Disclaimer: see part 1.
Part 10 (v3)
Before the Dawn
Misato couldn't remember ever reading the Bible. She wasn't a religious woman, and while she fought beings known as angels she never considered them as anything ethereal or godly. They were simply foreign invaders—alternate possibilities, as Ritsuko had put it—trying to destroy everything she loved.
But standing in the middle of Central Dogma, wrapped in the echoing silence following the declaration that NERV was under Ritsuko's control, it was a little easier to believe that they were teetering on the brink of something Biblical. When the silence broke, could there be any other end result but Armageddon?
She flinched involuntarily as Gendou slowly rose to his feet, mentally begging him to let the silence linger for a moment longer—anything to prevent the maelstrom she knew would have to follow its breaking.
Fate, of course, had never listened to her before.
"If you're expecting me to beg or anything mundane like that, I'm afraid you're in for some disappointment, Doctor," Gendou said calmly. "In case you hadn't noticed, our position here is tenuous at best. I have neither the time, nor the inclination to play this little power game with you. Return control of the MAGI to the bridge crew immediately, or the repercussions will be severe."
In spite of herself, Misato was impressed by his icy demeanor. He sounds like he's talking to a kid, she mused as they waited for Ritsuko's reply. No wonder Shinji's so scared of him.
"Tenuous is an understatement," Ritsuko informed him. "Just so you know, the MAGI are being hacked from the outside by approximately five other locations." This produced an immediate, low murmur on the bridge, but Ritsuko simply continued as if she could not hear it. "My guess would be that the other NERV installations are using their MAGI to try to seize ours. In corporate terms, I suppose this would be what they call a hostile takeover."
Gendou did not look amused. "Have you taken steps to prevent this, Doctor, or was this part of your grand design?"
Ritsuko's voice sounded offended as she replied, "I have no intention of surrendering this installation, Commander. For your information, I've instituted a type 666-firewall that will keep the MAGI safe for hours."
"How Biblical," Gendou murmured flatly. "Now if you would be so kind as to surrender yourself and relinquish control of the facility, we can avoid any further unpleasantness."
A highly amused laugh rang out from every speaker on the command deck. "Surrender is an option for people in a losing situation, Commander," Ritsuko chuckled. "I hold all of the cards in this scenario, so I'll tell you how things are going to be. You are going to resign as commander of NERV and inform your precious 'committee' that all of your staff were working on your projects against their wills through coercion, intimidation, and blackmail. You will further inform them that you are solely responsible for any and all wrongdoing or treasonous actions, and turn yourself in with the understanding that there will be no repercussions for anyone under your command."
For a moment, Misato thought Gendou was actually going to laugh out loud. Instead, he simply said, "Doctor Akagi… you can't honestly expect me to believe that you are naïve enough to think I would concede to any of your demands, or to think that the committee would settle for anything less than the total eradication of anyone and anything that could oppose their authority. Or did you think their attempt to take the MAGI was their way of asking us to come quietly?"
"I've got access to their radio communications," Ritsuko informed him levelly. "They have issued a new executive order—A-801, to be exact—abolishing all of our legal rights. Oh, and we're also being charged with conspiracy up to and including actions that would jeopardize the entire human race."
"And does any of this surprise you?" Gendou wondered.
Ritsuko sighed. "No," she admitted, "but if you step forward and claim responsibility, they might-"
Gendou's voice was so heavy with sarcasm as he cut Ritsuko off that that Misato imagined she could see it dripping onto the floor. "Doctor," he began, "if they wanted a scapegoat, they wouldn't have implicated the entire Japan branch—they would have specified me, personally. If you believe for one moment they will be satisfied with anything less than the deaths of everyone in this facility, you're more foolish than I thought." He held up a hand, as if cutting Ritsuko off before she could retort (an action that was surprisingly effective, Misato thought, considering that the blonde wasn't even in the room).
"Furthermore," Gendou announced, "there is one card you do not hold."
"Oh?" Ritsuko mused as the commander slowly made his way down from the command dais to stand in the middle of the deck. "And what is that?"
Calmly, the commander reached into his uniform jacket, pulling out a small but heavy looking pistol. Without a word, and before anyone could think to stop him, he stepped forward and pressed the barrel of the pistol against the base of Maya's skull, taking no notice as she gasped and went as stiff as a board, her eyes wide and panicked as she realized just what was happening.
"Reveal yourself, Doctor Akagi… or Lieutenant Ibuki will die."
Maya squeezed her eyes shut, tears leaking from under her eyelids as Ritsuko's only reply was silence.
"Very well," Gendou announced. "You have made your choice, so here is your consequence."
As he thumbed the hammer back, Ritsuko's voice cried, "Wait! Wait…"
Gendou nodded in satisfaction, though he did not take his gun away from Maya's neck as the huge tower surrounding the central MAGI shuddered and began to rise. Everyone gaped in surprise as a very weary looking Ritsuko Akagi emerged from the small access panel at the base of the tower, her green eyes glittering with frustration as her lips set into a hard, thin line.
"You've gotten what you want," she said hotly, "leave Maya al-"
It happened so fast that no one could have interfered. The moment Ritsuko had fully emerged from the MAGI, Gendou swung his pistol in her direction and pulled the trigger, showing no emotion as he put a round cleanly through the middle of his lover's forehead. Several technicians (including Maya) screamed as the blonde slumped to the floor, her eyes wide and glassy and her face frozen in an expression of immense surprise.
"I'm afraid I'll have to ask you to step down, Doctor."
Misato's hand twitched, but she froze as Gendou turned to look at her, clearly knowing exactly what was on her mind. She cleared her throat, trying her best to stay calm… and not look at the body of her closest friend.
I'm just another enemy now, she thought, locking eyes with the commander and trying to gauge the distance between them. Damn—he could get two or three rounds off before I could reach him, and at LEAST one before I could draw. I'm dead.
"Fuyutsuki," Gendou said, making Misato jump. "I'll leave the rest to you."
With that, the commander walked past Misato, and while his gun was at his side, he kept his finger on the trigger and never once let her out of his sight as he climbed back up to the command dais.
Fuyutsuki looked as if he wanted to say something, but a look from his commander silenced him, and he nodded, turning back to the remaining bridge crew. "Lock the installation down," he ordered, keeping his back turned as Gendou's elevator began to descend. "Once they find that their computer attack has failed, they'll…"
He trailed off as Maya looked up at him her face tense with panic.
"Lieutenant?" he prompted, already fearing the worst.
"I've got… unconfirmed reports coming in from all over the base," Maya announced hesitantly, turned her still teary eyes to her the screen as Misato glanced in her direction.
"Reports of what?"
Slowly raising her head, Maya looked up at the main display screen, her voice barely audible as she whispered the one word no one on the command deck wanted to hear.
( 0 0 0 )
The halls stank of death. Everywhere, bodies lay in pools of blood, and the smell of freshly released waste was thick and palpable in the air. The girl in the plain blue school uniform barely noticed as she wandered aimlessly amidst the chaos, her head downcast and unseeing as she allowed her feet to carry her anywhere but the place she had just left.
She could still feel the warmth of the gray-haired boy's body against hers, and see the look of betrayal in his deep red eyes… and there was no way (provided she lived more than the next five minutes) that she would ever, ever forget that final, soft gust of life's breath brushing gently as a caress against the side of her neck as she ended the life of the one who had called her simply, 'AeMeH.'
But I am not… that, Rei thought, stepping unhesitatingly over the body of a technician who had once asked her if he could buy her an ice cream cone. I am… myself—formed of another, holding the soul of… that, but I am still…
It was amazing to her just how level and calm her voice was – almost conversational, really, though in this hallway of 'cleansed' workers, there was no one to answer her.
"I have… sullied myself," she whispered softly. "It is no longer important what I call myself, or what I want—as that is well beyond my reach—for I am… unclean." Staring down at her hands, she noticed for the first time that a few drops of what had been Kaworu's body before being disincorporated were still clinging to her skin.
We were the same, she thought, turning her hands over and noticing more splotches of the Fifth Child's remains. It is… different, somehow, than the others. The other angels were permutations – other possibilities. Nagisa was simply another permutation of what I am now, yet I live while he does not. Did I have the right to execute him without seeking to understand him further? Am I in the wrong?
She did not even look up as a troop of JSSDF soldiers rounded the corner ahead of her and immediately brought their rifles to bear. "First Child located," one of them reported. "Proceeding with sanctioning."
The sound of gunfire split the air once more, but as the echo died away the blue-haired teenager stood unscathed in the middle of the hall, holding her hands less than an inch from her face and carefully studying the spots of liquid upon them.
Am I the defiler I sought to remove?
"Sir?" one of the other soldiers asked uncertainly.
"Full auto," the squad leader ordered. "Cut her down, goddamn it!"
Rei ignored the chatter of the rifles as all twelve men unloaded their magazines in her direction. What was within her would not die from so simple an attack, and the AT field that had been Kaworu's undoing now protected her from the pathetic lumps of metal peppering the hallway from top to bottom as easily as an adult holding a spoiled two year old at arm's length.
"What was it?" she whispered to herself, still fixated on the spatters of fluid as the horrified soldiers hurried to reload. "What was it I was supposed to… feel…?"
She could not remember. Everything was so blurry—so confused—that it was easier to go back: back to before she allowed herself to feel what it was to love, and laugh, and hurt… and kill. It was better that way, really, because she was only a tool, after all.
What good did it do for a tool to fall in love?
Finally lifting her eyes, Rei watched a hail of small, globular objects spin lazily through the air towards her. "How unfortunate," she whispered as the grenades bounced off of her AT field and tumbled back into the soldiers' midst. "…that it is not that easy."
Rei turned away as the explosion shook the ground under her feet, walking slowly in the opposite direction as fragments of shrapnel and blood rained futilely against her AT field. The barrier of her heart was the strongest it had ever been, so the chances of these tiny projectiles getting through were as slim as those of a fly destroying a tank.
Nothing—nothing in the world… could get near her at that moment in time.
( 0 0 0 )
Destroy… all of it…
Mother… mother… mother… mother…
( 0 0 0 )
"Levels 1 through 33 have been compromised," Maya reported, trying to keep the panic twisting in her gut from overwhelming her as she scanned the data flowing across her screen. "All areas are requesting backup—there are casualties all over the installation! No… no one is responding to our distress call. We're cut off."
"Unit 02," Hyouga said suddenly. "Now that the angel's gone, maybe we could-"
"Unit 02?" Aoba cut in. "Do you know what Unit 02 is doing right now? It's in Terminal Dogma, bashing its head against a wall—and unless you forgot, it's got an S^2 organ now… so it could literally keep doing that forever."
Hyouga winced at this information. "Why?" he muttered. "Why is it out of control?"
"Think about it," Misato said quietly, glancing to where Ritsuko's body lay gently covered by her jacket. "If you were forced to hurt your own child… wouldn't it drive you out of your mind?"
"This is insane," Maya moaned, losing track of all the damage reports popping up on her terminal. "Every perimeter has been breached… none of the partitions are holding… every…" she had to swallow to force her throat open before finishing, "everyone's dying—and the only person that can help us is trapped in an unstoppable, rampaging monster?"
"You always did have a way to sum everything up in one shot," Aoba commented grimly, his brow furrowing as he tried to run a command on his terminal. "Major, I… I can't control the Bakelite system—the MAGI have shut me out."
"M-ma'am," Hyouga said hesitantly, "the security cameras just went offline."
There was a long, heavy moment of silence.
Misato took a deep breath to keep herself from screaming. "So that's it," she whispered unevenly, "they've got us—they've hacked the system."
"But Doctor Akagi's program stopped that!" Hyouga said, looking hopefully at the MAGI towers. "She said-"
"She was bluffing, Makoto," Misato cut in bluntly, "open your damn eyes!"
"But then why say it was done?" Aoba asked tentatively. "If she was afraid of dying… why not just say it wasn't finished yet, and if he wanted to live, he'd let her go?"
Maya answered before Misato could.
"Because she hated him so much that she would rather die knowing he was going to suffer than try to save her own life…"
Everyone jumped as Misato abruptly reached over Maya's shoulder and pounded her fist into the tech's screen, sending a spiderweb of cracks radiating out from the point of impact.
"Everyone get out," she ordered. "Get out of here—get to Terminal Dogma, or one of the emergency elevators, or a goddamn broom closet! Run! Hide! Get the fuck out before they get in." Glancing up at the MAGI, she cradled her now-bleeding hand up against her chest. "Better to die with a bullet in your back than one in your forehead."
There was another moment of heavy, disbelieving silence before Misato reached down with her good hand and pulled out her gun. Pointing it at the ceiling she squeezed off two rounds, the reports echoing like a judge's gavel as the woman shouted, "What are you waiting for?"
Technicians were on their feet in seconds, scrambling for the door as they cast uncertain glances at Misato—as if they were concerned that she would open fire on them rather than see them captured or killed by the enemy… but when the first tech neared the door, it slammed shut, its huge locking bolts driving home with a decisive thud.
"No," Maya gasped, spinning her chair around and reaching towards the door as if this gesture could force it back open. "Oh God… Major, we're locked in—they've locked us in!"
Misato slowly holstered her gun and looked at her wounded fist.
"Do you have a band-aid?"
Maya blinked at this calm question. "A band-aid?" she echoed. "Major, we-"
"I'm getting blood on my skirt," Misato interrupted. "There's a first-aid kit around here somewhere, isn't there?"
Misato held her hand up, looking the other woman in the eyes as she softly explained, "I have two hands. I've hurt one of them. I need to get that taken care of so it's not standing in the way of me helping out."
"Maya… I have two hands, and I will do everything I can with them to make sure that you, me, and everyone else gets out of here alright, but for now—the doors are locked, everyone is starting to panic, and I can't have that happen, do you understand? Take a deep breath, find me that first-aid kit, and help me get patched up so we can all get out of this… ok?"
Doing as she was told, Maya glanced around the room, taking in all the nervous, sweaty faces all around them. "Yes, Major," she said finally, trying her best to sound cool and collected. "I understand."
Misato let out a long, uneven breath, giving Maya a thankful smile as she whispered, "Thank you."
"Partners in crime, right?" Maya said weakly. "I couldn't just-"
"That's so touching."
Maya looked as if she had been punched in the gut, her eyes flying to the body of her fallen sempai as the unmistakable voice rang out over the speaker system, but it was Misato who finally managed to loosen her vocal chords enough to blurt, "R-Ritsuko…?"
"The one and only," Ritsuko replied. "Or, to be more accurate… the three and only."
Misato's jaw nearly hit the ground as she looked up at huge towers, understanding coming to her in an instant. "You… you didn't…!" she breathed.
"I did," Ritsuko confirmed. "What, did you think I was just hiding out and eating whatever crumbs Ibuki could sneak me? I've been a busy girl, Major. Time and tide wait for no man… though I suppose that doesn't really apply to me anymore."
"Personality transfer," Maya whispered, gazing at the MAGI in awe. "You… you overwrote them! You overwrote… oh senpai!"
There was a moment's hesitation before Ritsuko replied, "Not entirely. You see, the MAGI were designed with three personality traits in mind—woman, scientist, and mother—and, well, I'm short one of those traits, so I had to… improvise."
Misato tried to even imagine what type of improvising could be accomplished with divided personalities and theoretical computer space, but she quickly gave up after considering that Ritsuko either lobotomized herself or left a third of her mother's personality kicking around in the MAGI when she transferred her own personality in.
She couldn't have had much time to think about the repercussions, Misato thought with a mix of wonder and horror. So much could go wrong—and I've seen that little room she was holed up in… it's about half the size of my bathroom. God, just thinking about it makes me claustrophobic.
"Wait," she said out loud, "so if you're in control of the facility, and you've got us on full lockdown…" her face brightened. "We're safe, right?"
Ritsuko hesitated. "Misato," she said carefully, "I can only guarantee the lives of the people in this room—and then only for an hour or two, maximum. Anyone outside these doors should be considered…"
Misato's brow drew down as the other woman's voice trailed off. "Unacceptable," she said flatly. "Rei and Shinji are still out there—and Asuka, and hundreds of innocent people!"
Ritsuko's reply was immediate, as she had anticipated this response. "Unit 02 will protect Asuka better than we ever could… and might need to be stopped by us when this is all over. Rei, well," there was a brief pause. "Rei will be fine, especially in her current state. Shinji…"
Maya took a cautious step back as Misato absently bright her fist to her mouth and licked her still-bleeding wound.
"What about Shinji?"
"Umm," Ritsuko's voice hesitated, "he's… the last time I saw him on a security camera, he was still making his way towards Unit 01. Looks like he got separated from his escort, though."
Misato stuck her hand out to Maya. "Bandage that," she said, her voice so commanding that Maya nearly fell over in her hurry to get the first-aid kit. Raising her voice, Misato said, "When my hand is bandaged, you are going to open this door, let me out, and lock it behind me. Then, you're going to work with your little assistant here, and get everyone else out of this shithole."
"While you get yourself killed trying to save Shinji," Ritsuko added dryly. "No."
"Listen to me, we could-"
"No," Ritsuko cut in before the woman could get any more worked up than she already was. "No, period, end of sentence. You, Major, are going to get these people, and yourself, out alive. I've got a path worked out that will get you topside without running into any opposition. There is nothing you can do for Shinji—no, don't you make that face at me, I can still see you… there's nothing you can do besides get yourself killed, do you understand? Trust me, I have a trillion petabytes of processing power behind me."
Holding her hand still for Maya to bandage, Misato softly whispered, "A trillion petabytes… and no heart. Open the door, Ritsuko… or you might as well put a gun to my head yourself, because I won't be able to live with myself if I leave that boy out there on his own."
Ritsuko's voice was surprisingly gentle as it came over the speaker system. "You'll have to, Misato," she said. "There are more lives at stake than just his. Don't be selfish."
"Please, Ritsuko," Misato said, "I'm… I'm begging you. Don't do this."
"I'm sorry, Misato… I have to."
The purple-haired woman closed her eyes, rubbing her newly-bandaged hand thoughtfully as she tried to think her way out of the situation.
"What if I-"
Misato's eye flew open, flashing with rage as she took a step towards the hulking towers that housed the MAGI. After a second step, however, the fire left her, and she sagged weakly against Maya, her eyes showing nothing but defeat as tears of frustration and rage trickled slowly down her face.
"I hate you," she whispered hoarsely, "I hate you so much I wish I'd gotten the chance to put a bullet in you before the Commander!"
Ritsuko chuckled. "You're welcome to shoot me again," she offered. "I… don't think I'll be going back…"
Wiping at her eyes, Misato turned away from the huge machines.
"None of us are going back," she said bitterly, "if we escape, they'll just hunt us down. We'll be fugitives for the rest of our lives."
Maya nodded, tentatively offering, "Yeah, but it's better to be a living fugitive than a dead one, right?"
"Exactly," Ritsuko said firmly. "Now… here's my plan…"
( 0 0 0 )
Rei no longer knew where, exactly she was. She had gone up, down, north, south, and even diagonally at one point, in her aimless wanderings. The soldiers invading the base must have gotten word that she was to be avoided, because after a particularly messy encounter with a squad armed with a rocket launcher, she had not seen a single living soul.
There were the remnants of dead bodies in abundance, but no living souls.
How strange, she thought as she gazed down at an empty uniform at her feet, I can feel them coming home to 'her,' now. Soul boundaries are starting to fall. It is almost time. The Commander must be looking for me.
She looked around, trying to get her bearings. The time for aimless wanderings was over—it was time to head down to Terminal Dogma and fulfill her purpose, exactly as she always knew she must. "Goodbye, Shinji," she whispered, spotting a sign indicating that she was in the hospital ward. "Though I suppose, with Complementation, we will be together once m-"
Turning her head, Rei broke her sentence off before it could be complete, finding that she was no longer alone. The very absurdity of their meeting at random froze both parties in their tracks, leaving them staring and silent as they took one another in. Slowly, the boy standing in the middle of the hall raised one hand, waving it tentatively as he cleared his throat and greeted her by name.
The girl was slow to reply, so unsure was she that what she was seeing was real and not a figment of her imagination.
Lowering his hand, Touji continued to stare for a moment. "So," he said finally, jumping a bit as if his own voice surprised him. "Umm… what are you doing here?"
Rei blinked. "This is… where I belong," she said, saddened by the truth of this statement. "And yourself?"
"Er, they had me on standby, remember?" Touji reminded her. "I heard the alarms and stuff, so I tried to get to the bridge, but none of the elevators work and there's people running all over, so… I hid in that closet over there." He shrugged almost apologetically. "Guess it doesn't matter, though, huh? From the sound of it, they brought in a whole army."
"Yes," Rei confirmed, "that sounds accurate."
Perhaps it was the presence of a familiar face after seeing so many dead bodies, or the fact that he was a close friend of Shinji's, but something about Touji's appearance dug into Rei, forcing her to whisper, "May I… tell you something?"
Blinking, Touji looked around, trying to decide if running would even do them any good once they were found. With a shrug, he muttered, "Why not? I don't have anywhere else to go."
There was no way—no way at all—that he could have seen it coming. Rei told him everything, leaving no detail unspoken, until Touji found himself rubbing his temples and wondering how a girl as young as Rei could bear the weight she described without breaking down on a daily basis. Then again, he mused, was she even human enough to care? And why tell him?
Oh, right… all gonna die.
As she finally wound down, Rei found that she felt worse than before. It had been her hope that by confessing her crimes to another, it would help—as if the burden could somehow be shared. "…and that's why I can't be with Shinji," she concluded, keeping her eyes on the floor between them to avoid seeing the condemnation she knew would be in Touji's eyes. "I would not be able to look him-"
"What are you, stupid?"
Rei blinked, lifting her head at the sheer amazement in the young man's voice. "I don't underst-"
"This is a war," Touji cut in bluntly. "Do you think he hasn't done the same? Or worse? People die in war, Ayanami. Hell, my… my little sister was… well, you know what happened—but even with all that I can still call Shinji my friend, and look him in the eyes. Shit happens. Life sucks. War sucks. Get past it, man!"
Frowning faintly, Rei said, "People die in war… but what I did to Nagisa was personal and intimate. He trusted me, and let me close to him. That is how I was able to destroy him – by using his trust against him. It is the only reason I was able to get past his defenses. At the last moment… in his last moment… he faltered, because he thought maybe I might yet join him. And his reward was death. If I am capable of capitalizing on that trust, what else might I do? Whether on purpose, or by accident? I cannot be trusted not to harm others."
Touji scratched his head. "Look," he grumbled, "I don't really get everything you told me, ok? I know I ain't the sharpest guy around, but what do you think keeping yourself away from Shinji is going to do, huh? God, I thought pilots were smart, but this is the dumbest thing I've ever heard in my fucking life!"
Rei averted her eyes once more. "But I am… unclean."
"And you think never seeing the guy who loves you is going to make it better?" Touji asked, gaping at her in open wonder. "Ya got blood on your hands—it was personal, and you took advantage of him liking you… but from what you said you kind of didn't have a choice, right? I mean, he would have killed us all, and…" he trailed off, rubbing his temples as words escaped him.
"Ayanami," he said, clearly frustrated, "I ain't a rocket scientist—man, I ain't even a B student—and I don't even have a girlfriend… but I've been in Shinji's head, literally, and I'm telling you, if you cut him off and stick your head in the sand, you'll just be fucking things up more than they already are. Want my advice? Next time you see Shinji, lay one on him—a big, wet, ballsy kiss—and tell the guy you love him, and you'll never leave him… and then spend the rest of your goddamn life pretending that you never even knew that gray-haired freak." Putting his hands on her shoulders, he looked into her eyes with a lopsided smile and concluded:
"Don't run away like a little bitch."
"I do not believe that I would be able to simply-"
"I found them!"
Touji tensed, whirling on the spot as a soldier ran down the corridor in their direction, leveling a huge rifle at Rei's chest as he came. "Get behind me!" Touji said, raising his fists in a futile gesture of defiance Rei stepped around him and put herself between him and the soldier. "Ayanami, I said get-"
The soldier opened fire.
Touji never asked Rei to get behind him again.
( 0 0 0 )
Make… it… stop…
I'll do anything… anything at all…
Mach dass es aufhört!
( 0 0 0 )
Shinji gasped for breath, holding his side as he stumbled down yet another side corridor, trying desperately to remember the confusing layout of NERV central and hoping this wouldn't be another dead end. The last wrong turn had turned into a bullet in the ribs, with blind luck his only salvation. He could still see the soldier's triumphant face as he started towards Shinji, angling for a second shot as his foot came down in a puddle of the strange orange liquid that seemed to be all over the halls.
When the soldier's foot slipped, Shinji had reacted without thinking, throwing himself forward and hitting the man in the gut with his shoulder. The soldier had fallen hard, cracking the back of his head on the hard floor. Shinji had not waited around to see if the man was dead or simply unconscious—he had fled, sprinting blindly down corridor after corridor until he was hopelessly lost.
And now here he was, with a bullet in his side, sweat dripping from every pore, and the unshakable certainty that there was no way he was going to reach Unit 01.
Could be worse, he thought in a fit of inexplicable optimism, it could be raining.
He clenched his eyes closed as his side throbbed angrily. Was it optimism, or delirium? Shinji had basic first aid training, but he had no idea how to tell how much blood he had lost, or how much it took to start losing your grip on reality… or how much it took to die. He was feeling fairly strong, so he doubted that he was dying, but it was still hard to think straight since every step sent little waves of pain radiating out from the bullet hole.
Plus, he thought, what about shock? Or internal bleeding? Or-
"Where am I?" he muttered to himself, taking another look around and deliberately forcing the morbid thoughts away. "It looks like the hanger area… but where…"
The words died on his lips.
Someone was coming his way.
Damn it, he thought, spying a darkened corridor and ducking into it as quickly as possible. Damn it, damn it, damn it. Why didn't I let Misato teach me how to shoot? Sure, I can make Unit 01 handle a pallet rifle, but that's not the same as when-
"Come out of there with your hands in plain sight," a voice boomed from the main corridor. "I will give you until the count of three, and then I will shoot you, so if you are with NERV, show yourself."
Shinji frowned. That sounds like…
Swallowing hard, Shinji listened as his father counted, "One… Two…"
In the split second before Gendou reached 'three' Shinji steeled himself and stepped into the light, hoping that his father wouldn't shoot him (by reaching three, or simply because it was more convenient). If the commander of NERV was surprised to find his son skulking in a dark corridor, he hid it well, keeping his face completely expressionless as he surveyed the scene.
"Shinji," he murmured. "Why aren't you in the EVA cages?"
For a very long moment, Shinji simply stared at his father. That's it? he thought, fighting a mad impulse to break out laughing. I've been shot, my girlfriend's nowhere to be seen, and there are crazy people shooting everyone they find… and I should be piloting…?
Clearing his throat, the Third whispered, "I umm, was on my way, but, er… I… I got shot… father…"
Gendou glanced briefly at Shinji's bloodied hands. "So I see."
In a flash, all the things Shinji wanted to say exploded into his mind. Didn't his father care about him at all? What about Rei? He seemed to think more of her than Shinji, he had made that very clear when he had turned up in Rei's apartment, but what was he doing about it now? Did he care about anyone or anything? Had he even loved Shinji's mother, or was that a front as well?
All of his frustration—all of his rage—withered and stumbled in the face of the ice his father wrapped himself in, surrounding his heart and soul in its frigid armor until nothing could warm him; a haughty king in an unassailable fortress. Aloof. Apart.
It's almost sad, Shinji thought, shocked as his anger at his father was blown away like clouds scattered by a freshening breeze, he's been alone for so long that it's all he knows now. He's spent so long building his fortress that he doesn't even know how to get out of it—even if he wanted to. It's not ME he hates…
"I'll be going then," he murmured, unable to keep the faintest hint of pity from creeping into his voice as he gave the older Ikari a deep, formal bow. "Goodbye, father."
The Commander's back went ramrod straight as he recognized the emotion in his son's voice, but after a moment of silence, he slowly lowered his gun (and his eyes), and inclined his head slightly in Shinji's direction. "Goodbye, Shinji."
Still holding his side, Shinji stepped around his father, limping a bit as the pain of his wound made itself known. Moving down the hall, the Third gazed back over his shoulder, unable to believe the epiphany he had just experienced. Standing alone in the corridor, his father looked somehow smaller—diminished by the truth Shinji held—a shadow of his former, imposing self.
Maybe, he mused, if we get through all of this-
His thought was severed as, with all the suddenness of a lightning strike, a huge red shape erupted through the floor, filling the corridor completely as a bestial roar nearly shattered Shinji's eardrums.
Unit 02 had found what it was looking for.
(0 0 0 )
"So," Touji said, his voice only shaking a little as he and Rei made their way through the corridors, "Nagisa tried to get in your plugsuit, huh? I kinda figured the kid was gay."
Rei's brow furrowed slightly. "I doubt Nagisa had much sense of gender roles," she replied. "As far as I understood, he simply saw people as people, and if he loved someone, he loved them, regardless of gender."
"So he was bi."
Giving the jock a glance out of the corner of her eye, Rei murmured, "I believe you may have missed the point."
Touji opened his mouth to counter that she was the one missing the point, but before he could speak the entire building gave a massive lurch, hurling him down onto the ground. The Fourth Child gaped up at the tiny cracks in the ceiling as an unexpectedly powerful fear ran through him. NERV central was a large building. Furthermore, it was in a Geofront, and half buried.
What could hit this place hard enough to make it shake?
Rei (who had managed to stay on her feet) stood rooted to the spot, staring upward with a look so blank that Touji easily understood why Asuka always called her a doll.
"They are coming," the blue haired girl said, her voice equal parts wonder and disbelief. She tilted her head to the side as if listening, then whispered, "Nine… they are… nine…"
Matching her hushed tone, Touji asked, "Nine of what?"
Rei shook her head, seeming not to hear. "Excessive," she mused. "Do they plan to do it here? They would need…"
Unconsciously, Touji backed away as Rei's eyes suddenly turned his direction. He was not scared that she was going to hurt him on purpose… but he was scared that she might hurt him to get to whatever she was staring through him to see. Her eyes seemed to be lit from within, burning with unholy fire as a chill, frightened word slipped through her lips.
Touji flinched and covered his head with both arms as Rei surged forward, stepping over him and breaking into a full run as whatever she had realized compelled her into motion. Before he could get his feet under him, the First Child was gone, leaving only the fading echo of her footsteps to signify that she had ever been there.
Blinking, he realized that he would never find her if he didn't hurry, but before he had taken two steps, he knew that it was too late. There were just too many halls for her to turn down, and without knowing where she was headed, he had no way of following. He glanced around, suddenly sure that a hundred soldiers would come out of the shadows, chuckling about how they had only been waiting for the First to leave so they could kill him.
He laughed softly as he found himself alone, scrubbing a hand through his hair and glancing once more around at the empty halls. "Run or hide?" he asked himself. "Hell—let's do both."
With only some vague idea of heading toward the surface, Touji took off down the hall, hoping that somehow, everything would end up alright.
( 0 0 0 )
"Wer bist du?"
Shinji stared uncomprehendingly up at the mammoth red machine taking up the majority of the hallway.
"Antworte mir—wer bist du?"
There was no mistaking the voice, but what was being said, Shinji had no idea. He cast a surreptitious glance at where his father had been standing mere moments before, but all he could see was rubble—rubble and the looming form of Evangelion Unit 02.
Did he… get out of the way?
He flinched as Unit 02 pounded the wall, sending huge chunks of concrete tumbling to the floor. "Ok!" he blurted, holding up both hands in what he hoped was a supplicating gesture. "Ok, ok! I… I don't understand what you're saying! C-can you speak Japanese?"
"Japanisch?" boomed out of the machine's loudspeaker. "Das hier ist Deutschland, freak! Was zur Hölle macht eine japanische Göre in einer deutschen Fabrik, hmm? Sag schon!" When Shinji still did not reply, the girl muttered, "Scheiße. Beweg dich nicht."
Shinji's eyes bugged out as Unit 02 climbed out of the hole it had made and crouched down in the middle of the vaulted hallway, its head leaning forward as the entry plug spun out of the back of its neck. The hatch opened a moment later, and Asuka appeared, looking exceedingly grumpy.
Immediately, Shinji could see that something was wrong. Besides slipping into her native tongue, there was no light of recognition in her deep, azure eyes. She had somehow managed to find him, even amid the destruction and mayhem all around… but she no longer knew him.
"Bist du bescheuert oder einfach nur taub?" the redhead demanded, her brow furrowing as if she was trying to remember something. Then, seeing the helpless confusion on Shinji's face, she haltingly said, "You… really don't speak German?"
"N-no," Shinji stammered. "We're… we're in Japan, Asuka."
Asuka's brow drew down, her next question sending a cold shiver down his spine. "How do you know my name? Who are you? How did I get to Japan of all places?"
Shinji was at a loss for words. She doesn't remember, he thought, feeling a sickening lurch in his stomach. She doesn't remember any of it…
He chose his words carefully, worried that the slightest misstep would send the clearly unstable Second into a psychotic tizzy. "I'm… Shinji Ikari," he said, feeling like an idiot for introducing himself to someone he had lived with for the previous half year. "I'm the Third Child. We… we work together."
It came out harder than he had thought. Asuka—a girl he had secretly admired—stared at him as if looking at some kind of new, fascinating insect. "And why don't I remember any of this?" she asked, her tone taking on the sarcastic, disbelieving edge that Shinji knew signified her temper was running short.
Keeping himself from swallowing, as Asuka was watching closely and would take it as a sign of deception, Shinji softly murmured, "You've been piloting. NERV is under attack, and… and you've been fighting them. Maybe you hit your head…?"
Asuka blinked, her hand rising halfway to her temple before falling back to her side. "Well it does hurt," she admitted grudgingly. "Who's attacking us, though? Is it an angel? Have they come back?"
Shinji winced. That far, he thought dizzily, she's gone that far back…
He had read about regression in one of his science courses—the psychological term for a human mind returning to a time before a certain stressful event—but he had no practical experience with it, nor did he know how long it would last, or even if it could be cured at all. The only thing he knew for certain was that Asuka… was not herself, or rather, she was herself, circa one year prior.
Or maybe even more.
Looking into her eyes, Shinji said, "There was a… misunderstanding. It's the government that's attacking us. They think we did… something bad, so they're trying to… well, they're trying to kill us."
Shinji knew it sounded vague, but honestly, it was the short version of the situation. It would take too long to recap everything that had happened since the third angel had returned, and really, the only thing that was on his mind was how he could get to Unit 01, fight off the invaders, and find Rei.
Clearing his throat, he politely suggested, "Why don't you try using your comm system to check what I'm saying with the command deck?"
"Maybe I will," Asuka huffed. "Come up here… and don't do anything stupid!" So saying, she disappeared back into the plug. After a moment, Shinji scrambled up onto Unit 02's arm, making his way precariously to the plug opening and leaning in just in time to see Asuka thumb the switch for the communications system.
"This is Asuka. Can someone please-"
"Asuka!" Misato's voice cut in, sounding like the woman was on the verge of tears. "Oh thank God you're alright!"
Asuka blinked. "Misato?" she said. "You're here too?"
Quickly stepping into the momentary silence, Shinji said, "Asuka's… hit her head, Misato. Her memory's a little… fuzzy."
Misato seemed to chew on this, as she was silent for a few moments. Shinji gave Asuka a sickly smile as she scowled at him, clearly displeased with his succinct summery of the current situation, but before she could berate him for it, Misato broke the silence.
"Asuka, if you can manage to fight, it would be really helpful… we're in a lot of trouble."
Though she wasn't up to speed (by a year or so), Asuka was still Asuka. "Of course I can fight," she said, sitting straighter in her seat and tossing her hair imperiously over her shoulders. "What are you, stupid?"
Shinji smiled, giving Asuka a thumbs up—and not even flinching when she rolled her eyes and glared at him.
"Ok then, listen…"
Both Asuka and Shinji listened, and as Misato spoke, it was easy to see that the two Children had, once upon a time, been completely synchronized, as their faces betrayed identical expressions of disbelief and shock.
"N-nine EVAs?" Asuka blurted when Misato finally finished. "That's kind of overkill, isn't it?"
Misato's voice was terse. "Funny," she said, "I thought we had the best pilot on Earth on our side. Fine then, you can just get Shinji to Unit 01, and he can launch to take care of -"
"My ass he will!"
Shinji hid his grin behind the pretense of coughing into his fist. Misato knows how to get her motivated, he thought, silently cheering his guardian as Asuka began to rant about her abilities. Even back then…
"…so I'll handle it," the redhead concluded, giving Shinji a defiant stare. "The Third here can play backup—if he can keep up, that is." She narrowed her eyes at him. "Have you ever even piloted befo-
"Actually," another voice broke in, "it's too late for that."
"Doctor Akagi," Shinji exclaimed. "You're ok, too?"
There was a brief pause. "Well, something like that," came the dry response. "Anyway, as I was saying—fighting the EVA series topside won't work… they're already on their way into the base."
Shinji winced. So much can happen, he thought, stealing a sidelong glance at Asuka's face. So much can happen so fast…
"We can't risk close quarters combat with that many units," Ritsuko said coolly. "They're like roaches—they'll just swarm over you. If it was open terrain, I'd give Asuka even odds, and that's a huge compliment, so don't go flying off the handle… but in these halls? It would be a rout."
"So what's our plan?" Misato asked, sounding very much like she already knew the answer.
Ritsuko's voice was grim. "I've injected Bakelite into all of the upper corridors, so the EVA series will have to chew through that to get to us—but make no mistake, they will get through it, and probably in about… one hour." There was a brief pause. "That's why you all have to get out of here before then, because in an hour and a half, approximately the time they will take to reach the command center, I'll be detonating the base."
There was a long, heavy silence.
"Well don't everyone try to talk me out of it at once."
"Is there any other way?" Misato asked, sounding desperately hopeful.
With a sigh, Ritsuko mumbled, "Well, no, but it still would have been nice to-"
"Rei," Shinji cut in suddenly. "Does anyone know where Rei is?"
Another, heavier silence followed this question, broken when Asuka mumbled, "Who's Rei?"
Shinji ground his teeth.
"I have her on a security camera right now, Shinji," Ritsuko informed them. "She's making her way toward the command deck."
Then that's where I need to be, Shinji thought grimly.
"Can… can you see my father?"
"…no, Shinji, I can't."
Before Asuka could grab him, Shinji pitched himself backward off of Unit 02, tumbling gracelessly down to the ground and letting out a sharp cry as he landed on his left arm, breaking it in three places.
"What are you doing?" the redhead shouted incredulously, but the Third Child ignored her, struggling to his feet and bolting down the hole Unit 02 had made in the floor.
"Shinji?" Misato's voice called frantically. "Asuka, what's going on? Shinji? Shinji, answer me! Asuka, where did he go? Get him back for me, ok?"
Glancing with undisguised wonder into the hole in the floor, Asuka shook her head.
"It's too late," she mumbled. "He's gone."
( 0 0 0 )
Mesmerized, Rei stared at the enormous monitor dominating the center of the command deck, her eyes fixed unblinkingly on the white, eyeless faces of the advancing Evangelion Units.
"Has Major Katsuragi escaped?"
There was a momentary pause. "Yes," Ritsuko's voice replied, echoing softly from the speakers set around the command dais. "I forced her to clear out about 40 minutes before you got here. She's clear of the base… and outside of communication range."
"Because of the JSSDF's jammers."
"Yes, because of the JSSDF's jammers."
Rei looked to the smaller monitors directly in front of her, searching vainly for the one person—the only person—she cared to see. "Do you believe they will elude them?" she asked idly, flipping a few switches to change the view.
"I give them fifty-fifty," Ritsuko replied honestly. "More, if Asuka's timing is right."
The hastily constructed battle plan had been to wait until the very last possible minute to evacuate the technicians, then launch Asuka out of the lake in the middle of the Geofront, using Unit 02 as a distraction to allow Misato and her group a chance to get away. It was foolproof… provided the white EVAs continued trying to get to the command deck… and provided the troops all concentrated on Unit 02 and ignored the large group of barely armed people sneaking through the woods… and if Asuka didn't accidentally deflect a shot into said group of people.
'And if' a million other variables.
"Fifty-fifty seems more than fair."
Rei nodded absently.
"…I still can't find him on any of the monitors, Rei."
"And there are… still some JSSDF troops on this level."
Though she no longer had a throat with which to swallow, Ritsuko still felt like doing it. "You know his chances are almost zero… right?"
Unable to bear the tension, Ritsuko blurted, "Why did you come here, Rei?"
Rei did not look up from the monitors. "Unit 01 is encased in Bakelite," she said quietly. "I… could not think of anywhere else for Shinji to go."
"Wouldn't…" Ritsuko hesitated. "Wouldn't you feel him… coming to you if he died? I mean, considering… what you are…?"
Pursing her lips, Rei said, "It does not work that way, Doctor Akagi. The souls return to…her without name or shape. They simply… fill her. Nothing more. I cannot identify them."
There was a considering silence. "Your AT field," Ritsuko said slowly. "It was off the charts when you killed Nagisa." She paused for a moment before saying, "Could you use it to protect this room?"
"No," Rei replied immediately. "It is too large, and considering the yield necessary to destroy this installation, I doubt that my AT field would be sufficient to save my own life, let alone an entire room."
"But you're not sure."
Rei gazed at the MAGI. "Does it matter?"
Ritsuko's voice sighed over the speakers. "I suppose it doesn't," the former blonde admitted. "It's just… it was so strong that maybe-"
Rei's eyes shot to the vent directly overhead as the grate abruptly gave in, spilling a single, very ragged looking individual out. Had she been a bit faster, she might have been able to break the fall, but as it was she could only watch in stunned silence as the body tumbled to the floor, landing badly and uttering a weak, defeated groan.
A groan she recognized.
Barely breathing, she rushed to his side, falling to her knees and reaching out hesitantly, her hand hovering inches from his face as she surveyed the damage her lover had sustained on his journey to her. It was not pretty. Just from looking at him she could tell that his left arm was broken (possibly in several locations, based on the odd angle in which it was hanging), and the copious amount of blood on his shirt indicated at least one gunshot wound of indeterminate severity.
He had also twisted his ankle upon landing, and now held it in his uninjured hand, crying silent tears of pain as his tortured muscles cried out almost audibly. Abruptly, he became aware of her presence, his hand freezing in mid-rub as he stared at her, his mouth working soundlessly.
Almost at once, Rei knew that she had made the biggest mistake of her life in secluding herself from him. The adoration glowing in his eyes was heartbreaking, and when he reached out and caressed her cheek with his bloodied, filthy hand, the blue haired girl clearly heard his voice whispering in her mind.
Shinji winced as Rei threw her arms around him… and wept. It was awkward—unfamiliar, for both her and him—but it was much needed, as the dam she had erected to hold her emotions in check for her entire life came crashing down as if it had never been, letting her feelings rush out in a maelstrom of regret and sadness. She spoke haltingly, gasping out something about how she had committed an unforgivable sin, and she was sullied, and broken, and beyond redemption.
Wrapping his good arm around her, Shinji hushed her. "Later," he said quietly, "Rei, tell me later—or don't, I don't care. If it's that bad, then…"
He trailed off, too confused and in pain to form rational thoughts.
"Oh, Doctor Akagi," Shinji exclaimed, looking around for the woman. "Where are you?"
"In the MAGI tower," Ritsuko said with complete honesty. "It's nice to see you, Shinji." She paused for a moment, and when she spoke again, Shinji could hear the admiration in her voice. "It was the same vent, right? The one you guys used when the power went out… right?"
Shinji managed a pained smile. "It was the only way I could think of getting in without getting shot," he said grimly. "I almost didn't make it. When I was coming down from the level above this one, a soldier heard me and started shooting the vent. The only reason I made it is because I let go and dropped down the shaft."
I… I have to tell him… Rei thought, taking a deep breath and looking Shinji in the eyes.
Touji's words pounded in Rei's mind with almost physical force, freezing her tongue in her mouth as Shinji waited for her to continue, his eyes half glazed with pain, but unmistakably adoring and loving.
"…later," she said finally, averting her eyes as she made the decision to follow Touji's advice for the time being. "We will talk about it later."
"There's not going to be a later," Shinji said, grasping her shoulder as he looked towards the MAGI. "Rei…we're running out of time! The charges—Doctor Agaki is going to set off the self-destruct char-"
"I know," Rei cut in, folding him once more into her arms and drawing in a deep breath as he clumsily embraced her with his unbroken arm. "I know, Shinji…"
Shinji clenched his eyes shut, blotting out the view on the main monitor of the leering, eyeless mass production Units.
"They're almost here," Ritsuko informed them as the main monitor abruptly went dark. "I don't know what to say, you two. I can't keep them out any longer."
With a sigh, Shinji relaxed in Rei's arms. "It's alright," he said as something large hit the door leading into the command room. "It really is, Doctor Akagi. As long as I'm with her…" he looked into Rei's eyes, smiling at her for what he knew would be the last time. "If I'm with you, any pain is bearable."
Rei flinched as the door was struck again. It's not alright with me, she thought, her mind burning with every possible exit scenario she could think of. I… I want more, Shinji. I want… I… want…
"…I want to live."
Shinji blinked. "Hmm? Did you say something?"
Rei did not seem to hear him, and after a moment, Shinji started to wonder if she had spoken at all.
"They're coming in!" he gasped, his jaw clenching with fear as the door began to bow inward, unable to withstand the massive pressure on the other side. "Rei… they're coming."
The blue haired girl did not reply, her attention focusing inward as she deliberately sought out the darkest, most hidden corner of her being and projected images of her happiness into it with all of her might.
"For all I have endured," she whispered, blinking as fresh tears slipped unheeded down her cheeks, "for all that has never been mine. Please, now… protect us… light of my soul…"
The door gave way. The white Evangelions roared into the room, keening for blood. Shinji screamed, unable to contain himself as he felt the icy chill of imminent death.
"Shinji! Your father! He's-"
Shinji barely heard Ritsuko's words as the detonators were triggered, setting off the massive, fully nuclear charges hidden below Central Dogma… and the room was engulfed in roaring, blinding atomic fire. The Evangelions shrieked, thrashing wildly as a white-hot ball of pure plasma burned them to ash within seconds.
The ground shook and heaved as bomb after bomb exploded, rocking the very earth beneath them as Rei clung to him, whispering something over and over as her eyes clenched tightly shut. It seemed to Shinji, in those endless, terrible seconds, that Rei was glowing, burning almost as bright as the flames surrounding them as his ears picked out the words she was speaking.
"Light of my soul… light of my soul… light of my soul…"
Shinji wanted to tell her that he felt the same—that without her, his world was nothing but darkness and despair… but his throat would not work. It was locked by the horror of conflagration raging all around them. Everywhere he looked was fire and destruction, and even the MAGI towers, those mighty, unshakable pillars of steel and concrete, began to melt and run, a tremendous scream rising as they burned until finally (mercifully) it was silenced.
Rei continued her endless litany, holding Shinji so fiercely that it felt like she was enveloping him—cradling him safely within a sphere of calm and safety that even the flames couldn't touch… and for a moment, it felt as if it was true, as if nothing would ever reach them.
Yes, here, in her arms, the world could burn to ash… and they would be left unscathed.
Shinji closed his eyes as Rei's voice rose to a frantic crescendo, floating in boundless space as the pain of his wounds made his head swim.
The flames closed in around them.
All he could see was fire.
"I love you… Rei…"
And the world was heat, and light, and insanity, and chaos, and ultimately… cold, smothering blackness.
( 0 0 0 )
Neo Tokyo 4 – 2019
"I'm going out!"
The woman waited for the grumbled reply from her guardian, rolling her eyes as the predicted, "Do you have your ID?" came from behind one of the apartment's closed doors.
"Of course, don't be stupid!" she groused. "And before you ask, yes, I remember my name."
The door opened a crack, and a single eye appeared. "Well it's not like my concerns are unfounded," the older woman said. "Two weeks ago I had to cover up for you."
"Blah, blah, blah. Do you need anything while I'm out?"
As she waited for a reply, the girl formerly known as Asuka tossed some of her bleach blonde hair over her shoulder. Aside of her hair (worn in a different style), she was still essentially herself. She went by Sakura only because it was easy to forget, and after four years, it was still best if people forgot her.
Her guardian had also dyed her hair blonde, though she had gone with green contacts instead of leaving her eyes untouched. She called herself Ritsuko those days—saying it was an homage—though Asuka still had no recollection of the woman it was supposed to honor.
"No," the older woman finally replied tiredly. "Just… don't get into trouble, ok?"
Bolting through the door before she had to listen to any other arguments, Asuka reveled in the bright afternoon sunshine. Since their harrowing escape from NERV, she and Misato had been on the run; moving from town to town, changing their appearances often, and dodging other survivors to avoid having too many targets all in one place. It was somewhat like a movie, she had thought at times, but there was nothing fictional about their daily struggle to survive.
The Japanese Government, and some organization that really ran NERV (according to Misato, anyway), had standing offers of large rewards for any information regarding 'The Incident.' Anyone that worked for NERV was considered a suspect, and while the assumption was that almost everyone was killed in the blast that destroyed the headquarters, the rewards were still available.
Because of all of these factors, international travel was clearly out.
It hadn't taken much to convince Asuka that laying low for a few years couldn't hurt, even though she was one of the ones presumed dead—and with good reason, as she had timed the self-destruct sequence of Unit 02 to correspond with NERV's, ejecting at the last moment and speeding away mere seconds before the explosions destroyed all the evidence.
And considering that the entry plug had splashed down and sunk in the middle of a sizable lake (which she barely escaped, thank you very much), she doubted if anyone would uncover her escape.
Misato said we won't have to do this much longer, though, Asuka thought as she wandered down the street in the direction of the local grocery store. Last time we inquired about a reward, the reaction was only lukewarm. People are losing interest.
There was one other survivor they still traveled with—another pilot who had somehow stumbled on Misato's group as they were making their way out of NERV. The young man had some kind of attachment to Asuka, and while she wasn't exactly sure what their history was, he wasn't exactly a bad guy.
He was somewhat of a stooge, in Asuka's opinion, but he was always very nice to her, and though she had shot him down the few times he had asked her out over the four years since the fall of NERV, she was vaguely considering saying yes the next time he asked.
Misato said she was getting softer as she grew up. Asuka said Misato was getting softer too… in the stomach. Needless to say, theirs was not a perfect friendship, but it was more than a lot of people could claim, and really, considering that Misato was about the only living person Asuka could remember, it was the only friendship she was likely to have for some time.
She still was unclear on what, exactly, happened to Kaji, but one day when Misato had a little too much to drink, Asuka figured she'd be able to wring it out of her.
"Orange juice, please!"
Standing at a small vendor a block from the grocery store, Asuka couldn't help but think of what a strange journey she'd taken. No matter how many times Misato described the things she, Shinji, Touji, Asuka, and Rei Ayanami (the First Child) had shared, Asuka could not recall any of them. Occasionally, one of Misato's stories would strike her as familiar, but that was about it.
Asuka suspected that the tales of the past were just as much for Misato's benefit as they were for hers. It made her feel a little sad for the older woman—she didn't even have a chance to take any pictures in their mad flight through the woods.
They had tried, unsuccessfully, to recover her memories… but all of the psychologists they saw (the few they could afford) explained that it wasn't a matter of simple suppression. It was, as Shinji had guessed, regression—an actual reverting of her mind to a younger state to avoid some sort of recent trauma.
Misato secretly theorized that it was a psychological shock reaction to Unit 02's feedback, but without costly, extensive testing with people who were either dead or on the run, it would never be confirmed as anything but a hypothesis.
Maybe I'll ask her to tell me about the day I moved in, Asuka thought as she paid for her juice. That always seems to cheer her up.
She frowned as she realized that a girl of about three years old was standing a few feet away from her… and staring at her with her jaw hanging open, her eyes wide and almost worshipful.
Asuka gazed down, scowling at the child as the girl gaped up at her. "What?" she mumbled. "Do I have something on my face? Your parents should teach you some manners."
"I'm terribly sorry," the child's mother said in a soft, careful voice. "My daughter is easily fascinated with people she finds beautiful."
Embarrassed by the unabashed compliment, Asuka mumbled, "Well, it's not polite to stare."
"You are correct… my apologies."
Asuka gazed at the woman, something about her voice tugging at the redhead's memory… but she found nothing unremarkable in her plain, shoulder-length brown hair and unassuming brown eyes. A second look at the woman's daughter produced a similar tug—slightly more powerful—as she stared into the child's honest, open face and deep, guileless crimson eyes.
Red… Asuka thought with sudden clarity, like her mother's.
"Have a nice afternoon, Ma'am."
"Y-yeah," Asuka stammered, blushing as she pulled her eyes away. "You too."
The woman gave a bow and turned to her daughter. "Come along, Hikari," she said gently. "Your father will be waiting."
Though she tried to resist, Asuka found herself stealing one last look at the woman… but she quickly turned away as she found her gaze met with a soft, tender smile.
"Wait!" she cried, suddenly gathering her courage. "Do I know you?
"I don't believe so," the woman said patiently, "though I have been told I resemble Megumi Hayashibara."
Asuka waved a hand. "I don't know who that is," she said dismissively, "but I feel like… I know you."
The girl, (Hikari, Asuka reminded herself), slipped her hand into her mother's, once again staring at Asuka with open wonder. "Perhaps we met in another place," the woman said, laying a thoughtful finger against her cheek as she regarded Asuka more closely, "or another time."
"So you don't know me?" Asuka asked bluntly.
For a long moment, the woman simply stared. Contacts, Asuka thought with sudden certainty, she's wearing contacts. She has the same eyes as the kid.
"I need to be going," the woman said, her tone still that gentle, almost affectionate timbre that made Asuka's eyes feel misty.
She reached out, touching Asuka briefly on the forearm. The contact sent a tingle of warmth up and down the former Second Child's back, and she knew—she knew—she had found something… lost. Something that, maybe, did not need to be regained, but could, perhaps, be relearned.
All that felling—all that emotion… from one… single… touch.
"Here," the woman said, handing Asuka a tissue.
"W-what? I'm not…"
She blinked, reaching up to touch the wetness on her cheeks with the tips of her fingers.
"Goodb-" the woman cut herself off, giving Asuka another soft, almost rueful smile. "Until next time…"
There was something inside of Asuka's mind—something trying desperately to surface from the recesses of that lost, irretrievable year of her life. She tried to grab it, to hold on and force her uncooperative mind back around and find the damn time she had lost as the woman turned away and melted into the crowd with her daughter.
She could almost feel a powerful emotion, obscured by only a thin barrier within her mind, that (if she could just get through it!) would change her life forever, filling the empty place in her memory to overflowing and bringing back the memories of a time when she had been part of something that had burned brighter than the sun.
Slowly, she looked up into the sky, ignoring the tears flowing freely down her face as she drew in a deep, shuddering breath. "Until next time," she repeated, feeling a tiny, tiny weight lift off her shoulders. "Yeah…"
Touch' – end
Notes: no notes.
Pre-read was done by Hawker748.