And that night Leothric arose in the dark and took the sword, and went westwards to find Gaznak; and he went through the dark forest till the dawn, and all the morning and till the afternoon. But in the afternoon he came into the open and saw in the midst of The Land Where No Man Goeth the fortress of Gaznak, mountainous before him, little more than a mile away.

- Exerpt from The Fortress Unvanquishable Save for Sacnoth

Offshore observers had spotted them first, and by initial reports, it looked like a funeral procession. Ghost-ships coming to shore through the early morning mist. Ritsuko had called the pilots at two in the morning with the news. Rei grabbed her keys without bothering to dress, and Shinji promised the scientist the best goddamn chocolate cake he could make before dropping the phone. The cordless thing hit the floor and cracked, but the two teenagers were already out the door.

The Skyline rumbled down the land-route highway, and Shinji could hear Rei's expert timing, shifting gears like a seasoned pro. Bands of sunlight cut over the hilltops in thin rays, burning through the wetland mist that surrounded Tokyo-3. They were going to make landfall in Iwaki, and it was a three and a half hour drive. Pressed into the passenger seat like he was, Shinji figured they'd get there in about half the time.

Heading toward the Pacific Coast, the two pilots eventually merged with the NERV convoy that had charged out ahead of them. Ritsuko had mobilized her division, including the infirmary staff and critical care teams. Shinji recognized their vans and drivers as Rei wove between them, cutting to the head of the pack. Two hours since Shinji got the call, the two pilots broke out of the low coastal hills and into the open wild grasses that separated the interior regions from the post-Impact shores and beaches.

The second Onahama Port was a riot of activity. With the main road clogged, Rei pulled the wheel hand over hand until the Skyline angled toward a dirt road, running along the main artery. Shinji winced every time the front fender hit a rock or particularly sturdy bit of deadwood.

Rei stared ahead, muttering. "This will buff out- time lost in traffic cannot be regained."

Breaking out of the access road and through a half-rusted chain-link gate, Shinji and Rei rolled onto crowded pavement once more. Men and women in yellow and orange hazard saw to a hundredfold tasks, while massive trucks hauled supplies and vital retrieval equipment into place. Not long after Shinji and Rei got out of the car, Ritsuko arrived via VTOL, just as red-eyed as they were. Coordinating from Dogma, she'd taken the earliest chance to break away.

Shinji turned, gritting his teeth as he watched the massive outpouring of effort. There were harbors closer to the Geofront, so coming here meant something bad. The communication block the Commander put into place kept the fleet from radioing ahead for support. More VTOLs roared off from the nearby parking lots for a visual inspection, charging out into the early morning Pacific.

On a clear day, he could see to the horizon. A tiny dot appeared on the edge of the world. His hands found their way into Rei's and Ritsuko's. "They're coming."

The wait was torture. Misato and Sorhyu had been gone for over two months. It was September 16th, 2016. His fifteenth birthday passed by without anyone noticing, including himself. Ahead, the flagship of the United Nations Pacific Fleet closer at a steady one and a half knots, just under two kilometers an hour. The flotilla of other ships that limped were just as slow and in some cases towed by their fellows. It made the snails pace understandable.

Men on the carrier's bow raised flags and sent signals to the shore, while more aircraft took off for priority rescue and recovery. A handful shapes from the carrier itself shot skyward, toward the coast, heading for whatever airfield and landing strip they could find. A red and white rescue vehicle raced ahead of the rest, and Shinji lost it when it crossed the sun. The rest would have to wait for the fleet to actually come into port. Shinji overheard the expletives and cries of disbelief- the fleet was down to a third of it's former size. Rei heard it too, and squeezed his hand.

Getting closer still, he could pick out more details, like a bloody tarp strapped down to the aircraft carrier deck, or how half the ships were still sending thin trails of oily smoke into the air. Something had picked up the fleet and chewed.

The hour passed, and Section Two had arrived with sweatpants and jackets. Rei had been shivering, even with the rising sun scouring away the clouds. The Over the Rainbow split off from the main body of the fleet, first into port with the most critical damage, special cargo and the fastest way of getting the injured disembarked. Massive vehicles Shinji couldn't name, but looked like giant staircases and rolling elevators moved over to the dockside, ready to meet up with the gaping hangar doorways.

On the deck itself, the beaten tarp fluttered under the wind, and thin streams of red-orange streaked the carrier's sides, along with broader patches of dried ichor, covered in almost cancerous looking barnacles, even above the waterline. Shinji's eyes flicked from damaged hull to nearly ruined superstructure. The one side of the ship he could see was crumpled, looking like someone had stomped on a soda can a thousand times over. No amount of repair could have kept the thing seaworthy for longer than a few hours.

Rei had come back and found his hand again, squeezing it so hard he felt his knuckles grind together.

They both had a pretty good idea of what the blood meant. "Asuka-chan."

Several thousand voices started shouting orders in half-a-dozen languages. Russian, German, Japanese and English all mingled together in call-and-response. Sailors threw out lines for the dockyard-bound to tie off or tug on. Cargo cranes moved into haul away wrecked aircraft or what ordnance they couldn't find a place for inside. Everything was a rush to empty the carrier, and there was no sign of Misato or Sorhyu. Shinji looked down at Ritsuko, but she'd put her glasses on and stood facing the sun, hiding her eyes behind the glare.

On the carrier deck, a particular voice started shouting in English. "Hey big guy! Big kid! Shinji Ikari! She said you could hear me!"

Turning, he saw a black-haired American woman waving frantically. She started pointing skyward, before cupping her hands around her mouth. "HEADS UP!"

Shinji scowled despite himself, but looked up into the blue sky. A dark figure crossed the wide blue expanse, and his pupils shrank down to pinpricks. That red and white helicopter wasn't a helicopter. Arcing through the sky, it was close enough that Shinji could see it, name it, even describe it. Twenty-ten eyesight aside, Shinji couldn't believe it.

Evangelion Unit 02 was in free fall, several thousand feet up and dropping.

Now more than ever, he saw it as obviously cybernetic, limbs with slashes of pale flesh exposed to open sky. The arms and legs snapped out and caught the air with a booming thunderclap, loud enough to shake dust from concrete walls. Contrails spun out from between fingertips and around ankles, growing thicker and blooming wider the closer it got. Wind buffeted the ground, ripping hats from heads and picking people up by their vests and jackets.

But the Evangelion wasn't slowing down. Shinji watched it skydive, angling its hands and feet toward the carrier. Palms carved through the air, forcing the Eva into a drilling spiral. Black streamers flared out from its hips in a whipping blur, unfurling with a crack. The spin stopped and the whole Evangelion jerked back, buoyed by wind in the black ribbon sails and the sudden thrum of an expressed AT field. The extra limbs- and a third trailing one from the Eva's spine down to its ankles shifted and bent, bat-like and billowing.

The wings beat the air, and the Evangelion lowered itself onto the mostly abandoned carrier deck, light as a feather with its arms crossed over its chest.

The docks were silent, save for the Pacific swells and the cawing of gulls. More disciplined heads amongst the recovery crews whistled and shouted, and the spell was broken. Shinji squeezed Rei's hand and let out the breath he'd been holding, and finally allowed himself to look at the Evangelion.

The red, black and orange machine had seen better days, covered in patches and wound bandages. Staples as long as a man's arm stitched its wounds, and one of it's four eyes was missing. Meanwhile, the wings rippled. They moved like fluid, warping down into frayed-tipped ends that hung from the Evangelion's hips. Frayed or fingertips, Shinji couldn't say.

The dock was silent for a long moment. Bit by bit the recovery crew picked itself up, milling around the Evangelion's ankles. Shinji found himself staring up at the Evangelion, along with Rei and Ritsuko. Out the corner of his eye, a flash of purple-black and achingly familiar red broke out onto the carrier deck. A vice that had been clamped around his heart just let go.

Katsuragi Misato stood there, one hand holding her beret down and the other on her cross.

Unit 02 shifted, and from its external speakers a familiar voice boomed out. "Sorhyu Asuka Langley and the Pacific Fleet have returned!"

A sprawling field hospital and ad-hoc machine shop had unfolded out onto the docks. While men and women swarmed across the Over the Rainbow. Covered by drab tents and under the care of NERV-trained nurses, sailors who had been on their feet for twenty hours or more found themselves recharged under a brief pressure-point massage. Re-energized, they charged back out into the recovery area, eager and willing to rescue their own ships.

Nearly every able-bodied soul in Onahama port threw themselves into the recovery effort, dragging out those who couldn't move themselves. Cranes had kept up a steady flow of crates and hastily lashed together palettes moving towards the dock warehouses and neighboring train yard. In that same depot, a four-track Evangelion transport rumbled to a halt, loaded with supplies on the outgoing trip.

Sorhyu worked until the last minute after plugging in fresh batteries. She pulled armfuls of whatever was needed off the carrier while an active AT field thrummed, spread out through the region. Even dispersed, Shinji felt the resonant tingle in his fingers, toes, and throughout the thin cloud of awareness that made up his soul.

When Unit 02 was finally done, Sorhyu eased it over to the railway, followed by a thick knot of sailors and soldiers. Shinji for his part had been attached to Ritsuko and her medical team, running herd on what amounted to disaster relief. Several thousand people were injured, maimed or in otherwise critical condition, even after two months rest and surgery at sea. For those missing limbs, there was only so much Shinji could do that moment, but people much smarter than him had already started drafting emergency plans for a crisis like this one.

In the meantime though, Shinji saved lives with a touch.

When all was said and done, the non-critical, non-essential personnel were allowed ashore. Hoses snaked into the carrier from all angles, and thick streams of brackish ocean water were pumped out from shore-side pumps and internal bilges. In the rail depot, the internal hum of Sorhyu's AT field snapped off, and the Over the Rainbow sank four meters into the dockside water.

Shinji didn't really pay any of that much mind though, because the crowd had parted. Ritsuko and Rei had wound back around to his side, and the three of them stared across the thin gap between the crush of people.

Katsuragi Misato stood a few strides away next to that Kaji guy, beret in hand and wind tugging at her hair. Shinji took the first step, but Misato was faster and already running. She slammed into his chest hard enough force the air from their lungs, but Shinji didn't give a damn if he was out of breath. He let his arms wrap around her back and smiled into her hair. Some part of him wanted to cry.

The rest of him picked Misato up by her waist, twisting on his heels and laughing.

He kept her moving for half-a-dozen rotations, not at all caring that the people around him blurred into a mass of colors and impressions. His first friend was back. His best friend was back. Misato laughed and slapped at his arms until he slowed, pulling her in for another dangling hug, swaying lightly. This time she wedged her cheek into the crook of his neck, still laughing. Shinji grinned into her hair and didn't care who saw him or whatever they thought. He just luxuriated in the rightness, holding on to her until the ugly knot of worry in his heart let go.

The snap-click of one lighter after another tugged them out of the happy rush. Misato dropped down to the ground, but bounced back on her toes, planting a quick and impish kiss at the corner of Shinji's mouth. They both turned to look at Ritsuko and Kaji. The scientist had shoved a fresh pack of cigarettes into the man's grateful hands, lighting up in unison.

"So," Ritsuko smirked around her own cigarette, while Kaji grinned outright. "You two seem happy to see each other."

Shinji caught Misato's smirk out the corner of his eye and watched the joke as it formed. He beat her to it though, throwing an arm around her waist and grinning at the blonde. "You have no idea."

And then Rei was there, standing between the three adults and huge teenager. "Shinji-kun, I would like to hug Misato-san now."

There was a collective blink at that before Misato flung her arms around the girl with a laugh, pulling her into a three-sided hug with alongside the tallest pilot. It didn't take long for a red-clad arm to reach out and yank Ritsuko into the mix, then Kaji. Shinji found himself sandwiched between Rei and Ritsuko at one turn, then Kaji throwing a hand out to be shaken. The three college alumni split off for their own hugs, while the two teenagers took a moment to just bask in the fact that the closest thing they'd ever had to families were back and together.

Another wave of rescue and recovery swept up around them, forcing the five of them together once more- not that anyone minded. When the sudden press of bodies bled away, a shrill whistle rang out. The NERV contingent turned to see a cluster of sailors in frayed and soiled gear hoisting a wheelchair between them like a sedan chair.

Breaking rank, a husky redheaded man stomped forward and bellowed in a thick, unplaceable accent. "Presenting the space-monster scrapper, the creature-crunching crown princess, our fair lady Asuka Sorhyu Langley!"

Those sailors and marines not busy with holding her up parted, and even empty handed, they mimed the motion of presenting arms while trying not to laugh. Between them, the pilot of Evangelion Unit 02 grumbled without heat in her wheelchair. "And yet again I have more reason to kill you all."

Behind her, the dark-haired american woman who had shouted about the incoming flying Evangelion ruffled her hair. "Aww, you know you love us, and we love you too."

Shinji blinked at that, and watched the easy camaraderie that seemed to surround the girl like a cloud. Sorhyu had won their loyalty, unequivocally, and he could see it plain as day. Glancing back at the carrier, the heavily damaged Evangelion, and the pilot herself, he couldn't help but wonder what had happened in the past two months. Once he really did look at her though, Shinji felt his brain skip a medical track.

Still-healing injuries was the first thing that came to mind. Sorhyu's plugsuit had been cut away from the arms, making room for splints and casts. One arm was bandaged up to the forearm, while her other hand was just wrapped tightly to keep her wrist from moving. If she'd had to pilot like that... Caught up in just going over her injuries, he forgot to even flex his own powers. There wasn't a real need- he could see the wrapping around her broken ribs or the set compound fractures in her right shin.

Sandwiched between Misato and himself, Rei took a hesitant step forward. She stopped, seemingly unsure of something, before deciding to herself back in between his own bulk and the side of Misato's jacket. Asuka was the first to break the silence.

"So yeah," He watched Sorhyu's one good eye flick from face to face, and giving the blue-haired girl an unreadable look."What am I, other than being ignored?"

The husky man smirked, now placed as unmistakably Irish. "I'm sure they're meaning no disrespect, m'lady."

"Carter, you're just lucky I can't get up and bop you one." From the girl's retinue, a marine reached out to cuff the aforementioned Carter upside the head. Asuka's mood brightened considerably. "Thank you, corporal!"

Shinji frowned, more out of confusion than anything else. He glanced sidelong at Misato and Kaji before asking the question at the front of his mind. "She piloted like that? You let her pilot like that? And had her hauling cargo instead of getting her to a hospital?"

He waved at the Evangelion, then the girl. Circumstances might have demanded it, but every medical instinct he had was screaming at him for some kind of explanation. Misato and Kaji gave him nearly identical expressions, something along the lines of schadenfreude. He bulled ahead anyway. "I mean, it makes sense given how she landed, and wings? Where'd you get wings, some other NERV base?"

Considering Sorhyu was behind him, that was probably expected. She coughed pointedly. "Well, I wasn't exactly in the Eva for most of that."

Shinji blinked, glancing at the girl once more. She wasn't covered in LCL. Sorhyu huffed and gingerly crossed her better arm over chest, smirking faintly. She let the silence speak for her, and Shinji looked back at Unit 02, and only now saw that it's plug was missing. Not just missing- ripped out, like some great hand had pried off the armor and ripped out three of the Evangelion's vertabrae. Not claws, blades or acid, but hands.

How was that thing still functional?

He must have asked out loud, because Misato answered from his side. "You might be the one to answer that, but hey-" She pulled a hand-radio from her jacket pocket and gave it a click.

Shouts on the carrier deck rang out, and the thick tarp stretched across the flight deck was pulled away. Shinji, Ritsuko and Rei could only see the edges of it, looking up from the docks, but that was enough. On the deck was a corpse, white, black and achingly familiar... and unmistakably alien.

Misato grinned, proud and feral. "At least we brought back plenty of plenty of spare parts!"

Misato had been on her feet for almost twenty hours. That wouldn't have been worth mentioning, if not for the fact that she'd been doing so every day for the past three weeks. She turned to look at the ravaged aircraft carrier. Every slash, rip, crack and crumpled plate was a reminder of the past two months at sea. Misato was pretty sure the ship felt and looked worse than she did.

The joyful reunion wound down not long after Asuka arrived, though Misato was glad to note the girl wasn't being a killjoy. The pilots had drifted into an awkward cluster amidst Asuka's retinue of sailors and soldiers. The Major watched her kids, humming thoughtfully. Asuka and Rei were oddly standoffish- not surprising considering the redhead was stuck in a wheelchair. Coming back beat to hell didn't make for a very good homecoming, after all. Every so often, Rei stuttered and shuffled toward Asuka, then stopped before cuddling back in toward Shinji. That was something of a new development...

She sighed and let out a tired smile. It was worth all the pain to be so close to home. Misato glanced back at Shinji and smiled a bit wider. He'd changed too, like he'd grown into some of the physical presence he'd gotten early on. Misato had lived with the idea of a war beyond comprehension for more than fifteen years, and being first in line to fight that war. Shinji meanwhile had been put on the fast track to who-knew where by his father's letter, and then the Exaltation. That he seemed to be finding his stride made the struggle worth it.

As for her situation, Misato glanced between Ritsuko and Kaji. They'd drifted into their own little cluster, the three college friends back together at last. Kaji had been in prison for something, when she'd dragged him out for the fleet expedition. Ritsuko had been burning the candle at both ends with tech demonstrations and marketing. The UN inspector looked as rough as Misato herself, and Ritsuko...

Ritsuko was hugging them both. That was new.

The bottle-blonde had thrown her arms around their shoulders and drawn them in close, so much that Misato found her chin wedged over Ritsuko's shoulder. She glanced sidelong at Kaji, stuck in the same situation while Ritsuko half-dangled between them.

"Missed you guys. So much." And with barely a hesitant pause in her voice, the scientist pulled back to hold the pair at arms-length, calling down the longest explanation Misato would have to make that morning. "Now tell me why is a hand sticking out from that cargo tarp."

Kaji coughed. "That would be one of the Committee's contingencies."

Ritsuko blinked once and turned to face the man completely. "You mean they- with the surviving...?"

A grim nod was her answer, and Misato watched the unspoken words fly right over her head. "Hey-hey! Don't leave me out! Who did what now?"

The blonde shook her head and gave Misato's bicep a squeeze. "Not here, not now. A lot has changed in NERV the past couple months." She sucked on her teeth, suddenly wide-eyed. "Shinji had another episode."

"Wha-" Misato felt her jaw drop, mind flicking to a new Caligula sequence.

Ritsuko cut her off before she could ask for confirmation. "Like I said- not here, but I'm glad you two are back." She sighed and slumped into Kaji, falling back into old college habits. "I'm not trained to handle wild pilot personalities and..."

Seeing Ritsuko of all people caught so off-guard was enough to staple ice cubes to Misato's spine, and not in the fun way. She glanced at Kaji, who'd been steadying the scientist while she shivered. The fleet definitely had it bad, but NERV had definitely had its share of problems. Just like them to all go to hell and back without her to steer.

She gave her friends a steady, calculating look, before Misato fought off the tiredness and put on one of her best gutsy-plan grins. "This is one of those crunchtime moments, Rits?"

It took Ritsuko a moment to get the reference, and her eyes narrowed. "I don't see how me cramming for finals and you skipping class with Kaji applies here."

Misato just grinned wider. "Well this time we're all a bit older and wiser, and I'm not gonna let this bum touch me unless the world's ending." She slugged Kaji in the arm, eyes crinkling. "Plus, we're more than just a brain, bod, and balls."

Kaji and Ritsuko blinked at that, and Misato watched as their expressions shuffled through resignation to all-consuming-crazy-plan terror. Cigarette falling off his lips, Kaji gaped openly. "K-Katsuragi what are you thinking?"

The dark-haired woman smiled even wider and thrust a red-sleeved arm into the air, spinning on one heel and cutting through the crowds. Her friends followed, pelting her back with questions even as Misato straightened her jacket and cuffs. The plan was already formed, but the particulars had to be just right or it wouldn't work.

"I am thinking-" she tossed over her shoulder, scanning the roiling sea of heads and shoulders. "That we have a genius mechanic and natural soldier. Then we've got a girl who can pilot her Eva by remote. I'm not even counting what Shinji can do."

Her eyes snapped onto a familiar salt-and-pepper moustache, and the stoop-shouldered old man it belonged to. Misato lead the way as she wove around the rescue efforts, clearing a path for Kaji and Ritsuko along the way. "I'm thinking, that we've gotten the biggest shot in the arm to Unnatural Warfare since I came to Tokyo-3."

She broke through the last ring of people, coming upon a particular group of men- the surviving captains of the UN Pacific Fleet. Stolocker among them. She snapped off a quick salute, and meant it in earnest. "Admiral," She grinned.

"Katsuragi." The grunt was surprisingly affectionate, and Stolocker's eyes flicked over her shoulders to the familiar Kaji to the unfamiliar Ritsuko. "It looks like we're your guests for the time being."

"Yeah, about that..." Misato hummed, while Ritsuko paled. Which was the right thing to do; many a hijink happened when Misato had ideas. Pulling out her Operations Director voice, Misato nodded firmly. Charisma and authority were her weapons, but she needed soldiers. "My A-17 combat order can be extended if circumstances permit."

She waved at the white arm rising above the carrier deck, locked in rigor. "I have the authority to deploy or station the UN Pacific Fleet wherever I want."

The captains and Admiral were silent, staring down the woman with blatant expressions of stupefaction, incredulity. Ritsuko and Kaji shared the same looks for slightly different reasons. All Misato could do in the face of the attention was drink it in like a sun-starved flower.

"As of today, the number of people who know Unnatural Warfare jumped from those three-" She pointed through the crowds at the bit of plugsuit red, blue hair and Shinji's own tall frame. "To the thousands who make up your fine crews. I need your experience now more than ever, Admiral, and I hope you'll take my comment regarding the A-17 as a polite fiction. Pretense for doing what needs to be done and where."

Meanwhile, Ritsuko licked her lips and coughed, muttering. "It'd also be a damn sight cheaper fixing your fleet than fielding four Evangelions."

Stolocker looked past the brim of his cap, staring up at Misato for a long moment. He was a man beaten into shape by the ocean and Navy, and the past two months had been as hard on them as Second Impact. Worse in some ways. Misato kept her face firmly fixed on her most charming smile, the kind that belonged on recruitment posters. She scanned the other captains, stony expressions all. They looked like stern shrine guardians, and aside from Stolocker, they were all taller than her.

Finally, the moustache twitched. "You'll have the fleet as long as your order holds, Major. Don't make us wait too long to go hunting though."

A city's worth of people had mobilized to recover and repair the Pacific Fleet. More dock space was cleared to accept new incoming ships, while crews hauled tools and material into position. The moment Over the Rainbow was seaworthy, the carrier was tugged back out into open water, making room for the next damaged vessel. People boiled around like ants on a mission. But even then, two hours after they'd made landfall a handful of the surviving ships in the fleet had given up. Their captains had committed them to graves in the waters far out from the harbor, waiting for the tiime and talent to cut the wrecks back into useful steel.

Sorhyu Asuka Langley sat on her wheelchair and watched it all, kept well out of the way.

Not that she blamed anyone for that- Not enough battery power left for her to run the Evangelion, and well, she was just as exhausted as most of the fleet. More so in some ways or others. She'd known ahead of time that her homecoming wasn't going to be champagne and confetti, no parades or accolades, just more work. She let out a thin smile at that, not minding at all.

Of course, not everything was sunshine and roses. She looked down at her plugsuited legs and frowned. Her right knee was basically a wreck, braced up and sore from not being able to stretch it. Her toes wiggled sluggishly inside her thin integrated boots. Underneath the red and black plastic were more than a dozen battle scars, most of them fresh, hot and angry.

Looking back over at the ocean and remnants of the fleet, she Carter and Bolton had made it their mission to keep Asuka's mind off all her troubles, and she had to admit, it felt good. Victory had felt good. She'd wrapped the proof of her greatness around her shoulders like a blanket. Or a new pair of wings, she wasn't feeling picky about it right then.

She wouldn't have minded a parade though.

A sharp whistle made her turn painfully, facing the dockyard and crowds once more. Even all of NERV's resources, there was only so much they could do. Asuka watched the first massive trucks shudder and rumble to life. Gradually the dense press of soldiers, engineers and technicians thinned out, while ambulances and rescue VTOL took off, carrying those who needed critical care. Asuka felt a twinge in her arms and sides, reminding her yet again she still needed the 'care' part. Kaji-san and the Professor had already left with her Evangelion and a good third of the people working on the docks.

Misato had been nice about it though. A near solid month of being mothered actually turned out kind of awesome, once the older woman had gotten it through her head that Asuka wasn't made of glass. She'd gotten more hugs in those weeks than she probably had in the past six years. Now though she wondered where Misato had gone. And Rei.

Maneuvering with a wheelchair was tough with one good hand, but Asuka grit her teeth and managed, huffing. All told it wasn't hard either- just spot the tallest pilot and Misato was probably nearby, and Rei. Asuka watched them interact for a moment, paling around. There didn't seem to be a limit as to how touchy-feely Misato could get, apparently, because Asuka was sure Rei's hair was going to stick in that mushed up pile for weeks.

She gave the trio one more look and sighed. She really had no reason to feel that left out, but just feeling it was enough to draw chalkboard nails down her spine. If everyone was leaving though, she was going to do something constructive before they all packed up. What though was the question... Slouched in her chair, she scanned the crowds one last time, hoping for a bit of inspiration.

A familiar smear of color caught her eye, and Asuka grinned.

It took her a bit of waving and shouting before someone would push her closer to her target, but it didn't take long to reach a familiar sailor. He still had the same artfully chaotic mass of tattoos crawling up both arms, starting with his fingertips and vanishing up past his sleeves. They still looked almost three dimensional too.

She would have clapped if she had two working hands, so Asuka settled for another shout. "Hey! Tattoo guy!"

He turned and gave an owlish look before finally registering her. Asuka couldn't exactly blame him, being below his line of sight. She also finally got a good look at his nametape, and found herself oddly disappointed. Wright? Seriously? It made some of the jokes she'd heard around the guy make more sense at least- the other crewmen had said something about meeting any swabbies in the recruiter's office...

When Wright finally answered, he pulled off his hat and held it at his side. "Miss, what can I do for you?"

That would have been a time Asuka folded her arms over her chest, but as it stood she couldn't really pull it off, bound up in a sling. Still, she grinned into the late morning light. "You're still working on your GED?"

"Yeeaaaah..." He drawled, glancing left to right, obviously wondering where she was going.

Asuka smirked even more. "Good, I'm your new tutor."

The look on Wright's face was pure art.

Eight super-massive train engines hauled a truly fantastic amount of weight from Iwaki and the Pacific Coast of Japan into Hakone, and finally the Geofront itself. The two Evangelion transport rails had been dispatched hours apart, but they returned together, one after the other. Seen directing from above, Akagi Ritsuko swept along catwalks and gantries over the Evangelion cages with one hand in her pocket and the other instructing. She was in her element, one half of her lab coat billowing out from one side as she ordered the cages below to open and expand.

High above in secure observatory, Ikari Gendo watched NERV go to work.

Blaring sirens wound up and screamed, while warning lights threw wide strobbing bands of light across every cage surface. Walls mounted on tracks moved under the force of house-sized gears and counterweights, drawn back with thick roller chains hidden in those same walls. The bulkheads all shifted aside, allowing the Eva to be raised upright and settled into its secure blocks. Gaps and opens spaces in the superstructures would have clamped around the Evangelion's arms, sealing tight and letting the technicians pump in refrigerant. If the Evas weren't held in cold storage, they'd rot.

Putting Unit 02 on ice would have to wait, though. Down below, Akagi leaned over the railing and gaped at the damage. Both shoulder pylons were missing, and seventy-percent of its armor had been peeled away in thick winding sheets. The extra ceramic plates they'd fashioned before deploying it had all been destroyed- abraded or broken off in about twenty minutes of combat.

That was to say nothing about the blood-smeared white and black panels that hung from the Evangelion's hips.

Relevant data was already being funneled in and collated by the MAGI, appearing on the solid screens spread across thick consoles. Fuyutsuki loomed behind him, humming thoughtfully. "Anything to say about those?"

Gendo let out a short grunt. He looked down through the glass and saw Akagi looking up at him. Her eyes narrowed to razor slits before she turned away on one heel. "An inconsequential variable. Easily accounted for."

The old man nodded amiably, sipping a mug of the now almost omnipresent cold-brewed coffee. Silence stretched out between them while the information continued to pour in. Budget estimates based on previous encounters, compared to test data from NERV-Berlin. MAGI make-work, perhaps, but useful nonetheless. Gendo was about to wash his hands of the matter when another cage-access alarm sounded.

Glancing back down through the observatory glass, Gendo blinked once.

Fuyutsuki took another sip, moving to stand by Gendo's side. "And the Committee's move here? I'm surprised they managed a functional one out of the first two remnants we sent back."

"A potentially useful asset." Gendo stared at the ruined white machine, considering the gaping hole in its chest, all but spilling out sun-dried offal. "Harvest it"

"Beg pardon?" Fuyutsuki glanced over at the younger man, mug stopping just short of his lips.

The Commander of NERV did not meet it, instead choosing to stare intently from behind a new set of orange-tinted lenses at the corpse being strung up in the second cage. Bloated pustules had welled up beneath what armor and skin survived. Its mashed, once conical head hung on thin bits of sinew and spinal cord. Seagulls had picked at the ragged, exposed flesh for weeks.

Gendo nodded at the mutilated remains down below. Akagi had already called in her best tools, material and personnel. "Strip it down, every layer if need be. I wish to know how it was so easily... compatible with Unit 02."

Ten minutes into the drive home, Misato found herself yawning. Once she had stopped moving, it felt like every mile and hour of exhaustion hit her in one massive wave of tired. Fortunately, she and Asuka were in the backseat, while Rei had the wheel. In less than an hour, Asuka had already dozed off. Settling back into the tooled leather, Misato held a hand over her mouth and felt her jaw stretch involuntarily. A sharp pop sent a wave of pain through her face when the joint clicked. She winced and rubbed at the sore spot, feeling every bit her age- all th-twenty nine years of it. Shivering, Misato wrapped her arms around herself and hummed. The tiredness was giving her the chills...

Hours later, Misato opened her eyes and wondered why it was so warm, and where Rei's car had gone. Her perspective had gone all screwy too. The outer walkway leading to her apartment door was familiar, but her eyes weren't at the right height, so everything looked wrong. Half-drunk by sleep, she considered squirming back into whatever warm thing was carrying her, or breaking its nose.

Then her mind seized on the very important point; carried.

Oh god, where's the car, did I crash? Is everyone okay? I had a mostly-perfect driving reco-waitasecond Rei was driving...

Misato felt her eyes snap open and into focus, and she found herself looking down her own chest and past her knees, over the railing that showed her apartment neighborhood and the hills that separated it from downtown Tokyo-3. To her left was a huge expanse of white cotton, and she could see one familiar arm hooked under her knees. She kicked by reflex and nearly caught Shinji in the chin with a flying knee, but he just shifted his grip let slide down feet first.

Her calves and thighs almost turned to jelly when her boot heels hit the floor, and she grabbed onto Shinji's waiting arm without thinking. "I uh, guess I still have sea legs, huh?"

Right as she looked up at him, Shinji pointedly rubbed his chin with his free hand. "Maybe..." His voice had gone soft. "I don't know many mermaids who'd kick that hard."

The hesitance was familiar, but the glint was new. Misato huffed, but not unkindly, and felt a real smile of relief break out across her face. "When did you start being such a smart ass..."

"Oh, just from keeping myself company." Shinji stared past her watery grin with a worried little look." I see you taught someone the sleeping-massage trick."

They'd reached the door to her apartment as he frowned. "I should have told you it doesn't actually replace sleep."

"Considering Shinji-kun's problems with finding rest, you should have more respect for it, Misato-san." Rei whispered, finally joining. She stood behind Asuka's wheel chair, having pushed the sleeping girl to the elevator and then up to their floor.

Surrounded in two sides by doting teenagers, Misato wept inwardly for the painfully responsible youth. Wincing outwardly, she also felt more than a little guilty at how close they hit to the mark. Shinji seemed to have gotten over his night terrors, or had figured out how to go without sleep indefinitely. Misato hoped it was the former but would have accepted the latter, even if it felt like some kind of loss.

"I think I'll be fine Rei-chan, Shinji-kun..." She reached for the door control and smiled, eager to be home. Hot food, hot showers, her friends and family.

The door swished open, and her legs gave out again. "Shinji. What the fuck."

Her apartment was gone, and someone, namely Shinji, had shoved a mansion in its place. Half-walking, half-carried, Misato found herself stumbling into an actual foyer. She struggled out of her boots almost as an afterthought,while Rei woke Asuka and hesitantly helped her chair over the riser that separated the entrance from the rest of the apartment. The redhead blinked an uncovered eye and let out her own muted expletive, wondering aloud which hotel this was, and why hadn't they stayed here sooner. Shinji hunkered down to pick up her cordless phone- broken somehow. He waved his hands over it and it un-broke itself as he put it back in place, good as new.

Nearly every surface was some blend of stained dark cherry wood, or almost golden-amber paint. Misato turned, blinking owlishly at every new thing. The kitchen had been redone, again, and a marble covered center island had taken the place of her dining room table. The common wall she shared with Asuka's apartment was still there, too.

"My bedroom's gone." Misato turned to Shinji, wide-eyed. "Why is my bedroom gone?"

Shinji just smiled and nudged the woman further into the apartment, toward the familiar handmade couch. At least some things hadn't changed. "Because I built into the apartments above us- we have four bedroom lofts now."

"Lofts, huh?" Misato let out a weak laugh and slumped into the couch. That was it. She wasn't going to walk anywhere else forever. Almost without thinking, she found her eyes rolling upward toward the ceiling.

"I haven't slept in a loft bed since I got out of colleg- Oh." That ceiling hadn't been so high before.

And the stairs were new too. She couldn't see it completely from that angle, but it was pretty clear he actually meant loft, not just 'upstairs'. The upper floor inside her expanded apartment was open-walled... whoever was up there could look down here and...

Asuka finally found her voice, even as Misato tried to remember how big the two units above hers were. "Ikari do you even have any hob-" Misato heard the girl's self-conscious cringe. "Wait no, this is your hobby."

Shinji just rubbed the back of his head. "It really kind of is... Anyway for now, I don't think anyone will mind if you stay here?"

He glanced at Misato and then back at the redhead. Asuka bristled faintly, but Misato knew the girl well enough that all she could do was put on a paper tiger show. Still, there was a certain methodology that had to be maintained...

Leaning forward, Misato clapped. "Asuka- I think as long as you're still laid up in that chair you should stay here- can we get a bed or something in the... living room?" She directed the question at Shinji, and then took another look around, wondering if that was the right word.

Shinji just shrugged. "All of the lofts have their own ensuite bathrooms and kitchenettes. Once Sorhyu's upstairs, she won't have to leave til she's better." He waved at the nearest spiral staircase. "I can probably replace one of these with an elevator too. I took over the apartment beneath us as well, so we have four floors of space."

"Ff-Four floors?" Misato blinked, and sure enough she spied the stairway leading down, just to the right of the entrance. She missed it on the first turn through the new space. Shaking her head, she focused back on Asuka- who had an actual problem. "I guess either I'd move in with you til you're better, or you stay here, Asuka-chan... What do you think?"

Still in her plugsuit, Asuka set her jaw and frowned. Her hair was limp and frizzy, windblown by salty air. Misato needed a shower too. And food.

Finally the girl opened her mouth to speak, but Rei cut her off. "Asuka-chan and I can share a loft- they are nearly small apartments in and of themselves after all."

Blinking, Misato willed her brain back into gear and worked at the suggestion, pulling at the almost non-existent cons and nearly overwhelmed by the abundant pros. She looked over at Asuka. The girl's one visible eye shot Rei an unreadable look, but it faded to something close to an almost pleased acceptance. Misato could tell the girl was still more than a little frustrated though- not sad, but being an invalid for nearly a month hadn't done Asuka any favors either.

From her place next to the couch, Asuka cocked her head and narrowed her eye. "You did the space saving stuff here too, yeah?"

Shinji nodded, pointing out the conceal-everything cabinets and acknowledging the same upstairs. "I haven't touched your actual apartment yet." He waved at the common wall. "I was hoping to talk to you about it later."

With the potential crisis averted, Misato felt another yawn coming on. She stretched again, and unlike her jaw, she relished the long line of pops along her spine. Shower, food, sleep. If she didn't get up off of the couch she might never leave... Of course, Shinji apparently had a different idea, glancing between Misato and Asuka. He nodded once, before darting off past a dividing wall toward what Misato hoped was her bathroom. The boy came back a bit later with a box of over-the-counter medicine, pain-killers.

"You two both need to sleep- Don't worry about eating or anything, just sleep." He pushed three caplets into Misato hand and fixed her with a look that told her arguing wasn't going to get anywhere, nor any of her normal tricks and charms. "You and Sorhyu'll want those. I can't prescribe anything so that's the best we've got."

He took a deep breath and smiled, tired but bright enough to light up the room regardless. "Past that, I'll take care of... well, breakfast, for all of us. What do you want? Anything. Sky's the limit."

Misato blinked, and found her mouth watering. Shinji had thrown down the gustatorial gauntlet. "Ah.. uhm... Beer-battered shrimp, those rib-things you did once..." She found herself rattling off dishes as they came to her.

A cool blue eye meanwhile gave the boy a calculating look, while Asuka shook the pills in her palm. Misato knew that glint in the girl's eye, the stuck out lower lip and that tone. Even in the wheelchair, Asuka broadcast her mood at the ten-thousand watt range. Challenge accepted.

"Deep dish Chicago-style meat lover's pizza. French fries, Bacon-cheese burger. Double-Chocolate milkshake- and a black forest cake..."

Shinji let the order wash over him, even as Misato lost track of exactly what Asuka had been asking for. He just gave the pair an oddly decisive nod and headed for the kitchen, grabbing the phone along the way. "Got it. I'll need to make some calls."

For a long moment the two girls and one woman watched the Third Child pull increasingly elaborate appliances out of the kitchen, phone wedged against his ear and shoulder while he worked. Eventually Misato shook her head, and with an effort bordering on herculean, heaved herself out of the couch and toward Asuka. "Let's get you upstairs."

Rei meanwhile fidgeted, caught deliberating something. She took a step toward Asuka then back, until she finally settled on holding the wheelchair steady while Misato eased Asuka's bare arm over her shoulders.

Still, Rei smiled faintly, enough that Misato could hear it in her voice. "I should warn you Asuka-chan, that I will not be your only roommate."

The redhead downed the pills dry and rolled her eyes, hobbling alongside Misato toward the stairs. "Ugh, more Ikari girlfriends..."

"No, they are not." Rei let the rebuttal hang for a long second. "The cage is too small."


It had taken a bit of doing, but between Rei, Asuka's good leg and Misato herself, the three of them had made it upstairs and into Rei's room. The redhead was going to have to suffer wearing her plugsuit a few hours longer, but she was more than tough enough, now that they all were in the home stretch. Misato had shuffled into one of the two unclaimed lofts, peeling clothes off before the powered door had even finished closing.

The last thing she heard before collapsing on the bed herself was Asuka's faint moan. "It's like a cloud!"

Thirty minutes later, Shinji stood in his kitchen and checked his internal clock. Section Two had already jumped at his request, and the first wave of black-suited agents moved into the kitchen like ghosts, leaving paper and plastic grocery bags by the twos and threes. The orders from specialty grocers and choice cuts of meat from the butchers would take longer to arrive.

Before, every appliance and surface had surpassed even what money could buy, seeing past the simple hurdles like marketing unnecessary features. He'd made a restaurant-grade space and had enjoyed it thoroughly. Now, every tool had been turned and tuned to function along his ideals. It was a fancy way of saying he had rebuilt the common stove or mixer into sublime tools of the trade, understanding them down to their core concepts. They were the best and brandless.

Still cradling the phone, Shinji thumbed in a new number, calling Kensuke. The boy's job as a research assistant to NERV earned a salary, and by extension, a cellular phone. Shinji was speaking before Kensuke even took a breath. "Kensuke, I need a favor- head to the garage lab and find my second book of alchemy notes. I need you to make a few doses of that stomach-soothing formula I figured out."

"Shin-what?" The boy on the other end cut out, and Shinji remembered he was probably somewhere at school. "Now?"

"Yes now, skip last period if you have to- Sorhyu and Misato got home earlier this morning. They need that medicine and I'm too busy cooking." Switching grips while he kneaded dough, Shinji didn't so much sigh as exhale. "I'll be calling everyone with the news, just help me take care of this okay?"

Kensuke hung up with a note of confirmation, and Shinji made up a plan to call the others. Toji and Hikari, then Ayumi. Stopping himself, he mentally reversed that order. He'd have never heard the end of it if he called her last for such a homecoming. Thinking about it, he probably should have kept that Kaji guy on hand too. He was probably feeling the same hunger and exhaustion. It didn't take long to call Ritsuko, telling her to dig the man out of whatever hole he fell into. Even better, Shinji had everything he needed to make all the chocolate cakes.

A familiar black-suited and dark-skinned shape dropped a bag of premium import sausage on the kitchen island. Shinji turned and blinked down at Deja. He smiled at his primary defender and pulled the meat into the growing whorl of food and sunfire corona.

When Misato woke up, the sun had turned the sky brilliant red and orange, and the thin clouds over Hakone cast faint shadows across the hills. Her loft-bedroom had a wall-to-wall window that levered itself open by some unseen signal, becoming a glass awning for her own private patio. The breeze hit her bare skin and she shivered, trying to dig deeper under the sheets and hide from the light. She didn't want to get out of bed, get dressed, or do anything but sleep for years. The western style bed made that a really attractive option too. When she'd hit the cushions, it felt like a thousand hands were holding her aloft in all the right ways.

Ten minutes of trying resulted in her just getting tangled up in the silk sheets. She kicked them away and groaned, feeling every ache and sore spot. The painkillers from earlier took the edge off, but there was no better cure than rest... and she still had a debt to catch up on.

Knuckling at her eyes and yawning, Misato took another look around. It seemed like the kids had meant for her to take the room, because a dozen or so carefully packed boxes were piled up along the walls, with the rest of her worldly possessions. She eyed the skateboard and let out a wry grin. That had ended pretty well for Kaji, she remembered.

It took a bit to find a box full of her clothes, leading to her grabbing a towel, shorts and a thin tank top before stumbling out into the upper hallway. Asuka probably needed a shower as much as she did. Wrapping a towel around her middle and checking the rooms one by one, Misato found Shinji's still-spartan place. The boy's loft was light on furnishings, but Misato got the impression that was temporary. Across from his room was an empty guest bedroom, the last door had to be Rei's. All together, they were basically four studio apartments wedged into a bit less room than her old apartment beneath them.

Meandering around the living space and into the bedroom, Misato found Asuka sitting up on the bed. The girl was a mass of winces and cringing, trying to work a pair of scissors through her released plugsuit. Her eye-patch and neural headset hadn't budged a bit, though.

She looked up when Misato stepped closer, jerking her head at a futon across the floor. "Rei woke up before I did, guess she's downstairs."

"Right..." Misato nodded, holding the towel up with one arm and her knock-around clothes in the other. She sat down next to her pilot and smiled softly. "Want some help with that?"

Asuka just handed her the scissors and sighed. "Please, thank you and all that is good in this world- I need to get out of this thing."

Tugging at the loose smart material, Misato smiled a bit wider and started cutting through the circuits and supports. "Red-hot, skin tight and sexy not working for you anymore?"

The redhead did an impressive show of crossing her arms, despite one being bound up against her side. "I'll die and be buried in a plugsuit- I don't want to live in one for two weeks ever again."

Misato's hesitant snip made the girl shiver, and the look Asuka gave her was something akin to panicked reassurance, short of a frantic waving of hands. "I'm in no hurry to die for my dimension either, I'd rather make the Angels die for theirs."

Making a few final cuts, Misato pulled the ragged strips of suit away and nodded. "And that Asuka, is why you and I get along so well. You up for a shower, before we head down? I think we can both fit."

"God yes."

Hot water washed away soreness like little else. The only thing Misato had against the little ensuite showers was that they weren't actual baths- no way to really get a good long soak going. As far as convenience went though, they were hard to beat. The three weeks heading home aboard Over the Rainbow had beaten out a lot of the awkwardness with harsh realities and concessions. Before the fleet, Asuka would have been too proud and prudish to bathe with anyone else, but the showering conditions on the fleet didn't leave much room for beggars or choosers. Knowing each other let their hygenic alliance form out of convenient habit. Sudden luxuries like hot water on demand or soap that lathered... in a lot of ways, it felt like a dream.

Asuka for her part hadn't complained- in fact she'd gone well past that into being outright helpful and understanding, considering how injured she was. Misato had to admit she was a little worried about her girl having lost some of her fire, but at the same time, an off week or two wasn't unexpected. Tugging her wet hair back over her shoulder, Misato tried not to frown as she looked over her pilot, and the hash of angry red lines along her thighs, disappearing past the bottom edge of Asuka's red towel. There were other marks all along her arms and back too, some still stitched up.

The fleet surgeons were good, but well, battlefield conditions. "Don't pick at your scars."

"M'not." Asuka's hands hadn't been moving, but Misato felt the need to say so anyway.

Looking up, Misato spied a familiar home-bottled miracle and smirked. "Didn't you call this vomit, when you first saw it?"

Asuka glanced in the mirror and at the tube of home-brewed shampoo. "Puke, actually. I admit I was wrong about that... the fleet knows puke better than anyone." She scrubbed her face with a twice-repeated handful of water, as if washing away the thought. "Inescapable."

Smiling, Misato spread some of the thaumaturgical soap into her hands and nodded. Hard to believe she'd even think the word thaumaturgy, or spend a good chunk of her time using the sleeping massage trick on Asuka or herself. She re-wet Asuka's hair with her free hand and the extendable showerhead, and just knew Shinji must've made it by hand from scratch.

Asuka groaned when Misato started working in the lather, and like that weeks of salt air, unwashed LCL and general stress seemed to melt out of the girl's hair and spirit. "Gonna have you do this for me when your hands are better, you know that right?"

"Fair's fair..." Asuka's head lolled forward, and Misato switched gears from shampoo to proper massage. The redhead let out an unintelligible grunt while her shoulders dropped.

Unfortunately, it couldn't be all good news. "I might have to cut some of your hair."

The girl stiffened, but didn't turn or lift her head. Misato heard her indignant, dismayed squeak all the same."W-what?"

"Just a bit at the ends! An inch maybe." Misato took a moment to smooth away some of the foam and pull a lock of hair forward, to show Asuka her ragged split-ends. "See? Just a little, might make it easier for you to take care of."

Bit by bit the tension drained out of Asuka's neck and shoulders, and she let out a faint sigh. "I guess..."

Misato smiled and wrapped her arms around Asuka's shoulders, hugging her close and not caring that she got a chin and chest full of suds for her trouble. "It'll be good, I promise!"

Having said that, Misato reached for the showerhead and set to rinse.

At sea, being dry was a luxury. With heel-toe shifts and hot-bunking for most of the crew, when people got to take a shower, they squirmed into their uniforms while dripping wet and charged back to duty. Back home, Misato and Asuka had the chance to towel off. When the older woman had gotten done with Asuka, the girl's hair had poofed into the most amazingly adorable frizzy mane, magic shampoo or no. It was quickly tamed by hand and brush though.

Finding clothes for Asuka wasn't difficult either- a pair of soft cotton drawstring shorts wouldn't catch on the wounds and casts, and keep everything nice and breathable. The same went for an impressively airy, oversized T-shirt. With Asuka sitting on the bed once more, now clean and dressed, Misato stood proud with her hands on hips, declaring her mission accomplished. "Feeling any better?"

Asuka's tone was flat as glass and absolutely parched. "Like I've been washed out of dogshit cavern on a tidal wave of headaches."

Misato swung around and landed hip first on the bed next to the girl, throwing an arm around her shoulder. "Asuka, lording over all those poor sailors has had a terrible influence on your vocabulary."

Despite being wedged against Misato's side, the girl didn't struggle as much as she might have. "You spent more time around them than I did!"

The lilt Misato put in her voice was calculated to devastating effect, and Asuka groaned into the crook ofher shoulder at the reminder."Window-shopping~"

But spending more than six weeks at sea with Misato and an at-sea navy was more than enough to teach Asuka all kinds of comebacks.

"At the pawn shop." She huffed, hair bouncing slightly. "Who was the one with the terrible influences again?"

Misato just hugged the girl a little harder before standing up. Coming to a halt, Misato held an arm out for the girl and smiled again, earnest and reassuring. "You ready to head downstairs?"

Asuka strapped her eyepatch back on with one hand and blinked. "You're going to go out in that?"

Misato glanced down at her shorts and blank tank top, before giving the girl a teasing grin. "Coverage equivalent to a candy wrapper is the privilege the home and hearth, much like eating ice cream out of the carton or simply going nude outright!"

The redhead rolled her eye and smirked. "Naked would be better- at least people wouldn't try to look."

"That might be true, but still, we're home!" Misato grinned, hugging herself and rocking back and forth on one heel while Asuka gave her a wan smile.

"Home." Asuka nodded faintly, testing her good hand. "Downstairs, one arm on the railing, you on my bad side?" The older woman felt her heart swell up with relief at that, nodding with a sly smile. "I thought every side was your good side?"

That earned a scoff, but Misato had become accustomed to that as Asuka's way. Never one to show flagging morale, though the girl certainly appreciated the levity. Together they eased out of the studio-loft and into the hallway, but stopped.

Misato blinked, then glanced down at the stairwell. "Do you smell that?"

Taking an experimental sniff, Asuka nodded. "...Not sure what." Her good eye went distant, and Misato recognized it as her eyepatch taking full attention. She focused back on Misato and shrugged. "This thing doesn't have gas spectrometry- go figure."

Making their way downstairs was easier than heading up, considering gravity's ever-present helping hand, and Asuka only slipped once. She caught herself on the rail and bit off a snarl, even as her eyes screwed shut and tears threatened to spill out. Misato didn't make a big deal out of it, something she'd learned over the past month. That wasn't the same as ignoring it though, and she just waited for Asuka to take her arm once again.

The smells were getting sharper, and now Misato heard voices. Shinji's increasingly dominant sound, or Rei's own light speech. It didn't take long for her to note Ritsuko, or some less familiar voices- Shinji's friends? She wasn't sure either way. The remodeled layout of the apartment erased the old echoes and threw off her sense of the space, so it took her a second to turn away from one wall or hall. Twisting the other way, Misato rounded on the kitchen, and could only blink at the sight.

It was damn near a party, and the only thing missing were decorations. There was a brief moment where Misato remembered she was wearing even less than her usual sleepwear, but then the smell hit her nose like a sledgehammer. She absently pulled the tank top back up around her shoulders with a free hand, but it slid back down when her fingers went slack.

Is that an apple pie? An actual apple pie?

Any further thought she had to going back up stairs to change died messily in the face of those aromas.

Shinji stuck to the kitchen counters, glowing softly and only breaking away long enough to deliver another finished plate to the dining room table. The table itself could have seated sixteen people, but Shinji had made enough food to cover every free inch of space.

Past that, she saw the guests- Ritsuko and Kaji, both nibbling on a plate of appetizers around the marble-top kitchen island. Shinji's friends had turned and bowed at her and Asuka's arrival, forcing Misato to blink rapidly. Her mind took it all in with snapshots, little snatches of the movement and conversation. She'd celebrated an American style Christmas with Asuka once, and this 'morning' blew those out of the water.

Then her mind caught up and seized on a series of very important facts. No more galley food. No more baloney sandwiches. No more powdered eggs and milk, or instant mashed potatoes. Misato found her legs giving out for the second time in twenty four hours, and Asuka was slumping down right along side her. Everything they had asked for was on the table, visibly delicious and waiting.

Shinji, Rei and Kaji were suddenly there, at their sides at the bottom stairway. They kept a hand on their arms and shoulders, even as Misato and Asuka found a seat on the nearest step. Shinji was the first to speak, but Misato reached out to put a hand over his lips.

Asuka pulled off her eyepatch and let the tears flow free out of both eyes. "Third... Just let us have this moment."

The silence stretched out across the apartment for a handful of seconds, with only the sizzle of meat in a pan to punctuate it. Then, Misato couldn't help it, and neither could Asuka.

They burst out laughing.

Misato, Kaji and Asuka had been given places of honor at the head and sides of the table. The fourth was left over for the guests, while the returning heroes had their choices of comfort food spread out before them. Heated pans, containers and other warmers kept everything piping hot and ready to serve. Asuka hadn't stopped crying since descending the stairs, and for once she didn't care.

Before they started loading a plate, Ikari pressed a white tablet into their hands, nodding once. "Thaumaturgy pharmaceutical- It'll help keep your stomachs settled with all the rich food."

Asuka watched as Misato popped the pill without even asking a question, and Kaji took that as enough reason to follow suit. She stared at the little thing between her fingers... Then glanced at the... She couldn't even pick something to name from the table- she wanted it all. Her stomach growled, and that clinched it for her. Asuka tossed the tablet back and swallowed. It went down easier than she expected, but another churning growl from her middle was more than enough reason to put it out of her mind.

Instead Asuka turned to the food and started dishing up. Ikari had been good on his word- better than she hoped or imagined. The German cuisine she missed or the American food she had come to love back in college- it was all there. The bacon cheeseburger he had crafted was three times as big as her fist, top bun off to one side and the whole thing waiting to be stacked with whatever trimmings she wanted. Crisp lettuce, savory tomato- she could go for the works. The bacon was still steaming as she watched.

Golden crispy fries joined the burger, then some bratwurst and Sauerkraut- stereotypical she knew but it was comfort food dammit. Eventually the plate got too heavy for her to lift with just the one arm, but Kaji was there without even being asked, helping her pull the tower of food back into eating distance. Even cut in half, the main-course burger was a glorious mess to eat, and Asuka felt her eyes roll back into her head with the first bite. Asuka smiled into the mouthful, lips and cheeks smeared with gourmet sauces and her own happy tears.

It tasted like bloody victory.

Hours passed, and Misato wondered if Heaven had moved into her stomach and summered on top of her taste buds. It was an agonizingly strained metaphor, but she honestly did not care. She stretched languidly, braced against the chair back and again relishing how her spine popped. An attentive male audience hadn't hurt either, and after Rei had let out a window-shaking belch, no one there had any more illusions about the female half of the species. The pedestal was well and truly broken.

She traced a finger over her bare stomach and sighed. Everyone here had seen her at her worst already, so no need for much in the way of pretenses. Everyone in the apartment had been pulled into the crazy NERV life. Breakfast had felt more like meals with old friends, or old soldiers. It was nice to just let herself relax...

Something cold appeared in her open hand- a premium import lager. Misato blinked and looked up to see Ritsuko smiling down at her. She had faint bags around her eyes, but the blonde's smile was full and honest. "Ikari-kun packed a cooler," She raised a crystal goblet. "And I broke into your wine cabinet."

Misato cocked her head to the side even as she worked the can open with one hand. She took a savory sip and hummed. "I have a wine cabinet?"

Ritsuko just jerked her chin at a particularly handsome bit of furniture set into the kitchen wall. "I think the First and Third emptied their disposable income for this little get-together."

The dark-haired woman felt the sympathetic ache in her own mental wallet, eying the table full of gourmet leftovers, most of them still delightfully hot and savory. "I'll pay them back. I'll even pay them back before the war's over and then I'll win the war."

"I think you will too, on both counts, Katsuragi." Ritsuko toasted her friend with a thin, sparking smile.

With beer in hand and good company, Misato was content to let the evening wear on. The sun had set and the stars were coming out in force, and the lights of downtown Tokyo-3 were shooting up into the sky over the Hakone region hillsides. She sipped her lager and hummed. Looking out across her kitchen, the living room... Her kids had bought a new TV, a giant one at that, and Aida-kun was fussing with something near the bottom console. The rest of them settled into their pairs and trios, mingling some ways and not in others.

Asuka was a bit like oil in water, it seemed. There wasn't any anger there though, just a distance between the redhead and the other kids. Asuka was tough, sitting firm on her couch and attentive. She wasn't going to break over something so stupid as not being the center of attention, not after the last month. Kaji hovered outside in the meantime, wreathed in cigarette smoke and standing like a guardian in shadow. Misato had to admit it fit him a lot better than the spy or charming rogue.

Still glancing around, Misato tried to match her old apartment with the new expanded space. Her room was gone, the hallway and the old spare bedroom and storage were replaced, by what she hadn't found out. The kitchen was miraculous, with everything hidden behind a panel or clever folding cabinet. Something nagged at her though, like it was missing. Double-oven, gas range, check. Sink, refrigerator behind some hidden panel, wine cabinet, more counter...

"Where's PenPen's fridge?"

Misato hadn't meant for her voice to carry so far, but the whole party stopped, nearly a dozen pairs of eyes locked on her. Still, she sat up and cocked her head, glancing at Shinji, master of renovations. He just pointed at what had been the hallway toward his old room.

Summoned as if by magic, the hot-springs penguin waddled out into the party proper, with a newspaper folded under one flipper. The penguin looked up at Shinji and blinked a tiny, dry eye at the boy. "Wark."

Misato blinked when Shinji let out out a short laugh. "Sorry, I should have woken you- I did set aside some top shelf for you though."

Everyone watched as the penguin gave Shinji a one-wing salute, hobbling off to a corner of the kitchen that Misato couldn't see past. He came back a moment later with a plate full of handsome looking fish. PenPen stared down the crowd, as if daring them to try and take his meal. Now Misato knew better than most that PenPen was damn smart, smart enough to beat her at poker, enough to work a TV or his powered refrigerator door...

"Shinji..." Misato cocked her head to the side, blinking. "You don't drink enough to talk to penguins without it looking bad, what gives?"

"Oh, I can understand him just fine these days." He waved his hand at his head and for once, willed the gold brand to appear on his brow. It didn't outshine or scour the apartment, but it made his point all the same.

Rei jumped in from her place a top a bean bag chair before Misato or anyone else could ask the next question. "He translates for my rats as well, and has taught them basic arithmetic."

Misato just mouthed the word 'rats', but shook her head. Priorities. "You can understand PenPen?"

Her favorite boy just nodded. Misato glanced between him and PenPen, thinking. The penguin was happily downing one fish after another, blithely ignoring the conversation happening quite literally over his feathered head. Well, time for one mystery to get solved.

"Shinji~" Misato slid out of her chair and stood up to her full impressive height of five foot three and bounced, smiling broadly. "Does PenPen have anything he wants to say to me?"

The boy scratched the back of his head and nodded, mumbling. "He can understand you all just fine, how else can he watch the news or read the paper..." He looked down at PenPen, who was now suddenly very much paying attention.

One by one the various party goers started to gather around Shinji and her penguin-roommate. They all watched, enraptured, as a bit of winged pantomime carried into a one-sided conversation, punctuated by a 'waaaugh' or 'wark' here and there, Misato found her eyes flicking between PenPen and Shinji, and noting the boy turning an increasingly incandescent red.

PenPen concluded his declaration with a firm nod, giving Shinji a pointed stare before jerking his head at Misato. His eyes locked on hers, and if he had been red before, he skipped scarlet and crimson and went straight into beetroot. His jaw worked once, twice, until finally he just rapidly shook his head and clamped his mouth shut.

Misato just whistled, grinning impishly. "I think I get it, say no more."

There was a long moment of silence then, when everyone else caught up with the idea of Shinji being able to understand a penguin.

Through all of this, Asuka had twisted around to look over the back of the couch. She smirked faintly up at Shinji. "I admit, with all this and the penguin being apparently missing, I was thinking you might've cooked him up by mistake."

The tallest teenager sighed explosively and made a visible show of getting the color and mortification out of his cheeks. Misato blinked at that. She knew better than most how easy it was to short his brain out. Glancing at Ayumi on the other bean bag cushion, Misato wondered just what had happened while they were gone...

Huffing faintly and still a bit red in the face, Shinji shot Asuka a sly, knowing look. "No, my diet's mainly Rambo movies, after all."

The thing that made Misato return to consciousness was the painkillers wearing off. Four weeks of stress and aches didn't go away with two nights rest.

The thing that woke her up was the sound and smell of a western breakfast in her apartment.

Wriggling deeper into the couch cushions, Misato opened her eyes a crack and smiled at the uncovered windows. The sun played over the hills and roofs of her neighborhood, leading to a gradually brightening dawn. She glanced at the warm weight wrapped up against her side and grinned a bit wider. Asuka was a pretty good blanket, it seemed.

A quiet background sizzle injected new life into the apartment, and bit by bit, people picked themselves up from where they'd fallen. Most of the teenagers had begged off on curfew, taken home by Ritsuko and Deja. Misato and the pilots meanwhile had found something comfortable enough to settle in and sleep off the party. Asuka shifted, stretching hesitantly and blinking with one uncovered eye. She gave Misato a sleepy stare, unfocused and uncomprehending. Something under that mop of red hair finally clicked over hard enough to make Asuka cringe. Muttering, she untangled her arms from around Misato and winced, pulling at her eye patch.

With both eyes bare, the pilot looked up at Misato again and sighed. The older woman just nodded, all too aware of the same pains. Ignoring the inevitable bluster, Misato smirked and leaned in to smooth down Asuka's bangs and press her lips against the girl's head. It was good to be home.

Sliding off the couch and to her feet, Misato nodded and helped the girl get situated, helping her lay down. This led to her grabbing the TV remote for Asuka and a spare, apparently hand-woven blanket to throw over her legs. While the sun climbed higher in the sky, Misato nodded to herself and spun about, wondering where to go. She and Asuka needed more of those painkillers, for one, but where had Shinji gotten them...

Wandering past the kitchen, she glanced at Shinji, still hard at work at the stove. The first thought that came to mind, Misato cut off with a wry smirk- teasing could wait for later. Pills, now. Passing by a dividing wall, Misato almost ran chest first into Rei. Instead they stopped just shy of each other, and Misato barely had to look down to see bleary red eyes and long blue hair piled up on one side. The girl ran a hand over her head and tried to tug the bedhead back under control.

Peering around Misato's side and into the kitchen, Rei gave the tiniest indication of a frown, and her voice dropped down to a whisper. "I enjoy Shinji-kun's cooking, but... Perhaps Ikari is taking your return home as an excuse to 'handle everything', even if it is just at home."

Medicine all but forgotten, Misato nodded and tugged Rei further into hallway for the apparently somewhat-private conversation. Turning the girl around until Misato could help with Rei's hair, she hummed. "He enjoys it though. I'd never want to take it away, but he does... overdo things, sometimes?"

"Time management has been a frustration of his these past months... I believe he's already started preparing our lunches and dinners, as we speak."

Finished having worked out the snags, Misato nodded and wrapped her arms around Rei's middle, hugging her from behind. "So you're thinking maybe he needs a little more balance in his life?"

Hesitating at first, Rei just laid her hands on Misato's and squeezed, before speaking. "More or less. Perhaps a male influence? He has been surrounded by a... credulity-straining number of women for the past year."

She says that sort of thing on purpose... Misato shook her head and let out a quiet little laugh. "There's nothing wrong with being domestic..."

The blue-haired girl leaned into the hug even more, humming. "But there is more to life than being such, Misato-san."

And perhaps Rei was right. Misato tucked the girl's head under her chin as she mulled it over. Shinji really did do right by all the women in his life, and he tried to in a way that would make a girl smile in all the right ways. A positive male role model would probably do wonders for the boy too. Maybe help him be a bit more assertive... Of course, the question would be who.

The universe was in the mood to provide, it seemed. A new shadow poured into the hallway, and it resolved as Kaji Ryoji, complete with a steaming mug of coffee in hand. Misato blinked once and stared at the man, then down at Rei, who looked up at her and blinked right back. The man just stared at the pair, lost and confused.

Finally, Misato looked back up at Kaji and sighed. "Rei, this might just be a case where the cure is worse than the disease."

The 'main floor' apartment space had roughly four areas after Shinji had gotten through with it, one of which was the hallway leading to some still empty spaces and the main bathroom that Misato still hadn't had a chance to look at. The kitchen hadn't moved much, only expanding slightly into what had been Misato's bedroom, and the rest of what he called an 'open concept' design.

In the actual living room, Asuka had turned on the TV and filled the space with the sounds of early-morning programming. Cartoons, infomercials and the early-bird news reports were enough of a cover that Misato felt it safe to discuss... matters with the UN Inspector. She'd sent Rei off to join Asuka, before tugging Kaji to the table by his grimy lapel. He hadn't had a chance to change since the fleet returned.

Shinji kept bustling along in the kitchen, insulated from everything else in the apartment.

The last section was the dining room, and it wasn't so much a room as a rectangle of hardwood floor and handsome handmade table, surrounded by chairs. Feeling the cool wood of the chair seat against her bare thighs, Misato winced. She hadn't changed since yesterday either. Crossing her arms over her chest, she huffed. "Eyes up, Kaji. We're not in college and there are children present."

"Children, maybe." Kaji just toasted her, smiling over the rim of his mug. She didn't mistake the English word he used for what it was. "You and I were late for that kind of thing anyway."

Misato just let out a snort and resisted the urge to cross her legs, to do anything that'd give him more ammunition. "We came home in the middle of something, didn't we?"

The dark-haired man nodded, taking another sip of coffee before he answered. "More than a few somethings."

Well that was cryptic, as usual. Misato scowled a bit harder before shifting, quietly putting her hands flat on the table and rising up. If he wanted to play at his coy little spy game, fine. Time to flip the board. Looming over the man, Misato dared him to ogle her lazy-day tank top and shorts. Doing it slowly hadn't made it any less effective. Kaji blinked, but his eyes for once did not wander.

"I don't know what you're into, Inspector, but I know that the Sub-Commander locked you up for your own good." She leaned in close, keeping her voice low and eyes locked on his. "And I do know I can very much make anything you do a living hell if it endangers my pilots or my mission."

Kaji stared right back, a little wide-eyed, but steady. "I suppose I can understand that. I'd rather not step on anyone's toes either, so..."

He trailed off, shrugging with one arm. Misato settled back in her chair, absently pulling a loose strap back into place and sweeping her hair back over her shoulders. The rest of the apartment hadn't even noticed the little demonstration. Kaji had made a fairly open proposal with that hanging statement, and now Misato had to make the call. Leaning against the chair back, Misato chewed her thumb, wondering.

Not that Kaji had anything approaching good timing. He looked down at his coffee and hummed thoughtfully. "The brew Shinji made back during that MAGI crisis was better."

Misato knew better than to indulge the man in his tangents, but found herself curiosity overcoming her general wariness. Cocking her head to the side, and more than a bit bemused at the sudden change in topic, she asked the obvious question. "Did you make it or did he?"

"I did, with his machine." He pointed with his mug at the rebuilt espresso contraption, holding pride of place on the counter next to the fridge. Turning back to Misato, he gave her a grin that brought up all kinds of memories. "So Katsuragi, what are the terms of my imprisonment- chained to your wall, or your bed? I should warn you though, I'm still a snuggler."

There was an awful, extended period of absolutely horrible silence. The sheer audacity- that incorrigible man-pig. Hot blood rushed up to her cheeks and started to spread down her neck and past her collarbone, leaving the rest of her chilled and goosefleshed. A thousand and one comebacks all tumbled through Misato's mind in the span of a heartbeat, even though some part of her knew he expected it, wanted the old spars to start again. She took a quiet breath and started to count to ten, declaring her skin unto iron.

But somehow, Shinji saved the day. "Do adults actually talk like that, or is it just you?"

The teenager had snuck up on them like a breeze, standing on the opposite side of the table and yet still towering over Misato and Kaji both. He'd set down a fresh mug of coffee with one hand and pushed a cold, unopened can of import lager over to Misato with the other. Instead of retreating to the kitchen, he sat down, even as Misato found herself cracking the tab on autopilot. Normally he gave her the stink-eye about drinking in the morning, but it seemed like he was still happy they were home.

Kaji meanwhile gaped slightly, and Misato relished the look. It was so hard to catch Kaji off guard. He took the new mug and blew away the steam, taking a careful sip. He shot bolt upright, licking his lips and whistling. "Now this is what I remember, Ikari-kun."

Shinji just gave the man a polite nod before turning back to Misato, giving her an apologetic look. "This probably isn't the best time to talk about it, but it's been months and you're finally back but..."

More things changed, the more they stayed the same, it seemed. Misato laughed softly into her beer, waving. "Shinji, easy! As serious as you are, the only serious thing I want to hear about is how serious you and Ayumi-chan are."

The man and boy sitting at the table just gave her a near identical flat look, then Kaji shook his head, grinning. Shinji just sighed. "Misato, that was terrible. And I think we're fairly not-serious?"

Misato sighed, overblown and dramatic. It felt good to be home, to be doing the familiar things, Kaji excluded. Shinji though had changed, even if he'd gone a little red there at end. Instead, Misato couldn't help but notice things, like how he sat up straighter, and looked a little bit more attentive. His clothes were different too, handmade like nearly everything else in the apartment and expertly tailored. He looked... professional, almost. Like he wasn't just thinking about today, but the next day and the one after that.

It was an almost guarded look, and the Shinji she'd known two months ago had to hide in the Geofront to avoid her reading him.

Something was bothering him though, and Misato could hear the worry in his voice. "You helped design the fortress-city, right?"

Blinking twice, Misato nodded and wondered where he was going. "Indirectly. When I was in Officer Candidate School, Tokyo-2 and 3 were the big theoretical exercises, and all the classes did simulations and theoretical papers on it. We didn't know about the Evangelions back then, or the Angels directly, but almost all my plans were outside the box or something."

Taking another sip of her beer, Misato hummed thoughtfully. "I was known for stuff like Operation Yashima, against the positron Angel? Back in twenty-oh-eight, everybody was locked into the idea of mobile armies charging out to meet the enemy, or asymmetrical warfare. When Tokyo-3 was proposed, most commanders had to fall back on old castle strategies."

Winking, she toasted Shinji with her half-empty beer. "I was one of the few who remembered the fortress-city sat in a country with good roads and railways"

Shinji was quiet then, staring at his hands. He glanced up at Kaji, then back at her. "So they built the city based on your papers?"

"Some, I was brought in around twenty-ten for more on-sight planning, but I was living out of UN housing or hotels most of the time. I moved in here-" Misato waved lazily at the apartment, smiling. "The day before I went to pick you up from the first Angel."

That got a weak laugh out of the boy. "I remember, and I remember the mess..."

After he trailed off, Shinji looked down at his hands and sighed. To Misato, it sounded like some aching pain had just let go. Tilting his head back up, he fixed blue eyes on her brown ones and nodded. "So... they never told you."

Misato just cocked her head to the side, absently tugging an errant strap back up over her shoulder where it belonged. "Tell me what?"

Shinji took another short breath, and his eyes cut towards Kaji, who'd been watching the discussion with what Misato knew was his patented lack of interest. Meanwhile, Shinji's hands drummed on the table, and he exhaled. "Tokyo-3's a sham. If it's not helping the Evangelions, it's not worth using..." He waved his hand at the walls, past them and towards the city itself. "The anti-angel bunkers, the civilian shelters? You could take them apart with hand tools... "

A lot of thoughts ran through Misato's mind, most of them unimportant. They weren't in the place to discuss that kind of thing, but as far as timing went, sooner was better, when it came to her city. Home for less than two days and they were already dealing with a crisis. Another cheerfully insistent part of her reminded Misato that she wasn't dressed for that kind of discussion either, and her tank top slipped off her shoulders again to prove it.

The cotton was mocking her, she was sure of it.

The last and most pressing thought was the question hidden in all of that. Had she known about the shelters. At her open and honest look of confusion, Shinji laid it all out for her. Misato felt the slow roil of betrayal and revulsion build up in her gut with every word. He'd stumbled across it all thanks to a black-market scam, war profiteering in the middle of Tokyo-3. Politics and budget cuts made it possible, and that lead to his dealings with the established, entrenched journalist regime in the fortress-city. A true corporate organ.

Misato opened her mouth to answer, but Kaji beat her to it. "Katsuragi never knew about it, but I saw it on one or two inspection tours. NERV is kind of like hot water in a pot- the lightest stuff rises and evaporates, forgotten."

Misato blinked at that, and found herself staring at the man like he'd grown a second head. She could enjoy his presence when he was being a father to Asuka, but now he brought out his mission. She looked over at Shinji to see his reaction. Bewilderment, apparently. Misato regarded all the looks and expressions that swept over Shinji's face, even as his eyes cut from her to Kaji and back. It was almost understandable though- Shinji barely even knew Kaji, aside from what she'd already told him.

That lack of knowledge, and then realizing that Kaji knew more than even Misato herself... The dark-haired woman shot the boy an encouraging look, reminding him she was there, that she had his back. Finally, the boy gave Kaji a decisive, if distant nod. Misato touched her fingers to her lip and smirked, knowing that was his problem-solving look.

Still, it wasn't all sunshine and roses. The ticking clock out in the living room reminded her that the sham-city was still out there, and they still needed to do something about it. Her dipping mood must have been obvious, because Kaji took it upon himself to assist. In the least helpful way.

"Well, about your previous offer, Katsuragi..." He smiled and spread his hands wide, almost sprawling in the dining room chair. You make it sound so appealing, how could I say no?"

He didn't even have the decency to wait for her reply. Instead, Kaji smirked, reaching up to tug his collar and first shirt button open. The red tie was already lost to the Pacific some weeks ago. "Is the part where I ask how the rent is due?"

Misato just gave him the most parched, level stare she could muster. Flatter than a mirror and dry as a bone, she drawled. "I don't take advance payments."

She shook her empty beer and turned to Shinji, still lost in his planning. A small part of her grinned inwardly at his almost protective scowl, hidden beneath a faint blush. "Shinji-kun, could you maybe get me another beer, and reheat those steaks from last night, with some eggs? I think we both could use a pick-me-up after all this."

The teenager nodded once and pulled away from the table, but not before his little glare heated up a bit more. Kaji just seemed to let it roll like water off a duck's back, patently unconcerned.

Propping himself up on one arm, face cradled in hand, he gave Misato an oddly wistful look. "Well, if I don't win your heart back after all this, I'm happy to know someone's going to take good care of it."

A good breakfast was not good enough. Even an excellent breakfast wouldn't have covered it. The sheer sense of recognition he felt they deserved, it felt bigger than the whole world- even the planet itself. In his mind, he felt his arms stretch to encompass that whole impossible weight. Ikari Shinji started to believe, not just in that it was possible, but that he really could hold the world, for himself or those who deserved it. The thought didn't scare him anywhere near as much as it might have, even three months ago.

Sorhyu and Misato deserved it, or at least the small sliver he could give and bend to their needs.

So he'd coaxed his fellow pilots and commanding officer out of the apartment, once mid morning rolled around. Sorhyu had eased into her wheelchair and Misato pushed, while Shinji was more than a little glad neither of them had a chance to look up at the building roof. Yesterday, they'd almost slept through even seeing the front door. Rei had seen a glimpse from the ground, but she was more than patient. Together, the four of them made their way to the elevator, and Shinji found himself talking. Laying out what he'd done over the months, leaving out some important details like his after-school activities... He didn't need to weigh everyone down with that more than he already had.

Hands and arms moved, he gestured and smiled, and there was a curious thought in the back of his mind that told him you don't give speeches. The rest of him came back and said the first and only time he'd given one, Misato had been standing behind him. The talent and verve was coming out more naturally, and drawing on even a minor trickle of his power didn't feel so... awkward. Shinji watched the anticipation building up in red, blue and brown eyes, leaving three of the most important women in his life hanging on his every word.

That kind of scared him, a little, but it also made him feel like the tallest person in the room.


The elevator was a bit crowded, considering Sorhyu's chair, but nobody seemed to mind. Misato was in the center, wedged with Rei and Shinji to either side, hip to hip to hip.

While the old pulleys and cables lifted the cab up the two floors, Shinji scratched the back of his head. "So like I was saying, I moved the thaumaturgy lab down into the garage, so I could work near Rei and just, not be so alone."

"But then I had all this space on the rooftop and well, we're one of the tallest buildings here so..." He timed the line just as the doors slid open, and he knew their jaws had dropped.

A hand on Misato's back nudged her and Sorhyu forward, rolling out of the elevator and onto flat, irregular stone pavers. Awe rolled off the girls like steam, even Rei was lost, looking up and around at the bamboo walls that surrounded the expanded rooftop. The rooftop tar paper was gone, as were the massive steel-enclosed fans on almost every building.

In their place and half-obscured by thin mist was an almost mountain retreat. Misato kept pushing Sorhyu ahead, moving smoothly along the path and over the wooden footbridge. Fast flowing water burbled over rocks beneath them, and the older woman twisted, whipping her head around left and right. Shinji could almost hear herlist the features in her mind. Heated, steaming pools. Waterfall showers, bath-house and attached bar. Private places to sit, soak and stay for hours. There was even a raised deck just about ideal for sunbathing.

Finally Misato turned, but not before twisting Sorhyu's chair and locking the brake. She fixed him with a wide-eyed, gaping stare. "Shinji, why is my rooftop a hot spring?"

Shinji smiled broadly, matching her classic, sunshine grin with one of his own. He opened his mouth to answer, but then Rei was there, throwing her arms around his midsection. She clung like a magnet and squeezed, hard.

She looked up while he looked down, and Rei gave him a tiny, earnest grin. "This was not for me, but I am enthused regardless."

"It's for all of you." Shinji laughed and ran a free hand through his hair, waving at the sprawling resort with his other. "Two of you are active pilots, and Misato- you've been managing everyone at home and at NERV for almost two years now. I've had two months to think about how to pay you back for that."

Looking back up, he locked eyes with Misato and nodded, more than ready to drive his point home. "You have a job that demands superhuman effort out of you, so as your superhuman friend I felt it necessary to build you a superhumanly great means to cope with it. Because I care."

Sorhyu cocked her head to the side and smirked, while her uncovered blue eye seemed to shine with something other than fury. "I think it's a bit more than care, Ikari."

To that all Shinji could do was shrug. "Well, I can't care any less than this, so..."

Anything else he wanted to say died in his throat, because Misato had launched herself off the footbridge and slammed into his chest. The sudden impact of fifty-some kilograms of Tactical Operations Director and his sheepish stance was enough to force him backwards, reeling on one heel and whirling dangerously. Shrieking, Misato laughed into his chest as they twisted around together while Shinji unconsciously flexed his soul and body to buoy the two of them on preternatural grace. After that, finding sure footing was an absolute certainty.

Moving like he'd practiced his entire life, Shinji dropped low and hooked his arms behind Misato's knees and back, all but tossing her airborne as he straightened. Rei was just off to the side and clasped her hands, gently swaying with shining red eyes. For the blue-haired girl, that was positively ecstatic. Even Sorhyu smiled, looking like an entirely different girl. Misato meanwhile landed with a ringing peal of laughter, throwing her arms around his neck, holding tight and curling up to plant a firm wet kiss on his cheek.

Reeling, Shinji felt the band of red stretch across his cheeks, but he still held her close, smiling and laughing.

With his brain high on affection and euphoria, he almost missed Rei's endearing little smile, or Sorhyu's knowing look. He definitely missed Misato sliding out of his arms and hot-stepping deeper into the pool complex. When he finally did start paying attention to what he was seeing, Misato had already cheerfully peeled off her faded grey T-shirt and knock-around tank top.

As Misato tossed her shirts aside and asked Rei to help look for towels, Shinji let out a weak laugh and took a step back. Misato may not have been a mystery but she was still a novelty. However, lacking a suitable alibi for the occasion, a hasty retreat while her back was turned was beginning to look like an excellent idea.

He glanced down at Sorhyu, still on the bridge and in her chair. She smiled thinly and shook her head. Shinji sucked in a quick breath and clapped, rubbing his hands while giving her a respectful nod, "Right- everything should be straightforward. If you need anything, I'll be downstairs, getting the mail or something."

"What I need-" Misato half-turned to look over her shoulder, catching Shinji's eye and tossing a wink his way. "-is for you to enjoy this too."

When it came to his hobbies, Asuka could unabashedly admit that Ikari knew what he was doing. The hot spring complex was expansive, taking up the entire roof and extending out over the parking lot and surrounding property. Everywhere she looked, Asuka saw more than enough of... everything to make their day. Part of it was bath house, kitchen and mini-bar. Another part was a deck for sunbathing and handling a grill. And every thing she examined showed her a new way to use stone, wood and water. The high bamboo walls blocked off the outlying urban slice of Hakone, save for the side that faced the hills to the north-west, toward Downtown Tokyo-3 and Mount Fuji.

She couldn't even get in the water, but just being there was relaxing.

In the pool just to Asuka's side, the nominal adult spread her arms out wide and leaned against the pool edge, letting out a long, satisfied sigh. "This is the life, isn't it Asuka?"

Of course, Misato would have already hit 'relaxed'. Asuka cocked her head to the side and smirked, eyeing the floating tray laden with gold label alcohol. Relaxed and on her way to outright inebriated. The older woman sank deeper into the water with a husky breath, practically glowing. Back with the fleet, Misato had proven more than once that good times were best shared, making a vicarious example of herself. She was a strange friend, but a good one.

"Get back to me about that in a week." Asuka smirked, sitting spring-side in her wheelchair with a pile of envelopes and magazines in her lap. "After I get the casts off and can actually join you."

Holding a saucer to her lips and tipping it back, Misato toasted her, smiling broadly ."I'll hold you to that, Asuka."

The pilot could only smirk a bit wider at that and nodded, before turning back to the half-sorted piles in her lap. Junk and bills, as inevitable as death and taxes. Ikari actually had gone down and gotten the mail like he said, though Asuka knew an excuse when she heard one. Point in his favor at least, not taking advantage of Misato's... Misato-ness. Rei hadn't stayed long either, only helping Misato explore the rooftop complex for a bit before saying she had to leave. Awkwardly and a bit hesitant, her friend had made a point to hug the half-dressed Misato and then wrapped her arms around Ikari when he came back to drop the mail off.

Finally, she'd given Asuka a look the redhead couldn't quite place, not pity or contempt, but some kind of downcast thing. Rei had glanced at Ikari's retreating back and Misato's distracted smile, before letting out a morose sigh and leaving.

It wasn't the homecoming Asuka had been expecting, to say the least. She ripped through the next letter a bit faster than strictly necessary, spilling some paper shreds into the water just beneath her feet. Misato didn't seem to notice at least. Asuka sucked in a low breath and willed her hands to relax. It was probably nothing. Rei had the whole raised-by-nobody thing. Some missing social cue, nothing to worry about.

Asuka wasn't happy about needing reassure herself in the first place.

Suppressing a sigh, she consigned the last envelope to the 'junk' pile and set aside. Licking her lips, Asuka hefted the stack of glossy, glue-bound goodness and settled in for a great morning of brain-rotting fluff. She'd saved the best for last. First in line was a high-class fashion mag with a decidedly late-eighties bent, the wraparound glasses and out-there styles were very much a product of Misato's era. Asuka let out a low laugh, paging past more than a few disastrous looks and spying some diamonds in the rough- Misato had to have gotten her black mini somewhere after all.

One rag gave way to another, and Asuka giggled at the gossip and sickeningly saccharine pulp reporting. A guilty pleasure to be sure, but an immensely enjoyable one regardless. Down time was a very important aspect of a healthy lifestyle. Glancing out the corner of her good eye, Asuka watched Misato bask in the steaming waters without shame. Asuka let out a teasing little snort. Hard to get more 'down time' than that.

Tossing aside the last two magazines, Asuka blinked and stared at an iconic, red-bordered cover. TIME Magazine had survived Second Impact largely intact, and she'd seen the cover often enough back in Massachusetts. Asuka had to wonder how or why Misato got a subscription. A white envelope had been taped to the front, addressed to Misato and stamped with Section Two's simple numerical identifier.

Well, that explained how, but not the why. Sneaking another look at Misato, Asuka weighed her options. Sneak a look now, or hand it off...

That wasn't even a choice. She pulled off the envelope and screamed a second later.

Asuka saw herself on the cover of TIME Magazine.

It only took a few seconds for her to mark the time and place, and a memory of an everyman with thin brown hair surged into her mind. The photo was of her, standing plugsuit-clad on the carrier deck during the long run toward Panama and the Caribbean. Wide-eyed and slack-jawed, she stared down at her image. Caught in the middle of turning at the hip to face the camera, it was a soul-searing three-quarters shot of her from head to toe.

The blue Pacific ocean and skyline stretched out behind her, and she was a black and red slash against the horizon. The wind had pulled her hair back away from her neck and face, while her leather coat hung down almost to her knees, leaving her sleeves to bunch up around her wrists. She should have looked heroic, or imperious, or defiant, or any number of other things that such a dramatic shot should have entailed. Instead she was anything but.

The Asuka in the picture looked dull, like she'd been drained of color and life until she was gaunt, skin and bones.

Asuka willed herself to keep her jaw from clenching. Looking down at her own uncovered legs, scars or not, she was built like a gymnast. The photo made her look a full foot shorter and fifty pounds lighter- like a delicate little glass bird. She knew without seeing that the light had gone out of her eyes, just like the blue uncovered eye in the photo.

A warm, wet weight settled across her shoulders, and Asuka blinked. She finally noticed Misato that had shot out of the bath and to her side, asking what was wrong. Along the way, the woman's dripping arm had wrapped around her in some directionless gesture of support. Misato locked her eyes on Asuka's good one, and she followed the stare down to the glossy cover.

Seeing Misato's mouth turn down into a thin scowl was enough for Asuka to grab onto, shoving the shock and dismay aside for much more productive fury. She flipped the magazine open and found the cover article, eye flickering over the words and spread photographic spread.

"What the fuck is this shit." Asuka let out a rough, shaky hiss. Flipping through the twelve pages of text and photos. "None of these are my good side- and they didn't even have the decency to find one where I was smiling."

The pattern held true, too. There were a few shots of Misato looking model-gorgeous out on the carrier deck, interspersed with the apparently declassified pictures of the battle itself. Blurry frames of the Angel arcing through the air over the carrier, or the ships exploding when it attacked from below. There wasn't any sign of the white Evangelion, and only a single shot of her machine, mauled and unpowered after the battle had ended.

"Fuck you- I won!" She growled, flipping the pages faster and faster. "We fucking won that, screw you!"

Every turn was even more damning. "Goddamn camera-jockey asshole! We kicked it's ass and you do this to me?!"

They had immortalized Asuka at her lowest, and played her for a 'heartbreaking story of a child-soldier'. Frozen instants of her sobbing into Misato's chest and swaddled in blankets, before being hauled off to medics. The actual article went on a sensationalist tangent, declaring and decrying NERV as some hellish military-industrial regime. A 'technocratic pseudo-nation backed by its unnatural war machines, piloted by unwanted or unwilling orphans'. The pictures and text missed the triumphs, like how the crowds around her Eva had been cheering. None of the times she smiled through the tears, or the crew lifting her stretcher over their heads like she was an incarnate goddess.

Instead it was just a long attention-demanding screed, tearing at NERV's reputation for a sellout printing.

Then Asuka saw one of the call outs, and read the caption, pointing at a shot of her being carried belowdecks for treatment. She spoke it out loud, toneless and disbelieving. "Tragic Doll-Soldier taken in for repair. Is the cost too great?"

Asuka flung the magazine into the water, swinging hard enough to rise halfway out of her wheelchair. "Maybe it should have eaten you instead, shithead!"

Misato shifted around, and Asuka distantly noted the woman's hair had fallen out of its messy bun. She took a moment to pull Asuka's chair around and set it against some low-lying rocks, cut at just the right height to serve as a pool-side bench seat. Then she waded back into the pool and plucked the magazine from its watery grave before coming back alongside. Shaking out the sodden pages, Misato stretched the pages out between them, and Asuka heard the woman hum thoughtfully. Then, something warm and wet touched Asuka's leg, and her head shot up to fix Misato with a look. The older woman didn't turn away from the article, but one bare calf brushed against Asuka's uncovered shin.

"I didn't approve this. I'll have to make some calls about this..." Misato turned the page and bit her lip, before finally looking up. "Still. Asuka."

All Asuka could do right then was huff, crossing her one good arm over her chest and whipping her head to the side. "This sucks. I can't even do anything about it!"

Throwing her hand out, she tried to direct all her rage into her hand for paper-incineration purposes. When that didn't work, she again wished her eyepatch had a built-in laser. Denied both, she settled for running a hand through her hair and letting out a harsh, rasping breath.

"I can't write in for a retraction, because even if I were emancipated, I'm still fourteen, and that'd just make me look even more childish." Asuka growled, just shy of seething. "I can't ask NERV to do anything either, because that'd make everyone look bad, needing the big bad NGO to wipe my nose. Anyone digging too deeply would probably use it as an excuse to question the validity of my degree, so that is useless too!"

Asuka sighed and growled again, wishing they'd never let that photographer fly off at Panama. The older woman couldn't help but point out that it was probably the editiors call.

Misato didn't say anything further, but managed to be a supportive presence regardless. Asuka watched as the woman paged through the soaked article, humming with Asuka herself in the wheelchair and Misato on the bench seat, they had maybe an inch of space between them, sitting perpendicular and almost knee to knee. The closeness was nice.

"Well." Whipping the magazine closed with a flick of her wrist, Misato leaned around and gave Asuka soft look. "I think you covered the bad stuff. As far as the good, I've got your back."

Asuka blinked once at that statement, feeling the light come back into her eyes. The anger had drained out with her last bit of snarling, leaving her to look down at her lap, and the arm still held in a cast. Meanwhile, Misato stretched languidly, letting her eyes drift closed and throwing her arms skyward. To Asuka, it looked like nothing could bother the woman. Granted, that fit with what Asuka already knew.

Still, Misato approached problems in such weird ways, sometimes. Like by not doing anything. Or at least not doing anything immediately. Realizing that, Asuka found herself growing increasingly grouchy, building into a proper swell of anger.

She crossed her good arm over her chest and stewed. "Do you not get it, that the new face of Project E is a sob-story?" Shifting her hand to press it flat against her collarbone, she turned to Misato, wide-eyed and expectant. "That I'm one?"

After that Asuka fell silent for a moment, breathing fast and deep, but even. Misato's easygoing attitude had faded halfway through the rant, and even just thinking about it made the anger surge. They had the unmitigated gall to steal her thunder and replace it with blatant emotional manipulation. She wasn't the conquering hero they would have preferred, so Asuka was sacrificed to some other altar.

"So," Asuka huffed. "This means my social and professional life are effectively over."

Opening one eye by a crack, Misato smiled despite Asuka's rising ire and flicked her head toward the girl's body. The answering snarl made Misato raise her hands, palms out and placating. Shifting in her seat, and turning half away, Misato looked out over the the open wall toward the hills limited skyline. The late-morning breeze picked up and teased through Asuka's hair, but had a lot more trouble with Misato's wet head. The silence gave Asuka a chance to calm down too, and she let the frustration drop along with her shoulders.

Glancing sidelong, Misato offered Asuka a sly little wink. "You know, I was scouted once? For a racing magazine of all things."

"Huh?" Asuka's elbow slipped, and she almost pitched out of her seat.

"As a model? Covers and photo shoots, the works. I'd signed up with the UN the day before, but I had the chance." Smiling, Misato struck a quick pinup-pose. She slid out of it with a laugh, before tapping at her lower lip and looking up through her bangs. "Granted, if I'd taken it, I wouldn't have settled for just sitting pretty on a car hood- I'm a driver."

Asuka felt her eyes turn upward while she thought that over. A sudden and all-too-clear image formed in her mind; a glamour shot of Misato, done up in the trendiest clothes and behind the wheel of the year's hottest electric car.

The mental image seemed to smile at her, and Asuka let out a bemused little snort. "Yeah, I could see that. What's your point though?"

"No point really, I was just reminded of it." The breeze picked up again, and had a better time playing through Misato's hair. "But you could say that I made my own image, regardless of what everyone else saw in me, just another pretty face with a parasol and go-go boots."

"So as far as this-" She waved at the discarded magazine that sat between them. "You can fight that bad information with good, and sometimes you can't rush it."

Twisting halfway to better face her again, Misato stared into Asuka's eyes, level, intent and dead serious. "It sucks, but here's the strategic situation. You're a minor, and technically employed as a special human asset by NERV. We do pay you, but it's locked up behind so many bureaucratic dead ends that you can't actually be considered on payroll."

Misato's voice and eyes had claimed every bit of Asuka's attention, and she continued uninterrupted. "So what this means is that the normal ways you'd fight this kind of thing don't work- you already know that, and I don't need to repeat it."

"The other factor is that I'm the Tactical Operations Director. My responsibility is to keep you pilots in fighting shape." She nodded at the magazine again. "I don't see you as some pitiable kid being tortured for gain. You're one of my soldiers, and you've acted like one for so long, I don't want to see you slip because you lost your temper over some bad snapshots."

A hollow feeling caved out inside Asuka's chest, as she was yet again reminded of Misato's actual genius.

"But because you're a soldier, I could order you to take the best treatment available to you. The best being the other pilot three floors down. I won't give that order, though. You've made some mistakes in the past, but you've proven yourself more than capable of making educated decisions from available information. " She held up a hand when Asuka opened her mouth to reply. "Even if I don't fully agree with them sometimes."

Asuka stared at Misato for a long moment, and the hollow feeling from earlier filled in with some kind of flushed redness and the thin fingers of honest pride. The warmth uncurled in her chest, and something warm and wet tracked down her cheek, welling up beneath her eyepatch. Misato didn't say anything when Asuka ducked her head, letting her hair fall on either side of her face. Standing, Misato moved around and gathered the girl up in her arms. After a few seconds, the girl realized she could count the woman's heartbeats.

The late-morning sun tracked across the sky as they sat there, and Asuka gave up on staying dry. "I'm healing, not crippled. How hard to I have to squeeze to make people see the obvious?"

"Okay. Make my own image?" She half-growled into Misato's chest before pulling away. She sat up straighter in her chair, ignoring the tear tracks on her cheek. "I am Sorhyu Asuka Langley. I'm the Evangelion pilot, and one of three people on the planet who understands the Absolute Terror Field."

It was slow, and painful, but Asuka stood and pushed the wheelchair aside, even while Misato rose with her and kept a steadying arm handy. "I'm not weak. I'm not broken, and I'm not some little soldier dress up doll!"

Misato beamed at that and tugged Asuka in for another hug, standing upright this time. Easing over to the rock bench, Asuka settled down and sighed while Misato joined her.

They sat thigh to thigh, and Misato kept an arm around the girl's shoulders, warm and ever-presently reassuring. "I think that's the Asuka we both want to see... and I really don't want you to ignore that some of the best treatment in the world is downstairs."

"It's your choice still!" Misato added, before Asuka could open her mouth. "I just want what's best for you, is all."

Absently pushing one foot into the steaming water, Asuka was too concerned with washing off the mental weight to make any further complaint.

"So..." Misato reached out with one leg, catching the forgotten floating tray edge with her big toe and sending it spinning in the water. "I have to ask- what is the deal with you and Shinji- I never got the full story from either of you."

Asuka groaned, kicking a wave toward Misato as she huffed. "Gott, you make it sound like some gossip-rag scandal. It's his attitude- he keeps pissing me off."

"Well, obviously." Misato's reply was painfully dry, before warming with friendlier tones. "But why exactly."

"Because he doesn't do anything! I keep seeing him spin his wheels and just sort of take things as they go, rolling over for everyone." Asuka had thrown her good arm out with fingers splayed, trying to articulate the sheer absurdity of it all, staring at Misato and hoping maybe she had an answer. "I didn't think it was possible to have outright super powers and still lack a spine! I'm a competitive bitch I know, but I can't stand to see people waste their potential either. I was angry with Rei for the same thing back when I tried to punch the Commander!"

She slumped in her seat, letting her hands fall into her lap."I don't get how either of them could have just stood there and taken that bullshit."

"Oh my God." Misato blinked once, before holding a hand to her mouth and snickering. "This is adorable. You've been pissed off on his behalf this whole time!"

Asuka recoiled, voice going shrill while Misato leaned in, sly and teasing. "Wh-What?! No I haven't!"

The dark-haired woman closed the distance, blatantly violating personal space and smiling unrepentantly. "You totally have! You just said so like two seconds ago. It's nothing to be ashamed of, Asuka. It's just... cute!"

Leaning back and almost off balance, Asuka blanched for a moment before scowling. Misato held onto Asuka's gaze for another few seconds before grinning, eyes closed and looking like the cat who swallowed the canary.

Finally, she pulled all the way back and cocked her head to the side, openly curious. "Well.. Is he bothering you now?"

"Not really... He's not pulling stupid stuff like getting his hands all over my apartment or clothes without permission." Asuka looked out over the hot springs and drew in a lungful of steamy air. "And this is really nice, that we all can use this."

"Right... So the obvious question is why aren't you interested in asking him for help?" Misato slid in a bit closer, and Asuka watched as Misato's hand wandered to a bare patch of skin just below her own breasts. "I mean, he fixed me... What's stopping you?"

Asuka snarled. "Because I don't understand it!"

Misato shot back with a little yelp, moving as if Asuka's voice had burned and blinking owlishly. Asuka herself wasn't anywhere near finished venting.

"I mean if you want to just take it on faith that's fine, it works for you. Your past," She reached out to poke Misato in that same patch of unbroken skin. "-Is gone along with that scar. But I see all this stuff he does for you and everyone else, and I go what the fuck just happened?"

"I mean it works, it totally works!" She waved at the hot springs, proof positive of such. "But I can't make heads or tails of it, and he can't tell me how it works because then he goes on about soul muscles and I just want to pull my hair out!"

At Misato's uncomprehending look, Asuka launched into what she hoped was a sensible explanation. "The Soul doesn't have muscles- we haven't ever been able to map it until recently thanks to Akagi, but I know for a fact that humans cannot do what he does with their souls. We don't have the structures for it..."

She trailed off then, thinking. "... And if he does, I have to wonder if he's even human anymore."

Misato frowned at that last comment, but Asuka waved it off, saying that a person was a person, and that was more important. Even if he was still a wimp.

"Don't hold anything back now, Asuka, just let it all out." Misato recovered quickly, laughing while she threw a warm arm around Asuka's shoulders once more. "Now, I have to ask, did you tell him this?"

Asuka just gave the woman a helpless shrug, at an honest loss."I tried! It didn't work!"

The smile Misato gave her promised rueful things. "Okay. Did you tell him in a civil and calm manner."

"I'm always civi-! " Asuka stopped mid-word, inflection dropping out until her tone went flat and body fell slack. "...Oh. No. No I never quite managed that."

Misato just smirked, leaning back against the warm rocks and sighing. "You could probably start there then."

Rei liked to think she was an efficient person. It was better to say that she had a certain economy of thought and motion instilled in her at a young age, and even now, it was too useful a trait to simply discard outright. The process was ongoing, gradually evaluating the old pieces of herself in context of the new, and changing factors in her life. Logic and the careful sequential tracking of events had kept her going through the years, in the face of her own problems. With the benefit of hindsight, Rei was able to determine her old state of being as depressed.

The current Rei was hungry, and she considered it much more efficient to take some leftovers from the kitchen than to bother Shinji for a brand new meal. Tapping a particular cabinet panel, Rei watched as the refrigerator revealed itself. The cabinet panel retracted away, and the appliance swung out smoothly on weighted tracks and pivots. She had never been immersed all that deeply into popular media or movies beyond the occasional video game or low-rent movie, but the redesigned kitchen nevertheless made Rei feel at ease about how her home life was beginning to reflect the Geofront's advancements rather than the uncanny 'modern' technology widespread throughout Japan.

'Dished up' as Misato would have said, Rei cradled the containers of cold cake and lunch-stocked bento. She ran her fingertips over the hand-engraved panels, and again Shinji came to mind. Rei welcomed the tangents when they came, and relished the way they lit up new corners of her perception. She hadn't checked in on her pets today, either. Easing out of the kitchen, she caught a flash of red in the living room.

Rei felt her lips curve down, and her mind seemed to dim with uncertainty.

Retreating, a quick trip upstairs was all it took to see her five rats, still in their cage. They seemed to perk up and squeak as one as she sang their names, but for the life of her, she still couldn't tell them apart. It wasn't certain if it was the teaching methods Shinji had used or their own developing personalities, but try as she might Un, Deux, Trois, Quatre and Cinq had never responded to the same name twice in the same order. Eventually Rei had simply accepted they were, after a fashion, and the notion continued to tickle her as they neatly lined up at the cage door in preparation for travels abroad. They were remarkably well behaved, preternaturally so perhaps.

She opened their cage, and the ten pairs of paws scampered up her arms to lay across her shoulders. The infusion pump and LCL reserve under her shoulder weighed more than they did. The little noses started touching her jaw and ears, or played with her bangs while she made her way back downstairs, and Rei smiled the whole way.

Lunch, pets, and her car waiting in the garage. Simple things for a simple day.

Boxes had begun to pile up inside the garage. Empty ones, others filled to the brim with paper packing material, and some had yet to be opened. Litter however wasn't a problem- industrial-ready bins and barrels for machine shop detritus made it easy to keep things tidy. Moving over to the workbench, she cleared a space for her rats to sit and watch. They explored a bit at first, weaving through the parts and tools. Rei could see their noses and eyes peak over the table edge, sniffing the new and strange scents. Deeper in the garage itself and sitting in pride of place, her Skyline gleamed under the work lights, almost poised to get out and drive.

Standing with gloved hands on her hips, Rei beheld her Absolute Territory and considered it sufficiently hers.

Now the reason for all the boxes was simple; custom orders. Her particular model of car was nearly a decade old, and the industrial needs of mankind had shifted away from high-performance automotive production. It had been something of an experience buying the magazines and catalogs she needed. The man behind the counter hadn't expected Rei or Misato that day. They were two months out of date, though, and Rei considered herself confident to explore aftermarket upgrades.

In the meantime, she had an air intake to rebuild. The process was straight-forward, almost procedural. Like she'd noted before, routines were much too useful and comforting to discard outright. The five rats watched from their designated place on the table, eager and attentive, yet still marvelously well-behaved. Each part had it's proper place, added to the whole at the proper time. Blinking once, Rei frowned at the assembly before leaning over to check the manual. Perhaps it wouldn't be as simple as she expected; there was another necessary component she needed... Looking back at the half-assembled intake, Rei felt her lips quirk over to the side. She might need to pull the intake apart, in order to account for the new development.

Regardless, she could work and think at the same time. Hunting through some boxes let her secure everything she needed and resume work. Even as she pulled together the interior piece, she considered how to install it. Was there a way to put it in place without fully disassembling the intake, or maybe only partially... Rei's fingers worked, and her mind gradually evaluated a few solutions, discarding them one by one. Eventually she set everything down and sighed. Disassembly was the only option.

Her pets squeaked in their container, eager for some form of attention. Hearing that reminded her of all the other suddenly pressing and previously ignored needs. Stretching with her arms above her head, Rei frowned at the half-constructed intake and sighed. Muscle complaints- rectified... Letting her hands drop to her side, she sucked in a slow breath and let it out, humming faintly. Finally, she glanced up at the clock and blinked.

Nine O'clock.

Rei's shoulders went slack. "Huh."

Hyuuga Makoto pulled his glasses off and rubbed his face. His fingers sank into the bags under his eyes before moving to the bridge of his nose, working away the pair of divots etched in his skin. When he was finished, he leaned back in his chair and sighed. Maybe it was time for something different, with regard to eyewear. The frames were about as un-stylish as one could get, but they'd served him for nearly half a decade now. Perhaps a certain returning division-head would notice a change...


Snapping his glasses open with a flick of the wrist, Makoto slid them back on his face and nodded, ready to get back to work. For the past two months, he'd been seeing the inside of his office far more than he considered healthy, so much so that he and Maya basically paid Shigeru to drop their laundry off at the washers, and pick it up. Doctor Akagi was thinking about joining in, so long as the guitarist evaded the workload that piled on everyone else. Maya had all but taken over handling of the MAGI, while the head of Project E scurried from lab to lab, trying to balance a thousand different projects without her protege.

Makoto himself had basically stepped into Major Katsuragi's shoes- if an Angel had attacked, he would have been the Tactical Operations Director. In the meantime, he basically led Section 2, as both NERV and pilot security. Most of it was a rubber stamp job, and the various team leaders kept the paperwork to a minimum, for a government agency. It was a point of pride that NERV attracted and retained the best and brightest in every field, including former military.

One particular memo crossed his desk for the past eight weeks, and each time, Makoto had to shake his head and sigh. The request was simple and sensible, but unfeasible; Section 2 wanted to properly stock their armories and, in their words, 'generate more tactical assets'. Unfortunately, even Major Katsuragi couldn't wrangle the budget enough to equip them the way they deserved. When it came to NERV, the Evangelions were first in line for procurement. Makoto scratched out a reply and moved it to his outbox, but at least this time, he could reassure the security teams that Misato was back.

Eyeing the stack of papers that represented the extended A-17 order, Makoto sighed, and hoped Major Katsuragi would take over sooner rather than later. Even after NERV stepped away from the United Nations, they still held each other at arm's reach, and their mutual bureaucracies had to know how to play nice with each other. Negotiating through the appended or adjusted chains of command as well as payroll and assignment took hours, but when it was finished, the UN Pacific Fleet wouldn't suffer under miscommunication or poor discipline.

Too bad NERV couldn't solve it's own problems with some paperwork, trusting a monolithic organization to make sure its needs were met. They were the many-headed hydra, and had to deal with one head stealing food away from the others. Money and personnel had drained into a particular black hole in the Evangelion cages, sworn to more secrecy than usual after their shifts. Granted it was a polite fiction- everyone knew there was a white Evangelion somewhere in the Geofront, but further speculation spread like wildfire. Water cooler talk would have been pretty nice right then, but Makoto wasn't getting away from his desk for a few more hours yet.

Working or not, he couldn't resist a little musing on his own. Evangelion construction was something of an open secret, requiring the extensive cloning of numerous organs, and of course needing the proper genetic blueprint to start those. After that came the cybernetics and lastly the armor, bolted or chemically fused into place around the tightly packed flesh. So knowing that, he wondered who could built it. Units 03 and 04 were under construction in Boston and Nevada respectively, and China had a number of presently closed bases stocked with prefabricated parts, both organic and cybernetic. He'd also heard the white Evangelion had the phrase 'Mass Production' stamped across it's remaining arm. Maybe the Commanders had finally given in and licensed out the production techniques...

Makoto shook his head and looked back at his work. Or at least he would have, if Maya hadn't burst through his office door.

"Lieutenant Hyuuga- the reports you wanted." Maya bustled in with a wan smile, dropping a pair of folders on his desk before bowing.

He reached for the papers, grinning himself. "Thanks! I might get sleep at home tonight, because of this."

At that, the young woman huffed. Her cheeks puffed up before she let out a sputtering breath. "There's no chance of that happening for me. I'm so glad Major Katsuragi is coming back in soon- I don't think I can stand these sixty hour weeks much longer."

"Tell me about it." Makoto stretched, throwing his arms back above his head and groaning. "Everybody's hurting for a vacation, or even just a weekend off. Still, it's been months since the last Angel attack."

The woman shook her head, wide eyed. "Weeks- you know Asuka-san killed one while the fleet was deployed."

Makoto blinked, sitting upright. "We never got a pattern blue report for that."

"That's because most of the satellite tracking system is under the UN's control." Maya shivered faintly. "Not that I want it back- the monitoring duty shifts are much nicer when they're just focusing on Tokyo-3."

Settling back in his seat, Makoto nodded faintly. Finally, he cocked his head to the side, noting the bags under the woman's eyes. "Are you alright...?"

Maya nodded, putting on a quick smile and standing up straighter. She swung her arms, all sunshine and cheer, but the effort faded along with her grin. I'm fine, really! Just..."

She trailed off for a moment before sighing, finding a near by patch of wall to lean against. "Just my boyfriend broke up with me- saying I wasn't making enough time for him."

Makoto nearly felt his jaw drop, but managed not to make an ass of himself. Indignant, he stood up, scowling. "Seriously? He broke up with you over that? He's a moron."

Maya just let out a weak laugh, before offering him a sly and somewhat somber glare. "Don't get any ideas now, Hyuuga-san."

He just raised his hands at that, laughing. "No ideas- none whatsoever."

Laughing a bit harder, Maya knuckled at her eyes before pushing away from the wall. She bowed again and thanked Makoto for the breather. Considering he needed the break just as much as she did, he considered them even. The door swished shut behind her, and Makoto was alone in his office once more. Finally, he turned back to his desk with a wry little smile. Next up on his to-do list was a request from an incoming UN inspection team, asking for updated floor plans.

Nothing was going to stop Misato from enjoying the last twelve hours she had off before returning to active duty.

Towel-clad and barefoot, Misato moved through the apartment with an unashamedly hedonistic intent, making her way to the actual bathroom. The rooftop hot springs were amazing, of course, and had soothed away more than a few lingering aches. That being said, Misato was in the mood to lock the door and soak the rest of her cares away. The only stops between her and the hand-built custom bathtub were the fridge, and Shinji. With the former, she pulled out the last three cans of that import lager, aiming to enjoy them in the tub.

With the latter, she gave the boy a jaunty, towel-shifting wave and laughed, declaring him a miracle worker. When he asked her why, Misato grinned. "Because when we got home, I never wanted anything to do with water for the next week if not more. Turns out you really have a way with plumbing."

Only slightly red-faced, Shinji had just smiled back and waved her on, only warning her not to mess with the settings too much- they were something of a work in progress.

Hotels didn't have baths anywhere near as fancy. Or bathrooms. Waterfall shower with secondary heads, and a contoured tub with whirlpool jets. Misato was absolutely certain it could fit six people comfortably, or maybe eight if they were five-foot-four like her. Washing went like a dream, and the bath itself filled in less than a minute- the tub walls themselves were heated too.

Misato just stared at it for a long moment and shook her head. "Shinji, you just are too good for words."

As for the settings he mentioned, there was a seamless and slick glass-fronted console that stubbornly resisted condensation. After a bit of fussing and setting everything to low, Misato settled in for that soak. Two beers later, Misato sank a bit deeper into the tub and let out a gusty sigh. The corners of her mouth curled up in a sly little smile, and she glanced left and right. Reaching for the console, she let out a soft little laugh. He really had a way with plumbing.

The past few days had not been very kind to anyone in Tokyo-3. Misato's return to tactical command was a lot like any boss coming back from a long vacation. Misato was at NERV morning, noon and evening, if not staying in the Geofront overnight for another marathon review and planning session. Some people had slacked off, certain procedures had been put in place for too long. NERV was competent and disciplined, but still only human. The telltale slips and bureaucratic hassles had a stubborn kind of inertia, and the lack of forward momentum had soaked into the whole city.

Even Shinji noticed it, walking around downtown with Ayumi, or in armor, helping with that week's industrial disaster. Ennui wasn't the right term- the people around him were lively, eager to work. They moved with new direction, but everything went in halting fits and starts. Fuyutsuki-sensi was distracted at school, and the lethargy even seemed to flood the apartment.

Rei attended school, regularly as clockwork, and only ghosted into the apartment to eat, sleep and tend to her pets. Once, Shinji considered heading down to the garage to keep her company. But, when he got there and saw Rei's absolute concentration, he realized he didn't have the heart to interrupt her. Stuck in the apartment, Asuka had taken over the living room and filled it with books- most of it from her own collection with a few choice supplement from his own- though he was sure Misato volunteered the books on his behalf. The redhead was gearing up for her first lesson as a tutor.

Shinji himself had been pushing out directives to his own division, but he realized in a very real way that his own assets were frozen. He could imagine plans and proposals sitting in several dozen distinguished email in boxes, 'politely' ignored. Still, he tried not to dwell on it, and focused on things he could control. There were always meals to cook.

The only reason he hadn't started dinner was because Sorhyu had wrestled herself up to the kitchen table.

He was about to ask if she was alright when the girl fixed him with a blue-eyed look. The last time they'd had any particularly meaningful conversation... Shinji clamped down on the memories and the frustration, waiting.

"I want you to do your medical X-ray trick." She cocked her head to the side, scowling. "That's still one of the things you do right?"

Shinji found himself nodding while he took a seat, frowning despite himself. "You've had me use on you once... but why now? I thought you were alright?"

The red-headed pilot was impassive. "Because now is the time I've decided to ask you about it."

"Okay, but it's really just doing the same thing a doctor does only faster..." He trailed off and was about to unleash the tiniest erg of his reserve, but stopped when he saw the look on Sorhyu's face. The signs of discomfort were plain on her face- elevated heartbeat, and she'd been forcing her breathing down to something approaching calm and regular. There were half-a-dozen other tells, most of them etched in her tense muscles and stiff fingers.

Finally, Shinji blinked and leaned back in his chair. "Are... Are you alright?"

A particularly purple flush worked its way up the girl's neck, and the earlier signs doubled over as she crossed her good arm defensively. "Of course I'm not, or else I wouldn't have asked. Go on, get it over with."

Shinji let an eyebrow quirk up, her gaze had turned away from him, as though she were looking for some method to bore through the kitchen wall. She's acting like she expects me to just... Well, he couldn't exactly describe what she was expecting, but Sorhyu was bracing for something. He wondered if she'd always been so put off and tense about his powers, or if his own focus on her bad attitude had blinded him.

The whole realization hit him in the time it took to snap one's fingers. Shaking his head, he coughed lightly and did his best to look her in the eye. "I won't do anything, if you don't want me to. I figured that out at least."

Sorhyu held onto his stare for a few ticks of the hallway clock. After that, she forced herself to relax, letting out a long-held sigh. Her scowl went a little watery as she scrubbed a hand through her hair, trying to tame some errant frizz and comb it back off her shoulders. Glancing away, Sorhyu let out a wry little huff and admitted she'd kind of like to shower alone sometime in the next few months, if possible.

When she said that, Sorhyu turned to face him, and the little quirk of her lips grew into a full blown smile. As for the exact reason she was grinning at him, Shinji had only the slightest idea. Feeling a weak smile of his own, he figured it was a good idea to just sit back and not overthink things, just yet. Whatever he did, he figured it'd be a good idea to keep doing it. Sorhyu took his silence as a sign to plow ahead, growing more serious by the word.

"Fact is, I could sit in an entry plug right now and be a hundred-percent combat effective." She waved at the arm still in her sling, shrugging. "But I can't be the pilot NERV needs like this. The pilot."

Sorhyu sighed then and drummed her fingers on the kitchen table. "Everything's a battle, even public opinion. I need to get back into fighting form because people can see that."

Nodding again, Shinji reached up to rub his mouth, humming. Perception he could get... Clearing her throat, Sorhyu shot him another increasingly confident grin and waved with her good arm, telling him to hit her with his best diagnostic shot.

About five silent seconds, later Shinji stood from the table and all but lunged for the kitchen phone, to Asuka's nervous protest. "Hey! Where are you going now?"

His finger was already on the direct line button, a straight shot into the Geofront. "I'm calling Misato. You both need to hear this."

Misato had arrived about half an hour later, which Shinji knew was faster than legally possible. The dark-haired woman couldn't break those kinds of physics. Still, she'd arrived in a whirlwind of concern, declaring that her pilots were the main priority, and that time was made. The look she gave him and Sorhyu told him not to ask.

So Shinji settled in to explain his diagnosis. In a word- bad. In several words, it was a miracle she was even sitting in front of them right now.

The list of injuries and trauma was extensive- a career's worth of hurt and damage, as opposed to a single thirty-minute battle. Sympathetic damage from the Evangelion itself had been the least of Asuka's problems. Her combat at sea had exceeded the kind of forces LCL was meant to cushion against- and even then it and her plugsuit still saved her from the punctured lungs she would have gotten when the Angel's tail smashed into her Evangelion. Misato and Asuka both turned increasingly ashen, as Shinji rigorously described enough injuries to fill the infirmary back at the Geofront.

Broken bones, torn muscles and sprained tendons. Deep-tissue or even skeletal bruising, damaged organs and a whole host of minor hairline fractures. Sorhyu had been attached to a bottle of painkillers for the constant aches and pains. While Shinji was laying everything out, Sorhyu in turn started recalling when and where she got each ding and dent.

Her bandaged hand was a wreck from catching herself after being flung off her Evangelion's shoulders, while her excised rib had been pulverized on impact with the cyborg's outstretched palm during freefall, and so on. All of these things Asuka was all too welcome to illustrate with gestures, however gingerly, and no small amount of pride. Misato had been blown away by the sheer amount of punishment Sorhyu had endured, and Shinji was left dumbfounded by the kind of combat she subjected herself to.

It was something of a learning experience for all of them.

Finally, Shinji reassured them both that the fleet doctors had done everything right- it was just that he had a much deeper understanding of medicine than they did. They were foremost concerned with stabilizing her, and how Asuka was still holding together in that chair thanks in part to a mess of scars and old stitches was testament to that.

He had to point out that had Sorhyu not been in such incredibly good shape as a result of her brutal training schedule coming out of her hospital stay, the damage could have been a lot worse. Her irrational stubbornness actually saved her life. He didn't say it exactly like that, but Sorhyu accepted the implied compliment with an almost feral grin.

So all things being equal, a mainland hospital would have taken care of most of the mechanical injuries short of physical therapy, but the absolute worst of it was the untreated nerve damage.

Sorhyu had fixed him with an even stare, demanding he explain without even opening her mouth. He didn't make her wait. Compressed spine, lingering damage from surgery, and a whole host of other 'kinks' in her nervous system. Half the reason she couldn't walk was that her spine wasn't sending strong enough signals to her legs. It was something of an oversimplification, but neither pilot or Major called him on it. More surgery could fix it- maybe- or he could, certainly.

Misato laid a hand on her forehead and let out a sympathetic groan. Pitching forward in her seat, she sucked in a quick breath. "Alright, I'm bringing back- no. Shinji, you're going to make some ice cream tonight. I'm going to find us some stupid movies we can throw popcorn at when I get back."

She pushed away from the table and grabbed her jacket before moving around to give Sorhyu a half-hug from behind. The pilot struggled a bit, mashed against the older woman's midsection and letting out a resigned little huff. Looking back up, Misato threw Shinji a thousand-megawatt encouraging smile, offset by the melancholy note in her eyes. Finally, Misato unwrapped herself from Sorhyu and made for the door, promising she'd be back before midnight.

After the door slid closed, the clock's constant ticking seemed deafening. Sorhyu hadn't moved from the table, but Shinji could tell it wasn't by choice. She fidgeted in her seat and almost utterly silent. Moving into the kitchen, Shinji grabbed something fast and easy to make while punching the oven up to pre-heat. The delay and simple action gave him enough time to think... Right, ask the obvious question.

The over timer dinged and he pulled the hot glass dishes with his bare hands, barely feeling the heat. Sorhyu watched his every move, but for once didn't feel pressing scrutiny, letting him set the table without comment or incident.

"So..." Shinji took his seat and tugged his own plate a bit closer, hoping the open ended question would work. "What exactly do you want?"

The redhead sat up straighter, and her uncovered eye narrowed. Stuck in laundry-day T-shirts and shorts, she somehow still managed to dominate her half of the table with sheer presence. "I want to be able to walk- to throw a punch and play games and pilot my Eva. I want out of this goddamn chair."

Rocking in her chair, Sorhyu grabbed a fork with her good hand and skewered a hunk of roasted beef. She looked him right in the eyes and scowled. "I want to make stuff make sense."

She chewed fitfully, and her scowl shifted into an expression Shinji couldn't quite read, but her tone was something like bleak resignation. "I don't want a demigod throwing dice with my spine, dammit."

Blinking, Shinji could only tilt his head at the girl in askance. "Pardon?"

"Oh. Einstein and Quantum mechanics, or something..." Shivering, Sorhyu shook her head and huffed. When she noticed his own curious look, she sighed and let out a shiver. "Don't worry about it. Just, soul muscles..."

Wisely, Shinji decided to keep his mouth shut.

After dinner, Sorhyu wheeled herself back into the living room, inching past the stacks of book and manuals. Shinji had to admit, she'd piqued his interest. Granted, that aforementioned interest felt something like nails on a chalkboard or ice cubes on his spine. Following after her, Shinji flopped heavily into one of the ever present beanbag chairs and waited. The barest bit he did know about her told him it wouldn't take long.

Five minutes of silence later, he coughed into his hand. "Ah... I don't mind waiting, but if we are, I could do something?"

Not rushing or waiting for an answer, Shinji eased up and wandered over to a recessed cabinet, pulling out an expensive bit of ocean-damaged leather. A thin film of ichor had clung to it as well, bleaching the dark hide a kind of cancerous pink. Sorhyu's eyes lit up at the sight, and Shinji gingerly handed it over.

Spreading the jacket out over her lap and smiling, she looked up and gave him a questioning look. Shinji just shrugged. "I can fix it if you want- good as new or better."

Mercurial had apparently been a word invented for Sorhyu alone, because her little glint of cheer shifted into a possessive scowl. Her fingers dug into the leather, and Shinji watched as she forced herself to relax. A few seconds later, a bolt of inspiration seemed to strike.

"Part of me just wants to say no outright-" She her good shoulder, lifting the jacket along the way. "I mean I've seen you fix stuff a dozen times now, I know it works, but I just can't not ask how- I need to know."

Dropping back into the cushion, Shinji gave her a helpless look and showed his palms. Well, I don't know, so...?"

"And that's my problem with you!" Sorhyu wrung the jacket harder and gave him a narrow look. "You take it all as-is! I cannot imagine how anyone like you could have something so life-altering dropped into your lap and not be utterly consumed by obsessively trying to find out what it is, and by extension, who-and-what you are."

He couldn't call the frown that decided to etch itself on his face unexpected. A fairly large part of him sprawled back on the cushion and wondered, mulling over just how insulted he should be. Sorhyu was confusing, and he still didn't fully understand what she was getting at. Sorhyu must have seen the uncomprehending look on his face, because she sat up in her chair and fixed him with a level stare.

"Ikari Shinji," She sounded his name out in low, even tones. "You took an apparently divine vision at face value, experimented for a while and then just persisted as a semi-spiritual carpenter-chef. How can a thing like you exist?"

Shinji didn't have an answer. "I-I just do."

"And that drives me nuts!" Asuka slumped back in her wheelchair, letting out a short barking laugh. "I can't even get angry about it anymore- it's that absurd. You're absurd."

Staring at her for a few seconds, Shinji let out a quiet, hesitant sound. "I... I don't exactly understand, Sorhyu."

The girl let out a wry laugh and pitched forward in her seat. She reached up to massage her temples, and her hair spilled over her shoulders to hang like a curtain. Finally, she looked up and gave him an odd, little chagrined look. "Right. Calm and civil..."

"I want to understand how you fix this," Sorhyu threw the jacket and he caught it just as she finished speaking. "With your soul."

Shinji felt a cold chill creep up the back of his neck, remembering the last time... "I told you this already- though. They're techniques, I move parts of my soul around and it's like flexing a muscle-"

"No. Just no. Souls don't have muscles." She shook her head cut him off with a wave of her hand. "Ikari, you and I are going to hand Akagi the Nobel prize she deserves for figuring out the soul cameras, but I can tell you right now that no human on this earth can feel their souls without help. Rei can because she's a hybrid, you can because Akagi said you have a third thing jammed in there. Our souls aren't built to be felt or used. They reflect and contain."

Scowling himself, Shinji let the jacket drop while he stood up, crossing his arms and setting his jaw. "Well then what do you want me to say? It is what it is."

Visibly clamping down on her mounting frustration, Sorhyu clenched and unclenched her hand before taking a deep breath. When she was finished, the girl gave him a surprisingly agreeable smirk. "You've proven you can understand things faster than regular people right. Figured out MAGI assembly language in an afternoon?"

Shinji scratched the back of his head and drawled. "Y-yeaaah..."

"I want you to- I've wanted you to apply that same bullshit genius to yourself." She let out a resigned sigh and shook her head, laughing. "Granted you really shouldn't try to measure a ruler with itself- but we can use you to get started. Figure out some experiments such. Philosophy is such bullshit like that."

Letting his hand drop to the side, Shinji opened his mouth to answer, but stopped and shut it with a click. His jaw worked even as his mind turned Sorhyu's suggestion over and around. He didn't even notice when he started speaking.

"That's... I'm not sure what's in here," he put a hand to his chest, before reaching up to wave at his brow. This time he willed the disc of gold to appear, glowing faintly. "Every time I've looked just a little bit closer, I just keep finding more questions, or the answers I do find..."

He shook his head and sighed. "There hasn't been that much wrong with me to bother with self-diagnosis, other than my sleeping problem, and... the quarantine zone."

Sorhyu just nodded, neither knowing about that awful week or likely caring if she had, and plowed ahead unhindered by his hesitation. Cocking her head to the side, she fixed him with one cool blue eye. "Physician, heal thyself."

Shinji stared at her for a long moment before deciding it was a good idea to sit back down. He landed hard on the beanbag, moving enough air to ruffle the papers littered all over the living room.

And Sorhyu wasn't done yet either, wheeling a bit closer. "Whatever you are now is beyond everything we've ever known before. There's no technology or theory for it yet. Misato can't figure it out for you, and neither can Akagi. I could, maybe in forty years... But Ikari, think about this-"

She leaned close enough to look him right in the eye, unflinching and absolutely honest. "If you're not strong enough to take your own power and bend it to your will, then what right do you have to use it? If you don't, then who does?"

Staring right back, Shinji cringed and gave her the only answer he had. "I... I'm not sure."

Sorhyu grinned, with teeth and cheeks and an eye that was almost gleefully crinkled shut. "That, Golden boy, is the best place to be. Because now, we can start asking questions."

Pulling back into her own little bubble of personal space, Sorhyu gave Shinji that much needed time and distance to breath and think. A half-dozen unknown and unknowable feelings seemed to drip and flood through his mind alongside the more understandable things like frustration and indignation. Even at her most positive, the girl just somehow set him on edge- but, considering the past half hour, maybe it was mutual. Shinji shifted in his seat, staring straight ahead and barely blinking. Questions... He'd needed to start asking more of them. He'd resolved to even do that nearly a month ago... He let out a tiny sigh and let his head drop forward.

The jacket was still lying on the floor between them. Leaning over, he scooped it up and gave it a shake. "Do you still want me to fix this?"

Somehow, Sorhyu made her bog-standard wheelchair look like the seat of an emperor. Smirking down at him, she waved grandly, and for the first time, Shinji didn't think of the nickname as an insult. "Go ahead and work your magic, Golden boy."

It wasn't going to take long to fix the jacket. Less than an hour. "So... there's a lot of intuition involved? I have to guess and check at a lot of what I'm doing, and make sure I don't trip over a given technique."

Sorhyu watched, eyes locked onto the coat that was spread out on the floor. Shinji's arms glowed with golden fire, and where his fingertips touched, the leather seemed to uncurl and grow more lustrous- fresh as the day it was stitched. "It's not to say that I'm clumsy- I used to be, for a few weeks after I Exalted. I can pick the wrong technique now, but I've never slipped and used the wrong one."

Drawling, the girl just kept watching. "With you so far..."

Shinji let out a short cough and nodded. "Well, this technique, it's like a lot of the healing I can do- it restores rightness to things. I'm... not rewinding time, but I'm telling the jacket to be what it was, to be perfect again. I can do the same thing with limbs or scars."

"I think that was worse than the soul muscles." Shinji looked up to see Sorhyu cringe, but she waved him on. "Keep going, don't mind me."

"Right-" Shinji shook his head and cut himself off. No need to put his foot in his mouth. It was a little distracting, trying to maintain a running commentary while he worked, but the particular power he chose at least behaved consistently- a constant sort of expression and tension on his inner reserve.

His hands wandered down to the bottom seams, and he looked up to ask a question. "While we're here, is there anything else you want done? I could tailor it too, so it fits."

Sorhyu just shook her head. "I'm going to grow into it."

Shinji couldn't help but stare at her for a few seconds. The absolutely indomitable tenacity Sorhyu could pull out on a whim was almost terrifying. She probably wasn't even thinking about him healing her either- she just that confident.

Nodding, Shinji considered the jacket before him and decided to chance one more question. "And what about the uh..."

Words simply failed him to describe it, so instead he waved at the half-restored jacket, before reaching up to wipe his nose.

The redheaded pilot nearly cackled at that, giving him a smirking look for his discomfort. "Hah, the smell? We washed it like eight times, but that's the smell of victory, Ikari. Stale as it is."

He fixed her with a sour look, and her joking resistance crumbled, content to sit back and watch him work. "Okay okay fine, superhuman senses. Though I'm not over the fact you seem more content to use this incredible power of yours as instant dry-cleaning."

The glow around his arms faded at last, and Shinji let out a small little sigh of satisfaction. Still, just fixing the jacket didn't seem to be enough... Grinning, Shinji dropped the restored jacket in her lap, already inspired. "Hold on, I have an idea."

There were stashes of supplies squirreled away all over the apartment- he hadn't gotten around to moving everything into his section of the garage workshop. A year ago, he would have been a little surprised at having some scrap leather and a dozen spools of thread just lying around. Spreading the materials out on the floor before Sorhyu's feet, Shinji knelt and willed out another familiar expression of power.

The sunfire glow returned with a different, more constructive character. The thread unraveled and seemed to dance between his fingers as he stitched the leather without needle. Sorhyu hadn't taken her eyes off the display once, calculating and intent. When he was finished, he showed her the result.

At her curious look, he shrugged. "I saw something like it in a book once."

It was a band of leather sized to fit around a jacket sleeve, embroidered with red, white and grey, edged in oranges, blacks and greens. Sorhyu's victory over the Angel and the white Evangelion she'd carried home, immortalized. She looked up at him with a wide, uncovered eye. "I'll take it."

She ran her thumbs over the badge of honor, oddly silent.

Then she raised one dark red eyebrow and smirked. "You and Rei need some as well."

He'd relied on intuition to the exclusion of all else for almost two years now.

Staring at the stacks of books piled as high as he was tall, Shinji looked to them like the weighty tones of enlightenment they were always meant to be. Yesterday he'd had impressions and gut-feelings. Today he had not just an idea, but a goal. The study of opiates and their effect on neurochemistry- an introductory look to the topic admittedly, but a relevant one. Even after the first hour of devouring the books, he'd felt his internal reserve respond, tease out new potentials and draw inspiration from his own personal enrichment.

And in doing that, he realized something then. His nature, a key point that had eluded everyone to this day, was that of will.

His own, for starters, then the wills of others put upon him. Shinji began to comprehend that he was a creature of circumstance in an increasingly profound way. He learned by example and influence, driven by the exigencies of his own desires. He learned to bypass tools by working with them and finding the physical implements wanting. In that way he discarded the superfluous element with an almost instinctual expression of his own power.

It was much the same for nearly every other technique he knew, short of a small handful that were even more basic, followed by the tiniest tricks he could muster, like the control over his brandmark and corona, or being able to will himself to stop bleeding. In the past, he'd simply not recalled learning anything, but now he knew it as well as a normal person was always aware of their arms and legs.

Just recently he'd drawn upon power when presenting the hot springs, but he'd given less than three speeches in his life- even informal ones. The more he thought about it though, the more he looked back to his time practicing music. There was a certain flow and rhythm to everything, qualities that were shared across disciplines. It wasn't unexpected either, there had been all kinds of research into skills at one thing applying to something else. Shinji just hadn't expected it to apply to him.

He hadn't been alone in his research, either. Kaji-san loitered around the apartment and drank Shinji's coffee while Misato was stuck at NERV, and the older man's presence was... curious, and just short of awkward. The UN inspector was a veritable treasure trove of pre-Impact experiences too, full of recent wisdom and parables.

One evening, Kaji looked out over the apartment balcony and said "The kanji for woman literally means 'one is far away'. The divide between men and women is greater and deeper than the ocean."

Shinji had been working in the garden and let out a tiny huff. "I'm alarmingly close to over five women and I hardly understand anything."

Other days the agent played question and answers games, still stealing more coffee and gradually wedging himself into the apartment as a fixture. It cheered Sorhyu up like little else, and Shinji had to admit, he liked her acting happy than not. As for the games, they were curious at times, but always interesting. He'd ask questions about the Geofront or experiments Shinji happened to be running, only to segue into the Evangelions and their technology.

Drifting into that topic invariably got Sorhyu involved, and Shinji was more than a little amused to realize that not even Kaji was immune to the girl's prideful streak. Not when the man blundered on a technical detail and she tore a strip out of him both ways for the mistake. Even stuck in a wheelchair, the girl was able to back the man into a wall and make him swear to not speak of things he couldn't understand in her presence.

Finally, after half a week of research and gentle experimentation, Shinji had some tests to perform.

"So how does it all work again?"

Shinji had been hearing that question a lot. If the redhead were saying it to anyone else, they would have fallen off the Evangelion's torso armor and into the twenty-meter high pool of refrigerated coolant. Shinji didn't even budge- his toes were wedged in just so and no amount of bending, flexing or distraction could make him fall.

As for why he was clinging by toeholds to a half-destroyed Evangelion, there was something of a story involved. What had started with the jacket detoured into the medical research and meditation, and that lead to a few interesting revelations about the things happening in NERV. They still had the best facilities for practice and access to the best minds, even if a fraction of the research staff were still caught between terror and loathing whenever he passed. Even on a skeleton crew though, Shinji still had a degree of official power in NERV, and set his loyal remnants to work with Tactical Operations, gearing up to retrofit the shelters and defensive structures.

Having set that in motion was great and all, but Shinji was left that afternoon with a lingering sense, like an opportunity waiting to be explored. Something Kaji had said to him stuck his mind, about the Evas...

After finishing with his division and caught by the inspiration, Shinji cut through the Geofront and headed for the Evangelion cages. Sorhyu had tagged along, too slow to keep up with Misato's frantic rush through the complex, and none of her UN retinue were allowed that deep in the Geofront to accompany her. All the while, he repeated his first and greatest understanding of her character in his mind.

Mind her boundaries and ask permission. Don't assume.

With that firmly fixed in his head, Shinji had made the simple offer: direct the resources of his research division to repairing her Evangelion- resources which included his own blatant magic. Even as she rolled herself down the halls and stayed on his heels, Shinji could see the conflict, waging war across her expression as she gave him a steady, one-eyed look. Finally, like with the jacket, she nodded.

When they reached the cages, Ritsuko's technicians and engineers had been crawling over Unit 02, but it only took a moment to deploy his divisional authority, stating in no uncertain terms that he'd handle the Evangelion's repair. The scientist called later to thank Shinji for the reprieve and freed up manpower.

The seed in Shinji's mind, the one that Kaji had planted, was very simple; the Evangelions were alive.

Immediately upon diagnosis, Shinji was confronted with the alien sensation of not knowing. The puzzle and all its pieces were laid bare, and the blank sections told him volumes just by their absence, but he still lacked context. The other most eerie thing was not the absence of a soul, but a reflection of that missing soul in the body. Rendered like a familiar tree hybridized with an unrelated, alien sapling, and grown into itself a thousand times over... and how it seemed very similar to Rei.

But a comprehensive diagnosis wasn't necessary for repair work. Their cybernetics were a juxtaposition of agonizingly painful restraint and suppressive constraints, and vitally important support structures- the Evangelion itself had no natural vascular system, save for the veins in its massive eyes and few other places.

After the crew had been dismissed, Shinji leaped off the main gantry- just like the one he and Sorhyu had screamed across months ago- and landed on the damaged Evangelion's chest. The ceramic composite flaked away under his shoes to reveal the original flexible alloy weave and the gaping spans of ruined flesh.

Severe muscle trauma was easy.

The gestures and mudra he made were largely mnemonic devices, tricks he used to harness his internal reserve and direct the power into the task at hand. He felt Sorhyu's stare weighing him down, but he kept focused on the work. The sinew and long cellular structures rebuilt themselves of their own accord, almost boiling into shape. At the same time, the Evangelion's flesh seemed to resist his efforts, but he couldn't figure out how or why. It might have been something to do with their passive square-cube violation... Shinji reminded himself that he probably should look into that. Eventually.

Bit by bit he restored the Evangelion's ravaged pectoral musculature and cybernetics. As he worked, the sunfire corona bloomed around him, locking him in an oversized candle flame that forced his singular audience to shield her eyes. The Evangelion's unprotected skin darkened, showing an unexpected melanin response.

And all of that culminated in the question. "So how does it all work again?"

"I can do the work of one man in an hour- a bit more than that but..." Balancing on a repaired ridge of torso armor, Shinji turned halfway and shrugged. "I also don't need tools or raw materials. It's a blatant violation of mass and energy conservation, I know."

From her chair-bound perch on the gantry, Sorhyu just gave him the slightest smile. "Not that blatant, thought I might call it vulgar. You are spending something inside yourself, right?"

"Pretty much. Ritsuko managed to capture the smallest bit of power I can unleash, and I know a few of my techniques and tricks can use that same amount." He wiped stained hands on his pant legs, thinking. "My diagnosis trick takes about the same amount as effort as what she's got in her little container."

"And how does that one work?" She leaned forward in her seat, propping her chin up with one arm, elbow on her knee. "It's your magic X-ray, right?"

Shinji shook his head and found another perch to sit on, not at all concerned his foothold was about as wide as a pencil. "It's not really an X-ray, I just see someone's symptoms just like a regular doctor- I checked. I just do it faster and I don't need to get out a stethoscope or make you take off your shirt."

If she noticed the slip, Sorhyu didn't show it. She scowled regardless. "That makes almost no sense. Your powers have too much logic. They're... They're too deliberate."

Nodding, Shinji rubbed his chin. "That's... That's a really good point. Ritsuko's found some weird stuff too, like how I have that combat stance of total victory."

The girl gave him a sour look, but he waved his hands, rushing to explain. "She recorded it all and I watched it too! I have a technique that tells people I'm going to win. That's not even what it actually does, it's just a side effect."

"Combat powers, healing powers, cooking powers, computer powers. Repair..." She started ticking points off with her good hand, extending her fingers up her cheek as she counted. "You are only magical ventriloquism short of being the worst comic book hero I have ever heard of."

For once, Shinji managed to read the dull, flat look for what it was- dry wit, and laughed despite missing the foreign reference. Switching grips and springing off the Evangelion's chest plate, he landed on some hanging cables.

They hardly moved under his weight. "I've got a perfect balance technique, too, if that helps."

Sorhyu looked up at him and narrowed her eyes. She didn't move in her chair though, and Shinji hadn't ever seen her cover her casts and bandages. "That... really looks like fun."

Shinji scratched the back of his head and looked away, laughing weakly. He hardly ever thought about fun ways to use his abilities. Or even just having fun in general. Fun was something that happened to other people, and they sometimes dragged him along for the novelty. Even music hadn't been precisely fun for him, before Exaltation or after.

"I... Really haven't thought about it like that." He finally admitted, offering an embarrassed shrug.

"And like many things, that explains so much, Golden boy." Sorhyu let out a wry sigh before giving him a serious look. "So you can do the same thing to a person?"

She pointed at the once-red Unit 02 and it's mostly repaired torso. Shinji nodded. "I've restored almost a hundred lost limbs over the past year, Ritsuko's included. There's no injury you've suffered that I can't fix."

"Right- so how does that work?" Leaning back in her chair, Sorhyu cocked her head to the side and waited.

"Well... I heal people. I restore the rightness to things." Any other day the repeated question would have been irritating. Today though, Shinji just gave her a shrug. They were the best answers he had at that moment, and his inward reflection hadn't gleaned much yet. "I can tell you that all modern medicine, throughout the history of mankind? That treats people. I can actually heal people."

Sorhyu gave him an odd sort of frown. More contemplative than hostile or displeased. "That's an actual meaningful distinction, too..." She looked up at the repaired torso on her Evangelion and chewed her lip. "That's... That's really big, Ikari. It doesn't tell me how though. We need to a step back from the what."

Thinking, Shinji shifted in place on the cable and hummed. "I'm... Understanding something. I'm demonstrating a skill. Skill in medicine, as power? I am that skilled. So skilled as to diagnose with a glance. So skilled I can build a table without tools. Skill that can repair broken glass as if it had never been cracked."

The cage fell silent at that, save for the muted rush of liquid that lapped against the Evangelion's hips, and the faint squeak of the cable Shinji swung from. Shinji watched as the girl mulled his proclamation over. Thinking about it, he owed even that much of a revelation to her in the first place.

"Alright," Sorhyu started drumming her fingers against one thigh, looking off to the side. "I don't need a big production made out of it. Just get me walking and back in fighting shape."

Her setting terms shouldn't have surprised him, seeing as she'd already refused treatment for her eye almost a year ago. It did though. Shinji felt his jaw drop and work soundlessly. He looked down at the girl, uncomprehending. "But- why?"

"Because you don't need to drop everything and waste a lot of unnecessary effort!" She cut him off before he could reply. "You don't exactly have a messiah complex, but you tried to drop everything and fix my eye- and I know Rei's talked to you about respecting her decisions."

Shinji nodded weakly. "I know but-"

She cut him off mid-sentence, sharp and insistent but not unkindly. "I'm trying to say that I can wait for non-critical treatment. You know what triage is, so."

"Triage is why you're stuck in a wheelchair in the first place!" Shinji huffed, incredulous. He could understand her point well enough, even if the logic hit him in an uncomfortable place. Efficiency at great cost... He suppressed the shudder. Sorhyu didn't notice and kept talking.

"Well that's because I was on a ship with regular doctors and not bullshit magical ones! They worked with what they had and I'm not upset about that." She paused for a moment, thinking. "Listen, how many people can you treat a day?"

Shinji raised a hand and waggled it in that universal some-or-other way. Suddenly self-conscious, he hopped off the hanging cable and landed on the gantry a few yards away from the girl. He could have walked on the rail, but showing off probably wouldn't have been a good idea. "It depends... I have to work on a per-injury basis. There's no "all hurts restored" technique- or I haven't figured out one yet."

"Might be something to investigate later- but separate injuries are all treated individually?" Shinji gave her a hesitant nod, and Sorhyu plowed ahead. She wheeled around to face him, one good arm strong enough to move every bit of girl and chair. "Right, I'm covered in like twenty injuries. You could treat a bunch more people or work on research or do anything that has more utility than fixing some surgical scars."

Finally facing him, she sighed again and pulled off her eyepatch. Despite having an interrupted connection to her brain, the eye tracked and 'saw' things just as well as the other. Her face looked vastly more open without the black wedge of plastic, and she gave him a deliberate, honest sort of look. It seemed a little forced, like she wasn't used to making the expression.

"I think of all the things I've ever had a problem with about you, helping people was the least of them." Her lips quirked up and she shook her head. "That was a really odd way to say it. I mean that I'm surprised you haven't helped yourself very much. Wanting to help others isn't a bad thing, I just think you take it too far."

Shinji had the decency to wince, remembering the apartment debacle, or the several days of blistering invective about liberties taken with a girl's wardrobe. Misato had enjoyed the tailoring, but she also treated propriety less like a proscription of behavior and more like a challenge to be smashed.

"Well..." he coughed and leaned aside, wrapping his hands around the guardrail and taking care not to crush it. "I guess that's true, but I haven't ever really needed to stop until you said something."

Sorhyu smirked faintly from her place on the gantry, sitting several strides away. "I'm surprised you managed to keep going this long, honestly. I would have figured Japanese politeness would have caught you up months ago."


"Point to Golden Boy." Sorhyu ran a hand through her hair and caught a finger on her neural headset, she pulled it out and shook her head, sending her hair falling around in loose waves, She reset the band and pulled her hair up in its customary bunches. "I don't want special treatment, Ikari. I just want to get back in the fight and back in an Evangelion where I belong."

It took him about four days of study and experimentation, but he was able to bring something to Sorhyu that made her sit up and take note. So much so that she managed to keep Misato from falling asleep as soon as she entered the apartment.

Bemused and drowsy, Misato had descended from her suite clad in a tank top and cotton shorts, flouncing onto the couch and cuddling up next to Sorhyu without care or permission. Fascinated with the byplay, Shinji watched the redhead bristle and let out a surprisingly good-natured growl, like a cat getting ready to play. Pointedly ignoring how Misato hung all over her, Sorhyu maintained an even, patient look and waited for Shinji to get on with his revelation.

Scratching the back of his head, Shinji let out a short breath. "I figured out a transcendent massage technique- different than the one I taught NERV. This one's actual magic and not, science-magic."

Misato perked up at that, blinking rapidly. The anticipation in her brown eyes chased away the exhaustion with a will, unashamedly eager. Shinji could tell she was making a show of it, for her benefit as much as his. She leaned forward and smiled while Sorhyu rolled her uncovered eye. Fortunately the girl already had an overview of Thaumaturgy from Kensuke, of all people, so Shinji didn't have to explain that preconception-shattering subject.

Clearing his throat, Shinji tried not to pace while he was explaining. "I've already checked it on myself and some lab rats back at the Geofront, but I haven't actually tested it on a normal person yet."

Looking at Sorhyu, he gave her a little shrug. "I completely understand not wanting to be a test dummy here, but I figured I'd ask if either of you had any ideas."

"Try it on me!" Misato bounced in her seat, pumping her fist in the air and rocking forward.

"I'm not sure you qualify as normal yourself." Sorhyu scoffed.

"Very funny." Misato said, her smile taking the sting out of the sarcasm.

The girl just shook her head. "You're going to volunteer, just like that? ... He just said he's been massaging himself and rats for gott knows how long now!"

Misato's smile widened, meeting the younger girl's gaze. That earned a deeper scowl.

"That was not as dirty as it sounded!" Sorhyu let out a volcanic hiss. "Nor is it a particularly glowing recommendation!"

"Why not? He could easily make it one~" Misato just gave the girl a beaming, megawatt smile before turning back to Shinji. "Besides, every trick he's figured has been awesome or great for us in some way, I'm up for the experience!"

Blushing slightly, Shinji just watched the girl roll her eyes again, but she still smirked. He found himself grinning too. Raising his hands, he laced his fingers together and cracked his knuckles. "So... How would you like to start?"

"I could lie down-" Misato just wriggled back into the couch and smiled, wrapping an arm around Asuka's side. "But this is comfy too. Whenever you're ready, Shinji."

Nodding, Shinji wriggled his fingers and let the somewhat unfamiliar shift inside his soul unfold. Stepping closer, he pressed his fingertips against her forehead and drew a lazy trail for a few seconds. Misato's eyes drifted closed and she let out a pleasant hum while Sorhyu pressed a bit tighter into the couch arm, looking increasingly uncomfortable with just how comfortable Misato was getting.

After he pulled his hand away, Shinji held his breath and waited. Sorhyu leaned around Misato's side to examine her face, intent and dripping with a kind of casual dread. The older woman's eyes were still closed, and her breathing was slow and even, doing things for her top that in Shinji's mostly objective opinion deserved a medal. A bit of amused aggravation followed on that thought- it wasn't his fault he was taller than everyone- or that she was sitting down.

Looking over at Sorhyu, Shinji just shrugged and gave her a helpless look. It wasn't like he knew exactly how the trick worked- or it's full effects. She shrugged back, and they fell into a reasonably amicable silence.

Then something warm and affectionate thumped into his midsection.

His chin dropped down into his neck, and all Shinji could see was Misato, pressed firmly against his middle. Half-lidded brown eyes turned up, and a sly, liquid grin followed. "...Heeeyyy..."

All Shinji could do in reply was let out a dumbfounded grunt and take an unconscious step back. Misato's free arm shot out to wrap around his back in a drunken arc, before pulling tight with surprising strength. She almost dragged herself completely off the couch, hanging on only by the edge of her seat and the curve of her spine. Shinji arms shot up in the air, like everything from the waist down was scalding hot and getting warmer. He felt the muscles in his legs lock up tight, and the blood in his veins could not stay frosty when wrapped in one Katsuragi Misato.

"Ooooooh." Misato purred as her cheek rubbed up and down his stomach, grinning into Shinji's shirt and the muscles beneath it. She spoke slowly, lilting and crooning drowsily. "This feels niiiiiiiice..."

The half-dazed Misato continued talking even as she cuddled a teen on each side. "I mean nice-nice. What you did. Not just you. But you feel nice too. Doesn't he, Asuka-chan?"

The girl was struck frozen, wedged against Misato's side as she crooned. Every other word was carefully enunciated, and Shinji watched Misato form the sounds with her mouth like they entertained her. With no answer coming from Sorhyu, Misato rubbed her cheek against Shinji's belly once more. She let out a sleepy giggle when his abdominals shivered, letting out a long hum of approval.

Shinji felt his cheeks grow even hotter with every inebriated compliment, even as a little laugh bubbled up beside it. "I could bounce a quarter off this. It's that nice."

Her arm wrapped around his waist afforded Misato's hand an opportunity to freely wander up along his back, sending inadvertent shivers up his spine... which ended in a sharp squeak from him as her hand suddenly dipped down. All he could do was hold absolutely still while Misato continued to take her playful liberties- this he'd brought on himself, it seemed, and he'd bear the burden with all the quiet dignity he could muster.

Then Misato somehow managed to sneak an arm under his shirt and pull it completely off, and he found himself immediately regretting his habit of always wearing something that buttoned down. Especially considering how easily she whipped it off. Whatever dignity he had rapidly converted into a feeling more akin to what the hell do I do now!? She'd also done all this while still half-wrapped around his midsection, sitting on the edge of the couch and with her other arm around Sorhyu's middle. The remaining rational parts of his mind were already musing on a way to make the button-threading unbreakable for just this kind of circumstance.

And he wasn't one to go without his shirt much anyway, meaning the blush started to creep down his neck. Shinji brought his thankfully free arms up to cover his chest by reflex, but Misato was still there, wedged in as the most affectionate of personal space invaders he'd ever known. His eyes cut to Sorhyu, and if he had to guess, they were sharing the exact same mortified expression.

Meanwhile, Misato just grinned at his consternation and pressed against his stomach again, humming. "Always wanted to do that-Ayumi is a lucky girl I tell you right now, don't you think Asuka-chan~? I mean, look! Or feel! Feel works too!"

She didn't wait for Sorhyu to reply, and the arm hooked around his body kept Shinji firmly in place. Misato didn't seem to notice, rambling on in laughing tones. "We didn't have guys like this in college I can tell you right now. Ritsuko and I would have had some fun if there were, you have no idea."

"The two of you should be able to have fun too! All the fun like I'm having! And!" Misato chirped at Shinji first, then turned to face Sorhyu and focus every bit of her attention on the girl. "If I were as hot as you're going to be, Asuka-chan, I'd have to beat guys off with a stick- and the girls too! You're going to have so much fun in a couple years! So jealous! You both need to loosen up! Ooh! Idea!"

While she'd released him physically, Misato continued to dominate the living room by sheer presence, forcing them to follow helplessly in her dynamic wake. Shinji felt smaller, more condensed but somehow in a positive way, even though he couldn't quite get himself back into forward motion. Misato's 'idea' proved to be playing with Sorhyu's hair, pulling it up and piling it around the neural clips in new and interesting styles.

The redhead tried to ward the older woman off with the one good arm, shrieking and laughing despite herself. Misato had finished pinning one dumpling-mound of hair around Sorhyu's right-hand neural barrette when she slipped, flopping face first into Sorhyu's chest and laughing

Caught between mortified giggles and disbelieving, amused horror, Sorhyu turned one bright blue eye to him and pleaded, with her voice going high and needy. "Ikari! Stop this crazy thing!"

It was enough to snap Shinji out of his stupor, getting his brain back into gear and started acting as opposed to just standing there like a pile of hormones and mortification. Magic smoothed all courses, and Shinji moved with the speed and efficiency he'd rarely thought about but very much appreciated. Driving forward with his arms outstretched, he slid his hands between the pair with a lunge, twist and shove, trying very much to focus on the technique and not the fact that they were both drop-dead gorgeous.

Pankration didn't have a technique accounting for that.

Then again the techniques were developed involving naked men, which could have accounted for the oversight.

A warm body and warmer giggles tugged Shinji away from the brief tangent and back into the moment. Misato clung to his left arm for a moment, hanging as he raised it away and toward the far end of the couch. Her grip was weak though, and she slipped off his forearm to drop down and bounce in the cushion, giggling the whole time.

Sorhyu meanwhile decided to treat Shinji like a mountain and scaled. With only one mostly functional arm and leg, she somehow managed to clamber up his other arm and crawl across his back until she sat with her middle braced over his shoulder, hissing to herself about cracked ribs.

The older woman seemed to realize she was suddenly alone and pouted, hugging herself and shivering. "Not fair Asuka-chan! You should get your own hug-supplier! Rits was always good for it after a pinch..."

Then she seemed to brighten, put-down expression fading in the face of some new amusement. Laughing and squirming, the woman tried to right herself but couldn't, so she slumped back down and hugged herself again, beaming up at the boy. "Mrgle- you'd be fun to wrestle, Shinji-kun... Y'should teach some other guys how you wrestle. Wanna wrestle a hot guy... n'lose."

Then, Misato blushed, beetroot and turning her head away. "Not Kaji. He's a bum. Doesn't deserve to be awesome..."

Shinji felt Sorhyu's hair spill over and brush against his face and chest before he heard her voice in his ear. Her breath was scalding. "What did you even do?!"

He kept an eye on Misato while she giggled and raised her arms up high, wiggling her fingers under the ceiling light. As to her question, Shinji could only give her a helpless, tight whisper. "I don't know! it's supposed to be an opiate response, but I thought she could handle it!"

Strong fingernails dug into his arm but didn't do much more than remind him that Sorhyu was strong. Her teeth snapped uncomfortably close to his ear when she hissed back. "Misato's a functioning alcoholic, not a morphine dependant!"

"I never did drugs in college!" The two teenagers turned to Misato, who had wriggled around until head and shoulders hung down off the couch, letting her hair brush against the carpet. She waved her arms, giggling. "You can say I 'xperimented, but not that kind!"

Rolling over, Misato crawled off the couch and toward one of the beanbag cushions she so vehemently preferred. Shinji held his breath, and he felt Sorhyu do the same as the woman shifted, throwing her arms and tangling her legs around the bag. After a long, tense moment, they heard the first of many gentle snores.

The redhead let out a wary little croak. "Is she asleep?"

Shinji called on the tiniest bit of his reserve and nodded, discerning the entirety of the woman's current condition. "Yeah. If it holds to pattern, she'll be drowsy for five hours."

Sorhyu let out the breath she'd been holding. Shinji couldn't see it, but he could hear the dumbstruck fascination in her voice when she spoke. "...I think it says something about her that all she does is pinup poses, even when asleep and on an opiate high."

Tonelessly, Shinji just shook his head. "No, no this is an improvement- she used to be a real slob. Hardly any natural grace at all."

After a long thirty seconds of watching Misato snooze, dead to the world, Shinji asked the obvious question. "So, what do we do now?"

"Now? Now we get out of here before she wakes up and thinks you have a thing for redheads. Or her 'remembering' having a thing for redheads."

Shinji had left a spare room on the 'living floor' of the apartment, across from the indoor bath and spa. Back when he'd been remodelling the various spaces, he couldn't think of what to do with it, so it was left empty and unfurnished. Now that Sorhyu had agreed- bargained down to the bare minimum of treatment, he realized he could make it his office. A clinic outside of the Geofront, and one not as rigidly controlled.

So he'd refurbished it in a few days, building the necessary tools, tables and benches, making sure they were as lavishly comfortable and as well designed as the rest of the apartment. Granted, some of his design choices made it look more like a resort spa than a proper medical facility. A hot rock oven was positioned in one corner just off the wall, poised for maximum aromatic airflow. He had to do a lot of things like that, eschewing traditional medicine in favor of more ritualistic trappings.

The last thing he needed was the patient, and Sorhyu had wheeled herself in and taken her place with barely a word. Looking her over and noting the flouncy t-shirt, Shinji swallowed heavily. Blushing and stuttering for a few seconds, he explained that he needed direct access to her back and spine for the treatment to work. That was to say, bare skin. Sorhyu gave him a long, sour look before nodding. Scrambling upright, he all but lunged for the privacy screen he'd made and pulled it alongside the futon mattress. Boundaries, always respect the boundaries...

Bereft of her prosthetic and with her shirt bunched up around her shoulders, the redhead leaned just far enough around the privacy screen and Shinji himself. She stared past the crook in his arm. "What are they doing here?"

He turned and followed her glare across the clinic, blinking owlishly. 'They' happened to be Misato, Rei and Ayumi, sitting on the floor with a spread of finger foods stretched out between them. The older woman was grinning toothily, eyes sparkling with barely contained glee. Shinji turned and gave his girlfriend a shy smile, shrugging. Ayumi just waved, while Rei was apparently ignoring them all, focused on the food.

The oldest woman let out a melodious laugh, leaning back with her legs folded crossways and hands on her knees. "I figured Ayumi would want to know nothing untoward was happening."

Sorhyu was quiet for a long moment as she fussed with her shirt, staying angled and behind the screen as to maintain her dignity. From his perspective, Shinji could see the side of her face, and he watched her eyes thin down to razor sharp slits. "Why are you here?"

The Second Child shoved the screen aside and held her shirt to her chest, giving Misato a baleful look as she settled down on the futon. Misato's eyes crinkled shut and sparked, while her eyebrows waggled in a manner most suggestive. "To make sure nothing untoward is happening!"

Sorhyu threw her face into the pillow and groaned. "You're untoward!"

Misato just laughed harder, all but folding over into Rei's shoulder while the girl's lips quirked up in a tiny smile. Ayumi played a quick sketch, mouthing the words Boke and Tsukkomi, before tilting her head toward the bickering brunette and redhead. Shaking his head, Shinji resolved not to say anything. It fit so well though. Turning back to the argument, he cleared his throat and gave Misato a pointed look, sighing softly.

To Sorhyu, he winced but had to remind her that the more she squirmed, the longer it was going to take, no matter what Misato happened to be saying. Finally, he raised his hand and told her it was time for the general, albeit magical anaesthetic.

Looking over her shoulder, Sorhyu gave him a wary look. "You worked out the kinks right?"

Shinji just nodded, before a sly little grin crept its way across his lips. He inclined his head at the oldest brunette in the room. Smirking a bit wider as Misato blushed beetroot, Shinji fired the shot Soryhu couldn't. "After Misato worked out some of hers, yes. I had to go back to the drawing board though."

Sorhyu flashed a tight, honest smile past her shoulder, before turning a slightly more feral one at Misato. Finally she nodded and laid her head back down on the pillow. "Okay, hit me."

It was hardly any effort, physical or otherwise. A touch against the base of her neck was all it took. Shinji leaned back, wary. "So, does it feel like morphine?"

"Oh yeah- better even." The redhead drawled, worming her way deeper into the pillow and mattress, but he could hear her through the cushions all the same. "Bottle this stuff, Ikari, seriously."

He let out a short laugh at that, before taking a closer look at the damage. "I'll see what I can do, Sorhyu."

With the girl undressed from the neck down, Shinji finally had a chance to see her injuries, instead of just diagnose from improbably observable symptoms. With her hair pulled away from her neck, Shinji had a clear view of her back and spine from the head down to her waist. The bruises were almost all completely gone, leaving only the faintest yellow blotches across her back and sides. More pressingly was the faint swelling along the vertebrae, stubbornly refusing to align. The surgical scars were heavy along her side where her ribs had been reset and the one removed. The angry red had faded, but they were still a little raw looking.

Focusing on her spine, Shinji turned to the tools of his trade. He'd already decided to ignore scalpels and saws... Thinking about it, there was something missing. Or maybe not missing. He looked up at the intensely curious Rei and Ayumi, while Misato just gave him an encouraging toast with her can of ginger ale. The Geofront medical and research staff had always been attentive, but less... Aware of him, as a person. Looking down at Sorhyu, he realized that it wasn't something missing, but something added.

"Just so you know, this is going to take a few hours. I have a way to make it go faster, but I can't use it right now." While he spoke, Shinji started to tap out points on the girl's back, preparing her internal vital structures for the work to come. "Trying two techniques at once is like trying to... play two instruments at once, or something."

Misato spoke up for Sorhyu at that point while Rei and Ayumi split their attention between the snacks and medical efforts. His girlfriend watched his hands much more closely though, visibly curious. The dark-haired woman cocked her head to the side. "Don't you have a 'go faster' power?"

"I do, but I decided I'd rather bypass tools- I don't think Sorhyu wants me working on her with scalpels and bone saws." Shinji counted down Sorhyu's vertebrae, from the base of her skull down. Judging by the trembles, the girl was ticklish, even with his little trick dulling her senses.

The girl groused from her place on the floor, chin propped up on pillow and staring straight ahead. "Damn right I don't."

"Scalpels and bone saws are not agreeable things."

Shinji looked up at Rei's whisper-quiet statement, blinking. Of all of them, she probably had the most experience with surgery, for good or ill.

The five of them fell silent after that, and Shinji focused on the work. He had to make sure all of Sorhyu's muscles and tendons were in the right positions and relaxed just enough for the next step. Along the way he couldn't help but ask her how it felt, admitting that most of the time his patients were drugged and unconscious. She shifted, mulling over the answers bit by bit and grumbling. Sorhyu told him in some ways, it felt like feeling the sun heating her from back to front, and in others she couldn't even say. At that point, she huffed about 'soul muscles' and sighed.

Apparently abhoring a conversational vacuum, Sorhyu shifted again and fixed Ayumi with a look. "So, how've-" Shinij's knuckle found a tight spot- "-exams been?"

"Oh, the usual!" Ayumi chirped, waving her hands dismissively. There were times Shinji envied his girlfriend's easy-going aplomb.

The redhead let out another grunt. "That's great. So that means- the school hasn't burned down either."

"Not for lack of trying! Interesting times, and everything." She turned to Rei for confirmation, and the red-eyed nodded decisively in reply.

"Yeah. Yeah..." Sorhyu drawled again, settling back down into the pillows while Shinji worked. Judging by the look in his girlfriend's eye, there were certain, increasingly obvious needs he wasn't satisfying. Needs like an appreciation for harmless gossip.

Ayumi continued on, smiling prettily. She hiked herself forward closer to Sorhyu and almost gushed. "Everyone has been pretty convinced for the past couple months you tested out to become a model! In Europe or something."

Sorhyu let out a rude noise at that, sputtering derisively. Misato meanwhile muffled laugh with one hand. "Flattering, but give me a break. I'm too busy getting shit done for that kind of crap. Besides, I've had my fill of being a cover girl."

Judging by the look on Rei's face, Shinji wasn't the only one confused. Ayumi fortunately stepped up to ask the obvious question. "... What?"

He couldn't see it, but Shinji heard the little smile in Sorhyu's voice when she settled down again. Half-speaking into the pillow, Sorhyu just made a slightly drowsy sigh. "Heh, neve- Ikar-eeeeiiiiiwhatthefuck?!"

The girl went rigid, back arched with her shoulders up and pressing her hips down into the floor. The first damp square of cloth clung to her lower back, just above her spine.

Shinji leaned back on his hands and splayed thighs, wincing. "It's salt water, and a safety precaution. It's part of that ritual treatment technique I mentioned."

Sohyru squirmed against the futon, and the red flush crept down her neck past her shoulder blades. "Why cold though?"

Not that she could see it, but Shinji pointed to the bubbling pot of water sitting near his knee, and the disc-like massage stones inside. "So it'll work better."

Huffing, the girl grouched and wriggled back deeper into the cushion, shivering. "F-Fine... Just, warn me next time."

"How exactly does the ritual work?" Rei spoke up again, quietly still. Shinji followed her eyes to his own hands and where they hovered over Sorhyu's back and shoulders.

Thinking about it, Shinji realized the question came from a somewhat unexpected source. At the same time, it made a certain sort of sense. Rei was concerned about her friend- that they were friends had been clear even to him. Shinji considered himself the least able to read someone else's mind, but Rei made it easy for the people she trusted- if they knew how to look.

Glancing down at Sorhyu, he realized these were the questions she would have asked.

"It's hard to explain... and it changes depending on the situation. I'm just seeing lots of shortcuts to get the end I want." He pointed at boiling pot of water. "Here I'm going to put these hot stones on top of those wet pads..."

Staring at the rocks and the pads that dotted the redheads back, Rei blinked. "And how does that work?"

Shinji shrugged. How could he explain the unknowable skill and rightness... "I'm basically using all this as a path to get Sorhyu's bones and muscles to do what I want. I'm not really controlling cell division or whatever, but I'm helping her body do what it wants to do anyway.

Snarkily, Sorhyu shivered again. "That's... Fine I guess. But couldn't you have just put them on my skin like a normal massage?"

Shinji just shook his head and told her no. "I calculated their thermal behaviors and the evaporation rate of the salt water-" He reached into the boiling pot and pulled out a thumb-sized stone with his bare fingers.

He held up the steaming stone between his fingertips, nodding to himself. "If they touch your skin, it will burn you down to the bone."

Sorhyu pushed herself up on her forearms and elbows, craning her neck over her shoulder. "Oh. Okay well whenever you're ready golden bo-"

The redhead's voice cut off completely, and she dropped like a rock- face first into the pillow. Her hair splayed out around her head in thick waves, and she let out an unintelligible grunt. A thick plume of steam shot up from the girl's back where the stone had dropped, and Shinji felt his magic shift into the fore. Sorhyu huffed into the cushion and tried to rise, pushing one shoulder back up into the air. The muscle and bone beneath her skin trembled before giving out in a rush, and the girl collapsed in a liquid sprawl.

He watched with no small amount of pride and relief as the swelling around her spine shrank down before his eyes. Her muscles fluttered, and he directed her body to nudge and tug her vertebrae back into alignment.

Panting, Sorhyu managed to lever herself up enough to look over her shoulder with her good eye. "What the fuck was that."

Shinji hemmed and hawed for a second. "Uhh, two of your vertebrae were fused when you got here. And... now they aren't?"

The girl's voice dropped down level and completely deadpan. "... I gotta stop asking you these questions."

Stubbornly, Sorhyu managed to roll her head to the side and speak clearly past her hair. "I don't think any of you appreciate how weird it is to hear and feel my spine popping and cracking back into normal alignment."

"It's perfectly normal-" Shinji assured her, laughing lightly. "I expected it to work like this!"

Misato, Rei and Ayumi all just stared openly, but they smiled too. It really was going exactly as planned, conversation aside. Shinji had to admit it was nice though, to have a more direct and connected experience with someone he was treating- healing.

"You say this is normal, Golden boy..." Sorhyu slurred drowsily, not at all invested in the invective. Shinji just smiled and added a second and third steaming stone, flash-drying more of the saltwater pads. The association of conductivity with nerve impulses was enough to make the ritual behavior work.

Somehow, the girl kept talking. "...n-normal. Nothing normal 'bout lying half naked on the floor with an audience. And a guy who outweighs me four times over blasting sunlight into my spine, to fix injuries I got punching a space monster with a giant robot."

Misato leaned in then, smiling. "Didn't you kick it too?"

Shinji only saw the side of it, but Sorhyu fixed the woman with a flat, dry look. "No."

With that, the girl collapsed down on the futon and started to snore. The treatment was finished a few hours later. The others stayed for the duration, only grabbing leftovers when convenient.

Grabbing a towel and wiping his fingers off, Shinji turned to Misato, Rei and Ayumi. "So I guess you three want a stone massage too?"

"Yes." "Yes." "No."

Ayumi, Misato and Shinji all turned to Rei, giving the girl an incredulous look, though probably for different reasons. Rei just took a demure sip of her tea before answering. "I am not so easily controlled by my hormones as you are, and I have an appointment with the autobody paint shop. I will be dropping my car of there this afternoon."

With that, Rei stood up and left, giving Shinji a small, endearing little smile along the way.

Finally, after a long moment, Ayumi cleared her throat. "So, how about that massage?"

Three days of treatment had given her back full mobility.

Soryhu Asuka Langley looked at herself in the mirror and considered herself whole, if not a little rough around the edges. The last of her stitches had come out the day before, leaving her with just a hash of surgical scars and some lingering over-the-counter bandages. She pulled one from around her ribs just under the bottom of her bra, barely registering the sticky sting.

"Something like sixty-two scars... " Asuka sighed and looked at her reflection. Basic no-nonsense underwear, neural headset and ever-present eyepatch.

The scars added something, but they also took something away. She traced a long smooth line along her side where they cut out her rib. Ikari grew it back on the second day. Almost every time he'd fixed something, Ikari told her he could keep going, fixing more until there was nothing wrong and it was as if she'd never gone into battle. He could fix scars she'd gotten from training years ago. She'd had to beat the offers off with a metaphorical stick, and verbally shoved him back to the Geofront to do something else constructive.

Still, she'd smiled while she said it. It was hard to really stay mad at someone for wanting to help, he just took it way too far.

Smiling wider at being able to stand under her own power, Asuka swayed side to side and relished the feeling of working hips, thighs and legs. Behind her and unseen, the door opened. Probably Misato come to check on her- not that she needed it. She was fine. Fingers and toes all working.

Letting her eyes drift closed, she spun in place and exhaled. "Don't you ever knock?"

When she opened them, Rei was standing there.

Freezing, Asuka blanched. "Erk."

Rei just cocked her head to the side and blinked once. "It is my room."

Asuka didn't have a clever answer to that.

Instead, she turned back to the mirror and crossed her arms with a huff. Leaning in close, she uncurled an arm and tugged at her uncovered eyelid. It was the same deep blue as it always was- not a bit of bloodshot. She saw Rei move in the reflection, moving over to her dresser and the cage on top. The other pilot fussed with her mice for a few minutes.

Asuka worked her jaw to one side and scowled at the scene. If Rei didn't want to talk, she wasn't going to either. There were a lot more important things to worry about. Reaching for a box of her own clothes, the redhead pulled out one of her favorite shirts and held it up to her chest. It wasn't so much a question of vanity, but there was a very real concern. Long sleeves or short. Skirts or pants... Her scars might not be forever, but they were definitely here for now.

Tossing the shirt aside, Asuka let out another huff and planted her hands on hips. Screw waiting. "So where have you been?"

"At school, the garage. Elsewhere within the apartment. Sometimes the Geofront." Rei's voice was clear, even though she wasn't looking at Asuka.

Looking through the mirror into the rest of the room, Asuka crossed her arms and drummed her fingers along one bicep. "Kinda wish I could have gone, you know?"

Rei nodded, but didn't say anything directly. She turned away from the dresser and the cage, absently cradling her five little mice in her palms. Wide empty space and a throw rug stretched out between them in the middle of the studio loft.

"I mean, we used to hang out most of the day, every day, even before all the simulations. You kept up swimming at least." Asuka cocked an eyebrow and tried to smirk, but her heart wasn't fully in it. No amount of glibness was going to fill the two month gap in their friendship. Lamely, she added "It shows."

Rei gave her a wan nod, looking away. "One does what one can, to keep up."

"Else you get left behind." Asuka completed that thought quietly, knowing how unfair it was before it left her lips. Rei didn't deserve accusations, but... The redhead flexed her hands before letting them fall to her side, watching the rodent quintet nuzzle her fellow pilots hands.

She'd rather be fighting another Angel then this. "I'm sure you haven't... replaced me- no matter how cute they are- but Rei, what gives."

"I was unsure. Uncertain." Rei spread her arms while the mice crawled up her sleeves, showing her own scalpel thin scars. They were almost invisible. "I am the injured one- never others. I have endured the pain of healing many times."

Looking away again, Rei hugged herself, holding one hand against her chest and fisting up the fabric. It was an awkward motion, but the fact that she made it at all told Asuka everything she needed to know.

"I don't know how to endure the pain of others healing. Of you, Shinji-kun or Misato-san suffering like that." Asuka watched as Rei turned to face her and locking eyes. "I think I'd rather it never come up again, but if it does, I think I have a better idea of how to endure it."

Feeling more than a little numb, Asuka nodded. Well she got an answer at least. A few stinging embers of pride weren't quite out yet though. "Yeah well, you were all over Misato and Ikari almost every day. Since when did you get all hugs and cuddles?"

Rei just cocked her head to the side. "Ah. To that point..."

The girl took two steps forward and threw her arms around Asuka's body and squeezed. She pulled back a moment later and let her wrists hang on Asuka's shoulders, with mice whiskers teasing at both their ears.

Then Rei looked Asuka right in the eye and smiled. "I needed the practice."

Twenty-hour days were hell. Misato was absolutely certain this was a hidden truth of the world and a path to some deep form of enlightenment. Just not one meant for mere mortals. A home-cooked meal and a hot bath were the only reasons she didn't just collapse on her bed, complete with shoes and uniform. The silk sheets called to her, grabbed her tight like a long-lost lover and made all the bad things go away...

Misato opened her eyes and stared at the moonlit shapes that filled her bedroom.

"UN inspection in a week. Fuck."

Modifying the bath tub wasn't difficult by any stretch, he just a handful of raw materials. Fiberglass for the base structure and the waterproof cushioning material that made the tub itself much more comfortable to sit in. He'd already machined the handles Misato asked for the other day, knowing exactly how to maximize their ergonomic utility and install them without disrupting the careful fluid dynamics and... pressure point stim..ul..lation...

...Dammit Misato!