Chapter 1: Reunion


The air was filled with smoke and blood.

Thick, fuming black columns stained the buildings suspended high above where a chasm gaped in the ceiling of the GeoFront, the edges of it rusted through from the Angel's slow, decaying descent through Tokyo-3's thick alloy. Sirens sang in answer to the destruction as fire blazed across the expanse below, illuminating its megalithic chrome walls while waves of ash and heat flowed over a hard-edged titan, its bright armor blackened with energy scouring and soot. Within, the plug canopy was doused in a stinging crimson, warning panels pulsing along its length as alert systems wailed for the pilot's attention. An earsplitting chorus of buzzers, electronic tones and high-pitched rings.

Comm traffic heavy with static poured over the BattleFreq. "Negative conductor suffering power outages, mountings in the undercarriage are loose."

"Supply bands one through seven, eighteen through twenty-four severed from overload, we're getting coolant spills in the cable lines."

"Unit-one's power is still stable, the railgun can handle it."

"And the shield?"

As if in response, Unit-01's left arm sagged to hang at its side. The shield latched to the forearm plating, now nothing more than a hunk of twisted metal, slid from its anchors and crashed to the ground. Smoke poured off the charred appendage.

"Left arm inoperable."

"Energy build up from the Angel!"

Miles across the wasted landscape, what Shinji's target acquisition relay casually named Ramiel – a giant domed mass resembling an amanitas, colored the same bone-white as the vertebrae structure hanging down beneath it – elicited a shrill, animal scream. Melting pain erupted under his skin as light poured into the Eva's upper chest. He reacted on reflex, screaming from the sensation of muscle and sinew burning away. The railgun in Unit-01's grasp snapped with arcs of electricity and a projectile burst from the muzzle, tearing sound with a deafening boom.

The round shattered a hole in the GeoFront wall, rattling the underground fortress with violent tremors. Buildings fell from their anchors above and threw up clouds of debris upon meeting the ground.

An alert flared, voices at headquarters shouted a warning, but Shinji already knew. He commanded Unit-01 to turn, growling at the ripping strain it put on his arms. The machine swung about with the weight of the railgun to face the Angel, which had cut its beam short to teleport behind him, still keeping a safe distance in the wide underground expanse. In the back of his mind, he was relieved. If it closed the distance, he would be within reach of its decay field – disconnected from his power supply and the all-seeing eyes of headquarters. Cut off from any signal or retreat.

Shinji was already pulling the trigger as the heavy barreled weapon came about. A red warning chirped next to his face.

Capacitors still cooling.

Another shot would tear the weapon apart if he didn't wait. Energy readings form the Angel spiked. The targeter wasn't aligned yet. Shinji pulled the trigger. A second, thunderous boom sucked up all other sound, a wash of pain swallowing his right shoulder and the side of his face as the Angel's core, buried within its vertebrae stem, vibrated and spun flaying streams of light.

Then Ramiel shrieked again with a sudden, jagged hole punched in its spinal cord, a chunk of the core going with it. Cracks spread into iceberg splitting fissures across its porcelain form and mass moaned as it fell, earth shattering in rolling swells with its impact. A chorus of squishy cracks, like rolling all the bones in his neck, sounded as it landed.

Unit-01, dashed with flurries of flame, shuddered, the motors in its right arm whirring as it dipped with the weight of the railgun. Its knees wobbled and collapsed, lights flickering over its frame as they struggled through power fluctuations. Red fluid oozed from its chest and upper shoulder, pauldron cut off and underwire mangled. Fortified layers of titanium glowed red from the scouring heat.

Shinji felt his muscles tighten and strain. A new warning cropped up – high sync-rate causing negative feedback anomalies. Left arm connection attempt: failed. Right arm functionality: declining. Shinji disabled it and the rest, a raw headache already breaking against his skull. His vitals were sharp, he could feel it in the break-neck pounding of his heart and the bloated catch in his throat. It felt like he was melting from the inside.

"Shinji, you've turned off your early warning system, what's wrong?"

"Nothing." Everything was wrong. He didn't know if the Eva could take much more. What would he do if the right arm failed?

"Energy readings from the target are fading, pattern dissipating."

Caught up in the cloud of dust and debris it had created, the Angel grew still, every moment or so straining in small spasms, the ripping of its sinew creating a sound like peeling an orange.

Even with spirals of relief tickling his neck and shoulders, Shinji's every nerve pooled with the body of Eva, the weight of its armor his weight, the burns on its skin his skin. Over a tundra of ash and black soil, Shinji lingered on the smoking, discarded form of Unit-00. Data pinged to life by his head, taking readings from on-board sensors yet to be fried. Rei had stopped broadcasting over the comms minutes ago. No one was even talking about her.

"It's still operational?" he heard Misato ask.

"Marginally. Core integrity is only two percent and its Ego-Barrier is fading."

"At the rate of decay, it'll be silent within the hour."

"Can it still hit us?"

"Unconfir- woah, hang on. Energy buildup around the core."

"Is it going to fire again?"

"No, I… I think it's trying to self-destruct."

Shinji flinched, eyes flickering to the downed Angel, Unit-01 responding to thought and attempting to heft the railgun just a little higher, but it stalled with metallic screeches. Massive electrical cords pouring from the rear of its frame hissed and spat sparks. Internally, something rattled the frame with an unseen burst. Experimental, its metals were weak from the trauma of accelerating rounds – the weapon had reached its limit. It was done.

Unit-01 rose and took a step forward.

"Shinji, umbrella your A.T. field and hold your position."

His eyes went back to Rei, to the silent Unit-00, as he became aware of the cold, piercing feeling pressing into him like a cocoon of knives. It was new every time he felt it, but didn't belong to him in any way. Always an intruder to his consciousness. It was all around and in every direction. His whole body was tense with it, the nerve-ripping perception of his surroundings as his senses honed in on the pain, urging him to fight, remembering the beam burning through him only moments ago.

Fear.

Shinji knew, from their last sortie, what it smelled like when an Eva's bio-layers oozed together into hot mush. How the taste of it stained the air. Burned with the sharp scent of cordite – weapons discharge. Even now, he felt the power of the Eva slipping from his fingers, as though he were being yanked out of the plug by invisible strings, drawing him out into the open with the Angel, forcing him to witness how insignificant he was against monsters that could control particles and wave matter on a whim.

His mind stuck on that. The blades cut further into him. If not for the LCL, he would have had trouble breathing. Capacitors hummed and sputtered with fading power along the railgun's barrel. He leaned on the controls, focused his thought impulse, sight zeroing on Ramiel as though he were looking through binoculars. A thick, soupy smoke leaked into the air from its open wound, like oil spilling into water. Shinji commanded nearly heat-fused fingers open, dropping the railgun. A road-sized umbilical cable trailed behind Unit-01 as he moved it forward.

"Shinji, what are you doing?" Misato again. He had to grind his teeth to stop the trembling in his neck.

"Hold your position."

Heedless, Unit-01 lumbered through the battlefield, dry earth cracking under foot. Ramiel lay in a bed of ruined earthworks and bunkers built into the side of the mountains. Tiny motes of light glittered from slivers of its broken stem, their shards chittering meekly about its frame as it tried to cover its exposed core.

"Unit-one, I gave you an order!"

Unit-01, responding to his commands, sank to a knee as its right hand crashed through Ramiel's weak barrier, breaking yet more bone to grasp its core. The thing fit into the behemoths hand – he could feel it shiver in his palm, could feel Ramiel bristle at the touch, bright rays trickling in dancing streaks towards the Eva. Voices from control brayed for him, but he couldn't hear them anymore as the Angel expanded its decay field. His heartbeat rolled in his ears, pulsing through his skull and making all else in his mind dark. Power flickered in the plug, cutting off his connection through the umbilical cable.

"Shinj–!"

The BattleFreq went dead. Oxidation crept along what was left of his armor. At the very least, he could keep the implosion of the core contained with his A.T. field. But if he could crush it first…

He felt it, was so hungry for it he nearly smiled – a crack formed on the red sphere, a small one. Almost. He could sense it about to grind to dust between his fingers. Almost.

There was a flash of light, pain ripping through him as Unit-01's shoulder burst from its socket.


Neon
Genesis
Evangelion
Act II: Karpos


September 2nd, 7 days after the Third Battle of Tokyo-3


After a 10 hour flight Asuka could finally see Japan, sprawling over the water and disappearing within a distant mist on the horizon. The wing of their black coated transport, designed to carry the obscene weight of an Evangelion, dipped as they arced over the mainland, waiting for clearance to land. It allowed her to see the wrinkled spread of green mountains and valleys, touched with pools of ocean that used to be towns or cities.

The long series of islands were completely different from the old maps, but the speck she was looking for remained largely untouched. A smattering of silver and steel blue in a ring of calderas – craters created from ancient volcanic eruptions. From above, it looked like someone had frozen the impact of a raindrop hitting the water. In its cradle sat Tokyo-3.

"Are you nervous?" Kaji asked, slipping his cell phone away as he came to sit back down. A hand smoothed over his face and rubbed at his stubble, brows shooting up in anticipation.

Asuka tried not to flare up and turned back to the window. "About what?" she snipped, with maybe more bite than was warranted for such an innocent question.

"Alright," Kaji sighed, holding up his hands in surrender. Asuka soured, but didn't want to turn around and face him again, hoping he might start talking about something else. But he didn't, only shifted in his seat and stayed quiet. He'd been like that since the night before they left Berlin, all brooding and moody and busy talking on his phone while she was left bored to tears. And now he thought she was so annoyed with him he wouldn't even talk to her. She wasn't annoyed at him, just...

She shifted closer to the viewport, peeved now that he had to ask such a stupid question. Just because she'd gone to the bathroom a few dozen times in the last hour to adjust herself. Her hair kept messing and she hated that the flight was so long and she just so happened to be wearing her least comfortable pair of panties and hadn't realized until the dress was already on, while the bags were stowed and the flight was already underway and she was made to sit for hours on end and-

Asuka let out a loud sigh-turned-grunt and tried to focus on the land below.

It was somewhere she'd wanted to see since she was little, but could only stare through as they cruised along. The sight was overshadowed by clouds of thought she'd been trying to keep from wandering about at their leisure. Kaji's persistent attempts to get her talking in that direction were – well, obnoxious. She wasn't stupid, far from it, and she knew what he was doing.

Why did he care so much anyway? Why would she feel nervous at all about coming to Tokyo-3? Certainly not because of some old friend. She'd been waiting to be deployed to Headquarters since their combat training was up. It'd taken them so long just to finish her Eva, which was humiliatingly enough the third one in production. Seeing her Unit-02, even malformed deep beneath Berlin, made her think it would be done before the others. But they'd started on it so late. It wasn't fair.

With an inner sigh, Asuka took a moment to remind herself it was the production model. The design every other Eva in the series was based on now. Hers was purpose built for combat, not like the slapped together units made in Japan. A superior weapon for an ace pilot – and she was an ace pilot. The clunky 3D simulations might have been goofy to look at and didn't capture the same heavy weight iron-on-your-brain feedback as the real thing, but her performance was top tier. So what if the war started without her? The Tokyo pilots might've been up on sorties and kills, but she'd have them beat out before the month was up. Especially that boy.

A wry smirk played at her lips. He might've been shipped off first, but she'd always been his better in sparring and their exercises, with exception to a few areas – which she had pursued doggedly to correct in the past year, pushing her operational limits in the plug.

Well, maybe that was embellishing. He'd flattened her out just as often, she could admit that. That was then, this was now. She was better. She had to be.

Still, like the trickling streams and rivers coming down from Mount Fuji, her thoughts pattered to the estate back home, watering on memories she hadn't bothered to dwell upon in months. Maybe it was her nerves, or the fact she hadn't slept a wink on the flight and now the weary tug of fatigue was blanketing her further every moment. Either way, she slipped into a reverie, marveling at the swirling cistern of feeling it evoked in her.

He'd never really left her mind to begin with, much as she entertained otherwise. After all, he was the reason she drove herself so recklessly to exhaustion during her training in his absence, which was maddening in and of itself.

But that was always how their relationship had been.

Asuka had been a little girl – alone, abandoned in her large garden and no one to share it with. Not that she was very good at sharing, but the flowers were all so many colors and the trees so tall and patient in the sun. She didn't need anyone there, nor did she really want anyone there. Not at the time. Even if she secretly ached for it.

It just would've been nice if someone else thought it was beautiful too.

She remembered thinking that wasn't a thing she should have wanted. She was by her own. She didn't need others to make her feel less so. So she'd stayed in the house, away from the ferns and flowers from then on, wondering who the strange creature wandering her garden was. It was a boy of course, but boys turned into men and men were foreign, distant things that didn't have an interest in anything but themselves and grown women.

So, one day, finally drawn into a fit, she had gone to look for the boy to tell him not to trample the flowers and to stay away from her roses. That was when she found the snake, scales of black so dark they shimmered blue in the right light. It had turned its head and looked at her, as though it knew her, then swayed off. She watched it slither and wiggle, so fluid and – though she had lacked a word for it then – graceful. It liked to climb itself into the trees, curling atop the lower branches and occasionally poking the air with its forked tongue.

She stared at it there, waiting for it to do something. It didn't talk or hiss or even bite, but merely sat in the shade content in its coil. So Asuka, in all her childish wisdom, climbed after it. The clever thing dashed over the branches and into the next tree, out of sight. That's when she realized the tree she'd chased it from held these greasy black balls. Papa had shown her these once. Olives.

They looked inviting enough and she ate amply, souring at the bitter taste. Yet they were nearly sweet, just as they went down her throat. It made her mouth tingle and water, so she ate more, and repeated this for the next few days. To the point where the burning dryness of the olives didn't bother her so much. On the third day, however, the boy came stumbling into the clearing, the viper she'd gotten to know so well making a quick getaway. Asuka was down amongst the roots 'round the other side. He hadn't noticed her yet and she watched while he ambled to the base of the tree and began to try and stifle quiet sobs.

She hated that sound. What did a little boy have to cry about anyway? Asuka crept around the tree, still wary of him. She was going to make him stop crying.

Asuka was jarred from the memory as they dove in on their final approach, soon landing with smooth precision at an airstrip in a port reserved strictly for NERV personnel. Various craft and carriers stamped with their insignia came and went with hive-like rapidity. Even this small hub dwarfed the third branch in Berlin, but one was a city-wide complex while the other was squished within a city district, hardly comparable.

"Well, well, so this is headquarters," Kaji said, leaning to peer out the window with her. "Pretty impressive, don't you think Asuka?"

"I suppose," she hummed.

"You suppose?" he asked with a bit of a laugh. "The entire city was built to accommodate NERV Headquarters. It's a veritable fortress."

"I just wish it wasn't taking so long to get there."

The transport rolled onto a wide plate and they were taken underground. The speed of descent could've competed with a sloth and Asuka had to keep forcing her fingers down from curling her hair, lest she rip the locks out. Everything was greasy now too and she felt completely gross. Really, she just wanted this entire trip to be over and done with.

Their platform settled with a rattling thoom into the base of a cavernous tunnel, made with the stark but raw efficiency of concrete and evenly spaced florescent lighting. On the other side of the bay people and machinery moved, almost microscopic in the plain expanse. Asuka scanned a bundle of figures waiting along the caution line, trying to decipher facial features.

"Ready?"

Asuka flinched, but recovered, attempting to both stand and stretch at the same time. "Yep! Oh, I can't wait to take a shower!" she puffed out a breath and snatched her duffel bag from under the seat. Like the gentleman he was, Kaji held out his hand for it and she obliged. "First I want to see the GeoFront! Then you can take me on a tour of Tokyo-3, right Kaji?"

Her guardian smiled. "We'll see Asuka. I have a lot to do with the transfer."

The tone was what struck her more than anything, the kind that had already decided no. She spun at the end of the lane. "Kaji! That isn't fair!"

Right behind her, he stopped short, sputtering at first. "Weren't you just saying how you couldn't wait to get off the plane?"

"But you're changing our plans!" she cried, folding her arms.

He quirked an eyebrow, smile fading. "I told you I had to report in to the Commander first, now what's this about?"

"It's about you not keeping your promises," she said, more frustrated now than she had been on the entire flight. She turned away from him, facing down the lane to the open hatchway leading outside. Muffled voices over the intercom flowed through the gap. All she wanted was to fly in, have her wonderful Unit-02 prepared in its launch bay and spend the rest of the day with Kaji who she'd barely seen the past week. So what if she–

"Asuka," Kaji's tone slapped her. "I don't know what's gotten into you, but–"

"Nothing's wrong with me," she whined, trapped between an irate mentor and the light beyond the cabin. This was a nightmare and she hadn't even got off the plane yet.

"I see," he said, softly this time. "Are you worried about meeting Shinji again?"

She made a high-noted scoff, tossing her hair aside as she turned about. "Who, that bellyaching beansprout? Why would I be? He was a loser when we were kids and he's probably still a loser now. So what?"

One of his lopsided smiles returned. "But he's already had three sorties."

"That doesn't mean anything."

"And he has a median sync-ratio of seventy-two-point-three percent. Isn't that… ten points above yours?"

"The sync-rate doesn't make the pilot," she snipped, tactfully and decisively ending the discussion there as she marched off the plane.

The tunnel seemed liable to swallow her whole now that she was setting foot in it. To the left were one of two railway tracks floor workers were readying to adopt the platform once the Eva was detached from the plane and anchored in place. Straight ahead, a short walk that took infinitely longer, were a handful of figures she didn't recognize and two that she did.

At Misato's side, almost behind her, was Shinji dressed in the standard tan NERV uniform, except he was the only one she could ever recall standing out in it. Maybe that was just because he was a familiar sight, aside from the way it broadened his shoulders and made him appear more rigid and sharp. How easily he occupied it, even with one arm hanging in a sling. Asuka knew they were both only 14 – well, she was 13 – but Shinji looked much older. So much more grown up than she'd ever given thought to. She must've looked that way too, having filled into A cups and wearing a new curve in her hips.

As they got closer, Kaji spread his free arm out. "Ah, if it isn't the beautiful and illustrious Misato Katsuragi! What a welcoming committee!"

Misato crossed her arms. "Well, if it isn't a walking scumbag."

"Oh, come now, isn't that a bit of a harsh greeting?"

"Not for you," she said, glaring.

Kaji gave a mock pout and smug smile. "Ouch."

Misato's lips twisted in a "sorry, not sorry' kind of smile. As she set her attention on Asuka, her demeanor changed instantly and she beamed. "Hey, long time no see kiddo! Gosh, you've grown some since I last saw you."

Asuka let out a small laugh, standing straighter and holding her hands behind her back. "Well of course, Misato! After all, you remember my figure started filling out before most other girls."

The woman offered a smile. "If you say so," she said, stepping aside. "By the way, I figured I'd bring someone along to meet you." she put her hand on Shinji's back and gave him a nudge. Though his mouth twitched with a grimace, he ignored her and took a step forward.

Her lungs swelled and prickled as though shards of needle had burst in her chest. The mere pressure made her want to slap him in his whole face. What would he say? She couldn't tell at all. Knowing him something grossly plain and obvious. No, she couldn't tell. What would she do if he insulted her? Everything in her mind told her she wanted him to so she could bite back, that little jerk. Go ahead Shinji, say something.

"Hey," he said.

Asuka's hands moved to her hips as the knot in her core unraveled, heart beat no less rapid. She took her time looking him up and down, settling her expression on unimpressed. "What happened to you, Third Child? Angels too much for you?" she sneered. What flashed through his eyes stabbed her, though she didn't let it show. It only stoked the white hot furnace glowing under her skin.

Asuka took two steps forward, right in his face. That'd show him. "What? Got something to say to me?"

His pupils burned. Misato stepped halfway between them. "Woah, cool it," she said, expression somewhere between concern and bewilderment. "What's wrong with you two? I thought you'd be happy to see each other again."

"We're not little kids anymore," Shinji muttered.

That little brat. So what if his score was ten points higher than hers? If he thought–

Klaxons shattered the air, drawing everyone tense. "All personnel to level one battle stations. All personnel to level one battle stations. Pattern Blue detected on an attack vector. Evangelion pilots prepare for immediate launch."

In a flash, Misato was in soldier mode and for a second Asuka felt as though she were in training again. "Alright, we're cutting this short. Asuka, you're coming with us to the cages." She and their entourage marched off to a row of parked motorized carts. The tech with them slipped into the drivers seat and they hopped into the remaining spaces.

"What about Unit-two?" Asuka asked, letting her tone slip. Shinji had taken the seat up front with Misato and the tech, while she was relegated to the back. Jerkwad.

"They'll get it there, but we're going to have to delay a combat launch. Which means you two will be deploying inside the defense perimeter. Damn," she cursed through her teeth, slipping a comm piece into an ear. As she did so, Kaji approached.

"Um, what about me?" he said, and Asuka took in the only four occupied seats.

Misato made a show of doing the same. "Huh, guess you'll be walking," she said, giving him a wink.

"Or you could... sit in my lap. Like old times."

"Excuse me?!"

Asuka just about burst, until Kaji held up a forestalling hand. "It's alright," he said, handing her carry on back, "I'll see you after the battle. Good luck!"

Then they were off, zipping through increasingly smaller personnel tunnels that, as they went further, lost the clean order of the hangars. Miles of wire and pipelines followed them along curved walls. Every so often, she glanced at Shinji, but he wasn't looking at her. He was staring hard at their destination ahead, and she could practically see the walls building in his mind. He would do that whenever they used to spar. Just get this look that told her he was calculating – honing in. Determined.

She recalled a sort of sharpness dancing over her skin whenever she noticed it, like she were excited. This time however, she saw there was a hollowness that occupied it, and a black, poisonous bitterness crawled over her instead.

They reached the Evangelion cages in short order and Asuka wasn't directed to the changing room so much as she tagged behind Shinji as he navigated the corridors. Misato left them for the command center. A mere curtain separated the boys and girls sections of the lockers and they both changed in terse stillness.

Out in the cages, she waited along one of the Eva restraining walls, watching as Unit-02 was carefully marionetted into an upright position. There was no sign of the First Child and her unit cage was obscured. Where could she be?

The sight of Shinji cut her speculation short. She noticed him right away, making for the cage designated Unit-01, maybe twenty feet from where she leaned along the wall. At the gateway – a small opening in the massive steel cable shutters – he stopped, right arm pressed to his stomach while his free hand clutched at a support railing. Asuka could see the color had drained some from his face, giving him a sickly white pallor that made the black rings around his eyes more visible.

As though sensing her, he shifted and caught her stare. The change was cutting, his weariness tucked away as he turned to march up the steps to the insertion platform.

She tracked him every step of the way, brow knit, jaw tight. "I won't let you beat me," she growled. Not on her first sortie in Japan. Not to Mister Ten Points Higher. Numbness wound her stomach like someone had dropped a bowling ball on it. "I won't."

After an agonizing wait that drew an ache in her joints for action, Unit-02 was finally ready. She bolted up the grated stairway to her entry plug, as if in a race. Once sealed in, she was drowned in LCL while the techs whisked through activation and pre-launch checklists. Internal mechanisms rumbled through the Eva's feet and to her own as Unit-02 was taken to the launch pads alongside Unit-01.

Windows of both Misato and Shinji appeared on her left. "Alright you two," the Captain said, "Our defense grid is still under repair from the last battle, so you won't have much in the way of protective fire barriers for this deployment. The Magi have little to nothing on the target either – that means we don't know anything concrete about its offensive or defensive capabilities."

Shinji mouthed something under his breath. Whatever was said, Misato ignored it. They were decidedly not interested in acknowledging one another.

Beside Unit-02's left leg, a massive warehouse crane gliding along the cieling locked a pallet rifle in place on her launch harness. "I can kill the Angel myself," she said, "I don't need backup."

"We don't take unnecessary risks like that, Asuka. I want coordinated attacks, understand? Prepare for launch."

Both their panels winked out. Asuka hunched forward, grip tightening around the induction levers. A countdown appeared on her right, ticking down in sync with the operator's voice over the comms. An alarm screamed and the counter flashed green.

Beneath her a ripple shuddered through the launch pad and the lights above shivered with power fluctuations. A low, whining alarm triggered and metal screeched from jamming mechanisms.

Misato cut over the channel. "What's happening?"

"Emergency disconnect. The launch pad circuits aren't getting enough power and I'm reading damage in the ignition system. The Magi are also reporting outages in several subsections of the base."

"How are we losing power? What about the back up generators?"

"Our grid took a beating from powering the railgun last sortie and we've only completed forty-eight percent of overall repairs. The generators can't allocate power if the lines are damaged."

"Are we able to isolate the affected areas supplying the cages?"

Another man's voice interjected. "We can, but repairs could take hours depending on the extent of damage..."

"Didn't the catapults pass testing phases two days ago?"

"Individual, not simultaneous launches. It looks like consumption demands put more stress on the circuits than we thought. They'll have to be gutted again."

Misato made an aggrieved sigh. "Have engineering put this on priority, and tell them to do it right this time. We're not getting the Evas topside this way, not today."

A pause stretched the frequency as the woman considered other options. So did Asuka. Maybe they could be airlifted out? She was sure they had shafts in the armored shutters for that. But she doubted there was a VTOL strong enough to get an Eva through. Only the bomber transports could do that, and those needed a lift to reach the mountain hangars anyway.

"I don't need to fight the Angel on the surface," she said, "let it come to the GeoFront."

An automated voice spoke over the loudspeakers, amplified in the echo of the launch bay. "Target has breached the Shiroyama defense line."

Asuka smiled.

"No," Misato said, "you're going to use the shafts to climb to the surface. Our defensive capabilities are null down here. We have to engage the Angel at the intercept zone. The Magi are mapping out your route now, so follow their markers and arm at the nearest munitions depot. Get moving."


Both Eva's took their rifles and fastened them to the magnetic plates on their thigh armor. Machinery crashed as the war machines began to climb their separate shafts.

Asuka didn't know if she was thankful or not for the red emergency lights casting the long tunnel in crimson. At least she could see where she was sticking Unit-02's hands. Being up at such an angle had gravity putting just enough weight on her to be noticeable. LCL cushioning compensated for the rest.

Lining the center of the launch shaft between the electromagnetic rails were ribbed support sections, which she was sure the Eva was doing awful damage to each climb she made. At this point, it didn't matter much to her. She had a job to do. Radio chatter was kept to a minimum, at least on the BattleFreq, making her ache for something. Conversation, voices, action. Anything but the long dark.

"This is so stupid," she said, frowning. Unit-02's hand slipped and she pulled back on the induction levels, the associated impulse shooting the Eva's hand out to catch itself. "What kind of command center can't launch its own Evas?"

"The target has passed the Daikanzan defense point."

"Asuka, cut the chatter and keep moving."

"I haven't stopped moving," she snapped, muttering bitter comforts in her native language. The echoing stillness of the black maw seemed to grow louder, even over the whirring of the Eva's hydraulics. Despite the holo-map sitting next to her head, it felt like she was lost.

Asuka had never felt claustrophobic in the plug before. The place had always been welcoming to her, like being wrapped in a warm flannel blanket during the winter months back home, dark and comforting. There wasn't a sense of the cold, lifeless metal that enclosed her now, making her blind, deaf and dumb to the world below and above her. She was nowhere, stuck inbetween with no clear direction but up to fight where the enemy was. Somewhere out there was Shinji, finding his way just like her. Except she couldn't see him either. He was lost too, even though the little marker on her Plug-HUD told her exactly where he was. There was no face or name.

"The Angel has stopped over Mount Hakone and is currently holding position. Point defense systems have had no effect. No spikes in activity detected."

"Is it preparing an attack?"

"All of our sensors are reporting threshold readings, no abnormalities."

"Does it know we're coming?" Misato said, more in a whisper than addressing anyone.

Asuka redoubled her efforts, determined to reach the Angel before Shinji. Meters-to-target beside Unit-01's marker began to drop faster. He was thinking the same thing.

"Come on, Asuka," she said, low enough it wouldn't be picked up on the Freq. The launch tunnel came to an intersection, one half splitting off horizontal and allowing her to crawl, transitioning the pressure of gravity from pushing on her chest to weighing on her back instead. Once she reached the edge of the GeoFront the route split off again and she mounted the vertical shaft to begin climbing. Glancing at the holo-map again, Shinji was a hair's breadth away from topside, while she still had a few hundred meters to go. Asuka picked up the pace, heat burning over her forehead.

Comms came alive again. "Shinji, wait for Unit-two before launching your assault on the Angel."

"Roger," he said, as dull and tired as before.

"Unit-one has armed its ACR combat rifle."

The tension over the BattleFreq jumped. "Shinji, obey my orders!" Misato hollered.

A pause bled over the line. Then, someone from command. "Contact!"

A growl reached her. "That idiot."

Asuka thought something along the same lines, face pinched as she willed her Eva faster. The walls trembled under Unit-02's fingers. She couldn't lose the battle, not to him. She couldn't be seen as incompetent on her first sortie, damn him. Not now. Unit-02's knee railed against something protruding from the wall, shearing as it caught on the Eva's armor. Whatever she tore loose crashed into her pallet rifle, knocking it free of the magnetic plates.

The weapon fell into the abyss. "Verdammt!"

"It's okay Asuka," Misato said, forcing calm into her voice, "you can get another one topside."

Impacts continued to vibrate down to her, until finally she reached the surface hatch, which parted as she approached. A world of super-sonic cracks and screaming bangs.

Her heart thundered.

"The Magi are marking re-arm points on your displays now," Misato said as she hauled Unit-02 out onto the streets. As promised a small network of blue-tinged markers sprang up across the landscape of her Plug-HUD. She glanced over the locations and then dismissed them – a once over was enough, she'd be forcing herself to process too much information otherwise.

The Angel was across Lake Ashi by the sulfur mounds of Mount Hakone. There was a low rumbling that preceded it, like the hum of her Eva's internal engines resonating through the plug. A sound that rose with the blazing orange form of the Angel, as though the Earth had inherited a second sun, but cut with sharp, smooth faces like a gem. Straight lines of varying intensity etched its surface at a downward slant, giving an unsettling sense of sentience with each trickling glow spearing down their length.

How it hovered over the air, Asuka couldn't say, but she didn't really care. Unit-02's targeting system began tracking the thing, naming it Gaghiel. It ascended steadily, unhurried and though it was odd to think, with purpose.

To her left crouched Unit-01, roughly seventeen city blocks away and using the buildings for cover. Flares winked from the points of light in the Angel's etching, razor thin particle beams glittering in the air before blossoming in pink explosions that ate away at Unit-01's cover. The Eva staggered, something rupturing on its back.

"Unit-one's umbilical cable has been cut!"

Asuka moved Unit-02 towards the nearest weapons cache. ""Just expand your field! I got this." No sooner had she said it than Shinji's Eva lumbered out of cover, closing within five miles of the Angel.

"Hey!"

Particle streams winked again from the Angel and clusters of energy burst through asphalt to meet the charging Eva. Asuka lost sight of Unit-01 as the tide of ripping blasts plowed towards her in a jagged line. Pure, luminous white light blinded her, the impacts swallowing her skin in a wash of heat. Shock-waves shook the plug and the lights snapped red, warnings flaring on either side of her. Power Supply Disconnect. Power Supply Disconnect.

"Unit-two has switched to internal power!" A counter replaced the warnings as the operator said it.

Asuka cursed. The thought to find another cable port crossed her mind. But she had to get in the fight. Asuka turned to grab her rifle, only to find the folding panel mangled and fused shut. A glance at her battery timer. 04:36. She repositioned Unit-02, wedging its fingers into a gap in the panel.

Unit-01 had found cover again, drawing its rifle closer as glass and aluminum shattered overhead. Then it spun from cover, unleashing a tide of depleted uranium at the thing called Gaghiel, empty shells the size of cars crashing at its feet. The rounds arced into the Angel and it responded in kind. Fire consumed the ground about Unit-01, scouring the armor as it fought the Eva's A.T. Field.

As Shinji spent his last round, the building on Unit-01's right opened to reveal the long shaft of a prog-spear. Dropping his rifle, Shinji took it in the Eva's right hand, side stepping through smoke and heat to an open thoroughfare.

Unit-01 hefted the spear over a shoulder and, with one powerful step, hurled it at Gaghiel.

Flames licked the air around the Angel, accompanied by the sound of screeching glass. An A.T. field shrieked and the next moment Unit-01's spear was buried blade first through a building behind her. If it's trajectory had been just a few degrees to the right...

Metal groaned and Unit-02 stumbled back as she ripped the steel panel from its holdings. Snatching the pallet rifle up, Asuka turned and opened fire. Led pulsed in her throat. She hadn't let the targeter align, not that she could see the Angel very well due to the growing clouds of battle billowing over the valley. A handful of the rounds arced under its silhouette, throwing fountains of earth in the air as they struck the mountains. Several hit home, impacting with bursts of smoke and fire.

As the fog dispersed, she saw the Angel's surface was unscathed. Gaghiel had changed shape altogether. From its compact form had blossomed something predatory and bird-like, its wings composed of bright orange shards that burned like hot irons. At the center of it hovered a red sphere, guarded jealousy by shards that dipped to a razor thin point resembling a beak. The thing had no eyes, but there was a subtle malice in the spread of its wings.

When it moved, neither of them were ready.

Gaghiel dove at the ground, so low its A.T. field ripped up forests and buildings as it streaked for Unit-01. The Eva's left-side pauldron parted for the prog-knife. The Angel was quicker, catching Asuka's breath as a dozen of its winged shards lanced forth to burrow in the Eva's thick plating. Shinji's frequency stuttered as Unit-01 collapsed into the side of a apartment complex, barely managing to keep on its feet.

Her timer chirped a warning. 02:41. The pallet rifle was doing jack-all, she had to find another cable. There was one just within range behind her.

The shards buried in Unit-01's chest detonated, shooting chunks of metal and bio-layer over streets and homes. Shinji stifled a scream over the comms. The Angel was within melee distance.

Asuka had only just set Unit-02's hand around the cable jack when light shimmered before Unit-01, the Angel's wings folding together. Hexagonal waves flashed and an unseen force ripped into it, tearing pieces of the war machine from their mountings while red fluid spat forth from deep lacerations. Unit-01 tumbled in a whirlwind of purple, green and gray as it crashed into Tokyo-3's downtown blocks. A horrible crescendo of rending steel and collapsing concrete rattled the valley.

"Shinji!" A waypoint winked over Unit-01 and began flickering between yellow and red, a rapid alert tone sounding with it. The comms burst with traffic, Misato's voice bringing order to the frenzy.

"Damage report!"

"Massive trauma to the chest and abdomen! The pilot's synchrograph is reversing! The pulses are flowing backwards!"

"Vitals?"

"Extremely erratic. Blood is pooling away from the brain – he's going into shock! The LCL is mitigating the effects, but at this rate we're going to see cardiac arrest."

"Sever the pilot's connection and stabilize his heart!"

"Right!"

"Maya, eject Unit-one's entry plug. I want recovery teams in the air. And dispatch a med-evac!"

"On it!"

Ejecting the severed line, Asuka slammed the new cable in with clumsy force. Her plug washed green and the timer vanished. Gaghiel rose in the air, wings opening once more as if in triumph. Asuka braced the rifle stock and let loose a volley, sustained this time, her ammo counter falling to half. The Angel's shards spun in concert, twisting to avoid the streak of hellfire while its wings remained fixed. Bolts passed harmlessly through it and the Angel pushed itself in a wide arc to turn about, shards glinting in the sunlight. A cold shiver gripped tight around her spine.

"Hang on, I'm getting signal errors… the Eva's back is pinned to a building facing – the hatch can't open!"

"Then get an engineering crew on-site! Asuka – you need to get this done, now."

"I know that!" she cried, falling back several blocks through the city. To her right, she spotted Shinji's fallen prog-spear. Bolts spat at the Angel, stopping short. The trigger clicked. Her counter blinked red.

"Shit."


Asuka wasn't going to go see him.

She'd decided it the minute her Eva was recovered to the launch cages. In fact, she wasn't going to think about him at all the entire day. Why should she? He sure as hell wouldn't, and it wasn't like her being in his hospital room would make any difference anyway. Now that she was here in Tokyo-3 it was time he understood which of them was the superior pilot. That asinine, selfish, over-confidant, over-zealous little twerp. Running in to try and show her up. He deserved what he got.

It was all she seemed able to decide upon in the noise of the Evangelion cages, shrill with the screams of power tools and the indistinct hollering to the maintenance crews. Sour smells of burnt oil and campfire smoke assaulted her nose. Mechanisms crashed as Unit-01 was locked into place further down, its crew preparing it for emergency stasis. A group of them, orange jumpsuits already marked with stains, waited on a gangway down the line. Some gripped the railing, heads hanging, while others took their hats and twisted them, pacing back and forth. A few simply stared, a palpable despondence weighing on their shoulders.

Asuka couldn't stand it. Already changed and dressed, she hurried away from the chaos of the cages and departed for the surface, gaining her stride once she boarded a railcar that began a steady climb along the GeoFront wall. On the opposite end was an elaborate network of scaffolding and mezzanines, engineers patching up an impact that had left rippled and tears in barrier. She found herself pressed up to the window, watching the landscape grow smaller and smaller, until she was right among the handful of skyscrapers still suspended in battle mode. She could see HQ's pyramid, a tiny blue gem amid patches of black forests and rugged hills the color of clay.

It awed her that something like this could even exist. There was no other city in the world as advanced, and it was part of her job to protect it, she knew. There was a time when the thought of doing it alone had weighed on her, even if she took immense pride in being one of the elite few that could.

At the moment, she may as well have been the only one. Sure, the other two pilots were there, but one of them she had yet to meet and the other... Shinji wasn't just some no-name pilot she could brush off as insignificant, no matter how much she might have wanted to. That's what really made it so unbearable.

Trying again to dispel her discontent, Asuka fell back in her seat and crossed her legs, glancing at her watch. Only an hour ago she'd been released from her NERV-ly duties, the most tedious of which had been the debriefing. Simple enough, if not impromptu. Misato hadn't even been the one to give it to her, busy with the buzz of post-op. Instead it was some tech from the command center. Ao-something. She couldn't remember.

Then it had been a horrific process being directed to the changing rooms outside the Eva cages, again. Although the shower had probably been the best in her life, if only because of how awful the lead up had been. Just soaking in steaming streams had been a relief. To immediately flatten the pure serenity that had brought was the fact she hadn't packed much in the way of clothes with her carry on. Her dress was done for the day and she had no desire to throw the thing back on. Not that it was difficult, but she felt its impact had been horribly deflated and she wasn't going to expend the effort if she didn't have to.

The NERV train at last came to the surface, arcing along the edge of the the city by its southern mountains. On the outskirts Tokyo-3 was a tangle of compact shacks, bars and run-down businesses strung together with a haphazard array of telephone lines. Among them were sleek, modern buildings that slowly phased them out until there was nothing but an ordered maze of skyscrapers, looking like they belonged to another world and had appeared there by some cosmic slip in dimensions.

From her waning vantage point she could make out the crumbling, twisted paths of destruction carved out in the earlier battle. She tried to associate each one with a moment in the fight, tracking the movements made, the constant setbacks she'd been forced to endure. All thanks to her co-pilot.

He'd ruined everything.

She supposed it wasn't much different from before. When they were younger there had been a point when Asuka realized Shinji was holding her back. He was smart enough, but there was a clear gap in their abilities and even he knew it. She could admit that at least when it came to extra-curricular, she wasn't very good at things like playing violin or transliteration and anything at all related to sports outside of tennis. She just worked harder at her short comings than everyone else, so they never confused excellence for weakness. Especially not Shinji.

Asuka contemplated this as the train brought her ever closer to the steel monoliths, eager to be out of the frigid air conditioning. A sleeveless button up tee and shorts weren't well suited to cold. The car squealed into its berth and the doors parted to a wall of heat, making her regret her haste to depart. She descended into busy streets, unsure of her destination. The station let off just on the border of downtown, where she joined step with herds of people moving under a curving stretch of road. Blocky supports arced over it, trains rattling above them. Between the gaps in causeways were those massive towers, unmoving and strange in purpose through the twisted lens of electric cables and power boxes.

She started to move against the flow of traffic, though no one was disturbed in the least. Her hair occasionally drew a curious glance or two, but nothing more beyond that. Every open surface along the sidewalks was either a restaurant, store front, or LED grid to display colorful, splashing advertisements. The scent of spice was what drew her along, sharp and overwhelming to her foreign nose. It was mingled and choked by hot rubber and gasoline boiling and dissipating in the summer afternoon, except it should have been fall. Strangest of all was that she could hear the cicada bugs even in the middle of the city, louder than they had ever been back home.

There was one time she'd convinced Shinji to try and catch one for her, up until she saw the creatures up close and kept them far away, revolted. Whenever they fought he would threaten to stick them in her hair.

"I'll beat you if you try." She held up a fist for emphasis.

Shinji shrugged, scratching his chin. "Then I'll do it while you're sleeping."

"Shinji Ikari," she said, planting her feet and pinning him with a finger, "I will never forgive you if you do!"

She couldn't remember exactly how old they'd been.

Though it wasn't a very conscious choice, Asuka had slowly stopped spending so much time with Shinji, and later rationalized that it was so they wouldn't be friends and she could go to Heidelberg without worry; the college her mother had decided on before she could even walk. It was a high bar and she was expected to reach well above, and she would. If only it had been that simple. Things were never simple when it came to her friend.

He was just...

She'd always tried to push him to apply himself. For a while she even thought it would be nice if he could go to college with her. Asuka had quickly dissociated from that idea. If nothing else than because it was absurd to want his company that badly. Not to mention the fact he couldn't have cared either way. Shinji never put more effort towards education than was required and constantly groaned about the workload, to the point where she snapped at him whenever he brought it up. Then he would sulk and she'd spend the day damning him for making her work so hard at not feeling miserable as a result.

There were plenty of times she genuinely hated him for it. Maybe she still did, at least a little. But she couldn't afford to slack off, to be childish and immature. If she wanted to get into Heidelberg, she had to work that hard. He didn't understand and he didn't care.

Ugly and guffawing laughter from a convenience store made her stop short. Two men within continued their conversation, a familiar voice coming through the hollow sounding speakers in the ceiling. It sounded like Tatsuro, though she couldn't peg the song. Someday, maybe.

Turning to the road ahead, NERV's red warning labels tagged the walkways and street side gridlock gates. Whether she followed them on feel or maneuvered a random path, Asuka didn't know, only that she ended up in a place quieter in the city than anywhere else, devoid of the same hustle and bustle she had been absorbed in. Beyond a wall of fencing she could see wreckage from the earlier battle – one of the severed umbilical cables. A gust of chilled air brushed her right shoulder, drawing her eyes to a wide tunnel lit with soft orange bulbs.

She crossed the street to enter and reached out to touch the wall. Cold shivered through her finger tips, which reveled in the smooth marble-like surface as she brushed them across it.

The corridor opened to a groaning cavern that brought with it whispers of a dream she used to have, yet there was a degree of comfort that took residence in her step. The space was wide and open and grand, in a brutal and simplistic sort of way. In all directions pillars thicker around than buses reached at least ten stories high, a concrete woodland that stretched into obscurity. Sunlight pooled in from the edges of the forest, giving the place a welcoming sort of calm. Water pattered somewhere nearby in the semi-darkness and above her the rumbling of trains and traffic resonated through the ceiling. The sounds of it rolled like thunder.

Even though she was no longer climbing a dark shaft to reach the surface, somehow it felt like she was still inbetween. Still isolated.

A faint huff echoed to her and she stilled, searching the wide expanse. At the far end, by a waterway run off, a black four-legged figure moved through the light, soon absorbed in the white radiance from outside. Small streaks of blood trailed behind it.

Every instinct in her said to turn-tail the other way and never look back, but Asuka approached the beast carefully, unable to distill her curiosity. It had made its way down the run off, to a narrow bridge along what looked like an old floodgate, built over and forgotten by Tokyo-3's superstructure. Beyond it lay a beach touching the waters of lake Ashi, overburdened with vegetation and trash.

At first glance she guessed it was a wolf, but dismissed that as absurd. It wasn't as large as one might be and wore a shorter snout from what she remembered of pictures. It's side heaved to produce little more than labored sighs, each one a rasping wheeze that sounded like it was tearing up the poor thing's throat.

"So you can't breath either," she said, unwilling to move any closer. Sharp eyes regarded her without fear or worry. Dark blood oozed from deep punctures in its neck. Around its ankles clung raw, scabbing skin and across its side were tears where hair no longer grew. It must have been fighting.

A whine squealed from its throat, making her feel at a loss. "What the heck am I supposed to do about it?" she mumbled. It wasn't her fault it was dying.

What else could she do?

As if in answer, the beast stilled and its eyes fixed on nothing. The space around her fell mute.

Asuka tilted her head, puzzled. By its face a small seedling had sprouted through the rusted grating. Bits of moisture clung affectionately to its lavender petals, some sliding off to welcome the earth at its stem. It looked like a mountain flower of some sort, or maybe a bellflower? What was the Japanese word for it... kikyou? That couldn't be right, not all the way down here. If Shinji were there he'd have the name in a heartbeat. In fact, he could probably name the flower from kingdom to genus, and would know when it came in bloom and where it was found most in the world.

It reminded her of the Amaranthus back home. Since discovering its place among the roses vacant she had spent some time wondering where it had gone. Until she came across it in the clearing by the old olive tree, dead, but colored the same vibrant purple she remembered. Among other things she thought forgotten. She'd never been able to find the tree again after that.

Asuka frowned and all at once her limbs ached and she wanted to vomit. Bending to close the wolfdog's eyes, she stopped half way, considering it nice to think that he were still staring at the foreign blossom.

In the end, she left the beast and the flower as they were, feeling she had strayed long enough.


Ever since she was little Asuka had hated hospitals. It wasn't just the sterile echo of long, wide corridors or the nasal burning scent of bleach, a pleasant aroma compared to some of the older hospitals in Germany. Which had been erected in the seventies and, despite constant renovation, still retained the damp, heavy stench of decay. No, it was a myriad of things, mainly the pathetic dregs of patients and the indifferent faces of the nurses and doctors. The throwaways and seniles. It burnt her fuse so short that if anyone passing had dared utter a simple "hello" she might have exploded on them.

But the only voices she heard were from hospital staff and patients down the halls, passersby paying her little mind. Every so often the PA called for doctors and nurses and penetrating it all was the clicking of the clock on the wall across from her. For what must have been the thousandth time that afternoon, she regarded it with a baleful glance.

It was nearly six o'clock now. Asuka had been told to wait since four and had run out of things to do on her phone in the first fifteen minutes. She knew it was pointless to go hound the staff at the information desk – they would let her see him when they decided he was ready. Which was taking forever. Maybe she could have gotten up and wandered around the hospital, but that thought was even less appealing than leaving NERV's in-house facilities to explore the GeoFront. The place was still being d-coned from the battle before last anyway. She had hoped to go out and see everything with Kaji, but he'd been put to work before they even left the tarmac, and she was done wandering around topside by herself.

Not that she wasn't excited to finally be at Headquarters. She was, but with the battle and everything... and the fact she'd only a few hours ago been told she wouldn't be staying with Kaji and would instead be provided an in-house set of sleeping quarters – Asuka was beyond fed up with everything, and she'd only just arrived.

So here she was, dressed as casually as could be and waiting to see her friend of eight years. Not counting the last couple, since he clearly hadn't himself. Why should she? Asuka huffed and looked down the hall. Cold metal beneath the seat touched her leg. Memories of the Kloster trickled through her.

At the age of eleven, Asuka wanted there to be a reason. A concrete reason as to why she no longer felt the way she once did. A reason would have made it easier. It would have made her feel less guilty. It would have made the dissolution less strange and painful.

It was why she hadn't told Shinji when she received her acceptance letter to Heidelberg. She was overwhelmed with excitement at the prospect of going to college in such a grand city. Where Roman Legionaries had once made camp and crossed the river Neckar, forming the foundation for Bergheim, the mountain home. Up on the hillside stood the seven-hundred-year old red stone walls of Heidelberg Castle, which watched over the town below. Walking through the streets had reminded her of the countryside she grew up in, not that she'd been particularly happy there. Not, at least, while in her father's estate, cooped up in a house of burnt siennas, charcoal grays and deep-sea greens.

Back before she'd gone, she knew Shinji wouldn't be excited about it. More than that, it was a solid reminder of how completely far removed she would be from him, an idea as invasive and heavy as the stones climbing Heidelberg. She could have told him months in advance, but time and again a sledge hammer of doubt shattered her nerve, which was a perplexing rarity. Or she talked herself out of it so thoroughly with arguments and counter arguments she'd have made any silver-tongued lawyer envious.

But that was just it, Asuka had never been one to hold back what was on her mind. With this she was, again, forced to acknowledge how differently she treated Shinji compared to everyone else. She decided then to reaffirm the promise four-year-old Asuka had made to herself. Besides, it was around then that he'd started avoiding her at school for a second time. Sure, she had her advanced classes, but he never even looked her way during lunch when she sat with the other girls, or sent her a text between classes as had become normal, usually catching a train or bus home before her. At first, she hadn't even noticed it. She was busy with her studies and he'd already decided he didn't care about that.

Gaelle and Laura were there to keep her company too. She'd made friends with the two girls a couple of summers ago when Laura, sitting down for her first day in advanced placement, turned to her and said she had a crush on Erich Koellner. He was a flat-jawed boy that sat at the front of the class, with short cropped sienna hair and bright green eyes. She didn't care much for that, but she did like his white teeth, which she could see whenever he smiled. Asuka commented on as much, which got Laura to giggling and Gaelle, sitting just behind them, whisper-shouted that she'd heard he and Lisa Schneider had kissed by the dead willow tree in the park. The waterfall of gossip formed a tight-knit friendship.

Asuka spent most of her time with Laura as they went between classes and visited the Kloster's menagerie of teachers during downtime. All while they talked about which of the girls said what, to who, and how terribly shallow all of them were. They shared secrets, painted nails, and occasionally braided one another's hair. Though Asuka never let them touch hers.

Then Laura disappeared.

The strange thing was, Asuka still saw her in classes and moving about the Kloster with Gaelle. But for whatever reason, she had stopped existing in Laura's world. Asuka tried to figure it out, to understand what had happened to cause her friend's sudden and cold shoulder. Her calls were ignored, and the two avoided her between classes. Occasionally, Gaelle would shoot her an apologetic look, but didn't really speak with her again.

It was around then, during calm and dry Autumn nights, when Asuka arrived home from another day of forcing a smile on her face and putting up with shallow peers, that she felt Shinji's absence creeping over her. Like the malformed shadow of him that still decorated the wall next to her bed. How she sat in front of her mirror and grew sick to the point of nausea staring at her own reflection, scratching charcoal over the surface until she couldn't recognize herself anymore. No one came to knock on her door in the mornings. Nights in her room were silent and still, as though she'd been buried under miles of dirt.

She wouldn't be ignored anymore.

Asuka really wanted to hurt him. When she finally managed to catch him out by the lockers, her hand came to rest over his throat as he put his back against them. She didn't squeeze or keep much pressure there at all. In fact she didn't even know why it had moved there to begin with. Harsh orange afternoon bled through the windows. He had just finished a practice game and no one else was about. It was just the two of them, mere inches apart.

She asked him what his problem was and all he delivered were useless, pitiful excuses she didn't believe for a minute.

"Liar," she hissed. Everyone was a liar. Even him.

After that, she remembered neither of them actually said anything, though an entire conversation could have passed between them for the amount of time she kept her hand on the warmth of his neck and his glare rested to something softer, but resolved. What exactly happened beyond that, Asuka couldn't say. That's how angry she must've been. It was the only time true blanks in her memory appeared.

But by the end they were friends again, all the while she couldn't figure out why he had stopped talking to her, like Laura and Gaelle had done. Was it something she did? Her pride forged reasons for the others, found dark pits to abandon them in kind, and she soldiered on. But for Shinji there were no answers. Only doubts and distance. Of all people, why him?

She kept him at arm's length for a while. Not that it mattered much, since only weeks later she was off to Heidelberg. She moved in with an Aunt and Uncle, though would have much rather lived with Kaji, her NERV assigned on-campus guardian. The others she never saw, mostly because she rarely spent any time in their company. Either she was in her room writing papers or on the balcony studying for the next mid-term. There was no one else her age at the college and all of the older kids gave her curious looks whenever she walked to and fro. Some even had the gall to ask her where her parents were or if she was lost. Asuka kept a pleasant face and offered polite remarks while she imagined elaborate fantasies of verbally shaming them in public.

Once the other students caught on to why this mere eleven-year-old was attending the lectures and speaking with the professors, their demeanor turned sour. Often, she heard them talking when they thought she wasn't listening, and made herself take in every harsh word and snide criticism. She took them and hardened her skin. They were jealous, and why shouldn't they be? It was during those demeaning talks, the walks down the marble corridors to other classes and the droning of the professors in the lecture halls, where she started to think of Shinji and realized that she wanted to see him again. To hear his voice.

They'd spoken infrequently since her arrival and she sent the occasional message when she felt like it. When she didn't get a response the thought of sending anything faded and she became further engrossed in her studies. It had been a few months since either had said anything to the other. For a little while, she thought of texting him again, probably more than anyone should have thought about anything, until it started to affect her scores. So she deleted his number. That way she wouldn't be tempted, and wouldn't have to be so distracted anymore.

It only worked for a few weeks. The longer she tried to ignore the feeling, the more intense and pressing it became. So at last she decided to send him some throw away text like, "hey, how are you. whats up?" whatever, no big deal – except she couldn't remember what his number was. She could grasp the classical dynamics of spinning tops, but couldn't remember her best friend's stupid phone number.

That brought with it another line of questioning. Was he really her best friend anymore? It wasn't something she dwelled on at length, his status as her friend, at least. Shinji was always there, whether she wanted him to be or not, he was. Even when she was away from him, he managed to subtly invade her thoughts. Sometimes, he arrived to replay that last night she'd seen him in person back at the estate, when she'd been so beside herself with his silence she'd gone into his room and torn the place apart. Looking for that stupid drawing he'd made of her. That would get his attention.

Her train of thought was violently derailed when patient 219's door hissed open. A nurse in blue, unflattering smocks and short haircut came out with a busy tension in her step, though looked unconcerned. She nodded to Asuka, "You can go see him now," and then she was off, papers in hand.

Asuka fussed with her hair and checked her phone to see if some excuse to leave had appeared. No, she'd come here to face him. So that's what she was going to do. The door whispered aside as she approached, revealing a row of empty beds, save for one at the very end next to a wide window. He was lying with his back to her, facing the unfiltered white light of the GeoFront. A heart monitor chirped softly in the background. She started to take a step forward, or it felt like she did, but her legs didn't actually move.

Shinji's head perked up and he rolled over, at first perplexed, until his eyes took her in and became guarded. "What are you doing here?" he asked.

"I just like wasting time in hospitals. Why else would I be here, idiot?" she bit back, insulted that he wasn't at all privy to her past three hours of suffering at his expense. As if in reply to her thoughts, he scoffed, but didn't say anything else. Asuka took a scathing moment to calm down, watching the cautious, skeptical way he regarded her and that stupid way his eyes blanked when he was annoyed, or the way he tensed as if ready to bark back. It only further twisted the tight bundle of nerves in her stomach.

So Asuka marched forward and pinched his nose.

"Ow! Asuka! Cut it out!" he flailed at her hand, cringing at an unseen sting in his right arm. She let go and he glared at her. "What's wrong with you?"

"Me?! What's wrong with you?" she cried, all of her pent up anger for the day tumbling out.

"I'm the one in a hospit–"

"So? You're the idiot who charged in! Did you think you were going to beat me?! You have no one to blame but yourself!" she hollered, realizing right then she hadn't been upset about anything else all day except that. How he always managed to drag under her skin and push every button without ever trying was – was – infuriating.

Shinji balked, overtaken by a flash of resentment. "I can take care of myself. My unit has three ki–"

"Your unit has two, liar. One of them is the other pilot's." she was up to the edge of the bed now, glaring down at him, just waiting to quash out any more fires of resistance. But he clamped his lips together, hands balled into fists over the sheets.

"You haven't changed at all," she said.

"You either."

"Arschloch," she spat.

He deigned not to respond, compounding her frustration, and some guilt on top of that. Which only pissed her off all the more. The beeping of the heart monitor became louder and a bit more rapid. She looked away just after he did, focusing on the IV drip next to his bed, recalling with a shiver the feel of the needle pressed into her elbow. Beyond the window lay the GeoFront, the hospital planted on one of the hillsides rising along the outer wall. Most of what lay before her was an expanse of brittle, black tree trunks.

"So what, did you just come here to yell at me?" Shinji bit out quietly, drawing her attention back. He was staring down at his hands.

"No," she grumbled, pulling a chair to plant herself. He shifted in bed, trying to sit straighter, but ultimately sinking into the pillows again. A slight pang of sympathy tickled her, but she didn't move to help. She was still angry with him.

The reports of the heart monitor consumed all else for a time.

"I didn't mean it," Asuka said, staring towards the foot of his bed.

"What?"

She rolled her eyes, letting them rest on the array of medical equipment at his back. Anywhere but his face. "That thing I said about the Angels, in the hangar bay, whatever."

A pause choked between them. "Okay."

Asuka bounced in her seat, the quivering muscles in her stomach turning into a ripping stab that made her want to yell at him. "Yeah, so stop being so pissed off about it," she said, doing her best to sound non-chalant.

"Okay."

That earned him a glare and she shook her head, but her words were quiet. "I swear, it's like talking to a brick wall."

"What are you so mad about?" he asked, sullen, like he'd already checked out of the conversation.

Alot of things! she wanted to shout. Ooh, how she hated him for this. "Nothing." she said, crossing her arms and slouching back in her seat, lips pursed. Asuka felt the heat rising to her face, coloring her cheeks red to match. Shinji didn't say anything else, and she avoided acknowledging the space he occupied.

"What, um, what happened? During the battle?" he asked.

Asuka gave a lopsided shrug. "After you were taken out, I drained my magazine backing through the city. It was coming around again and the rifle wasn't doing squat anyway, so I grabbed your prog-spear from where it got stuck. When it lunged at me – I pierced the core." she refrained from grabbing her stomach, able to feel the wounds like they were her own. "It still got me, though. My Unit-two has all these ugly holes in its side now," she whined.

In the moment, her panic had swelled to choking as the comms overflowed with Unit-01's damage reports.

Shinji hesitated, some unspoken thought clamped behind his lips. "I'm glad you won," he said, holding a gaze on her for the first time since they met off the plane.

It took her aback and her heat dissipated. "Like there was ever any doubt," she said, toying with her watch. She might have wanted to break him down for what he did earlier, but she wasn't about to bleed him dry over it. Despite her claim that he hadn't changed at all, there was something that began to create a separation from the girlhood friend of the gardens in her mind and the Shinji in front of her now. She didn't know what it was, but it inhabited every part of him, and she wasn't as sure what to do about it as she was ten minutes ago.

"You're still wearing those?" his eyes stuck to the top of her head and he poked his own.

She perked up, confused, hand rising to her hair. Her fingers brushed the smooth neural clips. She wore them so often she forgot they were even there anymore. "Yeah, why wouldn't I?"

"You only need them for piloting."

"Wow, really? I had no idea. You're so smart, Shinji, golly-gee." Internally, she winced. Why did he have to make such dumb statements?

He was less phased this time. "Unlike you, I'm not obsessed with my Eva."

"I'm proud, not obsessed. It's completely different."

"Hm, yeah," he mumbled, disagreement hanging from his slightly quirked mouth. Another minute of silence enclosed them.

"Hey," he was looking out the window again when she finally spoke. "Do you still play the cello?"

Shinji glanced over, shrugging. "Sometimes," he said, contemplating his hands, then back to her. "Why?"

"I don't know, just asking."

"Oh… well, how about the violin?"

"No," she said, allowing herself a melancholic sigh. "I always hated it. At least you like playing the cello."

That earned her a grimace. "Not really."

Asuka leaned forward, fist propping up her chin. "So why do you still do it? Are you that bored here?"

"I guess it's just habit. Sometimes I like it."

No eleven-year-old stayed up into the early morning playing cello just out of habit. She shook her head a little. "Yep, still the same old dull, drowsy Shinji."

He huffed at that, but there wasn't a laugh hiding beneath it. "Sorry to bore you."

"No, you're not."

"You're right, I'm not," he said, sporting a flat smile that looked more like a grimace. That made her bristle and she offered a disgusted face, sticking her tongue out at him, which managed little more than a chuckle in the form of another huff. It was a start. At some point they'd drifted into German, but she wasn't sure where. Probably when she'd called him an asshole.

"Do you still pray?" he asked.

"Not since I was nine," Asuka hummed.

"Really? So you just lied to Ilka for two years?"

Her brow dipped. "It wasn't lying! She never asked, so I never had to cover up the fact that I wasn't. Besides, I still write to her, unlike someone." her leg bounced irately and for a moment she regretted the jibe, utterly loathing how this entire interaction felt like walking on eggshells. But part of her, a very tiny part she'd taken with her from the garden, felt this was familiar.

"Sorry," Shinji said, sounding like he genuinely meant it this time. "Guess I just... didn't think anyone would care once I left."

Asuka frowned. "Don't tell me you're sorry. It doesn't mean anything."

"Yeah... I guess not."

"Oh, no one cares if I'm gone, poor me," she said in her best Shinji voice. "I forgot how dense you are." Like before, he held his tongue, that storm of resentment billowing in his expression again. Asuka flicked a hand through her hair, finding something of immense interest across the room. "She kept asking, you know. Until I told her I hadn't talked to you in months either."

Shinji made a thoughtful noise. "Do you have her address still?"

"Yeah, why?"

"I want to write her a letter."

"You're just writing it 'cause I told you to, and 'cause you feel guilty."

"No... I miss her too."

Asuka gave him a look that said 'what to do with you?' without hope of an answer. "Would you ever do anything without someone to drag you by the collar?"

Shinji made an annoyed tch. "Yeah. I did plenty after you left."

Asuka found the simmering temper she'd held since entering the room fading into something else, like the heavy clouds of thought that had kept her in such a sour mood on the flight to Japan. She relived some of them in detail, for a flash. The hot needles of dismissal returned. "You seemed pretty busy. Hard to believe since you never did anything."

"I actually had other friends. It was nice."

"Good. I got pretty tired of you following me around all the time. Like a sad little puppy. What kind of person stays in another country and only makes one friend?"

"The kind who isn't allowed to leave," he said, an edge slipping into his tone.

"Yeah, whatever."

Shinji played with the sheets in his hands, creasing them in his lap. "Asuka, what are you even talking to me for?"

Asuka didn't let her expression move, sliding an errant strand of hair behind an ear, lips pursing. At once it seemed an insurmountable task to divulge all that was on her mind. An undefined mess she couldn't possibly sift through in a word or two. Not even the smallest thread of it, the one that had brought her there to see that he was still in one piece, though she had no reason to believe otherwise. The words wouldn't come. Not in the way she wanted. No. She couldn't tell him that. "I got bored," she said, sighing. "They're still delivering my stuff and I don't want to go back to the Headquarters suite. There's nothing to do there."

"Oh," he said softly, hands stilling. Was that disappointment? "Where are you staying?"

"Imperial Hotel."

"No, I mean where are you going to be living?"

"Oh, I don't know." Her hand made a lazy swat to the side. "Somewhere in the GeoFront block, I think. Where do you stay?"

He nodded skyward. "In the city. Out in the valley by Gora."

"Where's that?"

"It's up to the east, by Mount Myojogatake."

"They let you live out there by yourself?"

"No, I live with Misato. I can't stay on my own unless it's in the GeoFront block."

"That sucks. I can't wait to live on my own." That was only a bit of a lie. Actually, she was a little jealous that Shinji got to live with his guardian and she didn't. Kaji had often brushed off the topic of sharing space whenever she brought it up. It wasn't necessary for her to live with him, but she hated her extended family and none of them really seemed to like her either.

"It's okay," Shinji said with a bit of a smile. "Misato's kind of a slob, but I don't mind, I guess."

A smirk found her lips too. "You can't stand it. You used to almost cry if I left my socks on the floor." She could list all three incidents.

"No I didn't…" he muttered, though his eyes said 'please don't bring that up', and she mercifully obliged. "But yeah, it's a bit annoying."

"So why don't you move out?"

"I've thought about it, but…" she could see his mind shift, how it grappled against gray, heavy mountains weighing on his mind. He shook his head. "It's okay."

"Idiot," she sighed, debating on whether or not to hit him in the arm. Now that she thought of it, he wouldn't stop fidgeting with it, or occasionally pinching his hand. She nodded with her chin. "What happened to your arm, anyway?"

Shinji regarded it like he'd only just noticed. "Oh, this was from the last battle," he shrugged it for emphasis. "It's not broken or anything, they just don't want me using it too much. Ritsuko says I'm lucky there wasn't any permanent nerve damage. That can happen if your sync-ratio is high enough."

It could've happened today. "That still doesn't answer my question."

Shinji's gaze found its way into his lap again as he recounted, adopting the same hard, hollow stare that had possessed him before launch. "The Angel took out Rei. It was just me. The Eva was about ready to stall from all the damage. I crippled the Angel or something like that, so it was going to self-destruct and… I thought if I killed it before that, there wouldn't be an explosion. I had my hand around the core – trying to crush it. But I... I couldn't do it in time. The blast blew Unit-one's arm off while I was still connected." He took the right hand in his left, pressing a thumb into his palm.

A splinter of doubt told her maybe she shouldn't ask, but, "what about the First Child?"

"She's okay," he said, growing a little more subdued. "They just prioritized Unit-one's repairs over zero's. But at the time..." he let his thumb travel up each finger, making hers tingle with the idea of the sensation. "Sometimes I wake up and can't feel it there, even if I'm looking right at it and touching it."

"They didn't really mention that part in training." Asuka considered her battle, being face to face with a monster. Much to her chagrin, in a flash it felt like all the training in the world couldn't have prepared her for that. It had helped her deal with the pain when Gaghiel closed on her, kept her focused through the panic and terror that might have overwhelmed her otherwise, not that she thought that was very possible. But the fear had still been there. She wondered if it had been that way for Shinji during his first sortie. "I don't think it's such a big deal, though."

She wasn't supposed to be afraid.

Shinji stared through the cieling. "I guess that's what Weissenberg meant… when he said there were some things he couldn't train me for."

Asuka hadn't thought about their old trainer in a while, and wondered when he had ever given Shinji such advice. She'd felt betrayed when the man finally left them. Just hearing his name had that feeling well up in her throat.

Shinji did something odd then, sweeping those old thoughts away. His mouth trembled like he was about to laugh, before the amusement fled, or was pushed down. But then it happened again, faintly. "Hey," he said, "do you remember when you hit me with that rock? After I pushed you in the pond?"

Her face pinched, then she bolted upright. "Oh, yeah! I remember you cried!"

He chuckled. "It hurt, a lot. I thought it was broken," he said, rubbing the bridge of his nose. "I think it's only a little crooked."

Asuka clicked her tongue. "Liar! It's just fine," she said, shaking her head. "God, I was so mad at you."

"You put, like, five bandaids on it, and you wouldn't stop telling me how it was my own fault."

"Well it was. Boys aren't supposed to be mean to girls, jerk – and I thought all the bandaids would help keep it in place." The last part she mumbled.

"When was I ever mean to you?"

Asuka crossed her arms and gave him a 'really?' sort of look. "All the time. Remember when we were digging and you stuffed dirt down my dress?"

He made a face at that. "Only because you shoved some in my face."

"Then you pulled my hair-"

"You kept kicking me, I didn't know how to make you stop."

"It wasn't ever anything you didn't deserve," she said.

He scratched at his collarbone. "Yeah, guess you're right."

Was she? It didn't feel like it. "Can you not tell when people are joking?"

"No one jokes like that."

"No one you know, which is like, three people."

His eyes rolled. "Yeah, you know everything."

"Yep, I do, so quit while you're ahead."

That, at least, seemed to bridge the gap enough for some bare form of appreciation to slip into his expression. Or, more likely, she was reading him wrong. All the same, her nerves melted. They kept talking until the GeoFront was a deep ocean blue, its artificial lights just starting to trickle to life, and she forgot all about the wolfdog and its lonely flower.


Asuka had fallen asleep on the edge of the bed, head resting atop folded arms. Her hair was splayed out over the sheets from occasional shifting, mouth agape with blissful rest. Shinji lay curled up facing her, just as dead and dreaming to the world.

In the hallway beyond, the doctors and nurses were consulting in whispers, all trying to peer in through the ajar door. Until Misato cleared her throat, making them jump and turnabout. "Let them be for now," she said, "they've had a long day."

With only a few embarrassed glances and bowed heads, the staff dispersed, leaving her as the sole voyeur. She had come to talk to Shinji, even though it was absurd to even expect him to be up at this hour anyway. Maybe that's why she'd come so late. After meeting his med-evac at the hospital and following the ER staff to the ICU, she'd spent the rest of the afternoon wound tight with worry, thankful for the headache inducing distractions of post-battle. The following hours had given her time to stew over his disobedience, making her feel all the more at a loss. She'd been building up the courage to come by all day. Now a corded tension twisted itself from her core, shadowed with a sense of nostalgia.

The thought to take a picture of them together flitted across her mind, but she dismissed it as wrong somehow, catching them so vulnerable and unawares. Misato decided instead to take some of her own advice and left the two of them to their fatigued reunion. She'd tease them about it later. Or maybe she wouldn't.


When Asuka woke, bleary eyed and chin partly wet, the GeoFront beyond was dark, save for the glowing communes of workers stretched across crater filled forests. Her eyes stung, her breath stank and her skin felt heavy with sleep. The digital clock over Shinji's head read 23:09.

For a while, she sat in quiet and soft darkness, contemplating the sleeping Shinji with his bandaged arm tucked awkwardly beneath him. There were old nights when they'd slept in the same bed during German summers as children. But she wasn't a child anymore - neither of them were. He'd even said so himself.

She eventually stood, sensing it was time to go but debating it all the same. Exhaustion peeled away at her mental checks, allowing foreign and unwanted ideas to slither into her skull. Embarrassed, even ashamed, Asuka stepped back, embittered over how easily his presence came to her. Thoughts of the olive tree and what was left there entered with him, as they always seemed to, and she wasn't sure whether or not she forgave him. Or even if she could. There was too much that had happened in a day, too much noise in her brain like a downpour over sheets of aluminum.

So she slipped out to find her hotel up on the surface, leaving an empty chair in her place.


A/N:

Yeah, so that interlude ended up not happening. Oh well. I know it's been quite a long wait, but I'd like to thank you for your patience anyway.

I just want to cover some expectations going forward:

The first is in regards to the Angels - we've seen all the old battles before and read dozens of variations of them thrice as much, so as you've already noticed, I've decided on reskinning the Angels and overhauling their abilities. Nothing terribly different in this chapter, but that will come with future chapters. Names will remain the same.

I understand part of the appeal in reading an AU like this is seeing how the characters react differently to the same canon situations, but the Angels and battles themselves are there to reflect the internal and external struggles of the characters, so I thought it appropriate that since the characters are shaping up a bit differently, the challenges they face should reflect that.

I also know that some of you may not have envisioned such a big time skip. I obviously can't please everyone nor do I aim to, but I'll attempt to relate my reasoning by stating that Asuka and Shinji are the basis for the conflict in this story, so for me, her transfer to NERV HQ was the logical starting point of Act II. Shinji's time in Tokyo-3 by himself and more of Asuka's personal life back at the estate will be explored in the following chapters.

Either way your comments and criticisms are welcome, as always.