Disclaimer: I do not own Evangelion or any of the characters, and would be glad to remove this story if the owners/creators ask that I do so.
Chapter 1: Shinji
I looked up, and tried too late to appear like I'd been listening. Aoba wasn't convinced.
"Sorry," I said.
He frowned and rolled his eyes, drumming his fingers on his seat's plastic armrests. The group of BABYKA agents behind him watched us both with unveiled contempt. They were in their "official" uniforms—shaved heads, black boots, MP-5's and trenchcoats. Shigeru Aoba was more fidgety than I'd ever seen him. Of course, I hadn't seen him much before Third Impact.
My insides felt light and queasy, so I assumed we were still descending.
"Mr. Aoba?" I said.
"I…I was distracted. I'm sorry. Are we close?"
He ran a hand through his long hair and sighed. "You see that?" he asked, pointing out the window. I followed his gesture to a cluster of faint lights winding along a river.
I let my eyes lose focus and listened to the gentle drone of the plane's engine. We descended for another hour, during which time the sky changed from black to the cold, clammy gray that comes before the sunrise. An irrational part of me had expected Berlin to be more impressive than Boston; a quick look out the window dashed my hopes. Even from the air, it looked deserted and decayed. A place where humans had once flourished, a long time ago.
"What's that green spot?" I asked.
"Eh? Probably the Tiergarten," he replied, not bothering to look up. "They converted it into a wheat field after the Brunsbüttel Meltdown irradiated most of the farmland up north."
I stared at the floor for a few more minutes. An orange glint appeared on the plane's wing as the sun began its ascent.
"Aoba?" I said again.
"What should I say to a girl whose last interaction with me consisted of six months in a postapocalyptic warzone?"
He raised an eyebrow. "What about before that? If I remember correctly, you two were living together for about a year."
"I…failed her in every way possible. And I think the only reason she was interested in me in the first place was because I was a male EVA pilot who happened to live in the same house," I said.
"You're still going to be an EVA pilot," he reminded me.
"Only if the people who worked on the MP EVAs knew what they were doing," I said.
"In that case, start with 'hello'."
"Aoba, I'm going to have to kill human beings this time, aren't I?"
"You can count on it."
It was 5:00 AM, local time, when we finally exited the Berlin Tegel airport gates. Over three years had passed since Third Impact liquefied every airborne pilot on earth in mid-flight, and workmen were still cleaning up the wreckage of crashed planes that dotted the airfield. We pulled in to the only gate with power available.
And there she was.
"Good luck," Aoba said quietly.
It was odd seeing her three years older, but that was to be expected. She was smaller than I remembered too—my growth spurt had seen to that—but what was stranger was how much she hadn't changed. The piercing blue eyes, high cheekbones, fiery red hair…heck, she was still wearing her A-10 clips. Most unnerving of all was the way she held herself. The Asuka who had crawled out of the Sea of LCL had been a broken wreck. In the months that followed, I'd tried with limited success to coax her out again—when I wasn't trying to desperately humor our succession of warlord "hosts" or cowering under the sheets at night, afraid that I would be executed the next morning. Asuka, at least, was pretty. They would have used her as a concubine if the unfinished MP EVAs couldn't be completed. Me? I've never been useful except as a pilot.
But there she was again, hands on hips, eyes narrowed, somehow managing to look down on me despite the height disparity. It was as if she stepped off of Over The Rainbow half a decade ago.
"Well, you've grown like a weed," she said.
"You're…um…" I fumbled.
"Yeah, yeah, I have a few more curves than I used to," she said, waving her hand distractedly. "So…"
She expected me to say something here. What?
"I see you're the same brilliant conversationalist as ever, Third. And don't apologize," she added, cutting me off. "You know that makes me sick."
That destroyed my only remaining conversational gambit. Fortunately, Aoba interrupted us before I mucked up the conversation any further.
"Shinji, you're now formally transferred to Berlin branch. Winthrop's assigned me to Berlin as long as you're here, so I'll be joining you two later. I have some business to take care of first."
He paused and cast a nervous glance at the two BABYKA agents approaching behind him. I was surprised to see Asuka shy away from them.
"These gentlemen will be escorting you to Asuka's apartment."
Asuka cocked an eyebrow.
"Excuse me?" she said. I recognized the tone from long, painful experience and braced myself for the inevitable tirade.
"Winthrop wants all his eggs in one basket," Aoba said. Behind him, the BABYKA men bristled at his informality, but said nothing.
Asuka froze the moment Aoba mentioned Winthrop's name. "The Secretary-General arranged this?" she asked softly.
Asuka looked back at me and nodded. "My mistake. I'll make do."
"Yes," Aoba said again. He nodded to both of us and turned on his heel toward his waiting escorts. "And watch out for Segunda Ruta," he called back before turning a corner.
I looked at Asuka questioningly.
"Rebel movement," she explained. "Last night, they poured gasoline on two government men and burned them to death."
"What kind of employees?" I asked. I could immediately tell from her expression that it was the wrong question. Her eyes subtly flicked to our escorts. I tried not to react.
"It's not important," she said. "Besides, doesn't Boston Branch have its own terrorists?"
"Bukra. 'Tomorrow'. They prefer bullets, though."
"Yeah…Well, now that we're both in Berlin, we're going to be pretty well protected."
"It would be inconvenient to lose the pilots before the test, wouldn't it?" I said, with more bitterness than was probably safe.
She looked at me curiously.
"Right," she said. Her voice had a strained edge, and I immediately dropped the subject.
She recovered quickly. "So I hear you're a philosopher now, Third," she said. A little smirk played across her face when she said it, but the nervous undercurrent was still there.
I laughed, rubbing the back of my neck. "I'm not exactly a philosopher, Asuka. They don't teach that stuff at the universities anymore."
"Aw, c'mon," she pressed. "I heard you were taking lessons with some former professor. Saved him from starvation with your pilot's income, even."
"Trust you to resurrect the world's most useless field."
"Heh...yeah, I guess."
"So?" she demanded.
She rolled her eyes. "So any brilliant insights into the meaning of life, Socrates?"
"Well, Third Impact made Philosophy of Mind a lot more interesting…"
Asuka stopped walking and glared at me. I immediately realized my mistake. In our terror-filled odyssey before Winthrop had seized the world's N-2 supply, we had one unbreakable rule: Never talk about Third Impact.
"Err…sorry," I said. She gave a disgusted snort but said nothing else.
We walked in silence for a while. I mentally kicked myself the whole way. Five minutes into our reunion and I'd already done every possible thing wrong.
At least you didn't masturbate over her comatose body this time, a voice in my head muttered.
Asuka's apartment was only a couple minutes from the airport, inside the heavily fortified zone that most of the new government's buildings resided in. I'd spent most of my stay in Boston in a similar compound—far away from the gang-run ghettoes that housed the former inhabitants of two hundred nations after they'd randomly re-embodied. I looked out the window and noticed a familiar sight that reminded me of Boston. Graffiti was painted onto every available crevice of Berlin's crumbling architecture, written in every language imaginable—Hindi, Urdu, Arabic, Spanish, Chinese, English, and many I couldn't recognize. All of them said the same thing, though: Where are you? I'm at such-and-such an address. Find me if you survived.
When I walked into Asuka's apartment, I was pleasantly surprised by its size. Berlin had none of the space problems that had once plagued Tokyo-3—especially after the post-Third Impact famines had wiped out half of the returnees. From the scent of pine and window cleaner, I guessed a maid came in every few days.
Yet for all its size and cleanliness, the apartment still seemed cramped. I noticed that Asuka's penchant for filling a room to the brim with her possessions hadn't dimmed since we'd lived with Misato—if anything, she was even more of a packrat than before. Overloaded shelves creaked under the weight of too many books, most of them old math and science texts. An extra closet on the far end of the room overflowed with brightly colored dresses that looked like they'd never been worn. In the living room, I could see electronics of all sorts literally stacked to the ceiling—boom boxes, televisions, and what looked like an old Nintendo system. The cupboards were jammed full of every type of dried food imaginable, with more piled on the counter. This last aspect was familiar to me; my own cupboards look the same way thanks to the months of post-Impact starvation.
Asuka looked back at me, spreading her arms.
"So, what do you think?" The question was loud and challenging.
"It's…nice. You have a lot of stuff here," I said.
"Yeah. It's a proper Western apartment, too—not one of those cramped Japanese dumps. It's even got locks on the doors. And two bathrooms, so I won't have to bathe in someone else's water."
"Great," I said, somewhat unconvincingly.
"You get the guest bedroom at the end of the hall. You still cook?"
"Yeah," I said.
"Good. Take a look through the cupboards and see what you can make us for breakfast. Since it's my apartment, you might as well start making yourself useful."
I resisted the urge to point out that the host generally accommodates the guest, not the other way around.
Ingredients were more limited than they used to be, although Asuka had some of the rarer delicacies—beef, oranges, and even a couple bananas. We didn't say much during breakfast. After she was finished, she mumbled something and wandered into the living room to play one of her game systems. I cleaned up the table, unzipped my bookbag, and flopped on the couch to read a book.
"Hey, Third!" she shouted.
"I hear you do judo these days."
"Yeah. They wanted me to do hand-to-hand training to prepare for the Eva," I said.
"Same here. Wanna have a match?"
"Here?!" I asked incredulously.
"Of course not here, you idiot! The security section has a training room just a couple blocks from here," she said, walking into the living room again.
"Are you sure we're allowed to?" I said.
"Ugh. You're such a prissy little rule-follower. Yes, Third Child, it's allowed…Or are you just trying to avoid the inevitable beatdown I'm gonna give you?" she asked with a smirk.
I was still a little anxious, but I smiled. "I'll come with you."
It was still early in the morning when we arrived, and the training room was empty. I heard the chunk-chunk of Asuka turning the lights on, and soon the antiseptic glow of fluorescent lights bathed the room.
"We've got extra judogis in the locker room," she said, jerking her hand toward a door at the far end of the room. "Hurry up."
I slipped out of my shoes and jogged across the red foam mat to the door. It took me a couple minutes to find a clean gi—I could only imagine Asuka's reaction if I showed up smelling like moldy socks. I was down to my underwear when she poked her head in the door, fully dressed. In a red gi, no less.
"Hey Third Child, hurry u—hmmm…still kind of on the skinny side, aren'tcha?"
"Gah!" I shouted, ducking behind a locker. She rolled her eyes and closed the door.
Two minutes and a near heart attack later, I bowed and walked onto the mat. She stood in the center of the room, arms crossed, tapping her foot impatiently.
"This isn't a formal class, you know," she said.
"That bowing crap. Let's get started already." She gripped my left lapel and gave me a slight jerk to signal that she was beginning the match.
For the second time today, I wondered what evil god had decreed that Shinji Ikari must be placed into one no-win situation after another. My first social interaction with Asuka since we parted in Boston was going to consist of trying to gently dump her onto the mat while avoiding the humiliation of getting thrown myself. Oh, and did I mention she was a lot more skilled than I was? Her right leg swung back and forth like a pendulum, alternately trying to sweep my left leg out from under me and catch my right thigh to launch me forward. I briefly considered letting her throw me and get it over with, but two things stopped me. First, I remembered that if Asuka had detested one thing about me, it was my willingness to act like a doormat. She wasn't an idiot—if I lay down for her, she'd realize it.
And the second? It was something I'd tried to bury years ago when it dragged me screaming and sobbing into the Sea of Dirac--pride.
"Your style suits you," she said, trying a footsweep.
"Yeah. Defensive and pedantically technical like you're terrified of making a mistake. You've got to be the most boring judoka I've ev—Eep!"
I pivoted around, sank my weight, and trapped her right foot against my own as I yanked on her sleeve, following her down as we went. It seemed like a gentle fall, but I was still a little worried.
"You okay?" I asked.
She shot me a sour look.
"It's judo, Third Child, not a hatchet fight. I'm fine"
"Okay. Sorry, I just wanted to…"
"Save it," she snapped. "And anyway, it wasn't clean enough to score an ippon."
I nodded and started to press my advantage, moving her leg aside (and avoiding a triangle choke in the process) as I passed her guard and sidled into a pin. I'd secured her right arm and was starting to slide my own right around her neck when I froze.
I was sitting on top of Asuka on the shore of the Sea of LCL, my hands around her throat. She even caressed my cheek, thanking me for ending it all for her. "Finally," she seemed to say, "you have the guts to do something right." I collapsed on top of her, sobbing.
I shook my head and noticed the older, very real Asuka on the mat under me was frozen as well. I guessed from her strained expression that she was thinking about the same thing.
"Uh…Asuka…" I began shakily. Her face suddenly twisted into a snarl as she grabbed me tightly around the waist and bucked her hips, levering me across her body and onto my back. She scrambled onto my chest and secured a cross-lapel choke, leaning forward across my face as she twisted her forearms into the sides of my neck. My eyes felt like they were ready to pop out of their sockets. Already, my head was beginning to swim. I tapped her shoulder to signal surrender.
Nothing happened. I tapped again, with the same result. She must have felt it! I kept tapping and started flailing, panic starting to rise in my stomach. And then…
The next thing I remember was lying face up on the mat, staring at the white stucco ceiling and listening to the dull hum of the fluorescent lights. I turned my head and saw Asuka sitting next to me, staring intently.
"You okay?" she asked.
"You should have tapped out earlier, idiot."
The remark stung all the more because I'd expected it. I looked back at her.
"I did tap out. You kept on choking anyway, Asuka."
"You're imagining things," she said. Then she stood up, slowly and stiffly, and walked across floor to the women's locker room. After taking a minute or two to steady myself, I got up to change as well. As I put my clothes back on, I heard the loud metallic bang of a foot colliding with a gym locker. I sighed and fumbled with my pants, just in case Asuka chose to barge in again. This time, I doubted she would.
That's when I noticed the note in my pocket. It was written on expensive offwhite stationery, the kind that I didn't even think they made anymore. Someone had hand-drawn golden vines and flowers skirting the paper's edges. On it was written a simple message:
Where do you think your father is?
I must have stared at the note for two minutes, reading and rereading it with increasing confusion. Was it some sort of trick? Confidence men who promised to find loved ones were all too common after Third Impact. But no; this had been slipped into my pocket in the last few days. No con artist was stupid enough to target a teenager under BABYKA's protection.
I flushed it down the toilet, hoping that the MAGI-operated city plumbing wasn't part of BABYKA's intelligence gathering system.