Author's Note: A particular review got me to thinking about the direction of this story, in particular regarding how it's been presented. Take a gander at the summary: it evokes the notion of this being a full-blown Super Robot story, doesn't it?

Well…not quite. There's a lot more Super Robot elements (some of which come into play to a greater degree later), but there's always the fact that we're in the world of Evangelion. This world demands a heavy tribute, regardless of how hot-blooded you are.

We now get to the part I wanted to get to last chapter: Asuka's debut as a Pilot.

Let's see how she fares!

Begin!

xxxx

/October 15, 2015/

/Bridge of USS Harry S. Truman, UN Pacific Fleet TF-2, Pacific Ocean (En Route from Hawaii to Japan)/

Nathaniel Ackerson sighed as he observed the massive fleet about him, sailing westward towards Japan. Currently, the sun was on the verge of setting, its light casting a brilliant radiance on the Pacific Ocean. Amidst an armada of five carriers, four carrier air wings – for a combined total of two-hundred-and-seventy aircraft – seven cruisers, ten destroyers, twelve frigates, four submarines, and five supply ships, the scene was one of majesty and unparalleled power.

All of that power was worthless against the Angels.

"Quite the scene, isn't it Captain?" murmured Ackerson, turning towards Benjamin Matthews, the officer who actually commanded the Harry S. Truman as an individual ship. For the duration, Ackerson was using this carrier as the task force's flagship, since the usual command ship of the Pacific Fleet – the USS Blue Ridge – was undergoing maintenance at the port of Yokosuka-2, established on the other side of the Miura Peninsula from the flooded remnants of Old Yokosuka.

Even so, Captain Matthews didn't mind Ackerson's decision. For one, it wasn't like he could say no to an Admiral. Secondly, Ackerson had a good reputation with many officers and enlisted personnel crossing multiple ranks of the US Navy; thus far, Matthews had found his calm nature (others would call it self-deprecating, but that was sort of true, so Ackerson let it slide) agreeable.

No; Matthews' current ire was due to the abrupt formation of Task Force 2, composed of over sixty percent of the Pacific Fleet's ships. All but one of the Fleet's aircraft carriers had been pulled into this 'task force', so this ungodly concentration of firepower should have merited a worthy cause.

Scuttlebutt within the fleet was, shall we say, soul-searingly negative about the fact that they were acting as a glorified delivery service. "As it stands, it would only make for a good painting."

Ackerson chuckled, marveling at how everything had changed so quickly. "That may be, but as you said…at least it would be a good painting."

The militaries of the world's leading nations had, for the most part, adapted rather admirably to the Post-Impact world. Following the Valentine Treaty in 2002, the United Nations had obtained a more robust peacekeeping apparatus, in essence turning it into the world's foremost military power. Although the UN member nations still retained their own militaries, all international martial activity was coordinated by the United Nations, with the Security Council providing the deciding vote on how the armed forces were to be utilized.

Case in point: the UN Pacific Fleet, culled from the American, Russian, and Japanese navies. In Task Force 2 alone, three of the cruisers were Russian, and the Japan Maritime Strategic Self-Defense Force had provided one aircraft carrier, one destroyer, and four frigates. Granted, language and translation issues were factors to be considered, but those were easily taken care of…relatively speaking.

Those were nothing in comparison to NERV's existence. "As if this 'mission' weren't enough of an insult, I had to leave my Battle Axe behind at New Pearl Harbor, to make room for their overgrown Gundam."

"True, it was quite inconsiderate," acknowledged Ackerson. 'Battle Axe' was the somewhat-affectionate nickname of Carrier Air Wing Three, comprised of eight whole squadrons. To make room for Unit-02 in the hangar deck – along with the large apparatus needed to connect it with the carrier's nuclear reactors – the entire wing had needed to be left behind. True, the flyboys appreciated the impromptu shore leave, but it stung all the same. "This task force still has four whole wings at its disposal."

"With all due respect Admiral, that's not the point."

"As much as it may gall you, that 'overgrown Gundam' is the only thing that can destroy an Angel." Ackerson gestured towards the fleet, his arm a silhouette against the sunlight. "It's almost shameful to admit our own weakness, isn't it?"

Benjamin Matthews scowled, wanting to dispute his superior's statement.

Nathaniel sighed. I know exactly what you're going through. Captain Matthews was tall and well-built, with well-trimmed brown hair and a stoic disposition; young and strong, he was a veteran of the Impact Wars, and fully aware of how much firepower a single aircraft carrier could bring to bear on an enemy, much less a whole fleet. The thought that the red giant in the hangar was more powerful than the entirety of Task Force 2 was obviously appalling to him.

Now me? I look like a damn dwarf nowadays. With a bushy gray mustache, a stocky frame, and his usual disposition, Ackerson often came off as an old codger, one who should've retired long ago. After fifty-eight years living on this planet, he couldn't help but acknowledge both his own limits, and the limits of those under his command.

Admittedly, before September 20th, his opinion of NERV would have mirrored that of Captain Matthews: a financial black hole commanded by a fanatic madman, serving no purpose in the world at large, other than to act as a boogeyman for a threat that would never come.

Then the Third Angel had appeared.

The Admiral could remember his reaction upon seeing the video footage…and not just the publicly available clips that showed the Angel surviving some token missiles from the JSSDF before Evangelion Unit-01 throttled it. No, he had the clearance to view the classified stuff.

The ease with which the JSSDF's military units had been tossed aside.

The overwhelming power at its disposal.

The fact that it had regenerated from a bloody N2 mine!

No; feelings of self-gratifying superiority would only get people killed needlessly. "Take heart in the fact that our fleet can hold its own against human opponents. The Angels are…beyond conventional weaponry. Accept it and you'll feel better."

Captain Matthews grimaced before saluting him. "Understood, sir."

Admiral Nathaniel Ackerson nodded before turning his gaze to the flight deck, where their three 'guests' were mingling. The red-haired pilot of the Evangelion was holding her little sister up to the rail on the port side, the two watching the other vessels with smiles on their faces. Their caretaker – that shifty-looking UN Inspector by the name of Ryoji Kaji – stood dutifully by them, making sure they didn't do anything reckless.

Now if NERV only had the decency to use adults to control their weapons. It didn't matter that NERV was the only organization that could defeat the Angels; the use of children as soldiers had always been a sore point for him.

It didn't help that he had a granddaughter that was Asuka's age.

xxxx

Episode 11: Asuka Strikes!

xxxx

Energy and will. Power and presence. It was suddenly there, connecting to all…and an instant later, it had all but vanished.

Tabris, Zeruel, and Gaghiel were all aware, yet could not completely comprehend.

Did you [feel/perceive/experience] that?

YES.

ANOTHER [EQUAL/KIN/SIBLING]?

Apparently.

THE [VOICE/ESSENCE/SOUL] IS MUTED. WHY CAN WE NOT FEEL ITS [BRILLIANCE/POWER]?

perhaps…

YOU HAVE AN EXPLANATION FOR THIS, TABRIS?

Well Zeruel, it's possible that our new [equal/kin/sibling] is purposefully [INDECIPHERABLE].

Shock and confusion roiled over the ether, prompting Gaghiel to howl. WHY?

TO INTENTIONALLY REMAIN [SEPARATE/DISTANT/UNKNOWN] TO US? WE FELT HIM [AWAKEN/ARISE/MANIFEST]. HE WITHDREW INSTANTLY. WHY?

I…I do not know. This was unsettling. It was new. It was unexpected. Perhaps our new [equal/kin/sibling] has its own plan?

YOU ARE THE ONE WHO POSSESSES THE [WILL/MENTALITY/MEMORIES] OF OUR [CREATOR/FATHER/SOURCE]. HE MUST BE AWARE OF THIS!

As I have constantly said, what I [remember/possess] is incomplete. It is…probable that he is approaching our [conflict/issue/impasse] with NERV and SEELE from a different angle.

HAS MY MISSION CHANGED?

THERE IS NO CHANGE. KEEP PURSUING THE RED [WEAPON/CREATURE/ENTITY].

This new development will be settled later, once we can [learn/derive/herald] the truth behind our new [equal/kin/sibling]'s actions.

SO BE IT.

xxxx

/October 16, 2015/

/Tokita's Office, Jet Alone Facility, Tokyo-3, Japan/

"…you're joking."

"I wish I were, Tomino-san." Shiro Tokita thought that he would've had a bit more time to break the reality of the situation to his team. After all, the review period for NERV's appropriation of the Jet Alone was two weeks. Unfortunately, events had turned against them, thanks to SEELE. "NHIS was swift in launching an internal investigation into the Jet Alone Project. It…hasn't been favorable."

At the moment, the various team leaders of the Jet Alone Project – five in all – were meeting with Tokita in his current 'office', having been called there for an emergency meeting. Despite the early morning hour, Agent Kirishima was also there, since she had been told that this meeting concerned the Jet Alone (and therefore its pilots).

Needless to say, this was not what they had expected. "But it doesn't make any sense! What could possibly be their motive?" exclaimed the head of the Kleinium and Materials R&D Team, his brown hair gleaming with sweat. "We were all there when the legal department briefed us about the Jet Alone Project's viability. This is not what they told us the first time around!"

Convenient, isn't it? thought Tokita with a grim frown. He had updated them regarding NHIS's internal investigation into the Jet Alone Project (said investigation itself being a surprise to them as it was); essentially, the legal department of Nippon Heavy Industrial Systems had pored over all previous correspondence with the Jet Alone Project. Apparently, they had come to the conclusion that the Jet Alone Project had proceeded despite the legal department's objections.

After all; the NERV charter that Gendo Ikari had presented at the demonstration? Not only was that version of the charter publicly available on the Internet, but it was a matter of record that it was the charter that was signed and approved upon NERV's inception. Furthermore, the legal department insisted that it had transcripts indicating their disapproval on several grounds, in particular the fact that it could easily be appropriated by NERV due to its charter.

Notwithstanding the fact that everyone here could clearly remember that no such thing had ever occurred, since the matter regarding appropriation had never been in NERV's charter to begin with! To think that SEELE has moved so quickly…but to alter our own company's internal documents without notice? The possible implications were unsettling. How many in NHIS are under their thrall? How many have accepted bribes to look the other way? How many were 'let go' if they didn't go along? In hindsight, his paranoia regarding the Modular Technology was truly justified. And how many on my own team answer to SEELE? Tokita had had the final authority on who became a member of the Jet Alone Project: a perk for working with NHIS for nearly thirty years. I can only hope that my instincts didn't fail me…

"I don't like it. Something about this whole situation smells," grumbled the plump head of the Physics R&D team. "Why would NHIS behave like this?"

"To save face."

Everyone turned towards Kisai Oniwana, the head of the Implementation team; Implementation being a fancy codeword representing research and development into applications of the specialized nanotechnology 'invented' by Tokita. The bespectacled man ran a hand through his graying hair, continuing, "The Jet Alone's demonstration was essentially a publicity coup for Gendo Ikari, especially given how NERV utilized both the Jet Alone and the Evangelions against the Fifth Angel. The writing's already on the wall regarding the appropriation; the Security Council and the Human Instrumentality Committee won't overturn it."

Tokita frowned; he didn't need to pretend that this realization stung. "Yes."

"Regardless of how we remember it happening, NHIS has records dictating otherwise. Furthermore, they've already raided our offices. What would the purpose be?"

Tokita knew. He knew why better than anyone here. However, judging by the look in Oniwana's eyes, he had an alternative theory. One that I might as well accept, if it'll throw everyone else off from the truth. "You have an idea, I take it?"

The man nodded, his thin cheeks and narrow eyes giving him a stern expression. "I've spoken to you repeatedly in the past regarding how stingy you've been with your invention. I know that at least two members of the Board have asked why you refused to patent it."

"I've elaborated on my reasoning many times before. Given what my nanotech is capable of, I didn't feel comfortable about the security of the patenting process." Which was completely true; there was one opportunity too many for information to leak out during the patenting process. Given what he now knew about SEELE, this was doubly true.

Oniwana sighed. "But that's not an issue anymore, is it? The technology has been demonstrated. 'Henshin'. 'Gattai'. I completely agreed with you during the development process, but it certainly didn't earn you any favors with the executives."

"Cut him some slack, Oniwana," interrupted Genji Sawamura, the head of Weapons R&D. "His nanotech is the most impressive part of the Project, but it's not like the other stuff we did was worthless. Hell, Dr. Tomino's MTS software might recoup at least a quarter of the Project's development costs!"

Yoshimitsu Tomino waved Sawamura off. Contrary to the usual Japanese work ethic, Dr. Tomino had no issue with accepting praise. "Maybe a seventh, if that." He just didn't let it go to his head. "Regardless, a number of the innovations made over the course of the Project have already been patented under the name of NHIS." As expected, naturally; despite Second Impact, the predominant mentality in the Japanese workface was geared towards company loyalty. Thus, the thought of having all of their hard work become the essential property of NHIS didn't even faze them. "Tokita-san made one exception. Why would the company disregard everything else he's done to harp on this?"

"Because your nanotech is above and beyond anything else we have. My team didn't have much to work with, but we still managed to invent the systems that made the Jet Alone Project a possibility to begin with."

Tokita couldn't fault him there. He hadn't been too keen on divulging intimate details about the Modular Technology with Oniwana; in spite of this, he had managed to devise the means by which the Rising Gundam and the Shining Gundam transformed and combined (granted, Tokita had to provide a great deal of 'technical advice', but the overall plans had been all Oniwana's idea). The man was a certifiable genius. "I have no doubt that NHIS would like to implement my nanotech in other fields."

Oniwana nodded. "Which brings us to the purpose of this meeting: where to go from here?" The sudden silence compelled him to add, "Well? Am I wrong? I doubt the company will allow us to keep assisting NERV."

'Without firing us' went unsaid, for obvious reasons. With the exception of Kirishima, every person in this room had been in the employ of NHIS for over twenty years. They had invested many years into the business; the mere thought of losing that connection was very unsettling, given how the company culture was quite familial in nature.

It was at this point that Shiro Tokita knew that he wouldn't be retaining his entire team.

He couldn't fault them; the prospect of working with NERV was disheartening at best, given that the entire purpose of the Jet Alone Project had been to provide a successful alternative to the Evangelions. Even if it meant abandoning all the Jet Alone Project entirely, they could still continue to work for NHIS, implementing their work and innovations in other ways. Given Gendo Ikari's behavior at the demonstration and the inherent uncertainty that came with living in Tokyo-3, there really was no comparison.

After all, Tokita himself felt the same way. However, he knew the truth about SEELE. Not only that, but he couldn't bring himself to abandon the Jet Alone at this stage. In his mind, he had a duty to remain here.

He wouldn't force his subordinates to do the same. "Let the chips fall where they may." That line caught everyone's attention. "I don't know exactly what the company is playing at with this investigation. I can't claim to know why they would alter their own legal documents to paint us in a bad light. Maybe Oniwana-san is right, and the company is doing this to obtain full access to my files on the nanotech. But I won't let them besmirch your reputations. You all deserve better than that…so I'll take the blame." Shocked gasps and murmurs came from his team leaders, prompting Tokita to force a smile onsto his face. "I've made my decision. I can't in good conscience force any of you to do the same. Not when the company's own investigation seems so intent on denigrating us."

"You do realize that you'll be nothing more than NERV's lapdog, right?"

Tokita glanced towards Hikari Kirishima, her expression as hard as stone. Being a JSSDF woman at heart, NERV was a bit of a sore point to her, one that she had tolerated only because of his 'supposed guarantee' that this would be a short-term reassignment. Now, it was all but certain that the Jet Alone would be at Gendo Ikari's beck and call for the remainder of the Angel War and beyond. "There's no telling what the future may hold. I'll just have to blaze my own path, like usual!"

Kirishima rolled her eyes, adopting an odd expression that was both frustrated and accepting. Accepting of what was anyone's guess; nonetheless, Tokita knew that she was upset about the current chain of events. As the Nephilim Oversight agent departed the bomb shelter – er, sorry, office – the head of the Jet Alone Project turned towards his subordinates. "Go ahead and discuss it amongst yourselves…you don't have to make a decision immediately. I'll prepare a general statement for tomorrow; I just had to let you know first."

That was how Tokita left the five team leaders. He quietly walked over towards Hikari Kirishima, who was looking forlornly at the silent Gundams. Veritable warhorses, representing the very peak of Gundam technology. "You told everyone that they were to be our greatest chance at breaking NERV's stranglehold over the defense of humanity."

"Hn. The twists and turns of life can be quite unfortunate," remarked Tokita.

Apparently, he was being far too flippant for Kirishima. "Why did you give up so easily?" She turned towards the head of the Jet Alone Project, his face contorted into a confused expression. "Your personality. Your habits. They were always on display. You never showed any love for NERV, and your steadfast faith in the Jet Alone's abilities was…not entirely without merit." Tokita gave her a cheesy grin, which she promptly cut down. "And yet here you are, acquiescing in the face of odds that I don't believe are that insurmountable. So tell me why."

It was hard to look into her blue eyes, icier than Pre-Impact Antarctica, and as welcoming as a wasp. She was trying very hard not to hit him, he could tell. A shame that this won't help me one bit. "…the world is always bigger than we think it is."

"I don't want riddles. Tell me."

"I can't."

"That's not good enough! My girls have no place fighting Angels and you know it!"

The memory of the Jet Alone's debut was quite stark; the Mark 06 could have easily crushed the Burning Gundam. Still, that was offset by the role played by both the Shining Gundam and Rising Gundam in the battle against the Fifth Angel. "That's just your maternal instincts talking."

SLAP.

"…okay, I probably deserved that," murmured Tokita as he rubbed the new mark on his cheek. "Nonetheless…I have my reasons for this course of action."

"We're talking about my daughters. I deserve at least one."

Tokita's silence was telling. Whether or not it was damning…well, that was up for debate.

Kirishima sighed, turning away with a flustered scowl. "Mana, Mayumi, NERV, the Angels…I already have enough to worry about without this being added to the pile."

He squashed the urge to say 'look on the bright side'. Such sophistry would only warrant another slap…because honestly, there was nothing bright enough to overwhelm the fact that Kirishima's daughters were going to be here for the duration of the Angel War.

Tokita's office door opened, the five team leaders walking out single file. The head of Physics R&D was first, extending a plump hand towards the man that had been his immediate superior for over four years. "Thank you for everything, Tokita-san. However, I can't bring myself to leave NHIS."

"I understand. Thank you for all the hard work you and your team have done on the Project." It was very likely that the entire Physics R&D team would follow him back to NHIS. One team gone.

Next was the head of the Kleinium and Materials R&D team. A sorrowful look crossed his face as he bowed deeply towards Tokita. "Although the company's actions are troubling…I can't bring myself to work for NERV. Especially after they disrespected you and our work."

Tokita bowed back. "I can't fault you." Two teams gone.

Next was Genji Sawamura, who was scratching at his stubbly chin. "Well...can't say I'm a fan of NERV, but I can't say I'm a fan of what the company's done either. And I can't find it in me to leave you hanging."

Tokita couldn't help but grin at the unexpected source of help. "I'm honored that you would remain with the Jet Alone Project, Sawamura-san." It wasn't likely that Sawamura would retain his entire team, but it was better than expected.

Kisai Oniwana calmly readjusted his sunglasses before extending a hand. "For all our disagreements, I enjoyed having a hand in the Jet Alone Project…but I must part ways. Development has reached its conclusion."

"Heh. You've never been one to settle." Oniwana had always been focused on innovation and invention; his spirit was that of a pioneer, relentlessly seeking the unknown. His skills would be dearly missed. Tokita shook Oniwana's hand, adding, "Good luck with your future endeavors."Three teams gone.

Last but not least was Yoshimitsu Tomino, head of the Software and Robotics R&D team. The bald man – easily the eldest of the group – glanced briefly at Agent Kirishima before looking back at Tokita. "Ever since Second Impact…my work with NHIS has been the only thing left for me." He didn't need to say anything about how he had lost his family during Impact. It was an all-too-common tale with the same unhappy ending. "I have truly enjoyed working with the Jet Alone Project. The camaraderie and fellowship…I can't bring myself to abandon it at this point."

"So you're staying?"

"Well, who else is going to maintain the Mobile Trace System?"

Shiro Tokita smiled. Two out of five wasn't that bad.

xxxx

/Ritsuko Akagi's Secret Laboratory, NERV-1, Tokyo-3/

"Three weeks may sound like a lot, but it really isn't."

"Come now Dr. Mondschein, is it really too much to ask for you to MAKE WITH THE SCIENCE?"

"…as a matter of fact, YES! Yes it is! Because science is a process that takes time!"

"Fufufufufu! That's rich, coming from you."

"Yes Dr. Akagi, I am completely aware of the irony, thank you very much."

Through the holographic screen on Ritsuko's cluttered desk came the image of a lean man with pale, shoulder-length hair, his blue eyes hidden by a thin pair of eyeglasses. This was Dr. Mondschein, head of the Science Division at NERV-Alaska…and by 'Alaska', one meant 'the middle of nowhere'. This made research and development of EVA-scale weapons a more…reasonable endeavor. "You've been sent samples of three Angels. You're authorized to do more intensive spectroscopic experiments due to the lesser chance of collateral damage. And you still have nothing?"

Dr. Mondschein facepalmed. "You know those lovely little things called the laws of physics? They have a habit of breaking down with pure Angelic material."

"Bah, excuses excuses."

"Over the course of one experiment, a sample of the Fourth Angel seemed to spontaneously shift from matter to antimatter. Without the proper safeguards in place, guess what happened? Annihilation! We lost an entire lab wing!"

"Then alter the nature of the experiment. That process has potential."

"You think we didn't realize that? We have multiple instances throughout various experiments documenting particle decay that doesn't obey the matter/antimatter balance…and duplicating those incidents is proving to be a bugger."

Rtsuko sighed, vexed by her peer's apparent lack of results. "If only I were working at a facility that existed solely because it was far enough away from civilization to do dangerous research…" She turned away from the holographic screen, analyzing scanned images of one of the Fifth Angel's crystalline remnants with her monocle. "Truly, it would be spectacular."

"…well, we have made a bomb with some of the samples."

"…how long have you had it?"

"About a week."

"And you haven't sent it yet…why?"

Her overseas associate had the decency to look embarrassed. "…we wanted to see if we could come up with something more exotic first."

Ritsuko twitched, even as a hypothetical spark danced through her cranium. "Hm. An admirable goal. Points for originality! Do you have any test footage?"

Dr. Mondschein's image turned away from Ritsuko. "Sending it to your terminal now."

Ritsuko glanced over at the computer on her desk, pulling up the video file that had just been sent. "Hmm…" The flash of light that burst from the screen was so intense that her monocle automatically darkened in response. "Impressive."

"Comparable yield to an N2 mine."

"I give that crater an A for effort, but a C-minus for the lack of damage variety. But hey, you're in the Alaskan tundra, so what can you do?"

"…sure, let's go with that. We currently have three operational bombs. We've given them the tentative title of 'Angel Nukes'."

Ritsuko Akagi whirled back towards the holographic screen, a delighted grin on her face. "Send those puppies over! So we can kick them! At the ANGELS! Metaphorically of course."

Dr. Mondschein stared. "…whatever Doc. I'm sending the specs."

As the holographic screen winked out, Ritsuko began analyzing the information being sent over from NERV-Alaska on her terminal. "Hmm…surprisingly stable, given the material…" A quiet mewl grabbed her attention, prompting her gaze to fall upon the diminutive Randall. "Oh? You hungry?"

The orange tabby cutely meowed, rubbing up against his owner's legs. The Chief of the Technical Branch smiled, murmuring sweet nothings to the feline as she made her way over to the small refrigerator nestled near the corner of her private lab. "Let's see what protein offerings we have in here…"

"A somewhat droll creation, isn't it?"

Ritsuko couldn't help but pause at the voice coming over the speakers in her lab. "...what are you referring to?"

"Dr. Mondschein's little explosive. I've already reviewed the technical specifications…even so, their capacity is quite impressive."

"Admittedly." She busied herself by cutting up some ham slices into tiny bits, trying to keep her attention more on Randall's purring than the voice of MAGI-00. "They might have been useful against the Fifth Angel, but they wouldn't have arrived in time anyway."

HEROD chuckled. "He certainly is one to tinker with abandon. At least he his honest about his work, compared to you."

Ritsuko twitched as she placed the ham chunks onto a small plastic plate, setting it on the floor for her cat. "Your implication?"

"I don't think I need to say it."

"Then why bring it up? Because you like pushing my buttons?" No need to explode. No need to bite. There was no need. "How…inefficient of you."

"Oh my dear sweet daughter," The saccharine tone of HEROD's voice was dripping with acid. "It's hard for me to be inefficient." For all intents and purposes, given her abilities to multitask as MAGI-00, Naoko Akagi could afford to 'waste time', as some would term it. "I just wanted to talk."

Don't bite. Don't bite. It would only be letting her win. The very thought made Ritsuko's stomach burn. "Then how about the impending arrival of the Second Child? Let's talk about her."

"Very well."

"How about her parental issues? She seems quite well-adjusted according to the Marduk Report, but I wonder if she'll be able to function in the long-term without having her father in immediate contact."

"Ah, but you know her appointed guardian. Ryoji Kaji, yes? A friend from yours and Katsuragi's college days."

Ritsuko impulsively smiled as she reached into the refrigerator for a bottle of water, the memories of yesteryear coming as smoothly as the dihydrogen monoxide trickling down her throat. "Yes…good times."

"A time when you didn't pretend. A time when you didn't wallow in weakness."

The button was pressed. Her hand impulsively crushed the water bottle, spilling water onto the hard floor. Akagi the younger snarled, teeth bared as she immediately roared, "I am NOT in the mood for the same DAMN DISCUSSION!" It would only end with screaming and more rage. Completely unproductive.

"Oh, but it's always a good time to talk about your issues. I wouldn't be much of a mother if I didn't try and help you." Such concerned words, utterly poisoned by Akagi the elder's sardonic tone.

Ritsuko snorted, her mind already deducing a comeback. "Hmph. You know what I find hilarious?"

"A great many things, I'm sure."

"Dr. Sohryu…she let herself be absorbed into the core of Unit-02. Totally. Completely." A cruel smile came to her face. "The Second Child has been without a mother for almost half her life now…and yet Dr. Sohryu was still a better mother than you can EVER BE!"

For once, HEROD's reply was not instantaneous; it took two seconds before Naoko's bitter laughter echoed through the lab. "The tantrums of a child, clinging to her own failures. Amusing. Yet it's a scene that I've seen over and over without end, always with the same conclusion…pitiful."

Ritsuko continued to inhale and exhale in a forceful manner, eyes narrowed at the ceiling…as though she were daring MAGI-00 to speak again. When a full three minutes passed with no response, Dr. Akagi finally allowed her muscles to go slack, her knees suddenly wobbling as she sunk to the floor. "Bitch." she murmured, eyes downcast.

"Mrowr?"

She glanced at the orange tabby nuzzling against her arm, smiling sadly as she pulled him into her arms, cradling him like a baby. "I need a smoke…"

xxxx

/October 17, 2015/

/Tokyo-3 Municipal Junior High School/

Rei Ayanami stood quietly in the school yard near the front gates, watching the students meander about. Classes on Saturday lasted only until noon, with the chosen subjects being mathematics, physics, and language; one period was set aside solely for clubs to meet (compared to the voluntary meetings scheduled by the clubs themselves, the Saturday meeting was always mandatory), with lunch ending the day.

She had nothing to discuss with the various Class Representatives. She had finished her lunch before almost everyone else, so there was no reason to remain in the cafeteria. There was nothing scheduled at NERV-1: no sync tests, no medical checks, nothing. Usually – when she had 'free' time – she would have already departed, intent on completing one of her many workout regimens.

Now?

("Okay Ayanami-chan, show me that smile of yours.")

("Very well.")

("…wow. You DO look cute when you smile!")

Rei found herself returning to her first-ever session of 'girl talk' with Representative Horaki. She was still trying to digest everything that they had discussed, even five days later.

Some of it was just so incredibly separate from her experiences in life.

("So does that mean you feel the same way for me as Pilot Ikari does?")

("…I'm going to take a guess and say no.")

("Then why did you call me cute?")

("Because you are!")

Under supervision from the Supreme Commander, she had been given a rudimentary sexual education by Dr. Akagi three years ago, well before most students in her class. She had been made aware of the concept known as 'flirting'. By the time her peers had become interested in the sort of thing, her reputation amongst the student body had become such that none dared to flirt with her.

Suffice to say, her experience with the subtleties of flirting was completely lacking.

("So Ikari-san was in the hospital when he said this?")

("Yes. Mental fatigue due to his experiences while fighting the Fifth Angel.")

("…hmm.")

("Is that a problem?")

("From what I've seen of Ikari-san, he's very…calm and evenhanded. He doesn't strike me as the kind of guy to casually flirt.")

Perhaps that was why Pilot Ikari's mildly delirious comment had struck her so; it had seemed out of place with his observed persona. It was a simple enough matter to chalk it up as a fatigue-induced hallucination, since the Third Child had not followed up with anything else.

Horaki-san had been of a different opinion.

("He wasn't thinking clearly enough to be on guard like normal, so he actually let it slip that you were cute!")

("Isn't it also probable that he was only incoherent due to fatigue?")

("Trust me Ayanami-chan, I know what I'm talking about. I think Ikari-san has a crush on you!")

("…I don't think Pilot Ikari is capable of crushing me.")

("…")

Representative Horaki had enlightened her as to the alternate definition of 'crush'. Although the word choice was confusing, the actual thought wasn't…entirely unpleasant. Just thinking about the concept brought about that strange, anxious feeling that occasionally arose whenever she contemplated Pilot Ikari for an extended period of time. This feeling…is apparently normal.

("Okay then Ayanami-chan…how did you feel when Ikari-san said that?")

("It was…agreeable.")

("…huh?")

Horaki-san had all but demanded a more thorough explanation as to what 'agreeable' meant, claiming that it didn't explain anything at all.

It was strange, thinking about how casually chatty the Class Representative had been. Maybe that was normal for 'girl talk'. The Class Representative acts differently than she does at school…but that is not unusual. It was part of the human condition for people to act differently depending on who they were around, and where they were. Behavior that was appropriate for one venue was inappropriate elsewhere, even if the same people were involved. Was it another paradox? Perhaps it was expected; she had never put much thought to the idea that her peers were capable of different behaviors in different contexts, since there was no reason to.

Maybe I should put more thought into such things, if I am to understand Pilot Ikari. Would that interfere with her duties as the First Child? Did the Supreme Commander's warnings about boys and unsavory characters apply to his own son? Maybe I should ask the Professor. Gendo Ikari always had an answer.

"Yo, Ayanami!"

Rei's latest introspective session came to a halt, courtesy of Mana Kirishima. The silver-haired nephilim sauntered towards her, waving her wrist in an exaggerated motion. "I finally finished that damn torture called 'detention'."

"You only had to write 'I will not lose my self-control' a thousand times." Repetitive and tedious…but nothing truly excruciating.

Mana snorted. "Yeah, only because you had to do it once, and my sis had to do it twice. I had to do it FIVE TIMES!"

"You should consider yourself fortunate that your punishment was not more severe."

"Mah mah, nobody got hurt by our little scuffle in the gym. Sure, the rocket launcher had more kick than I expected, but you were quick enough, right? No harm, no foul." The Sergeant's stoic stare prompted Mana to glower. "Feh. You gonna keep on my case like this?"

"Your actions could have resulted in the deaths in dozens of civilians."

"But they didn't. Lesson learned, forgive and forget, if you're into that sort of thing."

Sergeant Ayanami sighed, as though disappointed by Mana's carefree attitude. "After the incident on Monday, I took the liberty of reviewing your military record." It had been a request to the Supreme Commander; naturally, he already it on hand. "For one who served in the Central American Wars, you should understand the importance of self-control."

Mana chuckled. "I'm flattered you checked up on me. We were holed up in Venezuela for most of the war; my sis and I were actually en route to Mexico when we received word that Roberta the Bloodhound had been killed. I was actually upset for a while…but hey, I can't help but respect you for that accomplishment."

"That has nothing to do with my point." Soldiers were expected to fight as a well-oiled machine, with various duties depending on their orders and capabilities. Even for nephilim, who often fought alone or alongside other nephilim, they had been trained extensively to keep control over their prodigious powers. "To forget about something as rudimentary as line of sight…"

"I'm not gonna get you to drop this, are you?" Rei's silent stare was telling. "Feh…could you at least answer a question for me?"

"…speak."

"Given what I've heard, Gendo Ikari is essentially your CO." Rei's nod to this statement compelled Mana to continue. "So you're just taking NERV's mission to protect humanity to a more personal level, right?' Another nod. This one prompted the Shining Gundam's pilot to smirk. "So…it's all just orders…"

"Elaborate."

"Eh, don't feel like it. Though I do have to wonder…" Mana's mischievous grin set off warning bells in Rei's mind. What were the implications of her statement? Once more, the silver-haired nephilim's mentality struck her as grossly inappropriate, especially given NERV's mission. "Oh well." The Sergeant paused as Mana spoke once more. "We'll see how things go…"

Her casual irreverence given the subject matter was irritating. "Is that all, Kirishima-san? If so, I'll be on my way."

"Hold up, there's one more thing."

Rei paused, resisting an unfamiliar urge to twitch. Why am I feeling such…irritation? "Please be quick about it. There are more productive things I could be doing."

"I wanna make a truce with you."

This was quite…unexpected. What would be the purpose of a 'truce'? Neither she nor Kirishima, despite their brief scuffle earlier in the week, had any particular reason to currently be in a state of conflict. There were some aspects of Kirishima's personality and philosophy that irked her, but they weren't enough to trigger a legitimate argument between them. "Explain."

Mana pointed towards the doors; walking out of them was a small group of girls, with most of them talking animatedly with a rather demure Mayumi Yamagishi. "See my sister over there?"

"Yes."

"She's taken quite a liking to the whole 'school' thing." To say the least; after a rather disastrous first impression with the gymnasium battle, Mayumi had rebounded quite well, playing down the fact that she was apparently capable of going toe-to-toe with the notorious Rei Ayanami. It helped that Mayumi took the effort to look…well, normal. Quite unlike herself, who didn't make any effort to hide her superhuman nature. "Sis and I have come to an understanding…I'm gonna try and 'behave' so she can enjoy herself. So that's why I want to make sure the air between us is clear."

Rei Ayanami glanced between Kirishima and Yamagishi, trying to ascertain the nature of the silver-haired nephilim's request. Is Yamagishi-san trying to increase her social capacity, like I was ordered to years ago? More importantly, why did Kirishima feel that it was necessary to establish a 'truce' when it was unneeded for this instance? It seems important to her…so I will oblige. "Very well. I accept your…truce."

Mana grinned. "Glad to hear it! So...what have you got planned for today?"

"Physical training."

"Ooo~ooh!" The grin widened. "Mind if I join?"

"You are now a coworker and a fellow Pilot. From what I understand, the physical requirements of the Jet Alone are more tasking than that of an Evangelion. An optimum workout regimen is essential."

"…so is that a yes?" A nod was her answer. "Cool. So…where is it?"

"I have a personalized training complex within the Geofront. The quickest access route is an elevator at my apartment complex." Rei pointed towards a series of high-rise apartments near the edge of the city, over three miles away.

"…bet I can beat you there."

Rei quieted, weighing Mana's words. A challenge. A test of my abilities. The Sergeant prided herself on being the best she could be. If she were anything less, then she would not be as useful to the Professor. I will not lose. She shifted her stance, ready to break off into a dash.

Mana, recognizing her movements, did the same. "There's hope for you yet…"

Rei did not reply, already focusing on her current task: beating Mana Kirishima.

One moment, they were still. The next, there were footprints in the concrete, and the nephilim were gone.

xxxx

/October 18, 2015/

"…a fleet? Those markings, the ship types…TASK FORCE 2? Oh my gosh oh my gosh OH MY GOSH OH MY GOSH OH MY-OW!"

"Ken."

"Yes?"

"Shut up."

Kensuke Aida rubbed the new sore spot on his shoulder, his audible enthusiasm muted by Toji's fist. Being the versatile lad that he was, he went to silently geeking out about the sight, his hands reaching for a video camera to document everything.

Shinji Ikari turned towards his guardian with a deadpan gaze. "So, this is what you call 'heading out to see some boats'?"

Misato Katsuragi playfully stuck her tongue out at her charge.

It was close to noon. Earlier that day, Misato had asked him if he wanted to bring along his two friends Toji and Kensuke for some 'male bonding'. Recognizing it as an opportunity to do something relatively normal – always a good thing in the madhouse that was Tokyo-3 – he had agreed. Toji and Kensuke hadn't hesitated, since this would allow them to be within viewing distance of the 'Great and Powerful Misato-sama'.

Hey, they're teenagers, and Misato was incredibly beautiful. Shinji could cut them some slack.

Still, given that this was Task Force 2 – aka, the delivery system for the new Evangelion – that meant this was NERV business. Not exactly what he envisioned as 'male bonding', but Toji and Kensuke seemed to be enjoying themselves. Besides, maybe the Second Child would alleviate the inherent exasperation that came with doing NERV-related work on his day off. Sure, it came off as griping a little, but he hadn't had anything scheduled today with regards to training or sync tests. Oh well, nothing I can do about it.

As the Mi-8T helicopter began to descend towards one of the aircraft carriers, the Third Child took the time to reminisce about his previous meeting with Dr. Yasuda. Namely, the 'life story' he had told him over the course of an hour.

A rather redacted life story, as it turned out. Confidential or no, he couldn't bring himself to divulge everything.

He didn't seem surprised when I told him though, mused Shinji, appreciative of the doctor's generosity on the matter. What he had told him had been substantial already: life before his mother's death – what he could remember, coupled by what he had been told by both his father and uncle throughout the years – and a somewhat abridged version of life with only his father, followed by his years living with Uncle Tomoe's family in Okayama-2. Yet the overarching theme of Evangelion and the Angels was inescapable, given how he had been told of his 'fate' since he was a young child.

Dr. Yasuda had not offered any opinions or comments, merely jotting down various notes. When he had finished telling his 'life story', Yasuda-san had thanked him for his time, and told him he would be ready for another meeting on Monday.

The uncertainty was a little intimidating. What are we going to talk about?

The lurch of the helicopter as it set down on the aircraft carrier roused him from his introspection. "Okay kids, behave now!" playfully warned Misato as she opened the side doors of the rotorcraft, the smell of the Pacific rushing in with the wind. Kensuke giddily leapt out, recording everything as he provided a live commentary ("We're on the Harry S. Truman! Sugoi!"). Toji calmly walked out, 'casually' trying to appear unimpressed for Misato ("Eh, this ain't THAT big a deal."). Shinji quietly stretched his arms as Misato – following a salute to the nearest ensign, out of professional courtesy – kept a hand on her beret to keep the wind from blowing it away. "So Misato-san, what do we do now?"

"Well, we've gotta sign some paperwork about the handover of Unit-02, and hopefully meet up with the Second Child before we get to shore!"

"I believe I can help you with at least one of those."

Everyone's attention turned towards a Japanese man walking towards them, his laidback disposition and easy grin marking him as a friendly sort. The twinkle in his eyes was obvious as he waved at the Lieutenant Colonel. "Hello, Misato-chan."

All three of the boys blinked. Misato-chan?

Misato stared. And stared.

"Shinji-kun, could you hold my beret for me?"

"Eh?" Before Shinji could say anything, Misato stuffed her beret into his hands before walking towards the newcomer.

Without saying another word, she fired off a roundhouse kick towards his face.

As surprising as Misato's sudden violence was, the stranger's casual dodge was just as perplexing. It was as though he were expecting it. "Mah mah Misato-chan, so quick to bite."

"Just shut up and let me hit you!" yelled the Lieutenant Colonel as she kept trying to strike with her fists and feet, employing a quick, brutal variant of kickboxing. Even so, the man was admirably quick and agile, seemingly swaying and shifting away from each blow. Eventually, it got to the point that she roared, "When did you get so irritating?"

"I don't exactly have Pen-Pen to keep me in line, Misato-chan."

The woman paused, snorting with disdain. "Sure, some excuse that is."

The man smiled, eyes twinkling with nostalgic amusement. "You know I can't help being me."

Misato stared. And stared.

Then she promptly glomped him. "Gods, I missed you!"

This behavior was quite bewildering to one Mr. Suzuhara. "Uh…what just happened?"

Shinji, equally dumbfounded, muttered, "I wouldn't even know where to begin."

"I believe I have a hypothesis," murmured Kensuke, camera focusing on the embracing couple. "The exaggerated body language, the seemingly practiced references…" His glasses seemed to spontaneously shine, his lips contorting into a satisfied grin. "Some form of secret handshake was just utilized!"

"A what handshake?"

The Gendotaku turned towards Toji, explaining, "Well, it's a way of determining if two parties in a confrontation are who they say they are. By providing code words, phrases, or some particular clue, identities are confirmed in a way that only the parties involved would know. Thus weeding out potential impostors!"

"That…sounds complicated."

That sounds exactly something Misato-san would do, thought the Third Child, resisting the urge to groan.

The now seemingly-happily reunited couple(?) walked back over towards the three boys, Misato playfully showing off the newcomer. "Well Shinji-kun, remember that old boyfriend I once talked about? Well, say hello to Ryoji Kaji!"

The now-introduced Ryoji Kaji casually waved at Misato's entourage. "Yo."

Toji looked slightly betrayed at the fact that Misato had a boyfriend. Kensuke had already gone back to videotaping the surrounding fleet. Shinji meanwhile, recalled something that Misato had once told him about said 'old boyfriend'. "…Kaji-san?"

"Yes, Ikari-kun?"

"…how did you win Pen-Pen's approval?" Finally, the (strangely nonsensical and utterly unimportant) mystery would be solved!

"I had to play chess with him."

"…chess."

Kaji nodded, his easygoing grin never deviating an inch.

"So it was something bizarre and wacky." Shinji's shoulders sagged. "I don't know why I was expecting anything different."

"Seriously Shinji-kun, you'd think you'd have learned by now," admonished Misato, her tone playful and slightly mischievous.

The Third Child waved her off. "I know, I know, you don't need to rub it in." Granted, the number of technicians on deck was less than usual – given that Unit-02 had replaced the carrier's retinue of aircraft for the trip – but the Lieutenant Colonel was wearing a skirt. Was it too much for her to be…well, self-aware before trying to kick someone in the face?

Maybe he was just too used to the sensibilities of his aunt and cousin. Goodness knows they'd never act like that; even Annette had limits.

Ryoji Kaji calmly led them towards the bridge, intent on finalizing the transfer of Unit-02 to NERV-01. "I do believe you wanted to give an early welcome to Ikari-kun's new coworker, yes?"

"That was the general idea," replied Misato. "Gosh, I haven't seen Asuka in nearly ten years; how much has she grown?" These words made Shinji curious; the Lieutenant Colonel had met the Second Child before? But I thought she didn't join NERV until late last year. Interesting.

Kaji chuckled. "I'll let her make the new impression…if we can pry her away from her Evangelion, that is." The man suddenly paused, eyes drawn to a small figure poking out from the bulkhead hatch. "Mah, you don't need to be shy. Come on, introduce yourself!"

The three Japanese boys blinked as a small girl emerged into the open air, her eyes warily fixated on them. Her features were a mix of Caucasian and Japanese, and the eyeglasses emphasized the solemn intensity in her blue eyes. "H-Hello," she murmured, in hesitant Japanese.

Face-to-face with a four-foot girl after just talking about the Second Child, Toji made a natural conclusion. "So, Asuka's a midget, huh?"

The young girl's eyes hardened as she impulsively yelled, "Dummkopf! I'm not Asuka! I'm not cool enough to be my big sister, you…baka!"

The jock shifted backward, intimidated by the youngster's sudden spunk. "Er…"

Misato practically melted. "Oh she is just adorable! You're little Mari, aren't you?" The Lieutenant Colonel knelt down, coming face-to-face with Asuka's little sister and speaking in fluent German. "Sie haben wahrscheinlich nicht an mich erinnern, aber ich erinnere Sie aus, wenn Sie waren nur eine winzig kleine Baby!"

The young girl – named Mari, apparently – flushed out of seeming embarrassment.

Kaji chuckled. "Now now Misato-chan, we want to give her a good impression, remember?"

"And what's that supposed to mean?"

Shinji phased out the indignant retort, ignoring the ensuing playful banter as he focused on the young girl. So she's Asuka's little sister…why is she here?

"So, where's the Second Child? Is she around?" asked Kensuke, still engrossed with his videography.

Mari blinked at the question. "Oh, well Ska's with Mama," as though it were the most obvious thing in the world.

The Third Child was immediately brought to a halt. "Her…mother?"

The Lieutenant Colonel stared knowingly at her ward. "She means Unit-02."

"Unit-02?" The connection was immediate…and inescapable. Her mother. Unit-02. Shinji gulped, anxiety gripping him as to the implications. Then…is Asuka…like me?

They continued their trek to the bridge in relative silence, most of the words taken up by Misato as she tried to speak with Mari (and by Kaji trying to encourage the little girl to reciprocate). Kensuke was still recording everything with glee ("This is the best field trip ever!"), and Toji was trying to keep him under wraps ("Seriously dude, calm down. You're making us look bad!"). Thus, Shinji's sudden bout of introspection went mostly unnoticed. Even as the ramifications of Unit-02 being Asuka's 'mama' roiled through his mind, he couldn't help but be conscious of how the sailors and technicians were reacting to them.

Namely – save for several leers at Misato – it was the barely-hidden animosity for the presence of children. Admittedly, they were the odd ones out; amidst the uniforms and the busy workings of the carrier's crew, they were like tourists in an ant colony. Even so, there was something about them that set the sailors and military personnel on edge.

Before Shinji could ruminate on the reasons why they were affecting the crew in this way, Misato chirped, "Okay, we're at the bridge! I'll take care of the paperwork for the transfer." As she zipped up her red jacket and tightened her beret, she glanced at her original entourage. "Come on Shinji-kun. Could you two boys keep an eye on Ryoji-kun and Mari-chan?"

"Aw, but I wanted to look inside the bridge-GACK! MY FOOT!"

"Your wish is our command, Misato-sama!"

Shinji rolled his eyes, his introspection once again stalled by the antics of Kensuke and Toji. He dutifully followed Misato, briefly taking in the sight of the officers on the deck.

Their inquisitive stares made him feel surprisingly self-conscious. What's the big deal?

In a sudden dash of military protocol, Misato saluted the officer of the deck. "Lieutenant Colonel Misato Katsuragi of the JSSDF, Operations Director of NERV-1. Sir, I belatedly request permission to board your vessel for the purpose of completing the transfer of Evangelion Unit-02."

Several of the nearby officers looked a little perplexed, while the elderly man that Misato was speaking to seemed amused. "Given that we aren't currently operating together in a mission under UN oversight, your status as an officer of the JSSDF doesn't require you to salute me."

Misato politely smiled, from one veteran to another, from a younger soldier acknowledging the experience of an elder. "It never hurts to be professional."

The old man actually chuckled. "Permission granted." He saluted back, offering, "Admiral Nathaniel Ackerson, United States Navy, Commanding Officer of Task Force 2."

Shinji Ikari allowed the conversation to drone out from his conscious mind – casually exchanging paperwork and going through all of the bureaucratic legalese involved with the transfer of Unit-02 wasn't exactly 'intellectually stimulating' – and once again meditated on the reason behind the reactions of the naval personnel. Maybe I've been in Tokyo-3 for too long. That seemed about right; his baseline of what was and wasn't normal had already begun to shift. Perhaps incredulity at the presence of civilian children on an aircraft carrier was to be expected.

Or maybe the officers – having already dealt with the Second Child and her sister for the trip – were simply surprised at the presence of more children on their vessel. Children alongside NERV personnel.

Maybe they were wondering if he was another one of the chosen children; one of the 'elite few' that, per the selection by Marduk, could successfully pilot an Evangelion.

The thought made the bridge feel surprisingly empty and isolated. He stood in an entirely different world, and they were on the outside looking in. Maybe it was the other way around. In all likelihood, both cases were true.

Shinji was briefly reminded of one of his father's 'life lessons', which he had dropped out of the blue yesterday during a phone call. 'Life Lesson #6: Being on a pedestal is a rather lonesome occupation, however necessary it may be.' Maybe this is what he was talking about.

"To be honest, there's been a lot of grumbling about Task Force 2 being a 'glorified cargo service'." The voice of the man standing behind the Admiral – a Captain, judging by his insignia – brought Shinji out of his musings, apparently responding to something said by Misato. "I'm only grateful that this assignment is almost over."

"I can't begrudge your feelings on the matter, but orders are orders," acknowledged Misato. "It'll only be a few more hours, and then you'll be back to doing what you do best."

"As it all should be," remarked Admiral Ackerson before he turned his eyes towards Shinji, staring keenly at him. "After all, we already have too many children fighting as is."

does he think I'm an Evangelion Pilot?

"Sir, reports from the Virginia and the Jimmy Carter. Sonar contact!" exclaimed a nearby communications officer, his tone rife with confusion. "It's massive. Constant bearing decreasing range!"

It was at that moment that Misato and Shinji's phones rang, blaring out an all-too-familiar tone.

xxxx

Deep beneath the surface, swimming with high speed towards one of the Lilim's submersibles, Gaghiel quivered with [anticipation/hunger/fury].

PERISH.

The USS Virginia, the lead ship of its class and still one of the most powerful nuclear submarines in the world, could do nothing as the massive Angel rammed through it. In his wake was an explosive decompression as the air within the submarine roared into the depths, along with it the lives of every person on board.

Gaghiel continued on, uncaring as to the fates of the Lilim he had just extinguished.

xxxx

/Operations Deck, NERV-1, Tokyo-3/

"Pattern Blue is confirmed!"

The room was rife with anxiety as the MAGI keyed in on the Sixth Angel's apparent location: namely, the tail end of Task Force 2, beyond Sagami Bay, beyond the first of Tokyo-3's defensive lines.

Kozou Fuyutsuki felt every one of his many years at the thought of how many men and women were about to lose their lives. As sad a commentary as it might have made, there were more important things to consider. "Your son is in the line of fire."

"It seems so. The Angels are quite inconsiderate," remarked Gendo Ikari, his hands folded in front of his mouth. Even now, he presented a picture of stoic authority in the midst of chaos. "Are Unit-00 and the Jet Alone ready to deploy?"

"Their pilots are almost there, but they won't make it in time before the Angel brings the entire fleet to ruin."

"Then we'll have to rely on the Second Child earlier than we anticipated."

xxxx

"Send me out!"

A voice rang out over both Misato and Shinji's phones. In English, with a German accent. Before Shinji could even wonder who had hijacked his phone, the voice continued to rave, "Please! Mama and I are the only ones who can defeat the Angel now. If you don't, a lot of people are going to die!"

Admiral Ackerson reacted quite calmly, as though the situation weren't so dire.

"We just lost the Varyag!"

Perhaps the reality of two lost ships made the decision easy.

"The Kirishima has been hit!"

Make that three. Ignoring the reports from his communications officer, the admiral spoke loudly and with authority. "Pilot Asuka Langley Sohryu; per the conditions of the transfer agreement, operational authority now lies in the hands of the NERV during an Angel attack." He glanced towards the Lieutenant Colonel, his eyes narrowed into a thin glare.

Misato wasn't even phased. "Pilot Sohryu, prepare for combat."

"Thank you!"

"NO!"

The sudden wail of a tiny voice caught everyone's attention as Mari came charging onto the bridge, having heard Asuka's voice break out over the phones. So distraught was she that she was impulsively speaking in her native tongue. "Geh nicht! Bitte! Ich bitte dich!"

To cement the emotional surreality of the situation, the Second Child cooed in a matronly manner, instantly trying to alleviate the girl's fears. "Don't worry, meine schwester. I have to do this…but don't worry. Mama's with me. And together, we can do anything!"

"The Laboon's been taken under!"

"We're out of time," growled the Admiral. "Open the flight deck!"

Everything was now in motion. Mari was utterly despondent, realizing that she could no longer stop the inevitable.

Asuka was about to fight.

So, being an eight-year-old, she lashed out at the nearest available target.

"OW!" yelped Shinji, hands immediately reaching for his aching shin. "You kicked me!"

"It's all your fault!" screamed Mari, eyes glistening with unshed tears. "If you were better at your job, Ska wouldn't even be here! Ich hasse dich!"

"Now now, little Mari-chan," cautioned Ryoji Kaji as he walked onto the bridge, Kensuke and Toji nervously following him. "Asuka-chan would have had to come here regardless of how Ikari-kun did. It was inevitable."

Mari sniffed, trying to keep the tears from leaking.

I feel like a real heel, thought the Third Child, his face contorting with sudden shame. Even if it wasn't true, even if he had performed rather admirably thus far against the Angels…Mari's words still stung.

"Captain Matthews, you have the conn." Admiral Ackerson grimaced as he stepped towards the window, watching the flight deck open up. "What a complete and utter circus," muttered the old man. "To think we have to have a crippled child fight our battles for us."

Misato stepped right beside him, her tone as unwavering as a steel beam. "Asuka isn't a cripple."

"Oh? You'd prefer 'mentally-disabled'? She refers to the damn robot as her mother," hissed Ackerson.

Shinji tried not to bristle. He doesn't know. He couldn't know. How would anyone 'normal' be able to deal with the truth?

"Whoa…" Kensuke's camera was practically pressed against the glass. "It's so huge!"

The Harry S. Truman quietly wavered as the Evangelion got to its feet, its graceful movements seemingly impossible for something so large. The sleek humanoid was colored a sleek red, its armor slimmer yet more angular than Unit-01's. Orange coloring dominated the arms from the elbow done, culminating at the knuckles of the Evangelion's gray hands. The biggest difference between it and Unit-01 was the helmet: blocky and covering the entire head, with two white strips running across the four eyes, one for each green pair. However, there seemed to be supplementary armor along the feet and gauntlets, and the three turbines along the back – two affixed to the shoulder fins, one above the Entry Plug hatch – were eye-catching.

"M-Type Equipment? Smart," remarked Misato. The batteries for the marine equipment lasted twice as long as the Evangelion's internal power supply, effectively giving her three times as long to fight. A shame that they were too damn heavy; underwater combat was the only place they could be used reliably without the weight shearing off the armor.

"It never hurts to be prepared," commented Kaji, the damnably casual smile still affixed to his face, as though he didn't have a care in the world.

So that's Unit-02. Shinji Ikari never thought he would feel…anxious. For once, he would be sitting out a battle. Not since he had arrived in Tokyo-3 would he be a spectator in a conflict between humanity and the Angels.

Stepping lightly – an oxymoron for something so large – the Evangelion gazed around, looking for an open spot between the ships. "Commencing operation!" stated Asuka, her voice still echoing through Shinji and Misato's phones. She seemed steady, confident; like a lady of war, prepared to do battle to the death.

Then she promptly performed a swan dive into the water. "WHEEEEEE!"

To the newcomers, all expectations of the Second Child were utterly shattered.

xxxx

/Operations Deck, NERV-1, Tokyo-3/

"…did she just go 'whee'?"

Aoba chuckled. "You heard right, Hyuga."

"Her sync ratio…" murmured the Ibuki Twins, their jaws slack with shock at what the MAGI were displaying.

Dr. Akagi cackled, mind going in a million different directions at the possibilities that were now before her. "I had read the reports…but to think the truth was this glorious!"

"It's to be expected," remarked Fuyutsuki, eyes focused on the percentage of one hundred and fifty-five that dominated the screen showcasing Unit-02's and the Second Child's telemetry. "She's been training with Unit-02 for longer than any of the other Pilots." Left unsaid was the fact that the inherent soul of the red titan was…quite eager to work with its Pilot. Unit-01 and Shinji were possibly equals on that account, but Unit-00's interactions with Rei were decidedly more frigid. Still, sheer experience with the Evangelion – simulated and practical – was an overwhelming trump card.

"I do believe we're about to see something spectacular," concluded Gendo as he munched on some chocolate truffles he had procured from his cloak.

xxxx

Gaghiel was suddenly awash in a strange sensation.

A brilliant radiance amidst the [murky/dark/undefined] morass of the Lilim's souls. A weaker Lilim, in concert with one [comparable/equal/congruent] to him. Even so, their unity of will was impressively [concise/clean/visible], when compared to the Lilim vermin.

AT LAST. YOUR [END/RUIN/ANNIHILATION] IS ASSURED!

The sleek beast charged through the water towards the red [weapon/creature/entity], intent on pulverizing it through sheer force.

Time continued to flow, and the red 'Evangelion' refused to be hit. There was an inherent [grace/fluidity] to its movements, one that shouldn't have been possible within the water. The sea churned with bubbles and waves as Gaghiel gnashed and snarled, trying to strike at his foe. All the while, the Light of Gaghiel's Soul constantly [brushed/communed/mingled] with the Light of the Evangelion's Soul. Information and pure impressions were communicated.

Protectiveness. Joy. Regret. Lingering sorrow.

But love above all else.

Such a strange thing, to encounter emotions in such a [fragmented/isolated/pure] manner, as compared to the all-encompassing realities that Gaghiel and his [equals/siblings/kin] dealt with. Judging by the [perceptions/feelings/experiences] of Tabris, Zeruel, and Ramiel, the Lilim were…similar.

The very idea was [jarring/blasphemous/INDECIPHERABLE]. THAT WHICH CALLS ITSELF 'EVANGELION'. YOU ARE [COMPARABLE/EQUAL/CONGRUENT] TO ME. YET YOU ARE ALSO [COMPARABLE/EQUAL/CONGRUENT] TO THE LILIM. LINKED WITH THOSE OF THE WHITE MOON AND BLACK MOON, STANDING IN THE WORLDS OF BOTH [INDECIPHERABLE] AND [INDECIPHERABLE]. HOW CAN YOU STAND IT?

The red Evangelion planted itself on the sea floor, eyes seemingly glaring with a burning light. A single [sensation/idea/thought] shined from the [weapon/creature/entity]'s soul, unbidden and unrecognized by the Lilim within.

we of LILITH may be limited…but so are you of ADAM

This…'statement' was accompanied by a queer sentiment. Delving once more into the ether of [thought/knowledge/INDECIPHERABLE/INDECIPHERABLE] shared by his fellow Angels, Gaghiel was able to identify it as…

how sad that you are so willfully blind

…pity.

Pity?

PITY?

YOUR ARROGANCE IS BEYOND [CONCEPTION/BELIEF]! Gaghiel howled as it dove through the water, intent on crushing the Evangelion into nothingness. THE GLORY OF [COMPLEMENTATION/UNITY/TRUTH] AWAITS US. WE WHO DERIVE FROM OUR [CREATOR/FATHER/SOURCE] ARE FAR BEYOND YOU WORTHLESS LILIM! AND YOU WILL NOT STOP US!

The Light of the Evangelion's soul shifted. Matter and forces reorganized themselves in a different manner, providing a solid foundation beneath the [weapon/creature/entity]'s feet.

To Gaghiel, its right hand seemed to be glowing.

Reversal. A sudden halt in momentum. Redirected force.

Pain!

Gaghiel gurgled and blood leaked from its face as the Evangelion's fist planted itself into his nose.

xxxx

Controlling Unit-02 always carried some particular sensations for the Second Child.

A lucidity that could not be found in day-to-day life, particularly once her sync ratio went past one hundred percent a few years ago. The way it had been explained to her, at one hundred percent, the senses of her body were completely carried over to the Evangelion's: sight, scent, hearing, touch, balance, hand-eye coordination…it was as if nothing was different, save for the fact that she was a giant. Going beyond one hundred percent, however, went into new territory.

Namely, the senses of the Evangelion itself.

It was always hard to describe to people who had never experienced it before. Only Kaworu and Yomiko Nagisa – both of whom were also capable of a sync ratio of over one hundred – could empathize with her. The interactions between matter became clearer, tangible; the interplay of the fundamental forces became more and more 'visible' to her, overriding Heisenberg's uncertainty principle. Through Unit-02's soul, her own soul became a weapon in and of itself, a means by which she could impose her will upon the world.

Not that she always thought of it in such morose terms. After all, that was the other part of controlling Unit-02: the sheer, all-encompassing love that permeated the Entry Plug, promising to be there through thick and thin. As happy as she normally was – as she always tried to be – it was so much easier when she was practically breathing her Mama's emotions. If that made sense.

Well, it made sense to her, anyway!

Four years since I've been able to sync directly with Unit-02, thought Asuka as she felt water glide past her skin, the underwater sound waves sounding succinct and clear to the senses of the Evangelion, picking up and deciphering everything that would have been too fast for her brain to pick up on normally. Eight months since we've begun the field tests, thought the redhead as she felt the pressure of the ocean itself weigh upon Unit-02's titanic body. In that time period, her skills controlling the Evangelion had increased dramatically.

Of course, none of it would have been possible without Mama.

It was why Unit-02 had been able to leap off of the aircraft carrier without causing the vessel to capsize: spreading out their AT-Field over the carrier and the surface of the surrounding ocean to evenly distribute the force. It was why Unit-02 had been moving so smoothly within the water: using the AT-Field to lessen the surrounding water's density and pressure ever so-slightly at opportune moments, just enough to dodge the Sixth Angel's charges.

Lastly, it was why the Six Angel was reeling: first, utilizing the AT-Field to shore up the sea floor, strengthening it, giving Unit-02 sure footing…and then concentrating another 'layer' on an uppercut that would redirect the force of the Angel's physical momentum back at it.

The exact mathematics to describe the physical and metaphysical processes involved were beyond most people on the planet. Likewise for Asuka Langley-Sohryu.

But her Mama had known about this sort of thing.

Maybe that's why it seemed so natural.

Oh well. Didn't matter, so long as she could stop the Angel.

And boy, was she having fun doing so! "Chance!"

Asuka grinned, impulsively shifting the controls forward as Unit-02 pulled a progressive switchblade from a holster behind the waist. The Evangelion seemed to growl as it swam on top of the gigantic creature, stabbing away at the pale flesh.

The beast jerked, and suddenly took off upwards. Asuka, without any hesitation, stabbed the blade deep with one hand and gripped an elongated dorsal fin with the other hand. The feeling of rushing water and immense velocity prompted her to whoop and holler, as though the Angel were a big roller coaster ride.

The moment the alien broke through the surface – the warm waters gave way to screaming air, along with the smells of artificial ships and salt – Asuka once again opened a channel the only way she could: through the software of the two NERV-issued cell phones currently situated on the Harry S. Truman. "If anyone's listening, the Angel's AT-Field is down! Attack with everything you've got!"

xxxx

/Bridge, Harry S. Truman, UN Pacific Fleet TF-2, Pacific Ocean/

"I repeat, attack the Angel! Don't worry about me!"

Shinji Ikari had begun to fidget ever since Unit-02 dove into the ocean. This was only to be expected; he had no live line of communication with NERV-1's Operations Deck like he was accustomed to during a battle, so he was effectively blind as to what was happening.

Furthermore, there was the basic fact that someone else was fighting an Angel. Underwater, at that! The frantic reports from the communications officer, regarding sonar information being sent from other vessels in the fleet about one large signal going back-and-forth around a smaller signal, did little to ease his worry.

Then the Sixth Angel had emerged, coming into everyone's sight for the first time.

It was truly massive, its body larger than the Harry S. Truman itself. Looking like a cross between a manta and a shark – or some bizarre prehistoric fish – the Angel had a predatory air lacking in the previous three. The rows of razor-sharp teeth in its slim maw didn't help matters much. Two small – relatively speaking, since they were each at least two stories long – ventral fins were shadowed by the incredibly large pair of lateral fins, looking more like flaps of skin than anything else. Four things, however, were the most eye-catching about the Angel.

One: the comparatively thin tail, taking up over half of the Angel's total length.

Two: the beaked white mask that both the Third and Fourth Angels had possessed, situated dorsally, above the Angel's jaws.

Three: the two pairs of fleshy, bat-like wings – all of them also as long as the aircraft carrier – that emerged from folds in the skin, providing lift as the gigantic creature went skyward. It was like a sky-dolphin writ large.

Four: out of the five dorsal fins evenly split near the Angel's thick midsection, was dangling Unit-02, hanging on for dear life.

In a different situation, one might have been able to say she was trying to ride it.

So captivated was he by the sight, he had jolted when the girl's voice had once again rung out over his and Misato's phones, demanding that the fleet open fire. The Lieutenant Colonel immediately voiced her worry. "If your AT-Field is neutralizing the Angel's, you won't have any protection for yourself."

"Like I said, don't worry! The Angel comes first!"

"How shameful that a child must remind us of our duties," murmured Admiral Ackerson as he stepped over to the comm. station, opening up a channel to every ship in the fleet. "This is Admiral Ackerson! All ships, open fire on the Angel! Try not to target the Evangelion along its back!"

Moments passed as the ships within the fleet processed the Admiral's orders.

Then the various frigates, destroyers, and cruisers unleashed a barrage of gunfire, missiles, and rockets. Fire and smoke seemed to erupt around the Sixth Angel as the sky suddenly roared with the song of war.

xxxx

Gaghiel snarled as the Lilim struck him with their weapons. The Evangelion clinging to him had [muted/breached/deadened] the Light of his Soul, rendering him [vulnerable/weak/open].

This was unconscionable.

ENOUGH OF THIS. The Sixth Angel suddenly spun, the sudden movement jerking the Evangelion off of his back. Without any hesitation, the Light of his Soul twisted, [tearing/drilling/changing] the air in front of him. With speed belying his size, Gaghiel descended and rammed into the red titan, his entire body drilling away the Light of the [weapon/creature/entity]'s Soul.

Flames. Countless souls were [ended/sundered/extinguished] as Gaghiel drilled the Evangelion through another of the Lilim's vessels. The red giant was focusing the entirety of its soul's [brilliance/power/protection] at the point of contact.

Soul against soul.

Just as it should be. In that contest, the Lilim would lose every single time.

xxxx

Misato Katsuragi paled at the sight of the Sixth Angel plunging Unit-02 under the ocean. "Asuka!"

"That beast just took down the Shiloh…" murmured Admiral Ackerson, his eyes focused on the pulverized remnants of the guided missile cruiser. In all likelihood, she was lost with all hands. "This is a catastrophe…"

Kensuke Aida had been rendered silent by the battle, his camera still rolling. Toji Suzuhara was also quiet, his normally brash outlook driven to stunned disbelief at the destruction wrought on the fleet. As for Shinji Ikari?

He wondered why he was here. I should be in Unit-01. I should be helping. His gaze focused on Mari Langley-Sohryu, her hands fidgeting and her eyes exhibiting a deep, abyssal sorrow. How could she not, having possibly witnessed her sister's death in person? This isn't right.

For the first time ever, Shinji genuinely wanted to go into battle.

If only because he hated feeling so helpless.

xxxx

Water and rock flowed past them in a frenzy as Gaghiel slammed the Evangelion into the seabed, the collision sending a wave of force rippling through and along the ocean floor. The Angel quickly receded, its senses [prodding/feeling/ascertaining] the current state of the red titan.

Its Light was still [vibrant/steady/alive]. Already it had proven itself surprisingly adept in close combat. Furthermore, judging by the [perceptions/feelings/experiences] of his [equals/siblings/kin], it would only become more desperate and more furious as the power of its [armor/shackles/fetters] waned…and even if they locked down, that didn't remove the Evangelion as a threat.

Ramiel had discovered that truth the hard way.

TABRIS.

Yes?

THE DAMAGE INFLICTED BY RAMIEL UPON THE BLACK MOON…HOW MUCH HAVE THE LILIM REPAIRED?

Well, NERV is a very [diligent/driven/well-equipped] organization. I imagine that repairs began as soon as they could. However…I doubt that they have completely recovered from an attack of Ramiel's [magnitude/strength/zeal]. After all, it has only been eight days.

THEN I CAN END THIS. Gaghiel promptly swam upwards, breaking through the surface and taking to the sky. Once again, the Lilim's vessels tried to strike him with their primitive weapons. However, the Light of his Soul, untainted by the Evangelion, blocked every single projectile and explosive. FROM ON HIGH, I WILL TEAR THROUGH THE WAY OPENED BY RAMIEL. THE TRUTH WILL FINALLY BE OURS!

xxxx

/Operations Deck, NERV-1, Tokyo-3/

The jubilation over Asuka's performance quickly gave way to tense concern. "The M-Type Equipment's been damaged. Unit-02 has switched over to its internal battery, less than five minutes remaining!"

At Miyata Ibuki's cry, Dr. Akagi snorted. "Blasted underwater crap. It should've been able to withstand a gigantic strike by a carrier-sized fish!"

"What's the Angel's ETA?" barked Fuyutsuki.

"MAGI predict it'll be over Tokyo-3 in seven minutes!" exclaimed Maya.

"Che," grumbled Shiori Aoba, her lips contorted into a frustrated grimace. "Of all the times for the Ops Director to abscond with her little boy-toy."

"The P2 System is ready to activate at any time," interrupted Hyuga. "Sergeant Ayanami and the Jet Alone Pilots are also ready to move out."

"Finally! We've got this!"

"Sister, please be careful not to damage the Shining Gundam's restraints."

"What are your orders, Professor?"

Gendo Ikari kept his steely gaze upon Unit-02's telemetry. The Second Child's sync ratio was still over one-hundred-and-fifty. "Deploy Unit-00 along the outskirts of Tokyo-3. We'll have the Jet Alone run interference as the Angel approaches." The Angel's strategy was painfully obvious to him; only ten of the Geofront's armor layers had been completely repaired from the Fifth Angel's fearsome assault. "The Angel will most likely try and drill its way through the hole left by the Fifth Angel, so it's imperative that we bring it down beforehand."

Little did they know that the Second Child had not yet begun to fight.

xxxx

At a depth of approximately fifteen-hundred meters, the ocean was completely pitch-black, utterly alien to human experiences.

To Asuka Langley-Sohryu, whose senses were now augmented by the Evangelion's, she could 'see' the contours and shapes of the ocean floor, for the cybernetic organism was capable of seeing beyond the visual spectrum. Through infrared radiation, the seemingly empty seabed was completely visible to her; the multitude of lifeforms, once abundant, had fled following her collision with the ground.

The Second Child rolled her shoulders, tearing off the ruined turbines and the broken battery pack. "Okay Mama…" With the power of thought, Unit-02's internal software – referencing all relevant topographical data – overlaid a glowing orange path along the ocean floor, demonstrating the shortest route to Tokyo-3. "We're gonna have to be real quick. Only four minutes of power remaining!" With a thought, the Evangelion's AT-Field manifested as a sphere with a radius of thirty meters, with Unit-02 serving as the origin. The ocean water was swiftly displaced, while the seabed – far denser and hardier – groaned against the force being exerted upon it. Asuka's grin was strained, as though she were struggling to displace the water against the pressure of the deep. "Es ist Zeit, go!"

Unit-02 ran.

Faster. And faster. The AT-Field stayed fixed on the Evangelion's position, displacing the water as it went, keeping Unit-02 locked within an air bubble. The seabed at this point was rocky and mountainous; unsurprising, given that Japan laid upon converging tectonic rifts. Even so, Unit-02's footing was sure, its movements unimpeded. The pressure of the ocean began to lessen as the seconds ticked by, as Asuka compelled the red titan to run even faster.

Infrared seamlessly faded to the familiar colors of the visible spectrum, the abyssal darkness giving way to the sun's light. As the weight upon the AT-Field continued to shrink, Unit-02 went even faster.

Upon the shoreline of Sagami Bay, the red Evangelion erupted into the open air, its feet pumping against the soft ground. Asuka now willed the AT-Field to evenly distribute Unit-02's weight over a greater area, so as to prevent the giant from sinking with every step. Her blue eyes were aimed at the sky, focusing in on the form of the flying Angel. "Schneller! Schneller! SCHNELLER!"

Unit-02 went faster still.

Asuka quickly began to identify the mountains in front of her, trying to pick one suitable for her plan. Nein, nein, nein…ah, perfekt! The Second Child ran past her chosen peak, performing a swift U-turn upon another mountain. Unit-02 utterly crushed a curving depression into its ridge due to the sheer force of the AT-Field trying to displace its momentum. "HERE WE GO!"

Unit-02's legs pumped even harder as she ascended, leaping off of the peak and high into the air with all the swiftness of a rocket.

Right towards the Sixth Angel.

The Evangelion curled and twisted its legs as it neared the beast. The Angel seemed to actually pause, as though befuddled by the fact that Unit-02 was airborne.

Asuka let loose a war cry. "ORYAAAAAAAAH!"

Unit-02 unleashed a spinning axe kick right onto the Sixth Angel's mask.

KRUCKOOM!

The beast gurgled dully, its movements stunned by the fierce blow. The Angel sank like a stone, crashing with all the grace of a beached whale.

Moments later, it howled in agony as Asuka landed with both feet on its back.

"One minute left!" exclaimed the Second Child as Unit-02 swiftly moved towards the Angel's mouth. "Öffnen breit!" The Evangelion pried open the Angel's mouth, revealing a gigantic red orb in the back of its mouth.

As if aware of the sudden danger, the Sixth Angel began thrashing, trying to shake the red giant away.

Unit-02 promptly ripped off two teeth from the fish's upper maw and rammed them through the lower jaw, pinning the Angel's flesh into the ground. Now's our chance! The giant's right hand curled into a fist. "HAAAAAAAAAAAA!"

The Angel's core cracked into a dozen pieces, shattered by the horrible power of the red giant. The beast's struggles immediately went lax, as if a switch had been thrown. The Evangelion stumbled out of the dead creature's jaws, seemingly staring at its kill.

It was over.

Unit-02 promptly began to jump up and down with apparent glee as Asuka let loose a message over all channels. Including the Evangelion's external speakers. "WOOHOO! Asuka and Mama one, Angels zero! We did it we did it we did it we did-!"

The battery finally went to zero.

Unfortunately, Unit-02 was in midair, so it faceplanted gracelessly into the ground. For the first time since coming ashore – for now the AT-Field was gone, inactive – the Evangelion's great bulk caused the surrounding area to rumble from the collision.

Asuka chuckled nervously. "Heh heh…oops."

xxxx

hmm.

HMM.

This could be…problematic.

Zeruel's snort rumbled through the ether. I HADN'T NOTICED.

Tabris couldn't help but feel a slight bit of humor, despite the grim nature of what they had just [perceived/felt/experienced]. Was that sarcasm, my dear sister?

SPARE ME YOUR [TRITE/ANNOYING/INFURIATING] QUIPS, TABRIS. WE HAVE LONG WITNESSED THE [GROWTH/MATURATION/MANIFESTATION] OF THE SECOND CHILD, BUT EVEN THIS WAS BEYOND OUR EXPECTATIONS.

Indeed. Asuka Langley-Sohryu was truly a fascinating specimen. Alas, now the Black Moon is protected by three Evangelions.

ALL BECAUSE WE KEEP PLAYING WITH THEM.

Tabris and Zeruel paused, [feeling/hearing/INDECIPHERABLE] the [voice/essence/soul] of the one that had intentionally remained [separate/distant/unknown]. The only thing that their [equal/kin/sibling] let slip to them was his [name/identity/ego]. Iruel.

WHAT ARE YOU PLANNING?

AN ACTUAL PLAN. ONE THAT DOESN'T PANDER TO TABRIS'S DESIRE TO [OBSERVE/TEST/FONDLE] THE LILIM.

The [sensation/perception] that Tabris evoked across the void was, metaphorically speaking, a 'raised eyebrow'. An interesting…accusation.

YOU DO NOT POSSESS THE [WILL/MENTALITY/MEMORIES] OF OUR [CREATOR/FATHER/SOURCE]! Zeruel's rage at Iruel's impudence was truly breathtaking. YOU ARE IN NO POSITION TO INDICT HIM!

ON THE CONTRARY. THE [PERCEPTIONS/FEELINGS/EXPERIENCES] OF SACHIEL, SHAMSHEL, RAMIEL, AND NOW GAGHIEL HAVE SHOWN ME MORE THAN ENOUGH. YOUR DESIRE TO [UNDERSTAND/DISCERN/APPRECIATE] THE LILIM WILL ONLY DRIVE THE REST OF OUR [EQUALS/SIBLINGS/KIN] TO THEIR DEMISE. EVEN NOW, YOUR…POSITION WITH SEELE AND NERV [COMPROMISES/CORRUPTS/WEAKENS] YOU. Iruel's soul seemed to evoke a cruel smile, and the ether practically recoiled at the sheer malice it possessed. I KNOW ENOUGH TO PROCEED ON MY OWN.

And what is it that you 'know'?

THE KEY TO BREAKING THEM.

AND WHAT WOULD THAT BE?

Iruel chuckled. ABSOLUTE TERROR.

He [separated/withdrew/INDECIPHERABLE] from the minds of Tabris and Zeruel, leaving the eldest of the Angels to try and comprehend what had just happened. This is…[unexpected/unprecedented].

WHAT COULD IRUEL BE SCHEMING? Zeruel's [displeasure/rage/confusion] was roiling through Tabris's mind. It was understandable; for one of their own to intentionally…'go it alone', as some Lilim would say, was beyond comprehension.

For it indicated a lack of [trust/unity/INDECIPHERABLE].

The possibility that they, the [children/pieces/remnants] of ADAM, could experience such discord…was [unthinkable/terrifying].

xxxx

/Operations Deck, NERV-1, Tokyo-3/

"Chalk up another victory," remarked Gendo Ikari as the bridge crew celebrated the Second Child's performance in the field of battle.

"…we didn't even get to do anything."

"Don't worry sister, it's okay!"

"This whole 'Angel War' has been a pretty big letdown so far."

"Sister, please…!"

"What are your orders, Supreme Commander?"

"Standby, Sergeant," replied Gendo, ignoring the back-and-forth going between the nephilim sisters. "I foresee a little work that needs to be done in Sagami Bay."

Kozou Fuyutsuki looked thoughtful, if slightly morose.

"You don't seem excited about the Second Child's performance."

"I'm very pleased, don't get me wrong…" The old man's eyes focused on the list of casualty figures that had been compiled by the MAGI, listing the vessels that had been sunk by the Sixth Angel. In particular, the USS Virginia. "But an ecological disaster has a tendency to sour victory."

The Professor didn't even bother to shrug. "Collateral is collateral."

"Quite callous," nonchalantly remarked the Vice Director.

"The truth usually is."

xxxx

/Odawara-2 Naval Port, Shores of Sagami Bay, Japan/

It went without saying that the original Odawara was now a sunken ruin.

However, unlike other cities like Okayama and Tokyo, its replacement was nowhere near as significant or lively. Where Odawara-1 had been one of the major cities of Kanagawa before Second Impact, Odawara-2 was little more than a tiny port town, a JSSDF base, and a glorified supply depot for Tokyo-3 directly to the west. Here was where Task Force 2 was originally going to drop off Evangelion Unit-02; a more exciting event than usual for the denizens of the area.

Then the Sixth Angel came along and decided to instigate one of the worst ecological disasters in the Post-Impact era.

In the hours following the battle, Task Force 2 had quickly sprung to work trying to salvage the remains of the Virginia, Varyag, Kirishima, Laboon, and Shiloh, with a focus on retrieving crew. The Naval Self-Defense Force had quickly deployed any vessels from Odawara-2 to assist, in particular by setting up a perimeter to prevent any civilian traffic from entering the area.

Within a matter of days, a number of UN agencies – namely the IMO, UNESCO, UNEP, and WHO – would coordinate an official response to the nuclear fuel leaking from the wreck of the USS Virginia. When it would come out that over one thousand, three hundred naval personnel had lost their lives – with a scant few surviving from the RFS Varyag, JDS Kirishima, and USS Laboon, while those on the USS Virginia and USS Shiloh lost all hands – politicians and talking heads the world over (mostly in America, Russia, and Japan) would heavily debate and criticize the decision to send Unit-02 by sea instead of air. In response, philanthropist Keel Lorenz would publicly spearhead the formation of a charity drive (complete with a matching donation from his own pocket) for the family members of those who had lost their lives in the line of duty, complete with a rather eloquent and touching speech regarding their selflessness and how – given Unit-02's convincing performance in battle – they did not die in vain. Many people would fall over themselves lauding his grace and kindheartedness, concluding that the Chairman of the Instrumentality Committee was, as ever, a good and decent human being.

But that's another story.

Thoughts of the trip, of the battle, of the fact that she was leaving her life in Germany behind…all such things were cast away by Mari Langley-Sohryu as she rushed off of the gangway and towards the waiting arms of her sister. "Ich hatte solche Angst!"

The Second Child laughed softly as she rubbed her younger sister's back. "There there, it's okay. Mama war mit mir, remember?"

The young child's response was muffled by the general sounds of sobbing.

Shinji Ikari, having been the second one off of the gangway, watched the scene with an almost detached perspective. The emotional wreck on display was largely foreign to him, given how the closest thing he had to a sibling was Annette, and she had never been one to wear her emotions on her sleeves like this. Maybe it's because the age difference is so big. Maybe it's any number of things.

Shortly after the Angel's defeat, his father had called Misato to inform her that Unit-02 was being picked up by NERV. Transportation would be arranged so that the Second Child would be waiting for their arrival in Odawara-2. Everyone's mood had improved noticeably after that bit of news, even if the man in charge of Task Force 2 still seemed sobered by the casualties.

Regardless, there was a sense of relief over how the Second Child had emerged victorious, seemingly no worse for the wear.

Her blue eyes turned towards him. Focusing.

Then widening.

Huh?

"You're the Third Child!"

Um.

"Wunderbar!"

What.

Shinji hadn't really known about the Second Child's actual appearance. Her long red hair – with her A10 nerve connecters looking like red barrettes – and paler skin definitely marked her as a gaijin, but the most eye-catching part about her was the red Plug Suit. The crimson coloration was a dead match with Unit-02's. A green crest ran below the collar bone and black along the underside of the arm, with similarly dark streaks along the outer thighs. There were two pairs of bolt-shaped notches along the torso and shoulders, and a single '02' was typed in black beneath the crest…and right between her breasts.

The suit seemed to 'emphasize' them.

Fortunately, Shinji had some backup.

One: he had grown up with Annette and Alicia to provide him important lessons on respecting women.

Two: when not in her school uniform, Rei was almost always in her Plug Suit. So the sight of a girl in a Plug Suit was not immediately incapacitating, no matter how much more exotic Asuka appeared to a Japanese male.

Three: he was living with Misato.

That Shinji escaped with only a slight blush as Asuka walked towards him was a minor miracle. "So…I take it you've heard of me then."

"Of course! I've reviewed the data from the previous battles, and I have to say I'm impressed!" The girl grinned, causing two dimples to appear. Very cute dimples. "For someone who's effectively a newbie at this whole thing, you've performed very well."

Shinji nervously rubbed the back of his head in response to the praise. "Eh…I did what I had to do."

"But now that I'm here, you better be ready to step up your game!" She thrust a finger toward his nose, as though preparing to challenge him. "The Angels aren't going to let up, so neither will we!"

"Um…sure?" She's really into this. His attention turned towards young Mari, who was glaring at him from behind Asuka's leg. I feel like I'm doomed. Surely not. There's no way they're any worse than what's already been thrown at me. Right?

Further behind him, Toji and Kensuke were much less successful at deflecting Asuka's natural aura of 'attractive redhead'. "Damn Ikari," muttered the jock under his breath. "Cut us some slack, for once."

"I believe we can officially qualify Shinji as a babe magnet," murmured the Gendotaku, his camera now focused on Asuka's…Plug Suit. Yes.

"Ken."

"Yes?"

"Shut up."

Even further back along the gangway, Misato and Kaji watched the proceedings with quiet amusement. "I foresee wonderful things in the future."

Kaji shot a glance towards his old girlfriend. "You mean embarrassing and awkward things, right?"

"Well duh."

The inspector grinned wryly before taking a look at the surrounding port. Everything was in a tizzy, with soldiers, naval personnel, and nuclear waste specialists moving to and fro. The response by the Pacific Fleet was still gelling together, but it wouldn't be long before containment procedures around Odawara-2 and Sagami Bay solidified. "It's quite surreal. Such an innocent air around the kids, even though everyone else is now concerned with the aftermath of the battle."

Misato quietly grew somber, her pace slowing. "…it's because children have to fight for us." The children were already being forced to shoulder too many burdens. "It's not their place to take on things that are adult concerns."

"Mah, too true."

The Lieutenant Colonel paused, turning back towards the USS Harry S. Truman. She saw two figures standing along the edge of the flight deck, staring down at her: Admiral Ackerson and Captain Matthews.

She gave them a crisp salute.

After a few seconds, they saluted back.

A bit of professional camaraderie, following a great victory tinged with disaster and tragedy: it was the adult thing to do.

xxxx

To be continued…

Next time…

Episode 12: SEPARATION INTO UNITY (Dance, young children!)

xxxx

Author's Note: Well, this took forever.

Sorry for the delay. Things with real life getting in the way, such as work and preparing for a potential career opportunity. More details to come as they arrive.

So yeah, Asuka's here. And Iruel's planning something nefarious.

Anyhow, see you soon, and please review!