Neon Genesis Evangelion Fan Fiction ❯ Evangelion Genocide: Extended ❯ Try Again ( Chapter 2 )

[ T - Teen: Not suitable for readers under 13 ]

Expanded Chapter 2. Thanks go to Big D and Mike. You dudes rock. Lets see, standard legal disclaimer applies, yadda yadda. I'll letting Darkscribes have the exclusive on this for a few weeks before posting on FFN. Feedback is welcome.
 
 
 
 
Evangelion Genocide: Extended

“I've lived to bury my desires,
And see my dreams corrode with rust;
Now all that's left are fruitless fires
That burn my empty heart to dust.”
--Alexander Pushkin

Genocide 0:02 / Try Again.
 
 
 
 
Asuka leaned heavily against the thin material of her door, looking down at the red neural connectors in her hands.
 
It felt strange being home, not so much a painful feeling but rather an odd one—like her heart had not yet decided if she should be sad or happy. Once she could not pilot her Eva they should have shipped her back to Germany in disgrace. Without Unit-02 she was worthless. No one needed her. Not even Stupid Shinji. So why had she bothered coming back here?
 
When she had first been brought out of sedation in the hospital she had just laid there on the bed, starring blankly at the ceiling, her abused mind not interested at all in what happened to her. The nurses did what they could to cheer her up as they did their rounds and cared for her. And it was that humiliating treatment that sparked some sings of life in her, and, true to her character, she began to fight.
 
The nurses seemed to have expected her to be thankful—she wasn't. She wouldn't let them get near her anymore, even had to be restrained on occasions when her violent struggling made her a danger to herself and those around her.
 
Then, one day in the middle of another fit, a nurse let it slip how she couldn't believe that such a nice brown haired boy had come to visit someone like her.
 
And Asuka became aware of her heart beating once again. Things changed after than. She became more willing, wanting now to get better so she could receive visitors. Surely, Shinji wanted the same thing. He had come to her, hadn't he?
 
But even that small hope turned into seething anger and bitterness as the days went by and she remained alone. Nobody ever came. She thought it would be better if she never felt anything again and tried to resign herself. At that, like at everything else, she failed, and began to sink back into an uncaring depression. Until finally …
 
Seeing Shinji in the hospital earlier had made something inside of her stir; a wonderful and yet strangely disgusting feeling she wished she could be rid of.
 
Why would Shinji, of all people, come to her? And why did it bother her so much that he hadn't done so before?
 
The answer was painful and obvious. As the Angel broke into her mind it resurfaced more than memories; the pain she had endured watching her mother in the hospital, cradling that stupid doll as if it were her own child while she stood by, ignored, had come hurtling back, and her heart shattered. Everything else—every toxic emotion she struggled to keep hidden—poured out of her until she was reduced to a hysterical, mutilated wreck, wounded beyond time's ability to heal.
 
Just like the wound left by her mother's death had never healed, merely festering and staying with her until that thing dug it up and—
 
Asuka's face hardened as anger flickered inside of her and pushed aside the thought; anger at the Angel, at Misato, at Shinji, at her own failure. She clung on to that anger for strength. Misato had brought her back to pilot Eva. That's what she was here for and not to spend her time dwelling on useless emotions, regardless of how powerful or haunting, like some pathetic little girl.
 
Piloting Eva was all that mattered now. They were working on something, Misato had said—something that might return Unit-02 to her. There was the reason she'd needed go on living.
 
She'd show them, she'd show them all.
 
Asuka Langley Soryu would once again be the designated pilot of Evangelion Unit-02.
 
The Second Child.
 
She reached into her damp mane, tracing her fingers along the thick curtain of hair that hung over one shoulder, lifting it up against the side of her head to pin it in place with a neural connector. She did the other side in the same customary way as she stepped over the discarded bits of clothing, old fashion magazines, and other personal effects that littered the floor and lay face-down on her own bed for the first time in months.
 
It was soft and comfortably warm, and the sheets were fresh with a faintly sweet scent of detergent that was a welcomed change to the sterile reek of hospital sheets.
 
Shinji's doing, Asuka thought, closing her eyes to let the feel and smell of being home engulf her.
 
She'd show him too.
 
 
 
 
Rei Ayanami always sat alone when outside of class, and she was always reading a book.
 
Nobody ever approached her to try to talk to her. Nobody ever talked about her either, the way they some times did about Asuka and the other girls. It was like she didn't really exist to the other students. And while this never seemed to bother her in the slightest, Shinji could not stand it. And so, when he got out of clean-up duty and saw Rei sitting on a bench in the school courtyard he could not resist going over to her.
 
He suspected that it was more than wanting to make her company. That because he felt so guilty about having shunned her for months he now was compelled, even forced, to do what he failed to do before.
 
“What?” Rei said as he approached.
 
Shinji choked on his words, and wondered how someone so quiet could also be so blunt. Or was he simply that transparent? “I'm just ... worried about you,” he said uncertainly.
 
“Why?” Rei did not look up from her reading, her voice remained soft and even—any other girl would have sounded uninterested.
 
“Um, well, because people aren't mean to be alone.” To Shinji there was something about the words that sounded hollow; he had spent so much of his life alone that it almost sounded like a lie.
 
“Some people choose to be alone because that is the only way to truly find themselves. It is easier to think when no one is around.”
 
“So ...” Shinji murmured. “What do you think about?”
 
It wasn't intended as a deep question--he hadn't thought of it like that--just an attempt to get her talking and opening up, but he realized belatedly that it indeed one of the more esoteric things he had ever asked her.
 
“I have been trying to understand.” There was long moment of silence after that, then, “Why do you refuse to pilot Eva?”
 
Shinji was taken aback. That question had been haunting him for a while now. After being abused by Asuka on the subject he was unwilling to bring it up again, but her accusation that he was being childish still stung. With that, and the memory of the awful things he'd said to Misato, he could not bring himself to answer.
 
“I will tell you--” Rei started but he cut her off.
 
“Please don't. Asuka's already mad at me for this. And Misato. I don't want you to be mad at me too.”
 
“I will tell you why I will pilot,” Rei finished. “It is because life without purpose is worse than death.”
 
“Pilot? You?” Instantly Shinji's eyes widened, his fists clenched.
 
She nodded.
 
“Rei, they can't make you!” he bellowed. “You ... you ... it killed you! And now you are just gonna go back? You can't!”
 
Rei's calm demeanor was a great contrast to his outrage. “When Unit-00 is ready, I will be its pilot.”
 
“No!” His voice trembled as he said the word, suddenly unable to fight the downpour of emotions. Rei had died in her Eva—had died to protect him. She couldn't go back. And if she did, wouldn't that make him a coward? Rei had suffered horribly because of her Eva, and she had as much reason—perhaps more—to refuse piloting it as he did. “No! You can't do this to yourself. It's Father, isn't it? Rei, if you care about me at all, you won't do this, no matter what he says.”
 
“And if you care, you will understand,” Rei said softly.
 
But Shinji was not willing to let it go. He owed it to Rei Ayanami to protect her, like she had done for him. He reached down, taking her shoulders in his hands and turned her to face him, half lifting her out of the bench. Her expression was of surprise; her eyes slightly wider than usual, lips pressed together. “Ikari?”
 
“Please, listen to me, Ayanami,” he said, aware that he was on the verge of tears. “The last time you were in the Eva, you got caught by an Angel. I couldn't help you. And you were in pain, I could hear you screaming, but instead of letting it attack me, you ... you said goodbye to me and you ... I had to watch you die!”
 
The corners of her eyes sank. “Is that why you will not pilot, because you are afraid?”
 
Shinji nodded slowly. He found it difficult to keep his gaze locked with hers. Admitting his feelings was never an easy thing to do. “I am afraid to lose anything more.”
 
At that, Rei's features relaxed once again and returned their usual neutrality. “You should not be. If you will not move because you are afraid, even when those around you need you to, then you have already lost everything.”
 
Shinji let go of her. “Ayanami.”
 
“Do not call me that. That was what you called her,” she added, noticing the look on his face. “I am Rei. I am different.” She raised her hands over her heart. “But I am also the same. And I am not afraid. And I will still move because I have something I do not want to lose.”
 
“What's that?” Shinji asked, rubbing a forearm across his teary eyes.
 
“You.”
 
Somehow that single word carried more with it than his entire side of the conversation, and the shock of it reduced any reply he might make to utter rubbish. Rei--the name sounded so perfect in his head--was not who he had feelings for, but that didn't mean he shouldn't care. Being different didn't erase what she had done on his behalf. And he couldn't let her put herself in danger while he refused to stop thinking about himself.
 
Other people needed him, and it was for them that he should decide, and become a man.
 
Just as Misato had said.
 
Suddenly he realized he owed his dark-haired guardian an apology. What his father had told him so long ago, that he needed to stand on his own two feet, suddenly sounded all too true.
 
“Excuse me!” Asuka's sharp voice broke into his thoughts. “I hate to interrupt your secret little meeting, but the idiot should be coming home with me.”
 
Shinji turned to find the redhead standing at the edge of the courtyard, staring them down with a glare. He didn't feel that barging in and imposing herself like this was a very nice thing to do, but nothing good would come from point out such a detail. Rei seemed totally indifferent, not surprisingly.
 
Feeling like he had settled something with his conscience, he turned briefly to offer Rei a farewell, telling her to take care, then moved towards Asuka.
 
“What?” she grumbled.
 
“You know, if need me to—”
 
Need? I don't need anything from you.” She looked down at herself and Shinji noticed there was a red stain on her blouse, partially concealed by the jumper's thick straps. “That idiot Nagara spilled something on me. I want you to do some laundry. That's what you are good for, isn't it?”
 
Not wanting to argue, he nodded. They headed off together. Shinji hoped that would be the end of it, but the silence did not last.
 
“So, you and Wonder Girl? All hooked up, uh?” Asuka said in a sarcastically syrupy tone as they walked down the steps from the school's main entrance and down onto the street. “I suppose it fits. She's the only one with less personality than you.”
 
“We are not hooked up. She is not ...” Shinji caught himself, uncertain if Asuka had ever found out what had happened to Rei Ayanami. “She is not interested.”
 
“Oh, please, I saw the look on her face when you grabbed her.” She turned her voice into a raspy imitation of Rei's soft tones. “Oh, Ikari, your touch is so manly. Take me. I'll follow orders, just tell me what to do, like the obedient little puppet I am.”
 
“Rei's not a puppet,” Shinji said, annoyed.
 
Asuka rolled her eyes. “You probably like your girls like that, thought, right?” she said, her voice grating once again. “Obedient? Servile? Dancing on strings without a mind of their own?”
 
Shinji didn't respond to Asuka's provocation. They walked towards the train station under the last golden glimmer of sunlight, neither saying a word. The streets were mostly empty, only a few students lingered around the shops, buying snacks or giving the nearby arcade a whirl. He recognized none of the faces, and it seemed strange how detached he had become from any sort of normalcy, and how he had never bothered to meet any new people so that he also might have friends to hang out with after school.
 
They stepped onto the train platform, joining several more students also waiting for the train.
 
“I can't believe I'm stuck with you,” Asuka said out of the blue. “I wish Kaji were here.”
 
This was a subject Shinji hoped he would never have to talk to her about, and would be happiest if it was not brought up ever again. It had been painful enough to hear Misato's distraught cries when she listened to the message on her answering machine. He knew what had happened, nobody needed to tell him, but if Asuka refused to believe him that was fine. That it would mean living in denial mattered very little.
 
Shinji pressed his lips together, but realized it would seem strange, uncaring even, if he didn't say anything. “Yeah, me too.”
 
Asuka did not seem to notice his reply at all, and instead stared wistfully at the tracks.
 
 
 
 
The Dummy Plug test system rested upright in the middle of the room. It consisted of a tall glass cylinder raised up on a platform with a tangle of cables connecting it to the banks of computers that surrounded it. Aside from the circle of light falling on the equipment the room was plunged in darkness.
 
“The transfer rate is progressing as normal,” Dr. Ritsuko Akagi announced from her position behind one of the computer terminal. Aside from her, Commander Ikari, and Rei Ayanami, who had been watching them silently, there was no one else present. Security was a manner of utmost importance.
 
“Binary memory patterns are what I expected. The DNA structures have suffered terrible deterioration on the 23rd chromosomal pair. The ribonucleic-protein string is broken in approximately 1,546,876 places. Far too many errors for the computer to fix.”
 
“I see,” Ikari said. He had his back to the doctor, staring contemplatively at the Dummy Plug, gloved hands in his pockets. “We will need Rei's DNA after all.”
 
A bitter taste rose up in Rei's mouth. She wasn't sure what had caused it, but it must have something to do with what she knew was coming. Commander Ikari's wishes were not for her to understand, she had never intended that he would explain anything to her.
 
Still, she did not look forward to being connected to the Dummy System and though it would be her first time, there was an odd sense of dread in her mind. He had created her ... he could do whatever he wanted with her. It wasn't her place to object. She had no choice, but that did not imply willing desire. Truthfully, she did not want to do this.
 
But would he understand her if she said anything, would it take away from her meaning?
 
“I can fix the string without the necessity to replace the damaged chromosomes in their entirety.” Ritsuko straightened, slipping her hands into her lab coat pockets. “However, the neural mapping was always going to require Rei's input, since we have to recreate the system almost from scratch. Using the computer—it will take time. Bringing all the sequencers on-line might take a while.”
 
Commander Ikari nodded, taking in this new information. “Use Rei. There is no sense in wasting time if there is an alternative.”
 
“It will be her first time—the process might not be ... entirely pleasant.”
 
Ikari turned and fixed Ritsuko with a stony glare. “Would you rather waste my time than take what you need from a human--no, from Rei?”
 
Ritsuko seemed unnerved by his sudden forcefulness. “I am not wasting your time,” she said. “I am merely suggesting a different course of action. Also, the computer could eliminate flaws that are common in the human genetic structure. I am not suggesting one or the other. I am merely presenting facts as well as consequences.” She paused. “I know how you would hate to see Rei hurt.”
 
Would he really?
 
Rei couldn't help the thought. Suddenly she felt embarrassed that she'd thought about refusing to obey him. He needed her--that was a fact. He wouldn't ask her to do this if it wasn't absolutely necessary. And then, only if there was nobody else who could do it.
 
She was needed.
 
It really felt wonderful.
 
“Rei's genetic structure has no flaws, doctor.” Ikari replied.
 
Ritsuko fell quiet, thought it was obvious she did not agree. Rei had always liked the doctor despite her sometimes brusque manner. She felt that she shared more with her than met the eyes, and found herself wanting to share a little of what she felt, but the right words were never there.
 
The feelings were just impulses, things without names that didn't seem to fit with the rest of the world. Like dreams, they were just there, just hovering quietly beneath the surface waiting to be touched and yet always out of reach. There were definitions for some of them. She had done her share of research looking up things in psychology text books, but it wasn't the same as having solid confirmation of what she was feeling from someone else.
 
“Are you reluctant to use Rei?” the Commander asked.
 
“No,” Ritsuko said point-blank. "I don't think she is needed for this. I can do it."
 
“We do what must be done. We made her what she is, we gave her the soul she has. So, why not ensure that the soul will live on, despite the death of the body we created for it?”
 
“Is that all you care for? Lilith's soul?”
 
“No, not all,” Ikari said. He walked slowly over to Rei and gently placed his hands on her shoulders. They were heavy, much heavier than his son's, and much stronger. He looked into her face and their eyes met. “Rei, do you understand?”
 
Rei nodded silently.
 
The corners of his lips curled up, a smile. “Good.”
 
He gave Ritsuko another cold stare before turning around and disappearing into the darkness, leaving the two of them alone. Ritsuko seemed upset, her features suddenly tightened with anger. Rei found it rather puzzling. Where had the anger come from? Had the Commander said something to her that Rei had failed to interpret?
 
People could be very temperamental.
 
“Doctor Akagi--”
 
“Shut up, Rei,” Ritsuko quieted her harshly, and ran a hand through her dyed-blond hair, looking down to examine the computer screens. Rei let her gaze follow the doctor but could not find anything of interest on the screens and turned her attention to the Dummy Plug.
 
“There is much around here that needs doing," Ritsuko said. "We will start immediately. Strip.”
 
Without uttering a word, Rei brushed off the shoulder straps of her uniform jumper and began to undo the buttons of her blouse. By the time she was naked, Ritsuko had opened the front of the glass cylinder and she stepped inside, her heart beating unreasonably fast.
 
Rei wondered what it was she felt, and why suddenly she was so cold that it could not be explained by her nudity. There was a ringing in her ears; her mouth was dry. It felt like ... the first time she had talked to Shinji Ikari on the train, when she had asked him if she was human.
 
It felt like what she had come to identify as fear. It didn't make any sense to her, but the feeling was there. An old, long-forgotten dread almost as if it were coded into her genes.
 
 
 
 
She was late ... again.
 
Panting loudly, Misato ran the final meters towards the main elevator leading to the Central Dogma HQ, cursing her lack of punctuality and the fact that the guys at the security checkpoint took an unreliably long time verifying her credentials even though she had been screened by the same guy every day since she started working here. As the heavy steel doors closed she managed to slip through.
 
The door locked shut, and the elevator hummed to life. She struggled to catch her breath before realizing that she was not alone in the small space.
 
Misato at once recognized the crest on the man's uniform, the hairs on the back of her neck stood up. “Ministry of the Interior?” She rolled her eyes. “Great. Just what we need.”
 
The man could not avoid smiling in amusement, glancing self-consciously down at himself, then turned his black, slanted eyes towards with mild consideration. “It could be worse,” he said, stretching out his hand to Misato. “My name is Nakayima Junichi, Special Agent and Liaison to the Reconstruction Council. Basically, the guy with the checkbook.”
 
Misato shook his hand firmly. She knew who he was but they had never met face to face. The Ministry had no further need for the sort of covert Agent they'd had in Kaji, and planting someone is a civilian role as was the case with Agent Nakayima was a much more direct way of achieving the same result. NERV could not refuse to take him in as the civilian authority was a crucial and necessary link in the chain that kept everything running smoothly, like the chain in a bicycle, and without which they weren't going anywhere.
 
Of course, that didn't mean she had to like him. As long as he stayed out of her way she didn't think he would be a problem.
 
“Katsuragi Misato, Major and NERV's Chief of Operations,” she said as amicably as she could manage. “Basically, I blow stuff up.”
 
A hint of recognition crossed the Agent's narrow-featured face.
 
“Katsuragi, as in Dr. Katsuragi? The Katsuragi?”
 
Misato nodded.
 
“My father,” she said shortly. She was not interested in reviving dead painful memories, and especially not with a Ministry tool. “Can we talk about something else? It hardly seems professional to bring up my family history with someone I don't even know.”
 
“I can understand,” he said sounding apologetic. Misato couldn't tell if he was sincere or it was an act calculated to squeeze some information out of her. “I'm sorry. I didn't mean to make you uncomfortable,” he explained. “It's just that our fathers knew each other, I think. I've heard that surname since I was little.”
 
“Don't you think there is enough wrong with the world as it is to worry about the sins of the previous generation?” Misato said pointedly.
 
“I guess you are right.” Nakayima was about to say something else when the elevator doors opened. He turned to Misato and locked eyes with her for the first time. “Well, nice finally meeting you. I need to get going. Lots of paperwork, you understand?”
 
“Yes. Yes, I do, Agent Nakayima,” Misato said, in her most polite voice. “Have a good day.”
 
The agent nodded and stepped out of the elevator. Misato's eyes narrowed suspiciously and leaned against the metal wall as the doors closed and she was alone in the elevator.
 
It was interesting that the MOI bothered at all. The relationship with the Reconstruction Council which ran the rebuilding effort above the Geo-Front was strained enough that a liaison made sense, probably why the government had created the position in the first place. Misato did not believe for a moment that it was his only objective, however. He was up to something. And if she had figured it out, so must have Commander Ikari.
 
Then why was this Agent still here? Misato thought. Unless Commander Ikari had found a use for him.
 
She shook her head. Whatever. It wasn't her problem for the time being—she had plenty of those without worrying about some random bloodsucking bureaucrat.
 
 
 
 
Misato had already left for work when Shinji got up in the morning, so he didn't get a chance to tell her about his talk with Rei and that he was sorry for the things he said to her. He was disappointed, in a way. He knew it would make her feel better to know that he wasn't mad at her anymore and also he could finally get it off his chest. He could call her cell phone, he'd already thought about that, but this was the sort of thing that needed to be said in person. He hoped he would get a chance tonight.
 
Setting about his usual routine, Shinji got himself dressed in his school uniform and prepared breakfast. Usually, Misato left a pot of coffee already made, but it seemed she had left in a rush so he took it upon himself.
 
He placed several loaves of bread on the toaster and pulled up some eggs from the fridge. Asuka liked hers scrambled, so that's how he made them. She also liked bacon, he needed to remember to pick some up next time he stopped for groceries. It didn't take long for the aroma of his cooking to drift all over the apartment, and he expected Asuka would come into the kitchen at any moment, already clad in her uniform, to have breakfast.
 
He has glad they didn't have to talk as they ate, but he wouldn't really mind if she wanted to.
 
Well, Shinji had never really minded Asuka talking to him, but lately she did less and less talking and more screaming.
 
She was just so hostile to him sometimes, unwilling to show him even the smallest kindness. Maybe if she would set aside her fangs he could talk to her—really talk—without the fear that she might tear him up like she had before, when he had merely sought to comfort her and share a little sympathy. He wished that he could. It would give him a chance to share the strange feelings he had, and maybe finally figure out what they were supposed to mean and why she always seemed to be in the middle of them.
 
He had placed everything on the table, the eggs, coffee, toast, juice, and everything else they might need, but there was no sign of Asuka. Strange—she didn't get up earlier than he did unless she had a reason. He did a quick check and found her shoes were still on the landing; she was definitely still home.
 
“Asuka, breakfast is ready,” he called, knowing he risked a tongue-lashing.
 
There was no answer.
 
Shinji frowned worriedly. Was she sick? It could be. She'd spent most of the previous night locked in her room and the only time he'd seen her come out was to use the bathroom, and she had seemed put-upon—more so than usual, anyway. But Asuka would have let him know if she wasn't feeling good, if for no other reason to make sure he didn't bother her.
 
He walked the short distance to her bedroom and knocked on the door.
 
“Asuka, breakfast is ready,” he repeated. “Come on, or it's gonna get cold.”
 
Still nothing.
 
“Asuka, are you sick? I can get you something if you don't feel--”
 
The thin wooden door slid partially open, just wide enough for Asuka to poke her head out. Her expression was sleepy, her long flowing red mane tousled, as if she had just this second been awoken and gotten out of bed, which Shinji realized was most likely exactly what she had done. Though most of her remained hidden behind the door, he could clearly see that she was not wearing her uniform. She looked at him with a frown, questioningly but not angered in her usual manner.
 
“What?” she asked rubbing her eyes. Her voice was oddly soft, completely lacking the glass edge Shinji had come to identify with her character.
 
“Breakfast,” Shinji said simply, pointing a thumb in the general direction of the kitchen. Then, feeling rather guilty for having bothered her, added, “Sorry, I know you don't want to be late for school.”
 
Even in their present drowsy state, Asuka's eyes retained their bright sapphire depth as they narrowed into slits. “I'm not going to school, stupid. I've got my first test with Unit-02 today.”
 
“Oh. ”Shinji blinked, remembering someone—Misato or maybe Asuka herself—had told him about that and he had completely forgotten. He really did feel kinda stupid now. “Oh, okay. I'll go then. Breakfast is done anyway. Just leave everything in the sink when you're done.”
 
He started to leave, but before he could make it out of the corridor and into the open living room, Asuka called out to him. “Shinji, wait.”
 
Turning quickly back to her, he caught a glimpse of something strange on her eyes. Indeed, her whole expression seemed different, softer, like her voice had been.
 
“Aren't you coming?” Asuka said. “To my test, I mean.”
 
“Uh?” Shinji didn't understand. “I ... I don't think so. I have nothing to do with it. Besides, I'd just get in the way, don't you think?”
 
He was certain she would agree with him. Of course he'd get in the way, she'd tell him. The only reason she was asking was to make sure he didn't think about showing up and messing things up for her.
 
It was just the sort of thing she would say; he was sure. But she didn't, and to Shinji's astonishment her gaze dropped to the floor and she bit down on her lip, holding back whatever reply she wanted to make. Asuka was a very direct person, Shinji had realized that soon after they met: if she wanted something she would let you know, and if she didn't like something she would really let you know. But looking at her now she seemed very uncertain about what to say.
 
Maybe she was sick after all, Shinji thought.
 
“Asuka,” he said carefully, “why do you ask?”
 
The sound of her name had a hardening effect on Asuka's face. She seemed to pick herself up and become once again the haughty girl that resided in Shinji's mind. “It was just a dumb question,” was her sharp reply. “And even if I were to explain it, I would never think a little boy like you would understand. Go away.”
 
With that she retreated back into her room and closed the door.
 
Something was bothering her, that much he could see. It was a plain as the look she had worn on her face just a moment ago. No matter if she thought he was stupid or a little boy and thus was not worth the effort it would take to explain what it was to him, he wasn't blind. Did she want something from him? Not Asuka--the less she saw of him the happier she was and the less he would bother her. But that look …
 
Was she sad?
 
And what if she did want something? What could he possibly have that she might want from him?
 
If he just knew he would give it to her, not even asking anything in return—it could be anything and everything, and he would give it without compromise or regret simply because it was she who wanted it. All she had to do was ask.
 
Shinji realized then that although the door that separated them was merely a few paper-thin sheets on a wooden frame, it might as well be a great wall. As he had many times before, he wanted to break through. He wanted to be able to tell her that he did not blame her for who she was, insufferable as she might be at times. That was the person she had grown into.
 
He could accept that if she could equally accept him for who he was.
 
Wishful thinking, Shinji told himself with a sigh. Asuka would never allow him to come close to her even if he had to courage to push. Perhaps it was for the better. They would only hurt each other in the end. He did not want to fight with Asuka anymore; the best thing to do was to keep his distance.
 
She would be happy, Shinji was sure, if he did.
 
Holding on to that thought for consolation, Shinji picked up his toast and, after slipping into his shoes and slinging his book bag securely across his shoulders, left the apartment.
 
 
 
 
The day was bright and warm, the new sun still low in the eastern sky; the sounds of the city were all around him, honking cars, roaring trains, jackhammers, people talking and walking and just living. He tried to ignore all of it as he walked to the train station.
 
The first thing Shinji noticed when he stepped onto the mostly-empty train car was that Rei was not there. This struck him as odd since lately she had been pretty good at keeping attendance and it wasn't often that she missed school. Together with their talk yesterday, her absence filled him with an overwhelming sense of uneasiness not all that different from the odd feeling he'd gotten from Asuka earlier that morning.
 
Toji and Kensuke tended to call him ungrateful for not appreciating the fact that he was constantly surrounded by pretty girls, but if they only knew how much those relationships—if they could be called that—troubled him they would sing a different tune. Rei, Misato, Asuka; it seemed all he did was hurt those around him.
 
He made up his mind quickly to check up on Rei. At worse he'd be late for school, no big deal. He switched trains at the next station. Rei lived in on one of the most run-down part of the city, in a dirty-looking apartment block that seemed more like a prison than a place for people to live on, and was mostly deserted. On his previous visits he had always heard the rumble and roar of construction machinery nearby, but now there was an eerie quiet in the morning air.
 
Apartment 402's bell was still broken so he knocked, and ignored the sense of déjà vu. There was no answer; he knocked again, louder. After another moment, the door opened.
 
Shinji gasped.
 
Unlike Asuka earlier, the girl standing in front of him really did look awfully sick. Her eyes were bloodshot and lidded, ringed by dark circles that stood out in dire contrast to the creamy pale skin of her face; her hair was a mess, and she was leaning heavily on the door, her shoulders sagging awkwardly. She wore only her school shirt and underwear. “What is it?” she said weakly.
 
“What happened?” Shinji said with concern.
 
“Doctor Akagi had to perform a test. I complied as I was ordered,” Rei said. Her voice was so low it was barely audible. “My head has been hurting all night.”
 
“Don't you have some medicine?” Shinji was getting worried. What could Ritsuko have done to her to leave her like this?
 
Rei nodded, wincing in pain. “There are some in a drawer. But I do not know what they are for.”
 
“I could have a look,” he offered. “I'm no doctor but if you have some aspirin that will probably do it.”
 
Silently, Rei stepped aside to let him inside her small apartment. Even by Tokyo-3 standards, it was a rather sparse place, comprised of a single room used as a bedroom and a bathroom off to the side, and small kitchen area. Shinji took off his shoes at the door. The floor was cheap, checkered-pattern tile that had begun to fade, and covered by numerous stains including several that looked like blood. He made his way without stepping on anything; Rei, barefooted as she was, didn't seem to care in the slightest.
 
She had never been one for tidiness, and so there was also garbage strew everywhere, mostly plastic bags and empty food container and school papers.
 
There were only two bits of furniture, a small unkempt bed with a thin mattress, and a nightstand from which hung a trash bag full of used bloody bandages; a little fridge took up a corner, covered with plates, cups and other eating utensils.
 
Not bothering at all about her state of undress, Rei crawled into bed on all fours and lay on her side, looking at Shinji as he approached behind her. He tried not to look at her exposed body, at the way her white skin seemed to glow in morning light, swallowing awkwardly. When he was standing uneasily by her nightstand she pointed to one of the drawers.
 
“There,” she said.
 
Shinji opened it, and gasped.
 
The drawer was full of pills, some loose and rattling around, some in still in their clear plastic containers, and some in white bottles. Hesitating slightly, Shinji picked one of these bottles up and read the back of the label. They were painkillers. He picked another. And another …
 
It was a drawer full of painkillers.
 
Horrified, he looked at Rei, his words becoming stuck in his dry throat.
 
“What?” she said, and did not appear to care or understand his sudden trepidation at all. She stirred, lifting her hands to grasp her head as if to protect herself from an unseen something, and closed her eyes.
 
“Are these all yours?” Shinji managed.
 
“No,” Rei said quietly. “They were hers. I don't know what they do or what they are for. They have always been there. I think maybe … I think I know why. It hurts.”
 
Shinji looked down at the bottle of pills in his hand. He had never known that Rei Ayanami lived in so much pain. She had never told him. “Rei, what did Ritsuko do to you?”
 
“I was ordered …” she shook her head, gasping in pain due to the motion. “I was ordered not to tell.”
 
Shinji brought down his eyebrows. He didn't like the sound of that at all—why would Rei not be able to tell him something? Did she mean she wasn't supposed to tell anyone, period, or just him in particular?
 
He could press the issue, asking her questions until he got the answer he wanted, but looking at her pained expression he decided that now was not the time. Rei wouldn't hide something from him if she thought he needed to know. Even if she was ordered to. He believed she wouldn't, at least.
 
Rummaging through the drawer, Shinji picked up on of the unopened bottles which seemed to be the most recent addition to the drawer, checked the expiration date to make sure they were still good, and opened it. He poured a glass of water from the kitchen, then set it down on the nightstand and popped out a pair of little red-and-white pills.
 
“This will help,” he said to Rei. “It's pretty strong. You shouldn't take more than a few a day.”
 
Rei tried to sit up on her own, but her painful body language was too much for Shinji and he helped her, holding her gingerly but firmly, careful not to cause her any more pain.
 
She took the pills from him and swallowed them with a gulp of water, then lay back down on the bed. Shinji fluffed the pillow beneath her head and found himself wishing he could do more to ease her pain.
 
“Ayanami …”
 
“I am not her,” she said, stretching her hand into the air almost as if she hoped to catch something. “A name carries a great deal of a person. It is not just a name. It is also a thought. A feeling. I share her name, but not the other things attached to it. I am not her.”
 
“Then how should I feel, seeing you in front of me and not being able to call you what I called her?” Shinji asked, aware that just speaking pained her. “Because you look just like her.”
 
“You should grieve, like I wish I could. You are lucky.”
 
He wanted to tell her how he really wasn't. Rei didn't understand—nothing in her limited experience could prepare her for the kind of pain that came through loss. But that burden should not be hers to carry, and he should not make her.
 
“I have these emotions inside of me,” her voice was vague, the words seemingly addressed to no one. “And despite that, there is something missing. As if I have misplaced something that used to have great value. I know they do not belong to me, and at the same time I know—I feel—like they do. That they are mine as much as they were hers. Is there something wrong with me?”
 
He knew before opening his mouth that there was nothing he could say to help her. “Aya—I'm sorry.”

Within minutes of closing her eyes, Rei had fallen asleep. Her hands were still tensely clutching the bedding so Shinji bent over her and opened her fingers gently, and stared at her beautifully pale form. Her face became more relaxed now, resting on the linen that was as white as her skin.
 
Finally she seemed to have found some peace.
 
Straightening up, he took a deep breath. “Ayanami,” he said, knowing she couldn't hear him. “I wish I had known about your pain. I wish you didn't have to suffer. But, you were right. I don't want to lose anyone anymore. And that is why … that is why I will pilot Eva. I don't want to let others decide anymore. I have to face it, like you do, like Asuka does. I have to be a man. And, even if I can't help, I think I can try.”
 
He stood there for a while, thinking that maybe he should stay with her until she was feeling better. He wouldn't be missed at school—the lectures were always boring and always the same, and Kensuke would fill him in if he missed anything.
 
The Class Rep. would surely give him an earful, but he knew she too would understand once he told her he'd been looking after Rei Ayanami because nobody else would.
 
 
 
 
“I am not happy with Rei's condition,” Gendo Ikari said as he walked down the hallway to his office, his gloved hands in his pockets, not looking at the short haired blonde woman that walked alongside him. His flat voice denoted no sign of anger, but Ritsuko could tell he was very much displeased.
 
That was always going to happen so it didn't concern her much.
 
“I told you it was not going to be pleasant,” Ritsuko said calmly. “Mapping the neural pathways requires a delicate touch. With much of the equipment having to be scrambled on such short notice there was not much that could be done. Besides, it was her first time. The lack of any such previous stimuli makes it worse than it really is.”
 
“You did not have to torture her,” Ikari said darkly.
 
Ritsuko felt a twinge of pleasure course through her like electricity. “I did no such thing,” she said at once. “If I really wanted to … ”
 
“You would not be so obvious about it?” Ikari cut her short. “My good Doctor, I know you better than that. If you wanted to hurt her you would not care if you were being obvious or not. You would just do it. Exactly in the same manner as when you destroyed the Dummy.”
 
Ritsuko cursed under her breath. She had never been worried about him finding out—telling Rei to keep quiet about the experiment had other reasons and she was so quiet anyway it was unlikely she would ever complain to anyone. It did bother her that Ikari could figure her out so easily.
 
“Furthermore,” Ikari continued, coming to a stop and finally turning to confront her, “you are responsible for her. Should anything happen to her, you will be held to account. And this time I do not think I will be so lenient as to simply imprison you. I can ill afford such childish behavior even from such a valuable asset as yourself. Do you understand?”
 
“Yes, sir,”Ritsuko replied sharply, doing her best to meet his eyes with hers. “Is that all? I have Unit-02 to attend to.”
 
“For now it is. I understand Unit-02's activation and testing will take most of the day, but once that is done I want you back to working on the new Dummy. I do not like lacking a proper backup any more than I like not having a working Evangelion. I should hope to have it ready before Unit-00, just in case.”
 
“There is always Unit-01,” Ritsuko said.
 
Ikari seemed to consider his answer carefully, for he took a short moment in which he looked her over from behind his spectacles before saying, “I hope it does not come to that.”
 
 
 
 
“Locks one through fifteen secured. Hydraulic pressure remains constant. Proceed with safety checklist through item four-twenty-three.”
 
“All personnel remain on alert status orange.”
 
The mechanical voices echoed across the enormous metal and concrete box that formed Unit-02's containment cage as the steel mesh gate to the shuttle elevator opened with a loud racket, allowing its single red-clad passenger to exit.
 
Asuka, clad in her form-fitting plugsuit, sighed heavily and stepped onto the deck.
 
The garment had once been as much a symbol of her status as the neural connectors in her hair, and she had loved the way the flimsy red material wrapped tightly around her slim body and enhanced her young, supple curves—she had once even gone as far as padding the hard cups over her modest breasts to make herself appear more voluptuous. It was like wearing a second skin, and for some reason it always felt warm and smelled like the inside of her Eva, and when she wore it there was no ignoring her presence.
 
But now, as she walked towards the slick, armored shape of Unit-02, she felt naked. She stood out as the girl who failed miserably, and she had never felt such disgust at being the center of attention.
 
The containment cage was brightly lit and fairly busy with activity. Wide catwalks and gantries ran along the perimeter of the cage and crisscrossing the large space within, and wrapped around the Evangelion allowing maintenance access.
 
There were several technicians working on bulky machines on the catwalk in front of her, doing what she didn't care to know. She had never bothered acknowledging them and other than the so-called Bridge Bunnies she couldn't address any of them by name if she wanted to. Why should she? After all, they were just worker bees, drones without faces, and she was the queen and it was their job to tend to her every need.
 
And now the queen was dead, and the drones looked at her with sympathy and promptly moved out of the way.
 
Asuka scowled at them bitterly, wishing she could spit at them so they would stop looking at her just like Shinji did.
 
That was how people looked at you when they thought you were useless—when they wouldn't come to see you in the hospital. A look that said, “Too bad you are alone, Asuka. Too bad you had to lose everything that gave meaning to your life. Too bad they couldn't let you die.”
 
Really, too bad.
 
She came to stand under the massive shadow of her once-beloved Evangelion and raised her head. Like her it was clad in red, in its case shiny plates of armor fitted to its slender frame. It had four eyes arrayed in pairs on either side of its face and an oval-shaped head.
 
Two shoulder-mounted pylons held hidden weapons in addition to its standard-issue progressive knife. It was secured to the cage by a large restraining harness anchored with thick hydraulic-driven bolts; a bulky mechanism was fitted to the back of its neck, above the armored insertion jack for the entry-plug.
 
The plug itself was held on its ready position, lying on a cradle on the top of the mechanism so that it could be secured into place just inside the rim of the jack by a crane standing nearby.
 
As a machine of total destruction, Unit-02 was both fearful in symmetry and graceful, and had the distinction of being the first Eva meant for production. It had been her pride and joy, her everything. Losing it had felt like losing someone dear to her all over again.
 
“Oh, hey, I didn't see you there.”
 
Asuka turned just as Shigeru Aoba came walking around the nearest gantry. He had a clipboard in his hands, probably some sort of checklist, and was clearly busy, so she was more than a little surprise when he stopped what he was doing and headed over to her.
 
He was much taller than Asuka and towered over her. She refused to look up at him and returned her gaze to her Evangelion.
 
“How are you doing?” Aoba said.
 
“Fine.” She put enough spite in her voice to make it clear she did not want to talk to him.
 
He hesitated for a second, then bent over so he could speak more privately to her. “Listen, Asuka, I know I really have no place saying things to you, but you have to know--” Aoba smiled at her pleasantly “--that we are all very proud of you. And that we are all rooting for you.”
 
Asuka's eyes widened and something became stuck in her throat—she had not expected that somebody might try to support her. She had no illusion about what would happen, and while she was resigned, she had not expected ... kindness.
 
It almost felt alien to her.
 
She turned her head towards him. The sudden encouragement surprisingly managed to bring back a little of her pride out of the pit of despair. She would have never been able to thank him, to even admit that she was thankful that at least one person might not think of her as a harpy, but she got the feeling from him that he didn't expect it from her.
 
“We want you to do your best, okay?” he said, noticing her reaction. “Give it everything you've got.”
 
Though she was at a loss for words and was not sure she shouldn't just start screaming at him for the insolence of actually talking to her, Asuka nodded halfheartedly.
 
After returning the gesture with much more enthusiasm than the struggling Second Child, Aoba finished the rest of his routine under her strangely watchful gaze and finally headed off to take his position in the control room.
 
Left alone with her own thoughts again, it didn't take long for her to forget that there was a whole crew of people who wanted her to do good and returned to her previously grim disposition. She looked back up at Unit-02's familiar form.
 
Yeah, she told herself, no illusions. This was the moment she had anticipated ever since coming out of the hospital—anticipated and dreaded.
 
Once the entry-plug was fitted into position, the small groves along its rounded end became caught on the insertion jack, locking into place. Asuka climbed the series of ladders on the loading mechanism that gave her access to the entry-plug's open hatch. Inside was a long, cylindrical space with a command chair situated about halfway down its length.
 
It was comfy fit, custom made for the shape of her body, and comprised of an impact seat with two control yokes on either side of it and a console in front, nestled between her legs. The targeting computer was located above and behind her head. Asuka hoped she would never have to peer through that thing again.
 
“Asuka, we are ready to begin,” came Ritsuko's voice through the communication system.
 
When the entry-plug was properly secured she was plunged into darkness. The sound of pouring liquid filled the space and she felt the cold grip of the LCL reach her through her suit. She took a deep breath and tried to relax as she was submerged in it.
 
“Initiate primary contact.”
 
Asuka tried to ignore her.
 
Feeling the darkness closing around her, she brought up her legs and wrapped her arms them so that she was curled up in a ball. Her heart felt heavy, like she knew it would because she didn't belong here anymore. This was the place where everything had gone wrong. She had climbed in here and gone into battle knowing that she had to prove herself, but she had never expected to—danger was something she had accepted but—
 
She had been broken. Her mind had been shredded into tiny, painful ribbons; her beating heart ripped from her chest. And she hadn't even been given a chance to fight back. She had been totally, completely helpless as the Angel had come inside her and … and raped her.
 
Rape—that was the only way to come to understand it.
 
The Angel hadn't touched her, but emotionally it had forced itself into her and torn her open and defiled her. Asuka had often wondered, when she dared think about the subject at all, if it might be less painful the other way around, if her body could have healed from such an assault more readily than her mind. It hardly mattered. Either way she had been scarred for life.
 
“Voltage is nominal,” somebody called from the control room.
 
“Pulse and harmonics are stable.”
 
“Initiate second set connections.”
 
The darkness flashed into a rainbow of swirling colors as Unit-02 became active and the entry-plug walls transformed into a clear “canopy” that allowed her an unobstructed view of the world—the confined space of the concrete cage--beyond.
 
“All links connected. Beginning complete systems check.”
 
“Asuka, your synchrograph is extremely erratic. This is not going to work if you can't focus. Try to clear your head,” Ritsuko said coldly. “You need to be able to open yourself up to the Eva. It's the only way to clear the starting indicator.”
 
“I'm trying.”
 
Asuka curled up ever tighter and more desperately, holding her head in her hands, twisting her feet one on top of the other and curling her toes.
 
And in her anguish she could not believe she had once been happy to be chosen as an Evangelion pilot. She wished now that she never had, and that her Mama had loved her enough to take her along with her as she died. And she wished, more than anything that the broken pieces of the proud, arrogant girl she had once been could be swept aside so she could forget and finally resign herself without suffering.
 
“Try harder.” Ritsuko admonished. “If you can't do it, your status will have to be revoked and you will be replaced, this time for good. I know you don't want that. I don't want that either. So, please, for your sake, concentrate.”
 
“I said I'm trying!” Asuka wailed sharply, twisting her mouth into a feral snarl. “Do you think I want to be replaced? I'm trying!”
 
But, despite her tone, she already knew it was hopeless, and she wished they would all just stop talking to her and leave her alone for good.
 
“Mama, I'm trying …”
 
There was not even an echo in the gloom to carry her words.

 
 
Commander Ikari stood in one of observation decks, of which Central Dogma had many, peering intently on the show of light outside the window. The forest stretched below like a giant fungus, and surrounded the lake in a watery cauldron. Above, the huge dome of the Geo-Front, like an extension of Heaven, emanated the light by which life in Central Dogma was sustained. This was his home, his fortress.
 
“Has the disk been delivered to the Chinese Branch?” Ikari spoke, not even turning to look at his aide.
 
“Yes.” Sub-Commander Fuyutzuki dully nodded. He had confirmation of that fact earlier this morning and already submitted a report. Ikari had read it. He didn't have to ask, as the Commander would not let such a detail slip. The question on his part was simply a matter of the protocol of command: written words were impersonal, having the courage to say what you wrote meant something.
 
“Good.” Ikari said. “How is the current situation with the Council?”
 
“Things are moving as planned,” answered Fuyutsuki. “Rather, not moving. They are giving the MOI such a big headache. But I am afraid they will only be able to run interference for us for so long before it becomes tiresome. Once they realize we have no intention of helping them they will drop all pretense.”
 
“It will do.”
 
Fuyutzuki nodded, hoping his superior was right. Politicians were so hard to predict even for someone like Gendo Ikari. Their opinions and dispositions always seemed to change with the wind. It would not be good if they suddenly decided that NERV was not worth having as a friend.
 
“And the Second Child?” Ikari asked.
 
“What we expected so far,” Fuyutsuki said plainly. “She is much too damaged. Quite frankly I don't understand the necessity of this test.”
 
“There would be no need to expose her if she can make it work on her own. In hindsight it may seem like a waste of already stretched resources, but Doctor Akagi believed it was worth it in the interests of the pilot's safety. The reason I went along with it is because, all things being equal, the weapon we know for sure we can control is better than the weapon we only think we can. I am rather uninterested on whether or not it was waste at this point. All we can do now is prepare the alternative. As far as Unit-02 is concerned it will have to be enough. And Lazarus?”
 
“Lieutenant Ibuki assures me of our progress,” Fuyutzuki said. “She agrees that speeding the mitosis process further is possible, but advises against it. Having Doctor Akagi take a look at her work seemed to have had both a stimulating effect and acted as a reprimand. I am still more concerned about Ritsuko to be honest.”
 
“I am sure there is no need to worry about her,” Ikari said, turning his head slightly, the rest of his body remaining perfectly still. “The options available to her have been made quite clear. We have her cooperation…for the time being,” he added in a tone that left no doubt what he would do if the blonde woman disobeyed him again. “Anything else?”
 
Fuyutzuki hesitated, but he had learned that Ikari had no problem with him voicing his doubts to any plan he might have. In fact, he knew that criticism on his part, to a certain extent, was welcome. “Yes,” he said. “Is it wise to allow the Chinese access to the coded information in the Tablet?”
 
“The Chinese government owes me a couple of favors. As long as they do as they are told there will not be a problem. Our schedule will take care of that.”
 
Ikari turned once more to face his fortress through the window. The light, the dome, the forest and lake: his own small world, a world in which he was god. “And I looked and behold, a pale horse. And the name of he that sat on it was Death. And Hell followed with him.”
 
“It is good then,” the aging Fuyutzuki added, “that we are not in the business of hell. And, I suppose that it is also good that the one who sits on the horse is not a he.”
 
Ikari just nodded gently. After all this time Fuyutzuki could still tell his love for her was as strong as it had always been. But it wasn't serendipity that they held onto the reins of the horse in her place like they did now. It had been arranged like this.
 
“I have also been meaning to talk to you about Rei,” Ikari said, a graver noted echoing in his voice.
 
This was perhaps the most serious matter of the conversation. Fuyutzuki stepped closer, saying, “I'm listening.”
 
 

Looking at the video feed from inside Unit-02, all Misato could see was the front of Asuka's knees and her mane of red hair.
 
She had been sitting curled up like that for hours now, not moving or saying a word as Ritsuko updated her with her progress—if it could be called that. Misato had once heard it said that the brightest and hottest flame burns out the quickest. That had been the case with Asuka, and she was no closer to making it past the starting indicator than she had been at the beginning of the test, despite Ritsuko's assurances that she could do it.
 
Watching the girl on the monitor was as frustrating as it was heartbreaking, because even though she had once thought Asuka should learn a little humility and stop treating those around her like garbage, she had not wanted to see her broken up so badly.
 
“The problem is entirely psycho-somatic,” Ritsuko said. She too had been studying the monitor, and now leaned back on her chair. “It's all in her head.”
 
“After what the Angel did to her …” Misato trailed off.
 
“Regardless. There is only so much we can manipulate the system. But for all we can do with the interface and modifications to both software and hardware, it is Asuka herself who needs to push through. She's the only one that can do it. That's where the problem lies. We can't help her if she can't help herself.”
 
The control room was arranged in two banks of computer terminals, the first along the front wall, just a few feet away from the heavily reinforced glass that overlooked the Eva's test cage, and second further back. It was close to these that Misato was standing, hunched over Ritsuko's chair. While several of the monitors were focused on Asuka, several others showed her telemetry data, relayed in complex graphs that required engineering degrees to properly understand.
 
The one graph Misato did recognize was Asuka's synchrograph, a jagged mess of lines all jumbled together that seemed to her a rather accurate, if abstract, depiction of the redhead's mental state.
 
On the top right corner of this was a number: 4.4%: Asuka's synch-ratio, far bellow the minimum required to operate her Eva.
 
Misato took her eyes from the monitor and looked out of the observation window high above the brightly-lit steel and concrete box that served as a cage for Unit-02. “Do you think she's given up?”
 
Ritsuko shook her head. “I don't think so.”
 
“Well, I guess it's good that she's much more determined than Shinji.”
 
“They are not all that different, you know,” Ritsuko said. “For both of them, their personal problems dictate how they relate to others and, therefore to their Evas.”
 
Misato had a hard time believing that. If they were really, as Ritsuko put it, not all that different, then they wouldn't find it so hard to get along with each other. She had thought, hoped even, that some of their personalities could rub off on the other so that they might find some middle ground, but that had proven impossible. “I don't think they are alike,” she said. “Shinji is much more withdrawn than Asuka.”
 
“There are some superficial differences, but they are nothing more than skin deep,” Ritsuko said in a flat, rather unemotional tone as if she were talking about something she'd read in a textbook. “Shinji's defense mechanism is to be passive, moving away from people. Asuka is aggressive, actively pushing people away. Both these defenses stem from the same issue--that is the fear of being hurt by others. In that, Asuka is like a cat in a box.”
 
Misato frowned, confused. “How so?”
 
“If you put a cat in a box, it will be afraid at first, it will wail and scratch and try to get out.” Ritsuko hadn't taken her gaze away from the image of the redhead on the screen, but now she see was staring intently, a concentration evident in her brown eyes. “But after a while it will get used to the dark and will grow more comfortable there. It will feel safe and will stay without a struggle. Then, if you open the box and try to take the cat out, it will fight and it will hurt you, lashing out at you until you let it go and close the box. Most people will just let the cat be and eventually it will starve.”
 
An odd sadness came over her voice as she said this. “But someone who cares about the cat will endure the pain and hold on to it, and the cat will come to feel safe with that person and accept them and it will stop lashing out because it will no longer be afraid.”
 
“Are you saying someone needs to take Asuka out of her box?” Misato said. She was interested now; she grabbed a nearby chair and sat down next to the doctor. She didn't really think Asuka was like a cat—animals couldn't choose how they treated people—but Ritsuko, who lived alone except for her cats, knew more about those kinds of behavior than she did.
 
“No,” Ritsuko shook her head. “The Angel ripped the box away from her. And she was left exposed, frightened, and had nobody to feel safe with. That really is the heart of the problem.”
 
Misato thought she understood. She cast a soft glance at the girl on the screen—Asuka looked so small like that. “So you think she's afraid?”
 
“Honestly, I think she's terrified. That is why she lashes out the way she does. To keep people away from her because in her mind they will only hurt her. That is a natural response: all animals fear pain. And that fear also makes her unable to synch with the Eva. She can't open up to anyone or anything, and that includes Unit-02.”
 
Misato sighed. “Well, if all she needs is someone willing to let her hurt them—”
 
“It's much more specific than that. And I don't think it's about hurting other people. The willing desires of the human heart are not something that is ever defined in general terms.” She crossed her stocking-covered legs. “Desire is hard to understand. We can't test it or measure it. We can only live with it.”
 
“Um.” Misato twisted her lips sardonically. “You know, even when you talk about things like these you always sound so detached, like you are talking about a disease or something.”
 
That comment was meant as a slight insult to Ritsuko's regular heartlessness, but her face remained unmoved. If she was offended at all by it, she didn't show it. “I am a scientist not a therapist.”
 
“Nobody will ever argue otherwise.”
 
“The point is, even understanding what causes Asuka's hubris doesn't mean we can fix it,” Ritsuko said, ignoring Misato's tone. “That's something only she can do, and that only if she wants to.”
 
“Ritsuko, you are not seriously suggesting that she wants to feel like this.” Misato pointed a finger at the screen. “Look at her. How could anyone want to live like that?”
 
“She hasn't told you to stop yet,” Ritsuko replied flatly.
 
Misato felt hot outrage at that statement, not only because it reaffirmed her view of Ritsuko as being less than humane but also because she was right; Asuka hadn't asked them to stop.
 
“But I am not saying she wants to, either,” Ritsuko said. “However, I think for her the alternative is not worth living for, either. It has to be her way or no way at all. That way she is also like Shinji. They both think it's only themselves that matter—their own hurt. They are unable to look at themselves through the eyes of others. And as they are unable to understand how others see them, they are also unable to understand how to see themselves.”
 
It was rather hypocritical for someone like Ritsuko to talk like this; she was guilty of the same thing she was accusing Shinji and Asuka of. And so was Misato herself.
 
So, while Ritsuko might be right, and Asuka was responsible for her own misery, Misato owed it to her ward and to do what she could to lessen that feeling—and clearly they had gathered as much data as they could for today, since Ritsuko had gone through nearly her entire checklist, which meant there wasn't much of a point prolonging it.
 
“I think we should call it a day,” Misato said, firmly enough to make it known it wasn't just an opinion. She rose from her chair. “I've got time between shifts. I'm taking her home.”
 
Ritsuko's expression told her she disagreed, but she said nothing. She nodded her assent. Around the control room, the weary faces of the small cadre of operators who had been keeping watch on Asuka's data without a break appeared relieved behind their computers. Once the order was given, termination procedures were initiated, engulfing the room in a flurry of activity.
 
Groaning with effort, Ritsuko stood up next to Misato and returned the other woman's sympathetic frown with a look that said that her sympathy was not necessary or wanted. That didn't prevent Misato from thinking Ritsuko was pushing herself as recklessly as she was pushing Asuka.
 
A bad thing for both of them.
 
 
 
 
“Ah, Lieutenant, glad you could make it,” Sub-Commander Fuyutsuki said as Maya entered his office, his warm tone making Maya all the more uncomfortable.
 
“With all due respect sir, would you please explain why I was summoned?” Maya said, her voice was merely a whisper. She was tired and mad, and failed to hide those facts. Finally her work had allowed her to find some time to go home, and just when she was getting ready to leave, the Sub-Commander asked her for a meeting. It just wasn't fair.
 
Fuyutsuki gazed at the young Lieutenant who stood before him, sizing her up. Maya felt as if she would fall asleep while talking to him. Her eyes where only half-open, and she had to blink constantly to keep herself awake. She was aware that to the Sub-Commander she likely resembled a prisoner that had been sleep deprived for weeks. She thought it would be nice if he decided she wasn't up to the task he had selected for her.
 
“I must apologize,” Fuyutsuki said, sounding like he meant it. “I know you were ready to call it a day, but there is some work that needs to be done. Doctor Akagi is much too preoccupied at the moment. You understand?”
 
Maya sighed, knowing that her hopes for going home had just gone down the drain. Another night on a hard, cold bunk for poor Maya. “Yes, sir.”
 
“Good.” Fuyutsuki shoved his hand in his pocket and came up with a small disk. “This is part of the coding for Unit 00's new programming interface that will go along with the operating system we will be implementing. It needs to be compiled. That will be your task since you are in charge of Lazarus. The Doctor has already written the required algorithms to accomplish this but it needs to be pushed through the MAGI for full compatibility with our other systems.”
 
Maya's back stiffened. She was suddenly more awake. “Sir, speaking about the new OS, I believe that we should activate Unit 00 using the old command program before switching to the new. We don't even know if Rei can use Unit 00 anymore,” she said. “And, honestly, I'm a little concerned about the program. I mean, I trust Dr. Akagi, but … well, I've never seen anything like it. I'm not sure—”
 
“Lieutenant Ibuki, that code was designed for use with the formatting capabilities of the Eva's computer systems. You shouldn't be concerned with anything other than making the Eva work, by any means.”
 
“The pilot's well-being concerns me as well, sir. I am responsible for Rei's life, and fear that using the new code will hamper her ability to synch with the Eva safely.” She didn't mean to lecture him but realized that's how it came out. Her voice became softer as she added, “I just don't think it's safe, sir.”
 
She hoped that the Sub-Commander would agree with her. He nodded, taking in her uneasiness. Maya had always thought he looked like the least likely person to help run an organization such a NERV. His lined faced and slick gray hair gave him a quality of wise age, but he had always seemed more like a kind uncle than a commanding officer to Maya. He lack the sense intimidation Commander Ikari had about him, making him easier to approach. She also knew he was always likely to listen.
 
“We are aware of the pilot's limitations,” he said with an expression of understanding. He was aware of her concern. “If we believed that Rei would be unable to use the Eva, we wouldn't have deemed this appropriate. We are not going about this without giving proper thought to every step we take.”
 
“Yes, sir.” Maya stretched out her hand and took the disk from Fuyutsuki.
 
“Good, then. I should expect some progress for tomorrow. Have a good evening.” And with that Fuyutsuki dismissed her.
 
Maya saluted and left.
 
The hallways in Central Dogma were empty. The short-haired Lieutenant made her way to the small box-like quarters which had for the last weeks, become home. Maya slid the key into the lock and forced herself to turn it. She did not want to be here. The place was small and bare; there was a bunk on the far corner, and desk, a computer, and a door, which led to a bathroom.
 
Maya grabbed her coffee flask and noticing that it was empty decided to get it filled. She walked down the hall and took a flight of elevator to the nearest vending machine located just outside the main bridge. She smiled weakly when she saw Junichi Nakayima talking animatedly with Shigeru Aoba and Haruna Ieil, the member of the bridge crew who had taken up Maya's duties and Aoba's girlfriend of the month.
 
“Hullo, guys.” Maya said, with all the cheerfulness she could muster, but not nearly enough. She placed her flask bellow the machine's nozzle intended for cups and swiped her card. It beeped and started pouring.
 
“Good evening, ma'am,” Haruna said. A smile came to her sharp features.
 
Technically, Maya was her superior officer, but she had never cared much for rank. She waved away the salute. “Don't do that. I'm not in the mood.”
 
“Are you going home, Lieutenant Ibuki?” Nakayima said. He was holding onto a cup of the machine's barely-excusable coffee and a nutritional—or so they were labeled—granola substitute bar that was already more than half eaten. Apparently, she wasn't the only who hadn't gotten a descent meal and that made her feel a little better.
 
“No. Can't. I have work to do.” Maya said, retrieving her flask and taking a swig, recoiling from the bitter taste but thankful for the much needed intake of precious caffeine.
 
“Come on, Maya. How much longer can you keep going like this?” Aoba sounded concerned. “I mean, you'll work yourself to death.”
 
“THEY will work me to death,” Maya said, regretfully shaking her head. “It's not like I'm a fan of ritual suicide. And the Sub-Commander just gave me some more things to do.”
 
Aoba shook his head too, sympathetically. “Maya, Maya, you've got to tell them that you are not a robot.”
 
“It comes with the territory. If you want to be boss, you gotta put in the long hours.”
 
“Spoken like a true workaholic.” Nakayima said.
 
Maya just nodded absently, then she turned to the agent. She hated that uniform, it made all those who wore it seem ... nasty somehow. It was the color: NERV's was a nice, neutral tan and white, cut along military lines but without the rigidity; the MOI's was black, the sort of thing one would see on storm troopers from an age past; ominous.
 
Nakayima was a nice enough guy, at times he could even be charming and if she weren't—well, if she wasn't herself she might have liked him. Anyway, the uniform didn't suit him at all.
 
“Don't you have to be somewhere?” Maya asked.
 
“Me?” Nakayima said, exaggeratedly mocked indignation. “You mean doing something other than vending machine talk? Pushing papers? Oppressing the townspeople?”
 
“Precisely.” Maya said and turned to Aoba and Haruna. Damn, I can see why he likes her, she thought “You guys going out?”
 
The operator nodded and slid his arm around his girlfriend's waist. “Yep. I am gonna show her that Tokyo-3 is not only Angels and mayhem, well, maybe a little mayhem. You can tag along if…”
 
Maya cut him off with a hard glance.
 
Aoba rubbed the back of his neck apologetically with his free hand. “Sorry. I forgot.”
 
“You better go, before you feel the necessity of staying to make me company.” Maya said, noticing how Haruna was tugging at Aoba's sleeve.
 
Aoba nodded, though Maya noticed he did so rather hesitantly. “Good night, Maya,” he said.
 
“Good night, Lieutenant,” Haruna said.
 
Maya waved them goodnight as they walked away, hoping she could go with them if only for the change of scenery that being outside and getting some fresh air would bring. When they were gone she was felt alone with Nakayima, chewing his fake granola bar.
 
“It seems that everyone's got a life but me.” She said without bothering to look at him.
 
“I bet it is not because you don't want to.” Nakayima said.
 
“No, because I can't. And now, if you excuse me, I wish I had time to stay and chat, but I have work to do.”
 
Nakayima made a face, his narrow features opening in an imitation of curiosity. “Why are you NERV people always looking for excuses to avoid me? I don't have the plague or anything. I swear, I'm up on all my shots.”
 
Maya found that amusing, which she thought was just the effect it was meant to have. Charming alright, she thought.
 
“We don't need excuses to avoid you,” she said, keeping her voice light, and began walking away. “You are MOI. All we need is common sense.”
 
 
 
 
Saving the world by piloting a gigantic bio-mechanical weapon of mass destruction had never meant that Shinji Ikari was excused from doing household chores. That still hadn't changed.
 
And since neither Misato nor Asuka was ever inclined to do it themselves, the laundry always fell into that category. He didn't really mind, similarly to how he didn't mind cooking for them; it gave him something to do that didn't require interaction with people. It was one of the few things he could do on his own that had nothing to do with Eva.
 
Such things had given meaning to everyday life outside Unit-01's entry plug.
 
Shinji scooped up the scattered bits of clothing from the apartment's three occupants that lay thrown about carelessly into the laundry basket, then picked it up from the bathroom floor and carried it over to the small washroom alcove.
 
Placing the basket on top of the washing machine, he emptied it out and then began sorting the contents, carefully separating the whites from the colors and stacking them in neat little piles. Shinji had done this so many times it was nearly automatic.
 
Most of his day had been spent with Rei, watching over her as she slept, the sheets twisted around her, her slender, beautifully pale form curled into a fetal position. He felt no shame in seeing her like that, exposed in a way that would make Asuka rage if she were in the other girl's place. Rei was so passive it was as if her near nudity was the most natural thing in the world, both for her and for Shinji.
 
It was early afternoon by the time she awoke. Satisfied that she was now feeling better, Shinji decided not to impose on her any longer, and to give her the privacy she didn't care to ask for. Rei would never ask him to leave, he realized, even if she didn't understand why he had stayed with her in the first place. She had said nothing as he bade her goodbye and walked to the door.
 
He knew not to take offense at her indifference. What would have been weird for other teenagers was just Rei being herself. He seemed to accept that of her with remarkable, not to mention uncharacteristic, ease. Being with her was just--
 
Shinji shook his head, his mind drifting back to the present, to his chores, and to the fact that he needed to finish with the laundry and get started on dinner.
 
Asuka, he knew, would snicker derisively and jeer that he was pathetically housebroken. It seemed to bother her that being stuck with the lowliest tasks didn't upset him the way she seemed to think it should. Of course, the redhead had much higher standards, and just because it was beneath her didn't mean it was beneath him.
 
The fact was that without Shinji doing the very things she made fun of him for none of them would have anything clean to wear, or have dishes to eat on, or have anything to eat that wasn't flash frozen and loaded with chemicals and preservatives. He kept this household running—he suspected even Asuka recognized that. He wouldn't like her nicknaming him “Mama Shinji” for his efforts, but he did feel some pride in what he did.
 
Not that Shinji wouldn't have welcomed the help. Originally, all three roommates were supposed to divvy up the chores, rotating every week on who did what, when. Misato was too busy working and was hardly ever home, so she was excused. Asuka, in her normal fashion, had thrown a temper tantrum and gotten off the rotation.
 
Amazing how much she resembled a spoiled little girl when the need suited her. She always got her way, too—it was easier than arguing with her. Just once he wanted to see her lift a finger for someone else. Yeah, like that would ever happen.
 
Doing the laundry by himself did have its perks, though.
 
As Shinji reached the bottom of the unsorted pile of clothes he held up a pair of Asuka's well-worn, surprisingly plain cotton panties.
 
When she had first moved in, the haughty redhead had made a racket about laundry, refusing to let him touch hers. She gave that up once she realized that having someone doing her wash trumped anything he might do. She wasn't thankful; if anything she seemed to think he ought to thank her for the privilege. Eventually it had become another form of teasing, and she would accuse him whether he did anything or not.
 
Typical Asuka, Shinji thought. She was so ambiguous when it came to her blooming sexuality, flaunting it purposefully and then yelling at anyone that noticed, who mostly happened to be him. Her constant put-downs were a source of shame, making him feel as though he shouldn't even be looking at her. But he couldn't help it.
 
No matter how fastidious or obnoxious she could be, when consumed by the flames of arousal it was almost impossible for Shinji to think of anything aside from Asuka and her sex.
 
He brushed his fingers absently on the panties, touching the spot where the flimsy material of the gusset would press up against the haughty redhead when worn. His body responded by stiffening pleasantly at the sensation.
 
Unlike whatever Asuka might think, this was not a habit he often engaged in. He did try to respect her privacy; he just failed some times. And then he...
 
Then he heard the apartment door slid open with a hiss.
 
Immediately a rush of hot blood rose to his cheeks, and he shoved the panties deep in the nearest laundry pile in a flash of panic, embarrassingly aware that Asuka would never stop calling him a pervert if she actually caught him red-handed.
 
“We are home,” he heard Misato call, then hearing more familiar sounds as she and Asuka removed their shoes on the landing.
 
His cheeks now flushed furiously, he thought it would look suspicious if he didn't come out to greet them; he picked up the basket again and held it in front of him trying to hide his raging erection, and stepped from the tiny washroom into the kitchen.
 
As he did this he caught a glimpse of Asuka walking around the far side of the heavy wooden table in the middle, headed for the living room doorway.
 
Before her angry expression and posture could register in his head he asked, “How did it go?”
 
Asuka stopped on her tracks and turned to him. The blue orbs of her eyes seemed to be on fire. “How do you think, stupid?” she said, snarling. “I can't even make it go! I can't do anything!”
 
“I—I don't…” Shinji stammered, completely at a loss. “You did your best, didn't you?”
 
The words had come out just as soon as he had thought them, and the suddenness of it left him unable to stop himself. He had to say something … at that moment there didn't seem to be anything more important in the entire world.
 
“My best?” Asuka said, her face was furious, her fists clenched. “MY BEST IS NOTHING!”
 
Shinji swallowed uncomfortably, his throat suddenly very dry; his mind seized up, as if it simply could not shift into a higher gear to keep up with her anger.
 
The fanciful image he carried in his mind never lasted when faced with the harsh reality. She wasn't and would never be anything he wished her to be. His imagining of her was just a selfish desire, not affection. Just like his concern.
 
Asuka knew it. He could see the disgust on her face—how dare he ask such a stupid question? How dare he pretend that he cared?
 
“Don't yell at him, Asuka,” Misato said as she came into the kitchen. She leaned on the door frame, wrapping her arms around herself. Though her voice was serious there was no anger in it. “It's not his fault.”
 
“He can defend himself!” Asuka bellowed, quickly rounding on her—a reprieve for which Shinji was grateful. “And I'll yell at him if I want to!”
 
“He's just trying to help,” Misato explained calmly, though she wasn't looking at the redhead.
 
“I don't want his help! I don't want yours! I'm so sick of this!”
 
Asuka turned sharply on her pink heels, her short skirt flaring up as she did so, and stormed off loudly. Her bedroom door was heard slamming shut violently seconds later.
 
It was a sign of how low their relationship had come, Shinji thought sadly, that her outburst didn't surprise him in the slightest. She had always been hot-tempered, but ever since coming out of the hospital she had become just plain bitter. Given what happened to her, perhaps it was understandable.
 
What the Angel had done.
 
Again Shinji felt the now-familiar twinge of guilt.
 
If anyone could relate it was him, having had his own close encounters on several occasions. But how could he, an awkward boy just over fourteen who couldn't even confront his own issues, help someone as stout-hearted as Asuka, who didn't know the meaning of compassion or sympathy and would just as soon throw them back in his face?
 
He was afraid of her, afraid of coming that little bit closer that would make all of her insults really hurt. But if he kept his distance maybe things would go back to the way they were before. He didn't feel like he had a choice.
 
Shinji shook his head dejectedly. And as he turned to Misato he was confronted by another, more immediate problem.
 
“Um...”
 
It was the first time in a long while the two of them were left alone. They stood there perfectly still, neither saying a word nor looking at the other. Shinji struggled to get a hold of himself, to push Asuka back far enough in his mind so that he could bring out the things he wanted to say. For someone who had made it a character trait to apologize compulsively, it seemed such a difficult thing to do now—if only because he was very aware of how badly and purposefully he had cut her.
 
Her eyes were focused on the table, almost like she was afraid. He didn't deserve to be looked after and cared for by someone like her, someone to whom he meant so much. Now more than at any other moment he hated what he had done.
 
But the words for everything he wanted to say wouldn't come.
 
Misato sighed and turned.
 
“Don't mind her,” she said softly. “Asuka's had a rough day. You know how she gets.”
 
Misato followed the same path as the redhead around the table into the living room, disappearing momentarily from sight, then returned holding her red jacket. Shinji hadn't even noticed that she was not wearing it until now, and he found that strange because it had become as much a part of his mental image of her as Rei's uniform and Asuka's neural connectors.
 
She then went to use the bathroom, noticing the partially done laundry stacked on top of the washing machine before closing the door behind her. Shinji didn't get the sense she was trying to avoid him; he was the one who couldn't find a convenient opening.
 
It was hard. He knew he wanted to apologize, but didn't quite know how to take back all the awful things he'd already said.
 
When Misato stepped back into the landing and began putting on her shoes, Shinji could remain silent no longer. He went along with her, now holding onto the sides of the laundry basket so tightly it hurt.
 
“You aren't staying for dinner?” he said cautiously.
 
“Not tonight,” Misato said, running a finger along the rim of her left boot to fit it properly, she had not undone her laces. Then she did the other one. “I've got double shift. Hey--” she stopped and for a second seemed taken aback and straightened up. “You are talking to me now?”
 
Shinji was so ashamed of himself he could not keep his pale blue eyes focused on her; instead he dropped his gaze into the basket. “I—I talked to Rei.”
 
“Uh?”
 
“And she said,” he continued, “that if I won't do anything because I am afraid, then I shouldn't be, because then I have nothing else worth losing.”
 
Misato didn't say anything.
 
Shinji kept his eyes down, wanting to avoid looking up and see the look on her face that would tell him he had better come up with something else if he wanted to be forgiven. She didn't have to forgive him at all; he wouldn't blame her if she never did. “I'm sorry, Misato.”
 
“So Rei said that, uh?” Misato said finally.
 
Shinji nodded, expecting her to berate him savagely like Asuka did.
 
But then, Misato laughed. A soft, pleasant laugh, and it so surprised him that he looked up to find a faint smile on her pretty face.
 
“Yeah,” she said. “That does sound like something she would say. It's spooky how she comes up with stuff like that. In a good way, really.”
 
“Misato …” Shinji was no longer certain she had heard his apology. “I said I'm so--”
 
She held up her hand and he fell quiet.
 
“Don't. You don't have to say you're sorry for what you feel. You were right before. I can't make you pilot Eva—I don't want to make you. That's your choice. All I want is for you to know that your choices affect everyone around you.”
 
Shinji took in those words with a gentle nod and bowed his head. Misato wasn't trying to sermonize him or rub in the fact that he had been wrong like he'd feared; it was just sincere advice. The apprehension that had surrounded all previous thoughts of talking to his guardian was replaced by am affectionate feeling of warmth.
 
Even if he didn't think he deserved, he got the feeling she understood.
 
“Well, I really should be going,” Misato said, an upbeat tone in her voice that hadn't been there before. “Listen, make sure Asuka gets something to eat, okay? Don't tell her I said that. She won't like it. She isn't—her habits are not very healthy if you don't nag her.” She gave him a thumbs-up. “So that's your mission for tonight, got it?”
 
“Easier said than done,” Shinji replied gloomily. “Sounds like a suicide mission.”
 
Misato smiled cautiously. “It's got to be easier than catching an Angel falling from orbit, right?” She waved him off, tucked her jacket underneath an arm, and left the apartment.
 
Shinji saw her out the door still holding the laundry basket tightly, its weight reminding him that despite everything there was still ordinary life to be had—that was if Asuka didn't slit his throat for asking if she wanted beef or chicken for dinner.
 
Sighing heavily, he determined not to make Asuka's life any harder. She had been at NERV all day, and she hated the cafeteria food. Shinji would bet his S-DAT she was hungry.
 
But he couldn't bring himself to bother her with such a trivial thing as asking what she wanted to eat. She probably wouldn't appreciate it very much and might not even want whatever he made regardless, but he could do nothing else for her. Yes, he'd make her dinner, something he knew she'd like, and he'd leave it on the table for her. Ready whenever she was.
 
 
 
 
After the heated exchange with her roommates, Asuka lay on her bed for a long time hugging her pillow and staring at the door, wishing that for once Shinji had been able to keep from getting on her nerves. A part of her wanted it to open, to reveal him standing on the other side; the same part that wanted him come and take her shoulders and tell her that he would be there; the same part of herself that she absolutely hated.
 
But she didn't believe that getting whatever she might want from Shinji was a real possibility; even after she had kissed him he had just stood there flabbergasted. She had waited for him, eyes almost watering from the emotions she had repressed for so long, mouth dry, heart pounding uncontrollably in her chest. She had waited but he didn't move, didn't do anything.
 
When his gaze dropped to the floor between her feet she had started yelling at him, rushing to the bathroom and making a show of rinsing the taste out of her mouth.

That was the first time Asuka thought she should hate him. He had abandoned her, leaving her to wallow in her own miserable loneliness, just like he had again now. Like her own mother had; like Kaji; like Unit-02 and everything else that had made her feel special and wanted.
 
But how could Shinji, who of all people should know what it felt like, keep doing that to her?
 
It hurt so badly, she had to admit regardless of her pride, to not even be able to get stupid Shinji to pay attention to her. Or to show any sign that she might be something to him other than the awful redhead he was forced to share an apartment with. She hated Shinji for ignoring her, but oddly she found that she didn't want to hate him. Rather, she wanted him to ease her lonely existence, to at least try. If he could do that she would find it within herself to forgive him. Just a little.
 
And just enough to perhaps allow something else to fill her heart.
 
But Shinji had Wonder Girl to care about.
 
That was the last straw. The feelings of dejection and misery that had tormented her throughout Unit-02's activation had become a part of her life for so long she had almost come to accept them as inevitable, but knowing that Shinji had consciously chosen a mindless porcelain doll instead of her was more than Asuka could stand.
 
She tugged at her pillow, pulling it slightly from underneath her head so she could more fully wrap her arms around it, and screwed her blue eyes shut.
 
And feeling utterly pathetic fought the overwhelming urge to cry.
 
 
 
 
Misato Katsuragi wrapped her arms around herself in a vain attempt to keep warm. The room was dark and very cold--freezing, sub-zero cold produced by the liquid nitrogen used to cool down the MAGI's mainframe. She sat on the floor, leaning against a wall, knees drawn up to her chest, her breath condensed in front of her nose, giving her something to amuse herself with while Hyuga finished wiring the MAGI to his laptop.
 
She hadn't really wanted to get him into this, but she was in need of his expertise with computers and decryption. She had managed to pull some information, thanks to the codes left by Kaji, but she had hit a brick wall lately. Hyuga had theorized that it was probably due to the encryption keys having been changed recently.
 
Unfortunately, that meant they would have to hack MAGI's firewall instead of simply by-passing it.
 
“I apologize for getting you into this,” Misato said.
 
Hyuga turned and pulled at the connection cables he presently held. “No problem. At least you were nice enough to ask.”
 
Misato smiled innocently. “I guess I could have pulled a gun on you if you refused.”
 
Hyuga plugged the cables to some sort of terminal, and then plugged the terminal to his computer. He set the laptop on the floor and sat besides the Major.
 
“I would have done it myself, but I'm not that good of a hacker. This could get you into trouble,” Misato said, leaning over Hyuga's shoulder as he began typing commands on his keyboard. He could feel her breath on the back of his neck.
 
“I would never say no to a friend,” Hyuga said.
 
“Thank you.”
 
“You're welcome,” Hyuga replied, without taking his eyes off the computer screen. “All right. I got through the firewall. We should be able to do our business and get out before MAGI can pinpoint the security breach. Do you have a disk or do you want me to download it to my computer hard drive?”
 
“No. It wouldn't be good for you to get caught with this stuff.” Misato reached into her pocket and produced a disk, which she handed to Hyuga. The operator took it, inserted it into his laptop and began copying the files Misato had requested.
 
“My question to you, if I may, is why are YOU doing it?” he asked, turning away from the computer to look at Misato, who had leaned back after giving him the disk. “If the Commander finds out, the consequences will be…”
 
Misato cut him short. “I know, but I have to find the truth,” she said.
 
“But is it worth it?” Hyuga asked, with genuine concern.
 
“The truth will set you free, Hyuga,” Misato said in a soft voice. Once again she drew her knees up and wrapped her arms around them, closing her eyes, since she no longer felt like looking at the darkened world around her. “The truth will set you free.”
 
He said nothing as he turned back to the the glow of the laptop's bright LCD screen. Misato let him go. As talkative was she was there was no point in harassing him when he was trying to work, and she felt that anything she might say would sound like trying to justify what she was doing. What she was getting him to do for her.
 
For the next few minutes there was only the quiet hum of machinery and the tapping on keys on a keyboard. And then she heard ...
 
The hairs stood up on the back of her neck for reasons completely unrelated to the cold. “Did you hear that?” she whispered.
 
Hyuga's head came up and he looked around. “No. What?”
 
“Keystrokes,” Misato said, rolling quietly onto her knees.
 
“Major ...” Hyuga shifted his sitting posture sideways, looking at her like she was going crazy. “I'm typing.”
 
Misato shook her head. “Not you. Much fainter.”
 
She got to her feet, and reached into her jacket for her gun.
 
“Major!” Hyuga said as loudly as someone who was trying to whisper could. Misato moved around him into the dark. “Major, if you think we've been caught we need to get out of here.”
 
“If we'd been caught we'd know it already,” Misato said. “Stay put and don't make any noise.”
 
In the darkness and the cold, Misato could feel her heart pounding in her chest with incredible clarity. Blind people often said that loosing sight merely enhanced other senses to near superhuman levels. She wondered if that's what it was. The little pinpricks of red diodes from the computers rose like pedestals of stars around her. A human, man-made galaxy among the black void.
 
Her gun was freezing in her hands, her breath turning into a mist in front of her. She made to the opposite end of the room, looking around. Nothing, just more computers. And something on the floor.
 
A ladder.
 
Misato had been aware that the computer towers extended both above and bellow the floor, but she had never considered that this room might have more than one floor. She was beginning to feel increasingly foolish—even if what she heard were keystrokes, this floor and empty and nobody could have gone down the ladder without her and Hyuga noticing. Curiosity, however, got the better of her.
 
The metal rungs on the ladder were cold. She winced at the touch while still holding her gun on her right hand. She had no problem descending with just her feet and one hand.
 
The room bellow was much what she expected, towers of equipment, red diodes, and humming. But she could tell by the way the light seemed to extend into infinity that this level was actually very much larger than the one above. Misato stood at the foot of the ladder, looking around. Concentrating on her hearing, she tried to penetrate the darkness, hoping to pick up the faint noise again.
 
God, she felt stupid.
 
This place was a maze—level built on level. Like everything Misato thought she knew about NERV, she had only scratched the surface. In the cold and the dark she found that a terrifying thought.
 
 
 
 
To be continued …
 

Chapter 1
Chapter 3
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