Advice and Trust

Chapter 11.19-21

Cards On The Table

.

.


.
Rei skidded to a halt just inside the open door of Shinji's hospital room and spun around to grab the open door's knob in one motion. She slammed the door and locked it, then moved a chair to wedge it under the knob. A quick scan around with her Sight revealed no one in the immediate vicinity that had not been there when they visited before. She glanced at the open blinds on the windows and closed them, then pulled the curtains closed as well. The room secured as she could make it for the moment, she let herself lean against Shinji's bed and breathe hard.

It had been difficult to restrain the urge to see just how fast her AT-Field could have propelled her through the hospital's corridors to get here. But breaching secrecy in that manner had seemed too likely to draw very negative attention, either from the Commander or others. Worse even than staying alone with Kaworu to let Asuka sprint here instead. Now that she had a moment to think, it mildly amazed Rei that her first action so soon after seeing her boyfriend shot again was to rush off and trust his protection to another. Then again, Asuka was showing her just as much trust, and they both had complete confidence in that.

She glanced over at the sleeping faces of Hikari and Suzuhara-san in the other bed. Hikari was lying on her back due to her injuries, but she hadn't let go of Suzuahara-san's hand, and seemed to be sleeping easier. Rei looked at Shinji. He had not stirred since they'd left. But his Light was strong. He would recover. She had not merely been trying to reassure Asuka; Doctor Akagi was the best in the world at tissue regeneration. One positive benefit from all the repair work they'd had to do on the Evangelions.

Rei pulled another chair over to the middle of the room, so she could see all three of her friends and watch the door. She settled in. She did not know how long it would take for additional NERV security to arrive to relieve her, but she would not permit any harm to befall her friends in that time.
.


.

Asuka tried to let the rapid footfalls of Rei's departure assure her. Rei would not let anything stand in her way, and she'd protect Shinji. Right.

She turned back to stare at Kaworu. It only just now occurred to her she was alone in a locked room with an Angel, and she had a gun loaded with anti-AT-Field bullets.

The Fifth Child stared back at her, a tentative smile on his face. "I... can't blame you," he said quietly.

Asuka twitched. "You're not reading my mind or something, are you?"

He shook his head. "Just your face. You looked at me, then the gun, and... well," his smile wavered, "if it wouldn't make Rei sad, I'd almost tell you to do it. You saw how... fragile my grip on Tabris is right now."

Asuka looked at the gun again and frowned. "Right..." She ejected the magazine and popped three bullets out. She stuffed them in her pocket, then reloaded the magazine into the gun. This time she pointed it at the assassin on the floor.

She looked at Kaworu again and narrowed her eyes. "You're not even bleeding anymore?"

He pulled the blood-soaked hospital gown aside to reveal the likewise soaked bandage on his chest. It had a neat 9mm hole in it, but no additional fluids dripped from it. "Healed. Benefits of an S2 Organ."

Asuka looked at the bloody bedsheets and bullet hole in the hospital gown. "Right. Ok, take your gown off and strip the bed. We've got to get rid of those before Misato gets here and asks why there's a bloody bullet hole in your shirt and not in you."

She dug through the cart the assassin had brought in, coming up with a fresh set of sheets and a new hospital gown. "Good thing she had a real cart. If she'd just packed this thing with a bomb or... right, bomb wouldn't beat your AT-Field," she said, handing the gown to Kaworu. She quickly jerked her eyes upward when she realized he wasn't wearing anything else.

The gray-haired Pilot did not seem uncomfortable. He handed her a wad of bloody sheets in exchange. "What do we do with them, though?"

Asuka looked around the room. It was dismayingly free of obvious hiding spots. Misato would go through the cart, so that was out. They couldn't just stuff them in a trash can... ah!

There was a small bag in the corner with Kaworu's shoes and cut-up clothes from the theater. Asuka quickly stuffed the bloody sheets and gown inside. The bag was now obviously bigger, but no one should need to investigate Kaworu's personal baggage, right? Hopefully.

Some artful arrangement of the new sheets left them pulled half-off the bed, leaving the bullet hole in the mattress exposed. Thankfully, it's synthetic surface had let the blood slide right off.

Asuka wearily slumped back into her chair, gun back on the still unconscious assassin. "Ok, lie on the bed and try to look like you're still in pain. We've got to make this convincing, since this is not the time to tell Misato about you and Rei."

Kaworu didn't lay back down yet. He stared at Asuka with a curious look of admiration on his face. "I... thank you, Asuka."

"Eh? What fo- oh. Yeah. Well..." Asuka waved her free hand vaguely. "Look, Rei loves you, and Rei being happy is important to Shinji and I, alright? And... like I said, you took a bullet for him. You were nearly killed trying to protect him. I will never forget that. Doubly so now that I know you're not just a Pilot, alright?" She frowned and looked down at her hip. She tapped the pocket with the bullets she'd removed from the gun. "And if it comes to it, I don't want Rei to have to... be the one to stop you. I know it would kill me if I had to stop Shinji or something. If I can spare Rei that..." She trailed off, giving him a slightly apologetic look.

He just nodded. "I... me too. Her happiness, I mean. I've never felt like this before. I'd do anything for her. And I... well, I'm not going to end the world by my choice. But my instincts are just too strong. Tabris doesn't listen to petty Lilim things like 'this will kill my friends' or 'this will destroy someone I love'," he said morosely. "So you keeping a backup... I can only pray we won't need it, and bless you that you'll take that burden from Rei."

He smiled sadly. "You know, one of the things that kept us apart for a while was that she didn't want to be put in the position of having to kill a friend. I'm glad you'd shelter her from that. The way you and Shinji love her is... I hope I can be as open with her. Or as good to her."

"You'd better," Asuka grumbled, dipping her head to let her hair hide a blush. "She's number two on the list of 'people I'd shoot someone for', and it's not that long a list." She waved at him again. "Now lay down and look like you're in pain, Angel-boy. We've got to make this look good for Misato."

.


.

The huge, open space of Gendo's office somehow felt stuffy and too close to Misato. Like the room itself resented her presence. It had been like an itch at the back of her mind as she finished up her report.

"The shooter missed her shot at the Fifth Child thanks to the Second, and is under guard in the surgical ward untiI she regains consciousness. Her weapon was a standard Heckler and Koch USP, similar to a NERV standard sidearm. We're tracing it. The... unusual ammunition has been handed over to Doctor Akagi for analysis. I have put guards on the Pilots' rooms until further notice, but as we've seen the Geofront itself is no protection, I'd like to move them back to my building as soon as they are released from the hospital, sir."

"Your building?"

"Yes, sir. It's already well protected by Section 2 details who have been in place for some time, and they're already aware of who is allowed in the building. It is well separated from anything nearby, with no unobserved avenues of approach. Simply put, once they're inside, Section 2 can simply warn off or even shoot anyone who tries to approach that isn't on the list. Short of an enemy dropping a missile on the whole site, they'll be safe against further attack." She braced herself for the argument.

"Granted."

Misato managed to keep most of her surprise off her face. "...Thank you, sir." 'Ok, that was way too easy. Why is he agreeing to this? Even assuming he doesn't give a damn about Shinji or the others, why isn't he insisting Rei be held down here? Something's up.'

"I expect your full report by this evening," Commander Ikari continued. "We will release the Children at that time, provided Doctor Akagi can complete another healing cycle on them by then. Doctor?"

Next to her, Ritsuko stiffened. "Sir, they haven't had enough time to stabilize from the last one. Their healing is proceeding at the best speed we could have hoped for, but putting them in for a second cycle before their systems have been able to adjust to the shock and re-nutrition is-"

"They are critical NERV assets and we are under attack, Doctor," Commander Ikari interrupted. "We do not have the luxury of time for them to recover at a leisurely pace. Another attack could come as soon as tomorrow. We need the Children operational immediately."

"Sir, if we rush things, there could be compli-"

"You have your orders, Doctor. This is priority."

Ritsuko shut her mouth, her lips pressing into a flat line. It was apparent further arguing would run right into the Commander's insistence.

"Sir? The Second Child is still able to Pilot, and the First Child is unharmed. We can still deploy two-thirds of our Evas," Misato ventured.

"The next Angel could require 100% of our efforts, Major. You are dismissed."

She frowned, but saluted. She and Ritsuko turned and walked out of his room in unison.

Fuyutsuki glanced at his younger superior. "SEELE will not relent. They need Tabris to activate even more than we do."

Gendo didn't even look at him. "We will have Rei eliminate him in a matter of days. SEELE would not be sending only assassins to trigger him if the Mass Production Evas were ready. We have some time, if little."

"How soon can we move? If SEELE is being this direct, they must be close themselves."

"Difficult to say with precision, but I will have Adam integrated enough to attempt within a week, I estimate."

Fuyutsuki's expression was grim. "And then we take the only way out that stops SEELE."

Gendo nodded microscopically. "SEELE lacks the Lance, and likely underestimates how far they are behind. As long as we have Tabris under our eye, we control the timetable."

"They've come too close with their assassins," Fuyutsuki noted. "A few centimeters' distance, and they'd have have succeeded. If not for the Second Child's presence, they might have even succeeded this time."

"We are close. We will terminate the last Angel when we are ready, or sooner if needed, and then begin our endgame."

Gendo's expression was as fixed and blank as ever, but Fuyutsuki could see the tension in his pose, and the way his eyes were fixed on the horizon. Only one thing was on his mind.

Yui.

.


.

They were barely ten meters down the corridor outside the Commander's office when Misato broke the silence. "What 'complications'?"

Ritsuko flinched, but kept walking just as fast as the Operations Director. "We're going to have to monitor them for shock immediately after, and make sure they eat like horses in the next few days. Even with the LCL to help, we're asking a lot of their systems to try this. And I don't even know about the medium or long term risks. There are signs this could be a huge cancer risk, pushing their tissue to regenerate at this speed, but..." She shook her head. "They need a few days between cycles. This process sucks key nutrients out of their system at a ridiculous rate, and their bodies are not expecting this kind of load."

Misato nearly snarled. "I do not want my kids getting cancer because Commander Ikari can't let them have a few days to recover, Rits."

"You heard him. I'll watch the process like a hawk, but..." She shook her head again. "At least they'll be able to go home tonight?"

"You can get all three of them through that fast?"

"Four, I think. Soryu's injuries are minor, she'll only need maybe an hour in the tank, if that."

Misato blinked in surprise. "Jesus, Rits. They got shot a day ago. You can have them combat ready in 48 hours from that? You... you realize what this kind of tech could do if we can release it to the world? How many lives could be saved?"

Ritsuko nodded, a very sad smile on her face. "Yes. And I also know the Commander has no interest in doing so. Hell, I'm half-surprised I'm even allowed to use it on the Pilots."

"Why-"

Ritsuko shook her head sharply, once. "Don't ask. You know why."

Misato nearly snarled again. 'Because the Commander is trying to end the world, and doesn't give a damn about next year, or anyone outside his little plan. Right.' Aloud, she said, "Fine. Just... tell me they'll be alright tomorrow."

"I'll do everything I can, Misato."

Misato just nodded, and they separated at the next corridor intersection.

.


.

"Asuka, you don't have to stay here. You can go to him. I can see how much you want to."

Asuka left off her unimpressed examination of the spartan new room Section 2 had moved them to and looked at Kaworu. ["What?"]

["There's over a dozen Section 2 guards outside this room. There's more outside the hospital. They're not going to let anyone else in here without specific permission from Major Katsuragi or Doctor Akagi. You can go see Shinji,"] the Fifth Child explained. His German was oddly old-fashioned and formal.

Asuka frowned and shook her head. ["I am not leaving you alone, Rainbow Trout. After the last 3 hours, not to mention all of yesterday, I don't trust Section 2 to effectively protect a taco cart, let alone one of us. I am demonstrably more effective at keeping you safe from assassins than they are. And I trust Rei to keep my baka, Hikari, and her boytoy safe."] She resumed her hobble-pacing around the sparse room, the rolling hospital bed and side stand nearly the only furnishings in it, harshly lit by the Geofront-filtered sunlight flowing in through the floor-to-ceiling windows on the exterior wall. Her hands kept clenching and unclenching on the grips of her crutches.

Kaworu shook his head, a faint smile on his lips. ["Asuka, I can see how badly you need him. You are glowing with it. It honors me a lot that you are willing to stand guard over me like this, but it is unlikely they will try another attack on me so soon."]

["Yeah, that's what we said this morning,"] Asuka growled. ["Look, at this point I don't trust anyone but us and maybe Misato or Kaji to actually protect you. And over the last 24 hours we've come within literal centimeters of you or Shinji being dead. Rei can't be here with you right now, so I will."] She stopped moving around and awkwardly turned herself on her crutches to face him. ["And what do you mean, I'm 'glowing with it'?"]

["I can see you. You both burn so brightly for each other. It's-"] Kaworu suddenly broke off and looked towards the door, breaking into a broad smile. ["Rei is coming!"]

Asuka blinked, and looked at the door. There hadn't been any sound on the other side, or the door unlocking. She opened her mouth to ask how the Hell he knew that when the faint sounds of footsteps began to approach the door.

A moment later the door lock beeped several times, and opened a crack. It couldn't go any farther than that, thanks to the two chairs Asuka had piled against the inside. "Asuka? I am accompanied by two orderlies. Please allow us in," Rei's voice said softly through the gap.

"Rei!" Asuka quickly moved to the door, leaned one of her crutches against the wall and pulled the chairs out of the way to let the door swing wide. "What are you- Oh."

The one of the two orderlies in Rei's wake was pushing an empty wheelchair. He moved it close to Asuka and offered it to her. "Please, allow me, Pilot."

"Doctor Akagi sent me to escort you and the Fifth Child to the other Pilots' room. She wishes to collect us all for additional medical procedures. The Commander has ordered we must all be combat-ready as soon as possible."

Asuka sat down in the wheelchair, but jerked her face towards Rei. "Wait, so who's watching Shinji and Hikari? You didn't leave him with that hexendoktor, did you?"

"A security detail established by Major Katsuragi is guarding that room, Asuka," Rei replied, very definitely not glancing at the Section 2 guards just outside the doorway. "They are safe. I would not have left were it not so."

The second orderly unlocked the wheels on Kaworu's bed and started to push it towards the door. Rei stood aside to let it pass. She and Kaworu shared an intense look as he rolled by. The Fifth Child had not stopped smiling. Rei merely nodded.

She picked up Asuka's crutches, and waved for the orderly pushing Asuka's chair to proceed her. "And we are going right back to them. Doctor Akagi wishes to speak to us all before the next procedure."

Asuka grumbled, but subsided. "I still don't like her, Rei."

Rei nodded again. "She knows. We do what must be done, regardless."

.


.

Tan-uniformed NERV guards waited at the elevator to take them to the floor where the others were. They just nodded at Rei, apparently under orders to follow her lead, and followed them into the wide hospital elevator. Asuka kept an eye on them anyway, trusting them only a little more than the black-suited Section 2 goons.

More of them guarded the hallway outside the Pilots' room. The ones that had followed them up in the elevator fell in with the group, leaving the orderlies to push Kaworu's bed and Asuka's wheelchair into the room without them.

Doctor Akagi looked up as they rolled in and nodded, gesturing for them to be pushed next to Shinji's bed. "Thank you. Please wait in the hallway for a moment. I need to discuss something about the procedure with the Pilots, and then we'll be moving to the treatment lab."

Asuka popped up out of her wheelchair and hobbled closer to Shinji's bedside, reclaiming her grip on his hand. She steadied herself with her other hand on the bedframe as she balanced on her uninjured foot. Shinji was just as she'd left him, though he stirred very slightly when she took his hand. She searched his face for any scrap of reassurance before turning to Doctor Akagi. "Alright, you've got us here. Now what do you need us all for? What 'additional procedures'? I thought they all needed days to recover before anything else," she said with a frown. "And where's Misato?" 'Because I trust her a lot more than I trust you,'was loudly unsaid.

Doctor Akagi didn't look any happier than she did. "Major Katsuragi is still overseeing the investigation in the Fifth Child's original hospital room. Commander Ikari is concerned about the possibility of another Angel attack soon, and has ordered that you all be run through the LCL-boosted procedure again immediately, so you can all be combat-ready before that can happen," she said sourly.

Asuka managed to stop her eyes from shooting right to Kaworu. "Another Angel attack," she repeated flatly. "Angels haven't been the number one threat to our health recently."

"You're up first, Second Child," Doctor Akagi continued without acknowledging Asuka's retort. "We should be able to heal your foot in rapid order, and..." She glanced at the door. Rei had closed and locked it, and now stood guard in front of it. The only people in the room were the Pilots, Touji, and her. "...and if we move quickly and quietly, I can probably get Suzuhara-kun here slotted in the real chamber while I improvise a smaller system to work on your foot. If you're willing."

Asuka blinked for a moment. "Wait, what? I thought you were only allowed to treat us with that thing because we were Pilots."

"That's correct. If you're willing to see if I can rig up a, a... LCL footbath rig, we can put him in the actual recovery pod while you are supposed to be in there," Ritsuko said carefully. "It won't be as effective on the skull fracture itself, but it will definitely do a world of good for the soft tissue damage and swelling on his brain. He may or may not be conscious by tonight, but it will accelerate his healing by weeks."

"So why are you even asking me? Why can't you just waive the rules and get him treated anyhow? You're the number three person in NE-" Asuka narrowed her eyes. She looked carefully around the room. "...you're not asking Commander Asshole, are you? You're going off the reservation?You?"

"I'm... not exactly asking official permission for this, no," Ritsuko said nervously. "But... please? It may take weeks or even months for him to recover naturally."

"Why are you asking me?" Asuka pressed.

"Because... because I need to do this," Ritsuko admitted haltingly. "Improvising the smaller system may not even work, and your foot may not heal faster, or at all, if it goes badly. You'd be giving up your slot for-"

"You know damn well that's not what I'm asking, Doctor," Asuka snarled. "There's precisely zero need to ask my permission for this. You can do this whether I say yes or no, and Commander Jackass will crucify you either way. Shinji and I are too damn familiar with how he responds to people not following every little order he gives."

"Then let him," Ritsuko said quietly, not looking Asuka in the face. "I'm already a dead woman if Commander Ikari finds out what else I've been doing. I'm doing this either way. I just wanted to give you a chance to object to the possible loss of perfectly fixing your foot. I know how important your beauty is to you. But I'm taking Suzuhara-kun along on this no matter what." She did finally raise her eyes to almost defiantly meet Asuka's.

Asuka curled her lip at her. "Evidently you don't know, Doctor. Trading my foot over Touji's brain? What kind of question is this? Of course we're putting him in. I'm proud of my looks, not sociopathically vain. I'm not some kind of monster. I don't have your kind of sins to atone for." She jerked her head towards Rei.

Ritsuko flinched.

"Asuka, she is trying to atone," Rei said softly. "This is one small piece of it."

Asuka glared at Doctor Akagi for another moment, then looked back down to Shinji. She rubbed her thumb across the back of his hand. "Do Hikari next. Shinji goes last. That's how he'd want it." She looked back up at the fake-blonde. "They'll all be ok after this, yes?"

Ritsuko hesitated. "I... think so. That's the second thing I wanted to ask of you before we-"

"You think so?" Asuka growled "What the fuck do you mean 'think so'?!"

"I argued against this! I tried!" Ritsuko snapped back. "The process puts an enormous strain on their systems, and we have no idea if there are going to be serious complications if we push them through it twice this fast! But the Commander ordered it, and I can't stop him! Not on something this obvious! I'm going to be watching like a hawk and fine tuning the process in real time to minimize the strain on them, but we have to do this! That's the other reason I wanted to have you and Suzuhara-kun go first, so I can monitor and fine tune the process on the two of you that haven't been already put through it once!"

"'Complications'?!" Asuka nearly shouted at her. Her Japanese deserted her. ["You bitch, what the Hell do you think you're doing, risking my boyfriend like this for the babbling idiocy of that heartless bastard in charge of this madhouse? For an 'Angel attack' you know damn well is about as likely to hit tomorrow as I am to-"]

Rei's hand on her shoulder snapped Asuka's rant to a halt. The redhead looked wildly at Rei, her breath a rasp in her newly raw throat. "Rei?"

"Asuka, this is not her choice. She will watch out for Shinji and Hikari every second and do everything she can for them."

Asuka returned her glare to Doctor Akagi, who nodded, swallowing. "I promise."

"What kind of 'complications'?" Asuka snarled.

"We're... we're forcing intense, rapid tissue regeneration, and drawing a lot of nutrients and critical elements out of their system. There's possible increased cancer risk, there could be some nerve damage, there... I don't know! There's been no time to do anything even like long-term research on this, let alone actual biopsies or studies! I've got the MAGI running some sims, but they're so full of assumptions and guesswork that their predictive value is slim." Ritsuko rubbed her temples. "LCL is potent enough stuff it might buffer them against anything long-term, especially if they keep getting long soaks as Pilots. But I can't be sure at all, and I'm sorry! I just... I couldn't just shove you all into this without at least telling you. No matter what he orders."

Asuka looked down at Shinji again. "Fine. Test out whatever you need to on me first, Doctor. Any shade of risk I can take off Shinji is worth it. Let's get started right now."

.


.

Ritsuko could feel the Second Child's stare burning into the back of her neck.

At least it was just a stare. Asuka's running grumbled commentary while her foot soaked and Ritsuko had been trying to work on the Suzuhara kid's process had been annoying enough. It had elevated to louder and more pointed snarls when the Fourth Child's turn had come. Only the timely intervention of Rei had headed off a potential explosion when Ritsuko began to load the Third Child into the healing pod. Asuka had started threatening her with doom and death if anything happened to Shinji. After Ritsuko had threatened to have her removed from the room if she couldn't stop pestering her while she worked on the most delicate case, Rei had managed to extract a promise from the redhead to keep silent as the price of her staying to watch.

'It's not like I need more stress right now!' Ritsuko thought to herself. 'The Horaki kid was easy, all soft tissue repair. Even Suzuhara wasn't that bad, just the complication of it being brain tissue at center. But damn it, the Third Child's is all a mess of broken ribs, lungs, and major blood vessels! The last thing I need right now is some smart-ass little bitch jogging my elbow while I try to- shit shit shit, potassium and calcium levels are all wrong, balance balance!' She hurriedly typed commands into the control computer, trying to stay ahead of the fluctuating readouts. The Third Child's system was being heavily taxed by this process, and his vitals were not making her feel reassured.

'His pulse is way too high, damn it. Increase the glucose feed, blood sugar too low...'

Her hands flew over the console, trying to stay one step ahead of the alarmingly unstable process. It was bad enough in the best of times. On this second round in less than twenty-four hours, she couldn't take her eyes off it for more than thirty seconds before some new instability cropped up.

'Arterial oxygenation dropping, his lungs aren't keeping up with breathing and regenerating at the same time damn damn damn!'

"Doctor!" Asuka muttered urgently. Shinji's pulse was still increasing.

"I know!" Ritsuko snapped, her hands moving faster. She spared twenty seconds to order the MAGI to begin predictive analysis of the instabilities and automatically respond to recurring ones with adjustments she'd already used.

"Rei, I'm going to scream if I have to just sit here!" she heard the Second Child whisper. "I can hear his heart racing, I can see those monitors, and I can't do anything! Nothing but sit and watch this woman work on him!"

"Doctor Akagi is the best in the world. She will save him."

"That's a little hard to trust in after what she did to you!"

"She truly wishes to make amends. Do you understand now why I said I know she is not lying?"

There was a long pause before the Second Child replied again. "...alright. I trust you, Rei. Whatever you can see in her, she's still got to earn it as far as I care."

"She will."

'I wish I had as much faith in me as you and Maya do, Rei,' Ritsuko thought for a moment. More indicators began bleeping on the pod. She worked faster.

.


.

Blurry images joined the half-heard, naggingly familiar voices registering on his disordered thoughts. Blue. He could see blue. And red, set in white. Wait. He knew... "Rei?" he mumbled, his voice weak and throat dry.

Red eyes shifted down to his. "Shin-"

Shinji's eyes snapped open. "Asuka! Where's Asuka?! Is she ok?! Was she hur-" he babbled too fast for Rei to even finish his name.

"-ji."

"I'm right here, you jerk."

With great effort, he managed to roll his head to look at the other side of the bed. An angry redhead was glaring at him. All was right with the world. "Asu-"

He got no further as a fervent, deep kiss was pressed to his lips. He was smiling when she finally pulled back. "You're ok, right?"

"I am fine, you idiot! And when you're feeling better, I'm going to tear your head off for pulling that stunt! Don't you ever do that again!" Her hands clenched over and over. "I can't even hold you right now since the spot you got shot is still healing!"

He smiled weakly and shook his head a tiny bit. "Sorry, Asuka-"

"Don't you 'sorry' me!"

"But I'd do it again, every time."

Asuka bristled. Rei watched closely as an alarming flash of fear and near-panic washed across Asuka's Light despite the putative anger on her face. "Don't you-"

"Asuka, you're alive. That's all that matters. I'd do that again a thousand times to make sure you're alright," Shinji interrupted. "I know you'd have done the same thing if I hadn't beaten you to it. You're just like me."

Batting aside the IV line into his left arm, Asuka leaned over the bed and grabbed him by the shoulders. "Then you should know I can't stand even the idea of you leaving me alone if you die, baka! Don't risk yourself like that! I can't-" She bit her lip and visibly fought for control. "I can't do this without you anymore! You mean too much!"

"You're worth more than I am, Asu-"

["No I'm NOT!"] she shouted at him. ["I got shot in the foot when I tried to go after you, and Kaworu got shot through the chest trying to save you! Rei had to-"] She halted and ground her teeth. ["Yes, I'd do it for you! And you know how you'd feel if anything happened! So don't!"]

Shinji blanched. "You got shot?! Kaworu?! I-" He shook his head again, a little firmer this time. "I can't promise that, Asuka. You, Rei, Kaworu... I will always take that risk for you. You most of all."

Asuka glared at him, still holding onto his shoulders. ["...Fine. But you are going to promise me that wherever you go, whatever you do, I'm there too, alright? Whatever happens, you and me, together, forever and always. You promised that already, right?"]

Shinji's hands came up to gently pull hers off his shoulders and hold them. ["You and me, to the end of the world, I promise,"] he said slowly and carefully in his accented German.

Rei sighed softly, causing the two to snap out of smiling at each other and look at her. She blushed lightly. "I apologize for intruding. You two burn so brightly together. I cannot help but savor it."

Shinji weakly shook his head, confused. "Rei?"

Asuka sighed and closed her eyes for a moment. "Ah, yeah... about that. Rei had a bad night after the shooting, and needed to talk. She and I had an... er, interesting talk. We need to fill you in once we get home."

"Get home?" Shinji blinked and let go of Asuka's hands to carefully prod at his still bandaged chest. "I just got shot... uh... last week? How long have I been out?"

"About a day. The attack was yesterday."

Shinji looked at her, looked at the patch of clearly blood-free bandages on him, looked back at her, and said, "What?"

"Doctor Akagi shepherded you all through two rounds of LCL-accelerated healing," Rei informed him. "You are not fully recovered, and will be very drained, but you are fit for Piloting and able to go home immediately. Commander Ikari ordered the procedure out of need, as I was the only uninjured Pilot after the attack."

Asuka growled. At Shinji's look, she said, "I'm not happy he ordered that. Doctor Bitch said she had no idea what long-term risks you might be facing from this, but your asshole dad ordered it anyway. He said it was because an Angel attack could happen any time. Pfah!" She rolled her eyes. "Anyhow, now that you're awake, we're taking you and the stupid fish home with us. We have to keep you on a nutrient IV for tonight, but we'll at least get to fall alseep together."

She leaned back down to kiss him again, letting her hair fall around her face, creating a curtain between them and the world. ["And we have got one Hell of a story for you, lover. Rei remembered everything she'd forgotten... and she told me everything,"] she whispered with her face centimeters from his. ["She knows about the next Angel."]

"Wh-" Shinji's surprised reply whisper was cut off by Asuka putting her finger against his lips as she leaned back upright.

"More of that at home, Third. Meantime, Rei's going to tell Misato you're awake, and we're getting everyone die Hölle out of here and back home where we're safe." She frowned and shook her head. "Oh, right, you missed that. Another assassin tried to shoot Kaworu a few hours ago, here. I had to stop her."

Shinji blinked. "...wait, you? Um... personally?"

She gave him a lopsided grin. "Told you, baka mine. You and I are the two most dangerous people on the planet. Angels, assassins, nothing is too much for the Great Asuka Langley Soryu." She clenched her fist in front of her like she was a knight.

Shinji looked to Rei for confirmation. The bluenette nodded. "She did. She saved Kaworu and I. Beat the woman unconscious and captured her, no less."

Shinji shook his head again and cast his eyes upward. "I've been out for one day, and suddenly its an action movie in here? What is going on?"

Rei gave him a look that seemed blank as usual, but by now Shinji could read it as 'very worried'. "Things are different, Shinji. I hope you will not be... too discomforted at the end of today."

Asuka waved her hand at her. "Relax, Rei. I already told you, Shinji will accept things, everything, because he's just that sort of sweet idiot. Part of why we all love him. So go tell Misato the good news, and we'll get moving."

The First Child nodded, rose, and silently left the two in the quiet hospital room.

.


.

Shinji looked askance at the wheelchair the orderlies had provided and Asuka had prodded him into. "Asuka, is this really necessary?"

His redheaded partner snorted. "Look, baka, you got shot, and Doctor Dye-Job's magic healing voodoo or not, I am going to baby the Hölle out of you until you're 100% again," she retorted. She scooted ahead a bit on her crutches to trigger the motion sensor on the hospital's front door, allowing Rei to keep pushing Shinji out to the curb without slowing.

Kaworu was already waiting for them there in his own wheelchair, beside a looming black Section 2 SUV. A stone-faced orderly stood behind his chair, but returned to ignoring them after a single glance away from the hospital access road. Kaworu smiled at them all as they rolled up. "Hello, Shinji. It is good to see you in much better health than yesterday."

Shinji smiled tentatively, but stared at Kaworu's oddly cheery manner. "Er... I feel better than I thought I would right now, but still not great." He raised his left arm, showing the IV lead still running into his arm from the bag dangling on the hook over his head on the chair. "How are you not..." He waved at Kaworu's lack of similar medical attachments.

The Fifth Child just smiled. "Doctor Akagi is a very skilled healer, is she not?"

"I... I guess?"

"We've got a lot to talk about at home. We can compare our battle scars there," Asuka said in a tone that tried for levity but was far too tense. "NERV Security is going to escort us home, and they're staying to boost the security detail around our building. Or so Misato said. She has to stay here and supervise the investigation circus in Kaworu's first room."

She opened the back passenger-side door to the SUV and chucked her crutches in the back. She hobbled slightly on her good foot to get to Shinji and helped him gingerly up from the wheelchair and into the backseat, carefully moving the IV bag along the way. Rei let the muscular orderly move Kaworu, but got in next to him.

"Where are Touji and Hikari? They didn't come back to our room," Shinji asked.

"Doctor Akagi is keeping Suzuhara-san for further observation. Hikari refused to leave until he regained consciousness. She said she would call us when he did," Rei said calmly. She did not turn her head.

Shinji felt the stiffness coming off her. It was an unsettling recall to how she'd acted a year ago, before... everything. "Rei?"

"We'll talk at the apartment, Shinji," Asuka interrupted. "You just concentrate on relaxing until we can get you settled in at home."

She waved out the window at the NERV Security jeep at the front of their little convoy, and the group headed out from the hospital.

.


.

The Section 2 and NERV Security escort had let them off alone at the apartment's entrance. Both Kaji and Misato would be tied up for hours in the Geofront. So it was just the four Pilots who made their way into the living room in the still stifling afternoon heat.

"Asuka, you don't have to do all this for me," Shinji tried to protest. He plucked at the blanket Asuka had insisted on tucking around his legs after she'd settled him on the couch.

Asuka stuck her tongue out at him and kept right on fussing over him. "Shush, you. You know damn well if things were reversed and you were taking care of me after I'd gotten shot, you'd be waiting on me hand and foot and treating me like I was made of spun crystal. So I'm going to pamper the Hell out of you. So there!" She ducked her head closer to steal a kiss. "And pampering you right now lets me reassure myself you're alive and here, since Jesus Christ did seeing you bleeding to death scare me out of my mind, baka!" she whispered as she held her face close.

Standing back upright, she called back over her shoulder towards the kitchen. "Rei, is it ready?"

"Yes. I am bringing it now."

Rei appeared through the door with a two trays, a steaming bowl of miso soup and some rice balls on each. She handed one to Asuka to put on Shinji's lap, and took the other to Kaworu, sitting at the low table in front of the television. She then sat down next to him, close enough that Shinji blinked and sit up in surprise.

"Ah, Rei? Are you-" He broke off, a wave of dizziness washing over him. "Whuh... woo... my head is... not good..."

Asuka pressed the cup of soup to his hand and guided it to his mouth. "Drink, baka. You're severely depleted on a lot of major nutrients, according to Doctor Fake-Blonde. Especially calcium and potassium. So eat up. I am going to pamper and feed the stuffing out of you. I want you healthy enough to ravish me gently again as soon as possible."

Shinji gave her a weak smile, and sipped the soup. With his right hand, so as not to disturb the IV line going into his left arm. "Kaworu, are you..." He trailed off again, staring at his friend. His friend who had no IV line. "Why don't you have an IV?"

Kaworu and Rei looked at each other, then back to Shinji. "I am... more healed than you," Kaworu eventually said.

Shinji looked to Asuka. "I thought you said he got shot through the chest? How come he's not as wiped out as I am? Did Doctor Akagi do... no, it's only been a day, so...?"

Asuka pursed her lips, and turned to Kaworu. "Show him."

Kaworu hesitated, but pulled his shirt up to show his own patch of bandages. He reached up with his other hand and carefully pulled the clean, white bandages away from his chest.

Revealing utterly unmarked pale skin.

Shinji shook his head in confusion. "How?"

Asuka rubbed at her forehead. "I... Gott, I wish we had more time. But we need to get you up to speed right now. Shinji, do you trust me?"

Shinji started to smile. "Of cou-" He looked at the grim, serious faces of his friends, and paused for a second. "...With my life and beyond," he said calmly.

"Then I'm going to hit you all at once with a bunch of things that sound crazy, but I promise are true, and Rei and Kaworu were terrified of telling us but also hated withholding for our own safety from SEELE. Kind of moot now, that." She took his right hand and steadily met his eyes. "Rei is a clone, the third one. She died when Unit-00 blew. That's why her memories were screwed. That week she spent getting her brain scanned was the last backup."

Shinji blinked and stared at Rei. "...wha... what does that have to do with Kaworu... she's a what?"

Asuka kept on going. "She's also part-derived from an alien sent to seed Earth with life. A Progenitor. So is Kaworu. That's why the red eyes."

"I... I... aliens?"

"And Kaworu healed the gunshots," Asuka emphasized the plural, "including the one from this afternoon because..." Asuka stopped, taking a deep breath. "Be-"

"Because I'm the Seventeenth Angel," Kaworu interrupted. "I am Kaworu Nagisa. But I am also Tabris, the Angel of Free Will. I healed the gunshot wounds because I can regenerate. SEELE sent me here to... do what all the Angels are trying to do. Wipe the Earth clean and renew it in our form." He hung his head, unable to meet Shinji's stunned stare. "I'm sorry..."

Shinji slowly cranked his head from Kaworu to Asuka. "...I love you. You're not kidding one bit, are you?"

Asuka shook her head slowly. "Not even a word."

"You're going to have to explain some more."

Asuka looked at the First Child. "Rei?"

Rei took a deep breath and began, "We were the first. There were no others..."

.


.

Most of an hour later, Shinji sat with his head in his hands. He hadn't moved or said anything in a while. He slowly raised his head to lock eyes with Kaworu. The gray-haired Pilot swallowed nervously.

"You are supposed to destroy the world. That's what the 'Call' is, right?" Shinji asked in a calm, dead voice.

Kaworu nodded nervously.

"You are an Angel. The thing we've been fighting. Monsters that try to kill us all."

Kaworu winced, but nodded again.

Shinji paused. "You said you loved me."

Kaworu flinched. It took him a moment to nod.

"Did you mean it?"

Kaworu nodded much more vigorously this time. "Yes! I always have! Across I don't know how many worlds. So many times," he babbled. "The few worlds I can see where I don't succumb to the Call, it is almost always because you have shown me love, or shared it, or..." He looked at Rei, smiling softly and the too-fast nervousness of his speech fading. "Or showed me it was possible. I think I have a chance here because of that."

Asuka shook her head. "Yeah, that... many worlds thing is still pretty damn weird. Even along with everything else."

Shinji looked deep in thought. He raised his head. "You meant it. I... Kaworu, only three people have said that to me since my mother," he hesitated, "had her accident. And they're all right here. I may not deserve it, but I can... I won't let someone who loves me face what you're facing without all the help I can give."

He rubbed his face with his hands. The low drone of a traffic helicopter passing by was the only sound in the apartment for a minute. He sighed. "And Rei... I... I can understand why you didn't want to tell us all of this before. But... you're still the same person who took Ramiel's blast to protect me. Who told us you loved Asuka and I, expecting nothing in return. I may not have known," he paused, searching for words, "what you are until now, but I've know who Rei Ayanami is for almost a year. You're still our Rei, the one we both love right back. Nothing... nothing is going to change... um, us. How we... all are, I guess. Ancient space stuff or not."

Rei sagged with relief against Kaworu. "Thank you," she mumbled thickly.

Asuka barked a laugh. "Ha! Didn't I tell you, Rei? My sweet baka, the Buddha of Tokyo-3!"

Shinji blinked at her. "What?"

"When Rei told me all this last night, I predicted you'd react exactly like this, Liebling," Asuka crowed. "I told her my baka Shinji would just accept them, because that's what you do. And I know you like nobody else in the world does."

Shinji's face went blank for a moment. "So... if you can see other worlds like that, does that mean you know what's going to happen? Can you give us an idea of what SEELE's going to try next?"

"I already tried asking that, baka mine. No joy."

Kaworu shook his head. "The visions are never... that clear, especially during the parts I'm... um. Dead."

"Dead?!" Shinji blanched.

Kaworu hung his head. "...usually you're the one to stop me, when I... can't stop myself."

"And that's not happening here," Asuka said firmly. "If it comes to that, I'll do it, remember?" She pulled one of the red-tipped pistol cartridges out of her pocket.

"Asuka?" Shinji asked her, voice worried.

"The shooter today shot him with one of these. It can get through AT-Fields, which they can put out without Evas," she said, not looking at him. "And I'd do it so you or Rei would not have to," she finished softly, staring at the bullet.

"No."

Shinji's firm tone made Asuka look up.

He was staring at his clenched fist in his lap. "Not going to happen. We're not going to let him die, or anyone. I'm not going to let anyone I love die if I can stop it. Not Kaworu, not Rei, and sure as Hell not you. Not as long as I live. We'll beat SEELE, my father, whoever we need to. Nobody dies."

Asuka's mouth slowly spread into a broad smile. "That's my Shinji..." She took a morsel of rice off his tray and popped it into his mouth. "So, what do we do next, love?"

"We have to tell Misato-san and Kaji-san."

"She may or may not even get home tonight. You know how she tends to just crash in one of the Geofront rooms when she's buried in work," Asuka pointed out. "And today was pretty 'busy'."

He nodded. "Yes, but that is definitely the next hurdle. They have to know all this."

Rei looked worried. "I... am still apprehensive, Shinji. You and Asuka, while I was still afraid, we still cared for each other in a way that Major Katsuragi, as kindly as she treats us, does not."

"She'll understand, Rei." Shinji paused. "...I think."

.


.

Misato really, really wanted a drink. A nice Yebisu to start things off, and then a very quick transition to some sake or bourbon or something else hard that would sooth the pounding headache and roiling acid in her stomach. Her last meal had been... hours ago, she wasn't sure. The whole afternoon and evening had been a blur of investigation, trying to get what she could of a not very cooperative Section 2 and a still unconscious prisoner.

She shook her head as she ran her card through the reader on her apartment door. Asuka had done quite a number on the shooter. Her face was a mashed mess of blood and bruises when they hauled her into the interrogation area, and she'd likely still be unconscious for a while. Section 2 was being stiffly unhelpful. The increased security presence around her place was only making her feel slightly better. Two attempts on her kids in the last two days, and every sign she could see only pointed to things getting worse. All Hell would probably break lose once the last Angel was dead and there was nothing stopping SEELE from going all out.

She really wanted a drink.

But she had to stay sharp and ready. Today had been an all to close lesson on the threat they were facing. She didn't even have Kaji here tonight to both help watch over the Pilots, or relax her. Her boyfriend... fiancé? Whichever. He'd disappeared after a couple of text messages indicating he was going underground to check with sources. She'd sent a flurry of half-angry, half-worried messages back, but he hadn't replied in a couple hours. This had put her even more on edge.

So no drinking, no warm lover beside her to sleep, and at this hour, no Shinji-made hot dinner to feed her before bed. Given that Asuka and Rei had only just taken him out of the hospital with orders for strict rest once they were home, she couldn't even reasonably expect a meal left in the oven for her to warm up, either. She sighed. Back to curry and instant ramen for tonight. It wasn't as appealing as it used to be.

The living room was dark as she came in. She glanced down the hall to Shinji and Asuka's room. Dark and quiet as well. It was late enough they were likely both asleep. She turned towards her room. She'd get out of her uniform and into something more comfortable, make something to eat, and get to bed. She was already angry and tense enough for toda-

"Major Katsuragi?"

She did not jump at the soft question from the darkness, but she did freeze for a moment, before it registered that it was the Fifth Child. "Kaworu? What are you doing here?" She opened her bedroom door and flicked the lights on, throwing enough light into the room to reveal the young man sitting in one of the beanbags on the floor.

He gave her a wan smile, a ghost of its usual power. "I wanted to catch you before you went to sleep. We've got something important to tell you, and... well, it's time. We've put this off long enough already. We've already told Shinji and Asuka. They wanted to wait up with me, but Shinji needed the rest."

Misato tried to quash her irritation at a quick path to food and sleep being interrupted. She had been demanding this for a while. She ran her hands through her hair and took off her red jacket, tossing it onto the chair by her room's desk. "Fine. You picked a Hell of a day for it, but I guess that's part of why, yes?"

He nodded. He looked off toward his right, in the direction of her room and Rei's apartment beyond the wall. "Rei just went to her apartment to get some things. She will be right back. She knows you are here." He shifted restlessly. "We... Rei and I... we know who the last Angel is."

Misato narrowed her eyes. "What do you mean, 'who'?"

"SEELE did not send me here as a spy. They sent me to... end things."

Misato frowned. "Kaworu, I am really too tired for this kind of silly game. It's been a long day, and I don't appreciate you trying this at this hour, after a day like this." She turned to enter her room, her thoughts already returning to dinner.

"You were there when I was born. In Antarctica."

Misato froze, her hand on the doorframe.

"When Adam exploded, I was born. SEELE created this new body for me, but my origin, my soul is Tabris, the Angel of Free Will. Second Impact was effectively my birth scream."

Misato turned around, very slowly.

Kaworu was still sitting on the floor. He had one hand out, palm up.

A glowing orange octagon sat in his palm, humming faintly.

His eyes met hers. "I am the last Angel."

Angel. Here. Now.

"You. Second Impact was you?!" Misato rasped tightly.

He nodded. "Me, and the others."

There was no thought to it. Faster than a cobra's strike, her USP was in her hand, the hammer moving back. Kaworu made no move to dodge or even raise his hands.

The gunshot was painfully loud in the small living room.

The room filled with dim orange light. The bullet made a comparatively gentle pok as it was deflected off the two meter wide AT-Field that had appeared in front of Kaworu and up into the ceiling, barely heard over the now much louder hum.

Kaworu still had not moved. The small AT-Field in his hand went out.

Misato kept the gun on him, a snarl twisting her face. She flicked her eyes to her right as she finally noticed the pale white hand and arm coming from the kitchen, outflung towards Kaworu.

Rei Ayanami stepped into the room. She kept her hand stretched out towards the Fifth Child. She looked Misato coldly in the eye. "Are you going to shoot me too?" she said icily.

.


.

Author's Note: I have been saving Rei's last line there for years. I described this scene to my first beta reader in 2015, and they said it was 'brutal'. :V
27JUL19