Version 1.0 Alpha Edition.
[A/N] And on with the story, at last. I can only apologize for the wait on this one, but illness and some irritating real life stuff got severely in my way. I apolosgize to all I let down. In response to some questions, I haven't decided on spinoffs etc. or future continuations, but I suppose I've certainly opened up the field to the option later on down the line, so I guess that will bear thinking about, but only after this story is actually complete of course. Speaking of which, let's push on in that direction right now, shall we?
Chapter 16: Check
Young Shinji had been conscious for some time. He had however opted not to make this fact visible to whomever was nearby. He could tell even without opening his eyes that he was in the medical bay aboard the Wunder. He could also tell that he was not currently alone.
The quiet shifting of footsteps from various directions told him that there were at least two others present. They were apparently ignoring him though, and were in hushed discussion about something or other.
Shinji chose to try opening his eyes a moment later. The light coming in from the outside world was mercifully dim, indicating that it was apparently twilight. It had taken a brief period of introspection for him to even remember why he was there. The reason flooded back quickly enough however.
'Kaworu and Rei…they're back?' he recalled, just as another image flashed across his mind's eye; the last thing he'd seen before events had overwhelmed him.
'Mother…' Shinji continued to remember, laying there in silence, trying to focus on his emotions in the hopes of working out precisely what they were with regards to his current situation.
He had his mother back. Correction: he had his mother back and he had his friends back.
'Joy?' he wondered, 'Is this joy I'm feeling?'
He had the mother back who'd left him behind to join with the EVA, as well as the friends who he'd failed to save, one of which he had been almost directly responsible for killing.
'Despair then?' he mused, 'is this despair I feel?'
He had back the person that he'd yearned for for as long as he could remember; the mother who had left him, but also saved him, who had given up everything for him.
He had back one friend who an Angel had taken away, and another who had died after they'd both been deceived.
'Relief and joy?'
Yes, those were the things that Shinji knew he should be feeling, and indeed he did, but he also didn't feel that way entirely. There were other feelings boiling around on the surface right alongside them. One emotion stood out stronger than the rest:
This time there was no question about it, Shinji suddenly felt very afraid, and he didn't know why. All he did know was that the feeling of facing those people filled him with absolute dread.
'Got to…got to get out of here...'
Sakura Suzuhara and a pair of nurses were down at the other end of the bay, huddled about a display. Judging from the sidelong view of their faces, they were clearly discussing something that was causing them some distress. Shinji kept a curious, cautious eye on them as he dragged himself up. He noted with brief gratitude that they'd at least left him in his clothes, as opposed to shoving him into a hospital gown.
He hated those things.
Shinji limped towards the door at the opposite end of the bay from the medical staff, thankful that the room at least had more than one exit. When the door hissed loudly open at his approach, Shinji fully expected a call for him to halt to sound out from behind him, but the nurses gave no indication that they'd even noticed he was up, even after the door had closed behind him again.
The corridors of the Wunder were oddly devoid of people, and Shinji noted that the alert lighting was in effect, even though there was no sign of them currently being under attack.
He was thankful for the distraction that these oddities presented, but more than that, he was just thankful that it gave him the chance to be alone. He needed time to sort out his head.
The elder Shinji found himself on the bridge a while later, blankly staring at the main display -at the darkened visage of the Japanese shoreline. The skies above were blackened by impenetrable clouds of smoke, soot and ash. Even hours after the explosions, the bridge remained shrouded in a macabre quiet, "How many?" he managed to breathe after a while, "Do…do we know yet?"
EDEN's platform responded from somewhere behind him, "The number of N2 mines used must have been-"
"-I didn't ask how many bombs he used." Cut in Shinji, his tone lethargic and drained, "You know what I was asking."
EDEN gave an uncharacteristic pause that bordered on hesitation before responding, "…We had already managed to evacuate roughly twelve percent of the refugees before…" she trailed off again before finishing off with, "…we're talking fatalities in the region of at least a hundred and seventy five thousand. And that's not counting the volunteer staff both on the ground and in the ships patrolling over the area. I think we can safely add another few thousand to include them."
"Why…?" breathed Shinji.
"I believe Commander Ikari might have suspected –rightly- that we were being resupplied, and that the Alliance had chosen to break its neutrality."
"But provocation and petty vengeance has never been in his nature before."
"I think we can safely assume that his mental stability is somewhat lacking at the moment." Unseen by Shinji, she briefly cocked her head as a report came through, "And your younger self appears to have disappeared."
Shinji blinked and glanced back at her, holding in his exasperation somehow, "Disappeared?"
"It would appear that he left the medical bay and has not yet returned. Your mother is asking that we send a detachment to search for him."
Shinji waved it off, "Don't worry. I understand why he's vanished. Where is he? -And don't tell me you don't know- your eyes and ears cover every inch of this ship."
EDEN inclined her head, not denying the truth of the comment, "He's on an exterior walkway near Thunder Child's docking port."
Shinji shook his head dismissively, "Fine, just…send a message to the closest person with an Omni-tool that you can reach and tell them to swing by and pick him up."
EDEN hesitated, "The closest person?"
Shinji looked back to her briefly, "Problem?"
EDEN shook her head. The closest person to Shinji EDEN doubted would pay heed to her call to catch his attention, judging by her current activity. Therefore, that left only the second closest, "None at all…" she finally responded after a brief pause.
Shinji turned his eyes reluctantly back to the image ahead. He briefly wished that they hadn't dismissed the mercenary fleet after moving Terra to its new location, even though he knew that it wasn't like Aria could've ordered them to stay and help with the relief effort. That would have only led to them getting impounded and likely imprisoned by the Alliance for their various shady deeds in the past (unsurprisingly, forcing them to let this happen was quite a bit outside of the terms of their contractual obligations).
Frankly, it had been a risk to keep the entire mercenary staff on the Wunder in place, especially since it would likely be a struggle to fit them all aboard the Thunder Child upon their departure. Shinji had actually been shocked that the mercs didn't outright desert when they had the chance, but he guessed that their loyalty to Aria and their absurdly high level of hazard pay had something to do with it. He was sure Aria would find an out for the rest of her staff when the time came though. Either way, Shinji would just have to chock the problem up as something else he'd miscalculated.
It disturbed him how long that list was getting…
"Are we combat ready?" he asked vacantly after a period of introspective silence.
"Hyuuga just reported in. All of our EVAs are ready for emergency deployment whenever we need them. We'll be staying on constant Stage 2 Alert until…" EDEN trailed off.
"…Until the inevitable." Finished Shinji, "He'll be making his move soon." He glanced downwards to address the crew below, "How's the ship looking?"
Tamara responded from her station, "All main turrets are fully armed and primed should we need them. Just give me something to shoot at."
Aoba spoke up now, "A.T. Field is stable. No irregularities detected."
Koiji's voice then spoke out, "Main engine is also stable. I guess we're as ready as we can be."
Shinji nodded slowly, "Good work," he said, before adding with a deflated sigh, "I'd best go make sure I'm ready too."
And with that, he turned and climbed down from the command platform then departed the bridge for the EVA cages.
Aria paused to scowl as EDEN continued speaking via the comm-link to her Omin-tool, "Look, he's right in your path so just pick him up in passing and drop him off at a checkpoint en route here. You're the closest to him, so either get on with it or delegate it to someone else nearby."
Aria considered spending time arguing with the AI and telling her exactly where she could stick the request, but she honestly considered just complying less of a headache than talking to the machine.
In the end, finding the younger Shinji only required an extra right turn to the outer walkways, which was where she found him leaning out over the railing, staring listlessly out into the distance.
"What are you doing?"
Shinji gave a visible start at the sound of Aria's voice, and his head whipped around to find her glaring at him impatiently from just a few meters away, "There's a situation going on, and I don't have time to be dealing with this crap. Go back to wherever it is you're supposed to be."
Shinji's brow furrowed, his palms gripping the handrail tighter for a second. He then turned pointedly away to regard the horizon once again just as Aria turned to leave, "Leave me alone…"
Shinji could almost feel her gaze narrow at him, "I wasn't asking you, boy."
"And I don't work for you," he snapped, glaring right back at her in kind before he could catch himself. Aria's face hardened and she opened her mouth to speak. Shinji beat her to it however, "and unlike everyone else, I'm not afraid of you, either! Want to hit me; drag me back kicking and screaming? Go right ahead and try!"
Aria's expression shifted then, and Shinji found her regarding him almost dryly, "You done?"
Shinji looked like he was about to respond with a sharp negative, only for his shoulders to deflate slightly, "I…don't know. Probably…"
"I think you are," she said. She then started walking off, "Now stop being such a whiny little shit and go talk to you mother."
Shinji blinked, and before he could wonder if she had been reading his mind somehow, she spoke one last time, "And if you need some courage, then I'm sure the runt hiding back there can give you some."
Shinji frowned in confusion and glanced over his shoulder, just as Neema called back, "Who are you calling a runt?" with an indignant scowl. The elder asari however had already taken her leave of the situation.
Shinji looked at the maiden for a second before wordlessly turning back to face the oceans once more. There was silence between them for a moment, broken only by the occasional rumble of an explosion in the distance, "How long were you there?" he finally asked, his tone signifying little more than detached interest.
Her response was uncharacteristically shy, "I...followed you…from the infirmary, that is."
His gaze turned sidelong towards her when she approached and stopped beside him, notably within his personal space, not that he found the warmth of her body being so close displeasing, "Why didn't you say something?" he asked after another pause.
Neema was watching the shoreline in the distance with a strange look in her eyes. She shrugged after her own brief, spaced out pause, "You looked like you needed some space."
A reluctant, humorless smile tugged ever-so briefly at Shinji's lip, "You seem to always know that sort of thing about people," he said, frowning briefly as he spied white flakes starting to drift down into his field of vision from the thick, abnormally black clouds above.
"It's…snowing…?" he whispered out loud.
Shinji saw Neema's hands tighten on the guardrail in his peripheral vision, drawing his attention back to her once more.
"She's right you know…" the asari said, her tone quiet now.
Shinji frowned, "Who is?"
Neema cocked her head off in the direction Aria had left without taking her gaze away from the shoreline. She said nothing however.
Shinji frowned and turned his attention back towards the sea, watching the drifting white as it floated downwards, "That's…complicated."
"A complicated something is better than a sad nothing."
Shinji had no response to that. He merely nodded slowly in acquiescence.
There followed another moment of silence between them.
"Why am I alive?"
Shinji blinked and arched his head fully about now to regard the young maiden. She had only one hand on the railing now, while the other dangled listlessly by her side. He leaned about to get a better look at her. His eyes widened when he realized that she was silently crying.
Shinji just stared at her blankly for a moment. He really wasn't sure how to act upon the sudden shift in the situation, "I...what do you mean? Y-you don't think that we were really planning on killing-"
"-No!" she snapped angrily, swinging her head about to glare at him, "I meant that I should be dead!"
"That's not snow out there, Shinji!" she exclaimed, stabbing a finger sidelong at the falling particles.
Shinji's hand, as if of its own accord, moved slowly out into the air and captured one of the falling flakes in his upturned palm. He brought it in close, closing his hand about it. The first thing he noticed was that it wasn't either cold or wet, which even he knew snow should be.
He felt it crumble between his fingertips and he opened his hand to find his palm coated with a thin layer of chalky grey powder, "Dust?" he murmured.
"Ash," corrected Neema, who waved a hand weakly out at the Japanese shore, "Your…dad, he…detonated a load of weapons he'd apparently hidden under the ground all over the refugee zone." She took a shuddering breath before finishing in a tiny voice, "…he killed them all."
Shinji wasn't sure if the Wunder had abruptly reduced its altitude or not, but he suddenly found himself feeling very unsteady on his feet, "He…what?" he whispered after gripping the rail tighter for balance.
Neema didn't repeat it as requested, instead all she did was mumble, in a barely audible voice, "and I should've been among them."
Shinji blinked himself out of his stupor. The shock of what his father did he knew he would have to deal with later, and in a strange, almost perverse way, he found that dealing with another's emotional issues to be preferential to dealing with his own right now, "Why would you say that?"
She let out a loud snuffle and paused to wipe her nose, "Isn't it obvious? If you hadn't hijacked me when you did then I probably would've been down there when it happened."
"But that…that's good, isn't it?" asked Shinji hesitantly.
"I only took three people with me on my run. And as per departure procedures, someone else on standby was probably selected to leave immediately to pick up the slack, someone who probably wouldn't have been chosen under normal circumstances."
"You can't feel guilty for that…" breathed Shinji, "There's no way you could've known what would happen."
"I'm just sick of it…" she half-squeaked, "I'm sick of people's lives being swapped for mine!"
Shinji wasn't sure what to say, and so he merely took a single step closer and tentatively raised a hand to rest it gently upon her shoulder. He felt her muscles tense under his palm, then relax. He considered her not flinching away completely to be a good sign.
Neema stayed motionless like that for a long moment with that hand resting on her shoulder, before Shinji finally spoke, "What happened?" he asked, letting his hand fall free and slip down to take hers in his. To his mild surprise, rather than pull away, she gripped onto it so fiercely that it almost hurt, as though he were the only thing holding her together in that instant.
Neema was silent as the occasional tear dripped free from her chin. Her eyes were focused on the distant horizon, seeing nothing except what was in her mind's eye, "You remember what I am, don't you?" she asked, her tone quiet and almost vacant now, "You found out on the shuttle…"
Shinji's brow furrowed, "You…said something about being…pure blooded?" he asked, and the way she visibly tensed when he'd said the word 'pure' confirmed it. She nodded silently regardless, "You said it meant you have two asari parents, right?"
"Yes, but do you know what that means?"
Shinji just shook his head.
Neema continued, "Well despite it being seen as a wasted opportunity to add something to the great asari gene pool, there's another reason having pure blooded children is looked down on in our society. It's one we really don't like to let non-asari find out about if at all possible. Do you remember the name I used for it?"
Shinji frowned, he did remember her using a strange phrase back then, "Ar…something?"
"Ardat Yakshi," she confirmed with a tilt of her head.
"What is that? I mean I think I heard some of Aria's people joking about it some time back…"
She scoffed, "They were probably talking about how they're really not something you'd want to run into on a dark night by yourself. They'd hardly be wrong, but that's not what's important." She paused then and took in a long breath, as if drawing deep on some well of inner strength, "During the war, it turned out that the Reapers could turn asari who were either Ardat-Yakshi, or possessed the inactive gene that allowed them to become one, into a kind of…thrall. They could be remote controlled from great distances to attack anyone they wanted them to, even friends and family, only for them to later be turned into something…worse."
Shinji sensed that Neema was using 'worse' as an understatement in this particular regard, but chose not to comment on that, "You weren't though. You said-"
She cut him off with a nod, "I was tested after the war. Not that it really mattered by then though. The Reapers never even reached the colony where I was staying during the war."
"You were there alone?" he asked, "Your parents went off to fight?"
She shook her head, "No. They were stationed on the planet. Mom was part of the commando garrison. My father was…she was just a shuttle pilot."
Shinji was becoming confused. Neema had said she'd lost her parents in the war. He had therefore just assumed logically that they were killed in combat. It only now started to dawn on him however that the truth was likely far less pleasant.
"Well can you imagine what the reaction was when word started spreading among the colonies about what the Reapers were able to do with some purebloods? Even the military confirmed we were a liability, since it wasn't like they had the resources to test hundreds of millions of asari for dormant genes in the middle of a war. And it's not like the actual Ardat-yakshi in hiding would allow themselves to be tested one way or the other. And so a policy was instigated…"
She nodded, "All purebloods not serving an active combat role –as they frankly couldn't afford to lose any more soldiers as it was- were being shipped off of the colonies near the front as the Reapers advanced and moved to the outer worlds, far away from the combat zones."
"They…started treating you like the enemy?"
Neema didn't answer the question, and instead went right on talking, "But then things got worse; the Reapers were cutting off lines of retreat, isolating colonies and blocking access to the Relays."
Neema was silent for a few seconds, and when she spoke again, her voice was flat, as if she were unable to stomach letting her emotions out in that moment lest they utterly consume her, "It was near the end of the war…" she finally said, her eyes narrowing off into the distance, "...the Reapers were closing in.
"What reports we got in were, to say the least, bleak. It…seemed like the end was inevitable. I mean, nobody said it, but a lot of us were already…preparing ourselves. I was expecting to be moved offworld at any time; torn away from my parents before I could end up becoming something that might hurt them too.
"Then we were cut off; the plans for the other purebloods and myself to be transplanted suddenly dashed. We were trapped there along with everyone else.
"Fear became madness," she said, "though I'm sure they didn't see it that way. I mean, after all, there they were, stuck with dozens of purebloods who could turn on them at any time, who could massacre their own children in the blink of an eye…" Neema trailed off for a second then, her eyes narrowing further as she seemingly tried to put herself into that mindset, "…kill them before they kill us."
Shinji felt a sinking dread as it started to dawn on him precisely where this was going, "What happened to your parents, Neema?"
Her grip on his hand tightened. He'd lost feeling in his fingertips a moment ago, but he didn't complain, "They hid me away when they finally came; sealed me in a cargo crate. But the ones who came didn't know who they were looking for, just that there was a pureblooded asari somewhere in the dwelling. The Reaper ships were already on the edge of the system by then.
"And so the people turned their madness on their own kind…and Mom pretended to be the one they were looking for." She took a long, shuddering breath, "I…saw what they did." She looked back to him then, "My parents died, Shinji, and they were killed by my own people, not the Reapers." Suddenly, the tears started flowing again, "The war ended the next day. They never even reached the colony," she was angry now, angry and despairing, "And so here I am!" she snapped, swinging her free hand out towards the shore, "Still alive! And I've traded another person's flesh for my own! I…hate this! I hate me! Three dead for me, for one…useless, embarrassing waste of flesh," She finished with a sob, half-collapsing forwards against the railing as she began weeping once more.
Shinji stood there, aghast, her hand still in his.
'What do I do?' he thought numbly to himself, 'What do I say at time like this?'
Shinji felt a well of panic rise up inside of himself, and that urge to flee started to rear its hideous head once more. He looked down wide-eyed at where his hand was linked to hers. He could feel the muscles start to tighten in his upper arm in preparation to pull away, just as his Omni-tool blinked silently to life and displayed a message above his wrist.
Hug her, moron!
Shinji blinked and glanced up again. He looked quickly over one shoulder and briefly caught sight of what appeared to be something red vanishing swiftly from sight around a corner just up the walkway.
Momentarily dumbfounded, Shinji returned his attention to Neema. An order, now that was something he could deal with…
Neema flinched openly when she felt Shinji's other hand slip slowly up and about her shoulder, drawing her closer.
Shinji wasn't sure how this was supposed to help. However, the fear of closeness with another, and the possible rejection that might follow swiftly evaporated when he suddenly found Neema clinging onto him for dear life and bursting into uncontrollable sobs against his chest.
'Is…is this good or bad?' he thought numbly to himself.
Shinji wasn't sure how long it took for the young asari to get herself under control, but it had to have been at least twenty minutes. He was shocked by how much pain she'd clearly been hiding away behind that rarely-shifting smile.
Neema kept her head resting against Shinji's chest for some time even after her tears had fully subsided. She liked the feeling of his arms around her, and was about to comment on this fact, however, "I've soaked your shirt…" was what she found herself murmuring instead.
Shinji smiled weakly, "I'll be fine. Are you okay?" he asked quietly.
Neema did her best to smile up at him. She wasn't sure if she succeeded. She didn't care though, "Nah, but give me some time, okay?"
"What you said; about leaving home as soon as you could…" Said Shinji, "Was it because you felt that way about being…what you are?"
She nodded against his chest, ruffling his disheveled shirt even more, "My aunts said that I was never an imposition, but I know how a pureblood family member is seen by everyone else. I'm all that's left of them; the future of two bloodlines. I know they must see me as a waste of everything that came before."
"I'm sure they didn't think that way. I know I wouldn't if I were them. I'm sure they're worried sick about you right now too."
She chuckled, "You're very sweet. Now…"
"Now, what?" asked Shinji.
"Now go and talk to your Mother."
"Trust what I said before, Shinji…" she whispered, briefly reaching up to caress his cheek with the flat of one thumb, "A strange, maybe even frightening something, is much better than a sad nothing."
Shinji nodded, though his gaze fell as he did so, "I know. It's just…"
He looked back into her still gleaming eyes at that point, "Look, I know why she did it: She knew what was coming and they needed Unit-01 to work, but…"
Shinji was the one fighting the tears this time as that one conflicting emotion finally rose up and made itself known. Anger was here, "But she made me watch! Why?"
Neema let her hand drift to the back of his head and drew him closer still, "I thought it was obvious." She whispered into his ear.
Shinji let her hold him, his head resting against the nape of her neck now, "not to me…" he murmured dejectedly.
"She was being selfish," she said simply, causing Shinji to blink with surprise. He didn't pull away however, "But it's a selfishness that I can understand."
"I...I don't understand."
Neema pushed Shinji to arms' length so she could look at him eye to eye, "If I knew I was about to sacrifice myself, well…then I'd probably want the thing I loved more than anything else in the galaxy to be the last thing I ever saw too.
"It may have been selfish of her, and it might have been better to have you not be there, but I think you can allow her that much, can't you? The pain in your heart for one last smile from the one giving her life for yours…that's not such a bad exchange now, is it?"
Shinji said nothing for a moment, then just hugged the asari closer once more, burying his face in her shoulder again, "You're quite a bit smarter than me, aren't you?" he murmured.
She stroked his back slowly and let out a brief chuckle, "Well, I'm like, ten times older than you, so that's a given."
"Five," corrected Shinji with a reluctant smile before the two fell into comfortable silence.
"Shinji…" said Neema after a moment.
"What does 'dummkopf' mean?"
Shinji pulled back slightly, a confused frown creasing his brow. As it turned out, Neema was looking at his wrist. She narrowed her eyes, tilting her head fully and frowned, "Good. Now kiss her… dummkopf'…?"
Shinji only then realized that another message had flashed up on his Omni-tool. He noticed Neema looking past him now. When he followed her gaze over his shoulder however, to the same corner from just a moment earlier, he saw nothing.
Shinji looked back and had already opened his mouth to comment on his suspicion of their being spied upon, but Neema had already closed the distance and silenced his lips with hers, her tongue immediately moving to press his back down again with a quick caress.
Shinji couldn't hold in a muffled squeak when the hand Neema had around the small of his back drifted lower and gripped firmly ahold, dragging him closer. In response, his own free hand flinched outwards, gripping reflexively around something extremely soft and supple. The response to this action was a shocked, yet mildly delighted murmur from the asari.
It took Shinji an instant to realize precisely what it was that he was now groping, and he tried to flinch away, only for Neema to mesh herself forwards onto his open palm once more with a long, deep purr of contentment.
Shinji's eyes were wide with shock, but they began to drift closed in a hormonal haze after just a few seconds. Before they did though, he caught sight of the asari's vibrant sapphire eyes open just slightly and peer out across his shoulder at something. Even with her lips against his, Shinji could feel the makings of a smirk play at the corner of her mouth, and the hum she was letting out briefly changed into something resembling an amused chuckle.
After several very long moments, Shinji was finding himself becoming very aware of the asari's heartbeat under his palm, and his jaw was almost aching from exertion by the time Neema chose to finally break their connection.
She rested her forehead against his, her breath short and hot as it played over his lips. She let out a quick, almost melodic giggle, "No more requests from your friend, huh?" she asked, briefly moving in to brush her lips quickly over his once more, "I'm actually a little disappointed," she then gave his behind one last, affectionate squeeze before finally disentangling herself from him.
Shinji looked off to one side, coughing once. He felt light on his feet, just short of wavering again. He noticed that the world around him had started to feel much warmer for some reason, "W-well, ahem, th-that…that was-"
"-Well," interjected Neema in her usual chirpy manner, "I'd read that human males gain courage from acts of physical intimacy."
Shinji blinked, "W-well, I guess that's not entirely…inaccurate."
"So, it worked then?" she asked.
Shinji nodded slowly, "Something like that."
She grinned, "Good. Now let's go talk to your mom," she blinked however and then glanced down at her chest, as if just noticing, "Oh, and you can let go of that now…"
Shinji's hand jerked back, "S-sorry," he stammered, his palm twitching around the ghost of the sensation in it before he consciously forced the limb back down to his side once more.
Neema twirled about at that point and slipped her arm about Shinji's in the process, "Don't worry about it. Wasn't like I wasn't enjoying it. Now let's go…"
"R-right…" And just like that, Shinji allowed Neema to drag him off. Though still buzzed from the hormonal cascade she'd triggered in him, Shinji couldn't help but spare a wary look over his shoulder at the black clouds covering Japan.
The sky crackled right then. The blackness was split briefly open as bolts of blue light began raining down from the heavens upon something over the horizon.
Shinji realized that the blasts looked just like those the main guns of the Wunder fired after being upgraded by the pirates, only in this case they were far, far larger.
Clearly, Shinji concluded, the Alliance had taken offence…
Yui stared vacantly at the display monitor on Ω2's gantry, tapping away at controls without paying any real heed to what she was doing. She was supposed to be running an emergency check on the EVA's armor integrity prior to the inevitable combat, but all she'd ended up doing for the past two minutes was stare the screen, and had in fact rescanned the Evangelion a further six times without realizing.
"N-ninety nine point nine six, percent integrity, Doctor," cut in Doctor Vara uncertainly as he reached across Yui's line of sight to clear the display, "Commendations on your thoroughness however. Can never be too careful…I suppose." The salarian observed her warily as he moved away. While it was rare for him to ever look up from his work, it was difficult if not impossible for any of the scientific team not to notice the way Doctor Ikari had been wandering about in a daze for the past few hours.
Vara paused at the gantry junction, narrowing his gaze in thought for a second before turning back around again, "I have a daughter."
Yui blinked and shook her head briefly to clear it. She then turned to regard the lead Salarian, "Excuse me?"
He cocked his head, as if still contemplating his own point, "Indeed; most unexpected. Was surprised upon hearing of selection."
Yui was briefly taken aback, "I…suppose it was a pleasant surprise. I hear your females normally end up elevated to positions of high political power and often end up heading your…is it 'clans'? I don't want to use the wrong word."
"Translation is accurate. Caution is appreciated regardless."
"How old is she?"
"Miris is seven years old, this coming Betau. Very intelligent. Wished to be scientist since very young age."
"Oh, you must be very proud then."
Vara seemed to almost smile, "Indeed. Though behavior was discouraged. Family felt intellectual prowess wasted in chosen fields. Felt better refocused to political matters; take up matriarchal position in clan when time arrives."
Yui's brow furrowed, "You're…saying you have a rebellious daughter?"
He cocked his head once more, as if mulling it for an instant before responding, "The word fits. Had above average levels of contact. Asked many questions. Should have considered impact of indulging curiosity. Was not my place. Mother's influence was what was needed at the time. I was…chastised accordingly. Regardless, what has passed has passed."
Yui smiled, "A clingy rebellious daughter?"
He nodded shortly, agreeing, "Likewise, human phrase for my actions would be 'doting parent'. Bad combination in Salarian society."
"So what happened?"
"Severed contact, as was 'recommended', of course. Put distance between us. Reduce influence." He held out a hand, indicating his surroundings, "Joined scientific think-tank. Took on private contracts. No contact for two years."
"That…must've been very hard."
Vara regarded her for a few seconds, as if not sure how to correctly vocalize his response, before saying, in a strange tone that she'd never heard from him before, "Heartbreaking."
"So, what happened to Miris?"
He shrugged and returned his attention to his Omni-tool, "Ignored parents. Entered scientific academy. Passed with honors. Attended graduation in person."
Yui smiled slightly, "So she went ahead and did it anyway..."
Again, that wistful smile briefly crossed his features, "Indeed. Rebelliousness may have been passed on. Likely never to be selected to father daughters again," he said, chuckling briefly, something Yui had rarely seen any of the salarians do. His smile quickly melted though, "Was not especially welcome at ceremony. Two years for a salarian, not a short amount of time."
"Have you…have you talked to her since?"
He used the holographic stylus in his hand to wave off the question, "Oh, yes. Reconciled next day. Much emotion."
Yui's smile widened, "That's good. Well I suppose you must've missed being in contact with her during all this time on Earth."
"Every day," he confirmed simply, "However, she would be content knowing the progress made. Potential advances in fields of bioengineering since arrival will still be in initial stages of study long after I have passed. Regardless, no doubt Miris will be upset initially due to lack of contact," he said, finishing with a tired sigh.
Yui frowned then, "Vara, why are you telling me all this?"
Again, he gave a dismissive shrug, "Saw emotional distress; felt there were parallels: Doing what we have to do for…well…"
"Love?" offered Yui with a weak smile.
"Yes…" he mused, and then glanced quickly at Yui, "Please tell none of the others I agreed on that point. Carrying on, and again, would respect not being quoted on the following: Things done out of love that hurt you for the sake of those loved, will not destroy that love."
Yui was taken aback. She'd worked with Vara for quite some time now, and never once had he talked about his feelings or personal life. In fact, that was the most fully worded sentence she'd ever heard him iterate. She found herself averting her gaze however, "Are you saying Shinji might forgive me some day?"
He tilted his head away from his Omni-tool just enough to regard her without stopping his work, "Attachment to one's offspring in your species is the norm, correct? You love him?"
"Of course I do."
"Then feeling is likely mutual," he said, before going back to closely regard the constant stream of info on his display. He kept talking though, "May take longer than one day, however. Salarians far more efficient with emotional responses; less time to waste."
Yui looked down, smiling slightly, "Yes, I suppose you are…"
Vara spoke again then, only there was a rather uncertain edge to his voice, "I...Just recalled...forgot to equip Omni-tool before starting rounds. Will return shortly."
Yui really wasn't sure what to say to that, especially when it was clear that the Salarian was not only wearing his Omni-tool, but was in fact looking directly at even it even as he walked swiftly off. She was about to call after him, but the words she'd been about to utter slipped right back into her throat when she saw who occupied the spot Vara had been standing in just seconds prior.
Young Shinji was standing on the walkway now, having appeared behind where Vara was standing. Neema was with him.
The young asari looked quickly between them, "And I, ah, need to…bye." And then walked hurriedly off too, leaving the pair in silence.
Shinji looked at his mother for a long while in silence, at features he didn't remember and yet was somehow still so familiar with, "Mom…" he finally managed to whisper.
The elder Shinji was sitting on one of the upper gantries across the bay from his counterpart. He sat with his legs dangling over the edge, arms hooked loosely around one of the railings as he observed the pair below unseen.
"Did EDEN tell you where I was?" he murmured. He knew she was there, of course. He'd found himself developing a sixth sense to know whenever she was close.
Indeed, Aria was stood just behind him, her arms folded as she followed his line of sight with detached interest, "Didn't need the bot for that," she replied, "I knew she was here and I knew he was heading here. There was nowhere else you would be. That and you always seem to be somewhere high up."
He shrugged, "Guess it just reminds me of home a little," he sighed then and looked around, "You going to miss all this a little once we're gone?"
"No." she replied flatly, "You seem to forget that I initially came here with the intent of extracting you and transforming this ship into a smoldering wreck at the bottom of their ocean."
"I'm still weighing my options…"
Shinji grinned and turned his attention back to those down below, "What are they saying? Still haven't gotten the whole lip-reading thing down yet. Plus, you have eyes like a hawk." He cocked his head down towards Yui and the other Shinji, "Go on then…"
Aria rolled her eyes and turned her stare downwards again, "nonsense about forgiveness…things taking a long time…dearest love…" she then hesitated, "…and she wants a hug."
Shinji chuckled quietly, observing the tearful ongoings below as his younger self complied, "I know."
Aria frowned, "Know what?"
"What they're saying, " He tilted his head then to reveal the earpiece there, "I've been listening in through a bug on the wall by Ω2's cradle."
"Then why ask me to repeat it?"
He shrugged, "Because I find it funny hearing you say things like that."
"You are so lucky you are you."
Shinji's smile tugged slightly tighter on one side. His eyes remained locked on his counterpart and mother as they embraced, "Earlier in my life, I would've laughed at you for saying that…how long are they going to stand there like that for?"
"Don't you have more important things to be concerning yourself with?" asked Aria with a note of impatience.
Shinji peeled back his overcoat slightly, revealing the plug suit he was wearing beneath, "Already suited up, just in case. Besides, I just wanted to make sure all my business was attended to first with regards to that one," he said, nodding down at his counterpart.
"You sounded dangerously close to fatalism with that remark," noted Aria.
Shinji smiled again, "Was that how that came across? I wonder…"
"You didn't deny it."
"I don't know the future, Aria." he responded. "Believe it or not though, I am confident of our chances this time around. Besides, if I were in a fatalist mood I'd be suggestively luring you back to our cabin right about now for one last good time."
Aria was quiet for a few seconds, "And what if I were to suggest?"
Shinji's smile widened a little, "Would I consider it a lack of faith on your behalf?" he took her silence as a curious affirmative, "No, I wouldn't feel you were being fatalist, just Aria T'Loak being Aria T'Loak…" he trailed off into silence for a brief instant then, his gaze hardening, "I have no intention of dying in this place, Aria…"
"Good to know," she responded, nodding down, "Looks like he's introducing the new tail to mommy-dearest."
Shinji's smile returned, "I'm sure Mom will like her if he does," he glanced over one shoulder at Aria, "She really likes you too, even if she is duty bound to be disapproving of your choice in lifestyle. She's old fashioned like that."
"She's a mother like that," corrected Aria, "I understand how she feels. I kept my daughter at arms' length for similar reasons."
"You almost sound like you disapprove of yourself."
She smirked grimly, "There aren't many people in the galaxy that I would wish upon a lot of what I've endured. That's all I'll say."
"Did you ever manage to tell her?" Shinji queried, his eyes still focused on the two below.
"Tell her what?" asked Aria, her gaze returning to him.
"Your real name. Well…the one you were born with, anyways."
Aria's eyes went to focus on the opposite bulkhead, "You're the only person alive right now who knows my birth name. Not that it matters; I've been Aria T'Loak longer than any other identity that I've held to date, and that includes the name my parents gave me. In that sense…she did know my real name."
"I suppose that's true," lamented Shinji as Neema all but bounced off with Young Shinji in tow and Yui trailing along behind, "You really do regret not being close to her…"
This time it wasn't a question, and Aria was quiet for quite a bit before responding, as if conflicted over whether to actually voice her thoughts on the subject or not, "I regret not pushing her away further…and I also regret not having her closer. And as I said once before: that is not a mistake I intend to repeat next time."
Shinji inclined his head, "I understand," he then did a visible double-take and turned to look at her, "'Next time?'"
She looked down at him, "Yes." she responded simply, "When we have children."
Shinji just stared at her in silence for a moment, "Ummm..."
Aria frowned slightly, "What?"
"W-well, I just…" he stammered, "I didn't think you…"
"That I what?" she asked, "That I could?" her frown tightened slightly, "You do realize I'm not a matriarch yet, don't you?"
"Yes," he responded quickly, "I just didn't think you'd want…" he trailed off again, desperately trying to gather his momentarily scattered thoughts, "Look, I'm not exactly even sure how to…" Again he trailed off.
"I think you do, though I will be handling most of the mechanics myself. I thought you knew about that already though."
Shinji rolled his eyes, "A father, Aria," he groaned, "I don't the first thing about how to be a parent. All I have is one –or two, depending on how you look at it- shining, stellar examples in my life of how not to be a father."
"That's a lot more than most have. And I've already been a 'shining, stellar example' of how not to be a mother. I'd say put together we'd make it at least most of the way towards being a single, relatively competent parent."
Shinji was about to object further, "…you make a good point."
"I always make a good point."
Shinji sighed, "Well can we at least take some time; not rush into it? We haven't even gotten bonded yet."
"Of course. I was merely informing you of my intent."
Shinji exhaled a long, relieved breath, "It's not that I'm against it, just…maybe in a few years. Give things time to settle."
Aria inclined her head, "That goes without saying. I assumed you would be ready in about fifty years' time. I'll bring it up again around then."
Shinji looked at her blankly for an instant, "…fifty?"
Aria almost seemed to shrug, "What can I say? I tend to be impulsive."
"I..." said Shinji, not really sure what to say himself for the briefest of instants, "…that seems very fair. It's still rather short notice, but I think I'll be ready by then."
"Good." She inclined her head in the direction Yui had left in, "I'm sure if your mother wants to see descendants earlier within her lifetime, then the brat that's hooked onto your twin down there can take care of manufacturing her a few."
"I'm sure Miss Neema will be honored to hear that."
Shinji hauled himself up, straightened his coat, and then set off along the walkway with Aria following idly behind, "Perhaps. I'm not entirely sure myself."
"A safe response," murmured Aria, "you've been getting good at that," she then let her eyes drift down to Shinji's hands. She'd noted that he'd been gripping onto his lower arms throughout their conversation, and he'd been shifting almost nervously without pause. She doubted however that Shinji himself had noticed, "Is something wrong?"
Shinji paused by the open doorway leading to the exterior walkway. He glanced back at her as he opened the door. A chilly breeze swept by them, "No," he responded with a frown, "Why?"
She nodded at his arms, "You've been fidgeting non-stop. What's wrong?"
Shinji took a few steps outside. Aria followed to allow the door to close behind them. He looked down at his hands and blinked, as if confused by what he was seeing, "I…didn't notice." He then drew the arm of his coat up to expose his plugsuit. There were gaps in the material to accommodate the twin cores embedded in his arms. He regarded the orb closely.
They were dormant, and still appeared for all the world like a pair of harmless rubies. Except, now that Shinji thought about it, he swore that he could feel a subtle chill emanating from them. For some reason, that chill seemed to permeate through him now that he focused on it, "Something's wrong…" he mumbled distantly.
Aria looked to the blackened horizon. Bolts of light like blue meteorites continued to rain down intermittently, striking the Earth with thunderous crashes as the Everest continued its quest to pound what was left of Japan into the Terra's crust, "I'm not whatever it is you are, and even I could have told you that. Would you care to clarify?"
Both flinched as a wailing siren abruptly cut across the distant din of the bombardment. Shinji still had his eyes locked on the shoreline, "They're coming…" he breathed.
One by one, the EVA series appeared atop the burning cliffs and ruptured, lava-spewing mountains of Japan. Dozens, if not hundreds in number, their armor was already severely scorched and blackened through their A.T. fields from the continuous strikes from above.
The demonic silhouettes then came to a halt. Each was armed, but for some reason they chose instead to merely loom silently and expectantly upon their rocky perches.
"Shinji-kun!" the pitch of the voice across the comm. link told Shinji that it was EDEN and not Misato calling.
"I see them," he responded, turning away, "I'm on my way back to the-"
"-Not them!" she cut in with an almost horrified shriek, "Above!"
Both of them looked straight up, and Shinji felt his whole body lock up in a brief moment of terror, frozen like a deer in the headlights as he sighted the white and black sphere hovering silently in the air above them.
"Th-that's…" he stammered, "B-but it can't be…"
Shinji was vacantly aware of the fact that the great form -which bore a shocking resemblance to Leliel, the 12th Angel from his perspective – wasn't casting a shadow over them, despite it completely obscuring the Sun.
Only, then it did cast a shadow, but not over them.
Shinji's gaze snapped downward as a sea of black seemed to open up along the curve of the walkway that the angelic construct's shadow fell over.
The consort knew what was coming even before he felt the ground's solidity vanish from under him.
There was nothing he could do now; nothing to save himself. The hold was already too tight on him.
Aria was already turning towards Shinji, and she was just in time to see his arm in mid-swing, along with the glowing vibrancy of his ruby-red eyes. The next thing she knew she was being hit in the face by the power of his A.T. field. The shadow under her feet cracked as the creature's own A.T. Field was partially neutralized, and she was hurled a good eight meters up the walkway, barely clear of the looming entity's influence.
Aria vacantly clocked mid-flight that the force of the strike had broken at least three of her ribs, and something in her shoulder gave way upon her subsequent impact with the deck plating.
As the swirling world above her tried to blend itself back into focus, Aria could barely make out the sphere vanishing above her. A barrage of autocannon rounds passed harmlessly through the spot the entity had been occupying a split second later.
Her throbbing head tried to make sense of the chaos that was the past few seconds.
'Attacked?' she half-concluded through still-ringing ears, 'He…attacked?'
'No,' she realized distantly, that was the wrong word.
A burst of realization had Aria shoving herself partially up on her uninjured arm. Her ribs and other arm screamed their objections but she ignored them. If anything, the pain only helped to clear her head that much faster.
Her vision then cleared in full, and Aria beheld the walkway where Shinji had been standing just a few seconds earlier.
An entire semicircle of walkway had simply been removed, as though some force had just highlighted it and pressed the delete key.
Shinji was gone. That fact Aria had to process several times before it fully began to sink in. She could feel a storm of emotions welling quickly up, ranging from panic to rage and several more which she'd never admit even to herself were there.
Before she could be overcome though, Aria bottled her emotions up with a stab of a Medi-gel injector and stood fluidly up to her feet. Pain still radiated through her frame even as her wounds were swiftly healed.
Yes, she still felt the pain of her injuries, but that was okay, Aria rationalized, the pain just stoked the flames of her anger even more, which was fine too: anger was good; anger was a companion she knew she could work with.
The doorway nearby opened and EDEN skidded to a halt before the sheer drop right outside. Her green eyes were alert. Aria turned slowly to face her.
"He's been taken," said Aria flatly, confirming what the android likely already knew, "Get everyone ready: this ship, the EVAs; the Thunder Child…" she said, turning to regard both the horizon and the EVA units seemingly waiting for her response.
EDEN had an aura of forced calm about her, "You have a plan of attack?"
"Yes…" replied Aria amicably along with a subtle inclination of her head, "We attack."
Shinji wasn't sure how long he was submerged in the timeless black for. He suspected however that it hadn't been for very long.
The world came slowly into focus around him. The first thing he became aware of was the dense humidity in the air, along with an ominous sound of thumping which was disturbingly reminiscent of a beating heart.
Shinji let out a grumble as he raised his head up and tried to stretch out, only to feel a sharp pain lance up his arms, snapping him instantly to full awareness.
He was still clad in his plugsuit, though the weight of his coat and Omni-tool were now missing.
At least he hadn't ended up naked. But these were only distractions from the real issue at hand: He was bound up again, only this time, he was suspended in midair. His legs were bound together and his arms spread wide.
The pain had come from his hands, and only now did he realize why: both of his palms had been impaled clean through.
Shinji forced himself to remain calm, consciously keeping his breathing down as not to give in to a rising tide of absolute panic. There was no blood however, that much he quickly realized. It was as though the stigmata on his hands had opened up, allowing the things pierced through them to embed themselves in the surface behind.
The things in question were the pointed bases of two spears. One he recognized as a miniaturized version of the Spear of Longinus, the other was likewise a small version of the Spear of Cassius.
'Breathe in, breathe out…' he chanted to himself mentally, keeping his eyes clenched shut for a moment until he could feel his heartbeat slow down slightly.
'Don't lose it, do…not lose your calm. Just…remember Third Impact.'
Shinji actually had to fight the brief urge to laugh at the absurdity of using a far worse memory to reassure him that the current nightmare he was embroiled in wasn't so bad in comparison.
But it worked. He held the image of the world ending in the back of his mind as he opened his eyes to properly survey the chamber he was in.
Clearly, his presence had been well prepared for...
The black cross he was attached to was suspended some thirty meters over a great mesh of similar-looking Angel-sealing black blocks, the only gap in which was to expose the ruby-red core of an Evangelion.
The occasional dull thud and vibration in the air drew Shinji's attention upwards. He rightly guessed that his location was somewhere deep inside New NERV headquarters, and what he was hearing were the impacts of the Alliance's bombardment against the lattice of A.T. Fields protecting the structure.
Finally, Shinji forced himself to pay attention to what dominated the rest of the room.
Beyond a gantry passing alongside where he was suspended, right back against the rear wall, a huge black sphere stood. Its top had been opened, and there were traces of dried, bloody LCL running down the sides. Whatever the artifice had been for, it had clearly since served its purpose. And the only clue to what that purpose could have been was the large '13' marking on one side.
Before the sphere however, sat upon the end of a T-junction in the gantry, was what had caught Shinji's attention. It also seemed to be the source of the loud, ominous heartbeat resonating throughout the chamber.
It was another black sphere, perhaps three meters across if one were to ignore the masses of pipes and cables feeding into it. It was almost identical in construction to the larger one. Unlike its counterpart however, this one was very much intact, and seemed to pulse and subtly writhe with whatever life was contained within.
Shinji narrowed his gaze to make out a small gold and white object embedded in the side of the orb. From his vantage it almost looked like the handle of some kind of ornate key.
Alongside the steps leading up to the sphere's side was a neatly folded uniform, a pair of gloves, and shoes. Shinji's eyes lingered however on what lay next to the articles of clothing: an opened silver containment case, empty, and if Shinji wasn't mistaken, he could swear that there were Angel sealing hexes emblazoned around the interior.
It was right then, as Shinji's gaze returned to the glinting gold object in the sphere, that in the back of his mind, from a place he couldn't consciously access, which was almost completely locked away by the restraints he was in, rose up a single word from the blackness:
The clothing had to be his father's, Shinji knew that much. That alone wasn't a cause for concern though. The whole scene however, when added together, caused his dread of the whole situation to start rising sharply.
"What have you done?" Shinji found himself whispering, wondering what possible extreme his father might have gone to this time whilst lost in the depths of madness.
Suddenly, a resounding 'clang' reverberated through the chamber, and all went dark and silent, save for the pounding of munitions above.
Lit now only by a bloody-red glow, Shinji watched as the key handle embedded in the sphere dropped to the floor with a clutter. Whatever made up the other half of its structure was now gone.
To Shinji, the explosions above seemed to fall into the background, drowned out by the pounding of his own heart, and he wished he could wipe away the cold sweat now stinging his eyes. He did his best to swallow the lump of fear in his throat as his eyes remained locked on that now still and silent sphere.
An instant of perfect silence caused by a pause in the assault up above was shattered as a bone-white, gore covered hand erupted from the sphere, tearing through the membrane effortlessly.
The fingers flexed, as though touching and testing the air like a curious newborn. All the while Shinji watched in helpless, horrified fascination as another hand burst free, ripping open the shell even further.
The birth continued as the head emerged next, slumping forwards and allowing the rest of the form to collapse out onto the platform.
Shinji had lost control of his breathing by this point as he watched the naked being that used to be Gendo Ikari slowly, carefully, push itself up to its feet.
Unlike the old man from before, this one was young, rejuvenated. The visor that had been attached to its face melted away and clattered to the floor, discarded and forgotten.
Shinji's eyes and the rational side of his brain said 'human' when he looked upon the thing, however every other fiber of his being could only label the entity as 'something else'.
The perfectly alabaster skin was like Kaworu and Rei's, only a noticeable shade whiter, if such a thing were possible. The hair at first glance was the same as his father's, only the tone was off in just the slightest of ways, as though it were a bad dye-job imitating the original color.
Embedded in the center of the entity's upper torso was the outline of what looked to be a tiny human central nervous system, which was in turn surrounded by eleven red cores in the unmistakable formation of the Kabbalah.
And while Rei and Kaworu were humans with some visible oddities, whatever this thing was, it existed on the polar opposite end of that scale. It looked human, so perfectly human, that it also somehow radiated the most pure aura of wrongness imaginable to the human consciousness, as though someone had personified the very bottom of the uncanny valley and given it life.
It was only after an automated jet of water blasted off the residual placenta and LCL from the being's shape that it finally looked up at the suspended Third Child. Eyes like freshly spilled blood sent a shudder of pure terror through Shinji's entire being.
The consort was hyperventilating by this point and he couldn't stop it. And then it spoke, or maybe whispered, Shinji couldn't quite tell. All he knew was that each syllable felt like a velvety caress of utter otherness, "Shinji…"
The horrible memory from a distant past which Shinji had been using to keep himself stable suddenly found itself swept aside for an infinitely more abominable present.
This time, Shinji screamed.
To be concluded…
[A/N] Well, that took a bit longer than I thought to get out, but what are you going to do, one can only apologize again. But that's that. One penultimate chapter. Hope it wasn't too disappointing considering the wait. Let me know either way. I'll promise to get the next, and likely final, installment of this little tale out as quickly as is possible and will keep you updated via my feed as usual. Until then, dearest readers...
See you in Chapter 17: Gevurah