Chapter 19

Procedural Work / so afflicted, for a god

AEON


~'/|\'~


"For us is not permitted the grief of previous societies. Synthetic eyes do not mist over with tears. Drugs enforce 'the natural healing of time'. We are all just chemistry and physics, and by changing the chemistry the transitory illusion of consciousness is made to conform to its fundaments. We are all stardust, in the most brutal and minimalistic style. The pain of a broken heart, of loss and grief is but an illusion of a flawed mind.

And yet it still hurts."

Gendo Ikari
Personal documents


~'/|\'~


21st of October, 2091

The shadowless room smelt of hot metal and ozone. Hand on hip, Asuka Langley Soryu stared up at the immobile figure of Unit 02. Construction drones and exosuited technicians swarmed over it, an exoskeleton of scaffolding chaining it down. Crimson plating covered extensive sections of the Evangelion, replacement parts from the extensive damage inflicted by Harbinger-6, and in this saturated environment the bloody red made it look raw and injured.

The girl gripped the railing in front of her, Eyes staring up at the titan. "Come on," she whispered to it. "Get better soon." Sighing, she reached out, almost as if she could stroke her war machine, to comfort it.

Her reverie was disrupted by the clatter of feet behind her, and she stepped out of the way of the technicians moving canisters of fire extinguishing foam. Much as she wanted to be in her Evangelion, to feel the rush of power or even the comforting warmth of a synchronisation test, it was locked down while they replaced elements of the plug interface which had been damaged by the extreme cold it had faced in Chicago-2. There was not even the monotony of tests. On the other hand, though she had been loath to admit it, the fact that she had been off-duty meant that she had been able to take dream-suppressants without it interfering with her synch ratio.

A Harbinger kill under her belt, and a few nights of good, unbroken sleep. No wonder she was feeling good. She would be even better, of course, when she could resume normal training and show the other two Children that she was the natural leader and set a good example for them. The red-blonde girl nodded to herself, and set off toward the control centre. They had probably finished the synch test by now, and that means she might be able to catch some of their training exercise. If she was to be the troop leader, she'd have to find ways for them to improve.

Together, they wouldn't let another city die like that. Chicago-2 and Berlin-2 wouldn't happen again as she watched. She was sure of that.


~'/|\'~


The plug screen went black, and Shinji leaned back with a groan. That... could have gone better. Considerably better. He sighed and slumped forward, exhaling in the LCL. Before him, he could see the tactical battle map, and Unit 00's icon remained green, although the hordes of hypothetical Harbinger-spawn based off the things that Harbinger-4 had produced painted the area red.

"That wasn't exactly fair," he muttered to himself rebelliously. "If that'd been real, I'd have had my AT-Field. Wouldn't have been able to swarm me then." He paused. "And it wasn't fair putting that weakened dome there. How was I meant to know it couldn't support my weight?" Another pause followed. "Wasn't fair."

The boy drummed his fingers against his seat. A selfish part of him wanted Rei to hurry up and get killed quickly, so he could at least get to the bit where they explained precisely what he had done wrong, but looking at the map that did not seem likely. Red icons flashed and vanished from the map, as Unit 00 strode about. The Harbinger icon appeared, rising from the waters of the cold coastal city which was the battleground; there was the flash of a nuclear weapon and it paused, before Rei engaged it.

Shinji sighed, and waited. The noise of his fingers was muted by the LCL, sounding hollow and reverberating. If this was some form of indirect punishment for getting 'killed' early in the simulation, it was certainly working.

A second flash over the Harbinger, and the icon was gone. Around Shinji, the plug walls faded to display the Evangelion bays. He could see a bit of Unit 00 from here, the Evangelion still lacking one of its hands, but otherwise intact. Unit 01 was in worse condition, and although the plug interface had been repaired fully, the Eva was not cleared for active duty. That did not exempt him from training, though, and so he closed his eyes, and prepared to face the music.

"That was terrible, Third Child," a voice which combined amusement and superiority observed.

Oh. Wonderful. He opened his eyes to meet the blue gaze of his loud and arrogant new classmate, flatmate, and co-worker leaning into the camera which should have been showing the Director of Operations. "Misato," he began, appealing to the other woman on the link.

"Yes. Asuka, please don't interrupt," Lieutenant Colonel Misato Katsuragi said, frowning as she nudged Asuka out of the way of the camera. The new rank insignia she wore was a mark of the promotion which had come through in the aftermath of Chicago-2. "Although that was poorly done, Shinji. You haven't been that sloppy for a while."

The boy sighed. "I'm sorry," he apologised.

"Shinji, I don't want you to be sorry," the woman said. "What do you think you did wrong there?"

"I didn't look where I put my feet, and fell through the roof of a weakened underground dome. Then I got swarmed by," he flapped a hand, "bugs. Which I couldn't hold off because this simulator-thing doesn't give me proper AT-field control."

"That's not an excuse," Asuka interrupted again, leaning back into view. "That the simulator didn't give you a defence against it doesn't change the fact that it was a stupid mistake to make in the first place, when you should have been paying attention to your LITAN which..."

"Asuka." The older woman's voice was increasingly warning. Shinji could really wonder how intelligent the Second Child really was, if she couldn't read the signs.

"... gives structural warnings and an overview which you should have been..."

"Asuka!" The Lt. Colonel's face was like thunder. "Be quiet!" She sighed. "Shinji, we're going to do this again, and just... pay more attention this time, please. Show me that was just bad luck, if you can."

The boy tried not to smirk at where the red-blonde girl had been, and nodded at Misato, trying his best to look enthusiastic and willing. "I'll try my best," he said, with as much earnestness as he could manage.

"Good." Misato paused, staring up at the main screen. "Rei, that was well done on a technical level," she said to the pale girl who had been watching the entire exchange impassively. "Your piloting had adapted well to your increase in synch ratio. However, this time I want you to work in closer coordination with Shinji. You have to work as a team more, and be in a position to aid him if he ends up in trouble again. Do you think you can do that?"

The girl nodded. "Yes," she said, simply. "I am ready to try again."

"Good," the woman said with a nod, cutting the connection. "Captain, handle this test," she told Captain Martello, who with the movement of Unit 02 was now stationed in London-2. "Asuka, we need to talk."

"Colonel Katsuragi?" Asuka asked, stepping away from the screen, trailing behind Misato, a hint of confusion in her voice. "I was just providing some advice. I have much more experience than him and he's undertrained and under..."

"And Asuka," the Lt. Colonel said, frowning, "please don't do that again. It's not your place to make such comments unless I ask for them. I am responsible for handling the pilots, and I don't need you interfering, especially with such negative reinforcement. Even if you do have points to make, tell them to me in private."

The girl boggled, her lips twitching. "But-" barely escaped her lips, before she stopped herself, seeing the expression on the dark-haired woman's face. "I understand," she said, the words slowly extracted from her, straightening up. Her eyes were level with the older woman's. "Will that be all?" she asked, traces of bitter-sweetness escaping into her voice.

The military officer raised one eyebrow. "Asuka," she said, calmly, "please don't take that voice with me."

Blue Eyes glared back at her. "Fine," the teenager said. "I'm going to one of the dry-sims. If that's all-" she bit back on any further comments. "Unless you have different orders," she said, more calmly.

"Don't go and alienate your fellow pilots just because they might not have the experience you do," the Lt. Colonel ordered. "I'm asking you to try to get along," Misato added.

The noise of Asuka's footsteps as she walked off was lost in the noise of the command centre, which redoubled as people tried to look like they had not been distracted by the confrontation. Misato groaned, and pinched the brow of her nose.

"That was a little harsh," Ritsuko commented, leaning back on her chair.

"It was," Misato said, balling up her fists with a sigh. "Damn. The same thing about negative reinforcement could have been said about me, and I shouldn't have done this in public. Damn it. I snapped at her as if she was a junior officer, rather than another Test Pilot, and..." she trailed off. "The Second Child is going to be work to handle."

"I could have told you that already," the blonde said, rooting through a pile of print-outs. "And did. It was on her psyche profile and everything."

"Yes, yes." Misato sighed, hand going unconsciously to smooth down her skirt. "I think it's at least a bit that Shinji is broadly...well, fairly easy-going..."

"That's not how I would describe him."

"... and Rei is Rei," the officer continued, ignoring the interjection. "Asuka's not going to be the same. She's a highly strung perfectionist with exacting standards of everyone around her who's spent almost no time around children her age and who's intolerant of any perceived failure. She could be a real pain. You know, like you."

Ritsuko blinked. "The phrase 'no offence' could have been added to that," she said, mildly. "And you are just quoting her psych-profile at me. I am familiar with it."

"I don't think that phrase was needed," the black-haired woman said, glaring. "Not when you're going to be like that."

"Look," Ristuko said, with an aggrieved sigh, "Misato, are you still annoyed I didn't say anything about Kaji being involved as Asuka's guardian"

Misato's eyes narrowed. "Oh no, not that. Not only that."

"And that he was with the GIA?" Ritsuko said tiredly and rolled her eyes.

Misato tapped her foot impatiently.

Ritsuko sighed. "And that he'd be taking up a role liaising with us, as part of an anti-Harbinger task force, and that he'd be in L2 when he did it..." she paused "Is this about the whole thing with the Navy people?"

Misato crossed her arms. "Harumph," she said quite clearly, glaring at the blonde.


~'/|\'~


"We're pleased to have you with us," the tight-faced man said, not looking away from the screen. "Your record with the GIA is wonderful, and your experience in similar roles and the recommendations with your file show exactly the competencies we wanted. There a gap for the last two years, which were..."

Kaji smiled, shifting his shoulders. "Asset protection and pre-emptive defence."

"... yes, yes, which seems to have been quiet."

"Mainly," the pony-tailed man said. "Rather more administrative work involved than earlier postings."

The other man snorted. "Yes, I can see that. But that experience is, again, relevant, although I do have to express some concern at your ties to elements of the Ashcroft Foundation." He shrugged. "Well, anyway, we're getting a new TSEAPer today, and I wanted you here, to watch her intro. She's technically very good, but did you get time to look at her file?"

Kaji nodded. "I did," he said, his voice clipped. "Rather lacking in occult expertise, though, of course, her anima-null status is actually an asset in that field."

"That's what I said, too," the other man said, nodding. "Ah, yes, look. She's in the ante-room. Are you wired for this?"

Kaji stroked his chin, clean-shaven for once. "I'd rather watch on monitors," he said. "They haven't finished transferring stuff for me yet, so I'd have to go through set-up for this network and..."

"... yeah, tell me about it," the man said, rolling his eyes. "Okay." His fingers clacked on the keyboard. "Bringing up SecCam feed, set to auto-track her. I..." he dug in one of his desk drawers, "... here's the remote, so you can flick around; I'll be watching on these. I'll want your opinion on her, though; you're one of the secondary observers for her transfer report."

"Oh joy," Kaji said, looking up at the screen. "More paperwork. Everything was better back when it was your team-leader who had to do that sort of thing."

There was a snort from the other man, as they paid attention to the feed.

Agent Mary Anderson squinted at her reflection in the dark glass, and nervously tucked an errant strand of dark brown hair back behind her ear. The amlatytook a deep breath, and began to gnaw at a fingernail, before she realised what she was doing, and took the already-fairly-bitten nail out of her mouth. She would like to say that she only did that when she was nervous, but in her line of work that was a pointless statement. The hand went up again, to correct her hair again, and brush non-existent lint from her shoulder, before the intercom buzzed.

[Agent Anderson,] stated the secretarial LAI, [please enter.]

One final deep breath and she was through the door, a fixed smile on her face. It still came as a surprise, just how small the room was. There were six chairs in a semicircle, and one in the centre, evidently for her. Her orange eyes flicked over the individuals, putting her OIS training to use. Three men, all in suits much like hers, and their bearing was such that she guessed they were either OIS or GIA; certainly they were civilians. A woman... Federal Security Bureau, by her reckoning, stiff-backed and with a suitcase sitting by her chair which almost certainly had a compact submachine gun in it. A young looking sidoca, even younger than she was; he looked like he was barely out of university. And... thatwoman was clearly military. Short stocky build, that subtle wrongness about her build that meant that she has probably had most of her body replaced with vat-grown and cybernetic parts.

And, Mary Anderson thought, if this was a group which had high-end infantry like that, then this meeting with State Security Task Force on Non-Governmental Organisations (A), informally known as Grigori-A, was going to be much more interesting, in the Chinese sense, than she had thought. Given that what she had already been told, that was more than a little alarming.

"Captain Ori Joyeuse. NEGN, seconded to the GIA," the blocky military woman said, beginning the round of introductions, and pulling herself to her feet. She shook the amlaty's hand, incidentally confirming all of Mary's suspicions. She could feelthe underskin weave, even underneath the flexible skin of the hands. "And you would be Agent Mary Anderson, our newest TSEAPer?" she asked, pronouncing the woman's name the Nazzadi way.

"Ah, I prefer it to be pronounced 'mair-ee', not 'mar-eye'," Mary corrected her. "It shouldbe spelt correctly on the documents; it's an English name, not a Nazzadi one."

The blocky woman looked back down, and winced slightly. "Sorry," Captain Joyeuse apologised. "I've been reading a lot of oldchar documents recently, and I think I autocorrected because... so, Agent Anderson?"

"Yes?" Mary said, preferring to get away from the topic of why she might want to have her name pronounced that way.

"You came recommended to us directly by Deputy Director Echo," interjected an older man, hair shot through with grey. "You've got a master's in neuroscience, consistently excellent evaluations, and four years service, and now that you've taken the needed occult courses, you're pretty much the perfect candidate."

Mary managed to resist the urge to smirk. Mostly.

"We're here to talk to you about the specific part of the Task Force you'll be working with," the captain said. "I head up the field teams, and so, as a TSEAPer, you'll be working directly on subjects we bring in," she added, gesturing to the central chair, and sitting back down herself.

"I understand, ma'am," the amlaty said, taking the seat.

"Grigori-A has a very wide-ranging mandate," the oldest man in the room said, his shock of snow-white hair a contrast to his black suit. "As a result, it is broken down into a number of specialist groups. You'll be part of one specific branch, but specialists like you do..." he coughed, "... have a tendency to get passed around, because there are never enough neuroscientists."

Agent Anderson laughed politely. "I'm used to that at the OIS, sir," she said.

The white haired man continued, his expression grimmer, "And there is the other reason that this branch, Sub-Task Force 28, wanted you. You have prior involvement with cases which touched upon their remit and expertise."

The amlaty turned a paler shade of grey-brown. "Th-the B-Budapest from a few weeks ago?" she stuttered.

"No. Not directly," Captain Joyeuse said, her eyes narrowing. "This is an investigative sub-task force, primarily. We investigate a particular subset of ENE-worshipping cults."

"I used to be with the Sectarian Cults Division, and work as a liaison, because we have to work closely with them," added the woman from the FSB.

"There are a lot of disparate memeconcepts worshipped and obeyed by illicit cultist groups," the oldest man continued. "Some are classified and known; the pan-Dagonite faiths, the cell-groups linked to the Tibetan POLLEN, and the like; they have dedicated groups from Grigori-A devoted to them. Sub-Task Force 28 has a more general investigative remit."

"Which is?" Mary asked, as a roundabout way of asking him to get to the point.

"Here, you'll be working specifically to investigate and counteract subverted panhuman groups involved with potentially summonable ENEs of Echo-or-greater threat levels." The grey-haired man sighed. "And this is much, much more important these days. We have some evidence which suggests that Chicago-2 was the product of a deliberate summoning, and there is extreme concern that perhaps previous Harbinger-designated entities may have been deliberately summoned, though that is not confirmed."

The amlaty opened her mouth and closed it again. "Oh," she said in a small voice, as the scale of her new role became quite apparent.

Kaji, watching on the screen, raised one eyebrow. "She's coping better with it than some of the others," he remarked drily. "She even managed a coherent word."

"Oh, to be so innocent again," his companion said, shaking his head.


~'/|\'~


Asuka Langley Soryu was in a somewhat better mood by the time she had made her way down to the ladies' changing room. Wrath had been vented against simulated Migou, and the euphoric buzz of knowing that she had beaten her own personal record on the Brasilia-A scenario was enough that any residual bad feelings were pretty much gone. And this was only simulator practice, not even proper Evangelion piloting. She might be getting proper rest, Asuka considered, but without the calmness of synchronising with her Evangelion... well, the break with what had been routine for most of her life was disruptive. No wonder she was getting stressed.

The changing room itself was far too large for the two girls – and weeks earlier only one – assigned to it, something more fitted for an entire sports team or the changing rooms at school. The row of shower cubicles that took up one wall had but a single user; all but three of them had plastic sealing them off to prevent damp from getting in. One of them was currently occupied, judging by the noise of running water coming from within.

And that reminded the Second Child of the other thing she had been planning to do in here, beyond getting changed and showered.

"First Child? Rei Ayanami?" Asuka called out, rapping on the cubicle door with her gloved knuckles. "Is that you?" The question was probably silly, but she wanted to make sure. It was not truly necessary; the metallic scent of LCL coming from within was a grating sensation against the back of Asuka's nostrils, providing proof enough of ID.

"I am having a shower," came back the flat response. "Other ones are free; you do not need to wait for me to finish."

"I want to talk."

"We are talking."

Asuka ground her teeth together. "I mean, I want to talk to you about... look, that's not being very helpful. I'm trying to talk to you about something."

The flow of water stopped, and Rei opened the cubical door, dripping wet and naked to stare levelly at Asuka. "I was having a shower," she said, flatly.

The red-headed girl raised her hands up in a mock-guard. "Okay, okay," she said, "you don't need to be like that." She looked the other girl up and down, taking in the snow-white skin and hair broken only by slightly pinker patches of thinner skin around the eyes and lips. The smell of LCL was almost like a saw to the nose this close, but Asuka was entirely used to it. "Look, let's be friends."

Rei stared at her. "Friends?" she echoed.

"Yes. It's convenient, and we're the two girls who are both Evangelion pilots. Since we're going to be doing a lot of things together, it's easier if we're friends. We'll work better together, and from what I've picked up at school, you don't talk to many other people. It'll be good for you."

Rei tilted her head. "You have not made this offer to Pilot Ikari," she said, softly.

Asuka blinked. Rei with wet hair looked rather... un-Rei-like. With the hair a darker grey from the moisture that left it hanging limp down to her shoulders, something about the shape of her face and her jawline was picked out differently. "Well, no," she began. "But..."

"Is it because you were not allowed into the men's changing rooms to interrupt him when he was having a shower?"

The girl in the plug suit opened her mouth. And then closed it again. "Oh, ha ha," she said, through gritted teeth . "I just wanted to talk." It was slightly disconcerting that someone completely naked had managed to get the upper hand in the conversation like that, Asuka felt, but she suppressed the tick of irritation. She was doing this at least in part to show Lt. Colonel Katsuragi that she could be perfectly sociable, and that meant she had to make sacrifices. Otherwise the dark-haired woman would be smug at her, and she couldn't have that. "If you're going to be so..."

"We will be friends," Rei said, from out of the blue. The naked girl leant forwards. "If you wish it to be so," she added. "May I return to my shower, Second Child?"

Asuka flapped a hand at her. "Go ahead," she said, loosening her own suit in preparation to remove it. She was only wearing the underlayer today, and that made it easier to take off – and slightly more comfortable, despite the smart fabrics, she had made clear to the design teams. "Sheesh, someone gets tetchy when people interrupt her washing," she muttered to herself. As she removed her A10 clips and put them back in the case in her changing bag, the door to Rei's shower closed again, and the flow of water began afresh.


~'/|\'~


Damp-haired and still trying to get water out of his ears, Shinji walked out of the mens' changing room and straight into an auburn-haired woman. His kit bag landed on the ground with a damp thud, and the smooth wall provided no purchase to prevent him from landing heavily on his bottom.

"Ow," he said. She had the solidity and mass he normally only associated with armoured figures. For all that their eyes had been almost level, it was him who was down on the floor, not her. "I need to stop doing that," he said, mostly to himself.

"Oh, no, no," the woman in the NEGN uniform hastened to reassure him, "it's all my fault. Really." She looked to be ethnically Japanese, but her hair colour and something about the shape of her face suggested that there was some ancestry from somewhere else back a generation or so. Her hair was cut in a style which was similar to that which Rei wore; a utilitarian short style, although not so as short as the way one saw female power armour operators wear it. Reaching down, she offered him her hand to help him up; the grip was on the edge of almost being too strong. She pulled him up, into a tight hug, and the boy found himself in an almost-crushing embrace caught between arms with no give in the muscles and a chest which felt almost solid with subdermal plating. "Lieutenant Mana Krishima, NEGN, assigned to Project Daeva," she said, sounding delighted. "Nice to meet you!"

Brain frozen, Shinji blurted out the first thing which came to mind. "Aren't you meant to be our rivals?" he said, blinking.

"Yep," Mana said cheerfully, as she let go of him. "You're Ashcroft's pet project!" she added, smiling broadly.

Right. Shinji's mind whirred. There was something about her which was really disconcerting him. And he spent a fair amount of time in proximity to Rei Ayanami, so he knew about disconcerting. This was a different kind from the type the sidocygenerated.

Too heavy. The plating and the hardness. Not phased by impact. That slight edge of wrongness about her features. Shinji swallowed, and then felt guilty about doing so. That was him reacting poorly to a heavily enhanced pilot, nothing more.

... well, the lack of a grip on personal space and the too-tight hug and that smile were probably contributing to his discomfort, he had to admit.

"It's nice to meet you too," he said politely, for lack of anything else to say. "Um. I'm sorry, but... um, what are you doing here?"

"Oh, right," the woman said with a shrug. "Your higher ups talked to my higher ups and they did higher up things, and all things together... well, they put me and Dahaca in one of the other prototypes and sent me over here. My one got wrecked in C2, but they said that I'd performed above expectations and so bumped someone else from their one so I could be fitted for it." She smirked. "Man, Yamagishi is going to be pissed at me for taking her ride."

"I see," Shinji said, massaging the back of his head. "Um. Well, hello. I expect I'll end up seeing you in training sims and the like." He licked his lips. There was something odd about the calibration of her Eyes, he thought, but he wasn't quite sure what. The pupils? She wasn't exactly focussed on him, he thought, but wasn't quite sure.

"No doubt," Mana said with a nod.

"Well." The boy blinked. "I don't know if Asuka or Rei are changed yet, but," he looked around, picking up his kit bag, "well, I need to go and talk to Misa... Maj... Colonel Katsuragi, so if you're headed that way..."

"Oh, no," the auburn-haired woman said cheerfully, "I'll go find the other pilots and introduce myself to them. Don't worry," she jangled something from her wrist, "I have clearance and everything to be down here."

"Okay," Shinji said. "It was nice meeting you," he said, with only a hint of hesitation. "I'll probably see you at... some time."

"Yep!" Whistling, the woman stepped around him, heading towards the female changing room. Shinji stepped quickly away, headed for the lifts. It was a little bit shameful to admit it, but he really hoped he wouldn't spend too much time around her. Maybe it was something to do with the edge of oddness about her. Maybe it was the fact that she would be piloting something without an AT-Field, which had already been wrecked in action, and he couldn't see how she could survive. Maybe – heavens forbid – he was just buying into some kind of Ashcroft mentality and feeling ill at ease around an 'outsider'.

Shinji wasn't quite sure which one would be worse.


~'/|\'~


And now it was later, and Shinji was slumped in front of the television, flicking through channels. He knew that he really should be doing his homework, as the combination of training and a PsychEval tomorrow meant he would not have time to get much done, but at the moment he didn't really care. He still had to prepare dinner for him and Asuka – and Misato too, because she was still down in the Geocity – and it was getting late, but he just wanted to sit in a wonderful state of apathy.

Frowning, he picked up several beer cans left on the table, and put them in the bin. Honestly, there really was no excuse not to throw them in to be recycled as soon as they were finished, beside sheer laziness. He hoped that Asuka would be less avowedly indolent than Misato. Not that that would be particularly hard. There were old landfill sites with a better sense of cleanliness than Misato.

The boy shook his head at the way that someone who held her position of authority could be so... uncaring about things like that when off duty. He had a strong suspicion that if for some reason she ended up as a general or something, the cleaning staff at top secret military bases would still find discarded rubbish filling up unobserved corners.

Discarded rubbish... that reminded him. "Asuka?" he called out. "Are you still using the nanofac?"

"Yes!" came the instant response. She was doing something in her room; Shinji didn't know what, and he didn't particularly care to find out. It was not that girls' rooms were terra incognita; he had mostly been raised by two women. It was that Asuka had threatened him with all sorts of dire consequences if he dared invade her privacy. And dire consequences would take time he could be using to relax to happen, and it was too much effort to argue with that girl.

"Can you hurry up? Please?" he said.

"No!"

Shinji gritted his teeth, and let out a slow breath. "Please? I have to..."

"My stuff all got destroyed in C2, and I need things to have a tolerable standard of existence," she retorted. "You're just wanting something. If it really matters so much to you, go and make it in a public one."

The boy sighed. "Fine," he said, even though he didn't feel that was particularly acceptable. She had been using all the runtime for days, and it was hardly a case of her making 'essentials' by now. He had seen some of the things she was making, and she should have been the one getting them from some public nanofac, not using a home-grade one to – slowly – make all of them.

Gritting his teeth, he sighed, shedding the irritation. Pulling himself to his feet, he made his way over to the kitchen, digging tubs and packages out of the cupboards. "Just so you know," he added, "you're going to have to give it a break for tomorrow. Because we're almost out of noodles and kuka mansa... among other things... and you're welcome to try to think up another dish, but if you don't want to go out and buy some more... and I'll have a shopping list for you... then it's probably more convenient let me make some food."

There was a pause. Then;

"Fine," Asuka called back, grumpily. "I'm running a bath."

"Thank you so very much for informing me of that," Shinji muttered to himself. Glancing over, he noticed that Pen-Pen's water bowl was empty and refilled it, before going to wash his hands before he began to cut the vegetables.

The sizzle of protein and vegetables was filling the kitchen by the time Misato got home, tramping her way through the front door with heavy steps. "What a day," she announced, loudly. "That man! I cannot stand him. Of all the pretentious, smug, annoying, arrogant, braying, foolish, self-righteous," she made her way into the kitchen, "snobbish, irritating, petty, argumentative, bickering," she opened the fridge, recovering a beer and breaking its seal with a hiss, "time-wasting, making-me-stay-too-long..." and any other words in her diatribe were lost as she downed the alcohol.

"Nice to see you, Misato," Shinji said, twisting slightly as he poked at the contents of the wok with a spatula. "Dinner's going to be in about ten or so minutes, just need to..." a pinger went off, "... ah, yes, need to slice the mushrooms, meant to do that earlier, drat..."

"I needed that," Misato muttered to herself, shaking the can optimistically, before leaving it on the side. "That's good, Shiniji. Where's Asuka?"

"She said something about a bath... like, fifteen or so minutes ago, and... Misato, she's still taking up nanofac time."

The older woman frowned. She was really reconsidering how wise it had been to have two Children living with her. Not only did it mean that she got dragged into domestic disputes like that – and had to be the villain to one of them when they clashed – but she worried that it might mean she wasn't keeping the right air of professionalism. Could she really both order them around in combat and resolve their bickering?

A little bit of her was concerned that it was just that Asuka was breaking the little routine that she and Shinji had got into.

"I'll talk with her about that," she said, "but Shinji, try to be a bit understanding. It's disruptive to be moved around."

"I know, I know," the boy said, trying to keep half an eye on the wok as the sound of cutting filled the room. He forced half a smile. "I will try."

Misato smiled at him. "'Kay, that's all I ask," she said, going to the fridge again.

Sitting back, the couch creaking comfortably under her, her second beer in hand, Misato heard the scream from the bathroom. She shook her head sadly. Honestly, people just needed to relax sometimes. Why did things keep on happening? Rits had made jokes about girls being more work that boys, and her friend would be annoyingly smug if she was right again. Rits spent too much time being right anyway. So she would be nice and calm and solve the problem and no-one would have to be smug at anyone else and…

"Misato!" she heard the furious call. "There's... there is a penguin in the bathroom. An albino one with claws and teeth! And I was trying to get in the bath!"

The woman frowned. She was sure Asuka had to have encountered Pen-Pen already. Right? It had been days. Could you just... miss a penguin?

"Oh, that's just Pen-Pen," she called back. "He's a lodger. He's an Antarctican Urbanised Penguin. He's very smart. As in, three-year old human smart. Be nice to him; he is an endangered species after all."

"He's not letting me out of the corner!" was the desperate-sounding response. "He's... he's staring at me! Get away from me, you stupid bird! Stop looking at me likethat. Or I'll make you even more endangered!"

"Oh, that's just because he doesn't have very good eyesight," she called. She could feel Shinji glaring at her.

"Does Pen-Pen do this to everyone he meets?" he hissed at her.

"Um." The woman had to pause. "I'm not sure," she admitted. "I really haven't had flatmates beyond you since I got him." Raising her voice, she continued, "He's almost blind, so he's just getting to recognise you. Just, you know, flap at him with your hands if he's being a pain."

"What, are you stupid?" Asuka bellowed back. "I'm not moving my hands! Get... argh! No! Don't peck my hands, you stupid bird! Misato! You... call that damn thing off! Stop going for my hands, you vicious blind thing!"

"Maybe your hands smell of fish?" Misato called back, with a grin. She couldn't have stopped herself for a year's free supply of beer.

There was an inarticulate scream of rage from the bathroom, and with a sigh Misato pulled herself to her feet. She probably should sort this out. Even if she had just got to sit down for just a little bit and...

"Oh," Shinji remarked, drily, "I see the unhelpful-comments-when-Pen-Pen-harasses-people is also something you treat everyone to." Leaning over, he splashed more oil into the pan, frowning at the burnt bits. "And because of this drama, dinner is going to be a bit blackened," he added, in an accusing tone of voice. "Don't worry, I'll try to make the best of it. And you're a terrible person," he added very softly.

"One with very good hearing," she said, with a half-shrug. "Not a small giggle? Not even a titter? You should probably stop being so serious all the time, Shinji."

"You should probably help Asuka," he retorted. "Having a penguin show up when you're naked is not funny."

Misato snorted, and started turning red with supressed laughter. "Your t-tone of voice..." she managed, mouth quivering.

"Get away from me, you stupid... Misato! Get... ha!" There was a squark. "Yeah, how do you like a wet towel now, you damn bird! Back off!"

With a deep, calming breath, Misato pulled herself to her feet. She would have to try her very best not to seem too amused at this; at least if she wanted the rest of the evening to be quiet and peaceful and not-stressful. Why couldn't the world be more considerate of her relaxing-time?


~'/|\'~


Ryoji Kaji yawned and stretched, massaging his eyelids and feeling the solidity of his harcontacts under the skin. He cracked his knuckles, and pulled himself to his feet, on the search for coffee. He should probably phone Asuka to say that he was going to be very late... wait, no, she didn't live with him anymore. He still wasn't used to that.

When his workload had cleared up a bit, he'd have to see about dinner around at Katsuragi's, to see how she was getting on. And, well... he'd have to wait until Katsuragi calmed down a bit before he did that. She always did have a bit of a temper when surprised, and Rits had mentioned that Katsuragi hadn't known about his involvement. Which was standard protocol and everything, but was still... well, it was something that had to happen, regardless of his personal feelings on the matter.

Cup of black coffee in hand, he made his way back to his new desk. Urgh. He wanted a smoke, but he wasn't letting himself have it. If he took a smoking break now, he'd get home even later, and frankly he'd like to get a proper night's sleep tonight, not something disrupted by keep-awakes in his system. He was going to rely on the natural inefficiency of caffeine, not the wonders of modern pharmaceuticals.

Mechanically, he opened the file with the next set of reports in, and sent them to the printer under the desk. While they printed, he busied himself with sorting the last set and his annotations, and stuck them into the recycler-scanner. Right. That was sixteen of twenty done, which was eighty percent, which was almost done and now he was printing seventeen which meant that he had nearly done eighty-five percent which was nearly ninety percent, and then that would mean that he would almost be done even more and...

His idle mental slicing of the workload was interrupted by a cough, and he looked up to see Ori Joyeuse looking down at him, her uniform somewhat crumbled from long wear. "Late night for you too?" she asked.

"Yep," Kaji said, taking a sip of coffee.

"What're you onto?"

Kaji reach down, and bought the print-outs out from the printer. "Recaps of your raids and coverage of various cult groups," he said, wearily. "Just have to get up to speed on everything you've done, and I can't do this at home because of security. Which means late nights."

"I hear you," the woman said, stretching, skin shifting over her subdermal plating. "Cultists and Budapests and ENEs, oh my."

The man sighed. "It's hardly Snake Fist, is it?" he asked, rolling his eyes. "Just paperwork." He shuffled the files. "Still, I prefer hardcopies, myself. There's nothing like being able to flick through when you're doing this kind of boring revision of work. I wonder if this is how characters who only join in sequels feel."

"You know how it is," the woman said unsympathetically. "Clearly, we should threaten to arrest film directors who don't show accurate amounts of internal paperwork in their action films."

"That'd really cut into recruitment rates," Kaji said. "Also, we'd have to recruit more specialists to handle them."

"Certainly would." She snorted. "Of course, I wouldn't mind a look in the minds of most of Buenos Aires and Hollywood, or at the very least throwing them somewhere where they could never be let near a film script again. Anyone... and I mean anyone... who could make 'Bana Night and Day', that one with Ravana Manupoli and Keysha Demares in, is clearly in league with something dark and and malevolent."

Kaji sighed, and flicked his eyes down the next page. "Didn't see it."

"Lucky you. It was terrible."

Kaji coughed. "Mmm," he said deliberately, attempting to convey that he was trying to work here rather than discuss cinematography.

"I'll leave you be," Captain Joyeuse said, getting the hint. She paused, as if she was about to say something. "Just speaking generally," she said, "things move pretty quickly here at times, so you probably want to catch up as fast as you can. I'm still going over some of the things from the last big incident myself, and..." she sighed, "... everyone's worked off their feet by extra checks after C2. We've been having multiple raids a week, and... gods, you think you have it bad? Try being the one who has to fill in A1-11 Rights Suspension requests."

Kaji made a noncommittal noise, highlighter pen already in hand. Behind him, the door hissed shut again.


~'/|\'~


22nd of October, 2091

The familiar ceiling of his bedroom was illuminated by the faint blue glow of his clock. Shinji Ikari leaned over, and saw the back-lit announcement that it was past midnight. He groaned. He just couldn't get to sleep.

The slow, rhythmic sound of his breathing was the refrain of his world, as he stared up at the blue-tinged darkness. The fabric of the bed coverings was rough against his feet, and he was too hot, but when he shifted so his feet were exposed they were too cold. He tried keeping one under the covers and one outside, but that just seemed to produce the worst of both worlds. He rolled over onto his left; his arm cramped up. Trying to sleep face down was out of the question.

A wave of cold shivers worked their way up and down his spine. Yes. That was the other reason. He still wasn't sleeping well, after everything with the Harbingers.

And the funny thing was? The things that he remembered, that he dreamed of? They weren't the horrific death count, millions dead in minutes. They weren't the horror of this most recent Harbinger and its over-large maw, or the cracking noise that buildings in an alien sea made, or the faintly seen things that could have only been bodies, frozen where they died. No, the things that crept into his dreams were the little things. The warmth in the Evangelion compared to the cold outside. The feeling of Asuka in front of him and the way her LCL tasted funny. The odd, half-synchronisation that Dr Akagi had said he'd done and how different it had felt, as if everything was precisely the wrong way around like a mirror reflection.

Not really that funny, all things considered. It was no fun to wake in a cold sweat feeling like your limbs weren't moving like they should when you tried to reach out.

The boy pulled himself to his feet, and padded out of his room, feet soft against the rugs. The rooms of Misato's apartment were dark, although minimal lighting followed him as the house LAIs tracked his movement. All the light at the edge of vision managed to do was make the shadows more textured, illuminating the world in shades of grey. Opening the bathroom door, he eased it gently shut behind him. As the light level roles, he stared mutely for a moment at the penguin who was lying in the bath, flopped in the water.

"Pen-Pen," he began wearily, before deciding to not say anything.

Wait. He blinked, as something clicked. Why did Misato have a shaving light built into the mirror, anyway? He was pretty sure that was what it was. Unless it was one of those lights women used when putting on make-up. That was a more sensible explanation.

And he was just so tired, if that kind of random thought was coming to mind.

Leaning down over the sink, Shinji splashed his face with warm water. Pale faced, he started at his reflection and the deep bags under his bloodshot eyes. He looked... well, to be quite honest, he looked like a dead man walking. Pouchy and puffy, he might have well been able to be an extra in a zombie movie.

In the quiet house, something moved behind him. He heard it. It was not just the creak of the floor under the pressure of a foot, though he heard it. It was the movement of the air, a shift in pressure. He turned; nothing. Well, nothing save the sleeping penguin in a partly filled bath beside him. And the movement had been further away than that, too, he realised.

He considered calling out. He decided not to. He didn't want to wake anyone. Instead, he moved as silently as he could over to the door, and eased it open. No one there, either.

The boy sighed, which turned into a yawn. There were two other people in the house with him. So what if he heard noises? It was probably one of them. And the house alarms hadn't gone off or anything, so no one had broken in.

Shinji Ikari headed back to bed, settling himself once again under the covers. And as he finally, slowly dropped off to sleep, he thought he heard footsteps and the sound of running water.


~'/|\'~


"Look on the plus side, Shinji," Hikary said, in her best reassuring voice. "At least it's Friday today, right? It's almost the weekend."

Face-down on his desk, the boy groaned. It was only his second day back after the normal post-incident counselling and debriefing, and that meant that once again, he had accumulated work. "And that means I have work-catch up and... other things," he said. "It would be nice if a weekend was anything that meant anything for me."

The grey-skinned girl rolled her eyes. "Self-pity. How attractive." There was an awkward pause, and Shinji poked his head up with one eyebrow raised. "Not that I find you attractive, of course... well, not 'of course', but... look, stop feeling so sorry for yourself."

The boy pursed his lips. On one hand, he felt he had a rather good reason for feeling sorry for himself. On the other, well... Hikary was a friend, and rather – cute was probably the best word, especially with those pigtails and freckles – and she was asking him to cheer up. And in a more objective frame of reference if he at least stopped acting as if he was sorry for himself, he would be able to avoid endless attempts to make him feel better about himself.

"You're staring," the amlaty said bluntly, stepping to one side. Shinji blinked, and defocused from the middle distance. "Okay, you were actually just zoned out there," Hikary said with a smile.

"Bad night," he said, with a one-shouldered shrug.

The girl sat down, neatly settling her black skirt. "Me too," she admitted. "My older sister came back from a party at about 3am, and her room is next to mine. And she'd... well," a red blush rose under Hikary's mixed skin tone, "... well, I will be having words with her, and she will never do that again, or Dad will find out that she had someone back. Someone loud back."

"Ah," Shinji said, diplomatically.

"I can't help but wish she'd go and find new accommodation and leave home again," Hikary muttered. "I'm sure she didn't use to do that until she went off to university."

""At least that's one thing I've never had to have," the boy said. "My foster mothers were happily married and their daughters... well, they had them when I was around, so... yeah. No things on that part."

"Oh, I don't know," Reyokhy said, with a flick of her blue-streaked hair. The other girl stepped over to join the conversation, hands clasped behind her back. "I mean, Shinji already managed to bring a girl back." She sniffed, a crisp gesture somewhat ruined by the small smile on her face. "And he picked her up rather than come to my party last weekend."

The boy groaned.

"The best bit," Reyokhy said, in a stage whisper, "is he can't even say that he's not interested in her and I'm just needling him without it making it sound like the new girl is ugly. So, Shinji… I haven't had much of a chance to talk with her… what's she like?"

"Do you mind?" Hikary said, annoyance in her voice.

"Mind what?" Toja interrupted, panting slightly from his dash up the stairs to the homeroom. "Yes, class rep, I know I'm a bit late, but the extra security checks slowed me down from up top and..."

Hikary waved it away. "Nothing, never mind." She quite deliberately turned her back on Reyokhy, shutting out the Hispanic amlaty, and her expression softened slightly. "Anyway, Toja, how's your sister doing?"

The boy forced a small smile. "Better," he said. "She still hasn't forgiven me for being in Chicago-2 and making admit that she was worried about me. And..." he slumped down in the desk next to Shinji, shedding his bag with a thud, "... if you laugh... well, you'd better not laugh. But her friends are even more convinced that I'm special, that I'm a hero. Yeah, laugh all you like," he said, as a slight giggle escaped Hikary. "But... urgh. I do not need that sort of thing. I'm… I… it's hard, you know. How big it was and how close me and Ken got to… everything." He smiled wryly. "Seems bein' friends with you is dangerous, Shinji. Maybe next time you get a fancy trip, I might have to stay home."

Shinji shook his head. "Next time, I think I'll ask to stay home too," he said, sadly. "It wasn't fun for me, either."

"Yeah. Remember Jona?" Toja asked, shifting to include Hikary and Reyokhy.

"Oh yeah, he... he moved to Ostberlin-2, didn't he?" said Reyokhy.

"First." Toja's lips were thin. "I'd occasionally chat with him and he'd got moved to Brasilia-A and then… then Chicago-2. He… he hasn't logged in since then. No profile updates either. And he was… he is normally kinda compulsive about putting every last thing up." The dark-skinned boy trailed off.

There was a silence from the small group. "I'm sorry," Hikary eventually managed. "Well… maybe… maybe he's in hospital. I mean… the news says that there are a lot of people with state sickness, so… so he might be just sick enough to not use the Grid and… and…" She sighed. "Well, there's always hope, right?"

"I guess so," Toja said, slumping down. "Yeah. Makes us look real lucky, doesn't it? I mean, with all the attacks and stuff. I mean, like, if that thing at the end of August had been like what happened at C2, I'd have been dead. It just attacked. Like a thing. Not… not like an entire ocean." He hunched his shoulders. "How do you fight that kind of thing?"

"I can't say anything about that," Shinji blurted out. He could feel the eyes on him.

"That is correct," a soft voice said from directly behind him. The boy flinched, whacking his thighs into the underside of the desk. "Ikari is not allowed to talk about that."

"Rei," he said weakly, once he had his breath back. "I wasn't going to… you're really quiet. How long were you there?"

Grey eyes stared back at him. "Some time," she said.

"We should make you wear bells or something," he said. "Can you please not sneak up on me like that?"

"I did not sneak," she said. Was that a slight hint of a smile on her lips, a faintest curling up of the sides of her mouth? "But I'll try, Ikari." She paused. "I wanted to talk with you."

"Oh?" he said, with similar noises of surprise from Reyokhy and Hikary.

"Yes. It is a private matter."

Shinji tried to ignore the look on the faces of the other teenagers. "Okay, I guess. I'm sorry," he apologised to the others, "but… yeah."

"You don't need to ask my permission to talk to people," Hikary said, her mouth twitching. "I'm only the class rep. I don't actually have authority over that sort of thing."

"And it keeps you up at night worrying, doesn't it?" Reyokhy said.

"I'm not actually a power-hungry tyrant," the pigtailed girl said wearily. "It's not actually funny. But, yes, ignoring the bad jokers… actually, while you're up, could you see if that new girl – Asuka – and…" she glanced around, "… oh, of course Taly is late, why am I not surprised? If you see then dawdling, can you remind them that they're meant to actually attend homeroom?"

"We left at the same time," Shinji said as he got to his feet, shaking his own head. "I don't know where she's got to."

"Soryu is lost and cannot find her locker," Rei said, looking back. She paused, blinking once as she stared at Toja. "And I am sorry about Jona," she said to the nazzada, as she left the classroom.

The trio of teenagers stared at the departing pair. "I do not know how he does it," Toja said, eventually. "Him and Rei and…"

Hikary raised her eyebrows. "I know," she said, sounding equally impressed. "Rei is acting… like a normal panhuman around him. I've tried to get through to her for years."

Toja blushed almost imperceptibly. "Yeah, that's where I was going," he muttered. "Nothing more."

"Me too," said Reyokhy. "I tried, but she just... do you think she likes him?"


~'/|\'~


Scowling, hands thrust into the pockets of her black uniform jacket, Asuka Langley Soryu stalked her way down corridors full of lockers. Each number in turn was examined and glared at for its failings. None of them however were as comprehensive failures as the one which was hers, however, because the one which was meantto be hers had refused to open to her access card. And that was just typical. Her second day at this school, and the system had forgotten that she was registered or something. And her call to the IT helpdesk from her PCPU had been utterly useless because apparently it should be working fine.

Which meant that her swipe card had probably failed on her on its second day. Despite working on the doors.

Typical. Just typical. Why was she always surrounded by fools and incompetents?


~'/|\'~


It was cooler out in the corridor. Shinji thrust his hands into his pockets and leaned against the wall. He was not entirely sure what this conversation was about and where it was going to go, in all honesty, and – shamefully – there was a little bit of his brain which would prefer that he was not here at all.

Much like pretty much any conversation with his father, come to think of it. Except the bit of his brain that didn't want to be here would be a rather larger bit. And at least there was no risk that Rei would stick him in a giant cyborg death machine and make him fight alien monstrosities with no training at all.

… of course, he hadn't thought that his father would do that either, right until he did. So maybe that wasn't the best manner in which to judge things.

He settled for saying, "What is it, Rei?"

The girl stared back. Her mouth twitched; once, twice. And then she spoke. "We need to talk, Ikari," she said, voice even softer than usual. "It is necessary."

"Oh, okay." Shinji took a breath. He wasn't sure what this was about, and his eyes skittered to and from her colourless face. "What about?"

She said nothing. Instead, she shrugged her rucksack off and unsealed it, removing something. "Here is another book," she said, proffering a slim book. "I chose one shorter than the last. And older. It is his most famous work, and an important text in its genre."

Shinji blinked, and took the offered gift. "Um. Thank you." He looked down at the cover to avoid that grey gaze. "I'm still not sure if I'll be able to get it read that quickly, but…"

"It is something to do when you cannot do anything to change what happening," Rei said, in a quickfire patter of words. She put her bag back on. "Things happen too quickly. And you cannot do anything right now. Neither can Soryu." Her mouth twitched. "I have not lent her any of my books yet, though."

The boy shifted, leaning against the wall as he turned the book over to read the spine. "You know," he said, scanning the text, "if you want to… um, you know, recommend books to me, you could just link me to them. The Foundation's got us those nice library access accounts."

"I like the way books feel," Rei said, after a moment's pause.

"Fair enough," Shinji said, slightly distracted as he slipped the slim tome into a pocket in his uniform jacket.

"The Second Child asked to be my friend yesterday," Rei said, suddenly. "When I was having a shower." Shinji blushed pinkly, at the memory of Rei and showers. "You don't like her."

Face still red, the boy shifted under that stare. "It's not that I don't like her, exactly," he said uncomfortably. "I hardly know her."

Rei stared at him.

"She's not a person I would choose to live with," he said, to break the silence, "… but I know it's hard to get moved around. Um. I guess maybe she'll feel better when she's made some friends and got used to the Academy… she's... she's probably missing people from… um… I think she said she came from Ostberlin-2 and… um…" he trailed off. That was probably enough sympathy and reason for someone who had been hogging the nanofac for days now, a little – somewhat spiteful-sounding – bit of his brain said. "Well, she can be rather rude."

"I see." Rei blinked deeply. "Thank you for explaining, Ikari."

"Um," said Shinji, who didn't really feel that he had explained anything – at least not well. He rubbed the back of his neck. "Well, I guess it's better if we all try to get on, right?"

The girl nodded seriously. "That is what Representative Ikari said," she said. "So I will be her friend if she wants me to be."

The dark-haired boy tapped his fingers against the wall, supressing the flicker of irritation at her casual mention of the quasi-parental role her father seemed to play for her. And… well, he probably owed her to say this. "Rei," he began, "if you don't feel… that is, don't feel too pressured by my… into spending time around Asuka if you don't actually like her. She'll try to push you around and… well…" he trailed off. "I'm sure she'll have plenty of friends so there's no need to make yourself suffer."

He felt terrible under that cold gaze. "Ikari," Rei Ayanami said. "Do not say such things."


~'/|\'~


Shoulders slumped, a pout locked on her face, the redheaded girl stomped her way up the stairs. Her fingers played out a flat beat against the inner handrail. She was late and her locker wasn't working and the teacher was probably going to be disapproving at her because of something that wasn't her fault and she'd have to face dumb questions like 'Did you try calling the IT help desk?' and 'Did you try rubbing the card against your jacket?' as if she hadn't done both and… she huffed.

Behind her, she could hear the clatter of heels against the falsewood floor, accompanied by a muttered sequence of words in Nazzadi. From the tone, Asuka strongly suspected it was swearing, but she barely spoke a word of that language. It just refused to register in her brain, compared to the speed at which she had picked up other languages. It was her one self-admitted flaw, even if that self-admission usually was accompanied by comments about how it all sounded the same and how the entire language was obsessed with using overly long words for simple concepts. And as someone who spoke German, that was saying something.

The heels slowed and matched pace with Asuka's feet. "Oh, it's you," a mildly accented voice said, with a distinct current of interest. "Asuka, wasn't it? Shinji's friend."

The Second Child tensed, gritting her teeth. "Not exactly," she said, turning to face the nazzady with the short-cropped, puckish black hair streaked with red. "I just happen to…" 'live with him' wouldn't sound right "… be staying at the same place as him." She tried to recall a name, and failed. "Who're you? I've been introduced to so many people over the last few days that…"

The shorter girl shrugged expansively. "No biggie," she said. "Taly," she said, by way of introduction. There was a slightly hungry look in her eyes that Asuka missed entirely as she added, "And from what I've heard, you're down on the same 'environmental studies' thing as Shinji Ikari and Rei Ayanami, right?"

Asuka couldn't help but smirk. "We're on the same Social Work Programme, you mean?" she said, innocently. "Of course, they're… how to put it, slow learners. I'm much better than either of them."

"Oh, really?" the nazzady said, leaning in. "I mean, I got a bit of what it involves down there from things that I've picked up, and a bit more from talking with Kensuke…"

"Wait, people willingly talk to him?" the red-blonde girl asked incredulously. "As in, people of the female persuasion?"

Taly scowled. "Oh, great. Yes, let's make fun of that." She flapped a hand. "Oh, I'm just having a horrible day. Don't mind if I'm snappy."

The two of them emerged from the stairwell, heading past a second year class wall presentation on habitat domes. "Me too," Asuka said. "I'm running late, and my card isn't working with my locker, so everything I left there is stuck there and the useless help desk isn't helping because they said it's all working properly. On my second day, no less."

"Have you checked you were in the right number block?" the nazzady with dyed red streaks in her hair asked. "There's more than one."

Asuka went slightly pink, and scowled. "There are two blocks?"

"Yeah," Taly said. "It's B down there," she said, thumbing down the stairs. "More than two, actually. Each has its own number count going from 000 to… something."

Blue Eyes narrowed. "And they don't think to number the two blocks differently," Asuka said flatly. "Oh, wonderful."

The other girl shrugged. "There's four bits. And there's a big letter outside." She snorted. "Yeah, it's dumb. You have to wonder, how much effort would it have been to print the letters on the doors?"

"The world is a very stupid place," Asuka said.

"That about sums it up," Taly agreed. She snarled, slapping the wall. "You know what? I'll totally have an okay excuse for being late if I show you to your locker now, rather than them being dumb about my actually okay other excuse."

"Oh?" asked Asuka, as they clattered down the stairs again, heading in the other direction.

"My dad's girlfriend," the contempt was rich in Taly's voice, "who's only around because she's a kredoneyi sulushiliky who's just happened to settle on him rather than anyone else with the least bit of money… well, that blonde cow was yelling at me again this morning so I left early and managed to get almost caught in the lockdown they've got down around Westemere Dome. So I had to detour around that and then got stopped by the way they'd shut down the section of the Second Circle line and…" she sniffed, "well, more raids on nazzadi slum housing, is it at all surprising? Of course paranoid old anfrazzadi go and arrest us whenever anything at all happens." She caught the slightly bemused look in Asuka's eyes. "Oh, never mind me," Taly said bitterly. "I'm just in a bad mood and all the raids piss me off further. It's never rich human areas which get entire domes locked down just so they can raid a single house, is it?"


~'/|\'~


Protocol was quite clear of the order of events to be carried out in such a containment raid.

The first step was to feed all Grid interfacing devices for the target area into a designated watch micromanaged by spook LAIs. Then the spooks got to work in their dumb way, grabbing data feeds from everywhere and everything. Omnipresent security cameras the size of pinholes tracked and monitored every face on the streets. House LAI systems were overridden and the locations and identities of the dwellers noted. The veil of privacy permitted to its citizens by the New Earth Government was torn away completely.

Only then did the barriers come down and the dome end up sealed off from the outside world. Only then did the crowd suppression drones get released from the transports, ready to incapacitate anyone interfering with the raid. Only then did the SP-armoured troopers with their gene-spliced animals silently make their way through doors and drag suspects off to the vans which reverted to their normal blue and white colours after the targets were acquired.

"Fairly clean, this one," remarked one of the handlers to Captain Joyeuse, voice made mechanical by the sealed armour. "Folded at the sight of Bruna, here."

"Yes," the GIA woman said. It was a fairly common response; most people who were half-way sane either froze up or tried to run when faced with something which combined the worst aspects of wolf and tiger, and which weighed a quarter of a tonne even before the armour and the enhancements came into play. "A few tried to resist arrest in number 287, but none of them put up any real fight." She jerked her head over towards where a half-conscious woman in a butter-stained dressing gown was being dragged out, bleeding from the face.

"Kinda wish they didn't do these breakfast time raids," the handler said, patting an armoured hand against the armoured head of the wired-up creature she controlled. "It makes it so hard to tell if someone's going for a knife or cutting bread, and I always feel a little guilty about it."

"Eh," the senior officer said. She looked around the brightly painted tightly packed apartment housing, lips under her helmet curling up slightly at some of the half-conscious black-skinned individuals being dragged out. "Frankly, I'm more bothered that this is another damn thing we have to do. This should be local ArcSec stuff with maybe a single OIS or FSB agent on site. I'm meant to be handling real problems, not people who are…" she shrugged, "… well, low level arcane subversives, maybe even only dissidents. We should be up in Stoneleigh, at that actual hint of a summoning the Bravo team found, not loaned out as drudgery here."

"Captain…"

"I know, I know, C2 was a big thing and they're cracking down on everything." Ori Joyeuse glared from behind her faceless mask at some of the onlookers who were poking their heads out of doors or from the end of the street. Making a disgusted noise, she opened a communications channel to the crowd control drone operators. "And Rob… we've got peekers. Give them their one warning, and if they don't go inside, give them a burst of the microwave."


~'/|\'~


The erratic, near-random walk of the Physical Education lessons through the timetable had bought them to Friday afternoon this week, which was widely agreed to be a good scenario. For one, it meant that it did not sneak up early in the week accompanied with detentions for lack of kit, and for two it meant there was no need to get changed back into their uniforms.

Or at least the boys, who were busy getting muddy on the football pitch could get away with going home like that. The girls who were still on swimming in the cycle were denied that option.

In matching mid-blue swimming costumes, under the watchful eyes of swimming instructors, the teenagers finished their warm-up exercises. Then;

"Soryu," a slightly overweight teacher said, checking the screen held in her hand, "you'll be in the Greens." She tapped the screen, and the smart fabric of the swimming costumes shifted, separating the girls into three colour-groups. "The Yellows are still down one, but it should equal things out a bit."

The red-haired girl bit down a comment that actually, whoever had her had a massively advantage, and merely contented herself with checking out the Yellows and Reds, trying to work out who among them would be her chief rivals. She wasn't quite sure what form of contest was involved, but it was sound sense to prepare.

Plus, she had heard that next term the girls were on martial arts, and she wanted to see if there was anyone who even looked like they might be able to give her a good fight. Her eyes flicked over at Rei, who was looking aesthetically unpleasing in her now-red swimming costume which – and Asuka narrowed her eyes – seemed to be rather tight around the chest.

The German girl puffed up her rather more meagre offering. Well, that was one cost for being in such good shape, she supposed. Her own build was more like a taller version of the Nazzadi girls in the year, without fat to spare. And she knew her genotype didn't put on much weight like that until they had children, which she was not going to do – not ever – which meant that she would just have to content herself with being athletic and slender and lacking in the tummies which certain of her other year-mates might have had.

And with that smug thought, she went to introduce herself further to her fellow Greens. She knew some of them on sight already, as they were in her homeroom, but there were other classes here, half the year in total, and she had never even seen most of them. Good impressions were key, and she was certainly going to make them like her.

Within five minutes, she had found the somewhat disappointing truth. The colour assignations were just a way for them to handle the fact that the year had outgrown the pool. There were no serious points-based contests between teams. She certainly wouldn't get to race that tall, sporty-looking Nazzadi from her homeroom who was in Yellow and looked – in those colours – a bit like a very large wasp. And even though one of the girls in Green had looked enthusiastic at her interest, and suggested that she might want to try out for the school team, that was not something which was an option for Asuka. Getting up for training at 6am was something she could have done, but that would have somewhat clashed with her position as a giant-mecha-piloting champion-of-all-panhumanity.

And now she leant against the large glass-faced wall, staring out at the playing fields. The boys seemed to have more fun. They all got to do things. They didn't have a third of people sitting on the sidelines waiting for a go. The girl shot an annoyed glance at the splashing from the pool, as a row of red-clad girls dove in. Part of her was annoyed at the inelegance of some of those dives. The rest of her was annoyed at being splashed, and so she repositioned herself.

A flash of red and white caught her eye, and she raised a reluctantly impressed eye at Rei Ayanami as she climbed out of the other end of the pool a good few seconds in front of the next girl. She honestly hadn't thought the First Child would be that hydrodynamic. The red-blonde girl smiled to herself. Things weren't fun if your rivals couldn't even compete with you. And the two of them would probably end up relying on each other at some point, and the ability to keep practicing at one thing until she was that good spoke well of Rei's ability to focus on a task. With a quiet nod she decided that she would need to take the other girl swimming in the pool down in the Geocity. They could have a proper race there, and she would certainly be able to show Colonel Katsuragi that she was making the best effort to get on with the other girl.

Pleased with herself, Asuka switched her attention back to the other Green girls. And nearly sighed in annoyance. They were actually staring out of the window, judging up the boys in their tight shirts and short – very short – shorts.

The Second Child paused, and shuffled in to join the observation. It would be a chance to learn names. And who knows; there might even be a boy, maybe even two, who might be worth her attention. None of them would be anywhere as attractive as Kaji, of course; they would be callow and inexperienced, none of them able to grow a dashing set of stubble or be so effortlessly handsome in a scruffy shirt. But there might be some who might be worth some watching.

"… actually, I'd say Shinji is pretty cute," a short dark-haired girl remarked, staring at a figure standing around in defence a long way away from the ball. "He's dark, mysterious, and sort of handsome."

"A bit soft… you know, not square-jawed. But have you seen his father… well, of course you have." The Nazzadi girl who had said that nodded, and added, "He's been the VA Man of the Year. He's easy on the eye now, in a sort of asfety-asfetaway; but looking at his dad, he has real potential."

Asuka immediately readjusted her evaluation of her peers' taste downwards.

"If you want handsome, there's always Dathan," an amlaty with blue streaks in her pinned-up hair and swimming goggles on her forehead said; a remark which produced a glare in her direction from a petite nazzady.

"Which one is he?" Asuka asked, making her way into the conversation. "He's… the name's familiar, he's in my homeroom, isn't he?"

The petite Nazzadi nodded, "Yes. Tall, brown-hair… he's playing striker for blue over there, the one with the headband on and…"

"The one who's Jony's boyfriend."

"He is not!" the shorter girl snapped.

"Oh, sure," an unfamiliar girl drawled. "And that's why you trail everywhere after him."

"I don't!" Jony said, her dark skin darkening slightly more. "He just automatically signs me up for anything he wants me to do and…"

"Just leave Jony alone," the class representative of Asuka's homeroom said, her own gaze locked on the playing field. Asuka had eaten lunch with the girl, Hikary, who had been very friendly and who seemed to be quite agreeable. And she hadn't been one of the ones admiring Shinji Ikari, who – for whatever talents he may have had, like a positively freakish synch ratio – was certainly not an attractive man like Kaji, and anyone who claimed that was simply wrong. Which meant that Asuka could still value her opinion as a human being.

"Thanks, Hik," Jony muttered, slumping back down. "Urgh. I think Beatriu has the right idea, getting a medical note to get out of this." The grey-skinned girl paled, and bit back upon a profanity. "Bleargh," Hikary said, slumping forward. "I'd forgotten I had an appointment scheduled for now." There was a twist of bitter annoyance on her expression as she clambered up. "Drat, drat, drat, need to go get changed and hurry. Just have to remember that it'll be worth it in the end.

Asuka's eyebrows rose. "Hmm?" she asked, curiously.

The amlaty grinned despite her expression. "I'm planning to apply for the arcane studies fast-track programme as a pre-degree gap year," she said. "That means that I have to keep on going to the hospital to be poked and stuck in ADE machines to see if I have the consistent strength in arcanoneural patterns for it to be possible. But if I get in... I get my entire degree paid for, and I'll get fast tracked when I apply for the Foundation after uni." She huffed on the glass. "Just wish it wasn't quite so boring. There has to be a more interesting way to do a soul-scan than going and floating in a tube."

There was muttering which sounded almost exactly like 'There's no need to be so smug about it'.

"I do know about that sort of thing, trust me," Asuka said ignoring the muttering, with heartfelt sympathy. "At least in a normal s… well, there aren't many things duller than floating in a transparent tube for thirty minutes."

Hikary rolled her eyes. "You got to do it in a transparent tube," she said. "I'd like that, fancy Ashcroft equipment. The one down there is just grey walls. At least I'm not claustrophobic, that's all I can say." She shook her head. "Look, I've got to go excuse myself and then rush to get changed. I really don't want to be late," she excused herself.

The amlaty's footsteps diminished, dry feet against wet tiles. "Just so you know," one of the girls said to Asuka, "Hikary's sort of nice enough, but she's smug and she's kind of pushy."

Asuka, who saw no real problem with either smugness or pushiness as long as they were justified – as they were whenever she was doing it – shrugged, glancing out the window again. "Hey," she said, changing the conversation, "they're staring at us."

"The boys?" a dark-skinned girl she half-recognised said. "Yes, they do that. You see, while we are superior beings, fit for them only to worship and they do so freely, they are there for us to judge and…"

Any further expansion on the function of panhuman gender roles was silenced by Jony slapping the girl over the back of the head. "Shh, Enu," she told the brown-eyed girl. "Stop being an idiot. And don't encourage them," she added, without looking.


~'/|\'~


Heels clicking against the floor, Misato made her way to Ritsuko's office. Stepping her way around one of the MAGI Operators, she jinked to avoid a trolley pushed by someone in a labcoat and muttered in annoyance. The Director of Operations for the Evangelion Group was headed to liaise with the Director of Science about complicated technical matters which required negotiation and cooperation, and it was merely coincidence that Misato was bored, so was going to bother Rits and see if she was doing anything more interesting.

Some people might have said that the way she had delegated a good fraction of the more menial bits of her work to Captain Martello was the reason she had newfound free time. It certainly was one of the privileges of rank, but as it stood, she was just killing time before her scheduled meeting with Representative Ikari, so would not have been doing anything productive beforehand. That man liked to keep you waiting in his anteroom anyway, so there was no real point in arriving excessively early.

"Maj... I mean, colonel!" She turned at the clatter of shoes behind her just in time to see Lieutenant Ibuki from the Operators manage to trip over the trolley she had herself avoided, and hit the wall in her efforts to remain upright. "Oh... drat," the younger woman managed, as she picked herself up, and one of the technicians snickered.

"Yes?" the older woman could only ask in response.

"Colonel, are you headed to see Dr Akagi?" Maya asked. "I think she's meeting someone at the moment, but I needed to see you anyway and... um. The MAGI have been looking at the remains of Harbinger-5... we're still very back-logged, we have people still diving on Harbinger-4 data, and won't be able to start Harbinger-6 analysis for... well, I'm not sure and..."

"Breathe," the Lt. Colonel ordered her, and the younger woman thankfully gulped down air. Looking around, the black-haired woman noticed an empty office. "Let's do this away from the corridor," she said, "out of peoples' way."

"Oh, very good idea, and... yes." Maya followed Misato into the office, fiddling with a connection lead in her hands. "Okay, right, yes," she said, as the door closed. "Well, firstly, Unit 00 is fully operational and repaired right now, so the efforts have moved onto Unit 01. But… um, Dr Akagi is looking at things to see if she can get things working faster by putting some of the Unit 00 team onto Unit 02 temporarily, and so that's why I need to meet with her and…" Maya trailed off. "But I was talking about the Harbinger data, wasn't I?"

Misato nodded.

"I'm so sorry!" the younger woman apologised. "I've just got off a nine hour MAGI dive so I'm still a bit fried, you know?"

The lieutenant colonel did not know, but she had been advised on the matter, and to her it sounded rather like the uplink phantom feelings she had used to get when she'd been on Hurricanes, before she'd been moved onto Blizzards back in her mecha-jockey days, so she could at least empathise. "It's fine," she said, dismissing it. "Do you need to see a doctor?"

"Nah," Maya said, shaking her head. "I'll be fine after I get some food in me and lie down for a bit. I just need to talk something over with Dr Akagi and then I'm off. And have tomorrow off, too."

The dark-haired woman smiled. "Saturdays are a wonderful thing, aren't they?" she joked. "One of the best things mankind ever came up with.

"It's Saturday tomorrow?" Lieutenant Ibuki said, blinking. "Oh, yes, I suppose it is. I haven't been back home in three days, so I've sort of lost track of days."

Misato stared at her, tilting her head slightly. "Well, in that case, we should probably both go to Rits together. I wouldn't want you to wander off a railing-less high place. Even if there aren't any of them around here," she said, opening the door again as she followed the markers in her Eyes leading her to Ritsuko's office.

"We're off to see the wizard," Maya sang to herself. "Well, the sorcerer-scientist, but that line doesn't scan. Also, Dr Akagi is certainly not a fraud. And I don't think the Geocity is made of emerald."

"If this is leading up to some joke about me having no brain…" Misato said. She paused. No, it almost certainly wasn't, not from this lieutenant. Ritsuko would make that sort of joke – and had – but not from Lieutenant Ibuki.

The younger officer stiffened. "Oh, no," she hastened to reassure her superior officer. "No, not at all! I didn't mean that! It was…"

"Calm down, calm down," the dark-haired woman said, slightly worried. "That was a joke. Nothing more."

"Oh." Maya massaged her neck. "Sorry, like I said, I'm still a bit fried. Well, more than a little fried. And before you worried and… um, I should have explained earlier… fried doesn't mean my brain's cooked or anything, it's just an Operator thing and… um, yes, I'm still babbling."

Misato raised an eyebrow. "You know, you're apologising enough that you sound like Shinji," she said.

The younger woman hugged her arms around herself. "The Third Child does that?" she asked, curiously.

"Shinji does," Misato said. She took a left turn, and scratched her right temple as she peaked in through the wall of Ritsuko's office. "Oh, she's talking with someone already and… oh." The last word was said with dead finality.

"Well, I can just head down to the pods and grab a few hours before I come back and…" began Maya.

"It's not someone who matters," the older woman said through gritted teeth as she glared at the unshaven man standing directly behind Dr Akagi, hands on her shoulders. Pressing her face against the glass, she could pick up most of the conversation.

"… and a woman with a mole in the path of her tears is doomed to unhappiness," she heard Kaji say. "Melancholy and tragedy: alas!"

"Mmm," Ritsuko said, stroking his hand, and making her dark-haired watcher exhale in annoyance on the glass. "You always were a handsome rogue, Ryoji. But there is one reason that your seduction is doomed to as much unhappiness as you claim I will be afflicted by."

"Oh?" the man asked, leaning in closer.

"That would be the scary-and-jealous lady up against the window, you handsome man," Ritsuko said softly, barely at the edge of Misato's eavesdropping. "The scary jealous lady who is allowed to carry firearms. When your doom strikes, Ryoji, try not to bleed everywhere. There's electronic equipment in here which won't react well to blood." She patted his hand. "Try to get Misato to take you outside before she maims you."

Damn. She'd been noticed. "I am not jealous," Misato snapped, the sliding door thwarting her strong desire to slam it open. "And I thought you'd have more taste than to fall for the wiles of that rat, Rits!"

"A rat?" Kaji asked, looking hurt.

"Oh, don't try that expression on me," the black-haired woman hissed at her ex. "You can look innocent, but you're a dirty rat who… who…" she jabbed a finger at Ritsuko, "… oh, no, don't you dare start giggling, Ritsuko! Don't you dare!"

"I'm not," the blonde scientist said indistinctly, from behind a sheaf of suddenly raised print-outs. "I'm researching."

Misato shot her a disgusted glare. "What are you even doing here?" she snapped at Kaji. "I don't see how your brand new conjured-up-out-of-nowhere role means you're here, distracting my Director of Science when you should be out… out there raiding people and interrogating people and doing other things which do not involve you being here!"

"Paperwork hasn't cleared for active duty yet, fully," he said with a shrug. "It's nice to see you again, Katsuragi. I look forwards to a long and fruitful cooperation against extranormal threats. Do you have something important to say to Ritsuko?"

That was a tricky question, like caltrops in her path, because technically speaking, she had only been coming down here to chat to Ritsuko and see if she was doing anything interesting while she waited for her meeting with Representative Ikari. She rallied valiantly, though.

"I was checking on the progress reports for Units 01 and 02. And then consulted with one of the Operators, and… Kaji, you rat, you're getting in the way of actually productive people working!"

He smiled at her, and metaphorically twinkled, which only deepened her irritation. "Oh well," he said, with a half-shrug. "I'll have to catch up with you two later. It'll be just like old times."

"I hope not," Ritsuko said archly. "I still have my original liver, unlike you two, and it won't be able to cope with student-level drinking anymore."

Ryoji Kaji nodded. "A good point, elegantly made," he said. "Then it will be like old times, except we shall be a group of boring responsible adults. And so as befits my role as a boring responsible adult, I will leave you two to your vitally important work." He waved goodbye as he stepped back, stepping past the wide-eyed Maya. "Au revoir, dear ladies."

Misato clenched her fists into balls, and stewed.

"Do you mind?" the blonde said, tartly. "If you're going to rage, please do it outside of my office. I have work to do, and… Maya, is that you? Do you have the latest feeds from the MAGI to go over? I'm sorry, I'm a bit behind today and so haven't had a chance to go over the summary yet, so I might be a bit slow and…"

"Oh, no, no," the younger woman hastened to reassure the scientist. "Trust me, I've only just submitted the summary, so I expected that you wouldn't have had a chance to look over it… and you normally catch up so fast that I can't even notice the difference!"

"Don't let me detain you," Ritsuko raised her eyebrows, at her old friend, who saw herself out.

Cooling her heels in Representative Ikari's anteroom, Misato seethed. Kaji! The cheek showing up like that! And he had to go and get himself permanently placed here, didn't he? It was over between them, and it had been for years. There had been other men for her, and she had no doubt that there would have been other women for him. And… she wasn't the woman he had known. At university, it had been before she had joined the army, before the surgeries and the enhancements and the augmentations. It had been before Beijing-1, and it had been before the Fall of China and the Long Retreat.

She wasn't the same person, and she didn't need someone from her past showing up like that, smiling, looking not much different – a few wrinkles at the edge of the eyes, a trace of grey at the temples – as if things hadn't changed. Even if they had departed on good terms, and they hadn't, everything had changed.

The sound of smart shoes against the marble floor was enough to bring Misato to her feet, hand rising in a half-salute before she caught herself. There was something about Representative Ikari which seemed to bring out that response, even if she as a serving officer wasn't really meant to salute a civilian like him who held no formal military or elected position in the New Earth Government. Even if he was through the morass of her technically-complicated current status the one who was responsible for most of her daily orders and who paid the majority of her wage.

"Katsuragi," the man said, staring at her through arglasses without stopping. "Follow me."

Her shoes clattered as she caught up with him. "What is it, Representative?" she asked. "Are we having the meeting somewhere else or…"

"I'm cancelling it," he interrupted, not even looking at her as his strides ate up the distance towards the lift. "New data from UNITY correlates with other of my sources. Harbinger-7 is either already here, or will be very soon. Prepare Unit 00 and that disposable thing from Project Daeva."

The lieutenant colonel let out a slow breath, her mind already whirring, all thought of Ryoji Kaji binned. "Yes, sir," she said, promptly.

"Less than a week," Gendo Ikari said, more to himself than to the dark-haired military officer behind him. "Less than a week after the last one." Cold blue eyes met Misato, the woman almost stumbling into him when he suddenly stopped. "Katsuragi, we must do better this time. Unit 01 and Unit 02 are still inoperable. There is no room for failure. None at all."


~'/|\'~


In the late evening light, shadows formed and gathered. Like seeping tar, like flowing night they gathered and coalescence. Over gorse and heather they ran, and in their wake was left alteration, mutation and madness.

A susurration sounded over the waters of the north of Scotland, a sound not quite entirely unlike ten thousand flies within an echo chamber, and with each beat of the great noise ripples spread and gathered. Shadows fell upwards like time-reversed rain and noxious puce fumes descended from the clouds which blossomed in stinking necrotic rot.

It was time.

There was a shadow in the world. No. There was not. The world was a shadow. The world was transitory, darkened and all too shallow. And on the shallow world something real, something in this fakery was horrible and ancient and powerful and there. A least appendage, a finger of a god, a hair of a great beast… and it was now present in a world which could not contain it.

If it seemed to be a shadow to others, then that was merely a weakness of the mind, of the limited frame of reference of onlookers.

Howling, screaming, the figure which combined wolf, ape, water-rounded statue and beached whale burst from its darkling shadowed reality-womb, and Harbinger-7 sang its fury to the heavens.


~'/|\'~