Advice and Trust

Chapter 11.1

Cards On The Table

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Kaworu clamped his hands over his eyes and pressed until it started to hurt. "No no no no no no no you can't you can't you can't don't don't don't don't," he desperately chanted to himself. "She comes back, she comes back, she comes back, you know she comes back, she has to come back, please please please..." His chest heaved as his breathing accelerated towards panic. There was blood in his mouth, over and above the usual tang of the LCL.

'You can see her again right now. You know what you were born to do. You know what feels so right...' the Call was whispering shouting screaming in his head right now. 'The pain would end forever...'

Unit-03 slowly turned towards the Geofront and the Eva catapult access point.

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"Fuyutsuki, take care of the rest."

"Unn."

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"P...Pilots, return to the elevators. Doctor Akagi's teams will... will carry out recovery and Search & Rescue for the First Child," Misato said through a dry throat. "There's... nothing more we can do right now. Return to base."

Behind her, Ritsuko had already tapped Maya on the shoulder and the two had begun heading for the exit of Central Dogma. Maya's relief slid right into her spot and kept the feeds on the remaining three Evas running.

Misato tensed, waiting for any additional instructions from the Commander to interrupt things. When none came, she turned to look up and back at the Commander's perch.

It was empty, Sub-Commander Fuyutsuki standing there watching. Commander Ikari was already gone.

Misato felt a chill run down her spine. 'What is he up to?'

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Shinji stared blankly at the molten crater that had been a green valley northeast of Tokyo-3. His brain just... refused to engage. He wasn't seeing this. He couldn't be.

Misato's order didn't snap him back to reality. Unit-02's shove did. He staggered.

"Hey, wha-?"

"Come on, Third. You heard Misato. Doctor Fake-Blonde will recover the First and we're supposed to get moving," Asuka said in a tight growl.

"But... she... she's..." Shinji couldn't make himself say it. Saying it would make it real.

"No she isn't!" Asuka almost snarled at him. "She is not dead!" Unit-02 spun around, glaring back at him, fists clenched and shaking at its sides despite the ragged, bleeding wounds that still showed all over its armor. "So don't you dare say it! She ejected or something! They'll find her and she'll be alright!"

Shinji wanted to believe that. More than anything. But they'd all seen Unit-00, right up to the end. It had been on its back. There was no place for her to have ejected to, and they'd all heard her say she could not. He sadly shifted his gaze to Unit-03. "Kaworu?"

His friend did not turn or reply. Unit-03 kept walking towards the closest elevator.

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'Do it do it do it do it do it do it do it do it do it do it do it do it,' Tabris chanted.

'No no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no...'

Kaworu desperately fought back.

He could feel his teeth creak as he clenched his jaw. His hands gripped the control yokes so hard the material of his plugsuit had stoppedsqueaking. It was getting harder to think at all.

'I apologize, ma'am,' he thought for a moment at Unit-03's Core. 'I... may... may not be able to... stop myself from... doing something terrible soon.'

Confused, Mrs. Hanako Horaki replied, 'I... don't understand. Why?'

'I... may not... be myself.' He swallowed. 'I... my heart... isn't strong enough. I can't... I can't... If Rei is gone, I'm... I'm not strong enough without her. I'll... destroy everything.'

'You asked me to help because you wanted to help your friends. You won't do anything to hurt us, right?'

'I won't... but he will.'

'You're the same person who got in this Evangelion thirty minutes ago, Nagisa-san.'

'Am I?'

'You said you would not let anything harm them as long as you had a choice. Is that not still true?'

'Rei told me that...'

Kaworu looked down at his right hand. He forced himself to let go of the control yoke and make a fist. "I choose," he whispered. "I choose."

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Shinji numbly trudged into the locker room. Only long habit kept his feet automatically walking him towards the showers and lockers. He stared at nothing as he undressed without thought and dropped his LCL-coated plugsuit into the slot in the wall for it to be taken away and cleaned. He barely remembered to grab his towel before wandering into the showers.

'She can't be gone. She can't be gone. But... I saw... Unit-00...'

He was already there before a couple of things registered as more than background: The showers were already running, and they were set at an extremely high temperature. The thick clouds of steam nearly blinded him as he stumbled forward. He hissed as his foot touched the water on the tiles. It was hot enough it hurt to step in, almost hot enough to scald his skin at touch. He edged his way around the full-blast stream from the showerheads and carefully turned the temperature way down.

As the temperature dropped, the steam lightened enough for him to see Kaworu, curled into a fetal ball on the floor, the stream blasting right onto him. His skin was very red.

Shinji's eyes snapped wide. "Kaworu!" He grabbed Kaworu's hand and started to pull him out of the stream. "Are you alright?"

Kaworu looked up at him with frantic eyes. "T-t-turn the water back up!"

"What? No!" Shinji gasped. "That water was almost hot enough to scald! You could have been hurt!"

"Yes! Please! I need the pain!"

"What?!"

"It it it it anchors me!" Kaworu stuttered. "I n-n-need the f-f-feeling right now! The pain reminds me who I am! I'm ME! Not him! Not him!"

"I... I don't understand, Kaworu-kun," Shinji shook his head, "But I'm... I'm not going to let you hurt yourself like this. Come... come on. Let's... get you out of here and-"

"Yes! Please!" Kaworu seized his hand with desperate strength. "Get me away from here! Th-th-th-the C-c-call is bad right now! I... I d-d-d-don't know how l-l-long I can hold..."

Shinji felt a chill run down his back at the way Kaworu pleaded with him. "Ok... Ok... come on...we'll...we'll get you home and into bed..."

He set Kaworu gently on one of the benches near the lockers and winced at the alarming red shade of his skin. He took as fast a shower as possible, little more than a rinse, and then gingerly prodded Kaworu through getting dried and dressed.

Asuka was already waiting for them at the door as they left the locker room. She seized Shinji's hand like a life preserver before she even noticed Shinji had his other arm around Kaworu's shaking shoulders. She barely nodded at this, however, and they headed straight for the elevators.

Once in the elevator, Kaworu slumped weakly in the corner, arms wrapped around himself and mumbling. Shinji stared at Kaworu, worried. He fished his cell phone out of his pocket, absently grateful the MAGI could pick it up even in an elevator, so long as they were in the Geofront.

Misato picked up almost instantly. "What is it, Shinji? I don't have much time."

"I know, Misato-san. That's why I'm calling to tell you not to worry about us... three. we're headed home right away. Kaworu's... not well. We'll wait for you there. A-and Rei."

Misato was quiet for long enough to make Shinji's heart sicken a little more with fear. "...right. Good. I'll... see you at home." Click.

Shinji tried to swallow the sick feeling at the pit of his stomach.

"She's not dead. She's not dead," Asuka almost hissed beside him. Her hand was very tight on his.

The elevator ride felt very, very long.

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Kaworu visibly slumped in relief as the Geofront train passed through the last armor layer and approached the surface. Shinji watched him, concerned, from the seat across the train car's aisle.

After a moment, Kaworu pried his eyes open and gave them a wan smile. "It... distance is good. It is... bad right now." He blinked at them, but stared, like he was trying to drink them in.

Shinji shifted awkwardly in his seat. Asuka was firmly welded to his side, her hand never having left his. Kaworu staring at them like this made him self-conscious about such a public display of affection, something his Japanese upbringing still gave him twinges about. Still, even that awkwardness was tiny next to Asuka's naked need for contact right now. The strange thing was he felt like Kaworu's stare was almost the same thing. He was watching them like... like seeing them together was his only solace right now.

Kaworu's comment snapped Asuka out of her rigid silence. She narrowed her eyes at him. "Distance? Why... Kaworu, what the-"

She broke off in frustration as Kaworu gave a tiny shake of his head and flicked his eyes at the ceiling.

Shinji bit down on his own questions. Why had Kaworu-kun been so insistent on... hurting himself? And what he'd said?

He just pulled Asuka closer to him with his free arm and tried to... stay numb. He was faintly grateful for the hollow, empty feeling that had descended over him. He... he couldn't cry. He had to... be strong. Asuka needed him to. Kaworu needed him to. Rei... Asuka had to be right. Rei was going to come home.

He squeezed Asuka's hand back just as hard as she held his.

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"Is there really... any chance, Akagi-sempai?" Maya said quietly, her voice somewhat muffled by the thick, stiflingly hot NERV Bio-protection suit.

Ritsuko couldn't reply. She just pointed ahead of them. One of the search crews was waving them over. The wreck of the Entry Plug was just behind him, partly stuck in a rocky former creek bed flanked by the shattered and burned remnants of a grove of trees.

The smooth white cylinder of the Entry Plug was now a bent, dented mess, scorched an ugly brown-red. The Pilot Access Hatch was a jagged tear, spines of metal jutting from the edges of the hole. Ritsuko looked around, waving the three guards who'd found the Plug to stay back. No one had questioned her insistence she be the first one to examine the Pilot... or her remains. Only Maya hovered near, just behind her shoulder.

Whispering a faint prayer to a god she no longer even pretended to believe in, Ritsuko stuck her head inside the ragged tear in the Plug.

"Is... is she..." Maya began.

"No."

Maya managed to cover most of her sob with a cough.

Ritsuko pulled her head back out. She turned to yell at the guard. "Get me a stretcher over here, immediately!"

The guard nodded, waving at a clump of other NERV personnel farther up the slope. A moment later, a pair of them trotted over with the rescue-orange hard plastic stretcher between them.

Ritsuko and Maya had used the moment to pull what was left of the First Child out of the Entry Plug and zip her into a NERV Bio-containment bag. Maya pretended to apply some first aid as the guards put the stretcher down, and zipped the bag closed when they were ready to take her.

"The First Child's condition will be classified Top Secret," Ritsuko ordered. "Only Lieutenant Ibuki and I are allowed to treat her. Lieutenant, get her down to my lab immediately. Sergeant Nakamori, salvage the Entry Plug and clean up the site."

"Yes, Doctor."

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Shinji gingerly shepherded Asuka and Kaworu into Rei's apartment. He seemed to be the only one who had even the tiny amount of energy to get them moving at all. He'd been about to steer them into Misato's when Kaworu had shaken his head and gestured next door.

Once through the door, Kaworu pulled away from Shinji's arm and stumbled to where they'd left their instrument cases in Rei's living room, anticipating another evening of playing in quartet. He flipped his violin case open and almost frantically dug around inside it for something. He gasped in relief and rose when he found it.

Shinji pulled out tea and started the hot water pot as Asuka sat down at the kitchen table. She looked at Kaworu as he shuffled back in and dropped heavily into the chair across from her, the object of his search clutched in his hand: a candid shot of Rei at the Christmas Party, serene and beautiful in her red and white Santa outfit.

"She... she asked me out. In the elevator, before the battle. T-to see a movie this Friday," Kaworu said softly, staring at the picture. "Me. She... she likes... me."

"She did?" Asuka asked, finally showing a spark of life. "Finally. Good. You'll love it, Trout. Both of you."

"Asuka..." Shinji said gently, sitting down next to her as he set the tea to steep.

"She's alive, Shinji!" Asuka insisted, turning to him. "She has to be! Because if... if Rei can... If Rei can die, then you can... I... I can't... you can't die." She stopped, swallowing hard. She suddenly pulled him into a desperate hug, her hands nearly clawing at his back.

"She has to be alright," she whispered into his shoulder, which was suddenly wet. "I... you can't die. She can't. I... I can't bear the idea you... I love her too and... and..."

He clutched at her back almost as hard. "She... she has to be," he agreed, scarcely louder than her.

Asuka wiped her face against his shoulder. "How come... you're not... I know you love her too."

He shook his head. "I... I don't know. I just feel... numb. I know I feel... empty, but the tears won't come. And... you need me to be... strong. You and Kaworu-kun. So I have to be."

She squeezed him tighter. "Baka."

He looked up at Kaworu. "Why... Kaworu-kun, why were you... hurting yourself? In the shower?"

Kaworu put the picture down on the table, but kept staring at it. "The pain... helps. Distracts me from the Call. It was... very bad. It still is. If we'd stayed in the Geofront, I'm... I'm not sure I... could have held on." He raised his head, finally. "Thank you for... getting me out of there, Shinji-kun. And... for you both... helping remind me what I must protect."

Asuka gave Shinji one last squeeze and sat back in her chair. "Pain to... and what does distance have to do with it? You relaxed exactly when we left the Geofront. Was zur Hölle did they do to you, Nagisa? To both of you! Pale as death, red eyes, funny hair... you and Rei are alike in too many ways to be coincidence," she demanded.

"I... I can't..." Kaworu looked down and to the side. "I'm... afraid. And... Rei wants us to tell you together."

"You... you sound very sure about that," Shinji half-asked.

Kaworu nodded. "I am." The expression on his face was far from happy, though. He picked up the picture again, his hands shaking. "She... has to."

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She opened her eyes. The man in the black jacket and orange glasses stared at her. He ordered her to stand. "You are Rei Ayanami. You will obey my orders," he said, voice cold and flat.

"I am Rei Ayanami. I will obey your orders," she echoed without thought.

He nodded.

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Chapter 11.2
Cards On The Table

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The hot water pot hit boil, and Shinji poured out three cups of tea, setting them on the table. Asuka only sipped at hers, but Kaworu grabbed his and held on like a drowning man seizing a rope. He stared at it like it could somehow answer his pleas.

Shinji stood back from the table, forcing his hand not to clench by force of will. Kaworu was clearly hanging on to his composure by a thread. Asuka looked near tears or shouting, and was nearly vibrating with nervous energy. Shinji himself hollow, almost numb. A powerful urge to hide away in his room, stick his SDAT earbuds in, and turn up the volume until he could block the world away welled up inside him. He knew that if he thought about Rei and the... likelihood she was dead too much, he'd probably break down too.

9 months ago, that's exactly what he would have done. The draw was still strong, but... Kaworu was his friend. Asuka was his world. He.. he could not run away. Not anymore. They were more important than he was. They were worth more than he was. And Asuka... if she was unhappy, he could just feel his world getting colder. No.

He walked into the living room and quickly packed up his cello and stand. He took them back over to Misato's apartment before returning for Asuka and Kaworu's violins.

Asuka gave him a puzzled look as he returned again. "Shinji, what are you doing?"

He took her hand and tugged for her to stand. "Come on. You too, Kaworu-kun. We're going back to Misato's."

Kaworu numbly looked up from where he'd been staring at Rei's picture. "What?"

"You need something to keep your mind on besides... worrying about Rei. We all do. So we're going to do something."

Asuka let herself be pulled along as Shinji nearly towed her to the door. "Like?"

"You're both going to help me make her homecoming dinner."

Shinji jerked to a halt as Asuka suddenly stopped letting him pull her along without resistance. Her hand on his shoulder turned him around to face her narrow stare.

"I know what you're doing, Shinji. You're doing that 'I'm not worth it' thing again," she said tightly. She grabbed his head with both hands and kissed him. "I love you and I love that you're trying to buoy us both up, my dear baka, but never start thinking you're not important or 'worth it'. Got it? You're important to Kaworu, you're important to Rei, and I hope you know how much you mean to me."

A small, weak smile. "Yes, Asuka."

"Now let's make our Rei the best dinner ever."

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The eerie hum in the background of the neural imprinter was disturbing, but not loud enough to drown out the electronic trill of the phone.

Ritsuko froze. There were very, very few people who had the number down here in this lab. One of them was in no position to use a phone at all right now. One was sitting next to her. A third was on his way here. Of the very, very small number of people who were left that might call, Ritsuko wasn't really interested in speaking to either right now... especially one of them.

She swallowed and picked up the phone. "Akagi."

Tense silence met her. "...Status of my Pilot, Doctor?"

Of course. The one she didn't want. But of course, she would also be the one who would be most insistent on calling, wouldn't she?

"Misato, I-"

"You and Lieutenant Ibuki recovered something from the blast site 8 hours ago. Your crews somehow didn't report anything to the Operations Director, but I've got eyes, Doctor Akagi. So I want you to tell me the status of my Pilot," Misato grated. "Is. She. Alive?"

Ritsuko couldn't stop her eyes from darting to the tall glass cylinder filled with LCL in front of her. "Misato, I... this is extremely classified. I can't just-"

"Don't give me that 'classified' bullshit, Ritsuko! I've got three Pilots sitting at home desperately hanging on word if their friend is dead or not! Every Evangelion I have is damaged or destroyed, my entire Pilot corps is either missing or barely not screaming in anguish, and if another Angel popped up and said 'Hi!' right now, I don't think we'd have much to stop him but my goddam pistol. So cut the shit and tell me what the fuck is going on."

Ritsuko took a deep breath. "She's... alive."

Misato gave a shuddering sigh that was only somewhat removed from a sob. "Good. That's a start. Now talk."

"I don't have time to tell you anything, Misato. The Commander will be here for his own status report in a few minutes. I'll... see what he will let me release."

"I want to see her."

Ritsuko's eyes shot to the cylinder again. "You can't. Not yet. She's... I'm treating her down here for a reason. She's not stable to even be moved to the hospital yet. I think the Commander will authorize that for tomorrow, but for tonight she's down here, and I can't even get you in."

"Are you alone down there?" Misato snapped back. The 'what about your girlfriend?' hung unsaid.

"The Commander has not approved of anyone else being here." She looked nervously at Maya, who was indeed sitting next to her, furiously typing at the second console. "I... I needed help for this, Misato. I... I couldn't do this alone anymore. But I couldn't ask anyone," she said more quietly.

Misato subsided to angry silence for a moment. She could tell Ritsuko was being very cautious about what she was saying, even on this line. "It's nearly 2230, Ritsuko. I didn't want to go home without something to tell them. Because you know the minute I walk in, they will want to know. Rei is important to them."

"She's alive. I think she'll be moved to the hospital tomorrow. But... she's... badly hurt. There's been some... brain injury. She may not remember recent events. We won't know for a while."

"But she's alive? And going to stay that way?"

Ritsuko looked at the cylinder again, her face twisting in pain that she managed to keep out of her voice. "Rei Ayanami is alive. And is in no danger of death," she said carefully.

Misato sighed, seeming to understand she wasn't going to get anything more out of her friend over the phone. "Fine. That's what I'll tell them. I want to know more as soon as possible, though."

"Tomorrow, Misato. I'm sorry."

The line disconnected. Ritsuko slumped in her seat and hung up the phone. "I am fucking scum," she whispered.

"No, you're fucking me," Maya said, rubbing Ritsuko's shoulder and giving her a weak smile. "I love you, Ritsuko. We'll... we'll make it up to her. And to Ayanami-san."

Ritsuko shook her head and stood up, Maya's hand falling away. "You need to get out of here. The Commander will be here soon, and you need to be out of sight."

Maya stepped closer and held her. "I'm going. I finished the third layer engram scans. They're setting fine. She'll... be as good as the last scan can make her." She gave Ritsuko a kiss. "You remember that I love you and put your game face on. The Commander... you be cool, and he won't notice, right?"

Ritsuko nodded and pushed her away. "Yes. He'll only have eyes for Rei. Now go."

Maya vanished out the access door to the Evangelion Graveyard, and the back passages away from where the Commander would approach.

Ritsuko sagged one more time against the desk and looked at the girl floating in the LCL. "I am so sorry, Rei..."

Then she straightened up and forced her face to calm. He was coming.

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The beep of the door opening was faint. Misato's 'I'm home' was barely louder. A sensible precaution, since it was nearly midnight.

All three Children were still at the doorway to the entry hallway in under a second. "Misato!" Asuka said instantly "-san!" Shinji's simultaneous statement finished a half-second later.

Misato gave them a tired nod as she took her shoes off. "Have a seat. I've got news."

Asuka visibly bit down on wanting to shout the obvious question. She backed up, the motion pushing Shinji along behind her.

Misato slumped wearily into a chair at the kitchen table, not even looking as she automatically accepted a can of beer from Shinji. She finished half of it in one draw before putting it down with a sigh. She opened her eyes and looked at the three Pilots hanging on her word.

"She's alive."

Shinji slumped in relief as Asuka bared her teeth in a defiant grin. "Yes!" she nearly shouted.

Kaworu smiled and half-swallowed a sob.

"I didn't get much out of Ritsuko. Just that she's alive, they're treating her in Terminal Dogma. She's... she said it was all absurdly classified. Rei's... hurt bad. Some brain injury. She said she's probably going to have holes in her memory, but we won't know for a while. She said she might be able to be put in the hospital where we can see her tomorrow."

"Tomorrow?" Asuka and Shinji said in chorus again, her in irritation, him in dismay. "Why not now?"

"She's apparently in no condition to move or take visitors down there. And it's too classified for any of us to be allowed in." Misato's expression said what she thought of that. "Look, I know you're all in no shape for school tomorrow. You're all wound up like clocks and you've obviously been staying up waiting. So, Shinji, you give me the dinner I know you've kept waiting for me, and all three of you go to bed. I'll call the school in the morning to excuse you, and we'll all head straight to the hospital the moment we hear Rei's there, alright?"

Shinji took only a moment to put a microwave-warmed plate of vegetable stir-fry in front of Misato. He and Asuka looked at each other before they both looked at Kaworu. "Kaworu-kun, are you... going to be ok in your apartment tonight? Do you want to stay here in my old room?" Shinji asked.

Kaworu wiped his face dry of tears. Well, drier. They were still going. "I... She's alive... she's alive... Everything will be ok. I... I'll be alright in my own apartment, Shinji-kun, thank you."

Shinji half-raised his hand like he wanted to pat Kaworu's shoulder reassuringly, but just nodded. "If you say so. We... we'll see you at breakfast. Come over as soon as you get up."

"Thank you."

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"What is your function?"

"To Pilot Evangelion Unit-00 to defeat the Angels and fulfill the goals of the Scenario," Rei said automatically, no tone in her voice.

Commander Ikari nodded. "You will be bandaged to simulate injuries to support the explanation of your survival. Maintain this for one week."

"Yes, sir."

Gendo turned to Ritsuko. "Similar to before. Inject some coloration to simulate bruising around her eye, then bandage her head like a concussion. A day of 'recovery' in the hospital should be enough."

"SEELE won't buy it," Ritsuko noted. "Especially with the Fifth Child able to observe her at close range."

Gendo dismissed it with a faint jerk of his head. "It won't matter. They will not make a move on their endgame until they activate him, and we have him under watch. Rei can dispose of him shortly, once she's fully acclimated to this body."

He looked back at Rei in the tube, a tiny, grim smile on his face. "There is only one Angel left, and we know where he is."

"Will it be that simple, sir?" Ritsuko asked, raising an eyebrow. "Surely SEELE is aware of our observation. Won't they try to screen him? Or take direct action?"

Gendo just stared at Rei. "Rei, will you be ready to destroy the Seventeenth Angel within a few days?"

"Yes, sir."

"Be ready for my order. We will wait until we can take certain measures against SEELE's people. Once we are ready, we can finish off the last Angel, and the way will be cleared."

"Yes, sir."

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Ritsuko waited until Commander Ikari was long gone before setting the tube of LCL to drain. This was going to be hard, and not a conversation she wanted even an echo of to reach his ears.

The last of the orange liquid drained away, and Rei automatically bent over to empty her lungs of the remainder. She met Ritsuko's eyes blankly when she straightened up.

Ritsuko bit her lip. On one hand, she knew all the science and theory behind this, and she'd run the systems herself. On the other hand, this was the impossible resurrection of a girl who's partly-charred corpse was lying under a sheet not 20m away. Commander Ikari and Sub-Commander Fuyutsuki had handled everything the last time this had happened. She'd been the inexperienced newcomer, barely past stepping into her mother's shoes. But this had to work. She owed the First Child everything.

She nervously cleared her throat. "Rei… what is the last thing you remember?"

Red eyes blinked slowly. "...my last significant memory is our defeating the Fourteenth Angel. The next morning, I was ordered here. That was four days ago," she said without tone.

Ritsuko winced. "That was your last full scan. That was more than two months ago, Rei. You… you… A-against the Sixteenth, you…" She couldn't say it.

"I died? And have been replaced," Rei said, still without inflection. "As per the Scenario."

Ritsuko winced again. "A lot has happened in the last two months, Rei. Do you…" Despite knowing the Commander was nowhere near, Ritsuko reflexively looked around. "Do you," she started again, more quietly, "remember we are… allies, now?"

Rei stared at her, revealing nothing. "Allies?"

"You… helped me. I had a bad night, after Unit-00 berserked in the test chamber again. It smashed up the control booth, nearly killed me. Maya saved me. Afterwards, you came to my room in the hospital to apologize for loosing control. You… told me about my mother and your… previous clone. How she'd…" Ritsuko swallowed. "Killed her. Right before herself. And how Commander Ikari was just… using both of us. Tools. I… didn't take it well. I went home and started drinking hard and talking painkillers. Nearly… I nearly… I couldn't take the thought that I'd been so blind, so stupid. That he was just using me to get to her again, and all I'd done, every sin that I justified to myself was for nothing. I got close to ending it all. Instead, I called you in the middle of the night, and you came. Talked me out of doing anything stupid. Told me… how your love gave you hope and strength. And how you forgave me."

Ritsuko sighed. "You told me to confess everything to Maya, that she'd understand and accept me." She smiled weakly at Rei. "We've been together ever since. We have to hide it from Commander Ikari just like you have to hide your… rebellion? We've been allies against SEELE and the Commander's Scenario since."

Rei's stare did not flicker. "I see."

"Rei, I'm not lying. This isn't some trick."

Rei gave her a tiny nod. "I am aware, Doctor. I can tell you are not lying. This is just… a considerable and serious amount of information to process. You are nearly as important to the Commander's Scenario as I am. If the both of us are allied against him and SEELE, neither one has much chance of success. If they are unaware of our opposition." Rei looked the question at her.

"We're still alive," Ritsuko replied.

Rei stared at her.

Ritsuko winced once more. "Er… you know what I mean. If he suspected I was not playing along anymore, I probably wouldn't last long. Maya he'd kill just for knowing about this lab, let alone everything I've told her about you, SEELE, what's really going on..."

"I see." Rei paused. "Shinji and Asuka are alright? The Sixteenth Angel did not harm them? Or the Fifteenth?"

Ritsuko smiled at the naked concern in Rei's voice, well-concealed though it was. "They're alright, Rei. Their Evas were damaged, but they weren't directly hurt. The last two Angels mostly hit you and the Fifth Child."

Rei stared very blankly at her. "...who?"

Ritsuko ran her hand through her hair and sighed. Her head hurt already. "That's… a whole can of worms, Rei. SEELE sent us the Fifth Child right after the Fourteenth, to replace the Fourth Child while she was… being examined for any contamination. We know he's SEELE's spy. Or was. He's… defected to our side… or… well, yours, really."

Rei fractionally raised her left eyebrow. "Mine?"

"He's the Seventeenth Angel."

Rei went very still. She was eerily still for a long minute. "Explain," she said eventually, still rigidly tense. "Where is he? Is he under guard? Does the Commander know? Is he a threat to Shinji and Asuka? Why is he still alive, if we know this?"

Ritsuko held up placating hands, trying to stop Rei's increasingly rapid burst of questions. "Easy! Rei, you've told me yourself he's… not a threat. Yes, the Commander knows. He suspected as soon as SEELE sent him, and he was easy for you to detect. He's like you, a hybrid. He apparently made no effort to conceal himself from you. But…" Ritsuko sighed and pulled the computer console's roller chair closer to her and sat down heavily. "I suggested eliminating him soon after he got here. The Commander decided not to overtly oppose SEELE's Pilot unless he made a move of his own, and then you… told me he'd promised you he would not do it, or that he wouldn't stop you from taking him out if he couldn't help it. You said he'd… changed sides. That he was now opposed to… to SEELE, to Instrumentality, everything. That he wanted to...stop them. Because of you and the other Pilots."

"Because of…" Rei looked nonplussed.

Ritsuko couldn't quite stop a faint smile. "You even asked me to help conceal the fact you were friendly from the Commander. Since that would kind of give things away."

"I… will bear that in mind, Doctor," Rei said, frowning. "I still desire to see them as soon as possible. I am still concerned about their safety with him in proximity."

Ritsuko nodded, but frowned herself. She picked up a roll of bandages from the counter and held them up. "We have to apply your 'makeup' first, I'm sorry. I'll give you an injection around your eye to simulate bruising, and you'll have to wear the bandages in public for a week or so."

"Regardless of the Commander's orders, I will not lie to my loves about my condition," Rei argued calmly. "I will not wear any false dressings when alone with them."

Ritsuko pursed her lips. "Rei, we're excusing your memory loss due to serious brain injury. I know you don't want to lie to them, but… if you don't, they're going to want to know why you look perfectly fine, but can't remember then last two months." She began wrapping up Rei's left arm. "You have to wear this at least long enough to get you into and out of the Geofront hospital."

"I will not lie to my loves, Doctor," Rei maintained.

"Are you ready to tell them everything? You promised them and Major Katsuragi that you would once it was down to just the Seventeenth Angel left."

"I did?"

Ritsuko sighed and rubbed her face with her free hand. "I think you should talk to the Fifth Child before you make any big decisions."

"I am supposed to negotiate the safety to those I love with an Angel?" Rei said sharply.

"You told me he's your friend and ally," Ritsuko replied. She hesitated. "You also said you didn't want him to die. That it was important to you."

Rei stared at her like Ritsuko had suddenly begun yodeling in Chinese. "How?"

Ritsuko sighed again and began wrapping the bandages around Rei's head and left eye. "You two have been… cooperating a lot lately. And… when the Fifteenth Angel attacked your mind with a beam, he tried to interpose himself in Unit-03, to take the hit for you. It… partly worked. He got hit as badly as you until Unit-01 got there to cover you both."

Rei's head twitched like she wanted to shake it in negation, but was held in place by Ritsuko's hands applying the bandages. "This is… I need to speak to Shinji and Asuka as soon as possible. And the… Fifth Child too, apparently."

"We'll have you set up in the hospital as soon as we're done here. I'll call Misato as soon as you're set, and they can come see you." She finished taping the dressing down, and stepped back, reaching to grab a set of hospital scrubs for Rei.

Rei took them nodding slightly. "Good. I… I believe you, Doctor, but… It is difficult to process and accept without them saying it too."

.


.

Kilometers above them, two Pilots held each other close in the darkness of their room.

"She's alive!" Shinji breathed one more time into Asuka's hair.

She squeezed him back. "She's alive!" she echoed.

Shinji half-snorted. "You're going to remind me of this 'I told you so' forever, aren't you?"

Asuka shook her head. "Not when it's the life of someone we love on the line, my dear baka. I'm just as ready to scream in relief as you are that she's mostly ok. Memory trouble and brain injury… it doesn't matter. We'll do whatever we can to help our Rei recover. And… boy, if we're this happy, the Rainbow Trout has to be over the moon."

Shinji shifted slightly, looking pensive. "I'm… not sure? He… he looked relieved, yes, but… like he was still worried too."

"Maybe he's afraid her memory problems mean she won't remember their date this Saturday?" Asuka suggested.

"Maybe. She'll still go with us, I hope. Gods, I hope she's not hurt as bad as it could be…"

"Ja…"

.


.

"She's alive, she's alive, she came back, she came back, everything is going to be ok…"

Kaworu tried to keep his hand from shaking as he stared at the picture of the First Child in her Christmas outfit, smiling gently.

'You know she's never the same afterwards. Sometimes she's so different Shinji-kun is scared of her…'

"No. No no no no…" he whispered. "She will… she's alive. That's all that matters. I don't. She's alive, and she will keep her promise, if nothing else. I will not stop her. She will help me protect everyone…"

He swallowed, and tried to go on, but his throat thickened and his eyes began to burn. "She will… be Rei. My friend. My hope. No matter what. We… we have a… a date on Saturday…"

Sleep took a long time to come.

.


.

The phone ringing in the dining room didn't even get a reaction from the two teens wrapped around each other in the large bed. They heard Misato sigh and pick it up just before the voicemail would have taken it.

"Hello, Katsuragi here."

A moment's pause.

"SHINJI! ASUKA! GO GET NAGISA!"

.


.

Author's Note: Well, that's it for this deployment. I'm in Kuwait once again, to board a flight back to the US tomorrow. This update was partly written mid-air, as I was stuck on a C-130 flight for 9 hours to leave Iraq. We had to touch at half the bases in country on the way out. Glad I packed a sandwich. Next update may include parts written while I'm stuck on the 15 hour flight back to the US.