Then the magician of the village went up into the tower of his house, and all night long those whom fear kept awake could see his window high up in the night glowing softly alone. The next day, when the twilight was far gone and night was gathering fast, the magician went away to the forest's edge, and uttered there the spell that he had made.

And the spell was a compulsive, terrible thing, having a power over evil dreams and over spirits of ill; for it was a verse of forty lines in many languages, both living and dead, and had in it the word wherewith the people of the plains are wont to curse their camels, and the shout wherewith the whalers of the north lure the whales shoreward to be killed, and a word that causes elephants to trumpet; and every one of the forty lines closed with a rhyme for "wasp".

Excerpt from The Fortress Unvanquishable Save For Sacnoth

Inside the Geofront, the waters of the interior lake almost glowed like molten metal, even the flooded depression of Terminal Dogma. The massive collector dishes above focused the late-afternoon sunlight through fiberoptic cables, spanning miles of rock and armor, filling the interior dome with orange and gold light.

Atop Ikari Gendo's desk, thick stack of folders stood tall on one corner, marking the invisible 'in box' shared by nearly every administrator. They were in turn stuffed to bursting with reports and data, going back several weeks or more. Several more were marked with hazard striping of 'sensitive material', destined for a locked file box elsewhere in Central Dogma.

A rare few folders were bound in solid black: Top Secret - burn after reading.

Ikari Gendo picked up one of those black folders and leafed through it. One corner of hs mouth quirked. "The full report regarding Evangelion Unit 02's unscheduled activation."

"Almost a month ago, wasn't it?" The reply came from behind a polished black dividing wall. An electric kettle in the hidden kitchenette began to whistle. Fuyutsuki emerged a few moments later, carrying a tray laden with two mugs and a steaming pot of tea.

"If we take her psychological profiles as accurate, Sorhyu should have been incapable of making a subconcious effort, let alone a conscious one." The Commander sighed and set the file aside, while Fuyutsuki handled the tea.

When that was done, the old grey-haired teacher picked up the folder and hummed, thoughtfully. "The patterns of the human spirit are not an exact science, Ikari."

A handful of soul-camera photographs lableled 'S. Asuka-Langely' were dropped into the desk incinerator. "As we have been repeatedly reminded."

The hot-orange flash of the disposal system caught Fuyutsuki's eye, as did the time and location stamps on the remaining images - Evangelion cages, three weeks ago. "The Second Child did not seem particularly upset about her punishment, either."

"More miracles, then."

Fuyutsuki frowned slightly, but decided not to comment on the other man's mood.

The floor cooled and turned opaque when the clock signaled sunset, blocking out the Geofront landscape below. The sephirotic etching in the office ceiling seemed brighter without the competing light. More reports and charts were spread across the desk, supplemented by relevant holographic displays. Truly sensitive materials were never entered into computer memory, but for now, reduced to most basic form, all the information currently at the commanders fingertips was simply income and expenses.

Fuyutsuki held up a written report and compared to a floating graph. The old man squinted past his nose, reading and speaking at the same time. "Initial responses to our plan are positive."

Rows and columns of numbers and associated organizations scrolled through the air, and reflected off of the Commander's glasses. "Despite Akagi's brief moment of ego."

Protected by judicious use of 'proprietary technology', NERV had managed to earn a significant number of starting contracts, while the funding infusion served to jump start the Geofront's development capability. There was no grand reserve of marketable product though. Professor Akagi's research division was just that, research. No one expected NERV to attempt mass production.

Another stride towards legitimacy came from the in-house infirmary staff. Already organized as a college of advanced medicine, it took little effort to apply for recognition and accreditation by the greater academic community. The treatments and cybernetics technologies waited for approval, but nearly every employee in the Geofront had earned their qualifications, sometimes twice over. Fuyutsuki knew where and on whom to lean in order to expedite the process, more so than Gendo in that particular case.

With a reputable 'point of sale' established, Gendo was able to nudge his son towards productive, and more importantly harmless tasks. People from all over the world were making their way to Tokyo-3, willing to pay for treatment.

Looking over the budget, Fuyutsuki hummed again, noting all the entries marked 'experimental treatment'. "It's the old tales of sages in the mountains, working miracles and then being dragged into the world by their compassion, and later the greed of kings."

Gendo did little more than grunt in response. Finances were swept from the desk and projections, then new data filled the gap. What tea remained in the kettle had long since cooled, and Fuyutsuki moved to dispose of it. The Commander meanwhile worked through the remainder of the files, until he reached the last and thinnest folder

Three pages were enough to cover The Third's progress as the 'Special Projects Division. Fuyutsuki suppressed a wince, skimming the documents. "Almost no logistical footprint, but..."

Nodding once, Gendo leaned back in his chair. "His inexperience remains the limiting factor."

The Commander slid the papers and folder off the edge of the desk and watched them fall into the incinerator.

Ayumi hadn't seen her boyfriend for nearly a month, and the calendar spring was almost over. At first she had been worried, for him. It might have been something to do with NERV after all. She would have asked the other pilots, but their schedules hadn't quite matched up. Ayanami for example had simply withdrawn from school completely.

Gently simmering anger was her theme for the second week. She had started leaving him voice-mails, asking after him, concerned, supportive. All normal reasonable things to do in her position. Her friends concurred. But after a certain point, Ayumi simply could not stand to send another message. It wasn't due to anything either of them did; it was that damn recording. Shinji must have made it when he first got the phone. The tinny little phone speakers didn't help the awkward, halting stutter of a novice phone user.

When they first started dating, leaving messages to each other, the awkward recording had been endearing. Now though, Ayumi had just plain gotten sick of hearing it. She'd long since memorized every aggravating little tic; the way he sucked in air over his teeth before speaking, or the stutter when speaking his own full name in the traditional style. His own name.

At the same time, it was the only time Ayumi had heard his voice, reassuring but almost taunting her. Even if it was starting to drive her up a wall, it wasn't fair to either of them to leave increasingly awful messages, just because of the recording.

The third week made her turn inward. Ayumi had prided herself on being mellow and laid back, mostly. Undemanding, in a word. As far as she was concerned, everyone needed space, including her, and definitely Shinji as well. But... maybe she'd given him too much space. Or maybe she hadn't demanded enough, if she was this easily misplaced in the hustle of NERV life.

So Ayumi squirmed and dithered, until finally she worked up the courage to head over to Shinji's apartment after school. She idled at the train station, rocking on her heels with far too much time to think. A lot of her friends thought she had something special too, a direct line into Shinji's head, like he was some incredibly deep, mysterious thing. The truth was, Shinji was a nice person, and if she had to be honest with herself, sometimes boring.

Any status the student body thought she had for being close to him didn't amount for much, least of all on a lonely railway platform.

It wasn't that Shinji was bad for being boring though, or a nice person. Ayumi cringed, suddenly thinking back to why she even approached him in the first place. Back then it had felt like such a good idea, high on hormones and a strong if abnormal first impression. Her crush came about in response to the pilot having some sort of episode, after all. Her face burned red at the memory.

Music picked up elsewhere, down the stairs leading from street level up to the platform. Heavy footsteps and rattling chains and bangles matched up with a particularly terrible grasp of English, and an equally bad singing voice. A group of leather-clad men and women ambled up onto the main level, shouldering ancient stereo boomboxes, laughing and singing.

Ayumi eyed the group warily, only able to notice details. Amazing vertical mohawks, piercings, makeup and tattoos. And the tacky fashions. The boomboxes themselves were twice her age. Mercifully, the trains heading into the suburbs arrived on time, and Ayumi too the chance to escape. The whole trip took less than thirty minutes.

She'd been to the apartment before , more than once actually, but it always struck her how different the world looked beyond the Fortress City. Japan had a tendency to build up and down, conserving valuable land for other uses. Just outside the city, a cluster of multi-story apartments defined a small sliver of old urban development. As Ayumi walked along two-lane streets, Bottom-floor bookstores and grocers called out for her attention. Everything was tiny, almost claustrophobic. The streets downtown were wide enough for Evangelions.

Before she even entered the parking lot, a handful of men and women in suits appeared. Everyone recognized Section Two, especially after the school attack. Ayumi did her level best to avoid shivering. She passed by another agent sitting next to the elevator, A dark-skinned woman gave the teenager a tiny smile, little more than a quirk at both corners of her mouth. It was enough to offset the black sunglasses and suit.

Ayumi sucked in a deep breath. She'd been ignored, confused. Her boyfriend had all but dropped off the face of the earth... and she had no idea why. A hundred selfish little theories had been tumbling through her mind for weeks, many of which revolved around Shinji finding better ways of sinking back into his the shell she tried so hard to pry him out of. As though she was only thing keeping him from regressing back to that silent awkward boy she first met. The alternatives were worse of course, that he had found something... someone... better at coaxing him to the surface.

She made her way to the apartment door belonging to Katsuragi Misato, and stopped. One arm dropped to Ayumi's side, fingers twisting into the hem of her skirt. Meanwhile, her other hand hovered over the door control. Behind the wall, the girl heard sounds, voices, its of giggling and shushing. A bead of sweat crept down the back of her neck. The door slid open before her hand even moved.

Katsuragi Misato appeared before her, wearing little more than a black bikini top, short shorts and a smile.

The teenager's own painfully fragile grin came out to match it, already strained to breaking by the thin little squeak in the back of of her throat. Bold was the first word that came to her mind. Followed closely by bod, if Ayumi was being completely honest with herself. She felt her eyes snap up and down as discreetly as possible. Looking for what, Ayumi couldn't say, but was certain that many people other than her had definitely found it.

For a brief moment Ayumi felt very sheepish standing there, still in her school uniform, almost wilting in front of a grown woman. Caught off guard, a singular, uninvited thought forced its way into her brain. I've been competing with this? What the hell?

Realizing she'd been gawking, the girl strangled her internal monologue and willed herself to face directly forward. Ayumi then found herself eye-level with the two first loves for a fair portion in Tokyo-3 Municipal High.

Misato moved, and Ayumi's eyes shot up while red spread across the bridge of her nose and into her cheeks. The squeak in her throat made comeback. An unbelievably tiny part of Ayumi's mind pulled away from Misato's looming figure, long enough to note the can of beer in the other woman's hand when it clunked softly against the door frame, and how she wore her own red cheeks far better. At least, Ayumi thought, that if there was a competition, she was winning.

Leaning against the door frame with one arm under her chest, Misato smiled and all but crooned. "Saneda-chan."

Cringing, Ayumi found her voice, past the hesitance, bemusement and mortification. "K-Katsuragi-san, is... Shinji in?"

The older woman shifted with one confident swing of her hip, and her smile shone even brighter. "Please, everyone calls me Misato. I loathe formality."

From all apparent signs, the girl could not disagree.

Within the apartment, a high, lilting and vaguely familiar voice tried to peel paint off the walls. A moment later, Sorhyu Asuka Langley arrived, eye patch in place and equally clad in bikini-and-shorts. "If its the pizza, can't you just leave that poor boy alo- Oh."

Still grinning, Misato just shook her head and sighed. "C'mon in."

The last time Ayumi had been inside the Katsuragi apartment, it had been in the middle of renovation. From what she saw, the kitchen had been completed, and the chore board she noticed the first time over had been repurposed. Now it dripped with notes and what looked like blueprints. to what though she couldn't say. Asu- Sorhyu-san all but stalked ahead back into the main space, while Misato lingered in the hallway alongside.

Then Ayumi actually entered the kitchen, and the arm Misato snuck around her back proved necessary. The apartment interior competed with houses for sheer space. The ceiling reached twenty feet high or more, and was positively cavernous. And then the girl noticed the far wall, facing out over the suburb skyline. Instead of simple sliding glass doors, the entire wall had given way to... something.

Misato's hand on her back nudged her forward, and Ayumi crossed through the kitchen into the living room, past hand-built furniture. The couch practically screamed at her, begging for her to sit. Ayumi shuffled forward, still content to be guided. Then she crossed the threshold and into the afternoon sun, and realized what that earlier something was.

Originally, the apartment had a veranda, a little platform with waist high walls and dotted with patio furniture. Now it had a deck, easily the same size as the living-room.

The earlier attack of self-consciousness was crushed under the vastness of the new space, and Ayumi spun listlessly to face Misato, gaping for a whole new set of reasons. "Wh-What the ffff-fff-ff-"

Misato smiled softly, understanding and warm. "Yeah, we've already had our 'what the heck' moments for all this."

Before the girl could even register the reassurance, Misato turned and called back out onto the deck, and Ayumi followed her voice. "How goes the tanning experiment?"

Ayanami Rei lounged in the sun with a book cradled against her stomach. The tank-top and sarong were a welcome relief compared to Sorhyu-San and Misato. One arm still linked to an IV, the blue-haired girl held up a hand and squinted over the top of some of over-sized sunglasses.

"No results yet, Misato-san. Your suggested outcome of 'bronzed beauty' is taking longer than anticipated."

Sliding past Ayumi with a double-handful of sodas, Sorhyu-san breezed in, and her hair all but caught fire in the sunlight. She made her way around the deck, and Ayumi croaked weakly when the cold can was pressed into her fingers.

The redhead for her part completely ignored her. "Still talking like a textbook, Ayamami?"

Popping the top with one hand, Rei held the can up to her lips, pausing long enough to reply. "For clarity, a full report was assumed. I will remember to obscure my intentions for your benefit."

Ignored for the moment, Ayumi cracked open her own soda and took a mechanical sip. She watched the byplay, lost and nonplussed. Asuka scowled playfully while Misato giggled behind the new girl's back.

Throwing herself into wicker chair set under a massive patio umbrella, Asuka smirked. "And so rude! I've been insulted by a math teacher!"

Misato broke in with a laugh, swinging her hips as she crossed the deck and claimed the other free lounge chair. Figuratively stuck between two Evangelion pilots and the twenty-something... former model, Ayumi found and sat in the one regular chair amidst the chaos. The banter continued to flow around her, where Asuka and Misato traded barbs like life-long sisters. Ayumi's mind reeled, barely aware of the soda in her hands or the meandering argument.

The rambling tirade drifted briefly into the subject of house arrests, to school vacations, the quality of good German food in Tokyo-3 and well beyond.. Between them, Rei contributed her own curious brand of observational snark, slipping a line in and content to keep her own side. It suddenly became very clear to her why Shinji was almost never around, avoiding school, the city and the boring.

Anyone could become a homebody with a home like this.

Ayumi raised her hand once the most recent round of bickering ceased. "Ah... Ah, is Shinji here? I mean I asked earlier but-"

Misato swiveled in her seat, until her shoulders hung out in open air. Leaning lengthwise off the lounge chair, he took the girl's upheld hand in her own and nudged it back down. She continued her stretch over until her hair brushed the ground, flashing Ayumi another of her bright, shining smiles. Ayumi let it happen, watching wide-eyed.

"Come on now, no need to be so stiff!" Misato laughed warmly, eyes gleaming. "You're not in class anymore, Saneda-san."

Blinking rapidly, the teenager found her voice ."A-Ayumi-san is fine, Misato-san..."

Sitting back up, the older woman tossed conspiratorial wink her way, toasting the girl with her soda. "Ayumi-chan it is. As for Shinji..." The dark-haired woman turned to Rei, head cocked to one side. "Where did Shinji go after he finished the garage?"

Rei gave the woman the tiniest of shakes in reply, barely moving otherwise. "I believe Ikari went to consult the MAGI."

"No, that was yesterday." Ayumi watched Misato nibble on her lower lip, before making a leisurely show of turning to the other pilot. "Asuka?"

The reply came as a huff. "How should I know, I'm not his keeper."

Turning her nose up and away from the question, Asuka folded one leg over the other and crossed her arms. She started to bounce her top foot, along with a strange, clunky looking anklet. Ayumi held on to her half-empty can of soda like a lifeline, attempting to wash down a growing list of half-registered questions. She sat in observing silence as this grown, professional woman reveled in her immaturity, by turns doting and squabbling with her fellow teenagers.

When the latest round ended with Misato the victor, she turned back to Ayumi, grinning hugely. "So, that's all we know about Shinji at the moment, unless there's something interesting you'd like to tell us, hmm?"

The can in Ayumi's hand creaked audibly, and her own hesitant smile turned watery. It was that instant, the sly implications Misato had laid so casually, in which Ayumi knew she was trapped. "Ah..Uhm. That is... may-"

Misato's sunny expression gave way to a sort of lightning-sharp speculation, but the cheerful grin stayed in place. "You know what we should do? We should go to the mall, all four of us."

Immediately, three girls all voiced the same word: what. Ayumi stammered while Asuka shot to her feet. Her rapid bluster made up for both her and Ayanami remaining mostly silent. The blue-haired girl had rolled out of her seat and headed back inside while Asuka spoke for the both of them. Ayumi watched as Misato weathered it all, tapping her foot and grinning into the face of Asuka's pacing. The pilot, despite all evidence to the contrary, was smiling too.

It was also the second time that day Ayumi had heard the phrase house-arrest. Then she caught the rest of what Asuka said. "-and we don't even know her!"

"As to the latter, that's to the point. As to the former..." Misato smirked, reaching into her pocket to pull out a little remote. Giving it a playful little wag, she thumbed one button and called out for Asuka's ankle to respond. The tracking anklet responded with a two-note chirp, and Asuka let out an exasperated, long-suffering groan.

Having sufficiently cowed her pilot, Misato twisted and gave Ayumi a quick once-over, and the girl was yet again painfully reminded of her boring state of over-dress. The older woman tapped her cheek with one finger, smiling softly. "That won't do at all. I think you can borrow some of Rei's clothes."

Don't I get a say- The thought formed, but she blanched, and her throat closed up before she could voice it. Ayumi managed to get a tiny squeak out for her trouble.

Throwing an arm around the her shoulders, Misato nudged the girl back into the living room and that visibly comfortable couch. "C'mon, it'll be fun. Four gorgeous girls out for a night on the town? Do you have school tomorrow?"


"Great! We'll get you home before ten." Misato didn't give Ayumi another chance to respond. She planted one foot on the couch seat and raised her arm like a conquering general. "Asuka! Shirt Me!"

"Get your own damn shirt!" Asuka snarled, but not unkindly. She turned on one bare heel and disappeared around the corner, crossing over from the extended deck to her own apartment balcony.

Misato plowed ahead without missing a beat. "Pen-Pen!"


Ayumi stared as the penguin waddled through the insanity, completely unperturbed and carrying a can of beer in one flipper. She turned and there was Rei standing at the other end of the couch, having already swapped out the sarong for a pair of shorts. The other girl stared back, as red-eyed, blank and eerie as always. Misato ducked into her room with a jaunty wave, promising the girls an excellent afternoon.

Left with just the two of them, Ayumi desperately realized that she needed to say something, anything. She shot a pleading look at the blue-haired pilot, hoping for something like a sign, salvation, or some sort ultimate truth.

Instead she received a slow, thoughtful blink, and Rei's shoulders inched up the tiniest bit, as though attempting an unfamiliar gesture. The curious tilt of her head completed the message: 'I have no idea either.'

The test chamber felt warm, like standing in sunlight at noon. Considering he sometimes called himself Zenith, it made a certain amount of sense.

his particular room had been set aside from the others, inside the subsurface Geofront facilities and off to the side of Central Dogma. Located barely half a mile away were the old Proving Grounds were still mothballed and waiting for funds to build up. Of course, Shinji wasn't planning on spending much time there, even after it came back online. He had much more important things to do.

Armored crates and blast shields divided the room into cubicles and assembly stations, filled with bits and pieces of his current project. Safe behind those barriers were more than fifty prototypes, components, scribbled blueprints and proof-of-concepts. And the barriers were necessary, because most non-metallic materials and industrial plastics suffered intense weathering when exposed to Shinji's corona. His school shirts had never been brighter, but he'd ruined more than a few pairs of slacks during his construction projects.

Not that the protective measures bothered him that much; he'd rather not ruin another office space.

As for why he was feeling warm, Shinji could only watch the reflected illumination flicker over the slightly-polished steel shielding. Idly he wondered whether the light was telling him to feel warm, to flush as if hit by sunlight, or if it was simply the spartan work environment. By all reasonable sense, it certainly looked like he was working inside an industrial oven.

Every few minutes the burning column of sunfire would rise up around him, and the mandala-halos spun lazily, rolling through indecipherable symbols and patterns. The wire tracery arms followed the motions of his own hands, punctuating each action with an exotic mudra or similar sign. Invention and design itself no longer took an incredible amount of attention. Multitasking was not easy, per se, but nor was it hard. Leaving his hands to run more or less on autopilot, Shinji let his mind wander.

Of the several dozen things that had been vying for his attention, back when he first Exalted, his corona had been one of the last on the list. Thinking back that far, Shinji snorted. He'd been tiny back then, and Misato had been one head taller. She was five-foot four inches.

Akagi-Sensei however had not forgotten his corona. It had taken the project head a bit of time to work through the backlog, but she eventually tested Misato's original red jacket after being exposed that first week. The sturdy cotton and synthetic fibers looked as if they'd been left in the desert sun for years. Shinji's coronal display did not function according to particle physics. Or at the very least functioned according to physics mankind had yet to discover.

Later, Shinji looked over the results himself, though he had to take a crash course in particle physics first. The tangible evidence had been fairly obvious; but the missing elements frustrated the blonde woman to no end. There had been no trace of radiation on Misato's jacket, or Misato, or anything bleached white by his solar aura. The effects of Shinji's 'leaked' energy had more in common with cosmic ray exposure than anything else.

It was just as well though, because when he asked her about it, Ritsuko concluded that discovery with no uncertain terms how- "by all accounts, if you were emitting actual light, we'd all have been vaporized in moments."

Shinji was still hard at work, several hours and more than a dozen prototypes later. He stretched a lattice of hair-fire wire between his glowing fingers, running through the math again just to be sure. The pilot brought his hands together with a sigh, crushing the incomplete mesh between his fingers. Instead of being mashed to useless scrap, the few grams of metal compressed itself into a tiny ingot, and Shinji pressed the bit of raw material into the nearest work table. It stuck there like a piece of chewed gum, waiting to be reused.

Turning back to the drawing board, the boy leaned back, and then rolled his head forward. The steel-cored dividing wall shed papers and thumbtacks by the score, spilling over still more prototypes and mocked up devices. A rounded bubble deformed the barrier's outward side with a sound like a sledgehammer striking bone, and there was brief flicker of a rounded sun-disc at its center. Pulling away, Shinji sighed again and rubbed his brow.

Wandering into another alcove, Shinji sighed and stared at his one single working prototype; a highly refined magnetic resonance imaging scanner. He hoped glowering at it might help get him over his current block. It had taken him maybe an hour to understand the basic principle of a normal imager, and the physics behind its construction, but actually creating a better one proved a lot more difficult than he expected.

The actual prototype itself didn't look much different from a regular MRI 'd settled on increasing the resolution, allowing a far more in-depth scan of tissue, among other things. The receiver coils were the main improvement, where he lucked upon a particular design that allowed the MRI to 'see' more permutations in the relaxing magnetic field.

Describing the engineering concepts to people had been easy; it was like adding extra rods and cones to a human eye, to improve vision. He had run into a few issues with interweaving so many radio-frequency coils into a small space, but a bit of shielding had solved the interference problems. The problem after that had been building a faraday cage to further test the device, hence the alcove.

Which all lead to his third and most recent problem; it worked too well.

The enhanced design worked so well, in fact, that at the moment, there was only one facility in the world that could interpret the imaging data; the Tokyo-3 MAGI. On top of that, only a handful of displays in the Geofront could even show the information. He'd had ended up creating a device that captured too much detail.

So that left him trying to make something just as good, without relying on a multi-trillion dollar super-computer triumvirate. Shinji let out yet another sigh and rubbed his eyes, more out of habit than anything. Shuffling back out, the boy scooped up a few dozen sheets of used paper and smashed it all together in hand. A few moments later he had an unmarked, if slightly dingy ream of fresh paper to draw on.

Just before he reached the desk however, the intercom crackled, and Ritsuko-sensei's voice drawled. "Specialist to surgery one, specialist to surgery one. Specialist, please report to surgery one, thank you."

Shinji glanced up at the speaker and the corners of his mouth pull back. At least, he thought, he was still somewhat useful.

Saneda Ayumi had doubts about her continued survival.

It was a beautiful day in Hakone. On that beautiful day, Ayumi found herself pale, shocked and sweating, and all but dragged into the unexpected expedition. Given no time to protest, Misato had offered her the full run of Rei's closet. Suddenly swamped in clothes, Ayumi thought maybe it was closer to being kidnapped.

Getting dressed herself, Misato called it 'top-down' weather, lamenting her lack of an actual convertible while she pulled on a snug black tanktop. In the rush to the parking lot, the older woman and Asuka had dueled for 'shotgun', but the reference was lost on her. Misato laughed and claimed the passenger seat while Asuka took the rear left side, giving her uncovered eye free reign over the car interior.

After having fully ushered the teenagers into her sporty blue car, Misato had leaned over her seat and tilted her sunglasses down, fixing each girl with a look. Her smiling mandate was that on a day like this, the windows were to be rolled down. Ayanami meanwhile had slid easily into the driver's seat, hanging her now ever-present drip bag from the rear view mirror.

The highway was nearly empty, and the sun was still out and shining bright even as the afternoon wore on. Between the gaps in the hills, the girls could see the northern lake shore past the city towers. There, the six solar collection towers tracked the sun's movement across the sky inches at a time. The wind was hot and wild, tugging at their hair constantly. Ayumi considered it suffering, having to push her bangs out of her eyes again. Meanwhile, the others looked nothing short of gorgeous, and more importantly, their hair behaved, falling in waves around their respective shoulders.

Despite everything, some small part of her wondered if they'd be willing to share the secret...

Asuka and Misato started to bicker lightly, knocking Ayumi's one stable thought off track. The pair started slow and picked up speed while their barbs growing more and more elaborate. Locked out of that conversation, Ayumi looked across car interior, eyes shifting between the bag of medicine and the driver. "A-Are you sure you should be driving with one of those...?

Rei did not take her eyes from the road. "Legally, no."

Paling slightly, Ayumi leaned back in her seat and tried not to look nonplussed. A throaty, one-note laugh dragged Ayumi's attention back to Asuka. Cradling her chin in one hand and staring out the window, the redhead had somehow managed to fold one thigh over the other despite the cramped back seat, and her anklet-bound calf bounced lightly.

Looking out at nothing in particular, Asuka smirked. "What she's not telling you, is that Rei is the best driver here."

Fussing in her seat, Misato put on the most childish, indignant pout Ayumi had ever seen. It was so... weird, to see someone that uninhibited. Strangeness aside, none of Shinji's... co-workers were truly unfriendly towards her, and never had been. Even Soryhu-san treated her fairly, and she had a deserved reputation back at school. But friendly or not, each of them was so... forceful, in their own unique ways.

Misato's brow fell, and Ayumi could almost see the glare form between them. One blue eye lazily rolled back as Asuka sighed, reaching for the Major with an extended arm, physically handing her the concession.

"She just has an aggressive attitude behind the wheel." For all her effort at being gracious, Asuka was still smirking.

Before the older woman could respond, Rei took her own opportunity, navigating a turn without missing a beat. "Perhaps the Major could be considered an emotional driver."

After shooting Rei a wide-eyed look of approval, Asuka smiled airily, closing her eyes and facing into the sun. She blithely ignored Misato's grumbling. "The type you find in warzones, I imagine."

Ayumi wondered then if her skin could pass for white stone. After Asuka's last crack, the ribbing began in earnest. The pilots played easily off each other, going on at length about Misato's apparent lack of skill behind the wheel. Meanwhile the older woman seethed testily, but even then Misato had not lost that playful tone.

Now that she thought about it however, the bond between the three couldn't be more obvious. Heckling aside, Ayumi couldn't help but be reminded old team-building exercises in school. The similarity was far too clear. This was a trust-fall, and if Shinji trusted them for all their unusualness, they must have all had their own merits. She had come to see Shinji, but where would she really be if she knew so little about where he came from?

The dark-haired woman twisted then, staring through her sunglasses even as they caught the light. "My car has never done more than a million yen in damages." A shadow passed over the car, and the lenses went clear, long enough for the three teens to see the impish gleam in her eye. "And speaking of damages, who here is paying for this impromptu little shopping spree?"


Nodding decisively, Misato folded her arms over her chest and grinned. "That's what I thought."

Settling into her seat and her borrowed clothes, Ayumi quietly supposed this would be a rewarding experience, somehow.

The device hummed pleasantly, filling its central chamber with warm, golden light. It looked quite similar to an MRI machine, but it wasn't. It had the same general shape, complete with a cushion for the subject to rest on. Inside the aperture, the subject would be scanned with the expected array of low hums, motorized whirrs and digital bleeps, much like the original model and then some. It had similar warning labels, and even some new ones, while the monitors behind the observation wall worked as well as anyone could expect, overflowing with an amazing array of personal data.

And despite all appearances, the massive piece of equipment did absolutely nothing.

Waiting along with the other nurses and doctors, Shinji glanced down at the patient's chart, before looking up at the patient himself. On the other side of the converted radio-imaging lab, a young man not much older than himself tried to ease his way around consoles with a pair of plastic crutches. The man had lost a leg during the last city-wide Angel attack.

Behind his nurse's mask, Shinji felt his jaw clench. Months ago, his father had said no, denied him the freedom to treat the whole city. The young man and his crutches had spent almost a year re-learning how to walk because of that decision.

There had been a reason, of course. There were always reasons, like something named SEELE. The knuckles in his right hand popped, and Shinji slowly uncurled his fist. As for what SEELE was, Shinji had very little clue. Regardless, that restriction had inspired one of Shinji's first policy decisions shortly after he settled in as division head: anyone injured in battle would get free treatment.

Of course, there were compromises. One being the disguise.

Dressed as a scrub nurse, being the tallest person in the room was the only thing that made Shinji stand out. Getting close to his sixteenth birthday, his face didn't look particularly childish, but neither did it look very adult either. The surgical mask was enough though. Most of the time patients never remembered nurses, unless they were pretty, chatty or otherwise notable. The of subterfuge was far too familiar to him, and it didn't take Shinji long to conjure up those old habits. A small slouch just sightly, and burying his head in a blank slip of paper or a notepad was enough to downplay his looming physique and render him nearly invisible.

Akagi Ritsuko breezed in then, wearing her ever present lab coat and utterly at ease. The bottle-blonde woman rattled off orders, sending her white-suited minions scurrying all over the medical suite. The first time they'd tried the regeneration ploy, she'd spent most of the time staring at Shinji in his disguise, praying that none of them would screw up. Now though after a month of similar procedures, it had become achingly routine.

She took the patient aside then, and plucked the chart from Shinji's hands without a word. The pilot let the lecture wash over him, having heard it more than a dozen times before. Sit in the (fake) regeneration device, wait for the general anesthetic to take effect. Wave over the walking NERV miracle machine... Ritsuko held up her hand, counting down the seconds before administering a reflex test.

When the patient's leg refused to move, she nodded. "Alright, he's out. Ikari-kun, you're up."

Shinji held back the sigh and pulled the surgical mask off. It had gotten uncomfortably clingy while he waited. Dragging the man out of the mockup, the rest of the nurses suddenly deferred to him. A quick look and a few touches here and there told Shinji everything he needed to know. Severed and tied off arteries, extensive muscle trauma... Paramedics had managed to save the man's knee and some of his tibia. Certainly made things easier for him.

Normally he would have just touched the unconscious man and set his body to rightness, but for the ploy to work, there were yet more compromises. Shinji held his hand out for a scalpel. More tools and procedures followed as the boy cut away the scar tissue, revealing muscle and bone. Once everything was prepared, he pressed his hand against the faintly bleeding stump, and called forth his power.

The nurses and other doctors crowded around him then, eager to watch the rapid miracle. Bone forged of solid light began to grow out of the revealed stump, shining almost like polished metal before fading to more natural tones. Ritsuko hovered nearby, armed with a soul-camera and trying her best to loom over his shoulder. She wasn't very successful. The muscle and flesh formed shortly after, leaving a whole, healthy, if somewhat pale limb in its place.

Another surgeon offered to step in, but Shinji gently shook his head, no. The last step was awkward, counter-intuitive and possibly immoral, but it was also necessary. Shinji felt a muscle in his jaw throb in response. If anyone was going to do it, it was going to be him, with the least amount of lasting damage. Someone else might get it wrong.

Picking up a fresh scalpel, Shinji leaned over the healed leg and carefully made new incisions, gently excising bits of tissue. Slowly but surely, he ringed the man's calf with shallow cuts. Another brief surge of power saw them healed instantly, leaving the patient with a tiny ring of surgical scars. One of the nurses stepped in with a specialized tattoo needle, inscribing the procedure code with infrared ink. It was future-proofing, they said, for when the regular doctors could regenerate limbs on their own.

Shinji looked at the fake medical device, still humming in that perfectly convincing way. Then he thought back to his own inoperable prototypes. No, probably not any time soon.

The streets of Tokyo-3 were wide, overwhelmingly so. Most of them served as fire lanes and kill zones for a forty meter tall combat cyborg. Today was not one of those days, and with the thought of Angel attack rapidly becoming a distant memory, the the people went about their afternoon errands almost lazily. The sidewalks were packed with people, surging out of buildings and tram stations, and food stalls and carts spread out along every avenue.

The sun was shining, the breeze was gentle but cool even on the dense city streets, and Katsuragi Misato could feel the hot pavement through her sandals. It was Spring in Tokyo-3, and life was good.

Ambling along that sidewalk, Misato and her three teenage charges were cutting through the rush hour foot traffic, and making good headway for the mall. The older woman watched Asuka take the lead, smirking. Between her red hair, the bright-yellow sundress and the eyepatch, the German girl drew in attention with every stride. She was also picky, preening and piercing by turns depending on who's eye she caught.

Even with Asuka leading the way, there were more than enough audience to go around. Sliding around a food cart, Misato tossed the cook a quick smile even as she kept an eye on Ayumi and Rei. Another lucky soul caught the edge of her grin and stumbled into that same cart, blinded by charm. Misato's grin spread ever wider, especially after a second starstruck fellow joined the pile.

Lacing her fingers together and reaching for the sky, Misato stretched as she walked, and let her cutoffs and tank top do the heavy lifting. Her eyes drifted closed at maximum extension... And another muted collision reached her ears.

Heh, still got it.

Ahead, Asuka marched up to the crosswalk and bullied her way to the front of the crowd. Those people nearby made what room they could, allowing Misato and the others to sneak in alongside her.

The girl looked up at Misato with one baleful blue eye, fanning herself with one hand. "It's hoo-oot..."

Dropping out of her stretch next to the pilot, Misato let her hand fall on the teen's head. "Spring at this latitude will sneak up on you, if you're not careful."

"...stupid unfair native adaptation..." Asuka bristled, shaking her head free of the offending hand and visibly willing her hair to fall back into place.

She whirled then, hair and skirt rippling along with her extended arm. Incredulous, overplayed and utterly teen-age, Asuka finished her spin away from Misato to fix Rei with a pointing finger. "And how is she pulling it of?! I know for a fact she wouldn't count!"

From where Misato stood, she could only see the edges of Rei's almost imperceptible answering grin. Muffling her own smirk behind one hand, Misato couldn't help but mentally translate that look as Rei's equivalent of absolute, insufferable smugness. As did Asuka, apparently, gnashing her teeth alongside overblown shaking shoulders.

Looking between the pair, Misato had to admit that sometimes, some people had a spotlight set aside just for them. The world seemed to smile on Asuka when she got going on one of her tirades after all. Of course, she wasn't wrong either.

Since the girls had gotten out of the car, Rei had ditched her IV drip after increasing her dosage during the drive into the city. Between that and the sun, the blue-haired girl had not looked better. She'd probably never be anything but aggressively pale, but at that moment, Rei looked whole.

"She's almost reflective!"

Trust Asuka to demonstrate friendship in her unique way. Misato shook her head with a wry grin and sigh, taking the lead when the walk signal came on. The mall was just ahead, but then something caught her eye. A plan formed instantly, tumbling into place as if it'd always been there.

Coy and mirthful, the older woman spun on one heel and began to walk backwards down the street. "Looks like we all need a cool-down before our day really kicks off."

Asuka, Rei and Ayumi looked over Misato's shoulders, then back at the alleged adult. Just off the curb ahead of the mall entrance was a snack stand. Misato's smile grew even wider. "Shaved Ice, anyone? My treat?"

It had taken him a while, but Shinji finally remembered what it was like to be tired.

More accurately, he had found a new kind of exhaustion, one that settled into his body and soaked through his skin and bones. The boy stretched as he walked back to his production floor. One of his tendons creaked obligingly, but there was no draining sense of relief. Instead he felt that constant warmth of his own internal reserves. That power held on to him, held him up despite the strain.

Slumping, Shinji muddled along listlessly, or at least listlessly for someone of his resilience. Everyone else in the corridor probably saw a tall, healthy pilot. And that corridor was packed. Technicians in their orange jackets milled about alongside white-coated scientists and engineers, with a few of the officer corp milled about in their tan uniforms.

Puffing out his cheeks, the boy willed the tiniest sliver of power to the fore, and called on the exact position of the sun in the sky. In other words, it was eighteen-hundred hours. Shift change. Shinji's stomach growled, loud enough that a handful of men and women near him stopped chatting and glanced over. A bit of red crept up the back of the pilot's neck, but pushed it aside. He smiled, waving it off with as best he could.

Threading through the crowd, Shinji willed himself not to sigh, and tried twice as hard not to yawn. The hallway split perpendicular and he turned on one foot, heading north. However, someone behind called his name. Turning again, Shinji saw the three primary bridge officers weave between their co-workers, and before he knew it, found himself absorbed into their little group.

Of the three, Shinji knew Maya the best, mostly because she worked closely with Ritsuko during their time in the Proving Grounds. The lieutenant kept up proper poise at all times, even with end of shift aches visibly weighing her down. He hadn't much chance to hang around Shigeru and Hyuuga-san though. Not that he had time now either. As he thought about that, none of the adults seemed to realized it...

"Ah, Shinji-kun," Hyuuga-san stepped up first with a light wave, smiling faintly. He nodded to the others before continuing. "We were just heading out to dinner. Would you like to join us?"

Shinji only half-heard the invitation, if he was being honest with himself. Instead he tried not to look openly scrutinizing, wondering if he could correct Hyuuga's vision problems. Shigeru had also taken to wearing his hair cut short, since the scar from the last battle had left a wicked bald spot. Shinji started to shake his head, both to cast off the distractions and make an excuse... Or he would have, if not for his stomach deciding to growl again.

The trio blinked audibly and his blush returned. Shinji ran a hand along the back of his neck, letting out a weak, two-note laugh. Food would've been a distraction. Food lead to cafeterias, and cafeterias lead to him taking over the kitchen for hours at a time. Those were hours he could spend doing much more important things...

Letting his hand fall, Shinji bowed as far as height and politeness would allow. "Sorry, I can't right now. Thank you though."

Maya, Hyuuga and Shigeru all looked at each other in turn one after the other, letting their eyes do the talking. "Maybe next time." They said, and wished Shinji a good evening. But then down the hall, Maya spoke, just out of earshot for most people. "... Did he even go home last night?" "Did he go home this week?"

Wincing, Shinji rolled his tireless shoulders once more and shuffled off towards the lab, finally allowing himself the small luxury of a sigh. The hunger pangs did finally drive him to find food- a vending machine a few dozen yards away from his workplace. A pair of energy bars did a passable job at quieting his stomach, but they still had the taste and consistency of tree bark. He was half-finished with a third bar when he reached the lab.

Shinji looked out over the chamber full of dividers, scattered supplies and dozens of prototypes, chewing around another papery mouthful. He sighed again and swallowed. If he was going to start work again, he'd need to clean up first.

Each of the cubical wall sections weighed less than fifty kilograms, even fully assembled, and hardly worth mentioning otherwise. Once those were stacked and out of the way, Shinji pulled out a broom and swept up the discard thumb tacks and lost papers. Normally he'd have left something like that for the cleaning staff... If he had planned on going home. At that moment though Shinji decided he'd rather not find his shoes full of spikes sometime later, even if they couldn't break skin.

The loose plans, bits of metal, plastic and other odds and ends were a bit more challenging. The liquid gold fire wrapped down his arms and made short work of the debris, rendering them down into basic components or ingots of raw material. Sometimes he had to juggle the plastics with one hand while he hunted for an appropriate chemical to break them down. Then his stomach decided to complain again, forcing the boy to head back out for more snacks.

On the third trip, he decided to just pick the vending machine up and carry it back.

After the seventh bar, Shinji could taste every sign of poor production, as if he were watching it being made and reading the ingredients. He had to forcibly resist the nagging urge to devise his own recipe on the spot. Stepping back from his efforts and swallowing the last mouthful, Shinji looked over his now ordered lab and the stacks of reclaimed materials, waiting for a new round of experiments.

Just when he was about to sit down though, someone poked their head through the door. Through the light of his corona, Shinij saw one of the night shift bridge crew. "Ah, Ikari-kun-"

The poor girl had to shield her eyes from the glare with a clipboard. "We were hoping you could help us with some MAGI maintenance, Akagi-Sensei and Lieutenant Ibuki have already..."

Shinji just looked over at the woman, then back at his work. He let his head fall forward into his desk with a loud, resonant thump. "...I'll be right there."

On a hot day , shaved ice stands and cafes had long waits, no matter the circumstances. Asuka had marched ahead and gotten in line first, declaring in no uncertain terms that she would not dawdle while ordering, unlike some people she could have named. Then the redhead's eyes cut between Rei and Misato, and the older woman wondered if she would have acted like that, if not for her bad years.

But with Asuka already charging away, that left Misato and the remaining girls to lag behind. Draping her arms around the shoulders of both Rei and Ayumi, Misato flashed each of them a bright smile in turn. Rei tried her best, but her smiles still weren't quite up to par. She was still far better than those first few weeks after she moved in.

Ayumi on the other hand... Misato wasn't entirely sure what was going on with her. Livid wasn't right, because the girl didn't look angry, more exasperated. Ayumi's eyes darted from Asuka to Rei then back towards Misato's own, caught between a shaky little laugh and a little sob. That was unacceptable. Before either teen knew it, they were neatly folded up in a half-bear hug.

Misato looked down at the girls with crinkled eyes, mushed against her cotton-clad chest. Rei weathered the storm just like she always did, but Ayumi let out the most adorable sounding 'glerk' that Misato had ever heard. Rumpled and more than a little red in the face, Misato felt the brunette's jaw work soundlessly. Then Ayumi's one free eye focused, and Misato followed her gaze back down the street toward Asuka.

The girl then managed to mumble past the obvious obstruction. "Ah... Ka-Misato-san... I think Sorhyu-san is ordering for us."

Misato blinked once and looked again. "She most certainly is not!" Show of support momentarily forgotten, Misato relaxed her grips and slipped between them, confident Rei and Ayumi would catch up as she marched towards the vendor.

A mere bump of the hip dislodged the pushy pilot from her place at the head of the line, as Misato drew a hand through her hair for effect. "Remember who's the commanding officer of this operation!"

Even knocked out of place, Asuka huffed pleasantly, like she was pleased with the attention. The redhead cradled a cup full of shaved and flavored ice hung in one hand. The little wooden scoop-spoon bounced loftily in the other. "Took you long enough."

"Yeah, yeah..." Misato grumbled, sliding neatly into line and giving the man behind the counter teasing little grin while Ayumi and Rei queued up behind her. Watching out the corner of her eye, Misato was glad to see the new girl getting her bearings back.

From her place in the line, Ayumi suddenly pipped up, drawing a slow sidelong look from the blue-haired pilot. She glanced at the menu, then back at the green and yellow cup of ice and syrup in Asuka's hand. "Sorhyu-san, ah, what flavor did you pick?"

From where Misato was standing, she wasn't entirely sure which confused Asuka more; the question, or having been asked by the second-quietest person on the whole trip.

"...I'm not exactly sure." Frowning, Asuka pressed a button on her prosthetic and gave the treat a closer look. "...Stupid Kanji. Green Tea with lemon, seriously?"

After being served, Misato was perfectly happy to lean back against the stall with her elbows on the counter, just in line with the fans they used to keep the ice from melting. Rei joined her a beat later. Off to the side, Misato heard the cashier's adam's apple bounce up and down. The added purr was not wholly necessary, but decidedly fun.

Asuka meanwhile stood out in the sun, sticking her spoon in the confection and trying to slay the foul beast that offended her. She held it out, leaning as far away from her own hand as she could. "Gross..."

Ayumi wove in then, growing more and more sure by the moment. Grinning, Misato took another bite, suddenly very interested as to where things were going. Shinji's girlfriend held an eager hand out, beaming. "I'll take it!"

The pilot blinked, plainly skeptical, while Misato and Rei watched from the shade. Asuka's voice had gone toneless and uncertain. "...Sure, take it."

Ayumi was gamely trying to hold back an even wider smile as she plucked the cup out of Asuka's hand. Digging in, she added "Green tea grows on you, you have to develop a refined taste to really enjoy it."

Asuka let out a derisive snort. "Please. Refined taste?" Tapping one sandaled foot, she huffed and crossed her arms. "They don't even have decent chocolate."

Rei broke in then, speaking for the first time since they got out of the car. "I have chocolate ice-cream, back at the apartment. Ikari-kun makes it."

Asuka blinked, first incredulous, then dumbstruck. Her jaw flapped up and down, and Misato could just see the annoyance warring with base jealousy for dominance over Asuka's train of though. Ayumi herself was outright speculative and licking her lips with a smile.

The internal conflict didn't last long. Fixing Rei with a pointer finger, Asuka gaped. "You've been holding out on me!"

Misato chose that moment to saunter back into play, though she was sure the cashier and more than a few customers hated to see her go... and enjoyed watching her leave. The extra roll of her hips probably wasn't wholly necessary either. She came to a stop next to Rei and grinned. "And she has learned the lessons well."

Asuka wilted, moaning archly. "What lesson?!"

Humming softly, Misato just offered the girl a kindly if painfully inscrutable smile. Asuka stared, first at her commanding officer, then at her fellow pilot and lastly the new hanger-on. The almost tangible cloud of exasperation building up around her head and shoulders made Misato's heart swell up in a way that she could only describe as 'big-sisterly'. Though Misato had to admit, she was mostly guessing about that.

The German girl just slumped in place, sighing. "Oh look. The mall's right there. Let's go."

Ginning, Misato laughed and toasted the girl with her own treat. "Soon! But after we're done."

Rei moved over to join Asuka, holding an extra cup of red-covered ice. She pressed it into Asuka's hands, nodding once. "Strawberry."

Tossing the girl a grateful look, Asuka sighed and dug in.

The four of them lazily made their way to the mall entrance, through the lingering crowds and mid-spring shoppers. The sun started to crawl toward the horizon, and the blue sky was slowly tinting pleasant orange. At the same time, the previously welcome wind was starting to turn a bit cold. Asuka in her yellow sundress had the best defense against the chill.

Still, Misato couldn't help but feel pleased when goosebumps prickled up her sides. The old scar had left an awkward, sometimes painful gap... Shaking her head, Misato tossed the cup and spoon away along with her thoughts. No more scar and a few less worries. Looking over at the girls, Misato noticed Rei and Ayumi shivering faintly, but probably more due to the last few bites than anything.

Focusing more on Ayumi, Misato's lips quirked to one side. The borrowed clothes were just a bit too small for her... that had potential. Smirking softly, Misato waltzed over and poked the girl in the side. "You know, when we're done here, we can get anything we buy tailored."

Ayumi squeaked and whirled, blinking owlishly. "I-Isn't that kind of expensive? And high end?"

Off to the right, Asuka's expression turned murderous. "She's talking about the golden boy. He can... already... stuff."

Misato waved the other girl off. "Nevermind Asuka. Listen, Ayumi-chan. If you're interested..." She leaned in and wrapped her arms around Ayumi's middle, leading her off to the side. Smiling, Misato whispered, and the girl went incandescent. "T-That's-"

Whatever it was, Ayumi couldn't say past the laughter. Misato considered that mission-accomplished and unceremoniously dragged the rest of her charges into the mall.

As it turned out, an extended detour into mindless labor was just the thing he needed to make some progress.

Shinji sighed and massaged his eyes. The action was purely reflex by that point, because like general exhaustion, he hadn't felt eyestrain or anything similar for months. Even so, the familiar little ritual made him feel better, slightly . The MAGI maintenance had been monotonous, almost painful with its emphasis on procedure. He'd also tried to protest, pointing out he was not an actual expert.

Then he reminded himself that he could call expertise out of thin air. Or at least most of the time. At that moment, Shinji felt burdened... and somehow empty, near the end of his reserves. Now that he thought about it, school had probably been one of the best things for him- a solid eight or so hours where he was not focusing power through the lens of his soul.

The drain had forced him to work in fits and starts as well. Assume a stance, execute the technique, wait until he'd recovered enough to try again. A few days ago, Shinji had eyed his own coronal display with loathing. It by definition was wasted energy.

But right now, after several hours of frustrating, disengaging maintenance, Shinji had come back to his impromptu Geofront workshop and made progress. The advanced MRI was left alone for now, though he was sure it still mocked him, somehow.

His progress, his success was about the size of a flattened pack of cigarettes, or one of those newer clamshell design cell-phones. He thought about counting back the weeks and previous iterations, but Shinji decided he just plain didn't care. A pair of admittedly temporary straps dangled from the skinward side, complete with foam padding. The batteries were taken off the shelf so to speak, he hadn't needed to really worry about them yet. The more important part was the actual pump design itself; the high-efficiency motors that drove the peristaltic motion.

Shinji held the device up to the light and smiled. It was the first useful prototype of Rei's infusion pump. Oh there was still work to be done, improvements to be made, like eliminating the drip bag, reducing the form factor even more.

Then Shinji squinted, glancing at the dangling tube and adapter-shunt hanging off the far end. "...Someone needs to implant the intake port."

The mall had been packed, full of shifting throngs of shoppers and employees. It had air conditioning, on a scale that managed to beat the mid-spring evening heat far better than the shaved ice. Ayumi switched her two bags to one hand and wiped an arm over her brow, huffing softly. Cool air or not, she'd worked up a faint sweat, and Misato-san said they weren't even halfway done.

Before, Sorhyu-san had set the bar for dynamic, aggressive personalities in Tokyo-3 Municipal. The foreign pilot had swept in like a natural disaster, completely destroying what little stability remained. As for the older woman, Ayumi found her... forceful. Forceful was a good word, better than domineering or unrelenting. She was more of a persistent presence, blindingly cheerful and completely at ease with herself.

That forcefulness was also what started the whole mall expedition. As a student, Ayumi knew the weekend rush, that time where outside of chores, she didn't have to do anything. Misato personified that feeling. Ayanami had mentioned Major as well, and Suzuhara and Aida both had gone on at length about Misato and her job. Ayumi had blinked and her mind spun out for a bit, trying to reconcile the woman as a minor idol, and being a primary defender of humanity. Then Misato made no less than three more blatant offers to 'help' her with Shinji.

That was when Ayumi stopped trying, instead deciding to just go with it.

Between Asuka and Misato though, the four of them blasted through the mall and departments, laughing and bickering by turns. Splurging or not, Misato's free funds could only go so far, leaving them all with one or two bags each. Despite that, Misato made a point of ducking into an electronics store, coming back out with a pair of pagers. She handed one to Ayumi with a knowing wink.

"It might help you with Shinji." As her jaw loosened in confusion, the only explanation Ayumi got was Misato's hand forming a gun, aimed directly at her heart. "Communication."


After the first round of browsing, the girls slowed down to what Ayumi decided was a 'meander'. They moved lightly, weaving between the evening crowds. Asuka had decided to show off at one point, pulling her eyepatch off and tying it around the back of her head. With both eyes closed, Asuka then proceeded to hold a conversation while walking backwards, firing off quips and only stumbling once or twice.

Still, going for nearly two hours with a pair of bags had an effect. Ayumi puffed up her cheeks and let out a gusty sigh, smiling. Sorhyu-san and Misato-san matched it with one of their own, though it was still kind of eerie watching the redhead 'see' with her eyes closed.

Glancing over at the blue haired girl, Ayumi blinked, first curious than concerned. "Ayanami-san, are you alright? Your nose is bleeding."

Cocking her head to one side, a bit of red dripped down over Rei's lips, and her tongue flicked out on reflex. Her face scrunched up, sour and puckered, and Ayumi winced in sympathy, imagining the salty metallic taste herself. Misato's face clouded, moving over but stopping just short. Setting her own bags down, Rei reached into a pocket for what looked like a pen.

She twisted one end and a hypodermic needle shot out the one side. "I'm becoming somewhat unstable."

Ayumi hummed softly, confused, even as Rei jammed the needle into the meaty part of her thigh. Looking back at Misato and Asuka, Ayumi felt her lips pull back and pursed, hoping they might explain. Instead she saw them both share the same stormy, unreadable expressions, focused totally on Rei.

Asuka and Misato spoke as one, almost syllable for syllable. "The family-thing?" "The goopy thing?"

Then they looked at each other. "What goopy thing?" "What family thing?!"

Something seemed to choke out the mirth and good feelings, leaving Ayumi with an even more intense sense of awkward confusion and impending doom. She watched the pilot and Major stare at each other, sneaking sidelong glances at the blue-haired girl and herself. Ayumi's mind spun into gear, suddenly locked out of an unspoken conversation. Asuka meanwhile simmered, barely able to hold back.

The five or so seconds stretched out far longer than they had any right to, until Misato-san broke the stalemate and turned. Ayumi felt herself pinned to the spot by that smile. It was a fixed look, sort of like what Ayumi's parents had when she'd asked about sex for the first time. On Misato though it wasn't an embarrassed, overly tight grin, it was something else... something Ayumi couldn't quite place.

It was also the first time she realized Misato sounded like an adult, even past the almost-to-earnest smile. "Listen, Ayumi-chan, Rei-chan; you two stay here. Asuka and I need to have a quick discussion. Over there."

She pointed to an alcove leading to the restrooms. Rei simply nodded, while Ayumi wondered if she should have saluted or not. The older brunette took Asuka by the upper arm and tugged, maybe a little harder than she intended, nearly pulling the younger girl off her feet. Asuka squawked, but jerked her arm away and kept walking.

While all that was happening, Rei had found a bench to sit on, keeping her shopping bags between her calves. She still had the hypodermic needle as well, out and sharp. She twisted the end again and the business end sank back into the pen, and she stuffed itto the bottom of her bag. Ayumi still saw the biohazard symbol.

Sitting down herself, Ayumi started to think, really think. She'd known of Ayanami Rei, seen her in every school in Tokyo-3, from primary to junior high. Ayumi had been one class ahead the whole time, of course, but it had gotten to the point that Rei was the 'quiet but wierd girl'. Then it changed again; Rei stopped being weird, or more her strangeness was accepted as the norm.

All of that came to one single conclusive thought: I don't know anything about this girl.

Ayumi glanced sidelong, suddenly painfully aware of the silence, even with the gradually fading mall noise around them. She groped for a topic, flailing mentally.

"So... uh..." She bit her lip, trying to hazard something, anything. "What kind of extracurriculars do you have?"

Ayanami didn't look up from her knees, but she spoke clearly. "I never felt like pursuing any."

Wilting, Ayumi sank into her shoulders. Her hair spilled over the sides of her face in a limp curtain. "Oh."

Now Rei turned, blinking once and cocking her head to the side. "Ah. Perhaps that is an unusual sentiment."

Ayumi squirmed in her seat, suddenly feeling an adrenaline surge followed by mortification. She waved her arms and hands, blanching. "Oh no, no! Lots of people don't do them, I was just wondering!"

"It is alright. I don't do many other things people normally do." Rei did not blink, and barely emoted even as she spoke. "I apologize if this is discomforting."

"No, no it's alright." The awkwardness was starting to fade, and Ayumi felt a tiny grin work its way across her lips. "You just... you just got to be."

Framed between two decorative trees, the restroom hallway was empty and reasonably private. The mall-goers were slowing down to a thin trickle due to the dinner rush, heading for home or the food courts. Since they were out of the main foot path, hardly anyone paid Misato and Asuka any attention.

The pair faced each other, and Asuka had moved her patch back where it belonged and stared at Misato, arms folded over her chest and foot tapping expectantly. "Well?"

Misato shrugged, and felt her brows furrow. She really did not want to deal with another worry. "Well what?"

"Well, we're either talking about the same thing with different names, or we're talking about two different things." Asuka cocked her head to one side and corners of her mouth pulled back, hard. "So I ask again; what 'family' thing?"

Her own lips drawing to one side, Misato's teeth ground lightly. Normally she would have tried to laugh it off, but Asuka... Asuka was too smart for a deflection. Misato tried anyway. "It's private. I mean, I was teasing Rei and I didn't realize I was getting into bad taste, so she corrected me."

"But you obviously know. She told you something, and she's told me something. Her AT field's on the fritz, right? Akagi confirmed that back when we were stuck in the MAGI."

The conversation was moving into extremely dangerous ground... and the chances of Asuka being patient were tiny at best. Misato licked her lips and nodded. Knowing that and knowing whatever 'goopy' meant in relation was something else. She tried to tell that to Asuka, but the other girl cut her off mid-syllable."Yes, but-"

"Well, Rei told me how she has an expressive AT field. Did she tell you that, or something else?" The redhead looked up at Misato with one icy blue eye, utterly still.

Misato pulled out the warning tone, setting her stance and frowning mightily. And felt like a heel for trying. Still, her voice held steady, even as she drew out the name. "Asuka..."

The girl tossed her hands up and rolled her eyes. Asuka let her arms and head drop suddenly drained, and Misato could hear the pleading tone in the girl's voice, like she was hoping for something... or maybe dreading. "Just.. Just tell me something, Misato. Tell me if you know how fucked up Rei is."

Swallowing thickly, Misato thought back. She wondered simultaneously why it was even relevant even as . "Well... She used to live in a shitty apartment. And I had to explain games like tag..."

"This is more than having a crappy home-life!" Asuka's eye somehow turned even colder, almost arctic. "Rei never wanted to become an astronaut. She never wanted to discover a new theory or study dolphins or win the Olympics. She's never wanted to write her name in history. Rei's never had monsters in her closet, or bloody-handed killers in campfire stories. Instead they gave her Angels, and told her to slaughter them indiscriminately."

Now the heat came back, and Asuka's eye burned. "I'm pretty sure back when I was still learning my letters, she was sitting in an entry plug."

It was long past time to try acting natural. Instead, Misato waved Asuka along and on one heel, heading into the hallway. "Follow me."

Asuka stamped one foot, incredulous, huffy and piqued. Still she followed a beat later, voice rising. "Misa-"

"Do it." Misato dropped her own voice low, dragging out as much whispered urgency as she could. She kept her arm down but waved her hand at her hip, in that universal 'cut it out' slash. "Section two courtesy policy; they don't follow us into bathrooms immediately, but they're coming." Along with the directional mics.

Asuka's throat worked, and the muscles along her neck stood out tight and straining. She nodded stiffly and started to march, sweeping ahead. Misato let out the last breath she'd held. The restroom itself didn't have a main door, but the stalls were private and isolated. Misato's eyes snapped to all corners, sizing up the windows and dimensions. The empty handicap accessible cubicle was their best choice, and the older woman hustled the teenager inside.

Misato shut the stall door behind her, while Asuka let out a breathy sigh. When they were situated, Misato exhaled softly. "We have maybe five minutes, so just listen for a second. I have an arrangement with the Commander."

Asuka's face scrunched up, mashing together revulsion, horror and scandal.

Misato blanched, She slashed her hands through the air, suddenly frantic. "No! Nothing like that. I mean our apartments aren't watched as close as they could be. As long as I send in reports. I have to give him something, Especially if I want..." She hesitated at that, tripping over the thought as though suddenly weighing the consequences of what she was saying.

But Misato pushed on anyway, with more conviction this time. "If I really want to act against him!"

"D-Do you?" Asuka sucked down a big lungful of air, then visibly regretted it. Misato's own nose crinkled at the chemical smell.

"He's in the business of killing Angels, and that's why I'm here..." Misato trailed away, looking off to the side. Stupid complications... She leaned against the stall wall and turned back to Asuka, offering the girl a wan smile. "...but sometimes I want to punch his face in too."

Seconds ticked by while the pair digested everything. Misato watched as Asuka fidgeted, shifting in place and running her hands up and down her folded arms. Something had been eating at the girl, that much Misato knew, but if she were completely honest, the Major sometimes had no idea what was going on in Asuka's head.

Neither of them had time to figure it out either. Hugging herself, Misato tried not to sigh. "So... You first, Asuka."

The girl jumped, almost as if she'd been bit. "...Right. Rei's a..." Misato could almost see the wheels in Asuka's head turning, and her jaw worked, trying to find the right words. "Manufactured human? NERV, GERHIN or... or somebody who worked on the Evangelions. I don't know, but they grew her or something."

When she was finished, Asuka sagged against the far wall, visibly spent. Misato frowned deeply, pressing her lips down into a tight, thin line. To most people that would've been tremendous revelation, but then Misato realized it sounded like something out of a soap opera. "Hold on a sec, how does that work?"

"Evangelions are cyborgs, Misato." Asuka let out a quiet huff. "Someone needed an organic half to finish the job."

After digesting that for a moment, Misato blinked, and the words just slipped out. "Wait, wait. Doctor Ikari was part of an Eva?"

Asuka was about to ask, already starting to mouth the question, but Misato cut her off with an apologetic wince. They'd already wasted enough time as it was. "Sorry. I mean, Rei told me she was a clone of Shinji's mother, Ikari Yui."

Something else started to gnaw at her though, mostly because of how Asuka said it. "What did you mean by 'goopy thing'?"

"Rei's trying to make her human soul do things it can't, and it rips holes that let her identity leak out." Asuka's tone shifted from 'participating in an interrogation' to 'college lecture'. She spread her hands out then brought them together, including a 'squish' sound. "When your identity leaks, you sort of lose macroscale stability. In Rei's case, she goes gooey."

Paling slightly, Misato decided to let that go for the moment. Instead she focused back on her pilot. Some things were starting to click into place, not just about Rei, but Asuka as well. She must've been holding on to that for weeks, if not longer. Misato though couldn't quite pin everything down, not without Asuka filling in the blanks. "Why didn't you tell me this before? I care about Rei's well-being too."

Just shy of snarling, Asuka caught herself and the last second and took a quick breath. She counted the why off on two fingers. "First of all Rei is my friend and no one but her gets to pass judgement on her, and secondly you're not a pilot and probably wouldn't understand."

Then Misato had a word for it; Asuka knew loyalty. It was basic, but unmistakable, and almost identical to the kind of dedication Misato shared with anyone under fire. She thought back to that briefing, and suddenly Asuka's attitude made total sense. Realizing that, Misato couldn't hold the secrecy against her. Misato tried to smile as an olive branch.

Asuka met the attempt with more determination, and stared at her hard. "Rei's been hurt deeper than either of us, so she's given them enough."

Wilting, the older woman reeled internally. Asuka was talking about Rei as if she were a mistreated veteran... And Misato was painfully reminded that fourteen and fifteen-year-olds were not supposed to be veterans. But if Asuka was going to be made of iron, so was she.

She took a quick calming breath, and tossed the girl a wry smirk. "I've been in combat myself, Asuka, with bullets flying and everything. This is all about what Rei needs, huh?"

Asuka clenched her hands over and over, sighing. "Yeah."

Misato smiled then, soft and warm, and she got a better response. She looked up at Asuka, hopeful and only slightly cautious. "So... what do you want to do?"

Apparently minding the time, Asuka didn't answer directly. Instead she balled up her fist and punched her other palm. The promise of pain was crystal clear. To that she added "My friend's out there with her soul full of holes. What do you think I want to do?"

Misato nodded gently. "Well, we can't do that now. In the meantime, we can stick by Rei."

Asuka looked up, blinking once. "We?"

"Yeah, We. Us, You and I." Misato hopped away from the stall wall and held her hand out to Asuka. "You think you can handle that?"

The teenager's head bobbed in agreement, using Misato's hand to stand upright and throw her shoulders back. Asuka answered back with her own decisive nod. Misato's eyes crinkled shut as her smile grew even wider. With a quick tug, she whipped the girl forward and had her wrapped up in a hug before she knew it.


"Oi, 'Yumi. Pass me the... noodle-stuff."

Ayumi blinked, snapped back into the moment by Asuka barging into her train of thought. The buffet Misato found was full of people of all ages. Teenagers filled tables and welcomed their friends and peers. Tired but happy shoppers waited in lines to order all over, carrying bags and chatting animatedly with their boyfriends or girlfriends, wives and husbands. Men and women getting off work and heading for late dinners filtered in wearing summer suits with loosened ties.

Asuka managed to loom from across the table, poised in her yellow sundress with three massive plates of food arrayed before her. Ayumi stared right back and the perfect phrase appeared in her mind. It was as if the stars had aligned just for this one moment.

The opportunity was simply too good to pass up. "Jawohl mein F├╝hrer, Heil Asuka."

Thunderous, deafening silence followed. Rei simply blinked once, while Asuka and Misato both stared openly. The moment dragged out longer and longer, until it hit that point where nerve failed. Misato was the first to break, the stunned look giving way to a howl of laughter. Ayumi smiled faintly, hunching in on herself only a little as people turned to see what the fuss was about.

"I-I'm not sure which was worse!" Misato blurted, still laughing. "The attempt or the ac-c-cent!"

Asuka folded her arms over her chest and glared through the laughter with one dark blue eye. "Gott ist in seinem Himmel."

Wilting, Ayumi blanched and kicked herself for completely exhausting her total knowledge of the German language. As Asuka stared her down, Ayumi found herself suddenly wondering if the rumors about the eye patch were true, and that it could steal the souls of those who displeased Sorhyu. She didn't think it so, but it had become painfully clear that Asuka would try.

Ayumi passed the plate of noodles without a word.

An apology was forming when one side of Asuka's mouth quirked up, shifting full on into a sly smirk. She took the plate and dished up, even as Misato reached out to muss the redhead's hair. Ayumi let out a sigh and grinned, awash in the shrieks and silly giggles, surrounded by three people she was rapidly beginning to call friends. Even Ayamani was smiling into her drink, sipping daintily while the others carried on.

Ayumi had to admit, her own friends and family where no where near as energetic. Dinner at home had always been quiet, with lots of habits and little rituals. Familiar ones, family ones, of course, but routine just the same. Here though Asuka and Misato were teasing and prodding each other non-stop. Food was picked from unguarded plates and apologies to their owners were mumbled through whatever morsel they happened to steal.

Outside of the tabletop battlefield sat Ayumi, and she judged her target well and boldly, reaching slow and unnoticed to a particularly overlooked bottle. But as she triumphantly lifted it to her lips, Misato broke away from hassling Asuka and spun on her with almost preternatural speed. Gone was the beer from Ayumi's hand, and already drained in an instant. The older woman howled before slamming the bottle down on the table.

Waggling one finger, Misato grinned, winking mischievously. "Urp - better not get too wound up young lady, it's a school night!"

Rei and Asuka stopped to stare for a moment, before they burst out laughing, flicking wadded up napkins and chopstick wrappers across the table. Misato raised her hands, warding off the assault and winging back what she could. "N-No fair! I'm inebriated!"

Picking at her plate, Ayumi mused while smiling faintly. Four hours ago, the most demanding thing on Ayumi's mind had been her ironically tepid relationship with one of the most turbulent boys in Toyko-3. She was worried about him, worried for herself, and worried for all the messes and good times that came along. But if the Ayumi of now had answered that door four hours ago instead of Misato and told her younger self; 'you'll be having dinner with your boyfriend's live-in harem,' she'd have laughed and cried and run all the way home.

Only during the past handful of hours had she realized how narrow that view had been. Shinji wasn't just her boyfriend, he was a person with his own friends... his own weirdly adoptive family. The 'harem' that had lurked in the back of her mind now seemed more preoccupied with inducting her than they had been with Shinji's daily life.

Looking up from her plate, Ayumi thought back to her own family. Her grandmother had once said something like "Food tastes as good as the company you keep." The actual phrase had sounded awfully formulaic when Ayumi had first heard popped a bit of stir-fry into her mouth and hummed, smiling through the flavor while Misato and Asuka comically gawked at another of Rei's deadpan responses.

"Of course its natural! German heritage! Misato, you've poisoned her against me!"

Ayumi had to admit, her grandma was more right than she knew.

Shinji yawned, stretched, and settled into the next round of testing.

The MRI prototypes sat off to the side, vindictively ignored for the foreseeable future. Stacks of papers had been filled with calculations and formula, and Shinji had proven fairly conclusively that he was terrible at anything less than design excellence. Five or more iterations had left him with nothing but black box technology, testbeds perhaps for future techniques, but still nothing practical.

Rei's infusion pump lay finished on one side of his work table. Finished, if one forgot the six dozen or so steps that had nothing to do with creating it, and everything to do with approving it. Also setting aside the admittedly simple procedure to implant the port, complete with a hornet's nest of ethical quandaries that he saw no need to disturb just yet.

Shinji sighed and pushed both those projects out of his mind. Instead he turned forward toward his work table, left with basic experimentation.

Over the past four weeks during his various attempts at engineering, he had devised a new technique. It was similar to the expressed power that let him shape materials with his bare hands. Perhaps an outgrowth of it, he wasn't entirely sure. In any event, Shinji had decided not to tell Ritsuko that he could violate conservation of mass... at least yet. He'd promised himself that he would. Eventually, when Ritsuko stopped getting that strange, vaguely berserk look in her eye at his already-established powers.

The boy shook his head and focused back on the task at hand. The surface was perfect, with no flaw or chip to be seen at any angle. The finely pebbled calcium carbonate had a consistent resistance to crushing and impact forces, which was to say hardly any at all. He set the target down on the steel table, waiting for the oblong thing to stop wobbling. The buffed out remnants of previous experiments dotted the table as well- splayed hand prints made in industrial steel.

Shinji raised his hand, almost resigned to the foregone conclusion. His arm whipped down and slammed into the surface with a sharp, ringing bang, and the steel tabletop warped up and cradled the sides of his fingers. The egg shell under his palm had shattered completely, the same egg shell he'd taken with his packed lunch almost a month ago.

He pulled his hand away and tapped it against the table, dumping the hundreds of shell fragments into the basin left by his palm. He reached out for his notebook and started to take notes, even as he started to count each cracked piece. The notebook was starting to get full too... Shinji shook his head and looked back at the remains, pulling out his inner reserve once more.

The process itself was calming in a way, almost relaxing. He pulled at jagged edges, picking out each one and it's neighbor perfectly each time, like the most difficult jigsaw puzzle. Two pieces became one under his fingertips, and so on and so forth. A familiar curve began to appear, until he had less mess and more shell, until finally the shell was whole and dry.

The very same egg, shattered. Then repaired as if new, and shattered over and over again.

Now reassembled, Shinji held the empty shell up to the light. Not a single crack or deformation, just like the last few dozen tests. He cocked his head to one side, then the other. Break the shell, put it back together, a routine within his other routines. His stomach churned suddenly, and Shinji willed it to quiet down. He had to admit, a good hand-made meal would've been great right then, but the vending machine he'd taken still had plenty in stock. No reason to divert any more than he already had.

Staring at the egg, Shinji couldn't help but see potential. There was a sense-that-was-not, an intangible sort of feeling. It was similar to any other technique he had developed, finding insight into some deeper understanding. Feeling a wave of inspiration take hold, Shinji rocked forward in his chair. He drew forth the scraps of power he still had in reserve, focused, and saw room to invest a part of himself into something else.

The power flowed in a new pattern, remembered just as easily as any hand to hand technique. His notepad waited nearby, with several hundred hours of recorded data already filling its pages. Holding the shell above the table, Shinji squinted, suddenly intent. After a long moment of study, his fingers moved, and the egg fell.

It hit the table with a muted, hollow click, and seemed to stop there for a moment, almost poised for something. Then it bounced, seven times in all before falling off the table entirely, tumbling past Shinji and his chair. He clamped down on the urge to chase after it, instead pushing himself to finish writing out the results.

The egg had come to a stop some ten feet away, meandering along the floor until it ran out of energy and came to a halt. Shinji eyed its ending point and glanced back at the table, mentally diagramming one of the possible wobbling paths. Curiosity satisfied, he picked the shell back up and sat back down, ready for the second test. The shell almost seemed to tingle under his fingertips, humming and familiar... it felt distantly like he was touching his own arm... or holding his own arm. He looked the egg over for any flaw and imperfection and found none.

After checking his notes one last time, Shinji leaned back in the chair, thinking. He turned the empty egg over in his hand. There was no obvious change, other than an egg shell staying intact despite repeated impacts and a relatively long drop. Practical experience in the kitchen had given him a good baseline. Though unlike any other project, the egg had been the first time he couldn't see what he was doing.

There weren't any support struts or chemical additives... He just made the shell stronger. Put a part of himself into it and made it stronger. Am I creating some sort of honeycombing structure with the shell? Or is there something else going on...

He frowned then, again staring at the miraculously undamaged egg. Some part of him questioned the wisdom of the experiment, of continuing the experiment. That part of him already knew the answer, had always known the answer. It was a nagging little voice in the back of his head, gleeful or resigned by turns. A perfect probability of something happening was the same as saying absolutely nothing else could happen.

Dropping the egg again on the table, Shinji bounced it, rolled it around under his fingers, even dribbled it a few times like an oblong rigid basketball. He paused, stopping the shell in a cage of his fingers. His whole body tensed in an instant, and rings of dust bloomed beneath his shoes as he braced. From his thighs through his core and into his arm then out his hand, Shinji brought his open palm down on the egg once more. The metal frame let out an awful, echoing shriek..

His work area had bowed around his arm, and the box-tube legs sank into floor. His free hand shot up and caught Rei's pump before it smashed against the far wall. Tapping his other hand clean of egg shell, Shinji waited, breathing slow and steady. An hour passed, and he rebuilt the shell from its remnant flakes. Another hour, and he repaired the table..

Reaching out for a bit of scrap paper and a pen, Shinji exhaled and started to take notes. "...Experiment One: Resistance... negligible."

Anything could be futile, even success.

Shinji heard it before anything else. Then he felt it, through the soles of his boots, a muted thoom-thoom-thoom of approaching footsteps. The trees in the distance shifted, just slightly out of sync. At the opposite end of the stage, Ritsuko was bent over a laptop and thanking the gathered audience for attending the demonstration. Or more accurately, the first part. Shinji flexed his gloved fingers, curling into fists and relaxing.

The footsteps were getting closer; cups of water and the distant Geofront lake rippled from impact tremors.

More than a dozen pairs of eyeballs swiveled as Misato sauntered on stage, and Shinji willed himself to not follow along. It was har... a challenge. The Major scooped up a microphone in one hand and straightened her beret with the other. Select representatives from the JSSDF, Tokyo-3's own local news and worldwide. Lastly were the first of many UN representatives, enforcing monthly inspections.

She turned smartly on one booted heel and faced the crowd, smiling broadly. "We owe a lot to our Specialist here, the volunteer for our Human Enhancement Project. Increased strength, speed and stamina are just the beginning." She waved at the obstacle course and labeled weights. "NERV in the business of Unnatural Warfare, ladies and gentlemen! So now, more than ever, we're dedicated to putting all the right boots on the ground, where we need them, when we need them."

Blinking behind the helmet, Shinji had to admit, Misato was a pretty good actress. She had asked him before the demonstration, if he was alright with what they were doing. She waved her hand at her forehead, their personal little signal. NERV, using his Exaltation. He shrugged, saying "If it helps, I can do it."

At that moment he felt a little less than okay about it, and was glad the helmet fully covered his face.

Misato made a point of holding one hand over her beret, while turning to a camera. "Asuka?"

A familiar young girl's voice rang out from the stage sound system. "Already en route."

Still keeping a firm grip on her beret, Misato again smiled at the generals, scientists and cameras. "Well, we covered the basics, but now we'd like to show you a little bit more about what our Specialist can do."

Out from behind a distant low hill, Evangelion Unit-02 marched into view.

A part of Shinji's mind had to actively rebel at the sight of the Evangelion. It wasn't the first time he'd seen one up close or moving of course. He'd been there when Asuka made landfall in Japan in her machine after all. That still didn't make it any easier to reconcile.

Even acknowledging it somehow maintained a passive region of altered physics, the sheer size of the things were terrifying. Shinji himself had finally settled at six feet tall, and become somewhat used to towering over nearly everyone in his class or country. He could stack twenty people just as tall as he was and still not reach the top of an Eva's head. The wind resistance at that height would have been staggering, enough to strain a building, let alone a several hundred ton biped.

More unsettling was the sound delay, each motion occurring a half-second or two before the sound reached his ears. There was no jerking pistons or grinding gears, but instead massive tendons as thick as his own arm or leg, and strange muscles under flexible armor. Shinji watched as Asuka guided her machine towards them, and was again struck by how natural the Eva moved, and how quickly.

Each footstep was fast, not in the sense of stomping. Every step hit the ground with the force of a cannon, and the reason for her roundabout path became clear. The quick pace would have reduced any mundane roadway to rubble in minutes.

The Evangelion moved like a person, on a massive scale.

He wasn't the only one feeling uneasy. Even closer now, Shinji started to crane his neck up and up and up. Glancing sidelong, the scientists and UN team were starting to squirm. The Tokyo-3 locals though were more awed, but he couldn't say for sure. The only one who smiled at Asuka's approach was Misato.

Holding her beret down became clear when the Evangelion neared the stage. For a normal person, a footstep or swung arm kicked up dust. At the Evangelions' size, 'dust' was dirt and leaves, or even small bushes and poorly anchored trees. Ritsuko had packed her laptop up and held it tight against her chest, trusting her glasses against the building grit. Carefully picking her path, Asuka still left an obvious but narrow trail in her wake.

It said a lot too, that Shinji knew he couldn't match that feat.

Stopping just short of the stage, the Evangelion and Asuka stood with a hand on each hip, and the girl's voice echoed from the speaker. "Evangelion Unit-02 reporting!"

Misato pumped her fist and cheered. "Nicely done Asuka-chan!" The Major spun back to the audience once the unnatural wind had died down. The gusts kept going past the bleachers, shaking the parked television vans and trees behind them.

Her expression went hard for a moment, fixing the crowd with a look. "Identity is the core of everything we do here at NERV. It's our AT field technology, our Evangelions, and now human enhancement. With an unassailable sense of self, our Specialist can surpass human limits!"

A scattered few managed to bring their hands together, just barely applauding. The rest were still struck numb, wild-eyed and reeling. Asuka- the Evangelion- had stopped less than a few meters away from the stage edge. Off to the side, Shinji was feeling less than sanguine about the sales pitch. Sure that sounds great... If I could actually do anything like it.

Nothing for it now though. He rolled his shoulders and rocked his neck from one side to the other, curling and uncurling his fingers. The purple-haired woman turned back to him with a quick nod. It was time. The stage started to rumble as great steel and concrete panels rose out of the ground. They linked up at the edges, forming an armored bunker around the division heads and their guests.

Glancing back up at the looming Evangelion, Shinji let his path offstage take him alongside the nearest bunker wall. He reached out and brushed his fingertips along the reinforced surface and willed his power into it.

Just in case.

Cameras tracked his every move as he hopped off the platform and made his way out to the rest of the testing area. They piped their feeds through to the interior of the bunker, where everyone was expecting... something. He had to resist the urge to hunch over, or rub the back of his neck. Even with the mask and suit, stage fright was a very real thing. Especially considering he might end up on national television that night, or even world-wide evening news.

Not that rubbing or pulling at his collar would've helped would've helped, the suit clung every inch of him from neck to toe, and didn't breath worth a damn.

The red Evangelion slowly peeled away and head for its own starting point. The earth and trees shook as she passed, staying well clear of the Central Dogma outbuildings and access roads. They both knew the plan. Picking his way through the Geofront forests, the boy reached a cleared section about as wide as a regular city block. Looking up at the retracted buildings of Tokyo-3, he had to say regular, because the fortress-city blocks blocks were about two hundred meters across.

It was as though everything else in Tokyo-3 was trying to make up for him being huge.

On hidden loudspeaker, Misato's voice rang out, lively and winsome. "Ladies and gentlemen. To the left we have Evangelion Unit-02, our first production model. Piloted by Sorhyu Asuka Langley , the Second Child. To the right we have our prototype enhanced human. Code name: 'Headlamp'.

She waited a beat, and Shinji could hear her smile."We just call him the Specialist."

Separated by about half a mile, Shinji and Unit-02 faced off, waiting for the signal to go. The radio in his ear crackled, and Asuka's voice broke through. "You ready, Golden Boy?"

The first response he bit off, as asking her not to call him that... did not work. Resigned, Shinji felt a muscle in his jaw twitch. He dropped his chin to touch the transmit button, sighing softly. "I'm ready, Sorhyu-san."

He was fairly certain the bloodthirsty laughter was deliberate, as was her continued transmitting.

Misato overrode the pilot chatter as she acted the master of ceremonies. " Identity, when reinforced, can do amazing things. Pilot Sorhyu and Professor Akagi both can speak to that." She paused again, letting that little fact sink into her audience. A new surge of adrenaline dumped into Shinji's bloodstream. "The Specialist will now defend himself against four-fifty kilogram impacts, that's about a thousand pounds for the rest of you."

Ritsuko had leaned in to add. "Our Specialist may be able to block bullets, but this was a safer live demonstration."

Across the distance, Asuka and her Evangelion twisted and stretched, before leaning down to pick something up just behind the trees. She hefted the it, tossing it up and down in that massive hand, once, twice, three times.

"Hey, 'Specialist'," The redhead all but crooned, this time through the Eva's own speaker system for all to hear. "You know I spent some time in Boston, right? The whole team survived Impact, if you can believe that."

"I hear baseball's still pretty popular in Japan too..." She held the piece of 'vital testing equipment' between cybernetic thumb and forefinger. "I don't need to say it do I?"

With that, Asuka and Unit-02 wound up and threw a boulder at Shinji.

The bunker was quiet, save for breathing, and the faint whine of electronics. Those present inched forward in their seats, as close to the monitors as they could manage.

On the screens and outside above the distant tree line, an angled of dust and grit shot into the air. Shrapnel arced out and pelted the shielded cameras, even as the cloud drifted in. Every man and woman in the bunker watched on scree and camera, tracking the boulder's easy arc through the air. The red Evangelion had perfect form- tossing the comparatively small stone underhand. It landed right where the pilot wanted it.

In the split-second of contact, the generals, television crews and scientists saw the Specialist raise his arms.

Feeling her hand curl tight around the microphone, it was safe to say Misato was somewhat worried.

Ritsuko had pulled her laptop open, striking a handful of keys. Behind her, the crowd was starting to get antsy. Low questions with regard to NERV's sanity, how could a man defend against a boulder, if they really did kill someone for a test. Reflected text and graphics scrolled down her glasses before she looked up at Misato and nodded, letting the other woman see her eyes. She reached out and tilted her hand, thumbs up.

Misato's smile broke out in earnest, and the tension in her spine let out. Spinning back to the monitors, she tried to squint through the dust, but there was nothing for it. "Asuka?"

The girl's voice crackled out over speaker. "Yeah, yeah. Gimmie a sec."

Other screens were clear, showing the wider test area and the Evangelion itself. Asuka eased out of her post-throw follow-through and stood upright, before raising one immense arm high above her head. "Hey Headlamp! Heads up!"

Asuka brought hand arm down, and a surging rush of wind built up under her palm. It cut through her test area, stripping leaves from trees and uprooting bushes. The gust cut through the dirty cloud at the opposite end, whipping around whatever remained standing. For less than a second, three shapes were outlined by the compressed plume.

The Specialist stood firm and low with one arm outstretched into the rocks' former path, his fingers folded into a simple hand spear. Two jagged halves of boulder had landed just behind him, one on each side.

Letting out a long, slow breath, Shinji shook his hands, more out of habit than anything else. As far as tests went and demonstrations went, this one was so the most... interesting. To Asuka and her Evangelion, the boulder was more like a pebble. Looking down at the half that careened off to his left, Shinji couldn't help but note it reached his knee.

Behind the mask, he felt his lips pull to one side, idly calculating the throw's final velocity and kinetic... No, not the time for it. He shook his head to clear the distraction, and Misato's voice came through his headset radio, quiet and concerned. "Specialist, how're you doing?"

Glancing at his hands and thinking over his answer, Shinji was pleased to note his gloves where intact save for some ragged abrasions. He chinned the call button, but winced when he heard his own distorted voice. Electronic scrambling twisted his speech as to be unrecognizable.

"I'm fine M-Major." He caught himself on the first sound, had to maintain decorum. It was weird referring to Misato by rank. "I am ready for another."

Misato switched over to the broadcast loudspeakers, a complete one-eighty to her previous tone. She all but caroled. "Well you heard him Asuka, he's ready for round two!"

Completely submerged in LCL, Asuka let out a single bubble of not-quite- air. The liquid may have been oxygenated, but her lungs still needed to shove out the carbon dioxide. Such an amazing use of her talents, throwing rocks. Asuka sighed again, but a little smirk worked its way across her lips regardless. It wasn't all bad, at least. Punching bags existed to take abuse, after all.

Still, it took a lot of guts to stand in front of an Evangelion, especially with her at the controls, and let her pelt them bits of landscaping. Asuka's fingers flicked out to touch the handful of keys on the butterfly control sticks, tabbing through program modes and interfaces. Her perspective jumped, and she zoomed in on Shinji. The suit helped, it forced him to stand up taller, and the nearly faceless mask was almost eerie, how it could just stare right through someone.

Granted she did the same thing with her prosthetic, so she wasn't above sharing that particular wealth.

A jerk of thought and will pulled her Evangelion upright once more, twisting smartly to pick up another test projectile. She felt the wind rush around the neck and shoulders of her combat machine, and gooseflesh built up under her plugsuit. Aside from sync tests and the disciplinary examinations, it was the first time she'd been back in the pilot seat, and it felt good.

Even so, there hadn't been a lot of time for her to experiment, finding that elusive sense of Synchronization, but she tried anyway. The Evangelion itself couldn't hurt her, after all. Not willingly at least. She wanted to be welcomed, so she made a point of acting welcoming. Every test, Asuka entered with a faint smile and kind thought for her machine.

The smile she wore right that second though was not the kind one. Instead she was positively leering, almost gleeful in the near privacy of the entry plug. No Misato or Akagi to watch her face like a hawk. Just her, and outright approval to throw stones at one of the biggest, if harmless thorns in her side since landfall.

Her name was Sorhyu Asuka Langley, and she was sitting in her Evangelion. Life was good.

After a few moments of hunting through the pile, she found the perfect rock. Turning back, she asked if he was ready, and Shinji said yes. With a quick wind-up, the rock crossed the half-mile, trailing broken flakes and dust.

And this time, Shinji caught it; stopping all thousand pounds of it with one open palm and a deceptively loud crack.

"Was that his arm?" Asuka leaned forward in her seat, squinting. "If that was his arm, It's not my fault!"

The smaller half of the test area had seen better days. Shinji pulled himself out of the latest impact trench, huffing faintly. Nine throws. He had caught, blocked, cleaved in half or otherwise stopped nine boulders about as tall as a man's torso. Tall as his torso. He glanced sidelong at the furrows and craters, dug in by his heels and off-angle deflections. Most of them were a good ten yards long and thigh deep.

His suit had seen better days too. He slapped the dust away as best the could, but it didn't do much more than get caught in all the rends and abraded material. A spectacular crack wound its way up the side of his mask too, cutting right through the blue visor.

But for all that, he was still more or less good to go.

Misato's voice came in over the radio, almost purring. "Specialist oh Specialist- We're at the end of our test schedule. Why don't we send everyone home with something a bit more spectacular, hmm? Make it sporty!"

Wincing, Shinji resisted the urge to scratch his head. Maybe not all that good to go. "Ah... Major, I'm not really sure if..."

"Come on golden boy, you could at least act like you're having fun." Past the trees, Unit-02 was juggling, tossing and catching comparatively marble-sized rocks with barely any effort. Asuka scooped up all three rocks in one move, fanning then between her Evangelions' fingers, and Shinji could hear the delight. "I know I am!"

The massive red machine held the rocks up to eye level, before glancing past its fingers. "Sporty, huh? Major Katsuragi, I've got this."

From every move and tilt of her head, Shinji almost imagined Asuka herself standing across the test area. The idea of a forty meter tall transfer student was not putting him at ease, at all. He winced again, and really wished he had found time to apologize properly to the girl. Misato and Asuka conferred in low tones over the radio and his hearing wasn't going to do much about electronic noise.

Misato came back a few seconds later, confident but diplomatic. "Asuka's got a good idea, Specialist. We'll go with hers in case you don't have a better one."

Shinji looked back at the pile of previous tests, the shattered rocks and impact trenches. Asuka had not once broken his trust today, a little more wasn't going to hurt. He raised his arm high and gave the cameras a thumbs up, and Misato gave Asuka the go-ahead.

That was when Asuka flicked the first rock like a bug off her palm. The thick cybernetic tendon drove the tip of the finger forward, and the rock hurtled downrange. It screamed through the air fast and straight with no arc what so ever, and Shinji barely had time to drop his raised arm before it hit. Time seemed to slow as an all new high of adrenaline flooded his bloodstream.

The rock slammed into the ground just ahead of him, ripping the hard packed soil to shreds and setting the rock to shatter. A distant part of him couldn't help but note the accuracy too. Another underdeveloped instinct took hold, and Shinji channeled his power just so. The first wave, a handful of shards sliced into his suit, into his stomach and thighs, but they stopped hard against his flesh, leaving shallow bloody pits.

He ignored the pain and his legs pumped. Dashing forward into the sharp cloud sole first, he stepped.

One fragment, two fragments, three and more. With chunks the size of playing cards, the spray of shrapnel was no harder to walk on than the ground he'd just left behind. Someone on the radio, Ritsuko maybe, was shouting about high-speed recording. Running up almost vertical, the boy reached the top of the cloud just in time to see rock number two hurtling on a direct line into his chest.

No ground beneath him save for slowly falling bits of gravel. And more importantly, no leverage. All of that and more ran through his mind in an instant, leaving Shinji with only one thing left to do. He walked onto the second rock. Scrambling around hand over hand, he got around to the back side, and Shinji saw Asuka through Unit-02, just having finished lowering her hands.

With just a fraction of a second left before he hit the tree line, Shinji coiled what muscle he could and sprang forward, tumbling through the dirt while the rock hurtled onward. It slammed into the trees, shattering wood, bark and rock for dozens of yards.

Sitting just to the side of one of the earlier trenches, Shinji twisted his head over his shoulder and let out a long, slow breath. Misato's voice over the loudspeakers declared the test concluded.

Tokyo-3 faced the sun every morning.

Superstructures and skyscrapers stretched out for the sky as men, women and children went to work or school. The solar collection dishes at lake shore turned into the light on clockwork, and each actuated mirror rippled. At end of April, the middle of the world warmed, and Japan sat in the center of sixteen year equator. Great plumes of wet steam built up into puffy columns alongside main roads and city storm drains, leading into Lake Ashi.

Somewhere deep in downtown, Lieutenant Ibuki Maya yawned and walked to work in step with countless others. Aoba Shigeru and Hyuga Motoko caught the same train into headquarters. Sub-Commander Fuyutsuki did not go to NERV, but instead drove to school, for his first class of the day.

In Misato's apartment, the Major greeted the day with a beer, while the smell of coffee filled the expanded kitchen. Asuka hiked herself up onto the black marble counter and waited, kicking her heels while the espresso machine hummed and purred.

Akagi Ritsuko, Ikari Gendo, and Ikari Shinji never left the Geofront, each hunched over their respective desks in pursuit of the next planning phase. Among them, only Gendo was smiling.

Mornings in Central Dogma were usually quiet. Better to say mornings often lacked human noise. The main bridge operators were often on assignment elsewhere in the complex, leaving Ritsuko alone on the second level. It wasn't any of her labs, but it was peaceful, and problem-solving proved easier. The MAGI supercomputers below tended to fill the chamber with a soft, warm hum. It was a familiar sound, one that reminded Ritsuko of... different times. Difficult to say if they were better, or worse.

Hunched over her desk, she eyed the hand-drawn array, contemplating each particular element in turn. It was one of the anomalies Shinji developed, a particular ritual or behavior that had no perceived effect. It's existence implied things, amazing, wonderful things. It was yet more evidence that whatever the Exaltation was, it came from somewhere else. Of course, just thinking that sort of grandiose statement made her almost snort. Ritsuko kept her arm steady; she didn't want to try drawing another array any time soon.

Chewing on the last bit of worthwhile cigarette, Ritsuko thought back on one of the particularly vexing mysteries. Most of Shinji's Exaltation still made no sense. And what little they did understand made the strangest kind of sense she'd ever encountered. 'Impossible' stopped having any meaning to her more than a year ago, at least where the Exaltation was concerned. Incredible or unbelievable were usually more appropriate. As far as the lingering problem was concerned, it was frustrating.

Shinji had explained on several occasions that he was 'Chosen', that he had seen an image of a third-century roman deity, granting him unfathomable powers. Ritsuko had hoped for a comfortable explanation, a delusion brought on by synchronization, similar to how normal dreaming worked. The logic was simple as well. Shinji could have only imagined something he was familiar with prior, a history book, a film he'd watched as a child, anything that would have engrained itself on his memory.

Unfortunately, all investigation pointed to one simple fact: Shinji had never heard of The Unconquered Sun in his whole life. Moreover, the historic deity didn't even have four arms. There was no reason for the blatant symbolism. His previous home didn't even have a television set. In a convenient universe, he would have had the decency to imagine Amaterasu, at least her showing up would have made some sort of sense.

The bottle-blonde sighed and shoved that out of her mind. She was conducting an experiment. With magnifying glasses, a thin horse-hair brush and a look of fierce concentration, Akagi Ritsuko bent the recognized laws of physics to her will.

"-want to flank them. I mean that's what the street arrangement is for; cover behind the fortress buildings and overlapping fields of fire with long kill zones."

"That's a terrible idea! You saw it with the last Angel, the positron one. The buildings in this city can't take that kind of damage, so cover's only good for blocking line of sight, which hey, didn't stop that angel either! Never mind that an Evangelion is twelve stories tall."

Ritsuko felt her teeth click together, and she looked down at the paper beneath her arms. A long jittering line smeared off the page, ruined. She turned and started to count to ten. Kicking fitfully, the chair spun Ritsuko around to Misato and Asuka as they entered. The extra coffee that Misato dropped on her desk was the main reason Ritsuko decided not to protest their arrival.

Aside from that however, the pair outright ignored the scientist, instead focused on their debate. Asuka ran through what sounded like a well-rehearsed list of problems about Tokyo-3's defensive arrangement. Meanwhile, Ritsuko sat back in her seat and wondered if all teenage girls sounded so screechy, or if it wast just the Second.

True or not, Asuka's critiques were simply irrelevant at the moment. They didn't have any meaningful leeway. No budget or raw material to spare. Misato shrugged though, arms folded and hands tucked against her elbows. "Theoretically we're going to have a blank check, assuming we can gear up enough product to sell, or create something people feel confident enough to invest in."

Asuka huffed, stamping one foot and rounding on the other woman. "Then what are we going to do? We don't have new weapons, or armor, or anything to bring to a fight!"

"Deal with Kenya most likely."

The pilot and Major turned, and Ritsuko savored a slithery little gleeful feeling before squashing it. "Kenya is the leading nation in biotech research. They're second in line for cybernetics after any NERV research."

"And...?" Patient, Sorhyu Asuka Langley was not.

Not that Ritsuko cared much. She lit a new cigarette and waved at the redhead, more importantly, her prosthetic. "They're chomping at the bit for synchronization interface. Where you see a control system, they see the Holy Grail that solves half the messy problems with medical cybernetics, transmitting nervous and sensory information."

Tapping that same foot, Asuka folded her arms and stared the scientist down. "Which would be great, if it worked for anyone but pilots."

"Hence us not releasing it until we've solved that little hurdle." The patch helped, but as far as Ritsuko was concerned, Asuka was twenty years too young to pull off a proper imperial scowl.

Smiling past her fingers, Misato laughed lightly. "As great as it is to watch you two snipe at each other. Rits, do you have anything that could save my job and the world?"

The scientist shook her head, but rolled across the control room floor towards Maya's empty station. "Not specifically, no, but there is something interesting I can show you." She tapped a few keys, and in response, the big board holographic display shifted to a top-down map of the fortress city. "Before all this budget crisis, we finished installing all the updated ground-level pattern sensors."

Hitting one button, the screen shifted to false-color, and a few tiny smears of blue dotted the map. Some were focused around the high school, the train lines, and after a few moments of placing the landmarks, Misato's own apartment. "We didn't start seeing these until Rei over-expressed her AT field."

Asuka's jaw and throat worked, grimacing. "That's bits of her soul leaking out."

"Correct." Misato's face had gone ashen. Ritsuko hit a few more keys and wiped the display. "It's being managed, she's not getting worse, but she isn't getting better either."

Drumming her fingers against her arm, Misato scowled. "So far I'm not seeing a miracle, Rits."

A new command brought up another pattern analysis, and Ritsuko snorted. "I'm a scientist, I don't deal in miracles when I can help it. Anyway, this is what I wanted to show you."

The map of Tokyo-3 changed. Building graphics fell away, leaving the the road and building retraction grids. Massive swaths of green covered the city, while more dots were clustered around any number of places throughout. There was no place untouched by the green dots, though some concentrations were clearly higher than others. A handful of massive events, almost like impact craters dotted the city as well. Again, Misato's own apartment, along with the junior high campus.

There was one other, which Ritsuko didn't expect Asuka to understand the significance of. It was an almost random looking spot in the center of the city. Katsuragi knew it as the first Angel Battle. Ritsuko called it Green Event Zero.

Looking at the new map, Misato was the first to catch on. "That's Shinji's pattern colors, right?"

Ritsuko nodded, taking a drag on her cigarette. "It's not really a blood-entity pattern, but we were able to adapt the interception system to it." She brought up another overlay, this one of meandering lines spread across the city. "Section Two first noticed this. Pilot Ikari apparently wanders around late at night for an hour or two, almost aimlessly."

Misato blinked and watched the map a little more intently. She hummed. "I thought Shinji's pattern-green stuff only happened when he actively did magic."

"When he uses 'the ability.' But yes, that's correct as far as we know." Eyes sliding across her desk, the scientist tried to find an ashtray that still had room. Typical. "He's also walked pretty much everywhere he can within the city and the Geofront, which is why the anomalies bother me."

Asuka meanwhile frowned at the curling paths throughout the city. "Like a goddamn snail..." Then she perked up and glanced back at Ritsuko. "Anomalies?"

"Places we know he's never been but are seeing pattern data. Secure areas and such. Nothing approaching the density of his frequent paths though." Ritsuko pointed at a stretch of main avenue. "He likes that particular street, for example, and the density is very high."

"But that doesn't explain all the other random looking clusters." Asuka sighed and raised a dismissive hand. "Yeah, yeah, anomalies. Just saying."

Misato cocked her head to one side. She squinted at the map, and Ritsuko watched the gears in that brain of hers spin into action. The scientist let her eyes follow along with Misato's, taking in the map once more. The dark-haired woman's face scrunched up contemplatively. "Doesn't that look like something to either of you?"

Great care had been taken to tap off the building ash. Asuka shot the operations director a screwy look, while Ritsuko did her part in their act and offered the prompt. "Hm?"

First pointing at the map, Misato then framed it with her fingers, tilting and turning to get a better angle on it. She squinted again, and her lips quirked up to one side. "Rits... Leave the pattern stuff but take away the map."

When that was done, Misato looked at it once more, while Asuka sidled up next to her. The redhead blinked once. "It looks like a heat map. You know, traffic patterns, flow density?"

Ritsuko found it was her turn to be bemused. She tilted her head like Misato and tried to see what she saw. Shinji's habitual paths covered half the high-density zones, but none of that explained how regular and grid-like it was. "Huh. Well, for all we know whatever Shinji does behaves like neutrinos, and doesn't interact with hardly anything."

Both the pilot and Major shared a look, visibly confused. Misato shrugged, giving Asuka a wry grin. Behind her glasses, Ritsuko rolled her eyes. It wasn't like Katsuragi was unfamiliar with her moods. She looked back up at the screen, frowning. "I'll have to assign some fieldwork... one of Shinji's friends, with the glasses."

Just out of sight, Asuka groaned, and Misato's little grin shifted into a smirk. "Aida? Uuugghh..."

Elsewhere in the complex, someone put in a system time request for the MAGI. It caused the ambient rumble beneath their feet to pick up, and Asuka hunted around for the source while Misato started to pace. She nibbled her thumb and stared up at the screen, hunching deeper into her red jacket. "Are we seeing this anywhere else? Like outside the city?"

Ritsuko shook her head. That had been one of the things the Commanders had omitted during the handover of the intercept satellites. "No, we only were able to update the local sensors, the ones on buildings and the intercept stations atop the hills."

Striding over to Hyuuga's console, Misato sat down and started tapping keys herself. Ritsuko felt one of her eyebrows arch high, wondering where this was going. The map changed again, widening out and including topographical data; the hills and lake shore surrounding Tokyo-3. More green dots filled the display, scattered thinly the further one got out of the city.

At the same time, they remained the most dense around roads, and little clusters dotted the outlying fields. A few more commands switched the screen to blue pattern tracking, including Rei's contamination, and the previous three Angel attacks. Misato frowned minutely. "Do we still have that fake angel data?"

"Yes, but it won't help..." Sliding back over to her own station, Ritsuko brought it up and sent it over to Misato's borrowed monitor. Intuitive logic had always been Katsuragi's strength.

"I think it will. I think that-" Misato pointed at the map. "Is our ace in the hole. We know the Angels better than anyone else in the world, and it's time to remind everyone of that fact."

Ritsuko found herself staring right alongside Asuka. Every so often Misato got into moods... "I'm not sure where you're going with this, Katsuragi. The fakes never crossed into Japan's detection range, so we have nothing to compare to."

The dark-haired woman just gave Ritsuko an insufferable little shrug. "Oh that's easy enough to fix. We're going to go find one."

Asuka slumped against the console next to Misato and groaned. "...Do you naturally talk like a movie trailer, or did you have to practice?"

Misato just reached over and ruffled Asuka's hair. "Quiet you."

Something had lit a fire under NERV. The past week had been wall to wall demonstrations, however many limb regenerations they could fit in, and a dozen tasks all and sundry that competed for his attention. Whatever it was sent people running around the cavernous halls, driving memos and orders between every lab and office.

A petty part of Shinji was okay with that, as long as it stayed out there.

The test routines hadn't beenall bad, at least not at first. It had felt good to get out of Central Dogma, breath fresher air and see the trees and still-amazing Geofront interior. Doing something simple and physical had done wonders for his stress too, and the thick winding bands of tension in his neck had loosened, just a little. Shinji felt his lips pull back tightly, and he took a deep, calming breath. After a week of heel-toe demonstrations, the novelty had worn off.

At that moment, the radiology lab was quiet, abandoned. Hardly anyone bothered to use the various scanners and machines as long as he was in the Geofront, considering how infrequently people got injured outside of combat. Things like cancer still proved to be a problem, as he didn't understand the... philosophy, well enough to apply his magic. He had however figured out how to apply one of his techniques to chemotherapy, but it wasn't exactly practical in the long run, or intuitive. Neither was it important right then.

As it stood, he had the appropriate devices set up, and had rigged a remote control out of some odds and ends he'd found lying around. The fluoroscopy assembly was interesting, and it suited his purposes as he leaned back onto the table. It was a little awkward to install the pump with just one hand, but he had to get the procedure down with no shortcuts. Technically, any vein would have worked, but he picked one on the inner upper arm for the best port location.

Shinji swabbed the patch of skin, leaving it clean and disinfected. A few more preparation steps and he'd be ready for the scalpel. That was when a flash of red crossed through the door.

Sorhyu Asuka Langley stalked through the halls of NERV, through six dozen switchbacks, wrong turns, and false hopes. If that weren't enough, Misato had the gall to declare her an errand-girl! The woman, director-and-division-head of combat operations had minions to do that! There were a lot of things Asuka considered herself, and minion was not one.

In short, there just had to be a better use of her time.

At the moment, giving whoever she ran into next the snarl of a lifetime seemed to top that list rather nicely. The intern she found possibly lost a few years of his life. Still, she had directions to radiology, it was a fair trade if you had asked her.

A few hallways later, she rounded one more corner and spotted the sign that marked her destination. She sighed once more, and Asuka wondered, yet again, why she had to be the one to go find the golden as- "what the fuck are you doing?"

Stopped hard in the doorway, Asuka's question came out flat and expectant, and the eye behind her patch started to throb. Shinji had wrapped himself up in some medical scanning table, with a tray of surgical tools to one side and a patchwork remote in one hand.

Then he drove a scalpel into his arm.

By reflex, Asuka's hands shot up to clamp over her good eye. She wasn't that squeamish, but she still didn't want to see someone mutilate themselves, for science or otherwise. But somehow, despite her fingers, she saw anyway. It wasn't until the thin trail of blood ran down his arm and he'd put the scalpel down that she remembered the fucking eyepatch.

He didn't even have the decency to stop before answering her, either. "Testing the infusion pump for Rei."

With the first incision made, Shinji dropped the scalpel into the waiting tray and ignored the blood dripping down his forearm. Grabbing something else, his hand did not so much blur as move with an incredible economy of motion. It was almost too fast to see. He threaded a complicated bit of surgical metal and plastic into a vein in his arm.

The frustration from earlier guttered out in the face of the boy's self-mutilation, and just as quickly surged back. He dared disrupt her righteous anger with blood and guts! Hand raised and already taking a breath, Shinji stopped her cold again, leaving her to just sputter. A smear of liquid bandages and a funny hand sign sealed the wound.

Asuka stared, her jaw eased shut, and her voice went flat once more."...That's gross. You're gross." She gathered her wits back in an instant, fixing the boy with a sour look. "...How?"

.Shinji apparently hadn't understood her, because his answer proved completely unhelpful. "Fluoroscopy . The pump's already loaded with a contrast agent."

Curiosity wasn't the right word, and neither was confusion. Still, Asuka found herself leaning in a bit closer. Shinji had wiped the blood away, mumbling something about 'heals faster, heals the same...' Flexing and shrugging his left arm, they both watched the implanted port. Apparently satisfied, Shinji hit a button on one side of the device, and a small light came on. The pump itself didn't make noise, at all, and was about the size of a half-flattened cigarette package, or the tape player she'd seen the boy with. A slow steady stream of... something oozed up the tube and into his veins.

Still toneless, Asuka stared at the device, and the Third. She wasn't going to settle for a mere question. "...Why."

"Because," his answer started in that same, matter-of-fact way that continued to set her nerves on edge. "I'm not going to be the one to actually perform the procedure. I have to teach another surgeon."

Thumbing the patchwork remote, the motorized table started to tilt back, and the scanner started to move. He glanced sidelong at her, actually looking at her for the first time that day. "You should get behind the lead screen, this is an X-ray after all."

"Right..." Asuka stalked behind the screen, and the earlier anger just bled away, spent. She trailed off, shaking her head. One last thing nagged at her though. "Are you sure you should be doing that?"

Shinji just shrugged, keeping one eye on a monitor. "I haven't been wrong yet."

To that, Asuka could think of a thousand things to say... and not pick one. Her tongue jumped in her mouth, and she almost cut him down with the most sublime wit. The actual answer was a long, suffering silence. And then the moment was gone.

Her shoulders sagged. "...Whatever. Misato's asked all the pilots to come down for a briefing."

Despite having longer strides, Shinji was the last to arrive. Asuka had taken off ahead of him, charging off through the geofront corridors towards Misato's post. Then it turned out that something had called the Major away, forcing the pilots to hunt through the maze of passages for another fifteen minutes. They finally caught up with both her and Rei in the middle of a massive, cavernous space within Central Dogma, marching along the wall-mounted walkway.

Even as he rounded the last corner, Shinji could still hear Asuka from a twenty yards away. "...aught him being gross..."

One of Misato's eyebrows arched high as she snapped her cellphone shut. She glanced between Asuka and Shinji as he approached. "...What, did you catch him without a shirt on or something? Walk into the showers?"

Asuka only made a nauseated sound, huffing faintly. Before Shinji could answer, Misato cut him off with a wave of her hand. "Nevermind, not important right now." She turned on one heel and pushed off, urging the pilots to follow. "I have to meet with the commanders soon, but you all deserve to know this first."

The chamber was designed as an access tunnel for Evangelion equipment, or the combat machines themselves. Being able to serve as a hallway between base regions was a secondary benefit. Over the railing and down below, gargantuan rail tracks for deployment and maintenance vehicles covered the floor.

A gust of cold industrial air surged through the space, tugging at their hair and clothes as they walked. Asuka and Rei both shivered. Gooseflesh ran up their arms, and they shared a brief look with the same uncomfortable frown. The First's simple sundress wasn't well suited for the Geofront corridors, and neither was Asuka's school uniform. The endless summer of Tokyo-3 made sudden chills rather uncommon, but both girls already had their fill of them for a lifetime.

Behind then, Shinji thumped along in a t-shirt and thin pants, barely feeling the cold. He did his best to look as inconspicuous as possible.

With one hand holding her beret down, Misato kept moving straight ahead and striding forward, trusting the pilots to keep up. "For the past ten months or so, there have been 'angel' attacks outside of Japan's borders. Ritsuko is almost certain they're fakes. Some way to discredit NERV."

Passing through the far exit and into a narrower, human-scale hallway, the transition to an enclosed space made their ears pop with pressure change. Shinji's long legs ate up the distance between him and Misato. Meanwhile the girls started to walk faster, and Asuka huffed again. "Misato! Hold up would you!?"

At the end of that latest hall, Misato reached out for a nearby console and called the next elevator. "Fake or not, I know what we're going to do about them." Turning smartly, she gave each of her pilots a quick, sharp smile. "We're going hunting!"

The reactions were... mixed. Shinji stared openly, caught between smiling into Misato's admittedly bloodthirsty good cheer, or dumbstruck. His eyes tracked up and started shifting left to right, like he was reading notes left on the inside of his skull. Rei meanwhile nodded once, setting her IV stand down with a muted, metallic ping. Orders were a source of comfort, most of the time.

Asuka however, Asuka raised her hands and started drumming her fingertips together, purring wordlessly. She licked her lips and looked Misato in the eye. "What's our timeframe?"

Behind the dark-haired woman, the elevator pinged and the doors slid open, framing her in dry white light. "Two months. Less if we can help it."

Sticking one arm through the door, Misato held the elevator and waved her pilots in. For once, Asuka and Shinji were on the same page, sharing the same thoughts and reactions. Their expressions shifted between calculating and incredulous, though Asuka's was tinged more with cheerful bloody-mindedness. Rei stood along the far wall of the elevator, calmly and obliviously occupying the gulf between the pair, her IV held like a spear carried at rest.

Misato leaned next to the console and took a short breath. Above her, the floor ticker spun upwards, clicking faintly. "Things are going to start changing around here. As of today Asuka is in charge of pilot training. She said it herself; we don't have the time or money for new equipment or more Evangelions, so we have to work with what we're given. Shinji."

The boy stiffened, his head snapping to face Misato's tone. "I don't know what you can do to help us, but I have to ask you to pull double duty, as both pilot and Solar. anything you can do, we'll be grateful."

Shinij's jaw worked, and across from him Asuka's uncovered eye cut to her right, leering faintly. Misato didn't need to say anything, she just waited. The boy held that look for a long, suffering moment, before his shoulders slumped. "Understood, Misato-san."

When the elevator reached its destination and the doors slid open, the operations-director turned to her pilots gave them all decisive nod. She stopped halfway through, backpedaling briefly. Dropping the officer mask in one smile, Misato reached into her pocket and pulled out a pager and a folded index card. A pair of phone numbers had been scrawled across it.

"This might help you talk with your girlfriend more often." She handed them both to Shinji with a wink. "It seems to me she's not getting enough sloppy make-outs."

Nonplussed, poleaxed and otherwise completely mortified, Shinji's face filled up crimson. His throat bulged, making a fair attempt at swallowing his tongue. After turning faintly green, Asuka stepped into the nearest corner with a low groan, grumbling under her breath. Glancing between the other pilots, Rei remained silently supportive, offering the boy a tiny smile, even if he probably couldn't see it.

Misato's own grin spread even wider, pleased and lilting. "... With that kind of look, no wonder~"

Then the door closed, and Misato was gone. Asuka huffed yet again marched over to the console and picked another floor. When the elevator started moving again, she spun on one foot and planted a hand on each hip. "So, what kind of pilot training have you two had?"

Shinji and Rei glanced at each other, sharing the exact same helpless look.

The commander's voice echoed across the thirty feet from his desk to Misato's ears. "Your request for an A-17 combat order has been denied."

Misato bit her tongue, just hard enough to remind herself not to argue, much. "Sir-"

Gendo cut her off without even moving. "Major, I do not need to remind you that we are not in a position to allow unnecessary expenditures. Deploying an Evangelion afield reduces our combat potential by thirty-three percent."

The bare statement of fact rebounded around the painfully bare office, and Misato winced inwardly. She refused to show it on her face however. The mask of a dedicated professional soldier stayed firmly in place. It was true though; one third of NERV's combat potential was sunk into the Second Child and her Evangelion, and even suggesting it be sent out into the field... Well, by conventional reasoning it was preposterous.

Misato however had made her career on being outrageous. "I understand that, sir, and have accounted for it."

Behind the interlaced fingers, Gendo gave her a short nod. Point for Katsuragi... She sucked in a short breath and gathered her arguments. "Commander, as it stands now we're treading water. Test deployments into the Geofront, we can absorb those costs. We recycle everything down here, after all."

"Major, It is not a matter of cost, but of supply. You know our reserves were depleted after the Fifth Angel." Gendo's head tilted forward, and his glasses caught the light. Misato worried the inside of her cheek. Point for the Commander...

Still, she pushed on ahead, laying out her plan from memory. She waved her arm and the holographic display lit up, splitting the room in half with a map of the world. "I am aware of the risks, sir. Our Evangelion support network still exists, it's just been mothballed."

"And how would you access those resources, Major?" Gendo raised his index finger, and a handful of red dots appeared around display. "Beijing? Vladivostok, Berlin, Nevada and Massachusetts? The vast majority of the UN charter nations are displeased with NERV as it is."

Now Misato let a bit of her smile out, lip curling wryly. "With due respect, sir, you are not the only one with friends in high places."

After that declaration, the pair stared each down for several long minutes. Misato felt a muscle in the back of her thigh strain and shake, but she willed herself to stay still. The Commander remained as impassive as ever, expression safely hidden behind those orange lenses. A distant rumble echoed outside, shaking the windows and floor. Several hundred meters away, a handful of armory buildings sank into the Geofront for maintenance and repair.

Then the standoff ended, and Gendo leaned back in his chair, letting his palms lay flat on the desk. "Be that as it may, Major Katsuragi, I will not authorize the A-17 order."

The dark-haired woman took a step forward, incredulous at first and then imploring. "Sir, you know as well as I do that the best defense is a good offense-"

And Gendo cut her off with a dark look. "Which we cannot afford to mount at this time. That will be all Major Katsuragi." He waited until she had swallowed her final reply.


AN: Stuff.