There are no windows in this part of the hospital wing, but Rei knows it’s night, somehow. Her knowledge of the world, although fragmented, tells her it couldn’t be any other time than night. It tells her other things, too: whispers of memories, of tanks filled with bubbling orange liquid and a resounding, strong voice giving her orders; flashes of red too vivid to be inanimate, and a stabbing pain in her chest so severe it makes her wonder if she isn’t truly alive, just in between and waiting for death to come pick her up.
Rei lifts a hand, touching it to the side of her face. Her fingers brush a bandage, wrapped firmly around her head, and her head throbs, the pulse of it traveling up into her hand. Again her vision flashes with the color red- perhaps the fading remnants of a dream, or else brought on by the aches in her body.
And now, another thought: return to your apartment. Await my orders. Those had been the last instructions given to her, back when she was in the tank. Rei pushes herself upright, and the world spins around her. She pushes past the dizziness, willing herself to slide off the edge of the bed and onto shaky legs. She’s overcome worse before- when?- and as she staggers to the door, she notices she’s clothed not in a standard hospital gown, but in her school uniform.
The hallway outside Rei’s room is, as expected, abandoned. Briefly the thought crosses Rei’s mind that her waking up at night, when most of the NERV staff have gone home, is too convenient to be a coincidence. Rei extends a hand, her fingers making contact with the wall. Leaning against it, she follows it down to the elevator, closing the distance with uncertain steps. She’s never seen the elevator before, and yet she’s found it without even trying. ‘The apartment’ is a place she doesn’t remember ever visiting, but she knows where it can be found- on the outskirts of Tokyo-3, hidden away in a series of turns down nameless streets that would confuse even those familiar with the city’s layout.
There are even more discrepancies, if Rei thinks hard about them. She knows the name of a boy- Shinji Ikari- but not what he looks like. She imagines he might look something like the Commander. She knows of a school that she’ll be expected to attend the following day, and she knows very little is expected of her there. Her head pounds- Rei staggers, and there’s brick coming up to meet her shoulder- and her vision fills with red again.
The sooner she reaches the apartment, Rei thinks, the better. The scraping of her footsteps drifts up to her ears, echoing alongside the ringing in her head. The dark cover of nightfall only just soothes the aching in her temples, and it worsens when she walks under the few flickering street lights that point the way to a home she shouldn’t know about.
It doesn’t make sense- nothing seems to. Rei squeezes her eyes shut for a moment, reaching for the tangle of memories and words she’s been trying to unravel since she woke up in the hospital bed. Her name is Rei Ayanami and her designation is First Child. She pilots Evangelion Unit-00. She takes orders from Commander Ikari, and he ordered her to go home. None of this explains how she knows any of this.
The realization, when it comes, causes Rei to stumble, her foot snagging on the threshold of her apartment. Clone, replaceable- the words weigh heavily in her mind, and Rei’s recollection of them sends her spiraling into a slump against the nearest wall, grasping vainly at it for anything to slow her descent. Her head throbs red - it passes- and now everything makes sense. What’s been passed down to her, a combination of sterilized memories and hand-picked knowledge, rumbles ominously in the back of her mind. Faintly, Rei reaches up and pushes the door shut. It clicks into place with a snap that sends shudders through her, and when Rei looks up again, it’s blissfully dark.
The only light that fills Rei’s apartment trickles in from a window by her bed, throwing a silver circle on her bedside table and the bandages strewn across the floor beside it. Rei pulls herself towards it on all fours, gripping the side of the bed and pulling herself up onto it. The springs protest, creaking as she settles herself onto it, and at last Rei finds herself able to relax: this is familiar to her.
Now settled, Rei surveys the rest of the apartment, acquainting herself with it. She remembers the tea kettle that she rarely ever used, the closet full of identical school uniforms, and her table, covered in all the medications prescribed to her by Doctor Akagi. The dosages come instinctively to her, so deeply ingrained that Rei isn’t certain whether they’re a memory or something programmed into her. Her eyes drift, wandering between the bottles, stopping suddenly- she’s found something out of place.
There’s a red ribbon lying on the table, frayed at both ends and tattered along its edges, and it doesn’t belong to her. All her uniforms, save the one she’s wearing, are in the closet. It must have come home with her somehow, Rei thinks. She must have meant to throw it out. Her hand reaches out, still shaking, to grasp at the ribbon. It slides between her fingers, the fabric smooth to the touch, so light that it might not even be there. Rei clenches her hand, crumpling it. Her gaze falls upon the trash bin next to the table. It would be the easiest thing she’s done tonight, to extend her hand and let the ribbon fall into the bin, but her arm refuses to move. It remains clamped tightly to her side, frozen, and beside it in her chest is her heart, beating madly.
Rei’s hand opens, and the ribbon flutters back down to the table. Rei presses her palms to the sides of her head, trying to soothe the pounding sensation that’s taken up residence there. There’s red, flashing behind her closed eyelids, fleeting and painful. Rei sinks down against the bed, the cool pillow beneath her cheek offering little relief. The lights dancing in front of her bring forth memories, searing the sound of the Commander’s voice into her mind. And beneath it all, something else- if only she could reach a bit further- but it’s always out of grasp, hidden by a swarm of commands and expectations, just far enough away that she knows it could never be hers.
Everything has gone so smoothly today that Rei couldn’t be faulted for wondering if everything from the night before was a dream. Nothing’s been out of place, from the dead silence when she woke to the teacher’s droning lecture. Outside, there’s a calm blue sky and the jumble of high rises protruding into it, so calm that it seems impossible that yesterday Rei had been dropped into the world, confused and hurting.
The teacher pauses to turn a page, and there’s a definite shift in the classroom. It’s enough to shift Rei’s gaze away from the window. She tilts her head slightly, searching for the source of the disturbance, and there it is: that red again. It doesn’t come from within her this time, but from across the room: the Second Child- Asuka- is looking at her. No, not looking- watching. There’s a hard sheen to Asuka’s eyes that Rei feels like she should remember, boring straight into her. Rei blinks, and for a second she wonders if Asuka can somehow see inside her, if she knows exactly what Rei is.
Asuka looks away, turning back towards the teacher. Rei lingers, frozen, until she remembers how to suck in a breath. It tangles in her throat on the way down, and she returns her gaze to the window. For a moment, the sun angles itself into her eyes, and Rei squints them shut. Had it always been that bright, its touch so harsh that it might be called burning? She shakes her head, laying it down on the desk. There it is again: that feeling that she’s being watched. Rei knows without looking back that the Second Child is staring at her with an intensity like that of the sun itself. She can almost hear Asuka’s voice in her head, just barely. There’s the general tone of it, but none of what Asuka would say. Rei Ayanami should not know what the Second Child would say. Such a prediction would imply a closeness that shouldn’t be there. The Commander would never tolerate it.
There could only be one answer to such strange behavior. Something must be wrong with the Second Child. Against her better judgement, Rei turns just slightly, observing Asuka out of the corner of her eye. She’s right- Asuka was watching her- but in that moment before Asuka whips her head around, hair obscuring their line of sight, she catches in Asuka’s gaze some desperate spark that Asuka is frantic to hide.
A simultaneous scraping of metal jars Rei from her assessment of Asuka. She’d missed Hikari’s verbal command to stand; she’s a second late in joining her classmates in rising while the teacher exits the classroom. Through a gap between the desks, Rei notes that Asuka didn’t bother to get up at all. A frown tugs at the edges of Rei’s lips, lingering for long enough for Rei to realize the effect Asuka’s inaction has had on her.
Rei reaches for her bag, her hair obscuring the troubled look on her face for the briefest of moments. When she straightens back up, Asuka is gone, having pushed through the slow stream of students meandering towards the door. No doubt there’s somewhere she needs to go; there’s something she needs to attend to that deserves her attention far more than Rei Ayanami. Rei exhales- a hard, unexpected sigh- and trudges after her classmates.
She makes it no further than just outside the doorway when a hand wraps around her upper arm, pulling her down the hall. Asuka tugs insistently with every other step, rapidly dragging Rei around a corner. Rei finds herself with her back pushed against the wall as soon as they’re out of their classmates’ sight, and Asuka’s stare is back, as intense as ever. Her lips, parted slightly, move silently, as if Asuka is unable to speak. The fingers that grasp onto Rei’s arms tighten with bruising force, and all it takes is a wince from Rei for Asuka to freeze, her eyes now wide and frantic, mouth slack.
“Are you well, Soryu?” It’s easy now for Rei to pry Asuka’s hands away and shove them back at her. Asuka staggers back a half step, her gaze still fixed on Rei, though now it’s itself into an expression that Rei can’t find a name for. She curls her fingers against her palms and unfurls them again, as if she’s only now noticed the absence of Rei in her hands. “If you are feeling unwell, you should consult Doctor Akagi.”
“I’m not-” Asuka begins, reaching for Rei again. Her hand comes up short, just brushing against the ribbon tied neatly around the neck of Rei’s uniform. A ragged breath escapes her open mouth, and she retreats against the opposite wall, visibly trembling. “Since when do you care?” she gasps, her voice cracking. “You don’t. I’m just another pilot to you, aren’t I?”
“What are you suggesting, Soryu?”
“That you stop saying things like you care and just act like the doll the Commander wants you to be!”
“I am not-”
“Shut up! ”
Asuka’s palm smacks against the wall with an echo that resonates louder than anything that Asuka’s said so far. For a moment, Asuka takes her eyes off Rei, glancing around for anyone that might have heard, that might come to investigate. The look on her face is familiar now, but distantly so. A thought comes to mind, a memory: the tube full of bubbling orange liquid, and the reflection of her own face in it, no longer impassive but etched in a shape similar to Asuka’s- only, she can’t recall ever being in that room-
“You know what?” Asuka says. “Maybe you’re right. I am sick. After all, I- I’m here with you.”
“Then you will go to Akagi?”
“I thought you knew me better than…” Asuka wrests herself away from the wall, taking a few steps back the way they came. “No. I’m not going to see her. Don’t you go telling anyone, either.”
“If it will affect your piloting-” Rei starts to say, but Asuka’s already stormed off, shaking her head like that would somehow stop Rei’s words from reaching her. She’s gone just as suddenly as she’d pulled Rei away from the others, and even the angry cadence of her steps quickly fades against the sounds of doors opening and voices chattering. Rei takes a moment before following in Asuka’s steps, ensuring that her uniform appears as it should.
Asuka hadn’t come close enough to dislodge the ribbon, but the sight of it still sends Rei’s stomach into a turmoil. She thinks of another ribbon at home, left on the drawer- she’d forgotten about it when she woke up this morning- and the pit of her stomach turns hot. Uneasily, she goes to rejoin her classmates in the next hall over, making a mental note to herself to avoid further contact with Asuka until her apparent illness has passed. She’ll keep her interactions down to what’s expected of her, mostly sync tests. She’ll ignore the looks Asuka gives her in class, and that should dissuade her. Rei nods to herself, the matter resolved, but even she can’t ignore the sinking feeling in her gut and the image that lingers in her mind: Asuka, her eyes clouded with disappointment, gazing at Rei from across a room that she doesn’t recognize.
The apartment is empty when Rei enters, and with that she’s made the journey home without anything eventful happening. Rei places her bag on the floor and settles herself on the edge of her bed, still on edge. Today, it wouldn’t surprise her if Asuka or the Commander came through her door: unusual, yes, but today it would pass as normal.
It’s an eventful day in an otherwise uneventful week. There aren’t any sync tests that she’d been informed of, which would make going to school the only thing left to do. If Asuka heeds her advice, Rei thinks- not that she expects Asuka to, but today has been an unusual day- maybe she’d get a break from having to see Asuka there, too.
An uncharacteristically loud sigh leaves Rei’s mouth as she settles back against the bed. She doesn’t stay down for long: her gaze, finding nothing interesting in the ceiling, has drifted to the table where the ragged ribbon from before still lies. A bolt of heat lances through her, settling in her chest: she’d felt something like this once before, in the moments after her waking, accompanied by those pangs and flashes of red. Rei presses a hand to her head, closing her eyes. Between what had happened with Asuka and the walk home, she’d forgotten about those things; now they taunt her, pieces of a puzzle that Rei can’t begin to fit together.
The Second Child is sick- she’d acknowledged it. She’d been looking at Rei. Rei, who’d been replaced just a day before. Rei’s stomach lurches, and she grips the side of the bed for stability. If the previous Rei had been sick, she could have passed it on to Asuka. Which would mean- Rei’s hand shakes against the mattress- if she caught the sickness from Asuka, she would be terminated again.
The words should sound right in her mind. That’s the one truth Rei knows, that’s been drilled into her even before she first opened her eyes. Rei Ayanami has always been expendable. Rei rolls onto her side, facing away from the table. The knowledge of her own replaceability rattles hollowly in her chest, drowning amidst a sea of worry. For once, Commander Ikari holds no sway over her. The knowledge that there are more of her- Rei’s imagined thought of rows and rows of tubes is replaced by the memory of that orange tube with her reflection in it- fails to anchor her.
Rei sweeps her arm across the bed, pulling her pillow against her body. It shudders against her with every rasping breath, and when Rei draws back to gather more air, the wetness in her eyes stings her cheeks. The pillow yields beneath her hands, softness barely pushing through her fingers as she clings to it, as if the thought of it offers her more safety than she could find in this place she’s supposed to protect. Her mind wanders to her past self and to Asuka. Is this what they’d felt, this confusion that must be brought on by their illness, a delirium?
Something in that thought unravels the tension gathered in Rei’s chest. It seems like the air around her has rushed in to fill that void: there’s too much of it in her; she thinks she might scream if she could work past the chill that’s seized her body to open her mouth. This must have been why Asuka couldn’t speak at first when she’d pulled Rei aside. Now Rei presses her forehead to the pillow, squeezing her eyes shut, silently pleading for darkness and sleep to come take her, and if she’s lucky, that it’ll be another Rei who wakes in the morning, free of this ailment that Asuka’s passed to her.
Asuka, Asuka. Try as she might, sleep continues to evade Rei. She lies still and awake, curled tightly against herself, palms sweaty against the pillow, the events of the day playing endlessly in her head until they drift with her into her dreams. Asuka is there, too, her hands feverish as they touch Rei’s cheeks and linger, burning in the darkness of the coming morning.
Every time Asuka tries to sleep on her back, a beam of moonlight pokes through the closed blinds and shines on her face. It’s this, and not the thoughts that have followed her in her waking moments, that’s keeping her up.
Asuka lifts her hand and drags it down her face, repeating the only motion she’s made since she first laid down. Her fingers trail over her closed eyelids, a brief respite from the silvery glare of the moon. Today, when Rei had spoken, there was no trace of the warmth Asuka once knew in it. She’d known it, tried to accept it from the moment she finished reading Rei’s last letter, but it’s only been- how long, now? Three days, at most?
And her eyes; god, her eyes. Asuka hadn’t expected them to look so strikingly similar. They were unblemished, not worn with the fatigue that had rested so naturally upon Rei’s frame. They were bright, so bright, with none of the veiled enthusiasm that Asuka had learned to recognize.
Asuka’s head lolls to one side, pulled unconsciously towards her desk. How foolish she’d been, how naive, to have written another letter in hopes that she could give it to Rei. What else could she have expected? That, somehow, it’d be the same Rei that she saw in class? There’s a reason it’s still in the desk, and not in Asuka’s schoolbag.
What had that been in the classroom today, anyway? Their eyes had met for a moment, and all that Asuka could make of Rei’s expression was confusion. That much was obvious. But after that, when she’d been watching her, thinking that Asuka couldn’t see her looking- Asuka knows that wasn’t pity. There isn’t enough emotion in this Rei for her to know what pity would be. To think that for a moment, Asuka had almost believed that Rei could feel, feel sorry for everything-
Asuka’s eyes snap open. She’s on her feet and by the drawer in what feels like a second. Those steps she’d have to have taken to get to the desk never existed. Her hands plunge into the drawer and come up full of paper. It’d been stupid to believe, after that first separation, that anything good could have happened- that anything could have been salvaged-
She rips a letter in half and tears into the pieces with her nails. It crumbles under her touch like brittle sand. When she’s done, she starts on the next one. And another. The stack in front of her dwindles, becoming a sea of ragged white that surrounds the place where she kneels on the floor. How could she have allowed herself to lose her grip on the certainties of reality, to think that there was even a chance that she might hold Rei one more time? She reaches blindly for another letter. The words blur before her eyes, illegible. If Rei can’t read them, there’s no reason for Asuka to, either.
Asuka reaches down, stubbing her fingers against the floor. Only a single letter remains, lying just out of reach, having escaped the immediate destruction that befell the others. Asuka reaches for it, and her legs give way, numb from kneeling for so long. In the light from the window, Asuka makes out a single sentence at the edge of the page, squeezed in between the lines with cramped letters: Have you figured out what your favorite color is yet?
The letter slips away, pushed under the desk by a swipe of Asuka’s hands. She grasps at empty air, lying prone on the floor, and gazes at the darkness into which the letter has vanished. She thinks, fleetingly, of the old Rei: lost to a similar, permanent nothingness.
The thought shatters the delicate balance that Asuka’s held in her chest since she finished reading Rei’s letter. Her hand slams into the desk, rattling it against the wall; she hears Shinji, in the next room over, stir from his sleep. She presses her knuckles to her mouth, eyes filling with a familiar, hated wetness, and at last allows herself to admit what she’s denied all day, what she’d refused to believe as true: it’s her fault that Rei is gone. Her persistence, her unbridled affection for Rei that she’d deluded herself into believing could be reciprocated- it had all led to this.
She’d led to this.
Trembling on the floor, Asuka gathers herself into a ball as best as she can, pressing her forehead to her knees as her tears trickle down her knees. “She’s right,” she manages to whisper, and the shadows gathered in the corners of her room seem to tremble in agreement. There must be something wrong with her, they say. Otherwise, Rei wouldn’t have been taken; otherwise, she’d be as good of a pilot as she claimed to be; otherwise, she wouldn’t be so alone.
Through the window of the classroom, Rei could see both the city, rugged buildings worn by rough weather and Angel incursions, and if she focused, the interior of the room behind her reflected in the glass. For the first time in Rei’s life- in any Rei’s life- she’s been watching those reflections instead. The image of Asuka, sitting resolutely at her desk, hasn’t wavered as Rei thought it would. Asuka’s eyes haven’t once wandered in her direction, staying trained on the empty space of the chalkboard, occasionally glancing at the clock at the back of the room.
She can’t deny this sensation any longer. Rei has to admit it to herself: she’s wanted Asuka to look at her all day. She’s longed for the few seconds that Asuka’s eyes are on her, burning through her in a way that even the Commander’s most chilling expressions cannot; she’s wanted it in a way she knows she’s never felt before.
The reflection of Asuka shifts uneasily in her seat, looking down at her nails, then back up at the teacher. Her gaze, angled specifically away from the windows, trails along the far wall. Though Rei can’t see Asuka’s eyes, she imagines they’d be the same as she remembers seeing them last: listless, devoid of that spark of life that Rei knows should be there. Her breath hitches, snagging on a lump in her throat. How does she know what should or shouldn’t be in Asuka’s eyes? To know would suggest she’d looked into them before, and at some length.
The backs of Rei’s legs scrape against the edge of her chair. All the eyes in the classroom gravitate to her, save for Asuka’s, as she stands abruptly. Rei, her throat suddenly dry, forces a breath into her aching lungs. “I…” she begins, her voice threatening to crack. At the edge of her vision, Asuka finally begins to turn her head, and a sound spills out of Rei’s mouth, all at once, surprising even herself. “I do not feel well. I am going home.”
She doesn’t wait for the teacher’s approval, just gathers her bag up in her arms and walks quickly towards the door, ignoring Asuka, who’s brought the full brunt of her gaze to bear on Rei. Rei hopes Asuka doesn’t notice the stutter in her step as she reaches the hall, forcing herself to continue. Craving for Asuka’s attention is enough of an abnormality. That she’d even considered stopping is just proof that Rei’s worries from the night before aren’t unfounded.
Lost in her own thoughts, Rei doesn’t hear the footsteps coming down the hallway until they’re right behind her. She turns, expecting Hikari: surely if anyone was to come after her, it would be the class rep. Asuka stares back at her instead, face flushed, breathing heavily into the space between them.
“Ayanami,” Asuka says, reaching for Rei’s arm. Rei pulls herself back, and Asuka scowls. “The hell are you doing?”
“I have said I feel unwell.” Rei casts a glance behind her, calculating the distance to the front doors. If she could catch Asuka off guard, she stands a chance of making it. “I do not want to risk anyone else becoming sick because of me.”
“You look just fine to me.” Asuka folds her arms over her chest, glare becoming sharper. “Don’t tell me you’re still going on about-”
“Whatever it is you have, I believe I have caught it.”
Asuka’s jaw drops slightly, and it’s in that moment that Rei turns and runs. Her gait is irregular, uneven, but her feet are light against the floor and she’s halfway down hall before Asuka can gather herself.
She could run after Rei. Even now, it wouldn’t take too much of an effort, or too much time, to catch up to her. Asuka grits her teeth, starting forward, but then her legs refuse to move. If she was seen chasing after Rei, if Section 2 was watching the school- and she knows they will be- then Rei would be suspect again. Reaching out blindly, she steadies herself against a wall, fighting down the nausea rising into her chest. No, Asuka decides. She won’t go after Rei. She can’t. She will not be the reason another iteration of Rei gets killed.
The doors slam open as Rei hurries through them, and for a moment all Asuka can see of her figure is the shadow of it, escaping into the sunlight outside. Had she thought there was a chance that Rei might come back, or that even now she might somehow wordlessly persuade Rei to return, she would have raised her hand towards it. Instead, she simply stands there, letting the wall bear her weight; through the sound of the doors swinging closed, she imagines how hollow her footsteps will sound on the way back to the classroom, and if that was how it had sounded like when Rei went willingly to her end.
For once, Rei’s encountered a problem that Doctor Akagi cannot help her with. She’d entertained the thought for all of a few seconds after she’d made it out of the school- could she go to NERV?- but that couldn’t be an option. If the Commander had been so willing to terminate one clone that had lived so long for feeling something even remotely similar, he could do the same again.
Now, sitting on her creaky bed, Rei asks herself why she’d even been afraid of that idea in the first place. The entire framework of her existence hinged upon being replaceable, but here she is instead: curled up at the edge of her bed, resting her chin upon her knees, too afraid of the concept of her own ending to go to NERV for help.
Perhaps, Rei thinks, she might be able to find a solution to this on her own. She’d never paid much mind to the medications on her bedside table before, only taking the amounts prescribed to her by Doctor Akagi. She picks one up and reads the label, a jumble of syllables that make no sense to her, and sets that one aside. The others are similar: all long, complicated names that Rei can’t understand. A feeling of helplessness settles over her, intensifying until the magnitude of it resembles the cluster of pill bottles clumped near one edge of the table.
Rei’s hand scrapes against something unfamiliar as she reaches for the last of the bottles. Her fingers brush the ribbon from before, and from her chest there comes a sudden, inexplicable soaring feeling. Yanking her hand away, Rei throws the bottle down, recoiling back across the bed. Once again, Rei draws her eyes across the uniforms in her closet, counting them all, even though she knows what the answer will be before she’s even begun. She knows that ribbon can’t belong to any of her uniforms, that it’s out of place, almost like she is.
Reaching out, Rei seizes the ribbon, holding it away for herself as she inches towards the edge of the bed. Even as she holds it over the waste bin, she feels it: the sense of wrongness that permeates through both it and herself. The ribbon’s frayed edge swings precariously over the bin, just dangling along the edge of it. All she’d have to do is let go, and it’d be gone. She won’t have to look at it until the next time she goes to dump out her trash, and even then it’ll be on its way to being forever removed from her life.
Rei holds on to the ribbon instead, eyes following its gentle sway, transfixed by the fading red. Her gaze trails down it, coming to rest atop yet another unexpected sight: a small pile of crumpled up paper, squeezed into neat little round shapes and compacted into the bottom of the bin. Almost immediately- as if she’s subconsciously grateful for any reason to distract herself for even a moment longer- Rei tosses the ribbon aside and reaches for the bin with both hands, pulling it up to the bed. The nauseous rolling in her chest ceases as she dumps the papers across the edge of her bed, selecting one at random and opening it carefully.
The handwriting is hers, but she had never written this. Rei squints at the paper clasped in clammy hands, trying to make sense of it. The words aren’t hers, but the framework of the sentences are. She could never have written about friends, sunflowers, rooftops. The tightness in her chests returns, twice as strong as before, reaching up and seizing the base of her throat. There’s no doubt in her mind that this letter, the contents of the bin, are fragments of some of Rei Ayanami’s last moments. Repulsed, she shoves the bin away; it clatters to the floor, rolling around, spilling even more papers in its wake.
Rei puts the letter down, rubbing at her eyes to clear the blurriness. This must be, without a doubt, what had caused the last Rei Ayanami to be terminated. There is nothing in the truth of the world that says Rei Ayanami was ever allowed to desires beyond the Commander’s, or that she could ever not be replaced. But it’s here, in front of her, written by her own hand.
Her fingers trembling, Rei grabs another paper from the edge of the bed. This one’s written in a darker shade: there are so many crumpled letters that a single pencil couldn’t possibly have been used to write them all. As she smooths it out, her eyes fall upon the same words from before, surrounded by different ones. She tries not to look too hard, but the words pop out at her, burning themselves into her mind. You have made me more happy- a sentence begins, and Rei has to throw the letter away before anything else can come to mind. Already she’s imagining a smile she’s never seen, hearing an impossible laugh. Scrambling across the bed, Rei opens another letter, this one written with a light and shaking hand. There are more places where words have been crossed out than words themselves, but in their midst Rei identifies a single phrase, and it’s the clearest of them all.
At last, a name for this disease. The letter slips from Rei’s limp fingers. Her legs sweep out, kicking the rest onto the floor. Rei makes no attempt to pick them up: there’ll be time for that tomorrow before school; she knows she’ll be up early, if she’s even able to sleep tonight. How could she sleep, now that she knows what the symptoms of this disease are, that she can detect the beginnings of them inside herself? How could she do anything other than lie awake, wishing for answers that, for once, the Commander can’t give her?
Rei lies still upon her bed, waiting for the slow advance of morning to overtake and end the longest night of her life, perhaps of even all her lives. As the dawn encroaches upon her, so does a single thought, refusing to be brushed aside and lingering with the mixing light of the moon and sun on the far wall: she understands now that the void she’d seen in Asuka’s eyes was not that, but rather a searching for something that Asuka knew she wouldn’t find in Rei’s. And knowing that, how foolish would she be, to hope that these symptoms in herself might be mirrored in Asuka; that after everything and all that she is, Asuka might still find some ounce of love for Rei Ayanami?
For the fifth time in as many minutes, Asuka looks at Rei’s empty seat, and the tangle of emotions nestled in her stomach churns itself into a storm. It isn’t like Rei to be this late; but, she reminds herself, this isn’t the Rei she knew. It wouldn’t surprise her to learn that Rei had gone wandering, exploring unfamiliar streets, or that her tardiness was borne of a simple desire to see as little of Asuka as necessary. After their confrontation the day before, Asuka wouldn’t blame her for it.
Again, Asuka’s eyes drift back to Rei’s desk. How selfish of herself would it be, she wonders, to wish for something like the chance to do everything over, for the privilege of standing over Rei’s desk in each other’s quiet company, rather than something like an end to the Angel attacks? Even then, there’d be no guarantee that one or both of them might not be killed by Angels, or that their relationship would be so lucky as to go unnoticed. Perhaps it’s for the best that Asuka seems to have driven this Rei away, or- a cold sliver of fear embeds itself in Asuka’s gut- could the Commander have found out about what happened yesterday? Could the Commander have done what comes so easily to him, and replaced Rei yet again-
Asuka shakes her head, bringing it down to her desk, where she hides her face in the crook of her arm. Between heaving breaths, she tries to console herself: there’s no way anyone would have known what happened, unless Rei spoke of it. Even so, if Asuka tried to speak to Rei again, the possibility of the Commander finding out would always hang over her head. The only way to be certain, for Rei not to die at the hands of anything other than Angels, would be if Asuka kept her distance.
So that’s it, then. Asuka isn’t sure if the smile that touches her face is one of relief or something else, and now she’s glad that no one can see her expression. If anyone could, they’d know something was wrong: she’s never smiled like this before.
A murmur goes up in the classroom. Asuka lifts her head, thinking the teacher’s walked in, but it’s only Rei, entering just a few minutes before class is supposed to start. She goes straight to her desk, ignoring the whispers of her classmates and Shinji’s inquisitive stare. Only when she’s set her bag down on the ground does she turn her head: not towards the window, but to the back of the room.
And their eyes meet. Asuka hears herself suck in a breath, and that sliver from before twists itself in deeper. She doesn’t realize that her mouth has formed, unconsciously, the shape of Rei’s name until Rei turns away just as suddenly, with what looked like doubt shadowing her face.
She doesn’t look back for the entire lesson. Asuka sits there with her head cradled in her arms, watching Rei, who does nothing other than stare at the window. For once, Asuka wonders what might be out there that Rei finds so interesting. The sky; the clouds? Would she even have it in her to think about a future in which there are no more Angels? Or would this Rei have it in herself to imagine, at the end of all this, she would no longer have to see Asuka any longer, and take comfort in it?
Rei shifts around in her seat. Across the room, Asuka stifles the involuntary flinch that ripples through her body. She twists her head from side to side, trying to shake off the feeling of uneasiness that’s settled over her. Out of the corner of her eye, she watches Rei tilt her head inquisitively at the window. So that’s it; there’s something out there that’s more interesting to Rei, and though she knows it’s for the best, it doesn’t stop an upwelling of bitterness from gathering at the base of Asuka’s throat.
From then on, Asuka is still, gazing halfheartedly across the classroom at Rei, who’s content to continue looking out the window. She doesn’t move until the beginning of the lunch period, and neither does Asuka. It’s then that Rei rises on wobbly legs, making her way slowly across the classroom, trailing her fingers along the edges of the desks beside her intended path. Her chin bobs slightly, dipping towards her chest, and then- the world vanishes beneath Asuka again, and when she takes her next breath, she finds her lungs achingly empty. Rei’s brilliant eyes vanish as for a moment as she blinks, once, and then she’s gone: walking out of the class with the same measured steps that had brought her to the doorway.
Asuka has her palms flat on the desk and the weight of her body centered on the balls of her feet before she remembers what she’d told herself. She shouldn’t go- she can’t, she thinks- but in the next moment, she’s surged to her feet, following Rei with a stride too hurried, to urgent, to be spurred by anything other than desperation.
Asuka makes it into the hall in time to see Rei vanishing into the stairway at the end of the corridor. She stumbles after her, her legs finding the floor to be simultaneously closer than she remembered and too far all at once. It takes her what feels like an age to reach the stairs, a warping of time the likes of which she’d only felt before when fighting Angels. Ascending the stairs goes just as slowly, but Rei is there at the top, standing with her hands clasped together before her in front of the rooftop door, something small and wrinkled clutched in them.
“So what is it?” Asuka asks from the next landing down. Her hand reaches out and grips the rail tightly, knuckles paling quickly, but can’t bring herself to take another step. If she did, she knew she’d fall. “You wanted me to follow you, right? Why’d you bring me here?”
Rei looks down at the crumpled paper in her hands, holding it out towards Asuka. It’s a letter, she realizes: she can recognize it by the handwriting, though it’s not hers.
“I found this. It was in my room,” Rei says.
“I don’t need to see it,” Asuka snaps. “I don’t want to.”
Rei tilts her head, surveying Asuka from her position atop the stairs, withdrawing the letter slightly. “Are you well, Soryu?” she asks, and Asuka hates that her heart beats faster at the sound.
“What does it matter to you?”
“You have been acting strangely today,” Rei says, ignoring the question. Slowly, she lowers her eyes, staring blankly at the space between her hands, as if there is no letter there, only empty air. “This. All of these. They are the reason you are sick, aren’t they?”
“You were watching me.” The realization drives home, hitting Asuka in the hollow of her stomach. Somehow, she finds it in herself to pull herself up the stairs, agonizing over each step, until she’s at eye level with Rei. “Where did you find that?”
“In my room. In the trash. There were… many.” Rei’s voice grows hushed, and Asuka recognizes the fear that hovers at the edges of it. She’d heard it before, on the rooftop, in the unspoken apology that Rei had tried to give her when she’d begged Asuka’s forgiveness. “She… I…” Rei’s lips tremble, and at last she guides her eyes to find Asuka’s. “Is this what you are sick with?”
The word hardly passes through Asuka’s lips: she breathes it out into the stairwell, and it’s gone. She’d never thought it possible that Rei, too, might have something like the tens of incomplete, unsent letters that had littered her room. The Rei in front of her tightens her grasp on the letter, as if hoping to draw something from it: courage, or the memories of her other self.
“And this is called love?”
“I…” Rei begins, and Asuka knows what should come next. How often had she heard Rei say the words I understand? But instead, Rei brushes past her, slowly walking down the stairs. “I will have to think about this,” she murmurs. Her fingers move around the letter with an uncanny precision, folding it into a square small enough to be carried around in the pocket of her uniform.
Asuka staggers down the stairs, all thoughts of keeping her balance gone from her mind. She catches Rei’s wrist as her momentum carries her into the wall, which she slumps against, letting it hold her up. “I’m sorry,” she says, and immediately she regrets it. This isn’t her Rei; this Rei wouldn’t know how to tell the ferventness in Asuka’s voice apart from anger, nor would she think to look for it. Still, somehow, Rei doesn’t pull away from her.
“What do you have to be sorry for?” Rei asks.
“This only happened because of me.” Asuka forces her hand to let go of Rei; now the cold in the stairwell registers, and she shivers against the wall. “If you stay near me, you’ll just get hurt. You shouldn’t be involved with me.”
Something flickers in the depths of Rei’s eyes, what Asuka thinks must be realization. Instead, Rei shakes her head, looking once again at the letter concealed in her hand. “No. We are already involved. And you cannot blame yourself for all of this, Soryu.” Rei’s face twists strangely, and a hint of the old Rei’s smile shines fleetingly through it. “I- The other me wanted to be with you as much as you did her.”
“How do you know?”
“She told me.”
“Is that what that is?” Asuka points at the paper in Rei’s hand, squaring her jaw. “A note for the next her?”
“It was meant for you.”
“Have I seen it before?”
“I would not know.” Rei extends her hand to Asuka, palm up, offering her the letter. “Do you want it?”
“No,” says Asuka. “Keep it. It’s hers- yours. And- didn’t you say you had to think about this?”
“Then you keep it.” Asuka’s voice leaves her as a whisper, oddly weak. She watches Rei tuck the letter back into her pocket. As it vanishes, she feels the strength in her legs, so tentative already at best, beginning to go. “You should go back first,” she says. “So no one will suspect anything.”
“Very well.” Rei steps back, drawing out the distance between them, and then she’s gone with nothing more than a whisper of her clothes and the faint tapping of her feet down the stairs. As soon as she’s gone, Asuka falls forward, catching herself on her hands. The grit of the stairwell grinds into the heel of her palms, but she remains oblivious to it. What aches instead is her heart: quivering, raw, unprepared for everything Rei had told her. Asuka squeezes her eyes shut, fighting back the sting she can already feel building behind them. Darkness overtakes her vision, and in it she can just begin to imagine what the warmth of Rei’s arms around her might feel like again; that Rei might be beside her, holding her as she kneels, shaking, on the polished stairs.
At half an hour past three, Rei opens the door to her apartment, exactly on schedule. She’d come back immediately after class ended, not stopping to speak to Asuka, nor looking at her. She had felt the eyes of the Second Child following her as she left, and even now, it feels like they’re still upon her. Rei sets her bag on the floor, walking slowly towards her bed.
The letters from the wastebasket are still gathered on top of the sheets, straightened out and arranged in rows so Rei could see them all. She pulls out the one from her pocket- the longest one of them all- laying it in the center and climbing onto her bed after it. So much effort, she thinks, her eyes wandering the pages, to try and tell Asuka something: and yet, her past self had thought it worth her time. In the last hours of her existence, her only thought had been to get a message to Asuka.
There was something in Asuka’s voice, Rei thinks, that she still can’t quite describe. What she would have once called sickness, she now knows is called love; even so, it can’t explain away the longing she’d heard, that must have once called out for Rei Ayanami and been answered by a love the scope of which Rei is only beginning to grasp. Lying on her back on the rusted frame of her bed, a single thing is clear to her: even if she were to return Asuka’s feelings, whatever Asuka offers in return would never truly belong to her. It would belong to a Rei who could write the kinds of things on those letters strewn in front of her, one she’s incapable of being.
It’s still better than what the Commander could ever give her. The truth, already ingrained into her mind, is that she is replaceable. But still, the affection that Asuka might have to offer her- the warm that sometimes visits Rei in her dreams- would already be so much more than what the Commander has envisioned for her. And if the end were to be as cold and lonely as her dreams tell her, she would rather have the memory of that warmth than nothing at all. Even if Asuka’s affection could never belong to her, she thinks, she would rather have it than not; would rather be looked upon with love, if even for only a few days, than the cold iron that lurks behind the Commander’s gaze.
Rolling off the bed, Rei goes over to her bag, placed neatly against the wall. It doesn’t take her long to find a paper and pencil, which she carries back to the bed with her. She sets the tip of her pencil to it and sits, lost in thought, her eyes wandering the opposite wall in the vain hope that studying it hard enough might cause the words she’s searching for to manifest in her head. Her eyes drift to the her past self’s letters, and their words jump out at her in an incomprehensible jumble, trying to string themselves together. A sentence forms; another, flashing by in her mind too quickly for her to remember anything of them, other than that they don’t sound like anything she’d say.
That’s it, Rei thinks. This way, she can’t deny what she’s sure Asuka has refused to allow herself to believe; that any part of the old Rei might have survived in her. Slowly, Rei stretches out her hands, gathering the letters up one by one into a single stack. As she leans over the side of her bed, shoving them under her bedside table, her eyes fall upon the ribbon, covered in a thin layer of dust. A pang shoots through her chest, as if seeing the ribbon has caused it to wind itself tightly around her heart, and there’s the catalyst she’s needed. Her pencil quakes when it meets the paper, but the letters that come from it in a slow stream are steady, unwavering.
As she sits, the sun retreats, leaving the moon to rise into a stillness only periodically broken by the scratching of a pencil. The night winds on and dawn approaches, peering over the horizon to find Rei, still in her uniform, curled up on top of her bed, a pencil clenched in one hand and a paper, half-filled with words, draped across her lap.
Rei is waiting in the stairwell when Asuka arrives, both her hands clenched into fists to steady her resolve. “I got the note you left in my locker,” she says, glaring at the step that Rei is seated on. She doesn’t dare look at Rei, not yet, fearing if she does, then the butterflies in her chest would break loose all at once and set her soul to madness. “You said you wanted to talk.”
“Yes,” Rei says. Asuka twitches: her eyes lift involuntarily, and there under Rei’s eyes are dark shadows that seem all too familiar, and a red ribbon tied around her neck that’s too frayed to be considered decent.
“What is it?” demands Asuka. Try as she might, she doesn’t sound forceful or intimidating at all: just worn down. “What do you want?”
“Will you sit?” Rei asks, looking at the space beside her. Asuka shakes her head, folding her arms over her chest and leveling her best glare at Rei. It’s pathetic, compared to some of the other glares she’s given people, but this Rei doesn’t have to know that.
“It’s lunch. I’m in a hurry.”
The excuse sounds lame, and falls limply from Asuka’s tongue. Rei doesn’t react to it, only nodding and speaking again.
“I know I am not the Rei you are accustomed to,” she says. “I do not think I can ever be her, but you still look for her in me.” Rei leans forward, her shoulders hunching around her neck as she settles her weight on the flats of her feet. “I will never be able to satisfy you in that regard. But, if you are willing…”
Rei hesitates, drawing in a long breath. “You blame yourself for her being taken away, don’t you?”
“What does that matter?” Asuka snaps, her hands clenching tighter. “Did you bring me here just to tell me that?”
“I understand if you want nothing more to do with me,” says Rei. “But if you do...”
“You think I’d be okay with that?” In the time it takes for Rei to look up, Asuka has closed the distance between them, reaching down and taking Rei’s shirt in both hands. She hauls Rei to her feet, pushing her against the stair rail, surveying her through narrowed eyes. “Being with you, when you could be taken from me at any time, when whoever comes next won’t even be you, or her?”
“I-” Rei stammers, stopping when Asuka shoves her harder against the rail.
“You think, just because I look at you like that, you can come and say this to me?”
“It’s Asuka! And you… do you think it’s so easy, looking at you? When you…”
Asuka’s hands fall away from Rei’s shirt, and she takes a step back, slamming into the wall behind her. “How messed up are you?” she asks, directing her question towards the ground. “That both of us could even think of wanting something like this… you really don’t know how to do anything else, do you?”
Asuka grabs Rei’s shirt again, dragging her closer. Rei stumbles against her, and Asuka’s arms envelop her before she can fall: she lands with her head against Asuka’s shoulder, and feels Asuka pressing them together.
“And you’re the one who called me sick?” she asks, a whisper of a laugh threaded into her voice. “But it’s okay, right? It’s better this way. At least we’ll have each other.” Asuka’s fingers dig into the small of Rei’s back. Rei hears the sharp puff of Asuka’s breath as she says, “Well? Say something.”
Rei turns her head, and Asuka is looking at her with wet, frantic eyes. If she said anything now, it might be a lie. But, Asuka had told her to, so Rei offers her what she thinks is a smile, lifting her hand to the side of Asuka’s face. Asuka gasps, jerking her head away and hiding it in Rei’s shirt. Through the sound of her own heavy breathing, she hears, or imagines she hears, Rei’s answer: