Patient

Disclaimer: I do not own Evangelion.

/\/\/\/\

The train slid along the track. The familiar greens and browns of the countryside gradually faded to urban grays. Buildings reached into the sky, taller than she had ever seen. Streets were clogged with human traffic, on foot and in cars. Hundreds, thousands of people moved in coordinated disconnection, all focused on their destination with a single-minded detachment.

She turned away from the window. The train car began sparsely occupied but picked up passengers as the line approached the city. On her right was another teenager absorbed in a mobile game, periodically bobbing along with the action on his screen. On her left was an elderly woman in a rain coat who eyed her with a suspicious curiosity.

Rei Ayanami was used to gawkers' inspections of her physical divergences. It ceased to trouble her, becoming nothing but further reinforcement that her desire to avoid society was indeed correct.

"Yes," the teenager hissed through his teeth, beating a level.

The elderly woman glanced at his outburst, then indulged in examining Rei again on the way back. Rei mentally nodded: this trip was a mistake.

The train pulled into the city terminal. Passengers departed as others entered. The station was a thick, noisy mass of humanity. There was probably more people here than in her entire town. There was also probably a correlation between population density and declining manners but Rei was too focused on finding her ride and escaping to properly define it. The crowd pushed and pulled with a million gaping eyes as she tried to pass through.

She stumbled onto a bench and claimed it, deciding that aimless wandering was not the best course of action. She waited. She checked her watch. She waited still. He was late.

"Dearest cousin!"

He had not changed. His casual confidence, the easy smile fixed on his lips, the natural, effortless grace that accompanied his every movement. Rei stared evenly at his arrival.

"I am your only cousin," she replied.

"Don't be like that," Kaworu Nagisa said. "I'm glad to see you. It's been far too long."

He went in for a hug as she stood. She pushed her suitcase into his arms.

"You haven't changed," he said, vaguely dispirited even as his smile remained. "Shall we go?"

He led her to the parking complex. He was in the process of owning a vintage sports car, a mechanical taste he borrowed from an old instructor and never let go of. It was battered and bruised, and sounded terminally ill over forty miles per hour, but for city travel it was adequate.

They passed a pair of young women. The two took turns admiring the uncommon car and its uncommon owner. Kaworu bore his own unique physical traits without care, somehow using them to his advantage. He stood out in every crowd and seemed to relish it. He wasn't obnoxious about it; people gravitated to him naturally and he accepted it without bravado. He enjoyed it. He enjoyed people.

"I have a room set up for you at my place," he informed her as he coaxed the car to life. "It isn't much, such is the existence of a university student, but close quarters will give us a chance to catch up. This will be fun."

He even enjoyed his antisocial cousin.

"I am not here to have fun," Rei said.

"But you will have a lot of free time. You're going every weekday but it doesn't last long, right?"

"That is what they told me."

"Are you scared?" he asked in a blithe tone without hesitation at how intrusive a question that was.

"It is minimally invasive."

"That's good."

"I am not worried about pain."

They left the train station and slipped into traffic. The city proper loomed over them, other cars inching along by them in clogged lanes, inches away. Rei glanced out her window. A middle-aged woman driving next to them met her eyes and turned away like she saw a ghost. She looked over to Kaworu. His smile was firmly in place as he hummed along with his crackly analogue radio.

A modest housing complex on the fringes of the university was his home. It was late afternoon and they passed few others on their way to Kaworu's room on the seventh floor, most of the other residents still in school.

"You have class now?" Rei surmised as he unlocked his front door.

He shrugged. "My professors have proven amenable to a fluid schedule."

That was his way of saying he knew they needed his talent. It seemed things had not changed since high school for him.

"Although rehearsal for the autumn concert is underway," he went on. "I'm afraid my availability during the day will be limited."

"I know how to ride a bus."

"And here I thought you flew in on your angel wings."

The apartment was small. The front hall, little more than a doormat, opened to a kitchenette and brief living room, flanked by a bedroom and bathroom. Somehow a weathered upright piano sat between the doors. A slim balcony shadowed the far wall. Through the glass panel several potted plants soaked up the late day's sun.

Kaworu led her to the bedroom, sliding the rickety door open. A single bed and nightstand met her, along with a cheap shelving unit crammed full with books.

"Your suite, madam."

"Where are you sleeping?"

"I thought we'd bunk together, like when we were kids."

"I'm going back home."

"A joke. I have the couch," Kaworu told her, nodding back into the cramped living room.

She hesitated at the threshold. "You are sure?"

"We're sharing a home for the next month. There's no use getting hung up on formalities. We're family." So declared, he deposited her luggage in the middle of the room. "There's a fan in the closet if it gets too hot. And I'm afraid it will; the complex has a distinct lack of air conditioning."

Summer in the city might not have been the best timing. But it was too late to complain. Vocally, at least. She was here, there was no turning back.

They sat at a slim counter in the kitchen for an early dinner. Kaworu chatted about his time in university, sounding gently thrilled at meeting all sorts of new people from around the country and world. He really hadn't changed. Rei briefly wondered when he left their town if exposure to broader horizons would jade his enthusiasm for humanity. She should have known better. He was not naïve, just possessed of a boundless optimism for the power of empathy.

"Do you want a ride tomorrow morning?" he asked, clearing up the dishes. "It's your first day."

"No."

"You sound sure. Alright. I don't wish to intrude." He smiled welcomingly, even as the moment lengthened into awkwardness. For normal people. Silence was Rei's friend and Kaworu just liked being around others. "Can I get you anything else? Coffee? Tea?"

"No."

"Very well." His smile remained. "How's aunty?"

"Alive." Rei left the counter. "I am tired."

"Oh, okay," Kaworu said to her retreating form. She did not see his quiet dejection at being left alone. "Pleasant dreams. I'm glad you're here—"

She shut the bedroom door. How her cousin managed to be so cheerful all the time astounded and exhausted her. His genuine amicability forced comparisons with her utter lack of it. How could two people who looked so much alike and grew up in such similar circumstances turn out so radically different? Rei lost count of the times others wondered aloud why she couldn't be more like her cousin. Just be happy. Just be friendly. Even if you don't feel like it. Fake it until you make it. Living a lie might manufacture contentment in some but Rei refused to be something she was not.

She was over being thought of as creepy and strange. She was who she was. But the rest of the world refused to accept what she accepted. She was tired of trying to live up to other people's standards, of pretending to be okay, of internalizing sorrow. Yet when she didn't it only created conflict. They became uncomfortable or upset, unable to relate to her stubborn possession of disease.

Rei reclined on the bed. Other residents of the complex were arriving home after class, stepping on creaky floors above her, opening closets beside her, or watching televisions below her. The city was loud, she decided, even at night. The calm of the countryside felt a million miles away. This was the result of too many people in too small an area.

Kaworu seemed to savor it. If she was different, would she enjoy it, too? The concept was too foreign to elicit either desire or fear. Like most of other peoples' motivations.

In the living room, Kaworu hummed a fluttering melody as he made up his threadbare couch for sleep. He kept humming, even as he switched off the overhead lights. It continued on for some time in the growing dark until he either fell asleep or the rest of the neighbors became too loud to hear him. Rei gazed up at the ceiling on a strange bed, surrounded by strange noise.

This trip really was a mistake.

/\/\/\/\

She arrived at a nondescript office in a two-story complex populated by tax consultants, private physicians and other small businesses. Her doctor back home recommended this for some time but after years of various therapies and an exhaustive list of medications yet another treatment failed to motivate Rei. Dr. Fuyutsuki was, as usual, cautiously optimistic about trans-cranial magnetic stimulation and prodded her for most of the past year until she agreed to undergo it during summer break. The nearest available facility was a day's train ride away in the city where Kaworu attended university. He was all too welcoming of the prospective trip and offered to house her during the course of treatment. The situation quickly involved too many people making too many plans for her. It wasn't gratitude or compassion that kept Rei from backing out; she knew doing so would only create more problems and took the path of least resistance. That path led her here. With the early morning city street bustling around her, she stepped through the front doors without ceremony.

The first office on the right read Achievement TMS. A rather vainglorious business name, even if treatment success percentage was reported in the seventies. Rei learned repeatedly that possessing any sort of positive expectations only led to further disappointment. So she banished the statistics, the anecdotal evidence she read and Dr. Fuyutsuki's reinforcement. It was just one more treatment.

She entered without knocking. The waiting room was empty. Folding chairs lined two walls, with an end table in the corner between holding a few magazines. Rei sat, produced a book from her bag, and read.

Two pages later a door opened and a young woman appeared. She approached Rei with a sunny smile.

"Good morning," the woman greeted, offering a modest bow. "I'm Maya Ibuki. I'm the head technician here at Achievement TMS. Welcome. You must be Rei Ayanami, right?"

She affirmed she was not some random stray off the street looking for magnet therapy.

"Great! Glad to meet you. Before we get started, could you please fill this out for us?"

She handed Rei a sheet. It was standard issue psychological survey, a multiple choice questionnaire ranging from eating and sleeping habits, to sexual activity, to suicidal ideation. It was excruciatingly familiar.

Maya accepted the completed form, her delicate brow scrunching at the high score. "Thank you. Um, please excuse the barebones presentation." She chuckled lightly, gesturing around the office. "We just moved in and are still setting up. Oh, but Dr. Akagi has years of training and clinical trials to her name. So you're in good hands."

They looked at each other. Time crawled past them.

"Um, Dr. Akagi should be here any minute. I'm pretty sure she knows we have a patient scheduled today…"

Rei returned to her book. Maya fretted.

Finally a blonde woman entered the waiting room from outside, bearing the faint traces of coffee and cigarettes. She rubbed bleary eyes under her glasses.

"Dr. Ritsuko Akagi," Maya said, both as greeting and introduction. "Ms. Ayanami is here. She was the patient Dr. Fuyutsuki referred to us and—"

"Then let's start," she said, not bothering to stop on her way to the treatment room.

Her assistant padded after, ushering Rei to follow them.

It was a dim, small space. The shade was drawn, the slats casting early-morning shadows across the floor. In the far corner was a desk with a computer. A television was mounted on the wall. The room was dominated by a bulky machine that nearly reached the ceiling, sitting on a nest of tangled cords.

"TMS is used to treat persistent depressive disorder," Ritsuko was saying, skimming over the survey Rei filled out, "and for patients that tried ECT without results. Dr. Fuyutsuki gave us your history with his referral. We all agreed you're a good candidate for TMS. I assume you read over the material we sent. Ready to start?"

"It is why I am here."

They directed her to what appeared to be a barber's chair, complete with a footrest, lying before the machine that reached up and over its back. Rei sat. Ritsuko pulled a plastic-wrapped cloth cap laced with wires from a desk drawer and opened it. She tugged it over Rei's head, covering her hair and ears, and strapped it under her chin.

"The cap is fitted with an array of sensors so we can monitor and attune treatment," she explained. She sounded mildly irritated at having to spell out anything else.

Next she eased a metal helmet over the cap, connected to the machine behind the chair. It was a tight fit, almost uncomfortably so. Rei reminded herself she was not worried about pain.

"This is what delivers the magnetic pulses. First we need a baseline to determine your threshold and positioning. It should be delivered right above your temple."

"Some patients describe it as an angry woodpecker hitting your head," Maya chimed in, at the desk terminal.

"It shouldn't hurt, but everyone has a different threshold. Ready?"

Things escalated quickly since she walked in the office but this was indeed what she was here for. To undergo yet another therapy and report back to Dr. Fuyutsuki about how unsuccessful it was. He would squint and sigh, then smile his wrinkly smile and tell her he wasn't giving up on her yet.

Optimists, Rei thought disparagingly. She said she was ready to begin.

Maya entered a few swift commands on the computer. The machine behind Rei whirred and clicked before what felt like a hammer pounded a nail of sound into her head.

"How was that?" Ritsuko asked.

"Disagreeable."

"Well, this isn't a day at the spa. Where was the pulse delivered?"

She indicated the epicenter and Ritsuko made minute adjustments of the helmet, marking positions on the cap. She asked if they could continue. Her tone sounded less like an earnest inquiry and more a legally required formality. Rei imagined the disappointment, frustration and secret contempt from everyone involved if she did blow the whistle this late in the game. Better to deal with short-term physical discomfort than long-term emotional complications from her support system. She affirmed they could continue.

They administered brief pulses and took measurements until they were satisfied with the helmet's positioning. Next they tested strength, finding a sustainable level to gradually increase over the five week course of treatment. As it crept up it flirted with pain. Not that Rei was worried about that.

She finally signaled to stop. Spending any longer would only delay treatment further.

"Great," Ritsuko said dully, checking over the finalized readings. "Then I'll hand it over to you, Ibuki. Good luck."

With that she left. Maya forced an apologetic laugh.

"Please excuse Dr. Akagi," she said. "Her bedside manner isn't always, um, mannerly. But she's so brilliant and talented sometimes she forgets not everyone else can keep up. It must be hard for her to deal with how smart she is."

That was a labored excuse for conceit but Rei felt insulting the head doctor and apparent idol of the procedure technician might not be a good idea.

"Anyway, I'm so glad you decided to give TMS a chance. I've seen so many people turn their lives around because of it. Hopefully, you'll feel like a new you."

Maya turned on the TV mounted before the chair. Treatment lasted thirty minutes a day, she explained, so patients were given the option to watch a program from a streaming service. She asked Rei what she felt like.

"It does not matter to me."

"Oh." She scanned the selection in a mild panic. "Um, this one is funny," she proposed, looking back for approval.

"It does not matter to me."

"Uh, okay then." She queued it up.

Uncivil Servants was a popular sitcom set in a small municipal bureaucracy featuring a zany cast of misfits. Rei was aware of its existence in that she actively avoided it. But voicing that would only invite further queries into what she actually wanted, which was nothing. And it would delay the treatment even more.

The episode opened with a jaunty tune and a pratfall of an overly emotive man. A noisy and insistent laugh track cackled over the speakers. Maya giggled along with it, then recalled she needed to begin.

"Did you bring a mouth guard?" she asked, sitting at the terminal.

"No."

"Oh. They can help keep your teeth from chattering. Um, we could reschedule to tomorrow if you want…"

She was already strapped into the machine delivering unpleasant magnetic angst through her skull. It was a bit late to spring helpful information on her.

"No," Rei told her.

"Okay, if you're sure. Here we go. Starting now."

The first pulse was a rapid-fire burst of staccato aggression that beat against the side of her head, blurring her vision and rattling her jaw. Clenching her teeth did not prevent it. Relaxing her mouth was no different. The television cycled between sleek HD and fuzzy CRT.

Beneath the cap and helmet, as well as the magnetic bursts snapping in her ear, Rei could barely hear anything else in the room. The television displayed closed captions for the patients' benefit, which she tried to focus on between batteries.

A heavy man on the screen entered a crowded office of cubicles bang bang bang bang bang holding a box. A thin woman stood from her cubicle and bang bang bang bang bang approached him. She looked in the box and recoiled with bang bang bang bang bang a dramatic gesture.

Hidetoshi, the subtitles read as her mouth formed near-silent words, these are doughnuts!

Yes, the heavy man bang bang bang bang bang told her. I hope you enjoy them.

You know I'm bang bang bang bang bang –a diet.

Don't worry, Hidetoshi replied. These are bang bang bang bang bang.

Laughter, the subtitles urged.

Maya giggled behind a hand before explaining the two-season-long backstory between the characters. She continued, dispensing valuable interpersonal data on fictional people while the TV hooted and whistled and guffawed at Rei being assaulted by magnetic pulses.

/\/\/\/\

A soft tap sounded on the flimsy door to the bedroom. It was a booming reverberation in her weary ears.

"Rei?" Kaworu's voice wafted in from the living room. "Are you well?"

That was a loaded question. "I am alive."

"Good." A pause. "Can I get you anything?"

A functional, healthy neurochemistry was probably beyond his ability to grant. "No."

Another pause. "Have you eaten anything today?"

Her already anemic appetite was further drained. "No."

"Let me get something for you," Kaworu told her, and preempted her refusal: "I promised your mother I'd look after you. I'd rather not incur her wrath."

That was an understandable fear. But still, "No."

"Just some soup. I found a carrot soup recipe the other day. You used to love that when we were growing up."

She realized he wasn't going away. He was almost as stubborn as she was. And he was well-rested, giving him a temporary advantage. And this was still technically his home. And the neighbors sounded like they were trying to drown out the party raging two floors down with a bracketed karaoke competition of nothing but progressive death metal. Rei sat up in bed and removed the cold compress from her forehead.

"… or some salad, at least," Kaworu continued. "You still like it without dressing, correct?"

She opened the bedroom door, blinking away the harsh light from the living room.

"Oh, hello," he said brightly. "Hungry?"

Rei walked past him to the kitchen. She glared away his attempts to serve her and settled on the fastest meal she could prepare. Not that she was keen on eating at the moment but her meds did recommend being taken with food. She sat at the counter with a slice of bread and glass of water.

"Better than nothing, I suppose," Kaworu sighed. He sat across from her. "Care to talk?"

Not with a mouthful of dry untoasted bread.

"How are you feeling?"

That morning marked her fourth treatment. Each was the same as the first: a sluggish half-hour of severe discomfort followed by a headache and fatigue that clung to her like noonday shadows. Aspirin blunted the knife's edge but didn't remove the blade. The best medicine she found was laying in bed in the dark in total silence. Which was totally impossible in a housing complex populated by college students. It seemed there was a party going on somewhere at any given time.

"Still miserable?" Kaworu deduced. "What did the TMS people say about it?"

"They are normal side effects." She tried not to wince at how sore her jaw was.

"They didn't give you any idea about what to do for some relief?"

"It may improve over the course of treatment. It may not. I am not worried about pain."

"Yes, I recall you saying that. You shouldn't have to suffer any further."

Yet here I am, she thought.

Rei finished the bread and stood, Kaworu rising with her.

"I wish I could do something else for you," he told her.

"You cannot," she said truthfully, without malice.

She returned to the bedroom before he could raise another objection. It was dim. The drawn blinds didn't quite cover the windowpanes, and persistent afternoon sun sliced through the cracks. Rei shut her eyes against it, found the narrow bed, and collapsed onto it.

She reached out for the compress on the nightstand. It was room-temperature, barely damp anymore. Refreshing it meant wading out into the apartment again and being sucked down in her cousin's well of good-natured worry. She already told him he could not assist her further but he kept thinking up new ways to be a bother. He should accept the situation as she did, and adapt accordingly. The treatment was unpleasant. It caused bad headaches and fatigue. It killed her appetite. The mouth guards she tried all triggered her gag reflex. Her technician was a chatterbox. All of those things were out of her control to change. They were what they were and she had to accept it.

Humans could endure almost anything for a short period of time. In a cosmic sense, five weeks of this treatment was a blink of the eye. She could take it. She would. She was too obstinate to do otherwise.

Rei split an eye open. The sun still splashed through the window at jagged angles on the bed, over her ankles and left knee. Somewhere below her, the party still roared. Her neighbors had given up trying to combat the din, it sounded like.

She shut her eye and waited, for the other residents to tire of revelry, for the headache to lose out to fatigue, for tomorrow to arrive which would inevitably be the same as today.

/\/\/\/\

Dr. Akagi met her outside the office the next morning, lazily crushing a spent cigarette under her heel.

"Ms. Ayanami," she offered as a greeting. "Punctual as ever."

"Is that wrong?"

Ritsuko gazed longingly at the remains of her morning smoke break. "Of course not. Let's go in."

She ushered Rei to the treatment room. A tall, lanky young man was sitting at the terminal.

"This is Shinji," she introduced. "He's your temp technician."

He rose to bow. "Nice to meet you."

"Formalities will only put us behind schedule. Hook her up and get started." She left.

"Yes, ma'am." He waited for Rei a moment before realizing he was blocking her path to the chair. "Sorry."

He backed up and she sat, ignoring his greeting and apology. He lacked visible offense.

"Ibuki has the day off," Shinji began.

Obviously, she thought.

"Obviously," he said, shaking his head at himself. "Anyway, I'll be filling in now and then, okay?" He smiled a little. "Actually, you're the first patient I've worked with. So, uh, good luck."

Rei wasn't sure if he was talking to her or desperately reassuring himself. She waited for him to begin.

"Right."

He produced the cloth cap and drew it over her head. His touch was gentler than she was used to. Ritsuko was efficiently brusque; Maya was tentative to the point of awkwardness. Shinji was cautious but not uncertain. Careful fingertips brushed her hair and cheeks as he worked the cap into place. He had the manners to apologize again.

"Did you have a mouth guard?" he asked as he fitted the metal helmet over the cap.

"It triggered my gag reflex."

"Oh." He spoke causally: "Yeah, me too. I bit down on a folded washrag when I went through this. It helped steady my jaw. It might be worth a try next time."

Rei eyed him briefly. He was treated? He seemed so normal.

He stepped back and turned on the TV. "What were you watching?"

"It does not matter to me."

He frowned at that, but accepted it. He scrolled through Maya's recent selections, an exhaustive medley of trendy sitcoms and dramas. Shinji looked elsewhere.

"How about this?"

A nature documentary wasn't high on her list of must-see television but it was better than being told when to laugh.

"It does not matter to me."

"Fair enough." He started the program and sat at his terminal. He keyed up the machine. "Ready?"

She thought that was understood, what with her travelling to the office, entering the treatment room, sitting in the chair and letting him touch her. For his benefit she offered the briefest of nods.

"Okay. In three, two, one…"

The first burst shook her. She blinked rapidly, upset with herself that she wasn't used to this.

"Still okay?" he asked.

Rei nodded tersely to continue. She stared straight ahead at the television screen. Keeping her eyes closed was worse, she found. There was no hope of a distraction, nothing but the anticipation of when the next magnetic burst would quake through her.

The TV displayed a vast, deep blue, a sparkling aquatic seascape untroubled by humanity. The camera swept low along the choppy waves, capturing their chaotic serenity. Fish broke the surface, spraying water in a prismatic cloud under the shining sun. An island came into view, a craggy plateau thick with jungle. A narration detailed the inhabitants as different shots of penguins appeared; waddling between the trees and over the underbrush, slipping gracefully into a thin river leading to the ocean, collecting small fish and returning to feed their brood. The penguins migrated to this remote island to escape larger predators and flourished, despite the moderate temperature. They appeared almost tame on camera, playing and swimming with impunity, freed from the constant fear of predation. As the sun set a lone penguin stood on a patch of rock overlooking the sea, cutting a dark silhouette against a sky streaked with vivid reds and purples.

The picture froze as the program paused, displaying over thirty minutes elapsed. Shinji was on his feet, smiling at her.

"That's it," he said. "Treatment's done for the day. Good job."

He unshackled her from the machine. Rei stood with a lingering glance at the playtime to ensure it was indeed over. Shinji eyed her with pleasant uncertainty.

"You can watch something else next time," he told her. "There's a decent selection. We'll find something you like."

That implied she had likes to begin with. "It does not matter to me."

"Oh."

She headed for the exit. Shinji hurried to hold the door. A miniscule twinge of grateful relief forced the words out.

"… It was not disagreeable." Compared to what Maya normally subjected her to.

"Okay then," he said.

Rei dared to waste a moment to see his reaction as she passed by. He was not smug or patronizing. He took what she gave him and accepted it without judgment.

She tried not to critique others. It led to hoping they'd change. People rarely changed. It was too demanding. If they did it was for the worse, an egocentric defense mechanism. So it was not a pastime Rei engaged in. Still, it was hard not to judge Shinji as weirdly polite.

"I was pleased to meet you," he said with a wave goodbye at her back. "See you next week."

She left. The glass doors leading to the parking lot shut behind her with a loud jolt, reminding her she had a headache. She travelled back to the apartment in a gauzy haze of gentle incredulity.

/\/\/\/\

Dinner that night was the carrot soup Kaworu mentioned before, with a green salad. Under less magnetic circumstances it might have been agreeable. But he made an effort to craft it and Rei felt obligated. He told her he'd try to share dinner with her every night from then on, explaining he believed they had yet to properly catch up. That was a lot of potential dialogue for very limited subject matter. Her existence was slave to immutable routine. Any disruption to the expected order was cause for concern, not conversation. She was just as comfortable being left alone in his tiny dark oven of a bedroom, venturing out as little as possible, attempting to forget where she was and what she was doing here.

But she and Kaworu were very different people, she reminded herself. The least she could do was meet his hospitality halfway. It would be problematic if he recanted his offer to house her.

They sat at the counter and ate the soup and salad. The soup was bland and watery. The salad was store-bought. Not that Rei was a culinary snob. It merely reinforced Kaworu's tragic inability to create anything but disappointment in the kitchen. He bore the rare failing with graceful self-deprecation, and a promise to try again. That stubborn optimism, that he could be better, was admirable. In a way.

He didn't know when to give up. He didn't sit down and whine. Adversity did not dissuade him; he found a way through or around it, somehow using it as a springboard into greater freedom. Rei found her thoughts drifting to the penguins from the documentary. Faced with predation they did not wait to be slaughtered. They left their home, all they knew, and struck out for something, anything else. Something different. Something unknown. But they did find a better place, even if it wasn't what they expected or thought they wanted. Or she was reading entirely too much into a television program about birds.

At least the treatment seemed faster than usual. Maybe it was a fluke. Maybe she could try to repeat it with Shinji next week.

Kaworu was looking askance at her from across the kitchen counter. "Did something happen today?"

"No."

"Oh. Okay."

They ate.

"So," he began, "how is school?"

"It is still in town."

"I meant how are classes?"

"They are still in the school."

"Oh, you literal wit," he said. "Do you enjoy them? Are you learning anything interesting?"

She couldn't recall the last time she enjoyed something. Learning did educe feelings of productivity, even if what she was learning proved useless. But she was doomed to that fate for at least another two years.

"No," Rei answered him. "My tutor follows the mandated material to a fault."

"Tutor?"

"I was removed from classes last year. It will require an additional year to graduate."

"Oh."

They ate more.

"How is your tutor?" Kaworu asked.

"Elderly." He waited for her to expand. She relented. "His comprehension of the subject matter is adequate."

"Don't you care for him?"

"He is all the school could provide. Caring one way or the other will not alter the situation."

They ate more still.

"How's viola practice going?"

"Do not feel obligated to converse with me," Rei said.

"I don't feel obligated. I want to." He sagged. "You don't want to."

"I am tired," she deflected. She collected her half-eaten meal and put the dishes in the sink.

For a moment Kaworu appeared to hold an objection on his tongue. He swallowed it, sighed, and allowed her to leave without confrontation. He sat alone at his tiny kitchen counter and finished the runny soup.

Rei shut the bedroom door. The thin, lumpy mattress welcomed her slip of a frame as much as it could. It molded against her unnaturally as she shifted to find comfort. It was an hour before exhaustion won and she slept. That night she dreamt of penguins.

/\/\/\/\

It was next week at the office when she saw Shinji again. He bowed, standing aside and ushering her into the treatment room. These manners must have been beaten into him as a child. He was severely respectful. She supposed it was better than the contrary. Not that either truly mattered to her. Courtesy simply facilitated the process.

"Still hot outside, huh?" Shinji asked as she sat in the chair. "Sorry about the air conditioning. It's out in the entire building."

Yet like last time he wore a long-sleeved shirt buttoned tightly at the wrists.

"Hopefully it'll be fixed by your Monday appointment."

He didn't mention the washrag she was using to bite down on during treatment now. He fitted the cap and helmet over her head and asked what she wanted to watch. She told him it didn't matter. He queued up the nature documentary again. Today's episode featured a large group of migrating sea turtles seeking new breeding grounds to escape an encroaching human populace. The turtles found a secluded beach to lay their eggs, dotting the lengthy expanse of sand with small mounds. The eggs hatched and hundreds of babies dug out from the nests to shuffle their way to the sea. Birds, alligators and other predators descended on the helpless procession, picking off entire litters at will. For those that did manage to evade early death, the vast, lonely sea waited.

Shinji paused the program and stood. "All done. Good job."

He eased her out of the machine, peeling a sweaty cap from her hair. His brow furrowed not in disgust but concern.

"How are you?"

Hot and gross and exhausted. And looking forward to a hot, gross, exhausting trip on a public bus back to a hot, gross apartment where she would be unable to alleviate her exhaustion.

"Warm," she summarized.

Shinji frowned after her as she left. He called to her at the door: "Hold on a second, okay?"

He ducked into the office and Rei waited, more to regain her bearings than out of idle curiosity or civility. It remained a minor struggle to recover, and the broiling city heat wave wasn't helping anything. The building might indeed be an oven but it was better than direct sunlight. She was nearly looking forward to the apartment's cold shower.

Shinji returned, offering her a plastic water bottle. "Here you go. We have a minifridge in the office."

Temptation was not something she was well acquainted with. The bottle, so cold it was fogging over in the room's heat, tested her resilience.

"I do not need—"

He put it in her hands and she reflexively held on. The chill was startling but not enough to drown out how much warmer she suddenly felt. She glanced up at him. Shinji smiled at her.

"You did not have to," Rei stumbled.

"I wanted to," he said carelessly.

He bade her farewell. The sun beat down as she walked the block to a bus stop. The bench was too hot to sit on. Rei stood, still cradling the water bottle in her hands. She tried to tamp down the gratitude for a trivial gesture of kindness. It was unnecessary. It was unwanted. She was indebted to too many other people for too many other things.

The bottle was already a few degrees warmer. Her palms were wet with condensation, and felt all the better for it. She raised a hand to unscrew the cap. She hesitated.

The bus pulled up next to her. Like a child caught stealing sweets Rei hastily put the water bottle on the bench and boarded. It was densely populated. A sweaty man in a suit and tie saw her walk down the aisle and vacated his seat, either in courtesy or fear, she did not care. Rei claimed it, glancing out the window. She saw the bench, the bottle tilted against the right arm rest.

And then it was gone, pushed out of her sight as the bus lurched into traffic. It was gone, but the pang of shame trailed after her.

/\/\/\/\

They were running late today. Which was odd, considering Rei was the first appointment. She sat in the waiting room alone with a natural history book she found at Kaworu's apartment. It beat staring at the wall. Boredom was not a familiar affliction, in the sense she rarely desired to do something else. Her life was mired in misery for so long living any other way was unimaginable. Not that she didn't want to feel better but that concept was too alien to properly fathom.

She was three pages into a treatise on geological ages when a woman entered the office. She shrugged out of a heavy, long coat. She scanned the room, settling on Rei, and approached.

"Hey," she addressed her. "Is Shinji here?"

Rei looked up from her book.

"Is Shinji here?" she asked again.

"I do not know." She returned to reading.

The woman offered a sour glare and turned away. She crossed her arms. She tapped her foot. With a loud sigh she deposited herself in a chair. She rifled through the outdated magazines on the end table. She watched Rei.

"So," she said at length, "you're like a patient here?"

That was clear enough not to dignify a response. The woman didn't bother waiting for one.

"Good. It can help troubled people."

Rei expected ridicule from her tone and posture, not backhanded encouragement. She glanced at her again. The woman was tall and lithe, looking thoroughly unhappy with being so effortlessly attractive. Or what Rei gleaned was attractive to others. The woman was modelesque in a form-friendly dress, a dark scarf bound tightly around her long neck. She went without makeup because she didn't need any. Hers was a natural, careless beauty.

"So, how is he?"

"What?"

"How is he?" the woman repeated. "Shinji. As a tech."

"Acceptable."

She snorted a laugh. "Such high praise."

Technically, it was, from her. She had little to compare him to. How else was a TMS technician supposed to act? She hoped Maya's chatty apprehension wasn't the norm. Most treatments she talked, even though Rei could not properly hear her, or respond. Not that she would. Hearing about the interpersonal intrigues of TV drama characters was not a topic to elicit reaction from her.

"So he gets a C? That'll break his honor student heart."

"I did not say mediocre."

The woman eyed her. "Then what do you approve about him?"

This woman seemed to relish the ability to draw reactions from others. Rei was disappointed she drew one from her. It wasn't that she wished to defend Shinji; it was her idea of Shinji that deserved protection. He had, however inadvertently, made TMS marginally less bad for her. The experience wasn't as difficult. She wanted to hold onto that impression.

Of course, none of that was this woman's business.

"He is careful," Rei decided on.

"He does like to take his sweet time." The woman glared at something only she could see. "I'm not a patient," she clarified. Silence met her. "I just drop by for the stimulating conversation."

The treatment door opened. The woman immediately stood. Her entirety rose. And then promptly fell as Maya appeared.

"O-Oh," she said. "Ms. Soryu. Can I help you?"

"No, you can't."

The woman yanked on her bulky coat. She left without another word.

"Awfully dressed up to come here," Maya murmured. She found Rei before her waiting to begin. "She was looking for Shinji, huh? I guess they're back together again."

They entered the treatment room and set up. Rei carefully folded a small washrag and bit onto a corner. Maya ignored it, simultaneously focused on her work and workplace drama.

"Isn't Ms. Soryu so pretty?" She spoke with bewildered fear. "I guess Shinji isn't ugly but he never struck me as a playboy or anything. He's so mild-mannered and she's so quick to emotion. Maybe that's why they can't stay together. But even when they're not they don't see anyone else."

She checked the calibrations at her terminal, continuing to chat.

"Well, who knows what people are really like behind closed doors. Still waters often run deep. I mean, they got together for a reason, so they must keep trying for a reason."

Maya sat back in her chair and turned to Rei.

"It's actually kind of scandalous," she told her, sounding more than happy to divulge such gossip. "They met years ago, in a suicide survivors group. They were both kicked out for, um, getting too friendly with each other."

Rei stared at her. Maya realized she was talking to a patient and blushed.

"Uh, let's get started." She queued up an episode of Uncivil Servants. "And please don't tell Shinji I told you all that."

/\/\/\/\

She arrived back to an empty apartment. Rei learned trying to pin down Kaworu's schedule was an exercise in futility. He came and went as he pleased. Some days they didn't even see each other. That was fine, especially on treatment days. The headaches and fatigue still plagued her afterwards, and she collapsed into bed, not bothering to slide the door shut. She waited for exhaustion to beat out discomfort.

Rei woke to late afternoon sun sliding through the balcony windows into the bedroom. A rare, jagged hunger pang forced her to her feet. She was still alone, and settled to find an early dinner without Kaworu. He still dropped in to share a late meal and to check in if she was awake, despite how quickly conversation had dried up between them.

She was navigating the refrigerator when the front door opened. Kaworu entered the apartment with takeout, drinks, and two other people. Rei hoped her expressionless expression somehow expressed how much she did not want to interact with strangers right now.

Kaworu ignored it with a smile. He set the meal down on his counter and ushered his guests inside.

"Please excuse the intrusion," a bespectacled girl with long dark hair murmured.

"You're always so shy," Kaworu said, slipping a deft hand on her shoulder. The girl went red but did not resist. "I told you you're welcome here."

"S-Sorry."

So he was after a girl this time, Rei thought. There was nothing wrong with keeping your options open but sometimes she felt her cousin was just greedy.

"This is Mayumi Yamagishi," he introduced, still casually holding her by him. "We met in class. She possesses an exquisite singing voice."

"Not really." She squirmed pleasantly.

"We're working on performing in front of others. I'm not much of an audience."

"I'd say get a room," the other guest said behind him, "but then you'd kick me out and I'd miss dinner."

"This is Shigeru Aoba," Kaworu introduced a man with long hair and a laconic expression. "He's a brilliant guitarist in the university's music program."

"Please," he said. "I only squeaked through admissions. I'm no full-ride scholarship, Mr. Piano."

Just like him to laud others while downplaying himself. Kaworu was a prodigy, able to play piano by ear before age five, and seemed to only improve as he got older. Yet he blithely shrugged off his skills, not out of a false modesty but a genuine ethos of egalitarianism. Not that it stopped people from praising him.

"This is my cousin, Rei." He finally acknowledged her dissatisfaction. "I thought it would be nice if we all sat down together for a meal. Aren't you bored of just me?"

Yes, she thought, but adding new variables to the equation wasn't the solution.

They crowded around the narrow counter, sitting on stools or stacked boxes. Kaworu used the piano bench. They ate, the three college students making light conversation. They laughed and smiled so easily for so long Rei felt it was not a polite act for her benefit. They were civil enough to lob a few questions her way that garnered monosyllabic responses. It wasn't her home, so saying outright she had no interest in them might be considered rude.

They ate until the beer threatened to run dry. Kaworu wasn't a prolific drinker, he preferred the most of his faculties, but in a social setting he held his own. Before anyone could offer he rose, nimbly lifting Mayumi with him and guiding her out the door.

"We'll run to get more. Rei, be a dear and entertain Shigeru."

And they were gone. And she was alone with a stranger in a strange apartment. To Aoba's credit he seemed as surprised as she was. Not that she showed him that.

Having no practice or interest in acting a proper host, Rei stayed silent, focusing on her meal. Aoba emulated her for a time, seeming untroubled. He poked at his food, nursed his beer, and for the first time that evening was not a complete inconvenience to her. But as the quiet lengthened he broke first.

"So," Aoba began, "Nagisa mentioned to me you play viola. That's great. You pursuing a scholarship like your cousin?"

"No."

"Oh." He waited for more. "Well, just playing for fun is cool, too."

"I have not played in five years."

"Oh." Aoba made the most of his beer. "Ah, I play guitar, like Nagisa said. I'm nothing special but I couldn't imagine my life without it. Music is…" He nodded to what he was about to say. "Music is amazing. It's better than sex or drugs… It's, no. No, music is important. You should try it again. Making music is the most important thing humans can do."

In a way, Rei admired people who could make such simplistically grand statements and believe them to be true. That blind faith in themselves was astonishing. In a way.

"What does bring you to the city?" he asked. "Nagisa was a bit vague. Something about you wanting to experience urban life?"

There was a simultaneous feeling of irritation and gratitude at Kaworu for not divulging the reason for her visit. Despite his utter lack of comprehension regarding her condition he did not possess any qualms talking to others about her behind her back.

"Yes," Rei answered him, and hoped it was broad enough to end that line of inquiry. Where was Kaworu?

"The city and university are great," he went on, undeterred. "There's a lot of really interesting people our age, and there's always something to do. I hope it's made a good impression so far." He took a long sip of beer. "Want some?"

"I am underage."

Aoba looked shocked. "Nagisa didn't tell me that." He coughed in growing discomfort. "Uh, sorry. Heh. I get the feeling he was trying to set us up."

"That is pointless," Rei said honestly.

"Ouch. But I appreciate the directness. You're not one to play games, huh?"

Games were for children and athletes, who were kind of like children. The child was starved out of her.

Kaworu and Mayumi finally returned, beer in hand. She was inexplicably flustered. They sat back at the counter when Aoba stood with a staid smile.

"I'm going to take off."

"It's still early," Kaworu lamented.

"Yeah, but I can't drink my rejection away in front of a crowd. See you in class." He formally bowed. "Ms. Ayanami, it was a pleasure I won't forget easily."

He left, grabbing another beer for the road. Mayumi accurately judged the atmosphere and quietly excused herself as well. Kaworu did not offer a vigorous protest. The apartment door shut behind her, and the cousins were alone. He appraised her.

"You are upset with me," she realized.

"I'm disappointed. Did you shoot Aoba down immediately or give him a chance?" His tone wasn't angry, she didn't think he had that in him, but hurt.

"He talked and I listened. What did you expect from me?"

"I thought you'd hit it off. You both like music, he's well-read, patient and nonthreatening. I only left him alone with you because I trust him. He didn't do anything untoward, did he?"

"He behaved."

"Then why so cold?" he asked.

Anyone else accosting her like this would spark a placid annoyance. But Kaworu wasn't trying to get under her skin. He only wanted information, even if he went about his inquiry in a tactless manner.

"Romance is pointless," Rei said.

"I didn't intend for you two to elope. Just to talk. I thought it would be easier for you one-on-one."

"Idle conversation is pointless."

"I disagree. Learning about others is how you form connections." He raised an eyebrow as she took a breath to respond. "Please do not tell me forming connections is pointless."

Rei closed her mouth.

"Bonding with others is how you grow and change. Isn't that why you're here? To change the way you are?"

She rose. "I am here because I must be."

With nowhere else to retreat she entered the bedroom. Kaworu did not pursue, but spoke after her.

"There is so much to enjoy about life, I wish you could understand that."

Rei shut the door and sat on the bed. Exhaustion caught her and she let her head fall on the thin pillow. She stared up into the inky dark. Even when she shut her eyes she saw Kaworu's disappointed face.

/\/\/\/\

Her alarm chirped in her ear. She woke in degrees. She blearily made it to the bathroom to shower and brush her teeth. She emerged only slightly more awake, and discovered she passed by Kaworu who was waiting in the kitchen.

"Why are you here?" Rei asked.

"Good morning to you, too. I took the day off. I'll drive you to your appointment."

He opened his home to her and provided food and shelter. That was already too much to repay.

"I do not need additional assistance."

"It's no trouble," he said, heading out the door. "We'll pick up breakfast on the way."

Kaworu left. Rei shut her eyes and sighed. She followed him down to the parking garage.

He was behind the wheel, persuading it to start. The engine growled to lazy life as she sat beside him.

"This is not necessary," she reiterated.

"It is." Kaworu pulled out of the apartment complex, immediately halted by a line of cars. He strummed his fingers on the wheel once. It somehow sounded melodic. "I'm sorry for last night. I wasn't thinking about how you'd feel."

That was clear, she thought, but let him continue. His tone communicated it was a preamble. A simple apology was enough but people often needed to indulge themselves in their atonements.

"Being with people makes me happy," he said, as if it was not painfully obvious. "And I projected that onto you. Because I want you to be happy."

"That is a lost cause."

Kaworu looked deeply affected. "Don't say that. You just haven't found what makes you happy yet. As long as you're alive you can find it. You are strong, like a diamond. You can withstand these treatments and get better. Don't give up hope."

They swung by a coffee shop drive-thru for bagels. Kaworu flashed a smile as he paid the blushing girl at the window. Rei wondered if he realized what he just did.

They drove to the Achievement TMS office. As usual, hers was the earliest appointment and the waiting room was empty. They sat. He made a mild humming noise.

"So, this is the place?"

"You sound dissatisfied."

"Merely a touch surprised. I envisioned a more scientific setting, what with all the magnets involved."

"This is not a science fiction movie," Rei informed him. "It is a business."

"Run like a conveyer belt by faceless bureaucrats." He sighed. "Are you sure a hospital wouldn't be preferable?"

No way was she going back to the hospital if she could help it.

"It is too late to back out now," she said instead.

The treatment door opened. Shinji appeared.

Kaworu perked up noticeably. "Who is that?"

"My technician," Rei warned.

She stood and was past Shinji before a proper introduction could befall anyone. She waited in the chair as he fumbled a farewell.

"Friend of yours?" Shinji asked after he shut the door.

Rei stared at him. How many other pallid, red-eyed weirdoes were roaming around the city? Shinji was too unassuming for his own good.

"He is my cousin."

"Ah." He accepted the information without presumption. "Nice of him to come with you."

The urge to roll her eyes was overwhelming. And Rei paused, struck by the concept of wanting to react to someone else in such a visible way. She learned long ago that an apathetic façade facilitated separation. People saw her lack of outward emotion, stopped trying to elicit a response, and avoided her. It was lonely but it was safe. It was painful but it was familiar. It was so ingrained in her any deviation from the norm was cause for alarm.

She recalled their first meeting, the water bottle he gave her last week, and being drawn into a conversation with a stranger because of him. This was an unwelcome trend. It was a loss of the familiar, of control.

She watched him deviate from the expected routine, producing a clipboard and pen from a drawer.

"Before we begin treatment today Dr. Akagi wanted you to fill out another survey," he told her, "to chart your progress."

It was the same sheet she completed on the day she met Dr. Akagi and Maya. Rei went down the list checking boxes. She tried not to wonder if there was indeed any progress. She didn't feel different, but anecdotally she knew patients were often the last to see change.

Shinji collected the survey, holding it at his side so he couldn't see the results. "I'll be right back."

He left. Rei sat back in the chair as much as it allowed and closed her eyes. Shinji's guarded smile appeared before her in the dark. He seemed normal. Passing him in the street she wouldn't give him any consideration. He seemed normal, but he wasn't. The way he presented himself now was not how he always was. He went through TMS treatment as well, and came out different. Was that what Rei wanted, too?

He returned. He fitted the cap over her head. She found herself looking at his wrists, carefully covered as always, and imagining the long scars hidden underneath. He possessed the selfish courage to try suicide. The farthest she ever got was holding the razorblade. Was he worse off than she was? Or did he break more easily?

Shinji stepped away after securing the helmet and turned on the TV. He watched the streaming service load with a conflicted expression. He faced her.

"The effects of TMS don't always appear immediately," he began. "Some patients reported change even after treatment ended."

Rei allowed him to finish whatever feel-good motivational he needed to get off his chest. She wasn't here for a pep talk. She got enough of that from Dr. Fuyutsuki, and now Kaworu as well. Didn't they think she was stronger than that? She did not need or want to be told to not despair. If she despaired, she despaired. No one had the right to tell her how to feel. Not even someone who might be able to comprehend what she felt.

Shinji opened his mouth to continue, then didn't. His lips compressed to a thin line. He looked ashamed.

Good, she thought.

He sat at his terminal. Instead of asking if she was ready as always, he paused. He turned back to her.

"This isn't a magic wand," he said. "It doesn't fundamentally change who you are. But it can make things more manageable."

That was the most real thing anyone told her about this treatment. It was divorced from the carefully culled patient reviews and administering doctors trying to make a living. It was a truth she wanted to embrace. As terrible as living sometimes was, it was her life. She was herself. Everything she learned, suffered through and experienced shaped who she was. She didn't want to lose all of that, even if it wasn't pleasant. What else did she have? But managing herself better was a realistic goal.

Drug advertisements spoke of miraculous cures. Doctors encouraged radical changes in behavior. The intents may or may not be heartfelt and positive but both operated on the supposition that her mindset was infected and needed to be totally altered to some other, arbitrary standard of what constituted "happiness." Rei knew she was not healthy. She knew she needed some form of treatment. But too often when people spoke to her they rejected her in part or totally, denying what made her, her.

That was the change she wanted. To reach a state where others did not refuse her existence.

Shinji was watching her. "Are you ready?"

His eyes were very blue, like the secret depths of the ocean. His gaze was steady. Rei met him.

"Yes."

/\/\/\/\

They drove home after the treatment. The car inched along in a processional snarl stretching entire city blocks. Beethoven crackled over the radio. Kaworu conducted with an outstretched index finger against the steering wheel.

"So," he began, "about your technician—"

"Stop," Rei told him.

/\/\/\/\

The polar bear had not eaten in days. A successful seal hunt provided blubber and energy for a lengthy amount of time. Yet significant reserves of it were drained by stalking prey. The vicious cycle was exasperated by warming temperatures and loss of habitat. So the bear floated amongst the icebergs, hardly moving, letting the sluggish current carry it towards an isolated seal resting on a float. It closed in, achingly slow. The passivity in the face of starvation with a meal close enough to touch was admirable. In a way.

The screen froze with the bear springing from the icy water in a cloak of foam.

"All done for the day," Shinji said, unhooking her. "Good job." He escorted her out. "Only one week left until you finish treatment. That's an accomplishment."

Or an exercise in patience. Nothing to be proud of.

"… You might not think it's a big deal," he went on, "but not everyone is as diligent as you. This is a considerable commitment—"

He cut himself off. The woman, Ms. Soryu, was brooding in the waiting room. She stood at their arrival, another dark scarf bound around her neck fluttering from the sudden movement.

"Asuka?" Shinji spoke.

There was trepidation in his voice, Rei thought. A yearning for inevitable doom.

"What are you doing here?"

"I, we need to talk." The woman looked frustrated with the limitations of spoken language.

He frowned and stepped towards her to mask their conversation. Asuka was blocking the door and showed no signs of budging. When he was in range she grabbed at his arm with a predator's instinct and dragged him out. His protestations lingered after him.

"This is where I work…"

Rei paused as the door shut behind them. Lamenting the decline of professionalism in the mental healthcare field, she too left the office. The glass doors leading to the front parking lot were before her. She wasn't trying to spy on them but they were in the middle of the closest path to the bus terminal.

They stood by a sporty red car, the kind of vehicle Kaworu would appreciate. A vanity license plate displayed MK02. Asuka leaned against the frame, arms and legs crossed. Shinji was before her, clenching and unclenching a fist. Their body language was magnetic and they were trying desperately not to collide with the force of an atom smasher. They spoke in broken, terse fragments, unable to look each other in the eye, unable to properly convey anything.

Shinji sighed. The tension drained from him in one even motion and he reached his hand out for hers. He held it and he smiled at her and he talked to her. Asuka tore her hand from his. She clutched both sides of his face and kissed him. His hands moved to her hips and she pushed into him.

They finally parted with a flash of red as she reclaimed her tongue. They looked at each other like nothing else in the world existed.

Rei exited through the back of the office building.

/\/\/\/\

She arrived on time. It was another hot day, the sun baking the city without any hope of alleviation. The summer had at times felt eternal, each day melting into the one before and after. Now the detour was over. She was through the end of the tunnel, almost back onto her old path. Rei entered the TMS office one last time.

The treatment door was open. Shinji ushered her in and set up. He seemed no different from the other day. She doubted he'd mention it, so neither would she. Trying not to think of it made her think of it. She had never seen two people kiss in person before. It was different than the detached experience of a movie or book. Watching it was a weird, queasy loss of control.

It was odd to see Shinji, her calmly accommodating technician, be aggressive. The way that Asuka woman clawed his hair and coiled a leg around his was entirely foreseeable. That he sandwiched her against the car frame with hands creeping around her rear was not. What was it about that Soryu woman that awakened such bestial instincts in him? For today at least, he was her technician, and nothing else.

"Today is your last treatment," Shinji said, wearing a strange smile. "I'm glad I was here for it." He stood before the television. "What do you feel like watching today?"

"Whatever you wish."

She saw his eyes go wide for a moment. He recovered and selected the next episode of the nature documentary. A single white seabird appeared, slipping through the cloudless sky on feathery wings. Another drifted down next to it, then another, then more. Soon hundreds littered the air over a craggy island where they nested, like a snowstorm caught in a lazy tempest. The males ventured out to sea to hunt fish while the females stayed with the eggs and young, protecting them in numbers from other predatory birds.

The screen paused on an image of a mother bird nestling over a nest. Shinji stood and freed her from the machine for the final time.

"All done. Good job."

They exited to the waiting room. Ritsuko was there, waiting with another survey to bookend the treatment's progress. She looked over the results.

"There doesn't seem to be any discernable improvement in your condition. It doesn't work for everyone. I'm sorry." She sounded, for once, less technical. Almost emotional. And then it was gone. "Ibuki will contact you in a month for a follow-up over the phone." She handed Rei a business card with the time and date. "Thank you for choosing Achievement TMS."

They looked at each other. Ritsuko excused herself and left the office, digging in her pockets for a pack of cigarettes on the way out.

"She does mean well," Shinji said. "Even if it doesn't always come across."

They were alone. Rei did not want to converse but felt assured he did. To make some grand speech about how TMS changed his life for the better, that new drugs and treatments were being discovered and researched every day, that there was hope. She looked up at him. He fidgeted.

"Uh, excuse me."

He left. Rei was a touch confused.

He returned from the office with a small bag.

"Here," he blurted, and pushed it into her hands.

She held it.

"Um, you can open it," he urged.

She opened it. "What is this?"

"Uh, a diary. You can, you know, write things in it. Or not. Please don't feel obligated to use it." He was blushing. "I noticed you usually read in the waiting room, but I didn't know what kind of books you like, so this was, ah, the closest thing I could find to… um…" He trailed off. "Sorry. This was a dumb idea."

She gripped the diary. Her nails pressed into the faux leather binding. Rei looked down to hide her face.

"Thank you."

Shinji was caught in the headlights. "… You're welcome."

She suddenly did not trust herself. She turned to leave. "Farewell."

She reached the door before he called out to her.

"Ms. Ayanami." He wasted a breath thinking. "I'm glad we met. And I'm glad you tried TMS. It isn't easy. I know that. But I think it's important to try. Living means trying. I'm sorry this didn't work for you." He paused. "I can't tell you what to do. I don't have that right. No one does."

But, she thought.

"But," Shinji began, "if there was hope for me, I have to believe there's hope for everyone. I'm still here for a reason. You're here for a reason, too, Ms. Ayanami."

He smiled freely at her. It was a rare, unguarded prize that was immediately branded into her memory.

"Goodbye. Please take care."

/\/\/\/\

The train slid along the track. The oppressive towering grays of the city gradually faded to familiar greens and browns of the countryside. The reach of buildings diminished until only a few isolated sheds or single unit houses remained to be seen. Paved streets vanished, and the sole proof of mankind's influence was strings of power lines crisscrossing along distant rolling hills. The train's crowd thinned in surges as the line drew ever further from the metropolis, until she was alone in the car. Rei travelled home.

"I'm sorry," her cousin told her at the train station, as if he was to blame for the entire month. That was nonsense. He was only to blame for part of it.

She told him it wasn't his fault. His dejection persisted, both at the treatment's apparent failure and her leaving. He urged her not to give up. He tried to hug her. He was forced to settle for a handshake.

"At least it wasn't a total waste," he informed her as she stepped onto the train. "We got to spend time together. Please come back whenever you wish."

The occasional email would suffice. His world was a bright, shining, loud, wondrous place to exist in. He loved others so freely without expecting anything in return. He lived to avoid regret. He lived.

Dr. Fuyutsuki was fond of telling her she was young and had her whole life ahead of her. Every day was a struggle; she already felt eons old. Experiencing more of it wasn't something to look forward to. She kept living because others fought so hard to keep her alive. She kept trying new treatments and drugs because others told her they would help. But she wasn't working towards anything. She floated through life without aspirations or dreams for the future. Yesterday, today and tomorrow were all the same abyssal expanses of fog, devoid of meaningful differences or characteristics. She existed.

TMS had not changed that. It was one more miscast line to save her from the disease she drowned in. She was tired of treading water, trying to stay afloat. She was tired of trying.

Living means trying, Shinji told her.

For how long? Was she doomed to be miserable for her entire life, continually struggling with treatments that never affected her? What kind of life was that?

The landscape blurred by outside the train window. It would be some time yet before she arrived home. Rei reached into her bag for a book to distract her. She pulled out the first one she touched.

It took her a moment to register it was the diary Shinji gave her. She turned it over in her slim hands carefully, reverently. The binding was pale blue, almost pastel. A three-ring binder offered the option to remove or add pages. The paper was thick and smooth to the touch. A thin stainless steel pen was tucked into the inside flap. It was practical in form and function, nothing unique.

Rei's hands trembled around the diary. Shinji held it, thinking of her. He gave it to her, thinking of her. And now she held it, thinking of him. Almost as if sentiments could be passed on through physical objects.

He was there with her, by herself on the train home, suffering what she suffered, and coming out stronger for it. He was there, telling her existence had a meaning, that her existence had a meaning. He did not tell her to hope, only that he hoped for her.

Even if she despaired, even if she failed, even if she stopped trying, he remained hopeful for her. Not out of professional or familial obligation. He would persist in life, searching for its meaning, hoping she found it too. She would be patient for now and give him time to find what he was looking for. She would honor the sentiments he entrusted her with. She would not disappoint him. She did not want him to stop hoping, to feel the way she did again. She wanted him to smile unguardedly the way he did in her memory, even if it wasn't at her. It would be enough to know the one who made her feel not so utterly alone was still living, still trying.

Rei opened the diary. She drew the pen out. After a moment, she put it to paper.

/\/\/\/\

End

Author notes: Fuck. Why can't I write a simple Rei/Shinji fic?