I do now in a delicate matter. Could we maybe talk in private?"

What the hell now? Asuka looked at Kaworu, than Misato. Misato looked at Kaworu, then Shinji. "I'm sorry, but we are in a bit of a hurry," Misato said carefully.

"It is rather urgent on my end," Kaworu insisted.

Misato seemed to consider. Then she suddenly decided, "Okay. You're simply coming with us then. We can talk at my apartment."

Kaworu walked with Shinji, Asuka, Rei and the Misato to the Major's car. Once out of the building the three pilots seemed to become far… closer with one another. Asuka and Shinji joked about Ritsuko's reaction to their collective stunt and Rei followed along behind with what looked like a faint smile on her face. Kaworu supposed their time together had created a strong bond between them. One I do not think I will ever be privy to. Kaworu dismissed that thought. Let them have their happiness. They deserve all they get.

Misato made a big display of revealing her car to the silver-haired boy when the party approached it in the corner of the lot. Apparently it was some sort of collectible and very valuable but Kaworu just saw a car – a very small car for five people at that.

A sly smile crept over Asuka's face but was quickly forced down. "Aww dammit! I guess there is no way around it – some of us will have to get a bit... close. Rei," She turned to her fellow pilot and seemed to restrain a smile "Would you mind sitting on my lap while Kaworu takes the front with Misato?"

Rei seemed to think for a moment and then nodded "If that is what is... required. Then of course I will."

Shinji seemed quite interested looking at one and then the other. Kaworu, on the other hand, could barely care less, rolling his eyes a bit at the whole dance. Misato seemed to feel much the same way, opening her mouth and raising a finger before sighing and dropping it. "Just... get in the car."

The ride to the apartment complex was not a long one, something Asuka seemed oddly disappointed by. Still, Kaworu took the time to peer out of the window at the passing city. He sighed. He knew that somewhere out there Mana's former handler would be searching for her, trying to gain any information he could about her location. Kaworu could only hope that this search would not put any of his friends from school in danger. This city and its people had suffered enough already.

Arriving at the apartment complex, Asuka and the others seemed to brighten up, no doubt feeling solace in finally being away again from the cold of the EVAs and the machinery of the Geofront. The three pilots were friendly to Kaworu, but the angel could tell that after the rigours of the synch-test and the confrontation therein what they desired most at the moment was returning home. And so, with a smile and a wave, the three retreated into Asuka's and Rei's apartment and left the Fifth Child and the Major alone to talk.

Inside Misato's apartment, Kaworu was pleased to see that the place had undergone a cleaning since his last visit. The Major seemed much more bright and energetic as well, which Kaworu also liked to see. Sitting opposite him at the kitchen table, she looked at him with care in her eyes. "Now, you said that something was urgent?"

Kaworu was uncertain what to say. He knew that while Misato did care for him and the rest of the pilots, she by nature was also answerable to NERV command. However, after he had started talking, the boy found that he just could not stop. The dam had clearly burst as he explained everything he had found out and everything Mana had told him. To his own embarrassment, he even let slip the inspector's involvement. When all was done, his throat was hoarse and his head was in his hands. "I just don't know what to do."

A cascade of expressions crossed Misato's face. At first she seemed amused, as if she did not believe what she was hearing. Then shock as she realized he was telling the truth. And finally a dark look. "Kaworu I... I don't know what to say." She seemed to search for words "You said she is at your apartment right now?"

Kaworu nodded "She is with Kensuke. I figured the apartment would be watched by Section 2 and therefore safe." He breathed heavily. He was unused to these feelings. He had been taught that no force on Earth could harm him, and therefore fear... fear was a foreign element to him. But it wasn't just himself anymore, was it? No, for the first time in his life, Kaworu truly felt connected to others. It was almost painful, this ache inside him. Is this what the lilim feel? Kaworu was unsure. He usually felt so detached from all of this, being so ancient and alien to the world. But the truth was that since coming to this city, meeting with its people, forming friendships and... love... he felt barely more than a child.

Misato sat back and pinched her brow. She stayed silent for a long time. Finally, she swallowed hard and placed a hand on Kaworu's shoulder. "I think I can help you."

Kaworu looked up at the Major, eyes filled with shock. "You can?"

Misato nodded. "I have let other people suffer for me for a long time. I managed by just ignoring their pain, the pain of the people I was responsible for. Today I can do better. She can stay with me while I try to find someplace safer for her. I have a few connections within the JSSDF that I can call on and see what the hell is going on. She should be safe with me; unlike you I have no connection to the girl so the military won't think to snoop around here. And even if they do, it would be downright idiotic of them to attack NERV directly. And if you're right about this girl and what she was doing, the JSSDF can't search too publicly for her, anyway."

Kaworu was overwhelmed. He had not expected the Major to reach out in such a way. He had barely known her, barely spoken to her and yet she was willing to put herself on the line to help him in such a monumental way. It was a way out. The plan did not get rid of the ultimate problem but it bought valuable time. "I don't know what to say." Kaworu's usual enigmatic speech seemed to have disappeared. "Thank you, from the bottom of my soul thank you."

Misato smiled. "When I took this job, I told myself it was to protect people. Somewhere along the way I lost that, or maybe it was never true. But I can try now. You should tell Mana and Kensuke to get ready, while I make a call to our scruffy mutual friend to pick them up and bring them here."

Kaworu pulled out his cellphone and dialed Kensuke. He felt almost giddy as he pressed the keys. Sometimes, hope did win out.

Cuddled up against Rei and Asuka on pillows in the living room, drinking a hot cup of tea, doing nothing… just enjoying the close presence of the two most awesome people in the world, feeling snug and secure… Shinji had basically been able to feel, to almost measure how his energy was returning to him. Nothing could happen to him here, in this apartment, with his loves around him.

Going to the synch-test had worked out better than he had expected. He had just gone through the usual routine and that had worked. He hadn't thought about how people might judge him, or what they could expect of him – until the end, when Ibuki had told them their results. Then it had felt like this relative security was all crashing down around Shinji, and he had only wanted to get away from that place, away from those expectations, away from his failure as quickly as possible.

When he had been in the arms of his loves afterwards, he had wanted this moment to never end. Unfortunately, Misato had called them over.

Asuka had grumbled. Even Rei's face had become stern and disapproving. Shinji had merely sighed, though. It couldn't be helped. And just going over to Misato's apartment, surely that wouldn't be so bad.

Shinji still had his key to the apartment. Inside, they found Kaworu sitting at the kitchen table. The grey-haired boy did his best to show them his usual enigmatic smile when the other pilots entered, but he was too nervous for that – almost fidgety. That was unusual. And there had been something about those mysterious smiles, as far as Shinji was concerned…

Asuka furrowed her brows. "So – what's the matter?"

"It's best to wait until the others arrive," Misato said. "So we only need to explain once. Why don't you sit down?"

Her voice was stern and emotionless. Something has happened – something Misato apparently saw as a tactical challenge. She sounded just like during the battles against the angels.

Rei sat down at the table, and after some hesitation, so did Shinji. Asuka, meanwhile, just kept staring at Misato. She remained quiet, though. Beneath the table, Shinji could feel Rei taking his hand. Surprised, he jerked his head around to look at her, but the girl just kept looking straight ahead. Slowly and awkwardly, Shinji turned his head around again as well. He had to fight down a smile appearing on his face, delighted that even now she had found a way to be there for him. After all, it wouldn't do to be discovered.

The silent tension in the room was interrupted by the sound of the doorbell. Misato opened the door and let more people in. Kaji, Kensuke and Mana entered the kitchen.

"Hello Kaji," Asuka began. "How… What is she doing here?" Asuka pointed at Mana.

"She is the reason we're all here," Misato told her evenly. "Everyone sit down, please."

"That harlot?" Asuka muttered and now turned her death glare to the coppery-haired girl. Mana seemed to shrink away from it, looking down in a pose of pure defeat. Instead, it was Kensuke who returned the glare. In fact, the normally so nerdy boy seemed almost agitated enough to respond physically. What is going on?

Instead, the new arrivals indeed just sat down. Shinji looked closer at Mana. When the girl noticed that, she hastily looked away. Shinji was concerned. The giggling, helpful, respectful, carefree school girl he had gotten to know seemed to be entirely gone. And while, despite her best efforts, he had never felt nearly the same for her as he did for Asuka and Rei, that didn't mean he held a grudge against her or anything. He disliked seeing her like this.

Asuka was still displeased, though. Her opinion of Mana had always been pretty low, after all. "I don't like her being here."

"Well, you'll need to get used to it," Misato told her. Then she turned toward the girl in question. "Mana… you need to get away from your situation. Do you agree?" Mana glanced at Misato, seeming slightly confused. Then she looked at Kaworu, who nodded in encouragement. Finally she looked at Misato again and nodded herself. "Okay. You'll stay with me then. Not only does this apartment bloc enjoy better protection than Kaworu's, what with the Operations Director and three pilots living here, nobody will draw any connection between you and me. You should be relatively safe here."

"...NERV is going against the JSSDF?" Mana asked in a voice barely above a whisper.

Misato shook her head. "Not NERV. I am. What they did to you is utterly monstrous." Her voice brimmed with determination, and she furrowed her brows.

Mana opened her mouth. Closed it again. Opened it again. "...why is everyone acting so nice to me?" Kensuke, who was sitting next to her, put a reassuring hand on her shoulder.

"The JSSDF?" Asuka exploded now. Shinji had wondered the same thing, but kept quiet. "What does the JSSDF have to do with it?"

Misato looked at Mana. "If you're going to stay here, my pilots need to know the story. So, if you would, please..." She nodded at her to begin.

Asuka recommenced glaring at the girl. Shinji knew why, of course. Asuka was not a person to easily let go. He loved, genuinely loved her drive and passion, so he supposed he would have to accept if it turned into something like this. But it still made him feel uncomfortable. Mana was clearly already suffering. Didn't Asuka see this?

"The JSSDF… I am with the JSSDF," Mana spoke up quietly.

"Was with the JSSDF," Kensuke insisted. His hand was still on her shoulder and now squeezed it.

"I… I guess so. That's still such a new concept for me," Mana admitted. She now sounded nothing like the stereotypical giggling schoolgirl Shinji had met. She's with the JSSDF? How, even? "They..." She breathed out. "My parents got killed in the chaos after Second Impact. I lived on the streets until the JSSDF took me in. Half my life now I've been with them.

"The JSSDF ran... social services?" Asuka asked. It was intended to sound dismissive, and did at first, but by the end it sounded just uncertain.

"There is nothing 'social' about what they did," Kaworu weighed in. Shinji turned his head around in surprise. He had never seen Kaworu without his usual angelic serenity. Now, he spoke with a demonic hatred in his voice.

Mana shook her head. "There really isn't. I realize now… They were looking for soldiers. Not future soldiers, not when we had turned adult, but right now. Soldiers for their secret mecha program."

"Child soldiers," Kaji commented in a hard voice. He hadn't sat down, but stood leaned against the fridge, and so far hadn't said anything else.

And so Mana explained. About a secret JSSDF mecha program using teens as pilots. About how they had to participate, whether they wanted to or not. About the sudden introduction of military drill. About the chip inside her and the pain it had caused.

"Japan after Second Impact..." Kaji muttered in comment, disgust in his voice. "The JSSDF after Second Impact…" Without even asking Misato for permission, he opened the fridge and took out a can of beer.

Shinji didn't know what to say. He had thought his own recruitment as an Evangelion pilot had been bad. Apparently, there were people who had it worse. He suddenly felt intensely guilty about having complained so much, about having felt so bad about being a pilot now. Selfish, selfish, selfish.

Nobody besides Kaji said anything. Shinji didn't know what to say, Rei was always quiet and Asuka… Asuka looked pale.

Kaworu stood up from his seat, walked up behind Mana, and stroke her back. "That all is over now."

"For me," Mana whispered. "But the others…" She shook her head. "Why do I get this happy turn? Surely I least deserve it."

"What do you mean?" It was Asuka who had asked that and it sounded strangely calm and even, coming from her.

Mana first looked down, then outright away from Asuka, as if she couldn't face the girl. "I… I hurt you, Asuka. And Shinji. I used Shinji. I…"

"No!" That exclamation had come from Kensuke and Kaworu simultaneously. They both were looking at her with worry. Kensuke specified, "This isn't your fault, Mana."

Used…? Shinji was just confused. Meanwhile, next to him, Asuka seemed restless. As if she wanted to hear the story, but not push for it, which was unusually considerate for her standards.

"The JSSDF made you do it," Kaworu now told Mana.

The girl nodded. "They did." She breathed out. She still couldn't look people in the face, but she continued. "My body… it rejected the implant. I still have it, but it's deactivated. When it's not… the pain, and the difficulties moving…" She shook her head. "It was deemed too risky. After all, there was at least a dozen other pilot candidates to use. So that led to the problem what to do with me. Well, the JSSDF found a new use for me. They used me to… to infiltrate your school and get close to you, Shinji. And I eagerly played along. I'm sorry, Shinji." There were tears glittering on her bowed head now.

"You…" Asuka began, once again evenly, but then exclaimed, "That was because of the JSSDF?"

"They ordered me to," Mana confirmed. "But I didn't just go along because it was my duty. I used this chance to get away from the military base and the awful stuff that was happening there… that is happening there. It was my chance to feel at least a bit of freedom. It was selfish. I used you and Shinji and Kaworu and Kensuke and everyone so that I could feel this little illusion of freedom… of normalcy."

Mana once again explained matters. Why the JSSDF had seen a security risk in Shinji. Their plan to use her to exert some influence on him, and to check on him for the JSSDF. The JSSDF using their contacts to place her in Shinji's class.

"That… shouldn't be possible," Kaji muttered. "Very interesting."

"So… you and me… none of this was real?" Shinji asked.

"No," Mana whispered. It sounded utterly defeated.

"I'm glad," Shinji said warmly and with a smile. Mana looked up. She seemed confused. "I mean, this made things pretty awkward between us, didn't it? But it wasn't actually real." Shinji was happy about it. It was one less complication in his life. At the same time, he felt a bit guilty about this happiness, given how beat up Mana seemed to be about the whole affair.

"Ah… what was never real?" Kensuke asked. He seemed a bit nervous.

Shinji and Mana looked at each other. Ah, shit. "It's n..." Shinji began.

Mana spoke over him. "Shinji and I… no. I kissed Shinji. I'm sorry." She began to sound frantic. "I'm… I shouldn't be here."

She hastily got out of her chair, throwing Kensuke's hand off her shoulder. However, before she could leave, Kaworu grabbed her in a hug. Mana tensed, but just stopped.

"If you want to leave, leave," he told her. "But you don't need to on our account." Then he let go of her again.

Mana hesitated. Kensuke took her hand. "We understand," he said softly.

Again, tears formed in Mana's eyes. Shinji was stunned by this display of intimacy. So were Misato and Kaji, who looked at the scene with odd facial expressions.

Asuka grinned. "Hey, Kaworu, Kensuke… is that the reason you're so invested in this whole affair?"

"Ah..." Kensuke voiced and withdrew his hand. He looked abashed. So did Kaworu. Shinji chuckled.

"We both care about her," Kaworu managed to say as evenly as possible.

"Both of you?" Misato asked. It sounded surprisingly serious. "Such things can lead to complications, you know. Two boys vying for the same girl and all that."

There was a deafening silence in the room. Shinji's eyes went wide. You don't mean…

Finally, Kensuke admitted in a small voice, "We also care about each other."

"So, all three of you…?" Misato asked.

Mana, already emotional before, was flustered. Kensuke was as red as a traffic light. And Kaworu's smile was sort of awkward.

"I, ah… uh… suppose it's a bit unusual," Kensuke stuttered.

"I hope you don't think badly of us!" Mana exclaimed.

Asuka chuckled, drawing everyone's attention. "Badly? Not at all. After all…" She grinned. "Shinji?"

Shinji understood and approved. And he certainly wouldn't say no to a kiss from Asuka. It was electrifying – that the two could concentrate on each other here, intimately locking lips, tuning the entire outside world out, in front of everyone. And the kiss had barely ended when Shinji was yanked around for another one by Rei. He certainly didn't try to resist.

While the two were still busy, Asuka announced: "So… you're not that special, you know. You're not alone."

"Shinji, you sly dog!" Kensuke exclaimed.

Shinji slowly parted from Rei, looking deeply in her captivating red eyes as he did so. Then he turned his head around. "You're one to talk! Seems to me like you did fairly well for yourself!"

Kensuke answered by simply blushing.

Kaji grunted and took a swig from the can. "Is that some sort of new trend now? Seems like I missed the memo on this."

"I'm a bit surprised as well," Misato muttered.

"I mean, don't get me wrong," Kaji continued. "Back in college, if you and Ritsu had asked me to..."

"Not. Another. Word!" Misato insisted.

Shinji chuckled. He felt… elevated. Dropping the now needless pretenses, Asuka and Rei had both pulled their chairs closer to Shinji's. Rei's head leaned on his shoulder, while Asuka had taken his hand between hers.

"So, what are we gonna do now?" Asuka asked. "I mean… we need to help Mana!"

Shinji chuckled again, this time at her quick turnaround. That was Asuka – always being fully committed to her position, whatever that might be. She was always all flame, and it was wonderful.

"We will," Misato confirmed. Meanwhile, Kaworu, Kensuke and Mana were awkwardly sitting down again at the table. "For now, Mana will be safe here. And I have some contacts in the JSSDF I can use."

"That's all?" Asuka asked.

"For now," Misato confirmed sternly. "We can't exactly openly go against the JSSDF, now can we?"

"We're NERV, we..." Asuka began to argue.

"No, we're not," Misato told her. "After all what has happened in recent months… would you seriously expect NERV to care about the fate of a single child soldier?" Asuka looked down and then shook her head, though her facial expression remained defiant. "We don't have NERV's backing. It's just the eight of us in this room."

Kaji had been looking at the kids, especially at Kaworu and Kensuke somewhat oddly, but now he focused on the conversation. "Eight people with some excellent contacts, though. We may not have NERV's official backing, but we could use some of its resources. Katsuragi has her JSSDF contacts. Kensuke could turn to… a friend's father." Kensuke just sighed. "Kaworu, I think, has some contacts in Germany. I have contacts with some government agencies here and… informants." He paused. "But we can't let all this inhumanity that appeared after Second Impact stand. The JSSDF..." He stopped abruptly and then fumbled for a cigarette.

"Well, I'm not sure what we can do," Kensuke muttered. "But I won't leave Mana behind, no matter what!"

Mana smiled at that. It looked contented.

"Well, yeah," Asuka exclaimed. "None of us has any intent to. After all the crap that's been done to her… we'll help her."

"She's… you're a friend," Shinji reaffirmed their position, looking at Mana. He smiled. "I'm sure we'll get along well while you live here."

And Rei… Rei stood up and walked up behind Mana. She laid a hand on her shoulder. "We'll protect you."

Shinji looked at the blue-haired girl and knew that this wasn't an idle statement. Rei had both the will and the capabilities to fulfil that promise.