Neon Genesis Evangelion Fan Fiction ❯ Evangelion Genocide: Extended ❯ Expectations ( Chapter 4 )

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

Notes: Same as always. Thanks for Big D for proofreading this on such sort notice. Also, thanks in advance to anyone who actually posts reviews because that seems to have become a lost art.
 
 
 
 
Evangelion Genocide: Extended.
 
“The most important thing we put into any relationship is not what we say or what we do, but what we are.”--Stephen R. Covey
 
Genocide 0:4 / Expectations
 
 
 
 
Major Misato Katsuragi sat in the cubicle that passed for her office. Her desk, usually stacked high with paperwork, was now empty. She was leaning forward on her chair, resting her head on the desk, folding her arms underneath it as a pillow, her eyes closed. She was tired, more tired than she had felt since the Angels had stopped showing up.
 
She could go home, Misato thought to herself, but then she would have to face the fallout. She would have to go up to Shinji and Asuka and admit to them that she had made a mistake.
 
It was painfully clear it had been a bad idea to have Asuka move back in. Almost as painful as it was to admit that Ritsuko had been right. Asuka should have stayed in Dogma, and as far away from Shinji as possible. Misato had thought it would be better for Asuka to have some company—after all the time she had spent alone in the hospital she had to want some company.
 
But Misato had been wrong, and now she had to pick up the pieces.
 
"Still moping?"
 
Misato recognized the voice instantly. She did not even bother to open her eyes to look at Dr. Ritsuko Akagi. She heard the blonde woman step into the room, her heels clicking.
 
"You can call it that, I guess," Misato said, her voice a low drawl. "I don't know what to do anymore. I just don't."
 
She heard Ritsuko pull a chair and sit in front of her desk.
 
"I should have listened to you, Ri-chan,” Misato said miserably, unable to wait for the admonishment she knew had to be coming from her so-called friend. “You always know best."
 
"You couldn't have predicted this would happen, Misato." Ritsuko said, and for a second her comforting tone threw Misato for a loop.
 
Suddenly not believing this could be the same person whose inhumanity she'd come to despise, Misato opened her eyes. Sure enough it was Ritsuko. And she looked … sympathetic. For once she seemed like she was willing to listen.
 
And Misato could not hold onto her anguish any longer. "I don't know what to do. They are really gonna end up killing each other. I can't watch them all the time. I can't make them like each other. I can't even talk to Asuka without her hating me.”
 
“I guess we should separate them," Ritsuko suggested. "I can get Asuka a place inside Central Dogma with just a phone call. Or I could give her a prescription if you think her mood has become the problem."
 
"I'm not going to have her medicated.” Misato shook her head firmly. “It'll likely only make things worse. Besides, I DARE you to make her take anything she doesn't want to. You'd have an easier time trying to get a tank to stop on a dime.”
 
Ritsuko didn't really have a sense of humor, but she did give Misato a grin. “I suppose you are right. What about staying at Central Dogma?”
 
“I don't want her to be alone, either. I think maybe I should try to get her to stay with a friend. Someone she won't try to kill."
 
“I imagine that's a very short list.”
 
Indeed, Misato thought, a very short list. Asuka, for all her flamboyance, didn't really have any friends. Of course, it didn't really help that she thought she was better than anyone else, but Misato still found it remarkable that she'd managed to alienate even those closest to her. She was like a celebrity in that people wanted to be seen with her simply because of who she was, but her harsh personality made sure she wasn't really liked.
 
Shinji was the exact opposite, much more introverted and far less showy, and yet he did have people around him. Because at least he allowed them to stay.
 
Misato had the best intentions in bringing Asuka home. She thought she was doing her a favor by giving her the support she needed, the kindness she deserved. In reality, all she did was place an unfair burden on Shinji by expecting him to be able to deal with someone who, as wounded as she might be, could still lash out as violently as Asuka did.
 
“Well, I don't think I can help with this,” Ritsuko added, noticing Misato was not responding. “You'd agree that human relations isn't my area of expertise.”
 
Misato almost chuckled. That was as good as self-deprecating humor got for Ritsuko, and that she would recognize that in herself instead of offering her usually cold retorts told Misato she was taking the situation seriously.
 
“You know, you are such a good liar, Ritsuko Akagi,” Misato said. “You walk around making everyone think you don't have a heart. But you are really a big softie.”
 
Ritsuko made a face that indicated she didn't quite agree, but just as she was about to reply Misato heard a strange humming noise. The blonde reached into a jacket pocket and pulled out a vibrating pager. “Duty calls,” she said, getting to her feet. “Oh, when you decide what to do about Asuka let me know. I must be able to get in touch with her."
 
Pursing her lips, Misato fought the urge to think that might have been Ritsuko's real reason for talking to her. "I will." she scoffed. "Don't worry, this won't interfere with your project."
 
"See to it that it doesn't, Misato." Ritsuko said. "The Commander is displeased enough with Lazarus's setbacks. Problems with the children are the last thing we need now. It's important that we stick to our schedule."
 
Misato pressed her lips into a pout. "When are you going to tell me exactly what's going on?"
 
"When you need to know. Don't worry, it'll be sooner than you think. I wouldn't keep anything crucial from you, if only on the basis that I'm not a tactician and tactical abilities are required. The Commander understands that too."
 
Misato straightened up and locked her dark eyes with Ritsuko's. “In other words, you'll just ring your little bell when you need me.”
 
The blonde doctor shook her head and smiled weakly. "You look like hell, Misato." She reached out with a hand and tousled Misato's long purple hair. "Get some sleep. If you don't want to go home, that's fine, but do get some rest."
 
"Nah, I think I'd rather have a beer."
 
Ritsuko shook her head disapprovingly and disappeared beyond the door into the hallway beyond, heels clicking away into silence.
 
Deciding that she wasn't going to help anyone by sitting around moping, Misato reached into one of her desk drawers and pulled out a little address book. To be honest, she should have already programmed the number she was looking for into her cell-phone. She had just never had the time; never thought to bother.
 
The name and number stared at her from the tiny page—her last resort. It was either this or Asuka would have no choice but to be alone. Only one person would take her in, as she had done before.
 
So, feeling ashamed that she would have to ask this again, Misato dialed Hikari Horaki.
 
 
 
 
The satellite pictures were displayed on the illuminated table in groups of three, each having been taken within 60 seconds of the others. A grid had been overlaid on top of the landscape, outlining contours and enhancing blurry shapes. Two rulers for scaling framed the top and left sides of the pictures, and helpful labels depicting altitude, latitude, and longitude were also shown.
 
Fuyutsuki did not need an analyst to be told what it was that he was looking at; the pictures showed an industrial complex surrounded by a sprawling network of railway lines like the spokes on a wheel. And on one of the lines was a strange humanoid shape, its head and broad shoulders distinctive despite the extreme bird's-eye view.
 
"So we can confirm that the Chinese have advanced their schedule?" the Sub-Commander asked, leaning closer over the table, hoping that perhaps he wasn't seeing what he suspected. There was no doubt, however. The humanoid shape was an Evangelion.
 
The Chinese-made Unit-A was indeed on its way to the Third Branch test facility outside Beijing.
 
"Yes. Our agent tells me that they will be ready for the first Unit-A activation test within the week, possibly even sooner than that," Commander Ikari said. "That is more than a month ahead of the plan."
 
Ikari wasn't poring over the photographs. It was likely, Fuyutsuki thought, that he'd studied them in advance, or that he simply knew enough to make any visual evidence unnecessary. He stood away from the table, half-covered in the shadows produced by the room's dim lighting.
 
To Fuyutsuki's immediate right was Ritsuko Akagi, her face glum. She said nothing as she examined the evidence. Like the two men in the room, she was keenly aware of the implications.
 
"Do we know that they intend to activate it?" Fuyutsuki asked.
 
“We have reason to believe that a pilot has been selected,” Ikari said. “Nothing specific, only that certain arrangements have been made similar to our own selection and preparation procedures. My main concern is whether or not they intend to use the Tablet for the activation.”
 
Doctor Akagi nodded. “We have to assume so. There's no reason they wouldn't.”
 
“My God,” Fuyutsuki muttered. "Can we be ready in five days?"
 
"We must." Ikari said. He turned his attention to Ritsuko. “Doctor, I want you to drop everything and focus on getting Unit-00 working. That should take priority over everything else. Nothing is as important. Revert to the old configuration as soon as possible and schedule a second activation.”
 
“Rei is still in the hospital,” Ritsuko said. “The effects of the previous contact have not been fully diagnosed.”
 
“Is she physically capable of piloting Unit-00?” Ikari asked coldly.
 
"The body recovers very quickly.” Ritsuko's reply didn't answer the question directly. She always gave a detached sense when talking about Rei, though she was supposed to be her responsibility. With her hands in her lab coat pockets she presented the image of the dedicated scientist, just like her mother had.
 
The apple didn't fall far from the tree, and Ritsuko Akagi had certainly inherited more than smarts and looks from Naoko. Fuyutsuki, who had now known them both for about the same amount of time, found the similarities uncanny.
 
“Her health status should be of no concern, then,” Ikari said, betraying no emotion. “Lieutenant Ibuki is still looking for the root of the activation problems. She believes it's because of the complexity of the new programming, does she not? That should provide us with a plausible pretext for the overhaul."
 
"People are bound to ask uncomfortable questions," Ritsuko said. "Major Katsuragi in particular. I'm not sure how long I can keep lying to her."
 
"It won't matter in five days unless we exert the greatest effort. We have no choice. The current situation has to be dealt with first and foremost. Katsuragi's questions can wait."
 
That was the sort of dismissive attitude that had landed them in his mess, Fuyutsuki thought. But like a good second-in-command, he kept his fears to himself. Giving the Emerald Tablet to the Chinese had been a calculated risk—they had to be given something to ensure their cooperation as long as NERV needed it. At the same time, however, they were given specific instructions and time-lines. The current scenario depended on them.
 
Ikari hadn't trusted the Chinese Branch to do entirely as they were told, but he had depended on them to follow the schedule and had dismissed the idea that they were simply too self-interested to obey even that. It could now prove to be just as deadly a sin.
 
“With your permission, then, I will assemble a team and proceed with Unit-00's re-fit,” Ritsuko said. “I would much rather get started sooner than later. I will also look into clearing Rei for a second activation test as soon as possible. Unless you have any objections.”
 
Ikari looked at her sternly for a moment, a look that was both a warning and a threat. “None.” He then turned to Fuyutsuki. “Maintain a link to the UN's spy satellites and keep an eye on our Chinese friends. I don't want any more surprises."
 
"As ordered," the Sub-Commander answered. “Should we alert the Security Council?”
 
Ikari thought about his answer for a long, silent moment—he wasn't the heartless maniac people seemed to think he was, after all. Then, he shook his head and said heavily, “Foreknowledge denotes complicity.”
 
Fuyutsuki understood.
 
It was a terrible thing, but he understood.
 
 
 
 
“Asuka's gone to school,” Misato said from the doorway. Her voice was meant to be comforting, Shinji was sure, but he felt no comfort from it. “She'll be staying with Hikari for now. I don't know if she'll be coming back.”
 
It was early in the morning, around the time when Shinji would normally be up and getting ready for school. Asuka would be on his heels, barking orders left and right—make breakfast, make bentos, put your shoes on, normal stuff—and Misato would look on them from the kitchen table wondering how they managed to make it work every day.
 
They didn't—they never had. Their interactions were the result of their characters, hers domineering and his subservient, and existed only because they had to. They had never managed to come to terms with another. Not as teens, not as roommates, not even as Eva pilots. Was it surprising at all that they couldn't live together?
 
Shinji lay on his bed, facing the wall so that his back was to Misato. His S-DAT had died during the night and he hadn't felt like changing the batteries. From that point on his only companion had been the silence; he had waited in vain for sleep to relief him of his thoughts.
 
He had already been awake for hours when Misato knocked on his bedroom door. Hearing no reply, she had quietly slid it open. Unlike Asuka, he'd never bothered installing a lock.
 
He wished now that he had.
 
Misato was looking at him, and he could almost see the pity in her eyes. He could feel it. And it made the guilt harder to bear. He didn't deserve it—if she only knew what he'd said to Asuka she wouldn't pity him. Even if she knew the redhead had said it to him first, even if she knew Asuka had tried to strangle him. She would despise him, too.
 
Behind him Misato sighed, realizing he wasn't going to answer her. “Shinji, I understand that some things are hard to talk about. But that doesn't mean you should keep them to yourself. And you do have people around you who are willing to listen.”
 
She paused, perhaps to give him a chance to say something. To refute her, maybe, or to tell her how she was wrong and how alone he really was.
 
“Maybe you could go see Rei?” Misato suggested. “She's well enough to see you, I think. I'm sure she'd like to have you visit. It'd make her feel better. Don't worry about school, I'll make something up. That always works.”
 
Shinji stared at the wall. He could not, however, ignore the fact that Rei would indeed be the one he could talk to without feeling worse than he did now. Everyone else would drive stake of guilt deeper.
 
Rei—it was because he defended her that Asuka had got upset in the first place. What else was he supposed to do? Shinji could tolerate Asuka being abusive towards him—her insults and her punches had become the routine—but for her to treat Rei that way was more than even the human doormat could bear. He'd done what he thought he needed to do. He'd only thrown Asuka's own words back at her. They were hurtful words, but they were HER words. She'd only been on the receiving end of the same kind of spite she used on everyone else.
 
That's what it felt like to have someone tell you they hated you, that they wanted you to die. Like she herself had done to Rei.
 
“This is just like what happened with that boy, isn't it?” Misato said. “You felt like it was your fault, even though nobody would blame you. I'm not your mother, Shinji. I know that. I'm not going to tell you everything will be alright. But what I can tell you is that it will never get better unless you decide to make an effort.”
 
“His named was Kaoru,” Shinji said suddenly. It was the first time he spoke to her that morning. “That boy—his name was Kaoru.”
 
“Sorry, I didn't mean to upset you.” She hesitated. “Just think about what I said. Don't let this be like before. You don't have to. You are not alone.”
 
Shinji heard her move away, the sound of her footsteps slightly muted by her stockings, and then he heard his bedroom door sliding closed. Misato would be going to work and probably wouldn't be coming back until very late. For all practical purposes she was gone for good. He was alone, whatever she might say. He felt alone.
 
 
 
 
Hyuga yawned loudly, stretching his arms like someone who'd just gotten out of bed, then turned to Misato. “Sorry,” he apologized. “I didn't get any sleep last night.
 
“No need to be polite around me.” Misato dismissed him with a shake of her head, wishing that by now he'd grown used to being less formal with her. She wasn't going to call him on it or anything. “Ritsuko insisted Unit-00 should be worked on overnight, didn't she?”
 
“Yeah, me and about very other tech she could find. She seems to have found another gear. I don't know how she does it.”
 
They were outside Central Dogma since this was the only fairly secure location. But instead of meeting on the watermelon field, Misato had driven them a good distance from NERV HQ to a small clearing south of the pyramid where they now stood, leaning on the side of her car. She had been quiet all the way up to now.
 
“She's a workaholic,” Misato said snippily. “I think she assumes everyone around her is as well. If you ask me I think that's an impossibly high standard to expect from people. Any idea about the rush?”
 
“Only guesswork. I know it was something to do with China. Well, it could be anything really, but our link with the Chinese branch has been on non-stop like we are waiting for something. I have no clue about what is going on over there. But some people are starting to get really mad.”
 
Misato frowned suspiciously. “The Chinese have an Eva, right?”
 
“Do you want the official or the unofficial answer?” Hyuga shifted his weight, turning so that he was leaning slightly on his side, facing her. “That's what worries me, actually. I have a pen-pal, you see. Inside the Chinese Branch.”
 
Given how much time he spent in front of a computer, Misato was not surprised to hear that. “Lots of counterfeit movies have come from that friendship, I trust.”
 
He didn't acknowledge the joke, not the hidden implication that it might possible to get something out this supposed person.
 
“Unfortunately, my contact is located in Shanghai, not Beijing—a little out of the loop you might say. But he's been awfully quiet these last few days,” Hyuga said gravely, looking at the pyramidal building in the distance. “The UN advisors are going crazy, like everyone else, but the Chinese have only said that they are conducting an experiment. Then even people on the inside who would normally be able to send messages out are prevented from doing so. I might be reading too much into it, of course, but I don't have to tell you what might happen if China gets to make Unit-A operational.”
 
“The balance is disrupted,” Misato said quietly.
 
“Precisely,” Hyuga continued. “China was never supposed to keep an Evangelion, remember? They were to build one and turn it over to the UN, like Germany. And India and Pakistan are horrified at the prospect of China having an Eva. Russia seems indifferent, though, but you know the Russians. What is really troubling is the fact that China has been ignoring all proper channels of communication and the government still claims it's just for research purposes, when we know that it isn't."
 
“Research of what?” Misato replied, folding her arms. “Why? They have to know we know they're lying.”
 
“God only knows,” Hyuga said. “I'd imagine the UN fears that China is doing weapons testing with the Eva. This creates a nightmare scenario: India, Pakistan and Russia are nuclear powers. If they think China is planning something against them they'll hit the panic button.”
 
“And everyone goes boom, from weapons they're not even supposed to have. You gotta love the modern age,” Misato said with a lot of bitterness. More that Hyuga seemed to think the situation called for.
 
"Major, is there something wrong?" he suddenly asked, though not to Misato's surprise; Hyuga was nothing if not attentive.
 
She shook her head slowly. “Nothing.”
 
Hyuga made a face, hinting concern over curiosity. “Major … you know, we don't always have to talk about stuff like this. I wouldn't mind if you wanted to, well, if you needed someone to vent.”
 
"It's not that you haven't earned my trust, Hyuga," Misato said, carefully treading waters she was not very comfortable in, aware that saying the wrong thing might give him the wrong impression. She didn't want to push him away, but also didn't want to draw him closer. “You have my trust. You are probably the only one I CAN trust. It's just difficult to talk about personal feelings with anyone. Particularly feelings that are ... less than pleasant.”
 
“Is it something to do with the Children?”
 
Yeah, she was so predictable, Misato thought sourly. Really there were only a few things that got to her the same way that her two teen wards did. Ritsuko had once accused her of wanting to play surrogate mother because it would help her life feel less empty. Misato had to agree there was an element of truth there, but she didn't see how caring for other people could possibly be a bad thing. She still didn't think it was, whatever her present feelings. Shinji and Asuka represented part of a life she couldn't have, which she didn't even know she wanted until she'd taken them under her wing.
 
But they weren't family, and her feelings were little more than stand-ins to fill in the void. To make her feel better. Unlike a real mother whose duty it was to keep her family together, all Misato could do to help was break it apart.
 
“Have you been giving it some though?” Misato asked, still sounding slightly bitter despite being guiltily aware that Hyuga didn't deserve it. “Or did you come up with that assumption just now?”
 
He was taken aback, his manner changing apologetically, and Misato utterly hated herself. "Sorry," he said sheepishly, just like Shinji would.
 
And it was holding that mental image, that of the brown-haired Third Child lying disconsolate in bed, and of what she had told him before about opening up to people that she realize it was okay for her to do the same. Shinji was never as alone as he thought—he had Rei Ayanami. And so Misato had Hyuga.
 
She turned around, leaning tiredly forward and folding her arms on top of the car. She didn't take her eyes away from Hyuga, as if trying to measure his sincerity. “Yeah, it's the Children,” Misato said finally. “They had a fight.”
 
“But you've said they are always fighting,” Hyuga said.
 
“No, this is different,” Misato replied. “I had to send Asuka to stay with a friend. I had no other choice."
 
“I'm sure you did what was best,” Hyuga said, clearly trying to make his superior feel better. But it was a line Misato had all but grown immune to.
 
“I don't know what they said to each other. When Shinji told me what happened he was his reluctant to say much. He said they fought, but wouldn't tell me anything more. I know it was bad. I can't blame him, can I? He goes out of his way to avoid confrontation. But Asuka … when Asuka wants to hurt she knows exactly what to say. And she won't even look at me—that's nothing new, really. This morning I found her sitting in the kitchen, wiping tears out of her eyes. She yelled when I asked what was wrong. You know her, she has to be strong. She can't possibly let anyone near her. Even though she had hurt Shinji just as much, I wanted so bad to just ... tell her it's okay to cry, and just hold her. But I couldn't ...”
 
As the words spilled out of her so did the emotions, and before she knew it the hardened facade of NERV's Chief of Operations had fallen away and left only Misato Katsuragi, the woman who had never really grown up, the would-be mother who couldn't take care of herself let alone two young teenagers that hated each other.
 
She buried her face on her folded arms, fighting to keep the tears at bay. A fight she was quickly losing. “I can't do anything for Asuka. I can't do anything for Shinji. I never could. I just ask things from them—ask them to risk their lives, ask them to suffer—but I can't do anything to repay their sacrifice. They deserve better ... they deserve better than me.”
 
Hyuga stood by silently until she finished, and she was convinced he would be disgusted to have his superior officer break down in such an unsightly fashion. His silence was proof that he didn't approve.
 
But then he moved closer, placing an arm on top of the car next to her. “Says who, Major?” he told her kindly. “Who could want anything more than someone who cares for them?”
 
Misato opened her eyes, lifting her head. The world had become blurry as seen through the distortion of her tears. She wiped them away on a red sleeve. “It isn't that simple. Caring for them is easy, it comes naturally, but I should do more than that. I should be able to help them.”
 
“Major, I wouldn't ever want to presume I know what to do, but don't you think that, maybe, you being there for them already is a lot of help. You can't force anyone to accept help if they don't want it, but they know it's there if they need it.”
 
Misato could tell he really meant it, too. It wasn't the sort of artificial kindness people were so prone to giving one another without any real feeling behind. Strangely, it made her feel at once comforted and saddened: the former because she was assured of his sincerity, the later because whatever she might think of him he would never replace Kaji in her heart.
 
This was why she had spent the last few months focusing on work and, above all, to preserve Kaji's quest for truth—it was much easier to deal with long-buried secrets than personal ones.
 
“I don't know,” Misato said, forcing herself to regain he composure. "Could we not do this right now, Hyuga? Talking about the Children, I mean."
 
He seemed puzzled, as if trying to decide between pushing the issue thinking it would do her good or just dropping it completely. Again, his concern for her was painfully obvious. "Sure, Major," the operator said finally. “Anything you wish.”
 
Misato gave him a nod of gratitude.
 
“So, um, would you like me to find out more about what the Chinese are up to?” Hyuga said.
 
“No,” Misato's reply was almost immediate. She couldn't have cared less. “Whatever they are up to doesn't concern us. They have obviously chosen to play around with something they don't understand. It's their funeral.”
 
 
 
 
Hikari Horaki felt lonely and maybe that was why she had accepted to have Asuka move in with her again. Her older sister, the person closest to her, had left for Kyoto after the explosion that leveled part of Tokyo-3 rather than stay in a war zone. Hikari had no such freedom of choice. Though she would have gone with Kodama in a heartbeat, her father depended on NERV for work and so he remained behind along with Hikari and her younger sister.
 
When Misato had called late the previous night to tell her that Asuka was moving out and needed a place to stay, she'd said that Asuka and Shinji had a fight. She wouldn't say over what, however, or what made this particular fight so nasty that they couldn't stay together anymore. The teen pilots were always arguing and fighting like an old married couple—much like she and Toji had, and still did whenever she visited him in the hospital.
 
It had taken some convincing, but finally her father had agreed to let her bring Asuka in. He'd never even met her the previous time because he always worked so much, Hikari argued, so he wouldn't know she was there, and with Kodama gone it wasn't like they didn't have space. Misato had warned her that Asuka would need some attention, but Hikari kept that to herself. Having gotten permission, she'd phoned Misato and the Major arranged for some of the redhead's things to be taken over.
 
Misato had said Asuka would meet her at school, but the German girl never showed up. Actually, none of the three children attended that day. Hikari couldn't help worrying—it was in her nature.
 
Unfortunately, she wasn't just being morose; Asuka really had problems. No matter if she had managed to pull herself together and lead a somewhat normal life after what had happened to her. She deserved a lot credit for that, even admiration. But she had problems.
 
Hikari, having never experienced the kind of trauma Asuka had endured, could not really relate to her on the sort of level she would've wanted. And as Asuka had cried herself to sleep that night, Hikari had been utterly unable to comfort her. She had felt useless and undeserving. There she was, supposedly caring for someone and yet managed to do nothing in the end. She was the worst sort of friend.
 
Selfish as it might seem, Hikari knew when Misato called that she wanted to fix that. She wanted a second chance to be there for Asuka.
 
She waited for her friend for nearly an hour after school, but Asuka never came, so Hikari decided to walk home. Maybe something had happened, she thought. Maybe Misato had left a message.
 
Hikari walked down the narrow sidewalk, careful to avoid running into people, and passed in front of the small arcade located on the corner. The place was popular with most students, providing a welcome break after a day full of schoolwork. Hikari had never been big on video games—the only reason she even bought a console was for dating sims—but she and Asuka had hung out there a few times, along with the Three Stooges.
 
As she peered fleetingly through the front window, Hikari recognized the figure engaged over one of the flashy, loud machines. Her golden-red hair and pointy scarlet hairclips gave her away.
 
She was wearing her uniform, too; she had certainly left for school that morning as Misato said she would. Hikari sighed, and made her way into the arcade.
 
"Asuka?" Hikari called shyly, walking over to her distracted friend. She was playing a shooting game, her favorite genre.
 
Asuka turned her head and gazed at her friend with dull eyes, so much so that they seemed a completely different shade of blue. They were the eyes of someone who had been through a deeply personal tragedy. Hikari could not believe this was the same cheerful, outgoing person she had befriended. How could a mere fight with Shinji Ikari have done this to her?
 
"Uh...hi, Hikari." Asuka forced herself to smile.
 
"Hi," Hikari said. Checking out the arcade screen, she noticed the initials ALS held all of the Top Ten records—all dated within the last few hours. "Did … did you go to school at all? I've been really worried. Misato told me that..."
 
"School didn't seem important," Asuka said flatly. She returned her attention to the game, moving the controls with short, practiced movements.
 
"Well, I thought something happened to you."
 
Asuka did not reply to that.
 
Hikari swallowed awkwardly, uncertain of how far she should allow her curiosity to push the issue. "Misato told me that you and Shinji...had problems."
 
Despite still getting no response, Hikari found more meaning in the heavy silence that followed than on any words Asuka might utter. The German redhead might be many things but coy wasn't one of them, and she didn't usually avoid a subject as deliberately as she was doing now. Normally, she'd try to deflect attention, to deny that something was bothering her and haughtily pretend she was fine. This time there was no pretense in her body language; she wasn't fine.
 
The freckled girl decided to change the subject.
 
"You know, I've been really wanting to talk to you for a long time. About what happened before with the Eva in the city. But it's not really important now, I guess. Ever since you came out of the hospital I've just been glad to have you around.” She paused and smiled amicably. "So, are you moving in with me after all?"
 
Hikari reached out a hand intuitively in a gesture of support.
 
Asuka quickly pulled away. "I told Misato not to bother you with that,” the redhead said defensively. “I can go elsewhere."
 
She turned her head, no longer focusing on the flashing screen but on the window beyond. Hikari could not see her eyes or her expression, only her stiff body language. The young Class Rep. was not at all discouraged by this behavior. Any of the girls who merely hung around Asuka for her looks and status would have given up right then and there, thinking her a lost case and not worth the trouble.
 
But Hikari was not one of them; where other girls might envy Asuka for her popularity she had long ago gotten used to playing second fiddle to her friend, the school idol; she didn't mind that when they were together there was hardly a glance spared in her direction instead of the exotic, sharp-featured, sapphire-eyed redhead. There was no sense in denying that Asuka was simply prettier all-around, and that Hikari, with freckles and her hair in two pig-tails, was no comparison.
 
In fact, the only reason the popular Eva pilot had been drawn to socialize with the Class Rep. in the first place was because of her position as an authority figure. Asuka held extremely high standards for people, matching the almost impossible standard she set for herself. If people didn't measure up then they were not good enough for her. That was Asuka. And as elitist as that attitude might be outwardly, it was not Hikari's place to judge her based solely on it.
 
Because, like a frozen, unforgiving iceberg, there was a lot more to Asuka beneath the surface.
 
Their relationship, for example. Hikari knew she meant more to Asuka, even if she refused to admit it, and that Asuka meant more to her. It was no longer a matter of status or standards; there was true fondness between them, tolerance, and understanding. Theirs was a real friendship.
 
And Hikari knew that was just the sort of thing Asuka needed to hear.
 
"You know, Asuka …” Hikari gently placed her hand on Asuka's shoulder. “I am your friend, for better or worse. You are … you are like one of my sisters. You are family. And family members are supposed to look after one another. I understand if maybe you feel embarrassed, but there's nothing to be embarrassed about. I will always look up to you. I'll always want to help you.”
 
“I'm not your sister.” Asuka shrugged her off. “I don't have any family. I don't need family.”
 
“Do it for me then,” Hikari said. “I told you Kodama moved out, right? I need someone to talk to, you know, about girl stuff. I need someone told tell me if my outfit matches my shoes. I need someone to tell me how I could do better than being just a boring class representative. Someone I can trust.”
 
“You mean you need a bigger sister,” Asuka said snidely.
 
“Well, since you put it that way …”
 
"I don't want to be a burden," Asuka said, dipping her head slightly.
 
"Don't be silly. I'd be honored. Pen-pen will be happy to see you too. I can tell he misses you." It was a syrupy thing to say, almost cliché in its simplicity, but it was heartfelt. Asuka seemed to agree as she suddenly lowered her guard and let a little hint of appreciation enter her voice.
 
Asuka took a long time to think about what was really being offered. Hikari didn't pretend to sneak some sympathy bellow the redhead's radar, but she did hope to make her realize that it was okay to accept a little comfort. Hikari reached again for her friend's shoulder to make her point. When Asuka didn't object, the pigtailed girl knew she had succeeded.
 
She smiled. “Lets go. Some of your things are probably already waiting for you.”
 
The two schoolgirls stepped outside together and walked side by side to the train station. Hikari was careful not to look terribly concerned, though she could help casting appraising look at Asuka as the walked, quickly looking away when she thought the other girl might see her. Asuka would normally be rightly annoyed by such behavior. Now she said nothing.
 
That was the thing that upset Hikari the most—her silence, her brooding, miserable silence. And she wondered again what Shinji Ikari could have done to hurt her so badly.
 
 
 
 
“A-Ayanami?” Shinji hesitated as he caught sight of Rei Ayanami, who sat on a wheelchair in the middle of the hallway leading to her hospital room, wearing only a white gown and a tired expression. She was talking with Doctor Akagi—rather, Doctor Akagi was talking to her—and he could not help being surprised. He'd not realized that there might be someone else with the First Child when he came to see her, which was stupid in hindsight. He'd even brought flowers, a fact he now found himself feeling very embarrassed about.
 
"What is it, Shinji?" Ritsuko said. As usual, her voice was cold, her expression clinical as she looked him over.
 
Rei remained silent besides her, as if she hadn't noticed him at all.
 
“Um, I ... I wanted to see how Rei was doing and ... ” Shinji stuttered, his cheeks warming up to a deep crimson blush. Overcome by his self-consciousness, he didn't dare move a muscle and stood there firmly glued to the spot.
 
“And you brought her flowers, how charming,” Ritsuko said in a sharp tone that sounded slightly amused. She then turned to Rei, and Shinji noticed the much smaller girl had her head bowed and was looking at the floor. “Don't you think so, Rei?”
 
“Yes,” Rei answered obediently.
 
Being passive was part of her nature, but her manner seemed different now. Not passive as much as it was utterly submissive. Blue hair disheveled, red eyes down, she looked like someone who'd just been picked up from an orphan shelter. Someone without power, without desire, without anything to call her own—even the hospital gown fit her poorly, as if the act of clothing her had merely been an afterthought.
 
Ritsuko patted Rei on her head, a gesture that coming from anyone else might have been affectionate. But coming from Ritsuko Akagi it carried all the detached satisfaction of petting an obedient dog after performing a successful trick.
 
Rei did not lift her head or look at her, her face remaining neutral. Like everything else, if she was bothered at being condescended upon she didn't show it.
 
Shinji swallowed awkwardly, wanting to say something but not knowing what.
 
“I suppose you want to talk to her alone, right?” Ritsuko said, turning again to Shinji, putting her hands in her pockets in a familiar manner, and walking towards Shinji. “Just don't take too long. Rei, don't forget what I told you.”
 
She said this last part as she moved past the Third Child, without so much as looking back at Rei. Shinji half expected her to whistle and for Rei to follow at her heels.
 
Shinji waited for Ritsuko to disappear around the corner before cautiously approaching the blue-haired girl. Thankfully, he didn't have to worry about looking her in the eyes as hers were still firmly focused on her tiled floor. “Um …”
 
He offered her the flowers, red roses because it was apparently the only kind easily available in Tokyo-3.
 
Rei lifted her gaze, but a questioning expression came over her soft features—barely an expression, really, wondering why he was giving them to her without an obvious reason. “Flowers?”
 
“I-I just thought that...well, the hospital can be very depressing so..." Shinji began hesitantly, struggling to get the right words, “I thought these might cheer you up.”
 
No one had ever given her flowers before, Shinji was sure of that much. Rei was probably wondering what was she supposed to do with them. Even so, she took them regardless, not saying a word.
 
“They are red,” Shinji continued, feeling stupid for pointing out something so obvious. “I thought they would look nice...and they match your eyes.”
 
“I do not like red,” Rei said innocently, unaware of the effect those words would have on Shinji.
 
The boy froze, wondering desperately if he had made a mistake in bringing the roses. An awkward silence settled over the hallway, until finally …
 
"S-sorry, I...didn't know...”
 
"But they look nice," Rei replied. "What do I do with them?"
 
Shinji raised an eyebrow.
 
"Well, you put them in water or they'll die," he said.
 
“I see.”
 
"Uh...Rei?" he started timidly, remembering what Misato had said and what she'd suggested he do. He didn't really think he had a choice. The memory of what he'd told Asuka was too painful, too overwhelming. Keeping it to himself was more than he thought he could endure.
 
"Yes?"
 
"I need to...talk to you about something important. You are the only one I can talk to. You are the only one I know will listen to me.” He looked nervously down the hallway. “So could I..."
 
Rei didn't answer right away, which made Shinji wonder if he was intruding on her. He thought she might not have been listening to him, since she was staring at the roses, but the odd sense of detachment was nothing new. No, if she didn't say anything it was because she didn't want to.
 
“I-I'm sorry..." Shinji apologized, all he could think of doing. "I didn't mean to impose on you. I'll leave you alone."
 
Shinji turned to leave, but Rei called to him.
 
"Ikari," Rei whispered, "you can come in if you want. My room is the second door on the left."
 
Shinji had spent enough in NERV's medical ward that he already knew much of the layout. The nurses knew him on sight, though he'd never learned their names. It was, like most hospitals, a somewhat depressing place despite its benign function. The bright lights and polished tile floors belied the pain that these very walls were built to treat.
 
He wheeled Rei down the hallway, following her directions until they reached a room with the name Ayanami R. written on a chart hanging on the door. The room looked depressing, almost entirely bare except for the bed and a few small pieces of furniture. Unlike the large room Asuka had been kept in during her coma, Rei's was much smaller and closer to what might have been deemed ordinary with none of the complex life support equipment.
 
Asuka had required more constant attention in her condition than Rei now did. She had been completely dependant on those around her. Helpless.
 
Shinji felt a new pang of guilt. He hadn't thought about that for the longest time—about what he had nearly done when the unconscious redhead had laid sprawled, half naked in front of him. He hoped the nurse on duty that day, who certainly must have found Asuka on the bed after he left, had never told her. But it wasn't because he feared her anger. Asuka simply didn't deserve the humiliation such an episode would cause her.
 
Rei Ayanami, ironically, probably wouldn't have cared.
 
Closing the door behind them, Shinji pushed the wheelchair-bound girl to the foot of her bed. He carefully placed her left arm around his shoulders to help her up and onto the bed. She was surprisingly light, her skin cold against his.
 
"Would you like me to put those in water?" he asked her, gesturing towards the flowers she still cradled on her lap.
 
"I do not have anything to put water in," Rei replied.
 
Shinji looked around, spotting used plastic dinnerware placed on a tray by her bedside. “A big glass will do, I guess.”
 
He picked up the plastic glass, walked over to the small bathroom, and gave it a rinse under the sink faucet. He then filled it with water and returned to Rei's side, holding out the glass for her to put the flowers in it. She did, and he placed them down on her nightstand. He found a chair nearby and pulled it close.
 
"So, uh, Rei … I need to talk to you," Shinji said as he sat there uncertain about what to do with himself.  
 
"Go ahead," Rei said, but did not turn to face him. She was staring at the roses in a strangely disconnected manner.
 
However, Shinji knew she was listening. He struggled to find the words that would properly and coherently explain all the things he was feeling. It took him a while, but he did at last.
 
“I...I had a fight...with Asuka,” he began, focusing on Rei's form. He felt exposed even though she was the one who was nearly naked. His insides felt raw, vulnerable. “And I said things that I shouldn't have...and she...cried.”
 
Rei said nothing, but her red eyes shifted slightly, and her head barely tilted.
 
"I-I feel horrible. It's not like when we fought before. It's not like when she calls me stupid. Now it's...painful. She shouldn't have said the things she said to you—there's no excuse for saying that even if it's to someone you don't like. I … said them right back at her. I told her I hated her. I told her …” a whimper escaped his lips. “I told her I wanted her to die. And she cried. I made her cry.”
 
Rei still said nothing, and even though Shinji knew it wasn't real he thought he saw in her otherwise neutral eyes a reflection of his own guilt. And for a fleeting second, the red became sapphire blue in his mind's eye and he saw Asuka staring back at him, tears streaming down her pretty face.
 
That image alone was like a punch to the stomach, because in that very moment Shinji had wounded her more severely than Angels or Evas ever had. Asuka had suffered a lot in her life, having fallen from grace as a child prodigy with the world at her feet to a devastated and bitter teenager. But despite her anger and her haughtiness and her prickly character and everything else that might have influenced her to become the girl she was, Shinji had never seen that look before.
 
Because that look, that single moment of painful sorrow, encapsulated all that was wrong in their relationship. All the things he had always felt but never said.
 
“I shouldn't have… ” Shinji barely managed, feeling stinging tears rolling down his own cheeks, “But she... she can be so mean. She had no right to say those things to you … but I had no right to say them to her.” He leaned forward, burying his face in his hands, weeping. “I had no right … please, forgive me.”
 
“Forgiveness is not mine to give,” Rei said.
 
Those words, like a drink of cool water on a hot day, had soothing quality that reached beyond the words themselves and touched something else.
 
Shinji looked up, slightly dumfounded. “Uh?”
 
Rei was staring at him now, her gaze easy and non-judgmental. “You can ask me for forgiveness, but I have no reason to forgive you. You have done nothing to me that would require it. If you feel it is the Second who should forgive you, then you should go to her and ask her to do so instead.”
 
“I can't.” He shook his head, sniffling and wiping away tears with his hands. “I can't go to her. She hates me. She—”
 
"She is who she is," the albino replied. “And she does not have to forgive you. It is not an obligation.”
 
“But …” Shinji simpered, “what's the point in apologizing to someone if they will just hate you for it?”
 
“Will it make you feel better?”
 
After that Shinji fell silent, uncertain about the answer and its implication. It would make him feel better, but that was just his selfishness. It wouldn't help Asuka, and it wouldn't make her feel better. And so he would only fuel her hatred of him, gaining nothing else.
 
“People make themselves what they want to be, not what others wish them to be,” Rei said. “I can only be me, and no one else. You accept me for being me, so you should accept her for being her.”
 
Shinji didn't understand how that could help. He'd tried to accept Asuka, finally resigning himself to letting her be alone, because he was sure that was what she wanted of him. He'd tried to accept that even though he didn't like her attitude or her abrasive personally as a whole, those were qualities that made the Second Child the girl she was. All she had to do was be a little nicer to him, a little more thoughtful, and he would have gladly repaid her kindness several times over.
 
But Asuka would do none of those things. Because she hated him. And after what he'd said, maybe she did indeed have a right to.
 
The silence lasted several minutes in which Shinji tried to compose himself.
 
“Is that all?” Rei finally said.
 
Her voice was soft as always, but Shinji was suddenly taken aback by her bluntness. “Y-yes...”
 
“Then I think you should go.” She lay back on her pillow and stared at the ceiling, not caring to cover herself with the thin bed sheets. There was no indication of antagonism coming from her, nor was there any sense that he was bothering her. And yet …
 
“Rei, are you...angry with me?” he couldn't help asking. In his present state he didn't think he could take someone else rejecting him.
 
“No, why should I be?” Rei answered calmly. “The doctor told me to rest for the next activation test.”
 
“Activation?” Shinji stared at her in disbelief. “So soon?”
 
“You will not make a scene, will you?”
 
Shinji wasn't stupid, no matter what Asuka liked to say, and so he'd never believed the tests would be stopped for something as seemingly unimportant as Rei getting hurt. But what purpose could they achieve by putting her back in the Eva when she was still bedridden?
 
NERV—his Father couldn't possibly think she was so disposable. She was a pilot, but also a teenager, someone like him, someone like Asuka, and her life had value too. But any outrage was futile, and he was already too emotionally exhausted. There was nothing he could do about it now. He couldn't protect her; couldn't speak for her; couldn't apologize. He was useless to her, same as with everyone else.
 
The waves of heavy feelings pushed down on him, making him sink on the chair, shoulders slumped, head down.
 
“I have to pilot Eva,” Rei said, turning her head and looking blankly into space. “There is nothing else I can do. It is the reason I exist.”
 
 
 
 
Wearing her pink cotton pajamas in the middle of the day was as embarrassing as it was liberating. Hikari could not remember the last time she'd been home this late aside from weekends and sick days, and even then she didn't tend to linger in her PJs through the morning. She'd awoken early as usual, but between seeing Nozomi off to school and waiting for Asuka to get out of bed had ended up parked in front of the TV in the living room, another thing she didn't usually do.
 
Asuka was a guest, and so Hikari didn't mind accommodating her. But it was pushing noon now, and there was still no sign of the noisy redhead coming down the stairs to have breakfast. Or lunch.
 
Hikari sighed, laid down the remote control on the couch next to her, and got up. She slipped her feet into her pink slippers and headed up the stairs. Since Kodama had left there was a spare bedroom next to Hikari's. And since she knew Asuka valued her privacy as much as anyone she'd ever met, she had taken a room to herself.
 
In was in her upbringing, Hikari thought tolerantly. Western cultures did not believe in sharing one's personal space with others. Asuka, raised in Germany for most her childhood, fit that particular mold perfectly.
 
Hikari knocked on the door. There was no response, nor had she expected any to be forthcoming; Asuka, though she didn't say it, wanted to be left alone. It was that, more than the possibility that she might have overslept, that prompted Hikari to check on her. As the door had no lock, knocking to let her know she was coming in was just courtesy.
 
“Time to get up,” she said. “It's nearly noon, you know.”
 
Hikari slid the door open, stepped inside, then softly closed the door behind her. The room was mostly as Kodama had left it—she couldn't take many of her things with her to Kyoto. City apartments were minuscule things. The thing that had always struck Hikari about her sister's room was the cleanliness, even by her own standards. Everything had its place, everything seemed to match every other thing. Even now, the only things that stood out were a backpack thrown hastily at the foot of a dresser, and a white and blue school uniform draped over the back of a chair.
 
In the few days Asuka had been here she hadn't bothered putting anything away, simply discarding things as she used them and generally making a mess. Hikari cleaned up after her; it was okay, she didn't mind.
 
Kodama would be outraged,” Hikari thought in slight amusement. She took a knee and picked up the backpack, setting it carefully in the chair. The content was mostly clothing and underwear, and a few toiletries. Asuka's Section 2 bodyguards had brought over another suitcase but she hadn't gone near it yet. Finally, Hikari turned her attention to the bed.
 
Asuka lay curled under the sheets, her slender form covered but unmistakable, her pale feet and a sheet of flaring locks from her golden-red mane visible at either end. Even as she stood over her, Hikari could hear the animated rhythm of the music she was listening to blaring through her headphones, the volume turned up as high as it would go. Pen-Pen was lying on his stomach next to the bed, his small beady eyes closed.
 
Hikari sighed again and sat beside her friend on the bed, careful not to step on the dozing penguin. She reached underneath the sheets, finding the little digital music player and switching it off with a thumb. Asuka did not stir. Hikari turned her head away, keeping her eyes on the room rather than on the covered girl.
 
“I know you can hear me, Asuka,” she said. “It's time to get up.”
 
“What for?” Asuka's voice was raspy but still low, not the usual shrill tone. Odd.
 
“Well, it's a sunny day,” Hikari said, “and since neither one of us is going to school I thought maybe you'd want to do something fun. No point in missing school again if we are just going to be inside all day.”
 
“I didn't ask you to stay.”
 
“How could I go anywhere?” Hikari said. “After what I said.”
 
“If you want to be mad at me then go ahead, I don't care. I don't care about anything.”
 
She sounded like she meant it, too, which worried Hikari. Asuka was not suicidal by any stretch, but she did have a self-destructive streak. She'd run away once before, and while the circumstances of how she was eventually taken back into custody were not known to Hikari, she was smart enough to relate the onset of her depression with her lengthy hospitalization.
 
She had heard some rumors, the sort that seemed to come out of thin air: the Second Child had been found sitting in a bathtub full of filthy water, naked and starved as though she had simply stopped caring about herself. Such a scene was something worse than Hikari could imagine. It couldn't be true; no matter how bad things got, the Asuka she knew would never sink that low.
 
But then again, she didn't really know anything about Asuka, did she?
 
“You know,” Hikari started, making an effort to get her talking, “I never asked you this, but what was it like? When you came to Japan, I mean. Is it what you thought it'd be like? Is it very different from Germany? Do you miss your friends?”
 
“Friends?” Asuka hesitated. “I was fourteen when I graduated college. I didn't have any friends. I was the youngest girl in every class I ever took. The boys would look at me, but not one of them ever approached me. I was taboo for them. Fine, men are pigs anyway. My teachers despised me because I was smarter than they were. I had all the answers. I made them look bad. After I moved into the dorm I never went back home, but that was fine too. When I was little my stepmother only ever looked after me to be close to my father. It was all a charade. My whole life's been like that.”
 
As she rambled, the tone of her voice changed erratically, as though it was difficult for her to control it. Hikari noticed her stirring under the sheets, moving her hands up to where her face would be. The sheets were thin, and she thought Asuka might be further covering her face out of shame.
 
“Come on, Asuka. Everything can't be so bad,” Hikari said, fighting the urge to actually reach out and comfort her—Asuka didn't like to be touched in any manner that would indicate weakness. “You have to believe that things will work out. You'll go back to pilot your Eva. Maybe have a talk with Shinji.”
 
“It's ... okay,” Asuka muttered. “I'm used to it. I deserve it.”
 
“No, Asuka…”
 
“That day … that day I got in the Eva, the Angel showed me what I was like. It made me realize … that I deserved it.” Asuka curled up tighter, drawing the sheets along as she tucked in her knees and her arms.
 
“Nobody deserves to be hurt like that.” Oddly enough, Hikari thought of Toji, and all the pain and hurt that had brought along. But despite that, the times she went to see him during weekends were the happiest she could remember. So pain did not exist in a vacuum, and it could eventually lead to happiness.
 
Hikari had managed that strictly on her own, through no fault of Asuka's or her sisters. And she was sure that with her help the haughty redhead could do the same.
 
“It's stupid, really,” Asuka continued. “It showed me … I should've known when I kissed him. I knew what I wanted, and that he wouldn't give it to me. But I didn't know why. I pretended like I didn't care—it was such a stupid thing to cry over.” Her voice quivered, and Hikari heard her sniffle. “I can't pretend anymore, Hikari. I don't want to.”
 
“So don't,” Hikari said, looking down at her intently for the first time. “The first step in being honest with others is being honest with yourself. Sounds to me like you've already managed that.”
 
“No.” Asuka shook her head on her pillow. “It's too late.”
 
Hikari could not ignore the signs any longer. She had to do something. Carefully, she reached down and picked up the edge of Asuka's sheet, and pulled it back just enough to see her face. But what she saw made her gasp. The crystal blue orbs were surrounded by bloodshot white, her high cheeks were streaked, and the pillow was stained where it had absorbed her tears. Her face was set, that determined expression of someone trying to retain their composure. “How long have you been …”
 
“That's none of you business,” Asuka snatched the sheet from her hand and tossed it over her head again. “Leave me alone.”
 
But Hikari didn't move. She sat there quietly, and no longer cared that she was still wearing her pink pajamas in the middle of the day.
 
 
 
 
Time had no value for Rei Ayanami. Other people lived their entire lives by it, and so Rei was forced to accept that it existed because it helped in her interpersonal relations with others to have a point of reference. Thus, Rei did not have time; she had schedules. Her life was measured by cycles—eat, sleep, go to school, do what you are told. It was simple and liberating. All she had to do was follow and obey.
 
She had been doing that as long as she could remember. She had been doing it without thinking. Only recently had she begun to understand what it meant. She obeyed his will because she was his doll. He created her. He was her master. She would die if he asked her to.
 
The Second had said so, and despite the girl's harsh manner, Rei had enough self-awareness to realize that she was right. Rei knew what not being liked was like from her experiences with Doctor Akagi, and there was no doubt the Second Child disliked her. But that did not reduce the truth of her words. And although the truth bothered her, she also realized there was nothing she could do. Rei envied the Second; she had the determination, the agency, the very human desire to make herself into more.
 
Rei had none of those things.
 
As she pressed the button on her plug-suit's wrist, she could not get that thought out of her mind. She would die—she did die. But not for him. The images of her death were vivid. She saw them as if it had been herself who died, even though she had not even been born. Ayanami had died, not Rei… not her.
 
Why was she doing it again? Why then, when the only outcome was pain, was she allowing herself to be placed in this situation again?
 
The plug-suit's mechanism hissed as it vented the air out and tightened around Rei's body with an iron grip. She winced, the touch feeling like a hundred vices clamping down on her. It was a reminder that while she may have been scheduled for a second activation test, she still wasn't physically recovered from the first one.
 
Rei couldn't know how many days had passed. Most of her time was spent sleeping or medicated to combat the aching tenderness in her whole body. She hurt—her muscles, her chest, her joints, her head. It was as though she'd taken a beating. Despite the rest, she was weak and slightly disoriented, and felt a hint of the squirming emotion that she'd come to define as apprehension. Normally, she'd be able to simply put it out of her mind. She wasn't supposed to feel frightened. She wasn't supposed to feel anything.
 
Now, however, the doubts lingered.
 
Why was she doing it again?
 
Because she was his doll—the only answer that really mattered. He created her to do his will. If she didn't, then she had no purpose. Her life would be meaningless. She would do it because it was all that she had. It wasn't an issue of choice. A choice entailed the use of free will. There was no such thing in Rei's life.
 
"Rei?" The voice startled her for a second, before she recognized the man it belonged to.
 
Rei turned her head to look at him, lowering her eyes instinctively. "Yes, Commander Ikari?"
 
Ikari was standing by the locker room bench, arms in his pockets, his stony gaze looking her over. Something heavy pressed down on Rei's sore chest, taking away most of her breath, and making her incredibly aware that the world suddenly was no longer fixed. She did not close her eyes to wait for the sickness to pass. She stood her ground and willed herself to remain still.
 
"Are you ready, Rei?" he asked, his words dull and so emotionless it made her wonder if she too could sound like that.
 
"Yes, sir." Rei remembered how she—how Rei Ayanami—felt when around Commander Ikari. She liked him, thought of him as a father. She knew he would protect her, never hurt her. But that had been someone who had actually grown up with him, and in whom he had an interest. This girl, this Rei Ayanami, did not share that bond.
 
She was a realist, a term she'd heard used by their teacher at school and then looked up to learn its meaning. She understood the difference between who she had been and who she was. Understood that she could not take the place of the girl who had been lost. She wasn't Rei Ayanami, just a replacement with the name and soul of someone else.
 
The human mind was a blank page at birth, an empty construct to be filled with the hubris of growth and experience in a changing world. Sin and virtue—love and hate—were things to be learned, understood by interaction. But Rei had merely inherited them. Her mind was a book that had already been written. The world was not hers to experience.
 
"Dr. Akagi has modified Unit-00's test parameters. She is confident it will work this time," he said.
 
"Yes, sir. I'm sure it will." Rei said. Her words too were empty, merely an echo of the meaninglessness she felt within.
 
Then she heard footsteps. Commander Ikari came to stand in front of her, but she could only bow her head and stare at his shoes. He reached out a gloved hand, tucking it underneath her delicate chin in a strangely fatherly gesture, and lifted her head.  
 
Rei stared into his eyes, red meeting black.
 
"I know this is hard on you, but you must understand what's at stake," Ikari said. Because he was so much taller than her, he had to look down to make eye contact, and yet there was no condescension in the way he addressed her. “This is not the way it was supposed to be. It is not the way we had meant it.”
 
“I do not understand, sir. But I do not care to understand. I only expect to do what I must.”
 
Gendo Ikari nodded. “And what is it that you must do?”
 
“Pilot Eva,” she answered mechanically.
 
"Why?" He almost seemed surprised, though there was really no such thing as surprise in a man like him.
 
"That's what you gave me life for. That's what you require of me, is it not?"
 
“Yes, indeed it is,” Ikari said. “But I will also require one more thing. If the time should come when I find myself in the position of having to risk your life, you should know that there is something more important you must do. You must survive. No matter how painful. Before, when the Dummy System was fully operational, you would have been considered disposable. But that time has passed. You are the last. And if you are to fulfill your purpose, you must survive.”
 
She would die if he asked her to.
 
Rei saw the words appear vividly in her mind. She knew they were true. She looked at the man —no, the monster that stood before her and fought the urge to wrap her fingers around his throat. She could kill him. She could activate her Eva and destroy him, his world, his hopes. But then her purpose would be gone. By killing Gendo Ikari she would also be killing herself.
 
"Rei," Ikari demanded. "Do you promise?"
 
Rei was taken aback but gave the expected answer regardless. "Yes, sir."
 
“Good.” He moved his hand, taking with it Rei's last human contact. He did not bid her farewell or good luck or anything else; he just walked off, walking silent and slowly with the strong, reassured stride of someone in total control.
 
Rei took a step to follow him. That was as far as got.
 
It was as though a button had been pressed and her balance disappeared. She stumbled, trying to brace against the nearby wall of metal lockers, her head spinning. She fell ungracefully, collapsing in a heap of white and blue. She lay there for a moment, gasping for air through clenched teeth, fighting the urge to vomit.
 
And then she began pulling herself up, whimpering from the effort. She forced her body to stand, leaning heavily against the front of the nearest locker and finding handholds where she could, the grip pads on the palms of her gloves providing some traction. Her body protested. The fall had now added a distinct throbbing quality to an already flaring headache.
 
When she was reasonably certain that she would not be hitting the floor again, Rei took a step. Her balance was unsteady but workable. She was careful to walk slowly, and not to stumble—she could not afford to. There would be no getting up again.
 
 
 
 
"Second and third set connections have been cleared,” Aoba called out from his station, drawing the attention of the two women standing at the observation window. “Approaching borderline."
 
“What's Rei's status?” Maya asked worriedly. She had been carefully studying Unit-00 through the thick armored glass, as if somehow close visual inspection would allow her any problems better than the MAGI computers. It was a preposterous idea, but it made her feel better. Beside her, Ritsuko Akagi remained unconcerned.
 
“Pilot condition is green,” Haruna confirmed. “Heart rate and breathing have quickened, beta waves are elevated. Everything is still within parameters, though. No anomalies on the A-10 pattern.”
 
“Now we find out if we must pay for our sins in blood,” Ritsuko said, looking at Maya. The young lieutenant bit down on her lip. “Relax, Maya. It'll be fine.”
 
“It makes me nervous when you talk like that, like you are waiting for the end of the world.”
 
“Don't worry, I don't believe humans have the ability to end the world anymore than to make miracles happen, or have others fall in love with us.”
 
"1.4 to borderline clearance," came the word from Aoba.
 
Beyond the glass Unit-00 remained still, the sparking blue finish of its round head and new armor reflecting the lights that ran along the ceiling of the cage, a single red eye staring fixedly into space, unmoving and unblinking.
 
None of the Evangelions had been designed or built with their intended pilots in mind—they were tweaked in order to maximize their performance with a particular child in the same way other war machines can be altered to achieve greater destructive power. But since it was impossible to determine who could become an Eva pilot at birth, the individual units could not be built to suit any one person. Cores could be swapped out based on certain criteria Maya herself did not fully understand, but she assumed were based on a pilot's particular needs; software could be written and changed, which was what they'd been unsuccessfully attempting.
 
But the Evas ... somehow they always seemed to reflect a part of their pilot's personality. Somehow it was as though a particular pilot was meant to be matched up with a specific Eva unit. Previous cross-synchronization experiments had shown the links formed between the pilot and the Eva were not unlike those between children and their mothers, although completely artificial, and just as hard to break or replace.
 
"1.0"
 
That was why each Child could only pilot his or her Eva. And in time, at some primordial psychological level, the characteristics of the living were passed onto the non-living technology. Unit-00 was no different; it shared Rei's aura of mystery and, it turned out, a level of quiet unpredictability.
 
"Borderline cleared!" Haruna announced, standing from her console, obviously excited. "Final connections enabled. Pilot's brainwaves are normal, pulse normal. Evangelion Unit-00 has been activated!"
 
There was a general sigh of relief as those words echoed through the control room. Someone cheered; Aoba, Maya guessed. She looked over at Ritsuko. The older woman in turn looked at her with something akin to pride. "You really don't give yourself enough credit, Maya. You can't succeed if you are always ready to fail."
 
Maya blushed and nodded. But before she could offer her gratitude at being compliment by someone she admired in the way she did Ritsuko, the blond Doctor had already turned to the bank of technicians behind the two of them. “Open a channel to the pilot.”
 
Hyuga nodded and did as he was told.
 
"Channel's open, Ma'am."
 
Ritsuko stepped from the window and moved towards one of the terminals, making the young technician sitting there tense noticeably. "Rei, can you hear me?"
 
“Yes.” Rei's voice was weak, little more than a whisper carried over the speakers as if she were standing right there with them.
 
“We are done with the activation now.” Ritsuko said. She cast a look in Maya's direction. “How are you feeling?”
 
“I'm fine.”
 
“That's good to hear,” Ritsuko said, although there was no telling about her sincerity as she sounded as cold as Maya had ever heard her. “Do you think you can handle the mobility test?”
 
That was a rhetorical question, and everyone present—certainly everyone who'd ever spent time around Rei Ayanami—knew it. Maya would never accuse Rei of being a liar in that self-interest was required in order for something to be lie and she had no such thing. She was as selfless as they came, to the detriment of her own health.
 
“Yes.” Rei said without hesitation.
 
Maya was ready to protest but held back at the last second, remembering she wasn't on solid enough ground to object to anything Ritsuko, and the Commander by proxy, wanted to do.
 
Something of her reluctance showed on her face, however, and Ritsuko was quick to give her a disapproving glare. The short-haired girl felt as though she was back in college, being reprimanded by a teacher for a sub-par term paper she had obviously thought was good enough to make the grade.
 
Belatedly Maya realized that her relationship with Ritsuko was just that. She was the younger student who failed to make her instructor notice her, and Ritsuko was just like those professors. Cold, detached—they had tenure, what did they care?
 
What did Ritsuko Akagi care?
 
"Good,” Ritsuko said, and Maya had the impression that she was talking to her instead of Rei. “Let's get this over with.”
 
A series of acknowledgements followed, and a flurry of activity took over the crowded control room. But even as the technicians busily typed commands at their stations, Maya felt one or two sets of eyes land questioningly on her.
 
She turned back to once more peer out the armored window at the cage beyond, imagining that inside the blue Evangelion the First Child could very well be looking at her also. Maya shook her head slowly, in case it wasn't just her imagination.
 
 
 
 
The two roommates sat together at the dinner table for what seemed like the first time in ages. Shinji had cooked, of course, something for which Misato was grateful because she was getting pretty bored with the watery soups and tasteless concoctions provided by all of Central Dogma's cafeterias. The fact that he had taken it upon himself to cook also meant he was coping, even if he still wasn't going to school.
 
Misato had always loved Shinji's cooking, but no matter how hard she tried to enjoy it, the awkward silence in the room made her feel slightly uncomfortable. They hadn't spoken about Asuka in days. Shinji seemed as keen to avoid the subject as she was to make sure he was doing alright. She tried not to look at him, fearing she might increase the awkwardness between them and cause him to walk up and leave.
 
She didn't want to drive him away—the one thing she thought he needed was someone to be with.
 
“I'm finished,” Shinji said as he set his chopsticks down on the table, next to his plate.
 
Misato lifted her gaze from her own plate, which was only half empty, and looked at the boy. He was depressed, she could tell. His shoulders were sagging, his whole posture slumped. The pale blue orbs of his eyes seemed bleaker than she remembered.
 
Shinji had always had sad eyes. It just one of things—somehow the physical qualities of a person reproduced and even magnified emotions held deep inside. He was a gloomy, quiet kid, perhaps moreso than anyone that age should be, but sad was a different level entirely. Gloomy was usually a disposition towards the future; sadness stemmed from something that had already happened and could not be changed.
 
Sadness could not be fixed, no matter how much Misato wished she could.
 
"Dinner was very good, Shinji," she said somewhat cheerfully, trying to ease the tension that had grown between the two of them. "You really outdid yourself."
 
"Thank you," Shinji replied in a whisper, his head down.
 
"Maybe if things had been different, you could have become a chef." Misato didn't like the how that sounded, as if that possibility was gone forever when it really wasn't. Shinji was young, and he had his whole life ahead of him. He was an Evangelion pilot, but that wasn't all he could ever be.
 
"Maybe..." Shinji began. He pushed his plate away and rose slowly to his feet. "Uh...Misato-san, can I ask you a question?"
 
He hesitated as he said this, clearly attempting to broach an even more uncomfortable subject. Misato had a good idea what was coming, and braced herself. “What is it?”
 
Shinji swallowed awkwardly, hands clenching repeatedly at his side “I-I just wanted to know … Ayanami—Rei, she … I can pilot Eva. That's what you need me to do, right? I can pilot it. I can do anything. But Rei …”
 
“You want to pilot so she doesn't have to?” Misato finished for him.
 
“Yes,” he said with uncharacteristic assertiveness. “I'll do anything. I won't complain. I won't disobey orders. Just don't make her …” he stopped suddenly, and Misato realize he was only now registering the look of regret on her face. “Sorry.”
 
“I don't understand why Rei chooses to do what she does,” Misato said. “But she does. Nobody makes her do it. I think maybe she's aware than we've been living in borrowed time—that sooner or later we'll need the Evangelions. You are one thing, but Asuka's out of the question.”
 
The redhead's name seemed to catch him by surprise. He swallowed whatever protest he wanted to make. A shadow settled over his young face.
 
It was the first time the subject was brought up; Misato had not figured out how to do so and not come across as accusatory. Despite her best efforts, however, Shinji's conscience was not about to let him get off that easily. Her mentioning it now only seemed to upset him more.
 
He started to blush, but not from shame—it was anger turned inwards. Self-hatred. At that moment he was caught between confronting a very harsh reality and running away.
 
“I...I didn't mean to hurt her,” he said remorsefully.
 
Misato nodded. It was all she could do. "I know, Shinji."
 
"I didn't mean for this to happen."
 
"Shinji..."
 
"I didn't mean for her to go away!" he yelled, as if needing to make her understand—there didn't seem to be anything more important to him in the world.
 
"We never mean for bad things to happen, Shinji,” she said, doing her most motherly impression. “But they happen anyway. It's a part of life. All we can do is make sure that when bad things do happen, we should always try to find a way to overcome them. I don't think I'm the one you should be saying these things to, either. There's only one person who should know you didn't want to hurt them. And it isn't me." Misato pressed her lips. "What else can I say?
 
"Not much...I guess," Shinji replied dourly. "I just...don't know how to deal with this."
 
"With what?" Misato asked.
 
"The feeling of guilt," Shinji said. The admission seemed to hit him like a physical blow. His face hardened, a young set of features frozen in seriousness. "The feeling that this is all my fault. That I shouldn't have said those things. That … that I …"
 
"Only you can come to terms with your own feelings." She stopped him before he got any further, knowing full well where that lonely road would lead him.
 
Neither of them said anything else for a while. The silence hung in the clammy kitchen air like a blanket, pushing aside the smell of freshly-cooked food and filling the senses with something far less pleasant.
 
There was hardly any need for him to tell her that he was sorry in the first place. She had known him long enough to realize he wouldn't hurt a fly without provocation. It wasn't in his nature in the same way that confrontation was in Asuka's. Again she regretted the decision to bring them together, to even dare to imagine that their personalities could peacefully coexist.
 
Finally, Shinji turned around. "I'm going to bed."
 
"Good night."
 
He picked up his plate and put it in the sink. He'd made it a few steps into the living room, before he stopped and then turned back. "Misato-san?"
 
"Yes?" she said attentively.
 
"Would you mind taking out the trash tonight? I know it's my turn, but I'm...just too tired."
 
He could have asked her to quack like a chicken and she would have done it. He could have asked for a lot more. Misato remembered how, in the depths of the war with the Angels, she had gone as far as offering him her body. She had only touched him, to let him know that she was there for him. However wrong it was, she just wanted to make him feel better. But whether it was because he didn't understand or because he didn't want her, Shinji had pulled away. It had been easy to think that he was just too innocent.
 
Misato regretted that incident, and thinking about it only reinforced the sense that she was completely unprepared for the role she was attempting to play. She wasn't a mother, to either Shinji or Asuka; she was just a stand-in, an unwed matron who was little more than filler.
 
“Don't worry about it, Shinji,” Misato said with a deceptively reassuring wave of her hand. “I got it. You go on. Good night.”
 
"Thank you," Shinji said.
 
As part of their assigned duties, Section 2 agents kept surveillance on the Children and submitted regular reports. She hadn't been home to keep tabs on him personally, but she was aware of the fact that he had missed school several days in a row. He was probably avoiding Asuka, and missing must have seemed like a reasonable precaution, which she could understand. But the reports also indicated the Second Child had been absent as well. In any case, Asuka could afford to miss school—the only reason she'd been assigned to Class 2-A to begin with was to facilitate surveillance and security—while Shinji couldn't.
 
Admittedly, Misato had told him to take a day off to go talk to Rei, but she hadn't intended for him to extend that indefinitely.
 
School, like cooking, represented a future apart from the Evangelion, things that could open many doors later on in life. She would have to talk to him about that. Not now, though. His future was secondary only to his present, and he certainly didn't need a lecture from her right now.
 
"I'll do the dishes too, Shinji," she added, not feeling it was fair to put him up to doing chores. It was a little thing, but she had to carry her own weight. Shinji needed her to be a grown up, to stop placing undue burdens on his shoulders.
 
Shinji nodded, bid Misato a good night again and went to his room. His steps were heavy as he went, lacking even the faintest trace of willpower, his socks rustling silently against the floor.
 
Misato finished her last bite and leaned back on her wooden chair, throwing back her head so that she could stare at the ceiling. The yellow light fell harshly on her face. Her skin was hot and covered in perspiration, even though she only wore a stringy top and shorts. Asuka had always complained about the need for a new air conditioner. But she ignored these things, her mind drifting elsewhere… to Shinji and what he was going through.
 
Somehow she had to make sense of it—there had to be a logical explanation for how things could have gotten so far out of control. Because, maybe then she'd be able to help him.
 
"Is that it...a consequence of guilt?" she whispered absently to herself. "He's too hard on himself."
 
 
 
 
Russian Foreign Minister Boris Alexandrovich Vassiliesky was used to being respected by anyone he came in contact with—it came from representing the second most powerful nation on Earth—and was extremely annoyed when Gendo Ikari refused to meet him on the time set by the Minister's office and instead arranged his own meeting. To top it off, Ikari appeared pleased at the Russian's willingness to get on his good side; he knew very well that when people want something they are likely to be unusually accommodating.
 
"Despite what the UN says, the Russian Federation, as you know, is very interested in what NERV has to offer," the Foreign Minister said, setting down his tea cup on the little plate that had been provided.
 
"I am doubtful of your motives," Gendo Ikari said. “The Evangelion technology is not just for showing off. I must have strict assurances that you will use this gift judiciously.”
 
They were sitting across from each other on one of NERV's most private conference lounges, with several of Ikari's Section 2 people and Vassiliesky's own SPETSNAZ-trained security guards acting as sentries. The only ones that were allowed to move back and forth were the waiters that brought dinner, and the Minister's personal aide.
 
"Your point is well taken, but I assure you, your fears are unjustified," Vassiliesky said. “My government handled thousands of nuclear weapon for fifty years. Never in that time did we adopt the cavalier attitude of our enemies. We are cautions to the extreme. The same could be said for whatever technology we borrow from you.”
 
Ikari nodded. "Yes, you sound a lot like America when it asked us to grant them this same technology," he said, lacing his fingers in front of his face. "We foolishly did, thinking that the Americans could be trusted. But now you see what's happened. The Americans are trying to push us out of their country. They don't believe they need us anymore."
 
"Russia is not America," Vassiliesky said slowly, making emphasis on every word. “We remember those who help us, and never forget an affront. Go ask the Germans.”
 
"I am well aware of that," Ikari replied. "Russia is even more dangerous than America. Still, danger is a matter of perspective. On that account alone is that I am willing to offer you a deal."
 
Vassiliesky leaned forward on his chair, decidedly interested. "I'm listening."
 
"I will allow your country access to what you want but I will require something of the utmost importance to NERV," Ikari began. "If you refuse then I will have no other option but to ask you to leave immediately."
 
"You don't leave me many options open, Ikari," Vassiliesky said. “We are not the sort to make decisions on the spot.”
 
"Who needs options?" Ikari said matter-of-factly. "This is my offer, do you take it?"
 
"And what is it that you want in return?"
 
"A spare."
 
Vassiliesky thought about that, judging how much information to reveal. "So you know about that?”
 
"Unfortunately," Ikari said. “I don't know whether I should be offended that you have begun to move ahead with the next stage of your plan before being granted what you need to complete phase one. It presents me with more arrogance I feel comfortable dealing with.”
 
“A weapon is useless if it can not be deployed on the battlefield,” Vassiliesky said. “Even one as powerful as the Evangelion. I'm sure a man like you understands perfectly. I would not be asking for technical data and making deals unless I knew it was workable. But I find it strange that you would require this from us.”
 
“My organization has been infiltrated, so I must outsource.” Ikari looked at him evenly, his gaze robotic. His face did not betray the slightest hint of emotion. “You are doubtful, which is permissible given the nature of my request. What do your instincts tell you?”
 
"My instincts tell me that you are a snake in the grass," Vassiliesky began and then he broke into a smile. "That you are dangerous in the extreme. And that the devil would be foolish to make a deal with you.” He paused, grinned. “Are you sure you do not have Russian blood?"
 
"I am afraid not," Ikari said.
 
“A pity, really,” Vassiliesky said. “Anyway, put your offer in writing and I'll pass it along to my government as the best course of action. Then it'll be up to the boss. He will most likely approve it if I recommend it. Of course, this is all providing that NERV keeps its end of the bargain."
 
“Nothing in writing,” Ikari countered. “I would not be so careless as to sign my name to a piece of paper. You pass along my message, personally if you must.”
 
Vassiliesky paused, considering. A trip to Moscow didn't trouble him—he'd be there tonight should he required it. What bothered him was the Comrade President wanting to know why he'd made the trip at Ikari's behest. Russians ministers were nobody's couriers. On the other hand, the potential behind this proposition was simply staggering. “Very well,” he concluded. “I shall do as you request, as a personal favor.”
 
"We must see results before you are allowed access to the requested information. But NERV will keep its word," Ikari said. “Otherwise, I much appreciate your sincerity.”
 
Vassiliesky nodded his agreement. He was not entirely convinced of the other's motives, and the reverse was probably true. However, trust and respect were not mutually exclusive in these sort of dealings. At least as long as one had something the other wanted. "You drive a hard bargain, Ikari."
 
“I wouldn't have lasted very long in this position if I didn't.”
 
 
 
 
The main control room inside Central Dogma was built in tiers that reflected the command of the organization itself inside a cavernous space. The main deck was essentially the ground floor, although it was built roughly halfway up on the superstructure that took up the room's near wall. The Commander's deck was perched highest on the structure that made up the top tier. The floor plan was geometric, resembling a triangle with a MAGI computer located at each point and stations laid out around the perimeter. It was a modern castle, humanity's last bastion against the Angels.
 
The front of the room contained the huge tactical display, the world's biggest holographic layout. The hum of machinery was constant but little more than pleasant white noise. Due to the need to control light intensity for the holograms, most of the room was plunged in darkness, making the tiny lights in the further parts twinkle like stars in the night.
 
Sub-Commander Fuyutsuki watched the nearest computer screen as the information was transferred from the Test Facility to the separate consoles and then to the MAGI's main database for analysis. Although it wasn't his custom, he was presently standing on the main deck watching the technicians in front perform their assigned duties.
 
They were all young men and women. Being among them make Fuyutsuki feel as though he was back in Kyoto, teaching the future generations. Each of these of these youngsters was an Einstein in potentia, a Heisenberg.
 
A Yui Ikari.
 
Fuyutsuki smiled to himself at the memory. But it was also a sad one—in the end her success meant an end for the potential of youth. Yet another sacrifice for a chance at a new beginning. Things were moving along now. Evangelion Unit-00 was now working, even if only with the old programming, and Dr. Akagi had made good progress on the Dummy. Gendo Ikari was close to attaining his goal, and if NERV could survive the next few days, it would achieve a level of influence comparable only to that of SEELE itself.
 
Fuyutsuki was more concerned with his immediate superior than with the old men, though. He knew that Ikari was not pleased with the overall delay of his Complementation Project, and that he was even angered by having to divert his original plan to make room for all the issues that had surfaced since the last Angel, particularly Rei.
 
The universe worked like that; entropy and uncertainty were variables that could not be eliminated, only compensated for.
 
Had the UN tried to destroy them, Fuyutsuki thought, all the restriction to Complementation would have been removed and Commander Ikari would have been able to do as he wished without repercussions. But, because of Rei, they could no longer guarantee any success. Her loss was the crippling blow that compelled them to be political. Gendo Ikari could only welcome the extra time. He'd had to postpone his plans and alter them in such a way that he could secure SEELE's non-intervention. But Rei was the key.
 
Yui would have liked for him to wait anyway.
 
"Commander, I think you should see this," Lieutenant Makoto Hyuga called up to him from his station on the far left side of central computer bank. The Sub-Commander made his way to the computer console and peered intently at the screen.
 
“What is it?” said Fuyutsuki.
 
"The MAGI have detected an anomaly in the Earth's electromagnetic field," Hyuga said, pointing to a spike on his computer readout. “Strong enough to trigger our sensors.”
 
"What does it mean?" asked Fuyutsuki.
 
"Well it's..."
 
Before Hyuga could finish that sentence all of the alarms went off at once. The control room was plunged into a chaos of sirens and claxons, which Fuyutsuki ordered be disabled immediately. The red emergency lights flashed everything in a deep crimson. The color of blood.
 
Operators scrambled to their consoles and began typing commands furiously.
 
"Lieutenant?" demanded the Sub-Commander calmly.
 
"The MAGI don't know,” Hyua said, typing in his computer. “The magnetic anomaly has changed. It looks like an EMP shock wave."
 
"EMP? Location?"
 
Fuyutsuki waited for the answer he knew was coming. Surely, this was it.
 
"Eastern Asia. China. Beijing."
 
"The Sixth Branch," Fuyutsuki said. "Get the feed from the UN satellites. Invoke query priority Alpha."
 
"Satellite signal is up," Lieutenant Haruna Hiei announced, sitting in the middle of the computer bank, a worried expression on her face as she turned towards the Sub-Commander. “Sir...”
 
“Relay to the main display.”
 
The immense screen in the front of the room came to life with a satellite image of Eastern China. The small letters on the bottom left corner identified it as UNS CommSat 46. The screen changed from the graphics to a very fuzzy image, what was usual for long distance transmissions. As the image began to clear, the picture of China zoomed in on the Beijing coordinates. The image was held for a few seconds, and the camera, or whatever it was up there on the satellite, started to rotate. In the time it took for the picture to clear again the sense of alarm that had gripped all those in the control room turned to horror.
 
A dome of light expanded rapidly across the vast landscape in front of it, consuming everything which existed in its path.
 
Even Fuyutsuki, who thought he knew what to expect, felt his chest tighten with dread.
 
Everyone in the room stood still, silent, eyes wide open. Time seemed to stop, as more and more of the Earth below was incinerated by the tidal wave of light and fire. The image was filled with the grotesque light, so vast that it disappeared into the horizon and set the sky ablaze as if it were a vision of hell itself.
 
Aoba, by his console, was the first to react. He said something, but no one else understood because no one was paying attention. Fuyutsuki guessed it was either a curse or a prayer. He decided on the later, for he too was willing to start asking for God's forgiveness.
 
"Well...." he said softly, trying hard not to let his fear show in his words. He barely succeeded at that. "It has finally happened. They seem to have activated Unit A after all."
 
"Oh, God..." came Haruna's shocked whisper as the image zoomed out of the picture so that the entire globe would appear on camera.
 
Aoba slowly removed his headset and shot a strange glance at Fuyutsuki, as if for reassurance to what his eyes were witnessing, but just one look at the Sub-Commander's grim face was enough to convince him this was for real.
 
The white haired Sub-Commander simply stared at the screen. Then he glanced at Hyuga, who was still very shocked.
 
"I think we'd better start praying for a miracle, sir," the young operator said, shaking his head.
 
Fuyutzuki cocked his head, as if snapping from a trance. He locked eyes with the operator, eyes that said a lot. “Pray to whom, Lieutenant?”
 
 
 
 
Far below the watchful eye of UNS CommSat 46 the city of Beijing, China, was no longer a city. It was a hellish cauldron of noise and fire, of light and death. The wave of light expanded and blasted everything in its path. The earth shook, the sky darkened and then became alive with fire. It seemed the world had come to an end.
 
In the center of this hell, hovering over the ruins of NERV's Sixth Branch HQ, a ghostly shape straightened itself out of the ashes of the devastated city, a creature so powerful that the whole world lay incinerated at its feet. The creature roared among the flames, its eyes alight with the fire of its own power. Its wings stretched out towards the heavens, its arms spread apart as if offering itself in sacrifice to an obscure creator.
 
The abominable Angel, although trapped in an Eva's body, bellowed angrily to proclaim its birth; and the entire world trembled.
 
 
 
 
"I see," Commander Ikari said as he hung up the personal phone located on his desk. He turned to face the blond doctor standing behind him. His grim expression—more grim than usual—precluded the need for any words.
 
"So I take it they did it, then?" Ritsuko Akagi asked. It was a rhetorical question, obviously, but she could not refrain from making it.
 
"Yes." Ikari replied unemotionally.
 
“Did we make a mistake?”
 
“I can't answer that. We'll know soon enough.”
 
 
 
 
To be continued...
 

Chapter 3
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