Chapter 3: War and Peace


Shinji used to imagine Angels to be beautiful, winged beings dressed in white cloaks and glowing with a warm aura of light. That's how Preister Luitpold had made them sound.

When the Third Angel arrived, the battle lasted for three days.

On the first day, the JSSDF scorched what was left of the Odawara countryside when they detonated an N2 mine to stop it. On the eve of the second day, just before sunrise, he and Rei were finally given clearance to launch. They'd been on battle-ready standby for the past twelve hours and engaged it at range from the mountains. He, with the long barreled bolt-action AW MK II, and Rei with the Type 20 Positron.

The enemy was undefined, like peering through a foggy window. An ache throbbed under his forehead, his eyes trying in vain to focus a force that refused to be given form. Salvos of guided missiles and self-propelled artillery blossomed over its dark shape, while they watched from the ridgeline of Mount Ashigara.

As soon as it entered his range, Shinji drew a bead, or he tried to – the Angel was still an indistinct blur warring for definition. The targeter locked on to what his eyes couldn't perceive, compensating for muzzle drop and gravitational pull. He sent a heavy bolt plowing into the Angel, the round splashing apart over an invisible umbrella like a drop of water slapping a rock. Shinji primed another bolt in the chamber as Rei's positron whined, spitting streaks of gamma ray photons at the invader.

The beams dissipated and lost density as they entered the Angel's glaring shadow.

"A.T. Field neutralization nil. Advance."

As they sank into the valley, their Exclusion Zones shrank. Air pulsed, compacting and crushing the weapons in their grasp. Arcs of light speared towards them in sporadic patterns of attack – most missing by mere inches, others making glancing blows as the Angel continued to press its A.T. Field. They were ordered to retreat until the MAGI could conduct further analysis.

On the third day, Sachiel resumed its attack. For the Evas, fortified plating was replaced and systems were restored. Shinji wouldn't fail again. They intercepted it at the listening post by old Kino Cemetery.

His father. "Unit-one, engage the target before it breaches the defense line. Unit-zero will support your attack."

"Understood."

Their A.T. Fields unfolded. He felt them make contact, could sense the pressure of the immense being in front of him pushing into his space, probing for weaknesses, feeling for invasion.

His Exclusion Zone dwindled.

When Sachiel released its particle beams, they were more refined – more accurate than the MAGI had predicted. Light lanced into Unit-01's segmented abdomen. Armor split, bio-layers burst, and the Eva staggered. Braced against the ripping pain, Shinji listened to the rapid tick-tick-tick of the stabilizer signal as he tried to bring Unit-01 off its side. Proximity alert – he hadn't even seen the thing move, and it had covered miles of distance in seconds. Hollow, white eyes stared down at him. Pallet rifle still in Unit-01's right hand, he shifted and pulled the trigger. The buzz of the rifle was cut short as the Angel collapsed its frame.

A blur of orange from the side. Rei.

Unit-00 was grabbed at the head in a flash of movement. Light flared in the Angel's palm, just as she wriggled to the side. The beam gouged its brain casing instead of blasting right through it. The force of the blow still tossed the Eva's head back, and she came crashing down like a cut tree.

"Rei!" Unit-01's prog-hatch opened.

The Angel's hand crushed the pauldron, snaring it in its fingers and ripping the metalwork off as though it were made of paper. The prog-knife went flying. With its other hand the Angel pressed Unit-01 flat on its back, holding him there as he struggled. A glimpse into senses that weren't his own, sensations and diluted impressions brushing his mind. The being was testing its strength, measuring itself against him, at least that's how it felt as it lifted its right hand – the same hand that had gouged Unit-00's head open, and wrapped Long fingers around the face-plate. Glass cracked and armor creaked.

Unit-00's shoulder crashed into the Angel. The prog-knife howled in her grasp, screaming as it punctured to the hilt in the shadow's chest. Rei stabbed it again, and again, and again – until something that must've been its engine revealed itself as a red orb. The Angel cast spiteful streaks of particles as it collapsed under the onslaught. Bits of Unit-00 melted away. The knife split into the core, and there was a rending light.

Black earth stretched beneath them, cracked and steaming. They powered down their Units and awaited retrieval.

His mind replayed the battle, stuck in a loop. Even after they'd been recovered, into the next day at school and well into the long weekend nights.
He should've been better than this.

A tremor shook the plug, bringing him back to the city blocks of Tokyo-3, where he fought the Sixth Angel again. Asuka was hollering at him, other voices cutting over the channel in a garbled mess. The gem-like plates of the Angel split apart, coalescing into its hawkish shape. Its shards jittered and the thing lunged for him.

"Cancel the simulation."

The Angel's image froze mere moments before it would have collided with him, his Unit's arm still half-raised to draw the prog-knife too late. Slowly, the virtual world trickled out of existence, until it was just a grid of white wall inhabited only by Asuka's simulation plug across the way.


"I don't know why I bother with the mission objectives when you just ignore them," Misato said from where she leaned against a blank screen, arms crossed.

Shinji thought of several nasty retorts but kept them as thoughts only. They were in one of the ready rooms, which was built like a tiny theater – meant for maybe thirty people. He'd taken one of the seats nearest the door and farthest away from her.

When the quiet hum of the underground base persisted, her gaze fell to the side. She took a deep breath and sighed through her nose. "Shinji… they're talking about keeping you on standby the next time an Angel hits. Maybe even…"

Suspension. That ugly word slithered over his mind, muddying in a black river that threatened to drown him. When he realized he'd locked on to Misato, he found the floor instead, hoping the churning dread he felt hadn't come through.

It must have, because her shoulders dropped, and she pushed off the wall. "I doubt it'll happen. The Marduk Institute hasn't even located any of the other children yet… but Units three and four will be finished in just a couple months. Shinji it's–"

"My sync-rate is the higher than anyone's," he bit out.

Her demeanor turned icy. "It isn't about your sync-rate, and as of your last test – no, it isn't."

"So what if I made a few mistakes."

"You don't follow orders, Shinji!" Her voice filled the room and rang in his ears. He fought a frown and considered storming out, breath caught in his chest. Recycled air poured through the vents and the still wet plugsuit left him tensing against shivers. From the corner of his eye he saw her shift, ascending to the third tier where he sat.

"How can I let you onto the field if I can't trust you to do what I say?" she asked, searching him. Then, in a much quieter way, "don't you care what happens to you?"

There was another question beneath it, but he didn't want to consider the answer. "If I kill Angels, who cares?"

Misato's hand cinched his face, drawing it up so that he had no choice but to peer right into her burning eyes. "What did you just say?" she asked, and everything in her voice – the quiet, heart-rending breath that one let out just before their foot snagged a mine – told him what he had just done.

But there was no taking it back. So he said nothing.

"Fine." There was a tremble under her voice. "You want to be a soldier? You can start by acting like one," she said, releasing him. "You aren't getting back in the simulators until you can take this seriously. Dismissed."

There was a note of awful finality in her tone and his dislike for her deepened a little more, though not enough to choke down his guilt. She was his trainer, his commanding officer, his roommate, and sometimes a friend, but she was still… something undefined and nameless. Something he couldn't wholly trust, and now…

Shinji left the briefing room, heat like someone had lit a blow-torch over his sternum making him shake. He wandered into the locker rooms, vacant and echoing with stale, humid air. He stayed in the shower until the buzzer rang and the auto-shut off kicked in, dropping half the lights in the room. In the semi-darkness he changed into shorts and a sleeveless T, feeling neither like his school uniform or the NERV one. The empty plugsuit he left on the floor.

He had little memory of where he went after that, faces and hallways moving in an indistinct blur. Just outside the surface-level access gate for Terminal Dogma, he passed through one of the in-house lounges: a collection of padded seats, fake plants, and vending machines. Asuka sat under the TV, which paraded recent news to no one in particular. She had her still damp hair tied back in a ponytail, A-10 clips snug where her pigtails normally sat and invoking, as always, the image of a cat. She was curled up on one of the lounge chairs, scrolling through her phone with captured disinterest. He fought the impulse to ask her what she was doing there.

It had been a week since he yelled at her and instead of feeling less guilty, like he wanted, Shinji only felt more so. He was a small boy again, contemplating in an aching stupor what he had done to upset his friend this time. Except, for this instance, he knew all too well. It didn't make him any less angry. It was ridiculous for her to be upset over it.

Something alerted her to his presence and he was taken in and dismissed all at once, attention put back to her phone with more intent. That plowed a spike under his ribs and he took a half-step in the other direction. A groaning silence took hold of his mind and his step paused.

Before he knew it he was slipping a few hundred yen into the nearest machine for a bottle of green tea. Change clattered into the receptacle. He settled on a couch across from Asuka and a coffee table, snapping the cap off. Ceiling fans creaked over their heads, joining the murmuring chorus of news reports and pop music. Thumbing the ridges of the bottle, he decided on a few sips. It was far too bitter.

"Isn't your stuff all moved in by now?" he regarded Asuka, who didn't look up from her phone.

"Yeah, so what?"

He shrugged, eyeing the tantalizing plethora of drinks. Any of which he could have bought instead of this. "I usually go home after tests. I don't really like being here."

Asuka sank further into her chair. "Then go already."

He sighed through his nose and took several gulps of tea, sloshing it around some and pretending to be preoccupied by the news until he felt he had stayed long enough to not look like a fool for sitting down in the first place. He glanced once more at her, up and down, looking away when she faced him, her glare making the decision for him.

"Where's Zero?" she asked before he could take more than a step.

"I don't know."

Asuka hummed at that. "Thought you guys were attached at the hip."

He shrugged, waiting for her to say something more. Space around them sighed and it felt as though he were facing her through glass, foggy and unnatural like the labs at Gehirn. He started down the hall again.

"Where are you going?"

He faltered and swung 'round. "Gym, I guess. Why?"

"There's a gym here?"

"Uh... yeah."

The TV above her persisted, showcasing a series of oil spills off the coast of the Manazuru ruins. Asuka contemplated a vending machine across the way, chewing on her lower lip. Then he was regarded like a questionable piece of meat.

"What?"

"Nothing," she spat, falling back behind her phone.

"Fine."

Shinji moved on to the on-base gymnasium, tossing out his tea along the way. It was vacant when he arrived, the sounds of those who had just left still echoing in the corners. He went to the benches by the lockers, sitting saddle-horse. Smooth, chalk-splotched mats were laid out nearby in checkerboard patterns of red and blue. Beyond those was a forest of treadmills, dip-bars and smith machines. Mirrors spanned the walls, showcasing their lack of use. Low ceilings ensured every inch of the place was well lit, bathing it in a pale cleanliness.

Shinji fished in a pocket and plugged in the earbuds of his SDAT.


His morning sojourn to school began with apprehension, nagging at him during breakfast – even when he found Rei on the trains, and following him all the way to the street corner. Once at school, he and Asuka would acknowledge one another with a cursory glance and go right on through the day without much else.

Shinji spent it talking with Rei, the two of them listening to Kensuke and Toji go on a tirade about arcade games when there was nothing that needed to be said. Her Unit would be on standby for some time still. Unit-01 always had repair priority.

Breakfast at the kitchen table with Misato persisted, each ignorant of the other's presence. Most evenings, when they were in for sync tests, he spied Asuka down the gangway in her red plug suit for a moment as they boarded testing plugs, and then for another as she took up residence in the lounge on that deck afterwards. He bought a green tea, expecting it to taste better every time, and took up a seat nearby while the atmosphere tightened to a knot around his throat. By then he would leave, sit in an empty gym and listen to his SDAT the whole way through before going home.

It had been seven days since they'd spoken and once again she was sitting in the lounge. Shinji skipped the vending machine and cast his shadow over Asuka, who had sunk further and further into the chair as the days went by. Curled into it now like a cradle as opposed to a proper chair.

"Sorry," he said, trying to sound sincere.

Her eyes flashed. "What for?"

"You know. When I yelled at you."

Her posture relaxed some, but she brought the phone closer to her face, as if trying to fall into it. "Oh, that? I totally forgot."

"No, you didn't. You held a grudge against me for an entire year once. You didn't forget."

Asuka shot to her feet, her body heat a barrier. "Fine, so I didn't, now go away," she said, plopping back down.

His mouth quirked in a flat, unconvinced way, but he didn't feel like arguing. He didn't feel like much of anything. A gut tugging sensation nudged him to stay, maybe take the seat close by or grab something from the machines.

Instead, he ended up down in the gym, which greeted him with its numbing cadence. He found his spot on the bench nearest the lockers, submitting to the music of his SDAT after a breath or two of hesitation. The twenty-third track had barely started playing when one of the buds was pulled out. Equal parts startled and annoyed, he turned to stand. Asuka's fist came forward in a push more than a punch. Shinji fore-blocked on reflex. He wasn't prepared for her other hand coming up to shove his shoulder. He staggered, his footing off to begin with, and tumbled ass over elbow on the other side of the bench.

When he scrambled up, he saw Asuka's backside as she swayed over to the mats with her hands clasped behind her back, as innocent as could be. She turned to pin him with those blue eyes.

Tag, you're it.

Shinji shot to his feet, aches forgotten.

They found sparring equipment, mouth guards and some old rubber blades in the storage bins along the wall. It was a brief task to don their padded helmets, and he paused as she pulled her hair through an opening in the back, where it billowed out like the plume of an ancient helm.

They stood several feet apart on the mats. He on red and she on blue.

"First touch loses," she said, and he nodded.

He opened with slashes and jabs, embarrassed when he missed all his marks. She timed the right moment to dip inside his guard and drive the rubber hard into his ribs. Next match, smacking across his thigh. Under his arm during the next. By the fourth round Shinji was breathing heavy, and wanted to rip his helmet off and lock himself in his room for a year. She smiled.

Never had he wanted to take something away so badly.

The fifth match he pitched all his weight forward and ran a shoulder into her stomach. It didn't bother him that he'd floored her. At least, it shouldn't have bothered him. Asuka's smile broke as he let her up, the more serious and infinitely more dangerous girl from their training days coming through. He could still beat her. She couldn't win at everything.

On the sixth bout, she hunted for the sensitive nerves at his wrists and elbows, striking him on the upper forearm hard with a fist. His knife-hand opened on reflex, and just as hers was coming in – he balled his left hand and lashed out, managing to crack his knuckles into hers. Asuka shrieked and staggered back, holding her hand at the wrist.

"What the hell?!"

An iron ball dropped through his gut. Their labored gasps filled every corner. Shinji shook his head, frustration overwhelming him like a pot of boiling water. "Let's just stop."

He stooped to pick up his knife, only to have Asuka's foot smack atop his palm, digging it between her heel and the rubber hilt.

"Asuka!" When all she did was press harder, he hugged her leg with his free arm and lurched forward, pushing her off balance. Her back smacked the mats and she rolled half in a daze as she absorbed the ache. Shinji made to get up – when her other leg started aiming kicks at him, his protests lost between her strained grunts. He let go of his grip on her ankle and shoved the appendage away, throwing himself at her. He grabbed for her arms, earning a manacle grip around her wrists, but she rolled onto her back – tucking her legs in and shoving her feet into his stomach. He let his breath free on reflex, mitigating some of the impact. She pushed until he was arched over her, still latched to her wrists. Their shouts and struggles echoed through the gym.

Shinji maneuvered himself off balance, sliding between her legs and losing grip. She caught one of his arms readily and he had a moment to be terrified as she grabbed hold with both hands, legs now laid over his chest in an arm lock. With flailing, ugly difficulty, he slid himself vertical instead of horizontal, negating the lock by instead making his face mercy to her feet again.

He couldn't say how long they wrestled. Time didn't seem to move out on the mats, their bodies worked into overdrive and pouring off skin-melting waves of heat. There was biting, scratching, hair-pulling, name-calling, and their protective gear ripped off bit by bit under the abuse. Soon both of them were red and burning from skin twisting against skin. From another perspective, it must have looked no different than a pair of squirrels scraping it out.

It seemed to take a lifetime, but their energy began to evaporate, each movement drunk with exhaustion – and every inch of him felt like it were made of stiff rock instead of muscle. Asuka was atop his back now, arms wrapped around his neck from behind. Elbows shaking, he pushed off the ground, making a strangled shout from the wobbling effort. Her hair fell into his face and he tried to shake her off by stumbling forward on hands and knees.

She began to shake. It was a soft sound at first. When her breath caught up, she started laughing.

Maybe it was because he was tired, with so little oxygen and hydration able to reach his addled brain and support his spent limbs. Or maybe it was because of how utterly ridiculous they must have looked.

But he started laughing too.

Shinji pitched forward, face slapping the cool mats as he fell victim to an uncontrollable fit of gasping laughter, joined by Asuka's breathless giggles that sometimes turned into snorts – and only made him laugh harder. Neither seemed able to stop, and Shinji was starting to see fireflies from lack of air. After long minutes of writhing on the floor, they were at last staring up at the ceiling – feeding starved lungs in heaving pants. When their breathing eased into something normal, and the world stopped spinning, both had time to absorb all of their wounds and sores and headaches. It was no worse than their old play in the garden.

"Call it a draw?" She breathed. It was the closest thing to a compromise Asuka had ever offered him.

He shook his head.

"Fine." Asuka let her head fall towards him. "Wanna go again?"

If he could feel the muscles in his face, they might have twitched with a smile. "No, I have to get home."

Her hand flailed out and she pushed on his cheek. "Come ooon."

"No, I gotta go." It took far too much effort to sit up.

"Whatever. I just thought you'd like the chance to win your pride back."

"Hah. Against you? That's a losing battle."

"Then stop losing – loser," she punctuated by shooting him a raspberry.

He grunted, finding his way to the benches on aching legs. "I have a lot of assignments to catch up on, anyway. Misato said she'd take me out to eat if I got my grades up."

"Oh, so it's for a date with Misato then?"

Shinji shook his head. He was too tired and just blurting things out now. "No. That's not why. I'm not even sure I want to." He picked up his SDAT from the floor and stared into it for a time, the music still playing. He'd always liked Mariya – how she made her sad songs sound so bright and full of color.

"Hm," Asuka sighed, still lounging on the floor. "What homework are you working on anyway? I'm still trying to figure out some of the Kanji. Why do the Japanese use such a complicated writing system?"

He shrugged, hearing the music with a new ear. "You're pretty smart. I'm sure you'll get the hang of it."

"Yeah – thanks for nothing."

It was the tone that pulled Shinji away from his SDAT, and Asuka was there on her hands and knees as though ready to pounce. She stared at him.

"What?" he asked, feeling like he should flick her nose, but also sensing there was something more serious at work. Her lips pursed and the muscles in his face tightened.

"You don't need help... right?"

"No, I don't," she said in a drawn-out way, as though having finished chewing on something rotten.

She left soon after.


"Pattern Orange detected. All hands to battle stations, level one. All hands to battle stations, level one."

Light flickered along the walls, mirroring the heightened sense of urgency the crew of the base moved at, leaving behind lunches, drinks, and games of mahjong to reach their posts. The stampeding personnel parted for Misato, some of the green horns stopping to make a hasty salute.

"All non-essential personnel evacuate to your designated shelters, this is not a drill."

She entered the bridge at the middle tier, the command tower rising above her – missing its commander. Fuyutsuki stood poised in the position instead. At the forward CIC, her three specialists ran through data on the holo-screens quicker than she could read it. Ritsuko monitored nearby.

"Analysis of the target?" Misato asked, eyeing the grid of the city super-imposed below the main screen.

"Blood Type registers as Orange according to the inherent wavelength," Aoba said, pursing his lips and shaking his head. "The MAGI can't seem to come to a consensus on a Blue reading, not without more data. Target tentatively designated as the Seventh Angel."

She nodded. "Current heading?"

"Location South-East. Zeroing in on coordinates now." Hyuga zoomed the holo-map. "It's established a beachhead at the new Yugawara coast line." On the main screen a bird's eye view from a recon drone showed them the flooded mainland, tops of crooked buildings poking the surface. Spilled atop it all was an ink-black blotch that writhed at the edges like oil in water.

"It's massive," she said, grinding her teeth. She was down an Evangelion and her other units had just finished repairs. Damn.

Ritsuko glanced at the readings. "So far it's reached a diameter of ten kilometers."

"The MAGI picked up whispers in the Manazuru ruins through our listening post in Shiroganeyama this morning. Rapid temperature spikes, abnormal atmospheric gradients, random jumps in PMW signatures."

Misato moved to Maya's shoulder as she was motioned over. "For the past few days it's consumed mass in a seven-mile radius and the rate of consumption is increasing hourly."

Misato fought not to sound exasperated. "How didn't we catch it sooner?"

Hyuga shook his head, at a loss. "Something in its growth cycle that flew under the MAGI's radar."

She offered him a grimace and he returned it. Maya threw up a new analysis. "The MAGI project that in six days, seventeen hours, eleven minutes and thirty-seven seconds it will have consumed a third of the Kanto Region."

"There's already a prong forming in its growth pattern," Ritsuko said.

"Straight for us," she hummed. A wandering protrusion branched out from the mass, weaving into the valleys near Shiroyama. "Outfit the Evas for ground assault. Has the JSSDF been alerted?"

"Affirmative. Third and Tenth Divisions are mobilizing. Fighter squadrons from Komatsu and Hyakuri will be entering Tokyo-three airspace in twenty minutes." Aoba pressed a hand to his headphones, straining a moment to hear. "Just picked up a broadcast over the E-Band: emergency mobilization of the third, sixth and fifth Air Wings."

"For what?"

"Can't say for sure, but it sounds like they're prepping for a pretty big bombing raid on the Angel."

She thought the JSSDF was done nosing their way into NERV's operations. They should have known by now. Misato turned to the Command Tower. "Sir?"
Fuyutsuki allotted the main screen a baleful glare. "Let them proceed. It won't make a difference."

"Understood. Configure the city for long-range interception. Prep the Evangelions for aerial insertion. Let's get out there before the Defense Force gets too trigger happy."


Another squadron of fighter jets, nothing but thin silvery streaks against deep blue, dropped what must have been another few thousand gallons of napalm over a shifting black mass. The fuel mix belched flame to join the wild, bloated fires that already coated the Angel's body, crawling forth bit by bit from the sea. Billowing clouds of white phosphorous mingled with the black smoke of the napalm, the former pouring over what was left of the coastline from the northern winds.

"Target in sight," the bomber pilot radioed, just as they passed over Mount Byobu."Coming up on the drop zone."

Shinji flexed his fingers around the induction levers. "Roger."

Asuka's plug feed sprang up in his, though she was focused on the growing firestorm ahead. "Betcha' I'll land ground-side first," she said.

"Only 'cause they made your Eva fat with armor."

"Pig."

Misato's window cropped up over hers, whisking it to the side. "Lock it down you two, and listen up. The MAGI have managed a partial on our target. Ritsuko will brief you." In place of Misato a Sound Only display appeared. "I'll keep this short. Based on our wave pattern analysis the Angel exists in a necrotrophic state, much like a fungus. It invades organic material using a combination of mechanical pressure and enzymes and perpetuates growth by using the dead tissue. From satellite imagery and drones, we've been able to discern the Angel uses a kind of acid to break down anything inorganic."

"So it can eat through armor," Asuka said.

"Correct. Maintain a reasonable distance and probe its defenses."

Shinji stole a look to the right where Asuka's bomber trailed alongside his, just a hair behind. Already mounted to her arm was a positron rifle and to her hip a pair of 8-cell charge packs. They'd given him a pallet rifle and a tomahawk. It seemed he was expected to get in close.

Misato's face replaced the sound-only barrier. "Our batteries at Shiroyama and Makuyama can support you for immediate effect. All other support fire from base comes with a longer delay, so keep that in mind once you're on the ground."

"Got it," Asuka said. Shinji remained quiet, but Misato had already cut her visual feed. Clouds of phosphorous lurked below, lit with a blistering inferno. Through the patches he could see a twinkling black. He wished Rei was there.

"Movement from the target."

The bomber lurched, the Angel's fluid mass spattering the undercarriage keeping the Evangelion anchored. Shinji realized that the twinkling was light bouncing off its shifting body as another wave of gelatinous orbs rose from the storm and streaked towards them. They traveled too fast for the slow-moving bomber to evade, the transport jarring again as the left wing was peppered with impacts. An unseen blast rattled the frame.

"Hull breach. Left side stabilizer fins are gone." the co-pilot said, voice tight with tension. Their trajectory started to shift. "Engine failure!"

Another salvo slapped the body of Asuka's bomber.

"Drop now – launch, launch!"

From the corner of his eye he saw Unit-02 slip from the railings and sink towards the ground. Shinji, linked with the onboard computer, triggered the release on the right induction lever.

Rack Line Jammed.

"What?" He ticked the release again. The right wing of his craft lilted.

Rack Line Jammed.

"Shinji, eject from the bomber!"

"I can't it's stuck!"

"Shit – hang on back there!" The pilot did what he could to glide them down, but he couldn't have had much control of the thing, not with the left wing torn to pieces. It wasn't long before they entered a spiral – but even then, it took them too long to fall. Shinji had every nerve-wracking moment to witness the black Angel consume his viewport. From the external sound feed he could hear the noise of the remaining engines rising in pitch as they plummeted faster and faster.

There was the start of a scream from the cockpit, and then a blast – like the backfiring of a car. Metal crashed and Shinji pitched forward against his harness. Static buzzed over the viewport, he was weightless, up until the bomber finished its flip. The other wing burst off, an explosion rattling him to the bone. Another impact, he was thrown into the side of the command suite. Voices howled in the LCL.

He wasn't sure when the plane stopped moving, vibrations reverberating in his muscles. One of the right-side panels snow-screened, alerts water-falling on the left side of his HUD. A message still blinked at him in large red letters. Rack Line Jammed.

"Shi-"

"Shinj... hear me?"

He commanded the Evangelion to stand, the internal motors humming as his sync-rate tethered tighter. Invisible strands spiraled from the nerve clips and wove through his brain. Command's transmissions came in just a litter clearer.

"Unit-two attached to mobile power unit. Umbilical secured."

"We've lost visual of Unit-one."

Unit-01 met resistance as it stood, like someone were pushing on his shoulders. He pushed in kind. Part of the bomber crumpled, tearing away from the Eva's back where the railings kept superstructure and torched metal planted to his armor. A hand reached to his left pauldron, only to find the outer casing crushed.

"Prog-knife's out," he said, hoping someone could hear him. A damage report told him the comms tower was crippled too. His pallet rifle was gone, all he had was the Tomahawk. A timer tone sounded and the plug pitched red. Five minutes of power remaining. A cold shard sank into his heart. No back up power supply, stranded in the middle of a thing - an Angel. A fog of phosphorous consumed his vision, illuminated by rolling swells of fire. Unit-01 took a step forward, the armored boot sinking into a black mire. Shinji lifted the other foot, or attempted to, looking back to find it plunging into the body of the Angel.

The comms rippled with static. "The Angel's made contact with Unit-one!"

Black clumps swelled and gripped tight. Shinji launched the back-mounted boosters, tugging on the substance before the shallow fuel cells were gone and Unit-01 smacked into the muck, arms dipping in up to the elbow. Glittering flecks of energy spread outward from the contact points, a screeching wail piercing into the plug.

"Pattern Blue confirmed!"

"I've spread my A.T. field, haven't I?" he said, focusing on the mechanism again. A gauge told him it was at maximum. Unit-01 tugged and jerked, its armor groaning from the strain. "W-what's happening? I can't move!"

"We need to get the pilot out of there, ej"

"No! Those fires are burning at five-thousand degrees. The plug won't be able to survive that if it doesn't land outside the firestorm."

"Can it even clear the Angel's mass?"

"Unlikely."

"Hey! Can anyone hear me?! Misato!"

Unit-01's armor readings sprang up. An integrity warning? It was just the ablative layers, but...

"Shinji, come... you there?"

"Misato?" he said, a shiver in his voice.

"How are his vitals looking?"

"Increased heart rate, otherwise reading green."

"Shinji... you can... to minimal gain mode. We're working on getting Asuka to you."

In the distance he could hear the sharp whine and thump of the positron rolling in rapid succession.

"I don't care if the... get Unit-zero ready, now."

"All batteries, HEAT in effect, danger close."

That was it then, they wanted him to wait. They wanted him to sit there and just...

Unit-01's plug chirped, reminding him again how little power he had left. Shinji triggered the phase-out. Spectrums of color blossomed over the panels, a low moan fading to white noise as the main control circuit powered down.

It wasn't long before he could hear the muffled pounding of 155mm shells hammering the Angel's mass. All else was muted, allowing the plug's soft undertones to come to the surface. They hummed and whirred, each a small part of the Eva's symphony. The thrum of the command suite clicked and chittered. Shinji bore into the plug-depth, dimly lit and punctuated with the point where the seams of metal met. Its rhythmic cadence poured over him, lording over all else.

He couldn't eject. Even if the napalm dispersed, a remnant of the bomber was still latched to Unit-01's back, covering the hatch. Knees to his chest, Shinji slipped his hands over his ears. "God, I hate this," he hissed, pushing his palms flat. The plug's droning lull became louder, enveloping his person, reverberating in his lungs.

Time bled out. Minutes took hours to pass. The digital clock built into his suit became a close friend. He kept it so near he could count each of the pixelated blocks. Somewhere, he found the wherewithal to sit up and bring the Unit out of minimal gain. He couldn't remember how long he'd actually been sitting there.

Deep blue clouds churned above, the horizon dimming with fire-light. The landscape was much as before, but the fires and smoke had cleared – replaced by a fog of debris from artillery. Comms attempted an auto-connect to command.

"Unit-one's... back online."

The connection was so thick with static he had to strain to understand, but it would do.

"Shinji?"

"Misato." He glanced at his timer. "Are you able to reach me?"

Sound only. "No... any mass we burn off grows back quicker. The Commander's ordered an A-17 to be put into effect."

"He's not even here."

A pause. "He's still the Commander."

"He's never here."

"Shinji"

He flicked the conversion switch, terminating the Plug-HUD and all signal transmission. "I don't want to hear it. I hate this thing. I hate this place. Why can't you do anything?" he snarled, shaking the induction levers. Another question rang in his thoughts. But that was far too painful to speak out loud, even if it was just to himself.

Little things plucked at the tiny sensors beneath his skin, tickling like a swarm of ants. They crawled and bit, nesting under his flesh to peel and tug at his nerves. He scratched at the plug-suit, digging to reach the skin beneath and make it stop. Black terrors from his nightmares came, swarming about him as he swung and cut and struggled.

Before he could stop himself, Shinji brought Unit-01 to optimal gain, the timer ticking away once more. He didn't see it. All he knew was that he needed to get out. He needed to fight. To do something – anything but be eaten alive.

Metal strained and he ground his teeth together to fight the pressure tightening his sympathetic bond. In the distance he could hear the reports of a positron rifle again. Had they ever stopped? The hydraulics groaned, strands of the black fluid stretching – tearing. Several snapped, Unit-01's right arm ripped free, trailing bits of mire that still clung to him. Where there had been armor, now there was a melting mesh of circuitry and pale tissue, fibers from artificial muscle exposed from being eaten away at. Shinji snatched the tomahawk from his thigh plating, chopping the high-frequency edge into the Angel. A howl answered him and he brought it over his head for another blow.

Shapes boiled from the surface, gelatinous orbs rising en-masse and streaking towards him. They spattered Unit-01, some of it splashing over the entry hatch. As it did the pieces of the Angel spilled and fell to reunite with the body, the bonded strands pulling his Eva lower.

"Cellular damage increasing!"

"It's transitioned to a biotrophic attack. The Angel is trying to create a mutualistic bond with the Evangelion!"

Unit-01 clawed at its face, tearing the body of Angel from the head casing. More of it lanced out from the mass to latch on to him, tethering him tighter the more he struggled. From the corner of his eye, the timer seemed to pick up speed with every lost second. In just thirty seconds he'd be out of power.

After his first battle, Shinji would wonder – in those still hours between awake and sleeping – what his moment of death would feel like. Would he scream? Would he cry? Would he be overcome with terror or regret? What would his final thoughts be? Staring that moment in the face, he found himself thinking of his mother. Shouldn't she have been there? Shouldn't she have been at his back, there to help him escape this impossible moment?

Someone.

Anyone.

"Stop wasting time, you idiot!"

But it was already too late.


Rei watched an illusionary force play upon the stage at the edge of her toes. Within its square frame, an Evangelion – Unit-01 – succumbed to the will of an Angel. Dark tendrils wrapped around it, ready to make them one. Far from the epi-center, the second Unit attempted to plow its way across the Angel, walking as though through a thick mud. Its positron rifle burrowed deep holes in the body.

A counter in the corner of the screen reached the zero marker.

There was a flare of light – and what appeared to be bright red eyes. Unit-01 struggled against the Angel, pulling at the bonds and ripping their lynching grip. It managed to stand despite the pull, its invader casting more of itself against the machine. Unit-01's eyes glowed, despite having run out of power minutes ago, and its jaw parted. The Evangelion threw its head back and let loose a shrill scream.

Israfel's body shifted, coalescing about the Eva in a swirling torrent of fluid, rising and rising in a cone around the Unit until it resembled a mountain. She became anxious, though she already knew what was about to happen. Another flare of light, a brief flash of veined wings, and bits of the Angel were scattered across the coastline. Unit-01 collapsed forward, catching itself on both hands. It crawled over the smoldering remnants of the Angel's attack in a way reminiscent of a spider.

Its hands dipped into what remained of Israfel, the black substance swirling over the Eva's crippled limbs – becoming the components to replace its flesh and armor. A scream answered it, exciting the Unit further. It crouched low, one hand dipping into the body of the Angel. Its chemistry changed, bent to the will of the berserk Evangelion. Its mass congealed, splitting with cracks and fissures. Blue seeped from the wounds. Unit-01's body began to bloat, bursting out of the armor. Swells of muscle and skin writhed.

"What is the current status of the Unit?" The Commander asked. He tracked the movements of the recording with an intensity she'd never witnessed, or perhaps never noticed. It reminded her of what Shinji looked like when he fought the other boys at school. Was it excitement? Unit-01 snared a handful of the clumping mass, blue blood splashing over its teeth and spilling down its chin as it bit into the ripe flesh.

"Confined to stasis and undergoing analysis," Doctor Akagi said, the display reflecting in her glasses. Unit-01 began ripping at pieces of the Angel.

Fuyutsuki watched. "And the Seventh Angel?"

"Deteriorating at a rapid rate, but we've managed to isolate a few samples."

"Stop the recording," Ikari said, and Unit-01 froze in the middle of gorging itself.

Fuyutsuki squinted. "Was Unit-one allowed to take an S-two engine into itself?"

"It couldn't have." Akagi's eyes shot up to meet his. "This Angel's S-two engine didn't manifest in a structure that would be easy to take advantage of. The fact that it tried is..." Something in her posture changed, a knot of worry removed as quickly as it had come. "Either way, our diagnostics of the Unit didn't turn up anything abnormal."

"Has Captain Katsuragi been debriefed?" Ikari asked, only present enough to dissect his surroundings for information. Rei herself had no need to be there, her presence on the periphery. An afterthought brought about by happenstance. She quirked her head at the display, as if that would give her a better perspective.

"Yes. The report will mention a decoding error in the neural uplink system. A pile-up of negative feedback."

"Very good. Expunge this data. Fuyutsuki, please take care of the rest."

He did not ask about Shinji before departing and she was not ordered to fall in step, feeling herself move as if to follow. The hiss of the door sealing shut left her with a gnawing pit in her stomach.

Akagi came to stand near, waiting. "It's time for your baseline test."

Rei nodded, but was between places. Between thoughts and emotions. He'd opened himself to it, and she pondered if knowing would have helped him. If he had ever needed that. When does a person need help to keep from disappearing? She saw how he watched the others while they were at school, or sitting on the train, or walking down crowded streets. There was something like longing in his eyes, a loneliness. He seemed caught in a stasis, somehow, and the more he occupied her space, the more attuned to it she became.

"The Committee isn't going to like this," the Sub-Commander said, boring into the image at his feet. Her gaze lingered there too, captured by the visage of Unit-01 poised to take another bite from the black heart in its hand. Like the hideous fruit of an unspeakably evil tree.


It was a broken home. Dense mold crept up the foundations, termites making deep burrows in the soft woods. But even they had abandoned it at some point, the place no longer a nourishment as water from rampant, unchecked storms seeped into the cracks and peeled the paint and rotted it to the core. It leaned to one side, perhaps one barreling wind away from toppling. Swells of rushing air whistled through the shattered windows, carrying the faint echoes of stifled sobs. Shinji looked over his shoulder, back into the garden. Her hazy figure remained where it was, and he sensed she wanted him to go inside.

White rocks crunched under his Kloster loafers. They scuffed the wood of the front porch, a paper screen door barring his path, the lining ripped free by a tantrum or mother nature, or perhaps both. He slid it open, allowing him to see a hallway leading to a modest common room. Cicadas buzzed, their pitch rising. A small silhouette, dark from the light of afternoon cast on it from the kitchen window, stood near the hall.

The ceiling of his room was a nice change from the cold, metallic radiance of the Limbic Quarantine Block.

That imagined moment stuck in his mind's eye. It wasn't like the nightmares, which had abated some, now lurking on his periphery. He recalled drowning – disappearing into the Angel - and then there was that home and the shadow he knew. Sleep wouldn't take him, despite the ache of his eyes. He'd had plenty of time to sleep in iso. For days, they'd told him. In debriefing, Deck Officer Mibu said he killed the Angel. He'd won, somehow.

That night, Shinji came home in the musty summer air. After a week the apartment was still a mess, dust creeping ever further over every surface. Particles of it floated in the stagnant artificial light. Misato's door was closed and he checked his phone several times. There were a few meals prepared for him in the fridge, an amalgam of steamed rice and curry noodles. He ate until he felt like throwing up and sat in the bathroom for a while, just in case he did. PenPen, stirring at the sounds of someone about, waddled in and slipped his head under one of Shinji's arms. He scratched the penguin and listened to him coo.

The moment between then and standing in front of her door blurred together. PenPen was down the hall slurping at fish, his bowl scratching the linoleum.

"Is Misato coming home tonight?" He asked. A pale sliding door stared back at him, a black scuff mark at its corner from when he and Misato had grappled over the remote once. Shinji's feet carried him to bed, where he lay fully dressed, waiting for burning eyes to close.

His phone on the nightstand buzzed, and he considered it like one might an overgrown weed on the sidewalk. When had it gone from 1 am to 7? Glancing at the screen, it was not a number he recognized. So he held the thing as it kept to its muffled ring, begging for attention.

After three more rings, he tapped to answer and touched it to one ear. "Hello?"

"Did you just wake up?"

Shinji jerked at the sudden volume. "Yeah – who is this?"

"What do you mean who is this? Who else would call you?"

Of course, it was Asuka. A wrinkle formed on his brow.

"How did you get my number?"

"I asked Misato for it."

"Oh. Okay. What do you want?"

A pause filled the line and Shinji found the strength somewhere to sit up. There was great effort in Asuka's tone. "Kanji. Teach me."

"I'm not going to school today."

"That has nothing to do with what I just said. And why? You're already a week behind because of that dumb quarantine. This is why your grades are terrible–"

He held the phone away from his ear for a minute until it sounded like she had finished. "Did Misato tell you about my grades too?"

"No. Without me to make you put in effort, they always take a nosedive-"

"It's not like I need to know that stuff for Eva."

"-And I've already graduated University, but if I have to go, you have to go. So are you coming or what?"

Shinji had stepped out of his room by this point, feeling the grunge of the past few days layer over him all at once. New smells filled his nostrils, no longer accustomed to the decay around him after so long away.

"Okay, I'll go."

They talked over one another with long pauses here and there as they prepared for the day. He told her which sections she would need to study to start memorizing the correct characters, while she idled him with the past week of gossip at school. He'd never paid much attention to that and resorted to grunted responses, and she let it all spill out in a rush – until it built into an overflowing frustration. She turned it on him, because he was the easiest outlet, and he let her. He was far too tired to feel much of it.

When they met at the corner stop on the way to school, Asuka greeted him by nagging at his state of dress, how ratty his shoes looked, and why he didn't at least comb his hair.

"Is this how you treat people fresh out of the hospital?" he asked as she wrestled to clasp the top button of his shirt.

Asuka offered him a withering look. "No, just you."

Cars squealed to a stop and the cross-walk chirped for them to move forward.

"Where's Zero?" Asuka asked, though didn't sound very curious.

"Don't call her that."

"You won't do anything if I do."

"I could stop talking to you."

"Then shut up already."

They parted at the shoe lockers and Shinji lamented the fact that he could have just stayed home after all. A few new bits of graffiti marred his locker, but there also seemed to have been an effort made at rubbing them away.

Shoho and Kirishima both acknowledged him with a greeting as he entered the classroom, if not a half-hearted one. It stopped him in place for a minute, before he stammered out a greeting in return. Rei was not present. More and more he was beginning to think he had imagined her up until now. She was that specter she had been when they first met, hovering at the Commander's side. Falling in step behind Ritsuko as they embarked into the depths of Dogma - wherever that led.

It was an uneasy thought. The idea of her not being so near.

Cicadas droned. The creeping exhaustion that had been pursuing him into the night finally caught up, and he slept through most of the lessons. All while Aida and Suzahara chucked bits of paper at him, seeing who could land a shot in his mouth.

The whack of a ruler on wood snapped him upright, and peering down at him from slit eyes and enormous bifocals was Nebukawa.

"Ever the enthusiastic academic, Mister Ikari," he said. The afternoon bells rang, saving him from further humiliation. The room began to disperse and someone stuffed a crumple of paper into his bag as they passed. Asuka. She was gone with the crowd and he filed out to the courtyards, streetside bustle echoing up to the school grounds.

Shinji caught sight of her by the western entrance, leaning against one of the walls. A smile splashed her face as she waved to a gaggle of passing girls, who returned the parting gesture with just as much enthusiasm. But only one party was faking it. She held her hand against her school bag.

As she began to walk, he read the note while trailing her at a non-invasive distance – which for Asuka measured about fifty feet.

I'm writing this staring at the back of your bloated head in class. You've been in quarantine for a week. A whole week. And I go out of my way to get your number from Misato, which was humiliating, not that you care. I call you and all you can say to me is 'what do you want?'

Next time you see me don't talk to me.

Had she been upset about that the entire day?

A cross walk held her in place long enough for him to close the distance. Her right hand hung at her side, a bright red showing on her knuckles. Somewhere back at school there was a cinder-block wall marked with a smudge of blood. She would do something like that. Asuka was just the kind of person to hurt herself if it meant keeping tears at bay. He reached out to inspect her hand, but she snatched it away.

"Have you cleaned that?"

She ignored him, face hidden by her hair.

"I have some gauze at home."

Asuka whirled about-face, clamping his nose between thumb and index finger, and twisting until he shoved her hand away. They fumed, perhaps on the edge of something more violent.

She started off again and he caught up to walk at her side.

The trip back to his apartment was sharp with silence, clouded by a sour ache in his nerves. Upon arriving before the flat's door, all at once came the daunting realization that having Asuka over was an awful idea. The place was disgusting, which wasn't so bad when it was just him and Misato. Having others witness to his complacency made it all the more denigrating. His fingers nudged one another at his sides.

"What are you waiting for?" Asuka was leaning against the wall alongside the door, crossed leg bouncing irately. Shinji punched in the access code and stepped inside. He flicked the lights on and greeted the place with a strangled, "I'm home."

Stepping over a fallen trash bag from the pile along the hallway, he found PenPen's fridge occupied as usual. The bird's dwelling was nicer than most of the apartment. Misato took better care of the penguin than herself. His tea mug from that morning was sitting by the sink, half-empty. Dirty dishes piled the basins and the dishwasher was already full to bursting.

Asuka shouldered past him and surveyed the living room. Revulsion crept ever further into her expression.

"Want anything to drink?" he asked.

She considered where he stood in the kitchen, features quieting some as she shook her head and moved on to the sliding glass doors. "This place is a pig sty."

"Yeah," he said, toying with something on the kitchen table to hide his inward flinch. Much like when he lived in Germany, her brooding scrutiny made him feel small, or unworthy.

Space was cleared off on the table by shoving some of the refuse to another corner, bits of it clattering to the floor. When she came back to the kitchen, he opened the first aid kit on the table and motioned for her to sit. She did so and allowed him to take her scuffed hand by the wrist. A yelp was bit down on her lower lip as he touched alcohol to it. She yanked her hand, and he yanked back, jabbing the cotton over the cuts. Her eyes pinched and her toes curled.

When it was cleaned, he wrapped her hand with some gauze and administered bagged ice as was promised. Asuka was barely present for the affair, taking in every speck of detail. Shinji pinched her hand when he was done, which produced an annoyed scowl. It fell away without much else.

Asuka stood to inspect a mish-mash of old notes left on the fridge while he fished around his schoolbag under the table. "What kanji are you having trouble recognizing?"

"There's a few hundred I haven't memorized yet. That and knowing when to use the hiragana and katakana right is… well, it's stupid." Utensils and other objects rattled about as she spoke, cupboards opening and smacking closed in rapid succession.

He poked his head above the table, spying Asuka peering into a pantry cabinet. "What are you looking for?"

"Trash bags. Do you even have any?"

"Under the sink, on the left."

Asuka squatted in front of the sink, throwing the cabinets open and rifling through the contents. Setting aside several cleaning products as she went, at last she snatched a roll of white plastic and stood straight.

"What are you doing?"

She didn't answer him, taking a bag from the roll and ballooning it open. Starting on the counter next to the stove, she shoved empty beer cans, old rice cartons, and month-old newspapers within – pausing when she came across a stack of old lotto tickets.

"Keep, or trash?"

"Uh, trash?" They were all duds from the looks of it. Misato achieved little more than breaking even. When Asuka was done with that section, she took another bag and handed it to him so he could start on the table.

They cleared and itemized the kitchen over the next hour. She would hold an object up for his scrutiny, tilting it like the thumb of an emperor about to decide a gladiator's fate. He found several pairs of Misato's aviators as they ventured into the living room, which he put on and stared at Asuka with until she looked up. She tried and failed not to burst into giggles.

"You are so lame, it hurts."

Shinji allowed himself a satisfied smirk.

After complaining that it was too quiet, Asuka searched the coffee table for the remote. That's where he'd last seen it, at least. In Misato's hands it changed locations every night. He heard her make a triumphant sound, slipping it free from a pile of old bill notices. She mashed a series of buttons in the general direction of the TV, twisting it at angles, then twisting herself.

"How do you work this stupid thing?" She growled when all he did was laugh.

"Advanced Japanese technology."

The remote thwacked into his chest. It was far too funny to hurt much. She tossed her bag aside and refused to do any more cleaning until he turned the TV on. Snatching it from his hand, she flipped channels for a few minutes before settling on some movie about the riots way back when. It was loud and easy to tune out, at first. The longer it stayed on, the harder Shinji found it to keep his attention away. Hordes of students with bamboo pikes and white hardhats charged into a wall of shield police. Flags and banners waved amid the mass, fire belching over the shieldmen as rioters hurled molotovs from the roofs of cars. They answered with hoses mounted to water trucks.

He'd heard of something like this happening on the news the other day, somewhere in Tokyo-2. Asuka took notice and changed the station again, and he pretended not to be intensely annoyed. She bypassed several sports channels.

"No football?"

She shrugged. "I only watched it when you did. It's just a bunch of jocks kicking a ball around. How stupid is that?"

"You're just mad because Dortmund keeps losing to Bayern."

Asuka smarted. He still remembered the game in 2011, and completely rubbing the defeat in her face. She'd knocked him in the groin for it and hadn't spoken to him for a week. Such was the price of victory.

She gestured to their horde of trash bags. "If the apartment was this bad, I hate to imagine what your room looks like."

Shinji mustered some indignation at that. "It's actually pretty clean."

"Which room is yours anyway?" She asked, having wandered over to the hallway. She already knew and, he suspected, had just been biding time for the opportunity to invade his personal space. Shinji hovered near and braced himself as she slid the door open and entered his domain.

Beneath the window was an unmade bed, a sliver of fading purple-blue evening slipping in-between a gap in the drapes. Beside that was a nightstand that doubled as a work table, his schoolbag sitting on the floor next to it. Asuka stepped forward as though setting foot in ruins not touched in centuries, absorbing every detail. By the nightstand where his closet stood ajar, revealing a stack of drawers, were a set of yukata Misato had made him wear for festivals past. Along the walls stretched posters, also from Misato, of old American rock bands she had liked when she was his age. Then nearest the door sat a knee-height dresser where an unused TV collected dust along with other odds and ends.

That was where Asuka stopped. "What are these?" she asked, leaning towards a pill bottle from his collection of empties.

"Just some sleeping pills." He moved to stuff them in a drawer before she could get a good look. She snatched his wrist halfway through the action, ripping the bottle from his fingers with the other.

She glared at the label, then at him. "These aren't sleeping pills, stupid."

"I know."

"So don't lie." She tossed them in the drawer, shoving it closed.

"Sorry," he said.

Asuka went to rifling through some of the drawers and he sat on the floor, deciding this was going to take a while.

"What do you need them for?"

"Nightmares."

"Mm. Me too." Whether to the nightmares or to the pills, she didn't elaborate. She seemed to be looking for something, standing straight and setting her hands on her hips. Her head quirked. "You collect mixtapes now?"

At the far end of the table was a small city of cassette tapes. "Sort of. I know a kid from school whose dad owns a record shop. He's got a shopping cart in the back filled with old tapes he finds." The kid was Shoho and Shinji had not been by their shop since they stopped talking. Otherwise the collection might have grown twice the size.

"You're so weird," she said, undoing all of his organization to rifle through the labels. "What's with the American stuff?"

He crawled over and started picking the stacks apart. "I kind of like how it sounds sometimes."

She kneeled next to him. "Yeah, but you never used to listen to anything except for all of that Japanese pop."

"I had a friend in Germany who liked American country. I guess English kind of grew on me."

"Who?"

"You remember Swina?" He asked, and she answered with a blank look. "Scharnhorst?"

"Ooh, yeah! What the hell, you were friends with him? Why?"

"For a little bit, and because we both started hanging out with Erika."

"Oh, of course."

Plastic clacked as they went through the pile, until Shinji found what he was looking for. "Here," he said, grabbing his SDAT and switching out the cassette. He popped in one ear bud and gave her the other. Electro dance and screeching guitar wailed in their ears.

"Xmal Deutschland?" Asuka asked, bobbing her head.

"Yeah," he said, reading off the back. "Some Nena and Ton Steine, too."

They must have spent hours listening to tapes, shuffling from one to the next in a more rapid fashion than they deserved. A wellspring to parched thoughts. They voted on their favorites, which devolved into heated bouts of argument that died off as they stumbled upon something else they liked.

"This is your old one, right?" Asuka took the cassette where he'd left it on the dresser.

"Yeah, I listen to it all the time, though."

"Well, I don't. It's the one with Miki, right?"

He nodded and clicked it in place. The SDAT began at the last track, 26. Once Again.

Asuka laughed and started to mime the words, and he was content to watch until her foot nudged his ankle, prompting him to join in. They sang together, but he couldn't keep tone. Asuka didn't care. He could forget a while about the Eva, the Angel from his nightmares, and the war over the mountains. They closed their eyes as their shoulders danced, letting the midnight city disappear.


A/N: More Rei next chapter. Promise.