My back slammed into the wall, but I was too exhausted to notice. Or was it the adrenaline that kept it from hurting too badly? Maybe I was just numb to it all by that point. It could've been anything, really.

It wouldn't have changed the fact that everything had gone so wrong, so quickly.

"We can't be here too long," a girl's quiet voice stated. I slowly turned my head to look at the pig-tailed figure who was doing her best to peer outside the window without being visible. Her voice was the only sound in the stillness, save for the distant pattering of gunfire and thrums of explosions. Occasionally there would be a shockwave that echoed across the landscape, a single dull note of something massive impacting.

I hope Rei is okay.

"I know," I breathed, the act alone making my chest ache. I felt like we'd been running forever. "But we can't afford to push ourselves too hard, otherwise we won't be able to help when we get to Tokyo-3."

Hikari's gaze never moved from the window, but her sigh made it clear to me just how she was feeling: exhausted, frustrated, and more than a little scared. "Yeah. Yeah, you're right."

She was still in that yellow one-piece, just like I was still in my swimsuit. I felt like I might as well have been naked, and I was sure she felt the same way. It was hardly practical clothing for being in a goddamn warzone.

"Hikari," I whispered, not intentionally but because I simply lacked the strength to speak louder.

She looked at me, brown eyes boring into mine, and a little piece of me died. This girl doesn't belong on the battlefield.

"We'll hear them before we see them," I told her, not bothering to clarify what I was referring to. "You might as well sit down and rest, at least until Asuka's done. We haven't seen any of signs of the Angels since we got here, and the fighting sounds like it's further back the way we came. Please, relax."

She shook her head, frayed pigtails swinging behind her. Why did a fourteen-year-old girl have to look so haggard? "If I sit down, I feel like I won't get back up." Hikari looked back outside. "I might as well do something useful if I'm going to be standing."

I frowned, but understood. Hell, I wasn't sure if I'd have the energy or will to stand once we had to move again. I took a deep breath and rested my head onto the cabinet next to me. The hard wood was oddly comforting, or perhaps I was just too thankful for a place to rest my head to care.

The house we'd chosen to hide in was empty of people when we found it, just like the rest. I was amazed at how quickly everyone had abandoned the area once word of the invasion had spread, but I'd be lying if I said it wasn't a little disturbing to keep finding empty home after empty home. There were obvious signs of a hasty and haphazard departure, with tossed papers and other miscellaneous objects strewn about the floor, left where they were. There was still-warm food on the dinner table as well as a coffee machine that was still on.

Frustratingly enough, the landline we'd tried to use to call for a pickup also wasn't working. Without that or our cellphones, we were out on our own.

The sound of footsteps in the hallway heralded the arrival of our third party member, who walked into the kitchen with a slight limp. There were small cuts and bruises smattered across her pale skin, as well as a nasty-looking cut on her left arm, and something was clearly wrong with her left foot. Not that her pride would let her tell us exactly what was wrong, though. She dangled a key ring in her hand, keys clinking as they moved.

"Found 'em, Caesar," Asuka said, moving slowly toward me and trying not to make her limp obvious as she did so. She joined me on the floor, sitting next to me and handing over the keys. "You really think you can drive a car?"

I'd felt guilty about having Asuka search the house without us helping, but she insisted on having us rest while she looked around. Honestly, I figured that she just wanted to have something to do by herself and to say on her feet, so I conceded after a mild protest. Besides, I really hadn't had the energy to put up much of a fight against Asuka, even if she herself was clearly exhausted.

I held the keys in my open palm, looking down at them. I couldn't tell which ones were car keys, but it wouldn't be too hard to test them and find out. That wasn't what I worried about. I'd never driven a car with its driver's seat on the right side before. Hopefully that wouldn't be too big of an issue.

"I think so," I answered, after deeming it would take too much energy to nod my head. "Dad used to let me drive around in empty parking lots back home." That was true enough. "I think I'll be able to handle it."

"Hm," Asuka glanced at me, before sighing and leaning more into the wall. "I'll take your word for it. We should move soon, though." Exhaustion was leaking through her voice.

"Five minutes work?" I asked the both of them. I received two nods in answer, checked the clock on the wall, and then stretched my back. Something popped, but I paid it no heed. "Sounds good."

A couple seconds passed in silence, before Hikari said, "What's your father like?"

"Eh?" The question caught me off-guard. Lazily turning to face her, I asked "Where did that come from?"

Hikari glanced away nervously, which confused me even more. "I don't know, you mentioned him before, and you don't really talk much about your home, so I was just curious…"

Asuka added, "Yeah, she's right. You mentioned something about friends at karaoke, but that's it."

I rubbed at my eyes and looked away, shrugging. "Eh, why would I? The topic never really came up."

"I guess I'm just not used to hearing you talk about yourself," Hikari said, gaze finally turning away from the window to look at me. "You tend to keep things close to the chest."

Why are we talking about this?

"I guess I do," I muttered tonelessly.

I almost shot her down right then and there, but I realized that the girls were only asking about me to keep their minds off of… well, the obvious. Separated from both our friends and bodyguards, with no reliable way of getting back to Tokyo-3, and dangerously close to a fierce battle between the JSDF and a horde of rampaging Angels.

It was amazing we were alive at all, considering, let alone not panicking from how sour things had gotten. Asuka I wasn't too surprised about, perhaps. The girl had been trained to be a soldier since she was out of the crib; it only made sense that she wouldn't curl up and cry at the first sign of danger. As for Hikari… maybe living in a city constantly under attack by giant monsters numbed one to such things.

Regardless, there was no harm in talking about my past, so long as I didn't say anything too damning. Besides, maybe talking about home would make me feel better too.

"He was…" I started, unsure of how to answer. How did one describe their father? "He was quiet. He only spoke when he had something to say, ya know? Um… very kind. He was always understanding, although there were times where he'd get easily frustrated."

I could imagine him so easily, sitting at his desk and programming software on his desktop, or transferring old photos, or copying DVDs he got from the library. Heck, I was pretty sure he spent more time copying movies than actually watching them. He'd be there wearing his Blackhawks hat, bland grey shirt and pajama pants, then I'd walk into the den and he'd turn to look at me, a small smile crossing his face, and ask me…

A warm and wet sensation fell down my cheeks, and I blinked rapidly to clear my vision.

"He was my dad." I whispered, voice cracking. God, I missed him. I missed them all.

Why does this feel so intense now of all times?

Maybe because I couldn't rely on him or my family anymore. I knew with all of my heart that if he were with me now that my dad would've rushed to help me without a second thought. Even if he couldn't physically be there for me, he was just a phone call away to offer comforting words and advice.

"Don't worry, bud," he'd say, a smile in his voice, "Things always work out in the end, don't they?"

Except I'm in the world of Evangelion, and that's not how things work here. At all.

I took a deep breath, trying to calm myself. Those were all facts I'd known since I got to Tokyo-3. Anger briefly surged in me, anger at Hikari and Asuka for asking their stupid questions, anger at the Angels for attacking, anger at myself for letting it all get to me… but I shook my head, clearing away such unhealthy thoughts. Now wasn't the time to let things like that fester.

Hikari had the grace to look uncomfortable, shifting on her feet and looking away. Asuka stared ahead of us, expression blank. Time passed like that for a short while in silence. Finally, Asuka sniffed and pushed herself up, declaring "Let's get moving." My body aching in protest, I nodded and stood up after her. I stretched my arms, legs, and back before following the two girls.

The three of us piled in to the car silently. It was a small car, a sedan with a brand I was unfamiliar with, painted a dull green. I almost had a heart attack when the engine seemed like it was going to fail right when I turned the key, but after a few gut-wrenching seconds it turned on. Asuka claimed shotgun to my left while Hikari took the backseat.

"Isn't… isn't this stealing?" Hikari asked, tone disapproving.

"We're just borrowing it," I answered, turning around to look back as I reversed. "Besides, it's not like we have much choice, and NERV will cover it."

"Hm." Perhaps if we were in any other situation, she would've put up more of a fight. Such as it was, we really didn't have any other choice if we wanted to get back to Tokyo-3.

Backing the car out of the driveway, I drove us northward.

~0~

Chapter 11: Hurricane

Earlier that day.

~0~

Amidst screams and rushing bodies, a hand roughly shoved me into an unmarked black van. The rest of the pilots and our friends were pushed in as well, our bodies forced into a messy pile of tangled limbs. I myself had my legs inexplicably wrapped around Toji's face, my arms caught in Kensuke's, and my face pressed up uncomfortably against the seat.

The passenger door swung open and Aoba slammed into the seat, firing his submachine gun outside as he did. "Go!" he shouted over the harsh rata-tat-tat of his gun, the sound almost rendering me deaf, and the Section-2 agent in the driver's seat obliged. He floored the gas pedal, sending us in the back seat sprawling and tumbling over each other. I couldn't make sense of anything, other than that I must've gotten kicked in the face at least twice.

"Children secured!" Aoba yelled, pressing a hand to his ear. "Moving to Checkpoint B now." He stopped firing as the van swerved. I finally managed to grab a seat, steadying myself and gripping the soft cushion tightly. Screaming could still be heard outside.

"Wait, what about Rei?" Shinji asked, raising his voice over the pained grunts of everyone in the back. Toji was desperately clutching Sakura close to him, to protect her from further harm, Hikari was rubbing her bruised head, while Asuka and Kensuke were trying to look outside, the latter doing so with cracked glasses.

"She was grabbed by her bodyguard detail right when the attack started," Aoba answered without looking back at us, removing his gun's magazine and checking the amount of ammo he had left. He grunted and locked it back into place, apparently having enough left to not merit replacing the magazine yet. "She's headed to Unit 00 right now."

Shinji let out a sigh of relief. "Good. That's… good."

I groaned and rose up from my sprawled position on the floor, rubbing my sore face. I gave Toji and Sakura an once-over to make sure they were okay, but found that Toji unsurprisingly had them both covered. His little sister was tearing up a little bit but didn't seem worse for wear, so I checked on Hikari.

"You alright?" I asked her, scooting over to the vacant seat next to her. The pig-tailed girl looked briefly surprised before nodding slowly.

"I'll be okay…" she answered, sounding unsure "I just… I've never seen one that close before."

"Heh, I wish I could say the same," I told her, putting on a weak smile for some reason. "Although they're usually a lot bigger."

"And there's supposed to be only one at a time." Hikari was staring off into space, brown eyes glossing over, then quickly widening. She stayed silent, however.

I raised an eyebrow at that. "Something up?" I asked. Belatedly, I realized that if it had been just a month ago, I would've let her changed expression slide since I wasn't that close to her then and would've minded my own business. Why was that, I wondered.

Hikari blinked a few times rapidly, then shook her head. "No, just… nothing." From her tone, I doubted that. "Doesn't matter. We need to focus on getting away." She said those last words with forced determination, giving me the impression that she wanted the matter dropped.

"Yeah… right." I allowed it. She probably was just more shaken up by it all then anything. Hell, we all were. Tokyo-3 had been effectively under siege for over two months now, so it wasn't like any of us were strangers to Angel attacks, but… seeing an army of the damn things storming the beach right when we were vulnerable wasn't anything we could have expected. It seemed like Israfel's gambit for winning was an extension of its multiplication power. I should've seen it coming.

At least none of them were as large as an Eva, I felt. I had no idea how we could've handled hundreds of Israfelim that huge. And it looked like they didn't have AT-fields either, since I recalled Aoba and a few Section-2 agents actually scoring hits when the Israfelim attacked. Maybe there was a chance…

I was trying to comfort myself with the thought when Kensuke shouted "Holy crap there's a lot of them down there!"

Knowing I'd regret it, I joined Asuka and Kensuke on the right side of the van, which overlooked the city we had just fled. We were currently driving on the highway along a cliff, east of New Atami, and I hadn't realized until that instant that we were being accompanied by two more nondescript, Section-2-brand black vans. They weren't what Kensuke, and by extension the rest of us, were looking at, however.

An army of Israfelim storming the beach. Each was a miniature copy of the Seventh Angel after Asuka had cut it in half in canon, orange and sporting a three-dotted mask. They were moving slowly, too-long arms that ended in tri-symmetrical claws swaying as they stepped out of the surf. There had to at least be hundreds of the damn things marching inland.

I could only stare helplessly when the Israfelim spotted someone, a man wearing only a swimsuit and tank top that looked like he was in his mid-thirties, and lunged. I couldn't hear his screams, but I could see his open-mouthed terror and agony, since he was facing us, as he was torn apart by dozens of claws. The things moved so fast, it was over in a second. Before his bloody body hit the ground, the Israfelim had moved on, continuing further into New Atami.

Hikari gasped and put a hand over her mouth, tears forming in her eyes. Toji winced and kept his sister's eyes covered. Shinji turned away and stared at his lap. Asuka's eyes hardened, but she kept looking. Kensuke… damn him, he actually looked excited. He stared at the scene of a merciless alien foe massacring civilians and…

Wait, why are they attacking civilians?

I couldn't remember a single instance where an Angel deliberately attacked a human that wasn't a threat. Sure, Zeruel was about to vaporize the bridge crew in canon, but those were people actively trying to stop it and it might have known that. After all, why would the Angels do that? There was no reason for them to waste time and energy on destroying something that wasn't stopping them from uniting with Adam/Lilith. So why was Israfel attacking civilians? The Angels simply weren't malicious; they were just trying to survive, even when Arael had defiled Asuka's mind.

"The hell is the army at, huh?" Toji growled.

"Scrambling," answered Aoba, who was also looking at the beach. "We've got forces moving in now as we speak, but the JSDF is being cautious. No one was anticipating an Angel attack on this level, so we have no idea what to expect. Basically, everyone's scared shitless," he explained surprisingly calmly. "Although, personally I'm more worried about whatever destroyed that boat. That blast was at least as strong as the blasts the Third Angel tossed around. If something like that shows up and is being supported by a goddamn army…"

"Game over, man," I breathed. He was right. I hadn't even thought about that… could there also be Eva-sized Israfelim out there, lurking in the depths?

"Why don't they just bomb the place now?" Asuka asked, still looking outside. "Sending in troops would just make things messier."

"We just saw why!" Toji exclaimed, "There's still people down there!" Next to me, Kensuke nodded.

"They wanna avoid collateral as much as possible," Kensuke mused, doing his best to sound wise. "Besides, doesn't make any sense to kill your own people."

"Hmph," Asuka grunted, moving away from the window and folding her arms. "So long as they get out of the way once I'm in Unit 02," she added haughtily.

I saw Toji's face flush with anger, but before he could say anything something screeched past our van in the opposite direction, a large grey shape bursting through the air towards New Atami that was soon followed by several others. I counted at least a dozen VTOLs flying the way we came, the Rising Sun emblazoned on their sides. Kensuke gazed longingly at the aircraft, practically drooling as the sound of their engines slowly faded away.

Aoba's phone rang, which he answered instantly. "Aoba." His eyes widened when the voice on the other line spoke. "Commander!"

The word snapped through me, and as one we all spun our heads toward the long-haired officer. He shook his head once, face hardening. "Yes sir." He gulped. "Understood." He hung up and took a deep breath before facing us.

"We're splitting up," Aoba started, "Suzuhara, Aida, and Horaki are coming with me to Unit 03's launch site, while Ikari, Sohryu, and Harada will take an airlift straight to Tokyo-3 ASAP."

"Are those Misato's or Father's orders?" Shinji asked, and I couldn't quite place the tone of his words.

"The Commander's," Aoba answered, either missing it or choosing to ignore the subtext. "Katsuragi will defer to his judgment on this. Right now our priority is getting you to your Evas and the civilians out of the way."

The sound of a whining engine came from behind us and a VTOL soon followed, presumably our airlift, cruising alongside our caravan over the edge of the cliff. I was a little surprised to see it flying alone, but perhaps everything else had been diverted to stopping the invasion. By now, we had driven far enough that New Atami was no longer visible, but if I strained my ears I could've sworn I heard the sound of gunfire far in the distance.

"There's your airlift," Aoba said, confirming my suspicions. "Once we get to a decent spot for it to-"

A harsh rush of light and sound overwhelmed my senses, blinding and deafening me. I screamed, or at least I thought I did, and jolts of pain rang from my shoulder as I was slammed against the door. A fiery explosion had burst violently where the VTOL had once been, sending bits of burning metal screaming to the earth.

Our van swerved to avoid the crashing debris, narrowly avoiding the burning hulk of the aircraft's left wing. I thought I heard other voices screaming and crying out, perhaps one that belonged to a little girl, but it was difficult to pick out from the constant ringing in my ears.

With trembling hands, I braced myself on the door I had banged into and took a deep breath.

You're not dead yet.

I looked around to make sure everyone wasn't hurt, which luckily seemed to be the case. There would be a lot of bruises later on, but that was hardly an immediate concern. When I turned my gaze to outside, I saw something that was an immediate concern.

A pale shadow leapt from the wreckage, moving through the flames completely unscathed. With unnerving grace it landed close behind our van and sprinted towards us, moving with a speed on two legs that defied logic. The thing was a grey blur, the only discernible features being its spread out bladelike arms, and the pitch black mask on its chest.

It was nothing like the sluggish Israfelim we'd seen on the beach. Whatever it was… it was on a completely different level.

Okay, you're just cheating now!

"Shit, shit, shit!" Aoba cursed, reaching for the radio with a fumbling hand, the other reaching for his gun. "Airlift has been destroyed, I repeat, airlift has been destroyed! Requesting immediate-"

His voice was cut off by the harsh sounds of gunfire behind us. The Section-2 agents in the van behind us had opened fire on the strange Israfelim, which weaved around the bullets, moving too fast for me to even see properly. It continued its relentless pursuit, disregarding them entirely and sprinting fast enough to almost keep pace with our speeding vehicle.

"What the hell?" I breathed. Just what was that thing?

"Why… why is it acting like that?" Hikari asked nervously.

"Today's just full of surprises," Toji grumbled.

Sakura clutched at his chest, whimpering slightly. "Are we gonna die?"

"Don't worry, sis," Toji said warmly, rubbing her brown hair soothingly. "Big bro's gonna beat up the bad guys, alright?"

"Oh please, you're useless even in an Eva," Asuka sniped, eyes firmly locked on our pursuer. Toji glared at her but didn't yell back, for Sakura's sake alone.

"So cool, so cool," Kensuke muttered to himself, the words filled with a reverence that made me inch away from him. Though to be fair, I also couldn't help but be entranced by the Israfelim chasing us. It was a complete unknown, something I'd never seen before in the show or even considered as a possibility that we'd fight against. The closest comparison I could come up with was Tabris in terms of size and potential power, which… did not bode well, if the two were that similar.

My pondering of its nature stopped abruptly when a bullet struck the creature in the shoulder, blue blood bursting from the wound. The injury had apparently encouraged it to speed things along, as it decided right then to leap forward directly above us. It vanished from sight for a terrifying second before a dull impact rang out from our roof.

"Uh, guys, I think it's-" said someone before a pale spike stabbed through the metal, followed by another. The two blades sliced the entire roof apart, and I could hear screaming as we were briefly showered by sparks and a horrible screeching noise. The metal was wrenched away from the outside, sunlight temporarily illuminating the inside of the vehicle before a sinister, hunched shadow blocked it. The wind howled around the Israfelim, which appeared unperturbed by the rushing air. It lowered a tri-symmetrical claw inside…

"AHHHH!" Aoba hollered, leaning back from between the driver and passenger's seats until he was looking straight up at the Angel and firing point blank at it.

Considering the amount of abuse my ears had gone through up until that point, it was a miracle I could even process the ridiculously loud automatic weapon. Honestly, I would've preferred to have gone deaf, it only to spare myself further pain.

Still, his split-second decision seemed to have saved us, riddling the Israfelim with bullets and causing it to convulse before flopping off of the roof, leaving a trail of blue blood in its wake. Asuka was moving her mouth next to me, which made me think she was speaking, but I couldn't hear anything over the renewed ringing in my ears.

"WHAT WAS THAT?" I shouted at her.

Wreeeeeee was all I could hear in response. Too many things were happening at once and I could scarcely keep track of it all. I saw Aoba panting where he lay, chest heaving and sweat dripping down his face. Toji continued to keep himself wrapped around his little sister, whose tiny arms were desperately clutching his sides. No one seemed hurt, miraculously. I made eye contact with Shinji and gave him a weak smile for a reason that I really didn't know.

The van rounded the corner, finally getting us off the cliff side and moving further inland. There was no sign of the horde of Angels we'd left behind nor the strange Israfelim that had hounded us so doggedly. I let out a breath I hadn't realized I was holding and slowly felt the ringing finally leave my ears.

Just in time for a heavy boom to resound from behind us, followed by something massive blotting out the sun.

I would've groaned at God's apparent decision to take a heaping shit on our luck if I hadn't been screaming in complete and pants-wetting terror when something larger than a truck sent us flying into the air.

~0~

Falling.

I couldn't see anything save for total darkness. Wind was rushing from below me and my limbs flailed helplessly in the air. I frantically spun my head around, trying to get my bearings. Tears forming in my eyes, I screamed for help.

Something answered.

+TRAITOR+

More thunder than voice, great crashing in the distance impossibly formed the word that resounded through the world. I shivered, even though I wasn't cold.

Pale objects slowly materialized in the void around me, opaque triangles gradually gaining form. My eyes widened when I recognized the masks of the Angels that had died so far. They were expressionless, hollow… yet I couldn't shake the feeling of rage and sorrow behind their empty eyes.

I cried out, choking on my words, trying to say something, anything, but…

~0~

"-en! Wa- !"

I groaned, trying to take a breath but finding it almost too painful. Fire crackled around me and I could feel the stifling heat radiating from all sides. I opened my eyes only to feel a harsh sting, making me recoil and wipe away the swiftly-forming tears. The smell of smoke and burning grass itched at my nose. Something was tugging at my arm, trying to drag me… somewhere.

What was going on?

"Oh, thank God!"

I was embraced by someone, her pigtails flopping in my face as she held me tight.

"You're alive," Hikari breathed. I blinked dumbly at her, before it clicked.

Israfelim. Something massive. Flying through the air.

I returned the hug, both put off by the sudden show of affection and thankful for the human contact.

"Yeah, I am," I said, unsure of what else to say. "Are you okay?"

Hikari pulled away, sniffling and wiping her face. Remarkably, she seemed relatively unscathed. How was that even possible?

"I'm… okay," she answered, looking down. "B-but… the others…"

Something twisted in my gut, a cold and wretched feeling that made my mind go blank. Lord, please no…

"Are…" I croaked," Are they…"

"I don't know. You're the f-first person I've…" Hikari sobbed, lip trembling.

Okay, okay, maybe…

"Well, come on then," I said quickly, unwilling to accept what might've happened. More than anything, I just wanted to make sure that Hikari and I weren't the only ones left. "Let's get-"

Upon standing up I regretted it instantly, hissing at the pain that lanced through my back. I almost fell over from the shock, but I grit my teeth and braced myself. I got the feeling that if I sat back down it would've been even more difficult to get up again. Hikari rushed to my side, sliding an arm around my waist to help me up. "Th… thanks," I muttered, taking deep breaths. Dirt and grass scratched at my exposed feet, which was mildly annoying, but I could hardly complain about it considering it was a miracle I was even alive.

"Don't push yourself too hard," Hikari scolded, her tone matronly. I smiled slightly at that, mostly because it was a good sign of her typical self. So long as she was watching out for someone, Hikari could be Hikari.

"I don't think I have the option," I responded, turning around to get a better look of our surroundings. The wreckage of our van was sprawled across a range of hills covered in tall grass that stretched on for miles, although there was what looked like a town peeking up to the north. Fires sputtered around us, but we were far enough from them for now.

But the most disturbing thing was the massive trench carved into the earth to our right, and if I squinted through the smoke I could spot two similar trenches equally separate from one another, all three of which branching from a much larger one at the center. If I'd had a birds-eye view, it very likely would've looked exactly like the footprint of whatever got us into this mess.

Well, shit. I gulped.

"Hikari, how long was I out?" I asked her, voice trembling.

Next to me, she shook her head. "I honestly don't know. I think I was out for some time, too…"

"Shit," I cursed, ignoring the withering gaze Hikari gave me. I looked into the distance around us, searching for whatever giant Israfelim might've left the huge track, but I couldn't find it. Whatever it was, it was long gone. "Okay, we need to…" I took a deep breath.

"Look for the others," Hikari finished, face set in determination.

I nodded. "Yes. But we shouldn't stay here too long. It doesn't look like that big Angel is nearby, but that doesn't mean the smaller ones aren't right behind it." Hikari frowned, and I rushed to explain. "Look, it kills me to just leave like this, especiallysince we don't know about anyone else, but we have to get away as soon as possible."

She nodded. "We can't be the only ones left." I wasn't sure if she was saying that more for her sake or mine.

"Maybe, but we don't have much time," I told her instead as we began to walk through the wreckage. It didn't help that the tall grass made it more difficult to look for things like bodies. "We can look fo-"

I paused, ears perking as they caught a faint noise, like shuffling feet, through the crackling flames. Hikari must've noticed as well, since she began looking around for the source. Thankfully, we didn't have to look too hard until it found us.

"Fancy meeting you guys here," Asuka smirked at us, voice full of bravado and hands at her hips. Unlike Hikari, the redhead wasn't without injuries from the crash; from a quick once-over I spotted a bloody gash on her left arm that had been covered tightly by some cloth, and as she walked toward us she seemed to favor her left leg more. Still, the typical confidence and pride was ever-present as always.

"Asuka!" Hikari cried, leaving my side and almost tackling her friend. Asuka was clearly not expecting such a response, awkwardly returning the hug with her good arm. Without thinking, I joined the two of them, ignoring the pain that lanced up my back as I wrapped my arms around the two of them.

"Are you all right?" I asked her with a smile plastered on my face as we parted.

Asuka recovered quickly from the sudden hug, tossing her hair back and smirking. "Of course I'm all right!" she declared, "Like I'd let something like a car crash get the better of me!"

"… You sure?" I pressed, eyes darting to her bleeding arm. "We should at least cover that up."

"Look, I'm fine, okay!" she shot at me, causing me to step back from her. "My ankle's just sprained and I can bleed all day from cuts this shallow. I can take care of myself."

We both know that's not true.

Regardless of my misgivings, I knew we'd get nowhere arguing over it. I raised my hands in a placating gesture and conceded, "All right, all right, just wanted to make sure is all. But we really need to get going."

I couldn't see New Atami anymore, but I saw rising pillars of smoke in the city's direction. Deep thrums of blasts echoed from there, accompanied by gunfire. I could only imagine the hell that the JSDF was going through right now.

Asuka nodded, her previous anger somewhat abated. "Agreed. Let's get-"

Thoom.

The earth trembled beneath our bare feet. Then again. And again.

"Oh God," Hikari whimpered, staring behind me. I turned to follow her gaze, dread crawling up my spine as I did. Sure enough, my worst fears were confirmed when I faced what was making its way towards us from New Atami.

A rising tide of Israfelim, little more than dots in the distance but no less terrifying to us helpless teenagers. Explosions rocked their western flank, sending bits of Angelic flesh and blue blood high into the air, but they continued their march, regardless of their own casualties, in our direction, as if…

They know. God, how is that even possible?

They somehow knew who and where we were. I wasn't sure which was worse.

Looming above the horde was the source of the steps that shook the earth. Looking up at it, I could only recall Sachiel, and how powerless and impotent I'd felt before it. This was no different. Israfel itself had chosen to join in the assault, its purple arms raised to the smoky sky as if in praise. The giant was surrounded by its smaller spawn, getting closer and closer to us with every stride.

Silver arrowhead shapes darted through the air high above us, quickly followed by the scream of their jets. They unleashed their deadly payload on the army of Angels, cutting wide swathes of destruction along the frontline. Israfel continued, unmoved even as fire erupted along its slick hide.

What the hell had I gotten myself into?

"We're going. Now." Asuka declared, immediately running towards the town ahead of us. Hikari and I followed suit, although Asuka was clearly struggling to keep the lead. Hikari noticed and tried to support her, but Asuka wordlessly slapped her hand away and increased her pace, breathing hard. That only seemed to increase the Class Rep's concern, however, and she continued to linger alongside her friend.

Thoom thoom. Thoom.

This time, the sounds felt closer. Much closer. I frantically looked back to see Israfel wasn't nearly close enough to be what was making the noise. Then what was-?

An answer was provided by two giant, armored feet colored blue stepping behind us.

"Pilots Sohryu, Harada, Class Representative Horaki," boomed Rei Ayanami's voice from around us. "I will protect you."

Unit 00 looked resplendent, what little sun there was left reflecting off its armor. Its single red eye briefly looked down at us, before its hulking body turned to face Israfel. The prototype Evangelion stood tall and defiant against the approaching Angel and its army, and I couldn't help but note that the pincer that made its left arm had been replaced by a massive gatling gun. Unit 00 raised the enormous weapon forward, steadying it with its right hand.

As if spurred on by the presence of the Eva, Israfel's pace immediately quickened. Packs of Israfelim rushed over its legs as it charged, climbing along its body before melting into purple and blue goo that spread across its skin. The Angel's frame surging, growing larger with every rejoining of the pieces to the whole. At this rate, it would soon tower over even Unit 00.

"Now go." Rei ordered, and then Unit 00 opened fire. Bus-sized shells tore into Israfel, clumps of purple sent scattered to the wind. But it kept moving forward.

That was all I saw before I turned away, this time for good.

Hold on, Rei.

~0~

Present

~0~

"-ongoing state of emergency, please report to the nearest designated shelter. Alert; there is an ongoing state of-"

Asuka turned the radio dial, abruptly cutting the female voice off. "That was getting annoying real fast," she offered by way of explanation.

"I suppose it was too much to hope for some music or something," I sighed, eyes turning back to the road ahead. "Still, it would've been nice if the alert system could provide a little more info."

"What do you expect from a public service announcement?" Asuka asked, perhaps a touch condescendingly. "We just have to assume that toy soldierand the army can hold their own for now."

"Didn't Lt. Aoba say that Suzuhara's Eva was close to New Atami?" Hikari asked from the backseat. "He should be helping her by now, too."

The Second Child snorted. "Yeah, if he's even alive."

"Asuka," I said, my voice low.

"What?"

I jerked my head to the side, beckoning her to look at what I saw through the rearview mirror. She turned to see Hikari's crestfallen face, hands rubbing at tearful eyes. Perhaps she hadn't intended that way, but Asuka's words only served to worsen the shock that our Class Rep was going through. Hell, we were all going through shock of some sort, but Hikari was outwardly having a worse time of dealing with it.

Her pale shoulders slumped slightly, but Asuka said nothing in response to her friend's plight. She sighed and leaned back into her seat. The car fell into silence after that.

We had a forty-minute ride ahead of us, which was hardly something to complain about. It was a welcome breather that still allowed us to keep moving and gave me time to really think about our situation, now that we weren't frantically running for our lives.

First and foremost was Israfel. The Seventh Angel was obviously going for a quantity over quality approach for its attack, the only upside of which meant that conventional forces could actually fight against it. An individual Israfelim didn't seem like too much of a threat, at least so long as one had a gun. However…

The thing was a grey blur, the only discernible features being its spread out bladelike arms, and the pitch black mask on its chest.

That thing was far, far worse. If Israfel could create something as powerful as that that was still as small as a human, then why had it bothered creating an army of sluggish Israfelim in the first place? Perhaps it took more energy to make the more powerful kind. The closest comparison I could think of was a hero unit in a RTS game, with the more standard Israfelim more akin to cheap and expendable cannon fodder. At least, that's how my old gaming habits interpreted it. Hopefully Israfel wouldn't be able to field another of the damn things before we got to Tokyo-3.

I promptly looked for some wood to knock on, but when I found none I sighed instead.

Another major point of concern was the rest of our friends. We didn't have the time to look for them after the crash, so there really was no way for us to know what could've happened to them, especially without any access to communication of any sort. We were running blind. I couldn't help but think of Asuka's words – that Toji might be dead, along with Shinji, Kensuke, even little Sakura…

My grip on the steering wheel tightened as I grit my teeth. I tried to take a deep breath, but fell somewhat short.

Calm down, you don't know if that's true. Bury it for now. Keep moving.

I shook my head and my slackened my hold on the wheel. I could bury it, wait for confirmation. All that mattered was getting us home. Beyond that, well… I'd deal with it when it came to that.

Asuka was still in the passenger seat, staring out the window at the mountains we passed by. I looked in the rearview mirror to see that Hikari had closed her eyes, head lolled to the side. I smiled a little at the sight. Good, she needed the rest badly. But there was something…

Her hand was stroking the air above her lap, as if she were petting something. For some reason, I found the gesture… off.

My thoughts on the matter were instantly pushed aside when I saw something pale flash into sight behind us.

"Hold on!" I shouted before flooring the gas pedal.

The sedan whined and wheels screeched at the sudden burst of speed, followed by the startled cries of the other two people in the car.

"What the hell, Fifth!" Asuka hollered next to me.

"Behind us!" I yelled. "It's back!"

Her blue eyes widened when she saw what I meant.

The pale Israfelim was hounding us, sprinting fast enough to almost already be on top of us. Behind it were a pack of six of the orange ones, loping after us with their overly-long arms, reminding me of a bounding gorilla. The comparison to an animal that could easily rip a human in half didn't exactly ease my mind.

My heart pounding in my chest, I desperately tried to figure out what to do. Deadly car chases were hardly something I had experience with outside of video games, especially when the pursuer was an inhuman monster that could keep up with a speeding car and slice through metal like butter.

"They're gaining on us," Hikari whimpered softly. "Ken!"

"I know, I know!" C'mon, man. Think! "I'm going as fast as I can!"

"We can lose them in the park!" Asuka said, pointing to our right. Sure enough, there was a large, heavily wooded park that looked just thick enough that maybe…

"Fuck it, we're going!" I shouted as I spun the wheel, driving us toward the woods. We were taking the road that led to the park, but if we stayed on it then the Israfelim could still easily follow us. We'd have to go off-road eventually if we had any hope of losing them.

We reached what a sign we sped by indicated was Himenosawa Park, a series of tree-covered hills. Were we in any other circumstance, I'm sure I would've appreciated the beauty of nature and all that jazz, but right now I had more pressing concerns.

Said concerns were starting to leap towards us, barely missing the car as I desperately swerved to avoid them.

"Damn it," I growled, "Wouldn't mind having something to shake these damn things off us!"

In hindsight, perhaps 'borrowing' a little more from the house might've been prudent. Maybe some knives or even a few of the more potentially-harmful gardening tools one would leave in the garage. Granted, those were hardly ideal weapons against that damned Israfelim, but still. Better than nothing.

As we flew past the seemingly-endless sea of trees, I frantically looked for an opening wide enough for the car to go through. Christ, it was hard to do that as well as keep focused on the road ahead on top of making sure our pursuers stayed-

"Turn right, now!" Hikari screamed, her face suddenly very close to my ear.

Without a second thought, I complied, ignoring the ringing in my ears from the loud outburst. There was no time for hesitation, especially with Israfelim breathing down our necks. If they even could breathe…

Sure enough, Hikari was right and we sped through an opening between two trees just large enough for us to pass, finally getting us off the road. An unfortunate side effect of that was that the sedan was definitely not meant for it, as evidenced by the violent way it shook as I drove.

"Could you perhaps NOT hit every bump in the damn forest!" Asuka hollered as she bounced up and down next to me, red hair flying everywhere.

"Priorities, Asuka!" I responded, not daring to look away from directly in front of me. "I'd rather have sore ass cheeks than crash into a tree!"

I was starting to lose it a little, at that point. I'd never driven a car in a stressful situation, let alone when it came to life and death. In between the monsters hounding us and the other two screaming occupants of the car, it was all I could do to avoid trees and make sure we didn't crash into some ditch.

"Hikari, are they still behind us?" I called back to her. I was too afraid to look at the rearview mirror, for fear of hitting something in the split-second it would've taken to do so.

"No, I don't see them anymore," Hikari answered, and I allowed myself to let out a breath I hadn't realized I was holding. "But, um… we should head left more."

"Why?" I asked, although I still started to steer us left. Now that the Angels weren't immediately behind us anymore, some of the tension had left. "Have you been here before?"

"U-um, yeah!" she answered quickly, almost tripping over her words. "A-a few years ago I took my sisters here. Um… this should be the way towards Tokyo-3, and there's… a tool shed on the way, too. Maybe there'd be something there that could help?"

Perhaps I should've found it odd that she sounded so nervous, but due to circumstance and considering that it was Hikari of all people, I figured I could trust her. I wasn't about to look a gift horse in the mouth, especially if we could get something to help defend ourselves.

"Sounds good," I said, nodding. "If we see the shed we'll make a quick stop, but otherwise we'll keep going. We can't afford to waste time."

The next few minutes passed on in silence, save for Hikari occasionally giving me suspiciously exact directions now and then.

I would've pressed her on it, but by the time I thought to ask we finally reached the tool shed. It was a simple building, probably no more than a couple meters long and wide. I parked us just a few feet away from the red-painted wooden shed, listening for any sign of our pursuers as I took the key out of the ignition. Thankfully, the forest was quiet save for our footsteps crunching on dirt and leaves.

"Hm, looks like it's locked," Hikari noted with a sigh, fiddling with the padlock on the door. "Maybe we should-"

Crash!

The sound of smashed glass startled me and Hikari, both of us jumping and turning toward the source. Asuka stood next to a freshly-broken window, arms folded and wearing a casual smirk.

"Found the key," she said, leaning against the wooden building as she did. "Caesar, surely you're brave enough to climb in there and grab what we need?"

Yeah, I see you, Asuka. "Nah, clearly you're the bravest one here since you paved the way for us." I shook my head, smiling a little bit. "I believe in you."

Her smirk briefly faded, clearly trying to discern how much sarcasm I had put into that statement, before her pride kicked in. "Clearly," Asuka declared, grabbing a stick to wipe away the glass fragments still left in the window. "Though I expect a little more from a Caesar."

"You gave me that name," I noted idly, watching her climb into the shed. Hikari drifted over around the corner back to the car, brown eyes lingering between the ground and surrounding forest. I thought she might've just been keeping watch, so I didn't pay it much mind. "A rather generic one, I might add."

"What, you don't like it?" Asuka shouted from inside the shed, voice thick with mock-offense. "Would you feel better if I picked something closer to home, like Nobunaga? Or how about Washington, if you wanna feel more American?" That sarcasm of hers was starting to get formidable.

I heard shuffling inside, metal clanging against metal as she moved around. I peered inside to get a better look, finding Asuka sifting through a rack of shovels. The floor looked like it was made of splintering wood, but if she was bothered by it on her bare feet then she didn't show it. Her face was scrunched in thought, chin resting against her fist.

"Eh, that's not necessary," I shrugged, folding my arms and laying them on the edge of the window. I would've offered to help her out, but knowing her she would've rejected such a thing, for fear of looking like she needed it."Besides, I guess Caesar appeals to the Italian in me, anyway."

"You're Italian now?" Asuka asked dryly, still sorting through the tools.

Well, not in this body. Woops.

"On my mom's side, yeah," I quickly answered, face heating up with embarrassment over my flub. "I'm not really that much of an Italian though, so it barely counts."

"Right," she drawled, lifting a particular shovel that seemed to have her interest. Nodding to herself, she promptly grabbed two more at random then walked back toward me. "Alright, let's get going!"

That was all the warning I had before Asuka tossed the shovels through the window, barely giving me enough time to duck out of the way. She followed right after them, gracefully leaping outside as if it was the most natural thing in the world. The Second Child cast me a beaming look, as if to say 'You're welcome,' but I decided against dignifying that with an answer.

I sighed and picked up a shovel in each hand. "Hikari, we're headed out." No answer. "Hikari?" I called out again. Still no answer. I could feel my heart pounding in my chest.

I exchanged a look with Asuka before both of us ran to the car. We rounded the corner to find-

Oh, fuck me.

-a wreck. The car was in torn shambles, metal and plastic ripped apart. Our ticket to freedom was gone. And so was Hikari. There was no sign of her whatsoever among the wreckage, not even a body. There was, however, a more immediate concern.

That damn pale Israfelim standing on the shredded roof, staring down at us with that mask that seemed to suck the light around it like a black hole. Where was Hik-

Something roughly grabbed my shoulder from behind, snapping me from frenzied thoughts.

"What're you doing, idiot?!" Asuka screamed in my ears, pulling me backward. "You wanna die?!"

Dumbly, I shook my head, feet already moving to follow her. I spared one last glance back, seeing that the Israfelim hadn't moved in the slightest. It was utterly still.

Then, we ran.

The trees blurred around us as we frantically weaved through them. We were going the direction that we hoped, prayed was north. That hope was all we had at that point. Despite the shovels we'd so foolishly wasted time getting, there was no illusion as to who would win if it came to a fight with that thing.

I'd tossed aside Hikari's shovel, yet still clung to mine. Perhaps it was a stupid move, but honestly the childish notion that I could fight even one of the weaker Angels with it was the only thing that kept me going at that point.

Well, that and Asuka.

The redhead ran beside me, and it took everything in me to keep pace with her despite her injury. She moved through the woods with almost practiced ease, but then again that shouldn't have been so surprising for someone who'd been trained for battle since she was a child. As sad as that was, her determination and refusal to break down was saving the both of us.

My breathing was starting to get ragged, and not for the first time I cursed my lack of fitness. Asuka on the other hand seemed perfectly fine. Still, at the rate we were going we'd have to stop eventually.

Unfortunately, why we stopped right then wasn't quite what I'd been hoping for.

An Israfelim charged at us from the side, an orange blur that threatened to kill us outright. I noticed it before Asuka did, and I tackled her to the ground without thinking twice. The Angel barely missed us, instead crashing into a tree with a meaty thunk. The bark cracked loudly at the impact, the sound only encouraging us as we hurriedly picked ourselves up and continued running.

"Warn me next time, huh?!" Asuka hissed at me, face red, as we distanced ourselves from the recovering Israfelim.

I thought of shouting back at her, but ultimately decided it was futile. And not the right time for it at all.

The fact that I could barely breathe without having to talk might've also been a factor in that decision.

I could hear the Israfelim gaining behind us, slowly but surely catching up. If it got any closer, we'd have no choice but to fight it. If it came to that… The shovel in my hands felt heavier than before. Would it be enough?

No, it probably wouldn't. But it might give her a chance.

"Asuka…" I started, bracing myself for what I was about to do. Why the hell are you doing this? "Keep going."

"What?"

"No matter… what happens…" I cursed my breathlessness. It was really making the whole thing more of a pain. It filled my sentences with a lot more dramatic pauses than necessary. "Keep going."

"What the hell are you talking about?!"

Damn, she almost sounded panicked.

You're doing this for her?

"I'm gonna… hold it off," I told her. "So you can keep going."

For them? The very same people you called fictional?

Her blue eyes bulged at me, unbelieving. " No! Do you have any idea why that's so stupid?! What if it just ignores you, huh? Or just outright kills you? What then?!"

"I'm just gonna... have to take that… chance." This was getting annoying, and if it dragged on any further my fatigue would keep me from making any difference. My lungs were burning as it was just from talking. "Asuka, you're the best… out of all of us." It wasn't even a question. "You're the best chance… we have for winning this. That's… a fact."

My chest was burning, my lungs screaming for oxygen. My legs were begging me to stop.

Idiot.

So I did.

"Keep going!" I screamed as I spun to face the enemy, not looking back.

So maybe it was a half-baked idea that I only thought of due to fatigue. I didn't give a shit about that anymore. I was just fed up. I was exhausted and vulnerable. The Angels had finally done something completely out of left field, catching me off-guard in the worst possible way. I had no way of knowing if anyone besides Asuka was even alive anymore. All of them, my friends were probably…

Now you care about them? These people you so totally believed were fictional?!

I shook my head. I cared about them too much to care whether or not they were fictional I knew that beyond a shadow of a doubt. Even if they were just characters from some anime… they were my friends now. I had to do everyone I could to help them.

I raised my weapon, little more than a rusty shovel with a splintering rod.

Still, I would do everything I could to help them.

The orange Israfelim charged, almost hitting me as I dived to the side. It halted in its tracks, clawed feet digging into the dirt, and was about to face me before I smacked it in the back with the shovel. A loud clang echoed, the force of the blow sending me reeling back. My impromptu weapon almost flew out of my hands, and it took all of my fading strength to hold on. The creature recovered quickly though, spinning around to swipe at me.

While Eva training had thankfully taught me some combat skills, training with rifles and switchblades didn't exactly relate to shovel-combat. I also wasn't in a gigantic armor-plated cyborg with a barrier made out of my soul, so I couldn't quite apply everything from that to my present situation. Still…

I leaned back to avoid its claw, then as it moved to attack again I pressed forward, lifting my shovel high and bringing it down hard on its head. There was a satisfying crack that sent it stumbling backward. As much as I wanted to press my advantage, I used the moment to recover a little. I couldn't pass out from fatigue yet.

The Israfelim was back at it, slowly but surely making me lose ground. Its claws were always close, too close, until…

I saw an opening, thrusting the shovel at its center like a lance. For a brief moment, I believed I'd finally-

Pain smashed into my side, overwhelming everything else. I saw red, even as the world spun around me then stopped just as quickly as it began. My back slammed against something hard and rugged. I belatedly realized it was a tree. I blinked slowly, trying to take stock. My hands gripped empty air, feeling for something that wasn't there.

A sleek orange figure loomed over me. Those claws gleamed under what few rays of sunlight drifting through the tree tops. All the while, its three-dotted mask stared down, unmoving and unfeeling.

Huh. So that's what it felt like?

I… should've done more to help them.

Of all the final thoughts I'd played over in my head, that wasn't what I expected to come first. Funny how that works.

A sickening sound, wet and loud, snapped me back to reality. Blue liquid splashed onto my face. When I wiped the fluid from my eyes and looked ahead, I couldn't help but gasp.

Something had pierced straight into the Israfelim's chest, right through the core. The Angel convulsed and writhed briefly in pain, before soundlessly slumping to the side. It fell to the dirt, motionless and lifeless. What had-?

"Ken! Are you okay?!" asked my savior, in all her pigtailed glory.

"Hik… Hikari?" I feebly responded as she knelt by my side. Wrapping an arm around my waist, she hoisted me up, using a gory and blue-dripping shovel for support. "How…?"

"I'm so, so sorry I left you guys earlier." Hikari sounded almost on the verge of tears. "But that th-thing was there a-and…"

"Don't-ah!-don't worry about it," I grunted, fighting back the pain. I rubbed at my side, which still hurt something fierce, but luckily it looked like the Israfelim had just smacked me instead of slashing. I offered her a weak smile. "Thanks for saving me."

"S-sure thing," she mumbled, backing away a little bit as I stood on my own. I was sore all over and my insides were begging for me to stop, but I knew I could keep going. Thank god for adrenaline, although I wasn't sure how much longer that would last.

"Right." I smacked my cheeks and picked up my shovel where I dropped it. "Asuka went that way. Let's go."

Hikari stared at me, briefly dumbfounded, before nodding as her eyes hardened. "Right."

We ran northward, knowing we could spare little time. A few moments passed by in silence-

Wait.

I stopped in my tracks. I could've sworn I just heard…

"Back off!" screamed a familiar voice up ahead. Without another word, Hikari and I bolted ahead. We ran through the bushes and stepped into a small clearing. We were greeted by a grisly sight. An Israfelim lay on the ground, a wicked gash carved into its chest and blue blood pooling around its body. Two more Israfelim were there and very much alive, although one's left arm was an utter ruin, barely clinging on by a few strands of what might've been muscle. And facing them…

Asuka looked like a cornered animal. Her eyes were wild and bloodshot, her teeth bared in a permanent snarl. There were bloody claw marks on her pale stomach, three thin lines of red.

Those wild blue eyes saw us as we came into view, and the snarl instantly gave way to a disbelieving gasp.

"You… y-you're…" she breathed.

One of the Israfelim, the uninjured one, rounded on us at her words. It took a second, perhaps measuring our strength, before running toward us. Hikari and I raised our shovels, ready to face it head on-

Then a torrent of bright yellow rained on it from above, reducing the Angel to blue and orange mush.

Any questions I had were blown away by the sudden rush of air all around us, following by the screeching engines of our saviors. More bullets shot out from one of the VTOLs, striking down the last Israfelim menacing Asuka.

One of the aircraft slowly descended into clearing as three more moved into a defensive formation above us, idling its engines as the back ramp opened up. A squad of troops spilled out from the VTOL, moving through the area with practiced ease and discipline.

"Secure the pilots!" one shouted, and they quickly moved around us. Rifles raised toward the trees, every soldier save for a couple had their eyes trained outward. While Hikari and I were being tended to, I looked over at Asuka…

Who had just slumped to the ground, eyes closed.

"Wait, Asuka!" I shouted, fear gripping me, "Asuka!"

One of the troops broke formation and ran straight to her, checking her pulse. His shoulders sagged in relief after a moment, before gently picking her up in both arms bridal-style.

Hikari and I were shepherded to the VTOL, the two of us staying close. We sat next to each other, leaning on one another for support, while Asuka was carried further into the aircraft to receive what I assumed was medical attention. Hikari was staring worriedly at her, and I couldn't help but do the same. Still, I could see her breathing, so that had to count for something.

When the rest of the soldiers got back on board, the VTOL shuddered, signaling that it was ascending, and I looked outside one last time before the ramp closed. My stomach lurched when I thought I saw something pale and black staring back at me, but my view was obstructed once the ramp slammed shut.

It couldn't have been…

I expected it to attack, completely destroying our VTOL like it had earlier back by New Atami. But no such attack came.

Perhaps...

I rubbed my side. The four other soldiers were silent as one of their own made sure the Second Child was stable. I looked at Asuka, who seemed at peace while she was being tended to, her breathing less ragged than before, even though she was still in a lot of pain. She'd be okay, I knew without a doubt. She'd never forgive herself if she let something as pathetic as a measly human-sized Angel get the better of her.

I looked at Hikari beside me, who had somehow gotten through the entire ordeal unscathed. Between the car crash and the Israfelim, there was simply no way that was possible. Groaning, I leaned back into the seat.

"…you know, I've never seen you like this."

"Hm?" The quiet and contemplative voice, barely audible over the engines, from my bare shoulder caught me off guard. "You should be resting," I murmured back.

Hikari shifted slightly beside me, and despite the extremely close contact it was… comforting to have her there. We were just two people that had been running like mad for God knew how long, and to have us both safe… it felt good.

"I'm really bad at sleeping while upright," she said with a smile, even though I could hear the exhaustion in her voice. "Just… talk with me for a little bit, 'kay?"

I sighed, deciding that maybe talking with her might be the best way for me to stay awake as well. If I passed out now, I doubted they would be able to wake me without… unpleasant measures once we got to Tokyo-3. "Sure thing," I answered, "So… what did you mean?"

"Well, you've just always seemed a little distant. You were nice, most of the time, but…" A pause as she considered. "It was more like you were just observing. Even with Toji, you were just… reacting. But now you're… not."

I frowned at her words. Mostly because she was right.

"Maybe… I just realized I needed to take action for once. And the circumstances kinda demanded it." I took a deep, shaky breath. For some reason, the action made me all the more tired. "I wanted to do my part. To save everyone…"

My vision was starting to darken, my eyelids slowly falling down like curtains. Theatre curtains. Like back home…

Can't… think straight.

A low giggle rumbled from my lips. "It's funny," I muttered, the world fading away around me until all that existed was me and Hikari. "Am I really supposed to save everyone? How could I?" My voice was starting to get delirious, my exhaustion finally wearing down my mind.

"Ha-… Ken," Hikari said slowly, heavy with concern. "I'm sorry, I shouldn't have said that. You need to rest."

Rest. That word sounded nice. Very nice. "I like the sound of that." I nodded my head and closed my eyes. "Good idea. I just…" Some insane part of me wanted to say one last thing, to share the burden that had been weighing me down since I came here. "I know exactly how this all ends, and I don't know how to stop it."

What did I just say?

Hikari went silent. Had I said something…?

Ah, that's right. She said I should rest. I should do that.

Forgetting about the secret I had spilled, I smiled lightly as consciousness faded.