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"I think of a hero as someone who understands the degree of responsibility that comes with his freedom. " -Bob Dylan
Last Child of Krypton
Chapter 1- A Strange Visitor
Shinji Ikari sighed as the recorded message repeated, politely informing him that all lines were currently busy. He gingerly placed the phone in the receiver and stood at the edge of the sidewalk, waiting. In his hand he grasped two objects. One was a photograph of a beautiful woman, posed suggestively, with an arrow drawn in marker aimed at her generous cleavage. Shinji was puzzled as to the sort of impression this Captain Katsuragi intended to make on him. The other was a letter. Most of it was blacked out, save for a single word in block letters: COME. He would have come anyway. It was time.
At that moment, he happened to chance a glance the way he had come. He came by train, of course, as he was instructed, but he looked up the road. He saw waves of heat, the heat of a summer that never ended, rising from the road, creating the illusion of water in the places where it lowered. He also saw waves of shimmering infrared radiation, the heat rising from the ground and the buildings, and the faint interplay of cosmic radiation, the little that leaked through the ionosphere, painting the world in a dozen hues no one else could see. There was one thing that was out of place. In the distance, shimmering with the heat, there was a girl in a school uniform, her skin as white as alabaster, hair so pale that in the strange afternoon light, it looked blue. She gazed at him with piercing red eyes. Instinctively, he turned his head towards the screech of approaching tires. When he glanced back at the street, the apparition was gone.
A blue Renault skidded around the nearby corner and came to a stop sideways where he stood. For a moment, she regarded him, and he regarded her. He was a boy of sixteen, on the edge of becoming a man, and nothing too impressive. He was somewhat slight of frame, although anyone could see by looking at him that he had an obvious natural strength, tough and wiry. His hair was an unruly mop of brown and his eyes a dark blue, hidden behind a pair of glasses he didn't need. They were the only memento he had of his mother. She was more beautiful than the picture, in a tight black dress that hugged every swelling curve and outlined her tight belly, her warm smiling face framed in raven black hair immediately set him at ease.
"Hi! I'm Misato Katsuragi!"
He bowed formally. "Shinji Ikari. Pleased to…"
He trailed off. In the distance, he heard a rhythmic booming, like footsteps. His eyes saw VTOL gunships in the distance, buzzing around something he couldn't see, hidden by the hills. She stared at him in confusion for a moment before the sounds came close enough for the human ear to hear and then she reacted.
"Quick! Get in!"
Fighting the instinct, he got into the car with her and immediately buckled his safety belt. He tossed his small bag containing his meager possessions behind Misato's seat and held on to the door for dear life as she accelerated. He turned his head and watched behind him as the source of the sounds came into view. He was a little shocked to actually see it, to see the thing in itself. As it emerged from behind the hills it was clear that it was only distance that allowed them to obscure it. It was enormous, tall enough to stride among skyscrapers. Its massive triangular torso stood on thin, spindly legs, equally spindly arms hanging long at its side. It looked around with a face like a plague doctor's mask embedded in its chest above a gleaming red sphere, and took deep, gasping breaths through huge finned gills on its side that puffed in and out in slow time. The gunships fired streaking missiles at it, which exploded just short of its body, colliding with hexagonal flashes of orange light that flashed into being all around it.
"What is that?"
Misato chanced a look at it and the car jerked as she straightened out on the road. She dropped into a lower gear and floored it as they hit a curve, tensing herself to keep from being thrown into him. Instinctively he put a hand out on her shoulder and held her place.
"We call them Angels."
He looked at it again, his expression grim. "Someone needs to stop it."
To his surprise, she giggled. "Good. I'm glad you're on board."
He braced himself in the seat as she hit a straightaway and floored it, the speedometer needle sweeping gracefully towards the terminus of its arc. He tried his best to look anxious, but she wasn't examining him. She was at one with the machine, working it with both hands and feet. She slowed slightly as the road curved around a hilltop, partially obscuring the great beast from view. The gunships suddenly pulled back, scattering in all directions at once. Something flashed overhead. A missile.
"No! They're going to use an N2 mine!"
There was so much light…
Hearing the commander's voice, she stirred. Her one good eye opened and scanned the room fitfully, unable to focus. She settled her blurry gaze on the fluorescent lights above her head and waited as long as she could for the throbbing in her skull to ebb just a bit. It didn't, but she had to answer. She was driven. It was her purpose, her reason for being. Pain was irrelevant, a signal that her body was damaged, nothing more.
"Yes," she croaked.
"The alternate has not arrived. You will do it again."
She closed her eyes. It was a command, not a request, and her input was not required. She did her best to ignore the lances of pain that shot through her limbs as the doctors and nurses gingerly removed her arm and leg from the traction slings and stripped off her hospital gown, cutting it away in places to make the process that much faster. Anyone else would have been embarrassed as her nude form was exposed to the harsh light. The nurses carefully tugged the partial plugsuit into place. Unlike the sealed full coverage version, the adapted plugsuit they prepared for her now had to be cinched into place manually, the nurses squeezing and positioning her to get it closed around her torso, leaving her bandaged arms and leg exposed. She breathed a sigh of quiet relief when they were finished and the gurney began to roll.
Lights flashed over her head. She heard the thrum of generators, the clanking of machinery as the plug was extracted. Four people took her under each limb and lifted her into the command chair. She groaned in pain as they settled her in, criss-crossed the straps across her torso, and set her one good hand on the control yoke. He head lolled to the side and she caught a glimpse of Ritsuko Akagi's contempt as the plug door sealed and the LCL began to flood in.
As she became buoyant, she felt a sudden sense of relief. The pain from the injuries was not lessened, but the constant pressure of gravity on her fractured ribs and damaged joints was relieved by a gentle floating sensation. It was almost pleasurable. She heard the technicians mechanically reciting the startup procedures. The magic words, third stage connection, were spoken. There was a flash of color, and she was no longer herself. She was two selves. The pain in her body was a buzzing in the mind of a great giant. A giant who didn't want her.
She forgot how much the launch was going to hurt. She screamed.
Toji gave his sister a gentle push. "Come on," he whispered, as if the Angel would hear him.
"I don't wanna," Kanna replied, tugging at his warm-up jacket. "I wanna see the robot!"
He pulled her into the arch of one of the low buildings that ringed the outskirts of the city, not far from the school, and cursed himself. This was his fault, it was all his fault. If he had caught her, if he had paid attention to her when the alarm sounded and gotten her into the shelter with the others, they would be safe. He realized he was shaking and fell against the side of the building, hugging her. She clapped with joy, pigtails bouncing, and he turned in horror and saw it.
There was a sudden metallic clang as twin metal rails rocketed out of the ground with a hiss of steam and locked into place, followed an instant later by the machine itself, moving at terrible speed. Toji blinked, as if the thing would disappear, like a monster from a dream. It was enormous, taller than the buildings around it, a purple and green giant with a grimacing, angry face with a single horn, like the ogres of ancient legend. He pulled his sister tighter as he heard the rhythmic pounding of the enemy approaching. Then the worst thing happened. Kanna saw it.
She started to cry.
"Shh," he said, rocking her in his arms. "It's okay," he lied, "we'll be okay."
"I want daddy!"
"I know, just be quiet. It'll be over in a minute."
The robot took a step forward, shakily, and Toji could swear he heard it grunt in pain. It took another bounding step, and the Angel was on it. They clashed, the air between them crushing out and rushing over him like a wave. The Angel took the robot's head in one hand, almost contemptuously, and a great lance of light erupted from its forearm and then slammed home like a piledriver. There was a great crack and bits of purple armor and blood, blood rained down on the street. It was a machine. How could it bleed?
It was so fast. So easy. The robot went limp and the Angel threw it, just tossed it away by the head and turned back to whatever it was doing. Toji watched as the robot fell towards them, pressed Kanna's head into his chest so she wouldn't see, felt her sobs and her hot breath on his chest and knew that this was it, this was the end, this was his fault, and he was so sorry. There was a crash and a rush of air and dust and he could feel the concrete coming down and the particalized cement stinging his eyes, already burning with tears, and he prayed to whoever would listen that she wouldn't feel it, that it wouldn't hurt.
The end didn't come.
He opened his eyes, blinked once. The shadow was over them still. A chunk of debris hovered over them in the air. He stared at it, jaw slack, and then followed it down to the ground. He saw the hands, first, young hands like his own, pressed into the gray stone among rebar that hug down like twisted roots in a clump of earth. Those hands belonged to a boy, a boy his own age in red and blue. The sun was behind him so that he shone, and his face was in shadow. On his chest was an emblem, like an English S, angular and stylized in a diamond-shaped red field on the expanse of his blue chest. He held the stone over their heads for just a moment and then tossed it aside, brushed his hands together to clean them of dust, and offered Toji a hand.
He pulled Toji to his feet with ease, then with the back of his hand brushed Kanna's soft hair.
"Hi," he said, "What's your name."
She looked at him through tear stained eyes. "K-Kanna."
"Hi Kanna. Are you okay?"
"Let's get you somewhere safe, so I can help the big robot."
"Come on," he said, leading them away from the wreckage. The building was ruined. Toji gaped, and broke into a trot behind the stranger, who shoved open the doors to another building. The lock gave way as if it were nothing, the doors bent as if they were made of paper.
"Get in there and get inside a doorframe," the stranger said, "I'll do what I can to keep them off you."
Toji nodded as he went into the building.
"I don't like robots anymore," Kanna whispered.
Rei realized, dimly, that she was hyperventilating and tried, desperately, to stop herself. Each ragged gasp brought new waves of pain across her ribs, and she contorted in agony. Anyone else would have begged for it to stop. Rei only pushed on the control, reached for Eva, and desperately tried to make her move. She heard voices.
"We're losing it. She's dropping below the absolute borderline."
She forced her eye open and she saw, through the Eva's eyes, as the impossible happened. The Angel stopped in its tracks, great spindly arms flailing, as if it were confused. For a moment, she wondered how, why the creature would stop in its relentless advance, stop trying to murder her and reach its goal. Then she spotted the tiny blue figure pushing against it, pushing it back. She willed the Eva and Eva answered her, tightening her view. This was not possible.
There was a person, and he was pushing the Angel back with his bare hands. She gasped, the pain momentarily forgotten, as the tiny figure wound up, drew a fist back, and punched the Angel full on in the face. To her shock, it moved, it actually moved, he was pushing it back. Her good eye widened. She reeled, her mind unable to sort out of the pieces of what she was seeing. She comprehended the individual parts of the scenario unfolding before her, but the totality of it was lost on her, like the strange images in in a dream.
"The core," she called out, not knowing to who or why, "destroy the red core!"
As if he heard her, the figure glanced back at the Eva, moved, and struck for the core, the pulsating, gleaming, mineral-hard core in the Third Angel's chest. The impact rang out like a hammer blow, and it cracked, it cracked, and the thing let out a keening wail of rage that rippled through like the toll of a bell. It swiped at its assailant frantically, and he dodged the blows easily, flitting about it like a hornet, gradually building enough speed for another hit. The crack in the core widened, and the thing slowed in its movements.
"No!" Rei breathed, knowing what came next. The beast pulsed, and began to draw in on itself, wrapping itself up in a ball. To her surprise, the creature rose, lifted off the ground, slowly at first, then faster, pushed by the tiny figure braced hands and shoulders beneath it, heaving it into the sky like Atlas holding the cosmos. She held her breath to dull the pain, and for the second day there was light, oh so much light, and she heard the technicians babbling their coded language of feedback loops and neural connections and the Eva went dark, overwhelmed. She floated in the LCL, feeling light, the straps digging into her at a crazy angle.
There was a dull thud, and she heard the clang of the emergency ejection system. Involuntarily she winced, remembering the last time she was ejected. The light of the fading sun bathed her as the plug opened with a hiss, LCL draining out. She heard the splash as a human shape dropped into the plug with her, took hold of her chair, and tore it free from the plug with a great groan of metal. The swaying was almost gentle, and she closed her eye involuntarily. She felt a warm hand caress her cheek.
"Who did this to you?"
She could only half-sigh, half groan in reply, a small, quiet sound.
"I-is that the pilot?" another voice said.
"I think so."
There was a little girl's voice. "She's pretty."
The first voice again. "You should go. You might get in trouble if you get caught out here when the people that built this thing get here."
Her consciousness was beginning to fade. She heard footsteps in the distance, a voice crying out for someone to stop, and felt the sudden rush of air as he took flight.
Misato groaned as her head swirled. The first thing she saw was the massive dent above her head, and she let out a small growl in reply, angry at the damage to her car. She moved and her head swam. A gentle hand steadied her and undid her seat belt, letting her breathe. She slumped in the seat and turned.
She sat up, groaning, and rubbed her forehead with her hands. She looked around. The car was sitting in a field next to the road, and somehow, they'd landed right side up, although it was clear the car hand rolled from the dented roof, the bent pillars and cracked glass.
"My car!" she said petulantly, forgetting herself for a moment. She shook her head to clear the cobwebs. "They must have dropped an N2 on… on the Angel… shit, we have to get to headquarters!"
"You mean the monster, right?" Shinji said from the seat next to her.
"Yeah, we've got to get you to Unit-01…"
"I didn't want to move you," he said, pushing his door open. "I didn't know how badly you were hurt. I watched the battle from the hill over there."
"Oh my God! What happened?"
"I don't know. The robot came out of the ground and the …Angel? The Angel beat it up pretty bad, then it just flew up in the air and exploded."
"That doesn't make any sense," Misato groaned, pushing on her door. "Why would it… I think this is stuck."
"Here," he said, circling around to her side of the car. He pulled on the door. "Push!"
The car groaned a bit, and the door popped free. He caught her as she tumbled out.
"Are you hurt?"
"Nah, I think I got lucky. It's a good thing we were behind that hill."
Shakily, she got to her feet, brushed off her dress, straightened herself. The car was a ruin, the roof smashed, the windows all broken, the once pristine blue sheet metal a sea of dents, rents, and scratches. Both headlights were shattered and the grill was missing. She blinked. They were really lucky to come out of that unhurt. She took a step, yelped, and fell down as pain shot through her leg.
Shinji was at her side immediately, running his hand over the joint. "I don't feel a break," he said, nodding. "I think you just twisted it."
She shivered and withdrew her leg. "We just met!"
He blinked in surprise, his mouth working wordlessly. "I, uh, I didn't, I mean…"
"You're too easy," she grinned. "We need to get back to headquarters, but I can't walk like this."
She pulled out her phone. The screen was cracked. "Great," she muttered.
He sighed. "Put your arms around my neck."
"I'll carry you."
She giggled a bit at that. "Oh please."
He looked at her earnestly. Something about his blue eyes disarmed her. "Trust me," he said.
He leaned over to her and she wrapped her arms around his neck. He slipped one arm under her knees and another under her back, carefully avoiding putting his hand anywhere near her chest, she noted with a bit of surprise. Then with astonishing ease he stood up, taking her with him. She settled into his arms and looked at him in surprise.
"Uh, I work out," he said, blushing.
"Better late than never," Ritsuko Akagi announced to the technicians as Misato gingerly limped her way into the room, her left ankle wrapped.
"What's the word, Rits?"
"Unit-01 is badly damaged. Rei couldn't pilot at all. If the Angel hadn't self-destructed for no readily apparent reason, we'd all be dead."
"It's not my fault. Somebody dropped an N2 bomb on me."
Ritsuko smirked. "I know."
At that moment, Shinji entered the Pribnow box, somewhat self-consciously, picking at theskin-tight plugsuit material. Maya Ibuki, Ritsuko's perky young assistant, gaped openly at him.
"Wow," she whispered.
"Yeah," Misato said, punching the girl in the arm, "Puberty hid that kid like a freight train, didn't it?"
"Misato!" Ritsuko snapped, prompting a giggle from her assistant.
"Yeah, yeah, I know," Misato said. "He's a tad young for my tastes anyway."
Shinji approached the test plug, which sat half-immersed in a sea of LCL, above the submerged body of an aborted Evangelion, a massive, muscular, humanoid thing with skin like a cetacean. Ritsuko was a little disturbed looking at them, even after all these years. "It's too bad we can't test him in Unit-01, but the damage was too great. Rei hit the emergency eject somehow, and the neck armor was damaged in the process."
"How bad is the damage?" Misato said, settling in a chair. She wheeled over to the window that spread over the control panels, looking out on the gray concrete expanse of the Pribnow Box. Shinji stepped into the test plug and it closed and retracted into the LCL.
Ritsuko pushed a button and spoke into a microphone. "Just breathe it in normally, Shinji. It's oxygenated.
"I feel sick," he said back. Ritsuko smirked.
"You'll get used to it."
"Ready, Doctor Akagi," Maya said, taking her position.
"Start it up."
"Reaching first stage connection, electrolyzing LCL… wait, Doctor, there's a problem."
Ritsuko walked over to her station and looked down at the screens. "I don't believe it."
"What is it?" Misato said.
"His synch ratio is zero. He can't synch. At all."
"Are you saying he can't pilot?"
"We'll try a few times, scrub the sensors, but no, I doubt he can. It's not a surprise, only a very few people can."
Misato sighed. "I'll call Second Branch. We need a pilot, and I'm afraid if we have to sortie Rei again…"
"Yes," Ritsuko said absently, tapping on her keyboard. "Bring in the Second Child. She'll just have to pilot Unit-01 until her Evangelion arrives. Where is it, anyway?"
"Halfway across the Pacific, I guess."
Shinji's voice crackled over the speakers. "Can I take this thing off now?"
"Sure you can," Ritsuko smirked into the microphone.
"Rits!" Misato giggled. Her old friend quirked an eyebrow and smirked.
Shinji sighed and ran his hand through his hair, which was still a little sticky, and smelled faintly of blood despite a shower. He shivered at the thought, even as he heard the welcome news.
"I hate to put you through all this for nothing," Misato said softly.
"It's okay," Shinji shrugged. "I just… you said the other pilot was hurt. I wish there was something I could do to help her."
"I know," she said. "So, what now?"
His shoulders sank. They stepped into the elevator, and her hand hovered over the buttons. She watched him for a moment. He was visibly shrunken, it seemed, dejected. She held the door open button with one hand and put the other on his shoulder.
He looked at her through the corner of his eye and shrugged again. He hesitated for a moment, then said. "I just… I thought my father wanted to see me. He's not even going to say anything to me, and I have to go back to my uncle's house out in the country again."
She tapped her finger against her chin thoughtfully.
He brightened. "How so?"
"Well, I could use an assistant," she grinned. "I have a lot of paperwork, you know, and my laundry. I might even be able to make you an official NERV intern. Wouldn't that be great?"
He looked at her askance. "I guess… where would I stay? I've got no money."
"I can take care of that," she said. "I have a couple of extra bedrooms in my place. You could stay with me."
"R-really?" he said.
"Yeah, really. You still look upset. What's wrong?"
"Could I… could I see her? The pilot?"
"Sure," she said, and pushed the elevator button.
Rei stirred as she felt a presence in her room. She cracked her eye, but saw only a blurr, and closed it again as a soft gasp escaped her cracked lips. She felt a soft hand take hers, and reflexively closed hers around it, her cool skin glad of the warmth. Her pulse was ragged.
"Hello," a voice whispered. "A-are you okay?"
"I will… recover…" she croaked.
"Are you thirsty? Here."
She felt a straw pressed against her lips and took a small sip, grateful for the cool wetness in her parched mouth.
For the first time in her short, sorry life, someone said something to Rei Ayanami that she had never before heard. It came as a shock to her, even sedated as she was, and made her blurry eye pop open again. The edges of her mouth twitched as a foreign sensation flooded the back of her mind.
"You'll be okay," he said, with absolute conviction.
"Come on," the Operations Director, Katsuragi, said behind her visitor. "She needs to rest."
Gendo Ikari sat in repose in his lair, like the spider in the center of a great web, the enormous black void of his office, lit by the Tree of Life etched into the ceiling, entirely filled and almost overflowing with his presence despite the size. Despite their off-hours relationship, Ritsuko Akagi quailed in this place, even in light of her quite rational calculation that it was precisely that effect that was meant by its design. Fortunately, his baleful gaze fell not on her, but on the tiny screen that had risen from behind a hidden panel in the glassy expanse of his desk, as he watched a zoomed, enhanced loop from the Evangelion's operational recording system again, and again. Without a word he waved her away, and with a lump in her throat she turned. She stopped at the door.
"Tonight," he said, no further explanation required.