And men grew afraid of sleep in Allathurion. And they grew worn and pale, some through the want of rest, and others from fear of the things they saw on the cindery plains of Hell.

- Exerpt from The Fortress Unvanquishable, Save for Sacnoth

Misato knew, on some objective level, that she was an awful parent. At the same time, she really had no idea what the word actually meant.

Piling two of her three teenage soldiers into her car, plus one UN inspector, was itself an experience she never really wanted to repeat. Kaji, somehow, had changed. That first night, while she drove them all to her apartment, he sat in the passenger seat and kept his mouth shut. No, that wasn't accurate either. He'd shut up before, when she or Ritsuko had gotten properly angry with him, but there was always a bubbling sort of mirth. During those moods, he never spoke but his face said a lot.

On the drive home that first night, Kaji had been quiet. Respectful, not at all the clever, leading man. Misato watched shadows and late afternoon sunlight play over his face, and it struck her again how old he'd become. The beard just made the lines of his face stand out all the more severely. Kaji wasn't even paying attention to her, a first in the whole time she had known him. Instead he kept an ear out for Asuka, who dozed in the back seat.

The car felt off balance without Rei, too. Ritsuko had whisked her off to the deepest parts of NERV, hopefully to save her life. It at least gave Shinji plenty of room on his side of the car. Looking him over in the rear-view mirror, Misato saw her charge truly tired. He sat up straight, as if he hadn't been awake thirty hours, but she could see the strain in his eyes nonetheless. Of course, as she thought about it, Shinji probably had been awake more like ninety hours.

When they had gotten to the apartment and their floor, it was left as something of a foregone conclusion; Kaji was welcome to stay the night. Asuka decided that she neither wanted or needed a crutch, and let her infatuation fall away, at least for that moment. Both adults felt some overdone phrase pop into their heads, about how people so young should not have needed to be so strong. Misato couldn't have spoken for Kaji, but she was glad the kids were tough as nails. Asuka fumbled with her key, mumbling something too faint for most to hear. She'd spent the whole ride home wearing a simple, black eye patch. Kaji stepped in to help while Shinji ducked through the neighboring door.

Part of why Misato had left him was because he reminded her so much of her father. Now, all she could see was Kaji. She watched him hug the Second Child and become more like a parent than anyone she had ever met.

Asuka had shut her blinds, and with an increasing, huffy, teenage tone, ushered the adults out of her still-unpacked apartment. Sleep came quickly, leaving nothing for Kaji and Misato to do. Asuka did not need them, and Shinji had eased their concerns with a glance. "She's been half-awake for forty days or so," He explained. "She just needs time to dream."

Claiming the living room of Misato's apartment, Kaji had indeed spent the night. When he saw the agent, PenPen had offered only the most disinterested glances, and Kaji found himself recognizing the penguin from GEHRIN labs, nearly a decade ago. Shinji, as far as Misato was concerned, was effectively no maintenance, content to busy himself with research and meditation. That left the two adults far too much time to sit, think and steadfastly avoid talking to each other.

Misato had simply wanted to keep things going. She liked the unobtrusive, almost mature Kaji. He however wanted to talk, but kept running out of things to say before he even started. That left them at something of an impasse. Shinji puttered around them, ignoring school and keeping the apartment together. Asuka slept for most of the day, rising only for food and hygiene.

When Misato proved Asuka's own, real shower had running water, the redhead had only glared at the fixture.

The only other thing that broke the monotony was Ritsuko's daily calls, routed through secure switchboards. She updated the lieutenant with Rei's status, usually a short sentence to the effect of 'she hadn't died'.

Finally though, on the third day, Misato had enough. She trusted Asuka with Shinji's magical healing powers, and trusted Asuka to sleep thorugh any urge to harass the boy. Laundry had been a concern, originally, until Shinji's clothes proved to fit Kaji well enough. Misato did not not much care that the man looked as if he wore a tent. She dragged him out by the tie, which somehow was never anything but rumpled. Down stairs and across the street, the pair found themselves in a twenty-four hour coffee bar.

Once they found their seats, however, Misato realized she'd lost her momentum. Now she stared across the table at her ex, who looked just as helpless. Two paper mugs of coffee steamed quietly between them.

Wincing, Kaji would later admit it was the worst topic to open on, but it had nagged at him. "... So, the other day I thought I saw the Third Child glowing."

There were more secure areas of Central Dogma, but not many. Ritsuko served as Rei's primary physician for two reasons. One being that she was the only person in the world who understood how the girl was made, and how to care for her unique physiology. The other was that she had clearance to access the memory transfer facility, and the informally designated 'dummy plug plant'. Keyed elevators and posted guards gave way to automated defenses, relying on radio-frequency identification and facial recognition. Past a certain point, the nurses and doctors who helped move Rei down had to stop, unable to move deeper into the complex.

Rei had been pulled out of simulated world three days ago. For most of that time, she rested in the transfer tank. Ritsuko had adjusted the suspension mixture to include Rei's new drug regiment, but there was only so much that could be done. The chemical and nutritional supplements fought off the symptoms and prevented physical damage. Metaphysical wear and tear was another matter entirely.

Ritsuko pressed a key on the nearest console, sighing softly. "There's really no way around it. You've overused your AT field and caused irreparable damage."

When she had arrived, Rei had still been wearing her plugsuit. Ritusko had to cut it off. A more normal girl like Asuka would have suffered a degree of shame and indignity at such treatment, even in a medical emergency. Rei on the other hand endured, not so much silently, but quietly nonetheless. Once out of the suit, Ritsuko had nearly recoiled. Bruising and signs of internal bleeding had shown through from head to toe. There hadn't been time for an x-ray or similar scan, but Ritusko was sure Rei's bones were weakening, rapidly.

But once Rei had been put in the tank, and her body fortified itself against further dissolution, her identity began to heal. The metaphysics at times baffled her, but Ritsuko knew that there was a connection between sentience, sapience and a sort of macro-scale stability. Any life on Earth could break down into a primordial soup, under the right circumstances. Rei was simply unique.

Now, under computer control and near constant observation, Rei healed. The older woman took to sleeping on a cot, reporting in every twelve hours. On the way down, one of Rei's emergency injectors had kept cell-division under control, preventing uncontrollable growth. Cancer would remain a threat for the rest of her life, however. Even with the same treatment in the tank, Rei had to come out twice a day to have her finger and toenails cut back. Her hair had grown down past her waist, so it was decided to leave that to Misato.

There was no table in the dark chamber, and Ritsuko lacked a clipboard or sheath of papers to throw down for effect. Instead she just stared at the girl. It was easier to treat her as an adult, with unvarnished facts and blunt truth. "You're fine for right now, but the emergency injectors I gave you aren't going to be enough. Pretty soon, you'll have to use one of those every day for the rest of your life. More if you use your AT field again."

"We also know that Shinji's abilities... They might work here, but even his ability to perfectly diagnose someone has limits." Ritsuko glanced sidelong at the girl. "Which you've already seen first hand."

In her tank, Rei floated. With her eyes closed, it was difficult to tell if she was still breathing, but her lungs still generated tiny pockets of waste gas, and more importantly, the monitoring equipment kept beeping.

"So..." Ritsuko sighed and dropped into her cot, catching her head with one hand and massaging her brow. "From where I sit, the best option is to warm up a new body and transfer your memories to it."


Ritsuko didn't miss a beat. "The Commander's informed me that when it comes to your health, only he can override your wishes. So if you want to stay in that body, I can't force you. At the rate you're going, even if we do stabilize you, your current one will fail by the time you turn twenty."

Other than floating, Rei had done little her time in the tank. It wasn't particularly easy to speak through the LCL suspension, but the First had a lot of practice. "Then I will live to see twenty in this body, before moving to the next."

Rei was in one of her verbose moods, it seemed. Ritsuko was at least somewhat pleased to note the girl wasn't being unreasonably sentimental. The girl was at least willing to acknowledge a body transfer as an option. Granted, if she'd been given a degree of practical immortality, Ritsuko probably would have wanted to exploit it thoroughly. Still, increased longevity wasn't something a human could really imagine accurately, not casually at least.

She sighed once more and turned back to her notes. Corporeal plasticity, general cohesion, destrado... The scientist huffed once more, not bothering to look up. "Rei, I could reach into that tank and pull your head away from your neck. You're falling apart."

Very carefully, Rei moved on her own for the first time in days. Her head turned very slowly, to face Ritsuko, as if to prove a point. "I know. You would not do that, either."

"I'm not my mother." Ritsuko bit off each word, and couldn't stop her lip from curling.

They had both gotten used to silence, for different reasons. Ritsuko didn't talk to herself and only rarely felt the need to explain something to someone. Aside from the math and engineering aspects, the First Child probably knew enough to do Ritsuko's job on her own. Rei on the other hand was just not one to talk, at all. There was an expectation then, something Ritsuko couldn't quite place.

The scientist found herself engaged in a conversation she had no desire to ever have. "Why, why are you acting this way? I know the original drug regimen created a sort of clinical depression. You're off that now. Why are you still... here?!"

Rei had thought about that question for a long time, nearly as long as she had a mind clear enough to contemplate it. She had borrowed philosophy texts from Ikari-kun, and listened to Misato's worldly advice, and later Asuka. Even Ritsuko informed some of the final decision, the sense of awareness. Ayanami Rei was no fool; she floated in in that tank, ten feet away from one of the three people who knew the plans of one Ikari Gendo, from start to finish.

She made a point to include herself in that count.

The answer to that question, the pressing one. Rei had learned everyone asked it of themselves, at some point in their lives. It came up when they were confronted with an uncaring, uncertain future, or a plan laid out in advance by someone else. For her the only difference was the particulars. Rei had that most important question answered, not before she was born, but by the very act of her creation.

Before there was even the first Rei, Gendo had answered the question already. The second Rei looked up at Ritsuko and did not smile, nor frown. "I exist because I have a purpose. I'm still here because my task is yet left incomplete."

Rei doubted Ritsuko would have appreciated the rest of her answer, that between now and the inevitable end, she wanted to enjoy every second her life.

It seemed that for Shinji, a normal day was sitting at the kitchen table in Misato's apartment, staring at a simple steel nail. He thought about it for a while longer, and decided he was alright with that. He rolled the bit of metal in between his fingers, more gently than he would have otherwise. He'd been Exalted for almost a full year now, and had gained enough fine control over to not feel so... awkward, in his own home. Holding the nail by point and head between two fingers, Shinji knew he could fold it into a pretzel, just as easily as someone else could bend a paperclip.

"Have you ever heard 'For want of a nail?"

Twisting in his seat, Shinji saw Asuka step inside. She had a key, so the how wasn't in question so much as the why. He blinked, and shook his head.

"It's an old English rhyme," Asuka sat down at the table, and shook her hair back. Shinji wondered if that was a girl-thing, or 'girls-who-knew-Misato' thing. "-about how a horse lost it's shoe because it wasn't nailed down."

She gave him a look, to which he could only offer a weak, uncertain smile. That seemed to be the right thing to do, because Asuka straightened in her seat and started to reciting. Her voice was pleasantly clear and lilting, and a welcome change from her almost constant sarcasm.

"For want of a nail the shoe was lost;

For want of a shoe the horse was lost;

For want of a horse the battle was lost;

For the failure of battle the kingdom was lost-

All for the want of a horse-shoe nail."

When Asuka leaned back in her chair, she had reason to be a little smug, her English was impeccable. Shinji spoke and understood it well enough, but had still been unable to eradicate his own stubborn accent. The two teenagers sat there for a few moments, watching the boy roll the nail between his fingers. Something possessed him to try balancing it on one fingertip, point-down. It held for one, two, three seconds before falling.

"So, what's with the nail, anyway?" Asuka leaned forward and laid her the side of head on the table, cradling it with one arm. She looked up at him, forcing Shinji's mind to remind him that her uncovered eye was unmistakably blue.

Coughing, he picked the nail back up and held it at eye level. Looking at it was safer than anything else. "I... Understand it." Asuka obviously didn't, nor did she even know what he was talking about, so he kept explaining. "I know what it's made of, I know how hot the steel had to be, how much carbon..."

He trailed off, ending a helpless shrug.

Asuka frowned then, not so much upset as uncertain. "That doesn't seem very impressive."

"It's not," He shrugged again. "But I can do it."

She lifted her head, letting it tilt inquisitively. "What else can you do?"

That was always the pressing question, it seemed. The first answer that came to his mind was I don't know. Shinji rightly assumed that wasn't the best thing to say, so he hemmed and hawed, playing for time. Asuka started tapping one finger against the table. Shinji decided it was best to start at the beginning, or as close to it as he could manage.

"It started with the Third Angel. I was... delirious, and I'm not supposed to talk about it." He shrugged helplessly. "I'm stronger, faster..."

Trailing off, Shinji did his best to get his mind back on track. He'd had maybe a total of four conversations with the girl, counting this one, and he simply had no idea how to move forward. For all his luck and celebrity at school, Shinji still did not get people, let alone temperamental redheads. Still, he blundered on, rambling at first, but smoothing out as he went.

When he started on his grasp natural sciences and engineering, they became something of a curious game. Asuka didn't smile; her expression hardly changed from that slightly tired, passively interested look. There wasn't any laughter or encouragement, but no scathing commentary either. The girl pointed to an object in the apartment, be it the table, the dishwasher, or refrigerator, and Shinji explained in full detail how they worked, the underlying physics of their operation, and so on. He never once however mentioned a brand name, sticking to the basic construction. Gun collectors could list off the make and model of their favored pieces. Shinji however could with the right tools and materials, copy of any tool or appliance he encountered, without once knowing who made it or how.

When he had finished, Asuka just stared at him with her one good eye. She still wore a simple black patch over the left side of her face. Shinji winced, feeling his hands clench slightly. The nail in one fist dug into his palm, but could not break the skin. He went over his list of powers once more. It had gotten fairly long over the year, and their impromptu quiz session only scratched the surface. Increased endurance, agility, his ability to diagnose with a glance...

He let his fists uncurl. The nail dropped back onto the table, mangled. "I can heal people. Not just treat them, but really, really heal them. Regenerate."

"I know," Asuka pushed away from the table and shook her hair out once more. "Akagi showed me photos of her arm."

Looking around, Shinji felt his hands twitch slightly. He wouldn't get anywhere lying to her, or being closemouthed. "I... I can weaponize everything in this room."

Asuka twisted in her seat to take in the kitchen. "That doesn't seem too special, I mean, as long as I can lift it, I could too."

Shinji just shook his head, shivering slightly. She didn't understand, not yet. "No I mean, I can make anything in here... Rend. Not cut. I can maim people with my bare hands. I uh... I once cut a man's arm off with a rolled up magazine."

The conversation died off after that. Asuka slumped back into her chair and didn't complain about how it dug into her shoulders. Shinji knew that, and a whole host of other things. He fidgeted, switching between sitting back and forward, steepling his hands and laying them flat on the table. The girl was content to watch him simmer, staring at him with that flat, one-eyed look.

Despite knowing better, the offer started to form once more. Asuka cut him off before he even got a word out. "You want to fix my eye." Her expression somehow became even more unreadable, but her voice was calm and even, almost apologetic. "I know you say you can. Hell, you probably could fix my eye, but that's my choice, not yours, Okay?"

A lead weight dropped into his stomach, but Shinji looked Asuka in the eye and nodded.

Katsuragi Misato had a problem.

Leaning against her kitchen counter, the lieutenant nursed a beer. There wasn't much in the way of condensation, not in her apartment in late winter. Even so, a thin layer of moisture built up on the can. She mulled it over, both her problem and the alcohol. As far as challenges went, hers was a mean one. Misato had to, among other things, create a finely honed unit out of three damaged teenagers. One was a justifiably egotistical spoiled-genius-brat, another was a clone, and the third had god-given superpowers. Misato took a swig of beer and tried to not think about Rei, or how she might have already been dead.

On top of all those unique traits, those kids all sat at the controls of the deadliest weapons ever designed by man. Misato had read the report on the Vladivostok Incident, and Asuka's hand in that mess. Ritsuko and Fuyutsuki had made it all too clear to her; the Evangelions didn't fight with guns and knives so much as reality itself. That was why she had been chosen, head-hunted for NERV. No one else on Earth knew the Angels like she did, and no one else could quite think in the terms of that unnatural warfare.

The beer had been drained halfway, and had gone lukewarm under her fingers. Misato sighed and tipped it into the sink. Rei was gone, and Asuka was probably asleep. That left the easiest of her charges. Misato let her hand wander down her chest, rubbing at the smooth spot beneath her breasts. He'd done it eight days ago, give or take. She traced the path of the absent scar and counted from memory each stitch and jagged mark. Shinji and Asuka needed to have some sort of ice-breaker moment.

Glancing at a mirror, Misato finally noticed where her hand had gone, and came to a decision. She smoothed her dress and gave her reflection a decisive nod. Stepping outside, she made her way up the three flights, not so much winded as aware of the effort. Slob or not, she had her soldier's conditioning, and more importantly, her pride. Judging by the hour and Shinji's mood, he was probably up on the roof with some project or another.

And found him she did, hand-polishing what looked like more ceramic works. The 'small' kiln next to him roared, but not loud enough to muffle speech. More than enough to muffle slippered footsteps though. Misato snaked her arms around his middle from behind and squeezed, pressing her cheek into his back with a smile. Almost immediately however, she realized something was wrong. His back and spine were steel-beam solid, utterly unyielding. Shinji looked back and down over his shoulder, a dinner plate in his hands. Misato pulled away without a word.

Misato shook her hair out and rocked her hips side to side, meandering over to the high parapet and planting her hands on it. The rooftop winds seemed to catch everything. The whole time, Shinji watched her, and nothing like she'd ever seen before. He let the stare linger, but finally broke away, focusing back on his work. Misato was content to let him.

He reached into the kiln with his bare hands and pulled out a newly fired piece of tableware. Misato's eyes went wide, even as she watched the boy shake his fingers out, blowing across his knuckles. She knew he was tough, but... She shook her head and looked back at the plate. A rag for polishing appeared in his other hand, rubbing away dust and flaws. When he was finished, Shinji set it aside in a handmade wooden rack, waiting for glazing, if she had to guess.

Shinji repeated the process a few times more, even as the sun dipped closer towards the western mountains. Misato felt safe enough to break the silence. "So... You and Asuka knocked heads again?"

His rhythm barely faltered, but didn't answer. Misato tried to give him her most reassuring smile. "I lived with Asuka for a couple years. She can be a handful, but..." She shrugged. "You just have to find a way to catch her eye."

Looking up from his plates, Shinji gave her another flat stare. It took Misato a few seconds to get why. When she did, she winced, letting out a short laugh. "I uh... Didn't mean it like that. But you are the super-doctor-guy."

She stepped back from the roof edge and struck a pose, not quite registering how Shinji's face fell. "I mean, I can wear two-pieces now thanks to you. Asuka wouldn't do what I did, but think about what she'd do if you healed her eye?"

The plate in Shinji's hand shattered.

Bits of ruined clay and dust fell away from Shinji's hands, and he turned, staring at her. Not just staring, glaring. Misato had never ever once been scared of Shinji. She had several times been scared for him. It was irrational, and hinged mostly on her gut feeling. It always threw Ritsuko for a loop when Misato's intuition proved right over hard evidence. That was why she wasn't running for the stairs.

Of course, not being scared was entirely different from not reacting. "Sh-Shinji-kun?"

He brought his hands up with his fingers curled like claws. It reminded her again that he could do things he never asked for, or wanted, but the power was still there. Rending or healing. She looked past his fingers and at his face, and realized something very, very important: Shinji was angry.

Misato had never seen him angry.

Why eluded her as well. She stood her ground, but Misato's mind was running to all corners, trying to figure out what set the boy off. Asuka had gotten a rise out of him on arrival, but that was more by just being unexpected. And as far as she knew, he wasn't acting anything like during the Caligulia impression. Psychology wasn't her strong suit and Shinji seemed to be getting angrier.

"You used me to get to Asuka!" Shinji hissed, advancing closer. Misato wilted, feeling the blood drain out of her face.

"I was a prop in whatever little game you were playing! Maybe she deserved it, you know her better than I do, but you're the adult!" Shinji waved and snarled, frustration rolling off him in thick waves.

Some part of Misato was mystified as to why he suddenly seemed so much more eloquent than normal, but at the moment, she didn't care. Whatever it was about had been building up for quite a while. Misato took a step back, then another, before tumbling into one of the deck chairs dotting the rooftop. Shinji towered above her, furious.

Guilt built up in her gut, squirming. Misato flashed back through the conversation she'd had with Asuka, more than week ago, less than an hour after the debacle. Shinji stared down at her, and Misato found perfect clarity in hindsight; the slammed door, cold shoulder, everything. Standing up, she resolved to make it right. Shinji still stood there, nearly two heads taller than her. He hadn't once raised his hands against her, or made any threat. Instead he was content to just be angry. In a lot of ways, that was fair and reasonable.

There wasn't a lot of time to be calculating, and Misato really didn't like to overthink her emotions, or her actions. admittedly, that habit was what got her into trouble in the first place, but she had to be honest. "S-Shinji..."

"I-I'm sorry. I was wrong to do that, and to go as far as I did." Misato hugged herself, turning away from the boy. The setting sun felt cold on her bare arms. "Hell, Asuka called me out on it right after-"

"I know, I heard."

That brought Misato up short. Her eyes snapped back up. "You heard?"

Shinji waved a hand at his ears. "Better than average hearing, I heard everyone while I was in the shower." He crossed his arms over his chest and refocused that glare. He all but demanded she keep her eyes on him. "You were saying?"

Put on the spot, she stalled out of old, unwelcome habit. Misato stumbled over herself, left with her tongue caught in her throat. Shinji just kept staring, still angry, but less so. Finally, the woman planted her feet and pushed ahead. "I'm sorry. What I did was wrong and immature. Cruel even."

The apology itself hadn't been difficult to get out. It wasn't like lingering guilt, so there was no weight that fell off her shoulders. Misato let her eyes slide closed and settled in for the wait. She had no way to judge how long she stood on the rooftop, hoping Shinji would accept everything. Wind pulled at her hair and clothes. Something warm and familiar tugged at her wrist, before drawing her hand away from her side and taking hold. She opened her eyes and saw Shinji squeezing her hand, gently.

She looked up at him with a growing smile, but it froze in mid-motion, when she saw the look on his face. "I'm still angry." Even so, he gave her hand a reassuring squeeze. Shinji let her go and moved over to his forgotten plates, taking up the rack and heading downstairs.

Misato nodded quietly as he passed by, but stayed up top, looking out at the city skyline. She stayed out there until the sun had completely set, and the brightest stars had come out. Shinji was still angry, sure, but he wasn't going to stay angry.

It had been five days since NERV had pulled the girls out of the MAGI. Asuka slept less and less, moving towards a more regular waking cycle. Which was to say, she slept like a teenager, refusing to get out of bed before ten in the morning. Misato was too worried about Rei to call either Asuka or Shinji on their skipping class. Once Kaji was sure his girl was okay, he retreated, back towards his apartment and his regular, 'classic letch' persona.

Asuka spent most of her time in Misato's apartment, largely because it had a stocked kitchen, and the girl didn't know the grocery stores well enough to fill her own cupboards. She did however borrow Misato's collection of delivery menus. For the first time, Asuka was left to manage herself. It was the part of the college experience she missed while attending classes. Back then, everyone around her was two or even three times older than she was. In Japan, her guardians were distant enough for Asuka to develop a degree of freedom, eating what and when she wanted, and directing her admittedly limited income to whatever she desired.

But, even with her upset sleep schedule, Asuka found herself hurting for things to do, hence 'hang out at Misato's. Despite having a girlfriend, Shinji almost never left the apartment, and Misato's work days were mercifully short.

The new girl did not take Rei's place, and she had no intention to. Instead, Asuka unbalanced things, but not in a bad way. She clashed with Shinji, but quietly. Not so much timid as uncertain. It left Misato acting as peacekeeper, which was easier than it sounded. There was no real hate or vitrol from either pilot, just regular conflict. The teenagers fit together like mismatched gears, not quite lining up, but still moving forward. Misato still had her own problems, with Shinji letting the last of his lingering frustration go, and her trying to treat him better. She still desperately needed to hug, and be hugged, but Misato wasn't eager to push boundaries quite yet.

Stuck waiting, the three tried to keep their minds off darker matters. Rei had almost no presence, but Misato and Shinji definitely felt her absence. Asuka just missed her first real friend. Misato frowned and glanced at the phone. Ritsuko hadn't called that day.

An argument started up somewhere in the apartment, leaving Misato to assume there was some disagreement about the television. Before she could intervene, someone knocked on the door. She left the teenagers to their bickering while she moved to answer it.


Standing just outside the door was her missing pilot in dull hospital clothes, standing next to her blonde best friend. Misato was already moving to scoop the girl up in a hug, but Ritsuko intercepted. The blonde woman lightly pressed an open palm into Misato's head, stopping her cold. Blinking, Misato looked past the fingers and saw her friend holding an IV drip bag in her other hand, leading into Rei's arm.

A red blur pushed past Misato and very nearly made the same mistake, before the older woman shot one arm out and caught Asuka around the middle. Shinji appeared a half-step later, but stopped on his own. Ritsuko dropped her hand with a wan smile, letting Misato and Asuka engulf the blue-haired girl, more gently. When the impromptu group hug broke apart, leaving everyone rumpled, but beaming. They crowded into the tiny hallway before spilling into the kitchen. Shinji had grabbed a standing lamp and hung the drip bag from it, while Misato pulled a chair out for Rei.

When everyone sat down, Misato reached across the table to take Rei's hands in hers. "Rei-chan, we've missed you so much! Are you.. Alright? I mean, is everything..."

Misato looked at Rei first, before turning to Ritsuko and back again. The question hung in the air. The girl gave the tiniest smile, but shook her head. "I am better. I won't ever be fully well."

The news had an almost physical quality. One by one, the girls turned to face Shinji, though not for the same reasons. Asuka was honestly curious, though remained not so much skeptical as cautious. Misato was blatantly hopeful; she believed in him and his powers beyond all doubts. Rei was the most neutral, almost as if she knew the answer. Ritsuko however did little else but sit, as if she knew the answer already.

The Third Child shrank in his seat just a bit. He'd learned very early on that limits were not things people liked to hear, when it came to helping people. He shrugged weakly and started to explain. "I can't fully diagnose her. Whatever's wrong, I just can't put my finger on it. I'm just... Missing something."

Rei bowed her head. Her bangs touched the tabletop, and it suddenly struck everyone how unexpectedly long her hair had gotten, over a matter of days. She spoke up before anyone could ask. "If I am ever ready, I will tell you what you need to know."

Shinji sat back in his seat, nodding once. Misato looked between her pilots and the doctor, but kept her mouth shut. As much as she wanted to order Rei to spill everything, she had to respect her wishes. It just wasn't right, otherwise. Asuka felt much the same, indignation and a sense of what are you, stupid? brewing up in her chest. Then she reminded herself about the very same choice she made. The Second reached up to rub her eye patch.

Ritsuko watched the exchange, distantly at best, but not unkindly. To Shinji, she simply said "You might just figure everything out." Turning back to Rei and Misato, the scientist laid down the facts. "Rei is going to need that IV drip for pretty much the rest of her life, assuming there aren't any other lapses on her part. The treatment options we do have are last resorts."

By silent, unanimous agreement, everyone present decided not to push the topic. Misato moved to sit next to Rei and wrap the girl up in a one-sided hug and hold on tight. Shinji meanwhile slowly reached over and took Rei's free hand in his, smiling. Rei caught Asuka's eye and gave her a simple, slow nod. They'd have time for girl-talk later. Asuka felt a shiver of dread work its way down her spine.

Then, Ritsuko finally seemed to notice Asuka. Reaching into her pocket, she pulled out a small wedge of dark metal and matte black plastic. Loops of elastic bands dangled from the corners. She handed it to the redhead with a smile. "I picked it up on the way out, it should work."

Asuka frowned, not quite able to stop herself from asking the obvious question. "What is it?" The answer she got was directed more at everyone, but that was just as well, as they all wanted to know. Ritsuko's smile was just a tiny bit smug.

"Remote sensory link. Asuka's brain can see just fine, and her right eye works, but the connection's broken." Ritsuko smiled a bit wider. "It's basically a camera feeding directly into her visual cortex."

She went on to explain the particulars, quickly losing Misato due to the use of jargon. Rei and Asuka kept up easily enough, but only Shinji truly knew what Ritsuko was talking about, up until the adapted Evangelion technology came in. It worked a lot like the standard neural clips, and Asuka's habit of wearing them everywhere would improve their connectivity. On the one hand, Shinji didn't care to call his volunteer work and medical training a hobby. At the same time, his hobby was learning how to heal the sick and injured. It was difficult for Shinji to not be interested.

Asuka played with the device, letting the elastic bands spill over her fingers while she gauged the weight. It wasn't heavy at all. A new hand appeared in her field of view, leading to the Third. "Mind if I take a look?"

She passed the gadget to him, while Ritsuko stared. Asuka was still audibly curious, "You think you could make one of these?"

Holding the eyepiece up, he looked it over. He'd examined a lot of tools and appliances over the last year, most of it built on fundamental concepts. Shinji felt his reserve of power flex within, supplementing his understanding. There wasn't an obvious lens. The plastic seemed to let light in one way...

Finally, he handed it back to Asuka. "...I'd need the right tools, and some time to experiment, but yeah."

Pushing away from the kitchen table, Ritsuko waved suddenly animated. Her hair seemed to bounce along with her mood. "Well, Pilot Sorhyu? Try it on!"

After the others gave her space, Asuka pulled away her old mundane patch. The eye beneath was still perfectly healthy, aside from a psychological symptom. Her eyelid drooped, like she was half-asleep on that side. Asuka found it easier to just keep the eye covered. It took her a few seconds to arrange the straps the way she wanted, accounting for her headset and normal hairstyle. When she was finished, there was suddenly a sense of rightness, like how an artist knew their piece was complete.

Misato was the first to break the silence, breaking out into a thousand-watt grin. "It looks really good!"

The smile seemed to be infectious. "Mirror. Mirror! I wanna see this!" Asuka waved for something, anything to let her see for herself.

Shinji had already moved, pulling a reflective decoration off the wall. He held the polished surface up for Asuka. She preened, tilting her chin this way and that. The techno-patch hugged her face comfortably, and her bangs framed it just so. Ritsuko meanwhile soured, good-naturedly. She tapped her feet and scowled, waiting for the gushing to die down.

Joining Asuka in the reflection, she pulled the girl's hair back,. "You know," Ritsuko drawled, pointing at a tiny side-mounted rocker switch. "You can turn it on."

Asuka's grin grew even more fierce. Forcing Ritsuko's fingers away, she hit the switch and waited. "...Nothing's happening!"

Ritusko laughed, having found a wall to lean against. "Give it few seconds, it is kind of like syncing with an Evangelion, after all."

Huffing, Asuka gave a fitful little stomp and crossed her arms over her chest. Frowning, she fell back on her training, and let her mind reach for a nearby presence. Her Unit 02 was an all-encompassing thing. Proper synchronization was big and surrounding. With the eye patch, Asuka somehow felt part of her mind bend. It took her a few moments to understand that everything felt like that when she took control of the Evangelion. The funny kink seemed to relax, even as vision her right eye slowly came back. It was fuzzy, and a little off, but it made sense when she remembered the eye patch camera wasn't matched perfectly with her working eye.

Then, her vision on that side jumped. Asuka stumbled, flailing for a chair, but got her feet back under herself just in time. She waved off Misato's concerned rush while standing. The distorted perspective had corrected itself, leaving her with a somewhat blurry right field of view, but full binocular vision. Suddenly, text appeared in mid-air.

"Wh-What the hell?! Akagi-" Asuka twisted left and right, trying to find the scientist and get her balance back.

Ritsuko laughed and stepped back into frame. "Akagi-Sensei, Pilot Sorhyu. You're wondering about the heads up display?"

Asuka waved her hand in front of the device, watching it lay a wire frame grid over her palm and fingers. Her thoughts directed it, marking out her pulse, blood pressure and more vital signs. "I figured I'd only get to see! I didn't expect bionic vision!"

The scientist shrugged, smirking. "The futurists figured it'd be called augmented reality. You'll get used to it. Otherwise the manual will tell you how to turn it off."

"We don't need manuals."

Blinking, Ritsuko and Asuka turned to Misato, and suddenly felt the same sense of impending doom bearing down upon them. The lieutenant's brown eyes were burning hot and intent, and her smile had stretched into a positively mischievous curl. "We don't need manuals," she emphasized. "We need a party. Shinji!"

The Third snapped to attention, positively vibrating in place. Misato took a moment to bask in the obedience. "Kitchen, now! Get to it!"

Rei, sitting at the table, perked up at the thought of food. She'd gone far too long on a purely liquid diet. While Misato was focused on Shinji, Ritsuko tried to make a break for it. She moved as quickly as politeness would allow, but in hindsight, wondered why she bothered. Misato had gotten her hooks in, and there would be no escape.

She turned back to face the kitchen, and watched Shinji work. The sunfire corona began to build up around his shoulders.

Shinji had a lot of reasons to think about competence. Both the nature of the word and what it meant for a lot of people, not just himself. Come March, he would have been in Tokyo-3 a full year. He'd gotten used to a lot of things over that time, like how it suddenly wasn't a big deal, keeping an eye on four different dishes on four different burners. And bread baking in the oven. Along with planning dessert. His judgement was sublime, and he knew those recipes by heart. He knew every peculiarity of Misato's stove, mixer and refrigerator, and how to exploit them.

He still had trouble dealing with his coworkers, superior officers, friends, roommates, classmates, humans in general, and, as it fate had it, penguins. It didn't help in the slightest that nearly everyone present in Misato's apartment fit into more than one category. There was also the problem that he was the only male in the building, leaving him surrounded yet again by beautiful women. On the one hand Shinji had to admit that was kind of awesome, on the other it just made him all the more nervous.

Misato had ducked into the kitchen behind him, early on. She was a slob and something of a party animal, buoyant and lively. Shinji liked to think of her as admirable, but immature. Her drinking habits varied by mood, but 'special occasion' meant imported red wine. The lieutenant pulled out the bottle with a gleeful smile.

Asuka from her seat at the table couldn't help but snark. "Like you need an excuse to drink."

"This is a light day for me! Normally I'm into beer towers by now." Wine in one hand, Misato reached into the fridge with her other, pulling out soda for Asuka and Rei. She shut the door with one expert swing of her hip.

Ritsuko had already retrieved a pair of wine glasses, waiting patiently to be filled. "Somehow that does not surprise me."

The conversation dissolved further into playful banter, where Ritsuko fired quips broadside. She dredged up several years worth of college memories and 'old war stories' during Misato's UN days. What Asuka lacked in first and second-hand dirt, she made up for with brute intelligence and snark. Besieged on all sides, Misato turned to Rei, hoping for an assist.

The girl's response was damning: "Yebisu Taj Mahal."

Shinji had started on appetizers and quick snacks he could throw together cold, buying him time to prepare the next course. The cabinets and refrigerator were both stuffed and overflowing, thanks to the Third Child. There weren't any premade batters or doughs in the apartment, only base ingredients. It had gotten to the point that instant meals filled only one shelf, and only of the highest quality. Shinji made everything else from scratch whenever possible.

The space limitations irked him, but he persevered regardless. Cooking was a no-effort activity, even when he pushed himself. The burning corona flickered around his shoulders. From his place in the kitchen, Shinji was reasonably insulated from the others, giving him the chance to observe.

Rei did not look healthy, even with a brief glance. Her skin looked dry and not quite gray. Asuka had tugged the girl into another room, helping carrying the converted lamp and drip bag. The girls looked cagey, not skittish, but definitely wary. Shinji started on a bowl of chocolate cake batter while he mused. They had come back different. Not bad, but changed, somehow. Ayanami was slightly more animated, expressive. Her body looked cold and unwell, but her face and voice were both much warmer.

If Shinji had to get to know Rei all over again, he didn't mind.

When the girls came back, Misato slid out of her chair into a one-woman standing ovation. Asuka had helped pull Rei's hair back, and found a matching blue sundress. It didn't do anything to offset the needle in her arm, or how her veins stood out against her skin, but it was a step towards normalcy, and towards Rei just being a regular girl. Oddly enough both pilots seemed to relax while Misato whistled and catcalled.

Asuka sat at the dining room table next to Rei, idly clicking the switch to her new prosthetic. Thermal, telescopic, augmented reality. It felt very much like seeing half the world as a video game. Somehow the projection didn't just appear in her right field of view, but it spread to her full binocular vision. It made sense when she thought about it, the eyepiece was transmitting everything directly to her brain. It had been telling her all sorts of interesting things, like what kind of wood the table was made from, and how old the wine was in Ritsuko's glass.

It even tried to describe Ikari's fireworks display. "So what's with the glowing?"

Ritsuko sighed softly. "We've been calling it a coronal display."

"We think it's a sort of bleed through. He has a power source somewhere between his souls, and it... leaks. Into that." She waved her half-full wineglass back towards the kitchen, and Asuka watched, fascinated, as her patch analyzed the lipstick mark on the rim. Ritsuko didn't seem to notice the attention.

"Ikari-kun has formalized techniques, as well, that demonstrate consistent, repeatable behaviors. He's described it as 'moving parts of his soul around'." Ritsuko shrugged, pausing for a sip. "So far it's the best explaination yet."

Outside it was a misty, overcast late winner afternoon. In the kitchen, it looked like sunlight breaking through clouds. "So... The Third suddenly gets super powers?"

She was past the point of doubting, but Asuka still struggled with acceptance, for lack of a better term. There was plenty of proof, but not enough answers. Misato joined them, and ended up making matters worse. "Well, to hear Shinji tell it, a god gave it to him."

Asuka's tone had gone flat. "God."

Misato's grin curled up catlike, and Asuka winced, feeling as if she walked into something unawares. "A god, not the God. He had a dream during the first Angel attack. His first time in combat too."

Asuka was silent, as was Rei. The First had learned a lot through simple observation, but there were still gaps in her knowledge. Misato took their attention as a sign to continue. Ritsuko cradled her chin in one hand and listened as well, offering her own perspective on those early days. Shinji had confided a lot in Misato early on.

"Shinji described it as this massive man in golden armor, like old Greek or Roman soldiers? Except he had four arms." Misato hummed, trying to recall. "He called Shinji 'Lawgiver', and told him he'd be watching."

Ritsuko sighed and held her glass up for a refill. Subjective experiences and information never sat well with her. "Assuming Ikari-kun didn't just hallucinate that part... It's been a while since I read that report. I can't remmeber what he called it. The god."

"The Unconquered Sun."

Shinji appeared, arms laden with food, dominated largely by Rei's favorites and some educated guesses for Asuka. The redhead slid back in her chair, surprised, while Ritsuko openly stared. Only Misato seemed unaffected by Shinji's sudden interruption. Then the aroma hit, and they almost forgot what they'd been talking about. Rei took on a rosy blush, down past her neck with a matching, shy smile, and Misato let out a wordless purr. Ritsuko and Asuka were left mystified; the food certainly smelled good, and Shinji had made it quickly, with excellent presentation. The Second Child focused her altered eye on the food.

Then she remembered what the boy had said. Asuka sat bolt upright, bristling and incredulous. "Unconquered- You mean to seriously suggest you got your powers from Sol Invictus? The third century Roman diety?"

The latin threw Misato and Rei off, but Ritsuko offered Asuka a curious grin. "Where'd you pick that up? I thought you had a bachelor's of science."

"I had to take some humanities to fill out my transcript!" Still standing, Asuka huffed and folded her arms over her chest. "And I qualified for a few minors! Stop changing the subject!"

"Well, that makes sense, Shinji's an... Exalt?" Misato looked up at Shinji for confirmation. "Solar Exalted. Sun god, basically."

Asuka slumped back in her seat, limp and boneless and fully in-line with teenage melodramatics. She had made a good observation though, and Ritsuko told her as much.

"Honestly it's not surprising, we've been seeing all sorts of strange, ahistorical symbols. His corona exhibits obvious influences from Buddhism." Ritsuko toasted one of the gold wire traceries hovering around Shinji's shoulder. The hand outline folded gracefully into one mudra after another. "How much did you know about that practice before coming to Tokyo-3?"

Finally finished setting the table, Shinji shrugged and took a seat. He answered while loading his own plate. "About as much as anyone I guess, before I started studying."

With five people, the table was crowded, but pleasantly so. Misato wasn't one for strict table manners, and traipsed through the customs with her usual flair. The lieutenant pouted when Shinji had told her the 'magic pan' needed to be retired. It had lost its charge, as far as he could tell. It was a small loss though. Shinji tried complex dishes and fancy things every so often, but most of the time he stuck to various tried and true standbys; things that benefited well from investment and skilled preparation.

Ritsuko's fingers slipped, tangling up between the chopsticks. She managed to recover, shifting slightly. "... Katsuragi?"

Flushed and beaming, Misato set her plate down for the moment and purred. Ritsuko clicked her chopsticks together, giving her friend a wide-eyed look. The dark-haired woman didn't answer, save for another satisfied hum. Nothing else seemed to be amiss, so Ritsuko took another bite.


Blinking, Shinji asked if she was alright. Heat crept up Ritsuko's neck, but she held onto her composure with every scrap of will. Slowly, she glanced around the table. Someone had giggled. Her first thought was Shinji, considering the possibility of a boyish prank. But then she remembered that firstly, Shinji was Shinji, and not that good of an actor. Secondly, while his voice hadn't yet changed, he still did not sound like a girl. Misato on principle didn't giggle unless a man was involved, and Asuka was busy looking at the food with her prosthetic.

Rei had a tiny smile on her face.

"Katsuragi..." Ritsuko's tone dropped low. "Now's not the time to be coy."

The smoky, warm look on Misato's face vanished in an instant. Laughter bubbled up along with her smile. "Sorry, sorry! Shinji's just an excellent cook." The boy blushed slightly at her praise, but nodded.

"Everything's delicious, but-" Ritsuko's eyebrow started twitching. Misato had cut her off.

"It's just really good, but you have to be careful." She leaned back in her chair and laid a hand over her bare stomach, grinning. "It can sneak up on you."

Ritsuko blinked, nonplussed. She turned from Misato to Rei, who just smiled. Shinji shrugged. He either made it right, or he failed, and could always tell the difference. She faced Asuka last, and noted Misato do the same out the corner of her eye. The redhead had utterly ignored the conversation in favor of the food. Asuka had already gone for seconds, something Misato found unbelievable.

When she realized she was being watched, Asuka swallowed her last mouthful, only somewhat aware of the bit of rice stuck to her lip. She blinked once. "What? It's delicious."

Sunset in post-impact Japan was often warm, almost muggy. Even in winter, clouds gave way to warm breezes more at home in summers two decades past. The impromptu party had split, leaving the adults outside on the balcony. Draped over her chair, Misato watched the kids out the corner of her eye. Inside, the pilots bickered lightly. The glass door muffled Shinij's indignant squawk, followed by a ringing peal of laughter. Asuka seemed to make it her mission to get a rise out people.

It was always a joy to watch Shinji get flustered, and Asuka seemed to have a way of cracking his shell. Rei, oddly enough seemed to side with Asuka, but every so often, she'd drop a one-liner and send the other girl reeling. The redhead stumbled into another verbal bind. It seemed that Rei had come out of the simulation with a sharper wit, and it was all Asuka's fault.

Something about Asuka's new eyepiece bugged her, though. Ritsuko was sitting nearby, spread out on one of the patio chairs. A second, half-empty bottle of wine sat between them. The blonde had finally shed her labcoat, having worn it all through dinner.

Misato glanced over at her friend. "I'm not complaining, Rits, but weren't we in a budget crunch?"

"We cut spending on everything but human resources, just so we can pay them. People are our most valuable assets right now." Ritsuko offered the sky a tiny smile, with one arm draped over her eyes. "Cost of materials on a one-off like that? Written off."

Misato leaned back in her chair, humming. "Huh, job security and company loyalty in NERV. Who knew?"

The sun sank lower, into the city skyline and the western hills. A bit of shuffling topped off their glasses, but they were both in a mood to sip. After the initial... oddness with dinner, Ritsuko shrugged it off and dug in. It had to have been years, a decade or more since she had a full meal, let alone a home-cooked feast. It was a good feeling, one Ritsuko had forgotten. She laid her hands over her stomach and sighed. .

Misato stretched with her shoulders braced against the chair, arching her back. Ritsuko made the mistake of looking. One of her eyebrows rose up in time with the hem of Misato's shirt. Or it would have, if the short black tank had anything left to ride up. Military conditioning, genetic lottery, or life just not being fair, Ritsuko tried very hard right then not to begrudge her friend for being thirty, and looking twenty.

Still, Ritsuko couldn't let her friend get off completely free... "Well, you certainly look satisfied... Huh. Katsuragi, I don't remember that top being quite so small."

Holding her free hand up, Misato made a little 'snip snip' motion. "I made some improvements!"

The blonde fought the urge to groan, or shake her head. Misato finished her stretch with a long, lazy groan, before scooting back to sit cross-legged. Ritsuko watched as her friend did all this with a half-full glass of wine in her other hand.

Then she realized what else had been bothering her: She should've seen Misato's... "Katsuragi, where's your scar?"

Her answer came with of Misato's blinding, outshine-the-sun smiles. "Shinji gave me my body back."


"He regrew your entire arm in a week," Misato grin spread even wider. She hooked a finger under her tanktop and pulled, revealing unmarked skin from below her breasts, all the way down into the waistband of her shorts. "My scar was easy."

As far as Tokyo-3 was concerned, almost nothing had happened over the weekend. A great deal of the city's municipal functions were controlled by the MAGI, but also removed removed from them several times over. In the dead of night, Sunday morning, anyone wandering the streets may have noticed malfunctioning traffic signals, or the numerous solar mirrors angling for starlight. Most citizens were quite simply unaware or unconcerned. Only a handful of important people were notified, let alone put on any form of alert.

Those who were put on alert included the Commander of NERV, as well as the JSSDF high command, the government, and the United Nations. In that last case, Gendo would have reported to the inspector on-site, but Ryoji Kaji was down in the Geofront. Mired in bureaucracy, Gendo wasted several days dealing with those distractions.

His office was cold. There hadn't been anyone inside for nearly a week, long enough for a thin layer of dust to settle on the floor and normally-gleaming desktop. Gendo drew one gloved fingertip down the polished surface, watching it leave a trail and come away grimy. He rubbed the dirt off on his pantleg and frowned, slightly. Fuyutsuki had already come in and left a stack of reports, but it wasn't his job to clean either. The Commander reached for the top file and started to read.

Ongoing reports about the worldwide Angel sightings. Those had dropped down to almost nothing. Once the UN took over the detection system, SEELE had what it wanted. A handful of incidents were still being reported. Gendo let the folder close and pushed it off to one side. The next file was thicker, stuffed with dossiers of new NERV employees. Those he read carefully, knowing that if a spy made it past Section Two's vetting process... A pen came out and marked 'further review' on a few suspicious entries. Others Gendo signed off on, reasonably certain of their identity, or willing to keep an enemy close at hand.

A few files jumped out at him, however. A muscle in his cheek and jaw pulled back, like he had eaten something particularly sour. Gendo held up a provided photograph, squinting over the top of his glasses, just to make sure he wasn't seeing incorrectly. He tried not to let emotions get in the way of his planning, but for something so... inconsequential, he saw no harm. With more than a little satisfaction, he reached out and marked, 'unacceptable' on those last applications. He truly had no pity for someone who wore decorative contact lenses to a job interview.

As the morning wore on, the Geofront cavern warmed beneath his office, and the glass floor faded to transparent. Above him, the System Sephirot gleamed silently. Most of the reports were subjects his analysts thought relevant or interesting, and Fuyutsuki supplemented with his own sources and academic connections. Advances in science, technology,and especially metaphysics. Like atomic theory before it, the science of an AT field was generally public knowledge, if restricted to academia and military research. Their monopoly at NERV was largely an illusion.

Vigilance was why Gendo read clippings from tabloids, discussing out of body experiences, psychic phenomena, and the strange workings of their world. Fortunately, credible findings were sorted before reaching his office.

Lastly were budget and housekeeping, things he largely delegated to Fuyutsuki, who in turn delegated it to Lieutenant Katsuragi and Akagi. Not all days were normal, however, and some things always needed his direct attention. A particular form caught his eye, related to his Director of Operations. He held it up and stared at it, contemplating. More loyalty never hurt. He mused, signing the document and filing it without further thought.

Gendo leaned back in his chair and let out a small sigh. Finished, in time for lunch. And leaving ample time for far more pressing matters. He reached into his inside coat pocket to pull out a notepad. Several pages of it were filled to the margins.

He reached out for the intercom. "Fuyutsuki."

"Here, Ikari."

"Have Lieutenant Ibuki report to my office in three hours."

For some people, the way they took their meals could in turn tell stories.

To Gendo, lunch was just lunch. He enjoyed it as much as anyone who liked to eat, but did not over-think it. Gourmet menus and acting like the most powerful man in the world was not something he went out of his way for. The paper carton and disposable chopsticks vanished into an open cabinet. A brief pulse of heat near his leg told him the incinerator made short work it, just like it consumed sensitive documents.

Now sitting at a clean desk, devoid of papers and dust, the Commander waited for his next appointment.

Ibuki Maya did not fear her bosses.

She didn't feel any particular sense of dread making her way to the Commander's office. Instead she stared at her reflection in the elevator door, more curious about the refractions of light in the metal, than anything wrong with her face. The lieutenant was in some ways very hard to upset, waving off a lot of worries that plagued other people. Maya did have a well-developed sense of empathy, though. It was why she volunteered for Project-E and posting at the Geofront.

Her cheeks bulged with air, holding for a second before letting out a sputtering breath. She did mind the trip. The Commander's office was in the surface shell of the Geofront, near the city-blocks. Central Dogma, down underneath the center of the city, was nearly a kilometer below. Maya's field was computer science, and even she could see some of the... issues, with the Geofront's layout. Half the Evangelion Cages were down on the surface level, hidden beneath the pyramid tower of Central Dogma. The other half were secured in the roof and connected to the launch rail system. They were tasked primarily with combat deployment.

So that all meant Maya had to go from Central Dogma, up one of the suspended railways, and then to another elevator that crawled along the top arc of the Geofront dome. It was a great view, but it added more than ten minutes to her total travel time. She did the math in her head and noted the elevator was moving extremely fast.

When she arrived at the Commander's Office, the door opened before she could even raise her hand to knock. "Enter."

Maya still was not afraid, but Ikari Gendo had a reputation. She stepped up to his desk, but did not take a seat. "Reporting as ordered, Commander."

"Lieutenant Ibuki," A report appeared on his desk, one she had completed a few days ago. She wasn't sure how to feel about only now being asked about it. "The situation last Sunday. It has been resolved?"

"As far as we are able to determine, sir." There were times she cursed her forever-bubbly, mousy voice. "Doctor Akagi has the possible infection secured on isolated storage. Pilots Ayanami and Sorhyu are secure and have recieved medical treatment. Sh-Pilot Ikari was instrumental in our success."

The wince did not show up on her face, but Maya felt it all the same. The Commander did not seem to notice or care. "As the reports say."

He closed the file and laced his fingers together over his mouth. Maya had no reason to be afraid, she had no skeletons in her closet and nothing ghoulish he could do to her. Ikari Gendo was a hero, albeit a terrible one. Even so, she felt a bead of sweat drip down the back of her neck. The Geofront outside grew brighter, up above, the collection mirrors angled to catch the afternoon sun, focusing it down fiber-optic lines into the cavern below.

"Your auxiliary MAGI interface was impressive, Lieutenant."

Maya blinked once. The compliment had come out of left field. "Thank you sir."

"I believe your talents are being underutilized. By the time you leave this office, your codeword clearance will be updated, and you will henceforth be in charge of MAGI operations."

The following silence dragged on, and Maya's tongue went dry in her mouth. "S-Sir?" The rest question was left unspoken.

"Doctor Akagi's responsibilities shall be adjusted, in keeping with NERV's upcoming change in procedure."

The young woman nodded stiffly. She did not, but decorum and training made her say it. "Yes sir, I understand." The commander dismissed her without a word or gesture, leaving Maya to turn smartly on one heel and walk out as quickly as politeness would allow.

Ibuki Maya was afraid of Ikari Gendo.

Asuka Langley Sorhyu was a little over fourteen years old.

She chose to think in German that morning, defaulting to the proper way to order her names. Asuka had nothing against Japanese as a language, she found it stimulating and challenging. Literacy was another story. Asuka was all too aware of things like alternate character readings, and kanji. She rolled over on her stomach and groaned into her pillow. Sunlight played over her back and shoulders, and while it felt very nice, it also was just too hot to sleep. Her good eye cracked open, staring balefully at the clock. It blinked 12:00.

Then she remembered; she hadn't bothered to set any clocks in the apartment.

Most of the past week had been spent eating and sleeping, and then Rei's welcome home party. If nothing else, Asuka was now a believer regarding Ikari's cooking. Now though, now something called Asuka to action. Everything was still a half-unpacked mess. Open boxes were stacked on each others hung out in wrinkled heaps. Asuka no longer cared what time it was. She raised her arms above her head and stretched hugely, yawning. In the privacy of her own home, she saw no reason to get dressed. She did however plenty of reasons to do other things, like unpack.

Even with the donated furniture from Misato's apartment, Asuka was light on storage space. It wasn't to say her apartment lacked room, she had the whole thing to herself, but she lacked room within the rooms for all her things. She at least had hangars for all her dresses, stored away in the biggest closet she'd ever had. There was no TV, so no game console for a while. Misato had provided a vacuum cleaner, a mop, nearly everything else she needed to fend for herself.

Some hours later, Asuka was left with her apartment as unpacked as it could get. She slumped against one cool wall and let out a gusty sigh, more out of relief than any sort of exhaustion. Getting up and active had reminded Asuka of her normal routine. Now she did change her clothes, swapping for a pair of red sweatpants and and T-shirt. Training as a combat pilot meant knowing the forms inside and out of her Evangelion.

Holding one hand out out, she watched the play of muscles running down her forearm. Strong, toned, and supple. Asuka was sure there weren't any other high school girls Tokyo-3 with a body quite like hers. Her fingeres folded into a textbook-perfect fist Asuka let her hand slowly uncurl. Her instructors had made it abundantly clear; over-training now when she was so young would have hurt her progress in the long run. If she had been older, she would have had a soldier's conditioning, instead of an athlete's.

Asuka huffed and scooped up her keys, heading out and angling for the roof. It wasn't far: up a handful of flights and barely even a warm up. Stepping out onto the rooftop though, Asuka remembered something. She remembered it just as she saw the sheds, a beach umbrella, coolers and chairs. Misato had told her the roof wasn't always empty. A dark-skinned woman in a pantsuit and glasses watched from the lawn chairs. Another boy with sandy hair, no older than her, blinked behind dorky prescription glasses.

Ignoring them for the moment, Asuka gathered her hair up in a quick pony tail, pulling it off her neck. Some bangs escaped, and caught the mid-morning sun, flaring bright as fire. She marched up to the boy, sitting behind three tables loaded with who knew what. Her eye piece filled in the details. One was bits of bone, feathers, pens pencils and half-foot high stacks of notebooks. A chemistry set spread out across another table, supplemented by what looked like a mortar and pestle. The third looked like it had breakfast. A thermos full of coffee, flanked by a plate of donuts and sugar cubes.

Asuka suddenly remembered that she hadn't eaten anything all morning. Her priorities shifted accordingly. Information clogged her view, forcing her to turn the augmentation off. She watched her reflection grow in his glasses as she approached. Red spread out across the boy's cheeks.

He certainly remembered her though. "S-Sorhyu-san. "I heard you and Rei-san were in a training accident?"

She couldn't help preening, just a little. "Something like know my name, what's yours?"

The folding chair squeaked. Or maybe that was his voice. "A-Aida Kensuke, Sorhyu-san."

Swiping one of the sugar cubes, Asuka snorted. "And what are you doing up here, Aida-kun? Aren't you a little young for coffee? Does your mom know how much sugar you're sneaking?

Aida's face went ashen, rocking back in his chair. "My mom's- and those aren't-"

She knew something was wrong the second it touched her tongue, but it was too late. Asuka had already nudged the cube between her teeth and crunched down.

Kensuke watched as the new girl sputtered and hissed. The redhead clutched at her throat, casting about for anything. A bathroom, a sink, she'd have settled for a garden hose right then. Deja watched from her post with a tiny smirk. She reached into her cooler and tossed the boy a bottle of water, who in turn offered it to Asuka. Doubled over, she glared at him through her bangs with one baleful eye. She snatched the bottle up with a snarl.

Still, he couldn't completely stop the laugh. "...Those were salt cubes."

Asuka did not do well with setbacks.

Without privacy, she couldn't stretch or go through her routine. She just knew Aida would gawk, and that was just unacceptable. A Half-dozen plans to get back on track ran through her mind, but she discarded them all for one reason. Even without the black suit jacket, Asuka could recognize a Section Two agent. At the same time she was slightly curious though, sneaking glances with her electronic eye. It was the first time she'd seen an agent in person, or someone with such dark skin. Racial lines had blurred a lot post-Impact, but NERV-Berlin had it's roots in western and eastern Europe.

Japan was and wasn't different. Asuka had arrived somewhat bemused, realizing she was taller than almost everyone her age by an inch or more. She liked it, but realized it was a mixed blessing. Her awareness wasn't perfect either, her tongue gave testament to that. She could still taste it, too, and it wasn't even good table salt. The question also remained: What did Aida need cubes of salt for?

The explanation came surprisingly easy.

"I was going to perform an experiment..." Aida turned to the agent, rolling one shoulder to point at Asuka. "Does she have clearance?"

The older woman didn't look up, instead wholly focused on brushing out the internal spaces of a handgun. Asuka had seen women examine their painted nails and manicured hands with less dedication.

Still, the agent answered. "Higher than yours. Knock yourself out."

With permission given, Kensuke opened his mouth, then closed it. He started and stopped a few more times, unaware or unconcerned with Asuka's rapidly dwindling patience. He pushed his glasses up before acting on his decision. He ducked away for a moment, finding a crate and digging around for a few moments, until he came back with a roll of string.

"Okay, for the salt cubes to make sense, we're going to have to start with the basics." He tossed the bundle to a flustered Asuka, who caught it easily. He waved her to follow while he started rooting around for something else.

Kensuke spoke over his shoulder, not quite looking up from his search. "What's that in your hand?"

Tonelessly, Asuka stared at the wound spool of fibers. "...String."

"Twine, to be exact." He followed that correction up with a short grunt, pulling out a heavy wooden frame about a yard wide and three tall.

It took Asuka a second to realize what it was. "...Why do you have a free-standing door and frame up on a roof?"

Planting the frame, the boy braced it in a nearby purpose-built stand. Kensuke looked up and adjusted his glasses once more. "For experiments like this one."

Asuka watched as Kensuke worked to set up the supposed experiment. On the second glance, she realized the door was incomplete, or modular. There were sections cut out of the side where knobs and deadbolts would go. Kensuke rummaged some more, mumbling under his breath and pausing to adjust his glasses. Nonplussed, Asuka waited. Not patiently, but at least quietly. When he was finished, Kensuke came back from another crate, carrying a door handle. It took a few seconds to mount it, and test the door.

Then Kensuke stepped back, suddenly all business and not a bit of hesitation. "Alright, if we're going to do this, we're going to do it right. Check the door to make sure it's in order."

It wasn't accurate to say she was at a loss, but Asuka had a sinking sensation, a sort of squirming dread. That feeling that everyone felt when egg was about to fall on their face. Still, she wasn't one to do things by half either. It was clear Aida was aiming for scientific rigor, something she could respect. She strode over to the door and frame and swung it open and closed. The fastenings looked good, and the lock action worked. Looking back at the boy, she realized he'd pulled out a pen and notepad.

The twine had been tossed aside at some point, leaving Kensuke to retrieve it. A pen knife cut a length apart, and then that one was cut in half. He handed one to the girl, while wrapping the other around his hands. "Try to break it, tear it apart."

Asuka felt her face twist up in that 'humor the crazy person' way, but did as instructed. The twine wasn't amazingly strong, coming apart after a few minutes effort. All these steps had to be going somewhere, and suspense wasn't something Asuka liked being in. Tossing the torn twine aside, she started to tap her foot, expectant.

Hunching over, Kensuke held a hand in front of his face and winced. "Sorry, just, it'll make sense, I promise. We agree the twine can break, right?"

Nodding, Asuka let the boy continue, but the angle of her arms and tightly-folded fists made it very clear she could break his nerd body in half. Kensuke took it as a sign to hurry up. Bolting over to the door, Kensuke tied the twine around the knob facing Asuka. For a second she thought he'd anchor it to the frame, but no. Stepping around back, out of sight, he asked if she was ready.

"For what?"

Kensuke kicked the door open.

The separate section with the knob and bolt broke away from the main part of the door, and landed right at Asuka's feet. There was no helping it at that point, she stared at the lock, and then at the boy. He held up a hand, cutting off the imminent outburst. Dusting off the knob assembly, Kensuke handed it to her. "That was the control."

A few minutes later, Asuka was again watching the boy set up a door and frame. The 'kick test' as he called it was a one-off. He was sure the following test would've been fine the damaged door and handle, but he wanted to make sure she understood what was happening. That he wasn't lying or wasting her time. Offering her his plate of donuts had mollified her, somewhat.

So Kensuke set up a new door, and a new lock. He had her inspect it all once more, and she confirmed that yes, all the relevant variables were accounted for. The difference, and he invited her to watch and listen closely, was absolutely insane. He wrapped the knob in twine and chanted. A brief repeated sentence in a made-up language, exactly seven times. The boy admitted that he didn't know what the words meant; but they worked.

What he meant by 'worked', Asuka had no idea.

Inviting over to the untied side, Kensuke stated his hypothesis, and asked her to prove or disprove it. "For the next hour, that door is going to act like it's locked. I want you to open it by almost any means." He went on to say that attacking the frame itself was off limits, as that would defeat the test.

That left Asuka to turn her logic to the problem. The first test; the door had been unlocked, and Kensuke had kicked it open. He admitted going for the dramatic demonstration first, because he knew the door would give without hurting his leg. Asuka was confident in her strength and training, but kicking down a standard exterior door wasn't something she wanted to try first thing.

So, she examined it. The door was closed and refused to open. The knob only turned so far as it would if locked, but when she checked, she realized that particular handle had no lock. She tried again, jiggling the handle, slamming her shoulder into the door itself, and so on. Aida had said 'any means', so she held out her hand meaningfully. It took him a few seconds, before nodding glumly and handing over his wallet. A school ID card would have made quick work of a simple bolt like the one before her, but nothing worked, short of kicking it down. Asuka looked up from the ruined frame and tried not to feel how much her leg stung.

A fifteen year old had locked a door with a bit of twine and some chanting.

A few days later, a semi truck and trailer rolled into the parking lot of Misato's apartment. A black car pulled out of a nearby alley, then another. More men and women in sharp black suits appeared. Jackets were unbuttoned and hands drifted closer to holsters. Others pressed their fingers to low-profile earpiece radios.

The papers and people were all in order.

The question came in one brief rush. "Ikari Shinji, what the hell is going on here?"

The Third Child looked over from a thick stack of papers, attached to a beat up, old clipboard. Misato stared at her senior pilot-roommate and the slowly building pile of appliances, raw materials and mysterious odds and ends.. She knew he'd bought or built quite a few things over the past year, but this was the first time he'd dragged it fully into her apartment. Granted, she conveniently ignored the fact that she'd lived there one day longer than he had. It was the principle of the thing.

Misato had only come home that morning to check on the kids and grab a quick shower. Finding half her front walkway dominated by crates wasn't something she expected. There had been no sign of Rei or Asuka yet, either.

The boy didn't answer at first, so Misato tried again, softer this time. Coming up behind him, she peered around his arm. "Shinji, sweetie. What's going on?"

He smiled then, leaving her wondering if he knew just how dangerously cute he could be. Shinji offered her the clipboard, letting Misato look it over with a steadily rising eyebrow. Everything seemed fairly straight forward; receipts, work orders, fees for time and labor. Hardwood cabinet paneling, mixer, oven hood assembly...

She stopped for a moment and re-read one particular line, just to make sure. "Seriously? A kitchen sink?"

Shinji looked surprisingly calm, almost serene. He shrugged, still smiling. "You needed a better one."

Misato felt her eyes stretch even wider, but her voice fell flat. "Better."

Nodding, the boy pulled out a plastic-wrapped hunk of metal. A hunk of stainless steel. Misato knew sinks could get pretty fancy, but it was the first time she'd seen one with three basins. She let the clipboard slip out of her hand and rattle against the table top. Padding back outside in her sock-clad feet, she took a closer look at the growing pile of crates and wrapped material. Slowly, she began to realize what was going on. More than a few of the boxes were taller than her.

A few of the movers eyed her as they walked by, heading downstairs for more cargo. If she hadn't been so distracted, Misato would have eyed them right back. Instead she tried to get her mind to accept what her eyes were telling her. Misato slowly picked her way through the uneven stacks, lost and confused. Shinji followed her out a few moments later.

"A new refrigerator," Misato mumbled, tonelessly. It was nothing like her quirky door-and-drawer model. She pulled open the double doors and looked down to see a massive freezer bin. Slowly, she turned towards the teenager, face slack with disbelief. "Double wall oven, gas cooktop, sink, and... is that countertop marble?"

The boy smiled that same content smile, as if nothing could damage his calm. "I had this idea I wanted to try, and I got a good deal."

Part of her was happy, euphoric even. That warm sense of joy built up in her chest, but it was shot through with a freezing sort of panic. Misato's eyes went wide. "Good dea- How am I going to pay for all of this? How are we going to send it all back!?"

Shinji held up his hands, laughing lightly. "I'm paying for it."

Reeling, Misato's shoulders dropped. She stood there, listless. "Wha? How?"

"The pilot salary trust fund. I talked to NERV accounting, they helped me set it all up." Shinji let out another short laugh, suddenly bashful. "I've uh, earned enough credits for an associates degree at Tokyo-2, so... not like I need to save."

Misato didn't recall how she cleared the distance so quickly, or how her arms ended up wrapped around the boy so tightly. Most embarrassingly, she was sure she would have remembered not to press his head into her chest like that. But even stooped over, Shinji made no complaint. Someone behind the pair pointedly cleared their throat.

Shinji sprang back upright, red-faced and left to stare ahead, blankly. His hair was mussed up on one side. Misato meanwhile twisted halfway, leaving her wrists hooked loosely around Shinji's neck and shoulders. She faced Asuka and Rei, blinking. "Where've you two been?"

"My place." Asuka inclined her head at the apartment next door. "Ikari told us about the delivery, and you were at NERV."

The redhead picked her way around the stacks, eying the foam and plastic wrapping with a distant sort of interest. Rei stood quietly near by with one hand on her improvised IV stand. The pilots and officer fell silent then, just for the moment. The giggling started with Misato, drawing Shinji back up into another, much softer hug. He joined in a beat later, and Misato felt his laughter in her bones.

Eventually, everyone made their way back into Misato's apartment. Shinji had already spent most of the morning making space for the imminent remodel. There was still more to prepare, however. He busied himself moving sturdy furniture outside on the patio. His plan also meant he'd be working around the clock. Meanwhile, Misato stared at her old fridge, and wondered how she was going to eat during the rebuild.

Asuka however came to the two girls had apparently talked about it earlier that morning. Asuka's apartment was almost completely empty and mostly unfurnished, and by her own admission, she only used two rooms. Shinji would stay in Misato's apartment during the remodel, and Asuka, Misato and Rei would stay next door. Misato all but teleported across the dining room, scooping the girls up in a massive hug. Asuka squirmed in Misato's grip, while Rei felt the air forced out of her lungs. Still, she smiled.

Misato pulled away, leaving the pair rumpled and winded as she turned to Shinji. "When do you plan on sleeping next?"

Shinji looked around, as if the walls would gauge his endurance. He shrugged. "In a couple days."

"If you get tired, don't hesitate to find me."

Red spread across his cheeks, but he smiled softly. "I know my limits, Misato."

The rest of Misato's day at NERV was shot, but Shinji provided an excellent reason or excuse, depending. She would pay for it the next day, but for now, her crazy miss-matched family came first. Shinji may have been paying, but Misato endeared herself to the delivery crew with her patented smiles and cold drinks. She also happily noticed how the crew glanced at Shinji, envious.

Thinking about it, Misato decided to have a little fun. She hummed pleasantly. "Are there any magazines that still do those 'most eligible bachelor' awards?"

She aimed the question more at Asuka, who was the most likely to know. Instead the girl seized up, choking off a tiny indignant squawk. Misato plowed ahead regardless, strutting across the kitchen to a silent and thoroughly nonplussed Shinji. She took his hand. Flashing him one of the best, most reassuring 'relax, have fun' smiles she could, Misato gave his hand a squeeze. Asuka and Rei watched with a scowl of offended propriety and wide-eyed undisguised curiosity, respectively.

With her free hand, Misato walked her fingers up Shinij's chest, humming into his neck. "I think we should find one. I should enter you."

Shinji stumbled back and away, thumping solidly against the wall. Misato still had her hand wrapped around his, and found herself pulled along and airborne. She had to admit, the few seconds of hang time felt pretty good. Crashing nose-first into her pilot's chest, less so. Falling and half-sliding, Misato braced for the landing. Shinji however reacted, looping one arm around her legs and holding firm. Asuka and Rei both stared, wide-eyed. Misato looked up and Shinji looked down, both blinking with wide eyes of their own.

Then the laughter burst out in earnest.

Shinji knelt and let Misato wriggle down to the floor. She knew she had to give the boy some space, but not before sneaking in one more honest hug. She looked up again with a tentative grin. "Too much?"

The mirth faded to a smile, leaving Shinji with his classic blush. "No, I'm fine."

Meanwhile, Asuka grumbled. "You're both making me sick."

With the kitchen chairs outside on the patio, Misato instead sat cross-legged atop her dining room table, sipping idly at a cold beer. Rei and Asuka took over what clear space remained in the living room, huddled around a low table. 'Back to school' had been mentioned earlier. Misato had to at least try to be responsible, somewhat.

The delivery truck had been completely emptied by mid-morning. Between normal workday delays, and the mandatory security checks, there was still a great deal of raw material and un-assembled equipment left waiting in the parking lot. Supplies and appliances were only part of the order. About a third of the crates and boxes were tools of the trade for woodworking and the like. Those were destined for Shinji's workshop, supplementing the NERV-issue gear he already had.

To solve the immediate problem though, Shinji took it upon himself to haul the remaining goods upstairs, but both Misato and the Section Two detail had to remind him not to be so blatantly superhuman. In a way though it was worth it to see Asuka and agents gape at Shinji holding still-packed table saw over his head. Finally though, by lunch time, Shinji had finished hauling everything in. He didn't even look tired.

Misato raised her can to the second man of the house, smiling broadly. "You know Shinji, somewhere, someday, a lucky girl is going to just ruin you."

All Shinji could do was swallow his tongue. Without looking up, Asuka fired back on his behalf. "You tried that already."

Squirming, Misato groaned. "I said I was sorry!"

Ignoring the girls for the moment, Shinji caught his breath. He looked at all the raw materials and boxed appliances, a kitchen waiting to be constructed. "I think I'd be the one to spoil you."

Silence reigned in the apartment. Even Rei looked up from her homework. A tiny, smug grin appeared on Asuka's face. Misato meanwhile gathered her jaw up, humming playfully.

"Alright, two things: Did you just shoot back? And," She fixed the boy with a blinding cheshire smile. "Is that a challenge?"

Asuka threw her hands up in the air and rolled to her feet. "And again, Katsuragi Misato has shed all pretense of responsible adulthood."

Her kitchen was already tiny, but without some sort of plan, all the new installation would make it positively miniscule. Misato stared at the gleaming masses of stainless steel and piles of raw material. "...I'm gonna have more kitchen than dining room."

Shinji started pacing around the space, thinking. The gold disc on his forehead gleamed. Holding up both hands, Shinji created a frame with his thumbs and forefingers.

"Yeah, I'm going to have to take out a wall."

Rei wondered if being assertive always came with mixed fortunes.

The parking garage attached to the apartment complex was empty, save for Misato's blue Renault and the fenced off section holding the dissasembled Skyline. There was no lock, and the steel link gate swung easily on new, oiled hinges. Her raised arm trembled, pale and weak from atrophy. Beauty was a concept she understood, but her own grasp of aesthetics, of beauty in her own life, was a new and untested thing. So was the idea that a flaw could be seen as a positive embelishment.

She wondered again, as to what kind of people would admire her old and new flaws. After a few moments, Rei decided she would rather not meet such company.

Lifting a pencil and notepad seemed like a herculean effort, and directing her fingers to write was not much easier. Rei let the pencil and a sigh slip out, and she let her mind wander again. The construction of her thoughts were themselves new, in some ways cleaner than before. She thought with words instead of just concepts and images. Most recently, it had developed thanks to time spent with Asuka, and Rei's growing colleciton of finished books.

Fiction was rapidly becoming a useful tool and support in her life. Rei felt no shame in acknowledging that fact. She looked down at her arm and the IV shunt embedded in her vein. A month trapped in a survival situation gave her an insight towards resource management as well. The stabilizing solution made it easier to maintain hold on her identity, but also suppressed the more robust aspects of her body. Essentially, it was a neurochemical metronome keeping time to her sense of self.

Liquid was not the most accurate term, but for all intents and purposes, her body lacked a certain solidity. While she knew the scientific and metaphysical terms for it, at that moment, Rei really did not care about being accurate. She could not make plans, lift engine parts, or tighten bolts. Ahead of her arrayed out on cardboard mats and folding tables was her first real hobby, and a step into a larger world. And something she might have to give up.

There were hardly any light fixtures in the concrete structure. Not surprising, but something he'd want to look into later. Shinji walked softly, quietly. Ahead, Rei sat in the midst of her car, lit by work lights and standing lamps. The fenced off section created a garage within a garage. He joined her without really thinking about it, crossing into that space which defined 'together'. Shinji smiled slightly at his own thoughts, even as he played with a random car part. Koans and philosophy had taken up his interest like little else. Construction, math, engineering, everything else just felt so easy, by comparison.

He was there for Rei, however, not introspection. Shinji hadn't remembered when he stopped thinking of her as 'Ayanami', or adding the polite honorific. He did however feel a rightness about it, an unspoken permission. Rei herself had offered him the same courtesy, but greeted him with her customary 'Ikari-kun'. It had proven rather easy to just pick up their awkward friendship, despite the subjective month-long gap.

Shinji hefted the piece of car to eye level, realizing it was piston cylinder. "I wanted to ask you some things. Permission." This is," he waved at the corners of the parking garage. "Is all your space."

Rei just tilted her head and faced him. Her stares used to be unnerving, but Shinji had long since gotten used to them. "I was hoping I could move my workshop down here. It's more private, and..."

Trailing off, he realized she probably didn't need to hear all the particulars. Rei continued to hold silent, leaving Shinji to gather his thoughts. "If you're also interested, I could build a proper garage down here. For you and Misato, I mean."

She could have hugged him then, but that was not really her way. Months ago, during the battle, she hadn't known why people were happy, how to express it.

Now she did, and her smile could glow. "I would like that, thank you."

With her approval, Shinji's mood changed visibly. He did that often presenting different, strong or weak faces to the world. Rei tried to memorize expressions, of her friends, of anyone she met. While Rei couldn't always identify his moods, she could almost always tell when they shifted. His hesitation dropped away, leaving a gleeful sort of purpose. Rei had realized a long time ago that Shinji thrived on goals. Goals were power, to Ikari Shinji.

He also had some experience reading her expressions. Whatever long, well-wrought plans he had thankfully stayed in his head. Instead he kept it simple. "I'd need to do some research, but I'll get it done. Eventually."

Shinji sat down next to her with a rueful huff. "I wish I had more things to talk about. Not just... Myself. The stuff I can do." His lips quirked up in a mirthless, wan smile. "All I do is talk about doing, or actually doing it."

"I don't mind."

Still, by unspoken agreement they let the conversation end. Talking, speaking, both teenagers had their fill of it for different reasons. Their guardian-landlord had no appreciation for calm and quiet, however. Misato filled the air with sound and affection, trying to be supportive and largely succeeding. Rei meanwhile had been targeted for friendship by one Sorhyu Asuka Langely.

The piston was still in Shinji's hand. He hooked a fingertip through the hole at one end and let it swing, barely feeling the weight. His brow furrowed, and Shinji demanded understanding. Rei glanced up at him, and the mark over his forehead.

Shinji let out a weak laugh. "Just curious. I could... Nevermind."

Rei turned to face the dissassembled car, and more silence followed. The boy set aside the piece of metal and tried to idle, to will himself calm. Thirty seconds later, his foot started bouncing. Rei continued to be pleasantly quiet and unobtrusive. He knew not to be fooled by her passivity. Rei had shed true apathy almost utterly. Left with nothing to do, Shinji fidgeted. His foot kept on bouncing, and without realizing, Shinji cupped his hands and started tapping his fingertips together.

Sneaking a glance sidelong, Shinji tried to suppress a sigh. He was more or less successful, making not obvious motion. The air inside the parking lot was cool and somewhat dusty, but less of a house and more of rock. Late-winter sunlight had little hope of heating the structure either. Just with that glance, and an innate, absolute certainty, Shinji built a comprehensive picture of Rei in his mind.

He stopped fidgeting. There was still something missing, some part of the picture that remained incomplete. But what he had told him enough. Turning to Rei, he broke the comfortable silence. "I know what's wrong with you. The symptoms, at least."

She did not really freeze. Rei had assumed he knew, expected. Some small part of her twitched at the casual breach of privacy. It was difficult to be angry though, considering his ease of insight. Turning, she looked at Shinji right in the eye and waited. He did not waste any time.

"Your cells are falling apart, all over your body. They're not even dying, Rei, they just... forgot" He waved at his arm, as if that would explain something. "Forgot how to stay intact and just melted. That makes no sense and-"

His arms dropped to his sides and he slumped, exhaling harshly. Shinji's head hung forward and bowed, and his shoulders were slack. He did not look up to ask his question. "Why won't you let me help you? Why won't you tell me?"

Rei was silent, and stayed that way for what felt like a very long time. It came down to help, and she had to do her part as well. "Because... I believe you would be better off not knowing."

Shinji never considered himself particularly brave or gallant. For the longest time, there hadn't been anyone in his life willing to care about his wellbeing. Moreover, he hadn't realized that until he came to Tokyo-3. He felt his jaw drop and eyes go wide, and his voice rose with disbelief, in fits and starts. "You want to protect me? From what?"

Now Rei looked away. Her fingers curled up into the fabric of her skirt, but her voice was clear and unaffected. "Words cannot be taken back. Knowledge cannot be unlearned. I believe this is true here."

"You think I can't handle it? That I won't understand?" Shinji stood up, towering over the girl. He didn't even remember moving. "Rei, two weeks ago I figured out how to program the MAGI and then helped write a whole knew language for it. It used math I hadn't even heard of. It used human brains for personality imprinting! How can I not understand something?"

Rei looked up at him. Her red eyes were bright and angry. "First, do no harm."

Shinji faltered, stumbling back a half step. He tried to get a question out, but Rei cut him off. "The Hippocratic Oath."

The boy visibly soured, almost turning green. He slumped back into his seat, deflated and morose. "I know. I never actually swore any oath. And I'm not a licensed medical practitoner."

There needed to be a moment, to let tempers cool. Rei forced it by refusing to continue, waiting for the right moment. Even when Shinji had loomed above her, Rei had not been afraid. Not yet, at least. She refused to entertain that thought any more.

Instead, she spoke softly. "It's not fair to solve everyone's problems, even if you can."

Something poorly understood told Rei to reach out and lay her hand over his. Shinji twitched, ticklish, but did not shy away either. Rei took it as a compliment beyond measure.

"If you are not aware, I can fly." Rei glanced at him sidelong, when Shinji blinked. There wasn't a lot to be said about that. Still, Shinji could not stop one of his eyebrows from arching high.

"Sometimes." She qualified. "What I mean is, I had to remember not to fly everywhere. To do so was... Irresponsible."

She did not go into detail, and Shinji did not press for answers. It was a trick the Commander had used, offering something in exchange for a temporary advantage. Her insides squirmed heavily, but she could not place the feeling, and she felt pluse in her neck speed up without cause.

Deciding to think about the manipulation later, Rei continued. "You have... agency." She groped for the word, and for a better explaination. Tilting her head towards the car, she used it and her permit as an example. "I have volition, I can choose where to go, and when. You can choose when to heal, but..."

Shinji sagged further in his seat, listless. His hands clenched and unclenched, and they both watched the muscles in his forearms move accordingly. "I just... I want to help. Asuka said no, you said no. Misato can't say no, but she's easy!"

Shinji blinked once, as did Rei.

"...I didn't mean it like that."

Ryoji Kaji had been in Japan for less than a month, and he already needed a vacation. He felt like pair of heavy, burning weights had settled deep inside his neck and shoulders. A stress reaction, and one he was intimately familiar with. Long, exhausting days reviewing records made him feel all thirty one of his years. Granted, he did not have permission to see every report, but lack of clearance did not mean lack of access. A tired grin spread across his face. It hadn't been all fun and games, he had to admit. Paperwork only got one so far, and human intelligence was far more interesting.

It was a perfectly benign statistically anomaly, that every member of NERV he interviewed happened to be young, cute, and female. Kaji had a reputation to maintain, after all.

Stopping at the door of his apartment, Kaji went through his normal routine. officially, he had never been trained as a spy, agent, operative or anything like that. Instead, Kaji had no small amount of experience, and a particularly wide streak of luck. He checked the tracks and gap between the frame and door for tool marks. Satisfied, he breezed on it. The apartment itself was cold and dark, almost completely devoid of furniture. Of the two chairs he owned, the least comfortable was calling to him, as it was closer. Still, he pushed on; work never ceased.

Twenty minutes later, he found two new listening devices, and set them aside for later. Kaji shuffled into his bedroom, not even bothering to turn the blinds. He dropped onto his futon and shut his eyes.

"Impressive, inspector."

The gun was out from under the pillow and drawn at the second syllable. Sunset orange flooded the bedroom with the blinds cutting out long slices of black. Half in light and half in shadow stood Sub-Commander Fuyutsuki. The old man seemed utterly unconcerned about the gun Kaji pointed at his heart. Thinking about it, Kaji decided he really didn't want to shoot the Sub-Commander. The gun stayed in place, however.

Still unconcerned, Fuyutsuki stepped into the bedroom, shaking his head. "Bullets without gunpowder, Inspector. I must admit I'm curious as to how as well, but that's not very important."

Kaji stared, first at the old man, then at his weapon. Swinging his arm to one side, he squeezed the trigger. There was no loud bang, and Kaji had to admit it was a little impressive how Fuyutsuki didn't twitch. He set the gun down and sat up in his bed, sighing.

Rubbing his eyes, Kaji looked up at the officer. "So to what do I owe the privilege, Professor, a house call at this hour?"

Fuyutsuki smiled that particular smile. The one that old men learned when they confronted younger people with their experience. He flicked his hand up, and Kaji watched the old man toss and catch the two bugs from earlier. "In a very short time, I assume you plan on reporting your findings. You have quite a few masters, Inspector, and you tend to tell them different things."

Catching the bugs one last time, Fuyutsuki framed them between his fingers. Kaji made a note to never play cards with the man, ever. "I have a request, if you don't mind. One that comes from me, and not Commander Ikari."

Kaji shook his hair loose and started to gather it back up, holding the tie in his mouth. He spoke past his teeth. "Listening."

"I'll make sure these don't show up in your apartment." Fuyutsuki offered, tossing the bugs once more, but then amended slightly. "Or show up less often."

Nodding, Kaji finished pulling his hair back, waiting. Fuyutsuki continued, still smiling. "I would ask you wait to file anything, with the UN or the committee. If you must send something, make an excuse for whatever you lack."

Standing up, The Sub-Commander tossed Kaji the pair of devices, turning easily on one heel. Fuyutsuki was halfway out the bedroom door when he looked over his shoulder. "If you need plausible cause for a delay, I would be happy to see you incarcerated for subverting Geofront security."

Fortunately for Shinji, Rei had not commented on his slip. Instead tried to explain Asuka, and herself, and how Shinji could offer too much.

"Asuka remains a skeptic." She had said. It made sense too, sort of.

The conversation drifted from that point, and Rei found herself describing her time in the MAGI. Neither girl had really talked about their experiences in the simulation. Rei watched Shinji hang on her every word, and for a moment, saw his father. Not because they were related, but more the misdirection. Shinji was interested in her experiences, to the point of distraction. It occurred to her then, that she had no reason, or even a way to be dishonest with herself. She could chose when to speak and when to remain silent, but she could never not think. The girl knew she was both helping her friend, and protecting herself.

When her story had finished, The two teenagers fell silent. Shinji's stomach rumbled. "...Lunch time."

Rising, the boy swept dust from his pant legs, before offering his hand to Rei. When they both stood tall in the garage, the pair did not move. They looked around at the piles of assorted car parts and crumpled paneling.

Shinji had not let go of her hand however. He held on, gently. "Rei... I still want to help."

She didn't answer, not with words at least. She made a sound, but moved before Shinji could reply. He followed before she needed to tug him along, towards the disassembled engine. It wasn't a perfect metaphor, but her free hand crept up to her chest and felt her heartbeat. The IV twinged, but she ignored it.

"I have secrets, Ikari-kun." She spoke to the machine first, before turning to face him. "But I have an idea, and you can help."

When he nodded, she pointed him towards the engine, then twisted to pull the drip bag off the stand. Some part of Shinji hated the fact that she knew how to handle it so casually. Rei pressed the pouch into his hands.

He held it up and willed light out, squinting at the thin, yellow fluid. "...What is this stuff?"

The look he got in response banished all doubts in his mind; Rei was both teenager, and a girl. "Necessary for my continued existence. I require a better delivery mechanism."

He whispered the last two words, mulling it over. He carefully weighed the bag of medicine in one hand and snuck more glances at the girl.

"I can't just..." He looked over at her and made a face, and would have gestured, if not for both hands being occupied. "Magic it back to rightness?"

"I will respect your desire to help, if you respect my privacy."

Blinking, Shinji agreed, but not before wondering what she meant by privacy. Rei used to walk around the apartment naked, before Misato explained a few things. He hooked the back on the stand and made sure there weren't any air bubbles or kinks in the line. Her reasons made a certain sort of sense, a 'people' sense... And Shinji realized he honestly just did not get people, even Rei. Especially Rei.

Still, he had a direction to go in, and that made all the difference. Rei guided his attention back to the engine, and started to explain. "I require a device, better than this." she ran her hand up the converted lamp body.

Shinji scratched his head, frowning. "They make those, they're called infusion pumps, I'm not sure why Ritsuko-sensei didn't use one..."

"I am unsure as well, but I know they won't work. I want a better one."

"Better." The word stuck in his head like few others. He'd used it a lot in the recent past. Better was easy for him, but this was... "Rei, that's... I've never done anything like that. You're asking me to what, design a better infusion pump?"

Her smile was tiny, and growing more and more iconic to her. "Correct. Construction, clothing, cooking. Now precision engineering." The smile grew a bit wider, and she gave his hand a squeeze. "Two weeks ago, you learned how to program the MAGI, and then helped develop an entirely new language, or am I mistaken?"

Shinji stared, gaped even. Rei had grown a second head, or swaths of new personality. At that point he wasn't sure which. Something cracked in his chest, a little cough that broke into a full on burst of laughter. "You're right, you're right. I... I just want things to be easy, for everyone."

"Not everything should be easy, Ikari-kun."

"I know, just..." He kicked his toe at the pavement. "I'll see what I can do."

Shinji's stomach growled again.

Saneda Ayumi had been born in the year 2000, inside a half-ruined hospital, in mainland China.

She was too young to remember that country, or to remember the half-year of war, just after Second Impact. The Valentine's day treaty had been signed before she began to crawl. Ayumi, like an entire generation of children, grew up without television, books or a thriving entertainment culture. At that point, Japan was nearly uninhabited, save for the sturdy few who clung to the highest hills and mountains.

Ayumi was rare as well, for she had a surviving grand-parent; her mother's mother. One time when Ayumi was ten, she had asked the old woman while they walked through Tokyo-2 how different the world was. Grandma had looked around at the paved, even street lined with shops and bright signage, and the crowds of people along the sidewalks. She had to admit, not much had changed.

That question, and the subsequent conversation stuck with Ayumi long enough to become a bit of trivia that hung around at the edge of her mind. Stuck in enough to make her ask a few questions. Her teachers had one pointed out something she hadn't even realized. Ayumi's first response had been to ask. Why became obvious with a little thought. There were no libraries anymore, not really. They had to explain to her the phase 'look something up', and how it had fallen out of use. Only national archives, guarded from flood and looting. Books were rare, and the open, free internet had died, leaving a faint memory in the minds of people, and the still-working remnants of global communication.

Earth and mankind had suffered an apocalypse, a true worldwide disaster. All the stories, her parents said, ended with humans dying out, or pushing to the stars, but rebuilding? It never happened, not really. But Ayumi walked to school six days a week, every morning, in a city of gleaming steel and glass. The cars were electric, instead of gas. People had jobs, government made sure money had value, and wild plants grew in the unreclaimed countryside. A lot of the world had been lost to Impact, but it still all ended with a teenage girl in Japan, going to school.

Dozens of students milled about the courtyards and pathways leading to the main school building. The athletes vaulted the retractable bollards at every gate, before being gently nudged back in line for the metal detectors. Some kids smiled at the men and women in sharp black suits, others shied away from the sign of obvious authority. Transferees or teenagers with immigrant parents brought in their own unique tempers.

The vast majority of the student body grinned and bore the inconvenience. Security was worth it, and most of them had chosen to forget why it was so necessary. The terrorist invasion had happened barely two months ago. Some of them hadn't forgotten, or why. A few boys and girls would perk up and watch as Saneda Ayumi passed by. They had nothing against her directly, but she was part of the Pilot's clique, a pilot's girlfriend, and that made her interesting.

Schools all over the planet, all throughout history had celebrities, most of the time it was through simple charisma and exposure. Other times deeds made them local legends. Tokyo-3 Municipal High had known Rei was an Evangelion pilot for years, before the Angels even started attacking. But for the longest time, Rei never did anything of note, other than be aloof. Shinji on the other hand, had arrived on the heels of the first assault of an alien invader, and gossip adored coincidences. Especially when they weren't.

Envy was part of school life as well. A few boys coveted her as a catch, comparing themselves to Shinji. Girls on the other hand gaped at the audacity, of climbing the mountain to snare the prize. A few were brazen enough to comment directly, ranging from friendly teasing to almost wrathful.

If some students were jealous, others held pity for the pilots. Whenever they ran into Shinji or Rei in the halls, they would smile, offer a kind word. Those who were there, at the last minutes of the kidnapping, had the most extreme reaction. Shinji had stood for them, fought. He stepped out into smoke and gunfire, stronger, closer and more real than any hero real or imagined. The amazing spectacle, the lights and superhuman action, they weren't sure if they could believe it. Maybe it had been a stress reaction. Whatever it had been, it was a secret, and one those kids planned to keep.

But at the same time, those teenagers hadn't just seen Shinji fight. They had seen him kill.

There were people in that school who remembered that, and remembered it well. Some knew it was terrible, having to take a life. They knew because of their mothers and fathers in the police or military, or those who worked in NERV. Others wondered why he, or the other pilots were even allowed to attend classes. A killer sat next to them, taking lessons. He had shredded metal with his bare hands. There were rumors that Ayanami was an alien, and could fly. The most rational of the dissenters couldn't call Shinji a murderer anymore than they could say so of Toji. Still, it weighed on them.

Ayumi passed by another girl in the hall during lunch, a Nanba Kasumi. Neither of them knew each other very well, though from where Kasumi stood, Ayumi was effectively part of canon. She wasn't really, though. Shinto didn't work that way for one. Kasumi's order had shifted, its membership ebbed and flowed in response to the vandalism, weeks ago. Some were more devout, others shied away, realizing how serious things were getting. For many it was a sort of modern make believe, a diversion. Some were asking questions Kasumi couldn't answer, or the answers she came up with scared even her.

Ikari Shinji was special, there were no doubts of that. He had saved lives and killed. He brought the sun down to base earth, and the last time anything like that had happened, it had been in the myths of ancient Japan, through Amaterasu. What could be more awesome and terrifying, a powerful young man, or a young god? No one had said he needed to be nice.

No one had said he needed to be good.

A few days later, Misato rounded up her three charges. "Shinji, Asuka, Rei-chan? A word?"

The move over to Asuka's apartment had been slow, moving forward in fits and starts. Misato and Asuka both procrastinated to a level that left even Shinji a little bit upset. He had been working the whole time, preparing Misato's kitchen for remodelling. Rei dealt with good days and bad days, trying to strike a balance between her IV drip and daily life. Shinji did end up treating her, in a limited fashion. He restored the strength to her limbs, but the underlying cause continued to baffle him.

Still, each time he examined Rei, he gained just a bit more insight as to her condition.

Finally though, the kids trooped into the living room, taking seats around the relocated table. Rei was last, having to move her drip stand around stacks of construction materials.

Misato sat cross-legged atop the table, leaning back and braced with extended arms. This, she thought. Is going to suck. "So, you've all missed about three weeks of school."

Asuka was the first to react, planting one elbow on the table. "Seriously? We spent a month trapped in the MAGI, we might have an Angel locked in the Geofront, and who knows what's coming? You want us to go back to school?" She threw her hands up on the last point, incredulous.

"Firstly," Misato started ticking points off on her fingers. "You were in the test plugs for about fifty hours, not a month. Secondly, that's classified, so even if you know, don't talk about it here!"

Huffing, Asuka dropped back in her seat. Stupid confidentality. Secrets had a way of getting out, better to be honest about things. She was sure any resulting panic would have been short lived. Misato was one to talk too, considering she blabbed about Third having superpowers last month.

Misato was still going, however. She ticked off the last point, before fixing the three kids with a look. "Thirdly, you all need to get back to normality."

That threw the pilots for a loop, for different reasons. They all rocked back on their metaphorical heels, trying to reconcile their lives with normal. Even setting aside their status as Children, they couldn't do it, couldn't fit themsleves into that category. Normal could not hold a child-prodigy and self-styled warrior scholar, a magic-powered super-teen, and an bio-engineered young girl.

Misato blanched, for the moment wondering if that had been the wrong choice of words. There was nothing to be done though, so she plowed ahead. It came down to an age old wisdom, one Misato got from her parents, every other responsible adult she could remember. Routines were what kept you going when life went crazy. Pushing for that was part of her job as an authority figure. Of course, Misato had realized not too long ago that she wasn't responsible, and only looked like an adult. Her eyes slid over to Shinji for a moment, before sighing.

"I'm not worried about your grades, not really." Misato pulled out a handful of computer disks, marked with the pilots' names, and subsequently tossed them aside. Threats weren't going to do her any good, probably wouldn't ever. Instead she tried to lay out her reasoning.

"I mean, Shinji's a straight-A student, but he has the thing." Misato waved at her forehead. Shinji and Rei both nodded immediatley, but it took Asuka a second to remember the gold disc. "I honestly just want him spending time out of house."

The woman stopped for a moment, and looked past her kids to the stacks upon stacks of boxes and uninstalled appliances. "...Spending time not building the house."

She turned back to Asuka, who had started to sound disturbingly like a whistling tea kettle. Misato unconciously slid back an inch or two. She held a hand up, apologetic. "I know, I know! University graduate, with honors, leading mind in your field. But spending too much time cooped up here still isn't good for you either."

Misato shrugged then, as if to say 'what can you do?' The explaination seemed to mollify the redhead, thankfully. The other Children weren't the type to make a big deal out of it. Shinji was naturally studious, but Misato could tell he'd have rather stayed home, working.

Slumping forward, Misato let her head fall into her hands, groaning. "Uuuugh. Sometimes I wish you three were actual soldiers. Then I could just order you to do it, for your own good."

Asuka snorted, the the eyepatch made her glare even more intense. "Why don't you? You're our guardian and commanding officer, aren't you?"

Misato looked up from her palms and stared into Asuka's one good eye. "Because asking nicely is going to work. Because it's the right way."

The redhead reared back slightly, slightly nonplussed. She looked to her left and right, hoping Shinji or Rei would speak up. They didn't, leaving Asuka to argue alone. The urge to spit fire built up in her chest right alongside a certain niggling, squirming feeling. Asuka wanted to gnash her teeth, but the logic had already taken hold. The tension in her neck drained out alongside a petulant, resigned sigh.

"Fine, we'll go back to school."

Deep inside the Geofront, below Central Dogma and the test cages, there was a secure vault. It was designed to isolate volatile samples and potential vectors of contamination. To achieve that end, most sub systems were compartmentalized, like air circulation, power and water. The few semi-permanent connections to the greater Geofront area could be cut and locked off with armored plates. Similar precautions were in place for emergency pilot care and post-combat surgery.

The vault in question had never been activated, until then. No Angel remains had been recovered thus far, and nor had any pilots come close to risking contamination. Ritsuko never expected to use anything like it. She knew more than most, exactly what NERV was fighting. The facility was not secret, only remote. Ritsuko all but stalked through the empty corridors with a cigarette in her mouth. She cupped her hands around a lighter and took one long drag. Fighting to reach our dying moment.

Research and development had ground to a halt, leaving the scientist with an incredible excess of time. That, for good or ill, had been broken up by various crises. Left alone and with the great engine of NERV put on idle, Ritsuko was bored. Investigations into Thaumaturgy remained viable, though breakthroughs were slow and fitful. The rituals all felt so arbitrary, most of the time, and asked for the strangest of things. One particular recipe called for 'pure water', after Shinji translated the concept. The problem wasn't getting the water, it took Ritsuko three tries to find the right permutation, but the requirement still bothered her.

She ran her ID badge through the main lock and waited for the system to cycle. Water. Pure water. Why, Ritsuko could not honestly say. She leaned forward and thumped her forehead against the door frame once, twice. Nothing in her experience or education really prepared her for any of this. Pure water... The damn ritual asked for pure water. Shinji said as much, translating as best he could from half-understood concepts. Ritsuko's head started to hurt, but not due to the pounding. Humans built stories out of their experiences, they made myths to explain their natural world. And even myths had their own logic.

Ritsuko was going to scream, however, if anything required eye of newt.

Finally the exterior door opened. Inside, she walked through narrow hallways and past angled windows, looking down into another chamber. That particular room had been refit recently, with other facilities having donated their own equipment to the cause. There weren't any fine lines of a well-made lab. Instead the vault was cluttered, but not. She tossed her spent cigarette aside and opened the last interior door. Unlike all the others, that one had a mechanical lock, wholly dependant on muscle power.

Inside, the final, secure room was almost all bare concrete, aside from floor to ceiling static protection, and hastily installed. Ritsuko made a point to take off her simple heels, padding out barefoot onto the silicone mats. Signal security was paramount, to the point of denying every conductive point of contact or reception with the rest of the Geofront. That included ground access for electrical discharge. A 'dumb' capacitor system in the floor and walls protected the sensitive equipment inside. The nearest phone terminal was two doors away.

Being primarily a neurologist, Ritsuko did not know preciselyhow the fault security worked. The kinds of electricity she dealt with lay a different field after all. She didn't know the math and specific resistances of all the materials beneath her feet. She did however understand it as a man-made 'path of least resistance'.

A lot of effort went into making sure information could not be transmitted, by any form of broadcast or wire interface. Along one wall locked in Faraday cages, were disassembled computer parts, intended for future testing. None of those precautions were there to protect the Geofront. That they did was merely a fringe benefit. Inside that secure chamber was a potential, exotic superweapon, something that could subvert the strongest computer systems in the world.

In the center of that room was Ritsuko's new favorite plaything: the extra MAGI brain Maya had cobbled together. A single insulated chair waited for her.

She sat down and spun once, before sliding up to the console and screen. "So, what secrets do you hold, friend Angel computer?"

Hikari was the first to greet them.

The pig-tailed girl had thrown her arms around both Shinji and Rei, as soon as they had reached the school grounds. When he had first arrived, Hikari was an inch taller than Shinji. Now she half-dangled with her feet more than a foot off the ground, hanging from his shoulders by one arm. Asuka watched as the girl chattered, somehow with perfect diction and unintelligible speed. She asked how they were doing, where had they been, they had missed so much work. Hikari cut herself off with a gasp, when she finally noticed the IV drip leading into Rei's arm.

Then she turned to Asuka, and saw her apparent lack of an eye. Asuka had to admit though, the concern was pretty impressive. She'd been at school for maybe a week before the accident. Hardly enough time for anyone to really care about her. Hikari pressed her hands together and half-bowed, looking up at Asuka through her eyelashes. She asked what had happened.

A small crowd had built up around the pilots, and suddenly, everyone hung on Asuka's word. "It was just a training accident."

Rei had come equipped with an official note, excusing her from most physical activity. None of the teachers would have called it into question though, not when they could plainly see the drip bag. Unfortunately, that note also kept her out of the classes she enjoyed. Bookwork and the like stopped being interesting to her several months ago, mostly due to her early upbringing. Rei knew psychology and other sciences of the mind far more than she did high-school history and math. It bored her, she realized, and Rei wondered if that was how Asuka or Shinji felt every day.

Her hangers on had retreated a little, to a safe distance at least. Part of the reason for that, was that the pilots had missed White Day. When Rei had realized that, she breathed a slow sigh of relief. She had no idea how to respond, or even if she should have. She looked over at Shinji, and could tell he was relieved as well. Kensuke lapped up the attention, somehow having cultivated a near fan club in the past few weeks. Meanwhile Suzuhara Toji was visibly torn between Hikari, who hovered nearby, and acted as a buffer between him and his school celebrity status. He was the only person visibly marked by the school attack, with a scar drawn across his cheekbone. Without a visible reminder, everyone else seemed to take a half step back out of sight.

Well, perhaps not everyone. Asuka had already started as an exotic foreigner. Rei found the girl's hair difficult to look at, she understood why different was interesting. From her seat in the classroom, Rei watched as more students crowded around the Second Child, questions about her absence, and her new piece of black eyewear.

Class was about to start, and there had been no sign of their teacher. Hikari, for all her bluster and lung capacity, could not reign in the crowd that day. All morning the kids crowded around Asuka, and for once she was the center of attention. At that moment though, she wanted to scream. Boys and girls would jostle in line, suddenly curious about the prosthetic. It was stylish, Asuka had to admit, but there were limits to her patience.

She shot up out of her seat and slammed her palms down against the desk, whirling on the seventh person who asked the same question: "How did you lose your eye?" Asuka had half a mind right then to lift the patch and show them all her fully intact blue eyes. The left eye still moved too, the muscles weren't damaged after all. Instead she twisted out from her desk and towered over the boy. An impressive feat, considering Asuka reached up to just about five feet tall.

Asuka leaned in towards the questioner, her nose almost touching his. "I did not lose an eye." The black matte plastic on the side of her face seemed to stretch out forever in all directions. The boy quailed where he stood, and Asuka licked her lips, leering. "This, however, lets me see your fear."

Something snapped, and the choking tension burned away in an instant. Asuka was suddenly all sunshine and smiles, without a hint of frustration or fury. She dropped gracefully back into her seat, before looking up at her poleaxed audience.

"Any other questions?"

Then the door opened, and nothing further was said. The new teacher of Class 2-A had arrived.

An older man entered the classroom, with a fine leather briefcase dangling from one hand. His suit was charcoal grey, and to a lot of students, achingly familiar. He seemed much livelier than their previous teacher, who had so far enjoyed several weeks of retirement. The newcomer was taller, with broad shoulders, a thin face, and a lion-like crest of thinning grey hair atop his scalp. Asuka didn't recognize him immediately, but Shinji and Rei did.

The old man smiled warmly, turning to write his name on the board. "I am Professor Emeritus Fuyutsuki Kozou, PhD of Theoretical Metaphysical Biology, and I am here to teach you for the remainder of your high school curriculum ."

Shinji very nearly fell out of his chair. "S-Sub-commander!?"

The older man winced, but only just. "Yes, Pilot Ikari?"

While not displeased, Shinji could barely find the words to even ask the question. He pushed himself back into his seat, smiling and sweating. "You... What? How?"

The rest of the class was utterly silent, waiting to see what would happen next. Asuka, for once, had nothing to say.

Fuyutsuki just shrugged. "The school board was in need of an accredited teacher, and I believe I am sufficiently qualified. I think it would serve us all if I were here, both to keep a closer eye on you Pilots..." He glanced at Asuka, and the girl shrank in her seat, now suddenly realizing just who this man was. "...And to use my time to educate all of you on... Well, everything!"

He held up a hand to forestall any questions, Kensuke was practically salivating. "Pilot Ikari has unfortunately broken several NERV confidentiality agreements... As did Pilot Sorhyu... So I will have to explain; I am not only a former professor of Tokyo-2 University, I am also part of NERV, serving as second-in-command."

Now having fully introduced himself, the old man, now teacher, walked around his desk. He flipped open the lesson planner with one finger, before planting both hands on either side of it. "So, class. What have you covered so far?"

Between all the recent upheavals, and the general expectation of Angel attacks, school life in Tokyo-3 was rather ad-hoc. When the current generation started, they followed the traditional pattern of students being organized into a single class, staying together year to year. They switched teachers and subjects from period to period.

When Fuyutsuki became their teacher, he brought with him a unfathomable amount of clout, and an undeniable presence. Few minded the prestigious academic and his unique teaching style. He organized Class 2-A into it's own university format, seminar-style course. Fuyutsuki would teach all subjects, and he was confident his various certifications made him well suited to teaching all the required material. It seemed to mollify the various citizen dissenters, having a NERV offiical on site and in control

That first day was largely one of question and answer, an orientation process. He had the full day with them, aside from lunch and physical education. Fuyutsuki hoped to engage his new students as best he could, learning their names and what they had covered so far. Children, teenagers, ranged the gamut from studious and attentive, to largely disinterested. Asuka in particular was almost twitchy, having never done well with authority in any form, let alone an actual intellectual superior.

Still, Fuyutsuki was an old hand at teaching, though most of his pupils had been in their early to late twenties, attempting their post-graduate studies.

When the topic of the day meandered around to Second Impact, Fuyutsuki was struck numb. To most student in that class, it was a joke. A story their last teacher told at length without fail. He was sure the anecdote had been interesting or useful the first time, but not the hundredth or more. His hands were somewhat tied, but Fuyutsuki could not let that misunderstanding hold.

He stepped away from his desk and started firing off questions, leading ones. Asuka was the first to notice, knowing more about the real Second Impact than possibly Shinji. Rei watched silently from her seat, as the second-in-command at NERV pushed his new students to be curious.

It started small, with bits of trivia that quite a few people knew, but hardly anyone had spoken of in a full discussion. The Cicada that plauged Japan for more than a decade were one such thing. Their seasonal life cycle had been disrupted, and suddenly their breeding conditions occured all year round. Only the coldest months in the still-warm winters of Japan were silent.

Then a student mentioned that any planetary impact event capable of altering the Earth's axis would also be one that should have destroyed the planet anyway. Fuyutsuki called the girl up to the front of the class and declared her one of the next Great Minds of her was absolutely correct, he went on to say, pointing out myriad other inconsistencies that man and science had yet to explain. The impact forces were just one example.

Once, there was a species of sightless salamander, having long since lost its eyes to natural selection. Somehow, after Second Impact, those amphibians regained sight, but lost their sense of hearing, baffling biologists the world over. Not just by the apparent switch, but the speed in which they adapted. Years, less than a decade. Migratory birds and fish either succumbed, dying out as their instinctual patterns were upset, or finding new paths to flourish. The world lost nearly as many species of life in the past fifteen years, as it had in the past hundred. But at the same time, dozens more surged out to replace them, almost out of nowhere.

Technology had shifted as well, regressed in some areas, advanced in others. Fuyutsuki had told them about the heyday of the Internet, and the dot-com bubble that had burst in the face of Second Impact. He had to stop for a moment, to explain what 'dot-com' meant as well. Biological research, including genetic engineering however, had taken off post-Impact, spearheaded by think tanks like GEHRIN. Most of the crop-produce the world ate today had been created in those labs.

Now the class buzzed with questions, enough that they started looking for themselves. Laptops were pulled open, and smaller cliques formed around topics of debate.

Through it all, an old man basked. He missed teaching so very much.

"So, Misato was right. We did need to get out of the house."

After school, Asuka and Rei had pushed deeper into downtown Tokyo-3. Despite the fortress city being a fotress, it still thrived as a metropolitan center. It had good blocks and bad blocks, some with glitzy neon signs and new youth culture. Others were more staid or trendy, with malls and boutique shopping. And some parts of the city were dark, inclined to crime and violence.

The redhead had all but bullied a Section Two agent into finding them a car and driver, as the city mass transit wouldn't have handled Rei's IV drip very well. Flanked by a pair of Section Two heavies, Asuka and Rei stood outside an arcade. The same arcade Misato had brought Rei to, nearly two months ago. It hadn't changed much.

Asuka beamed, striding up to the windows. "Nothing like this back in Germany. There were some in America, but they all served alcohol. I couldn't get in."

After school, the arcade was packed with kids and teenagers. Asuka stood still for a moment, adjusting her prosthetic. First to shut off the augmentation, and second, to make it play nice with the game screens. A few patrons from Tokyo-3 Municipal recognized the girls and gave them a wide berth. Some from Asuka's display that morning, and some who noted Rei's drip stand. Asuka hooked her fingers around Rei's wrist, tugging her deeper into the arcade. She had stop and remind herself though, to let other girl set the pace.

Rei's memory of the place was dim at best, but Asuka seemed able to navigate by some unknown sense. Asuka's head swiveled left and right, before zeroing in on a particular row of machines. Attached to the wide screens were steering wheels in the style of high-performance cars, as well as cushy seats. Asuka had found a racing game.

Asuka stood proudly, with her fists planted on her hips. She looked down at Rei, but smiled, fierce and playful. "So, as pilots we're equally matched."

The girls took their seats and took in the controls. The consoles, stick and wheel were molded from garish plastic and foam, and while not bad, it felt nothing like the real thing. Rei decided to not let it bother her. Asuka meanwhile leaned forward and stretched, lacing her hands together and extending her arms straight out in front. Her back arched, and a crackling series of pops almost drowned out the attract demo.

Unlacing her fingers, Asuka looked over at Rei with a fiery smile. "And here we have a unique opportunity to settle that score." She pointed at the paired cabinet screens, ready and waiting for head-to-head competition. Asuka planned to teach her a lesson, or several. Rei nodded once, and pulled her NERV card out to pay.

Nonchalant, Asuka settled back in her seat, practically oozing a sense of smug self-assurance. She reached out and tugged at the controls. They were sticky, and made an awful, ugly sound. "I think you should feel right at home."

"Perhaps." Rei blinked, and hummed thoughtfully. That must be what people meant by 'trash talk'. Fascinating.

Asuka continued to crack wise while Rei checked to make sure her IV wouldn't get in the way. Their NERV cards had been swiped, and the screens confirmed their supply of credits. Rei let her hands hover over the wheel and shifter, but Asuka stopped her with a happy, teasing purr.

She looked up to see Asuka's smirk grow even wider. "I think we could make this a little more interesting. Loser buys winner lunch."

Rei cocked her head, letting her bangs and ponytail drape over that side. "Wouldn't some people find it suspicious, for two young girls to be eating alone together?"

The cocky attitude vanished in an instant. Asuka lost her grip on the steering wheel, along with all the color in her face. A second later, her cheeks went from pale to burning incandescent. "No one would see it like that!"

Thinking back, Rei felt her lips curl up into an almost imperceptible grin. "We should establish a contest underlying the meal, to maintain appearances. Whoever is treated the most wins."

Asuka's voice went high and shrill, mortified. High enough that other players nearby stopped see what was going on. "Wh-What are you talking about? What has Misato been teaching you?"

Rei couldn't say precisely why, but the thought of Asuka's impending sputter brought a tiny smile to her face. She glanced sidelong at Asuka, holding the other girl's eye while one hand drop onto the shifter while the other took the wheel, thumbing the start button and initiating the race.

She held Asuka's attention for that critical half-second, long enough for Rei to try her first tiny, experimental smirk. "Flirtation."

The new cabinets had to be custom made. Anything else was unacceptable.

Misato's apartment was empty save for Shinji, his tools and materials. Drop cloth and plastic sheeting spread out all over, from the kitchen into the living room. The table saw he set up out on the patio. Shinji pushed a length of wood into the spinning blade, and saw that his cut was clean and true. More raw lumber waited nearby, stacked up three feet or higher. He designed, and then he measured, checking everything against the blueprints at his side and in his head.

And along with every cut, Shinji counted each breath.

One, two, three, four, in time with his slow, steady heartbeat. He inhaled and held, feeding another board into the machine. Pulling the cut halves apart, he exhaled. There was a sense of something, or a sense of no sense. A new quality in the air and world around him. Shinji had only recently started thinking about it, wondering about that pervasive element. He could not see it, touch it or taste it, but he felt it all the same. When he had first Exalted, he had been jittery, humming with some lingering charge. Back then he thought it'd been nerves, or lingering shock. Now he knew better.

He held up the latest cut and blew away the sawdust. The boards would need sanding, to reach the tolerances he required.

Shinji had gained something, more than just height, resilience, or magic. His perception had changed, taking in a whole new layer of existence. It moved whenever he took a breath, and thrummed when he called upon his powers. Before, he had described some of his powers as opening a door, unlocking a potential wellspring of arete and prowess. Those were his simplest expressions of will, a step above his most instinctual tricks. Past that, his techniques grew more formalized, predictable and logical. A logic Shinji did not yet fully understand.

He finished cutting boards hours after school, well into the late afternoon. Each piece of wood he put to blade told him more of its nature. If some things were doors, other things were paths. He felt... direction, a place his power wanted to go. It lead to inspiration, and insight into a larger world. There was a gap in his understanding...

The doorbell rang.

Stacks of lumber, uncut marble, and boxed appliances made it somewhat challenging to reach the door. Shinji weaved past every obstacle, and hit the door control just before the third ring. Ayumi stood just outside, pert and smiling broadly. Her hand hovered over the bell console. Shinji smiled back, but couldn't keep the surprise off his face or out of his voice. His girlfriend stepped inside and took off her shoes, but hesitated when she saw the plastic covering the floor. The pair backed their way out of the entrance and into the hallway, but stopped at the edge of the dining room.

He scratched the back of his head, wracking his mind for excuses. A way to pardon the mess, but Ayumi was too fast for him, and too curious. "I thought you lived with someone, from NERV. And what are you doing?"

"Misato-san is next door.,.. Uhm..." He waved at the shared wall between Asuka's apartment and Misato's. "Remodelling."

Ayumi leaned to the side and peered around him, past Shinji's arms and into the dining room and kitchen. Both of her eyebrows arched high. All the furniture had been moved elsewhere, and she saw that sawdust was starting to spread into the living room.

She looked back at Shinji, "Oh, what else did you have planned tonight?"

"Uh... I was going to..." Trailing off, Shinji waved again, this time at the tools and materials.

He had no idea how to explain without babbling. Then Shinji realized he'd been waving with both arms, one towards the neighboring apartment, and the other at the construction. He'd been blocking her from getting past the whole time. Shinji felt his throat tighten up, and red move into his cheeks. Finally, he dropped his arms and sighed.

Ayumi just smiled, unconcerned. She looked around the apartment one last time, before turning back to Shinji. "So nothing then... You can come with me! To dinner."

Shinji gave the construction one last pleading glance. It wasn't like he was under any particular time pressure, and he wasn't going to sleep that night. He still had to be mindful of noise though... Ayumi stuck out her hand and waited, rocking lightly on her heels and toes.

She understood, and he was glad they could meet eachother halfway. Shinji took her hand with a slow, small smile. "...Okay sure."

Asuka slapped at the wheel, turning hand over hand and struggling to get back on track. Her car ground into the side rail, throwing out a long tail sparks and the most awful metal-on-metal sound. She wanted to glare, to turn and unleash the full and uncompromising indignation. But Asuka couldn't even spare a glance, not when the race was that close. She kept her eyes on the screen and seethed. It was against the law, a crime against all mankind, morality and ethics. There was no justice in the world, and she was trailing Rei by two seconds.

She still managed to shriek, however, high and incredulous. "You can't say that with a straight face!"

Blinking, Rei shifted smoothly to take an upcoming turn. A computer driver snuck up on the left side, forcing her to drop back and giving Asuka the chance to recover. The Second Child took the lead, and Rei felt new wave of hot adrenaline wash through her limbs. It was not really driving, or really even a car, but it was close enough.

And besides, she had discovered a lever."I am not sure why. I was only-"

Biting off a curse, Asuka cut Rei off and stomped on the gas. The whole game cabinet rattled, and two boys walking by rapidly changed course. "No! Not now! Not to me, not in public!"

"I was only inquiring as to-"



Asuka snarled, part flustered, and part trying not to laugh. Rei had to pick now of all times to stumble on to double entendre. The redhead wheeled around one last turn and slumped in her seat. Both player cars crossed the finish line and ranked in the middle, high enough to advance onto the next track. The girls had enough time to catch their breath. Asuka even allowed herself the luxury of pushing her hair out of her eyes.

Rei looked over at the redhead. "Are you-"

Asuka raised one finger. "Not. A word."

Macho, technopop synth Music kicked back in, signaling start of the next track demo. The game panned over the upcoming course, weaving through the turns and showing off bleachers full of digital fans. Asuka and Rei wiped their palms on their skirts, before laying them back on the wheels and sticks. Both had worked hard to get to that point, burning through credits with wins and losses. They'd even earned a small audience, but only the bravest souls remained after hearing Asuka.

The last of the previous race's endorphine high dropped off, leaving the pair with a cool sort of calm. They were combat pilots, they lived, breathed and ate high-stress situations. At least that was what Asuka believed. She drummed her fingers against the wheel, aiming to stay meanwhile wiggled the gear shift, testing. Someone put their foot on the gas, and their car rumbled in response. The pre race countdown flashed on screen, and engines started to rev up, higher and higher. Timing was everything, for that critical opening surge of acceleration.

Asuka started glaring once the race queens stepped out onto the track. "...Wouldn't be caught dead in a skirt that short."

When the countdown hit five, Rei looked over at Asuka out the corner of her eye. "I am having fun, Asuka-san."

At zero, they hit the gas and tore out of the blocks. Asuka couldn't stop the smirk, and honestly didn't care to try. "Yeah, me too."

The pilots and Misato lived well outside of downtown Tokyo-3. Far enough away that they had to take the train every morning to get to school. Rei used to live in the city itself, but those apartments had been demolished once their last tenant had left. In the middle of evening rush hour, the trains heading into the city were empty.

Shinji and Ayumi were alone in a train car, sitting together and comfortably close. Or comfortably distant, depending on who you asked. His hand practically engulfed hers, and Shinji had to admit, he liked it. Sometimes though, it was harder than it sounded. There was a sort of prickling tingle every time someone got close to him, some in his skin, and the rest inside. The feeling slowed Shinji down, made him question himself.

Ayumi rubbed her thumb against his knuckles, and Shinji decided to stop thinking so much.

At night, Tokyo-3 was a different place. LED signs and advertisements flooded the streets. In the daytime, alleyways and the fortress structures were safe and utilitarian. After dark, the shadows seemed to reach out for everyone. Late winter was cold in Hakone, but Shinji barely felt it through his shirt and slacks. Ayumi curled around his arm with a smile.

The pair wandered along the main roads, washed out in bright lights from storefronts and restaurants. Shinji towered over his girlfriend by a bit less than two feet, and he had to take short steps, compared to her. Their mismatched heights drew a few stares from passerby, but little else. There were other differences as well. The boy could hear cars and people across the block, or behind walls and in the apartments above. The shampoo Ayumi used that morning lingered slightly, and was enough to cut through the less savory city smells.

A twenty-four hour cafe caught their eye. Shinji eyed the sign and figured it was more accurately a bistro, in how it was set up and run. The place was also upscale, or about as upscale as it could get while running all day and night. Ayumi tugged him towards an outdoor table, and a waiter appeared at their side a moment later. Noodle bowls dominated the menu, and service was quick.

While they ate, Shinji tried not to think about the quality. His perspective was hopelessly biased and there was too much salt and he was rambling in his head. He chewed, and his arm stopped in mid-air. The next mouthful hung on the end of his chopsticks. Broth dripped back into the bowl, and ripples cascaded all around the bits of beef and vegetable. He stared straight past his girlfriend and everything else, lost in thought.

There was a pattern all around him almost imperceptible. Or maybe it was patterns upon patterns. Shinji couldn't see, though. The closest sense he had was taste, but not with his tongue. Instead he took in the flavor with his lungs, every time he drew breath. Shinji felt it there first, and then in his heart, as if that were his source of consciousness. Potential soaked itself into every chair, table and chopstick.

Sitting across from him, Ayumi blinked and reached across the table to poke his hand. Her smile was audible. "See something interesting, Shinji-kun?"

Shinji felt his attention snap back, almost painfully. Interesting? His eyes locked onto hers for a second, before dropping down to her lips, the smile, and then back up. Crap. Don't panic. Misato always said panicking was bad and he'd become suddenly too aware of his limbs- like the hand holding the food. Shinji very carefully lowered the chopsticks, and sweat broke out along the back of his neck.

He groped for a compliment, something. "Ah... You're pretty, Ayumi-chan. A... different kind of pretty."

The girl just cocked her head to one side, unabashedly curious. Drat, now he'd have to elaborate. "I uh... I live with Misato-san. And then Ayanami and Sorhyu-san moved in..." Shinji hemmed and hawed some more, waving his hand back towards his home. "They all belong on magazines, and it terrifies me."

"I mean, it doesn't seem real, like I'm living in a dream that looks good but is going to turn bad. No that's not right..." He frowned, and belatedly, Shinji realized he started rambling. Once his tongue got going, there was no stopping it.

Red crawled up his neck and into his face, all the way to his forehead. Beetroot, he kept talking. "You're... Normal? Special because you're normal? Normal because you're special? When you smile, it's just a smile. It's honest and cute and just..."

Shinji trailed off, and the silence stretched out between them for a very long time. Even the sounds of other patrons and the clinking ceramic seemed muted.

"That was stupid. I'm stupid. I think I'll go pull a bridge down on myself." Shinji slumped in his chair then pitched forward, dropping head first into the table. Every bowl and plate bounced around by an inch or more. He mumbled past the surface. "It's okay, I'd survive it. I just need to be alone under several tons of rock right now."

Wide-eyed, Ayumi just gaped at her boyfriend for a long moment. Then her shoulders started to shake, and the giggling began in earnest. She pressed both hands against her mouth, trying to stifle it, but failing miserably. The laughter died off when she looked up and saw the edges of all-consuming mortification take over his face.

"I uh... Shinji-kun... Uhm..." Ayumi's hands stayed at her lips, but now she worried her fingertips.

Stammering some more, she fidgeted in her seat, wiggling side to side and at a total loss. She had no idea what to do. Finally, Ayumi decided that when in doubt, err on the side of cute. She reached over the table to tap Shinji on the head. Once, twice, three times.

When he looked up, she smiled and said. "C'mon, your food's getting cold."

The walk back to the station was short, and more than a little awkward. Shinji wanted very little other than to be somewhere else. He couldn't just run though, she was his girlfriend and that meant something. Responsibility. He'd messed up badly, and now he had to fix it. Preferably in a way that let him escape without further making an ass of himself.

Ayumi meanwhile was making that anything but easy. She wrapped herself around his arm once more, and leveraged her own shorter strides to keep him from running. A small part of the boy considered cutting his losses and roof-hopping away. Desperation pointed out that he'd done so only once before. Still, it wasn't all bad for Shinji, he could almost feel her concern.

Standing on the platform, the pair waited for the next train. Shinij had no where to hide and no excuse, and he tried very hard not to pull away.

"Shinji-kun," Ayumi saved him the trouble and let go, but not before grabbing onto his sleeve. He shifted, more by reflex than anything, and she follow. Ayumi stepped around to face him, looking up and up. "Shinji! Just, wait a second, okay?"

She took his hand and gave it a squeeze, while her other hand reached up to his chest. She looked down at her feet, but Shinji had no trouble hearing her. "I'm sorry I laughed, earlier. I shouldn't have. I mean it was funny, but I didn't realize."

A train shot by on one of the other lines, and a surge of wind pulled at their clothes. Shinji stood unmoved, but looked down at the girl. "Ah... You didn't do anything wrong."

"Neither did you. Well..." Ayumi thumped her head against his chest, and her hair hid most of her smile. "It's usually never a good idea to compare your girlfriend to prettier women."

Shinji let out a weak laugh, rubbing the back of his head. He half-swallowed the 'okay', before continuing. "I'll ke-ummphh!"

From that point on, Shinji vowed to never underestimate how high a girl could jump. He also would consider himself lucky if he managed to remember how to get home.

It came down to the last credit. The track had been selected and the girls knew the stakes; loser buys dinner. Asuka was confident, and pleased in a way she couldn't fully put into words. She saw Rei's reflection in the other screen and her intent to win. But that mirthful glint paled compared to Asuka's fiery eye. The starting light flashed, and the cars raced out of the blocks. Split-second reversals, expert maneuvering and sheer blind luck decided the outcome.

Asuka declared herself victorious, and was subsequently kicked out of the arcade.

Out on the sidewalk, Asuka tugged at her rumpled uniform. They didn't have to shove. Rei joined her a few moments later, carrying her IV stand. The drip bag was empty, and Asuka watched Rei pull out the needle, but she couldn't remember the name of the tube still stuck in her arm. A black car came around the corner and rolled up alongside the girls. An agent stepped out, silently demanding the medical refuse. The bare stand went in the trunk, while Rei handed the needle and bag over. Disposing of everything like that wasn't the proper thing to do, but it worked. The car pulled back into traffic, and let the girls return to normality.

"You going be okay without that?" Asuka jerked her thumb at the retreating vehicle. Rei just nodded, confident that she could go for an hour or two without constant infusion. With her concern satisfied, Asuka switched back to a blinding, expectant grin. Rei had no trouble taking the hint.

"I have lost. Do you chose where we eat?" Rei waited for Asuka's confirmation before continuing. "I do not eat meat."

Triumphant and practically oozing smugness, Asuka spun on one heel and started to strut. Tossing her hair over her shoulder with a smirk, she laughed. "Not a problem. You better keep up though, 'cause you're buying!"

It took almost no time to find find a suitable restaurant. Asuka could accept Rei not liking meat, but she wasn't going to pass up a chance to indulge in some high quality beef. Then Asuka stopped and realized Rei was infecting her. She forced the red from her face and adjusted her train of thought. No euphemisms, just good, savory food.

The barbeque place they found proved to be excellent, with a specialty grilled kebabs. Asuka rocked side to side, taking in the smells and menu. She couldn't see any veggie platters, but Asuka was sure Rei could handle herself, and settle the bill. Twisting, Asuka all but floated along, high on victory. She made her way deeper into the restaurant, ready to find a seat.

Rei joined her a few minutes later, carrying two plates full of skewers. Asuka dove in with a gleeful squeal.

Without anyone she cared about watching, Asuka relaxed, slightly. She enjoyed her skewer with her elbows on the table, sitting across from Rei. The table and seats were high enough up that her toes dangled up off the floor. It felt like normal, for the first time in nearly two, three months. It seemed like everyone in Japan ate their food cold, and had heated beverages instead. That didn't work for her though, not one bit. She wanted hot food and cold drinks, her proud German heritage demanded it!

Lost in her own cultural hype, it took Asuka a moment to realize Rei was staring at her. She blinked, and spoke past her last bite. "What?"

Rei began pulling off bits of beef, pork and chicken from her skewers, leaving her with grilled vegtables. She held up a rebuilt kebab and was about to take a bite, but stopped. Instead Rei glanced down at the extra plate, then back at Asuka. "As the winner, you may have my meat."

For a moment, Asuka stopped thinking. It was fortunate that she had already swallowed. "T-This has- I want nothing to do with your meat!"

Everyone in the restaurant froze in mid-bite, and conversation crashed utterly. All eyes turned to the girls and stared. Asuka's face burned, growing more and more red until it matched her hair, then went past it into beetroot. The redhead twisted in her seat and snarled, fixing all present with a glare. Slowly, One by one, all the other patrons went back to minding their own business.

Asuka turned and refocused her glare on Rei. "Stop. Hitting. On. Me."

"I have not touched you." Rei tilted her head to one side, visibly confused. She raised her arms and glanced between them. "Would you prefer I use my hands?"

Asuka gaped at her, slowly flushing red. She... she had not just said that.

"As far as I understand, this is a date." Rei began to tick points off on her fingers, laying out everything that lead to her conclusion. "We are both of the age that dating is the most common form of courtship. We are sitting across from each other, participating in banter. One of us is paying for the meal."

"We are both attractive, and I am under the impression that girls our age are open to experimentation." She paused and counted her fingers again. "At least, this is what I am led to believe, from my limited experience."

Asuka could only mumble the word 'experience'. The rest left her reeling. It was hard to hold the miscommunication against her, she hadn't even been raised by wolves. It was worse than that. Rei had been raised by no one, and then she had been socialized by Misato. She had to remind herself that there were things Rei didn't know.

It took her a few seconds, but when forced on her back foot, Asuka always came back swinging. Her petty frustration gave way to righteous anger. Asuka snarled again. "Gonna have to punch someone."

When Rei looked up, Asuka shook her head. "Not you, someone back at NERV, for why you're... being you. You're talking like a textbook again too."

"I see." Rei let her hand fall back to the table, and offered an extremely subtle, helpless shrug. "If this is not a date, and we are not courting each other, what are we?"

A question! She could handle questions. Grabbing her glass of soda, Asuka skipped the straw and drank deep, making a point to chew on some ice to buy time. Rei waited patiently, though she did not blink once. When Asuka's glass hit the table, she had an answer.

"What are you, stupid?" Asuka gave the other girl a sympathetic, if slightly disbelieving smirk. "We're friends!"

The following morning, Katsuragi Misato woke up the same way she always did; slowly, and with great reluctance.

Pen-Pen had elected to stay with Shinji during the remodel, leaving the girls free to spread out through Asuka's apartment. Any other time, Misato would have insisted Rei stay with her. The girl needed a steady supply of affection, as far as she was concerned. Unfortunately, the drug Ritsuko prescribed was necessary, forever. Rei could get by a couple hours without it, but sleeping was out of the question. So that meant Rei had her own room, and a bed made from a converted lounge chair. Her IV stand had been returned the previous evening.

Her hopes for an impromptu slumber party had been dashed, but Misato was not one to give up so easily. She could bide her time.

Asuka shuffled out of her bedroom just as Misato turned into the hall towards the bath. Bed-headed and bedraggled, the Second Child squinted past her bangs. A quick round of jan-ken-pon decided who got first shower. Rei was still asleep, and neither pilot nor officer had any reason to wake her.

Saturday was normally a half-school day, but NERV demanded the pilots for testing, and briefing on a new initiative. After her own shower, Asuka stood towel-clad in her bedroom, frowning at her closet. She almost reached for her uniform, but stopped at the last minute. She wanted to feel nice. Her hand moved to the right and pulled out one of her most treasured possessions.

Something about the dress made her think back to the day she bought it, and what Kaji had said to her. Even now, Asuka couldn't help but laugh at the memory of his accented English. She hung the yellow sundress on her closet door and spun on one heel, already feeling better.

She still had no idea what he meant by Marilyn Monroe, though.

By the time their hair was dry, Asuka's stomach started to growl. Shinji was like clockwork, up all night and at the stove every morning at five or six. Misato stepped out of her bedroom wearing her own iconic black dress and uniform jacket. Asuka appeared a few seconds later, pulling her hair back into her headset. She'd already put on her eye patch. They both glanced at the hallway leading out, then at Rei's bedroom door.

Misato tapped her beret against her thigh, smiling softly. "I'll let her sleep in."

Asuka nodded and headed for the door. "We'll save some for her."

Together, the pair slowly made their way next door. Misato did so because she hated to interrupt Shinji while he was cooking. Asuka followed, more bemused than anything. Misato punched in her code, and the door slid open without a sound. For the past few days, the hallway had been the only space in the apartment free of construction. That hadn't changed. Something else had.

Misato pointed over Asuka's shoulder, whispering. "Huh. He really did take out a wall."

Ahead, the hallway utility closet had been torn out. A new, freshly painted wall stood in its place. Misato wasn't a construction expert by any means, but something about it didn't quite add up. They both heard Shinji inside talking to himself, and caught the edges of his sunlight aura. The glow spilled into the hall and probably lit rest of the apartment. Misato's driving glasses cut through the worst of the glare. Asuka just covered her good eye and set the patch to filter.

Then, the smell of breakfast hit.

Looking down at Asuka, Misato shrugged. "Maybe he installed the cooktop early?"

The redhead had no answer. After what felt like hours, Asuka and Misato finally entered the half-finished kitchen. Shinji had installed the cooktop. Along most of the cabinetry, the marble counter top, and the refrigerator. Cardboard, Plastic sheeting and drop cloths were heaped up in corners and edges, and there were still things waiting to be completed or installed.

Misato had forgotten to take off her shoes, and her low boot heels made a new, unfamiliar sound. She looked down. Yep, Shinji had redone the floor as well.

The boy had his back turned, bent over the wide griddle and gas burners. Wreathed in gold and wire traceries, the halo of arms spun through the air. Asuka and Misato only saw the display in small slices, like flickering impressions of a hand or fingers. Asuka was the first to notice something else was off. She tugged on Misato's sleeve and pointed at one counter, practically overflowing with cold food. Flour, powdered sugar and syrup spread out in spills or drying clumps.

"French toast." Shinji's hands blurred, and the corona flared brighter. "...Done."

A plate of finished, hot breakfast pastry appeared, and was all but tossed onto the stack of food. Asuka's mouth started to water. Shinji didn't seem to notice. "Fried eggs and bacon... "

Misato wasn't so caught up in the moment. She reached through the glow. "Shinji-kun?"

Spinning, Shinji blinked. His apron, arms and pants were smeared with raw batter and dough. Raw bacon clung to his hand, while in his other he held a pair of eggs. One slipped and shattered against the floor.

He looked down, then snapped back up to his guardian, wild-eyed. "I'llcleanitup!"

At that moment all Misato wanted to do was hug him, but well, he was a mess. Still, she put a hand on his cheek and smiled, feeling him relax. "Shinji... What's going on?"

"And where'd you get all this food!?" Asuka stood on tiptoes, caught between getting away from the mess, or trying to find something edible. Her stomach growled again, and she fought off the blush.

"Ah, twenty-four-hour grocer... nevermind." Shinji scratched the back of his head, but stopped and realized that hand had held the bacon. He sighed and let his hand drop. "I learned a new trick. Technique."

"Technique." Asuka echoed. She huffed impatiently.

Misato winced, shrugging and letting her jacket collar rise up on her neck. "We never got around to explaining that part. He does things like old kung fu masters."

Meanwhile Shinji grabbed a mostly clean dishrag and wiped his hands off, and his arms and head. He was stalling, and almost seemed to vibrate, caught between crippling shame, and something else. Like showing off a report card. His attitude made Asuka want to gnash her teeth. The boy tossed the rag away when he couldn't delay any further.

"I figured it out last night. I was working on the cabinets, the table saw?" At their nod, he continued. "Well, I was cutting boards, cutting and cutting... And then when I was about halfway through, I realized I wasn't using the saw."

Shinji pointed at everything in the kitchen. Again, the whole room was nearly half-assembled, half-complete. The wall Shinji had knocked down and rebuilt wasn't a placeholder or in progress, but finished. The floors were done, as were the cabinets, and there was no sign of any new plumbing or electrical work. Most of the kitchen was seamless. The only other problem was the mess. Shinji sighed again.

"I did all that. I cut wood with my bare hands. I drove nails and turned screws. Drywall, insulation, paint. Yesterday, everything would have taken me about two weeks." He leaned against the last clean part of the counter, visibly exhausted. "I did all that in one night."

Asuka spun slowly, taking everything in. "A night. Ten hours or so, and you did all this?"

Shinji nodded. Right then, Misato very much wanted to sit down. She trusted every new wall and counter implicitly, but she did not trust what might have been on it. Misato smiled though, both to remind him she wasn't angry, and because she was happy. It did a good job of masking her concern too. He'd gone into fugues before, focusing on some project or other until who knew when. Asuka meanwhile hovered between some flavor of fury, and stubborn skepticism.

Fidgeting, Shinji turned back to the counter. "Look, I'll prove it. Scrambled eggs."

Grabbing three eggs, Shinji fanned them out between the fingers of one hand. He held the other out to Misato and Asuka, palm forward and bare. A silent pulse of gold fire coated his arm up to the elbow. He flicked his wrist and tossed the eggs up, while his burning hand swept an arc through the air. The eggs hung motionless in mid air, and the shells burned away.

The yolks and white fell, and he struck once more. Time seemed to slow as raw egg skipped across his flattened palm. Shinji twisted at the hip, and just as quickly a plate from the counter was in his hand, neither had thought or cared to look. When his arms came to a rest, Shinji showed the girls a plate of perfectly cooked scrambled eggs.

Asuka glared for a long minute. "Oh that is just bullshit."

After that morning, the trip to NERV was uneventful. Asuka and Rei had claimed the back seat of her car and talked, quietly. Shinji meanwhile sat upfront, and had spent most of the trip staring out the window, lost in thought. It suited him, as far as Misato was concerned, but she sometimes wished he had nicer things to worry about. Or simpler things.

True to his word, Shinji had cleaned the kitchen. Misato had wondered out loud if he knew a 'fast cleaning palm' technique, but his frazzled look told her 'no'. He told her then that he was tired, in a way he couldn't fully explain. She believed him, but Asuka remained suspicious. Once Rei had woken up and gotten ready, the pilots and officer headed out.

Now, Misato sat in the control room of a test cage, alone save for Ritsuko and Lieutenant Ibuki. Ritsuko was happy; the head of Project E had lots of tests planned that day, and the first one happened to be a synchronization check. Quite a few people had expected Asuka or Rei to balk, but they were using the actual Evangelions this time. The redhead trusted her machine implicitly. Rei was usually just too detached to feel fear. Shinji's only complaint was fitting through the plug hatch.

Tests were boring though, and Misato rarely let opportunities to have fun at Ritsuko's expense go by quietly. She leaned back in her chair and sing-songed. "Guess who broke the laws of physics this morning."

The blonde woman squinted at the monitor. "I'm listening."

Misato laid her her head down on the monitor and looked up at Ritsuko with big eyes and a bigger grin. "Shinji made breakfast, with his hands."

Ritsuko blinked, turning to stare at her friend. "... That's the usual method, yes?"

"No I mean, only his hands!" Misato sat up and waved her arms, smiling even wider.

Blinking again, Ritsuko's eyebrow arched high. "Well... good, you'd have something to worry about otherwise."

The lieutenant slumped in her seat, defeated.

While Misato's chances for a cheap laugh died, Shinji had been called back to the control room. His score hovered stubbornly at forty-six, and no amount of adjustment got a better ratio. That worked out just fine for Ritsuko though, as she had something else for him to do. He stepped in a few minutes later, still in his plugsuit and with a towel draped across his shoulders. Ritsuko slid over in her rolling chair and pushed something into his hand.

A metal cylinder about the size of a soup can, and handmade were his first thoughts, then a significant amount of 'no idea'. The drive over had helped, but Shinji still felt a bit off from earlier, and had a hard time focusing. Glass panels along the sides let him see inside the device, revealing artificially grown crystals. He gave Ritsuko a bleary look.

"A fun little widget," she began. Ritusko plucked it out of his hand and held it up into the light. "We know you have a quantum of power, you can increment it, scale it. Some things take more out of you than others."

She rolled around some more, almost giddy. Misato and Maya watched the normally severe woman giggle. "Well, I wanted to measure it more accurately, but it's been tough. I went back to the original soul cameras and started thinking, and came up with this."

Misato stopped the chair with one boot and took the device, turning it over in her fingers. "And 'this' is?"

Ritsuko fixed her friend with a squint, as if trying to remember something. "Oh! A container, for Shinji's... Fuel, for lack of a better term."

The top came off with a few twists, and Misato looked inside, holding it close to her eye. "Are you sure it'll... work?"

"It does work, at least somewhat." The blonde woman set the container down before holding up her hand, letting Misato see a bandaged thumb. "I made one earlier that could contain the sublimated blood offering, but that wasn't an ideal test."

Shinji blinked, tilted his head, and stared at the container before looking back to Ritsuko."You didn't make this with thaumaturgy, did you?"

Ritsuko shook her head. "Aside from the blood offering test, no. I realized part way through I could have done it differently with those techniques. I want isolate as many variables as possible though, so."

She waved at the cylinder. "I made that with nothing but techniques and technologies available to me before you Exalted."

That was something everyone present had to stop and think about. It was March, 2016. Misato had forgotten, and it shocked her more that she could have. The first Angel had attacked a bit more than a year ago. It was almost hard to remember what it had been like before. Shinji had come to Tokyo-3 at the same time. The night he decided to pilot had also been the night he Exalted.

Quite a bit had changed for Ritsuko as well, considering thaumaturgy. She couldn't help but mumble. "... Of course, sufficiently applied mathematics are possibly a form of magic..."

Shinji coughed into his towel before taking the container. Misato stepped back with a smile, while Maya and Ritsuko leaned in, curious and expectant. He'd never tried this before, pushing power into things. The closest he'd ever came was with his effortless ability to weaponize everything. Looking closer, Shinji understood the potential, not unlike the potentials he saw for new techniques, but different. There was a place for his power to go.

Sunlight was an unforgettable part of his new life. Warmth and purity and might were his to command. Shinji felt something, a kinship with the actual sun, the gaseous burning ball of fusion... and he felt an unmistakable sense of something, a flavor or aspect he couldn't quite place. The Solar offered up a tiny piece of himself, and the crystals drank it in.

Asuka's voice rang out through the Evangelion's external speakers. "I'm sure this is all amazingly important and fascinating, but we're still here. Is this test going to end any time soon?"

As always, there were more tests to perform. After the synchronization checks were finished, Ritsuko tugged all the pilots up to another one of her labs, while Misato tagged along.

Asuka sulked, sitting atop a console, and still in her plug suit. "I don't get why we still have to be here, or why we can't change out of these."

Misato rolled her eyes and sighed. She glanced back at the girl and frowned. For someone who could stop traffic wearing skintight red tech-latex, Asuka found a lot of things to complain about. "If Shinji has to suffer, I think it's only fair you show your support."

The second child chose not to dignify that with a verbal response.

The tests were entertaining, at least. Some new initiative was in the works, and Ritsuko had gone beyond minimum requirements. One side of the small lab was taken up by plastic dividing screens, in turn creating a changing room. Along one table were nearly a dozen oversized plugsuit variants. Shinji was the intended end-user, but Ritsuko was certain the prototypes could work for the girls after some refinement. The first new models were simple, based around additional armor or adjusted life support. Others were more exotic. Oddly enough, Ritsuko had kept quiet on why Shinji was the intended end-user. Misato didn't have much of a problem with that though, not with how much fun she was having.

The scientist herself slumped in her seat, while another round of bickering broke out. Rei, thankfully, remained as disciplined as ever. She tapped her pen against the table, waiting. "Ikari-kun, are you ready with the next suit?"

His reply was muffled by something, and Shinji stepped out from behind the divider. Everyone, even Rei, blinked. Asuka hopped off the console and stood next to Misato, grinning. Now, things were getting interesting. The older woman was busy holding her mouth shut, stifling laughter, while Ritsuko paled. The grin on Asuka's face shifted from 'mirthful' to 'predatory'.

The redhead glanced sidelong at the scientist, licking her lips. "Is the helmet supposed to look like a bug? Because it looks like a bug."

The helmet did look very much like a bug. Instead of eye-slits or camera lenses, the front-top halves of the face were taken up by faceted yellow panels. Compound eyes. The new designs also had to avoid NERV coloring at all costs, so no red and black, no purple and green, and no white and blue. Instead Shinji was forced to walk out in a tight, armored black plugsuit, lined with iridescent panels and painted a strange, beetle brown. He also kept bumping into things as he walked, but only a little.

On top of all that, the helmet was defective. Shinji couldn't speak through it.

Ritsuko groaned, and let her face fall into her hands. "I'm going to kill those two..."

Bickering forgotten, Asuka and Misato curled into each other and laughed, while Rei just stared. Ritsuko sighed and checked points off on her list. "Alright Ikari-kun, we'll forgo most of the tests, but numbers five and six, if you please?"

Shinji 'mmffphd' behind his helmet and nodded. Test five was basic, punching a steel beam wrapped in rubber padding. He cycled through some of his basic techniques, and the suit gloves came out no worse for the wear. Durability test was good. He looked over in a nearby mirror and tried not to cringe. After turning back to Ritsuko, Shinji pointed at his forehead, and the gold disc hovering outside his helmet.

"And test six fails, same as the last five helmets." She made a check mark, and then scratched out the lines for suit prototypes seven and eight. "If Ibuki and Hyuga want to play dress-up, they can wear the suits. I'll take it out of their paychecks too."

Misato at that point lost strength in her legs, still laughing. Beneath her, Asuka held the other woman up with surprising ease, though not happily.

"Alright Ikari-kun," Ritsuko waved the pilot back into the changing area. "Change into suit nine and come out when you're ready."

Looking down at her notes, Ritsuko noted a pattern was emerging. She glanced up at the clock and let out a sputtering breath. Putting the suit on took maybe five minutes, without practice. Test six, on the other hand, took twenty minutes or more. They had to wait for Shinji to fall back into his rest state, and so far, every test had failed. She grabbed some scratch paper and started sketching. Not an artist by any means, she could at least do a diagram. They needed a way to conceal his identity but allow him reasonable freedom... Materials, perhaps a lead-lined helmet. Ritsuko nibbled on the end of her pen. They had to push the visual design away from NERV if at all possible.

Another argument started to build up behind her, and Ritsuko sighed again. Without something to distract them, Misato and Asuka got along like cats in a sack.

Oddly enough, she could pick out Rei getting involved. Her voice was so quiet as to almost be loud. She didn't say much, but managed to needle the others with incredible regularity. Ritsuko felt a smile slip onto her face, and she tuned out the din, just like college. No one heard the sound of rubber snapping against flesh, or the muted, masculine cry of dismay.

"-and why should I-" Asuka found a hand pressed against her mouth.

With her one eye, she traced it up to Misato's red jacket sleeve, then to her shoulder and face before seeing the grin. She turned and followed Misato's line of sight towards the door. Asuka felt the hand fall away from her face, and found herself going wide-eyed, with one eyebrow arching high.

Shinji winced his way out of the changing area. His tolerance for pain was something of a minor legend within NERV. At that moment though, he ached visibly. It was another plugsuit variant, forgoing armor pads and life support packages for tactical webbing and a harness. Strategically placed straps cinched tight around his thighs and chest.

Every step he took squeaked, though no one could say if it was from suit-on-suit, or Shinji himself. He inched his way towards the nearest chair, but thought better of it, deciding to stay standing instead. The helmet cradled under his arm was thankfully utilitarian. Shinji sighed, then looked up to catch Misato's stare.

The whistle started low and went high, as Misato began at his toes and let her eyes move up and up and up. She stopped at his face and licked her lips, ending it all with a brilliant, shining smile. Asuka slapped a hand against her face and dragged down, groaning. The lieutenant crooned, clasping her hands together and pleading.

"Shinji-kun~" One raised finger traced a tiny circle in the air, and her eyes gleamed. "A little...?"

Shinji wilted and shook his head, taking a squeaking step back. He tried to muster up a glare, but it couldn't quite make it past the beet red cheeks or the tight look of pain. Rei meanwhile stood off to one side, no longer staring so much as just looking. Shinji wouldn't have blamed her though, if she smiled. He glanced over at Ritsuko, who was torn between chewing out her friend or stewing in her own misery.

"Akagi-sensei! I thought you said these suits would... help me stand up straighter." He shifted, wincing even more. The straps around his chest creaked. "Not... Not wedge itself everywhere! It's... squeezing."

Misato tapped her lower lip, eyes glinting and grinning widely. "Oh believe me, we can see that."

Asuka likewise had no pity. She brought one leg up to the edge of the console and leaned forward to brace her elbow against her raised knee. Cradling her cheek in her palm and drumming her fingers along her jaw, she almost smugly illustrated how much her plugsuit clung like a second skin. "You'll get used to it. Just keep bending over until it stretches out, you baby."

"Does anyone here notice something wrong, by the way?" Asuka glanced at Rei, who just tilted her head and blinked. The redhead sighed and turned back to the adults, easily dismissing Shinji's presence from her mind. She picked at one of the suit valves near her hip. "I mean, why aren't all of these swimsuit cut? Stupid Shinji usually gets pant-cut plugsuits."

The scientist shrugged, admitting she only recently started designing the new suits. Everything else was legacy technology from the past decade. Caught up in the tangent, the girls all but forgot about Shinji. Asuka slid off the console and stood, twisting at the hip and tracing a seam in her suit that ran along the back of her thigh. She looked over, glancing between Misato and Ritsuko. Rei cocked her head once more before trying to see for herself, craning her neck over her shoulder.

Shinji started to pale, and a growing sense of dread seemed to fill the room.

Swinging her chair back around, Misato straddled it. She didn't seem to notice the sour look on Ritsuko's face. You're wearing a skirt, Katsuragi. Misato wriggled in her seat and thought back, nodding reluctantly. "When I tried one on, it did kind of ride up..."

Asuka stopped preening and looked up, curious. "When did you wear a plugsuit?"

There was a part of Shinji at that moment, who wanted to punch himself for being in that situation. Another part of him wanted to shake his own hand. Toji and Kensuke would have probably killed to be flies on the wall. He was most definitely not blind, just... shy. The conversation itself he only half-heard, but he'd lived with Misato for over a year now. He knew. He knew all too well. Glancing left, then right, Shinji took a tiny step back, and was met with the sound of rubber squealing. He froze solid, and sweat built up on his brow.

The girls didn't even look up.

Misato twisted in her seat, resting her chin on the back rest. "It was a test. Thing. Ritsuko tricked me." She coughed into her hand. "Never mind."

While the others bickered, Rei continued to self-examine, arching her back and shifting her weight side to side. There were quite a few seams and odd structures... Objectively speaking, they did emphasize her body. She looked over at Asuka, thinking. The red made her eyes sting. Misato proved to be the most easily assessed, and Rei tried to imagine the woman in one of her own white and black suits. Perhaps Asuka was on to something... Or perhaps the Second was inferring too much yet again.

Asuka however had noticed blood in the water. She looked at Misato with an eyebrow arching high, and a smirk tugged at her lips. "What did it look like?"

"Like a plugsuit." The other woman smiled, bringing her charm back up on all cylinders. There was always time for boosting one's ego, as far as Misato was concerned. Hooking her hands on the top of her chair, she leaned away and let her back arch. The lieutenant all but purred. "It did things for my figure like you wouldn't believe."

The conversation ebbed for a moment. Asuka and Shinji both tried to come to grips with that image. Asuka, for her part, moved from a look of confusion to sheer indignant disgust. A sketch of Misato complete with plugsuit sprang up in her mind and posed. Asuka felt her teeth start to grind. The gall of that woman. Shinji on the other hand was stuck between a slow-building, silly grin, and total panic.

Realizing that, Shinji knew he had to move, sooner rather than later. The lab was growing more and more dangerous by the second, and Misato in a plugsuit was an incredibly distracting thought. Even worse, he couldn't keep the smile off his face. If anyone caught him...

Scowling, Ritsuko rolled over and took her place next to the woman. If Misato was going to go there, Ritsuko could oblige her. "Oh it did things alright. That prototype was nothing but fiber-cabling and stretch-mesh. She looked like a bag of oranges."

"Really..." Asuka drawled. Her eyes lit up, cutting away to leer at the lieutenant. She glanced back at Ritsuko, smirking. "Tell me more..."

"I can do one better, Pilot Sorhyu." Ritsuko smiled and tapped a few keys, and let her hand hover over the button. "I have pictures."

The die was cast, and nothing could stop it now. Misato laughed and all but stumbled out of her seat, grabbing for her friend. She grinned past a breathy 'No-you-don't and wrapped her arms around Ritsuko's middle, while the scientist wedged her arm between herself and Misato. Smiling herself, Ritsuko squirmed and reached for the console. Her hand flailed. One heeled shoe slipped off her foot, but she braced her toes against the floor and dug in.

Huffing, Asuka stalked over and tried to pull Misato away. Instead, she was dragged in with a yelp. Tangled up and squealing, the girls pulled and pushed. Asuka tried to pry Misato off Ritsuko, while Misato made every effort to keep Ritsuko from hitting that enter key. Rei and Shinji stood at opposite ends of the lab, befuddled and blushing, respectively.

Someone squealed again, and Shinji found himself growing redder and redder by the second. At least he now had a distraction. No one could hear his squeaking suit over the laughter and shrieks of indignation.

He had just about made his first step when Rei spoke, and the whole room fell silent. "You appear uncomfortable, Ikari-kun. Do you require assistance removing your suit?"

Blanching, Shinji was denied a painless execution. Working her way out of the pile, Misato stood with her hands planted atop Asuka and Ritsuko. "That's a great idea! Just have him go out shirtless. You can even forget the helmet. Dressed like that, no one would look past his neck," She let the statement hang for a moment, gleeful laughter building up behind it.

She cut the tension with a wink. "Or his waist!"

"M-Misato!" Shinji quickly shoved the helmet over his head and covered his reddening face. Retreating, he bounced off the door frame and paid no mind to the subsequent, horrible bang. "Love to watch you leave!" echoed out from behind, and he did not spare a glance back.

A NERV senior staff meeting was usually limited to four people. It said a lot that this time, eight people were present. Two officers, a UN inspector, both division heads, and three pilots. The floor of Gendo's office started clear, letting everyone present see the Geofront spread out below. A table had been brought in, dominating the center space. Everyone remained standing, however. Shinji and Rei were motionless, while Asuka couldn't help but fidget. Kaji looked somewhat ill at ease, desperately wanting a wall to lean against. Ikari Gendo sat behind his desk with his fingers laced in front of his face.

The glass darkened, and Sub Commander Fuyutsuki stepped forward. "If you are not aware, NERV is now entering the last stages of bankruptcy."

The grey haired man waved his arm, and projectors in Gendo's office warmed up. They threw light out in planes and shapes before resolving as a series of reports. Fuyutsuki went on to explain each graph and chart. Without the full economic support of the United Nations, NERV was stuck at its absolute minimum level of readiness. There had not been a public Angel attack on Tokyo-3 for almost six months. Without irrefutable proof or signs of mobilization, faith in NERV faded. The projection changed to show the 'fake' attack sites. Other forces in the world had worked to further discredit NERV as well.

Asuka snorted, easily ignoring Misato's panicked look. "That doesn't make any sense! You... Why would anyone want to stop a defensive force from doing their jobs?"

"Politics, Pilot Sorhyu." The Sub Commander waved to the holographic display and the financial data. "This is an attempt to bring NERV back to heel."

It took Asuka a second to find her voice. Her mouth worked. "That's... That's stupid though!"

Fuyutsuki held up a hand. "It's wrong to say that politicians are all so foolish, but they and the people who elect them are often short-sighted. To the vast majority of the world, the Angel threat was 'controlled' and 'well at hand'. That is no longer true. Recent events have served to make NERV seem ineffectual, and our funding has suffered the consequences."

He looked over at Kaji for confirmation. The inspector nodded, picking up where Fuyutsuki left off. "For about fifteen years, NERV was a point of pride for most people, an award you show the neighbors. Now it's an embarrassment."

The other adults around the table nodded, grumbling. Misato shifted, cradling her beret under one arm. The pilots meanwhile looked at each other, and the charts. Fuyutsuki waved his arm again, and the graphic changed, quickly illustrating the situation. Money came in from UN reserves and voluntary donations various nations. The costs included repair, research and development, alongside supporting satellite NERV facilities, like those in Berlin and the United States.

Staring at the display, Asuka frowned, intent and contemplative. Her good eye flickered from one entry to another. A timeline showed each installation bright and active, and then as the months wore on and funding ran down, they all went dark. NERV-02 in Germany was the last to shut down. Shinji too was thinking, he had known about the budget issues, but the scale hadn't quite clicked yet.

The boy looked over at Fuyutsuki, a bit meek and hesitant. "I don't exactly understand how NERV can be... bankrupt? I mean, isn't it too big?"

"And why are we here?" Asuka didn't wait for an answer to her question or Shinji's. She stepped up to the table and planted her feet, glowering. "We're pilots. What do we have to do with your budget?"

The response was among the adults was mixed. Ritsuko frowned, folding her arms together, while Misato paled further. Normally the Operations Director liked Asuka's attitude, but now wasn't the best time. Wincing, Kaji hoped his surrogate daughter would someday learn how to run her brain and her mouth. He glanced back at the commanders, but Gendo remained impassive as always.

Clearing his throat, Fuyutsuki gave the girl a pointed look. "Pilot Sorhyu, if I may continue...?"

Asuka stared right back and crossed her arms over her chest, undeterred. After a long moment, she huffed and looked away with a belligerent pout. The girl knew an order when she heard one. Fuyutsuki suppressed a sigh and carried on.

"A series of unexplained events began on November fourteenth. They were first observed in Greenland, then spread worldwide." The projection shifted to satellite and ground photos of various locations; massive craters, strange footprints and curious structures. "NERV did not detect these events, as they bypassed our pattern interception system."

The view changed again. "Our capabilities were called into question."

Ritsuko broke in then. Aside from the commanders, she was the most intimately familiar with how NERV spent its money. "To function as we have, NERV required monetary support equal to the economies of three small nations. Since we no longer have that, 'bankrupt' is the best term to describe our situation."

"We never really made money, as an NGO." Misato added. Once the dam had been breached, the division heads took up the presentation. "Instead partner nations contributed some of their yearly budget to our project. That's stopped, so right now we're only getting enough to pay our salaries and keep the lights on."

Fuyutsuki nodded, and waved to the diagram again. After November, the UN security council had gathered, and demanded NERV hand over control of the interception system. Accompanying that was the rapid decrease in funding. The list of supporting nations reduced, until only a handful remained.

The projection faded away and left Gendo's office dark for the moment. The floor shifted clear once more. The Commander moved for the first time all meeting, but remained silent. After unlocking a drawer, he pulled out eight black folders edged in red. Each were marked with NERV's fig-leaf logo and the words 'top secret eyes only'.

He handed those to Fuyutsuki, who in turn passed the files to everyone present. "This brings up to the main point of this meeting."

Inside, the papers detailed department changes, reorganization and a summary of the next six months, out to five years. There wasn't much time to read, however, as Fuyutsuki continued to explain. The adults skimmed them, save Ritsuko, who wrote them. Rei left hers on the table, while Shinji poured over it dutifully. Asuka had not moved at all, the closed folder hung in hand as a token effort.

"NERV will sever financial ties with the United Nations, and separate into three core divisions." He nodded at Ritsuko. "Research and Project E are to be restructured, and subsequently begin accepting contracts from corporate and academic institutions. We will be releasing patents on Evangelion-derived technology."

Misato perked up, snapping her folder closed. "So basically like GEHRIN, back in the day."

Evangelion technology was AT field technology... And that was her field. Asuka's face lit up, shifting from side to side. She did manage to resist raising her hand. It was a tragedy, really, she almost never got a chance to talk shop. There were advances in cybernetics, neuroscience and the like, and genetics... Asuka felt her thought trail off. It was obvious. Of course they hadn't brought her on to consult, she would've seen right through it all. She was an information risk.

Even so, Asuka only just now made the connection. She had to resist the urge to drag a hand down her face. Son of a... "Am I stupid?"

Fuyutsuki stopped talking, and the adults slowly turned to the Second Child. The old man raised one bushy eyebrow. "Is there something wrong, Pilot Sorhyu?"

Asuka just raised her hands, fighting off the wince. It took everything she had to act like the stammering embarrassed teenager. "Just, just thinking to myself!"

Slowly, they all nodded, letting it slip from memory. Asuka sucked down a hushed, deep breath as quickly as she could, and let it out just as quietly. Her good eye over towards Rei. Back in the simulation world, Ayanami had all but admitted she was engineered. The secrecy was making more and more sense.

"You are correct, Major." Fuyutsuki turned back to Misato and smiled. Again, Gendo reached into his desk, handing Fuyutsuki something else. This time it was a small velvet box. He opened it, and inside were a pair of gold pins.

"You, Major Katsuragi, will remain in charge of Evangelion combat operations as a separate division." After handing her the insignia, Fuyutsuki stepped back. "It will take some time before the security council catches up with us. Your responsibilities will not change overmuch."

Standing straighter, Misato worked very hard to keep the smile and look of shock off her face. Rei and Shinji gave her a silent look and a warm smile of congratulations, respectively, while Kaji offered a cheeky grin and wink. She suppressed the reflexive scowl and instead gave the old man a respectful nod. Cradling the tiny case against her side, she wondered how involved jumping two ranks actually was... and whowould have to handle the paperwork. Misato held back a wince, and hoped ferverently no one would blame her for it.

Fuyutuski took his place at Gendo's side, still smiling softly. He turned to Shinji. "That brings us to the third division. I admit it's somewhat unorthodox, but now is the time to be bold."

Commander Ikari stood for the first time all evening. His eyes settled on Shinji, and the boy found himself stepping forward. "Pilot Ikari has been underutilized. In the coming weeks, we will employ him to the full extent of his abilities."

Shinji felt his spine lock tight. He couldn't quite decide who to see the man as; the Commander of NERV, or his father. Behind his desk, Gendo laid out the plan. Shinji would serve as the leading element, at the head of a division composed solely of himself, answering only to the Commander. Demonstrations of yet unreleased technology, getting him out into the greater public, allow to do work outside of the Geofront. It wasn't about the Exaltation, not exclusively. There was no way to fully ignore it, and Gendo said as much. He also said that Shinji's skills were his own, as was his acquired knowledge. NERV needed that.

Part of Shinji's mind was already working. Half a dozen plans started to filter through his head, but that was shot through with a sense of something. A terrible understanding. He was going to have to lead. His father was asking him to lead. His father had said hospitals, relief efforts. The boy felt his hands bunch up into fists, and the plugsuit gloves strained against his fingers. Looking past the fear though, Shinji realized something else. It was familiar, he was looking forward to it.

The briefing continued, and Gendo fielded questions with cool detachment. When Asuka had asked why he was the point of sale, the Commander had answered; Shinji could pass off as an adult, an anonymous soldier or employee. Asuka and Rei were both publicly recognized as Evangelion pilots. The prototype suits were disguises.

Now the Commander had moved on, talking about synchronization technologies. Asuka looked up with a tight frown; more cybernetics. She felt her eye patch cinch a little tighter against her face, still too damn many secrets. Sneaking another look over at Rei, Asuka suppressed the sigh. There just wasn't anything she could do right then. She grit her teeth and fought off a small snarl. Her foot started to bounce, and Asuka ignored the pointed, urgent look Misato shot her way. Golden Boy was busy being the good son and doormat, and no one else was watching her. If she couldn't do something now, she'd have to settle for later, and fidget in the meantime.

That wasn't the only thing that got to Asuka, either. Thinking about it, there was almost no reason to hold back on selling a direct neural interface, even secrecy couldn't justify it. An advancement like that was like a license to print money. She wasn't sure what made her angrier; that a conspiracy possibly existed, or that it made people do stupid stuff. Her foot started to bounce even faster.

Asuka cut her thought off when Rei stepped forward, holding her almost ever-present IV stand and drip bag.

"Commander Ikari." The girl stood at attention. "I request to remain on pilot duty. I will abstain from further field use. It will not be a problem."

"Denied." The Commander looked at each person in turn, taking their measure. "Everyone present is aware that Pilot Ayanami is capable of manipulating her AT field. This is classified information and will be treated accordingly."

One by one they all nodded, Asuka and Misato most reluctant of all. Shinji was still reeling, but he mouthed the words 'AT field', staring off at nothing. Kaji meanwhile was taking mental notes, as clearly and completely as he could. Then, something brought him up short. The smile on Fuyutsuki's face was almost eerie, and meant for him. Something in the old man's grin told him that jail cell was still an option. The inspector tugged at his shirt collar as inconspicuously as possible.

Asuka nearly choked on her tongue. She knew more about AT fields than almost anyone in that room, possibly more than Fuyutsuki or Ritsuko. Rei was keeping her soul from leaking out with drugs and sheer force of will, and this man, this bureaucrat, had the gall to file her away like a defective utility. Dismissing all of that, and reminding them all to keep quiet was almost too much. It took nearly everything Asuka had to not blow up right then. She looked down at her hands and had to force them to relax, having made a fist without realizing it.

Rei did not bow or even nod, she merely spoke. Flat, dead and even. "Understood."

After all the talk and planning, the sudden silence was jarring. Her tiny changes in inflection and all the little half-executed expressions stopped, utterly. Asuka looked from Rei to Gendo and just stared. The man had said one word to her, and Ayanami had gone back to a porcelain faced doll. Even worse, it wasn't Rei's fault. The control Asuka had on her temper cracked audibly.

She marched up to Gendo, dodging both Misato and Kaji. Fuyutsuki wisely stayed out of her way as she passed the table and stopped at the Commander's desk. Her hands slammed into the surface, and Asuka stared up at the Commander, growling.

Gendo only afforded her a small look out the corner of his eye. He hadn't even flinched. The Commander turned back to the others, picking up where he left off. "If all goes to plan, Pilot Ikari will carry us forwa-"

Asuka cut him off with a shout. Again, the others tried to silence her, to help protect her from reprisal or herself. The Second Child wasn't having any of it. She rounded the desk and stood in front of him, hands gesturing wildly.

"I'm not finished with you!" The anger made her drop words. "You can't do that to her! Who do you think-! -treating her like that, you-!"

The elder Ikari just tilted his head slightly, looking past the girl with a tiny, dour frown. He took a moment to straighten his jacket sleeves and push his glasses back up his nose. Asuka's righteous fury hit maximum. Her fist snapped out in a textbook perfect arc, ready to smash those lens into powder. Every adult was one step too late to stop her.

Shinji was not.

Asuka's fist stopped less than an inch away from the Commander's cheek, shaking at full extension. Shinji had his arms wrapped around her middle, and managed to take a half-step back before Asuka could flick her fingers against his father's face. The commander hadn't moved at all. It took Asuka a few seconds to realize she'd been picked up off the floor, dangling a foot up in the air. The girl twisted, squirmed and kicked, driving her elbow into Shinji's sides and head, snarling viciously. After the third blow, her arms started to go numb. The Third barely flinched.

Kaji hovered nearby, unable to get near while Asuka kicked and spat. The Commander's glasses gleamed orange. "Take the pilot out to lunch, inspector."

When Shinji dropped Asuka into Kaji's arms, she very nearly managed to break free, wrenching an arm loose and breaking for the Commander again. Misato was there though in time to help the man haul the pilot out of the office. Despite her size, Asuka moved like a cat, switching between dead weight and fury at will. Fuyutsuki sighed, wishing there was a chair to fall into.

Asuka screamed, snarling and snapping at everything she could reach. Just as they reached the door, Misato slinked back, pale and panicked. She moved to the door while Kaji struggled. Back deeper inside the office, the remaining officers and pilots watched, helpless. Turning slightly, the doll-like facade dropped away, and Rei met Asuka's eye. The redhead blinked once, then stilled, almost sagging into Kaji's arms. He hauled her through the door and Misato closed it behind him. The Third Child stared as it slid shut.

The office was quiet. Misato willed herself to stay standing upright, and to remain in the chamber. The etched lighting in the ceiling made her feel sick. When her eyes dropped back down, she caught sight of Rei. There was going to have to be a conversation later. Ritsuko sucked on her teeth and tried to look unobtrusive. Standing off to the center, between the door out and Gendo, Shinji stood. He looked back at his father, then at Misato, then Ritsuko and Fuyutsuki.

His hand curled up into a fist. The decision was made.

Ikari Gendo took his seat behind the desk, and planted both elbows on the table. The plan was set. There was only one thing left to say. "Any further questions?

There were none.

Asuka tore into the sandwich, and Kaji questioned the wisdom of compromise.

The door to Gendo's office slid open, and the remaining pilots and directors of NERV stepped out. Kaji leaned against one wall, while Asuka sat on a bench opposite. Takeout wrappers spread out on the seat next to her. She ignored the returning adults, keeping her covered eye angled toward them. Misato turned to Kaji, who tried to play things off with a shrug, but the looks on his face told her everything. Asuka had refused to leave, so he returned with lunch instead. No one was particularly in the mood for a smirking insight about which 'orders' he had followed.

The Second Child had an appetite. By the time the others had shown up, most of the food had been picked over. Rei and Misato shared a look, then turned back to Asuka, for different reasons. Things were starting to change, and no one could do anything about it. When Shinji stepped forward, he did not dominate the small hallway. Instead he only occupied space.

An apology was the first thing on his mind, but he had no idea how to offer it. He cast a shadow over Asuka without meaning to, and his mouth started moving without him. "...You tried to hit him."

The girl just looked up at him with one icy eye. "Yeah. Why haven't you?"

"We can begin in three weeks."

The table had been removed, vanished into the far wall. A chair in front of the Commander's desk took its place, and Fuyutsuki settled into it. He let out a long, weary sig, tapping one of the folders full of plans on his thigh. Gendo sat behind his desk, for once not hiding behind his hands. There were still details to take care of, bureaucratic necessities and loose ends. The new division needed a name, for example.

Regardless, the plan was set in motion. The meeting was held only to cast the players in their appointed parts. It also served to inform the commanders, identifying the state of NERV and its components. At the scales they worked at, control was sometimes an illusion.

Sometimes it wasn't. Fuyutsuki leaned forward in his chair and braced his chin against his thumbs. "Tell me, Ikari. How do you plan on handling existing witnesses."

"The ones who've seen the boy's display?" The other man blinked, but only once. "Their silence has already been secured."

Fuyutsuki tried very hard not to assume the worst. He was not above voicing his concerns, though. "'Secured' could mean many things, Ikari."

Gendo leaned back in his chair, looking past his glasses. "I am not the former USSR or the Cartels, Sensei. I can order the death of any man woman or child in Tokyo-3, but to do so would be foolish."

"Reassure an old man, then."

Drumming his fingers on the desk, Gendo thought on his answer, and Fuyutsuki tried not to let his surprise show. When it did come, the reply was clear and uncompromising. "Ruling by fear is effective, but costly. Once death is used as a deterrent, I must keep killing, without fail."

It was a cold comfort to know efficiency was what kept civilians alive and well. The Sub Commander nodded once. "Very well, Ikari."

The pair fell into silence then, save for Fuyutsuki taking a moment to sort through the folders and hand them over to Gendo for storage. The Commander looked ahead, not always scheming, but developing idle contingencies. He would have been a writer, if he had a more creative bent, though anything he cared enough to write about would have ultimately been incriminating. He contemplated the JSSDF, and their movements into the future.

Fuyutsuki meanwhile looked backward, towards the classics and history. His fields were more psychology, but he mapped the mind with literature and great works of art before. He leaned his head back, drifting. The mirthless smile worked its way onto his face without effort.

Gendo must have noticed the sardonic look. "Something amuses you, Fuyutsuki?"

"I was going to quote several of the Thirty-Six Stratagems, Ikari." The old man gave the younger a dry smirk. "Far too many seemed relevant."

"Glib Praise doesn't suit you." It was also unexpected. Gendo was at that moment extremely curious as to where the old teacher was going.

"No, it doesn't, considering what just happened." Fuyutsuki frowned, face growing stony. The deep lines on his face stood out under the etched light above.

It had been a lapse, Sorhyu's sudden outburst. It was obvious by now that the scenarios were shifting. There were just too many variables now. As far as either of their memories were concerned, the pilots being trapped in the MAGI should not have happened. There had to be allowances made for incidental events, the Scrolls never predicted things like Shinji arriving just as the first Angel was attacking. That had been purely Gendo's doing. But now, things were changing, almost too fast to manage. They had no choice though.

The Commanders put everything they had into faith. Different kinds, for different reasons.

"It seems more and more of my old controls are falling away." Admitting the loss was the same as reclaiming it, in Gendo's mind. The Sub Commander couldn't begrudge him that.

Fuyutsuki nodded softly. He hated to say it, but he had to. "Each pilot is beginning to exhibit undesirable behavior... most of it is so far harmless, aside from Rei."

That was true. They had not anticipated Rei developing friendships and shedding the chemical shackles. The blame for allowing the latter fell on Gendo, however. "She is beginning to take risks, her immediate judgement is flawed."

The smirk came back, and Fuyutsuki's eyes crinkled at the corners. "So in essence, a teenager. She did turn fifteen not long ago."

No reaction from the other man. If Gendo were amused or not, Fuyutsuki had no way to tell. Teenager or not, Rei was a special case, mentally and physically.

"She does not concern me, not as yet. Rei has given me a lever, anyway." Now Gendo shifted, moving back to his habitual stance. "Several levers. The Children are becoming friends."

It was left unsaid that relationships like that could become assets, or liabilities. All tools were valued, but some were to be used only as a last resort. Each of the pilots were in their own way similar to primed hand grenades. In the case of the Third Child, the only difference was that he did not need his Evangelion to be dangerous. Any influence directed at the boy had to be applied with the lightest touch, or an unforgettable impact.

At the moment, the Commander preferred the former. The logic was simple, as far as Gendo was concerned. In order to become the master, the politician poses as the servant.

And now for the sticking point. Fuyutsuki laced his fingers together in his lap, leaving his thumbs pressed together. "And your son?"

The Commander acknowledged the question, barely. He felt no need to use a proper word.

"Our information manipulation will only go so far, anonymity will not last." Fuyutsuki shook his head again, letting it sag forward. "I fear he will collapse."

"The Third will endure. That seems to be his talent."

Bureaucratic processes took time. It had been three weeks since the plan was put into motion, and only now did things begin to move. Money, law and reputation worked hand in hand, pushing forward. The world had not forgotten what NERV stood for, stood in the way of. It had only chosen to ignore for convenience. That was a mistake, and Ikari Gendo planned on proving it.

When the order was given, NERV was legally disbanded. A single phone call followed on the heels of that command, leading to several more. Commands filtered down and out through Japan into the United Nations and the world at large. Leverage was applied, securing the Geofront facilities along with the personnel and technology. NERV had dissolved, then reformed.

NERV and its people had been ready for the transition months ago. In a matter of weeks, the scientists, engineers, technicians and operators all re-aligned with their new purpose. To most of them, little had changed. Loyalty and cause had united them, and a continuing, steady paycheck was the most basic of their rewards.

Around the world, nations were wary. NERV dedicated itself to the deployment of Evangelions, the associated technologies, and defense of mankind. To hear it convert to a for-profit concern was... unsettling, to say the least. The concept of a private military company had died in the late nineties, right alongside half the human race.

Japan in particular had an uneasy relationshp with the research group, and the sudden shift in policy did not help matters. The JSSDF still chaffed under the embarassment of the first Angel attack, and their inability to defend their homeland. Meanwhile, the Parliment and House of Representatives considered NERV a point of tenuous pride.

Seasons changed quickly in Post-Impact Japan. By the last week of March, winter was pushed aside by the first signs of Spring. Rain fell in lingering bursts, before the sun burned the clouds away. Days with clear skies happened more often, and as the temperature rose higher, the Cicada emerged en-masse.

Months ago, the northern shores of Lake Ashi had been choked with the flash-boiled remains of fish and aquatic plants. Reclaimation efforts had slowed to a halt, following the budget crunch, but nature took over where man had been forced to leave. Gulls and other scavengers had swept inland, nearly picking the area clear. Though nearly devoid of plant life, the water was dark and clean once more. The nearby hillsides were still scarred, however. Whole faces had been melted, or gouged out by positron beam. Evangelion footprints pockmarked the area.

To a soldier, or the military, seconds were an eternity. To a politician and a government, three weeks was no time at all. Men and women of office from all over the world scrambled for private jets and international flights, angling for Japan. The date line, one ambassador had said, did not equate to time travel. Of course, that was the point. NERV was smaller, quicker and able to react much more readily, compared to full nations and their governments. Declaring the event on such short notice bore the mark of Gendo's personality; control the tempo, strike fast and hold nothing back... or make everyone believe so.

A stage had been constructed over the past week, a short way from the shore. More screens lined the scaffolding. Ten yards out from the platform's leading edge, the gritty lake sand had been packed flat and even, waiting for rows upon rows of chairs. Shinji had insisted on that separation, if the demonstration went as he thought. Those seats extended back towards the city in layered arcs, while towers holding white screens dotted the area. Projectors waited nearby, waiting for the show to start. To the right of the stage sat a decommissioned tank, its main gun had been sealed shut and its tip painted white.

For possibly the third time in his life, Gendo made a public appearance. The man sat behind a desk not unlike the one in his office, resting on his elbows and fingers laced. Fuyutsuki waited along with the NERV division leaders, ready to begin. Major Katsuragi and Professor Akagi were dressed for the occasion, in full uniform and lab coat respectively.

JSSDF Generals and their staff filled rows of seats, alongside industrial consortiums and academic institutions. Dignitaries and UN observers found space wherever they could, and private think tanks and research firms filled out the flanks. Past all that, extending out into standing room seating and beyond, were civilians. Citizens of Tokyo-3, invited by the MAGI municipal systems.

An impromptu festival had grown in the span of a morning, spreading out into clusters of tents and food stalls. Television cameras and reporters shoved for position, and more than a dozen different security teams clashed and spat at each other, mired in the human sea.

There was one other person on stage that drew an unmistakable amount of attention. In a world of true giant combat robots and equally massive monsters, it was still strange to see the fantastic made real. A man sat uneasily, hunched up in his chair. A few people wondered what a pilot was doing there, especially with no Evangelion present. Plugsuits weren't exactly common knowledge, but somewhat recognizable. The suit itself was flat grey, lined in straps and webbing. Some considered him Special forces perhaps, or NERV security. The face-concealing helmet was curious though. Masks were a thing of fiction, usually, but so were monsters.

An hour before noon, Fuyutsuki Kozo took center stage. A podium and microphone waited for him, and cameras relayed his image to massive screens dotting the arena. He'd written his own speech, and a nearby teleprompter helped him remember the lines.

"Greetings, all of you. Welcome to this demonstration." The old man offered the cameras a wave and a grandfatherly smile, while his eyes crinkled. "My name is Professor Fuyutsuki Kozo, formerly of Kyoto University, and now second in command of NERV."

Fuyutsuki let his hands drop onto the podium, but the smile continued. "Nearly twenty years ago, GEHRIN saved the human race. They gave us genetically tailored crops, adjustments to key sections of the ecosystem, and the foundations of applied Metaphysical Biology."

"GEHRIN became NERV, and we have continued that tradition, first with the Evangelion weapons platform, and now further still." He paused for a moment, letting everyone take in that statement, and the reminder. "From this point on, NERV intents to keep that pledge and to exceed it, helping forge a new vision of humanity's future."

The displays behind the old man changed. His image vanished, and a list of plans replaced it. "We will release technologies, scientific breakthroughs and advancements in human enhancement."

Some didn't believe it; limb regeneration, cloned organs, cybernetic enhancement. All of it sounded unrealistic, implausible. Those who knew NERV, and the people within, the geniuses and their resources... The military observers glanced sidelong at their peers and subordinates. Things were about to get very interesting.

The speech continued, and Fuyutsuki kept his voice restrained, venerable. He was a professor, after all. "For years we have labored in secret, within classified projects and generous funding, and now is the time to show how far we have truly come. Not just as a people, not just as a species, but as a reborn civilization."

Among the delegates, ambassadors and United Nations personnel, it was a shock, the latest in a long list. Most of the UN was still reeling, still asking how Ikari had done it, pulled the rug out from under them so easily. This event, the demonstration was another upset, demanding their attention and giving them no chance to react. It was Ikari's signature style.

Meanwhile, intelligence analysts were hard at work in their home offices, tracing the paths and influence that allowed it. Most were confident, believing Ikari could only pull a gambit like that once. Few people wanted to contemplate that Gendo could do it again.

Now a bit of steel crept into the old man's voice, more than most thought possible. His fingers dug into the podium, but he still spoke softly. "Our task, above all else, was the development of Evangelion technology, and the deployment of same in defense of mankind. That is no longer enough. We must do more, and that is why we are here today."

Fuyutsuki stepped away from the podium and held an arm out to the next speaker in line. "May I present Major Katsuragi Misato, NERV Director of Evangelion Operations.

Elsewhere, in an apartment complex on the other side of the city, two young girls watched the event on a tiny, floor-level television. Between them on the couch sat a hot-springs penguin.

Asuka Langley Sorhyu scowled at the screen. "...Stupid plan. Stupid golden boy." Stupid NERV.

Rei was silent, simply watching. The screens showed Misato as she made her way up to the podium. She somehow managed to look professional, panicked and gorgeous at the same time, and they just seemed to adore her. Asuka glowered even harder, idly wishing that black dress uniform would combust at her will.

She could not resist a shot though. "I bet she's sweating like crazy under that thing."

Misato had finished her speech fairly quickly. Earlier that morning she had said something about having the best image amongst the JSSDF and UN. At first, Shinji had thought it was just her normal flirtation, but he quickly realized she meant it. Misato had served in South America, apparently. The military men and women in the crowds were nodding along, if not smiling and at least mollified.

Of course, as far as flirtation went, she could have meant it both ways. Red picked up on his cheeks without meaning to, but he at least didn't need to worry about embarrassment. The helmet concealed his face completely, only leaving a thin slit across the eyes for cameras. It used the same basic interface as Asuka's patch. It had taken him a few days to get used to it, seeing through the mental link instead of a screen or projection. The visor flickered whenever he spoke, purely as an intra-personal function. Considering the crowd sprawling out ahead of him, Shinji valued any ounce of unconscious humanity he could project without meaning too.

Next in line was Ritsuko, going into an overview of their medical, cybernetic and genetic advances. Some of it was bluster, marketing, but a lot of it wasn't. She eventually reached one of the topics he'd been dreading. She had planned to tell the crowd the story of her arm, though fortunately, she decided against showing them the photos. Hardly anyone believed her, especially at first. As she spoke though, people started to wonder, people wanted to hope.

Shinji hated lying. Dishonesty bothered him in a way he had trouble describing. Secrets and lies were useful though, and he could accept that. He felt his fingers tighten up into fists. If he could help more people by lying, he'd do it. He wouldn't like it though.

Ritsuko ended her speech, but Shinji didn't remember a word of it. The most important part of the demonstration was coming: His.

Stepping back up to the podium, Fuyutsuki begged for a few moments to prepare for the demonstration. Luck was in their favor, it seemed; everything would be ready at noon.

The old man called for their attention. "Today, we are going to demonstrate our human enhancement prototype, the result of applied Metaphysical Biology."

Rising, the anonymous soldier stepped forward. The cameras captured him in full detail, towering over Fuyutsuki at a bit over six feet. Hopping off the platform, the masked man made his way towards the weight. Fuyutsuki returned to his seat, smiling.

The demonstration was all up to Shinji now. Stage fright was suddenly a very real, urgent thing, but the helmet helped keep it at bay. He marched up to the tank somewhat awkwardly. The production suit was better than any of the prototypes by far, but it still took time to break in. The small concern helped him keep his mind off the bigger problems, like having half the city on the shores of Lake Ashi, or the other half watching him on TV.

Waving to the cameras, Shinji felt more the fool.

Turning back to the tank, he wanted to tap his chin. The helmet prevented that, so he settled for the front right tread. He couldn't lift the tank... not all of it. Still, he could do something. Wheels, or treads in this case, made it fairly easy. Bracing himself under the front axle, Shinji set his stance and pushed.

Everyone watching expected nothing to happen, or for an obvious trick. Instead, one end of the tank rose up, higher and higher until the disabled main gun pointed skyward. In a rush, Shinji stepped back, and the tank dropped down hard on its treads. The soldiers and officers in the front rows winced, covering their eyes and kept a grip on their hats.

Strength was only part of the display. Tank defenses had been designed to resist and deflect high velocity armor penetrating ammunition. It had no answer for rending intent. Shinji lifted both hands high and brought down his fists, driving them into the tank front. Dents appeared beneath his fists, one, another, and more. Metal buckled and peeled away in mangled strips. Those closest to the action realized he was punching holes through metal.

Pulling his hand back, Shinji shook it free of debris. The glove knuckles looked a bit worse for the wear, but they were meant to be replaced. Now for the tricky part. Mental controls let him command the suit, and hologram generators lining his arms and legs warmed up. They glowed a dim gold, etched into the grey surface like thin veins. Behind him, a faint, shimmering hexagon appeared. Shinji sucked in a deep breath and sank into a familiar stance.

Now was the time. Shinji didn't want to do it, not that exact thing, but it was agreed on. It was the best way to disguise their actions, to build on for things to come. Moving over to the tank, Shinji stood before the vehicle, with his back to the crowd and facing the lake. The pilot raised his fist, telegraphing the punch for all to know. His fist shot forward, and everyone present knew without a doubt what was going to happen.

His fist hit the ruined tank, and for a moment, everything was still. Cameras caught every detail in slow motion.

For one second, a tank sat in front of the stage. In the next, the tank flew, ten, twenty, thirty yards out over the lake. It tumbled end over end, and the main gun cut into the water with each full rotation. Finally it slid to a stop, cleaving a trench in the water before sinking. The crowd behind him stared.

Masked and anonymous, Ikari Shinji offered a tiny, almost hesitant bow. Up on stage, the hologram of Ikari Gendo smirked and vanished.

The demonstration was over.

AN: Whew.