Shinji watched the train pull away, leaving him alone on a deserted station platform with his cello case and a bulky duffel bag that contained nearly all of his worldly possessions. "Well," he said aloud, "here I go again."
He swung the cello case over his shoulder and lifted the bag in one hand, pleased at how little effort it took. Three months of judo classes and some rather intensive fitness training to go with it had paid off.
He glanced at the LCD display of his SDAT player. Thirty minutes early, good; Captain Katsuragi would probably appreciate that. Now hopefully the payphones would be working...
A deafening wail echoed across Tokyo-3. "Damn," Shinji muttered. So much for that plan.
A man in railway company uniform ran out through a door marked 'Employees Only'. "Hey, kid! We need to report to the disaster shelters, quickly! This isn't a drill!"
And don't I know it. "I was supposed to meet someone here. Can I let them know where I am?"
"You can telephone from the shelter. Come on, we have to hurry!"
"Call for you on Line One, ma'am. It's the Commander's son."
"This soon? Okay, I'll take it here. Captain Katsuragi. You're a little early, Shinji."
"I thought I'd better err on the side of punctuality, Captain. Anyway, I just wanted to let you know I'm in Shelter... 322B."
"Alright. Sit tight, kid, we'll have someone come pick you up once we've dealt with the current crisis. I gotta go." She hung up. "Status of the Angel?"
"It just made landfall. JASDF reports multiple missile impacts, no effect on target."
"Understood. Ritsuko, how're we doing?"
"Pre-launch checks will be complete any moment now. Synch rate at 65% and holding. We're about as ready as we'll ever be, Misato." Dr Akagi brushed a strand of blonde hair out of her eyes. "I still don't like this."
"Me neither, but we haven't got time to prep Unit-01. Speaking of... Rei? You might be interested to know that the new kid just got here. He's in a shelter near the station."
"Understood, Captain. Thank you for letting me know."
Inside the entry plug, Rei smiled to herself. "And all proceeds according to the Scenario."
In a quiet corner of Shelter 322B, Shinji glanced at his watch and began to get seriously worried. They were running out of time, damn it! If Misato didn't get here soon then there was no way in hell they'd reach the cage before-
The whole shelter vibrated, and a few moments later a dull boom could be heard echoing across the city. "What the hell was that?" someone yelled, startled.
"The military must've hit the Angel with something big," a man in NERV uniform replied. "Either an N2 mine or a fuel-air explosive."
"Never works in the movies," a third voice muttered.
There was another, longer vibration. "And that," the NERV employee continued with a proud grin, "is the secret anti-kaiju weapon that will work!"
There was a general stampede towards the door to see what was happening. Shinji stared open-mouthed up at the familiar orange-and-white form of Unit-00 as it made its way towards the Angel. It turned to look down at the shelter entrance as everyone erupted in wild cheers, and he could have sworn that single eye was looking right at him.
"Rei...?" he whispered.
The Evangelion inclined its head slightly, as if in acknowledgement, and turned towards its target. The Angel turned towards Unit-00 and unleashed an impossibly crucifix-shaped blast of pink light, but the Eva was already dodging behind a building and drawing its Progressive Knife.
"Rei, there's a weapon locker a hundred metres to the north of your position," said Misato.
"Thank you for the thought, Captain, but that will not be necessary." The comms window wasn't particularly high-resolution, but Misato could still make out an unholy gleam in the blue-haired girl's eyes. "I would prefer to solve this problem in a more... hands-on fashion."
"Rei, I really don't think that's a good idea!"
"Excuse me, Captain, I have an Angel to kill." The picture disappeared.
Misato just sighed. "This is not going to end... Holy shit."
"I'm not wild about her methods," Ritsuko agreed, "but I can't argue with her results. I wonder if they even have reproductive organs there?"
"If they do, I'm actually feeling a little sorry for the Angel. And either way, it definitely has kneecaps. Well, one kneecap and thousands of tiny floating bones where the other one used to be, anyway... Oh for fucksake. Rei, that was someone's apartment you just redecorated with the Angel's face! If we get sued for that it's coming out of your pay! And what the hell are you-?" The whole Geofront shook. "Okay, now you're just showing off."
"I didn't know she was into professional wrestling," Maya added.
"Actually, I think she got that one from Final Fantasy. Rei, will you please put the Angel out of its misery now? Toying with it like this is really unprofessional and kind of creepy."
"Understood, Captain. My apologies. I may have been... excessively zealous in following Ritsuko-san's advice to take my feelings towards Commander Ikari out on the enemy." There was a horrible squelching noise, clearly audible even over the comms. "Angel neutralised."
Misato sighed. "I'm signing her up for anger-management classes."
Meanwhile, outside Shelter 322B, Shinji watched as Unit-00 wiped the blade of its Progressive Knife clean on the Angel's hide. "Well," he said to himself, "that... happened."
* * *
Approximately three months earlier...
If this is Instrumentality, it's really not all it's cracked up to be.
Shinji stared up at the ceiling. It was as far from unfamiliar as a ceiling could possibly be, which would have been vaguely reassuring if it hadn't been the ceiling he had last seen shortly before getting That Letter and starting down the slow but inexorable path to... Well, whatever the hell had happened.
He was back in Uncle Tomoe's spare bedroom (he could never think of it as his own room) in one of the few intact suburbs of Tokyo-1. A very reluctant glance at the display of his SDAT player suggested that it was about three months before the Third Angel was due to arrive.
Shinji sat up in bed, rubbing his eyes. He didn't see any point in wondering whether or not this was real; considering he'd been at least partly responsible for shattering the very fabric of reality and/or turning the entire human race -less himself, a two hundred-foot naked copy of his sister(?) and Asuka- into LCL to experience some rather nebulous transhumanist paradise, skepticism about mere mental time travel seemed rather silly.
"So, what now?" he said aloud, staring at nothing.
Could he just ignore the letter and hope his alleged father decided to recruit someone else? Or he could simply disappear. He had a little money, enough for a room in a cheap motel for a few nights; he could lie about his age, pick up some work waiting tables or something and-
Yeah... no. Fuck that. Running had got him precisely nowhere the last time around. This time, he could...
Well, what exactly? Pickpocket Misato for her sidearm and blow Gendo's head off? Hmmm... Tempting, but probably impractical. Lay his cards on the table, tell his father everything and hope he decided to make a few last-minute adjustments to the Scenario? Rather a vain hope if he couldn't prove anything. Try to beat the man at his own game, subtly working behind the scenes to undo the Scenario one small gesture at a time? Yeah, right. No amount of foreknowledge was going to let him out-Gendo Gendo.
Shinji drew a sharp breath as the feeling of helplessness began to weigh down on him. What the hell was he meant to do differently when so much had been outside his control?
This must have been how Asuka felt towards the end, he reflected gloomily. Helpless, no longer in control of her own destiny, totally alone...
Because I was too afraid of rejection to reach out to her. Or to Rei. But I'm not scared anymore.
Shinji laughed at himself a little. Okay, that wasn't entirely accurate. But there was something perversely liberating about the certain knowledge that he had nothing left to lose. After all, how could he possibly fuck everything up worse than total human extinction?
I can't do anything about SEELE, or my father, or Third Impact. But I can try and be a better friend.
* * *
Asuka awoke with a jolt, grabbing for the knife under her... pillow? That was weird. Pillows had not been a feature of her life recently, what with... Oh. Oh, yeah.
Memories came back to her in a flood. Running into Shinji at the beach. The shouting match, the brief and inconclusive scuffle while she tried to drive her knife into his heart, and the long and surprisingly civilised conversation that had followed. The moment they'd walked into the sea together... After that there was nothing but a jumble of blurred images and the faint impression of a familiar voice saying, "Good luck."
And now she was... back in Berlin. This was her old room. Judging from the concert ticket pinned to the noticeboard it was ten weeks before she was due to set off for Japan.
Asuka couldn't have articulated exactly what she'd been expecting to happen after she'd finally gone under, but this was definitely not it.
A desperate, slightly hysterical giggle bubbled out before she could stop it. "It's a do-over," she breathed. "It's a motherfucking do-over!" She fairly bounced out of bed and snatched up her dressing gown. "I'm gonna do it right this time," she muttered, throwing open the curtains. "I'm gonna have the best damn synch score ever now. Well... I can live with tied for first place with Shinji, I guess." She filled her electric kettle from the small wash-basin in one corner of her room. "Heh. I think I'll work on synchronising a little better with him too, after I beat the crap out of his asshole dad... Maybe I can defuse Commander Creepybeard's precious blue-haired tykebomb too? Well, she is kinda the baka's sister, wouldn't hurt to try being nice to her either way. In fact, screw it. If my life's going to turn into the biggest fanfiction cliche ever I'm just gonna roll with it and be the ultimate Mary-Sue, because I have earned some verdammt wish fulfilment in my life... And I really need to raise my blood sugar and blood caffeine levels because that sounded crazy even to myself."
* * *
Rei awoke suddenly, feeling... strange. Everything seemed brighter and sharper, a mental sensation not unlike what she imagined it was like to see through a pair of glasses for the first time.
Glasses... She turned to the nightstand. There should be a pair of glasses there. The Commander's...
And then Rei remembered everything.
Her scream brought four Section 2 agents crashing through the door, guns drawn. "Miss Ayanami! Are you alright?"
"I... I'm fine," she replied shakily. "A nightmare. I am not hurt, just shaken."
"We can summon Doctor Akagi-"
"No!" she half-shouted, then took several deep breaths. "Forgive me. There is no need; I will speak to her before the synchronisation test today. Please, excuse me: I would like to get dressed."
"We'll be right outside," promised the senior agent, an older man who gave her a look of fatherly concern. Wordlessly, they withdrew.
Rei lay back in bed and waited for her heart to stop pounding. This made no sense. She had fulfilled her purpose. She had joined with Lilith, and then in a belated moment of independent thought had chosen what she thought was the lesser of two evils... far, far too late to actually help.
And then it was all something of a blur, but she definitely remembered seeing Kaworu. He'd said... something, she wasn't sure what, but it had felt reassuring. And now she was back in her apartment in Tokyo-3, as if Instrumentality had never happened.
Realisation dawned, and Rei leapt out of bed. She grabbed her school laptop and waited impatiently while it booted up, then stared at the time-and-date display at the bottom corner of the login screen.
For the first time in her life, Rei Ayanami resorted to a real swear-word. "Oh, shit." She clamped both hands over her mouth to stop herself from bursting out laughing-
And then she felt a sudden stab of fear at the sheer intensity of the emotion, which was like nothing she'd ever felt before. She glanced over at the untidy stack of pill bottles on the nightstand. They will keep you from becoming distracted, Commander Ikari's voice said in her memory. Apparently whoever was responsible for sending her back in time had decided she might benefit from getting a little distracted, because this was ten times worse -or better?- than when she finally said 'no' to Gendo Ikari for once after skipping her meds for a week.
This was going to be a problem. If the Commander even suspected she was considering rebellion then she'd be replaced, and who knew what he'd do to her memory before uploading it to a new clone. And if Dr Akagi realised she wasn't taking her prescribed medicine-
Then she remembered the... altercation in Terminal Dogma. Dr Akagi, Rei realised, might just be an important ally given the right encouragement.
* * *
Kaworu Nagisa awoke slowly and peacefully, and smiled. "Oh, good," he said to himself, stifling a yawn. "I really wasn't certain that was going to work."
* * *
Ryouji Kaji got out of his car and looked around. "Alright," he said conversationally. "You were smart enough to use an anonymous remailer, so that's a point in your favour, but the stroke of midnight in a parking garage? Really?"
"What can I say? I'm a born show-off." Asuka stepped out from behind a pillar. "We need to talk, Kaji."
"I'm gonna come straight to the point, okay? I know what Misato's dad was really doing in Antarctica and I know what Gendo Ikari's really planning to do in Tokyo-3. I know all this because it already happened, but we apparently shattered the very fabric of reality so badly that God threw up His hands and restored from an old back-up, but for whatever reason I remember everything."
Kaji just stared at her.
"You think this is some harebrained roleplay thing? Fucksake, Kaji, I walked into your cabin on the boat carrying Unit-02 to Japan wearing nothing but a smile and you still turned me down. You're not over Misato yet, I get it. She's not over you yet either if that makes you feel better."
Kaji sat down heavily on the hood of his car. "This is crazy."
Asuka laughed, bitterly. "I know it is. But that doesn't mean it's not really happening. I guess I'd better start at the beginning..."
* * *
"I got a report from Section 2 this morning, Rei. Are you alright?"
"I believe so, Doctor Akagi. It was simply a nightmare."
"Hmmm." Ritsuko gave her a curious look. "Do you remember what it was about?"
"Not in detail. But I do recall something else." Rei hesitated. "It brought to mind something I overheard your mother saying. I hesitate to ask this, Doctor, but could you carry out a comparative DNA test on myself?"
Ritsuko blinked. "Whatever for?"
"I want to know who my biological mother was. I suspect it may not have been Yui Ikari, as the Commander believes."
"O... kay." Ritsuko rummaged in the cabinet above her desk. "I'll need to take a swab. Does the Commander know about this?"
"No. I would prefer it if this remained confidential until you can obtain the result."
After Rei had left, Ritsuko placed the sample in an envelope and filled out the necessary paperwork for the test, then sat for a long moment staring at nothing. Whose eggs would Mom even be able to switch out for Yui's? she wondered. And more importantly, why? A practical joke seemed like a bit of a stretch, even accounting for Naoko's... idiosyncratic sense of humour. Some blackmail and/or revenge scheme over a real or imagined slight by Gendo, Yui or the third party the egg actually belonged to? Well, maybe, but the consequences if Gendo found out the only thing left of his beloved wife was-
Ritsuko scribbled the word "URGENT" on the envelope. She needed these results ten minutes ago.
Three hours later, there was a knock at the door. "Sempai?"
"Come in, Maya."
"Sempai, the medical lab asked me to bring these results. They wouldn't tell me what the matter was but I could tell it's bad. What's going on?"
"I'll tell you in a moment." Ritsuko accepted the sealed envelope, and opened it with shaking hands.
The slip of paper fell from her nerveless fingers as Ritsuko fell to her knees. "Sempai! Sempai, what's wrong?"
"I have a sister," Ritsuko almost whispered. "I have a sister, and I'm helping Gendo turn her into... Oh, God." She burst into tears.
"I don't understand."
"Look!" Ritsuko grabbed the printout and thrust it towards the younger girl. "Read the results. They still had Mom's DNA profile in the records. She must've had an egg left over from the MAGI, and... Oh, fucking hell. She was sleeping with him. She must have been. Why else would she do this? She was trying to baby trap Gendo. Who was cheating on me. With my own mother!" she screamed. "I am going to murder him! Mother of God, I've dated some really lousy men over the years but this is a goddamn record. I give up. I really do. You wanna be my torrid lesbian rebound fling?"
"Yes!" Maya squeaked, before she could stop herself, then clapped both hands over her mouth in horror.
This had the effect of shocking Ritsuko out of her steadily increasing hysteria. "Uh... We never had that conversation, okay? And on a totally unrelated note, meet me after your shift finishes and we'll go for a completely platonic drink somewhere, because I could really use some company." She stood up. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to go and have a talk with Rei."
Maya stared after her boss and formerly-secret crush as she disappeared down the corridor. "What the hell just happened?"
* * *
Finding a church that was unlocked outside of services was pretty hard these days, but Asuka knew of at least one. It was an old turn of the 20th century building, dilapidated in a homey sort of way, tucked into a back-street not far from the park where her mother had taken her to run around. One of her few clear memories of Mama before the Accident was of ducking in here to get out of a sudden rain shower.
I'm sure God won't mind, as long as you behave yourself, she'd said fondly, taking Asuka's sodden pullover to hang over a radiator to dry off. And Asuka had sat next to her mother and chattered about everyday things until the sun came out again.
And then three weeks later her mother had come out of the prototype Entry Plug all empty-eyed and broken and wrong, and Asuka had thought that this must mean God did mind after all. She hadn't set foot in a church since... until today.
The place was empty, as she'd expected it to be on a beautiful spring afternoon in mid-week. She sat on one of the pews near the front and stared up at the plain wooden cross affixed to the back wall.
"So," she said slowly. "Our father, who art in heaven, yada yada yada. I know, we haven't spoken in a long time; I kinda stopped believing in you for a while, truth be told. I mean, no God was better than a God that let that happen to Mama. I was pretty mad at you for that at the time, but now that I'm in possession of all the facts... Well, actually I'm still mad at you. Second Impact, the Angels, whatever the hell happened to the planet after Wondergirl decided to hand Shinji phenomenal cosmic power the same day he finally got around to having that psychotic break he'd been procrastinating about since the clusterfuck with Toji and the Angel of Gundamjacking: I'm pretty sure at least half of that was your fault. Jeez, I appreciate a hands-off management style as much as anyone, but there's limits..."
She sighed. "But apparently you hit the reset button, so I have a shot at making things less of a cataclysmic shitshow this time around. Low bar to clear, I know, but hey. So... Thanks for that, I guess. We have a long way to go before we rebuild our relationship still, but it's a big step in the right direction. Just... If I have some great divinely-mandated destiny and you're not just doing this out of morbid curiosity, please give me the occasional nudge in the direction of not fucking it all up? Surely you owe me that much. Oh, and please don't get all judgemental if I trade in some purity points to make Shinji less emo, that kid needs all the help he can get." She blew out a long breath. "Amen, I guess."
"Feel better?" Kaji asked her, when she left the church about half an hour later.
"A little, actually."
"Good. Though you'll be glad to know some more mundane protective measures have been arranged. The custom work you wanted is gonna take a couple of weeks though."
"No big deal. I don't know when we're leaving yet."
"Are you sure this is a good idea?"
"The UN trusts me with the keys to a biomechanical mecha the size of a small tower block which can reliably solo an entire armoured division and you're worried about me carrying a pocket pistol?"
"It's not you I'm worried about."
* * *
"You know about the test results." It wasn't a question.
"Very little goes on within Headquarters that I do not know about, Doctor," Gendo replied.
"Including the fact that my mother pulled the oldest trick in the book to make you commit to someone who isn't legally dead?" Ritsuko said coldly. "Or maybe this was your doing. You already traded Mom in for the new model, why not me too in another five years? If you're planning to wait that long!"
Gendo had the good grace to at least look a little guilty. "My relationship with your mother lasted approximately four months, and was broken off by mutual agreement after the third violent quarrel in as many weeks. She insisted that we behave as if it never happened. This took place two years before Rei was 'born'." He sighed. "I didn't know about any of this. I don't know why she substituted her own genetic material for Yui's, or why she didn't tell me, but I sincerely doubt it was because she was jealous of you or because she'd fallen in love with me."
"Did she know you and I were seeing one another?"
"Yes. I left it up to her whether to inform you about her prior... liaison, with me. I suppose she felt you were better off not knowing."
"Did you love her?"
"Ritsuko, I have only ever truly loved one woman. Naoko understood that better than anyone. But I did care about her, and I do care about you."
"And about your son?"
Gendo looked up, startled. Rei was standing in the doorway, her expression uncharacteristically hard. "Forgive me for interrupting, nee-san," she said calmly. "May I speak with the Commander in private?"
"Of course." Ritsuko stood up. "Gendo... I'm going to give you the benefit of the doubt that you didn't act out of malice, but I want the key to my apartment back until I've had time to process all this. Rei, I'll see you after work."
Gendo stood up. "Rei..." he began.
She didn't look it, but between her Nephillim biology and regular physical training for her role as a pilot, Rei was remarkably strong. Her slap had enough force behind it to send Gendo sprawling, his glasses flying off into a distant corner.
"That," she said coldly, "was for Shinji."
"How do you even know his name?" he demanded, too stunned to be angry.
"Because I have seen the Scenario play out to the end." Rei's eyes began to glow faintly. "And you failed."
* * *
"Welcome to Tokyo-3, Shinji! I'm Captain Katsuragi, senior operations officer for NERV. Your father asked me to bring you to headquarters."
"A pleasure," Shinji replied sincerely. "I take it you had some part in the giant robot beating up the kaiju?"
"Got it in one. Hop in, we'll talk on the way."
Shinji was mildly pleased with himself for only needing to grab the Jesus-handle twice for the whole ride, and managed an admiring whistle as they descended to the Geofront. "I've heard the stories, but they really don't do it justice," he said.
"You ain't seen nothing yet, kid!"
Dr Akagi was wearing ordinary clothing under her labcoat this time, and looking noticeably less frazzled. "Right on time, Misato. And this would be our new Pilot candidate, I take it?"
"Indeed. Shinji, meet Dr Ritsuko Akagi, head of Project E and senior repair and maintenance officer for the Evangelion Project. Rits, meet Shinji Ikari, prospective Third Child and pilot of Evangelion Unit-01."
"Ikari..." Ritsuko scowled. "I will warn you now, boy. Your family name will not entitle you to any preferential treatment whatsoever. If your performance is less than exemplary then I can and will overrule the Commander and have you discharged."
Shinji blinked. Trouble in paradise already? "I neither expect preferential treatment nor desire it, Doctor Akagi," he replied with a calm he didn't really feel. "I wish only to prove myself worthy of my mother's name, and her sacrifice."
Well, she certainly hadn't been expecting that. Ritsuko gave Shinji a long, calculating look. "Your mother, not your father?" she said thoughtfully.
He laughed, bitterly. "You've met my father."
She granted him a small smile. "Maybe you'll do after all. Misato, give the rookie the ten-cent tour and then meet me in the test chamber in thirty minutes."
"Alright. C'mon, Shinji."
"She doesn't like the Commander much, does she?"
"Good question," Misato replied, after a moment's thought. "They... Well, they're not on good terms just now, but it's not my place to talk about why."
"Then I'll put it down to my father being my father," Shinji decided. At least for now, he added mentally. Dr Akagi was high up on the list of people he wanted on his side. "By the way, when do I get to meet the pilot who took down the Angel?"
"Rei? She's still getting debriefed at the moment. But that reminds me, there's someone else I need to introduce you to."
Asuka ejected the empty magazine, set down her pistol and pressed the button to reel in the targets. Three neat holes had been punched in each, two in the centre of mass and one in the head.
"You know, you're actually getting pretty good," Misato remarked. "Shinji, this is Asuka Langley-Soryu, pilot of Evangelion Unit-02. She's assigned to our Berlin branch, but volunteered to fly out here to carry out some joint training with us. Asuka, this is Shinji Ikari, who'll hopefully be taking Unit-01."
Shinji managed to sketch a brief, formal bow. "H...hi," he stammered out, hoping like hell that they'd take his astonishment for shyness. The Great Asuka Soryu here, already, and apparently voluntarily training a potential rival for Best Pilot Ever? Events hadn't just gone off the rails, they'd careered down an embankment and ploughed into the Twilight Zone.
Asuka smirked. "Awfully skinny for an Eva pilot. So, when do I get to start breaking him in?"
"Soon as we get him fitted for a plugsuit and test his synch rate." Misato's phone went off. "Damn. Sorry, I gotta take this one," she said, glancing at the screen. "I'll let you two get to know each other, 'kay?" She stepped out into the corridor.
"Okay, if Kaji's as good as his word, we've got five minutes before anyone notices the camera feed just glitched out." Asuka took a deep breath. "What I'm about to tell you is probably gonna sound crazy, but..."
"You remember." Shinji sagged onto a nearby bench as everything he'd planned, everything he'd allowed himself to hope for, came down around his ears.
"Yep. Including what you thought I was unconscious for, and yes, you really are fucked up."
"Oh." Shinji glanced at the handgun on the ledge behind her and sighed. Most people would be totally undone by the sudden onset of crushing, irredeemable failure, a small detached part of him reflected; what did it say about him that the only emotional response he could muster this time was exasperation? "I don't suppose 'sorry' really covers that, does it. Oh, fuck it all. Just pass the gun over here, there's no point in leaving Rei to do everything by herself. Tell them I had a dreadful firearm-safety lapse."
Asuka stared at him open-mouthed.
"Honestly, I don't even know why I'm surprised," he continued. "I mean, why would I be reliving this if not because God didn't think I'd suffered enough going through it the first time? So of course I've failed before I've even begun when it comes to being a better friend this time around, that was the one thing I could do by way of damage control for the utterly mental shit we're going to be put through over the next nine months before the world ends. Well, screw that. I'm going to do us both a huge favour and leave early to avoid the rush." He stood up abruptly and crossed the distance between them in two quick strides. "I know I've no right to ask anything of you," he said sadly, "but I'd be grateful if you'd try and reach out to Rei." He reached for the gun.
"Shinji no!" Asuka grabbed his wrist and forcibly interposed herself between him and the pistol. "Jesus Christ, baka, will you listen to me for a minute? I did not spend sixteen hours crammed into an economy-class seat just so I could blow you away, let alone guilt-trip you into doing it yourself! C'mon, I know I can be a vindictive bitch but at least credit me with being smart enough to pick a better time and place than this!"
"I thought this was more of a spur-of-the-moment thing," he replied.
"Trying to stab you when we ran into each other by Misato's memorial was spur of the moment. I've had three months to plan this meet-up. Besides," she said with a sour little smile, "you masturbating over my comatose body was far from the worst thing to happen to me that week. At least it proved you were too dumb to know when you're being hit on instead of just gay."
Shinji blinked a couple of times. "What," he said at last.
Asuka raised her eyes heavenwards. "Listen up, Third Child. This is what we're gonna do. You're gonna get your Synch Rate tested, and then you and Wondergirl are gonna get a crash course in Eva piloting from the best-trained pilot in the business. And after that, we are gonna work together to stomp on every last Angel until it can be mailed, and in between Angels we're going to figure out what the hell to do about those twisted fucks your dad works for. And if you promise to try not to be a wet blanket who apologises for his very existence, I promise I'll try to use less tsun and more dere this time, because I want to be a better friend too. Now, let's write everything that happened before off as all just a prophetic dream or something; you can even imagine me muttering about it in the shower after the opening credits have finished if that helps."
She snorted. "Never mind. And Shinji?" Asuka pulled him into a fierce hug. "Don't you ever fucking scare me like that again, okay?"
Shinji was too shellshocked to do much more than nod mutely. But all the same, he had to admit he felt a little bit better.
Maybe things were looking up.
* * *
His good mood lasted about ten minutes. "Is it absolutely necessary to pilot an Evangelion wearing skin-tight neoprene?" Shinji grumbled. He'd always hated plugsuits, but then he'd always hated damn near everything about this job so he'd never bothered to make an issue of it. But now he knew what was coming, he really thought he ought to take a stand.
Nobody, he reasoned, should have to confront Armageddon in a gimp suit.
"It's not actually neoprene, but yes. It's this or go in buck naked; LCL will ruin any other fabric. And cheer up, it's not like Rei or Asuka can tease you," Misato pointed out. "They have to wear the exact same thing."
"Yeah, except I make 'em look good!" Asuka added.
"And don't you know it," he sighed, refusing to spoil the effect by admiring just how well the suit showed off her curves. Asuka stuck her tongue out at him.
And then the three of them entered the hangar, and Shinji saw his father standing on the gantry leading to Unit-00's cage. He forced himself to unclench his fists and tried, not very successfully, to keep his expression neutral.
No more running, he told himself. Not this time.
And then Gendo turned around, and Shinji saw the dark smudges under his father's eyes, and the faded but still noticeable bruise on his cheek. What the...?
"Shinji," he said as neutrally as he could.
"Father," Shinji replied, pleased with himself for keeping his voice even. "It's been a long time."
"Yes. Too long." Gendo looked like he was struggling to think of something to say. "You are ready for the synch-test?"
"As much as I ever will be." Shinji felt a sudden surge of wild courage. "Is there a reason I'm piloting the one that ate Mother?"
This didn't get the reaction he was hoping for. "Yes, there is," Gendo replied calmly. "But this is not the time or the place to discuss it. I must go."
And before Shinji could open his mouth to say anything further, he was attempting some sort of speed record for the 300 Metre Nonchalant Walk in the direction of the exit.
"Well, that was a touching family reunion," Asuka remarked, breaking the awkward silence.
"Could've been worse. He could've forced me into the Eva to go fight the Angel with absolutely no training whatsoever because the only other pilot got put in hospital in a botched synch-test or something," Shinji replied.
Misato gave him a long and very thoughtful look, then shook her head. "Well, anyway. Ritsuko must be around here somewhere, she's probably the person Commander Ikari was avoiding."
"Actually, Captain, I suspect he may have been avoiding me."
Shinji's head shot upwards at the familiar voice. Perched casually on Unit-00's shoulder, Rei met his gaze and smiled that little Mona Lisa smile that had made him harbour thoughts he was somewhat embarrassed about now he knew about the whole 'clone of his dead mother' thing. Before he could form any terribly advanced conclusions, she stood up and leapt from the Evangelion, landing on the catwalk in a practiced crouch.
"Pilots Ikari and Soryu, I presume?" she said casually, as she stood up. "I am Rei Akagi, Pilot of Evangelion Unit-00, and Ritsuko's half-sister."
Shinji gave up on maintaining his cover as his jaw hung open and several key parts of his brain fused together. A muffled exclamation in German from Asuka suggested she felt the same way.
"My apologies," Rei continued, with no outward sign of mental gear-clashing. "I should have informed you sooner, but I have been neglecting our correspondence; the last few weeks have been... hectic. It is good to finally meet you in person."
"Likewise," Shinji replied weakly. Asuka just stared.
"I will explain everything once we are in private," Rei promised. "Good luck with the synch test, Shinji."
"Uh... thanks," Shinji said vaguely. Suddenly, and for the first time in his life, he was actually looking forward to climbing into the Entry Plug. Maybe things would be a bit less complicated in there.
"All comfortable in there, Ikari?"
"As much as I ever will be. Freud would have had a field day with this user interface, do you know that?"
"I am painfully aware of it," Ritsuko replied. "Okay, readings look good so far. Lowering plug to test depth. Core psychograph stable. Pilot psychograph... stable." She exchanged worried looks with Maya. "Synchro-start in three, two, one... mark. Synchronisation achieved! Holding steady at... Wait, that can't be right. Sixty-eight percent? That's only five or six points behind Asuka!"
"Wow. Hear that, Shinji? You're a natural!" Misato called out. "Are you sure you've never done this before?"
In the entry plug, Shinji fought down the urge to break out in hysterical laughter. "Maybe in a past life," he replied. Making very sure he'd released the transmit key, he added, "I wonder what she'd have done if I said yes?"
Listening on the secondary pickup mic that Shinji really should have expected the entry plug to have, Ritsuko sighed. "Called it," she muttered.
* * *
The three of them had been sent off to get lunch, with a proper training exercise scheduled for some time that afternoon, and Rei had casually mentioned a nearby cafe that was "superior to the canteen". This was not a high bar to clear, but it was small and crowded and had a stereo system blasting a local Top 40 station loudly enough that they were probably safe against any surveillence the Commander could arrange on short notice.
"So, then..." Asuka began.
Rei took a sip of tea. "During or shortly after Instrumentality, I relived something of which I had had no conscious memory before. Naoko Akagi, moments before..." She hestitated. "Before becoming very angry at something I said, admonishing me not to speak to my mother in that fashion. When I... returned, I asked Ritsuko to investigate further. It transpired that Naoko had switched Yui Ikari's genetic material with her own. The Commander claims he does not know why, and that this is unrelated to the sexual relationship he shared with Naoko that neither of them saw fit to tell Ritsuko about."
"Well, that certainly explains why she's mad at him," Shinji sighed. "Is Naoko inside Unit-00's Core?"
"Yes, I believe so."
"Figures. How much did you actually tell my father, anyway?"
"Few details. Only that everything he had worked towards and everything he had put myself and his only son through had been for nothing, and that he would die alone and unmourned, rejected by the only person he had ever truly loved." Asuka's mouth opened and closed a couple of times with no sound coming out. "It was... cathartic," Rei added, looking rather pleased with herself.
For the first time in... Well, now Asuka came to think of it, the first time ever since she'd known him... Shinji almost fell over as he was incapacitated with helpless, uncontrollable laughter. "Oh, I wish I could have seen that!" he gasped. "The look on my father's face must have been amazing."
"It was. I believe the memory of it improved my synch score considerably. Mother and I hate Commander Ikari far, far more than we hate each other, and as a result we have... reached an accommodation."
"O... kay," Asuka muttered to herself. "Nice to know you're as much of a seething cauldron of angst and parent issues as everyone else around here under that emotionless facade, Wondergirl. Uh, I'm gonna regret asking this, but did what Shinji was talking about down at the cages actually happen the first time around?"
"Yes. Shinji omitted the fact that Commander Ikari had me brought to Unit-01 on a stretcher and threatened to force me to pilot with multiple broken bones and a head injury if he refused to take my place. He agreed, despite the fact he had never seen an Evangelion before."
"Well, that's not quite true," Shinji added, with a brittle little laugh. "It's just that I'd repressed the memory as thoroughly as possible because I saw my mother die horribly when she tried to synch with it and succeeded a bit too well. Or so everyone thought; if I didn't hallucinate everything between seeing you go down to the Mass-Production Evas and waking up on the beach, she actually did it on purpose so that Unit-01 could become an eternal monument to mankind's existence... or something. I don't know all the details and I'm not sure I want to, especially why she found it necessary to make me watch."
"Oh," Asuka said softly.
"So, yeah," Shinji continued breezily. "That's the woman my father is planning to cause total human extinction to reunite with. No accounting for taste, I suppose."
"Guess not," Asuka muttered. "Now, fascinating as it is to compare childhood traumas, we need a plan of action."
"I thought yours was fine as it was," Shinji replied. "Do better at beating the Angels and try to have a normal life in the meantime."
"I'm aiming a little higher than that, Third. But first, we need to work out how to tell Misato what really happened before she decides we're all crazy."
"I fail to see how what really happened and all three of us being insane are mutually exclusive," said Rei, which set Shinji into another fit of hysterical laughter. "Hysterical" being the operative word, Asuka reflected gloomily; she'd heard saner-sounding laughs from her mother's neighbours.
Mein Gott, she thought to herself. Things have come to a pretty pass when I'm the most stable Pilot on the team.
* * *
"I can't believe I'm saying this, but going by the psychograph figures alone, the most stable Pilot we have right now is Asuka." Ritsuko took a deep drag on her cigarette. "And stop looking at me like that. I'll think about quitting when this time-bomb is somebody else's problem. When was the last time Shinji had a psych-evaluation?"
"About six months ago, sempai. There's a copy in your inbox, but I already skimmed it. He wasn't exactly a happy kid, although given what we know about his upbringing since his mother's death I'd be more worried if he was, but there's nothing in there that'd explain why his mental state deteriorated so far so fast."
"Didn't think there would be." Ritsuko massaged her temples with thumb and forefinger. "Just like we had no warning that Rei would be so much her mother's daughter."
"Yeah..." Maya paused with her sandwich halfway to her mouth. "There was one minor anomaly in Pilot Ikari's file, thinking about it. A note from Section-2 saying that he'd been seen enrolling in judo classes. It's out of character for him according to previous evaluations, but a teenage boy suddenly taking an interest in martial arts isn't especially weird... except for the timing. He signed up on the exact same day Rei asked you to take that DNA test. Odd coincidence, don't you think?"
"Mhmmm," Ritsuko said vaguely.
"... I am sick of relationships based on deception. I wish to be as honest with you as I would wish you to be with myself. Besides, you would suspect something amiss in the end..."
"Maya, are you free this evening after work? There's something we need to talk about, in a place we're safe from being overheard."
Maya almost made a joke about the soundproofing qualities of her apartment, but Ritsuko's expression brought her up short. "Of course, sempai."
* * *
"This is the Steyr AUG automatic rifle. Thirty-round magazine as standard, bullpup configuration -meaning the trigger's in front of the magazine- and a two-stage trigger; squeeze it lightly for single shot, harder for full auto. It handles as close to identically to an Evangelion pallet-rifle as we can manage at this scale." Misato set the rifle down in front of Shinji. "Now, gun safety has three basic rules. Rule Number One: All guns are loaded until proven otherwise. Does this gun look unloaded to you?"
"No magazine, but there might be a round in the chamber," Shinji replied.
"Good answer. Many guns have a mechanism that holds the bolt open after the last round fires so you can see at a glance when it's unloaded, but you shouldn't rely on that. Only way to be sure is to pull back on the charging handle; that's this part here. Alright, now for Rule Two. Never, ever aim that barrel at something you don't intend to shoot at. Keep it pointed down at the ground until and unless you're taking aim at a target."
"Understood," Shinji replied.
"Good. Now, keeping that in mind, pick the gun up and see how it feels. See that little white dot? That means the safety's on, but be careful anyway."
Warily, Shinji did so, finding that it weighed less than he'd expected. Keeping it pointed downwards, he felt for the bolt and pulled it back slightly. His eyes widened as he saw a glint of brass. "It's loaded!"
Misato nodded. "Blank round. Would've scared the hell out of you if you'd been careless. Now, Rule Three it seems you already figured out. Finger away from the trigger until you're ready to pull it. Get into the habit of that, safety or no safety. Alright, put it back down and we'll get you some eye and ear protection."
Two magazines later, Misato called a halt. "Not bad for a beginner, but be gentler with that trigger; we'll work up to burst fire later."
"It's a little loose," he replied. "Is there a way to adjust the... pull, I think it's called?"
"Sure. Which leads us right on to the next lesson: How to clean and maintain your weapon."
"That sentence would sound really wrong out of context."
Misato snorted. "If you need help cleaning and maintaining that you're on your own."
"... get through this, and you can have the rest. Now go!"
"Hey, you alright?"
Shinji shook himself mentally. "Yes. Just distracted."
"You did good today, you know," Misato replied. "I think you'll make a pretty good pilot."
"I hope you're right." But I know it won't be enough.
Misato followed up the brief introduction to firearms with a simulator session. "It's crude," she admitted, "but it'll let you get used to the controls. Now, when you see the Angel appear, centre the target in your HUD and pull the switch on the handlebars. Sounds easy, doesn't it? Well, it is and it isn't, because what you'll actually be doing is mentally controlling the Eva; the switch is mostly there to give your physical hands something to do. Give it a try."
Shinji obliged her, finding to his mixed relief and annoyance that he didn't have to work very hard to make it look clumsy. He'd got more out of practice than he'd expected; or did his muscle-memory not make the transition back in time? Not that he'd been a particularly good shot to begin with; in fact, by any reasonable measure on paper, Asuka should have made him entirely redundant from the day she arrived.
That he'd got a higher kill-count than her by sheer dumb luck, sending her into a downward spiral by knocking the scabs off her deep-seated insecurities, struck Shinji as deeply and profoundly unfair with the benefit of hindsight.
"The rookie did good," Misato declared. "In fact I think he did better than your first time, Asuka."
"My first time was at the age of seven," Asuka retorted. "Besides, it's all just point and squirt; you'd expect a boy to be capable of that by his age." Then she thought about what she'd just said. "Ugh! Please don't ever quote that out of context. Or at all, in fact."
"Yeah..." Misato shuddered. "Moving on. I know you two need to unpack, so we'll call it a day now and try basic unarmed combat in the morning. Shinji, if you have any issues with hitting a girl, now's the time to say so."
"This is a trap, isn't it."
"Huh. You're smarter than you look," Asuka replied. "Well, here's the deal, Third. I'm gonna try as hard as I can to hit you in the dojo tomorrow, so if you don't try as hard as you can to hit back you're gonna have a bad time. But that's honourable single combat with safety gear and a referee. Can you live with that?"
"I think so. I'm a bit worried about what happens if I screw up and you get hurt badly enough to be off the piloting roster though."
"Don't be. I'm not on the roster until and unless Unit-02 gets shipped out to Japan."
"Okay," Shinji replied, not quite succeeding in hiding his surprise.
"Attagirl," Misato added. "Now, I have a bunch of paperwork to do, so why don't you two go find Rei and get her to show you the sights?"
"You're awfully calm about not being a pilot right now," Shinji remarked, as they sat on a bench in a little park not far from a pedestrian entrance to the Geofront.
"The way I'm rationalising it to my ego is, if you or Rei get a kill then it's 'cause I taught you everything you know," she replied.
Shinji laughed. "That's no rationalisation. Do you have any idea how badly I sucked when I started out? The damn great prism thing with the Wave-Motion Gun was the first Angel I legitimately killed myself; the first two ended up wailing on me until Mom took over. Which was probably all part of my father's grand plan. Maybe crippling social isolation and mental trauma make your AT-field stronger or something?"
"Makes as much sense as anything else I ever heard about metaphysical biology." Asuka sighed. "Do you think we can salvage anything from this clusterfuck, Shinji?"
"Do you really want to know the answer to that?"
"Guess that's a no, then."
"It's all out of our hands, Asuka. SEELE want Third Impact to go their way, my father wants it to go his, and by the time Kaji figured out what was really going down it was too late. And if he paid for that information with his life when the ball was already rolling, what the hell would happen to us if we tried to blow the whistle early?"
"Point." Asuka looked thoughtful. "We should talk to Rei. I think she's the only other person besides himself who knows what your dad really wanted. Maybe we could work something out?"
Shinji thought about it. "Well, I guess the worst he can do is say no. C'mon, I heard Rei say she had to go back to her place."
"This is her place?"
"So far as I remember." They'd come via surface bus instead of the subway, giving Shinji a better appreciation of the quality of the neighbourhood -or lack thereof- this time. "I think NERV must own the building, use it for worker accommodation or something."
"We spend hundreds of millions of dollars a week keeping the Evas running and they couldn't spring for the rent in a nicer part of Tokyo-3 than this?"
"That's the Japanese housing market for you," Shinji replied, with a bitter smile. "Seriously, though, I'd put it down to my father being my father."
Asuka muttered something in German that Shinji suspected was very uncomplimentary indeed about his father.
The lift was broken, so they used the stairs. "Well, this is it," Shinji declared, gesturing to the door. He made to knock, but Asuka stopped him. "The lock's broken!" she hissed urgently.
"Stay back." Asuka reached under the light denim jacket she was wearing and drew out a small pistol.
"Are you kidding me-?"
Asuka kicked open the door. "Nobody move!" she yelled. "Do you dumb sons of bitches know who you're burglinnnnng oh what the actual fuck she lives here?"
"Yes, I do." Rei gave Asuka a sidelong look as she closed the bathroom door behind her. "How did you acquire a sidearm?"
"Kaji got it for me. I have two more for the both of you in my suitcase. Rei, is this where Gendo made you live?"
"Did... Oh, mein Gott. Shinji, did you know about this?" She pulled him inside. "Look at this fucking dump!"
Shinji looked, taking in features like the pattern of mould covering one entire wall, and the grubby window without shades or curtains. "Oh God..."
"You knew her address! How the fuck could you not see any of this!"
"I was only here once, for a few seconds!" he protested. "I came by to drop off her new ID card, she didn't answer the door so I tried to push the card under it but the door swung open; I thought it just hadn't latched properly. And Rei..."
"I was getting out of the shower," she interjected. "We walked right into one another, and we fell and landed with me on top of him. I was wearing nothing but a towel, around my neck. He was too shocked and embarrassed to notice the apartment's condition, and he never had cause to return." She held up a cardboard box. "I did not understand his reaction, thanks to these. Here. You may recognise some of these medications."
Asuka looked in the box. "Diazepam? Midazolam?"
"I've heard of diazepam, but what's this middle-stuff?" Shinji asked, confused.
"It's a tranquiliser, a mood-stabiliser. It numbs emotional reactions," Asuka ground out. "It's used on mental patients who have manic episodes. They tried it on Mama, or the wrapper she came in, after she attacked me when I visited her in hospital. On someone with a normal emotional range, it... Oh, Rei!"
"Rei Ayanami never dreamed. She never thought about what she wanted to do when she was older, or what it might be like to kiss a boy. She barely had enough sense of self to wish for death... a wish she was denied twice. Once after Naoko Akagi strangled her to death in a fit of rage, then threw herself off the catwalk in the Eva cages in remorse and became Unit-00's Core when the Commander used it to dispose of her body. A second time when she self-destructed Unit-00 to kill the Sixteenth Angel. Each time she was forced back into a new clone body, one of dozens of spares watched over by Ritsuko Akagi, who was carefully manipulated into hating and resenting Pilot Ayanami because the Commander desired her sexually." A single tear ran down Rei's cheek, and her voice hitched. "And even then, the Commander loved Rei Ayanami more than his own true son."
With uncanny synchronicity, Shinji and Asuka both launched themselves forward and pulled Rei into a fierce three-way hug. "I'm sorry," Asuka murmured. "I'm so, so sorry. I was too selfish to see it..."
"You were not meant to see it. Commander Ikari used your self-doubt to isolate the three of us, just as he used Shinji's desperate desire for his father's approval. But in the end... something within her understood that what he was doing was wrong."
"Well, he can keep his fucking approval," Shinji snarled. "This is what he does to his favourite? His last link to his dead wife, and the key to his one tiny chance of seeing her again? By all the Kami-sama above, I thought lying to Ritsuko about screwing her mother was low but this...! I want to fucking kill him- No, no, I can do better than that. I'm going to do my damndest to give him exactly what he wants, just to watch it all come crashing down when Mom slaps his face and goes looking for a divorce lawyer! Oh, yes, that's a reason not to run away alright..." He trailed off, fighting back tears, and Rei and Asuka both tightened their arms around him.
"Rei Ayanami is dead," Rei continued. "It was what she wanted, the only thing she could want, and I hope she is at peace. I am not her. I am Rei Akagi, Ritsuko's little sister. I am not sure what I want to do when I grow up, but I would like to find out what it is like to kiss a boy. I think I would like to find out what it is like to kiss a girl, as well; Ritsuko said it was similar in most ways, but intriguingly different in others." She paused. "Please do not tell her I told you about that."
There was a moment of stunned silence, then all three of them burst out laughing.
"That was way more about your sister's sex life than I wanted to know," Asuka added, once she'd got her breath back. "And why hasn't Dr Malpractice got you out of here yet, anyway?"
"My sister is committed to a lease on a studio apartment no larger than this one, and has been working sixteen-hour days for the last two months getting the Evangelions combat-worthy. There has not been time to make other arrangements. And don't call her names; she does her best."
"Well, get everything you wanna take together, there's room for two futons in Misato's spare room. Sorry, Shinji, looks like you get the boxroom again."
"No problem. It's in a good cause."
"Thanks. Now let's get out of here."
* * *
Misato let herself in, only mildly surprised to see a pair of slightly scuffed girl's dress shoes next to Asuka's ballet flats and a pair of trainers she suspected were Shinji's by the door, and hung up her coat.
She followed the sound of German swearwords to Asuka's room, and was a lot more than mildly surprised to see her peering in resentful perplexity at the assembly instructions for an Ikea single bed. "Goddamn passive-aggressive Scandanavians and their engineering puzzles... Oh, hi Misato. Rei's moving in with us, hope you don't mind."
"If you do mind, go check out her old address. You won't need a key, the lock on her door's been broken for months."
"The building's falling apart and her apartment looked like a Russian prison cell!" Asuka snapped, then forced herself to calm down. "Misato, Rei can not go back there. I wouldn't keep a dog in that place, and that's before we get into our illustrious Commander Ikari's plan for better parenting through chemistry. Oh, and remind me to register with a doctor's office outside of NERV, I don't think I want my pap smear handled by a woman who gets jealous when her boyfriend hints he wants to get his lolicon all over his underage stepdaughter."
Misato went very cold. "Run that by me again?"
"In the interests of being scrupulously fair," Rei interjected from the doorway, "I must point out that we do not know for the certain that the Commander actually intended to abuse me sexually. It may have simply been a convenient way to manipulate my sister into keeping me heavily sedated. Oh, and Shinji asked me to inform you that dinner is nearly ready."
Misato sighed, heavily. "How about you start telling me what the hell's going on, huh? Emailing back and forth with Rei on the quiet I could almost believe, but flying out to Japan like this to train with her? I know you too well for that, Asuka. You're not doing this out of a sudden generous impulse. What's really going on here?"
Asuka smiled sadly. "Knew you'd figure it out sooner or later. You might wanna grab a beer for this."
"So," Misato said slowly. "You're all time-travellers."
"Yep." Asuka nodded.
"From a future where everything got totally fucked up."
"To put it mildly."
"It was kind of my fault," Shinji added.
"And you came back, somehow, in order to fix it."
"Pretty much," Asuka replied, giving Shinji a quelling look before he could say something else.
Misato tossed back the whiskey she'd poured herself after realising beer just wasn't going to cut it tonight. "Is it bad that this actually explains a lot? Rei suddenly developing a normal human emotional range, you flying out here and actually being nice to her..."
"Nothing like the end of the world to make you rethink your life choices," Asuka replied. "Though I honestly didn't plan on that part, at least not above and beyond experimenting with alternative coping mechanisms for my abandonment issues, 'cause pushing everyone away so I didn't have to worry about them leaving me was kinda counterproductive in hindsight." She smiled brightly. "But we get to be probably the first three people in history to make hindsight useful."
Everything about Shinji except his voice said, If you say so.
And on that note, the meeting broke up.
"I've got a spare nightdress if you want one."
"Thank you, but I am more comfortable sleeping naked."
"Yes, but are you comfortable getting up in the night to go to the bathroom and finding Shinji still awake naked?"
"You have a point," Rei admitted. "Although I do not think Shinji would really mind."
Asuka snorted. "Let's try not to kill him before he even sees an Angel, huh? Now get some sleep, because tomorrow we are going shopping!"
In his own room, Shinji briefly wondered where the sudden feeling of inescapable doom was coming from, before putting it down to his inescapable doom and turning over to go to sleep.