Disclaimer: I don't own Evangelion. This is a parody.
A note about content: While I'm sure this stuff is fairly old-hat for readers of Evangelion fanfiction, I thought I'd specify that this story contains discussion—sometimes explicit, usually not—of sexual assault. Do with that what you will.
A near constant dance of souls, interrupted only by brief sparks of dull sorrow and recognition.
She remembered making cookies, once, with her mother. It seemed like eons ago. Worlds away. Practically a different galaxy now. She remembered making cookies: they rolled the dough out into a single sheet. They sliced shapes—little gingerbread men and women—and, freed from their primordial clay, the cookies hardened and swelled in the oven while she watched. She tugged at her mother's apron—when would they be done? Soon, mein Schätzchen, soon.
But this was cookies in reverse. The gingerbread men and women softened, melded and molded themselves back into clay, and rejoined the thick, undifferentiated mass. The distinctions between each cookie disappeared with pounding and pressing, and soon they were all the same.
Soon, they were not they, but it. You shouldn't be able to reverse entropy—that was a basic tenet of thermodynamics (I explained it to him, once, she remembered) and yet, here they were.
I hate this, Wondergirl. I want to go back. I hate that everyone can see… everything.
Those stupid ruby eyes somehow managed to look smug, even here, even when their souls were interwoven, along with the rest of humanity. Save one soul, whose absence she had noticed almost immediately.
But there's no pain here. No sorrow. Nothing to divide you from others.
But that's just it. I want those things.
You want to feel pain?
My whole life has been pain. It just doesn't feel right otherwise.
The placid stare didn't even blink.
That was a joke. Kind of. I'm not sure I believe that the boundaries between souls have broken down if you didn't even get that.
I got it. It just wasn't very funny.
She didn't realize it, of course, but she was the only soul in all of humanity's primordial soup to feel rage. The entire human race gave a gentle shudder.
You know he left.
You know who I mean.
I don't care. I don't want to see him.
Shut up. Let's cut to the chase. The part where you let me out.
Even after what he did to you—and what you did—
I don't want your pity, okay? I just want out of this. Let me out, Wondergirl.
Finally, the red eyes widened. Then narrowed. This felt—warm. Somewhere inside. Or outside. It wasn't like she had a body anymore.
Why did you think I was pitying you? I'm relieved.
Shut up, okay? I just want to go back. I don't care what happened. I do care, but I want to go back. Let me go back.
It's not up to me, Asuka. Every soul here can return if they want to.
Then I'm out. Seriously. Cool experiment, but I'm done with you, I'm done with NERV, I'm done with this Instrumentality bullshit, I'm done.
But you're not done with Ikari.
You know he's alone.
I said, shut up—
She pressed forward and reached the crux of her thesis.
You know, Asuka, that he's got no one else and the idea of being everything to someone, even someone who betrayed you—
Rei, please, please, I'm asking you to shut up. Please. Don't be cruel.
Take care of him, then. And yourself.
Asuka felt—like Asuka again. Even as she talked to Rei—still an outgrowth of the swirling miasma of disintegrated human consciousnesses—she felt the comforting return of absences: suddenly, the myriad lives and experiences and sorrows and joys all around her were distant cries. And then, they fell silent.
"Rei," Asuka asked, and she gave a soft gasp when she heard her voice—her own voice—once more. "Can I ask one last question?"
The eyes softened. Was she going to cry? Which one of them was crying? Maybe both?
"Are you God?"
I… don't know.
"It sounds like that's a no, then. Since you're not omniscient and all that. By definition."
I think the truth is more complicated and frightening than that, Asuka.
She would have liked to ask Rei more. Finally, she got the blue-haired doll to open up a bit, even if it took the world ending and humanity collapsing inward on itself to do it. She'd studied philosophy once upon a time—it really hadn't been that long ago, had it? Didn't Nietzsche have a part about this? Vielleicht sollen sie auf Deutsch diskutieren—
The discussion would have to wait, however, because in that moment, Asuka realized she was real, once more. She had a body. Her body ached. Everything ached. And the hands around her neck, the thumbs digging into her windpipe, the sweaty palms crushing the muscles of her throat—they ached most of all.
That bastard. That idiot. His stupid face. She reached for it. She wanted to speak to him—scream at him, tell him to go to hell, tell him to kill himself, tell him how badly she hated him, how irredeemably he'd broken her. That he'd choke her, but he wouldn't hold her—but she had no breath with which to speak.
Instead, her hand moved as if on its own. It found his cheek and she rested it there. It was a small thing, but the warmth of his flesh, the softness of his skin… After feeling nothing for who knows how long, it was practically a feast. His grip went slack and a soft trickle of air wormed into her lungs.
His head bowed. Crying. Sobs. Idiot, she thought. It's just like you to make this all about you.
"I feel gross," she muttered. Wondergirl's stupid face—half of it, at least—smirked at them. Or at nothing in particular. From across the sea of LCL. Maybe coming back hadn't been such a great idea.
She shoved him with her good hand and started to lean forward. A strangled gasp of pain spilled out of her chapped lips.
"Shinji, help me."
He kept crying. Idiot—what was this all for, then?
"Did you go deaf in there?" she scowled. "My body is all messed up. Help me up. Quick. Come on. We're not in that kitchen anymore. This is real. Just help me."
Still, the tears. She'd have to do everything herself, like always. His forehead rested against her belly, quaked with each sob, and she managed to swat him, seizing a fistful of hair.
"Shinji, you idiot, help me stand up." She licked her lips but everything was dry. "Listen, I'm gonna' be sick. Sick. You get it?"
She saw understanding in his pink eyes. He took hold of her and she shuddered—not from the pain—but his touch was light as he pulled her to her feet.
"Good. Help me over to the shore."
He obeyed, wordless as he shifted her good arm around his shoulders. He started to put an arm around his waist.
"Um, like this? Is this okay?"
"It's fine," she grunted.
"Asuka, I'm sorry. I'm so, so, so sorry. I'm so sorry. I know—I know there's nothing I can do—"
"Shut up. I didn't come back to this—literally—god-forsaken world—just to hear you apologize."
"I know but…"
"We'll talk about it later." They had reached the water's edge. Not water, she reminded herself, with grim pleasure. The souls of all humanity.
In shaking spurts, she sank to her knees and leaned forward.
"I hate all of you," she whispered to the entire human race, and vomited. It was bile—Rei apparently hadn't seen fit to recreate her with a full stomach, though she had made sure to include the almost-fresh wounds and—and—and—the thing growing inside her
"Shinji," she sputtered. "Don't just stand there. Hold my hair."
She felt his fingers slide through her hair. Gentle. She hated how gentle he was being. As if he might break her. As if he hadn't already. As if he hadn't done what she'd done, once, that night months ago—
Again, and again, and again, she puked, till her throat screamed. Her entire being was pain and nausea.
"This last one is for your dad, Shinji," she muttered and pitched forward one last time. "I think I got him."
"Sorry if I got your mom too. Or my mom. Or Misato. Maybe I hit Rei—that's okay."
"I'm sure Ayanami will forgive you."
She held up her arms.
"I can't walk just yet. Up."
He was all too quick to oblige. He squatted, threaded his arms under her knees. He had trouble standing back up, though, and she pushed them forward with her good arm as she pressed in with her weight. That still didn't work, so she used her legs to push off and then, with a quick little leap, wrapped them around her waist.
Shinji didn't question how she could manage that maneuver while being unable to walk, and she wasn't about to defend it.
She rested her chin in the crook of his neck. Smelled the sweat and the coppery tinge of blood still clinging to their skin. Almost let her lips touch his ear.
It was a long way to walk to find somewhere that had resisted the tides of LCL. A few times, Shinji had stopped in front of an apartment building or a house and Asuka had nixed it—didn't look clean, she'd say, or didn't look sturdy. He wasn't sure he agreed with her, but even though his arms ached from carrying her, he didn't feel like he was in any position to argue with her.
Not after what he'd done to her.
Three sins, all intertwined. There were more, of course, but those felt like part of the tapestry of their relationship, whatever it had been. Those sins hadn't torn the tapestry itself like these had.
Moving backwards in time—choking her, of course. She'd mentioned the kitchen—so she'd seen it too, in there. Maybe he could play it off that he thought they were still there, in the lake, in the hell custom-built for two. But that wasn't entirely the truth. Part of it, sure—but some other part of him suspected, even knew that they were free, and that same part knew what came next. The talking. The accusations. The crying. The blame. The guilt. The pain. Everything that came with knowing other people. And his reaction had been…
The second sin, no matter which way you approached it, was one of inaction. He knew what had happened that day, and even though her body had been put back together, her scars hadn't healed. He'd seen the memory, while in the lake, replayed in her mind—all of humanity's mind now—over and over, felt the pain of being ripped to shreds by the mass-produced monsters. He could have stopped it. He'd ignored her cries. Or, rather, he had tried not to hear them.
Because of the first sin. The original sin. The sin where he locked the door to her hospital room. Hoisted himself on top of her. Kissed her sleeping lips and dared her to wake up and see what he was doing to her. Ached for it, if only she would react to him. If only she'd prove he weren't alone.
But she hadn't. He couldn't even find tears as he'd cleaned her up, as best he could, rearranged her pillow and covered her. Wiped her off, first with his hand, and then a wash cloth. He'd thought of throwing himself out the window right then, but he hadn't even had the courage for that.
And she knew all of this. He'd expected her hatred, but somehow, this tenderness cut even worse. When he felt himself reaching pits of despair he hadn't even imagined, even in the darkest days and nights of piloting the Eva, he found her arms holding him tighter. As if—instructing him. This is what I wanted, idiot, she seemed to be saying with her mutilated limbs.
"We could always go back to Misato's," he said, finally. The sun—as it were—seemed to be setting. Would the electric grid still be operational? Maybe—so much was automated these days. As if the architects and urban planners rebuilding after Second Impact had predicted this.
"We might as well," she said. "Our stuff is there. I want to change out of this thing."
The plug suit. There was a time when she had been so proud to wear it. The artificial skin that still transmitted her warmth, even though he was the last person in the world to deserve it. And now—a useless, sticky remembrance of a time that would never come again. A second placenta, he realized, and he was about to point that out to her when he realized she was still talking.
"…weird without people around," she mumbled. "Why did we come back? I thought others would too. Soon."
"I don't know."
"Why did you come back?"
"Don't you know?"
"To carry me around for the rest of my natural life in penance?"
He winced and she jabbed him with her elbow.
"You're getting off easy, Third Child."
"I know I am. I still feel bad."
"Idiot. You should, though."
"Don't worry. I do."
"You were really, really dumb, you know. If I'd been awake—"
He winced again and she seemed to waver before plunging forward. He expected a dagger to the heart but instead—
"I would have been okay with it, you know. That's what makes you so stupid. If you'd just—tried, a little…" His head drooped and he felt her swallow hard by his ear. "But, I mean, I understand. I'm pretty insufferable. No one loves me. You're really getting what you deserve, you know? Stuck on a dead planet with me and only me. I've been living it for almost fifteen years and it's hell."
"Asuka," he whispered. "Don't talk like that. I don't hate you."
"Yes," she whispered back, as if they were sharing a secret. "You do. And I hate you. But I hate myself most of all, so in a way, you're my favorite person." She leaned her head back and Shinji heard a soft chorus of sharp cracks as Asuka grunted. "Isn't that sick?"
"If it helps, I feel the same way."
"I don't think I hate you at all, actually, but—myself—I don't know if I can ever love myself," he said as they turned onto the silent block where they'd lived for those few months that somehow felt like lifetimes ago. "I think I hate myself right now. Maybe I will forever. But I don't hate you at all."
"That's the nicest thing anyone's ever said to me."
"That's impossible. You were always so great."
Shinji felt her grip tighten.
"Don't say that, please."
"But it's true! You're so smart, and you worked so hard. And in the end you…" Shinji stopped. Of course, her greatest victory was also her most painful defeat. Maybe I really am as stupid as she says I am, he thought with a sad little sigh.
One piece of luck shone through for both of them: they had arrived at the apartment block. When Shinji tapped in the key code, the doors clicked open. The lights in the lobby flickered now and then, but otherwise…
Everything was the same.
"We're home," they said in unison, stepping into the tiny apartment. They waited for a moment.
"Somehow, I thought Misato might be here," Shinji said.
"Whatever happened to her?"
"You didn't see?"
"I guess I missed it. It was hard to see any one thing at once in there."
"They shot her. While she was trying to get me to Unit One. To save you."
Shinji watched her nostrils flare. He helped her to sit down at the dining room table—the one he'd overturned, in their mutual dream.
"I'm glad you made her death worth it."
"I know. I'm sorry."
"Don't apologize unless you mean it. Unless you're going to change. Do you get it? That's what pisses me off the most about you."
"I know. I'm sorry."
Shinji hung his head. He noticed Asuka recoil and their eyes met. Suddenly, they were both laughing.
"I seriously thought you were going to do it for a second."
"There you go again."
"I promise I won't choke you again."
"Well, that makes me feel better," Asuka murmured. "Misato really deserved better. She gave us everything, didn't she? I was such a bitch to her."
"I wasn't much better."
"You cooked for her. You tried to take care of her. Both of us. You were more of a housewife than she or I could ever be. I was just…"
"You really didn't see any of it? When she died?"
"Like I said."
"She kissed me," Shinji said, tucking his hand behind his head. "And told me she'd show me the rest when it was all over."
He watched her lips form a sneer and then soften.
"That means she knew she was dying."
"I bet you would have preferred her here. Over me. Maybe she'll wake up out of the ooze and come to you and you two can kick me out on the street and have a little slice of heaven all to yourself."
"Or she'll be so disgusted with me that she'll kick me out and you'll both starve to death."
Two tired sets of eyes met once more.
"Mein Gott, but we're really screwed up."
Before Shinji could say anything, a chorus of frantic squeals came from the other room, growing louder and louder until, finally, the chorus leader—a squat bird flapping its useless wings as if trying to catch a taxi on a rainy Tokyo evening—found them.
"Pen-Pen!" Asuka gasped. "You're alive!"
The bird flung itself towards her and heaved itself into her lap. She squeezed his belly and he honked, glowering at Shinji.
"I wonder how long he was alone. It makes sense that animals didn't disappear too, doesn't it?"
"It feels like he didn't lose much weight," Asuka said, squeezing him again.
"Well, he can get into the fridge by himself. And I think Misato went shopping the day before—it all happened."
Asuka leaned back and winced. "Everyone had plans. Even Misato. She really thought up until the end that we might come back and all have dinner together."
"Maybe. Or maybe she was trying to fool herself. I wouldn't put that past her. None of us were doing well at the end."
"The sick thing," Asuka said, stroking Pen-Pen's head. "Is that it wasn't the end. Your dad really fucked everyone."
He couldn't disagree with that. Asuka set Pen-Pen down and the bird began to waddle over to the fridge.
She leaned forward on the table, resting her weight on her elbows. Her face shone in the scarlet twilight—moist with sweat and LCL, her one whole eye devouring him, an angry goddess come down from heaven to make things right on Earth. Beauty wasn't the word for it—sublime, perhaps?
"I haven't forgiven you. I just wanted you to know that."
"I didn't think you had. I don't expect you to. I know there's nothing I can—"
"Shut up. I'm not done."
"Remember what I said about that?"
"You're doing that on purpose now. Shut up and listen. I don't forgive you. I shouldn't forgive you. But I might, because I'm an idiot too. But if you want me to forgive you, and there's still only a .0001% chance of that ever happening, even if you do everything right, but if you want that chance, then listen: you're my slave. For the rest of your life. You do what I say. You help me. You're here for me. Not that it'll be hard if we're all that's left, but you never look at another woman. You don't even think about another woman. I'm all you have. I'm all you live for. Got it?"
Shinji felt dizzy. Light. He reached for her hand and she took it, squeezed it.
"We're not back in the kitchen, Shinji. I'm real. You're real. This is what I want. You hurt me worse than anyone else ever has. Ever will."
"I know. I'm sorry."
"Then prove it."
"'Asuka, I'm yours, forever and ever, till the end of time.'"
"Asuka, I'm yours, forever and ever, till the end of time."
"'No matter how fucked up you are.'"
"But I don't think you're fucked up. Really—I think this is a reasonable response to—"
"Say it, idiot."
"No matter how fucked up you are."
"'I'll be your slave, I'll do whatever you want, and my only concerns shall be for your happiness, impossible though it may be.'"
"I'll be your slave. I'll do whatever you want. And, uh, my only concerns shall be for your happiness, impossible though it may be."
She took a deep breath and released his hand.
"I'm even more pathetic than you are."
"Asuka, I don't think you're pathetic."
"What a pathetic thing to say. You don't pity me?"
"No! I—I feel bad. For what I did. I pity myself, but not you."
"Do you think I should feel bad? For what I did to you? That time?"
He cocked his head to the side. "What do you mean?"
How could he not know?
"It's fine. Never mind. Just don't let your self-pitying get in the way of serving me."
He managed a slight smile. "Whatever you want, Asuka. Can I, uh, get you anything?"
"Good question. Yes, you can. I'm going to take a shower. Then, I'll need stuff for wound care. Antiseptic. Something to numb the pain. Bandages and gauze. Petroleum jelly. Stuff like that."
"I can go to the pharmacy down the street. It might be locked, but I don't think anyone will care if I break in."
"Good boy," she said. She took a breath and heaved herself to her feet. Shinji started to reach for her but she waved his hands away. "It's fine. I can do it."
She only grimaced once or twice while crossing the room. All without his help.
"Um, my body."
In spite of everything, his cheeks went red. He looked to see if she was making fun of him but her gaze was locked on the floor.
"What about it?"
"It's gonna' be different now. You saw it, right? In the hospital?"
"Good. If you, uh, ever see me naked, I want you to remember that, instead of what it looks like now, okay?"
"Asuka, I'm sure—"
"Shinji," she growled. "What was our agreement?"
He bit his tongue and nodded.
"I'll, uh, remember that, instead."
"And we'll pretend that's what I look like, instead."
"We'll pretend. It'll be no different."
She stripped off the plug suit like peeling the skin off an over-ripe fruit. It didn't hurt, much, but the sight of it, watching the suit tug at her sticky wounds, that was far worse than any pain. Asuka watched her body reveal itself, inch by inch, and she only realized she was crying when she saw tears dripping onto one of the long, angry red scars that ran the length of her gut.
They were healing. They had almost fully healed. But they were still tender to the touch. Her arm, her legs, her stomach, and her chest were all slick with plasma, pink with LCL. Scars throbbing now that the plug suit was gone.
She should have checked that the hot water still worked. She said a silent prayer of thanks—to Rei?—when she stuck her hand under the water and found it nearly scalding. Perfect.
The washcloth between her lips didn't taste like anything until she bit down hard on it, and caught a chunk of her lip in her teeth. Blood, now. But that was fine. It was just a little and it took her mind off the searing pain coursing along her flesh. She closed her eyes, sighed into the wash cloth to keep from screaming, and drained soap over her body.
Now, she was all pink. She wrapped herself in a towel and found Shinji returning.
"I'm back—ah, Asuka, I'll just leave the stuff here," he started to say when he saw her. He turned his head, a well-timed, well-honed pivot. She glanced down at her form—most of the scars were covered by the towel, but he could see how mutilated her arm was. Even her shins and feet.
"No, it's fine. Come here. I need your help."
"Okay." His voice trembled. Ach, Shinji, right now I need a Mensch, she thought. He began to unload the pharmacy bag.
"I, uh, got everything you asked for. And new toothbrushes, since I don't know how long it's been. And you didn't even use yours for the last month, uh…"
"Shinji, I meant in the bathroom. I can't put this stuff on myself. It hurts to stretch and twist. Okay?"
"Okay. Yeah. Yeah, okay."
She took a deep breath. It felt good to fill her lungs with steam. He joined her in the bathroom and she put her hands on the edge of the towel.
"Remember what I said. About—pretending."
She slid the towel down and squeezed her eyes shut. She didn't trust the pity not to bloom on his face. She didn't care, now, if he saw her. He'd already seen it. But to see disappointment on his face—pity—she'd throw up again if she saw that.
"Wow, Asuka," he whispered. She heard him gulp and she gritted her teeth.
"What? What is it?"
"Sorry. It's just—you're really, really beautiful." Their breathing seemed to alternate, waiting for the other to take a breath before inhaling.
Don't push it, idiot, she wanted to say, but he wasn't done.
"Seriously, Asuka, I'm not pretending. I've always thought so. This doesn't change anything."
She bit hard into the raw slice of her lip to keep from crying. She searched his words, his voice, but could find no trace of deception. If he was pretending, he was doing a damned good job of it.
"Well, fine. Lucky for you then," she said, finally, and opened her eyes. Her eye, really. He reached for the bandage over her face.
"Why didn't you take this one off?"
"It… it hurt too much. The tape is in my hair."
"Do you want me to try?"
His fingers were so long. Soft, slender twigs. She flinched as he touched her, some hardwired reaction that she tried to kill but couldn't. He smiled thinly.
"Sorry—I'll be gentle."
She watched his face as he worked the tape off her hair. The concentration and seriousness drawn tight over the face she was so used to seeing look—sad, tired, bored, pitiful in every possible way.
"How's it look?" she asked once he peeled the bandage down, wincing yet again as it grabbed at skin.
"Not too bad—can you open it?"
"Here," he said, and wet a cloth. He wiped at it for a few seconds. "Try now."
Her eye fluttered open, as if by magic, and there he was.
"Your eyes," he said. "They're really pretty."
"I know," Asuka murmured, and snatched the wash cloth from him. She ran it over her face and looked at it—a little blood but not much. Without a word, they both turned to the mirror: the flesh around her eye was mottled pink with burns, and a deep gouge in her eyebrow shimmered wet. But her eye itself was fine.
He set to work on the wounds. Occasionally, it stung. Mostly, she felt nothing. She opened her eyes to see him, crouched and bent in concentration, his face mere inches from her hips. She hated how gentle he was, or wanted to hate it—how, if he tried, he could ensure that she felt no pain. His fingers were so delicate, so skilled, playing her wounds like the cello. Even though he wasn't a doctor, his fingers seemed to know how to help.
He knew how to help her, how to relieve her agonies, and so often, he simply hadn't.
The torn, ruddy flesh before him glistened with jelly now. He dabbed it on, as gently as he could, somehow containing himself. Once upon a time, being this close to Asuka, his face practically pressed into her buttocks as he treated a long, jagged scar that ran the length of her leg and crossed over the plumpness of her thighs onto her lower back, he would have shut down from embarrassment.
But this world only barely felt real. She needed this, here, in this world, and he owed it to her to help her without succumbing to a nosebleed.
Besides—even thinking about her that way made him sick with guilt. Calling her beautiful was one thing—it was the truth, as far as he was concerned, but it also seemed to be what she needed, then, at that moment. A salve for scars hidden from his eyes. But to think about her in that way, after what had happened… No, after what he'd done.
"I bet," Asuka said, cutting the silence as she eased her legs apart to let him treat a wound on her inner thigh. "You're getting off on this. My nubile naked body. All helpless and splayed open for you."
He bit his lip hard to keep from crying.
"No—not really," he said.
"You're lying. You said you liked my body."
"I do. I mean, I think you're beautiful but—I'm not thinking about you like that."
"Because you already got to try it so you're not interested."
"No! No, I mean, I just feel bad. And I feel bad that I'm the only one here who can take care of you. You don't want that, do you? I wouldn't blame you if you never wanted to see me again."
"Idiot," she whispered after a few moments. "You're still a man, aren't you? You aren't imagining how much I might be enjoying a man's hands on me?"
"Asuka," he said. He closed his eyes and leaned his forehead against the small of her back. "What are you doing?"
"I don't know."
He finished and taped gauze to the most egregious wounds. Asuka hobbled to her room, and while she dressed, Shinji made dinner. He could hear her muttering to herself, sifting through clothes, cursing in German, even throwing things but when she emerged, she was smiling. She wore a pale blue skirt, and a sweatshirt he'd never seen, with Latin letters emblazoned over the chest—Universität Wittenberg.
"It was hard to find something to wear with these stupid bandages, but this is kind of cute, isn't it?" she said, and spun around, flinging the skirt up an inch.
"What's it say on your sweatshirt?" Shinji asked. A shadow passed over her face—should he have complimented the skirt?
"Can't you read it? You know some English. German's not that different."
He tried to sound it out, and after a few tries, she took pity on him.
"Universität Wittenberg—that's where I went to university. In Germany. I never wore this sweatshirt because it always seemed like summer here, but it seems like the seasons are coming back. It was colder today than I remember it being."
"That's right. I wonder if something about Third Impact changed things back to how they were." Noodles sizzled in the wok as Shinji whipped tofu and soy sauce into the pan. "I remember my mother telling me about the different seasons…"
Asuka grunted. That's right. Mothers were probably an off-limits topic with her.
"I always forget that you graduated university," Shinji continued. He glanced over his shoulder to see her sitting down, watching him from the dining room table. His shoulders tensed for a second, remembering that horrible dream, but her head wasn't bowed—she looked at him, and she didn't seem mad. "There's really a lot I don't know about you, Asuka."
"Maybe I'd like to keep it that way, Third Child."
His shoulders slumped.
"I guess I don't blame you."
He divided the noodles between two bowls. The produce in the fridge had gone bad, and he started to apologize that there wouldn't be any fresh vegetables but the look on Asuka's face told him she wouldn't want to hear it.
"Let's eat," he said softly. She said nothing, merely dipping into the noodles and piloting them to her mouth.
"I hope it's okay," he tried again.
Finally, he couldn't resist any longer—
"I'm sorry we don't have any fresh vegetables—"
"How could that possibly be your fault?" Her voice grabbed him by the throat and he sputtered.
"I just mean…"
He bowed his head.
"Just be nice to me."
"I am nice to you."
That was from—when they were in that place. He looked up at her to see her mouth dropping open. The look of hatred he'd expected was absent—she was… startled. Eyes wide. Lip trembling. She dropped her chop sticks into the bowl and he let loose a little yelp when she reached for his hand. If that had surprised him, the way his fingers responded to the warmth without question, intertwining them with hers, caught him even more off-guard.
"We're really the last two people on Earth who should be the last two people on Earth," he said.
They finished in silence. Asuka wouldn't let go of his hand. Finally, he eased his fingers away to clean up but she caught him again.
"Hey," she said. She wasn't smiling, but there was something in her eyes like a grin. "Let's go get drunk and kill this thing inside of me."
There was a basement bar a block from their building. They had both walked by it far too many times to count—the kind of sleazy place bored-looking women in short dresses always seemed to be waiting outside of. Misato mentioned once that she'd gotten kicked out of, and Shinji even remembered Ritsuko teasing her about it. In other words, it was the perfect place to drink yourself stupid post-apocalypse.
The door was unlocked. Most doors were, it seemed. They exchanged knowing looks.
"It must have been open when Third Impact happened," Asuka wondered aloud as Shinji eased the door open. A thick cloud of dust gasped about them as they stepped inside. Briefly, she wondered if this was a terrible, horrible mistake: the bar was littered with damp clothes, the remnants of the last patrons. Half-evaporated drinks stood bearing lonely witness to the end of the world. The entire place smelled vaguely of fruit juice and syrup.
Shinji glanced back at her and whatever the face she had been making, she replaced it with a resolute frown.
"What are you waiting for, idiot? I said I wanted you to make me a cocktail and Misato only had cheap beer!"
"You don't think it's—creepy?"
"Everything's creepy. There's no where we can go that won't be like this. Did you think I just wanted to sit at home with you all night?"
Somehow, even as she said it, the way she phrased that made her blush. Home. Why did that word taste so odd?
Shinji stepped behind the bar. He brushed the dust away from a few bottles and coughed.
"Um, I don't really know anything about cocktails, Asuka."
"Fine. Then, I'd like to start with a good German beer."
"Um," he said, squatting down and digging into a fridge. "There's… Heineken."
"Dummkopf! That's not German. It's Dutch."
"What's the difference?"
She rose on her heels, over the bar, only to see him grinning at her. She snatched the green bottle out of his hand, and then gave it back when she realized she had no opener. He poured two bottles and they raised their glasses.
"In German, you say 'Prost!' for cheers," she instructed. "Eins, zwei, drei…"
Asuka had only had beer a few times, but she wasn't about to let Shinji know that. The flavor—crisp, malty, but too bitter—almost made her gag, but she forced a gulp down, and then another, and by the time her glass was halfway drunk, she'd started to enjoy the taste.
"You're—drinking that fast."
"I guess Misato rubbed off on me."
"You'll make yourself sick if you drink too fast," he tried one last time. A withering look was her only reply. "But that's what you're trying to do."
"Obviously. And you're getting sick with me." She tipped the rest of the beer back, with a few steady gulps and let out a mighty belch. She hadn't been expecting that, but she found she rather liked the stunned expression on Shinji's face. "Next. Surprise me."
A dust bound book caught Shinji's eye. He palmed it open, squinted in the dim light, and found the table of contents. The first recipe was complicated, but it seemed impressive and sophisticated—something she'd like. A quick perusal of the bottles behind the bar revealed that he had all the ingredients at hand.
"Okay—give me a moment," he said, taking another gulp of his beer. Asuka watched him work. He brought care to what he did, treating it like piloting an Eva or playing the cello or making her dinner. Three things, she reminded herself, that he did exceedingly well. Would this be a fourth?
No. Thinking like that was dangerous.
Why, she asked herself, was it dangerous?
Because it would be so easy to end up hating one another. You should really hate him, for what he did to you. And if he doesn't hate you now—he will before long—because everyone, Asuka, everyone ends up hating you. Why would he stay in this world, heavy with guilt, with you? He could plop back into that lake of souls and merge with Wondergirl and never feel anything and you'd be all alo—
"Okay, Asuka," Shinji chirped. "Try it."
A glowing purple drink stood before her. She eyed it like the secretion of some ancient beast, resurrected for treachery.
"What am I looking at?"
"It's called an Abi—Avi—Aviash—"
"That's it. My English is rusty."
"You didn't poison me, did you?" She raised the drink to her lips. There was something witchy and beautiful about the amethyst pond, which seemed to move in its glass as one, leaving no traces of itself behind.
"N-no! I know it looks weird, but it says here the ingredients are usual. 'Crème de violette' and gin…"
"Gin," she said, swirling it once last time. "Like a martini."
"I guess. I don't really know much about alcohol. I've had sake at funerals and I swiped a beer from Misato once or twice but that's it. Until tonight."
As she spoke, she took a sip. How could something taste so smooth—so bitter and sweet at once? She let it play on her tongue for a second before swallowing.
"You stole beer from Misato?" she choked. "Why didn't you tell me? That would have made living with her way more fun."
"Well, it was only a few times and I didn't really like it that much. And I didn't think you'd want to do that." He scratched his head like a little boy admitting to some minor wrong doing—which, now that she thought about it, was exactly what he was. "Hang out with me, like that. And drink."
"We hung out all the time at home," she said and took another sip. And another. "We watched TV and played video games and read…"
"But we didn't really do any of that stuff together. We read manga and stuff, but side by side and we didn't really talk. Or we argued over what we'd watch and you always won. Or I watched you play video games. When I did things with Touji and Kensuke… We, you know, talked about them and did them together. Camping and stuff." Something on her face must have scared him because he added, almost immediately: "Sorry."
"Idiot," she scowled. "You could have… said something. I didn't exactly have a normal childhood. If I was weird—it was probably because I wasn't used to spending a lot of time with someone."
"It's okay. Really. I didn't mind."
"No, you brought it up, so you clearly did mind!" she said, voice rising. "If you had just told me, maybe I could have fixed and maybe we could have—" Something caught in her voice. She frowned, forcing the tremble in her lip to cease, and pressed the rim of the cocktail glass to her mouth. Cool ethanol oblivion washed over her tongue.
He took another sip of his beer, and then a gulp. He burped behind his hand and opened another bottle.
"It would have been nice, right?" he ventured. "If we had been friends."
"God knows Wondergirl wasn't great company. Hikari was great, and your idiot friends were okay, but it's not like they understood."
"Ayanami had it rough," he countered. "I don't think she knew what to make of things until the very end. They really kept her in the dark about everything they were doing."
"But she didn't have to be so—so—smug. Even now, I feel like she's smirking at me. Like she knows something I don't."
"She probably does. Not that it matters."
Asuka finished her drink, and Shinji made her another. Drunkenness was descending, and it felt wonderful—a warm coat that made her impervious to anything and everything she might say. He might say. Anything.
"We could have been friends," she repeated, nodding. He nodded too.
"We should have been friends."
"I would have liked that."
"Obviously, idiot! You must be really brain dead. I was—" And here, she pulled the cloak of alcohol tight around her vulnerable flesh. "—flirting with you all the time. I thought you weren't interested." She let the words settle on his stunned face. "I thought you liked Wondergirl more."
"You're making this up. What about—what about—the 'impenetrable wall of Jericho' and all that stuff?"
"Shinji," she said, setting her glass down. "Do you know what's so special about the wall of Jericho?"
"Um—it's really strong and—impenetrable?"
"So they thought. But, in scripture, God helps the Israelites…"—and here she made sure to emphasize each syllable—"…PEN-E-TRATE it. It falls. That's what people know about it."
Shinji hung his head. Asuka couldn't help but giggle.
"And thermal expansion? Do you think I really cared about your grades? Do you think if I did, I'd be explaining things to you with my tits? Or what I'd 'accidentally' fall into bed with you?"
"I thought that was just—how you were."
"And I thought you were a normal, healthy teenage boy and you'd try something." She sighed. "I guess you did. Just not when I needed it."
"I'm sorry. I—I—I can't believe how badly I screwed up, Asuka."
"I don't want to hear it. It just sucks."
"We could have been something." There was something wet in his eyes that she focused on, even though she wanted to look away.
"I would have liked that, Asuka. I was—so lonely and confused. I just thought you couldn't possibly be interested in me."
"That's your problem," she said, thrusting her drink at his face. "You can't even imagine being loved by someone else, so you don't even consider that someone else might need your love!" As soon as she said it, she wanted to take it back. If she could have, she would have gathered up the words that had come tumbling out of her lips and force them back down her gullet but words spoken can't be unheard. This was another entropy you couldn't reverse.
Shinji seemed, suddenly, very interested in the bubbles dancing in his beer. She was about to yell at him, probably forbid him from pitying her, when he interrupted the panicked thoughts forming themselves into words in her mind.
"We could have been in love."
Whatever he could have said at that moment—nothing could have cut like that.
"Yeah. We could have."
"We could have been there for each other."
"Throughout the entire stupid Third Impact. Nerv. Human Instrumentality. Everything my dad was doing. It would have been so different if I'd had someone to—to—rely on."
"Mein Gott, Shinji, think about it," she said, leaning forward, smiling. "If we'd been in love. We would have been unstoppable."
"You think so?"
"Oh, obviously! The one time my Synch rate was perfect was when I, uh, realized that my mother was with me, you know. I think the big flaw in the EVA project was who they found to pilot them. They really found the most screwed up kids possible, didn't they? If we'd been in a loving, supportive relationship the whole time…" She mimed a rocket taking off with her drink in tow. "Synch rates through the roof. We'd have kicked every Angel's ass, no questions asked. You'd have saved my ass when SEELE came after NERV. And then, we would have crushed NERV, SEELE, and the UN."
"The UN too?"
"Definitely. Definitely the UN too. Because then we'd take over the world. Think about it, Shinji. The EVAs are practically gods. We would have been invincible. We could have averted all of this and made sure peace and prosperity reigned forever and ever." Understanding flashed on his face and he gave her the saddest smile she'd ever seen anyone make.
"When you put it that way—I almost believe we could have done it."
"You bet your ass we could have. We would have been unstoppable."
"We could have been in love," he repeated.
"But, now," she said and finished her drink. She knocked her knuckles against the bar. "We never will be. Next."
The night deteriorated rapidly after that.
"Here, look," she said, dabbing a drop of maraschino syrup onto her cheek and tucking the bottom two thirds of her hair into her sweatshirt. "Who am I?"
Shinji's eyes wavered for a second.
"And now who am I?" She mussed up her hair, pushing some of it forward over her face, and drew her lips thin and straight. She stared at Shinji, unblinking.
"Right! You do one."
As if in a daze, he searched the bar. A huddled mound of clothing a few seats down from them provided his inspiration: he plucked the pair of glasses, still slick with LCL, from the remnants of their own, and donned them. He leaned his elbows forward on the bar, joined his hands, and let his face rest against them.
Asuka let out a gasp.
"Commander Ikari. You look just like him when you do that."
"I mean," Shinji said, discarding the glasses. "I am his son. Was his son. I don't know what I am."
Asuka's glass was empty and she knocked against the bar once more. Shinji scratched through the bar book.
"How about a Boulevardier?"
Their bodies blazed in spite of themselves on the long stagger home. Asuka stripped her sweatshirt off, wrapped it around her waist, and leaned against his arm.
"I feel gross," she grumbled for the second time that day. "This stupid thing inside of me had better die."
Shinji slurred something and she scowled. Leave it to him to disappear into drunkenness when she needed him. At least he was reasonably steady.
"Asuka, look," he said suddenly, clear as day. She froze and turned with him. They stood before two benches, a bannister, and then a drop-off. There, months ago, had been city, and here, they had once stood. The night she ran out on the impromptu party where Touji, Kensuke, and Hikari had watched Rei beat her in that stupid choreographed dance. Shinji had come to find her, had stayed with her. Laughed and traded jokes, timid though he was, with her. Agreed to work hard with her. She had mounted one of these benches, declared her intention to win for all the world to hear—though, in fact, it had just been Shinji. "Remember this place?"
"Of course I remember this spot," she scowled. "I might be drunk but I still—I still—"
Something inside of her changed. She dashed to the railing, jerked her head over it, and vomited. Shinji was quick to grab her hair, bundling it into a fist. He regarded her for a second with dull eyes before her, too, threw his head over the railing.
Somewhere in between volleys of stomach acid, he began to laugh.
"What's so funny?" she demanded through tears, her throat hoarse.
"Asuka, we're so stupid. Why did we get drunk? We could just get medication for you from the pharmacy."
"Idiot, you don't think I knew that?" she screamed. Her head went back over the railing and soon, she was laughing too. "Mein Gott, we are so stupid, aren't we?"
"We're the dumbest. I could've taken a pill and we could be relaxing at home right now."
"We're so dumb." Shinji's throat made a sound somewhere between that of a dying car and a dying elephant. "Why did we get so drunk?"
"It was my idea. I'm an idiot."
"It's okay. I'm the idiot who followed you."
This was admittedly terrible but, Asuka realized, it was not the worst she'd ever felt.
"Hey, Shinji, you know what's worse than this?"
"Getting raped by your friend after having a mental breakdown, and then getting dismembered by giant robot monsters because your friend was too much of a coward to come and save you!"
Shinji wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and looked at her. She forced herself to look at him, even as she felt something suspicious dribbling down her chin.
"You—" he started, swallowed, and continued: "Think I'm your friend?"
Her mouth dropped open another inch as they stared at each other. Then, like a storm breaking a heatwave, laughter overtook them. In unison, they dove their heads over the railing once more and hurled.
It seemed like the least he could do and yet, it felt like one of the hardest things he'd ever done.
The next morning, Shinji awoke from troubled dreams to find Asuka drooling spit and vomit on his chest, a leg thrown over his body and her arms wrapped tight around his midsection. Her arms pinned his left arm, while her shoulders and head pinned his other beneath her. In other words, he was holding her and anyone coming upon them, with no prior knowledge of their relationship, would have seen two young lovers, sloppy and alive with infinite futures animated before them.
But, that's not what Shinji felt. He had the vague notion that his mouth had been replaced by one of the ash trays at NERV HQ, and he was convinced that someone had bludgeoned him half to death in the middle of the night. It was only when he extracted himself from Asuka's embrace and examined his skull, finding no wound, that he realized it was just the worst headache he'd ever experienced.
There was something comforting, he realized, in this. Somehow, the world held cruel possibilities that the EVAs and the Angels had not yet introduced him to. Life went on after Instrumentality, and it got worse, but—did he dare think it? Maybe that meant it could get better too.
He struggled to his feet. He washed his face and drank water until his stomach seemed to swell. Using his hand to keep the world from spinning, he guided himself to the door and then to the elevator—it was some small brilliant piece of providence that those elevators still worked.
Once outside, fending off cruel sunlight's thesis, he beat a path to the pharmacy. Heaving himself over the counter in the back, he shifted the instrumentalized pharmacist's clothes out of the way once more and selected the correct combination of pills for Asuka. Everything was clearly labeled. This really was so much simpler and cleaner than anything else they could have done.
Next, he stopped at the convenience store. The aisles were as empty as they'd been yesterday, and he murmured a hello to no one in particular as he pilfered sports drinks, iced coffees, and candy for breakfast. Honestly, how did Misato do this so often?
The night before, as they lay down to sleep, stomachs groaning, Asuka had turned to Shinji.
"You were awful to me," she said. "The last time we slept in the same bed."
"When I, uh, tried to kiss you?"
"No, idiot." She stared at him, waiting for the light of understanding to grace his dull face. "You don't remember?"
"No… Did I do something wrong? I did, didn't I?"
No. No. No. That was wrong. He had to remember. It didn't make sense if he didn't remember.
"Shinji, please, tell me you remember."
"Asuka," he scowled. "Give me a clue. Remember what?"
No. They were just drunk. It was too painful otherwise.
"Nevermind," she scowled. She turned her head away but when she felt his hand touch hers, she rolled over to him, burrowing into him as best she could, praying that her skull would leave her in peace somehow.
It was a night months ago, when they still lived together with Misato in a queer approximation of a family. Asuka rose and drifted into the bathroom, as if in a dream.
She stared at herself in the mirror, she remembered. Marshalling courage like a general under fire, rallying her troops.
"This sucks," she scowled. "Why do I have to be the one to do this?"
She plunged the bathroom into darkness and let her feet guide her to Shinji's room. She paused at the threshold, listened to his breaths spilling softly into the air. The quiet hum of his SDAT player. She stepped inside and slid shut the door.
"You will hold me," she told him, in a whisper, not caring one bit when he didn't react. She had already decided what to do.
Lowering herself delicately over him, she balanced herself, letting her night shirt tickle his nose. That would do it. If he awoke right now, he'd open his eyes, see her bared for him and—
Fine. A heavy sleeper. Or playing hard to get. She lowered herself closer to him, her thighs against his, her breath on his face.
Ach, du heilige Scheisse…
She slid her hand under his shirt, rested it on his belly for a second, and then drifted down. She found her quarry and was briefly pleased when it responded to her exactly how she'd planned. There was no question that he wanted this, then. She moved her hand and a moan tumbled out of his lips.
Wake up, Shinji, she commanded in her heart. Wake up and see what I'm doing. Look how pathetic I am. See how lonely I am. I'll do anything, just so long as you touch me and hold me. You're the only one who'll ever know how low I'll sink just to feel something, so please wake up. Please. Please, Shinji, wake up and do whatever you want to me. Please, please, please, Shinji—
He groaned and she felt something hot and wet on her hand. She pulled it out and sat back on her heels. She stared at the slime on her palm in the moonlight streaming through his window.
Playing with me. He'd rather ignore me than touch me, she thought. Why is this so hard? Why does everyone hate me? Why won't someone hold me? First Mama, then Kaji, and now Shinji—
She left him and returned to the bathroom. She washed her hands three times and still they didn't feel clean.
"I'm scum," she whispered, and pressed her palms to her face.
Somehow, being in this apartment again brought this memory back and Asuka watched herself cry, alone, in the bathroom all night long until the soft clink of coffee being made hooked her cheek and dragged her back to consciousness.
"Oh," he said with a soft smile that she wanted to smack off his face. She hovered in the doorway, every muscle yearning for more sleep. "You're awake. Good morning."
"I feel," she announced. "Like shit."
"Here—" he said, and pressed a blue bottle into her hands. "It's electrolytes, so I think it'll help. Misato would drink this stuff sometimes."
"That's how you know you have a problem," she muttered, but she wasn't above following the example of their departed guardian. She chugged half the bottle in a single gulp and collapsed at the table. Shinji had covered it with candy; many of her favorites, in fact. She nibbled at a few pieces while he made breakfast.
He placed a plate in front of her and she murmured something like a thank you. They ate, mostly without words, until Asuka caught sight of her hand and shuddered.
"You really don't remember that night."
"That night I came to you."
He shook his head. Her cheeks began to flush and her eyes felt hot.
"I thought you were—rejecting me."
"Asuka, what are you talking about? I, uh, did try to kiss you, kind of. That one time. When we were training together."
"No, idiot, not that. I remember that."
She took a breath and told him what she'd done. Her eyes remained on her palm until she'd told him everything and then, only then, did she allow her gaze to rise and meet his.
"I had no idea," he whispered. "Really."
"No. There's no way."
"I thought you hated me so much you wouldn't even wake up when I was touching you." Her voice was small. Trembling. Exactly how she felt. "No one—no one loved me. I remember screaming and crying in the bath and neither of you, not even Misato, came to me. I hated you for hating me."
"I never hated you, Asuka."
"But you must hate me now. How could you not?"
"I don't want to hate anyone."
"Hate is like love. You can't control who you hate or who you love. It just happens."
"Fine," he said. "I still don't hate you. I wish I had woken up. Maybe everything would be different now. Maybe we'd—"
"I don't want to think about that anymore. It hurts too much." She let the feeling of loss hang in the air for another moment. "You don't hate me?"
"Liar. You raped me and tried to kill me. And somehow, I still hate myself more than I hate you."
"Then prove it."
She had nothing. They watched each other for a few moments and then he rose. He circled the table and leaned into her. She smelled his scent and cooking oil and soy sauce and sweat, all encircling her as he draped his arms around her neck. She gave a pathetic little mewl and she despised whichever corner of her heart that escaped from as she stiffened. He held her, and the warmth seduced her. She placed a hand on the arm over her chest and reached for his face.
"Why…" she murmured.
"Why does this feel so good?"
Cleaning the kitchen was a small, simple thing, but it was something he could do with a beginning, middle, and end. Something he could finish and sit back and remember how it had been different at the beginning. Something he could tell himself was finished.
It wasn't this hellish limbo, he knew.
Asuka showered and he dressed her wounds again. They said nothing to one another. Once, when something stung, she reached for him and he caught her hand, gripping her tight, and she made a sound that almost seemed pleased, as if she'd been sure that he'd disappeared somehow.
He showered too and found her dressing in her room, the door open. That was unusual for her, but what was normal these days?
"Asuka, here's your medicine. I can read the kanji to you. If there are any you don't know. You should read the instructions before you take it."
She scowled and snatched them out of his hand.
"Obviously, I know that."
She'd pulled out jeans today and the same sweatshirt, which seemed to have escaped the worst of the previous night's indulgences. That reminded him—he ought to do some laundry today. There were dirty clothes left from before Third Impact, even some from before Asuka ran away which he and Misato had left in her room, as if they could lure her back by expecting her to wash them herself.
Should he even wash Misato's clothes? He'd done it before, so that wasn't the issue, but washing clothes for someone you'd seen die still seemed like a strange ritual he wasn't prepared for. Should they create a grave for her? Should they create graves for everyone?
"Shinji, what are you staring at?"
"Sorry," he stuttered. "I was… thinking about laundry."
"Mein Gott, you really are an idiot. Well, I left my dirty things on the floor so feel free to wash them. Don't be a pervert about it, though."
"What? I've done your laundry before. It's nothing I haven't seen."
Still, she rolled her eyes and pushed past him.
"Where are you going?"
"For a walk. I'm still pretty weak but sitting around here isn't going to change that. And I'll go insane if I sit here any longer."
Shinji bowed his head.
"Are you coming back?" he asked and something in Asuka's posture caught his eye: a tremor of surprise. Did I get it right, he wondered, or had she not even considered leaving?
"Probably," she said with a shrug. She tilted her head back, an imperious little gesture that he remembered from the old days of a few months ago. "I mean, where else am I going to find someone to wait on me hand and foot? Not unless more people start to wake up."
"Asuka," he said as she started for the door again. "Do you think more will come back?"
"Probably." She gave a short, bitter laugh. "I mean, it's not like being in that big lake is all that much fun, is it?"
"Why did we come back first, then?"
"We probably hate ourselves more than anyone else in the world. Or maybe we're so insufferable that everyone else voted us out and made us think it was our own choice."
He found himself smiling in spite of everything.
"That's pretty dark, Asuka."
She turned on her heels, grinning, a child pleased at her own joke.
"Right? I bet that was it."
"And they made sure we'd wake up together, so we can torture each other," he added. Her grin grew bigger and she leaned against a wall.
"Now it all makes sense! This is probably what NERV was designed for. Just to torture you and me, specifically."
"Obviously. That's why they made us live together."
"Seriously! Only a real sadist could have come up with that. It was probably your dad."
"That does sound like him, doesn't it?"
She turned to leave but stopped once more:
"Hey, Shinji—if I didn't come back, would you go looking for me?"
"Huh? Yeah, of course." He waited for any other clues in her body language. "You're all I have left."
"What if other people wake up? What if Misato comes back? Would you still go looking for me?"
"You didn't, last time," she scowled and dipped out the door before he could come up with a response. He sighed, and went to start gathering their laundry when he saw the medication sitting on her bed.
"She didn't even take it," he whispered to himself.
It took her a while to find what she wanted. Not because she wanted to use it, but because she just wanted to—well, she didn't know what she wanted to do with it.
A small men's boutique a few kilometers from the apartment. Far enough that Shinji wouldn't stumble upon it if he went out while she was gone. She let herself in, walked past the crumpled suits, soaked through with LCL, and found the belts. She selected a thick leather one, long and black, and found a chair. Once upon a time, someone would have sat there to try on shoes or rest in between interminable suit fittings.
Now, Asuka balanced atop it. She still wasn't tall enough, so she piled a few boxes on the seat until she could reach the shop's rafters.
"This is how she did it," she murmured as she looped the belt around the rafters. "Mama." She tied it off and made another loop with the buckle.
Of course, she wasn't going to do it. She just wanted to know that she could, if she needed to.
It couldn't hurt to try putting her head through it? Just to make sure.
There'd be an accident—
And she wouldn't have to—
As she touched the leather loop to her neck, she felt something still there, as if she'd been branded. Across her collar bone, something tingled and she sighed. It was where he'd laid his arm.
"Why do I want his warmth so badly?" she whispered as she climbed down from the chair. I'm pathetic.
I shouldn't want this from someone who hurt me so badly, she told herself. I shouldn't want him. I should hate him. I should be scared of him. I want to hate him. I want to hate him. I want to him.
The elevator dinged to their floor and with each step, she heard the words in her skull.
I want to hate you, Idiot-Shinji. I want to hate you, Idiot-Shinji. I—
"'m home," she murmured. Shinji leaned out of the kitchen.
"Welcome back! How was your walk?"
"Fine," she grunted. She sniffed the air. It was stuffy in the apartment. It smelled like meat and apples, sweet scents from a forgotten homeland so far away from these islands in the Pacific.
"What are you making?" she murmured, drifting over to him.
"Ah, well, uh, I went out today too," he said. He was already blushing from the heat and he grinned in that sheepish way she hated sometimes and—didn't hate—other times. "And I found a German cookbook. I mean, it's written in Japanese, of course. But I thought you'd like it. I found some frozen meat since all the fresh stuff has gone bad. I figured I'd make schnitzel, since it's not so different from tonkatsu? And some potatoes and baked apples too. It seems like it's autumn now, so it feels right, doesn't it?"
She stared at him. Her stomach turned flips of hunger and pleasure.
"Not that I really know what autumn is like. I've only read about it."
She left the kitchen without saying a word and Shinji called after her: "It'll be ready in fifteen or twenty minutes." She forced herself into her room and forced herself to sit down. She wrapped her arms around her body and held herself there until her heart resumed its normal rhythm, until the desire to pin him against a wall and drown herself in him subsided.
Next to her was the medicine, sterile packaging staring at her.
Well, one more night wouldn't make a difference, would it? she wondered, picking it up and laying it to the side.
"I guess neither of us ate much for breakfast or lunch," Shinji chuckled politely as Asuka dug into her plate. The pleased grunts and slurps erupting occasionally from her lips had been the only thing she'd offered him once they sat down.
"There's Misato's beer too, but after last night—"
She shook her head and he abandoned that offer.
"I'm, uh, glad you came back, Asuka. When I didn't run into you on my errands, I thought you might have gotten into trouble."
She swallowed her mouthful and sat back, breathing deep. He had no right to make German food this perfect. Especially for his first time cooking it. And in a post-apocalyptic hellscape, no less.
"What kind of trouble could I have gotten into?" she asked suddenly. He can't know. There's no way. But what if he—saw? What if he passed by the shop? What if he's lying?
"I just meant if you got lost or something. The city's kind of different now."
"Right." She set back to her plate, trying to cut through the hunger simmering in her gut. Even as juices ran down her lips, as she savored tastes and scents she hadn't experienced in nearly a year, a hunger remained.
"Hey, Shinji," she said suddenly. "What would you have done if I woke up?"
"In the hospital."
"What would you have done?"
"I… don't know. I wanted you to wake up, though."
"Why? You'd have gotten in trouble."
"I didn't care," he shrugged. "I just felt so alone and I just wanted something—"
"Warm," she supplied for him.
"I saw your memories though. I know it sucked. It would have been way better if I were awake."
"Yeah, that was only one of the problems."
"If I'd been awake," she said. "I would have probably let you."
"I… I never thought you were interested in that."
"Apparently," she sighed. "It's not that I don't feel violated. It's just that after everything the Angels and NERV did to me, everything you did feels kind of wimpy, you know?"
He bowed his head. Don't cry, idiot, she thought to herself.
"I wish I'd woken up," she said. "I probably would have slapped you but I wouldn't have let you leave. I'd have made you stay with me in bed until they dragged you away."
"That… would have been nice."
She could see him blushing. Good.
"I wonder how long we would have had. A few hours? Maybe the whole night? We could have gotten up to so much trouble. So much better than the dumb stuff we tried with each other."
"I'm sure," he said, still not looking her. She bit her lip. Look at me, damn it.
"Because it sounds like we both wanted the same thing, right?"
"Yeah… Yeah, I guess. I was just so afraid of—" and now he looked at her. "Being rejected. I felt like you were also rejecting me."
"Idiot," she whispered. "That's what I always felt."
"I felt like you hated me."
"Only because I hated myself. You can't love anything if you hate yourself. You can't even like anything. It's like half the world is just dead to you."
"I know. But—even if it hurts, it doesn't mean it'll always hurt. Living, I mean."
He was looking at her and Asuka was afraid for the first time since the beach. Not for her life, but for her heart, because she was sure that he knew what she'd done that afternoon.
"Do you promise?" she whispered.
"That it won't always hurt?"
"Yes. I think so, at least."
"Then I'll stay here with you."
"I'm glad," he whispered.
This time, she helped him clean up. There was a big mess from the deep frying and even though he'd assured her she needn't help him, she worked, silently, alongside him till the tiny kitchen practically gleamed.
Later, when she thought back to that night, she tried to remember which one of them made the first move. Asuka was positive it was her, but the first thing she remembered was sitting with him on the balcony, in his arms, then on his lap.
"We could jump together," she had said at one point. "And never deal with this world again."
"Do you think we'd go back to the LCL?" he wondered aloud. "Just… reset?"
"Maybe. I don't want that. I'd rather disappear."
"You don't think there's a heaven? Or a hell?"
"Shinji, with everything we've seen—do you?"
"But… I wish there were. I wish there were another side to this."
She found his face in the darkness with her hands. She ran her fingertips over it. Found his lips.
"But there's only this." She could melt into him. Sink, once more, into the primordial soup, but this time, it would be him. "Hey, do you want to kiss? I'm bored."
She felt him shake with a soft, silent laugh. "Sure."
"You brushed your teeth?"
"Then here I go," she whispered, though she only had a few inches to move. She hesitated when she felt the tickle of his breath on her upper lip. She was about to say something when he spoke.
"Hey, stop breathing," he ordered. "That tickles."
He pinched her nose and kissed her. She pounded her first against his chest, but made no attempt to escape. Instead, she crushed her lips into his, hungrily, as they'd done once before, before she'd lost her nerve. Finally, with a gasp, she pushed away from him and he released her.
"Idiot," she hissed through panting breaths.
"Sorry. I couldn't help it."
"You did that to me," he said with a failing smile.
"I know. When I did it, it was…" She paused to lick her lips. How lonely they felt now… "Different."
"Then show me how it was different, Asuka."
"Inside," she whispered. "I'm cold. Unless you keep me warm."
It broke her heart how gentle he was with her. She arched her back, biting her tongue, until she remembered there was no reason to—the world had ended, they were the new Adam and Eve or something (this idea filled her with parental dread and she made a mental note to take the medication first thing in the morning). They were alone. She screamed and grinded her hips into his face.
"Shinji, it feels too good," she hissed into the dark. "I'm gonna' die. I'm gonna' die. I can't take it—" She screamed and a few seconds later, she let him go. He took trembling gasps and she giggled.
"That's how it's different," she whispered at the dark.
He helped her onto his hips. She'd insisted on the darkness. Her scars still ached and she knew they'd ache even harder if he could see them.
"Wait," he whispered. "We don't have any protection or anything."
"I know you're dumb, but try to keep up, idiot."
"I'll take the pills tomorrow. We're fine for tonight." She felt him relaxed beneath her, his hands holding her and guiding her as she found him.
"Does that feel okay? Does it hurt?"
"No. I mean yes. I mean—" she sputtered. "It feels good. See, isn't this better than trying when I'm asleep? Does it feel good?"
"Yeah. It feels really good."
She rested her weak muscles against him, feeling his closeness. He started to move beneath her, and she clung tight to him, crushing his face into her neck.
"You remember what I said," she whispered in his ear. She bit it. Hard. He yelped. "What my body is supposed to look like."
He grunted and she took this as an affirmation. She worked her fingers into his hair, dug her nails into his scalp, and sighed into his lips.
A near constant dance of souls, interrupted only by brief sparks of dull sorrow and recognition.
She had awoken here, dissolved into the others, the billions of others, and stayed like that. Like instant coffee flushed in hot water. But something wasn't right. Something was off.
She really, really, really wanted a beer. She had no body with which to drink it. No stomach to digest it. No neural synapses for it to dull. This was a fatal flaw in Instrumentality, she had come to realize. No beer.
You're lonely even here.
It's not that! I just really, really want a beer, Rei.
Even when joined with all of humanity, you're still lonely.
Are you kidding? Here, I'm with you and Kaji and my dad and Ritsuko…
Oh, fine. I want to make sure they're okay. Is that so wrong? Is it so wrong to want to be—I just want a beer, okay?
Why won't you say it?
I can see into your soul, the red eyes were saying. I know what you want. Your soul is part of mine.
Family. Is that what you want to hear? Is it so wrong that I liked living with them? It wasn't professional or anything but I miss them both and I'm afraid for them out there.
The eyes smiled. She could have sworn Rei was touching her face, even though she didn't really have a face. Or—wait—did she now?
It's going to hurt. Going back. Major Katsuragi.
"And that's what the beer is for!" she chirped. She had a voice again.
Even union with the entire human race cannot erase the loneliness in our hearts.
"Rei," she asked suddenly. She felt as though she were rising out of a warm bath after dozing off. "Are you lonely too?"
I… do not know.
"You can tell me if you are. Do you have to stay in there? Do you know?"
I do not know, Major Katsuragi.
"NERV is probably gone, Rei. You don't have to call me Major anymore."
I like it. It makes me feel less alone. Isn't that strange?
"I bet Shinji would like it. If you came back."
Perhaps. I do not know if—I—should. Please take care of them. She saw Rei smiling, for real now. A smile she'd never seen before. Not the terrifying, otherworldly smile of the heartless goddess who had ended the world but the smile of a shy girl, bidding farewell to a friend. I will tell them where you went. You want them to follow?
"You do that," Misato said, grinning at the thought. "Ritsuko and I need to get sloshed and debrief this whole mess."
And Kaji. You're hoping he'll follow you. And then you'll know for real if—
The beach. Since when had there been a beach here?
She struggled to her feet. Rei's face stared at her, far off over the pale crimson sea. She tried to wave but the face gave no indication that it looked at anything. Around her, the mass-produced EVAs, crucified and lifeless, stared at her, staring at Rei.
"What the hell," she muttered. She was wearing everything she'd been wearing back then. Her jacket, skirt, and—something ached in her belly. She pulled her shirt up to find a cruel gash, badly scabbed, disfigured her stomach.
"It would have been nice to skip this," she sighed and fingered the wound. She shuddered. It would need attention before too long, but at least it wasn't going to start bleeding any time soon. She hoped.
Misato stretched her legs and exhaled. She saw her breath—for the first time in over a decade.
"Cold," she whispered. "It's cold." It was November, after all. Right? Maybe? It should have been cold, but they'd lost seasons with the Second Impact. Now, though…
Something caught her eye.
The cross. Her medallion. Nailed to a shard of debris. She let out a happy yelp and forced her legs to move, pumping them in an odd simulation of running. She tripped forward, hurled herself back to her feet, and kept running until she collapsed before the necklace.
It was a sign, she knew. She knew who'd left it, and she could read the message, meant only for her—we're alive. Come find us.
With quaking fingers, she guided its descent around her neck. Her face was wet and her tears were warm. She wiped them with the sleeve of her jacket.
"Guys, hold on," she whispered into the cold wind. "I'll be home soon."
It was a long way to walk but she felt her strength returning with each empty city block. She was hungry and thirsty, but she was alive. There was no doubt about this. The clack of her boots on the sidewalk, echoing in this ruined metropolis—this made her smile. She jumped. She could jump! She had a body again. She clicked her heels together and cried out.
"Look at me!" she squealed, half-delirious. "Look at me, dad. Look at me, Commander Ikari. Look at me, Kaji. Look at me, Ritsuko! I'm still standing!"
She kicked an empty car, minding its own business on the empty street. "Take that, lease payments! Just try and find me now! I'm never paying up!"
Misato pressed her hand to her chest. What was this mad joy? How had she never realized how wonderful the world was? She needed to tell them. They'd never experienced autumn before. They would go to see the leaves change colors. Drink warm tea and cocoa as the wind whipped their hair. Travel what remained of this beautiful world, together, because the strangest monsters of the universe, somehow, some way, hadn't managed to kill them—
"Wait," she said aloud, freezing in place. Her stomach rumbled in the stillness. "Where are they?"
She'd started walking back to her apartment as if on auto-pilot but maybe that was wrong—what if they weren't there? After all, why would they be there? The world was empty. They could have gone anywhere they wanted. They might not even be together. She'd just—assumed—that home to her was home to them. That they'd felt the same thing.
The loneliness lurked at the edges of her heart and she took a steadying breath.
Either way, it made sense to go back to her apartment first, didn't it? She'd put on a warmer jacket and pants, and if they weren't there… No matter.
She'd find them. She'd have her little family back. She wouldn't be lonely.
Shinji awoke for the second morning in a row entangled in Asuka's limbs. This time, though, she was naked and so was he.
Memories of the previous night came flooding back and he smiled, half in amazement, half in sorrow, at what they'd done. In response to his thoughts (no, that's impossible, he reminded himself), she drew closer to him, nuzzling her face into his neck. Her lips found his throat and she suckled gently at the tender flesh.
She murmured something now, in her sleep, sighing.
Well, some things would never change, he supposed. He started to get up—really just a gently tremor in his limbs—and then gave up. What did it matter? They didn't have to go to school. They didn't have to be at NERV for tests. They didn't have to pilot the EVAs. They didn't have to do anything.
They were free. A kind of free neither of them had ever experienced. Where the only shackles left were invisible. Ensnared by their own dark hearts and the cloying guilt and bitterness that infused every look, every kiss, every touch.
He wasn't sure if this was right. If she liked this. If he liked this. But he felt like they had no choice but to cling together in the face of the loneliness, the coldness. They could share their warmth or die.
Was this love? To have a heart so intertwined with someone else's? He imagined the strings of his life interwoven with hers. No, not the strings but the veins and arteries of his heart beating in time with hers, regardless of whether they wanted it or not. Was it love? Maybe. But a love unlike the ones he saw on TV or read about in manga. There were no cherry blossoms fluttering about them in the spring, no sparkles or longing looks. No pivotal confession of heart-felt feelings. Instead, they had something darker, crueler, but, he suspected, stronger. Something that would never let them go, no matter what they did. No matter how they hurt each other.
Did he like her? Did he even like her? If he'd had the choice of any girl in the world, if he'd been unburdened by his own unforgivable sins, would he have picked her? Of course, she was beautiful. That went without saying. Even when she was fully clothed, her beauty embarrassed him: she could pack more into a single look than most people could communicate in an entire evening. Her eyes, her face, the curve of her neck, hair the color of flames.
She was cruel. But so was he. He'd violated her. But she'd violated him. She was broken, but so was he, and they'd shattered along similar lines. He saw them, in his mind's eye, as two porcelain dolls, with nearly identical cracks. This meant, though, that you could slide a chunk of Shinji out and into Asuka and repair his cracks with her.
Somehow, he liked being with her. He liked her teasing. He liked that she refused his passivity. That she pushed him until he spoke, until he reacted.
He felt most human with her. How was it that there was no word for this feeling triangulated somewhere between love and hate but stronger than both combined?
Shinji shifted and Asuka's body moved with him. Her eyes fluttered open and found his.
Good morning, she mouthed.
Good morning, he mouthed back. Her lips hung open for a second and he received the invitation hungrily. She made a pleased sound when they broke apart.
"Have you ever," she asked softly. "Slept so well that you thought you were only dreaming of sleep? Because you've always had nightmares and not having them feels like a dream?"
He shook his head.
"Well," she said with a throaty sigh, settling her head back on his chest. "That's where I'm at."
He slid his fingers through her hair and she writhed, cat-like, into his palm.
"But don't let it go to your head, idiot," she added. "This might be a one-time thing."
Shinji must have made a face because the haughty look on hers faltered.
"Don't give me that. Maybe not. Probably not, if you play your cards right. But don't think this means anything it doesn't."
"What does it mean, then?" he asked, carefully. She averted her gaze.
"Um, why don't you tell me what you think it means and I'll tell you if you have it right? Okay?" she asked in a small voice that somehow sounded very far away. Was she blushing? The flesh of her cheeks had definitely turned red.
Shinji opened and closed his mouth a few times—how, exactly, would he explain this theory about something that isn't exactly love and isn't exactly hate, but which would bind them together even more powerfully than either and could tip either way, like a see-saw at a park?
The door to the apartment clattered open. A tired voice spoke into the silence: "I'm home."
Asuka's head whipped back around to his. Misato, they both mouthed.
It was nearly noon and the place was empty. Standing in the doorway, she felt the sad smile tugging at the corners of her lips. The kitchen was surprisingly clean, but she supposed Shinji must have cleaned it that morning or maybe the evening before. She drifted to the fridge and started to reach for it when she heard the tumult of flesh and fabric in one of the other rooms.
Don't get your hopes up, she tried to tell herself. Maybe it's—someone else. Maybe it's a stray dog. Maybe it's—
She knocked at Shinji's door. She heard angry whispering and then a throat being cleared.
"Um, just a second," Shinji's hoarse voice called back. Misato took a step away from the door, covering her face with her hands, trying to catch the tears before they started falling.
A second later, the door whipped open and there they both were: red, disheveled, clad in a confusing array of mismatched clothes fit for different seasons. Asuka's hair was a tangled mess and Shinji's wasn't much better. The three stared at each other for several moments, taking each other in.
Missato's eyes drifted from their faces—shocked, flushed, and scarred in Asuka's case—to their hands. They were holding hands. The two teens followed her gaze, found their hands, and looked at one another, before turning back to Misato.
Shinji's mouth stretched into a soft smile.
"Um, welcome home," he whispered.
Asuka was not so subtle. She wormed her arm tight around Shinji's waist, gripped him to her as she all but shouted: "Welcome home!"
Misato's return couldn't have come at a worse time, Asuka had decided. If there was one person in all of existence who could distract Shinji from her and derail whatever they were figuring out together—it was Rei. But if there were a second person who could manage that…
In a flash, Asuka chose her strategy. It was bold, and she knew it would confuse Shinji, but she knew he'd go along with her lead until she had a chance to explain to him.
"Sorry you had to see us like this," Asuka giggled, covering her mouth with her hand. "Honestly, since we woke up, we haven't been able to keep our hands off each other."
They sat around the dining room table as they had for so many awkward meals in the past. Shinji's ears perked up at this detail but he said nothing to discredit her. His back was turned to them as he cooked, and she knew from the slump of his shoulders that he was confused. This was fine, but she would need more than silence to work up a convincing simulacrum of intimacy and happiness.
"Isn't that right, Shinji?" she cooed, laying extra honey on his name. She prayed he'd hear the threat worked into the syllables, and it seemed he did because he played his part just fine.
"Oh, don't tell Misato that," he chuckled. "It's embarrassing! She doesn't want to know all that."
Well done, Shinji, she beamed silently into his brain. She giggled and covered her face.
"You two," Misato sighed in obvious delight. "You know, I always hoped you two would get together. I knew you had chemistry. I could tell, right from the very beginning."
Shinji laughed a little too loud. "From the very beginning, huh?"
"You two dancing together—it was just about the cutest thing. I think I have a few videos of your practice sessions. We should watch them. It'll be just like old times."
"Oh, how fun!" Asuka squealed. Shinji glanced over his shoulder. Too much. Tone it down. Roger that. He wasn't a bad partner in this. "I mean, it'll be silly but there's nothing else to do, is there?"
Misato leaned back, exhaling slowly. "You're right. You're totally right. Until more people wake up… We can kind of relax, can't we? I mean, we've got shelter. The electric grid is still operational. Water is fine. All that stuff is totally automated and it'll be fine indefinitely until something needs maintenance but hopefully, we'll have a few more specialists on hand by that point." Here, again, was the policy wonk-administrator-tactician who had defeated Angel after Angel. Who worked twenty-hour days and drank herself into a stupor and still managed to outsmart alien intelligences time and time again. Who'd given her life trying to save Asuka. "We won't have a lot of fresh produce for the foreseeable future, unless either of you want to take up farming—but it's getting cold, so there's not much chance of that for a few months, assuming our seasons have reverted to how they were when I was a kid. But the stores around here have plenty of frozen food, it looks like, and we can just take what we want."
"Exactly! That's what we've been doing. In fact, Shinji made me schnitzel last night with some frozen pork cutlets he found." Misato beamed at them, all but shaking in delight.
"You guys—are—the—cutest!" she squealed. "I can't stand it! You two are so sweet! I'm so happy for you two. Really." She reached back to tug Shinji's shirt. "You saved her out there, didn't you? I knew it. I knew you'd come through in the end. I knew you'd be a big ol' hero and save her."
Asuka watched the blood drain from Shinji's face. He glanced back at her and she narrowed her eyes.
"That's right," he said with a steady exhale. "It was a hard fight."
"But that's when I knew that Shinji was the only man for me," Asuka chimed in, quickly. She hoped it wasn't too quick. "The other EVAs messed me up pretty badly but Shinji saved me in the end." She licked her lips. How to explain the scars? "They left a lot of bad wounds, though. It's sad but, uh—I died in his arms."
Misato's eyes widened. "Seriously? Asuka!" She took the girl's hands.
"Yeah. But he kissed me and held me tight. He told me he'd follow me to heaven or hell or whatever I went, and he'd bring me back. And then I woke up in the pool with everyone else, so it was okay. And then we woke up later and—here we are."
"Just like Sleeping Beauty!"
"Yeah," Shinji murmured, setting plates down in front of them before joining them. "Something like that."
"So, what have you two been up to? Besides," and here Misato winked. "You know. I won't ask too many questions—I saw the medicine in the bathroom. You two really have been going at it. Try not to have too many slip ups like that. At least not until we've got a doctor or two around."
"Ah, I'm so embarrassed I left that out!" Asuka gasped. Of course, she wasn't embarrassed in the slightest. She was simply relieved: Misato had supplied an explanation for the medication that didn't come near the truth and that's all she needed.
"We've been going on a lot of walks," Shinji added. "And we found a bar we like."
Misato's smile wavered. "Um, a bar?"
"It's fun," Asuka said. Good work, idiot—let's get Misato talking about something she likes. "Shinji found a book of cocktail recipes and we started going through them alphabetically. We go, like, every night."
As soon as she spoke, Asuka realized she'd overplayed her hand. Misato stared at them.
"You guys are kind of young for that."
"You drink all the time," Asuka growled, the cheery mask slipping. "I saw you eyeing the beer in the fridge when Shinji was cooking."
"Well, that's different," Misato said with a wave of her hand. "I'm an adult."
"We do other—adult—things."
"But those things can't really hurt you if you're careful," Misato said, picking her words carefully. "But drinking is…" And here she sighed. "You're right. I'm not really the one to give you two advice. I haven't been the best role model."
"Come with us to the bar, and you'll see how fun it is!" Asuka redonned the façade, and she was determined there'd be no cracks this time. She caught Shinji's eye and he looked away. Fine. As long as he didn't say anything to make her suspicious.
"Maybe. Maybe." Misato sighed and smiled. "I guess—having a little party to celebrate all of us being together again makes sense."
"Exactly! A party!" Asuka giggled. "Shinji, doesn't that sound fun? You'll make food and cocktails?"
"Of course," he stuttered. Look a little bit more excited, idiot, she thought.
"But only if I can manage to keep my hands off you for long enough," she added.
If Misato noticed a disconnect between Shinji's dimmed eyes and Asuka's feather-light giggles, she said nothing about it. Instead, she relented and slid over to the fridge, selected a beer, and cracked it open with a satisfying hiss.
"You guys," she whispered into the foam.
"Asuka," he said as soon as they stepped into the elevator. "What was that?"
"Listen, idiot," she grunted and slammed his shoulders against the wall. She found herself surprised for a moment—where had that come from? Whatever. It just meant she was feeling stronger. More like herself. "Misato doesn't know what happened. I don't know if she didn't see everything in the soup, or if she forgot or what, but I don't care. We can't let her know about—what you did. And didn't do."
He wouldn't meet her eyes.
"Why not? I don't want to lie."
"Because! It would hurt her, idiot! She thinks she died to save us! Do you want to take that away from her? And look at how excited she is to be back here! She thinks we're in love and that makes her happy and it would be cruel if she found out the truth."
"And what's the truth?"
"Don't start with that again."
She tightened her grip on his shoulders.
"Say it, idiot," she whispered. Her stomach was doing nervous flips. The elevator reached the ground level and dinged. They stood like that, his eyes on the floor, as the door opened, and then closed exactly seven seconds later.
"Coward," she muttered after another minute.
"Why do you care about her feelings?" he asked later, when they were shopping. She all but jumped when she heard his voice. They'd been silent on the walk over and had, wordlessly, been grabbing things off the grocery shelves. Their selection was a random mix of frozen things, dried ingredients, and candies. At one point, Shinji had tried to edit their cart down into a menu that made sense together, but Asuka merely retrieved the things he'd tried to set back on the shelves. "You never did before."
"Maybe I'm trying to be nice."
"I'll believe it when I see it."
"Do you like these too?" she asked, holding up a package of frozen dumplings. He nodded and she tossed them into the cart. "I don't want her to pity me. I already have to deal with your pity. I couldn't stand hers."
"How do I pity you?" His voice rose. "And even if I did, why would that be so wrong? We've both had terrible lives."
"Because it's rude!" she screamed, her voice echoing in the empty store. "It's rude and it means you think I'm weak!"
"Maybe," he said, turning away. "You are weak."
Asuka's fingers dug hard into the package of edamame she had been examining. "Say that again."
"Maybe you are weak. So what? We're all weak. Maybe you'll just have to accept you're not that special. That you're just like me."
"How am I like you?"
"No, I'm not."
"I have a right to be afraid of you. After what you did."
"But that's not why you're afraid. You're afraid of—of—how I feel. And how you feel. I think."
"And how's that?"
"You try to trap me into being the one to say it," he yelled, hurling a bag of rice at the floor. It caught on something and tore open, spilling pearl white grains all over the jaundiced tile floor. "Because you're afraid to say it yourself. You want to know it's a sure thing, before you let yourself feel it. Before you admit feeling it."
"But you won't say it either!" she said, a dry sob hurtling over her lips. She had been leaning against one of the glass doors in the frozen food aisle and now she slid down it, bowing her head. "You're just as much of a coward as I am, so don't act all high and mighty."
"What are we afraid of?"
"That sounds right."
He gave her his hand and after a second, she took it. She was in his arms again and even though the whole aisle was ice, she was warm.
"If someone pities me," she whispered. "Then it's like it was all for nothing. My whole life. Being… strong. Piloting an EVA."
"Don't you think," he asked after a second. "There's more to life than that? I mean, there are no more EVAs. Everything is easy for us, for now. You can relax, like Misato said." He pressed his cheek to hers and she was surprised to find it damp. "You can be weak."
They kissed. She started to unbutton his shirt.
"Why not? You said yourself. We can do whatever we want."
She kissed his chest. She hated his silence, so she bit one of his nipples until he yelped.
"This makes me feel less alone," she whispered. "You're still my slave, aren't you?"
It took him long enough to answer that she started to feel nervous, but the reply finally came: "Of course. Forever, right?"
"That's right. This might be the last time we can for a few days, by the way. Because of the medication. I took it this morning."
"There's nowhere to lie down here."
"We don't need to lie down," she told him, and began to work her jeans off.
"You guys were gone a while," Misato laughed when they arrived home. Pen-Pen balanced on her lap, looking as if nothing had changed—as if the world hadn't ended twice within the past fifteen years, as if alien gods hadn't assaulted the Earth and reduced the entire human race to primordial goop. Misato was on her third beer, and had a selection of magazines and manga spread out before her—she didn't seem concerned with the state of the planet either. "I was afraid something happened!"
"We had to go to a few stores," Shinji said before Asuka could come up with a good reply. "We decided to stock up a bit." Asuka watched him shift his collar around to hide the lip-shaped bruise on his clavicle and she bit her lip to keep from grinning too much.
Misato stopped dead outside the bar. The late autumn evening gloom had descended and it was made even darker by the lonely streets. Somehow, this bar managed to make everything even blacker.
"This place? This is your bar? This shit-hole?"
"Oh, don't knock it!" Asuka shushed. She'd held onto Shinji's arm the entire way, and Misato briefly worried she might be cutting off circulation to the poor boy's extremities. Still, he seemed happy enough and they whispered at each other, walking a few steps behind her. Of course, they were absolutely besotted with one another. It'd be like this for a while, she wagered. Puppy love. But who cared? Maybe this way, they'd get at least a few years to be stupid kids. She wanted nothing more than that for them and in this weird way, in a way that resembled virtually no adolescence ever experienced during the course of human history, it looked like they might just get it.
She followed them into the bar and took a seat next to Asuka, with Shinji playing bartender. The teens seemed unconcerned by the scattered mounds of clothing left behind by raptured bar patrons, but they gave Misato the willies.
"What's on the menu tonight, Liebchen?"
"Um, let's see—we had a caipirinha and a daiquiri last time, I think."
"All the sugar gave me an awful hangover."
"You've been going through the book alphabetically," Misato observed. "That's—one way to do it."
"The Aviation was still the best," Asuka declared. "The Blood and Sand was the worst. And it looked like LCL. Seriously. Shinji can make you one."
"I'll pass. Shinji, can you just hand me a beer?"
"Uh, sure. Asuka, there aren't really any interesting cocktails that start with 'E'—how about a French 75?"
Soon, they all had drinks. They raised them together, sipped, and Misato watched as Asuka all but drained her cocktail.
"Woah, slow down! That's not how you're supposed to drink a cocktail."
"But it's tasty."
"But you'll get drunk too fast and you'll be a mess."
"But that's what you do."
Misato forced herself to hold her gaze with Asuka.
"But I'm an adult. I have a bit more of a tolerance. And this is just beer."
"Fine! Shinji, make me another and I'll drink that one slow."
"That's—not how it works…" she started to say but Shinji was already fixing another cocktail. Well, what would it hurt?
A few drinks later, Misato stopped caring what they were drinking. Vaguely, in the back of her mind, she knew she should try to be more of a guardian here, should try to protect them and teach them—something—but had she herself ever learned whatever lesson this was supposed to be?
"That's the thing about Instrumentality," she declared, raising another glass. "No beer. Who ever thought that was going to work? Seriously."
Asuka laughed. A bit too loud. She was drunk too, though, Misato thought with a silly grin and leaned on the girl.
"I'm so glad we're all back together. It'll be just like before, but better. I promise."
She turned her glass around. The bubbles in the beer really did remind her of LCL. How had she never seen it before?
"So, what did you guys see? In there."
"What?" they asked, in unison, two pairs of wide eyes turning to her.
"I mean, when we were all part of that big… soul." She laughed. "I know I saw you guys in there but I can't really remember what I saw. It was pretty dramatic and embarrassing, right?" She was blushing. "You saw me and Kaji, right?"
"Um, maybe," Shinji murmured. "I don't really remember."
"There was a lot," Asuka added.
"You guys are sweet. Well, whatever you saw, just remember—I made some mistakes when I was a kid. So try to learn from them."
"Being with Kaji was not a mistake," Asuka growled suddenly. "It could never be."
"Oh, I don't mean that," Misato giggled. "Just—spending a week in his bed. That's not really responsible. But you can be silly when you're young." She sighed. "You two get a chance to be silly now. No more Angels. No more EVAs."
"It already sounds boring," Asuka sighed. "Even if NERV was awful."
"Being a kid is supposed to be boring. You're supposed to study hard and hate your parents and lose your mind from worrying about getting into university. You're supposed to have crushes on people who'll never love you back and try things and be disappointed when you suck at them. And then, you think back on it, and you wish you could go back and try it all over, and you know you can't. But there's something kind of bittersweet in it. That longing."
They were watching her. God, what am I talking about?
"Sorry, I'm drunk," she giggled. "NERV was awful, though. I'm—sorry. That I helped bring you two into it."
"It wasn't your fault," Shinji said softly. "It was my dad. And SEELE."
"Mhm," Misato murmured. "I'd like to get my hands on any of your dad's notes. Files. Records. Whatever. I wonder if they survived. Maybe not at NERV but Fuyutsuki might have kept something off-site…"
"What's the point?" Asuka grunted. "It's over. They're all gone."
"People will want to know," Misato said. "Eventually. When they start coming back. We might be the first but I bet there'll be others soon. Like waking up from the party of the century—the millennium—with a wicked hangover and no idea what happened. The world will be different from now on but we get to take a few deep breaths right now before it changes even more."
"What if I don't want them to know what happened?" Asuka muttered. There was a dark look on her face.
"But it's not just up to you! All of humanity was involved."
"And they all saw into my soul! I don't want to see any of them again!" she yelled suddenly. She flung her glass at the floor and Misato squeaked as it shattered.
She was about to reprimand the girl when Shinji appeared behind her with a broom.
"Hey," he whispered, and said something to her and she took his arm like a child grabbing a favorite toy. She wrapped it around her shoulders, placing herself in a sort of headlock and gripping his forearm. He kept whispering and she nuzzled her face against his shoulder.
"Sorry," she said, finally. "I'm kind of drunk."
"It's fine," Misato said as Shinji let her go. He began to sweep up the glass and when he disappeared to throw it out, she whispered: "He really takes care of you."
"Don't say that."
"Why? It's sweet. It shows how much he likes you. And understands you."
Her face flushed redder than even the French 75's had managed. She bowed her head until Shinji came back and the look she gave him was veiled from Misato by her red tresses.
"We had some intense moments, in there," Shinji began. "The two of us. But we talked it out when we woke up."
"I'm glad," Misato said, and poured the rest of her beer into her glass.
"I don't like people I don't know being able to see into my soul," Asuka murmured once more. "Or even people I know. I think a little privacy isn't too much to ask."
"Well, the good thing is that it's so hard to focus on any one soul's experiences—no one will remember what they saw. I mean, I barely remember anything from in there." She thought for a second. "There was a train. And then our kitchen."
Their heads whipped around to stare at her.
"And a hospital. But that's all I remember. Just… places."
"Yeah," Shinji said after a few moments of thought. "Me too."
The next day, she was sick and not just from her hangover. The cramps had hit hard and she sent Shinji out early to find ibuprofen. Between the ache in her skull and the ache in her gut, she barely had room to think. Instead, she stayed in bed till the late afternoon, wishing Shinji would come and hold her, and not finding a voice with which to call him.
They'd slept next to one another, and in the dark anonymity of the quilt, she could draw close to him and pretend she was someone else, he was someone else, and only in that way, could she be honest and say the words to herself that she'd wanted to hear him say. She felt like some primal creature, marking her mate with her scent, or maybe the other way around—maybe their scent was one now. She found this thought awoke feelings in her chest that tickled in a pleasantly terrifying way.
Everything had moved so fast. But should she be surprised? After all, they'd known each other for so long. No, that wasn't true either. They'd known each other for less than a year. But what they'd experienced together could fill a lifetime. She'd felt deep recesses of his soul—his literal soul—and he'd known her in virtually every way it was possible to know someone so who was to say this was moving too fast?
It scared her. How quickly she could lose her hatred for him. How quickly the hatred turned to… something else entirely.
She shouldn't forgive him, just because she wanted his warmth. Just because he could be so kind to her that it gutted her. Just because he could dispel loneliness with a touch or a look.
Anything he gave her, she reminded herself, could be taken away. The pain of loss, she knew, was worse than the pleasure of love. If her mother had taught her anything, it was this.
This would be—
Different. Maybe it wouldn't hurt.
There was a dark little flame in her chest that wouldn't go out. It stoked itself on the pleasure of possessing him, and his kindness was kindling to the fire. No matter what she tried, how she reminded herself of how damned they both were, it refused to die. Pathetic. Utterly pathetic, she thought. But still: she couldn't help, in her quiet moments, as she lay with him or watched him hum as he cooked for her, as he held her, as she clawed him and kissed him, leaving marks that would brand him as hers, she couldn't help at these times but to draw inside her chest for a moment and hold the flame in her hands. It burned, certainly, but it was beautiful and it was spreading.
It was late. I should get up, before they worry about me, she thought. The thought surprised her. They might worry about her. It was something she would have struggled to imagine once. Now, though, she believed it.
"She's really out of it, huh?" Misato asked him at lunch as he sat down.
"Yeah. The pills really bothered her stomach, she said. I guess it's to be expected."
"Right. It can't be helped. It was sweet of you to go get her painkillers." Misato winked at him. "And me. First hangover since coming back."
"It was no problem. I had a headache too," he chuckled, picking at his bowl. He couldn't muster much of an appetite. Mostly, he prayed Misato wouldn't ask him any questions he'd find hard to answer. Not about what had happened.
"Say, Shinji," she murmured after a few minutes of quiet. "Remember what I said the last time I saw you?"
"Um," he stammered, looking down at his plate. "When we, uh, kissed?"
Misato giggled. "Yeah. About the adult stuff that comes after that? I guess you'll have to forget about that now."
"I can't say I'm not at least a teeny-tiny bit jealous of Asuka," she said, leaning back. "But I'm happy for you two. Really. If there's anything I can do or anything you need—if you want me out of the apartment sometimes or—or even if you guys want a place to yourself—"
"No!" He blushed. "I mean, it's nice, all of us, living here. And there's already stuff here and everything. All our things and food and everything." He was sputtering and he hoped she couldn't trace the anxiety and guilt in his voice. "I suppose we could take one of these empty apartments in the building but—"
"Why bother? Good. That's kind of how I feel. I'm tired of being lonely. I didn't think I'd miss you guys as much as I did. Even though we were all together, it didn't feel like it, did it?"
"No. I don't think Instrumentality worked. Or maybe I did it wrong. But I didn't feel calm or happy or loved or anything in there. Just—numb. A little sad. Scared. Bored. Lonely."
"Exactly. Nothing too awful—"
Speak for yourself, Shinji retorted silently.
"—but is it worth giving up your individuality for? I don't think so. Not for me, at least. Maybe there's something wrong with me too."
She shifted again and winced.
"Is there something wrong?"
"Oh, it's nothing, really. When I woke up, I had a big scab from where I got shot and it's been throbbing. I should take a look at it, I guess. I don't want it to get infected right now."
Shinji nodded. "Asuka has some scars from—what happened."
"She must be self-conscious about them."
"Yeah, I think she definitely is."
"You need to be very supportive about that, you know. A girl's body image is very fragile." She touched the spot on her chest where Shinji knew an old, healed scar rested. "Ugly boys get pretty girls all the time. Just look at your mom and dad. No offense."
She winked and he grinned.
"But girls are conditioned to be self-conscious. It's cruel, but that's how it is. And you two are so young. You can never miss an opportunity to make her feel beautiful, okay? I wish… I'll leave it there, actually."
Shinji nodded. He felt he should say something, but the smile on Misato's face assured him that nothing more was needed. She reached to toss her empty beer can in the trash but gave a small gasp.
"Yeah. I definitely need to do something about this stupid thing."
"I dressed Asuka's wounds. Do you want me to take a look at it?"
"Oh, man, Shinji, would you? Honestly, I'm such a baby about things like this. Ritsuko always made fun of me, but I go to pieces over a paper cut. Other people's blood doesn't do anything for me, but the sight of my own freaks me out." She smiled, and he saw a drop of sweat slide down her temple. "Ever since the Second Impact."
"Are you warm?" he asked. She shrugged.
"I guess. It's pretty hot in here, isn't it?"
"We don't have the heat on."
He leaned over the table and felt her forehead.
"You're burning up. Let me take a look at the scab?"
They moved to the living room and Misato stripped her shirt off. Shinji found himself almost blushing at the sight—she wasn't wearing a bra—but Misato crossed her arms a second later.
"Sorry. But it's not like it's anything you haven't seen, huh?"
"Um, yeah. I guess."
He knelt and peered close at the gnarled rupture of flesh, ringed with red. He pressed it with his finger and she winced. A dribble of pale yellow pus slithered out.
"I think it's infected," he sighed. "I can go to the pharmacy and get antibiotics. In the meanwhile, I guess—I should drain it, probably? And clean it?"
"Right," Misato nodded. She had bent her head back, so she stared at the ceiling. "If you can find a needle or something, you can sterilize it with the burner on the stove. Or anything sharp, really." She sighed. "Can I stop thinking about it and just turn that part over to you?"
"You relax," he said, voice soft. "I'll get this cleaned up before you know it."
He couldn't find a needle, but there was a small scalpel in a neglected NERV-issued first aid kit stashed under the sink in the bathroom. He held it to the burner's blue flame until he was sure nothing could have survived it, and knelt between Misato's knees
"Here I go," he whispered, and Misato grabbed his free hand as he pierced the tangled mess of hardened flesh.
It was over in moments. He cleaned her up, wiped down the area with an antiseptic, and wrapped her belly with medical tape, bracing gauze against the wound.
Misato wiped her forehead and sighed, wincing once more as she tested the bandage, twisting in the chair.
"You're a life-saver, Shinji. Seriously."
"It's the least I could do. You got this protecting me."
"Consider the favor returned."
"I don't think I could ever make up for everything you've done for me," he said, suddenly. She leaned forward, seeing him kneel on the floor before her. He gripped the knees of his jeans and had squeezed his eyes shut.
He shook his head, but she could see he was lying.
"Oh, Shinji, Shinji," she cooed and swept him into her arms. She pressed his face to her neck. "It's over now. It's all over. We're safe. You. Me. Asuka. We're all safe. No one's going to hurt us anymore."
She guided her lips to his hair and that's when she saw the door to his room slide open.
"What's going on here?" Asuka asked.
Misato managed a smile.
"The gunshot wound on my belly is infected. Shinji was taking care of it for me and we were reminiscing about how it happened."
"When you kissed him," Asuka all but spat out.
"Yeah, that's right." Misato's voice sounded distant. "But you don't need to worry. That's in the past. It was nothing."
"Then why are you naked?" she hissed and turned back to the bedroom. The door clattered as she slammed it shut.
Shinji sat back on his heels, wiping his eyes.
"Sorry. Asuka is—a little possessive of me, I think."
"She's a teenaged girl. Of course she is. She acted like this with Kaji and she wasn't even in a relationship with him." Misato sighed and lifted herself back to the chair. "Go and make sure she's okay. I've survived this long. I can wait another hour or two for the antibiotics."
"Go. In retrospect—we could have done this differently. We should have. Things are different now. I need to remember that. It's my fault."
The smile on her face was desperately sad, if only for how hard she was clearly trying to keep it from looking sad. Shinji wanted to cry again.
As she expected, he came to her, groveling, to apologize. She curled up in his bed, faced away from him, and when he put his arm on her, she threw it off.
"You already broke the rule," she growled after listening to his pathetic excuses for fifteen minutes. "Talked to another woman. I let it slide, because it's Misato. But then I find her tits all over you."
"Asuka, you saw me crying. Do you think I was enjoying that?"
She turned over.
"Were you? Misato's big tits. You think about them, don't you? You've masturbated to them? Don't lie to me. I'll know."
"That's not the point."
"That's exactly the point."
"I don't know what you want me to be."
"Mine. That's all. It's simple."
"Then say that."
"No. Say what you feel."
"Would it make a difference?" She turned to face him. He had been crying, she saw, but she knew her face was dry. There was power in this. She distorted her voice: "'Oh, Shinji, I'm so in love with you. Please, let's get married and go live in a fairy castle beyond the sea. I want to have babies with you. I just love you so much!'"
"I don't want that."
"Then what do you want?"
"For you to—be nice to me. Be honest with me."
"You wouldn't like that either," she growled. They watched each other, animals locked in a cage together.
"Go ahead. You could strangle me now," she whispered. "Run away with Misato. She'll be everything you want."
"What do you think I want?"
"A lover and a mother. I can barely be one of those."
That did it. He collapsed into the desk chair near the bed, caught his face in his palm.
"I told you. Being trapped with me would be hell," she whispered. "Go away. I don't want to see you right now."
He started to say something but the tears garbled it.
"I know I'm being awful. But I don't care. This is what you get for hurting me. And now you'll leave like everyone else leaves."
"I need to get medicine for Misato."
"I know. Go."
"You told me to go."
"Go," she hissed.
He didn't. He pushed her over. No, no, no, she thought. Don't do this. His arms descended on her once more and she couldn't fight it.
"I'm not leaving yet," his voice, quavering, told her. "If this is what you need to hear—"
And he whispered it in her ear. She shook in his arms as the tears burst. She said it back to him, and immediately regretted it, and then decided she didn't regret it, and then decided she could both regret and not regret it.
He told her lots of things. Too many things to keep track of. Some theory about their hearts being tied up together or something. He drew a little diagram on the wall before her eyes with his finger, as if these invisible marks would prove something. He kept drawing a triangle and putting them at the top and he had all sorts of dumb ideas about what the other two corners were. But he held her attention, because he held her. He kept coming back to hold her, no matter how badly she tried to hurt him, and this had to be something. This had to be real. The dark flame had burned out of control and consumed her heart.
"Shinji, I'll try," she remembered whispering at one point. "I'll try to be better but I can't promise it. Please, please don't leave me. Please don't despair of me. Please just keep holding me."
And so he kept holding her, until dreams took her away.
"Sounds like you two cried it out," Misato said as he eased the door to their room closed.
"Yeah. I think we figured something out."
She grinned. The sweat beading on her forehead glistened in the evening sun.
"Good. She's going to be a handful, you know."
"But I bet you're up to the challenge."
Shinji pulled on his jacket. "I hope so." He paused, looked at his hands, and he was smiling. "For once—I don't want to run away."
Winter came, and with it, something like happiness. Though she'd be the last to admit it.
They realized, finally, that Misato's computer had the right date. It was November, and after they traced the days they'd been awake, they realized Third Impact had only lasted all of two days.
"All that, just for a crazy weekend no one will remember," Misato had sighed, looking up from the calendar.
"Speak for yourself," Asuka scowled. "I've got reminders."
"Me too," Misato said, sticking out her tongue and tugging up her shirt. Her wound was mostly healed, but it would scar, as Asuka's wounds had. Shinji was the only one to escape unscathed, so to speak.
In the weeks after Misato's arrival, they settled into a lazy routine. They went for walks, hands stuck into coat pockets, arm in arm. Asuka's jealousy had mostly evaporated, but Misato was careful to keep her distance from Shinji or, if she did hug him or even kiss him when drunk, she made sure Asuka got the same treatment.
"Gross," Asuka had squealed after one such affectionate encounter.
"I just love you guys so much!" Misato squealed. "I love our little family!"
Our little family—Shinji and Asuka both rolled their eyes whenever Misato would go off on it. Asuka, especially, never allowed herself to invoke the phrase without a heavy slathering of irony but somewhere along the way, they had both begun to think of this living arrangement as—yes—something like a little family.
If Misato noticed that Asuka's over-the-top declarations of love had cooled, she said nothing. In their place, something else had sprouted—something quiet but sturdy. Misato caught glimpses of it in moments when they thought she wasn't looking: hands clasped, Shinji's arms tugged tight around Asuka, her face buried in the crook of his neck. She'd collected these moments for herself in a psychic photobook only she had access to, and she found herself smiling whenever she could add a new snapshot.
Shinji still cooked for them daily: breakfast, lunch, and dinner. He cleaned, too, and never expected either of them to help. There was pleasure in these small tasks and though he didn't mean to keep them all to himself, he knew they didn't see it the way he did.
They went out to drink a few times a week. Occasionally, Misato became concerned that they (not her) were drinking too much. She'd institute a new rule that they could only drink one night a week, and it would last for all of three or four days—until Misato wanted drinking buddies. They made it through the bar book and Asuka learned, finally, to sip her cocktails.
Otherwise, there wasn't much to do. Every day was quiet. Calm. Each of them waited for the inevitable caesura: an Angel attack. An EVA going mad. Recently awakened new arrivals, raging in their confusion. But the placidity of those chilly days continued, uninterrupted.
In private, Shinji and Asuka talked. A lot. Quietly, where Misato couldn't hear. Asuka told him about her mother—he already knew some, and now he knew everything. He told her about his. What he remembered, at least. They talked for hours, in the quiet, staring at the ceiling, naked under the covers. Books they had read and wanted to read. Manga they liked and didn't like. She told him about university and he wondered aloud if he'd ever go. She was brilliant, he realized: he'd already known it objectively, but now he was immersed in the steady stream of her thoughts. In another world, she'd already be one of the greatest scientists of her generation.
"But in this world," she'd say. "I'm just NERV's trash."
Something like happiness. But not happiness. They could be together, and it felt right to be. They could be in love, and somehow, in spite of everything they'd done to one another, that felt right too. But happiness eluded.
Still, happiness was overrated. There was pleasure in being sad together, for what they had done and what they had lost and what had been done to them. Misato felt it too, and they could sit together on the balcony for hours, watching the sun set, drinking tea. One of them would say something—Asuka wondered aloud what had happened to Hikari; Shinji mentioned that Kaji's watermelons must have died in the chills—and they would descend, together, into memories of the last year even as, faced with the changing sky, they knew the world progressed.
Sometimes, after drinking, Misato especially would become sad.
"I had thought Kaji would follow me," she said one evening, looking out over the dead city. "As soon as he saw I was gone. Maybe he died too long before Third Impact. Maybe he can't."
"He'll come," Asuka said. "Because you and I are here. He'll find a way. It can't be any fun in there without us."
"We all came back so soon," Shinji murmured. "But maybe it's harder for other people."
"Do you think your dad will come back?" Asuka leaned into him. "Because I wouldn't mind pushing him off this balcony, if he did."
"I think this is exactly what he wanted all along." He was gripping the arms of the chair hard. "I think this is the only way he could be close to anyone. I feel like—I could have been like that."
"But you're not, Shinji," Misato whispered. "You're kind. You're brave. You care for other people."
Asuka watched his face change.
"That's enough, Misato," she said, voice firm. "Shinji is Shinji. He—doesn't need to be perfect."
"I didn't say he was! Just that he's a wonderful guy who wouldn't let us down."
The two of them exchanged looks when Misato bowed her head to take a long sip of tea, but they said nothing. For the most part, she was in no hurry to talk about the events surrounding Third Impact except on the most macro level. She talked about wanting to find documentation, to write something down so people would know and understand what had happened to them. In another world, she would have been a politician, the kind who comes only once in a generation and inspires. An activist leader, fighting for justice. But here, in this world—she rose late, brushing off the cobwebs of last night's binge, letting a child cook her breakfast and make her coffee. She sat until her head stopped aching, until the world stopped spinning, reading old magazines and trashy novels until enough time had elapsed that she could almost justify having another beer. Her entire life had been motion. Preparing for NERV. Running away with Kaji. Dashing across the world to fight the Angels. Now, she only left her apartment with Shinji and Asuka to pillage shops or wander, endlessly, waiting for unfamiliar faces to appear in empty Tokyo streets.
Asuka didn't want to tell Misato what had happened between them. That was how she always phrased it, carefully: "What had happened." Purging both of them of responsibility. She didn't know how to be kind, but it seemed like this was the kind of thing a kind person would do, and so she tried it, even though saying the words—"I forgive you"—were still beyond her, and might be forever. Could you have love without forgiveness?
"I think," Shinji said, leaning over the balcony one evening. He could have jumped and she'd have followed him without a second thought. "That anything is possible. So don't feel like you have to forgive me."
"What about you?"
"Do you forgive me?"
"Everything. I've been terrible to you. I still am, sometimes."
"There's nothing to forgive."
"Oh, don't do that, idiot. You play all noble but it stings."
"Maybe it does," he said, and she could see he was smiling.
"You'd prefer a girlfriend who was cute and sweet to you all the time. Who was always nice to you."
He turned to lean on the railing in a way that made him seem older than he was. She liked when he did things like that.
"Well, first off, you are cute."
"You are. You're the cutest."
"You're still lying, but your lies shall be tolerated for now," she said, thrusting her nose into the air.
"And what I want isn't necessarily what I need."
"Right," she said, with obvious pleasure. "I'm what you need."
Something caught them at that moment—a rupture in the world, or maybe they both just blinked too hard at the same time.
"Did you feel that?" he whispered.
"I think so."
They waited a few minutes, but whatever had snared them didn't return, and they drifted inside, where Misato was already passed out.
The winter holidays arrived. At Asuka's insistence, they drove into the mountains and cut down a fir tree to stick in the living room and decorate. She taught them German Christmas carols and giggled at their accents—"Stille Nacht" and "O! Tannenbaum!" simply weren't built for the Japanese tongue.
The New Year approached. 2016.
"I have a feeling," Misato had taken to saying. "That 2016 is going to be a great year. Everything is going to turn around."
"2015 was pretty awful," Shinji noted.
"Maybe 2016 will be worse," Asuka suggested.
"I bet it'll be worse," Shinji agreed.
"You two need to be more optimistic!" Misato all but roared. "2016 will be a great year."
They cleaned the house and Shinji made pretty little bento boxes for the new year, with thawed fish. It wasn't exactly the same as what he and Misato remembered, but it wasn't like either of them had great memories associated with these holidays either.
"My dad was always working," Misato had mentioned over beers in late December. "So we didn't have much of a holiday spirit. I can't imagine Commander Ikari was much for the holidays either."
"I don't even remember," Shinji admitted.
On the first day of the new year, they drove out of the city to a temple in the mountains, still relatively untouched by the destruction that had butchered Japan since the new century began. Shinji instructed Asuka in what to do at the temple.
"Japanese have such weird traditions," she grumbled. Still, she held onto his arm as they climbed the steps to the temple. "It's pretty out here and all but was it worth the drive?"
"You're Japanese too, Asuka! This is as much your heritage as it is ours," Misato pointed out.
"Deutscherin bin ich erste, und dann Japanerin," she scowled.
They donated coins to the temple (not that they would be of any use), rang the temple's ancient bell, bowed, clapped their hands, and bowed again. Afterwards, they wandered the empty temple until dark, talking about everything and nothing at all. Huddling together on the temple steps, drinking beer chilled by the cold, Asuka told them about cathedrals in Germany she remembered—the ones that hadn't been destroyed in the cataclysm years ago. They, like this temple, had survived the unending bombings which seventy years prior had seemed to their grand-parents and great-grandparents to be hell on Earth. Of course, they had no idea then.
The sun set and from the temple, they had a magnificent view. Here, they couldn't see Lillith's massive body, or the crucified EVA's, or even the sea of LCL. One could have pretended, here, that it had all been a dream—a strange fantasy dreamt up by a sick mind and nothing more.
"Up here, it's like nothing's changed," Shinji murmured. Alone, but not lonely, they sat, frozen witnesses to the apocalypse, each unwilling to be the first to leave.
Misato and Asuka fought over what to listen to. Misato listened, almost exclusively, to nineties pop music and it seemed calculated to drive Asuka crazy.
"This stuff is so—so—so—juvenile," she scowled, flipping through Misato's CDs. The binder she kept them in was old and so were the CDs, but she'd lost the aux cord to connect one of their mini-disc players, and it wasn't like there was anything on the radio.
"Well, what would be something mature?" Misato demanded.
"Something classical. Something intelligent. Shinji likes classical music too—proof of his good taste in music and women."
"But this stuff makes me happy! Shinji, here, put this on—" Misato said, flailing in the back seat for a CD. "Namie Amuro. 'Can You Celebrate?' This song was huge when I was a kid!"
As they listened, Asuka scowled from the back seat.
"Idiotic! The English chorus is so dumb."
"Then why are you swaying?" Misato demanded in triumph from the driver's seat.
"I'm not! You're swerving all over the road! We're just lucky there's no one out here but us."
"It's silly but it's not awful," Shinji offered.
"God, since when did you two become such critics? What do kids like these days?"
The kids looked at each other.
"Well, we're the only ones left so—"
Shinji started to turn forward, looking into the freezing winter darkness when the car's headlights caught a flash of white. Snow, he thought, but in a cold second, he saw he was wrong. It was a body. Stepping into the road.
"Misato!" he cried but it was too late. White flesh hit the car, flushed the windshield red, and then bounced, limbs flailing. The last thing Shinji saw before the body disappeared behind the car was a flash of pale blue hair.
"No," he whispered, fumbling for the door before Misato had even stopped the car.
"Idiot, careful!" Asuka cried as he tripped leaping out of the car. She was out now too, helping him up and they were both running, followed by Misato.
"It can't be her, it can't be her," Shinji whispered.
"Who is it?" Asuka hissed. "Did you see? Is it someone we know?"
They found her a hundred meters back, slumped against a tree, panting. She wouldn't raise her head to look at them. She was naked and splashed with blood. Shinji tore off his jacket and wrapped it around her as Asuka covered her mouth with both hands, bending into a silent scream.
"Ayanami," he whispered.
She wanted to leave.
She was tired of this place-that-was-not-a-place. Embedded though she was in this tapestry of souls, something felt off.
She missed people.
That, quite literally, was it. She missed their distinctions, and she missed specific, distinct people. She had said goodbye to them and now, she was lonely.
A failure. This was an utter failure. Whatever they had intended to make of this evolution, if she could feel loneliness here, it hadn't worked.
Would it matter if she stayed?
She suspected it would not. She suspected that she was not, ultimately, in control of her actions regardless, and that the impulse calling her to rejoin the world would triumph in the end.
Control or not, though, she couldn't deny that there were people she wanted to see. If only to prove to them that she was no doll.
With a gasp, cold air filled her lungs. She had lungs once more! The air ached in them as she wheezed, kneeling on the chilled sand, gazing at the water she had just risen from. No one, there, would miss her. Even if they realized who she was. Her soul was one thing, but that wasn't the same as a person, and she was a person. A person was a doll with a soul, but somehow more than the sum of those parts. She dug her fingers into her sand. It felt cold and good.
Rei stood and stretched. Now to find them. Her—
She felt a pain in her throat. She tried to swallow it but it wouldn't go away. She'd have to ask them about it. Her—
Why am I crying, she wondered, touching her tear-slicked cheeks. She'd have to ask them. Her—
Rei drew hoarse, aching breaths. Now, something in her chest stung in a distinctly unpleasant way. Ikari's jacket was drawn tight around her nakedness and she attempted to apologize to him for bleeding on it, but she couldn't get the words out.
This was quite embarrassing.
"Ayanami, it's going to be okay," Ikari was saying, holding her head to his chest. His fingers stroked her hair. This would have been rather nice in any other scenario but she was getting a cramp in her neck.
"Rei, what the hell were you doing?" Asuka kept asking. Looking for you three, she had wanted to say. She had seen the car, from the beach, on the way up the mountain and had tried to walk along the wooded roads to meet them there. She'd gotten lost and it was only when she stepped out of the forest, half-frozen, that she saw the car whipping around a bend. Good, she had thought, in the moment before they hit her. I found them.
"Rei, hang on, we're almost at the hospital," Misato was yelling from the front seat.
"What good is that going to do? There're no doctors," Asuka yelled back.
"But there'll be something. We have a better chance of saving her there than anywhere else."
She must have passed out, because when she awoke, she was on a gurney. She'd been in many hospital rooms in her life (lives?) and so this did not particularly alarm her. Ikari was bent over her, wiping the blood from her body and cleaning her wounds. She tried to smile at him but he didn't notice. It was kind of him to be so focused.
"Her ribs are definitely broken," she heard Asuka saying. "And she's coughing up blood. My guess is that one of her ribs punctured her lung. If we don't do something and fast, she's going to drown in her own blood."
Oh. That didn't sound good.
"What do we do?" Misato wondered aloud. "I'm not a surgeon. Setting a broken bone is one thing but this…"
Asuka looked at Ikari and then at Rei. Rei tried to smile at her but if the Second Child noticed, she didn't return the smile. No, she really was only looking at Ikari. Misato was talking but Asuka wasn't paying any attention.
And then, she was out the door.
"Where are you going?" Misato called down the hall.
"Med school," Asuka called back. "I'm gonna' save that idiot."
Asuka made a bee-line for a row of offices she had noted on their way in. All empty, of course, but that was to be expected. She aimed a hard kick at one of the doors and it flung open. Unlocked. Maybe it wasn't necessary, but it had certainly felt good.
She scanned the office. A medical textbook in Japanese wasn't going to help her. Her kanji had gotten better, but she wasn't going to waste time figuring out the radicals in the characters for "pulmonary hemorrhaging." She stormed the next office, and then the next one, and here she spied something that gave her hope. A Harvard University medical degree framed on the wall. The bookshelf held journals in English, Japanese, and French but it wasn't the journals she was after. A few minutes perusal rewarded her with a faded surgical textbook, and a binder full of notes. Both were in English.
Asuka sat down at the doctor's empty desk, flicked on the desk lamp, and began to study. She read quickly, committing entire passages to memory as she'd been able to do ever since childhood. She'd never performed a surgery before, but Asuka Langley Soryu wasn't the type to let something like that stop her.
An hour later, she stormed back into Rei's hospital room. Misato and Shinji looked up. Shinji had been crying. The idiot. He should have more faith in me.
"Let's do this," Asuka growled and cracked her knuckles. "We're going to operate."
"You're not a surgeon," Shinji observed.
"But I just speed-read a textbook on surgery. And sections on blood transfusions and local anesthesia. Putting her under will be too risky and we don't have time for that anyway, but we can at least dull the pain somewhat."
"You're serious," Misato murmured. "You're actually serious."
"I won't let something trivial like a punctured lung beat me," she affirmed. "I'm going to save her stupid life and she's going to spend the rest of it worshipping the ground I walk on."
"Rei, what do you think?" Shinji asked after a moment. Rei's gave a quick thumbs-up.
"That's more like it. First things first—Shinji, Schätzchen, we need your blood. If I remember correctly, and I do, you're both Type A. She's lost some and she's going to lose a lot more. Misato, in the meanwhile, I have a list of things for you to find me. Let's go!"
He seemed dazed as she led him into another room, where she sat him down. She gave him a ball to squeeze and fingered a prominent vain in the crook of his elbow.
"Do you really think this is going to work?" he asked as she finished setting up the equipment and cleaned the spot she would attack.
"Seriously? Ah—" he gasped as she stuck him. The tubing turned a dark red-brown as his arm yielded up blood to her.
She took his face in her hand.
"Shinji, you said it yourself. I'm good at a lot of things. I can learn things fast. That's what I've always done." She kissed him and reached down to make sure he was still squeezing the ball. "That's why it pissed me off when you would get a Synch Rate higher than mine. Because you're so much dumber than me in every possible way. So please: trust me. I'm going to save her and then you will never, ever see her naked ever again. Just start planning what you're going to make for breakfast and I'll take care of the rest."
She kissed him once more and went to check on Misato.
"I guess if there's anyone who can do this, it's you," Misato murmured as she pulled on scrubs and gloves. Shinji would be too woozy from the transfusion to help her and besides—Asuka had doubts that he wouldn't freeze up seeing Rei in pain. Misato, for all her flaws, she could rely on to be decisive. "You're the smartest of all of us. I forget that sometimes."
"It wasn't a joke. I guess you don't get many opportunities to show it off."
"I'm not showing off. I'm saving Rei's life."
"I know. But you're showing off a little, aren't you?" Misato smiled. "For Shinji."
"Oh, shut up."
"He's going to be impressed if you pull this off."
"He'd better be. You all had better be. I just shotgunned an entire surgery course."
"You're not nervous?" Misato's head cocked to the side.
"Nervous? Why would I be nervous? This isn't an Angel." They stared at each other. "Okay, but I'm not fighting her. This is a human body. I took courses on anatomy and physiology. I'm going to fix her. Just like a mechanic fixing a car."
"It's a shame what NERV did to you kids," Misato sighed. She followed Asuka into the operating room, pulling a mask over her face and muffling her voice. Rei lay before them, taking shallow breaths, half-conscious.
"Don't pity me," Asuka just scowled. "You said 2016 was going to be a great year, didn't you? I'm about to make it even better."
Shinji lay on the bench facing the operating room door, staring at the clock. An hour had passed. Then two. He drifted off at one point, only to awake with a start and see that not more than five minutes had elapsed. Whenever he sat up, the hall started to quake and he returned to the safety of the bench.
Ayanami had reappeared. Was it really her? That would be a tricky question to answer, no matter what. Moreover, she was—something more than just them. Still. It was good to see her. He hadn't realized how much he'd missed her. The prospect that they'd lose her now, though, was… No. He had to trust that Asuka would figure this out. If she set her mind to it, after all, there was nothing she couldn't do.
But—if she failed—not only would they lose Ayanami, Asuka would… He didn't want to think about that possibility.
His eyes shot open. He was nauseous as he sat up. Asuka stood before him, clad in blue scrubs, her hair pulled up and a face mask tugged down around her neck. She was sweaty and flushed but grinning bigger than he'd ever seen.
"How is she?" he stammered out. If she were smiling—
"How great do you think I am?"
"You're the best, Asuka."
"Hmm? Could you say that again? A little bit louder? So all of humanity can hear? Even though all of humanity is here on this floor, in this hospital?"
He threw his arms around her waist and pressed his head into her belly. She gave a yelp and lay her hands on his head.
"You're the best," he repeated, and only she could hear it, but he knew she'd prefer that.
"You're exactly right. Wondergirl agreed too. Said she barely felt it. She's pretty out of it but she's awake. Or she might be totally fine. You can't really tell with her."
"You really did it. You saved her."
Her grip around his neck was tight.
"We didn't give each other Christmas presents but… maybe you should find me something," she mused, teasing his hair. "Since I gave you Rei."
"Whatever you want, Asuka."
"No! It's more romantic if you pick something out, Dummkopf. I'll tell you if I don't like it and you have to find something new. And it'd better be fancy, since you can steal it."
He was grinning through tears. He pulled her onto his lap.
"You're amazing," he whispered in her ear.
She ran her fingers down his neck, over his collar bone.
"It's silly that Japanese has so many ways of saying it."
"Oh. There's only one in German?"
"Ich." She pointed at herself. "Liebe dich." She jabbed him in the chest. "That's it. But in Japanese, it's different if you're just starting out or if you've been in love for a while or what. For example, what would you say to me right now?"
They didn't say it often. It felt too raw to use every day, as if exposing it to the air too much would cause it to wilt. Shinji, though, told her then, in the way that felt most natural. She looked away from him.
"I just like the way it sounds. The way you say it. Idiot. It makes me feel…"
She elbowed him in the arm, still sore from the transfusion.
"Ow! What was that for?"
"For almost making me cry. Almost. Go see her, idiot."
He pushed her off and she groaned. As he staggered to his feet, she caught his hand.
"Hey. I did really great, didn't I?"
"You did. You knocked it out of the park."
She didn't let go.
"Are you happy?"
"What? Right now? Totally."
She shook her head. "No. Definitely not. Everything still hurts. But—" Her lips crinkled in a strange way and she took a deep breath. "But after today, I think that, someday, maybe, I could be."
Misato held Rei's hand. The girl had drifted in and out of consciousness during the operation, grunting or gasping occasionally, but now she was calm, breathing deep. Her pulse was fast—the lidocaine would do that, Asuka had noted when she took her pulse during the surgery, but it also slowed bleeding so it shouldn't be a problem—but steady. She marveled at this creature, whom she thought she'd never see again, laying before her, plucked from the jaws of death with the utmost joy and confidence.
Indeed, Asuka had never seemed more in her element. She narrated, expertly, what she was doing, and Misato took notes whenever she had a chance. The gore didn't faze her young charge in the slightest. If anything, Misato guessed Asuka might even have enjoyed it.
"I'm kind of glad Wondergirl is going to have some gross scars too. It'd be unfair if she got away with nothing."
"Oh, don't say that," shushed Misato.
"But it's true! I know it's not her fault but I don't want her looking better than me."
"Shinji's not going to jump ship like that." Misato saw the scalpel hesitate for a second, hovering above Rei's incised flesh. "Sorry. Focus on what you're doing. But he won't. You can trust him."
"I wonder if I can."
"Second Child," Rei murmured. They both looked up. Rei held her head a few inches off the table and Misato rushed to try and press her back down.
"Rei, try and relax, just try and go to sleep, I know it hurts—"
"I have felt far worse pain, Major Katsuragi." She squinted and focused her eyes on Asuka. "I love Ikari."
"Rei," Misato whispered. "Don't do this right now."
"And I want to be with him. And you. And Major Katsuragi." She took a breath. "You are my friends. I was lonely when you left. But I wish for you and Ikari to be in love. It makes me happy."
Misato turned her gaze to Asuka. Her eyes were red, but she wasn't crying.
"It's not up to you, Wondergirl."
"I know that. I'm merely stating my preference." She cleared her throat a little unsteadily. "You realize that my body is cloned from the remains of his mother?"
"I believe intimacy between myself and Ikari would be frowned on in most societies. For that reason, and that reason alone, I will not pursue him romantically or sexually, although I am tempted to."
For a full minute, the only sound was Rei's slow, ragged breathing.
"I'm sorry," she said finally. "That was a joke." Misato exhaled and Asuka slumped. She flailed her fist out and pounded a table, knocking a plateful of unused instruments onto the floor.
"You're not funny, damn it!"
"Then why is Major Katsuragi laughing?"
"Because, Rei, sometimes we laugh because we're extremely nervous."
Rei was quiet for the rest of the operation and soon, it was over. Misato exhaled once more, feeling as if she'd been holding her breath for the entire three hours. As Asuka stripped off her gloves and stalked out of the operating room, Misato sunk into the chair next to the girl. Red eyes fluttered open to look at her.
"Rei, I'm so sorry," she whispered. "But you're going to be okay now."
"I know. I was quite hopeful when I realized the Second Child was going to operate on me. She's highly intelligent. I expect I will make a full recovery."
"I'm so sorry this happened. I didn't see you."
"I was trying to catch up to you all but I got lost." She blinked a few times. "What day is it? Has it been long since you returned?"
"It's January first. For another hour, at least."
"In that case, Happy New Year, Major Katsuragi. I would have liked to join you all for the holiday's festivities."
"We can have festivities when you're feeling a bit better, Rei. I promise." Misato had worked her fingers into the girl's damp hair. "You came back to us. I can't believe it."
"After you left, I realized how lonely it was. I was afraid."
"I know. I know, it's scary."
Her breathing slowed and she seemed to be sleeping. Finally, Misato thought. She's earned some rest.
"Major Katsuragi, more will come back. Soon. Do not despair yet," she murmured. Misato felt herself take a small, sharp gasp. Thank you, she mouthed.
They enjoyed the silence for only a few moments, however. The doors creaked open and two teenaged heads peeked in. Misato pressed a finger to her lips but beckoned them in. Sleeping, she mouthed. Shinji sat next to her and Asuka stood, triumphant, over Rei.
"What did I tell you?" she whispered in a voice almost too loud to be a whisper. "All in one piece. Mostly."
Rei's eyes fluttered open and she found Shinji. She smiled.
"Ayanami," he whispered. "Welcome back."
"Happy New Year, Ikari," she whispered.
Now, they had something to do each day. Secretly, each of them was happy for a mission to give structure to their days. Someone stayed in the hospital with Rei at all times—usually, it was Misato overnight, while Shinji and Asuka took the day shift. They all had dinner together, in a hospital room they'd commandeered for Rei. Shinji made elaborate bento boxes for everyone and they sat, trading stories or talking, until Rei nodded off.
"Our little family is growing," Misato had squeal-whispered to the other two as she slept.
Rei slept a lot. Asuka was worried, initially, but Rei confided in her that she believed this to be a hangover effect from her exertion during Third Impact.
"It was very tiring," she had yawned to her ersatz doctor. "If you have never forcibly evolved an entire species, I do not know how to describe it."
"Show off," Asuka scowled and decided to lower her painkillers even more. "This will show you."
After a week, Rei was getting stronger and able to walk about the hospital unaided, though she tired easily. They brought her home and installed her in Misato's third bedroom—what had once been Asuka's room.
"I do not have many possessions, Second Child," she had assured Asuka as Shinji carried Asuka's things by the armful into his room. "So you may use my room for storage as you wish."
"You bet I will, First Child," she'd retorted. Then, she frowned. "Hey, why don't you call me Asuka? I feel like we're on a first-name basis now. Our souls merged and I pulled one of your broken ribs out of your lung."
"Asuka," Rei said, as is trying it out. "Asuka."
"Yeah. See? It's not so bad. Rei."
"It is strange. To call someone by their first name."
"But that's what friends do. You can get cutesy with it too. Japanese has lots of options for that but—"
Friends. Asuka had said it. She slapped her palm into her face.
"You made me say it, Wondergirl."
"Don't act innocent."
"I do not know what you are talking about. Did I do something wrong?" But she was smiling.
"You know exactly what you did! You're so lame."
A magazine Rei had been reading had fallen to the floor and Asuka stooped down to pick it up.
"See? You're reading Misato's trashy magazines. You're going to be a normal, boring girl before long."
"Are you a normal, boring girl?"
"Me? Of course not!"
"Do you read magazines?"
"Well, yeah, sometimes."
The red eyes stared at her, unblinking.
"Oh, forget it."
"You're not lonely," Rei said as she started to leave. Asuka froze.
"No. No, I'm not. Not anymore." She licked her lips and sighed. "You won't be either. We're all together. For now. It's… kind of nice."
"Ikari takes good care of you."
Asuka slid her arms around her body, hugging herself.
"Yeah. Yeah, he does."
"Have you forgiven him?"
"I don't know. Maybe."
"You mentioned that he was going to give you a present."
"Did I? I must have forgotten."
"It was only a few days ago. You were very excited." Rei's lips started to curve once more. "You seemed happy."
The day before Rei left the hospital, they had switched up their routine so that Shinji could go find Asuka a belated Christmas present. This had caused him no small amount of stress.
"I don't think I've ever bought a girl a present. I don't know that I've ever gotten a present for anyone," he admitted to Misato one evening at the hospital.
"Well, at least you don't have to buy her a present. So you can really go all out." Misato sighed. They sat together in the small café at the end of the hallway, which was where Shinji did dishes each evening and then made Misato coffee. At her request, he had stashed a bottle of Irish whiskey in the café's kitchen to spike her coffee. Asuka, in her newfound medical zeal, had declared that Misato couldn't drink while on duty, so she had to get her fix on the sly. "It's funny. Regular material goods don't really hold much attraction for me these days. Once upon a time, I would have raided the department stores downtown but now, it just doesn't seem worth it. I should go before more people come back and snatch up the good stuff."
"Maybe it's just not valuable without money," Shinji mused. "But there's value in liking how you look."
"True," Misato nodded. She started to speak, paused, and set her mug down. "Does Asuka like the way she looks?"
"What? I think so. I don't know."
He blushed under Misato's gaze.
"I think she does sometimes," he admitted. "But other times, I know she doesn't."
"I've tried to talk to her about it. The scarring. But she's so sensitive."
Asuka. Sensitive. Shinji almost laughed. But he knew Misato was right. If anything, that was something he'd realized that he liked. Even—loved. She was never passive or numb. Everything made her come alive, for better or for worse.
"I try to tell her that I think she's beautiful. But if I say it too much, she thinks I'm pitying her and that's even worse than if I'd called her ugly."
"I understand. What you need is a way to show her that you think she's beautiful." Misato clucked her tongue. "Hey, Shinji. When you two are—together—intimately—does she always turn the lights off?"
He blushed and stammered out a reply. "Yeah, I guess."
"Or does she keep her clothes on sometimes?"
"You know her sizes and stuff, right? For clothes?"
"Nothing tells a woman 'I like your body and I want to see it' like lingerie."
He turned as red as LCL and it was several minutes before Misato could pry an intelligible response out of him.
"Here," she said, finally, tearing off a piece of paper and scribbling a name on it. "This is my favorite boutique. They'll have something nice. Classy but… You know. Not too classy. Do you understand?"
He nodded furiously and plucked the slip out of her hands like a precious treasure that could be stolen at any moment.
"This is a joke," Asuka whispered when she opened the box. The cheery wrapping paper lay like shed skin on the floor around her. They sat together in an empty hospital room. Shinji hadn't wanted to give it to her there, considering their history with hospital rooms, but she had been insistent in her excitement. Now, he wished he'd waited till they were alone at the apartment. At least they weren't on Rei's floor. "You bastard. I can't wear this. What the hell are you doing, idiot?"
Her hands were trembling as she picked it up. It unfurled before her: a black, lace teddy. See-thru. With straps. It left approximately nothing to the imagination.
"Why did you give me this?"
"Because I want to see you wearing it," he forced himself to say, keeping his voice from shaking.
"There's no way you can want that."
"My body is… My body isn't…"
"I hate you. I take it all back. Don't do this to me."
Maybe this had been a mistake. He was about to invoke Misato's name but he decided that might only make her more upset.
"Um, you don't have to wear it. But I thought it would look nice on you. Really."
She swallowed hard.
"I'm going to put it on," she said. "And you'll see how awful it looks." She disappeared into the bathroom.
"I hate you," she called out at one point. Shinji waited, perched on the edge of the bed, until finally she emerged, face downcast.
"Well?" she asked after a few seconds. "You can see everything. You already knew what it looked like. Why do you care?"
"You're really sexy," he said, and she turned her face away. "Scars and all."
"Idiot. Asshole. I hate you."
"Don't make fun of me."
"I'm not making fun of you."
She let herself be drawn into his arms.
"I feel like I have scales. These things all over me. I don't even feel human. How can you like this?"
"Asuka, you look great. You always have. And you always will."
"I won't, when I'm old. That's how I know you're a liar." She reached for his crotch. "Fine. You're just so horny you'll screw anything that moves. You're a teenage boy after all. Or maybe it's because we're on a hospital bed." He winced and she sighed, wiping her eyes with her fingers. "Sorry."
They climbed into the bed and he held her under the sheets.
"Thank you," she said after a few minutes. "It's a pretty good gift."
"I, uh, saw some other stuff that I liked too."
"Yeah?" she asked, her voice tight and breathy.
"You could try it on."
"Would you like that?"
"Then maybe, if you're lucky, I'll consider it."
She rolled over on top of him and started to tug away his shirt.
"See, if I had been awake," she murmured in between kisses. "Wait, this is nice, so I want to take it off. So it doesn't get messed up."
"If it gets messed up, I'll wash it. Or get you a new one."
She paused, straddling his hips and fingering the fine fabric.
"Okay. Then let's mess it up."
Asuka stuck her nose in the air.
"Rei, it is absolutely none of your business what Shinji got me."
"You've also seemed happy since," Rei added as the red-haired girl stalked into the hallway. "It wasn't what I thought he was going to give you."
Asuka's head popped back into her room:
"What are you talking about?"
"I helped him pick something else out."
"You've barely left the apartment." She waited for Rei to defend herself. "What is it?"
"It is not for me to say."
"Oh, you're so lame."
And like that, the quiet days resumed. Winter had descended in full force, and they played in the snow outside, warmed themselves with hot tea inside, and continued to wait. Gradually, they moved to grocery stores further and further away to pillage their favorite frozen and dried foods. They'd all started to crave fresh fruit and vegetables but there was no question of having any of that until at least the summer. Shinji found a book on farming, of all things, and spent long hours drawing out a diagram of what to plant in the field in front of the apartment block.
What became clear to all of that, almost immediately, was that Rei had no idea how to live with other people. The social situations she'd been privy to as an EVA pilot had been so limited and while Misato suspected that she was enrolled in school precisely in order to dull some of her sharp edges, her awkwardness was all the more salient now. She'd wander into Shinji and Asuka's room as soon as she awoke in the morning to greet them, and when they asked her not to do this, she responded by staying in her room till late afternoon.
Often, she picked one of them to follow around all day. Shinji was the most tolerant of this attention: Rei's silent observation ultimately didn't bother him, and she seemed content to watch him practice cello for hours, read for hours, play video games for hours, even cook—he had started to teach her some basic recipes after realizing that, while living alone, she had subsisted solely on convenience store instant meals.
Predictably, Asuka could only tolerate Rei's presence for twenty minutes or so at a time. If she felt red eyes watching her, she'd begin to prickle and look for an escape route, sometimes taking refuge in the bathroom, only to find Rei waiting for her when she emerged.
"You just need to find ways to involve her," Misato told her when she complained. "She's never had friends before. She doesn't really know what to do with her friends."
"But! She's—like—" and here Asuka dropped her voice. "The mother of humanity or something. She should have better social skills."
"A few years with NERV screwed you up," Misato pointed out, hotly. "She's never known anything but NERV."
Slightly ashamed (though she'd never admit it), Asuka made a point to invite Rei to an arcade later the afternoon, where they played videogames in silence until they ran out of change. Under Asuka's instructions, Rei had brought a hammer and they smashed open a few games they weren't interested in and stole coins out of them.
"You know, when more people come back, we can't do things like that. People don't like it when you steal and smash things."
"But we do that all the time. Even Ikari does."
"But that's because we're the only ones here. As long as it's just us, and it's not our stuff, it's fine, but we'll need to be more careful when people we don't know come back."
The red eyes stared at her. Damn it.
"I mean, we can really only trust each other, right? After everything we've been through. We all know what happened but other people won't and they won't have any reason to trust us either."
"You're a very suspicious person."
"That's just the way the world works!" Asuka cried and kicked a broken arcade machine. "People will try to take advantage of you if you let them. You need to learn that, if you're going to live in this world. We might not always be around to make sure you don't get into trouble."
The eyes blinked and drifted to the floor. The rest of Rei's face didn't change.
"Sorry. I'm not mad, you know."
"You act mad."
"I know. I'm mad a lot. But I'm working on it."
"You're happy a lot, but you keep it a secret because you're afraid if you admit to it, it'll go away." Asuka's mouth dropped open and her hands curled into fists. "Because you think you can't lose something you don't have."
"This is an obnoxious habit of yours."
"Don't psychoanalyze people without their permission."
"I," Rei said, coolly, which was how she said everything, Asuka realized. "Am only stating the obvious."
Rei knelt and gathered a few handfuls of coins. She went back to the game she'd been playing and scattered the coins over the machine's controls. Asuka heard the soft clink of coins dropping into the machine.
"Ikari feels like he's failing you, because he thinks you're not happy."
"I'm almost wish we'd left you by the side of the road."
"That's not true. Saving my life made you feel competent and important. Moreover, you often enjoy my company, even though you will not admit it."
"You're so lame." Asuka stooped to collect some coins for herself and when she saw her reflection in one of the dead, grey arcade screens, she was half-amazed to see a grin on her face.
"Hey," she said, approaching Rei. The other girl didn't look away from the arcade screen but grunted in acknowledgement. "Rei, when I was leaving the LCL, I asked if you were God. And you said you didn't know. Do you know now?"
"No. I am not God."
"Good. You said something else though."
"Forget it, Second Child. Asuka."
"No, what was it?"
"It is not important."
"So tell me then. It was something like—'the truth is more complicated and frightening.' What's the truth, then? Seriously, nothing scares me anymore."
"There are other reactions," Rei said. "Besides fear."
"It'd better not be something lame. Like Pen-Pen is God. Or Misato."
"No. I highly doubt that either of them is God."
"Do you know?" Asuka furrowed her brow. "Hey, look at me. You're being weirder than usual."
"I am playing my game."
"In order to avoid talking to me. I'm, like, the queen of that move." Asuka batted her hands away and Rei's character died in an instant. "Tell me what you figured out."
"I didn't figure out anything. When I told you that, I didn't believe we would ever speak again."
"So why is it different now?"
"Because I don't want anything to change."
"Rei," Asuka whispered. She gripped the other girl's shoulders, turned her to look her in the eye. "If what you figured out will change things—you have to tell me."
"No. No, I do not. I'm not a doll—I can make my own decisions."
"Yes, obviously," Asuka cried, shaking her. "But look, if we're friends—we can't keep secrets. We need to trust one another, okay? You need to tell me if something is going to happen or if there's something we need to be worried about."
"It's nothing to worry about. It's nothing we can change."
"Scheisse. You're impossible."
"If I tell you, you must promise that nothing will change."
"Idiot, how can I promise that? You know I won't promise that."
"Yes. I know." She looked away from Asuka for a second, focusing on a buzzing arcade machine in the corner. "If I tell you, Ikari should also be there."
They agreed to reconvene at Rei's old apartment, since she wanted help going through her old things. She'd mostly been borrowing Asuka's clothes and it drove Asuka nuts if she couldn't find a specific item, only to see Rei wearing it later in the day. Not that the First Child had much in the way of clothes. Asuka wasn't sure if she'd ever seen her wear something besides a plug suit or her school uniform.
"I'm sure it won't be a big deal," Shinji said when Asuka went home to collect him.
"I don't know about that. She seemed kind of freaked out. As freaked out as Rei can get."
"But how bad can it be? There are no more Angels, no more EVAs."
Asuka dashed around their room, stuffing things into a bag—a notebook, pens, manga, his SDAT player, snacks. It was only when Shinji placed his arms around her that she slowed to a halt and took a shuddering breath.
"I'm scared," she admitted.
"We're not going to run away from this," he whispered. "Whatever it is, we can handle it."
"When did you get so brave?"
"It's easy. All I have to do is be brave for a few minutes and then you take over and I can go back to being a coward."
She reached for his hair, dug her nails into his scalp, as if holding on.
"You're not going to leave me."
"Idiot. You're fifteen. Don't make promises like that."
"Mein Gott, what a dump!" Asuka gasped. "Nerv couldn't have sprung for something nicer?"
"It really hasn't changed a bit," Shinji sighed, setting down his bag.
"You've seen her apartment before?"
"Ikari visited me several times here."
Why am I only hearing about this for the first time, Asuka wondered, looking from Shinji's guilty face to Rei's expressionless one.
"To drop things off," he said. "Her NERV ID and stuff."
"That was the day you found me naked and touched my breasts, was it not?" Rei asked. She blinked. "Ikari?"
"Shinji!" Asuka screeched. "What the hell?"
"I thought you knew about that! From Instrumentality!"
"Sorry, but I didn't catalogue every one of your intimate moments with Rei! And you—you're enjoying this too much," she said, jabbing a finger at the blue-haired girl who almost smiled in return.
"I thought I might lighten the mood first," she said. "Did I fail?"
"No, it's fine, Ayanami—but—"
"Yes," Rei sighed. She folded her hands. "Shortly after Third Impact, I began to suspect that the Human Instrumentality Project had failed. Completely. That Third Impact had failed. Utterly. Resulting in the complete extermination of the human species."
She allowed this to sink in.
"But that's obviously not true," Shinji started. "Because we're here."
"Are we?" Rei asked.
"Yes," Asuka scowled. "We are. I can feel this chair, I can feel the floor, and I can feel the clothes on my body. And I can think. Here I am, thinking about thinking. Cogito ergo sum. I think, therefore I exist."
"Or are you a projection of thinking? A dream someone else might be having."
No one spoke for several moments.
"Who?" Asuka asked, finally.
Rei turned to Shinji.
"No," Asuka said.
"Yui Ikari foresaw this possibility. As a failsafe against any cataclysmic events resulting from the Angels, or SEELE's interventions, or her husband's, she saw to it that EVA Unit 1 would act as a kind of evacuation vessel. For you, Shinji Ikari."
"So, what you're saying," Shinji began.
"No. No. No. No. No. No."
"I believe it is more likely than not that this reality is simply a dream of Ikari's. Only the people most important to him have returned, and this reality enacts scenarios in which he can find solace and redemption for his past transgressions, both real and perceived."
"No. That's impossible," Asuka moaned. "That's not fair."
"For instance," Rei continued. "Ikari achieved reconciliation with you, though not without enormous pain. He is a fundamentally masochistic individual or, more accurately, he struggles to believe that he is worthy of love without first experiencing extraordinary suffering."
"That might be true, but that doesn't mean we're—fake."
"We're not fake," Rei said, shaking her head. "We exist in his dreaming mind. Perhaps. I'm not sure. There's a distinct possibility that I'm wrong, and this reality is… real. Outside of Ikari's mind, I mean."
"Ayanami, is there a way we can know for certain?" Shinji asked once they'd all stared at their shoes for several minutes. "Like—something Asuka knows that I don't know."
"Right," Asuka said fiercely, looking up. "Shinji—" and she recited:
Freude, schöner Götterfunken,
Tochter aus Elysium!
Wir betreten feuertrunken,
Himmlische, Dein Heiligthum.
"Um," he said. "That's the text of the Ode to Joy. I do know that."
"Fine—can you translate it?"
"'Joy, beautiful spark of the Gods, daughter of Elysium. We enter, burning with fervor, your sanctuary, oh Divine.'"
She waited. Shinji shrugged.
"So, that proves it. We're real. This is all real."
"Those words and that translation could be made up entirely," Rei pointed out. "And the history of the world in this reality transformed to fit them, to maintain the illusion."
"What else can we do then?"
"Nothing. There is a chance that we may fade away from this world, I suppose, if Ikari starts to forget us."
She'd been looking at her hands, as had Shinji, but they both looked up when Asuka let out a sob.
"Rei, this isn't fair. I was—I was happy, damn it." Shinji came for her but she pushed him off. "Rei, tell me the truth."
"This is the truth. As far as I can tell. There is fundamental uncertainty built into this proposition, of course."
"This is going to drive me insane. Rei, please—"
"I asked you to promise that this would change nothing. Do you understand why now?"
"I, too, am dismayed at this idea."
Asuka burst from her seat and suddenly, her hands were around Rei's throat. The red eyes blinked at her but Rei offered no resistance as Asuka choked her.
"No, Asuka!" Shinji was crying behind her, trying to pull her away but whenever he pried a hand off Rei, Asuka jabbed him in the mouth and grabbed the tender white throat before her once more.
"Don't take this from me, Rei. You bitch. You bitch. I should have let you die. If I'd let you die, maybe I could be happy. I was almost happy, Shinji. I was happy. I was getting happy. We were happy. But it was all smoke and mirrors."
Rei's hand drifted through the air, touched Asuka's cheek.
I hate this, she thought as she let go. She sank to her knees, covered her face, let the tears overflow. Shinji was holding her and crying too, and Rei cleared her throat a few times.
"I don't feel well," Rei murmured.
Half an hour later, everyone had calmed down or, more accurately, exhausted themselves with crying. There came a point, Asuka reflected, where tears were no longer enough. Where they began to feel like a caricature of sorrow. When you've already cried and mourned so much that to cry more feels odd, unnecessary, even distasteful.
"Rei," Shinji asked. His arms were around both of them. They'd all ended up on Rei's bed, staring at the ceiling—sickly white tiles that seemed ready to fall on them at any moment—with Shinji between the two girls. Asuka wasn't enthused by this configuration, but she recognized, even on the fringes of jealousy, that Rei resting her head on Shinji's chest in a mirror image of Asuka's own face pressed against his heart was the least of her worries right now. "What would happen if I died?"
"I, personally, would be quite sad."
"I mean, if I'm dreaming all this and you're just expressions of that dream."
"I suppose… you would awaken. Perhaps. Perhaps you cannot die in this reality." Rei lifted her head to look at both of them. "This is only one possibility. It's not the only one."
"But you said you think it's likely," Asuka whisper-scowled.
"Yes. But many things that aren't likely also happen," Rei murmured. "The chances of all of our specific atoms coordinating into these organisms and meeting at this very moment, for instance, is infinitesimally unlikely and yet, it has happened."
"Unless we're a dream."
"Yes. Unless we're a dream," Rei sighed. "But it would also hold true for our meeting before the dream. Unlikely things are still extremely possible, in the long run of existence."
"I'm not concerned with the long run of existence, Wondergirl. I'm concerned with my own short, pitiful existence and whether or not it's already ended and I'm just what Shinji thinks I sounded like when I existed."
"I wish," Rei said, her voice lowering. "That you would not call me 'Wondergirl.' It seems pejorative. We discussed calling one another by our first names and I have been doing that."
"It's just a nickname, Ayanami," Shinji said softly. "She doesn't mean to be mean."
"And yet, I'm always the bad guy," Asuka grunted. "Rei."
"I mean, this isn't that much different from that old thought experiment. What if we're just brains floating in some mad scientist's lab, dreaming all of this? Right?" Shinji asked.
"Easy for you to say. You exist," Asuka scowled.
"That is not certain. Another distinct possibility, for example," Rei offered. "Might be that we're characters in some narrative. A piece of fiction. A manga or an anime. We only think and exist insofar as our creators allows us to, and it doesn't seem odd to us when we do not, because we do not exist otherwise."
"I've never wanted one of Misato's beers more," Asuka whispered.
Rei reached for one of Asuka's hands. Asuka stared at the pale fingers interweaving with hers. What was this? Not pity—Rei didn't seem capable of pity yet. Pity was too advanced a social construct for her. It was comfort—even commiseration, which, it struck Asuka, was not nearly as complicated as pity because the conditions of degradation, humiliation, and general sorrow were so universal to all thinking creatures.
"I didn't want to voice this to you," she said, and with a sharp pang, Asuka realized she was crying. "We were having fun and I thought I could forget it too. I wanted to forget it. I almost did, some days. I'm sorry I could not—hold it in."
"It's not your fault, idiot."
"I'm sorry," Shinji whispered. "To both of you. If I'm doing this."
"Idiot. You can't help it either. Though—the fact that you're snuggling with both of us and we're just taking it really doesn't make me optimistic that Rei's wrong."
Shinji started to sit up and take his arms away but both girls, as if they'd coordinated it, pulled him back down.
"You guys were gone a while," Misato chirped when the three teens arrived home. Her eyes passed over the red marks on Rei's neck and a new bruise growing on Shinji's chin. They settled on Asuka, eyes swollen and puffy. "Did… something happen?"
"Just… stuff," Shinji said. Lame answer, Misato noted immediately.
"Huh. Stuff. Stuff I need to be worried about?"
The three of them parted, drifting to different areas of the apartment without saying anything. Only Shinji stood before her, head bowed.
"No. Not worried. Just…"
For a second, it seemed as if he might cry. As if he had a load on his heart to spill and he was going to vomit it up to her. Misato wasn't sure if she was ready for this, exactly—she'd printed out some four-hundred pages of SEELE correspondence which she was categorizing for posterity and the task was dismal, to say the least—but she braced herself for something awful.
"We all had a silly fight," he sighed. "I think it's my fault."
"You already apologized?" Misato said. She didn't need to ask, she mused, grinning.
"Then that's probably all you can do. Let them come around. Girls are sensitive."
"I'm sensitive too," Shinji sighed. "I kind of wish I weren't. Some people manage to get by and barely feel anything, you know?"
"Yeah, but feeling things doesn't make you weak or anything. It's just—a different kind of strength," Misato said. "It might not seem like it now but some day, people will love you for it."
Something prickled the back of Misato's neck. Asuka, she realized, was watching both of them.
"Exactly," she grunted. "Shinji. Let's go for a walk."
"You should go," Misato said with a wink. "And don't hurry back for dinner. Rei and I can manage. You guys go and figure it out."
They both looked grim as they marched out the door, but this was lost on Misato. I'm such a good mentor to them, she congratulated herself silently. She'd earned another beer.
The winter sun was setting and casting long shadows as they walked, without any particular goal in mind, as if they farther they walked, the more distant their problems would become.
"I hate this," Asuka said, finally, her breath steaming before her. Shinji reached for her hands but she threw them off. "I should hate you for this too, but that'd just be you hating yourself. It's all so pointless."
"It might not be." In spite of everything, she was perfection in the harsh frozen light. Hair aflame, her hands pressed to her lips. Her face was pink and puffy from crying and the cold, but somehow, this just made her eyes all the more cutting when they found his. He smiled, weakly. "What are you grinning at, idiot?"
"You're just really pretty right now."
"Dummkopf. I'm always pretty."
"You can't be serious. I'm a mess." She fingered the tassels of her coat. "You're good at this, sometimes."
"I don't know what to call it. But… It's not like you say the right things. I don't know what the right thing to say right now would be. But maybe, the things you say are better than the right thing to say."
"That doesn't make any sense."
"I know. It's dumb. Do you ever feel like, sometimes, we did things in the wrong order?"
"Like we shouldn't have been entrusted with EVAs? Why didn't they find adults to pilot them? Why didn't they let us grow up first?"
"Yeah. I guess we more or less know why."
"But it still sucks."
They found a park, stripped bare by the cold, and took up residence on an empty bench. Every bench, in fact, was empty.
"Aren't you going to ask if I'm okay?" she began once more. "Or have you decided you don't need to ask that if I'm just a projection of your mind?"
He looked at his hands.
"I think we're real, Asuka. I really, really do."
"That's not good enough. I need proof."
"What do you want me to say?"
"I want you to figure it out," she scowled. "I want you to find some missing key that makes everything okay and proves that we're real and that I'm in love with your stupid ass and it's not some shadow play orchestrated by your sick mind."
"That's what you want?"
"That's what I want."
The wind sailed through the park and naked branches trembled under its caresses.
"What if I can't give that to you?"
"Then I'm going to go insane." She slumped, bundling her hands into her coat. "Shinji, I'm serious. I can handle everything else. What you did to me. What the Angels and the EVAs and NERV and SEELE did to me. What my own mother did to me. But this is too much. I can't bear this." A sob-wracked breath and then another. "I don't want this. I can't stand not knowing. I don't know how long I can take this, Shinji. I'm sorry. I'm sorry I'm not strong enough. I need to know."
"What will you do," he asked after a few minutes. "If you don't learn?" He was surprised at how strong his voice sounded, as if it were someone else's.
"I don't know."
"I followed you, to that store. That day."
He saw her eyes widen.
"I got there just as you were climbing down from the chair. I hid and then I ran when I was sure you weren't going to do it. I should have done something more."
"If I had done it, what would you have done?"
"I would have tried to save you. Hold you up and try to pry the belt off your neck."
"Liar. You couldn't save me last time. Or you just didn't."
"It would have been different," he whispered.
"I don't believe you."
"Will you try it again, if you don't know the truth?"
"I don't know."
The wind left them and the park was very still. No birds. No buzz and hum of traffic. Just the slow breathing of the world, falling silent.
"Asuka, there is one way we can know for certain." He watched her tighten. She seemed to shrink in her jacket. "If I die, you'll know. This world will either disappear or—I'll just die."
She didn't speak for a long time.
"What are you suggesting?"
"I'll do it. For you."
"Idiot. That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard."
"Then you'll know."
"No. I don't want to know that badly."
"But you do."
"I'm not worth it." She took a deep breath. "I'm not worth dying for." But she leaned against his shoulder.
"We can do it tomorrow morning. We'll sleep on it."
"You'll chicken out."
"I won't run away from this."
"You're an idiot."
"You asked me to prove that I'm sorry? Will this be proof?"
"Idiot. I don't need this kind of proof."
"You're so miserable because of things I did and didn't do. Let me do this for you."
"Shinji, please," she whispered.
"If—if we were real—and I had to be here without you—and face Misato and Rei—"
"Other people will wake up. You won't need me."
"No. No. No. I need you. I do need you. I need you so badly." She swallowed hard. "I'd follow you. After you do it. Either way. If you just die and I'm still here—I'll end it too. We don't have to be apart. You idiot. I can't believe I'm promising to die with you."
"Like Romeo and Juliet."
"Kind of," she said, her voice soft and tiny. "But that was more of a stupid misunderstanding. This is the fundamental tragedy of the human condition we're dealing with." She stretched out her hand to catch the setting sun on her fingertips. "I'm insufferable, aren't I? Do you think I would have learned when I got older?"
"I hope not. I like you how you are."
"I guess we'll never know."
As they had agreed, they slept on it. They awoke, early, the next morning, and the sorrow and ache was still with them, so they rose. The others were still asleep.
Shinji wrote out a note explaining what they had done. He was best suited to this, both for his clear, neat handwriting and his skill at apologizing. Asuka ducked into Misato's room, and filched the NERV-issued pistol from their passed-out guardian.
Together, they walked down to the beach, next to the sea of LCL. It made sense, they agreed, to end this chapter where it had begun.
"So," Shinji said after they'd stood on the shore a few minutes.
"Mm." She would miss his warmth.
"Maybe we'll just flow back into the LCL."
"Maybe. Or maybe you'll wake up and forget this ever happened."
"I don't want to forget this, if it's a dream."
"I don't believe that."
She drew the pistol from her coat and handed it to him.
"You don't have to do this."
"I want to do this. For you."
"I hate the way you say that."
"Why? I'm sorry."
"No. Don't apologize. Because it sounds like you actually love me and that scares me."
"Because that means you could stop loving me."
He examined the pistol. He aimed it out to the sea and then up in the air and then pressed it to his temple.
She nodded. Words wouldn't form on her lips. He lowered the gun.
"In olden times, you'd write a poem before you killed yourself."
"Are you going to write a poem?"
He shook his head. "I've never been good at stuff like that."
He started to raise the gun once more. He pressed it to his skull.
"Asuka, I'm sorry."
"Shinji, wait—" she sputtered and reached for him as he squeezed his eyes shut and pulled the trigger.
The gun had clicked uselessly. He clicked it again and nothing happened. Rei was dashing towards them, tumbling down a snowy dune, her face flushed.
"Ikari, stop it! Stop it!" she screamed.
Shinji lowered the pistol and stared at the panting girl.
"I found the note."
"How did you know we'd be here?"
"I guessed," she panted. "And I ran."
She plopped down onto the sand, head between her legs. For a second, it seemed she might throw up.
"Please, do not do this."
"Well," he said. "I think the gun is broken anyway."
"What? Seriously?" Asuka groaned. "After all that—"
Rei held out her hand and Shinji passed the pistol to her. She clicked the safety off, aimed it at one of the dunes, and squeezed off a pair of shots. The other two jumped with each report.
"It works fine. The safety was on."
"Idiot," Asuka whispered. "Didn't turn off the safety."
"How was I supposed to know about that? I've never fired a gun."
"Oh, that's right," Asuka said. She slapped her forehead. "All the NERV quarterly trainings were in that month when you were stuck inside Unit 1."
"Ah, that is correct," Rei nodded. She stood up. "We had mandatory small arms training."
"Really? NERV did stuff like that?"
"And a variety of human resources workshops on giving and accepting feedback, creating a positive work environment, investing your retirement savings—" Rei continued.
"There was even a weekend-long retreat with all the operations staff," Asuka nodded. "We talked about what frustrated us about NERV. Fuyutsuki cried." She let out a long, slow sigh. "It was super weird."
"Ikari, please do not do this."
"Ayanami, I think I have to."
"No, you don't." She turned to Asuka.
"Don't look at me! It wasn't my idea."
"What will you do, if he dies and you remain?"
Asuka turned away from both of them. "I'll do it too."
"And you'll leave me alone."
The waves of LCL crashed soft against the shore.
"I'll die as well," Rei sighed, finally. "I have died before."
"Show off," Asuka muttered. The three of them stared out at the sea: Lillith's massive body remained, and Rei seemed fantastically small, reflected in the giant.
"It's not so different from the philosophical dilemma humans have always lived with," Rei said after a few minutes. "Living always requires some kind of faith. We'll never have complete certainty that we aren't someone else's dream, or that we ourselves aren't dreaming, or that we have free will. But we can't help but live as if we are real, and as if we do have free will."
"But you said you thought this was the most likely scenario," Shinji said.
"Yes. I do. But there are other scenarios that are also possible and since it's unknowable—"
"But it is knowable," Asuka growled.
"But at a terrible cost. Do you truly wish for Ikari to die?"
"No! No! Of course not!" Asuka screamed. Her face seemed to shatter before them and she drew her hand back, swiping it hard across Rei's face. She stumbled back a few steps under the force of the blow and touched her enflamed cheek. "That's the last thing I want. I just feel like I'm losing my mind."
"Asuka," Shinji said, softly. "It's okay. Let's just do it. Let me do this for you."
"Why do you love me like this?" she whispered. "Do you love me? Or is this some pitiful scene you're orchestrating to make yourself feel better?"
He smiled, sadly, and pressed the barrel to his head once more.
"I wish I could tell you."
He closed his eyes and the gun went off. He opened them once more, surprised to be able to do such a thing. Asuka had reached for the gun, pulled it a few inches forward just in time, and the shot had flown harmlessly between their faces, leaving a perfume of gun powder hanging over their lips.
"I don't want this," she said. "Not like this. Not ever. If I'm going to die, I don't want the last thing I see to be you—doing this."
"Ikari," Rei said. Her voice was soft but firm. "Why don't you give me the gun?"
He handed it over and Rei tucked it away into her jacket. She watched, silently, as Asuka wrapped herself around Shinji's neck. She couldn't hear what they were saying to one another, but she suspected she already knew.
"You guys went out early!" Misato chirped when they arrived back at the apartment. Their faces were flushed and haggard from the cold. "What were you up to?"
"We just went on a walk," Shinji said. Misato noted with approval that he and Asuka were holding hands.
"We all had some stuff to work through," Asuka said. "Everyone needed a good cry."
"I just love how you guys support each other now." Misato leaned her head on her hand, blinking away last night's beer. "You're such good kids. I wish I had friends like you when I was your age."
They stared in grim wonder at her until Rei spoke up.
"Major Katsuragi, I would like to read a magazine. May I take one from your bedroom?"
"Oh. Uh, sure—I don't see why not."
Rei disappeared into Misato's room and reemerged moments later, holding a glossy fashion magazine.
"I have been wanting to read this one," she said, looking at everyone.
That evening, Asuka stepped into the apartment, leaving Shinji and Rei on the balcony. The sun had gone down and the balcony lights barely caught the steam rising off their tea, reflecting off their pale faces.
As soon as the door clicked shut, she felt something was wrong. Misato sat at the dining room table. A note was in her hand. The note they had left that morning. Her pistol lay next to a glistening can of beer.
The spilled beer can on the floor explained everything. Misato looked up.
"Asuka." How was it possible for a voice to sound so drained of blood? So pale? "Asuka, what is this."
"Where did you find that?"
"The floor. I spilled my beer and it was just under the table. Asuka—"
Damn it, Rei. She must have found the note and dropped it as she dashed out of the door. She'd remembered to return the gun to Misato's room, but they'd all forgotten about the note.
They regarded each other in silence for several moments. Say it, Asuka dared her with a fierce look. Say something. Say anything. Finally, Asuka took the initiative. As if it were nothing unusual, she strode forward and plucked the note out of Misato's hand. She held it over one of the stove burners and it was gone in seconds, a mass of smoking cinders that she carefully swept into the trash.
"You read it," she said. It wasn't a question.
"Asuka, three cartridges from this magazine are missing."
"That sounds about right."
"What happened this morning?"
"You don't need to know. It won't happen again, and no one got hurt." Misato frowned. She bowed her head. Her hand hovered over the pistol for a second before returning to her lap.
"Don't lie to me, Asuka. Please. Not now. Not in my own house."
"I'm not lying to you," Asuka said. She rounded on Misato. "I won't let anything like this happen again. I promise. I don't want it."
"Asuka, did Shinji—"
"Shut up. Please. Please. Please. I don't want to think about it. I don't want to think about today ever again. I want to forget all about this. I want to pretend this never happened. I want to pretend this world is real and I'm real and so are you and so is Wondergirl and we're all one little happy family. Even if it's not true, I'll try to pretend. Even if I lose my mind, I won't be the one to ruin it."
"It might not be true," Misato whispered.
"Exactly. That's what Rei kept saying. So drop it. That's what we need to believe."
"Of course," Misato said. She was smiling. It hurt to see her smile like that. "Just when I thought we could all be happy—there had to be something. I should have known."
"That's right. I went and decided I was finally happy, for once in my life, and this happened."
"Did you tell Shinji?"
"That you're happy?"
"Not—exactly. Not yet. Sort of. This morning. It doesn't matter now. I'll never be happy but that's okay."
"I'm sorry, Asuka. If it helps—not being happy and pretending you are. That's a big part of being an adult."
"Oh, go to hell."
"I'm serious." Asuka slunk into the chair across from Misato and buried her face in her arms. "You always talked so much about being an adult. You know what being an adult is? Staying awake till the wee hours of the morning, worrying about things you can't control. Getting up in the morning and putting on a brave face for those around you. Doing things you hate for people you love who'll never, ever appreciate you." As she spoke, she began to wiggle a pop-tab from a beer. Finally, it snapped free. Misato held it up to the light for a second, appraising it, and then tossed it over her shoulder into the trash. "Drinking to forget people who don't deserve you."
When Asuka didn't say anything more, Misato scowled and retreated to the fridge. She plopped a beer down in front of the girl and cracked one open for herself.
"Drink up, kid. It only gets worse from here."
They raised their cans together.
"Here, in Germany, they do this," Asuka said, reaching over and sliding Misato's arm over hers, so that they were linked. "They call it Brüderschaft trinken." They both took deep sips. Misato tried to say the foreign word, stumbling over the strange sounds. Asuka had only ever her speak English in Germany, or Japanese with her and Kaji.
"There. Now, if we were speaking German, we'd be close enough to call each other 'du' when talking."
"That's cute. Japanese doesn't work like that, of course."
"It's so complicated."
They slurped from their beers into the silence.
If Instrumentality had liquefied the human race instantaneously, the thaw that arrived a few weeks after that day on the beach slushed the snow still clinging to the soil at a much more languid pace. The change was so gradual that day to day, no difference could be perceived: Asuka still pulled her scarf tight over her face, scowling at the bitter winds and scowling at Rei, who had never known winter or even seen winter clothes, it seemed, and so practically needed to be dressed before going out (that day on the beach, in fact, she had dashed out after them wearing pajamas, which she normally had to be reminded not to wear outside); Misato still preferred to stay inside, watching the snow from their window with a stack of NERV documents and a beer as her faithful companions; and Shinji still did practically every chore he could identify, in a silent routine of daily penance that none of his roommates questioned.
Still, the thaw arrived, and surprised with its arrival. Shinji noticed it one day when, after an aimless, mostly silent walk—just the two of them—Asuka pushed him to the ground. He felt on soft, moist soil which nursed baby grass—not the frozen earth he expected.
"Ow!" he cried. "What did you do that for?"
"I don't know." She was grinning at him, flushed. The tears, balanced on her eyelashes, a product of the wind, made her look like some mischievous demon child. "I just felt like it, you know?"
"You should apologize when you do something like that," he grunted. She reached out her hands and he took them. She pulled him to his feet and then pushed him again, harder. He tumbled even further off the path and once again, hit soft Earth.
She settled herself on top of him like a hen nesting.
"We're gonna' get all muddy, Asuka."
"Then you can wash our clothes. Or we'll steal new ones."
They lay there, in the mud, saying nothing and wanting nothing, set in silence that wasn't silence, because there was life all around them: they heard birds, chattering from their perches on the budding branches about them. They heard the wet kisses of moist things growing, slowly but inexorably. They heard the wind and they heard their own breathing.
"You picked such a dirty place to tackle me," Shinji said, at one point.
"Shut up, idiot."
They felt, both of them, the truth that somehow, however impossible it was to imagine, they were part of this ecology: a world larger than humans, which breathed and lived without humans, whose struggles and sorrows were nothing to it. And even if it were a dream, that only meant that this respiring body existed elsewhere, continuing to wake anew each spring.
"Can I ask you to promise me something?"
"You'll think it's stupid."
"If this is a dream, and you wake up some day—"
A crow took off with a sudden screech. It alighted upon a new perch and seemed to watch them.
"Promise you'll come find me? In the real world. If you promise me that, and then we can be just like this for real—even for one day—I think I'll be able to hold on."
"Wait, Third Child! Don't agree to things without knowing all the details. After all, I might be dead. I might be LCL. You'll have to find me. You'll have to—I don't know—titrate me out of all the other souls all squished up together."
"I might be in Hell. You might have to get into Unit 1 and fight all of Satan's demonic legions to rescue me."
"God Himself might be angered by your insolence, daring to challenge the order of the universe. You might have to become the new Satan, and wage a thousand-year war against God and all His angels, just to have one day with me in a cold muddy field. Not even a day. One afternoon."
"I'd do it. I've got a pretty good track record against Angels, anyway."
"Idiot," she said through a grin. "No one should promise to do something so stupid."
"I guess I'm stupid enough."
"You are. That's why I like you. You're the only one who's stupid enough to want to be with me." She flicked his nose. "I'm going to hold you to it. But if this is just part of you talking, you might have to convince me, you know. When you find me. What will you say to me, when you find me? Remember, I won't know anything about this promise you made with the imaginary Me."
"I don't know."
"What will you say?"
"Knowing me, something dumb. I'll probably ask if you want to kiss."
"Mein Gott, but that is lame. You need a sexy line, like something Kaji would have said."
"Well, if I have to fight a thousand-year war against Heaven and Hell while also figuring out how to suck your LCL out of the primordial soup of all humanity—I think I'll have enough time to come up with something good."
"You'd better." She swallowed hard. "This is really tough."
"They don't teach this in school."
"You don't even know what I'm talking about."
"Yeah." She tucked her fingers into his hair. "Sometimes, I feel like I'm going to overflow. Sometimes, I want to scream and break everything in sight. Sometimes, I just want to pin you to a wall and touch you. Sometimes, I can't stand the sight of you. Sometimes, I can't stand the idea of Rei or Misato even looking at you."
He didn't say anything, and even though that disappointed her at first, she realized he was holding her tighter.
The sky changed overhead.
"This world really is beautiful," he said, finally.
Spring had come, and like lovers all throughout human history, recorded and otherwise, they had found things stronger than sorrow.
The ides of March found Asuka and Rei at yet another convenience store, digging through the remnants early twenty-first century human cuisine. This store was still further from the apartment, and they would abandon it in a week or so, moving on to the better stuff that still hid from them, undiscovered groceries will full freezers. The grid held out, and so did they.
"I have never tried these," Rei murmured. She gazed at a package of rice snacks.
"Are they expired?"
"Then let's take them."
"Yes." Rei hugged the package tight to her chest. A sudden chime and foot steps told them that someone else had just entered the convenience store.
Shinji? Asuka mouthed to Rei. Rei shook her head. No—the steps had a clacky edge to them. Whoever it was, they were wearing high heels.
Misato? Asuka mouthed again. Rei shrugged, listened, and then shook her head. No—these footsteps weren't going to the fridge for beer or ready-made noodles. And if it were Misato, why hadn't she called out to them?
Asuka cracked her knuckles. She looked fiercely at Rei, flaring her nostrils and softly punching her fist into her palm. She nodded at the front of the store but Rei shook her head. Asuka nodded. Rei shook her head. Asuka nodded. She hadn't taken NERV's subsidized Krav Maga classes for nothing, after all. And that was in addition to her black belt in taekwondo from when she lived in Germany. She set down the ten-kilo bag of rice she'd been holding, and strode towards the counter, peeling and unpeeling her feet against the tile floor to keep from making too much noise. Rei followed several steps behind, still holding the rice snacks.
Whoever it was, they were behind the counter. Asuka took a deep breath, approached the counter, and then flung herself over it, leg out. She let out a righteous yawp and the ball of her foot caught the figure just as it stood up, cutting under its shoulder blade and slamming it hard into the wall.
Had she not realized who it was at the last second, she would have floated, with the utmost elegance, back over the counter, using the force of her attack to guide her body back to safety. The splash of blonde hair which revealed itself at the last second, however, confounded her recovery and Asuka yelped as she crashed into the counter.
"Dr. Akagi," Rei murmured. "Welcome back."
"What—what the hell?" Ritsuko held herself braced against a wall, pulling herself to her feet. "Asuka? Asuka?"
"Sorry! We thought you might be—uh—"
"What? Who did you think I could be, such that you needed to attack me with a flying kick?" Ritusko groaned.
"Yes, Asuka," Rei agreed. "Who did we think she could be such that we needed to attack her?"
"I—just—wanted to establish dominance. If it were a new person."
"Well, it's not," Ritsuko grunted. "Or, it is. I don't know." They both climbed over the counter. Ritsuko placed the cigarettes she'd been scavenging next to the other items she'd collected: aspirin and bandages. She dusted herself off and unbuttoned her blouse to examine a bandage clinging to her belly. "At least this didn't come undone."
The two girls regarded the blonde woman for several seconds as she adjusted her clothes. She'd apparently ditched her lab coat for a warmer overcoat—a Burberry coat, in fact. She must have passed through a department store on her way up from the beach, Asuka noted. In her memory palace, she mentally filed away a reminder to explain to Rei what a Burberry coat was, and a department store.
"So, you two are back," Ritsuko said finally. "I was worried when I didn't see anyone."
"And Ikari. And Misato," Rei offered.
"I figured as much."
Asuka stepped forward. Ritsuko managed a smile.
"Asuka, are you—"
The girl's open palm whipped across her face. Ritsuko lifted a hand to her swollen cheek.
"I won't say I didn't deserve that," she said, feeling around inside her mouth with her tongue, finding blood. "But what was that for, specifically?"
"Rei, if you want to get a shot in, be my guest."
Rei shook her head. She retreated to the freezers, found a bag of frozen peas, and pressed it to Ritsuko's face.
"That's… very charitable of you, Rei. Considering everything that happened."
"This world is different now," Rei shrugged. "I have more important things to do than hate you."
She gestured to the rice snacks.
"We should hurry home. Ikari will need to make extra for dinner tonight."
A party was declared in honor of Ritsuko's return. Beers were poured and after dinner, the five of them retreated to the bar.
"This place?" Ritsuko asked, staring at the marquis. Somehow, none of them had ever commented on the name before and in the dim light of street lamps—several of the bulbs had gone out—Ritsuko read the Latin letters aloud. "Memento Vivere. Misato, didn't you get kicked out of here once?"
"Everything that happened before Third Impact doesn't count," Misato said, and grabbed her arm. They sat together at the bar while the teenagers piled into a booth, Shinji between the girls.
"How often do you go drinking with them?" Ritsuko asked, frowning.
"Um, only a few nights a week."
"That's not healthy. For anyone."
"C'mon… It's the end of the world," Misato shrugged.
"How long has the end of the world lasted?"
"What do you mean?"
"I mean, how long have you been back?" Misato had poured herself a beer and Ritsuko leaned over the bar to grab a bottle of whiskey.
"A few months. I found them—Shinji and Asuka—in November. Rei showed up in January." She sighed. "And that's it."
"No Kaji, huh?"
"Oh, go to hell."
"It was hard to return. The longer you're in there, the harder it is, I think. You start to forget yourself."
"I know. I remember."
"It doesn't hurt, but—" Ritsuko shrugged. "It doesn't feel good either."
"Why did you come back, then?"
"I was lonely."
"That's what I thought."
"Is it? In that place where no one is supposed to be lonely?"
Misato took a long sip of beer.
"I think loneliness is—when you miss certain people. You can be with one person forever and never be lonely. Or you can feel torn apart by distance and solitude. It doesn't matter."
"For centuries, science discounted the existence of a soul in any significant, substantive way. And here we are. But there's more to us than just a soul."
"What do you mean?"
"So much of what we are exists between others," Ritsuko shrugged. She found a rocks glass and poured out two-fingers. Then another two-fingers, for good measure. "I'm not me without the space between me and you. Ritsuko and Misato, I mean. I could be someone else, but without you, I'm not the me I know. And without Kaji and without—others." She drained half the glass in a single gulp. "When I realized that, I knew I didn't want to stay. Human Instrumentality was fundamentally flawed. A cruel, optimistic experiment to save mankind from itself, but I think, now, that it fundamentally misunderstood who we are. That's what happens when people like Gendo Ikari try to decide the fate of the species."
"It's actually been a lot of fun, you know. Being with them."
They both turned to watch the teens in the booth. Asuka was holding forth on something; Shinji and Rei both looked skeptical. A bottle of expensive champagne—now worthless, of course—sat between them. Whenever Rei sipped from her flute, she scrunched up her face as the bubbles tickled her nose.
"They've been fine, together?" Ritsuko asked.
"What do you mean?"
"Oh, normal kid stuff. Shinji and Asuka are together now, if you didn't already figure that out."
"They're cute. They can be very dramatic, though. Asuka especially, but you know how she is."
Ritsuko drained the rest of her glass.
"I'd like to examine them. And you. None of you have had proper check-ups since returning, I'm guessing."
"Well, Asuka did perform surgery on Rei."
Ritsuko's lips went flat. She reached for the bottle once more.
Ritsuko commandeered an office in the hospital. She suggested she take a look at Asuka first, as she had suffered the most extensive wounding during Third Impact.
"I don't see why this is necessary," Asuka scowled. She sat on a table, naked, blushing in spite of herself as the older women ran a finger over the scar tissue. "They've all healed. Shinji did a good job cleaning and dressing them when we first woke up."
"Mhm. Turns out, he's not totally useless."
"Asuka, how have things been with Shinji?"
"Fine. It's none of your business."
Ritsuko sighed and smiled. Tense.
"Have you two discussed what happened during Third Impact?"
"Obviously. It was all we could talk about at first."
"What about before Third Impact?"
"What are you trying to get at?"
Ritsuko had been taking notes, but she set her clipboard down.
"I'm just trying to make sure you're healthy, Asuka. In as many ways as possible."
"No. That's a dumb answer that only an adult would give. Just say it. Ask me what you want to ask me."
"Asuka, while you were in a coma, after you ran away—"
"—it seems you may have been assaulted—in the hospital."
Whatever reaction Ritsuko had been expecting, it wasn't the grim, knowing smile on the red-head's triumphant face.
"Hospital records indicate the only person who came to visit you was—Shinji. You had no male nurses, no male doctors, but you were almost certainly assaulted by someone male. Things began moving fast after that, and no one had a chance to act on it—SEELE attacked, and then Third Impact but—"
"Dr. Akagi," she whispered and her voice dripped with poison. "You could not possibly understand what I have been through. What NERV did to me my entire life. Don't pick now to start caring about what happened to me. There's so much you don't know."
"Then tell me, Asuka."
"I don't owe you anything. I don't owe NERV anything. I'm tired of adults telling me how to be." She looked at the floor. "Shinji put himself through hell too."
"You should talk. We all saw it. In Instrumentality. What you did with Gendo. What your mother did. Why shouldn't I be concerned for you? Shinji holds me when I cry now. He does everything for me. When I'm with him, somehow—I—I almost love myself." She blushed and forced herself to turn away from Ritsuko. "Did Commander Ikari ever make you feel like that?"
Ritsuko seemed to deflate in her chair. Asuka collected her clothes and dressed.
"I feel bad for you." She started towards the door and then stopped. "Also, not that it's any of your business, but I would have let him. If I'd been awake. It doesn't make it okay but there's just so much you don't know, Dr. Akagi. Stuff I did to him. While he was asleep. I hurt him too, so don't look at me like I'm some tarnished little girl with Stockholm Syndrome. If you wanted to help me, you should have started a long time ago."
Asuka passed Rei in the hall. Rei rose from the bench to go in for her exam, but Asuka took her by the shoulder and pressed her lips to her ear:
"Tell her about your theory."
"Of course. I was planning on it." Rei smiled. "I felt it would be too cruel to do that and slap her on top of it."
"Asuka really did an excellent job," Ritsuko murmured in astonishment. Rei's breathing sounded nearly perfect and her ribs had healed well. A few scars adorned her body but otherwise, you'd never known she'd been hit by a car six weeks prior.
"She saved my life," Rei confirmed.
"You're in great health."
"I know. Shinji makes us nutritious meals and I try to get a moderate amount of exercise. And they were all quite attentive to my care while I recovered."
"I'm glad to hear that, Rei. Really."
"Dr. Akagi, I would like to ask you a question."
"What's that? Anything."
"How aware were you of Yui Ikari's involvement with the development of the EVA series?" The smile on Ritsuko's face faltered. "Specifically, Unit 1."
"She died during an experiment with it. You knew that."
"Were you aware of Unit 1's secret purpose?"
"To act as a vessel in case of catastrophe. A final memorial, proving the humanity had existed, should the species be wiped out."
"I—yes. I was vaguely aware of this idea. I don't know to what extent Unit 1 was ever able to function exactly as Yui had intended. She and Fuyutsuki discussed this idea."
"A way of saving her son, should the Human Instrumentality Project fail. Because she'd begun to lose faith in her husband. Seeking her mentor's assistance to save the one person she loved more than anything."
"Rei," Ritsuko whispered, shaking her head. "What's your point?"
Rei told her, with a smile on her face. Ritsuko drew her face into her palms.
"Of course, we have no way of knowing for certain if it's true or not," Rei concluded. "However, it is interesting to think about."
"Rei, why are you telling me this?"
"Interesting to think about how much a mother could love her child. To the exclusion of her husband. All of humanity, even."
"Rei," Ritsuko sobbed. "Stop. You've made your point."
"I apologize for any distress this information may have caused you," Rei said with a soft shrug.
Shinji entered Ritsuko's makeshift office with a smile. After all, he had never had a bad experience with NERV's doctor-in-chief, and bore her no specific ill will.
His examination lasted all of five minutes.
"You're in perfect health," Ritsuko said gloomily.
"Oh. Thank you. Are you sure?"
"Okay. Sorry. Thank you."
"How have the last few months been? With the girls? They're a lot, aren't they?"
He shrugged. "Ayanami has opened up a lot. Asuka, well—did they tell you? That we're, um—" He blushed. "Together."
"Yes, Shinji. Asuka made that clear to me."
"I think she's okay. We talk, a lot. She's really smart. I feel dumb, sometimes. A lot of the time."
"That's okay. Asuka is quite the girl."
He smiled. "Yeah. She really is."
"You like her a lot?"
"Yes. I'm—" He scratched the back of his head. His mannerisms were so unlike Gendo's. "I guess I'm trying to become a guy worthy of her. She'd hate to hear me say that."
"Shinji, women always fall in love with men who aren't worthy of them. That's the way of the world."
"Misato says that too."
"That's because it's true. Take care of her. Both of them."
"Thank you," he said with a grin and bowed.
"Shinji," she asked as he dressed. "Do you—how do you—the guilt? What do you do about it?"
His face froze.
"I'm not mad. I'm asking for myself. I was complicit in atrocities. I'm asking after my soul." She looked down at her clipboard. "I don't know who else to ask."
"I don't know. Some days, it's bad. Some days, you forget about it. But small things." He chose his words carefully, spoke them slowly. "I can't change what I did. But even if I'm in pain—maybe I can take care of someone else. We can't change the past but even so—even so—" Now, he smiled. "I don't want to run away. That's all I can say. We mustn't run away."
Now, the seedlings were in bloom. Ritsuko became part of their lives: she moved into an empty apartment near Misato's, on the same floor. She adopted a few stray cats. She came over after lunch every day to help Misato make sense of NERV's legacy and stayed for dinner. She and Misato drank and smoked on the balcony till late in the night, laughing and crying and cursing the names of former lovers, gone but not forgotten.
The seedlings were in bloom. Touji, Kensuke, and Hikari appeared one day, wandering in an apocalyptic hangover up to the apartment.
"Maybe you don't want to talk about it," Hikari asked, holding Pen-Pen tight—he had left her family almost immediately after Third Impact, apparently, somehow waddling by himself back to the sanctuary of Misato's apartment. They sat around the dining room table. The apartment was suddenly getting very tight. "But what happened?"
It was Rei's idea to go to their school. They dressed, borrowing jackets and sweatshirts to ward off the early spring chills. After all, they had come back wearing their summer uniforms.
They found their old classroom. The six of them took a few moments to feel at home there, amid the chalk dust.
"Okay!' Asuka said, finally. "Listen up! This is Asuka Langley Soryu's Guide to NERV, Human Instrumentality, and Third Impact. Save your questions till the end."
She lectured for over an hour, with Shinji and Rei following behind her, correcting her kanji on the board whenever she made notes. She left out Rei's theory. The advanced course, they silently agreed, could wait till another day.
In the end, they too moved into an empty apartment. Touji and Hikari began to share a bedroom and Kensuke would stay over at Misato's till late, playing video games with the others. They, too, settled into the quiet waiting.
It happened, finally, late one night. It was impossible not to notice how impatient Misato had become once the other middle-schoolers showed up. After all—after all—
"He'll come," Ritsuko said one evening. "When you least expect him. Probably when it's least convenient too."
Still, she had begun to doubt.
"I thought you were banned from this place."
He sat down hard next to her at the bar. She'd stolen away, in the middle of the night, to this place. Why that night, of all nights? Why had the loneliness reached its pitch on this, the night when he finally walked in?
"Just kicked out. I was never banned." She paused. "You're not real, Kaji. You're a dream."
He reached for her hand and placed it on his cheek.
"Real as can be."
He slid her hand under his shirt so she could feel the wound, still sticky.
"See? Real. I hope you've got gauze at home."
"How did you find me?"
"Even death couldn't keep me from you."
"What a lame line," she said, but the words came out garbled because she was crying. "I missed you so hard."
"I tried to come back as soon as I could."
"You took your sweet time."
"How long has it been?"
"Months. It's March."
"Seasons. There are seasons again, aren't there?"
"I know. Isn't it wonderful?"
"I can't believe it. It's like when we were kids."
"They never got to experience it. Shinji, Rei, Asuka. They had their first real winter ever."
"Mhm. You'll see them in the morning. Until then—"
He pulled her close and she inhaled the scent of sweat and rain and LCL on his collar.
"Wasn't there something you were going to say to me?"
"The words you couldn't—or wouldn't—say before?"
"That's right. I can't quite remember what they were, though." She swatted him and he leaned in to her ear. She took a sharp breath as he said them.
"Let's go home, Kaji."
"Home? But I just got here. Let me at least have a drink and a smoke first. No beer in that soup. No wonder you got out of there first chance you could."
The picnic was Kaji and Misato's idea. After all, the kids had never known the world except in summer. Kaji and Shinji drove around for two weeks, observing cherry trees near the city, taking notes, and modifying their predictions for when they would bloom. Asuka had, at first, invited herself along on these trips, but couldn't make herself care about botany to the extent that the boys did. For all his suave playboy attitude, Kaji was most at home when squatting in the dirt, measuring the growth of some stalk or other.
"Are all Japanese men like this?" Asuka had scowled to Misato one afternoon, returning from her first tree expedition. Much to her utter frustration, she had not been the center of attention.
And then, the city exploded in pink. Flurries of blossoms, like snow, covered the ground, and the ne\xt afternoon, the little group of survivors—was this the right term? Misato had stopped calling the group "our little family," finally, and the rest seemed to refer to themselves exclusively with a heavily weighted first-person plural pronoun: us, as opposed to them, still in the soup, maybe never coming back—convened on blankets underneath trees that wept flowers. Kaji produced a banner, as if by magic, that proclaimed this outing the "NERV COMPANY PICNIC, SPRING 2016."
Rei surprised everyone by showing up with a digital camera. She had taken it from an electronics shop and spent days staring at it, weighing it in her hands, learning its functions. As the party began, she ushered everyone together, beneath the banner. She balanced the camera in the crook of a tree branch, set the timer, and dashed back into the picture, posing with the others in the last second before it went off.
"It looks great," Shinji told her as they sat on a blanket later. They looked through the photos she'd taken: pictures of herself, in a mirror; pictures of Shinji and Asuka, together, smiling, even kissing—when had she been spying on them?; pictures of Ritsuko, studies in sadness; pictures of Kensuke, Touji, and Hikari playing with Pen-Pen; pictures of herself, naked. "Maybe delete those."
Touji had brought a soccer ball. Teams were formed, with Asuka, Kaji, and Kensuke on one side and Misato, Touji, and Hikari, who had been roped in at the last minute, on the other side. Shinji had made dumplings and he was unloading them when Ritsuko drew Rei away from the blankets.
"I wanted to ask you something," she said, once they were under the dance of blossoms, out of ear range of the others.
"Yes, Dr. Akagi?"
"I haven't floated this to Misato and Kaji yet. If anything, you could say I've hidden it from them. I found some emails—between Yui and Kyoko Zeppelin Soryu. Yui is quite explicit with what she's planning and Kyoko suggests she would try something similar, if it seemed that Asuka would be chosen."
Rei let her gaze rest on Ritsuko's face, not changing her expression in the slightest.
"So, that means this might not be Shinji's dream. It could be Asuka's."
"Or," Rei said after a few seconds. "It could be real."
"You knew. You knew, didn't you? Why didn't you tell them?"
"After I saw how much trouble telling them the first part of my theory caused, I decided not to bother with the other possibilities. Besides—" And now she smiled. "I realized it simply doesn't matter. Even if it's a dream. That doesn't mean this isn't real. It's only a different kind of real than we're used to considering."
"Will you ever tell them?"
"Perhaps. Someday. But it's only a theory." She took a deep breath. "I took pictures today, of them and us, for them to hold onto. It's all for those two. So we won't fade away."
"Is that all we can do? Or are we just—just resigned to be the dreams of some distant god?"
"What else can we do?"
"Cling together," she whispered. "And find each other in the dark. That's all anyone's ever been able to do."
Rei rejoined Shinji on the blanket. He gave her a vegetable dumpling, but it was too hot and she held it on her tongue, sucking at the air.
"Here, have some sake!" he cried, laughing, and handed her a small cup. She threw it back and found the combination of cold sake and hot dumpling quite exquisite.
"Thank you, Ikari," she said.
"What did Dr. Akagi need? She seemed really—serious. I guess that's how she always is."
Rei shrugged. "She had some questions about the fundamental nature of this reality. It was nothing important."
"Right." Shinji sighed. "Rei, do you really think this world could be real? The real real-world, I mean. Not just a dream."
"Yes. It could."
"But do you think it is? Really?"
"Ikari," she whispered, turning to him. "Has any moment of this world ever felt less than real?"
"I… I don't know."
She leaned into him, over the dumplings and sake. The bottle tipped over, leaking wine onto the blanket as she kissed him. His lips tasted of pork dumpling, but she would forgive him that.
"Ayanami," he whispered. She smiled.
"Did that feel real?"
"Isn't that all that matters?"
"Shinji! You bastard!"
Asuka had seen.
"And this, too," Rei continued as Asuka came charging at them. Shinji leapt to his feet and grabbed her by the hand. "Doesn't this feel real?"
"Let's run, Ayanami!" he cried, though he was laughing and soon she was too as Asuka sprinted after them.
"Check it out!" Touji roared. "Shinji's two-timing Asuka! I knew it would happen!" Next to him, Hikari had balled up her fists, using this as an opportunity to escape the soccer game.
"You jerk, Ikari! How could you do that to your girlfriend?!"
Rei and Shinji darted through the cherry trees, laughing and panting.
"Shinji, I'm gonna' nail you to one of these trees!" Asuka screamed. "I'm gonna' fry you like a dumpling!"
"I don't think I can run much longer," Shinji panted to Rei.
"Then stop running."
"What do I do instead?"
She whispered in his ear.
"Will that work?"
She nodded and darted off. Shinji called back to her:
"Now? Here?" Rei turned to nod at him before disappearing behind a veil of flowers.
A second later, Asuka collided with him but he slipped the first blow she aimed at his face and caught her around the waist. He lifted her up as she squealed and kissed her. They spun, under the blanket of fragile blossoms, and slowly, her fists relaxed and found his hair, holding him.
"Idiot. You're such a jerk," she muttered.
"I know. I'm sorry."
"Stop with that." She kissed him again. "Hey, idiot. Do you want to know a secret?" She pressed her lips to his ear: "Today, I'm really happy."
"About that," he said, lowering her. He reached into his pocket. "You'll think this is dumb but I've been thinking about it and—"
Asuka collapsed into him. A sobbing squeal erupted from her lips.
When they rejoined the group—everyone had made their way back to the blankets; the soccer game had ended without a winner—Shinji's arm was around her waist. She couldn't make herself speak; any time she did, she started to cry.
Because someone wanted to be with her, forever. She covered her face with her arm but held up her hand, the diamond ring catching the light.
"Hey," Kaji roared, standing up. "Congratulations!"
Misato joined him, starting to clap. "Congratulations!"
Now Ritsuko too: "Congratulations!"
The others too—
Misato sat with Kaji. Shinji sat with Asuka. Touji sat with Hikari. Sake passed hands. Ritsuko found herself sitting with a bespectacled boy. She wasn't sure if they'd ever exchanged more than two words.
"So, you were in charge of the EVAs?" he said, suddenly. She stared at him and blinked a few times.
"Sort of. It was a very complicated undertaking."
"But, like, you know all about them?"
"As much as anyone does."
"Awesome," Kensuke sighed. "I tried to get Shinji and the others to tell me stuff but they don't really want to talk about it. I guess I understand that."
"I can answer any questions you have."
"Wow, really? Can we start from the beginning—" and Kensuke launched into a maddeningly detailed question that Ritsuko needed him to repeat before she understood it. Somewhere, later that evening, after many questions and answers, she looked at him and cocked her head to the side.
"You're definitely too young for me."
He laughed and blushed. "Well, I'm fifteen now."
"Way too young. I'm twenty-nine, you know."
"That's not so bad."
The gap between her and Gendo, after all, had been greater.
"You know," she said suddenly. "You're right. It's not so bad.
This was the hardest thing Rei had ever done.
Asuka and Hikari attempted to help her, but it was no use.
"You're not scared of anything," Asuka groaned.
"But this," Rei said. "This is terrifying."
"It's just karaoke! You just pick a song and sing the words on the screen!" Hikari repeated. "No one's a professional singer so it's fun."
"I had vocal training as a child," Asuka announced to no one in particular.
After night had fallen, the party moved to a karaoke bar. Ritsuko had muttered something about using all of her degrees and hacking skills to jerry rig a free karaoke machine for them.
"And god said, 'Let there be karaoke!'" she declared in triumph, taking a bow as the machine sprung to life and stopped asking them for money.
"I want to sing this one," Rei pointed to the screen.
"Then pick it."
Her fingers trembled but after more encouragement, she finally did. She stood on the little stage as her friends clapped, cheered her name, and she began to sing. She gripped the microphone as if she were strangling it.
"What a weird choice," Misato murmured to Kaji. "This is a really old song, isn't it? How does she know it?"
"'Fly Me to the Moon.' It's Frank Sinatra. It's a karaoke classic," Kaji scoffed.
When she finished, everyone clapped and she bowed. She joined Shinji and Asuka in their booth.
"Ayanami, you did it!"
"Yes. Yes, I did do it," she nodded. "This is fun."
They watched Misato slur her way through "Can You Celebrate?" At one point, she dragged Kaji onstage with her and sang to him.
"I would like to ask you both something," Rei said, dropping her voice low.
"What?" the other two pilots asked, nearly in unison. Something dark seemed to be at the edge of her request.
"If you are ever very, very far from me. If I'm ever lost to you. Will you please, please, please come and find me?"
Shinji was the first to promise.
"Ayanami, of course."
"It may be very far. A soul can never be destroyed. It can only be near or far."
"We won't let it stop us, dummy," Asuka said and rolled her eyes. "We'll find you. But don't go wandering off?"
"Of course not." She grinned. "I don't want to be apart from you."
Epilogue: "Do you want to kiss?"
At one point, several millennia into its journey, the strange craft met another vessel. These wayfarers, confused by what they saw, consulted their elders and oracles. The conclusion was reached: whatever this thing was, it carried an aura of sorrow about it. It was not to be touched. They bade it safe passage on its journey, and prayed for it to find peace.
Shinji gasped. His bones ached. His muscles ached. His mouth tasted like stale LCL, which he didn't even realize was a thing.
He was awake. The dream burned still, bright in his memory, but its vivid edges had faded.
"No," he whispered. "No. No." He slid his hands over his face. He still wore a plug suit. He was alone in Unit 1. "No." He noted the date on the dashboard—December 2, 14022. That had to be wrong.
Now, Unit 1 released him into the sparkling light of a new world. He took a slow breath. Air. He could breathe. Well, that was something.
And here was something else: a red machine, clinging to Unit 1. Dusty and faded on this alien planet. It was impossible. It couldn't be—
Now he was scrambling down Unit 1's jagged body, over to Unit 2. It responded to his touch, and with a hiss, the cockpit ejected. It burned his hands, but he didn't care—something was stuck but after a moment's prying, the plug yielded its treasure.
Please, he prayed. Please, please, please, please—
Asuka yawned. She sat forward and stretched.
"Hey, idiot," she said when she saw him. The smile, starting to form on her face, drifted away as she looked past the tears streaming down his cheeks to the arid, empty landscape of red sand stretching out all around them, to the dual suns hanging in the sky overhead, to the sky, an unnatural purple-pink.
"Where are we?"
They sat together, slumped against the machines. It took a long time for either of them to find the words for their situation.
"I guess this means you saved me," she said, finally. She looked up from the cage of her forearms. "Do you remember?" She started to take the plug suit off. She was half-naked, bare from the ribs up, before she realized what she was doing and kicked him. "Don't look, pervert!"
"Asuka, your scars."
"They're gone," she said. "They're actually gone. That means—"
"I guess I made it in time." He looked at his hands and then back at her. She was crying.
"You jerk. You actually did it. You didn't leave me out there alone." She flung herself at him, arms meeting his neck, and cackled and cried and buried her face into him. "You idiot. You idiot. You saved me. You saved me. I can't believe you saved me."
Slowly, they began to piece together what happened—
Shinji had launched in Unit 1, at the last moment, burning with guilt and shame. Misato's words echoing in his cowardly heart. Her cross pendant was still around his neck.
They had fought, together. Side by side. The mass-produced EVAs were no match. As Asuka had predicted, they were unstoppable.
When it became clear that Third Impact would fail, that death was the only other option, the EVAs offered them another choice—leave. Shinji and Asuka clung to one another as Unit 1 rose into the air, soared past Lilith's face, and disappeared into the stars. Somewhere along the way, they had passed out and begun to dream, kept alive in their mothers' wombs for thousands of years.
"But where are we?" Shinji asked now.
"Look." She pointed at the two suns. "There's no way this is in the Milky Way galaxy."
"Did you see what the year was?"
"What was it?"
"I thought it was a mistake."
"Shinji, what was it? What year is it?"
He told her and her face went blank. Then, she began to laugh.
"Of course! Of course! Of course, we end up on the other side of the universe, on a desert planet, after sleeping for twelve-thousand years. Thanks a lot, NERV!"
"I think it was our mothers," Shinji said. They had begun to hold hands at some point and when Asuka followed his gaze to their intertwined fingers, she jerked away from him. "They sacrificed themselves to keep us safe from NERV. Asuka?"
She was crying again. He hesitated and then put his arm around her.
"She loved me, didn't she? That's why she did it," Asuka whispered. "Shinji, tell me that's why."
"That's why." He felt his face start to crumble into tears too. "They loved us. Someone loves us."
Suddenly, Asuka drew away from him. She began to wipe her face, frantically, as if her tears burned her.
"I had a dream. In there. Did you have the same dream?"
"I think… Maybe. Yes?"
"A lot happened in it."
She frowned. "I don't know if we had the same dream."
"You made me promise something in it."
"I made you promise a lot of things."
"To come and find you, if I woke up." He felt the goofy grin forming on his lips. "I kept my promise. I only had to walk a few feet to do it, though."
"True, but you said you'd come up with a good line for when you did. I'm waiting, Third Child."
He started and stopped a few times. Finally, he gave in to what he always knew it would be—
"Do you want to kiss?"
"Oh, you're so lame. Have you brushed your teeth?"
"Not for twelve-thousand years."
"Gross. Well, it can't be helped. Here I come—"
Now they lay in the shade afforded them by the massive mechanical beasts. Arms around each other.
"I can't believe that was all a dream," she said. "Some of it was ridiculous, of course."
"When you performed surgery on Ayanami."
"What? I could totally do that."
"You don't believe me!"
"I'll believe it when I see it."
"Just wait till you get sick and I save your stupid life, jerk." They rocked softly with laughter. "Hey, Shinji—"
"What happened, in the hospital room? You can tell me. I won't be mad. I just want to know."
He told her and she sighed.
"That's all? You're gross."
"I felt awful."
"And you made up something worse for the dream."
"Never happened. But—it could have."
"I think the dream was our minds coming to terms with everything. What we are. What we hate about ourselves."
"Look at Dr. Freud here."
"I'm serious! And—" He fell silent. "Ayanami."
"What about her?" Her voice was little more than a whisper.
"What did she say to us at the end?"
"She made us promise to come find her if she disappeared. And she said… something really metaphysical. About how souls can only be near or far. Never made, never destroyed."
"Yeah. Like maybe she was… calling to us." Shinji sat up. Asuka grunted as she lost the pillow of his chest. "Asuka, what now?"
"I don't know."
"What do you want me to say, Shinji?"
"I—I—I want you to get mad!" he cried. "I want you to be a bitch! I want you to lecture me about being a man and tell me how we're going to get back in the EVAs and find Ayanami and the others. I want you to yell at me about how we're unstoppable together!"
She looked away from him.
"I don't know if I can do that. I'm tired. I'm so tired of this." She closed her eyes. "I want to give up. I—ah!"
Shinji had grabbed her, pulled her to her feet, pulled her into the sun.
"Asuka!" he yelled in her face. "Asuka! Asuka!"
"What?" she screamed back. "What? What do you want from me?"
"I love you!"
"I love you too! Why are we yelling?"
"Because we can do anything!"
She reached up to hold his neck as she let out a sobbing breath.
"You think so?" she whispered. "You really think so? Shinji, is this real? Is it real this time?"
She pushed him away.
"You really think that I want to do this with you?"
"You really think," and now she was yelling. "I fell in love with you in a stupid dream? You really think I forgive you for being a gross jerk?"
"You really think I want wander across space with you one more time?" she cried, squeezing her hands into fists and doubling over. "You really think I want to fight the structures of reality itself with you? You really think I want to find our friends with you? You really think I want to pry their stupid, undeserving, ungrateful souls out of some sort of hole that I can't even fathom yet? You really think I want to break this universe with you, just to save the people we love?"
He grinned as she turned to him. She laid a hand on her chest, panting, cheeks wet, eyes red.
"You really think I'm unstoppable with you?"
"I do. You said it, after all, so it must be true."
"Idiot," she said. She was smiling. "I feel bad for you, so I'll play along."
"That's what I hoping for. That's the best an idiot like me can hope for, right?"
"Right. You're lucky," she said as he held her once more. "You're lucky that you're stuck with me." She pushed away from him and started back towards the EVAs.
"Wait? Dummkopf, our friends have been waiting for twelve-thousand years." She shot him a triumphant, imperious look over her shoulder. "I think we waited long enough. Let's go."
I want to keep this short, since these things are fundamentally pretty self-indulgent, but probably no more self-indulgent than a novel-length piece of Evangelion fanfiction which I ignored my dissertation and course planning to write, frantically, over the course of two weeks. If you're not tired of my self-indulgence, read on—otherwise, I'd forgive you for clicking away.
The approximate inspiration for this story was my own affection for, and dissatisfaction with, other Eva continuations and stories out there. The doujinshi and epic fics are fine, but none of it ever felt exactly right to me. These were the characters, of course, but they didn't sound exactly how the characters sound to me. That's inevitable with any piece of media, though. Still haven't watched the rebuilds, but the blu-rays came in the mail the other day.
And, of course, the characters are so fun to write. Going into this, I wondered how someone could write a 300,000 word continuation over the course of ten years and—hey, now I know. I'm almost disappointed to have finished this. Asuka, of course, is the most fun to write (for me, at least; that should be obvious from the text you have before me). Any time I found myself stuck, I just handed off the action to her and she pushed it along.
The more proximate inspiration was a chunk of an interview someone had translated, with Asuka's original voice actress. One of the possible interpretations of her words at the end of EoE, Anno had indicated to her, was that Asuka was experiencing morning sickness—that is, Shinji had actually raped her, instead of just masturbating. It was dark, and awful, but that's Eva, I suppose. I took that idea and ran with it. Maybe I shouldn't have, in this day and age, but I'm not attaching my real name to it and if you're reading this, I'm guessing it can't have upset you too much. Maybe I'm wrong, though.
I debated other titles for this story and other ways to end it. Mostly, I found myself re-listening to the old Queen song, "Teo Torriatte (Let us cling together)" over and over again, but I've never liked when Western music makes too much of an appearance in anime fanfiction. It's one thing if it's attested in the source material—"Fly Me to the Moon," for instance—but I remember, when I was kid, reading so many stories where Shinji listened to Linkin Park and Blink-182. Instead, I let Rei quote the song in a round-about way, and gave the title to Ritsuko, who gets a lot of grief in this story. Now that I'm older, I actually love her as a character and find her super relatable—I'd totally ship her and Maya, but Kensuke felt like a cute (twisted) stop-gap that also calls back to her own affair with Gendo—though probably nothing could be as toxic as that.
Originally, I had intended to end things with the karaoke scene and leave it ambiguous. The bittersweet uncertainty felt pretty Evangelion to me, and seemed fitting for a story that is, at times, an episode of The Good Place cast with EVA characters—I had even considered making Asuka way more conversant in continental philosophy, but that felt a little too much like wish fulfillment. In the end, I like leaving Asuka and Shinji in an unambiguously hopeless place, but with their hearts somewhat healed and, specifically, in a kind of parallel of the other great Anno robot show, Gunbuster.
Did I mention that I'm inordinately proud of finding a way to open the story with a "cruel angel's thesis" (that is, the dialogue between Rei and Asuka) and end it with "Fly Me to the Moon"?
There's more I could say: I've loved Evangelion for almost twenty years at this point, and this is the first piece of fanfiction I've written in fifteen years, and it's helped me think about how I write in all sorts of ways and, oh hey, it's longer than my dissertation is and how do I explain to my advisor that I don't have a new chapter but I do have 40,000 plus words of metaphysical anime angst? I'll leave it at that.
Thank you for reading!