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1. Listen to the end of the world

 

 

“Don't forget your lunch,” Shinji's mother calls from the kitchen.

“Got it!” Asuka yells back for him while pushing him out of the door. “Get moving, loser,” she hisses, “or we're going to be late again because of you.”

Shinji tries to hiss something in response, but his own yawn interrupts him. He gives up and lets Asuka shove him outside.

“Bye, mum!” he shouts.

“Have a nice day, Shinji!” his mother shouts back. “I love you!”

They're already halfway down the stairs of the apartment building; Shinji barely hears the last words.

 

 

Rei is sitting in her chair near the window, desperately trying to remember what happened yesterday.

It must have been something mundane. She went shopping, maybe … with her mother? They might have gotten her a dress, or new shoes. She looks down at herself, but of course, she's wearing her school uniform that she put on barely an hour ago.

Rei's memory has always worked in strange ways. She has accepted this, just as she has accepted that sometimes she finds herself in places with no recollection of how she got there, that all of her classmates think she's weird, that neither of her parents look like her. It doesn't make a difference in the grand scheme of things. Only few things ever do.

But this … is getting worrying.

Seconds before the bell rings, the door opens and Ikari and Asuka stumble into the classroom. (Rei does not know why she thinks of her as Asuka, they're hardly on a first-name basis. One of the other things about her mind she has just accepted.) Their only saving grace is that Ms. Katsuragi is, as usual, even later than them. Rei watches as Ikari is enthusiastically greeted by his friends Suzuhara and Aida, while Asuka sits down next to Horaki the class representative and immediately starts talking to her.

After a few seconds, Ikari glances over at Rei and nods politely at her. Rei nods back. Asuka doesn't look her way even once. It's exactly as it has been for the past year since she transferred here (from where, she's not quite sure).

It still feels just as wrong.

 

 

“Can I talk to you for a moment?” Ms. Misato says at the end of their last period.

Shinji glances over to Toji and Kensuke; the three of them usually hang out after school.

“We'll see you later,” Kensuke says. Then, when Ms. Misato isn't looking, he makes a really strange kissing face while Toji gives him two thumbs-up, and Shinji is once again reminded of his friends' obsession with their teacher. He notices that they haven't offered to wait for him; they never do.

“You seem distracted, lately,” Ms. Misato says once they're alone. “Or rather, tired. Is everything alright at home?”

Shinji swallows. “Yes,” he says. “I haven't been sleeping too well, that's all. I'm sure it will pass.”

“Well, if it doesn't, you can always go see Dr. Akagi.” She pauses. “Maybe it's the weather. The summer's unusually warm this year. Try sleeping with the air con on.”

“Yes, Ma'am.”

She grins at him. “Don't you Ma'am me! I'm not that old.”

“Sorry, I didn't – ”

“It's fine. See you tomorrow, Shinji.”

He nods and hurries out of the classroom.

 

 

“Let's check out the new game at the arcade,” Rei overhears Asuka say to Horaki.

“It's supposed to be really hard, though.”

“Are you doubting my abilities?”

“What? I would never.”

“We'll have to make sure Mr. Kaji watches me beat it first try.”

“The guy from the slot machines? How do you know his name?”

“I overheard the barkeeper talk to him.”

“I don't know, Asuka … Nobody really knows who he is, right?”

“Exactly. That makes him mysterious and charming! Come on, don't pretend you haven't noticed how handsome he is?”

“ … Of course I have.”

“See! Maybe he has a tragic past. Maybe he's just waiting for – Ayanami? What are you staring at?”

Rei blinks in surprise at being addressed.

“I didn't,” she starts.

Asuka's eyes narrow. “Sure you didn't. Creep,” she mutters. “If you want something, just say so. 'Hey Asuka, Hikari, I want to come to the arcade too! Let's have some fun together!' But no, you can't even say that, can you?”

“Asuka …” Horaki says.

Rei says nothing; maybe she has indeed forgotten how to speak. Asuka glares at her some more, then turns away, grabbing Horaki's arm.

“Pathetic. Let's go.”

Horaki shoots Rei an apologetic look before disappearing with her friend, leaving Rei alone in the hallway.

 

 

Shinji stops at the school gates and leans against the wall for a moment.

He has several options here; he could go over to Toji's and play video games with him and Kensuke, or maybe he could join Asuka at the arcade, even though they haven't really hung out in ages and he's not sure he'd even be welcome there. He could go down to the beach by himself; the sun is bright today. Or he could just go home and sleep.

He feels altogether too tired to even make a decision; more than anything, he wishes someone had waited for him.

“Excuse me. Is this the school you go to?”

Shinji's head snaps up. The guy talking to him is around his age; Shinji has never seen him before, and his words barely register because he just looks so strange. His neck is too long and his eyelashes too pale and his smile too knowing and too comfortable. Shinji can't stop staring.

“Yeah. It is,” he says, too late.

The guy nods like Shinji hasn't just taken a socially completely unacceptable amount of time to answer a simple question. “Then that is where I have to go.”

“School's over for today,” Shinji says, within a normal time frame, luckily.

“Of course. But it will start again tomorrow, won't it?”

What a weird question. “Unless the world ends this afternoon,” Shinji tries to joke, “then yeah, it will.”

Instead of laughing or cringing, the stranger just nods again. “My name is Kaworu Nagisa,” he says, à propos of nothing.

“Shinji Ikari,” Shinji replies, purely out of reflex. Nagisa extends a hand; the gesture is fluid and as strange as him. Shinji takes it.

“Then I hope the world does not end today,” Nagisa says. “After all, I've only just met you.”

 

 

There's a new classmate. He is sitting next to Ikari and doesn't speak to anybody; Ms. Katsuragi has failed to introduce him. Or maybe Rei has just forgotten his name that quickly.

“He seems weird,” Suzuhara says to Ikari, who says something like, “Haha, yeah.”

“Why do we have a new classmate so soon after the other one?” Asuka hisses.

“Ayanami has been here for an entire year,” Horaki whispers back. “That's not soon.”

“Well, she still feels new. Out of place.”

Rei pretends she can't hear them across the room. They're not wrong, after all.

The new classmate is out of the room before anyone can talk to him.

 

 

Toji and Kensuke are going to the arcade after school.

“There's this new game,” Toji says. “It's meant to be super hard.”

“Apparently, Soryu's already beaten the first level,” Kensuke adds. “We can't just let her set the high score!”

Shinji doesn't point out that Asuka has always been much better at these games than any of them.

“I think I'll pass today,” he says instead.

“Again?” Kensuke groans in frustration. “Come on! What's with you lately?”

“Nothing, I just …”

Toji frowns. “Hey Shinji. Seriously, is everything okay?”

For a moment, Shinji considers telling them about his nightmares. He loves his friends more than he wants to admit, but somehow he doesn't trust them with this.

“I'm fine,” he lies. “But thanks.”

 

 

He sees Kaworu Nagisa sitting on a bench just outside the school, eyes closed, an old walkman in his lap and two small white earbuds in his ears. Immediately, he wants to turn around and go another way, or just pretend not to have seen him, anything to avoid another strange conversation, but Nagisa's eyes snap open as if he's heard the thought. A smile spreads over his face, just as knowing as the one he had when they first met. He waves lazily.

Well, Shinji can't exactly walk away now. He waves back and takes a few hesitant steps towards the bench, waiting for some kind of opening line.

Nagisa seems quite happy to just look at him, though. It should be deeply uncomfortable, being stared at like that, it really should.

It's not. It's soothing in a way being seen has never been for him.

“What are you listening to?” Shinji says after a long moment, because somebody has to say something, eventually.

Instead of answering, Nagisa holds one of his earbuds out to him. Shinji sits down on the bench and puts it in.

His ears are assaulted with a discordant mess of sound. It seems to be a full orchestra of instruments each playing a different piece in their own tempo, rhythm, and key, along with some undefinable background noises, like wind rushing through trees, or a loud river, or a very busy street, maybe. Shinji thinks he can even hear someone speaking, but that might just be his imagination.

He endures it for all of eight seconds, then hands the earbud back to Nagisa, feeling shaken and uneasy.

“I haven't heard anything like that before,” he says.

“Do you like it?” Nagisa asks.

Shinji swallows. He wants to lie out of politeness, but he can't after this; his ears are still ringing. “No. Not at all.”

Nagisa's smile softens. “I understand. Thank you for listening nonetheless.”

His earnest gratitude is even more overwhelming than the music had been. “You're welcome, Nagisa – ”

“Call me Kaworu. Please.”

Again, Shinji swallows. “You can call me Shinji then. Kaworu.”

About halfway home, Shinji wonders if he's just made a friend.

 

 

Rei is sitting in her bathtub, trying to gather the memories that keep slipping away. She hasn't turned the light on, but the setting sun shines through the milky window. Her bathwater looks orange. She looks down at herself and sees the hand of a man sink into her bare stomach, fingers twisted into a claw. Then, for a second, she's sitting in a different bathtub, a rusty one, blood on her arms, her hair long and dark red –

“Rei?” her father calls, knocking at the door. “There's someone on the phone for you. Your new classmate – Nagisa, I think?”

She hums in agreement; her father opens the door and passes her the phone with an encouraging, hopeful look. Rei realises it's the first time anyone from school has called her at home.

“Hello?” she says once the door is closed again.

“Don't be afraid,” Nagisa says. His voice sounds like her bathwater.

“I'm not,” she lies.

There's a quiet sigh at the end of the line. “Of course not. I think you should go to the arcade tonight.”

“The arcade,” Rei repeats.

“Exactly. Around … half past two, I believe. Good luck.”

With that, Nagisa hangs up. Rei glances at the clock next to the mirror; it's barely nine in the evening. She has no reason at all to go to the arcade, no reason at all to do as Nagisa says. In fact, she can think of a lot of very good reasons not to do as he says.

She wonders, idly, what one should wear to an arcade at half past two at night.

 

 

 

2. Let me sleep right next to you

 

 

Even (or maybe especially) at half past two at night, the lights at the arcade are very loud.

Bright, Rei corrects. Loudness is a quality of sound. Is this how far she's unravelled already?

She looks around the rows of machines in red, purple, green, blue, white; it would help if she knew what exactly she's looking for. Nagisa seems to have a good sense for the dramatic, but he needs to improve on his information delivery. At least when Rei is being cryptic, she does it to make a point.

A man on one of the bar stools at the far end of the room catches her eye. His long hair falls onto his back in a ponytail; his shirt is open at the collar. The glass in his left hand catches the colourful lights from the ceiling; his right hand is on a girl's forearm. The girl is Asuka.

Suddenly Rei does not care about what Nagisa meant for her to do here. She smoothes down her black skirt and walks towards the bar.

The man, who is over thirty years old, is leaning very close. Asuka's eyes are shining with something like admiration, or maybe fear, Rei can't tell.

“Hey Soryu,” she says and startles herself with how loud she is. “I've been looking for you all night. Is that a friend of yours?”

Slowly, Asuka's head turns towards her. The shining, unfocused expression on her face is replaced with hard anger. The man takes his hand off her arm.

“We're at the arcade now,” Rei insist, placing her own hand on Asuka's arm. “Let's have some fun together.”

Asuka is silent for a moment, then swallows visibly and nods. “Great idea. See you around, Mr. Kaji!”

“I'll leave you two to catch up, then,” Mr. Kaji says, but Asuka has already pulled Rei away from the bar and towards the machines.

“What are you doing?” she hisses as soon as they're out of earshot.

“Nagisa, our new classmate, told me to come here,” Rei says truthfully.

Asuka blinks a few times. The anger fades from her face and leaves disappointment.

“Right,” she says. “You wouldn't do anything like that by yourself, would you?”

Rei wants to explain that no, the idea to come here may not have been hers; everything else was.

“I mean it,” Rei says instead. “We're here. Let's have some fun.”

Asuka rolls her eyes. “Fine. Do you know any of the games? Probably not. Well, I do hope you're a fast learner, I don't want to waste any of my time on you.”

They end up playing until five in the morning when the sky has started lightening and it's time to go home.

“We should do that again sometime,” Rei says at the crossroads in front of the arcade. In daylight, she sees for the first time what Asuka is wearing: a short black skirt like hers and a light pink top that doesn't match her hair colour, along with high-heeled sandals. She looks easily two years younger than she is.

Asuka snorts. “Yeah right. See you at school, Ayanami.”

She doesn't acknowledge Rei at all during their next school day. Rei doesn't know why she thought it would be any different.

 

 

Rei has one specific tree in the school yard she likes to sit under for her lunch break. When she gets there today, Nagisa has beaten her to it.

“Mind if I stay here for a minute?” he asks politely.

“I'm not sharing my lunch with you,” Rei replies.

Nagisa hums agreeably. “You look like you haven't slept much.”

He says it with a charming, comfortable smile, like he didn't call her yesterday evening; Rei can tell he thinks he's being funny. “I haven't.”

“Did you find what you were looking for?”

Rei unpacks her lunch very carefully. “I have found something.”

Nagisa nods, looking satisfied. He stretches his legs out on the grass. “You're here all by yourself.”

“So are you.”

“I suppose we are very similar, then.”

“I don't mind being alone,” Rei feels the need to clarify.

“Neither do I,” Nagisa agrees. “That does not mean I like it.”

“Hey! Nagisa, I mean Kaworu,” Ikari says, who has suddenly appeared seemingly out of nowhere. “Listen, I was – oh! Hello, Ayanami.”

“Hello, Ikari,” Rei replies.

Ikari smiles at her and clears his throat, then hurries to continue. “Listen, Toji and Kensuke and I are eating over there, and I figured, maybe you could come join us – both of you, of course,” he says, clearly as an afterthought. “Since, you know, you don't really know anyone here, and Ayanami, maybe you'd like some company too, that is, uh, if you want.”

“How friendly of you,” Nagisa says.

“I like eating here,” Rei says.

“That's not a problem,” Ikari says. “We can come over here. It's nicer in the grass, anyway.”

“That's a fantastic idea, Shinji,” Nagisa says, like Ikari has just found the cure to several terminal illnesses at once.

Ikari's ears grow very, very red; he waves his two friends over to Rei's tree. She hopes they won't trample the ground too much. She really does like this spot.

Both Suzuhara and Aida are lively individuals; together they are a force of nature. Rei can hardly keep up with the conversation; however, every so often they will sprinkle in a “What do you think, Ayanami?” or a “Listen to that guy talk, Ayanami!” and actually wait for an answer from her. She doesn't speak much, in the end, but she's part of the conversation. It's nicer than she would have thought.

Nagisa, she notices, says nothing.

 

 

After yet another night of waking up at two a.m. with no more sleep in sight, to the sound of his humming air con, the image of a tall black being with a glowing heart and a white mask branded into the back of his eyes, Shinji decides to tell Asuka about it. They've been friends ever since that day in pre-school when she hit him over the head with her red plastic shovel, and even though they don't hang out very much anymore, that has to count for something.

“Asuka, I – I've been having these really weird nightmares,” he says while they're walking to school together. “I'm being attacked by this thing, and no matter what I do, I can't … I always wake up from it, too, and I can't go back to sleep. I haven't had a full night of sleep in weeks.”

Asuka doesn't react, even though he's sure she heard him.

“What do you think?” he presses. “What should I do?”

She shrugs. “What do I know? Stop being such a weakling, maybe. And grow up. Grown-ups don't have nightmares.”

“That's not exactly helpful,” he points out.

“I don't know, okay!” she exclaims. “Why do you always need something from me?”

“You're the one who insists on walking me to school every morning,” Shinji shoots back, growing annoyed. “You want to be needed!”

“You don't know me,” Asuka hisses.

“Maybe I don't,” Shinji agrees.

She hits his shoulder with her bag, then turns sharply to take a different path to school. Shinji doesn't try to follow her.

So that didn't exactly go well.

Maybe she's right. Maybe he should stop being so weak and grow up; she knows more about strength than he does.

He considers telling his father about the nightmares – in fact, he really, really wants to – but he's stopped by the knowledge that Gendo Ikari has other things to worry about and probably just wouldn't care.

And his mother – well. Hot shame fills Shinji at the thought of running to his mother like a five-year-old, scared and helpless. He knows she would never laugh at him, would listen and take him seriously, even if she probably couldn't fix it.

Then why does talking to her feel like it's not an option?

Like it shouldn't be?

 

 

“Are you coming today?” Kensuke asks.

“You still haven't seen the new game,” Toji adds. “Seriously, Soryu kicks ass. I think she's already on level four out of seventeen or something. Most of us haven't even gotten past level one!”

“I'm not feeling it,” Shinji says.

“Look, man,” Kensuke sighs, “if you don't want to spend time with us, just say so.”

“That's not it,” Shinji says, forcefully. “You know that.”

“Sure, we know,” Toji says. “Kensuke's just being stupid. Right, Aida?”

“As usual,” Kensuke agrees with his tongue stuck out. “See you around, yeah? Get some rest.”

“See you,” Shinji says to the empty classroom.

He walks all the way to the beach and stays there for a long time. Maybe, if he stays long enough, he can calm his mind enough to avoid the nightmares. Maybe he can just become one with the waves. He imagines what that would be like, letting the water wash over him, eat him away like grains of sand. It sounds more appealing than it should.

There's a light touch on his shoulder. Shinji looks up; it's Kaworu.

“We met at the beach, once,” he says.

Shinji frowns. “Did we?”

“Can I stay here for a moment?”

“You don't have to,” Shinji says. “Don't feel obligated to keep me company.”

“I was hoping that you could keep me company, actually.”

“I'm not very good company right now.”

“Maybe,” Kaworu allows, sitting down close to him. “But I don't want to be alone, and I missed you.”

Shinji swallows; he can feel his ears heating up. Kaworu is still as strange as on the first day, even though Shinji is slowly getting used to the long neck and the comfortable smiles. “You don't even know me that well. How can you just say things like that?”

Kaworu thinks for a moment. “Suzuhara and Aida. They're your friends, right?”

Shinji blinks at that complete non-sequitur. “Sure.”

“That means you love them?”

“I – yeah, I guess.”

“But you never say it.”

“Of course not. That would be weird.”

“And Soryu? She's your friend, as well.”

“Asuka thinks I'm weak.”

Kaworu buries his hands in the sand and starts drawing lines with his fingers. “What a lonely existence.”

Shinji crosses his arms, feeling defensive. “Well, it's safer that way. It keeps you from being made fun of and getting hurt. Rejected.”

“And you think that's not worth it.”

“In my experience,” he says, swallowing, “it's not.”

They sit in silence for a while and listen to the waves before Kaworu turns to him, smudging the lines he drew in the sand.

“I love you, Shinji,” he says, simply.

 

 

Rei wakes from her phone ringing. She glances at her screen; it's two in the morning.

“Hello,” she says.

“Listen,” Asuka say, because it is indeed Asuka calling. “I'll meet you at the train station in twenty minutes. Bring a snack.”

There is a train line that goes around the city in a circle. Rei has often wondered if one could get on and ride it for an indefinite amount of time, always revisiting the same places, with time as the only variable; apparently, that is Asuka's plan tonight. As soon as she sees Rei on the platform, she grabs her arm and pulls her into a nearly empty carriage.

They sit down on a double seat next to each other. Asuka gets her phone and earbuds out and starts listening to some music. There's a little bit of base and drums bleeding through the earbuds into the air, but Rei can't make out what it is.

After about half an hour, Asuka sits up abruptly and rips the earbuds out. “What did you bring?”

Rei holds up a jar of pickles and a half-empty box of chocolate cookies.

Asuka raises her eyebrows. “Not bad,” she says approvingly. “You're pretty reliable.”

“I do as I'm told,” Rei says.

Asuka huffs. “Right. Almost forgot.”

“What did you bring?”

“My appetite,” Asuka says, fishing a pickle out of the jar.

Rei sighs and starts nibbling on one of the cookies.

They eat in silence for another thirty minutes when Asuka says, “See, it wouldn't be so bad if I weren't able to feel everything.”

Rei waits for her to elaborate.

“And then, when I try to go back to sleep, all I can think of is my arm being sliced off, or my eyes getting skewered with a spear, or something.” She pauses. “Am I grossing you out?”

“No.”

“Shame.”

Rei thinks for a moment. “I have patches in my memories,” she admits. “I have memories that should not be there.”

Asuka blinks, a pickle halfway to her mouth. “Like what?”

“Like my body being taken over by an unknown entity. Like a hand, reaching into me and twisting. Like being expendable. Like dying.”

The pickle is completely forgotten now. “You have memories … of dying?”

“Yes.”

“What's it like?” Asuka whispers.

Rei thinks of orange water, of a thousand voices, of pulling a lever. She thinks of a rusty bathtub, of red blood and red hair. “That's none of your business.”

Asuka's eyes widen for a moment before her expression turns approving. “Good to see you're not just a doormat, after all.” She reaches into her pocket. “By the way, I did bring something, actually. I don't need it anymore. You can have it, so you won't be as abysmal at the arcade next time.”

It's an old portable game console. Rei plays with it for the rest of the ride while Asuka listens to her music.

 

 

It's still early, so early that nobody is in the classroom except for her. Rei is doodling on a sheet of paper, a lot of hands with wrinkles and eyes on them; it keeps the memories at bay, sometimes. Her fingers are itching to take out the game console, but Asuka didn't give her a charger, and she feels like terrible things might happen once the battery runs out.

The door slides open and Nagisa slips through. He moves in strange ways and always seems to communicate, even if he's not doing anything; Rei suspects radiation, but she might be the only one to notice.

“I've heard humans have sleep-overs to get to know each other better,” he says, without preamble.

“I wouldn't know,” Rei says.

“Sleep makes all people equal. We are defenceless when we sleep. It makes sense, then, that sleeping next to each other requires a great deal of trust.”

“From what I've heard, there's not very much sleep to be had at a sleep-over.”

“Spending the time in which you would normally sleep with someone else also requires a great deal of trust. Wouldn't you agree?”

Rei stares at him. “No,” she says, just to watch him deflate. Sadly, he doesn't.

“I think I have a charger somewhere,” he says instead and promptly pulls one out of his pocket. It's exactly the kind Rei would need for the console. It sits between them on the table; for a short moment, she wonders if he's making fun of her, but he always wears his thoughts on his face, and there's no mockery there, only curiosity.

The door slides open once more; it's Asuka and Ikari.

“See, I told you we were way early today,” Ikari says. “Good morning, Ayanami. Kaworu.”

“Good morning, Ikari,” Rei starts saying, as usual, but before she can finish Asuka has marched over to her table.

“Is he bothering you?” she asks, pointing at Nagisa.

Rei thinks about it. “Not really.”

“Good. I've got my eyes on you, boy,” she says to Nagisa.

“Don't listen to her,” Ikari pleads.

Nagisa looks at Asuka, considering. “Ms. Katsuragi. You don't like her very much, do you?”

Asuka blinks. “What are you talking about?”

“Is she not a good teacher?”

She looks at Ikari, who shrugs helplessly, then at Rei. “I mean … she's fine, I guess?”

Nagisa smiles. “That's great. What does she teach?”

“Excuse me?”

“What does she teach?”

“What do you mean, what does she teach!” Asuka exclaims. “You've literally been in her classes for more than a week now!”

“I'm afraid I'm not very perceptive,” Nagisa says, and Rei nearly laughs out loud. “Maybe you could explain it to me.”

“I'm not going to – it's obvious! I mean, just look at – obviously she teaches – ” Asuka trails off with an angry huff. “You know what, just figure it out yourself. Weirdo.”

The door opens again, and the rest of the students start filing in. Asuka sits down next to Horaki; Nagisa goes to his seat next to Ikari.

Rei can't help but notice that none of them could answer his question.

 

 

Shinji wanders off after school again until he stumbles upon a guy with a watering can and a single watermelon plant at his feet.

He's seen the guy at the arcade a couple of times, and seen him follow Ms. Misato after school a couple of other times. Asuka has a crush on him, he thinks, or had, maybe. He glances around himself; there's no one else near them.

“Hey, you,” the guy says, coming closer. “Ikari, right? You haven't been at the games in a while.”

“I haven't been feeling well,” Shinji says and doesn't know why; spilling his guts to this stranger, this grown-up, is the last thing he wants right now.

“I'm sorry to hear that,” the man says. “How about I buy you a drink, and you tell me more about it? Maybe I could make you feel a little better.”

“Hey, Shinji,” Kaworu says, who really needs to stop appearing out of the blue like that. “I've been looking for you all day. Is that a friend of yours?”

He sounds jarringly normal, for once, but there must be something that Shinji is missing because the man draws back immediately.

“Very tightly staked claims around here,” he says with a lop-sided grin. “Are you going to have some fun together?”

“I certainly hope so,” Kaworu says, grazing Shinji's lower back with his hand and guiding him away from the man and his watermelon.

“I think he meant that in a sexual way,” Shinji says once they're out of earshot. The encounter has left him queasy; his heart is too fast and his hands are sweating.

Kaworu raises his eyebrows. His hand is light on Shinji's back. “Really? I hadn't noticed. Would you like to watch the sunset with me?”

“Sure,” Shinji says.

They walk all the way to a little hill; there's not much of a view, but it seems to be enough for Kaworu.

“Once in a while, it's important to remind yourself that there are beautiful things in this world,” he explains. Shinji watches him watch the sunset and agrees.

 

 

“It might be helpful,” Kaworu says once it's completely dark outside, “to spend the night at my place.”

“What, like a sleep-over?” Shinji asks. His heart is still too fast, his hands still sweating.

“I'm glad to see you're familiar with the concept.”

“I don't have anything with me.”

Kaworu looks amused. “I do own a spare toothbrush, you know.”

Well, there's really nothing Shinji can say against that. He sends a text to his mother, who replies within minutes: That sounds lovely! Have fun, and don't stay up too late. I love you.

Kaworu's apartment is a few stations away; the train is packed full with people, but Kaworu keeps a fleeting hand on Shinji's elbow and that makes all the difference. He realises right there, jammed between a stressed businesswoman who talks too loudly into her phone and a lanky man in a cardigan, that he feels safe with Kaworu in a way he doesn't with any of his other friends, despite the air of strangeness that hangs around him wherever he goes.

“You always mean what you say,” he tells Kaworu on impulse, trying to put that feeling into words. “I like that a lot.”

Kaworu blinks at him, very slowly. He looks a lot like Ayanami in that moment.

“Thank you,” he says.

Kaworu, Shinji notices, doesn't use a key to open the door to his apartment. Maybe he leaves it open all the time. It wouldn't be surprising.

“You live here by yourself?” he asks, looking around the room. It's very empty in terms of furniture and decoration; there are a few white cat figurines on a shelf, some of them missing their head, the old walkman on a table, and a bowl full of liquorice sweets.

“Yes,” Kaworu says, reaching into the liquorice bowl.

“It must be lonely.”

“It can be.” He slides open a cupboard and takes out two futons; Shinji hurries to help him roll them out.

“Do you actually just want to go to sleep?” he asks. Kaworu looks at him with confusion.

“Is that not what one does at a sleep-over?”

“Well, usually you watch a movie beforehand, or play video games, or tell each other scary stories. Eat some junk food. Paint each other's nails, though that's mostly a girl thing.”

“Right,” Kaworu says, still visibly confused. Shinji is enjoying every second of it.

“You don't seem to have a TV or a games console,” he muses, “so that's out. No nail polish either, I'm guessing. What's in your fridge?”

“Sliced watermelon,” Kaworu says. Shinji suppresses a laugh and goes to the kitchen for the watermelon and some tea. (Everybody has tea, after all.)

When he comes back, both of the beds are ready, with a respectful distance between them. Kaworu has changed into night clothes and laid out a spare t-shirt and pyjama pants on Shinji's futon; he's sitting cross-legged and staring at the wall.

“Is everything okay?” Shinji feels compelled to ask, setting the plate with the watermelon and the two teacups in the space between the beds.

“It is not my intention,” Kaworu says slowly, “to pressure you into anything. You were in distress this afternoon; you have been for a while, I think. I only want to help, but you have to know that you're free to refuse me. I won't hold it against you.”

Shinji sits down as well until he's level with Kaworu. “I'm not sure I understand. But I can tell you, I'm here because I want to. You've been very kind to me.”

Kaworu nods pensively. “You haven't been sleeping very well, have you?”

That throws Shinji for a loop. “How do you … ?”

“I know a lot of things. I might be able to assist.”

With the reality of both of them on their beds in a darkened apartment, a million ways how Kaworu might assist him are crossing Shinji's mind at once; he makes sure to mentally crush all of them. He doesn't want a repeat of the sleep-over at Toji's from two years ago.

He takes a slice of watermelon and waits for sleep.

 

 

The black being with the glowing heart and the white mask is there, as per usual. Shinji hardly even tries to run away, these nights; the city is too unfamiliar, and he knows he will be crushed anyway.

This time, though, somehow, Kaworu is with him.

“Walk me through it,” he says very calmly. “What happens from here on out?”

“Um,” Shinji says. “Usually, it attacks this building here, and I get buried in the debris.”

“Great,” Kaworu says and pushes them both out of the way just as it's about to happen. His dream-self lands heavily on Shinji. “And then?”

“Then I mostly run until I get killed by something else.”

“You've never tried fighting back?”

Shinji laughs drily. “You're kidding me.”

“I'm not. Sachiel isn't that terrible, really.” Kaworu helps Shinji to his feet, then picks up a crooked satellite antenna that has fallen from one of the roofs. “This should do.” He puts it into Shinji's hand.

“What on earth am I going to do with this?”

“The sunset today,” Kaworu says intently. “That was good, wasn't it? Not quite a reason to live, but a good thing nonetheless.”

“It was,” Shinji agrees, “and I enjoyed watching it with you, but I still don't see – ”

The antenna in his hand has transformed into a short spear.

“On second thought,” he says, “maybe I do see.”

He runs down the street until he has a clear view of the thing – Sachiel, Kaworu called it – and throws the spear. He has no idea what he's doing, but this is a dream, so the spear lands square in the middle of Sachiel's glowing heart and cracks it in half.

Sachiel explodes in a beam of light, leaving the sky the colour of a sunset.

“First one down,” Kaworu sighs.

Slowly, Shinji opens his eyes. It's two a.m., as usual.

Kaworu is studying his face intently. “Did it help?”

“Thank you,” Shinji says and, for the first time since it all started, goes back to sleep until morning.

 

 

 

3. Don't let go

 

 

They are not taking the train tonight.

“It's been a different dream,” Asuka explains on the phone at two a.m., “with a different monster. So we'll do something different, too.”

It's loud in the bar, far too loud for Rei. Everyone seems somewhere between tipsy and drunk and speaks three times as loudly as they have to, the lights are too low to see anything comfortably, and the smell and sensation of second-hand smoke in her lungs is so strong that for a moment, Rei feels two sets of fingers digging into her neck, feels a wrinkled hand with an eye reach into her guts until she can hardly breathe.

Asuka is at the counter, trying to talk the barkeeper into giving them drinks. It doesn't seem to be working very well; she comes back with two glasses of coke.

“He was staring at my boobs the whole time,” she says. “And he still didn't give me any drinks.”

“He didn't tell us to leave,” Rei points out.

Asuka makes a face. “Adults are disgusting.”

Rei takes a sip of her coke and tries not to stare at Asuka in her pretty gold top and the black skirt from the arcade. Rei isn't an adult; she doesn't want to be, not like that, not if it will make Asuka disgusted with her.

“I didn't want any alcohol, anyway,” she says.

Asuka raises her eyebrows at her. “Scared of a little drink, Ayanami?”

“It makes one forget who one is,” Rei says. “I don't like that.”

“Come on,” Asuka replies, rolling her eyes. “That's exactly the point.”

Rei blinks. “You've never had any alcohol, either, have you?”

Asuka, she notes, looks most her age when she gets called on her bluffs.

“I don't get it,” Asuka says after a while. “All they do is leer, and take, and think about their own pleasure. It's so selfish. How can they be so selfish?”

It takes a second for Rei to understand which of the conversational threads she is continuing. “You mean, like Mr. Kaji?”

A vaguely familiar anger appears on Asuka's face. “He wasn't – he wouldn't have – I was the one who – I won't be like that when I grow up.”

Rei watches her carefully. “Would you rather I had left you there, with him, that night?” she asks.

Asuka takes a long swig of her coke. “No,” she says. ”No, you – thanks. Hey, we should dance while we're here, yeah?”

“This is a bar,” Rei says, but Asuka has already pulled her to a corner of the room with a little bit of space where one could technically dance if they wanted to.

“I don't care. There's music.”

“Nobody else is dancing.”

“The more people to look at me.”

“I don't know how to dance.”

“Jesus, Ayanami, don't take it that seriously. Just be yourself.”

Asuka sounds almost angry when she says it; her eyes are narrow and relentlessly staring. It's a test, Rei understands. A challenge.

She starts swaying in time with the music, only her feet at first, then her hips, her waist, her knees, her arms. Asuka's still staring, which is unfair because it was her idea in the first place, and if Rei has to dance, she should have to, as well. Rei grabs Asuka's wrists, a bit more harshly than she needs to, and tries to get her to move.

“Scared of a little dance, Soryu?” Rei says.

Asuka grins with all of her teeth out. “You can be pretty funny, you know?” she whispers while swinging her hips.

They dance for two more songs until Asuka seems to change her mind and realise that yes, dancing in a corner of a place that's not meant for dancing is indeed a little awkward. She downs the rest of her coke and walks out of the bar. Rei hurries to catch up.

“Where are we going?” Rei asks.

Asuka shrugs. “You pick something.”

“The arcade?”

“Okay, no, anything other than that.” She sighs. “I've been stuck on level seven on that dumb game for days now. Level seven! Out of seventeen! Can you imagine? It's almost like they want you to get frustrated and give up – ”

“Then I want to watch the sunrise,” Rei interrupts.

“Ugh. I hate sunrises. So cheesy, even though it's just the start of another shitty day.” But when Rei starts walking towards the beach for the best view, Asuka follows.

 

 

“Your mother,” Kaworu says when Shinji wakes up from defeating the second dream-monster.

“What about her?”

“Does she tell you she loves you?”

Shinji yawns. “Sure. Pretty much every day, I think.”

Kaworu smiles at him. “Good. That's good.”

He doesn't ask about his father.

 

 

It's something of a regular thing now, eating lunch with Ikari, Suzuhara and Aida under Rei's favourite tree. Which is why today, she is in a bit of a dilemma because she absolutely does not want to see any of them.

It started during third period, while Ms. Katsuragi was talking about … something (what does she teach? Rei still hasn't figured out the answer). The memories usually come in short, vivid bursts; this one was different. Slowly but surely, a blue octahedron was blocking off more and more of Rei's field of vision, growing in size and opacity. At first, she thought it was an illusion due to her recent lack of sleep; she tried blinking a lot, but it didn't go away. Instead, it started flashing different colours, a drilling sound slowly seeping into her ears, along with screams and eerie choir music, and suddenly her skin was on fire. She felt herself burning up, like someone had put a match to every single hair on her body, and then she must have fainted because next thing she knew, she was lying on the classroom's floor with Ms. Katsuragi kneeling over her.

“Good, you're awake,” she said when Rei blinked a couple of times to make sure the octahedron was gone. “I need someone to take Ayanami to Dr. Akagi's office.”

“I'll do it,” Nagisa, Ikari and Asuka said at the same time.

“Thank you, Asuka,” Ms. Katsuragi said while helping Rei to her feet.

Asuka had been silent the entire way, up until they were right in front of the door to the school doctor's office. Her hand was soothingly cool on Rei's elbow.

“If you feel this kind of stuff happen again,” she said before knocking on the door, “you have to tell me right away. You could have hurt yourself. Got it?”

Rei didn't see what her own health had to do with Asuka, but she couldn't voice any protests because as soon as the door opened, her classmate was already gone.

Now, she's sitting on the bed in Dr. Akagi's room and running her hand over a loose thread in a cat pillow while she waits for the doctor's verdict.

“It seems like physically, everything is fine,” Dr. Akagi says. “Dizzy spells aren't exactly normal amongst teenage girls, but not uncommon, either. You should make sure to stay hydrated and eat whenever you're hungry. Should I call your parents to take you home early?”

“No,” Rei says.

“Alright.” The doctor gives her a banana and some chocolate to nibble on, to get her blood sugar levels back up, as she puts it, and has her leave the room just in time for lunch break.

Rei knows that everyone will be worried and ask about her health and expect her to say everything's fine, which is why she really doesn't want to eat with the others today. She takes her lunch box and hides under a stairwell in the left wing of the building, right next to the gym hall where hardly anyone ever goes during the break.

Of course, Nagisa finds her, anyway.

“After an experience of distress,” he says, “it can be soothing to seek solace in your friends' presence.”

“You're not my friend,” Rei says.

“I wasn't talking about me.”

She shifts around in her spot to make a little bit of space for him. “They'd tell me to smile. I don't want to smile right now.”

“And you shouldn't have to. Would you like some?” He takes out his own lunchbox and offers it to her. It contains fried eggplant, her favourite. She realises he's never seen him eat anything before.

“I have to say, I feel a little bit responsible,” Nagisa continues while she's eating his food. “We didn't manage to stop Ramiel last night. I like Ramiel, but they've always been terribly defensive, lashing out at the slightest attempt to get close.”

“I know someone like that,” Rei says.

“It might be easier with your help. You could take part in our sleep-over tonight, if you want. Shinji is a good cook, he made this lunch for me. And you might know some interesting stories.”

Nagisa, Rei thinks idly, is exceptionally bad at explaining things and making sense. He would, however, be very good at getting people to join a threesome.

“Alright,” she says.

“Bring some nail polish,” Nagisa says.

 

 

Rei is in luck: it is not a threesome. They sit on the floor in Nagisa's one-room apartment and eat the food that Ikari prepared.

“Thank you,” he'd said when she had offered her help, “but it turns out best if I do it myself.”

“Is Nagisa a bad cook?” Rei had asked.

Ikari snorted. “If by bad you mean abysmal. It's like he has no taste buds at all.”

So Rei had left Ikari to his cooking and proceeded to paint Nagisa's nails at his request, a bright orange, which is the only nail polish she owns. Nagisa is also wearing a skirt, ostensibly his, as she did not bring anything other than nail polish. He looks good in it, and comfortable; Ikari hasn't said anything, but Rei catches him staring while they eat.

“It's delicious,” she says.

“It's my mother's recipe,” Ikari replies. “At least, I think it is. She used to make it when I was little.”

“Do you have any good childhood memories, Ayanami?” Nagisa asks.

“No,” Rei says.

Nagisa smiles, undeterred. “One of the best things about life is getting to make new memories every day. In the end, what counts is the present.”

“But the past is important,” Rei argues, “to know where you come from, who you have been so far, and where you can go from here. Without the past, there is no present.”

“A very linear view,” Nagisa says, “but no less true. I'm only saying, don't worry about your past too much.”

“And your past, Nagisa?” Rei inquires.

Nagisa's expression doesn't change; still his response is charged with something. He smoothes his skirt down. “I try not to worry about it too much. I'd go insane otherwise.”

“What about the future?” Ikari suddenly says. “The future is pretty important, yet we never know what it's going to be.”

“The future is what you make of it,” Nagisa says. “Not knowing what it is – that's a good thing. That means there's room for change. For getting better.”

“Or worse,” Ikari says.

“Or worse,” Nagisa agrees. “But you know I'm an optimist.”

“Yeah, I … I really appreciate that about you.”

“The future doesn't actually exist,” Rei cuts in before she gets dropped from the conversation altogether. “As soon as it happens, it's not the future anymore, but the present. So it will always be out of reach.”

“Huh,” Ikari says. “That's a good point, Ayanami. I guess I never thought about it that way.”

“This nail polish is going to come off in a few days,” Nagisa says. “That means that I can enjoy it even more now; I have to, because it will be gone soon.”

“You can always paint over it again,” Rei points out because honestly, those metaphors of Nagisa's are ridiculous.

“I could,” Nagisa agrees. “However, part of its value comes from your time and effort in applying it for me. Thank you, Ayanami.”

Rei blinks a couple of times and looks over to Ikari, who seems unfazed by this earnest gratitude for insignificant things.

“The colour does suit you,” she says.

 

 

Right on time, at two a.m., Rei is woken by her phone.

The dream was one of the more surreal experiences of her life; it reminded her of her memory patches and visions. But they did manage to defeat the entity called Ramiel by harnessing the light of the stars and turning an eggplant into a spear, somehow.

“See you at the playground next to the school,” Asuka says, voice ringing through the silent apartment. “Fifteen minutes.”

“Thirty,” Rei says, as quietly as possible so that the two others don't wake. “I'm at Nagisa's home; it's farther away.”

There is a moment of perplexed silence at the other end of the line. “Nagisa's?”

“I'm leaving now,” Rei says, gathering her things, and hangs up.

When she's changed and just about to open the door, she notices that she's not alone.

“You have to go,” Nagisa observes. “I'm glad you're taking care of her, and I hope you'll let her take care of you, as well.”

You don't know anything, Rei wants to say.

“Yesterday, at lunch, you mentioned Ramiel,” she says instead.

“You remember that,” Nagisa says, mildly surprised.

“You said you like them.”

And Rei watches as for a moment, Nagisa's face is contorted by an overwhelming, all-consuming grief that nearly makes tears spring to her own eyes. But the moment passes just as quickly as it came.

“Yes,” Nagisa says. “But I've made my choice.” He looks briefly over his shoulder into the living room, where Ikari is still sleeping. “Please don't tell him. It would make him sad, and I will have to cause him sadness soon enough. All of you, in fact.”

Rei thinks about that. “That's why you're trying to lead us to happiness.”

“Exactly.” Nagisa smiles. “So don't let go.”

 

 

When she gets to the playground, Asuka is waiting for her on one of the swings.

“I used to think,” she tells her, “if you swing high enough, you can jump right into another dimension. That would be nice, wouldn't it? A place where things make some goddamn sense, unlike here.”

“If we could just go into another dimension,” Rei says, sitting down on the other swing, “then everything that happens to us here would be meaningless.”

“No, you idiot,” Asuka huffs. “It still changes us. If we both remember it, then why should it matter what dimension it happened in? – And what are you smiling about now?”

“You just sounded like Nagisa,” Rei says.

“Right.” Asuka extends her legs and starts swinging with more force until her face is blurry. “What were you doing at his place, anyway? Are you – is he – ”

“He invited me to his and Ikari's sleep-over,” Rei says. “We fought a big blue octahedron in our dreams. I painted his nails.”

“I'm going to pretend that made sense.”

“He's not interested in anyone but Ikari,” Rei continues, “if that's what you were wondering.”

“Gross,” Asuka says. “How Shinji can just let someone in like that, how pathetic does he have to be – ”

“I don't even like Nagisa that much.”

“I know you're not – ” Asuka exclaims, but doesn't finish the sentence. “Forget about it.”

She jumps when her swing is at the highest point and lands without stumbling. Her hair flows through the air only to gently fall over her back again. She comes to stand in front of Rei, hands on her hips and resolve on her face. She has never looked more beautiful.

“My mum killed herself when I was little,” Asuka says. “She used to take me to the playground all the time. After her death, dad couldn't bear to come here anymore. He remarried a long time ago, but his new wife never wanted to be my mum. That's why I can't go to them, you understand? That's why I call you at night.”

Rei wants to understand this, but all she can think of is a hand with an eye sinking into her and ripping away all sense of self, and why would Asuka want to rely on someone like that?

“Ikari – ” she begins to say.

“Only cares about himself.”

“Horaki.”

Asuka grins joylessly. “Hikari is my best friend and I love her a lot, but she can't handle me when I'm like this.”

“And you think I can.”

“Am I wrong?”

Rei stands up from her swing until she's level with Asuka, considering. The pained grin is still on her face, along with that same aggressive, challenging look in her eyes, that same expectation, waiting to be disappointed. Waiting to be abandoned once more.

The truth is, Rei has no idea herself. But though she might not know who she is, she is starting to have an idea of who she wants to be.

Very carefully, like approaching a wounded animal, she lifts both of her hands and lays them on either side of Asuka's neck. She runs her right thumb over her cheek, just below the eye. The grin vanishes from Asuka's face, like Rei has swept it away with her gesture. She feels Asuka's throat work beneath her hands, sees Asuka's eyes flit over her face.

“I won't abandon you,” Rei promises. “I won't let go.”

“You're lying,” Asuka says, blinking rapidly, “you have to be, they always leave in the end – ”

Rei doesn't know what to do, what to say to prove herself – isn't this all she's been doing in their time together? Proving herself? But it turns out she doesn't have to do anything, because Asuka pushes her off and runs away all on her own.

 

 

Shinji wakes to the quiet chime of his phone. It's a text from his mother.

Good morning, sweetheart! I'm glad to see you're making new friends. Although I hope you won't permanently move out of home – I'd miss you too much! Have a good day at school. I love you.

He's about to reply when he hears quiet noises from the kitchen and a door sliding open.

“Sorry, did I wake you?” Kaworu says, his face barely visible with the morning backlight. “You can join me on the balcony.”

“There was no monster last night,” Shinji says, sitting next to Kaworu and accepting a cup of tea from him.

“It seems like Soryu already took care of Gaghiel herself,” Kaworu says. “She must have come pretty far at the arcade.”

Shinji takes a sip of his tea. “How do you know their names?”

“We are all capable of hurting the ones we love,” Kaworu says in lieu of an answer. “Even you, Shinji. Maybe especially you.”

The tea is almost perfect, but leaves a bitter aftertaste. “I don't want to hurt anyone.”

“I know. But sometimes that's not enough.”

 

 

During lunch break, Asuka corners Shinji in the back of the schoolyard.

“You're spending a lot of time with Nagisa,” she says without preamble.

“Maybe,” Shinji says. He wonders, vaguely, where Toji and Kensuke are, why Ayanami has vanished from the classroom right before lunch like she doesn't want to speak to anybody today. Why he's alone right now.

“People have been talking,” she continues, rounding in on him. “About you.”

“He's a friend,” Shinji says, “and he likes me.”

“And you?” she exclaims, crowding him against the metal fence. “Do you like him? They all think you're gay or something! When's the last time you've even slept at home?”

“I'm not – ” Shinji says, stopping himself abruptly.

“What?” Asuka screams. “What aren't you? You can't even say it, you coward!”

She's too close, far too close. Her nose is almost touching his; he can smell her deodorant, something flowery.

He's reminded of their time in primary school, when a couple of kids would push Shinji around at the school exit or steal his shoes or smack his books out of his hands, and Asuka would stand up for him, every time, without fail, and yell at him afterwards for being weak, for always relying on her, for never once taking what he wanted, for never once fighting back.

He grabs her shoulders and kisses her, desperately. It barely lasts two seconds before she pushes him away.

“Asuka – I – ” he says, then falters.

She's staring at him, undiluted fear in her eyes, like she's looking at a stranger. “Stay away from me.”

She leaves him standing in the schoolyard. He doesn't move for a long time.

 

 

Rei is sitting in her bathtub again, except the bathtub is beneath a giant cross surrounded by pits full of broken bodies, and she can't get the memory of hands with eyes and orange water and red hair out of her head. She dials Asuka's number.

Nobody picks up.

 

 

 

4. Im dunklen Intervall versöhnen sich beide zitternd

 

 

“I kissed Asuka,” Shinji says, like ripping off a band-aid.

Kaworu raises his eyebrows. “Did you think that's what she wanted you to do?”

“I think,” he admits, “that I wasn't thinking about what she wanted at all.”

Kaworu leans back on his futon. “You have never been a particularly selfless person.”

He says it completely free of judgment, maybe even with fondness. Shinji can't help but feel terrible. “I don't know what to do. We used to be so close, and now we keep hurting each other.”

“Have you tried to understand what she wants?”

“How could I? Whenever I try to speak to her – ”

“Then instead of speaking,” Kaworu cuts in gently, “maybe you should listen. Listen very carefully, and even if you do not understand, you will be one step closer. But you will have to trade in a part of your safety, and of your selfishness. That is what we call compromise.”

Shinji swallows down his protests; he knows Kaworu is right. “How selfless have you had to be?”

His friend smiles without a hint of bitterness. “Very. But I also love you.”

Shinji crosses his arms and rests his chin on top of them. “You keep saying that.”

“Because I want you to know that you are loved, and that you deserve to be.”

“Love can mean many different things.”

Kaworu smiles widely. “I mean all of them.”

Shinji takes a deep breath. “You keep saying that,” he repeats, just so his heart calms down.

“Does it make you uncomfortable?”

He swallows, wants to say yes, stop it, I'm uncomfortable, it's gross, just shut up, I'm not worth it, I'm not worth you. But that would be lying, and if he can't be brave at least he can be honest. “No. It doesn't.”

“Then try to say it, too. Not to me, if you don't want to – but say it nonetheless.”

Without quite understanding, Shinji feels that the conversation has circled back to Asuka. “I don't know how to do it. She'll be angry, and I don't know if I can handle that … ”

“That's very inconvenient,” Kaworu says, “because we will need her tonight.”

 

 

There's two beings. And they're both attacking.

“Why do we need Asuka?” Shinji shouts while dodging a blast of energy. “Why can't you do it?”

“Because someone has to play the music,” Kaworu says, nonsensically.

And indeed, there is a piano on the left side of the street. The two monsters have retreated into the middle of a lake, shooting at the city from a safe distance.

Shinji swallows hard. He knows that if he runs fast enough, he can run across the water, because that is just how these dreams work. There's a red plastic shovel at his feet, like the one Asuka used to hit him with in pre-school; he picks it up, ready to go.

As he runs over the water, he knows Asuka is running next to him.

“What are you doing here?” she screams over the waves. “This is my dream!”

“I'm helping you,” he says. “We both have to hit at exactly the same time – ”

“And how are we meant to do that?”

In the distance, Shinji hears Kaworu play Beethoven's 'Ode to Joy' on the piano. The song grows louder the closer to the monsters they get; he readies his plastic shovel. A glance to his side tells him that Asuka has the same weapon.

“We're really doing this, huh?” she mutters.

Their first attempt fails miserably. Maybe Asuka is a second too fast, or Shinji is a second too slow; either way, they don't connect at the same time and the hearts don't shatter. Shinji suppresses a scream as his target hits him square in the chest and catapults him across the lake. Without his momentum, he starts sinking immediately, but Asuka drags him back out.

“Thought you were going to help me,” she snarls, then runs towards their monsters again.

Kaworu's fingers must be hurting by now, but he doesn't stop playing, and this time, they actually manage to be in sync. The plastic shovels crack the glowing hearts apart; a dark red substance flows into the lake.

Asuka is breathing heavily, standing atop her dead monster with her own red shovel. She glares at it, then at Shinji, and then she's gone.

On his piano, Kaworu plays a little flourish.

 

 

As soon as Shinji wakes up, he dials Asuka's number.

They meet on a bench in front of the arcade: somewhat neutral territory.

“Wow, you haven't been here in ages,” Asuka says. “You should check out the new game. Nobody manages to beat my high score.”

“I'm sorry,” Shinji says.

“For what? For messing up that fight with these monsters so badly?”

“For kissing you.”

Asuka grinds her teeth together. Her hands are wrapped around the edge of the seat. “That wasn't a kiss.”

“Yes, it was – ”

“That wasn't a kiss,” she repeats. “A kiss is something you do out of desire, or love.”

Shinji remembers what Kaworu said about listening carefully.

“You're right,” he says. “That wasn't a kiss. And I'm sorry for what it was. I'm just so – insecure about myself sometimes that I kind of lash out, with violence, and I don't know what to do to fix it – ”

“Stop making this about you!” she exclaims. “You're always like, 'tell me what to do, Asuka', but I can't, okay, I don't know what to tell you other than 'stop hurting me and start treating me like a person', and you shouldn't need me to tell you that!”

He doesn't know what to say to that. There are thousands of thoughts running through his mind, and all of them sound selfish once put into words. Start treating her like a person, Asuka says, but as opposed to what? He knows she's a person, obviously, but they're just so different from each other, how can she expect him to –

But you're not that different.

“When I told you about the nightmares,” Shinji says, slowly, “you said to me I should stop being weak. But you were saying that to yourself, too, weren't you? You were – you are having the same nightmares, and I never thought to ask about it.”

Asuka shrugs. “That's just how you are. Self-absorbed. Why do you care now?”

Shinji swallows and thinks about Kaworu saying 'I love you' like it's the easiest thing in the world. “Because I care about you.”

Asuka barks out a dry laugh; it sounds shakier than last time he heard it. “Do you really care about me? Or some kind of idealised version of me?”

“Idealised?” Shinji frowns. “I mean, I admire a lot of things about you, but a lot of other things about you drive me completely nuts. I know you're not perfect, Asuka; I'm definitely not.”

“Oh, so now you think you know me?”

“Can you blame me? That idealised version, you're creating that yourself. That's the wall you've built.”

She crosses her arms. “Maybe you haven't tried hard enough to scale it, then.”

I want to, Shinji wants to say, but again, there's something he isn't hearing.

“The thing you said,” he says, “about me and Kaworu spending too much time together, and the – being gay. That wasn't just about me, either, was it?”

Asuka freezes in her spot, eyes narrowing. “Wow. Your new friend really has taught you some mind tricks, hasn't he?”

Shinji waits for her to continue, which, eventually, she does, very quietly.

“Well, you're not completely wrong.”

He leans back against the bench. “Who is it? Horaki? Actually, you don't have to answer that,” he says quickly.

She sighs. “No, it's not Hikari. Although, coming to think of it, I – God, this is embarrassing.”

“Kaworu collects headless white cat figurines,” Shinji offers. “It should be weird. Any normal person would think it's weird. But I don't; I think it's endearing. Now that's embarrassing.”

“You're such a loser,” she agrees, and then adds, “It's Ayanami.”

Ayanami. Ayanami and Asuka. It's a ridiculous concept; it fits perfectly. More importantly, though, it has nothing to do with him. He feels a smile stretch over his face, a selfless one.

“I'm happy for you,” he says, because it's true.

“I haven't forgiven you,” she says, because it's also true. “Maybe I will. I don't know yet. But … for what it's worth, you're right. It's not just you. I've been taking things out on you, and – I'm sorry, too.”

And that, for now, will have to be enough.

 

 

Rei tries to flee the classroom right before lunch break; it has worked very well these past days.

However, this time, Ikari catches up to her in the hallway.

“Don't run,” he says, digging a box out of his backpack. “You like fried eggplant, don't you?”

“Thank you, Ikari,” Rei says, slightly confused.

“Listen, I … it might be none of my business. But, I've been thinking about Asuka. She hates letting other people in, yeah? But she really wants to be let in, herself. That's all I know.”

“Then let her in,” Rei suggests.

“No, I – I think I screwed up. It'll take some time for me to – anyway, I'm not talking about me. I'm just trying to give you advice, yeah? Which, I mean, I know you haven't asked for, but … ” He trails off. “Jesus Christ, I'm sorry. I'm out of my lane, aren't I?”

He looks terribly earnest and well-meaning; the box is still in his hands. Rei takes it; their fingers brush. She lets her hand linger for a moment.

“Thank you, Ikari,” she says again, with a faint smile. “I appreciate it.”

“Oh! The meal, it's – I noticed you had it a few times at lunch. Kaworu said that's your favourite, as well.”

“Nagisa is very giving,” Rei agrees. “I wonder what you give him in return?”

Ikari's eyes widen in surprise. “What I give him …”

So much for unwanted advice, Rei thinks and leaves him standing there.

 

 

They have defeated four more monsters, and they are starting to become a team.

Asuka drowns Sandalphon in lava and stabs its core with a red plastic shovel that Shinji throws her. They invite Ayanami over again for Matarael and Sahaquiel; Asuka shoots at the monsters with pickles out of a jar while Ayanami uses an old game console as a shield and Shinji hurls empty lunchboxes. Kaworu does nothing during those fights, but he takes care of Ireul all by himself before the entity can even properly form.

Every time, Shinji wakes up shortly after, and every time Ayanami is already gone and Kaworu is still sleeping soundly. He's wondered a few times why Asuka doesn't have to be present to appear in the dreams, but he guesses if she's had them before, her connection to them must go deeper than that.

Now, he's lying on his back, eyes wide open, and thinks about reciprocity.

I wonder what you give him in return, Rei had said to him, and he wonders, as well. Kaworu makes it clear that he enjoys his presence, that it is enough, that Shinji is enough. But is he? Shouldn't he strive for more?

Why doesn't Kaworu ask for more?

We are all capable of hurting the ones we love, he'd said, especially you. But that was when Shinji had asked how Kaworu knew these monsters' names. Who is hurting whom, here?

Before he's fully conscious of it, an idea has taken shape in Shinji's mind. He crawls out from under his covers, grabs a piece of candy from the liquorice bowl to steel himself, then takes Kaworu's old walkman from the shelf, sits down in the corner of the room, puts the earbuds in, and presses play.

It's the same piece as the first time Kaworu had him listen, the same discordant, unsettling orchestra with background noise. But this time, he doesn't give up after eight seconds; he keeps listening. There's a reason why Kaworu listens to this, there has to be, even if he can't find it right away. The deep sense of unease washes over him almost physically, nearly makes him nauseous.

Shinji lets it.

And suddenly, through a budding headache, he recognises things. Only for a few seconds at a time, and they're gone as soon as he pinpoints them, but they're there. Beethoven's 'Ode to Joy' on a cello. A piano piece for four hands. Something that resembles the screeching choir noise Ramiel made. The sound of a small cat purring. The voice … the voice of his mother. All of them at the same time, all of them melted together with thousands of other things, yet clearly there.

Shinji tries to listen harder, has just managed to latch onto Ramiel's screeching again (why on earth is that there?) when abruptly, everything stops. He blinks a couple of times; Kaworu is kneeling in front of him, both of the earbuds in his hands instead of in Shinji's ears.

“I'm sorry,” Shinji says quickly. “I – I just wanted to understand. So I tried to listen.”

The sun isn't up yet, but blue morning light filters through the large windows and the balcony door. Kaworu's eyes are wide open and have never looked like this before: two red, bottomless pits. His skin is washed out in the light; he's nearly glowing, himself. It terrifies Shinji, like he's misunderstood him, like he's overstepped some boundary, like he's ruined the fragile, fundamental thing between them forever. His brain kicks into overdrive, scrambling for a better apology, anything to fix it, when softly, like the wings of an insect, Kaworu's hands let go of the earbuds and land on either side of his face. Kaworu is blinking rapidly now, white lashes fluttering and sticking together with moisture, and once again, Shinji notices just how long his neck is, but these features aren't strange to him anymore.

“You're crying,” he whispers.

Kaworu swallows and blinks some more. “I am,” he whispers back. “That's new.”

And Shinji wants to touch him back, to reciprocate in some way, no matter how insignificant. He's been avoiding it for so long, out of fear of committing to something he isn't ready for, of promising something he can't give – but what has Kaworu ever asked of him?

He raises his own hand to his face, slowly, and runs his fingers along Kaworu's. They barely touch, yet it seems to be enough. Kaworu closes his eyes and leans back, starts to withdraw. Within moments, he looks like he always does. The tears have disappeared completely.

“Don't overdo it,” he says gently. “Most people get a headache when they listen too hard.”

 

 

The memories are vivid today, and they are quick.

She's four years old, staring into the contorted face of a woman in a lab coat, getting strangled to death –

She's watching herself from the outside, a thousand lifeless copies floating through a pool of orange water, or blood, judging by the stench –

She's standing face to face with a bearded man, light glinting off his glasses, and she knows at once it is the man with the eye in his wrinkly hand, and he says something and she laughs, and all she can think is disgusting and I don't want to love him, why do I love him, why can't I be free

She's being attacked from all sides by white winged creatures, they rip at her throats and pierce her side and peck out her eye, their screams sound like Nagisa but at least she can hide behind her red hair so she doesn't have to watch them kill her –

And then she's standing in the middle of a park in the middle of the night. Slowly, she recognises it as the one in her neighbourhood. She sinks down into the grass; it's cool to the touch and slightly moist despite the warmth of the summer night. Is this the present or yet another memory? She can't tell. What difference does it make?

She thinks of what Ikari told her. The self is made of the relationships that it forms with others; to be a self means to let another in.

She feels around in her pocket, and sure enough, her sleep-walking self has at least brought her phone with her. She scrolls through the contacts with shaking hands.

Well. There's only one person she can call right now.

“Please tell me I'm real,” she says.

“What?” Asuka yawns. “It's two in the morning. I was sleeping well, for once.” There's a brief pause as Rei's words seem to register. “Shit. Where are you?”

“Park at the street corner, close to the school,” Rei says.

“Shit,” Asuka says again. “I'll be right there. Don't do anything stupid.”

Rei can't tell if it takes twenty minutes or twenty months, but sure enough at some point Asuka comes running towards her, coat hastily thrown on over her pyjamas. She collapses in the grass next to Rei, exhausted.

“So, what do you need me to do? Pinch you or something?”

“I was strangled,” Rei says. “And then there were a lot of me, and there was a man with an eye in his hand. And then I felt you die. You died, Asuka.”

She realises two things, then. One: this is the first time she has called Asuka by her name. Two: there are tears running down her face.

Asuka is paralysed for all of two seconds, then she grabs Rei's shoulders, hard. It hurts; it's the best thing she's felt all day.

“Hey. I'm here, yeah? Not dead. And I'm not going to die. So no need to cry.”

Rei wants to believe her very much. She wipes a hand across her face; the tears keep coming. “Thank you.”

Asuka averts her eyes. “It's fine. You'd do the same for me. You have, actually.”

They stay like that for a while, Rei trying to breathe while Asuka keeps her shoulders in a vice-grip. Don't let go, she thinks. Please don't let go.

And as if she had heard her thoughts, Asuka eventually says, “I'm sorry for running away the other day. On the playground, when you – I thought I didn't want whatever you were offering. But now I know I was just afraid of wanting it. I was afraid of that part of myself. Even though it's just who I am.”

“You always tell me to be who I am.” Rei swallows. “Yet I have no idea. I don't know who I am, Asuka.”

It feels good to say her name; she vows to do it more from now on. The look on Asuka's face softens considerably.

“That's okay,” she says. “We'll find out. I promise. I'll help you find out.”

  

 

 

5. You can (not) remember

  

 

Before the next sleep-over, Kaworu wants to go to the aquarium with him.

“Like a date?” Shinji asks, feeling a little bit bold.

“Would you like it to be?” Kaworu asks back.

Shinji doesn't answer (he's not feeling that bold), but he does pay the entrance fee for both of them.

It isn't long before they're standing in front of the jellyfish tank, entranced.

“They're beautiful, aren't they?” Shinji says.

“Humans strive to keep beautiful things forever,” Kaworu agrees, “enclosed behind glass. Even though there is so much beauty in the ephemeral.”

Shinji thinks about that. “Did you know there's a kind of jellyfish that's immortal?”

“There is?”

“It can reverse its own clock and regress back into its immature colonial state, repeating the cycle of its own life over and over again.”

“I had no idea.” Kaworu's voice sounds strangely flat; Shinji glances at him, but his eyes are glued to the tank. “That sounds terrifying.”

“I don't know,” Shinji allows. “It might be nice to be able to start over once in a while. And maybe they get used to it.”

Kaworu takes a breath like he wants to say something, but then closes his mouth again. They stand in silence for nearly a minute; Shinji tries to listen to what isn't being said.

“They must miss the ocean,” Kaworu finally says.

Shinji wonders, in some corner of his mind, when and why Kaworu has developed such an empathy towards these jellyfish. “They were probably bred in captivity. I don't think they know the ocean at all. And...” He hesitates. “They're safe here. They don't have to worry about anything outside of their world. They live in ignorant bliss. I mean, provided they, you know, feel anything.”

“Would you like to live like that?”

He glances over again, and this time Kaworu is looking right at him. “What do you mean?”

“Away from the world. Away from pain. In ignorant bliss, as you put it.”

“Why are you asking?”

“Because I want to know.”

Shinji stares at the jellyfish some more. He's not even sure they have eyes. They glow softly, but for whom? Only for those who look in from the outside?

“No,” he says eventually. “I wouldn't like that. Or maybe I would – but I don't want to like that.”

“It would be safe,” Kaworu argues. “It would be good.”

“Maybe,” Shinji agrees. “It would also be pointless.”

Kaworu closes his eyes. The glow of the jellyfish makes his face look even less real than usual. Beautiful, Shinji realises. That's the word he's looking for, has been looking for for a while.

He reaches out and grazes the back of Kaworu's hand with his own fingers, a clumsy, unsubtle imitation of the fleeting touches that Kaworu has for him; he's a little bit surprised when Kaworu actually takes his hands and smiles at him.

“I'll hold you to that,” he says.

 

 

“I've been thinking,” Asuka declares, not as usual at two a.m. over the phone, but in full daylight in their classroom at Rei's desk right before lunch break. Rei glances around; if anyone's confused about them talking to each other, Asuka doesn't seem to care.

“That's always a good start,” Rei says and surprises herself with the joke, with her own levity. Knowing that somehow, the strange connection they have forged while they should have been sleeping has carried over into the time when they are actually awake fills her with a happiness she can't quite put into words, not even to herself (let alone to Asuka).

“About your self-discovery,” Asuka clarifies. “I think it's pretty clear that those memories you keep having are more than just random intrusive thoughts, just like the dreams that Shinji and I have. So in order to figure out what's going on, we need to find out what those memories are trying to tell you.”

“That I'll die a horrible death,” Rei guesses, dead-pan.

Asuka winces. “Yeah, alright, I get it's not a very pleasant idea, okay? But listen, my parents are going to be out of town in two days. You could come over, and we could have the whole afternoon, or – well, however long we need – the point is, wouldn't it be better to get active about it instead of waiting around for the next wave of memories to hit you unprepared?”

Rei takes a moment to look at Asuka. She's fidgeting, running her fingers along her uniform skirt, her eyes never quite meeting Rei's, completely unlike that challenging, aggressive stare that Rei is used to. Almost … nervous.

“I'll bring snacks,” Rei says. “And nail polish.”

“Cool,” Asuka says. “Great. Yeah. So – see you around.”

She hesitates for a second, then squeezes Rei's shoulder, lingering a little bit. Before Rei can react in any way, however, she's hurried out of the room to have lunch with Horaki.

Rei feels a fond smile tug at her mouth. Some things, she guesses, never change. And maybe they don't have to.

 

 

“You've done enough,” Kaworu tells him as soon as they're in their dreamscape.

He makes short work of the monsters, after that. He jumps into Leliel's shadow, only for the floating sphere to explode seconds later with a spray of blood. He absorbs Bardiel and crushes it into a ball of light; he absorbs Armisael, too, though it's unclear what happens to it. He rips Zeruel's glowing heart out with his bare hands; he stands in Arael's beam of light and screams at it until it bursts.

Through all of it, Shinji watches.

He jolts out of sleep at two a.m., when it's all over. Kaworu is lying next to him on his back; he's breathing heavily, and there are tears running down his face. He glances over to Shinji out of the corner of his eye.

“Forgive me,” he says, very calmly. “I seem to have underestimated … ”

“You're one of them,” Shinji breathes.

Kaworu closes his mouth and nods. He rolls over, away from Shinji.

“It is a compulsion,” he slowly explains. “We are all looking to connect with our father. With Adam. It is something all of us do, sooner or later. It is why we cannot be allowed to exist; it is why I cannot be allowed to exist, either. You may leave, if you wish to,” he adds. His voice is still completely calm.

Over the course of their nights spent together, their futons have slowly gravitated towards each other, eventually closing the gap between them. There's even a little bit of overlap, now, a little bit of ambiguity as to where one bed ends and where the other begins. So Shinji can pretend it's all technically still his space as he crawls over to Kaworu and wraps his arms around him, brings their bodies together, presses his face into the back of his (strangely, inhumanly long) neck. One of his hands is in the spot where Kaworu's heart should be; he doesn't feel any beating, but it's warm nonetheless.

For a moment, a wild, delirious moment, he imagines them merging together into one amorphous entity, sharing everything between them, every bit of grief and happiness, absorbing the whole world into their substance, and he would finally understand Kaworu, Asuka, Ayanami, everyone. It would be terrifying; it would be wonderful.

But then, Kaworu's hand slowly lays down on top of his, with that same alien, insect-like grace, and Shinji is reminded that absolute understanding cannot exist, not for him. Instead, he has this: the touch of someone's hand.

“You've held me like this before,” Kaworu says quietly. “Right before you killed me. I've always liked that moment.”

Shinji tightens his arms even more, to the point where it might crush anyone else.

“I'm not killing you this time,” he promises.

 

 

Asuka's room, Rei notes, is full of warm colours. Red and orange pillows are piled on the bed, along with a small dark brown monkey plush, the desk is made of light natural wood, a yellow dress is draped across the back of a chair, and the deep red carpet that tickles her feet when she steps on it looks a little like a large bloodstain.

“Sit,” Asuka says and pats the carpet where she has arranged a few of the pillows and some bowls with the chips and the chocolate cookies that Rei brought. She herself is dressed in a white tank top and orange baggy pants like she's part of the room. Comfortable, almost. At home.

It gives Rei an idea what it might mean that she has been invited into this sanctuary. She kneels on the carpet next to Asuka, mindful of this new meaning.

“Alright,” Asuka says, clearing her throat. “Let's go through it. You said you remember being …”

“Strangled,” Rei supplies when nothing is forthcoming.

“Right. How old were you in that memory?”

“I'm not even sure it's a memory of me.”

“Okay. How about …”

“Asuka.”

“Huh?”

Rei slides closer to her on the carpet. “I appreciate your efforts,” she says, “but it does not have to be like this. I cannot fabricate my sense of self just by rearranging memories. It will come with time. If you want to help me, then help me find out who I am around you.”

Asuka smiles distractedly. “Look at you. You're getting more direct. I like that.”

“I suppose it's because I trust you.”

“Don't – Christ, I'm bad at this, okay. Hey, you said you'd bring nail polish, right? Let me paint your nails.”

Obediently, Rei looks through her bag to find the one bottle of bright orange nail polish she owns.

“That's a nice colour,” Asuka comments. “I was expecting, like, baby pink or something like that.”

Rei shifts until she is facing Asuka, hands laid out on her knees. Out of nowhere, she notices how quiet it is in this room, this house, this street, almost as if they were the last two people left on earth. The sun hasn't set yet, but the light that comes in through the window glows a warm, soft gold.

Asuka shifts, as well, but she doesn't pick up the nail polish. Instead, she takes one of Rei's hands in hers.

“You have really slender fingers,” she says.

Rei doesn't know what to reply; her mind is going pleasantly blank, leaving only this very moment, this point of contact between them. She wonders if this is what it would be to truly live in the present, truly be there, viscerally and completely, no hands in her stomach, no fingers around her neck. She hopes she can learn to live like that.

Asuka is running her fingers along her palm, now, staring at both of their hands. Rei wonders why she is stalling, why she is hesitating, what she is steeling herself for.

“I've never met anyone like you,” Asuka eventually says. “Who is falling apart herself, yet so good at holding me together. Who doesn't judge me, but doesn't back down, either. Who actually cares. Whatever happens from now on, Ayanami – Rei – I – thank you.”

“I want to kiss you,” Rei says, on an impulse which has been a long time coming.

Asuka's head snaps up, eyes wide open and vulnerable. She looks exceptionally wild in the afternoon light. “Oh. Yeah, that – that's a good idea.”

And before her tenuous grasp on the present leaves her again, before she gets tangled up in her own memories and complicated fears of being expendable and unimportant in the grand scheme of things, Rei leans in and kisses Asuka, frames her face with two gentle hands while Asuka's arms snake around her waist to pull her closer. Because this, this is a way in which she can matter: bringing happiness to the people around her – to the girl in front of her, and giving her a chance to make Rei happy, in return.

They must have been a little bit too enthusiastic, because not even three seconds into it Asuka falls backwards against her bed and lets out a sharp yelp.

“I hate bed frames,” she mutters, and Rei can't help it; she bursts into quiet laughter. Asuka rubs her head, but she's grinning as well, cheeks bright red and glowing with life. “Is that what it takes to make you laugh out loud? Me hurting myself?”

Rei runs her hands through Asuka's hair to check for any injuries, which Asuka takes as a cue to tighten her arms and bury her nose in Rei's neck. It's a little bit cold, but otherwise very nice, so they stay like that for a moment, just holding on.

 

 

“I would like to spend the night outside,” Kaworu says.

Shinji frowns at him. “You mean, without a tent and everything? Just sleep on the ground?”

He smiles back. “Indulge me?”

His manipulation tactics are extremely transparent; Shinji rolls his eyes, but agrees nonetheless. Kaworu pulls a thick hoodie over his head and hands one to Shinji; it doesn't really smell of anything except laundry detergent. Shinji feels his ears heat up and hopes Kaworu hasn't noticed him checking for smells, of all things.

They walk in comfortable silence all the way to the little hill where they watched that sunset a while ago. Shinji considers reaching for Kaworu's hand, like in the aquarium, but both of Kaworu's hands are buried in the pockets of his sweater. They sit down at the foot of a tree. Shinji tries to find a familiar constellation in the sky, but it's cloudy and there are no stars to be seen. Only a gentle breeze is rustling through the leaves.

“Shouldn't we have taken a sleeping bag or something?” he says after a while.

Kaworu turns to face him. “Shinji.”

Shinji swallows. “Yeah?”

“I would like to ask your forgiveness. For what I am about to say.”

He honestly can't imagine anything that he wouldn't forgive Kaworu at this point. “It doesn't really work that way,” he says nonetheless, for the sake of it. “I can't forgive you for something you haven't done yet.”

“You're right.” Kaworu takes a deep breath. “I would like you to think about your mother.”

Amongst the things Shinji expected, this one is pretty low on the list. “My mother?”

“Yes. Just think about her for a moment. When was the last time you saw her? When was the last time you spoke to her?”

“I mean, I …” He trails off, perplexed by the question. The breeze has gotten stronger, louder, runs through his hair like hands. “I see her after school, when I go home. And in the mornings, when I'm not sleeping at your place, that is – she sends me texts. She tells me she loves me.”

“Yes, you said that. But what else? What else do you remember? Can you picture her face?”

“Of course, she's … She's my mum …”

“What does she do for work? What does your father do for work?”

“I don't care about my father,” Shinji deflects. “He doesn't care about me.”

“And why is that? Can you tell me?”

“How should I know? Why are you asking these questions?”

“You can't.” Kaworu stares at him; for the first time since Shinji's met him, his gaze is harsh, harsh and infinitely sad. “You can't tell me. Because it's not real.”

“What are you … of course it's real.”

Kaworu's fingers dig into the grass around him. “I'm sorry, Shinji.”

The wind is unbearably loud, now; it tugs at Shinji's sweater, his ankles, his skin. He stumbles to his feet. He can't stay a second longer, or the wind might blow him apart like a dandelion. He turns and walks away, all the way to his home (why is the way so short, suddenly?), where he fumbles for his keys and pushes open the door and –

And it all rushes back to him. He staggers, leans against the door frame. This isn't where his parents live. He lives here, yes, with Misato Katsuragi, Captain Misato Katsuragi as his guardian, because his father is the leader of a paramilitary organisation trying to defend the earth from hostile angel attacks, and his mother –

His mother is dead. Of course she is.

How could he have forgotten?

He can't break down now. He could probably go into the apartment and knock on the door of his parent's room, and his mother would step out and ask him what was wrong and take him into her arms, even. And none of it would be real.

He slams the door shut and flees the building, runs across half the city until he's at Kaworu's door again. As he suspected, it's not locked; why should it be?

Kaworu is standing right behind the door, like he's been waiting, which he probably has. Shinji doesn't even want to look at his face right now.

“What have you done?” he gasps, stumbling into Kaworu. He grasps at the sweater on his back, digs his fingers in, tries to catch skin, hopes it leaves bruises, hopes it hurts like he is hurting right now. Kaworu lets him, winds his own arms around him to pull him closer, and then Shinji isn't trying to hurt him anymore, he's just clinging and sobbing and probably getting snot all over Kaworu's clothes.

“Oh God, I – sorry. I'm a mess, I – ”

“Please don't apologise,” Kaworu says into his shoulder.

They stand in the hallway for an eternity, until Shinji has calmed down, and indeed, the calm that settles over him is absolute. There's no way he will sleep tonight, and Kaworu seems to sense this; he leads them out onto the balcony and sits with his legs dangling between the gaps in the railing. Shinji lowers himself next to him.

“All this time,” he says, “you've tried to prepare me for this.”

“I could not let you live a lie,” Kaworu says, “even a comfortable one. You said it yourself: it would be pointless.”

“So …” He looks out into the city, the buildings, the mountains in the distance, the sky that's slowly lightening. “None of this is real?”

“You are real,” Kaworu says immediately. “Ayanami and Soryu are real. I am real.” He hesitates, then carefully covers Shinji's hand with his. “This is real.”

And Shinji wonders how it can possibly be real, in a world in which Kaworu is an angel and he is someone who kills angels, but they're not in that world, not yet. And there is a way – a way to fix it. It's nothing more but the echo of an idea. Kaworu has been working to set him free; now he should return the favour.

He turns his palm and threads their fingers together.

 

 

“So you're saying,” Asuka repeats, “that the three of us became too psychologically unstable to continue piloting the Eva, and all this time, Nerv has kept us in a coma and induced this collective hallucination of a world while using our unconscious minds to fight off the angels, with our bodies floating around in tanks of LCL, and you've infiltrated Nerv, going against the orders of your own organisation, whose mission for you was to initiate Third Impact by merging with the first angel, but now you've been trying to help us piece ourselves back together and get us out of here. And you're also a time traveller, or something.”

The neon lights in the fast-food joint make Nagisa's skin look ashen and dead; next to him, Ikari does not look much better. “That is, more or less, it,” Nagisa confirms.

Asuka leans back in her seat. Her hand is tightly wound around Rei's. “Fuck,” she says.

“That's one way to put it,” Ikari agrees.

“So, my memories,” Rei says.

“Possibly from your actual reality, possibly from another one,” Nagisa replies. “You have always been sensitive to quantum shifts. Things that could have happened, that have happened, that might still happen.”

“I see you have not at all gotten better at explaining.”

He smiles. “There is always room for improvement.”

For a moment, none of them say anything. The lights are buzzing loudly; an old jukebox in the corner plays a song from the sixties. It's a beautiful song, even though Rei doubts that there is anything approaching spring on Jupiter. She has the sudden impulse to pull Asuka from her seat and dance with her, dance the shock and the distress off of the revelation they both deeply know to be true.

But Asuka doesn't seem shocked or distraught. She swallows hard. “Alright. How do we get out, then?”

The determination is obvious on her face; Rei loves her for it.

“I have entered this world,” Nagisa says. “I can prepare an exit, as well. But I did not want to do it without your consent. You have the right to decide.”

“To decide if we want to continue living in a tank?” Asuka snarls. “No, thank you. What kind of a question is that?”

“The world you will return to is in ruins,” Nagisa argues. “You will lose the life you have here.”

“It's not a life, though,” Ikari says, “if it's like this.”

“Exactly!” Asuka agrees. “And it's not like – all of this still happened, right? We'll remember. It's still real, no matter where it took place.”

Nagisa looks at both of them, his face very soft. “I should know better by now than to underestimate your will to exist.” He turns to her. “What about you, Ayanami?”

“I have parents in this world,” she says.

Asuka wants to argue, but for once Ikari beats her to it.

“I know,” he says. “Me too. But they're an illusion, right? They're a part of you. They'll be there once we get back. You might have to find them inside you, but they're there.”

She considers that. “If they are a part of me, then interacting with them will not help my sense of self. That is a good point, Ikari.” She looks back at Nagisa. “What about the angels attacking? Who will defend the city once we are out of our stasis?”

“There are no other angels,” he says, and for a second Rei catches a glimpse of that unimaginable grief she saw on his face after they defeated Ramiel. “I am the last one.”

“Does this mean we have to kill you?” Asuka asks, incredulous.

“No,” Ikari says, a little bit too firmly.

“There is no sense in speculating about the future just yet,” Nagisa deflects. “For now, I suggest we meet tomorrow night at the arcade. And in the meantime … you might want to say goodbye.”

 

 

 

6. Don't be afraid of this world where we'll meet

  

 

Shinji gets home right before his mother wakes up and pads into the kitchen.

“Shinji?” she says. “You're already up?”

He takes a good look at her. She's just like he remembers her, hasn't changed at all in the last eleven years, and that alone should have tipped him off.

“I love you, mum,” he says, helplessly.

She inclines her head and slowly comes towards him. “I love you too, sweetheart,” she says and takes him in her arms. It's not real; he cries nonetheless.

He manages to catch Toji and Kensuke before school starts.

“Shinji!” Toji calls. “Coming to the arcade today, after all?”

“Maybe later,” he says. “Toji, Kensuke, I – you're really important to me, you know?”

They exchange a puzzled look.

“Are you okay?” Kensuke says. “You sound like you're dying.”

“I'll be fine,” Shinji says. “I just wanted to make sure you know that.”

“Sure we do,” Toji says. “You're our friend. We care about you. Right, Aida?”

“I mean, speak for yourself …” Kensuke says with mock-skepticism. Toji slaps him upside the head.

“I'll see you,” Shinji promises, “very soon.”

He doesn't go to class after that. Instead, he dials Asuka's number. There is one last thing left to do.

“Let's have a sleep-over,” he says.

 

 

Rei has volunteered her own room for Ikari's strange plan. It is the middle of the day, so she has closed all of her blinds to create the correct sleep-over atmosphere.

“You don't have to take everything so literally, you know,” Asuka had sighed when Rei had explained this, but she had also been smiling.

Now, the three of them are sitting on Rei's floor. Asuka has her hand on Rei's knee, unashamed of the display; Ikari pointedly doesn't look at it, but he doesn't seem surprised, either.

“I need your help,” he says. “I want to kill Adam.”

“For Nagisa,” Rei elaborates. Ikari's ears turn bright red, but he doesn't deny it.

“We have been defeating the other angels in our dreams,” he says instead. “Why not this one, too?”

“Do you have any idea where it is?” Asuka says, frowning. “Last time I checked, nobody knew what happened to it after the Second Impact.”

Ikari shakes his head. “It has to be at Nerv. The angels want to merge with it; they feel its presence, that's why they target the facility. It's the only explanation.”

“Still, the place is huge! Where could they possibly hide it?”

“Terminal Dogma,” Rei hears herself say. “I saw it in my memories. There was a giant cross – it must have been Adam.”

“It wouldn't hurt to try, right?” Ikari says, hopefully.

Asuka sighs. “Why don't you do this on your own?”

He swallows, but ends up smiling at them. “Because I'm scared, and I don't know if I can. And that's okay.”

It's the middle of the day, yet sleep comes naturally. The last thing Rei feels is Asuka's hand in hers.

 

 

Terminal Dogma is exactly the way it is in her memories. Pits full of broken body parts, not her own, not those that were floating in the orange water, but close; a giant cross with a white, swollen being nailed to it, pulsing and calling out to Rei; deafening, screeching silence. Asuka groans faintly next to her.

“Is this really what we have to – ” she starts saying, then cuts herself off abruptly, and Rei sees why.

There is a man in front of the cross, a man she did not spot right away. He has a beard and glasses that glint in the light, and he says something and Rei wants to laugh and why can't I be free

“Father?” Ikari says faintly.

The man does not say anything, just watches them with a flat expression. He takes a step towards Rei, another one and another one until he is far too close, and slowly, deliberately lifts his arm –

“His hand,” Rei says. “It's the hand – he's reaching – ”

But before he can reach into her stomach and twist and rip away all sense of self like he usually does, Asuka has grabbed the arm, and Ikari has grabbed the hand, and they are pulling in different directions until it all tears apart, and the man tumbles to the ground, without his hand.

The hand which Ikari is now holding with a look of abject horror on his face.

For a moment, Rei isn't sure if he will ever be able to move again, but then she hears Asuka scream: “Go on! What are you waiting for? Did we go all the way here for nothing? Don't you want him to be free?”

And, against all odds, Ikari snaps out of it. He throws the hand on the ground and steps on it, tries to smash it with the sole of his sneaker. It's absolutely grotesque, yet Rei knows that this is how it has to be done, this is the only way it will work. Asuka starts to laugh hysterically, then joins Ikari in his efforts with something approaching glee. Rei watches the eye in the hand pop out, red and inhuman; that must be the core. She lifts her own foot and stomps down. It cracks apart right in the middle.

She looks at her two companions, then at the thing on the ground, just to be sure. She skims her hand across her stomach; no reaching, no pulling. For once, she will stay whole.

“I believe,” she says, breathing hard, “that we did it.”

 

 

Shinji leaves Ayanami's apartment as soon as they wake up; they have done enough for him already, and he wants to leave them some privacy before they will all have to face their forgotten, broken world once more, head-on.

Instead, he goes to the bench just outside his school. Kaworu is sitting there, two white earbuds in his ears and an old walkman in his lap. When he sees Shinji, he takes the earbuds out and presses stop on his recording of the world.

“Adam is no longer,” he says. “How?”

Shinji doesn't even attempt to read the emotions on his face. “We kind of just … stepped on them. I want you to be free,” he adds, a little desperately.

For a moment, Shinji thinks he can see grief and confusion, but they are gone quickly, like a cloud passing in front of the sun. Kaworu closes his eyes and releases a sigh that seems to come from the bottom of an ocean.

“I see,” he says quietly. “How very human of you.”

“I'm sorry,” Shinji says, “for being selfish again.”

“You misunderstand me,” Kaworu replies, standing up until his face is right in front of Shinji's. “I did not want to die this time, yet I thought I would have to. You have spared me a lifetime of fighting my own nature. Thank you, Shinji. Thank you for listening.”

He raises a hand to Shinji's face, as delicately as usual, not even a real touch, and it hits Shinji that Kaworu still thinks this is all he can have, still thinks this is all Shinji wants –

With every ounce of courage he can muster, Shinji ignores the rising heat in his face and puts his arms around Kaworu's waist, around this selfless, inhuman person.

“I love you,” he says, just to be absolutely clear, and kisses him.

 

 

The arcade looks like it always has, its unassuming facade betrayed by the colourful lights within. Rei is reminded of the very first night she came here, the very first time she tried to reach out to Asuka. She reaches out now and finds her hand, effortlessly.

“This is our exit,” Nagisa says, a light hand on Ikari's back, whose hair looks a little bit messier than usual. “You will wake up once you step through; there is no going back.”

A thousand things could go wrong. They could not make it out of Nerv; they could not even make it out of their containment room. They could be gunned down on the spot.

Or they could escape, and live.

“Shall we, then?” Ikari says.

Asuka grins at Rei.

“After you, my lady,” she says.

Rei nods and pushes the door open.