Seishin

Part 1: Stillness

A small cluster of pink petaled lotuses floated on the surface of the pond, animated by the movement of koi fish darting underneath. Lush hosta plants rustled as a subtle draft shook their bodies, releasing small droplets of water onto the damp soil. Through the breaks in the branches of the maple trees, sunlight penetrated the grove in scattered, jutting rays.

Water crept into Shinji's socks as he laid there, the back of his arm covering his left eye. He reached his hand up, fragments of light spilling through the cracks between his fingers. His breaths came slowly. Sometimes he tested how long he could hold it until he eventually gasped for air. Birds chirped above, a few cicadas buzzed, sometimes he'd even hear the beating of his heart. Minutes passed and he closed his eyes. The dirt was moist on the back of his head. Sometimes he'd feel the sensation of an occasional insect creeping up his arm, or hairs standing on end, creating the faintest stroke against his skin like a spectre's unseeable touch in the darkness of night. In his mind, a face appeared, featureless, like that of a mannequin. Orange wisps of hair cascaded around him, pouring onto his chest and shoulders. Shinji opened his eyes, brushed his pants and got up, scanning the scenery one last time.

Checking his watch, he realized he'd only an hour to get ready and travel to the city for the meeting. Once he walked out of the brush, Shinji trudged towards his house, feet kicking up mud from the recent on and off rain showers.

The house sat on top of a small hill, mostly wood, only one story tall. There was a bird box on the back porch, empty, with the miniature door rattling everytime the wind passed through. Two chairs and a table were covered in broken branches and leaves that had fallen onto their surfaces. A couple of mugs collected water on the table along with corpses of insects. Two ants picked at the remains of a half eaten apple. Shinji went up the stairs on the back of the porch and opened the sliding door.

The creaking white halls greeted him as he entered, hollow corridors once adorned with framed photos now blank and empty. He went to the bedroom and pulled out his black suit. Putting it on, he looked at the corner of a picture jutting from the drawer in the nightstand. He knew what it was–many nights were spent staring at it under the moonlight. The handle squeaked as he opened the drawer and, without looking, Shinji stuffed the photo into the farthest crevice.

In the bathroom, Shinji looked in the mirror. There was a faint stubble beginning to form on his chin, but he didn't have the patience or need to shave it. He opened the medicine cabinet and stared at the pills that sat in it. The tile floor was still chipped from all those years ago. The shower faucet dribbled water onto the base of the bathtub. In the back of the cabinet were two bottles of pills he had never bothered to throw out, prescribed for someone else. He took two Prozacs, adjusted his tie, and went to the living room.

The room was stark except for a few of the landscape pieces he had been working on. One leaned against the wall while another sat on a wooden stand, uncompleted. He'd only sold one painting, to a museum that was more interested in his name, rather than the art itself. Once he had tried painting portraits, but they always came out the same way–faceless, with the form of a woman, who, if she had eyes, were always turned towards the viewer, watching them in silent judgement. Shinji had burned them at the firepit in his backyard.

Outside, he descended the uneven cobblestone pathway to his car when he spotted blue sticking out amongst the green of the surrounding forest in his peripheral vision. He darted around to catch a faint glimpse of a girl standing there, watching him.

"Rei?" He gasped.

A blink. She was gone.

Shinji rubbed his head. It was probably just the side effects of the pills. He got in the car and drove. Blue skies of the countryside faded to the grey miasma of the city. He was never quite sure whether it happened to be coincidence that everyday was gloomy in New Tokyo or if that was just an after effect of Third Impact. He pulled up to the bar. The sign out front was skewed at an awkward angle.

The inside was littered with only a few groups of people. There were a few playing pool on the far right. Most sat huddled together, talking in low voices. The place had a hazy lighting to it, thick smoke clouding faces and eyes like a halo veil of vapor. The bartender wiped down a wooden table with spills and scraps of food on it. Shinji spotted two men in suits in the back. They turned to look at him and motioned with their arms. He went to greet them.

One of them was short, black haired, and a nose skewed a little to the side. His suit was pristine, no folds, pressed properly. The other was a bit taller, probably Shinji's height, his suit a little too big for him, cheeks pale and taut over his thin face.

The short man reached his hand out, "Dr. Watanabe."

He shook it, "Shinji Ikari."

Dr. Watanabe motioned to the other man, "Mr. Kimura."

The man shook Shinji's hand, "Call me Takumi."

They sat down. Dr. Watanabe motioned for the bartender.

"What're you having?"

Shinji shrugged.

"Doesn't matter," Takumi said.

"Three sakes," Dr. Watanabe said.

The bartender left them, and the three of them settled back into their seats. They let a few moments pass, easing the air of any tension, allowing for proper conversation. Dr. Watanabe leaned in. Shinji noticed and did so as well.

"About your proposition," Shinji started, "What're the risks?"

"As far as we know, Ground Zero poses no immediate physical risks," Dr. Watanabe leaned forward, "However, psychological anomalies have been detected in people who travel into the zone."

Shinji nodded, "You want to send an encephalogram into the sea using my brain, right?"

"Yes, you're still okay with that, knowing" Dr. Watanabe paused, "Well, not knowing the psychological risks."

Shinji shrugged, again.

"Good," Dr. Watanabe clasped his hands together, "Mr. Kimura will be on the station with us. He'll be monitoring your psyche while we're there."

"What're you hoping to get out of this?" Takumi asked.

"We want to see if we can form a connection with the sea," Doctor Watanabe said, "Maybe, if we can establish a connection, we can pull people out."

"Assuming they want to be taken out," Takumi added.

"Yes."

Takumi took a sip of his drink, "Who says they want to leave?"

"They want to, they just need a helping hand."

"That's what you believe," Takumi rolled his eyes.

"It's the truth."

"It's your truth, as a scientist that is. Basically, your opinion."

Dr. Watanabe looked at the ceiling, "The basic drive of any living organism to exist dictates that they'll want to leave."

"Who says they can't?"

The two turned to Shinji who had been looking at his feet.

"You would know." Takumi said.

The sake arrived at the table and the two continued to eye him.

Shinji picked up his drink and took a sip, tapping his leg, "I gave them a choice."

"That may be the issue," Dr. Watanabe said, "You gave them a choice."

"You prove my point. They don't all want to leave. Why take them from their ultimate freedom?" Takumi leaned back in his chair..

"That's just a hypothesis," Dr. Watanabe scowled, "Ikari may be the key to bringing them all back. If he's the person who gave them the choice, then he can pull them out. Are you up to it?"

"Yes," Shinji said, "I think so."

"Good," Dr. Watanabe patted him on the back, "The experiment is being sanctioned by the Japanese Government. You'll report to the station above the Seishin Sea in two months. We'll have been there for a while by that time, setting up and preparing for your arrival. There will be two other scientists with us. You can introduce yourself then."

The three got up. Dr. Watanabe left first. The crack of a pool cue breaking a cluster of balls. After some more time drinking in silence, Shinji and Takumi exited. They walked down the sidewalk, stumbling a bit over the cracked streets and stuffing their trembling hands into their pockets.

"Why're you coming?" Takumi asked.

Shinji looked up at the stars, "Don't really know."

"You know. You just don't want to admit it to yourself."

"Maybe," Shinji sighed.

"Looking for someone, aren't you?"

Shinji nodded.

"Figured. Seems humans have a knack for chasing things we've lost."

"What if they're unobtainable?"

"Then we run towards them even faster," Takumi stopped, "See you in two months. You looked tired. Rest up."

Shinji waved goodbye and got in his car. The echoes of construction and factory work drowned in the pounding silence of the countryside. Throwing his keys on the counter, he grabbed a glass of water and moved outside onto the porch. There was a copper horse statue sitting on the glass table, its front legs raised into the air while it balanced on its hind. Shinji eyed it and leaned against the rail. A few droplets of water hit the top of his head. Torrential downpour ensued. He stood there, sipping methodically, the water from his tap mixing with the natural precipitation until he couldn't tell if he was drinking the rain or his sink water anymore. Drenched, he went inside, took off his clothes, dried himself with a towel, and crept into bed. He closed his eyes and reached his arm out to the empty side of the bed.

"We can always try again," Shinji said, going to her side.

Asuka heaved into the toilet, Shinji pulling back her hair. The tiled floor was chipped and one of the lights above the sink had been burned out. Rust crept onto the rim of the bathtub faucet.

"Shut up," Asuka said.

"I'm not mad. Really, I'm not."

"Of course you aren't."

Shinji frowned, "What's that supposed to mean?"

Asuka got up from the ground and moved to the living room. One of Shinji's landscape paintings sat in the corner of the room, propped up on a wooden holder with three legs. There was a lamp on the stand next to the sofa which faced a large oak stand where the TV rested. The sliding door to the balcony allowed the setting sun to bleed in, lighting the room maroon like his father's office back at Nerv. One arm pressed against her cheek, hair a disheveled mess, Asuka pretended to watch the blank screen of the television.

"Couldn't be helped," Shinji said, "You can't control these things."

Asuka's voice was hoarse, "It didn't have to be this way."

Shinji could tell she was on the verge of tears. He hadn't heard her cry since the first night they slept together after all those years apart.

"I already told you," Shinji sighed, "I'm not mad."

Asuka hurled the remote at his head. He ducked to the side and looked at her, perplexed.

"I know that!" Asuka dug her nails into the arm of the couch, "It's always about you! It's always what you feel! How about how I feel!? Have you stopped to think about that!?"

Her breaths were ragged, her face red with exhaustion. Shinji winced, "I didn't know-"

"It's your fault," She continued, "If you didn't leave me to die, they wouldn't have destroyed this!" Asuka's face contorted and the tears finally came as her hand trailed down to her abdomen.

Shinji stood awkwardly in place, "We don't know if that's what caused it."

"It is," Asuka shook her head, "You caused it. You caused all of this! This stupid house in the middle of nowhere! This stupid job where I have to see every mistake I made every day! Why couldn't I just forget you? Forget this place?" She was sobbing now.

"Asuka," Shinji said, going to put his hands around her.

"Don't," she hissed, "You were a mistake. I should've never married you!"

"Well how do you think I feel!?" Shinji exploded. "You're constantly yelling at me! We don't sleep together anymore! I can't remember the last time you were even happy about something I did for you!"

"That's because you can't make me happy!" Asuka shoved him away, though with very little force.

Shinji bit his lip. He paced around the room and grabbed the keys off the counter.

"What're you doing?"

"Going for a drive."

"Running away again."

"No, I just need to think," Shinji said, "I need to think, that's all."

"Keep running away, I'm sure it'll help everything."

"Shut up."

"You're a shit husband."

"I can't take this, Asuka," Shinji said, "I just can't take this."

"I know. So, run. Like you always do. I don't need you anyway. I could've made it on my own."

Shinji winced. He stood there for a few more moments.

"Get out!" Asuka slammed her fist against the table.

"If you want me gone, I'll leave for good!"

Asuka grew quiet. They stood there, two married adults, like children huffing after a fight.

"I'll kill myself," Asuka said.

Shinji crossed his arms, "You wouldn't."

"Oh really?" Asuka threw her arms into the air, "And what's so great about my life right now!?"

"You still have me-"

"Quit it with that sappy shit, Shinji."

Shinji gritted his teeth, "Fine! Go ahead and kill yourself. Do it just like your mother! I saw it in there, I know what she did."

Asuka ran at him and grabbed his neck, but Shinji stepped to the side and grabbed her arms. He pushed her back so she collided with the lamp on the stand at the end of the room, shattering it as it fell to the floor.

"Get out! Get out! Get out!" She held her head and shrieked.

Shinji walked towards the door and slammed it. Outside in the driveway he took one more look at the house. He could walk right back up, try to make things better, but he was too tired to deal with her. Better to just let her cool off. He got in the car and drove.

At the Zoetrope bar he collapsed onto a stool and ordered a drink. Then two. Eventually, there were five bottles on the table.

"Time to go," said the bartender.

Shinji nodded and stumbled to his car. Dropping the keys, he fumbled to pick them up off the ground. On the way home he drove slowly, he felt calm now, at least. Maybe he and Asuka could make up. Her words finally hit him and a pang of worry pricked down his spine. He shrugged it off. She had claimed she was going to kill herself before, empty threats meant to hurt him more than anything. It was just a bluff.

The car pulled up to the driveway of the wood house. As he fished through his pockets for the house key he whistled a familiar tune in German he had heard Asuka singing before, usually when she was out working in the garden. The key slipped out of his hands and he cursed under his breath, momentarily stopping the song. He picked it back up, unlocked the door, opened it, and went inside.

"Asuka, I'm home," he said, flipping off his shoes and kicking them into the closet near the front door.

Silence greeted him.

The floorboards creaked under his feet as he traversed the hallway. On the closet rack, Shinji placed his coat and exhaled. He threw the keys on the kitchen counter. Thirsty, he went to the fridge and poured himself a glass of water. After downing it, he set it on the glass table, causing an echo to reverberate in the house. He turned the corner, "Look, I'm sorry."

Asuka wasn't there. Usually when he returned home from a fight she would be watching TV. It usually helped to get her mind off of other things. If not, she was either asleep in the bedroom or waiting for him to come in, either to shout again, but most likely talk things out, maybe even cuddle. Shinji stumbled over to the bedroom. It was dark inside. Faintly, he made out a shape on the bed, but upon further inspection it was just the strewn about pillows. He sighed.

"Asuka, where are you?" He asked.

It was unlike her. She always made her presence known. Shinji picked up his pace as he checked each room. Bathroom. Nothing. Living room. Nothing. Kitchen. Nothing.

"Asuka!?" Sweat was trickling down his face now and he could hear his heartbeat. The porch. He had to check the porch. Shinji slid open the sliding door and–

Motionless, on the hardwood deck Asuka was sprawled. An opened bottle of white pills rested in her hand. Her skin was pale, like snow, in the moonlight. The copper horse that rested on the table outside had been knocked over onto the ground.

Shinji woke up, sweating. He was alone in the bed, Asuka was not sleeping next to him. He ran to the next room over, checking to see if she was in the guest room. Nothing. As he came back to his senses he realized he was back in the present. The house had a funny way of playing with his mind like that. Now too awake, Shinji sat on the couch and looked outside the glass sliding door at the night sky. He could only hear his own heartbeat, barely audible against the silence.

Part 2: Memory

The station was similar to an oil rig, with pillars traveling deep beneath the sea to add stability and hold it above water. The roof was like an egg in its design, an elliptical shape, with twenty rooms for research, but the place had seen use for no more than eight at a time. Now, it would be five. There were docks with yellow cranes that held small motor boats in place near each wing, used for any excursion out into the sea of LCL. The structure only had two levels, the main one, and the observatory which was accessed via an elevator shaft that traveled a hundred feet into the air into a glass sphere that allowed an entire 360 degree view of the surroundings. They had built the place a mile off the shore, above the ruins of Tokyo-03. At this point, 24 years after Third Impact, all the buildings had sunk below the surface lying dormant beneath the red waters. On the helicraft, Shinji noticed how, unlike the water in the pond back at his house, the Seishin Sea was impenetrable, like oil was spilled in it, opaqueness obscuring what lay beneath the surface. He couldn't remember if it was always like that, or recent years of pollution and time had changed it. Usually, he tried not thinking of when he first returned.

The helicraft touched down on the landing pad near the East wing of the station. Shinji, bag slung over his shoulder, went down the metal stairs, steps groaning as his feet shook their rusted bodies. There was also rust on the railing. In fact, there was rust everywhere, creeping up the structural pillars, the crane arms, and near the round windows. In the distance, a humble glow breathing crimson light was emanating from the sea's surface. Shinji stared at it for a few moments, shook his head, and moved towards the white door. He grabbed the latch and pulled it open to the decontamination chamber. Air hissed as he was blasted with white fumes and the room went red. Once the procedure was over, the familiar white light returned and the door in front of him automatically opened. He went inside to the main station.

The walls were scribbled with red writings from pens. Papers littered the ground and exposed wires dangled from the ceiling. A few electrical boxes flickered and buzzed with sparks. There were pushed over file cabinets blocking some of the doors, insistent clunking echoing out through the corridors as the automatic closing systems of the doors attempted to shut close. Takumi, Dr. Watanabe, and the two scientists who Shinji had yet to meet, had already been at the station for a month, the last of the Seishin Sea scientists. The effects of Third Impact had been studied carefully and, while many other phenomena were disproven or understood, the ocean was one that had stumped all the metaphysical scientists for the years to come. Simply put, it lacked reason. According to Shinji, anyone was allowed to return, but the statistics on returnees said otherwise. Thus, the world of science regarding the sea of LCL was split into two sides. Those who believed that the choice inhibited everyone from returning because they simply were unaware they had been given one, and those who believed that the people still inside had accepted it. Over the years many had come to Shinji, asking him exactly what he had experienced in instrumentality and whether they could pluck his brain for valuable information. The answers always remained the same, vague, and seeming from a lifetime ago. He was just a kid back then. A kid who had made mistakes.

Shinji made his way to his room. It was clean, the books were stacked neatly on the shelf, and his window, looking out at the ocean, was clear. He sighed and plopped his duffle bag down on the bed. Staring outside, he witnessed the ocean foam move, swirling and snaking across the sea's surface. Red turned to yellow, then to orange, then back to red. Once again, it looked as if the ocean was breathing, or rather, changing moods. Shinji heard a crash from outside and looked towards the hallway. The faint glimpse of sky blue whipped by. He got up and made for the door.

"Dr. Watanabe?" Shinji asked.

He braced his hands on the doorframe and looked outside. A girl, about what looked to be ten years old, skipped by in a blue dress. She disappeared around the corner. Shinji rubbed his eyes, wondering if what he saw was real or apparition.

"No, you're not crazy," came a voice.

Takumi came from the other end of the hall, hands clasped tightly behind his back. The sleeve on his right arm was torn.

"Who was that? I thought there were only five of us on the station?" Shinji asked.

"You're right," Takumi nodded, "There were only five."

"Obviously not," Shinji said.

"She is us, but she is not us."

"I don't have time for riddles, Takumi. What was that?"

"An apparition, a ghost," Takumi shrugged, "Perhaps a memory. I don't recognize her so she must be Dr. Watanabe's."

"His what?"

"Daughter, maybe. Perhaps his niece. Someone close to him. That's what the ocean does, after all."

Shinji stared hard at Takumi, "I don't understand."

Takumi sat down on a bench in the hallway. He patted it and motioned for Shinji to sit next to him. Shinji moved over and noticed the chemical burns on Takumi's pants. His face was peeling and fresh pink skin glistened brightly from the lights where the dried parts were dangling or had fallen off. Shinji sat down.

"There's a reason this station was built all the way out here," Takumi motioned around them, "It seems that it can read our thoughts and act on them."

"You mean, the ocean is sentient?"

"Why wouldn't it be? It is the collective unconscious of humanity."

"Why haven't I heard of this before?"

"Hasn't got out, I suppose," Takumi shrugged, "There has only ever been eight of us here. Anyone else who wasn't here to experience the phenomena would probably think us mad."

Shinji remained silent.

"Not you, though. Why is that?" Takumi scratched the stubble of his beard.

"I've seen a lot."

"Makes sense. You were at the epicenter of Third Impact."

Shinji looked down at his hands, tingling in his palms, "Yeah."

They stared together at the wall. It was blank, with one picture hanging skewed by a holder, threatening to fall and shatter on the ground below. It looked like a group of scientists.

Shinji spoke: "Where are the other two? The ones I was supposed to meet."

"They died," Takumi said.

"Died? How?"

"Suicide. Both of them."

"Suicide?"

"Yes," Takumi looked up at the lights again, as if pondering some far off question or idea, "Couldn't deal with it. The apparitions, that is."

"The apparitions killed them?"

"In a way, yes."

"How's that?" Shinji asked.

"Beats me."

A few more moments passed and Takumi hoisted himself up and marched off towards the direction of where the girl had darted down a few minutes ago. He paused and held up a finger, "They'll come when you sleep. Be ready," he said.

Takumi walked down the hallway and before turning the corner shouted, "Talk with Dr. Watanabe! He's at the West end!"

Shinji got up and walked down where Takumi had come from. More papers strewn about greeted him, and a set of blue wires flickered from a part of the ceiling that had fallen down onto the ground below. Through the circular windows that were spaced about ten feet apart, Shinji saw the rust creeping up on the sides of the metal bolts that held them in place. The sun was setting now, basking the station in a gentle pink glow. When he reached Dr. Watanabe's room, he knocked on the door.

"Who is it!?" Dr. Watanabe shouted.

"It's Shinji."

"Who?"

"Ikari."

"Give me a moment."

There was rustling and the clinking as some kind of metal tool was dropped on a plate. The door slid open and Dr. Watanabe came out. He was wearing a white lab coat and circular glasses that hung loosely on his face. His hands were covered in yellow gloves and he had similar chemical burns on his trousers like those of Takumi's.

"What is it?"

"Takumi said to talk to you. I saw one of those apparitions."

"Who was it?" He took a few steps towards Shinji, "Was it the girl? The girl in the blue dress?"

"Yeah."

"You can't tell anyone what you've seen here. They'll think you're mad. And if they think you're mad, they'll start asking us questions and think we're mad. Then the operation will be shut down!"

Dr. Watanabe's eyes were red, and the bags under them showed a severe lack of sleep. Not to mention his voice and the way it quivered up and down, seemingly deciding whether to keep the calm demeanor he had displayed before or crack like a dam under some hidden emotion that lay obscured in his constantly darting eyes.

"I spoke to Takumi, I won't," Shinji said.

Dr. Watanabe breathed out and rested his back against the door, "So, what are you here for?"

"When are we sending the encephalogram?"

"I'm busy today," Dr. Watanabe checked his watch, "Maybe tomorrow. Or the day after that. Stay in your room and don't interact with the guests if you can."

"The guests?"

"That's what I call them. Takumi will always come up with his supernatural names for them."

"And if I do see one, what should I do?"

"Run. Hide."

"Why's that? Will they attack me?"

"That depends."

"Can they be killed?"

"No, I've tried. Weapons don't seem to hurt them, nor does burning or suffocation. Their bodies are made up entirely of muons," Dr. Watanabe opened the door, "I have to go. Leave me be. When we are ready to send the encephalogram, I'll call on you."

Before Shinji could speak, Dr. Watanabe slammed the door on his face. Shinji spun on his heels. He was too awake, his mind still buzzing with questions. He looked at his feet as it kicked past stray cans and pencils that had been left on the floor. There was a childish giggle. He looked up and saw the girl in a blue dress skip down the hall. This time, he went after her.

Jogging briskly behind her, she eventually led him to the freezer. She opened the door and went inside. Shinji followed her, but once inside, she was gone. There were no other exits, only the way Shinji had come in. On the far end of the room, there were two bodies underneath black covers. Shinji moved over and pulled the drape up from one of them. There was a bullet hole on the left side of his head, probably from some kind of pistol. He covered the man. The other one's arm was dangling slightly off the stretcher and Shinji saw incisions on the wrist. Rubbing his head, he exited the room and made for his. Takumi's riddles hadn't exactly been helpful. Shinji still couldn't tell if he needed to arm himself or not. Dr. Watanabe seemed to treat the guests more as a hassle than anything else.

In his room, Shinji barricaded the door with a wood desk, chairs, and a couple of file cabinets. When he thought the place was secured enough, he took off his pants and shirt and climbed into bed. Looking at the window, he saw the last bit of sunlight dying in the distance like the hand of a diver reaching through the surface of the ocean, grasping for help. Maybe invisible hope. The ocean was calm and the surface held just the slightest tint of orange. Shinji closed his eyes.

"Long time no see," Asuka said, placing her bag down next to her chair.

Shinji nodded and smiled.

They had agreed to meet for the first time in six years at a small cafe in Nice, France. Asuka had been working for a research group out of Hamburg, but her work ended up bringing her to France where Shinji had been stationed for a few weeks on his business trip regarding a deal with the Vox Corporation. He had always meant to call her up, but couldn't work up the nerve. Thankfully, work was a good enough excuse, but eventually Shinji couldn't wait any longer. He called her about a week before, asking her out to dinner. Shinji expected screams, shouts, maybe for her to never have him call or talk to her again, but she was surprisingly calm. They decided on Cafe Frei, a small little restaurant right on the water.

Even though there was an interior, they chose to sit outside in black cast iron chairs that squeaked and screeched with every movement. The table cloth, long, was draped over the tables, hiding their legs. The stars were already out, and, despite being outdoors, there was a greater sense of intimacy thanks to the few people around them. Maybe that's why Asuka had picked the place. Shinji was always good at just going along.

"You look nice," Shinji said.

"Thanks," Asuka pulled out a small mirror and held it in her palm, adjusting her hair which was wrapped up in a bun. She scowled, "What's that supposed to mean?"

Shinji raised his hands, "I just meant you looked nice, that's all."

"Already making moves on me?" Asuka scoffed, "Remember the last time you did?"

Shinji looked away, out at the beach, watching a few people play a game of catch around a bonfire. Asuka frowned, "Sorry, that was a mood killer."

Shinji nodded.

They sat in silence for a few more moments and Shinji spoke, "How's life?"

"Fine," Asuka propped her chin on one hand. It was her turn to look away.

"Doesn't seem that way."

"Drop it," Asuka said. Her silence didn't last for long and she sighed, "It's been shitty."

"Why's that?"

"On and off relationships. Most-" Asuka paused and looked at him, "Yeah."

"I get it."

"Oh? Shinji the player as well?"

"I've had a few," Shinji smirked as he sipped from his glass.

"Didn't know girls were so into guys who ended the world."

Shinji winced and put down his glass. He scowled at her, "What's your problem?"

"I don't know what you're talking about."

"Yes, you do. All these little remarks."

Asuka inspected her nails, "Just stuff I had to get off my chest, I suppose."

"So you decided to meet up with me, after six years, just to berate me? Sounds like the Asuka I know," Shinji huffed, grabbed his coat off the back of the chair, and got up.

"Wait," Asuka grabbed his arm, "We're not done talking."

Shinji looked at the beach. It would be so easy. He could walk out of there right now and never speak to her in his life again. Could stop everything bad he knew would happen by them being together and-

Before he knew it, his body was sitting back down in the chair. He didn't have anywhere or anyone to go to anyway. He might as well stay. A few minutes later the food came. They ate in silence and spoke for an hour afterwards. Sometimes laughing, sometimes arguing, sometimes darting glances at each other. Eventually, Shinji covered the bill and they got up to leave. He hailed a taxi and waved to her, "Talk again?"

"I'm coming with you," Asuka said.

She scooted past him into the back of the taxi cab and motioned for him to join her. He was making a mistake. Still, he didn't listen to his mind. When they got back to the hotel he was staying in, courtesy of his company, they stood in the hallway. Asuka was wearing a black skirt and a white sweater, her jacket folded in her arms.

"This is my place," Shinji said.

"Yeah, idiot, where else would we be going?"

There it was again, her favorite pet name for him. Yet, there was a softness to it, it wasn't bitten or hissed like usual. In fact, he thought he had heard her say, "stupid" instead of "idiot" before his brain registered the difference. Shinji smiled, hiding it from Asuka as he pulled out his keycard and swiped it. He entered and Asuka shuffled in behind him. He heard her throw off her heels.

"Want anything to drink?" He asked, moving towards the fridge.

Asuka was silent, so he turned around. She darted towards him and pressed her lips against his. They fell back onto the bed, embracing each other, and he could feel her body shaking.

In the aftermath, Shinji sat looking up at the ceiling in bed. Asuka was lying, maybe sleeping, on her side next to him. He looked towards her and noticed the scars on her back, where she had been impaled during her fight with the Mass Production Evangelions. They were jagged, red, and disgusting. He couldn't really get a look at them when they were in bed. Asuka forced him onto his back and refused to let him look at anything, but the ceiling. She barely afforded him the chance to touch her, and kissing or holding hands was completely off limits, even if she didn't say it. Now, after it all, Asuka was huddled together like a shivering animal seeking refuge from the cold. Never before had he seen her so vulnerable. Then she began to cry. So she was awake. At first it was just a couple sniffs, but then he could hear her, see the subtle shaking of her body. He reached out a hand to touch her, but she recoiled away.

"This was a mistake," She said, and got up out of bed, collecting her clothes off the ground.

"I enjoyed it," Shinji said, not moving.

He bit his lip, running his hand over his scalp. The room had grown colder now, the distance between them freeing the air. Regardless, his chest was ablaze as he walked over landmines and pot holes of what to do or say. Every path seemed to lead to her screaming, shouting, and leaving. They'd probably never talk to each other again and his last memory of her would be silent tears after a night of lackluster sex.

"Yeah," Asuka scoffed, "Of course you did. You've been waiting for me to give myself to you. Happy now?"

"That's not true-"

"The hospital!" Asuka stamped her foot, "Don't forget what you did!"

He recoiled a little into himself and, where it was physically possible, he felt like he had shrunk back to the kid he was six years ago, cowering beneath rusted stairs, praying for death to come. She had too much knowledge on him now, too many weak points to strike that she could call upon at any time to make him crumble under the enormity of his past actions. Now and forever she could use them, vicious assaults of the past, to manipulate him into feeling how she wanted him to feel and he'd never be able to get over it. That was the price he had to pay. Shinji swallowed, sweat trickling down his brow.

"I'm sorry, really."

Asuka flicked a few strands of hair behind her shoulder, "Yeah. Sorry really fixes everything. Sorry that you left me to die?"

"Yes," Shinji said.

"I don't believe you."

"It's the truth."

"You can't accept truth," Asuka crossed her arms.

"Just drop it," Shinji looked away.

"Pinch a nerve?" Asuka mocked.

Shinji glared at her, "If you're so mad at me, why'd you sleep with me?"

"Heat of the moment," Asuka laughed, "You were as pathetic in bed as you were at piloting."

Shinji rolled over onto his side, "Whatever."

Asuka sat on the edge of the bed as she put her socks on. Shinji stared at her in his peripheral vision, still lying on his side. He could see the scars on her stomach clear as day, thanks to the moonlight coming from the balcony. The door was slightly ajar since the room had become too hot and now the silk white drapes swayed in the wind like silent phantasmic spectators, intruding on the moment. There were marks from where the mass production units had torn into her stomach, gutting her like a pig and stretching her innards. Shinji felt bile rise in the back of his throat, but he managed to keep it down. The scars themself were hideous, and he was sure Asuka probably knew as well. He could say something sweet to lighten the mood, maybe a "I still think you're beautiful," but Asuka of all people would see right through his facade. Best not to bring it up.

Asuka had paused now, resting both her arms on the edge of the bed. Shinji saw her hands digging into the sheets, the fabric rippling, creating small valleys and mountains silk. Her head was lowered to the ground and she looked worn, tired, defeated. Shinji propped himself up on an elbow and placed a hand on her back. She didn't move. Another gust of wind rattled the door and furniture on the balcony outside.

"We can't," Asuka's words were barely audible, "You know we can't. We shouldn't. I'm sorry."

"Don't be sorry," Shinji bit his lip, "Why can't we?"

"Because," Asuka shook her head, "It'll hurt too much. I don't think I could stand it."

"Can you stand it now?"

Silence. Then the howling of another blast of icy gales. In the distance, Shinji thought he could hear the crashing of the waves on the shoreline, rising, falling, rising, like breath.

"No, I can't," Asuka finally said.

Shinji moved over to her and snaked his arms behind her so that he could pick up her hands that were lying on her legs, "Then let's try."

Asuka didn't say anything. She got up and put her shirt on, "I have to get to the lab early tomorrow."

"Okay," Shinji looked down.

She moved over to the desk and picked up Shinji's phone.

"What's your passcode?"

"What?"

"Give me your passcode."

"Why?"

"Just give it to me."

"Four-seven-one-seven."

Asuka's fingers tapped silently against the screen and she placed the phone back on the table.

"What was that?"

"I have to go," Asuka said, moving to the door, opening it and closing it, leaving Shinji alone in the dark hotel room.

He stumbled over to the desk and opened the phone. There was a new note on his calendar.

VICOLETTO, THREE DAYS, I'LL MAKE RESERVATIONS

He smiled, put his phone down, and crawled back into bed. The distant shouts on the beach and waves lulled him to sleep.

Shinji opened his eyes to the familiar surroundings of the station's dorm. The sun was just rising on the horizon and the ocean's surface eddied. Waves rose and fell, crashing against the pillars below. The whole station groaned as metal was stressed. He looked at the door and saw it was still barricaded, not a single piece of furniture had been moved. Yawning, he rubbed his eyes. That's when he saw her. Sitting on a chair near the circular window across the room. Her hair, orange, was brightened by the sun's rays, almost glowing in the dim light of the bedroom. She was staring outside, in other worldly contemplative nature. Craning her neck around, she looked at him blankly, almost as if she was looking past him, towards someone behind him.

"Asuka," Shinji said, reaching out to her, "Asuka."

Part 3: Shame

She was wearing her yellow sundress and looked like she hadn't aged a day since her death. Even in the dim light of the bedroom Shinji could see the long scar tracing up the side of her arm from her hand. Asuka got up and walked over to him, almost gliding against the floor. Her footsteps were barely audible. Shinji was frozen on his bed, sweat trickling down his face, half caught between running from her or towards her. She reached his bedside and sat down. Her hand lifted slowly and she pushed the hair out of Shinji's eyes. Sitting up, Shinji brought her closer, pulling her chin gently towards him with one hand, and planting a kiss on her lips. Asuka slowly lifted her fingers and they gingerly touched her lips, as if feeling the sensation for the first time. They fell back on the bed and sat in silence for a while.

Shinji turned to Asuka. She was staring at him with the same blank expression. He spoke: "Is it really you?"

"Of course it's me, stupid," Asuka buried her head into his shoulder.

Shinji flinched at her contact, mulling over her foreign choice of words in his head, hoping against hope that he had heard wrong, but realizing that was what she had really said. Stupid.

"How did you get here?" Shinji asked.

"I-" Asuka looked around, "I don't know."

The door was still heavily barricaded and the window was completely intact and couldn't be opened. A shudder trickled down Shinji's back.

"What's the last thing you remember?"

"I don't know," Asuka raised a hand to her head, "God, I don't know."

"Hey," Shinji raised his arm and rubbed her back, "That's okay."

"I'm scared, Shinji."

He recoiled away as if he had been burned. The fragility in her voice and choice of words was something he had never heard her say. She looked like the real thing. Her pale skin was there, her fiery strands of hair, her deep blue eyes, everything about her looked the same. Even her cadence in the way she had called him "stupid", but the faults were apparent. This wasn't Asuka.

She cupped his face and kissed him again. He stared blankly at the wall and slowly lifted his arms around her.

"I love you, Shinji," Asuka said, "I love you."

He almost scoffed when she said it and pulled away from her hug.

"What's wrong?"

Shinji scratched his chin, "I think we should go. Maybe that will help you remember."

"Go?" Asuka looked around, "Where are we going?"

"On a little trip. See if you can figure anything out in the meantime."

Shinji got out of bed and moved to the closet. There was a screech as the door was opened, probably never having seen use until Shinji had arrived. He fished through the suits and found two, one his size, and one Asuka's. They were orange, with large grey gloves, and clear visors. There were a couple of oxygen tanks lying on the floor. An idea sparked in Shinji's head.

"Asuka," Shinji called over to her, "Grab two more canisters. We're going to need them."

She nodded and pulled them out.

"Here," Shinji handed her the suit, "Put this on."

Asuka motioned to her dress, "Could you help me?"

Shinji went behind her, but when he looked to undo the fasteners, they were not there. None. Not a single loop or string, just a long seam as if the dress should never be taken off. Shinji fished inside of the nightstand and found a pair of scissors. He began cutting the fabric, half expecting Asuka's body to simply vanish when he finally pulled the dress off, but it didn't. She was still there, and so were her scars.

"Thanks," Asuka said and grabbed the suit.

Shinji had the urge to call up Takumi on the videophone, but a twinge of insecurity stopped him from doing so. He wasn't sure if the man would approve of what he was doing. They stopped by the utility closet before heading out onto the deck.

"Grab that wiring," Shinji pointed to the back, "And that backpack. We can put all of this inside it."

Asuka did as she was told without complaint. Another tremor shook his body and suddenly he couldn't bear to look at her. It disgusted him to see this false version of her. Someone that looked like Asuka, but was not her.

The wind was howling ferociously as they got up to the observation deck. Shinji trudged over to one of the cranes with a small black motorboat attached to it. He motioned with his hand for Asuka to join him. Lowering the boat down onto the red sea below, the crashing of waves splashed against the supports.

"Where're we going?" Asuka asked. She was shaking.

"Just on a little trip, don't worry," Shinji said.

Asuka's face had gone pale through the visor. Her eyes widened as she starred in what seemed like horror at the ocean. Was she afraid? They had visited areas with similar effects from Third Impact and, while a little uneasy, Asuka always appeared to face them with confidence, despite what had happened on that day. Now, she looked like she had been on the beach, broken, dazed, scared.

Shinji started the engine and they drove off. The boat jostled as they jumped on the backs of waves, water spilling into it and coating their visors so that they had to wipe them every few seconds with the back of their hands. Eventually, when the station was only a tiny speck in the distance, Shinji turned to Asuka and stopped the boat.

He reached his hand out, "Hand me the backpack and turn around."

Asuka gave him the bag. It was heavy, like a bag of bricks. Shinji fastened it around Asuka's back and helped to secure all the straps and latches into place given the hindered mobility of the suit.

"Why do I need all of this-" Asuka was cut off as Shinji shoved her out of the boat.

Her scream was muted as she collided with the ocean waters and sunk like a rock. Shinji sped back to the station, panting heavily in his suit. When he was taking off his suit in the locker room, Takumi walked in.

"You already did it?" Takumi asked.

Shinji looked up from the bench, "What's that?"

"Got rid of them. No second thoughts. Just straight to the bottom of the ocean! Just like that!" Takumi scolded him.

"Just like that," Shinji said, looking away.

"I can't believe you."

"You said it yourself, they're not real."

"Have you no shame!?" Takumi put his hands on his hips.

Shinji held his hands in his lap and tapped his leg on the metal floor.

"It wasn't her, Takumi. It wasn't her," Shinji said.

"And how do you know?"

Shinji looked him in the eyes, "I can tell what's real and fake."

"Who made you the expert?"

Shinji was silent. He rubbed his face with his hands, still feeling Takumi's eyes beating down on him with contempt.

"I strangled her," Shinji said.

"What?"

"When we returned. We were the first two. I strangled her because I didn't know."

"Didn't know what?"

"If I was alive, out of that place"

"Why?"

"If it were really her, she would have punched me or shoved me off," Shinji said.

"How do you know?"

"Because that's what I think she would've done."

"The others did it too," Takumi said, "When their guests appeared. They sent them to the bottom of the sea. Just took them a little longer."

"Why does it matter so much to you what I do?"

"Because we need you in good mental health. They," Takumi looked left and right as if to make sure no one was eavesdropping, "They did it just a day before they killed themselves."

"Do you know their reason?"

Takumi shook his head.

"I don't know," Shinji sighed, "She looked like her, but she was too fake. I couldn't stand it. It was making me sick."

"Are you sure that's the only reason?"

Shinji looked up at the man and met his gaze. He got up and moved to the door, "I'm leaving."

"We're having a conference in the library," Takumi said, "We want to discuss sending the encephalogram."

"Okay."

Shinji opened the door and put one foot through when Takumi spoke again, "One more thing," he walked over towards Shinji and put a hand on his shoulder, "She'll return, you know."

Shinji nodded and shut the door. He yawned and checked his watch. Sleep hadn't come easy to him, so he figured he was due for a short nap. Passing by the flickering electrical switches, Shinji spotted Dr. Watanabe pacing back and forth. As he approached, he noticed that the man was clearly distraught.

"Everything alright?" Shinji asked.

"No, no, no, quite the contrary," Dr. Watanabe said. He stopped and stared at Shinji, "Takumi said you met your first guest. How was it? What did they say?"

"They weren't who I remembered."

"Yes, that seems about right. Anything else?"

"They appeared in my room. Don't know how they got there. I barricaded the door."

Dr. Watanabe ran a hand through his hair, "It seems the ocean is able to manifest their body anywhere using metaphysical production to bypass the station. They're also always manifested next to their host, as I like to call it, never anywhere else in the station."

"Your point being?"

"They need us to survive, in a sense. Without the host to evince their existence, they cannot be."

Shinji pointed down the hall, "What about the girl?"

"The one in the blue dress? She's been here awhile."

"But she's a guest."

"Yes," Dr. Watanabe paused, "There must be a maturity point. A time when the guest no longer requires its host."

"I see," Shinji looked outside, red waters shimmering in the morning sun, "Did Takumi tell you about the conference?"

Dr. Watanabe nodded and Shinji waved goodbye to him. When he reached his bedroom and set his alarm for an hour. He closed his eyes and went to sleep, not bothering to block the door. The last thing he saw were the pale white walls before his mind was lifted into a cloudless, crystal memory.

"I found food," Asuka said.

She placed a few cans on the ground in front of the campfire. Shinji did not speak, knees huddled against his chest, eyes staring into the crackling flames. They had been out there for about a week now and only barely spoke. Most of the time it was simple questions, "are you hungry?", "are we low on supplies?", but the lingering guilt of what happened pressed on Shinji's chest like a vice, strangling any attempt at meaningful communication. He peeled his gaze away from the fire to the stars and the red ring that looked more like a shadow of a halo in the night sky. Cold silence continued, atrophying any sense of reconciliation.

"Sorry," Shinji said.

Asuka poked at the logs in the fire with a stick.

Shinji cleared his throat, "Sorry."

She looked at him, eyeing him up and down and frowned, continuing to work on keeping the fire alive.

"How is it?" Shinji pointed to her neck which looked to be fine. The marks from his fingers were there for a couple days after their encounter on the beach, but they had faded.

"Would you shut up?" Asuka leaned back.

"Sorry," Shinji winced.

That did it. Asuka leapt up from the ground, kicking a log out from underneath the fire, and jumped on Shinji. He held up his hands in defense, but before he could grab her arms, her hands were pressing down on his neck.

"Shut up!" Spit flew out from her mouth, "Shut up already!"

Shinji grabbed at her wrists and tried to pry them off of his throat, but to no avail. His eyes widened in terror as darkness creeped into the corners of his eyes and he felt his head buzzing and his face burning. Tapping on her arm, Asuka's frenzied look returned back to what the girl normally was like. She released her hands from him as if he were contagious with some deadly disease and scampered back a few feet away. Shinji gasped for air, coughing, and rolling onto his side.

"Oh God," Asuka looked at her hands, "Shinji-"

He stumbled and grabbed his things and got away from the camp as fast as he could. Shinji would return to her in the morning, but he couldn't sleep there that night, he was far too afraid. He couldn't tell if it was from the incident or if looking her in the eyes was too much after all he had done. Behind some brush he dropped his bag and crawled inside. There was a lake only a few feet away, green reefs swaying underneath like wheat in a field. The trees breathed and creaked around him. Earthworms crawled across the ground and dragonflies wisped by. Shinji closed his eyes and tried to forget what had happened, let sleep take him and wash away the night with the hope of a better tomorrow, but the feeling of her fingers contracting around his throat lingered. In fact, it was growing, crushing his windpipe again.

Shinji's eyes darted open as he felt the pressure of someone on top of his legs. Asuka was on top of him, hands pressing down on his neck, again. He could see the white walls of the bedroom, feel her breath caressing his face as her deranged face bored into him. He tapped on her arm again and she backed off. Just like before. She raised her hands in front of her face, "Oh God. Shinji-"

As he caught his breath, he stared at her, trembling on the edge of the bed. She looked at him, helpless, desperate. Shinji moved over to her and put his arms around her, burying his face into the back of her mane.

"I don't know what happened," Asuka said, "I was just here, in your room, and then I felt so angry. And I-"

"It's okay," Shinji said.

"No it's not!" Asuka pushed him away and got up, pacing around the room, "I'm married to you and I just tried to kill you."

Shinji looked down at his finger. He had kept the ring all these years later. On Asuka's finger was hers. So they were still married, after all. At least, this version of Asuka thought.

"How did you get back here?" Shinji asked.

"Get back here? What are you talking about?"

"You-" Shinji stopped, "You went away and you're already back."

"I don't know. I can't remember anything. I was just sitting here with you and then I just felt…"

"What did you feel?"

"Like I hated you. That I wanted to kill you."

"Why?"

"I don't know," Asuka pressed her hand against her head, "I just don't know. Am I going insane?"

"Maybe we both are," Shinji said.

Asuka buried her face in her hands.

"Here," Shinji lifted up the sheets, "Come back to bed. It's cold."

"You're an idiot," Asuka said.

"Am I?"

"A girl strangles you and you invite her back into your bed," Asuka huffed, got up, and joined him.

Shinji wrapped an arm around her as she settled on his chest. He stared at the ceiling, not remembering the last time he had felt like this. It was as if the mist and fog that hindered his vision of the world had begun to subside and, for the first time in years, he could hear his own breath, experience the beating of his own heart. Outside the window blue skies stretched across the horizon and the sun's rays glistened off the ocean's skin like a piece of shining metal. A seagull landed on the small ledge outside of the window, turning its head to the side so that its eye looked directly at Shinji. He was a bit surprised, not knowing that birds would even come out this far. No marine life existed below the Seishin Sea and he assumed that applied to above as well. Maybe it was just another apparition. Shinji looked at Asuka who was staring absently at his chest.

Maybe he loved her. He couldn't really tell. Everything had been dead for so long, it was hard to know if it was coming back to life, if the gears of his soul were being wound up again, shifting back into place, healing. Everything about her was so real. Her looks, her voice, her smell, the familiar weight of her on his chest, even the taste on her lips. What was wrong with loving her then? Maybe Takumi was right. He had jumped too quickly to conclusions. Typical of him.

Shinji rubbed his eyes, "Asuka, I have to go?"

"What? Why?"

"There's a conference I have to attend," Shinji got up, "I'll be back in about an hour."

"Don't leave."

"Why?"

"I don't know. I just have this feeling that," Asuka paused, "If you leave something terrible will happen."

"I'll only be gone an hour," Shinji put on his shirt and went to the door. It hissed open and closed behind him.

There was a wail. It sounded guttural, animalistic almost, not that of any man or woman, coming from his bedroom. Shinji bolted back to the door and pressed the button. Asuka was lying on the bed, pale. There were cuts all over her arms, legs, and face. Shinji went over and held her lifeless form. A few seconds passed, pounding silence perpetually reminding him of the lack of life he held in his arms, even when he closed his eyes.

She coughed. He put his head to her chest and listened for her heartbeat. Faintly, it was there, growing in strength. Closing his eyes, he pressed his face to her hair and cradled her in his arms. When he opened them, the cuts were nearly gone, just faint traces of red on her skin. She was no longer bleeding, and her eyes were beginning to flutter open.

"What happened?" Asuka asked.

"I don't know," Shinji said, "Are you all right?"

Asuka pressed her palm to her forehead, "I have a headache," she looked around, "I was in here and you left and then…"

"You screamed," Shinji said.

"I did?"

"Yes. Come on. You can go to the meeting with me."

They got up and Asuka fished around the drawers to find some clothes that fit her aside from her nightwear. In the hallway the overhead lights were now flickering. More clutter seemed to appear, bags, plates, and metal parts lying on the floor.

"This place is filthy," Asuka said.

Shinji nodded.

In the center of the station they reached the library. It was probably the cleanest room Shinji had seen. The books were stacked neatly on their shelves and, despite a few that were lying face open on the table, there was no other clutter. There were a few paintings on the walls. One Shining recognized, The Creation of Adam, of course not the real thing, but a recreation. Another depicted a group of what seemed like hunters trudging through winter. There was the face of a man carved in stone, hanging from a stand. The walls were painted dark green, and the place featured wood desks and leather seats.

Takumi sat on the far end, smoking a cigar, one arm stretched out on the couch. Dr. Watanabe leaned against the pool table, cutting and chewing slices of an apple using a scalpel, staring at the ground as he ate. They both looked at Shinji and Asuka when they arrived.

Dr. Watanabe looked down at his watch, "You're an hour late," he looked at Asuka, unamused, "And you brought your guest."

"Her name's Asuka," Shinji said.

Dr. Watanabe waved his hand, "They're not people anyway. Does it matter?"

Before Shinji could say anything Asuka spoke: "What do you mean, not real people?"

"You're an image, created by the sea."

"I'm Asuka Langley Soryu."

"You think you are, but you are not."

Asuka turned to Shinji, "What does he mean?"

"Don't listen to him," Shinji said.

Takumi frowned, "I hope your little relationship with your dead wife doesn't get in the way of our mission, Ikari. Remember why we're here."

"Dead?" Asuka asked, "What does he mean, dead?"

"Nothing," Shinji said.

Takumi shifted in his seat and lifted his hand, "If she were not really her, she would not be able to think for herself."

Dr. Watanabe rolled his eyes, "She's a construction. We already took a blood sample, their make-up doesn't even follow basic physics."

"So you're saying that physicality represents a person?" Takumi asked.

"Yes. She may be a creature, but she's not human."

Asuka stared at Dr. Watanabe, "What are you talking about?"

"It seems they're ignorant to their origins," Dr. Watanabe pulled out a pen and scribbled something down on a small notepad.

Shinji nodded, "Don't listen to him, Asuka."

Dr. Watanabe scoffed, "Don't grow too attached to her."

"It's her," Shinji said, "I wasn't sure at first, but," he closed his eyes, remembering the feeling of her fingers on his throat, "It really is her."

"This is interesting," Dr. Watanabe said, looking down at his notes, "You've helped me formulate a new hypothesis. When questioned about her nature, your wife displays unnatural characteristics, thus another piece of evidence that proves she is a creation."

"What do you mean, 'unnatural characteristics'?" Shinji asked.

"If you were questioned about your nature, how would you react?"

"I don't know," Shinji gritted his teeth, "Why are you asking me this?"

"You would be angry, would you not?"

"Yeah, sure."

"That's my point. This construction of 'Asuka' seems rather subdued about the whole affair. Since she is the ocean's creation, then the mind of the ocean still resides in her and thus she knows subconsciously that her existence as a copy is true."

"That's absurd," Shinji said.

Dr. Watanabe shrugged, "I have evidence to show she's a fabrication. What do you have to prove that she is the same woman you knew?"

Takumi got up from his seat and walked over to the whiskey decanter, "Well," he started, "Let's say, for the sake of argument, that they are real. How could it be possible?"

Dr. Watanabe scratched his chin, "I suppose their mind could have been metaphysically transferred back to the sea after their death."

"So there's a possibility-" Shinij started, but Dr. Watanabe cut him off.

"It wouldn't explain why you need to be around them all the time," he looked at Shinji, "I heard the scream earlier."

Takumi nodded in agreement.

"The sea probes our minds when we sleep. It draws on our memories, uses them to make a perverse image of those we knew. In other words, a manifestation of our opinions."

Takumi grunted, "Hardly. If it was all opinion then I would be seeing people I may have met only once in my life."

"What else would it be?" Dr. Watanabe asked.

Takumi walked over to the bookshelf and pulled a book out, flipping through its pages absently, "Not an opinion, for sure. You see, an opinion is such a flimsy, lowly form of intelligence. We have opinions on everything. We have opinions on things we understand and those we don't. Anyone can have an opinion, but ultimately it's a useless currency of the mind."

"What do you suppose then?" Dr. Watanabe sat down.

"I suppose," Takumi looked at Asuka, then at Shinji, "Empathy."

"Empathy?"

"Yes. It is the highest form of intelligence. It requires nearly boundless knowledge about a person. If the sea does in fact create people from our minds, well, it wouldn't have enough to create someone based on opinion. That would be like a faceless portrait, an outline. The sea requires empathy for creation, because empathy breeds life."

Dr. Watanabe shrugged, "So it's a construction based on empathy. My point still stands."

"What point?" Takumi asked.

"They're constructions, fabrications."

"You seem to miss my reasoning, doctor," Takumi put his hands in his pockets, "If someone had enough empathy. If they truly understood someone enough, then they could create a mirror. A perfect mirror."

"You're saying there would be no difference."

"Precisely."

"They would still be creations."

"Sure. We were all created by the sea after Third Impact. Maybe we're all just apparitions."

"Don't be foolish," Dr. Watanabe said, "There's a flaw in your thinking."

"Oh? What's that?"

"No one can understand another person entirely. We have enough trouble understanding ourselves."

"I forgot you were a scientist," Takumi chuckled.

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"You deal in absolutes. You think entirety means knowing everything that another person knows when in reality it could be as simple as a comforting hug."

"You're far too romantic, Takumi," Dr. Watanabe scoffed and flipped through his pad, "Now about this encephalogram. We'll be sending it tomorrow, from the observation deck."

Shinji nodded, "What do I do?"

"Nothing, really. You'll sit in the chair while we hook your brain up to the transmitter." Dr. Watanabe said.

"Will it hurt him?" Asuka asked.

Dr. Watanbe eyed Asuka, "Physically? No. Psychologically? The risks are unknown."

Asuka turned to Shinji, "You're not doing it."

"I have to," Shinji said.

"Who says?"

"I did," Shinji stopped, "It's the only way to bring the rest of them back."

"What do you mean?"

"I'll tell you later," Shinji looked at Dr. Watanabe, "Okay. I'll be ready."

"Then my work here is done," Dr. Watanabe clasped his hands and walked out of the library.

"Jerk," Asuka said.

"He's a jaded fellow. But I suppose that's not surprising given all of this," Takumi motioned towards the window. He walked over and reached out his hand to Asuka, "Takumi Kimura. It's a pleasure to meet the former pilot of Unit 02."

She shook his hand, "Asuka. What's his deal?" Asuka motioned to the door.

"He's scared," Takumi said.

"Why?" Shinji asked.

Takumi shuffled over to the book shelf again. He pulled out another text, examined its front and let it fall to the floor. He continued doing so and spoke: "The girl you saw was his daughter."

"The one in the blue dress?"

"Yes. She never came back from the sea."

Shinji twitched, a pang of guilt stabbing his chest like a knife.

"He needs the encephalogram to work," Takumi said, leaning down to the lower shelves, "Excuse him if he's a bit curt."

"Why are you here?" Asuka asked.

Takumi pulled out a book and flipped through the pages, eventually landing on one, "Because we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen; for the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal."

"What?"

"One of my favorite verses," Takumi stood up and offered the book, "Here, read. Reading's a wonderful thing. You learn more about yourself and others."

"Are you going to answer or what?" Shinji took the book from his hand.

"Yes, yes," Takumi trailed off pressing a finger to his lip, "I owe it to humanity. I don't agree entirely with Dr. Watanabe's thinking, but it's always better to embrace reality. Still, I find the affair a bit tiresome."

"Why?"

"We've grown so afraid of being alone that we've forgotten how to live with ourselves," Takumi chuckled softly, "I'm not sure how everyone will react to being forcefully returned if the plan does work. Or how those families and loved ones will embrace people they've lost for so long, if there's anyone for them to even go back to."

Takumi placed a final book on the table, labeled The Eternal Husband, "Well," he looked at the two of them, "I'll leave you two alone. See you tomorrow."

Takumi whistled as he exited the room, his flat cadence reverberating against the hallways as he traveled into the distance.

Shinji turned to Asuka, "I have to ask him one more thing in private. Will you be okay if I leave you here?"

She nodded and sat on one of the white seats, returning her gaze to the paintings. He turned and jogged out the door, catching up to Takumi.

"Takumi," Shinji said, "One last thing."

The man turned around, "Yes?"

"You seemed mad earlier, when I came back from the sea?"

"Was I?" Takumi looked at the ceiling, "I guess it sickened me to see someone running from reality."

"It's strange, but," Shinji looked behind him, "It didn't feel like her. I'm not sure if it still does."

"Good. Then your work isn't done yet. You have to embrace it."

"What?"

Takumi pointed towards the window, "Dr. Watanabe treats it like it's fake, false promises of hope, but he couldn't be farther from the truth. I know that wasn't your only reason for running from her the first time."

Shinji remained silent.

"You asked me why the others died," Takumi said, "They were not murdered in their sleep by their hosts. They did not kill themselves in hopes of reuniting with them in there."

"Then what?"

"I suppose," he paused, contemplating, "They couldn't live with the guilt, couldn't accept the reality of their situation."

There it was. Maybe Shinji didn't want to accept it at first, but with the light shined on it, it was no longer unseeable, a shadow that could now be made out even in the darkest of night. He felt his legs grow weak and for a moment he thought he might shatter completely, like a ceramic vase stitched together over many years. The sorrow in his heart flowed like a river to his mind and lightheadedness caused him to have to prop himself against the wall. Takumi helped him stabilize himself on the wall.

"I know it's a lot," Takumi said.

Shinji took a few deep breaths and found his strength returning to himself. His vision grew clearer.

"Better?" Takumi asked.

Shinji nodded, "Yeah."

"I'll see you tomorrow," Takumi turned and left.

Shinji stood there a few more moments, listening to the creaking of the station and the rhythm of his own heart. He couldn't explain the feeling he was having. It was almost as if someone had splashed cold water in his face and now, awake and startled, he faced the world like a child pressing their face up to a storefront window. He closed his eyes and breathed deeply. A crash came from inside the library. Inside, he found Asuka lying on the floor. Her wrists were cut, blood pooling onto the carpeted floor and staining it. The scalpel Dr. Watanabe had used to cut the apple laid a few feet away. Shinji collapsed onto his knees, put his arms under her, and picked her up, burying his face in the top of her chest and stifling a sob. He looked at the book on the table that Takumi had left again. It was black with gold lettering on the front. Across the room was a mirror. In the reflection stood a man holding a woman whose arms dangled freely, spilling crimson onto a wooden globe.

Interlude: Soul

Shinji leaves the room and I am alone with my breath and thoughts. These are the things that make me real, who I am. I know this because this is my body, the hair, the hands, the scars, they're all mine yet my memories are not. They are stripped from me. All I remember is our argument and then anger. So much anger, and sorrow. Then all was black and I awoke, on the white chair in Shinji's room, on this strange station, staring at him while he slept. He looks older now, a few strands of grey hair and a small stubble on his chin. He knows I would never let him grow out his beard so some time must have passed.

At first my eyes wander towards the window, looking at the blood red ocean and a shudder courses through my body. I don't know why I feel scared, the after effects of Third Impact never really scared me. I always felt disgusted by them, by a world so destroyed and memories that lurked in my mind like beasts basked in shadow, waiting to devour my flimsy psyche. Shinji always seemed to think I was afraid of talking about it when we were together. Now that I think about it, maybe I was. My eyes settle on the painting on the far left wall.

There is a man, sitting on a mountain, completely nude, reaching his hand out towards someone who I can only presume is God. I squint and see their fingers touch and that's when they come flooding back, memories long forgotten puncturing the cracks in my mind like a dam on the verge of collapse. I'm running towards a room, the door opening, and see my mother's feet dangling from the ceiling. In a graveyard I make a vow while rain pours down my tiny mane. I collapse onto my knees and feel the tears starting to form around my eyes. Stabilizing myself on the table, I stare at the painting again, unable to look away. Now I see white winged creatures circling overhead like vultures. They grin, tearing my body apart, and I hear the sickening crack as a lance shreds through my arm. The last thing I am able to see is Unit 02's arm, nails torn and hand shredded, reaching for the sun, hoping to catch something that looks so close yet not seeing the true distance between us. Then Mama is gone and death rushes towards me like a tidal wave, taking me into the undertow of the afterlife.

There are voices swirling around me now, and I'm sobbing in the library, trying to block them out with my ears. I can feel their eyes on me, their breath down my neck, minds molesting my individuality. I grab the scalpel on the table. I need to make it stop. It's too much, please, help me please. The next thing I know, there are two incisions on my wrists and I feel my body growing cold, my legs going numb and my head feeling light. I collapse onto my side and look up, now at a painting of travelers trudging through snow. There's many houses, all wood, and a small smile comes to my face.

We were moving to the countryside because my therapists, and Shinji's, said it would be best for us to get away from the city. He had made the decision on my behalf, not even letting me get a chance to speak. He thought as if that was the right thing to do for both of us, but he couldn't have been farther from the truth. I can only remember the thought of being stuck with him, out there, no place to go, no work to lose myself in. Sure, I could go, but the commute was far and I'd be too tired. I must've told him once that I grew up on a large estate and he must've thought that's what I wanted. Maybe he forgot that it only brought back memories of Mama. Still, he would never know, I never told him.

"We're here," he said, as I looked up the cobblestone path leading to the front door.

I sighed and followed him up.

Back on the floor I feel consciousness slipping. I can hear Shinji and Takumi's voices in the hallway. Suddenly, I feel I've made a mistake and I want to scream. I can see the bottle of pills in my hand and all I can think is, not again. Not again. But I can't muster a single sound, not even a croak. And I close my eyes, tears forming in the corners, realizing that I've succumbed to my despair again, hurting him more than myself.

Part 4: Home

Shambling – stuttering steps over broken glass and debris in the hallway – Shinji carried Asuka's body. Directionless, he went on like a zombie, unaware of what to do or what to say. He wondered what Takumi would think now, going from sinking her to the bottom of the ocean to a broken widower wandering aimlessly about.

Near the center of the station was the elevator shaft. He entered and pressed the button shaped like an up arrow. The hum of the box and creaking of the cables assaulted Shinji's ears until the thing jolted to a stop. The door opened to the glass observatory at the top. Everything was clear, the ground, the walls, the ceiling. He could see endlessly into the horizon until red water faded to a white haze, the station and waves crashing against it beneath his feet, and the overcast sky above. Maybe he would've been afraid if the glass would somehow crack, but it didn't bother him. It was probably made out of some stronger variant anyway. With glazed eyes, he looked out towards the setting sun and fell to his knees, gently laying Asuka's lifeless form onto the floor. Peeling his gaze from the dying rays of sunlight, he looked at her face, pale, like that of a phantom.

He held her head in the palms of his hand and brought his forehead to hers, hoping that his warmth could somehow bring her back to life. Grabbing her hand, he covered the incision on her wrist with his thumb.

"I'm sorry," he said, "I'm sorry. Please, don't do this to me. Not again."

Silence.

Shinji lowered his head in defeat.

A cough.

He looked up and saw Asuka's body shaking as if she were writhing in pain. She screamed and he helped her sit up, cradling her body in his arms. Her whole body was shivering, as if she had been pulled from some icy lake, and her eyes were wild, darting back and forth with nervous glances.

"Asuka?" Shinji looked at her, brushing her hair out of her eyes, "Asuka?"

She muttered something incomprehensible.

"What?"

"I remembered," Asuka said, shuddering.

"What?"

She pushed him away and darted to the other side of the observatory so that her back was against the wall. Breathing heavily, she looked at him, that same wild look in her eyes mixed with the faintest glimpse of pain.

"You," she stopped, "Why did you do it?"

"Do what?"

"You drowned me, why?"

Shinji looked down at his feet. He got up, and leaned against the wall opposite to hers, head tilting towards the ceiling, staring at the grey clouds.

"I couldn't stand to look at you," he said, "Takumi was right."

"You couldn't look at me?" Asuka growled.

"Yes," Shinji closed his eyes and bit his lip, "I didn't think you were real, but I think that was just part of it. I was lying to myself, refusing to look at the whole picture."

Asuka remained silent.

"The guilt was too much," Shinji clenched his jaw, "God, I'm so sorry. I just couldn't."

"Same here," Asuka said.

He looked over at her, perplexed, "What?"

It was Asuka's turn to look away, "I messed up too."

"No," Shinji moved a few feet forward, "No, no. It's my fault. You-"

"I'm to blame," Asuka said, "I'm to blame as much as you. My memories finally came back. Before, you know."

"Is that why?" Shinji trailed off.

"Yeah," Asuka put her arms behind her back, "It was stupid. Just like the first time. I can be so damned rash, you know?"

"I know," Shinji said.

Asuka stared at the floor, but he could tell her she wasn't looking at the station beneath, instead probably visualizing something inside her head or thinking of the right thing to say.

"I'm starting to think that what Dr. Watanabe and Takumi said might be true," Asuka said.

"About empathy?"

"Yes," Asuka paused, "There was a part of me, in my memories on the station, that felt trapped. Like I was screaming from behind a crystal, but it was fracturing my voice into different sounds like light through a prism."

"What?"

"I know. I know. It's hard to explain. It was just this feeling, like, until now, everything was basked in fog and I felt half awake, barely lucid. Nothing I said really felt like the real me, I guess."

They both slumped down, sitting on the floor, looking together as the very peak of the sun was drowned by the endless ocean.

"Where did everything go wrong?" Shinji asked.

"For us?" Asuka replied.

"Yeah."

"Maybe the first time we met. We've always been different from each other."

"But we were alright as kids, at least, for a bit."

"Yeah," Asuka scratched her arm, "Maybe you're right."

"So, after."

"After?" Asuka sniffed, "Probably from the start."

"The start?"

"Yeah. And we didn't fix it. Therapy helped a little I guess, but we never really spoke. Not truthfully to each other. We were still wearing masks."

"You're saying 'we'," Shinji said.

"I know. I was too stubborn to admit it. Thought everything was your fault, but in reality I didn't help at all either and," Asuka closed her eyes, "I shouldn't have done what I did."

"It's not your fault-"

Asuka raised her hand, "Just, let me have this. Please."

"Okay," Shinji said.

Asuka got up and sat down next to him, letting her head tilt slightly onto his shoulder. They looked up at the sky, together.

"Can't see the stars tonight," Asuka said, "Damn clouds."

"Yeah," Shinji said, "I sort of like it. Things look less busy."

"Hmm."

Asuka sought out his hand and grabbed it, tracing his knuckles with her pointer finger, "I don't want you sending that thing tomorrow."

"Why not?"

"Could be dangerous."

"But I have to," Shinji said, "I owe it to them."

"You don't owe anybody anything. Stop thinking like that."

"I'm sorry, but I can't."

"You're being as stubborn as me."

Shinji nodded, "After this is all over, will you come home?"

Asuka inhaled sharply, "I don't know if I can leave this place."

"Then I'll stay here with you."

"No," Asuka shook her head, "You can't."

"But I want to."

"I don't care what you want!"

Shinji pulled his hand away from her, "You don't want me?"

"No, Shinji, I do. It's just," Asuka stopped, "You can't stay here. You can't keep being tethered to me, to this place," she motioned with her hand, "It'll kill you. And you'll be unhappy."

"I'm unhappy without you."

"Maybe for now, but you need to let go. You'll understand then."

Shinji sighed, "Let's not talk about this."

"Do you want to go to bed?" Asuka asked.

Shinji nodded and they got up. The trip back to his room was uneventful. They did not run into Dr. Watanabe or Takumi. The station had gone silent for once, barely breathing or hissing like it usually did with the ocean. Everything was still, even the water below them had frozen. They climbed into bed together and Shinji draped the blanket over the two of them. Closing their eyes, they fell into dreamless slumber.

When the alarm went off, Shinji rolled onto his side and gave Asuka's arm a gentle nudge.

"Asuka," he said, "It's time. Let's go."

After they got dressed and Asuka fixed her hair, the way he always saw her doing it from the slightly ajar bathroom door in their house, they walked through the hallways silently. Looking at the walls, the wires dangling from the ceiling, the rubble that expanded with every passing day–they traversed the station as if in no rush. Eventually, they reached the testing room. Dr. Watanabe paced back and forth, muttering underneath his breath while Takumi leaned on the counter at the far side of the room. They walked in.

"You're four minutes late," Dr. Watanabe said.

"Not like it's a big deal," Asuka replied.

Dr. Watanabe motioned towards a padded seat in the middle of the room with a large metal dome attached just above the headrest, "Sit."

Shinji walked over and slid onto the chair. Asuka grabbed his hand.

"I'll be fine," he said.

"Before we can use the brain wave transmitter we need to connect these," Dr. Watanabe held up several wires with circular white connectors on the end. Shinji nodded and leaned back into the chair while Dr. Watanabe went about his work. After a few minutes typing at the computer Dr. Watanabe grabbed the circular metal piece above the chair and brought it down so that it cut off Shinji's vision and surrounded his head.

"I'm beginning it," Dr. Watanabe said, "Clear your mind and relax."

There was a high pitched squeak as the machine began to buzz and what looked like an object seemed to spin around Shinji's head within the visor.

"Probing connection line," Dr. Watanabe read aloud, "Connection successful. Detecting numerous psycho waves coming from the target."

"That's the ocean," Takumi said.

"Yes," Dr. Watanabe replied, clattering away on the computer, "Ikari, when I give you the command, repeat it in your head several times over."

Shinji nodded, unsure if Dr. Watanabe could see due to the metal dome.

"I want you all to come back," Dr. Watanabe said.

Shinji closed his eyes and envisioned the words, as if etched on a granite wall. He read them aloud, slowly at first, then picking up speed. In the distance, he heard what sounded like a crowd, or rather a swarm. The cacophony of voices grew louder in volume until it felt like they were whispering right into his ear. Screams, shouts, laughs, crying–they rubbed against his mind, mixing with it like oil in water. Shinji began to shake. Everything stopped abruptly and the metal visor was pulled away from Shinji's head. Asuka was holding onto his left arm.

"Test over," Dr. Watanabe sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose, "Results, Takumi?"

Takumi slid over to the other computer screen, "Nothing. Wait-"

The station shook violently, as if a giant wave had crashed against it.

"What was that?" Shinji asked.

Takumi leaned in closer to the screen, "The ocean's responding it's," he paused, "It's creating islands. All over the place. They're popping up everywhere."

"Islands?" Dr. Watanabe leapt up, "Grab a suit, all of you. We're going."

"Doctor, we don't know what we're walking into," Takumi said.

"We have to go. Now."

Dr. Watanabe exited the room and Takumi jogged after him. Shinji looked at Asuka, "Guess we're going."

"You're not," Asuka said.

"I have to."

"No, you don't."

"What if this is it? What if this fixes things?"

"It's not about fixing things," Asuka bit her lip, "It's about holding onto what's left. I don't have a good feeling about this."

Shinji got up, pushing past Asuka, "I'm sorry, but I have to go. I just have to go."

"I'm coming," Asuka said, getting up.

Shinji would have said something in response, but the tugging urge to see if the experiment had worked kept him mute. They went back to their room, pulling out two of the orange suits just like the time before. After the suits were fastened, they traversed to the deck bearing the small black motor boats. Takumi and Dr. Watanabe were already there, waiting, tapping their legs repeatedly.

"Let's go," Takumi said.

Shinji nodded and helped Asuka into the boat. The crane lowered them onto the turbulent waters below and they sped off to the nearest land formation that looked no more than a speck on the horizon. The sun had begun disappearing below water and the boat kicked up in the front as it crashed past waves and irritated currents. Within the suit Shinji could only hear the heaviness of his breaths, his chest buzzing with hope, but his mind poisoning him with thoughts of failure and regret. His hand sitting idly on the edge of the boat, droplets of water dotting the grey material of the suit's glove. He closed it into a fist.

When the island came into view Dr. Watanabe was the first to speak, "My god," he paused, "This defies logic."

There was a yellow gelatinous material seeping like magma over the landscape warping reality from a solid golden luster to recognizable objects and materials. There was sand at the farthest edge, grass growing behind it, yet beyond that the slime covered everything else, breathing, as if alive. As it crawled over the surface, new things were revealed. A tree, a parrot, a rabbit, a snake, molding logs, dense thickets, and a garden.

Shinji was the first one off the boat. He jumped onto the shore and ran inland and yelled, "Hello!?"

There was no response, save for the crashing of waves on the shore. Takumi was behind him a few moments later.

"What are you doing, Ikari?"

"I need to know," Shinji said, his eyes frantic, darting back and forth behind his visor, "Please, I need to know."

"Let's get back to the boat. We don't know what's out here."

Asuka and Dr. Watanabe jogged up behind Takumi. A crack echoed in the air as the final puddle of yellow slime dissipated, completing the garden. There was a white fence, criss-crossed patterned, surrounding fertile green plants and mulch. Shinji collapsed to his knees. The place was empty.

"It failed," Shinji said.

"Wait, what's that?" Dr. Watanabe pointed to something crawling onto the sand. It was an infant, nude, about five feet in height. It crawled and whined in a voice that belonged not to that of a child, but rather a grown man in agonizing pain, thrashing around on the sand. When it picked up its face from the ground, one side was smiling, the other frowning. It began clambering towards them.

"Get back to the boat," Takumi said, "Let's go!"

As they sprinted back, more beings came from the water, groaning, crying, screaming, laughing. They started the motor and took off. The apparitions shambled into the water, reaching out towards the retreating boat. A jolt hit the ship as it collided with a wave, throwing Shinji into the ocean. The water was icy cold, even through the layering protection of the suit, and his body began to shiver. As he sank, his vision began going black. The following events passed in a haze of frail consciousness.

He was being dragged out of the water, his voice being shouted over and over by a feminine tone like through glass, distorted and unrecognizable. The sky was overcast, lightning flickering in the clouds. The boat was being lifted onto a platform and his suit was being torn open. He was on a bed, multiple blankets covering him and patches on his face and forehead. A woman sat by his side, but her face was featureless as she leaned over on her chair, watching him. There were a few other voices, those of men, shuffling in the corner of the room. Shinji's blurred vision faded to darkness.

His white sneakers squeaked on the tan concrete of the complex. As he traversed the hallway to Misato's apartment, he looked down towards the street below that was empty, not a single car in sight. In fact, there was no sound other than his soft footsteps, the birds, cicadas, and distant city noises had all faded away. Silence was his only friend.

The door hissed open and he threw off his shoes. His bones ached, in fact, his whole body ached, but he couldn't remember what he had done that day. There was a bag of groceries on the kitchen table, unopened. Shinji got up and began preparing something. He closed his eyes as the water boiled and rubbed his hand to his forehead. It came back red. Walking over to the bathroom and looking in the mirror he noticed a large gash right above his eye. When he went back to the kitchen it was shrouded in a thick veil of fog. The TV was hawking silently from the living room. Misato sat there, idly watching the news. She looked up towards him and frowned. Getting up, she went to her room and came back with some gauze, scissors, and stitches. Shinji pulled out a chair from the kitchen table and sat down as she stood above him and started to thread the needle through his skin. He hissed as she did it.

After it was over, they ate in silence, only the sounds of spoons clanking against ceramic bowls accompanying them. When she was finished, Misato got up, her chair screeching against the wood floor. She stopped before entering her bedroom, turned around, and walked over to Shinji. He looked up at her, tentatively. Misato ruffled his hair and retreated to her room. Now, alone in the kitchen Shinji sat, a half eaten bowl of soup steaming with smoke as thin and misty as the thoughts of long fleeting memories. Without his knowing, tears trailed down his cheeks and he touched them gingerly. He tried to stop them, but realized it was a futile effort as the realization of everything hit him. This was all he had wanted.

Shinji gasped as he woke up, nude, covered by a white blanket in one of the station's many rooms. There was a machine buzzing silently to his right and a glass of water that rippled at every shake the station experienced. Takumi was sitting in the corner, reading the book he had pointed out to Shinji earlier.

Takumi looked up from his book, "Finally awake."

Shinji sat up in bed, scratching his chin, "How long?"

"A few days," Takumi closed the book, "I'm here to inform you that the mission was a success."

Shinji remained silent.

"It worked, Ikari," Takumi said, "They came back."

"All of them?" Shinji asked.

"Well, not all of them yet. They're coming in hordes, thousands of them washing up on the beaches every hour," Takumi laughed, "It's almost too much for the government to control."

"Where's Dr. Watanabe?" Shinji asked.

"Gone. Left the station yesterday. His daughter was among the returned."

Shinji nodded, "And Asuka?"

Takumi licked his lips and ran a hand through his hair. He got up and looked around, finally fishing into his pockets and pulling out a closed piece of paper, "Here."

Shinji took the note and opened it.

Dear Shinji,

I know it must be hard. It's nothing you're not used to. I couldn't stay, I couldn't. I wanted to, but it would never work. I don't know who I am anymore, I don't even know if I'm alive. But you are. And I messed up, all those years ago. Sure, you made mistakes, but it would be stupid of me to say I didn't. Guess that makes the old me a big idiot, right? How hypocritical. Leave the station, go back home, and continue. I don't know what for, but do it for me. I live in your mind, that should be enough. You don't need any more anchors to the past. Maybe, after all this, I'll be able to find some peace, for a little while.

Love,

Asuka

Shinji closed the note and put it down on the stand by the water. He inhaled slowly and looked out the window. The water was a pinkish color now, much lighter from the crimson before. The sun glistened on it with blue skies.

"She threw herself off the deck, into the ocean," Takumi said, "I couldn't have stopped her."

"I understand," Shinji said, not peeling his gaze.

"I'll be packing my things," Takumi said, "Take your time getting whatever you need and meet me at the landing pad."

Shinji looked down at the sheets, running his palms over the smooth fabric. Takumi turned towards the door and began whistling. He paused momentarily, and, without looking at Shinji, spoke:

"Can't have it all sometimes–a sad truth of our world."

He left with no more words.

What felt like hours later, Shinji sifted through his room. He stared at the bed, unmade, where he and Asuka had slept. On the nightstand was a picture. It was of him and Asuka in Paris, eating on their second night out. He did not know how it ended up in the station. He hadn't kept pictures of her after her death. Shinji stared out at the ocean again, looking tiredly at something foreign that he could never understand.

Final: Atonement

A small cluster of lotuses floated by on the surface of the pond, animated by the movement of koi fish darting underneath. Hosta plants rustled as a subtle draft shook their bodies, releasing small droplets of water onto the damp soil. Through the breaks in the branches of the maple trees sunlight penetrated the grove.

Shinji got up and turned towards the house. There was a small campfire, crackling in the back, having not been used in years. A flock of birds took flight from a tree as Shinji passed, his socks sinking into the wet mud. There were portraits on stands near the campfire, all of a woman with orange hair. Her features were pretty. Shinji coughed into his hands and traversed the stairs to the deck. A copper dog sat on the table, lying with its head on the ground. There were oranges laid out on the table, uneaten, and hollow glasses fogged by lips that had touched their rims.

Inside, Asuka hummed, wearing her yellow sundress, as she washed her hands in the sink. She turned to the window and looked at Shinji, as if not expecting him. Her gaze lightened and she smiled moving towards the door and opening it. Shinji walked over to her, slowly, and realized that she was really standing in front of him. He collapsed to his knees and grabbed her dress, burying his face in it. Muffled cries escaped him. His tears stained the material and he felt her arms come around the back of his head, holding him to her gently.

In the distance, water crashed against a shore and it began to rain. The droplets were pink in color. Shinji continued to cry as his thoughts disappeared into the downpour, lost in the infinity of darkness and distance.