Pre-read by FanficFan
Laughter. Joy. She came to herself, standing before a roaring bonfire, watching the sparks soar up and scatter like stars in the sky. Voices murmured around her, some in quiet conversations, others raised in merry exchanges. She concentrated, trying to remember where she was, what she had been doing. It was hard to recall specifics of the recent past, not to mention what would be considered a day ago, or a week or even a month. It all blurred together, one long happy smudge of existence stretching as far back as she could remember.
"Are you well?" The feminine melodic voice, quiet and airy like wind-chimes, drew her attention. Soft black curls haloing a pale oval face that shone with life. She was Leliel of the Ocean, and beside her stood Areal of the Eagle, his blazing red hair reflecting the light of the bonfire. The two of them had been her guardians, her mentors, for as long as she could remember.
"Yes," she answered, smiling wanly. It wasn't precisely a lie. Not that she could have consciously told one in this place, especially to these two. They were the closest thing she had to a family, though in a sense, everyone in this realm was her family.
She shook her head, allowing herself to be led away from the fire, nearer to a stand of trees. Well, less a stand of trees and more a forest, now that the fire was no longer so blinding. No longer protected by its warmth, she shivered at the chill fingers of the night's calm breeze. Comforting arms pulled her close, and she gratefully accepted the warmth of contact.
Away from the fire she could see the small settlement spread out on the edge of the woods. Clusters of tents marched their way across the landscape as if left by the mad pirouetting of a deranged dancer, but then there had been no central designer other than fate. Each small group lived where they willed, some close together, others out near the edge of the settlement, hidden from their nearest neighbors by trees and bushes.
"This day has been long coming." Areal's deep baritone was soothing, even if she didn't want that feeling. She looked up to Leliel's smooth face, finding a touch of sadness but no tears.
"You cannot choose someone from this village," Leliel spoke softly, answering an unvoiced question that had been asked often before.
"I am not the first to take this path." With all her heart she longed for her Ocean mother to contradict her, to lay out arguments against what she was doing. She herself was conflicted, at least she was on the surface. "Others have left the village before me."
She looked to hot-headed Areal, but he was still as a statue. Leliel's eyes glittered with wetness and she closed them. "And so far, none have returned," the woman breathed out.
Stricken to the heart, she turned, her stumbling footsteps carrying her deeper into the woods. Behind, she heard a short outcry of grief, then a deep baritone rumble of comfort.
She ran through the forest until she couldn't see anything more than gray shadows reaching for her blindly. Stray branches brushed against her face, bushes pulling at her, pushing her first one way then another. It felt as if she were going uphill, then climbing steeply. She stumbled to her knees, her breath coming in heaves as she fought to draw in precious air.
She looked down at her hands, which weren't dirty. She felt her face, the skin neither broken nor scratched. Most people would probably think her a fool for leaving this perfect place. Around her was darkness. Even the bright orange of the bonfire through the trees behind her had disappeared.
Not dark. Now that her eyes had adjusted she could see the path ahead bathed in a pale white light, as if the calm unblinking eye of the moon was somehow somehow peeking its way through the impenetrable ceiling of tree branches overhead. She looked up just to assure herself of that fact, and the darkness of tangled boughs blocked all sight of the night sky.
The pale glow was emanating from somewhere up ahead. She crept forward on her hands and knees, anticipation building within her. She had not felt such excitement for a long time. Wariness made her pause as the ground leveled out. With a sudden effort she pushed herself up over the lip of earth that held her up, suspended over a vast expanse that took her breath away.
The cliff face on which she lay was high above the clouds below. She had not known her village was settled on such a high mountain. A bright blue jewel sparkled below, a round hill of life nestled between giant mountains on both sides. She imagined she could see vast rivers of water, mountains jutting up from wide-open grassy plains. There would be towns, cities, and possibly, somewhere, someone waiting for her. Someone who was possibly looking up towards the cliff where she was sitting.
She stretched out a hand, spreading apart her fingers. The jewel of life fit between her fingers like a gemstone on a ring, just as distant. There had to be some way down, some hidden path.
Suddenly she was falling, though she didn't remember jumping or crawling forward. The roar of wind blanked out everything else, bringing an unaccountable sense of peace to replace the momentary fear.
Remember, the wind whispered, as she fell. If you can remember your way back, you'll always have a place with us.
Oh, and Areal says not to bring back any weirdos.
She smiled. The clouds embraced her, and she slept.
Darkness. The remnants of a strange dream echoed through her mind, something about a fire, and a forest. She did not know what any of it meant, she only had fading images and the intense darkness.
Open your eyes.
The words sounded strange at first, as if they were in a language different from her own. The sounds and syllables rearranged themselves, and she forgot her previous confusion. She opened her eyes.
A man stood before her, a kind smile on his face. It reminded her of someone else, someone with red hair, and she reached up a trembling hand. It was stopped by an invisible barrier, and the man reached a hand towards hers, laying it flat against the barrier where her hand touched. She looked at her hand, felt the weakness in her body, and wondered.
A tall woman with dull yellow hair stepped into view, and she blinked questioningly at this newcomer. She was dressed in white and held something square in her hands.
"Amazing," she said. "I think she can understand what we're saying, even this young!"
The woman continued talking, mumbling to herself. The man left. She looked around, momentarily feeling the boundaries of her realm. Circular and invisible, but it bent the light, a slight distortion. She was resting in some sort of liquid, but she was able to breathe. This was not frightening to her, for some reason.
Where I come from, I have always been protected from harm.
The thought came and went, from where she did not know. Her past was shaded in darkness, dim memory that had long since faded. The strange woman outside moved about, doing things she didn't understand, sometimes pausing to look at her.
Time passed, and strange thoughts came and went on their own. She was brought back to awareness by a change she felt from her head to her feet. Suddenly she was heavy, sinking to her knees. Coldness wrapped around her skin, making her shiver. She breathed out, and watched mesmerized as liquid streamed down. She opened her mouth and let the liquid splatter onto the ground and disappear through small holes in the floor.
Then she breathed in and icy air burrowed into her lungs making her cry out. Pain was something foreign to her, as alien as sorrow. She lay on the cold hard floor and wept until warm arms gathered her close.
Pain slowly subsided and she came to herself. She was lying on something soft and white, and when she breathed in it no longer felt as bad. She reached her hand up, looking at it. It felt cold in the air, but the air she was breathing was warm and moist. Something was over her face, giving her warm air to breathe. She let her hand fall and closed her eyes.
She blinked and sat up, bringing a hand to her face to assure herself of reality. The room was dark, but through the window the horizon was shot through with pink. Reaching over flipped a switch and the room lit up with flickering harsh white light that soon stabilized. Her room, her apartment.
It had been over ten years since memories of her past had intruded upon her sleep. Especially memories of her deep past, of her life in that village on the mountain. The vague memory was surreal enough for her to put down to some sort of bizarre hallucination, were it not for the primal need she felt to return, to go back to wherever it was she came from. If only she knew where that was. This was supposedly her birth place. Where else could she have come from? When would she have had time to live a life there, no matter how short?
Shrugging aside the questions and the bed-covers, she stepped away from the bed and into her morning routine.
Showering, dressing herself, cutting up fruit and eating it over reheated rice. She had long since grown used to the pains and dullness of everyday life. None of it mattered, except that it kept her functioning for the hours of time she put into her work at NERV, the top-secret governmental agency created to protect humanity from the threat of invasion.
Placing her empty dish with the others in the sink, she left the kitchen, pushed open the door to her apartment, and caught sight of one of the few bright points of the day.
The black haired teenager pulling shut the door to the apartment three doors over from hers was Shinji Ikari. He jogged over, catching up to walk beside her. They walked down the stairs and out onto the sidewalk.
"Are you prepared for your harmonics test?" Rei asked.
"Yeah, I guess so." His youthful expression twisted as if he was tasting something he wasn't sure he liked or not. "I'm not sure I'll ever get used to that kind of thing."
"You will," Rei reassured him. Buildings rose in the distance as they walked over the curve of the sidewalk towards the nearest entry point down into NERV headquarters hidden below the sprawling city of Tokyo-3. Shinji glanced over.
"Don't you have an activation experiment today?"
The train ride down was punctuated by further sporadic conversation. Her activation test had already been delayed once due to compatibility issues, according to Doctor Akagi. Failure was not something she enjoyed, especially concerning the Commander, but she didn't know what else she could do.
Fully changed into their plug suits, both followed Ritsuko to the Eva cages. Lights snapped on as they walked, harshly illuminating each Eva in turn, first the lurid orange of the first unit's armor, and then the purple sheen of Unit-01. The purple coolant liquid that came up to both units' chests was eerily motionless.
"As soon as the activation experiment is complete, both of you will undergo your regularly scheduled harmonics test." Ritsuko gave Rei a cursory glance. "Are you ready?"
"Alright, come with me."
Following Ritsuko, she walked over to where a plug seat was waiting at the end of its crane, waiting to lift the pilot out over the lake of coolant to the waiting partially-ejected entry plug at the base of the Eva's neck. She looked back towards where Shinji stood as she sat down. He waved, and then was eclipsed by Ritsuko, who helped her fasten the seat's restraints over her midsection.
The agonizingly slow movement of the crawler transporting the Eva to the secure bunker room where activations were carried out was mind-numbing, even for Rei. Especially for her, since this was her life, and she appeared to be doing poorly. She had plenty of time to steady herself, however, and repeat the calming exercises she had been shown over and over. By the time her unit had been hooked to the wall securely into its restraints, her mind was as calm as the unmoving coolant lake had been.
At least it felt that way. Probably just out of her conscious vision there was a torrent of feelings bouncing around.
She further calmed herself as the plug lights strobed, flashing the multicolored shapes of the test patterns. She closed her eyes. The entry plug was the closest thing she had to the previous world of comfort she had come from. She remembered no details of that past life, be she knew it had been supremely comfortable and peaceful. It was to this peace she longed to return. This goal sharpened her concentration and eased her mind.
"Beginning contact..." Voices washed over her, the technicians going through their routines. Tension filled their voices, but now she was immune to it. Let them feel the tension, if they wanted to do so.
"First-stage contact established, beginning second-stage contact..." She felt a presence stir, and something began to simmer deep in her mind. She didn't quite understand. It wasn't uncomfortable, but something akin to an itch began to crawl its way up from the depths of her subconscious.
"Second-stage contact established, approaching absolute borderline at one point eight, one point five, one point two..." There was something in the Eva, looking at her. What was it? "-point eight, point seven, point six-"
The base shook on its foundations.
"Abort the test! Abort the test...!"
"Pattern Blue has been detected at close range! My God, it's already within the outer defense perimeter! Scramble all squadrons-"
She leaned back, hands still over her mouth, eyes wide. The tendrils of that alien presence had almost gotten her.
It was myself. She tried to control her breathing, her racing heartbeat. All the parts I don't like, the parts I don't like looking at. But why?
Her retrieval from the Eva took time, but she was jogging down the hall back towards the Eva cages in time to see Ritsuko leading a white-faced Shinji towards a waiting plug seat, undoubtedly bound for Unit-01. Ritsuko turned and strode across the deck towards a technician, conversing with him in hushed tones.
"Ikari, it's okay...!" He turned at her words, his eyes wide. "Just remain calm during the process. Remain calm..."
He nodded as Ritsuko ran over and bundled him into the plug seat, which sped away soon after. She waited, watching, as the Eva brooded. Several minutes passed, and then its eyes took on a dull glow. The technicians that happened to be in the area were too disciplined to break into open cheers, but more than one smiled, nodding respectfully. She let out the breath she had been holding, and turned to jog off towards the showers.
One quick shower later, she was standing on the control deck, her hair still damp.
"Just concentrate on walking, Shinji, you're doing just fine..." Ritsuko bent over a technician's shoulder. At this point, Misato burst through the door.
"I made it!" she bawled. Rits whipped around, a scowl on her face.
"Not in time," she snapped.
"Can I say it? Just once?" Misato begged.
"I'm warning you..."
"Launch-!" Ritskuko lunged for Misato's throat. "Just kidding!" The raven-haired major shrieked, dashing back out the door. Rei walked up to the microphone, watching the Angel's progress towards Shinji's Eva.
"Draw your prog knife, Ikari."
"Prog what?" Shinji's static-filled voice sounded confused.
"Press the button on your right butterfly control. The knife will come out of your-"
"-right shoulder pouldron!" Ritsuko shoved Rei to the side, nearly unseating Lieutenant Shigeru.
"Oh," Shinji commented. "So that's what this button does-" The Angel hit his Eva like a wrecking ball. The impact jarred the knife out of its sheath where it hung in mid-air for a split second before clattering to the street below. The fight went downhill from there.
It was the middle of the day in Tokyo-3 and the sun was beating mercilessly down on all the workers who were busy picking up all the little bits of Angel scattered throughout the city. Two figures were making their way down a particular sidewalk. One of them had blue hair, and the other one had a broken arm supported in a sling.
"It is very fortunate," Rei commented to her walking companion, "that your Eva knows how to fight far better than you do." She shot him a glance, but other than turning red, he didn't speak. Then again, that might have just been the heat. "You are also very fortunate I have been assigned to be your caretaker until you recover."
"-a-ahh," he swallowed nervously, "come again?"
Thus began what came to be known as the Days of Hell.
Afternoon sunlight spilled through the window of apartment 402, laying out a square pattern of light across the sheets of Shinji's bed. Well, Rei's bed, actually, but Shinji was in it. Rei walked into the room carrying a tray which held a steaming bowl of something. She wore blue sweatpants, tee-shirt, and an apron. He smiled at her. She set the tray down on his lap, which allowed him to see that the front of the apron had the words 'Kiss the Cook' in embellished print. His smile turned uncertain.
"Say aah," she said, seating herself on the side of the bed and lifting a spoonful to his mouth.
"-um, what's in it?" He tried to cover his discomfiture with enthusiasm.
"It's vegetable miso." She held the spoon closer, one hand underneath it to keep from spilling.
"W-Wait, I can eat by myself, at least-" He shifted his cast, and soup began to find its way over the edge of the bowl.
"You'll spill it on yourself." Her eyes brows ticked down slightly. "Say aah."
He hesitated, then obeyed.
The two sat in the bathroom, he on the closed toilet seat, she on a chair she had slid into the room.
"Are you sure you know how to change these bandages?" He moved his feet nervously, trying not to be skittish when she was this close to his damaged arm.
"Quite sure." She deftly unwound the wrapping. The actual cast covered only part of the fore-arm, the break being a minor one. The bandages formed a white pile on the floor, and Rei set aside the new roll of gauze. Instead of re-wrapping his arm she slipped a plastic bag over it, taped it quickly and then reached over and began unbuttoning his shirt.
"Wh-What're you doing?" He tried backing up, but was afraid to move too much.
"You should bathe before I finish changing your bandages." She had already pulled the shirt over his head.
"Alright, I guess, that sort of makes sense- AACK!" She had stripped his pants halfway off before he realized it. "Wait..." she lifted him to his feet, pushing him towards the shower, "Wait! Don't you think... aah!" he turned away suddenly, his face red. She had already taken her tee shirt off and was stepping out of her sweatpants.
"-yes?" she paused. He looked at her quickly, then quickly looked away again.
"Nothing! But..." The both of them were inside the cramped shower and she turned the water on. He gasped and hissed, then hyperventilated for a few seconds before commenting, "-d-d-damn that's cold!"
It was a long thirty seconds before the water warmed up.
A very red Shinji was tucked under the covers. Beside him was an oblivious Rei. She glanced over at him.
"I will awaken periodically to make sure you have not injured yourself."
His eyes flitted over to hers. "Th-thanks." They flitted back to the ceiling.
Over the next few days Rei's small apartment slowly lost most of its clutter, and quickly gained a television set and a small library. Rei followed him wherever he went, and when he returned to school two days after the battle, she moved him to the seat behind hers amidst a bunch of hoots and catcalls. Kensuke began to film what he termed 'The Tortured Life of Shinji Ikari' and followed them around the school grounds with his his camcorder. This only made Rei try harder to pamper him. Finally Shinji found solace the only place he could, the boy's bathroom.
"She's a witch," he muttered, leaning against the side of the stall and breathing heavily. "-a demoness! a-"
"-what?" A pale hand unzipped him.
"AAAH!" he nearly fell over the toilet. "-using the bathroom here!" he yelled. His eyes bugged out at a sudden idea. "Where's Kensuke?" he glanced fearfully around, expecting the boy and his camera to pop out at any minute. "Are you sure he's not...?"
"I have confiscated this for the time being." Rei lifted the boy's camcorder. Shinji glanced from her to the stall door. Rei followed his gaze. "Ah, yes." She exited the stall and shut the door fastidiously behind her.
As the days continued to pass, Rei noted that Shinji slowly acclimated himself to her care. He no longer flinched at her every move, he began to get a warmth in his eyes when he thanked her for the food, and he no longer panicked when they showered. In fact, his behavior began to get downright strange, when she thought about it.
When she helped him, he did not push her away. Instead, he usually turned some shade of red and seemed happy. But he became more adept at escaping her. It as odd that he would both want her help and at the same time desire to escape her, but she could not seem to pin down the cause of his mental disorder. For this reason, on the momentous day when Ritsuko cut away his cast, Rei informed him that he would still be in her care. He sputtered and turned red, but said nothing overt.
She no longer followed him everywhere, and she no longer waited on him hand and foot, but she did watch his behavior. And she still cooked for him, though she could never find her apron. Perhaps she had misplaced it.
In the end, what finally brought an end to the Days of Hell was Shamshel's onslaught.
Ritsuko was standing by the waiting plug seat, writing something on her notepad, when the two Children came through the door and walked towards her.
"Hurry!" she said, stepping back. Misato burst through the cargo doors behind Shinji and Rei, out of breath.
"Not late!" she huffed out, coming to a stop and catching her breath.
"So I see," Ritsuko observed icily. Rei stepped forward a pace.
"I cannot vouch for Pilot Ikari's mental health," she began. "He cannot be allowed to pilot alone."
"BWhat?" Shinji yelped.
"See?" Rei said innocently.
"But his harmonics test was normal, right?" Misato asked Ritsuko. "His psychograph was completely clear! Well, except for that one point yesterday..."
"What would you have us do?" Ritsuko asked Rei, half-sarcastically. "There's no time to switch the pilot data, and you've never activated Unit-01 anyway, so-"
"Put them both in Unit-01," Gendo grated out, from where he stood in the upper observation deck overlooking the Eva Cages. "She should have a calming effect on him and stabilize his psychograph."
Eva Unit-01 stood crouched behind a building, pallete rifle in hand, tensed for the impending attack of the Angel which was rapidly approaching from the direction of the Tokyo-3 bay area.
"Ikari, why have you been acting strangely these past few days?"
Shinji flinched, glancing over to where Rei floated near behind his right shoulder.
"Y-You really want to talk about this now?"
"Now is the best time." She calmly returned his gaze. "We should take care of it before the Angel attacks."
The building they were standing behind disintegrated, sliding apart in four large pieces.
"Well, it's too late for that!" Shinji opened fire, wreathing the Angel in explosions. Hot purple whips flashed out, cutting the gun into three pieces. The only reason they didn't cut the Eva in half was because Shinji had abandoned the gun almost immediately.
"Running away is not a sound tactical strategy," Rei observed, glancing back over her shoulder. "Head for Silo thirteen, I will ask Doctor Akagi to send up the composite rifle-"
"Screw the composite rifle!" Shinji ducked a wild purple whip, dodging down an alley, then making another mad dash and turn, ducking behind another building.
"What I meant," Rei said, continuing her previous train of thought now that they seemed to be out of current danger, "was how you seem appreciate my help, and at the same time seek to escape."
Shinji stared at her askance. "You really don't know what's wrong?" He was turning red again.
A horrible hissing sound erupted from behind, and Shamshel's whips had encircled the Eva from behind, pinning its arms to its sides.
"It's..." Shinji struggled blindly, "It won't move! I can't escape...!"
Misato yelled something about missiles, and explosions blanketed the two combatants, to no avail.
Shinji lowered his head, breathing hard. "You really don't know what's wrong..." Either a bead of perspiration or a tear slid down the side of his face. It was obviously hard for him to believe she couldn't feel anything for him after all they had done together. Or rather, all she had forced them to do together.
"No," Rei answered, staring at him blankly. He had fantasized about this kind of thing for the days he had been incapacitated and in her care, especially after her seemingly intimate actions. Now he knew better than to think that she had meant it all that way, however much he both feared it and wanted it at the same time. Still, they were likely about to die, so it didn't matter anyway, right? After a swift mental struggle during which she stared at him cluelessly, he suddenly turned, putting his lips to hers. Ironically, his feelings were so strong that Eva turned its head with far more force, impaling Shamshel in the throat with its horn. The Angel gave an abbreviated gurgle. They both pulled away at the same time, and he saw her stunned expression before he turned back to face forward breathing heavily. He heard her panting lightly behind him, then he realized that he was free.
He lifted his arms, drew his prog knife, and thrust it over his right shoulder and into the Angel's core. He held it there until the knife stopped hissing and the Angel stopped moving.
The silence stretched for a few seconds, then Rei spoke.
"Ikari, remove your hands."
Shinji cracked open an eye. "What?"
"Oh." His disobedient hands finally relented to his will, and he pulled them away quickly. He had not fully thought it out beforehand, but when he mimicked the Eva's actions with his own, that had put his hands right into Rei's bosom, she being perched near his right shoulder. Thinking back he found that he hadn't yet apologized, but when he tried to open his mouth, he realized that any apology he told would be a lie.