Disclaimer: I don't own Neon Genesis Evangelion or anything associated with it. Gainax created this world, I just play in it.

Damn, it's been a long time since I submitted anything. Any of you who have visited my author page over the last year have read why in my periodic updates, so I won't get into it again here. It also doesn't help that the idea bank is a little low on funds.

I had hoped to get this written in about a week or so. That was over two months ago. Needless to say, I am somewhat rusty so please take that into account.

Also, be advised that there may be some fluff within, so if you don't like it, don't read. I am not a kinder and gentler Horseman after my absence so if you send me a review complaining that the story was fluffy, me, my horse, and my axe will be coming for your soul.

So, here it is, a little slice of post 3I for you. Nothing too deep in this one (If you want deep, go dig a hole) Hopefully the rust on me isn't too heavy.

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The Last Link

A blue Renault Alpine cruised leisurely down a straight stretch of highway, west of the city of Tokyo 2. If the car could talk it would likely express immense gratitude to its young driver, because for once its tires weren't being abused and the tachometer wasn't bordering dangerously on the redline.

A relaxed, eighteen year old Shinji Ikari was at the wheel. Dressed casually in a pair of faded jeans and a light blue t-shirt, and with a pair of dark sunglasses shading his eyes from the blazing sun, he was a stark contrast to his former self. There was no school uniform, there was none of the old tension present about him, and he didn't look like the whole world was sitting on his shoulders and trying to crush him under its gargantuan weight.

He was content and he was smiling, and why wouldn't he be? He had finally made peace with himself after years of misery and he liked his life now. He had begun to see the things in life that he had missed before in his self hatred and despair. He had begun to find many new things that interested him, things that in his past he would have apathetically bypassed, choosing instead to continue wallowing in the quagmire of his self pity.

For instance, one of the new things he had discovered was that he really liked to drive, and he took great enjoyment out of every chance he got to get behind the wheel. Of course, it didn't hurt that he often had a beautiful passenger riding shotgun. It was her car after all and she was the one who had started teaching him how to drive six months earlier.

He stole a quick glance at her out of the corner of his eye. She was wearing a pair of denim cut offs and a white blouse which was currently gapped open enough that he could see a healthy amount of cleavage. Her eyes were half closed behind the lenses of her sunglasses as she hung her left arm lazily out the window, her hand riding the slipstream of air as it glided around the car.

She seemed to be in a very quiet and contemplative mood, and hadn't been her usual self for a few days, which was definitely odd for her. He knew why, and he also knew he would have to get her to talk about it. It was part of an issue that he and his housemates knew needed to be addressed at some point and it seemed like it was going to force itself upon them before they got around to it. It was probably just as well.

He had been hoping that Misato would tell him when she was ready to, just like always when something was bugging her, but she had yet to do so. Despite her distracted mood though, he was still glad to be spending time with her.

That current mood aside, Misato was just as beautiful and playful as ever and he really didn't know where he would be without her, since she was one of the three most cherished people in his life. The other two were probably still in bed back at the apartment even though it was approaching midday.

Rei and Asuka's usual Friday night movie marathons tended to run pretty late and it would be a miracle if they were up before the stroke of noon. It was alright though, because the weekly Saturday morning drive was time just for just him and Misato to spend together.

The four of them had climbed out of the abyss of Third Impact together and it had been horrible and it had been hard. They had cried together, yelled at each other, screamed to be left alone, begged for help, and pleaded for someone, anyone, to hold them when the nightmares came as they too often did.

They had held onto one another in desperation through all of the excruciating pain and mind numbing terror of recovery to finally make it to something that approached normalcy. They had eventually been able to put their past horrors aside well enough that they could finally get on with life. Now they could live for their own reasons, rather than simply just existing and being tools for someone else's sick purpose.

The Angels hadn't beaten them. Gendo Ikari and the old fools of SEELE hadn't beaten them. They were damned if they were going to let life beat them now that they actually had a chance to live it. They knew it would be hard at times, they knew it well and they were under no false illusions about it. But, as clichéd as it sounded, they saw it as being the four of them against the world and all the crap it dared to throw at them. They were determined not to lose.

Ever.

Asuka was still full of fire, but she no longer tried to burn down everyone and everything near her in order to create a barrier of scorched earth around herself. She had finally opened up and let them in, letting them see the real Asuka inside the thick, armoured shell. She discovered that newfound closeness to be far more appealing to her than her old isolation ever had been. She finally realized that she needed it and could no longer live without it. She also found, much to her initial amazement, that she didn't want to live without it anymore.

He no longer feared for his safety around her and she had actually become a lot of fun to hang around with. She smiled a lot and it was such a great thing to see because she had a beautiful smile and it was genuine and from her heart now, never forced or false.

Rei was a completely different person now that she was finally able to experience the life his father had always denied her. Even if her desire had been to remain closed off from everyone and everything and remain isolated from the world and everyone in it, they wouldn't have let her.

And a certain redhead had made it her mission to ensure that it didn't happen. She had dragged the poor, bewildered, blue haired girl out into the world and with Hikari's help she had tuned her in to the world at large. She helped to transform her from the doll-like, nearly emotionless, obedient creation of Gendo Ikari, into a real teenaged girl. It was Asuka's way of apologizing and trying to make amends.

Rei had quickly begun to adapt, she wasn't given much choice in the matter, and had absorbed it all like a sponge. She quickly discovered that she very much enjoyed shopping for clothes. She discovered the joys of things like different varieties of music, video games, movies, and all of the things that other people her age seemed to like and enjoy so much.

Best of all for him was that he got to see the result of that joy. Her smile and the life that now shone in her eyes. He loved to see her happy and watch her face express all of the new things she was feeling.

He had to admit to a certain amount of wonderment though, because he never would have imagined in a million years that Asuka and Rei would ever become such good friends and get along so well. He also never would have expected them to evolve into the notorious pair for their antics that they had become. It was like a running gag of good cop, bad cop and they had both proven to be quite devious, whether they were playing a prank on someone, or putting some troublemaking knucklehead in their place.

Or playfully ganging up on him, for that matter.

Red and Wondergirl. The Angel and the Devil. Some at school had even referred to them as 'the Class Rep's Goon Squad', because of their willingness to come to Hikari's aid when some of the rougher students started to get out of hand.

He took another quick glance at Misato and smiled to himself. Living with her and Rei and Asuka, who both now had four years of growth and filling out behind them, was definitely an adventure for a boy who was still just a little on the shy side and who had entered puberty a little late. Still, there was no place he would rather be and no one he'd rather be with than those three.

Though he did find himself taking an awful lot of cold showers.

Misato herself had changed a great deal as well, though most of her changes were less easy to see from the outside. She had let go of her issues about her father and with the Angels dead and gone she was no longer consumed by the overwhelming need for revenge. Even so, she had yet to entirely forgive herself for using Rei, Asuka, and himself to obtain that revenge, even though they had long ago forgiven her for it.

She liked to joke that Instrumentality must have done something to her mind because she acted as much like a kid as any of them did these days. He thought it was probably because she never got to really live that part of her life. It had been taken away from her by Second Impact and even though she had acted in a really immature fashion most of the time when she wasn't on duty as NERV's Operation's Director, she had still been consumed by stress and worry. All of that seemed to be gone and for the most part she really seemed to be truly happy now.

He didn't know it, but while he was thinking about how the others had changed, Misato was thinking the same about him.

He was nothing like the boy she had met five years earlier. He was still kind and respectful, that part of him hadn't changed, but he didn't apologize for every little thing anymore and he was learning to stand his ground, though he was still a little on the shy side and was still oh so easy and fun to tease.

Most importantly, he didn't hate himself anymore. He had come to terms with his life and had learned to cast aside all the baggage of the past and live for the day. There had always been people who cared about him before, but he could never see it. Now he knew it, saw it, and was reminded of it multiple times every day. He didn't look like a scrawny little boy trying to carry his own pain and the weight of humanity's existence on his back anymore. He was growing into a young man who was learning to stand on his own two feet and forge his own path through life.

He smiled and laughed a lot now, who couldn't in their house, and he was starting to really enjoy his life. Overall he had become a lot more outgoing, especially around home where he did his best to hold his own territory in a house full of women, and gave back as good as he got on many occasions. It was a hell of a lot of fun to be a part of and she was glad that they were all together.

When he agreed to let her teach him to drive, something Rei and Asuka had refused under any conditions, preferring to take paid lessons instead, she had been so happy. Of course, the sad eyed look she had been giving him at the time may have had something to do with his decision, but that was irrelevant.

He had been nervous at first, but he learned quickly and had soon discovered that he really enjoyed it. He even began to take more of an interest in cars overall, a passion of hers that she was more than willing to share with him. More importantly though, it was good to see him start to develop new interests. He was finally living, rather than merely existing.

"We're almost there Misato," Shinji announced, cutting into her thoughts. "You hungry?"

"Starving."

XX

The place they stopped at was a growing resort area. There was a lake which had been formed where a small piece of the Tenth Angel had landed and detonated, that had been shaped into a very nice beach. An enterprising businessman had decided to turn the area into a place where people could make the short drive out of the city and relax a little. Besides the beach there were skate parks, batting cages, carnival games, arcades, movie theatres, a concert stage, restaurants, a hotel, and more. It had all of the things one would expect to find in such a place.

It was clean and well run, and after a slow start it was becoming more and more popular. People had been a little leery at first about swimming in a lake made by an exploding Angel, but that fear was passing as life returned to normal and people began to once again seek out places to unwind.

When they went for their weekly, Saturday morning drive, they always stopped here and got their lunch from the same food stand. The food was always fresh and very good for beachside fare. They got their meals and sat on top of a picnic table in the shade of a young maple tree, next to where they parked the car. The location gave them a good view of the lake.

They were both hungry, since neither of them had eaten much for breakfast, so there was little conversation until they were finished eating and were drinking their soda's while watching the activity down by the water.

"Should have brought our suits and went for a swim," he said.

"We could always go to the other side of the lake where no one else goes and go skinny dipping," Misato suggested playfully.

"Right," Shinji said, rolling his eyes. "And risk getting caught by park security again? We barely avoided them the last time."

He had really shocked the hell out of her when he had agreed to her suggestion to go skinny dipping two weeks earlier. Of course, she had been daring him to do it for weeks, but when he finally agreed it had made her realize just how much he really had changed over the last four years. He was getting bolder and was even willing to take a chance once in a while. It also made him a lot more fun to hang around with, which made her feel a lot younger herself. Shinji was one of her favourite people and it made her so happy to see him the way he was now.

"Well it wouldn't have been such a narrow escape if you weren't so slow," she teased.

"You try running when you're feeling faint because you had a nosebleed due to some crazy, purple haired woman flashing you every chance she got," he countered.

"That wasn't the only place the blood flow was going if I remember correctly," she returned, raising an eyebrow at him.

"Pffft!" he scoffed. "Living with you, Asuka, and Rei, it's like that most of the damn time. I haven't had a hot shower in over a year thanks to you three." He had come to think that there was a contest going on between the three of them on a daily basis to see who could get a 'rise' out of him first and how often.

He wasn't wrong.

"You live with three gorgeous young women and that's the only way you can think of to take care of that particular problem?" she teased further. Though, there was a certainty amount of seriousness in her voice.

His face turned red and his eyes suddenly focused on the ground. "I-I'm not ready for something like that," he stammered quietly.

That was the one area where his self confidence was still sorely lacking. Sure, he could be teased and tease back. He could even be bold enough to agree to go skinny dipping with her, but even a half serious mention of being intimate with one of them was enough to make him retreat into himself.

"That's alright Shinji," she assured him. "I'm not sure your three favourite women are quite ready for that yet either."

They lapsed into silence again for a few minutes before Shinji spoke again. "You were pretty quiet on the way here today."

"I was just thinking about some stuff," she answered vaguely.

"Like your trip to Tokyo 3 on Tuesday and how you snuck back into the apartment early Thursday morning, so hung over you could barely walk?"

The look on her face was very much a 'deer caught in the headlights' look. "How did you know?" she asked, realizing that it would do her no good to deny it.

"You always tell us where you're going when you have to take a trip," he began.

She was NERV's worldwide Security Director so it wasn't uncommon for her to go and visit other NERV facilities, but she always told them where she was going and how long she'd be gone.

"This time you laughed and joked that it was classified and never did tell us. And since the dispute between NERV, the government, the JSSDF, and the UN over the ownership and administration of the MAGI was finally resolved, it wasn't hard for us to figure it out."

She sighed heavily. "Myself, Ritsuko, and Maya had to go. I had to see things for myself so I could arrange for added security and they had to make sure that the three core units were intact and could be removed and transferred to Tokyo 2 for installation in the new headquarters."

NERV was going back to its previous incarnation as a being a research organization and the unprecedented computing power of the MAGI would be a huge asset. It would still be utilized for operating various systems for the city, in this case Tokyo 2, and to supplement the military's defence network. It would also be used to keep track of the activities of the other NERV branches. A lot of people wanted access and whoever controlled it was seen as having a leg up on the other organizations. In the end, NERV had won out, but they would be closely watched at all times by the other organizations.

"Why didn't you just tell us?" he asked. "We don't keep secrets from each other, remember?"

The reminder of that particular and very important rule they had all agreed to made her look down in shame and her hands suddenly found the white strands of frayed material around the legs of her cut offs to be very interesting things to toy with.

"I'm sorry," she apologized, a slight waver edging into her voice. "I didn't want you guys to start thinking about that place again and I didn't want you to worry about me while I was there."

"That only made it worse," he told her quietly, no accusation or anger in his voice. He reached over and took her nervously trembling left hand in his right and squeezed it gently. "It was bad wasn't it?"

Her eyes were closed as she nodded, her free hand catching the edge of the table in a death grip as tears started to trail from her eyes. "It was worse than bad," she whispered raggedly. "If it hadn't been for Maya being with her I think Ritsuko would have had another nervous breakdown and I thought I was going to have one myself."

She paused for a moment to compose herself before continuing.

"All of it came back hard. All of the pain and bad memories that I worked so hard to put behind me, it all came rushing back. The way I abused myself, the way I put my need for revenge on the shoulders of children, everything about Kaji." She had to choke off a sob and took a heaving breath. "The way that I kissed you and promised you more, just to make you go out and fight again. Even as I was dying I was still using you…"

She didn't get to say any more as Shinji suddenly pulled her tightly to him and wrapped his arms around her, letting her cry on his shoulder. This is what they had been afraid of when they figured out that she had gone to Tokyo 3, that it would reopen all of her wounds and the emotional bleeding would start all over again.

Outwardly, she had always seemed to have herself together a lot better than the rest of them, but it had all been for show. He, Asuka, and Rei knew very well that she had suffered greatly too, and that as tough as she was, she still had her fragile spots.

He didn't try to tell her that it was alright, because it quite obviously wasn't, and he didn't try to stop her tears. She needed this and if he said anything now she would only try to stop it by playing tough and bottling it up again. She needed to let it out and he wasn't about to let her keep the pain all to herself.

Asuka and Rei had left it up to him to confront her over the trip. They knew that she would usually always talk to him first about things, because she was a little closer with him than she was with them. He also had never once treated her any differently than he ever had, even when he found out things about her that she would rather he didn't know.

They didn't begrudge her that, it was just the way it was. They had become that way as well, often talking to each other about something before spilling it to Misato or Shinji.

"We were all being used Misato," he reminded her. "And back then I was content to be used because at least I was being useful for something. I know why you said what you did and I know what you were trying to do. But I also know it wasn't all just for revenge and motivation. Believe it or not, that kiss meant a lot to me and it still does."

She seemed shocked to hear that. "It did?"

He let her out of his embrace. "Yes, it did," he answered, looking her in the eye. It was a skill he had finally been able to develop. "You were dying and both of us knew it. You still might not have been able to use words to tell me how you felt, but that kiss said everything. Knowing that there was a least one person in the world who really cared about me, was the only reason I even tried to go back out and fight again."

"I really do care about you Shinji," she assured him with a sad, tear stained smile. "I always have, but it was such an underhanded thing to do, to use that to get you to fight again. I've never forgiven myself for it and I don't know if I ever can."

"You should," he told her, being bold enough to reach out and gently wipe a tear off of her cheek. "Because I never held that against you and I never will."

She leaned forward and gave him a quick kiss. "I don't deserve you Shinji."

"I know," he smirked. "But I'm not going anywhere so you're stuck with me."

"How awful," she gasped in mock horror.

"It could be, when you hear what I have to say next," he told her, his voice taking a more serious tone again.

"What is it?" She was clearly puzzled and suddenly more than a just a little bit worried too.

"When we figured out where you had gone, we got talking about it and we decided that we want to go back to Tokyo 3 ourselves."

"What!" she exclaimed, not believing what she was hearing. "I had to go because of my job and look what it did to me! Why the hell do you guys want to go back there?"

"To shut and lock the door on that part of our lives," he answered calmly. "To prove to ourselves that we've become strong enough to leave it behind forever."

"The three of you are strong enough, you don't need to go back there to do that," she argued.

"Yes, we do," he countered. "We'll never know for sure if we don't. We know it won't be painless, but we can't go through the rest of our lives not knowing. We need to go back there one last time."

"No!" she shook her head emphatically. "No way in hell! It's bad enough that I have to go back there again when they move the MAGI, but I won't let you guys go. I won't let you go through what I just did. There's no way!"

"You can't stop us from going Misato," he said, his voice uncharacteristically firm. "We'll go there ourselves if we have to and we are still considered employees of NERV, and still have our security clearances. You can't keep us out."

"Remember who NERV's Director of Security is!" she shot back, her voice cracking with emotion. "I can revoke those clearances real fast!"

"But you won't," he said sharply.

"Oh really? And why exactly won't I?" she challenged hotly. "Tell me why it is that I won't rip them up and burn them to keep you three from hurting yourselves!"

He looked her in the eyes again, seeing the worry behind the momentary anger, and he gave her a slight, sad little smile. "Because I'm asking you not to," he answered softly.

That stopped her in her tracks. Those stormy blue eyes and that sad little smile got her every time. She knew that he never did it on purpose just to get his own way, he was far too honest to manipulate someone like that. It was simply just one of his mannerisms that happened to nail her dead centre in the heart every time she saw it.

"Dammit…" she swore raggedly, her eyes squeezed shut and her fists clenched tightly in her lap. "Haven't you had enough pain in your life Shinji? Why do you want to risk feeling all of it again? I don't want you to…I don't want any of you to have to go through that again."

He clasped her clenched fists gently in his hands, making her open her eyes and bring her focus on him again. "I know you don't Misato, but we're trying to do what someone very dear to us taught us to do. To stand up for ourselves and keep going, no matter how hard things might get or how many mistakes we make along the way. To face down every challenge that confronts us."

"That person's a damn stupid fool then," she sniffled.

He smirked at that. "No she isn't, but she does need to be reminded now and then that she's a lot more mature and a lot wiser than she thinks she is, despite how she sometimes acts."

She lowered her head and let out a long breath. She was silent for a moment before raising her head and looking into his eyes like she was looking for something. "You really are determined to go through with this? All three of you?"

He nodded. "We were pretty upset that you didn't tell us where you were going, but even worse was our fear of what it would do to you and that we wouldn't be there for you, like we've all been there for each other since the end of Instrumentality. We realized that we really did need to go there, all four of us together, and confront that place one last time."

She looked at him for a long while, thinking things over in her head. Finally, she closed her eyes for a moment and sighed. "Alright," she conceded. She couldn't deny him, even if it did scare her half to death. "We'll give this a shot. I just hope it works."

"It will," he assured her. "But if it doesn't I'll even pay the tab for us to all come back here and get blind, stinking drunk to deal with it."

She couldn't help the short, sharp, snort of laughter that escaped her. He was getting good at that, dropping a little comment that diffused the tension and lightened the mood when things got too serious. It had stopped more than a few arguments and tense moments at home. It was a trait she was glad he had developed.

She smiled fondly at him and caressed his cheek with her right hand. "You've changed so much Shinji. You really have started to find yourself."

"I have my three favourite people to thank for that," he said. "I couldn't have done it without them."

"Don't sell yourself short," she told him. "You've worked hard yourself to get this far and we all like where it's going."

Praise of any sort was still a blush inducing thing for him and this was no different. She smiled at him while brushing away the last of the moisture in her eyes with her right hand. She intertwined the fingers of her left hand with his.

"You're right though," she began. "About going to Tokyo 3 together one final time. I knew all along that it was inevitable, but after going there with Maya and Ritsuko, I just hoped it would never come up. I'm afraid it will hit you guys the same way it hit me."

"It'll be alright," he assured her. "The four of us together can handle anything remember? Look how far we've come together."

The one thing about the ever growing confidence Shinji was developing, was that it was infectious. Maybe it was because of his innocent nature and the way he smiled now when he said things like that, she didn't know, but she believed him when he said they would get through it.

"Well, if the invincible Shinji Ikari says it will be okay, then who am I to argue," she teased with a shrug.

He groaned and rolled his eyes.

"Enough with all of this gloomy stuff though, we can worry about it later and talk it all out when the four of us are together." She scooted closer to him and draped her left arm over his shoulders. "I just want to enjoy the day and have a little time with my Shinji-kun."

They sat there and talked for a while, letting the dark and heavy tension slowly melt away. Finally, giving in to temptation, they set off wandering through the park and played a few arcade and carnival games. Thanks to all of his practice with Toji and Kensuke, he did pretty well against her at the arcade, until they got to the racing simulators where she made him look like a granny crawling down the freeway by comparison. It was no better with the shooting games at the carnival booths. She smoked his butt, but he still had fun. It was worth it just to see her smiling and laughing. It had been just the distraction they needed right then to get themselves back on track.

Three hours later saw them back at the car getting ready to leave, and feeling much better and a lot more relaxed.

"I really don't feel like going home yet Shinji," Misato sighed. "Why don't we go somewhere for supper? If they're up yet, Rei and Asuka will be gone to Hikari's and they said they were going to stay over. And it's too nice out to just go back to the apartment."

"Sure," he said as he checked his watch. "But we've still got two or three hours to kill, so what did you want to do?"

She smiled wickedly. "We should go by Rits and Maya's place, maybe we can get a free show out of it," she suggested.

She got the desired reaction. His eyes went wide and his face turned red. "You want us to go spy on a couple of women to see if they're having sex?" he exclaimed in disbelief.

"Oh like you don't want to see that."

He was about to respond when his brain locked up on him. Well, he always did think Ritsuko was kind of hot, and Maya was cute as hell. He had a momentary, hormone fuelled vision of himself sandwiched between the two women. Then he had a vision of himself sandwiched between Misato, Rei, and Asuka. And then….well, you get the picture.

"Hah! You're imagining it aren't you," she accused with a laugh. "I knew there was a pervert in there somewhere."

"Gah! Now you've got me thinking like you!"

"Come over to the dark side Shinji-kun," she purred seductively in his ear. "You know you want to."

"You're an evil woman Misato," he stated with absolute certainty, as the rational part of his brain tried to reassert control and quell the rush of teen hormones. "Pure evil."

She chuckled and gave him a little peck on the cheek. "Yes I am, and don't you forget it." She turned and walked around the front of the car and to the passenger side, swinging her hips as she went and giving him a very good view of her wonderful, denim clad behind.

"Well, if you don't want to kill time doing that, we can always pull off the road somewhere and have a little fun in the back seat," she suggested.

She managed to find a way to work that line in every week before they went back, usually leaving him red faced and stammering and shyly declining. Until today.

"What are you going to do Misato if one of these days I take you up on that?" he asked her with a smirk, determined to stand his ground.

She stopped in her tracks and looked at him over the roof of the car for a moment before smiling and opening her door. "I'd enjoy it, and show you why you should have said yes a whole lot sooner."

The best part was, he hadn't been kidding.

And neither had she.

Tokyo 3, Eleven Days Later:

The lookout over the city that Misato had taken him to after his defeat of the Third Angel had definitely seen better days. About a third of it had been sheared off during the last battle and the roadway leading to it had been heavily damaged, making it nearly impassable.

They had parked their borrowed military SUV at the bottom of the hill and walked up with little conversation passing between them. None of them had said very much since the three ex-pilots had driven into the military's temporary base at NERV's old airfield a few hours earlier and they had hooked up with Misato.

The four of them, all dressed in dark blue NERV uniforms, stood at the bent and rusted railing, looking out at the remains of the fortress city. Over the years most of the debris had been cleared away leaving a barren, concrete and asphalt desert behind. The very few undamaged buildings that had survived had been left standing, but time, the weather, and a lack of habitation was taking its toll on them and they were quickly falling into disrepair.

The majority of the view however was dominated by the giant hole that swallowed most of the city's area. The opening blasted by the N2 mine used to crack open the geo-front to allow SEELE's MP Evas and the bulk of the JSSDF's attacking forces in.

The dead city was eerily quiet. Now that the major components of the MAGI had been loaded onto trucks and taken to the airfield, all activity on the lip of the crater had ceased. Effectively, they were alone in the devastated metropolis.

Each one of them was lost in their own thoughts as they looked out at the barren remains of the place that represented everything that had happened to them in their lives. All of the hardships and manipulations they had suffered had been by design to bring them to this accursed place.

It represented their own personal versions of hell and there wasn't a dry eye among them.

For Rei, it was her 'birthplace', the place where she was manufactured and programmed. The place where she lived and died, and lived and died, and lived, and became something beyond most people's comprehension before dying and living yet again. It was the place where she was denied anything that approached a normal life. The place where she was ignored and avoided, called weird and ice queen and freak.

Here she had been an emotionless doll, a tool, a replaceable item with nothing to look forward to but the end of her short, miserable, pain filled existence, in fulfilment of the mad scheme of her creator.

For Asuka it was the place where the irresistible force of her arrogance and pride, ran headlong into the immovable object that was reality. It was where she learned that she was not the best pilot, that her beloved Unit 02 was not the best and most feared Evangelion. It was where she fell from the high place she had placed herself upon and came crashing back hard to the earth in a flickering ball of flames.

It was the place where the madness and death of her mother had pushed her to. It was where being replaced in her mama's eyes by a doll had pushed her to. It was where the need to hurt others to keep from being hurt herself had pushed her to.

She hadn't even been an integral part of 'the scenario'. She wasn't the catalyst or the trigger to Third Impact, she was just cannon fodder to make sure the vital components survived long enough to perform their appointed tasks.

Tokyo 3 was the place where all of her training and all of the bravado and boasting about her second to none skills had been flushed down the drain. The glory she sought never came, since she hadn't even killed a single Angel all on her own. It wasn't until the battle against the mass production units that she really got to shine, but none of the people she had really wanted to show up and impress had even seen the battle.

Even when she won, she lost. The damn things wouldn't stay dead no matter how impressively she slaughtered them, and in the end she was picked apart by them like vultures on a fresh carcass.

Cannon fodder and dead meat.

For Misato it was the place where shame and the need for revenge put her. Her feelings about her father and the terror of witnessing Adam's rise in Antarctica had put her on an express train bound for Tokyo 3 long before she ever saw the place.

It was the place where she continued her crusade to cover herself in filth to give an extended middle finger to her father's memory. It was the place where she found the weapon she could use to defeat the Angels and the place where she used children to get the job done for her.

It was where she tried to regularly drink herself into oblivion to forget the past and kill the pain and the shame of sending children to fight monsters on her behalf. The place where she sent them into battle, listened to their cries of fear and screams of pain, and watched them come back broken before sending them out to do it all over again.

It was the place where she fell back into the arms of a man who still couldn't tell her what she needed to hear the most. The place where their 'sex and little else' relationship resumed even though she knew it would dead-end just like it did before, and the place where her heart broke when he died, despite that knowledge.

It was the place where in her last living moments, she tried to bribe a completely broken teenaged boy with her body to get him to go out and fight one last time. Tokyo 3 was the place where she learned to completely and totally hate herself.

For Shinji it was the place where his already unremarkable and unhappy life took a complete nosedive. It was where he learned his true value to his father was not as his son, but as the key to make Unit 01 work, and the tool to eliminate mankind.

It was the place where his self hatred and feelings of uselessness grew to epic proportions. It was the place where even when he found the backbone to try and stand up for himself, someone always slapped him back down into place.

It was where even when he tried to run away, whether it was physically or within the confines of his dark little room and the noise of his headphones, he always ended up back where he began. He never realized that he was trying to do the impossible. He was trying to run away within a circle. A circle of his father's making, meant to contain him like a rat in a maze with no exit.

It was where he learned to live with terror and pain on an almost daily basis. It was where he played the role his father had mapped out for him to near perfection without even knowing that he was doing it.

Tokyo 3 was the place where he completely fell apart and held the fate of mankind in his hands, and where he very nearly destroyed it.

xx

They had been there for nearly an hour, reviewing the worst moments of their lives, measuring their current selves against who they were when they lived and fought here and testing their resolve. At some point all attention had turned to Shinji.

They watched him nervously as his hands tightened on the railing, the sound of the warped and twisted metal groaning in his white knuckled grasp having broken them out of their thoughts. His lips curled into an almost feral snarl and his eyes took on an intensity akin to the purple destroyer he used to pilot. When he began to yell at the top of his lungs it took them all by surprise and their hearts nearly missed a beat.

"You didn't beat us!" he roared defiantly. "You didn't break us! We're still here and we're still alive!"

The words he was screaming at the destroyed fortress of humanity felt as if he was pulling them from their own hearts and souls. It was as if everything they were feeling was being released through him. It was the last series of blows in a battle, the killing stroke, and it was being delivered, fittingly, by the hands of the berserker.

"You used us! You hurt us! You gave us nothing but pain and misery!" he continued. "You tried to destroy us, but you're the one that's laying here broken and alone! You're the one that's dead and rotting!"

He closed his eyes for a moment and took several deep breaths. "We beat you and you can't hurt us anymore," he said, not yelling, but with steely firmness and finality.

They remained in silence for several minutes before he finally turned his back on the dead city and faced the three people he cared about the most.

"I hate to say it, but I couldn't have said that better myself," Asuka smirked. "Of course, I would have said it in German though so it would have sounded far more intimidating."

He scratched the back of his head in a combination of nervousness and embarrassment. "I'm not sure why I did that, but it did feel pretty good."

"I believe that you gave voice to what we were all feeling," Rei told him. "I too feel better after hearing it."

"You guys were right," Misato said. "We did need to do this. And being here with you three doesn't hurt nearly as much as it did when I was here two weeks ago. I really do feel like I can walk away clean from this place now."

They lapsed into silence again for a moment until Shinji spoke up again, his eyes cast downward.

"There's something I've been wanting to say to the three of you." The seriousness in his voice gave him their undivided attention. "I've felt this way for a long time, even more so over the last four years, but I've never been able to say it. I didn't think I had a right to, or to even dare to think that it would be returned to me in kind. But, I think I can say it now. I have to say it now."

He looked up, looking in turn into their eyes of brown, red, and blue. He could see the hesitant expectancy there.

"Misato, Rei, Asuka…I love you."

There they were, the three words none of them had been able to say to the other, but they all had wanted to hear so badly. They all knew how the others felt but none of them had been able to give voice to it. They saw it in the way they all interacted with one another everyday. It was there in the way they laughed or cried with each other, to the way they celebrated things or apologized for and asked forgiveness for things done wrong.

Knowing it was one thing, but saying it, or having it said to you was an entirely different matter and it was a very powerful thing. Now that one of them had said it, they could all return it in kind. It was like some barrier within them all had just been broken down and now the last stage of their recovery could finally begin.

It took a moment for the shock to subside, but Misato was the first to respond, throwing her arms around his neck and hugging him tightly. When she finally loosened her grip on him, she kissed him gently on the forehead before looking into his eyes.

"I love you too Shinji," she said softly and with a warm smile.

He felt another pair of arms encircle him from the right as Rei latched onto him. She kissed him on the cheek and leaned her head against his.

"I love you as well Shinji-kun. I think that I always have."

To his left, Asuka stood not quite looking at them, seeming a little uncertain of herself. Her hands were shaking a little and she seemed to be having an internal debate with herself if the minute changes in her expression, particularly around her eyes, was any indication.

She was always the hard one to reach. The rest of them soaked up any show of affection made towards them like a sponge, it was something they had needed and been deprived of for so long. But Asuka had always pushed such things away from her, violently at times, and it was difficult for her to give herself over to it even though she had become so much more open than she had been before.

"Asuka?" he called to her.

She turned to see his hand held out to her and a questioning smile on his face. It only took her a second to make her decision. As the tears started to escape her eyes, she grabbed onto him much the way Rei had, kiss on the cheek and all, and held on tight.

"Of course I love you baka," she told him, her voice cracking with emotion. "Why do you think I'm here?"

They stayed like that for a long while, just wrapped up in the comfort of their mutual embrace. They wanted to savour this moment and let its significance to them imprint itself on their collective psyche so that they would never, ever forget the feeling.

In this place that had taken so much from them and given them nothing but pain, they broke the hold it had on them and stepped out of its shadow. They were free. The last link of the chain that bound them to this place, to their pain and loneliness, was severed at last.

"Why don't we get out of here," Misato suggested after they finally broke up the group hug and wiped away any lingering tears that had been joyously shed.

"Not like there's any reason to hang around this dump anymore," Asuka added.

"Besides," Misato continued with a wicked gleam in her eye. "When Shinji was talking me into this, he said he'd take us all back to the resort to get drunk afterwards."

"What!" he exclaimed. "I did not. I said if things went bad…."

He was suddenly cut off in mid sentence. "So you wish to ply us with alcohol and have your way with us?" Rei asked innocently, though the look in her eye was anything but.

His jaw dropped open in shock. "Rei? No, that's not…"

"So you mean you don't want to have your way with us then?" Asuka asked oh so sweetly, her lips very close to his ear.

"A-Auska!"

"Oh Shinji," Misato began in a mock crying voice. "And I was so looking forward to being ravished by you."

As his blush and his temperature rose, he couldn't help but smile inwardly. This was what his life was like with these three. The people he cared about the most, the people he loved. They cried and ranted and forgave, and they flirted and they teased and they laughed. They were his family and his best friends and with everything they went through together and recovered from together, they were oh so much more than that too.

And despite all of the craziness that often accompanied it, cold showers included, he wouldn't have them any other way. They were healthy, they were happy, and they were free. The past no longer controlled them. And it was a nice ironic touch to hear their laughter wafting over the dead city that had taken so much from them. A tribute to them, and a final boot stepping on the neck to Tokyo 3.

"Ahhh! Alright already! We'll go get drunk!" he exclaimed, unable to stop the laughter from coming through in his voice.

He was immediately mobbed, crushed in a three way hug, and kissed on the cheeks. Someone even grabbed his ass. He wasn't sure but he could have sworn it was Rei. As soon as they attacked, they were gone, walking away down the hill towards the SUV, laughing all the way.

He smirked and looked back over the railing one last time at the obliterated fortress city. He flipped it the bird and began to walk away. He had better things to do and better places to be.

'I wonder if I can talk them into going skinny dipping when we get there,' he thought cheekily as he rushed to catch up.


AN: Well, for what it's worth, there it is. Told you it wasn't anything too heavy, just a rust breaker. Please leave a review if you are so inclined, it would be greatly appreciated.

Flamers will be treated like the brain damaged squirrels that we all know them to be.

And please, don't send a review telling me that Shinji is out of character here. It's four years after 3I. People change over time. I swear, I get at least one those everytime I write a post 3I story and it makes me want to go repossess a soul or two.