Author's Notes: I'm on TV Tropes. Wow. Just Wow. Thanks again for your reviews, they're much appreciated. Also, please extent your thanks to my beta, BlueGlass 54, for turning a random collection of symbols into a proper chapter.

Disclaimer: Standard disclaimer applies.

Chapter 8

"Well, Third Child, I guess I better thank you for saving me… No, not right," Asuka muttered, turning away from the mirror and pacing the room in measured strides, then tried again.

"I, Asuka Langley Sohryu, officially thank you, Ikari Shinji, for… Gott, what's wrong with me?"

Throwing her hands up in disgust, the girl studied her reflection critically for a second, then resumed her pacing.

"Damn it, I just have to thank him. I've done it before, I can do it again. No problem," she ranted at herself, kicking at a discarded wrapper absently, "Ok, here goes… Third, I'm going to thank you for bailing me out, but if you breathe a word of this to anyone… God damn it! He can't breathe!"

Giving up, the redhead threw herself at her bed, thanking whatever deities were listening that Ayanami was currently at the mysterious medical checkup Akagi had insisted on.

The blonde had a surprisingly good memory for grudges, Asuka had to admit, so after several rather invasive tests yesterday evening after the pilots returned from the hot springs, the German teen choose to avoid the good doctor until the older woman forgot the redhead had called her a bitch in the heat of the moment.

Still, these thoughts helped little with her current conundrum.

As it had been only a day after the little Sandalphon disaster inside the volcano and with Unit 01 still in repairs, the young woman hadn't had the chance to talk to her bodiless partner yet, for which she was very thankful, considering that she still hadn't figured out how to properly show her gratitude.

The problem was Asuka wasn't feeling said gratitude. Instead, she felt insulted, diminished and useless. And it didn't make sense to feel that way. Ikari wasn't trying to insult and diminish her, or show her how useless she was without him, when he friggen jumped into the hot magma without so much as a 'by your leave'. After all, she had called for him, so, logically she was the one at fault for her current predicament.

Why the hell had he even jumped in after her, anyways? He was so anxious about the Eva not being able to survive inside the molten rock before!

Ok, another try.

"Ikari, I'm really grateful… Gah!"

Resisting the urge to bash her head into the mirror, Asuka settled for punching the wall instead. What the hell was her malfunction if she couldn't even do so much as say 'thank you for saving my life' properly? Was she really so pathetic?

Rubbing her aching knuckles, the girl just sighed in disgust and stomped into the kitchen, intent on making herself a nice soothing cup of tea. Maybe she'd be able to think better once she was a bit calmer, she figured.

Pouring the hot water into the small tea-kettle, the girl scratched her head absently, where a good two centimeters of hair currently resided in a rather militaristic cut, then poured herself a cup, plumping onto the kitchen chair and frowning morosely into the hot liquid.

Why did Shinji keep saving her? Was that because of his silly little crush on her? Or was it something else? Why was she even dwelling on the whole thing? She would've ignored the whole ordeal completely if it had been, say, Suzuhara, or Rei, who had bailed her ass out. Well, ok, maybe not completely, but she wouldn't be practicing saying 'thank you' in front of a fucking mirror, either!

Chasing away the disconcerting thoughts with an angry gulp of her tea and suppressing a scowl, the girl threw a look at the microwave clock in an attempt to distract herself. The numbers showed three minutes before six in the evening.

Suppressing a curse at the thought of loosing track of the time, the girl abandoned her half-full tea cup and rushed to the bathroom for a quick shower. There was only an hour left before Kaji would be picking her up for their date.

"Well, not a bad choice of restaurant," the redheaded teen commented, sitting down into the chivalrously proffered chair, wig firmly in place and a large smile on her lips. The unshaven man sent her a smile in return while taking his own seat.

The three-star restaurant they were currently in specialized in western cuisine, for which the girl was very grateful, having missed quite a few of her favorite dishes during her time in Japan, but her main course was, of course, the love of her young life in front of her.

Said love of her life had just ordered her a juice instead of wine, but that was fine, of course. She'd just have to display her female assets a bit more obviously, that's all.

Crossing her legs and readjusting a shoulder strap of a nice black dress she had been saving up just for an occasion like this, the young pilot smiled coyly at her date, only to see him engrossed into the menu. Damn him, he wasn't making seducing him easy. Opening her own dish list and quickly finding out that the restaurant did, indeed, serve jaeger schnitzel, the girl ordered it, along with a chef salad, rejecting the idea of a follow up in form of a goulash soup after some thought. No need to stuff herself after all, that wasn't the evening's purpose.

"So, I hear it was a difficult day yesterday," Kaji commented once the waiter had departed with their orders, arching an eyebrow. Asuka shrugged mildly, suppressing the unwelcome thoughts that had been plaguing her since this morning.

"Yeah, nothing too difficult though," she answered airily, "A small problem on getting out of the volcano, and another with the Angel suddenly going active in the middle of the operation, but everything came out fine in the end. How was your day?"

"Asuka, don't drop stuff like that into a conversation in such a lighthearted tone," Kaji smirked at her teasing, "Now I'm going to be even more worried about you."

"So you were thinking about me, then," the girl smiled sweetly, fishing for a yes. Kaji just smirked enigmatically, seeing through her easily, but obliged.

"Of course I do, Schatz," he answered, tone honest, "You are fighting bloodthirsty aliens as tall as a building."

"Yes, yes, I do," the German teen smiled again after another sip, then leaned back so the waiter could put their food down.

Kaji waited until the garcon departed again, then returned to the conversation.

"So, why don't you tell me about yesterday in more detail, then?" he queried, smirking his sexy smirk again, "It'll put my worry to rest for a while, at least."

"Well, fine, if you want to talk about work…" Asuka drawled in disappointment, although she wasn't really upset, "It was nothing special really. I was lowered into the crater in Unit 02, while Unit 01 and Suzuhara were standing by on the surface. The Angel woke up as soon as I got it into the magnetic cage, so I had to kill it afterwards."

"I heard there was some kind of incident with pulling you out again," Kaji interrupted, tone curious. Asuka contemplated fishing for pity, but rejected the idea as quickly as it came. She had standards, damn it!

"Well, yes, the cables were damaged," she shrugged lightly, "so Unit 01 had to dive and pull me up."

"While going berserk," Kaji commented thoughtfully, causing the girl to frown.

"Hey, if you already know everything, why ask in the first place?" she pouted cutely, taking a bite of her schnitzel. The man shrugged, smiling softly.

"Just wanted to hear it from the most important perspective," he explained easily, immediately erasing her frown and replacing it with a self-satisfied smirk.

"Well, yes, it went berserk, since Suzuhara wouldn't have managed to get me out on his own," the pilot finally elaborated, taking another bite of her food and a sip of her juice, "The little boy's so incapable of anything. He broke down crying like some demented soap-opera actress when Misato kicked him around for peeking yesterday. Not at all like you, Kaji."

Asuka almost purred the last word in a tone she had practiced for almost half a year in Germany when she was twelve, causing the man to perk an eyebrow.

"Hmm, I see," he finally said, indulging her with another smile, "I'm just glad you're alright, that's all."

"Well of course," the girl scoffed, tossing her fake hair over her shoulder, "What did you expect?"

"Ah, many apologies, didn't mean to insult you," Kaji immediately backpedaled, though he was grinning at her show of ire, causing the girl to smile as well, despite herself.

"So is it true," the man finally asked after a small but comfortable silence, "Is your Unit 01 really sentient then?"

Asuka favored him with a 'well duh' look.

"You did see it moving in its cage, didn't you?" she queried, in mild disbelief. It was justified too, since everyone at Nerv had seen the Evangelion move around at one point or another. It was an attraction for the employees for quite a long while, until someone had thrown a wrapper at the huge purple behemoth in jest a month ago. Shinji complained to Asuka. Asuka chastised the thrower in question in a voice heard all over the sub-level his office was located on for a good half an hour and ever since then no-one dared come into the cage just to gawk at Unit 01 lest it would spark her ire. Lt. Tanaka, as well as everyone else from her Eva's tech crew, was deeply amused by the whole ordeal.

"Well, yes, of course I have," Kaji admitted, looking sheepish, "But the rumor has it that it's haunted by the ghost of the last pilot, so I thought I'd inquire from the source, so to speak."

"Let's change the topic, Kaji," Asuka asked, suddenly a bit uncomfortable. The whole conversation was going into a direction she didn't like very much at the moment.

"But why?" the man asked, suddenly looking serious, "I'm just curious, is all."

"You've been asking me about Unit 01 all evening, Kaji. Let's talk about something else," the redhead firmly stated, although losing her smile. The unshaven man quickly put on an apologetic expression.

"I'm sorry if I'm making you uncomfortable, Schatz. Would you like some wine to make up for it?"

"Ok," the girl drawled out slowly. Kaji never let her have anything stronger then beer, and even then only half a bottle at most. Something wasn't right. Maybe he was going to take advantage of her inebriated state? Yeah, right, dream on, Asuka, her inner bitch murmured nastily.

Taking a sip of the red liquid the man had poured her (a full glass, too!) and studying her companion with disguised suspicion, yet finding nothing wrong, Asuka put down her fork and leaned forwards a bit, pieces starting to come together. Kaji wasn't Nerv, he was the UN inspector, wasn't he?

"Why are you so curious about Unit 01, anyways? It's not exactly something one would discuss during dinner," she asked, deciding to go for broke. Kaji shrugged, though there was a flash of… something on his face, some kind of unease Asuka almost missed, it was gone so quickly.

"Like I said, I'm just curious," he explained, "It is, after all, an unusual occurrence when a huge robot suddenly starts to act on its own, yes? Anyways, you're right, let's really talk about something else. How's school?"

"No, I decided that we are not changing the topic now, Kaji," the redhead smiled sweetly, making the man cock an eyebrow in surprise, "After all, it's not every day your own former guardian takes you out to dinner only to pump you for information, is it?"

"Ah, that's not really the reason…"

"Isn't it?" Asuka made her smile even more sweet, despite her vision tunneling from the sharp feeling of utter betrayal, "You're even giving me wine only so I get a bit more talkative, aren't you?"

The man wasn't smiling anymore. In fact, he was looking outright miserable.

"I forgot you're a genius for a reason, Asuka," he sighed heavily, putting down his utensils.

"I can't believe you, Kaji! You know exactly how I feel about you!" the redhead snapped, thinking over a possibility of stabbing the man she loved with a fork, "I trusted you!"

"Now, Asuka, calm down, it has nothing to do with that," Kaji placated, sensing the danger, but the German teen wasn't about to be dismissed like that.

"You are using me to get some insider info, damn it! It has everything to with that! Didn't you care for me at all? Am I just a source for you now?"

"Asuka, you're making a scene," the man grimaced slightly, calmly folding his hands, "Now calm down, lower your voice and we'll talk like reasonable people here."

"Reasonable?" the girl hissed lowly, heeding him and trying to speak quieter, "I didn't bash your head in yet! That's more than reasonable. I mean, you could've just bloody asked, Kaji! I would've told you! What the hell's up with this whole setup?"

"You would've been brought up on treason charges if you'd just tell me," Kaji sighed, then sipped his wine calmly, "The Commander has you watched 24/7. You blurting secret info out because I got you drunk and 'used' you, as you put it, would've earned you a slap on the wrist, if at all."

"What? You… you bastard!" Asuka snapped, fork bending in her hand, "So you're saying you used my feelings for you to protect me? How dare you!"

"Whether you want to or not, Asuka, you're considered a viable asset to a lot of people," Kaji shrugged apologetically, sending her enraged face a sad smile, "Welcome to the adult world."

"That's all you have to say for yourself?" the girl growled, putting the abused fork down lest she give into temptation and mutilate the man in front of her, "I'm a viable asset to you? That's all?"

"Of course you're not only an asset, Asuka," Kaji muttered in exasperation, "But you're primarily an asset. If I would've recruited you, it would've been a big feather in my cap. I didn't, thought I had plenty of opportunity, because I would've had to 'burn' you sooner or later in the end and you'd have ended up dead or worse. I'm trying to protect you."

"I am one of the three people that stand between humanity and total annihilation," the girl snapped, struggling to think through her rage, "What the hell are you saying?"

"Asuka, your only worth is your ability to pilot Unit 01," the man elaborated quietly, still mildly exasperated, "As far as the UN is concerned, if Nerv decides one of the Children has to be removed, Marduk will find another as a replacement. Your recent promotion is just binding you closer to Nerv and gives Commander Ikari the ability to have you locked away as a security risk if your loyalty is called into question. You're a veteran now, yes, but quantity has a quality of its own, so as far as the UN sees it, your only value to Nerv is the fact that Unit 01 obeys you. And now that you've somehow managed to get it to work for Suzuhara, you've put yourself in a very precarious position. Yet you still have a lot of information on Nerv as well as on Eva operation, which makes you very important to a lot of agencies within the United Nations. Since you're now a lot less important for the survival of mankind in the eyes of these agencies, I've been ordered to get that information from you, and I was trying to get it in a way that didn't result in you being locked away for life, or found dead in some back ally, with Section 2 conspicuously absent. That's as plainly as I can put it."

The silence that followed the man's lengthy explanation stretched for almost five full minutes.

"You know what," the teen finally inquired in a steady, if quiet, voice, after mulling the new data over, "Fuck you, Kaji. I'm not going to play your stupid games. You're going to take me home now, and then you can go and fucking die, for all I care. If I so much as see you near me, I'm crying rape and calling security. We'll see how expendable you are, then."

After closing the door behind her, Asuka just stood there for a few seconds, not sure what to do, then went to the kitchen and stared stupidly at the half-full cup of tea she had left behind before the failed outing, then picked it up. Turning off the lights in the living room and settling onto the couch, mug in hand, the girl stared into the dark room around her with an absent gaze.

What the hell was she supposed to do, now? Kaji all but spelled it out to her: to Nerv, she meant nothing. They could always get themselves another pilot. All her achievements, all her pain and wounds and suffering didn't mean jack. What was the point of continuing to pilot if the very reason why she did it, to be appreciated, to be someone important, had proven to be nothing but a sham? She was still a silly little girl who thought she was something else. Only now, she was a silly little girl who could get herself killed if she didn't watch her tongue.

She was still protecting humanity, Asuka disagreed with herself, taking another sip of cold tea absently, but the thought was hollow. She never cared about humanity; she just cared about being the best, to rely only on herself. And now, it turned out she was just a small cog in some kind of an incomprehensibly large machine, ready to be exchanged for another with a snap of someone's fingers.

"Disgusting," she whispered, then quickly wiped at her face, fearing to feel tears yet finding nothing. That was good.

Kaji could've at least seduced her, a sudden stray thought flashed in her brain. She wasn't even good enough to sleep with, was she?

Suppressing the morose thoughts, the girl slapped herself and downed the rest of her drink in one gulp, then angrily switched the lights back on. So what if this lying treacherous snake Ryoji Kaji didn't care for her? Who the hell needed him? And screw Nerv, and the UN too, now that she was thinking about it. She didn't need them, either. She was the best damn Eva pilot there ever was, Asuka decided, switching the TV on and quickly changing her dress for a top and shorts, and she wasn't about to just sit here and mope about how cruel the world was. She had herself, she had her Eva, she had Shinji to save her arse if she ever messed up, and she had an enemy to fight. That was all she'd ever need.

The night proved sleepless, despite the new resolution. How could he…

Asuka Langley Sohryu pressurized her plug suit with a quick slap on her wrist, then calmly closed her locker lid. Then, after a second of thought, the redhead opened the door again and slammed it shut with as much force as she could muster, causing the metal to warp and leaving a huge dent near the lock. Taking a deep, calming breath, the girl studied the destroyed locker for a second, then kicked it savagely, an impressive snarl on her face.

Still, the violent actions didn't diminish her ire, which, by the way, had been burning brightly all week, ever since the disastrous 'date' with Kaji. The feeling of betrayal that the girl first felt had transformed into searing anger by the time she left for school the next morning, causing the German teenager to demolish her school desk again in an attempt to vent somehow. That didn't help, and neither did any other amount of property damage she had inflicted on numerous articles of furniture all around the Geo-front and Tokyo-3 within the last seven days. And, since Asuka's only confidant, Hikari, was still avoiding her, the proud girl had no-one to talk to either. Ayanami didn't count, since the albino was clueless in such complicated matters. Besides, Rei would probably report the incident to the Commander, and no matter how much Asuka hated Kaji right now, she didn't want him incarcerated, or worse, killed, despite having entertained quite a few bloody scenarios.

Misato was also out of the question, for the same reasons. There was also the fact that the older woman still carried a torch for the UN inspector, to consider.

Now that Unit 01 had finally been restored enough for a reactivation after its little swim in magma, however, Asuka was looking forward to the synch experiment, hoping to talk about her trouble with Shinji, her self-doubt being pushed into the background by the fact that Kaji, of all people, had betrayed her trust, no matter for what 'noble' reasons.

While the incident with a man she was in love with using her so shamelessly only reaffirmed the fact that she didn't need anyone in her life and to believe otherwise had been an epitome of foolishness, the girl admitted that completely cutting all her ties with everyone was akin to suicide for her at the moment. No need to go off the deep end, after all.

Besides, she needed someone to talk to, to reaffirm that there were at least a few people in this world that she could still put a minimal amount of trust in, or she'd go insane from the amount of hate boiling within her.

Shinji, stuck in an incorporeal state and unable (or unwilling) to communicate with anyone but her, qualified quite nicely. In fact, the existence-impaired boy who had proven he would risk his own un-life for her was the only possibility to confide in.

The redhead sighted heavily, the rage receding for a time, then studied the destroyed locker with mild distaste. She really needed to get a grip on her temper. Straightening her shoulders and opening the door of the changing room, the redhead strode out into the corridor connecting Cage 7 and Observation, then, ignoring everyone around her lest she flipped out again and started punching stuff, directed her steps towards the hangar housing her purple Eva.

Jumping into the entry plug and waiting impatiently until the capsule was lowered into Unit 01's back, Asuka quickly run through the reactivation checklist, ignoring Akagi's mild glare for skipping the steps she found unnecessary, then closed the communication window and stared into the orange liquid around her.

The response didn't leave her waiting for long, the blue tongue of flame materializing in front of her almost immediately. There was something wrong, though. The fireball's size was greatly reduced, now only a flickering mote of blue light, which bobbed up and down in the liquid tiredly.

"Asuka?" Shinji's voice sounded far away, as if he was speaking from a great distance. From his tone, he was yawning, "Is that you? What day is it?"

"Yes, it's me, Third Child. What the hell happened to you?" the redhead inquired bluntly, studying the small flicker of blue light, now barely bright enough to illuminate her outstretched hands.

"Still tired," the boy explained, his avatar burning a bit brighter, as if to reassure her, "It's not easy to keep the Eva running for two minutes after the batteries run out, while inside magma, and the pilot's not helping. I've been in and out of it, so I don't know how long it's been since then, though."

"It's been a week, Shinji," the redhead smiled weakly, "Thanks, by the way. That one was pretty close."

"Don't mention it," the boy dismissed with another mental yawn, "I'm just glad you made it out alright. How you been, anyways?"

"Shitty," the girl commented scowling slightly, then stretched out her legs and tried to relax forcibly, "I had dinner with Kaji and it didn't end well."

"Kaji, Kaji… Isn't he the one who took care of you in Germany? I think you mentioned him a few times. The one you used to have a crush on?" Ikari inquired, the fireball settling down onto one of the control yokes, as if to rest.

"Yeah, that's him. And it wasn't just a crush, Third, get your facts straight," Asuka corrected, searching for words, "And not used to, either. Still have. Had. Until a week ago."

"Ok, mind explaining this a bit more?" Ikari queried after a short pause, "I mean, something huge must've happened, right?"

"Well, he invited me to dinner, which I kinda liked to pretend was actually a date, but only wanted to dig some information on you out of me, probably for his boss in the UN government," the redhead sighted morosely, her words lacking the anger she had been feeling all week, then went on animatedly, "I mean, here I am, basically throwing myself at him and he just uses me like some kind of resource! I mean, I'd probably have told him if he asked me directly! And then he has the utter gall to say he's doing it only so Nerv doesn't have me killed for disclosing classified data! As if asking me out, playing with my feelings and then trying to liquor me up so I'm more talkative's all better!"

"What? Killed?" Shinji's voice sounded shocked, making Asuka relax even further, "Wait a tick! You're a pilot! They can't!"

"They can," the girl disagreed, still smarting about the little tidbit, "Now that you let Suzuhara pilot you, they have an alternative. I'm not so useful anymore, so the UN can try getting some info out of me, causing Nerv to get rid of me as a traitor."

"WHAT?" Shinji's voice almost boomed, although the flare his avatar emitted was still very weak, "You didn't betray anyone, damn it! And like hell I'm going to allow someone other than you to pilot Unit 01! Suzuhara was a one-time only thing!"

"Yes, but they don't know that, do they?" Asuka smirked mirthlessly, "Don't get your panties in a twist, I'm not going to disclose any info now that I'm more informed about the whole deal, so my hide's safe. That's not the point, anyways."

"Not the point?" Shinji's fireball moved from its perch on the control yoke and now hung in front of her face.

"Yeah, the point's Kaji stabbing me in the back. I mean, he was my guardian for about three years, for god's sake," the German pilot explained, "And I trusted him, too. I mean, he was always so suave, so confident, always there for me when I was still a kid… I could actually rely on him! He was probably the only one at Nerv Dusseldorf that didn't see me as a bratty child running around thinking she was something else…"

To her horror, Asuka felt tears in her eyes and run her hand over her face quickly, glad that her moment of weakness wasn't visible in the LCL.

The blue flame hovered in front of her face, wavering, as if unsure of what to do, then flared a bit in determination and slowly rested against her cheek, surprisingly warm and pleasant, although completely incorporeal. It was the first time the pulsing handful of flame had allowed physical contact, a distant part of the girl's brain noted, as she allowed herself to relish in the warmth for a second with a smile, then pulled away quickly, coming to her senses.

"What are you doing, Third?"

"S-sorry, I just-just thought you needed a hug…" Ikari trailed off awkwardly, his avatar still hanging quite close to her.

"I don't need a hug," the redhead snapped, putting enough fake heat into her voice to sound convincing, "I'm just fine. I'm not some weak little girl who needs someone to comfort her, damn it. I'm an adult, I'm the best damn pilot Nerv has and I don't need you, or Kaji, or anyone else to wipe my nose, you got that?"

"Sorry-sorry," Ikari murmured, although his voice lacked the dejection, causing the girl to think he saw right through her deceit. He probably caught her smile during the brief contact; "I won't do it again unless you want me to."

"I don't want you to, idiot!" the girl snapped, blushing despite herself.

Shinji's avatar bobbed in the liquid lightly, as if shrugging, hovered in front of her face for a second or two, then with a small pirouette, calmly settled on top of her right shoulder.

"Hey, what the hell, Third Child!" Asuka snapped again, blush growing, "Didn't I just tell you to keep to yourself?"

"Yes, well, I'm tired and it's difficult to keep floating the whole time," Ikari's voice commented, trying very hard to sound offhand, as if not caring that she was about to swat at him, "Besides, what's your problem? It's not like I'm making you uncomfortable, or anything, am I?"

"N-no, of course you aren't, you idiot!" the girl backpedaled quickly, then cursed herself for talking herself into a corner. Ikari had learned a lot about her mannerisms, it seemed.

Jerking her shoulder in a lame attempt to dislodge the small ball of light and secretly letting herself enjoy the warmth it was emitting, Asuka leaned back in her command chair, still blushing, and suppressed a smile, feeling much better then she had all week. Yes, she had everything she needed right here.

"Hikari! Hikari, wait up, damn it!" Asuka shouted several days later, having to run to catch up to the retreating girl. School had ended ten minutes ago, and the redhead figured catching her obtuse friend on her way home was her best bet. Horaki just looked over her shoulder coldly, but at least she stopped, for which Asuka was very grateful. Running with a skirt on had never been her forte. It was Ayanami's apparently, since the albino, who was currently providing moral support, wasn't even breathing hard after the impromptu sprint.

"Jeez, you're a hard girl to catch," the redhead panted, meeting the class rep's cold gaze with her own eyes, "Why the hell are you not answering my calls, anyways?"

"None of your business, Sohryu," Hikari spat, glaring even harder, "Go away and leave me alone."

Resisting the strong urge to dropkick the suddenly impolite class rep, the redhead took a few more breaths to get her heart rate under control, then straightened.

"Look, Hikari, I didn't know you had a thing for Suzuhara! I wouldn't have accepted if I had, damn it!" she tried to explain, "And anyways, we didn't go on the stupid date! He refused at the last moment, the little maggot!"

"Don't call him a maggot, you… you gaijin!" Hikari spat, turning fully towards Asuka and pushing her in the shoulder, causing the redhead to clamp down hard on her reflexes, which clearly stated that the arm that pushed her should be broken right now. Ayanami calmly observed from a few meters away.

"What did you just call me?" the German teen spat right back, ire rising, swatting Horaki's hand away, "Here I am, trying to tell you that I'm not after Suzuhara, and you call me that, you little bitch?"

"Bitch?" Hiakri yelped, dropping her book bag and obviously intending to start a fight, "Shut up, you little whoOW!"

The ow Asuka completely agreed with, since her own ear was currently also firmly gripped between Ayanami Rei's pale fingers. The albino was frowning without engaging any face muscles at all, a feat only she was capable of.

"You are being unreasonable, class representative Horaki," the prototype pilot stated calmly, twisting her hand a bit and causing Hikari to whimper, then repeated the procedure with Asuka, "And you are being counter-productive, pilot Sohryu. Your conflict can not be resolved this way."

After thinking for a second, Rei gave both captured ears another small but exceedingly painful twist.

"I am going to release you," she proceeded, after another second of thought, "And you are going to address the issue of pilot Suzuhara's affection in a reasonable and productive manner."

Another twist and pause.

"And you will resolve the issue to my satisfaction, or the consequences will not be pleasant."

Finally reclaiming her ear, Asuka glared at her roommate, contemplating whether to start kicking or not, only to be met with a cold red-eyed stare and suddenly remember that Ayanami was a pilot even longer then herself and probably knew just as much about martial arts. Rei could be damn intimidating when she wanted to.

Favoring the disbelieving Hikari with the same cold look, the albino finally relaxed her frown marginally.

"I will leave you for now, although I expect a report from pilot Sohryu upon her homecoming," Rei finally concluded, picking up her book bag, "If your discussion does not bear fruit, more extreme methods of persuasion will be employed to achieve the desired result."

Without waiting for any form of acknowledgment from either of the shocked girls, Ayanami finally turned around and calmly proceeded away at a sedate pace, both Asuka and Hikari just starting at her back in complete incomprehension.

"What the hell have you been teaching her?" Hikari finally asked, rubbing at her abused ear, turning to look at the redhead.

Asuka shrugged absently, feeling like Ayanami had just proclaimed her and Hikari her prison bitches and contemplating how she could get back at Rei for the humiliation.

"That wasn't from me," she finally answered, smiling slightly despite herself at the situation's ridiculousness, "She must've gotten ticked off by whatever tests they ran on her at Nerv yesterday. Ok, fine, if we're not going to fight, will you just listen?"

"Fine," Hikari conceded after a second of thought, probably not wanting to find out what extreme methods Ayanami was talking about. Neither did Asuka, for that matter.

"Ok, good," the redhead nodded to herself, picking up Hikari's book bag and proffering it to the brunette, "Now, as I was saying before someone called me a gaijin, I didn't go out with Suzuhara."

Hikari nodded, accepting the bag warily, then started towards her home slowly, Asuka falling in step at her right, and motioned for the German teen to proceed.

"He dumped me because a friend of mine threatened him," the redhead admitted, "Said I was too much trouble. So, yeah. He's all yours."

"Oh thank you so much, Sohryu," Hikari huffed, "I get your seconds. How kind of you."

"Jeez," Asuka threw her hands up in frustration, "What the hell is wrong with you! I'm saying I'm not after him! I didn't even know I was poaching on your turf, Hikari! You never said anything!"

"Because I didn't think you'd even consider going out with him," Hikari snapped back, stopping once more and rounding on the redhead, "Not after you kicked him in the nuts!"

The class rep immediately blushed at her own language, making Asuka smirk.

"I wasn't thinking," the German teen forced herself to admit, starting to walk again, "It was just, he kinda ambushed me with the offer, ok? And he's pretty hot under that tracksuit of his, so I thought I'd give him a chance. Besides, I kinda needed the money at the time, and he offered me a loan if I agreed…"

"Asuka!" the horrified class representative cried, blush intensifying, "How could you! That's… that's prostitution! I didn't know you're that kind of girl!"

"I did not intend to sleep with him!" the redhead cried, gripping her short hair in frustration and turning red at the mere insinuation, "Gott! What the hell is up with all of you!"

Hikari giggled suddenly, causing Asuka to stop her rant short and smile slightly as well.

"So, he dumped you before the first date, then?" the class rep inquired slyly, after a few moments of walking quietly, causing the redhead to nod, still greatly displeased by that fact, but allowing Horaki to gloat a bit for the sake of repairing their friendship.

"Yes, he did. Said I wasn't worth the effort, the little bastard," the girl growled, causing Hikari to giggle again, then scowled at her friend.

"Yeah, yeah, laugh all you want, but I'd check if he's still functional if I were you," she commented, turning her scowl into a smirk and causing the shy brunette to stop again, this time in shock, "I kicked him around pretty hard afterwards, so…"

"Asuka!" the class representative's tone spoke of indignation mixed with amusement.

"What? It's his own damn fault, saying stuff like that! You'd have kicked him too!"

"Well, ok, maybe," Hikari conceded after a moment of thought, "But not there. Maybe punched him a few times, that's all."

Asuka just smirked on.

"Yeah, well, I'd still reconsider dating Suzuhara if I were you," she commented, trying hard to sound offhand, "Considering that he peeked on me and Misato in the hot springs after we dealt with the eighth Angel…"

"He what?" Hiakri growled in her class disciplinarian tone, causing Asuka to feel a sliver of pity towards Toji if the pig-tailed girl and him ever actually started dating, "How could he? I… Wait. Eighth Angel?"

"Oh, that's right, you don't know anything about that," the redhead remembered, swinging her book bag and enjoying the conversation now, "It was during your trip to Okinawa. Nothing out of ordinary, I'll tell you some other time."

The brunette just nodded at that, her pigtails bobbing a bit.

"So, we good?" Asuka finally inquired after a minute of comfortable silence. Hikari nodded slowly.

"Yes, I suppose. It was a bit silly of me to blame you, wasn't it?"

"Well, yes," the redhead shrugged, dismissing the matter gregariously, though not able to resist a last dig, "But no-one's perfect after all, thought I wouldn't have blamed you if the situation was reversed. Let's go have a coffee so I can tell you all about the last Angel, huh?"

"Gah," Hikari wrinkled her nose a bit, ignoring the implied admonishment, "I still can't understand how you can drink that foul swill, but ok. I'll just go with a juice, thank you very much."

"Yeah, well, coffee's a drink of choice in Europe," the redhead shrugged, spotting a nearby cafe and directing her steps there, her friend following, "Anyways, a heads up: Suzuhara's at the Nerv hospital nursing a broken leg after Misato knocked him into the hot spring with a bucket, so maybe giving him a compassionate shoulder to whine on and some caring touch, maybe a massage or two might…"

"Asuka! That's inappropriate!"

"Hey, just saying," the girl shrugged, smirking dangerously, "After all, if you'd staked your claim earlier I'd have saved myself a lot of- GAH!"

"Thank you, Pilot Sohryu," Ayanami returned calmly, from where she had suddenly but very inconspicuously appeared at the redhead's left, "I was unsure if my approach had been stealthy enough to deceive you."

The German teen tried hard to bring her heart rate back to something approaching normal, then scowled in displeasure. Hikari just rubbed the bridge of her nose tiredly, apparently already imagining what hell a Rei with a bizarre sense of humor would be like.

"Did Akagi put you on drugs yesterday?" The redhead growled, having finally recovered from the shock, referring to another mysterious testing the blond scientist insisted Rei should attend the day before, "I mean, what the hell, First Child! Are you playing ninja or something? What are you doing here anyways? Weren't you heading home?"

"I was," the albino confirmed, digging into her bag and pulling out her Nerv cell phone, displaying it to her fellow pilot, "However, upon discovering that my phone was no longer receiving signal and confirming that Tokyo-3 is currently suffering from an unplanned power black-out, I thought it best to seek you out as soon as possible."

The redhead exchanged an unsure glance with Hikari, but pulled her own Nerv phone out of her book bag.

"Mine's also not working," she commented after frowning at the cheerful 'Network not found' on the display. That wasn't supposed to happen. Nerv cell phones were slaved directly into the Magi sub-server, so they were never off grid, the Nerv supercomputers piggybacking off other providers to keep them in the network at all times.

"We should head to the headquarters," Rei confirmed her suspicion, "Representative Horaki, it would be best for you to accompany us."

"Are you sure?" Hikari inquired, looking uneasy, "Maybe I should just go to a shelter?"

"No, Ayanami's right," Asuka disagreed, "Even if it's just a blackout, no-one's going to punish us for playing it safe. You'll just have to sign a non-disclosure at most, that's all. Besides, no-one's going to shelters right now, as you can see."

Indeed, the people on the street around them seemed to be going about their business, ignoring the strange blackout with great aplomb. Of course, considering that the city was regularly attacked by gigantic beings from outer space, a simple power failure wasn't going to ruffle the population's feathers all that much, the redhead conceded.

"Ok, Rei, you know where the nearest geo-front entrance is?"

"Well, that was a bust," Asuka sighed in frustration, jerking her access card through the entrance card reader once again, only to receive the same absence of reaction as before, "How are we going to get into the geo-front now?"

"Maybe I should just go home," Hikari fidgeted worriedly, "I mean, there seems to be no trouble, so maybe it's just a blackout?"

"The only blackout there ever was in Tokyo-3 was during the Fifth Angel, and even then it was announced 3 hours before it happened," the redhead disagreed, studying the armored doors before her with disappointment: apparently, there would be no getting through them without a bulldozer at the very least, "The whole city's never without power, the government would rather shut down the lights in the capital then leave us in the dark, since we, you know, can get attacked by Angels at any minute?"

"Yes," Rei agreed, currently calmly flipping through the small emergency orders booklet she pulled from her book bag, "According to the UN charter, Tokyo-3 is to be prioritized when concerning energy shortages. The geo-front also possesses several geothermal power plants as backups. However, since the Magi regulate the energy distribution throughout the city, the only possible explanation for the current situation is a foreign interference negatively influencing the Magi."

"What, you think someone hacked the Magi?" Asuka inquired disbelievingly, eyebrow arched, only to cause the albino to fold her booklet back up and stand. Hikari's eyes just jumped between the pilots, the class representative obviously not knowing what the hell her two classmates were talking about.

"Unlikely," the blue-haired girl disagreed, closing up her book-bag, "The cause can vary, but the most likely explanations are either sabotage or enemy attack. We may be needed in our Evas."

Asuka favored her with a look that clearly said the albino shouldn't state the obvious.

"Duh," the girl commented after a second, "But how the hell are we gonna get to the geo-front? The doors are sealed, as you can see."

"We can gain access through the maintenance access route 4," Rei explained, already starting to walk and causing Asuka and Hikari to fall in behind her, "It is one of the service entrances positioned nearby."

"Well, ok, then," the redhead agreed after a second of thinking the matter over, "I'm nominating myself as the leader, then."

"You are the highest ranking officer present," Ayanami nodded calmly, stopping in front of an inconspicuous back alley entrance, which, upon further study, revealed a cunningly placed steel door with a winch at its side.

"We have to open it manually," the blue-haired girl commented, dumping her book-bag and gripping the turning handle. Asuka joined in, while Hikari just watched the whole proceedings worriedly.

"Ok, that's ridiculous," Asuka grumbled after an hour or so, staring into the darkness around the three girls, while Hikari followed closely behind her and Ayanami brought up the end of the procession, apparently not needing any light to see, "Anyone have a flashlight or something?"

"No," Rei commented with great aplomb, not stopping her steps, "But I am reasonably sure that we are on the correct track to the primary maintenance ladder."

"Great," Asuka shrugged, accelerating her steps and secretly glad for the encouragement, "Let's hurry it up then."

The next few minutes were spent in silence, only the sounds of their steps audible in the dark.

"Is it always like this?" Hikari finally inquired, apparently unable to take the quiet, causing the redhead in front of her to shrug in the darkness.

"No, not really. We usually just get into our Evas and crush stuff," Asuka explained, then took a left into the corridor, relying on her intuition, "Never had a problem getting to the HQ before."

"It is an unusual situation," Ayanami agreed, "And I feel I must commend you for not succumbing to panic, class representative Horaki."

"Just Hikari, Rei," the brunette smiled, "It's a bit weird when you always call me that."

"It's a wasted effort, Hikari," Asuka grinned, stopping to study a door to her right, "I'm still breaking her out of calling me 'Pilot Sohryu'."

Rei emitted a very quiet sound that resembled a huff.

"It is your designation, pilot Sohryu," she elaborated with the barest trace of exasperation, "And it would be inappropriate to address you otherwise when on duty."

"See what I mean?" Asuka teased, sending Hikari a smirk, although unsure if the class rep saw it in the darkness, then gripped the door's handle and wrenched it open.

Instead of another dark corridor she was expecting, the girl was greeted with a huge yellow eye with a blue double-iris, on dark green background, framed by a red triangle, staring at her. The almost black and slightly furry body the eye was set in gave a slight spasm, causing the foreign eye to roll around a bit, as if focusing on her. After another microsecond the iris within the iris also shifted, the movement completely alien from anything the three girls had ever seen in their lives.

"That was the wrong door!" Hikari squeaked hysterically, as the redhead slammed the door shut as quickly as she could, her own face set into a mask of horror, the foreign gaze she just experienced sending a mild shudder through her spine.

There was a sound of something being spit out and some sort of liquid splashing onto the door from the outside, and the heavy steel started disintegrating quickly, showing ugly puss-like substance in the quickly appearing holes.

"Run for it!" Asuka ordered, directing her steps back into the corridor the girls had come from, two sets of footsteps following closely.

"What the hell was that?" the class rep demanded, panting, voice shaky, when the trio stopped their mad dash for safety. Ayanami, the only one unperturbed by the horrid thing they saw, shrugged mildly.

"An Angel," she pronounced, throwing a quick glance around the dark corridor intersection, "Pilot Sohryu, I suggest taking another route."

"You don't say," Asuka snapped sarcastically, then squared her shoulders, "Ok then, let's try this corridor now."

After another rather tense track down the corridor, Rei suddenly stopped in front of an inconspicuous ventilation grate.

"We can accelerate our progress if we enter the ventilation system here," the albino proclaimed at Asuka's surprised look, then gave the metal grate a rather impressive kick, causing the metal cover to bend and fall off.

"How do you know?" the redhead demanded, while Hikari just gripped her sleeve, still a bit panicky after the sight of the Angel. Ayanami looked a bit embarrassed.

"I found the ventilation shafts interesting when I was a child," she commented, removing the damaged vent cover with another kick and crouching down, preparing to crawl inside. Asuka raised an eyebrow.

"You grew up here?" She asked in surprise, following the albino into the tight confines of the small shaft, Hikari proceeding after her and keeping as close as possible to the redhead.

"Yes," Rei answered after a few minutes, crawling on and taking a right, then struggled for a few seconds, obviously trying to dislodge another vent cover, "Commander Ikari spends most of his time at the geo-front, and I accompanied him very often before I was assigned my own quarters. However, as the Commander did not always have the time to watch over me, I was often left to my own devices."

"I see," Asuka drawled, marking another strike against Ikari Gendo, "So he just left you to crawl into ventilation, huh? With fans and deep shafts you could've fallen into?"

"You should not hold it against the Commander," Ayanami said, sounding mildly annoyed, having finally opened the grate and now climbing down the ladder of what appeared to be an elevator shaft, the redhead and Hikari following suit, "I was a child and thus curious about my surroundings. I was often reprimanded and disciplined for my actions back then."

"He should have watched you more carefully," Hikari puffed out, voice strained from having to climb down the rather unhandy ladder, finally joining the conversation and sounding disapproving, "My father never let me wander off when I was a kid."

"The Commander's attention is often required on more important matters," Ayanami snapped a bit heatedly, sounding defensive and finally stepping onto solid ground, quickly followed by the other two girls, then crawled into another ventilation shaft, apparently quite familiar with the layout now, "And the care I received has always been sufficient."

"Yeah right," Asuka snapped back, vividly remembering the ugly hole of a flat Rei had lived in, "'Sufficient' is what's enough for a goldfish, not your own kid, Ayanami."

"But I am not Commander Ikari's child," Rei defended once more, crawling on through another intersection, "And I am thankful for the care he has given me."

'Considering that he's dumped 'his own child' as soon as he could, it doesn't surprise me he treats you like crap,' Asuka thought acidly, recalling the rather unkind words Shinji had described his father with. Still, she knew from her previous attempts that trying to talk some sense into Rei was futile, since the albino would just clamp up if the topic of assholeness of Gendo Ikari was explored further.

Hikari, however, had no such concerns whatsoever.

"If this Commander of yours takes you in as his ward, he should find the time to look after you," she lectured, readily grabbing onto the topic, probably to ignore the unusual surroundings, "I mean, my dad always has the time for me and my sisters, even if he's dead tired after his shift."

"I find," Rei's voice acquired a rather cold undertone, "that you do not possess enough knowledge of Commander Ikari to render judgment."

"You're living on your own at fourteen, Rei," Hikari shrugged, "And if what Asuka's been telling me about your old flat's true, then…"

"You do not know enough, class representative Horaki," Rei interrupted in a tone far harsher then anything Asuka had ever heard from her before, "And I would thank you to desist from further uninformed comments."

An uncomfortable silence followed, the class rep obviously cowed by the sudden and completely uncharacteristic spike of anger the albino had displayed. Now that Asuka thought about it, this was the most emotional reaction Rei had in all the time the redhead knew her. Good. If Ayanami was getting defensive, then the albino had finally realized there was something wrong to get defensive about.

"Sorry, Rei," Hikari finally mumbled into the darkness, following the blue-haired girl and Asuka out of the shaft they had been crawling in and into another corridor, straightening her clothes, "I didn't mean to upset you."

"You have not," Ayanami acknowledged, still a little chilly, although obviously having regained her usual calm demeanor, "And I, too, apologize for my outburst."

"Ok, now that that's over," Asuka drawled, a bit bemused by the exchange, "We should probably get going."

"Well, that was timely," Ritsuko Akagi smiled when Asuka jumped down in front of the doctor from the vent they had been moving through, followed shortly by Hikari and Rei, "We were just planning on how to contact you two."

"Akagi-san, there's an Angel on the surface," the redhead rushed out, while Hikari just looked around in wonder at the impressive command bridge and the cavern around it, "We've seen it when we were climbing down."

"We know," the scientist nodded, her lab coat ruffled and hair in a bit of a disarray, "Hyuuga managed to contact us. He's currently on the surface, trying to get the people to the shelters. Can you tell us anything about it?"

"Well, we didn't see much," the redhead admitted, exchanging a look with Ayanami, "Only its eye, and then it spat acid at us, so we ran for it."

"Acid, hmm?" Ritsuko mused, quickly extracting her ever-present clipboard from the back of her waist, and throwing it a look, "That's… worrying. The Angels before haven't used any kind of chemical weapons. Oh, and who's your friend?"

The last phrase was said in a rather disapproving tone, causing Hikari's attention to jerk back to the blonde woman and stop her study of the nearest terminal.

"I'm sorry, my name is Horaki Hikari. Pleased to meet you," the class rep rushed out, bowing, while Akagi just raised her eyebrows, then turned to the pilots, her frown turning dangerous.

"What gave you the idea you could bring civilians to the Headquarters?" the woman inquired, obviously greatly displeased, causing Asuka to return the glare.

"Well, we couldn't leave her out there, could we?" the girl snapped, meeting the older woman's eyes in a challenge, while Hikari blushed and shuffled her feet nervously.

"Excellent," another voice entered the conversation, this one belonging to Sub-Commander Fuyutsuki, "The pilots have arrived."

"Ah, Sub-Commander!" Asuka chirped turning around and sizing the opportunity, her eyes acquiring an angelic puppy-dog look, "We had to bring our friend Hikari with us, so the Angel outside wouldn't kill her. It's ok, isn't it?"

The older gentleman shifted uncomfortably under the blue-eyed innocent gaze, obviously unprepared for such a tactic, then gave a dignified nod.

"Of course, of course," he dismissed the matter, then turned to one of the technicians, "Ibuki-san? Could you please escort miss… Hikari, was it? To one of the meeting rooms and keep her company until the crisis has been resolved? Thank you."

Asuka grinned winningly, giving the nervous class rep a thumbs up, then threw a victorious glance at the fuming Akagi. The older woman huffed mildly, her face promising retribution.

"Get to the Evas, both of you," she snapped, readjusting her lab coat a bit, "We've managed to prepare them manually. Since Misato's not here, I'll brief you."

"Misato's not here?" Asuka raised an eyebrow in surprise. From what she had seen in the past months, the Major took her responsibilities a bit too seriously, going so far as to spend almost all her time at the geo-front. Ritsuko's frown relaxed marginally, acquiring a touch of worry.

"Yes, we can't locate her at all," the blonde admitted, fishing for a pen within her lab coat's pocket, "But, considering the fact that the Magi're offline, it's not such a big surprise. She was at the geo-front when power went out, that's all we know. You better get suited up, I'll inform you if we find her."

"Ok," Asuka concluded, adjusting her Eva's grip on the pallet rifle, and studying the large acid burn in the purple Eva's forearm, "This Angel's seriously pissing me off."

"Well, not much we can do about it," Shinji's voice commented, also sounding displeased. Both Unit 01 and Rei's Prototype were currently huddled in one of the large side tunnels exiting into the vertical shaft ending with Heaven's Door to Terminal Dogma. They had retreated and holed up after their first contact with Matarael and now sat here, their timers ticking in intermediate mode, while the pilots watched the rain consisting out of acidic orange puss the Angel was excreting from above them.

"The distance prevents us from neutralizing the enemy's AT Field," Rei commented, forcing her cyclopic Eva to chance a peek at the furry black spider-like body at the surface, then quickly pulled the blue-armored head back into cover and switched into intermediate mode again, "We have no effective means to destroy it from here."

"Yes, yes, I know," Asuka dismissed, forcing her mind to think, "We need to get within at least 500 meters of that thing. Problem is, we've got only what, three minutes left? Hmm."

Rei remained silent, obviously out of ideas and letting the redhead ponder their situation, so the german teen turned her attention to Shinji.

"Well, Third, you got any ideas?" she inquired to the blue tongue of flame that was currently residing on her right forearm. The avatar had seemingly taken a liking to physical contact, such as it was, since their little talk a few days ago, much to the redhead's visible consternation and deeply hidden pleasure, and made it a habit of taking residence on some part of her body during synch tests, though avoiding her female assets and legs with great care, as if to show he wasn't a perv. Both teens had avoided the topic of this behavior, however, aside from Asuka's halfhearted rants of displeasure she felt she was obliged to deliver, so the new interaction had simply been incorporated in their usual routine. After two synch tests Asuka could barely imagine not having the fireball perched on her shoulder or arm anymore.

"Not really, sorry," Ikari apologized, after a few seconds of thought, "Three minutes aren't enough to get to the surface, and I'm not sure I can get the Eva to run without power right now."

"Still tired?" the girl queried sympathetically, receiving a mild pulse of blue light from the tongue of fire as a conformation, then set her shoulders resolutely, "Well, no matter. We simply need a plan."

After another few seconds of intense thought, Asuka sent a command to the Eva's interface. Switching the com window to Unit 00 back open, the girl regarded Rei's composed visage for a second, then started talking.

"We've got one rifle left, so here's what we're going to do, First. You're going to give me your prog knife and then lean out and fire a few rounds so that the Angel stops dropping acid and gets his AT field up. At the same time I'm going to try to jump out there and climb up as high as I can, then secure myself with the prog knives and provide you cover from the acid while neutralizing the AT field. As soon as it's eroded, I'll give you the signal and get out of the way so you have a clear line of fire. You lean out again and unload the rest of the magazine into this thing. Unit 01's armor should be able to take a few stray hits, so don't worry about friendly fire."

"I see," Ayanami commented after a second of silence, "The plan is sound. There is, however, the question of you freefalling to the shaft's bottom."

"Don't worry about that," Asuka dismissed, flexing her fist, "I'll stay hanging on by the prog knives."

Ayanami raised an eyebrow, obviously thinking it over, then nodded resolutely.

"Please chose the opposite side of the shaft to reduce the danger of my shots hitting you," she added, grabbing the rifle Asuka was proffering her, then extracted the progressive knife from her shoulder pylon.

"Ok, here goes," the redhead commented, grabbing the handle and pulling out her own blade, taking care not to engage the vibrating function. She needed something like rock-climbing bolts, not cutting tools, right now. Gripping both blades in her Eva's fists, and bemoaning the fact that Unit 01 didn't have rocket thrusters like her former red Evangelion, the girl threw a belated glance at Shinji's fireball.

"Well, Third Child, better buck up, this may hurt a bit," she grinned determinedly, gripping the control yokes tighter and setting her face.

"You are crazy, Asuka," Ikari's voice was a bit awe-filled, though calm enough, "Totally crazy. Rip the Fourth Angel apart with your bare hands? Sure, why the hell not! Punch the Seventh to death? Of course! And now climb up the shaft with acid falling on you? Nuts!"

"Oh, shut up, Third," the girl smirked, then gave the waiting albino a nod, indicating her readiness.

The pilot of the blue cyclopic Eva needed no further prompting, leaning out for about a dozen meters and giving off two calm, deliberate shots in quick succession. Asuka didn't wait up to check if the enemy stopped spewing the orange puss, simply vaulting her Evangelion into the shaft in a long jump, stabbing both blades into the opposite wall a second later, then ripped the right one free, trying to ignore the pain from the last blobs of angelic acid that splattered onto the purple Eva's head and immediately started melting the armor, and jabbed it back into the wall, but into the much higher section of it this time.

Quickly ripping out the left prog knife and repeating the procedure over and over again, aiding herself with her feet as much as possible and probably looking like some kind of demented alpinist, the redhead urged the Eva to quickly climb the shaft's height until she was about as close as she was going to get to the top. Rei gave another shot from below, obviously trying to keep the Angel from renewing his acid-spewing assault.

Taking the chance presented as the already familiar alien eye centered on her, Asuka rammed both of her knives as deeply into the steel wall as she could, then swung her Evangelion's legs, digging them into the shaft's opposite side and deploying her AT field to maximum power. The energy indicator dropped to below one minute with a loud noise.

"Rei, now!"

Holding on for another second after her shout, the redhead hissed in pain as the first globs of acid fell onto the purple giant's back, washing away the armor like it wasn't even there, then pushed off with Unit 01's legs and hung over the deep shaft, hugging the wall, the two knives her only support.

Her maneuver had proven to be just in time, as the rattle of two meter-big depleted uranium bullets being dislodged from a pallet rifle at a rate of several dozens per second sounded from below her not a second after, the shells rushing past her so closely the girl could almost feel the air being displaced behind her Eva's back. None hit her, as Ayanami proved to be quite a good shot, despite her rather poor 56% synch.

Five solid seconds of continuous firing later the gun below clicked empty and there was a tired groan followed by a heavy thump of something falling. The redhead held her breath, praying with all her being that the hellish barrage of metal had been enough to kill the creature half a kilometer above her, then jerked the Evangelion into motion once more, quickly forcing it to start climbing again and cursing her dwindling power supply.

The trip to the surface took another thirty seconds, Unit 01 moving as fast as she could make it, and the girl quickly threw a look at her perforated adversary. Matarael was quite obviously dead.

"Well, that was fun," Asuka commented, lying down in the tall green grass of one of the hills surrounding Tokyo-3 and staring at the clear starry sky above her, while feeling incredibly content. Ayanami sat beside her, hugging her knees loosely, gazing at the dark city in the valley a bit below them. Both Evangelions stood, kneeling, fifty meters behind the girls, now completely out of power, tall and silent. Both pilots had to drain the entry plugs' emergency accumulators and even the armor's powered components to get the machines to where they currently were, basically overwriting the whole power distribution system of the Evangelions to get them to move with the miniscule amount of battery energy they had left after the engagement, but Asuka was loathe to leave the war machines just standing in the middle of the densely populated city and look useless, until the power grid was restored.

Still, now that they were here, the redhead didn't regret her decision. The stars, clearly visibly without any light pollution, were simply breathtaking.

"Indeed," Ayanami finally commented in a content tone, interrupting the German teen's musings, "I find it pleasing that my first confirmed kill had been so low on collateral damage."

"Yeah, yeah," the redhead scowled, but let her face relax after a second. Let Ayanami have her moment of glory. After all, she, herself had six Angels to her name, so why not? Besides, she was in too peaceful a mood to argue right now, "It was a pretty sweet op, discounting the whole 'crawling through ventilation' bit."

"Yes," Rei confirmed once more, then brushed away the blue bangs the slight breeze had thrown into her face, "I find myself no longer questioning your appointment as my superior."

This caused the german girl to cock an eyebrow, a bit surprised.

"You never questioned my promotion, First," she snorted, too content with viewing the sky to get angry at the insinuation. Ayanami simply tilted her head, as if disputing the point.

"Not verbally," the albino elaborated, hugging her legs closer despite the warm weather, "I did have several reservations, however. You have shown a tendency to disobey orders before, no matter how fortunate your insubordination proved to be. Your treatment of Pilot Suzuhara also indicated that you were prone to rank abuse. I was doubtful of your ability as a field tactician."

The redhead emitted a tired sigh.

"Jeez, Rei, come off it," she complained, sitting up, "Do you have to be so anal all the time? I mean, c'mon, would it kill you to simply say you thought I sucked as a leader 'cuz I ordered the Fourth around and didn't follow some orders?"

"Was it not what I said?" Rei inquired, turning around and rearranging exactly two muscles on her face to convey surprise. Asuka sighed again.

"Forget it, First. You're a work in progress," she mumbled, laying back down and looking at the stars once more.

"You are not angry with me?" the albino carefully inquired, studying the reclined teenager. Asuka just shrugged her shoulders.

"The whole promotion thing's more political then anything else," she explained to Ayanami, closing her eyes and enjoying the feel of the grass on her neck, "I mean, the Commander did it to get me under his heel, so I'd stop acting out, since I wasn't bothered by the pay cuts."

"No matter the reasons for your promotion, you have proven that you are an able leader," Rei interceded smoothly, still studying the darkened city, "One that I can trust with my life. You have not answered my question, however."

"Jeez, First…" Asuka drawled, a bit at a loss as to how to answer such bold praise, then decided that saying nothing would be best, "No, I'm not angry with you. At least you're honest."

"I see," Rei finally said after a minute of more or less comfortable silence, then also reclined herself onto the grass and closed her eyes, a tiny smile on her lips, "I'm glad."

"I swear to god, First, sometimes you're really acting like you've got a crush on me!"

In the valley below them, the city's lights sprung back to life.

"To the first Angel Battle going according to plan!" the german teen proclaimed, raising her juice glass (even a Nerv Pilot ID didn't convince the cashier at the corner store to allow her to buy sake or even beer) and clicking it with Ayanami's and Hikari's own glasses.

The trio of girls were currently sitting inside Asuka's flat, the lights burning brightly over them, the low table before them filled with take-out and drinks, while the TV blared quietly in the background. After the Evas had been transported back to their cages, Misato had been released from the elevator she had been stuck in with Kaji for company and visited the restroom (Asuka greatly enjoyed the man's sour expression) and Akagi delivered her chiding of 'never again messing with the energy distribution systems of Evangelions', the pilots, minus the still bed-ridden Suzuhara, of course, decided that a celebration was in order (Well, Asuka decided. Ayanami just went along with it), so they grabbed the still a bit shell-shocked and worried Hikari from the meeting room where she had been kept entertained by Ibuki, got the nondisclosure signed, and then migrated to Asuka's abode, where they were currently engaging in said celebration.

"It had not gone as planned, Asuka," Rei disagreed, after taking a sip from her glass of juice, "As the sabotage of the Magi was certainly not anticipated."

"Oh, don't rain on my parade," the redhead smirked, putting her glass down and nabbing herself a piece of Peking duck, the main dish of today's little party, "Besides, even if it didn't go quite as smoothly as it could have, today's still the day you got your Angel-killing cherry popped, isn't it?"

"Asuka!" Hikai gripped, smiling despite her chiding tone, while Rei blushed a bit at the crude description, "Don't make such inappropriate jokes!"

"Ok, ok, no need to get all high and mighty, miss 'can I go see Suzuhara'!" Asuka cheered, grinning as the class rep sputtered denials, "Maya showed me the security footage of your little visit to the hospital! You'd think he's been mauled by an angel and not caught peeking on me and Misato the way you were fussing over him."

"Oh shut up!" Hikari finally snapped, still blushing, and then downed her juice in one long gulp, crossing her arms and pouting afterwards. Asuka just laughed, while Rei smiled slightly, now that she wasn't the one being teased.

Still, as the evening progressed, the redhead couldn't help but think that it was a pity Shinji couldn't be present as well.