The dark green hues of the forest below melted into the darkness that stretched to both sides of the three wanderers as they flew along above the tree-tops. The stars in the sky counterpointed the massive swirls of the modified time-line ahead of them, and for the first time since her flight back into the past, Asuka found herself with time to think.
They're really here, I didn't lose everything after all...
She involuntarily squeezed Rei's hand as tears stung her eyes, her emotions flowing between the other two.
"What is it?" Shinji's mental voice ghosted through their connection. She could feel his worry, and Rei's curiosity.
"I... umm, thought I'd ruined everything, back there." The memories she had of those last few days in Avalon were a jumble of confusion. "I think... the Angel put me through some kind of harmonics test. Then I started having these visions..." She tried to explain, but even with the mental link she found it difficult, and could sense the confusion from her two companions.
"Some of that sounds right," Shinji finally spoke. "All I know is that after you left the mess hall, you went missing."
"That is correct." Rei's soft voice held a hint of worry. She described how she and Shinji had attempted to search for her, and their eventual failure. "They took Shinji two days later, and after that, they came for me."
The small square room into which Armisael led her held three cylindrical structures that were obviously a mimicry of the harmonics test plugs back in NERV.
Or perhaps these are the real thing, and it is NERV who copied them.
She turned to the green-haired Angel, her impassive face in no way reflecting her inner confusion and turmoil. "Where have you taken the others?"
"They are here." The Angel's soft answer infuriated her.
"That is not possible. I cannot feel them." It hurt her that her own people would attempt such a shallow deception.
"Their bodies are here," the woman admitted as one of the test-plugs hissed open, its hatchway sliding upwards to reveal a familiar interior.
"What have you done to them?" Rei whispered, not trusting her voice enough to speak aloud.
For the first time she saw a ghost of an expression pass over the Angel's placid face. "Please, this operation is very delicate. There was no alternative, and if you do not bring them back, all is lost."
It was obvious she would get no more answers, so she stepped into the plug, settling herself in the seat as the hatchway slid shut. Darkness enveloped her, and she closed her eyes, placing herself in the hands of her enigmatic captors.
The other two were silent as they absorbed the memory from Rei.
"I found myself back in the forest, and when I discovered that the barrier was gone, I flew to where the two of you were."
"I see," Asuka's voice was reserved as she tried to piece together what had happened. In the end she gave up, deciding that there was no use.
The Angels' technology is so advanced, there's just no way to verify anything...
"What the..." Shinji spoke for them all as the three of them felt the nearby presences at the same time. "Don't tell me..." On a rocky promontory barely visible through the trees stood two figures. The three of them began to descend, and the two figures came into view. One stood, his hands on his hips as he watched them descend, and the other held his hand as she pointed, her laughter faintly audible.
The surreal quietness of the forest around them only served to accentuate the strangeness of the meeting.
"What are you two doing here?" Shinji finally asked.
"You mean you don't know that the Evas are ready?" Touji crossed his arms, thoroughly enjoying himself. "Hah! For once I'm not behind the times..."
The boy's self-satisfied smile was apparently too much for Hikari, who was simply happy to see her friends. She turned and grabbed his ear, twisting until he stood up on tip-toes, his expression pitiful. "Is that any way to greet the people we were sent to rescue?!" she demanded sternly.
"...ow-ow-ow-sorry-sorry! ...huh?" twisting around in an attempt to relieve the pressure on his ear, he came face to face with a rather stern-looking man who wore the familiar white robes of an Angel.
"We don't have time for this..." the man looked for all the world like a drill sergeant in a white robe. He was built like a tank, and his graying hair was buzz-cut.
"...oh, sorry about that, Zeruel, we kind of..." Touji's apology was cut short by the sound of Asuka's jaw hitting the ground.
"Z-Z-Zeruel??" her face was white as she pointed at the startled Angel, before she got control of herself.
Shinji's eyebrow quivered, but he managed not to laugh, knowing Asuka would kill him for it later. Three other Angels appeared, Arael (behind Asuka), the neon-green-haired Armisael (behind Rei), and Kaworu.
"The time of return is upon us," Arael said, placing her hand on Asuka's shoulder.
The girl jumped slightly at the contact. "Oh, so you're real, now. How convenient." Though her voice was cutting, her eyes were calm.
"I am glad that you completed your journey in time."
"Thanks, for that." Asuka's tone held a note of warmth as she looked back at the being who had in another life-time once pillaged her mind. "You know, as the Commander of this mission, I know precious little about the details..." She cut off her complaint when everyone but herself and Arael disappeared.
"I'll brief you, then, Commander."
Despite that Asuka was the only one to hear the words, they still brought her a measure of satisfaction.
The stars were streaks when viewed through the transparent walls of the spherical Angelic vehicle of Leliel, but the silence of space outside the strange ship was sharply contrasted by the incessant chatter within.
"WHAT??!" Round teardrops bounced beneath Touji's eyes at Shinji's description of his trek to the strange paradise. "I knew it was too good to be true... So I missed all the excitement after all??"
"...e-heh, I wouldn't quite put it that way," Shinji said, trying to reassure his friend.
"Oh gimme a break, man," he griped as he ticked off incidents on his fingers. "I was the next-to-last one to become a pilot, I was behind in improvement, I was hardly any help at all in your fight against that Angel..."
"Hey, don't complain big brother, it sounds like you've been part of a lot of interesting stuff," Keiko tugged on his sleeve, silencing him. "I had to go to school while you were out having fun."
"What!? 'Fun'?? ...eh..." He finally gave up with a sigh, knowing he would get no sympathy, atleast not from any of his fellow time-travelers. Bending down he put his hand on Keiko's shoulder and smiled. "School, huh? So the Angels have schools? Tell me all about it, sis."
She brightened at his change in mood. "Oh, it was actually pretty fun, we..."
Shinji turned to Ritsuko and Kensuke, now that Touji had been successfully sidetracked by his sister. "What exactly happened while we were away?"
"Why're you asking us?" Ritsuko looked at him quizzically. "Do you know just how busy those slave-drivers had us? It was nothing but 'read this, read that, memorize this.' They barely talked to us at all except to answer whatever technical questions we had." She crossed her arms and glared at Kensuke. "Atleast they did until genius here tried to trick them into revealing things by specially wording his 'technical questions.'"
Kensuke wilted pathetically, and Touji stood, re-joining the conversation. "Oh, and was it just me or did the rest of you get a kind of 'Rei' vibe from all the Angels?"
"...um, ahh..." Shinji's answer died on his tongue as the blue-haired girl walked up behind Touji, curiosity (and perhaps a hint of playfulness) written on her features (atleast to those that knew her well). Shinji braced himself as Touji dug his grave deeper.
"So whaddya think, bigshot, should I ask her if she gets that from her species, or if it's just..."
"...gets what from my species?" Rei asked in her usual dead-pan voice, laying a hand on Touji's shoulder. To say that he jumped out of his skin would be putting it mildly.
"AAAH! Don't kill me!" he gibbered, coming apart underneath her calm, laughing eyes.
Damn, thought Shinji, trying to hide a smile. And he was finally starting to open up after we broke him earlier. I'm afraid she snapped his mind this time...
"Relax, Touji, I'm pretty sure that won't happen..." he said, and Rei finally relented and smiled slightly, which apparently calmed the boy down. "Hey, where's Asuka?" Shinji asked offhandedly, having already looked around and not seen her in any of the small conversation-groups.
"Oh, umm, I dunno..." Touji mumbled, and Rei was half-amused half-chagrined at the nature of the question, and its apparent uselessness.
Human nature, she reminded herself. It's just idle talk, I'm reasonably sure he doesn't expect any of us to know. Maybe it's a rhetorical...
In a move undoubtedly planned by fate, Asuka chose that moment to shimmer into existence behind Shinji and off to one side. One of Rei's eyebrows twitched, and Touji's eyes bugged out, but Shinji did not notice. Sensing a golden opportunity, Rei drew her sky-blue eyebrows together and fixed Shinji with a piercing red gaze.
"Pilot Ikari, I thought I had trained you out of such useless questions." Shinji's eyes popped at what appeared to be a reversion in Rei's personality to when she had often expressed displeasure or curiosity at his human foibles. "How would any of us know where Asuka is? We have been with you this entire time."
"...s-sorry, Rei, I guess you're right. It's just that Asuka, umm..." he trailed off, wondering what to say.
"'Asuka' is right here, nit-wit," she said, putting a hand on his shoulder.
"Waah! ...oh, h-hey there...!" it was Shinji's turn to jump in startlement and slight fear of Asuka's notoriously short temper. Then he took a closer look at Rei's face and tentatively began to calm down.
Asuka merely shook her head at the spectacle. "Rei, you'll have to tell me sometime how you manage to inspire such fear and devotion from these two..." Despite the tense atmosphere aboard the vessel, her voice held a hint of humor.
"Harsh training," was Rei's answer as she walked the few paces over to where Shinji stood.
"I thought I had that part down," Asuka answered jokingly, remembering how she had always berated Shinji before the time-loops had begun.
"...and appropriate rewards," Rei continued, putting a hand behind Shinji's neck and kissing his forehead lightly. The boy's eyes became upside-down U's as he smiled, much relieved that he had only fallen prey to her deadly sense of humor, as opposed to several unpleasant alternatives.
I'm a dead man if I marry these two...
And yet it was what he wanted more than anything else. The thought surprised him, especially with the circumstances.
I'm about to embark on a mission I know nothing about, against an enemy I know nothing about, and all I can think about is...
He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, trying to calm himself as Rei had taught him.
"Hey, why so gloomy?"
He opened his eyes at Asuka's voice, his heart catching in his throat when he saw the faint trace of a smile cross her lips.
...don't want to lose you.
I wish I didn't get tongue-tied so often when I talk to you...
This must be why the military frowns on relationships among the troops.
As if in tune with his inner struggles, she relented. "...tell me later," she said softly, clapping him on the shoulder as she walked to the center of the sphere. The low buzz of conversations died out, and everyone turned their attention to her.
"We're about to undertake a mission against twelve Angels, and there won't be time to drop off non-combatants." She looked around, not really expecting anyone to have any questions. Shell-shocked would not quite be the way to describe this group, but it would come close. They had just been through a whirlwind tour of an alien planet, guests of the very beings they had been fighting for so long.
Still so many unknowns, Asuka thought as she gazed around at the people who would be putting their lives in her and her fellow pilots' hands. For all I know we were just abducted and used as lab rats. I have a hard time believing we're of any use to beings with such power. What did they need us for?
'What is man, that you're mindful of him?'
The religious saying rose to mind, courtesy of her college education. She herself certainly wasn't a religious person, but she knew that she would have to question quite a few things in the days to come.
If we survive...
She realized everyone was getting restless at her silence, and took a deep breath, clearing her mind of its pensiveness.
Trust has got to start somewhere.
If nothing else, she had atleast learned that much. She glanced towards Shinji, drawing strength from his confident smile. Gone was the timid cowering boy she had first met.
Well, maybe not completely gone...
It brought her a measure of happiness that she could still put him off balance enough to make him tongue-tied at times. He did the same to her, though she was loathe to admit it, or show it, atleast not often. Her gaze slid over to Rei, and she had to force down the tumult of emotions that would only get in the way of the mission ahead of her. She took another calming breath.
"There's not enough time for me to explain everything," she said slowly. "But I doubt I've been given the full story in any case." She paused for a few moments, gathering her final thoughts. "We'll keep you as safe as we can, and... it's been an honor serving with you." She swallowed past the lump in her throat as white light began to wash out everything. "It's been an honor getting to know you... all of you." She had no idea if anyone even heard the last part.
When her vision cleared, she found herself in the familiar confines of a dimly lit entry plug, the chamber already filled with LCL. The details were close enough to her old Unit-02 that she experienced a startling sense of deja-vu.
I wondered if I'd ever get the chance to pilot again...
She caressed the pistol-grip controls to either side of her seat, taking a moment to look around. The entry plug was practically the only thing that resembled her old Eva, she knew that. This much had been kept for familiarity's sake, to help put the pilots' minds at ease. With only a slight amount of imagination, she could be back in NERV, about to undergo some test or another, as opposed to where she really was. A slight twinge from her A10 clips informed her that it was time, and she closed her eyes, clearing her mind of all conscious thought and emotion.
Instead of the usual test patterns and colors, she experienced a slight vertigo for a few moments, and then felt Arael's feather-light mental touch. She knew that despite the urgency of the situation, the Angel was willing to giver her whatever time she needed, and with this realization came strong emotion that momentarily disrupted her concentration.
"Calm," Arael sent to her.
Asuka took a moment to center herself, grateful beyond words that the Angel was so understanding. The mental touch strengthened as the two of them synchronized, but despite her initial fears, it felt nothing like her previous forceful contact so long ago. Tentatively she felt herself begin to relax into the Angel's embrace, and she almost wept at the gentleness of it.
"So you weren't exaggerating at all in the briefing, you really are the soul of Unit-02 now..."
"Yes. This is my penance for what I did to you back then."
"I... still don't quite understand." She and Shinji had discussed several times his theories and questions about why the Angels, who were so powerful in their own reality, seemed so limited in earth's.
"It's not that we lack power, we simply have very little control on this plane of existence. We have learned with every individual we sent over to this side, but the toll has been terrible. I wish it were not so, but what humanity has done with our initial probes cannot be allowed. As a species you are just not ready. Even now the damage may be too great, but we must retrieve as much as we can to limit further contamination."
Asuka didn't quite know what to say. It was more than the Angel had ever told her at one time.
"We... can delay no longer." She found it hard to believe, but she actually seemed to detect a note of embarrassment, or even shame in the Angel's mental tone.
"I'm ready," Asuka answered. What happened next made her eat her words.
Mankind had done a superb job putting together an interface that would meld a human together with the clone of something they didn't fully understand, but compared to what Asuka now rode in, that machine was a hack job. It had required a neural supercomputer and the sacrifice of a soul to achieve a stable synchronization, and the resulting biomechanoid had to be severely restrained just to keep it from going berserk. The pilot was shielded from most of this while synchronizing, but there was a subtle undercurrent of risk with every mission. If the pilot went all-out, or even experienced strong emotion, the machine could go out of control, or the pilot could even be absorbed in an unstable runaway reaction. Even if the pilot were not told this, he or she knew it on a subconscious level, and it held him or her back.
As her Unit came to life around her, Asuka knew complete and joyous freedom. The Evangelion and its soul were joined perfectly, and had no need for restraints. There were no hardware or software limiters, and as her vision cleared, she found herself in earth orbit where Leliel had deposited her.
The hazy blue sphere wrapped in a thin layer of clouds turned serenely below her, and the view was so entrancing she almost forgot about the deadly dance that was about to begin. Three blips appeared, representing Units-00, -01, and -03, clustered together in a rough diamond pattern to both sides and in front of her. She barely even had to think, the machine did almost everything for her, and Arael translated her intentions into the appropriate actions.
"Asuka, are you there?"
It was strange hearing Ritsuko's voice in her head as opposed to the external speakers. She reluctantly turned her gaze inward, and her outer vision dimmed slightly as she became more 'aware' of her Eva's internal structure. The creature was still vaguely humanoid simply because that form was most compatible with the human brain's base architecture, though she knew the shape could be changed if it was absolutely necessary. Her entry plug was still nestled at the base of the neck, extending into the heavily armored upper chest, but she felt a second plug parallel and below hers, and within moments knew that it contained Ritsuko and Kensuke.
"Yes," she sent back.
"Oh thank God, it worked," she heard Ritsuko mumble to herself.
"Of course it worked," Kensuke's excited voice cut int. "Didn't you feel it when the interface activated?"
"Yes, but just because the Angel was able to synch with her didn't mean... oh never mind," she said with an amused sigh as Kensuke continued on a mile a minute as if she had not spoken.
"This is completely awesome! It almost makes up for not being able to pilot. Don't worry, Asuka, you're in good hands, you won't even know we're here, you..."
"I get it, Kensuke." Her voice was soft, and even held a trace of amusement, but it brought him up short.
"Sorry, got a little carried away there," he said in a more contrite tone. The two of them were not directly tied into any of the control circuits, but their limited connection did allow for a full sensory immersion that gave them access to all information gathered by Unit-02 and the other Units when they activated. The new Unit-02 was truly a Command vehicle by necessity, and from their position in it, Ritsuko and Kensuke would be able to monitor the vitals of the pilots and the Evas as they would have from the installations in NERV.
Shinji sat in the dimly lit entry plug, his hands unconsciously clinching the pistol-grip controls as he tried to calm himself. The LCL provided a subtle disruption to the breathing exercises he was used to, and he closed his eyes in frustration.
Any information at all would have been nice.
He immediately felt bad for the thought, knowing the pressure Asuka had to be going through. He consciously relaxed his hands, making one last attempt at clearing his mind as he felt a twinge through his A10 clips. He was slightly stunned when he felt Kaworu's ethereal presence touch his mind.
"Tell me this is just a personality copy," he said dully as he felt Unit-01 come to life around him.
"No. It is as I told you before, this is our punishment," the Angel replied.
"It's not fair to you though, you didn't know what you were doing!" Shinji insisted. "You told me yourself that while you were here in earth's reality, you had no memories from your other life. It wasn't you!"
"That is... beside the point." The Angel's mental voice carried shame. "Lives were lost, both of your race, and mine. I don't expect you to understand fully, this is our law. Please, accept it. I don't dispute the justice of it, and it pains me to discuss this..."
Shinji didn't know what else to say, and so he fell silent as his vision cleared and he found himself in earth's orbit. He felt Asuka's presence nearby and his vision grayed slightly as he turned his gaze inward, picking up on the mental conversation that was taking place.
"So... how is it?" he heard Ritsuko ask hesitantly. He assumed she was talking to Asuka, since he had just 'arrived'.
Several moments passed before the girl answered."If my old Unit-02 had been like this, you'd never have gotten me out of it. Oh..." she gasped in surprise as she sensed Unit-01's activation, and felt Shinji's mental signature blossom into existence. It was as if he had walked up and brushed against her arm, and she now knew where he was without having to look.
"Unit-01 has synchronized and activated." Ritsuko's mental voice carried a subtle undercurrent of tension. "Shinji, are you there?"
"...y-yes ma'am," he answered hesitantly.
Asuka gave a soft sigh. "Don't you revert on me, Third. Are you going to be okay over there?"
"Yeah, I'm fine," he answered with just a touch of annoyance at how she seemed to be doting on him.
"Hey, don't give me that tone!" she snapped, before continuing in a more serious manner. "I know this is new, but stay with me, I need to know I can count on you..."
"Sor... I mean, sure, don't worry about me, I'll be okay." He barely kept himself from apologizing, which he knew she hated. Before the two of them could continue the stress-relieving argument they were both subconsciously indulging in, space seemed to shimmer briefly, and Ritsuko gave a surprised yelp. Shinji felt the sensation of the Eva fade slightly and found himself hovering over earth with Asuka beside him, the both of them facing a surprised-looking Ritsuko and a gleeful Kensuke. He felt a presence behind and to the side of him which he knew to be Kaworu, and looking over he saw that Arael was likewise behind Asuka, her hand on the girl's shoulder.
"Wh-what the..." Ritsuko looked at herself, and then looked around.
"Excellent!" Kensuke was obviously on cloud nine. "Now that Shinji is synchronized, I got the battle-net operational..." The boy seemed to be manipulating something in front of him, as if operating a console visible only to him.
"...guh, give me that!" Ritsuko snapped, reaching over and pulling something from Kensuke's hands. "The most important operation I'll ever oversee is about to begin, and my only bridge-bunny is an otaku...!" she murmured in exasperation, her fingers moving rapidly in mid-air.
Kensuke tried to look innocent as Asuka spluttered. "...b-bridge bunny? Is that what you call them...?" her voice quavered with suppressed laughter.
"Damn, Maya's going to kill me," Ritsuko muttered as Asuka burst out laughing.
"Are you serious?" Shinji asked feeling embarrassed for Kensuke as he tried not to smile.
"We stopped using that term long before you arrived, Shinji," Ritsuko muttered, her cheeks turning slightly pink.
"BAHAAHAHA!" Asuka collapsed against Arael, who looked slightly confused as she tried to hold the girl up. At that moment Touji appeared on the other side of Asuka, the three pilots forming a semicircle in front of Ritsuko and Kensuke. He took one look around and began complaining.
"I missed something again, didn't I?" he crossed his arms. "What did I tell you, Zeruel, I'm always missing something!"
The stocky buzz-cut Angel appeared behind him, laying a hand on the boy's shoulder. "Pull it together, son! Just be glad you're part of something this important." The Angel's voice sounded more like a drill-sergeant than ever, and Shinji tried desperately not to crack up.
"Don't worry," he said, "it's just Kensuke being his usual self."
Ritsuko was actually a bit relieved that the boy had managed to break what tension had been developing. The pilots' vitals seemed to be returning to normal, especially Asuka's. The girl would be all-important in the coming battle, and she most needed the good laugh she had just gotten.
The only one left is Rei.
Ritsuko bit her lip as she watched the half-Angel's synchronization begin, desperately trying to keep up with all the readouts being fed to her from Units-02 and -00. She cursed softly as her initial fears began to play out before her, and the girl rejected her Unit. The woman desperately manipulated the controls, doing what she could to affect a kind of command override, knowing that there was no way to physically help Rei, each Unit being separated from the others by hard vacuum. Kensuke finally noticed what was going on, and was about to ask when the happy atmosphere of the battle-net was shattered by Rei's horrified scream.
Everyone turned to see the girl sitting on the 'floor' as if she had fallen, or been pushed, one hand raised to ward off her would-be assailant. Armisael stood in front of the fallen pilot, her expression unreadable as Rei desperately scrabbled away, eventually getting to her feet and almost running into Shinji. He put his arms around her as she clung to him, and he momentarily feared for his life, such was the rage that clouded her porcelain features. She could not have hurt him, but he had never seen such emotion from her.
"...pilot Ikari." All traces of anger had left her face, but the stiffness of her voice and the slight tremble he felt as she released his arm betrayed how deeply disturbed she was. "I can't." Her normally vibrant red eyes had gone almost completely dead. "I won't."
Such a display of emotion from the normally unflappable girl shocked Asuka beyond measure. "Rei, we need you," she implored.
"But..." A tumult of emotions crossed the albino's face before she was able to regain control. "You don't understand," she replied in her usual quiet voice. "None of you will ever understand."
"That may be true," the Asuka replied softly, "but does that mean we should stop trying to reach out?" The pain in the girl's deep red eyes brought back memories of her own piloting ordeals, and how Rei had tried to help her. "If you don't open your heart, the Eva won't move."
Rei's eyes widened slightly as she recognized her own words. "How can you ask me to open my heart to... her?"
I can't, Asuka realized. Precisely because I know what she's going through. "Doctor, is there any way I can do Rei's part?" She already knew the answer, but had to ask anyway.
"No. If Unit-02 leaves orbit, we lose almost all of our global scanning and tracking capability."
At that moment she heard a soft chime, and a small diagram of earth appeared at the edge of her vision. Three dots of light were pulsating rhythmically, one in the United States, one in Northern Russia, and one in China.
"Schiesse." The girl bit her lip. So this is command. "We're out of time," she murmured. "The plan is to take the targets down three at a time, and the first three are beginning to awaken."
"How do we know so much about the attack?" asked Touji.
"They're Angels, son," Zeruel grated out from behind him. "They're on our side!"
"Yeah, but if they're on our side, how come we're fighting them?"
"Twelve Angels, twelve members of Seele," Asuka said, forestalling any more arguing between Touji and Zeruel. Those two deserve each other. "It's our job to stop the Angels after they complete their mission. We're out of time. I'm sorry..."
Shinji looked helplessly at Rei, who had taken on a glazed expression, and was looking down at earth as it slowly spun beneath them.
"Shinji." He was startled to hear Ritsuko's mental voice, and he looked up to find that except for the doctor, the surroundings had darkened slightly. "I was afraid this would happen, either with Asuka or with Rei. The two of them have been through extremely traumatizing experiences with the Angels they have been asked to synchronize with. Fortunately Asuka had no problems, but Rei just can't seem to... relax enough to synchronize."
"Doctor, I know how she feels. If she doesn't want to do this..."
"Shinji, there's no time! She... has to." Ritsuko paused, and Shinji steeled himself. "In the original time-line, Armisael temporarily linked the two of you. Because of this, you are partially compatible with Unit-00 in its current configuration, and you can help link Rei and Armisael."
Shinji paled at the Doctor's suggestion. "Don't ask that. Please..."
"If there were any other way... You know I'd..." Ritsuko fell silent, and finally cut the private connection. Shinji looked steadily at her, but she refused to meet his eyes. He turned back to Rei who was still staring at earth, her thoughts unknown to him, and perhaps unknowable. Despite having shared minds, and for a short while, bodies, he realized he did not truly know her. That had been a different Rei. After arriving at Avalon, the young woman had changed, become more human, and at the same time more alien.
I can't force her like this. It's wrong...
"Shinji." Asuka's voice pushed him. "If you can help her, do it. The Angels have no specific targets beyond Seele. If we don't take them out after they kill their target, they'll go on a rampage." She paused momentarily. "People will..."
"I know, Asuka!"
He reached out, and when the blue-haired girl flinched at his touch, it tore his heart. He pulled her to him, but she was stiff beneath his touch, her arms held tightly to her sides. He closed his eyes in sorrow.
It's as I thought, I'm no better than my father...
He felt Armisael approach, and he opened his eyes, reaching out his hand. When the green-haired Angel took it, Rei gasped, reflexively clutching his waist.
This is exceedingly ironic, Armisael intoned.
It was obvious the Angel was just as uncomfortable with the situation as Rei, and he stopped.
"Please." Rei's voice shook, and it was so soft he could barely hear it. "Help me..."
The plea could have meant so many things, and he knew that there would be negative repercussions of some kind no matter what he did.
There's been nothing but lies and half-truths since this all started. How the hell could they ask me to do something like this? Especially to the woman I... the woman I...
Asuka looked at him, her expression unreadable, while Ritsuko avoided his gaze altogether, and he realized that in the end he had no choice. What's the use of sparing Rei this immediate pain, if we lose the battle and all of us die?
He squeezed his eyes shut and placed the Angel's hand on the girl's shoulder. Please, don't hate me for this.
Rei found herself back in the pool of orange LCL facing herself, as she had when Armisael first invaded her Eva in the original time-line. She gasped in surprise when the being facing her morphed into Shinji's image, and a surge of negative emotions tore her heart. There was no pain as Shinji linked her with Armisael, atleast not physically, but emotionally she came perilously close to reverting to the loneliness she had experience most of her early life.
The feeling is uncomfortable, yet necessary.
Both for my own growth as a human, and for the upcoming battle.
The deep hurt brought instinctive tears to her eyes, for she knew that at some point in her life, she would likely betray Shinji in the same way, and he would feel the same kind of torment she was feeling now. What truly horrified her was that when the time came, she might somehow justify her actions, as Shinji had undoubtedly done this time. She stood, swallowed by grief, as the construct before her morphed into the green-haired Armisael. The Angel's accusing gaze seemed to bore through her soul. Betrayer, it proclaimed. Both you and he. Equally guilty.
"I... do not put the blame on him," Rei said softly.
There was a pause as Rei considered the Angel's immediate response. "Per... perhaps." She gazed at her unwilling partner. "Why do you harbor such hostility?" she asked, desperate to change the subject.
Armisael looked down. "I have been forced to exile myself into this machine. I will never be with my people again."
"Atleast you have a people." Rei's voice hardened. "Those on earth who know my secret, shun me for it. And when I finally return to Avalon, I find I am unwelcome there as well."
"It's not that you are unwelcome..."
"No one on either world trusts me. I am an outcast! Even now, I do not fully know who I am..."
"I too, have become an outcast," Armisael spoke, answering Rei's outburst. "Because of my own actions, and because of yours. The four of us who put ourselves into these Evas have become outcasts for you people. You aliens. Yes," she pressed on before the young woman could speak. "I consider you an alien to me as well."
Silence stretched for several moments.
"I hate you," Rei said slowly, as if she had just discovered it.
"And I you," Armisael replied without hesitation. "But neither of us can change who we are."
Rei smiled, her human heritage asserting itself. "That's... that's where you're wrong."
Betrayal, and forgiveness.
I can only trust Shinji to forgive me as well, when in the future I hurt him.
Asuka breathed a sigh of relief when she sensed Unit-00's activation and felt Rei/Armisael slip into the battle-net. Ritsuko had dissolved the meeting, and each pilot was once again alone in his (or her) Eva, waiting for Asuka's command.
"Doctor, have you had any success getting through to NERV?"
"Negative," was Ritsuko's terse reply. "But in this case I think it has more to do with the fact that we've been out of contact long enough to have missed a comm encryption change. All the equipment is here and working, but without the decryption schemes, all we'll get is white noise, and anything we send will be rejected," she explained. "I'll get in eventually, but it's going to take some time. I helped create the system, after all."
She smiled at the obvious pride in the woman's mental tone, but only for a moment, as she considered what it meant for the here and now. Without any contact, they would have to assume that there was no safe ground anywhere on the planet. Even NERV itself was technically in enemy hands, since a Seele member had arrived on-scene just as the group of humans had been leaving for Avalon. What this meant was that the non-combatants would have to stay where they were aboard Unit-02 in the specially prepared entry plug currently taking up her secondary weapons bay. Losing the combat capability naturally irked her, but if things went according to plan she would never even see direct action.
Keiko, Hikari, Naoko, and Touji's mother. Checking the vitals of her four passengers one last time, she realized with a slight sense of amusement that she still did not know the woman's name.
"Don't worry so much." Naoko's mental voice cut through her musings. "If anything comes up, I'll let you know immediately, if that Angel of yours doesn't do it first."
While their entry plug was connected to the Eva, the four passengers had a sensory-immersion link-up as well, but it was visual-only, which in this case was the view from orbit. Naoko would monitor their life-signs and status, leaving Asuka and her other two crew-members with one less thing to worry about.
"I leave them in your hands, then," Asuka replied. All of them except Kyoko. After seeing no sign of the woman in Leliel's chamber, and now knowing for sure that she was not aboard any of the Evas, she had to assume that her journey to the strange paradisaical reality had not been a dream. Which meant that her mother was dead.
Atleast she's whole now, and at peace.
"Yes." Arael was cryptic as usual.
"You know, it'd be nice to have a little more information than a simple 'yes,'" she complained, though inwardly she was happy just having the confirmation.
"In this area we too lack complete information." The Angel sounded hesitant, as if it hurt her to admit that there were areas in which her species lacked knowledge. "What we helped you do was... experimental. But it was deemed necessary for your mental health, and so the risk was justified."
Asuka sighed. I guess that's all I'm going to get...
"Calculations for the orbital tracks have been completed." Ritsuko's mental voice brought her back to reality, and she cleared her mind of all extraneous thought.
"I'm sending you your target's position and orbital track now," Asuka said over the battle-net.
"Roger!" the three pilots replied in unison.
A red warning flashed at the edge of her vision, and she unconsciously braced herself as her AT-field unfolded. She was no longer surprised to discover that she felt just as safe in Arael's arms as she had in her mother's.
"Go," she whispered, and the three veteran pilots under her command responded instantly. She rested in Arael's embrace as the three Evas spread wings of light and began their descent into earth's atmosphere.
The cavernous Central Dogma was a tumult of alarms and status reports, and Commander Misato Katsuragi was barely able to maintain her professional facade as everything in her fractured world went to hell around her. Despair had gripped her when the three pattern-blue alerts had come in, and even now her hands were clinched painfully on the arm-rests of her command chair. To her the Angel attacks could mean only one thing.
We sent the Children, and Ritsuko, and... Keiko... to their deaths.
If they were lucky.
Tears of grief gathered at the edges of her eyes as she remembered the vivisected ninth Angel still languishing in the depths of Terminal Dogma. Even now the creature was alive, after a fashion. She could only hope that the Children were not suffering the same fate on some alien world.
"Talk to me, Mana." Her voice was firm despite her inner turmoil.
"I'm two minutes from Target Gamma now, Commander!" the tension in the young female voice was obvious even through the distortion of the comm system. "I'm currently feet-dry over China and inbound at..."
"Commander!" Shigeru's strained voice caused her head to snap around. "Four more AT-field contacts! Orbital tracks are still being calculated, but three of them are definitely inbound! We're unable to get a firm reading on blood-type, this is something completely new. The MAGI are withholding any guesses until we get more information..."
This is a full-scale invasion, Misato thought glumly. Even if the Committee releases the Mass Production Units, we're still on the verge of being outnumbered.
Hyuga replaced the phone back in its receptacle and turned to face Misato. "Mister Kaji has discovered Fuyutski's location," he said quietly, handing her a piece of paper with coordinates written on it. "Also, Unit-06 has reached Terminal Dogma." Sub-Commander Hyuga was content. As hectic as the past weeks had been, he felt privileged to have worked directly with the woman he had long admired.
Misato glanced at the paper, idly noting the coordinates. "Well, it doesn't look like there's anything we can do with this information now," she murmured. With the invasion, a rescue operation seemed almost pointless. "Inform Asari he is to hold position until further notice." She had not been happy to receive the Committee orders to keep Unit-06 in reserve, but with the new contacts in orbit, the order was easier to obey.
Could this be one of the missing Angels Shinji warned us about in his final briefing?
She was suddenly glad to have an Eva in reach of the only other weapon available to her that could make it into orbit.
As the massive flying-wing F-Type equipment carried her Unit closer to the site labeled by NERV as Target Gamma, the Fifth Child tried to quell the tension that threatened to overwhelm her. Much like Asuka Langley Soryu and Rei Ayanami, Mana Kirishima had been trained from a young age to pilot the Evangelion, but this was her first actual combat mission.
C'mon, Relax, Mana, relax, for the umpteenth time she unclenched her hands from the pistol-grip controls to either side of her. Shinji's first mission he had practically no training, and he killed the Angel without a problem. Asuka's first mission...
Mana's cheeks flamed as she remembered the briefing and battle footage from that mission. The two pilots had for some reason been in the entry plug together when they killed the aquatic sixth Angel, and she had been flabbergasted at the audio. The two of them had been arguing non-stop the entire time as if they were lovers or something, and all this in the midst of the battle!
Damn it, get a grip! She clutched her head trying to drive away the images and retrieve some semblance of discipline before being dumped into her first battle. It did not help in the slightest that she had somehow allowed herself to develop a long-distance crush on the aforementioned third Child, but she had simply not been able to help it. From all the battle-footage she had watched, the boy had a quiet charm about him, and his meteoric rise as a pilot had astounded her.
"...aah!" she jumped when the soft alarm sounded, indicating that the F-Type transport was about to release her Eva.
"Good luck, Mana." Misato's firm professional voice came through the plug speakers.
The restraining bolts disengaged with a thump, and she took a deep calming breath, managing to temporarily banish her flustered thoughts as she went into free-fall. Her thoughts turned somber as the ground rushed up to meet her.
It just doesn't seem possible. After blowing through nine Angels, suddenly all four pilots are killed?
After being transferred to NERV along with Keita Asari, Unit-06's designated pilot, she had been told surprisingly little, and it was somewhat disquieting since she had seen briefings for all missions except the final one. Somehow, in one battle, all the pilots had apparently been lost, and she was forced to say 'apparently' because she knew so little. She had been given a stern lecture after confronting Misato about how unusual it all seemed, but surely if the pilots had survived, they would have been sent out already, especially against the odds NERV was facing now.
Mana unconsciously flexed her legs as her Eva impacted the ground, absorbing the tremendous shock of landing, and her eyes flitted to the map overlay which showed her the direction and position of the Pattern-Blue contact. She smiled as she oriented herself. This much atleast was the same as the simulations, and she had performed hundreds of such exercises.
She had landed amidst the rolling hills on the outskirts of a small city, and her smile froze when she saw that the target was moving steadily towards one of the built-up areas near the edge of the city. This was not Tokyo-3, and there were no alarms or retractable buildings. In all likelihood, there were probably too few shelters even if word could be spread. Scanning frantically as she moved, she visually spotted her target, and she pushed her Eva into a run. 'Gamma' was a tall, thin, vaguely humanoid creature that was almost uniformly smooth all over its off-white body. The range was still too great, but she raised her pallet rifle and snapped off a quick burst anyway, hoping to draw its attention away from the civilian area into which it was heading. She lost sight of it as it disappeared into a small stand of trees, and she could see large chunks of dirt spray into the air as the rounds impacted where the Angel had been standing moments earlier.
Damn it! He didn't even notice!
She spurred her Eva on faster as her comm systems crackled. "Mana, I'm reading a high-speed target inbound on your general location!"
"What?! Where?" She did a quick scan of the sky-line, but could not see anything visually or on sensors.
"It's one of the orbital contacts," Misato's voice was obviously under stress. "We still have yet to get a solid lock on one of them, so I can't give you a firm direction, I'm sorry!"
This is not good! she thought as she entered the forest. I've got to take this first guy down quickly or it's going to get ugly. The only multiple-Angel battle she had ever witnessed (through briefing and footage) had not gone well for the Evas, and during that battle they had the advantage of being able to use the Tokyo-3's defenses. She was all alone out here, except for whatever help the JSSDF could provide, which as of yet had been nil, and she had little hopes of being able to work together with whatever local Chinese forces might eventually arrive.
By the time anyone else gets here, it'll be too late...
"What the...!" a massive bloom of purple energy erupted out of the forest ahead of her, and she brought up her arms instinctively as tree-trunks whizzed by her on both sides. When her visual systems cleared, she looked on in amazement at the giant purple cross of light that punctuated the center of the forest like an exclamation point.
What the hell is that thing doing?!
"...-ana! Mana are you okay...? ...-ease respond..." The audio was full of distortion from the massive pulse of radiation that had just blanketed the area.
"Commander! You're breaking up! I'm engaging the Angel..." catching sight of the white figure of the Angel standing near the edge of the burnt-out area in the center of the forest, she raised her pallet rifle. Her finger was tightening on the pistol-grip trigger when she caught a hint of movement to her right, and she had just enough time to turn her head before the incoming bogey impacted her.
Mana's scream was the last thing Misato heard, and she ripped off her head-set, covering her eyes with her other hand as grief tore through her.
I lost another one.
Hyuga turned to face her. "Misato, the JSSDF reports they have assets over the battle-site now."
She lifted her tear-stained face, and the haunted look in her eyes cause him to recoil slightly. "So, her backup finally arrived."
"Um..." Hyuga was at a loss. He wanted nothing but to be able to comfort her, but he simply didn't know how.
"How many more are we going to lose?" she whispered the words as another tear rolled down her face. Hyuga never got a chance to answer.
"This is Echo-Leader," the man's professional voice carried an edge of excitement that carried even over the distortion of the comm systems. "I'm over the battle-site, and you're not going to believe this."
The visual feed came up on the massive holo-display in front of the bridges, and Misato gasped. The image was slightly grainy, but it was obvious that what had impacted Unit-05 was another Eva.
"That's... not a Mass Production Unit, is it?" Hyuga asked uncertainly.
"I don't think so," Misato answered, stunned beyond belief. "It doesn't seem to match Shinji's description... but isn't that supposed to be one of the orbital contacts?" She was so relieved she had yet to wipe the wetness from her face.
Mana shook her head, blinking away stars as she tried to assess her condition. Her Eva was lying on its back, and whatever had impacted her was laying cross-wise on top of her, pinning her down. Turning her head as she tried to wriggle out from underneath her attacker, she gasped in surprise. It was an Eva. A purple Eva.
"...C-C-Commander, it's Unit-01...!" she stammered.
"What?! Are you sure?" the surprised voice over the comm demanded.
"...guh..." she pushed up against the massive weight, but she couldn't budge him. "...I-I think so. The armor isn't quite right, and it's a lot bigger, but it's purple!" Is that Shinji? She blushed slightly. Though she had never personally seen the Eva, she knew its specs by heart. She flinched as another massive purple cross bloomed somewhere down past her feet. "What the hell's this guy's problem??"
There was a long pause over the comm, "Mana," Misato's voice carried a note of worry. "...that might not be Shinji in there." She spoke slowly and carefully. "...and even if it is, he might... not be himself."
"Can you disable that Eva?"
"Uh, I'll... try," she responded.
But how? My pallet rifle is... over there. She looked to the right to find the gigantic weapon leaned haphazardly against a tree where it had fallen when she dropped it in the scuffle. Which leaves... She drew her eyebrows together and gave the mental command as she looked to the left and began to reach her partially-free left arm up. She saw the purple Eva on top of her move its head slightly as her shoulder armor opened to reveal her prog-knife, but before she could draw it herself, Unit-01 had reached up, pulled it from her shoulder, and tossed it into the tree-line.
"...hey!" Mana looked up in consternation as the purple Eva trapped her arm, and then lifted its other arm, extending a finger and wagging it side to side in a 'no, no' motion. Using her other free arm, she managed to lever Unit-01 off of her for a moment, but the other Eva maneuvered itself deftly, sitting on her chest and trapping her own Eva's arms above her head. "What the hell's your problem, guy?!" her face turned beet red at the position she was in. "Commander, can't we communicate with them?"
"We're... we're trying, Mana, but it's going to take a little time!"
She strained against her opponent's hold, but the other Eva's strength was greater, and it was obvious the pilot was an experienced grappler. She herself had trained in martial arts from a young age, but ground-fighting was not something she had studied in any depth, and it was obvious that her opponent had.
What's he doing? Why is he holding me back...?
She gasped suddenly as the weight vanished, Unit-01 having released her. Bracing herself as she got up, she watched, stunned, as Unit-01 drew a rifle that resembled a cut-down version of NERV's own Composite Rifle and fired two bursts at the thin white Angel which had apparently finished whatever it was doing, and was wandering in the general direction of the two Evas. The Angel took the first shot dead on, but obviously tried to dodge the second one, and she saw it stumble, now sporting a nasty gouge where its shoulder had been. Unit-01 was in full sprint now, taking advantage of the opening its shots had created, and its foot hit the Angel's chest just as it tried to fire its own beam weapon at the Eva. The purple burst of light disappeared into the sky, and the Angel was slammed to the ground, its AT-field shimmering. She turned away, jogging to the edge of the forest to retrieve her rifle and prog-knife while she had the chance.
Mana was just reaching down to pick up the rifle when a massive bloom of energy washed over her, the blast wave sending a shudder through her Eva and tearing apart the trees in front of her. She turned around to see a massive roil of smoke and debris where the two combatants had been moments ago.
Did they take each other out?
She was just about to take a step forward when she saw the figure of Unit-01 exit the smoke cloud coming straight for her. She raised her rifle automatically, and was stunned beyond belief when the Eva gave her a casual salute of respect as it spread wings of light and rose into the sky, passing over her head as it climbed.
"Did... did you get that, Commander...?!" she stammered out as the purple Eva retreated into the sky, growing smaller.
"I've seen that before," Misato's voice held obvious relief. "That's Shinji, alright..."
The girl scanned the sky, looking for her F-Type equipment. "Where's he going? Maybe I can..." she spotted the massive VTOL flying wing hovering near the tree-line and jogged in its direction. A flash lit up the sky behind her, illuminating the area briefly even with the afternoon sun overhead.
"I don't think you can follow him, Mana, he's just gone sub-orbital," Misato's shocked voice crackled over her comm.
"What...?!" she turned, but all she could make out was a fading ball of light and a streak of red that was probably the Eva's AT-field dissipating the energy of the Unit-01's high-speed flight through the atmosphere. "...Commander, I know I'm sitting in the best earth can give me, but whatever that guy's got, I want it...!"
Misato ignored the hubbub around her in Central Dogma, and this time she gripped the armrests of her command chair for a different reason. For the first time in weeks she saw a glimmer of hope, and her mind worked furiously as she tried to make sense of the puzzle before her.
That was Shinji, I'm sure of it. So the Angels are on our side after all?
Or did he somehow escape the Angels, and manage to slip in alongside the invasion...
She knew she was missing so many of the pieces, yet her actions were likely to be pivotal.
"I'm registering a massive air-burst over Siberia," Aoba reported. "The Angel signature in that area just disappeared!"
"Could it be another of the missing Evas?" Misato wondered aloud.
"Three contacts, three Evas," Hyuga said glancing back at her. "Do you think those three could be Units-00, -01, and -03?"
"But what about the contact that's still in orbit?" she murmured. The bespectacled 'Sub-Commander' raised a hand to his chin in thought.
"Pattern-Blue!" a technician called from below. "Multiple Angels detected in South America, Eastern Europe, and Canada!"
What's going on here? Misato's mind whirled as she tried to make sense of what was happening. Wait just a minute... Mana's question resurfaced in her mind.
"Maya, just where is shinji going?" she asked.
"Already on it..." Maya studied her console for a few seconds then began typing rapidly. "The MAGI have just confirmed it," she said excitedly. "The bogey we've tentatively identified as Unit-01 is on course for the Angel in Canada. And there's a fast moving AT-field contact on a sub-orbital track from the Siberian area heading towards the Angel in Eastern Europe."
It's them. It's got to be... "Alright!" Misato's fist came down on her armrest, and a hard smile lit up her worn features. "The Children are back!"
The room erupted into cheers, and the gloomy atmosphere was banished for a moment.
Asuka breathed a sigh of relief as she watched Rei's successful sub-orbital insertion, and she glanced back over at Shinji's slowly-moving icon.
"What's this, you don't fully trust the system?" Arael's mental voice held a trace of humor.
"Ah, umm..." it was practically impossible to lie to the woman while synchronized with her.
"I know it's not pretty, but it was the only solution in the time available."
"...eh." Asuka turned her attention back to the operation playing out before her. "Rei, I'm picking up two unidentified contacts at your landing site, so be prepared."
"I understand, Commander."
Units-01 and -00 were moving to their next target, which left Touji.
"Arael, might as well load a Strategic into my primary weapons bay just in case."
Deep inside a hidden bunker in the middle of Nevada, a SEELE member was huddled in the middle of the floor as horrible little furry things with teeth made their way into his room through every opening available to them (which in this case meant the ventilation ducts and the partially open doorway leading out into the hall and to freedom). Up on the surface, safely ensconced in his highly advanced killing machine, Touji did not hear the scream of terror, or how it was cut off abruptly in a series of messy-sounding squelches.
The lonely blank desert seemed to stretch endlessly in any direction Touji cared to look, and he once again found himself tapping his plug-shoe against the foot-rest in agitation.
I'm bored. This thought was not healthy, especially if fate decided to get involved, but Touji being Touji, he did not care. Why is it always me who gets stuck with the dull assignments?
"That's it, Touji, the Angel has switched over to 'seeker' mode, it must have killed the target." Asuka's mental voice came through the battle-net. "Take it down."
"Roger. If I knew what it looked like..." Touji muttered.
"You haven't yet visually identified it?" she asked.
"No. The target registers as being right here, but I don't see it." He looked around at the scattered cacti and broken piles of rocks. "It must be underground, or something. Oh, wait..."
A 'rock' several dozen feet from where he stood crumbled, and fate reared her ugly head in the form of a small object with a bunch of teeth. The creature came out of the hidden ventilation duct the fake rock had been covering. It paused a moment, but before it could make any kind of command decision, Touji stamped his Eva's foot down on it. The resulting explosion rocked the large machine and caused his AT-field to shimmer slightly, but he was otherwise unharmed.
"Never mind, I killed it."
"Good. Well hurry up, you're behind schedule. I'm sending you your next orbital track..."
"Right." Touji sighed, turning away when a small movement caught his eye. "Huh? There's more of 'em...?"
Asuka had just begun a more detailed scan of Shinji's next target when she felt Touji's renewed panic.
"Man, what is this, some kind of bad B-movie?!" his mental yelp startled her, and she sensed his weapons-fire as she turned her attention back to his area of the world.
"What's happening down there?" she asked with a hint of exasperation.
"I'm being attacked by a bunch of horrible little flying furries is what's happening!" His annoyed voice was punctuated by more weapons-fire.
She sighed as accessed his visual, only to find that surprisingly he was not exaggerating this time. The boy had his AT-field functioning almost fully in anti-gravity mode, and rising after him was a large group of creatures that did indeed appear to be angry little balls of fur and teeth.
"You don't have time to engage them all conventionally," Asuka told him. "Your next target is already here. Are you high enough to go sub-orbital?"
"I think so..." he said.
"Yes," Zeruel answered firmly.
"Do it," she ordered. "The Angels will be caught in the blast. They're all in that one group, right?"
"It looks like it," Touji muttered, sending the mental signal to start the process.
It was almost a given that the twelve members of SEELE were scattered around the world, as opposed to being in one place, and with only three combat Evas it had been obvious from the start that some method of quickly traversing the globe had to be included in the already heavily-modified fighting machines. In the end, time had been the limiting factor in the redesign of the Evas, and most 'clean' methods of travel would have required a radical change to the existing model. The Angels had been forced to fall back on what was available in the design, that is, S2 engines and AT-fields.
The AT-field could be manipulated in many ways to counteract gravity, but even with complete nullification, the Eva's internal jets could not channel enough power to boost them into orbit, or rather they would get to orbit, eventually. That was not good enough, and so the Angels eventually caved in and settled on the most logical (if also the most dangerous) option. Eject an overloading S2 organ, spread an AT-field, and ride the blast into orbit. Each Eva had been given four S2 organs – one of them was fully grown, and the other three were in a nascent embryonic state.
And so, as the multitude of small killing machines homed in on Unit-03, Touji felt the first of his nascent S2 organs finish the transformation into its fully-grown state. At this point Zeruel took full control of Unit-03's AT-field, properly shaping it to take full advantage of the blast about to occur. He flinched slightly as several of the Angel-chibis latched onto his extended AT-field, but he felt Zeruel's confidence and took strength from it. Seconds later the overloading S2 engine was ejected out behind the rising Eva, and a miniature supernova temporarily lit up the afternoon sky over Nevada.
Asuka watched with satisfaction as the three rapidly-moving blips of light representing her Units traversed the globe. Only one thing remained, and she felt a faint wave of amusement at the panic NERV was undoubtedly experiencing over the strange circumstances.
"I've almost got it," Ritsuko said, forestalling Asuka's question. "Initiating link-up now..."
A sudden cacophony of alarms jolted Misato's already-frazzled nerves, and she turned blood-shot eyes in Maya's direction.
"Commander!" the woman turned. "External intrusion on all bands, it's some kind of virus that's going straight through all our firewalls as if they weren't even there!"
"Origin?" snapped Misato.
"It's... the orbital contact!"
The three mobile contacts might be the Children, but I don't see how that orbital contact can be anything but an Angel, Misato thought with a frown, and nothing else we have will reach it. I guess we have no choice after all.
Terminal Dogma was silent as a tomb except for the relentless dripping of LCL from the un-healing wound in Lilith's chest. The Angel glared at Unit-06, and Unit-06 glared right back, or atleast that is how it may have looked like to an observer. In reality, Lilith had about as much consciousness as an average zombie (Rei's soul being absent for the moment), and Unit-06 was petrified with anxiety. That is, the pilot was petrified, and this carried over to the Eva.
My first battle, thought Keita Asari. And probably my last.
He was only fourteen, as was usual for Eva pilots, but he was no fool. He did not have as much training as Mana, and likewise he had been given less intel, but he did know that the veteran pilots had been lost in some accident. And he had heard Mana's hysterical conversation over the comm about her contact with Unit-01, which meant the pilots had not been as 'lost' as he had been led to believe.
Are we going to have to fight the Veterans, or are they on our side?
Who exactly is on our side?
His thoughts were interrupted by Maya's professional voice. "Pilot Asari, you are to retrieve the Lance and proceed directly to the launch platform."
"Yes ma'am." It surprised him that his voice did not tremble, and he took a deep breath as he stepped forward.
Fuyutski tried, and failed, to contain his disgust and horror as the virtual meeting dragged on. He and the eleven other SEELE members occupied the dark foreboding virtual environment, but three of the twelve tombstone-like representations were now blank, indicating the life-pulse of its SEELE member had ceased. He and the other remaining members watched a holograph in the center of the virtual room that showed the blue-armored Unit-00 as it tore apart the two Mass-Production Series Evas in a stunning display of martial arts prowess, leaving the wounded Angel free to continue towards the SEELE member it was tracking.
"You people are insane!" Fuyutski whispered.
"Ah, so you have finally realized your glorious fate!" the high-pitched nasal whine was as irritating as ever. "Human complementation will proceed even without that traitor Ikari," the SEELE member sniggered. "...and even if it does not, one of our members will survive. Now that you have undergone the initiation ritual and joined our ranks, the Angel meant to kill him will instead kill you. SEELE will live on, regardless of the outcome of today's battles..."
"You think Commander Katsuragi," he paused, trying to picture that in his mind. They had given him access to a surprising amount of information, which had told him just how long they expected him to live. "...you think she will cooperate with you when Gendo would not?"
"Her willingness does not matter," a gravelly voice intoned. "Behold! She has already presented us with the Lance of Longinus. Our time will soon be at hand..."
Fuyutski could only stare helplessly at the aerial feed showing a black and yellow Evangelion emerging from a launch point, the recognizable shape of the Lance in its hands. He found it exceedingly ironic that the Children he used to command would indirectly be involved in his death, even if they had no way of knowing.
Atleast I've lived long enough to see a few of these bastards die, he sighed in resignation. I've lived a full life, but I hope the Children get through this somehow. Even if it is... like that.
He shuddered, remembering Shinji's tale of Third Impact, and how he had awoken next to Asuka, the two of them being the last remaining physical humans.
"Yes, tremble," a baritone voice intoned. "There is not a single person at NERV who even knows you are alive, much less where you are."
"...hah-... ...-aachyii!" Misato managed to bring a tissue to her face in time to contain the sneeze, and the piece of paper with Fuyutski's coordinates on it drifted off the armrest of her chair and to the floor. This brief moment of respite was soon gone, however, and the NERV technicians continued defending their computer systems from Asuka's attempts at communication.
One other person sneezed (since he also knew Fuyutski's whereabouts), and his circumstances did not go so well.
Kaji brought his hands up to cover his mouth and nose, but the sneeze found its way between his fingers.
The triple-(quadruple?)-agent had been exfiltrating the SEELE facility from which he had obtained Fuyutski's location, and the sudden sound alerted the guard he had just passed.
"Huh? Hey! You there-URK!"
Kaji's silenced pistol made about as much noise as his sneeze, but the results were a bit deadlier.
Crap. Now I have to run...
Shinji dodged a vicious blow that would have severed one or more of his limbs, leaping backwards desperately to give himself room as he faced his enraged foe. This particular Angel had just finished killing chairman Kihl rather messily, though Shinji did not know this. The creature before him was vaguely reminiscent of the ninth, except for the fact that it had twice as many legs, a stronger AT-field, and a much nastier disposition. Setting his rifle to its maximum throughput, he triggered a beam of destruction that tore up the ground with its passing, uprooting what few trees were still standing in the general area. Unfortunately the horrific thread of death did more damage to the surroundings than to its intended target. The air between the two combatants went mirror-solid, and a pulsating hexagon of light deflected the particle beam into the sky where it tore a hole through the thin cloud layer before diffusing into the atmosphere.
"Shinji, you can't let that thing get away!" Asuka's stressed-out voice pushed its way into his mind. "There's a city two klicks to the south of you, and two more three klicks west, with suburbs stretching between them. If the Angel gets anywhere near..."
Shinji gritted his teeth as one of the Angel's legs flashed forward too fast for him to dodge, its razor-sharp claw penetrating his hastily-raised defensive AT-field and ripping a gouge into his chest armor. Red warnings immediately began flashing, and he winced as a jolt of agony shot through his midsection, his rifle falling to the ground in two pieces.
Penetration of the S2 storage chamber, that's not good! he thought, desperately redirecting as much energy as he could to repair the damaged area. He felt Kaworu take over the more mundane task, and he sent the Angel his thanks as he turned back to the battle at hand.
Ignoring the searing pain, he drew a prog-knife from its hidden sheath-chamber and thrust it into the exposed body of his opponent. He shoved it in as far as he could reach, and then leaped back as the wounded creature instinctively contracted around the source of its pain.
It was only a moment, but that was all Shinji needed to reach around to his back and draw his progressive lance. Despite the pain it was obviously experiencing, the Angel come forward a couple of steps and aimed a decapitating blow towards the Eva's head. The blade at the end of the lance extended and then blurred red as it activated, and with a complicated flourish, the boy deflected the Angel's strike and slashed the offending leg off at its base. After this brief skirmish, both wounded combatants began circling each other warily, each trying to assess the other's combat worthiness.
"Our main S2 engine is intact, and I've managed to salvage a single S2 organelle," Kaworu informed him. "Which means we can only make one more jump. After that we would have to regenerate an organ from scratch, which would take time and almost complete immobility."
"Time we don't have, and immobility equates to suicide at the moment," Shinji mused, dodging a strike as he fended off his attacker. Simple math spelled out the trouble they were in. This was his second Angel, which meant he had two more left to fight. But he could only make a single jump.
Misato's mind raced as she tried to keep up with everything that was being reported to her. She had long since abandoned her chair and was pacing around the Command Bridge.
Targets are appearing three at a time, and these unknown Evas are dealing with them. Why? If they Angels are on the Children's side, why are they fighting?
The Angels are after something... and after they complete their mission, the Evas kill them. Roundabout logic, but it's the only thing that makes sense.
She idly noted the three newest Angel contacts that had popped up on-screen, their coordinates being listed on Maya's screen.
And the base computers are under attack from the orbital contact.
How does that play into the rest of this? I know it has to, I can feel it.
It appeared with the other contacts, and they haven't attacked it, so is it really not an Angel?
Then why is it attacking the computers?
Something else niggled at the back of her mind, and her foot tapped the piece of paper that had fallen to the floor. She picked it up absentmindedly, reading the numbers one more time.
Fuyutski's location. Fuyutski's...
She ran over to Maya's station and read the latest three Angel coordinates. They were the same. One of the Angels had appeared at Fuyutski's location.
"Ma'am!" Aoba turned. "The computer-intrusion has stopped..."
At that moment, a familiar female voice came over the comm systems of Central Dogma.
"...ey! Respond! Hellooo, anybody down there?"
"Asuka!?" Misato exclaimed.
Shinji did not exactly have a lot of free time to listen to the chatter on the battle-net, but a corner of his mind heard Misato's exclamation, and Asuka's warning that a bunch of contacts were converging on Tokyo-3. At this, he began to pay a little more attention, though he wasn't quite conscious of it as he and the Angel continued their deadly dance.
"Commander Katsuragi, is that Asuka? As in Asuka Sohryu?" an unfamiliar female voice from Misato's comm connection into the battle-net. "Is she in one of the super-Evas?" It was Mana, but he had no way of knowing this. The girl was still in her F-Type equipment, on her way back to Japan.
By this time he had lopped off another of the spider's legs, and had in turn received a deep thigh wound that had begun to slow him down. In the background he heard a flurry of reports in NERV HQ about 'Unit-06' failing to respond to control input due to its dummy-plug system activating, but it wasn't until the horrified scream sounded over the comm system that Shinji put all the pieces together. A faint warning pulsed on his display, the energies of what was happening halfway across the world were that strong. Fourth Impact.
"What??" yelled Asuka.
"I said, we put the S2 engine from the Ninth Angel into Unit-06," Misato's voice was frantic.
"It was either that, or SEELE would have replaced me," the woman replied helplessly. "Besides, we didn't even know if you were okay, we had to be prepared in case..."
Shinji did not need to hear any more, and Kaworu did not try to reason with him. Unit-01 switched almost all of its AT-field over to flight, and leaped into the air as his opponent slashed two claws through the space his midsection had occupied a split second earlier. His foe had not been prepared for such an aerial maneuver, and looked up in surprise for a moment. Shinji flung his prog-lance down with all his strength, pinning the Angel to the ground for a precious few seconds as Unit-01 rose into the sky.
"The system was never meant to be used this close to the ground," Kaworu finally spoke.
"It doesn't have to be pretty," Shinji's voice was dead calm. "Just get us there as quickly as possible."
Kaworu ejected the S2 engine, and the Angel below had just enough time to free itself and take a step before the overloading power source pancaked it into the ground. The massive bloom of energy roiled chaotically, expanding in all directions in a lumpy explosion as the Angel's own death knell added an unstable element into Kaworu's hurried calculations.
"The AT-field is losing coherence..." His guardian's words were lost as Unit-01 rode the wave of destruction up into the atmosphere and into a shallow sub-orbital path towards Japan. Shinji almost lost consciousness from the blast of pain that assaulted the entire rear of his body, but he managed to stay synched with Kaworu, which was the only thing that saved his life.
The SEELE member flinched as he heard the door to his temporary NERV quarters hiss open, knowing he had waited a moment too long. He closed his laptop with a sigh as he heard the click of a service automatic, then felt the cold steel kiss his neck.
"Killing me will not stop what is happening, Commander." His voice was silky smooth and even.
"I find you guilty." Misato's voice was like ice.
"Of what?" the man asked, slightly curious.
"Of all the crap I've been through since Second Impact."
"Do I get an appeal?" he asked, slight amusement in his voice. One should never lose one's sense of humor, no matter how dire the circum...
"You just did," the raven-haired woman grated out. "Denied."
The gunshot rang loudly in the enclosed chamber.
Shinji came to himself. He was weightless, naked, and warm. In someone's arms. And someone was in his arms. He opened his eyes, and found himself looking into Asuka's deep blue orbs, their foreheads almost touching. They were surrouded by the familiar blankness of a constructed pseudo-reality.
"Instrumentality?" his mind touched hers, and a feeling of dread filled him.
"...yes." He sensed the fear and apprehension in her single-word answer, and a tangle of other emotions that he could not decipher. "Is... this really so bad?" she asked quietly. "It's only temporary. Arael said..."
Shinji closed his eyes, trying to brace himself for the inevitable onslaught he knew was coming, knowing at the same time it was a useless gesture.
"Please, don't close yourself off from me, this is already... frightening enough as it is..." She was shivering in his arms. Or perhaps it was he who was shaking.
I'm not going through this again.
Is she even real?
I can't take this any more.
I'm... too tired.
Tired of... everything.
He knew he was not in control this time, and even with all the control, and Rei helping him, he had barely escaped with a few shreds of his sanity the last time.
"Please." Something about her tone touched him, and he opened his eyes. "...don't give up on me." Her own eyes had tears in them, and he closed his again, unable to face her. She tightened her arms around his waist, and he couldn't help but be aware of her ample chest pressing against him. He was surprised to still be in this comforting place. It wasn't like Third Impact, atleast not yet, and he kept waiting for things to shift, or change suddenly.
For you, he decided. Even if you're not real, I don't care any more. This moment is real. I'm tired of trying to figure out what's a lie and what's not.
When he leaned forward an inch and put his mouth to hers, he felt her jump slightly, and then she melted into him. As his tongue explored the roof of her mouth, he raised a hand up her back and ran his fingers through her silky red hair. She moaned as they moved against each other, and he felt her complete surrender, followed by a torrent of memories not his own.
Asuka as a child,
...the few scattered memories of her mother before her accident.
The rejection, and the utter blackness that consumed her.
The small girl throwing herself into her training, eager, desperate to do something, anything to convince her mother to recognize her.
Her mother's death. Or her second death, considering the woman had basically been dead to Asuka since the accident.
Even as small as she was, the girl knew what she was seeing, when she walked in on her mother's dead form. Walked in with the news that would surely cause her mother to pay attention. News of her acceptance as a pilot...
Like the rings of a tree, Asuka had built up her armor around that initial hurt, and the ones that followed, desperate to keep the painful memories in, and any possible future hurt, out.
Watching her meetings and encounters with him and the others throughout NERV from her perspective, it all made so much more sense, and he felt his own eyes fill with tears.
One memory from her burned its way through him, the short time of happiness following his recovery out of Unit-01 after defeating Zeruel. His own memory of meeting Rei collided with her version, where she watched them from the other end of the train station, and accepted the fact that she had lost the boy to a doll.
The name fell like a droplet of water to his soul, causing ripples to slowly spread and dissipate. Asuka tensed against him, and he froze.
Wait a minute. Comprehension dawned on him atlast. This isn't Fourth Impact, it feels more like what happened when Rei and I...
It can't be. It's not possible...
He could sense the hurt Asuka was going through, and he cursed his muddleheadedness as she began to withdraw from him reflexively.
He knew words were useless. She had just opened her soul to him, and he had unknowingly treated it with the worst disrespect imaginable. As if she wasn't even real... There was no possible way for him to explain, and so he opened himself to her in the same way, hoping against hope she could find in him something, anything, that would allow her to understand. He knew that if she wanted to, she could use all his secrets to torment him endlessly, but he did not care. He waited, not even daring to breath, wondering if the next thing he would feel was the harsh blankness of being alone in this empty reality.
He felt her shift, and gasped as he opened his eyes, finding that she had raised her right hand to his cheek, and was looking at him as if she could see right through him. The pain was still there, but he knew it, had shared in it all his life.
"I forgive you," she said, closing her eyes and laying her cheek against his, their tears mingling as she pulled him closer with her other arm. "I won't leave you. I've been alone my whole life, and so have you. How could I put you through that again just out of spite?"
"I don't... deserve you," he mentally sent to her, and he felt her mental chuckle.
"Of course you don't." Her voice had regained a shadow of the former cheerfulness he knew from her. "Consider this payback for every time you saved me in the resets," she said, her tone containing a hint of mischief.
The remaining memories came all in a jumble.
His own last coherent images as he impacted Unit-06 and the Tree of Sephiroth. By this point Unit-01 had been almost completely under Kaworu's control, and the Angel had guided it with deadly precision.
Asuka's point of view as the Lance of Longinus fractured into pieces. It had been in the process of enveloping the captured Unit-06, and the part already covering the black-and-yellow machine seemed to shatter as the synchronicity of the Eva Series was suddenly broken.
Asuka's voice as she gave the other Evas their final targets, and warned Touji about Fuyutski's situation,
then de-orbited, her panic almost a physical thing as she felt Shinji slipping away.
Misato's voice, through her Asuka's comm, trying to contact Unit-06's pilot.
A surreal vision of Unit-00 walking through the dark corridors of Terminal Dogma, Lilith's placid form in her arms.
Misato looking on as Maya cut the life-support to what was left of the languishing Ninth Angel.
"Shinji, relax. They're all safe. Just relax..."
"Keiko and the others...?"
"Safe. At NERV. I ejected their entry plug, and Misato retrieved it. Please..."
Shinji finally relented, resting in Asuka's embrace as the barriers separating who they were continued to dissolve.
The room was a stark white cube of emptiness, but when the door slid open, observers gave it form. Two observers, one male fourteen year old, and another body-switched clone with blond hair. He smiled, and she huffed.
"When I get back control of the room configuration, you'll pay."
It wasn't precisely a threat, and he knew it.
"You're just mad the Angels kept it just the way it was," he retorted.
"Well, we weren't gone for that long..."
"You don't know that, actually. Time..."
A moment of silence.
"Have you thought about what you intend to do now...?"
"...that SEELE and the Angels are..."
"I've been thinking about teaching in University."
A delicate female snort showed how much she thought of the idea.
"No, no, don't let me stop you." She spoke matter-of-factly.
After another moment of silence, he spoke. "What about you, then?"
"I've been considering retirement," she answered archly.
"Now who's making fun?"
"You have as much chance of retiring as I have of becoming a professor."
"That's not true," she answered. "And you'll make a fine professor."
"You won't be retiring, either."
There was a long pause, and the two finally gave voice to what they were avoiding with useless conversation.
"Has she awoken?"
"No, Kensuke. But Rei is with her."
Asuka opened her eyes. Or was that 'his' eyes? Reaching up to her chest she took a moment to confirm her womanhood. Yep, 'her' eyes. It was... odd, feeling Shinji alongside her in one body. Odd, yet at the same time, somewhat comforting. She decided it wasn't as inhuman as she had anticipated.
Or maybe this whole mess has made me less human, so I can't tell, she thought, shivering slightly. Looking down, she saw Rei's sleeping form, sitting in a chair, her head resting on the bed, her face calm. She reached over and took one of the albino's hands, causing her to stir, and lift herself with a small murmur.
"You're awake." Rei made the useless observation with a slight smile on her face, and happiness in her heart.
"How long?" Asuka asked, and Rei took a moment to decipher the somewhat vague question.
"It will take two more days to complete the salvage process," Rei finally answered. "Until then, you will have to make do." The humor in her words was obvious.
"Make do?" Asuka sat up, unconsciously pulling the sheet up to cover herself, though the two of them were the only ones present. "What're you talking about, I didn't let Shinji turn me into a guy..." The words died in her mouth as her red locks fell over her shoulders as she came fully upright. Or more accurately, her formerly red locks. Her long hair was now completely black. "Damn it, Third, give me back my hair!" she yelled, fingering the offending black strands as she contemplated several suitable punishments.
"As soon as you give me back my body," his ethereal answer drifted through her consciousness.
"I'm not the one who took your body!" she shrieked, thoroughly enjoying the good rant.
"Yes you did. You took it and brought it right back here." There was a pause. "I'm grateful for that, by the way."
Her mouth finally cracked into a smile as the door to the room slid open revealing a female Angel with flowing ash-blond hair dressed in the familiar white Angelic garb they knew so well.
"Ah, you're awake." Her pleasant voice filled the room as she walked over and put her hand on Asuka's forehead.
The girl crossed her eyes looking up at the hand. It was doubtful the Angel was doing anything so mundane as checking her temperature.
"I see your hitchhiker is doing well," the Angel pronounced cheerily. "It's truly wonderful how malleable humans are."
"He'll be back in his own body in two days?" Asuka asked, just to be sure.
"If all goes well," the Angel replied, her eyes dancing with delight at the girl's slightly perturbed expression.
"If you can do this kind of thing for us, why not for the four Angels in the Evas we piloted?" Asuka asked cautiously, hoping she wasn't treading on a taboo subject.
"Sadly our knowledge of our own physiology is not as complete as our knowledge of the human being. Or should I say, our own anatomy is far more complex than that of humans."
Asuka turned away, staring at the wall, lost in thought.
I wonder if I'll ever be able to truly thank her for what she's done for us.
The memory of Arael's constant forlorn expression from before she had downloaded herself into the Eva still haunted her.
She knew the entire time, and I was so obsessed with my own problems, I didn't even bother to ask the right questions.
The forest of white grave-posts stretched into the distance all around as far as the eye could see, each one solitary in its remembrance of a lost loved one, yet all together sharing in the pain of those left behind. The postmodern cemetery was far different from its more contemporary counterparts of previous decades, but it shared one thing in common with them – a silence bordering almost on the holy, broken only by the mournful whisper of wind among the upright markers.
Four souls stood before one of the white grave-posts, watching as the setting sun cast its last rays onto the marker's white surface. As the earth turned, the waning light slowly moved down the white pole, as if the grave-marker was a candle that was slowly burning down.
Kyoko Zeppelin Sohryu
The two words below the name might have seemed morbid to the casual observer, but to the four keeping vigil on this particular night, they carried deep and lasting meaning. She held his hand, and he did not have to look over to know that tears glistened in his wife's eyes. His other hand was resting on his daughter's head, and the small girl's solemn features as she stood before the grave belied her five years of age. Her blue hair was several shades darker than that of her biological mother, but every so often, seeing the blue hair and his young daughter's carefully neutral expression brought back such memory that he had to swallow past the sudden lump in his throat.
The waning rays of sunlight pooled at the bottom of the grave-post, finally disappearing as the evening gave way to night. The blue-haired child gave a questioning look at her father, who nodded slightly, a smile creasing his care-worn features. Her neutral expression lit up as she sensed that the 'moment' was over.
"Kyo-chan!" she whispered, and her sibling slid her hand from her mother's and joined her, the two of them turning and wordlessly agreeing to an impromptu race to the small grove of trees in the distance behind.
The two young adults watched their offspring for a few moments before turning back to the grave. Shinji's eyes drifted up to the almost-full shining white orb that hung in the night sky, giving its light to those who were below.
"Every time I see the moon, I think of her," he murmured.
It had been over a year since the calm half-Angel with laughing eyes had finally taken her leave of the earth. She had become more cheerful and carefree since the birth of her daughter, but despite that, the young child had somehow inherited her mother's early introversion, though perhaps not to the same degree.
"She'll be back," Asuka insisted. "She said so. She... needed to return to Avalon, if only to discover more about her heritage. It was inevitable, you know that." They had discussed this many times before, and he nodded, squeezing her hand gently. At one point in her life, Asuka would have felt more than a touch of jealousy, but she could not feel so now. Not while Shinji's love for her was playing in the trees behind them. Not while she missed Rei just as much herself. The two of them stood silent for several minutes more, and then the silence was broken by an insect-like buzzing that emanated from his pocket. He withdrew slightly away from the grave before answering the cell-phone.
"Hey, Shinji! It's been a while, I know, but how are you?"
The young man's face broke into a smile at his friend's usual slightly hyperactive voice. "It hasn't been that long, actually. Not more than I few months, I'd guess, right? You still working on your memoirs?"
"Yeah, actually that's why I was calling. Do you have time to get together over coffee or something? I still had a few questions..."
"You're too young to be writing memoirs, you know," Shinji said with a laugh. "How many meetings have we had now?" His voice held a hint of amusement. "I'm pretty sure I've told you just about everything that happened before you entered the resets..."
"Yeah, I know," the young professor continued excitedly, "but Fuyutski-Sensei and I were reading over the notes one more time, and... Hello? You there?"
Shinji had stopped paying attention the instant he felt the feather-light mental caress, and he looked up into the sky, hope blooming inside him at the familiar touch. A feeling of warmth enveloped him as his heart sang with joy, and it did not startle him in the slightest when he began to rise into the air. He glanced down, but seconds later he felt his wife's hand in his, and his happiness was complete.
"...but Kyo-chan and Ma-chan..." he began, the two pausing in mid-air and looking back towards the grove of trees.
"Look!" she said, pointing. A sense of relief filled him when he saw the two children holding hands as they rose into the air after their parents. Mayumi had a serene expression on her face, and her sister was trying her best not to look around in wonder. Glowing softly with an inner light, the four individuals floated up into the night sky towards the future.
From the Diary of Kensuke Aida
They floated up into the sky and met Rei, and then all five of them disappeared in a flash of light. The only reason I know this much is that Shinji never ended our call, and Hikari swears he did that intentionally so we'd have some idea of where he had gone. The phone's video and audio were poor quality, but Rit-chan and I had access to some pretty high-end computer equipment through our government connections, and we made good use of it. Near as we can tell from Shinji's broken dialogue, something happened in Avalon concerning the resets, and Rei asked them all to join her there. We wouldn't even know that much if Shinji hadn't spoken aloud, because I'm almost sure the rest of them were communicating telepathically. They were all crying, but Shinji was the only one who said anything out loud, and I can't see such a happy reunion taking place in silence.
Ritsuko and Hikari have led quite a few rousing arguments with Touji and me about what kind of mindset would drive a family to 'abandon' their planet of birth, and their parents, and take their children with them to an alien world, and to a point I can see why they don't understand. Rit-chan and I, and Touji and Hikari, we settled down to a relatively normal routine after returning to earth following that final battle with SEELE, but I don't think the Sohryu family ever felt truly at home here after all that had happened.
It's not that they were unhappy. After the marriage between the three of them, and especially after their two daughters were born, the family was as happy and close-knit as any I've seen. And that's the point I try to get Rits and the others to see – that they are happy with each other, wherever they are. Long before they married, while we were still in the midst of the resets, I think they had already come to terms with Rei's origin, and how it might affect their future.
Shinji and I talked quite a bit, and even though he never truly opened up completely about it, I know about Rei's identity crisis, and how she felt cut off from both her birth-worlds. I personally think the resets did the same kind of thing to Shinji and Asuka, enabling them to understand how Rei felt, and sad as it might sound to an outsider, I think the entire family was of one mind in this. I personally don't think it's sad. As Shinji would say (did say, actually, back during one of our post-Third-Impact meetings) it's just reality, and we have to accept it. All we have are their words as to what happened during the resets before we came in, and like I try to tell the others, we'll never truly know just what they went through.
I think the hardest part for me was having to return Penpen to Misato and Kaji. The way she looked at Rits and I, it almost felt as if the Sohryu's absence had not been real to her until we returned her pet penguin. As if that had made it final. Perhaps until Penpen's return, she could make herself believe that they were still there, taking care of her penguin, just a short drive away.
After Misato and Kaji, Mana was probably the most depressed, and it really was interesting how she managed to weave herself into our little group. She was the only outsider Shinji and the others ever really got close with, and I know his sudden departure hit her hard. I know she visits Touji and Hikari pretty often these days, and knowing Touji, he's 'comforting' her with stories about how he was always left out of things too.
I've talked with Shinji's parents, and the reactions from the two of them lead me to believe they knew something like this was coming for quite some time, maybe even from the beginning. They're another special case, I think. That they even got to see each other again was a miracle, from Shinji's story of the original time-line, and they seem to treat every day as a gift. In any case, they got to see the first five years of their two grandchildren's lives, which I know brought them immense joy.
Like it or not, the world has been changed because of what we've done, and I'm not talking about the time-line changes alone. After SEELE's death, a lot of NERV's secrets were somehow leaked to the public, including my own mental AT-field research. Beyond that, once our little group came back into contact with the rest of the world, the activated genes some of us had began to spread. I personally think it was Keiko that began that, after she re-entered school upon her return from Avalon. She truly was still a child, and in her innocence I believe she began making mental connections with her friends. I've researched the spread of the 'gifts' as they've been called, and it's usually just empathy or mild telepathy, depending on the person and the strength of the bond, but there have been documented cases recently of feats that surely indicate that a few people have been able to physically manifest their AT-field to some degree.
It actually makes me wonder if the old men of SEELE are laughing in their graves. Perhaps eventually the whole world will be bonded in some degree, and SEELE's end result will be seen after all. Maybe by then we as a species will be ready for it. I do know we're not ready now.
As is the case with human nature, dividing lines have already been drawn between the 'Techs', the 'Naturals', and the 'Mundanes', and while it pains me to see my invention used to start something akin to class warfare, I'm sure it had to have hurt Shinji and the others even more to see such an intimate connection cause such division.
The government has already gotten involved, both in trying to regulate the spread of what amounts to mind-reading equipment, and in trying to better understand and deal with the enigmatic 'gifts' the Naturals seem to possess. As horrifying as it sounds, there has even been idle talk of sending all the Naturals off to Mars, now that the planet is in the process of being terraformed. Of course such a notion is absurd, but I'm sure it's one of the reasons Shinji and his family began to withdraw from their dealings with the world, and in retrospect, it may have in part been what prompted Rei to return to Avalon.
Humans being who they are, there will always be war and divisions between classes of people, but I can sympathize with Shinji's decision to step through the gates of time once more. Who knows, maybe what he's doing over there is somehow related to the turmoil here on earth. In any case, Rits and the others are happy enough to settle down and have a family, and truth be told, as long as they're happy, I'm happy. Even so, I often find myself stargazing, as my three fellow pilots used to do, and as I look up into the sky full of stars and possibilities, I find myself hoping I'll meet them again, somewhere in time and space. I know they'll have a great story, and I'm ready to write it.
Author's Notes: Well, that's it for now. Everything critical is wrapped up to some degree, but possibilities are left open for the future. I'm considering several options, including a separate rewrite, and perhaps a sequel (the state of the world after the last battle, and especially at the end with the entire planet embroiled in the troubles of the 'gifts' and Kensuke's invention makes for interesting story ideas), but I'm leaving this copy alone, because even if it is rough in places, I think it stands okay on its own.
Fanf1cfan helped preread this last chapter, which greatly helped. It was the most important, I think, so I'm glad I didn't have to do it alone.
Commander Galos, wherever you are, I appreciated your thorough reviews and all the interesting ideas and possibilities you came up with. Hopefully you're still here at the end, just silent.
gamer, thanks for pointing out so many of the loose ends I might have missed later on in the story, I enjoyed the thought and time you put into figuring out some of the more arcane references (to tell the truth, I wasn't sure if anyone at all would get the independence day one, heh. It seemed out of place, somewhat out of character, and yet it just kind of fit the humor I was going for in that part of the story arc. Wow, that was a long time ago in the story when there was actually humor lol)
Rose, your warmth and encouragement was uplifting.
Extinction's End, your 'Rei as Gendo' idea still tickles me whenever I think about it, and it probably deserves its own story, or atleast a one-shot that's more detailed than my omake. More ideas for the future, I guess. We'll see if inspiration strikes.
ZeroJMB, you were probably the review that pushed me over the edge into the threesome, though I was leaning that way anyway. I have no idea where the story would be without those three bouncing off each other.
Pyro, (waits for him to ask if it's over ;-p)
Ryu-Tyrrant, may you derive pleasure in the furry killings of SEELE members, and Misato's Revenge
Morrow-kun, bittersweet happy ending for Rei! (glee)
Miner603, congratulations on the correct guess ;-)