Pre-read by Fanf1cFan
Circa Third Impact
Unnatural. Her current form was as unnatural as it was necessary. Effervescent solar winds caressed her naked white form as she knelt on the planet of her birth. She was perhaps one quarter the size of the earth itself if appearances were used for measurement, but for all her massive bulk, she was mostly insubstantial, which was why the planet was undisturbed, relatively speaking.
Her current state was unrecognizable to those she used to call her acquaintances, and acquaintances were all she had been given in her life. Back when things had been normal, as normal as things could be, the only one closest to a friend had been Shinji Ikari, and then she had sacrificed her life and her memories to save him. Her life, worthless as it was, had been returned to her, but her memories had remained hidden, until the very end.
Memories, and self, both fractured because of who, or more precisely what, she was. A clone, but which? A being, alien, but of what kind? Angel, but not. Human, in a manner of speaking. Not Angel, not quite human, or maybe both, twice dead so far, or three times if you took the meaning of death to be the ceasing of a previous existence followed by a cataclysmic change into a vast entity that had swallowed the souls of the surviving remnants of earth in an effort to save them because of a plea by the one person that might have been important to her.
The dark sphere hovering between her massive white hands, full of the remnants of humanity. Inside, an ocean of souls. She could not rest in her body. It was too different, it reminded her of her true heritage, and she could not face it without becoming what she did not want to become. Reality tugged at her, pushed her insistently, she could feel it, as if it were an insistent guest, hand light on her shoulder.
A guest who would not let her go, would not let up until she admitted who she was, and cast aside her former shell. But that shell, that humanity, it too was her, a guest whose light touch was on her other shoulder, whispering to her.
Don't forget me. Don't forget who you were.
The other also whispered.
You can't ignore me. You can't look away from who you are.
Pushed one way, then the next, harried almost to tears by her shared heritage, she skimmed the ocean of souls, looking for respite, for anyone at all who would understand.
Asuka Soryu. She was caught in a mire of self, bombarded by images and feelings she had never confronted in life. Her fellow pilot was in the same straights she herself was in.
Shinji Ikari. He too was caught in a struggle. Worse than that, he was so completely intertwined with her, with what was happening, to approach him, to ask him to bear her burden along with his own, it wasn't safe.
The Commander. He had been punished, killed by Shinji some time ago.
Ritsuko Akagi, killed by the Commander before this had all started.
Misato Katsuragi, dead even before that.
Everyone besides these were the same, a sea of unfamiliar faces, people she did not know. The pain of loneliness was only tempered by the sure knowledge that of those five people that she could call acquaintances, only one had been what might have been called a friend, and that itself was questionable. It appeared she had done the right thing by staying aloof from others. After all, was it worth having so many negative ties just to get one possible close companion?
Perhaps, if she had opened up to more, she would have a true companion, an ally in all this. But all the negative ties needed to gain such an ally, the possible repercussions might have been terrible.
There was no point in counting possibilities. All she had were her two heritages, pulling at her, and one possible friend, Shinji. He was Ikari, if she ever spoke to him, but when safely in her mind, he was Shinji. Once again she hesitantly reached out to him, as she always did, and as she never did with anyone else.
He responded, accepted her, as he usually did. Even in this strangeness, with the pulling of her other selves and everyone else, there was this bit of normal, of the familiar. A meeting of the minds, not unlike what happened in real life.
Two presences approached, decided on how to interact, and whether to accept or reject the other's reality. Here things were more fluid, but it was still the same. She presented herself, and waited for him to respond. It did not matter what he asked, she would accept. After a time, she saw his wish, acquiesced to it, and their realities merged.
Gentle orange light reflected off liquid that was neither too hot nor too cold. It moved slowly, currents drifting, providing a soothing comfort of motion against their naked merged forms. The rest of humanity whispered in the distance, close enough to be a comforting presence, but not so close as to be imposing.
She looked down at him, at the enigmatic boy she wanted to call friend. He looked up at her, the shock of what had preceded wiping away any trace of expression, anything that would tell her what was going on in his mind, which was now closed to her in this new world.
Seconds trickled by, subjectively speaking, as she waited. If all he wanted was a comforting presence, she would be that presence. To know what to do, to be able to read another's mind and see what they wanted, it was comforting to her. She who had long wrestled with who she was and what might be her purpose in life.
That was her name. She blinked once, felt a bead of perspiration trickle down from her damp hair as she waited for him to say whatever it was he was going to say. Or more probably, ask whatever he was going to ask.
"What is this place?"
His question did not bother her. Most people, herself included, did not truly understand what they wished for. So she told him. Explained to him that this was his wish, his innermost desire. It was hers as well, but she did not say that. It was so rare for her to experience a happiness that she was not willing to say or do anything extraneous that might prompt things to change.
Soon enough, it happened anyway. She saw the shift in his eyes, the regret, and the hope when he realized on his own that he had the option to go back. But she could not. When he went back, she would die, and in doing so give all of humanity freedom once again.
It was fitting, a neat resolution, but that did not stop the sorrow from being just as strong and exquisite as the happiness had been. None of this showed on her expression, however, for she was not willing to influence him in any way. So many others had already exerted influence, tried to use him for their own wishes, and made his life a hell. She would not be one of them.
Again, acquiescing to his new unspoken wish, she felt herself separate from him, their bodies unmerging. As she drifted up towards nothingness, he suddenly reached up, taking her hand and stopping her.
"Thank you," he said, and she watched numerous complex emotions cross his expression. She felt his hand begin to release, and she looked up at the orange sky, preparing herself to face the nothingness that undoubtedly awaited her, when his grip tightened suddenly. She looked back down, quickly taking stock, wondering if she had accidentally let her sorrow show. Had he somehow discovered her own carefully hidden wish? She would never forgive herself if that had happened, if she had unconsciously manipulated him, but there was no way to be certain.
As she wondered what to do, she found her thoughts suddenly obliterated by the one she feared most. The dark presence, the Other, the one who was always there, her Angelic heritage, suddenly focused its complete attention on her. She was caught, held frozen while a bright light shone through her soul, as the Other scrutinized her. Shinji was still holding her hand, and he was talking, asking her something, but she could not hear. There was a sensation of movement, then nothing.
She opened her eyes, as if from a blink, aware only of a gap in her train of consciousness. The sky was dark, the white moon overhead shedding light on the dark reddish seas which tossed gently beneath her feet. She waited, but there were no shifts, no sudden changes, no quiet murmur of the souls of humanity around her. Afraid even to move, she watched idly out of the corner of one eye as a massive white figure gently, slowly, settled to the earth, its head ripping away and floating some distance away into the sea.
My head, she realized. She did not even try to understand how she could exist and think without a head or body, but somehow she knew it was only temporary. Her current awareness was perhaps the last dying gasp of her billowing white body, slowly deflating and melting in the distance.
Movement drew her attention, ripples in the sea a dozen yards away. Bubbles. A head broke the surface, followed by a body, fully clothed. Had she not been afraid to move, she would have breathed a sigh of relief. Shinji had survived. This was the real world, she knew that now, felt it.
She watched, joy at his survival tinged with the sorrow of her imminent death, whenever that would be. As he began to move, slowly making his way towards the shore in the distance, she wondered at the previous reality. He had been about to change his mind, she had seen this. Perhaps he had simply been too late. Some things, once set in motion, were impossible to reverse.
It was painful to remember. Hope had battled with sorrow, and regret that she had possibly influenced his decision, and the sudden emotions had been so sharp, so painful. So unlike the common ever-present loneliness she had endured her whole life. Shinji's arrival in Tokyo Three had prompted many emotional upheavals, even if she had not been willing to show them all outwardly. In the end she did not know which she preferred, the unknown and possibly painful or possibly pleasurable, or the safe predictable loneliness.
It did not matter. Things were set now, he would continue and she would be given the nothingness she had always been promised. Whether for better or worse, each of them would get their wish. If only she had not been given a taste of the unknown, she would be perfectly at ease.
For a moment he felt her leaving, rising into the sky with the final operational Eva, then he was human again, surrounded by water. He slowly rose, buoyed up to the placid surface. He wasn't thinking, wasn't feeling, wasn't doing anything, just responding on instinct alone. If he thought, if he felt, if he did anything of his own will, he would have to remember what he had done, and where he was now.
After having all his mental blocks destroyed, it felt as if he had been repeatedly violated for all the world to see, again and again, and just when he thought it couldn't get any worse, it did. Then people had come and gone, people he had known in life. All the vagueness he had clothed himself with, all the questions he had ever hidden behind, they were all laid bare, put to him directly in a way he couldn't escape. At the end, he simply couldn't think, couldn't reason. He had seen his father, and had ended the man's life without a thought. Or rather, he had watched as someone else did it, saying nothing to stop them. Her. His mother. She had done the deed in front of his eyes, and he had said nothing. He only thanked whatever powers that were that he had not killed anyone else.
Someone was behind all this, had to be, but he had no idea. When he should have been asking that question, looking for the real perpetrators to punish, he had simply lay back, exhausted and in shock, numb from what he had experienced. He almost didn't remember Rei's touch in that orange place, her look of complete acceptance, how she never asked anything of him. Looking into her eyes, all he could see were the many deaths that were on his hands. People, real people, not just angels and monsters. They didn't deserve to die, not like that. All because he had run away.
If running away caused people to die, if it let others down, he'd never run away again.
He chuckled, then gasped and sputtered, head drifting just above the waves as he swam weakly towards the shore in the distance that never seemed to get any closer. All that was just words, thoughts, wishes. The first sign of discomfort, he'd probably avoid it, or try to. That was just human nature. Why did everyone hate him for that? His thoughts suddenly flew into disarray at the sight of an impossible figure off to one side.
She was right there, he didn't know how he'd missed her. He took in a breath of air to call out, then realized she was standing on the waves. On top of them. That didn't speak well as to whether this was reality or just another dream.
He didn't even think about swimming over to where she was. If she was illusion, it would just hurt more. She was one of the few who had actually treated him as a friend, the few times they had been together. Better to let the image be, rather than disturb it and have it possibly vanish. The vision was just that, either a manifestation of his mind, or the last gasp of the previous torment, and either way it was a painful reminder. The last time he had seen her, the her he knew, was when she had died protecting him from an Angel.
Sea salt stung his eyes, making his vision blur for a moment. His shoe thudded against something and he stumbled, nearly going down beneath the waves. His legs were rubbery as he waded ashore, gravity suddenly pulling him down. Dragging himself onto the damp white sand, he just lay there, breathing heavily as the water lapped at his waterlogged shoes. It was warm, the perpetual summer not yet broken by the holocaust he had unleashed, but he still shivered, the air cold against his wet clothes.
The distant horizon was already beginning to brighten with the coming dawn, but he had never felt more tired. Looking around at the desolate wasteland for a moment, he shuddered once, then closed his eyes. On the upside, there would be no annoyingly insistent red-headed alarm clock trying to wake him up to go to school.
He awoke to a splitting headache that he soon found was caused by the sun burning through his slitted eyes. Rolling over with a groan, he covered his eyes until the pounding stopped, and he sat up. His mouth was so dry it hurt to swallow.
He still couldn't think. It was still too fresh. He looked around, and regretted it. The silent landscape castigated him for a time, until he got up and started walking. The rhythmic pounding of his feet against the ground calmed him, reminding him of when he walked to school. It was lonely then too. That was it, he was just walking to school. It didn't matter that he didn't see anyone now, he'd see them eventually, the nearer he got to those buildings in the distance.
Some time later he was sitting back against a hard wall outside an abandoned convenience store, emptying the second bottle of water. Tossing aside the plastic container, he leaned back with a sigh of relief. He never knew how much pleasure could be had from something so simple as taking a drink. For a time he just sat there breathing heavily, until the past caught up with him, and again forced him to go walking. He was nearly a mile away when common sense drove him back so that he could collect all that a backpack could hold. Not his backpack, one he'd found along the way.
Somehow, after a day of walking, he'd ended up back at the beach. He didn't know how, and it didn't matter. He had gone nowhere, but at least he had outrun the memories. Careful not to think too deeply, he sat down, then lay down, using a blanket he had found for a pillow, and closed his eyes. He tried not to think how the beautiful sunset was made the more-so by the orange waves stretching to the horizon.
The quiet motionless blue-haired figure stood on the waves, and watched over him as he slept.
He awoke, and hunger drove him to scavenge. At least this time he was not just running from the memories. He let himself be driven by the simple needs of primitive man. When he was hungry, he ate. When he was thirsty, he drank. When he was tired, he slept. Each day he went farther and farther from the beach, and each day the memory of that horror grew fainter.
Each day as he walked away from the beach, when he turned to look back at the lonely waves, he lingered less. He knew there would come a day when he didn't return to this place, when Rei's motionless figure would stand guard over an empty beach. Maybe she would leave then. Or if she left first, maybe then he'd leave. It didn't matter.
He had almost forgotten about why he had tacked that small white cross up on a piece of debris. Almost forgotten about the woman who had been his guardian, who had burned a kiss onto his lips, then sent him away while she died protecting him. He would never again feel lips against his. He'd never again see anyone. Except Rei, for as long as she lingered.
Today was the day. He'd leave today. There was nothing more for him here. Turning to go, it felt as if a weight had lifted from his shoulders, and he walked on, as he always walked. It was only by chance that he came back one last time, to retrieve the cross. It wasn't something he could just leave, and by the time he had been several miles gone, he already regretted not taking it.
It wasn't like he was pressed for time, so he went back. Dropping the heavy pack, he knelt, and carefully pulled it loose, turning it over and over in his hands for a few long minutes. He removed the tack, throwing it away. Standing, he cast one last look over the gently rolling waves, then dragged his gaze back to the path ahead of him, the invisible path that led away, into the future, for as long as he could survive.
He stopped abruptly, turned back towards the ocean, his eyes searching out what he had missed before. There. Something new. Someone new. The pack slipped limply from his fingers and his hesitant steps took him over to the water's edge where he fell to his knees. She lay there, waterlogged red tresses and all, and she had never looked so good. She was another human, and she was breathing, and that was all that mattered. Now she too was doomed, like he was. Unless more decided to return, as his mother had promised was now possible. But at least she was alive.
And injured. She was badly injured. A thin trail of blood ran from her arm to the ocean. Her right arm, which looked like it had been split right down the middle. Trembling, he felt the long gash, felt that the bone was still there, and intact. He shuddered, looking around helplessly. She needed serious medical help, but that just wasn't possible.
It was a long harrowing painful run to the town where he had found his provisions, and the whole way there he cursed himself for not already having some kind of first aid kit, or anything. It was just common sense. After a desperate but successful search, he cursed himself the whole way back, hoping she hadn't woken up and wandered off.
His heart hammered in his ears as he came within sight of the beach, and he didn't stop until he was sure that pile of dark red was her hair and plug suit, not just a pile of something else. His sides heaved as he sank into the sand in relief, dropping the medical kit. He just sat there for a few moments, staring dumbly at her bleeding into the sand before he started to work.
Her arm he bandaged up, fingers trembling at the damage. Her eye he patched over, hiding the bloody eyelid, a thin covering over the ruined eye, its pupil white and lifeless. Then he cursed himself again, and unwrapped her arm, washing it out with clean water from his supply of bottles before wrapping it up a second time.
Finally satisfied, he sat down again, staring first at Asuka's still form, and then at his bloody hands. Washing them off absentmindedly, he kept watch over her rest. An hour later, he cast a despairing look back at Rei's silent form on the water, desperately wondering what to do.
Night fell, and he slept.
He awoke, still wondering what to do. Surprisingly, when he trickled water over her cracked lips, she swallowed once, but that was it. No other response. Went back and forth between the town and the beach, looking for useful things, but mostly just to burn off restlessness, and what food he scavenged. It was wasteful, he knew, but he couldn't help it.
He could only hope that since Asuka was motionless, she would not need to eat as much. He had no idea how he would get her to eat if she was comatose. Later that evening, he managed to get her to very slowly drink about half a bottle of water. When he lay down to sleep, he couldn't keep his cheeks from burning for a moment as he considered her resting form yards away. Mostly from embarrassment at what he'd done before this all had started. Only Rei's calm gaze kept him from doing it again.
The next morning he awoke to Rei's motionless figure on the water and Asuka's still form on the sand. The only evidence she still lived was her slow intake and outbreath, and the claw marks in the sand next to her right hand, fist now limp. He blinked, wondering at the change. Well, at least she was moving, which probably meant it wasn't a coma. He momentarily wished he knew more about medicine, then wondered if there were any books in town.
After getting her to drink some more, and setting up a make-shift shade over her to protect her from the sun, he journeyed into town to search for books. It was something to do.
He returned later that day, carrying more supplies to add to the ones he already had brought each time he made the trip. He had found books, but guilt gnawed at him, since none had been medical. Maybe if he'd spent more time searching.
His face flamed when he noticed she had managed to partially shrug out of the suit, which had slowly lost its skin-tight seal. Probably from lack of power. Fears danced through his head of bedsores, or some kind of infection or something caused by prolonged contact with water trapped inside the suit, but her skin was still white and smooth.
He had already washed himself twice since awakening, both time in cold water in whatever deserted house still had running water. Many of them did. Hormones twisted and tugged him in all directions as he admitted to himself that she needed to bathe, or his previous fears might happen. He stood there wracked with guilt and hormones before finally sitting down with a sigh.
Tomorrow. He'd make the trip tomorrow. It would be harder because he'd have to carry her. After successfully getting her to drink, he slept.
-and groggily awoke to find it still pitch black and a heavy shaking crying mass on top of him. His body reacted automatically, and he put his arms around her. Her, Asuka. She was shaking, and crying softly, her arms wrapped in a death grip around his neck. Everything was still hazy from fatigue, and he didn't know what to do. He tried not to think about her plug-suit tangled at her knees, or that he was sleeping in only shirt and shorts because it was warm.
He struggled weakly, and had nearly extracted himself from her grasp when she spoke weakly, a single word that changed everything.
"Shinji," she mumbled, and he stopped struggling. Somehow, she knew it was him. She said his name again, plaintively, and he found it impossible to struggle against her any more. After all he had been through, it just seemed pointless. Everyone was dead, and the two of them would be soon enough anyway.
He awoke with a gasp, memory hazy with fatigue, and looked over to where Asuka was lying, as usual, with eyes wide open. He knew if he watched long enough, he'd catch a blink. Had the previous night really happened? Maybe he'd dreamed it. He glanced over to where Rei stood on the water. No matter how long he watched, he had never caught her blinking.
None of it was real. It was all just one big taunt, like his life had been. He didn't want to believe that, desperately didn't want to believe it, but he was tired. If he could just get one sign, just a little thing. If she would move, or even talk.
"Do something." She didn't respond to his harsh guttural whisper. It had been a while since he'd used his own voice. "Do something," he repeated, crawling over. She didn't even blink. He crawled on top of her, wrapping his hands around her throat. Be real, he begged. Please, just do someth-
He flinched when she gave a strangled gasp, her eyes widening. He saw anger pass through her expression, but it seemed to slowly seep away. Her eyes softened, and he felt a light touch as her hand caressed his cheek. The sudden relief was too sudden, no matter how hard he tried to hold himself together, his face crumpled and tears leaked down onto her plug-suit. If there was anything she hated, it was such signs of weakness, he knew this, but he couldn't keep from shaking with relief now that he wasn't alone.
He blinked. He wanted to ask what she meant, to hope she wasn't talking about his behavior, but he knew better.
"Shinji, I feel sick...!"
She rolled over on the sand and tried to throw up as he sat there stunned. Not one day earlier it had been just him, a comatose Asuka whom he took care of, and a disembodied former fellow pilot. Now one of them was about to die on his hands, leaving him all alone except for... Turning his head, he wasn't all that surprised to find Rei's image gone. Well, if one thing was going to go wrong, why not everything? Feeling giddy, he wobbled to his feet, stumbling over to the water.
"Shinji," Asuka called weakly. "What're you-" more retching. He walked carefully out into the water towards where Rei had stood. Soon he was right before the spot where she had disappeared.
I'm not moving from this spot, he thought tiredly. I'm tired of all this. I'm not moving until I see her again. Even if I die, I won't move- A horrible sense of vertigo nearly forced him to his knees, and suddenly it all changed again. One moment he was soaked from the chest down with orange sea-water, the next he was standing in the middle of Tokyo Three, completely dry, and staring at Rei.
No, it was an image of her, the phantom he'd seen when he'd first arrived- The city was intact. He noted this idly, still frozen on the spot. She was right there, not two feet away, with a ghost of a smile on her face. He reached out, hesitantly, and his hand passed through empty air. She was gone.
Vast temperature and pressure changes caused by exploding munitions caused the wind to whip his clothes madly, but he was certain he heard a very familiar high-pitched engine whine, and he was even more certain when a bouncy female voice called through the buffeting winds.
"Hey! You're Shinji, right?"
He turned around slowly. She wasn't there. That wasn't her blue car, and she wasn't frantically waving and calling for him to get in. Still waving, still calling.
Soothing white light, soft sheets, and comforting silence only disturbed by the quiet noises of life-support machines. Rei blinked once, wincing at the pain of strangely familiar wounds. It felt like she had just died, but she didn't know if she was the second or the third, and that frightened her. She knew well how worthless her life was, how little meaning it had, but she always expected to at least remember how many times she had died.
Five forty-four PM. The clock mounted on the side of her ICU bed brought her some comfort.
Perhaps I am the fourth? No, that made even less sense. And why did these wounds feel so familiar? She closed her good eye, trying to think back. She remembered... water. And a boy, surfacing, swimming towards shore.
Shinji. She remembered Shinji. Looking at the ceiling in relief, she reveled in the sudden knowledge as it opened itself up to her. The clock ticked over to five forty-six. She did not even notice when a carefully expressionless nurse came in to check her connections to the life-support systems. She did, however, notice when things seemed to come to a halt around her, and suddenly the nurse was gone, vanished between one moment and the next as if she had never even existed.
And the clock said five forty-five. She narrowed her eyes at the stubbornly-impossible numbers glowing a dull green. She was unaware of how connected she was with her fellow-pilot's current distress.
"Could you please try to dodge a little better this time?" He mumbled, knowing it was exactly the wrong thing to say. The after-effects of what he had just gone through were too strong for him to be able to fully suppress his irritation, or even think a little before speaking.
"Aww, you know you're cute when you're angry!" Misato tussled his hair, and despite all that had happened, or because of, he could do no more than sit there staring dumbly at the impossible woman. "Just leave all the driving to me and I'll get you through safely...!" She expertly spun the car around a giant rent in the pavement where the Angel, which couldn't be out there, had just stepped a moment ago.
"What I meant was," too close. Shinji noted that his former/future guardian was coming to a stop much closer this time. "...hey! Don't stop, they're going to-"
"Just a minute!" she said, blithely ignoring him as she spun the car to a halt and looked through the driver's side window, binoculars focused on the battle in the distance.
"Misato, can we, like," Shinji made hurrying motions with his hands, to no avail.
"You know," Misato commented, her cheery voice belying how intently she was looking through her binoculars. "-from your file, I thought you'd be a little more... OH DEAR GOD-!"
Misato's exclamation, and everything else in the vicinity, was wiped away by the wave of light that suddenly washed over them.
Shinji closed his eyes, bracing himself for what he knew was coming. It did no good.
There. It had just happened again. Rei stared intently at the clock, which was even now continuing to mock her. This time, the nurse had not even gotten halfway across the room before vanishing. As absurd as it sounded, she had no choice but to assume she was jumping through time. Either that, or she was blacking out, and a nurse was coming in and changing the clock back. Repeatedly.
Occam's Razor disposed of that hypothesis quite handily, she decided. But how was this happening? Instrumentality, for all its quirks and mystery, was at its heart quite simple. It should have had no way to do something like this.
Unless this was just a dream as well. But in all dreams so far, she had been given control others had not since she was, after all, the cocreator of all this. She and Shinji. That thought halted all others. If she was here, where was Shinji at this point?
That she did not know for sure, but she did know that in approximately twenty three minutes she would be called to pilot Unit One. Presumably because Shinji refused. At least she assumed that was what had happened originally.
Shinji knelt on the blessed pavement, one hand on the soothing cool metal of the phone booth as he blinked away tears and rubbed a sleeve across his eyes. Every time that happened, every time he died, he went through that hell again, and each time there was some different twist to it, something that made it so unbearable he just wanted to curl up into a little ball until it stopped. He'd already tried that, though. It didn't help.
Just don't say anything this time, he reminded himself frantically. Act like you did before, and maybe she'll-
He just barely heard the screeching of tires over the sounds of the Angel raging in the distance, and he unconsciously braced himself for whatever Misato-ism was forthcoming.
"What're you doing, making love to that thing?" her cheery voice sailed out the door she had just shoved open. "You're Shinji, right? C'mon, get in!"
Time appeared to have stopped skipping, and so Rei counted down the minutes to when they would call her to pilot, and she would see Shinji. Not the Shinji she knew, of course. The nurses, and everyone else she had encountered so far, all behaved normally. They did not act like they knew time was jumping around. It appeared she was alone in this knowledge. It did not matter, she was used to being alone by now.
Of course, she had always had good reasons for being alone, for separating herself from others. To get close to other was to risk rejection, a pain she had already felt once and was determined to never feel again. That had always been her reasoning, and even with this strange phenomenon, she saw little reason to change. She had already hurt Shinji once, she had no intention of doing so again.
He had to be kept at arms reach for the most part, but perhaps she could rebuild the rapport the had previously shared. At the very least she could enjoy what little time they would have together.
He breathed a sigh of relief as Misato managed to successfully escape death. Finally. Death by the Angel's foot, or perhaps crashing debris, maybe getting caught in the Angel's beam weapon, or one of the VTOLs that were dropping like flies. He had no idea how close his original escape had been, but he was now intimately familiar with all the ways he could have died.
As his mind struggled to grasp the situation in which he found himself, events passed by like sign-posts on a long, familiar journey. A bright flash behind them that nearly overturned the car. Misato's cheerfully inane chattering. Darkness as they passed through the armor down towards NERV headquarters. Brightness again as the glory of the Geofront opened up below them, well-manicured greenery and lush forests surrounding the massive man-made pyramid that dominated the landscape.
This is real, he reluctantly decided, which means that's really Misato. His former/future guardian did not act as if she had just seen him stomped into the pavement by the Angel languishing behind them. She did not act like she remembered that last terror-filled day inside the broken and dying Geofront, as they struggled pitifully against the very armed forces that were meant to protect them.
His last memory of the woman had been of her crumpled form lying in a pool of her own blood, holding off their pursuers so he could attempt to rescue what was left of Asuka. The soft green hues of the landscape blurred around his unseeing eyes as he followed her numbly across the grounds towards the massive man-made pyramid that housed NERV HQ.
She doesn't remember. Does anyone? He squashed a momentary impulse to wrap her up in a hug and never let go. She was real, alive, and most importantly her blood was no longer on his hands.
"Not that way," he said, watching as she prepared to get them hopelessly lost in the quagmire of escalators and access corridors.
"What?" she gave him a surprised glance, stopped dead by his sudden words. It was the first time she had heard him speak coherently and calmly since she had picked him up.
"This..." his voice caught momentarily, "this way, Misato." The corner of his mouth twitched slightly in what might have been the beginnings of a smile as he looked over his shoulder. She was alive, and if this was all he could do to show her his appreciation, then so be it.
She shrugged, smiling ruefully. "...eh, your guess is as good as mine!"
She turned, waiting for him to lead the way. Shinji did just that, fairly floating along in a daze of confused relief. For so long he had followed others. Was still following them. At least in this one instance, he would lead. This one time, he knew the path better than she did, and he would save her from the uncomfortable meeting with Ritsuko, who probably was just beginning to search for them. It was not until they stepped into the darkened Eva-cage that his mind snapped into focus just as a light snapped on overhead, revealing the cold calculating visage of the man about whom he knew so much, and at the same time so little.
"It's been a long time."
As he considered his father's words, the door slammed open and bleached-blonde fury strode into the Eva-bay.
"I've been looking for you," Ritsuko seethed, fixing the raven-haired Captain with a withering glare.
"...ehheh...!" Misato grinned sheepishly, raising a hand in surrender. Ritsuko's eyes flitted upwards to the Commander, and suddenly she was all smiles.
"So this is the new pilot?"
"Yep!" Misato proclaimed cheerily. "According to the Marduk Report he's the Third Child."
"It's time," Gendo's voice from overhead interrupted their banter. "We're moving out."
"What?" Misato was suddenly aghast. "But he's not ready! And Rei can't do it, can she? Who-"
The familiar argument continued to buzz around him, bringing a touch of comfort to the cold choice before him. Behind him was a horrific journey into his mind in that strange place, and in front of him was a battle against an enemy he thought was gone forever. Refusing to fight would just mean they'd send Rei out, and when everyone died, he'd go through another mind-rape anyway, so what was the point?
"I'll pilot," he husked out into a suddenly-silent Eva bay.
"...-b-but," Misato frantically cast her gaze between Gendo and Shinji.
"There's no other way." Ritsuko's voice was flat, and Misato lapsed into silence.
Gendo acknowledged his son's words with a subtle nod, his expression unreadable.
The entire base shook as the Angel began its attack. The clock ticked past the set time, and the intercom screen sitting on a rolling table beside her bed remained stubbornly silent. Rei watched intently, waiting. Two minutes, five minutes, ten minutes.
It was impossible. She should have been called to pilot by now, unless things had changed, and she was the only one who could have changed them, since she was the only one who remembered. She was in bed, there was no way she could have affected things even minutely. Certainly not enough to somehow convince Shinji to pilot. She felt more than heard a low dull thump that had to be an Eva launch.
Shinji was launching. Why? He had no reason to behave differently.
Unless he too was experiencing the time shifts. The idea so startled her that she nearly stopped breathing for several long moments. It meant he remembered. This changed everything.
A dim glow illuminated the curving walls that surrounded him. Ritsuko's voice, carefully modulated into a soothing tone, warned him unnecessarily about the lukewarm yellow fluid that began to pool near his feet, slowly creeping up his legs as it filled the chamber.
Why did I agree to this?
The answer came several moments later in the form of a familiar light touch near the back of his mind. Her. Or at least what was left of her. I'm sorry, she seemed to say. I'm sorry I'm all that's left. It still hurt to feel the gentle touch of the remnants of his mother as the synchronization process continued, but somehow it seemed muted. The pain of loss was alleviated, now that he accepted the truth, or what parts of the truth he had come to realize.
He felt her arms surround him from behind in a ghostly embrace as his AT-field unfolded, and the full force of sorrow hit him, leaving him breathless. She was right there with him, and yet she was not, and it hurt so much. And still the tears would not come.
He caught himself responding automatically to the reports around him, as he had learned to do to help them along more efficiently. He had to remember that this was supposed to be his first time, or... what? Who would honestly believe he had traveled through time? Well, in any case, one quickly learned not to make NERV superiors suspicious. Of anything.
The city spread out before him as the entry point opened. Shinji took a step, and the Eva took a step. Ritsuko's jubilation and Misato's encouragement mixed with the anxiousness he felt from his mother. Her arms were around his shoulders, as if she were helping him stay on his feet, and it only served to remind him of what he had lost. He closed his eyes, clenching his teeth as he waited for his emotions to settle down. Breathe.
"Breathe, Shinji!" Misato's words echoed his thoughts, worry evident in her tone. "Just take a deep breath, you're doing great...!" His eyes snapped open at remembered pain, but the Angel was not there. It was not about to grab him by the head, break his arm, and toss him back against the entry point like a sack of old pota-Shinji! "...Shinji! We're bringing up your map overlay, but you've got to calm down..." Misato's voice continued. In the background Ritsuko mentioned his elevated heart-rate amidst the jumble of status reports.
He was clothed in many tons of sophisticated composite armor, protected by an invisible field powered by his will alone, and yet in his mind he could not be more vulnerable. A giant pain-magnet. That's all I am when I'm in this thing, he thought with a shiver as he glanced at the city-map-overlay to locate the Angel.
"Weapons," he murmured automatically, reverting back to his old training. He wondered briefly why Lieutenant Shigeru's tense quiet voice had not already given him a location of where they would be sending his rifle.
"I'm sorry," Ritsuko's strained voice startled him. "...all you have is your on-board prog-knife. The other weapons have yet to be loaded into their silos."
Of course, he thought with a grimace. Good thing I didn't just go for the knife. How would I have explained that? He patiently waited for her to finish her instructions before he acted. The blip representing the Angel blinked sullenly, unmoving except for a slight twitch every now and then. Something's wrong. It took him several moments to realize that he had come out of a different entry point than he had in the original time-line But why? ...oh. Turning a corner he almost stumbled over the Angel's black form crouched over the twisted wreckage of a squat armored building. It knew where I was supposed to come out.
"Looking for someone?" he murmured angrily, the air shimmering as his Eva's hand penetrated the thing's AT-field. The Angel jumped, turning its beak-like head in what might have been consternation as Shinji grasped its shoulder, spun it around into a building, and plunged his prog-knife into its glowing red heart.
The Angel's eyes seemed to glint momentarily, and in the time Shinji took to realize that the creature really did not have eyes, it had backhanded him into the hard surface of an armored building. White hot pain erupted in his left shoulder as flaring white light surrounded him. It fired its energy weapon, he realized as he staggered out of the way of the charging Angel. His mother's cold fury rose in his mind, and it took all his will power to keep the Eva from immediately flying into a rampage. He knew it was useless to try to stop and completely control the creature when it was in this state, and he also knew how dangerous it was to surrender and let his mother have her way.
"The extent of damage after Unit-01 went berserk... it... almost looked like an Angel attack." He had no idea how he knew Misato had said that, if she had even said it. Clinching his eyes shut and holding his throbbing left shoulder, he gathered what was left of his fading determination. His mind was a skipping stone, bouncing across the surface of his consciousness, giving him brief snatches of lucidity and control. He was dimly aware of motion, a blindingly fast charge forward. Of slamming his uninjured shoulder against the Angel just as it pulled its energy lance free of the building onto which it had tried to skewer his Eva. The Angel rose up through the air in a short arc and slammed back into the ground on its back. Bloodlust burned through his/her mind, and he could feel his mother's desperate wish to pin the Angel to the ground and tear it limb from limb.
Don't hurt them, he begged.
Images of Touji's angry face, and of all the other nameless victims of his berserker attacks rose in his mind. The Eva stalked forward, barely under control, and he placed a foot on the Angel's chest, directly onto its fractured core as it tried to push itself up to meet him. He could feel its AT-field try to coalesce to stop him, but his own was already there, keeping it from forming.
Don't hurt them! He used the complex feeling of his AT-field meshing with the Angel's as an anchor for his mind, a repetitive task that required thought and conscious control. Cracks spider-webbed out around the core, radiating from the entry wound of his shattered prog-knife, and the Angel made one last desperate attempt to climb up his leg as it died. He crouched and put a hand on its head, slamming it back into the armored street, contracting his protective field as he felt the creature turn to putty under his gauntleted hands.. Light boiled and frothed beneath him, expanding and jostling him upwards as the Angel's death knell rebounded off his field and washed out over the streets.
Don't hurt them! Please, don't hurt them...!
When his Eva staggered out of the roiling smoke and debris back to the retrieval elevator, and they recovered him from the entry plug, he was still murmuring the words.
Unlike before, this time he was mostly conscious throughout the collage of tests and procedures to make sure he was physically and psychologically fit after the battle. Ritsuko's face eventually swam into view, and she informed him of the Commander's wish to speak with him. He acquiesced with a sigh, trudging off away from the hospital in which he had so often recuperated in another lifetime.
His father's office seemed to grow more cavernous every time he visited it. The shadows crouching along the walls and around the desk spoke to him, their edges sharp and accusatory, reminding him of all his past failures. Touji, whom he had crushed in his Eva's hand, crippling the boy for life. Rei, who had sacrificed herself to save him. Misato, who had been shot in front of his eyes because he had been too shell-shocked to even walk to his Eva on his own. All these mistakes were behind him. Or in front of him, depending on how he looked at it. Gendo's voice broke his reverie.
"I have," the man's face twisted into an unreadable grimace, "an assignment for you."
Shinji tried to keep his jaw from dropping at his father's strange expression and utterly unexpected speech.
NERV's massive pyramid retreated in the distance as Shinji made his way towards his destination. Various feelings and thoughts shot through his mind like sparks against a dark background. This went beyond different. Not only that, he saw no way his own actions could have caused this. For his father to ask something like this, there was only one person he knew who could convince the man to do this.
One person, and if she had done so, it meant she remembered.
It was that probably that brought the pain. He knew he should have been happy, and a part of him was. He was no longer alone, there was at least that. Still, the real question was not if she remembered, but how much.
His trudging steps took him ever closer to Rei's apartment, and from this day forward, his new home.
Rei opened her eyes at the light touch of a palm on her forehead, and nearly jumped when she saw a wide-eyed Shinji looking down at where she languished on her bed. Whether he remembered or not, it had been doubtful in her eyes whether he would accept her as a room-mate. The self-control of his normally reserved expression was partially broken by recent events, but even so she could not divine any meaning from it. He was here for now, but she knew if she did nothing, did not at least attempt to reach out to him, he would leave. Before she could decide what next to do, he spoke.
The two quiet words formed a statement, with a slight emphasis that might have made it a question. It was also the only logical question that one who was a part of this strangeness would have, after a desperate lonely search for someone who might understand.
She nodded assent, unable to keep her head from jerking slightly. Although she had correctly surmised the situation hours ago, it was another thing entirely to have the truth laid out right there in front of her. She watched as the tension seemed to slowly drain out of him, and he slumped to the floor, leaning back against her bed, his breath shuddering slightly.
His feelings, which were usually cloaked in mystery, were for a moment open to her. Relaxation was finally possible, now that at least a part of the puzzle had been discovered, now that the horrible feeling of alone-ness was banished. Another was there, another who was in exactly the same situation.
Without even wondering why she did it, she shifted her arm to the side of the bed, and laid it on his head. It wasn't anything she decided consciously, his need had called out to something inside her. He shook, and made small noises, bringing answering emotion to her throat. She closed her eyes, feeling the same relief that he undoubtedly felt, and slept.
Some time later the burbling of water and the smell of spice drew her to wakefulness. Her hand still tingled from the remembered touch. Casting her eyes to the kitchen area, she saw a saucepan on the stove spit defiantly a couple of times before a hand reached over to turn down the flame to a more suitable level. Half an onion sat on the counter, its edges frayed, several discarded skin peelings drifting lazily along the counter towards the edge and towards freedom. A conscientious gesture from the erstwhile cook gathered them together and deposited them into the waste basket beside him. He looked over his shoulder as if he could feel her eyes on him, and perhaps he could.
"It'll be ready in a few minutes," he said hesitantly. "If you're hungry."
She closed her eyes again, shifting slightly and wincing at a sharp pulling sensation near her ribs. It would take that long for her to simply sit up. After a few seconds she heard him turn back to the stove, and realized he had expected some kind of response.
"Thank you." She heard his intake of breath, and wondered at its meaning. The phrase was still foreign to her, but she had the feeling she would be saying it often enough, at least until she recovered. By the time she had gotten herself into a seated position against the back of the bed, he had softly padded over with a bowl. He drifted to a stop, the steam from the bowl's contents giving form to the otherwise invisible air currents in the room. He hesitated, his mouth opening and closing several times, his eyes tracing complex diagrams on her bed sheets and her right arm, which was in a cast. It was fairly obvious he was wondering how she was going to eat and hold the bowl with only one good hand. She reached out and plucked the bowl from his hands, balancing it between her immobilized right arm and her stomach. This seemed to satisfy him, and he turned away only to be stopped by a small noise from her throat.
"Oh, sorry..." he turned back around, handing her the forgotten chopsticks and wooden spoon which he still held in his other hand. His cheeks colored, and he hastily retreated to prepare his own bowl. He returned moments later and carefully sat near the end of the bed. Silence descended as they ate, and Rei watched as the boy sitting across from her deteriorated throughout the peaceful meal. To her it went against all logic, but she could not know what went through his mind every time his eyes met hers. He did not see the wounded teenager that needed his help, he saw the enigmatic girl who had lain naked and expressionless beneath him in this very apartment a lifetime ago. He saw the one who had slapped him in a moment's fury, the one who had given him a gentle smile after he had opened her overheated capsule, the one who had sacrificed her Eva, and her body, and all her memories for him. All their memories, few that they had. He saw the gigantic God-like being reaching her arms out to cradle his Eva, offering him a gift he neither understood nor wanted.
She watched as his chopsticks began to tremble, and knew if she did nothing he would bolt from the room, perhaps never to return.
"-yeah?" the fear receded from his eyes, and he glanced at her bandages and her eye patch as if reminding himself who she was, or at least who she was now. Several confusing seconds went by in silence.
"I need you," she finally said, and it didn't sound at all like when she had considered the phrase in her own head. She had simply wanted to put in words something that might prevent him from leaving, but the statement sounded vague, now that it was in the open.
"Why?" he half-asked, emotion crossing his face. The question startled her, until she decided he had read the deceptiveness in her tone. She hadn't meant any harm, she was just frightened he would leave her alone.
"You remember," she finally answered.