Chapter One – The Girl with the Patchwork Heart
The entry plug hummed softly, the quiet purr of its electronics familiar and soothing to her ears. She felt like she was floating, just barely suspended above the long seat she lounged on, held only in place by the gentle tug of the plugsuit's electromagnetic belt. As her eyes opened, she let her fingers slip around the exaggerated control sticks, grasping each one with a confident firmness.
She felt… happy. Not the type of happiness that drove people to leap up and announce their joy to the world, but something far more restrained—closer to contentment than exaltation. A simple kind of happiness, and one she hadn't felt in a long time. Not even the utterly ridiculous suit she was wearing could take that away from her.
Patiently, she waited there, taking in everything around her. It wouldn't be long before the activation test started—but surprisingly enough, she didn't feel in a hurry to get it over with.
Her body tensed at the sound, its peace broken from the intrusive noise.
She looked down, towards the very front of the entry plug. Something was wrong. The screens were disappearing, swallowed up by a mottled red abyss.
Crack. Crack. Crack.
With each horrible sound, more of the plug vanished, chunks of red moving in to surround her. As she shot upright in her seat, her heart starting to speed up, she found herself… adrift. There was nothing there, nothing supporting her but that all-consuming red.
Something chimed, a multitude of tiny bells clicking and clanging against each-other, before she was pulled forwards, sucked into the unknown. Before her, a blue cross flickered into being, a swirl of sparkles spiralling around her. Faster and faster they moved, as something began to laugh, and laugh and laugh as something appeared in the centre of the cross—
—and the laugh was a laugh of glee and the something came forwards and she knew she knew what it was—
—but she couldn't act she couldn't run away couldn't escape because it had caught her and it knew that and she knew that—
—and faster and faster they moved and its hand rested on her face and where it touched her skin it burned and burned everything burned as the Angel yes Angel grabbed her held her tight with its many burning hands it was hungry yes hungry and she was going to—
"Asuka!" someone yelled, as a pair of hands seized her by the shoulders. The girl's eyes snapped open, panic still driving her to get out of that blue and red hell—before lucidity set in a moment later. Her heart still thumping like a runaway train, Asuka Langley Shikinami sucked in a breath, and focused on her surroundings.
Instead of a fluid-filled entry plug, she lay in her bed, on the right side of the room she'd shared for three years. It was a bit of a messy place, with everything slightly off-kilter and crowded for room—but neither the European girl nor her roommate were much for cleanliness.
Said roommate stood bent over her, one knee planted on top of the mattress, and both hands firmly set on Asuka's shoulders. Dishevelled tresses of brown hair hung from her head, not even tied back in the simplistic twin-tailed style that the brunette had usually worn. A pair of bright pink frames sat askew on her nose, a y-shaped crack running up the left lens. However, this wasn't anything new. What was new—at least for Asuka—was the frantic look the girl's blue-green eyes held.
"…M-Mari?" Asuka asked uncertainly, as she tried to tilt her head up. The brunette trembled, her hands balling up and scrunching the old t-shirt that the gold-haired girl wore for pajamas.
"You were… having another nightmare, Asuka," the girl whispered, before finally releasing her grip. Asuka's frown deepened.
"…'Asuka'?" she repeated. "Mari, you don't—"
"—I don't call you that except when I'm worried, I know," Mari interrupted. "But… I-I am worried, Asuka! This… this is the third time this week I've seen you going through this. I… I don't know what to do."
Mari had always been a bit of an oddity in Asuka's eyes, ever since she'd met the girl three and a half years ago. On one hand, she was both bold and incredibly impulsive, seemingly acting on gut instinct half the time, consequences be damned. If she had any regard for her personal safety, the girl must have lost it long before they'd met, judging from how many times she'd ended up in the infirmary. She also seemed to have very little filter between her brain and her mouth, assuming she had one at all—most social cues didn't seem to register with her at all.
That said, she wasn't all bad. When Asuka had first woken up, scared and uncertain what had happened, Mari had been the one to explain things to her. Later, she'd volunteered to let Asuka bunk with her—which had resulted in their current sleeping arrangement—rather than having her stay all by herself. The brunette was quite possibly the friendliest person she'd ever met, and surprisingly seemed to actually seek out her company. She was optimistic, and cheerful, and kind of selfless…
However, Asuka had almost never seen her like this—especially not to the extent she showed right now. Mari looked… afraid.
"I…" Asuka swallowed. To be honest, she didn't know what to make of this, having awoken from a nightmare to go straight to a tearful roommate in the space of seconds.
"Mari, let's just… deal with it later," she offered. "I can't… can't think right now."
Reluctantly, Mari nodded, and stood up, one hand reaching to adjust her glasses to a straighter angle.
"Okay," the girl replied softly. Asuka sighed, and pushed herself upright, now no longer as encumbered by her roommate's proximity. The gold-haired girl blinked a few times, waiting for her bearings to come back before she did anything. As she swung her legs over the side of the bed, Mari retreated a few steps, still hovering around her like a moth around a lightbulb.
Lazily, Asuka's eyes tracked over to her bedside table, focusing on the digital clock resting on top of it. She scowled.
"It's not even five in the morning yet? Really?" the girl groaned, and hung her head in frustration, bemoaning the sorry state that had become of her sleep schedule. While her roommate might have been up and about at the time the clock gave, Shikinami preferred to get up at least an hour later, if not longer.
Not like I can just go back to sleep either, she thought. Damn nightmares…
The worst thing was that, as far as Asuka knew, it was the same thing each time. It was always the same thing—the plug, the abyss, the Angel—and it had stuck with her since that time, three and a half years ago. She'd thought it was getting better, and she was finally starting to be free of them… only for this week to prove her wrong.
"What am I supposed to do now?" the girl sighed under her breath, not really expecting any answer as she buried her hands in her hair.
"H-hey, Asu- er… Princess?"
Asuka's eyes opened, looking up through the curtain of hair that hung in front of her face. Mari had retreated a bit more, and taken a seat on her own bed, directly opposite the girl.
"You know," the brunette offered, clearly making an awkward attempt at nonchalance. "The tea and coffee the galley serves… it's not half bad. Would you care to…?"
Just like that, her mind had shifted back to the other oddity. She knew Mari was both friendly and pretty weird—but this was its own type of weird, one that she had far too little experience with to be completely comfortable. This was just odd, even for someone like Mari.
On the other hand, the girl was starting to feel the effects that her lack of sleep was having, now that her heart had stopped trying to leap out of her chest—and she was kinda hungry now…
"I… guess," Asuka replied, cautiously accepting Mari's invitation. The European stifled a yawn, and smacked her lips a few times, before she rose up. "Just… gimme a second."
A few minutes was all it took for Asuka to get herself to as loose a definition of 'ready' as she cared to follow. Since there wasn't anything formal scheduled for today, and no real threats around, the girl could afford to be casual. Her outfit had been thrown together with minimal effort, chosen purely by what felt comfy; long pants, a t-shirt, her dark red tracksuit jacket, and the soft cap that Mari had once given her as a gift. Her hair had been done up in her usual style, two long streams of it held up by a pair of A-10 neuro-cranial clips with the rest of it left free and mostly out of her face. And then there was the eyepatch. It wasn't much, just a triangle of black fabric over her left eye, but it served its purpose.
Mari's own style was casual as well… but in its own way entirely. The twin-tailed brunette gladly kept pace next to Asuka, dressed in her cracked pink glasses, a pair of red stockings, and a bright yellow sundress Asuka would have sworn was nicked from her own wardrobe—if it hadn't been obvious to her that Mari wouldn't have fit very well into anything Asuka's size.
The walk from their quarters to the galley wasn't too long, though that was more by virtue of the way that the Over the Rainbow was set up than any special privilege they had. That, and the repurposed supercarrier had served as their home for just over three years, so both girls knew its layout like the back of their hands. With both these factors in play, it would have been easy enough for one of them to strike up a conversation… but Asuka didn't really want to, and Mari was still being oddly considerate.
It was only a few minutes later that they finally reached the galley. Asuka stumbled forwards an extra step, her reflexes screwed up by an unexpected onset of tiredness.
"Woah there, Princess," Mari warned, steadying the girl before she could run into anything. "How about you just… go find us a seat or something. I'll get the drinks, alright?" The girl replied with a minimalistic nod, one just big enough for Mari to notice. The bespectacled girl smiled back with something approaching her usual cheer.
"Okay then! You want anything specific, Princess, or should I pick for you?"
"I don't really care," Asuka replied, as she sat down at the nearest table. "You can choose, Mari—just make sure it's something with caffeine."
"Roger that, Princess!" came her roommate's reply, before she scampered off towards the serving area, leaving Asuka to be alone with her thoughts.
The girl sighed.
The problems had all started on that day, four years ago—the day she'd constantly relived, over and over in her dreams. She'd volunteered to take the place of one her teammates, and be the pilot for the activation test of Evangelion Unit 03. What she hadn't known was that the synthetic lifeform had been infected by the Ninth Angel, until it had swallowed her up, and entombed her within the Evangelion. Asuka's memories after that were… distorted—possibly the result of the Angel unintentionally copying its own experiences into her mind.
Whatever the reason, the girl personally remembered what had happened next. Evangelion Unit 01 had been deployed, the Angel had beaten it into the ground, and then-
…And then, Asuka thought, grimacing at the image of the purple Eva tearing the Angel limb from limb, eyes burning with a berserker's rage. The Angel itself had done enough to her… but that monster was what had taken her eye—and many other things, too.
According to Mari, another Angel had appeared not long afterwards. With Asuka unavailable, her now-roommate had hijacked her Eva Unit 02 and fought the monster alongside the other cyborgs. It hadn't gone well for them; Unit 02 had been crippled, Unit 00 had been eaten by the Angel, and Unit 01 had ran out of power before it could wound its enemy. Then… well, Asuka had seen the footage recovered from that day. Somehow, the purple Evangelion had reactivated, and turned into something she could swear was another Angel—she'd never seen anything that had shown as much power as Unit 01 had on that day. It had annihilated the Tenth Angel, yanked out Unit 00's core from its body…
…and initiated the Third Impact.
Mari's explanations had gotten a little hectic then, and Asuka didn't remember all the details from them. However, the basics of how they'd all ended up where they currently were weren't hard to find. The interruption of the Third Impact, the appearance of the so-called 'Evangelion Mark.06', the evacuation of Nerv headquarters and Tokyo-3… after which Asuka had finally been awakened from her six month coma, only to find just how screwed up the world had end-
"Princess, I'm back!"
Mari's cheerful call snapped the girl out of her thoughts immediately, before a tantalizing smell reached her nose a few seconds later. Asuka turned, curious as to what her roommate had brought. The brunette slid into the seat next to her, and set the tray down halfway between them on the table.
"This one's mine, and that one's yours, okay?" Mari said, pointing to the cup on the right of the tray, and then to the one on the left side. Asuka nodded, and grabbed the leftwards cup, before lifting the beverage up to get a sense of what exactly Mari had chosen for her. The liquid inside smelled of spices, its depths obscured by the milky cloud that filled it—pretty nice for a first impression. Intrigued, Asuka raised the cup to her lips, and took a sip.
"…Hmm," the girl mused, brightening up at the taste. She spared a glance over at her roommate, who returned the look as she slowly mixed a sugar packet into her own drink. "It's good." Mari nodded.
"Uh-huh. Kinda surprised I never saw you going for the chai tea before—I thought it was gonna be something you'd like."
"Well, I…" the girl trailed off. "Honestly, I just don't think I really cared to try anything else. I just wanted to get through things; I'm not exactly a morning person, you know."
"Oh, Princess, it's fine," Mari remarked nonchalantly, waving her hand in a dismissive manner. As she raised her own cup to her mouth, the bespectacled girl flashed her teammate a cheeky grin. "Besides… with your attitude, it's not that surprising you prefer to sleep in."
Asuka rolled her eye, and gave Mari a light-hearted thwack in the shoulder, prompting a bout of snickering from the girl.
"You're ridiculous, Mari."
"Mhm!" The British girl just nodded happily in agreement, and took another sip of her tea. Asuka followed suit a few seconds later, enjoying the taste of the hot beverage. To be honest, even those few, short, teasing lines between them had lifted her spirits a little more from what they'd been a little while ago. Mari may have been ridiculous, but her ability to pull Asuka out of her moments of gloom was something the girl greatly appreciated.
Asuka took her time with her drink, partly to savour the new flavours it brought, and partly to avoid burning her tongue. Her roommate seemed to have no such qualms, and—while she didn't quite chug her tea—downed hers a lot quicker, apparently not minding the heat as much… and then waited eagerly for Asuka to finish, instead of rushing off to the serving area by herself.
As she set down her empty cup, the European girl decided just not to question it.
"So…" came the other pilot's next question. "You up for breakfast as well, Princess?"
Asuka smiled, and faced her roommate.
"Sure," she replied, rising from her seat. "Why not?"
If there was one good thing to be said about the Second and Third Impacts, it was that even at an early hour, the ocean breeze was far milder than the chilly gust it had once been. And thanks to this, despite having seen it many times before, the view that one could get from the upper deck of the Over the Rainbow was still something that hadn't gotten old for Asuka. She could see the entire fleet—and everything else on the crimson sea, all the way to the horizon.
When Nerv had evacuated Tokyo-3, they'd needed somewhere to go—and with the landscape's rising contamination and an apocalyptic death cult hunting them down, there hadn't been any place on land where they could easily set up shop again. So instead, they'd taken to the sea. Now, the entire Pacific Fleet and more served as their headquarters, letting the remnants of Nerv continue with their mission, and evade their new enemy. It wasn't a perfect solution… but damn, if it didn't look impressive.
The massive assortment of vessels lay out all around the girl, their metal skins gleaming in the morning light of the sun like a knight's armour. Shadows cut across the blood-coloured sea from the ships' sides, quivering where they passed through the waves. Above, the dawn sky was a vibrant gradient of hues, shot through by wispy streaks of cloud. A breeze rippled through the air, its soft whine intermingling with the relaxed rumble of the supercarrier's engines below.
However, the best thing of all was how open it was. Asuka didn't feel crowded, didn't feel confined… from up here, it felt almost as freeing as piloting Eva did.
"You know… that's one pretty sight."
Asuka glanced over, to where Mari leant against the railing, a contented smile spread across the brunette's face.
"Eh?" the girl wondered. "I'd probably have gone with 'impressive' rather than pretty, but… yeah, I guess it is." Mari's lips seemed to twitch in response, before the bespectacled girl looked away, turning her eyes back to the fleet.
"…Let's just enjoy it," Asuka murmured, letting the wind blow past her. "No talking or anything." Mari nodded compliantly in response.
With that matter settled, the girl returned to her watching, letting herself be lost in the massive, wide-open space, absorbing the sight of both sea and sky.
Unfortunately, the peace didn't last.
Asuka frowned, her relaxation annoyingly interrupted.
The girl turned around, levelling her piercing gaze at whoever had turned up to bother her. Almost instinctively, Lieutenant Hyuga Makoto flinched back, before the bespectacled man regained his composure a little.
"What is it?" she asked slowly.
"Colonel Katsuragi has… requested a meeting with you," Hyuga explained. "She asked that you come as soon as possible."
The girl sighed, and stuffed her hands in her coat pockets as she leaned back against the railing. A few choice words were muttered under her breath, as Asuka gazed up at the sky.
"…Fine," she said. "Let's just get this stupid thing over with and done."
Asuka straightened up, and moved away from the railing, before glancing over to her roommate.
"See you in a bit, Mari."
"Later, Princess," the brunette said, responding with a casual wave of the hand.
Asuka walked over to the Lieutenant, her fury having cooled to mere irritation. The man nodded, and set off through the door. Still a little reluctantly, the girl followed.
The door swung open, Hyuga poking his head in before Asuka could get a glimpse of the office's sole resident.
"Colonel, Captain Langley's here," the man reported.
"Thank you, lieutenant," came the current leader of Nerv's response. "Send her in, that's all." Hyuga nodded, and stepped back, no longer blocking Asuka's entry. The eighteen-year-old girl didn't need another hint, and promptly walked in, before the door was closed behind her.
Gendo Ikari, the previous leader of Nerv, had—from what little Asuka had seen of him—been a cold and disquieting man, who'd barely spoken to anyone outside a few select people.
Colonel Katsuragi was practically his opposite.
The woman leaned back in her seat, a puffy red cap set down next to the pile of papers on her desk, and a similarly coloured coat hung on the chair itself. They didn't look too uncomfortable to Asuka, but the woman never seemed to wear them during casual situations, instead preferring a snug-fitting sweater and pants—quite the change from what the girl had seen her wear at their apartment before Third Impact.
One of the dark-haired woman's hands unlaced from behind her head, and gestured to a chair in front of the desk.
"Take a seat, Asuka."
The Eva pilot did so without hesitation, slouching back in a similar manner to the Colonel herself.
"So, what's so important that you had to get someone to drag me down here, Misato?" Asuka asked, her familiar relationship affording her the casual use of the woman's first name—something Misato didn't really mind in this case. "I was trying to enjoy the view a little."
"Well, for starters, you're overdue for your regular psychological report," she answered. "And seeing how you're… not exactly the biggest fan of Ritsuko, I thought it'd be easier to get it finished if I was the one to do it."
"Really? A psyche evaluation is that important?"
"Considering Nerv doesn't have the luxury of swapping out our pilots if something happens anymore, yes," Misato replied, sitting up straight as she did so. "Remember before you were cleared to use Unit 02 again? We had to put all our work into making sure Mari was stable, because we didn't have any other pilots available at the time. And since you two are leagues better than any dummy system, it's important to make sure you're both mentally healthy enough to continue your duties."
"…Fine," the girl relented. "And I can get why it's important—I'm just pissed that you decided it had to take place right now." Misato sighed, as she slid a few pieces of paper closer and pulled out a pen.
"Yeah, sorry about that. I'll try to get through this with as little fuss as I can. Now…" the woman looked up. "How have things been going so far? Just within the last few months or so."
"Mostly fine," the European girl shrugged. "Mari's as excitable as always, but she's not a problem. I'm doing… alright. Could probably be better, but I haven't had any crazy mood swings or whatever recently."
"However…" she added, unsure if she really wanted to reveal her new problem to Misato. Yes, she was supposed to be in a psyche evaluation, but that didn't change how she felt about sharing this.
Reluctantly, Asuka bit the bullet. It wasn't like keeping this secret was going to do much for her anyways.
"Recently, I've been… having nightmares," she admitted. "Again." Misato frowned, and stopped scribbling down notes.
"They're the same ones that I had back during my recovery—the ones about the Ninth Angel," Asuka said. "I… I'd thought I was getting better… at least, up until today. I had to deal with my third one this week." The girl sighed.
"…Really, it's because of Mari that it wasn't worse," she muttered. "She woke me up, just as things were getting bad, dragged me down to the galley for an early breakfast, and… and she was just… nice." And that was part of what baffled her, really.
"Asuka?" Misato asked. The girl looked up, and gave a little nod of acknowledgement.
"I had some… other reasons for calling you down here, originally," she admitted. "I'd been planning on organising an assault force to take back one of Seele's stolen manufacturing plants in a few weeks, with you spearheading the operation. This was supposed to run it over with you—but really, your mental health is going to be more important. We're in more than a good enough shape to wait on doing it." The woman paused, and took a breath. "Now, I know you said you were mostly fine, but if you're having more than just these nightmares…"
"I'm not," the pilot replied defensively. "And—look, you really don't need to put off an operation just because of me! It's not like I can't still fight or anything!"
"And I don't know if this is just a fluke, or something else!" Misato shot back. "I'm not just doing this because I want to, Asuka—I need to make sure that you're in the best condition that you can, and I'm not going to let a potentially compromising issue just sit around unaddressed!"
"…I know you don't want to just sit around," the dark-haired woman said, her light-hearted persona gone. "I know you want to go out, and do something, and prove that you're not someone who needs to be coddled and held back for reasons that you think are stupid—because you're Asuka, and that's what you do. But until we know that this really isn't going to be a problem, I want you to not do that, at least for a while. Just… I don't know."
Asuka sighed, slowly slouching down on her seat. Misato was right; she did want to prove herself, especially now that the woman had brought something up and promptly shot her down.
"…Okay," the girl mumbled.
"Look, here's a suggestion," Misato offered. "Afterwards, could you try to forget I said anything about the mission, and just… go back to what you were doing before? I'm guessing that it was pretty nice, hanging out with Mari before I dragged you down here, doing whatever it was you were doing. Right?"
"Mhm," Asuka replied. "…We were just up on the top deck, having a look. Pretty peaceful… for the most part."
"Well, it certainly sounds a lot nicer than sitting around in an office, I'd say," the woman said, her tone losing its harshness. "Asuka? Do you think you could maybe do that forgetting thing for me?"
A reluctant sigh. On one hand, it sounded kind of silly—but she didn't have anything else, and it wouldn't hurt for her to try, even if it was silly.
"…I guess I can give it a shot," Asuka mumbled.
"Then that's it," the woman said, leaning back in her chair once more. "For now, I don't need anything else from you. You're dismissed… Captain."
"…T-thank you, Colonel." Standing up, Asuka gave a bow.
As she turned to leave, ready to go and find Mari again, the pilot heard three last words from Misato.
"Good luck, Asuka."
Asuka hoped Mari was still there. Hoped that—once she made it through the long, steel-walled corridors, and finally reached the open air again—she'd find those bright pink frames. Hoped that the girl hadn't wandered off, and left. Because if she had…
…Well, that was the sort of loneliness that Asuka didn't like. Betrayal.
Spurred on by the disquieting thought, the girl's stride increased. Her feet clanged loudly against the metal flooring, pounding like the beat of a drum. Or a heart.
Tap, tap, tap, tap…
Why am I thinking about this? Why would I think about this?! Stop thinking, dammit! The girl thought angrily, as she pulled open the last door in her way—and came face to face with Mari.
The British girl—officially designated the 'Fourth Child', though at eighteen years old it was quite the stretch to call either her or Asuka a 'child' anymore—rested lightly against the railing, her eyes closed as she swayed side to side on the balls of her feet, grooving to the beat of some invisible tune… and she was quite obviously enjoying it, judging from the smile plastered across her face. That, and the singing was a dead giveaway.
"-Oh, pretty baby! Don't bring me down, I pray – oh, pretty baby, now that I found you, stay!"
For a minute, Asuka stood there, her pent-up tension bleeding away as she watched Mari sing and dance her heart out to herself. She'd known about Mari's more musical habits—heard them sometimes, mostly during combat deployments—but accidentally running into the girl smack dab in the middle of one such instance was something she'd never really expected to happen.
That was when Mari's eyes happened to open.
"I love you, baby…" the bespectacled pilot's voice trailed off, her dancing coming to a swift halt alongside it. The girl still wore her happy grin, though now with a hint of a blush to it. "…Ah. Hey, Princess. I didn't expect you'd be back this soon, so I… uh…"
Asuka continued to stare, as Mari tried to regain her grasp of language.
"You know, just some practice, that's all…" the girl explained, scratching the back of her head. "A bit of Frankie Valli…"
A smile tugged at the corner of Asuka's mouth. Something about the situation, and Mari's apparent embarrassment was just… funny. She didn't know what it was, but the more she looked at the other girl's reactions, the funnier it was.
Asuka snickered, accidentally cracking a grin. Mari's eyes shot over, her reddened face frozen with a far more awkward smile.
…The idiot's blushing like a schoolgirl with a crush or something.
At that thought, combined with the astonishing expression her roommate had, Asuka's remaining composure broke. The girl burst out laughing—not in derision, but a combination of glee and relief mixed with a smattering of other emotions. A few seconds later, she heard Mari join in as well, layering in hesitant giggling that quickly rose to the brunette's typical cackle. It may not have made sense, or had any reason behind it, but neither of them cared at the moment.
Not one little bit.