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the gamblers

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Tabris wakes up in a white bed, in a white room.

Everything's all very nondescript; the sheets are white, the walls are white, the hair and the hands that lay on the pillow by his head are white. The only color in the space comes from the girl sitting by his bed, whose pale skin and powder blue hair threaten to be washed away in the whiteness just the same.

But when she looks at Tabris, her eyes are red.

"You're awake," she says. Her voice is little, but loud in the emptiness. "Hello."

"Hello," he says, because it feels mandatory.

She blinks at him, her expression unchanging, cautious. "Do you remember now?" she asks.

Tabris doesn't know what she means. There is nothing, nothing except this room and this girl and Tabris. There has never been anything else.

The girl's face remains flat, but she seems displeased at his silence. Her hands clasp together. "What is your name?" she says.

This he knows. "Tabris," he says.

Her eyes go a darker crimson. "No," she says. "Go back to sleep."

So he does.

xxx

Tabris wakes up again in the hospital bed, at some unknown time after the first wake. The red-eyed blue-haired girl is still there, in a chair by his bedside, reading a book. It's small, black and red, and emblazoned with a four-letter logo. For some reason, he cannot read it.

He knows she senses him wake, but she does not look up from her book.

"My name is Tabris," he says again.

"It is not," she replies, without looking up. For the first time, he feels a twinge of emotion, irritation. But he cannot bring himself to move.

"Who are you?" he says, wanting to look into her eyes and know. There's a warmth in her skin and face that bespeaks Lilim, but she seems so much like him, in a way he cannot explain, that makes him think she might be more.

But she is not an angel. He comforts himself with that.

The girl does not answer, but behind the book, her eyes go hard. Her slender fingers clench on the pages.

He tries again. "What is this place?"

She hesitates, then puts down the book into her lap. "This is a space only you and I can inhabit," she says. "A place after death and before rebirth. I have been here... many times." She means to say more, but does not, and instead folds her hands together.

Tabris frowns at this information. "So," he says, "am I dead?"

"You are always dead," the girl says. "You are always living. Neither life nor death ever touches you. You are a mystery. Sleep."

He does.

xxx

For the first time, Tabris has a dream, and it is a nightmare.

(Blood, so much red Lilin blood, a frail body limp in his arms, his own blood pounding unspilled in his ears, screaming in fury and horror that this body in his arms will not wake)-

The hospital bed is cool and dry against his skin. The girl at his bedside is holding his hand.

"That is not real anymore," she says quietly. "You are here with me, and that is over."

Tabris's chest is rising and falling quickly; he realizes he has a Lilin heart, and it's beating very fast. He meets the girl's eyes. They're large and somber and sure, and familiar in a way that both chills his bones and makes him grip her hand tight.

"Your name is not Lilith," he says.

She nods, and the prim circlets of her fingernails dig into his knuckles.

"You are Rei Ayanami," he says, and the words flow out of him more certainly than any other answer he had given her before.

She smiles. It's small, a twist of her lips, but he's pleased to see it. "That is correct," she says.

"Rei Ayanami," he repeats. "You are not an angel. But we are here together, and you are not afraid of me."

"No," she says, with her mouth upturned, "I am not afraid of you."

For some reason, Tabris feels his own mouth upturn as well. "Why are we here, Rei Ayanami?" he asks. "Why am I here?"

Rei's warm expression fades; her brow creases, and she looks troubled. "You were shaken," she says, "by recent events. You have forgotten who you truly are. You have forgotten everything. And you must remember. That is what I know."

She lets go of his hand, and leans back in her chair. Tabris taps the warm space her hand had left behind, thoughtfully. "I had a nightmare," he says. "A nightmare... that I loved someone. Was it you, Rei Ayanami?"

Something strange flickers across Rei's face, pain and fondness and longing, and then her face returns to flatness. "No," she says. "Not me. But I know the same love. Sleep now, and when you wake you will remember your name."

xxx

In the darkness, there is a voice calling his name. It is not Lilith's voice; it is not Adam's voice. The voice has no face, but it is small and fragile and Lilin in its bursting of emotion.

It is calling out to him, with a name that is not Tabris.

He yearns to answer, to see the face the voice belongs to, but he is voiceless, and he wakes.

Rei Ayanami is still sitting at his bedside. Her book is in her lap, but her eyes meet his, expectant, waiting.

"My name was once Tabris," he says.

"Perhaps," she says. "I cannot say, really."

"But not anymore," he says. "I was given a new name, and I took it."

Rei Ayanami waits.

"I am Kaworu Nagisa," he says, and the name settles like stones in his chest.

"That is correct," Rei says, and waits for him to say more.

He looks at her, then away. His fingers splay out on the sheets. "I heard a voice," he says. "A Lilin voice. It was calling out to me. Like it needed me."

Rei inclines her head. "That is correct," she echoes. "Kaworu Nagisa, there is a Lilin, beyond this room, who needs you very much."

"The nightmare I had," he continues, "where I loved somebody. I screamed then, but I would not be heard. In this dream I could not speak, but I wanted to call out. I believe... that the dreams were the same, about this love of mine. Like there's something keeping us apart."

"Memory," Rei says simply. "And fate."

The words sit uncomfortably in his mind, but with no reason, and for the first time, Kaworu dearly wishes to remember. "Rei Ayanami," he says. "This love of mine is not you. So what are we to each other?"

Rei Ayanami opens her book again. The logo NERV is hard and red on the cover. "Halves," she says. "Constants. More than that as well. Sleep now."

xxx

"Kaworu Nagisa," Rei says, when he wakes up again. "What is your reason for living?"

Something hot and urgent triggers in him at the words, and for a flash of a moment he sees a trembling face, a thin body, a cautious voice saying his new name, (Kaworu-kun-!)-

Then the memory is gone.

He shifts in his bed, sits up slightly against the pillows. "I was created," he says, "as the Seventeenth Angel, in humanoid form, to be an angel designed to li-"

"No," Rei says sharply. "That was your purpose. What you were created for. Your reason for living is why you are here, now, in this room, with me. Why have you made the choices you have made, that have brought you here to this point?"

In her hands the NERV handbook is gone, and in its place is a glasses case, simple and battered. Kaworu looks at it, and a name comes to the front of his mind.

"Ikari," he says aloud.

But the name's incomplete; there's a straining in his mouth and body and being that urges him to finish the name, make it whole.

"Shinji Ikari," he says.

And that is all. Memories beat at the surface of his kind, screaming to be called forth, but the name stays sure in his mouth, certain and sharp and beautiful, church bells and soft starlight and love, love.

Whoever Shinji Ikari is, Kaworu Nagisa loves him more than anyone has ever been loved.

"Shinji Ikari is my reason for living," he says.

Rei smiles. "That is correct," she says, and the glasses case in her hands is the NERV handbook again.

Kaworu's eyelids begin to grow heavy as the drowsiness returns, and he blinks slowly at Rei.

"Rei Ayanami," he says, "what is your reason for living?"

Her smile fades, and the manuel is crushed in her grasp. "To oppose my purpose," she says, very quietly, and then sleep comes again.

xxx

"Rei Ayanami," he says, when he wakes up the next time. "Why are you still here with me?"

She does not answer, does not look at him.

"You told me that we know the same love," he says. "You meant the Lilim Shinji Ikari. I know that now. And I know love now. I do not understand; you have your own memories. You could go be with Shinji Ikari. But instead you are here."

She's flipping through the NERV handbook again. "You have not yet recovered your own memories," she says. "I will not leave you until you have completely restored them."

Kaworu frowns, and rubs at his eyes with the backs of his fingers. His skin is warmer now; it is almost humanlike. "But why?" he says.

Rei closes the manual. "There are two reasons," she says. "The first is that between the two of us, you are the only one able to retain all your memories after rebirth."

The words are detached, matter-of-fact, but her hands are hard on the manuel's edge. Kaworu looks at them, then to her face. "You cannot keep your own memories, Rei Ayanami? Even though you have them now, and I do not?"

"This is the only place I can have all of my memories," she says. "You and I have lived through many lifetimes, Kaworu Nagisa. Ikari has as well. Others, too. But you are different from us. For a reason unknown, your memories of each timeline remain intact everywhere. Like I said before, you are shaken. Sometimes we lose ourselves, you and I. But we can find ourselves again here."

He blinks at her. "You have also-?"

"Yes," she says. "Both of us have, sometimes. Not often. But me more than you. And you always help me, as I am helping you now. And we always return to ourselves."

She sighs. "You were blessed with memory," she says. "So it is important that you maintain them. You are the only one who is able to learn. Perhaps it is because you are the one Ikari loves best. Perhaps you are just luckier than us in some respects. There is no way to tell."

Kaworu's ribs hurt, life fluttering weakly in his chest. "I cannot remember," he says. "When I do, I'll tell you."

Rei shakes her head. "It does not matter to me," she says. "Apart from memory, you are no different from us."

Us is Shinji Ikari and Rei Ayanami, us is a word that means together. The Tabris in Kaworu Nagisa whispers that this is a lie, that there is no us Kaworu Nagisa can ever be a part of.

"Is that true?" he asks.

Rei puts down her book and meets his eyes. Solemn as always, but not hard; gentle, and maybe a little kind. "It's true," she says. "And that is the second reason I will not leave you. You and Shinji Ikari and I, we belong together."

Kaworu thinks that maybe if belonging is a part of love, then that is why love survives forever; there is no greater joy that he can remember feeling than that of right now, in this bed alone, being told that he belongs with the boy he loves more than anything and this girl who will not leave his side.

"I am very glad for you, Rei Ayanami," he says, and falls back asleep.

xxx

"What are we, Rei Ayanami?" Kaworu asks when he wakes again. He doesn't know it will be the one of the last times. "So few are granted a chance to redo, to try again. What importance do we hold that we are permitted so many?"

Rei eyes him warily, and pulls her chair nearer to the bed. Her hands are empty; both the NERV handbook and the glasses case are gone. "It is not truly us," she says. "Shinji Ikari is the most important. He is the Beast and the Christ both, but more than that, he is a creature that deserves so much happiness but has known very little. He needs us, as guides and friends and loves. We return to him again and again as such."

"But that is true of others, not just us," Kaworu says, his brow furrowing. It hurts to think, but an important hurt, like hands around his neck. "There are other pilots we have known, I remember that now- Asuka and Toji and Mari, all variant in some way. The colonel, Misato Katsuragi, who always does her best. Others. Why is it that we are here, knowing, remembering, and they are not?"

She bites her small lip, and reaches for both his hands with both of hers, stretching across the bed to meet him in both places. Their fingers join together like nerve endings, both of them bony and cold. "Are you ready to remember now, Kaworu Nagisa?" she says, quiet as death. "Do you truly believe yourself ready?"

Really, Kaworu doesn't know. He can't remember a thousand lifetimes, or who Kaworu Nagisa truly is, or even Shinji Ikari's face. But he knows one thing for sure, and he tells Rei Ayanami so.

"I want to see Shinji Ikari again," he says, their fingers squeezing together. "I want another chance to be with him, to love him and be loved by him, to make him happy. I want to know his face."

Rei smiles. It is a true smile, small and lovely and loving. "I will tell you the truth of you and I, Kaworu Nagisa," she says, her eyes gleaming bright. "You are ready now."

"We are the hope that people will someday understand each other-"

"And we are the words I love you," his own mouth finishes, as it has done, thousands on thousands of times before.

And Kaworu Nagisa remembers himself.

(Waking up on the moon)-

(Seeing Shinji Ikari's face for the first time, the first first time, small and confused and lonely and lovely, how the angel's whole being had swelled to bursting at the sight of him, how the name Tabris had been lost forever in the same instant)-

(Hands around his neck, a collar around his neck, huge unyielding metallic fingers around his neck)-

("I really was-")

(Rei Ayanami on a hanger, staring down at him with cold Lilith eyes, and his own thought of 'we'll meet again soon, it is up to you now, please do your best')-

(Shinji's sobs, Shinji's blush, Shinji's hand in his, Shinji's smile, Shinji's arms around him, hands around him, Shinji's laugh)-

("-born to meet you.")

The memories end, after a time. Perhaps it took all the time to relive them as it did live them. He looks to his right, and Rei is curled up at his side, sound asleep. Her head rests on his shoulder, and their bodies wind around each other gracefully, familiarly. She looks as though a thousand angel attacks could not wake her.

Kaworu turns to her, puts an arm around her slim waist, and kisses her on the forehead. "Thank you," he says. "I'm sorry I left you alone with this burden for so long. Rest well."

And he too falls asleep.

xxx

The last time Kaworu wakes up, Rei is standing. Her seat next to his bed is no longer there.

"It's time," she says.

"Ah," he says, and wiggles his fingers for feeling. "Is it?"

"Yes," she says. "Ikari is awake again. And you are Kaworu Nagisa again. We must go."

"I understand," he says, and he slides out of the bed.

His feet hitting the floor is like flying, like freedom, and Rei takes his hand as he moves slowly to a standing position. He smiles at her, and she meets his gaze steadily before looking behind him.

"Ah," she says. "You have your wings."

Kaworu frowns, and turns. "Hmm?"

A pair of wide, feathery white wings are protruding from his back, much larger than his skinny frame, enough to envelop both him and Rei whole. They feel heavy and slightly awkward, but not unfamiliar.

"Having wings is a good omen," Rei says, and when he looks back to her, her little gentle smile is curling across her mouth. "Maybe he will find happiness this time."

Kaworu's heart swells, and his wings spread high off the floor. Hope. "Maybe," he says.

Rei leads him to the wall, which is closed tight as always, with no visible way to open it. "He is beyond," she says.

And he is; Kaworu can feel him. It's like a buzzing of the skin, warmth in his chest, enough to drown him, electrocute him. Shinji Ikari is awake, alive, waiting for them.

The door opens. Blinding white light spills forth.

Kaworu Nagisa turns to look at Rei Ayanami. She is hard and sharp-edged and beautiful in the light, and there is a familiarity in her face that makes him want to embrace her. "Well then," he says. "We'll be meeting again soon, Rei Ayanami."

"Until the next time, Kaworu Nagisa," she agrees, and together they step forward into the light.