Notes 2021: The usual disclaimer still applies. I don't own Eva and all copyrights belong to their respective owners. I want to thank everyone who has helped grow this story and provided feedback. It really means something that so many people have been touched by it, and I'm happy some have found inspiration or just a way to help them feel better and deal with stuff in this tough year.
As you might already know, MRAartworks is doing illustration for the story and even some manga pages, so you can check those out in their twitter account ( MRAartworks/status/1319038393649692675). This includes manga pages for some key scenes. He has done an incredible work.
You can follow me on twitter atevalemonmaster, but there's not much going on there. Be aware that it's NSFW.
Notes on the Sykai Edition: as some of you know, this story is also being published and illustrated in Synkai Studio's HYPERFRONT magazine. Those chapters will be updated one or two months before they appear here. Special thanks go to MRAartworks, Dr Mint, Dako, Emilia, Jimmywolk.
Additional thanks: Big D, Darknemo, Useriel.
Neon Genesis Evangelion: GENOCIDE
Room 303 in the Cranial Nerve Ward was located at the far end of a long, brightly lit corridor deep within the massive underground fortress of Central Dogma. Shinji Ikari, the Third Child selected for the Evangelion Project, had little trouble finding it. He knew this place well, for many sad reasons. But now that he stood outside the door, his sullen gaze fixed intently on the metal knob, a sudden uneasiness made him hesitate.
He didn't want to be here, Shinji realized. He didn't want to be anywhere. And yet he had no other choice. The awful weight of his loss had finally become too overwhelming, and despite all the guilt and regret he felt towards the girl he'd come looking for, and how she might feel about him, he simply couldn't bear it by himself any longer. He needed someone he could talk to. Someone who might understand. He'd murdered Kaworu with his own hands. Rei Ayanami was … not the same. Only one person was left.
Shinji seized the knob and turned. The door opened with little effort, making no sound. He stepped through and closed it quietly behind him. Then he raised his head, slowly and carefully, almost afraid of what he would see.
Fluorescent illumination flooded everything inside the room with harsh light, reflecting off the abundant medical equipment and the checkered tile floor. Every warm color appeared to wash out into a white flash. The air was colder than in the corridor, loaded with the heavy scent of disinfectants—the same nauseatingly sterile smell he'd come to associate with the worst moments of his young life. The room was very large, intended for multiple long-term patients but presently occupied only by a single bed placed in the middle and the equipment arranged around it.
A single bed for a single patient, who might have passed away without anyone noticing if not for the constant beeping of the heartbeat monitor. She lay curled up under a white blanket, her distinctive orange-red mane visible at one end and pretty bare feet at the other. Several cable bundles connected her to the machines monitoring her vital signs. An IV hung from a stand by the bed, dripping into a clear plastic line taped securely to her wrist.
Shinji still had no idea what was wrong with her. The grownups, including Misato, had never bothered explaining anything about her current state. They probably considered him just a child who would not understand even if they did. And maybe they were right. It hardly mattered now.
He took a deep breath, his nerves tingling with dread and cold, as he approached the bedridden girl. She looked so small lying there, the blankets outlining her young form, completely unaware of his presence.
"Asuka." Shinji's throat felt dry. "Please, can you talk to me?"
There was no reply.
Shinji reached down cautiously and grasped her shoulder. Leaning over her, he caught a glimpse of her face. Her eyes were closed, her features peaceful in a way he had seldom seen them before, blissfully lost to her own sad fate. But she wasn't asleep—no such comfort could be found in the medications that coursed through her body and kept her from waking. He didn't care. His need was too great, and too desperate. He tugged at her.
"Asuka," Shinji whispered again. She had always been proud of her name, but coming from him now it sounded hollow, meaningless. He shook her, hoping that perhaps it would trigger some response deep within her subconscious. Nothing. She didn't move or make a noise.
Despite the fact that Shinji knew she couldn't help it because of her condition, her indifference produced a sensation like a cold stab in his chest. Had she been awake, he knew she would have called him stupid, and made his life miserable. That would have been preferable to nothing.
"I killed someone."
The admission was an open invitation for the memories, and with them came a sudden rush of emotions—pain, disgust, anger, all directed inwards—so powerful they threatened to wash away his composure.
He could still feel the weight of Kaworu's body in his hand ... the bones crushing. He just wanted to tell her about that. Somehow, the thought that she might forgive him for what he'd done to someone else would make it better. He had not come for Asuka's own forgiveness. She could hate him, as she always had. He was used to that.
"Asuka, I killed ..." his voice trembled and faded. His heart tightened in the cold silence, and a rush of anger at the uncaring girl crashed through him. "Aren't you going to say something? Insult me like you always do. Yell at me. Anything, I don't care."
"Asuka, say something!" He shook her, his voice rising sharply to a desperate cry. "Wake up! Wake up! ASUKA!"
His fingers clawed into the thin material of her blanket and the soft flesh of her shoulder beneath. He shook her more, harder, violently, screaming.
"WAKE UP! WAKE UP, ASUKA! WAKE U—"
Tears running down his face, he pulled on her with all his strength, almost ripping her from the bed. Her limp body twisted around the waist and she rolled onto her back, snapping at the cables that connected her to the heartbeat monitor. The short gown she wore flew open with the sudden and violent movement. The blanket fell away, rustling quietly to the floor.
She did not wake up.
Shinji straightened up slowly, his mouth open and his eyes wide as he stared at the exposed girl now sprawled in front of him. Under the gown, she wore only a pair of plastic panties. Her bare skin was almost as white as the sheets she lay on. Her breasts rose and fell gently in time with her breathing, capped by pale pink nipples quickly made stiff in the sudden cold.
With the cables disconnected, the monitor flatlined into a single drawn-out, interminable whine. It wouldn't be long before the nurses came, but Shinji remained frozen, his eyes fixed on the naked girl.
How many times have I wanted to see her like this? He thought. How many times did I ...
Asuka had always gone out of her way to tease him, only to call him a pervert and shout at him, both offering and denying him what they both knew he couldn't have. But despite the pain and humiliation he had endured at her hands, she was the object of his fantasies—the thing that fueled his sexual urges more than any other.
He was only vaguely aware that it was normal for boys his age to have these sorts of feelings. It was all part of being a teenager, of growing up. He had heard all of that in the sex education classes the students were forced to listen to in school. The teachers would go on about unprotected sex and abstinence and hormones. Nobody ever paid any attention. It was all normal.
But he didn't feel normal, and this was no fantasy. Asuka lay so obscenely before him, more open than she had ever been before, as if she were waiting for him to act. The girl that would fight and belittle him was gone, replaced with a frail, exposed 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 twisting into 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. He should have been there to comfort her, to let her know that she was not useless and need not be alone.
Instead he'd done nothing, just as she would do nothing for him now. She couldn't.
"I'm ... sorry, Asuka."
The sickening feeling of self-disgust rolled through him, forcing him to choke on his words. Once again a gloomy, heavy silence enveloped the room, broken intermittently only by the EKG's electronic wail and his quiet sobbing.
Shinji didn't try to call for Asuka again. He rushed out of her room a moment later, still in tears.
"Man is the measure of all things." —Protagoras
Genocide 0:01 / Dispositions
THREE MONTHS LATER
Central Dogma, Tokyo-3
Sub-Commander Kozo Fuyutsuki was always impressed by the cold and precise manner in which his superior handled himself whenever he conducted his business. Even now, months into the charade, he found it quite surprising that Gendo Ikari, a man who did not know the meaning of the word compromise, had proven so very adept at politics.
Watching from the secret surveillance room next to Ikari's office, Fuyutsuki could sense more than see the contempt NERV's Commander held for the new bureaucratic pawn the Ministry of the Interior had sent to replace Kaji Ryoji. Ryoji at least had been useful, if somewhat naive and misguided at times. He had information they could leverage and certain personal relationships to exploit. His replacement, however, left much to be desired in those areas.
It's good they agreed to send someone, at least, Fuyutsuki thought. If they were not willing to talk with us, it could only mean one thing. Perhaps they are not ready to consider that. Bloodshed makes for nasty headlines.
Ikari waited patiently for the government agent to reach his desk and stand at attention before turning away from the rectangular window spanning an entire wall of his office from floor to ceiling. The office itself was a massive, intimidating space, furnished only by the heavy desk and lit, for the most part, by the window. The Tree of Life, that sefirotic staple of mystics and alchemists through the ages, decorated the floor. The topmost of its circles, Keter, was placed right beneath Ikari as if to suggest his dominance over life and death, and even Heaven itself.
The man he was meeting likely did not appreciate or understand the symbolism, although that perhaps stemmed from a lack of interest rather than intellect. In truth, Junichi Nakajima simply had little reason to be philosophical about anything he did in Central Dogma. He might have been appointed liaison between NERV, the Reconstruction Council and the Ministry of the Interior, but they all knew his real job was that of a spy, and hardly a very good one.
Fuyutsuki saw Ikari's lips move. A speaker came to life beside a nearby monitor and brought him the words.
"I trust you have brought what we agreed on." Ikari's voice had a distinct mechanical tone as it was picked up by the hidden microphones. "Otherwise, the purpose of this meeting is merely a courtesy to those you work for."
"Yes, I have, Commander Ikari," Nakajima said. He was athletically built, but 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 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 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.
Nakajima reached into his jacket pocket, producing a small, emerald-green data 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 will encourage closer ties now that it seems the UN is pushing for disarmament."
Unlike Fuyutsuki, who had his doubts, Ikari had always been certain the Ministry of the Interior would try to insert another agent inside NERV following the death of Special Agent Kaji Ryoji. 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. Human life was cheap, had been for a long time, but information could make or break nations.
Even so, Nakajima seemed like an odd choice. He was by no means the caliber of agent usually fielded by the Ministry, and since caution was the better part of valor Fuyutsuki had already sent people to dig into his background. It turned out to be an exercise in futility; his men had dug halfway to Mexico and still found it impossible to trace him to any intelligence training school. This left him with the conclusion that Nakajima 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 elbows on his heavy wooden desk and lacing his fingers in his customary manner. "Very well. If you don't mind, I should like this opportunity to have you answer a question."
Nakajima stiffened slightly, but said, "Not at all."
"The government has cut our budget again. Would you care to explain why?"
"I'm afraid it's politics, sir," Nakajima 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. 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 rightfully pointed out. "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 Reconstruction Council's fund regardless of budgets, and from certain other private investors. What concerned Fuyutsuki was the fact that NERV, as Nakajima 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, making them vulnerable.
However, true to their word, 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.
Fuyutsuki felt a grin curl on his wrinkled features. The old men of SEELE must have been furious at finding their so-called absolute power stymied by the necessities of a system built on international cooperation. 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. Possessing an Evangelion was a symbol of power and prestige, just like the nuclear bomb before it, 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.
Yet Fuyutsuki and Ikari both 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," Nakajima 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 nodded. His face remained grim.
"Of course, I don't need to tell you, sir, that the UN has been very reluctant to cooperate in these matters," Nakajima added. "They are not in a position to justify such a large budget anymore."
The Commander let him hang for a moment, then finally said, "Very well. For the time being, I will accept the situation on the grounds of our compromise. But NERV's defense is more vital than the city's reconstruction. The Ministry of the Interior would do well to remember that."
If anything, Agent Nakajima seemed relieved. "We understand."
Ikari nodded. "I have no further points to discuss. You are dismissed. Kindly tell your superiors that NERV looks forward to our further collaboration."
"I will, sir." Nakajima 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, did not need him to.
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, as I've said before."
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's tone suggested that he already knew the answer.
Fuyutsuki took a deep breath. He'd learned that it was acceptable to disagree with Ikari on a perfectly reasonable basis, but that didn't mean he felt wholly comfortable doing so.
"I do not think we should be taking this kind of risk," the former professor 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 too much freedom. However, human bonds can be molded. But that will not help if we can't justify and defend our place. You heard what was said. The Ministry of the Interior is already openly aggressive."
"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. The old men 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 or the Ministry want. Fear will become our shield once again."
"Or they will seek to destroy us all the more swiftly," Fuyutsuki replied uneasily. "It's 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," Ikari 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 Doctor 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 entirely 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, seeing himself reflected on the surface. The deep green color made him seem distorted, alien.
"No trust is given," Ikari said. "Only purpose."
Misato Katsuragi opened her eyes, struggling to keep her teeth from rattling in the freezing cold. Gathering her jacket more securely around her shivering form, she looked down at the laptop sitting on the floor next to her and read the screen.
Searching, she thought. 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 condensing into a fine mist around her face, and curled tighter in her little corner, nestling against the wall for warmth.
Hyuga had told her what this place was, a storage center for the MAGI databases, and he had explained that it would be cold on account of the liquid nitrogen used to cool the rigs, but he hadn't told her how cold it would be.
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, like before, it had cost her someone she loved.
I am sorry too ... Kaji, Misato thought. I miss you so much.
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?
He won't. How can he understand? I'm the only one he has left. And he's all I have. Him and this damn computer.
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. These days she never went anywhere without her gun.
"Katsuragi," she said, trying to keep her voice even. The cold made her jaw tremble.
"Major, you are requested back at Central Dogma." Makoto Hyuga's voice was sharp and worried. Something was wrong. "The Commander has asked for a meeting with the Central Control Personnel—"
Misato frowned. "The Commander? You sure?"
"Absolutely sure," Hyuga assured her. "The request came directly from his office."
"Any idea what it's about?"
"No details." Hyuga paused. He seemed to think of something, then added, "Where are you? Should I send someone to pick you up?"
Misato glanced momentarily around her. Hyuga probably knew where she was. His question could only mean he believed this connection was being monitored, and he was giving her a possible alibi. "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, then hung up.
Misato nodded, silently grateful. She wished she could thank him out loud, but that would have to wait for later, when she saw him and could take him aside for a private word.
When she'd placed her phone back in her jacket, she closed the laptop and stood up, rubbing some heat back into her frozen muscles. Her legs were particularly stiff. As she did, a more disturbing thought came to mind.
It's been three months since Gendo Ikari gave me any orders. The moment he didn't need me, he tossed me aside. And now he calls and I go running like his faithful dog. He blows his whistle, and I answer. God, I'm pathetic.
It wasn't the first time she felt bitterness towards her Commander, and she knew it wouldn't be the last. The things she'd had to do following the 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, merely to defend humanity. But, in reality, destroying the Angels had made her feel better and taken away some of the pain she still felt. The Angels had caused Second Impact, almost wiping out the human race in the process, and wanted to cause a Third to finish what they had started. Why shouldn't they pay?
For the longest time, Misato had believed that. Then she found out it was all a lie, and the house of cards on which she'd built the selfish justification for the horrible things she'd done came crashing down. So many years. So much anger. Wasted. The truth was even worse than she had imagined.
The Angels had not brought the end of the world; Man had.
She was floating in something that was neither air nor water. Something warm and faintly familiar. A coppery taste filled her mouth, and when she took a breath, the liquid—she was sure this was liquid—had a faint scent of blood. Her senses were utterly flooded by these two sensations the way the ocean floods the deepest basins between continents, between ruined cities. There was no sky or ground or any sense of reality. Her eyes were open but she couldn't see beyond the orange void.
And then, from somewhere above her, 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 unconditional bliss and protection, to surrender to the awful reality of existence for the sake of living? Was this what mother smelled like?
Rei Ayanami did not know. She had never known. She was what she was and could not change, yet even so those questions defined her and the lack of answers undermined the very core of her existence. All living things had been born. But not Rei.
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 a stream of LCL into 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. Then the creature changed. Rei saw herself nailed to the cross, her eyes burning 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.
The room was still dark around her, the silent blankness pressing in on her like a suffocating blanket. 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 Evangelion Unit-01.
Oblivious of her own nudity, she stood and walked to the nightstand, picking up the pair of eyeglasses that her predecessor had kept there but that had not belonged to her. They were held together by tape, with a name written on the side.
"Ikari," Rei whispered softly, reading the name. A name she knew and made her feel many strange feelings. Shinji Ikari. The Third Child.
Rei knew in her heart that it was not her who he had befriended, who he had cared for. And yet she felt herself so connected to it all; the things that Rei Ayanami had cherished so strongly they passed down to her. But the glasses—
No, she remembered, these are not his. They belong to the one I hate. The one who uses me.
Putting the glasses down, Rei looked at the small clock next to them, another piece of her inheritance she was forced to accept. It was nearly dawn. The sun still lingered just under the horizon, but slowly the sky began turning red, fiery tendrils spreading like bloody fingers into the blue and black of retreating night. Soon she would have to get ready for school. As she did every day, day after day, until she was recalled to Central Dogma.
That was her life.
Those were her orders.
Shinji Ikari rode the Number 3 train to school, lost in the notes of Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" as they poured from his S-DAT's tiny earbuds, his blue eyes closed. He stood in the center aisle, his right hand grasping the safety loop dangling from overhead. To any onlooker, he would have passed for an ordinary schoolboy.
The car was fairly crowded, warm, washed in the bright rays of the early-morning sun streaming through the large Plexiglass windows. The floor vibrated under his feet, barely noticeable through the soles of his sneakers, swaying lightly. But Shinji was not interested in his surroundings. Carried by the soothing music filling his ears, his mind wandered back, as it often did when listening to Beethoven, still trying to bring some closure to the last three months.
In all that time, he had not gone back to see Asuka again. How could he after what happened? He had not even set foot inside Central Dogma. He no longer had any reason to.
After killing Kaworu, the boy who had so swiftly become rooted in his heart, he made it clear to Misato that he would never pilot Eva again. His Commanding Officer didn't try to change his mind. It was his decision and she would respect it. She promised. But even this small reprieve came too late. If only things had been different, Shinji might have had hope.
In the wake of so much tragedy—losing Rei and Kaworu, seeing Asuka defiled—he had been utterly broken. Nothing held any meaning anymore; nothing existed outside the dark shroud of depression and loss. He noticed nothing besides the hurt he felt. Day after day, hour after hour, he'd just lay on his bed and listen to music, caught between not wanting to live and not being able to die. There was little else for him to do. 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.
Somehow, he had dragged himself out of bed and shuffled his way across the living room to use the bathroom. He had been lying down for so long that his muscles felt stiff, adding to the heaviness he already carried within him. Misato pottered around in the kitchen, heating some curry ramen in a plastic cup and trying to figure out how to wash the coffee machine without taking it apart.
She froze when she saw him, and he stood there, his gaze on the floor. He had avoided her as much as he could, like he had with everything and everyone. She couldn't do anything for him and they both knew it. Shinji saw no sense in pretending, or even talking to her.
He resumed his somber pace. As he came around the table, Misato cut him off, and before he could avoid her, she hugged him. She did not say a single word to him—she just hugged him. It made him very uncomfortable. He wanted to pull away, his whole body tense beneath her arms. But then he felt her warmth, the kindness and caring that seemed to have been extinguished from his life.
His hands rose and clutched the back of her shirt. And he started to cry. Misato held him tighter.
Shedding tears always came easily for Shinji, at the slightest emotion. They embodied his suffering but hardly ever relieved it. But he never really cried. Never let go so completely that he felt as though his heart were pouring out. In Misato's arms, surrounded by the kind of motherly warmth he had missed for most of his life, he let go of everything that had been building up inside of him since Kaworu's death. Maybe even since before that.
He cried for a long time.
When he was done, Misato was still hugging him. For the first time, he realized not only that she was there for him, but that she had been there with him all along; giving him space when he needed it, offering comfort even when he didn't want it. She was not a companion in the strict sense of the word, she was just there.
The cloud of grief still hung heavy over him, but not so heavy that it completely blocked any ray of hope; not so heavy that it made him feel his life was over.
It was also through Misato's encouragement that he found the strength 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 he was making good 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.
I was there for all of it, and I couldn't save them. I piloted Unit-01 to protect people, but everyone still suffered.
There were still those days, of course. Days when he wondered if it was even worth it to get out of bed in the morning and if it might not be better to just leave like he had done before. But over time they had become fewer. Living became easier.
Opening his eyes, Shinji looked at the devastated landscape outside the window. In the sunlight, it was like watching a movie. The Number 3 train he rode to school every morning traveled in a wide loop around the eastern bank of the third Ashino Lake which now covered most of the city of Tokyo-3, providing a front-row seat to the devastation.
Yet, despite having suffered a crippling blow, massive flooding and extensive infrastructure damage, there was still a city here. Someone had to work for NERV, someone else had to provide all the amenities of modern life, and someone had to maintain everything. So while a chunk of the once-bustling metropolis lay submerged in the ominously labeled Exclusion Zone, what remained kept going.
Tokyo-3 had always been intended to be a battleground so the people who made it home knew the danger, but nothing like what actually happened had been foreseen. Shinji was surprised that so much effort was being put into rebuilding.
The Reconstruction Council seemed to think it was possible to bring the city back together, going by their announcement on television. 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 not him. His normal life ended the day his father called him to the city. Even if he would like to deny it, the Evangelion and the Angels had changed him as well as those he cared about. The memories of those he'd met and hurt meant he could not be happy, regardless of how much he wished he could be. He would have given anything ...
Shinji chanced a glance over his shoulder at the girl sitting a few places further down the narrow, sunny corridor.
Rei Ayanami barely even seemed to notice he was there when she stepped aboard during the train's last stop. He wasn't surprised anymore. She never acknowledged him these days, and he never acknowledged her, either. There was a book in her lap, her red eyes moving across the page, completely uninterested in the people or things around her. Rei had always been like that, but he had never felt so 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.
She was, he reminded himself sadly. Not anymore.
Because Rei Ayanami, the girl he'd taught how to smile, was dead. She had sacrificed herself to protect him. She was gone, and not coming back.
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 bio-engineering, like his Eva, a shell, a thing—
Shinji felt a pang of remorse 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 coldhearted 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 human just like him. But while he knew this, he still found that he could not approach her. That he had to keep his distance from her exactly because of what she was and who she had been. It was not fair, but the memories and the pain of that loss were still too raw.
He must have been staring more intently than he realized, because suddenly Rei's soft, familiar voice, scarcely audible over the hum of the train and his S-DAT, caught his attention. A voice he missed so badly it almost brought tears to his eyes. "If I am bothering you, I can move to the next car." she began to rise from her seat.
"No, wait!" Shinji said in a hurry, before he even knew he would. He shifted on his feet and shuffled closer. "Please. I'm sorry. It's just ... very weird, you know."
Rei looked at him. "But it makes you uncomfortable. I should go." Her eyes were so red they could have been rubies, greatly contrasting the sky-blue color of her short, shaggy hair.
She has the same face.
Shinji lowered his head, ashamed. He couldn't blame Rei for feeling like that, but it was his decision to push her away and distance himself from her, because he remembered. If there was any blame to go around, if anyone should move, it should be him.
"Don't go. It's not your fault that I ..."
"Is it because of her?" Rei asked.
They hadn't talked about this before—they hadn't talked about anything at all. In hindsight, Shinji realized that he had always been afraid of what he would say. He wanted very much not to have to recall those memories. That was why he avoided her for so long, one reason among many. Just looking at her made him hurt.
"I did not mean to upset you. I will let you be."
As Rei went to stand again, Shinji popped the earbuds from his ears and hurried towards her, swaying for balance against the constant rocking of the train car. Some other passengers turned their heads when he caught up to her and placed himself between her and the exit, but they quickly lost interest. Teen arguments on the way to school were nothing new.
"Ayanami ..." He fought the knot in his throat. "It's because you—because of what happened. You know, you ... do you remember?"
"I remember pain," Rei said softly.
She died, he thought, and now I'm talking to her ghost. How can I tell her what she meant to me when she's a different person?
Different, and yet exactly the same. Her skin was pure white, as if she'd been carved out of marble, her petite frame appearing almost fragile under the folds of the blue jumper and white shirt that made up her school uniform. Shinji was convinced it was 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, the Rei he knew never had. But that was not the girl sitting in front of him.
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, his voice low so no one else could hear. He looked down towards the floor. "I've treated you like ... like a stranger. It was just hard to see you around after ... you died. After she died. I'm sorry."
"You should not apologize for your grief," Rei told him. "Please let me go. I do not wish to be the cause of such pain."
"It's not you, it's ... 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, I know that Angel would have killed me."
"She died to protect you. She made her choice."
Shinji shook his head, now having to fight back tears. From anyone that would have seemed cruel, but from Rei ... he wasn't sure. The previous Rei Ayanami had always had trouble understanding emotion, why should this one be any different? "Don't say that."
"It is the truth, and you should know. 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 would not regret it."
"But I do. I regret it every day," Shinji told her. "That's not an excuse for pushing you away, 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 I think I would be. Like she was."
Shinji found the words strangely comforting, coming in that voice he so desperately wanted to hear, and being spoken by that face he found so gentle. Rei Ayanami was such a cryptic girl, but when she said things like that she was like a mother whispering to her child. Apparently that had not changed.
"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."
"I don't want to talk about him."
"I understand. 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, if I cannot cry?"
It means you are lucky, Shinji thought.
The train made a left turn, peeling away 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, and the noise of the air and the tracks rushing past them increased into a thunderous roar as it echoed off the walls.
"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. He really had no idea. After what he'd seen about the Dummy System, and about Rei ... he didn't want to answer.
"So, if I have no emotions, I am not human?"
"Ikari?" Rei's voice grew slightly louder, which was saying a lot for her. "Am I not human?" she asked again.
"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 remember, it hurt so much, and yet the words began coming out of him. "She was very much like you. 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 out into empty space as if she could see something there. "But he had to die. Because he was an Angel."
We all have to die, Shinji thought, but he realized there was little point in replying to such a statement. Rei knew what had happened just as well as he did, and why.
"He told me I was like him," Rei added. "I do not think I understand."
"I don't either."
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. Rei slipped her book back into her bag and slung it over her shoulder. "Can I walk with you?" she asked him.
Shinji nodded. Gathering his own school bag, he moved towards the door and pushed himself onto the platform. Rei followed a few paces behind. Here 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. Shinji saw a lot of smiles.
It was only a short walk from the train platform to their new school, a single large rectangular building with an open courtyard and a gym holding basketball and volleyball courts. Unlike their old school closer to the city center, coincidentally blasted out of existence by Rei Ayanami, there was no swimming pool. The boys in particular mourned such a loss.
The gates were already open, with students gathered in small groups. Shinji walked through, ignoring the odd glances thrown his way. No one really noticed Rei; he envied her for that. Several girls looked in his direction as soon as he entered the classroom, giggling and even blushing, then pretending they weren't looking. He recognized Miho Ishizawa, a tall girl with long, black hair leading a rather large group—in Asuka's absence, she seemed to have picked up the idol's baton—and there was more giggling.
At first Shinji had been annoyed by this sort of behavior, and more than a little embarrassed, until Hikari had explained. "It's your eyes," she said, "they all think you have sad eyes and want to comfort you. And they think you're cute." Now he was less annoyed, but a lot more embarrassed.
Given that neither Rei nor Asuka had ever said much about how he looked, Shinji had always assumed he wasn't really much to look at—in fact that was the exact phrase Asuka had used when she first met him.
"Well, you are totally wrong," Hikari had corrected him there, too. "Brown hair, slender build, good grades, Evangelion pilot. Half the school would love to date you, and the other half wants to be you."
Shinji didn't really agree, and didn't much care. There had only been two girls whose opinions of him had ever mattered: one was dead, and the other might as well be. Behind him, an exact copy of one of those girls pulled out her chair and hung her bag beside her desk.
He took his assigned seat next to Kensuke, who was playing with a scale model of the American B-2 Stealth Bomber—for some reason aircraft recognition had been included in NERV's training. "You lucky dog," the bespectacled boy told him. "I wish 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, not interested.
"Man, I know having lived with Miss Germany 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."
He has no idea, Shinji thought sullenly. Asuka had never been the person they all believed she was. The smiles, the haughtiness ... none of it was real. He glanced towards Rei. She had no smiles or haughtiness, but no one had any idea about her either.
With most of the computers in hibernation mode, the normally loud buzz which filled the control room was reduced to little more than a faint whisper somewhere in the distance. The lights were turned down as well, an imposition from the budget department at the behest of the Reconstruction Council in order to lower the power consumption, and thus the cost. Money, however, was not the concern of Maya Ibuki. She had much bigger problems.
"There is just no way for the diploid cells to divide any faster and not risk a complete breakdown of the cellular wall," the short-haired Lieutenant told the little pink pillow shaped like a bunny. "We're 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 an Evangelion is a far more complex organism. You don't happen to have a degree in macromolecular biology, right, Mrs. Bunny?"
She shook the bunny's head no.
"Bummer," Maya said.
"Maya, I think you're losing your mind," Shigeru Aoba, the long-haired and self-appointed rock star of the bridge crew said, pausing in his strumming of the imaginary guitar he was holding to look at her. "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." We never know what it is, she added to herself. Need to know basis and all that stuff.
"Seems pretty fishy if you ask me," that came from Makoto Hyuga, who was leaning against his console, holding a cup of coffee. In the dim lighting, his glasses glowed solid white. "That boy was the last Angel, that's what they said before. No more Angels means no more money. No more jobs."
"What are we up to now, three hundred terminations?" Aoba said.
"Three hundred and twenty-one," Hyuga gave the exact figure. Of course, he would know. He was so good with numbers. Some of the staff had even started a pool to see if they could guess what termination number they'd be. So far, no one had been exactly right, but Hyuga was set on winning the pot. "I've got a rumor there might be ten more coming tomorrow."
"They're going to keep cutting until there's nothing left," Aoba offered gloomily. "It's payback. By the end of the year, we'll be selling the remaining Eva units at a used car lot for spare change."
"As long as we don't sell the children, I don't care if I get fired." Hyuga drank from his cup. "By the way, speaking of Eva units, shouldn't you be down in the cage working on Unit-00, Maya?"
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, obviously concerned.
"The food makes me sick, and I've got too much coffee in me to sleep. Basically, it all sucks."
Being NERV's de facto Chief Scientist was not what Maya had expected. Not only had they skimped on giving her the pay raise she was supposed to receive, she could not remember the last time she had left the Geo-Front for her apartment due to the astonishing workload. And to think Maya had actually been 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 Doctor Ritsuko Akagi. Cellular mitosis and a host of other procedures had now regenerated almost 25 percent of the vaporized Evangelion from recovered DNA and spare parts. Yet even with that Commander Ikari was not impressed. Too slow, he complained. The cell recovery percentage was too low. The division rate was not adequate. On and on.
"Maya, I don't think that's very healthy," Aoba said. "Burnout is a bitch. You are gonna crash if you keep this up, and then who will do the work?"
Maya truly appreciated their concern. The bond with her fellow operators 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," Maya said. "Sorry I'm putting you guys through this complaining. The schedule is tight enough as it is so it's not like I can really get any time off."
"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.
"Sorry, I don't know anything about biology," Haruna replied, then her voice turned sarcastically sweet and she smiled dangerously, "but thanks for volunteering me for extra work, dipshit."
Hyuga laughed, slapping Aoba lightheartedly on the back. "And she loves you, you say?"
"Love is a subjective sentiment," Aoba said.
"Unlike a kick in the ass," the female operator replied. "I will volunteer to deliver that one." She raised her hand high in the air. "Pick me for the discipline committee, boss!"
Haruna's wit was totally lost on Maya. She shook her head.
"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."
"Yes, that's very true."
I know that voice!
Maya was on her feet and turning towards the door before Doctor Ritsuko Akagi, the genius behind NERV's many arcane technologies and battlefield triumphs, could come to a stop in front of the small group of operators. The young Lieutenant's look of utter astonishment was shared by everyone.
Ritsuko's hair was far darker than Maya remembered, almost fully brown at the roots, and more tangled. She'd lost weight, which she obviously would, given her situation. But the certainty and intelligence in her narrow eyes ... those hadn't changed one bit. She wore a white lab coat like she always had before, draped over a set of coveralls similar to those the technical teams used. She wore boots, too, something Maya had never seen her do.
The contrast between these garments provided a strange mix of the academic and the practical. In a way, that described Ritsuko Akagi herself perfectly. She was both a skilled technical expert and a theoretician. A scientific Yin and Yang. The best of the best.
Maya nearly swooned. She's really here!
It fell to Hyuga to ask the obvious. "D-Doctor Akagi? What are you—"
"Doing here? Simple, there's too much that needs doing and not enough people to do it." Ritsuko seemed completely uninterested in the fact that every eye in the bridge was now focused intently on her. "So much, in point of fact, that my services are required once again. After all, I am familiar with biology."
Haruna laughed nervously. "You heard that?"
Ritsuko pointed behind her. "The door has been open for a while." Before anyone could comment, she turned to Hyuga. "I'm going to need some equipment. There should already be a list in your inbox. Borrow what you can, take what you can't. Don't worry about red tape. The Commander will approve whatever is needed."
"Yes, Ma'am. I'll get right on it." The technician put down his coffee cup and headed back to his console. Pulling up a screen, he started typing faster than Maya ever could.
"And, Hyuga, I will need access to the usual systems. My old login should still be in the directory. Enable it, please. Same permission levels. Once I have those, I won't be bothering you without a good reason."
Maya suddenly felt a cold knot form in her stomach. "Ma'am, what about Lazarus? Will you be taking it over?"
Ritsuko glanced at her just as coldly as she ever did, but somehow that made Maya worry even more. It was impossible not to think that she had messed up in some way she'd failed to recognize and now Ritsuko was supposed to fix it. If she'd disappointed her mentor ... well, that might be more than Maya could endure.
"No," Ritsuko said. Maya heaved a sigh of relief. The blonde doctor ignored that. "Lazarus will remain your responsibility. You've done some good work on it so far, despite the setbacks. I can provide you with some technical advice if you want, but I'm also going to have other things to keep me busy in the very near future. I know you've been having problems with the 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. As soon as I'm set up, the Dummy System will be my main priority."
"Eh?" Everyone reacted at once, like a pack of well-trained pups, their voices filled with sudden disbelief. "The Dummy System?"
Maya didn't like the sound of that. The Dummy System was ... brutal, for lack of a better term. It was what the Evangelion pilots were minus the smallest shred of compassion or humanity. Reluctantly, she remembered what Hyuga had said. "They're not disposing of the pilots, are they?" she ventured. Would that be so bad? Those kids have suffered enough.
"Not that I'm aware. It's all about combat effectiveness and redundancy," Ritsuko explained. "Hyuga, I can set everything running myself. I just need the equipment in place and the access. Maya, you should go back to Unit-00's cage. I'll be there shortly."
"Ma'am, I don't ..." Maya was speechless, and not in a good way. The Dummy System was certainly dangerous, so much so that Maya suspected Ritsuko herself had destroyed it, and now she was starting it up again? After what they had seen it could do?
"Maya, do you want a hand or not?" Ritsuko's tone became impatient. "I really don't have all day for this."
Maya nodded eagerly. "Y-Yes, Ma'am. Ah, thank you. Welcome back."
Furious orange tendrils had begun spreading across the late afternoon sky by the time Shinji returned home from school. He slid his key card through the door and stood by as it hissed open. He was greeted by darkness. Thanks to the rising power costs, this was one of Misato's newest obsessions: everything should be turned off when you leave.
The first time he ever crossed this door he'd hesitated, with good reason. He'd lived with relatives and teachers almost all his life, but that was hardly home. And here was this kind stranger, a pretty, dark-haired woman, offering her home to him. He hadn't been able to refuse but that didn't mean he couldn't have doubts about sharing such intimacy with someone he hardly knew.
He left his shoes at the entrance, throwing down his book bag next to them, and absently hit the light switch by the door. Just like that, the darkness fled, and he saw that his shoes were not the only ones there.
The apartment's layout was simple enough, with a short hallway leading from the front entrance to a fairly large kitchen, a single bathroom and laundry to the side, a large living room leading immediately to the master bedroom and the terrace. A second, smaller bedroom was located down another corridor, with a closet across from it. When he first moved in, Shinji had taken the smaller room, but then when Asuka arrived she took over the room and sent him to the closet.
Shinji hadn't complained. He didn't own that much stuff—most of it fit in a single box which Asuka casually 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 by now, certainly; Asuka had been in the hospital for ages and was not likely to return. But ...
He tried not to think about her—about what happened to her. And he wasn't about to touch her things or enter her room. He knew she'd hate that.
"I'm home," Shinji called as he entered the kitchen. He turned the light on. "Misato?"
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 dangling from the back of one of the chairs on a plastic clothes hanger.
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.
This is Asuka's, Shinji knew at once. Is Misato clearing out her stuff? He looked at the uniform again. It was clean and freshly pressed. Not the sort of thing that would have been hanging in a closet gathering dust for months.
"I wanted to tell you."
Shinji looked up and saw Misato standing under the doorway leading to the living room. Her dark eyes looked him over then dropped to the uniform hanging beside him. She seemed tired, her expression careworn.
"Asuka is being released from the hospital in a few days," Misato said.
"Really?" He should be happy for her, and he did feel something, like a small fluttering in his chest that told him he was at least glad she would be coming home. But happiness was not a feeling he could relate to Asuka. There was just too much pain and guilt and regret attached to his memories of her. They had hurt each other too much, too often. Sometimes it had seemed that everything she did hurt him.
Misato nodded slowly. "Yeah, really."
"Is she ... cured?" Shinji asked. "Is she still—" He stopped himself before he could say "crazy". "Sorry."
The Third Child lowered his head, suddenly feeling very ashamed. Even if he had thought to say that in jest it would be too hurtful and unfair. Asuka was not crazy, she was sick. After what he himself had gone through, he should understand.
"She's ... better," Misato said. Her tone was no more cheerful than Shinji felt. "I thought maybe you would like to come with me to the hospital when I pick her up in a few days."
Shinji hesitated. Asuka was still someone important to him, but she was also someone whose life he was partially responsible for ruining. His heart had attached her to a great deal of very complicated emotions, most of them negative.
Can you really be such a coward? He suddenly thought. You already made a mistake with Ayanami, are you going to do the same to Asuka?
"I know she'd appreciate it," Misato added.
Shinji was not convinced, but if Asuka was coming back he would have to face her sooner or later. And if she saw him in the hospital, she might ... what? Forget he failed her? "I ... yeah, okay."
"Thanks." Misato tried to force a smile. It didn't work. "I knew I could count on you."
Her heavy tone finally caught his attention. Whenever they got a chance to talk, Misato always made an effort to be optimistic, even if it was late and she was tired or whatever the case may be. And she did not have the problems with Asuka that he did. She should be glad Asuka was coming home, right? And she should show it. But now she seemed as dejected as him.
Shinji lifted his gaze to meet hers. Misato quickly looked away, shifting uncomfortably on her feet. "Misato?" he murmured with growing uncertainty. "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 Unit-01 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."
The words did not sound right to his ears, as if a part of him just refused to process them. Something inside him fell, an awful empty sensation that shared far too much to his grief over Kaworu.
Then Shinji felt pain—not the dull ache of an old wound reopening, but that of a brand-new one opening for the first time. "B-But you promised," he stammered.
"I know. I'm sorry."
Anger came suddenly, strong and unwelcome. It was like a burning wave that washed over him, a rush of emotion that swallowed everything in its path.
Misato shook her head. "I know I did, Shinji. Believe me. If there were anything else I could do, I would."
His hands clenched tightly into fists. He took a step forward, eyes narrow and angry. "YOU PROMISED!"
"I know. I'm sorry." Misato's voice was soft. She shook her head. "I'm so sorry. I wish there were some other way. But Unit-01 is the only functional Eva unit at the moment."
"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. The betrayal cut too deep. "Every time I get in that thing someone gets hurt! Toji. Rei. Asuka. And ... Kaworu."
"Every time! How can you ask me to go back? I thought you understood, but you don't, do 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 who has to deal with it!"
The corners of her eyes drooped, along with her shoulders. "Shinji, I've tried to understand—I really have. Your father, these are his orders."
Father ... The last thing Shinji wanted to think about was his father.
"He can't make me!" the former Third Child bellowed. "And neither can you. I don't care if you have orders. I thought I could trust you, but you're a monster just like him!"
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're right," Misato tried to keep her voice from quivering, succeeding only just, "I can't make you. But you are a man. And sometimes 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! You want to use me like he does. Do you even really care? Have you EVER really cared?"
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 Unit-01 again. Visibly deflated, she just nodded and swallowed any further argument.
Shinji didn't watch her retreat. Instead, he picked the little ribbon off the floor and dropped, exhausted and betrayed, on the nearest chair, and lay his head into his hands.
Less than twenty-four hours after giving Shinji the bad news, and wishing she were still locked in her room, Misato entered Unit-00's cage and descended the ladder onto the deck below. Her boots hit the metal platform with an empty echo which seemed to spread across the heavy noise-filled air like a shockwave.
On the far side, Ritsuko was setting up her diving gear. There were a few technicians in the cage, all looking very busy, and aside from saluting they didn't pay her much attention. Misato liked it better that way.
"So, it's true then?" the NERV Major said, putting on her bravest face. "The bird woman of Alcatraz."
Ritsuko looked up from her work with one of the regulators on the air tanks as Misato adjusted her hard hat while walking towards her.
"I'm only surprised it took him so long," the faux-blonde woman said with a bitter grin. It was not a true smile. "Never let a valuable resource go to waste."
Typical, Misato thought. He uses her like a wet rag and that's all she has to say. But who am I to judge?
Misato knew the whole story. More than three months ago, after destroying the Dummy System, Ritsuko had been arrested by Section 2 by direct orders of Commander Ikari and placed in indefinite detention. She was simply too dangerous, and the way it was done had not allowed anyone to intervene. Misato had also been there when the Dummy System 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.
"Well, I'm glad you are back. I'd hate to be the only one having all this fun. Can I hold your coat or something?" Misato said, walking down the platform until she was right next to Ritsuko. Then she sat on the cold metal and let her legs dangle over the side.
Looking into the LCL filling most of the deep compartment beneath her feet, she could clearly see the emaciated shape of Unit-00. It was just a torso, one arm, and a head, surrounded by all kinds of gauges, cables and piping tangled in a rather grotesque mass. Without its armor, it looked like a skeleton, a humanoid thing seemingly half-exhumed.
"Lovely, isn't it?" Misato said, her voice dripping with sarcasm. "Hard to believe they are really so ugly. Their armor looks so good."
"It's a man-made god, who cares what it looks like," Ritsuko replied.
Misato almost laughed. "It's a weapon. Not a god. Gods can't be destroyed, but Rei sure destroyed Unit-00. That girl is quite something."
"Was," Ritsuko corrected. She straightened up and removed her lab coat. Underneath she wore a dark, one-piece swimsuit. Misato took her coat off the floor and draped it over her lap, but she couldn't help noticing Ritsuko had lost a considerable amount of weight.
"Thank you," the blonde 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?"
It wasn't much of a talk.
Misato sighed heavily. "Yeah."
Ritsuko got the hint instantly. She was, after all, supposed to be a genius. "I take it things didn't go well."
Misato didn't respond. She had hoped to avoid 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, on a much deeper level she was certain she deserved it. That made the hurt more stinging and even harder to get rid of.
"Misato?" Ritsuko prompted.
"I don't want to do anything like that ever again, Ritsuko." Misato shook her head. It was an effort just to keep her voice even. "The look on his face—I think he hates me now."
"Maybe you could have said it differently."
"What was I supposed to say? Huh? 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," Ritsuko said, very predictably.
"Like he's some kind of damned machine?" Misato felt angry. She didn't really expect Ritsuko to understand, but her expectations hardly mattered when the other woman appeared so dispassionate about someone Misato cared about. "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 justify making him suffer like that simply because it's expedient. 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 oxygen 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 Unit-02 in her condition. Have you caught up with her dossier?"
Ritsuko nodded. "I have. She'll be fine."
"Section 2 found her naked in a bathtub full of filth, an inch away from death." That particular report still made Misato's stomach turn. "The doctor said she'd been starving, 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."
Ritsuko was not moved. "Asuka would not commit suicide. That's not who she is. Had she wanted to, there are much easier and more 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?"
"I have a few things I want to try. The Eva is built on dozens of very complicated systems. All it takes is a tweak to a tiny part of one of those systems to drastically change the final product. I believe we can even produce some software aides for her. Perhaps some higher power connectors. You just leave it to me."
Misato frowned. "Meanwhile, what do I tell Asuka?"
"Tell her what you know she wants to hear. By the way, whenever you get around to picking her up, I want her in my office the next day for examination." Ritsuko lowered the scuba mask over her eyes.
"She's been examined already, otherwise they wouldn't let her go," Misato countered. "If she's ready for an activation test—"
"I will decide if she is ready. She's being released as part of her mental health treatment, not because it's a requirement. We can test her right off her hospital bed if we have to."
"You are so cruel sometimes."
"It's not cruelty, it's ..." Ritsuko seemed to catch herself. "Listen, Misato, you can't keep making everything so personal. Detach yourself a little. Maybe you'll find that it isn't such a terrible thing."
That's not gonna happen and you know it, Misato thought. "I really envy this side of you, Ritsuko. And, well, I also don't. Because of what that means for you." She patted Ritsuko on the shoulder. Shinji calls me a monster, so what are you?
"It means nothing, and frankly we are not in a position to worry about this cosmetic moralizing. The pilots are what matter."
Misato nodded. She shared that last sentiment, but for completely different reasons than NERV's Chief Scientist. In the pilots, Ritsuko saw only tools, weapons; Misato saw children, people she wanted to look after. "Yeah. Anyway, I'll keep a hold of your coat."
"You sure? I may be a while," Ritsuko said.
Misato shrugged. "I don't care. I have all day."
"As you wish." With those final words, Ritsuko placed the breathing regulator in her mouth, held the mask firmly in place, and plunged backward into the LCL with a loud splash. Misato continued looking at the ripples long after her silhouette had faded into the orange depths.
Evangelion Unit-01 was a marvel of engineering, and, as such things usually went, a towering monument to human hubris.
Even with his scientific background, years of experience and extensive educational work, Fuyutsuki openly marveled at 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 with 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 on 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 an Angel. With a neophyte pilot lacking any training no less.
Things hadn't gone quite as planned. Unit-01 wasn't supposed to ingest an S2 engine; Rei wasn't supposed to die; Ikari wasn't 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. "Where's Doctor Akagi?"
The pretty technician blinked, seemingly surprised by being 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. We'll get there together—or we'll be destroyed together.
The tunnel ended in a flash of light, and when the light faded the inside of the Geo-Front's massive underground dome loomed over the windshield.
Shinji knew little about the massive structure except that it was basically an enormous half-filled sphere that housed all of NERV's operations underneath the city of Tokyo-3. Central Dogma itself was located in a pyramid-like main building on the center of the huge cavern, surrounded by a forest and an artificial lake that sprawled along the ground. High above them, a cluster of buildings hung inverted from the dome's apex, their lights shining like stars in a black sky. Normally they would be pushed upwards into the city proper but would retract to protect them during battle. With most of the downtown district destroyed and flooded, these buildings could no longer be extended above ground.
Several cargo elevators and trains—both for people and vehicles like the one they were on now—spiraled down the sides of the sphere, providing easy access to the surface below where a bridge connected traffic to Central Dogma's parking areas. The soft hue of artificial light fell over everything, giving the steel of the pyramid a shimmering metallic sheen and deepening the green of the forest canopy.
But no matter how incredible this place might seem to an outsider, for Shinji it had been a war zone since the first moment he entered it. And there were always casualties in war.
Besides him, sitting behind the steering wheel, Misato remained silent, her gaze lost outside the windshield. He was still not talking to her, and over the last couple of days had ignored all her attempts at making small talk. The hurt and betrayal were too fresh. He could hardly look in her direction without feeling angry with her. Eventually, she gave up and seemed to decide it was better to keep her distance.
That was the smartest thing she could have done. Shinji didn't want to talk, let alone be near her. And yet, here he was, riding in her car down into the very bowels of that betrayal.
Not for her, though, Shinji reminded himself. He wasn't doing this for Misato, or because she'd asked.
The train reached the station in fifteen minutes. Once it docked, the wheel brakes automatically released and Misato put the car in gear, driving it down a ramp and into a narrow roadway. They parked in a lower deck inside the main building itself, a benefit of Misato's high rank, but it took four more elevators to reach the Cranial Nerve Ward—the deepest treatment level usually reserved for the most serious of mental 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 at the end of a brightly lit hallway with large windows, a nurse by her side. The months of internment had taken their toll.
Asuka Langley Soryu was dressed in a simple knee-length hospital gown and white slippers. Her mane of disheveled golden-red hair fell unrestrained down her back and spilled over her shoulders in two long streaks, framing a young face with sharp features. Her round blue eyes were like sapphires ringed by lines of weariness and sunken shadows, as if she hadn't slept properly in a long time, while her formerly proud posture sagged into a weary, defeated slouch.
A dull ache sprang up in Shinji's chest at the sight of her, something like a mix of guilt and self-disgust. In fact, those two emotions seemed to have come to define almost everything he felt about Asuka.
From the moment she introduced herself to their class, she had become an idol. She certainly had the looks for it, and her haughty personality always seemed to enjoy the attention she attracted. To Shinji, who had so many problems, she seemed strong and happy in a way he could only envy.
She 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 and old unhealed wounds. 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 help her, or even offer the slightest bit of comfort, was just as bad.
He wanted so bad to apologize to her, despite knowing fully it wouldn't do her any good now, that she might even hate him for it, but the words stuck in his throat and would not come out.
I shouldn't be here, he thought. What can I even do for her?
Misato squeezed his shoulder. Then, very cautiously, approached Asuka. Shinji watched her silently, almost too afraid to move.
"Hey, Asuka." Misato made her voice soft. "How are you feeling?"
The redhead did not look away from the window she'd been glaring out of. Her response was predictably short and loaded with bitterness. "What do you want?"
"To bring you home, of course," Misato said, still trying to be as gentle as possible. "Unit-02 needs a pilot."
Asuka scoffed. "Didn't you hear? I can't pilot it anymore." She turned her head towards Misato but then looked past her, to where Shinji was standing, and fixed him with a sour glare. Her round eyes seemed to bristle with barely controlled anger. "Besides, you don't need me. You've got the invincible Shinji over there. The Great Third Child! Why the hell would you need a worthless little girl like me?"
"I wouldn't be here if I thought you were worthless," Misato said. She sounded like she really meant it.
Asuka rounded on her. "My Synch Rate is zero! ZERO! Don't you understand? I can't pilot Eva anymore!"
"All this time! All this time I've been sitting here. Just waiting. Waiting for them to send me back because they don't need me. In all that time, you've never even tried to see me."
Misato raised her hands. She had no defense for that. "I know. That's my fault. I'm sorry."
"So why should I go back? Without Unit-02, I'm nothing!"
"We think there might be a way," Misato explained calmly. "To pilot Unit-02 again. The Commander said they would be working on something. Some kind of software update."
"W ... what?" Surprise made Asuka's eyes wide, and for a short moment Shinji remembered how pretty her face was. "No way. How?"
Misato gave her a little smile. "I'm not up on the details yet, but we're working on it. Ritsuko will be in charge. You know she's a smart cookie, and she never gives up. She'll figure something out. If anyone can, it's her. But the main thing right now is I want you to come home." She gestured around them with a hand. "This place is not good for you."
Asuka looked away, shoulders sagging. Shinji thought he could sense something else besides the simmering anger. Her voice turned sulky.
"Even if it works—if I can pilot again—what makes you think I'd want to go back? 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.
Misato pushed on.
"Look, you can't really expect me to believe you want to stay here. Even if you claim that you do, I don't buy it. I've already 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." Misato pointed a finger to the window. "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—" she looked back 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 she turned to Shinji.
"And what do you have to say about all this?"
Shinji quickly dropped his eyes to the floor, feeling like he was being put in front of a military tribunal. His mind became instantly blank. He struggled to swallow the sudden lump in his throat.
"Asuka ... I ... I ..."
She made a noise of exasperation. "Ach, still as dimwitted as ever."
"Of course Shinji wants you to come home too," Misato rushed to say, stepping between them before things could get out of control. "He's here because he wanted to see you. Doesn't that count for something?"
Even though he could not put his reasons for being here in words he could explain, Shinji also couldn't deny that Misato was right. He did want to see Asuka, and he did want her to come home. He just couldn't bring himself to tell her.
Asuka seemed unconvinced. Her lips pressed together and her brow tightened. Shinji would have given half his soul to know what she might be thinking.
"Here." Misato slipped off the backpack she'd been carrying and pressed it into Asuka's arms, much to the redhead's puzzlement. "I brought you some clothes in case you want to change. 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. She glanced back at Shinji, and didn't seem to know what to think of him. Then, her mind apparently made up, she took the backpack from Misato and held it against her chest.
"If you change your mind—"
"I won't, Asuka. I know how important this is for you. But what you don't realize is that you are important, too."
That did it. Asuka clutched the backpack in her arms and nodded ever so slightly. "I'll be back, okay?" she said. The anger lingered on her face, but her voice had softened. "Wait for me."
"I'd be glad to."
With the shuffling sound of her slippers on the smooth floor, Asuka quickly walked off down the corridor, her head a little higher than before, and vanished around a corner. Misato then turned to the nurse who'd been escorting her and asked her to help get the rest of her patient's things. The nurse nodded and followed Asuka down the corridor.
Once they were both gone, Misato leaned back against the wall and heaved a sigh of relief. The weariness on her face lessened. Shinji tried to pretend he didn't notice.
It took Asuka less than fifteen minutes to get ready, which was probably some kind of record for her. Other than the clothes Misato had provided and a small personal bag, she didn't bring anything with her. Misato led them to the garage, even holding the car's door open for Asuka. Shinji trailed behind them at a safe distance and climbed in the back. Nobody spoke.
The ride up on the train elevator was, if anything, more awkward than the ride down had been.
Pressing his head to the windowpane, Shinji ventured a glance forward—just in time to catch a glimpse of Asuka's eyes in the rear-view mirror, looking back at him. But whether she was actually trying to look at him or it was just a coincidence he couldn't tell. He promptly turned his head the other way. He was glad Asuka chose to do the same.
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.
Asuka would never admit it, least of all to him, but Shinji had always known how much she liked his cooking. He could see it on her face whenever he prepared one of her favorites or placed a tasty treat in her bento. This was perhaps the only thing related to him which she actually enjoyed, and it pleased him in a strangely gratifying way. He was happy when Asuka liked things, especially ones he could do for her.
With that small bit of personal information in mind, Shinji decided she might appreciate it if he made dinner for her on her first night back home in months. And seeing him getting busy in the kitchen might also keep Misato from nagging him for a change. Surely, even she could understand that a tasty meal was worth giving him some space.
"I want my keycard back," Asuka said as Misato slid her own key through the lock. The front door hissed and opened. Gloomy half darkness greeted them, due entirely to Misato's firm insistence for lights to be turned off before leaving. Shinji didn't think there was a point. NERV helped her pay the bill anyway.
"I don't have it." Misato waved Asuka in. "It's probably still in your room. If you can find anything in that mess. Good luck. You'll need it."
"You haven't been snooping around in there, have you?" Asuka murmured. "My makeup better not be missing."
"I would never!"
Asuka's doubtful face indicated she didn't believe her, but she selected the diplomatic route and held her tongue. The moody restraint fit her as poorly as the dull look in her usually bright eyes.
Shinji waited for them to step inside before following. He removed his shoes at the entrance, left them beside those of his roommates, then headed immediately for the kitchen. He hit the light and the space filled with a yellow glow. Misato and Asuka went their separate ways. Neither said anything nor paid him much attention.
Shinji was glad for that, even though he knew he probably shouldn't be. He slipped on his apron, tied it behind him, and took out a pot from the cabinet above the sink.
The water for the rice had only begun boiling when Asuka walked back into the kitchen, holding a towel and a bundle of clothes in her slender arms, and padded around the far side of the table. Facing the stove, Shinji watched her out of the corner of his eye while trying to look busy. He saw her hesitate just outside the bathroom and could almost feel the scowl on her face, of disgust or disapproval or both. Then she huffed into the bathroom and slammed the door shut. A moment later he heard the shower running.
Shinji took a deep breath. His body relaxed.
Some things really never changed. Cleanliness in her own person and what others thought about her had always been very important for Asuka, and Shinji could well imagine it was a while since she had a good shower. But oddly enough those traits had rarely encouraged her to clean up after herself, or show the slightest consideration to her two roommates. In her mind, she might as well live alone.
For a time, Shinji wondered if that might have been for the best. Training had brought them together out of necessity, and they had done well as a combat team, but once it was over there was nothing to keep her from leaving. She just never did. Shinji didn't understand that—granted, he understood so little about Asuka that she could be a chemistry problem from his homework. And it wasn't like he wanted her to leave, either. Not if he could help it. Whether she admitted it or not, over time, this had become her home, and he was perfectly willing to do anything he could to make her feel that way.
Despite his efforts, however, the two of them had butted heads almost from the start, although it wasn't always too bad. Fighting over bentos, using the shower first, what to watch on TV actually felt normal, and made him wish they could be regular teens, rather than child soldiers forced into a desperate war against alien monsters bent on world destruction. He liked the normal part of Asuka, but even then the closest they ever came to each other was being able to talk about school and Eva-related stuff, and very rarely personal things. Even sharing their first kiss did little to ease the tension between them. If anything, that seemed to make things worse. Shinji wouldn't believe it was possible, yet Asuka had raged so viciously after that it actually made him regret kissing her.
It would have been nice if she hadn't been so forceful, he thought. I couldn't breathe.
That was the moment when Shinji realized he would never get Asuka, and that she would never see him as anything other than a doormat or an idiot. The best he could hope for was for her to stand being in the same room with him without becoming angry. And after how things had ended ...
Shinji didn't want to think about that. Instead, he focused his attention on the food—it wouldn't do to burn Asuka's first meal back because he was not paying attention. He began cutting up some vegetables, carefully chopping them into neat little slices.
By the time Misato stepped in the kitchen, he was totally absorbed. He didn't acknowledge her.
"Would you mind serving that in the living room?" Misato requested pleasantly. "Let's be more comfortable on our first meal together. I think Asuka would appreciate the extra space. She's been … locked in for so long."
Shinji glared at her, wondering if she was merely trying to keep up appearances for Asuka's sake or if maybe this was another attempt to engage him. Asuka already had so much to deal with that putting her in a position where she might have to take sides would be hugely unfair to her. She was home, and Shinji was determined to do everything he could to make it feel that way. If that meant putting up with Misato, he would.
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 the living room, Asuka emerged from the bathroom. She was still slightly damp, wearing a loose sleeveless top tucked into a pair of ridiculously high-cut gym bloomers that made her long shapely legs seem even longer; pretty standard house wear for Asuka.
This last observation surprised him a little. He may have gotten used to it over time, but she was still showing a lot of skin.
"We are having dinner together," Misato told Asuka, noticing the younger girl's puzzled expression.
"Why?" Asuka sounded less than thrilled.
"Because I say so," Misato said. "We haven't seen each other in months, and I think it will be good for everyone. And don't bother objecting. I won't hear it. I'm still your commanding officer. I will order you if I have to."
Asuka demonstrated her agreement by saying nothing, but her face remained heavy with sulky reluctance. Shinji guessed she realized trying to excuse herself was futile, so it was better to just get it over with and eat some nice food in the bargain.
While Shinji moved the plates and food containers to the living room table, Misato fetched a can of iced coffee from what had once been her alcohol drawer inside the fridge. Then she headed to the living room and sat herself at the head of the table, folding her legs underneath her and taking a pair of chopsticks. Shinji and Asuka followed her reluctantly, each picking a cushion and sitting on opposite sides.
Once they were all seated, Misato clapped her hands together. "Itadakimasu!"
Shinji did the same, but only because it was proper and not because Misato had done it. Asuka didn't bother—born and raised in Europe, that just wasn't part of her culture. When they finally began eating, Shinji was actually thankful. Now he wouldn't have to talk. Silence was a more honest companion than false kindness.
As they ate, the sounds of chopstick tapping plates filled the air, but it didn't take long for Shinji to notice Asuka was rusty. He wondered if he should offer her a fork, then thought she might feel insulted. Eventually, she started stabbing her food and taking it to her mouth. He also noticed, looking out of the corner of his eye, how skinny her wrists were, the tendons becoming very prominent when she flexed her hand. She'd obviously lost much more weight than he realized.
NERV's hospital food was famously terrible; he couldn't blame her for not enjoying it, and she'd been bedridden on an IV for a while, and then another while before she was able to feed herself—Asuka would never, never, ever let them feed her as if she were a baby. And, sadly, she'd most likely not been in the right state of mind to have an appetite anyway. Well, as far as Shinji cared, all that was over. He could and would help her get back on track.
The thought made him genuinely happy. He was glad he could have a positive effect on Asuka after she'd gone through so much, even with something as small and simple as tasty food. And maybe she'd thank him for it, too. Probably not.
Still pretending he wasn't looking, he watched as his fellow pilot bit off a piece of sliced beef dipped in soy sauce. Her eyes widened in sudden and pleasant surprise. Shinji almost smiled.
Welcome home, Asuka, he thought.
Misato liked it, too. "You know, Shinji," she said after a few bites. "This stuff's really good. You used that fancy rice you bought last time?"
Shinji said nothing. He looked down at his food.
Misato allowed the question to linger, then, when it became clear that he was not willing to answer, turned her efforts to Asuka while chewing on a mouthful of rice.
"Mm, Asuka, listen. Ritsuko wanted me to tell you she wants to see you tomorrow. She needs to do a physical to determine your current condition."
Unlike their guardian, Asuka had the manners to swallow before replying. "A physical?" She lifted her eyes from her plate, where she'd been awkwardly attacking some carrots with the tip of her chopsticks. "Haven't I been poked and prodded enough already?"
"It's for your own safety," Misato said, taking a swig of her canned coffee. "You've been gone quite a while."
"I noticed. When are you going to activate Unit-02?"
"I don't know yet." Misato put the can down. "Ritsuko says we need to establish your baseline first. Activation will depend on the results. 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."
Asuka returned her attention to the food. Her tone turned sullen. "You don't think I can, do you?"
Misato's face carried a look of open sympathy. "Like I said, I wouldn't have bothered with you if I thought that, would I?" She grabbed a bite with her chopsticks. "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. The expression only deepened the shadows under her eyes. "Otherwise you are just wasting time."
Misato shook her head. "That's not it. I'm just looking after you."
Or just pretending to, Shinji thought bitterly.
There was no way to tell whether Asuka actually believed her or not. She bit her lower lip to keep from replying, her expression mournful.
Misato was getting far too good at doing this, Shinji decided; at sounding like she truly cared without taking any real responsibility when it really mattered. She might claim to be looking after Asuka all she wanted, just as she had with him, but in the end, it was nothing more than a self-serving, manipulative act. She had already betrayed him more hurtfully than 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 managed to sneak a few glances at the redhead sitting beside him.
Asuka wanted to pilot Eva—she probably would want to even if it killed her—but she was in no shape for it. He could see it in her exhausted body language, in the sullen, resigned look on her pretty face. And the fact that Misato was willing to put her back inside Unit-02 after what happened the last time spoke louder than any words of concern.
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.
Not for the first time, Shinji wished he could talk to her. About anything.
Misato finished her dinner first, which, given her general sloppiness, was hardly surprising. She leaned back, rubbing her stomach, and turned to Asuka. "Ah, yeah, Asuka, I've got something for you."
The dark-haired woman sprang up and went into the kitchen. She returned seconds later holding a small red box with a piece of folded paper attached to the top.
"Here." Misato handed the box to Asuka and sat cross-legged next to her, smiling excitedly. "I remembered to ask Ritsuko for these. Thought you might like to have them back. You'll need them."
Setting down her chopsticks, Asuka carefully unfolded the paper, read it in silence, peeled it off and set it aside. Then she opened the box and stared mutely at its contents. Her face was hard to read, but her eyes were filled with doubt. It was clear she didn't know what to do.
Shinji craned his neck to look inside the box and saw it contained two pointy red shapes. At first, he couldn't identify them, then his mental image of Asuka swam up before his eyes and made them click. These were her neural connectors, the same ones he'd seen her use like ordinary hair clips since the day he met her, as much a part of her in his mind as her flowing golden-red hair; symbols of her elite status as an Eva pilot. She had probably not worn them for months.
It occurred to him then that perhaps the neural connectors no longer held the meaning Misato thought they did. The thing that had made Asuka so proud was also the thing that had terribly hurt her.
Asuka slowly retrieved the connectors from the box and looked down at them for a very long while. She pressed her lips together, but otherwise showed no reaction.
Misato frowned. She had clearly thought the redheaded girl would be thrilled to have such meaningful items back and seemed disappointed by Asuka's unusual hesitation. Scooting closer, she reached out her hand. "Let me ..."
"Don't touch me!" Asuka recoiled, bare shoulders hitching up defensively. She glared at Misato. "Don't!"
"What's wrong?" Misato stopped, raised her eyebrows.
"Nothing." Asuka rose to her feet, clutching the neural connectors tightly in her hand. "Just leave me alone, okay?"
"Asuka ..." Before Misato could even finish saying her name, Asuka turned and hurried away from the table.
The strange feeling Shinji had felt when he first saw her in the hospital deepened into a kind of throbbing in his chest as he watched Asuka disappear down the short corridor that led to their bedrooms. It still hurt, but not in the same way. If only he could tell Asuka maybe they could figure it out and it would stop bothering him. More likely she would call him stupid for not knowing what his own feelings were.
Misato sighed, then she noticed Shinji. "She'll be okay," she said, trying to sound reassuring and not being very successful. "Give her time. It's always hard getting yourself back together after a fall. And the way she fell ... it wouldn't be easy for anyone."
But Shinji was still staring after Asuka.
"Oh, right, I forgot," Misato added. "You're not talking to me."
The speaker's dais was raised a few feet above the rest of the floor. Nakajima 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?" Nakajima 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 a sunken face, lined by deep wrinkles. He might look frail, but Nakajima 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, Nakajima 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 beside 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. "It makes no difference. I did not fly you all the way to Kyoto just to debate politics."
Nakajima 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 too much to be effective."
"Ikari is still suspicious."
"I expect nothing less, but your position is purely civilian and entirely legitimate. We could have always forced another spy into their midst, they know that as well as us, and the fact 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," Nakajima 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."
Nakajima nodded. "But for how long? Ikari will not oblige us simply by doing what we want."
The Russian speaker was now gesticulating wildly with his hands. At least he wasn't banging his shoe on the podium like Nakajima had read in history books. Most of 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 it will. We have our so-called friends down on the floor to thank for 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 worst comes to worst 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?" Nakajima 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 an inquiry 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."
Nakajima 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—counterterrorism, government intelligence, military projects, even that Jet Alone incident. Everything."
Nakajima had only heard about the Jet Alone incident in half-whispered rumors. Supposedly it was an attempt to oust NERV by rendering its biggest asset, the Eva, worthless. It ended in disaster, and lots of people were hurt. If that was the sort of thing the ISSDF kept in its archives ...
"It's a practical way of doing things," Kluge continued, "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?" Nakajima 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 refused he would know that we were up to something. This is 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 a look of relief on several of the delegates as they once again returned to their seats. Nakajima 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."
Nakajima 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.
"What about Katsuragi? Have you met her?" Kluge asked.
"The situation has not presented itself. I'm concerned that actively seeking her out might arouse her suspicion. In that case she is unlikely to cooperate. I'd like to avoid things coming to force."
"She was close to Ryoji," Kluge mused. "Perhaps closer than anyone else. Closer than us for sure. He worked for us, but he was her lover. 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. But I don't think he was killed for it."
Nakajima agreed on the first part—that Kaji either found nothing or found something but was assassinated before he could pass it along. He did not agree, however, on the second part.
"Why not?" he asked. "It seems like the kind of thing NERV might do."
Kluge said nothing at first. His eyes were distant, like this was recalling something. Then his mouth twisted slightly.
"It doesn't really matter," he said. "We know he was shot, and we know he failed to make a final drop-off. It's an issue of timing and opportunity. But I do not believe the manner of his death had anything to do with his data going missing. An experienced operative like Ryoji would have known danger was closing in, and he'd have made sure his legacy lived on. He must have left a trail. A secret trail. Something that can be followed by those with enough information, but not discovered by his enemies. He certainly didn't tell anyone outright. That would be stupid. People talk."
"If he did find something important or incriminating somehow, don't you think that might have led to his death?"
Kluge shook his head. "NERV had no reason to kill him since he was loyal to them, and we know that Ikari knew that. And who would kill him if he didn't have the information on him or hadn't delivered it? He was under surveillance around-the-clock so there are no other possibilities."
Well, Nakajima thought, there's one other possibility—one I hate having to consider because of what it might mean for my own life.
"Still," Kluge added, "I suspect he passed something to Katsuragi."
Nakajima frowned. "But didn't you say—"
"Pieces, perhaps. Not a complete picture. That explains her silence over the last three months."
"It's possible, I suppose. They were lovers, that's true, but she works for NERV," Nakajima said. "Why would Ryoji steal information from them only to attempt to return it right back to their Operations Chief? Is it possible she also works for someone else?"
The older man shrugged. He gave no other hint of emotion. "The information is all that's important now, not the person who holds it, or what their motives might or might not be. We are, at this stage, beyond concerning ourselves with such speculation."
"You don't want to know if Ryoji betrayed us?" Nakajima asked.
"I told you, it doesn't matter. What matters is that he died without serving his purpose. He left a mess. It's up to us to clean it up. After that, the simple truth is that I don't care. Ryoji made his choice, a choice that might have gone against us. We'll find out soon enough. But he's dead, and the dead have no loyalties."
No, but those they leave behind certainly do.
He kept that opinion to himself. Musashi Kluge didn't need more reasons to doubt him. As it was, he knew the man barely trusted him, if he actually did at all, and that could be very dangerous. Maybe even deadly.
The back of the limousine was very quiet aside from the muffled sound made by the engine as it revved and changed gears, driving the heavy vehicle through the narrow streets of the government district. The movement was barely perceptible, only tiny variations in momentum as brakes or accelerator were applied.
Rei Ayanami watched it all go by, the people, the buildings, like a fish watching the world from its bowl. And she imagined the fish would feel much the same way she did right now. Next to her on the driver side, Commander Gendo Ikari had been gazing out of the window with his usual stern expression ever since they left the conference, seemingly distant but not altogether lost in thought; Sub-Commander Fuyutsuki sat facing the rear, holding a small book in his wrinkled hands.
Neither man said anything.
Finally, as they reached a stop at a crosswalk, a call came through the intercom from the obscured front seat. Sub-Commander Fuyutsuki reached out his hand with almost casual disinterest and pressed a button.
"Yes?" His voice was carefully measured, as always.
"They're done, sir," came the answer from the front.
"No vote. They folded when the Russians threatened to veto."
"Thank you for keeping us informed," Fuyutsuki said, and released the intercom button. 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 the padded window frame, his hand turned back so his knuckles brushed his chin in the classic "thinking" position. He did not seem 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. Presumably only long enough to be seen because it lent the meeting an air of credibility, since it was NERV's fate being discussed. Agreements 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 timelines," 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 four 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 admit."
"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 down 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 almost missed the question altogether. She had gotten so used to being ignored that she seldom bothered actively listening into conversations. Words that were not intended for her simply passed her by. It was better that way. 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.
Of course, what she might wish had no importance here. Commander Ikari, at least, had not forgotten about her presence, and he had asked her a question. And a question asked by him must have an answer.
"I cannot say," Rei offered. She shifted her eyes from the window to the Commander, her voice soft and emotionless.
The Commander gave her a stony look, neither pleased nor displeased. "Why is that?"
"Because it does not concern me."
Ikari took that without a reaction. Rei could feel his eyes now focus on her. She knew some people would find the Commander intimidating, but she did not feel compelled to look away. She sat with her hands together on her lap, a neutral posture, her gaze fixed as well, meeting his.
"Ah," Fuyutsuki suddenly said. "But don't you think you should expand your horizons? Learn as much as you can? Surely, that is your concern."
Rei thought about it, tried to recall the substance of their previous conversation, then shook her head gently.
"I am sorry," she said. "I did not mean it in that sense. I meant that it does not concern me because it is simply beyond the scope of my existence. Whether political change reflects natural change, and whether those things create a lasting ideology are subjects that are irrelevant to what I am and why I do the things I must do. I am not a politician. I am ... an Evangelion pilot. I fight, and I obey. Considering these other things would be meaningless to me."
"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 meaningless for us as well."
"If you say so," the Sub-Commander said. "But old men are allowed to indulge."
"You are not that old, professor," Ikari said, "even if you feel that way. When compared to others, your mind has hardly aged."
"My body, however ..."
"A suit of flesh," Commander Ikari interrupted. "Nothing but an appearance. Fleeting. Weak. Doomed. I believe you know this well."
"Yet we all have such appearances we must maintain," the Sub-Commander replied. "Some more than others."
Rei agreed in her own mind. Indeed, her entire existence was only appearance. Her body, the school uniform she wore, her plugsuit. And her worth, too. Even her so-called humanity. As much as she disliked it, that was a reality she had to face every single day.
The men continued talking, though no longer addressing her or acknowledging her presence. She might just as well have vanished. With her part in the conversation evidently over, Rei went back to being silent. But she listened 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 where they met. Here 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.
"Time 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 A.T. 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."
"Can he be trusted?" SEELE 04 said.
"When has trust ever been required?" SEELE 01 said. "So long as we have control, no more is needed. Men do as they are told."
"We made this mistake before with Ikari," SEELE 04 said.
"This one is not Ikari," SEELE 05 answered.
"We shall proceed as planned," SEELE 01 stated. "The petty bickering of mere politicians will not interfere in shaping the future. Ikari has made his move, and so we will make ours. It was his mistake to defy us."
"The die is cast, then," SEELE 04 said.
"It has been for fifteen years," SEELE 01 responded.
There was general agreement from the assembly with this last point—they all knew the road they had started in Antarctica, and where that road must now lead them. Some provided only muted noises of assent while others gave words to their commitment and acceptance that what was done had to be seen through.
Then, one by one, the illuminated monoliths faded silently out of existence and the room fell back into total blackness.
"Hurry up, stupid!" Asuka's shrill voice broke the quiet morning air as it had on countless previous occasions. "I don't wanna be late on my first day! Come on! Come on! You're so slow!"
"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. He'd overslept and fallen behind on his routine, but it wouldn't do for them to go hungry. Well, he could go hungry. Asuka on the other hand ...
Shinji finished up, wrapped their bentos with a string, and went to join Asuka. She was already waiting by the door, tapping her foot impatiently, and looking radiant in her freshly pressed school uniform. The two pointy neural connectors holding up sheets of her shimmering, scented hair stuck out from either side of her head like cutesy devil's horns. He'd always thought they fit her very well.
Yeah, Misato had definitely been right.
The gloomy redheaded girl that had come out of the hospital just over a week ago had practically disappeared, fading into the background and replaced by the loud, haughty Asuka he'd come to know and, in a way, accept.
Shinji was not naive enough to believe she was completely back to normal, and he doubted if such a thing was even really possible, 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 could live with that—as much as he could live with someone who considered him her own private footstool.
With things becoming more normal, Asuka quickly reestablished her dominant position in the household, mostly unopposed except for Misato's rare admonitions not to pick on Shinji. She ignored them and picked on him even worse. But once or twice he had seen her smile and the feeling it sparked in him all but made up for it; Asuka was prettiest when she smiled. He didn't have the guts to tell her that, obviously.
The shopping trip with Hikari had been the highlight of the week. They had dragged Shinji along, but only, as Asuka declared, because they needed someone to carry all the bags for them. Hikari hardly bought anything, her budget apparently quite small. Asuka, on the other hand, had seemed to want to make up for all the time she spent in the hospital. She maxed out her own NERV-issued credit card and then took Shinji's.
And just when he thought they were done, they made him wait, his arms loaded to capacity, for almost an hour while they went into a beauty salon. By the time they returned he was slumped on a bench, exhausted. But Asuka, pampered and perfectly groomed, seemed happier than he had seen her in a long, long time.
He thought he would never see that sight again. He thought she was gone, he really did. And to see her—
"You made something good, right?" Asuka chirped huffily, snapping Shinji suddenly back to the present. He handed her a bento, which she shoved into her book bag while he stooped down to put 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 much 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 bothering 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, painfully 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."
Asuka frowned, indicating she expected there to be more. "And?"
"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. 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. He trusted Misato. "It just feels—" he hesitated.
"Like you were betrayed?" Asuka finished for him.
Shinji could all but sense her annoyance. He nodded anyway.
"Oh, grow up," she told him. "Adults are all liars. It's not worth getting upset over."
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 came home from the hospital. So far he had failed to manage the courage, but finally seeing her out and about, acting normal, gave him a sense that if he couldn't say it now he would never be able to. 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's reaction was not the one he expected. Nor sooner had the words left his lips than her expression soured, instantly wiping the smile from Shinji's face. Her blue eyes narrowed angrily.
"I don't care what Misato said. Let's get one thing straight, Third Child. The last thing I want—the absolute 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."
"Ah, s-sorry," Shinji said softly, regretting that he'd opened his mouth, as he should have known 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?" Her sharp voice rose 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. But what do we get?"
She pressed a hand firmly against her chest. Her glare burned with hot anger as she pitched forward, getting in his face.
"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?" Asuka was shouting now. "So don't tell me you are glad about anything that involves me. You don't give a damn. You just want to make yourself feel better. And that makes it worse!"
Even if he had known what to say, 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 say 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 hurt to think about moving. Going with her felt like a death sentence.
"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?
He would only be causing himself more pain. "I ... I ..." he stuttered, swallowing awkwardly. "I think I forgot something. I should go back."
Asuka's glare lingered on him briefly, 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 and stabbed a finger angrily at the elevator buttons.
"Suit yourself, Third. I'm done dealing with this."
The doors started closing in front of him. Shinji once again thought about stepping in with her. But, as she slowly disappeared from view, he could not even offer her a final pleading look. He wanted to take that step and go with her, knowing fully that she probably didn't wish him to. He wanted so many things when it came to Asuka.
She'll just yell at me for trying, Shinji thought sadly. No matter how much he longed to bridge the gap between them, he would have to accept, painful as it might be, that Asuka was not willing to do the same. That he had to let her go. And so he did.
The elevator doors closed.
Asuka was gone.
To be continued ...