Hey, thank you so much for all the feedback on my previous fic - I'm very surprised and happy that so many of you like it! This time I bring you a very quickly (for me) written fic, created because I watched Rebuild of Evangelion recently and re-read the manga, simultaneously rediscovering my love for the series (last time I read the manga must have been at least 5 years ago!). At the same time, I understood and found more meanings and themes that it contains. I also remember being partial to the Shinji/Rei pairing from my first contact with this series and I'm happy to announce that hasn't changed, but perhaps my reasons and perception of it are a little more complex. The characters in general, I find, are extremely complex and I still don't think I have covered every inch of Shinji's persona like I wanted to in this fic. His relationship with Rei is really appealing to me in a very specific sense that I don't think can be described by any conventional terms pertraining to relations between people. I definitely feel like there's a hint of romantic attraction in it, but the entire thing is just so so different from any other fictional relationship I've ever came to terms into. It bugged me that people - fans and people indifferent to it alike - direly misinterpret their connection (in my opinion), so I decided to write something that would convey both how I perceive Shinji's character as well as his relationship with Rei.

With that out of the way, thanks for looking here and I hope you enjoy!

"Could I... hold your hand again?"

Rei Ayanami was crouching in front of one of the ponds located inside the GeoFront garden. Looking over her shoulder and burying her right hand's fingers in the cold liquid, her face displayed little emotion, as per usual. Her features were relaxed, eyelids half-closed, vibrant red orbs focused entirely on his frame. Shinji could count the times when her expression was even slightly differing from what he was seeing right now on one hand.

He was standing a few steps behind her, allowing himself to merely observe the usually reserved girl act on her irrational human curiosity. Regardless of her closure to the outside world (her life seemed to comprise of little aside from piloting the Eva, Gendo Ikari and reading books), she was not above unexplainable, inconsequential human desires – at least not any more. Touching the clear water's surface held no purpose – feeling the sharp coldness on her skin was not in the least bit crucial to completing orders given to her. The Ayanami he met a while ago probably wouldn't have been interested in coming here (unless she was commanded to), much less get her hand wet for no reason. But not any more. Shinji found himself comforted, even glad at the sight... it was small, but for Ayanami, it seemed like a whole new world.

Still drowsy from barely having woken up from a coma, the request he was presented with sounded nearly surreal.

(He didn't remember anything from his slumber inside Unit-01 and he was already surprised with how much could change within the span of one month. Although everything was almost exactly the same at first glance, little changes could be felt in everything and everyone... or perhaps thirty days of sleep caused him to somehow perceive differently?)

He felt warmth beneath his skin and noticed something softening inside him. A few weeks ago (or was it more? The month during which he was absent escaped his consciousness), he would've been taken aback, perhaps even uneasy and distrusting had Ayanami made such a request. Aloof and distant towards him – well, to be fair, towards everyone, with the sole exception of his father – she made it no simple task for Shinji to decide what he thought of her. Should he like her or not? How should he approach her in order to create some form of contact? What made her worthy of his father's concern?

Soon enough, these questions dissolved as he came to the conclusion that despite her secluded demeanor he could not dislike her. But 'like' was in no way, shape or form the apt word to describe how he felt about her. He liked Misato or Aida, at least before everything got so messed up...

(He gazed downwards, faintly remembering the events before he was consumed by Unit-01.)

There was a bond – he felt maybe even before they met physically – something that he could not pinpoint. Not only because he could make no recognition of it, but also because it appeared so rarely. He felt it regardless of the situation, but sometimes when her features formed into a certain expression it hit him so strongly, like a sudden déjà vu in the middle of a town that he'd never before been to, or when someone said something strangely familiar, but his brain just failed to form a connection. A feeling of helplessness mixed with something warm and comforting that sat right at its core.

Aside from that, with time, he found there was more to appreciate in Ayanami that he'd have thought. Unlike him, she was not constantly afraid and lost – even if 'happy' was nowhere near to her emotional state, she appeared to realize that Tokyo-3 was the only place on Earth for her. She told him "I have nothing else" back then. That's why whenever he asked her about anything regarding their duty at NERV, she showed no fear or desire to run away. She was ready to die following Gendo Ikari's order, claiming she could be replaced.

Of course, after all, they had it repeatedly made clear to them: everything in NERV had a backup, including the pilots.

Her fearlessness didn't come from some sort of extreme bravery or selflessness, but rather a disregard for her own existence. Even he, Shinji Ikari, with all his self-directed hate and distress, was not ready to die fulfilling a purpose – a destiny, to be specific – chosen for him without his approval or opinion taken into consideration. But he was risking his life doing it anyway, wasn't he? It was by no means an altruistic act of sacrifice for the greater good of humanity from him. If anything, he was selfish more often than not – those big words, talk of being the savior of fellow human beings, they meant nothing to him. Piloting the Eva seemed like the only thing he was ever good for. Something not everyone was selected to do, something he was needed for... Even if supposedly there was a backup, even if he was aware of it along with the alleged freedom to leave at any given point in time, he stayed. On behalf of NERV, Misato acted professionally, but he knew selecting pilots wasn't so easy. Furthermore, he knew he had exceptional synchronization with Unit-01.

But no matter how much he hated doing it, no matter how afraid he was, one thing would always remain unchanged. He had nowhere to go. Not any more. A lifetime of disappointment and bitterness made him into what he was today, and that creation was screaming denial with every fiber of its being at the mere thought of returning to being nothing. Worthless. A burden.

Without the Eva, Shinji Ikari was just a burden.

Ayanami would have never had the thought about leaving cross her mind, he mused. What if she was ordered to?

What would Rei Ayanami be without the Eva?...

"...Yeah.", was his slow reply as he stepped forward to stand side by side with her. She stood up as well, extruding her fingers in search for Shinji's own. Relaxed, his palm found hers and wrapped around it gently.

Rei's hand was cold and wet, yet it was probably the warmest she ever felt to him.

Despite that Rei asking to hold his hand was, to say the least, unexpected, Shinji didn't question her desire to be close to him. He found it natural, understandable. A simple need for warmth from another person. A pair of human beings acknowledging their inability to suffice on their own, to reach content without each other.

No... The grip on his hand was not one of resignation nor desperation. It was not an admittance to emotions Rei thought to be needless or distracting.

To hold the hand of someone who cares for her. What Shinji felt was reassurance. That she was there, thinking, breathing, alive. Though during their first few meetings he was scared of her desolation and the silence caused him discomfort, in just a few weeks the tranquility and solace that came with her presence became something extremely valuable to him. It was a place he found himself yearning to return to. He was calm and lukewarm. He didn't feel happy nor sad.

He felt nothing.

Feeling nothing was good. It was safe and certain.

Shinji Ikari didn't know happiness. Sure, he knew what it felt like to laugh with friends. When he hung out with Touji and Aida, when Misato acted like a goofy big sister, or even when Asuka managed to bring out a small act of sincerity out of herself. Those were all moments of happiness. Snapshots of it. Teasers to adventures which were never able to capture the spirit of the entire thing appropriately.

People were what created these moments. They gave him what little reason to smile. They were what still held him together.

However, regardless of it, the ghost in the back of his head slowly spread out, sinking into his brain at nights, contaminating his mind. It hated people. Not just people that actively attempted to kill it, though – it hid away even when a complete stranger laid his eyes upon him. But as soon as he was left to his own – which, in accordance to his introverted nature, happened very often – it made itself comfortable. Like a parasite, it would feast on his thoughts, consuming every last drop of happiness that he gathered within himself. Unlike a parasite, it wasn't eaten with raw meat or dirty fruit by unlucky accident. Subconsciously, he created and nursed it carefully until it was no longer a fairly unpleasant melancholy, but a dark void expanding within and burning into his skull that he couldn't shove aside any more.

But Shinji Ikari was an expert on sadness. Sometimes he wondered if feeling bleak and apathethic became a habit after all these years. It certainly seemed to be his default mood, no matter the circumstances. If he didn't know better, he would believe the people who told him that what didn't kill him made him stronger. Pretty words could give people hope even in the most dire situations... especially in the most dire situations, but he was far beyond the point of that. Like the story of heroism in which he was subjected to the most unthinkable danger so NERV had the slightest chance of saving the world from these vicious outworldly creatures they called Angels, not one uplifting word he ever received held any value. Every person that even bothered to try and raise his spirits never managed to stay with him in the long run. One can only withstand so much awkward silence, blank-faced detachment and unexplained tears flowing from somber eyes. 'Waste of space' was a phrase that he believed described him and the life he led accurately. No contribution to other people's lives, no satisfaction from his own. Just existence that brought nobody anything to cherish.

He glanced sideways, seeking the relief Rei always provided – her mere sight carried an aura so comfortably familiar that it almost made him forget; almost cleansed his mind of the despised leech that was his only everlasting company wherever he went. She was staring downwards at the pond, her lips curled up into the slightest smile, her expression otherwise unaltered (had he known her any less, he might've even missed the change completely). Following her gaze, he was met with a clear reflection of a delicate-looking young girl in her school uniform, piercing crimson eyes standing out noticeably from her image and a similiarly-aged boy in plain white hospital pajamas standing side by side; a leaf from the tree crown floating above them fell onto the surface slowly, right where their hands were entwined. As it drifted effortlessly, sending distortive pulses throughout their mirages, his hand twitched thoughtlessly as if to strengthen his hold. Realizing his body's intuitive action, now consciously, he pressed her hand to his a little harder.

He wondered if she had a void inside her as well – if that was what caused her to smile like this so rarely.

Maybe this really was happiness. It wasn't a strong feeling, but it was a lot better than when he was alone, even if Rei wasn't occupying him with conversation and excessive attention. In fact, he was doing nothing but thinking about the things he hated about his life, yet instead of feeling sorry for himself and diving deeper into his misery, it was as if he was retrospecting about it. Like it didn't apply to the present at all.

He was painfully aware that as soon as Rei would let go, everything would come crashing down on him, slowly and torturously. Maybe it would be the best to stay like this forever, instead of being dragged down by the memory of this moment – desperately wishing to be able to return here, into this quiet limbo, peaceful and unfeeling.

Quickly thinking over the potential success of drowning inside the pond in front of him, he sighed inaudibly, fully aware he won't do it.

A pair of deep red eyes gazed at him intently from below his feet and he was reminded of the warmth inside his palm.

He had a purpose. That was good enough for now.

Maybe someday, I will feel like this all the time.