Welcome to the second chapter! Thanks for following the story so far, and extra special thanks to those of you who took the time to give me feedback. You're all awesome!

Legal disclaimer (to keep my imaginary lawyer happy): I don't own Neon Genesis Evangelion. It belongs to Hideaki Anno and Gainax/Khara.


The Happy Red Planet - Chapter Two: Campus Asuka-calypse

by Literary Eagle


Asuka Langley Soryu was in hell.

As if it hadn't been enough to utterly fail as an Evangelion pilot and have her mind violated by that damn Angel, finding out from Stupid Shinji that Kaji was dead had truly been the final breaking point. With the loss of Kaji, the wretched remnants of her sync rate had completely shattered, along with all her hope. She had run away from home and wandered aimlessly for days, before finally curling up in the bathtub of a ruined house. That was where she had discovered a bathroom mirror that was just as broken as she was, and it had only seemed fitting to use the shards to cut her wrist so she could bleed away into oblivion. Finally, she would no longer have to face this horrible world anymore…

Not.

It had been just her luck that the buffoons in Intelligence Division 2 had chosen that day of all days to finally get a clue and find her before she could completely bleed out. Everything had gone black after that. At some point, she had briefly grasped onto a sliver of consciousness and noticed that she was being kept in a hospital bed, but before long she sank deeper and deeper into the darkness of her mind, hopefully never to see the stupid, stupid world again. Finally, she would have the peace she desired…

Not.

She was now trapped inside her own mind, forced to witness a relentless torrent of hated memories. Seeing her beloved Mama become a workaholic, so busy with the Evangelion project that she scarcely had time for her own child anymore. Then, the day of the contact experiment. Asuka never knew what Mama saw inside the Eva during that test, but whatever it was, it had caused her develop an unhealthy obsession with the perfection of robots and dolls, to the point of no longer wanting her flesh-and-blood daughter. On and on the memories progressed, as unstoppable as they were unbearable. Papa's infidelity. Mama constantly doting on a ragdoll instead of her real child. Mama's suicide.

The unwanted recollections continued, until at last Asuka found herself on a familiar college campus. She breathed a sigh of relief. This campus had been the site of one of her greatest achievements (aside from Eva piloting, of course… no wait, best not to think of that anymore). Here was where she had proved herself to be a child prodigy, graduating from college at such a young age. At least now she could see memories that would make her feel happy and proud…

Not.

To her horror, she could see Mama standing a short distance away, still cradling that repulsive doll. No, no, this was all wrong! Mama had died years before Asuka had gone to college!

Then in another corner of the campus, Asuka spotted Papa in the midst of passionately kissing his former mistress, now Asuka's stepmother.

Feeling sick to her stomach, Asuka tried to back away, but found herself unable to move. Looking down, she soon discovered why: there were strings tied around her limbs. "What the… aaaahhhh!" she cried out in shock, as an invisible force pulled on the strings and hoisted her into the air, leaving her to dangle like a marionette.

"No!" she screamed, thrashing ineffectually, "I'm not a doll! I'm not a puppet!"

There was a sound of eerie giggling, and Asuka gazed down in shock to see an army of ragdolls marching onto the campus. They all had button eyes, just like the one that Mama loved. Some of the giggling little terrors started to scribble all over the school buildings with crayons, while others spread out miniature tea sets and acted like they were having a picnic. The dignified college that had been Asuka's source of pride was being converted into a giant nursery. In the midst of this degrading transformation, Mama obliviously tried to feed pudding to her precious button-eyed bundle, while Papa went on with kissing his second wife as if their faces had fused together.

"Stop it! All of you!" Asuka demanded, fighting without success to free herself from the puppet strings.

Another wave of giggling erupted. "How rude," said one of the dolls, "We just wanted to play with you, Asuka! Now we'll have to punish you for being a bad girl!"

There was an ominous metallic scraping sound, as each of the ragdolls pulled a knife out of thin air and began to laugh sadistically.

"No, wait!" one of them said, "Asuka has been a very, very bad girl. So we need to give her a really special punishment!"

That was when the knives transformed into microphones.

Wait, microphones?!

A tune began to play from a large music box that had mysteriously appeared on the campus, as the dolls began to sing, "It's a small world after all…"

"Noooooooooo!" Asuka cried in agony.

Yes, she really was in hell!


"I hope this works," Shinji whispered to himself. Climbing out of Unit-01's entry plug, he sobbed dramatically as he pretended to collapse under the weight of overwhelming grief, sinking to the floor in a trembling heap.

Misato immediately ran to his side. One of her hands reached out towards him but stopped before making actual contact, wordlessly asking for permission. He nodded, and the look of gratitude he gave her was genuine. His relationship with Misato had become strained ever since the second Rei's death, but after today's close call with Kaworu, he knew that he didn't want to risk losing a friend again.

"I'm so sorry, Shinji," said Misato, helping him up and hugging him tightly, "If only I had known sooner that the Fifth Child was actually an Angel…"

Oh right, time to act sad again. "Why? Why did he have to die?" Shinji wailed, "Kaworu was my best friend, even if he was an Angel! It's not fair!" It was a good thing that he was dripping wet with LCL, so that the little trails of liquid running down his face could easily be mistaken for tears. He felt guilty for deceiving his guardian like this, but Rei was right: Misato hated the Angels, and his father would definitely not be pleased about the Seventeenth Angel's survival either, so their best hope for saving Asuka was to sneak Kaworu into the hospital wing and let him heal her first. There would be time for explanations – or dodging bullets – later.

"You did what you had to, Shinji," said Misato, stroking his LCL-slicked hair, "Thanks to you, the world is safe again."

Out of the corner of his eye, Shinji saw Kaworu emerge from the cover of Unit-01's shadow. Rei was the next to come out from the hiding spot, with Lazarus the kitten safely cradled in her arms. As the two Angels and their feline companion began to sneak away, Shinji knew that it was essential to keep his guardian distracted. "Torrent of ardent pathos," he sobbed loudly, clinging to Misato's red jacket, "Unfamiliar ceiling… mustn't run away…"

It wasn't loud enough, though, because he could clearly hear Lazarus say "Meow!", causing everyone to freeze in their tracks.

Misato gave Shinji an odd look. "Did you just say 'meow'?" she said incredulously.

"Uh… not meow, but ow!" Shinji said quickly, hunching over and clutching his ribs in feigned discomfort, "Ow, ow, ow! I got a bit bruised during the fight. Nothing serious, though! I just need some rest." Seeing that Kaworu, Rei, and the tiny kitty had taken advantage of the diversion to escape, he let out a sigh of relief before he could stop himself.

Fortunately, Misato seemed to mistake the sigh for an indicator of fatigue. "Come on, Shinji," she said, putting an arm around his shoulders as she gently guided him out of the Eva cage, "I'll take you home."

Shinji shook his head. "Actually, I'd rather visit Asuka in the hospital."

"All right. We'll go together."

"No! Um, I mean… I'd rather be alone with Asuka for a while," said Shinji, his mind frantically searching for a good excuse, "Because… um… because now that Kaworu's gone, she's all I have left."

"Oh. Very well," said Misato, and the warmth seemed to drain from the whole area as her tone became completely businesslike, "I will see you later, then." Her arm fell away from Shinji's shoulders, and she briskly walked away without another word.

Suppressing a wince, Shinji realized too late that his choice of words had been less than ideal. As if lying to Misato wasn't bad enough, now he'd made it seem like he didn't value her as a friend. Mentally kicking himself for the blunder, he headed towards the locker room so he could change out of his plugsuit. "I'm sorry, Misato," he whispered to the empty corridor, "But I'll make it up to you. We'll get Asuka back, and then we'll be a family again!"


"Argh, my family sucks!" Asuka exclaimed, as her vantage point gave her a good look at Mama still trying to feed pudding to a doll in one part of the campus, while in another area she could see Papa still making out with his second wife.

As for the singing ragdolls, they had finished with "It's a Small World" and had switched to performing about a hundred different versions of "Fly Me to the Moon". Damn it, just how many remixes of this song were there?

"Enough!" she shouted, trying unsuccessfully once again to break free of the strings that held her in place, "Enough of the Raggedy Ann brigade and the horrible musical numbers, already!"

The dolls became silent, and suddenly Mama was floating in the air right in front of her, staring at Asuka with eyes so feral that they scarcely looked human. "Awwww, no more singing? No more playing?" said Mama, her face nearly splitting in half with an impossibly wide and manic grin, "If you're tired, then… die with me!" One of her hands reached out towards Asuka, the fingers curving like talons.

"Get the hell away from me!" Asuka shrieked. She tugged frantically at the marionette strings, but an unseen force pulled back with greater strength, making the bindings even tighter. This wasn't how she'd wanted to die! Not as a helpless puppet! But there was no way to fight back, and no way to escape. As Mama's clawed hand drew nearer, she screwed her eyes shut and waited for the inevitable. There was nothing she could do but meet her doom… and the sounds of An die Freude? Ode to Joy?

Opening her eyes, Asuka saw that instead of Mama, there was now a cell phone floating before her. The device was lavender-gray in color, and had a tiny plush Shinji charm dangling from it. The "Ode to Joy" kept playing, and she realized that it must be the phone's ringtone.

As the song played on and on, Asuka groaned at the knowledge that she wouldn't get any peace unless she did something about it. Struggling against the strings holding her arms, she finally managed to regain just enough mobility to grab the phone and answer it. "Hello?"

In response, she was greeted by a cheerful voice from one of those annoying interactive phone menus. The voice said:

Welcome to the Final Messenger hotline, courtesy of the TABRIS network!

For piano lessons, press 1.

For violin lessons, press 2.

For a discussion on how your heart is made of glass and you are therefore worthy of empathy, press 3.

To request assistance escaping from a coma-induced nightmare, press 4.

"What?" said Asuka, glaring at the phone, "Is this some kind of sick joke?" Snarling, she let the mobile device fall to the ground, where it shattered into pieces. But the pieces transformed into little white doves and promptly flew away, because apparently everything around here had to be strange.

However, there were other things that were far worse, which Asuka remembered the hard way when Mama immediately appeared in front of her again, with eyes that looked more wild and insane than ever. "Die with me!" Mama cackled, reaching out towards her.

Asuka screamed and tried to move away, but yet again there wasn't anywhere she could go while bound with the strings.

"Die with me," said Mama, laughing like a demented clown, "Die with me, die with me, die with… urk!" Her eyes widened and her hands went to her own throat, as if she were choking on something. Moments later, a lavender-gray cell phone came out of her mouth, ringing its familiar tune again.

"Ewwww, are you kidding me?" said Asuka, looking at the cell phone sticking out of Mama's mouth.

"Mmfph?" said Mama, blinking dazedly as the phone's music continued to play.

Sighing, Asuka grabbed the phone and pulled it free of Mama's jaws. As soon as she did so, Mama went back to cackling and attempting to grab her. "Oh, give me a break, already!" said Asuka, trying as best she could to keep Mama at bay while answering the phone at the same time.

To request assistance escaping from a coma-induced nightmare, press 4, the phone's cheerful voice repeated.

"Okay, okay, fine!" said Asuka, pressing 4.

Quick as lightning (but thankfully without the sizzling part), a gray and white blur descended from the heavens, cutting Asuka loose from the strings and holding her securely as it flew her away from Mama and the dolly campus.

Straining to open her eyes during the high-speed flight, Asuka could make out her rescuer's pale skin and red eyes. The First Child? "Oh no," she said, "Not you! I do not need to be saved by you, of all people!" She tried to struggle out of the First's arms, despite the fact that they were still zipping through the air. "And what's with the clothes?" she added, looking at her fellow pilot's baffling choice of attire, "Why are you wearing the male school uniform? Ewwww, is this Stupid Shinji's outfit? Are you two doing something kinky?" She gave the First a hard shove, and that was when she realized that the girl's chest was a lot flatter than it should be. Where the hell had her boobs gone? "What, did they fall off, you freak?" said Asuka, rubbing her hand back and forth along the First's chest.

Laughter bubbled up from her rescuer. "Soryu, that tickles!"

Okay, that was definitely not the First's voice. In fact, it was a male voice. Looking up at the person's face more carefully this time, Asuka realized that she had been mistaken. Instead of the expected short blue hair, this fellow had fluffy lavender-gray hair, and his wide smile was definitely not characteristic of the First at all. If anything, a more accurate comparison was that he looked as if someone had Photoshopped a smiley face onto a dust bunny.

"Who the hell are you?" she asked.

"I the hell am Kaworu Nagisa," the boy said, seemingly oblivious to the rudeness of Asuka's wording, "Also, I the hell am here to guide you out of this nightmare." His flight slowed to a more leisurely pace, and together they drifted downwards like a giant feather as he hummed An die Freude. The instant she heard Nagisa's feet touch the ground, she quickly scrambled out of his arms and backed away from him. Not appearing the least bit offended by the swift disengagement, he casually tucked his hands into his pockets, still smiling at her.

Glancing around, Asuka saw that their surroundings looked like nothing but… well, nothingness. As far she could tell, they were just standing in a huge black void, although presumably there had to be some sort of unseen floor supporting them. Well, anything was better than that warped campus. "Okay, thanks for getting me away from that stupid doll party, but I don't need any more help," she said, hoping that her brave tone would hide her embarrassment at mistaking this guy for the First Child, "This is just fine, so you can leave now."

Nagisa's eyebrows rose slightly. "Really?" he said, "You are truly content with spending the rest of your days in an immeasurable void? It hardly seems like a suitable ending for one of the world's saviors." His gaze swept the area as if he were carefully inspecting the environment, even though of course there was nothing there to inspect. "Still, I suppose the lack of structures and furnishings means you will not have to devote much time to feng shui…"

"I don't give a feng!" said Asuka, stamping her foot, "Again, thanks for saving me from those damned dolls, but no thanks to any further assistance. I don't need anything else, especially from a stranger!" Especially from a stranger who could fly. "I have no reason to trust you!"

"I am here on behalf of Shinji Ikari," said Nagisa, his voice infused with extra tenderness upon mentioning Shinji's name, "He is very concerned about you, so I came here to guide you back to him."

Asuka's eyes narrowed with suspicion. "Stupid Shinji sent you? Really?" She'd never heard him mention a Kaworu Nagisa before. "Why are you helping him?"

"Because I love him," Nagisa replied warmly.

"So… you're gay?"

"I'm very happy, how are you?"

"That's not what I meant, you idiot!" Asuka exclaimed. Was this guy for real? "I'm asking what your relationship is with Stupid Shinji!"

"He is my greatest friend and my greatest joy, so I love him," said Nagisa, not losing his smile despite Asuka's shouting, "And you are an important friend to him, so I love you as well."

"Yay, lucky me," said Asuka, rolling her eyes as she began to walk away from him, "Get lost, weirdo. I am not going back." In a quieter voice, she murmured to herself, "There's nothing for me to go back to."

"Ah, are you referring to your diminished synchronization rate?" said Nagisa, who was suddenly standing right in front of her instead of being left behind. How the hell had he done that? "You are no longer able to pilot an Evangelion, and because of that you have decided to give up on life? But why should that be? Just as white light actually contains a multitude of colors, you shine with a myriad of diverse abilities. You are a young genius who has already graduated from college, you speak multiple languages, you play the violin, your midichlorian count is higher than Master Yoda's…"

"My what is higher than Master Who?" said Asuka, almost ready to tear her hair out in frustration. Or better yet, tear Nagisa's hair out. "Look, bub, you're not making any sense!"

"All I am saying, Soryu, is that perhaps your status as an Eva pilot should not comprise your entire self-worth. Consider this: once there are no more Angels to fight, what then?"

Why was this clown so intent on wasting her time? "I'm not in the mood for playing 'what if' games! There's no way of knowing when the Angels will stop coming. Hell, maybe they'll never stop!"

Nagisa shook his head. "There will be no more Angels."

"Really? What makes you so damn sure, wise guy?"

"Why, because I am the last Angel, of course!"

"Oh. Yeah, I guess that would explain… wait, WHAT?!" With a cry of rage and hatred, Asuka tackled Nagisa to the floor, wrapping her hands around his neck and squeezing as hard as she could.

"Soryu, that tickles!"


Sitting in a chair beside Asuka's hospital bed, Shinji peered anxiously at the comatose girl's face, hoping to see any change in her condition. Nothing yet. Next, he turned to Kaworu who was seated beside him. The gray-haired boy appeared to be fast asleep, even though Shinji knew there was much more going on than that. "Come back soon, you two," Shinji pleaded, gently squeezing Kaworu's shoulder with one hand while clasping Asuka's distressingly cold fingers in the other hand, "Please, please come back."

"Everything will be all right," Rei's voice sounded from behind him, "Soryu is very strong."

Despite his worries, Shinji turned around to give Rei a grateful smile. After all, they wouldn't have made it this far if she hadn't saved Kaworu. Heck, she was still looking out for them, resolutely standing guard by the door even though it was already locked. Lazarus was better off because of Rei as well, purring in a nearby corner as he enjoyed the softened kitten food that she had found in one of Ritsuko's storerooms. Yes, things would have been much worse if it hadn't been for Rei.

There were so many things that Shinji wanted to tell her. He wanted to apologize for avoiding her after he had found out about the clones. He wanted to say that he knew about her connection to his mother, but that he considered her to be a unique individual and a dear friend, not just Yui Ikari's shadow. And of course, he couldn't express enough how thankful he was that she had figured out a way for Kaworu to survive. With all these thoughts running through his head and feelings coursing through his heart, he had no idea where to begin. But perhaps there was one burning question he could start with. "Um, Rei?" he asked shyly, "What's with the Taser?"

"I promised that I would protect Kaworu until he can leave for Mars," she reminded him, hefting the electroshock weapon as if to emphasize her sincerity.

"Are you sure you're okay with using something like that?" said Shinji. The Taser was much smaller than the guns they used with their Evas, of course, but it still seemed huge compared to Rei's dainty fingers. "It looks dangerous."

"There is no need for concern, Shinji. It was very easy to utilize."

Was very easy? Why had she spoken in the past tense? "Uh, Rei, are you saying that you already used it on someone?"

Rei nodded. "The Commander had somehow deduced that Kaworu did not actually die, so I needed to incapacitate him. He is currently tied up in a supply closet."

"You used a Taser on my father?!" Shinji exclaimed, torn between wanting to run away and wanting to give Rei a big hug, "Uh, are you sure you're not taking this a little too seriously?"

"The circumstances truly are serious, Shinji," said Rei, "The Commander cannot proceed with his scenario unless all the Angels are dead, and the members of Seele have a similar requirement in order to seek out their own goals. Humanity is in great danger, and the best way to avert catastrophe is to ensure that Kaworu stays alive." Her hands trembled slightly, and moisture gathered in her eyes as she glanced down at the weapon in her grasp. "And… I also wish to save the Commander from himself," she added softly.

Shinji was astounded. Rei still cares about Father? With a twinge of jealousy that he hurriedly stifled, Shinji remembered that Father had spent more time raising Rei than looking after him. It made sense that Rei's emotions concerning Father would be complicated, even though she didn't want to be his puppet ever again. She's entitled to her feelings, but after what happened to Toji, I don't give a flying puck about Father anymore, Shinji thought bitterly, He can go sit on an N2 mine, for all I care. Misato, Asuka, Rei, and Kaworu are my real family now.

Having settled those thoughts, the significance of the rest of Rei's words finally rose to the forefront of his mind. Shinji had known that Kaworu could be in danger once Nerv discovered that he was still alive. That was why the Eva pilots had agreed to heal Asuka first, just in case Kaworu was forced to make a quick getaway once the truth got out. But if what Rei said was correct, then the stakes were even higher than Shinji had imagined.

"Oh no," said Shinji, his eyes darting nervously to Kaworu's inert body, "He can't defend himself if his consciousness is inside Asuka's mind. He's vulnerable like this!" Shinji desperately wanted to help Asuka, but he would never forgive himself if his best friend got killed in the process. He didn't want to become the kind of man who treated people as disposable tools like Father did.

"I will protect Kaworu," Rei said firmly, "Besides, hopefully it will not take long for him to contact Soryu and convince her to return to us."

As soon as she had finished saying those words, Kaworu's head and shoulders were abruptly thrown back as if someone had shoved him, and he let out a small grunt before his body went limp again.

"It would appear that he has made contact with Soryu," Rei said, rather unnecessarily.

Shinji groaned. We are so screwed.


Screw this, Asuka thought, as it became clear that trying to strangle Nagisa wasn't working at all, If I can't choke him, then I'll rearrange his face with my fists! With that, her hands became a furious blur of rapid punches raining down towards Nagisa's head. This effort proved to be equally fruitless, though, for every single one of her strikes was blocked by the telltale concentric orange octagons of an A.T. Field. "Coward," she growled, punching even harder despite the growing pain in her knuckles, "Stop hiding behind that A.T. Field! Fight me properly!"

But the Angel just lay there in silence, still keeping his hands in his pockets as he calmly gazed up at her thwarted attacks.

"Don't mock me!" she screamed.

"It is not my intent to mock you," he said, "If using your fists will allow you to work out your frustrations and help you to feel better, then I am glad to let you do so."

"I won't feel better unless you drop the A.T. Field and make this a real fight!" said Asuka, grabbing his arms and pulling his hands out of his pockets.

If Nagisa's hands had chosen that moment to transform into gigantic scissors like something out of a Tim Burton movie, it would have been less unexpected than what she actually did see: numerous scars covering one of his wrists. There were so many of them all over the small area of skin that it almost appeared as if a frenzied spider's web had been grafted there. "But… how could…" she said, trailing off helplessly as her eyes were inexorably drawn to the scars on her own wrist for comparison. How could an Angel, a monster, have something in common with her? Share her pain? Shaking her head in fierce denial, Asuka compulsively grabbed at Nagisa's marred skin, hoping it was an illusion that she could just peel away, to prove that this all-too-human frailty of his could not be real. But the disfigurement did not vanish, and Asuka could do nothing but gape at him in stunned disbelief. Nagisa was the one with a permanent spider web clinging to him, but she was the one who felt stuck.

The Angel sat up slowly, and very gently wrapped his arms around her. Asuka tried to protest, to call him a pervert, but the words never left her mouth. To her great puzzlement, his touch felt… motherly? Yes, he somehow felt like Mama used to, before she became a workaholic and then a doll-obsessed lunatic. Before everything had gone wrong. How could this be possible? It was totally crazy, yet comforting. Weird, but warm.

"It's okay," he whispered.

No, this couldn't be okay. Why would this oddball remind her so strongly of Mama? It didn't make any sense. Unless… it was a trap! It had to be!

She thought of the horrible bird Angel that had violated her mind, and with a sharp cry she broke away from Nagisa. Trembling with fear and simultaneously despising herself for showing weakness to anyone, let alone an enemy, she tried to get up and run, but she was shaking so badly that her usual grace failed her. She fell back to the floor.

"No," she whimpered, curling into a ball and squeezing her eyes shut so tightly that her face hurt, "No, no, no!"

"I mean you no harm, Soryu."

"Liar! You're an Angel! You're one of them! That bird invaded my mind, and now you're here to finish the job, aren't you?"

"Absolutely not," said Nagisa, "That is why I made sure to ask for permission before visiting your mind. Remember?"

Oh, right. That silly cell phone had asked her to press 4 if she wanted assistance.

Asuka sighed. She was so tired. Tired of being defeated, tired of jumping to the wrong conclusions, tired of the humiliation. Tired of everything. "Fine," she mumbled, not bothering to look up at Nagisa, "Thanks for the rescue. But there's nothing else you or anyone can do to help me, so you should just go now."

Something nudged her hand. "Don't you ever give up?" she said, grudgingly opening her eyes so she could glare at… a hedgehog? The little creature retreated nervously from her evident displeasure, puffing into a spiky ball to protect himself from her wrath. Asuka sat up and raised an eyebrow at Nagisa.

"Shinji wanted me to give you a message," he said in response to her unvoiced question.

"A message in the form of a hedgehog?" said Asuka, "Seriously?"

The Angel simply shrugged. "Perhaps it is symbolic?"

"Yeah, symbolic of the fact that I can never meet anybody normal," Asuka complained. But the hedgehog looked so small and so pathetically adorable that she couldn't stay angry with him, even if he had come from Stupid Shinji. Holding her hand out in an inviting gesture, she waited until the tiny animal uncurled from his defensive ball and tentatively nuzzled her fingers. She grinned triumphantly. Naturally, no animal could resist the charms of the great Asuka Langley Soryu. She carefully rubbed his tiny ears, and was pleasantly surprised when he began to purr. "Aww," said Asuka, "He purrs like a kitten. And his eyes glow like car headlights… wait, WHAT?!"

Sure enough, the hedgehog's eyes were emitting a bright light. As if that wasn't bizarre enough, the light began to form an image, like from a movie projector. It was a picture of the kitchen from the apartment that Asuka shared with Misato and Shinji. However, she had never seen it looking quite like this before: nearly every available piece of furniture was covered with plates and bowls full of traditional German foods, as if somebody had been practicing the recipes over and over. Asuka's mouth began to water at the sight of REAL FOOD. Sure, the Japanese dishes that Shinji usually cooked were very good, but as far as Asuka was concerned, nothing could compare to German cuisine. So many delicious stews, breads, pot roasts, sausages… "What's this all about?" she asked, blushing as she failed to prevent her stomach from growling.

Nagisa politely pretended he hadn't heard the rumbling sound. Or perhaps he was just too clueless to realize that normal people would find it embarrassing. "That image is what Shinji wanted you to see," he said, "It is one of his memories."

"Did Stupid Shinji make all that food? Enough to fill up the whole kitchen like that?"

The Angel nodded. "He even filled the bathtub with food."

"But why?"

"Because he ran out of room on the balcony."

"That's not what I meant, you idiot!" said Asuka. Obviously, this was a phrase she was going to have to use a lot with this guy. "I'm asking why he made so much food in the first place!"

"Ah. Do you remember what happened before you went into a coma?"

"I… I ran away from home," she said, "I wandered for days, and then I found that bathtub, so I tried to…" she clutched at her scarred wrist.

Nagisa's expression grew solemn. "You vanished not long after Shinji told you that Kaji had died, so he blamed himself for your disappearance," he explained. His tone was gentle and not accusing, but Asuka inwardly cringed anyway. "During the time you were missing, Shinji spent the days searching for you, and the nights practicing German cooking. He wanted to make a special meal for you, to apologize."

"Now playing recorded message," the hedgehog suddenly said in a robotic voice. Then in Shinji's voice, the little animal continued, "Asuka, I'm so sorry for making you sad. When you come back, I'll make all your favorite foods! The biggest feast you've ever seen! Please, Asuka. I'm really, really sorry. I… I miss you…" The hedgehog then switched back to the robotic voice as it said, "End of recording. If you would like to receive a transcript of the message you just heard, please send your request to TABRIS Project headquarters. Thank you for using the Final Messenger hotline. Have a nice day." With that, the spiny creature curled up into a ball once more, but this time he kept shrinking and shrinking until he completely disappeared.

"S-stupid Shinji!" said Asuka, quickly wiping away the damn droplets that had suddenly formed in the corners of her eyes. True, she had run away after finding out that Kaji was dead. But that news had been just one more thing in a long string of disasters. It had never been her intent for Shinji to think that her departure had been all his fault. "Why does he always have to be such an idiot…" Her lower lip began to quiver, and she bit it to make it stop.

"As I said before, Shinji sees you as an important friend. It is you, not your piloting status, that he cares about," Nagisa said, holding his hand out to her, "I can take you back to him. I can take you home."

Home? How could that be a comforting thought, when the city was in ruins and Hikari had moved away? How could that be a comforting thought, when those who remained would be feeling sorry for poor, pathetic Asuka? "Enough!" she shouted, "I don't need anybody's pity! I don't need anybody trying to cheer me up!" I don't deserve it. To her surprise, a barbed wire fence suddenly materialized out of the darkness, forming a protective ring around her while Nagisa was left outside. "Hey, what is this?" she said, so taken aback that she momentarily forgot her anger.

Nagisa appeared as nonchalant as ever. "Is it truly that astonishing, considering that we are inside your mind?" he said, "Those puppet strings that bound you before must have prevented you from controlling anything in this dream, but now that you have been cut free of them…"

Controlling the dream? Perfect! Focusing her concentration, she made the tangle of barbed wires thicker and higher, until they formed a solid spiky dome to keep Nagisa out. "Thanks for the helpful hint, sucker," she whispered. If she waited long enough, hopefully he would finally give up and leave. Remaining seated on the floor, she pulled her legs close to her chest so that she could rest her forehead on her knees. She sighed, but it turned into a yawn. Without the hedgehog to distract her, the feelings of deep fatigue settled in once more. If she fell asleep while inside a coma dream, would she fade away forever? As her eyelids grew heavier, she found herself hoping that would be the case…

She was startled out of her drowsy state by an odd poof sound, and she gasped upon realizing that the barbed walls of her shelter had been transformed into cotton candy, just like Mama used to give her in the good old days. "What the… mmf!" she said, as the spun sugar collapsed into a soft and sticky pile right on top of her.

Nagisa pulled her out of the pastel-colored mess, before scooping a handful of the sugary fluff off the floor and proceeding to eat it. "Delicious!" he said, "An edible cloud. How fanciful, to imagine eating a piece of the sky! Such a creative food must be one of the crowning achievements of the Lilin culture."

"Do you think you're funny?" said Asuka, shaking bits of the candy floss out of her hair, "I'm not going back! I hate Stupid Shinji! I hate Misato! I hate the First!" But I hate myself most of all. This time she surrounded herself with a wall of fire. The orange and scarlet flames soared high into the air, eager to roast any bothersome Angels who dared to try flying over them.

But it turned out that no flights would be necessary, as a sizable portion of the blaze suddenly dissolved into nothing more than a few wisps of steam. The culprit was a tiny green watering can, floating through the air and extinguishing the flames while Asuka watched in dismay. Strangely, it looked a lot like the watering can she had played with as a child, when helping Mama with gardening. Nagisa also observed the proceedings, casually humming An die Freude as an impossibly huge amount of water continued to pour from the little can. Within minutes, not a single spark of fire remained.

"No!" Asuka shouted, "I don't need Stupid Shinji, or anybody else!" Yes, I do. But I'm not worth saving.

An entire fortress sprang up around her, made of thick stone walls without any windows or doors. The massive structure enveloped her in heavy darkness with the finality of a tomb.

"Finally," she said, nearly collapsing from the weariness that began to consume her again.

Squeak!

A tiny hole appeared in one of the stone walls.

Squeak, squeak!

The hole became larger.

This time, the meddlesome object floating in the air was a toy hammer made of rubber, another beloved plaything from Asuka's childhood. Every time it struck the stone, the silly toy made squeaking noises as it inexplicably caused the fortress to crumble. As the hammer continued its work, Nagisa put his face through one of the holes in the wreckage and said to her, "Here's Johnny!"

Asuka was not impressed. "That's a lame joke, even for you," she said.

"Joke?" said Nagisa, blinking in surprise. "So that is not the proper way to greet someone in this scenario? Alas, another failure. Perhaps video clips on YouTube are no more useful than TV Tropes for learning about Lilin behavior."

Good grief, there was absolutely no way of predicting where conversations with this guy would end up going. At times he would sound reasonably intelligent, even a little poetic, but then the next second he would say something utterly clueless. Asuka's head was starting to ache from all this madness. But judging from the context, she was at least able to guess that Lilin must be the Angel word for human. "An Angel watching YouTube videos? Really?" she said.

"Well, at first I tried to study lolcats, but all that taught me was how to make an enormous amount of spelling mistakez… er, mistakes."

The last remnants of the fortress disintegrated into piles of dust, and Asuka found herself wishing that she could disintegrate as well, but by now she knew better than to attempt such a feat. Nagisa would probably just find a way to superglue her back together or something. "Why?" she demanded, "Why do you keep using your freaky Angel powers to break through my defenses? I thought you said that you weren't going to mess around in my mind without permission!"

Nagisa blinked in surprise yet again. "Soryu, you are mistaken. Those were not my powers. They were yours."

"What? My powers?" Yep, this discussion was getting more preposterous by the second.

"We are inside your mind, so we are abiding by your rules," Nagisa stated matter-of-factly. "I have the strength to override that and simply pull you out of the coma right away, but I will not, because nothing will truly change unless you act of your own free will. That is why I asked for permission before entering your mind to fly you away from that doll-filled campus. I will not use my abilities to force you into anything. The crumbling of your defenses has not been because of me, but because of a voice deep down inside you that has been pleading for help."

Did this guy have any idea how absurd he sounded? "There is nothing inside me that's pleading for help!" Asuka sneered.

"You keep trying to forget her. However, she is a part of you, and therefore can never be completely left behind."

Behind? Turning around, Asuka was astounded to see a little girl standing there. Not just any little girl, but herself at an earlier age, crying while clutching a plush monkey.

"If only I had been a better kid, then Mama wouldn't have stopped loving me!" her younger self sobbed. She was speaking to the stuffed toy as if it were her only friend in the world, even as her hands gripped the monkey so tightly that it would have been painful for a real living creature. "Mama would have looked at me, instead of that doll! I wasn't good enough. If only I had been perfect… Why can't I be perfect?!" As her voice rose to a near-hysterical shout during the last sentence, she tore the plush toy open, throwing it to the floor as stuffing spilled from its gaping wound.

Asuka shuddered at her young counterpart's dramatic behavior. With her secret weaknesses on display like this, it felt to Asuka as if she herself had been torn open, and now her hidden soft stuffing was exposed for Nagisa to savor like cotton candy.

However, the Angel did not look the least bit gleeful over his statement being proven correct, and despite his frequent bouts of cluelessness it seemed that even he was able to understand her discomfort at having him witness such an unpleasant childhood memory. He respectfully turned away from the little girl and the eviscerated monkey, looking solely and sympathetically at Asuka as that strange motherly feeling radiated from him once again. "How sad, for one heart to bear so much pain alone. You hate yourself, don't you?" he said quietly to her, "That is why you push others away. In a sense, you are not much different from Shinji, although he chooses to hide rather than push. Both of you don't realize just how strong you truly are, and just how beautiful your souls are."

Asuka laughed bitterly. "Strong? No, you said it yourself: I've actually been crying for help." While smothering those cries so thoroughly that even she herself had forgotten about them. And keeping people at bay so that they wouldn't be able to help even if they knew what was wrong. "I'm pathetic. Go on, just say it already."

"Everyone requires help sometimes, even strong people." Nagisa lowered his eyes and trembled slightly. "My own mistake was trying to make Shinji happy all by myself, only to fail over and over. If it had not been for Rei's intervention this morning, tragedy would have struck once again. If anything, Rei and Shinji saved me."

So he was on a first name basis with the Commander's doll, too. Exactly how much had Asuka missed? Nagisa kept talking about Shinji as if they had been best friends for ages. "How long have you known Stupid Shinji, anyway?"

"In this lifetime, I met him yesterday."

Yesterday?! This lifetime? "What the f… f-forget about it," she said, deciding it was easier to focus on something that wasn't so crazy. Slowly, as if afraid of startling the little girl, Asuka approached her crying younger self. "It's okay," she said, kneeling in front of the child and hugging her tightly, "Nobody can really be perfect. Only dolls are perfect, and you don't want to be a doll, right? I'm sorry for ignoring you." Ignoring you like Mama ignored me… ignored us. "We may be imperfect, but at least we'll be imperfect together!" It seemed unnatural to embrace her vulnerabilities instead of rejecting them, to acknowledge her faults instead of denying them. So why did she feel better, and lighter? It was as if a large weight that had been pressing down on her had finally been lifted, and now she could breathe freely. Could it be that in denying a part of herself, she had been burying herself alive?

The young girl disappeared, but Asuka knew from the tingling in her heart that she wasn't really gone. She was just back where she belonged. Asuka was whole again.

"You truly are worthy of love," Nagisa said with a smile.

"You truly are a pain in the ass," Asuka joked, with a tired but grateful half-smile.

But the Angel simply tilted his head in confusion. "Soryu, I have never met your donkey, let alone caused him any pain."

Asuka's little half-smile broke into a large grin, as she struggled not to laugh. This must be the one guy on the whole planet who's an even bigger doofus than Stupid Shinji. "Okay, so what do we do now, genius?"

"Oh, just 'Kaworu' is fine," he said. Asuka wasn't sure if he was kidding, or if he really was unaware of the fact that her use of the word genius had been sarcastic. "As for what we do now…"

A spotlight broke through the darkness, shining down upon a large and familiar red shape.

"My Eva?" said Asuka, "But why? You said that you were the last Angel."

"It is clear that you need proper closure," said Nagisa – okay, Kaworu – as he gestured towards Unit-02, "I am just a guide here. Your Evangelion is far better qualified to let you know that you are loved, and that you do indeed deserve that love."

"That robot? That giant toy?"

"Toy? She is no mere robot. You must open your heart to her."

The First Child had said the same thing. "Not this again," Asuka groaned, "Besides, that's not even the genuine Unit-02, right? This is all just a dream or something inside my mind. It's not like I can really sync with the Eva from here."

"Actually, you can. Unit-02 was born from Adam, so I can establish a temporary link for you through the TABRIS network."

Asuka had no idea what that meant, and she didn't feel like adding to her headache by asking. "Fine, let's get this over with," she sighed, as she walked closer to her Evangelion, "But if it doesn't work, then… Mein Gott!" That startled exclamation at the end was because Asuka could now see that Unit-02 looked rather battered in places, and there was even a huge Band-Aid on the Eva's head. A huge Hello Kitty Band-Aid. (Never let it be said that Sanrio ever misses out on a merchandising opportunity.) "What the hell happened?"

Kaworu stared down at his feet, looking rather abashed. "I hijacked the Eva and dueled with Shinji all the way down to Terminal Dogma."

"You did what? With my Eva?!"

Looking back up at her, the Angel nodded enthusiastically. "Yes, that's it! Think lots of loving, protective thoughts for your Eva!"

Asuka glowered at him. "If this doesn't work, I am totally kicking your ass. And I don't mean your donkey."


Except for the low beeping of the hospital equipment that monitored Asuka, the room had been quite silent for the past while. So when a loud knock at the door suddenly shattered the tranquility, Shinji was startled to the point of jumping out of his seat and almost stepping on Lazarus' tail.

Fortunately, he managed to avoid injuring the kitten.

Unfortunately, he landed on a rubber mouse instead, one of the cat toys that they had borrowed from Ritsuko's storerooms. With the efficiency of a banana peel, the toy caused Shinji to slip and fall with a squeak-aaaahhhh-thud worthy of a children's cartoon.

"Ow," he said, grimacing at the troublesome plaything that had caused his surprise visit to the floor, "That felt like dance training with Asuka all over again… except without the embarrassing outfit, thank goodness." But I would gladly wear those stupid clothes for a whole year if it would bring you back, Asuka, he thought, glancing worriedly at his comatose friend on the bed.

"Shinji, there is someone at the door," Rei reminded him in a whisper, as she helped him to stand.

Sure enough, they heard another knock. "Shinji? Are you okay in there? I need to talk to you." That was Misato's voice.

"Uh, just a minute!" he said. Shinji and Rei hastily grabbed the still sleeping Kaworu and hid him under Asuka's bed, pulling the sheets down a little to make sure he wasn't visible. Once that was done, Shinji unlocked the door and opened it just wide enough so that he could slip out of the room, immediately closing it again behind him. "Hi, Misato," he said, praying that he didn't sound too nervous.

"I know this day has been rough on you, Shinji," Misato said soothingly, "I just need you to answer one question for me, so I can add it to my report. Is that okay?"

"Oh. Um, sure, that's okay."

"Remind me again… How did the Seventeenth Angel die?"

Shinji did his best to look sad. "I had to crush him in Unit-01's hand."

"Really?" said Misato, crossing her arms. She stared down at Shinji with a gaze so intense that it probably would have melted the Antarctic ice sheet faster than Second Impact. "Well that's interesting, because I checked Unit-01's hands, and there's no blood on either of them. Care to explain this little miracle to me, Shinji?"

Aw, crap.


"This is a load of crap," said Asuka, sitting in the entry plug as absolutely nothing happened, "I can't get this damn Eva to move at all!" She glared at Kaworu, who was standing outside Unit-02, but he just smiled up at her without saying anything. Probably just as well, because she didn't want to hear him repeating that nonsense about opening her heart to the Eva. It was so ridiculous. How was she supposed to open her heart to a puppet? That would be as crazy as Mama loving that damn ragdoll instead of her real daughter…

Just thinking about it made Asuka's shoulders slump in defeat. Even if I know that it's not possible to be truly perfect, I still wish I could have been good enough for Mama somehow, she thought, Why did I have to be such a disappointment that she went crazy and decided that taking care of a doll was better than looking after me? I wish Mama hadn't stopped loving me. I... I miss her. I miss her so much! I just wanted her to be proud of me!

But I am proud of you, darling.

That was Mama's voice! "W-what the hell?!"

Now, Asuka, watch your language.

For a split second, the LCL on Asuka's tongue tasted like soap, as if someone were trying to wash her mouth out. No way… could it be? "Mama? You're in here?" Joy ascended in her heart like a sunrise, and her sync rate soared with it. Asuka didn't graduate from college by being stupid, so as the Eva flared to life around her, it took just a few seconds for her mind to reinterpret the facts that her much younger self had misunderstood. It wasn't that Mama's obsession with the big robot had made her decide that perfect robots and perfect dolls were better than imperfect Asuka. It was that Mama's true self had somehow gotten left behind in the big robot! "I get it now," Asuka said triumphantly, as she felt a pair of invisible arms embrace her, "You've been in here all this time! The A.T. Field was your way of protecting me!"

That's right, darling. I'm so sorry I wasn't around when you needed me the most.

"Are you kidding?" said Asuka, "You're awesome! We've been a team, defending the world together… this is so cool! I can say to other people 'My mother can beat up your mother' and it would be totally true!" She giggled at the thought.

Oh, Asuka! I love you!

"I love you too, Mama!" she replied, whooping in elation as her thoughts caused Unit-02 to do a little victory dance, twirling around and around until Asuka laughed in dizzy delight. Mama, her real Mama, didn't want her to die. Mama loved her, and Asuka no longer needed to be perfect. She just needed to be.

With that giddy, liberating thought parading through her mind, she knew that she didn't want to waste another moment lingering in a coma. She wanted so much to wake up and return to the real world, so she could give her Eva a big hug. Oh, and she had to make sure the Nerv staff would give Unit-02 a topnotch repair job. Only the best for Mama!

"Hey, Special K!" Asuka happily called out to Kaworu through the Eva's external speakers, "I want to go back now!"

With another of his wide smiles, Kaworu began to glow. The light from the Angel expanded, filling the dark void that surrounded him, until the shadows completely melted away and revealed a colossal tree. The immense plant had numerous branches pointing in all directions, and to Asuka's amazement, each branch had a Kaworu standing upon it. The multiple Kaworus didn't all have the same outfit or the same hairstyle, but one thing that they did have in common was… they were applauding her!

"Congratulations!" the Kaworus said.

It was weird.

It was crazy.

But what the hell, it felt great!

The Kaworus glowed brighter and brighter, until the only thing Asuka could see was pure light. And then…


When Asuka awoke, it instantly became apparent that hugging her Eva would have to wait, because she opened her eyes just in time to see Misato kicking the door down and running into the room with her gun drawn. Shinji immediately followed her, shouting frantically, "No, Misato! Stop!"

"Exactly what the hell…" Asuka began to say.

But she was ignored completely as the First Child, holding a Taser, tried to block Misato's path… which ended up being unnecessary, because Misato tripped on a rubber mouse and fell to the floor with a squeak-aaaahhhh-thud. A little white kitten, presumably the owner of the toy rodent, gave an oddly apologetic-sounding meow. Why was there a kitten inside Nerv headquarters?

"Exactly what the hell is…" said Asuka.

But this time she was interrupted by Kaworu's voice coming from somewhere below her, saying, "Unfamiliar ceiling? Oh wait, these are floor tiles!" As he began to crawl out from under her bed, he yawned and murmured groggily, "My goodness, how did I end up down here?"

"Exactly what the hell is going…" Asuka tried to say again.

But Misato just snarled from where she had fallen, grabbing Kaworu and trying to pull him completely away from the shelter of the bed. Since he was partially covered in Asuka's blankets, the tugging motion caused Asuka to tumble out of the bed with a startled shriek, and she scrambled to cover herself when she realized that some perverted idiot had dressed her in nothing more than her school blouse and a pair of panties. Her attempt at modesty wound up dragging along a bunch of hospital equipment that was still attached to her body, adding an IV bag and several other bits of medical junk to the growing tangle of bodies and bed sheets on the floor. Shinji and the First tried to help, but everybody including the kitten became hopelessly ensnared in the ridiculously expanding ball of chaos, rolling around and around as the mess just got bigger. The only ones who didn't seem dismayed were the kitten, who purred like it was a game, and Kaworu, who began humming a tune from Katamari Damacy.

As the rolling bundle of bodies and hospital paraphernalia finally bumped against a wall so that it could move no further, Shinji said, "Asuka! Oh, Asuka! I'm so glad you're okay!"

"Thanks," Asuka replied. She could feel her face heating up, probably because it was terribly hot with everyone wrapped tightly together in the blankets like this. Yeah, that was it. "Um… hey, Stupid Shinji?"

"Y-yes, Asuka?" Shinji stammered, and it was clear that he felt hot as well.

"Do you think you could…"

"Y-yes?"

"Do you think you could get your elbow out of my ear?"

"Oh, right! Sorry!" he said. As he tried to wiggle away from Asuka a bit, he turned to Misato with a beseeching look and said, "See, Misato? Kaworu helped Asuka. He's not an enemy!"

"Meow!" said the kitten, as if voicing his agreement.

"What's with the cat?" Asuka and Misato asked in unison.

"Oh, that's Lazarus," Shinji said, "He died in a past life, but now he's back."

Asuka groaned. "Listen up, everybody, this is what's going to happen: first, we're going to get ourselves untangled and find the rest of my clothes. Next, we're going to get some waffles from the cafeteria because that's the best food they make, and I haven't eaten in goodness knows how long. After that… you are all going to tell me EXACTLY WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON HERE!"


Once the meals had been obtained and everyone was gathered in Asuka's hospital room again, Misato and the First used duct tape to temporarily repair the door for the sake of privacy. Kaworu tried to help them but Misato warily refused, so the Angel ended up standing to the side and marveling at the tape's adhesive properties, calling it one of the crowning achievements of the Lilin culture.

Meanwhile, Asuka eagerly grabbed her tray of food and settled back onto the bed. Having breakfast in bed (more like a late lunch or early dinner in bed, considering the hour) was less fun when it was in a sterile hospital setting, but she was hungry, damn it. Lazarus used his tiny claws to climb up the bed sheets, purring as he snuggled against Asuka. Aww. The cat had good taste… unlike Kaworu and Shinji, who were dangerously close to ruining her appetite by having a cheesy Best Friends Forever moment.

"Thank you, Kaworu," Shinji was saying, interrupting the Angel's duct tape exploration to give him a hug, "You brought Asuka back, just like you said you would!"

"Anything for you, my friend," said Kaworu, ruffling Shinji's hair affectionately, "You'll come to visit me on Mars, won't you? I will make a garden especially for you, with animals that sing, and flowers of every imaginable color: blue, purple, rueoc…"

Shinji beamed. "I'd love that, Kaworu. Um, but I don't think rueoc is a color that humans… er, Lilin… are able to see."

"Ah. Well then, I shall have to find a way to make it visible to you someday," said Kaworu, "It is a color that looks very delicate, and yet it shines with a beautiful light that reveals its hidden strength. Just like your heart, Shinji."

Asuka rolled her eyes. She should have expected as much from a guy who was so enamored with An die Freude, a song about brotherhood and camaraderie, but it was still incredibly sappy. And Shinji was enjoying it! Ugh, where was a barf bag when she needed one? "Hey, Dumb and Dumber, can you two tone it down with the corny friendship stuff?" she grumbled, "I'm trying to eat here!" And she was not jealous. Not at all. Really.

With a blush and a muttered apology, Shinji turned to his own tray of food. In accordance with Asuka's recommendation, he had chosen waffles, as had Misato. The First, on the other hand, had selected a salad. As for Kaworu, he had also skipped the waffles, although for some reason he had still picked up some maple syrup.

The reason why quickly became apparent when Kaworu poured his maple syrup into a glass and began to drink it. Yuck!

"What the hell are you doing, Dummkopf?" Asuka laughed.

"Don't be mean to him!" Shinji said indignantly, in one of those rare displays of assertiveness that Asuka secretly wished he'd show more often, "Kaworu's just a little different because he doesn't know everything about being a Lilin. So what? Aren't we all different?"

She knew what Shinji was implying, but to his credit, he did not specify it out loud. Asuka sighed. It was true: when she had first arrived in Japan, the culture shock had been overwhelming at times, plus she had frequently gotten lost because she couldn't understand the kanji on signs. While her exotic looks had garnered a lot of admiration at school, her normally excellent grades had taken a dive because she had trouble reading the test questions. Being acknowledged for her beauty was nice, but she didn't want to be seen as just a pretty doll. No, never a doll! Shinji, the First, and Hikari were the only classmates who hadn't laughed the time she accidentally went into the janitor's closet instead of the art room because she hadn't been able to comprehend the signs. (Granted, the laughter had quickly stopped once Asuka proceeded to beat the living snot out of the worst offenders, but still!) And Shinji was the only one who had apparently gone out of his way to learn German recipes in an attempt to make her feel less homesick.

Yes, Asuka had felt lost upon arriving in Japan. But for someone like Kaworu, did he always feel like that, no matter what country he was in? "Here," she said quietly, passing her maple syrup to him, "You can have mine, too."

"I thank you for your generosity," said Kaworu, happily adding the syrup to his glass. Taking a sip, he added, "Such a delight! Discovering the delectable properties of tree sap must be one of the crowning achievements of the Lilin culture."

"Didn't you just say that duct tape was one of the crowning achievements of the Lilin culture?" Misato pointed out.

"And before that, you said the same thing to me about cotton candy," said Asuka.

"Yesterday, you said that about music," Shinji added.

Kaworu shrugged. "Can I help it that you Lilin do so many wonderful things?" he said, sighing dreamily like a fanboy, "You are capable of such beautiful creations and heartwarming acts of kindness, despite all the hardships and cruelty you encounter. How can I not find that remarkable?"

Even though he's kind of lost all the time, he still loves humanity more than some actual humans do, Asuka thought, He finds joy in everything from music to duct tape, and yet… those wrist scars…

She was so deep in thought that it caught her by surprise when Shinji suddenly picked up his tray and sat next to her on the bed. Before she could ask Shinji what the heck he was doing, he transferred the strawberries from his fruit cup onto her plate. Wow, so he had even noticed that strawberries were her favorite fruit. "It's the best I can do for now," he said, "But when everything is settled down, I'm going to cook a feast for you, like I promised. You're a good friend, Asuka. I… I'm really happy to have you back."

Asuka could feel her face heating up again. Damn, the air conditioning in this room must be broken.

Misato cleared her throat. "Can we get to some explanations now, please?" she said, tapping her foot in an impatient rhythm.

With that, everyone settled down to eat their meals while Shinji, Kaworu, and the First took turns telling the story. As she listened, Asuka raised an eyebrow at the revelation that the First was also an Angel, and when they got to the part about waffles messing up Angel powers, her eyebrow went so high that she was sure it would leave her face and start scraping the ceiling at any moment. But it did shed some light on why the First looked and acted so weird. A lot like Kaworu, except their personalities were different. Apparently, Angelic dispositions could vary as much as human temperaments. As for some of the other details…

"Whoa, whoa, let me see if I've got this straight," said Asuka, interrupting the story before the craziness swelled to unmanageable proportions, "You're telling me that the First Child's soul is Lilith of the Black Moon, the mother of humanity… or the Lilin, whatever. But you suspect that she has DNA from Yui Ikari, meaning that in addition to being the mother of humanity, she's also Stupid Shinji's sister?!"

"Half-sister," the First said helpfully.

"Whatever," said Asuka, rolling her eyes for what felt like the hundredth time that day. "And as for Special K here," she added, nodding at Kaworu, "You're saying that his soul is Adam of the White Moon, the mother of the Angels. So in addition to being the Seventeenth Angel, he's also his own mother?!"

"I'm glad you were able to make sense of all that information so rapidly," Kaworu said cheerfully.

"Make sense?" Asuka chuckled around a mouthful of strawberries, "You're telling me all this wackiness is supposed to make sense?" But at least she finally knew why being held by Kaworu had reminded her of being held by Mama. It was because his soul really was a mama. In fact, now that she was paying attention to it, Asuka realized that the First was also exuding a mama aura. Either her dislike for the strange girl had blinded Asuka to it before, or it was Kaworu's influence that had awakened that part of the First's true nature.

"Well, I heard what I needed to know," said Misato, and Asuka's breath caught in her throat as she realized that their commanding officer had drawn her gun once more. "So," said Misato, pointing the weapon directly at Kaworu, "You're not just any Angel; you're Adam. The one responsible for Second Impact. The one who killed billions of people, including my father! YOU KILLED MY FATHER, YOU PIECE OF SH-"

"-IT ISN'T LIKE THAT, MISATO!" Shinji quickly interrupted. His tray of food fell to the floor with a cascade of breaking dishes and clattering utensils, as he jumped in front of Kaworu and attempted to shield him from Misato's line of fire.

"Move aside, Shinji. Now."

"No! If you want to shoot him, you'll have to shoot me first!"

Misato grimaced, but she lowered her gun.

"Calm down," Shinji pleaded, "Kaworu may have been given Adam's soul, but he doesn't have her memories or anything like that. He's just… well, he's just Kaworu. He had no control over how he was created, any more than you have control over the fact that your parents conceived you at the petting zoo!"

Misato turned beet red. "How did you know about that?"

"You talk in your sleep. Loudly."

"For once, I agree with Stupid Shinji," said Asuka, "Look, I know that Special K resembles a mutant dandelion, and he's way too obsessed with An die Freude (although at least he has the sense to admire a German song), and sometimes he talks like he swallowed a magnetic poetry kit. But he helped me to sync with my Eva again, and he got me out of that coma. If he were really a bad Angel, it wouldn't make any sense for him to be helping the Eva pilots." Asuka never dreamed that she would ever speak up in defense of an Angel, but it was thanks to Kaworu that she had been reunited with Mama. She hated owing people, so she was simply repaying the favor now.

Yeah, that was all. She didn't need another friend. And she sure as heck wasn't defending him for Stupid Shinji's sake, either. Right?

"If the Angel helped you, then that just makes him even more suspicious!" Misato argued, "It could be a trick. He might have contaminated you!"

Shaking her head, the First Child took a step forward. However, she did not bother to raise her Taser. "I sense no contamination, Major Katsuragi. Also, I am not cancelling out Kaworu's A.T. Field at the moment. If he truly wished to do harm, he could have easily destroyed your gun and killed you six times before you hit the ground."

Everyone gaped at her.

The First simply shrugged. "It's true, isn't it?"

Shinji seemed rather embarrassed that he had completely forgotten about the A.T. Field, and yet he maintained his protective stance in front of Kaworu anyway, until the Angel finally placed a hand on his friend's shoulder to gently nudge him aside.

"There are no words that can adequately express the guilt and sorrow I feel over all those precious lives that were lost…" Kaworu said to Misato.

Misato's eyes widened slightly as she looked at Kaworu's arm. "So you thought to do this instead?" she demanded, grabbing the Angel's hand off Shinji's shoulder and turning it palm up, so that the scars on his wrist were fully visible.

Asuka flinched, self-consciously hiding her own damaged wrist under the bedcover.

"Trying to take the easy way out," Misato growled, squeezing Kaworu's arm tightly enough to make his fingers spasm, "Just like my father! He was the leader of that accursed expedition that woke up the first Angel. With his knowledge of Adam, who knows how differently the fight against the Angels might have been, if he had survived? How many lives he could have saved? But no, he put me into that escape capsule instead, so he could die as atonement for his role in Second Impact. Redemption through death? What a load of bull. If you really want to help us, then do something, damn you! Don't just run away!"

So that's it, Asuka thought, as she realized that Misato's eyes were bright with moisture, Her hatred of the Angels isn't just about revenge for her father. It's about survivor's guilt. And from the way Kaworu wasn't using his A.T. Field to break out of Misato's tight grip, he probably thought that he deserved to be yelled at. Special K said that Stupid Shinji and I both hated ourselves, but it looks like he hates himself, too. I guess it takes one to know one, as the saying goes.

Self-hatred. Was that why Kaworu revered humanity so much? Because he considered himself to be beneath them? This powerful Angel considered himself to be beneath the Lilin?

Holy freaking crap, the only one in the room who didn't have issues was the kitten. Unless he was a catnip addict, or something.

"I'm sorry that we made you upset, Misato," said Shinji, putting his hand on her arm until she finally released Kaworu, "But please, that's enough. Kaworu really has been trying to help, over and over again throughout multiple lifetimes, but it hasn't been easy. And eventually, he runs out of time and has to die before his Angelic instinct forces him to start Third Impact. That's why our best hope is to let Kaworu go to Mars in peace. He's not trying to run away; he's trying to save us all!"

Asuka sighed and rubbed her temples. "Again with this weird stuff about multiple lifetimes, and stuff about Mars? Maybe you guys should explain that part of the story next, before any more wrong conclusions are drawn." She could only handle so many headaches in one day.

With that, Shinji, Kaworu, and the First resumed telling the tale. As it turned out, the most shocking part of the story for Asuka was not the fact that everyone had met before during multiple past lives, with Kaworu being the only one who remembered. No, the part that really made her straighten up and pay rapt attention was the information about the group known as Seele.

"They were the ones who planned for Second Impact to happen, in order to pursue their mad dreams of godhood," said Kaworu, "To make matters worse, they wish to complete their goals by setting off a Third Impact. And they were also the ones who killed Ryoji Kaji, when they decided that he was getting too close to the truth."

Misato's fists were clenched at her sides, and her face had hardened into a look of barely restrained fury. Asuka didn't need a mirror to know that her own features probably looked very similar at that moment.

"Seele and… Commander Ikari… both seek to exploit Adam and Lilith's powers for their own gain," the First added, holding herself with a downcast expression as she mentioned the Commander's name, "The Seeds of Life were essentially meant to be goddesses of creation, not killers. Those who have sought to abuse their potential must be stopped once and for all."

In stark contrast to the First's sad countenance, Shinji wore an angry scowl upon hearing about his father. "These madmen can't fulfill their crazy prophecy unless all the Angels are dead. Did I get that right, Rei?" he asked. Upon receiving her nod of agreement, he continued, "So if we send Kaworu and Adam to Mars, we'll put a stop to their plans while also letting the Angels have a new home. It's the least we can do, considering that Earth was supposed to be the Angels' planet in the first place. And that's pretty much the whole story. Unless you have anything else to add, Kaworu? Uh, Kaworu?"

Everyone stared at the Angel, whose head was tilted limply to one side as if he had fallen asleep standing up. However, his eyes were still open, and his crimson irises were emitting a peculiar glow.

"Kaworu?" Shinji said worriedly, waving his hand in front of Kaworu's face.

"A reboot is required in order for the updates to take effect," Kaworu said in an emotionless tone.

What the hell? "Come on, Special K, snap out of it!" said Asuka, shouting in an effort to hide the fact that she was worried, too. Judging from everyone's perplexed expressions, she was pretty sure that none of them knew how to reboot an Angel brain. Damn, what were they supposed to do now?

Hmm, well if Kaworu's conscious mind was currently in la-la land, then maybe they needed to trigger something that was automatic, like a reflex? But which reflex should… oh, of course! Pushing her meal tray aside, Asuka sprang from the bed and approached Kaworu. "One reboot, coming right up," she said, as she wrapped her hands around his neck and squeezed.

"Asuka!" Shinji cried out in horror, "What are you doing? Stop!"

"Trust me," she replied, not letting go.

A few seconds later, Kaworu burst out laughing. "That tickles!" he exclaimed, as his eyes returned to normal.

Asuka let go of his throat with a self-satisfied smirk, while Shinji just looked about ready to faint.

"What was that all about?" said Misato, looking at Kaworu as if he had just grown a second head.

"An update from the TABRIS network," said Kaworu, his voice reduced to an awed whisper, "After so many incarnations, I can hardly believe it… Thank you, Rei and Shinji. By saving me this morning, it turns out that you've bought us the time that we needed."

"Time for what?" asked the First.

"The TABRIS Project," Kaworu replied, beginning to pace the room excitedly, "Countless Kaworu Nagisas have spent countless lifetimes collecting data for this mission. At long last, we're almost ready. This plan will enable us to thwart Seele once and for all!"

Everyone stared at Kaworu as if he'd just grown three heads.

"Um, Kaworu?" said Shinji, "I thought that sending you and Adam to Mars was going to thwart Seele."

"That is my wish as well, but those men are obsessive and powerful," said Kaworu, "They have managed to outmaneuver many of my past incarnations. What if they find a way to disrupt the Mars mission? Or even if the Mars mission were to succeed, they may decide to harm you all, out of petty revenge. No, I would feel much better knowing that measures were in place to help you before I leave. With the TABRIS Project so near completion, it could actually be possible. It shall be my parting gift to you, Shinji: arming the Lilin with the greatest weapon to battle Seele's reign of terror and despair."

Asuka leaned in closer. "What weapon is that?"

"Hope." said Kaworu with a mysterious smile.

Misato hmm'd thoughtfully, her lips thinning into a worried line. "You're forgetting something here," she told Kaworu, "Most of Nerv thinks you're dead, remember? That means Seele thinks so, too. You said this TABRIS Project is only near completion. How much time do we have before Seele tries to fulfill their prophecy? Is it enough time to finish this Project of yours?"

Kaworu turned several shades paler, giving his already light complexion a translucency that made him appear fragile. "If that is the case, they will probably strike tomorrow. I should be able to finish sometime tomorrow as well, but… most likely it will be necessary to stall Seele's forces in order for me to do so."

"I'll help you, Kaworu!" said Shinji, putting a protective arm around his friend, "No way am I letting you deal with Seele alone, not when you're finally so close to finding your own happiness for once."

"I will assist you as well," said the First, "I promised that I would keep you safe until you could go to Mars."

Misato gazed silently at Kaworu for several moments, her eyes briefly flicking to his wrist before looking up to meet his face again. "If this will allow us to protect humanity, and to stick it to those bastards who killed Kaji, then count me in," she said at last.

"Count me in, too," said Asuka, picking up Lazarus and stroking his fur so he wouldn't feel left out. Those Seele creeps had set off Second Impact on purpose, killing heaven knew how many people, and they still wanted to kill everyone else? Not on her watch! And they killed Kaji!

If she had to chase those evil men to the ends of the Earth in her Eva, then so be it. Looks like we're not done yet, Mama. We'll teach them not to mess with humanity! Yes, she was going to fight for all the children who had lost their parents, and all the parents who had lost their children. She was going to do this for all the mamas, and papas, and children who were still trying to live on this planet, who deserved that chance to endure. She was gonna beat those Seele guys so hard, their freaking past lives would feel it!

Asuka Langley Soryu was going to give them hell.

TO BE CONTINUED

Next chapter: Our heroes make preparations for the battle against Seele. But will it be enough? Don't miss Chapter 3 of The Happy Red Planet, "Sufficient Direction?"

There will be fan service, too!

Author's notes: If you're wondering why this chapter had a reference to midichlorians, take a look at Volume 6 of the Neon Genesis Evangelion manga by Yoshiyuki Sadamoto. During the part when Misato finds out that Toji is the Fourth Child, his profile is shown, and it includes a midichlorian count! I guess Eva pilots are Force-sensitive. Heh. Even though this fan fic is based on the original anime continuity and not the manga, I just couldn't resist sneaking in a little joke about it.

Special thanks go to my beta readers, AleeN and Laryna6. And of course, I'm thankful to all of you for reading this story! Feedback would be greatly appreciated, and I hope to see you again next time!

-Literary Eagle, 2013