Neon Genesis Evangelion Fan Fiction ❯ Apostasy ❯ Apostasy ( One-Shot )
[ T - Teen: Not suitable for readers under 13 ]
At thirty thousand feet above the Indian Ocean, the two SETA-7 Evangelion transports thunder through the thin air, their super scramjet engines gulping down vast quantities of oxygen and defiling it with violet flame. Hundreds of kilometers of contrail vapor lag behind them, leaving a tempestuous trail that dwarfs even the high-altitude streaks of the suborbital superpassenger jets that crisscross the globe.
Even at this height, there are children on the Indonesian islands that can point out the vast, sweeping wings of these enormous aircraft, follow their bat-like outlines as they thunder across the sky. If any of these children had binoculars, they might be able to make out the transports' sinister, hulking cargoes.
The very act of achieving flight has long been touted as one of humanity's greatest accomplishments, with more than a century of innovations and inventions that changed the world's economy, politics, warfare, and forevermore shrunk the scale of an already diminishing world. If this is so, then the flight of the two SETA-7s -- each larger and nearly massing as much as an aircraft carrier -- are a glorious testament to mankind's ability to achieve the impossible, on such a massive scale that even the gods would have reason to worry.
Of course, the Evangelions they carry are testament to mankind's ability to make the gods worry, period.
Less than three hours ago, the two SETA-7s left their underground hangar buried beneath a mountain near Tokyo-3, and taxied down a concrete moonscape into the ocean, where a combination of ground effect technologies, magnetic repulsion, and the jets in all-out air-breathing afterburner mode struggled to render the titanic aircraft airborne.
After about three hours of flight, they would deposit their heavy payloads somewhere over Africa, and continue on their circumglobal circuit, splashing down on friction-heated hulls in the Pacific Ocean to be towed back into their hangars.
In NERV's technical departments, the motto is now and always has been 'Go Big or Go Home'.
Surprisingly, these aircraft have no defenses, though they are they heavily armored. They are so massive that no other aircraft or ground emplacement in current deployment with anything short of a strategic standoff N2 cruise missile would be capable of bringing one down.
It is ironic, then, that there is only one passenger on each of the super planes, outside of the numerous crewmen required to keep them running, and neither of them has quite reached their twentieth birthdays. Maybe it is less ironic, that each of these passengers represents exactly one half of the total combat personnel of the United Nations Special Rapid Intervention Force.
"Verdammt," Asuka grumbles, a menacing contralto invective that demands all attention and promises nothing but unbridled pain, "we just finished putting a stop to that Ukrainian nonsense two months ago and now this flares up? What happened to all that rhetoric about cooperation and rebuilding? C-5."
She's stretched out along a narrow row of jumpseats, what little gear she has along with her stuffed beneath her in a futile attempt to render the aluminum bench a little more comfortable than it is. Much like everyone else on board the vessel, she is wearing a uniform, the drab olive garb that eventually replaced NERV's more image-friendly getups they wore though the Angel Wars. Not that she was ever required to wear one prior to turning eighteen. International law forbidding the deployment of child soldiers put some rather awkward pressure on the United Nation's lawyers, and her true age, along with that of her compatriot, are still carefully guarded secrets.
The patches on her shoulders mark her as a lieutenant, a rank entirely at odds with the innocence all young women her age inherently wear in the soft curve of their faces, and the bare toes she flexes in the dim light of the rear hold. Her boots lie unlaced on the ground next to her, inches away from the bright red duffel bag that holds her combat gear.
It's her eyes that give her away as an adult, pools of dark sapphire that don't quite match and glitter with the sinister knowledge that only a veteran can know, with the internalized pain and wisdom that only experience bestows.
Static crackles in her headset for moment, and she is answered by a voice still testing the depth it acquired nearly half a decade ago. It twists slightly, in an audible wince.
"C-5? Hit," and Shinji mutters something to himself. "Well, I wouldn't say that things have been exactly ideal since Second Impact. I'm sure there are a lot of unhappy people around. J-6."
It's true, she thinks. Tokyo-3 -- NERV's headquarters -- is something of an aberration in the modern world. It was built as a priority, almost to the exclusion of everything else, and most countries had not yet recovered from the utter destruction that had laid waste to the rest of the globe. More money had probably gone into this aircraft than the reconstruction of most cities, and NERV's failure to completely prevent a Third Impact -- even though they had mitigated its severity and limited the effects to the south-eastern coast of Japan -- only entrenched the resentment quite a few populations had held simmering on the sidelines for the last two decades.
Asuka's slender fingers dig a red and a white peg out of the reservoir by the side of her laptop command centre and sink them, respectively, into sectors C-5 and J-6.
"Miss," she replies, with an oddly sober chuckle. "I just hope this is over as fast as it was the last time. B-5."
Shinji swears under his voice, but even before he admits to the destruction of his last warship, she's plugged the spot on the board with one of the red pegs. Through the static, she thinks she can make out the hollow rattle of plastic as he dismantles the game.
"Say it, loser," she commands, and there is more grumbling on the other end of the line.
"You win," he sighs, a habitual concession for her ego. The cabin speakers crackle, and the high-pitched whine of the scramjets modulates, dipping as the plane sinks into denser air.
"Sixty minutes to drop," announces the pilot, "Command wants like the Eva activated now. They say they'd relay the briefing before we get to your drop point."
She is on her feet in an instant, scrambling to put away the stupid game she'd insisted they pack for the otherwise uneventful -- read boring -- flight. A detached part of her mind registers that they should be crossing over Madagascar now, the same part of her mind which had assimilated their flight plan and operational schedule in the same impersonal, eidetic manner with which she'd earned her physics degree six or seven years before she should have even been trying.
After giving the cabin door a quick check to ensure it is locked, her fingers are already pulling apart the velcro and the buttons of her uniform, and she shrugs off the heavy, insulated jacket. As she does so, she shivers in the cool compartment, goose flesh rising along her slender arms, along the long, deep lines of scarred skin that no one her age should have in a good and just world. Her pants and underwear follow right away, and she curses as the chill bites her lower body with equal ferocity.
The plugsuit she produces from her duffel bag is the same vibrant red colour, streaked with black, and she climbs into the baggy flightsuit with an eagerness that belies the oft-hazardous duty she is about to perform. Once she has it on up as far as her waist, she unclips her bra and secretes all of her clothing in the duffel bag before burying her arms in the sleeves up to the gloves. It's a familiar feeling, a little like coming home, and the lycra-lined neoprene is comfortable if a little cool, but she knows from experience that it will heat up very quickly. Rushing, she pulls the narrow elastic neck over the crown of her head, carelessly catching some of her long hair, and the resulting twinge of pain creases her brow as she settles the collar of the suit around her throat.
She pulls her hair free from where it is trapped against her neck, and lets it fall to her shoulder blades before sealing the suit locks. One last touch to a switch on her left wrist, and the suit vacuum-seals itself to her lean, lithe body.
"Ready, dummkopf?" she asks, lifting the mike of her abandoned headset to her lips with one hand while the other adjusts the neural interface modules lodged against the back of her skull, held there by a headband buried beneath a dense mane the colour of thinly-sliced cinnabar.
"For the last two hours, at least," he says, puzzled, and she grimaces not only at his somehow superfluous sense of caution, but at the unspoken implication in his voice that she should have done the same.
"See you in a minute, Ikari," she finishes, signing off.
From the cabin, she passes through a hatch and down a short flight of stairs parallel to the matte white surface of the entry plug which continues through a rubber-sealed hatch in the floor. It's even colder in here, she thinks, watching her breath condense into a wispy mist with every exhalation, and she's glad she won't have to deal with it for long. As she descends, she lets her right hand trail along the frost-lined surface of the plug, her fingers lingering for a moment over the stenciled '02' and her full name in capital letters, and her lips curve into a proud grin.
The enormous plane shudders once as it catches and plows through the border of a high-pressure zone, engines compensating for the change in air density. She rides it out, gripping the railing, then lifts her body over the lip of the open plug hatch and settles into the padded command couch, into the familiar foam-lined saddle that has molded itself to her form's contours over the years.
A quick command in German switches on the voice-recognition circuits, drawing the hatch down and over her recumbent form, and darkness surrounds her for a second before the cobalt-tinged interior running lights flicker to life. The familiar snap-thrum of plug insertion sounds in her ears, barely audible over the demonic, echoing howl of the outside winds, and then she is left in silence. A low gurgle heralds the filling of the plug, and she is ready for the coppery taste of the LCL as it rises past her face. She inhales the liquid deeply, practice and experience having done away with that particular gag reflex. This, at least, is a pleasant twenty-five degrees, incubated for the last several hours within Unit-02's insulated, quietly metabolizing body.
The LCL is heavy in her lungs, and she can feel the power-assist of her plug suit kick in to compensate for the extra mass her intercostals can't quite squeeze out of her on an exhale. When she is comfortable, she snaps another handful of orders in German, and she begins to synchronize.
If putting on the plugsuit is like coming home, then this is like waking up in bed at noon naked and luxuriating in the prospects of a lazy afternoon.
Her consciousness expands, and she is aware of a second body, stiff from disuse and the cold, but eager and ready to help her in whatever manner it can. The formerly opaque walls of the plug fill with riotous hallucinations before fading into a breath-taking vista of the horizon-to-horizon expanse of the strait of Madagascar. Miniscule waves flash by beneath her, a vast, irregular pane of frosted black glass giving way on either side to an emerald frame of vegetation denser and more vibrant than anything she has known from her own temperate climes.
A small window appears in the virtual vision being projected into the cinema of her optical lobe, and data begins scrolling past as the Evangelion's secondary pilot support systems begin their boot sequence. As far as she can tell, everything is normal. Unit-02's plug computer finds a communications lock with the local communications net, and the status lights begin flickering over to green before fading out of existence.
"Thirty minutes to drop," the pilot reports, and his voice emanates from a box labeled 'October Victor 2' with the text 'sound only' filling it.
"Roger," she replies, grinning, "S2 nominal, Unit-02 online and ready to kick some butt."
Shinji's face appears as his prototype model catches up to her and links into the network. "Unit-01 online," he says, quietly, and she lets her eyes linger over his face. He isn't looking back, but down at the ocean flashing past beneath them.
There is something soft and nostalgic in his eyes, mingled with wonder and appreciation as his massive, leading aircraft begins to bank over the acres of flooded, dead jungle, now heading slightly northwards. The ocean's edge here is clogged with the bleached white skeletons of drowned trees, still persisting nearly two decades after they were inundated by the inexorable and catastrophically rising waters of Second Impact.
She watches his eyes wandering over the coastal bayou, and a tiny smile lights the corners of his lips.
"Asuka...the birds," he whispers, as though afraid to disturb them. Despite herself, she glances down.
Far beneath the still-descending SETA-7s, she spots what he sees, among the endless acres of dead wood and the submerged husks of human habitation. Enormous flocks of white birds with broad, black streaked wings, caught in mid migration, their gangly legs dragging in the wind as they head north.
Even among the dead, bleached trunks, there are spots of green, speckled patches of semi-aquatic vegetation pushing up out of the water, evolving away from their previously terrestrial lifestyle or carried there from afar on the currents of the ocean.
Asuka can't help but join him in watching the endless flocks of ivory creatures winging slowly along beneath them, no more than specks against the dark waters, but spread out in such numbers that they humble even the elephantine scale of her Eva and its carrier. The planes bank again in the opposite direction, lining up on their targets. Below them, the birds vanish into the rear view and the trees scale errant, winding ravines across the hills that rise up and out of the sea.
There is an almost knife-sharp demarcator at the top of the plateau, where the trees segue violently into the quilted patchwork of crop fields, a pallid olive green against red-brown soil that stretches outward forever. Tarnished silver turtles slide past beneath her, masses of shantied slums topped with corrugated aluminum, harsh patches of humanity on the earth.
A river slithers past, scales shining white in the sun, then a muddy brown when the spearhead shadow of the SETA and Unit-02 eclipse the light, then mirrored again. Not long after, the farmland thins, giving way to a grey-yellow expanse dotted with blackened shrubs, so different from the uniform greens she is used to.
"Five minutes, final approach."
Shinji replies first, and he's still wearing that small smile of his when Asuka echoes him. Not long after, they are patched into the global net as the satellite uplinks resolve, and another familiar face intrudes upon Asuka's private sanctum.
Beneath them, the coastline slips away into the east and jungle stretches out towards the rapidly approaching horizon. Once, Shinji had said he could imagine their Evas gliding free from the transports and vaulting over the edge of the world. She'd derided him for being stupid, but that's the way he is, and she really doesn't mind anyway.
"Asuka, Shinji, we have a situation update from your LZ. UN forces are under threat of immediate attack, and are requesting assistance as soon as possible, so they're in luck. Be advised nuclear weapons are a distinct possibility, so try to cover as much of our ground forces as you can manage."
"Nuclear weapons?" Shinji asks, appalled. Captain Shigeru Aoba's expression is guarded, but he doesn't elaborate.
"I know, but that's the latest intel, you two. Good luck."
"Eh, we'll take care of it," Asuka finishes, perhaps too flippantly. "Like we always do. Right, Shinji?"
"Ah, right. Thirty seconds," he says, and as always, she's pleasantly surprised to see the set of his eyes and the determination in his voice.
In the intervening thirty seconds, they overfly what little is left of the jungle, and the timer discrete in the top left of her vision ticks away to nothing over the central African savannah where the fires of conflict have never, ever really died down. She doubts, based on what she knows of the local politics and the exacerbations of recent catastrophes, that their mission here won't put an end to things...but it might give the UN enough slack to enforce peace for a little while.
That should probably be good enough. It has to be. Behind her, she can hear the snap-hiss of the transport locks coming apart just as the counter hits zero.
"Unit-02, away. Happy hunting, Lieutenant," intones the mask-muffled voice from the 'sound only' box.
"Of course. Have a good flight home," she replies, a professional courtesy for a peer before her massive biomechanoid begins a long, sullen plummet towards a distant ground. Ahead and below her, Shinji and Unit-01 have already reoriented into a landing position on the electronically marked landing zone. He's already on a fairly precise path, and she knows the competitive side of her won't allow her anything less than a perfect landing.
Her descent is less a plummet than a precision display of aerobatics, carefully planned to restrict the error margins involved with this much mass and impact velocity. Below, she notices the UN command centre, a sprawling mass of glinting structures spread out around a recently paved airstrip, anchoring a military line stretched out for a hundred kilometers on either side -- a proverbial line in the sand, and one which someone has decided to cross.
Then the ground rushes up to meet her, and she braces the Eva for impact. When they do come across that line, she'll be there.
There is nothing comparable to watching an Evangelion hit the ground from mid-atmosphere, much less two. On the ground, the friendly forces less than two kilometers from their drop zone have already been warned and their precautions are much like those for sandstorms. Vehicles and men are shrouded in heavy cloth to protect themselves from the dust, even in this intense heat.
From the perspective of the UN troops, the Evangelions themselves are nothing more than falling black masses silhouetted in the sun overhead, miniscule at first and then impossibly large. When they strike, they strike with all the force of a falling skyscraper, the air itself shuddering under the twin concussive blasts of impact, and the ground reacting in a nearly seismic manner. Dry, loose savannah dust billows outwards, an ochre wave front that renders the sky temporarily opaque, a pallid, ground-hugging thunderhead storming across the ground. Obscenities stream into the air, lost in the growl of the advancing sandstorm as it starts to settle over the UN position.
When the air clears, the two colossuses are already standing on their feet, staring at a distant horizon with glimmering eyes set deep.
"Incoming," Asuka shouts, the adrenaline already rushing over her in an excited wave, her heart pounding with anticipation and the joy of battle joined. Her HUD begins to fill with electronic symbols as the distant MAGI and their ludicrous processing power begins identifying and classifying the onrushing threats. Reaching out into her second consciousness, she draws upon the Evangelion's power, a gentle request more than a command, and the air before her shimmers and locks as she unlimbers the hulking palette rifle from its hardpoint behind Unit-02's right shoulder. At her feet, a two-foot trench appears in the dirt as the AT field carves into the ground.
Shinji has done the same, and thunder shatters the air as they begin firing at the oncoming dozens of cruise missiles, thousands of tungsten flechettes filling the space before them. A good six dozen rockets are swatted down like intruding flies, exploding in mid-flight or spiralling harmlessly to the ground, but the rest power on through their volley...only to detonate against the outspread, overlapping AT fields of both Evangelions.
"Phew," Shinji sighs, and she can see him lean back in his chair. She knows he still doesn't really enjoy this, and his misgivings are strong enough that he tries never to harm anyone. Still, he does pilot, and she's never been able to wrench a satisfactory answer out of him.
"That's it?" she gripes. Jinx.
Six more targeting brackets suddenly appear in the far distance, rising slowly over the horizon. There is a pause while the MAGI identify them as a mix of obsolete but relatively recent missiles, real ones originally built for use by the cash-strapped Russians and Americans.
"Those will be the nuclear ones," Shigeru says, almost superfluously. Asuka already knows. These are nothing like the simple polystyrene-and-aluminum cheap-ass missiles they'd just brought down. Another couple dozen of those homemade, short-range contraptions that had flooded the world's black market not too long ago rise out of the distant forest, presumably to confuse her, but it doesn't work.
"Cover me, Shinji," she commands, and she sees his rifle lift again in assent, senses through her second self that his AT field is spreading to cover the gap she will leave behind.
Unit-02 launches into an all out sprint as Unit-01 begins laying down the same anti-missile fire it did before. Explosions slough off the field, resisting her advance, but she presses on through the wall of fire towards the six missiles carrying one of the few weapons that could reasonably be expected to harm her and her precious Eva. One would be bad enough, but six is undeniably dangerous, and even she is not so cocky as to dismiss that threat.
More explosions flash ahead of her as Shinji's fire comes around to clearing the space in front of her, and she's maybe a little grateful for the help, more so when he suddenly gasps and intrudes upon her combat-locked mentality.
"They're changing course!" he shouts, "They're targeting the Evas, not the camp!"
"Sheisse! What are you standing there for?" Sure enough, three of those missiles are now curving towards her, accelerating as they lock onto her impossibly fast but enormous profile.
"I have to cover our forces," he says, doing nothing to hide the pale desperation in his voice. Still, there is a note of duty and devotion, and she knows he'll hold that AT field up for as long as he needs to.
"Hmph. Then I'll just have to take care of them for you," she shoots back, and Unit-02 lunges forward so violently, sparse, dessicated trees flattening in the wake of the shock wave she generates crossing the sound barrier, that she almost misses his reply.
"Right," he says, and her plan is clear in her mind. Now all she has to do is carry it out.
With that, she reaches the point where the missiles should strike her Eva, and dodges. Her towering armored mount spins in place, and she reaches out with its fist to shatter the first threat, breaking it before its detonation circuits can complete anything. Already past her, the other two begin a fast, tight arc, curving behind her, locked into her patently obvious radar signature, and she's glad the proximity fuses are still tied to the range of a conventional weapon.
Unit-02 keeps moving, and enters pursuit of the three headed towards Shinji where he is holding his ground in front of the settling dust cloud over the UN base. There is a moment of complete timelessness as she spurs the Eva forward in an improbably accurate leap at three times the speed of sound, and she slams her Eva's hands down, open-palmed, on the two trailing missiles. They crumple beneath her touch and she grins as Unit-02 enters a flawless front flip, foot extended. When she lands, the atomized remnants of the missile are gone, crushed into the wastelands of the savannah by the Eva's massive heel.
Ahead of her, Unit-01 is stock still, palette rifle raised, steady. She plants Unit-02's feet in the dirt and slides low to the ground, luring the missiles towards her in a straight line...right into Shinji's field of fire.
Around them, the remaining conventional warheads fill the air with roiling flame, but Shinji's face is focused, unyielding, as Unit-01's massive finger clenches down on the trigger. The two remaining missiles break apart in mid-flight, splintering into hundreds of metal fragments which twist and flicker in the bright sunlight as they tumble to the ground.
"I could've taken them, Shinji," she says, an attempted pout forming on her lips and then dissolving as she does into laughter.
He only indulges her with a smile.
"Sit tight, you two," Shigeru says, interrupting the sudden quiet. "Intel is still checking for more unaccounted launchers and we haven't finished with the satellite data yet. Still, preliminaries suggest you've put a major brake on any invasion plans for now."
Her blood is still pumping, and she wraps her arms around herself, noticing the slightest trembling in her fingertips, a souvenir of excitement aborted so anticlimactically. She's still on edge, still raring, still alert and ready to move, ready to rush, to charge back into battle. She is a warhorse bred for a supernatural war, and there is something unsatisfying about every human conflict she has 'mediated' from her seat a few hundred feet above the ground.
Shinji doesn't seem to have any such problems, and he lays back, relaxed as he scans the distant horizon carelessly with half-lidded eyes. Unit-01 has slid back into minimal power mode, sitting on one knee, the crushed, splintered bulk of a banyan tree carelessly interred beneath the massive black metal wedge that guards that joint.
"Asuka?" he asks, suddenly pensive, and she comes down from her high all too quickly. "What do you think? About all this?"
She blinks, but she's not entirely surprised. Shinji has an...endearing habit of asking weird questions about the world around him. He was the only person in NERV who'd ever wondered why they were fighting the Angels in the first place, or about what reasons she had for piloting her Eva, or about the world's slow recovery. If he could have asked those birds why they were migrating, he would have.
"About what?" she says, a mocking smirk already drawing up on her lips. She knows Shinji spots it, because she sees his eyes flicker towards her and back again.
If he saw, he doesn't let it show. "About...this. About coastal countries trying to push inland. I mean, it's not like they're recovering much good farmland by invading. I read somewhere that this is mostly pasture and scrub, if it isn't desert."
Her grimace collapses as her mind grabs the notion and begins to digest it, drawn by the irresistible promise of an argument. In a way, it's her uniquely uncouth manner of acknowledging that his question might be worth something after all.
"Huh. I guess it's just human nature. I guess...we're afraid of change, so we fight to keep things the same. I suppose for a lot of people, it's easier to take what someone else has than rebuild what's been lost. Why does it matter to you anyway?"
He shrugs casually. Of course, like always, it's only now that she's interested in hearing what he thinks that she realizes he doesn't really know what his own answer might be, or why he bothers. It's infuriating sometimes, because it's like he's fishing for other people's opinions to serve as his own, and the way he usually slouches down on himself only reinforces that image.
"I don't know. Maybe you're right. I guess sometimes it seems like we're going about this all wrong. I mean, it works, but I don't know if it really helps that much."
"You're hopeless," she teases, the smirk reclaiming it's place on her lips, glad he'd thought at least that far ahead. "You do realize you probably just saved a couple hundred or a couple thousand lives right now, I hope?"
Shinji perks up at that, and grins back at her. "Well, yes. I'm not as dense as you'd like to believe, Asuka. What I meant was that...instead of just keeping the borders where they are and enforcing that...maybe there's something we could all do to help them rebuild rather than keeping them from taking what isn't theirs by force?"
"You're not seriously suggesting that I turn my Unit-02 into a mobile construction unit?" she replies, one eyebrow raised incredulously. He stammers incoherently and she chuckles to herself before continuing. "No, I understand. Besides which, using the Evas would probably be far too expensive for anyone's liking."
She can tell her haranguing hit the mark, from the embarrassed but slight flush on his face, and she can't help the vaguely righteous laughter spilling out of her.
"Yeah...it's always been the same thing everywhere. Here, Ukraine, Vietnam, Argentina..."
"I know you're ever so attached to your literature major, Shinji," she says, flavoring her words with just the slightest touch of sarcasm, "but maybe you should consider international relations. Not that you'd find anyone to listen to a stooge like yourself."
Above them, the sun has shifted and the previously shadowless Evangelions now cast their vast, inky umbras across the parched earth and an indolent wind ripples endless tall sheaves of pale sienna grass. It must be evening in Japan, since it was already late afternoon there when they'd left. Asuka fights a pyrrhic battle with a yawn, losing by the barest margin, leaving neither side looking particularly graceful or convincing. Near the site of the base, small groups of birds are returning, trickling back towards the plain they'd abandoned when the firing had started.
Behind them, the Evangelion support units are beginning to arrive, a circling convoy of cargo planes jockeying for position in the pecking order of the holding pattern. Captain Hyuuga is with them, managing logistics as usual, and it takes long enough for the newcomers to set up that no one has time to relieve Asuka's boredom or listen to her usual half-hearted complaints. Neglected, she focuses it all on Shinji, who puts up a sincere but shallow facade of interest and concern.
A glance at Shinji in a quieter moment reveals he's surveying the wildlife again, tracking their movements, watching their interactions with each other. The territorial animals are reasserting their claims, singing or showing off in equal measure, demonstrating that their territory is incontestably theirs. Except, of course, when human warfare makes things too dangerous to stick around.
Confirmation of the aborted attack comes through after a wait of several hours, and by now Asuka's dreams are firmly fixed on the acquisition of a cot and a pillow. The LCL is beginning to taste stale, even though it's a sensation rooted in her mind; even in low-power mode, the Evangelion's power control always prioritizes pilot life support.
She's disappointed in the day, even considering that there was an actual sortie, that she got to spend some time with Unit-02 alone, without the MAGI's usual interference or the technical crews harping at her. All of the recent Evangelion operations have been similar in tone: deploy to defuse some uncontrollable situation, and then sit tight while the UN mops up illegal weapons and production lines while the Evas and their pilots rust wherever they were dropped until somebody declares recovery operations can be initiated. Very, very few human opponents had ever attempted more than one strike against an Evangelion, and today's power play is no different.
In a perverse way, she's almost happy they tried to nuke her, since she was forced to do something to defend herself, actually forced to fight for once, forced into the simple, easy flow of combat that she has practically married.
When Captain Hyuuga gives the all clear and allows them to shut down, it's back to the routine. Both Evangelions turn towards the base and crouch down carefully, making sure that there aren't any friendlies carelessly using the soccer-field sized areas set aside for them. Asuka twists Unit-02 onto one knee, mirroring Unit-01 in orientation, then lays her monstrosity down, curled in a half-fetal position, with the head tucked in and turned to one side. She drains the LCL now, back into the storage tanks rather than little it spill out of the plug, because for some classified reason, LCL had become a rather scarce commodity since Third Impact. As it recedes, she forces herself to vomit forth the contents of her lungs, the acrid, bloody taste of the LCL harsh against her tongue only now that she is no longer synchronized. It's not graceful by any means, and it's just as well that no one can observe this unfortunate, but necessary, function.
Then, she makes egress, with the usual results. A hiss-snap and the grinding of metal on metal as the armor plates warding her slide away, and the plug itself slides free from its prison, still smoking with the incredible heat of the Evangelion's gigantothermic body. Beneath, the already dry grass withers, shying away from the alloyed tube.
When the hatch re-opens, a burning wave of dry heat crashes over Asuka and sucks her breath away, casting it into the long shadows of the afternoon. Golden light, unfiltered by her Evangelion's systems, strikes her eyes and she squints in the brilliance, fumbling blindly for the edge of the plug. She finds it on sheer instinct, on the physical memory ingrained in her arms over the last ten or eleven years, and she clings to the edge as she waits for her startled pupils to adjust.
The smell of the savannah descends on her next, the sterile stench of dried out grasses and sun-baked manure, pungent in the still air.
A NERV technician approaches, wheeling a short stepladder in front of him. He must be a new recruit, she thinks, looking at a face unhardened by the years, topped with black hair trimmed to regulation and a cloth cap. He hands her the white towel folded over his arm and she accepts it, burying her face in the cool cloth and enjoying the temporary respite from the heat before busying herself with the complicated task of wringing out her hair.
She can tell he's new because everyone can. The old guard, the ones who were cut apart five years ago are few and far between because only one in five survived and it shows in the haunted looks they give her without realizing it. Even then, NERV is an army of two, built on the backs of thousands of support personnel, and the vast majority of them have never fired a weapon.
Ahead of her, where Unit-01's back is turned towards her Eva, she watches as Shinji's empty plug is reinserted, and even across the two hundred meters separating them, he is easy to see; his blue and white plugsuit a splotch of intense colour against the drab, subdued hues of the ashen plain. The others standing around him are visible only as tan silhouettes where they intersect with the intense purple of Unit-01's shoulder armor. She figures if anything, she is better hidden than he is, her own plugsuit the same shade of red as the Evangelion behind her.
Shinji drapes his own towel over his shoulders, and begins the long walk towards her, his feet throwing up short-lived clouds of fine dust as he traverses over drought-parched earth. At this distance, she can't resolve the expression on his face, but she can tell from the tired lope in his stride that he's all too happy to be free from the plug. Her shoulders are tight, she realizes, stretching her arms up and behind her, and she agrees with him silently.
Captain Hyuuga finishes trading words with someone who could be the base bigwig and their interpreter, and dismisses himself to chase after Shinji, catching up to him after an easy jog. A moment later, she decides that her seat on the stepladder isn't going to find any more shade than it already has, so she drapes her towel over her head and lifts herself to her feet, heading out against the flow of other NERV personnel beginning to cluster around her Evangelion.
"You look like a nun, Asuka," Shinji says with a tired smile.
"I wish," -- she sticks out her tongue -- "then I wouldn't have to worry about jerks like you gawking at me all the time."
Shinji knows better than to fall for the bait, and he lets her take the easy victory.
"So where are we staying, Makoto? We'd better not be sleeping under the stars, and I swear they'd better have air conditioning or I'm going to hurt someone."
Captain Hyuuga grins. "Oh, don't worry about sleeping outside. NERV was kind enough to pack a couple of tents along with us. We wouldn't want our pilots to get eaten by hyenas after all."
Asuka's explosive yell and the stream of mixed-language profanities following it echo in the artificial canyon outlined by the two recumbent Evas. Even accustomed to her occasional outbursts, Shinji can't help but cringe. It's too much for Makoto, though, who is bent over with laughter. She's about to slug him when Shinji grabs her cocked arm gently.
"He's kidding, Asuka. He said we're camping out in one of the officer's huts over there," and he has a faintly amused smile printed on his lips. After a tense, fuming moment, Asuka relaxes her fists, and if he weren't trying so hard to conceal his own amusement, she would have been tempted to end it her own way.
With unmistakable deadly intent, she looks him in the eye. "You say camping again, and I kill you. Makoto, what did she offer you?"
"Don't play stupid with me. Misato," she says, her voice frozen back into its normal range, and dripping with acid.
His grin is too wide, and she suddenly feels like slugging him anyway, by proxy, just for good measure. "A beer," he sniggers. "But the hyenas were Shigeru's idea, I swear."
"They're both dead," she vows under her breath. "All right, lead the way."
When Makoto recovers, he motions them to follow him over past the row of quonset huts and prefab buildings hastily thrown up inside the perimeter fence, and the presence of a small contingent of NERV security men keeps the well-wishers away as they pass through the base's main entrance.
The trailer is unmarked, an oversized shoebox with dusty grey corrugated walls and overturned crates serving as makeshift stairs to each of the four entrances cut in the long side. The doors are unpainted, cheap aluminum of obviously poor quality by the fractally unresolved crystals visible in the rolled surface. Electricity comes in along a tattered overhead line connecting it to the base's diesel-fueled power grid.
Inside isn't much better. There are two narrow frame cots with foam mattresses thin enough to build a sandwich with, and a pair of footlockers at the base of each bed. Another small crate serves as a bedside table shared between them, and overhead the bare incandescent bulb hangs, a sterile, pearlescent fruit descending from a plywood ceiling. In a concession to the health of the soldiery, gauzy white mosquito netting hangs from the ceiling, kept out of the way over the beds with garbage twist-ties and mounted awkwardly from metal hooks screwed in overhead.
"Oh, great," Asuka mutters, rolling her eyes. "It'll do, I guess...it's bloody warm in here, though."
Makoto gives her a sympathetically apologetic half-smile: "Ah, yeah. The A/C in here is nonexistent." Her face falls, but he goes on. "If it's any consolation, I'll be next door suffering just like you will. Power is limited, so they haven't hooked anything up at the moment."
"Ugh. Where's Shinji?"
"No, where are you staying, dummkopf?"
"Well," Makoto interjects, tentatively, "here. Space is tight, and the numbers work out that we'd have one mixed room for officers already, so..."
"I get it. I live with him already," she sighs, and then goes on before she lets Shinji wedge one of his habitual apologies in. "Fine. Where are the showers? I need to get clean."
"You probably won't like them either; but they're down at the end of the row here. Can't miss 'em, they're right next to the big steel tanks and the filtration units. Apparently they have to truck it in every morning, so I wouldn't count on it being very effective right now. Anyway, I still have some business to attend to; I promised General Kohl that I'd get back to him about setting up a temporary maintenance pit in between the Evas. He's worried about proximity, but I'm trying to convince him the two of you are competent enough not to step on anyone."
"Of course we are!"
"I know, but he's the boss around here. Anyway, sorry about everything."
"It's alright," Shinji says, "I don't think it'll be a problem."
Makoto heads for the door, then stops. "I forgot; dinner is at eighteen hundred in the mess, I should probably show you where it is."
"I'm fine," she waves him off. "We had dinner on the way, remember?"
Shinji excuses himself and leaves with Makoto, pre-empting her request to let her change alone. Just to be sure, she draws the flimsy blinds before pulling a replacement uniform out of the pack the logistics people left under her bed on the right. It's a copy of the one she'd scrambled into that afternoon when Misato had called from the geofront with their mobilization orders.
Back home, Shinji's new textbooks for the year are probably still shrink-wrapped on the kitchen table where he'd dropped them, and since Misato had probably not been home yet, Pen-Pen had probably been forced to seek alternate forms of nutrition.
As terrible as Misato's apartment has been at times, it's paradise compared to this hovel, which has probably seen more war-torn battle zones than most of the soldiers that have ever lived in it. She shudders at that thought, wondering what terrible blood diseases and exotic infectious agents previous tenants have left behind. At least it smells relatively clean, and the sheets look like they were unpacked earlier in anticipation of their arrival.
By the time she returns from the showers -- a hastily erected concrete affair with little to no privacy besides the division of the sexes -- Shinji has already returned, and a can of bug repellent is sitting on the crate by their beds, probably acquired from Makoto while she was out. He is rummaging through his things for his usual pre-sleep rituals as the setting sun leaks a tiger lily orange at a slant through the window: the SDAT, a novel, and some peace and quiet. Asuka steals the last item.
"D'you have another book?" she asks, throwing herself onto her cot, which protests in screeching agony at the unusual stresses imposed upon it. Across the narrow, crowded aisle, Shinji is cross-legged, sitting in the shade behind the lance of orange sunlight that slashes across in front of him, illuminating spirals of dust drifting lazily through the air.
"Yeah...I don't know if you'd like them, though. They're for some of the courses I'm taking in the fall, and they're pretty old. Classics, I guess." He knows her far too well, and her predilection for international intrigue or the occasionally morbid crime novel. Medieval Japanese epics are hardly her style. "Didn't you bring anything?"
"Eh, I never re-packed my away bag. I have some games, but I've been through them about a hundred times already. Never mind."
Ten minutes later, she is half-heartedly leafing through one of Shinji's epics. He'd handed it to her without saying anything once she started tapping on the frame of the bed with one hand, a sure sign she was bored out of her mind. He knows her far too well, she thinks, and she's not sure what to make of it.
Shinji is still leaning into his corner, shrouded in his shadows, eyes flickering through the first few chapters of his own book. He's taller now, the final victor in the ongoing height war of the Katsuragi household which left him even a little taller than his late father. The shadows seem to fall against the smooth wall of his cheek, more fleshed out than his father's almost skeletal features. He's still scrawny, and where is he drawn up in the corner he seems almost folded as he hunches over his book.
He isn't taking notes this time, she thinks, so it must be his first read-through, the time to actually enjoy the writing before vivisecting the author's thoughts and ideas into an unrecognizable slew of terminology and metaphorical interpretation.
He's been her roommate for almost five years, and she suspects she knows him far too well also. She knows him well enough to know his quirks inside and out, knows how to cut him off when he tries to take responsibility for something that he shouldn't bother with, knows how to abuse him just enough without infringing upon his fragile sense of self, knows how to curb him to her bidding and make him enjoy it. Occasionally she feels almost sympathetic -- not guilty -- about the way he takes it without complaining, but she also knows it's his choice, and he doesn't seem to mind.
She returns to the book, where she is skimming a random chapter from somewhere near the middle. She doesn't know who any of the characters are or why they're important, but there's some kind of battle about to happen, so it's enough for her.
In her peripheral vision, Shinji looks up for far too long to be resting his eyes, and then drops back into his book. Don't think I didn't catch you looking, she thinks, and she sighs to herself. Maybe it was inevitable, and sometimes she catches herself feeling before rededicating herself to impossibilities.
She rolls onto her side, facing away from him, her drying hair falling in a dark auburn wave over her shoulders and across the pillow. She presses the book up against the wall, bracing it against her elbow as she props her head up on the palm of one hand. Don't let me see you looking at me, she implores him silently, you don't really know what you're looking at. You don't really know what it is you think you want.
With the sun pouring in through the window, even the tepid draft spilling through the window and out through the door ajar is unable to slow the gradual warming of the room. By the time Shinji closes his book, memorizing his page number and tucking it carefully back into his away bag, the room is stifling and dry, a veritable hellhole.
Behind her, she hears him throw back the sheets on his bed. He won't use them, not in this heat, but he tucks his bare feet under the covers anyway.
"Do you mind if I take off my shirt? It's really warm in here and..."
Without rolling over, she just waves at him. "Yeah, whatever," she grunts, turning the page, trying not to think about what he might look like under these conditions, and she delves back into the battle unfolding to ward off the guilt. For her part, she's ludicrously uncomfortable, the dense fabric of the uniform not exactly designed with this climate in mind, and the sleeves are starting to chafe as they become sweat-logged. Sleeping, she thinks, is going to be hell.
Behind her, she hears the rustle of cloth and the tearing of velcro as he discards that article of clothing and then rearranges himself on his bunk. She knows he's lying there with his legs drawn up, arms pulled in, head tucked towards his chest. He sleeps like a child, she'd once remarked to herself, for no good reason.
"Don't forget the netting. I won't feel sorry for you if you catch malaria," she mumbles, and she can hear him sit up again to arrange it around his bed. The bugs aren't out yet in force, but they will be once the sun starts to set, and she remembers to bury herself in a few milligrams of the repellent before she goes back to reading.
It's not long before the twilight becomes too dim for her to read, and by now she's so tired that what little light is left won't bother her. Not that it matters, since it's so bloody hot. Outside, the perimeter floodlights stutter and sneeze before their harsh light spills out past the fence, highlighting the recumbent forms of the Evangelions in a twisting, contoured dance of shadow. The curtains mute the light, which flows softly into the space, lending the room the impression that it is underwater.
With uncharacteristic care, she deposits Shinji's extra novel on the crate between their beds and pulls back into her own netting, killing her first insect of the night as she does so. She folds her hands under her head, closing her eyes, and waits for sleep to claim her.
It doesn't. All she can think of is the heavy layer of cloth wrapped around her, moist with her own sweat, scraping her arms and legs with every movement, and the increasingly maddening whine of the invading mosquitoes.
"Shinji? You still awake?"
"Either you are or you aren't. Listen..," she pauses here, balancing the pros and cons of the idea that's come into her head, and decides that the discomfort and insomnia simply are not worth it. "...I'm sweating to death over here too. So I'm going to take off my shirt. You look, you die. I promise," and she lets her voice drop into that same threat range she used against Makoto earlier.
Shinji doesn't reply right away, but she knows he's got it.
"Okay," he says, finally. "Good night, Asuka."
"You too. Don't be a perv," she finishes, and realizes it was completely unnecessary.
She's wearing a sports bra under her uniform, so for all intents and purposes, she is still reasonably modest. Shinji has seen her in a swimsuit far more revealing, but there are other factors in play here. She strips off her top perfunctorily, and takes a moment in the filtered light of the compound's illumination to look at herself.
Her entire body is marked by the hellishly deviant scar tissue that crisscrosses over her skin from her clavicles down past her hips, puckering deep into her flesh. For the most part, the scars on the her front are mirrored on her back as well. The symmetry is insanely absurd, until one realizes that the scars actually traverse through her slender form, penetrating muscles and organs. Her left arm, especially, has a long, thin line of pale replacement tissue running from between her index and middle finger down to the elbow.
She is living proof that medical miracles do occasionally happen, and what she owes to the team of doctors who managed to restore her life, her mobility, and most of her sight is even too much for her to imagine.
But she hates the pale lines in her skin, even as proud as she is of her place, her role as a warrior. She hates the scars that mark her, hates everything they represent, hates everything they are. They are the marks of the Angel war. They are the marks of her defilement, of her defeat, of her pain.
Even more, she hates the twin scars running down her forearms to her wrists. They are the marks of her failure as a human being, the marks of her inability to survive. She hates them more than anything because even now they represent the immense potential capacity of her hatred for herself.
More than anything, she is ashamed. Shinji has seen some of the other scars, she knows, and she exploded with more vituperative force than ever before when he'd accidentally walked in on her leaving the bathroom one day before she'd gotten her robe on over her towel. He hadn't seen much besides her outer arms and what was supposed to be the soft skin above the curve of her breasts, but it was enough.
He has no clue about the marks below her wrists, or her insistence on wearing long sleeves at all times. As always, he was quietly accepting of her adopted habits, and she can't remember him ever bringing them up in conversation. Does he ever think about it? Does he ever ask himself about the lines he saw, when he asks himself those ludicrous questions? Does he really even care?
She tosses her uniform top onto the bottom edge of her bed, where it hangs precariously, then rolls back onto her side and closes her eyes, trying to ignore the steady buzz of heat-seeking vermin and their futile efforts to find her skin through the mesh, trying to ignore the window-rattling rumble of convoy after convoy of the tanks and transports heading out of the base for a midnight counter-strike.
When she wakes, she is soaking, her skin damp from where she has been lying in a pool of her own sweat all night. Incredibly, she is freezing, her skin shuddering from the drop in ambient temperature. As if the rest of the conditions here weren't bad enough, Asuka swears under her breath and decides Africa is by far the most godforsaken of any continent she has ever visited to date. It isn't actually that it is cold in the room, but the difference between night and day is enough that she fumbles in the half-darkness for the blankets bunched together at the base of the bed. As she draws them up to her shoulders, a whisper from the other side of the room catches her attention.
"What is it, Shinji?" she whispers back. The walls are paper thin and she knows, having heard a muffled conversation between her neighbors before dropping into a deep, dreamless sleep facilitated by the physical and mental exertion piloting Unit-02 demanded. When he doesn't reply, she calls him an idiot and is about to roll over and go back to sleep when she hears him again, whispering through the angry cloud of insects boiling around the room.
Sighing, she grabs her shirt from where it lies crumpled at the foot of the bed, and drapes it over her shoulders, drawing it around her body as well as she can to ward off the cold. Incredibly, the repellent seems to work, and she only needs to wave a few minute attacks away from her face as she creeps across the room on ghost feet to where her inescapable roommate lies.
Shinji is still lying where she last saw him, the bud-shaped earphones of his walkman scattered across his pillow, his upper body curled into a vaguely defensive shape, as though he were trying to protect something he holds in his arms. Through the mesh, in the darkness, he is a pale, featureless mass, his regular breathing the only indication he is alive.
With some difficulty, she extracts her hand from where she is holding her shirt against her chest, and pushes aside the netting like a breeze clearing fog. His spine and shoulder blades jut from his back, casting shadows across his skin, and she can see him shiver in his sleep.
"Dummkopf," she whispers, and reaches down to grab his blanket.
It's now that she realizes his hands are curled into white-knuckled fists, and she is startled by the intensity of the grimace carved on his face, marring the features that were beginning to become those of a man. She's shocked at how astoundingly honest and vulnerable the lines around his eyes make him, how unguarded and painfully lonely his face is when it's not settled into that bland, numbly content expression he wears everywhere.
He whispers something again, his lips moving in the darkness, but she can't make out anything approximating a recognizable word. There is something painfully familiar about him, about the glistening hints of a tear in his visible eye, but she can't put a finger on it. For an eternal fraction of a second, she wonders what the hell she is doing standing all the way over here when a perfectly good cot is waiting behind her. She stands paralyzed, locked in morbid fascination at the evidence of his agony, staring down over him, and she feels dirty and voyeuristic as he lies there, trembling.
Finally, she remembers the blanket in her hand.
Tearing herself away, she throws it over him haphazardly, and retreats to her bunk, wincing at the squeak that tears through the room as she crumples prone.
"Can't deal with this now," she mutters, settling onto the dry patch against the wall.
In the morning, Shinji is gone.
His vacant bunk is perfectly made, although rumpled, the only sign he'd ever been there beside his bag shoved beneath. For a moment, she worries about whether or not he'd seen her while she was sleeping, but this is a moot point, now that she is actually covered. Later, she wonders if he ever figured out what she'd done in the middle of the night, but at the moment it kind of feels pointless too.
It doesn't stop the guilt, though, and she feels like she has trespassed on sacred ground, violated some aspect of his personality that he's never shown her. Enough, she thinks, he's still an idiot, and it's none of my business if he has nightmares, or what they are about.
Business as usual. Standard operating procedure.
Slowly, she gathers her knees up against her chest, groping in the growing light of the sunrise for the bag she left by the side of her cot for fresh undergarments and a fresh uniform, and she hopes they'll announce Evangelion recovery operations today. Then they can get back to their lives, get away from these cramped quarters and all this awkward, perpetual proximity. At least she has a room at home where she can have some peace to herself and not have to worry about Shinji.
"Damn," she mutters, resting her forehead in her palms with her legs hanging over the edge of the cot, her heels flat against the wooden floor. "Stop thinking about it, you stupid girl."
For now, all she wants is another shower and some grub, and then she'll hunt down Makoto and make damn sure he pesters Misato into calling down the SETAs for dustoff. Anything to get out of this hellhole.
She scrubs her face with her fingertips a few times, then dares to stand up and dress. The west-facing window is still dark, but when she glances outside she can see pale saffron light reaching out with slender fingers across the broad valley, lighting the Evas with gentle brush strokes of yellow. The change of watch has not happened yet, and she blames the jet lag for her being awake at what is probably some ungodly hour.
The morning is deathly quiet, unlike the rush of morning traffic she is so accustomed to, and it is disconcerting on some fundamental level, discomforting, the experience of a primitive man whose fire has gone out. The cry of an unfamiliar bird croaks out of the grass far away, a hoarse ululation without grace or composition, and all it serves to accomplish is to remind her that she has not gone deaf over night.
As though summoned, the low crackle of gunfire echoes from across the plain, a distant reminder that all is not well in the world. It's pathetic, is what it is, and she closes her eyes in frustration at the numb inhumanity. She stops herself when she gets there, unwilling to explore that line of thought any further, and she stands against the window frame until she can feel her eyes glaze over.
Behind her, there is the soft shuffle of feet padding through the dirt and the tell-tale creak of the door handle. She doesn't hear the door open, though, and there is a soft knock on the abused metal sheeting.
She doesn't reply, and the knock comes again.
"I guess you're still asleep, but just to let you know I'm coming in," Shinji says, and the door wings open on its hinges, a swirl of dust chasing it as it swings out into the morning. Sunrise floods the room, a lake of warm, inviting light that caresses everything it touches. Her hair is a nimbus of glowing red where the sun brushes it, and her skin apparently translucent against that distant, brilliant stellar candle.
"Oh, good morning," he says when he sees her standing by the window, surprised she hadn't said anything when he'd knocked. "I hope you slept better than I did."
She doesn't deign to respond to that particular statement.
"Where'd you go this early?" she says, turning around and squinting in the bright light. "And close the door."
"Oh, sorry. I woke up a while ago and I couldn't fall asleep again, so I went for a walk. I just came back to get my book..," he adds, bending down to pick it up where he left it on the ground. "You know, you just missed the sunrise...I got down around where the mess hall is, and some of the soldiers were taking a cigarette break on the roof. They invited me up to watch...it was really beautiful. I'm heading back there now to read, if you're interested."
Whatever was bothering him just a few hours ago is now long vanished, and he wears a beatific smile as he turns back towards the entrance. She was ready to chew him out, but somehow everything he's just said makes perfect sense. Besides which, she's had enough of being alone with her thoughts for now.
"I'm coming with you," she says, and finds her excuse. "I'm starving, and you said you know where the mess is."
"Sure," he says, and he tucks his book under his arm as he holds the door open for her.
They walk in silence for a while, trudging down the makeshift parade ground in the centre of the camp, between the lines of barracks that each look considerably more worn that even their corrugated shelter. Wooden placards with unit designations and some limited graffiti are mounted over the doors, boasting identity and incomprehensible references to inside jokes.
Suddenly, inexplicably, Asuka halts in her tracks, leaving Shinji to carry on for a few confused steps before stopping.
"Wait," she says, a curious look on her face. "I didn't know you spoke German."
"I don't," and his confused expression is all the proof she needs to confirm what she already knows.
"These are German peacekeepers here," she says, pointing at the placards scattered around her. "How did you talk to those guys on the roof?"
Shinji blushes. "I didn't. They just shouted 'Eva' at me until I looked up and saw them. It was kind of awkward at first, and it took me a while to figure out that they were trying to introduce themselves." He goes on at an odd sound from Asuka. "Then I think they offered me a cigarette, but I wasn't sure how I could decline it politely, so we ended up using, I don't know, sign language."
By now, Asuka is laughing at him more furiously than she can remember in a long time, and he looks around, unsure of where to rest his eyes. He settles on the sky, and the long, wispy altocirrus that drift there.
"Okay, Shinji," she gasps, before dissolving into chuckles again. "Let's go find them so I can get some food and apologize for your being a dumbass."
"I took English in school, and I'm pretty good at that," he adds, failing to defend himself with any real conviction. "And it's not like you tried to teach me or anything."
She hums something to herself as a tanker truck rumbles towards them on a rocky suspension, and they make way, treading along the edge of a gravel drainage ditch by the side of the main road.
"Do you think anyone actually lives around here?" Shinji asks abruptly, another one of his odd questions.
"I suppose," she says, remembering something she saw on television once, a documentary. "Hunter-gatherers, probably...I don't think you can farm much of anything right around here. They probably don't even know what country this is. Even then, I'm sure we've scared off anything that was still waiting around, even with all of this here."
The mess hall is still empty and dark, but Shinji leads her around to the back door where some of his erstwhile friends are putting out bulging plastic garbage bags for incineration later, and he is greeted with mixed calls of 'Shinji' and 'Eva'. Asuka, for her part, smoothes things out quickly, and they are fairly astounded to find that she is not only fluent, but one of their co-nationals, if an expatriate.
Her foul mood is quickly forgotten over a couple of plates of foil-wrapped ready-to-eats haggled out in exchange for candid details of the Evangelions and their operation while the Germans swap off their duties to listen. They're closer to warehouse attendants than cooks, but someone has to prepare and distribute, and that's their job this morning. This isn't the first time Asuka's had field rations, and they're no better or worse than she remembers, but it puts an end to her stomach's complaining.
As a story-teller, she drags Shinji along with her, occasionally -- and much to his chagrin -- using him as a prop. There is envy in their audience's eyes, not the innocent envy that they occasionally felt from their classmates way back when, but at the relative freedom they enjoy as Eva pilots rather than the day-to-day blood-and-gristle grind of modern conventional warfare. It's a mixed blessing, though, and she suspects she needn't relate how bad things can get in an Eva since they seem to recognize that instinctively, as fellow soldiers...just like she knows they've seen and done things that she probably never has either.
When meal time hits, the mess staff eventually all filter back inside to serve their fellow soldiers, and Shinji and Asuka are left to their leisure out behind the mess hall, where they sit on discarded cinderblocks surrounded by the extinguished butts of cigarettes long-smoked and the thin layer of ash they brought with them.
The sun is higher now, and the air is warm against Asuka's skin as she stretches out against the wall of the structure, oblivious to the smell of rotting garbage and the clamor of silverware and shouting coming from inside. Shinji sits beside her, hunched over his book, absorbed.
"Thanks, Shinji," she says, finally, folding her forearms behind her head and closing her eyes.
Confused, he stares at her, then settles back and turns the page.
"It's kind of a shame I didn't bring a camera," he says, "I think Touji and Kensuke would have liked to see pictures."
"Of what? There's nothing to see here. We're in the middle of a river valley that's been dry longer than humans have been on the planet."
"Well, I don't know. Just stuff. Like the people, or the landscape. It's kind of beautiful. Maybe you just have to look at it the right way."
She snorts. "Maybe, if you're crazy. I'll take Japan, thank you very much. I've heard that trees grow there."
"There are trees here," he replies, and he's about to point one out past the edge of the fence when he remembers that her eyes are still closed.
"Yeah, dried up, shriveled logs. What are your friends up to these days anyway?"
She hadn't heard much out of the other two stooges after their class had graduated and moved on, and that had been just over a year ago. Hikari was a different story, of course, and Asuka doubted she'd be able to lose track of that one even if she tried. It was getting harder to keep in touch, though, since Hikari had moved away for university and a chemical engineering degree while Asuka was rooted to Tokyo-3 by Project E and all that entailed. Hikari had debated staying closer to home, but Tokyo-3 and its various NERV affiliations tended towards the biological and physical aspects of engineering which simply weren't as interesting.
While a pilot's pay was pretty good, things had gotten boring since graduation. Neither the workforce nor lying around at home all day really appealed to her, so since about December she'd been contemplating her options. So far, a master's degree was winning, and she'd all but confirmed joining the lab of one professor Kakuta come fall.
"Kensuke's trying to get into the police college, he says they're planning on upgrading their internet presence, and he can't stop talking about all the gear he'd get to use if he was doing that. Touji hasn't decided on anything yet, but he says if he hasn't got it figured out by next year he'll just go to teacher's college."
"That would be a waste," she adds. To everyone's surprise, especially Hikari's -- given she'd been dating him for a year by graduation -- Touji finished third in the class ranks, despite never having paid any attention in class. He just wasn't in the habit of sharing his grades.
Shinji chuckles quietly, and she doesn't notice he's closed his novel. "Yeah...still, I think he'll figure something out. I can't imagine him being a very good teacher."
"Me either," she concludes, swatting away a fly that had drifted too far from the garbage at the far end of the wall. That aside, she thinks, basking in the glow of the rising sun, maybe Africa isn't so bad after all.
"He says he's actually taking notes in class now, even if he doesn't sound like he's enjoying it that..."
He's interrupted by the sound of Asuka's satellite phone, a shrill, insistent beeping that emerges muffled from her breast pocket. Asuka doesn't bother to open her eyes, and she fishes it out with two fingers. So much for a quiet morning.
When she answers, it's Captain Hyuuga, who has been tasked with keeping track of them and has failed so far. The signal from his phone is received by a geosynchronous satellite orbiting more or less above his head, rerouted through a complex mess of silicon wafers, and sent back down to where she is sitting at the diametrically opposite corner of the mess hall. Round trip: seventy thousand kilometers for the word 'hello' to travel one ten-millionth of the distance.
As she finishes talking, Shinji is already on his feet, surreptitiously dusting himself off with the soft cover of his paperback. He knows as well as she does that those satellite phones ring for one and only one reason: when the Evas are needed for something, and by extension, their respective pilots.
She gets up to leave, but Makoto has already come around to the back of the building, an old mud brick barn appropriated from an ancient village that used to be where the base now stands. While better privacy could probably be arranged, it seems unnecessary as all prying ears are busy inside.
"General Kohl put in a request for you both to be placed on standby since you're both still here," he says once he's sure he's got their attention, "You won't be facing anything like before, but he'd like the option of AT field cover or the artillery the Evas can provide if he needs it. It could mean you might have to start pulling offset watches, though."
Asuka sighs. Again, so much for going home early. She figured as much, and she can't really begrudge the man for wanting to use the powerful tools that have been left at his disposal. "What did Misato say?"
"She's approved it," he says, and eventually they make their way towards the Evas and NERV's staging area.
The grounds where they left the Evas are considerably different from the night before. One of NERV's smaller mobile command units has been installed, jacked up off of its oversized all-terrain wheels, and smaller support vehicles litter the stretch of space between the two Evangelions. In the middle of it all, a pair of the heavy-duty generators are chugging away, pouring a plume of black smoke into the air, laboring to provide all the electricity NERV's power-hungry circuitry can consume.
Thin grey cables snake down out from between the chinks in the Evas' armor, data feeds from internal diagnostics all feeding into the direct support vans and from there into the small mushroom forest of satellite antennas in constant communication with the MAGI half-way around the world.
The Evangelions, for all their advanced biocircuitry and five years of operation and refinement, are secretly and incurably unstable. It's an aspect of the Evas that Asuka tries not to think about too much, but the constant stream of technical jargon being relayed back and forth between the technicians is only the tiniest reminder of the complexity and...personality of the Evas.
Asuka knows far too more about Unit-02's personality than is probably healthy, but it's something she has gradually come to terms with, and she can't help but wonder if Shinji knows something similar. Nevertheless, so far as she knows, no one living at NERV seems to have caught on, and she is inclined to keep it her secret.
The communications van, unfortunately, is not air conditioned like the support vehicles that house the temperamental computers used to monitor the Evas. For all intents and purposes, this gear is the durable, field-tested stuff that would survive a near miss with an N2 mine, or a proximity blast from an emerging Angel.
Colonel Misato Katsuragi's face fills the main monitor, and if she weren't so haggard looking at the moment, she might still pass for a beautiful young woman. Even so, with her game face on, she is an avatar of composure and poise. They both know, Shinji especially, that in this mode, she is like a caryatid, a pillar of strength one moment and an explosive avenger the next. Both of them prefer her when she is collected.
"Sorry about the short notice," she says, idly brushing back the shock of white hair that appeared on her forehead shortly after the SEELE directed invasion of the geofront that had nearly killed them all, "but I've been up all night...and most of today...and I decided it couldn't wait.
"The nukes you fought yesterday were bothering me, so I had Captain Ibuki dig up as much as she could on missing nukes from every nuclear power...but there are just too many to pinpoint any six. The missiles were easy to track down, but they were expensive purchases for an army that's been making do with home-built designs -- for what was going to be a brush war, it was a little startling, which is why they called us in in the first place. Of course, the Americans and the Russians are both denying that their governments had anything to do with it, citing bureaucratic ineptitude and promising to track down the thieves. Like usual."
Misato pauses, sighs. Her shoulders slump a little, sending cascades of deep violet hair tumbling down past her epaulettes.
"So what does this have to do with us?" Shinji asks, confused.
"I think she's trying to say that the nuclear missiles don't fit the pattern," Asuka interjects. "Why would they want to nuke territory they're trying to invade?"
"That's exactly it. That's been bothering me since the satellites picked up unstable isotopes in their staging area. By the way, well done, both of you. The UN's radioactive cleanup team is probably grateful you prevented any of them from going off." The tired grimness of her face softens into a short-lived smile, before hardening again. "Look, Maya is still working with the Magi on the traces, but I don't know that we'll find anything unless we can identify the nukes specifically. I've asked General Kohl to send out a patrol to locate what's left of the bombs, hopefully we'll find a serial number or something...but the missiles were targeting the Evas specifically, and they had them before you arrived."
Asuka frowns. "You think we were lured here?"
Misato nods, and the wary expression on her face is more than just the concern of a superior officer for her subordinates.
"I want you both to be very, very careful, especially if we deploy the Evas again. Intel doesn't think there are any more nukes out there, but we can't be sure until we identify what we have and see if we can't correlate those with any other missing batches. Besides which, I've learned you can't trust most intel farther than I could throw an Eva. Try not to walk into anything that's too inviting."
"Argh," Misato groans to herself. "Too bad I only have half a liver left...I could use a drink. I guess that's what I get for letting myself get shot. Good luck, you two."
"Wait, Misato. The tents? Not funny."
She signs off with a wry grin, leaving Asuka and Shinji among the bubbling chatter of the van's technicians.
"You're never going to tell her that her liver will eventually regenerate from physical damage, are you?" Shinji asks, after a moment of silence.
"Nope," Asuka grins, "and you'd better not either. Coffee is probably better for her anyway."
Inside, she feels something sick about the notion that some part of this entire conflict might have been motivated for the sole purpose of getting to them or the Evas.
On her way out, Asuka borrows a canteen from a passing technician for a quick drink, then settles down in the bowl-shaped shade of a satellite dish, stretching. As hot as the morning has become, the plugsuit is insulated against everything but the most extreme temperatures, and she's surprisingly comfortable. Every now and then it hisses from one of the suction valves, releasing pressure, but it's a minor inconvenience.
"Do you think she's right?" Shinji asks, sitting next to her cross-legged in the grass. He's holding out the book he'd lent her the night before, and she grudgingly takes it, knowing she'll eventually get bored enough to start into it again. At the rate she reads, she's resigned herself to the eventuality that she'll finish it before she gets home, and she just might have to borrow another one.
She stretches out, resting her back against one of the braced steel struts holding up the dish. "As in, do you think somebody out there is actually gunning for us?"
"Well, yeah. It's kind of a scary thought, isn't it?"
Asuka shrugs. "So long as all they do is lob missiles at us, it shouldn't be a problem. I mean, we've been through worse, right?" Maybe she's being cocky, but it doesn't really frighten her. Even if something were powerful enough to make it past Unit-02's AT field, the Evangelion itself was so heavily armored that it would have to be ludicrously powerful to come anywhere near to hurting her. Her feeling of invulnerability isn't exactly unfounded.
"I guess," Shinji says, looking over his shoulder. The plain stretches out behind him, constrained by the Evangelions, cluttered with personnel and kilometers of cabling. One of the heavy ammunition carriers is pulled up alongside his palette rifle, reloading the cumbersome rounds one by one with a small crane. Two more trucks wait in line behind it.
"Now you're going to go all paranoid on me, aren't you?"
"No..," but she catches the tiny tremor that shivers across his shoulders and up his neck anyway.
"What was that?"
"What was what?" he says, looking around.
"You are going paranoid on me. No, you just shuddered," she says, perplexed now. Shinji's furtiveness is too obvious, too severe for their supposedly relaxed environs. "Relax, we're in the middle of a UN base, surrounded by friendly troopers. Besides, your Eva is right there; if anything happens, we can make a run for it and be in the safest place in the world."
Shinji doesn't say anything, and she's not certain she can read the look he's giving her, which is odd. There's something vaguely imploring about it, as though he wants her to leave the topic alone. This she understands, but respecting it is something entirely different.
"What? You knew it was going to be dangerous out here. As much as I bitch about our current predicament, I'm not afraid of it," she says, folding one arm over her raised knee, the book dangling limply in her hands as she turns to face him. "If you're that scared, why are you even here?"
"I'm not scared," he says, looking away from her, numbly staring at Unit-01 where it lies in the dirt.
"I don't believe you. Even if I did, why do you still pilot? In case you missed it, your father's been dead for five years."
"Asuka..," he says, and there's the slightest rise, the slightest inflection, and she knows she's gotten to him. He's infuriating like this, when he gets evasive over a simple question.
Without pause, she goes on, her words level, almost lecturing. "If this bothers you so much, why did you even come out? Why not quit?"
"Because," he finally says, and there is so much finality in the tone of his voice that she actually stalls, loses her voice...and then she realizes he didn't say it, he growled it at her...and she wasn't even yelling yet.
There's a moment where the entire conflict is reduced to the interaction of subatomic particles in the line of sight between their pupils as he meets her gaze.
"Because," he repeats, his voice softer and edgeless. "I have to go," he mutters, and stands up, the fabric of his plugsuit stretching audibly as he rises. He stands, squinting in the bright sunlight as he emerges out from under the dish, stalking off somewhere. His hands are empty, his book lying in the sand, and she can see his hands curled into fists from here.
For an eternally long minute, she stays put, watching him recede into the distance, a blue and white figure against a horizon undulating in the heat, the air twisted in agony. He is greeted by various NERV staff along the way, but he makes his way past them, heading...nowhere.
So close and yet so far...but this time she'd only managed to piss him off. Or scare him. Or something. How hard could it be for him to talk about it? It was just Eva, she thinks, just piloting...it wasn't like...
"Ugh," Asuka moans, letting her head slip back against the struts where her back rests. The neural clips and the headband that holds them there squeeze against her scalp, comforting because they are always there.
There it is again, that dirty feeling, and it's the only reason she knows that maybe she crossed a line that she didn't mean to cross. Not like she could help herself anyway.
She's stubborn, though, and she knows it, and she stays put, unable to take her eyes off Shinji in the desert as he slows down and stops near the end of the immobile convoy of maintenance vehicles, suddenly looking lost and confused. He vacillates, his image shimmering, and she's not sure if he is moving back and forth or if it's just a trick of the light. She's more stubborn than she is impatient, and finally, his silhouette grows larger as he makes his way back. He's more forgiving than he is stubborn, by far.
Enough, she thinks, and she stands up, absently tracing his dusty footprints across the grass, through the deep tire tracks of the all-terrain vehicles and the tread marks of transient tanks. Her steps drop her into the impression of one of the Evangelions' feet, and then up again onto the ridge where she finally runs into him, less than a hundred meters from the edge of the base. She hasn't even reached the line between the heads of the two Evas.
Funny, it seemed a lot further away than that, she thinks.
"You forgot your book," she offers, lamely, a mixture of incomprehension and the pretense of anger in her low voice. His eyes flash at her quickly, questioningly, and then look away, upwards, before settling back down to meet her gaze again.
"Sorry about that," he sighs, embarrassed at his inability to reign himself in, and awkwardly extends his hand to take it back.
She slaps the book into his outstretched palm lightly. "Don't be. I don't know...we used to talk about that more. You know, before. You even asked first. I'm sorry I got pushy." She doesn't apologize often, or for much. There's just something about him, about this place, that bothers her.
"Yeah...I know." A faint trace of memory fills his dark eyes, and he seems to calm himself.
"Whatever...let's just get this all over with so we can go home, okay?" He doesn't say anything, but he manages a hollow half-smile even though something grim lingers in his eyes, and it has to be enough for now.
She turns away, and the crawling buzz of a wasp or hornet whips past her ear, through her hair, and she swats idly at it.
"Stupid bugs," she says, waving her right hand around the edge of her head and trying to change the subject. "You'd think with this many..."
She turns, looking for Shinji when she realizes he isn't behind her and finds he isn't where she's expecting him. He's lying on his back against the lip of Unit-01's boot print, pawing at a splotchy hole in the upper right side of his chest, his jaw slack with surprise.
Her mind scrambles through a hundred different possibilities, then shuts down, and she's merely standing there, watching him trying to cradle the wound and look at it simultaneously while shock grips his system.
At the end of the universe, she finds her brain again, which then finds her lungs, which then find her vocal chords, which then scream the now-ancient cry of "Sniper!" She knows her voice is loud enough to carry in the still air, harsh enough to grab attention, and failing all of that, the call should be enough to wake up everyone here.
Her brain is miles ahead of her conscious mind now, and she is crouched in that crater with her fellow pilot, her hands hooked under his armpits and there is so much blood on the ground that she doesn't even want to think about the exit wound but she has to get him out of there or whoever it is shooting is going to finish off the poor bastard and she can feel the strain of her legs pulling, the sole of her neoprene-clad foot digging into the soft earth, pulling, straining against it, slipping on the slick grass and she's yelling for a medic even though everyone is taking cover and the sky is blue, so fucking blue and why does it even matter because Shinji is fucking bleeding all over her and his eyes roll up into his head.
And then, as if it wasn't bad enough already, she is punched in the back, some dishonorable asshole deciding to take advantage of her, and she is falling on her face. There is a crack as Shinji's ribcage bounces off the ground, and his breathing is already shallow. Her shoulder plows into the ground and she tries to get up, but her arm won't move like she wants it to and she flops onto her back and all she can do is look at that incredibly blue sky and wonder why it doesn't even hurt if she doesn't move.
"Breathe, Asuka," she mutters to herself, fighting the grey creeping in at the edges, "breathe, dammit." She props herself up on her elbows despite the searing bloom of pain in her gut, and dares to look down. She almost passes out right there, and there is black seeping out of her, spilling down her crimson plugsuit. Her conscious mind, the part that isn't attached to her brain anymore, consults its photographic memory and decides that she's bleeding out of her liver right before her arms give out and she collapses against the ground.
I am not in the mood to die here, she thinks. Not here, not now, not like this!
Coughing wakes her up and she didn't realize she'd passed out, or something like it. She tries to speak, tries to ask where she is, but her lips don't work and she feels kind of cold, and she's being hauled to her feet. The pain is incredible in her stomach, like she'd swallowed a pincushion or a box of razors, and then she recognizes him.
His hair is matted down to his head with sweat, and there are splotches of her dark, bile-stained blood all over his cheek where it fell on him when she was shot, and his eyes are staring out at her, pupils dilated into tiny pinpricks of black in his already black eyes. His breath is ragged, and she knows he's not well, but she can't remember what it was as he takes his first step forward.
Shit, she thinks, realizing that he's dragging her, her arm thrown over his shoulder. When did he wake up?
And then she realizes he looks absolutely furious, and it scares her awake.
She struggles with what's left of her body, and for some reason all she can think of is the word 'open' over and over again even though it makes no sense and her leg reacts all on its own, dragging in an awkward, sideways shuffle step through the grass right next to his. And then the other foot with the next step, and then the next step, and then the next after that, and then some more and she stops counting. Something pings off a rock not too far away, and she's at the bottom of a huge deep well, listening to the death rattle of automatic weapons a thousand kilometers away.
Then there's the rumble of running boots and shouting in at least two of the languages she knows even if she can't recognize any of the words and a man -- Fritz, from this morning, the rest of her mind remembers -- who is helping someone else get her onto a folding stretcher and all she wants to know is where the fuck is Shinji before she flies up, crashing into that blue -- goddamn it's so blue -- sky and the darkness crashes in on her and that's all.
The end of a dream; the vanishing components of a room without substance and the pictures of people that faded out whenever she tried to look at them.
At first, the change in the consistency of the darkness is so subtle, so impossibly small that she -- and her awareness remembers she is a she -- doesn't believe it. At some point in the limber, apparently gymnastic flow of time, she realizes she is thinking, which opens up the possibility that she is either alive, which is preferable, or some kind of disembodied spirit, which is not.
Something about a desert, she remembers, while she tries to figure out why black has decided to redefine itself as a lighter shade of grey, a grey mottled with flecks of colour so infinitesimal that she can't identify them. The slightest twitch of a muscle seems like a shudder before the presence of her oft-abused body tumbles back, apparently upset and disheartened by the neglect she's imposed upon it. It makes itself heard by the rumbling of a stomach that hasn't been filled in a while with anything besides a dull, throbbing ache. Faint surges of nausea progress through her as she lies there -- yes, lies, on her back -- and there is something weird about the skin of her arms, something bothersome and invasive, something besides the soft cocoon that is sheathing the rest of her. Her ribs move, a soft, sandy shore for the tides of breath and a slow, steady pulse that she can hear beating against her eardrums.
The feel of death lingers in her mouth, and she realizes that her lips and tongue still taste like sand.
She dares to open her eyes. It's a slowly accelerating process, and the light streaming in from somewhere is blinding even filtered through the interlaced arcs of dark eyelashes unwilling to give up their group embrace, and grit deposited there by an apparently very long sleep is becoming intensely annoying.
She wishes her arms would work until she notices that they do, actually, and she lifts her right, or tries to, before realizing that it is weakly but firmly tethered to something or other. The left isn't, though, and she brushes away at her closed eyelids with careful fingers.
The ceiling stares back at her, smooth and featureless save for the eggshell-wrinkling of white paint on plaster, and she sighs, trying to dislodge the weight of atrophy sitting on her chest. How long has it been?
A steady beeping echoes into the room from her left, and there is a small stack of monitoring equipment set up next to an IV tree that drips steadily, incessantly, into a tube that is apparently installed in her arm. Slowly, painfully, she decides to sit up, pushing up on her elbows. Her left shoulder protests with a burning spike of pain that rushes down to her wrist, but she pushes through, pushes herself through the agony blooming from somewhere deep in her midsection, her eyes squeezed shut.
Just as she breaks through that wall, she breaks, resting, and lets her head loll to the right, looking to the other side...and she sees a little red haired girl with incredible blue eyes staring at her through a glass window.
She screams, tearing her eyes away, her entire body suddenly rearing up against itself and she folds into a ball, ignorant of the splotches of red suddenly blooming through her thin hospital gown just below the edge of her ribcage. The pain is meaningless in this moment, her legs move first. She needs to get out, she needs to find the girl, find out she's not real, find out she's not the one here in the bed.
She tears free from the bedding, throwing herself at the door and there is a slick wet sound as the IV needle tears free from the tape and her skin holding it down. Far in the distance, she can hear alarms going off and the steady tone of the cardiac monitor's signal loss right when the leads tear off her chest and trail away on the ground behind her and she wrenches open the door with both hands.
Asuka slams into a shadow, falls back, and immediately there are hands on her, shouting voices. One leg kicks free and something snaps when she lashes out with it, and then more hands, more shouting, and the prick of something in her arm.
There is a surge, and two heartbeats of nothing but pure, unrestrained fury and fear, and then she is locked into her own head, her vision floating two feet ahead of where it should be and the voices resolve and fade slowly. German, that little part of her mind whispers, and it sounds very tired.
"...think she broke my..."
"...ten ccs of..."
"...psych file? Thick as my wrist..."
"...do to her?" Japanese?
And then she fades away, and she knows her eyes are open, but somehow she isn't seeing.
Later, she is vaguely aware there are straps over her wrists and torso, that at least one of them is too tight. Later, she is vaguely aware of a woman, a monster, an effigy, an imposter hanging from the ceiling at the far end of the room, who disappears when she realizes she is breathing again. Later, she is vaguely aware of a steady beeping. Later, she is vaguely aware that there are tears on her cheeks and that her throat is sore.
She sleeps again, and time slides out of existence. And then back in, with every breath, with the changing of the tides, with the harsh, croaking pulse of the monitor.
She's alive. She freaked out again. She's embarrassed, and the shame hammering in her heart is too much for her fragile mind to bear right now. She doesn't know why she's still afraid after everything, and it hurts. It hurts so much, and the tears burn trails of fire and hate down across her cheekbones on their way to the growing aquifer in her pillow.
Later, she is vaguely aware that everything is going to be okay.
When she wakes up again, she wakes up properly. She checks: I am Asuka Langley Sohryu; I am nineteen; I pilot Eva; I have no idea where I am and I am tied to a goddamned bed because I am the stupidest person alive.
Blurred shapes swim into focus, resolve as her eyes relearn their internal maps, fix themselves in a photographic transfer from film to emulsion paper. Dim light speaks of evening or night, and the artificial light from the hallway is blurred, diffused, darkened by white venetian blinds pulled down over the hall window.
"Shinji?" she rasps, barely a whisper, just as he closes the door softly, his hand on the handle.
Not just a lucky guess. It had to be him, it's always him. He stops, pauses, turns to look, just his head at first, and then his body.
"You sound terrible," he whispers, stepping back towards her. He maneuvers an awkward crutch, swinging it around, supporting himself on one arm even though his other is in a sling and he winces whenever he bends the slightest in that direction.
"Go away. Go away, Shinji." Even in this darkness, she doesn't want him to see her like this. No one should, ever.
"Um, alright. Sorry," he says quietly, starting his awkward turn back towards the door, two fingers reaching for the steel before he pauses, holding up the bulky mass inflaming the silhouette of his right hand. "I didn't mean to wake you up, I just brought you a long-sleeved shirt like you...like," -- because of course her hospital gown barely has sleeves -- "Do you still want it?"
Of course he has no idea what this is doing to her. Yes, of course she wants it, goddammit.
"...throw it to me," she says, and she hates how she sounds, sad and sick and weak and helpless.
"Okay," he says, "It's probably a bit big for you, but I couldn't find anything else." His underhand lob is awkward and so off-course it nearly misses her bed, but the sweatshirt catches at the side, resting on the lowered rail, sleeves dangling like tails to the ground. And of course she can't do anything about it, since she's tied down. Shit.
"Let me out," she sighs, looking away at the softly floodlit curtains and the sliver of star-studded darkness between them. She knows she sounds pathetic, but she doesn't deserve this, doesn't deserve to be caged in this nightmare. She can't stand his pity, but it's the only way he can feel right now, and she's resigned to it.
Coming up towards her, she can hear the soft slide-thud as he drags his plaster-encrusted foot forward, then the smearing sound of a sock against the polished antiseptic floor of the ward. He doesn't say anything, and he's incredibly, painfully slow, and even in this light she's sure he can see more than he should. He doesn't ask if the doctors said it was okay or if he should ask first, he just does it.
"Don't look at me," she commands, as loudly as she thinks she can muster, and he pauses. How does he handle this with such equanimity? She can't bring herself to make sure he isn't looking, but she can tell, because he's suddenly a whole lot clumsier, trying to move sideways, creeping up the length of the bed with the backs of his thighs, sliding up along the sheets.
At some point, he figures he's where he's supposed to be, and he rests, leaning his weight onto the frame of the rail, his good hand reaching around behind him, groping tentatively in the darkness. His fingers splayed, he sweeps his hand in every-widening arcs from the shoulder, gently searching, until he finds her fingers.
She twitches, involuntarily shying, involuntarily cringing, even though she could feel it coming.
She can feel every part of his surprisingly soft fingertips, the flat hard arc of his nails, the concentric whorls of his pads. He holds his hand a hair's width above her, trying not to touch her now but not wanting to lose track of where he is. He navigates by the discomfort of having another entity inside of his personal space, and somehow this is infinitely worse than having him actually touch her.
Asuka is not going to ask him to touch her, even when his fingertips make almost-contact with one of the jagged, stellate lines she'd clumsily carved into herself with a shard of broken mirror, his fingers touching just below where the doctors re-inserted her IV line into one of the veins under her right forearm. He follows it, a trail, a path up past the needle feeding her drugs and whatever life-sustaining solution they were pumping into her, up to where the treated leather thong holds her captive.
His fingers are quick, a tug, a twist around the buckle, and then he manages to pull the whole thing apart.
"That's enough. I'll do the rest myself."
Slowly at first, he begins levering himself off the bed, back onto his good foot, gradually adding weight as he finds his balance.
"Where are we, Shinji?" she asks, and her voice is suddenly loud in the small space beside the slithering of leather as she tugs it away.
"NERV Germany, I think...at least, everyone here speaks German, and I guess it was the closest branch to where we were."
"I knew it looked familiar," she says, gently tugging the needle free from her right arm, and there are bandages on her left where she must have torn something before where it used to be. Disgusted, she strips away the surgical tape and re-tapes the gauze over the swelling bubble of blood leaking out of her skin. She knows she's spent too much time in hospitals when she knows how to take these things out by herself.
"I think..," he starts, his head swiveling instinctively to face her, but she stops him with the flat of her hand.
"Hang on, dumbass, I'm not done yet."
Her arms slip into the sleeves, and the fleece lining is comforting, warming her as she finds the collar and slips her head through, pulling her hair free behind her. She'd never noticed how cold it was in this room until now. The sweatshirt is huge on her, and when she stretches, only the last two phalanges of her long, delicate fingers protrude from the cuffs of the sleeves.
"What?" she prompts, nudging him. Surprisingly, she can sit up as far as half way before the pain in her stomach lances out, and she props herself up on her elbows.
"I, ah, forget."
"Stupid." Silence fills the room, and she feels awkward and weird. No one's told him otherwise, so he's still resting against the edge of her bed, his attention firmly fixed on the night peeking in outside, staring back into the darkness.
"Thanks," she says, finally. He looks confused. "For picking me up after I got hit, too." For letting me out of bed, I mean, she thinks, but can't say it. "Or did you forget?"
"I...I guess I did," he says, and he looks genuinely surprised. "I did that?"
She's not sure what to think about that. Not sure what to make of his face, his Angel-killer face, his nuke-crusher face that is now burned into the back of mind, captive of her memory.
"And you're welcome, too, in case you didn't notice I dragged you the first couple dozen meters too."
"Um." Yes, he forgot. Or wasn't aware. They were both pretty messed up at that point. "Thank you, then, Asuka."
She's getting tired of resting on her arms, and she gets him to help her into a standing position. She still needs something to lean again, and he happens to be convenient even if he isn't all that steady himself. There's no way in hell she'll go waltzing around with the IV pole, and she'll feed herself from here on in, thank you very much.
"Are you sure you're okay?"
"For the third time, yes, Shinji. Now get me out into the hallway. I need to get out of this room." His steps are awkward and halting, as he tries to navigate with his cast and the crutch shared between them.
"What happened to your other arm?" she asks, "and your leg?"
"It's not my arm...my collarbone broke when I fell down. And I've been told I got shot in the leg right before the medics got to us." He gives her a grim smile, then looks away, focusing on their destination by the door. "I'm just glad you're okay."
Neither of them says anything more, and they exit into the bright lights of the corridor outside, slowly trudging down the hall, alternately holding each other up.
They make it as far as the nurses' station when the alarm is raised, two limping prisoners of war incarcerated in a friendly hospital. Immediately there is a small army of personnel around them, surrounding them, and Asuka closes her eyes and tries to shut out the noise, ineffectually pulling herself away from them whenever they try to touch her.
"I'm all right," she says, over and over, and tries to keep herself from yelling.
Eventually Shinji finds his doctor in the throng, the one who speaks Japanese, and convinces him to disperse the crowd. He says he'll take responsibility for her if anything goes wrong, and she knows she ought to behave if she doesn't want another massive dose of sedative and another page in her psych report.
"Listen," she adds, in German so Shinji can't understand. "You're all bound by medical confidentiality. If I find out that anyone else heard about this...Captain Hyuuga, Colonel Katsuragi, Commander Fuyu-fucking-tsuki*...anyone...I will see you all in a court of law." Her voice is level and monotone, and incredibly, she has never threatened legal action before.
The doctor only gives her an appeasing smile and tells her to take care of herself, leaving instructions for Shinji to make sure she is back in bed in under a half-hour. She doubts she can make it even that long, but now she has someone to spite, so she's willing to double her estimate.
"Don't you tell anyone either. That I was tied down."
"I won't," he promises, and she realizes his was the only Japanese voice lost in the maelstrom seconds before the sedative pounded her brain into mush.
Shinji tires much more quickly since he is not fueled by the same desire, and there is a lounge at the end of the hallway where a pair of Section Two goons in suits and sunglasses stand by the door. Neither of them moves from the doors, save for a tiny nod acknowledging their presence. It's an indication that neither of them are leaving the ward until the doctors and the rest of the security people say it's okay.
He manages to help her onto a couch, where she slouches low against the arm, her legs sprawling across the cushions and her hair swirling beneath her, bright against the green leather. Shinji slumps down to catch his breath in the chair next to her, and looking up, she can see the edge of the bandages hinting out from beneath the collar of his shirt.
"Sorry...lung," he says, gesturing feebly at his chest with one hand.
"I know, dummy. I was there, remember."
He nods slowly, resting his head against the wall behind him. A television mounted in a black steel bracket in the corner opposite blares some terrible advertising jingle for some useless and overpriced wares, swirling colored light out into the dull white and grey world of a NERV infirmary ward. An incongruously colourful pot of silk flowers in the corner insolently scream insincerity against the aseptic and apathetic walls.
Asuka closes her eyes. She hurts now, a physical hurt in her gut and that doctor was probably right about her getting more rest before straining herself. The ward seems unnaturally quiet, just the low buzz of fluorescent lamps and electrical equipment, and she realizes it could very well be just the two of them here.
It's too quiet.
"What about you?" she asks. "Any better?"
"Since I woke up? Yeah...but I've got at least another two weeks before the cast comes off and I can let my arm down. I feel kind of, I don't know..."
"Yeah," he says, and he glances over to where she's craning her head and eyes up to look at him over her own forehead. "Trapped. I've never broken anything before...it's a weird feeling."
"Mm. I guess I've never been shot before either, not really."
Her shoulders and arms hurt too, and she stretches, trying to avoid arching her stomach in any way, which just makes it awkward. Unbidden, the oversized sleeve of her right arm slips down, dropping past her elbow, and she reflexively curls up to hide it, her fingers scrabbling at the cuff, dragging it back into place.
She yelps involuntarily as her abused abdominal muscles protest, and she bites her lip like closing the barn doors after the horses are all gone.
"Are you alright?" he asks, damn him, and he's leaning over her where she now lies prostrate on the couch.
"Dammit, no. You didn't see anything," she snarls, a statement more than a question. "I'm fine. I'm fine."
"Are you sure you don't want to go lie down again?" he asks, brows furrowing in concern, and she can't stand it when he looks at her like that. She wants to hit him...no, she doesn't. She wants to hit something, but she's not sure she could hit him when he looks like that.
"Yes, I'm fine, dammit. I don't need you watching over me all the damn time, that's what the doctors are for." Her cringe turns into a growl as she levers herself up out of the couch's gentle embrace, straining against herself and her name shouted in protest.
When she looks up again, his face has hardened, and he's struggling with his crutch and his bum leg as he shoots to his feet or a reasonable facsimile thereof. She realizes she's in trouble when she sees his eyes. It's not the Angel-killer face she's afraid of, it's the eyes set in it. She can almost see his pupils constricted as tightly as they were in that timeless moment in the desert, when she could see his pulse in his the python grip of his irises.
"Asuka, wait," he says, and she can't fathom how he can keep his voice so low, "you're going to hurt yourself again."
"Fuck you and the horse you rode in on, Shinji. Aren't you at all curious? Aren't you dying to know?" she fumes, her voice rising, and she doesn't know why she's asking, but isn't he? How the hell can he be worried about her without ever trying to find out why?
His breathing is labored, and he makes a half-hearted motion towards the right side of his chest with his free hand, trying to keep his crutch tucked under his armpit.
"Don't you want to know why those jerks tied me down? Don't you want to know about my stupid obsession with these shirts? Don't you want to know why my eyes don't match any more? Or what?" She can't stand up on her own, but her will drives her, like it always has, her inability to lie down and take it, her omnipresent sense of self-over-all-else. She stares at him, and he coughs into his hand, and the part of her that isn't angry at him is horrified to see flecks of blood on his closed fist. He looks at her awkwardly when he realizes what he's produced, and slips his hand behind his leg, brushing it off on his dark pants.
"It's none of my business. I didn't think you'd want me to," he says, finally, the diamond in his eyes crumbling. "I think I should go lie down now."
With that, he starts to shuffle past her.
He gets as far as the doorway, about to swing his crutch out into the hall when she stops him.
"I hate you," she whispers, creeping up behind him as quickly as her body will let her, and his head dips almost imperceptibly. He doesn't flinch when she lays a hand on the smooth cotton of his shirt, gently pulling on his broken shoulder. It must be agony, she thinks, but it forces him to turn towards her, to look at her again.
She hates everything about him in this moment, the black resignation in his chestnut eyes, the worry in his forehead, the apprehension in the shape of his mouth, the pain and shame of the flush of his skin, but he is here. Here and now, and probably forever, damn him.
Nothing less than shock registers in his lean frame when their teeth click, when she reaches out with both hands and pulls herself up into him, diving headfirst into his lips.
"I hate you because you do this to me. Jerk," she whispers, and kisses him again.
This time, he manages to kiss her back.
Well, fuck me. This was supposed to be a quick practice run to bone up on sensory descriptions, imagery, timing, and dialogue. And then it had to go and grow on me. Damn you, story. I kind of put in like ten minutes at a time over about a year, realized I could patch it together into a cohesive story, so I did. Locale and some other details, for example, were added post-facto.
Anyway, I hope I didn't overdo it. Okay, so I probably did. Still, I hope I've managed to keep everyone in character. Dialogue is still difficult for me to write; often I'll start a scene knowing where I want to go, but I rarely know how to get there. Furthermore, I find it difficult to integrate the kind of randomness that tends to enter regular conversation between two people, especially two that are as familiar with each other as Shinji and Asuka might be.
About Africa; there is more I wanted to do with Africa but never really got around to. Africa is a complicated, wonderful, scary place with centuries of history and tradition and cultural heritages more colourful and incredible than anything you will find anywhere in the West. I don't know what it is, but 'aboriginal' cultures the world over have so much more flavour than the bland bullshit we like to embrace. Go out and learn about them; they're definitely worth the time.
Africa also has the misfortune of working its way through the aftershocks of colonialism and has been dealing with issues of development and warfare. Most of these conflicts are ignored by the news media we tend to get in North America (and probably elsewhere too). Learn about them, too, because people forgotten are people become angry.
I was going to elaborate on Africa, but I figured if I was going to do THAT, I might have ended up with an epic focusing on a different topic than what I set out with, and things would have gotten rather confusing rather quickly.
Before anyone asks, that was more likely a SEELE-sponsored mercenary sniper than one fielded by the kind of low-budget bush army you usually see in African wars. He went for body shots because of the range required by the wide perimeter of the UN base. This range also reduced his accuracy, not to mention the mitigating effects of the plugsuit (NERV would be stupid not to put some kind of antiballistic material in one of those), so I think three hits at ~1.5 km is more than should be reasonably expected of a sniper under similar conditions.
Anyway, thanks for reading.
* I've always, really, really wanted to make somebody say "Fuyut-fucking-suki." It has a real ring to it.