The 2nd try

Chapter 10: repeat




"Wake up. Wake up!"

It was definitely not the nicest way of being pulled from his slumber. A sweet kiss was much more favorable than being shaken and yelled at.

"WAKE UP!"

"Asuka?" Shinji mumbled, trying to force his heavy eyelids open. "It's much too early..."

"Tell me... tell me you remember!" she pleaded with an almost hysterical tone. "Tell me that it wasn't just a dream!"

"Calm down," he groaned, trying to get the rest of sleep out of him. "Wha... what are you talking about?"

Finally his eyes started to adapt to the dim light – and if he had been more awake, he might have wondered why it came from a door that shouldn't be in that direction.

Asuka tried to say something, but she choked on her words. It was then that he finally noticed how much she was shaking; how much her hands trembled, holding his shirt in a cramped grip.

"Asuka, what's wro...?"

He didn't finish the sentence. The last remains of sleep vanished instantly as he saw it.

Her hair. Her long, flowing hair.

And it wasn't just that. Her face, what he could see of it in the dark, seemed more round and soft, her cheeks not as defined; her body as well was shorter and slimmer, the muscles on her bare arms that had been toned from strenuous work with the garden and the machines seemingly faded...

She was young.

She didn't look much older than on the day they had met so long ago.

His mind was racing, trying to comprehend such an impossibility, but none of the thousands of thoughts could give him an answer he liked. He literally jumped out of the bed, almost throwing Asuka aside, as he unbelievingly took in the surroundings. A small and tidy room. He could make out the shape of a cello case in one corner, the familiar silhouette of a S-DAT player on the desk near the bed.

This wasn't their bedroom at home, this was his old room in Misato's apartment – but without any dirt and debris, without any sign of destruction at all.

But it wasn't just everything around him. His body, too, felt different as though changes that were supposed to come slow enough to adapt to had been made instantly. He may never have had as distinctive and hard features as his father, but reaching up to his face, he also could only feel smooth skin, not even a hint of stubble.

Just what was going on?

He turned back to – was it still his longtime wife and lover? – who now sat cowering on his bed. "How can...?"

"Shinji?" she cut his anticipated question off with a mere whisper. "Where... where is Aki?"

The hand he had still cupped his cheek with slumped down as the echo of her words taunted his mind.


*********


'This has to be a dream. A very, very bad dream.'

It was the only plausible explanation Shinji could come up with. The previous years had been too long to be sheer imagination, they had felt too real.

But so did this.

"How is this possible...?" he asked himself whispering once again and still with the same result.

They were definitely in Misato's apartment, but it lacked any sign of the destruction that had been all over the place the last time they had been there. And it wasn't the only one. Before him, outside the window in the living room, beyond the balcony were the lights of the very intact city of Neo Tokyo-3.

But not even that sight was as shocking as the mirrored face of his fourteen year old self staring back at him from the glass.

There could surely be explanations of how they had gotten to the other side of the city in their sleep. That it would magically rebuild itself was harder to believe, but even for that, some kind of explanations (albeit illogical ones) could be found; maybe that they were knocked out for longer than just a night, maybe it wasn't really Tokyo-3, but some replica built at a different place in a similar looking region.

But that they had become younger was just impossible.

Prying his eyes away, he turned around. Asuka sat at the table in the kitchen, her face buried in her hands. She wasn't crying, at least not anymore, that much he could tell. But it was obvious that she too was more than distressed by all this.

'"Where is Aki?"'

Her question stood above all others. If they really had been displaced by unknown returnees, Angels, aliens or whatever, she would have to be out there somewhere. She would be alone, maybe in danger, and they had no chance to help her. But even that horrible thought was better than...

Their attention was drawn to the sudden opening of the second refrigerator, where a well known penguin waddled out, acknowledged their presence with a quick glance at them before he went over to the bathroom.

"PenPen?" Shinji breathed in disbelief. "If he's here, then..."

He felt the sickness in his stomach growing. If they really somehow had gone back in time, then that would mean...

No. NO! He just couldn't accept that. He hadn't wanted to listen when Asuka pointed that possibility out and neither did he now. There had to be another possibility.

"May-maybe another Angel came and now it's messing with our minds somehow," he eventually offered, breaking the silence.

"No," Asuka said quietly, shivering slightly. "That would feel... different..."

Shinji averted his view, guilt now also coming into the mix for reminding her of that.

There was the other possibility that something – be it Angel or maybe even NERV – had altered their minds so that their life after Third Impact and the events leading to it had seemed more real than a dream. But that was a possibility that he knew she would accept just as little as he did himself.

"So you really mean..." he trailed off. "But if we somehow traveled through time, wouldn't we rather be in our own – well, our own older bodies than in our younger ones?"

"How should I know?!" Asuka snapped. "I'm about as much of an expert at this as you are!"

"My, my, so early and already bickering?" Misato mumbled tiredly as she passed them on the way from her room to the fridge..

Misato... passed them...

"M-Misato..." Shinji whispered unbelievingly at the sight of the woman that had died years ago to save him standing there, grinning with the just-retrieved can of beer as if nothing had ever happened. For a moment the unreal situation was forgotten, his mind too wrapped up in the fact of facing her again.

Not taking his eyes off his old guardian, he stepped over to her and, hesitating, almost fearing she would vanish again if he acted on impulse, pulled his arms around the surprised Major.

"Hey, hey, good morning to you too," she muttered with amusement, breaking the moment.

Instantly, reality came crashing down on him again and he slowly backed off. "Uhm... sorry..." he muttered. "I just..."

"Everything alright?"

He blinked, looking up at her in surprise.

Misato smirked at him as she passed by to get to her chair. "Well, you'd normally blush furiously at something like that," she explained. "Feeling a little manly today?"

Shinji's shoulders sagged. He had already expected this, but now it was obvious that she didn't share their predicament and wouldn't know what was going on either. "No." He shook his head. "Not really."

A short glance at Asuka was enough to make this a temporary agreement. It probably was the best decision not to let their old guardian in on the situation as long as they had absolutely no idea what was going on themselves.

"What's up with you two anyway?" Misato asked, as if listening in to their thoughts. "No breakfast yet? Shouldn't you be getting ready for school by now?"

School? He looked over to Asuka and met her disturbed eyes, similar to his own. No, school just wasn't a possibility now. There was too much to decide before either of them would be able to just go to school – again.

"Misato... Asuka... doesn't feel very well. Would you mind if we stay at home today?"

"'We'?" Misato repeated, her eyes flickering back and forth between them.

"Well, I... uh... thought it would be better if someone would be here... in case she needs something... And since you have to go to NERV..."

Misato's initially surprised look quickly changed into a flat grin that spread behind the beer can. "So you two want to skip school?" she asked teasingly. "Stay at home all alone for the whole day? I hope you're well prepared for that. Can't use a pregnant pilot, can we?"

Her smile faltered when the usual reaction was missing. She couldn't know that what she had intended as a joke only reminded them even more of the painful situation.

"Huh? No frantic denials, swears and death threats? You really must be sick," she figured in a half-apologizing tone.

Then she suddenly froze, blanching, her view fearfully aiming at Asuka. "You... you're not pregnant for real, are you?"

Asuka clenched her hands, but she failed to hide her trembling as well as she hid her eyes behind her bangs. "No," she breathed through gritted teeth, almost choking on the single word.

Misato smiled nervously, apparently still unsure about this unusual scene. "Well... you two are under a lot more stress than other kids your age. I guess it's not too surprising if you feel a little burnt-out," she figured, regarding Asuka's downcast face. "Okay, since your grades aren't that bad currently, one day off won't hurt too much. But if someone asks, you had at least a temperature." She winked at them, before taking a look at the clock.

She groaned, running her right hand over her forehead. "Maybe I should start feeling a little feverish myself," the Major moaned in prospect of a much too soon beginning work day as she stood up to get ready. "But the Intelligence Division is probably going to rip my head off if they don't get my reports today."


*********


They had barely said another word to Misato that could have made her curious, but after she had left, the situation hardly changed at all. Shinji sat in silence, not bearing much more than a short glance at the opposite end of the table now and then. The episode with Misato hadn't been more than a short diversion from the spinning in his head and even less than from the pain in his chest.

But the silence didn't help at all; it just made it worse. It became constricting. Eventually it felt like he could barely breathe anymore. A part of him wanted to run away from it, but he knew well enough that that wouldn't help. He had to break it, to speak up, before it would become unbearable.

"So what... what are we going to do?"

At first Shinji thought she was just pondering about that herself, but when the listless form of his rejuvenated wife that was hunched over the kitchen table didn't show any sign of response at all, he began to doubt if she had actually heard his low question.

"Asuka, what...?"

"How should I know?"

He sighed. After the world had died, even after such an impossible catastrophe, she had almost immediately taken her professional stance, driving the two of them on, making plans, handling everything necessary, before she allowed herself to cope with the traumatic events of the Third Impact. She had seemed so strong again, just as she had been before her devastating encounter with the 15th Angel.

But now...

Now it seemed just as then, the aftermath of that horrible attack on her psyche, when he could only watch how life was seeping out of her. Maybe even worse. That hollow voice she cut him off with, the bitterness that rang with every word she spoke without moving an inch; that all were attributes of the Asuka he hated most. The Asuka who didn't care anymore. The Asuka who had given up.

How could she? How could she give up now, that Aki was...

"We.. we should ask Dr. Akagi. Maybe she knows how we could... get back or..." he trailed off, sighing tiredly, "or get her here..."

Asuka just sneered at his idea. "Time travel is practically impossible. And Akagi's not even an expert on that field. Some help she would be..."

"But it must be possible," he protested. "I mean – we are the best proof for that, aren't we?"

"And what do you think it would get us?" she snapped back, some of her fire finally returning. "They'd either call us crazy or test and probe us to death. So why and how should anyone help us with something that science deems impossible? Unless of course you have some handy way to beat the speed of light!"

"But... should we just sit back and give up then? I-I mean, we have to tell someone anyway! We have to do our best that it all won't happen again! We have to warn the people!"

"Do you even listen to yourself?"

"But we have to do some...!"

"WHAT'S THE POINT?!" Asuka suddenly screamed full of frustration. "Why should I care about doing this all over again?! Why should I do everything in my power to make this world better when it took everything from me?! Just so it can reset itself once again?"

He couldn't believe what he was hearing. "So... have you really given up already?" he muttered, shaking his head. "What if she came with us after all? Shouldn't we go... home? Out? Try to find her?"

"She's not..." she whispered, biting down sobs in complete contrast to her previous outburst again, shaking her head as she slumped back on her chair. "I can't... feel her. She's not here."

"Asuka..." Shinji sighed a little relieved, albeit sadly. But he knew that berating the redhead about her belief in her natural mother instincts and its limitations wouldn't help at all now.

She trembled and her voice now broke completely. "Do... do you really think I would want to accept it just like this? That I'd really want to give up on such a matter that easily?" Her tears fell unhindered onto the table now, each drop increasing Shinji's heartache even more. "But... but the more I think about it, the less I see a possible solution."

When it became unbearable to watch, Shinji quickly went to her, pulling her into an embrace. He felt guilty as he realized how egotistical his intentions had been, feeling her warmth sooth him as she leaned against his chest and wrapped her arms around him. But feeling her calm down as he ran his hand over her back, his conscience was reminded that she needed him as much as he needed her now.

"What about Misato?" he carefully tried again eventually. "We could tell her at least."

But Asuka shook her head before he even finished formulating his idea. "She already cares more for us than it's good for someone in her position," she mumbled. "If she were to know what we're going to endure in the upcoming fights, she might try to find some way to keep us out of them or at least somewhat safe, which would most likely just make them end up for the worse."


*********


They spent most of the day in silence after their dispute. They barely moved from the table as time trickled by painfully slowly. Lunch time came and went, but even though they had already missed breakfast, neither of them had any appetite. All they did was think.

And Asuka hated that. She couldn't, didn't want to think with that black hole that was eating her heart from inside out. Whenever her mind started to wander, it always ended up at the same impossible conclusion: Aki was gone. A so completely unreal disaster had struck and crumbled the very foundations of her happiness.

Every fiber of her being protested against that fact, screaming at her that it was just a horrible nightmare or the very cruel joke of some higher being. But she knew, since the moment she had woken up without Shinji at her side, since she noticed where she was, the state she was in. She just had to open her eyes to know. This was real. She couldn't explain how or why, but she knew it was real.

Aki was gone.

As a child, it had been devastating to lose her mother, the most important person to her at that time, the one she loved most of all and wanted nothing but attention in return.

Now, as a mother, she had lost her child as well, and again the one closest to her heart had been ripped out of her life, because she had failed to protect Aki from this unknown threat. But the guilt was nothing against the emptiness inside her.

Maybe that curse she once told Shinji about did exist after all. A curse aimed directly at that special bond between mother and child, severing it long before its time in the most gruesome way.


Both of them flinched in surprise, startled for a fraction of a second by the loud, by now so unfamiliar sound before the memory of the doorbell kicked in.

"Who... who could that be?" Shinji wondered, rising from his chair to get the door.

Asuka's curiosity however was nonexistent. "Does it matter?" she muttered, but more to herself as he was already out of range.

She heard the door hissing open a moment later, followed by Shinji's surprised gasp. "Oh? H-hello."

"Hey there. Katsuragi told me to check on you two when I have time."

That voice...? No, that couldn't be...

And yet, she found herself rising to her feet, moving almost on their own towards the hallway.

"K-Kaji...?" Asuka could do nothing but stare at the pony-tailed man, her wide eyes eventually flickering nervously to Shinji next to him. Rarely had she felt such uncertainty as in that moment, this situation she had never even thought of preparing for. She had completely forgotten that this all meant that he would be here as well.

She couldn't deny that there had been a pang of jealousy when Shinji had embraced Misato so affectionately, something she hadn't felt for years. When the only other female person on the planet in competition for your husband's love is your own daughter, there's not much reason for such feeling. But even though she had sometimes missed their old guardian as well and though she knew where Shinji stood with Misato and where with herself, the scene had made it painfully clear that she would have to share him again to some extent, also with people she didn't want to. It was harder than she had thought it would be not to get swallowed by all those upcoming, old emotions and remind herself of the present.

And now, there stood the man she had admired for so many years and she was faced with the other side of the coin. She still remembered how much she had yearned for his attention, to accept her as adult, how much she had wanted to find her fulfillment with this hunk of a male, to the extent of a delusional crush. She also still remembered the sadness, rage and denial at his 'disappearance' even after Shinji had told her flat-out that he was dead.

She also remembered him, however – and she couldn't suppress a tiny smile at that – to be more handsome.


*********


Kaji stayed only a few minutes before he excused himself for work again, but not before taking Shinji aside when they reached the door.

"I wasn't sure what to make of this sudden sickness," he admitted lowly with a last look back at the redhead. "But I guess this is really more than her usual cramps." His playful smirk materialized. "She didn't even try to throw herself at me at all."

"I... I know Mr. Kaji," Shinji agreed.

"And you don't seem to be quite yourself either."

"Eh?" Was he suspecting something? Had he somehow noticed already? It was his job to uncover secrets after all. Shinji knew that Asuka didn't agree that they should seek help, but if Kaji figured it out on his own...

"Yeah, you're sure that you two don't want to see a doctor?"

"Y-yeah," Shinji breathed out, trying not to show his disappointment as his hopes were crushed. "Just... just a little tired."

"Tired, huh?" Kaji grinned knowingly. "Well, I'm off. Try not being so tired again tomorrow."

With a last wave goodbye, the unshaven man was gone and the door closed behind him.

And even though his words didn't have the meaning Shinji had thought, they left him wondering.

"What was that about?" Asuka's words snapped him out of his musings as he returned to her. The positive effect Kaji's visit had had on her, however minimal, had been very short-lived.

"He just noticed that we weren't quite our old selves."

"Our old selves?" she repeated muttering, before falling silent again and staying like that for quite some time.

Shinji tried to distract himself in the kitchen. He only fixed a quick soup for a late lunch though. After all, he didn't suspect her to be any more hungry than himself. It was just when he placed the bowl in front of her that she suddenly spoke up again. "She would hate me, you know?"

"Hm?" He couldn't quite follow her thoughts.

"My old self. She would hate what I've become. Settling for being wife and..." her lips quivered as she forced the word out, "... and mother. Finding my happiness with you of all people. She – I – never wanted any of that. All that mattered was to be the best. The best pilot, the best student, the best at everything, and only the best was good enough for me in return. A family would have been only a hindrance. I had enough to do caring for myself, I couldn't waste my time and efforts on caring for others."

"So you changed your views. That's nothing to feel guilty about," he reassured her.

"But in a way, I betrayed 'her'. All she lived for and all she did not. That's why she would hate me. For accepting you. For allowing myself to fall in love with you. For loving my new life." She smiled weakly at him for a second as he laid his hand soothingly on her back. "She would even hate me for enjoying this touch. I don't know how I could ever be her again."

"You make your old self sound worse than she was." He shook his head. "People change, Asuka. Especially while they grow up. That's completely normal, even if it goes as far as throwing everything you believed in over board. We learn from mistakes, we learn from new people we meet, we learn from new experiences we gain. If we cling onto our beliefs and never question them or never dare to move on, because of fear of the unknown possibilities that step might bring, we would always be stuck with the questions of what could have been."

"So what?" she spoke in a tone that made him wondering whether she had listened at all. At least it wasn't the answer she had wanted to hear.

Shinji closed his eyes, rethinking his words. "She wouldn't hate you. If she did, she would never have become you in the first place. I doubt 'he' would hate me. Though it would probably surprise him to see how he would become one day. But more importantly: I don't hate him either. He was too afraid, too full of self-doubt and he despised himself for it. Yet I can't hate him, because I know full well why he was that way. But... Asuka..." he formulated what had been on his mind since Kaji had left. "You know, if we don't want anyone to know, to make sure that they don't even suspect anything, we'd have to act exactly like our old selves." He carefully glanced at her for any reaction. "Do you really feel up to that?"

She didn't answer, averting her eyes to the ground. They both knew what that would demand from them in this current situation. But while a depression would go relatively easy with his old lifestyle, it would be a thousand times harder for her to maintain that fiery attitude of her old self. At least as long as there was no sign of their only child...



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



The morning sun shone through the window, having awakened her already a while ago. But Asuka hadn't moved since.

She didn't want to turn around to feel for another person next to her. She didn't want to open her eyes to see if she was in the bedroom of her beautiful home. She tried not to listen to sounds outside that shouldn't be there. She didn't want to do anything at all.

As long as she did, she could keep the hope up that the previous day had just been a bad dream after all or that whatever happened simply had reverted itself; that she'd be back to that world, so alone and desolated for some, but so full to her already with just the two people most important to her being there.

But the tears that escaped her eyes were proof enough that her hopes were in vain.


*********


It was loud.

That's what Shinji noticed first when they stepped out of the apartment building, even before he became aware of the perfectly intact skyline. That there weren't any signs of destruction from the Third Impact was to be expected, but just as the sudden, overwhelming silence had been eerie once, he was taken by surprise at the impact of the sounds of thousands of engines, honking cars, construction sites – and people.

They didn't encounter that many pedestrians on their way to school, but after having seen only two humans for such a long time it seemed so unreal to pass by just a dozen. After years of isolation, it suddenly felt like they had just returned from a desolate island, as though humanity had lived on without them and not the other way around.

It was strange and yet so familiar, remembering all those little things like to stop at a red traffic light, to watch out for the cars when you cross the street, or the way to school itself.

But while these new old impressions hit him, he couldn't really focus on any of them. Every so often his eyes went to the teenage girl next to him who had been his wife and mother of his child less than two days ago. More than once he wanted to ask her if she really was up to this. But he'd be lying to say that he felt anywhere close to being ready himself. They couldn't hide forever. Sooner or later they would have to face them.

He was a little startled when he felt her hand brushing against his, intertwining her fingers with his. She didn't say anything and kept her stoic view ahead, but he understood anyway. He expressed his thanks by returning the light pressure. It wouldn't be wise to be seen like this, but they kept their silent support until they were a block away from the school.

From there on Shinji walked a little ahead as they had decided. It hadn't been unusual for Asuka not to want to be seen with him, so it would probably cause fewer questions than if they went in side by side. And the last thing they needed today were stupid questions.

As he eventually entered the classroom of 2-A, he was again feeling that tainted joy as he was confronted with so many familiar faces. Three in particular stood out of the mass.

He fought hard with himself not to rush over to them, repeating the scene when he was reunited with Misato at least with the two boys, who used to be his best – and for a long time only – friends. It was, however, the third person who hurried to meet him on his way to his old desk.

"Where were you yesterday?" Class Representative Hikari Horaki demanded to know ever so strictly.

"Uh? Didn't we get excused?" Shinji wondered, trying to recall their cover-up. "Asuka was sick and..."

A heavy pat against his shoulder shoved him forward. "Yeah right," Toji cut him off, grinning cockily. "Since when do you need to watch her when she's not feeling so well? Come on Ikari, spill it: How was she?"

Shinji had to suppress a grin of his own as he fought the urge to take him by surprise and tell in detail how good "it" really was beyond the jock's teenage fantasies. But he reminded himself that for everyone but Asuka and him, he was the same shy and naive boy they had known for the past months. His answer was equally short.

"Huh?"

"Oh, who are you trying to fool? Can't say I'm very happy with your choice, but I guess the character doesn't matter much when it comes to that and the body is alright, so... which part felt best? The breasts, right? So smooth and squishy..."

"Uh... wha...?" Shinji didn't even have to try hard to blush, though not because of the implications, but rather of his friend's embarrassing salivating as Toji continued to list and described – at least what he expected to be – the feel of the various female body parts. That dreamy look was instantly replaced with one of fear though, as an angry female made him aware of her.

"Suzuhara!" Hikari shouted warningly, pinching Toji's ear quickly in a painful grip.

"Owowow, damnit Class Rep, what is it?" he winced until the brunette reluctantly let go.

"You still have to water the flowers!"

"Again?! Ow!" Not letting any weak spot in her excuse to stop him from doing things that would make her like him less, Hikari dragged the jock away.

"He'll never learn," Kensuke chuckled at that display, but any hopes he would rather accept Shinji's story than their testosterone-driven friend's were quickly buried. "So where have you two really been?"

"But I've just said..."

"It has something to do with NERV, doesn't it? Something so secret that you weren't even allowed to admit that much."

Shinji sighed inwardly. He remembered Kensuke well enough to know that whether or not he'd admit that much, he wouldn't hear the end of it in the bespectacled boy's quest for the truth behind that secret. Thinking desperately for an excuse, he noticed Asuka standing in the doorway, apparently having watched the scene for a while.

"Eh... yeah, you know what, I still have something to discuss with Asuka..." he quickly mumbled, shuffling over to his partner. Standing with his back to the class, he allowed himself a deep breath.

"Tough start?" Asuka figured, keeping her eyes to the room.

"It was to be expected, I guess. But still..." he muttered, shaking his head slightly as he sighed. "It's strange. They're just like I remember them and yet..."

"They seem so young," Asuka finished with a nod.

"Hey, what're you two love birds mumbling about?" Toji shouted over to them as he noticed their distance.

"That you're an immature pig!" Asuka barked back at him in her attempt to revive her old spirit, but to Shinji it was noticeably hard-fought.

In that moment he noticed Asuka suddenly twitching ever so slightly and as he followed her gaze, he could understand the reason just too well.

There she was; that long-time enigma: cloned from remains of his mother; partial Angel; the one with the power to return every single human on the planet back to nothing. After seeing her for years only as that, in the tremendous form she had taken at the end, it seemed impossible to ever look at the delicate fourteen year old girl that was Rei Ayanami in the same way again.

It felt more than strange to see her walking past them as she entered, over to her desk where she hung her satchel on the hook at the desk's side before sitting down. Even the way she rested her head on her hand and let her gaze soon wander from the interior of the classroom to the outside through the window; everything seemed so... normal.

Surely, Rei had always had an aura of mystery or, depending of your point of view, weirdness about her. But there had never been any serious doubts that, while withdrawn, even somewhat apathetic and despite her unique appearance, she was a "normal" human being.

Suddenly, it seemed much harder to go through with his plans.



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



Asuka stared at the open can in front of her. She had felt thirsty when she had returned from school today; alone, since Shinji had cleaning duties. But as soon as she had sat down at the table, she felt unable to move the cold lemonade to her lips. In fact, she didn't feel able to move at all.

It had only been a few days now, but she felt so tired, so worn out. She had tried to pretend that everything was okay, but how could she succeed when it was anything but? Acting brash and arrogant had once been a natural shield to hide her pain from others, but building that up had been a slow and seeping process that had started long before her mother's death, a bit even before her loss of sanity. This however, had come as total shock, numbing her before she could have prepared in any way.

She just couldn't get her mind off it. No matter where she was, no matter what she saw, she always felt reminded of her. How should she follow classes, when all she could think of was that smile that she would probably never see again or the small warm body of her little brown-haired angel that she may never hold in her arms again.

Even a look at the clock. 4:30 pm. And all she could think of was that in two more hours, she would have to tell Aki to brush her teeth and get ready for bed, which would take at least another hour until she was asleep.

"Still not feeling well?"

Asuka snapped out of her thoughts. She hadn't realized until now how much her hands had been shaking, slightly crunching the can she had held the whole time.

Misato walked past her to the fridge, retrieving a beer for herself. Asuka hadn't even noticed her coming home. "If your still not better..." the concerned woman continued, popping the can open as she sat down at the opposite side of the table. "Are you sure you don't want to see a doctor?"

"Yes, I am!" Asuka grumbled lowly, attempting to appear merely annoyed. But she only managed to maintain that act for a second before she let herself slump forward with a tired sigh, resting her head against her palms. "I just feel..."

"Burnt out?" Misato finished for her. "Well, that happens from time to time. But knowing you, you'll probably feel better once you're in your EVA."

"My EVA?" Asuka looked up to her, almost shocked. She hadn't even thought of it.

"Did you forget? You two have a synch-test today. That is, if you're up to it. They're still a little touchy about that 'incident' despite having taken the whole complex apart piece by piece, so the test-plugs are still out of the question even if it's all rebuild by now."

"Incident?" Asuka mused, more to herself. She suddenly realized that they – or she at least – hadn't really thought about the actual time they had returned to. She had seen the dates, but they hadn't meant very much to her. And school had been too ordinary to be a distinctive reminder. The only 'incident' with the test-plugs she could remember was when they had been ejected while sitting naked in the plugs.

Which meant that this shadow Angel would come next. The one that swallowed...

"My, still so moody..." Misato commented with a pitying look, which was quickly replaced by a careful grin. "Afraid Shinji could finally beat you? He's been catching up quite fast recently."

"No, that's not..." Asuka began lowly, but then remembered her role again. She wouldn't have reacted with a simple denial once, would she? "I mean: Of course not! These... tests are just boring, that's all. We already know I'm the best anyway!"

How childish...



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



"To think that we would be wearing these again," Shinji muttered, wearily smiling as he glanced down at the gray and blue plugsuit on his body.

Asuka didn't feel like commenting on a triviality like that however. She leaned with her back against the side wall of the elevator that would bring the pilots to the gangway leading to their EVAs' entry plugs. It wasn't that she ignored him, even though it probably appeared as such – as it was intended to – she understood him very well.

It was even worse than when she had first put her old school uniform on again. This pressurized red outfit that tightly encased her skin; she used to wear it proudly as a symbol of her rank and status as pilot, but now it just reminded her of a life she had been glad to have left behind when she had finally been able to. When she had pushed the button that caused the suit to contract around her until there was no interfering air between her body and the conductive material, she had almost felt imprisoned by it.

"Asuka?"

"Sorry Shinji, I'm not in the mood for small-talk," she hissed lowly, remembering that he wouldn't stop otherwise.

"Sorry..." Shinji understood how to interpret the tone behind her polite words. "I just thought it would be helpful for a bit of encouragement."

"Who says I need encouragement?" she muttered under her breath.

"Hey, I didn't mean that just for you. I-I'm nervous as well. After all, I was never really..."

"Nervous?" Asuka snapped, backing off the wall towards him while pointing at the direction of the cages. "My mother is in there! When I learned of that I had only a few minutes and was much too busy to fully contemplate it. And now I'll suddenly be with her for hours. How am I supposed to suppress that? Even if I wanted to, I'm not sure if I could block her off again."

"But... why block her?" a baffled Shinji asked.

Asuka sighed silently in anger. That he couldn't figure that out himself... "Don't you think they'd notice when our synch-ratio has suddenly skyrocketed over our last results just over night?"

"Wouldn't that be just what we need? A proof we could use to confirm that our story is true? We could tell them then."

"I thought we had this discussion already. They'd rather search for more realistic explanations than time..." A movement of white and blue in the corner of her eye quickly shut her off.

But if Rei had heard too much as she entered the elevator, she didn't let it show. Of course, it would have been a surprise if she would have done anything else but to stride to her usual place at the elevator's door and wait to be transported upwards.


*********


"Well, guys, been a while since you got a chance to be in there, huh?" Misato's voice chimed through the comm.

Asuka winced at the irony in those words. It had been a very long while indeed, though the Major just referred to two or three weeks since their last deployment against an Angel – or was it that cross-compatibility test? Wasn't that about sometime now? Today even? Or was it yet to come? There had been so many tests that she couldn't really remember.

"Don't get too used to it," Dr. Akagi ripped her out of her thoughts. "I've set up another test in the new Pribnow Box for the next week and I'm positive to get an OK."

"Just get it over with," Asuka muttered under her breath, before realizing that she actually could have said that out loud. But she didn't get a chance to repeat the words louder and more aggressively.

She gasped involuntary as the connection was suddenly established. It used to be entirely natural to her, but after all this time it came like a shock. She could feel it again, her hands going around the butterfly controls on their own; she remembered exactly what she had to do, what to think, how she had to think to make this behemoth move under her control. But most importantly, she could feel her, the warm presence surrounding Asuka, bathing her in an
aura of pure bliss.

"No!" she violently shook her head in an attempt to escape the embrace a part of her longed for so much. "No, I can't. I'm sorry... Mama..."

Clenching her eyes shut that started to burn with tears, she forced herself to ignore the intense feeling that made her feel so sickeningly comfortable.


*********


"Did you...?"

He didn't have to finish his question, she already knew.

They were alone on their way from NERV, but they had remained silent and hadn't spoken about what had transpired during the test until they were close to the last stop of the train they were using, sitting side by side with a little space between them.

Asuka nodded.

"I felt her too," Shinji muttered, before falling silent himself.

Again, there was only the rattling of the train as it made its way over the rails, minutes passing without a single word spoken.

"At... at least we know for sure now, that we really – somehow – went back in time."

"You think something powerful enough to create such a world in every little detail wouldn't be able to emulate our mothers' souls?" she found herself replying.

"To be honest: No."

Asuka swallowed the sob that was forming in her throat. She knew. She knew he was right. But that didn't make it easier. She had already been sure, but there had still been a bit of hope. But not anymore.

An enemy they might have been able to fight somehow. But time was an enemy she had no weapon for.

An enemy...?

"We did the tests in our EVAs because of an incident in the Pribnow Box," she recalled. "That means the next Angel would be that shadow one."

"Yeah, I know. In little more than a week. Maybe two. I checked the date the day we came back."

His confession surprised her a bit. "You remember that well in what time-frame this all happened?"

"Of course," he replied, almost as if shocked that she didn't. "It attacked shortly after the eleventh anniversary."

"The eleventh anniversary...?" Asuka repeated as searched her memory. Her eyes widened as she figured it. "You mean of...?"

Shinji nodded. "Of my mother's death." He said simply, before smirking weakly. "Or rather her absorption."



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



It had been almost a week by now, but neither of them had really adapted yet. They had gone to school and NERV as it was required of them and apparently it had been enough even for their closer friends not to notice anything too unusual.

'Perhaps one of the advantages of not being very outgoing in the first place,' Shinji thought, grinning wearily to himself. He and a few others were busy sweeping the floor of their classroom, just as the rest of his fellow pupils were more or less busy cleaning up everything else, when he noticed Rei kneeling at the other side of the room, wringing a wet cloth into a bucket of water. Seeing her like that, he remembered what he had once felt reminded of at that moment, without knowing how close to the truth he had actually been then.

'Just like...' He sighed. '...mother...'

His eyes snapped open as another memory alarmed him of danger... too late...

*WACK*

The broom forcefully connected with his head and a stinging pain spread from the point of impact. In situations like this he was glad that Toji was his friend and not his enemy.

***

"YOU! Get back to work!" Hikari yelled into the class from the doorway, but Asuka barely registered it.

"Really, these boys sometimes..."

It wasn't that she ignored the class-rep.

"Boys? That reminds me..."

She barely registered a lot of things lately.

"Asuka?"

She only functioned.

"Ehm... Asuka?"

She still didn't pay much attention to the timid call of her friend, her eyes fixed on the floor of the hall as she swept it. It was hard enough to fight the visions of a little brown-haired girl dancing around her and demanding attention. If she were to give in to those...

"Asuka, you're all right?"

She finally realized that she should answer. "Hm? Yeah..."

A sigh of relief came from her friend. "Good, um... Can I... well... ask you a favor?"

The broom came to a sudden stop. Asuka blinked at that by now familiar feeling of deja vu, trying to remember what Hikari had wanted from her in a similar situation. The memory returned rather quickly.

Asuka looked at Hikari, and the brunette took that as a sign to continue. "You see, there's this friend of Kodama and, well, he... he..."

"Wants a date with me," Asuka finished for her, scowling slightly.

"Well, yes..."

Her hands clenched around the broomstick. "I'm sorry, I... can't."

"Eh? But you don't even know when he wants to date you," Hikari wondered perplexed. Her face suddenly lit up as she apparently came up with a reason for her friend's instant decline. "Is there somebody else?"

Taken by surprise, Asuka almost honestly smiled for the first time since her loss. But it was quickly drowned in the sickening guilt at the upcoming denial of the last years she had spent happily with Shinji and then also with... "No, I guess not," she quickly shot out. "Uh, but... but of course there's Kaji..."

"Oh please," Hikari pleaded, bowing slightly. "It's just one time. I'm sure Mr. Kaji won't mind if you go out with someone else just once."

'Even she knew how ridiculous that was,' Asuka realized at the hard to miss sarcasm in her brunette friend's comment. 'Or she thought I wasn't really serious about it myself.'

"I guess you won't give up anyway..." she figured.

"I promised to do my best, sorry," Hikari explained, visibly embarrassed, her apology truthful. "If I had known before that it was you he wanted me to ask out, I wouldn't have agreed."

"You Japanese and your honor..." Asuka muttered.

"So you will...?" the Class Rep asked hopefully.

"Let him know to wait for me tomorrow at five at the fair," Asuka recalled the date. "But I'm not promising anything."

Her friend didn't seem to mind that as she was too happy to have succeeded with her difficult assignment. "Oh thank you very much! Don't worry! I'm sure he's a nice guy, so you won't have to do anything you don't want to."

Asuka grunted silently, already knowing fully well what she didn't want to do.



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



It was an awkward silence in the elevator, at least in Shinji's opinion. Of course, he had always been reserved to say the least, but he was sure that – if he wanted to – he could talk much more openly to others now.

Others, yes. With her on the other hand, it was like nothing had changed at all.

He had avoided Rei maybe more than intended in these last few days. But now, with the latest synch tests just over and on the way home, he found himself separated from Asuka and everyone else, "trapped" alone with Rei for the duration of the ride, with no escape.

It was pathetic and he knew it. All these years he had hoped for a chance like that, to talk to her once more, to get answers to questions that he hadn't even thought of until it had been too late. And now here he was, merely watching her back as she stood there as always right in front of the elevator's doors, unable to open his mouth like it was sealed.

What did he fear? That she would suddenly spin around to liquefy him? That was absolute nonsense. Maybe that she'd tell his father if he'd say too much? No, he was sure he could articulate carefully enough not to make her suspicious. And even if she would notice something, it wouldn't instantly mean that all was lost.

It was probably just that she had lost her innocence in his eyes. He thought he had come to terms with that, already soon after it had happened actually. But he never had to face her afterwards – not until now. Was he such a hypocrite? He knew he still needed to talk to her, to be there for her, to help her. And he still wanted to. The problem was just...

He didn't know how.

"Are you afraid of me?"

Shinji felt himself jumping slightly in surprise. That she would start the conversation startled him so much that he forgot to answer until she continued. "You seem... anxious... in my presence."

"W-what?" he stuttered, still gathering his thoughts. How did she know? Did she have such powers even now in this form after all? Could it be that she knew, that... that it had been her all along? Then she could tell him what was going on.

She could tell him where Aki was.

"I noticed that you were watching me. But you have not greeted me for the past week," she explained however, giving, of course, a much simpler reason. "And you appear to be nervous when you are with me."

Shinji just stared agape at her. He hadn't known she had kept such a close eye on him.

Turning her head slightly, she glanced at him. "You have not been like that since the day you brought me the new ID card."

He had come a long way from being a hormone-fueled teenager, but he still had to fight a blush at the memory that Rei's casual spoken words brought back.

"Sorry," he eventually answered. "I... I have a lot on my mind lately."

"I see."

There was neither sadness nor bemusement in her voice. Shinji wouldn't have been surprised if she was curious as to what had been occupying his thoughts, but he also knew she would never pressure him to talk.

That brought a weak smile to Shinji's lips. She might have been the most powerful being on this world, but he had almost forgotten that she still was Rei. He should never have forgotten that.

"But I'll try to make it better," he assured. "If that's what you want."

For a second Shinji thought he saw a faint blush on her pale cheek as she averted her face again before she nodded.

A chime signaled that the elevator had reached its destination and Rei did not hesitate a second to exit as soon as the doors opened. Shinji followed her out, but they would be going different ways now anyway.

"And Ayanami," he called after her just before she was out of sight. "Thank you."

"What for?" her low voice echoed back to him.

But for once Shinji decided that he'd be the one leaving without explaining the cryptic message.



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



The sea of LCL hadn't really been a graveyard, but it had been the place that housed those of his loved ones that were gone. It had been the place they had gone to when they wanted to speak with them or just to remember. But somehow, despite the knowledge of the billions of lost souls in the sea, he had never felt so bad there as here, in the seemingly endless rows of cold, black markers.

Shinji wasn't even sure why he had come today. The date had long lost it's terror to him. Another one had taken that place now. And to visit his mother, she would more likely take notice in the EVA cages than from an empty grave. He almost felt silly that he still brought a flower bouquet anyway.

No, it was rather because of him. The first time he would see him again. When they had last spoken here, it had also been the last of very few opportunities where he had been able to talk openly with his father. It probably was a foolish hope, but maybe, just maybe he would be able to reach him.

Asuka would most likely go ballistic at the idea alone, even though Shinji didn't plan to go into details. She had already been not very happy when he had told her that he was planning to go through with this meeting, if only not to make room for more suspicions than necessary by avoiding such an important date that many of the people around him knew about. Not that she was happy with anything these days.

But while it was risky that he could say too much, both knew that this was an exception, a one-time thing that wouldn't be repeated anytime soon.

He just had to try at least. It was only a blurred memory of a vague dream that he wasn't even sure whether or not it had actually happened. But he faintly remembered feeling his father during the Third Impact, when the AT-Fields were gone and neither of them could hide or block anything. He had seen that broken man that was his father behind his cold shields. And that man had asked for Shinji's forgiveness.

While Shinji didn't honestly expect anything like that to happen now; even if he couldn't erode the walls around his father, maybe he could at least scratch them.

There he was. Shinji didn't blink as the dark silhouette in the distance slowly grew into a tall man, clad entirely in black. The ever-present sunglasses reflected the light, hiding the eyes. It made Shinji wonder if he never got them replaced with new regular ones just because of that reason; that he noticed that it made it even harder for people to see the pain and weakness inside him.

"You're late, father," he greeted with more confidence than the other should be used to. But the Commander didn't show any surprise that his meek son didn't falter this time as he stared down at him. As usual, he didn't show anything at all, unless one counted the short stop to recognize the boy in front of him before walking on, towards his wife's grave. Shinji followed him silently to the marker.

He knew there was no body, but reading his mother's name on the black stone made him shiver involuntary. He clenched his eyes shut, suppressing a sob, when for a second he imagined a smaller one next to it.

Taking a deep breath, he knelt down and placed the flowers on the seamless earth of the empty grave.

"It has been three years since the last time we came here together," the voice of his father broke the silence.

Shinji remembered. "I ran away then," he quoted himself automatically, but then he sighed. "And you did nothing to get me back."

"I was notified of your position and you safely returned to your teacher," Gendo replied with the sickening lack of emotion that Shinji had almost forgotten. Maybe he had been wrong with his assumption after all. "It was your own choice not to visit your mother's grave and there was no reason for me to force you."

"What about yourself?" Shinji waited a bit for an answer, but none came. Realizing that his father probably didn't understand and simply didn't bother with a question that made no sense to him, Shinji tried again. "Did you come here the years I did not?"

"Does that matter?"

'"Man survives by forgetting his memories, but there are some things a man should never forget."'

"No," Shinji muttered half-heartily, barely listening to himself.

'"Yui thaught me about the irreplaceable things."'

"I guess not..."

'"I come here to confirm that."'

It was naive to think that...

"You know," he began, the bitterness in his voice rising as he got back on his feet. "I thought I might be able to understand you better by now. But actually I understand you even less than before. How..." He turned around. "How can anyone really want to send his own child away?"

"I have no reason to explain myself if you are already aware that you cannot understand."

"No, maybe not. You'd just blame everything on the pain of losing her anyway. Do you really think you're the only one who ever felt like that? You're not the only one who lost a loved one!" He paused as he realized the two implications the last sentence carried, but his father didn't even show any sign that he registered the most obvious. "But unlike most, you didn't hold dear what was left of her. Instead of using it to remember the love she gave, you just saw it as reminder of her loss. So you just threw it all away, because the very existence hurt you."

"What is your point?"

Shinji's eyes hardened, but he couldn't bear to bring them up to those of his father. The fear of what he might find there as answer was still too big, even after all these years.

"Does... my... very existence hurt you?" he finally asked, his voice as cold as the one of his opponent.

There was a brief pause before the Commander replied, but Shinji couldn't tell if he was actually thinking about it or just needed the time to adjust his glasses. "Do not ask questions you don't really want to hear the answer to."

A loud roaring sound of a landing VTOL, so out of place, so pretentious, so disrespectfully disturbing the peaceful rest of the dead, announced the end of the short meeting.

"It's time," Gendo merely stated. But just as Shinji thought he would turn around to his transport, the man faced him once more. "It was probably for the best that you released your anger now instead of keeping it pent up inside you. It does not matter to me if you detest me here and now. But it better not influence your ability to pilot back at NERV."

"Don't worry," Shinji muttered solemnly, watching his father leaving before waiting for his answer. "It won't happen again. Seems like it's true: The AT-Field is impenetrable. From outside and within..."



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



"I'm home!" he announced as he entered, even though it was doubtful that anyone was there to hear.

"Could you please not do that?" a timid answer came from the living room nonetheless. "I know it's tradition and all, but... at least for a while, please."

Following the voice, he found his love sitting on the floor while staring lifelessly in the direction of the TV, obviously not even trying to pay attention to the program.

"Asuka? I thought Hikari convinced you to go to that date again?"

"I told her I wouldn't promise anything."

"Well, not going at all seems even harsher than leaving while he's standing in a line for you," Shinji muttered as he walked over to her. A weak chuckle escaped him. "Though I surely don't mind this," he added, leaning down to kiss the top of her head.

There had been no jealousy, as he hadn't felt any threat coming from that student, remembering her reaction to him very well. In fact, he had somewhat hoped she might have a little fun to distract her, even if it wasn't with him. But after the disappointing reunion with his father, he was more than happy to have her near now.

Asuka however was not in the mood to exchange affections. "Did you honestly think I would even be able to go on a date now with a guy that I already couldn't stand the first time I went out with him while my... my daughter is missing?"

Shinji closed his eyes, trying to push the upcoming feeling away. But as so often before, he failed miserably.

"Aren't you afraid that Hikari might take it badly?" he tried to change the topic back again before it really started.

"She might be disappointed, but she's much too nice to hold it against me. I'll just say I still didn't feel that well and she'll accept it," Asuka muttered in a tone that already told him that his diversion had failed. "It's not like it's much of a lie..."

Looking down at her downcast form, Shinji clenched his fists. As much as he wanted to hold it back, he could no longer conceal his anger. He was angry at her for letting herself go like this. And he was angry at himself for having just watched her wallowing in self-pity for so long.

"Do you really want this?" he hissed. "Just go out and pretend that everything's fine to everyone at school and NERV and sulk when we're on our own, until Third Impact comes yet again? That's even worse than what you did before!"

He knew he hit a nerve as he saw her flinching. "Don't say that."

"Why shouldn't I? Do you think this doesn't affect me at all? It hurts me too! But we can't change anything if we just play along in the vain hope that we might see her again that way."

The sob that escaped her throat broke his heart and his anger. And with a sigh, his determination escaped him again to be replaced by guilt. Who was he trying to fool that he could get her out of this state by force? By hurting her even more...

He knelt down to her, pulling her into a hug. "I'm sorry. But... Asuka, please don't do this to me. It hurts so much already. To see you giving yourself up like this... I don't want to lose you too.

"I know it's hard, but... we really have a chance to change everything now. I can't just let that slip away. Even if it's not for her... Even if it doesn't bring her back... I know I have to try at least. Because otherwise, should I ever see her again, whether in this world or the next, I don't know how I should face her if I wouldn't do my best.

"But I don't think I can do that alone," he whispered in her ear. "I need you, Asuka. If we have to relive this then, please, lets try to make it for the better."

She didn't answer, but at least she seemed to calm down. He gave her the time she needed, keeping the soothing embrace for several minutes.

"Do you remember?" he finally heard her mutter. "When I came home from the date?"

"I was playing the cello," he concurred. Carefully smiling, he anticipated her request. "Do you want me to play it now?"

She just nodded weakly in reply.

"Okay..." He kissed her hair, tightening the embrace shortly before he let go and stood up. "I'll be right back."

It took Shinji only a few minutes to retrieve the cello from its case and set it up in front of him as he sat on a chair he had moved from the kitchen to the living room.

"Any special wishes?" he asked, testing the instrument with a few light strokes of the bow while Asuka knelt on the floor next to his chair, her gaze anywhere but on him.

"A happy song."

A loud screech sounded as he scratched the bow over the strings in shock.

"Play the happy song," she pleaded again, her voice nothing but a low wail.

He brought the bow back up to the cello, but he couldn't move it to evoke the sounds. Of course it wasn't because he couldn't remember it – it was because he remembered it so well. He had played it so often, the necessary movement becoming so natural that his fingers could have repeated it without him even having to think about it.

He had played it so often... for Aki...

Letting it drift her into sleep, the melody lowly keeping on when watched her entering the realm of dreams with that beautiful smile of hers, cuddling close to the little doll in her arms.
Accompanying her as she hummed the song while lying, as so often, with her belly on the floor, idly drawing on a picture.
Trying to cheer her up when she was sick.

Shaking, the bow hovered in midair for several seconds, before he let it fall back to his side. "I..."

Asuka's quivering hands suddenly dug into his trousers, forcefully enough to almost make him lose balance. "Please... Please play her – her happy song! I need to hear it again!"

"I'm sorry. I- I don't think I can. It is supposed to be a happy song after all. But now it wouldn't bring anyone happiness – because it was hers."

"It would ease my sadness!" Asuka yelled, glaring up at him with teary eyes. "I have nothing else from her! I don't have photos of her, I don't have one of her drawings, I don't have Kiko, I- I don't have..." Her outburst was stopped by a sob blocking her throat. "Please. That song... that song is all there's left from her."

"I'm sorry," he managed to repeat, unable to close his eyes from this heart-breaking scene as much as his instincts told him to. He really was. Involuntary, he had to think back to the graveyard, where nothing but the black marker remained of his mother. He had already known what it's like to have no remainders, but as horrible as it had seemed to have almost no memories left, he wasn't sure if it hadn't been better that way than to have so many to haunt them. "May-maybe if I... when we are both ready for it. Maybe then. But not now..."

He hated himself for saying that. Even if it was the truth. But he knew how much it hurt her, this involuntary betrayal, as she broke down, burying her face against his leg.

He wasn't sure what song it was he started to play as he felt the wetness of tears running down his cheeks as well as soaking through his trousers. But it wasn't a happy one.


*********


Neither had cared about the time, but he must have played for a few hours until the phone started to ring. Asuka had instantly protested, wanting him to ignore it since they already knew that it was Misato telling them she wouldn't be home anytime soon, having gone drinking with Kaji after the wedding the two had attended that day. But he had already stopped playing then, breaking the moment. And he hadn't wanted to worry Misato. When he had returned after the short talk, Asuka had retreated to the table, her back facing him. An obvious sign that she wanted him to leave her alone for now, maybe even feeling betrayed by him. He had tried to persuade her that it wasn't the case, offering to play for her again, but she didn't even answer. He had quickly given up.

So now they were sitting opposite to each other, neither saying a word. Again.

Looking over at Asuka's sullen face, Shinji berated himself for what must have been the thousandth time in these last few days. He knew it couldn't go on like this. No matter how much it was hurting them, they couldn't dwell in grief forever if they wanted to be successful.

The problem was that Asuka didn't even seem to want to be successful. He had foolishly hoped for her to somehow regain her fiery spirit, that she would be the one to drive them onwards again. Of course that was egoistical beyond belief. Pretending to everyone but themselves that everything was as just as it had always been was much harder for her than for him. And they couldn't keep blaming her unusual withdrawn state on being burnt-out or some mysterious yet harmless sickness much longer.

Had he not learned long ago that he had to take the initiative when she wouldn't? Sometimes even against her wish if that wish was doing nothing but hurting her?

He needed her. But first she needed him. Only then, together, did they have a chance to heal.

"Hey, Asuka. Let's kiss."

His soft call was at least already enough to snap her out of her thoughts. "What?"

"Kissing, you know? You have already kissed, right?" Shinji continued the act, smiling faintly at her baffled look. "Then let's do it."

"Shinji, I'm really not in the mood..." Asuka muttered as it finally settled in what he had in mind as he raised from his chair and slowly rounded the table.

"But we have nothing better to do," he argued, having no intention to stop, cocking his head and smirking as wide as he could. "You're not scared of kissing on the anniversary of your mother in law's death, are you?"

"This is nonsense..." she mumbled with mild anger, getting up to sulk somewhere else, but he quickly blocked her way.

"Then here I come..." he whispered, gently holding her arms as he leaned in.

"Shinji..." she breathed, her resistance fading more and more the closer he got.

"I don't care if you haven't brushed your teeth," he hushed as he watched her eyelids fluttering shut in expectation of what was inevitably about to come, "Just..."

She was startled, stiff against his lips as his hand suddenly came to her nose, pinching it softly to block both of her airways. But just when he feared that his attempt to cheer her up had failed, he felt her hand on his. Shinji didn't resist as she removed it from her nose with that light grip and guided it to her waist. Slowly at first, she pulled her arms around his neck, returning the kiss. Then, like a breaking dam, they pulled, crashed their bodies together; the kiss in its way intensifying to new heights, more passionate than in years, maybe more than ever before.

He could feel the need, the desperation for love and comfort that flowed through both of them through the kiss. After all they had lost, they still had each other, only each other, and if this was the only way to show it, they would make it as perfect and as lasting as possible whenever they would have the chance.

"That..." She managed a weak smile as they eventually broke away for breath. "That is what you're supposed to do when someone's holding your nose while kissing you."

"I'll try to remember it," he chuckled. "So, do you feel a little better now?"

To his dismay, he saw her smile suddenly cracking at that and he already feared that the previous moment had been nothing but a short flicker of normality as she turned away from him.

"Asuka...?" he called after her concerned as she went straightforward to the front door, squatting down to put her shoes on.

"Sorry Shinji, but..." She rose up again and turned halfway around to him. "I know you're not trying to push me. But that's... I-I have to do some thinking. For myself, okay?"

She had already left before he could answer.


*********


The setting sun bathed the playground in a soft orange light, but Asuka didn't take notice of the time or that she must have been there for at least an hour. She hadn't bothered enough to regard the few other people and no one seemed to be bothered by her either. At least no one had spoken to her as she sat in one of the swings, rocking back and forth ever so slowly as her eyes focused on nothing but her memories.

This swing had been the only one of the three that had been intact, but it was stable enough to catapult Aki laughing into unreachable heights. The playground itself had been the only one nearby that was usable, even though that only referred to the swing, the seesaw and the, albeit deformed and thus a little bumpy slide. The sandbox had been filled with too much debris to play inside and the structure of the climbing frame had collapsed at the first testing tug.

Coming there had always been a little straining on her nerves, constantly having to watch out for dangers without letting the child know. But it hadn't mattered as long as Aki was happy.

Shinji once had brought up the idea to put up some playground toys like a swing and a sandbox in a part of the garden, maybe as present for Aki's upcoming birthday, so she could play and they wouldn't have to worry about her safety any longer. But she had wanted to think about it first, as these trips were a way for the confined girl to get out of her comfortable prison of the house once in a while.

Now it was too late.

Asuka couldn't even tell anymore if there were still tears running down her cheeks or if her eyes were as empty as she felt. It was so hard now already. How could Shinji expect her not just to play, but to be her fiery fourteen year old self again, fighting with all her heart for a better world? Of course she could understand his wish to help, that he wanted to save them. He missed Aki just as much as she did, but it always seemed so easy for him to swallow his own pain in favor of others. He often said he was just selfish, wanting everyone to like him, and that's what she had thought for a long while herself. But compared with others, including herself, he was, even with that motive in mind, the most caring and compassionate person
she knew.

She couldn't keep up to him in that regard. He seemed so eager to help, to undo everything that went wrong, and she barely managed to maintain this act through these last days. She knew she had to keep a certain status quo, as the consequences weren't very desirable.

But what reason did she have left to help them? What did she have left to bother fighting for? Because Shinji had asked her to, yes. And she would do it for him, and not just because she didn't want to disappoint him. She wouldn't be able to bear it if he'd get hurt or even killed while trying to push back what they knew was coming all alone. But what about herself?


A ball suddenly bounced into her view, rolling right up to her feet. Slowly getting off the swing, she reached down to pick the unexpected object up. For a second she had almost forgotten where or when she was, her senses telling her that it would have to have come out of nowhere as there was no one left in the world who could have thrown it. It wasn't until a timid voice reminded her that this was not the case, not anymore.

"Auntie!" It took her a moment to realize that the voice belonged to a little girl next to her, stretching her small arms out. "Canay 'ave my ba' back, pwease?"

Asuka did as asked, but her eyes and mind kept focused rather on the girl's face than on the task. It would have been a blatant lie to say she looked just like Aki. Not only was the girl a good year younger, her eyes were brown and her hair pitch-black. And Aki always hated to have it done into pigtails (or any other way). And yet...

"You awight, Auntie?" the girl asked curiously, apparently unlike Asuka herself noticing her staring.

"No. I mean..."she stammered, shaking her head, "Yes.."

"Kimiko!" a middle-aged woman called a few meters away. "We have to go now!"

"Aweady?"

"Yes, honey, it's getting late!"

Kimiko pouted slightly as she turned back to Asuka. "'Ave to go, bye Auntie."

"Bye..." the redhead replied, but the girl had already hurried to her mother.

And she wasn't the only one. As Asuka looked around she saw several parents calling their children to go. Others who shared the latest gossip while their kids played tag around their legs. Some who played along with their own.

A mother who was feeding her newborn, ever so often glancing at a girl that was "baking" sand cakes. A father who was tending his son's scrapped knee. Children laughing, unaware of the dangers that could fell upon them any day.

Her stomach turned with guilt. How could she have been so blind? There were so many families. So many innocent children, just like Aki, that would be alone and helpless if their parents were ripped out of their lives. So many mothers and fathers, just like her, that would miss their children if something happened to them.

She wouldn't wish such a feeling on her worst enemy. But with so many Angels yet to come, with such a big danger of an Impact that – in its way – could be even worse than the one she witnessed, it was much too likely that too many would suffer like her.

Wasn't she the Second Children? The best EVA pilot of all? These parents couldn't protect themselves or their children from the foes and the fate that awaited them.

But she could. For them, she had to.

They relied on her, needed her. And who was she to let them down? After all, she was Asuka Langley Ikari... or Soryu – that didn't really matter.

Determined, her hands curled into fists, she turned towards the direction she had come.
"Okay, Shinji. Let's save this world."






A/N: TIME JUMP!!1... Oh wait, already over... :P
Sorry if you expected another post-TI chapter. I know that many readers liked them better, but I'm afraid "raise" was the last of them.
Granted, this chapter might read a bit too much like the "number"-ones. Originally, I had planned to have the "verb" chapters from Asuka/Shinji's point of view, and the others almost entirely from someone else's, unless the two were alone. I scrapped that pretty early on already, but it would have admittedly make this chapter more separate from the pre-Impact ones.

Don't have too much else to say about this chapter. It is pretty much just the two of them having to cope with their return after all. I guess I could have made it a bit longer, have them making plans and such, but I preferred it to end where it ended.

Random notes:
- Not quite sure about the relation of the test plugs and the Pribnow Box as we never see those simulation bodies again after that incident. Maybe the ones we see later actually ARE a replacement for it, but whether or not it's also called Pribnow Box – no idea. But even if they're not related, we can at least pretend that they're in the same area, can we...? >_>

- I had messed up with the timing in the (original) first chapter, saying the tests in the EVAs had been "five days ago". It was a mistake based on me falsely remembering they had used them for the tests in Episode 15. Since that would have been a much too time-span, I changed that by now (as long as a couple of other things in (so far) chapters 1-5, if you've missed it).

- I was thinking of having Asuka go more into the theoretical bits of time travel (you know, the faster you travel the slower the time will pass for you thus make you jump a bit ahead in relation to others; however jumping more than a few micro seconds ahead or even backwards being pretty much impossible, at least by todays standards due to lack of necessary speed or wormholes, etc.) and one of my pre-readers also pointed that out. But it didn't really fit in.

- Thanks to my pre-readers Tarage, William T. Martin, Eric Blair and LD.

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