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Shinji's Ladder

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-Shinji's Ladder-

I open eyes that feel like they have weights tied to them and find myself looking at a familiar ceiling. Turning my head just to the right, I see the clock on the bedside table just as the early morning sun comes in and momentarily blinds me. Ugh, it's too early…only six-fourteen. I lift my head a little bit up and see something much better, but no less bright: the naked backside of one Asuka Langley Sohryu, still slightly damp from her shower. She doesn't see me watching her as she puts on panties and a bra.

I reach over to the table and pick up my glasses, slipping them on to get a better view of the moment. I guess she heard the rustling of the covers, because she turns her head towards me. "Well, guten morgen sleepyhead."

"Guten morgen yourself," I reply, my tone hoarse and groggy. I give her a smug grin. "Come back to bed, you don't have to be up just yet." I smirk a little bigger at her. "I'm sure we can find some way to pass the time."

Asuka rolls her eyes at me playfully. "Oh please," she says, reaching down and picking up one of the pillows that ended up on the floor…and hefts it just at my face with a soft 'thump'. "Kaji you most certainly are not. No matter what that stubble makes you look like."

I laugh after removing the pillow from my face and feel my chin. Yeah, I really do need to get a shave today. "Yeah, yeah…" I call back as she enters the bathroom. "I'm well aware of that."

Asuka comes back just a few seconds later, mid-way through applying some like makeup. "Look," she starts, standing over me, "I know you're on two-weeks' vacation, but that doesn't give you the right to be lazy. If I have to be up this early, so do you."

I take in a deep breath as she walks over to the closet before sitting up in a series of creaky motions, letting all of my muscles stretch and readjust. I pull the sheets away from myself and swing my legs over the side of the bed, letting my feet touch the rug and standing up slowly. "So you've got classes today?" I call out to her, heading into the bathroom for my morning rituals.

"Of course," Asuka shouts back, "but only three. It won't quite be an all-day ordeal."

"Well, that's good," I say much quieter as I look in the mirror. Yeah, I definitely am looking very shaggy. First things first, a shave is in order. Asuka walks in just as I'm finishing wetting down my face and right as I'm applying the shaving cream. "Otherwise, it'll just be around the apartment?"

Asuka nods, adjusting the pants and blouse she had put on just a few moments ago. "Yeah. Hikari's got more than I do, so she won't be able to hang out later," she explains, watching as I pick up the razor and start to clear away what little facial hair had grown in the last few days. "And what about you, mister I've-never-taken-time-off-of-work-since-I've-started-working? What's on your agenda?"

I hesitate a moment before resuming shaving and answering. "I…was going to stop by the restaurant and-"

Asuka rolls her eyes again, rubbing the bridge of her nose. "Three days in and you can't stand being away, can you?"

I move the razor away from my face before shaking my head. "No, I just want to check in and visit with everybody."

"Again, it's only been three days."

I take a second before shrugging. "I've already spent the last two organizing and cleaning the apartment," I explain, splashing water on my face and wiping away the remaining shaving cream, "and anybody else I know is at work today." I take a moment to check my chin for any stray hairs before turning back to Asuka. "So…yeah, I'll just walk downtown and visit. As a friend, not a coworker."

Asuka just shakes her head and heads back into the bedroom. "Sure you are," she says, lingering in the doorway leading out into the hall. "You're such a workaholic."

"Yeah, you're probably right," I reply with a small laugh as I walk over to the shower and turn on the hot water. She's not entirely wrong…but I am trying to keep myself from working for the rest of my time off.

About two hours later, I'm walking in downtown Tokyo-3. There's been a welcome chill in the air, so I bundled up for my trip. During my journey, I let my mind wander about just where my life's gone since the end of the Angel War almost nine years ago. I'm currently between semesters in college, going to try for culinary school, and I work at a nice little restaurant in the city.

The end of the Angel War came after SEELE attempted to storm NERV headquarters and retrieve the Evangelions. I was never told just what they needed them for, just that it wasn't anything good for mankind. They sent the Mass Production series…but Asuka fought them like a caged animal. I didn't see the start of the fight, just what little bit I participated in. But it was the hardest thing I've done while piloting. I'm still not sure how we survived the odds…

Anyway, there was a massive amount of activity at NERV in the aftermath. Investigations were launched, names came up, people were put in custody. In the end, the members of SEELE were rounded up and either imprisoned or executed. Considering what they sent here, it doesn't seem like a fitting enough punishment.

The oddest scene was down below, however. As NERV security cleared out the bottom floors of Terminal Dogma, they found…nothing. My father and Rei had gone down there, something involving the body of an Angel that was stored there…and all three were just not there. All these years later, there's still been no sign of any of them. I miss Rei, but I can't say the same about Father. I've had time to think quite a lot about our relationship…and I can say now that it's better this way. We never really did have a connections beyond my mother, so his loss doesn't hurt as much as it used to.

I think the most interesting thing that happened in my life, though, was definitely the evolution of my relationship with Asuka. And I can even pinpoint right when it started. Just a few weeks after the various goings-on at NERV had concluded, Misato threw a big party at her apartment to celebrate our victory over the Angels and SEELE. You know, the kind that makes you glad you don't have many neighbors. Yeah, the adults got pretty wild. I didn't really participate, though: I just sat out on the building's roof for the night and wallowed in my depression over…well, a few things. I'd even been bold enough to sneak away a bottle of whisky from the stash Misato had bought for the party.

Needless to say, I was quite hammered after a little while. What I didn't notice immediately, though, was that Asuka had also ditched the party for the solitude of the roof. I didn't see her until I had gone for another drink from the bottle and found it missing…and then saw the also-depressed redhead sitting just a few inches from me, taking a long gulp from the container. I didn't say anything to her, just letting the silence between us stay that way as we passed it back and forth. It didn't take long until we were both completely drunk. I don't remember who made the first move…thanks a lot, alcohol…but I do recall that we ended up with her on top of me, both of us kissing fiercely. Well, up until she broke off and started crying heavily. I didn't know what else to do…so I held onto her, the gravel of the rooftop digging into my back, and started crying just as hard. We were woken up by Misato the next morning, who looked quite mad…I'm not sure if she was more angry about the booze or that we were still clinging to each other.

At least it got better from there. It took some time to get around our issues, but we're still together nearly nine years later. We moved out of Misato's after our graduation, into a nice little place that had been built since the end of the Angel War. So, yeah…now we're just two normal people in our twenties: working, going to college, living together. All the normal everyday things we kind of missed out on during our time as EVA pilots are now just everyday routine. But really, I'm completely fine with that.

I look around at the street around me. Tokyo-3 has really made a comeback since the end of the conflict. It's just as bustling a metropolis as the Tokyo from before Second Impact I've heard about. People are coming and staying, finally making this feel like a true city instead of the fortress I'd been helping to protect. There's even been a real winter for the last three years. We were told that the climate would readjust after Second Impact, but I didn't think I'd see it happen for a much longer time. It's certainly colder today than any day I lived here as a teenager.

I finally see the restaurant in sight just down the block. As walk inside, a cheerful dark-haired girl greets me. "Hello sir, would you like to-" She pauses, having recognized me. "Oh, Shinji! Hi!" she says with an even bigger smile.

I laugh a little at how I wasn't familiar to her after just a few days away. I've only been here for two years, after all. "Hi Yuuki," I reply, smiling back and bowing slightly. "How's it going today? Shizuku must be off."

"Yeah, she's been feeling a little under the weather lately," Yuuki answers, shrugging. "But otherwise it's the same old thing. What are you doing here? I thought you had taken some time off."

"Just visiting," I tell her. "Didn't have much else to do today, seeing as Asuka had classes."

"Let me guess," Yuuki says. "You ran out of things around your place to work on, didn't you?"

Heh, they know me too well. "Yeah, I guess you could say that."

Yuuki just laughs and rolls her eyes. "Same Shinji Ikari as always," she replies, leading me over to an empty table. "At least you stopped by early, before the lunch crowd." We both sit down across from each other. "So how's Asuka?"

"She's good," I tell her. "At least she wasn't in a rush this morning."

"Not running behind today?" Yuuki asks with an exaggerated gasp. "What, you two haven't been spending more 'quality time' together while on vacation?"

"No more than normal," I state flatly. I know what she's trying to do, but years' worth of Asuka and Misato teasing me have built up a resistance to being embarrassed.

Yuki gives off a huff. "Oh, you're no fun." She looks up at me, and we both share a laugh after a few seconds. "So," she begins, letting the word hang for a moment, "when are you and Red going to have kids?"

I sigh under my breath. Yuuki's a nice enough girl, but she's always pushing us about that…more so since she became pregnant herself. "Not until we're both ready to do so," I explain. "I've already told you that before."

"I know," Yuuki answers, "I just wanted to see if anything had changed since I last brought it up. I mean, it just feels like it's passing around with Kyouku being on medical leave after having hers and my baby bump only just starting to show."

"The proud father's in the back cooking, I take it?" I question.

Yuuki nods. "Keiichi's hard at work today, what with you being gone from the kitchen and all." She looks back toward the kitchen doors. "He's doing his best, though."

Another girl with shorter black hair passes walks up to the table. "Well, well," she starts, "looks like somebody couldn't stay away, even on vacation."

"Hello Yukiko," I greet her. She's usually a lot more blunt than Yuuki, a lot like Asuka really. "And how is your day going?"

Yukiko lets out a huff, the air from it lightly tossing her bangs around. "Not busy enough," she answers. She usually gets pretty bored on the slower days. "I just started my morning break, so I've got a little time to waste." She takes a seat at the table, closer to Yuuki than to me. "So tell us, any new gossip courtesy of Asuka?"

I shake my head a little. "Not really," I tell her. "You know I was never really one for that kind of thing."

"Of course not," Yukiko replies. "Diligent Shinji, just keeping out of most small talk and concentrating on making the food."

"Hey, it's not like I never start a conversation," I offer.

"No, but it's a rarity," Yuuki counters. She and Yukiko share a laugh among themselves, which I join in with after a couple of seconds. This is nice, something I never would have done when I came to this city years ago. But now, it just feels like the most natural thing in the world.

Before I knew it, I had been at the restaurant until the lunch crowd started coming in. Finally saying my goodbyes to my coworkers as they needed the whole crew to deal with the rush, I step back out into the cold noontime air and set out for the apartment. I weave through the crowd that had started forming over the last few hours, moving around the throngs of people around me. But as I get about a mile away from where I work, I hear a faint voice saying my name. Glancing around, I see nobody looking at me. So I continue walking…until I hear the same sound. It's too faint to recognize the voice, but I can still tell that they're saying my name.

It sounds like it's coming from a nearby empty playground, so I slowly work my way from the crowded sidewalk to the sparsely populated park. As I get closer, something makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up. It felt like I was being watched by somebody. Stopping at the edge of a sandbox, I close my eyes as a large wind gust passes around me and I take a deep breath of the cold air. I haven't heard the voice for a few minutes now, which makes me wonder if I'd just imagined the whole thing.

Turning back around to leave, I stop dead in my tracks when I'm face-to-face with someone I know I shouldn't be seeing. "Hello Shinji. It has been quite a while."

Looking back at me, just as he had been back in 2015, school uniform and all, was Kaworu Nagisa. But that was completely impossible. "Y-y-you're…" I try to say as the panic becomes more clear on my face.

"What is the matter?" Kaworu asks, frowning a little. "You do not seem pleased to see me."

"You…you're dead," I say after a long pause, turning my eyes to look down at the ground. "You shouldn't be-"

"Here?" Kaworu answers for me. "Yes, that does seem rather unfeasible, does it not?"

I can feel myself shaking, recalling all the memories I had of the Fifth Child…the last Angel. "Is…is it really you?" I ask in a trembling voice. I can feel tears forming in my vision.

"It is," Kaworu tells me. "But I can understand your reticence," he continues, looking off to the side, "considering what happened when we last saw each other. But I hold no ill will over that. I made a poor decision, then tried to right it…with mixed results."

I listen as Kaworu continues to talk, but my attention is quickly moved to a thin red line I see appear around his neck. I'm momentarily snapped out of my shock at seeing him alive as I furrow my eyebrows looking at the mark…only to see it start bleeding just a few moments later, the opening getting wider and wider. My eyes snap completely open as I see his head start to move from the place on his neck to falling down on the ground next to him.

I begin to shake uncontrollably at the sight, the stump of Kaworu's neck leaking blood down onto his white overshirt. Looking down at his head, my mouth opens in a silent scream as I see him continuing to talk to me. "What?" he asks, seeming oblivious to what had just happened. "Is there something else wrong?"

I can't take it anymore. I screw my eyes shut tightly, the tears that had built up falling free now. "I mustn't run away, I mustn't run away, I mustn't run away," I repeat over and over to myself, something I hadn't done in years. Finally finding the composure after a few moments, I hesitantly open my eyes…and find nothing in front of me. No Kaworu, no separated head, no blood. Nothing.

It all felt far too real. I let out the breath I didn't know I'd been holding in, and I'm nearly hyperventilating. I reach up to my face and wipe away the tears and cold sweat that had formed in the last few terrifying minutes. Looking around to see that no one was watching me standing in this park have a panic attack, I quickly walk out of the playground and begin hurrying back home…but all the while, I swear I could still hear a voice calling to me. I didn't dare look back all the way home.

"Come on, pick up," I say for what feels like the fiftieth time in the last half-hour. I managed to make it back to the apartment without another incident, but the anxiety of what I'd seen still stuck with me. So I tried to call up someone who could help: my therapist.

What happened earlier hadn't been the first time I've had those sort of hallucinations, but it's been years since that last happened. For a while after the end of the Angel War, Asuka and I had both woken up many times from intense nightmares and night terrors…so Misato eventually found someone who could help. I hadn't seen or talked to Dr. Reid in a few months, seeing as things had been going very well, but the day's earlier event made me think it was time to make an appointment.

Or, I would, if I could get in touch with him. The doctor's secretary had told me that he was somewhere out-of-country for the moment, giving me his personal number to try, but I still hadn't gotten him to pick up after several tries. I have managed to calm down quite a bit since it happened, but that was by far the most vivid hallucination I'd ever had…and the only one I've had while awake.

Hanging up again after still getting no answer, I look at the phone and briefly consider calling Misato or one of my friends. But I don't want to trouble them with something that, for all I know, may be inconsequential. As much as I'd learned since I was a teenager, keeping things to myself was something I still haven't let go of.

The sound of the door opening drew my attention from the phone in my hand. "I'm home," Asuka called out, taking a moment to remove her shoes.

"Welcome home," I call back as I put the phone down, my tone a little more down than I wish it was.

"Oh, you're back," Asuka said, placing her bag down in the living room and walking over to kiss me on the cheek. "So how is everybody at the restaurant?"

It takes me a moment to answer her back, my mind having drifted back to earlier. "Oh they're good, same as always."

Something stops Asuka as she heads toward the hall and she walks back over to where I'm standing. "What's wrong?"

"Huh?" I ask, surprised at her shift in tone. "What makes you think that-"

Asuka stops me by putting a finger to my lips. "Shinji, how long have we known each other?" she questions, but doesn't remove the finger to let me answer. "Don't lie to me. I can tell when something's wrong."

I wonder for a moment whether I should tell her the whole truth or just leave it be. After some moments, I go with a compromise. "I…saw something on the way home." When she looks at me puzzled, I continue. "It was something that shouldn't have been possible," I told her with shake of my head. "You know…like when we were younger."

Asuka nods slowly as I see her flash back to those darker nights we had after the Angel War. "So…do you want to talk about it?"

I shake my head. "Not really, it was just…unnerving." I really don't feel like worrying her, of all people. I know what she's been through. "Bad memories."

"Been there, done that," Asuka replies in a morose tone. She quickly snaps back out of it, looking up at me. "Probably just stress-related," she reasoned. "I told you you'd been working too hard before your vacation."

"Yeah, you're probably right," I tell her, smiling and nervously scratching the back of my head. Just put it out of mind Shinji, it wasn't anything but a waking nightmare…

"Hey, how about we make it a date night?" Asuka chimes in after a few minutes. "We haven't had the time for one of those in a while, between work and school."

I think her suggestions over for a couple of seconds. It sounds like a good way to take my mind off of seeing Nagisa earlier that afternoon. "Sure, Asuka," I finally agree. "Sounds good to me."

Asuka gives me a wide grin before closing the distance and pressing her lips to mine only momentarily. "You know I'm right on this," she says with some of her old pride showing. "We're going to have a good evening." She leans in a little closer to me, right next to my ear. "And who knows, maybe we'll even get a little frisky tonight, ja?"

I feel my temperature rise just a little at those last words, watching as Asuka walks back into the bedroom to change. For just a moment, I forget about earlier and begin to think about a couple's night out…until I look out the balcony door. For just the briefest of moments, I swear I could feel someone watching me. Again. The thought makes me shiver unconsciously.

I take a long gulp from the mixed drink in my hand, looking over at Asuka next to me in the booth. We'd gone out on a date a lot like the first few we had, just a simple stop at a ramen stand for a nice meal and some conversation. Instead of going right back home, however, she had suggested heading over to a nearby karaoke bar and having a few drinks. And so here we were, getting a nice buzz before taking things back to the apartment. I'm on my third, she's on her fifth.

"I'm going up after her," Asuka shouts while gesturing to the girl singing, just barely audible over the music. I nod, feeling the familiar warmth of drunkenness in my body. I've learned to hold my alcohol better in the years since that victory party at Misato's, but I'm still a lightweight compared to either of the women in my life.

After the song is over, everyone present gives the girl a loud round of applause. Asuka then stands and heads over to the machine to pick out a song. I don't get to hear her sing nearly as often as I'd like, so this felt like a special moment. She finally finds one to her liking some moments later, the room filling with the sound of very lightly plucked guitar harmonics. It figures she would pick something I didn't know, she always seemed like she knew a lot about music I'd never even heard of.

Asuka stood at the microphone stand for a few silent moments before she began singing in a whisper-soft, almost ghost-like voice.

Met a stranger on a train
He bumped right into me
I swear I didn't mean it
I swear it wasn't meant to be
Must have been a dream
From a thousand years ago
I swear I didn't mean it
I swear it wasn't meant to be

I watch Asuka as she moves with the music, but the joy is short-lived as the image of her falls away and is replaced with the destroyed area inside the Geofront. I look around me, seeing trees and the ruins of NERV headquarters. Looking back at a commotion behind me, I see her fighting against the MP EVAs. It's different from what actually happened that day, though: I'm not there.

From the bottom of my heart
He was looking all over me
Together ever after
He said
"You take me and I'll be you
You kill him and I'll kill her."

I watch with wide eyes as Asuka fights viciously but can't keep the white EVA units down as they continue to rise even after taking grievous damage, sometimes just barely held together. A woosh of air turns my attention to one of their sword-like weapons flying towards Unit-02. It stops the item with its AT Field…until the weapon reforms into the shape of the Lance of Longinus that had destroyed the 15th Angel. I feel my stomach turn as the lance copy tears right through the field and impales Unit-02 right through its head. Asuka's pained scream reverberated in my head for several moments, making me tear up and my chest tighten immensely.

Kiss me
Kiss me in the shadow
Kiss me in the shadow of a doubt

I look on in horror as the machines stand once more, all of them having regenerated and unfurled their wings, before pouncing on the prone form of Unit-02 and begin…eating it. I see viscera and blue blood fly in every direction, still hearing Asuka cry out in a agony all the while. I want to shut me eyes, but my body is unable to comply with what I'm telling it to do. The MP EVAs take off into the air, circling around the fallen red EVA as it reaches out for them, the rage-filled voice of its pilot echoing in my head. 'I'll kill you, I'll kill you all,' she repeats many times…which is cut short as the remaining lance copies fly down from their wielders and pierce Unit-02, which falls silent after that attack.

It's just a dream
It's just a dream I had
Swear it's just a dream
Just a dream

The song comes down from its noisy crescendo and pulls me back to the karaoke bar, still looking at Asuka singing at the front of the room. I drop the drink I'd been holding and rush out of the booth and towards the back door. Bursting them wide open, I fall to my knees in the alley and begin bringing up the contents of my stomach onto the concrete. I cry and wretch for several long moments, trying in vain to breathe after seeing that vision.

A light touch on my shoulder jolts me from my reverie, however. Asuka looks down at me with some concern, the redness of her cheeks telling her state of intoxication. "Had a few too many, eh Shinji?" she asks, slightly slurred.

I nod as best as I can in the situation, standing from where I'd ended up on the ground. "Y-yeah, I guess s-so," I manage to say, trying not to let my panic show. It had all seemed so real, just like earlier…

Asuka put my arm over her neck and helped get me into a more stable standing position. "I already paid the tab, so let's just head back," she said, taking her phone out of her pocket. "I'll call a cab, I think we've both had a few to many to get home by ourselves." She let out a heavy sigh. "You most especially."

I don't argue a bit with her. In fact, I don't say a word…in fear that I may have another sudden panic attack and run down the busy nighttime sidewalk. I just let her carry me over to a spot near the curb, where we both sit and await our ride. And all the while, I try and put the image of her death out of my mind. It doesn't really work that well, so I just hang my head and keep my eyes shut as tight as I can.

We stumble through the apartment door about a half-hour later, both of us still fairly drunk. Just as I get the front door closed, Asuka pulls me into a fierce kiss and I can taste what she's been drinking. I guess she's in the mood for intimate things, despite my earlier terrified fleeing and puking. I'd taken a few moments while we waited for the cab to wash out my mouth with a bottle of water, and I'm really glad I did now.

I try and keep up with her actions, kissing back just as fervently as we work our way back into the bedroom. I strip off my jacket and shirt as we step inside, Asuka decides to do the same with her own attire. We both fall down onto the mattress quite hard, fumbling with our belts through the haze of alcohol. As we both end up naked, I take off my glasses and put them on the nightstand before retrieving a condom from the top drawer. I stumble a little with putting it on, but I'm soon easing my way inside her.

This is a little different than usual, Asuka prefers to be on top most of the time…but I don't think either of us are really caring too much at this point. She grunts and moans beneath me as I push in and out of her, letting the sensations carry me away from my earlier outburst. But something keeps nagging at the back of my mind, right there when my eyes are closed: the image of those weapons piercing Unit-02 repeatedly, her body feeling every last stab. I see her left arm split down the middle in time with the EVA's, her murderous cries silenced just as quickly as they'd begun.

Underneath me, I feel Asuka pushing back against me. She's saying something, but I can't hear her over what's in my head at the moment. I try to concentrate harder on my thrusts, trying to physically will the thoughts from me. But I still keep replaying what I'd witnessed less than an hour ago, every last attack and bite and scream just as vivid and real as what was happening between us.

Asuka finally digs her nails into my arms violently as she completely stops moving in rhythm with me. "Shinji, stop!" she calls out. "You're hurting me!"

The words and the pain finally cut through the visions, and I look down to see the Asuka's face with an expression that's somehow both angry and concerned. But just as quickly, I see her features contort into the ghoulish sight of her decomposing in her old plug suit. I shut my eyes tightly and shake my head, then look again to see her normal self staring back at me.

I can't hold in what's happened to me today anymore, so I just collapse on top of Asuka, holding onto her like a child holds a security blanket. I keep apologizing to her, but I don't tell her why I'm sorry. She hesitates for a moment before wrapping her arms around me, softly whispering and stroking my hair. But I can't make a word out, the sounds of her screaming are still somewhere in my subconscious. They're not as loud…but they're not going away either. So I just hold onto her even tighter and keep my eyes closed.

Two days later, I'm standing in front of Misato's front door. I fight with myself for a moment on whether I should tell her about what I've been experiencing or not. It hasn't been as bad as that night…I keep telling myself that it was the drinking that brought out the worst of the hallucinations…but I still can't quite convince myself of that. I finally give the door a soft knock. "Coming, just a second," I hear her call out from inside. The door slides open soon after, the smiling face of my former guardian staring back at me. "Shinji!" she says with excitement, pulling me into a big hug. "I told you both to visit more often."

"Sorry about that," I say, somewhat smothered by her bustline. Misato lets me go after a moment, and she gestures for me to come in. I walk in and look around, everything looks just like it did back when Asuka and I lived here. "Keeping it all original?"

"Of course," Misato answers, going into the kitchen, "one doesn't fix what isn't broken." I take off my jacket and sit down on the couch, looking down at my hands wringing together nervously. "You want some coffee?"

"As long as it isn't how you make it," I call back, remembering how Misato prefers hers as black as possible.

"You'll learn one day that it's the best way to have it," Misato counters, pouring out a cup for me and adding plenty of sugar and crème. She walks over to the living room and hands me the mug before taking a seat on the other side of the couch. "So how's work going?"

"It's going well," I answer, sipping at the hot liquid and having to pause from the heat, "I took Asuka's advice and used two weeks' worth of my vacation time."

"Ah, so that's how you made the time to visit an old woman like me," Misato replied, taking a long drink of her own.

"Oh come on, you're not old," I tell her. Which is true: she may have a few more wrinkles and look more aged than when I first came to Tokyo-3, she could still certainly turn heads.

"Thank you for the compliment, no matter how biased," Misato says with a wink, which makes us both laugh for a second. "And how is your better half? Still not married, I see," she goes on, pointing to the lack of a ring on my left hand.

I shake my head in amusement. Misato had been asking us that since Asuka and I first attempted a relationship, most of the time in a joking manner…but she had been more serious about the question since we've moved out. "I'll tell you the same thing I told Yuuki when she asked about why we're not trying to have a baby," I explain, "when we are ready for that."

Misato nods at me, drinking more coffee. "That's good, don't want to rush into anything," she says. "Too many young people jumping head-first into serious things without looking first."

"What about you?" I offer, sipping some more of my own beverage. "How's that 'early retirement' going?"

Misato groaned and leaned her head back over the back of the couch. "I'm bored out of my skull," she answers. "I was glad to get away from NERV and all of the baggage that came with it, but I still wish I were doing more." She returned her head to its normal upright position. "At least there was severance pay."

We fall silent as I debate if I should bring up the last few days' events to Misato. I guess she could tell something was on my mind, though. "Alright Shinji, what's wrong?"

I don't look up from my cup of coffee, but my expression remains blank. "What are you talking ab-"

"Look mister," Misato cuts me off, "I was a military officer. Not to mention I lived with you and Asuka for a few years, I can tell when people are hiding something." She leaned down, moving a little closer to me. "Domestic troubles?"

I shake my head, taking another drink to ready myself. I guess I'll talk it out with Misato, couldn't be any worse than holding it in. "No, it's…" I pause and take a deep breath. "It's a little stranger than that."

Misato readjusts herself into the other corner of the couch, sitting her mug down on the table nearby and facing me completely. "Go on."

I sigh and start talking. "I've been…seeing things recently. Things that…shouldn't be possible. Things that didn't happen but feel so goddamn real that it scares me." I look over at Misato. "Sometimes it feels hard to tell what's real or not when it happens."

"Waking nightmares?" Misato asks, which I nod to. "Have you tried calling Dr. Reid?"

"Of course I did," I reply, "but he's out of the country and I haven't been able to get in touch with him at all."

"Have you told Asuka? You know very well she's been in the same boat as you."

I shake my head. "That's why I haven't," I explain. "I know what she's been through. I don't want to take the chance of triggering something in her that…"

"I see," Misato says as I trail off. We sit in complete silence for several moments. "Shinji," Misato begins, "I've had a lot of my own hallucinations since the Angel War ended. I've seen my father, I've seen Kaji…" She pauses and I can see her bottom lip quiver, trying not to cry. "And it made me realize that some things are best if you let them go." She sniffs back whatever tears had been wanting to fall, taking hold of the cross pendant she still wears around her neck and continues. "It took me some time to realize it, but sometimes bad things just happen…and there's nothing anyone can do about that. So it's better to move on than to dwell on that. Those feelings will only drag you down with them."

"I already know all this, Misato," I reply, having heard all of this in therapy sessions before.

"I know you do, it's just…" She takes a deep breath. "Look, I'm certainly no psychiatrist or therapist. I can only speak from what I know. But I saw both of them well after their deaths, and they both felt like they were right there," she goes on, reaching over to pick up her coffee and take a long drink. "But I know that it was just all in my mind, no matter what I feel here," she stops, putting a free hand up to her chest. "And that's what helps me get over it and get on with my life. It doesn't make you a bad person to get over things, it makes you stronger knowing that you can go on even with those times in mind. Just as long as you don't forget those memories, you can keep them with you and you can move on."

I finish the last of my coffee and keep my silence for a moment as I think over Misato's words. She's right they're only just visions, they can't affect me or do anything even though they feel so real…at least I try to tell myself that. "I understand," I finally say, looking back up at her with a smile. "Thank you Misato."

Misato reaches over and gives one of my hands a tight squeeze. "Hey, anytime you need it," she says, standing up and taking my empty mug back to the kitchen. "Remember, you and Asuka are like family to me. And what is family for if not helping each other through rough times?"

"I guess you're right," I say, standing up and stretching. I pick up my jacket and walk a little nearer to the hallway. "I think I'm going to go for a long walk before I go back home, maybe help clear out my head some more."

"That sounds like it would probably be good for you," Misato says, meeting me at the short corridor as we step over to the front door. "And remember: just because you live across the city, that doesn't mean you shouldn't visit more often. It's just me and Pen-Pen around here these days…and he's getting a lot lazier as he gets older."

"Alright, I hear you," I tell her as I put on my jacket.

"And tell Asuka to call me, we could use a little catching-up time ourselves."

"Yes ma'am," I reply with some sarcasm, which earns me a playful smack to the arm. "No really, I'll tell her."

"You'd better," Misato warns me in a faux-angry tone. "Now come on in for one last big hug," she says, opening her arms wide for me. Before I step toward her, the scene changes to a much younger version of her standing just a few feet away, dressed in her old NERV uniform. There's a small trail of blood coming out of her mouth, in spite of the small smile on her face. She's pushing me back into what looks like an elevator and just before the door closes, I look down at the side she's holding. There's another larger splotch of blood present, enough to tell that it was a mortal wound underneath. I hear her voice call out to me and I blink only to find myself still standing in her apartment, her arms outstretched and waiting for a hug. I hesitate for a second before going in for the embrace…but even as I smile to her and leave, I swear I can taste blood in my mouth.

I pass along the slowly-emptying streets on my way back between Misato's place and mine. The crowds that usually packed the sidewalk had thinned down to just a steady trickle of people, which was to be expected of the middle of a weekday. As I near a crosswalk, I feel something pull me in another direction. I can't place what it was…not a voice or a physical pull, but just a feeling.

I follow my instincts for several quiet moments, trying not to replay what I saw when I left Misato's apartment. The last two days had been relatively free of any more 'events', so I had simply come to the same conclusion Asuka had: it was stress-related, probably heightened by my alcohol intake that night. But after seeing the one constant parental figure in my life slowly dying in front of me, even for just a split second…

I shake my head to clear away the image and stop walking as I see sand underfoot. I had been traveling while looking down at the ground again, so I moved my gaze up…and was met with the sight of the lake that had been caused by Unit-00's self-detonation. This was where Rei 'died', this was where I'd met Kaworu. I let a couple of tears fall upon remembering those dark days, but the surroundings are far more pleasant than they had been back then. The city had made this into a monument-of-sorts for the one EVA pilot that had given their life during the course of the Angel War. At least, that's how it looked in public records: Rei's 'survival' and her place in the events that followed were deemed top secret, need-to-know-basis only. The remnants of the EVA/Angel fusion still stand in the middle of the water, a grave maker in a sense. They even named the resulting lake after her, which I'd like to think she would have approved of.

The area around the lake is lush with greenery…or at least what managed to survive this winter. It was much better the last time I stopped here, over a-year-and-a-half ago. But it's still a far cry from the ruins I had seen it in during the last days of the Angel War. I feel a gust rush past me, and I close my eyes to take in the silent serenity of the landscape. As I stand with my head raised skyward, eyes still shut, I can swear I hear the sounds of waves lapping…almost like a beach. But that isn't right, the wind isn't blowing hard enough to-

I open my eyes again and see something very different. The sky is much darker, almost like night. But the thing that really unnerves me is the large red streak across the sky, a literal gash set against the stars. I turn my head back down when I hear waves crash again, and I find a sight I wish I hadn't seen. I'm not standing at the edge of the lake anymore, I'm standing at a beach whose waters look like a tidal wave of blood. There are several statues in the 'water' that look like petrified EVA units. But it's what's staring at me that makes me hold in a scream: off in the horizon, split in half and almost smiling at me, is the face of Rei Ayanami. The color's wrong, the hair and face are completely white…but the features and the unblinking red eye are unmistakable. I feel a slight chill and when I look down at myself, I see that I'm in my old school uniform. I feel around my face and find my glasses missing. Then I see my hands and arms, slightly smaller in stature than I should be. I'm me as I was many years ago, just a teenage boy. But that shouldn't be, this is impossible, I…

I hear the crunch of sand behind me, and I wheel around to find…Asuka staring back at me? No…it isn't her, but…it is. She's also just a kid again and wearing her old plug suit, albeit missing a sleeve and very tattered-looking at the edges. But it's the bandages that are the most prominent: they're over her left eye and around her left arm…the same places I saw damaged in my hallucination the other night. Her head is lowered, obscuring most of her features to me. It takes a moment to find my voice as I shakily say her name. "A-Asuka…"

Asuka's head lifts slowly after I call out to her. Her expression is unreadable for a few seconds before her one good eye focuses on me…and changes into a death stare, her mouth becoming probably the most angry-looking scowl I've ever seen on her. "Well, well…" she says in a voice that sounds weak from disuse. "Look who finally decides to show up."

I stumble back from her, fearing the anger I can feel coming off of her. "Take a good look at what you did, Third," she goes on, gesturing with her good arm at our surroundings. "The one time you actually make a decision…and this is the outcome." She keeps step with me as I keep walking backwards, finally stumbling over my feet and landing hard onto the water's edge. "And now look at you, just a pathetic ragged boy." She reaches down with the unbandaged arm and hauls me to my feet roughly. "I think you've deserved this for a long time."

I don't have time to ask what she meant, or even get a word of my own in, when I feel a strong blow to my sternum knock all of the air out of me. I fall to the ground and struggle to breathe, looking back up to see Asuka grimacing from using her injured arm to hit me: there's some blood leaking through the material around her knuckles. I try vainly to choke out something, but it's stopped by her right foot kicking me square in the stomach. "You did this, you fucker!" she shrieks, kicking me again. "Look at this, did you think this was where I wanted to be?" Another kick, and I think I feel a rib crack. "You fuck! Asshole!" Yet another kick, this one rolling me over and into the edge of the 'water'.

My sight is blurry and I can taste blood, but Asuka kicks me again, knocking me face-first into the wet sand. "Fuck you to Hell and back, Shinji Ikari!" She reaches down and pulls me back up to face her before slamming her bandaged fist into my face, and I feel my nose break from the impact. I think she may have also broken her hand, but the only indicator of that is her rage-fueled scream. I go limp as she puts me on my back and straddles my waist, her hands around my throat. "This is exactly what you deserve, you piece of shit," she whispers, her words laced with venom. Her hands start tightening, but I don't have the strength to fight her off. I can feel her nails digging into my flesh through her gloves.

I start crying as I feel Asuka close off my airway, trying to talk with what little air I have. "P-p-please…A-Asuka…s-s-stop…s-sorry…" Her grip on my throat lessens just a little, but does not relent. She lowers her face down towards mine and I close my eyes, not wanting to see what she'll do to me next.


The word was barely spoken, almost nonexistent, but it made me open my eyes again…only to find myself still standing at the edge of Lake Ayanami. It was all just another hallucination. I fall to my knees and take a series of shaky deep breaths, trying to understand what just happened. I look down and find that I'm back to my normal age. Feeling around myself, I find none of the injuries I had sustained just moments ago. But that couldn't be, I had felt every last bit of that. I'd had waking nightmares before, but none of them left me with physical pain. I stand up and take a few unsteady steps away from the lakeside before breaking into a sprint away from the monument, hoping to get home before I felt myself go into a blind panic. But all the way home, I kept hearing that ghostly Asuka's taunting words and accusations…and all the way, I held my hands over my ears to block it out.

"Nothin' like a good flask of saki, y'know what I'm sayin'?" Toji Suzuhara asks me, taking another shot soon after. It's the next afternoon, and I got a call from my friend wanting to go out for a little casual drinking and catching up. I'm still plenty shaken from yesterday, and I barely slept at all last night. I had considered turning him down and staying in, but Asuka told me it would be good for my nerves if I got out and socialized with someone other than her or people I worked with. So here I am, barely functioning and still a little jumpy…but feeling much better after a little liquid courage.

"Yeah, I hear you," I reply, taking another drink myself. "So you heard from Kensuke recently?"

Toji nods, pouring himself another shot and picking up one of the sushi rolls off his plate. "Not that long ago," he answers between bites, his manners still as rough as ever. "Still the same ol' Ken, studying abroad in America and havin' the time of his life."

I nod a few times, still trying to not look like I'd rather be nodding off into my own food. "And Hikari is doing well?"

"Oh you know her," Toji says with a wink, "just as bossy as ever. But it's all good."

"Don't let her hear you say that," I tell him, taking a bite of some of my own sushi. "You did marry her, after all."

Toji laughs a little at that. "You don't have to tell me." He narrows his eyes at me. "What about you and Red? You two gonna join us in that club, too?"

"When we feel like it's right," I say, felling a sense of déjà vu to the conversation I had with Misato the day before.

"I don't see why ya say you're not ready," Toji explains. "You've both been together almost as long as me and Hikari."

"I guess…" I trail off, feeling the fatigue coming over me again. I shake myself lightly to wake up, sitting up straighter in my chair.

Toji leans back in his seat and lets out a sigh. "Okay Shinji, out with it. What's on your mind?"

I'm knocked out of my thoughts by his question. " Wha…I don't-"

"Come on man, cut the bull," Toji continues. "We've known each other how long now? I call ya up during the first vacation you've taken since you've been workin'…and I get this jittery haggard-looking guy instead of my friend, way different than your usual OCD self." He leans a little towards me. "So just tell me what's eatin' at ya"

God I must really look a mess if even Toji can see it. I sit in silence for a few moments before speaking up again. "I've been having some…mental issues lately," I begin, looking down at my saki before downing it in a single gulp. "I keep seeing things that aren't there, that shouldn't be there. I've even felt these moments. There's been actual physical pain, for fuck's sake. That's not supposed to happen with these kinds of things!" I only just realize that my voice has risen during my words, which leaves me looking around at anyone who may be in earshot. "I didn't sleep well last night because of them," I say a little quieter.

"Like the ones you had back in school?" Toji asks me.

"Kinda," I answer, then shake my head. "I don't know, they were never this vivid back then. And I never felt real pain from any of those nightmares."

"You talked to Red about them?" he questions. I haven't actually discussed them with her, but I nod anyway. "And what did she think?"

"Asuka and Misato both think it's stress-related," I reply, taking another shot of saki. "I mean, they're probably right, but…" I trail off again, not sure exactly what to say. "I just know that they've felt real enough to actually scare me, Toji."

"I know what ya mean about fear," Toji says while casting a glance down at his prosthetic arm. I almost forget sometimes that it's artificial, one of the few perks of NERV technology I guess. "I spent a long time afraid to do anything physical." He pauses for a moment, and I guess my expression must have looked a bit guilty. "And before ya go and apologize again, don't. We've been over this before: it was your father at fault, none of it was because of you, yadda yadda, et cetera and all that." He waits for a moment as I take the hint and nod. "Good. Now…what I was tryin' to tell ya was that fear can also be a motivating factor, 'cause I was also afraid of havin' to rely on others for the rest of my life. So I just dug in my heels and worked through it, 'cause I sure as hell wasn't gonna give up." He stops for a moment to take a breath. "Point is, sometimes ya just have to power through whatever's got ya down and just…I dunno, I'm not some kinda motivational speaker or something'."

I smile at his admission, remembering what he was like back then, the determination he'd shown during the long stretch he spent in physical therapy. "Thanks for the pep talk, Toji."

"Hey man, anytime ya need it," Toji says with a big grin as a hostess comes by and deposits the check. "Well, I think I've had a few too many for one afternoon," he goes on, standing up and pulling out a few bills for the check and tip. "Don't worry about this time, I've got ya covered."

"Thanks," I offer, standing and putting my jacket back on. The cold isn't quite as strong today, but the air is still damp and chilly.

As we step out onto the street, Toji turns to me and gives me a handshake with the other hand on my shoulder. "Talk to ya soon, Shinji," he tells me, walking over to one of the parked taxis nearby. "Just try to avoid any more stress, ya hear me?"

"Loud and clear," I reply. Toji laughs and gets inside the vehicle, which pulls away after a few seconds. I turn down the sidewalk and head in the direction of home…but I don't get anywhere near that as I'm pulled into the next alley and a dark bag is placed over my head. I panic for just a moment before feeling something sharp dig into my neck. I'm only conscious for a few seconds after that.

The next thing I know, I'm waking up again in complete silence. I can tell the bag is still over my head and I freak out again at the feeling of being enclosed as well as the fact that my arms and legs are bound to whatever I'm laying on…not to mention the gag that's been placed in my mouth. I hear some faint voices through the fabric, but I can't make out what they're saying. And then I can tell that I'm being moved on something with wheels, their squeaking much clearer sounding to me. I'm far too shocked to say anything out loud, so I just feel my heart beat viciously in my chest as I finally come to a stop in another place.

The bag over my head is yanked off forcefully, and my glasses go along with it. There's a light that comes on above, which blinds me after being in the dark for an indeterminable amount of time. As my eyes adjust, I can only make out some things: I'm strapped down to a metal surface and there's a medical light just overhead. I fight against my restraints for a few seconds in vain as I look out into the darkness of the room, hoping to see whoever brought me here.

Then there's a booming voice that comes from somewhere above me. "Shinji Ikari…we have been waiting a long time for this." I squint to try and see something in the distance, but the dark is soon replaced with an faint eerie red glow around an upright rectangle. On the front were the words 'SEELE-01 - SOUND ONLY' in the same red color. I turn my gaze around the space above me and see eleven other identical shapes come into view. But that can't be right, the members of SEELE are either dead or imprisoned.

"I can tell by your expression that you are quite surprised to see us," the voice went on. "But I can assure you that we are very much still active. We have spent a very long time working on our scenario, so we planned for every eventuality."

I hear another table being wheeled in and turn to look. I see a person in all black, including their face, moving the table next to mine. On the surface is an array of dissection tools and probes and electrodes, all of them making my blood run cold and my heart beat even faster.

"Do not worry, we are not going to kill you," the voice continues, "we need you alive for what we require. Your assimilation with Unit-01 has given us a unique opportunity to examine and test some unfounded theories and experiments. As I said, you will not die…though I can assure you of two things: there will be pain involved in these procedures, and you will willingly help us further our goals when we are done with you."

The figure in black next to me cuts off my shirt and applies several wires and electrodes to various points of my body and head. I try to cry out through the gag and fight against my restraints, but to no avail. The person walks over towards me again with a wet cloth and a large needle connected to a wire. I watch as they swab my right arm before jabbing the device into it, and I shout in intense pain. Then they turn some knobs and flip some switches on the machine the needle is hooked to before turning a large dial…and sending a hellish jolt of electricity through my veins. I can feel my nerve endings as if they're on fire, and it's only exacerbated by the many other places that connections have been made on me. I bite down violently into the gag as the second shock travels through me, and my vision goes white for just a moment.

When my sight clears, I find myself looking at the familiar tiles of my bathroom back home. The showerhead is going full-blast on me, the water ice-cold. I'm completely nude and my head is pounding fiercely. I hear someone faintly saying my name, and I look up to see the worried-looking expression on Asuka's face. "Oh thank Gott," she says, kneeling down to where I lay on my side on the floor. "Jesus, you should have told me you were coming down with something," she went on, the panic in her voice readily apparent. "Toji brought you back here. You collapsed on the sidewalk as his cab was moving away and he basically fell out of the car trying to get to you. You were burning up with a fever when he got you here, so I stripped you and put on the cold water."

I stare up at her with wide eyes, and my face feels like it's somewhere between relief and terror. "What?" she asks, which tells me that my state of mind is etched clearly on my face. "What's wrong, Sh-" I cut Asuka off when I lurch forward from my spot on the bathroom floor and hold on to her tightly, sobbing incoherently onto her now-wet shirt. She hesitates a moment before wrapping her arms around me and trying to soothe me…but her tone of voice tells me that I scared her just as bad as I had been just a few moments ago. I let my tears mix with the freezing water as I cry into her shoulder, not even wanting to open my eyes to look at her in fear that I may trigger something even worse than what I'd just been subjected to.

I sit in the living room at my little corner work desk. It's been three days since I collapsed after my meeting with Toji, and I haven't slept at all since. I'm afraid of what I'll find waiting for me there, so I just lie awake next to Asuka and stare at the far wall of the bedroom. I've still been seeing things, more faint images now than the visceral hallucinations that truly frightened me, but they've kept me on-edge all the same. I don't even know if they're the same as the others I've had or just from sleep deprivation, but it's making me feel like I have less of a grip on reality than I should have.

I glance out of the glass door to the balcony, watching the rain continue to fall. It's been raining steadily since yesterday morning, leaving anywhere outside feeling wet and humid…at least according to Asuka. I haven't dared step outside after that last trip my mind took me on, I won't be seen on the street flailing like a lunatic at something that isn't really there. So I've just been sitting in various spots around the apartment, often trying to stay as still as I can for long stretches of time. My fever feels like it's gone down some since I was carried home, but I'm still far warmer than I should be.

And there it is again, that feeling of being watched by someone. I glance around the room in a panic, seeing no one but me in there. I thought it might be Asuka, but she's just finished her shower for the evening and is more than likely getting dressed again. I turn my head slowly to look outside, and down below on the street, I can barely see someone standing and looking up at our third-floor balcony. I probably wouldn't have noticed them, but there seemed to be a kind of glow around them, illuminating them. I shakily walk over and pull open the glass door…and see someone who looks like Rei staring up at me.

Fuck this, I'm tired of being afraid of figments of my imagination. I drop the blanket I'd been wrapped up in and sprint to the door, not shutting it behind me as I head to the stairs and down to street level. There's not that many people out today, but enough that they'd notice me flying down the sidewalk in a frenzy. I don't honestly care what they think right now, I need some goddamn answers from whoever this is…even if they're only a vision. I dodge around a small family and head across the street, the glowing figure seeming to float away from me with every step.

I try to keep pace with this apparition for nearly fifteen minutes, and it leads me to an area of the city that hasn't quite been rebuilt since the Angel War ended. The houses are still little more than piles of rubble and a few standing walls here and there. I haven't seen another person for a few minutes, with the exception of what I've been chasing. "Who are you?" I shout as the rain comes down even harder, soaking me to the bone. "What the hell do you want from me?!" I trip and fall onto the empty road, my face landing in a fairly deep puddle.

As I lift myself back up and try to catch my breath, I can hear someone calling for me from where I'd come from. Heading down the street toward me was Asuka, wearing a thrown-on pair of sweatpants and carrying an umbrella. "Shinji!" she yells, sprinting toward me quickly. "What is going on with you?" she questions, leaning over and breathing hard from the distance she'd surely just ran. "You've been weird and distant for almost a week now…ah, ah…and then you go running out in the rain like some kind of maniac." She swallows and moves a little closer to me. "Come on, tell me."

I don't get up from kneeling down on the ground, staring down at the water and concrete under me. "I'm losing my goddamn mind, that's what's going on," I explode, finally as pent up with my week-long ordeal with these hallucinations. "I saw Kaworu right in front of me again, and then his head fell right at my feet." I start crying, the tears falling down into the rain on the road. "I saw you overwhelmed and killed and eaten by Mass Production EVAs. I saw Misato die in front of me. I saw someone who looked like a younger you attack me and almost kill me and I felt all of it. I got abducted by SEELE and they started cutting and prodding at me and putting electricity through me and I felt every fucking bit of it." I take a moment to stop and breathe heavily, my throat feeling ragged and sore from shouting. "I keep getting chased by shadows, but those only lead to other shadows." I cry harder, sobs racking my body. "I just…I just want to be left alone by them." I sit back up straight and throw my head back, shouting at the sky in wordless anguish.

I open my eyes, watching Asuka pause for a moment before stepping closer to me. She puts a reassuring hand on my shoulder and squeezes. "Shinji…I'm scared."

"I'm scared too, Asuka," I reply, my voice completely shot from my last outburst. "I'm terrified."

Asuka shakes her head. "No, it's not just that," she continues. "I…I don't…" She trails off, stepping back from me. "I feel like something's wrong, something I can't explain. It only just hit me. And it's scaring me just as much as what's tormenting you." I watch as the fog seems to get thicker, nearly obscuring her just a few feet away from me. "Shinji…I…" But that was all I heard before I watched her very form disappear into the rainy night.

"…Asuka?" No no no no NO. I feel my heart and stomach sink, and I scramble to my feet and down the road. "Asuka!" My chest is getting uncomfortably tight now, inhibiting how much I can breathe and how fast I can run. "Asuka!" I keep calling out for her, hoping to hear her say something back. "ASUKA!" I crash to the ground in a spent heap again, this time staring in horror at what just happened. Asuka just…vanished. Completely. I can't…I can't even…

I lift myself up again to keep running, but there's the same glowing figure I'd been chasing earlier, now only a few feet away. It looks like Rei, but…I know it can't be. She resembles the split-in-half head I saw a few days ago, her featureless white body completely devoid of anything. "A-A-Ayanami…?" I ask weakly.

"Not exactly," the image answers. I watch with wide eyes around me as the world begins to fall away, almost seeming to melt and peel layer by layer. There's a white void that seems to be engulfing everything, and I finally have to shut my eyes as it becomes too bright to keep looking at…then it feels as though my body is starting to fade, blowing away like ashes in the wind. I keep my eyes closed and let it happen, the pull of nothingness taking me away…

I don't know how long passes before I can feel something again, but the bright light slowly fades and I can see that I'm in some kind of amber-colored expanse. It's not really a place, I think: there's no ground beneath me and the entire area undulates and ripples as though it's made of liquid. I can see some clouds in the far distance, but that's about all. I feel my body's nerves come back from numbness, and I look down at myself. I'm like I was in the hallucination a few days ago, back to being a teenager and dressed in my school uniform. "You are here," a voice calls out. I whip my head back up to see the Rei-like figure in front of me, floating as though they were submerged in water.

"Wh…what is…where a-are we?" I ask, my voice having an echo that seems to go on indefinitely.

"We are inside Instrumentality," she says, noticing for the first time that her voice is like Rei's but a little deeper, almost like multiple voices speaking in unison. "The merging of all things into one being."

I blink a few times, the word she used almost seeming familiar, then I recall something Misato once told me about SEELE's end goal. "You mean…the committee won?"

"In a sense," she replies. "They were given what they wanted: apotheosis, to become one with a being they considered 'God'. But the end result is…quite different than what they envisioned." She stares me directly in the eyes. "Namely, the fact that you were at the center of the ceremony and, therefore, could affect its outcome."

I float in silence before her for a few moments, thinking over what she'd said. "You're not Ayanami, are you?"

"I am, but I am not as well," she tells me. "She is within me, but we are no longer separate entities. I am she, and she is me." She pauses, waiting for me to understand. "You may call me Lilith, if you so wish to."

"But…if we're all one…what are we doing here?" I ask. Lilith gestures to her side and the expanse around us fills with many images and scenes. I can see myself and the people I know in many different places. I see the same images I'd been experiencing for the last week, but I also see many that are completely new to me: I watch triumphs and tragedies unfold before me…I see Asuka and I as lovers, as soldiers, as the damaged people we used to be. They're all eerily familiar to me, as though I had seen or lived them before. "I don't understand," I finally say. "What am I looking at?"

"These are the worlds you have created," Lilith begins. "Inside Instrumentality, every human being experiences a world of their own creation. Be it a heaven or al hell, everyone is given their own place in eternity. You, being at the center of it all, brought in those closest to you to give them a place they would consider 'a better life'."

"But the last week, I've been seeing-"

"What you saw," Lilith cuts me off, "was some of those worlds bleeding together, along with actual reality as it happened. The boundaries of the other worlds you created and rejected have started to merge together with the life you had been living. It was your subconscious mind willing you to wake up."

I feel like breathing has become more difficult at her last words. "Y-you mean…that life didn't happen?" I question, putting my head in my hands. "The life Asuka and I had built? All of it, just some kind of permanent dream?" Oh God it wasn't real, it wasn't real…

"You may call it a dream if you wish," Lilith tries to tell me, "but I can assure you that whatever you felt was real, as well as the memor-"

"Don't you fucking lie to me!" I yell with all the anger I can muster, causing the 'liquid' around us to ripple violently and clear away the scenes still playing out around us. I close my eyes and look downward. "Don't you dare lie to me," I say much quieter. "Was any of it real?"

Lilith pauses, perhaps in fear of my sudden shout, before speaking again. "It was as real as you wished for it to be."

I want to cry, but I can't find the tears after all that has happened lately. I look back up at Lilith. "What…what happened to Asuka?"

"She awoke," Lilith states flatly. "I believe she realized where she truly was and has returned to the physical world left behind after Instrumentality."

"Will the others also wake up?"

"If they wish it, they may do so. But that is up to them."

I don't hesitate for a moment. "I want to go to her."

"Are you certain?" Lilith asks me. "You will not know what awaits you there, and it may be far worse than what you are leaving behind."

"I. Don't Care." I say every word slowly and forcefully, making sure that she doesn't mistake me in the least. "We didn't spent nearly ten years building the relationship we had just for it to come to this. Just for me to throw it away for a 'perfect' world." I tighten my fists as hard as I can, surprised that I haven't drawn blood because of my fingernails. "Not one without her. Wherever she is, I'll go no matter what." I look up at Lilith, my face hardened into a determined stare. "I'm nothing without Asuka, I love her completely. I always have and I always will."

Lilith nods at me. "Very well, if that is what you truly desire." She then closes her ruby eyes and I feel myself start to slip away again. Just before I lose consciousness completely, I hear her speak again. "Goodbye, Shinji Ikari. I hope you chose wisely." Then the blackness of the void consumes me again, and I feel nothing.

I wake up to the sound of waves crashing, and I open my eyes to see the same nighttime sky with a streak of blood overhead that I'd seen previously. As I sit up and feel my senses come back, I look out and see the same blood-colored tide I had seen before. Now knowing it was a sea of LCL where the rest of the people in Instrumentality still resided did little to make it look many less ghastly. I also spot Lilith's half-head staring back at me, almost a mockery of the first time I'd seen it. I look down at my hands…and I'm just a kid again. I guess no actual time passed while in Instrumentality, so I reverted to what I was prior. But something out of the corner of my eye is what really catches my attention, something red that has me worried about the last time I'd seen someone wearing that color in this place.

I slowly look over and down, and yes, there is Asuka's prone form. She's bandaged in the same places, one sleeve of her plugsuit still missing. Her eyes are closed, but I can tell by the gentle rise and fall of her chest that she's breathing. Oh God it's really her again…but I'm wary if it's the one that attacked me last time I saw her. I can't be sure, but…still, she's here.

I don't remember moving but, the next thing I know, I'm on top of her and holding her gently. I start letting out every last thing on my mind: the life we'd had after the Angel War was over, our relationship, the visions that had been haunting me for the last several days, what I'd talked about with Lilith…everything. I didn't want to miss one detail, hoping that something, anything, she would remember from inside Instrumentality. I cry harder than I ever have before, my tears rolling down my face and onto her plugsuit-clad chest. I tell her I love her several times, how much I want and need her here with me, that I'm incomplete without her…just anything and everything I can say that feels right in that moment. I finally ramble my way into repeatedly wishing for her to wake up and say something to me, just to tell me she's alive and there.

My sobs are instantly quelled when I feel arms weakly surrounding me. Asuka rises to a sitting position and I move with her, both of us still in our desperate embrace. "It's okay, Shinji," she manages to say, her voice low and weak, probably from disuse. "I remember," she says after a long pause, "I remember it all." She pulls away from me and the one blue eye I can see is sparkling like a sapphire, her smile pained but still present. "And you looked a lot better with the glasses." She laughs for just a second. "But I still love you all the same, baka-Shinji."

When she said that, I finally feel the last dam holding back my emotions break and I hold her tighter than ever. I'm crying unbelievably hard, unable to say anything more as I feel her grip strengthen. I can't even try to manage words anymore at this point, but it doesn't seem to matter. Finally the strength in my arms gives out and they fall limply to the wet sand below us. Asuka still holds me up, though, whispering soothing words at me while I let it all out.

I don't care whatever kind of world this is, however it will end up, whether other people will come back or not. I don't care if this is heaven or hell or purgatory or…whatever. All I know is that Asuka is here with me, we both remember the life we'd been living…and that's all that really matters to me. We're in this together.