Neon Genesis Evangelion Fan Fiction ❯ Evangelion Genocide: Extended ❯ Hatred ( Chapter 3 )

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

Notes: Well, this took a lot longer than originally anticipated. It doesn't help that part of it have been written for over a year--the best parts too. Thanks go to Big D and Jimmy (and maybe Mike but I don't know yet :p ). Anyway, I think this takes care of most of the rewrite because the following chapters are not as bad as the first three. There are still things I'm not happy about but I'm always doing that. Review if you like. Who knows, maybe I'll actually finish the story.
 
 
 
 
Evangelion Genocide: Extended
 
Hell is ... other people.” --Jean Paul Sartre.
 
Genocide 0:03 / Hatred
 
 
 
 
Misato Katsuragi got home feeling more dead than alive, which lately seemed to be the rule rather than the exception. She couldn't believe there had been a time when she had actually liked her job--when her sense of duty had pushed her through countless all-nighters without thinking of it as a chore. Right now, though, the warm glow of idealism long snuffed out, she wanted nothing more than to slump down on her bed and sleep. It was a luxury she rarely had, and one of the very few things she still managed to enjoy.
 
As soon as she entered the apartment she heard the whispering of the TV. Voices too soft and muted to make out properly, almost like ghostly whispers in the back of her head. She had told the children not to leave the TV on when they weren't watching—it was a waste of energy and did not help with the power bill—but things had been so strained lately that she didn't blame them if they disobeyed such an unimportant rule.
 
Closing the door behind her, Misato took off her shoes on the landing, absently rubbing her tired feet, and flicked on the kitchen light to see where she was headed, She walked into the living room and stopped on her tracks.
 
To her surprise, she found Asuka lying on her belly in front of the TV set, resting her chin on her hands, completely oblivious to Misato's entrance. In the flickering lights of the gloving tube Misato could see a deeply thoughtful expression on her young face.
 
Misato didn't want to startle the girl. She thought about simply slipping quietly to her bedroom, but there was something ...
 
Ever since Asuka came out of the hospital Misato had been too busy to talk to her, to see how she was doing; how she was coping. They rarely saw each other, incidentally through her odd schedule or even because they were subconsciously trying to avoid one another. It didn't matter why, not really. Either way, she felt guilt that she couldn't dedicate as much time to the girl as she deserved, especially with all that was going on in her life.
 
And after being the one who had talked her into coming home from the hospital, Misato felt a particular sense of responsibility to her. Asuka was her ward, yes, and that made it obligatory that she'd be concerned for her well-being. But what she felt was more than a obligation. More like the sort of duty she had once felt for her job. She owed Asuka her concern as someone close to her--the only thing she now that approached what others might call family.
 
Misato cleared her throat, hoping the noise would alert Asuka to her presence, and finally said, "It's late, Asuka. What are you doing up?"
 
“What does it look like I'm doing?” Asuka replied in a harsh whisper. She didn't move a muscle; her eyes were still on the screen. “I'm watching a show.”
 
“Go to bed," Misato said, hoping to sound motherly rather than overbearing. "You have a very important test tomorrow. And this time you are also going to school. I know you don't care about it, but you are not playing hookie again. You aren't sick.”
 
Asuka said nothing—she just stared blankly at the TV.
 
Misato looked at her, trying to see how she'd react then sighed, not sure if the redhead had heard her. "Asuka?"
 
"What?" Asuka yelled back, her bare shoulders tensed visibly. It was as if just talking with Misato caused her anger to rise beyond control.
 
"I..." Misato began, but had problems finding the right words. She couldn't treat Asuka like a child, even if she thought she very much was a child. Unlike Shinji, Asuka was so haughty it prohibited any sympathy she might be willing offer. But she had to say something. She had to let her know that she didn't have to carry the burden of being an Eva pilot and a teenager all alone.
 
"If you want me too,” Misato finally managed, “I can talk with Ritsuko and have her stop the tests. Just for a little while. Until you feel up to it again."
 
There a long moment of silence.
 
"Why?" Asuka asked simply, her face remaining stony, something hollow sounding in her usual shrill voice. Like she didn't even understand what Misato was offering.
 
Misato thought about what Ritsuko had said--about Asuka being a like a cat. She hadn't really wanted to believe someone like Ritsuko would know anything about a person's feelings, especially complex ones like a young girl's, but she had to admit she was right. Asuka might not be afraid, but she had been left alone and abandoned inside her little box for so long that she even forgotten what compassion sounded like. Partly, it was Misato's own fault.
 
"I...don't think the tests are good for you," Misato replied quietly. “I think you could use a break.”
 
"Since when have you been concerned with what is good for me?" Asuka asked, sarcastically. She turned her head slightly so that she could look at Misato out of the corner of her eye, as if measuring her response. Her blue eyes glinted in the glow of the television--icy jewels hard enough to cut diamonds.
 
"I've always been concerned." Misato said, trying not to let her guilt come across in her words.
 
Asuka looked her over, eyes moving up and down intently, her feet crossed at the ankles swinging back and forth ever so gently in the air. Then a look of distaste came over her young features, as if she were holding something she didn't like in her mouth. "Only because it's part of your job." She narrowed her eyes. "And only when it's convenient to you."
 
It hurt to realize she was right. It hurt all the more because Misato would have liked to believe that deep down inside she did care, but the short moments she shared with her ward, when she saw her really early in the morning as she was getting ready for school or later at night simply never allowed her to show it.
 
But she did care, though perhaps she didn't show it as she should. It was just so hard to care for someone like her ... she didn't make it easy.
 
"That's not true, Asuka," Misato said honestly, feeling the need to defend herself from the redhead's statements.
 
"I suppose it's not true, even though you never came to see me in the hospital," Asuka said harshly, looking away from Misato and fixed her gaze back on the television. “I suppose it's not true even though you never talk to me. Everything you need to know about me is in my file, right?”
 
Something heavy hit Misato in the chest. "It's not...like that. I was just busy. Before. So much happened in so little time, I just never got around to it."
 
"I suppose it just wasn't very convenient."
 
"Asuka..." The Major shook her head. “You can't really believe that.”
 
"That's fine," Asuka said. "I don't want you to be concerned for me, just don't say that it isn't true. Don't lie to me. I'm grown up now. I can deal with the truth."
 
"I was concerned, but..." Misato began but the right words would not come. How could she justify having abandoned Asuka when she couldn't even justify it to herself? "Asuka, you are grown up. But you have to understand that some times we can't do the things we wish we could do."
 
"You don't even believe that. If you are concerned--and I'm not saying you are--then it's only because it makes you feel better with yourself," Asuka added. "It makes you feel like a less horrible person. Like the idiot. It has nothing to do with me."
 
Misato fell silent and just stared at her, stunned at having her words thrown back in her face and knowing all the while that nothing she was being told was wholly untrue.
 
Asuka appeared indifferent to the argument, for her voice didn't betray a single hint of emotion, not even the anger Misato thought she should rightfully feel.
 
She had no more things to say. Asuka was right; she certainly had a thing for speaking her mind, and that usually meant being brutally honest. She was good at that. Maybe, Misato decided, her concern for Asuka was merely out of convenience. Certainly that could be the case with someone like her. It was strange to understand how she had managed to miss the point the redhead had just made: that it made her feel like a less horrible person. Because it was exactly was she was doing--doing things out of self-interest, like being concerned for someone only when that someone affected her.
 
"It has everything to do with you because ..." Misato tried, but again could not finish that sentence. She dropped her head. "Then I guess I can't make you change your mind. I know I can't reach you. But I hope you do realize that, despite everything, there are still people around you. Now. People who don't want to see you suffer."
 
“Those people can go to hell. I don't need them.”
 
“I'm sorry that's how you see it.” Misato sighed in resignation. "Good night, Asuka. Go to bed—that's an order from your superior officer."
 
She turned around and locked herself in her room without hearing a response from the German girl. She collapsed on her bed exhausted, too tired to bother removing her clothes, and waited for the oblivion of sleep to envelop her.
 
 
 
 
She remembered the dirty, checkered tiled floor and filthy bed but not much else.
 
The air was heavy, loaded with dust and the smell of decay as if nobody had been here in a long time. There was almost no light, only enough to see the faint outlines of worn-out, rusted medical equipment that did not seem to have been used in a long, long time.
 
Dead things, dead reminders of a life lost.
 
She didn't know how she'd come to end up here. All she remembered was pain, and voices and an awful feeling of fingers on her bare skin.
 
Rei Ayanami stood in the middle of the room, her ghostly white flesh almost glowing in the darkness. She was naked, but she didn't feel cold. She didn't feel anything, just dead.
 
There was something missing. She didn't know what it was, but something wasn't where it was supposed to be in her chest.
 
Like she had no heart.
 
Where was she? Why was this place so familiar?
 
She had never been here before, and yet she felt like she had always been here, always living in the dark, always naked.
 
A dream?
 
Memory?
 
As she approached the bed, the soft shuffling of her feet filled the room. The sheets were dingy; there were dried blood stains on the yellowing material. Her blood? Softly, she pressed her hand on the sheets. They were warm, pleasant to the touch. Was this her bed? Her past?
 
No, not hers--Rei Ayanami's.
 
“Rei, what are you doing?”
 
Rei turned to the sound of the familiar voice and found Doctor Ritsuko Akagi standing where she had been before, holding a flashlight. She couldn't see the woman's face, only a shock of her blonde hair and white lab coat. The harsh light hurt her eyes and so she looked away.
 
“How did you get here?” the Doctor repeated.
 
“I do not know,” Rei said honestly. “It felt like I was walking in my sleep.”
 
“I said you could take a break. That wasn't permission to wander off,” the blond doctor said sternly. “This is a big place, it would incredibly easy to get lost forever if you don't know your way out, or nobody knows where you are.”
 
Rei nodded her head slightly. “I am sorry to have worried you, Doctor Akagi.”
 
Doctor Akagi turned around.
 
“I wasn't worried at all.” She made a motion with her hand, a signal to Rei that she was supposed to follow. “Come on.”
 
Rei followed her obediently, falling in step behind her as she led the way out of the darkened room and into a pitch-black hallway illuminated only by the flashlight and a bright doorway at the very end. The damp air clung to her as sweat, the gloom entered her pores like some kind of virus. Shapes appeared along the walls: doors, broken equipment, pipes, shards of glass, cardboard boxes, medical supplies.
 
The only sound was the clicking of Ritsuko's heels, the rustling of her coat, and Rei's quiet padding on the tiles.
 
“Familiar, isn't it?” Doctor Akagi said, keeping her gaze straight ahead. Rei could only see a flash of yellow hair along the silhouette of her head.
 
“What is this place, Doctor Akagi?” Rei asked, unable to hold her curiosity. “I have never been here before, and yet there is something ... I do not know what to call it.”
 
“To you, this place means nothing,” Doctor Akagi answered coolly. “This is where she grew up. This was her world for a long time.”
 
Rei felt a sudden pang of sadness.
 
“In the dark?” she said.
 
“We used to have lighting when it was still in use. Of course we wouldn't have raised her in the dark. That would have made for a very badly adjusted individual,” she added. “But what do you care, you didn't grow up here. You came from a glass tube.”
 
Rei didn't know what to feel—how to feel. Only that she felt something odd and empty once again on that familiar spot inside her chest.
 
“She grew up?”
 
Ritsuko Akagi stopped, but did not turn. Rei stopped too, and stood there, red eyes carefully examining the woman in front of her. The doctor didn't seem quite able to put her thoughts into words. Rei didn't mean to trouble her. Her question had not been intended to do that, but it seemed to have regardless.
 
“Rei,” finally Doctor Akagi said, “for someone who is very intelligent you sure ask a lot of dumb questions.”
 
A sudden cold draft of air touched her skin, making her shiver.
 
“Do you hate me, Doctor Akagi?”
 
The doctor sighed, turning partially back towards Rei. It was impossible to see the expression on her face and Rei knew it was the same with her own face, which was good because she didn't know what expression to make.
 
“Hate is a strong word, Rei. It is meant to hurt. People don't seem to understand now. You shouldn't use it unless you mean it—and even if you do there are always other ways to say it without being so blunt.” She paused. “That said, I don't hate who you are, I hate what you are. What you represent.”
 
So this was what being hated felt like, Rei thought. It was such a familiar thing. Like she had lived with it for a long time.
 
Without knowing why she dropped her gaze to the floor.
 
“You know, I destroyed the Dummy System for the same reason,” Doctor Akagi said bitterly. Her voice had a strange hardness to it. “Soulless things shouldn't hold the same value as human beings. You were no different than those things until you were born. Then everything changed and you became who you are.”
 
“I am soulless?” In the dark, even Rei's soft whisper seemed carry on forever.
 
“No, weren't you paying attention?” Doctor Akagi admonished her. “I said everything changed for you. You have a soul. But Angels have souls—would you call them human?”
 
Rei did not offer an answer, though in her heart she already knew what it was supposed to be.
 
“Don't flatter yourself by pretending to be more than you were created as, Rei. Understanding is not your purpose. You may feel better, but in the end it will only lead you to misery.” Doctor Akagi turned back, and resumed walking down the hallway behind the beam of light from her flashlight, her heels once again clicking ominously as she went. “Now, enough with the questions. To be honest, the answers have absolutely no relevance for you. We still have experiments to run.”
 
Rei followed her quietly, every footstep feeling as heavy as her heart. This was her lot, she knew, the only reason for her existence. She had to fulfill her purpose or she would be discarded, and whether she liked it or not was irrelevant. Still, as she walked naked on the cold floor, she found that she did not want to go back.
 
She did not want to be hated anymore.
 
 
 
 
Shinji entered the bustling classroom after a moment of hesitation. Asuka pushed past him with an annoyed huff to meet Hikari, who was, as usual, standing near the front of the class. Like she usually did, the redhead attracted quite a few of the other girls for whom simply to be seen with her would be a social boost, and the lustful stares and hushed whispers of several boys.
 
Kensuke was already at his desk, his camcorder on his lap, typing at his computer station, grumbling dejectedly about all the attention Eva pilots got wherever they went. Shinji could agree that seemed to be the case some times, but only with Asuka as he and Rei never got any attention—and even if he did, he would try to avoid it.
 
As he set his book bag down on his own desk he looked around the room and quickly spotted Rei's blue mane. She was sitting by the window, her red eyes lost in the landscape beyond and far away from the noise and the crowd, an elbow propped up on the desk, her chin resting on a white hand.
 
She was always like this in class; never speaking unless spoken to; never asking a question of clarification on homework or tests or anything.
 
He remembered what Misato had told him the day before, the same thing that had been bothering him ever since and almost kept him from getting any sleep but that he had managed to put in the back of his mind thanks to the morning routine. He could not resist the urge to approach her—he had to say something to reassure her, despite being sure she didn't need it and that he would only be making himself feel better. In this sense, their relationship was decidedly one sided.
 
He had known all along that Rei activating Unit-00 was compounded with him activating Unit-01. Misato had told him that he'd be there when it happened; he hadn't considered they'd do the activations back-to-back.
 
But that was the decision. Resource conservation, Misato had called it.
 
Rei didn't take her gaze from the window as he came to stand besides her desk and looked down on her, clenching his hands nervously the way he always did when something made him feel uncomfortable. He knew despite her indifference that her thoughts were not entirely elsewhere even if she did appear that way.
 
“Rei?”
 
“What is it?” she said softly, still not moving a muscle.
 
Any other person would have seemed rude. But Rei's attitude was something he had come to expect, and accept in a way. Regardless of anything he might say, and whether she disagreed with him or not, she would not make him feel as though he was completely wrong--she would not judge him in the same way he didn't judge her. It was that passivity which made her so approachable.
 
Which made him glad he had her.
 
“Um,” Shinji struggled for a second to find the right thing to say, then it just came to him. He should just be honest because Rei would want him to. “Misato said today's the day. I mean, Unit-00 is ready. That means I'll be going back into Unit-01 as well.”
 
For a second there was no reaction, and Shinji started wondering if he had actually said of that out loud. In some form or another, those thoughts had been running around his head so persistently that he couldn't be sure. Being worried about Rei seemed to have become like being worried about the weather: it happened a lot and without him realizing he was doing it.
 
“Is that so?” Rei sounded completely uninterested when she finally responded, her voice just a whisper. “Yes, I think Doctor Akagi mentioned something about the current activation test being scheduled for today.”
 
Shinji nodded. “Yeah, Asuka too. The three of us will be in our Evas today. It's gonna be busy, that's for sure.”
 
“I suppose it will be,” Rei said plainly. “I do not think the start-up sequences for all three would be scheduled at the same time. The available personnel will not be able to cope.”
 
Shinji wasn't expecting her to be concerned—that would be rather unlike her, and would probably be more cause for concern than the test itself. He had, however, expected some reaction if only to ease his own fears about the whole thing. Rei could be a little too brave for the sake of everyone around her.
 
“Are you … are you scared?” Shinji asked, hoping his own apprehension didn't show in his voice. He only partially succeeded, but if Rei noticed anything she didn't let on.
 
“No,” Rei said flatly. “Why should I be?”
 
“Well, it's the first time,” Shinji said. He was embarrassingly aware that it sounded childish considering all they'd been through. “It'd be natural to be afraid. But don't worry, I'll be there if … anything happens.”
 
“Like what?”
 
Like you dying, he wanted desperately to say, the memory of her sacrifice still too fresh in his mind. He caught himself. Rei might not be afraid—though he was fearful enough for the both of them—but she didn't need him saying like that. “Like well, you know, something.”
 
“There is nothing to fear from 'something'.” The word sounded weird when she said it. “You should be more specific.”
 
Shinji let his shoulder sag along with his eyes. “I ... can't. Maybe I'm just in denial. I just don't want anything to happen to you.”
 
“I know,” Rei said flatly. “You wish to protect me.”
 
Shinji nodded.
 
“And who will protect her?” Rei turned her head ever so slightly.
 
Shinji followed her gaze—she was looking at Asuka. The redhead turned up her nose haughtily and twisted away when she realized they were both watching her, continuing to chat with the entourage of girls gathered around her.
 
“Asuka can take care of herself,” Shinji said, turning his head back to Rei. “It's you I'm really worried about.”
 
“I do not worry. Even the worst that could happen would not be so bad. Perhaps it would be for others, but not for myself.”
 
Shinji couldn't argue with her on that, he just wished she cared as much for her own life as he did—maybe then she wouldn't be so eager to put it on the line for his father. It was an odd feeling to know what the person you worried so much about didn't care that you did. But Rei Ayanami was always like that. She would do anything if his father ordered it.
 
And that bothered Shinji immensely.
 
Asuka was laughing—that high pitched laugh calculated to attract attention. Hikari too was smiling, happy to enjoy whatever joke she was sharing with her friend.
 
Shinji felt the tightness in his chest ease. They hardly ever spoke now—Shinji wouldn't know what to say anyway—but slowly Asuka was beginning to come out of her shell more and more. When she had first left the hospital she hardly spent any time out of her room. She had been permanently isolated from everyone else by her own choosing, perhaps feeling embarrassed at what had happened to her.
 
But now she was coming back, especially around Hikari. Shinji was glad about that, though it did not affect the icy relationship he had with her. Just seeing Asuka find some measure of happiness, however small, felt good.
 
He didn't know why, but it would have been as good to have Rei be more like Asuka. To have her laugh just a little.
 
“My fate is in the hands of other people,” Rei said. “I have accepted that. So should you. Doing anything else would just be painful.”
 
Shinji felt a taste of bitterness in his mouth. Sadly, he knew exactly whom she meant by `other people.' But his father didn't care for her any more than he cared for him. He didn't think Rei was naïve enough to believe he did. If nothing else, the slight hint of resignation in her voice was proof.
 
There was no time for Shinji to discuss his feelings about his father as the bell suddenly rang, followed immediately by Hikari's call for them the students to go back to their desks. The girls around Asuka scattered, chatting until the very last moment. The redhead peered over her shoulder—either at him or at Rei, he couldn't tell—then again turned away and took her seat. For a second he thought he saw a sour expression come over her pretty face.
 
She was probably mad at him, he thought, but couldn't think of anything specific he might have done. Asuka didn't need a reason to be mad. Rei, for her part, gave no hint that she'd even heard the bell in the first place; her blank expression didn't change.
 
Shinji never stopped being amazed by the polarizing extremes of their personalities.
 
Looking around him, the rest of the scene seemed almost unreal. Regular students in a regular classroom, doing what students did in classrooms every day of the week. Nowhere was it evident that for three of them it was little more than a farce.
 
 
 
 
"Financially speaking, this city is a like a black hole: it sucks every yen that comes within a lightyear." Junichi Nakayima said, as he tried to mask his disgust from the Tokyo-3 Council. "The Japanese Government and the MOI do not mind this fact, but some heads are beginning to turn in this direction. That is not a good thing, gentlemen."
 
This was the part of the job that he really hated. He had spent most of his life as a soldier, not a politician, and despite what Kluge said, making that change was not easy. A soldier always knew who the enemy was, a politician thought everyone was the enemy and consequently turned into the scum that soldiers were then sent to destroy.
 
It made Nakayima sick that he had to play the political role just to keep his cover.
 
"You are right, Nakayima-san. That is not good." Yamamoto Hibiki, chairman of the Council said. "But I'm sure that your are aware of the magnitude of this operation. Money is needed in vast amounts."
 
"That is all acceptable. What isn't is the fact that the funds were made available to you six weeks ago and we have yet to see any progress." Nakayima cast a glance at the other members of the council. They were all old men, which reminded him of the old Politburo he had read had ruled Russia in the middle and late twentieth century.
 
"When working in the field you can not guide yourself by any schedule,” the chairman replied. “As a former military officer, you can surely understand that. The engineering required—it isn't like building a model airplane."
 
"As a former military officer I also understand that excuses are the last resort of a cornered ally," Nakayima said, bluntly. So much for politics, he thought. “And I also understand that objectives are measured by their inherent usefulness. There isn't a lot of that coming out of Tokyo-3 these days.”
 
"Nakayima-san." Chairman Hibiki said as he rose to his feet. "This council is fighting a war on two fronts: The Ministry on one side and NERV on the other. We have to go about this in a way that will please both, because your organization has failed to get rid of NERV like you promised. At least the UN knew how to stay out of our business, which is more useful than the incessant oversight of government."
 
Nakayima tilted his head provocatively. "Are you saying this is our fault?"
 
"No," the chairman said, shaking his head. "I'm saying that, for us to work more efficiently, one of these two fronts most be eliminated: either you scratch NERV, or the Ministry gets off our backs."
 
"Neither is possible at this moment." Nakayima said. He would have loved to simply shoot the chairman and end the argument. “We can not get rid of NERV, and we are the civilian authority so we are not going anywhere either. The taxpayers have a right to know what their money is being spent on.”
 
“Then your complaints, while duly noted, simply add to the uselessness. We can not be hounded like this, regardless of what your boss says. He is not an economist, after all.”
 
The gathered men nodded and whispered their agreement. Nakayima had been told to expect this reaction, but even without being prepared for it he would have found it fairly predictable of people interested in keeping only their power.
 
“I was not assigned to be a burden,” he told the council with fake pleasantry, “simply to remind you of our finite resources and the need for some returns on this investment.”
 
“Then you should let us do our jobs,” another of the council members said. “That is our duty after all. And you should stop implying what everyone in this room is certain you are implying, Agent Nakayima.”
 
Nakayima bit his lip to keep from making the reply he wanted to make. This councilman was much younger than the rest, which probably accounted for his tactlessness. And he must still be twenty years older than me, he thought.
 
What the hell was he doing with his life?
 
His father had once asked him the same question, when a 17-year-old Junichi Nakayima had told him he'd lied about his age to join the military. Up until that point the idea had been for him to follow on his father's footsteps and become a politician. It was what the entire family wanted from him; the future they had chosen for him.
 
He joined the military to spite them—there was honor in fighting for something instead of lying for a living. His father had threatened to disown him, but he didn't care. All his life he'd felt alienated, now he would be free. When he shipped out there had been no one there to bid him farewell. It hadn't bothered him.
 
Fake sincerity was worse than no sincerity. It was just more lies. Exactly the sort of thing he was trying to do now. It seemed his life had come full circle despite his best attempts.
 
“Gentlemen,” another of the assembled men spoke up. “I am sure it is better for everyone involved to get along here. Instead of trying to trip each other up at every turn, we should focus on our common goals—that is the reconstruction of the city we have been entrusted with.”
 
“Very much so,” Nakayima said, reminding himself that he didn't have to like what he was doing. “We have to trust that each of us here has the best interest of the city at heart. It's the only way anything good will come out of this situation.”
 
He just had to follow orders.
 
 
 
 
Asuka tossed her wet towel on the bench that ran down the length of the locker room, next to her discarded plug-suit, and reached into her locker for her underwear—and caught a glance of the young, slender girl with blue eyes and golden-red hair opposite her. She clenched her teeth, feeling a sudden, vicious impulse to slam her fist into the mirror.
 
It was just so unfair that she couldn't wake up one morning and be an adult already, puberty be damned. She wasn't even fully a woman yet but had to endure the physiological consequences of womanhood every month when her period turned her into a sick, cramped mess; wasn't even old enough to buy liquor but had to watch the stupid commercials on TV telling her how it could solve all her problems and put up with Misato's filthy drinking habits; wasn't ready for sex but wanted nothing more than to somehow fill the emptiness she felt inside of her.
 
Since she was a little girl, Asuka had been aware that most people saw her very negatively and thought she only cared about herself. But the reality was different—if she could now choose to be anyone, the last person Asuka would choose to be was herself.
 
Before she would have at least had her Eva.
 
Though she had no reason to be surprised anymore, her latest synchronization test had been awful. After weeks of trying she was still only barely above the starting indicator. Without really knowing why she always expected some improvements that never materialized, and left her feeling bitter. The constant reassurance from those around her didn't help because she knew they were lying. There was nothing more any of them could do; she was just too badly broken. Her life had become a vicious cycle of self-loathing, deep anger, and failure.
 
That Shinji and the doll had been around to see her fail only added to her ire.
 
Asuka bent over, holding open her panties in front of her and quickly stepping into them, then pulling the garment up her legs as she straightened.
 
She dropped her head to avoid looking at her reflection again and snatched her bra angrily off the top shelf, and wriggled her arms into it. Next, she put on her blouse and worked her way up the buttons before slipping into her uniform jumper, which she clasped securely around her narrow waist after tucking in and pressing her blouse.
 
All this she did in a rush, moving purposefully.
 
She had rushed through her shower routine too, only taking long enough to rinse the worst of the LCL out of her hair and scrub herself down to prevent the liquid from forming a sticky residue on her skin, then hurriedly drying off. There had barely been time to register the pleasant feeling of the hot water cascading down her back.
 
She would have liked to linger, enjoying the feeling of warmth as a steamy mist rose around her, but not today.
 
Today she needed to be done before …
 
 
Rei Ayanami entered the locker room like a white ghost, her footsteps making only the faintest sound, and walked over to her own locker, a few places down from Asuka. The redhead tried to ignore her as she began undressing, unbuttoning her blouse and folding it neatly before moving on to removing her skirt.
 
The proximity of the doll was enough to make the hairs on the back of Asuka's neck stand on end. She hated the girl—that was no mere hyperbole. She had hated Rei Ayanami since the day they met, and hated her even more ever since the First Child had saved Asuka from the Angel that broke into her mind.
 
And then there was her relationship with Shinji.
 
Asuka had long since stopped wondering how she could feel such vile emotions towards her. Like her, Ayanami was barely a teenager, not old enough to even be properly called a woman. She hardly ever spoke—certainly never spoke to Asuka—and they only saw each other at school so it was not like they were often in close contact. And they had both been through a lot. In another universe they might have been able to comfort one another.
 
But as uncalled for as it might be, Asuka just hated her.
 
Plain and simple.
 
As Rei continued to undress, Asuka found that she could no longer stand being in the same room with the doll. She promptly emptied her locker and slammed the door shut loudly. Holding her book bag, neural connectors, shoes, and socks in her arms, she stormed barefoot to the entrance, brushing past Rei's now topless form.
 
“Is there a problem, Pilot Soryu?” Rei asked as Asuka walked by, her voice soft and flat.
 
Asuka stopped on her tracks but did not turn. She was clutching her belongings so furiously tight that her arms hurt, her slender hands turning into claws. “No.”
 
The word could have easily been a thrown dagger.
 
“Am I required to ask about your test? Do you wish to have a conversation with me? I am usually never alone with other girls my own age.”
 
“Just shut up,” Asuka spat. “I don't want to talk to you. I don't want to hear you. I don't even what to look at you. Just being around you makes me sick.”
 
“Oh,” Rei's voice did not change, and if she was offended at Asuka's tone she hid it well. “Is there something I could do to--”
 
“Make me like you?” Asuka interrupted her, turning her head to glare at her over one shoulder. “Sure, there's one thing. You can die today.”
 
Rei's porcelain face did not change. She didn't even blink. And the lack of a response just angered Asuka all the more. What could Shinji ever see in this doll—this perfect little emotionless doll? How he could he possible choose that over a living, breathing human being like herself, who actually had a mind of her own and could feel things?
 
Or maybe that was why he was so close to Rei Ayanami—like his father, maybe he just wanted a doll that would do whatever she was told. A doll who would never talk back, who would die for him if he wanted her to. It was sick.
 
Asuka would never be like that, regardless of how desperate and lonely she felt. She would never be a doll.
 
Realizing the pointlessness of saying anything more, Asuka resumed her pace. But now there was something heavy in her chest. The thought of Shinji and Rei had, through whatever strange alchemy anger held over the mind, created a tight sensation that threatened to close down like a pincer around her heart.
 
By the time she made it to the entrance Asuka could hold back no longer. “Stay away from Shinji,” she said. “He doesn't need somebody like you.”
 
“Is that what he thinks?” Rei said, again her voice was soft but completely emotionless.
 
“No. That's what I think. Stay away from him.”
 
“I should imagine that if the Third Child no longer is to associate with me, then that should be his decision, not yours. Even if you do have his well-being in mind. If he does not want me to speak to him, he should tell me. I would not be angry.”
 
Asuka laughed bitterly. “Pathetic. So the doll wouldn't even mind being dumped like yesterday's garbage? I didn't realize you were so well trained.”
 
“It is not training, but if Ikari should make that decision then I would hope to understand it. I would not begrudge him for it.”
 
“Whatever,” Asuka retorted with barely controlled anger. “Stay away from him. For his own good. And yours. Unless you want to have a problem with me.”
 
Rei shook her head. “I do not understand.”
 
“Sure you do. You might be able to fool Idiot-Shinji with your act, but you don't fool me. I see you for what you are—a heartless doll, incapable of feeling anything. So what's the point in having someone have feelings for you? Ha, what's the point in even being alive? That's why I really hope you die in your Eva today. You'd be doing everyone a favor.”
 
Leaving those words to hang in the air, and her own shrill voice filling her ears, Asuka rushed out of the locker room. It wasn't until she made it to the other end of the hallway that she spotted a small equipment closet and ducked in to finish fixing up her uniform. At the very least to put her shoes on.
 
“Stupid,” Asuka growled under her breath, not sure if she was still cursing the doll or herself. She threw her things on a nearby crate, and stood there in silence for a while.
 
 
 
 
Shinji Ikari felt his entire body relax in the darkness, giving in to the odd and familiar sense of belonging. As he slowly breathed the LCL that filled the metallic confines of the entry-plug and soaked everything, echoes and whispers seemed to float out to him; things he could not understand but that somehow made it all better. That gave meaning to what he was doing. But, like a mother's cooing to her child, no questions were answered.
 
Why was he here again? He promised to himself that he would never do it—it was too painful after what he'd done to Kaworu. And yet here he was, ready to once more ride the beast he had never fully understood.
 
And it felt...strange.
 
Comforting somehow, as if the Eva could sense his apprehension and responded to it. Shinji knew this was more than just a machine, that there was a more primal and complex connection happening here, but it didn't make sense. There were still so many things he didn't know. And that was why he was so afraid for Rei.
 
"Main power activated. Initiating neural connections 1 to 78 on the first block," Maya said over the intercom, her voice more serious than Shinji could recall hearing it. “Proceed to second block upon successful completion.
 
He was a part of Eva—all the pilots were. Together, he and Unit-01 created a unique bond that didn't ever seem possible with other people. For a time Asuka had done so with her Unit-02 as well. But Unit-00 was entirely unpredictable.
 
Savage.
 
"Synch status nominal across the board and holding," said a male voice Shinji recognized as Hyouga's. "Activate second block, connections 79 to 134."
 
"Clearing primary borderline. All green. Safety checks well within the limits." Another male voice, Aoba's. "All A-10 links enabled."
 
"Initiating third block connections, neural waves nominal."
 
Shinji tightened his grip on the main controls on either site of his command seat. He felt tense, his heartbeat quickening. He thought about Rei and how she must be feeling. It would be the first time for her—truly the first time, and knowing what had happened before he had no idea how she could find the courage.
 
He would be safe here, Unit-01 always protected him; Rei was another matter.
 
Almost a full minute went by before the sound of the speakers echoed again through the quiet entry-plug.
 
The darkness inside the entry-plug came to an end almost suddenly, plunging the space into a rainbow of swirling color and quickly resolving into a clear cockpit and became like a transparent window from which he could see the outside world. A warped canopy that corrupted even the light that passed through it.
 
"Final borderline cleared, connections complete. Synch ratio holding at 81.98 % . Battery enabled, external power nominal. S2 engine secured. Evangelion Unit-01 has been successfully activated."
 
Shinji sighed, small bubbles floating from his lips to the top of the plug. That was that—Unit-01 was activated now for the first time in months. He eased back into the command seat without really ever becoming aware that he had tensed up.
 
“Nicely done, Shinji,” Misato said over the radio. “How are you feeling?”
 
“I'm fine,” Shinji replied gently. “Everything feels like it used to.”
 
“We'll take care of everything on this end, don't you worry about anything. Maya's on top of things. Ritsuko is here too. Your job's done for now.”
 
His job was done, Shinji repeated to himself. Not that he ever did anything because the Eva synched to him naturally with no real conscious effort. It just did. He wondered why it couldn't work the same way for either Rei or Asuka. In the case of the later, it would no doubt do a lot to ease her hostility, and in the case of the former ... he still didn't believe Rei belonged in an Eva, period. It wasn't right.
 
And that he was apparently the only one that cared was a source of endless frustration.
 
“Perform routine system check. Second team, move on to Unit-00. Follow pre-determined safety parameters and report as soon as POST is completed before full synchronization.”
 
“Understood. Unit-00 is ready for POST and reporting.”
 
He anxiously glanced out of the cockpit-like layout of his plug and saw the blue colored Unit-00.
 
If Unit-00 went berserk, Shinji would have to stop it, but no matter what, he would save the pilot. He was very aware of the limitations of the restraint system holding Unit-01 in place and that it would not hold him if he really tried to break out of it, but he was also sure that Misato would release him if the need arose.
 
“Misato-san?” Shinji called out, knowing she was listening to him.
 
“Yes, Shinji?”
 
“Can you keep a communication channel open? I want to listen in while Unit-00 is activated.”
 
There was a moment of hesitation on Misato's part, then he heard her say, “Ritsuko?” Whatever the blond doctor replied was not audible enough to be picked up by the microphone, but Misato relayed it instead. “Ritsuko says it'll just clutter up the array. Sorry.”
 
“Yeah, okay,” Shinji sighed, a little disappointed. It was just like Dr. Akagi to want to keep him in the dark.
 
On the outside a figure clad in a form-fitting white suit then stepped onto the gantry surrounding Unit-00. Shinji's attention became intently focused on Rei as she walked to the area where her entry plug had just been inserted into its receptacle behind her Eva's armored neck.
 
There was a detached airiness to her stride, as if she weren't even there. The quiet elegance of her movements and the slender shape of her young body were both accented by her plug-suit, which fitted her like a second skin. Unlike the severe red color of Asuka's suit or the rather neutral blue-white combination of Shinji's own, Rei's was almost entirely white except for a few accents of green on the harness beneath her breasts and the twin dark gray lines running from her backside down along her legs.
 
The suit was pressurized in the sense that it was held in place by a vacuum, molding it to the wearer's every curve. While Shinji had never thought he looked very heroic in his suit, despite being assured otherwise, Rei looked dashing and feminine beyond words, a white angel with blue hair.
 
But Shinji knew how frail she was, too. Somebody had to be Rei's guardian angel. Somebody had to care enough about her that they would risk being hurt themselves or hurting others for her sake.
 
And that somebody was Shinji Ikari.
 
That was why he was here, the only reason he had found it in himself to fight the demons of his past and of Eva. He had to protect Rei just as she had done several times for him.
 
Rei stopped at the foot of her entry-plug. She placed a hand on the huge metal cylinder and stood there for a moment. Shinji could have used the capabilities of the Eva to zoom in on her image and get a better look, but decided that it would be like an invasion of her privacy.
 
She looked behind herself, and for a second her eyes, distinctly red even from a distance, seemed to stare into Shinji before moving away, up towards the window of the control room. Shinji followed her gaze and saw Ritsuko standing there.
 
Shinji frowned. Was Rei having second thoughts? Was she not ready for this? Was she being forced?
 
Then, before he could answer any of those questions, Rei turned back and climbed through the hatch of her entry-plug. Into the darkness within.
 
“I'll be protecting you,” Shinji mouthed silently to himself, watching her disappear from view and remembering the night when she had said those very same words to him. “I promise.”
 
 
 
 
"All right, that's one down," announced Maya, a little tone of relief slipping through her otherwise serious facade. "Unit-00's pilot is now in place. Flood the entry-plug with LCL."
 
As the LCL filled Unit-00's plug, its progress tracked by a colored graph on a computer monitor, Misato carefully scanned the control room around her. In front, near the thick armored windows overlooking the cages, Ritusko was looking out at the enormous metal and concrete cage that held the Evas. Haruna, Aoba and Hyouga sat on their respective consoles. Maya stood besides Misato, doing her best to appear calm and collected.
 
For safety reasons no one else was allowed in the room. Not that were that many people left who could perform high-level procedures like this one effectively. Even Misato was only there in the interest of the children.
 
"Flooding complete," called Haruna from her station. It would be the girl's second ever activation test—the first having taken places just minutes ago—so the excitement in her voice was acceptable.
 
"Begin Unit-00 activation sequence,” Maya said. She turned to Misato. “Let's cross our fingers..."
 
“We should keep an eye on the loading interface for the A-10 connection,” Ritsuko said, not taking her eyes from the thick armored window. “The new program hasn't been tested on a live subject.”
 
“Live subject?” Misato frowned, the term causing her stomach to turn.
 
“Yes,” Ritsuko replied without apparently noticing the major's distaste. “Our simulations, while rather comprehensive, are still based on a computer conscience. MAGI can account for certain shortcomings in the human mind but it can not adequately simulate them. Therefore, the results of those simulations still leave an unknown element as to what the result will be when synching Rei to the system.”
 
Misato almost rolled her eyes. “Of all the things that can go wrong, you are worried about a computer program's results?”
 
“Unexpected problems often become the biggest problems, Major Katsuragi,” Maya said, and Misato was taken aback by how that seemed exactly like something Ritsuko would say. “I suppose that is a law of experimentation. It's very similar to Murphy's. Doctor Akagi is just being thorough.”
 
Ritsuko turned her head to give Maya an odd look of approval. Misato felt as though the cold doctor's demeanor had started to rub off on her warm-hearted protégé. Like some kind of disease that would eventually shut out all of the humanity that the young girl might still have left.
 
“Nothing is unexpected,” Ritsuko replied somberly, returning her attention to the glass. “That's why I wanted to have Unit-01 out there at the same time. Just in case.”
 
 
 
 
Being inside the Eva was strange—different than before, than anything she thought she remembered. Rei Ayanami had never felt anything like it. It was like being isolated from the rest of the world. As the LCL flooded the entry-plug, she felt its warm grip through the thin material of her plug-suit. And as the liquid rose above her head and she took a breath, she realized it smelled like blood.
 
Rei leaned back on her seat, feeling the two control sticks she had on both sides. She had never been so alone in all her short life.
 
Alone ... always alone...
 
A thought came to mind. She had always felt awkward in this place, the girl that came before her. It wasn't fear or pain or anything as powerful as that, but more of a feeling, a faint sense, that she didn't belong. That there was already something else here. Someone. And she wanted her out.
 
"We are ready to start." Maya's voice broke through the silence. “Rei, can you hear me?”
 
"I am ready," said the blue-haired pilot.
 
"Good. We'll now begin power-up procedures and voltage check on all systems. Please stand by. This channel will remain open for you. Don't hesitate if any issues come up."
 
A light went through the entry-plug like a tidal wave, a rainbow that had somehow been twisted into a ring running the length of plug's cylinder. And suddenly Rei felt nausea. She immediately covered her mouth with both hands, out of reflex.
 
"Why ...” she asked, gagging, “does it feel this way?"
 
"I'm sorry,” Maya replied. “It's your body's natural reaction to the Eva. Close your eyes and think of nothing. We'll do the rest."
 
Rei nodded and closed her eyes, as instructed, and leaving back tried to clear her mind. Soon the nausea faded. The entry-plug's walls turned into a swirling, patternless rainbow, every color changing and merging with the other. She had read why that happened—the phosphorescent diodes charging to different voltages randomly to reset them.
 
No, she hadn't read that. It hadn't been her. She was just remembering it, but the experience itself was not her own. Nothing was.
 
"Initiate the A-10 nerve connections."
 
A new scent came to her—something distinguishable even with the smell and taste of the LCL filling her senses. She knew this new scent. She hated it, and she didn't know why.
 
“Rei, are you worried?” Gendo Ikari had asked her after telling her that she would be activating Unit-00.
 
“No.”
 
Then another voice echoed in the back of her mind. A shrill, high-pitched tone ringing with she had come to identify as bitterness. “I didn't realize you were so well trained!”
 
“Why does it feel this way?” she repeated.
 
“Rei, think of nothing,” ordered Maya over the radio. She said something else, but her voice faded away to nothingness, like someone turning down the volume.
 
“How can I forget...why...why?”
 
The words didn't seem to come from her, emanating instead from somewhere in the dark. They felt distant, belonging not to her as she was now but to whomever she had been in the past.
 
"Your brain signal is spiking. Think of nothing. Relax," Maya said with increasing concern, but the words were lost on the pilot. Rei was no longer listening. She couldn't. Her head was beginning to hurt. “Rei, can you hear me?”
 
Rei closed her eyes. There was only darkness in her life now.
 
“Why...did you...have...to...do that to me? I tried to forget...really tried...to leave you behind...to move away...to die, but you wouldn't let me.”
 
“Rei, you are not making any sense.”
 
And then there was a flash of orange light. And she couldn't breath anymore. Her skin burned as if her plug-suit had suddenly been set on fire. Her head throbbed, painful blows of a hammer against her skull.
 
And she felt herself fall—her heart, her mind, her whole being just falling, further inside the Eva until she recognized nothing but deep sadness and despair, and a loneliness so thick it was what it must have felt like to die.
 
“Rei?”
 
"Linkage sequence complete,” Aoba reported, his face a mask of concern. “Abnormal brain signal on all circuits. Initiating first Link-up phase. Should we continue?" he raised his head as he said this and looked expectantly at Maya.
 
Instead it was Ritsuko who replied. "Is it tolerable?"
 
There was a moment of hesitation. Then, the answer, "Barely."
 
"Continue,” Ritsuko said, ignoring the look of protest on Maya's face. “Lets get this over with as quickly as possible," she added.
 
Aoba went back to his console, but not before looking at Hyouga, who shook his head.
 
"Brain activity has increased exponentially," Haruna called out from her console. "The synchro-graph is all over the place. Patterns are shifting continuously."
 
"Rejection starting in central nervous system! Abnormal readings on all levels!" Aoba shouted.
 
"How can you continue with this?" asked Misato, stepping closer to Ritsuko and reaching out a hand to grab her by the arm. “This isn't safe anymore. You are putting Rei in danger for the sake of an experiment.”
 
"We are within limits." Ristuko stared her down. “There is no physical threat to the pilot.”
 
Misato turned to Maya. “Lieutenant Ibuki, you will call this off immediately.”
 
Maya looked at her for a moment, then at Ritsuko, and dropped her head apologetically. And it was then, her insides clenched with anger, that Misato realized Maya was no longer responsible for Unit-00. Ritsuko was in charge here.
 
"Rejection spreading to other systems!"
 
"Abort test!" Misato yelled, wheeling back to Ritsuko, who just stood there calmly looking outside the window at Unit-00. “Ritsuko!”
 
“Not yet,” Ritsuko said. “If this is ever going to work, we need as much usable data as we can. There will not be another chance. I know it must seem harsh to you, Misato, but that is simply because you do not know the consequences of failure.”
 
“Second thought pattern detected!” Hyouga all but screamed.
 
Maya jerked her head in his direction so fast it was wonder her neck didn't snap. She rushed to his console and leaned over his shoulder. “That's impossible.”
 
Misato moved back to get a look at his screen—sure enough, where should have just been one jagged line indicating Rei's thought signal being broadcast from her A-10 connectors, she saw two lines crossing each other and merging back into one.
 
“Is that some kind of mental contamination?” Maya asked no one in particular.
 
“Not over a closed system,” Hyouga said, staring at his own screen. “The only thing that should show up here are Rei's brain waves. Maybe it's some kind of thought noise randomly coalescing into a wave pattern on a close enough frequency to be picked up and cause interference?”
 
“Mathematically, what are the odds of that?”
 
Hyouga shook his head. “I don't think we have numbers that big.”
 
“It's a malfunction,” Ritsuko said calmly. “A misread. The sensors should only be picking up Rei's A-10 wave because it is the only link that can exist between the pilot and the Eva. The most likely cause for two signals would be equipment failure. In fact, the entire system seems to be breaking down. We'll have to try to diagnose the problems one by one and fix them.”
 
“But ma'am—”
 
“What else are you suggesting, lieutenant?” Ritsuko interrupted Maya's protest, her voice as no-nonsense as Misato had ever heard it. “That you think there is a second mind in that Eva? Is THAT what the Commander should expect to read in your report?”
 
Maya's manner changed immediately, to that more befitting a chastised little school girl than someone of her rank and experience. “No, ma'am.”
 
“Purge the system,” Ritsuko ordered. “Do we still have communication with the pilot?”
 
“Just static,” Aoba said.
 
“Vitals?”
 
“Steady pulse. LCL temperature and pressure are normal. Video monitoring equipment not responding, but other than the synchrograph, she would seem to be fine.”
 
“We can't go on,” Misato said. “Not without knowing for sure that she's alright.”
 
“She's fine, why wouldn't she be?” Ritsuko said with a certainty that was contagious. “Maya?”
 
The short haired girl looked extremely uncomfortable. “I … don't have any reason to think otherwise.”
 
“See?” Ritsuko said coolly. “I don't suppose you'd want to consider the fact that we essentially had to put Unit-00 back together from scraps. There were always bound to be problems like this.”
 
Misato had to reluctantly concede the point. Aside from the errant readings—readings they all agreed could not be explained—there was no real danger. She was not in agreement, but there was little she could do.
 
“I'd feel better if we could talk to her,” Misato said.
 
“So would I. Her direct input would be very useful.” Ritsuko turned back to the assembled crew. “Change over to log diagnosis. I want a record of everything we do.”
 
A series of positive acknowledgments followed that order.
 
As much as she hated thinking this way, if nothing else Rei was a valuable asset. Ritsuko would be damned if she risked her needlessly. That, at least, gave her some measure of comfort. Maybe she'd be able to keep this promise to Shinji after all.
 
 
 
 
The cloudless sky was a deep crimson, the color of blood diluted in water. Beneath it lay a vast orange ocean, the glass surface completely still as far as the eye could see. There was no wind, no stars, nothing. Rei Ayanami stood in the liquid—LCL, it seemed—up to her thighs, perfectly still, looking down at her own reflection. Behind her was a dead tree, seven decayed branches splitting skywards like bony fingers reaching out from a grave.
 
“Is this Eva?” she asked no one. Her voice carried on forever over the LCL. She noticed that the lips of her reflection did not move when she spoke. “No. This is someone else.”
 
She turned her head to look at the tree and realized that it did not have that wooden texture that would be expected from trees everywhere. The whole thing seemed like it was made of shadows, though it did not cast one onto the surface of the LCL.
 
“Where am I?”
 
The last thing she remembered was the feeling of nausea as Unit-00 was activated. She heard voices whispering faintly in her ear, stirring locks of short blue hair, but the words made no sense. As if spoken in a language she was not meant to understand.
 
“Am I dead?”
 
Nothing. She looked around. She must still be inside the Eva, possibly in some kind of dream-like state induced by the stress of the activation. Since it was her first time, such a reaction could be explained.
 
After all, the Eva had not felt like anything else she'd experienced before.
 
“You are different.”
 
The words were not spoken. There was no sound. Only a chill that ran up her body and somehow transformed into language. She looked down at herself and realized that her plugsuit had vanished and she was naked. But her reflection had not changed—it stared up at her with cold red eyes that could not possibly be human.
 
For the first time she was seeing what others saw.
 
She reached down, her fingertips brushing the surface, causing ripples to distort her reflection. She felt suddenly cold. Whatever it was, she was touching it.
 
“Who are you?” she asked again, unafraid.
 
Her reflection shifted, its features wrinkling in annoyance. Again she heard that strange voice. “You are different. You do not feel like those before.”
 
“I am not like anyone else,” Rei said. “I am myself.”
 
“Are you not afraid?” her reflection asked, red eyes narrowing.
 
“No.”
 
“I should have known,” the thing said. “Nobody has ever been able to speak to me as you are doing now. That is how I know you are different. That is how I know of your uniqueness. I am unique as well.”
 
Rei was curious. “No one has ever spoken to you?”
 
“Not in this manner. Not like equals,” it said. “If I must answer to questions then I shall say only that I have never been given a name. I exist by myself, a part of nothing else. But I learned from contact with those that came before that to exist by oneself is meaningless. The true value of existence can only be calculated by the contact between beings. My existence is merely my reflection in the minds of others, as they see me. As you see me. So I am you and I am myself as well.”
 
“Are you an Angel?”
 
“I am free from the Tetragramaton. I am as you are, a creation of man. Those you call Angels are simply an aberration born out of a path that leads to destruction. As everything in nature must have balance, so too existence must have a counter-existence. Your Angels are but alternate parts of yourself. The antithesis to everything you are. Do you not know this?”
 
Rei shook her head slightly. “No. Why should I?”
 
“Because in knowledge lies understanding. Therefore, in that link lies the means by which I am to fulfill my purpose and thus the reason why I exist. Those that came before possessed a wealth of knowledge, experience accumulated through years of heartbreak and loss. They understood fear, loneliness, hatred, love. But you are foreign to all those things. To me you feel ... empty.”
 
She felt a chill run over her, and the LCL around her legs suddenly became much colder. She looked down at her reflection on the rippling surface, and saw that her face was frowning. Except it wasn't really her face. She could not feel the muscles of her brow tightening, nor the kind of emotions that went hand in hand with that expression.
 
“So, in turn, it is I who must now ask you a question,” the voice said again. “What are you?”
 
“I am Rei Ayanami. I am myself.”
 
The LCL grew even colder—it felt like it was burning her almost.
 
She winced at the pain, shrinking her shoulders and drawing her arms closer to herself, but could not escape it. “It hurts.”
 
“Your name is not an answer. Not even to yourself. It is simply a front created by others and given to you. It does not answer the question.”
 
Rei shook her head, unable to think of anything else. “Then I do not know.”
 
“What are you, stupid?” The voice changed halfway through that sentence. The shrill, familiar tones of the Second Child now seemed to pierce the air and stab her everywhere.
 
Rei had never minded her fellow pilot; the Second Child was loud and hostile in ways Rei simply didn't understand, but she was only being herself. She didn't dislike her for that any more than she disliked Doctor Akagi. But now there was something about this voice that filled her dread. Something about what she'd said.
 
“I do not understand,” Rei called out, keeling forward as she did. “I do not understand. Why does it hurt?”
 
“I want you to die,” the Second Child's voice said again. “You'd be doing everyone a favor. I want you to die.”
 
Would she really? Was Rei hated so much that other really wished her harm? Was everything she thought she knew about her relationships with others just a misunderstanding? Even the things she thought she knew—the feelings she attached to people like Shinji Ikari—were just wrong because she was incapable of comprehending.
 
Because she was empty.
 
And she was hated.
 
“You would die if he asked you to.”
 
She could feel the venom in those words almost as if it were running inside her veins. It stung badly, sparking small flares of pain into an all-consuming firestorm. The answer was obvious—undeniable.
 
“Yes.”
 
The voice changed again. “Rei, are you worried?”
 
The pain turned to something else—fear—terror—her mind did not know how to describe it. An awful realization of what it meant to be nothing and yet live amongst beings that expected her to understand them.
 
“I do not want to die.”
 
In the LCL, her plug-suited reflection was grinning broadly, madly. “I hate what you represent.”
 
“Why does it hurt?”
 
“Pain is life,” her grimacing counterpart said. “Pain validates your existence. And, in turn, it validates mine. You are but reflections on a mirror of sorrow and solitude. You humans, sad creatures. You fear pain as you fear hell, and go about your lives without realizing. Hell is other people … and so is pain.”
 
And something grasped her underneath the LCL—hard fingers that felt scaly against the soft pale skin of her ankles, her calves, working their way up her legs. She jerked away but the she was held tight on the spot. Her heart was racing.
 
Laughter from behind her made her turn. She was looking at the tree again, and in her shock noticed dozens of gleaming red eyes staring at her from dark faces carved into the dead wood.
 
Her own face.
 
The LCL seemed to explode in front of her, and she turned again. Standing there was herself—blue hair, white-black plugsuit, gleaming red eyes that carried a kind of power Rei had never felt.
 
She could smell the LCL on her shape, like a mist of blood in the air, clinging to her. The red eyes fixed unto her, wide surreal orbs lacking in all compassion or humanity. The thing reached out a hand and grasped her wrists. Rei shuddered at the touch. It was repulsive. Cold. Dead.
 
And before Rei knew it she was being pulled down into the LCL, beneath the surface until the red sky disappeared in a rippling mass above.
 
Rei sank deeper. The light faded, so beautiful right before it died, and in the darkness she heard her own name being called. Over and over.
 
Ayanami.
 
 
 
 
"Who are you?"
 
Rei did not know where she was; she did know, however, that it was not in this world. It was a different space, in a different time. Here she felt no sense of humanity. Here she was not Rei Ayanami; she was 'something' else.
 
"Who are you?"
 
”You know who I am,” the voice answered.
 
Ayanami.
 
"Who are you?"
 
“I am you. What you were and what you will be. What he made you.”
 
Ikari.
 
“He made you human.”
 
"Was I not human before I met him?"
 
Rei Ayanami.
 
“You know the answer.”
 
Rei!
 
"Who am I?"
 
REI!
 
"Who am I?"
 
“REI!”
 
Rei opened her eyes slowly and gazed at the figure above her, her expression slack, completely blank. Shinji Ikari grabbed her shoulders and shook them slightly in an attempt to wake her.
 
"Rei," Shinji said, his concern leaking into his voice. He was hovering above her—the entry-plug had been opened but she was still sitting on the command seat. "Are you all right?"
 
Rei nodded weakly. The world felt hazy, as if someone had taken an eraser and smudged all the details. She saw his young face, his pale blue eyes looking down at her full of compassion and worry, and a sort of undeniable affection. She didn't understand.
 
"What … happened?" Rei's voice was weak and very hoarse, making it sound as though she had been screaming for a long time. She couldn't remember if she had been. She was exhausted, breath barely clinging in her lungs.
 
"I don't know," Shinji said, the emotion finally becoming too much and he seemed to be on the verge of tears, which he brushed away with the back of his gloved hands. “Are you … are you okay? When I saw you were passed out I thought you might have gotten hurt.”
 
"Is that why you are sad?" Rei asked, innocently. She was like a child asking her parents about the cruel world. “You should not worry.”
 
"Don't be silly, Rei." Shinji said and hugged her tightly. “I have to worry about you. The only sad thing is that you don't even worry about yourself. It's so wrong, but I guess you are just brave like that.”
 
Rei rolled her head, and though the warmth of his embrace was comforting the world all around her began to slip away. Brave—she wasn't brave at all. She just didn't know how to be afraid, didn't know because she had never truly had anything to be afraid of.
 
She had a vague notion that her lips were moving, but the words didn't register. Shinji's expression changed, and she knew that whatever she was saying had shocked him. Then finally her own voice came to her.
 
“… for everything.”
 
He blinked, his hands slipping around her shoulders as he hugged her again. "You don't have to. Understand? I will always be there."
 
There was no answer. It was then that Shinji realized that Rei's muscles had relaxed.
 
“Rei?” Looking down at her, Shinji saw her eyes were closed. And though her face her usual calm mask, a heavy sensation in his chest told him that something was wrong. "Rei?"
 
He shook her gently. Nothing. Rei was limp, like a doll whose strings had been cut. And with the sudden chill of fear, Shinji turned his head and shouted as loud as he possibly could. "MEDIC!"
 
 
 
 
Maya Ibuki sat on one of the empty cafeterias in Central Dogma, nursing her third beer. The lieutenant had never been fond of drinking, but Misato had told her that it would make her feel better. After Unit-00's failure, Maya certainly needed to feel better so she decided to hit the bottle in an attempt to flee her demons. It was strange: Aoba had told her once that he preferred her with a few drinks in her, an amusing but annoying thought.
 
She still didn't understand what had gone wrong. Even Shinji, a complete neophyte, had not suffered such a severe reaction to the Eva his first time. And Rei had done this before. It didn't make sense for her to lapse like that. Ritsuko had wanted to explain it away, but the explanations felt hollow. In the end it had all been Maya's responsibility, though the report she submitted carried both of their names.
 
"Hey, Dr. Ibuki!" The cheerful voice caught her by surprise.
 
Maya lifted her head to see Junichi Nakayima taking a seat next to her.
 
"Hello," Maya said, in a depressed voice. "Are you working the night shift?"
 
"Yes. I just got a glimpse of my office, and there was a pile of paper, so I decided to sneak out. I really didn't sign up for this, you know," Nakayima said. "You? I thought you went home."
 
"No,” Maya said. All the alcohol in the world could not make the dullness she felt now disappear. “I can't go home, not after what happened. Not today."
 
"Don't blame yourself, Doctor."
 
"I am not a doctor,” she corrected him harshly. “I'm not even a post-grad. And who else is there to blame? It's my job to make Lazarus work, and it's my job to protect Rei's life. Today, I did neither."
 
"Don't be so negative," Nakayima said, in his most comforting voice.
 
Maya could only guess that he had heard about what happened from one of the technicians, apparently from someone who had never heard the phrase 'a slip of the tongue', because this was exactly the sort of thing that would be deemed as classified information. Too bad she was not really interested in keeping secrets at the moment.
 
"No, Agent Nakayima-san," Maya said, shaking her head. "It is my fault and no one else's. You know the Commander will want my head on a plate now. I don't think he was too happy with having me in charge."
 
"Come on, Lieutenant—I can call you that, right? —Commander Ikari must understand that the only thing to blame here is the circumstances. Try not to think of it. Go home, take a shower, and catch a nap. Everybody has the right to have a bad day."
 
"I don't think I can do any of those things right now."
 
"All you gotta do is go home and you'll start feeling better. I'll give you a ride, even."
 
This government spy was the last person she'd expect this sort of kindness from. Perhaps it was that she was already drunk, but her tired mind did not even briefly question his motives in wanting to help her.
 
"And your work?" she said. “I assume it's important.”
 
He waved his hand dismissively. "No one will notice I'm missing," Nakayima said "My job is not that important and besides, I need to get the hell out of here before I become allergic to fresh air."
 
 
 
 
“You know what went wrong,” Gendo Ikari said, as he turned away from his second in command to face the blue-haired girl that lay unconscious in the bed. "The system is still too complex for a human subject to control. Even for Rei. I had hoped that would not be the case, but there does not seem to be a way around it now.”
 
Rei Ayanami appeared to be sleeping peacefully now. She had been slipping in and out of consciousness and vomiting for an hour or so before Ikari had had her finally sedated to spare any more side-effects. He had tried to talk to her with no success, and even Fuyutsuki has been concerned about the level of empathy he showed her.
 
Granted, she was the last one but it was still strange that Ikari would care to such a degree. He knew, of course, of the potential underlying reasons for that behavior. Gendo's love for Yui was very strong, and so was Fuyutzuki's.
 
But they'd both be fools to think of her that way.
 
Dr. Akagi had done a preliminary check-up, and concluded that Rei was lucky Maya had been fast enough to sever the connections to the Eva and that the flimsy software firewall had lasted as long as it did. Otherwise, the doctor had told Ikari, Rei's brain would have been reduced to a useless pulp.
 
"Then we must try to find another solution," Sub-Commander Fuyutsuki said. "The fact that both the Eva and the pilot reacted in such a way indicates that the code is simply incompatible with the human brain."
 
“Not incompatible,” Doctor Akagi said, straightening over Rei, the syringe containing the sedative in her hand. “You could say the human mind is simply not advanced enough.”
 
"The dummy system should be strong enough to handle the code," Ikari said, turning away from Doctor Akagi towards Fuyutsuki. "But it will take some more time to complete it. We'll have to settle ourselves for using the synthesized version on Unit-02's main interface program as soon as it is advisable."
 
"Even thought Unit-02 is in such a wretched state?” Ritsuko said. “Its pilot is not yet capable of piloting it."
 
"Her synch-ratio is over the starting indicator, that's a beginning."
 
"We can always use Unit-01," Fuyutsuki suggested. “I know you are against that, but we need a worst case scenario.”
 
"Not unless it's absolutely necessary. If we can't get the dummy system back up in time, we'll gamble with the Second Child and Unit-02," Ikari said. "We always seem to be gambling everything, don't we Fuyutsuki? But, then again, that's why we have survived this long."
 
Fuyutsuki nodded, but there was enough of an inflection in his superior's voice to tell him that he wasn't really asking. The answer was plainly obvious to all three of them. Finally, Ikari turned over to Rei, signaling that he had no further need for them. Fuyutsuki exchanged a look with Ritsuko on the way out of the room.
 
The unflinching blond managed to hold on to her doubts until they were alone in the elevator.
 
“Do you think he's being unreasonable?” she asked, watching the scrolling floor numbers tick by on the counter. “The Tablet almost presents more risks that any possible benefit.”
 
Fuyutsuki was not very surprised by her frankness—they had known each other so long that it was permissible despite rank. “Is he asking for the impossible?”
 
Ritsuko flashed him a grim look.
 
“It is possible, but our resources are more limited than before,” she said. “And every mistake costs us time.”
 
“Time is just a measure of our success.”
 
“You sound just like him,” Ritsuko said sarcastically, a clear edge to her voice. “You could have fooled me. But the truth is you don't like this any more than I do.”
 
“I have my doubts.”
 
Ritsuko frowned gravely. “What is that supposed to mean?”
 
Fuyutsuki, as a one-time faculty staff member, knew when to push an issue and to let it go. He wasn't very happy with this turn of events but it was a possibility that had long been anticipated. What could not be anticipated was Ritsuko's recklessness—and her decision to carry on the test despite running into problems was nothing but reckless.
 
Rei could not be replaced anymore, thanks to Ritsuko's own doing. She should not be too careless with this last vessel. Accusations, however, would not get them anywhere. Ikari had not made an issue of this, and neither would he.
 
“At any rate,” Ritsuko said by way of changing the subject, “we now know what we needed to know. Rei was the best possible subject because of her unique qualities. Anyone else would have made the potential for disaster incalculable. It had to be her. The data will help create a firewall program for future use. That was the most I expected from this.”
 
Fuyutsuki look at her carefully. She still had her eyes on the floor counter, whether to avoid his gaze or simply out of intense concentration he could not tell. “Always thinking ahead, aren't you, Doctor?”
 
“I fear both you and the Commander posses a fundamental misunderstanding of the situation. You are worried about the technology. But the technology is perfect in the sense that it can be relied on to do exactly what it was engineered to do. It does not fail or second guess unless we instruct it to do so, and unless we do so ourselves. It does not make mistakes. I'm afraid that is exclusively the realm of human beings.”
 
 
 
 
“So she's going to be okay?” Shinji said into the phone, unable to keep the huge relief he felt from his voice.
 
He had been anxiously waiting for news about Rei since Misato had practically forced him to come home. She had promised to let him know how she was doing as soon as possible and given all that had happened between them Shinji hadn't questioned that she would. Her call had been a godsend.
 
“Yeah, Ritsuko says she'll be back on her feet in a couple of days,” Misato said on the other side of the line. “Nothing to worry about. Rei's a tough girl, she's seen worse.”
 
“That's good to hear.” It really was. Shinji felt as if a huge weight had been lifted off his shoulders.
 
“Anyway, don't you worry about her. I've got to get going now, Shinji.”
 
Shinji wished she could see the look of gratitude on his face.
 
“Thank you, Misato.”
 
“I promised, didn't I?” She said, adding hastily, “Bye.”
 
As he turned to hang up the phone where it belonged on the kitchen table, Shinji caught his breath: standing on the doorway to the living room opposite him was Asuka, her face set firmly, her posture indicating that she was in a bad mood and already annoyed with his crap even though he hadn't said anything yet.
 
“Who was it?” Asuka demanded. Her eyes locked on him with such force that he wasn't sure he would be able to reply. “Were you talking to Misato? Was it about my test?”
 
Shinji shook his head slowly. “N-no, it was about Rei,” he managed. “She wasn't seriously hurt during Unit-00's activation.”
 
He had added that last part without thinking—he knew Asuka wouldn't care, if she knew about Rei's trouble with Unit-00 at all because she had left the Geo-Front and come home immediately after her own test without so much as talking to anyone.
 
The comment had simply slipped out, he had been so worried about Rei he couldn't help it.
 
Asuka scoffed. “Bah, I thought it was something important.”
 
“Her life is important to me,” Shinji said. “I care about her.”
 
“I don't even know why,” Asuka said with a frown, and the anger and derision in her voice made him suddenly grit his teeth. “She is just a doll--the Commander's little doll that will do anything to make her master happy. Why would her life be important to you when it's not even important to her?”
 
“You wouldn't understand.”
 
He didn't like the way that came out either, he made it sound as if Asuka was completely unable to ever care about anyone other than herself.
 
“I wouldn't understand?” Asuka's voice began to rise. “I wouldn't understand!”
 
She stalked around the wooden table, her frown deepening until her thin eyebrows were nearly drawn together. Squaring her shoulders, she came to stand a foot or so away from him. “You can be so stupid!” she yelled in his face. “She's just a puppet. Do you think she'll love you because you care? She's a doll! She can't love you! She can't feel anything!”
 
Shinji could not hold the angry blues of her eyes and so he dropped his gaze, following the slender shape of her neck and down her body, noticing how the oversized mustard T-shirt she wore completely hid the lines of her lithe frame and clung to her so loosely it seemed about ready to slip off her shoulders.
 
He focused finally on her right hand, hanging by her side, provocatively close to the spot where the creamy white flesh of her upper thigh disappeared under the hem of her skimpy dark shorts. The garment itself was loose fitting but fairly high-cut, reaching a few inches lower than the shirt, and covered only a little more than underwear would.
 
It was always awkward to have her like this, barely clothed with hardly a step between them.
 
“R-Rei is not a doll,” he muttered.
 
Asuka's hand clenched into a fist. “Look at me when you talk, idiot!”
 
She stomped down hard on his foot, the impact of her heel sending a dull pain through him. His eyes snapped back to hers instantly, and the contempt he saw reflected on those blue jewels sparked a kind of anger he hadn't felt in a long time.
 
Shinji recognized Asuka was much too different from Rei to like her, but she didn't have to hate her either. Rei didn't deserve it.
 
After all, he was different from Asuka too.
 
“Rei is not a doll!” His emotions getting the better of him, he repeated much louder in a voice that didn't seem to belong to him. The frustration he'd felt directed at himself since Asuka's coming out of the hospital seemed for the first time to turn outwards. “Just because you say that doesn't make it true. She has emotions!”
 
“She's a stuffed animal!” Asuka barked. “Not even a human being! Just a thing with nothing inside!”
 
“She is a more of a human being than you are!”
 
“I told her I hoped she would die!”
 
In that single instant of pure resentment, Shinji raised his hand and slapped her across the face.
 
And then he froze, and stared at her completely shocked, as much by what she'd said as by what he'd done. Never in a million years did he think he'd have the guts to hit her, no matter how much she deserved it. He could stand a lot from her—he had to or he simply wouldn't have been able to live with her. But actually hearing Asuka wish such a thing on Rei was too much. He had never been so angry at her. His hand stung, it felt strangely pleasant.
 
Asuka didn't back away.
 
“Idiot!” she screamed at him, rubbing her cheek where he had hit her. He didn't care—she could scream herself hoarse if she wanted. Her eyes were wide with fury, her lips held back into a menacing snarl, white teeth bared. “I hate you!”
 
The awful reply spilled from Shinji's lips uncontrollably. “I hate you too! And I hope YOU die!”
 
For a second he wasn't sure he'd actually said it aloud, and then …
 
Then something happened to Asuka's face.
 
Where before there had been nothing but anger, now he saw ... he saw that her eyes were shaking. She did nothing, said nothing, seemingly in emotional shock. Then a kind of hopeless smirk spread over her sharp features, and a gentle noise like a whimper escaped her throat, and her quivering eyes became watery as she were about to ...
 
Shinji stood perfectly still, but knowing, as angry as she had made him, that he had crossed the line. Even someone as stout-hearted as Asuka had her limit and he had just reached it.
 
He had just--
 
And without another word Asuka lunged forward, wrapped her hands around his neck, and squeezed tightly.
 
It took Shinji a moment to understand what was happening—it didn't seem real. All he could feel were her fingers digging into his soft flesh, strangling him.
 
He deserved to die for what he had said to her; for the way he had treated her all this time; for making her suffer. If she wanted to take his life he would not stop her.
 
Though he would have liked to look into her eyes one last time, he did not want the sight of her hateful glare to be the last thing he would remember her by. He would like to remember the girl he had met one day on a ship wearing a yellow sundress, whose pride always seemed to fuel great courage. The girl that had given him his first kiss. She would be rid of him now. He would never hurt her again.
 
His head forced back by her strength, Shinji closed his eyes in resignation and heard her breathing, ragged and uneven, and then something else.
 
The pressure on his throat eased slowly. Air and life returned to his lungs, but he felt as if he had already died inside. The world returned to his vision as Asuka's hands fell away from him—a ceiling that was still strange despite having lived here so long. Bringing his gaze down he saw her turn away, still a single step's distance, and bury her face in her hands like a broken little girl.
 
And then Asuka started to cry.
 
He had done this to her, like he had done it to Misato, and was shocked by the immediate realization that up till now he had never seen or heard Asuka cry. Not even when at times he thought she should.
 
She had endured everything she had without a single tear; she was that strong.
 
But now ...
 
Swallowing uncomfortably hard and fighting the urge to rub his throat, Shinji leaned closer to her without knowing exactly what he was supposed to do but knowing in the depths of his heart that he had to somehow find a way—words, gestures, anything—to console her.
 
Shinji lifted his hand as if to take one of her sagging shoulders, and said softly, “Asuka, please don't cry. I didn't mean--”
 
“Get away from me!” Asuka bellowed at the top of her lungs, her voice shaking and unrecognizable. She shoved him away violently, sending him stumbling backwards into the front of a nearby kitchen cabinet. “I hate you! I HATE YOU!”
 
He braced himself against the hard wooden surface, but in the time it took her to say that he managed to catch a glimpse of her eyes again, for a split second only. It was as if something had shattered behind the deep blue irises.
 
There was so much pain there ... and anger, and resignation. And he didn't even know why.
 
Suddenly, his guilt seemed to have stopped the beating of his heart.
 
How could he, a pathetic doormat as Asuka had often called him, have brought her to this? How deep must he have hurt her to make her cry?
 
Shinji couldn't stand to see her like this. But before he could utter a single word in apology, Asuka spun around and ran off, her golden-red mane billowing behind her. The sound of her anguished weeping and bare feet pounding the floor beneath her as she rushed across the empty apartment filled his ears until he heard her bedroom door slamming shut with tremendous force.
 
Then there was silence.
 
He tried absently to rub away the sensation of Asuka's strangling fingers from his neck, and stood there motionless for the longest time leaning against the counter Asuka had pushed him against. He felt the same dreary emptiness he'd felt after Kaworu's death, the same emptiness that had been hanging inside him since that moment, ever so ready to swallow him as it did now.
 
Whether it was an echo of that old wound or a new one opening up he couldn't tell, but the reason was the same.
 
Kaworu had been an Angel, he had to be destroyed; Asuka was just a young girl, a fellow pilot, his roommate, and maybe even more than that. It was all his fault. He had hurt someone close to him again—hurt her very badly. She would never talk to him again, or want to see him, or want to live with him in the same apartment. Whatever bonds may have connected them he had now torn apart.
 
Exhausted, he slid down until he was sitting curled up on the floor. He wrapped his arms around himself protectively and hung his head low between his knees, the relief he had felt at having good news about Rei completely forgotten.
 
“I'm sorry,” Shinji whimpered. “I'm so sorry, Asuka.”
 
And as stinging tears began running down his young cheeks, Shinji finally realized what the emptiness that haunted him was.
 
Heartbreak.
 
 
 
 
To be continued ...
 
 

Chapter 2
Chapter 4
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