Part 32 : Expensive Truth

"He's what?" asked Misato.

"Gone. Vanished. Lost his ego border." Expanded Akagi.

"If you don't start making sense, I swear I'll kill you." Muttered Misato.

"He has been taken into the Eva." Said Akagi, punching up the display of the interior of the plug. Shinji's plug suit drifted in the LCL, empty and abandoned.

"The Eva…absorbed him?" asked Misato, dazed at the thought.

"That's a close enough description, I suppose." Shrugged Akagi. As a scientist, this was an amazing phenomena. True, there was the other time that the Unit had absorbed it's pilot… Her thoughts were interrupted by someone grabbing her suit's collar and shaking her - hard.

"Get him back! Now!" yelled Misato, shaking her friend once more. Ritsu grabbed Misato's arm and managed to free herself from the gasp of the angry Major.

"While I will attempt that, Misato," began the fake blonde as she straightened her collar, "I have to tell you that there is precious little chance of retrieving him."

"Why?" spat Misato. If you try to throw his life away again, I'll kill you, consequences be damned!

"Because she might not let him return."

-

"Ikari, you have failed." Accused Seele 3.

"Not even." Denied Gendo calmly.

"How can you sit there and say that, Ikari?!" yelled Seele 5. "Units zero and two are both all but destroyed! Unit 1 is aware and has shed all means of control over it! How can you say that you have not failed?"

"Because Units 0 and 2 are but fall-back units. Unit 1 is the key, as you are fully aware." Said Gendo, hands folded in front of his face. "And in spite of the current status of the unit, it remains completely useful to us." Gendo paused to let his words sink in for a moment. "There is no threat to the scenario." He stated.

"Perhaps, but there are still three to go, and with only Unit 1 in combat-ready condition, the threat to the scenario is great." Said Seele 9.

"There is some time, yet." Countered Gendo. "And both units can be repaired. Akagi assures me that both were stabilized in time to allow them to merely regenerate."

"Harrumph! Both units were damaged far beyond the Hafleck limit. Regeneration will take more than a month!" snorted Seele 2.

"Ikari, it has been said that Yui's son has disowned you and vowed to kill you after the thirteenth Angel. How does this affect your ability to bring our goal to completion?" asked Seele 1. Gendo had no visible reaction.

"The Third will fulfill his purpose." Was all Gendo had to say. Inside, he seethed. How dare you bring her into this?! Yui is my wife, and you can't have her!

"See that he does." Warned Seele 1.

"The rest of this council does not concern you." Said Seele 4. The council disappeared from the room. Gendo stood and made his way back to his office.

-

"Whoa. Heavy party here." Said Junpei as he worked his way down to where Celsia was being kept. Kaji was busy, as was most of NERV, trying to repair the damage and get back into fighting shape. With nothing better to do, Junpei had wandered down to see Celsia. Well, to torment her, but what the heck; it all depends on who's telling the tale. Still, she's back in her hottie form, so at least she's easier on the eyes. He thought. Out of the corner of his eye, he caught a swirl of purple. "Hey, that's probably that Misato chick that Kaji's seeing." He muttered, altering course to find out if it was.

It was indeed Misato, but the Major was in a hurry to get somewhere, so Junpei trailed along behind her. Within minutes, he found himself in the cages. A few minutes later, he was watching her stand motionless in front of a massive form that had to be an Eva. Deciding to talk with her a bit, he walked over to her and studied the massive form. "Damn, those things are ugly under that armor, huh?" he opened the conversation. It was true, after all. The unit he was looking at was freed of the armor they usually wore, and had massive swaths of bandaging all over it, leaving only one massive green eye and part of jaw exposed. Junpei frowned as he noticed that the iris had three small holes in it. "Weird." He muttered.

"Go bother someone else, Junpei." Said Misato, her tone tired and angry. The strange fighter ignored her suggestion.

"Hey, which unit is this?" he asked, looking around at the other cages. "And aren't there supposed to be more of these things?"

"Units 0 and 2 were heavily damaged and are being regenerated in the emergency maintenance cages." Said Misato dully.

"So, this Unit 1? Oh! Now I get it! This is that kid's unit, right?" exclaimed Junpei. His martial arts experience saved him a painful fist in the face as Misato rounded on him and threw a hard right, battered or not.

"Shut up, Jackass!" roared Misato. "Don't talk about my Shinji like that!"

"Man, must be that time of the month." Deducted Junpei. Misato's face went dark with anger, and her right hand snaked back to her holstered USP.

"Junpei!" came the irate voice of Ritsuko Inoue. Turning toward the end of the cat walk, he saw Rit-chan and Airi striding toward him.

"Junpei, please don't bother Mi-chan right now. Please? For me?" asked Airi, turning up the charm. Junpei acted as if her voice was the voice of God.

"Sure!" he chirped, grinning like an idiot.

"Numb nuts." Spat Rit-chan, stepping past him and stopping in front of Misato, blocking the older woman's line of fire on Junpei with her body. "Misato, let's go get some lunch." She suggested, her eyes on Misato's.

"But…I was…" began Misato turning back to look at Unit 1's leering face.

"I know. But you need to get some food in you; some sleep too, come to think of it." Said Rit-chan.

"Later. I have…" began Misato.

"Do you want the first thing he sees when he gets back to be you looking like this?" asked Rit-chan softly.

-

Asuka was fuming in her room. Normally, she would have trashed the room and apartment in her rage, but the sure knowledge that Rit-chan would be upset if she touched her stuff as well as the knowledge that Shinji would have to clean the mess up when he got back kept her from her destructive ways. The Second had some time to herself now, seeing as she was working on a week-long suspension from school starting today because she had broken Kensuke's nose when the geek had unwisely asked about Shinji. Two other boys who had tried to intervene had had to visit the school infirmary as well. Rit-chan restrained Asuka, Hikari had handled the school politics, and Rei had escorted the temperamental Second to the Zoo. Hikari had phoned her about an hour later to tell her she was suspended for a week and would have to see the principal before she returned to class. Asuka had barely listened to her friend.

Misato had come back and crashed a few hours ago, and Asuka had checked on her guardian to find the woman sprawled out on her bed, sound asleep, still dressed in her work clothes. After a moment of thought, Asuka had taken the time to undress her guardian and tuck her into her bed. As she had gotten Misato settled, she had noticed tears slipping down Misato's cheeks. For some reason, that had really bothered Asuka, and the German girl had swiftly exited the room, gone to the kitchen and devoured a quart of German Chocolate Death ice cream. Now, sitting on the couch, she idly flipped channels. With nothing on, she tossed the remote to Pen Pen and lay back on the couch. One question kept bothering her. Why did I tuck Misato into bed? Why? It's not like I care how the drunken slob sleeps! So why did I do it? She stared at the ceiling for a bit.

Because Shinji would have wanted me to. She blinked. "What the fuck?" she muttered out loud. Because you know that Shinji would have taken care of her, that's why you did it. Asuka sat up and shook her head. "No. I don't care what that baka would want." She said aloud. Pen Pen turned to look at her with one eye. Yes, you do. "No, I don't!" she snapped. Pen Pen continued to stare at her. "He's just a training aid, nothing more." She said, disliking how fake that sounded even to herself. That's a lie. He is more to you than that.

"Wark." Interrupted Pen Pen.

"Shut up, stupid bird!" snarled Asuka. Pen Pen scrambled away from her as the angry teen shot to her feet, headed for her room. "Sitting here talking to myself like an idiot." She muttered as she swiftly stripped off her school outfit and donned her summer dress. "How pathetic. Next thing you know, I'll be talking to a doll." She grimaced. No! Don't think about that! Shopping would clear her head; or so she hoped.

-

"Rei. What do you want?" asked Gendo as the First stood in front of his desk.

"It is about my residence, sir." Said Rei in her normal monotone.

"What about it?" asked Gendo.

"It was heavily damaged in the attack of the fourteenth. This morning, as I was leaving for school, the stairwell collapsed." Said Rei as emotionlessly as one would announce that they stepped on a crack in the sidewalk.

"You are unhurt?" came Gendo immediate reply.

"Yes, sir. However, I can not access my residence. There is also several large cracks in the foundation and walls. The cracks enlarged as I watched, sir." Elaborated Rei.

"I see. I will arrange a new residence for you, Rei." Said Gendo. Rei remained in her place. "Was there something else?" he asked her.

"Yes, sir. I would like to occupy a residence in the building that Major Katsuragi and the other Children reside in." Stated Rei.

"Why?" asked Gendo. I really don't like her being that near to the Third.

"In all the attacks, the building has not been damaged. Also, there is increased security in place already, as well as being closer to an access route. Further more, it will allow for more efficient teamwork with my co-workers." Reasoned Rei. And when Shinji returns to me, I can be one with him more often.

"This is what you want?" asked the Commander. No mention of the Third at all.

"It is." Was her reply.

"Very well." Said Gendo, pushing a button on his phone. "I will make the arrangements." Said the Devil of NERV.

-

"Good afternoon, Celsia." Said Airi softly as she entered Celsia's room.

"In here, Airi!" came the cheerful voice of Celsia from the bathroom. Airi poked her head in the open door and saw that Celsia was once more in the shower. "Be done in a bit, Airi!" said Celsia cheerfully.

"You're in a good mood." Noted Airi, taking a seat on the toilet.

"Yes, I suppose I am." Agreed Celsia, washing the last of the shampoo from her blonde hair. The elf had already decided that she would be sure to take as much of this `shampoo' with her as she could; it was amazing stuff. Humming a bit, she took the body sponge and squirted some body wash onto it and began to wash her smooth skin.

"Does this mean that we've made progress?" sub vocalized Airi. Celsia caught her eye and gave a small nod.

"Well, that's good news, for a change." Muttered Airi.

"Something wrong?" asked Celsia, working her way down her body with the foamy body soap.

"Yes. You know the angel attack a few days ago?" prompted Airi. Celsia nodded. "Well, it was a messy fight. Shinji had been expelled from NERV that morning, and…" Celsia didn't like what she heard in the next two minutes.

-

Shinji was riding a train. Across from him sat a much younger form of himself. He figured that he was about four in this form. He kept asking himself why he was doing this. Shinji gave the `correct' answers, but the younger him kept shooting them down. Finally, he got fed up and refused to talk to himself. God, that sounds stupid. He thought. He turned his mind to Asuka, Rei, Rit-chan and Misato. When he opened his eyes, he was no longer on a train. He was laying down on a beach, with a very naked Rei leaning over him. She was smiling and asking him if he wanted to be one with her.

Before he could answer, Rei became Asuka, telling him that she would make him happier than he could imagine by becoming one with him. Blinking, he found that Asuka had become Misato, her generous chest pressing against him as she invited him to be one with her, telling him she could make it very, very good for him. Misato became Rei again. Before long, they were blurred together. Shinji shut his eyes tight for a few moments. When he opened them, he was looking at a naked woman he had never seen before, but who felt oddly familiar to him.

She looked like Rei, but with brown hair, deep blue eyes and a more adult body. Shinji felt a powerful sense of familiarity with her, but couldn't recall ever seeing her before. Still, he felt totally at ease with her; safe, like a baby in his mother's arms. Mother?

"Finally, my lovely Shinji." Smiled the woman, pulling him to herself and hugging him. "Finally I can hold you in my arms again."

"You're my…mother?" he asked, stunned. Suddenly, he remembered. He remembered everything from his childhood. The way his mother smiled at him, her scent, her mannerisms. "Momma." He croaked, grabbing her in a tight hug. The woman held him for a bit longer before easing back a bit. Shinji felt tears on his cheeks.

"I'm so sorry I haven't been there for you as you grew up, my beautiful Shinji." Said the woman, wiping his tears away with her hands. Shinji closed his eyes as her soft hands wipes his cheeks. This was a familiar memory from his childhood, and it felt even better now. "Please, forgive me for what I had to do." Said his mother.

"Why did you leave me, mom?" asked Shinji. "Why did he leave me?" Yui Ikari stopped smiling at the mention of her husband. Taking a deep breath, she looked into her son's eyes.

"That is as much my fault as his, my son." She said softly. Seeing him looking lost, she eased him into her lap, holding him like she had when he was a child. "I see that I better tell you what happened, and why. I…can't promise that you'll like what you hear, Shinji. Nor can I promise that you will feel better once you know what's going on. If you want to know, I will tell. Do you wish to know?" said Yui. Shinji nodded.

-

"We're home." Came Rit-chan's voice from the door to the Zoo. She entered, Airi right behind her. "Hmm. Guess Asuka it out shopping and Misato must still be sleeping." Mused the teen. Airi slipped off her shoes and followed her partner into the interior of the Zoo. Pen Pen was watching a documentary on penguins again. Rit-chan nodded to him as she passed. Airi stepped into the kitchen to see a note on the table.

"Rit-chan." Called Airi.

"Yeah?" answered Rit-chan from Asuka's room.

"We need to go to the apartment four doors down." Said Airi. Rit-chan stepped out of the shared room as she settled a light summer dress - not unlike Asuka's - over her hips.

"Why? What's going on?" asked Rit-chan. The door to the Zoo chimed.

"Well, I guess that she got tired of waiting." Said Airi, smiling at Rit-chan's puzzled look. Opening the door, the two women saw Rei standing there in her school uniform.

"Rei-chan." Said Rit-chan. "What are you doing here?"

"I see you have not found Misato's note yet." Said Rei softly.

"Just now, Rei." Said Airi, handing the note to Rit-chan, who swiftly read it.

"So you live four doors down from us now? Cool." Said Rit-chan, smiling at Rei. She knew that Shinji would feel better knowing that she was no longer living in that hell hole she had called home. "Need some help moving in?" guessed Rit-chan.

"No." said Rei quietly. "I would like to ask your assistance in replacing my clothes and belongings."

Airi blinked. "You're clothes?" she asked.

"Yes. This morning on my way to school, the stairs collapsed. This afternoon, after I informed the Commander of the state of the building I was assigned to and was told that I could live here, I returned to get my clothes, but found that the building had completely collapsed." Rei seemed entirely unconcerned about that. "I discovered when I arrived at the new residence, that it was empty. I need to replace my clothes, and I would like to obtain some furnishings, but I am unsure of where to locate some of the items I need."

"Well, we can certainly help there." Smiled Rit-chan. "Let me grab my purse and we're outta here." Smiled the teen. "You're coming too, right Airi?" asked Rit-chan.

"Of course." Smiled Airi. Four minutes later, the three were off to plunder the town. They missed Asuka's return by about a half hour.

-

"You seem concerned, old friend." Said Fuyutsuki as he noticed that Gendo wasn't plotting evil deeds like normal.

"No, I am just considering the next step." Said the commander. "Has there been any new developments on your end?"

"Not yet. And how about Akagi's attempt to salvage the Third?" replied Kouzo.

"She has just finished assembling the protocol for the attempt from notes left by her mother. She needs another week to make the proper programs and calibrate them. Then she can make her first attempt." Said Gendo.

"First attempt? You mean she will try again if she fails?" asked the Vice Commander. Gendo nodded.

"But, success or failure, he can still do as required. It is the state of Units 0 and 2 that have me most concerned. They won't be combat ready for another three weeks at the earliest. We might have need of an Eva before then, however." Revealed Gendo.

"So, you will use Unit 1 if the need arises?" guessed Fuyutsuki.

Gendo shook his head. "I will not risk the key to Human Instrumentality. No, I have chosen to activate the Sixth Child in Unit 4."

"Sixth? Won't Seele send the Fifth to you?" asked his old sensei.

"Seele has informed me that the Fifth is not yet ready for piloting." Sneered Gendo. As if I don't already know the truth of the so-called `Fifth'.

"So, when are you going to recruit the Sixth?" asked the old man.

"End of next week. After Akagi tries to salvage the Third." Said Gendo.

-

Keiko groaned and held her head as she stumbled into her room. She had been feeling unwell for the past week or so, but this was getting out of hand. Morning sickness? But it's nearly ten at night! Thought the girl. Reaching under her desk, she pulled out a bottle of bourbon and took a swig. Feeling a little better, she tucked the bottle back under the bed and laid down. Man, these parties are getting intense. She though. Her belly was aching, almost like when she was on her period. Grimacing, she stood and made her way to the bathroom.

Turning on the light, she squinted for a bit before looking at herself in the mirror. She noticed the smeared make-up and the wrinkled, stained state of her clothes. She began to undress, tossing her blouse aside and smiling as she saw the hickies and bites on her breasts and shoulders. She also touched the nipple ring she had found in her left nipple two weeks ago when she came to after a large party. A simple thin gold ring, it was unobtrusive, and you couldn't tell she had it unless her nipples were erect and she was wearing a thin shirt. Unzipping her skirt, she let it drop, noticing that it had dried semen on it as well. Glancing at her panties, she saw that they were on backwards and soaked with a mixture of semen and her own sex juice. Pulling them off, she giggled as a small flood of fluid ran down her legs from her groin.

Wiping up the thick, viscous mixture with her ruined panties, she tossed them into the trash and began to wash her face. Once the makeup was gone, she moved to the toilet and sat down. A bit of pink attracted her attention. Glancing at the white seat cover, she saw a smear of pink. Frowning, she saw a darker pink line on her thighs, ending at her tender pussy. What's this about? Wondered the girl, noticing that the water in the bowl was turning dark red. Her belly suddenly contracted in a sharp, excruciating spasm. "Augh!" she screamed, grabbing her lower belly. Another cramp hit, doubling her over and making it nearly impossible to breathe. The pain in her belly grew worse, and soon, she was vomiting up the contents of her stomach from the vicious cramping that had spread from her lower belly to her entire body. After one full-body spasm knocked her off the toilet, she hit the floor, unconscious in a growing pool of blood and vomit.

-

"So, did you hear?" asked Aki of the Class Rep. Hikari nodded.

"Yeah. Three more transferred." Said the girl. "And that's just from our class." She added.

"All non-essential personnel are being re-assigned to other bases." Nodded Aki. Hikari had a sudden suspicion. "Are you…?"

"No. Dad's necessary personnel to NERV." Smiled Aki. "So, I'm staying. Besides, this hits the newsstands next week." She smiled, tossing a glossy magazine to Hikari's desk. Hikari blinked, then realized what the magazine was.

"This is…!" she squealed. Aki placed a finger over her lips.

"Shh. It's a special pre-view issue sent to me by Todoroki. Check it out." She grinned, pointing to the cover. Hikari looked at the cover. Sure enough, the picture of Aki in the small bikini, oiled and sprayed was on the cover. Aki giggled. "Rit-chan'll love page 41." She added. Hikari flipped pages until she found the right page.

"Oh my. Think she'll let this one slide?" she wondered.

"Who knows?" giggled Aki. "Still, if she decides to run him down in her tank, it should be fun to watch!"

"You're a bad influence, you know that?" said Hikari piously. Her urchin smile belied her words, however.

-

"Stand. Bow. Dismissed." Intoned Hikari as the class was dismissed for the day. As the reduced class departed, Hikari tucked her last few school items into her bag and looked up to see Rit-chan and Rei standing by her desk. "Hey, you two have plans for tonight?" she asked them.

"Not really. Airi's buried in NERV somewhere and Misato is planning to be there all night as well. Asuka was called in for a synch test in her unit, so she's out for the next however long." Said Rit-chan.

"I have no plans as well." Said Rei simply. Without Shinji here, there is no point in returning to my new room.

"Well, then you're both invited to my place for dinner." Said Hikari, smiling at her friends. Seeing Rei about to ask her, Hikari pre-empted her with the answer to her unspoken question. "Yes, Rei, I know you're a vegetarian. Got you covered."

"Covered in what I fear to ask." Quipped Rit-chan. Hikari sent her a look and she laughed. "Well, someone has to keep you sharp in Asuka's absence."

"Let's go before you decided to try being funny again, Rit-chan." Said Hikari, her tone regal and snooty. Rit-chan smirked and slapped the girl's ass as she passed, creating a sharp gasp from class rep. "Rit-chan!" she squeaked.

"Oh, just covering Shinji's position." Smiled Rit-chan.

"Shinji wouldn't…!" began Hikari, but stopped suddenly as she realized the trap Rit-chan had set for her. "Ooohhh, you." She groaned. The three departed the school, Rei sparing one final look at Shinji's empty desk.

-

"Hi-chan! Guess what!" came an excited voice as Hikari opened the door to her house. Nozumi came flying around the corner from the living room area and jumped into her older sister's arms. Rit-chan and Rei simply watched.

"What?" asked Hikari, hugging her younger sister before easing the 10 year old back on to her feet. She guided her kid sister farther into the house so the other two could enter.

"I was elected Class Representative too!" crowed the youngest Horaki girl.

"Well! Good for you, `Zumi-chan!" said Hikari, genuinely happy for her sister. "But wasn't that boy class rep? What was his name?" she asked the black-haired girl still grinning at her.

"Oh, you mean Zagu." The girl's sneer was plainly evident in her tone. "That jerk was one of the ones that left!" she sniffed disdainfully. Hikari hid a smile at her sister's attitude toward the boy. He had been her first crush, and in true Horaki fashion, she had walked up to him one day and told him that she was his girlfriend now. It had been a very bad scene, since the boy had stepped back from her and told her that he liked Ruriko because she wasn't so bossy. Hell hath no fury like a girl scorned for her classmate. Thought Hikari.

"I see." She murmured. "So, you're now the Inchou of your turtle class?" she asked. Nozumi nodded enthusiastically.

"I won by a landslide!" she laughed. Her laugh sounded suspiciously like Hikari when the girl had an evil plan in her mind.

"Lovely. Another iron-fisted Horaki Inchou is spawned." Sniped Rit-chan to her classmate.

"Yep! Third generation Class Representative!" said Hikari proudly.

"Oh. I didn't see them, sister." Apologized the youngest of the sisters. She bowed to them. "Please forgive my rudeness. Welcome to the Horaki home."

"We are honored to be here." Said Rit-chan, bowing in return. "I am Ritsuko Inoue. This is Rei Ayanami." She said, motioning to herself and Rei in turn. Nozumi sized the two up.

"You look a lot like Asuka." Said Nozumi as she finished her visual inspection of Rit-chan.

"Oh?" was all Rit-chan said, raising an eyebrow. Her lips were turned up in a slight smile. Nozumi turned her attention to Rei.

"Have you been crying?" she asked Rei.

"No." said Rei.

"Nozumi! Don't say things without thinking first!" admonished Hikari.

"But you do, sister!" defended Nozumi.

"And where did you hear that from?" demanded Hikari, although she already knew where the little chatterbox had heard that slanderous lie.

"From Big Sister `Dama." Answered Nozumi.

Of course. Hikari mentally groaned. God, she's got a big fucking mouth! "You still shouldn't say things like that to people you just met." Hikari said aloud.

"But her eyes are red!" protested Nozumi. "Everyone says that crying makes your eyes red." Her tone made it sound like the most stupidly obvious thing in the world.

"Well, not in her case." Declared Hikari. I doubt that Rei even knows how to cry! "Now, stop bothering them and help me get dinner ready."

"Yes, Hikari." Sighed Nozumi. Hikari turned to her two classmates and friends.

"Make yourselves comfortable, guys!"

-

Asuka angrily tore her plug suit off and slammed it on the floor of the locker room as hard as she could. Not getting a satisfying amount of noise and carnage, she kicked her locker door once, denting the medium grade steel yet again. Her locker bore many such battle scars. "Stupid fake blonde bitch!" she muttered angrily. "When I tell her the linkage is off, she better listen! I'm the best pilot for a reason!" Asuka snatched the towel off the hook and stomped into the shower, LCL dripping onto her bare back from her soaked hair. She was muttering in German as she adjusted the water temperature to her liking.

Nine hours she had been in the entry plug, testing the state of repairs to her unit. Though she hadn't been injured beyond some bruises and a bit of feedback pain, her unit had had to have a deep-tissue regeneration from where the prog axe had bit into the shoulder. Some of the connecting nerves and linkages were damaged, and that mandated the live synch test. Asuka knew that the protocol for this kind of work mandated that the pilot perform four more such synchs before the unit was ready to return to active duty. Hopefully that ditzy whore will get her shit together before the next synch! Asuka mentally raged. She worked some shampoo into her saturated hair, the first wash of many to come. As she massaged her scalp and hair, she had a thought. From angry to thoughtful took only a quarter second.

-

Rei slid her card through the door to her new apartment and turned to give her friend one more look. "Good night, Rit-chan." Said Rei softly. The two had just returned from Hikari's place, where they had had a surprisingly good time with the three sisters. Kodama had arrived home half way through dinner, and Rit-chan had noticed several similarities between the oldest Horaki and the Major she lived with. Still, it had been fun to interact with the three Horaki sisters.

"Good night, Rei-chan." Replied the older teen. Glancing at her own apartment door, she turned toward it, wondering if anyone was home yet. A thought occurred to her. "Oh, yeah. Did you get the rest of your new stuff in?" she asked Rei.

"Yes. It arrived yesterday." Confirmed Rei. She paused for a moment. "Rit-chan, will you assist me in a project?" she asked the red-haired teen.

"Sure. What is it?" agreed Rit-chan.

"I need to know how to make my new residence appealing." Said Rei.

"Appealing?" questioned Rit-chan. Rei nodded.

"Correct. I wish it to be…comfortable to those who share the space with me."

Rit-chan grinned evilly. "Oh! You want me to help you make this a love nest for you and Shinji!" she gloated.

"No." said Rei calmly. Rit-chan blinked.

"No?" she challenged.

"No. I wish this to be a place of comfort for those who come here. I wish it to be a…sanctuary for those I love." Explained the girl.

"That's deep." Said Rit-chan, her mind busy. "So, no love nest?"

Rei paused. "Perhaps not just a love nest." She allowed.

-

Asuka walked swiftly from the Cages, having spent the last hour standing in front of the leering Unit 1, silently - and occasionally not silently - cursing it. The nerve of that toy to take my Shinji! She fumed. She had found herself whispering to the beast as if it were Shinji, asking him to come back to her. She hadn't noticed the maintenance crew until she heard some snickers. Heh! Bet those losers won't make that mistake again! She thought maliciously, remembering the carnage she had dealt to them for daring to interrupt her activities.

With no real goal in mind, she found herself in the hospital ward. Shivering, she altered course to escape that location. I guess I spend enough time here that it's on automatic now. She thought, a bit uneasily. Aimlessly, she moved down halls and toward the command levels, where she figured she'd look in on Misato. Kaji, damn it! Look in on Kaji! She berated herself. Trying to get her brain in gear, she scanned the doors as she passed. Blank, blank, blank, Suzahara, blank…! Asuka froze. Suzahara? Slowly, she turned back and retraced her steps. Stopping at the door, she read the name. Yeah. Larry, alright! As was her nature, she made a snap decision and turned the handle. Locked. Asuka grabbed her card and slid it through the scanner. A moment later, it clicked open and she stepped into the room.

With only a single low-yield light on, the room was relatively dark, with a single bed surrounded by machines. Asuka slowly walked closer to the bed. Easing around a bank of monitors, she nodded to herself. Touji's darkened face was easily identified. Her eyes slid over the sheet-draped form, swiftly noticing that some limbs were missing. Asuka moved a little closer. He was breathing on his own, but was covered in bandages and had multiple lines coming and going from him. Studying the machines, she swiftly determined which one was hooked up to his head and noticed the sporadic bursts of electrical and chemical activity in his brain. "Who know you had a brain, Stooge?" she muttered. Turning her attention back to his broken form, she frowned.

The stooge's head was heavily bandaged, with signs that he had had surgery on his skull recently. Asuka noticed the bulk of bandages on his chest and abdomen, and in spite of her mental screams not to, she eased the sheets back to check on the damage. Contrary to what she expected to see, he was more or less easy to look at, as heavy bandages covered most of his grievous injuries. Asuka slid the covers lower and frowned at the stump of his arm. Moving on, she saw a thick, wide suture line across his belly diagonal from his right hip to his left short ribs. She also caught a glimpse of a familiar sight.

"Still smaller than Shinji." She said softly, easing the sheet back to get a clearer look at his dick. Had be been awake, she would have beat the shit out of him, but since he was out, she could indulge her curiosity without fear of rumors surfacing. At the thought of her lover, she blinked. That's right! No one knew that Touji survived! Oh, god! Shinji's…away right now, probably thinking that he killed the Stooge here, and… Asuka tossed the sheet negligently back over the injured boy and turned on her heel, headed for the door and home. However, before taking that first step, she gave the fallen Fourth a last look. "Tough luck, Touji, but better you than my Shinji." She said.

-

Rit-chan and Rei sat on her newly-positioned couch in her new living room, having just finished tuning the room to Rei's desired feel. Rit-chan had to admit that it felt much better than her old place, which had practically screamed desolation and despair. I think she is becoming…normal. Thought the elf hunter with satisfaction. Maybe, just maybe, she could put a little good karma out there to reap later; heavens knew she seemed to have been reaping some pretty bad karma lately. "Whew! That was some warm work." She smiled at Rei. "Got anything in the fridge?"

Rei considered that for a moment. "I am unaware of anything in the refridge, Rit-chan." Said the First. Rit-chan sighed lustily.

"Well, that's the next step in your plan, then, Rei-chan. Time to stock up on some eats and drinks for this joint." She noticed Rei's eyes on hers. Ok, so she has a long way to go before she's normal. Conceded the older girl. "Just some slang, Rei-chan." She explained before Rei could ask. "I'm saying we need to stock your refridge and pantry with food and drink."

"I see. That is reasonable." Agreed Rei. "What does one usually stock a kitchen with?"

"Well, it varies, Rei-chan, usually based on the skills and diet of the residents." Answered the taller teen, standing and holding her hand out to Rei. "For now, let's just get you some basic snacks and instant dinners. Once Shinji is back, he can help you tune your groceries to your tastes."

"Should he not…" began Rei, only to feel Rit-chan's fingers pressing her lips closed.

"No, Rei. Never allow the thought that he won't be back to get into your head. It's poisonous to hope." Said the elf hunter. "Now, we have to go get some food for this place." Gently, she led the First out of her apartment and to the elevators. When the doors opened, she and Rei were looking Asuka in the face.

-

Two days later, Hikari was at Rei's new place for a house warming party - though it was in fact an apartment warming party. She, Asuka, Rei, Rit-chan, Aki and Airi were in her kitchen, gathered around a store-bought cake. On the cake was written `Welcome Rei' in blue icing. Rit-chan and Hikari had chosen the cake, and Aki and Asuka had chosen the ice cream to go with it. Misato was supposed to be there, but had been called in to NERV two hours ago, and wasn't expected to return until later the next day.

Hikari and Rit-chan had cooked a nice meal while the others explored the apartment and talked in the living room. Rei's apartment was roughly the same size as The Zoo, but was laid out with a single bedroom, so her living room, bathroom and kitchen were larger than Misato's. She had chosen to decorate her apartment much like her commanding officer's apartment: a mixture of western and Japanese furniture, décor and influences. Airi and Rit-chan had picked up on this odd trend as they had helped her locate, select and plan her purchases several days ago. When asked, she had simply said that Shinji was more relaxed in Misato's apartment, so she would try to make hers feel similar. Neither Airi nor Rit-chan had bothered to suggest that it was the people in the Zoo that made him more relaxed, as they intuitively knew that she was aware of that.

Thus, a three-cushion couch dominated her living room, facing the large TV, DVD player and gaming console, with a small but nice coffee table in front of it, the glass door to the balcony to the left of the couch, the entrance to the kitchen to the right. Her kitchen table was exactly like Misato's except for the wear and tear - and the beer can dents on the surface. Her bathroom was mixed, with a western type toilet the only indication that it wasn't a traditional Japanese apartment. Her bedroom was dominated by a large bed, the same size and make as the one that had been in her apartment when Rit-chan lost her virginity. Rit-chan noticed this and felt herself smiling dreamily at the memory. On the walls were some basic watercolor works and her clothes resided in a two-stage armoire. Her desk was a Japanese style knee desk, and on it rested a NERV laptop with MAGI interface. Airi had all sorts of questions about that, but Rei refused to answer any of them. By the side of the bed was a beside table, and resting on top of it was Rei's USP, a backup magazine - fully loaded with Misato's custom hot loads, Rit-chan noticed - and a small book. Scanning the title, Hikari noticed that it was a book of hikus. Opening the cover, she noticed a small set of initials on the bottom right corner of the inside cover. Wonder who K.S. is. She mused. Airi eased open the small drawer under the top of the bedside table and found four more magazines for the USP stacked neatly in there, along with a small flashlight, a neat emergency medical kit and a blister pack of pills with Rei's name on them.

With the apartment explored, the group had come into the kitchen for the meal, which was good but simple. Once the meal had been put away, they broke out the cake and ice cream. Asuka had volunteered to cut the cake, and Rit-chan was dishing up ice cream. Rei paused and assessed the feel of her new home as her friends and coworkers fed their collective sweet tooth. I believe that he will find this comfortable. She decided. She felt a now-familiar tingle in her pussy at the though of Shinji in her apartment. With a bit of concentration, she managed to get herself under control. Please hurry back to me, Shinji. She silently begged him. I am…horny.

-

"So, you're going to attempt to bring him back tomorrow?" asked Misato. It had been eleven days now that Shinji had been out of her life, and she was excruciatingly unhappy about that. Akagi had been the one to feel that displeasure, as Misato had taken to camping out in her lab, constantly pushing her to bring back Shinji. It irritated the doctor no end.

"Yes. I think we're ready to try to salvage him." Agreed the fake blonde. "I'm going over the final checks with Maya tonight, so we should be ready to try tomorrow at about ten o'clock. I assume you're going to be here?" she said, her tone stiff.

"Of course I am!" snapped Misato. Seeing Akagi blink, she sighed. "Sorry, Ritsu. I've been a bit out of sorts since this happened." She apologized.

"I noticed." Said Akagi dryly.

"So I'll have my Shinji back tomorrow, then?" she prompted her old college roomie.

"If all goes well, yes. I must warn you, however, that this has been tried before." She paused. "And it failed." She added.

"It's been tried before?" asked Misato, suspicious. "That's news to me."

"Really, Misato, did you think that I put together this entire protocol by myself in eleven days? I'm good, but not that good! No, most of this came from notes left by…my mother."

"Your mother? Naoko Akagi? She tried this?" wondered Misato.

Ritsuko nodded. "Yes. And failed." Misato was silent for a moment.

"Well, you told me that you always wanted to beat her, Ritsu. Here's your chance: bring my Shinji back to me. You do that, and you'll have beaten her."

-

"Damn you, Ritsu." Snarled Misato, her tone uneven and broken. "Damn you to hell." Spinning away from the open-mouthed doctor, she fled the cage where Unit 1 mocked her with it's continued possession of the Major's Shinji. The attempt had been disastrous. The signals weren't getting through. The Eva was being temperamental. Ego borderline wasn't stable. On, and on, and on - one thing after another had gone wrong. After only ten minutes, she had pulled the plug on the attempt; a choice that had gotten her cussed by her friend.

"Um, sempai?" came Maya's hesitant voice.

"Yes, Maya?" replied Akagi absently.

"I think I…might have an idea." Said the short-haired woman. Akagi blinked. Did I miss something when I was setting up the parameters?

"Let's hear it." Said Akagi, leaning over the younger woman's shoulder.

"Yes, Ma'am." Said Maya, bringing up some readout. "Well, when the signals started to deteriorate, I noticed that the ego borderline began to fluctuate before it collapsed. See? Right here. So, I was thinking that if…"

-

Rit-chan entered the Zoo to find empty beer cans all over the place and a strong smell of alcohol in the air. Swiftly moving through the apartment, she found Misato passed out in Shinji's room, hugging his pillow to her chest as if it were him. Glancing around the room, she noticed that no beer cans were in there, and nothing seemed to be disturbed other than the pillow the Major clutched. There was at least a couple of six packs worth of empty cans outside his door, though. She drank herself unconscious, but didn't leave a single can in his room. Looks like she threw the empties out the door as she drained them. From talks with Shinji, she knew that Misato was a slob, so this odd behavior had Rit-chan worried. Grabbing her cell phone, she punched in Airi's number and waited while it connected.

"Hello, Rit-chan." Came Airi's voice. "Let me guess: Misato is passed out somewhere; most likely in Shinji's room. Correct?"

"Yeah. What happened?" asked Rit-chan, keeping an eye on Misato.

"They tried to salvage Shinji today." Said Airi softly. "It failed."

"He's not…!" began Rit-chan, feeling a tightness in her chest.

"No. At least, not yet. I was just talking to Maya, and she told me that Akagi and her are reworking the protocol and will try again when they think they have it right." Airi assured her gunner. She hesitated, then continued. "How bad is it there, Rit-chan?"

"Well, considering the situation, not as bad as it could be. She's passed out in Shinji's room, holding his pillow. I think she cried herself to sleep more than passed out from the beer; the pillow is soaked. The Zoo looks like a frat house after a week-end kegger, though." She added. "Do you want me to get her tucked in?"

"Probably for the best. I'm heading home now, if you need some help with her. Where are the pilots?" asked Airi.

"Asuka is at Hikari's place with Aki. Rei should be home. Why ask?" wondered Rit-chan.

"I would prefer that they not see Mi-chan this way."

"Right. Got you." Said Rit-chan, ending the call and replacing the phone on her waist. Moving into the room, she began to pry the pillow from Misato's grasp. It was not the easiest thing she had ever done, but she got it free. It was indeed soaked with her tears. Setting it aside for later washing, Rit-chan got a good grip on Misato and half-pulled, half-carried the woman out of Shinji's room. Pausing to push the collection of cans out of the way, she reconsidered putting Misato to bed as she was. Experience with her friends warned her that she better get Misato to the bathroom and clean her up a bit first; Airi would not be thrilled to get puked on while she slept.

Decision made, she began to work Misato's clothes off her in the hallway, and when she got the last of them off the purple-haired woman, she got a good grip under Misato's arms and pulled her into the bathroom, carefully settling her over the toilet before starting the shower. Knowing what could go wrong, she stepped into her room and changed out of her school clothes. Tempted to put on her bathing suit, she decided against it, as it would just have to be washed if things went bad. Ducking into Misato's room, she grabbed the woman's bath basket before returning to the bathroom and closing the door. After checking the water temperature, she begin to fill the tub. With the tub filling, she crouched next to Misato and steadied her head over the bowl of the toilet before carefully prying the woman's jaws open. Been a while since I had to do this. She mused silently before swiftly pushing her finger down Misato's throat.

-

Airi slid her card through the door and stepped into The Zoo, spying the remains of Misato's binge drinking. From the bathroom, she heard sounds of movement, so she made her way toward them. Just before she reached the bathroom door, it opened and Rit-chan worked her way out with Misato in a fireman's carry over her shoulder. Both of them were naked and still a little damp. Silently, Airi moved in to help her younger team mate with the unconscious Major. In short order, Misato was resting in her bed, oblivious to the world. Breathing a bit heavily, the two women knelt by her bedside. Momentarily, Airi fished up her cell phone, scanned for the number she wanted and dialed.

"Oh, hi, Hyuga!" she gushed sweetly. "I'm fine, thank you for asking. Oh, yes. I heard, and it's about that that I'm calling. I need you to cover for Mi-chan for the next day or two, ok? No, no, nothing like that, Hyuga-kun. She just needs a day or two to get herself together. I see. Yes, that will do perfectly! I knew I could count on you, Hyuga-san!" She gave him a cute `bai-bai!' and ended the call. Rit-chan was smiling and shaking her head.

"You're something else, Airi." Said the teen, standing.

"Just doing what I have to, Rit-chan. Misato is taking some personal time, starting tomorrow." Explained the actress. She studied the naked girl.

"What?" asked Rit-chan, noting the attention.

"I think you've put on a bit more muscle, Rit-chan." Said Airi.

Frowning, she stepped over to Misato's door mirror and studied herself intently. "You might be right." She finally said. "Damn."

"Why so unhappy?" asked Airi.

"I don't mind being in shape, but I don't want to look like a muscle-headed jerk." She explained.

Airi giggled, touching Rit-chan's shoulder fondly. "No fear of that, Rit-chan." She soothed the girl's worries. "Besides, you look absolutely perfect like this."

"Thanks, Airi." Said Rit-chan, touching Airi's hand where it rested on her shoulder. For a moment, neither moved. Finally Rit-chan turned to look at Airi. "We need to do some cleaning here." She noted.

-

"I'm home." Said Asuka as she kicked her shoes off and entered the Zoo. Her nose picked up an odd mix of beer and cleaning supplies in the air. "What's going on in here?" she called, moving into the living room. Airi poked her head out the kitchen.

"Just a little clean up, Asuka." Smiled the actress. She was in shorts and a tank top, one hand holding a wet rag. Asuka glanced past her and saw that she was in the middle of cleaning the kitchen. From the washing room came a buzz. "Oh, can you do me a favor and swap out the laundry?" asked the older woman of the teen.

Asuka shrugged. "Sure. I'll just call this my turn." She said, stepping into the washroom and opening the washing machine. As she fished out the clothes, she noticed that they were sorted by type and care needs, as well as color. Just like Shinji does it. She reflected.

"Oh, welcome back, Asuka." Came Rit-chan voice from behind her. Asuka flinched and turned to see Rit-chan standing in the bathroom, her cut-off denim shorts on and a bikini top covering her chest. Her hip-length hair was in a pony tail, but also tucked into a bandana that was tied over her head. Behind her, Asuka saw that the bathroom was nearly finished, gleaming with an almost-new sheen.

"Must be something in the air." Muttered the Second. "So, you're on a cleaning kick?" she asked in her normal tone.

"Well, the apartment was showing some signs of needing cleaning, so we figured it wouldn't hurt to keep it from accumulating too badly." Explained Rit-chan. "Besides, you're almost out of clean clothes."

Asuka blinked. Hmm. She's right. I'm so used to Shin-kun doing the laundry that I've gotten out of the habit of keeping up with how many clean outfits I have available. "Well, I guess I can give you hand." She said casually. "Where are we at?"

-

Two days later, Hikari, Aki, Rit-chan and Rei were sitting under the large tree in the common area of the school, eating Hikari-made bentos. As was their new norm, the girls were discussing anything but Shinji. Hikari and Aki were talking about a get-together they wanted to set up, and were discussing possible locations to do so. Currently, a debate raged between Rei's place and Hikari's house. Rei interrupted their discussion with a soft "Kensuke is approaching."

Looking up, Hikari nodded. "Yeah. Wonder what he wants." The geeky otaku jogged up to them and bent over, gasping like a bellows. After a few moments - during which the girls just stared at him impassively - he straightened and spoke.

"Hey! Did you all hear?!" he asked, clearly excited.

"Hear what, Aida?" was Aki's rejoiner.

"I just got off the phone with Tomo-chan, and Keiko is in the hospital!" he exclaimed.

"Hospital?" asked Rit-chan. "Pity."

"Yeah. Pity it wasn't the morgue." Smirked Aki.

"So you think Red Devil got her, too!" crowed Kensuke. "Man, that's just what I told her!"

"You are in error." Stated Rei flatly, fixing her heart-stopping gaze on him. "Asuka is not involved in whatever accident has befallen Kattori."

"Got any proof of that?" challenged the boy. It wasn't his best choice.

"Had Asuka initiated contact with Kattori, she would not have survived." Offered Rei calmly. Kensuke frowned as he realized that he would have a hard time arguing that point.

"Maybe. But she could have just gotten bored before she finished the job." He suggested gamely.

"Unlikely. Asuka is…" began Rei before the PA announced that Class Representative Horaki was to report to the Principal's office immediately. Hikari blinked.

"What's that about?" asked Aki, seeing Hikari swiftly finish her meal.

"Probably about Keiko." Guessed Hikari, rising and handing her empty bento to Aki. "Take care of this for me, ok? I'll be back soon." She added, headed for the Principal's office. Rei silently took out her cell phone and punched in a number. After a moment, she spoke quietly to someone briefly before ending the call.

"What was that about, Rei-chan?" asked Rit-chan.

"I was requesting any information on Kattori." Said Rei simply.

"Really?!" cried Kensuke, sinking to his knees before Rei. "You can get NERV's intel reports?! Rei-chan, please tell me what you can get!" Rei stared at him for a moment before she spoke.

"Aida." She said in her dead tone.

"Yes, Rei-chan?" he replied in anticipation.

"If you call me `-chan' again, I will kill you." She said, standing. Only Shinji or my friends can address me that way. Turning away from the stunned boy, she had one more thing to say. "In fact, do not call me by my first name, either." Rei departed. Aki and Rit-chan exchanged a look and stood as well.

"She…wasn't serious. Right?" asked Kensuke hopefully of the two.

"Pff! It's Rei, brain donor. What do you think?" jeered Aki.

"Better take her at face value, kid; she's a wicked shot." Added Rit-chan. Kensuke was left kneeling in the dirt, blinking stupidly as the two girls left. Absently, he scratched his taped nose, which itched and hurt.

"Maybe Red's not the only psycho in that group." He muttered.

-

Shinji sat comfortably in his mother's lap. Time had no real meaning here, one of the many things he had learned from his mother. Also, the fact that both of them were naked was irrelevant since Yui had attempted to explain to him why they weren't really there. Shinji had sort of followed her, but the brain that had created the entire Project E core thesis swiftly left him behind her. Seeing that she was over-complicating thing, she had just laughed and simplified it with the basic explanation that neither of them had a physical body at that time, and all they were were two souls in a sort of holding area inside the Eva. Not that he understood her entirely, but Shinji took her word for it. The two had had much to discuss. Yui decided that now was as good a time to broach a certain subject as ever.

"Shinji?" asked Yui softly.

"Yes, mom?" came the immediate reply.

"Do you want to stay here? With me?" she asked. Please, please, please don't say what I think you will say! She silently begged him. Shinji considered that. His immediate impulse was to say `yes'. After all, he would be with his mother, who loved him. That thought brought him up short.

But, what about Rei-chan? And Asuka? And even Misato and Hikari? If I stay here, then won't I just be running away again? His eyes turned dark and angry. And if I stay here, HE will be free to do whatever he wants to do to them! Shinji bared his teeth in an atypical display of anger.

Yui watched her son intently. He's angry at Gendo. Good. Perhaps he will make the right choice on his own. I can only hope so, as I will not treat him like my former husband does and manipulate him. One of the things that Yui had not told her beloved Shinji was that she had complete access to his memory. Every single thing that had happened to him since she `died' was hers to know; and experience as if it had happened to her. And all the pain, the despair, the feelings of abandonment were hers as well. Yui was completely livid at the way her husband had treated their - no, her - son. Gendo Rokubungi would answer to her.

"I…can't stay, mother." Said Shinji softly, but with a steel tone in his voice. Yui felt a surge of pride at that new tone. "I have people who want - maybe even need - me, waiting for me out there."

"Not to mention, people - perhaps I should more accurately say girls - who love you are waiting for you to return?" prompted Yui, smiling at his sudden blush.

"Wha…I mean, I guess so." He managed. Yui giggled.

"I see you have returned to little A-chan again." She teased. After so long with Misato, he knew how to handle teasing. And the fact that it was his mother teasing him made him almost glad. But her teasing brought up another question.

"Returned? I've never met Asuka before she showed up with Unit 2." He said.

"Oh, you met her before that, though I am not too surprised that you don't recall it." Smiled Yui. Shinji raised an eyebrow at his mother. "You spent almost two months with Asuka when you were three or so, Shinji. Kyoko and I were working out some issues with the project and decided that it would be easier to keep you two together. You and she were inseparable, and she was very affectionate to you, and you to her." Yui leaned down and whispered in his ear. "You even gave her your first kiss."

"Really? Amazing. I always thought she seemed familiar, but…" he trailed off. Yui hugged him.

"She isn't who she was back then, you know." She said softly.

"I know. She's so…" Shinji struggled for the right words.

"Asuka is a prodigy, but she was hurt deeply by what happened to Kyoko." Said Yui softly.

"What happened to Kyoko? She was Asuka's mom, right?" prompted Shinji.

"Yes. But Shinji," Yui paused to make sure her son was listening to her, "I need to know something from you before I tell you what happened."

"What?" asked Shinji.

"I need to know if you love her enough to bear knowing what happened to her." Said Yui quietly. Shinji considered that. Memories of Asuka flickered though his mind.

"Yes. I love her enough." He said, mentally steeling himself for an unpleasant tale. Unpleasant was the least of it.

-

Asuka sighed and stood up from the tub, frustrated at the lack of satisfying release. Once more, she had masturbated herself to a climax, but found it barely satisfactory. Still, she had no more time to invest in pleasure; she was needed at NERV for her next test. Drying herself off, she went to her room and grabbed her yellow sundress, slipping it on and picking out a pair of panties before grabbing her bag and heading for the door. Pausing at Misato's room, she looked in and saw her Guardian and commanding office laying in bed, staring at the wall. "I'm out of here." She said, watching for a reaction.

"Oh. Ok." Said Misato listlessly. Her eyes stared unseeingly at the far wall.

Well, she's paying me about as much attention as a dust bunny. "I'm pregnant." She said.

"That's nice." Said Misato, hugging her pillow a bit tighter.

"It's the Commander's child." Tried Asuka.

"I'll see you when you get back." Came the reply. Asuka fumed a bit.

"We're out of beer." She whispered.

"What? Out of beer?" came the panicked answer. Misato sat up and stared at Asuka in horror. "Get some on the way back." She said. Frowning, something else occurred to her. "Where were you going, again?"

Asuka sighed and shook her head. "Man, talk about your one-track mind!" she complained. "I'm going in to NERV for that test." She reminded her guardian. Misato scratched her head a bit.

"Oh, that. Well, it should be a short test." Said the Major. Stretching her arms up over her head, she stood, letting her sheets fall from her body as she did so. Asuka felt a pinch of jealousy over her impressive chest. "Where are Rit-chan and Airi?"

"Out on the town. Something about celebrating a friend's birthday." Said Asuka, standing back as Misato - still naked - walked out of her room, towel in hand.

"I'm gonna grab a bath. See you when you get back." She said, closing the door to the bathroom. Asuka smirked.

"Enjoy your bath, Misato!" she called, exiting the Zoo.

-

"You know Misato?" asked Shinji of his mother, his tone a bit surprised. Yui laughed.

"Of course I do, my beautiful Shinji!" she said happily. "She is the daughter of the third member of the Ikari Inner Circle from my college days. Her father was Kaeda Katsuragi, a professor of Theoretical Electrical Engineering who also had a doctorate in archeology. He fancied himself something of a Indiana Jones, and often dressed the part, both in the field and in the classroom." Yui smiled in fond remembrance. "No one would miss his classes for anything, and they were always full within moments of enrollment opening. If a student wasn't waiting in line the night before, he or she wouldn't be able to get one of his three classes."

"Three? You said electrical engineering and archeology. What was the third one he taught?" wondered Shinji.

"Oh, he also co-taught a philosophy class with the resident languages dean." Explained Yui. She watched her son's eyes, sensing that his mind was elsewhere just then. "What are you thinking about, Shin?" she asked him, touching his face fondly.

"Oh, I was just thinking of what Mi-chan told me a while back; about her and her dad's relationship, I mean. She…resented him, maybe even hated him for what his absences did to her mother's happiness, but she also loved him because when Second Impact occurred, he saved her life at the cost of his own." Murmured Shinji.

"And you know all too well what that feels like, correct?" prompted Yui gently. Shinji nodded.

"What was she like? Before, I mean." He asked, not wanting to discuss that topic any more.

"She was ten when I met her for the first time, though I had known about her and seen pictures of her years before. She struck me as a somewhat shy girl, but also a very happy one. After the first half hour or so, she was telling me jokes and acting like she had known me for a long time." Yui grinned at her son. "We even discussed boys like a couple of schoolgirls." She added ominously.

"Girls talk about boys when they're alone?" asked Shinji, unconvinced. Yui nodded.

"Oh, yes. Though I doubt that it's like the boys talk about girls in their locker rooms." She added dryly. She tilted her head a bit, pursing her lips thoughtfully. "On second thought, it might be." She amended. Shinji felt a bit uncomfortable at that prospect.

"So, she wasn't…well, a slob and an alcoholic? I mean, from her parents." Added Shinji swiftly, knowing that she was unlikely to be a booze hound or a party girl when she was twelve. Yui considered the question for a moment, much like Rei always seemed to.

"No. Her mother was a drinker, as was Kaeda, but hardly an alcoholic. It must be something that happened to her when she saw Second Impact. You know that she was in a mental ward for two years after that, right?" prompted Yui.

"A mental hospital? Why?" asked Shinji, intrigued.

"She was recovered by the U.N. rescue force, badly injured and nearly dead a few hours after the explosion." Began Yui. Her son nodded.

"I've seen the scar on her chest. It looked like she suffered a lot." He interjected. Yui raised an eyebrow at her son, but didn't ask him when he had seen her chest, as she already knew from his memories.

"It was a very serious wound, and for a few days, they didn't think she would pull through. When it became clear that she would make it, officials from the U.N. were eager to question her about what had happened to the expedition, and over her doctors' strenuous protests, they started to grill her before she had been conscious more than a couple hours." Yui scowled at the memory. "There were seven or eight men in there, yelling at her all at once…if I had arrived there earlier, I might have prevented her breakdown. As it was, she had a panic attack and her heart started to show signs of impending coronary, so the hospital staff had security eject them forcibly from her room, but the damage was done. She had seen too much, been injured too badly and was still physically exhausted, so the yelling caused her to have a mental breakdown."

"Mi-chan." Whispered Shinji. Yui felt very proud of her son's extreme empathy for what his guardian and commanding officer had suffered. Not like his father, the heartless monster! Forcing her thoughts off her ex-husband, Yui went back to the story.

"Two years, Shinji." She said softly. "Two years without a word to anyone. I visited her from time to time, when work allowed it. Her mind was intact, but she was shut off from everyone. The doctors gave up on her, writing her off as a case of unrecoverable mental trauma. I still don't know what brought her around, but one day, when the nurse arrived with her meal, she told the nurse she wanted to go back to school. Needless to say, she excelled at school, went to Germany and attended university with Naoko's daughter, and joined the nascent NERV, while Gehirn was still around. But then, the U.N. mandated the integration of NERV and Gehirn. We were one big family again."

"Are all families as fucked up as mine?" he asked rhetorically.

-

Asuka exited the shower, having just finished cleaning the LCL off her. The synch was back the way it was before the fight with the Angel and her score was solid, if a bit lower than her normal offering. Still, it was just a normal diagnostic synch test, so who cared? Her Unit 2, the pinnacle of the Eva series, fitting chariot for the best pilot, was once more ready for combat. Asuka couldn't wait to vent some of her frustrations on the next hapless Angel to rear it's ugly face.

"Asuka, you in here?" came a voice from the door. Turning her head, she saw Rit-chan in the doorway to the locker room.

"What's up, Rit-chan?" asked the pilot.

"I was wondering if you wanted to go to the range for a bit of fun." Said the elf hunter. "I know I could use some relaxation." Asuka considered that. If I go back to the Zoo too soon, Misato will just be after me for some beer. Besides, Rit-chan is good company.

"Sure. Got nothing else going on right now. Hikari and I were going to go shopping, but she called to tell me that she wasn't feeling up to it right now, so what the hell." Asuka closed her locker and joined Rit-chan in her walk to the range. It would be nice to shoot a bit, she thought.

-

The door to Ritsu's lab chimed and the fake blonde looked up from her terminal to see Hikari Horaki enter her lab, the visitor's badge clipped to her blouse collar. "Ah. You're right on time. I like that." Said the woman, standing and stubbing out her cigarette. It had been at least a day since she left this room. Crossing to where a countertop full of medical gear sat, she grabbed a pair of latex gloves and checked her stack of tests to make sure they were all in order. "Well, we've got some ground to cover, so strip and get on the table, please." Said the woman, her attention on the equipment.

Hikari felt uncomfortable in this lab, and it was clear to her why Asuka hated the woman so much. She has the bedside manner of butcher. Thought the teen, slipping off her clothes and carefully placing them on a chair. When she was naked, she looked around for the normal backless gown, but didn't see any. "Um, excuse me, Doctor Akagi." She began.

"No point in wasting time on those stupid gowns, Hikari." Interjected the Doctor, selecting the first of several trays and bringing it over to the stand by the examining bench. "They'd just be in the way. Lay down on the bed, please."

Hikari did as instructed, feeling the coolness of the vinyl surface under the thin paper screen. Once she was laying down, Ritsu positioned the stand next to her elbow and adjusted the clipboard held in the holder under the edge of the tray stand. "First, we're going to start with some blood work, a few samples and some measurements. After that, we'll move on to the examinations and extractions, then we'll move on to the tests." Said Ritsu, wrapping a rubber tourniquet around Hikari's upper arm as she prepared to draw blood. Hikari frowned a bit.

"Um, I already had a thorough physical before the current school term began. Couldn't you just get my records from my doctor?" she wondered. Ritsu glanced at her as she slid the needle into her vein.

"I have already received your medical records, but these tests are more thorough that those required by the school system. After all, we need to make complete record of you so we can put you back together again if something goes wrong in a fight with the Angels." She said in an off-hand manner. Hikari felt a bit faint at the casual way that the doctor announced her expectation of Hikari being seriously hurt. Of course, the pilots are always getting hurt; why should I be any different?

"So, how long will these tests take?" she asked, more to change the subject than because she cared. She was here until told she could go home.

"Probably the better part of the day." Said Ritsu, setting a third vial of her blood on the tray. Hikari tried to think happy thoughts as Ritsu continued to work on her. Her attempt at keeping her mind off what was happening to her was somewhat successful until she felt Akagi shake her shoulder.

"Wha…oh, sorry; must have spaced out. What were you saying?" asked the short-haired girl.

"I said, slide down and put your feet in the stirrups." Said Akagi. Hikari looked down and saw that leg supports and stirrups had unfolded form under the table to form a setup like she had seen in the gynecologist's office. Hikari had felt very embarrassed by her visit to the gyn office, and really didn't want another one; and certainly not so soon.

"Is this…?" she began.

"Yes. It is." Said Ritsu as if her question was so common she didn't even need to hear it to know what the girl was going to say. Sighing, Hikari slid down a bit and got into position. Switching trays, Ritsu kicked her stool to the end of the table, settling between Hikari's legs. Touching a button, the stirrups rose and spread, taking her legs with them. Hikari felt herself blush a bit. I can feel her breath on my pussy! Thought Hikari uneasily. An instant later, she gasped as she felt a cool, slippery sensation on her labia. "You ok, Hikari?" asked Ritsu.

"Ye…yes. What was that?" asked the girl.

"Just a bit of lubricant." Said the woman. "It will help the probe go in easier." Before Hikari could ask, she felt a cooler object begin to push inside her vagina. It felt a bit smaller than Shinji's dick. "Hmm. No sign of a hymen." Noted Ritsu. Hikari blushed to her breasts. The cool probe was warming up to her body temperature as it went deeper. Before long, she felt it brush her cervix. Inexplicably, it suddenly increased in width, making her felt tight down there. "Cervix looks fine. Good color, no signs of polyps or tumors." Continued the woman. Hikari saw her take a small bottle off her tray, and a moment later, she felt a slight stinging sensation deep in her pussy.

"Ouch." She winced.

"That's just a solution to keep your inner muscles relaxed." Interjected Ritsu. Hikari could feel herself growing warm down there, and it felt kind of good. After a few moments, she felt a light pushing sensation on her cervix. The warmth grew a bit, and Hikari felt herself relax even more.

Ritsu withdrew the small extractor and set the small bit of cervical tissue aside for further study. Glancing at her watch, she pushed a thicker probe against the girl's cervical passage, and after a moment, it slid into her uterus. Slowly, the head of Project E opened the probe, and in turn, Hikari's cervix. The spray she had earlier coated the girl's inner passage with was both a relaxant and an anesthetic. Within a few minutes, Hikari's cervix was sufficiently dilated, and Ritsu swapped out to one of her special tools. Settling the device into it's bracket, she guided a collection probe into the new pilot's uterus, then worked it upward into the fallopian tubes. After a few minutes, she had found her sample.

-

The next morning at school, Rit-chan entered the classroom and frowned. Seeing Aki moving toward her, she set her pack down and slid into her chair at her desk. "Hey, Aki. Where's Hikari?" she asked.

"Dunno. She wasn't here when I arrived." Shrugged Aki. Before the two could say anything else, Tomo approached them.

"Hey, Tomo." Said Rit-chan to the girl. She looked a bit worn down. "What's wrong?"

"I just got back last night from the hospital." Sighed Tomo. "Keiko had a miscarriage and lost a lot of blood. If I hadn't found her when I did, she'd be dead. As it is, they're transferring her to Tokyo 2 Central Hospital for further treatment." She said tiredly.

"I'm sorry to hear that." Said Rit-chan in a serious tone. "Although we had our disagreements, I still wish her well." Said the elf hunter. Tomo brushed the back-handed apology aside.

"Not your fault, Ritsuko. Besides, she's been acting crazy since the trip." She paused, as if she couldn't quite make up her mind about something, but then went on. "The doctors told me she had several kinds of drugs in her system, some of them totally unheard of." She said softly.

"I see." Said Rit-chan softly. So, someone was playing her as a pawn then.

"Hey, have you heard anything about Touji, Ritsuko?" interrupted the dark haired former enemy. Rit-chan locked gazes with her. The elf hunter didn't want to tell her what had happened, and Asuka had only found out that the stooge yet lived a couple of days ago. Still…

"I can't say, Tomo." Said the girl softly. "But you shouldn't give up, understand?" she hinted. "I know that Shinji wouldn't give up on his friend." Reika and Shiori strolled in, along with Kensuke. The three made their way to Rit-chan's desk. Kensuke began to pull out Shinji's chair.

"Touch that and I will dislocate your arm, Aida." Came a chillingly ominous voice. The entire group flinched and turned to see Rei sitting silently at her desk, staring out the window. Kensuke moved behind Shiori.

"Hey! Don't use me like a shield, stupid!" said the girl, moving away from him.

"Good morning, Rei-chan." Said Rit-chan warmly. The strange First turned to the elf hunter and nodded slightly.

"Rit-chan." She acknowledged. "Aki." She added before turning back to the window. Reika sniffed disdainfully.

"Too good to say `hi' to us, Ice Bitch?" she muttered. Rei ignored her.

"Hey, Rei, I was going to ask you, was Hikari here when you arrived?" asked Aki, heading off a fight.

"No. She was not here." Said Rei softly. She will not be here today either. Just then, the door opened and the Principal entered the room.

"Ok, take your seats, students." He said firmly. Surprised, the students did as asked. "I am here to inform you that due to unexpected circumstances, Class Representative Horaki has stepped down. Due to the same circumstances, we will not be electing a new Inchou; instead, we asked Horaki for her suggestion as a replacement for herself. She suggested Satusami to replace her in the role as Class Representative." There were several whispers at that bit of news.

"Silence, please." Instructed the principal. When the room was silent again, he continued. "I was uncertain of Satusami's ability to perform the duties of the class representative, but miss Horaki assured me that she could do the job, and a couple of the teachers back up her assertion, based on what they had seen on the school trip." He turned to Tomo. "Well, any objections, Satusami?" he asked her. Tomo rose.

"Um, no, sir." She said.

"No, what? No objections, or `no thank you'?" pressed the Principal, watching her intently.

"No objections, sir." Said Tomo.

"Excellent. For the time being, start by reviewing the notes Horaki left you. Miss Horaki will be returning to class as a student tomorrow, and can show you what you need to know about the Inchou programs and review your responsibilities. I expect to see you set at least as good an example as Horaki, understood?" ordered the Principal.

"Yes, sir." Said Tomo.

"Well, that will be all. You can being class, sensei." With that, the Principal was gone and the lecture on Pre-Second Impact life resumed. Tomo blinked a time or two, then booted up her laptop. Immediately, she saw that she had mail in her mailbox, marked `Urgent'. The sender was Horaki. Opening the messages in order, she read them slowly, ignoring the constant barrage of IM invitations.

-

"So, you like Horaki, then?" asked Yui of her son. Shinji nodded.

"Yes. She's so together, mom! She cooks and cleans for her family, does her schoolwork, hangs out with Asuka and does her Inchou duties as if it were the easiest thing! I wish I were that organized." He said. Yui smiled knowing from her look into his memories that he performed the same role in his little ad-hoc family. "Still, she seems to have this thing about her body. She keeps getting depressed about her chest, and she thinks she's unattractive."

"Is she?" teased Yui.

"No. She's beautiful." Said Shinji. Not to mention she's awesome in bed.

"You seem to have a lot of girls trailing along after you." Observed Yui.

"Not really. It's just because I'm a pilot." Denied Shinji.

"Are you sure about that?" challenged Yui. Shinji nodded.

"It's the only thing I do that's worth anything." He said certainly.

"So all these girls slept with you because you're a pilot? Sorry, but I don't believe that for a moment, my son." Said Shinji's mother.

"It is true!" insisted Shinji stubbornly. "What else is there that I do that is worth something?"

"How about your loving them?"

-

"Hey! Welcome home big sister!" came an excited voice from the hallway in the Horaki house. Hikari blinked and looked up. Nozumi was halfway to her in a flying hug. Barely in time, Hikari braced herself and caught her sister.

"Hi, `Zumi-chan." Said the middle daughter. Nozumi settled back down to her feet and looked up at her sister.

"You don't look happy." She announced. "Is something wrong?"

"Hmm? No, I'm fine, Nozumi." Said Hikari, smiling at her younger sister. "What do you want for supper?" she asked.

"Big sister `Dama made supper already." Said the youngest of the Horaki sisters. Tugging on Hikari's skirt, she got Hikari to lean down to her. "She'd not as good a cook as you, though." She whispered solemnly.

"I heard that, you little tattle tail!" threatened Kodama happily.

"Well, it's true!" giggled Nozumi as Kodama stuck her head out of the kitchen. "Come in here and eat, Hi-chan." She commanded. "And you have homework to do, girl." The head of the girls said to Nozumi.

"Yes, sister." Said the ten year old, sighing.

"Off with you, then." Said Kodama, swatting her youngest sister's ass as she bolted up the stairs to her room. "If you get stuck, give us a call, kiddo." She called after the girl. Once the door to her room was closed, Kodama turned her attention to Hi-chan.

"So, what's for dinner?" asked Hikari, eyeing the dishes on the table.

"Fried eggs, rice and sweet and sour pork cutlets." Shrugged Kodama. "Though I think I screwed up the cutlets; they're kind of tough and taste like they were dipped in lemon-tinged soda."

Hikari sat and dished up some rice and eggs. "You just cooked them at too high a temperature, and didn't let them marinate enough." Shrugged the cook of the house. Kodama sat down across from her middle sister and watched her eat.

"What's wrong, Hikari?" asked Kodama several minutes later.

"It's nothing." Lied Hikari.

"You never were a good liar, kid." Warned Kodama, leaning closer to her. "So tell the truth."

Figuring that partial truth was better than the whole truth, Hikari gambled. "I…resigned as Inchou of my class day before yesterday." She said softly.

"I see. What made you do that?" pressed Kodama. Hikari frowned. She doesn't sound too upset; or surprised for that matter. What is going on here?

"I…something came up that will take too much of my time. I had to." She said.

"What came up, kiddo?" pressed Kodama. Hikari's reserve began to crack. All the stress, all the fear of the last few days began to buckle her defenses.

"I…I'm…" she shook her head.

"You're not pregnant, so what is it?" challenged Kodama. Hikari reached into her blouse pocket and pulled out a small card, handing it to the closest thing to a mother she had, her hand trembling a bit. Kodama took the card and turned it face up.

"So. That's what has you bent up like this." Said the eighteen year-old Horaki. She studied the card. So, this what a death warrant looks like. `Horaki Hikari - Pilot'. Seems a bit anticlimactic, somehow. She studied her sister's picture in the upper right corner. Hikari looked a bit uncomfortable, and very upset. Kodama glanced up and saw Hikari just staring at her plate. Standing, the older sister stepped over to her middle sister and pulled her up and into a hug. "Come on. Let's get you a nice warm bath and get you tucked into bed." Said the older sister. Hikari trembled a bit in her sister's embrace.

"'Dama, I…I'm scared." She whispered.

"Only a fool wouldn't be." Assured Kodama. "And my sister is no fool." The two moved upstairs. Kodama paused and looked at her younger sister for a moment. "If you…have trouble sleeping, Hi-chan," she said softly, touching Hikari's cheek with her palm. "My bed's always open." A tear made it's way down Hikari's cheek as she nodded.

-

"Hikari! You're back." Said Tomo, relief in her voice as she entered the empty classroom and saw that Hikari was already there. Tomo was early, but Hikari had been unable to break her habit of being the first to arrive.

"Hi, Tomo. I see you took the job." Said Hikari, her tone dull.

"Well, with a recommendation from you, how could I say no?" said Tomo, studying the girl she had hated not too long ago. "Any advice for me?" asked Tomo.

"Yes. Do your best to be fair." Said Hikari. "And never let your responsibilities go undone." She studied Tomo for a bit. Glancing at the clock, Hikari sighed. "Let's get to it, shall we?" she said, opening her laptop and motioning Tomo to her. For the next half hour, she showed Tomo how to make the programs work, transferred her login and username to Tomo, and adjusted the report subroutine to route to Tomo's desk.

"That should do it, Tomo." Said Hikari, sitting back.

"Man, this is more work than it looked like." Muttered Tomo, reviewing her notes. Hikari shrugged.

"You'll get the hang of it soon enough." She said.

"Good morning, Hikari." Came the soft voice of Rei. Both girls flinched and turned to see Rei looking out the window.

"God, Rei! Don't do that!" hissed Tomo. How could she have snuck past us like that?

Ah…Rei-chan?" asked Hikari in an oddly uncertain tone.

"Yes, Hi-chan?" replied Rei evenly.

"Can I talk to you for a bit…privately?" asked Hikari. Rei turned away from her window and considered the girl's question. Standing, she nodded.

"Yes." She said, heading for the door to the classroom. Hikari rose and started after her before pausing and reminding Tomo that she needed to get the teacher's morning notes from the teacher's office and check to make sure that any absence notes were forwarded to the teacher at roll call, and to check the teaching supplies to make sure there was chalk, fresh erasures, paper and pencils in the room. With that done, she turned and ran to catch up with Rei, who was waiting for her at the foot of the stairs to the roof.

In silence, the two proceeded to the roof, with Rei silently using her custodian's key to open the roof door. Stepping onto the roof, Rei locked the door behind the two. Hikari moved over to the far cement retaining wall and slumped down to lean against it. Rei settled next to her. "You…know, don't you?" said the brown-haired girl.

"Yes." Said Rei softly.

"I'm terrified, Rei." Confessed Hikari. "I keep seeing the way you and Shinji and Asuka keep showing up all bandaged up, or worse, not showing up at all, and I keep hearing the way that Shinji sounds when he talks about Eva. Even Asuka said it was painful and dangerous. I'm afraid that I'm going to…!" she was cut off by Rei leaning over to her and kissing her. When the other girl broke off her kiss, Hikari stared at her wide-eyed. "R…Rei-chan!" she managed.

"Hikari, you are wise to be frightened. But remember this: you are not alone out there, and the rest of us will do all we can to help you, as you must do all you can to help us." Rei studied her eyes before continuing. "Shinji is…not here right now, and until he returns, it will be the three of us against the next angel. Believe in us, and believe in yourself. We can not; must not fail." Said Rei. Hikari felt herself beginning to feel determined. "Fight for those you love, as they will fight for you. Not everyone can fight to save those they love from death, but you have been given the chance to do so. Do not squander the opportunity on self-doubt."

"I…I won't Rei-chan." Vowed Hikari, looking at Rei's red eyes. Rei favored her with something that only Shinji and the commander had enjoyed thus far: she smiled.

"Welcome to the war, Hikari Horaki, Sixth Child." Intoned Rei. She leaned forward and kissed Hikari again. Sitting back, Rei rose smoothly to her feet, holding out her hand to Hikari. Silently, Hikari took the hand and the two moved back to the door, which Rei unlocked again with her key. As they descended the stairs, Hikari had a question for Rei.

"Why did you kiss me, Rei?" she asked.

"Kissing demonstrates a bond between lovers, does it not?" asked Rei calmly.

"Um, I'm not…in to girls." Said Hikari.

"I did not say you were, Hi-chan." Said Rei. "Shinji, Asuka and myself love you, and I chose to express that love by kissing."

"Well, I guess that makes sense." Allowed Hikari. As much sense as anything else she says! "But would you please not show your feelings that way when other people are around?" she begged.

"I had not planned to." Agreed Rei. Walking down the hall, they spotted a red-head headed their way.

-

"This Rei-chan sounds like a very complex person." Mused Yui as she watched Shinji's face, which was currently resting on her thigh, the two of them sitting on a grassy plain.

Shinji nodded. "Complex doesn't even cover it, Mom." He agreed fervently. "When I first met her, she seemed so…lifeless. Much as I hate to say this, she did seem like a doll at first." Shinji frowned at another memory. "The first time I saw any sign that she wasn't emotionless was when she spoke with him just before we got Unit 0 back on line, shortly before the Fifth Angel. Although, now that I think about it, she did slap me that time because I told her how I felt about her Commander." Yui had relived those events with him, and she had her own suspicions about the mysterious Rei Ayanami.

"But she isn't likely to hit you now, is she?" teased Yui, smiling at her son. Shinji shook his head, his smile suspiciously like a leer. His memories of her make me think that Gendo finally found the key to the cloning issues that Naoko was working on before my absence. And I would bet anything that she got her face from me! Oh, you have much to answer for, Rokubungi! Yui seethed to herself. Although, this situation is not completely unforeseen. Between the MAGI transference project, Project E and the Instrumentality scenario, I really should have expected this to occur. Yui thoughtfully stroked her son's forehead and let her fingers comb through his hair. If she is what I believe her to be, I better see if I can help my Shinji prepare for what will likely prove the worst sort of surprise. "Shinji, how do you see her?" she asked her son.

"Hmm? See Rei-chan?" asked Shinji, caught off guard by the sudden switch in topics. Yui nodded.

"Yes. What is she in your mind?" clarified Yui, though it wasn't that helpful to her son.

"She's…well, Rei-chan. My first…" he trailed off, blushing as he remembered that he was talking to his mom, and he was only fourteen. Yui laughed.

"Your first lover, right my beautiful son?" she teased.

"Mom!" hissed Shinji feeling himself blush at her tone. God, this is worse than talking about it with Touji!

"So, you see her as a lover, then?" pressed Yui.

"No. Yes. I mean, I do see her as a lover, but she is more to me than that. She's…Rei-chan." Frowned Shinji, unsure of how to communicate his feelings to his mother. Unbeknownst to him, Yui could literally get inside his head, and she was liking what she was seeing.

For what you have done to my son and all whom he loves, you will pay ten fold, Gendo! But for now, you will pay by losing your key to someone more deserving of her love.

-

Tomo entered the class room and started to get it ready for the day. It was strange for her to be here this early, and she was still half asleep, but she figured that she could get used to this pretty quick. On her list of afternoon activities was trying to call Keiko and see if she was awake or not. Since the transfer to the Central Hospital at Tokyo 2, she hadn't heard from or about her friend. Last night, she and Reiko had hung with Shiori and learned what she had chosen to do. Today should be…interesting.

"Hey, Tomo-chan." Came a voice from the door. Turning to look over her shoulder, she saw Kodo standing there.

"Oh." She said flatly. She had been doing a lot of thinking over the last month or so, and she had come to some realizations. "What do you want, Kodo?" she asked, her tone distant.

"What's with the chill, Tomo-chan?" asked the boy, raising his hands mockingly. "This whole Inchou thing going to your head?" he mocked her.

"No. I've just realized that there are other directions I should be going." She said cryptically. Kodo sauntered across to her and reached out, grabbing a handful of tit. Tomo pushed his hands off her chest.

"Don't do that, Kodo." She said flatly.

"Don't be that way. You always wanted me to do that before." He said, freeing his hands and grabbing her tits again. Tomo shoved him off her.

"That was then, this is now, asshole!" she snapped. "Don't fucking touch me, got it?!" Kodo sneered at her.

"Once a slut, always a slut, bitch!" he hissed at her. "Don't think that just because the pilots are nice to you means that you aren't just a cunt for the fucking!" He lunged toward her, but she skipped back.

"Stop it, you little shit!" she yelled. God, I wasn't expecting this! He's never been this reckless before! She moved to keep a desk between them.

"Face it, Tomo, you can't wait to suck my cock again, or taking it up the ass from me!" he taunted her. "So, did you give it to that little pussy Ikari yet? Has Sohryu made you her bitch yet?" He moved toward her, but she moved in counterpoint, keeping the desk between them. "Or are you just turning tricks for them like you did for us?" Suddenly leaping forward, he sprang over the desk and managed to get a grip on her wrist before she could get far enough back. Rearing back, he dragged her over the desk by the arm. "Fucking cunt should learn her place!" he snarled, grabbing her shirt and tearing it open.

"No!" she screamed, closing her eyes. He was going to rape her, and violently from the looks of it. What has happened to him?! She mentally cried.

"Ugh!!!" he grunted, his hands falling off her body. It wasn't until the dull thud of him hitting the floor reached her ears that she opened her eyes and saw him laying face down on the floor, a small pool of blood under his face. Turning to look the other direction, she saw an emotionless Rei standing there.

"Rei?!" gasped Tomo. The Ice Goddess glanced at her and put her cell phone to her ear.

"This is Ayanami. There has been an incident in the classroom. A cleaning detail is required." She said flatly before ending the call and slipping her phone back into her bag. Turning her attention to Tomo, she surveyed the girl's torn shirt and faint bruises on her wrist. "Are you unharmed?" she asked the girl calmly. Tomo managed to nod. "We need to replace your uniform before the class arrives for the day." Stated Rei, gently helping Tomo stand. "Follow me." She said in her normal dead tone. Tomo numbly did as she was instructed. Ice Bitch Ayanami helping me?! She thought, a bit stunned. She had been sure that if she were in trouble, Rei would have simply watched impassively.

Exiting the classroom, she lead the girl toward the locker room. Just before she turned the corner of the hall, she glanced back and saw four dark-suited men swiftly enter the room. Rei firmly pulled her down the hall. In short order they were in the girl's locker room. The First swiftly unlocked a locker and handed the new inchou a fresh shirt. "This should be sufficient for now." Said the girl, her red eyes on her Tomo. "Do not say anything about this to anyone. Understood?" she directed. Tomo nodded.

"Is he…dead?" she whispered to Rei, both hopeful and scared.

"Does it matter?" asked Rei, staring her in the eyes.

-

Shinji felt an odd sensation as he sat in silence with his mother. It felt kind of like when his Eva was synching with him under combat conditions, but not quite like that. Somehow, this was more…invasive to his sense of self. "Mom, do you…?" he began.

"Yes." Said Yui softly, closing her eyes and breathing deeply for a moment, letting herself merge more deeply with the Eva unit she was bonded to. When she was more fully integrated, she could access the Eva's senses to a fair degree. This must be what it is like to be one of a schitzo's personalities, always sharing a consciousness with another. She idly thought. Seeing what was causing this odd sensation, she reasserted herself and opened her eyes.

"Well?" asked Shinji, his tone a bit fearful.

"They are trying to…salvage you." She said to her son softly.

"They're trying to take you away from me again?" he asked, a bit panicked. Yui laughed reassuringly.

"No, son, they can never take me from you again." Seeing her reassuring smile, Shinji released a breath he didn't know he had been holding. Never. Ever. Again. Added Yui in her mind. She studied her son. "Do you really want to go back?" she asked him. Shinji frowned.

"I don't want to lose you again, mom." He said, his tone contemplative. "But, I…miss them. A lot." He added softly, looking into his mother's eyes. Yui smiled. He is more my son that even he realizes. She thought proudly.

"Of course you do, Shinji. They are your loved ones." She said, hugging her son to her. Shinji hugged her back. Hard.

"Yes. And I have to protect them." He muttered. You will never touch them, Rokubungi! He swore to himself. As if she heard his thoughts, his mother spoke.

"Do you want to protect them, son? For all time?" she asked, her tone intent. Shinji looked into his mother's eyes.

"Of course I do!" he said instantly. "Is it possible? He's still there, after all." His poisonous tone made it painfully clear who he was talking about.

"Yes. It is possible." Said Yui solemnly. "But," she cautioned him, pressing a fingertip to his lips when he started to speak, "it will not be easy, and there is great risk, both to you and the entirety of the human race." She kept her fingertip pressed to his lips. "If you are not prepared to risk it all, don't ask me to tell you how you can end the threat of Gendo forever. If you choose to attempt it, you must have no illusions that you will be betting the entire survival of the human race as well as the lives of your loved ones on a shaky chance. Think about it carefully, my Shinji." Said Yui. Shinji was silent for a long moment.

"Is there really a way, mom?" he asked her at last.

"Yes." She said, her tone certain.

"How do you know how to stop this?" he asked. Yui frowned.

"I suppose you never thought to ask, but the Evas, Project E and Instrumentality are all the daughters of my theory." She watched Shinji blink at that news. "I created them. They are my theories made flesh, and I can destroy them. All I need," she paused, touching Shinji's cheek like he was a child again, "is you, my lovely Shinji."

"Tell me how." Said Shinji, suddenly sure that his mother had the answers he needed to rid himself and his loved ones of his blighted touch forever.

-

"Damn!" hissed Maya, her fist hitting her console; and instantly drawing a hiss of pain from the young tech. Shit, that hurt!

"Well, you seem to have been correct, Maya." Said Akagi from over the young woman's shoulder. "For a moment there, it looked like it was working."

"I thought so too, but then…" she trailed off.

"Hmm. I think I know what we did wrong, Maya." Mused Akagi.

"So you saw it too?" asked Maya.

"Saw what? The interference between the signal probes and the ego border signal? Yes, I saw it." Nodded Akagi. Maya blinked.

"No. I was talking about the sudden refractionary signal noise when the recovery program kicked in. It totally cancelled out the carrier signal." Said Maya.

"Shit. That too?" frowned Akagi.

"It's got to be in the software, sempai. I think that the parameters are too high." Said Maya.

"Yes, at least as far as the frequency overlap." Nodded Akagi. "But the other issue is probably hardware based. Still, we ran the protocol through the MAGI. Twice." She mused. Why didn't they catch it? Hell, they gave it a five percent chance of success! The doctor glanced at her watch.

"Well, we have to run the Sixth through her first training sim, so I have to go now." Said the blonde, turning for the door.

"Um, Sempai?" asked Maya. Akagi paused. "I could run the training for her, so you can…" she made a vague gesture toward the bare face of Unit 1. Akagi considered.

"If you think you can, head for the Pribnow box and start loading the sims and pilot data into a body." She said. Pulling a cigarette out of her pocket, she searched for a lighter. Maya nodded and began to depart, stopping for one final thought.

"You were right not to tell Major Katsuragi we were trying again." She said.

"No kidding." Grunted Akagi, finding her lighter. "I just didn't want to get hit again; she's violent sometimes." Maya's soft giggle sounded as the door shut. Akagi took a deep breath and exhaled a lungful of death. Well, let's see if I'm as smart as I think I am.

-

Asuka and Rei walked into NERV together, silent and cold-eyed. School was over and they had no better place to be than here. Both girls understood that they were going to be spending a lot of time staring at Unit 1 tonight. Still, Asuka had a stop to make before they went there. With no other pressing business to attend to, Rei followed her fellow pilot to the locker room. Opening the door, she froze. "Hikari?" she gasped.

The startled girl yelped and spun to face the door, holding her plug suit in her hands. Her plug suit was a tan and dark green color, half way between Rei's and Asuka's design. "A…Asuka!" she gasped.

"What are you doing…here?" asked the Second, already having determined the only possible answer, but refusing to believe it. Hikari gave her a weak smile.

"I…I'm the Sixth Child, or so they say." She said, feeling her stomach lurch as she said it. "Surprise." She said, feeling sick.

"I see." Said Asuka softly, eyes closed. "Come to replace Shinji?" she asked softly.

"No! No, I've been assigned to Unit 4. I'm supposed to go to the simulation bodies for my first training session right now." She said. Asuka opened her eyes and crossed to her locker, which she noted was one away from Hikari's. Opening it, she swiftly stripped out of her clothes and pulled her plug suit free, slipping it on. "Um, Asuka, what are you doing?" asked Hikari. Unnoticed, Rei was settling her plug suit. For Shinji's sake, we will not lose another. Vowed the First.

"Come on. The simulation bodies are this way." Said Asuka, sealing her suit and turning toward the door, hearing a second hiss. She didn't need to ask whose it was. She paused to look at Hikari, who was still standing there, stunned. "Hurry up and get changed." She said softly. Hikari blinked a time or two, then finished getting into the plug suit. Rei silently helped her settle it, and a moment later, it became her second skin.

"These are…close fitting." She muttered, noticing that it was thinner and sheerer than she would have thought possible.

"Yeah." Said Asuka, tossing her head. "Let's get going." She repeated. Silently, Hikari followed the Second out of the room, with the First behind her. Several NERV personnel and staff unconsciously made a path for them when they saw the silent procession of plug-suit clad Pilots stalking the halls of NERV. It had become something of a bad omen to get in their way.

Maya looked up to see the First, Second and Sixth in front of her. "I wasn't expecting you and Rei, Asuka." She said.

"I know. Load up my data in one of the bodies, and Wondergirl's in the other." Said the German terror.

"It's not a synch test, you know. It's training for…" began Maya.

"I know it's training for Hikari, Maya." Interrupted Asuka. "But we can train her better than any simulation, and I need to blow off some steam, so just load the fucking data, all right?!" she snarled. Maya considered it. She does have a point, and no one said she couldn't train, so what the hell?

"You're in sim body Beta, Asuka. I'll route Rei to sim body Charlie." Said Maya, tapping keys.

Asuka nodded. "Has Hikari synched before?" she asked Maya. The tech nodded.

"Yesterday, she managed to get a twenty six percent synch after some practice, but that was a virtual synch with a MAGI test model." Qualified Maya.

"Twenty six. Not bad, Hi-chan." Said Asuka, offering her friend a smile. "We'll skip the basics, then, and move straight to combat maneuvering." Decided Asuka.

"But she needs to learn how to…" began Maya.

"She needs to learn how to stay alive more than she needs to learn how to increase her synch. The stooge didn't even make it two minutes, and I'll be damned if I loose Hikari because she doesn't know how to dodge an attack." Gritted out Asuka.

"But the schedule calls for…" began Maya once more. Asuka lunged forward and got nose-to-nose with Maya.

"Who has the most training of all the Children?" she purred dangerously. "Who is the best pilot you have?" she added, her tone ominously level. Maya was silent. "Exactly. Forget the schedule. Wondergirl and I will train her how to dodge and fire some weapons. She can't go for close quarter battle before she breaks the thirty five percentile anyway." She added, leaning back and turning for the door. "This way, guys." She said.

Locked into the entry plugs, the three were inserted into the sim bodies and initiation of the Sixth began. Hikari had been warned about the LCL, but it still made her queasy when it flooded her lungs. After a few minutes, she was able to control her revulsion, and began to concentrate on synching to the sim body. Odd sensations danced in her head, but momentarily, her plug went kaleidoscopic and then gave her an outside view. She quickly oriented herself and began the mental checklist she had memorized from the thin manual she had been ordered to memorize. With that done, she opened the comm. line. "I'm ready, Miss Ibuki." She said.

"At NERV, call me Lieutenant Ibuki." Corrected Maya.

"Yes, ma'am." Said Hikari. "I'm ready Lieutenant Ibuki."

"Loading the sim environment now." Said the young woman, typing in commands. Her outside view changed to a street view of Tokyo 3. Looking around, she noticed that it was about a block from the mall. "Loading Units 0 and 2." Announced Maya, and a moment later, Asuka's blood-red unit stood before her, and Rei's cyclopedian unit was to her side. "Ready to train, Hikari?" asked Maya.

"Ready as I'll ever be." She said. Asuka's unit stepped in front of her unit.

"Ok. First, you need to get a feel for moving your unit." Said the Second. "Concentration is the key, and you have to project your motor reflexes onto the Eva's body. Practice doing this." Directed the girl, dodging to the side with a swift skip. Hikari nodded and concentrated. Her unit lurched to the side, much slower and far more jerkily that Asuka's swift, effortless move. "Not bad for a first try." Nodded Asuka. "Go again."

This went on for nearly an hour. Once Hikari could move good enough for Asuka, she stopped Hikari and took one of Hikari's simulated hands in hers, putting her other hand on Hikari's unit's hip. "Now, let's see how much you've learned. Dance with me. I'll lead, you follow." Said the German girl.

"Dance? In this thing?" asked a skeptical Hikari. She flinched a bit as Asuka carefully slapped her waist.

"Yes. Follow my lead." Said Asuka, her tone reassuring. Slowly, she began to waltz, Hikari struggling to keep up. "Relax, and simply follow my lead." Said Asuka softly over the comm. line. Hikari took a deep breath and tried to relax. Soon, she was moving well enough. Asuka smiled. "Very good." The two units separated. "Now that you can move, let's work on combat avoidance." Said Asuka.

"Ok." Said Hikari.

"Rei and I will attack you, and you dodge our attacks." Said Asuka, moving her unit back a bit. "Ready?" she asked. Hikari focused on Asuka's unit.

"Ready." She said. Instantly, she felt a massive hammer blow on her unit's back, and she was suddenly eating pavement. "Ow!" she screamed, feeling the simulated feedback pain. "What was that for, Rei?!"

"Attacks can come from any location, Hikari." Said Rei softly, her face impassive. "You need to be constantly aware of your surroundings. Angels are not chivalrous."

"Get up, Hikari." Said Asuka firmly. "As you lay there, the Angel is destroying your home, your sisters and us. Get up and get back into the fight!"

Gritting her teeth, Hikari brought her Unit to it's feet. This time, she kept an eye out for Rei too, though the First seemed to have disappeared. A flash of red warned her about Asuka's sudden rush, and she instinctively dive out of the way, rolling her unit and coming up against a building, which crumbled a bit under her unit's impact. Before she could say anything, she felt the building collapse and a moment later, she was being thrown to the ground again by Rei. "Ugh!" she grunted, feeling as though she had just been slammed into the ground.

"Get up!" screamed Asuka, jumping into the air, clearly planning to land on her. "Fight for those you love!" yelled the German girl, her unit crashing into the street even as Hikari rolled her unit away and brought it to its feet again. Seeing Asuka flip her unit upright like a martial artist, she turned and demonstrated her mastery of the most important principal for first-time pilots: she ran like a bat out of hell, Asuka hot on her trail, and Rei running a parallel course. The next three hours were painful for her, but she showed stunning improvement. When she exited the sim body, she had broken the thirty third percentile bracket.

-

Gendo looked over the report from the head of Section 2. Silently, he flipped pages, then dropped the folder to his desk top. The section chief waited from his decision. "Approved." Was all Gendo said. The man nodded and exited the office, a long night in front of him. Gendo turned to study the report on his terminal screen. Yet again, you will not let him go. he mused, frowning. You can't want to keep him in there forever, can you? Not when we can be a family again.

"So, the second attempt is a failure as well." Came Fuyutsuki's voice from behind him. The old teacher stopped at his customary spot, just behind Gendo's chair and to his right. Gendo made no sign of acknowledging his presence. "I was wondering if you have given any thought to the matter we discussed last week." Prompted the former sensei.

"Yes. I have." Said Gendo, his lips twitching a bit. Fuyutsuki waited patiently. Eventually, Gendo realized that he wasn't going to take the bait and ask what he had decided, so he went on. "We'll begin the draw-down in three weeks." He said.

"Won't that tip your hand to the Council and the JMI watchdogs?" queried Kouzo.

"Not in any meaningful way. This city is a war zone, after all." Said the Commander.

-

"I'm home." Said Hikari tiredly as she unlocked her front door and entered. It had been a long day, and tomorrow was a school day, as well. Asuka had opted to stay at NERV, something about seeing someone. Rei had wished her a good night and disappeared between breaths, it seemed. So, she had showered, changed back into her street clothes, collected her things and headed home.

"Welcome home, Hi-chan." Came Kodama's voice from the living room. "Hungry?" asked the oldest Horaki. Hikari shook her head.

"Tired, though." She said, dropping into the seat next to her big sister. "Where's `Zumi-chan?" asked the middle sister.

"She's at her friend's place tonight." Said Kodama casually. Hikari glanced at her sister.

"Oh? Why?" asked the girl.

"She's having an official inchou party." Smiled Kodama. "And I thought you might be in need of some peace and quiet."

Hikari gave an inarticulate sound. Leaning her head back, she closed her eyes and yawned. Kodama silently draped her arm around her shoulders, and Hikari leaned into the supportive embrace. "Thanks, `Dama." She said softly.

"It's what I'm here for. How was your day, if you don't mind my asking?" replied her big sister.

"Rough." Said Hikari succinctly. "Asuka and Rei took it upon themselves to teach me how to run away from an angel." She said. "Man, they're hard core." Especially Asuka!

"I would think that that's exactly what we want them to be, you know?" rejoined Kodama. "They're slugging it out with the Angels, after all." Hikari hummed a bit. "So, did you learn anything?"

"Yeah. I learned to dodge and run." Snorted Hikari. She smiled a bit at another thought. "Still, I managed to get over a thirty three percentile score on my first real-world synch!" she said, her tone happy and proud.

"I take it that that is good?" prompted Kodama as Hikari yawned. Hikari nodded.

"Yes. Two more percentile brackets, and I can start training on progressive weapons and close quarter battle." She confirmed. Suddenly, she grimaced. "Ugh! Tomorrow afternoon is a session with the sim plugs again. I have to get trained on the pallet rifles, rocket launchers, prototype particle acceleration cannon and N2 mine deployment."

"Is Asuka going to help with that, too?" asked Kodama. Hikari shrugged a bit.

"Dunno. If she's there, I guess she might." She yawned again. "She's been acting strange for the last couple of weeks."

"Any idea of what is causing it?" pried Kodama. Hikari exhaled slowly.

"Maybe." She said softly. Kodama waited. "You know Shinji hasn't been…around lately; not since the last angel actually." She felt Kodama nod, her hand caressing her cheek. "Well, today, she went off on one of the bridge crew, Lieutenant Ibuki. She said something about `the stooge' not making it for five seconds. She had to mean Touji. No one's saying anything though."

"Talking isn't encouraged at NERV." Agreed Kodama, remembering something their father had once remarked about. Hikari started to say something, but it was slurred and jumbled. Leaning over so she could see her sister's face, Kodama noticed that Hikari's eyes were closed, and she was nearly asleep. Silently, the older Horaki sister got up, taking Hikari with her. Working her way up the stairs, she pulled Hikari into her room, settling her onto her own bed before quickly undressing herself and Hikari, killing the light before settling into her bed, the sheet covering them both. Hikari cuddled up to her instinctively. I'm worried about you, Hi-chan. Thought Kodama, touching her lips to Hikari's forehead. The least I can do is make sure you sleep good. Within minutes, they were both asleep.

-

Rit-chan stretched her arms as she entered the classroom. She had been up late that night talking with Rei at her place, and she was still a bit sleepy. Sleepy or not, she immediately picked up on the sudden stir in the chatter of her fellow students. She looked around, seeing both the guys and girls studying her intently, whispering to each other. Her gray-green eyes narrowed a bit and she headed for Rei and Hikari. With Shinji and Asuka both out of action, school was almost…lonely.

"Hey, what's up with the rest of them?" she asked hiking a thumb back over her shoulder to indicate the rest of the students.

"You mean you haven't seen it yet?" asked Hikari, blinking at her in an innocent way.

"Seen what?" asked the teen.

"This, Rit-chan." Came Aki's voice from behind her. A magazine hit the top of Hikari's desk with a soft thwap. Glancing down, she saw a glossy edition of New Fresh Youth laying there. Her memory suddenly rushed back.

"So, this is the final edition, then?" she asked, picking it up and thumbing though it. "Nice cover, by the way." She complimented Aki. Hikari giggled and Aki grinned. Rit-chan swiftly went page to page, scanning the photos. Suddenly, she stopped, the magazine dropping to the desk. "I'm going to kill that little shit." She muttered.

"Told you!" chortled Aki, slapping Hikari's shoulder gleefully.

"Amused, are you?" asked Rit-chan, eyeing the tall girl.

"Oh, come on! You look incredible!" protested Hikari. "A lot better than me, anyway." She added, pointing to the picture on the opposite page.

"What have I told you about that?" warned Rit-chan. "You're more suited to modeling than me, in any event." Rit-chan said, leaning back in her chair. Aki was still snickering. "What haven't you told me, Aki?" asked Rit-chan calmly. Aki just smiled wider.

"Um, remember what Todoroki told us? About there being two NFY?" began Hikari. Rit-chan nodded. Another magazine hit the desk top, the cover photo the one of the three of them, a shadow logo the only thing blocking the view of the trio.

"This is the trade pub." Giggled Aki. "Check out page 33!" Rit-chan swiftly leafed though the magazine, stopping at the mentioned page.

"Oh, I am going to more than kill him." She seethed, eyes narrowing.

-

"Are you ready?" asked Misato of Hikari. Hikari was in her entry plug, which was about to be inserted into the entry socket of Unit 4, which stood silent and motionless in it's cage, a gleaming silver and teal monster awaiting it's true birth.

"As ready as I'll ever be." Managed Hikari, her voice a bit unstable. A small vid screen opened and Asuka stared at her, blue eyes steady.

"Think of this as just another simulation, Hikari." Said the Second to the Sixth. "Relax, concentrate and all will be fine." Hikari tried to ignore the sub caption that read `from Unit 2' under Asuka's video feed. The Second was in her freshly regenerated Unit, prog axe in hand, just in case.

Just in case what, I don't want to know! Thought Hikari fervently. A second window opened, and Rei's red eyes examined her critically. "Hope I don't mess up." She offered to the First.

"There is no room for errors, Hikari." Said Rei softly. "Remember, if you could not do this, you would not have been selected." Said Rei, her tone it's usual cold. "We need you." She added softly before her window closed.

"Man, talk about your pep speeches!" groused Asuka over her link. The girl would have gone into a rant right then, but Akagi interrupted them.

"If I can interrupt the tea party for a moment, we have an activation to do. Prepare for insertion, Horaki." She directed.

"Yes ma'am." Said Hikari, taking a deep breath of LCL as she felt her plug swing a bit and heard the clang of locking bolts closing.

"Beginning synch feed." Said Maya, hitting some buttons. Hikari felt the almost-familiar tickling sensation on her mind, her plug going all broken spectrum on her. "Activation at point three five. Point three eight. Point four four. Point five seven." Intoned Maya, watching the readouts.

"You doing ok in there, Hikari?" asked Misato of the new Child.

"As well as I can be, Mis…I mean, Major." Replied Hikari. Misato nodded to her.

"Just stay calm and focus." She encouraged the girl. Glancing at her meds, she noticed that Hikari's heart rate, blood pressure and stress levels were all high. Must be tough, to tame the beast. She mused to herself.

"Yes, Ma'am." Replied Hikari automatically. She closed her eyes and concentrated on maintaining an even focus. For my sisters, for Shinji, Asuka and Rei and for mom. She mentally chanted.

"Activation at point eight one. Point nine oh. Borderline imminent. Point nine eight, synch becoming unstable." Whispered Maya, hoping for the best. Everyone on the bridge held their breath, especially Misato and Ritsu. It was right at borderline that Unit 3 went… thought Misato before shaking her head to force the memory away. "Activation one point zero five!" sang out Maya. "One point one six and stable!" Everyone let out a breath.

"Run full diagnostic spread, and log all settings." Directed Ritsu. Maya was already doing just that.

"Congratulations, Hikari." Smiled Misato warmly. "You've successfully activated your unit. Welcome to the big leagues, Pilot Horaki!"

"Thank you, Major." Said Hikari, a somewhat unsteady smile on her face. "What now?" she asked.

-

"Man, this feels like heaven!" said Hikari dreamily as she stood under the shower nozzles in the Pilot's locker room area. Beside her, Rei was silently scrubbing herself clean, while Asuka was just entering the spray on her other side. "Five hours is a long time to be in that goopy stuff." She said, lathering up her hair with some shampoo that Asuka had silently handed her after her first experience with LCL. "I thought I'd be pruney by now, but I'm not." She added, frowning a bit.

"LCL is not water, so it does not saturate your skin with excess fluid. It instead is absorbed in trace amounts and passes through the body like cellular matter." Said Rei, her tone dry and clinical.

"Speaking of that, how long before the side effects begin?" asked Hikari softly of her strange teacher and fellow pilot.

"It varies." Said Rei. "Depending on exposure time, genetic predisposition and body status."

"Um, ok, so that's how long, exactly?" repeated Hikari.

"If combat with the Angels continues to increase in both occurrence and duration, it will be within a few weeks." Explained Rei. Hikari nodded and ducked under the spray, rinsing out the shampoo and beginning to lather herself up with some body wash. "Oh yeah, I was going to ask you guys if you know anything about where Shinji and Touji are." She asked. Both girls paused in perfect synch.

"Hikari, you…" began Asuka, her tone oddly hesitant.

"Don't give me that `can't tell you about it' shit, Asuka!" warned Hikari sharply. "I'm a pilot, too, now. And that means that my security clearance is just as good as yours or Rei's!"

Unlikely. Thought Rei as she resumed washing herself. Outwardly, she was silent. Asuka was toying with her hair as she considered what to say. Hikari waited somewhat impatiently. Eventually Hikari decided that she needed to remind them that she had asked them a question. "Well? Where are they?" she demanded, her hands coming to rest on her hips in a frighteningly Asuka-like pose.

"Perhaps we should first ask what you currently know." Suggested Rei.

"I know that Touji was the Fourth, and something bad happened to him and Unit 3. Shinji is nowhere to be seen and hasn't been since the last angel. That's what I know!" she huffed impatiently. Asuka turned to look her friend in the eyes.

"Shinji's in Unit 1. What's left of Touji is in the medical wing. Any other questions?" she asked, her tone dark. Hikari blinked.

"Wha…what do you…mean by…" wondered Hikari, her tone a bit faint.

"Former Pilot Suzahara failed in activating Unit 3 in Matsuhiro due to an Angel's assimilating the Unit's body and core. Unit 3 became the thirteenth angel. It was destroyed by Unit 1's dummy plug system; pilot included." Said Rei softly. When my Shinji gets back, I must tell him the truth about me. Even if he hates me forever, I can not let that lie stand in his mind!

"Shinji destroyed…I don't believe it!" gasped Hikari, leaning against the wall of the showers to support herself. "Touji was his best friend! How could he…?!"

"It wasn't him, Hikari!" roared Asuka. "It was the Commander and that fucking Dummy Plug that did it!" Hikari blinked at her. "We almost had him saved and then…!"

"Asuka." Came the soft but powerful voice of Rei. "This is not a discussion for here." She said softly. Asuka looked furious, but went silent. Several moments passed, then Asuka spoke again.

"May as well get cleaned up." She said listlessly. Hikari forced herself to stand and began to wash off the lather from her body wash. As she lifted her arms up, she caught a whiff of coppery, pungent scent. Sniffing her arm, she was appalled to discover that it smelled like blood. Cringing a bit, she began to re-wash her entire body. No wonder Asuka and Rei take so long in the shower!

-

"I don't know if I can do this." Said Shinji to his mother. He and his mother had spent an unknown amount of time going over what needed to be done to put Project E to bed with a shovel. Once, what felt like either minutes or years ago, he had asked her how long he had been in Unit 1's core with her, and she had automatically tried to explain the theory of planar existence, but had stopped herself when she saw his eyes glazing over. Laughing a bit at her own expense, she had told him that time was more an issue of subjectivity than actual math. He had taken her at her word, and hadn't bothered to ask again.

Her curiosity stirred, Yui had allowed herself to meld back into the Eva's self, and tried to gauge just how long she and her son had been together so far. Her observations through the Unit's sensors and eyes told her she and her son had been one for almost a month. She had also seen the form of her former husband standing on the catwalk in front of current form, and it had angered her. She had also seen a lot of Asuka, Rei and Misato in front of the silent unit. She had giggled when Misato, during one of her random visits in the middle of the night, threw a beer can at her Unit's face, swearing and cursing the unit for stealing her Shinji from her. Long before he was your Shinji, he was my Shinji, Mi-chan. She thought to the Major, who had sank down on the catwalk and cried for a while before shambling back to wherever she had been before.

Remembering those visits, Yui knew that her son would be well cared for when he returned. "I know you can, Shinji." Said Yui to her son, smiling at him. "You can because you must." Seeing his question in his eyes, she elaborated. "To protect those you love, you'll do anything necessary, won't you?"

"Of course. But if I fail, then the human race is doomed." Countered Shinji. "I don't want to have to do this, but I have no choice!"

"Yes, actually you do have a choice; three, in point of fact." Corrected his mother. "First, you can simply stay here with me for eternity. Second, you can go back and do nothing." She paused, watching him intently.

"And third?" he asked.

"You can run away." Said Yui levelly. Shinji sighed.

"No. I promised them that I wouldn't run any more." He said, his tone determined. Yui hugged him.

"That's my beautiful son." She cooed proudly. Shinji hugged her back; hard. I'm scared to death, but somehow still looking forward to doing this. How can that be? He wondered. Immediately, he knew how that was: he saw in his mind the smiling faces of Misato, Rei, Asuka, Hikari, Rit-chan and his friends. The smiles of his lovers were somewhat…hungry. He blushed a bit as he imagined what they would do when he got back. That brought his mind to another matter he really wanted to discuss with him mother, but had no idea how to approach it. Finally, he figured that just jumping in had worked so far, why change now?

"Ah, mom?" he began.

"Yes, Shinji?" said Yui.

"I…um, that is…about the girls…"

-

Hikari sat back down as Tomo completed the morning routine, feeling strange to be following another girl's orders when she had been doing it for so long. But that wasn't the only thing that was strange. Is this what they have felt like all this time? So many thing that they can't talk about? She wondered. It was now her third week of being a pilot, and the weight of her security clearance was getting heavier than she had imagined it could get. There were so many things she couldn't talk about, not even to her sisters. But at least I can talk to Asuka, Rei and Rit-chan. She reminded herself. The three had been immeasurable sources of strength to her in the last few weeks.

She had paid a visit to Touji in his room two days ago, after constantly avoiding it. Seeing him laying there, hooked up to machines, his body so horribly wrecked had really done a number on her. Leaving the room at a run, she had literally ran into Rit-chan, who, after one look at her, had guessed what had happened and took steps to head off her growing state of fear and hopelessness. The elf hunter's strategy had been direct and something of a shock to her. She had dragged Hikari to a corner table in the hospital's cafeteria, told the workers to take a hike - which they gladly did; word of her gun-point eviction of the bridge crew after the destruction of Unit 3 had carried far and wide - and sat the shorter girl down for a talk.

Instead of focusing on Hikari's current issues, she simply started her story at the beginning, her walking home from school and suddenly finding herself in the elf world. As she talked, she kept in mind the changes she and Airi had made to the story, being careful to make them match. Through the first battle with Luffard, onward to the failed attempt to cast the recovery spell, to her months and months of elf hunting and stripping. By the time she got to where she and her crew had awoken to find themselves in Tokyo 3, Hikari had been enraptured by her tale. It had culminated with a visit to Celsia, who had tolerated the stunned teens examination with remarkable grace.

A real elf! Mused Hikari, sitting in class and staring out the window. As was her habit, she was reviewing her schedule, and was actually looking forward to sparring with Asuka and Rei that evening. With her current synch score at just over forty percent, she was getting the hang of prog weapons, most especially the prog knife that each unit carried and the prog axe that was Asuka's favorite close-combat weapon. That's right! Tonight, we use the real Evas! God, I hope I don't trip! She thought. Of course, the training would be in the Geofront, and the Eva would be using wooden telephone poles as prog knives. The point was to work on her fighting skills. Hikari was justifiably proud of her rapid gains in both skill and synch score. Even Asuka had told her she was almost as fast a learner as she had been.

A soft chirp drifted over the class and every student's eyes went to Rei, who silently pulled her cell phone out and checked the text message. After a moment, she closed the phone and opened her laptop. Hikari, Asuka and Rit-chan were swiftly invited to chat with her. When the chat window opened, Hikari frowned at the simple message: Training session cancelled. Report to NERV twenty hindered hours for special duty. Major Katsuragi.

-

"Shinji!" sobbed Misato, her arms wrapped around the naked form of her beloved Shinji. Standing near her were Asuka, Rei, Rit-chan, Airi, Hikari, Maya, Ritsu and a small retrieval team. They had come so close to losing him, and now he was back; naked and unconscious, but back. There was no prying Misato off of him. There was also a lot of attention paid to his naked form by the females around him. It took a half hour to get Misato to carry him to the infirmary, where - with the help of some sedative - Ritsu had managed to separate Misato and Shinji. Having seen the irrational way the Major and the pilots were acting, the Head of Project E wisely didn't waste her time trying to get them to leave her alone with the boy. Six hours later, he was in a hospital bed in a room, still unconscious. Misato and the girls decided that they would draw straws for turns watching him. Six draws later, Misato was curled up in a chair which was pressed tightly to the side of the bed Shinji was sleeping in, her hand holding his. She would be relieved in four hours by Rit-chan, who would be relieved four hours later by Hikari, who would be relieved by Airi, who would be relived by Rei, who would be relieved by Asuka, who would be relived by Misato.

-

Ritsu frowned as she reviewed the results of her test. Oh, now this is most unexpected. She thought. Shinji had been corporally disintegrated, then reintegrated. Theoretically, he was the same, but not the same. This Shinji was for intents and purposes the same Shinji as before, but he had a new body that was precisely the same as his former one. Except for one thing: he now had a variance in his bio-data. Akagi had decided to run a test on him for any signs of bio-contaminate, and had discovered that he now shared an oddity with Ayanami in the form of an S2 organ. It was buried within his organs, and seemed to be fused to several of his more vital ones. Operating would be all but impossible. Other than that, though, he matches up to his previous condition exactly. Well, let's go tell Gendo.

After giving her report, she waited while her would-be lover thought it over. "So, you doubt that the S2 organ in the Third can be removed?" he asked her.

"I see no real chance of successfully removing it, no. Already, his blood work shows an increased percentage of blue tab cells. In fact, his concentration is actually greater than Ayanami's concentration of blue tab cells. In addition, his…" began Akagi, warming up to her latest new puzzle. Gendo interrupted her.

"Does he show any signs of mental contamination?" he asked.

"No. All scans show negative, but he has yet to regain consciousness. Until we do the standard condition test, we won't know for sure." Reported Akagi.

"I see. And Unit 1's status?" said Gendo.

"Currently in cryostasis in Cage 6. I have scheduled all necessary repairs for the next three weeks, including reattaching the protection matrix and armor plates. So far, Unit 1 is behaving herself again." Said Akagi. She glanced at her clipboard once more, debating if she should tell him about her other little discovery. Her mental debate was interrupted by Gendo's next question.

"And the dummy plug system for Unit 1?" he asked.

"Completely destroyed." Said Akagi. Like you didn't already know that! "There is no chance of reinstalling it in Unit 1, either."

"Units 0, 2 and 4?" asked Gendo next. If I can't make the Third's unit dance, then maybe the others will serve my needs. Akagi was shaking her head.

"Unit 0 is out of the question, for obvious reasons." She said, glancing at her boss to make sure he understood her meaning. "Unit 2 has been fitted with a dummy plug, but due to system variances in the way it was made, I don't know if it will actually synch with Asuka's unit. Unit 4 is not capable of housing a dummy plug, due to it's extra capabilities."

"Exactly what extra capabilities are interfering with the installation of a dummy plug?" asked Gendo, sensing a chance to regain a means of control over the Third.

"Unit 4 is the first Eva to be made with a synthetic S2 organ, as well as the first unit equipped with the Eaton Wing system. The necessary physical area as well as the neural linkage capacity to install a dummy plug is not available on Unit 4." Explained the Head of Project E.

"Can either system be removed to allow room for the dummy plug?" inquired Gendo.

"No. Both are direct-linked components, and removing them would compromise the Unit's controls to the point of rendering it unusable. Also, I'm reluctant to even attempt to remove the S2 unit, due to extremely unpredictable consequences." Seeing the Commander was still thinking about it, she elaborated her concerns. "It could very well generate another Sea of Dirac. Best case is we simply fall in and die. Worst case is it allows Angels - or worse - to come out of the sea." A very faint frown on Gendo's face showed she had made him understand the insanity of messing with the currently-disabled synthetic power source.

"What is the current status of the S2 organ that Unit 1 ingested?" asked the Commander, finally accepting that the dummy plug had run it's course.

"Imaging shows that it has settled just below and behind the core interface area, and tissue has formed, sealing it in place. It is my belief that it is ready to produce energy for the unit, but it has not been activated yet. Why it is still inactive, I have no idea." She said simply. Silence filled the massive office for several minutes. "Do you want me to schedule a synch test for unit 1 once repairs are complete and Shinji is conscious again?" she prompted.

"No. Complete the repairs, run all the diagnostic protocols through the MAGI, but leave Unit 1 in cryostasis until I order otherwise." Said Gendo. "If the Third regains consciousness, and shows no signs of contamination, he is to report to me immediately."

"Is that wise, Gendo?" asked Ritsu bluntly. He hates you more than anything, and he's been acting uncharacteristically confrontational lately.

"You have your orders." Said Gendo, rising from his chair. Akagi knew what that meant. As he stepped around the end of his desk, she was setting down her clipboard and beginning to slip off her clothes. She barely got her panties off before her lover was pushing her over his desk, his erection forcing it's way into her unprepared pussy.