Disclaimer - Still don't own Eva, but neither does Gainax anymore. All hail our Khara overlords.
The 2nd try
Shinji Ikari, Third Child and designated pilot of Evangelion Unit-01, had just set a new record for synchronization ratios.
For Rei Ayanami, this success of her fellow pilot meant rather little. The number was effectively not much higher than in the previous test and was merely an indicator of potential to begin with. While a higher ratio may assist in the ease of piloting the giant humanoids, if it became too high, it could even prove detrimental in a combat situation. As such, Rei felt at ease with her low but steady results. As long as it was enough to fulfill her purpose, it was acceptable.
The former holder of this record, however, certainly did not seem very pleased with this shift in the ranking. Rei didn't pay much attention to the rants of the Second Child, one Asuka Langley Soryu. It wasn't that she couldn't notice the ironic undertones of the Second's statements about the 'great, invincible Shinji' while the half-dressed redhead was swaying in front of her locker, hands clasped in a mocking swoon.
But she saw no reason to engage with her co-pilot, as Rei neither shared her sentiments, nor did she expect any worse than these kinds of tirades to come towards Ikari that she would feel the need to defend him.
So she simply finished changing from the tight-fitting plugsuit she had worn during the test back into her regular school uniform, closed the locker, grabbed her satchel and turned to exit the changing room. At the door, as per custom, she bade her still ranting co-pilot farewell with a whispered "Goodbye". The door closed behind her, leaving the angry redhead behind.
With the First Child gone, Asuka could finally release all the feelings that tensed up the last hours into a powerful...
Her forehead came to rest against the locker, feeling like all energy evaporating from her in an instant.
She still had problems playing this charade in front of everyone, and it seemed to only grow harder. She wasn't sure if she would be able to keep it up much longer at all. Not while these thoughts disturbed her mind; thoughts of all the things that happened... or would happen soon. Thoughts of...
Her arms feebly went around her as if trying to hold herself together.
Lost in her worries, she failed to notice someone entering the room, sneaking up to her and suddenly embracing her from behind, encircling her arms with his own.
She tensed up noticeably as she felt the touch, even though – or maybe just because – she knew exactly who the stranger was.
"Hey," the intruder whispered gently. "You alright? I figured after all that you'd be kinda..."
"Shinji, what the heck are you doing here?" she hissed nervously, not turning around.
"Wha- what do you mean?" the surprised Third Child uttered dumbfounded, "I just wanted to see if you're..."
"What if someone sees us like this?"
"Rei has already left and I don't think she saw me," he assured, now more confident. "Besides, who would dare to enter the domain of the great Asuka Langley I..." He stopped, as they both tensed at his mistake. "...Soryu while she's changing."
"Baka, this is NERV we're talking about," she scolded. "You know they have security cams everywhere."
He raised an eyebrow at her theory. "In the girls' locker room?"
"I wouldn't be surprised," Asuka huffed playfully in his embrace, finally seeming to relax a bit. "I bet these old perverts are ogling the screens every time we're getting dressed."
"I think you're getting paranoid," he chuckled a bit before leaning forward again. "I mean, sure, they can be a little obtrusive, but..."
"But nothing. And if you're not able to keep our cover, I guess you give me no choice but to step up and respond to this situation like I would have back then..." she declared calmly.
Shinji gulped as his eyes widened in fear. "You... you don't mean..."
Now Asuka turned her face around, showing a mischievous grin.
"You PERVERT!!" she suddenly screamed in rage.
The surprise of her sudden outburst sent him backwards, making him trip over the bench and fall over it, onto his behind. However, Asuka didn't stop her assault.
"HOW DARE YOU??!"
She grabbed him by the collar of his shirt and pulled him up.
"SNEAKING INTO THE GIRLS LOCKER ROOM!!"
She twirled him around, pushing him against a locker.
"TRYING TO JUMP ME WHILE I'M CHANGING, HUH??!!"
She raised her fist to strike. Shinji flinched, shut his eyes and prepared for the blow...
...that didn't come.
After a few seconds, he dared to pry one eye open to find her wryly grinning again.
"At least wait till we get home," she whispered, planted a small kiss on his cheek and left, as if nothing had happened.
Shinji slumped down the locker and sighed, albeit with a weak smile.
"All those years and she still manages to scare me like that..."
Misato Katsuragi let out a loud yawn. Probably unbefitting her position as Major and Director of Operations, she sat backwards on a rotating chair, leaning onto the backrest and swiveled impatiently from side to side. But fortunately, with the latest harmonics tests having been done for a while, any staff that could have questioned her authority had already vacated the place, leaving only her and her old college friend behind to work on the results. Not that she really did much, obviously.
Unlike Misato herself, Ritsuko Akagi did show that she earned her doctorate and rank as Head of Project-E, or at least it looked like it to the Major, the faux blonde furiously typing, scrolling through the monitor outputs and cross-checking printouts.
"So, anything new yet?" Misato asked again, already bored for some time by the slow process. She reached for a cup of coffee on the nearby desk and took a sip, her face instantly contorting into a grimace as the long-tepid liquid came in contact with her tongue. A beer would have been much preferable now, but having witnessed Asuka's reaction to the day's results, she was somewhat reluctant to go home just yet. She could only hope Shinji would survive long enough being alone with their hot-tempered roommate.
"Aside from Shinji surpassing Asuka's average numbers? No," Ritsuko answered plainly while looking through some printouts again. "Nothing that would explain that boost a little while ago."
"I don't understand why you're still making such a fuss about that anyway," Misato groaned rather childishly. The sudden spike that had been observed in a recent test had naturally stirred some interest, but when it quickly proved not to be reproducible, she had quickly dismissed it as a fluke herself. "I mean, something similar had happened while they were fighting the underwater Angel."
Ritsuko gave the Major a glare, making Misato wonder if she had said something more stupid than she realized.
"That was something entirely different," Ritsuko explained. "The fight had put them in a stress situation, and as far as we can tell, they synchronized with EVA-02 AND each other for a few seconds to cause that temporary boost of their synch ratio. That other time, however, they had been separated in their respective EVAs and were under the usual test-conditions."
Misato still couldn't see the point. "So?"
Ritsuko sighed. "So, it shouldn't have happened! And even if they somehow would have managed to raise their ratios so suddenly by that much, the immediate drop afterwards still wouldn't make sense. It's as though the synchronization had been suppressed at once."
Misato blinked in surprise. "Suppressed? By the pilots?"
That didn't seem to make much sense. Asuka especially would never actively try to avoid reaching new heights, given how proud she was of her scores. Then again, that mood she had been in lately...
"Or the EVAs," Ritsuko added quietly, interrupting her friend's thoughts.
Misato glanced at the doctor. 'Still hiding secrets from me, huh, Ritsuko?'
NERV had always been hiding something, one would have to be truly naive not to realize that. Dangerous weapon tech was one thing, but the amount of things classified as "TOP SECRET" was borderline comical. And more than once something slipped through that only raised more questions. The nature of the EVAs that even Ritsuko herself, as their chief scientist, just now again implied she didn't quite understand. The nature of the Angels and why they kept attacking Tokyo-3. Or, as she just recently learned, Adam, the first Angel, being hidden in NERV's basement. Certainly, the latter might be one option for the former, but as much as she wanted to, this was hardly the time and place to confront Ritsuko with her findings, especially when she had barely scratched the surface. But it was hard to forget the image of the white giant that Kaji had shown her in the depths of Terminal Dogma.
A realization hit her at the thought of the perpetually unshaven man, and she took a look at her watch.
"Wha-?! It's that late already?" The cup of coffee was slammed on the doctor's desk as she spun around to get up. "Shit! I've got to get home!" Misato declared and made a rush towards the door.
"Oh?" the other woman mused. "I would have thought Kaji would pick you up from here."
Misato stopped dead in her tracks, turning to her friend who was still just looking at her printouts, albeit with a knowing smirk. "How do you...?"
"Or do you want to dress up for your 'date'? I thought it wasn't serious?" Ritsuko continued to tease, obviously just wanting to see her old friend paling even more.
"W-who says it is?" Misato stammered. "I mean I... just have an appointment with a colleague."
"Well, then give that 'colleague' my regards."
Misato just stared at her for a second, her lips pressed together, as she tried to come up with a feeble excuse. But given that she was still not entirely sure where she stood with her once ex, she couldn't come up with anything.
"You know, sometimes I hate you, Ritsuko," she eventually just muttered and left.
Rushing through the automatic door, she didn't pay much attention where she was going and ended up almost running straight into someone. She quickly realized by the tell-tale red hair who it was.
"Asuka, what are you still doing here?" she asked, somewhat annoyed to be stopped by the raging girl in front of her. She was late enough as it was.
"What am I doing here?" Asuka repeated, growling impatiently. "I'm waiting for you to drive me home!"
"Why didn't you take the bus with Shinji?"
Misato instantly regretted her question at the sight of the glare Asuka was shooting at her as the redhead stood there, clenching her fists in fury.
'Ah, right, the whole "Shinji beat her scores" thing. Maybe not the best topic at the moment...', Misato thought to herself. She wasn't sure if she should be happy that her charge regained her heated demeanor after her recent slump. Well, for the most part. Looking at the girl's blue eyes, they still didn't seem to hold quite the same fire as they had before she had fallen ill. But maybe Shinji catching up to her slowly but surely had at least kept it smoldering to a certain degree, for better or worse?
Not wanting to waste anymore time, she did not bother to argue with the redhead.
"Alright, alright, come on then," she commanded, motioning her ward to follow as she went towards the direction in which she hoped to find the garage where she had parked her car. "Let's get out of here."
"We're home!" Misato said as they entered the apartment.
"Welcome home!" Shinji's voice greeted back from the living room.
It had been a quiet ride home. Misato hadn't wanted to risk an argument so she had stayed silent, while Asuka had merely muttered something under her breath now and then.
Just like that...
EVA-02's pilot kicked off her shoes and rushed inside while her guardian advanced to her own room to get changed.
Nothing too special, of course. Kaji shouldn't get the wrong idea that she wanted him back, after all. It was just a meeting between colleagues. Old friends.
Who happened to have shared a passionate kiss not too long ago that may or may not have sparked some old feelings. And she just maybe had spilled her heart out to him just a few nights ago while he was his best gentlemanly self.
That didn't mean she wanted to go back into a full fledged relationship. Yet.
It didn't take long until the first shouting distracted the Major's denials, barely damped by the thin walls.
"HEY, BAKA! WHERE'S DINNER?"
"Huh? What do you mean, Asuka?"
" 'What do I mean?' You've been here for at least an hour and you haven't even started yet! Did you think the great invincible Shinji is above such menial work now that you beat my record?"
"I... I'm sorry..."
"AHH, there he goes again with that!"
Misato rolled her eyes at the sounds of cursing and shuffling, but couldn't suppress a tiny smile either. As annoying as a pissed-off Asuka could be, it was good to hear that, aside from her foul mood from having her high-scores beaten, everything was back to "normal" again. She had almost feared the girl would suffer a relapse after today – and even though she had never thought she would admit this – Misato actually preferred how things were now compared to those days.
Still, it was probably for the best to intervene before Asuka might get physical, so Misato quickly chose a dress from her unfortunately limited collection and changed into it before she went to stop the raging red storm.
"Listen..." she began as she opened the door to the kitchen, but trailed off immediately, a frown spreading over her face. Had they just smiled at each other?
"Aren't you done yet?" Asuka growled, standing next to Shinji watching him working on the stove and looking as if she was ready to strike, no matter what he would do.
"I'm sorry," he muttered. "It takes some time to cook, you know?"
"Pff, you could add more heat at least so it goes faster!"
"Then it's just gonna burn."
"Not if you'd stir it properly!"
'Nah, must have been my imagination...' Misato sighed, massaging her temples.
Asuka switched the target of her anger as soon as she noticed their guardian, giving her a look of disgust. "Don't tell me you're going to see Kaji like that?"
"Huh?" Misato looked at herself. She wasn't wearing anything too revealing; just a plain, dark blue strapless dress that she had worn to the wedding a little while ago. She couldn't see any stains or tears in the fabric either.
Since there didn't actually seem to be anything wrong with her looks, that left one explanation. "My, Asuka, your jealousy is so unbecoming," she joked with a sly grin before turning to her other roommate. "Shinji, what do you think?"
Still in her teasing mood, she switched gears as the easily flustered boy required a different tactic to their resident firecracker. As he looked up from his cooking, she decided to pose a little, stretching her dress pretending to straighten it. This had not only the effect of tightening it around her curves even more, but also exposing just a tiny bit more cleavage, which she emphasized a little by leaning forward. "Is it too much?"
Shinji's face got bright red in an instant, and he quickly averted his sight to focus again on his work. "I... I think you look fine, Misato," he stammered.
"Figures..." Asuka mumbled, sounding – if it was even possible – more peeved than before. "Perv..."
It was only a few minutes later that Shinji finished the curry dish he had been working on and began filling plates for him and Asuka when the doorbell rang.
"KAJI!" Asuka bolted up and stormed off towards the front door.
"Wasn't she so hungry just a minute ago?" Shinji and Misato quietly agreed, before following their roommate.
"Hello, Kaji!" the exuberant redhead squeed as she clutched onto the unshaved agent's arm.
"Ah, hello Asuka," Kaji returned the enthusiastic teen's greeting with surprising calmness. "Hi Shinji. Hello Katsuragi." He flashed his trademarked heart-breaker smile. "You're ready?"
"Say Kaji, do you really want to go with her?" Asuka cut Misato off. "I would be much better company for you..."
"Eh, maybe another time, okay, Asuka?" Kaji offered, trying his best to keep his smile.
"We better get going," Misato interrupted, saving Kaji from this obviously awkward situation. Asuka's crush on the older man could be fun to tease with, but for someone insisting how mature she was, the teen certainly failed to realize how childish she was being.
"Yeah, right. Just leave me alone with him..." the redhead grumbled, while Misato pushed Kaji back through the door.
"You two better behave. And don't do anything I would do!" she teased, waving goodbye.
"Yuck! I wouldn't do anything like that with that baka even if he was the last man on earth!" Asuka grimaced, while Shinji just gave an awkward laugh.
"H-have fun, Misato, Mr Kaji..." he bid his farewell.
"Alright, see ya tomorrow!"
As soon as the door closed, the teens flung at each other, sharing a passionate kiss, their lips longing for another as if having been apart for an eternity. Without breaking off, they slowly retreated, lurching to the living room and, after some careless steps, they finally tumbled onto the hard floor; just missing the softer pillows they had silently aimed for. But neither of them cared right now anyway.
They needed this. Feeling the other. Letting the other know that, despite everything, they, at least, were still here with each other in this crazy situation. If only to forget for just a little bit.
When they finally broke the kiss, neither of them could remember if the fierce meeting of their lips had lasted minutes or hours, now laying still, panting heavily as they just tightly held onto another.
"I've... missed... you," Shinji gasped once enough air returned to his lungs to allow him to speak.
"I've missed... you, too," Asuka answered, still caressing the back of his neck. "We haven't had much time for ourselves since... well, pretty much since the kiss..."
He couldn't help a soft chuckle escaping him at that particular memory. Asuka at least managed a weak smile. But her eyes wavered, still locked onto his; her fingers shaking as they made their way to his cheek in an all too familiar manner. That kiss may have been the start of getting better – but not well. How could it?
"Well, you didn't seem too enthusiastic when I came for you today..." he tried his best to sound offended in an attempt to cheer her up a little more.
Asuka's only response was a light giggle. But her smile faded again soon, no doubt remembering what she had thought of before he had surprised her in the locker room.
It didn't go unnoticed by Shinji. "So, will you tell me now what's on your mind?" he asked in concern.
"Baka," she called him quietly, averting his gaze. "You know exactly what's on my mind..."
Shinji sighed and nodded slowly. Of course he knew. It hurt. It always hurt. That's why he needed this. Why he could tell that she needed this. This last bit of intimacy. Assuring that they're still here.
He leaned closer and gently pulled her face back to him, so their eyes could meet again. "Hey, you know I miss..."
"It's not just that," she clasped him tightly, quickly cutting him off before he could finish that sentence. "I was... I was thinking about tomorrow. It will be our first since then. And it just has to be this one of all."
"Shh," he tried to soothe her. "It will be alright, just like last time."
"The heck it was!" she spat, pulling back a bit. "You barely came out alive." He could see some tears dwelling up in her eyes. "And now you're going to do it again, just like that."
"Asuka," he brushed a few strains of her unrestrained hair out of her face. "We have already talked about this. It's the only way we know that works, isn't it? The only other idea they came up with was to drop almost a thousand N2-Mines on it. Not to mention with minimal chances of success. And it has to be me and Unit-01, just in case..."
"What..." Asuka averted her gaze again as she merely whispered. "What if we both go in? At least if it doesn't work, then..."
"D-don't say that!" Shinji bursted out, interrupting her before she could fully voice such an idea. "What if I get out but you end up stuck...?"
But he trailed off as he looked at her. He knew he was just being hypocritical. He didn't want to worry about losing her, just as she didn't want to worry about losing him. He didn't want to think about what he'd do if he did lose her.
"And after all," he continued softly, "if I fail, the world will need you all the more..."
A smile danced around the corners of her lips, even though her eyes did not reflect that amusement.
"Baka..." she murmured, rolling over to rest her head on his chest, closing her eyes as she listened to the steady rhythm of his heart. "As if Rei and I could handle everything afterwards without our invincible Shinji."
"Oh, I don't know..." he countered. "I have it on pretty good authority that you are a simply amazing pilot."
"Am I now?"
"The best there is."
"Strange, I recall you beating my record just today..."
"Not my fault that you held back."
A soft chuckling filled the room, much too rare these days, their little banter as welcome a diversion as every bit of precious physical contact they could allow.
But it was not long to last, as Shinji noticed that what rocked her body was no longer laughter but sobs, her fingers quivering as she tried to get a tighter grip on him.
"If..." she breathed, "if you don't come back, I don't know if I can keep this up. I don't want this. I just want to go back. I just want...I just want my..."
He raised her head to his and silenced her with another kiss. If she would continue, it would make things all the harder. His own eyes were already welling up as it was. "I'll come back. I promise!"
"But what if...?"
"Then we should make the best of the few hours we have left for ourselves."
These were the last words that were said for the next hours, while the two pilots shared their closeness and their kisses, desperate to forget everything for just at least a little while longer.
As hopeless as that endeavor would be.
"...nothing further. Approach carefully, observe its reaction and, if possible, lead it outside the urban area," Misato's voice droned through the comm.
Thinking of the spheric Angel waiting in the city, Shinji tried to relax in his seat as much as he could. But that was easier said than done. He couldn't deny that his heart was pounding in his chest, adrenaline rushing through his veins. Even if there was a plan, he was still thrown back into a matter of life and death. Back to fighting. Back to piloting. Back to the pain.
He barely stopped himself scoffing. The "pain" he used to associate with piloting rarely had come from injuries that the Angels inflicted on him. It had mostly come from the losses he had to witness, the real abandonment of his father and the perceived abandonment of everyone around him who'd seemingly only cared for him as long as he piloted. In hindsight, it seemed so ridiculous. And so insignificant now compared to the pain of...
'Not now!' he chided himself. 'I've got to concentrate now!'
"Alright, alright, Misato. I think Shinji should go ahead!"
He smiled faintly as he heard Asuka's voice, dripping with sarcasm. Even though they didn't remember their exact conversations, they had managed to keep the essence of them as far as he could tell. At least until now.
"You know; that's a job for the man with the highest synch ratio and all," she continued slightly menacing after a short pause.
'Damn! Forget to play my part!' he scolded himself.
"Eh... I don't think Shinji should..."
"It's alright Misato!" he blurted, interrupting his guardian. "I'll do it!"
A collective "Huh?" went through the comm, getting a weak smile out of Shinji. The irony of acting out of character to remain in character wasn't lost on him.
"I'll show you how to do this, Asuka!" he declared.
"Wha- What was that??" As to be expected, EVA-02's pilot didn't sound very delighted at her 'mocking' not having the 'expected' result.
"Hey, you two cut it out!" Misato warned over the channel, but Shinji pretended not to listen.
"Misato, haven't you said yourself: 'You are number one!'?" he gave an assuring thumbs-up to the camera.
"Well, that was..."
But he interrupted his commanding officer. "As Asuka said: 'That's a job for the one with the highest ratio!' "
"Men!" Asuka muttered with feigned anger, but conceded. "Unit-02, providing back-up!"
"Unit-00, providing back-up as well," Rei confirmed.
He couldn't help but grin as he imagined Misato's reaction at the Children's rebellion.
"Are you there yet?" Shinji asked over the comm. He hid with EVA-01 behind a building, watching the black and white striped Angel around the corner as it hovered almost peacefully in the air.
"Not yet," Rei plainly responded, as expected.
"You know an EVA can't move that fast!" Asuka scolded. "Damn!"
'Right, her cable got stuck at some time, didn't it?' he reminded himself.
The further they advanced, the more nervous he got. He had to act soon, otherwise he would endanger them as well. It was kind of strange, he could swear that he was more anxious than he remembered to be, when he hadn't known what the Angel's capabilities were.
He suddenly noticed his hand clenching and unclenching.
'Looks like old habits are indeed hard to break,' he mentally slapped himself, clenching his fist to force an end to the instinctive movement.
He took a deep breath.
He hurled his EVA around, took aim and shot at the spheric Angel...
Hearing Shinji's screams for help as his EVA was sucked into the shadow, Asuka had a hard fight to maintain her calm.
'Relax! He knows what he's doing,' she told herself, gritting her teeth as his last scream was abruptly disrupted with static. 'At least, I hope he knows what he's doing...'
"Asuka! Rei! Rescue Unit-01! Hurry!" Misato's order finally came over the comm. Not that it was needed in the slightest. Asuka already willed EVA-02 forward as fast as she could, watching the ground carefully as she rushed through the vacant streets.
"Asuka, watch out!" Akagi warned, but the redhead had already leaped up as soon as she saw the ground turning black. She got a hold on the nearest building, slamming her ax and prog knife into its side, using them as steps to climb up to the building to the top as it was slowly being swallowed by the darkness below. She caught her breath as she reached the roof, before she turned to the direction where EVA-01 had been just a few minutes ago.
'You better come back!' she thought as she watched the city sinking more and more into the shadow. 'Or I'll come in and drag you out!'
"Asuka. Rei. Withdraw..."
Shinji saw nothing but a sea of white. "Sea of Dirac" it was named, he had learned later on. Endless. Nothing. But... he knew that couldn't be. He knew there was a way in. And he knew there was a way out.
Gripping the controls, he prepared to fight. He forced the EVA's right fist forward, trying to hit the Angels surface, to grasp it and rip it apart.
But it just went through an empty space.
"What?" His eyes widened in surprise and a growing panic. It couldn't be. There had to be something. He knew there had to be a way.
He brought up his AT-Field, hoping for any effect on the Angel.
"DAMN IT!" he cursed as he quickly switched to life-support mode. But having used so much energy, he knew he wouldn't even have 10 hours left.
"Damn it, mother, how did you do it? Come on!" he pleaded, as if that could get any reaction out of his unmoving Unit. "You've done it the last time! Do I really have to die before you can help me?"
As to be expected, he received no answer...
Asuka resisted nervously tapping her plugsuit-clad feet. With the Angel "shadowing" a large part of the city, NERV had hastily shifted their combat staff and necessary equipment to a provisional post just outside of Tokyo-3. From there, they would strike as soon as they analyzed the situation and came up with a plan to defeat the enemy and, at least as far as the current commanding officer was concerned, rescue Shinji. But once the command changed...
The redhead barely suppressed a sigh.
She currently stood silently near Misato, leaning her back against the railing of the outlook platform. The Major was watching the city while discussing the latest intel with Hyuga and Aoba. Asuka did her best to resist the urge to grab some binoculars and look over there as well, to the spot where Shinji had vanished. Not that she realistically expected to see anything. But it was hard to fight certain instincts anyway.
She glanced over to Rei, seemingly lost in her own thoughts. Asuka vaguely recalled herself mocking Shinji to her co-pilot's ire, but she just couldn't bring herself to repeat it. It was hard enough to keep her composure as it was, icy dread dripping into the pit of her stomach with each passing second. It had already taken him long enough to make it obvious that his plan hadn't worked.
'And now he doesn't have much time left. Damn it, baka! I've told you it's too dangerous!'
Of course he could still make it. He would still make it! Just like he had before. There was just no way he would also...
"...supposed to set us under pressure," Misato finished, lowering her binoculars when she noticed the Second Child staring at her feet. "Asuka?"
"Hm?" The redhead tensed as she was suddenly addressed, but didn't change her position.
"You're worried?" her guardian asked in a surprisingly serious tone.
Asuka, however, tried her best to snap back to her role. She couldn't let it slip again. "Worried? Ha!" she mocked, as arrogantly as she could muster. "Why should I be? It was his own fault that he's trapped in there!"
The tired smile Misato gave her for a moment made Asuka wonder about the effectiveness of her acting. But her guardian's expression turned back into a frown as she looked back over the city. "Yes, it is his own fault, since he acted without permission. And I'll have a word with him as soon as he gets back..."
There was... something... Someone? Who...?
He opened his eyes at the sound of his own voice answering. Indistinguishable landscapes were rushing by, outside the window. The rhythmical sound of the wheels on the tracks briefly made way for the signal of a crossing as they passed it. The sun was setting, painting the cabin a deep red and casting the brown-haired child in front of him in shadows.
"No!" He angrily squeezed his eyes shut again.
Had this been the Angel's doing after all? Was his subconsciousness messing with him because it was reminded of the similarities?
"Are you still running away?" his voice spoke again.
"No," Shinji growled at whatever it was. "I have... I had found my place. Go away!"
"Do you still fear the other Shinji Ikaris? The ones in the mind of others?"
"Go away!" he repeated.
"So you do?"
Shinji grit his teeth. "As far as I'm concerned, there are only two Shinji Ikaris that matter. Now: Go! Away!" he spat once more to dispel this vision.
When he cracked his eyes open again, he found himself back in the EVA, the harsh glare of an evening sun replaced by the dim emergency light that was clouded more and more by the unfiltered LCL. The persistent smell of blood filled his nose.
Wearily, Shinji looked at the watch built into his plugsuit's wrist as it counted down what may very well be the last minutes of his life.
Was this really it? He still clung to the hope that everything would work out, just like it had before, but he couldn't deny the growing fear that it wouldn't. What if his initial waste of energy had caused a side-effect that prevented things from playing out as they should?
Maybe he had been too naive. Logically, he had well realized that the Angels would still pose a threat. But he had to admit that a part of him had repressed the idea that things might actually end up for the worse.
Maybe Asuka had been right. Maybe there were other ways that they simply didn't know of. But who could tell if those ways were any better either or if they wouldn't lead to their doom just as well?
Shinji breathed softly, barely able to keep his eyes open.
The thought of her formed a bile lump of regret in his throat. After everything, each other was all they had left to depend on. And now, his foolishness might take even that from her. Guilt was piercing his heart, knowing the pain he would cause her if he broke his promise.
Tiredly, he glanced at the watch just as it reached zero.
And yet... he smiled.
He felt it again. Felt her.
"So... it does have to be like this, doesn't it? Mother...?" he whispered. "Are you helping me now?"
His heavy eyes fell shut, allowing only the briefest glimpse on what he could swear was her reaching out for him.
"...dropping 992 N2-mines within 1/1000 second, while using the AT-Fields of the two remaining EVAs..."
"MAJOR!" the excited voice of a technician interrupted Ritsuko's briefing, calling not only Misato's attention to him at the door of the mobile control center. "Something's happening with the Angel!"
Everyone bolted up at the news, rushing inside the specialized van or to the hastily setup monitors outside, some just grabbed binoculars trying to get a view that way; commands and updates on the newest readings shouted out as everyone was doing their best to analyze the new situation. But the hectic sounds quickly ebbed away and everything got still, as for all their training and experience, little had prepared them for the spectacle that was unfolding.
The earth covered by the black Angel shook and split, red cracks cutting through its entirety. A hand, obviously EVA-01's, tore through the now darkened sphere, followed by a gush of blood that sprayed the surroundings like a crimson rainfall as the purple giant ripped its way out of the Angel's carcass. As it landed crashing on the street, with its glowing eyes piercing the red mist, the EVA looked more like a bloody demon than a savior of mankind. The deep, horrid howls of the berserk Unit only reinforced this image, as it managed to send shivers through the spines of the whole NERV staff, even despite being several miles away from the beast.
Only one failed to hide her smile.
'About time, baka!'
"Shinji! Shinji? Shinji!" he heard Misato calling. He squinted his eyes to adjust to the change of brightness as the plug was opened. He felt his guardian embracing him immediately.
"It's okay... Misato... I'm fine..." he said tiredly with half-closed eyes.
"Didn't you say you would have a word with him?" he could hear a female voice in a sarcastic tone behind the sobbing Major.
As he moved his head to the entrance, he saw Asuka smiling at him. Weakly, he managed to smile back, before he passed out.
Slowly, Shinji opened his eyes. He knew immediately that he was back in hospital when he saw the blank ceiling.
'It's really been a while...' he mused.
He could tell that he wasn't alone. Turning his head, he saw Rei sitting by his bed, reading a book while waiting. She soon noticed his awakening, but remained silent for several seconds
"You can rest for today," she announced eventually as she took her satchel from the floor and stood up. "We will handle everything for you."
"Thank you, Ayanami. But I don't think that will be necessary."
"Yeah, I'm fine," he nodded confirmingly.
"Well, that's good for you."
Shinji shivered involuntarily at her familiar words, but it was unlikely that the blue-haired girl had noticed on her silent way out. However, his mood instantly brightened as the automatic door opened and Rei almost walked right into Asuka on her way in. Neither girl showed much of a reaction though, Asuka merely giving Rei a glance as they moved aside and past each other.
"Not even trying to hide your eavesdropping?" Shinji asked bemused as the door closed behind Rei, but his smile faltered as he realized that it wasn't returned.
Asuka's brows were slightly lowered as she regarded him silently for a second, adding to his growing confusion. He hadn't even noticed the bag she was holding until she threw it on his bed, some of his clothing spilling out.
"They said you're good to go when you wake up," she said with a strange coldness. "Misato sent me to pick you up."
Shinji raised an eyebrow questioningly, to which she quickly flicked her head up and behind her in a way that could look like she was gesturing him to get ready to leave - to whoever may watch the footage of the camera hanging there on the wall.
Of course. He should have known they'd be monitored here.
"Don't take too long!" Asuka warned as she left the room.
He couldn't quite shake the sinking feeling that something else was off.
It took just a few minutes to change into the provided school uniform and meet Asuka outside, where she was leaning arms-crossed against the wall opposite to the door. At the sight of him, she wordlessly turned to leave.
He followed her through the empty hallways, the feeling of uneasiness rising with each step as he watched her stoic form from behind. Not wanting to risk talking openly was one thing, but her also not "playing the part" and getting into an angry rant about his actions or an ongoing complaint about being "made to pick him up" at all was unsettling. The silent treatment meant she was truly upset, one way or another.
Shinji decided to take his chance when she briefly stopped, looking around.
"Asuka, I..." he started, stepping closer, but he didn't get very far.
She suddenly whirled around, opening a door next to him that he only then realized was there, and shoved him in. He tumbled backwards, though not very far, his back colliding with a rack of sorts in what he realized was some kind of janitor closet.
He didn't have much time to gather his bearings, as the redhead angrily approached him. Her hand swished through the air, impacting on his cheek.
"That was for making me worry!"
It stung, but not nearly as bad as the pain that flashed in her eyes as she threw her arms around him, her lips descending on his. The kiss was still loving, but desperate, seeking, in a way he was still not quite used to.
"And that was for coming back alive," Asuka whispered as she eventually parted.
She still avoided his gaze, but didn't let go of him either, resting her chin on his shoulder. Shinji followed suit, bringing his arms around her, pulling her closer.
"I'm sorry," he said softly, an honest apology instead of the old reflex. "I guess in the end, I was just as overconfident as back then, just for different reasons."
"It's... alright," she muttered. "You did come back, after all..."
"I'm sorry," he repeated anyway when he felt her slightly quiver against him despite her words. She obviously did not want to let go just yet, and neither did he.
Holding her. Being held by her. Just feeling the other's warmth.
It would have been a lie to say that it was enough.
But it helped. As little and as much as it could.
"Weren't you afraid in there?" she softly asked after a while.
"I was a bit for a while, yes," he admitted. "But I guess, deep inside, I knew that mother wouldn't let me die."
A soft snort escaped Asuka, making him crack a smile of his own. But it quickly faded again as his thoughts wandered.
"Even so," he muttered, "I'm even more afraid of the next one..."
"Wait, wait, wait," I hear you wonder. "Isn't this a super old fic? What's up with this popping up now?"
Well, yes, it is indeed an oldie. At the time of posting this, it is the 20th anniversary of the original's release - hence the "Anniversary Edition".
But what gives?
Well, over time, people were bringing up certain points that I then realized that, yes, I could have probably done better, and other things that I noticed myself upon a re-read that I wasn't too happy with, be it just in terms of writing as my English was much worse back then (at least I'd like to think it got better), but also of course in content.
But for the longest time, I did not really want to do rewrites beyond fixing small typos. By then, I felt too many people were familiar with that version and there were even translations and other spin-offs based on it that I didn't want to invalidate. But with the 20th anniversary and other rewrite projects going on (particularly of course Rommel's Genocide that I assisted with myself (that never stops sounding wrong; you really should have picked a different name/title combo, buddy ;) )), I guess the itch finally got a bit too strong.
But I still decided not to "George Lucas" it and keep it a separate version. On one hand, as said, not to invalidate existing other works based on the original, but also just in case the changes end up detrimental to some (or even many) readers - a "Verschlimmbesserung" as we say in Germany.
After all, one of the biggest issues I had myself was actually the tone of the first few chapters, with a lot of whacky, almost slapstick humor that all my early stories had (which is one thing for those humor-focused stories, but another for this one). But that also ended up being one of the biggest problems I was/am facing, as I also know that many people like certain parts and sometimes I like certain parts, even if they don't really fit, and obviously I don't just want to get rid of the more lighthearted elements entirely. So it's become much more tough to decide on what to change or even outright remove than I expected.
Now, originally I had planned to drop the entire rewrite at once, especially since later chapters will likely see less and less major changes (at least when it comes to the "tone correction") and as such may seem less worthwhile for a separate version on their own. But I unfortunately didn't even get close, just barely managed to get this chapter done in time for the actual anniversary. Most of the remaining chapters, I've admittedly barely touched so far. That's also the reason why I dropped the originally intended "20th" from the "Anniversary Edition", since it'll most certainly well exceed this year.
In fact, the break between this and the next chapter may very well be the longest, since I especially want to expand on one aspect of the "verb" chapters, where I may have to shuffle some of the new planned scenes around to see in which one they'll fit best.
- One of the "hard to decide on" parts was already the first scene, which may be a bit arguable under a more realistic lens. But as one of the very first ideas that kickstarted the entire thing, I couldn't bring myself to change it too drastically or drop it entirely.
- It took quite a bit of contemplation, a twitter poll and even more contemplation after that wasn't quite as much of a blowout as I expected, but I finally caved and switched to the grammatically correct "First/Second/Third Child" over the obviously intentional but awkward in English "First/Second/Third Children".
- I also tried to get a bit away from the weeb-y random Japanese. Aside from "Baka", for more or less obvious reasons...
- I recall the "forgetting meals, chilled long ago" line being decently popular... but the list leading to it made little sense in the overall context, and the in-context alternative would be too big a spoiler, so it had to go. And now we'll never know what happened to the food (gasp, shock, horror).
- The final scene also put me in a bit of a conundrum. Even though we have official precedent for Asuka breaking a camera with a kick in the Manga, it did feel a bit silly here. But I didn't want to entirely get rid of the "for making me worry/coming back" parts, since that's a bit of a running theme, which they wouldn't risk at this point. I guess I could have pretended that there simply is no camera, but we do know they're getting feeds from the hospital rooms (at least they did for Asuka in her coma - which may make a certain scene in EoE even more awkward...), so that didn't sit right with me either. So I ended up with this little extension and moved that part out of the room, which I actually ended up quite liking.
- A certain... twist may be more hinted at now than it was before. I tried not to overdo it, but it's a bit hard to judge for me, as I obviously can't put myself in the shoes of a new reader. But even if it became a bit too obvious now, I think it's still worth it to make their actions communicate better on where they are at this point.
That said, I'd like to ask everyone to not openly write anything in the reviews that reference chapters that aren't posted yet. It may be more obvious, never mind an open secret for almost 20 years now, but this may still be the very first time to experience the story for somebody. So, please, let's not spoil them if we can avoid it.
Last, but very much not least, many thanks to Dako for the guest illustration and to KingXanaduu for the last-minute beta reading.