DISCLAIMER: The characters, story, universe, etc. of Neon Genesis
Evangelion belong to GAINAX. They're not mine, and I make no claim to
them.

Foreword: Well, here I am again, writing Eva fics. The response I got
for "An Unwilling Angel" was so strong that I figured I might as well
try it again.

No, this is not a sequel to my last fic. This is a whole new story,
taking place within the Eva universe. What kind is it? Well, my last
fic was a series-divergent thing, so I figured this time around I'd try
a continuation.

The standard warnings apply for this fic, but in addition, I'll throw
in this one: You will hate me for this. You will think me a filthy
hypocrite who deserves a bullet in the brain. You will think up all
sorts of horrible ways to make me regret ever having started writing
fics. All I can say is, trust me. Juuuust trust me. ^_^

But enough of this; odds are you just skipped over the foreword anyway.
Let's get down to business:

----------------------------------------------------------------------

" " = speech
^ ^ = thoughts
_ _ = emphasis (italics)

----------------------------------------------------------------------
Angels of Armageddon
Author: Ryan Xavier
Chapter 1: A World Reborn

It was over. The world had ended.

There was a sea of thought, present within a sea of primordial ooze,
LCL. Individuality was a thing of the past. All was one. The
thoughts of many were combined into a single whole. The Eighteenth
Angel. The heir to all that was, and all that would be.

But...in the past years, that whole had been shrinking. The entities
that composed it were aware of this. Some ignored it, preferring to
remain in their unified state. Others recognized the change and
embraced it. Those who did so were the next ones to vanish from the
whole.

It was not a frequent occurrence by far, but every so often, an AT
fields would light up in the LCL. As each AT field activated, another
soul was removed. At one point in time - though time was a moot point
for the Eighteenth Angel - another AT field activated, but only barely.

An ordinary piece of the Eighteenth Angel would not have been able to
control its AT field to this extent. But this piece was slightly
different. Though integrated into the whole with the rest of the
world, it was capable of a much larger degree of control over itself
and the Angel as a whole.

^The sea of LCL is shrinking,^ the entity thought. ^Yet this was to be
expected. With Third Impact denied, then those who were joined have
the capacity to go back to being individuals. But why would they?^

The entity thought about this for some time. It couldn't reason out an
answer.

^Because they have a reason to,^ came another voice. The first entity
took notice of this new arrival. It was also generating an AT field.
It had gone one step further, to the point that it could not only
establish its individuality but also communicate.

^Impossible...^ the first entity thought. It strengthened its own AT
field to allow communication. ^You should not even be able to exist.^

^By the same token, you should not exist. Yet you do.^

^I am different from you.^

^Not in this form. And it seems I was joined with you just prior to
Impact. Hence, I survived, because you did.^

^It should not be possible.^

^Yet it happened. Now, I believe you were asking why people were
leaving?^

^Yes...^ the first entity replied. ^And you said...^

^Because they have a reason to,^ the second entity repeated. ^Some go
back because they can see no other option. Others recognize what they
are giving up, but prefer reality to a lie, no matter how painful
reality may be.^

^I do not understand.^

^Of course. I myself cannot fully comprehend it, either. Yet it
continues.^

^But I...^ the entity trailed off, having just used a pronoun to refer
to itself for the first time in an eternity. It cleared its mind and
continued. ^But I...did what I was supposed to. I made a perfect
world.^

^Perfection is in the eye of the beholder. Some lilum prefer to be
individuals.^

^But they will be in pain.^

^They prefer the pain. Because it reminds them that they are alive.
Without pain, the Lilum are unaware of their own existence. But there
are avenues to escape pain, as well.^

^What do you mean?^

^It is difficult to understand. Here, the Lilum are joined as one.
When they are apart, they also seek to join with others. But they
prefer to do this while maintaining their sense of self.^

^Then they will never achieve full joining,^ the first entity
concluded, logically.

^True. But they do not seem to care. They seem to prefer _seeking_
unity, instead of having it _given_ to them.^

The first entity pondered this for a long time. The second one waited
patiently.

^I...believe I may understand. I have but a fleeting, hazy memory.^

^It is a start. Many lilum have less than that.^

^I suppose so. But...for a moment, I understood the theory you're
putting forth. To join your soul with one person.^

^Yes. Does this interest you?^

^I do not know.^

^You should.^

^Yet I do not. And yet I...doubt I can follow this avenue. The entity
I may have desired in this way is no longer present.^

^He died?^

^No. He left the sea of LCL.^

^You can do so, as well.^

The first entity gave the mental equivalent of a nod. It had
originally thought that it was trapped here, having created the world
it was supposed to live in. But in the time since the sea of LCL had
first been created, it had slowly come to realize that it could also
depart. But it had remained by choice.

^It was my purpose to create this world,^ it argued. ^It is not
logical to abandon it.^

^Look around,^ the second entity replied, its 'voice' almost harsh.
^The world you created is collapsing in on itself. It makes more sense
to leave.^

^Then why have you not left?^

^As I said, I was joined with you. Neither of us can leave unless the
other does, as well.^

^Interesting. But...it would mean a return to pain.^

^Yes.^

^I lived in pain for nearly my entire life. More pain than any other
human would ever feel. I don't wish to go back to that.^

^You are still different, you know. Just that you can create an AT
field of this caliber without departing the sea of LCL is evidence
enough. You may leave, and if you wish, later you may give up your
body again and return to this form.^

Another long silence followed.

^The pain will return...^ the first entity began, again. ^But...I
still wish to know why the souls are leaving...^

^You are pondering your feelings, it seems.^

^Yes, I am. I may feel the same as the other humans do.^

^Then?^ the second entity asked, its voice expectant.

^Then let us return.^

The second entity agreed. In the sea of LCL, two AT fields appeared.
LCL was drawn together, as two humanoid forms took shape. Then...

SPLASH.

A small geyser of LCL erupted as both entities took full physical form.
Their lungs filled with the liquid, weighing them down and causing them
to sink to the bottom. But they were not far from land. One took the
other, and led the way to the surface.

And back to life.

* * *

If you'd been sitting on the beach, you would have seen the depression
in the orange LCL sea form, just before the splash had erupted. Then,
had you been looking very hard, you'd have seen a dark, blurry shape
moving along the bottom of sea. The form walked up the incline of the
beach, towards the dry land beyond.

A head broke the surface, LCL falling down in rivulets off of its
silvery-gray hair. The owner of the head kept walking up, coming
completely into view.

It was definitely a boy who was walking. He had a slight build and was
quite pale, but he also looked very determined. Each step brought him
a little further up. As he kept walking, it became obvious that he was
carrying something in his arms. Another step, and his burden broke the
surface: it was a girl, her skin as pale as the boy's, but with blue
hair instead of gray.

The boy kept walking, somehow handling the weight of the girl as though
she weighed nothing. The boy was wearing a short-sleeved white shirt
and black pants - a school uniform from back before Third Impact. The
girl, however, was naked. They both choked up lungfuls of LCL as they
were finally exposed to the air.

The boy kept walking, still determined, until he made it up onto the
beach. It was there that he fell to his knees. He put the girl down
as gently as he could, and then fell face-first into the sand,
breathing in the air he hadn't tasted for what felt like forever. The
grainy sand plastered itself onto their bodies, sticking to the goo
that covered them both like a second skin.

After a while, the boy's lips curled into a smile. "We made it," he
said, speaking into the ground. He was too tired to get up. "We're
here."

The girl groaned, rolling over and opening her eyes. Blood-red irises
looked up at the heavens. It was a blue sky again, not the red/orange
sky it had been back before the Eighteenth Angel had begun to lose its
power.

The boy threw himself onto his back and opened his eyes, which were
also red. He coughed lightly from the sand he'd inhaled.

"You did not have to carry me," the girl said.

"You were not moving. I knew how weak I was, and I figured you would
need help."

"Yet you have exhausted yourself."

"It was worth it, Ayanami," the boy said, using a name for the first
time. He glanced over at her. "And why aren't you wearing clothes?"

Ayanami got up into a sitting position, making some cursory effort to
brush the abrasive sand off of her skin. She held her legs against her
chest and looked out onto the sea. "We all come back as we see
ourselves,"she responded. "You are not unchanged, Nagisa-kun."

The boy did his best to quirk an eyebrow. "What do you mean?" he
asked.

Rei reached down and lightly traced a line on his neck. Sure enough,
going all the way around his neck was a pale scar, a jagged, pink strip
of half-healed flesh, as thick as the girl's finger.

"That is what you remember, and how you see yourself now," Rei added.
She then fell silent, looking out onto the ocean.

Kaoru fingered his scar. He was interested, but at the same time he
understood where it came from. There were many - much worse - other
things that could be wrong with him, he reasoned.

After a while, he found the strength to sit up. "Night will fall
soon," he said, looking at the sky. "It will get cold."

Rei nodded, barely.

"I'll see if I can find something for you to wear," he said, getting to
his feet. He was promptly overcome by nausea, falling back to his
knees, gasping.

"Returning is not an easy thing," Rei said, not looking at him.
"Conserve your strength."

Kaoru ignored her, forcing himself back to his feet. "I'll be fine,"
he said. "But you won't be if you freeze out here."

Rei made a small noise of agreement.

Kaoru stumbled away from the beach, sure that Rei would stay where she
was. The exercise actually woke him up, forcing his brain back to full
consciousness. His muscles were still quite tired, but he made himself
keep moving. If he fell asleep now, then all the work of returning
would be meaningless.

To keep himself conscious, he started brushing at his body, dusting off
the sand. He also started looking around, getting a look at what the
world was like after Third Impact.

The view was not very encouraging.

He was surrounded by desolation and destruction. The very landscape
had been warped by the cataclysm that had come not so long ago. The
soil was stained a red-brown color resembling that of rust. Rocks of
all sizes had been scattered about. Perhaps those rocks had once been
buildings, but there was no way to tell; some of them had been outright
melted.

Yet Japan had not been completely levelled. All around, there were
broken panes of glass, pieces of cars, and shattered homes, scattered
like dust to the wind. Yet they were all intact enough to show that
they had once been inhabited. Even in the face of total annihilation,
some indications of humanity's presence still remained.

He reached a structure, something that might have once been a house.
But the explosion of Third Impact had gutted it, nearly pushing it to
the ground. He mentally shrugged and looked around for a way in. He
eventually ducked in through a window, the once-upright pane of glass
now shattered into a million glittering pieces, undisturbed for what
must have been years.

Inside was more chaos. Ruined furniture and pieces of the walls
littered the floor. An abandoned doll lay upside-down against a chunk
of the rubble, its stitched face still locked into a smile. The toy's
arm was missing, and its clothes were covered in dust and ash. Kaoru
briefly wondered if somewhere there was a little girl, crying over her
missing doll.

But he didn't have time for idle thoughts like that. He looked around
for something he could use, his white shoes crunching on the ruined
plaster. Luckily for him, the setting sun gave just the right angle
that its last beams came in through a hole in the roof, offering very
good illumination.

He found a door that led downstairs, to a basement. The stairs were
destroyed, but he managed to clamber down through the ruins, which had
made a haphazard ramp. At one point, his foot slipped, and he lashed
out wildly, only just barely grabbing a handhold before falling.
Catching his breath and wiping the sweat off of his brow, he continued
down.

Downstairs was still in disarray, but more collected than the rest of
the house, possibly by merit of having been underground. In a closet,
Kaoru hit the jackpot: some clothes sitting in a dresser. Most of it
was mildewed and shredded, but he managed to find some women's clothing
that was at least serviceable. He also made sure to find shoes before
he left, remembering how grateful he'd been that his feet were covered
back upstairs.

With his prizes in tow, he went back up into the house, and outside.
The climb back up the 'stairs' went more smoothly than the climb down
had been, but as the wind picked up, the entire house groaned and
swayed, eddies of dust falling from every crack and crag. Kaoru sped
up, getting out of the house as quickly as he could.

He walked back to the beach, where Rei still sat, apparently not having
moved since he'd left.

"Here," he said, dropping the clothes down next to her. "I hope
they're your size."

Rei glanced at the pile. "They will suffice," she responded. She
maintained her sitting position a moment longer, then got up and began
to get dressed. Kaoru looked away, not out of concern for modesty, but
because he was interested in the rest of the landscape.

"Do you know where we are?" he asked, offhandedly.

"It appears we are still in Japan," Rei replied, pulling on a dress.
"Just outside of Tokyo-2, judging from the ruins."

The clothes fit, more or less. The dress was a simple white, though
age and dust had darkened the color slightly. The seams were frayed
and it was tight in some places while loose in others. But, it was
better than nothing. Rei didn't have problems with modesty, but she
_did_ know it was a good idea to have some insulation against cold
weather.

Kaoru heard the rustles of Rei's dressing stop as she finished pulling
on her clothes. "Well then, that's a start," he said. "I'd suggest we
get moving, but..." he stopped, sitting down on the sand, "I don't
really want to move, right now."

"We should seek shelter, Nagisa-kun."

"That would be even more dangerous than staying out here," Kaoru
replied. "The nearest house is ready to collapse. I doubt we'll find
anything within easy walking distance."

"That is logical," she said. She lay down next to him, looking back up
at the sky.

"We can start looking for Lilum settlements in the morning," Kaoru
said, glancing at her. "There should be something set up, somewhere."

"Very well," Rei said, turning on her side. Kaoru did likewise, so
they were lying back-to-back, next to each other to conserve body heat.

Kaoru's eyelids drooped, and he felt his mind shutting down.
"It's...still good to be back," he said.

"I suppose so...yes, it is," Rei responded. She closed her own eyes.
In moments, they were both asleep.

* * *

Rei and Kaoru woke up early the next morning, and started walking. In
the distance, they'd seen the ruins of Tokyo-2. They headed towards
the city, since that was logically the best place for more humans to
go.

It took them a day's worth of steady walking. For the first few hours,
their only problems were tired legs. After that, hunger set in. To
get their minds off of their rumbling stomachs, they talked to each
other. Any subject was worth a few words, so long as it kept the
silence at bay and distracted them. For the first hour or two, Kaoru
did most of the talking. Rei slowly opened up, if only because the boy
was giving no sign that he intended to shut up.

The subject of conversation eventually drifted over to something they'd
both been subconsciously avoiding: Shinji Ikari.

"I wonder how Shinji-kun is doing..." Kaoru began, his voice starting
to go hoarse from the constant talking on his part. He stopped,
knowing he might have just made a mistake bringing this up, but he
continued anyway. "He was the first one to leave, you know."

"He and Soryu," Rei corrected.

"Yes, of course. Do you think he's doing well?"

"I do not know. I have not seen him, so I cannot answer."

"Then I'll correct myself. How do you hope to find him?"

"..."

"_I_ hope he is well," Kaoru replied, answering his own question.
"Shinji-kun was my best friend. We meant a lot to each other. And I
know him. If it was at all possible for him to survive, then he would
have."

"I suppose so," Rei responded.

Kaoru fell silent, choosing his next words as he concentrated on the
sound of their footsteps. He was breathing hard by this point, and
even Rei was beginning to sweat.

"You want to find him though, don't you, Rei?" He used her first name,
since they'd been each other's only companions for long enough that it
only made sense.

"I would like to see him."

"So would I. But is that all? Do you want to say anything to him?"

"I do not know."

Kaoru grinned a little. "Do you want him to smile at you?"

"Perhaps."

"Do you want him to touch you?"

"..."

"That's a 'yes', coming from you, isn't it, Rei?"

"..."

"You need to change, you know. Shinji-kun often talked with me about
you. He found you interesting, but always distant and mysterious."

"I do not know how to change," Rei said, accelerating slightly. "I am
who I am."

Kaoru forced his legs to move faster. "Once, at night, he was trying
to go to sleep, but he couldn't. He talked to me about you. I clearly
remember that at one point he said you were attractive, in your own
way."

Rei slowed down again, as Kaoru studied her face intently. There: he
could see a slight blush creeping over her cheeks.

"Does that embarass you?" he asked.

"I...yes, it does."

"That's a start, Rei. You're trying to block out that emotion, because
you don't understand it. Why don't you try exploring it a little?"

"..."

"Well, I can't expect too much from you in a day. It is just something
to think about."

After that, the conversation died off. Kaoru was too short of breath
to try any long sentences, and Rei appeared to be lost in her own
thoughts, as usual.

They finally came to the ruins of Tokyo-2. The city had not come out
unharmed; most of the old skyscrapers were canted over precarious
angles. But they were both sure it was better off than Tokyo-3, which
had been right at the heart of Third Impact.

Sure enough, about a half a kilometer from the city limits, they could
see fires and small structures, denoting civilization. They headed for
that.

It wasn't long before they reached the outskirts of the small town. It
was composed of shanties, quite obviously made from whatever had been
found lying around. Many of the houses looked unstable, but they still
looked more balanced than the remaining structures in Tokyo-2.

A man with long hair perked up as he heard their approaching footsteps.
He took one look at them...and just stared. The pair walked by him.

Kaoru glanced at the long-haired man as they passed. "Good afternoon,
Aoba-san," he said, greeting the former NERV technician. The man could
only manage a nod in response, his eyes still wide.

They walked into the town. There weren't many people, but that was to
be expected; just because people left the sea of LCL didn't mean they
would end up here. They would go to where they felt they most
belonged.

They passed several people along the way. Not everyone recognized
Kaoru, but almost everyone knew Rei on sight. The reaction was always
the same: stark fear. Here was the being they'd seen just before
they'd been dissolved into LCL. Was it going to happen again? Why was
she back?

They stopped in the middle of the encampment, eyes from all its
inhabitants following their every move. Neither of the children felt
uncomfortable; Rei was long used to odd stares, and Kaoru couldn't care
less what people thought of him.

Looking around, they heard slow, even footsteps coming up behind them.
Rei turned around, to be greeted by the sight of Misato Katsuragi.

"Rei?" the woman asked. She swallowed to clear her throat. "Is...is
that really you?"

Rei blinked once, then nodded curtly.

She was abruptly caught up in the most crushing hug she'd ever received
in her life. Misato buried the girl in her chest, leaning her head
down and crying.

"I thought you wouldn't come back..." Misato said. "And..." she looked
up. "Nagisa-san?"

"Yes, it's me, Major...I guess that title doesn't apply anymore. It's
me, Katsuragi-san."

Rei soon found herself pressed up against Kaoru as Misato pulled the
boy into the hug, too. Normally, she wouldn't have cared, but this
time, she felt some lingering disappointment. She didn't understand
the emotion at first, but then decided to follow Kaoru's advice: she
explored it instead.

Rei thought it over, coming to a conclusion by the time Misato had
released them. She'd been disappointed because she'd been hoping to
see Shinji when she turned around. And it hadn't been him. She'd
wanted Shinji to be hugging her. ^Yes, you were right, Kaoru-san,^ she
thought to herself. ^Perhaps I do desire contact with Ikari-kun.^

"Did you just get back?" Misato asked them, holding onto their hands.
Her hands kept squeezing every few seconds, as though checking to make
sure the children in front of her were really there.

Kaoru noted Rei's speculative state and took the initiative. "Yes, we
did, Katsuragi-san. Excuse me a moment." He turned to face the
gathering crowd. "You needn't worry!" he said, loudly. "We aren't
here to harm you. We just want the same things you do. We want to
start our lives over."

Most people hesitantly accepted this, turned around, and left. The
others lingered, but looked slightly more at ease. Kaoru turned back
to Misato.

"My apologies. But I had to handle that problem. The people here seem
frightened of us."

"Well...yeah. You were the last Angel, and Rei...Rei, why are they so
scared of you? Just because you were with him?"

Rei blinked as Misato's comment broke her train of thought. She
quickly reviewed what had just been said. "No, they have other
reasons," she responded.

Misato was not satisfied with that answer. She was about to ask Rei to
clarify when a voice sounded over her shoulder.

"Misato-san? I heard someone new just came in."

Kaoru whipped around towards the voice, while Rei, already facing in
that direction, froze up. The girl's eyes widened ever so slightly,
and her face seemed to...brighten.

Misato stepped out of the way, revealing Shinji Ikari to both of the
other children.

A long silence followed, as the three children just stared at one
another. Rei studied Shinji's face. He looked different, having aged
in the past two years. But it wasn't just the age; his face looked
harder and more weathered by the environment. But there was still no
mistaking Shinji for anyone other than Shinji.

"You...it's _you_?" he asked the two.

Rei seemed disappointed with this reaction, but Kaoru stepped fowards,
towards Shinji. "We just came back, Shinji-kun. It seems we were
lucky enough to find you, and -"

They were cut off as Shinji hugged them both, just like Misato had,
only with less force. His eyes filled with tears, which slowly began
to trickle down his face.

"You came back..." he mumbled. "I'm so happy...I thought I'd never see
you again..."

Rei was surprised by the sudden physical contact, but found that she
didn't mind, either. She was truly confused by the smile that was
threatening to break out on her face.

Shinji finally let them go, and wiped off his eyes. "I'm such a
wimp," he said, drying his face. He turned towards Kaoru. "But...you
made it! When did you get back? When did you get here? Who else have
you seen? Have you - "

"Slow down, Shinji-kun," Kaoru said, putting one hand on Shinji's
shoulder. "We'll answer all the questions you want. But...I don't
suppose you have anything to eat? We're both rather hungry."

Shinji blinked, then smiled broadly. "_That_, we've got plenty of.
C'mon," he said, dragging Kaoru and Rei along. The two children did
their best to keep up. Misato followed closely.

"Here's where I'm staying," Shinji said, leading them into a small
'house' made of bits of rubble leaning against each other. "It's not
much, but it keeps out the rain, and it's actually pretty warm at
night, if I get a fire going."

Kaoru and Rei sat down on the dusty ground, while Shinji and Misato ran
off to get food.

"Well, you saw him again," Kaoru said, glancing at Rei. "How do you
feel?"

"I feel...more at ease."

"Happy?" Kaoru suggested.

"I suppose so."

"Be more certain. Are you happy?"

"...yes, I am." Rei thought about this for a moment, then smiled. It
wasn't much, but it was still a noticeable smile. Many of her earlier
memories were hazy. But, she could still remember Shinji explaining
this was what you did when you were happy. She could only just barely
remember _when_ he'd said that, but his advice still lingered in her
mind.

"Good." Kaoru hesitated, looking around outside to see who was nearby.
"So how do you feel about him?"

"I...do not know."

"When will you know?"

"I do not know how he has changed. I will need to spend more time with
him," Rei said.

"You're looking forward to that, I see," Kaoru said, noticing the way
Rei's smile grew ever-so-slightly at her last comment. "You enjoy
being near him."

"Yes, I do."

"Interesting."

Shinji and Misato returned moments later with food, in the form of some
kind of soup.

"Don't worry, there's no meat in it," he explained, remembering how
neither Rei nor Kaoru ate meat. Kaoru looked grateful for this, but
Rei gave no outward sign that she'd noticed the favor. Both children
started filling their empty stomachs, which were beginning to rumble
loudly.

Misato and Shinji watched the two, with smiles on their faces. "So
when did you get back?" Shinji asked.

"Just yesterday," Kaoru answered after swallowing. "We've been walking
all day today."

"Sorry. It must've been tough."

"We managed," Rei commented. Shinji turned towards her, hesitantly, as
she spoke. Their eyes locked for a moment. Shinji could see Rei's
characteristic detachment most prominently, but could also see some
hint of her confusion. Rei, on the other hand, saw a swirl of emotions
in the boy's face. Nervousness, anger, even...fear?

"Hey!" came another familiar voice, loud enough to carry far past where
they were. Shinji tore his eyes off of Rei's, turning his head to look
back at the doorway. Rei was left wondering what it meant, those
feelings she'd seen.

"I heard some more people came back!" the new voice shouted, as its
owner came into view.

Asuka walked in from around the wall. "So who is it..." she stopped,
seeing Rei and Kaoru. For a moment, her face was inscrutable. Then,
she closed her eyes, as though concentrating. One deep breath later,
she put on what _looked_ like a genuine smile. "So you made it," she
said, her voice calmer. "Shinji was..._we_ were worried you wouldn't."

Rei studied Asuka as she sat down with them. The redhead looked like
she was being honest, but Rei couldn't tell for sure. "You look well,
Soryu."

Indeed she did. Asuka looked like she'd been through the same things
Shinji had, both in terms of years and experience. She now looked like
a mature young woman.

Asuka's left hand came up, in a reflexive motion. Her finger traced a
line on her face. As Rei took a closer look, she could see a white
line starting above Asuka's left eyebrow and going downwards, stopping
abruptly at her eye and starting again on the bottom of her eye. As
she blinked, Rei could see the scar even continued across her eyelid.

"Yeah, I'm still in one piece," she responded, her smile falling a
little.

"No one's come out unharmed," Misato said, watching. "People come back
with all sorts of different clothes. Sometimes their bodies are
different."

"Humans return in the form they see themselves in," Rei commented,
trying to clear up the unspoken question of why people didn't always
return the way they'd left. She looked at Shinji.

Shinji looked at Rei for a moment, as though thinking about something,
then started, smiling again. His smile, however, looked a little
forced. "People keep returning," he said. "Every week someone new
breezes in."

Rei nodded, maintaining eye contact.

"Most of them come here, because it's the place they remember as home.
We're trying to rebuild, and everyone who comes back helps."

"So Rei and I will have to work our keep, then?" Kaoru asked.

Shinji nodded. "Everyone does their part. You'll have all the time
you need to recover, but you'll have to help."

"It must be hard," Kaoru said, resting his chin on one hand.

"Well, we're lucky," Misato said. "Only the ones with the will to
survive come back. So we only get people willing to work. They want
to rebuild their homes."

"And..." Misato said, glancing over at Shinji. "Shinji's been a big
help."

Shinji blushed a little. "Well, I..."

"Baka," Asuka said, playfully. She scooted over, until she was sitting
next to Shinji. She looked over at Rei and Kaoru. "Shinji tries to
help everyone who needs it. He's the closest thing to a leader we
have."

"Well..." Shinji said, hesitantly. "Misato helps. And so does _this_
girl," he said, putting his arm around her shoulders and pulling her up
against him.

"Hey!" Asuka said, again playfully. "Leggo!"

"Oh, calm down," he said, hanging onto her. He looked over at Rei.
"Asuka's been keeping me going. The first few days, I kept wondering
if I could do it. I mean, we were alone, really. She kept me on my
feet."

Asuka smiled. So did Misato and Kaoru. Rei didn't.

"Well, I needed to get him going, all right, but Shinji's been leading
the way since. He doesn't need my help anymore."

Shinji looked at her. "Of course I do," he said, softly. At that, he
leaned down and kissed her on the cheek.

Kaoru's glance immediately shot over to Rei. The girl's face betrayed
nothing. But the brightness she'd had just a moment ago had
evaporated like morning dew.

Asuka batted Shinji away. "Not in front of everyone," she said,
laughing a little.

"Oh, it's fiiiiine," Misato said, grinning. She looked over at the
red-eyed teens in front of her. "Don't you think they're cute?" she
asked.

Kaoru smiled and nodded. Rei, however, got to her feet.

"Ayanami?" Shinji asked. "Where are you going?"

"I am going to find a place to rest," she replied, walking away.

Everyone looked back to Kaoru, who just shrugged and got to his feet.
"I think...I should find a place to sleep, too. It was nice seeing you
again, Shinji-kun. And you, Katsuragi-san," he said, bowing slightly.
He walked away, following Rei.

Asuka watched him go, then turned to Shinji. "Who was that guy,
anyway?" she asked.

"Well..." Shinji began. "You remember that Kaoru kid I told you
about?"

* * *

Rei just kept walking. She could just barely hear Kaoru following her,
and she didn't care.

She'd come back from oblivion, for this. To get disappointed. Well,
it actually wasn't a total loss. She'd gotten some idea of why people
were leaving the sea of LCL.

But...

^What was it I felt?^ she wondered, reviewing what she'd just seen.
She knew she'd been happy to find Shinji again, and to see that he was
alive. But, when he'd started getting closer to Soryu...a new feeling
had come up in Rei's stomach. She hadn't understood what it was. A
mix of several emotions: anger, sadness, and a general uneasiness about
what she was seeing.

She'd never felt jealous before, so it couldn't be that...could it?

But then, when he'd kissed her...and Soryu had smiled...the feeling had
culminated, exploding into realization. Something she hadn't even
believed in before, was now true.

She was in love with Shinji Ikari. There was no way around it. How
was this possible? When did she come to know what love _was_, anyway?
Was it what she'd felt towards the Commander? Perhaps. She _had_ felt
a deep bond with Gendo Ikari. But she found herself doubting this
conclusion. Somehow, the feeling towards the younger Ikari was
different. Was this new sensation what was known as love?

^I do not know,^ she thought, in answer to her own question.
^But...somehow, that is what I know I feel. It defies all explanation.
I was trained to ignore things that cannot be explained, so I should
put it out of my mind. Yet...I cannot. Why?^

How had she not known earlier? How had she not even _thought_ about it
earlier? She thought back, trying to remember why she should feel this
way. But her thoughts refused to focus. She could only think of what
he'd done, and while she'd been watching, no less. Watching him kiss
someone else...

Merging with Adam had been painful. Her Eva exploding around her had
been even more painful. But those had just been forms of physical
pain. Watching Shinji do that...

Rei felt a water droplet on one hand. She looked up at the sky, to see
it was clear. Then she looked back down, seeing that more drops had
appeared. She carefully licked one of them off. Her eyes widened as
she tasted its salty flavor. This was something she'd only seen a few
times before.

"Why should I cry?" she asked aloud. She kept walking, though she
listened carefully, in case there was an answer. Kaoru was following
close enough that he might have heard.

But no answer came. She moved in silence until she got to a small,
rocky promontory. She stopped, her feet just inches from the edge.
She looked down, her face deadpan.

Below her was a lake of LCL, stretching out to connect to the larger
sea that still encircled the world. It was not as deep as it had been
some months ago, but it was still deep enough. If she were to
fall...she would just float, like a cork. Then all she'd have to do
was drop her AT field, and she would dissolve again. She wouldn't have
to feel pain anymore. She wouldn't even have to think anymore.

A slight gust of wind blew her hair and clothes about, almost pushing
her in the direction of the LCL. ^It was still worthwhile to come back
for a day,^ she thought, trying to convince herself of that. ^I do not
have to wonder anymore.^

She shifted her balance to one leg. Her free leg moved forward, over
the edge. Now she just had to shift her balance again, and she would
fall...

She paused. "Are you going to say anything?" she asked the air.

"Why should I?" Kaoru asked, from his position not three meters behind
her.

Rei glanced over her shoulder. She could just barely see him standing
there, his hands in his pockets and his head cocked over to one side in
interest.

"You followed me," she said.

"I wanted to see what you'd do."

"Now you know," Rei said. She moved her foot back so it was resting on
the ground again. "There is no reason for me to stay here. It was my
purpose to join humanity together. I should return to what I caused."

"You sound like you regret it."

"I do not. I joined with Lilith so that I could help Ikari-kun. I
chose for him to have the future. He appears to be handling his job
well." She shifted her balance to step off the edge, and again
hesitated.

"You want me to stop you, don't you?" Kaoru asked.

Rei again put her leg back on the ledge. "What makes you say that?"

"Because you're stronger than this, Rei. When you want to do
something, you do it."

Rei stayed silent, listening, even though she didn't appear to be
paying attention. She went back to staring at the LCL.

"What is it you want?" Kaoru asked, his voice still calm. "Do you want
me to grab you? Call you stupid? To hit you?"

"I...I would like to thank you for convincing me to come back."

"I only pushed you the way you wanted to go. And I needed your help to
come back, myself."

"And so I am no longer necessary."

"If you want to see it that way."

"...Then there is no longer a reason for me to stay. I do not want to
stay. I...wish to return to oblivion."

"Fine."

Rei glanced at him again. She found his indifference unsettling, but
she didn't know how to deal with it. "I will only ask one thing.
Do...do not forget about me."

"I can't do that, Rei."

Rei froze. "What?"

"I won't remember you. And neither will Shinji-kun. If you walk off
that ledge, if you quit, then my picture of you will fail. I thought
you were stronger than this. If you want to quit, I won't stop you.
But the Rei Ayanami I can remember wouldn't just give up. So if that's
what you do, I will see no reason to remember you. I will put you out
of my mind. I will forget you ever existed. And I promise you that
everyone else will eventually do the same." He kept his voice
perfectly calm the entire time.

"It does not matter. My existence is a falsity, something people must
abhor. They will have no reason to remember me."

"Do you believe that?"

Rei froze again. She thought it over, noting at the edge of her
consciousness that Kaoru turned and left. Apparently, he thought he'd
said enough.

Rei's mind kept working, moving too fast for her to think about walking
off the edge. ^_Do_ I believe that?^

* * *

Kaoru had returned long before nightfall. He found a place to lie
down, close to one of the fires the camp had set up. Shinji had
managed to find a blanket for him. He wrapped himself up in it and
tried to go to sleep, letting the fatigue from all the walking catch up
to him.

He woke some considerable time later. Night had fallen. The fire,
slowly dying, was struggling to illuminate the area around it, with
orange light leaving flickering patterns on the ground. Most people
were sleeping.

And standing in front of him was Rei Ayanami.

The girl said nothing. She just looked down on him, her eyes meeting
his. After a long moment, she unrolled the blanket she'd procured from
somewhere and lay down not far from him, also close to the fire. Kaoru
grinned and closed his eyes again.

^It seems she _is_ as strong as I thought,^ he concluded.

----------------------------------------------------------------------
Started: March 13, 2001
Finished: March 15, 2001
Revision finished: June 8, 2001

Send comments to: otakusadist@hotmail.com
And visit my site: http://www.angelfire.com/anime2/shinjirei