Chapter 2: Exile

"I'm not sure what to do, Ritsuko. I've already chewed him out over the Fifth Angel but he just… closes up. And now this…" Misato tilted her head, free hand swirling the half-empty mug of coffee in front of her.

"He seems to be withdrawing," Ritsuko said, computer keys clacking in the background.

Misato rolled her eyes, throwing hair away from her face. "Tell me something I don't know."

"The more you push him, the more he's going to disengage," she said in a sing-song fashion, "Isn't that what you called me about last time this happened?"

"You make it sound like a burden."

There was an amused tone from the other end. "Foisting your problems on others usually is, but I'm only making an observation."

Misato pushed her coffee away, crossing her legs. "What happened with the Fourth Angel was different."

"I should think so. He was reprimanded by you and the Sub-Commander after the fact for the damages to Unit-one and zero."

"I only got on his case when he holed up in his room for a week." And Shinji hadn't said a word to her throughout that time either, but she couldn't share that – just the thought of it twisted up her resentment and hurt from buried places. If he had just listened to her. If he hadn't–

"It wasn't as though he didn't show up for his responsibilities at NERV. Upset he didn't want to confide in you?"

"Shut up."

Quiet came over the line, allowing Misato a chance to glance at the metal chairs and tables littering the deserted patio just outside NERV HQ. She shifted and checked the watch head resting snug under her left wrist. It was about time to get going.

"He needs to understand that his actions effect everyone, not just himself," she said, inspecting her nails.

"Maybe he already does," Ritsuko said, but Misato didn't pick her up on it and the stream of thought was left to wander down the wide river between them. The woman made a thoughtful noise. "But now that you mention it, I think that was also around the time my department started drafting a schedule for cross-compatibility tests with Unit-one and Rei."

Misato stood and pinched the phone between shoulder and ear, tying her red jacket around the waist. "What are you getting at?" she asked, unable to disguise her annoyance. She left the mug and barely touched plate of noodles. A cafeteria worker would be along to pick it up.

"Look at his operational history so far," Ritsuko said, as though conducting one of her lectures, "in his first sortie against the Third Angel, a proving of his competence, he wasn't the one to kill it. It was Rei. Now take that into consideration with his last two battles and a pattern starts to become evident. It might look reckless on the surface, but consider that he's trying to be competent. More than that, he's trying to be self-sufficient."

Misato grimaced, acknowledging security personnel with silent nods as she walked. Was he? She tried to imagine him thinking that way. Misato knew it was important to him, knew how seriously he took his responsibility to pilot. But... did she really? She'd know him since he was just a boy trying to figure out who it was he was supposed to be fighting. After all that time, she still misstepped, still misread him. As of the last month, she felt like she didn't know him at all.

"I suppose," she admitted, barely, "but I thought he liked Rei, and now with Asuka here… I don't get that either. Ristuko, they were inseparable a few years back."

"I'm afraid I can't help you with that one. Whatever the issue is, they're going to have to be able to work together."

"I know. I can't have any more incidents like the last battle."

"That would be nice. From what I understand, the Americans are appealing to the UN Committee for reparations due to the loss of their prototype accelerator."

Misato clicked her tongue. "They're just upset they can't outfit their new Zumwalts with it. They'd be skirting the Valentines Treaty anyway, so I did them a favor."

"That's not how the DOD sees it. Truthfully, I think you're lucky to still have a job."

That gave Misato an unpleasant gut-drop. "Don't worry, I was given a not-so-subtle warning by the Sub-Commander during my after-action report." Just the memory of it had her reddening with embarrassment and no small amount of fury. It had been a long time since she'd been dressed down like that by a CO.

She boarded an escalator that would take her to the parking levels, shifting the phone to her other ear while Ritsuko spoke with someone on the other side. "By the way, I wanted to tell you," she said after they'd gone, "Shinji's sync-rate jumped to sixty-two percent during his last sortie. It isn't much, but better than what he's been doing."

"Doesn't he have a median sync-rate of seventy-two?" she asked.

"Yes, that's his average. Recently it's been declining. As of the last test, his median rate fell to fifty-nine percent. That's a thirteen-point decrease without any spikes in a month."

Misato leaned against the rubber rails, brow tight. For as long as she'd known him Shinji's scores had only ever increased, with small fluctuations here and there. Based on what Ritsuko had said earlier, she'd put a sure bet on such a sharp decline starting after his first battle. Was that it? Had she been so caught up in everything at headquarters once the Angels finally returned, that she'd missed… whatever this was?

"Do you think that's because of Asuka? Not the decrease, but from a couple days ago."

"Hard to say. It's within the realm of possibility," she said, reluctant.

Misato stepped off at a busy terminal, her gait slower than before as she searched for her car in the massive underground lot. The feeling wasn't unlike walking into a room and completely forgetting what she came in for. "You know he hasn't made any friends since moving here. Except for Rei, that is. I mean, sure, he talks to some of the kids at school, but I don't think any of them are his friends."

That received a dismissive hum. "Boys – men – are solitary creatures, generally speaking. They don't form social circles the same way girls do."

Annoyance plucked her. "Well, how about no social circles? Like, at all – and at his age?" she snapped, sighing and allowing herself a moment to calm. Her friend patiently obliged. Eventually, she reached her car and started with another sigh. "I don't know. Maybe he doesn't want to try after what happened at his old school." That, and the incident with that boy a few weeks ago.

"That would make sense. Shinji is a conscientious boy, after all. What he's been given is a harsh responsibility." For a moment there was a quiet, if not fleeting, sympathy in her voice.

"Thanks, that makes me feel much better, Ritsuko."

"I didn't say it to make you feel better. It's a difficult burden these children have to bear, but what else can we do?"

Misato found her car, clambering in and slamming the door shut. Her key found the ignition. "I know… listen, I gotta' go. I'll talk to you later." They traded goodbyes and for a while Misato simply sat forward in her car, arms resting on the steering wheel.

When had everything started spiraling out of her control? It wasn't just the ever-mounting pile of overdue construction reports for repairs they couldn't pay for, or the constant complaints of overworked labor personnel, or the never-ending pining regarding departments that were over-budget and under-funded. All of that she could handle, though it felt less and less like she could stomach another civil defense assessment that month, it wasn't so bad as long as they still had the Evas. That was all that really mattered. So long as the city was still there, everything else was alright, and now they had Unit-02 and Asuka. That should have taken at least some of the weight from her, but all she could think about the next battle. Even dreaded it. It was the third time now Shinji had disobeyed a direct order.

Gehirn's Krypteia Program had always seemed like a good idea, when she didn't think about it very hard. That wasn't difficult, not when she'd been hot off dropping out of college and breaking up with a boyfriend she intended never to see again, intent to prove herself in the military and make herself someone who could fight the Angels when they returned. She knew they would. Misato might not have understood what exactly had happened to her during Second Impact, not back then, but she knew it wasn't over. It was only a matter of time. When she made it out of boot she'd been set on a path from her stumbling journey out of teendom. Stopped fucking around and grew up. Why wouldn't that experience do the same for anyone else? She'd made her way in a broken world and been put in a position to guide someone else through it. To make them competent and able.

What better way to do it than when they were young?

She'd watched him grow. Helped him learn. Seen him triumph and fail. Even when she was off in Tokyo-2 and later NERV Hakone, being groomed for a position with the command staff through her service with the JSSDF and the UN, she would think of him – even if it was only fleeting. He'd always been a serious and insular boy, but at least buoyant in a way she came to like. The more he learned, and the more he fought, the more the image of that boy faded – struggling to surface in moments of childish displays.

Shinji didn't smile much anymore.

If she'd paid attention, maybe she would have seen this coming. Could have done something to stop it.

Huffing through her nose, steeling herself, she rolled out of the parking garages beneath headquarters and glided onto highway 52 towards the medical wards in the mountains. When she got there Shinji was out front, lying on one of the shaded benches with his back to the road and wearing the last thing she'd seen him in – his NERV uniform. From where she was, he might have been mistaken for some homeless veteran and it was earning him some curious and even scathing looks from passersby. The uniform was likely the only thing keeping them at bay, including the officer standing down on the corner, contemplating whether or not to approach. Blinking, Misato brushed the idea away and pumped her horn. He must have been tired, laying out there like that.

The boy's head perked up and, with more energy than she would have guessed, gathered his things and came 'round to the side of her car. He clambered in and they exchanged hellos. Warmth eased over them as she pulled out onto the streets. Right away he popped his earbuds in and took to staring out the window. Her mouth tightened.

"Hey, how's the arm?" she asked, trying to sound perky and upbeat. Something other than deflated.

She was allotted a glance. "Hm? Oh, it's okay." Then it was back to the window.

Misato concealed a grimace. "Take your medication?"


Metal rattled in a tall shaft along the GeoFront wall, her Renault bouncing as she rolled onto a rail car platform. Squeals echoed through the glass from other trains coming and going. Misato crossed her arms as they waited to ascend. Maple gold afternoon started to pour in through the ceilings high above. It would be rush hour by the time they made it topside.

"So, you got to talk to Asuka, right?" Misato asked, as though she hadn't been thinking the question for the past fifteen minutes and simply waiting to ask.


She barely held back a sigh. "Well, how is she?"

Shinji shot her a glare. "Why don't you ask her?"

"Sure," she said, shifting in her seat. Her spine had gone rigid. "Just thought it would be nice to hear it from you, jerk." She slapped the power button on her center console, turning the radio on. Some 80s station filled the car. She recognized Anri's voice. The woman sang for a few minutes without interruption.

"Sorry," Shinji said, staring down at his lap. "I just don't really want to talk about it right now."

She felt her features soften. "How come?"

"I don't know. Just don't."

Guard rails shot up along the edges of the train beds, a buzzer signaling their imminent departure. A low whine began to rise around them as it lurched forward and, picking up speed, the beds began to jostle beneath them.

"I don't get it; you guys were always so close. Asuka used to throw a tantrum if we ever pulled you apart for training. Now I can't even get you in the same room without getting attitude," she said, at first to her windshield, pausing a moment to watch him. "Hm?"

He shrugged, silently grasping for words. "We just… didn't want to be friends anymore."

"And what about now?"

"I don't know," he said, finding the window again, as if he might discover an answer out in the dimly lit corridor. A wellspring of emotions coiled about her then, and she couldn't decide which she should attack first – so she didn't.

"Well, you're going to have to be friends," she said, adopting her soldier's tone. The only one that seemed able to reach him anymore. "What happened last battle isn't going to fly anymore. I need you two to be able to work together now that you're co-pilots."

Shinji made a small, derisive noise, refusing to face her.

"You hear me?"


The space between them was overwhelmed by the clacking of the rails and the soft tones of Anri singing. Red light washed over them at intervals, German summer festivals carried in the smooth beats. Misato washed a hand through her long hair, reflections flaring over her legs.

"Hey," she said, hoping to catch his eyes. She leaned forward, but he was stubborn if nothing else. "I was worried about you."

She saw it in his shoulders, in his posture, the way he continued to bore into the passing city blocks. I don't believe you, they said, and that hit her harder than any word he might have uttered. Misato left the conversation as it was, feeling more dissatisfied with the wound between her and her charge than before.

Already fifteen minutes had passed and she still didn't know what to do with the pair of orange sapphire earrings in her palm, sitting there like two tiny flames.

Her studio apartment glowed with the light of morning bouncing off the GeoFront dome. The white, pristine surfaces of her walls, tables and appliances caught it with ease. An array of packing boxes, some half-open and contents spilled out across the floor, were the only indicator the place was at all lived in. The sapphires in her palm bristled.

A digital clock chirped, her fourth snooze alarm sounding. She checked her watch again. Tick-tick-tick. With a groan she dumped the earrings back in her jewelry box and shoved it away.

Asuka made sure she had her key-card before she left and, on her way to the shuttles that would take her to the skyward trams, checked her phone. Waiting there was a message from Kaji asking her to check in and she did so, with hearts and exclamation points. Her thoughts pitter-pattered on him all the way to the surface level terminals, where music from Kismet played over the speakers. She found herself humming the tune, as she had when her step-mother filled their house with the scratch of old LPs and swayed side to side in a dance called Calypso.

Tokyo-3 was a different city in the morning, loud and full of life like Heidelberg had been. Everything and everyone moved in a disjointed concert and the streets were crawling with other students off to their respective schools.

A glance at her watch.

Koi fish wriggled their way down a drainage canal by her feet and she watched them sway. They reminded her again of Shinji, as everything seemed to since she arrived. Inexplicable things like a sound or a smell, or a voice.

Or a fish.

And there he was, brought into her mind's eye.

On one of her visits to the estate, back when Shinji had gone for good, Asuka once stood outside his old apartment in the garden, a mere foot away from the ponds. She'd been trying to throw the earrings in with the koi, who had only recently disappeared, swallowed whole by greedy herons. It took an hour for her to finally give it up and go back inside.

That pond had been a sacred place, as silly as it was to think of it that way. There wasn't any other form she could give it. Calm. Peace. A place she could read from her mother's library and fall into another world. She remembered some mornings, Shinji would wake up early to read with her, their knees touching on the big boulder out by the pond.

She used to like reading. When Asuka was growing up her mother's bookshelves were full of love stories and romance novels. It was one of the few things that was left of her after she died. Her father said she wasn't old enough to read them, but that hadn't stopped her from sneaking them into her room, part of her hoping he would catch her. Another doing it because he had forbidden it.

But if those stories had taught her anything, it was to never be a woman like those from the oil paintings and books. Like the legend about Hippocrates' daughter, who was transformed into a hundred-foot long dragon by the envious goddess Diane, forced to dwell in an old castle and called the Lady of the Manor. She emerged three times a year and, if a knight should kiss her, would be turned back into a woman, making the knight into her consort and ruler of the islands.

Various knights tried, but all fled when they saw the hideous dragon, dying some horrible death soon after. There was one who, knowing nothing of the dragon, came to the castle she inhabited – finding her in her human form. But he was no knight, and his kiss would not break the spell, and she told him so. He ventured to the Hospitallers and passed their trials, returning a full-fledged knight. But upon seeing the woman in her monstrous form cried out, and even he fled.

Why had Diane turned her into a dragon? Why did the knights seek her? Why did they flee? Why did she have to rely on a kiss to set her free?

It didn't make sense to Asuka then, and still didn't now. Those things had no place in her world, not anymore. That old garden was gone, and so were the fish. She never wanted to see it again so long as she lived.

She didn't need it anymore.

Confidently, she strode on – a smile creeping over her face, a perk in her step. She checked her watch, stifling some annoyance at being behind.

It was something he could feel right away, deep down to his feet. Strong enough to be annoyed with as he sat at the kitchen table, yet undefined enough to be completely puzzled by. His pulse was okay, his arm felt alright – he didn't have to wear it in a sling anymore. There wasn't anything in particular he had to do today either, other than attend school. No sync tests at NERV and no actual tests worth noting. Pen Pen was still by his chair, chomping away on breakfast.

"What kind of genetically altered penguin can't get their own breakfast?" He asked. The creature glanced up at him with dismissive, beady eyes. Shinji sipped from his tea.

His mornings would never be the same. He wasn't sure how he knew that, especially since he woke like he always did to the same alarm clock, the same ceiling and the same stumbling slog from bed to shower, fresh clothes in tow. It pervaded everything in his space, as loud and encompassing as the summer cicadas, which seemed determined to sing their songs into Misato's apartment.

Shinji dumped what was left of his tea, shouldered his school bag and told Pen Pen he'd see him later. Then he was out the door and setting foot into the sweltering heat. As he set his SDAT to play, Miki Matsubara's voice started dancing in his ears. He looked at the old player like it'd morphed into a dead fish, and stood there for a moment while it ran, a few cars revving by. This track never played. He didn't let it. The song became distorted and far away as he yanked the buds from his ears and let them hang from his neck.

Shinji walked half a mile down a narrow road, reaching a sprawling train station that encroached over the buildings around it like a silver-coated weed. People bunched along the platforms, while men dressed like officers patrolled the edges. The route he needed was underground, a network of domed corridors held up on wide chrome pillars and filled with the hollow slaps of shoes and dry murmur of voices.

He passed through a bustling gate, piling in with dozens of others as a train whined into its berth. A surge of people flowed onto the platform, pushing past the waiting horde, who were already pushing to fill the open spaces before the train's departure. Shinji made it in last, grabbing onto a handrail. Beside him a girl, probably a high-schooler, leaned against the door, dressed in a red plaid skirt with a plain white shirt and gray cardigan two sizes too big. Pink headphones hung from her ears.

For Shinji, there was really only one thing to do when he started his new life in Tokyo-3: stop taking everyone so seriously; establish a proper distance between himself and everything else. Forget about bright morning roses and plaid skirts. It was an easy enough promise to keep when it was just him, Misato, and the penguin in their apartment.

Then he was enrolled in the Tokyo-3 south-east side junior high school, thrown to the wolves and expected to learn how to survive. He'd done that already. But unlike the Kloster, where he was simply out of the norm, everyone here wanted to know about him, the unusual transfer student from Germany who was also Japanese – an enigma. Even living in a Japanese style home with a Japanese Teacher, he'd spent so long in Germany that he ended up stepping on everyone's toes whatever he did.

The Germans had formal ways of addressing people, but at least they were direct. Most Japanese were formal, exceedingly polite and insisted on beating around the bush for minutes before the entire purpose of the conversation was reached. Then there was the bowing. He understood it, had practiced it when interacting with Teacher, but the appropriateness of use utterly escaped him in every situation. He bowed when it wasn't warranted, or forgot to when it absolutely was, and barely participated when bowing extended beyond a brief exchange between stations of hierarchy.

Then there were the little things like learning to not walk around while eating his food, refusing a request and causing someone embarrassment, remembering shoes were taken off everywhere, and using last names for absolutely everyone.

Shinji was, to put it nicely, considered too forward and impolite by most of his classmates. They spoke ill of him in more stinging ways, and only when he was within earshot. So he gave up on trying to be polite. There were a few that warmed up to him despite his growing reputation, like Aida, Suzahara and Horaki and Shoho and Kirishima. They let him know a little about themselves in idle chat between classes, and shared small details of their lives with him while they cleaned in the afternoons. Despite his attempts to keep to himself, he listened. Perhaps he hadn't given up being polite entirely. When they in turn became curious, he made things up or answered in short, simple sentences.

He didn't take part in any of the club activities or school events, and this was a problem for the upperclassmen, some of whom took it upon themselves to try and straighten him out. They invited him to work for booths or stalls during fairs or encouraged him to accompany them to kendo club or baseball. If he didn't outright refuse, he would promise to attend if only to get them away from him for the time being. Either way, he became a reoccurring disappointment and for some that was an intolerable disrespect. More often than not he got into fights with the upperclassmen, putting to test all that he had learned under Weissenberg. He went home with a few scratches and bruises, but nothing compared to the fractures and tender ribs he left the others with. It felt good to win at something for a change.

That came to a head when he broke a third year's wrist. Not just any third year, but Kirishima's older brother, Jiro. He spent a day in the hospital while they ran x-rays, set the bones and made him a plaster cast, which he would have to wear for the next two months. Jiro had a part-time job dishwashing at a nearby Teishoku restaurant in the 5th block to help his father and sister, and he couldn't begin working again for at least six weeks. They'd fire him for sure.

It was a rare day that Shinji was able to be in the same room as Kirishima, let alone talk to her. He was given a wide berth in hallways. People went out of their way not to speak with him. Even Hikari, perhaps one of the nicer girls he'd ever met, kept her distance. Misato reprimanded him but didn't do much beyond a serious talk at the kitchen table that night.

Quickly, no one wanted to interact with him for fear of being considered some crass brute by association, and that was fine with Shinji. Things had always been that way for him, it would have been foolish to expect otherwise even in his home country. He was used to not being liked.

Being outed as a pilot made it worse. He was met with some praise from those he knew better in his home room. But instead of merely being seen as a cold brute, it painted him as a callous elitist who thought he was better than everyone else and could do what he wanted because of his position with NERV.

In all that time he didn't see his father once.

His days became quiet and uneventful again, inhabited only by schoolwork and simulation training at NERV. Unit-01 wasn't finished yet, so he wasn't even able to test with the core while it was being anchored. The other pilot he rarely saw, a specter haunting his periphery. Thinner and paler than most, he found himself glued to her every movement whenever he caught sight of her, both at NERV and school. Poisonous thoughts occupied him.

What kind of person was she? What kind of person was it that was able to stay in headquarters instead of being sent to Germany for training? As far as he could tell she had a dismal sync-rate, even if that was only from contact tests with the core instead of the actual unit. Still, it should have been higher.

So what was it? He watched her at school, how she spent the lectures and lessons staring at cloudy skies. Reading from well-worn physics books during break. She never brought lunch, using a NERV card to buy from the vending machines. Often something organic, eating delicately. If they were assigned to cleaning duty, he glanced her working with simple, unhurried ease. She took the same route to and from home every day at exactly the same time, in exactly the same seats.

Some days, she disappeared entirely.

At NERV, while the pit crews ran diagnostics or when they made weekly tunings to the command suites, he witnessed his father come down to the cages and talk with her and smile with her, eyes pinched with endearment. It was the only time her face gave way to any kind of expression, one of warmth and adoration.

It made him sick to his stomach.

Yet she never said anything to him. Never rubbed it in his face or did any of the things he had come to expect of other people. His disdain twisted into curiosity. She never spoke with anyone at school and neither did anyone go out of their way to speak with her. After another month of this, he made a decision out by the track fields. He would talk to her, and at least only have to brace himself for silence or an unkind word from what could only be cold indifference. In a way, he admired it. If he could be more like that, maybe his father would treat him better. Maybe he wouldn't be so unbearable.

"I don't understand why he talks to you," he said, looking over his shoulder at her. It wasn't said with anger, he couldn't quite muster that. It was simply something that he desperately needed to know. She was sitting with her back to the fence, dressed in a swimsuit that never saw use. He was on the other side, sweating in his track shorts and T.

"Is that why you have been watching me?" She asked without even glancing at him. There didn't seem to be anything in particular she was looking at.

The links complained as he turned. "What's he like?"

"Don't you know?" From her, it barely sounded like a question, her voice all but swallowed by the hollers and noise of the other kids. He wasn't even supposed to be up there so close to where the girls were swimming, and some were casting him worried looks and whispering among themselves. Shinji turned away, facing the track field down the hill where boys leaned against the concrete inclines and leered in his direction.

"Isn't he your father?"

"He's not a father," Shinji snapped, a frown tugging at his mouth. Rei didn't budge, and he folded inward. "He might be my dad, but… he doesn't care about me. So why does he care about you?" The last part he was hardly able to utter.

Cicadas screeched over the schoolyards, the sun coming down in blazing sheets through a cloudless blue sky. Rei's head dipped, and she finally said, "I do not know."

Shinji got up and made his way down the hill, followed by curious eyes.

By then, Unit-00 was completed for testing and Shinji was slated as the pilot.

"I thought Unit-one was supposed to be mine?" He had to admit being a little disappointed at being given the Prototype as his assigned unit. It was sure to be clunky and difficult to handle, despite Ritsuko's assurances that its command suite had just recently been overhauled to the 2014 standards.

"Once complete, yes," she said, giving him a patient smile. "Until then, you and Rei will rotate testing phases with the Prototype. We may as well start with some of the cross-compatibility tests while both of you are here, and while we have the time for it. Your sync-rate is higher, so you're up first."

His father stood in the control room that day alongside Misato, watching.

Shinji remembered clearing the absolute borderline – and then there was screaming, not from him, but echoing from the plug-depth. Claws of barbed wire dragged over his mind, carving into him as the LCL became thick and bloated – choking.

Then he was waking up in the hospital, feeling as though he had just slept for a hundred years. It was a sight and sometimes a feeling he had grown accustomed to, back when they'd done neural testing at Gehirn.

Sitting beside his bed was Rei.

"What do you want?" he asked, voice coming out as a weak rasp instead of an unkind sneer. Probably for the best, because he wasn't sure if he meant it.

The girl's stare was unwavering. "It will be my turn next."

Shinji grunted, shifting to face the window. "Guess I messed it up, huh?"

Rei considered the cart across the room, atop which sat a tray with water, the pouring pitcher half empty.

"She is closed to you. To everyone."

"What do you mean?" The presence of the Eva, what they had told him was its cyber-mind, had always been a pervasive but calm lull in the back of his nerves. A weight, even a passive presence. Never something so torrent and… angry.

"We are alike that way," she said, fixed on the pitcher. He waited for further explanation, but she said nothing more and remained at his bedside a little while longer.

Rei tried several times for hour-long spans to synchronize with Unit-00, but couldn't manage to get her sync-rate over the borderline. The process was usually so draining she had to spend a day in the hospital anyway just so they could monitor her for a little while. That and Ritsuko was concerned there might be neural contamination.

Most days, Shinji sat by the chainlink fence that cut between them at school, sharing in quiet company, talking very little and sometimes about his father. She didn't seem to mind him there and, if she was as cold a person as he suspected, would have told him off already. He was fine with the fence sitting between them. He had decided not to talk to her in class.

When Rei finally cleared her borderline, it did something to the Eva. Hydraulics groaned, restraints snapping with wall-shaking force. Misato grabbed him – glass shattered, flecks of it pelting his head. Red lights washed the room as alerts sounded and voices hollered, one of them was Ritsuko. Over by a blood-stained console, someone gasped for air.

Another voice shouted for Rei, a figure in black throwing open the test chamber's stairwell door. Shinji pushed himself out of Misato's arms, her hands brushing his face for wounds. It felt like he was cut – everything stung – and she tried to grab him, but he wriggled free, stumbling down the stairs after his father. He practically fell down the last set, the man already half way across the chamber where Rei's entry plug lay. Unit-00 had its fingers sunk into the wall, stuck rigid while bakelite pooled down its back and over its legs. His father called for her again, setting his hands on the super-heated hatch.

Shinji reached him as he hollered and staggered back. Glasses slapped the floor and the man lunged after the handles again, gritting his teeth as he struggled against the levers. Though Shinji's body moved, clutching one end of the manual release, his mind wondered in a rush if they would open it to reveal nothing more than a broken corpse. What if the safety harness had failed? What if the wall impacts had snapped her neck?

The rubber of his suit boiled and split open, fire lancing over his skin and frying the sensitive sensors beneath. The hatch burst open and Shinji tumbled, his father ducked into the plug and calling her as LCL spilled over their legs. Shinji propped himself up on an elbow, all at once weighed down with exhaustion. Past the Commander, he could see her in the dark of the plug, trembling. Though her pale face didn't move, scared eyes stared at his father.

"I see," Gendo said, staying with her half-way in the plug.

The paramedics arrived soon after and his father moced to stand beside him in the pool of LCL. One of them approached the man, trying to inspect his burns. With them was Misato, who latched onto Shinji's shoulders and pulled him close, his back pressing against her.

"I'm sorry, sir," she said, gripping him tight.

Gendo moved the paramedic away with an arm. His palms were black and boiled and red, bright blood seeping from the warped tissue. "See to the boy," he said, holding Shinji's eyes.

They set Rei on a gurney and fit a breathing mask over her face. The man did as he was told, taking Shinji's hands to inspect and rifling through the kit slung over his shoulder. Shinji was barely present for the affair. His wounds were not so bad.

Gendo followed the paramedics as they moved the gurney, slipping through the LCL in their haste. Rei watched him as she passed, and Shinji realized he didn't hate her, and probably never could.

The activation test for Unit-01 came up soon after that, which he passed with comparative ease.

Unit-00 was suspended until they could work out the bugs. He spent quiet evenings with Rei, watching her sync tests from the control room and reading, subject to the occasional teasing of Ritsuko or Misato – sometimes both.

"Such a dashing knight, running to the rescue of his fair maiden!"

"Stop teasing me!"

They finished assignments in the harsh plainness of her apartment. She put as much effort into the homework as she did with everything else: minimal. It wasn't as though she was unintelligent. In fact, he only knew of one other teenage girl that read Schrödinger and Heisenberg in their free time. Much like him, school didn't seem to hold any importance in her day to day life. It was important to him only because it was important to others. Sometimes they ate together, usually anywhere that had a decent vegetarian menu. Shinji always paid with the prepaid card Misato loaned him, and later groaned about.

He woke early to gray mists that gave way to burning waves of heat and came home late to watch TV with Misato and the bird or lie in his room listening to the tick-tick of his watch until he fell asleep. It swam over his time at school, blurring all else around him. Pooled into him as he sat for long ours deep within NERV, in the Eva, wondering when the Angels would finally come.

There was a muggy Saturday morning they walked through the 3rd Block, the solar panel towers turned to catch the sun. A fruitless pursuit. Sluggish swells of gray gradually moved the skies and reflected in their surfaces. Out from one of their usual haunts, tucked in a well-maintained alley behind a series of apartment, they passed a row of uniform bikes, locked in place.

"We should rent bikes," he said.

Rei followed his stare. "Why?"

"Haven't you ridden one before?"

Rei shook her head and he remembered being utterly baffled by that. It was the same look Asuka had given him when they were six and she found out he couldn't swim. He could swim just fine now, but it had involved frantic flailing and near drowning with the worst coach on the planet.

He felt something slip from his grasp. "Oh, then maybe we shouldn't."


He gave a half grimace. "You don't know how, so you'll probably just fall and get hurt."

"I am used to pain."

He thought of her shaking inside the entry plug, small and weak. "That doesn't make it okay." Even as he said the words, they sounded fake – like someone else were speaking them through his mouth.

Rei didn't comment on that, fixed on the row of bikes as though she were trying to solve some difficult puzzle. They moved on and didn't talk about it again.

Thinking on it now, Shinji nearly missed his stop, shouldering his way through boarding commuters to make it off in time. Normally he met Rei at 9th Block station and they would make the rest of the trip to school together. Often in silence, like most others they shared the train with. Rarely was the whisper of conversation heard, everyone walled into their own spaces despite being packed so close together.

Some days they would even be accompanied by a buoyant Aida and perpetually peeved Suzahara. The latter seemed to go wherever the former was. Sometimes Shinji talked to Aida, but never more than superficial conversation. He was one of the few students that didn't seem to mind the reputation the rest of the school had given him. As for Suzahara… Shinji had decided he didn't like the boy very much, if only because he had decided the same. he had an unusual way of speaking, reminding him a little of Marcel from the Kloster.

Rei absorbed herself in a book, while the two boys became embroiled in animated talk about some video game or basket ball or the military. Suzahara normally found other boys from their school to talk to – often other members of the basketball team.

And then there was Shinji, sitting idle between them.

Sometimes, watching the two boys board their separate trains home, if they chose to walk with him and Rei that day, he thought of talking to them more. They were the only ones that spent any more time with him than required, but he suspected that was only because Aida was so interested in the Evas.

Then the departure alert would blare, and they would be gone, along with that frail line of thought.

He was on his way to school now after a long absence, all of it on his mind again. Shinji turned the corner along a high-rising wall, and there was Asuka leaning against it by the crosswalk, dressed in his school's standard white and blue uniform. A wash of memories welled to choking, unable to process any one and overflowing as a bloated mass of ill-defined feeling. They hadn't spoken since a couple days ago.

"Hey," she said, tossing hair over a shoulder.

"Uh, hey."

Asuka looked him up and down before turning back to the road. After a stretched moment, he stepped forward but kept some feet between them. They waited in the heat until the walk sign flashed green.

"So you made it to your hotel okay?"

"Yeah, it was pretty late so I had Kaji pick me up."

He nodded with his chin, "what's with the uniform?"

"It's called cosplay, right?" she asked, holding her hands behind her back as they walked.

"Alright," he sighed, yielding to her game. "Who're you supposed to be?"

She slowed her pace so they were side by side, but only to tug on his earlobe. "NERV's top pilot."

He glowered and jerked his head away, to which she laughed. "What's the real reason?" He asked.

Her smugness endured. "I'm under orders."

"To go to school?"

Asuka let out an impatient sigh. "Is there a limit to how many dumb questions you can ask in a day?"

"Fine. I don't care," he said, and started walking faster.

She clicked her tongue and he could imagine her eyes rolling. "I don't know why I have to attend school here, okay? I mean, I've already graduated University. How asinine is that? It's just what command wants. That's what Misato said, anyway."

Shinji grunted in response and the rest of the walk to school was uneventful, save for the squealing of cars and discordant bustle of children. Asuka tried filling the silence several times but gave it up when all he delivered were non-committal grunts. The Third Municipal was up on a hill at the edge of the 3rd Block, built atop smooth concrete walls that flushed with the inclines. Asuka's head bobbed about as she took everything in, drawing curious eyes in return. They walked in side by side.

The school had been there before the city was thrown up and, despite extensive renovations, still held on to a well-worn and rustic foundation. The classroom was all pine wood floors and wide panels, with tall windows to let the light in. The desks were the same color as the floor, chipped and frayed at the edges. Wash cloths hung from the support bar of the chairs, along with other bits and pieces of import depending on the student. Notebooks, lanyards, and lunches. Itineraries and charts plastered the walls, giving the place the sense of an untidy office.

As he walked into class 2-A, his sight fell on Shoho sitting in the corner nearest the front window and talking with Kirishima and a few others. The latter, a girl with long black hair, made an effort of ignoring his presence. Shinji looked away as Shoho met his eyes, finding Asuka standing by the door and waving to some passing students she'd caught in greetings.

"I'll, uh, see you later, I guess," he said.

She gave him a look. "This is my classroom too, dork. Why do you think I followed you this far?" she pushed into the room and approached the black board, plucking a piece of chalk in her fingers. All eyes were drawn to her as she charted her name in elegant cursive. Finished, she set the chalk down and spun on a heel to face the class.

"I'm Asuka. Asuka Langley Soryu – charmed, huh?"

Their class rep beamed at the prospect of a new addition, gliding up to meet her along with several others. Asuka smiled, laughing and chatting excitedly as she traded names and acquaintances.

Shinji moved away. Rei was where she usually sat, gaze drawn from the window and stuck to him.

"Morning, Rei."

"Shinji," she said, offering her small, ghost of a smile. It left just as quickly as she studied him. "You are annoyed."

He waved his hand, urging her to forget about it, and took the seat next to hers, which was only a row forward from Aida and Suzahara. The latter had his legs propped up on the desk and the former leaned flat over his.

"Hey, Ikari!" he said, ever excitable, a goofy smirk on his face.

"Hey," Shinji grunted. Suzahara scoffed, more interested in the event at the front of class.

"Everyone's been saying you two died, but I knew that couldn't be true. The Evas must've been heavily damaged for you to be gone so long. Then that battle a couple days ago – there's supposed to be a new Eva isn't there? Well, I mean, I already know there is. My dad's department has been slammed just getting ready. Who's the pilot, Ikari?"

He nodded to the front of the class. "She is." He figured if he didn't say so, Asuka would at some point. Despite the Information Disclosure packet he'd received on arrival, there wasn't a point in pretending. Asuka didn't care about that confidential stuff anyway. Besides, a lot of kids in their school had parents that worked for NERV. They'd hear about it one way or another.

Aida's eyes went back and forth between him and Asuka. "No way," he breathed, awe and something else creeping in his voice, "oh man… and she's a foreigner? Wow…"

Shinji made a furtive glance and shrugged. "She's okay."

"Hey, you guys walked in together. Do you know her or something? I guess that makes s–"

"Of course he does!" Asuka declared, sitting herself atop Shinji's desk, "me and this dork have been friends since we were kids." She reached out and ruffled his hair some before he shoved her arm away. Asuka smirked off his withering glare, bouncing off his desk and striding back to the front of class.

"Damn," Suzahara made something of a laugh. "Hard to believe you ever made friends, Ikari. She must be as messed up as you."

"Shut up," he mumbled.

"Oh, hit a nerve? Man, you're just full of surprises today."

Aida nudged him with an elbow and gave Shinji and apologetic look.

He put his back to the class, talking with Rei, asking her how she was feeling and explaining why he couldn't visit her the past couple days. All the while he couldn't keep from glancing over his shoulder as his friend drank in the attentions of those around her.

He'd forgotten how much he hated this.

There was something very… precise about her features. Every contour appeared measured, even molded in a way that had Asuka dismissing them as dull. Her skin was smooth and unblemished, silken hair a light blue and neatly combed down to her shoulders, lips a cross between tan and barely pink, while her breasts seemed – she wanted to say a full A cup at the most, but they were bigger. Marginally. Not even noticeably, hardly even a B.

If Asuka could describe her in a word, it would be porcelain. Like a doll. She'd been eyeing the girl since that morning, catching the small flecks of interaction she had with Shinji. He didn't speak much of anything to anyone else in the class, herself included. The other girl seemed attentive to him, listening, nodding, occasionally allowing herself the barest of smiles.

Here, at the end of the day, her and Shinji were out at the edge of the baseball field, sitting under a shaded bleacher while a boys team geared up for practice. Five minutes had gone by since Asuka had caught them in the corner of her eye and kept a careful watch. She was by the entrance to the shoe lockers, half invested in a conversation with a group of her new friends, though she couldn't remember their names. Really, she just wanted to go back to her apartment, and she wasn't going to stick around for that idiot.

She removed herself from conversation, stowing her ugly school shoes away and hastily slipping into her low-top canvases. The plink of bats started over the fields and she followed the fences around to the courtyard entrance, just by the bleachers. Halfway to them, she stopped.

One of the batters struck out and kicked up some dirt beneath his cleats. His teammates in the dugout gave him brotherly pats to the shoulder, assuring him he was still welcome on the team and wouldn't be ostracized forever over a practice game. He still slouched forward and hung his head as he watched the next one come up to bat.

Shinji just barely managed not to jump as Asuka plopped down next to him. "Hallo Shinji! Wie geht's?"

"Uh– h-hallo, Asuka. Gut?" He managed.

"Wer ist dein freund, hm?" She asked, nodding at the girl.

Shinji remembered himself then, falling into Japanese. "Oh, uh, this is Rei, she's a pilot too."

"Hello, Rei. You must be the pilot for the prototype, then? I'm Asuka, pilot of Unit-two – the actual combat model. Like I said earlier, me and Shinji have been friends since we were little, but I'm sure he's told you all about that."

Rei shook her head, just so. "He has not."

Asuka smiled an unnatural smile.

The second batter, striking out twice, nailed the ball on the third pitch. Far enough for it to be caught readily by a midfielder. The batter slowly tested the swing of the wood in his hand as the umpire called him out, perhaps considering whether or not to wallop him instead. Bitterness crept into his expression.

"Lemme see your arm," Asuka said, making it less a request and more a demand as she reached out and grabbed Shinji's arm. He didn't resist, watching as she found and traced a thin white sliver that went from crease of elbow to wrist. "Wow, you still have this?" Asuka glanced at Rei for a reaction, but she gave none.

Shinji shrugged. "It was a pretty deep cut."

"Yeah. This was when I pushed you into the rose bush, right?" She asked, like she'd only just remembered. It was odd to think it had happened nearly ten years ago, and she felt a severe sense of otherness holding his arm. She remembered it very well. "I kind of forgot about that."

"Well, I didn't," he said, trying to tug away. She tightened her grip.

"When did you get this?" she touched the rough, maroon patches of skin stretching over his palm.

"Just an accident," he said, tugging again, and she let him have his arm back. Liar.

Something was writhing in the undercurrent of his posture, wound up like it was when she'd first come to the base days ago. He stowed his phone away and fished out an ancient black box. His old SDAT, ear buds wrapped around its frame. A shout came from the field and the third batter threw his bat against the fence. Shinji didn't move to put them in, but she got the feeling he wanted to leave. Even when they were kids, he was always listening to that thing. The girl Rei watched the game without much interest.

"How was your first day?" he asked, in a way that wasn't entirely curious. Probably because he wasn't.

"Tedious." Asuka got up first, grabbing her bag. She was tired of this. "You live over by Myojogatake, right?"


"That's close to where the surface line is for my GeoFront suite. You and Zero can ride home with me up until there."


"Yeah," she put on a look of practiced innocence. When he continued to stare, her brow knotted, and she splayed a hand out. "For her Eva unit?"

"Right," he said, mistrust lingering with it.

With that, she, Rei and Shinji walked off campus to the whispers of others and made their way to the nearest station, a mile walk north down highway 45.

Asuka walked ahead, Shinji just behind and Rei towing the rear. On a corner, the same she'd met Shinji at that morning, they passed a unagi place. The smell of steaming, seared eel greeted her and made her mouth water, though she'd never tasted it before. It was warm and humid out, as though being wrapped in flannel blankets fresh out of the dryer, the layers pealing off into something less sweltering as they descended into the crowded suburbs. Jellyfish flags hung from the light posts and wiggled in the breeze.

"Well, it looks like I'm pretty popular," Asuka cut the stagnant air, glancing behind. Shinji was looking across the street.

"Oh, yeah?" That tone of disinterest sprouted again.

"It's understandable," she went on with a contented sigh, "I'm overflowing with talent and potential, after all."

He shook his head, edging a cynical smile. "I don't get it."

"Poor Shinji, always so slow to adapt." She gave a mock pout and jumped up onto a nearby ledge, following it down the sidewalk.

He shrugged, sticking a hand in his pocket. "I guess so."

"Ooh, what's wrong?" she asked, unable to resist a toothy grin, "are you jealous?"

That lifted his lip in a half-snarl. "Of what?"

"My obvious superiority."

"Superiority complex, maybe. Not jealous."

Asuka stiffened at that, allowing her smirk to fade. The sidewalk dipped, leaving her standing on high at the corner to look down on him. "You never could admit when you got beat – if you didn't give up to begin with, that is. Just sulk and pout until someone, usually me, felt sorry enough for you."

"Shut up," he said, trying to glare up at her, but the sun was too bright. She could tell that'd hurt him, just like she wanted, a much smaller voice telling her to stop.

But she couldn't. Not after today. "Must've been nice when I left, then you could forget all about me and feel superior by yourself."

"I was pissed off at you, okay!?" He shouted. She jumped, but just as soon fixed him with a glare and crossed her arms. His fury melted and he took a step back, facing away from her and letting out a puff of hot air. Rei, standing several paces behind, had tensed. Those red eyes came to stare at Asuka, who's chest prickled as though pierced.

"What?" She snapped.

Zero said nothing and, after a painful pause, moved to stand beside Shinji and wait for the crosswalk to change.

Asuka climbed down from the ledge, landing hard on her heels and stumbling a little. She used it as an excuse to shoulder Shinji in an arm. He shot her a look but she stared ahead, catching it in her periphery.

Traffic plowed through humid air, brakes squealing, and then the crosswalk beckoned them to move. Smells of gasoline and burning asphalt soured the air. In a moment she hated the metropolis and everything with it, aching for the old city of Heidelberg. Or perhaps something far less tangible and attainable.

It was like the world had finally opened up to her there. As though she'd been wrapped in this stagnant shadow, unable to spread her wings. All at once she was free from her mansion and her step mother and her father and that place with so many horrible memories. At the University she was master of her future and everyone knew her name, knew how great she was going to be, envied her bright radiance. Finally, she would be treated as an adult instead of some naive child, a feeling sweet and long coveted.

Often that wasn't how it turned out.

Often, she found herself trapped at a crossroads with no clear direction. Each path seemingly another misstep, foggy and unclear. It was then, when Heidelberg seemed the most remote place on the planet, that she reached out to the last connection she had with her home and the garden. It was what made her realize that at some point Shinji had given up maintaining contact and she'd sent that stupid letter in a moment of weakness. Not that it had mattered, he'd never read it. Maybe it was better that he left it unopened. He'd decided she wasn't worth the effort anymore. Her gaze settled on Rei.
They boarded a rail car and grabbed seats. She left two between them.

"I really can't stand you," she said, more to the window across from them than to him.

Shinji stared between his feet. "I know."

Shinji watched a pair of girls down on the other end of the train, one on the phone and the other skimming through a manga. Both taking brief breaks to talk at the other. They were from a school on the other side of town. The skirts were different, red and plaid like back home. Beneath them the rails clacked, shadows dancing through the cars from the overhead cable lines.

"Soryu... she is your friend?"

Shinji flinched and faced Rei, who'd taken up residence beside him. She watched him, intent, but patient. Asuka had gotten off at the last stop, sparing neither of them a look or a word.

"Yeah. I don't know." He said, glancing back at the girls. He hunched forward, elbows on his knees and fingers intertwined.

Rei's gaze strayed from him for a moment, to the Tokyo-3 towers lording over the city, taller even than the mountains – or so it seemed. He'd been on those mountains, visiting derelict Buddhist temples and once a church, which was only a long-abandoned set of ruins sinking into murky waters.

"We used to be really good friends," he said, staring through the girls, both there and a thousand miles away at once. "Well… she was my best friend. We grew up together, and all that. Then we stopped being friends."

Rei hummed, and he could sense her eyeing him again. It was familiar, the way she did it, as though trying to find some missing piece of him. He couldn't say what it reminded him of, but it was the same thing he saw when she cleaned or ate or sat at her desk to do homework. It was Rei.

"Yet she insists that you are," she said.

He shrugged. "Maybe. I mean, she came to see me in the hospital after the last battle. All we really did was fight, but…"

The junior high schooler on her phone noticed his stare, smile giving way to a guarded disdain. She tapped her friend's shoulder and pointed at him. They each shifted and tugged at their skirts, which had hiked up some when they'd sat.

Cheeks heated, he watched the cable lines pass by instead.

"And now she says she can't stand me," he said, and maybe that was fair of her say.

"She is abrasive to you."

Shinji's smirk was sardonic. "That's just how Asuka is."

"It is..." Rei paused, hand gliding up along the side of her head and through her hair, pining it by an ear. "Disagreeable."

"Ever since I can remember she's been trying to prove how much better she is than me."

She let her hair fall, hands returning to her lap. "And is she?"

Her questions, as always, seemed less for her own curiosity.

"It doesn't matter," he said, the words unpalatable. Metal screamed as they eased into port, an automated message playing in a woman's voice. They would be taking separate ways home. There was one more stop he had to make.

"Will you be alright?" She asked, broaching a different subject altogether.

"Yeah. I'll be fine," he lied, shouldering his bag and leaving for a GeoFront NERV line. "See ya'."

Rei stayed quiet, as she sometimes did, and once on the platform he turned. Others passed by him and soon the doors closed, pulling her out of reach.

Doctor Okinoshima's office was immaculate, except for the lone lotus flower sitting in a glass bowl of cool water on the window sill. A red lotus, its petals closed despite the time of day. It was on the opposite end from him, where two more windows stretched the right side of the room. Beyond that were the flawless walls of the inverted pyramid sinking alongside headquarters, the light beaming down from the surface turning their crystal sheen a blinding white.

"How are you feeling?" Okino asked, as flat and smooth as the table between them.

Shinji looked back, though her eyes weren't actually on him, focused instead upon the computer screen with professional purpose. "Okay, I guess," he said, slouching in the black leather rolling chair that was two sizes too big. It and the lotus were the only discernible pieces of color.

Without looking, Okino marked something on a pad under her right hand. "Have you been eating well?"

"Not really."

Another mark, other hand sliding a bit of shoulder length hair back behind her ear. "And why is that?" she asked, all without sounding remotely curious.

Shinji gave that some thought, watching the lotus drift ever so subtly in its tiny pond, particles playing over its rosy buds. "I don't know… sometimes I just don't want to eat, even if I feel hungry." And it had never happened to him before either. Not even when he was a child and fresh off being sent away from his father. Even though it felt like that, where he was closed in on all sides by the plain, ordinary pressure of his walls, as ordered and lifeless as the office he sat in.

"Have you recently experienced anything traumatic?"

Shinji thought that was an odd question. He'd spent isolated months trying to synchronize with Unit-00 before his Eva had been finished. Had sortied four times now against an enemy he still didn't know anything about, and had been subject to the lasting tremors of sympathetic pain for days after. But those weren't traumatic things, were they? He was just doing what he was supposed to do. He was strong – like a soldier – and soldiers didn't feel like those things were wrong. Did they?

Unsure of how to answer, he fidgeted. "Um, like what?"

Okino spoke quickly, but without annoyance. "A car accident, witnessing a violent act, intense physical harm to your person."

"Oh… then yes."

Another mark. Something unseen scribbled. "And have you been experiencing any nightmares?"

Black, consuming ones. Worse than the dreams he used to have of being alone in a vast, wide ocean with nothing but darkness below him. In these new dreams he often walked in tall fields of wet grass that brushed his knees. Fog crept over the land, concealing it from view, a pale light sitting in the mists as though morning was mere minutes from breaking. But morning never came. He had a sword in his hand, but no armor, and no shield. They were gone, or destroyed, or stolen. He didn't know. From the encircling mists wandered these things that slithered like snakes, but their scales shook and spread outward like thorns to cut him as they crawled over his feet and wrapped around his ankles. They were big and fat and vicious, and he swung his sword, slicing them open and in two and through the head.

It didn't matter how many he killed. More always appeared, and always twice as many as he slew. In the distance he could see eyes. Hollow, round eyes without irises staring at him from a stark shadow with pointed ears. As he killed the slithering creatures, the thing's jagged, smiling maw opened – breathing more of the thick fog that clouded the world around him while a waterfall of snakes poured from between its teeth. The dream ended inevitably when there were so many they wrapped every inch of him, carving into his flesh and devouring him piece by piece.

"Yes," Shinji said.

The doctor tore a square of paper from her pad and handed it to him. "Here are two prescriptions – one for the nightmares, and a refill of your antidepressants."

Shinji took it, barely, his attention captured by the lotus again. "Miss Okinoshima. I think your flower is dying." There didn't seem to be any other reason for it to still be closed.

She paid his comment no mind, turning fully to her computer. "I will see you in two weeks."

He stepped out into the gray halls of headquarters, Okino's door whispering shut. An apparition of his imagination, if not for the silver plaque preceding her office. Shinji stared at it for a pause that stretched into hollow, aching minutes.

Okino was one of two psychologists staffed at headquarters, whom he was mandated to see twice a week. She mostly asked him general questions and prescribed a few pills, which he never took. Once he found out no one was actually going to make him go, most weeks he simply didn't show up. Misato annoyed him a few times about it, even made a handful of empty threats about taking away his phone, but then gave up, deciding it was too much effort. That and she'd never been comfortable pushing him – unless it involved the Eva, then she was willing to shove.

He resented her a little for it now. As always, he could never hate her indefinitely. He felt too guilty over holding a grudge against her to maintain one. Especially since he knew why she pushed herself to exhaustion. Why she hated the Angels so much. It was his responsibility to fight, and to win, if for no one else than for her.

The sky was bleeding when he made it topside, spilling hues of orange and pink over every surface and painting black shadows where those couldn't reach. Cicadas wailed in the fading heat. Shops and business fronts were closing, bars and night-life restaurants just starting to open. He was on the edge of town and its narrow roads, people stretching out of windows to hang clothes or beat rugs. From a balcony in his apartment complex two Filipino men smoked, one of them hollering to someone inside.

On the eleventh floor he keyed in the door code and it parted. "I'm home," he said. The apartment was dark. Several bags of trash lined the hallway waiting to be taken out. Shinji took off his shoes and made it into the kitchen, lit only by the glare of the setting sun through the balcony doors. Letting his book bag fall on a nearby chair, he pealed open a can of sardines and emptied it into Pen Pen's bowl. He tapped on the critter's fridge, signaling food, but he was probably asleep. The sour stink of raw fish poured over the apartment.

A beer can tumbled under foot as he sat, the tabletop a pile of newspapers, coasters, scissors, nail files, books, receipts, lottery scratch offs, a rice cooker and yet more cans of beer. There was a time when it had been a clean, welcoming place, and he had worked hard to keep it that way. At first they split up the chores evenly, but then the Angels came. He could clean up just fine, for a little while. Surfaces slowly became consumed with miscellaneous junk. Laundry went unfinished and sprawled throughout Misato's room, rarely folded and put away. Its influence spreading to the rest of the apartment, encroaching like the shadows outside.

A sinking urge in the pit of his chest wanted him to clean it, to throw away all the refuse and junk. But day by day the task seemed that much more insurmountable, like wading through a river of mud. His room was the only haven left, and even that was escaping him. The dust had probably made a new layer since he was away in the hospital.

So he sat there in the stillness, occasionally disturbed by the hum of electronics. The daylight screams of the cicadas had calmed to droning chittering and chirps that clawed their way between the seams of the apartment. Through the walls he could hear someone knocking, maybe for the neighbor.

Tap tap tap.

An ocean of blue trespassed on the horizon, sweeping to consume the setting sun as it left, its radiance casting skyscraping pillars in stark black. Shinji thought to turn on a light or two as the dark settled over him, shrouding the mess of his apartment to an indistinct blur. He couldn't hear himself think.

Tap tap tap.

His bones were heavy, and his body didn't seem to be all there, like he were merely floating in it. Watching from inside. Shinji brought his knees up to his chest and clasped his hands around his ears.

Still someone knocked.


I know these last two chapters have been rather slow and bloated as we explore the protagonists' time apart, but it seems for what I want to accomplish in this Arc, I may not be able to get away with shorter chapter formats like in Act I, where the storytelling had to be more condensed to cover such a long period of time. Well, that and I've always felt a chapter always ends up as long or short as it needs to be. Or maybe I just need to become a more ruthless editor, haha.

Anyway, thanks for reading!