Thursday, June 26, 2025
Northern Territory, Australia
DJ soon lost track of how long they had been walking, so deep into the rhythm of step and step had he become. His attention was turned primarily inward, only a small portion of it devoted to almost automatically checking for hazards underfoot and watching to make sure Asuka was beside him. He wasn't near-ignoring her out of a lack of concern, but because he knew she was just as adept at handling this kind of situation as he was, even under the current conditions. Most of his attention, therefore, was devoted to working out, or trying to work out, just where they had come down and how long it would take them to reach help.
It grew dark while he was thinking, but that was all right. The compass had a luminous dial, and the coming of night reduced the heat, which was punishing in the Ghastly Blank even this time of year.
As he considered these factors, he cursed himself for a fool, though he knew he'd done nothing overtly foolish. They'd made the flight across this part of the Outback dozens of times without a problem, and he'd made all the usual checks when they'd left Darwin. Whatever had gone wrong with the plane, it hadn't been his fault, and he'd done a bloody good job just getting them on the ground without smashing them into pieces.
Anyway, if his calculations were right, they couldn't have crashed more than 40 kilometers or so west of Tennant Creek. No problem. Forty kilometers on foot was nothing for the two of them. They'd already come almost half that. They'd be in Tennant Creek in - he finally broke down and checked his watch - four hours. Five at the outside. Just about dawn. Check in at the police station, report the crash, find a room and catch up on the missed sleep, have a good laugh about their little adventure in the morning - just another day at the office for Lord and Lady Langley-Croft, the Empire's most adventurous peers. No problem.
No problem. He kept repeating it to himself. No problem.
He almost missed the tiny noise that Asuka made.
DJ's eyes flicked to the right. It was a dark night - no moon, only the light of a vastness of stars above them - but he could see her silhouetted against the blueness of the night, her familiar outline distorted by the pregnancy which was the cause of so much of his inner agitation.
"What's wrong?" he asked. He spoke in a hushed tone out of some sort of reflex, as though to speak aloud would disturb the night.
"Nothing," Asuka replied, but her voice had a tiny current of strain in it. Most people would have missed it, but most people had not been married to her nine years, nor in love with her longer still.
"No, really," he said. "Are you tired? We can stop for a while."
"No," she said. "I'm fine."
He considered arguing further, but gave it up. Her back was probably hurting her, but if she didn't want to admit it and rest, there wasn't much he could do about it. He shrugged and kept walking.
A few minutes later, she made the noise again, a trifle louder. He looked at her again, this time caught the slash of blue-white as her gritted teeth reflected the starlight.
"What's wrong?" he asked again, his tone firmer this time.
She stopped too, and they looked at each other across the span of a long, brittle moment.
Then she said slowly, "DJ, I think... it's time."
"What?!" he whispered, the compass falling from his suddenly limp left hand to plish softly into the sand by his foot. "Isn't it... it's too soon, isn't it?"
"I know," she replied, "but... I know."
He stared at her, aghast, helpless, his mind whirling. Derek, Earl Langley-Croft, was not a man accustomed to being completely wrong-footed by events, but this was all unfolding in a fashion utterly unlike the way he'd envisioned it when he'd learned it would eventually be happening. In his version, they were at home, with Fritz and Annabeth close at hand to help out, or at their townhouse in Sydney, where he could whisk her to the car and drive her to the hospital in an assertive man-of-action sort of way.
Not in the middle of the desert in the middle of the night, with no help for miles and no one even aware they were out there.
"How can you be so calm?!" he demanded.
"I'm not calm," she replied, "I'm terrified. What do you think? I want to be doing this in the middle of nowhere? But what choice have I got? I - nnngh!" She winced, stumbled, grabbing hold of him, barely staying on her feet.
"Oh, God," he said, his voice a strangled murmur. "God, this can't be happening... "
"We can't stop it from happening," she whispered, then added in a sharper, wry tone, "Are you an idiot? For Christ's sake don't lose your head now, of all times."
He took a breath, swallowed, grinned half-heartedly. "You're right," he said. Gently he eased her down to the sandy ground, then took his pack from his back and did his best in the dark to take stock of what he had to work with.
A Leatherman multi-tool. Three liters of water. A compass. A .45-caliber automatic pistol and 21 rounds ammunition. A 7.65mm ditto and 30 rounds ditto. A broken satellite telephone. Three blankets. Two emergency ration bars. And a head full of no idea what to do.
He tore a blanket out of the pack and snapped it out of its folds, spread it on the sand and helped Asuka onto it, then arrayed everything else close at hand, took her hand in his, and waited, absolutely helpless.
DJ was no stranger to pain. He'd felt it himself, and seen it in others, in great quantities over the course of his dangerous life. What he saw written on Asuka's face in the next two hours made everything else pale. He felt none himself as her fingernails dug into the flesh of his palm and carved bloody furrows like stigmata across it, none as her thumb pressed a black bruise on the back of his hand, none as her grip tightened and tightened and tightened until the bones in his hand ground together. All the agony he was feeling was inside, as his mind - geared for action, for grabbing his kit, heading out the door, and getting things done - screamed and spun its wheels and tried to fathom the concept that there was nothing he could do but wait.
A long, high, piercing shriek rang off the rocks of the Ghastly Blank, and then there was a terrible blue silence.
Then a thin, high, sputtering wail.
"A girl," whispered DJ Langley-Croft. He coughed and said again, louder, "A girl. We have a daughter, Asuka."
"Let me... let me see her," Asuka replied, her voice raw. DJ took off his shirt, cleaned the squalling infant as best he could, then wrapped her in his undershirt. Gently, he placed the girl in her mother's arms.
Asuka smiled. By now, DJ's eyes had adjusted to the starlight well enough that he could make out her face. Her eyes almost glowed, they were so wide and bright and alive. Brighter than the day she'd married him, brighter than he'd ever seen them before. He knew she had to be in pain, still, but there was no indication of it on her face, nor any of fear; there was only that bright, perhaps too-bright, joy.
Asuka looked down at her daughter, who quieted at once. "Evangeline, my darling," she whispered, and gently kissed the girl on the crown of her head, where the damp hair was thinnest. It would be red, Asuka knew that somehow, if there were enough light to make out colors; the girl would be a redhead like her mother, and grow up tall and strong.
She looked down between her upraised knees, where DJ was at work with a corner of the blanket; he felt her watching him with those glowing eyes and looked up at her. She smiled broadly, the sweat on her brow cooling in the desert night, and said softly, "Thank you, DJ. Thank you for making this possible. I wanted this so much... "
He looked back at her with ambivalence in his eyes and replied in a whisper, "I know." His eyes swam, overflowed. There was something dark on his face, a black smear in the starlight, and the tears cut trails through it. "How... " He coughed, swallowed, tried again, a little louder this time. "How do you feel?"
She smiled again, a little indulgently, and replied, "Tired. Thirsty. Sore. Wonderful." She chuckled throatily. "DJ, I have everything I've ever wanted out of life, right here in this little patch of desert. What's a little pain to compare with that? I'm fine."
Asuka closed her eyes and let her head drop back, sighing. Slowly, she let her heels slide until her legs lay straight, then gradually, carefully brought them together, wincing a little. Evangeline yawned, stretching short arms tipped with chubby little fists, and settled down into her mother's arms.
DJ wiped his hands and stood up, brushing the dust from his knees. He went to his pack and got one of the bottles of water, knelt down at Asuka's side and held it for her. The first time he got it wrong, tipped it too far, and she coughed and sputtered a bit; the second time, he put a hand behind her shoulders to support them and she leaned forward a bit, making it easier, and got it down all right.
"Are you sure you feel all right?" he asked.
She shook her head with that same indulgent smile. "No, I don't feel all right, and trust me, neither would you in my position. I just gave birth in the middle of the Outback at night, and then," she added a trifle archly, "my husband tried to drown me. I think I'm entitled to be a little wiped out, thanks. But don't worry. If I survived your damn flying, I'll survive this."
"Still... " He fretted. "I'm afraid to move you. Look, I'd better leave the pack here, get to Tennant Creek and bring back help. If I run, I think I can make it before dawn."
"Relax, DJ," she said, shifting the now-sleeping infant to one arm so she could touch his sticky face with the other. "Relax. It's over. We made it. In the morning we can go to Tennant Creek... morning is soon enough." She patted the ground next to her and said, "Lie down, rest with us a while." That chuckle again. "You've had a busy day too, after all."
Slowly, DJ closed his eyes and nodded; then he got up and retrieved the pack. He took one of the other blankets out and folded it into a makeshift pillow, got one end of it under Asuka's head, and then lay carefully down beside her, his arm under her shoulders, and covered them all with the third blanket. He made sure the pack was close at hand; he didn't expect anything or anyone to disturb them, but if anything did, he wanted the .45 ready.
He lay, tense and nervous, watching her intently as she closed her eyes and her breathing slowed. His mind raced worriedly down the same well-worn tracks, over and over again. In the dark it had been hard to tell, but he was afraid that the unexpected birth may have done her some harm. Asuka's injuries during EVA-02's destruction, ten years before, had scarred her internally, and at the time the doctors had been convinced that childbirth could, and probably would, kill her. Supposedly she'd been... well, reborn, in a way, after that, and every doctor she'd seen since then had given her a clean bill of health, but... well, DJ hadn't been around for that, and he didn't entirely trust things he hadn't witnessed. He'd been wary of this since the beginning, and had only convinced himself it would be all right by reminding himself that they'd have plenty of well-trained help when the time came.
It wasn't rational, and it wasn't reasonable - her every pre-natal checkup had been perfect, Amy Anderson had called it the most normal pregnancy she'd ever seen - but DJ found himself unable to shake off the growing spectre of dread. He felt stupid about it even as he grappled, without entire success, with the fear. What if she was lying about feeling more or less fine? She might know something was wrong, might be trying to spare him the knowledge for as long as she could. He stared hard at her relaxed face, that little smile still on her lips, watching for any movement, listening to the soft in-out of her breathing as it slowed still further.
Her eyes slid open and looked over at him.
"I thought I told you to rest," she said, mock-sternly.
The years and the depth and truth of their partnership had stripped away any need for posturing, and with completely frankness, he replied softly, "I'm afraid, Asuka. I'm afraid I'll close my eyes, and when I open them again... you'll be... gone."
She gave him a lovingly exasperated look. "DJ," she said firmly, "I'm not going anywhere. Trust me. If I were I would know, and if I knew I would tell you."
"If you're sure," he said, still sounding troubled.
"I'm sure," she told him, and reached her free arm to tangle her fingers in his hair. Turning her head so he could see the light in both of her eyes, she said softly, "Our little girl has a great big life ahead of her... and I wouldn't miss it for all the clouds in Heaven."
DJ looked back at her for a few moments, then smiled, leaned forward, and kissed her gently.
"I love you," he said. "I'm sorry if I fuss too much."
She smiled and kissed him back. "I forgive you," she said with a wink, then settled further into the crook of his arm, resting her head on his shoulder. "I almost can't believe we made it," she said drowsily. "You know how much I wanted this. More than I've wanted anything else in my life. More than I wanted to be an EVA pilot. More than I ever wanted to prove anything to anyone." She looked down at the sleeping Evangeline and smiled. "Now I have everything." She yawned expansively. "Everything," she repeated.
DJ could feel her total relaxation next to him, the complete quiescence of her body, but it no longer frightened him. She was close enough to him now that he could feel her heartbeat, and it was strong and slow and steady, that resting athlete's heartbeat he'd felt on countless nights before, almost as familiar to him as his own.
She was right. She was fine. She had everything...
... and he had her.
He kissed the top of her head and began to doze off himself.
"DJ?" she said after a moment, rousing him to full wakefulness again.
"Wha?" he replied.
"I said I wanted this more than anything else," she said, "but that wasn't quite true. The one thing I wanted more than this... was to share this with you."
He smiled and replied wryly, "Well, you certainly made it a night to remember."
She chuckled. "Not by design," she said. Then, just as her eyes began to slip drowsily closed again, something seemed to catch her attention, and she gasped gently, eyes going wide, looking up at the sky with her face aglow with wonder.
"My God, DJ," she said, her hand squeezing his. "Would you look at all those stars?"
He looked, then wondered how either of them had managed to miss it until now. The night-blue sky, moonless and absolutely clear, arced wide above them, exploding in a fury of celestial glory. Millions of stars, wheeling slowly overhead in their ancient, immemorial pattern, little changed from the days when the Egyptians and the Maya had mapped and counted and named them. The sky towered, it sprawled, it shimmered, and both DJ and Asuka lay and stared up at it, entranced, until sleep finally took them.
They slept, father, mother and daughter, Lady Evangeline Rei Langley-Croft's first night on Earth, under all those millions of stars, and it seemed to her father that every one of them was lucky.
The apparition that walked into the lobby of the Tennant Creek Hotel at 9:14 that morning scared four years off the life of the desk clerk. He was a man in his twenties, dark short hair in an unruly, dirty ruff atop his head, unshaven and haggard, his face and arms smeared with what appeared to be dried blood. He was barechested, dressed only in dirty, blood-spattered khaki bush trousers and hiking boots, with a small green pack slung on his back and a heavy automatic pistol strapped to his belt and thigh.
But the most remarkable thing about him was the fact that he had a woman, of all things, a sleeping woman in his arms, wrapped in an blanket - and she in turn had a baby in her arms, swaddled in an undershirt.
The man walked up to the counter as though his burden were not at all unusual, smiled at the clerk, and said, "Good morning. I'd like a room for three, please, and two gallons of milk."
"All Those Stars" - a Neon Exodus Evangelion Mini-Story by Benjamin D. Hutchins
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