ITS ALIVE! ALLLIIVVEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!
I'm not going to give a speach about why this took so long, mostly because if I tried to run through the events that have delayed this chapter from coming out, I'd probably break down crying. To give some idea, as the awesome Douglas Adams said regarding the Vogons, this chapter has been;
"Signed in triplicate, sent in, sent back, queried, lost, found, subjected to public inquiry, lost again, and finally buried in soft peat for three months and recycled as firelighters."
Just extend that 3 months to several years and you'll sorta get the idea. This chapter is as a result almost stitched together from multiple attempts and not really something I'm 100% about, but I figured after all this time it was more critical to just push it out and move on so I can actually move forward with this story and future chapters. As such, the butterflies are limited, but we'll really start to see things going next chapter, consequences building upon consequences ...
But for now, enjoy!
As always, a big shout out and thanks to Academia Nut for his beta services ... and yes, I am still invoking Anime Physics on some of the stuff :p
Shinji tried to keep his face blank as the conference room door glided shut, but he none the less flinched ever so slightly as the room was sealed off from the brightly lit corridor outside and plunged it into darkness, plunged into another world. In a way, he was actually grateful for the fact that these people would expect him to be nervous, sealed alone in the imposing room as, frankly, he didn't think he could hide his emotional state very well.
So he simply waited, keeping himself as calm as possible in the darkness, until it was swiftly eliminated by a spotlight that switched on directly above him and blazed with glare that made him blink.
It was a cheap trick.
Just like his Father's open office, he realized the paired darkness and light were meant to focus the mood of the room on him, intimidating him and putting him off balance…but it wasn't working. He had far too many other things to worry about right now to get worked up over the lighting conditions, so he just waited quietly, resisting the urge to look at his watch until a short length of time later figures started to materialize around him.
The first hologram to appear was to his left; an old man highlighted by a dark blue spotlight and dressed in a conservative –and expensive looking- Western style business suit. The man glanced up at him as he materialized, nodded once, and turned back to a stack of papers on his desk, ignoring him in favor of whatever business he was clearly in the middle of. Shinji didn't let it stop him from studying him; the oddest feeling as if he should know this stranger pressing at the back of his mind. The long craggy nose and lined face set into a perpetual scowl both felt strangely…familiar, despite the fact that he knew he had never met this person before. But he didn't have time to dwell on the feelings, pushing them to the side as a new figure materialized further down the table.
The newcomer was highlighted in Green that clashed horribly with a dark brown NERV suit and combined to give him an almost sickly appearance, an image not helped at all by his severe looking moustache and thick eyebrows, both of which framed a face lined and age worn that looked liked it belonged more in a nursing home then a NERV facility. The man's eyes however, belayed any thoughts that this was a senile old man. He was alert and appeared to take in the entire room as he materialized, his head barely moving as he glanced across at his colleague and exchange the slightest nod before turning back to face nothing, interlacing his fingers precisely in front of him on his desk and cultivating an air of patient anticipation, as another figure started to materialize.
The third man to appear directly across from 'Green' didn't even bother to take in his surroundings. Highlighted by a bright yellow spotlight, the half bald man with an absurdly pointed nose and wire thin glasses simply continued to work at a laptop computer with a steady tapping that pointedly stated that either the man found this whole meeting a waste of time, or, he was simply ignoring the three people in the room as unworthy of his attention.
The fact that in Shinji's mind both 'Green' and 'Blue' looked utterly nonplused by his 'I don't care' attitude suggested that this wasn't really anything personal, so Shinji just ignored him as a forth figure materialized seconds later to his left opposite 'Blue', highlighted by a rather demonic looking 'Red glow, but the man barely acknowledged him before turned away to glance down the table-
"Good morning, Mister Ikari".
The voice - that voice - turned his spine from cartilage to a column of ice in a heartbeat.
It was somewhat nasal; old and crackly like dried parchment…but utterly commanding; a voice that carried with a terrible majesty straight through the room, cutting through his preoccupation like an icy wind.
Slowly, Shinji raised his gaze to the position opposite his own, peripherally aware that the other men at the table –even Yellow- had also done so…and for the first time in either of his lives, he looked into the hidden gaze of Keel Lorenz, Chairman of the Human Instrumentality Committee.
Well, the man had a presence, Shinji would give him that.
He could feel it making his skin crawl in much the same way his Father dominated any room he entered; a presence so self assured in its power it all but dared someone to challenge him - while simultaneously speaking volumes to the consequences should anyone be stupid enough to actually try and do so.
It took an effort, but somehow Shinji managed to find the strength to hold the man's terrible visored gaze without flinching, earning him the slightest nod in acknowledgement before Keel broke away easily without loss or defeat, simply switching his attention to acknowledging his minions one after with minimal but polite nods back and forth before the visor covered gaze again swept back, dragging the gaze of his underlings with it back onto him.
"You have been asked before this committee, Mister Ikari, to assist us with ongoing investigations," Keel spoke with no more preamble, his voice echoing despite the physical reality of the small room as he leaned back into his chair, half melting into the darkness as he did so. "As you may or may not be aware, the Human Instrumentality Committee is the body the United Nations has directed to oversee all aspects of the 'Angel situation' and humanities counter-projects, such as the Evangelion. Our mandate Vis-à-vis the NERV organization is therefore to provide both Governance and Budgetary oversight on behalf of the UN Security Council. As a member of NERV; you also fall under our jurisdiction, and so you have been asked here to assist our inquiries. Do you understand?"
"Yes," was all Shinji trusted himself to say in a neutral tone…but then Keel did something Shinji never would have thought he would do.
And so did the rest of the committee, a wave of polite sycophantic amusement passing through the infinitely black room from the five men sitting in judgment over him.
"That, Mister Ikari, was the necessary legal…'disclaimer', if you will" 'Yellow' entered the conversation, a faint sharpness in his accent that Shinji occasionally noticed in Asuka's voice, leading him to hazard a guess that he was from Germany. "For the record, I believe I speak for every member of the Committee -and indeed on behalf of the UN- in offering a long overdue welcome to you, as well as our most sincere thanks for your outstanding service on behalf of humanity".
There was a murmur of agreement from the others and Shinji had to work hard to keep his expression from shifting into one of confusion, admitting that if they were trying to keep him off balance, they were succeeding wildly-
"We are quite pleased you have followed in the footsteps of both your Father and Mother in joining NERV" 'Green' broke in smoothly. "We do of course appreciate that the…circumstances, shall we say, under which you joined NERV were far from ideal".
"We are also certain that you are intelligent enough to understand the reasons for the methods your Father used to bring you into Project-E" 'Blue' spoke up next before they could dwell on it for too long. "As one of only three people thus far discovered with the innate ability to pilot an Evangelion, I am sure you can appreciate the ... necessity of his actions at the time, even if we all regret them".
"But that is thankfully in the past" 'Yellow' put in smoothly, retaking control of the conversation. "We are more concerned with the future at this time".
"Indeed" 'Blue' agreed, turning from 'Yellow' to face him with an 'all business' expression back on his face as he leaned forward, tapping his pen vertically against the table in idle concentration. "Rest assured Mister Ikari, you have not been brought to us to answer for your actions yesterday. While we are concerned with the events that took place and would strongly encourage you to think before you act in such a dangerous way, especially when concerning all of our known Evangelion pilots, we are reasonably satisfied that your direct superiors will deal with this situation and, as such, have neither comment nor input to offer on that situation, in of itself…"
That statement earned Mikhail Dostoevsky –also known as SEELE 06 to a very select few- a slight smirk from Gendo Ikari as the entire sequence placed out in miniature holographic form in front of his desk, in his darkened office. For all the Committees insistence on needing to talk to the Children in regards to the events of Yesterday, they had dropped the subject almost before it had come up, now that they finally had the Third Child in front of them.
Of course, their stated reason for talking to them had been complete sophistry, but it was a valid request he had no way of stopping. So rather than waste energy fighting an already decided matter, he had gone out of his way to expedite it for them, ensuring their every request was met with precision and efficiency.
It gave him endless amusement to cause confusion and suspicion by choosing precisely the opposite course of action that he would have been logically expected to take.
Rei's meeting had been spectacularly short, he was -almost- proud of the way she had developed an ability to answer almost any question in three words or less. Her meeting with Keel and his merry men had almost been pro-forma; they knew they would get nothing out of her to be used against him, but they had gone through the motions anyway, politely listening to her answers one after the other as they ran through their questions.
Yes she was fine.
Yes she had gotten her hair cut.
Yes the dress she had worn to the dance had looked nice.
Yes she did find the Third Child to be a skilled and extremely valuable member of NERV.
No she didn't have any complaints about anything.
No she knew nothing to suggest SEELE's scenario was in any danger.
Yes she had made several new friends at school.
And yes, she was ready to end the world when ordered to do so.
He wasn't sure what had been more off-putting for SEELE's representatives; Rei's dramatic new look, or the way she had answered every question from her dancing activities to her ability to exterminate the remaining half of the human race with the same neutral expression and 'to the point' response.
Still, with the critical questions answered, Rei had been sent out and Soryu sent in.
She had at least proven to be more of an amiable conversationalist, and although her 'interview' was perhaps the least important of the three there had been quite a few interesting moments in it.
For the most part of course, Keel and his merry men had opened up with the praise as they had always done, playing to her ego as they congratulated her on her victories against the Angels, declaring them a triumphant vindication of her years of hard work. Then, with astonishingly little subtly, they had shifted the topic towards the Third Child, all but pumping her for insights, observations; for anything they could use in complete ignorance of the friction that existed between the two pilots.
Exactly as he had predicted they would.
Of course, it helped greatly that he had not mentioned anything at all about the amusingly 'friction filled' relationship between the Second and Third to them. That little 'oversight' had ensured that Soryu had taken their questions as SEELE intruding into her personal space, diminishing her to little more than a source of information for them, an annex to the Third Child.
Which was entirely true of course - The Second Child was by far the most expendable of the three pilots, but beating her about the head with that fact truly didn't help them in getting any useful data.
Clearly recognizing that his underlings had overplayed their hand, Keel at least had been smart enough to send her on her way with his own personal praise at her performance in an attempt to mitigate the damage, moving onto the 'main course' as it were…and Gendo was finding himself hard pressed to not roll his eyes at the mess they were making of this 'interrogation'. With the exception of the Chairman himself who, as always, was keeping his distance, they were all as timid and weak as Dostoevsky; all too aware of their rapidly approaching mortality and all too terrified of losing everything they had worked for to do what needed to be done to grasp their prize.
But that was hardly surprising to him; Keel hadn't chosen any of these people because they were leaders who would use inititive, he had chosen them because they were followers who would obey.
Dostoevsky, the Russian member of the Committee was SEELE's 'banker'; an apparent do-nothing, albeit senior, bureaucrat in the UN's budgeting office whose skills and authority had been critical in 'acquiring' the resources to set up the Artificial Evolution Laboratory, GEHIRN's predecessor, which had finally given SEELE's dream form. He was the genius who had washed money through hundreds of banks and corporations around the world, diverting countless Dollars, Euros and Yen into SEELE's less than public projects until GEHIRN and then NERV had become powerful enough in their own right to become SEELE's personal bank, and even now his efforts ensured the money trail to SEELE's private pet projects was so tangled through various financial instruments that it would take years –years the world did not have- to uncover the truth of the elaborate shell games.
But for all his skill, Dostoevsky was an utter failure as a true 'player' on thislevel. He lacked both vision and ruthlessness, and so had been quickly put in his place by SEELE 01 once he had reached the Inner Circle, becoming little more than an extension of Keel's will…a fact which held true for the rest of the core committee to lesser or greater levels.
'Yellow', better known as Gunther Hertz and commander of NERV's Third Branch had the least real power here. The man was unlikely to do anything more dangerous than ordering lunch without asking Keel's permission - and yet he was a brilliant administrator, the two facts combining to make him a perfect person to place in charge of the Third Branch, turning it in turn Keel's de-facto fiefdom and seat of power. But it would be foolish to underestimate him, even if only for the fact that as NERV Headquarters had been moved to a full war footing, the Third Branch had been delegated an increasing amount of Central's former R&D work. Including the Mark V Evangelion Mass Production prototype, some of the work on the Second Branch's S2 engine project…
And even failing those high profile projects, there was always 'A-Project'.
It was one of Gendo Ikari's few regrets that he would never be able to see the look on the faces of Hertz and Keel when they discovered that 'Adam' was in fact nothing more than a plastic mockup in a frozen Bakelite block...
'Red' on the other hand was the most powerful man of the Committee, at least publicly, in his primary role as the US Undersecretary for Defense. The job had long mutated into a consultative and coordinating position concerning the use of 'borrowed' elements of the US Military for the United Nations Combined Military Force; in essence a bureaucratic 'do-nothing' job with little formal authority but a great deal of 'soft' influence on the US Government which Keel, a somewhat Euro-centric man, had found very useful.
Unfortunately for Michael Richards, his rather cushy job had been come screaming to a halt overnight with the loss of over ten thousand USN personnel and two dozen ships to the 6th Angel, among the Third of the UN Pacific Fleet had had been sunk in that engagement. The parts of the US Government still rather leery of the post Second-Impact UN had been having a field day using him as a punching bag, dragging him before the US Senate on no fewer than four occasions to answer some rather heated questions. It had all been patched over of course, but not without calling in some very significant markers SEELE-01 had not been pleased to cash in, meaning he was somewhat out of 'favor' with Keel right now…almost the exact opposite situation of the final player in the room.
Better known as Keisuke Hachisuka, 'Green' had become a continual source of annoyance to Gendo. Stationed in Tokyo-2 and employed as a high level bureaucrat in the Japanese Civil Service, Hachisuka was primarily in charge of SEELE's highly successful counter-intelligence operations that had effectively neutralized the two principal investigative arms of the Japanese Government, the JDA and NPA.
Indeed, in theory, Hacisuka worked for him as much as Keel in keeping the Japanese Governments nose out of Tokyo-3 and SEELE's business, while performing his 'real' job as the main conduit between the NERV and Japanese bureaucracies that kept everything running smoothly between the supranational organization and its host country.
It was an amusing fiction, but he knew full well the real reason Keel had put his hatchet man in place all those years ago was to cultivate the contacts SEELE 01 would need if –or more accurately when- moving against Tokyo-3 in forcebecame necessary. Gendo had taken care to build up quite a formidable powerbase during his time Tokyo-3, a powerbase independent of SEELE that they had accepted as the price of putting someone in charge who could look after their interests, yet keep them completely out of the picture. He -unlike every other member of SEELE- had been more than willing to get his hands dirty, to be the public target for every investigation launched into NERV…but the end result was that he was not going to be leaving his domain any time soon, if he didn't want to go.
By that same token of course, he knew Lorenz would never have been so stupid as to just leave him to his own devices, so Hachisuka found every possible excuse to visit Tokyo-3 from Toyko-2, sticking his nose in everywhere without even the slightest hint of subtlety, his presence a warning from Keel not to go too far or gain a hold of too many resources in their little game of chess, lest SEELE be forced to eliminate him and accept the messy consequences that would result.
But their comfortable game of murderous plotting had been shaken to the core with a new variable that had entered the equation, one that by its very position could undermine any number of critical assumptions in SEELE's scenarios, simply by being present.
That the Third Child had been proven to be anything butthe introverted, fragile and pliable child both he and SEELE had been expecting was an impressive enough failure on its own merits. But when combined with an astonishing natural talent that still confounded the best scientists NERV had to offer, the lack of any kind of control over him had become an intolerable situation for SEELE. All their reports had proclaimed that he was a weak and easily controlled child, thus a non-factor in their calculations.
The real Shinji who had turned up in Tokyo-3 however, was an entirely different matter. And while he could no doubt be influenced like any normal person, NERV's clear need for him after his phenomenal combat debut and 'setting of terms' with his Father had ended even the possibility of coercion, leaving SEELE in the entirely uncomfortable situation of trusting enormous parts of their scenario to someone who could, even entirely incidentally, bring it all crashing down if he so chose.
In short, Keel needed information. He had destroyed his chance to get a read of the Third Child from Soryu, Rei was equally useless to him, and this little 'interrogation' was getting them nowhere.
And yet…Lorenz was just sitting there, quietly waiting and watching in the background, but saying nothing; letting his underlings continue their clumsy questioning…
Which meant he had something, another card to play, and was just waiting for the right moment to put it on the table.
Gendos eyes narrowed slightly. Your move, Old Man…
"We are aware that your Father has devolved all parental responsibilities to Captain Katsuragi," 'Green' continued, leaning forward slightly in his chair and fiddling with a pen in a distracted sort of way. "We are also aware that since the death of your Mother, your relationship with him has been…" the voice trailed off as if embarrassed.
"Strained" 'Yellow' offered into the gap.
"Indeed" 'Green' continued with a nod of thanks to 'Yellow'. "As I am sure you can understand, we therefore have some degree of concern over your current guardianship arrangements as they have been arranged".
"First and foremost among them, the fact that Captain Katsuragi is being overloaded with her responsibilities at this point in time," 'Red' spoke up somewhat gruffly, tapping his own pen against the desk as he entered the conversation for the first time, drawing Shinji's attention towards his end of the table. "As I am sure you can appreciate, the Captain, in her capacity as Operations Planning manager, has had a remarkable increase in her workload since the Angels returned. Yet at the same time, she has selflessly taken on the responsibility as guardian to you and the Second Child, and indeed even something of the same to the First by all our reports".
"Which is something I am extremely grateful for," Shinji replied curtly as he fought the urge to wipe his palms off on his trousers, wondering where they were going with this. Surely they weren't going to try and order him to move in with his Father, were they?
"Indeed, she should be commended for her efforts," 'Yellow' agreed with a nod before he shut up at a look from 'Red', who continued, albeit looking slightly miffed at the interruption.
"Yes, indeed…yet the Captain, in addition to her dramatically increased workload, has the added burden of looking after you…and in some quarters, the events of yesterday, which took place technically under her supervision, are raising questions about if she is suited to the responsibility". And as if to forestall the protest he could probably see starting to form on his face, 'Red' raised his hand before continuing. "None of the members of this Committee deny the extraordinary efforts she has made, nor the clear bond you share with her. We simply suggest that, for more her sake than yours, you might consider an alternative arrangement ".
"And before you reply in the resoundingly negative as I know you would like to" Keel put in with a slight smile still on his face, "I would like to offer you something of an alternative you may wish to think about".
Shinji blinked as Keel re-entered the conversation. He hadn't even realized the man had left it until then, and as he stared at him it finally hit him that Keel had simply been watching him. Studying him.
As if waiting for the right moment…
Nervously fighting off the feeling that he had stumbled right onto the edge of a abyss he couldn't see, Shinji none the less nodded hesitantly and Keel gestured to his right without looking away from him, a new spotlight clicking on to reveal a new 'old man' standing at Keels right hand in a soft colorless spotlight.
Gendo Ikari raised an eyebrow and leaned back in his chair as the new player materialized.
So, this was Keels play was it?
But it was elegant; he would give Lorenz that.
The person who had just materialized he had long dismissed as a non-player in the secret world he and SEELE dueled in. In fact, his current position was as much due to this man's self imposed decline as his own machinations; all of it traced back to a single event that still dominated both of their lives, even after all these years.
Using this man as their attempt to get at the Third Child was inspired thinking, a truly spectacular play at the precisely correct time…if, if Keel was reading his target correctly.
Forcing his eyes back to their normal, somewhat indifferent gaze as the other approached Keels shoulder, Gendo Ikari did the only thing he could.
He watched. And waited.
"May I introduce, or, more accurately, reintroduce you to your Grandfather, Takuya Ikari?"
Shinji just stared as Keels voice echoed grandly around the room, unbelieving and caught completely off guard as he stared at the newcomer. Oh he had heard of him before, but he had never really thought about him, anymore than any of his other relatives who had never been inclined to so much as send him a Birthday card.
"…Yes," he said, congratulating himself on keeping his voice somewhat steady as he sounded out the word, the only word that tumbled out of his racing thoughts. He had thought that he had been prepared for just about everything the Committee might have tried to do today, from threats to bribes to a revelation that they knew everything, followed by a bullet into his head from some Section Two agent standing in the darkness.
Yet despite his paranoia…SEELE had managed to blindside him.
He couldn't help but feel the slightest twinge of admiration under the stunned disbelief blowing through his mind, at how they had gotten him so off balance, so easily.
"I know it has been a very long time Shinji," Takuya continued in an all too Grandfatherly voice; the small smile on his face no doubt a direct consequence from the utterly flabbergasted expression on his. "And I must apologize most sincerely for that, and yet I rejoice that fate has allowed us this chance to meet once again".
Shinji worked his jaw several times before taking a somewhat shaky breath to try and steady himself, somehow returning the older man's gaze while peripherally aware that every pair of eyes in the room –and probably many others near and far- were studying him closely
"It has been a long time," he agreed as he stared down his Grandfather with as level an expression as he could manage, clasping his hand behind his back to stop them twitching as he fought to rally himself, offering a stiff shrug in return. "I shouldn't be surprised; you're not the first family member to remember I exist since my ability to pilot an Evangelion was discovered".
His barb, unfortunately, didn't so much as make any of the men staring at him blink.
"You have every right to be angry Shinji," his Grandfather replied softly to his blunt statement, the man's voice and face thick with a mixture of guilt and deep sadness…or at least very good approximations of them, leaning on a cane of the finest craftsmanship made from dark red woods as he stepped past Keel. "It is a hard thing to lose one's only child Shinji, but to lose your mother at your age - and then your Father only a week later..."
He couldn't help it. He just couldn't help it.
Because at those words, as he blinked, Shinji once again found himself a terrified and uncomprehending four year old child, clutching his teddy bear and a train ticket as his Fathers back receded inevitably out of his life for the next decade, ignoring his desperate screams and cries with an indifferent coldness that even now, two lifetimes later-
"Your Mother had a saying Shinji; we cannot make time run backwards, but only spur its course forward with our own hands," his Grandfather, snapping Shinji's attention back to the present. "I cannot and will not try to defend failures in the past to you; fate however has given us an opportunity that I do not intend to waste, and I intend to arrive at Tokyo-3 within the week to make sure of it".
"What we are proposing," Keel re-entered the conversation smoothly, letting his Grandfather pull back slightly, "is simply that you and your Grandfather can get to know each other over the next few weeks. Spend some time with him, give Captain Katsuragi some time to herself, time that in no way interferes with your interaction with her at NERV, or outside it. He is, as a former member of the GEHIRN group, fully cleared on all Evangelion matters, and his security clearance has been reinstated as an independent Special Advisor to NERV, so you can feel completely free to discuss any sensitive issues you may have with him..."
"...and I do not intend to intrude Shinji," his Grandfather took up the narrative as Keel let his voice trail off once again. "Please believe me; more than anything else I just want to make use of this opportunity to get to know you. There are...well, so many things I want to tell you, about your extended Family, about NERV and, of course, about your Mother. And if we can spend some time away from the horrors of this war, away from that loathsome Evangelion that took her from us..."
"I think we might have outsmarted ourselves here Ikari".
Gendo glanced to his left and the brown suited man standing next to his desk, in silence until now throughout the 'interrogations', as it were.
"Do you think so?" he replied to the other with some small trace of amusement before turning his gaze back to the now silent taboo as the elder Ikari's voice trailed off, all the figures in the holographic 'room' utterly silent and still as they waited on the younger Ikari's response.
"Yui is a weak spot for Shinji," Kozo Fuyutsuki pointed out grimly as he stepped up to the desk, his gaze not leaving the quarter scale hologram playing out in front of it as he shook his head slightly.. "Everything points to that Ikari. Keel might well have stumbled onto the right button to push. I don't know, but he figured it out".
Gendo raised an eyebrow at the Vice Commanders grim tone. "And you think Takuya can use these memories to bait a response from him? In such an openly manipulative way? I daresay you are overestimating this threat, Fuyutsuki".
Kozo shrugged slightly in a non committal way to his dismissive skepticism. "You've refused to provide those answers to Shinji, Takuya is all but offering them to him on a silver platter and going out of his way to avoid being too forward while doing so. He even outright denigrated the Eva right in front of the Committee, taking 'his' side against 'them'. It's simplistic, but direct...and if he is able to edge Shinji away from our control, provide a vector for SEELE to directly influence him without anyone involved loosing face…"
Gendo ignored the 'I told you so' tone in the Fuyutsukis voice, dismissing it as a factor of his amusing -if misplaced- thoughts that he and the Third Child had to reconcile, as if the last decade could simply be swept under the bridge with a few tearful hugs or some such foolishness.
A point that neither Keel nor Takuya appeared to understand either, given their attempt at this play. Clearly, they had taken note of the fact that he had devolved all parental and guardianship responsibilities to Katsuragi...and leapt to the conclusion that he must have been left even more isolated, desperate for any part of his 'real' family.
Having read the Captain's rather 'colorful' file, he could even understand such a conclusion being reached, flawed as it was.
So he allowed a grin only he knew to materialize behind his steepled hand as Shinji finally brought his gaze back up to drill into his Grandfather, his expression suddenly carved from granite for all the emotion present in it compared to ten seconds ago, but an expression that Gendo recognized as the same one Shinji had directed at him all those weeks ago in the Evangelion cage, as the Third Angel had stalked its way towards Tokyo-3.
This promised to be mildly entertaining.
At the height of the Third Impact, Shinji knew that on some level he had become, for lack of a better word, a 'conduit' for Lilith as she had harvested - reaped- the souls of humanity from across the world. Those moments were something of a blur to him, and he had often quietly thanked a God he didn't really believe in that he couldn't remember too many specifics of those moments, knowing that to recall that hour of his life again would forfeit his sanity in an instant.
But these people...these people he remembered. After a fashion.
Intellectually, he knewthat they were killers; murderers on a scale that had never been achieved before in human history, despite mankind doing its best to invent a great deal of technology for the purpose of mass destruction over the last century.
Intellectually, he knew that they had been responsible for using him as a pawn, forcing him into his position at the heart of the Third Impact. That as much as his failures, they were responsible for making him who he was, what he was.
The facts as they stood should have been more than enough to convince him - to convince anyone - to refuse everything they asked of him, to laugh at any suggestion of wanting to get to know anyone involved with them, to turn around and walk out right now and dare them to do something about it...
But it wasn't enough.
Not for him.
Not for Shinji Ikari.
Their reasoning about Misato he knew was wrong. Granted; he knew that he and Asuka had made her life difficult at times, but she had never suggested that either of them was a burden. He still remembered the second time he had run away from Tokyo-3; he had been so angry with everyone that he had externally looked almost paradoxically calm. It had been then that Misato, in an equally frank way, had told him that she was leaving both his pass to Headquaters and his room exactly as they were. She had told him then and there that she and just about everyone at NERV had put all her hopes in him to save them all...
...and he had just ignored her words and run anyway. Again.
But as he stood there, under the spotlight with the faces of the most powerful people in the world focused on him, off balance and scattered; Shinji Ikari ... froze..
His mind whirled, at the offer. Somewhere in the back of his hesitant, nerve wracked mind, a part of him was screaming at the danger of this moment, the knowledge that if he let SEELE into his life, the odds of them somehow finding out the truth, of finding a way to undo everything he was desperately working towards, would skyrocket catastrophically.
But as much as he desperately tried to deny it, he knew that despite everything he had gone through, no matter how much he might have told himself that he had his real Family now...a part of his soul twitched at the presence of a living relative wanting to spend time with him.
And if his Grandfather hadn't said three words, then and there, in his nervous, intimidated and downright uncertain state, he might just have hesitantly stuttered out some kind of agreement to their proposals.
But his Grandfather had said threewords.
It had been a room like this one that didn't exist, except perhaps in the vast expanse of Cyberspace. Twelve huge monoliths circling nothing as they collectively watched their final plans unfold faster and faster, decades of painstaking planning suddenly thrown into jeopardy as Evangelion Unit Two unexpectedly came roaring out of what should have been its watery grave to decimate their pawn forces in the JSSDF with casual ease, a wave of anger and hate rippling through the people observing the final moments of their scenario as it was suddenly cast into doubt.
-("That Loathsome Evangelion")-
-("Will our goals be denied again!?")-
-("It seems we will have to fight fire, with fire!")-
And with those three words, he was -
-(Slumped over on the verge of a mental breakdown in disbelief as he reached Unit One, only to find the Entry plug mechanism a pile of twisted metal)-
-("And that Baka Shinji is nowhere to be found, of course!")-
-(Asuka screaming in rage and defiance as she impossibly, insanely, charged the first of the Mass Production Evangelions, leaping hundreds of meters to crash down and tear its face apart)-
-("I CAN'T LOSE! NOT WITH HER WATCHING!")-
-(The horrible, soul shattering scream as the Lance of Longinus tore through Unit Two -Asuka's- face)-
-(An even more terrible scream as another half dozen Lances tore through what was left of the disabled Evangelion, before the vultures that were the Mass Production Evangelions crashed to Earth, tearing, eating and fighting over the corpse as they ripped it to shreds...and the impossible, yet impossible to deny fact, that Asuka had somehow felt everything)-
-(And as he had risen in an unholy storm, floating in Unit One above the cratered and burned landscape, his gaze had taken in the shredded remains of Unit Two scattered across the Geofront)-
A final scream had sounded.
But this one had been from his own mouth, as his last, tenuous grip on his sanity had irrevocably snapped and torn open the gates of hell for SEELE.
Somehow -and he honestly didn't know how- he managed to contain the scream that threatened to explode from his lungs as the utter torture those memories were ended as swiftly as they had thrown him back to the lowest point of his life, his body instinctively taking a somewhat shaky deep breath to steady itself...
But it was no longer fear that it was shaking from. It was as if in the back of his mind, a switch had been flicked, the almost catatonic state of nerves and fear he had been working himself into simply vanished as if it had never been.
And in its place, was rage. Simple, breathtakingly straight forward, rage.
'Burying memories is man's way of surviving. But there are some things a man should never forget. Yui taught me that one irreplaceable thing Shinji. It is the reason I come here, to affirm that commitment'
Those had been his Fathers words, back at his Mother's grave a lifetime ago. He hadn't understood what his Father had been trying to say, feeling only confusion as his Father admitted to destroying everything that reminded him of his former wife, leaving only the memories held deep in his heart. In the days that followed as he had tried to piece together his Father's words, Shinji had concluded that his Father was just a cold man who had ruthlessly sacrificed even his own family, to focus on his work at NERV for reasons he would never understand.
But it was only as he mentally forced the image of Unit Two and its pilot torn to pieces out of his head, that he started to understand what his Father had been trying to tell him that day, as he raised his head to face them.
If he wanted to survive ... he had to bury his own past.
"Three thousand, five hundred and forty nine"
At least Keel and his Grandfather had the decency to glance at each other in confusion for a second, before turning back to face him.
"I'm sorry Shinji? I don't understand-"
"Three thousand, five hundred and forty nine" he repeated, biting off each word with a knife like edge as he stared across the table at the uncomprehending men. "It's the number of days since my Father sent me off to live with my uncle. It also happens to be the number of days since anyone from the rest of my extended family bothered to so much as acknowledge that I even existed."
The look on his Grandfather's face more than anything else dragged Shinji back from the edge. He appeared utterly confused at his response, befuddled even, and it suddenly hit Shinji that they simply didn't understand. Once in his life, he would have leapt at the offer from his Grandfather, in the same pathetic way he had clung to his Father's praise after he had stopped the 10th Angel, letting those three worlds play over and over in his head.
-("Good work, Shinji...")-
But now? Now he only felt contempt for this man. Not perhaps on the same primal level as the feelings he had for his Father, but year after year, alone with no family, no real friends, cast off and forgotten by everyone in his extended family...
Where had this man been when his Father had yanked him to Tokyo-3 and thrust him into the middle of this damn war?
Where had his Grandfather been when everything had become so overwhelming, everything had just made him want to scream and break down as pressure was piled on top of pressure until he had collapsed under the weight of the world, running away from NERV and wandering the streets in a hopeless, aimless search for someone -ANYONE- to turn to as he tried to get some kind of a grip on his life?
Where had this family memberbeen when his Father had forced him to tear apart Unit Three, leaving one of his pathetically few friends a crippled mess with no-one to turn to; as he had been made to feel, see, smell and touch everything, helpless to do stop his own hands from smashing Toji's entry plug?
Where had his own flesh and blood been when everything had inevitably shattered with Misato all but gone, Asuka in her catatonic state, Rei now an utterly alien creature that terrified him, his hands covered in Karowu's blood, desperately looking for someone, anyone to just hold him and tell him it would be alright?
Mistao had been there and tried.
He had not.
Looking into the others eyes, he knew the answer to those questions, the knowledge burned into his mind in the hell of 3rd Impact. His Grandfather had been with SEELE the whole time; chanting with them as the fulfillment of their scenario took place, using him as their Jacobs Ladder to storm heaven, a stairway constructed from the bodies everyone he had ever loved in his life!
But, with an almost physical effort, he managed to push his anger and rage aside.
Uncontrolled hate was a luxury. One he could not afford in this room.
"The woman you claim is unsuited to looking after me, took it upon herself to sleep outside my room while I was recovering from the battle my Father blackmailed me into," he bit off, his blank face slowly fading away to be replaced with a almost acidic glare at his Grandfather, who actually backed off a step as Shinji slowly started to move towards to him. "She then insisted that I stay with her when my Father refused to have anything to do with me - as per normal. So I can't help but wonder, who exactly should I think of as my real family? Someone who saved my life, watched over me while I slept without being asked and took me into her home? Or people who pretend I don't exist, until they have some kind of use for me?"
Not waiting for an answer, he turned to Keel, suddenly wanting to get out of this room more than anything else before he said anything stupid that he and humanity would regret. "Does that sufficiently answer your question Mister Chairman?"
"Yes, it does. A great many of them, in fact," the other said mildly, a tone of satisfied amusement entering his crackling voice, with neither his words nor his body language giving the slightest indication of any surprise or annoyance at his response.
The tone was like a bucket of ice water to the fire of Shinji's rage, extinguishing it and leaving only the chill in the air as his emotion drained away. This was a person skilled beyond others in this hidden world where he barely ranked as a novice...and in a childish tantrum, he had just given him a good look at his 'real' self.
He couldn't undo such an error ... but, as he looked around the room, the public face of SEELE ... he decided he wasn't going to compound it.
"In that case, good day, Mister Chairman" he nodded briefly to the other before spinning around and striding for the door, wanting nothing more than to walk out and never come back to this room.
He made it most of the way to the door before he heard the older Ikari call out.
"Shinji..." the other said. "I can understand your anger...but I hope you realize, that if you ever need me, as your Grandfather I will be here for you."
Shinji turned around just shy of the door and let his eyes seek out the other out for what he suspected would be the last time. A part of him was still searching...he didn't know for what exactly. A sign of a family member? A link to what he had always wanted so desperately, above anything else, in his long and miserable life...?
He didn't know, not really. But whatever it was...he finally knew it wasn't there - and that he would never find it there. All that remained of his family were the husks of people who were working to destroy the pathetically few things in his life he loved, whose only interest in him was as a tool to make the destruction of mankind happen.
And so when he finally spoke to the other, it was in a tone of utter certainty as that tiny part of himself that had clung to the illusion of a family from his surviving relatives, finally died.
"I may be your Grandson Mister Ikari ... but you are not my Grandfather" he told the other, in a voice stripped of any emotion. "Goodbye".
Turning his back on the man, Shinji stepped up to the door and left the room, swearing to himself that he would not let his Father, his Grandfather or any of the rest of the 'Old Men' drag him back into the past.
"Well...that was most...intriguing," Mikhail Dostoevsky commented in the silence that fell after Shinji had left the room, and their status board indicators confirmed that the link to Tokyo-3, including the link to Gendo Ikari's office that didn't show but everyone knew had to be there anyway, had been cut.
"Our psychological profile is nothing at all like the reality," added Gunther Hertz with an arch look at Keisuke Hachisuka, the 'Japan' Man whose job of watching Gendo Ikari and NERV Central nominally included the rest of his family and acquaintances, including the First Child. SEELE and its slightly more civil face in the Instrumentality Committee was a byzantine organization at the best of times and failure was eagerly used to shift power around the members on a weekly basis. Granted, no-one could have expected that the Third Child merited close observation or attention, but that didn't mean Hachisuka wouldn't take the blame...
"Perhaps," Hachisuka responded grudgingly to the accusation, the green light around him hiding the slight flush of his face at the barb, "but none the less he has shown us his center remained as I anticipated. His own flesh and blood may be irrelevant to him," he said with a glance at the single remaining Ikari in the room, "but his family is not".
"Agreed" a deeper voice broke into the conversation - one not from those sitting at the table. This voice came from a giant monolith that circled the room with seven others, featureless except for the glowing words 'SEELE-05 - Sound Only' on it as they too had weighed and jugged the one who Liliths bastard had chosen. "His respect and regard for Captain Katsuragi was...notable"
"As have been his effects on both the First and Second," SEELE-09 put in from over Keels shoulder. "As much as he may loathe his Father, he has clearly inherited Ikari's ability to take leadership of a group. Even the Second appears to be nominally following his leadership! And as for the effects he has had on the First..."
"Are we certain the First will still play her role?" Hertz asked pointedly.
"Ikari will make sure of it," Hachisuka said, his tone leaving little doubt as to which Ikari he was talking about. "One way...or the other".
"But will her role be ours...or his?" SEELE-08 rebutted, and the voice scrambler couldn't quite contain the acid in the others voice.
"Enough," Keel broke up the childish sparring with a single word that instantly imposed silence. As much as his encouraged those under him to work out their own hierarchy, the better to keep them distracted from his own position, Keel was first among equals and everyone knew it well. "The First is little more than a tool that can be replaced when we need to do so," he pointed out, also leaving unsaid the fact that he was not talking about replacing Rei with another Rei - and wouldn't that be a glorious surprise for Ikari? "As is the case for the Second and even, ultimately, the Third. They are pieces on the board, not players in the game. Valuable, but still merely expendable assets".
"And what of Katsuragi?" Dostoevsky rumbled, the implication clear enough without having to add 'and what about Ryoji Kaji'. Not that he was stupid enough to openly say it given that Keel had been the one to send the man to Gendo Ikari in the first place, but the message was clear.
"She is Ikari's problem, not ours," Keel said dismissively, addressing the unstated question by ignoring it. "If a wedge of mistrust can be driven between Ikari and his key officers, so much the better. As long as she is kept in the dark, she remains a net asset to the Scenario. Her hatred of the Angels and military skill combined with her ignorance of the truth makes her the perfect asset to eliminate the Angels - and I remind you all before we get ahead of ourselves; they remain rightly our primary focus for now".
He paused for just long enough to be sure no-one was going to argue the point - and unsurprisingly no-one dared - before nodding slowly and bringing the meeting to a close.
"Now, we will await Ikari's plan of attack to deal with the Eighth Angel which should be soon by the Scenario. The Committee will meet after this event to critique the operation and adjust the budgeting priorities of Evangelion units Six through Nine accordingly. Until then, we are adjourned".
Without any dissension, the four other men around the table and seven brooding monoliths vanished, as their ultra secure conference network shut down. Leaning back in his luxurious chair, Keel took in his lair as the lights came back on, showing the room that very few people would ever see, deep under the 3rd Branch in Berlin. Holographic projectors around the room could shift the perfectly polished rock walls to show anything in perfect clarity if he wished it to be so from a forest in the Ardens to a perfect duplication of the view from Ikari's office in his Geofront should he wish it, but he generally left it in this true state. He had no need to live in illusions of where he was and who he was.
Much the same it appeared, as the Third Child.
Keel winced as he adjusted his seating, feeling tiny servomotors adjust his frame as he did so. He was old. He knew that by all natural law he should have died years ago, laws he had spat on in his refusal to see his life's work left unaccomplished and simply succumb to the legacy of original sin, dust to dust and ashes to ashes. Much of the cybernetic technology that had created the Evangelions had been adapted for use in keeping him alive and functional, from the artificial spine down his back to the biosynthetic leg muscles and servomotors that let him still walk.
But of course, all of that was internal. From the outside, he looked much the same as any other person...except for his eyes.
Lost to cancer many years ago, the visor that replaced them was functional enough, an outgrowth of the same Angelic technology that had built the formidable Evangelions. Much like Ikari and his omnipresent glasses, the shield they provided for his own thoughts was prized. But where Ikari was merely content to hide his thoughts from others, surprisingly few people thought a blind man could see and so few people tried to truly hide themselves from him.
But Shinji Ikari...
Keel Lorenz stayed in his chair for almost half an hour, the only sign that he was still alive being the faintest humming sound that came in time with the rise and fall of his chest. Finally, he leaned forward and turned his attention to the figure that had not vanished with the council, and had been waiting patiently in his office on the other side of his desk, sipping a brandy liberally drawn from his extensive private stock. Although he had in truth been 'out of the game' for a time in terms of any real authority, the older Ikari had been something of a 'party elder' and probably the closest thing to a mentor he had - a mirror of the relationship between Gendo and Kozo in Tokyo-3.
"Well," Takuya Ikari said with a slight smirk on his face that no-one else in SEELE would dare to present to him. "That didn't go exactly to plan".
"No, but it was enlightening none the less," Keel replied with an equally sardonic expression. "I must admit...he did remind me more of Yui than his Father".
"In his zeal or his sense of moral outrage?" the other said with a brief snort.
"Both of those - but I was thinking more of his intelligence and insights," Keel replied, leaning forward slightly in his chair, his gaze behind the visor boring in on the other. "He knows far more then he should...but more than that, he knew enough to try and hide it from us".
Takuya frowned slightly. "How?"
"The more pertinent question is 'what?'" Keel corrected the other. "I feel confident that he knows we have motives beyond those we publicly admit to - and he clearly knows both we and his Father have, shall we say ... conflicting interests? He has rejected Ikari's attempts to control him just as he saw through ours".
"He may simply view us through the same prism he views his father" Takuya suggested into the silence after a moment as he too mulled the situation over. "Seeing us as being cut from the same cloth, the same group. With agendas and motives beyond our public personas that he has no time for in the war against the Angels? Not an uncommon perspective in frontline soldiers".
"Perhaps..." Keel replied, considering the possibility. "When Shinji first looked at me and ... no," he corrected himself as the revelation in the back of his mind he had been struggling towards finally exploded into his thoughts with full force. "No Takuya. It was when Shinji first heard me, there was a reaction. A reaction much more than surprise ... it was recognition. He knew who I was - simply by the sound of my voice".
"Of course he did, he was told he was going to meet the Chairman and you were the only member of the group to talk to him..."
Again, Keel shook his head, this time with increasing confidence, the servomotors in his neck whirring softly as he did so.
"No, it was more than that. It was genuine recognition, on a level far more than meeting some UN official he should care less about. And only for a moment, he covered his reaction almost at once, quite deliberately. But for that moment, it was almost as if he knew both who I was and what I represented".
"That's impossible," the other declared flatly, before frowning slightly. "Unless, of course, his Father has been telling him things he shouldn't?"
"No. Ikari needs his Son in the dark as much as we do," Keel dismissed the thought ... and behind his visor, his non functional eyes narrowed chillingly as he thought over the situation, and came to the only possible conclusion.
"There's something else going on," he concluded. "I don't know what, I don't know who or how, but Shinji Ikari is playing his own game here outside of all of our controls".
Keel's expression only hardened as he thought over the sudden danger and even though he was not the target of the look, Takuya Ikari felt a chill pass up his spine at the expression of Keels face.
"And we must find out what it is".
There were some days that Professor Watanabe loved his job.
And then there were days he hated it.
Case in point, the time immediately after Second Impact. He did not really begrudge the fact that humanity needed to survivein those horrible years and so expertise such as his had became rather less in demand than doctors and civil engineers trying to rebuild damaged and destroyed infrastructure. But as the years had passed since the end of the disaster and the world had rebounded with astonishing resiliency, it had been the devil's work to try and scrounge up funding for his field of expertise. No matter how many people he had told over and over that his work was vital in understanding just what kinds of 'internal' changes the Earth had undergone since the impact of the asteroid at the turn of the millennium, door after door was slammed in his face. He had survived by taking on various odd jobs here and there, using his enormous expertise to fill in some of the skill holes the disaster had introduced to the population. And it wasn't as if he wasn't well compensated - consulting on aspects of major infrastructure programs in the mad rush to rebuild the planet kept him quite well off financially ... but he had never been able to get back to his first love.
He was and forever would be, a Volcanologist at heart.
And he knew he was not alone. He had kept somewhat in touch with his remaining companions in the field -who had not been wiped out by the mega tsunamis from the Second Impact - and the same lack of Governmental interest had all but destroyed their careers, with a few exceptions here and there. Some days it felt as there was a worldwide conspiracy working to stop any real analysis of the massive interior structural changes the Earth had to have suffered from the asteroid impact - absurd as he knew the idea was.
No, the truth was that his skills had simply moved out of fashion as Earth had turned to the new technologies and sciences the GEHERN and then NERV organizations had unleashed, and eventually he had all but given up any hope of returning to his life's passion.
Until one day -just over a year ago as he recalled- when a Government representative had come to him with an offer. The kind of job that one dreamed about but never really expected - even back in the 'good old days'.
And they had gotten him hook, line and sinker - simply asking him to look into something of a major geological conundrum they had stumbled upon - offering him a near unlimited budget and his choice of personnel to boot!
Now that had been a day that he had unquestionably loved his job.
Wasting little time after accepting, he had handpicked a crack team of international experts who had all leapt at the chance to finally get back to doing what they were born to do.
Then came the year of headaches and disbelief as everything the world knew about volcanoes had been thrown out the window.
This Volcano was completely unlike anything ever seen in human history. And it wasn't as if Mount Asama hadn't been studied in depth many times before - yet it was as if over the fifteen years after the Second Impact the Volcano had decided it just wasn't interesting enough ... and had decided to spice things up by simply throwing the laws of physics out the window.
For a start, he could see the Lava with his own eyes. Lava boiling in an open crater. A stable, open lake of Lava that was neither cooling off and solidifying, nor expanding out in an eruption. It was as if it was just ... simmering.
Even more bizarrely, this 'Lava' had a very high silica content at high temperatures, yet maintained a viscosity closer to water than molten rock, something that should have been completely impossible anywhere outside of the Earth's mantel. Yet, deep vent samples drilled within a fifty kilometer radius around the site had shown perfectly conventional Magma underground, meaning that as far as his team could figure it out this single vent from Mount Asama existed in a state where the laws of physics had simply been 'suspended for the duration'.
And that fact when presented to his backers in his first official report had only seemed to excite and encourage them. That should have been a warning sign, but he had been far too caught up in the situation to think clearly.
And so they had come to the breakthrough two days ago. A full spectrum EM field analyzer - an incredibly expensive toy he had leased less because he thought it might prove critical and more because it was something to do with his absurdly huge budget- had triangulated and locked in on a constant low level field almost eight hundred meters down into the primary magma chamber, two hundred meters beyond the maximum depth of his state of the art lava probe and from the repeating pattern, clearly artificial. He had ordered the probe lowered to its maximum depth anyway, and he had barely managed to get low frequency sonar snapshots of something lurking in the depths of the Volcano, causing a wave of excitement to pass around the scientists
Then all hell had broken loose.
NERV -who it turned had been the Government agency behind his work all along- had stepped in within six hours and declared that they were 'sending a team' to review their findings, immediately, with a postscript requesting that they required him to maintain full confidentially on the greatest scientific discovery in his field's history, citing all manner of clauses in his funding agreement with none too subtle mentions of consequences if he didn't keep his mouth shut.
He was not an idiot, he knew just enough about NERV to know that he reallydid not want to know more about them, let alone have their boots stomping all over his work. But it was also not as if he had much choice, and so here he was waiting for one 'Captain Katsuragi' and his team to arrive at his office, the NERV VTOL having touched down over ten minutes ago.
A polite but brisk knock on his door at that point confirmed that NERV had indeed found their way upstairs. He stood, checking his reflection inside a small mirror mounted on a wall of the cramped office before he moved to the door and centered his thoughts, trying to ignore the fact that he knew this was going to be one of the days he hated his job-
"Professor Watanabe?" the absolutely stunning woman in a military uniform standing on the other side of the doorway asked him with a beaming smile. "I'm Captain Katsuragi, NERVs Director of Operations in Tokyo-3".
On the other hand...
Shinji Ikari felt he should have been surprised when he spotted Ryoji Kaji waiting at the Central Dogma level entrance/exit to the Headquarters pyramid that brooded over the Geofront.
But he wasn't.
He found himself uncertain if the lack of surprise was because in his currently paranoid state he wasn't really able to be surprised by much of anything, or if was just because Kaji seemed to have a way of vanishing and then reappearing for weeks at a time in the most usual places. In either case, his unexpected presence somehow seemed entirely in keeping with the theme of the day of spooks and agendas swirling around Tokyo-3...and him.
"Hey Shinji" the man greeted him as he passed through the security checkpoint and out into the Geofront. "How's things?"
"Fine, I guess" he replied as he walked past the man without slowing, not at all surprised that he just fell into step beside him without blinking. Shinji responded to the unasked for presence by simply ignoring him, shrugging out of his formal NERV jacket as the warmer and more humid Geofront environment started to bite, pulling his phone from one of the pockets and checking it for any messages in passing, but finding none. Asuka and Rei had agreed with him (or more accurately, he and Rei had 'agreed' with Asuka) that there was no point to waiting around after their meetings and they would all head home ... but after the way she had exploded out of the meeting room, he had been hoping for some kind of communication...
"Well that's good to hear" he replied with that casual cheerfulness. "Certainly you look happier than Asuka did when she stormed out of here half an hour ago" he observed.
"...She didn't stop to talk to you?" he replied with no small amount of surprise.
"I don't think she even saw me" he replied in far too cheerful tone. "She seemed to be muttering your name, followed by the word 'stupid' a lot with a great deal of clenching and un-clenching of her fists".
"What did I do now?" Shinji asked himself - and Kaji, and the universe for that matter- with a sigh, wondering how this day could get much worse. He didn't know what SEELE had said to Asuka, but it couldn't be good if she was in one of those moods.
"What man can truly know the mind of a woman, especially one as feisty and fiery as Asuka?" Kaji asked him with a shrug. "But take heart Shinji, I am here with a solution".
"A solution to Asuka - does it involve blunt objects? Because I've tried those, and they just don't work" Shinji deadpanned - winning a look of amusement from Kaji.
"Cute. No, I was thinking I should shout you lunch. After all, Katsuragi asked me to look after both of you while she was away ... and I think it might be best to leave Asuka the apartment so she cools off and won't be tempted to start throwing expensive things at you when you get home".
Shinji considered it. Honestly, he thought Kaji was grossly underestimating how long Asuka could actually stay pissed off. She was the only person Shinji knew who seemed to have the ability to 'bank' her rage away, able to go from angry to calm to angry again almost at will ... but for lack of any better options, a free lunch was still a free lunch. "Sure, uh, thanks?"
"Come on, we'll take my car - I know a great place up in Tokyo-3" the older man slapped his arm across Shinji's shoulders half pulling and half dragging him along to his car, parked just around the corner in a distinctly marked 'No Parking' zone, right up against the large water store next to the pyramid, For once, Kaji actually drove conservatively -for a given value of conservative anyway - along an access road through the lush forest that carpeted this part of the Geofront, taking a quick turn down into a tunnel that had them at a car train station in a matter of minutes. Shinji said nothing during the trip and perhaps sensing his mood, Kaji kept any comments he had to himself.
Moments after the gates with their brooding NERV logo had snapped shut behind them, the train was underway. Descending counterweights built into the sky rail letting them ascend at a surprisingly swift pace into the sky above the verdant greenery. It was truly a spectacular sight, but Shinji had long lost any joy from the sight. Forever now this sky would belong to the harpies of the Mass Production Evangelions in their frenzied and animalistic state as they descended upon Unit Two-
-("That Loathsome Evangelion")-
He shook his head once to clear that voice from his head again, the violent gesture earning a glance from Kaji, but no more until they entered the forest of buildings that hung from the roof of the massive cavern. Moments later they plunged into a tunnel at the side of the dome and the outside world fell to darkness, broken only by the yellow lights placed at intervals in the wall.
Almost at once, Kaji reached out and tapped several buttons on the car radio, far too quickly for Shinji to follow the sequence, a light on the panel flashing blue for a split second as he finished.
"Wonderful things train tunnels" the older man told him with his trademark grin as he leaned back in his sports cars plush seat. "Trying to monitor communications in them is all but impossible - even with the very best equipment and very best people. The tunnel itself completely cuts off any transmitter weak enough not to be easily detected by a counter-intelligence scan, and the background noise ... well, even the MAGI would have the devil of a time trying to filter that racket out any microphone picked up".
"But it's still possible?" right? Shinji clarified quickly.
Kaji just grinned, nodding towards the radio he had just played with.
"I just made sure it's impossible" he gestured at the blue light. "White noise generator built into the radio - completely natural sounding in this environment, but with it running we're clear of any possibility of anyone overhearing. We've got six minutes until we exit this tunnel ... if you have anything you want to say, that is" he added, his grin fading to a somewhat more concerned look.
Shinji exhaled the breath he hadn't realized he had been holding in and flopped back into his seat, taking a moment to put his thoughts into some time kind of order. He didn't know if Kaji was really concerned with him, or if he just wanted a report for his superiors, but he didn't particularly care.
So he ran through the meeting as quickly as he could. His nagging sense that he knew every one of the committee members somehow. Their enthusiastic praise of all his actions so far, then their attempt to get him away from Mistao and to his Grandfather ... and then his storming out without a great deal of subtlety as he told them exactly what he thought of the offer.
Kaji listened patiently, offering no comment or change of expression on his face, simply seeming to absorb it all until Shinji finished.
"So" he said, leaning back in his chair with a somewhat satisfied look on his face. "Everything went just about as well as could be expected then".
Shinji just started at him.
"Kaji...didn't you hear what I just said?!"
"Every word" the other confirmed.
"…then you heard that I stormed out of there after yelling at all of them, including my Grandfather? And more importantly, at Keel Lorenz who let me know that I had given him everything he needed to know about me, before I-"
"Calm down" the other said, his voice not raised yet holding all manner of undertones of commanding professionalism that it cut right across his rambling and silenced him. "Shinji, Paranoia for people like us is a healthy thing but there is a point where it becomes dangerous. If you start to see threats everywhere and in everything, you'll end up missing the real threats that are out there".
"I know that" he replied, trying not to sound like he was sulking, as he closed his eyes and leaned back to try and frame his thoughts. "But I just couldn't help but snap at them. I know I shouldn't have, I know I should have just kept calm, but I let my emotions explode when they said those words that triggered those memories, at my Grandfather, at Keel, I just … couldn't help it".
"So you acted like a somewhat angry teenager thrown into a war – big shock there" the other shruged. "Shinji, don't worry about Keel. Forget about your Father. Neither of them are your concern".
"…what?" Shinji managed to get out, for a sudden irrational moment wondering If someone had 'gotten' to Kaji. "How can you possibly say they are not my-"
"Because it's the truth" the other cut him off, a sudden bluntness in his voice cutting him off mid-protest. "Your job is not to deal with your Father or SEELE. Your job – your only job, is to pilot your Evangelion. Nothing more, nothing less".
Shinji felt a mixture of confusion and even anger coming on at that statement.
"Not my job?" he fumed at the other, some part of him knowing that he was sounding like a petulant child but unable to help himself. "Do you have any idea what I've been through-"
"Yes, and that is precisely the reason you need to stay away from these people" Kaji replied, his tone firm and his expression completely unimpressed by the anger he was showing. "You're not an intelligence agent Shinji – and you are far too emotionally invested in this. All you'll do if you try to go up against someone like Keel is get yourself killed. Or even worse, get picked up by one of SELLES wet-work teams and tortured until you tell them everything you know - which would almost certainly lead to the destruction of everything we've worked for, the deaths of all your friends and hand Third Impact to SEELE on a silver platter".
The sheer brutal directness of Kaji's statement cut through his whirling barrier of frustrated anger like a strong wind, tearing away his comfortable angst in a moment and leaving only a sudden chill in the air in its place as the train clacked along.
"There are three possible scenarios ahead of us we are trying to prevent Shinji" the other continued after letting the warning hang in the air for a time. "One, the Angels win this time and humanity is destroyed at their hand. Two, your Father implements Third Impact after the Angels are defeated. Or three, SEELE do so with their own resources. Of those scenarios, which is the only one which you can directly make a difference in stopping, on a level that no-one else on this planet can?"
Shinji exhaled slowly, trying to let his emotions flow out with his breath as, unwillingly, he came to the only possible conclusion the question would allow as he stared out into the tunnel depths.
"The defeat of the Angels" he admitted to the other, grudgingly, glaring at the tunnel wall as they slowly leveled out from their step climb, the car train under them shuddering and rocking slightly as it disengaged from the counterweight system that had helped haul it up into the sky and pushed onwards under its own power.
"Shinji, look at me" Kaji said, his tone firm, but not harsh, and despite himself, Shinji turned back to face the other, who despite his typically sloppy appearance none the less held an deadly serious look on his face for once.
"Ikari, you are the only person on this planet who has the skills, knowledge and, frankly, the talent to stop the Angels. Ignore SEELE and Keel and ignore your Father. People suited to dealing with them are already drawing up their plans – and they don't need your Evanglion sized boot prints messing things up for them. Men, even powerful men, are something we can deal with. Twenty story aliens with the firepower to blow JSSDF divisions into scrap metal inside five minutes are not - that's your job. Focus on the mission and the other pilots who, if they know it or not, are reliant on you to keep them alive with your skills and knowledge of what is coming for them. Because if you go off half cocked trying to be a superhero and solve everything yourself, there is only one way this will end. And if you do get yourself killed and leave us open to the Angels or your Father or SEELE ... then unlike the last time in your history, this time the responsibility for the destruction of mankind will fall on your shoulders".
Misato glared at the main screen inside the Geological Survey Command Truck, as if by doing so the computer would flinch and finally show the secrets it concealed to her.
It didn't work of course, but it did make her feel better.
"You're going too deep!"
Misato glanced away from the screen the figure of Professor Watanabe standing just behind and next to her. It wasn't fair to be annoyed with the poor man, whose world had just been turned upside down, she knew. Even if his entire research program had been quietly funded by NERV due to some suspicion that the abnormal volcanic activity here may have been the work of an Angel, he had neither known this nor exactly been prepared when the small army of NERV personnel had shown up and simply taken over everything and politely, but firmly, pushed his own people out the door with one weeks enforced vacation at full pay. Even more than that, the sheer pace of the investigation had all but overwhelmed the poor man. She wanted results now and was perfectly happy to throw away hundreds of millions of yen worth of equipment if it got her what she wanted. Watanabe, a methodical scientist who had wanted to sit down and carefully plan out a systematic investigation over days or weeks of their findings ... was having trouble keeping up.
Misato Katsuragi had many positive attributes ... but excessive patience was not one she was better known for.
"Another Five Hundred Meters" she ordered over the others objection, and the technician controlling the probe descending through the lava shrugged and hit the controls. Deep under them and made out of some incredible alloys, the heavy duty probe shuddered into life, pulling its way deeper into the heart of the Volcano. Its heavy duty skin was made of the same composite as Evangelion fortified armour and thanks to the massive cooling system on the surface it was connected to, it could handle the heat. But despite the Lava having a viscosity near water, its wasn't water and the pressure on the probe from the sheer mass of molten rock pressing down on it was rapidly increasing as it passed its theoretical maximum depth.
But the monitors showing the sensors watching for any hints of an Angels presence remained silent. Even as lights on the master status display for the probe moved from green to yellow - and a few more from yellow to red.
"Depth Twelve Hundred" the technician called out, a note of urgency coming into her voice. "The pressure resistant partition is cracking".
"Miss Katsuragi!" the professor tried again, and Misato spared him a brief glance, feeling some sympathy for the man whose whole project had been turned upside down by NERV.
But if there was an Angel down here, she sure as hell wasn't going to stop now.
"If it breaks, we'll pay for the damage" she assured him before turning back. "Two hundred more" she said in a tone that brooked no objection.
Quickly, more lights on the status board shifted colours as the probe pushed deeper. It was almost certainly well past the point of no return, but as far as Misato was concerned, it was also completely expendable if it got her the information she needed. She glared at the camera feed showing the heart of the Volcano far under the probe, a deep featureless golden glow that neither seemed to get larger nor smaller as the probe sunk down...
And then it happened.
As she was staring at the monitor, a 'shadow' for lack of a better word seemed to slowly form on the screen, a splotch on the bright picture slowly getting darker as the probe descended towards it.
"Hyuga..." she started, only to be cut off by the other.
"I see it" the technician assured her, fingers flying over his board as the shadow continued to solidify into an oval shaped object, flickering wireframe overlays mapping across it in real time as NERVs distant supercomputers leant their awesome processing power to the analysis work. "Definitely not a shadow, range one ten and closing - its right in the middle of the probability zone the MAGI calculated".
"It could be some block of a Peridotite" the Professor put in hesitantly from over her shoulder. "Something that's come up from deeper in the mantle?"
"Its symmetrical" Hyuga frowned in as the image continued to sharpen - in between flickers of static as the systems started to fail on the probe, the wireframe mesh shifting slightly into a perfect ovoid as the probe came closer. "That can't be a natural formation can it?"
"It's ... unlikely" the Professor admitted, glancing at the estimated location of the probe and the object. "And it looks like its sitting just about dead in the middle of this crazy activity zone".
"Come on" Misato muttered, glancing at the screens showing the sensors which remained silent. She was positive this could only be an Angel, but she needed the hard evidence...
"Cooling system failure!" the technician on the probe itself called out as an alarm klaxon started to sound. "Breach imminent-"
"We're monitoring a reaction!" Hyuga broke in over the top of her as the screens suddenly started to leap with activity as the probe reached the same depth as the target.
"Start analysis!" she snapped as she stared at the picture. Some kind of detail starting to become clear on the screen and for a split second she thought she could see a figure forming inside the shape-
Then a new Klaxon sounded and all the screens went dark.
"The probe has imploded due to the extreme pressure" the technician reported in a flat 'I told you so' tone that Mistao ignored as she leaned in closer to Hyuga as he crunched the numbers, keeping her voice low enough that no-one else could hear her.
"What about the analysis? Did we get enough data?"
"Just barely" the other muttered back, his tone suddenly turning grim. "But it was enough to detect a Blue Waveform pattern".
"Then there isn't any doubt. It's an Angel" .
Hyuga nodded his silent concurrence with her analysis.
At this point, Misato's entire demeanour changed. Gone was the friendly if professional woman working to investigate the situation. Now there was just the military officer who had located the enemy she hated more than anything else in this universe - and wanted to kill it.
"As of this moment, this laboratory is now under the full jurisdiction of NERV" she announced in a loud and clear voice that booked no argument from the few civilians in the room as she swung her gaze around. "Any access to the outside world is prohibited and all records are now re-classified as Top Secret".
Almost at once, all the computer screens in the room except for those Hyuga and a couple of other officers were sitting at blacked out, blazing red 'TOP SECRET' text coming up as the MAGI 'moved in' and took complete control of all computers, communications links and systems. Moments later, the doors to the room opened and a quartet of burley NERV soldiers stepped inside, making a beeline for the Professor and his people who were barely starting to react to the sudden change in the rooms atmosphere from scientific curiosity to martial preparation. The guards had been well chosen for their jobs; towering over the relatively diminutive scientists they had little trouble in gently but firmly ushering them out the door and down the hall to a room where several Lawyers would 'inform' them about what 'Top Secret' meant, before putting them on a VTOL back to Tokyo-3. She had no doubt that they would protest being summarily kicked out of their workplace, but given that it was one phone call from becoming a battlefield, she was equally sure they would thank her later.
And speaking of phone calls.
Leaving the NERV staff as they started to try and massage the thin data they had collected, she pulled her phone and stepped outside the command room, dialed the Operations Line, stepping into an empty room just down the hall labeled the Seismic Wave Analysis Room #1.
"It's me" she said without preamble when Aoba picked up on the second ring. "I need you to request an A-17 declaration from Commander Ikari, top priority!"
"An A-17 - you want to launch an offensive attack? An attack to capture an Angel?"
Gendo shifted his gaze -without moving his head- from Keel at the opposite end of the table to Michael Richards, studying the other silently for a moment. He idly wondered if the other was objecting because he thought this was a crazy idea ... or because he had been woken at two in the morning, his time, for an urgent conference after he had stayed up late for the earlier meeting with the Children.
Frankly, he couldn't care less, but if this meeting was generating discomfort to some of the members of the Committee, so much the better.
"That is correct" he replied evenly to the other, keeping even the slightest hint of enjoyment at the others irritation out of his voice.
"In the name of God, why?" Keisuke Hachisuka spluttered from down the table. "Have you forgotten what happened fifteen years ago? You already have the corpses of two Angels don't you?" Not to mention Lilith the other didn't say, but Gendo heard his irritating Japanese shadow say it loud and clear none the less.
"Yes, but there remain wide gaps in our knowledge from what we found fifteen years ago. The Angels have arrived with more varied forms and capabilities than were anticipated; the opportunity to capture a live sample and study its evolution under ... controlled circumstances is not something NERV can afford to pass up. And further, this is our first chance to move from a state of perpetual defence onto an offensive posture, should capture prove impossible. Before it can mature and attack on its own terms".
There was silence for a moment, before Keel spoke up as he rendered his decision.
"Proceed then Ikari. But know that we will not tolerate failure" the other warned with atypical bluntness, before he and the others vanished as the connection was severed.
Standing behind him as the lights in his office slowly came back up, Fuyutsuki snorted in derision at Keels closing statement.
"If we fail, it'll mean completing the destruction of mankind we begun fifteen years ago. Ikari...are you absolutely sure about this?"
The fact that Ikari did not reply but simply grinned from behind his steepled hands did not fill the one time Professor with either confidence or reassurance.
"That's an Angel?"
Shinji Ikari had dreaded this day for a long time. Once again, he found himself staring at the nightmare scenario that had been haunting his dreams, the alien looking picture of the Angel deep inside Mount Asima.
The image looked so perfectly harmless it was hard to credit the terrible risk it represented. He didn't know if this had been its plan, if its apparent helplessness was an elaborate trap to lure an Evangelion onto its home turf where it could be easily dealt with, or, if it had just been incredibly bad timing ... but in either case, he knew that it had been sheer dumb luck that Asuka had not died when it had awoken and engaged her - and even more luck that he had not joined her when following his heart over his head, he had leapt into the Lava and saved her life.
The difference between success and failure here was so terrifyingly minuscule it was all he could do to keep his voice steady as he asked the question he already knew the answer to.
"Correct" the Doctor replied, pointing a remote control at the floor and switching to an animation of an Eva descending grasping with a long thin rod grasped in both hands, closing the distance and 'securing' the Angel in an Electromagnetic-Cage, at which point the pair started to the surface. "It appears to be some kind of chrysalis containing a juvenile or embryonic form of the Angels we've been seeing. The primary objective of this mission is to capture the Angel in this state for further study".
"And if we fail?" Asuka put in from next to him. He glanced at her, and she continued to ignore him. He had not had a chance to talk to her since the call had come in, as he had just been finishing an actually rather pleasant lunch with Kaji when he had been recalled to the Geofront. But it was rapidly becoming clear whatever had irritated her earlier was still doing so.
"Then your standing orders are to destroy the Angel" Akagi answered. "Clear?"
"Yes Ma'am" Asuka - and Rei - replied together.
"Shinji, do you understand?" Akagi pressed after his silence became an almost heavy thing in the room.
Shinji, mentally took a deep breath but did not look up from the schematics of the D-Type equipment flicking by on the screen, in favour of drawing out the moment for just a fraction longer ... before he replied.
"Who came up with this plan?" he said in an even tone.
"I did" Akagi replied after a pause. "Why?"
"Because this is the most recklessly stupid idea anyone has ever presented for an Evangelion operation" he replied with completely atypical bluntness as he raised his gaze to those opposite him, noting the way Maya's eyes went wide and her mouth dropped open slightly in shock - although if that was due to his rudeness or because he had questioned her mentor, he couldn't know.
" And ... why is that?" Akagi replied in a surprisingly even tone, placing her hands in the pockets of her lab coat as she studied him in return, clearly willing to humor him for now.
"Because Kamakazi missions went out of fashion in this country seventy years ago" he replied succinctly, ignoring what sounded suspiciously like a snort from Asuka.
"We're not sending you on a suicide mission Shinji" Akagi said reprovingly, switching the screen at their feet to a diagram of the D-Type equipment. "The D-Type equipment is specifically designed for extreme environments and will keep the Evangelion safe-"
"In theory keep us safe" he countered the other, fighting to keep his voice calm and level. He had to win this debate with logic, anything else and he knew they would just ignore him. "If D-Type equipment can handle Lava is immaterial to my point. You are sending an Evangelion into a situation where it will be helpless if this at any point the Angel decides to take objection to what we're doing".
"The MAGI have run multiple simulations" Maya tried to be helpful as Akagi stared at him, her brow furrowed in thought. "The odds-"
"Maya, tell me this; how long will it take the Evangelion to descend to the Angels depth in the Lava? he asked, switching his gaze to her, trying to do his keep his tone and expression cool and emotionless ... like his Father.
"Well, uh" she floundered and stammered under his very direct look, before pulling herself together. "One, perhaps two minutes?"
"And how long will it take to get it up from the Angels depth, should it reactwhen it senses the approach of an Evangelion and turns hostile?"
"Well, that would be slower" the other admitted. "If the Eva dropped its ballast, perhaps ... three minutes?"
"Three...minutes" he drew out the two words as his gaze switched back and forth between the two women opposite him, their faces a contrast in emotions as one hid them and the other wore them on her sleeves. "Three minutes during which an Evangelion would be helpless. Trapped in an environment this Angel lives in. Trapped without any ability to maneuver. Where none of the weapons designed for an Evangelion can be used. Where the only thing an Angel has to do is pulse an AT field for a split second and sever the cable, or move up and sever it physically ... and what exactly happens then, Maya?"
Shinji couldn't help but feel for Maya - she had always been a kind, quiet if somewhat diffident person to him and the rest of the pilots and didn't deserve his scorn. He couldn't help but feel a pang of guilt as he kept a glare focused at her, but he had to get this operation stopped.
"It, uh, it ... that is, the Evangelion would sink until it was either crushed by the pressure" she stuttered out, unable to meet his gaze and focusing on the looping video at her feet as she was forced to confront the glaring flaw in this whole insane idea, "or, once the internal batteries run out and the life support system fails ... well, the entry plug ... I mean the pilot-"
"- would be boiled alive by the conducted heat" he finished the thought. "And I think we came close enough to that with the 5th Angel he added, causing Maya again to glance away, unable to meet his gaze, before he turned back to face Akagi, whose expression may as well have been carved from granite. "You want to put one of us into an immobilized Evangelion, dangling at the end of a cable like a lure on a fishing line, and hope that the Angel will not decide to take a bite out of us, when every other time an Evangelion has made its presence known to an Angel, it has gone out of its way to try and destroy us".
Pausing to let his words sink in, he started to shake his head.
"Sorry, but if this is the best plan you can come up with-"
"Um Gottes willen!"
Shinji's head wrenched to a halt in the motion of starting to shake, focusing on Asuka as she broke in over his speech and, smooth as you will, drew all the attention in the room to her with her explosion of German.
"If Ikari is too damn gutless to take the fight to the enemy, I'll do it" she declared.
Shinji felt his jaw drop as the room suddenly started to spin. Or more likely it was just his head spinning. What ...
"Very well - Asuka, you will take point on this mission" Akagi pushed forward rapidly, clearly eager to wrap this up before anyone could change their mind - or before he could recover his wits and start objecting again. "Rei, you will deploy with her to provide topside security and backup. Shinji, you will remain here on standby".
"Wait" he managed to find his voice as he tore his gaze away from the now preening Asuka and trying not to sound petulant, "I'm staying here?"
"You have the most experience engaging Angels with limited or no support" Akagi pointed out and, oddly, Shinji couldn't help but feel an irrational anger spring up at the fact her tone remained completely analytical without any hint of glee or gloating at the sudden redundancy of his objections thanks to Asuka stepping up to the plate. "If the Angels do attack Tokyo-3 while two thirds of our forces are elsewhere, you are the best person to remain on station. Asuka, as this is an A-17 order" she continued, turning away from him to glance at the Second Child who all but glowed under the attention, "we will scramble as soon as Unit Two has been equipped with the D-Type equipment and you have been equipped with the special heat resistant entry plug suit".
"See you up there then!" Asuka beamed and without further comment, the two elder women made a hasty beeline towards the far exit. Asuka made a satisfied noise before spinning around, not even deigning to look at him as she strode confidently for a different exit, that would take her to the locker room, leaving him standing in the darkness in a confused daze.
Then anger burned through the shock as his face flushed.
His fists clenched into tight balls as he glared at Asukas retreating form. He was trying to save that damn girl's life - and she was treating this like some kind of game to one-up him?!
He started to move after her. Not even half a step, perhaps even just a shifting of his weight to storm after her and demand answers about why she seemed to have done a 180 degree turn from their new understanding of each other they had seem to come to-
But, as always, Ayanami needed only the most gentle touch on his shoulder to freeze him in place and drain his anger away.
Halting in the motion of moving after Asuka, Shinji turned to face the other Evangelion pilot in the room, looking oddly 'Rei' like today for some reason with her hair style.
"You will only hurt each other if you demand answers she is not willing to give" the First Child said softly to him.
Those eyes, those mysterious scarlet eyes staring at him from behind her blue fringe once again cut through all his defences. Stilling his anger, silencing his frustration and even pushing aside the panic he wanted to feel at all his efforts not simply being for nothing, but removing him from the equation in this operation.
"I don't even know what answers I'm looking for Rei" Shinji admitted with an almost mechanical shrug. "I thought Asuka and I had come to some kind of understanding yesterday, then she storms out of that conference - and seems to want to take her anger out on me! Again! Like I'm her personal punching bag!"
"Then, you should feel honoured she has chosen to confide her anger in you above all others" the other replied evenly.
It took a moment for the comment to sink through his scattered thoughts ... and for a long moment afterwards, the only sound in the room was the distant rumble of the air conditioning.
"Rei ..." he finally managed some seconds later. "Was that a joke?"
"...That remains to be seen" Rei determined with the slightest of tilts of her head and utterly no clues on her face. "You have concerns about this operation?"
"Concerns? There's a good chance Asuka is going to get herself killed today, Rei" he snapped back at her, before closing his eyes and looking away as he took a moment to leash his emotions more tightly under control.
"Then you question her ability to carry out this mission?" the other asked, her voice not holding any sign that she had taken issue with his outburst.
"...It's not her abilities Rei" he explained with a slow sigh, opening his eyes and again turning to face the First Child - who hadn't changed out of her new NERV dress jacket since meeting the Committee, and looked almost ethereal in the limited light from the room. "It's her judgment. Her abilities, her training, none of it will mean anything if that Angel turns on her while she is in that Volcano. Between trying to take on the 6th Angel with a Progressive Knife and charging out like a madwoman against the 7th Angel without thinking ... she never had to go through the hell you did at the hands of Unit Zero. Or get thrown into the deep end of Evangelions and straight into combat like I did - she doesn't fear the Angels. And thanks to my stupidity" he worked his jaw, "I've only made sure that Akagi is going to keep me back here where I can't protect Asuka if she does something stupid. Again".
"...I see" Rei said, before she turned away, silently regarding the Angel's picture.
To most other people, that would have signaled the end of the conversation, but Shinji knew her on a whole different level to 'other people', and so he waited silently as Rei stood there for a time.
"Do you remember when we engaged the Fifth Angel, Ikari?" she finally broke the silence, without turning back.
"How could I forget?" he asked her with some slight surprise. "You saved my life, made the shot that killed it possible - after you were almost killed by it".
"Yes, you saved my life - then trusted me to safe yours, even with Captain Katsaragi yelling at you to fire immediately" Rei nodded.
"I remember" he nodded slowly, frowning as he wondered where she was going with this.
"There was only a three second window between you calling for me to cover you and when the Angels particle beam was fired" she pointed out, her head turning just far enough for her to regard him out of the corner of her eye. "You held fire instead of taking the shot, risking that the Angel would destroy you, when you called for me to shield you".
"Because I knew you wouldn't hesitate to protect me - any more than I would hesitate to protect you" Shinji replied with complete honestly, feeling an odd flush on his cheeks at the frank admission of just how deep his trust of her went.
Rei however simply nodded.
"Because you trusted me to protect you".
"Well ... yes, of course. I trust you - with my life" he replied in confused honestly, still not really sure where she was going.
"Then trust me once again" she said, turning to face him more fully. "I will protect Asuka".
The phrase was matter of fact, even trite sounding... yet inside those words there was something. It was more than a statement, more than a guarantee - it was almost as if Rei had etched a promise into fate itself (and given his experiences with Third Impact, he honestly couldn't be sure she couldn't do so). A surety that this would be so, come what may.
And for the first time in a long time of nightmares and fears that had preceded this day, Shinji Ikari felt something approaching acceptance take a hold of him. And almost as if she could see that change in him, Rei nodded once, again ever so slightly, and turned away, her lithe form gliding across the room into the darkness, leaving only the muted clicking of her footsteps as he remained behind, deep in consideration.
He raised his head as the doorway opened, the light from outside silhouetting Rei and washing out all features.
"I still expect you and Asuka to serve dinner tonight. My apartment. At seven PM" she said before, without waiting for a response, stepping through the door that at once snapped shut behind her.
Alone in the room, Shinji Ikari couldn't help but smile for the first time today.
This was not how she had envisioned her first combat assignment as the point Eva unit.
Suspended above a Volcano, her Eva 'wearing' an incredibly cumbersome D-Type extreme environment suit ... and worst of all, she was stuck wearing this ... this thing.
Her training had not included this 'Heat Resistant Entry Plug Suit' - and she knew it had to be because NERV knew if they had tried to get her to put this on, she would have hurt people. Ridiculous didn't quite describe how she knew she looked right now, but no-one had been silly enough to draw attention to the elephant in the room and laugh at her.
Still, she tried to force it out of her mind as she listened to the technicians go over the final stages of their preparations. The suit actually came with a helmet that would isolate her from the entry plug environment entirely, so that even if it got beyond human tolerances, she could continue to pilot ... but as the only way for her to wear it was for her to cut her hair, she had simply left it behind. She wasn't going to pass out, not on her first mission taking the lead instead of Der Unbesiegbare Shinji!
Even just thinking about him however ripped her thoughts back off-mission. She had been dealing with those Committee members many times over the last year and it had always been the same boring stuff. Praising her work, running through her progress, updating her on their plans in the event of an Angel attack. She had last met with them just before Unit Two had been shipped across Europe to Vladivostok and from there via ship to Tokyo-3, and they had been excited that she was going to finally be going into action, bringing leadership and expertise to the theatre of war she had been preparing for her entire life ...
But this morning, they had barely spent two minutes congratulating her on her accomplishments before they had pressed her about Ikari.
And not just pressed her, but gone on and on and on about him, taking her completely off guard as they pressed her for her views on Shinji Ikari.
Eventually the Chairman, Keel, had put a stop to it, chiding his subordinates and congratulating her on her accomplishments as she was dismissed, but it was far too late to take back the 'interrogation' they had subjected her to.
She had barely come to terms with her 'relationship' with Ikari, or at least she thought she had come to terms with it. She had seen sides to Shinji he had shared with no-one else - and even under the barrage of questions from the committee, she had not betrayed what he had told her in confidence that night she had barged into his room without so much as a 'by your leave'. But it also meant that no-one saw Ikari in the way she saw him. All they saw was the unstoppable Angel killing machine. The perfect prodigy who almost no formal training, had torn through the most powerful enemies man had ever gone up against without fear or hesitation.
All they saw when they looked at him was what she was supposed to be. While she looked like little more than an increasingly poor return of investment for ten years of work given her performance to date.
But she knew it wasn't true! She knew the real Ikari - and when he had hesitated on this plan, she had jumped at the chance to step forward and shine. It was a high risk plan, she wasn't so foolish as to not see that, but it was also a high-reward plan. Not simply defeating and Angel, but capturing a living sample for analysis?
Now that would make her stand out and remind everyone just who they were dealing with! Not that it would make Ikari look bad or undermine his accomplishments against the Angels, so much as make her look good.
She ... just wished she didn't look so utterly stupid.
Looking across her entry plug's super-high definition HUD as she put the thoughts out of her mind, she glanced down at Unit Zero standing like a sentry at the edge of the Volcano. A number of flatbed trucks behind it held standard Pallet Rifles and Rocket Launchers along with an assortment of Progressive weapons, positioned in case the Angel reacted poorly to being yanked out of the Volcano. Doctor Akagi had assured her that despite Shinji's misgivings, the odds of any activity from the Angel before that point were near zero, as the Angel had been observed being moved around the volcano currents without reaction. And so long as she didn't activate her AT field, there was no reason it should react to being moved up...but once it was out of the Lava, it was an open question as to what would happen.
Fortunately, once she was out, it would only take a matter of seconds for her to haul the Angel into the specially designed containment structure that had been set up nearby. And even less time to jettison the Type-D equipment and switch to a conventional engagement with Rei should it prove necessary. Simple, straight forward, easy. While all war was risk, this was a well calculated one in her mind.
Her attention was taken away from Rei however as she caught a glimpse of something moving in the sky, too high for contrails, but unmistakably moving in the air. Refocusing her targeting systems, the quad-optical array shifted slightly to compensate for the thick transparent material of the D-Type faceplate and stabilized on a trio of aircraft - B-83 Bombers- she marked them, the EVAs computers automatically interrogating the UN Battle Net and tagging them with their transponder data, payload each of eight N2-
"Doctor Akagi" she asked, switching her view to the canopy a hundred meters away where the Doctor and her assistant - Maya wasn't it? - were working on the last little things that needed to be tweaked.
"Why are there a flight of strategic bombers carrying N2 weapons in a holding pattern overhead?"
"Ah. Yes, they're here in case we mess up" the other said calmly.
"Meaning?" she asked, a slight feeling of unease coming over her.
"If things here go badly, the UN forces will make a direct attack on the Angel using N2 depth charges to destroy it - and us along with it" Maya explained. Far too cheerfully.
Asuka felt her jaw clench at the statement.
"Who would order something like that?" she demanded, knowing that Mistao didn't have a death wish the last time she had checked...
"Commander Ikari" Akagi replied, and Asuka was damned if she could hear the other smirking over the Com Line.
It was at that point that she started to wonder if Shinji's clear loathing for his Father might well have some level of justification, but as the laser ahead of her on the massive crane fired, she knew she was well out of time to waste time wondering about such things, clearing her mind and focusing her attention. Those bombers would only act if she screwed up to such a level that she would probably be dead, so they really didn't need to figure in her equations.
"Laser operation complete" one of the technicians announced, as the laser was shuffled off the track and her EVA rumbled into motion along the tracks to take its place, rocking slightly in the hot air blowing around the crater.
"Final mapping of descent path has been completed".
"Type-D Equipment is in the green".
"EVA Unit Two is in position for drop".
"Understood" Misato spoke up next from the nearby command van, as EVA-02 came to a halt directly over the Lava, her image winking into being on her display. "Asuka, are you ready?"
Asuka made a quick once over of her systems, working through the checklist. She had only had time to do the briefest training with the equipment on the way up, but her eidetic memory ensured she went over the abbreviated checklist without missing a single step.
"Cooling systems check. EM Cage" she paused and worked the long and cumbersome rod secured between the massive pincer like hands of the Type-D suit, feeling that it was firmly in place and not likely to come loose, "check. Type-D Progressive Knife" she glanced at her Type-D suits 'thigh' where the only weapon rated for this environment was strapped on, "check. I told you I'd get to go Scuba Diving Misato!"
Misato's expression twitched ever so slightly as she suppressed the smile that tried to fight its way onto her face as she tried to remain in her stoic 'Operations Director' mode as she spotted Akagi and Maya walking into the van behind her and taking their places.
"Alright then, let's do it. Deploy!"
EVA-02 shuddered as the massively powerful motors started to ease out the ice covered coolant lines and drop the Evangelion towards the Lava. Asuka couldn't help but wince slightly as she saw herself getting closer and closer to the molten rock, but her primal human instincts telling her that this was a bad idea that Shinji had stirred with his speech this morning were pushed to the side as best she could as she made a final check of her status boards, knowing that if something was going to go wrong, her abort window was rather ... slim.
"Unit Two is approaching the Lava".
Bracing herself, Asuka felt Unit Two shudder as it made contact with the molten rock. It did not give way quite as smoothly as water would have ... at least she though it didn't. Wearing this blasted Type-D equipment turned her normally perfect feedback from Unit Two into something entirely different, like trying to perform ballet while wearing heavy winter survival gear, or trying to pick up grains of sand while wearing oven gloves.
Still, she sunk well enough, and she was forced again to suppress a slight spike of adrenalin as the surface world vanished behind the scarlet and featureless world of the volcano, with only a brighter yellow glow directly under her that she was descending into providing any reference point at all.
She was now truly on her own.
"Current Depth, fifty - rate of descent, twenty" she called back the readings as EVA-02 settled into a steady descent. "No problems detected but visibility is zero I can't see a thing ... switching to CT monitor" she said, flicking the appropriate switch. The Computer Tracking system pulled data from broadband EM, high frequency sonar and sophisticated thermal imaging systems built into the D-Type suit, passing it onto her Evangelions sophisticated computers which crunched the data and mashed it into a single unified picture... but even that effort earned a look of annoyance from the Second Child as the flat red picture shifted to a somewhat more distinct one with traces of darker rock and depth to it. "Even with the CT Monitor I can barely see a hundred, maybe one twenty meters!"
Still, she grumbled to herself, it's better than nothing. Glancing at a secondary display which showed a rough map of the volcano, she noted her progress as Maya calmly read off her increasing depth. The target was sitting at the very top of a relatively shallow magma chamber and the vent to it was a straight drop down which made things vastly more simple than it may have been. If it had needed her to make turns or twists as she descended...
And that was when her suit started to creak.
Despite her experience, despite her training, despite the countless times on the way from Tokyo-3 she had gone over what to expect, that same primal part of her mind that had earlier told her to not do this once again shrieked that this was crazy as the armour around her creaked, groaned and moaned. She did her best to just ignore it, running her gaze over the diagnostic displays, all shining a bright and highly reassuring green for now.
But the noises continued none the less. And again, she had to suppress Shinji's warnings about this whole operation, telling herself that this was all going to plan. And none the less, she clenched her teeth and watched as the depth counter continued to increase, with a parallel readout of the depth by Maya on the surface as she descended steadily deeper and deeper into the volcano. The rate of descent started to slow as she moved past the D-Type's maximum listed safe depth at a bit over a kilometre, but she tried not to worry too much about that. Dr Akagi had explained that while technically the Angel was at a depth just beyond the D-Type equipment limits, the suit was ridiculously over engineered - and with a fully operational external cooling system, the Doctor had projected that they could go easily to 1500 meters, quite probably as much as 2500 in fact, without major risk.
It had seemed perfectly reasonable on the surface. After all, Akagi was the woman who had designed the thing...
... but it seemed rather less of a 'sure thing' now, deep inside a volcano, the creaking growing louder as the pressure continued to rise around her.
"Depth is 1300 and holding" Maya called as she slowed more, and finally came to a -relative- halt, hanging perfectly suspended in the heart of the lava..
...but there was nothing here.
"Asuka, what do you see?" Misatos voice came down the line.
Asuka pushed the gain on her systems as high as they would go, her display pixilating as she pushed it right to the limit, looking intently for the distinctive oval shaped form, but...
"It's not here" she replied, her brow furrowing as she studied the readouts. "No visual, no Blue Waveform, no hard contact - I'm not detecting anything!"
"It seems the lava currents are faster than we thought at this depth" Akagi said, a communications window from the doctor snapping open next to Misato's on her screen, with a slight frown crossing her face.
"The targets movement certainly doesn't seem to match our model" she heard Hyuga put off from off screen. "But we might be able to have the MAGI recalculate from the data Unit Two has collected"
Mistao's expression did not change one wit.
"Make it fast Hyuga. Resume the descent".
At once, she felt Unit Two start to descend again and Maya continued to call out the depth as she moved deeper into the Magma chamber, Asuka flinching despite herself, caught off guard by Mistao's unilateral decision to continue past the maximum safe depth. The heat inside the entry plug was starting to become noticeable now. Not uncomfortable - at least not yet, but it was clearly rising ... and she fought down a spike of anxiety as several indicators on her status displays moved out of the safe green zones into the yellow zones-
She would have jumped, if the massive plug suit and her entry plug restraints had allowed it, when the creaking and groaning was joined for a second by the distinct sound of something breaking.
"A crack has occurred in the second coolant pipe" another NERV technician put in from the command van, and a light on her coolant system went from green to orange, Asuka calling upon her iron will to keep her expression under control and not show any sign of concern to those who she knew were watching her.
"Depth fourteen eighty, we are over the maximum allowed depth" Maya called, and for the first time, Asuka could hear the slightest hint of something in her voice beyond the cool and calm tone she had been presenting through this operation.
"But we haven't made contact with the target" Misato answered, her gaze shifting to look directly into 'her' picture on the command vans holographic wall, which in turn projected Misato's image directly to her. "Asuka, status?"
Asuka ran an eye over the displays once again. More of the lights were moving into the caution zone, but were still at the low end - except for the single coolant pipe with the crack... although the internal temperature was continuing to steadily increase.
"Looks like we're still okay..." she started to say, before there was a sudden snapping sound that caught her heart in her throat, sudden images of the cables snapping as Ikari had prophesied slamming into her until she spotted the Progressive Knife that had been strapped onto her suits leg falling away.
"EVA Unit Two has lost its prog kinfe" Asuka distantly heard the technician call out down the line as she struggled to keep her composure and get herself under control through the sudden flood of epinephrine injected into her system.
"Maximum allowed depth plus two hundred" Maya called, the hint of rebuke in her voice starting to get stronger now.
"Captain, there is a human being in that Eva" Hyuga finally protested - and Asuka made a note in the back of her head to do something nice for the man looking out for her like that at some point in the future.
"I am in command here" Mistao replied, her expression not shifting from whatever status board she was staring at on Asuka's HUD. "Continue the descent".
Asuka couldn't help but notice, again, that Misato had not actually asked her opinion on this, but pushed her increasing unease with this whole situation aside as she shifted slightly in the hugely cumbersome plug suit. She was almost to the revised depth she noted, aborting at this stage would be incredibly stupid.
"Thanks Hyuga" she instead called up, pointedly ignoring Misato as she had pointedly ignored her. "But we're almost there, there isn't any point to turning back now".
If Misato had anything to say to her subtle rebuke, she held her tongue as Maya came back into the conversation.
"Depth is One Seven Eight Zero. We have reached the MAGI's adjusted depth".
Asuka at once pushed any thoughts out of her mind except the immediate, scanning the area around her with the greatest of care, looking for any hint, any sign of the Angel -
She spotted the shape that seemed to materialize out of the dark red and black of her world a split second before the targeting systems shrill beep as it sniffed out the very subtle hint of an AT field at very low power levels.
"Wait...there it is" she breathed as it seemed to 'rise' to meet her - or more accurately, she descended to its depth.
"The target is in sight" Hyuga confirmed from the surface as her descent slowed to a crawl, her EVA drifting ever so slowly towards the Angel.
"Prepare for capture" Misato ordered, and Asuka hit the controls. Praise be, the reinforced EM boom activated exactly as designed, the 'rod' she was holding with the claw like manipulators bucking slightly as it telescoped out left and right to twice its length, additional spars unlocking at the ends to form something vaguely cage like.
"Alright" Akagi's voice came down the line, cool and professional. "Because you and the target are being moved by the convection currents and given the depth its sunken to, we'll have exactly one shot at this".
"I understand" Asuka replied shortly, "leave it to me".
Asuka pushed aside the knowledge of just how much rock was pressing down on her right now. She put aside her knowledge of the temperatures outside, she ignored the increasingly stifling heat inside the Entry plug and she most assuredly ignored everything that could have gone wrong, focusing all of her concentration on the Angel, her Eva and her approach knowing that all this would be for nothing if she screwed this up.
"T-Minus twenty seconds to contact" Hyuga stated.
"Relative closing rate two point two" Asuka calculated out loud, making the most subtle and delicate shifts to her Evangelion that in turn shifted the D-Type equipment she was wearing and the cage it was holding as she moved around to orient herself on the target.
This was by far the most delicate maneuver ever performed by an Evangelion in the field with only the most crude of corrections available to her. Nothing any of the pilots had ever done before had demanded anything like this level of skill, but such was Asuka's focus right now that her typically overpowering ego was entirely absent over that fact. She didn't so much as blink as she drifted closer, her mind raging as she calculated angles and trajectories, her Evangelion making the most subtle shifts as she closed that adjusted her path through the magma and her orientation. Her Synchronization Ratio, unnoticed by anyone right now, slowly crept upwards as she closed, time seeming to move both painfully slow and far too fast as they came together, her lips moving silently as she talked herself through it.
Vorsichtig, gaaanz vorsichtig, dann ist er in der Falle. Näher... Näher... Jetzt!
And with exquisite timing, she slammed her controls forward to the stops, Unit Two pivoting on the coolant lines to swing the Cage down around the Angel with her directly above it, her hands almost touching it -
And a series of bright line snapped out, perfectly enclosing the Angel inside a shimmering rectangle of energy. And as she rolled back, the Angel moved with her, held perfectly inside the middle of the 'cage'.
And all without the slightest reaction from the target.
"Electromagnetic cage deployed" she reported, unable to help herself as her utter focus started to drain away, a grin starting to appear on her face as she stared at the silent form of the 8th Angel, trapped now inside the web of electromagnetic energy of the AT Field Neutralization Zone. "The target, has been captured".
Some distance to the South, Shinji Ikari did not exhale, did not grin and did not fist bump as many of the technicians around the command centre in NERV Central were doing - the frequency of which increased the further away one got from the Commander and Vice Commander.
While operational control of the A-17 was devolved to Misato in the Type-14 Command Van, the center was none the less fully manned, both in case anything went wrong and to maintain the datalink between the MAGI and the distant field team. Shinji had walked into the command centre without so much as a by-your-leave and neither his Father nor the Vice Commander had made any comment of his presence. Although if it was because they didn't think there was anything odd about his presence or because they just couldn't be bothered telling him to leave, he didn't know nor care.
The massive floor-to-ceiling holographic screen was dominated by a live feed from EVA-02, the Eighth Angel visibly encased in its cage. He could tell that everyone, from Shigeru Aoba next to him on down was relaxing. The Angel had been captured, nothing had happened, and all that was left was returning to the surface.
He knew better.
"The operation has been completed" Asuka made it official, her image shifting from one of utter concentration into the more familiar smirk. "I am beginning my ascent".
At once, the motors started back up, working to haul the Evangelion and the Angel it was carrying up to the surface.
"Ascent is steady, weight is well under system tolerances" Maya called from the command van. "The Target is still completely silent, everything looks normal".
"Like I said, a piece of cake" Asuka agreed before shifting her focus slightly and seeming to look directly at him. Which come to think of it, she probably was from the way her grin widened. "Hey, Shinji, who looks like a paranoid scaredy cat now huh?"
"Don't be insulted Shinji" Aoba muttered to him a moment later, before he could respond. "That's just her-"
"-Letting off stress" Shinji finished the others statement with a nod, before looking up into her eyes, keeping his voice vastly calmer than he actually felt as his tension ascended alongside her Evangelion. "Asuka. You're over a mile into a Volcano with an Angel about ten meters away from you. This isn't over, not yet. Stay focused".
"Hmph" the other snorted back at him, but praise be, for once she didn't get into a debate with him. Instead, she just sat back in her seat, then frowned and shifted as she tried in vain to make the heat resistant plug suit more comfortable. "And if that wasn't bad enough, I'm damn sure this Plug Suit is making things worse and not better!"
"There's a hot spring not too far from here I'll take you to when we're finished..." Misato started to promise-
-but she was cut off as all hell broke loose.
Shinji's heart started to pound in his chest as hexagonal ALERT signs snapped on all over the left and right walls of the command center. Asuka and Misato snapped their attention away from each other to their own systems as klaxons started to scream, and Shinji had absolutely no doubt similar alarms were sounding at Mount Fuji as well.
"What the hell-" Mistao started to say, before Asuka cut her off.
"It's going crazy!"
Feedback speakers around the control room now started to broadcast sound received from EVA-02, a noise that caused Shinji to break out in a sudden sweat inside his plug suit. It was a snarling, enraged noise from something impossibly alien and impossibly powerful that had woken from its slumber to find itself in the hands of its mortal enemies.
"Oh God" Akagi's face went white on the screen as Shinji's prophecy came true. "It's started to hatch!" The secondary screen next to the primary LIVE picture showed a close in of the shape inside the cage, and even as he watched in near terror, the 'egg' and the oddly human looking embryo inside it both seemed to vanish, mutating into a tentacle wielding monstrosity out of the deepest nightmares of mankind that started at once to thrash at its prison.
"Cage Status?" Mistao snapped, what alarm that had passed across her face fading behind the icy combat officer moving into a crisis situation.
"No way it can hold" Hyuga declared as the first appendage tore through the energy field, flailing wildly, as if seeking to rend the flesh of those that had so arrogantly presumed to enter its domain and make it their prisoner.
"Abort the capture, jettison the cage!" Misato snapped and for once Asuka did not hesitate in following her orders, releasing the cage as the Angel started to push out of its supposed prison. The loss of mass lightened Unit Two somewhat, Asuka's ascent accelerating even as the cage and Angel rapidly sunk under her and were lost to sight.
"We're changing the operation" Misato declared as Shinji squeezed his fists...
"...the objective is now the destruction of the Angel. Unit Two, stand by to engage!"
"Roger" Asuka replied, catching sight of something moving in the magma around her then, a sleek almost fish like object that at once caused her to flash back to her fight with the 6th Angel underwater.
Of course, this time she was actually in an Eva that could damn well defend itself!
Reaching down for her Progressive Knife she ... found nothing there.
Her self confidence vanished inside a second as she belatedly remembered that she had lost the Progressive Knife earlier in her descent.
At that point, the reality of her position hit home. She was, precisely as Shinji had anticipated, strung out on a fragile umbilical in a very hostile environment without any weapons at all. And now, she was up against an Angel that was apparently adapted to the environment, completely mobile ... and apparently extremely pissed off at her, minutes away from any kind of help or ability to defend herself.
Was zum Teufel soll ich jetzt tun?!
The proximity alerts shrill beep snapped her out of the moment of frozen horror, her well honed survival instincts brutally pushing any emotion that couldn't help her in the immediate here and now as a blur materialized in the murk ahead and below her. The Angel's true form was vastly more intimidating than the 'egg' she had tried to capture, with a sleek almost aquatic looking body and a pair of long tentacle like appendages that looked almost like wings or large fins from head on as it swam through the molten rock directly at her, with incredible speed.
But she saw in a split second that its speed was something that she could use to her advantage, waiting an agonizing two seconds as it tore in towards her before she yanked at her controls and twisted. "Releasing ballast!"
A series of explosive bolts fired, releasing a row of weights that had been attached to the Type-D suit's skin. The sudden loss of weight increased her rate of ascent by almost half again, and her timing had been exquisite, pushing her up and out of the path of the Angel as it crashed through where she would have been only a second ago its 'wake' rocking her.
"It's fast!" she breathed as she snapped her head to look back over her shoulder, the Angel rocketing away as it turned into an almost lazy bank to her right side, but a turn so shallow its distance opened and before her eyes, it simply vanished into the red mist of the Magma around her as if it had never been there, her mind reeling at the idea that something so huge could vanish so easily and move so quickly. "It's no good, I've lost it!"
"Rei" a new voice interjected itself into her cockpit, and her head snapped back around as Shinji Ikari spoke up, his voice almost soothing to her in the way it was still utterly cool and in control. "You have a Type-D Prog knife don't you?"
"Yes" the other replied from the surface - safely on the surface that was!
"Then what are you waiting for Wondergirl, send it down here now!" Asuka yelled as she tried to watch every direction in a 360 bubble around her, wondering if the Angel was doing what Shinji had suggested it might and simply going to go for her cable where she couldn't do anything to protect herself, before dismissing the thought. If it did, she was dead and she couldn't do a damn thing about it.
"Roger" the First Child responded in an entirely unreasonably calm voice. "Knife away ...now".
"Knife is in the Lava - thirty seconds to intercept" Maya called out a moment later and Asuka knew that every second would feel like an hour as she tried to look in every direction for the Angel, but it was her Evangelion's targeting systems that spotted it first, another proximity alarm sounding and directing her attention to her front. The horrid thing had apparently made a complete circle to come at her from head on again - but this time it was coming in much slower, clearly having learned from its mistake.
"Contact, the Angel is approaching slower this time, estimate forty seconds to contact"
"Time to surface?" Mistao barked
"One minute, forty - present rate of ascent" Maya replied and Asuka felt her heart sink again. She had to face this thing for a full minute on its home ground!
"Make it faster!" Misato insisted.
"The motors are already at red-line, any more and we'll strip a gear and the whole rig will shut down!" Aoba said in the tone of someone who had already tried everything he could, but just couldn't give the answer Misato wanted.
"I can handle it for a minute" she snarled, glaring at the Angel as it approached. Clearly it was not going to fall for the same trick twice ... even if she had any extra ballast to drop that was.
"Knife arrival in ten seconds" Maya called and Asuka tore her gaze away from the closing enemy, looking above her in the murk desperately. She had one chance to grab this - and she almost missed it as it materialized much closer and further to the side than she had hoped, but her reflexes were up to the task and her cumbersome manipulator snapped closed on the knife, the blade coming to life automatically and sheering through its protecting cover, Asuka at once feeling somewhat back in control of the situation as she brought the blade forward to a ready position.
The Angel didn't seem to be phased in the slightest by her weapon as it entered range, its twin appendages whipping around and then forward. Each ended in something almost like fingers and Asuka at once moved her arms to intercept the first of the strikes that was aimed right at the faceplate in front of her Evangelion's head. The Knife intercepted its tentacle in an explosion of completely impossible sparks, so much so that for a heart stopping second, Asuka thought it had simply shattered the knife, but a split second later it was clear that the knife was intact and screaming as it battled with the appendage. Her left arm managed to deflect the second appendage, but only a moment before it latched onto her left leg and started to squeeze, ignoring the desperate tugging of her arm as she tried to pull it away.
Then its mouth opened.
She fought back the primal terror at the sight of the monster opening its mouth inside molten rock and closing its jaws about her head, the Type-D suit screaming its protests at the abuse being inflicted upon it as it latched on and started trying to tear its way in.
A spike of agony seared into her left leg, but she was too well trained to look down at her own leg, recognizing the sensation as feedback from the Evangelion.
"Left leg breached!" Maya yelled distantly above her, and Asuka didn't hesitate.
"Sever the Left leg, now!"
Maya apparently didn't hesitate either, and a stabbing agony seared through her for moment as her Evangelions leg was blown clear, memory metal inside the D-Type equipment warping and sealing off the breach in moments under the extreme heat, even as the Angel's arm seemed to fling itself away, as if scalded.
Asuka didn't notice. Sympathetic pain from her Evangelion blazed through as she sacrificed her leg, but once again her training held true as she embraced the pain, screaming as she used it, tearing the Knife free from its inconclusive duel with the Angels other arm to slam it down into one of the important eye-like looking protrusions on the upper surface of the thing-
-and her knife simply bounced off as if she had tried to smash through ten meters of lead with a wooden blade.
"What the hell?!" she yelled as she again tried to punch through, and again, her strikes against the Angels skin doing nothing at all - unlike every other engagement where the weapon had been employed against them.
"Oh God" Akagi swore from above, and despite the increasing heat that was really starting to become annoying, Asuka felt a chill at the tone in the Doctors voice. "The extreme heat has caused the Angels molecular structure to evolve to an extreme density - the Progressive Knife won't penetrate!"
"So what do I do?" she almost wailed as her knife bounced off again and again in an impressive shower of sparks, but not seeming to even scratch the Angel as her armoured skeleton screamed in protest at the ongoing attack. She could feel panic starting to set in despite her best efforts to control herself, a feeling of dreadful helplessness increasing as the best and brightest of mankind failed to answer her demand for any other option-
"Asuka" Shinji's voice re-entered the conversation, and despite her feelings towards Shinji this day, she could not even for a second pretend that his calm, determined tone was not incredibly welcome at that moment. "The coolant!"
Asuka Langley Soryu had not graduated as a child from University with a degree in Mechanical Engineering without with a degree in engineering as a child prodigy without having a solid understanding of metallurgy- and she almost instantly realized what Shinji was suggesting.
Without hesitation, she swung her borrowed Progressive Knife down and sliced it through the coolant pipe that fed down into her suits left hand. At once, a flood of coolant spewed out into the magma, but fortunately she was rising fast enough now that the explosive effects of a super-chilled liquid slurry being poured into molten rock was left in a trail under them. So without hesitation or mercy, she drove the arm forward into the Angels gut.
The effects were most gratifying.
Where her progressive knife simply bounced off, the claw like pincers on her arm managed to punch through the skin of the monster as the coolant sprayed all over its skin, shattering like brittle glass as she pushed into its body. A violent shudder passed through the Angel along with a scream of either rage or pain, she did not know which and did not really care, but it was none the less music to her ears.
"Transfer all the coolant to cable three, NOW!" she yelled and for once, Misato just did as she was told, diagnostic lights out of the corner of her eye shifting as all the coolant was directed down the line now shoved inside the Angels body, flooding into the beast.
" Nimm das, du verdammtes Ungeheuer!" she screamed her defiance and swung the progressive knife down again as the Angel bucked and writhed. Asuka was in a blood rage, her terror and pain and anger mixing together into a single pulse of pure physical effort as she struck once again with the progressive knife but this time the blade cut deep, and she dragged it across the upper surface, carving through the Angel as coolant started to spew out from the gaping wounds she was inflicting with her knife as its body thrashed desperately-
And with a final buck and scream, the Angel started to disintegrate, tearing apart as the temperature extremes simply shattered it ...
...but not before in a final death reflex, or perhaps even a last act of pure spite, the arm that had been flailing around wildly as it was wracked with agony from her actions grasped and tore into her cables, severing four of them and damaging the last, an explosion of coolant down line three into the Lava causing the last to start to stretch dangerously before the flow was cut off.
And even as the last chunks of the Angel dissolved into the rock, her abused Type-D suit started to buckle, her viewing plates outer layer simply shattering as her communications links vanished into pure static, along with her power line, cutting her off from everything.
Time seemed to slow to a crawl as she stared numbly at the last tiny thread that linked her to the land of the living from this hell, able to see it clearly failing as the compromised tube was slowly torn in half from the sheer mass of the Evangelion ... but unable to do anything about it.
Exactly as Shinji had tried to warn everyone.
Had tried to warn her.
"I've done it ... but ... " she said dumbly to anyone and no-one in particular, all of her rage, anger and triumph simply vanishing as if a switch had been thrown, leaving her feeling oddly numb and perhaps tired as she dispassionately analysed the situation. There was nothing she could do. The break was twenty meters above her, her clunky manipulators wouldn't reach the cables without her doing some violent maneuvers that would instantly snap what was left of the rapidly failing link. If she used the emergency jettison protocols and ditched the suit, relying on her Evangelions AT Field to protect her as she tried to scamper up the last few hundred meters to the surface, she would be nowhere near close enough to try and grab a hold of the intact tubes - and her Evangelion was far too heavy to try and swim up to them either.
"That's it then" she said simply, feeling in the strangest way that this was actually happening to someone else and not her as she watched the last of the threads unravel above her. "I'm done for".
And with those words, the final edges of the links snapped and Evangelion Unit Two started to fall, the ghost of the dead Angel taking her to hell with it.
This is what had been to be Rei Ayanami.
You were a clone, a disposable thing created to fulfil a single purpose by Commander Ikari.
There was no question about this. Despite his somewhat impulsive actions to save her from the disaster when Unit Zero had been activated for the first time, he had not hesitated in ordering her to 'do it again' while crippled and in great pain when the Third Angel had shown up. No matter what affection he may or may not have for her, it was clear that ultimately she was replaceable.
Her life had been a science experiment. Born in a laboratory deep in Terminal Dogma, the most basic human norms were well beyond her comprehension or understanding, even if she had known of their existence. She was disliked by many of those who had 'raised' her such as Doctor Akagi, but she had neither cared about nor known about this, such was the focus of her worldview. Indeed, it had only been in the last years that she had been exposed to the bewildering world outside the Geofront, most of which she ignored as irrelevant. She felt something like affection towards the one who had given her this purpose, but ultimately, no more than that.
Until Shinji Ikari had appeared.
For perhaps the first time in her life, she had felt curiosity. A desire to know something about someone you have encountered, rather than simply ignoring him as you ignored anyone who you had not explicitly been instructed to interact with. She felt some kind of connection that you could neither understand nor simply ignore and he in turn had reciprocated your curiosity in an almost overwhelming fashion. He had challenged the very foundations of your life with direct and logical words that undermined everything you knew to be true.
Before she had met Shinji, she would not have hesitated to dive into the Lava if she had been ordered to do so. Orders were to be followed, and it was impossible to truly fear death if you knew yourself to be incapable of truly dying. Indeed, even against the 5th Angel when she had protected Shinji from the particle beam by placing herself in its path, she had only done so because she had been ordered to protect Unit One - and because Shinji had called for her to cover him.
But that was then.
And this was now.
Rei Ayanami was no longer indifferent to the possibility of dying - not since she had accepted her uniqueness could never be replaced if she did.
She wanted to live.
She wanted to try and struggle through the confusing demands placed on her from her friends, her creator and her heritage and determine her own purpose in this world.
But despite all this, without orders, without a command and without waiting, she ejected her Evangelions power cord and flexed her units muscles, leaping from the edge of the lip of the canyon-like crater that overlooked the Lava below. Gravity promptly took a hold of the Evangelion and pulled, her leap arcing into a vertical dive meters away from the cluster of coolant lines reaching down in the depths of the lava, her Evangelion's arms extended out in front of her as if she was diving into the pool back at Headquaters.
All of her life, Commander Ikari had given her a purpose to live for.
And now, as she plunged towards the Lava to save her friend ... for the first time in her life since she had discovered mortality, Rei Ayanami had found to her surprise that she had something worth dying for.
Shinji's attention was so completely focused on the collage of images on the Command Centers massive screen that he didn't notice the reactions of the rest of the personnel to the rapidly unfolding events. Gasps and cries of shock had echoed across the command centre as data link with Unit Two was cut alongside the coolant lines, but Shinji was incapable of hearing anything over the deafening sound of his heart beating in his ears, or feel anything but the distant ache in his hands as he squeezed his fists tighter than he ever had before.
But barely a second after the transmission had been lost, Unit Zero moved.
Shinji's head had snapped around as the Evangelion moved, the MAGI resizing the window at once, a shot from an orbiting QV-22 tracking Unit Zero blowing up to pride of place as it leapt into action. His heart, if it was at all possible, started to beat even faster as Rei threw herself at the Lava, both people he cared about so much now in mortal danger as his mouth moved silently and spoke her name.
It was a memory of a promise made. A recognition of a danger embraced willingly by a friend to save a friend. And an acknowledgement of the hope that had been born where only despair had existed in his heart moments ago.
His Father however, didn't moderate his tone, and the entire command centre seemed to recoil from this unexpected explosion of emotion from the Commander, silencing the entire room as if a switch had been thrown.
If Ayanami heard the Commander's yell she did not respond, Evangelion Unit Zero falling rapidly towards the lava into a perfect dive, as if Rei was going for a swim back at the Headquaters swimming pool. The diving titan seemed to blur and waver on the screen as the camera paned to track her descent, the very air around her taking on a deep purple hue as her AT Field unfolded and ramped up to maximum power just before the Evangelion crashed into the surface.
A giant explosion of Lava erupted from the impact point as, protected by the frictionless AT field, Unit Zero slicing down through the molten rock and causing the image to tilt wildly and cutting out for a moment as the unmanned aircraft providing the picture shifted track to avoid being splattered by the impact of the molten rock shooting into the air, a ripple slicing across the pool of lava as the datalinks to Unit Zero went as dark as unit Two's.
Except for the 'Estimated endurance in High-Gain Activity mode' timer, which was counting backwards from sixty seconds in bright red numerals.
Shinji stared at the screen as second after agonizing second passed, the image focused entirely on the coolant lines being reeled in as ripples and waves from Rei's dramatic entry ever so slowly dissipated.
The background chatter, from the command van if not the command centre, picked up as people said things about line weights and shifts in feedback, but he didn't process it, his eyes focused entirely on the screen, even his emotions seeming to fade away behind a terrible and focused concentration on the slightly static filled image.
He felt a hand on his shoulder and he noted that Aoba had abandoned his console and was standing next to him, his hand a gesture of silent support that Shinji was simply too wound up to appreciate, merely noting it for now and keeping his attention on the screen as his heartbeat continued to drown everything out.
He had felt like this once before - during the Third Impact. But rather than being completely overwhelmed and at the mercy of emotions, this time he existed in state completely stripped of them. As if Rei and Asuka had carried those parts of himself into this void where they were neither living nor dead, and every second that passed in time with the beating of his heart was as if a lifetime passed.
And then it happened.
An explosion of lava erupted once more, but this time from the under the surface, around the coolant lines. The lava seemed to heave as something under it forced its way upwards. The arm of Evangelion Unit Zero broke through a moment later, its hand gripping the entire cluster of cables as a single handhold that hauled it upwards as lava washed away harmlessly, unable to gain any hold through the force of Rei Ayanami's indomitable will made manifest.
An eternity later, Shinji's emotions exploded back into his head with the force of an N2 weapon as the Evangelions second arm hauled from the depths of hell the battered, broken yet still very much intact D-Type suit of Evangelion Unit Two. Lava washed off the suit much slower, great rivers of it pouring down back into the Volcano as the two units ascended skyward steadily, moving closer and closer to the Canyon wall as the crane shuddered into life, retracting them towards it.
The timer continued to count down as the Evangelions ascended, and Shinji felt every muscle in his body clench as the seconds fell away until, with a mighty blur of motion that reminded everyone just how strong the Evangelions actually were, Rei threw Asuka, D-Type suit and all, up and over the lip of the crater to safety. Unit Two landed awkwardly on one leg, but it was a controlled landing that told him, right then and there, that Asuka was alive - a thought confirmed a moment later as the D-Type suit simply exploded off the Eva with a flex of the Second Childs own AT field.
Behind her Rei swung backwards, recoiling from the sheer force of the throw, but like a pendulum, she swung back towards the cliff and at the apogee she leaped from the lines, sailing up and over the cliff to a typically graceful landing, snatching the discarded power cable up to reconnect herself as the timer reached 00:00:01.
With full power restored, she turned to offer a hand to Unit Two and with a loud crack that Shinji head in the back of his mind, if not over the roaring cheers and wild applause that had broken out in the command centre, Asuka didn't hesitate in slapping her own hand Evas into Rei's. The Second Child hauled her Eva to its foot, the two placing arms around each other's shoulders as Rei started to help Asuka hobble away from the edge of the cliff on her Low-Gain battery power towards the recovery zone, data links flashing back into life on the side of the screen...
All in the green for the pilot status indicators.
And as spots started to form in front of his eyes, Shinji finally let himself exhale the breath he had been holding for far too long.
"Thank you Rei" he said softly to the image on the screen, his voice soft, but not in any way that diminished the huge array of emotion in the three simple words, before he finally turned and accepted the proffered hand of Aoba and shaking it firmly.
"Shinji" a voice called out from above, and he turned, glancing at the highest tier in the command centre as the raucous celebrations continued unabated at the certain loss of two Evangelion's and their pilots turned around in less than a minute to the recovery of both alive; focusing on the Vice Commander who had called for him.
His Father, unsurprisingly, had already left.
"That was very quick - and smart - thinking with the coolant" the other praised him in the tone of the professor he still was, as if greatly pleased with the actions of one of his students. "Very good work indeed".
"Thank you, Vice Commander" he nodded to the other, "but I think Asuka and Rei deserve the praise today".
"And rest assured, they will get it" the other inclined his head with a slight bow before he caught Aoba's eye. "Lieutenant, stand down Unit One and set condition green across Toyko-3. Liaise with Captain Katsuragi and organize the recovery of Units Zero and Two as soon as possible".
"Yes Sir" Aoba saluted as the Vice Commander in turn left, probably going after his Father, wherever he had gone to. Aoba gave Shinji a final slap on the back that made him stagger slightly before he headed back to his console and started to give orders that toned down the noise, if not the euphoric mood in the command centre.
Breathing deeply as his own adrenalin levels slowly returned to normal, Shinji smiled to himself at the live feed once more, seeing the entry plugs eject as the field recovery teams moved in, before he turned and headed for the locker room to take a long -cold- shower and head for home.
He had a meal to get started on, after all.
That Penguin was eyeing her again.
She couldn't prove it, and she knew it was crazy to be concerned about what the damn bird did as it circled the surface of the hot spring making highly content sounds, being another species and all ...
But she was almost sure it was trying to steal glances at her every time it drifted past.
Then after a second to examine the ridiculousness of the thought, she rolled her eyes away from the bird. Let it look! All it would see would be the sculpted perfection of her stunning body after all - and it was highly unlikely it would try and make a pass at her.
Smiling slightly to herself at the amusing thought for a moment, her face fell back to a more dour expression as she turned her gaze from the genetically engineered avian and towards the distant orange sun as it set over the mountains. Naked except for a towel draped across her hips, she could feel the heat from the distant star striking her skin, but she found little warmth in it. Nor did she find much joy in the genuinely beautiful vista, as the sunset painted the hills and mountains around her a golden orange that was far removed from the hellish reds and blacks she had been submerged in earlier.
Because in utter defiance of the fact that she had gone swimming in molten stone earlier in the day or had her feet resting inside the warm water of the hot springs... she felt ... cold.
Shinji had been right on the money about this operation - disturbingly so in fact - but she felt confident enough with where they stood with each other now that he wouldn't rub it in her face ... at least not publicly.
No, part of what was leaving her feeling cold was the memory of her conversation with Ikari in his bed a few days ago, about the nightmares that had been plaguing him. Of her Evangelion falling into the black depths of an ocean and his leap into the water to save her ... only for their extended hands to miss as he was dragged back to the surface as she sunk, screaming for him to do something before her Evangelion had been crushed before his eyes.
Now, granted, she had been stuck in a volcano and not the ocean, and this was the 8th Angel and not the 6th ... but her skin none the less crawled as she remembered the conversation and noted how his dreams almost exactly described her near death experience today ... with the pointed difference that Rei had not missed when the time had come.
Shifting her gaze from the distant ball of nuclear fusion slowly setting behind the mountains in this part of Japan, she glanced at Rei, who was floating much further away in the deeper part of the spring with her eyes closed and holding herself so still she almost seemed asleep. Asuka couldn't help but envy the First Child the content peace she seemed to be drifting in, but it was envy she could easily suppress, as indebted as she was to her. Rei had saved her life, without question - and without orders, something she honestly had not expected. Shinji she could see being so impulsive as to leap into a volcano to save her - or Rei - from death, and she liked to think that she wouldn't have hesitated to do so either...
But she had been taken completely by surprise when her Evangelion had crashed to a halt just as it had started to plummet, before being jolting once again into an ascent once more. She had been almost resigned to her fate - probably just shock she reflected - but when she had finally looked up to see Unit Zero had entered the Lava and was firmly holding onto her and dragging her back from the land of the dead to the land of the living...
It had been a genuine epiphany that had struck her at that moment. The part of her that had always rejected relying on anyone but herself for any reason finally died as her Evangelion had broken through the surface of the lava, still held in Rei's iron grip.
Finally, she understood, truly understood that there was absolutely nothing diminishing with relying on others as much as she relied on herself. So long as she always demanded the best of herself and didn't use others as crutches, putting her fate into the hands of others that she genuinely trusted - as few or as many people as that might be- no longer held either shame or humiliation for her.
She had not really known what to say to Rei for what she had done when they had been getting changed out of their plug suits at the temporary facilities at the volcano. Her actions seemed to warrant a speech, an effusive litany of praise and promises of being paid back in full ... but ultimately when she had stood face to face with the First Child, all she had been able to say, full of emotion, was 'Thank you, Rei'.
To which the First Child had simply smiled one of those rare small smiles she gave out sparingly and told her that she was welcome ... and somehow, that had been enough.
Which is what made Misato's betrayal of that trust today so hard to stomach.
Her nostrils flared slightly as she considered the other thing that was making her uncomfortable at the spa. It was one thing for Misato to risk her life when the Angels attacked them. That was war, that was survival. But Asuka felt very ... possessive about her life. And she did not appreciate it being taken out of her hands on a high-risk capture operation, the risks of which had clearly been grossly underestimated by NERV. It was one thing for her to be lowered to a 'dormant' Angel at the limit of the D-Types rated strength to recover a dormant Angel, but dropping her that far past the red line without even bothering to ask, pressing this operation against the Angel so aggressively, almost fanatically?
Was the capture of the Angel worth so much to Misato?
Or was, in truth, her life worth so little? All of the conclusions she had come to about Misato only yesterday, that she really cared about her ... was that just wishful thinking on her part?
An awkward silence had sprung up between them, probably not helped by her comment immediately after leaving her entry plug and saying, no doubt on the record to the people in the command van given the number of radios in the area, that NERV could find some other pilot to send on the next suicide mission they came up with. What little they had said to each other had been ... short. Even now, with Misato only two meters away from her, sitting on another rock and facing the same setting sun, the silence between them was deafening.
She dealt with the situation by ignoring it.
Instead, she kept her focus on the Hot Spring. She had never been to one before, she would at least give Misato that one; it was truly something else, even if she was having trouble truly enjoying it. No concerns about running out of hot water, the ability to swim around, stunning scenery and a beautiful sunset ...
"I've never told you about how I got this scar, have I?"
Asuka blinked and turned to Misato, who was still staring off into the distance next to her. Of all the things she had expected her to say to try and force a break in the silence ...
"No" she answered shortly, knowing without any further explanation which scar she was talking about; the slightly discoloured area of skin between her -annoyingly perfect- breasts, the only mark on her otherwise flawless skin.
"I picked it up at the Second Impact" Misato said and Asuka nodded slowly, slightly confused.
"I ... guess most people who survived Second Impact were injured" she hazarded, with a frown but Misato shook her head slightly, her gaze still that distant stare people adopted when reflecting on their memories.
"No, I received this at the Second Impact - at ground zero" Misato clarified, and despite the fact that she was genuinely upset with Misato right now, Asuka put those feelings on the back burner as a wave of goose bumps flushed over her skin, listening as Misato admitted she had been in the center of the greatest calamity in the history of the human species. And that despite knowing her for years, she had never told her until now.
"My Father led the expedition" Misato continued, ignorant of or ignoring the reaction of the Second Child next to her at that information. "He was the lead researcher into the First Angel - although I didn't know that back then. He was a poor Father - he apparently divorced my mother because his work took precedence, but the truth was that he was simply running away from something he couldn't handle; having to take responsibility for his family. It was the first time in years I had seen him, he insisted I come to visit him for a week because he wanted to 'show me the bright future he was building'. So I went - as much because I would get a week off school and see a part of the world few people ever did, I suppose".
Asuka didn't say anything, letting Misato continue her story. A glance at Rei showed her still floating sedately with her eyes closed in the shimmering golden water, so she turned her attention fully to the Captain.
"I didn't understand what was happening when the Second Impact started" Misato stated with a slight frown. "I knew there was some huge experiment today on I couldn't really care about, but the first I knew something was wrong was when the ground heaved under me and winds like a hurricane seemed to come out of nowhere, the two forces ripping apart the building I was in and knocking me out. I don't know how long I was unconscious. Seconds? Minutes? But I remember drifting in and out as my Father found me, pulled me out of the wreckage and staggered to a survival capsule, carrying me the whole way. I caught glimpses of something over his shoulder several times, something I still have nightmares about to this day..."
"The First Angel" Asuka qualified as Misato seemed to hesitate, as if she was unable to even label what Asuka knew she must have seen. As if the sight of it alone had been so disturbing that even fifteen years later and the leading officer of an organization that had destroyed multiple Angels, it was still too much for her.
Whatever the reason, the Captain just nodded silently at her observation, and continued the story.
"I started to come around when he reached the survival pod and dropped me inside. He was bleeding - badly - and I was just aware enough to call out for him when he sealed the capsule. Second Impact proper happened at that moment and I lost consciousness again as the capsule was picked up and flung out into the Antarctic ocean" she concluded, glancing down at her chest and scar under her right Brest that she touched gently with a hand tracing the outline. "I don't know exactly where this scar came from, if it was from the building collapse or being thrown around in the capsule, but it's been a part of me since then".
Asuka didn't say anything - continuing to allow Misato to tell her story at her own pace.
"No matter what I thought about him, no matter how bad our relationship was ... at the end of his life, my Father managed to pull me out of the rubble, carry me through the hell that was the surface camp and put me into a survival capsule that saved my life. I didn't know, after that, if I was supposed to love him or hate him. All I had left of him was a desire, a need to hurt the Angels for what they had done. I didn't know - I still don't know to this day- if I want to kill them to 'pay back' my Father for saving my life, so I can be free of him. Or if they need to die in revenge for taking a man who might have loved me, but had never been able to express it until one final act. All I know is I hate them. And because of my hate, today I crossed a line I should never have crossed ".
Asuka was taken slightly aback as Misato finally turned to face her, her expression twisted into something like guilt. Or perhaps regret.
"That minute you were both out of contact today in the Lava ... when it hit me that I might have just gotten you and Rei killed, I realized I had just done exactly what my Father had done. I wasn't thinking about you or Rei or what kind of danger I was putting you in. I was so focused on the Angel I just ignored every objection Shinji had made - despite the fact that he made so much sense!"
"Misato ... I" Asuka started to try and respond, but the other held up a hand briefly to silence her, continuing to almost ramble - as much at herself as her, Asuka thought, as her gaze returned to the distant mountains as the orange ball of the sun slowly sunk behind them.
"When the Angels attack Tokyo-3, I've kept telling myself that I have to do whatever it takes to defeat them. Because we have no choice when they come; either we kill them, or they kill humanity. And that's how you justify it Asuka; how you can send fourteen year old children off to war. It's what you tell yourself when you come up with battle plans that have a decent chance of getting a child killed in action, never admitting you might be doing it because of your own selfish reasons, but saying that you simply have no choice. And until I witnessed Rei Ayanami willing to risk sacrificing her life to save yours, until you called me and the command staff on sending you on a suicide mission and an almost embarrassed silence fell over the command van ... I just ignored that voice in the back of my head that said I was lying to myself. I ignored the voice that told me I was willing to put every one of you in unnecessary danger to ... indulge my hate for the Angels. It was only when I thought I had lost you that it hit me that this was entirely my fault. That for once I couldn't justify this out of the necessity of reacting to the Angels, that I had been just as willing to risk your lives, ignore Shinjis warnings, just to hurt the Angels. And for that" she slowly exhaled, shifting her gaze back to her, guilt openly written over the older woman's face, "I ... I'm sorry Asuka".
Asuka turned away from the raw emotion in the gaze, her mind somewhat scattered at both the history Misato had just supplied, and the sheer weight behind the confession she had just made. The hurt and anger she had been holding onto as if it was a nice comforting blanket seemed to simply dissipate, as if it was no more substantial then the steam rising from the Onsen, leaving her even more naked than she already was.
Ever since she had lost her Mother that day so many years ago, she had lived by a simple rule. Never show weakness, never let them see you cry, never let them see you hurt. To do so was to show weakness, which she would never do. She would live for herself, she would think for herself because she could not trust anyone else.
Misatos confession should have completely reinforced everything she held to be true. That once again, someone close to her that she had put her trust in had betrayed that trust.
Yet she found she couldn't. And it wasn't simply because she couldn't find the energy to hold onto her hate ... the truth was that now she felt guilty. Misato had just laid bare her soul, told her some of the most secret truths about herself and the rationale behind her actions, admitting the lines she had crossed without asking her forgiveness.
Yet Misatos honestly compelled her own ... and against almost a decade of denying even the possibility of openly showing weakness, Asuka stood without a word and crossed the few meters to Misato, sitting down next to her before, hesitantly placing an arm around her as she, almost shyly, leaned against the other.
"Don't beat yourself up over it Misato" she said as she too stared out at the distant sunset. "Shinji laid out the risks right next to me in almost annoying detail when he decided he didn't want any part of this. I had every chance to agree, but I was too pissed at him to use my head. I was perfectly willing to jump into the Lava - and it takes two to tango Katsuragi".
"You were upset with Shinji? Why?" Misato asked and Asuka stepped around the purely instinctive reaction to close up and protect herself from the others question, just feeling ... tired.
"It was the Committee" she exhaled. "This whole thing ... this whole mess ... Keel and his merry men were pushing me about Shinji. Wanted to know how I felt about him, what I thought about him. They were asking me more about him than about me - really pushing it. I mean Misato, I don't even know what I feel about Shinji - if anything" she hastened to add. "He just keeps ... I don't know ..."
"Getting under your skin? Seeming to know exactly what you're thinking before you do?" the other posited, and Asuka blinked, turning her head slightly from where it was resting on the others shoulder, before turning away from the almost knowing look on the others face.
"Yeah" she muttered her agreement. "All I could think about all day was how Shinji had covered himself with glory from day one, and despite my training, my years of work, I had done nothing but look like a bumbling idiot next to him in the eyes of the committee. So when he refused to step up, I would do so instead ... and I almost got myself killed because of it. Exactly as he predicted. I did get myself killed honestly, but Rei saved my life".
"Asuka, ignore the Committee. They were probably pushing you about Shinji entirely because he's an unknown factor to them - not to mention the Commanders son - and were hoping someone as close to him as you are could give them a read on him, or even something to use when they talked to him. Kaji called me earlier - after he ran into Shinji after the meeting. It seems Keel and his merry men tried to offer him new living arrangements, to try and 'spare me' the enormous effort I was having to 'spend' looking after both of you".
Asuka rose from her annoyingly comfortable resting position against the older woman, feeling a sudden chill in the air at Mistaos statement that didn't have much to do with the sun continuing to dip under the horizon in the distance, turning to face her.
"They...what did they do?" she asked, not entirely able to hide the surprise and uncertainty in her tone at the surprisingly jarring thought of Shinji moving out of the apartment - but she didn't dare look too closely at the sudden surge of apprehension that she suppressed at the thought of Shinji packing up and moving out from their apartment...
"According to Kaji, they brought his Grandfather in. Apparently he was involved in the GEHERN group along with Shinjis mother and had full clearance on the Evangelion program" Misato explained. "He offered Shinji the opportunity to move in with him - was willing to move to Tokyo-3 to make it happen, all entirely to give me a break from having to 'look after' both of you - because apparently I was overworked between my job and both of you, not that anyone ever asked me what I thoughtof this. Clearly, they thought that he would rather be with his family again".
"So ... what did Shinji say?" she asked levelly ... refusing to acknowledge the sudden surge of dread that spiked in her stomach at the thought of Shinji moving out for some reason and noting the almost scornful edge in Misatos words at the 'offer' the Committee had made.
"He told them to take their offer and shove it" Misato smirked, but in that smirk Asuka saw that her guardian was genuinely touched by Shinjis response ... and it only made the surge of guilt she felt at how she had treated Shinji all day that much sharper ... but she accepted it rather than acknowedlge the curious surge of relief she felt at the news that Shinji was not leaving her ... them. "So don't give a damn about those armchair Generals second guessing you either Asuka. You're a hell of a pilot - today was the toughest battle we've ever been in and you handled yourself incredibly well. Regardless of our motives going into this, you rose to the challenge today. I'm proud of you - and Rei of course".
"As am I" a sort voice came from behind them and the pair jumped, both twisting to see Rei, water dripping lightly from her pale skin as she dried herself off, the two other women so engrossed in their conversation they had missed her silently gliding to the edge of the hot springs and pulling herself out of the water. "But" the other continued, and for a second Asuka swore she saw a hint of mirth in the scarlet eyes of the other, "I believe you still owe me dinner tonight".
Asuka snorted slightly at that understatement. "I owe you a banquet Rei" she corrected the other as she also stood, catching her towel as it threatened to fall into the hot spring. "Buuuut we should probably get going if Shinji and I are going to have time to get everything ready".
It only took the trio fifteen minutes to dry off and get dressed - and only another ten minutes for Misato to chase down the highly reluctant penguin who really did not want to leave and get it onto the VTOL waiting patiently in the otherwise empty car park, but then they were off, rocketing South East towards Tokyo 3 as the long day slowly turned towards night.