It took some effort, but Asuka convinced Shinji to calm down and to take a much needed shower. While the boy was in the bathroom, she picked up his garbage trenchcoat with a hand, pinching her nose shut with the other, and took it outside. Once the deed was done, she returned to the kitchen and cleaned her fingers with some napkins, still grimacing in disgust.
Misato arrived in a short time, just as the girl was expecting. Most likely, she had been warned about Shinji's return by the Section-2 agents who were constantly monitoring the apartment.
"Where is he?" the purple-haired woman demanded to know.
Asuka pointed to the bathroom. The sound of water running could be heard coming from inside. Misato wasted no time and walked right to the door, planning on waiting for him to finish so that she could ask for an explanation. And to give him a piece of her mind, too. However, when she was halfway across the living room, she felt someone tugging from her jacket. She stopped and turned around, meeting with an Asuka who seemed more serious than usual.
"What?" the Major asked.
The Second Children sighed.
"Look, just…" the girl could not believe that she was about to say what she was about to say: "Leave the idiot alone, alright? Just for today. He's not well."
Misato stared at her, mouth agape and eyes wide.
"Wow," she said. "If you of all people don't want me to scold him, then it must be really bad."
Asuka threw a sideway glance at the shoulder of her shirt, still soaked in his tears.
"You have no idea," the redhead mumbled.
It didn't take long for Shinji to come out of the bathroom, dragging his feet and barely clutching a towel around his waist. His eyes were still red, the only thing that the shower couldn't wash away. Upon seeing that, all the anger that Misato felt towards him vanished. Shinji looked less like a child and more like a mannequin made of glass, a fragile thing that could shatter in a thousand pieces at a mere touch. He even seemed more scrawny than usual. When he noticed the presence of the Major, he looked down and mumbled:
"Hello, Shinji," she replied, smiling, trying to offer the tenderness that her boy clearly needed at that moment. Behind her, Asuka was avoiding eye contact.
"M-Misato…" Shinji closed his eyes, to stop a new stream of tears. "I'm s-sorry for…"
"Don't worry about that," the woman walked to him and tried to put her hands on his shoulders, but the boy winced at the touch, so she desisted. "Say, are you hungry?"
"N-No. I… I just want to lie down for a while…"
Keeping her motherly smile, Misato just nodded and stood aside, leaving him space to move. Shinji began to slouch towards his room.
"Hey," she called. "If you need anything, we'll be here all day."
Once he was gone, Misato turned around to ask Asuka for details, but the redhead ignored her and bolted into the bathroom, grumbling in German. The Major could understand something about 'washing off the idiot's stench'. When the sound of water returned, Misato sighed in defeat. While she could very well talk to her ward through the shower curtain, it was obvious that the Second Children was not in the mood for conversation. Trying to start one would only make her angrier, and the day more difficult.
Misato picked up a beer from the fridge and collapsed on the couch, without bothering to change. She didn't even remove her jacket. It had been a really stressful night and she needed some rest.
Asuka's clothes formed a small pile in a corner of the bathroom. The girl was already under the shower, hot water running down her body, her hands and forehead pressed against the wall. She hadn't touched the soap or the shampoo yet. While it was true that the stench of Shinji's trenchcoat was all over her, and that she wanted to wash it away; she needed to do something else first.
There was another reason why Asuka hated crying: because sometimes, much to her chagrin, it could be contagious.
After a certain event in her life, the Second Children had promised herself that she would not cry. Not ever. The only problem with this plan was that, after so many years of not letting her tears out, they were starting to pile up, and sometimes the dams could not keep them inside. Shinji's wails had been a trigger, and Asuka had spent the last minutes struggling to keep her eyes under control, especially in front of Misato. Alas, she could not contain it anymore. In a normal day maybe she could've done it, but the events of the night, and her failure against the monster, had weakened her mental defenses.
Still, Asuka refused to cry, or rather, to let others see her cry. She was willing to stick her head in a freezer to keep the tears from coming out, but her housemates would ask questions if she did that in the apartment, so she had devised a much safer alternative: crying in the shower. In there, her tears would mix with the running water and the noise of the stream would muffle her cries. After that, she could dry herself and pretend that nothing had happened.
And so she did.
"Stupid Shinji…" she sniffled, "… stupid fledermaus…"
Asuka cried for a while, under the hot water, hiding from the rest of the world.
"… stupid me…"
And, most importantly, hiding from herself.
Somewhere in the bowels of Central Dogma, Fuyutsuki and Gendo watched as the two halves of Zenon, who to them was an unnamed lifeform yet to be identified, were lowered to a platform. To do this, they were using the same cranes that, long ago, had been employed in the creation, transport and later disposal of the first failed Evangelion prototypes. The Commander had considered the possibility of calling Unit-00 to aid with the moving of the corpses, but he discarded it quickly. While his face didn't show it, the proximity of that creature, even death, made him feel uneasy. Gendo Ikari had decided that Rei Ayanami should remain as far away from those monsters as possible.
Some of Zenon's internal organs had been put inside large tanks filled with formaldehyde. The rest were being cut by teams of scientists, in order to salvage and analyze as much tissue as possible before the samples became unusable. At the other end of the large room, Ritsuko Akagi performed an autopsy on the corpse of a smaller monster, using two big mechanical arms that she controlled through a computer.
While looking at that scene, Fuyutsuki remembered his first time seeing an Evangelion. It had been close to that area, perhaps a few levels below. Just some bones and a spine connected to a many-eyed orange head, an incomplete giant that would be deemed a failure and abandoned; but it had shaken his worldview. Fuyutsuki remembered how small and lost he had felt in front of that incomplete Eva, because now, as he stared at the dead monsters, he was feeling the exact same thing.
"The old men aren't going to like this," he said, hoping that maybe a talk with his friend would help him alleviate his worries.
"No, they won't," Gendo conceded, "but at least they can't put the blame on us this time."
"Still, they will get nervous, and that's never good for us," the former professor sighed. Then, he chuckled. "It'd be pathetic if it wasn't so funny. SEELE has more power and influence than anyone in the world, and yet, as soon as their plans don't go as expected, they panic like little kids."
"Because that's what they are, little kids scared of growing up, still searching for their Neverland."
At those words, Fuyutsuki's thoughts wandered towards what was hidden many levels below them, that tank of LCL filled with soulless clones. He also thought about Naoko Akagi, whose brain patterns had served for the basis of the MAGI and whose blood was part of Nerv's foundations. He thought about all the lies they had told everybody regarding her death. He thought about the Marduk Institute that didn't exist, although the world was supposed to believe otherwise. He thought about a certain class filled with potential pilots, children that could, at Nerv and SEELE's whims, be conscripted into a war they didn't ask for. He thought about a Rei Ayanami who had been taught that she was replaceable, and about a Shinji Ikari who had been abandoned by his father.
He thought about everything he and Gendo had done. All that and more, all the suffering and all the secrets, just so that they could recover someone they had lost long ago.
"Are we any different, Ikari?" he asked.
He received no answer.
In a dark room, twelve monoliths floated around a holographic projection. For the fifth time, it played the video of the Demon Lord destroying Zenon's army and splitting its general in half. For a fifth time, they remained silent as they watched.
SEELE wasn't very fond of demons, but they didn't fear them, either. Certainly not after the development of war machines, weapons of mass destruction and, of course, the Evangelions. However, they still recognized their might, and the threat they could pose to their plans if left unchecked. That was the reason why their predecessors had spent so much time and resources in turning Zenon to their side. In fact, he and his army of One Hundred Devils were going to be their Plan B against the Angels, if the Evas couldn't be completed in time for whatever reason.
And Dante had killed them all without breaking a sweat.
The video stopped at the moment of Zenon's demise, and the monoliths were left staring at the image of a bat-monster tearing other monster in half. After some seconds of uncomfortable silence, SEELE-08 spoke:
"It seems that the King of Demons is as fearsome as the legends say."
SEELE-06 talked next:
"The JSSDF couldn't find him. His trail of broken trees stops abruptly, not too far away from Tokyo-3. It's almost as if he had vanished in thin air."
SEELE-10, who thought that the immediate problem lied elsewhere, brought attention to it:
"Ikari is now aware of the existence of demons. What should we do?"
"He'll expect us to panic due to this 'unforeseen event', while he remains calm and collected, believing that he's the true mastermind. I say that we keep the charade. We should call him for a meeting, demand explanations he doesn't have and act nervous during the whole thing. Let him think that he can outsmart us, just for a while."
The other monoliths responded with mumbles of approval.
Then, SEELE-01, who had remained silent, said:
"Play the rest of the video. Let me listen."
They did as instructed. In the holographic projector, the dying Zenon grabbed the leg of the Demon Lord while speaking in the tongue of his race, a language that, of all the monoliths, only their leader could understand.
The video ended, and SEELE-01 broke the news:
"Zenon has betrayed us. With his last breath, he begged Dante for our destruction."
Unrest spread like fire among the monoliths, who quickly began to exchange worried mumbles and fearful whispers. The only exception was SEELE-04, who scoffed:
"It doesn't surprise me. I wouldn't expect anything less from a demon. They are filthy creatures that reject salvation, preferring to live in this imperfect and sinful world."
Before the conversation got out of control, the voice of SEELE-01 echoed in the room, attracting the attention of his colleagues:
"That's not all. He referred to Dante as 'human'. He told him to 'fulfill Dante's destiny'."
At those words, the previously calm SEELE-04 lost his temper:
"Are you suggesting that, somehow, a human has fused with the Demon Lord? That's an aberration! That's blasphemy!"
"That's impossible," SEELE-07 declared. "Humans come from the Black Moon. Angels come from the White Moon. Demons come from neither. The flesh of man and devil cannot be joined."
SEELE-12 proposed a hypothesis:
"What if it's a diversion? Think about it: Zenon probably knew that we were spying on him through the eyes and ears of Nerv. Maybe he said that to distract us, so that we waste time looking for a human with the powers of the Demon Lord, instead of looking for the true Demon Lord."
One more time, SEELE-01 took control of the conversation:
"Until we have more information, we shall consider that Zenon's last words are as false as his loyalty to us. The only thing we know for sure is that Dante has returned. He must be found and destroyed."
"Indeed. Let's send our other agents to Japan. Tell them to search the whole country, down to the last island."
"And let's keep Ikari in the dark for as long as we can. His only concern must be the destruction of the Angels."
SEELE-01 closed the meeting:
"The Promised Time will come, as it was prophesized."
And the twelve monoliths vanished.
Somewhere in Germany, Keel Lorenz, also known as SEELE-01, stood up from his chair. It was not an easy task, not even with his many cybernetic implants. A muffled mechanical screech came from his right knee. The mild discomfort in his spine, which he had been feeling for the past days, was mild no longer. Soon, he would need to replace certain parts.
The old man exited the room. He was greeted by two armed agents that had been waiting for him outside, since they were not allowed to hear what was talked about in those conferences. Nobody in that facility was, actually.
Hands behind his back, and barely paying attention to his own bodyguards, Keel walked down the grey corridor. On the way he met several workers in orange jumpsuits and a few people in white labcoats. All of them backed closer to the walls, to give him enough space to pass, and greeted him with a mixture of fear and respect. They knew who he was and the power he had over everyone in that place.
After some minutes of walking, Lorenz and his guards reached a solitary elevator.
"Wait here," he ordered before stepping inside.
In this particular elevator, the button panel was accompanied by a small numeric keypad. Keel introduced the code required to unlock the button for the lowest level of the facility, the one only a few select personnel had access to, and he pressed it.
As he was lifted down towards the depths, the old man pondered about the return of the Demon Lord. He was actually glad that he had appeared at that moment, when there was still a large window of time until the completion of the Scenario. That way, no matter how many resources it took to destroy Dante, no matter the collateral damage, they would have weeks and perhaps even months to recover. Still, Keel had been hoping that the monster would have died during his absence of six thousand years. It would've been one less thing to worry about, one less threat to their plans. And yet, there was a silver lining to all that. Dante had aided their cause by eliminating the Eleventh Angel. According to the Dead Sea Scrolls, there were only six left.
However, that part of the prophecy could not be trusted. They used to think it could, but know they knew better. Keel shuddered to imagine how much the Scenario would've been endangered if Zenon and the others hadn't revealed that information. As much as SEELE despised demons, they were grateful for that, at least.
The elevator stopped, but the doors remained closed. Without wasting a second, Keel recited a quote from a certain book he had read long ago. He didn't remember the title, or even the context of the quote, but it didn't matter. It was irrelevant. He just needed to say something, anything, so that the security system would recognize his voice. Otherwise, the elevator would go back up, right after releasing a cloud of poisonous gas. Intruders were not tolerated in that level of the facility.
The doors opened as a computerized voice greeted him with 'Welcome back, Chairman Lorenz'. The old man entered into a black corridor illuminated by dim red lights. He walked until he reached a magnetically-sealed gate, which could only be opened after introducing three different passwords and scanning an ID card. Once he did that, Keel stepped inside.
It was a fairly large circular room. The dark red floor was covered in yellow symbols which seemed kabalistic in nature. The ceiling was an intricate net of cables, tubes and circuits that resembled, somewhat, a human brain. Floor and ceiling were connected by a glass tube, right in the center of the chamber. Inside, a pale human figure floated in orange liquid.
"Tabris, vessel of Adam's memories."
Two crimson eyes opened and stared at the old man through the glass and the LCL. Lorenz walked to the only control panel in the room. His hand hovered visibly over the big black button that, if pushed, would increase the pressure inside the tube, causing unbearable pain to the boy.
"Let's try this again," SEELE-01 said. "How many Angels truly remain?"
With a mug of coffee in her hand –she had lost count on how many she had needed just to stay awake–, Ritsuko Akagi returned, at last, to her office. The first thing she saw was Maya Ibuki asleep on a chair, in front of her desk. The young woman was holding a folder that, somehow, had not slipped from her hands and fallen to the floor. A tiny droplet of drool was hanging from a corner of the technician's mouth, pondering if it should allow gravity to pull it down or not.
Ritsuko chuckled at this sight. She approached and poked Maya's cheek with her index finger.
"Eep!" the technician was startled awake. "D-Doctor Akagi!" she blushed when she realized where she was and what had happened. "I'm so sorry! I shouldn't have fallen asleep here! That was unprofessional of me!"
"Oh, don't worry about it, Maya," said Ritsuko, sitting on her desk and booting up her laptop. "I understand. It has been a long night and a long morning for all of us."
"B-But I shouldn't have… I mean, you're still so full of energy, even after working for… Um, how long have you been down there?"
"Seven hours, twenty-nine minutes and five autopsies of creatures whose very existence defies everything we know about biology," the scientist took a sip of her coffee.
At those words, Maya lowered her head. Both her blush and her shame were intensifying.
"And here I am," she mumbled, "falling asleep after doing just a fraction of your effort. I'm so sorry…"
"Are you sure you're not related to Shinji? Because you apologize almost as much as him," when these playful words only caused Maya to blush further, Ritsuko chuckled again. Then, she yawned. "See? Even I'm starting to get sleepy. Most of the work is done anyway, so why don't you go and take the rest of the day off? Tell Makoto and Shigeru to do the same. But first," she looked at the folder in the technician's hands, "I think you have something for me."
"Oh, yes!" Maya gave it to her. "These are the results of MAGI's analysis of the creature's language."
Ritsuko opened the folder and skimmed through the documents inside.
"I see," she mumbled. "Interesting. I'm going to organize a briefing for tomorrow. Everyone will want to hear about our discoveries, especially the Commander. Before you go, Maya, could you help me out with something? It'll be very quick, I promise."
"Sure, doctor," the technician, always eager to aid the woman she admired the most, smiled.
Ritsuko turned her laptop and showed it to her. The screen displayed a close-up of the bat-creature.
"This picture," the scientist explained, "was taken before the arrival of the Eleventh Angel." She pointed at the space right between the yellow eyes of the monster. "Do you see something here?"
Maya approached to get a better look.
"Nothing," she answered. "Just fur."
"I thought so," Ritsuko pressed a key, and the picture changed. In the new close-up, the neck of the bat-monster was being held by a large red hand. "This one was taken during its struggle with Unit-02, after surviving the Angel's self-destruction. Do you see something in that same spot?"
That image was much blurrier than the previous one, due to the creature's constant attemps to free itself from the grasp of the Evangelion. Maya got even closer to the screen and squinted.
"Yes, I see something," she said, after a short while. "Between the eyes. It's small and pale, but I can't make out the details. There's some red. Is it a wound?"
"Maybe," Ritsuko took another sip from her coffee. As she looked at the picture, a tiny smile of excitement appeared on her face. "Maybe. I guess we won't know until we can study it. Oh, I would love that so much..."
The day passed with relative normalcy in the Katsuragi household, 'relative' being the keyword. After coming out of the bathroom, Asuka had told Misato what she had missed. The Major noticed that the girl wasn't as relaxed as she usually was after a hot shower, but didn't comment on it. She was more concerned about the dark giant. 'Why is it here, after fifteen years?', Misato repeated that question in her head over and over, wishing she could've stayed with Ritsuko at Nerv, to have their private conversation about the issue.
And then, of course, there was Shinji, who had sealed himself shut in his room. The two women were worried about him, although one of them would never admit it, and an aura of uneasiness permeated the whole apartment.
Still, they would gain nothing by brooding about it, so Misato and Asuka decided to go on and try to live as usual, hoping that Shinji would feel better by the end of the day. The Major informed Nerv about the situation and she was given permission to stay at home and take care of the pilots. After this, she and her ward divided the chores among themselves and later they ordered pizza, since their housebroken boy was not in the mood to cook, and letting Misato do it was out of the question.
Shinji refused to eat, insisting that he was not hungry. They left a plate in front of his door and they found it there two hours later, untouched, his slice cold.
The afternoon passed. Dinner came and went, but the Third Children did not left his room, not even to use the toilet. Misato could not take it anymore and decided that it was time to intervene. Before going in to speak to him, she stood in the corridor for a short while, in silence, taking deep breaths and reminding herself that she was not there to yell, not to scold, just to talk. That was what Shinji needed at that moment, a talk with a friend.
A chill ran down her spine when she opened the door and saw the empty bed. 'No, not again!' she thought. 'How did he even-'
However, a quick scan of the room revealed that Shinji was sitting in a corner, hugging his knees and trying to appear as small and undetectable as possible. Misato sighed in relief, walked next to him and sat by his side.
"How are you feeling?" she asked, smiling and using the same motherly tone from that morning.
"Better," the boy mumbled.
"Did you get some sleep?"
"Yes," that was a lie. Shinji had spent the whole morning and the whole afternoon wide awake, turning in his bed with his SDAT player on. He didn't want to sleep, despite his mental and physical exhaustion. He was afraid that he could turn back into that monster while dreaming, crushing the building and killing everyone inside.
"Um…" he said. "Misato, could you tell me what happened while I was away?"
Leaning her back against the wall, and looking at the ceiling, the purple-haired woman related the events of the night. She talked about the bat-creature, about the Eleventh Angel, about the battle of monsters among napalm-born flames… When she described how the wrist of Unit-02 had been broken, Shinji winced.
"Is Asuka alright?" he asked, almost immediately.
Misato dared to put a hand on his shoulder. This time, he didn't reject it.
"It's very kind of you to care about her," his guardian said. "Don't worry, she's fine. The pain was only sympathetic."
A sound in the corridor made Misato suspect that their conversation was being spied by a certain redhead.
"Alright, Shinji," she continued. "You don't have to do it today, but I need you to tell me what happened. I can wait until-"
"N-No," the boy interrupted. "I can tell you. A nightmare woke me up. I've been having them for some time, but I didn't want to bother you with that. The apartment was hot, so I went to the rooftop to get some fresh air. I know I'm not supposed to…"
"Not in the middle of the night," Misato chuckled as she said that, hoping to alleviate some of the tension. "Just let me know next time, even if you have to wake me up, alright?"
Shinji gave her a weak, timid smile, before continuing:
"I wasn't planning on being too long up there, just a while. But… But then that thing… that bat-monster appeared, flying over the buildings."
Misato went pale. So Shinji's disappearance was connected to that creature, as well?
Meanwhile, the boy gulped. It was time to tell another lie:
"The monster knocked me down. I don't remember if it hit me with something, or if I was pushed by the wind it created, but I fell off the building. I don't know what happened after that. I must've landed on some garbage bags or something, and I probably hit my head. I guess I sleepwalked around for a while. When I returned to consciousness, I was near the outskirts of the city, naked. I found a trenchcoat in a bin, and… well…"
"I see," Misato mumbled.
'Bullshit,' Misato thought. 'Right before we went to Nerv, I told Section-2 to comb all the streets surrounding the apartment, and the ones adjacent to those. You couldn't have gone far before they'd found you. Plus, the city was filled with police agents during the evacuation, and there were ambulances everywhere. Someone would've noticed the naked fourteen-year old wandering around. I guess you're not ready to tell me, after all.'
"It's alright, Shinji," Misato ran her hand through the boy's hair, kindly, still smiling. "You're safe now. You're home. Don't worry about any of that, okay?"
The boy nodded, wiping away some solitary tears.
"Good night, Shinji," the woman said, standing up. "And remember: call us if you need anything."
As Misato left the room, she noticed some strands of red hair disappearing around the corner. She went to the kitchen and found Asuka there, doing the dishes and pretending that she had not moved from that spot in the last minutes.
"How's the idiot?" asked the girl, without looking at her guardian.
As Asuka left a clean dish in the pile, Misato noticed a mild aggressivenes in her movements. Fearing for the structural integrity of her tableware, the Major decided to wait until the redhead had finished. Then, while the Second Children wiped her fingers on the kitchen towel, she approached and put a hand on her shoulder.
"You did well today, Asuka."
"No, I didn't!" the girl snapped. She turned around and slapped Misato's hand away, her blue eyes burning with furious indignation. "I couldn't lay a blow on the Angel! I couldn't catch that damn fledermaus! Even the idiot is taking pity on me, so don't lie, Misato! I didn't do well today!"
Before the purple-haired woman could reply, the Second Children shoved her aside and ran to her room. Startled by that reaction, Misato didn't even turn around, not until she heard a door sliding close. She was sure that, if it had been a western door, there would've been a loud slam. The Major sighed and, for a moment, she considered just going to sleep. After all, a tired guardian was of no help to anyone. Besides, Asuka was a strong kid, smart and mature for her age. She could take care of herself. She would calm down eventually. She didn't need as much help as…
Her thoughts went back to the boy. Shinji had worried about Asuka after learning of her Eva's injury, even though he of all people should know that she had only experienced the pain, not the damage. That was something that he often did, worrying about the pain of others, sometimes at the expense of his own.
What would he think of her if she, his guardian, the proud Major of Nerv, were to abandon her other ward like that?
Misato took a deep breath, walked to the girl's room, opened the door and stepped inside.
"Go away!" Asuka snarled, lying in her bed, showing her back.
"Asuka," the woman began, "I wasn't talking about the Angel or the monster."
"Shinji, of course," Misato smiled. "He's feeling better, and it's all thanks to you."
"What are you saying?" she huffed "I didn't do anything."
"Yes, you did," her guardian insisted. "You gave him comfort when he needed it the most. You could've yelled at him, you could've pushed him away, but you didn't. You saw that he was in pain and offered him a shoulder to cry on. That was very mature. I'm proud of you."
There was silence. In the bed, the girl stopped moving. Misato was sure that she had chosen the correct words, that she had said just what her ward needed to hear. She was convinced that she had given the Second Children something to ponder about, something that would help her feel better in the morning.
That's why she was startled when Asuka spoke with a voice full of venom:
"So, you say that now," the girl hissed, without turning around.
"You didn't say it when I killed the Eight Angel," Asuka continued. While she was not yelling, and in fact her toine of voice was eerily calmer than usual, each word was cold and brimming with hostility. "You didn't say it when I landed the finishing blow on the Tenth, or any of those times I broke a new record with my synch rate. No, you say it now, because I've been good to Stupid-Shinji."
"It always comes back to the Third Children, doesn't it? What makes him so damn special?"
Misato was confused. She didn't understand what was that 'it' Asuka was talking about, that 'it' the redhead had apparently been waiting. However, when the Major recalled her last words, the realization hit her with the force of an N2 mine. In an instant, the image she had of the confident Second Children, the same image she'd had for years, shattered. She thought about all the times she had remained silent at Asuka's fits of anger, because she thought it was the best thing to do. She thought about all the times she'd said nothing to the girl, because she believed it wasn't needed.
Then, Misato remembered how she'd almost left the kid alone that night, sure that her ward could take care of herself. It would've been another mistake to add to the pile.
"Go away," Asuka said. "I don't want you here. I don't need you. Leave me alone."
'No way in Hell.' The purple-haired woman clenched her fists. She was Major Misato Katsuragi of Nerv. She had survived the ground zero of the Second Impact. She was the one who commanded and took care of the pilots for the most powerful weapons created by mankind. She would not retreat.
If Misato Katsuragi made a mistake, then Misato Katsuragi would fix the mistake.
She approached. Asuka heard her steps and scuttled away, leaning closer to the edge of the bed.
"I had no idea," the woman declared, her voice stern but not devoid of sympathy. "I didn't know you wanted to hear those words so badly. That's why I didn't say them before. You were always so lively, so determined, so strong... You seemed so confident in yourself that I never thought you needed any praise. That's the only thing I'll say in my defense, that you hid it pretty well. So, I know this comes late, but: I'm proud of you for piloting Unit-02."
No reply. Perhaps Asuka was ignoring her, or maybe this time the Major had chosen the adequate words, and the girl was giving her a chance. Misato put a hand in the redhead's shoulder. It wasn't slapped away.
"I am proud of you for piloting Unit-02," the woman repeated, with a softer voice. "Every time you destroyed an Angel and saved us all, I was proud of you. Every time you broke a new record in your synch ratio, which is indeed impressive, I was proud of you. So were Kaji, Ritsuko and everyone else at the Command Center. And…" she leaned in closer and smiled. "I'm going to let you in on a little secret: Shinji thinks you're the greatest pilot in the world, but he's too shy to say it."
Asuka moved a bit, not turning around but still not rejecting the hand of her guardian. Then, she said:
"You didn't answer my last question. Why is the Third so special?"
"He's not special, he's just... different. Unlike you, he doesn't find joy in piloting the Eva. He needs a lot of encouragement, but my words can only do so much. That's why I'm so proud of you tonight, because you've shown him some empathy, and I know it will make a difference. It might not be tomorrow, but Shinji will recover. When he does, when he wakes up smiling again, when he goes back to being our Shinji; you can consider that a victory. Your victory, Asuka."
Misato felt that the girl wasn't as tense as before. She removed her hand. Asuka seemed to shiver slightly.
"Are you still proud of me?" she asked, her voice quieter. "Even after what happened last night?"
"Of course I am," the Major answered. "You just had a bad day. It wasn't your fault; we weren't prepared to deal with that monster. I'm sure you'll get him if he ever comes back."
"… … Alright," the redhead mumbled.
The hostility of the last minutes was no longer there. Although Asuka was still showing her back, she sounded calmer, almost at peace. Misato felt better with herself too, after opening to her ward and fixing a mistake that, if it had gone unaddressed, could've torn them apart.
She fought a yawn that threatened to escape and ruin the moment.
"I'd better go to bed," she said. "Ritsuko called me a while ago, we have a briefing tomorrow. I should get as much rest as I can. That goes for you too, don't stay up until late. Good night, Asuka."
And she went away, sliding the door close behind her and leaving the Second Children alone with her thoughts.
As soon as Misato abandoned the room, Asuka raised her hands to her face, in an attempt to stop the tears that were already coming out her eyes. However, this time she didn't care. She didn't feel bad with herself, maybe because she was in the privacy of her room and nobody could see her, or maybe because those tears were not of anger or frustration, not of weakness, not even of sadness. They were a type of tears that she had not experienced in a long time, perhaps ever: of happiness.
'She said it!' Asuka thought, with a trembling smile. 'At last, she said it! She is proud of me because I'm a good pilot! I'm good! And Kaji is proud too! This… This…' the girl touched her A10 clips. In her tantrum, she hadn't removed them before getting into bed. 'This is who I am! I'm Asuka Langley Sohryu, pilot of the Evangelion Unit-02, and they're proud of me! … … Mama… Can you see me, mama? … They're proud of your girl… … … Oh, Scheiße, now I'm really crying…'
"Dammit," she chuckled, using the blanket to wipe off her tears. "Where's a shower when you need one?"
Certain bad memories threatened to come out of her subconscious, awakened by the thoughts of her mother. However, Asuka's mental defenses, reinforced by Misato's praise, sprang back into action. 'Not tonight,' they said.
She turned around. Her eyes, although red, were not watery anymore. Still smiling, the German girl looked at the door, knowing that Shinji was just across the corridor. She thought about the little secret that her guardian had revealed, and wondered if it was true. For a moment, she considered going to his room and ask him herself, but she remembered her own words from that morning: Leave the idiot alone, alright?
'Yeah,' she thought. 'Leave Shinji alone. We both need a good rest.'
Asuka curled in a comfortable fetal position, hugging the blanket. She closed her eyes and, safe in the knowledge that he couldn't hear her, she whispered:
"Gute Natch, Shinji."
Not much action in this chapter, I know. I wanted to explore how the different factions would react to the return of the Demon Lord. Next time, we'll get some exposition and we'll focus on Shinji's reaction to this whole ordeal.
PRODUCTION NOTES 1: In the original ending for this chapter, Asuka was supposed to take Misato's praise and then go to sleep all jolly and happy. However, the more I thought about it, the less sense it made, so I added the extra dialogue where Asuka gets mad, Misato apologizes and then she says the magic words: I'm proud of you for piloting Unit-02. Asuka's character development begins now.
I quite like this ending, although I'm worried that it might feel a bit forced. What do you think?
PRODUCTION NOTES 2: The part where Keel takes the elevator was surprisingly difficult to write, to the point that I got angry and, for several days, that paragraph looked like this:
"Hands behind his back, and barely paying attention to his own bodyguards, Keel walked down the grey corridor. THEN THE ASSHOLE FOUND AN ELEVATOR."
Once again, many thanks for the reviews, the follows and the favorites. You are all amazing. See you in the next chapter!