The 2nd try
It was the afternoon of the day after she had witnessed the 17th's death when Rei found herself wandering through the streets of Tokyo-3. She wasn't sure why she was doing it. It served no real purpose. She could have waited these last hours at her apartment or at NERV. But yet here she was, going on what the voice in the back of her mind had dubbed "a last hiking trip".
Maybe this was what humans often experienced as restlessness, hoping to calm their nerves before an important or frightful act in their lives. Maybe it was a human's melancholy habit to do something for the last time, even if it was just walking through a neighborhood that they would soon never see again.
For a long time she had questioned herself whether or not she really sought to fulfill her destiny. With Ikari's and later Soryu's help, she had begun to feel like there might be more to her life, that she might find other reasons for it. But since the 17th's death, the call had grown so loud that every fiber of her being was screaming at her to finally serve the purpose she was created for and seek the rest he wouldn't grant her otherwise.
But she was afraid. She couldn't deny that. All her life she had known it would end this way and had looked forward to it without remorse. But now that this end was near, the young woman couldn't quiet the doubt in her mind.
The 17th's decision had left her wondering. He had avoided his destiny to join with Lilith and live forever by letting himself be annihilated. For her, for NERV, however, that was exactly what was destined to happen. If even destiny was a matter of perspective... what was hers?
As she walked through the almost empty streets a faint sound suddenly brought her out of her thoughts. More on instinct than curiosity, she followed the low wailing to an alley a few meters ahead. She saw nothing at first, until her eyes went down to the ground. A young, brown-haired girl, not older than four or five, sat cowering in a corner. Her appearance was similar to that of a homeless; her clothes too big for her small body as though they were the only thing she had to wear; her feet bare and dirty.
Her soft crying seemed to go unnoticed by the few people passing by. It was a common trait of humans to ignore the pain of someone not attached to them in any way, telling themselves that the parents surely would eventually come back to take care of her, or passing the responsibility to the authorities or others who passed by. And that habit came even more natural when it concerned apparent outcasts of society.
But something was off with that picture. The girl's clothes showed only little dirt, which could have resulted from sitting on the street, leaning against the wall behind her.
Rei wasn't sure about the feeling that this scene evoked in her, but there was nothing she could do. She had no experience in comforting children, no knowledge of the girl's needs or what kind of help she desired. And whatever it was that caused her pain, her ordeal wouldn't last much longer anyway. She would never feel any more pain in a matter of hours.
But as Rei was about to continue her way and to forget about this moment just like everyone else, the girl suddenly ceased her crying and while sniffling, looked back at her with tearful eyes. Had she been standing there staring at the child for so long that she had perked the child's interest?
The urge to leave rose as the girl kept gazing at her in awe, cocking her head to the side as though she was searching for something in Rei's face. Something about this child was unnerving, but Rei couldn't tell what.
Rather on instinct than anything else, she abruptly turned and left without looking back. She couldn't place that feeling deep in her guts, it wasn't one of danger or very alarming, but she didn't like to face it for some reason. But even while keeping her gaze forward, she knew she couldn't shake it that easily as she heard the small steps behind her, hurrying at first to catch up, then adapting her pace to keep a respectful distance. Even when Rei quickened her speed, the presence behind her kept up.
Eventually, realizing there would be no easy escape, she stopped.
"Why are you following me?" Rei asked without turning around.
"You look like friend," the small voice answered shyly.
Now she did turn her head to look over her shoulder at the child that was still watching her with fear, yet also hope in her eyes. "You must mistake me for someone else. I do not know you."
"What's your name?"
"I am Rei Ayanami," she answered automatically.
"I'm Aki!" the girl exclaimed now more cheerful. "Now we know each other, right?"
Rei couldn't really argue with that logic. But she wished she could. "You cannot accompany me," she explained. "You should seek your legal guardian."
"My gardin?" the child apparently didn't understand the definition.
"Your parents or other attachment figure that took care of you until now."
Aki's lips started to quiver again at those words. "Mama and Papa are gone," she said sniffing. "And I can't find them."
"If you are lost you should seek help from an authority."
"Are you an authory?" Aki asked hopefully.
"I was referring to the police or a similar institution who has the capacities to search for your parents."
The child still didn't really appear to understand, shifting nervously on her bare feet. "Can't you help me...?" she asked timidly.
"I do not know your parents or their current whereabouts," Rei told her truthfully. However, seeing the girl tearing up again also called back that unsettling sensation she had felt before. "I can... take you to the nearest police station, though, if you wish to."
For the first time, a slight smile crept onto the child's face as she nodded, sniffling.
"Follow me then," Rei told Aki and started to walk without looking back. She didn't need to look back at Aki to know she would do as asked anyway.
"Rei?" Sure enough, the girl's voice soon called out for her again, close behind. "Are you part of my family?"
That question startled the teen, as it didn't make much sense to her. The chances of meeting an unknown relative in a city the size of Tokyo-3 were rather slim, but she figured that the girl was just too young to calculate such chances. As, given the background of her creation, she had no family to speak off, she answered truthfully, "No."
Aki, however, seemed to be very pleased with that answer as she sounded much happier than before. "So you are a friend then!"
Startled, Rei... said nothing.
Along the way, Rei quickly registered how Aki closed the distance between them more and more. Eventually, there was a light tugging at the side of her skirt, a small hand grabbing for hers. At first Rei tried not to show her surprise at the contact. But as she felt the girl's body pressing against her every so often, she couldn't help but glance down and notice Aki nervously looking around, taking in the surroundings with curious yet fearful eyes – and flinching whenever someone passed by.
"Are you afraid of strangers?" Rei eventually questioned, not quite understanding the obvious fear, as the girl hadn't shown much hesitation in approaching her.
Aki shook her head. "There're suddenly so many. And it's so loud. I don't know why. And... and Mama or Papa can't tell me..."
Rei wasn't sure what to make of that explanation as the child started sobbing again at the reminder of her lost parents. Questioning herself, she decided to inquire further, knowing that it would be of help later on. "Do you come from a desolate region?"
The change of topic seemed to distract Aki from her depressed mood, but the uncertainty in her eyes as she looked back up to Rei made it obvious that she failed to fully grasp the question.
"I... I come from home...?" she sniveled apologetically, guessing correctly that such an answer was not very helpful.
It was halfway to the nearest police station when Rei felt a tug on her hand. "Eh! Wait!"
Turning around, she saw the girl shifting her pleading gaze between her and the department store they just passed. Did the child recognize this place? It was one of the many wide spread branches of a well known chain, and at her age, every store might look the same anyway. Maybe she just had learned that there might be a possibility to relieve herself inside.
"My crayons are almost gone! I need new ones!"
Rei watched the ecstatic girl letting go of her hand and storming into the store before she could answer. Now that Aki was distracted and out of sight, Rei could finally leave without giving her the possibility to follow any longer. She could finally end this encounter that had taken much too long and had disturbed her usual routines way too much already.
But she found herself unable to move. A thought haunted her of the girl happily exiting the store with her new possession until she noticed that she had been abandoned once again, being lost and alone. And Rei did not want to be the fault of the cries she knew she would hear, even if she was long out of earshot.
After all... a friend wouldn't do that.
A loud "Hey!" from inside ended her train of thoughts and she instinctively rushed inside. As she almost expected, she found Aki cowering apparently close to tears in front of a clerk who held a package of crayons.
"You can't just walk out with this!" the young man said friendly but firm. "Didn't your parents tell you that you need to pay before?"
"Was there an inconvenience?" Rei caught their attention.
The clerk eyed her shortly. "Are you her sister?" he asked, pointing with his thumb at Aki. "Didn't you watch her? I know kids that age can't handle money, but they at least have to learn that they can't just take whatever they want."
For some reason, Rei found her cheeks warming at the implication of being the child's older sister. It wasn't quite out of embarrassment, but...
A sob to her side brought a quick end to her confusion.
"I apologize for this misunderstanding," Rei addressed the clerk, bowing formally. "I will cover the payment."
It took them another five minutes after the incident at the store, which had left Aki noticeably troubled, to reach the police station. She kept quiet the whole way, clutching the package Rei had bought for her tightly in her arms while she stayed as close as possible to the teenager, apparently even more afraid of strangers than before. The encounter with the clerk must have scared her a lot.
The station was in fact just one of the small police "boxes", so it wasn't all too surprising to find only one officer behind the counter that filled most of the narrow space. He looked up from the papers he was filling out as they entered, seeming almost surprised to see people coming in.
"Oh... hello," he managed to say before he recovered properly. "How may I help you?"
"This girl was apparently separated from her parents." Rei lost no time, not moving to sit on the offered chair. After all, the visibly stressed Aki was using her body as protection.
"Oh?" Sergeant Sato, as Rei could read on the middle-aged man's name tag, noticed the child's fear as well and tried his best to form a disarming smile directed at Aki. "Hey, how old are you, little one?"
But Aki didn't reply to the officer's question. She stared up at Rei, apparently searching for support from her newfound teenage friend, after being confronted by this stranger.
"Please answer his questions," Rei told her calmly. "Otherwise, he will not be able to search for your parents."
She still barely even looked at the large man behind the desk, but held her right hand up showing three fingers. "I-I'm three," she mumbled, before she suddenly looked shocked as if she remembered something. "But it's my birthday soon! Then I'm four!" she hastily added with a prideful voice as she held another finger up, but that outburst of joy didn't last long and she fell back to cowering at Rei's side almost instantly, maybe even more so from embarrassment.
"I see..." Sato chuckled as he made his note.
Rei's gaze however lingered on the girl, wondering whether she had been told that she would soon be four very often, or if she had figured it by herself. As far as she knew, it was not a given thing that children of that age could come to such conclusions.
"And would you also tell me your name?" the officer continued his questioning.
"Aki..." she answered timidly.
"Good, Aki," Sato said as he began to scribble down the information. "And what is your surname?"
"Sur- surname?" Aki repeated, glancing with confusion at the officer, then at Rei, and back at the floor.
"Yes," Sato nodded, leaning a little more over the counter. "You know, your family name."
Insecure, the girl started to chew on her lower lip, obviously still not understanding what was asked of her.
"Aki...?" she tried, the tiny fingers of her free hand clenching and unclenching nervously.
"No, look," the Sergeant tried again, "I mean the name other people call someone from your family. How do people call your father for example?"
"People...?" Aki shook against Rei, tears starting to well in the little girl's eyes. These – to her – impossible questions were visibly becoming too much for her already anxious mind. "I-I don't know..."
"O-okay, okay, n-no need to cry!" the officer quickly tried to appease the distressed child, though even Rei noticed that he was rather clumsy at that. Apparently, he had little experience with children. "Do you... do you at least know his first name?"
This was apparently a more comfortable question, as she calmed a bit and answered without hesitation: "Papa."
"No, see," Sato bit his tongue not to give in to his noticeably growing frustration and came up with an easier way for the three year old. "What... what does your mother call him? Aside from 'Papa' or 'Darling' or something like that."
This time it took Aki a little longer to think, but her answer was just as confident as her previous one. "Baka."
Sato's shoulders slumped. "Which would be about every married man in this city. So much for isolating it." He sighed. "Well, if we don't get the necessary information from her, I could try the other way round and take a look if someone filed a missing report for her."
But as he typed away, sometimes glancing from the computer monitor to Aki, his face grew more serious with every second. Eventually, he shook his head. "I'm sorry, but I haven't got a description that would fit her."
Rei glanced down at the girl who in turn stared with concern up at her. She had done what she could, hadn't she? And yet, it didn't feel quite right as she asked: "I expect you will take care of her now?"
"W-wait!" Rei had expected Aki to voice her fear as she turned to leave, but Sato beat the child to it. "I can't keep her here. Look around you, girl. The city is being evacuated and so are we. There's barely anyone left who doesn't work for NERV and we have orders not to interfere with their matters. We're currently taking care of this district with three people. And two of them are on patrol. There's no way we can handle childcare right now." He scratched his head nervously. "There are some rumors that the JSSDF is on the way here to assist. But so far I've yet to hear something official about that. Until then, all I can offer you is to call a social worker who would get her to an orphanage in Gotemba or Odawara, but that would
take at least a few hours, not counting the red tape. I doubt anyone would be all that willing to come down here anymore today."
"What you are telling me is that she would have no place to spend the night?" Rei figured.
"Ah... shi-" Sato caught himself as his eyes fell on Aki. "I mean... look, I could get in serious trouble for suggesting this, but..." the officer shrugged uncomfortably, "maybe you can... or know someone who can take care for her for one night?"
Rei felt like she was pushed into a corner by that proposal. She shouldn't get even more involved with the child. She had done what she could...
No, she had done what had been expected from her. But she couldn't seriously... Under other circumstances, Major Katsuragi might have taken the child in with Ikari and Soryu. But this option was not available for now.
A tug on her skirt settled her decision.
"She... can stay with me for tonight."
"Where are we going now?" Aki asked instantly as she followed Rei out of the police box after her temporary guardian had left her address and the number of her mobile phone. The overworked officer had certainly felt much more at ease with his proposal when he saw her NERV ID card.
Surprised, the teen glanced down to her right hand for a second as she felt the girl getting hold of it with her left again, but she didn't say anything against it. "We are heading for my apartment. You will spend the night there."
Aki kept quiet at first, but she grew noticeably tense rather quickly. Eventually, she voiced her troubles. "So I can't go home anymore...?"
"You can return once we find someone who knows where you live," Rei tried to assure her.
"But I know where I live..."
That really startled Rei, enough to make her stop and regard the child. "You know the address of your place of residence?"
Aki's face fell. "Well... no..."
"But I know the way back," the girl interrupted her quickly.
Rei felt a slight pain in her head. "Why did you not mention this before?"
"I... I didn't know I should..." Aki admitted sheepishly.
"It is likely that your parents will eventually be there as well," Rei explained. "You could have waited there for them."
Aki's blue eyes nervously darted to the ground. "But... that scary lady was there..."
"Scary lady?" Rei repeated.
"Yeah, I woke up and Mama and Papa weren't there, but that scary lady, so I've ran away until I found you!" Aki explained, taking heavy breaths in between as if she was forgetting to get the necessary air.
Rei simply looked at the small child, before trying to analyze the problem in the best logical way possible.
"That woman might have been a guest of your parents. Also it is common for parents to hire a 'babysitter' to watch their children while they are out." Though she had to admit, while she was inexperienced with such matters, that it seemed unusual to have someone look after their child if it didn't get to know this person before. "We should go there then. If it is really your home, it is likely that someone there is waiting for you."
"But..." Aki began to protest, but then dropped her head, staring at her fidgeting feet. "Will you go with me then...?"
"That's my home!"
The sun was already setting when Aki pointed excitedly at the familiar house from the entry of a rather large estate on the outskirts of Tokyo-3.
It seemed an odd coincidence for the girl to have picked this one. Too big was the temptation not to ask the question that was lingering on Rei's tongue. "Are you positive?"
Her answer consisted once again of a pair of non-understanding eyes.
"Are you sure that this is the place where you live?" she tried again.
Aki nodded, but glanced around once more anyway. "The fence is gone... But everything else is like always."
Rei frowned slightly. At least one of their memories was deceiving them. And she had her doubts that it was hers. But there was only one way to make sure.
As she started to walk over to the front door, however, she noticed that her small shadow of the day was no longer following for once. Looking over her shoulder, she saw the girl still standing on the same spot, fidgeting nervously as if unsure to go forwards or run backwards. "Do you not want to go to your home?"
"W-what if that woman is still there?" Aki whimpered, tugging on her yellow shirt. "She... she scared me..."
"You will not find out if you do not accompany me," Rei stated and went towards the door. It took only a few seconds for Aki to run after her, clinging to the teen's skirt just as she pushed the button of the bell.
Footsteps were clearly heard on the other side, quickly coming closer and with each one, Rei could feel the little fingers pulling harder on the fabric. A loud whimper escaped the child when the door finally swung open, revealing an elderly gray-haired woman.
"Hello, what can I..." Mrs. Yamadera began until her eyes fell on the blue-haired pilot. "Ah, don't I know you from somewhere?"
Rei plainly nodded.
"Yes, you're that girl that fainted when you were hiking with your friends, aren't you?" the pensioner remembered. "So, what brings you here?"
But before Rei could answer, Mrs. Yamadera glanced at her side, apparently noticing the girl that tried to hide behind her back. "Oh, if that isn't our little housebreaker," she said smiling and in a friendly tone that voided her accusing words. She leaned down a bit to Aki, but it just caused the girl to cower more against Rei, gripping tightly the back her skirt. "You ran out so quickly that I couldn't even talk to you."
After a moment, Aki used the perceived safety that Rei's body provided to gather a little courage. "Where're Mama and Papa!?"
The elder woman blinked shortly. "Oh, I'm afraid I don't know where your Mama and Papa are. Do I know them? If you'd tell me your name, maybe I could help you."
There was another pause, but the grip on Rei's uniform softened slightly. "I'm Aki..." she mumbled carefully.
"She cannot recall," Rei answered the unfinished question. There was no point in repeating that discussion again.
"Oh? Well, why don't you two come in for a while and we can see what I can do. I think I also have some cookies left," she added with a small wink at Aki.
As it seemed, it was enough for the little girl to decide that the old lady might not be that scary after all.
A few minutes later, they sat at the table in the Yamadera's living room. The long-time housewife used the rare opportunity of having guests to offer some tea. Rei had politely declined, but found a filled cup on the table in front of her anyway.
Aki sat on the couch, nibbling timidly on a big chocolate-chip cookie that she held with both hands, her treasured crayons at her side, while watching their host still with a certain nervousness as she moved around, filling a cup of her own.
"So what's the story with you two?" Mrs. Yamadera asked Rei curiously after sitting down herself. "The little one got lost?"
"Everything indicates that that would be the case," Rei answered calmly. "I saw her alone in an alley and she followed me from there on."
Realizing that they were talking about her, Aki's gaze wandered between the two older females, but didn't decide to speak up herself.
"But why would she think her parents would be here? Are they on a visit to Tokyo-3?" She turned in her chair and lowered her head to ask Aki directly. "Could it be that you live somewhere else in a house that looks similar to this? Did you have a long drive before you got separated from your parents?"
Sniffling, being reminded of her parents, the brown-haired girl just shook her head.
"Are you sure? Maybe you were asleep during the trip?"
Again Aki shook her head negatively, not much to Rei's surprise. After they had returned to the alley where they had met, the girl had found the way back impressively easily; just rarely being in doubt and searching for particular characteristics, despite always looking around in wonder and fear. As they had reached this area, she recognized this house as her home the instant she saw it. It felt hard to believe that someone who had been so sure would be mistaken after all.
"No visit," the young child said with a low whimper. "This's home."
The elder woman offered her a pitying look. "Oh, I'm so sorry, but that can't be. Me and my husband have lived here for a long time already." The apologizing smile still lingered on her lips as she straightened up again. "But it's true, why would anyone want to visit the city at times like this, when everyone just want to get out of the city. It all went down the drain before it really started."
She sighed, staring dreamily at the ceiling as she drifted down memory lane."I can still remember when this was just a peaceful outskirt of Hakone. But as if the Impact hadn't done enough damage, they came with their transports, their diggers and cranes and started to dig as though searching for some buried treasure. When they just found that huge cave I thought they'd give up, but instead they decided for some reason to build the new capitol here. Those government cowards probably had come up with the idea for those elevator-building-things to get their a... I mean, themselves safe in case of another war. I knew that would just attract such war to start right here, but I didn't want to give up this place that we'd built up. I didn't expect our enemies to be some huge monsters, but I knew nonetheless. And
now that the one robot destroyed most of the city, I'm afraid the time has come that we'll have to move out after all. We have everything already settled to move in with our eldest son in Tokyo-2, but after living here for so many years it'll be hard to leave in just a few more days..."
Now that she came to a stop, she finally noticed that no one had interrupted her. "Oh, I'm sorry, I was rambling again. I don't get to talk to many people lately. Did you want to say anything?"
"No," Rei stated. She had probably listened just as attentively as the girl she had watched, who seemed deep in thought.
"I know!" Aki startled the two as she suddenly jumped up with a broad, hopeful smile. "I can prove! I... I burned the carpet there in the corner with a hot lamp and Mama got really angry at me!"
Full of energy, she hurried over to the spot she had pointed out, close to the door leading to the veranda; the two others more or less curiously after her.
But the wide smile faltered as nothing was there to see. Tears welled up in Aki's eyes and low sobs started coming from her, as she looked frantically around to see if she had made a mistake with the location. But there was nothing; no burn mark; just plain, smooth carpet.
To find her last hopes being crushed must have been too much for the girl as she started to cry, harder and harder, so much that her small body shook.
It was apparently quickly too much to see for the long-time mother and maybe even grandmother. "Oh Honey, I'm so sorry," she tried to soothe Aki as she knelt down, pulling the wailing child into a caring embrace.
Rei couldn't quite say why... but she could understand that urge to take that girl's sadness away like that... as she could barely contain it herself.
It was already dark outside when they left the Yamadera's. Aki had eventually calmed down, but had remained very quiet ever since. The friendly old woman had offered that she could take care of the child for the night, also inviting Rei to stay, as she wouldn't have minded some company with her husband out of town to prepare their move and not expected to come home until late that night.
But Rei had declined. It wouldn't be wise staying so far away from NERV in these times. And Aki was still too attached to her friend to stay behind with the senior woman all alone.
The girl's previous feelings while on the streets seemed to have shifted in favor of curiosity, probably partly because they barely met anyone on their way. With her wide blue eyes, the girl stared at the neon lights of advertisements, signs and traffic lights. Even the street lamps seemed to fascinate her utmost.
Rei in turn found herself strangely intrigued by the brown-haired child's behavior. She couldn't tell why. She had never easily become attached to other people, let alone to children so much younger than herself. There had never been a reason to. So why now? Now that it was too late to make a difference?
A distinct sound broke the evening's silence, causing Aki to speak up again. "I'm... I'm hungry..." she told her companion sheepishly, emphasizing her point by placing a hand on her stomach. "My tummy's already growling."
Rei regarded the girl a moment. "Have you eaten anything today aside from the pastry from Mrs. Yamadera?"
Aki took a moment to think, but unsurprisingly shook her head eventually. It was still awhile until they would reach her apartment and she felt a slight appetite herself, so Rei let her gaze wander around until she spotted an open restaurant a little farther ahead on the opposite side of the street.
"There is a Ramen shop," she announced. "We can eat there."
"Ramen?" Aki asked curiously.
"Yes," Rei affirmed, ignoring the oddity that she didn't know one of the most famous elements of Japanese cuisine. "A noodle soup."
"Ah! I know!" Aki exclaimed at that. "Papa made that sometimes!"
Rei took that as agreement and led the girl over to the small restaurant. In fact, it was even smaller than the stand she had visited months ago with Ikari, Soryu and Major Katsuragi; only a few chairs at the counter. But that hardly seemed to matter as they were the only ones there.
The chef, a balding man in his late forties, apparently thought so as well. "Oh, customers! I was already wondering whether to close early today," he admitted sighing. "I should have known better than to stay when the majority of the city is either destroyed or empty."
Not feeling the need to comment, Rei assisted Aki to climb on one of the high chairs before sitting in the one next to it.
The man smiled friendly as he leaned over the counter to address the cute three years old. "Well, what can I get you, little one?"
The question visibly irritated Aki. "Um... Ramen?"
"Yeah, but what flavor?" he tried further.
The chef threw his head back with a hearty laugh that took awhile until he calmed down again. "I can make you fish-flavored, chicken-flavored, pork-flavored, shrimp..."
"Pork?" The curious girl interrupted his listing. "What's that?"
"You don't know?" the friendly man asked. "That's meat from a pig."
"Meat?" Now Aki seemed genuinely surprised. "Wow! Is it some special day today?"
Again the chef chuckled. "Of course it's a special day! I have two such lovely young ladies as customers!" he justified. "So one pork, I take it? And what...?"
"Garlic, without meat."
"It looks so sad..." were Aki's first words as she looked around.
How a room was supposed to express the emotion of sadness was beyond Rei, but she didn't argue. "It has been this way since I have lived here."
That the looks of her apartment wasn't very appealing to the child hardly came as a surprise. They were to none of the few people that had visited her over time, even if most of those had been too polite to admit it. For herself though, it always had been sufficient.
"But doesn't it make you feel sad?" the child tried further. "You need something to make it look more happy!"
"I never felt the need to change anything."
"I know! We draw some pictures and put them on the wall!" Aki exclaimed and held her new box of crayons up, apparently not even having listened. Her eyes darted around the room in search of something. "Don't you have any... Ah!"
She quickly toddled over to the cupboard, where Rei's satchel lay open, and retrieved a stack of print-outs from school, examining the blank backsides. "We can use these!" she stated without even asking Rei for her opinion on that matter.
But there was no need to care about that anyway. She hadn't been at school for a long time. And soon enough, no one ever would anymore.
Aki naturally didn't care about such thoughts though, she found herself a spot on the floor where she dropped the papers, laid the box of crayons next to it, got on her knees and started to draw right away like she didn't even have to think about a motif.
Rei watched the girl filling the paper with various colors, changing the crayons every so often, when she noticed something right next to Aki shining in the artificial light. After she had lost her trust in him; her faint hope that she might be more important to him than just a pawn in his scenario after all, she had crushed the symbol of that hope and simply dropped it on the floor where it had remained ever since. She had never bothered to remove it, as it was no obstacle let alone a threat to her. Children of Aki's age, however, were known to be oblivious to such a possible danger, so she went and carefully picked up the sharp remains of the broken glasses, the brown-haired girl seemingly too lost in her work to notice her.
She carried them to the rarely used bin, but just as she was about to drop them, her hand wouldn't move. Rei suddenly wondered whether or not it really was just indifference that had prevented her from having done this earlier. While it had been easy to pretend to ignore the glasses she had held dear for so long as they lay on the ground, they had always remained in sight. Now they would be gone for good.
It was certainly strange to feel such attachment to a lifeless object. Was it still... because of him...?
The broken remains fell heavily in the empty trash.
Turning around, Rei expected Aki to still be working on her picture, but that was lying alone with the scattered wax-pens. Instead, the girl was blocking her path, holding one of the papers and a dark-green crayon up to her.
"I have no experience in arts."
Aki tilted her head to the side, which didn't appear to be a sign of understanding. Eventually, she held out the drawing utensils again. "You too!"
As arguments were apparently of no use, Rei took the crayon and paper, watching Aki as she instantly ran back to her workspace to lie down and start drawing again with wild strokes.
Rei stared at the blank sheet in her hand. She had never drawn anything in her life before, but she didn't really wonder how to form shapes on the paper. However, she was at loss at what to choose as motif. It wasn't even that there was too little to choose from, quite the contrary.
As she stared at the white space, it felt as if it was calling to her, offering her a chance to fill the emptiness with anything that she wanted to express, anything that she never could otherwise. She had never realized how much that was. She just couldn't decide.
The humming of a soft tune snapped her out of her thoughts and her gaze wandered back to the young girl lying on her stomach, feet kicking absently in the air. And as if on its own, the green crayon in her hand started to move over the paper's surface, lines becoming structures, structures becoming detailed forms.
"Whoaa!" an amazed exclamation next to her ended the trance-like work. "Is that me?"
Rei blinked, looking at the picture in whole for the first time, and it felt as if it hadn't even been her who created it. "Yes."
"That's really good!"
It was indeed. At least as much as Rei could tell. There seemed to be no flaws in form and proportions, the shading creating a sense of depth, the fine details showing the characteristics of the girl precisely, so that, if she hadn't kept her face down on her own papers, she would have been instantly recognizable. It was as much of a perfect copy as was possible with a single-colored pen.
"Here, I've made one of you too!" Aki proudly exclaimed, pulling one of her many pictures out of the heap and running back to her. It was a grotesque stick-figure with wild blue streaks as hair, two thick red lines as eyes and – rather unlike her real self – a broad smile. Glancing over into the hopeful eyes of the child, she wasn't sure what Aki was waiting for.
"How you like it?" she eventually ended Rei's wondering.
Taken aback, the teen didn't answer immediately. Being honest was likely to hurt the girl's feelings, and Rei didn't want that. But wouldn't she also do the same by lying to her?
"The... shade of blue is well chosen," she eventually settled for.
Apparently, it was enough of a compliment for the girl as her smile widened before she eagerly returned to her workspace. Rei quietly followed, a certain curiosity sparked as she saw how many pictures the young artist had already produced.
"Is blue your favorite color?"
The sudden question surprised her. "I have not chosen a color to prefer above all others."
"But you like it?"
Rei pondered about that. Did the color have any meaning to her? "It is... comforting."
"My favorite color is red!" Aki declared proudly, not aware of the conflict she put her hostess in.
She may not have picked a favorite color, but she did hold an aversion against red. It wasn't a conscious choice, rather an instinctive one, so it felt better not to voice it in the presence of this girl who liked it so much.
"Yeah! I like red things! They remind me of Mama's hair," Aki continued, her voice growing weaker at the last sentence.
"Your mother's hair...?" Rei repeated. "That information might prove helpful in locating your parents."
"Huh?" Aki now stopped drawing and looked up at her. "Why?"
"Red is a relatively uncommon pigmentation for hair," she explained. "Even more so in Asian countries like ours. I am in contact with only one person who sports hair of that color."
Leaning over the girl's shoulder to look at her current work, a picture of what seemed to be a family came into her view. The person with short reddish "hair" was not to be missed. "Does that represent your mother?"
"Yeah! That's Mama, that's Papa, and that's me!" Aki listed, pointing at each of the figures. "And that's Kiko I'm holding!"
Rei didn't quite understand the feeling the picture evoked. It seemed impossible to recognize someone from such a simple drawing that lacked anything but the most obvious characteristics, and even if it had been detailed, she was sure that she had probably never met these people.
And yet, there was something strangely familiar about them.
One hour later, a yawn announced the end of the art session. Rei couldn't know that it was already long after Aki's bedtime when the girl gathered the sprawled sheets.
"Have to put them on the wall now," she declared as she presented Rei the heap, now much less energetic than before.
"I am unsure if I have something to attach them to the wall."
"No sticky tape?" The voice was low, but whether from disappointment or tiredness, Rei could not tell.
Not wanting to add to it if the former was the case, her eyes wandered through the apartment in search of an adequate alternative. They came to rest on top of the refrigerator where her medical supplies lay. Quickly striding over to it, she easily found what she was looking for.
Retrieving a good length of the alternate material, she looked for approval, which she received in the form of a smile and a nod.
In a matter of minutes, all the pictures were spread over the once desolate wall above the bed, held with pieces of band-aid in each corner.
Rei stared awhile at the unfamiliar decoration, at the unfamiliar fact of having a decoration at all, something that served no other purpose than making the room look less "sad".
And she had to admit that it succeeded.
Rei couldn't sleep that night. She couldn't tell whether it was from the anxiousness she felt or from sharing not only her room, but also her bed with another person for the first time. She wasn't used to such close proximity and she wasn't sure if it felt pleasant or repellent to her, but either way, she didn't try to escape it. Unlike her, Aki had actively searched it in her sleep, having shifted closer to her and cuddled up against the teen.
As she lay awake, Rei watched the warm body pressed against her. The pale light of the full moon illuminated the room enough to see every detail of the brown-haired girl, the soft features of the child's face that contorted every so often in her dreams.
'What would it be like to hold someone?' she couldn't help but wonder. As if on its own, her right hand reached out for the child's head. It moved only slowly, hesitatingly, but Rei couldn't stop it either, until it almost touched, just a fraction of an inch and...
"Mama," a low whimper suddenly escaped the girl as she clutched tighter on Rei's shirt. "Papa..."
Though she never had been able to experience one herself, she could tell that the child apparently was having a restless dream. That had been the third time she had called out for her parents in her sleep.
Rei's fingers lingered in the air for another second... but then glided carefully through the brown hair. And to her surprise, it seemed to have a soothing effect on both of them. Maybe she just felt better because Aki was no longer clinging onto her as tightly as before, but seeing the drying tears glittering in the moonlight, she knew it was something else: She disliked seeing the girl sad.
She seemed so... pure.
If she would have needed any proof that Instrumentality was not the only hope for humanity to evolve, it lay right there. Humanity was born anew with each child that saw the light of the day. It was up to those around them to ensure that they would not be corrupted, that they would not suffer the pain of loneliness.
Up to her...?
Eventually, she had fallen asleep as well, but it couldn't have been for long. The moon was still in a position to shine brightly through her windows. But that wasn't what had woken her up.
She could feel it. It was calling her, louder than ever before. The time to fulfill her destiny was close.
She didn't make any sound as she stood up, not bothering to dress herself in more than the shirt she wore, and silently stepped to the door.
Just one more time she wanted to swim, before he would call her. Then, she finally would be free again; free from the pains and worries that haunted her in this world.
Yes, that was the voice she was supposed to listen to. Not the one that frightened her; the one telling her that her whole reason for existence was wrong, that his selfish wishes didn't matter any longer. The one that lately made her question the righteousness in this way for humanity.
If she listened to that voice, she would never be able to –
"Where you're goin'?"
Rei's eyes shot wide open. Her hand didn't even touch the door's handle.
Slowly she turned to see Aki sitting sleepily on the bed. She had always known of the consequences of her purpose, that humanity would lose themselves against their will by her hand. Humanity never meant much to her.
Though there had been exceptions. Commander Ikari at first, later his son, the Major and even Soryu. However, none of them was able to remind her of the consequences, to remind her that they too would be gone along with her. But this little girl that she didn't even know for a day had reached her heart by just being there.
She couldn't. She couldn't let this child lose herself. She couldn't let her get harmed in any way.
"Quick!" Rei ordered as she hastily went back to the bed, picking up Aki's clothes from the floor and placing them on the mattress. "Get up and dress! We have to leave!"
"Now?" Aki groaned tiredly.
"'Now' might already be too late..."
As whatever was going to happen in the following hours, this city would be far from being a safe place for her.
It was an unusual sight for this hour of the day: Two girls, a teenage one with blue hair in a school uniform holding the hand of a barefooted, brown-haired toddler with oversized clothes as they waited at the platform for the only line that would take them out to the outskirts at this time. But no one who could have seen them would be at this desolate station until several hours later.
The train that finally arrived after 38 minutes wasn't much different. One passenger lay sleeping on the bench, a newspaper over his face shielding his eyes from the artificial light. Another one sat, but his face was downcast and hidden by a baseball cap that was as dirty as the rest of his clothes. A heavy stench of alcohol filled the air.
Rei led Aki quickly to the next, empty car. They sat there in silence while the train drove onwards, stopping now and then, but no one was joining the ride. The girl that had been so energetic and talkative before, now just rested her head against Rei's side, close to losing the fight to keep her eyelids open. The only sound that would come from her now and then was a yawn.
Usually, all that Rei would do during such rides was to sit straight and stare ahead until her stop came, not minding her surroundings in the train or the landscape that passed by. But this time, she found her eyes fixated on the small body that pressed against hers.
It helped her to remain calm. She could hardly believe that she was really doing this; running away from her very purpose in life, defying the man that created her. For once she wouldn't follow his orders. From now on, she would have to make her own decisions for her life... as long as that would last.
She had broken free of her bonds, but had given up her safety. All that just for her.
So it was only normal to feel nervous, afraid to have made a mistake... wasn't it?
"Dear Passengers," an announcement from the internal speakers of the train brought her out of her thoughts, "due to damage to the rails from the last attack, this train will end at our next stop in Togendai. Passengers to Gora please change for line 14, passengers to Gotemba can use the bus to Sengoku. Your ticket will be accepted there. We apologize for any inconveniences."
Rei frowned at the announcement. "The line was not damaged in the fight. Something is not right," she mused. Glancing over to Aki, she decided to trust her feeling of alarm. "We have to get off now."
She stood up, pulling Aki with her before the stumbling, drowsy girl was able to comprehend the situation; gripped the handle for the emergency break and put all her strength into its activation. The screech pained her ears, and Aki, too, instinctively covered hers as the train shook in its unintended attempt to stop. The final jolt almost swiped her off her feet, but she managed to keep her balance. Hurrying over to the next door, where Rei used the emergency activation, they rushed out as quickly as possible.
"Where're we goin'?"
Rei stopped shortly, but didn't answer the girl she had tugged along just yet. Her eyes went far back to where the lights of the station illuminated several people, obviously armed. And of course, they already had taken notice of the premature halt of the train. It would only be a few minutes until they got there to search for the reason behind it.
Her eyes then went to the dark mountains that loomed over them, appearing even huger, so close to the city's borders.
"Rei?" Aki asked again, "Where are we going?"
"Away," she told her. "As far as possible."
"I'm tired and my feet hurt," Aki whined with honest discomfort. "Let's stop here."
Contemplating, Rei looked at her exhausted companion, breathing hard herself. It wasn't as hot as on her hiking trip with Ikari and Soryu, but their long, steep way through the woods had taken its toll on both of them. Yet she also knew that they were still far from being a safe distance away from the city.
It had been a few hours since they got off the train; morning had long settled in.
"It might have been wiser to get you appropriate footwear," Rei told the child.
"Shoes," she specified.
"I don't like shoes," Aki pouted, apparently having had such a discussion already before. "They make my feet get hot and sweaty and stinky."
"They would protect the soles of your feet," Rei argued. "Our progress could be much faster."
Aki just craned her head questioningly.
"They would not hurt as much now," the pilot specified.
"It's not that. I can walk here. Just not so long."
Rei closed her eyes, trying to catch her breath herself. As she opened them again, she noticed that they had reached a small clearing. A few large boulders lay scattered around, inviting to be used as natural seats. "We can rest here for a few minutes," she declared and went to sit down on one of the flat rocks, Aki following suit by climbing on a stone opposite to hers.
It was then that she noticed that she could see the city of Tokyo-3 from there.
Below there, he would be waiting for her, expecting her to fulfill her purpose, to bring him to the one whose image she was built after. She could still hear the call that wanted her to return, seeming to only grow louder the farther she got away, sounding so tempting, so alluring, so...
Rei gasped in shock. She hadn't realized until now that she was shaking, cold sweat mixing with the perspiration from the straining walk. Her eyes wearily went over to the concerned-looking child in front of her, still waiting for an answer.
"I... yes... no..." Rei shook her head. "I am not sure..."
"If something's wrong you would know!" Aki spoke assuredly.
Sensing that the girl wouldn't be appeased that easily, Rei nodded. "I... was supposed to do something. My whole life was dedicated to that task. But I decided against it."
"It might have brought great pain to many people," Rei told the curious child, not mentioning that she was the major reason for her decision. "And I do not want that to happen."
Aki cocked her head to the side. "But why are you sad then?"
Sad? Rei wondered if that was just the girl's limited vocabulary again – or if this feeling could indeed be described as that. "I am disappointing someone with my insolence," she explained. "Someone very important to me, who had been there for me my entire life. But... recently... I am confused about my feelings for him. And I have been questioning his motives. I have come to the conclusion that I can not possibly help him. That it is not right." Her now quivering hands wrinkled her skirt as they dug into it. "But... but still... I... I feel..."
Her shaking stopped abruptly as she felt small arms loosely hugging her waist. She hadn't even noticed Aki coming over to her, but raising her head she found herself looking into the empathetic face of the young girl.
"I don't know about that someone," Aki mumbled. "But I still like you."
At first, Rei didn't know how to react, confronted with such honest care. It seemed much to easy how her sorrow was eased by those words. But then she remembered what she was supposed to do in such a situation.
"Thank you," she said smiling.
A loud thunder above startled both of them, Aki jumped screaming into Rei's arms. The First Children instantly recognized the source as a VTOL roaring above their heads towards the city. And apparently it wasn't the only one.
Listening closely, she noticed the sound of explosions in the distance.
"It has begun," she whispered to herself, but Aki heard.
Rei regarded her small companion. "Never mind that now. We have to go on," she declared, pulling the girl behind her. They were too much in the open in the clearing. If only one person in the numerous aircraft would look down, she would easily be recognized, putting both of them in danger.
But Aki didn't follow, having dug her heels in. Turning to her, Rei could see that she was staring at the city, where two familiar giants had appeared to intercept the assault force. The child seemed to be surprised by the sight – but apparently not frightened at all.
"Are those... armors?" she asked Rei, sounding hopeful. "Hu-huge armors, blessed with... with the mothers' spirits?"
Rei frowned in surprise, but Aki already explained unquestioned. "Papa once told me about them!"
Aki's words followed Rei as they continued their way through the woods, trying to leave the raging battle behind. It could have been a mere coincidence. The Evangelions were well known by now, so the father might have made up a story that came closer to the truth than he had known himself. Or maybe the girl just drew connections to some entirely different tale.
But the suspicion that had formed was only strengthened, as the question remained: What if not?
"Ein Männlein steht im Walde ganz still und stumm,"
Rei blinked as the melody chimed above the steady explosions and gunfire that had grown noticeable louder since EVAs joined the battle, interrupting her thoughts.
"Es hat vor lauter Purpur ein Mäntlein um,"
She turned around to the small source, singing quietly to herself as she climbed over a rock.
"Sagt, wer mag das Männlein sein,
Das da steht im Wald allein,"
"Aki," Rei disturbed the song, "please remain silent."
The child flinched, visibly shocked at the sudden prohibition. "I... I just tried... those loud sounds..." Aki mumbled an excuse, apparently thinking she had done something she could be punished for.
"I apologize," Rei quickly moved to clarify. "But your singing might attract someone."
"Would that be bad?" Aki naively asked.
"There are men out there who might... hurt us should they find us," she tried to formulate it in a way that would scare the child the least.
But the silence that followed for once bothered Rei herself. And not just because she came to another realization.
"Those words... they were German, were they not?" she asked, turning back to the following child.
Aki nodded. "Mama taught me. She said I was better than Papa," she exclaimed proudly, but her mood changed at the memory. "He never minded that. He then just told me 'That's good for you' and ruffled my hair. I... I always said I didn't like it when he did that, but... but..." Her lips quivered as she sniffed, tears escaping her eyes. "But I-I did!"
She stopped, crying openly now.
Rei hesitated for only a second. She went to the wailing girl and knelt down to her, her pale hands carefully cupping the tear stained face. It had the desired effect of calming Aki down and causing her to look up at her.
"Do not worry," Rei told her. "You will soon see your parents again."
She nodded sincerely. "Really."
A large shadow suddenly darkened the area, the sounds of giant wings making her look up, but it was already gone. Dread was filling her, this thing having been so different from the aircraft she knew.
She started to sprint without second thoughts, the startled Aki after her, until they reached another clearing from where she could confirm her fear.
"The EVA series?" she whispered to herself.
The small fingers trembled as they dug tightly into the skirt of her uniform, along with the body that pressed cowering against her. "They- they hurt Mama!" Aki whimpered with fearful hiccups.
Rei didn't take her eyes off the nine white winged creatures as they descended in a perfect circle toward their designated prey. Outnumbered by technologically advanced models, it would be a hard fight for NERV's EVAs to prove that assumption wrong. Especially for the cable-dependent Unit-02 that only had the expertise of its pilot as a real advantage over the mindless beasts.
A loud stomping broke Rei's concentration; the earth shook as the sound's source rapidly neared. Even she jerked in surprise as it suddenly leaped over their heads, another giant shadow blocking the sun for a moment.
Watching the bulky mass of the Jet Alone storming onto the battlefield, where the fight had already started, Rei placed her arm on the frightened girl's back and pulled her closer. "No," she told her quietly. "They won't."
It had been hard at first to get the child back to moving on again, the three years old being too engrossed in the sight of the Evangelions, but Rei had managed before the fight could start for real. They had come a good way, when the trees suddenly parted, revealing an empty road.
Rei peered in both directions to make sure it was indeed deserted, before she climbed over the guardrail and helped Aki over it. She quickly urged the both of them into the woods on the other side. The road would have made their travel over the mountain easier, but even though the sounds and tremors emitted by the fighting giants were only faint in the distance, they were not far enough away from the battle zone yet to risk walking in the open.
However, the fleeting feeling of safety of the surrounding woods was short lived. The road must have taken a sharp turn, as they suddenly found themselves on the parking space of an outlook post – facing a patrol jeep with three just as startled soldiers of the JSSDF who were leaning against their vehicle.
The second of surprise wore off much too quickly though, giving not nearly enough time to escape, as the soldiers raised their weapons at the two girls. Not thinking twice, Rei moved protectively in front of Aki, who seemed to be overwhelmed by the situation, cowering against her defender.
"Hide," she told the little girl quietly. "Hold your ears and do not look back until I say different."
"What... what about you?" Aki's frightful voice asked.
"Do not worry about me. Now leave, quickly. I will be with you soon. Until then, do not look back," she repeated once more. It took several more agonizing seconds during which she stared warningly at the carefully nearing soldiers, until the nervous child finally came to a decision and Rei felt relieved to hear the small feet hurrying back into the woods.
She didn't feel threatened by the men's rifles. She was not afraid to die. But she did not want Aki to see the bloodshed. This pure being was not to be stained. At any cost.
"HEY!" the man who must have been the commanding officer yelled after Aki. "Yoshida, get after that girl!"
"I..." Now she felt panic. These men... that they wanted to kill her was understandable. But that they were willing to hunt down and kill an innocent being was unforgivable. So the panic became the spark that lit an emotion that frightened her, but also fueled her determination.
"I WILL NOT ALLOW YOU TO HARM HER!" Rei doubted that combat-trained soldiers felt very intimidated by the display of a teenage girl standing there with arms still protectively spread, but they halted as she raised her voice in anger.
"Geez, do you really think they were training toddlers as pilots of those monsters?" the more nervous man to the officer's left asked. "That kid wasn't on the list."
"I don't care!" the officer snapped back. "She was with this one and SHE's definitely one of the pilots. There aren't many kids with blue hair and red eyes. That other child is probably the first of a new batch NERV's been breeding and now that they know we're here to stop their plans, they're trying to get it to safety to start again in a few years."
Rei only felt her irritation growing by the paranoid thoughts. "She is in no relation with..."
"SHUT UP!" the agitated officer silenced her. "You may not know it, girly, but you pilots are to be shot on sight! Ishida!" He gestured at the soldier to his right, who slowly nodded and took aim.
Rei closed her eyes, trying to calm her breathing and rapid heartbeat that was unreasonably fast just from the sight of the weapon pointing at her. She focused, preparing herself for the shot – but nothing happened.
"What are you waiting for?" the squad leader demanded angrily after several uneventful seconds.
"I..." the soldier swallowed before he abruptly lowered his rifle. "I'm sorry, Sir, I... I just can't shoot an unarmed civilian."
The officer's anger boiled. "Where the hell were you during the briefings?! We can't afford any mercy!"
"I know!" Ishida yelled back.
"They said anyone who would have second thoughts is to stay out of it!"
"I KNOW! Hell, I requested only a position in the patrol units for a reason!" He breathed angrily. "Damnit, I don't want the end of the world either, but... Shit, I have a daughter that age!"
But the leader didn't show understanding. "If you don't shoot right know, I'll charge you with treason!"
"I don't care! At least I'll have a clear conscience!"
The officer snorted with disgust. "Fine! I'll do it myself then!" he declared, raising his weapon to take aim. "I'll never understand how you passed the..." The sound of a gunshot ended his sentence. His uniform was drenched in blood before his body hit the ground.
Ishida hurled around for his other companion, but Yoshida's reflexes were faster. His shocked face made it apparent that he didn't even realize in his attempt to survive what he was doing, until the shot sounded and Ishida collapsed at his feet.
Rei expected this to be enough of a diversion to escape, but Yoshida noticed her before she could move more than two steps.
"S-STOP!" He called with a voice that was just as shaky as his hands holding the blood-stained weapon, which he now pointed back at her. The shock of the last few seconds had left him pale. The shock of one of them becoming a traitor. The shock of having killed that former colleague, maybe even long time friend.
But now, he surely would not hesitate to kill the one who was indirectly responsible for it.
He never got that far. A shot came out of nowhere, chipping a small piece of concrete from the road; another hitting right in front of the panicking soldier; before a last one pierced his shoulder. He screamed as he dropped his gun and then fell himself, cringing in pain while he held his wound.
Confused, Rei looked around, now finally aware of the sound of a nearing VTOL. As she turned toward it, she saw that it was apparently trying to land on the road at a safe distance. At the sight of the uniformed men, she at first feared they were coming to the assistance of these fallen JSSDF members; the last shots aimed at her, but fatally gone astray. She had no hope left for escape in that moment.
But then she noticed a familiar face ahead of the nearing men.
"I appreciate your assistance, Mr. Kaji," she greeted him when he was close enough. That he was supposed to be dead didn't bother her much, as he was – obviously – not.
"No problem," the pony-tailed man shrugged the thanks off. "Though it was sure a surprise seeing you out here."
"I attempted to escape before they would strike," Rei admitted calmly. "I was sure that it would not be safe at the headquarters."
Kaji regarded her for a moment, but she felt no desire to tell him more. "I wasn't quite talking about safety reasons..."
"I..." She was taken aback by his prodding, even though it wasn't entirely unexpected. The previous shame for her betrayal returned shortly as she wondered about how much she had to say until he was satisfied. "I had my reasons not to... assist the Commander..."
He didn't seem entirely pleased, but nodded. "Very well then, that should ease things a lot. Sakamoto!" he yelled over to one of the soldiers that had accompanied him. "Do we have room for a hitcher?"
"I'm afraid it'd get a little cramped with these three already!" Sakamoto answered, pointing at the three fallen soldiers that were being carried into the VTOL.
Kaji scratched his chin, his eyes falling on the patrol's jeep.
"You think you can end this on your own?" he called over once more.
He winced slightly as Sakamoto raised his thumb, obviously not all that happy about the answer.
"Okay then," Kaji turned back to Rei. "We'll take that jeep and I'll get you to wherever you want until this is over."
Rei nodded, but didn't move to follow him as he started to walk to the vehicle. Her eyes lingered on the blood-stained concrete. "Could you drive the car to the other side of the woods? I do not wish to pass this scene again."
"Um, sure," she heard him behind her as she was heading to the forest where Aki had gone, "but why can't I just take you with me right now?"
She stopped shortly. "I have to pick someone up," she merely announced before entering the woods.
Any worry that the girl would have run too far in fear was short-lived, as Rei quickly spotted her "hiding" behind a tree that was actually thinner than her. If anything would have gone wrong, it was unlikely that she would have survived. But at least the chances were high that she hadn't witnessed too much, as she was cowering towards the opposite direction, clenching her eyes shut and covering her ears as she had been told to.
It worked well enough that Rei had to touch her after two failed vocal attempts to get Aki's notice, the child gasping in surprise as the hand came in contact with her head. "The danger was averted," Rei told her, now that she had her attention. "We can leave now."
Aki didn't ask for details. She took Rei's retreating hand to coax the teen into helping her up to her feet and didn't let go as they left the woods. She even tightened the grip, flinching when she saw Mr. Kaji in the jeep waiting for them on the road.
"Do not worry," Rei tried to soothe her. "He is here to help us."
Aki glanced once more from him to Rei and back again before she let out a timid "Hi..."
The man seemed equally baffled at the sight of the shy little girl hiding behind the other's skirt. A just-lit cigarette was quickly flipped out of the car without Kaji taking his eyes away from Aki.
"Um... hi?" he greeted back, giving Rei a look that she knew as one searching for answers.
"Her name is Aki. I met her yesterday," she explained quickly. "I am helping her find her parents. May we get going now?"
"Yeah, sure. Hop in," he muttered, still staring, but now giving the child a friendly smile. "I didn't mean to scare you, little one. Just... could it be that I know your parents?"
"I don't know you," Aki answered truthfully as she was helped by Rei into the backseat.
Kaji laughed. "No, I don't think we have met before. I wouldn't forget such a lovely little lady," he catered to her. "But there's something in your eyes that seems familiar..."
"I am certain that we will meet up with her parents soon," Rei interrupted, feeling the need to remind him of the severe situation at hand despite the shimmer of hope in Aki's eyes. "That is, as long as we start moving eventually."
"Right," Kaji turned back to the wheel. "So where do you want to go?"
"I was planning on leaving the city as far as possible and tried to head for Gotemba or Hadano. But if you will indeed manage to stop the attack, that will no longer be necessary."
"So you're okay with going to NERV then?"
"No," she shook her head. "Take us to my apartment. If the raid on the headquarters has been as aggressive as I fear, I do not wish to take her there now, even if it has ended by the time we arrive."
"Very well then," he announced as he shifted the gears, giving one last longing look at the ascending VTOL that just roared over their heads in direction of the Geofront.
Kaji neared the city more carefully, taking detours obviously to avoid any further dangerous encounters or getting caught between the fronts until they got notice that the firing has definitely ceased. Not to mention the fight among the EVAs that could reach them in a matter of seconds if just one of the giants were to leap in their direction.
Rei every so often shot glances at Aki. The fight was far from being harmless, none of the participants seemed to be without at least some bloody cuts from the sharp weapons that were used, even some limbs were missing. And just now, the enemy EVAs were gathering around the Jet Alone that had gone silent for some reason, ripping it to shreds.
It was hard to tell what scars such a fight could form on this innocent soul. Even more so with her... personal connection.
But fortunately, the lack of sleep was finally taking its toll on the girl now that she was feeling safe and her eyes fought harder to stay up than to bother watching the monsters outside.
A deafening explosion suddenly hit the jeep, shaking the vehicle through and through. Kaji's quick reflexes saved them from being turned over, the car turning halfway as it came to a screeching halt after the shockwave passed them.
It took only one look in the direction of the source to confirm Rei's fear. It was hard to tell if it was one of the enemies that had fallen and taken several of his brethren with it, but that didn't matter. EVA-02 was no longer on the battlefield.
Dread filled her as she looked at the unaware girl who was still covering her ears and clenching her eyes shut as though unsure whether or not the frightening experience was already over. Kaji, of course, understood instantly, just as Rei did. She could see the grief in the man's eyes as they met hers. But he had faced death often enough not to be disabled by the shock and pain.
"We should get going," he muttered gravely.
Rei was about to nod in agreement... but then it hit her. Just as Kaji turned the jeep back on course, an enormous amount of pain, despair and rage surged through her, with an intensity even beyond what she had thought herself capable of, if it had come from herself.
The others didn't seem to notice until a few seconds later, as a loud thunderstorm darkened the sky out of nowhere. But the sound wasn't a thunder. It was the roaring scream of EVA-01 as it spread its wings.
"Holy shit..." she heard Kaji cursing in awe, but she barely recognized it through the numbing emotions that were carried by the deafening scream.
"Ikari..." she begged quietly, clutching her aching head. "Ikari, don't..."
"What... what's happening?" Aki asked fearfully.
"He's calling it," Rei muttered, not sure herself whether she was answering or just stating the feelings that were surging through her. "He's calling it to end... to end everything..."
"Who's what?" Kaji asked with concern from the driver's seat.
"Ikari!" she repeated, almost yelling in pain. "Quick! We have to contact him! Before it is too late!"
"I doubt that we can. We'd be lucky just to find an open NERV frequency," Kaji argued, but was already working on the radio with one hand anyway.
"It... it's too late. It's coming..."
"...INJI, STOP IT ALREADY!" a familiar voice suddenly blared through the noise of the comm.
The pain, the infinite grief of an unbearable loss was instantly washed away by a tremendous relief that Rei wasn't sure of if it was just his, or her own as well. Looking back at the battlefield, she saw the Lance of Longinus pointing right at Unit-01's core – but was held safely in its hands.
The small passenger next to her was much too excited by something else to notice. "That..." she said hastily, pointing at the radio. "That was..."
"Yes," Rei concurred, nodding weakly, "that was her."
They couldn't see the end of the fight, their path taking them around a mountain shielding the view of the EVAs. But with Shinji wielding the Lance of Longinus, there was little doubt that he would easily finish off the enemies that survived Unit-02's self-destruction.
When it was finally announced over the comm that all combat operations were to be ceased, and all units were ordered to retreat and wait for further instructions, relief washed over the two inhabitants of the jeep who could make use of that information.
It was over. While it was impossible to tell yet if they'd be able to call it a victory, they were safe for now.
They had just stopped the vehicle in front of the apartment building she was living in, but the moment she stepped out of the jeep, her whole body screamed in pain. She broke down, oblivious to the frantic calls of her two companions. This pain was different from the one she had felt from Ikari. This seemed much more physical. She felt like she was on fire, her skin, then the flesh below it, burning. And the flames only stopped as they were crushed along with her body. Then...
It was all gone in a single instance.
"Rei!" she heard Aki's upset voice as she lifted herself up from the sidewalk, accepting Kaji's help halfway. The little girl wiped her sniffing nose with her arm. "Y-you awight?"
She had to look down at herself before she answered, surprising herself: "Yes."
"What happened?" Kaji inquired. "Something about Shinji again?"
"No... I think, Lilith..." she paused, as the meaning of that thought manifested in her mind, "Lilith's body was destroyed."
"Lilith...? HEY, careful!" He steadied her as she made a weak step, threatening to fall again. "Should I come up with you?"
"That will not be necessary," Rei assured him, the dizziness slowly fading. "And I take it you wish to go to NERV as soon as possible."
"Okay," Kaji gave in after a few seconds of thought. "But be careful. Who knows if they didn't leave any surprises."
They didn't wait to see him off. Taking Aki's hand in hers, she led the girl up the stairs to her apartment. The destruction was already evident before they even entered, the door having endured a heavy blast, as a large bulge showed in the metal. It only grew worse as they entered. There hadn't been much for the soldiers to ravage, but they had apparently taken what they could get.
Leaving the still baffled Aki behind, she went to the bed that had been thrown to the side, and strained to pull the heavy frame over until gravity took over, letting it land crashing back on its legs. The little girl's attention was returned to her by the loud sound, but her offered assistance as Rei heaved the mattress back up was rather redundant as she could hardly provide the necessary strength. As the bed was set, albeit not in its old position but diagonally in the room, she motioned for Aki to get on it.
"You can rest here now. I will search for your parents."
"Can't... can't I come with you?" the girl asked timidly, obviously scared by the thought of being left alone even if only for a short period of time, most of which she would probably spend sleeping.
"You are tired, are you not?" Aki reluctantly nodded. "The necessary trip might take an hour or longer. It is in your best interest to rest."
"But..." Aki muttered, trailing off. Apparently she was waiting for something to continue explaining her problem.
"But?" she repeated as offer.
"But w-what if the bad men come back?" she finished, cowering at the thought.
Rei regarded the frightened child for a moment. It would most likely make no sense trying to argue that the JSSDF soldiers were retreating and no longer a threat to their lives. Her eyes went to the next room, hidden by the partly ripped-down curtain.
"If you hear someone coming, you can take cover behind there," she advised, knowing fully well that it would provide no safety at all if someone would indeed try to harm her. But Aki accepted it with a nod, before lying down on the mattress, nestling her head in the just retrieved pillow.
Seeing her eyes closing, Rei turned to leave. She didn't get very far though. "Rei? Can you... stay here until I'm asleep?"
She didn't answer. She just went back and sat down on the mattress, where she remained for ten more minutes.
As she walked through the desolate city, Rei's thoughts still searched for an explanation for the conclusion she had come to. She still didn't know how it was possible, but she knew that it had to be. The mother's heritage. The father's knowledge and well-known words. And most of all the familiarity that she felt with the girl.
The last doubts had begun fading when Aki recognized the enemy's EVA series, then had been entirely wiped out when she identified her mother's voice.
While she couldn't find a logical explanation, while she didn't know how, she knew the identity of Aki's parents.
As she reached an access to the depth of the Geofront, a lone guard stood visibly shaken at the demolished entrance, a haunted look on his face. The rifle in his hand was held anything but steady. The JSSDF had apparently used a small warhead or several explosive charges to gain entry as only debris and blackened walls served as reminders of the heavy gates. That, and being the only man at a position that was meant to be secured by three, after such an attack, was enough to make the pale guard overly nervous at the mere sound of her feet.
"Halt! Who's...?" He lowered the gun as he recognized her distinguishing features. "Pilot Ayanami?"
She did not waste time with unnecessary greetings. "Where can I find pilots Ikari and Soryu?"
Shinji had been surprisingly lucky and had been able to leave the infirmary rather quickly. He had almost caught up with the girls as they reached the apartment complex, but they had walked in just as he wanted to shout for them. Hurrying after them, he ran up the stairs before he came panting to a stop in front of 402's demolished door. He hoped Rei had waited with that important announcement.
However, as he opened the door and stepped in, he instantly knew he had missed everything.
He found himself unable to move as his mind was busy contemplating whether the scene before him could actually be real or if he was still in the bed in the infirmary, dreaming an impossible dream. Light sobs rang through the air from where Asuka was kneeling on the floor, her good arm tightly wrapped around a little brown-haired girl that was hugging her back.
His little brown-haired girl.
"You're hurt," the voice he had longed to hear again for so many months said as Aki noticed the bandages on her mother's shoulder, but Asuka quickly shook her head.
"It's not bad. Not anymore," she hushed, probably lying partially. She must still have felt it, but he could easily figure that it was overshadowed by far by the feeling of holding her daughter in her arms again.
"Where have you been? And how come you look so strange? Your hair... it's so long."
"It's a long story," Asuka half sobbed, half chuckled. "I-I'll cut the hair as soon as we're home, okay?"
But Aki shook her head. "It looks nice," she said, backing off to regard her mother. "Are you sad?"
"No," Asuka laughed. "No, not at all."
"But you're crying...?"
Asuka cupped her daughters cheek, stroking it twice as if to reassure her of Aki's presence herself. "Smile when you're happy. Cry when you're sad," she repeated their old promise. "And do both when you're happier than you've ever been."
The girl didn't seem to understand completely, but nodded anyway. His girl...
"Aki..." he finally managed to breath out, calling the attention to him.
"Papa?" she said wonderingly, staring at him for another moment before she separated from her mother and laughingly ran to him, reaching her arms out to have him pick her up.
He would have done so anyway.
She squealed as he pulled her up, holding her tight. That small warm body against his, that sweet scent flooding his nostrils; he hadn't forgotten this, but it had never seemed so intense. He didn't want to ever let her go again.
Aki, however, apparently had other ideas as she backed off a bit. "You look funny too!"
"And you... you look just like the little angel I remember," Shinji breathed out, the silliness of his words eliciting an embarrassed giggle from the girl in his arms. His eyes briefly met those of his wife, looking at them contentedly as she reluctantly rose from the floor. "Just how did you get here?"
The question had rather been aimed at himself, but of course, she decided to answer anyway in the ever so enthusiastic way of a three years old. "I dunno, I woke up and all my toys were gone, even Kiko, and my pictures too and you and Mama weren't there, but that scary lady, who wasn't that scary actually 'cause she gave me cookies, but back then I thought she was scary so I ran away and everything was all weird and loud outside and so many people! I was really scared then, but then I met Rei and we went to an authory who wore some funny suit and we got new crayons, but they didn't just let me have them, 'cause they wanted some paper for it but they didn't just say so!" She pointed at the wall. "We did those pictures with the crayons! You like them?"
"Yes," Shinji laughed, pulling his energetic child close to him again. He only understood half of her story at best, but that didn't matter. It felt so good to have her back in his arms after all the time he had feared he'd never be able to hold her anymore. He would listen to anything she wanted to tell him, any drawing of hers would be a masterpiece worthy of exhibit, no matter how simple or crude it would seem to others. "They're great."
"Aren't they? We went home then, and that lady was still there, but I wasn't afraid with Rei and the lady gave me the cookies then. They were good." She got a little quieter. "But... but you still weren't there. So... so we went here. Oh, but first we ate Ramen! Did you know they have meat?"
"Really?" He acted amazed.
"Yeah! And then we went here and drew pictures and put them on the wall so it wouldn't look so sad! And then we went to sleep, but Rei woke up and me too and then she said we have to run far away from the bad guys and we went in a huuuge car! That was so big that I couldn't even see who was driving! And then we walked a looong, long way through the forest until my feet hurt and Rei said I would need shoes, but I don't like those! And we saw huge armors just like in your stories and they made a lot of noise. Then the bad men found us and I was really scared but Rei and Mr. Kaji scared them away! And then we drove back here and I heard Mama in the car and Rei was in pain, and later again, but then she was fine and I was supposed to sleep here while she was gone, but I was still afraid that the bad men would come back, so I soon woke up again and then there were sounds, so I hid, but then I saw that it was Mama, though
I wasn't sure if it was her at first, 'cause she looks so funny now!"
"My..." he gasped, trying not to worry too much about certain disconcerting elements of her tale. After all, she had made it through completely fine. "Sounds like you had a very exciting... day..."
Aki nodded, but that excitement was apparently short-lived and the lack of sleep was still demanding its toll as he noticed her rubbing her eyes. "I had lots of fun with Rei!"
"Rei?" he asked, and all eyes now were on the blue-haired teen. Up to now she had stood in the back of the room, silently watching the family reunion without interrupting. Now she seemed to shrink away under the sudden attention.
"Rei," Asuka repeated gratefully, walking the few steps towards her, before surprising the blue-haired girl by pulling her into a tight hug. "Thank you..."
Startled by the redhead's seemingly uncharacteristic behavior, it took Rei a while to react, before she – hesitatingly – returned the embrace. "You're... welcome..."
It was almost as if time had made a jump back – or forward – yet again. A family, finally united again, walking through the deserted city. Of course, the destruction to it wasn't nearly as severe. And the two parents, whose smiles just wouldn't fade, were still merely fourteen years in body.
"She's heavier than I remember," Shinji said along the way. Aki was riding on his shoulders, her arms instinctively wrapped around his head while her body rested against it in her sleep that had finally overwhelmed her. Even the prospect of Kiko waiting for her couldn't keep her awake anymore.
"Baka," Asuka chided mockingly. "My girl hasn't gotten heavier. It's you who are weaker."
"Yeah, I guess," he chuckled, carefully watching out that Aki wouldn't slip down. "Don't quite have the well-trained body of a hard working farmer anymore."
"Well, you could have exercised a bit," Asuka stated sternly. But that act quickly faltered again as she watched her sleeping daughter. Tears of joy threatened to form again as she lightly stroked her child's back with her good arm, still needing the contact to confirm that this wasn't just a dream. "She's back, Shinji. She's really back with us."
"And for her it was just a single day," Shinji mused, shaking his head as they entered their apartment building. "Why didn't she come with us right away? Kaworu said something about an 'unexpected joy' and that it would be even greater than an expected one. He certainly had a point," Shinji grinned, savoring the feel of his child's body resting against him, her warmth, her weight, the tiny fingers curling into his hair, even the little bit of drool running down the back of his head, "but I can't believe it was just for the surprise. Was it because we already had a body here while hers had to be brought back as well? Or was she not allowed to be here until we made sure that we succeeded? But then, why did she already come back after Kaworu's death and not after today?"
"Tell you what, Shinji," a wide grin sprawled over her face while they walked up the stairs. "I don't give a damn. She's back and that's all that matters to me."
He couldn't help but agree with that, yet remained silent for the rest of the way. Though just as they passed the threshold to their apartment, there was a light mumble to be heard from the sleeping child.
Rei looked around her, a strange feeling threatening to overwhelm her. The destruction didn't bother her much; she had never taken much care of the place anyway. She had lived here alone for many years and loneliness was nothing foreign to her. But somehow the apartment seemed emptier than ever before.
It had been such a pleasurable feeling, maybe surpassing any before, to watch the happiness in the faces of the reunited family. It had felt good to be thanked so thoroughly, even if she wasn't sure she deserved the gratitude for something that seemed to be a mere coincidence in the first place.
But now that they were gone, after having experienced such warmth, she felt cold again despite the rays of the sun falling through the windows. Their departure had taken something from her, leaving a void behind that she yearned to be filled again. She had thought that loneliness was nothing foreign to her...
But it was much worse now, that she knew what she truly missed.
As she took a step to the side, her foot brushed against something. Looking down, she saw a sheet of paper. Curious, she bent down to pick it up. And as she looked at it, her troubles suddenly didn't feel so bad anymore.
Carefully, she replaced it on the empty space on the wall, making sure the band-aid would stick again. The one in the upper left corner wouldn't though, no matter how often she ran her hand over it, so she ripped off a fresh one and replaced it. Her work finished, she took a step back, her gaze wandering from picture to picture.
Most of them showed members of the same family, a woman with red hair, a man with dark brown hair, and a child, a little girl. Some of them showed them together, in some there was only one or two of them. Some pictures just showed things that the girl liked. In some pictures was also a person with a patch of blue hair and two red dots that served as eyes. And there was the one Rei had done of Aki.
Eventually, Rei's view rested back on the picture in the middle, the one that she just had put up again. The small figure of the girl stood there next to the one with the blue hair, the lines of their arms intertwined. They all were smiling at Rei.
And Rei smiled back at them.
Entering her apartment, Misato felt thoroughly tired. The adrenaline that had kept her pumped during the day had long subsided, replaced by sheer satisfaction, but even the joy of having seen Kaji again currently seemed dwarfed by the joy of seeing a shower soon.
She took a deep breath as the door opened. It was finally over. Sure, there would still be a lot of paperwork coming up, a lot of decisions that still had to be made, a lot of questions still to be answered.
But the fights were over. Hopefully once and for all.
Kicking her shoes from her aching feet, not caring to place them neatly to the side, she walked in, not noticing Shinji who stood in front of his room until she almost bumped against him.
"Shinji!" The weariness seemed instantly gone when, as if on reflex, her arms flung around the just as surprised boy.
"Mi-Misato..." he whispered. "It's good to see you, but..."
"Misato!" Asuka hissed just as low as him, cutting him off as she came around the corner, apparently having heard her loud greeting. "Shh! Be..."
Their guardian didn't really listen, though, and instead startled the redhead as she pulled her into the tight embrace as well.
"Oh god, it's so good to see you!" Misato squealed in glee. "Where have you two been? When I got to the infirmary you were already gone."
"Geez, I wonder what took you so long to get there," Asuka muttered, while she tried to struggle against the bear hug as she caused Misato to blush with the reminder of her "emotional" reunion with Kaji. "But be quiet already!"
"Quiet? Why...?" Misato loosened the embrace, looking puzzled first at Asuka, then at Shinji for answers. But instead her surprise grew when she noticed the pen in Shinji's hand and faintly recalled him using it at his door before she almost crashed into him. And just as her view shifted to the wood in search for the mark, she could just make out that his name on the heart-shaped sign she once had put there was crossed out and replaced with something else. But what that was, she couldn't read anymore as the door was suddenly moved to the side.
"Mama...?" a small, tired voice called out and Misato's arms now finally released her charges, falling limply to her sides just as her mouth fell open in surprise at the sight of the little brown-haired girl that stood there in the door frame, rubbing her sleepy eyes with one hand, a red-haired doll clutched in the other.
Asuka didn't hesitate to drop down, gently stroking the girl's back. "Hey Schätzchen. Did we wake you?" she asked, with a concern Misato had never heard from her before. After a responding nod, she pulled the child even closer, rocking her slightly. "Oh, I'm sorry. Did you sleep well at least?"
"Uh-huh..." came a still timid reply.
Misato's confused mind barely could find the words as she looked at Shinji in search for an explanation. "Is... is that...?"
"Yeah," he plainly answered, though his smile, easily the broadest she had ever seen from him, would already have been answer enough.
"Misato Katsuragi?" Asuka asked overly formally, slowly standing up, her hand still on her daughter's back as she stepped aside and cleared the space between the two strangers and the curious eyes of the oldest and the youngest met. "May I introduce... Aki Ikari?"
An unknown ceiling.
Only slowly, he became aware of his surroundings. He found himself unable to move, even to speak; and he had no feeling at all in his right arm. But he was still alive...
So he wasn't even allowed to see her again this way? Maybe he really didn't deserve it...
The sound of an opening door made his ears perk up, but he couldn't even move his head to see who was there, coming into this room.
"You really want to do this?"
That voice was familiar. Yes, it was... that girl...
"I have waited long enough for this. I can't put it off forever." That was the boy, his son. "And it's not like Misato needs another hand to hold."
"Who's that?" That was a voice he didn't know. High-pitched, like from a small child.
"That is my father," Shinji said. "Your grandfather."
Grandfather? Could it have been so long already?
"Is he sleeping?" The young voice again. "It's not bedtime. Why don't you wake him up?"
"He... he won't wake up..." Shinji said, sounding almost regretful.
"Is he lying here because of that? Is he ill?"
"No, he... he got hurt pretty badly."
The face of a brown-haired girl suddenly filled his vision, curiously looking at him.
"How can he sleep with his eyes open?" she asked.
Shinji now stepped into his view as well. He couldn't tell for sure without his glasses, but the boy actually didn't look much older after all when he put his hand on the little girl's shoulder. "Aki... It's not like when we are sleeping for a few hours. He sleeps for a long time."
Aki? That name...? This was Aki? After all...?
"But he doesn't look happy like this," she pouted, looking up at her father. "We should wake him up!"
Shinji smiled down at her. "I told you, he won't wake up. The doctors said they don't know if he ever will again."
"Never?" she asked again and the boy shook his head. The girls blue eyes showed honest concern as they turned back to his. "But it would be sad." Another flicker to her father. "Are they sure?"
"I'm afraid they are."
She seemed to ponder that for a second, before... smiling brightly. "I know! It's like in the fairytale! If I give him a kiss, he'll surely wake up!"
Her father apparently moved to stop her, and so he would have himself if he would have been able to, but Aki was faster. Her small mouth squarely met his in a short peck. "Are you awake now?"
There was a hesitant chuckle from Shinji as well as from that girl, Asuka, outside his vision. "Aki," she called to get the slightly disappointed child's attention, "come, why don't we leave Papa to talk with Grandpa and check on Auntie Misato?"
Aki regarded him once more. "Bye Grandpa!" she said, before she left his view. Shortly after, the door opened and shut again.
How could this be? It had lasted only the fraction of a second, but he could still feel that touch. She was gone, but he could still see that smile.
How could this be? Something like this hadn't happened since... her...
The sound of screeching metal, scrapping against the floor interrupted his thoughts.
"This must be strange to you," Shinji spoke, apparently having sat down in a chair somewhere next to his bed. "She doesn't even know you and she still loves you, just because you are her father's father. That is something you never understood; that someone could love you without a better reason than being of your blood. Who knows if she would, if she did know you..." he muttered under his breath.
"Then again, it's hard to imagine her not liking someone. It's funny in a way that someone, who lived pretty much alone, not knowing anyone but her parents for most of her life could adapt and open up so quickly to others. And that as a child of two people who always had so many problems with just that. In her first week in kindergarten, she made more friends than I did in my entire life." He laughed quietly, his pride seeping through his voice.
"You might wonder why you're still alive. Actually, everybody does. The doctors tried to explain it, but even though having studied medicine for several years, I barely understood it. Granted, neurology wasn't part of my studies. But apparently your aim was distracted in the last second, maybe because of a tremor or maybe you even rethought it when your finger was already pulling the trigger.
"Though you still would have died if Ritsuko hadn't found and helped you. At first she always said she didn't even know why she had done it. Later she changed it to 'Having to live in this condition is a bigger punishment for him than death'. She's still visiting you fairly often though. I don't really know what to make of it – none of us does, actually. Probably not even herself."
Akagi... Ritsuko... did...?
"Speaking of visiting... You're probably wondering why I came with everyone though sit here alone with you now. Well, to be honest, you weren't the main reason for this visit to the hospital. Misato is... well, it looks like Aki is going to have a little playmate soon." Again Shinji laughed. "Surprisingly, Kaji proposed almost immediately, but she declined. I guess she just wants to leave him hanging for a while as payback, but somehow I doubt she can hold it up longer than a few more months.
"On the other hand, Asuka and I are going to marry again soon, in three weeks to be exact. I would have thought it would have taken longer to get a license, given our physical age, but I have the feeling Misato pulled some strings there. I guess I should say something like 'I wish you would be there as well', but I'm not sure if that would be entirely honest," he sighed.
"I guess you also wonder about Rei. She hasn't visited yet, has she? You really should see her, it's almost like she's a different person. Well, okay, that's a little far-fetched, but still... Did you know she had talent as an artist? I guess not; she started after she had met Aki. But really, her pictures are pretty amazing. I've actually seen a letter from a gallery in her apartment when we were over, but she wouldn't tell me about it.
"Aki and she are pretty much inseparable when they're together. It's quite fascinating to watch them interacting – I'd almost dare to say 'cute'. Just last week we were at the fair with them for the first time, and both of them had the very same look of awe on their faces as they stared up at the Ferris wheel."
His chuckling ebbed away then. "There was some talk whether or not we'd have to move away; get a new identity to ensure that we could live in peace. Of course it would be safer, I mean we all know of the religious fanatics out there and potential unhappy followers of SEELE wouldn't greet us friendly if we'd met them on the street, either. It would also give us an easy opportunity to adjust our age a little and have an 'official' birth certificate for Aki, as that would avoid a lot of awkward questions and formalities about our unusual family situation. After all, even some people who know us didn't believe that she really is our daughter until we had the results of the DNA test.
"But Asuka doesn't want to hear about it, and I have to admit, neither do I. It's not just the loss and denial of our names and pasts. Aki just got used to the life here, it wouldn't do her any good to rip her out of yet another world and away from her just-found friends. And SEELE shouldn't be too much of a threat for a while anyway.
"Chairman Keel was found dead, apparently having suffered a heart attack around the time of their attack. It was guessed that the stress was too much to be compensated by his implants. As for the others... Well, Kaji somehow 'forgot' to disarm his computer worm and caused a lot of ruckus in politics worldwide. One of the named SEELE members committed suicide after the news got out, another also attempted to, but was found before he succeeded. The rest are either denying their role in the organization or trying to blame the other members in hope of getting off easily. So they should be busy enough ripping each other's head off, before coming for us.
"Another reason we'd like to stay is that the Yamaderas have offered us that we could buy our old house again as they had already settled for living with their son in Tokyo-2 and would be glad to have us have it. We've met them quite a few times since Aki's little adventure, you know? Strangely enough, they were one of the few who believed us instantly when we presented ourselves as her parents. We'll still have to see how we handle the finances, but the thought of going home is more than intriguing, especially with our current living conditions. We don't want to have Aki living in my small, windowless room for much longer after all, and Kaji and Misato will soon need more space as well."
Shinji took a deep breath after all the talking and there was a long pause before he continued. "You... you know, there's something else I wanted to admit to you," he muttered lowly. "Maybe... maybe I can understand you a little better now. When I thought I had lost everything, I was almost willing to follow your path. It was only for a short moment, but it would have been a fatal one. Because then I really would have lost everything. Maybe that was the only thing you never quite understood..."
The door opened again, ending Shinji's monologue. The redhead stepped into his view, carrying her child who held onto her shirt. "Hey, are you finished yet?" Asuka asked quietly. "Misato's check-up is already done."
Shinji looked once more at him before he slowly rose from his seat. "Yeah, I think so," he answered as he met the two. Aki grinned broadly at her father, instantly getting hold of his clothes with one hand in an attempt to climb over to him, which he assisted by taking her from Asuka's arms. "Hey, my little angel. Did you have fun?"
The child's smile formed into a pout. "They didn't let me play with the dollies."
"She means the models of a fetus in various stages," Asuka explained half groaning, half amused, ruffling her daughter's hair what succeeded to change the pout back to its former state. Leaning towards him, she placed a short kiss on Shinji's cheek. "So, how is he?"
But Gendo couldn't follow the discussion much longer. The low chatter faded out and the veil before his eyes seemed to grow again, leaving the picture of this family lingering in his mind as the last one before sleep slowly consumed him again.
Unnoticeable to him, he smiled at that thought. That was what he had always wanted. He had almost forgotten it over the path he had taken in these past ten years, but... they had been like that once too. Only with Yui gone, there had been a critical part missing that he couldn't see replaced by anyone else but her. Without her, they couldn't have possibly been happy.
Now Shinji had all he had ever wanted for himself. A life with people who loved him without question. People he could be happy with.
Gendo felt envy toward his son for that. But most of all, he – for once – was as proud of him as a father could possibly be.
A/N: Teeth still all right? Insulin levels in check? I know, I know, it was a bit over the top, clichéd happy ending; everyone's united, every(good)one is happy, the bad guys are taken care off... but sue me, I like them happy endings. And it's not like I didn't warn you. ;P
Was the chapter all that necessary? Well, there you're asking the wrong guy, as author I'd naturally say yes. Even if it might be seen "just" as overlong epilogue (despite featuring the actual epilogue at the end) by some. But it'd hardly been fun to have Aki barely come face to face with all the oddities the "normal" life features, would it? And I also wanted Rei to once more have a bigger role, beyond "The 16th".
- I was thinking of having Aki sing "Hänschen Klein" instead of the "Männlein im Walde", as that has wandering as theme. But a song about a "guy with purple cloak" was too alluring...
- Having Aki retelling the entire chapter on her own terms might wasn't quite necessary I guess, but I really loved the idea of having her describing the train as "a huuuge car". :D
- Rei's final scene is one of my personal favorites in the entire story. Getting there, however, was a pain in the butt. Rei certainly wouldn't have drawing utensils at home, and it was already a stretch to get Aki returning with her clothes on (the whole "she fell asleep like that"). Sure, as said, I wanted to show some conflicts between her and the "normal" world and her trying to walk out of a store without knowing that you have to pay is a perfect example. But all in all, those crayons did quite some damage... XD
- Two of my pre-readers pointed out that it wasn't quite obvious how much time passed between Misato meeting Aki and going to the hospital. Personally, I thought it was obvious that it wasn't just a couple of days, but not that long either (the years of studying medicine that Shinji is talking about of course were those in the post-TI world). But I wanted to leave it ambiguous on purpose, as a fixed time would only give me troubles with... ah, see below...
Well, that's it. After more than four years (actually exactly five by the day this is released) "The 2nd try", certainly for a long time my longest fanfic, is finally finished. Granted, it weren't very consistent four (/five) years. Still, it has come a long way from the idea of that very first scene and wondering what could have led to Asuka and Shinji sharing a secret affection.
While it was by far my most ambitious story, it certainly wasn't perfect. More than often a certain, um... "naivety" shined through, whether it was early on, like Shinji and Asuka coming to terms with the traumatic events of the TI awfully fast, their new home being in almost perfect shape; or just in the last few chapters, like the JA thing or Kaji uncovering SEELE. Some things I tried to fix or explain later on, some not. Some I'd probably willingly do again, as – like I said in the A/N to "16th" – it's just fanfiction. This is supposed to be for fun, not to enter the top-lists of world's literature.
Though... fun or not, one thing that bothered me somewhat was how I oftentimes used Gendo and Misato just to keep the story in line and I fear, especially in Gendo's case, it more than once hurt the characterization.
Not every idea I ever had for this actually made it into the cut. In one omitted plot line, Asuka was supposed to have been pregnant again shortly before they've returned, but hadn't told Shinji yet to surprise him. The 15th would have used that as final stroke, asking how she'd dare to gain strength from Shinji when "You never even told him about me?" (as "another" voice would have asked). Shortly after (or slightly before?), Asuka would have gotten pregnant again, which in the end – of course – would have been that second child she'd presumingly lost in the time jump. But while the pregnancy would have been a neat reason to bring Kaworu in as replacement pilot, the pregnancies just would have
been too many and the second child would have taken some of Aki's importance away. The "it won't ever be her again"-talk originated from the time of that second(third) pregnancy though.
The "friends" theme might have been handled slightly different, too. I was thinking of giving Aki an invisible friend or have her treating Kiko as such and have her parents worrying about that. But in the end, I liked it better with her unknowing instead (also because of her finding her first friend in Rei here) .
Another, never seriously followed, idea was to have Asuka and Shinji split up for some reason after Aki's birth, and only her disappearance after their time jump got them back together. As said, never seriously wanted to go through with that; it was just something that popped up in my mind while writing those "Shinji returns with her from a trip" scenes. ;
One thing I have to admit that I never even though about, but several readers pointed out: Having Aki herself as the reason for the time jump. I never considered it because a) she was always supposed to be a normal girl (so no crazy angelic post Impact powers whatsoever) and b) her talk to the red sea in "raise", which apparently brought many to the idea that it could have been her wish for her parents' sake instead of the other way round, was written long after I had done the flashback in "17th" so I guess I was kinda blind to that option. XD
Another thing I've seen a couple of readers wondering about were the wild animals in the post-TI world; especially the scene with the monkeys in "raise" had several people wondering, it seems. First off, they didn't come from a zoo, macaques do actually live in Japan (how many would have survived the Impact(s) is another thing, but I pretty much ignored that problem anyway, so...). The question is rather why they'd try to kidnap Aki... maybe to compensate something...? -hinthint-
All in all, it was never meant to be a huge story arc about fighting the wild forces of nature. Sure, with the humans gone, animals would get more often into the cities, also dangerous ones. But that was all there is to it: I merely wanted to show that there is a kind of danger looming over the otherwise rather carefree post-TI world, something Aki needed to be protected from. Nothing more, nothing less.
Now, I'd like to give some credits to those stories that inspired me for this. Not necessarily so you won't get bored now with something "new" to read (some might even be unreadable at the latest since ffn's filters started to affect old stories), but I think it's only fair. So congratulate yourself if you spotted the influences, laugh at me, shake your head in disbelief or grunt in annoyance for seeing that credited yet again:
First of all there'd be Strike Fiss' well-known "Higher Learning". I actually didn't realize the (blatant) similarities until later, but it deserves this place anyway already for being the fic that hooked me to the Eva-fandom.
Secondly, there'd be "Destiny and Time" by Locke1. Many have followed since I read it, better and worse, but it (or rather it's unfinished sequel) was the first "true" time-travel/second chance type that I read, so it gets mentioned here.
A lot of the main idea came from darksaber's "The Sandman Effect", in which their blissful post-TI life was nothing but an Angel-induced dream. While the story itself isn't exactly a favorite of mine, focusing more on love-triangles and misunderstandings, I (obviously) really liked that premise. The name "Aki" actually originated from this one (as did the idea to the beginning of "repeat" with Asuka asking Shinji to tell her that it wasn't just a dream).
And I guess a nod to Kimigabuchi's famous RE-TAKE doujin-series shouldn't be missing either. While it didn't really affect the overall story (the first volume having been released years after I thought this out), it certainly had some influence on a scene or two.
And I'd like to thank all my pre-readers, even if they probably often gave me more trouble than anything else. :P
First of all, for this chapter Eric Blair, Tarage, LD and William T. Martin. Beyond these four: Divine Chaos, Bal'ferrin, Fool's Gold, Nova, Leathal GD Weapon, dan01, Zeroasalimit and dennisud (who deserves special mentioning for getting me into having a quality check at all, for what it was worth). Thanks a lot guys, even though many of you aren't active any more and probably won't ever read this.
Credits also go to the guys who liked this story so much that they translate(d) it for their landsmen to enjoy: the ever so fast L-Voss (Polish), beamknight87 (Spanish), and Seppuku/Chad/EvilClone(The Breeze)/whoever else is working on the German translation I'm too lazy for. :P
The biggest thanks, of course, goes out to all you readers who sticked to this story over the past five years – and put up with the endless delays.
Well, and that concludes it. More or less. I still want to go at least over chapters 6 and 7 once more. I still want to have at least one picture per chapter for the pages where it's possible (ie, evamade and my own hp). And I'm actually thinking of doing a commentary version for my hp... but somehow I doubt there'll be enough interest for that (I guess most are already skipping the endless notes here. :P)
And there's another thing that's going to keep me attached to the T2t universe. So before I get comments like "sequel plz!", "gimme more details about the stuff Shinji's talking about in the end!" or "how did (...) react to Aki?"... well, you might want to take a look at my homepage (if you not reading this there already, you should be able to find a link in my profile). ;)