The 2nd try

Chapter 11: The 17th




"A lot more than expected did not follow our plans. The situation at hand differs significantly from the situation we aimed for."

"That may be, but it's not all to our misfortune. We are still able to commence the ceremony once the last Angel has met his fate."

"But what about Ikari?"

"We will send our trump-card to him, regardless of those changes to the scenario. "

"He might be a traitor, but he is no fool. He will get suspicious when we send it without proper reason."

"He would get suspicious already from the reason alone that it is our wish. But so he shall. He will accept nonetheless. He is certain that his God will not fail. We shall see which beast stands last. It will be to our fortune either way."

"So be it," the other faceless voices agreed as their monolith-avatars vanished into the darkness.

"So be it," Lorenz Keel repeated quietly to himself, allowing his voice to drop. His aging body felt tired as it slowly kept on rotting. He knew he didn't have much time left before even the cybernetic implants wouldn't be able to stop the inevitable anymore. He only had this one chance left and he would not let one single man stand between him and his salvation. "Ikari... if you'll never serve me in your life... at least serve me with your death..."




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



"A Fifth?"

The news had taken everyone by surprise and Makoto Hyuga was no exception. There had been an overall gasp in the briefing room when Sub-Commander Fuyutsuki made the announcement that another pilot would arrive in just two days.

"But we haven't got a report from the Marduk Institute yet," Maya protested. "How are we supposed to prepare simulations for him without the necessary data?"

"The committee is rather fond of this candidate and..." Fuyutsuki scowled ever so slightly, "pushed a few matters to get him assigned as quickly as possible. The Marduk report will soon be available – though if I were you, I would prepare to make the needed tests yourselves anyway."

A low grunt came from the corner where Dr. Akagi sat as disgruntled as most of the time since the events after the last Angel. Her voiced dissatisfaction was understandable, not just because of her new position in this round as mere chief operator of the MAGI system. Almost everyone in the room knew that this meant that, if it came anytime soon, the report would be heavily censored and lacking a lot if not all valuable information about this boy.

Fuyutsuki cleared his throat. "Anyway, the pilot will arrive the day after tomorrow. I expect all of you will do your best to show him NERV's... hospitality," he finished, a rare playful smile accompanying the last word before issuing the final order. "Dismissed."

Most attendants scrambled and moved to the exit as usual after a briefing, but it lacked the typical murmuring as everyone seemed to be in thought about this announcement.

"Even when not counting Rei we already have more pilots than EVAs," Misato muttered, as if to herself. "Why do we need a Fifth Children?"

Makoto heard it well enough though. And he understood the silent request between the words. It seemed like he would again have a few hours overtime ahead.



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



"Smile everybody!" Kensuke demanded, shoving his camera under the noses of the attending children. "After all, it's the last time we'll all be together for a while!"

If it hadn't been for her manners, Hikari would have slapped him for his overly enthusiastic behavior that no one really seemed to share during this sad event. He, herself, Toji, as well as Asuka and Shinji had gathered one last time to say goodbye. She and Kensuke had to evacuate from the city that had taken too much damage in the last fight. The pilots, however, including Toji on stand-by, of course had to stay, in case of another attack.

Now they stood here in front of her home and – at least most of them – in silence in this depressing mood. Behind her, she could hear her father making the last preparations, securing their luggage that hadn't fit in the trunk on the top of the car. Her sisters had already taken their seats inside, waiting for the trip to begin. PenPen, who had been brought along by Shinji and Asuka, was supposed to going with them to safety, and was currently a cuddly playmate on Nozomi's lap.

"Oh really guys," Kensuke complained, lowering his camera. "It's not like we'll be gone for all eternity. We're just going over to Odawara for a while."

Hikari was about to snap at him for his insensitivity when she noticed something that made it hard to suppress a squeal. Sneaking, as if on their own, the hands of Shinji Ikari and Asuka Soryu had found and intertwined with each other.

"Y-you finally did...?!" she stuttered, beaming at the long-awaited sight.

The addressed pair blinked in surprise, then looked at their joined hands as though they hadn't even noticed the hold.

"Um..."

"Well..."

With both of their faces blushing slightly, they stuttered incoherently while looking everywhere but at the other. But their smiles, let alone the fact that they didn't let go was proof enough that she was right.

And not only to her. "WHA-? You two?" Kensuke shrieked, almost letting his camera drop at the shock, but catching it in the last second. "You mean she was right all along?" he added, pointing at Hikari.

"Well, she does have a talent for seeing such things," Toji explained sheepishly.

Hikari started to blush at the compliment, but the red on her face quickly changed into that of anger as the teasing voice of her older sister rang through the air. "Too bad it doesn't work for herself!"

"SHH!" the brunette hissed as she spun around.

"Just get smoochy with your boyfriend already, so we can go!"

Forcing herself to forget Kodoma's embarrassing remark, she returned her attention on the couple.

"Oh, I'm so happy for you two!" she exclaimed, giddily clapping her hands. "When did it happen? You should have told me then! Did you kiss already?"

"Well..."

"Um..."

"Please, kiss now!" Hikari begged, failing to resist the urge to witness the manifestation of their love. "I know it's impolite, but please, just once. I want to see it before I go!"

They sheepishly glanced at each other, Asuka even biting her lip with a coy grin as they reluctantly turned around, their faces nearing jerkily until their lips met for a short peck from which they instantly separated again.

Hikari wasn't disappointed at all that it wasn't a very passionate, movie-like kiss, quite the contrary. She was overjoyed at the cute display of the just-found couple.

A loud honking made everyone flinch and turn their attention to the car, where her father now had taken his place in the driver's seat. "Would you please hurry up, Hikari? We still have a long day ahead and I'd like to avoid the expected jam!"

"Just one moment!" she shouted back, her heart racing as she bit her lip. She couldn't contain it any longer. If Asuka and Shinji could, why shouldn't she?

"Toji!" she called, throwing herself at the boy, startling him as she pulled his head down slightly while standing on her toes. And doing even more so when she planted a quick kiss on his cheek. "Watch out for yourself, okay?"

"S-sure..." the baffled jock mumbled when he finally got his voice back after Hikari had let go.

Stepping backwards, she couldn't help but smile in pride and joy despite her burning cheeks as he absentmindedly reached for the spot her lips had touched. "Well, bye then..."

"S-sure..."

"We... we'll see each other soon, right? Once this is..." she paused, surprised as her back already made contact with the car, "Once this is over?"

Before Toji had the chance to continue like a broken record, Asuka's hand shot in front of his mouth. "Don't worry," she replied for him. "You're watching our pet, we'll watch yours!"

Hikari wouldn't even understand that joke until much later, her mind still spinning as she tried to open the door and get inside while not breaking her view of her... friends.

Just in time she remembered to wave out of the window when her father started the engine. "You all take care of yourselves!"


*********


Shinji's hand was still intertwined with Asuka's as they walked home. Not only was that precious contact much cherished, so was the laughter about the far-more-lighthearted-than-expected farewell that was still accompanying them.

"Shouldn't we have made sure Toji would finally go home?" Shinji chuckled. "When we left, he still hadn't moved an inch."

"Yeah," Asuka chimed in. "He was staring after the car like an abandoned puppy even after it was long out of sight. He didn't even notice Kensuke saying goodbye as well."

"Poor Kensuke, I hope he doesn't feel left out."

"Ah, I don't think he really cares. Or do you think he would stop tagging along, even if we couples want to... well, 'get smoochy'," she said grinning as she leaned closer to him, brushing her lips over his cheek.

"Oh," Shinji sighed exaggeratedly. "No, probably not."

"It was just too funny when Hikari asked us to kiss," Asuka brought the topic back up. "I had to bite my lip not to laugh out loud."

"I know, I could hardly hold back either." His smile fell slightly as he looked at her, giving her hand a light squeeze. "I guess we really needed that. A last diversion from all that trouble lately – and all that's yet to come..."



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



The can on the table was still unopened. It wasn't a test of self-discipline on Misato's part, just sitting in front of it. She didn't even see it, despite looking right at it. While her eyes were set on the beer, her mind was not.

A sigh escaped her.

She had rushed home as soon as she could and had ended up arriving long before her "charges" returned from seeing their friends off.

That she had feared how Shinji would take the news of another pilot even before she knew that it was one of his friends had only worsened the situation when the Fourth had been appointed, almost turning it into a complete disaster. Even after it ended up well and learning that Shinji had known all along, she still couldn't shake the guilt for having been so unable to face him with the truth; too afraid of the confrontation, too afraid to be the one to cause him to hurt even more.

It wouldn't happen again. She liked to tell herself that it was easier now that she knew that he was a stronger man now, and had faced much worse. But when she heard the front door opening and their entry in an obviously cheery mood, her resolve faded. Even more so when they reached the kitchen and saw her. Their laughter ebbed away instantly.

"Something wrong, Misato?" Shinji immediately asked with concern.

"No, not really, but..." Once more she sighed, standing up to face them. "I have to tell you something. This was supposed to be confidential – for whatever reason, 'cause even if you don't know it yet, you probably will by tomorrow anyway..." She drew in a deep breath. "The Fifth Children has been appointed and will arrive within the next 48 hours."

"Kaworu?" Shinji's head sprang up, his eyes wide as he stared at her in shock, all color draining from his face. Visibly concerned, Asuka was quickly there to support him, her left hand steadying his chest while her right ran soothingly over his shoulder.

"So I take it you know him?" Misato figured, grimacing slightly for having brought it up. But it was for the best.

Seeing that Shinji was still not quite in a condition to answer, it was Asuka who spoke for them first, shaking her head. "I don't. I was..." She squeezed her eyes shut, obviously fighting an unpleasant memory, "...out... for a while at that time. But for Shinji, he was..."

"Even if just for the few days I knew him, he was the most important person in my life," Shinji quietly continued for her as the initial shock faded.

Misato was taken aback by his choice of words, but didn't want to hold it against him. "I-I'm sorry, Shinji. I didn't know it would have that much impact on you."

"It..." he sighed, shaking his head clear, "It's all right. I just – I somehow hoped he wouldn't have to come. Originally, he was supposed to be..." he swallowed, looking at the girl that was still holding onto him, "the... the replacement pilot for Unit-02. I guess that was just a foolish wish."

"I'm sorry," Misato apologized again, not knowing what else she could say.

"It's okay. It's just... I just don't know how I should face someone..." closing his eyes, he clenched his quivering hands, "someone I killed..."



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



Misato shifted restlessly on her chair, staring blankly at the folders on her desk as she twirled a pen mindlessly in her fingers. She had wanted to catch up on some paperwork, something to get her mind off of what Shinji and Asuka had told her. Needless to say: It didn't work.

An Angel in human disguise. And they were supposed to let such a dangerous monster walk around freely through the halls of NERV. Why not send him an invitation for tea at Adam's feet while they were at it?

The pen in her fingers had stopped rotating, the other hand clenched in anger around the cross hanging from her neck. Hadn't she sworn to fight them in any way she could? How could she now just sit back and watch?

Of course they couldn't just go and kill someone who, to all others, was a normal boy, their fifth pilot. They'd have a lot of trouble explaining themselves even if they could prove afterwards that he was an Angel – and who knew if that was possible. No, they had to wait until he acted. She could only hope that she could at least keep him monitored all the time. Shinji had assured her that this Kaworu kid wasn't really hostile per se, but still...

A beep from her computer brought her out of her thoughts.

A pop-up window on the monitor demanded her attention, apparently some reminder from the calendar.

"Thursday, 2:00 PM: Meeting in Matsushiro, storage depot."

She would have dismissed that message, having neither time nor intention to drive all the way for a pointless meeting with some controller about stocks that didn't even exist anymore. But aside from the point that – even if anyone would still work there – it could have easily been settled with a phone call, she couldn't remember having made such an appointment. In fact, she had never made much use of that calendar-tool.

Maybe a trip to Matsushiro was just the right thing to get her mind off this Angel-boy.


*********


After the incident with the 13th Angel, the facility had been abandoned aside from a minimal maintenance crew that was supposed to take care of the local MAGI-system. And given the MAGI's system-structure, they didn't need to come more than once a month. There hadn't been anyone in the large and presumably empty storage hall since EVA-03 had been moved to the test side.

So the bigger was Misato's surprise when she opened the lock and pushed the gate open, to be instantly confronted with a massive form, taking up most of the hall's space. Naturally, her curiosity grew as she eyed the huge mass that was covered entirely with tarps.

It wasn't so much that she wondered how it had been possible to smuggle something so big into a NERV facility, apparently without anyone noticing or caring, or why someone would use such secrecy to let her know. She rather felt like a child with a big Christmas present, trying to figure out what it was before opening it.

That impression was even heightened when she saw a small white card dangling from a cord attached to the gray covers.

[A Gift from the Dead]

Her stomach fluttered at those words as the flimsy hope that Shinji had brought up was stirred again. Not losing any more time, she lifted one of the tarps enough to climb under it.

It took her a bit to realize what she was looking at. But as she realized the nature of her "gift", a broad grin swept over her face. Flipping her cell phone open, she auto-dialed the most-used number.

"Major Katsuragi here. Get me Dr. Akagi."



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



Twilight had set in and bathed the sunken remains of the city in a golden hue. He closed his eyes, enjoying the warm summer breeze that blew over the new Ashi Lake. This sight must have inflicted the affected ones with sorrow and loss, but to him, it was serene. Even the statue he had chosen to rest on, once modeled on the often-used religious form of a winged Angel, now grotesque and beheaded, fitted in this peaceful picture as it stood halfway submerged in the water.

Almost on its own, an old melody came to his mind and he started humming it in expression of his joy.

He knew he was expected to report back to NERV headquarters, but he needed to do this first. He had not liked the confinement inside the plane that had brought him to Neo Tokyo-3. So the more he cherished this freedom.

That was, until his peace was disturbed.

"You!" a voice called out, but he didn't seem to care; he merely toned down the volume of his song. "Hey, you! Damn it, I'm talking to you!"

Now he stopped his humming, though he still didn't turn around to see who had come out here to find him. Not that he needed to.

"And what might I do for you, Asuka Langley Soryu?"

There was a short silence. For sure, she was taken aback that this person she had never even met before knew her name.

"You're Kaworu Nagisa, aren't you? The Fifth Children?"

"That is what they have named me," he confirmed with a hint of amusement in his voice. "But I must admit that I had expected to meet someone else before. So tell me, Second Children, designated pilot of Evangelion Unit-02, what brings you out here? Do you want to warn me not to take your spot as pilot? Or not to take the one you love?"

Again, there was a short silence, before he heard her huffing. "Listen; I know more about you than you might think! If you try anything stupid, I'll be the first to kick your ass!"

"I am unsure what you could mean by 'stupid'," he calmly replied with amusement. "I am going to do what is my given task and I will do it when the time has come."

"Fine, I'm warning you one last time: If you try to hurt... anyone of my friends, you'll regret it!"

"Indeed you speak for someone else, Soryu? Such declaration seems so unlike from what I heard about you, but I cannot deny that it fills my heart with joy. Your love for..." he chuckled lightly, "them has to be great if you are willing to risk this slip from your true self."

There was a loud impact of a smaller stone hitting the statue he was sitting on, but he didn't flinch. He was slightly saddened though, that she would rely on a physical act as a further warning, rather than use her verbal ability. He would have liked to continue the talk, but the sound of shuffling sand told him that she was already turning to leave.

"Just stay away from him!"

"As you wish..." he spoke softly, as he turned his head to watch her as she was walking away, "...Mrs. Ikari..."


*********


"Asuka? Where have you been?" Shinji asked curiously as he heard the door closing, but immediately regretted it when he saw her frustratingly kicking her shoes off, just letting them lie where they fell.

"Out," was all he got for an answer as she rushed past him towards the kitchen.

Sighing, he picked up her shoes and placed them properly to the side. "You went to see him after all, didn't you?" he called after her. Of course there was no response.

As he followed her to the kitchen, he found Asuka leaning her back against the fridge, holding a can of soda against her lips. He wasn't sure if she was actually sipping it, judging by the way she just stared ahead.

"I thought I could catch him off guard, outsmart him with my future knowledge. But it was him who outsmarted me," Asuka eventually muttered. "Do you think he could know?" she added, glancing at him for the first time since her disgruntled return.

Shinji thought about it, but finally shook his head. "I have no idea. He is an Angel after all. Did he say something... you know... about us being from the future?"

"Not exactly," Asuka admitted mumbling, finally pulling the can from her mouth. "But he – he knew who I was without even looking at me. And he made strange implications about... 'my loved ones'."

"So we don't really have any proof that he knows?" Shinji figured. "Any sign that he'd be able to tell us...?"

Closing her eyes, Asuka sighed tiredly. "No, nothing he couldn't have gotten from reports and fine senses or good guessing," she concurred. "But I don't know, it was... unsettling..."

He couldn't suppress a slight grin at that. "Well, that's Kaworu for you..."



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



"And here we have the break room. Here, people can get small refreshments and have some casual talk when not on duty."

Maya didn't intend to do just that, rather she wanted to finish being a tour guide as soon as possible. But as she continued her way, she quickly noticed the presence behind her was no longer following. Turning around she saw the Fifth Children still standing at the vending machines, staring fascinated at the colorful display.

"Are you thirsty?" she asked wondering.

"No, I do not believe that is the case."

Maya gave a nervous smile. She hadn't opted against showing the new pilot around, but that was mostly out of politeness, not because she had been very eager to spend her time with him.

The boy seemed to have a strange aura, not quite eerie, but... awkward. This constant, overly friendliness just wasn't normal. Of course, that implied a sad fact, but it was undeniably true of human nature to think of oneself first. So the more it freaked her that he showed absolutely no sign of such behavior.

"Well, shall we go on...?" She trailed off as she heard the footsteps of someone coming in their direction. Craning her neck to look over the wild silver hair of her companion, she saw two familiar forms approaching, discussing something she could not hear. Both, their talk as well as their steps, ceased instantly as Shinji and Asuka noticed them.

"Ah, good that you're here," Maya greeted the two. "I would like you to meet Kaworu Nagisa, the Fifth Children. He's going to be a back-up pilot in case... um..."

As if sensing her predicament, the boy took over and finished the introduction. "Why not say that we all hope that there never will be a need for me to take the place of one of you?" His smile widening, he held out his hand towards Shinji. "You must be the famous Shinji Ikari. It is a pleasure to finally meet you."

The dark-haired boy still didn't look up. "W-welcome," he muttered flatly. Then he strove past them without a second glance, Asuka following him close behind, only glaring warningly at the newcomer as she passed.

Kaworu's smile lessened but did not falter, the unshaken hand falling back to his side as he looked after them as they left.

"I-I'm sorry," Maya tried to excuse the not-so-warm welcome. "Asuka can be a little... cranky sometimes when it comes to possible... um... rivals. But Shinji is usually a lot nicer than that."

"Do not worry," the boy assured her. "I am sure it was not their intention to hurt my feelings. Indeed, I am positive that we will play our parts together just as we are destined to..."



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



Others often complained about the slow speed of the long escalators and conveyor belts that served as bridges to connect the various sections of the headquarters over vast abysses. She had often witnessed people giving up the comfort of being transported in favor of saving time by additionally using their feet to walk along them. Rei never minded it. The only reason for her to do as they did would be an emergency situation, but other than that, it didn't matter whether she'd spend her time on the way or at her destination.

Ikari and Soryu had left awhile ago and she had decided to return to her apartment herself. It wasn't that she didn't appreciate their company, quite the contrary. It was a pleasant feeling to know that there were people who cared for her. They tried to include her in their activities, but often she felt out of place when they talked with each other. They attempted to hide it, maybe even hadn't noticed it themselves yet, but there appeared to be a bond between them and she felt like she was disturbing it.

She knew it was unreasonable to feel guilty this way. Maybe she just wasn't used to this new situation. Maybe, eventually, she would feel as accepted as they wanted her to. Maybe... there was another reason for the sadness in her when she watched them.

"You must be Rei Ayanami."

She only then noticed the gray-haired boy that watched her from the nearing end of the escalator and she wondered why she hadn't before. A strong aura seemed to be emitted by him, something not just vaguely familiar. She couldn't remember ever having seen him before, but she knew him, of that she was sure.

"You are just like me," he eventually told her with a smile. "We have both taken the Lilim's form as our body to live on this planet."

Her eyes narrowed at his words.

Lilim?

"Who are you?"

"Ah, where are my manners?" the boy asked himself, before bowing slightly. "I am Kaworu Nagisa, the Fifth Children."

"No."

An eyebrow rose. "I am afraid I do not understand."

"Who are you," her eyes became mere slits, "really?"

Kaworu's smile didn't change, but for some reason, it suddenly felt... menacing. "I think you already know..."

He was right. She long knew... him... "You are aware that I cannot allow you to succeed?"

"I would have expected no less. But..." he began, closing his eyes and the tension suddenly seemed to have vanished as if it had never been there, "that can wait until the time comes."

He walked past her then, leaving her with the impression that the conversation had ended. But as she moved to continue her way, he turned back to her. "Since I cannot spend my time with... someone else, as I had expected... Would you like to accompany me?"

Rei just blinked in surprise.


*********


The sound of chatter surrounded her. All around her, people were talking with their colleagues as they ate their meals chosen from the limited menu, sipped on their drinks or just enjoyed a few minutes away from their work.

Rei did none of those things. She just frowned at the full tray of her opponent as he sat down at their table.

"It is not too much, is it?" the gray-haired boy inquired, noticing her stare. "It was not my intention to appear as being greedy."

"I am unsure whether others are repulsed by such behavior," she told him, eying the three bowls of different soups, as well as one noodle and one rice dish along with a bottle of the carbonated beverage called cola. "But it is improbable that you will be able to consume all of it."

"Ah, I guess I am just not used to the Lilim's habits," he admitted, curiously regarding the shiny spoon in his hand. "It is impressive, even out of a gross necessity of their mortal body, they have created a beautiful art."

"An art?" Rei repeated, unable to follow his thoughts.

"Why, yes," he started to explain, stirring the spoon in one of the bowls of soup. "To survive, it would be enough for them just to eat the raw ingredients on their own. But they are joining them together, spicing them, until, in the end, they have created a small masterpiece that does not just satisfy the plain need, but is a pure joy to consume."

"What I gathered from the conversations among the staff, many of them would not agree with you about the meals in this cafeteria."

Incomprehensible to Rei, a silvery laugh erupted from the boy. "Ah. Humor. Another most enjoyable feat that this culture created," he said as he calmed down. "But yes, I may cherish their achievements more than they do themselves. These sensations are still new to me, but to them, they are natural, having them around for their whole lives. And it has been awhile since I have last been able to feel these pleasures."

With that he brought the filled spoon up to his mouth. Rei considered reminding him of the heat. But despite what others thought, the concept of humor wasn't entirely lost on her.



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



"Looks like everything's progressing nicely."

While not really startled, it surprised Ritsuko to hear that voice. Deciding to use this opportunity for a short break, she connected the last three cables inside the panel and rose from the control-unit she had been working on.

"Yeah," she agreed, stepping backwards to her friend without turning around to her, while she fumbled for her pack of cigs in the pocket of her lab coat. "The remote is as good as finished and once they're finished assembling the final parts, we can start first simulations before we transfer it to headquarters."

"What did you tell them?" Misato asked, nodding towards the technicians who were busy on the back of the colossus.

"The usual: Nothing." Ritsuko shrugged. "They are used to doing their work without questioning. Even if it's quite obviously not the MAGI maintenance they were appointed for."

"So... no signs that the Commander could get wind of our little project here?"

"Ikari?" Ritsuko mumbled, lighting the cigarette between her lips. She took a draw, then blew out a cloud of smoke, before continuing. "Unless we're getting too careless, I doubt he'll notice. He likes to make people think he's an all-knowing, ever-present shadow; professional and calm in every situation. But truth is that he's gotten much too focused on his plans, now that they're so close to coming to their conclusion. He's... giddy..."

"Giddy? The Commander?" Misato shuddered visibly at the image that must have surfaced in her mind.

"Well, in his way at least," the doctor muttered solemnly. "Speaking of Ikari... I haven't spoken with Shinji yet."

The announcement seemed to hardly surprise the young Major. While never very outgoing in the first place, Ritsuko had become more distant since the incident with Rei's clones, at least towards the two witnesses. It had already been a hard fight for the blonde to apologize to her old college friend. Shinji, however, had always been – to her at least – a mere child; someone below her, not even in a negative sense, but someone for whom she, as an intelligent adult, had to be a good example. Even if she'd never put it that way, she felt deeply embarrassed that she had shown him such a weak, emotional side of her.

"Don't worry," Misato assured her, however. "He understands it better than you might think."

"Hmm." Ritsuko spaced out for several seconds, letting Misato's words sink in as her cigarette burned down. Did her friend just try to cheer her up? That was in her nature after all. But as his guardian, Misato knew Shinji much better than she did herself. Not coming to a conclusion, she spoke up again.

"Anyway," she changed the topic, "the code is pretty simple, it shouldn't be much of a problem to adapt the control system to something more efficient."

"I better not ask how you already know the code," Misato interjected half-grumbling.

Ritsuko just flashed her friend a meaningful smirk. "I'm more worried about the human component. Are you really sure the Fourth is capable of this?"

Misato shook her head, probably more to dissolve her own doubts than to answer the question. "He is a trained pilot after all, so it should be easier for him to get used to slightly adapted controls than for someone who has to learn them from scratch." She sighed. "Yes, he's young and doesn't have much experience, but the Commander made pretty sure that Rei is off-limits and finding a new one wouldn't really get us anywhere. And I don't really trust the Fifth."

Ritsuko regarded her. Sure, she had seen Makoto snooping around again in the Fifth's data. "So you know...?"

The Major nodded. "Probably more than I should..."



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



"Hey, Ayanami!"

"Well, if that isn't our Rei," Asuka added to Shinji's greeting, causing the addressed girl to stop as she exited the door.

"Is it surprising to meet me at the door to our changing room?" Rei asked, puzzled by the tone of the redhead's voice.

Asuka sighed, pinching the bridge of her nose. "Humor, Rei, humor! That's something we really need to work on."

Rei chose not to answer. In fact, Asuka noticed that she had seemed to have picked up Shinji's annoying habit of ignoring her ramblings as they went through the hallways together, nodding mindlessly to show agreement, whether or not they actually meant it. That could be considered a step forward compared to the blue-haired girl's completely uncaring manner in her earlier life, but Asuka still felt like slapping Shinji silly for being such a bad role model. All that was lacking now was for Rei to slip in a "Yes, Asuka" (or worse, "Yes, honey"!) now and then.

At least she could trick Shinji with questions like "Are you going to do my chores for the rest of the month?" or "Would you like a bottle Tabasco in your curry?" when she noticed that he wasn't listening to her. But unlike him, Rei somehow managed to listen even when she was not, as paradox as that sounded.

"So, what do you think of the Fifth?" Asuka eventually got to the real point of picking Rei up and, as she had almost expected, she got an answer without a second of hesitation this time.

"I am positive that he would be a very efficient pilot." Whether the implication that Asuka had wanted to know her opinion of him on a personal, rather than a professional, basis was lost on Rei or if she just chose to ignore that fact was impossible for Asuka to tell.

"Is it true that you spent time with him?" Shinji sounded maybe a bit too pressing, but Rei didn't seem to have noticed.

"I was in his company on some occasions, yes," she admitted without remorse. "Should I not interact with others?"

"Oh, it's fine, great actually that you do that," he quickly tried to cover a potentially fatal misunderstanding. Having her open up and finding friends was more than welcomed after all. "But he... maybe he's not... I-I don't think he's the best company, you know?"

"He's dangerous," Asuka added bluntly.

But their warnings didn't seem to upset Rei very much as she regarded both of them as though they just had told her that the sky is blue. "I know that he poses no threat to me," she simply stated as she turned to leave.

With anyone else, Asuka would have seen that as an attempt to escape an uneasy discussion of which they knew they couldn't win. But with Rei, it was much harder to guess if that was the case or if Rei was just being Rei, having said everything she needed to say.

"We're just worrying about you, you know?"

That seemed to catch the blue haired girl by surprise, as she came to a startled halt. "I... thank you," she said without turning around. "But there is no need to. I can assure you that no danger is coming from him towards me."



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



She really had grown to hate the synch tests. While she had been able to delude herself from the boredom once, had even used to look forward to them as a way to boost her ego with her high scores, they were now just tedious. Of course she couldn't just tell them that her synch ratio would be high enough in battle for sure, though she was currently seriously contemplating doing that. But sadly, even if she did, it was doubtful that they would believe her and just force the tests on her anyway.

Groaning inwardly, Asuka absently glanced at the comm-window showing the interior of Shinji's plug, but just as she was averting her view, something out of the corner of her eye drew her attention closer to the screen. Apparently Shinji was staring at something himself. She couldn't see what he was looking at, but it wasn't hard to guess.

That freaky Angel-boy. He sat there, calmly grinning in Rei's test-plug, probably beating all previous scores as he wished to. She probably would have never become friends with that "guy" even in other circumstances. But Shinji wasn't her and in the state he had been in, it was understandable that he had taken any kind of affection that he could get. Even if it came in such a ridiculous amount in the form of that bastard.

Shinji might have been a blind fool, but it was Kaworu who had known that one of them would have to die; it had been him who knew that this "friendship" would end up hurting her later husband either way. And she knew, deep inside Shinji was still the same blind fool.

If he couldn't see, then it would have to be up to her to do it for him.


*********


The synch-test eventually ended after another hour. Kaworu hoped the Lilim weren't too confused with the results they got, smiling to himself as he climbed out of the test-plug. He saw Shinji and the Second doing the same, instantly going for the exit, though he noticed Soryu glaring at him for a second. Had she been told the results already? It was said that she was quite competitive with these numbers.

He wouldn't get the answer anytime soon. While his fellow pilots left for the showers, he found his path blocked by an athletic, brown-haired boy of Shinji's age, clad in a dark plugsuit similar to the one he was wearing.

"Toji Suzuhara, I presume," Kaworu greeted. "The Fourth Children."

"Uh, yeah. You're the new one, eh?" Suzuhara replied, holding his hand out. "Karo..."

"Kaworu Nagisa," he corrected friendlily, taking the offered hand in this common ritual.

"Oh, yeah. So how does it feel like to be cannon fodder?"

"Cannon...? Oh yes, I heard about your unfortunate... accident..."

"Yeah..." Suzuhara took a step back, regarding him a little differently. Kaworu had noticed that look in quite a few people, but he had never thought much about it. "Hey, you know... the way you're moving and talking... and that smiling... you're not..." The boy slowly waved his hand. "I mean not that I'd have anything against it... but still..."

"I am afraid I do not know what you are referring to."

"Yeah, sure, never mind," Suzuhara hastily babbled, slowly walking backwards to the plug. "I better get going. They still want me for that super secret... eh, hehe, secret stuff. Really, with five pilots, they could have five test-plugs, couldn't they? Would make things much faster. Well, bye..."

The Fourth quickly turned around then, mumbling something about fresh LCL in the plug. Kaworu found that reaction very interesting. Maybe he should do some research about it eventually. But for now, he decided that it was best to head for the showers.

However, he was a little surprised to find a glaring redhead guarding the doors to the wet rooms. Apparently, she hadn't bothered with showering after all, just changed clothes quickly, as her hair and skin still showed traces of LCL.

"And where would you be going?" she spat contemptuously.

"I was just heading for the showers to clean my body from the remaining LCL," he stated the obvious.

But she shook her head, her wet hair sending some drops flying. "Shinji just went there."

"Did he? Well, our introduction had been rather short..." Kaworu commented as he made another step towards the door. But the girl stopped him yet again. The glare of the two blue orbs intensified, but their intended effect was lost on him.

"I thought I told you to stay away from him."

"I apologize. I was not aware that I was approaching him more than I was 'permitted' to." He didn't take the implied threat very seriously. It did make him curious however. "I wonder... this paranoia, this aggression... is this what is called jealousy?"

"W-what are you...?" For the first time her resolve weakened as he stepped closer, letting her back away from him until she was stopped by the wall next to the door, leaving her no escape as he entered her personal space.

Leaning as close as possible to her face without touching, he darkened his voice. "Are you really that afraid to lose him by my hand?"

The girl's eyes were unable to conceal the fear any longer, no matter how much she tried to keep them hard. The expected answer came sooner than he had thought.

Kaworu flinched from the exquisite pain as Asuka's fist rocketed into his stomach. It took merely a second until his smile returned while the redhead used the chance to escape his close proximity.

"If you really need to know: Yes, I am afraid!" she admitted yelling. "I won't let him be hurt, not by you or anyone else."

"Is it because he would do the same for you?" Kaworu wondered.

"No, because he does the same for me!" Asuka firmly answered, leaving no doubt in her belief.

"Does he indeed?" he questioned anyway. "This possessiveness seems not like him. Or is it just me you do not want to share him with?"

"Heh," she laughed mockingly. "You're calling me possessive but then demand to 'share him' with you?"

"My choice of words might not have been the wisest, I admit. But they still stand. You do not fear 'anyone' to hurt him. You only fear me."

"I..." she trailed off, trying to hide the flicker of uncertainty in her eyes by avoiding them. "I have my reasons."

"But you do not even know me," he continued eagerly, cornering her now verbally. "Yet you are judging me by things you have heard."

"I don't need to know more," she said, already regaining her spirits. "If you're nice to him, you're going to hurt him; if you're an ass to him, you'll hurt him just as much. I don't care what you're like. I don't want to get to know you. Last I could use is you hurting me as well."

So was that her motive? "You know, for someone who appears to know who I am, it was very courageous to confront me like you did. Was that really just the bravery that is preceding you, or could it be that you know me better than you admit?"

She didn't answer him. She glared at him, gritting her teeth, her fists clenched ready to strike as she kept blocking the path, huffing in anger and frustration. Kaworu smiled to himself. He knew then that he had hit a nerve.

Asuka probably would have stood there for all eternity, but a hand on her shoulder made her jump in surprise, before her face softened as she looked at the one behind her. Kaworu's smile, however, faltered slightly as he noticed the sadness and remorse that appeared in Shinji's eyes as they locked onto him.

"I'm... I'm sorry..." It took him a second to recognize the brown-haired teen's voice. The words were barely audible and was obvious that Shinji struggled hard with himself to get them out; his lips barely moving. "If you have anything to say... But if not, I don't... I don't..."

"Don't bother," the redhead cut him off, demonstratively taking his hand in hers as she kept glaring at Kaworu. "He just likes to play with people, using deceiving words. It's no use to listen to someone who can't prove his talks by actions."

Shinji's head sagged slightly, before he nodded. Asuka took that as sign to leave, pulling him along. The couple hurried silently past the silver-haired boy, not wasting another look at him, and eventually not even the sound of their footsteps could be heard anymore.

Kaworu, however, still didn't move.



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



She knew that many envied her for becoming the new head of Project E, even if it was just temporarily. As the former assistant of her predecessor, she was well accustomed with the work and currently the one most suited for the job.

But Maya had been much happier at Dr. Akagi's side.

Whereas others saw the fame and privileges that came with such a position, more so when reaching it already at her young age, she just saw the hardly bearable weight of responsibility on her shoulders and the impossible amount of work that made her wonder how her idol had managed it.

Giving the Commander the reports of the latest harmonics-tests seemed rather easy in comparison, but to be alone with him in this dark eerie office made her stomach clench.

"I see," he finally muttered, the only response to the most unusual results they had ever received.

'Oh God, have I embarrassed him? I shouldn't always be so scientific!' her mind raced, blaming herself as she tried to hide behind her clipboard. 'But he has a doctorate himself, doesn't he? He should understand. Oh God, what to do?'

"T-to be honest, I don't have an explanation for these results," she tried to appease him. "Maybe... maybe Dr. Akagi should take a look at them."

That hardly had the desired effect. While he finally showed some emotion, she could have done without the angry glare. "Dr. Akagi?"

"Um... Yes, Sir, she has been absent lately," Maya stammered nervously. The last thing she had wanted to do was to get her idol in yet more trouble, even if just by accident. "I thought after that incident recently, she was... well... since... since I've been put in charge..."

"Indeed, she is no longer of importance to me," he interrupted her. The young woman shuddered at his use of "me", rather than the collegial "us" at that.

The Commander fell silent again after that and stared down. He appeared to be lost in thought and soon Maya got the impression that he had completely forgotten about her. Her eyes darted from one end of the vast office to the other, glancing at the abstract symbols that decorated the room as she waited for a sign from him as to what he expected from her next. After a few minutes of shifting from one foot to the other, she wondered if she was already dismissed, but she didn't dare to leave just like that either.

So she jerked in surprise as he spoke again, though she wasn't sure whether he talked to her or to himself. "Never mind this now. Other matters have higher priority." He finally looked up at her again. "You may leave."



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



She had always liked the feeling of the clean water, purifying her body and soul as it rinsed over her skin. She enjoyed going swimming in the large pool NERV provided, but she also got that feeling in the showers and baths of the headquarters. The latter especially allowed her to calm her mind, to let her thoughts drift away, as she often visited them when no one else was around.

This time however, the peace and quietness were suddenly interrupted by approaching footsteps. Slowly, she halfway opened her eyes, but she didn't feel the need to turn around to address the newcomer.

"These baths are not coed."

"I apologize. Does my presence unsettle you?"

Rei didn't answer and after a quick glance over her shoulder, she just stared back at his reflection in the water. He obviously knew she wouldn't be bothered by his presence or by his and her own state of undress, otherwise he wouldn't have followed her here. After waiting respectfully a moment for a positive answer anyway, he eventually sat down next to her in the warm, shallow water.

He remained silent and Rei didn't pressure him to explain his reason to come to her. Even though she noticed that something apparently troubled him.

Sure enough, he eventually spoke on his own. "So she is a lot like him, I take it?"

"Who?"

"The Second Children. An interesting person. So full of fear and pain that she protects her remaining happiness at all costs, even at the danger of missing what she seeks. He did not have any happiness left at all back then. But it would not surprise me if he would indeed have done the same as her."

"I do not understand... "

"A fragile heart just like his," he continued without really addressing the matter of her confusion. "And yours as well." he commented, glancing at her with a short-lived recovery of his typical smile. But his face quickly reverted to his thoughtful expression. "Are all Lilim like that? I had thought that I understood them. I knew that they always feel pain. That all of them were alone. Shutting each other out so as not to get hurt, but with that also closing themselves off from the ones that could help them to ease the pain. But I had thought that he, the intensity of his suffering, was a special case. Now I wonder if the others, instead of forgetting their pain, just know better how to hide it."

"I am not..." she tried to deny, but was instantly interrupted.

"No, but you are a lot like them. Whether that is because of your heritage or because you lived among them for so long, even I cannot say."

"Maybe it is not a characteristic just of them, but of all living beings." She narrowed her eyes. "How else is it that you are here with me instead of being with him?"

He was unusually quiet at first, confirming her success at turning the table. "I will face him when the time comes."

"And why is that not now? What is your reason to wait?"

Again, he took his time to ponder about her words and his face became solemn, giving her almost the impression that he suddenly got replaced by an entirely different person. He might have been an expert at reading other people's thoughts and emotions, but – just as so many humans – he was not as insightful when it came to his own.

"Maybe you are right," he eventually admitted. "This... fear... it might be a more powerful emotion than I thought. But I will not be able to hold back for much longer."

It wasn't hard to figure the meaning of his words. "So you will act soon..."

"Yes..."

"You are aware that I can not allow you to succeed?"

"I would expect no less..."

Those were the last words they spoke as they sat there in silence. It was hard to tell how much time passed as the only sounds were the drops and splashing of water made by their slight movements. But whether it had been three minutes or three hours when the lights were shut off as well, neither cared.

Eventually though, Rei stood up from the cooling pool. One last time she looked at him, almost as if to ascertain that he was actually still there. Her gaze was returned with a smile that didn't seem as self-assured as usual, but a smile nonetheless.

Without saying anything more than that as a farewell, Rei got out of the bath, gathering and changing into her clothes before she went, not bothering to dry herself before.



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



"This seems awfully familiar," Kozo muttered as he raised his hands. The amusement in his voice would appear unsuited in this situation, but he had doubts that the man behind him actually intended on harming him. He would probably already be dead if that would have been the case.

"Sorry, I'm usually not a man of repetitions," the intruder apologized, vocalizing his smirk. "Unless it involves a woman that is. And it's not my fault that your guards are still unable to react properly to surprises. Guess that last time didn't teach them well enough."

"I must admit, I, too, did not expect to see you again, Mr. Kaji," Fuyutsuki said, turning around without waiting for permission.

"To be honest, me neither," Ryoji shrugged, still smirking. He held the gun out for a short moment longer before putting the safety on and placing it back in its holster under his suit.

"What can I do for you then? I take it that your time as SEELE's errand boy is over as well, and this is not the style of the government."

"No, probably not," Kaji concurred. "But as you might remember, I want to find the truth for myself. Well, maybe myself and a handful of others – a handful, if we're talking about a God's hand that is."

A gray eyebrow rose. "Really? I had the impression that you had figured that your quest for the truth had come to an end and passed it on."

"I thought so as well for a while," Kaji admitted with a shrug. "But I realized that there were still some mysteries left that were interesting enough to take the necessary precautions to allow me to solve them."

"You will eventually see that there will always be mysteries in your life that are worth investigating. But may I guess that you are referring to the extraordinary travels of the Second and Third Children?"

For once, the smile on the stubbly face vanished. "You know about them?"

Fuyutsuki nodded, affirming the man's conclusion. "So far it's mostly a theory based on circumstantial evidence that still needs a final proof, but it's enough to make Ikari rather nervous about their knowledge. I don't know what he has planned with them as they, or at least Shinji, are most likely still needed even after the 17th Angel is destroyed, but I don't think he will watch them disturbing his precious scenario for much longer."

"For someone who always stood trustworthy behind him, you don't really sound all that much like you agree with him."

"For someone who has watched us for so long, you know very little about me," Fuyutsuki retorted. "I didn't and don't agree with a lot of his decisions. But there's not much I can do other than to be the voice of his conscience. Though I admit, I sometimes think I should have been louder."

He took a breath, feeling his age as he straightening himself. "I am here on behalf of Yui Ikari, not of Gendo. When they explained their plans to me to work against those of SEELE, which I had been about to uncover, I did not hesitate for long. But unable to cope with his wife's sacrifice, Gendo changed them. He no longer wanted to prevent Third Impact, now he's aiming for his own version that would reunite him with Yui, and created a catalyst that would grant him control over it."

"Rei?" Kaji guessed correctly. "But why are you still helping him then?"

"I don't believe anymore that there is a way to prevent it. And as hard to believe as it might sound, his version would be the lesser evil."

"You seem quite sure of that."

Kozo nodded. "The original plan involved the death of Lilith and Adam once the other Angels were defeated, so they couldn't be used to initiate the Instrumentality. But with the EVAs under his command and Adam literally in his hand, that is out of the question."

"There is still the possibility to take the old men out before they can strike."

Fuyutsuki furrowed his brows at the agent's lack of sense. "You should know that SEELE is too powerful to be taken out that easily."

But Kaji just shook his head. "No one is powerful enough to go against the entire of humanity."

The old man couldn't help but smile. That naive idea sure reminded him of someone else. "How would you let humanity know? Evidence leading to them may exist, but it is hard to interpret and even harder to make it impossible to shoot down. I was once just as foolish to think that way. But if I hadn't gotten the offer to work here when I confronted Ikari with what I gathered, I would have been dead long before I could have made it public."

"Oh, I know of that. Actually, a little talk with Mr. Yamaki is the reason I came to visit you at all." Kaji scratched his chin. "I just want to know: Do you still have the documents?"

"You know you have no chance to get them to the people," Kozo reminded once more.

But the former spy just grinned. "Let me worry about that. So, do you have them or not?"

Reluctantly, Fuyutsuki shook his head. "I'm afraid most of it was destroyed when I joined GEHIRN," he said. Disappointment was written all over the other's face and he couldn't blame him for that. Years of work coming to such an abrupt end, a noble quest being for naught. However, he couldn't do anything to help...

Could he?

"But that doesn't mean there are no others." Kozo closed his eyes with a sigh. "Look for a disk in a trashcan at the Nagao Toge station tomorrow after seven PM."



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



His smile was a solemn one as he silently stood on the gangway in the EVA cage. He felt regret for having to do this, but she was right. He could not wait any longer. Even though he knew that what he searched for would not be there, he would willingly go into the trap that SEELE had sent him into as their pawn. He would have preferred a different opportunity to sort certain things out with Shinji, but apparently that wasn't meant to be. This would be his only chance.

And so, Kaworu looked up at the giant instrument he was forced to use once again. "Come, Adam's alter ego, servant of the Lilim."

But as he turned, he felt that his command was not acknowledged; not even heard.

"Not quite as willing as expected, I see..." he figured without any sign of disappointment. His smile did not falter when he leered over his shoulder at Unit-01. "It would surely be interesting to see the roles reversed. But I am afraid I will not have a chance to have her joining me. So it will happen as it is destined."

With that the Final Messenger turned back to the red behemoth, his feet lifting of the ground as he unleashed his true power and spoke with a booming voice right in the heart off the familiar beast.

"Thus, Offspring of Adam, silence the voice of the Lilim's soul inside you and follow, as it is meant to be!"

And the beast awoke.

***

"EVA Unit-02 just activated!" Hyuga yelled over the alarms that had blared instantly at the unauthorized activity in the cages.

"What the hell?" The situation took Misato by surprise just as the rest of the present crew in the Command Center. Did they plan to go after the Angel themselves without telling her? "Asuka?"

She prayed that her question about the pilot would be answered negatively. If they went after and killed an "innocent boy and fellow pilot", they'd get in serious trouble. Even if it was proven later on that he was an Angel, how were they going to explain that they knew?

However, the way Maya shook her head buried any hopes of relief. "I can't tell; we're getting no signals from the plug!"

'Can't tell?' the Major pondered. 'Does that mean the Fifth...?'

She got her answer a second later. "AT Field detected in Central Dogma!"

"Unit-02?" she had to ask even though she was sure of what she'd hear next.

"No. Pattern is blue. No doubt, it's an Angel!"

***

The source of the blue pattern kept advancing, already having used the powerful behemoth to clear the path to the main shaft that would lead him to his goal. Tabris descended slowly on his AT-Field, shielded by the mighty hands of Unit-02. He had no reason to hurry. In fact, he was still waiting, his head raised to see when they would finally react.

Up there, way above him he could finally see the small purple form of EVA-01 entering the shaft.

His smile widened in relief. "You are late, Shinji."

"No, he's just in time!"

For a moment, the seemingly everlasting smile was replaced by a look of surprise as he suddenly felt a presence that shouldn't have been there. But it was already too late. The hands of EVA-02 that had sheltered him until now crushed close around his body.

"Mighty impressive, I must admit. Your bond must be very strong for her to be able to hide you from me. Let alone override mine."

"I usually don't mind compliments, but you can spare yours!" the emotional voice of the Second Children boomed. "Unless that's what you'd like to say as your last words."

"Last words?" He repeated calmly. "No, that would be too soon. And I wish to speak with him before."

"I warned you! I'm not going to let you do this to him again!" Asuka shouted and he could feel the giant palms squeezing more tightly against him.

"I am afraid I cannot let this happen yet. If it had not been for my foolishness and letting myself be distracted, you would not even have come this far."

"Well, too bad for you! I don't think you have much of a choice in this anymore!"

He just smiled as he closed his eyes. "He has chosen very well, I see," he said softly, more muttering to himself than to her. "A loyal companion, even when the times are rough, even though it is a commitment that could be of little gain and has so much to lose. Just like himself. Those bonds that are hardest to make are the hardest to be broken. And when two fragile hearts manage to unite, they will not be of glass anymore, but of diamond."

"What... what are you talking about?"

"Shinji will be here any moment. And since you effectively managed to disturb my plans, we will have to speed things up a little. Farewell, Mrs. Ikari."

"Hey! Wha...?"

Before she could finish her question, it changed into a piercing scream, as an AT-Field appeared between the EVA Unit's hands and arms, slicing them off with a precise cut.
The now limp fingers freed his body as the massive hands fell into the abyss. Before the Second could react, he reversed the power that he had used to reduce the speed of their fall to accelerate the colossus now, sending it crashing through the remaining blockades as he followed.

***

Shinji didn't like what he saw at all. Using Unit-02 as a battering ram, Kaworu suddenly sped down and even though the experienced pilot let himself fall freely through the shaft, there was no way he could catch up to them in time. Despite the speed at which gravity pulled the EVA down, it took many long, agonizing seconds until he landed on all fours on the bottom of the seemingly endless pit. The heavy impact shook him to the bones and it took him another moment to re-orientate himself in this bizarre underground world that mirrored the deformed Antarctica with its rosy sky and stalagmites of ice. Shinji's eyes soon fell on the red Evangelion, lying sprawled on the frozen ground.

"Asuka!" he yelled, "Are you okay?!"

"Yeah. Jus- just a hard... a few hard landings," was the groaned answer. "Don't waste time, go and get him!"

He nodded at the comm-window, moving his EVA around as Asuka's voice rang out once more. "And Shinji?"

"Hm?"

"Sorry."

He didn't reply. There was no need to. Closing his eyes, he took a deep breath, then ran after the small floating figure in the distance, nearing "Heaven's Door". However, no matter how fast he fought his way over the slippery floor, he was too slow. The gate opened, revealing the giant white being that was crucified in the middle of the vast lake of LCL. It wasn't until the smaller Angel floated up to Lilith that Shinji managed to catch up.

"KAWORU!"

"I have waited for this moment. And I have dreaded it. But..." The Angel turned around, smiling weakly at him. "I am glad to finally meet you once again, Shinji Ikari."

With that, Unit-01's hand closed around the gray-haired boy. And he expectantly closed his eyes.

***

The crew went silent as they waited to see whether the Angel's life signs would cease or if Unit-01 would suffer the same fate as the German Production Model. Not even a man like Gendo himself could deny a certain amount of nervousness, even though he was gifted with the ability to remain calm even during stressful situations. That Angel was much too close.

With all their strength and cunning, none before had managed to reach Heaven's Door, and this one had just walked through. Maybe he had underestimated this "boy" and the old men that had sent him after all.

But before anyone could find out, the earth began to tremble from an enormous shock; the holographic displays erupting in static.

"The strongest AT-Field ever has been detected!" one of the technicians shouted.

"Light, magnetism, sub-atomic articles! It's shutting out everything!" another yelled. "We can't monitor anything!"

"Did he wait for this until he could entrap Unit-01 along with him?" Fuyutsuki mused next to him, too low for the bridge crew to hear.

"What for? Neither is the one he truly sought;" Gendo replied, feeling the implant in his right hand against the white glove. "Unless... he is rather interested in the pilot."

"To fight him?" the old professor questioned. "Or to help him?"

Gendo had no answer for him. And he wasn't given the time to search for one.

"A second AT-Field!"

"Another AT-Field as strong as the first one has surrounded Terminal Dogma!"

"It's invading the other AT-Field!"

"Impossible! Another Angel?"

"I don't know! I can't confirm – it... it just vanished!"

"Vanished? The Angel?!"

Now Gendo allowed himself a relieved smirk under his clasped hands. Unlike his anxious subordinates below, he had a very good idea who that "other Angel" was. And it was certainly none he had to fear, quite the contrary.

Fuyutski had apparently come to the same conclusion. "It's her, isn't it?"

"Yes. Our victory is as good as assured."

It seemed almost unreal. The last obstacle in his path was about to be removed. After all this years, the day his hopes would come true was finally close.

"Have Section 2 stand by for the task we talked about," he surprised his Sub-Commander.

"Ikari!" Fuyutsuki warned. "Don't you think that would be foolish? It would be too early, with SEELE on the move."

"It doesn't matter how fast they move. Once the 17th Angel is gone, I can move faster. I will not have a need for them anymore."

"Then why bother?"

"Because I cannot risk anyone stabbing me in the back now."

"Isn't it rather," the old man spoke knowingly, "that you're just curious?"

***

"I can't..."

Shinji had wanted to go through with it without hesitation, to kill him without a second thought, just to get it over with. He would hate himself afterwards either way, but he would have avoided reliving those long agonizing moments in which he had been forced to make such a gruesome choice. But the moment he had closed the giant fist around the Angel's body, his heart had taken over his will yet again. "I just can't do this, Kaworu..."

"As I have told you once before, it does not matter to me if I die here. Life and death are as unimportant to me as are time and space..."

"Time...?" Shinji repeated lowly. '"To meet you once again...". "As I have told you..."' His mind had registered those words, but it wasn't until then that it calmed down enough that it was able to make sense of them. "Y-you? You were behind this, weren't you? You sent us back!"

"I can neither deny nor affirm that. But I can tell you that you have been watched, your fears and sorrows, and you were pitied. When the time came that you made your wish, it was granted..."

"Wish?" Shinji asked in disbelief. "You say I had wished for this? You say that I wanted to leave my- my child behind?"

"Indeed you did – and yet did not. Do you not remember the day before you returned into this time?"

"What...?" he muttered, easily recalling the last time he had seen his little girl.

////

Asuka stood in the doorway of Aki's room, as he had found her countless times before. Quietly embracing her from behind, he laid his chin on her shoulder, following her gaze to the sleeping form of their daughter.

"Shouldn't we change her into her nightgown?" he whispered smirking at the sight of Aki lying halfway under her blanket, her left leg kicking itself free, with her pants and T-shirt still on.

Asuka shook her head, though. "She fell asleep on the porch like that. I'm glad that I got her to bed without waking her up. I didn't want to risk it."

On any other occasion, he would have laughed. After all, he knew first hand what his little rascal was like when she was forced to wake up again. Either she'd be grumpy or become so lively again that it would take hours to get her back to sleep.

But Asuka's sorrowful expression and emotionless voice prevented his natural reaction. "What's wrong?" he inquired gently.

"What do you mean?" she asked innocently. Innocently enough that it was obvious that she was denying the truth.

"Something seems to be on your mind lately," he kept voicing his concerns. "You've been looking at her like that quite often."

"Like 'that'?" Asuka argued. "I've always looked at my child."

"No, not in this way. When she's with you, you act like always, so she won't notice, but as soon as she turns around, you seem to get troubled because of something."

Her body sagged slightly as she sighed, finally giving in. "It's just... since our last trip... since she keeps asking... I've started to wonder how lonely she really is without even knowing..."

Shinji almost wished he hadn't asked. "Well... I-I guess we can't do much more than to be there for her as much as we can."

"Yes, but... is living with only the two of us the worst way to grow up or will she never miss the interaction with others, when she'll never know what she'd miss?" She shook her head. "Recently, I keep wondering what her life would be if we weren't the only humans on earth. She's almost four now. She would be in kindergarten by now, meeting other people, making... friends..."

He felt his heart wrench as he saw her grimacing. Not just because these thoughts obviously pained her, but also because he felt she was right. He had been wondering about this himself ever since Aki started to question about others. About friends. They could do their best as parents, but was that enough to keep her happy?

"To be honest, I... I just wish I could do something to allow her a normal life. A life in which she could grow up like a normal girl."

"Yeah..." Shinji muttered, looking over at the sleeping, unaware child. "Me too..."

///

"That's it?!" Shinji yelled. "Because of a stupid wish? You took Aki away from us, because we wished her a better life?"

"I am deeply sorry. But surely you agree with me that bringing her into this time with you would have been counteractive to your purpose here."

"W-what? But that doesn't make any sense!"

"It does not?" Kaworu wondered, visibly surprised by that conclusion. "You wanted the possibility to create a better future for your offspring. To give you that chance, you were brought back to a point from where on you would be able to fulfill your intentions."

"But we weren't able to! We couldn't change anything! Toji still was hurt. Asuka still was tortured. Rei still died. And now I'm supposed to kill you again!" Shinji choked back an angry sob. "And none of this could bring my daughter back!"

"But your friend's injuries were not as severe as they could have been. Your spouse did not close her heart off from everyone, including herself. And while Ayanami's body changed, her soul and emotions did not, because her friends didn't turn away from her either." Kaworu closed his eyes for a moment after he made his reasoning, his smile fading slightly. "I can understand the pain the loss of your child has caused you and I am sorry for that. I can understand the hate you feel against me now for that and I do not blame you for it. Maybe it will help you with this choice. Though I wish we would not part on such terms. Trust me, Shinji. You will find your happiness again one day, as long as you follow this path."

"But it will never be her again!" Shinji rebutted unbelievingly. He understood that for someone like Kaworu, his happiness had come from having a family at all. But there was so much more to that. "How do you expect me to be happy without her?"

"Do not fear. You are not alone," the Angel, however, assured him once more. "Now, do not hesitate much longer. I may be the Angel of Free Will, but that is my offer, not my power. My freedom of choice is as limited as that of my brethren, unable to resist the call. My true freedom can only be granted by you, my friend."

"But..." The words remained stuck in Shinji's throat. He was unable to stop trembling from the familiarity of this situation. "I... I don't want to do this again. Can't you ignore it? That call? I... we... we could need your help! Kaworu, please..."

But the Angel just continued using his soothing voice. "You do not need me to accomplish your goal," he dissolved Shinji's attempt to persuade him otherwise and looked up. "You already have more allies than you think."

***

Rei returned the gaze of the boy clasped in Unit-01's grip. She wasn't able to hear the words that they exchanged from her position, but she could see the pleased smile he was giving her. Surely he knew that it was her who disrupted his AT-Field, rendering him vulnerable. He knew that she couldn't allow him to succeed. He knew...

Was that the reason... why he smiled...?

***

"This is destined to happen, either this way or the other. And Shinji, you have come so far from the shy boy I once knew. You have found yourself. You have found your reason to exist. You should not give that up for me." Kaworu urged him on once more. "Do you not want to see them again?"

"What do you...?" But Shinji trailed off. He knew what he meant by that. If he wouldn't do this now, Kaworu had to merge with Lilith, starting Third Impact. And this time, there wouldn't be any hope for them to survive. He would never see anyone again...

"I see... You still do not realize..." The Angel smiled. "But that does not matter. You will eventually. An unexpected joy is even greater than one you are anticipating," Kaworu mused, and it seemed to Shinji that his red eyes were staring right through him, as though there was no Evangelion between them. "So, Shinji, make your decision. Keep on living. Keep on protecting those you love."

Shinji's head sagged. He wanted to protest, to argue that he couldn't possibly fulfill both of those wishes if he had to do this.

But in the end he had to admit that Kaworu was right.

"I'm sorry..."

"Don't be..."

Shinji closed his eyes. Just a light tug on the handle. And even without looking, he knew it was over.

The 17th Angel was dead.


*********


Asuka cursed to herself, pacing back and forth as the elevator shot up. She had failed yet again to take this horrible burden off of Shinji's shoulders and wasn't able to be there to support him either. Not to mention that she failed at kicking another Angel's butt.

She could only hope her EVA would be repaired quickly. There was a certain score to settle all too soon and she and her Unit-02 needed to be in top shape for that. The fight was going to be hard enough as it is – and there was no way that she'd lose. Not again.

The elevator's doors finally opened, and Asuka moved to step out – but instantly halted in surprise as she found her way blocked.

"Pilot Soryu?"


*********


The entry plug had already been ejected, but Shinji still didn't make a move to get out of the seat. Somehow, he just couldn't move. He could barely remember moving the EVA back out of Terminal Dogma.

All the other Angels – they were huge monsters, destroying everything and everyone in their path. They were so out of place, so unreal that it was easy not to regard them as living beings. Easy to kill them without feeling guilty.

But Kaworu was not like that. He was so... human.

It had been foolish to think the second time would be easier.

He breathed out, trying to force most of the pain in his chest along with the air, before he finally found the strength to climb out of the plug; his body working agonizingly slowly. As he turned to leave, he almost instantly bumped into one of five bulky men of Section 2. Warily, he looked from one of their stone-cold, sunglasses-hidden faces to the other.

Shinji tentatively took a step back. He didn't like this. Not only was this much different than he remembered, it was quite doubtful that they were here to congratulate him.

"Pilot Ikari," the one he had almost run into bellowed coldly, his hand closing around Shinji's shoulder in an iron grip. "By the Commander's orders, you are hereby under arrest for conspiracy and treason against NERV."







A/N: There you go, the big secret finally revealed, now you know how they got back.... or not? ... Yeah, okay, I guess lots of you have probably mimicked Shinji's reaction to the "wish"-explanation and are already on their way to lynch me for having waited all this time for that. But, you see, while many might disagree, maybe also because I unintentionally stirred too much hype with that "secret", it never really mattered much me. In my opinion it wasn't important for the story how they got back, just that they
did. I know that's not quite what you find in a story-telling 101 (aside from the "DON'T!!1" list), but, hey, I'm just an average guy, trying to write a fanfic to see if that's any fun (or so it was when I had the idea for this story almost five years ago). Originally, I didn't even intend to give any explanation at all, but when reviews trickled in I noticed that there was more interest in this question than I had anticipated, which meant that I couldn't get off that easily. I however still tried to keep it as vague as possible, at least as in who
granted their wish; whether it was Kaworu, the Angels in general, Rei/Lilith, some other higher being, Shinji himself with unknown dormant TI-aftermath-powers, aliens, Anno, or your Mom.

I hope Kaworu's relationship with Rei didn't come off as lame attempt at K/R. After all, as I said before, I don't really like the idea of pairing her up with anyone. I would say "it's not more than the one he shared with Shinji", but that is probably contra-productive, as that's also often seen as a romantic one by... certain people. But no, it's just a – well, I'm not even sure if one can call it friendship already. Just sharing some time and learning from each other.

While the second scene implies some Makoto action, that idea was scrapped pretty soon (even the line about him snooping was only added later on), as what I had planned would have pretty much been just a direct retelling of his scenes in the episode; at best with some notice that Misato seems to know everything he tells her already. It really wouldn't have done anything to the chapter, especially since I wanted to focus on Kaworu.

One of LD's biggest gripes with this chapter (aside from my English :P) was that Asuka and Shinji didn't try to ask Kaworu about Aki despite some guessing that he might know something. Sadly he didn't/wouldn't manage to make a complete edit this time for me to see what exactly he had in mind, but I didn't want to take anything from the finale anyway. So instead, I made some slight additions, most notably the end of the scene where Asuka blocks Kaworu from entering the showers – originally Shinji remained silent and instantly walked away with her.

Another "last-minute addition" (or change, in this case): The scene where they say their good-byes to Hikari and Kensuke was originally after the bath scene to be more in line with the episode (Misato talking with PenPen). I actually wanted to move that just a bit above (for other reasons), but I noticed that it fitted much better at the beginning thematic-wise. While being chronologically slightly out of order in terms of the "original" time-line now (said bit with Misato & PenPen), it actually fitted very well into the (now) next scene where Asuka and Shinji arrive in good spirits at the apartment.

Random Notes:
- Lots of stuff mentioned here that's very open to interpretation. I definitely won't go and say everything should be treated as fact, especially when it comes to meaning of Kaworu's ramblings.

- Aside from above mentioned ones, I made a few more "last-minute additions". So a few more details in the cafeteria scene. I had contemplated having Kaworu "analyzing" the effects of cola. But then the soup thing worked better with what I already had.

- A stop at Nagao Toge is mentioned in Episode 4. Wished there would have been more; the layout of Hakone's traffic system gave me headaches later on.

- As far as I understand, kindergarten and pre-school are "mixed up" in the US (from my point of view), so I'm not quite sure if Aki would indeed visit the former there. I have even less idea about the situation in Japan, but Asuka is German, I can always relate on her judging by her own heritage. ;P

- Thanks to Eric Blair, Tarage and William T. Martin

So... Thus ends the Number-"present"/verb-"past" chapter rotation. I could have maintained it probably by, say, splitting "raise", but that would have been two verb-chapters with similar themes and also wouldn't have fit as nicely IMO. And I think it's not too bad to break it here as this pretty much marks the end of the "series" (seeing that I'll disregard TV-Eps 25/26 here). I don't want to go as far as posting the "movie" separately, but it might be best if you'd treat it as such. So now comes a

CUT! SLASH! BREAK OFF! SEPARATION! RIGHT HERE!

What's coming up next is "my" EoE and just like that was split in NGE's most prominent themes ("Air" being focused on the Action and "My Purest Heart for You" on the mindfuck), it will be a "Double Feature" separated by T2t's distinctive forth- and backtracking.

So stay tuned for the conclusion in "The Final end"!

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