The 2nd try

Chapter 5: The 14th




When he opened his eyes, the first thing Toji saw was an unknown, white ceiling. Faintly he could hear fractions of discussion outside of the room.

"...only have five minutes," someone said, followed by an agreement from a younger voice.

The door opened and revealed a brunette girl, still clad in a green and white school uniform. She went directly, though with respectful speed, to the chair next to him.

He blinked a few times with his still tired eyes, even though he quickly had a good idea of who the newcomer was.

"Hikari?" he asked hoarsely, seemingly startling the visitor a bit.

"Suz... Toji," the pigtailed girl corrected herself, unable to fight the faint blush on her cheeks. "I'm sorry. I wasn't aware that you were awake already. Are... are you okay?"

"Yeah." He smiled weakly. "I guess I'm still alive."

"Well, you... you have slept for one day..."

"One day, huh? I feel like I could sleep for another one or two..." Toji mumbled before he returned his attention back to her. "And why are you...?"

"Oh, I'm just here because of my duties as class representative, nothing else," she answered sheepishly, a big innocent smile on her face.

Toji mirrored her grin knowingly. "Yeah, I know..."

"Yes, I guess so..." Hikari whispered.

A short moment, filled with a silence of uncertainty, passed between them. Slowly, their smiles faded as their minds wandered back to the recent events.

"Do you know what happened?" Toji eventually asked. "To the EVA, I mean?"

"Ikari destroyed it..."

"Shinji...?" he wondered, smirking weakly as he stared back to the ceiling. "Sometimes it's hard to believe how much of a fighter our shy, timid friend is. If I had seen him in the EVA before I met him in school, I'm not sure if I would have even dared to hit him back then..."

Hikari nodded in agreement, even though he couldn't see it. "But if you hadn't done that, you two might never have become friends..."

"Yeah," he concurred. "I guess sometimes something good can come out of even the biggest mistake..."

Toji fell silent again. For the first time, his gaze traveled down his body. He took a wondering look at his treated wounds, especially the cast on his arm and his leg that hung in a sling that held it up and immobilized it. "So... what happened to me?"

"From what I've heard, he and the others got you out before they attacked. I don't know exactly what happened, but it seems they weren't fast enough..." Hikari fell silent, noticing that she sounded as though she would blame the pilots for everything. But she was much too glad that nothing worse had happened to actually feel like that.

"Your leg and arm are broken," she eventually continued. "They say you'll most likely have to stay here for a few weeks."

"Weeks?" he asked with a hint of panic in his voice. The thought alone of being confined to the bed for any longer than a few days caused his stomach to twist. He was the type of person that needed to get out if he wanted to keep his sanity.

Hikari, however, seemed to find his fearful expression quite amusing. "It's not like your limbs are gone forever," she giggled. "In just four to six weeks you'll be fine and free to go wherever you want."

Toji groaned from sheer despair, but he felt too tired to argue any longer. He let out a sigh and returned his view once more to the girl next to him. "So... if I don't get out of here soon... could you do me a favor?"

"Of course..."

"Could you tell my sister that I'm alright?"

"Sure..." Hikari promised, nodding. But when their eyes met, any further words seemed to escape them. Neither moved nor even dared to blink for uncounted seconds, in fear that this moment would disappear all too soon.

"I... I'm afraid I have to go now," the girl eventually broke the silence. "I was already lucky that they allowed me to visit you at all."

She had already risen from the chair and was halfway to the door when Toji called out once more. "H... Hikari?"

"Hmm?" she asked, but didn't turn around.

"Thanks... for being here..."

"Sure..."

With that, she left quietly, hoping that he wouldn't notice the blush on her cheeks.



****************



"No, Kensuke..." Shinji sighed into the phone, "No, I don't know why they chose Toji instead of you... What? ... They won't let you visit him? Oh... no, no, I-I don't think I can do anything for you there... Horaki can visit him? But isn't that because of her duties as class rep? ... Yeah, you're probably right, that's a bit much just for that... No, I don't know if Asuka had anything to do with that..."

He threw a glance from the hallway into the living room. His redheaded companion lay on the floor, curiously looking up to him at the mention of her name. Not that she really seemed to be paying attention to that family movie or whatever it was being displayed on the TV.

Shinji rolled his eyes as Kensuke continued on the other side of the phone. "A-ask her?" he shrieked in his best impression of 'nervous/scared Shinji'. "I... I don't know... She... she's been quite touchy lately... Hey, why don't you ask her yourself? I could hand her the pho... Kensuke? Hello? Kensuke?"

Chuckling lightly, he ended the connection and placed the phone back onto its receiver. "I guess he'll never learn..." he muttered as he reentered the living room.

"I still can't believe I lost again!" the redhead mumbled out of the blue.

Again...

"Asuka, we're alone." Shinji yawned. "Misato left while you were taking a shower."

"So what?"

He gave her a curious look. It had been a while since he had seen her grumpy like this, at least without just acting it. "You're not saying that you still take something like that so personally, are you?"

"And what if I do?" she grumbled and rolled on her side, turning away from him.

"Oh, Asuka..." He chuckled at her behavior. For someone who had always thought of herself as mature, she sure had kept some childish attitudes even after actually going through adulthood. At least that's what he hoped it was...

Carefully, he lay down behind her, drawing her into a loose embrace. She stiffened, but though it was obvious that she wanted to continue her sulking rather than to cuddle and relax now, he knew that she usually wasn't able to keep that attitude up for very long.

"It's just..." The anger in her voice was already fading. "I was knocked out that easily! Again! I never even got the chance to fight properly. There I was, thinking I could redeem myself and I... I..."

"It caught all of us by surprise," he assured her, running his hands soothing over her arms. "There was nothing you could have done. I'm sure you would have showed him who's boss otherwise..."

Finally, a small snigger cracked through her mask of anger. She shifted around to face him and brought her arms around his shoulders. She pouted, now playfully. "I hate it when you do that, you know?"

"Yeah..."

She shook her head, slowly bringing it closer to his. "That's the wrong line," she whispered. "You have to say 'I'm sorry'."

"Oh?" He grinned, leaning forward to meet her halfway, already feeling her breath on his face. "I'm sorry."

"Better..." She closed her eyes, just before their lips...

"I'm home!"

Both bolted up at the loud, cheerful call of the young voice; not in shock or fear, but in surprise and in a hope beyond reason. But no one was to be seen...

Asuka noticeably tensed when Shinji laid his hand on her shoulder. As she slowly turned around, he looked into her eyes, and saw that the glimpse of hope that had glowed in them just a few seconds ago had been replaced by an utter sadness.

"It was just the TV..." she muttered in a flat tone. No trace of emotion could been found in her voice.

"Yes..." He swallowed the lump of sadness in his throat as he pulled her back in his arms. "Just the TV..."



****************



It wasn't the first battlefield she had seen, and yet the sight of the giant human-like corpse still managed to send a shiver down her spine.

The cleanup process had already begun, but it would still take a while to remove all of the EVA/Angel's bloody remains. Heavy cranes and trucks were busy transporting the body away from the area. NERV personnel were all over the place, blocking the region from curious eyes. But none of them would have dared to stop her in her current mood, even if they wouldn't have recognized the Major.

"You're okay already?"

Ritsuko's rhetorical question didn't even startle Misato. Of course she was not 'okay'. Her injuries were clearly visible - especially by the sling around her arm - and they would remain that way for a few weeks. It wasn't as though her old friend looked that much better, with the bandage around her head.

"It's alright as long as I can do my job. I can't take a break during this emergency situation." She sighed angrily. "I would have come even sooner if a certain Commander hadn't made the stupidest order of his career."

"I've heard about Shinji," the doctor commented. "And though his punishment may not seem reasonable at first, I think Commander Ikari had a point..."

"You're always on the side of that bastard, aren't you? What is this, a new game I haven't heard of yet? 'Let's see who can hurt Shinji the most' ? I..." A sudden pain in the injured arm stopped her in her tracks when she moved it too abruptly in her rage.

"Calm down already!" Ritsuko countered sternly, but remained her calm. "You're talking as if he had been arrested or expelled from NERV completely!"

Misato sighed. "Sorry. It's just... he doesn't deserve it. He hasn't done anything wrong! It might have been much worse if he hadn't tried to save his friend. He's risking his life for us again and again and now that he finally shows a bit confidence in piloting the EVA, he isn't allowed to do it."

"I don't think he would care that much about missing a few tests..." Ritsuko chuckled.

"Well... maybe not..." Misato allowed herself an amused smile. "I guess you're right. But I still hope the next Angel doesn't show up during the next few weeks..."



****************



Shinji bolted upright in his bed. His heart was racing and he found himself coated in sweat, but reality already began to set in again.

Another nightmare...

It had been years since he last had one, but they came almost constantly lately, always mocking him with his loss, always telling him that all he was doing was for nothing. And always that monster that just wouldn't let him go.

With a loud sigh, he fell backwards on the bed again and shut his eyes, but he was still too upset to fall sleep again. He groaned, bothered by this situation, he tossed himself to the other side, only to roll back not even a minute later. Wearily, his view wandered around in the dark room until it fell on the luminescent letters of the digital clock.

4:36... And with his occupied mind and dry throat, there was no way he would get his sleep any time soon. But at least he could do something against the thirst.

Shinji shivered a bit when his sweat-soaked skin came into contact with the night's chilling air as he stood up and went to the kitchen. He refrained from switching on the lights, not wanting to disturb the sleep of the penguin in his private refrigerator, and silently got himself a drink from the other fridge.

But after he had quickly drunk it down and tossed the empty can into the bin, he didn't really feel all that refreshed, and far from better. It had been just another useless attempt to change something.

With lowered head, he shuffled back to his room. But as he passed the door to Asuka's room, a soft whimper stopped him dead in his tracks.

A sad sigh escaped his lips. There was barely anything he hated more than this sound; it always reminded him how helpless he really was. But he couldn't blame her for crying. He often found his own pillow wet from his tears as well.

For a while he just stood there in the hallway, finding himself unable either to get in her room to soothe her or to walk away and leave her alone with the pain.

Finally, after assuring himself that Misato wasn't anywhere near, he hesitantly stepped towards Asuka's room and opened the door, carefully and quietly. For an instant, he smiled at the chaos in her room. As long as it didn't concern her looks, she had always been the sloppiest of them; not even maturing had helped much there.

But the smile vanished as quickly as it had come when he saw her weeping form cringing on the bed.

With small, quiet steps, he went over to her, carefully avoiding the mess on the ground. She didn't notice him in her restless sleep as he sat down next to her.

He wanted to whisper soothing words in her ear; anything to calm her, but all he could think of would have been even more hurtful lies. All he could do was to lay his arm around her and share her pain. And so they wept silently together until he had to get back to his own room, before the morning came to bring another day of repression and charades.



****************



"She really said that?"

Hikari nodded, a big grin on her face at the sight of his stunned expression. "Her exact words were, 'That silly idiot of a big brother can be glad that nothing worse happened to him, otherwise I would have killed him myself!' "

"That ungrateful little..." Toji mumbled, but Hikari just smiled, mildly shaking her head at the boy in the bed next to her.

"Don't play dumb. You know exactly that she didn't mean it that way. She was scared when she heard that you risked your life just so she would get a better treatment. And regarding the progress she made, I'm sure she's very thankful for what you did for her."

The boy's face visibly lightened at her words. "So, how is the little brat?"

"Oh, she's doing fine. I wouldn't be surprised if she starts walking sooner than you do."

"I don't think so!" he exclaimed proudly and grinned back at her.

"Huh? What makes you so sure?"

"Because," he began softly, as he placed the hand of his good arm on hers and looked deep into her eyes in a way that sent shivers over her skin and brought a warmth to her face, "she doesn't have the same motivati..."

He was harshly interrupted by a loud knock on the door. Before any of them could answer, it was thrown open by a red whirlwind, which dragged another person with it.

"I seriously hope we didn't interrupt anything..." a visibly disgusted Asuka grunted.

Though 'innocent', Hikari and Toji's faces went beet red immediately.

Fortunately for them, the boy who entered with Asuka intervened before the silence could become really awkward. "H-hi, Toji," he mumbled. "Hello, class rep..."

"Hey, Shinji!" The jock thankfully accepted the diversion of the topic. "How're you doing?"

"Eh... Good..." Shinji said, obviously taken by surprise by the rather mundane question. "But I-I actually came here to ask you that..."

"Me? Ah, I'm fine. You know... just lying in bed, eating, hanging around," he joked, pointing to the leg which dangled in its sling.

"...Playing doctor with your girlfriend..." Asuka teasingly added to his list.

While another rush of embarrassment silenced Hikari before she could speak up, Toji just rolled his eyes this time.

"And what brings you here, Mrs. Lucifer? Missing me already?"

"Yeah, sure..." the redhead snorted. "I'm just here because Misato didn't want her little Shinji going out alone," she added in a tone of mock indulgence, ruffling Shinji's hair like that of a toddler.

"Asuka!" he protested, blushing slightly in embarrassment. "That's not what she said..."

"Whatever!" she huffed, and returned her attention to the invalid. "But since we're here now to grace you with our presence, how about a little 'thanks' for saving your sorry ass?"

Toji just looked disapprovingly at, or rather through her.

"Thanks, Shinji..." he eventually said, without changing his expression.

Asuka seemed to be about to snap at him, but Hikari's elbow was faster.

"Ouch!" he screamed out, rubbing the bandaged spot at his ribs where she had hit him. "What was that for?"

But before she could answer this quite unnecessary question with more than a stern glare, Shinji decided to intervene once more. "Asuka's right, you know? She and Rei helped a lot to save you."

"A-hem..." Asuka drew his attention back to her, where he was greeted with a warning glare.

"Eh... of course Asuka was an even bigger help..." he quickly added.

"A-hem!" This time it was accompanied by a light slap against the back of his head.

"I... eh..." Shinji's shoulders dropped as he sighed in defeat. "I mean, Rei and I helped her, of course..."

"A-HEM!"

"N-not that she would have needed any help..."

"Sorry, Shinji." Toji grinned. "But I don't feel like thanking your wife just because she henpecked you."

"A-hem!"

His eyes warily wandered to his left, from where the last sound came, and encountered Hikari's disapproving glare.

"Eh... I..." Letting out a groan, he looked up to the ceiling, pouting almost childishly as he quietly mumbled a "thanks for saving me..."

"Who's henpecked now?" Shinji muttered, his voice barely audible.

But inwardly, he was smiling gladly at the luck of his friend. He had wanted to visit him at least once and it was a good thing he'd done it before...

...before the sirens suddenly started to blare all over the city.

And while Asuka and Shinji unnoticed exchanged a knowing look, everyone else in Tokyo-3 just knew: The next Angel was about to attack any moment.



****************



Misato hurried through the corridors of the Headquarters only a few minutes after the alarm went off. The announcement to all personnel 'to take their battle stations and to prepare for surface to air combat' had been repeated for the third time by now, but the sheer size of the Headquarters made the route longer than necessary. She fumbled for her phone with her good hand, finally managing to extract it from her pocket, and established a connection to the command center. "Katsuragi here. What's the status?"

"Major!" Hyuga's voice blared through the phone. "The Angel was spotted at Komagatake and it's doubtful that their defensive line can hold it off very long! This thing moves through our forces as if they weren't even there!"

They couldn't even slow it down? That would mean they had even less time to prepare the counter.

"Okay, prepare the EVAs for launch! I saw Shinji and Asuka hurrying towards the changing rooms! What about Rei? Is she ready by...?"

"Major," a cold voice cut her off.

"Yes, Commander?"

"Only the First and Second Children will engage the Angel. Unit-01 will sortie with the dummy plug."

"WHAT?"

***

Despite the chaos around them, there was a shocked silence as the technical officers looked up at the seat of their Commander.

"Pilot Ikari is still suspended from his duty..."

"Sir, with all due respect, this is not the time to enforce disciplinary measures!" Misato's voice echoed through the open comm, daring to say out loud what everyone was thinking.

But Ikari seemed unfazed. "I will not repeat myself, Major!"

There was a short pause that tightened the atmosphere, until Misato replied with a weak "Understood..."

Ritsuko, who happened to be standing near the bridge technicians, felt someone tugging at her lab coat.

"But, Sempai, the dummy plug didn't even work last time," Maya whispered. "How can he risk everything on an unreliable system like that?"

"I know you were never very fond of the idea of the dummy plug." Ritsuko smiled wearily at her protégé for a second, but it dropped as soon as she looked back again to the man sitting above them. "But for him, it's more personal. Once the dummy plug works, he won't need to rely on Shinji any longer. It's no secret that he isn't very... fond of his son, and the last incident already gave him an opportunity to widen the gap between them. I do not doubt that as soon as Shinji has lost his usefulness, the Commander will do everything to get the boy away from him..."

"You almost make it sound as if he was afraid of his son," Maya commented, not even noticing the doctor's thoughtful frown.

'It's just what he always does,' Ritsuko reminded herself. 'Maybe it's true. Maybe he's actually the most frightened person in this room...'

A loud explosion suddenly shook them, reminding everyone of the deadly threat above them.

"First to eighteenth layers are damaged!"

"It destroyed eighteen layers of special armor so easily...?" Makoto uttered in shock and awe at the display of the destructive power of the incoming Angel.

"We won't be able to send the EVAs to the surface in time!" Misato exclaimed the moment she stepped through the door to the bridge. "Position Units 00 and 02..." She threw a quick glare up to the commander, "...inside the Geofront to protect the Headquarters! Have them attack the target as soon as it enters the Geofront!"

***

Just a few seconds later, the two EVAs awaited the 14th's arrival near the headquarters; armed with a standard rifle, but dozens of further weaponry like rocket launchers and prog-spears at their disposal. Asuka still remembered how she emptied one gun after another at the slowly hovering Angel. It had been like shooting with a water gun against a rock.

She knew better now.

But the fact that firepower alone wouldn't help against this enemy didn't mean it wouldn't be helpful at all.

Then, there it was. A last explosion caused the whole Geofront to tremble as the Angel of Might started its descent towards its goal. But while Rei immediately started firing in an attempt to stop the intruder from progressing any further, EVA-02 did not move at all.

"Asuka!" Misato's stern voice called through the comm in confusion. "What are you waiting for? Take it out now!"

She didn't answer.

Instead, she calmly watched her enemy, which didn't seem to be bothered by all the firepower directed on it at all. She remembered its sight all too well; the huge green and white body with seemingly puny and harmless limbs, the bright red orb in the chest, and the skull-like face that looked like it was grotesquely grinning; all this seemed to hide the deadly powers that waited inside of it to be unleashed.

But then, just before it touched the ground...

"Cover me!"

Before anyone could react, Asuka had dropped her weapon and made a sprint towards the Angel. She knew that Rei, being an experienced pilot, wouldn't think twice and move to the side, forcing the 14th to concentrate on two different targets.

'I'll bring you down no matter what!'

But the Angel of Might didn't care about the stings of bullets, nor did it seem to fear the quickly approaching red menace.

'I won't let Shinji fight you again!'

Its arms, which had stuck out like useless stubs at its shoulders, now unfolded into what looked like long, paper-thin ribbons.

'I won't lose him too!'

And with an inhuman speed the arms flew in her direction, cutting razor-like everything that would stand in their way into shreds...



...but missed.



"I WON'T LOSE!"

In the flash of a moment, Asuka didn't care any longer about holding back. She didn't care if the whole command went wild, seeing a synch-ratio that had been rivaled by her only once, in another time.

In a swift movement, she evaded the deadly blade-like weapons and leaped at her attacker. The ground shook as the Angel was pushed into the earth by the impact and weight of Unit-02.

The surprise effect of her attack didn't last long. Just as Asuka prepared to strike at her opponent, the EVA was thrown back by the familiar orange flashing of the Angel's AT-Field. Tumbling backwards, she barely managed to stop her Unit from falling.

The Angel didn't give her much time to recover.

"Asuka! Watch out! Behind you!"

She didn't really need Misato's warning; it would have been too late anyway. The still outstretched arms of the Angel were drawn back in a matter of milliseconds, missing her only by inches. If she hadn't moved in the last second, the EVA would have been slit in half. But this maneuver couldn't save her Umbilical cable. Asuka cursed as the timer of the internal batteries started while the energy-providing cable crashed onto the ground, electricity sparkling at its cut ends.

There was no way she could harm the Angel as long as it produced such a strong AT-Field. The energy barriers clashed against each other as the combatants tried to overwhelm the opponent, neither of them willing to surrender.

Asuka gritted her teeth in concentration. There was no way she could lose! Her enemy might be strong, but not invincible! And even if it was with the very last bit of energy her EVA had left, she would bring this monster down!

"Unit-02, stay back!" Rei's voice warned suddenly.

"Wha...?" She didn't ask further, as she saw EVA-00 aiming with a heavy rocket launcher in their direction. As soon as she jumped out of the way, Rei lost no time and fired.

The AT-Field, weakened by the two Units and especially due to the close range battle of powers with EVA-02, allowed the missile to go through without any visible problems, seemingly hitting the red core directly.

"D-did we get it?" Asuka wondered aloud, trying to see something through the smoke that the explosion had caused.

But the answer came sooner than she hoped. The two arms shot through the smoke again, but passing her...

"Ayanami, watch...!"

Too late. Before Rei could evade, one of the blade-like limbs cut off the arm that was holding the weapon right at the shoulder, while the other pierced through the head of her EVA as if it was paper.

A horrifying scream of pain and agony echoed through the comm.

***

"REI!"

Most people in the command center might have been surprised hearing Gendo Ikari that emotional. If they would have paid attention to it that is, but they were much too distracted by the ongoing battle.

Rei had been supposed to stay in the back, just weakening the AT-Field and providing cover fire. And even with her 'substitutes' ready any moment, there seemed to be some reason for him to worry about her more than about all others whenever she was in critical danger.

The only person who noticed the short, unusual outburst of the Commander looked up to the command deck above the EVA cage from the platform leading to the remaining Unit. With every passing second, Shinji had to fight harder not to snap at the technicians who followed the order not to let him to the Unit even as they tried to start the dummy plug directly – without much success.

The more he heard through the speakers of the comm, the more he felt the stings against his heart. It had been hard enough to stay in his role when he had been stopped as he arrived there after changing into his plugsuit, but now he was on the verge of forcing his way to the entry plug.

What was his father thinking? Did humiliating his son mean so much to him that he risked everyone's life for it? Or... could he actually want it to happen like last time? Was it that what he wanted to achieve?

The fear of this possibility gripped his heart. That was enough.

"FATHER!"

***

Asuka watched the timer again. Only 30 seconds left and EVA-00 was out. But she still would beat the Angel. She had to. Otherwise...

Again, she had only time to react by instinct to dodge, as its arms slashed out once more.

But just as she thought she had escaped the deadly blades, they lost their rigor and instead of cutting through her, they rolled back, wrapping around the EVA's wrists. With an incredible strength, the green monster lifted the red Unit up, holding the arms apart in an unyielding grip.

***

"Energy-spike detected! The Angel's preparing to fire again!"

***

Asuka tried not to panic as she saw the flickering of light in the Angel's eyes and mouth. She struggled to get her arms free with all her might, but to no avail; the grip was just too strong.
But she wouldn't lose. She concentrated all energy she had left into her AT-Field...

***

"She's draining her power much too quickly! She won't be able to block such firepower for long!"

***

"I won't lose! My mother protects me! Don't you, Mama?"

***

The concentrated power flashed.

***

"Cut the connections!"

***

"I WON'T...!"

Darkness...

"no..."

***

A mighty explosion rocked the Geofront.

A giant head went flying, having taken a direct hit from the enormous blast.

A huge red body, now limp, fell crashing to the ground.

And a young pilot cursed that she had failed again – and this time not only herself.

***

"EVA-02 is silent! The Angel is approaching!" The warning echoed through the whole headquarters, also reaching the EVA cages.

"Dummy Plug still not accepted by Unit-01!"

Beneath his cold exterior, Gendo was trembling in anger. He should have sent Rei out with EVA-01. Even if some would have been displeased with the idea to have her using Shinji's Unit when her own was perfectly fine and the Third Children available; few would have dared to question his decision to give her the superior model.

Why didn't the dummy plug work? Akagi had assured that there was nothing wrong with the plugs themselves. The test runs with EVA-00 had been without complications.

Could it be true? Could it be...?

'Yui?'

"FATHER!"

Slowly, he turned to the boy standing on the umbilical bridge in the EVA cages below him.

"This doesn't work, can't you see? Let me pilot, before it's too late!"

"Why?" Gendo asked, typically calm.

For once, his son looked up to him without showing any fear. The boy actually managed a slight grin as their eyes met.

"Because I'm the pilot of Evangelion Unit-01!"

And for once, as he faced the purple giant again, the Commander's features softened for a short moment.

'You always got what you wanted, didn't you?'

***

Misato watched in horror as the Angel passed the beaten and harmless Evangelions, ignoring them completely as it went for its actual goal that lay right beneath them. The hastily started attack with conventional weapons, nothing more than a frantic act of their will to survive, had no visible effect on the creature.

The monster's huge mass was all that filled the holographic screen just before the image was replaced by static. The ground shook more violently than any earthquake the Major had witnessed as the Angel fired its beam again, shattering steel and stone of the outer shielding layers of the headquarters.

A final explosion killed all their remaining hopes.

"Direct hit on the third basement!"

"Oh no!" Misato exclaimed in panic at Makoto's report, knowing too well what this meant. "The main shaft was fully exposed!"

They had lost. Everything they had done so far, everything to prevent this moment, had been rendered useless. Now all that was left for them to do was to wait for their end.

The cross hanging from her neck suddenly felt much heavier. It was strange that in this moment, the thought burning most bright in her mind was that she now would never succeed...

But before the smoke could clear, a giant purple figure leaped out through the crater, crashing against the Angel with its body, tackling it to the ground.

"EVA-01? Who...?" Misato asked, gazing in amazement and relief at the revived screen, even thought she instinctively already knew the answer. "Shinji, watch out! This thing is even tougher than it looks!"

"I know, Misato!"

***

"I know that too well..." Shinji added under his breath as he prepared for another jump against the Angel, before it could get up again.

He couldn't allow it any chance to recover. This was a fight of sheer power. And this time, being equipped with an Umbilical cable and thus without being restricted by a time-limit, he actually had good chances to win – as long he didn't give his opponent the ability to counter.

Punch after punch hit the distracted Angel, which didn't even seem to try to evade them. A sudden flash told Shinji why. He jumped off his enemy as quickly as he could, before its beam-weapon could hit him with full force. Though he didn't lose his arm this time, thanks to his fast maneuver, it had cost him the advantage he had hoped for. By now the green giant had used the time to get up again and he didn't even seem harmed at all; ready to fight back with all its might.

And the timer started its countdown.

Silently cursing, Shinji ejected the now useless remnants of the Umbilical cable, allowing the EVA to move more freely. He still had more time than in his first fight against the 14th Angel, but he had no more time for mistakes.

Fully extending his AT-Field, he ran as fast as he could towards the Angel, which was already preparing to strike again with its arms. There was a short flash of light as the AT-Fields clashed, but Unit-01's sheer speed gave it a power that was enough to send the 14th backwards. In a swift motion, Shinji managed to get a hold of both of the bladelike limbs that fluttered aimlessly after his flying enemy. He screamed in rage as he pulled at them with all the might his Evangelion could provide, and was answered by a cry of pain as he actually managed to rip one of the arms off.

Shinji wasted no time in letting go of the limp arm in the EVA's hand and advanced once more. EVA-01's fist directly hit the Angel's morbid face. But instead of preparing for another punch, Shinji grabbed it tightly while pressing the green giant back on the earth by pushing his feet into its abdomen.

The seemingly helpless Angel squealed as its opponent tried to succeed where he had been stopped once. Shinji didn't care anymore about holding back; he just wanted to kill this thing that had caused so much pain and destruction once and now yet again. In this rage, he pulled at the mask-like face, wishing only to rip it off before doing the same to the rest of the monster. And the timer still showed more than a minute before his energy ran out.

The tendons and flesh that connected the skull with the body stretched, growing thinner and thinner with each meter, until...

The EVA suddenly tumbled backwards as it finally snapped off, much to Shinji's shock and relief. With an almost sick satisfaction, he crushed the remains in his hand before returning his attention to the body to do the same with the rest.

But the madman's grin was replaced by a look of fear as the supposedly dead Angel stood up again. There, where the face had been was already a new, just slightly deformed replacement. With a growl, the monstrosity stiffened the stub that was the puny remnant of its arm, and a new limb shot out with tremendous speed. It looked like nothing had happened.

"It regenerates this quickly?" Shinji shrieked in disbelief, but before he could react, the regrown arm wrapped around the EVA's head. He tried to pull away and grab the restraining limb, but to no avail; the Angel's grip was too strong. It was a futile fight not to panic as his Unit was – seemingly with ease – lifted up and thrown through the air.

Shinji grunted in pain as his EVA was slammed hard onto the ground again and again; his mental connection to the machine making him feel every rock and tree that was split and crushed under 'his' back. Franticly, he tried to grab something to hold on to, but roots and rubble were nothing that could withstand the Angel's power.

Then everything went black.

The sounds faded to a distant echo.

All he could feel were the tremors of the hits, partly reduced in the shielded, LCL-filled entry plug.

The timer showed only zeros.

Shinji could only guess what was going on outside by the already reduced g-forces and the loud impact when his EVA was thrown up again and landed crashing against the pyramid-form of the headquarters.

The panic that rose in him from the depths of his primal survival instincts made him clutch the controls in his hands, pulling them futilely against better knowledge, as if it would only need enough of this movement to refill his gigantic weapon with energy to fight the monster that audible exposed the EVA's core and pounded against it with its deadly arms.

But eventually, Shinji slowed down and finally stopped. Tears of despair glimmered through his squeezed-shut eyes as bitter logic regained the upper hand over the last straws of hope.

Why? Why couldn't he kill it just like that? Why did it have to happen like this?
Was destiny meant to repeat itself after all...?

A faint sound, like a heartbeat, resounded in the entry-plug.

And Shinji smiled sadly as he felt his body dissolve into the LCL.

"Hello, mother..."

***

And while the berserk monster slashed out at its opponent to kill it and to devour its remains, annexing a power that went beyond anything it possessed; while a young woman vomited and her colleagues just stared in shock; while two conspirators pondered about the consequences of this beginning and while another man just seemed to water his patch of melons in the distance, a teenage girl wept silently for a loss she couldn't even see, but could only feel in her heart.





***********************************





Kaji sighed as he slumped onto the seat in front of his desk. Katsuragi always complained about all the paperwork she had to sort out, but only few people could have imagined the amount of reports, files, and papers a spy had to go through and answer – and even more when he works for more than one side. It was just that they usually avoided doing it until it flooded their workplace.

Still, he wasn't sure why he even bothered anymore. He knew that his 'part time job' had been discovered – or more precisely, would no longer be tolerated, as he doubted that Ikari hadn't known about it until now. Maybe the Commander had already known from the very beginning. And now that more and more events didn't seem to go according to his plans, his patience would grow thinner and thinner.

Maybe it was just a matter of weeks, or even days...

Kaji's eyes wandered to the computer screen, where a small status-screen showed the slow progress of encrypting and transferring the data he had managed to gather until now. He was so close by now, so close to uncovering the whole truth. Only a few months more and he might have been able to prove everything he found out. But now it seemed it would be up to Katsuragi to find the remaining pieces of the puzzle.

He smiled sadly at the thought of the purple-haired beauty. It seemed like yesterday that they met in that bar, both still so full of naive hopes and dreams.

'What was its name again?' he wondered.

As he let his view roam again over the scattered papers, lost in his thoughts of the past, Kaji suddenly noticed an envelope lying, half-hidden beneath the documents on top of his desk. It must have slipped between the other papers.

[To be opened after the 14th!]

Several seconds passed as he stared curiously at the closed cover. But eventually, he shrugged sadly and threw it aside.

"Nothing I wouldn't know already..."



****************



Rei stood alone on the abandoned umbilical bridge. The main crew was long at home by now and most lights had been shut off to save energy. But the human eye was made to adapt to the darkness to an adequate degree and Rei had no problem seeing the bandaged skull of the Evangelion Unit in front of her.

She was not sure why she had come here. Her presence would not cause a change in the situation and she was not skilled in this field of science to help Dr Akagi and her staff.

So what was the reason for her to break her daily routine?

Did she want to see the situation for herself? That was doubtful; there was no reason to question the information from her superior officers.

She was confused.

And yet, as she stared into the green eyes of the Evangelion, she became aware that it was this confusion that had originally brought her here. She had come to seek answers to the questions that dwelled in her.

But the giant would not answer.



****************



Hikari looked over from her desk to the visibly moping pupil who was packing her books and papers in her bag.

It was almost two weeks since the last attack, and almost two weeks since her classmate had entered this depressed state. At first, Hikari had dismissed Asuka's mood as an aftermath of the battle. It wasn't the first time for the redhead to be down for a couple of days and sometimes - at least seeming so at first - much worse. And since she had been occupied with... other things herself, she might hadn't paid as much attention as she should have.

But now it became more and more apparent that it wasn't just a temporary thing, which meant that she felt the need to do something about it. Driven by duty, and a bit of guilt that she might had neglected their friendship lately, Hikari stood up.

"Asuka?"

"What?" the addressed redhead grumbled, not even looking up as she tucked the history book into her black schoolbag.

"I was wondering... eh... if we could go home together..."

Asuka didn't answer immediately; she just stared blankly in front of her.

"I... I'd rather go home by myself today..." she mumbled eventually, before she slowly rose from her chair and turned away from the class representative.

But Hikari didn't want to let her chance to talk slip. She took a quick step towards her friend and laid her hand gently but firmly on the redhead's shoulder.

"Asuka, what is it? You seem so gloomy lately."

The other girl didn't turn around. Instead, she just tried to pry her shoulder free from her friend's hand. "I don't know what you mean!"

"Oh come on, you can't fool me! Something's wrong with you."

"I just had a bad day, alright?"

"A bad week – or rather, two – is more like it." As she said this, Hikari noticed that Asuka's gaze was fixed on an empty desk near the windows. A small gasp escaped her as she realized whose desk it was. "Is... is it because of Shinji? He hasn't been in school since the last Angel attack... Did something..."

"He beat me again, fine!?" Asuka suddenly snapped. "He made me look like the worst pilot ever and stole the grace that belonged to me!!" But Hikari noticed that there was something else behind this rage, and it shone through more and more with every word. Her last sentences were rather coming in sobs than the forceful yell she had started with. "Now... now go already! Visit your stupid 'boyfriend' in the hospital or something!"

And though Hikari blushed at the comparison, it was doubtful that her friend even noticed anymore, as the redhead had already hurried away from her.

"Asuka..."



****************



Where am I?

"Inside of EVA..."

EVA?
Yes. I remember now. I couldn't stop it.

I failed again...

"You did your best."

Then what use is this? Why did we return here? If we can't make a difference, it wasn't worth the price.

Not that anything would have been worth that price...

"Even small things can change destiny. The power of the human spirit can bend anything to his will if he has the strength to do so."

Change destiny? Was that really why we were sent back?

It seems to me that all this was just a cruel joke of destiny. 'Send them back! Wipe out everything they worked for, everything they loved. Just so that they always have to repeat their darkest hours and they'll never be free of EVA.'

"EVA captured you?"

Yes.

"But it's up to you to decide if you want to be free."

...

It is?



****************



"Ah! Watch out for the tree!"

Startled by the sudden yell of the boy in the wheelchair, Hikari snapped out of her thoughts and stopped immediately. Had she pushed just a few centimeters further, Toji's casted leg would have made painful contact with the branch of a tree that stood at the side of the path.

"You know, I didn't mind the idea of getting out of the room and taking a round in the hospital park. But I'd prefer to get back in one piece," Toji mildly complained.

"Sorry..." Hikari mumbled, pulling the wheelchair back a bit to turn to the left and avoid the branch.

They continued their way through the little green area on the hospital grounds. But even though they were pretty much alone, Hikari couldn't bring herself to focus on the boy, no matter how much she had looked forward to such a situation.

Toji seemed to notice that her mind was elsewhere too, as he suddenly spoke up. "What are you thinking about?"

"Huh?" she was brought out of her trance. "I... nothing..."

But he hardly sounded convinced. "Yeah, right! You're trying to fool someone who knows you for almost five years. You're not someone who runs around absently for nothing. So what is it?"

Hikari sighed. Being read like that was something she wasn't used to. But she would surely get used to it. "It's... Asuka..." she admitted.

"You're thinking about Asuka?" Toji wondered, but his baffled expression quickly turned into a broad grin. "You're thinking about Asuka like this...?"

"You'd better not have that idiotic hentai-grin on your face, Suzuhara!" Hikari warned sharply.

"Sorry, sorry!" he laughed. "So what's with the red... eh... Asuka?"

"I don't know," the girl muttered. "That's the problem. She's been so distant since the last fight, and it's only grown worse and worse since then. I'm not sure, but I... I think it's because of Ikari..."

"Shinji?" Toji wondered aloud. "He's still not back in school?"

"No..." she whispered.

Toji tensed noticeably. "You... you don't think something bad has happened to him? Or that he's even..."

"I hope not," she quickly stopped him before he could say it out loud. "But... it would explain a few things..."

"He can't be dead!" Toji almost shouted, an obvious anger in his voice. "They would have said something! They would have given him one hell of a funeral! At least, that's what he would deserve, if..." He shook his head free of these negative thoughts, before they could overwhelm him. "He's probably just in some secret training or something. The last Angel just showed them that they need to work harder. Something like that..."

The class rep nodded, weakly smiling at her friend's optimism.
"I'd just like to know..." she sighed. "But Asuka won't tell me, and I seriously doubt that it would be any different with Ayanami or someone else from NERV."

They continued their way quietly for a while, which seemed a bit unusual for both of them. It wasn't the first time that there was an uneasy silence between them, but for once it wasn't because of embarrassment.

But eventually, Toji turned his head around.

"Well, there's still..."



****************



"Kensuke?"

The bespectacled boy looked up from his desk, where he just sat, the head resting on his hand as he looked wistfully out the window. The lunch in front of him was barely touched.

"What is it class rep?" he asked the girl standing there.

Kensuke looked like he had lost a bit of his drive since the day he finally had been allowed to visit Toji. Hikari didn't know what exactly had happened between them, but after seeing his friend in hospital, learning that it could have easily ended up much worse, Kensuke seemed to have finally realized the dangers in piloting an EVA. But of course, letting a long aspired dream just go was never easy. If at least his best friends were there to cheer him up, but it would still take weeks until Toji would be fully recovered and Shinji...

Hikari looked at the boy with some pity. Even though his depression, if one could call it that, was not nearly as serious as Asuka's; he gave a dismal sight. Fortunately, it was most likely nothing that couldn't be cured with a little distraction, and maybe the assignment she had for him was just the right thing to get his spirit back.

"You know, Asuka seems a bit off lately..." she began, trying to sound casual.

He didn't really give in, but at least the mentioning of the redhead brought him out of his depressed state. "And...?"

Seeing the wary look in his eyes, she decided to stop pretending and got straight to the point. "You'll have to find out what is wrong with her!" she ordered simply.

"What?" Kensuke shrieked in disbelief. "Why should I?"

"Because you are the one who is best suited for the job," Hikari explained. "It must have had something to do with that last Angel and Ikari's disappearance. Aren't you interested in that at all?"

"Of course I am. But why does that make me 'the one who is best suited for the job'?"

"Well, everyone knows that you like this hacking and spying-stuff, so you could find out something..."

"Actually, I prefer military-'stuff'..." he interrupted, but Hikari didn't really care and continued.

"...And since she doesn't want to talk to me because of T... I mean, and Toji being in hospital and Ikari being who-knows-where, you are the closest thing to a friend to her now."

"A friend? She wouldn't even know me if I wouldn't hang out with Shinji. Not that that would necessarily be a bad thing..." the boy muttered, rubbing his cheek as he could still feel the bruises the 'devil' had caused him.

"Kensuke!" Hikari growled angry, but Kensuke didn't seem to be intimidated this time.

"What? You might be the class rep, but this is out of your responsibility. You can't order me to do something like that."

"But..." The brunette started to become anxious. If he wouldn't help her, then who...?

"I will talk to her," a calm voice suddenly interrupted, startling both of them.

"Ayanami?" Hikari wondered aloud as she stared somewhat unbelieving at her blue-haired classmate. "Y-you want to help her? I thought you two don't get along very well."

Rei didn't answer immediately. Unlike herself, she averted her gaze slightly and a light frown was visible on her forehead.

"I... am curious... about Soryu's feelings," she eventually tried to vocalize her thoughts. "She seems to be in this state of depression since Ikari's disappearance..."

"Ikari?" Kensuke interfered, suddenly sparked by curiosity. "Do you know something about Shinji's whereabouts?"

"I'm not authorized to talk about that." She turned her head to look at him. "But as long as you are not afraid of being confronted with the possible consequences, I believe your... 'hacking and spying-stuff' might provide the answers if you seek them so desperately."

With that, she turned and left the class room.

"I said I prefer military..."



****************



"Anything new?" Misato asked for what seemed to be the hundredth time in the last weeks.

"We're working on it..." was the reply she received as always.

Yes, they were working, that much Misato could see. The room that was used when they weren't in the command center or in the EVA cage, directly working on Unit-01, was filled with the small group of technicians, led by Ritsuko and Maya; all typing, simulating, or searching for information on their MAGI-terminals. Every time she went there it seemed like no one had moved at all.

She hated that view. It wasn't that she envied them, working under these conditions, but it made her feel useless. All she could do to help was to bring her friend a coffee now and then.

"Regretting again that you didn't attend the bio-informatics lecture?" Ritsuko's sudden question brought her back to reality.

Misato groaned. "You know that wouldn't have helped much... I would have failed anyway..." she grumbled silently. "So, how're you feeling?"

"Could use some sleep. Coffee doesn't keep you awake forever." The doctor stopped her typing and rubbed her neck tiredly, before turning her chair around to the Major and finally receiving the presented cup. "What about you?"

"I wish I could say 'I feel fine', though I have to admit that it at least feels much better without the sling..." Misato muttered and moved her left arm a bit. It had only been a few hours since the last check by Dr. Kanegawa, where that last reminder of the 13th Angel had been removed.

Almost absently, she put her hands in the small pockets of her jacket, something she hadn't been able to do for so long. She was all the more surprised when her left hand, so long unused, came into contact with a piece of crumpled paper. It was probably just some old receipt or shopping-list she had forgotten to get rid off, but her curiosity won quickly.

As she unfolded the paper, it just seemed to be some kind of note. But soon, she began to frown as she read the lines.

[I hope you read this before the synch-test of the Fourth Children with EVA-03. An Angel is in control of the Evangelion! Don't activate the EVA until everything is confirmed to be safe! Stay away from it!

A Friend]

"What is it?"

Misato didn't even look back to answer the doctor.
"Nothing – I've... just got to go..." she muttered hastily and rushed to the exit.

Ritsuko eyed her suspiciously as she left. "Nothing, huh?"



****************



Asuka had hurried out of class as soon as the last bell announced the end of the school day. She couldn't stay there any longer than necessary, not with all those questioning eyes upon her, and especially not since Hikari had started to become suspicious. Asuka had no idea how long it would take before she broke under the mental pressure and let everything slip by accident if this would go on any longer.

She had made half of her way home in record time, but unknown to her someone had slowly managed to catch up.

"Soryu?"

Despite her initial shock, Asuka didn't stop or slowed her pace when she heard the clam voice behind her.

"What do you want?" The reply wasn't nearly as forceful as it was most likely meant to be. An outsider wouldn't even have noticed that it had been two different people who had spoken.

"I was asked to talk to you."

"Then what do you want to talk about?" This time there was a bit more power behind the retort.

"I was questioning myself..." Rei trailed off, as if she was unsure of how to put her thoughts into words. This was even less typical for her - it was rare enough for her to start a conversation, but when she did, she always knew exactly what to say. "What... do you feel about Ikari's situation?"

The Second Children suddenly stopped. She stood silent for a while, then hurried forward again. "Since when do you care about what others think? Afraid that someone could be interested in your precious Shinji?"

"That was not my question," Rei replied calmly and slowly went after her. "I just want to know how I am supposed to feel."

Again, Asuka stopped. This time however, she turned her head enough to look at her uninvited companion. "What... what the hell are you talking about?"

"These... feelings... I do not understand them... how to react to them... because I cannot recall having experienced anything like this before. Is the way you are acting the proper one in this situation?" Rei fell silent, waiting for an answer. But the only reply Asuka gave her was the confused expression on her face. "Ikari once told me that I should smile in a situation when I feel glad. But what am I supposed to do now, that a person dear to me is gone?"

"You..." Asuka suddenly looked at her almost in shock, but quickly turned away again. "How should I know?!"

"I see," the blue-haired girl whispered, before nodding slightly. "I will not disturb you any further." With that, Rei turned and went down the street in the opposite direction, not even noticing the redhead looking at her departing figure.

"Cry when you feel sad. Laugh when you're happy..." Asuka muttered and resumed her view to the way before her. "Who am I to ask for a promise that I can't keep myself?"



****************



Misato lost no time in making her way home. She wanted to silence the nagging feeling inside her as quickly as possible, hoping that her suspicions would not be confirmed. There were enough secrets at NERV; she didn't really need or want them at home.

As she entered her apartment, she was greeted with silence.

"I'm home!"

Nothing. Wasn't Asuka supposed to be home now?

Then again, she had neither seen nor heard very much of her second charge in the last weeks. So she shrugged it off and went straight to Shinji's room, where she hoped to find the reason that made it worth violating even more traffic rules than usual just to get home as fast as she could.

The room was just as he had left it. And he always left it perfectly clean, something she didn't know whether to admire or be worried about. The only difference was the fine layer of dust covering the furniture.

But she wasn't here to feel reminded of him and worry that the room might stay like this; neither was she here to feel guilty that she hadn't taken the responsibility from him to keep the apartment clean, even after his disappearance. She stepped over to his desk and opened the drawer. It wasn't long before she found the thing she searched for between his schoolbooks.

Once she took out the crumpled piece of paper and compared it to the opened notebook, there was no doubt anymore.

But instead of calming her, that revelation just raised even more questions in her mind. Maybe it had just been a good guess; he had learned, somehow, of the identity of the Fourth Children and just hadn't wanted his friend's life endangered. But what if not? How could he have known?
Sadly, the only one who had the answers had taken them with him into the EVA.

'Unless...' Her view went out of the door to the hallway.

Maybe he actually had entrusted his secret to someone. She could ask his friends; maybe they knew something about it. Maybe it hadn't even been his idea and he had been urged or even forced to do it, which meant there was an even wider field of potential people who hid this from her. And in that case, it was possible that she wouldn't even have to search very far, if a particular redhead already knew the answers she sought.

Sure, it didn't seem very likely that Asuka would do anything to avoid a fight against an Angel, but without knowing the facts, there was no way to guess the possible reasons behind everything. And Misato was now eager enough to find out the answers to this riddle that she would even go after the most unlikely hints, one after the other.

But as Misato stood in front of the redhead's door, her hand stopped in midair just as she was about to knock. A faint sound, almost like a whimper, came from the room. Quietly, she opened the door.

"Asuka...?" The cowering form on the bed suddenly jerked away when Misato made her presence known. "Are you... are you crying?"

"Of course not!"

"You've been better at lying before," Misato reminded; the wet streaks on the child's cheeks were clearly visible after all, even in the dark room. "So what's wrong?"

"Nothing's wrong!" Asuka tried to snarl, baking away as her guardian came closer, but her cracking voice failed her. "What do I care if b-baka Shinji got a synch-rate I'll never be able to reach!"

"Oh, so you're just down because of his synch-rate?" Misato mused almost teasingly while sitting next to the girl on the bed.

"What... what else should it be?" Asuka mumbled so softly that it was barely audible.

Misato sighed, but inwardly, she resolved to use this chance. "Then I guess, you wouldn't mind explaining this?" she asked as she unfolded the crumpled piece of paper and presented it to the redhead.

Asuka's eyes widened for a second as she stared at the note. Then she didn't seem to care to hide her grief anymore; the tears flowed freely across her cheeks.

"That... that baka..." she muttered, her mouth turning into a cracked smile. "I've told him not to write it by hand..."

Misato eyed the sobbing redhead for a second. This seemed so unlike the usually proud and fiery Second Children; it was almost painful to watch. A hint of guilt crept into her conscience, evoking the wish to just leave it at that and go, but she remained calm. "So you do know something about it..." she eventually confronted her charge with what she had figured.

Asuka just nodded weakly, but obviously couldn't bring herself to look her guardian in the eyes.

"Then what...?"

"I can't tell you!" the sniffling child cut her off and tried to dry the tears with her hands. "It... it was his decision as well. I can't tell you. Not... not until he's back."

Misato's first thought was to protest openly, but she managed to swallow the inappropriate remark in regard of the situation. But as much as she wished she could deny it, the thought brought up another fear within her. "You know, the chances aren't very high," she said softly. "He might..."

"No!" Asuka suddenly snapped at her. "He will come back! He came back before!"
The tears returned as she sank back to her bed. "He... has to..."



****************



It was almost 2:00 AM, but one room in the Aida household was still illuminated.

Kensuke let out a yawn and rubbed his tired eyes. The light of the monitor seemed almost too bright for his tastes by now.

Why did he even bother to do this? It was definitely not for Asuka, not for Hikari, not even for Toji. Sure, Shinji was his friend, and he couldn't deny that he was curious as well about what happened to the EVA-pilot he had admired for so long. But with the recent events Kensuke wasn't sure if his goal to become a pilot seemed as aspiring as he had thought. Even though he had witnessed Shinji's pain in the second Angel fight, he had always tried to overlook the danger as long as he would have a chance to pilot such a Mecha.

So why did he even try to break into one of the most secure computer systems without even knowing how?

[Connection to MAGI-Terminal X-53 denied!]

Groaning, he clicked the message away for the twentieth time and finally started the shutdown procedure for is computer.

'Who started this "Kensuke is a geek, so he's good with computers"-rumor anyway...?'



****************



The next morning, Asuka stayed in bed a bit longer as usual. The alarm clock had chimed at the same time as always, but she just hit the sleep-mode button in her daze. She didn't feel like facing anyone today, not after she had let slip so much just yesterday.

And especially not Misato. Her guardian had refrained from asking more questions the last evening, but Asuka was sure that she wouldn't let it go with that. As soon as they met, she could more than likely expect several awkward questions that would be quite embarrassing to answer.

It wasn't unusual for them not to meet in the morning when the Major had time to sleep longer before she had to work. So maybe, it was possible that she wouldn't even notice if Asuka stayed silently in her room instead of going to school.

But just as the alarm started to ring for the fifth time and Asuka was about to throw it against the wall, a more natural urge forced her to get up after all.

Once she had finished her 'business', she decided that she could just as well stay up and get something against the growing hunger. Not that she had much appetite, but she knew well enough that she couldn't fight the needs of her stomach forever. And if she was quick enough, she could be back to her room before Misato even noticed.

When she entered the kitchen, she saw PenPen staring hungrily at his empty bowl. Letting out a small sigh, she went to the fridge and took out some ingredients for her breakfast and a can of tuna for the starving penguin.

After feeding the bird, silently cursing about the loud noise of the can opener, she put two slices of bread in the toaster and began to fill the tank of the coffee machine with water.

"Make one for me too."

"Couldn't you have said...?" She stopped herself and almost dropped the water can in surprise as she became aware that she had been caught.

"Something's wrong?" Misato asked casually as she sat down at the table, still clad in the skimpy top and shorts that served as her nightgown.

"Eh... no..." Asuka meekly said.

While waiting for the coffee to brew, barely noticing that she was biting her lower lip slightly, the redhead threw a few anxious glances to her guardian, who had started to read the newspaper.

"No beer today?" she eventually asked, trying to sound just as casual as Misato appeared to be. 'As if nothing happened at all yesterday...'

"I'd like to, but I drank the last can yesterday."

They fell silent again. Both knew that there was no more beer left because Misato had forgotten that Shinji had not been able to go shopping as usual.

For several minutes there was only the dripping sound of the coffee machine and the occasional rustling of the newspaper.

After a while this - at least for Asuka - uneasy silence finally ended when the machine notified that it finished the process and shut itself down.

Misato dropped a casual "thanks" when Asuka put one of the just-filled cups in front of her, while the redhead sat down on the other site of the table and sipped on hers. A slight grin was on the Major's lips as she put the cup down again after taking a small sip from it.

"So... you two are in love, huh?"

Not really surprised by this 'sudden' question, Asuka nodded hesitantly.

"Something serious?"

The redhead allowed herself a slight smile. "I guess you could say so..."

"For how long?"

Her smile grew a bit wider. "A while..."

"And how serious?" Misato raised an eyebrow suspiciously.

"Quite..." Asuka said grinning.

"That quite?"

"Maybe..."

She couldn't help but chuckle at the now completely dumbfounded expression of her guardian. But as much as she wanted to cherish this feeling of casual familiarity as long as possible, she knew too well that it wouldn't last very long.



****************



"I'm home!" Kensuke called into the hallway as he came from school, though he didn't really expect an answer. He was usually alone when he came home at this time of the day.

He was all the more surprised when a slurred voice greeted him back. "Welcome home, Kens'ke..."

As he followed the voice to the living room he found his father clumsily standing up and swaying towards him. Kensuke absently noticed various empty bottles lying around, and the heavy stench of alcohol in the dimmed room.

"Are you drunk again?" he asked rather rhetorically and stepped a bit disgusted away from the alcohol-breath of his father. Though he never drank regularly, maybe once in two or three months, he tended to lose control of it when he did.

"Oh son, one day you'll praise the feeling of callousness it can cause, after you come home into your empty house after a stressful day and all you can do is to wait for your only son who is also the only remaining member of your family." Suddenly the taller man embraced his son rather forcefully. "I'm sorry! I didn't... I love you, my Kensuke..."

"I know, dad..." Kensuke just rolled his eyes at this all too familiar procedure since the sudden death of his mother years ago. He couldn't really remember her; it was completely normal for him to grow up with just his father, who tried his best to cover both parts. So, as much as he wanted to, it was hard for Kensuke to empathize with the man who still mourned her death that much, especially when he lost the control of his alcohol consumption now and then.

Kensuke reached out to support the drunken man. "Come on, I'll get you to bed..."

"Nonsense! I'm still wide awake!" his father protested, before almost tumbling to the floor.

"Yeah right... Now come. You'll have work tomorrow."

"Meh! We don't have that much to do, as long as they're busy gettin' that kid out of that EVA..."

Kensuke's eyes widened. For a moment he stared blankly at his father.
He hadn't really wanted to use and risk this 'source' anymore, especially since it became apparent that his quest to become a pilot was futile after all.

'Oh... but just one more time...' he thought, shaking his head. 'But this doesn't mean I'm now more into spying.'

Taking a deep breath, as if convincing himself to let his curiosity win once again, he opened his mouth.

"What kid...?"



****************



"He's trapped."

Hikari blinked in confusion at Kensuke's overly-short explanation as to why he had wanted to talk with her. "Who?"

"Shinji, of course," Kensuke sighed as he leaned further over his desk and continued to explain in a conspiratorial whisper. "He's somehow trapped inside his EVA and they don't know if they'll ever get him out."

The class-representative gasped in shock. "He- he might never come back?"

Kensuke shook his head. "They're not even sure if he's still alive..."

"My God..." Her view went to the redhead who sat a few rows further away at her desk and absently played with the buttons of her laptop's keyboard. "You mean, that's why she's been acting like this lately?"

"Phht, sure..." Kensuke snarled dismissively. "I bet she was just beaten by that Angel and now she's licking the wounds of her overconfident ego."

"I don't know... I'm not sure if she would be so touchy about the lone mentioning of Shinji then."

"You mean she isn't touchy otherwise?"

"Not like this," Hikari muttered sadly as she watched her friend. "It's like she lost the part of her that kept her stable."

"And that part was Shinji? You sound as if she had a thing for him," Kensuke pondered unbelieving. "To be honest, I prefer her unbalanced than 'stable' on the dark side."

Hikari rolled her eyes. 'Boys...' She sighed inwardly. It was still a hard fight to keep Toji from talking badly about her friend, but trying to show all skeptics how to see the real Asuka behind the fiery exterior was just as futile as to explain them the most basic rules of a romance – even more so, when she wasn't sure that she could see the real Asuka herself.

"Well... Thanks anyway..."

"Ah... It was nothing..." he said exaggeratedly boastful and playfully waved her off.

Hikari smiled; it seemed like she had at least managed to raise the spirits of one of her friends. But now she had a more serious problem to handle, and she had heard enough about it to act. She would confront her friend with her newfound knowledge, and she wouldn't be shaken off that easily this time.

"Asuka!"

The only reply that the addressed girl gave was the slight movement of her eyes towards her classmate.

"Can we go home together today? I'd really like talk to you; it's... important."

Asuka didn't answer immediately. To Hikari's surprise, she was actually trying to force a smile, before she gave up and returned her gaze to the screen before her. "Sure..."



****************



"So what do you want, Hikari?" Asuka muttered halfheartedly, keeping her view locked on the city before her.

Just a few weeks ago, they had been sitting at the same spot, at the same time – and yet the situation was now so different that she felt sicker with each second the sun set.

"Why didn't you tell me?" the girl next to her accused. "Aren't these things that have to be shared with your best friend?"

Hikari's harsh tone startled Asuka enough to finally look at her. "What are you talking about?"

"Your feelings for Shinji! And don't even try to deny it! I could have guessed before, but since his disappearance it has become quite obvious."

Asuka's eyes widened at the sudden revelation and she stiffened for a second, but then her shoulders sagged in a sigh and a weak smile softened her features. "Either Suzuhara is rubbing off on you or I've never really witnessed you in the dreaded 'class-rep-mode'..." she muttered, chuckling. "I guess I'm not such a good actress as I wish I was..."

The brunette girl giggled a bit, though it wasn't obvious if it was because of the first or latter part of Asuka's statement. "Well, you did your best, I can assure you. When you guys were arguing, I wondered several times whether you were going to kiss or kill him any second," she said with a smile that suddenly dropped again. "I'm just a bit disappointed. I would have assumed you would trust me enough to tell me. That's what friends are for, aren't they?"

"Oh, Hikari, if only you knew," Asuka sighed as she let her gaze wander over the buildings that were bathed in the orange light of the setting sun. "But... this isn't as simple as a crush on some handsome movie star..."

"So... is it 'the big L' already?" Hikari asked, grinning, and just hardly resisted to nudge her friend teasingly.

" 'The big...'?" The redhead blinked in confusion as she snapped out of her thoughts, but then a sheepish grin crept on her lips. "Yeah, I guess you could say so..."

"As-Asuka?!" Hikari stammered, perplexed. That was definitely not the answer she had expected. "Y... you're serious?"

The smile didn't leave Asuka's face as she placed her hands on her friend's shoulder and looked deep into her eyes. "Yes, Hikari, I am serious! I love Shinji Ikari!" she said with all the honesty she could put in her voice, and it felt as if a heavy burden was finally lifted from her. "And I'm sorry if I let you think otherwise, but I do trust you! And... as my friend... I trust you that you will keep this to yourself!"

"But..."

"Don't tell anyone about it! Not any of our classmates. Not your sisters. And especially not Toji. Please..."

Hikari just answered with a kind smile as she eventually gave in and nodded in agreement.
"That's what friends are for, right?"

Asuka couldn't bring out any words, anything appropriate seemed to escape her mind. All she could do was return the nod and the hug she was drawn into.

Hikari may not have been able to ease all her pains. But Asuka now knew that her friend would be there for her.





***********************************





It's time.
I can feel them calling me.
I have to go.

"You know, you don't have to."

...

Maybe not...

But I want to.



****************



Asuka watched the last preparations on Unit-01 from a gangway above the restrained EVA. It was doubtful that anyone would have noticed her there unless they really paid attention, which didn't seem very likely seeing how busy everyone was. She, on the other hand, had a perfect view of the events unfolding beneath her. That, however, didn't ease the nervousness she felt inside at all.

So it was not surprising that she jerked a bit as someone suddenly stepped next to her.

"You do not have to worry. Dr Akagi, Lieutenant Ibuki and their staff are well suited for this task."

Despite her initial shock of having been caught by the blue-haired pilot, Asuka quickly regained her uncaring façade and turned her attention back to the EVA cage below with an annoyed look. "Who says I'm here to check if that idiot will be alright? I... just don't have anything better to do right now."

Rei didn't reply. Not that this was unexpected, but her calmness always tended to create an uncomfortable silence. She just closed the distance between them with a few steps and followed Asuka's gaze down with her eyes.

"He will return," Rei stated simply, but in an almost warm, reassuring tone.

Maybe it was because of that, maybe because she was too distracted or because of her nervousness or maybe just because she didn't feel like fighting right now, Asuka didn't argue with her co-pilot.

"I know..." was all she whispered.


A sudden tumult coming from the command center returned their attention to the happenings a few stages below. Asuka couldn't deny the rush of panic, making her fists clench in fear around the railing as the hatch of the entry plug suddenly opened and LCL started to pour out. She didn't know if she was still breathing or if her heart was still beating in the seemingly endless seconds that followed, while the only sound seemed to be that of the trickling of the liquid's last drops.

But all her fears vanished in an instant to be replaced by utmost relief and happiness when she made out a hand getting a hold of the side of the hatch. She barely registered Misato's run for the platform leading to the plug; her eyes rested on the form of the boy, who used the rest of his strength to crawl out of the cylindrical cockpit and eventually collapsed in the Major's arms.

Asuka could barely stop herself from hurrying down; to be near him again after a month of separation, but she suddenly became aware again of the blue-haired pilot only a few steps beside her. So she held her position firmly without even turning around.

"Didn't he tell you to do something in such an occasion?" Asuka asked, trying to sound as unaffected by the happenings as possible.

Rei just stared blankly at her for a second. But then, as if from out of nowhere, her facial features seemed to brighten up in joy and a warm smile curled up her lips.

"You know," Asuka began, even though she could see this unusual display of emotions only from the corner of her eye, "if you'd keep doing that, one could actually mistake you for a human being..."

Even though the choice of words wasn't the friendliest, there was no malice in her voice. In fact, behind its sarcasm, it was one of the greatest compliments Rei had ever received – especially by someone like the Second. And she had to admit – it felt good...



****************



The first thing Shinji felt as he slowly regained consciousness was a soft, slight salty feeling on his lips. Not unexpectedly, the first he saw was a certain redhead, obviously surprised when he had started to return the kiss. As she, somewhat perplexed, broke the contact, he noticed that she had obviously been crying.

He smiled at her as she sat there on top of him. "And you were always afraid that I would take advantage of you," he broke the silence.

Blushing, Asuka snapped out of her trance, but she still seemed to fight for words; opening and closing her mouth several times, she looked as though she had forgotten how to speak. Then suddenly, she slapped him.

"Ouch!" he whined, rubbing his reddened cheek. "You gave me that 'For making you worry'-lecture already, remember?"

"Well, it obviously wasn't enough! So I'll have to give it to you as often as necessary!"

With the slyest grin he could manage, he sat up and put his arms around her. "Well, I don't mind," he assured, leaning closer. "As long as I also get the 'For coming back'-one..."

Asuka didn't even try to hesitate very long; she cupped his face in her hands and met his lips in a long awaited, passionate kiss and soon Shinji found himself lying on his back again.

"Am I interrupting something?"

Shinji's eyes grew wide as they darted towards the door.

"Uh... Mi... Misato!" he stuttered, trying to get the surprisingly calm redhead off him. "It... it's not what it looks like!"

But the caressing hand on his cheek silenced him.

"Shh..." Asuka hushed and didn't even care to stop another tear of joy that dropped on his face. "It's okay. She... she knows..."

Shinji's gaze shifted between the two women, just like his thoughts shifted from one possibility to another. "What...? She...? How much...?"

"Not as much as I'd like to know, I'm afraid..." the Major scolded, slightly smirking as she went towards his bed. But it didn't take long for her professional appearance to crack completely, and she flung her arms around the little part of his upper body that Asuka was willing to share. "I'm glad that you came back to us, Shinji," she said once more as she stood up again and straitened her jacket. "I guess I'd better give you two some time to yourselves now. But remember: I want some explanations when we're back at home!"

With a last, kind glance to the couple, she left the room as silently as she had entered it.

"So... what does she know...?" Shinji asked after a moment of silence.

"Just that we're together..."

"And... how?" he asked carefully, trying not to sound as if he would accuse her for any fault.

Asuka lifted her upper body off him. "She got curious because you, baka, didn't give her an anonymous warning like I told you to!" she scolded, glaring at him and poking at his chest with her finger.

"But I did..."

"You wrote it by hand! I may not be able to see the difference between every Kanji but even I could recognize your scribbles if I wanted to!"

"Oh..." Shinji muttered. "I'm..."

"Yeah, I know..." she softly interrupted somewhat sadly as she let herself fall back onto him.

The uneasy silence that followed threatened to overwhelm them again.

"It's... it's been my fault anyway..." Asuka eventually admitted, before it got any worse. "I tried to maintain my old attitude, but... I... I just couldn't. It was hard enough to keep it up when she was taken from us, but the thought of losing both of you..."

"But... you knew that I would come back..."

"The hell I knew!" Asuka snapped at him, but then brought her face even closer next to his, their cheeks touching. "For the last month, I've kept worrying if what we're doing is right. We agreed that we would try to change the future so that everyone had the chance to survive. But the truth is, we never really thought of the consequences of our interventions. Who knows if we can really change everything for the better? Who knows if it doesn't even end up much worse when we keep doing this? Who knows if... if..." Her grip became tighter as she trailed off. "I just don't want to see another life of someone close to me sacrificed in this war. Never again..."

Shinji closed his eyes with a sigh and ran his fingers soothingly through her hair.

"It doesn't matter that much if she knows," he said eventually when he noticed that she had calmed down in his arms. "You know, I did some thinking as well. And to be honest, I think it might have been a step in the right direction. We will have to change 'who we are' to everyone at some time. We never thought of that; we had been part of the problem just as much as the way the things had gone, and if we continue to act exactly as we did, it could very well end up just as it did back then.
When I stood there, so close to my EVA, and heard how this Angel hurt the both of you, I... I just couldn't hold back any longer. And I don't regret it. Because if I hadn't done it, if I had just stayed in my role, who knows if my father would have come to his senses in time to let me go when I still had a chance to beat it..."

"So... Are you saying that we should stop acting after all? But... what about...?"

He quickly shook his head. "We shouldn't rush it. If we keep it slow, so that everyone could adapt... maybe they won't notice anything too strange..."

"Well, it's too late to keep things from Misato, I'm afraid. And... and I guess we owe her at least some explanations." A grin suddenly replaced her previous empty expression as she trailed her finger seductively along his chest. "At least we don't have to hold back at home any longer..."

His chuckle rocked both of their bodies, but he didn't reply in any way other than to draw her a bit closer. They stayed silent like this for a few more minutes, before it was time to leave the comforting peace of their own little world and to face reality once again.



****************



Said reality hit them soon enough in the form of Misato. She didn't give them much time to prepare once they got home; as soon as she had got into something more comfortable than her uniform, she called them to the kitchen. A certain piece of paper already greeted them on the table when they sat down, but neither of them said a word.

"Well, I hope this will be a good story," Misato broke the silence before it could actually settle in. "I had to postpone a... ehm... meeting for this."

"Yeah, I can guess what kind of 'meeting'..." Asuka snarled.

Misato silenced her with a warning glare. "So, mind explaining this to me now?" she asked firmly and pointed to the piece of paper that lay between them on the table. "Assuming that you didn't take a very good guess, how did you know that the previous Angel would take over Unit-03?"

Shinji looked to his side for Asuka's reassurance, which he found in a small nod.
"I knew it, because I..." He felt Asuka's hand softly squeezing his, "...we... have witnessed this all once before..."

"How?" Misato asked with a strange calmness. "Have you somehow got visionary powers? Some kind of déjà vu?"

"It was more like time travel," the redhead interjected.

"Time travel?" Misato repeated slowly. "But... how can that be possible?"

"We... we don't know actually," Shinji muttered, shaking his head. "All I can say is that we came back about two or three months ago, after surviving on our own for several years..."

"Surviving?" The Major was visibly shocked. "Why 'surviving'? What happened?"

"Third Impact!" Asuka simply stated with a low voice. "The two of us were the only ones who were left."

"Third...?" Misato's eyes widened. "So... we failed?"

Shinji slowly shook his head. "I-I'm not sure if it would be wise for us to let you know every detail. But... let's just say that it wasn't an Angel that caused it."

"What? Then who was responsible?"

"I can't..."

"Shinji!" Misato cut him off with more anger in her voice than intended.

But the boy surprised her by not backing away; instead, he looked up with a stern face. "As I said, I don't think it would be wise for you to know everything. We... we're trying to avert the Impact this time, but there are too many people who could work against us." With a weak grin, he nodded at the paper. "And as you can tell, it's hard enough for us already to keep everything secret."

"So you don't think I could help you?" she protested.

"Maybe," Asuka interfered with a warning glare, "but you could create even more problems for us. The more people know anything critical, the higher is the risk that anyone lets something slip to someone who shouldn't know..."

"So you don't trust me...?" Misato whispered with a hint of disappointment.

"I... I wouldn't call it that..." Shinji tried to appease her. "It's just that... there's too much to risk..."

"Well, then..." Misato trailed off, obviously not very pleased by his explanation. "How... how long have you been there?" she asked eventually, changing the topic somewhat unwilling.

"We don't know exactly. The first few months, or even years, we were so occupied with other things that we didn't even bother about keeping track of dates. So we can only guess that it was about one and a half or two years before we started to count again. After that it was almost four more years."

"Why..." She halted to take a breath. "Why didn't you tell me anything?" Misato's frustration was clearly audible in her voice.

"How should we have known if you would have believed us?" Shinji tried his best to keep his calm.

Asuka's patience, on the other hand, seemed to run lower every second. "We already said that the risk was too high!" she spat more venomously than seemed necessary. "What would have happened if we had told you or anyone else that we somehow traveled through time without any proof? We would have been declared 'mentally unstable' in no time, been at least removed from our duty at NERV and with that from our only chance to make a difference. Most likely we would have also been separated or even locked away..."

"Asuka..." Shinji tried to calm her, but only to little avail.

Misato just sighed at the redhead's outburst and sagged back in her chair. "I guess you have a point there. This whole story is just so... I don't know... it really sounds a bit like a bizarre fantasy. I mean, you're telling me that you two lived alone in a devastated world for several years, where you eventually opened up to each other and fell in love and then came back for no apparent reason..." She had rested her forehead on her hand, deep in thought, and sighed once more. After a short moment of silence, she shook her head. "If it wasn't for the note..." she mumbled and looked back up to them. "You know, it's really not very easy to believe, but I..."

She was forcefully interrupted as Asuka suddenly slammed her palms on the table, bolting up in rage. "FINE! Believe what you want!"

"Asuka!"

Shinji reached out for her to hold her back, but she had already run out of the kitchen. Sadness and shame filled him as this event painfully reminded him that he wasn't able to do anything for her at all.

"What is it with her?" Misato asked from behind him, but he couldn't bring himself to turn around and face her.

He couldn't do anything, standing motionless in the door, not knowing how to explain something as delicate as this.

"You don't... you can't understand what it's like – how painful it is to assume... just to think that it hadn't been real... that it never happened," he eventually breathed with a low voice, his fists firmly clenched at his sides as all the once-joyful memories were repeated in his mind. "Not... not after we were forced to leave all that mattered to us behind."

"What do you mean?" Misato sounded obviously confused. "What could have been that important in that world that you can't find now? I mean, it's not like you..." She trailed off with an audible gasp. "You...? I mean you – didn't...? You couldn't have...?"

"Yes, Misato..." Shinji cut her off softly, "we... we had a child..."





---------------------------------------
A/N: Yeah, the "big" secret is finally out!!
Okay, okay, I guess I've made it obvious enough. Actually, I'd be surprised if there's anyone who wouldn't have guessed after the first chapter already, but now it's official.

You might have noticed that I diverged more from the actual episodes in this chapter than in the previous odd-numbered ones. One reason is the obvious story-intern effect of Asuka's and Shinji's changes to the timeline; the other is that I wrote most of it at University on my new/old laptop which is so slow that I couldn't even get a small, soundless video to run for checking constantly; so I did most of it by memory and tried to change at least some recognizable parts to fit to some degree.

But, fortunately, from now on we will see more of the former reason anyway. Fortunately, because one thing I'm not very fond of was how I had to 'squeeze' the new storyline into a form that would still fit the original one, which resulted in a trap I wrote myself into; for example that Gendo seems to make some 'strange' decisions in "The 13th" and this chapter. Though I try my best to explain such things, they still seem somewhat awkward to me. But as long as I can't think of a better way to deal with that problem, you shouldn't get your hopes up for a rewrite (I kind of fear them since the one of chap 2 anyway...)

To continue with putting my own work of months down, the second half of the chapter got a bit out of hand. I didn't want it to make a "Shinji meets Yui in EVA"-part (the 'dialogue'-parts were not only added later for a better pacing of the story, but also kept rather neutral on purpose. It's up to you if you want him 'talking' with his mother, his younger self and/or the naked Misato/Asuka/Rei ;) ). Instead, I wanted to use the chance to take a closer look to the secondary characters, but in the end it was more or less just Hikari and a bit Kensuke (who gave me some trouble as he seemed much to bitter (especially towards Hikari) in the 'beta version'. That's hopefully a little better now).

And before I forget it: Of course many thanks to my pre-readers Bal'ferrin, Fool's Gold, Nova and dennisud.

All rights belong to their respective owners. Which means mostly Gainax in this case...