Notes: insert legal disclaimer here. Yeah, yeah, I'm too lazy to write one myself. Now, the main reason for re-writing this is that, well, you know something is bad when you can't go back and read your own stuff without cringing. It also gives a chance to further develop some of the themes and symbols that didn't quite work out. Is this cheating? Yeah, probably. But this is the internet so whatever. I did have trouble trying to figure out if I wanted to publish this as a new story, since there is going to be a massive amount of new material, and old material is going to get chopped up, or if I should just update older chapters as I go. I decided to do both for the sake of consistency.

I also wasn't entirely sure if it would be presumptuous to write a footnote explaining some of the metaphors, themes, etc, but decided against it. I might do so in the future if anyone is interested. Thanks go to Arkiel for the thorough job of pre-reading. Also to Big D and Mike for all the input and the chatting.

All feedback is welcome.

Note to readers: I know horizontal lines can be annoying, but FFN strips the blank lines that I use to separate scenes and I have to put something there for readability.

--Rommel, March 2007

Edit: revised August 2009, thanks to some feedback from readers. Hopefully certain plot points will be clearer now.

Evangelion Genocide: Extended

"Man is the measure of all things" -Protagoras.

Genocide 0:01 / Dispositions.

Room 303 in the Cranial Nerve Ward was located at the far end of a long corridor, deep inside the fortress of Central Dogma.

Shinji Ikari, Third Child of the Evangelion Project, didn't know what had compelled him to come. Perhaps it was the need to reach out to someone who just might be able to understand what he was going through; or perhaps it was the desire not to be alone—that primal instinct to seek out companionship out of desperation and an overwhelming fear of loneliness.

But more than anything, he wanted someone to talk to; someone in whose words he could find some measure of comfort, that tiny spark of reassurance that would make all the pain worthwhile.

He couldn't talk to Misato--even when she actually came home they barely saw each other anymore and she seemed to have so dedicated herself to her work that he hardly thought his problems would matter to her. He couldn't talk to Rei Ayanami, not after what he'd seen and what he'd learned about her.

There was simply no one else left.

Fluorescent illumination flooded everything with harsh light, reflecting off the towers of medical equipment and the polished tile floor so that all colors appeared to wash out into a white flash. The air was cold, loaded with the heavy scent of disinfectants—the same nauseatingly sterile smell he'd come to associate with the worse moments of his young life. Given its large size, the room was clearly intended to deal with multiple casualties, but there was only a single bed near the far end.

A single bed for a single patient, who might have passed away without anyone noticing if not for the constant beeping of the EKG machine that echoed the rhythm of her heart. She lay sedated, curled up beneath the sheets, her disheveled red hair spilling over the pillow under her head, an I.V. line injected into her bandaged left wrist nourishing her with a bag of liquid hanging from a stand by the bed.

She looked so small as he approached her. Even though the sheets only revealed the contours of her body, there was no hiding how young she was.

Shinji didn't know what was wrong with her. The grownups hadn't bothered to explain anything, probably deeming him just a child who would not able to understand. And maybe he didn't, maybe they were right. After all, he was here for himself instead of for the girl that lay on the bed. The reality of that fact sickened him ... but, still, he was here.

"Asuka ..." Shinji called softly, his throat dry. "Please, talk to me."

There was no reply.

He reached down cautiously and grasped Asuka's shoulder. Leaning over her, he caught a glimpse of her face and noticed that she looked oddly peaceful. Her pretty features, which were outlined against the pillow, seemed relaxed in a way Shinji had never seen them before, blissfully lost to her own sad situation.

But even that thought troubled him—because Asuka was supposed to be energetic, loud, outgoing. Seeing her lying here wasting away was a hard blow to stomach. No comfort could be found in the medications that coursed through her system and kept her from waking. It wasn't sleep; it was a last measure of escape, the only one that could be found besides death.

Shinji felt almost as sorry for her as he did for himself.

"Asuka ..." he whispered again, tugging at her. "Asuka, talk to me."

Nothing. She didn't move; didn't make a noise. And though Shinji knew she couldn't help it because of her condition, her indifference felt like a cold stab at his heart. Had she been awake, he knew she would have called him names, and made his life miserable. He thought that would have been preferable to nothing.

Had she been conscious he would have never come. So terrified was he that he simply wouldn't have been able to gather the courage to come see her. Regardless of how badly either of them might need someone.

He was too much of a coward.

"Asuka ..." Her name sounded hollow, meaningless. She had always been so proud of it. He shook her again, hoping that perhaps she could hear him so deeply within her own subconscious. "I killed someone."

The admission was like an open invitation for the memories. An onrush of emotions so powerful they threatened to wash away all composure. Pain—disgust—anger. All directed inwards. He could still feel on his hand the weight of Kaoru's body ... the bones crushing. He just wanted to tell her. Somehow, in his mind the thought that she might forgive him for what he'd done to someone else would make it better. Asuka would understand because she was the only one that could.

But she would do nothing.

"I killed ..." his voice trembled and faded. Then his heart tightened in the cold silence, and a rush of anger at the uncaring girl crashed through him. "Asuka, say something. Anything! Please! ASUKA!"

He shook her violently, his voice rising to a sharp, utterly desperate scream. His fingers clawed into the thin material of her sheets; into the soft flesh of her shoulder. He felt tears beginning to run down his cheeks, and with a final effort yanked at her with all his strength.

Asuka's limp form rolled silently onto her back. Several of the sticky leads of the EKG peeled off her body and sprang back on the cords that connected them the bedside machine, lying scattered haphazardly on the mattress. The small hospital blouse that was all she wore came undone, her flesh looking sickly white under the lights. The sheets slipped away, falling rustling softly on the floor.

Shinji straightened, his eyes wide.

He stared at her naked body now sprawled on the bed; her pale young breasts exposed to the air, rising gently as she breathed; the flat stomach; the flaring hips disappearing beneath the underwear-like diaper; the creamy white thighs. She was barely a teenager, yet already so much of a woman.

How many times had he wanted to see this?

Asuka had always gone out of her way to tease him, to drive him crazy with desire only to call him a pervert and scream at him, simultaneously offering and denying him what they both knew he couldn't have. But despite the abuse he had endured at her hands, she was the object of his fantasies—the thing that fueled his sexual urge more than any other.

He was only vaguely aware that it was normal for boys his age to have these sort of feelings. It was all part of being a teenager, of growing up. He had heard all that in the sex ed. classes the students were forced to listen to in which the teachers would go on about unprotected sex and abstinence. Nobody ever paid any attention. It was all normal.

Except he didn't feel normal.

And this was no fantasy.

Asuka lay so invitingly before him, more open than she had ever been before, as if she were waiting for him to act. She was broken—the girl that would fight him and scream at him was gone, replaced with a naked body. All he had to do was reach out and ... violate her.

Shinji took a step back, feeling his chest tighten horribly with guilt; the sad expression on his face replaced with one of revulsion.

This was his fault: he should have helped her when the Fifteenth Angel broke into her mind; should have done something other than sit in his Eva, hearing her scream as her psyche was torn to pieces. And afterwards, he should have been there to comfort her, to let her know that she was not useless and need not be alone.

Because, despite everything, they had shared a close bond through their Evas. He was supposed to understand her just as he had here come hoping she would do the same for him.

This was his fault ... because he had done nothing.

As she would do nothing for him.

"I'm...sorry, Asuka." The feeling of sickening self-disgust rolling through him choked his words and a gloomy, heavy silence enveloped the room once again, broken intermittently only by the EKG's electronic heartbeat and his quiet sobbing.

Shinji didn't try to call for Asuka again, and rushed out of her room moments later, still in tears.



A long time had passed since the incident with the last Angel, and Sub-Commander Kozo Fuyutsuki was still in awe of the cold manner in which his superior handled himself whenever business was being conducted. But even more awe-inspiring was the fact that Gendo Ikari, a man who did not know the meaning of the word compromise, had proven very adept at politics.

Watching from the secret surveillance room next to Ikari's office he could sense more than see the other's contempt for the new bureaucratic pawn the Ministry of the Interior had sent to replace the deceased Kaji Ryougi.

"I trust you have brought what we agreed on," Ikari said, as he turned away from the huge window that dominated an entire side of his office and fixed the man in front of him with a glare. "Otherwise, the purpose of this meeting is merely a courtesy to your superiors."

The office was a massive space, with Ikari's desk placed in the center; the Tree of Life, that staple of mystics and alchemists through the ages, was scrawled on the floor, beneath Ikari as if to suggest his dominance over life and death, and heaven itself.

The man he was talking to was Junichi Nakayima, appointed liaison between NERV and the Civil Reconstruction Council, and agent of the Japanese Ministry of the Interior—in other words, a spy.

"Yes, I have, Commander Ikari," Nakayima said. He was athletically built, but was not tall--at least not taller than Ikari--and wore the black uniform that was standard for Ministry field agents. His hair was black and closely cropped so that he looked more like a grunt fresh out of training than a bureaucrat. His features were narrow, and unmistakably oriental.

Gendo Ikari, on the other hand, cut a much more imposing figure. He was broad-shouldered and tall, his face permanently chiseled into a stern mask that demanded compliance even on the most menial of subjects. A short beard closely followed his jawline, and his glasses that lent him an image of ruthless intelligence. He wasn't just NERV's commander, he was the organization's absolute ruler.

Nothing happened inside the Geo-Front without his knowledge or consent. It was only fitting; he was the reason why NERV had endured as long as it had despite being surrounded by enemies.

Ikari walked to his desk, his footsteps echoing in the eerie silence.

Nakayima reached into his jacket pocket, producing a small, emerald-green disk encased in a thick transparent plastic which he carefully set on Ikari's desk.

"I must admit I was starting to doubt you." Behind his thick spectacles, Ikari's eyes flashed briefly to the disk before returning to Nakajima. "A man in my position has to be wary of even the closest ally. No offense to you personally, of course."

"Of course," the man repeated. "I would imagine that is why my superiors agreed to let NERV borrow the information on the disk, sir. We are in this together now, and we believe a gesture of faith such as this should go towards easing our relationship. We also believe it would encourage closer ties now that it seems the UN is pushing for disarmament."

There had never been any doubt that the Ministry of the Interior would try to push another agent inside NERV following the death of Special Agent Kaji. Information of the sort he had provided them with was surely worth more than the life of one agent, maybe more than two, or three, or a dozen. But Nakayima seemed like an odd choice. He was by no means the caliber of agent usually fielded by the Ministry.

Since caution was the better part of valor, Fuyutsuki had already sent people to check up on his background and found it impossible to trace him to any intelligence training school. This left him with the conclusions that Nakayima was either the worst spy in the world or had the best cover in the world.

Ikari sat in his chair and leaned forward, placing his elbow on his heavy wooden desk and lacing his fingers in his customary manner. "Very well," he said. "If you don't mind, I should like this opportunity to have you answer a question."

Nakayima stiffened slightly, but said, "Not at all."

"The government has cut our budget again. Would you care to explain why?"

"Politics, sir," Nakayima replied promptly. "They believe it would look suspicious for NERV to retain its priority on their funding program now that it is no longer vital for our security. Additionally, the funds for the reconstruction efforts have to come from somewhere and only so much money can come from other projects, so NERV must share the burden, as it were. After all, it is because of NERV that Tokyo-3 needs to be rebuilt."

"It is because of NERV that the human race is still around to be concerned with money," Ikari retorted. "We are owed more than empty pleasantries."

Fuyutsuki narrowed his eyes. The problem was not money; NERV would take what it needed for its existence from the Civil Reconstruction Council's fund regardless of budgets, and from certain other private investors. What concerned Fuyutsuki was the fact that NERV, as Nakayima had put it, was no longer vital.

NERV's operations, and the incredible amount of power it wielded over all other civilian and military agencies, had always been predicated on the fact that it was indispensable. That had all changed in the last few months.

However, true to their word, certain interested parties within the UN had made good on their agreements and held up the removal of the Special Protection Order that granted NERV immunity in squabbling committees. Even though it was due for a vote, NERV was already assured of at least two full vetoes.

The old men must have been furious at finding their so-called absolute power stymied by the necessities of a system built on international cooperation. They certainly carried enough clout to force such a measure through, but Gendo Ikari had something under his sleeve they failed to account for.

He had the Eva—the weapon itself, but also the technology and expertise to make it work. And like the nuclear bomb before it, possessing an Evangelion was a symbol of power and prestige, and all the things that made men sell their souls. SEELE believed that giving up the Evas would dilute their strength. Ikari believed it was not so; what really mattered was who else wanted it, and what they were willing to give up in exchange.

So the Special Protection Order remained in place for now, bought and paid for with the Evangelions.

Fuyutsuki and Ikari knew this detente would not last forever. In the end, the old men would get their way, whether by legal means or otherwise. Time was a luxury NERV could not afford, and it was running out.

"We know, and are glad for your understanding of the situation," Nakayima said. "I will relay your concerns to the Council. Unfortunately, without a new budget from the UN, there's very little we can do."

Ikari absorbed that information in thoughtful silence for a moment, then nodded. "Very well, then. For the time being, I have no further points to discuss. You are dismissed. Tell your superiors that NERV, too, looks forward to our mutual collaboration."

Nakayima saluted respectfully and turned on his heels.

Fuyutsuki waited for him to leave before stepping through the hidden side-door located in the far corner of the office and immediately noticed the contemptuous smirk that had appeared on Ikari's face. Ikari did not bother to explain and Fuyutsuki, who fully understood what had just happened, required no explanation.

He took the disk from his superior and carefully examined it. "I can't believe they would just let you have it."

"Ignorance is our ally," Ikari said, a dark curl entering his lips.

Glancing down at the tiny disk in his hand, Fuyutsuki tried to keep the sudden concern he felt hidden beneath the surface. The deep green material of the disk's surface reflected even the scarce light of the office, making it glint oddly like an eye.

"Do you disapprove?" Ikari asked him, his tone suggesting that he already knew the answer.

Fuyutsuki took a deep breath. Though he'd learned that it was acceptable to disagree with Ikari on a perfectly reasonable basis, he did not feel wholly comfortable doing so.

"I do not think we should taking this kind of risk," he said. "If you are going to use Rei, then I would much rather get it over with before the Japanese or SEELE have a chance to intervene. As we know they will."

"Rei is not ready," Ikari said. "The scenario did not account for us losing her again. Now that we have, we can no longer proceed as planned. Perhaps this was for the best. I was pained to lose her, but Rei had admittedly become too..."

"Attached?" Fuyutsuki finished for him.

Ikari ignored the interruption. "We made the mistake of allowing her the benefit of distance."

"And you think this will help?" Fuyutsuki held the disk up between his thumb and forefinger. "Knowing what we know it is capable of? It could be suicide."

"It will buy us the time we need. And if properly implemented it will fight itself. SEELE will know we have it, of course. Just as well. I believe that once we put the contents of the Emerald Tablet to use the UN will not dare move against us, regardless of what SEELE wants. Fear will become our shield once again."

"Or they will seek to destroy us all the more swiftly," Fuyutsuki retorted uneasily. "Quite a fortress of lies we have built already."

"They would not be able to justify such an action to each other, let alone the rest of the world," he said, his voice controlled and hard as stone. "Now there is another matter I must tend to. Have you made the necessary arrangements?"

"Yes, but I don't think she will cooperate. She's become quite fond of your son. And Dr. Akagi--"

"Ritsuko will do what I ask. And we should not worry about Major Katsuragi. She's had plenty of time to think about where her loyalties lie. She is still here; whatever her reasons, that means she is willing still to take orders and to see them through."

Fuyutsuki was not wholly convinced about the trustworthiness of either woman. Ritsuko Akagi had endangered everything they'd spent years preparing for no other reason than jealousy; Misato Katsuragi, on the other hand, seemed to have much more pragmatic motives. She was still here because she wanted to gain something—her sense of duty kept her loyal but only as long as she was still searching. Once she found what she thought she wanted to know, things would be very different.

Both women had made their relationships with NERV, and therefore with Ikari, deeply personal. And while Major Katsuragi still had the excuse of ignorance, Doctor Akagi was a willful and entirely knowledgeable partner. As she had already demonstrated, the damage she could do was nearly incalculable.

"Trust is not something that should be easily given these days." Fuyutsuki returned to his examination of the emerald disk, still not convinced that the Commander was not committing an act of gross oversight ... regarding his subordinates as well as many other things.

"No trust is given," Ikari said. "Only purpose."

Misato Katsuragi opened her eyes, struggling to keep her teeth from rattling from the cold. Gathering her jacket more securely around her shivering form, she looked down at laptop sitting on the floor next to her and read the screen.

"Searching," she said to herself, "dammit, still searching."

She fought the urge to tap on the keys, knowing it was likely to make things worse. For all she knew it might even trip the alarm systems she'd taken months to crack. She let out a sigh of impotence, her breath freezing around her, and curled tighter in her little corner, nestling against the wall for warmth. Hyuga had told her what this place was, a storage center.

Why it took liquid nitrogen to cool this rig was not a question that had seemed very relevant.

The large room was full of towers that rose from the floor like columns until they reached the ceiling, packed with what looked like servers or hard drives. Cables of different sizes ran from the towers to a central hub-like CPU, and though it was mostly pitch black, all the servers had tiny red diodes that pierced the darkness like faint stars that winked in and out of existence as the machines dutifully performed their tasks.

The electronic humming of technology had become almost pleasant; merely background noise to her thoughts. Technology powerful enough to protect life, or destroy it. Just like fifteen years ago.

And just like fifteen years ago, Misato had watched it happen all over again, and just like before it had cost her someone she loved.

"I am sorry too...Kaji-kun," Misato whispered. She gazed up at the blinking lights, wondering how long she could keep going like this before she met the same end as Kaji. It wouldn't be so bad; probably just a bullet or a knife or something. Maybe she wouldn't see it coming, and the next thing she'd feel would be Kaji, hugging her like he did in college to keep her warm at night. Shinji would understand, wouldn't he?


How would he understand? She was the only one he had left.

The high-pitched beeping of her cell phone broke through the hum, shattering her thoughts like glass. Misato reached into her jacket and allowed her fingers to rub gently against the butt of her gun before grabbing the small phone. "Katsuragi," she said, trying to keep her voice even.

"Major, you are requested back at Central Dogma." Hyuga's voice was flat and emotionless, completely unlike him. Something was wrong. "The Commander has asked for a meeting with the Central Control Personnel--"

"Do you know what it's about?"

"I can't tell you more now. Where are you? Should I send someone to pick you up?"

Misato glanced momentarily around her. Hyuga probably knew where she was, so his question could only mean that this connection was being monitored. "That's not necessary. I'll be there in fifteen minutes. Have a car train ready for me."

"Use train 5," the young operator suggested before hanging up. Silently, Misato thanked him for playing along.

Misato put her cell phone away and stood up, rubbing some heat back into her frozen muscles. As she did, a disturbing question came to mind. Why was she still doing Gendo Ikari's bidding? He called and she went running to him as if she were his faithful dog.

The things she'd had to do following this man's orders would haunt her forever. At first it had been simple; she'd fooled herself into thinking it was for a noble cause.

But, in reality, destroying the Angels had made her feel better, had taken away some of the pain. The Angels had caused Second Impact—almost wiping out the human race—and wanted to cause a Third to finish what they had started. It was only fitting that they pay for what they'd done. Then she found out it had all been a lie, and the house of cards on which she built the justification for all the horrible things she'd done came crashing down.

The Angels had not brought the end of the world Misato had been happy in, Man had.

She was floating in something that was neither air nor water. Something warm and faintly familiar. A coppery taste and smell. The world was flooded by it, the way the ocean floods the deepest basins between continents, between ruined cities.

There was no sky or ground or any sense of reality; there was only the taste and smell. Her eyes were open but she couldn't see beyond the orange void. The taste she knew very well—LCL—but why hadn't she noticed the smell before?

And the she saw the lights. She let herself ascend from the nothingness, her body gliding gracefully through the liquid, her back arched as the warm embrace of this new womb surrendered to a cold chill.

Was this what it felt like to be born? Was this what it felt like to enter the cold, unforgiving world from a place of utter bliss and protection, to surrender to the awful reality of existence for the sake of living?

Was this what mother smelled like?

Rei Ayanami could not change what she was. That realization began to dawn within her as she broke the surface and was confronted by the white monster of gleaming flesh, nailed to a cross, whose face was hidden by the mask of steel with seven eyes. It stared at her with a heavy facade that was beyond all reality, pouring LCL onto the ocean from its severed midsection.

Something took hold of her arm. The LCL lapped at her sides and she felt herself being moved across the surface. It was cold in the dark cavern, but she didn't care.

Hypnotized, she stared at the creature on the cross, mute and pale. She sensed that it saw her and welcomed her as its own and changed. She saw herself nailed to the cross, her eyes burned brightly in the dark, her face white as the face of the creature, and she understood then that she was the creature.

It called to her in a voice that she recognized as her own, again and again. It loved her and cared for her the way no human being ever had. Then the voice changed, and Rei instantly recognized it again.


There was an incredible roar, like the bellowing of an Eva Unit gone berserk, and then a bright white light covered everything. She had to protect him. He was all that mattered. She had to … was this what it meant to love?

And then there was blinding pain.

Rei Ayanami opened her eyes suddenly, and was immediately overcome by nausea. She sat in her bed, naked among twisted sheets of white linen, covered in sweat, and shook her head. For a short while she tried to fight the last remnants of the dream, and managed to push away the sickening sensations it stirred in her. She had felt them before, when inside the dummy system and when inside Eva-01.

Oblivious of her own nudity, she stood and walked to the nightstand, picking up the pair of glasses that her predecessor had kept there but that had not belonged to her.

"Ikari," she whispered softly. "Ikari."

She knew in her heart that it was not her whom he had befriended, and who he had cared for. And yet she dreamed about it all: dreamed of dying, of his touch and his words.

Rei looked at the clock; it was time to get ready for school.

The world did not end. Life, such as it was, went on. And somehow Shinji Ikari found the strength.

At first it was like living a waking nightmare. After killing Kaworu, the boy who had so swiftly become rooted in his heart, Shinji made it clear to Misato that he would never pilot Eva again. She had understood. There was no more need, she had said. There were no more Angels to fight. No more blood to be shed. But the reprieve came too late. If only things had been different, he would have had hope.

But he had become so broken that nothing had meaning. Nothing existed outside the gloom of his mind; he noticed nothing besides the hurt he felt. He lay on his bed and listened to music, caught between not wanting to live and not able to die. There was nothing more for him to do. For so long he just ate and slept and wasted away his time, and waited for the world to end. It never did.

And then one day he noticed Misato again. She had been there with him all along, giving him space when he needed it, offering comfort even when he didn't want it. Though her work kept her busy, she found time to leave messages on the answering machine for him to listen when she could not do it in person. She was not a companion in the strict sense of the word, she was just there.

It was at her insistence that he decided to go back to school.

Such a decision was a trial of his resolve to regain his lost childhood. School carried many of his happier memories, and some of the saddest.

Kensuke and Hikari had proven to be true friends, giving him support and comfort, helping him through what was the most awful time of his life. Toji was still in the hospital, but Shinji had it on good word that the other boy was making progress rehabilitating and, more importantly, did not hold a grudge against him. He didn't have to, because Shinji still blamed himself.

Like he blamed himself for Rei, and Asuka, and Kaworu. He always would.

There were still those days … days when he wondered why if it was even worth it to get out of bed in the morning, if it might not be better to just leave. But over time they had become fewer. Living became easier.

And now, three months after the death of the last Angel, as Shinji rode the Number 3 train to school, listening to the notes of Beethoven's Ode to Joy in his S-DAT as he often did, he could almost have passed for an average schoolboy.

The car was half-empty, warm, washed in the warm rays of the early-morning sun streaming through the large Plexiglas windows.

As the train rolled around the eastern bank of the third Ashino Lake, which now covered the city of Tokyo-3, Shinji looked out the window at the devastated landscape. Despite having suffered a crippling blow, there was still a city here. Someone had to work for NERV, someone else had to provide all the amenities of modern life. So while a chunk of the once-bustling metropolis was submerged into the ominously-labeled Exclusion Zone, what remained kept going.

Tokyo-3 had always been intended to be a battleground, people had always known the danger, but nothing like what had actually happened had been foreseen.

Shinji was surprised so much effort was being put into rebuilding.

The Reconstruction Council seemed to think it was possible to bring the city back altogether. A dam was being built to seal off the lake, and pumping stations were being set up to clear out the water. Within months he might actually be able to walk through the downtown which was currently covered by millions of tons of water. The suburbs were already up and running, as were outlying schools and transit systems. People could carry out normal life now.

But life wasn't normal for him. The Eva and the Angels had changed him as well those around him. The memories of those he'd met and hurt meant he could not be happy, regardless of how much he wanted to every waking moment. He would have given anything …

Shinji chanced a glance over his shoulder at the girl sitting across the narrow, sunny corridor.

Rei Ayanami did not acknowledge his presence, as he rarely acknowledged hers. She was reading a book, and hadn't said a word to him since he had entered the car. She had always been like that, but he had never felt as uncomfortable with his Rei as he now did with this…girl. She was a stranger. To him, to the world, to everything.

Rei Ayanami—the name had become a part of him. She had mystified him when they first met. Her silent character had earned her a reputation as frigid and distant, but after taking the time to know her, Shinji had found she was a warm, caring human being.

Was. Not anymore.

Because Rei Ayanami, the girl he'd taught how to smile, was dead. She had sacrificed herself to protect him.

This girl was someone else. She might look and act like the girl he used to know, but she wasn't. She wasn't the Rei Ayanami he had cared about, just a similar body holding a different heart, a product of bioengineering, like his Eva, a shell, a thing—no, that wasn't fair.

Shinji felt a pang of regret at that thought.

Although he had seen the tank and the spare bodies with horror, this new Rei didn't deserve to be thought of as any less human than the one he had known. Doing so made him just as cold hardhearted father as his father. Rei hadn't asked for this, she was an innocent. She didn't deserve his scorn simply because she was created.

As she sat there, breathing, living, thinking, feeling, she was as human as he was. But while he knew this, he still found that he could not approach her. That he had to alienate her exactly because of who and what she was. It was not fair, but that was how it was.

Suddenly, her soft voice, barely audible over the hum of the train and his S-DAT, caught his attention. "If I bother you, I can move to the next car."

Shinji lowered his head. "No, please," he said, pulling out his earphones, his eyes on the floor. "It's just still a little weird for me, you know."

Rei lifted her gaze from the book she had been reading. Her eyes were red, greatly contrasting the sky-blue color of her short, shaggy hair. "Why?"

It was the first they talked about this. In hindsight, Shinji realized that he had always been afraid of what he would say. He wanted very much not to have recall those memories. That was why he avoided her for so long. And because just looking at her made him hurt.

"I did not mean to upset you." Rei turned away and began to stand. "I will let you be."

"No, I ..." Shinji fought the knot in his throat. "It's because you—because of what happened. You know, you … do you remember?"

"I remember pain," she said softly.

Shinji turned, able to have a good look at her for the first time in ages. Her skin was a clear white, as if she'd wrapped herself in whiffs of cloud, though some would describe her as ghostly. A petite frame hid under the folds of the blue jumper and white shirt that made up her school uniform, which appeared to be the only piece of clothing she owned.

The plain looking outfit fit her rather loosely—the shirt was definitely a size too big—and was wrinkled. Rei had never cared for such things. At least, she never had. But that was not the girl sitting in front of him. And it was wrong to think of her that way.

After months of willful neglect, Shinji realized there was something he needed to say. "Ayanami, I'm sorry."

Rei seemed surprised. "For what?"

"I haven't been very nice to you lately," he murmured sullenly. "I've treated you like … like a stranger. It was just hard to see you around after … after you died. After she died, sorry."

He hesitated, a warm rush of shame coloring his cheeks. "I keep thinking you are her. I just miss her so much. But it wasn't fair of me to cut you off like that—I think a part of me wished she hadn't done what she did, but if she hadn't that Angel would have killed me."

"She died to protect you," Rei said, her face remaining as tranquil as always; had it been anyone else Shinji would have taken it badly and withdrawn. "But should you want to blame me—"

Shinji shook his head, now having to fight back tears. "Don't say that."

"Self-destructing Unit-00 was her choice. She did not seek advice or permission. It was her choice in the end, made with her own free will, her own mind. It was the only true decision in her life made from the heart. She did not regret it."

She had not meant her words to be hurtful, he knew. There was nothing in the way she spoke to indicate otherwise. And yet he hurt because of the awful memories the words recalled.

"I shouldn't have pushed you away," Shinji said. "Just because you weren't her. I shouldn't have let you be alone. You were always so kind to me. And when you needed me I just couldn't do the same for you."

"I was never kind to you. But given a chance I think I would be. Like she was."

Shinji couldn't look her in the eyes as he said that, instead focusing on her alabaster hands.

"Do you understand, then?" Rei said. "There is nothing to be sorry about. She chose to die, the same way Kaworu Nagisa chose to die."

Hearing the name said out loud was like a punch to the gut. "I don't want to talk about that."

"I have tried crying for him." For the first time, Rei let her gaze drop. "But I can not. There is too much about his loss that does not make sense to me. Does that mean I'm not human?"

The train made a left turn, peeling way from the edge of the lake, forcing those passengers who were standing to hold more tightly to the hand loops hanging from overhead rails to keep from stumbling. They were plunged into darkness as the train entered a tunnel. The running lights and the lights wired to the tunnel walls cast weird elongated shadows across the car; the noise of the air and the track rushing past them increased into a thunderous roar.

"I have no emotions," Rei added, her red eyes eerie in the dark. "Is that why I can not cry for him?"

Shinji still did not want to talk about Kaworu, so he was grateful Rei seemed to have changed the subject back to herself. "You must have emotions."

"Is that what makes you human, your emotions?"

The tunnel fell away and they were back into sunlight. Having left the flooded remnants of Tokyo-3 behind, a new more civilized world stretched around them. Once little more than a rest stop for weary travelers, these sleepy suburbs had grown into a bustling town as one of the most important destinations of the honeycomb that was the mass transit system. This had made it the ideal place to relocate their demolished school.

"I don't know" Shinji said vaguely, wishing this interminable ride would just end already. It had never taken this long to get to school before.

"So, if I have no emotions…I am not human?"

Shinji let the question hang in the air.

"Ikari?" Rei called to him, her voice slightly louder. "Am I not human?" she asked again, sounding concerned.

"You are human," Shinji said. "You have to be."

"The Rei Ayanami you knew before was the second one, was she not human?"

Shinji shook his head; he didn't want to answer, and yet the words began coming out of him. "She was very much like you," he said "I guess you and her are the same and not the same. I can't really explain it. But being human is more than what you are physically; it's who you are. And she was human enough for me. Like Kaworu."

Rei twisted halfway away from him, her eyes now gazing into the empty space as if she could see something there.

"But did he not have to die?" she asked, but to Shinji it sounded like a statement, not a question. "Because he was not human?"

Shinji did not answer. There was no point in replying to such a question. Rei knew what had happened, and how painful it must be for him to talk about it. He would not be going there again.

"He told me I was like him," Rei added. "I do not think I understand."

The train slowed with the screeching noise of brakes. Within another moment, it came to a complete stop on the platform and the doors opened.

Gathering his school bag around his shoulder, Shinji stepped off in silence. Rei followed a few paces behind. The crowd was mostly students walking to and from, chatting with friends and acquaintances, asking each other if they'd done their homework then immediately asking if they could copy said homework.

It was short a walk from the train platform to the school, which was a single large rectangular building with an open courtyard and a gym that held a basketball and volleyball court—unlike their old school, there was no swimming pool, much to the boys chagrin.

As he entered the classroom, several girls looked in his direction, giggling and quickly turned away, blushing. He recognized Miho Ishizawa, a tall girl with long, black hair at the center of the group. In Asuka's absence, she seemed to have picked up the idol's baton.

At first Shinji had been annoyed by this sort of behavior—and more than a little embarrassed—until Hikari had explained. It was because of his eyes, she had said, because of how the pale blue always made him look sad and in turn made the girls want to console him, and because they considered him cute.

Given that neither Rei nor Asuka had ever said much about how he looked, Shinji had always assumed he was not much to look at—in fact that was the exact phrase Asuka had used when she first met him. He'd been totally wrong, or so Hikari informed him. His dark brown hair and slender build was more than enough to guarantee him the girls' attention.

Shinji didn't really care for this, however. There had only been two girls whose opinions of him had mattered: one was dead, and the other might as well be.

He took his seat next to Kensuke, who was playing with a scale model of the American B-2 Stealth Bomber. "You lucky dog. I wished they'd look at me like that. Maybe you should introduce me."

"Ask Hikari," Shinji nodded towards the freckled Class Representative handing out sheets of paper to various interested-looking students, getting a playful wave in return. "I don't even know most of their names."

"Well, Miho certainly thinks very highly of you."

Shinji just shrugged.

"Man, I know having lived with Miss Popular must make these girls seem ordinary, but not even you can be this jaded." Kensuke pressed his lips into a pout. "You must have really been spoiled rotten."

"There is just no way for the diploid cells to divide any faster and not risk a complete breakdown of the cellular wall," Maya Ibuki told the little pink pillow shaped like a bunny. "We are already beyond anything predicted by the Hayflick scale. This sort of thing has never been tried before—I mean we can study some damn lizard, but the Eva is a far more complex organism. You don't happen to have a degree in macromolecular biology, right, Mrs. Bunny?"

"Maya, I think you're loosing your mind," Shigeru Aoba, the self-appointed rock star of the bridge crew said, pausing in his strumming of the imaginary guitar he was holding to look a her with concern. "Has the Commander explained why the big rush? We haven't been on Level One Alert for months. Unit-01 and Unit-02 are still in stasis. And I suppose, technically, they don't have pilots."

"I'm sure there's a good reason." Maya stuffed the bunny between her sore back and the chair. "We just don't know what it is."

"Seems pretty fishy if you ask me," that from Makoto Hyuga, who was leaning against his console, holding a cup of coffee. "That boy was the last Angel, that's what they said before. By the way, Maya, shouldn't you be working on Unit-00?"

Maya sighed. "I'm on break. I don't have anywhere else to be."

Hyuga and Aoba looked mournfully at each other. "Don't you want to get some food? Some sleep?" said Hyuga, concerned.

"The food makes me sick, and I've got too much coffee in me to sleep."

Being NERV's de-facto Chief Scientist was not what she had expected, Maya had already admitted to herself. She could not remember the last time she had left the Geo-Front for her apartment. Maya had been decidedly excited when Commander Ikari had presented her with the opportunity to reconstruct Unit-00.

The project was codenamed Lazarus and it was the first project which would be completely under her control, a tremendous challenge to test the skills she'd learned under the brilliant Dr. Ritsuko Akagi. Cellular mitosis and a host of other procedures had now regenerated almost 25 percent of the vaporized Evangelion, but Commander Ikari was still expressing his displeasure at the lack of progress.

"Maya, I don't think that's very healthy," Aoba said.

Maya truly appreciated their concern. The bond with her fellow operator was one they had forged over dozens of life-threatening situations, and over great tragedy. That's why she felt comfortable coming to them to vent. "Yeah, I know. The schedule is tight enough as it is so it's not like I can really get any time off though."

"If you need more help, feel free to take Haruna over there." Aoba flicked a thumb at a dark haired female operator further down the bridge.

"I don't know anything about biology," Haruna called out, then her voice turned sarcastically sweet, "but thanks for volunteering me for extra work, dipshit."

Hyuga laughed, slapping Aoba lightheartedly on the back. "And she loves you, you say?"

Haruna's wit was totally lost on Maya. "It's not a personnel issue. Half the payroll could volunteer and it wouldn't do any good. I'm the only one with the expertise—other than Doctor Akagi, I mean."

"That is very true."

Doctor Akagi's voice.

Maya was on her feet before the faux-blonde doctor, the genius behind NERV, could come to a stop in front of the small group of operators, her look of utter astonishment shared by everyone.

It fell to Hyuga to ask the obvious. "D-Doctor Akagi? What are you …"

"There's too much that needs doing," Ritsuko Akagi said, seeming oblivious to the fact that every eye in bridge was focused intently on her. "So much, in point of fact, that my services are required once again. As Maya said, there isn't anyone else." She turned to Hyuga. "I'm going to need some equipment. Borrow what you can, take what you can't."

Maya felt a cold knot form in her stomach. "Ma'am, what about Lazarus?"

"Lazarus is your responsibility. If you wish I can provide you with some technical advice, but I've got other things to keep me busy at the moment. I know you've been having problems with rate of mitosis—I read the reports," she added at Maya's incredulous look. "I'll see what can be done to speed things up a bit. But for now the Dummy is my main priority."

"The Dummy?" all three operators said at once.

"It's all about combat effectiveness and redundancy," Ritsuko said shortly. "Hyuga, I can set everything up myself. I just need the equipment. Maya, you should go back to Unit-00's cage. I'll be there shortly."

Maya didn't know what to say. She could hardly believe it. Ritsuko was truly a godsend. Suddenly, she wanted to throw her arms around her boss in a hug. "Ma'am, I don't …"

"Do you want the help or not?" Ritsuko said, her voice cold and busyness-like. "I do not intend to offer twice."

Eagerly, Maya nodded. "Yes, Ma'am. Thank you."

The sun had turned the sky a furious orange by the time Shinji got home from school. The elevator was slow and smooth. Whoever did maintenance on it apparently didn't care that very few people used it and still did a good of keeping it up. He swiped his key on the lock automatically.

The first time he had crossed this door he'd hesitated. He'd never had a home—yes, he'd lived with relatives but it was hardly home—and here was this kind stranger, a pretty dark-haired woman, offering her home to him; he couldn't refuse but that didn't mean he couldn't have doubts about sharing such intimacy with someone he hardly knew.

Shinji removed his shoes at the entrance, throwing down his book bag next to them.

The apartment's layout was simple enough, a kitchen just inside the door with an adjacent bathroom, a large living room which led immediately to the master bedroom and the terrace, and down a short corridor to the second bedroom and a closet.

When he'd first moved in he'd taken the smaller room, but when Asuka had arrived he'd been moved to the closet across the hall.

Shinji hadn't complained. He didn't own that much stuff—most of it fit in a single box which Asuka had dumped in his new 'room.' She, on the other hand, owned piles and needed the space more than he did. He could have moved back, certainly; Asuka had been in the hospital for ages and was not likely to return.

He tried not think of her. What happened to her …

"I'm home, Misato," Shinji called as he entered the kitchen, not expecting her to be there.

The untidy wooden table and chairs made navigating the cramped space tricky. As he came around, Shinji frowned at the sight of a girl's school uniform neatly hanging from the back of one of the chairs.

Carefully, he picked up the thin bit of red ribbon the girls wore tied around the collars of their shirts from where it had been set and examined it.

Why was this here? Had Misato decided to clear Asuka's stuff? No. The uniform was clean, freshly pressed. Not the sort of thing that would have been hanging in a closet gathering dust for months.

Then why?

"I wanted to tell you."

Shinji looked up and saw Misato standing under the doorway leading to the rest of the apartment. Her dark eyes looked him over then dropped to the uniform. She seemed tired; her expression careworn. "Asuka is being released from the hospital in a few days."

"Really?" Shinji should have been happy for her, but there was to much pain and guilt and regret attached to his memories of her. And, despite everything, there was also a great deal of concern. "Is she cured?" he asked. "Is she doing okay?"

"She's ... better." Misato did not look at him. "I thought maybe you would like to come with me to the hospital when I pick her up."

Shinji hesitated. The prospect of seeing Asuka again suddenly seemed daunting. But what could he do? She was someone important to him. Someone whose life he was partially responsible for ruining.

"I know Asuka would appreciated it."

He was not convinced, but felt he could do nothing else. "I … yeah, okay."

Although it was clearly what she wanted, his answer did not lighten Misato's mood. Her strangely evasive gaze finally got his attention. Whenever they got a chance to talk she always seemed happy to see him, even if she wasn't feeling particularly upbeat; she always made an effort so the few moments they spent together were enjoyable.

She would at least look at him.

"Misato?" Shinji murmured. "Is there something wrong? With Asuka?"

Misato sighed, leaning heavily against the door frame. "Not with Asuka. It's ... " Her face became hard, determined, and she took a deep breath. "There's no easy way for me to say this so I'll just say it: I need you to pilot Eva again."

Shinji let the ribbon slip from his hand.

Misato quickly added, "I know I promised you wouldn't have to, but the Commander thinks there are more Angels on the way so we have to be ready."

"But you promised." Anger came suddenly over him, strong and unwelcome. It was like a burning wave that washed over him, a rush of emotion that swallowed everything in its path. "You promised!"

Misato shook her head. "I know I did, Shinji. Believe me. If there were anything else I could do--"

"You promised!"

"I know. I'm sorry." Misato's voice was soft. "I'm sorry."

"That's not good enough!" The words were out almost as soon as Shinji had thought them. Somewhere in the back of his mind there was a whisper of restraint, that part of him that felt he owed Misato the chance to explain. He ignored it. "Every time I get in that thing someone gets hurt! Toji. Rei. Asuka. And … Kaworu."

"I know."

"Every time! How can you ask me to go back? Don't you understand what it feels like? Don't you? Being sorry is not good enough! That doesn't make it better. It doesn't take the pain away. You are not the one that has to deal with it!"

"Shinji, I've tried to understand—I really have. But your father, this is his order."

"He can't make me!" Shinji bellowed. "And neither can you. I don't care if you have orders. You're a monster just like my father!"

As that last accusation left his lips he knew he had just crossed a line in the sand. It was a horrible thing to say, especially to someone who moments before he had been convinced cared about him.

Her widening eyes shimmered on the verge of tears and she was taken aback. In his anger he was glad that he could hurt her so deeply merely with words.

"You are right," Misato tried to keep her voice from quivering, succeeding only just barely, "I can't make you. But you are a man. And some times men have to do things they don't like because they are the right things, because people depend on them. Your choices affect more than just you. Your words—" she stopped and for a moment seemed unable to gather her thoughts "—Shinji, I don't want to hurt you. I'm not …"

But Shinji was not listening anymore. "You are just like my father!"

That was the end and Misato recognized it. Nothing she could say would change his mind and she knew it. No matter how she tried to justify her breaking her promise, he would not accept it. He would not pilot Eva again. Visibly deflated, she just nodded and swallowed further argument.

Shinji didn't watch her retreat, instead picking the little ribbon off the floor and dropping, exhausted and betrayed, on the nearest chair, laying his head into his hands.

Misato descended the last few rungs of the ladder onto the deck were Ritsuko was setting up her diving gear, her boots hitting the metal platform with an empty echo. "So it's true then?"

Ritsuko looked up from her work with one of the regulators on the air tanks as her friend adjusted her hardhat, walking towards her. "I'm only surprised it took him so long," she said with a bitter grin. "Never let a valuable resource go to waste."

Typical, Misato thought.

After destroying the Dummy System, Ritsuko had been put into detention more than three months ago; she was simply too dangerous, and the way it was done had not allowed anyone to intervene. Misato had been there when the dummy was destroyed, standing next to Shinji as the spare Rei bodies began to disintegrate in front of them. Ritsuko seemed to despise them, asserting that they were just empty shells.

It was one of the most troubling things Misato had ever seen, and that said something since she had actually seen Second Impact happen.

"Can I hold your coat or something?" Misato asked, sitting on the edge of the deck, letting her legs dangle over the side.

She looked into the LCL filling most of the deep compartment beneath her feet and could clearly see the emaciated shape of Unit-00. It was just a torso, one arm, and a head, surrounded by all kinds and gauges of cables and piping tangled in a rather grotesque morass. Without its armor, it looked like a skeleton, a humanoid thing seemingly half-exhumed. "Lovely, isn't it?" she commented sarcastically.

"Who is to say Man doesn't look just as abhorrent to God," Ritsuko replied.

"God created Man in his image. To find Man abhorrent, God would to have to abhor himself."

"And Man created Eva in his." Ritsuko straightened up, removing her lab coat; she was wearing a dark, one-piece swimsuit underneath. Misato took her coat off the floor and draped it over her lap.

"Thank you," Ritsuko said.

"No problem. I like feeling useful. What are you doing down here, anyway?"

"Taking samples. Unit-00's body is much too frail to be exposed to the air at this stage—the nutrients and oxidizers in the LCL help protect it—so this is the only way to get accurate samples." Ritsuko checked her diving watch. "But if I may ask you a question, have you talked to Shinji?"

Misato sighed heavily. "Yeah."

"I take it didn't go well."

Misato didn't respond. She had hoped avoiding having to broach the subject in any detail. Ritsuko would have to be told that Shinji had refused to pilot Unit-01, and Misato had already typed up a report. But written words were a lot less personal than talking about it. And although she was still hurting from Shinji's anger-filled words, in a deeper level she was certain she deserved it. That made the hurt even harder to get rid of.

"Misato?" Ritsuko prompted.

"What was I supposed to say?" she muttered. "That he had to do it because it's his duty? I did. I'm not even sure I believe that. I'm not even sure it's the truth anymore. Was I supposed to lie to him?"

"You should have said what was necessary to achieve the desired results."

Misato felt anger. "Like he's some kind of damned machine? Like he doesn't have feelings? I can't. Human beings don't work like that, Ritsuko. I know that doesn't make sense for someone like you, but you can't just justify making him suffer like that. He has a right to be happy."

"Didn't we also have that right? But life doesn't work out that way. We must each do what is required of us, because if nobody did, we'd still be living in caves, afraid of fire. Sacrifice is a part of life." Ritsuko sat next to Misato and began strapping the heavy aluminum tank to her back.

"You tell Shinji that next time, okay?"

Ritsuko fitted the scuba mask across her forehead. "What about Asuka?"

"Still in the hospital. Quite frankly I don't know how she's supposed to pilot Eva in her condition. Have you caught up with her dossier?"

Ritsuko nodded. "I have. She'll be fine."

"She was found naked in a bathtub full of filth, an inch away from suicide. The doctor said she'd been starving herself and they had to put her under to keep her from hurting herself. Doesn't sound like someone you'd want operating a weapon of mass destruction."

"Asuka would not commit suicide, that's not who she is. Had she wanted to, there are much easier and efficient ways to do it. No. Asuka wanted to suffer, to punish herself for her failure. She stopped caring about her life; that is not the same as wanting to die."

"If you say so," Misato said miserably. "My point remains. How is she supposed to pilot in her condition?"

"We can figure something out. Eva is built on dozens of very complicated systems. All it takes is a tweak to a tiny a part of one of those systems to drastically change the final product. You just leave it me."

Misato frowned. "Meanwhile, what do I tell Asuka?"

"Tell her what you know she wants to hear." Ritsuko lowered the scuba mask over her eyes. "Listen, Misato, you can't keep making everything so personal. Detach yourself a little. Maybe you'll find that it isn't such a bad thing."

That wasn't likely to happen any time soon, and both she and Ritsuko knew it.

"I'll hold on to your coat." She patted Ritsuko on the shoulder. Recognizing a lost battle when she saw one, Ritsuko placed the breathing regulator in her mouth, held the mask firmly in place, and plunged backward into the LCL with a loud splash.

Evangelion Unit-01 was a marvel of engineering.

Even with his scientific background Fuyutsuki had always had trouble grasping exactly just how significant the creation of such a thing was. The first five units in the series, 00 to 04, were unique. Though designed and built along a common structure, and essentially based on the same being, all of them had their own unique qualities; all of them seemed to reflect the personalities and minds of their pilots in a remarkable way.

Considering the facts behind their armored exteriors it was perhaps fitting.

But Unit-01 stood alone among them. It—no, she was special. Yui Ikari had seen to that.

Fuyutsuki sighed at the memory, letting all his attention focus the huge head above him. Unit-01 had been pulled out of stasis and he was standing on a skywalk about halfway up her chest. She was lean and massive, covered head-to-foot in thick purple armor; her head a monstrous thing, a pronounced jaw below a single horn located where the nose would be, and triangular eyes like a demon's.

Originally she had been intended as the test unit, but necessity had dictated that she become the first actual combat unit—the first to ever engage and destroy and Angel. With a neophyte pilot lacking any training no less.

Things hadn't gone quite as planned. Unit-01 hadn't been supposed to ingest an S2 engine; Rei hadn't been supposed to die; Ikari hadn't been supposed to turn on his masters so overtly. Still, what was done was done. The schedule had to be delayed. Fuyutsuki was sure Yui would understand. She always had. And they had to be certain.

High above him, Unit-01's stasis entry-plug had been removed by crane, replaced with a new dark plug that was now sticking out of the jack at the base of the skull. There was a ring of light at the end of the plug around which diagnosis cables had been coiled and branched off like tension cables supporting a structure against the wind. It wouldn't be long before they were ready.

Fuyutsuki put his thoughts aside and turned to his aid. "And Doctor Akagi?"

The pretty technician blinked in surprise, seeming caught by been addressed so directly; Fuyutsuki thought her awkwardness endearing. "She's, um, with Unit-00. Taking samples, I believe. She left orders to prepare the diagnosis plug and proceed through to acceptable feedback thresholds."

"Very well." Fuyutsuki nodded, again looking up at Unit-01.

Patience, he urged silently. They would get there together—or would be destroyed together.

Shinji had done as Misato asked and tagged along to pick Asuka up at the hospital.

The ride in her car was very awkward; he was still angry and hadn't said a word to her in several days, despite her effort to engage him in small talk, and was now intent on keeping his eyes firmly on the window as they descended through one of the car trains that provided vehicle access to and from the Geo-Front and the surface.

The Geo-Front was a massive underground structure. Shinji knew little about it except that it was basically a dome that housed all of NERV's operations underneath the city of Tokyo-3. Central Dogma itself was located on a pyramid-like main building on the center of the huge cavern, surrounded by a forest and an artificial lake. The trains and other cargo elevators spiraled down the sides of the dome, providing easy access to the surface bellow where a bridge connected traffic to Central Dogma's parking areas.

But as incredible as this place was, there was always the reminder that until recently it had been a war zone. And there are always casualties in war.

They parked and wordlessly moved into the structure, taking several elevators to reach the isolated Cranial Nerve Ward, which was reserved only for the worse of injuries. NERV's medical facilities were possibly Shinji's least favorite place in the world. And he had only spent short periods there.

Nothing as long as Asuka.

They found her standing on a hallway inside the ward, a nurse by her side, looking out of a brightly lit window that gave her a view of the gardens. She wore a white gown and slippers.

Despite the months of internment, Asuka was still the exotic beauty Shinji remembered. She was a little thin, and her skin—once a healthy light tan—seemed paler than normal from lack of sunlight.

Her tousled golden-red mane fell unrestrained down her to mid-back and spilled over her shoulders in two long streaks, framing a young, very pretty face that distinctly reflected the German side of her mixed parentage. Her eyes were a brilliant sapphire blue, set above high cheeks that had somehow escaped freckles; her slender teenaged body, and the manner in which she liked to show it off, had often left him unable to help himself.

In the confined space of Misato's apartment, being so intimately close to her, it had been easy to turn her into a sexual object as she lounged around in little more than her underwear—lots of creamy flesh exposed, shorts ridding up occasionally to reveal more than was intended. Even the guilt and disgust that usually came afterward was not much of a deterrent in the heat of the moment.

Indeed, those two emotions seemed to have come to define everything he felt about Asuka, and more than just in a physical sense.

From the moment she introduced herself to their class she'd become a celebrity, and her haughty personality always seemed to enjoy the attention. To Shinji she had seemed bright and happy in a way he could only envy.

She had fooled him completely.

Shinji had been there when the Angel unraveled her mind, and discovered in horror that beneath the Asuka he knew hid a painful tangle of abandoned emotions. Sadly, nobody could go through what she had without changing for the worse. Being alone and forgotten in the hospital couldn't have helped either. His failure to console her, or even offer the slightest bit of comfort, was just as bad.

The sight of her made Shinji heartsick. He wanted so bad to say how sorry he was, despite knowing fully it wouldn't do her any good, but the words stuck in his throat and would not come out. He shouldn't be here, shouldn't be looking at her or try to talk with her like nothing had happened.

As roommates and fellow Eva pilots, they had constantly been at odds with each other—their characters being so different—and yet, Shinji didn't think for a moment Asuka deserved what happened to her. He certainly had never wanted to see her be hurt, and he had not wanted to abandon her, either.

But he had; it had been the easier thing to do.

Thankfully for him, Misato didn't seem to want him to say anything. She placed a hand on his shoulder, indicating that he should wait while she went closer, very cautiously. "Hi, Asuka. How are you feeling?"

The response from the convalescing redhead was short and loaded with bitterness. "What do you want?"

"To bring you home," Misato said in a soft, motherly tone. "Unit-02 needs a pilot."

"Didn't you hear?" Asuka scoffed. "I can't pilot it anymore."

She turned her head to Misato but looked past her, to where Shinji was standing, and fixed him with a sour glare, her eyes bristling with barely-controlled anger. "Besides, why would you need me? You've got the invincible Shinji over there—the Great Third Child! Why would you need a worthless little girl like me?"

"I wouldn't be here if I thought you were worthless," Misato said, sounding like she really meant it.

Asuka rounded on her. "My synch-ratio is zero! ZERO! Don't you understand? I can't pilot Eva anymore!"

"We think there might be a way," Misato explained calmly. "Ritsuko said she was working on something."

"What?" Asuka's brow came up in genuine surprise. "Are you serious?"

Misato gave her a little smile. "I'm not up the details yet, but we're working on it. The main thing is, I want you to come home. This place is not good for you."

Asuka looked away, shoulders sagging, and Shinji thought he could sense something else besides the simmering anger. "Even if it works—if I can pilot again—what makes you think I'd want to go back?" Where there had been only anger and bitterness in her voice before, now she sounded dejected. "I was never happy there."

"It's not so bad," Misato said. "We had new carpets put in. And Pen-Pen is still with Hikari, so the fish smell is gone."

Asuka laughed shortly. Not a real laugh.

"Look, you really don't expect me to believe you want to stay here. I've got everything ready for you—well, everything is pretty much how you left it—and Hikari is positively giddy to see you again. She can't wait to go shopping with you. You belong out there, with your friends and the people who care about you, Asuka, not in here. It's fine if you don't want to feel pitied, but do it for yourself, okay? I—we—" Misato looked at Shinji "—want something better for you."

Asuka scanned every line in Misato's face, as if looking for an excuse, and when she found none, turned her gaze to Shinji. "And what do you have to say about all this?"

Shinji could not hold her gaze and dropped his eyes, feeling shamed. His mind became instantly blank. "Asuka ... I ... I ... "

Asuka made a noise of exasperation. "Ach, still as dimwitted as ever."

"Of course Shinji wants you to come home too." Misato slipped off the backpack she'd been carrying and pressed it into Asuka's arms. "I brought you some clothes. Unless you plan to go around like that. I don't know. Maybe you want to start a trend."

Looking at her again, Asuka hesitated for a moment. Then, her mind apparently made up, she took the offered backpack.

As she went to change, Misato turned to the nurse, asking her to help get the rest of her patient's things. The nurse nodded and followed Asuka down the corridor, leaving Shinji and Misato alone once again. It was only a short wait: minutes later the three of them had climbed onto Misato's car and were headed back to the surface.

Misato and Asuka sat up front; Shinji was in the back, on the driver side. Just once he caught the redhead's blue eyes in the rear view mirror.

After that, for the rest of the trip, all he could do was stare out of the window, feeling uncomfortable, as the scenery passed by in silence. Even Misato was quiet; it was as thought the three of them were completely strangers, having nothing to say to one another despite the long separation.

The Third Child would like to think he was delegated to cook because he was good at it. But in reality he simply started making dinner as soon as they got home and no one made an effort to stop him. It was probably the best—and only—thing he could for Asuka now.

Taking the cooking upon himself would keep Misato from doing it, and would spare Asuka from eating lukewarm microwaved spew on her first night home. Shinji thought she deserved better; their guardian's food ranked almost as high as the hospital's on the list of things nobody would ever want to eat.

As soon as they got home, Shinji began gathering some pots and other assorted utensils he needed while Misato and Asuka went their separate ways; he heard Misato going into her room, emerging later to turn on the TV, having changed into a skimpy top and her favorite pair of cut-off jean shorts.

The water for the rice was just boiling when Asuka slipped into the kitchen, holding a bundle of clean clothes in her hands. Facing the stove, he caught only a glimpse of her out of the corner of his eye as she walked around the far end of the table, and into the bathroom.

As the shower started running it was like a signal and he felt his body relaxing, without having become aware that it had tensed.

It wasn't like they ever got along great, but at least they had been able to talk to each other about some things, mostly school and Eva related stuff, and very rarely personal things. Shinji guessed it was only normal if they couldn't do that anymore. Not after everything that had happened.

Sighing dishearteningly, he tried to push those thoughts out of his mind and focus on preparing the food.

His timing was perfect. As soon as Shinji had set down the plates full of rice, meat and vegetables on the low table that was really the only piece of furniture in Misato's living room, Asuka emerged from the bathroom. She was still slightly damp, wearing her usual sleeveless top tucked into high-cut gym bloomers that made her long shapely legs seem even longer—pretty standard housewear for Asuka.

That last observation surprised him a little. He may have gotten used to it over time, but she was still showing a lot of skin.

Sitting around different sides of the table, the three of them began picking at their food with chopsticks. It was a gloomy atmosphere, though such a thing was to be expected. Shinji was thankful that none of them seemed interested in the others despite this being their first meal together in months. It made not saying anything less of a chore.

Misato attempted to break the silence by complemented him on the cooking after a few bites, and seeing that he was not willing to talk, turned her efforts to Asuka while chewing on a mouthful of rice.

"Mm, Asuka," she said. "Ritsuko wanted me to tell you she wants to see you tomorrow. She needs to do a physical to determine your current condition."

"A physical?" Unlike Misato, Asuka had the manners to swallow before replying. She lifted her eyes from her plate, where she'd been pushing a piece of meat around with her chopsticks. "Haven't I been poked and prodded enough already?"

"It'll help to figure out how far to push it during synch testing."

"Aren't you going to activate Unit-02?" Asuka said mournfully.

"Sure." Misato ate another mouthful. "Eventually. Ritsuko says we need to establish your baseline first. For once, I think I agree. It's not a good idea to try to activate your Eva without knowing, well, if you can take it. You've been away for a while. It's bound to take a toll."

"You don't think I can, do you?" Asuka frowned, returning her attention to the food.

"Like I said, I wouldn't have bothered with you if I thought that, would I?" Misato said. "Of course I think you can do it. I've always had faith in you. So does everyone else."

"Then why not activate it?" Asuka replied hotly, frowning as her voice rose. "Otherwise you are just wasting time."

"That's not it." Misato looked concerned. "I'm just looking after you, that's all."

Whether Asuka believed this or not was uncertain. She bit her lower lip to keep from replying.

Misato was getting far too good at doing this, Shinji thought bitterly. At sounding like she truly cared,. She might claim to be looking after them all she wanted, but it was just a self-serving, manipulative act. She had already betrayed him more hurtfully that he had ever thought her capable of, and now she was betraying Asuka as well.

As he silently lifted morsels from his plate to his mouth, Shinji pretended that he wasn't looking at Asuka but sneaked glances at her between bites.

She clearly wanted to pilot Eva and, since she didn't have the same kind of baggage as he did, it might even make her happy. He would like that. Anything to assure him that there was still hope for her.

He was holding up some rice with his chopsticks when Asuka shifted her posture, adjusting her legs more comfortably under her. Without intending to, he caught her eyes in his—for a split second two pairs of blue irises, his pale and hers bright, met before turning away from each other.

Shinji swallowed hard, nervously, almost chocking. For the rest of the meal he did not dare lift his gaze again.

When she was satisfied, Misato leaned back, rubbing her stomach lazily. "That's what I'm talking about. Oh, I've got something for you, Asuka."

The dark-haired Major got up and disappeared into the kitchen, emerging seconds later holding a small box with a piece of paper attached to the top on which a welcome home message was written.

"Here." Misato handed the box to Asuka and sat down next to her, smiling excitedly. "Thought you might like to have these back. You'll need them now that you are a pilot again."

Asuka set down her chopsticks, opened the box, and stared mutely at its contents—her pointy, bright red neural connectors. They were essential equipment in linking the pilot and the Eva into one being, but she had constantly used them as ordinary hair clips, unmistakable symbols of her status for everyone to see.

The redheaded girl managed a strained smile, picking up the connectors and holding them hesitantly in her hands.

Shinji noticed one of her writs was swollen and still needle-marked; she'd only recently been taken off the I.V.

Misato apparently was put-off by Asuka's hesitation, clearly having thought she would be thrilled to have such meaningful items back. "Let me …" she scooted closer, reaching to take the neural connectors and clip them on.

"Don't touch me." Asuka shrunk away.

Without further explanation, she sprang to her feet and headed for her bedroom, disappearing around the corner of the short corridor that led to her and Shinji's rooms.

The strange feeling Shinji had felt when he first saw her in the hospital deepened into a kind of dullness in his chest as he watched her go. He was sorry for her, but was that it? Was it guilt he felt, or everything thrown together and stirred until it was impossible to tell what was what?

This felt different somehow, stronger, and completely beyond his limited comprehension. If only he could tell Asuka maybe they could figure it out and it would stop bothering him. More likely she would scream at him and call him stupid for not knowing what his own feelings were.

Maybe he really was.

Misato noticed the concerned look on his face. "She'll get over it. Just give her time," she said. "It's always hard getting yourself back together after a fall. And the way she fell—It wouldn't be easy for anyone."

Shinji said nothing; he was still staring after Asuka.

"I forgot," Misato added after a short silence. "You're still not talking to me."

The speaker's dais was raised a few feet above the rest of the floor. Nakayima watched uninterestedly from the upper terrace, high above the proceedings, as another diplomat steeped up, shuffled his notes and began speaking. Russian, if he remembered correctly. That would explain why everyone seemed to be paying attention to his words.

"Why do they bother?" Nakayima whispered.

The man who had been sitting next to him turned his head. He was old—how old precisely nobody really knew, but enough to have earned a long reputation. He had thinning gray hair and sunken face, lined by deep wrinkles. He might look frail, but Nakayima knew better; Musashi Kluge, Chief of the Intelligence Department of the Ministry of the Interior, was one of the most dangerous men in all of Japan. The word going around the Department was that he only came out when something was going to die.

"That is the thunder of civilization," Kluge said softly. "We are not barbarians after all."

Ironically put, Nakayima thought. Barbarians fight you face-to-face; civilization is the one that stabs you in the back. "But don't they know that what they say here doesn't matter? Everyone makes deals under the table."

Kluge nodded thoughtfully. "That is besides the point. Protocol must still be observed. But you do not see this. Because you do not see beneath the surface." Kluge leaned forward, keeping his eyes on the speaker. "But it makes no difference. I did not fly you all the way to Kyoto just to debate politics."

Nakayima knew what he meant; he wasn't too keen on politics anyway. Politicians and bureaucrats owned the lowest circle of hell as far as he was concerned, probably right next to spies. "I'm sorry to say there hasn't been much progress. Maybe a different Agent--"

"Not an option, unfortunately. You were chosen for your background. Everyone else would stand out far to much to be effective."

"Ikari is still suspicious."

"Of course, but your position is purely civilian and entirely legitimate. We could have always forced another spy into their midst. That we did not and instead appointed an open representative can only lead to second-guessing on Ikari's part."

"Ikari doesn't seem like the second-guessing type," Nakayima said. It was true enough. He couldn't have summed up his impression of Ikari any better if he'd had a psychology degree, and he knew Kluge wouldn't mind him praising what was basically an enemy; it'd make the kill all the more satisfying for him.

"Regardless. The best way to hide our intentions is to do so in plain sight. NERV can revoke your position. Doing so, however, will result in severing ties with the civilian administration and, more importantly, its money. And that is the one thing they can't do without. As long as our position remains firm, I see no reason to change it."

Nakayima nodded. "But for how long?"

The Russian speaker was now gesticulating wildly with his hands. At least he wasn't banging his shoe on the podium like Nakayima had read in history books. Most the chamber looked about to explode with rage, including the European contingent.

"As long as NERV's Special Protection Order remains in place," Kluge said. "And our friends down on the floor are seeing to that. We know why, of course. Russia wants weapons—the Evangelion. China wants respect, and weapons. America—we are not entirely sure: cheap electronics, cheaper cars, who knows. Fortress America needs us more than we need her; if worse comes to worse we can compromise, meaning we'd be dealing with two vetoes instead of three. The point is, until such time as this situation is resolved we need to consolidate what we know and inquire about what we don't. Which is why we need to know what Ikari wants with that software he borrowed."

"What does the ISSDF say?" Nakayima asked.

The Information branch of the Strategic Self-Defense Force was made up of Japan's leading computer experts, and of those agencies that, like the Ministry of the Interior, were all but shrouded in secrecy. If they could not answer a question, the odds were such a question could not be answered by anyone.

"Nothing. It wasn't their project to begin with. And anything related to the Evangelion is so proprietary that it requires years of expertise and far more knowledge than we possess just to make sense of it. The archives section that disk was originally filed under makes it particularly difficult."

Nayaima didn't understand and said as much. Musashi Kluge seemed surprisingly patient for someone who was not normally required to take questions from anyone.

"The ISSDF," he explained, "categorized its archive by the order of importance of the projects archived within. These include everything you can imagine—counter-terrorism, government intelligence, military projects, even that Jet Alone incident. Everything. It's a practical way of doing things, but it leaves up to interpretation what exactly is important and what is not. NERV has never been a threat, not to us, not ever. And in 15 years, and almost half a century before that, a lot of information has been gathered. But because NERV has always been self-sustained and we lacked the knowledge there was quite a lot that was simply allowed to pass into the archive unanalyzed. And other things have been analyzed and deemed completely unworkable. We don't know what most of them are even supposed to do, only that they are no threat. That disk was one of those things."

"You don't think he was testing us?" Nakayima kept his gaze on the floor show below them. "It seems to me that he would make a request from us to test whether or not we'd comply. If we'd refused he would know that we were up to something. It's no kind of weapon."

"It's no kind of weapon that we know of. I don't think a man like Gendo Ikari wastes his time trying to call other people's bluff. Whatever the information stored in this disk does, he intends to use it. And I have grown weary of trying to guess what he's up to next."

Downstairs things seemed to be settling down. The furious din that had filled the chamber diminished and eventually vanished altogether. There was look of relief on several of the delegates as they once again returned to their seats. Nakayima took this break in hostilities as a sign that the parties involved, like good politicians everywhere, had resolved to not resolve anything. He turned his head to Kluge.

"So you think it could be dangerous, sir?"

"Maybe. Maybe not. Either way, I need to know." Kluge leaned forward, pinning him with a cold, unflinching glare. "I need you to do your job."

Nakayima wasn't sure why but he felt a shiver run down his spine. The eyes he was staring into were like those of a predator, sharp, cunning. And utterly dangerous.

"And what about Katsuragi?" Kluge asked.

"The situation has not presented itself," he said. "I'm concerned that actively seeking her out might arouse her suspicion. In that case she is unlikely to cooperate."

"She was close to Ryogi, perhaps closer than anyone else. We need whatever information he might have left her before his untimely death."

"Assuming he left anything."

"The lack of a final report is troubling. On the one hand it would indicate the lack of any significant information, which we know simply can't be the case. On the other hand, in the case that such information had been found but not passed along to us, I would neglect my duty if I did not try to search for it. I do not believe the manner of his death had anything to do with his data gone missing; someone like Ryogi would have known danger was closing in and he would have made sure his legacy lived on. No, I'm positive. Whether it indicates a shift in his loyalties or simply a desperate effort to unload valuable information, he passed something to Katsuragi."

"You don't want to know if he betrayed us?" Nakayima asked.

"It matters little now. The dead have no loyalties."

The back of the limousine was quiet aside from the muffled sound of engine as it revved along, carrying the weight of the car, driving long through busy city streets. The movement was barely perceptible, only tiny variations in momentum as brakes or accelerator were applied.

Commander Ikari had been staring out of the side window since they left the conference, his gaze distant but not altogether lost in thought; the Sub-Commander sat facing the rear, holding a small book in his wrinkled hands.

Neither men said anything.

Finally, as they banked a curve, a call came through the intercom from the obscured front seat. Sub-Commander Fuyutsuki reached out hand almost interestedly and pressed a button. "Yes?" he said, his voice carefully measured as always.

"They're done, sir," came the voice from the front.

"And?" Fuyutsuki asked.

"No vote," the man said.

"Thank you for keeping us informed," Fuyutsuki said, and depressed the intercom. Then he closed his book and gave Commander Ikari his attention. "It seems you were right."

"I know their type," Commander Ikari said. He had his elbow propped up on his the window sill, his hand turned back so his knuckles brushed his chin in the classic 'thinking' position. He did not seemed relaxed, but neither did he appear stressed. He gave the aura of being as completely in control of his own emotions as he was of the situation.

They had only been at the Security Council for a few minutes, long enough be seen because it lent the meeting an air of credibility since it was NERV's fate being discussed. Talks had been made regarding certain assurances, and loyalties had been reaffirmed.

The Commander, it seemed, had come just for that. When these private meetings were done, they had left. Neither of the two men seemed concerned that their appearance had been so brief that it might have been completely needless.

"The Russian Ambassador, I think, was egregiously formal, all things considered. But I think at least he was being honest," Fuyutsuki said. "As long as we have a guarantee of dissent there shouldn't be anything to worry about. I'm not sure about the Chinese. They are not the kind of people I feel comfortable dealing with."

"They are like businessmen everywhere," the Commander said, unconcerned. "They want what they want and will compromise anything, including whatever principles they might have. Their greed for power is to our advantage."

"Greedy men do not deal too well with time lines," Fuyutsuki retorted.

"But they know better than to displease us. What we offer—what they stand to gain from us is not something they would ever be able to do by themselves. And because they know they need us they will not stray."

"Or so you think."

"They have made good on their promise so far, haven't they?"

The Sub-Commander snickered, the wrinkles on his features deepening. It was a strangely reassuring gesture. "For the time being. Politics can be fickle, just look at the Americans. Every fours years it's something else, some new issue that was completely irrelevant to the previous administration. At least the Chinese are consistently underhanded."

"A compliment?" Commander Ikari said, faking a kind of surprise. "From you?"

"Of sorts, I suppose."

"To be honest, I have always been rather impressed with America's solution to government. Life is ever-changing. We know as much from our studies of nature. But while engineers have constantly attempted to replicate nature's designs for the last century, politicians do not tend to pay attention. Change represents success in nature. Animals within an ecosystem face many challenges, but ultimately it all comes to their ability to change. Americans have replicated this in a political system. Change—everything changes. Because it either changes, or it dies."

Ikari turned his head towards her. "Wouldn't you agree, Rei?"

Rei Ayanami almost missed the question altogether. She had gotten so used to being ignored that she felt rather like a ghost, as if she wasn't even present while conversations passed by right next to her. She had been there in the meeting, in every one of them in fact, and throughout the day nobody had addressed her even as a matter of courtesy. She hadn't spoken a word in hours, as none were required of her, and now that she was being called to answer she wasn't sure that she wished to speak.

"I cannot say," she answered. She had been sitting there watching them silently, listening, but it was clear that Commander Ikari at least had not forgotten about her presence.

He gave her a stony look, neither pleased nor displeased.

"Why is that?"

"Because it is not important to me," she said, her voice a soft whisper.

Though she knew some people would find the Commander intimidating, Rei did not feel compelled to look away. She sat with her hands together on her lap, a neutral posture, her eyes fixed but not staring.

"Ah," Fuyutsuki said. "But don't you think you should expand your horizons? Learn as much as you can?"

Rei shook her head in a way that was barely visible. "I am sorry. I did not mean it in that sense. I meant that it is not important to me because it is simply beyond my scope. Whether political change reflects natural change, and whether those things create a lasting ideology are subjects that are irrelevant to my interest. I am not a politician. Considering such things would be a waste of my time."

"An honest girl." Commander Ikari's lips curled into the smallest of smiles. He turned his head to Fuyutsuki. "I think she has a point. We are not politicians either, so it's a waste of our time as well."

"If you say so," the Sub-Commander said. "But old men are allowed to indulge."

Her part in the conversation evidently over, Rei went back to being silent. But she attended more intently now in case she was called on to speak again.

No one could have known they were humans, their true identities locked behind their numbered monoliths in the darkened room. They towered like gods above a world that had feared them and their ancestors for centuries. They had survived up to now, outlived purges and holocausts and war, and would survive still until the time of Instrumentality. They were Gog and Magog, the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.

"Times wastes away. How much can one man hate his own path, maybe enough to forget his involvement and his responsibility?" SEELE 01 spoke. His voice was deep, mechanical.

"He must pay, and those who follow him as well," SEELE 10 said. "Such filth should not enter the Garden, nor eat of the Fruit."

"The end is at hand. There is nothing more. Third Impact, humanity's final purification," SEELE 03 interjected.

"We have defeated the Angels and thus earned our path to the Tree of Life. It's our divine right. Third Impact. Instrumentality, a work in progress, an end to life."

"Only the life of Man, the death of the body, our mortal shell," SEELE 05 offered. "Man has become a race of worthless creatures, restrained by their own individuality, their own AT Fields. Instrumentality must be launched so that Man can be free."

"So that we can all be free," announced SEELE 01. "But first we need a Judas."

"He has already been contacted," SEELE 03 said. "He will be briefed upon our request. Man's final betrayer."

"Hurry up, stupid! I don't wanna be late on my first day!" Asuka's shrill voice broke the quiet morning air as it had on countless previous occasions. "Come on! Come on!"

"I'm coming!" Shinji called urgently back. Misato had been right about Asuka, he decided, hurriedly fixing their bento boxes for the day with whatever was handy as he'd overslept and fallen behind on his routine.

"Come ON!"

Shinji finished up, wrapping their bentos, and went to join Asuka. She was already waiting by the door, tapping her foot impatiently, and looking remarkably energetic in her school uniform. The two pointy neural connectors holding her hair out of the way stuck out from either side of her head like cutesy devil's horns. He'd always thought they fit her very well.

Misato had definitely been right. The gloomy girl that had come out of the hospital just a few days ago had practically disappeared, fading into the background and replaced by the loud, conceited Asuka he'd come to know and, in a way, accept. He was not naïve enough to believe she was back to normal, but at least being around her wasn't depressing anymore, and it didn't make him feel sorry or guilty either. It was at least tolerable. He thought that he could live with that.

She sighed huffily as he handed her a bento, which she shoved into her book bag while he stooped down to slip on his shoes.

Just as he did, Misato leaned around the corner into view. "Have a nice day, kids."

"Whatever." Asuka rolled her eyes, slid open the door and headed off.

Shinji straightened up, draped his own book bag over his shoulder, and was prepared to follow suit without so such as a curt reply when Misato stopped him.

"Look, Shinji," she said, stepping fully into the tiled landing, "you can be mad at me all you want, but I don't feel like being mad at you, so I'm gonna keep trying to talk to you, even if you don't want me to. One of us has to be the adult here, and apparently it'll have to be me."

"Why do you keep harping on me?" Shinji replied angrily. "Asuka can get away with being upset, but I can't?"

"Asuka is Asuka. I'd expect you to be much more social."

"Well, I don't feel like being very social to you." Shinji hitched up his bag higher and stormed through the open door, aware that he was leaving a disappointed-looking Misato behind.

Asuka was standing in front of the elevator, checking her watch. "That was quick," she said sharply. "What did she want?"

"Uh?" Shinji came to stand behind her, intently examining floor tiles. Slowly, his anger at Misato began to fade.

"Don't play stupid with me, Third Child." Asuka turned to him, her hands firmly planted on her hips. "What's up with Misato?"

"I'm just …" Shinji didn't want to talk about this, but keeping Asuka out of the loop was probably a bad idea. "I'm mad at her because she promised I wouldn't have to pilot Eva and, well, she broke that promise."

Asuke frowned, indicating she expected there to be more. "And?"

"That's all."

"Are you serious? People always make promises they can't keep. It's better than lying. You didn't really think she'd keep it, right? I mean, not even you are THAT stupid, Shinji. She told you what she thought you needed to hear, what you wanted to hear. You can't hold people to their promises. That's just immature."

"Yeah, I know," Shinji said, though he hadn't really at the time. "It just feels—" he hesitated.

"Like you were betrayed?" Asuka finished for him.

He nodded anyway.

"Oh, grow up."

The elevator opened with a ping and Asuka stepped inside, a slight stroll in her step. Shinji stayed behind, wondering if he should bring up something he had wanted to say since she'd come home but had not been able to gather the courage. She shot him an inquisitive look that basically made the decision for him.

"Um, Asuka," he started. "I've been wanting to tell you … that Misato was right in the hospital." He tried a kind smile that he knew made him look silly. "About you not belonging there and about coming home. I'm glad you are—"

Asuka narrowed her eyes, her expression soured, wiping the smile from Shinji's face. Blue eyes narrowed angrily.

"I don't care what Misato said," she said. "Lets get one thing straight, Third Child. The last thing I want—the absolutely last thing I want—is pity from the likes of you. Nothing she said, and nothing you said got me here. I'm here for myself."

"Sorry," Shinji said softly, regretting having opened his mouth, as he knew he would. "I didn't mean to make you angry."

Asuka stepped towards him; her body language aggressive.

"Do you want to know what your problem is?" she said, her voice rising shrilly. "You take what you have for granted, and you think it gives you the right to talk down to me. But you've never had to work for what you have, you just get in your Eva and it goes and you are the hero. You get mad at Misato because she wants you to do what you were born to do. Well, Third Child, some of us can't choose what we want to do. Some of us lowly mortals do what we can, all that we can, because we have nothing else while you decide you are too good for the rest of us, and what do we get?"

She pressed a hand firmly against her chest.

"WHAT DID I GET? I got my head fucked with! And you sat there and watched and did nothing! What, you thought I had it coming, didn't you? You could have helped, couldn't you?" She was screaming now. "So don't tell me you are glad about anything that involves me! Don't give a damn because you want to make yourself feel better! That just makes it worse!"

Even had he wanted to, Shinji could not have managed a reply, frozen by the sudden viciousness of the outburst, painfully aware that he had started it.

He'd underestimated just how deeply Asuka's words could cut him—how much it could hurt to expose himself through what should have been an act of sympathy. He realized then that he'd been wrong about Asuka all along, even about the things he thought he'd figured out; he was so far away from understanding anything about her that they might as well have never met.

And he had no idea how to make it right.

Her venom spent, and seemingly realizing that Shinji was not going to provoke her any further—that he had resolved to simply not saying anything at all—Asuka turned around and entered the waiting elevator again.

Shinji did not follow her. He was still frozen in place, too confused and even hurt to think about what he was supposed to do now.

"Well?" Asuka's hand hovered over the elevator controls. "Are you gonna stand there all day like an idiot or are you getting in?"

All Shinji had to do was take a step and he'd be in the elevator with her, riding together with someone who surely hated him. One step was all he needed to muster and yet he could not because it would mean he'd be alone with Asuka, and then what? Uncomfortable silence? More screaming?

"I ... I ... " he stuttered, swallowing awkwardly. "I think I forgot something."

Asuka's glare studied him for a second, as if she were trying to determine whether he was lying and trying to avoid her. For that moment, the very obvious answer seemed to matter a great deal to her. A look of seriousness—something apart from her anger—crossed her face.

Then she turned up her nose. "Suit yourself."

She stabbed a finger angrily at an elevator button.

The doors started to close in front of him, and Shinji once again thought about stepping in with her. But as she slowly disappeared from view he could not ever bring himself to give her a final pleading look. He wanted to take that step and go with her, knowing fully that she probably didn't want him to. Like before, he couldn't decide to do something for himself if it meant defying others.

Nothing good would come out of this, Shinji thought sadly. No matter how much he wanted to bridge the gap between him and Asuka, he would have to accept that she was not willing to do the same. That he had to let her go.

And so the doors closed, and Asuka was gone.

To be continued …