The 2nd try

Chapter 7: The 15th



It was still an unusual sight in her eyes. Asuka and Shinji clinging onto each other. Asuka and Shinji kissing. Asuka and Shinji going together into her room at night. Asuka sitting on Shinji's lap during breakfast while they were touching the other more often than the food.

"To think that they've used to bicker like a married couple, and now that they are, they're all over each other like newfound lovers..." Misato mumbled into her half-drained morning beer. It was still clearly enough to remind her two charges that they weren't alone as they apparently had forgotten.

Reluctantly, Asuka pried her lips off of Shinji's. "Well, being a hormone-driven teenager again sure helps," she declared.

"Misato, you have to understand," Shinji helped her. "It took us quite a while to get through that barrier. But I was all the more glad when we could look at or touch each other no matter where without having to feel ashamed," he explained and glanced at the redhead in his arms, smirking. "Or having to fear for my life..."

"Hey!" Asuka protested playfully and shifted on his lap to give him a light bonk on the head. "Always the same hentai," she said, turning her face away from him, pouting.

Instead of the familiar apologizing, he just chuckled as if to concur and moved his mouth close to her ear, though speaking loud enough for Misato to hear. "Remember the time when we used to run around completely naked the whole day?"

Asuka instantly blushed furiously, her sly grin matching his as she giggled like – well, like an embarrassed schoolgirl.

Misato shook her head. To see her two charges in a way maturing several years over night, but on the outside still looking just like the two teenagers she had come to know so well in the last few months – and then again acting more like normal teenagers than they ever had before. If – yes, if it wasn't for that overshadowing sadness in their eyes that would return whenever these moments faded.
This was still all so complicated.

Continuing to watch them from behind her can of Yebisu, her mind drifted back to that evening several days ago when this chaos in her mind really started to whirl.


////////////


"Don't you want to go after her?"

Shinji shook his head, sadly smiling as he turned around and stepped back to the table. "You know Asuka. Over time she was able to get over her past, but it's still hard for her to share what is troubling her in the present. Too much pressure would just cause her to block us out, saying she's fine." He sighed as he slumped back on the chair, his voice filling with remorse. "Aki's loss was already hard enough to cope with. I guess me vanishing in the EVA was just too much for her."

"Aki, hm?" she repeated the name softly, a careful smile on her lips. "It's a little hard to picture the two of you as parents."

"It was a little surprise for us as well. But I think we became accustomed rather quickly. And Aki surely helped us with that as well."

"How so?"

"Well, she went quite easy on us. She was so lively, always so full of energy, maybe even more than her mother if that's possible. Sure, there were some moments where she didn't feel well, and if she really wanted to she could get cranky and demanding. We could hardly spoil her, but in a way we gave her the whole world." He chuckled at that; a hollow laugh that soon turned into a sobbed breath. "But... but most of the time she... she just smiled and laughed. She had... she had such a beautiful laugh." He interrupted himself, desperate for the need to calm down. Taking a deep breath, he wiped the tear that was threatening to run down his cheek away. "Sorry."

"No, it-it's okay," she said, but she knew that it didn't even sound halfway as assuring as she wanted. It was not okay. She might have never got to know Aki, and up to a few minutes the lone thought of the sheer possibility of her existence wouldn't have crossed her mind. But this boy, her father, had grown close to Misato. Sure, he had some harsh low points before. But seeing him mourning the loss of his child was absolutely devastating.

"Asuka..." he eventually continued, "Asuka was the best mother a child could wish for. Of course I loved Aki with all my heart, but there was a bond between those two that not even I could fully comprehend. It was a hard fight for Asuka to accept that she was going to have a child. The more she... well, 'cherished her victory' afterwards. But the more it's hurting her now."


///////////////


'It's hurting her... But even if she hates to do it, as Shinji said, she surely does her best to hide it,' Misato mused, back in the present. 'If I wouldn't know, I probably wouldn't be able to see it. If the aftermath of the 14th hadn't happened, would I have ever noticed?' A guilty thought suddenly hit her. 'Could it be that I have missed their pain already before? Given their past...'

She looked down, ashamed at her realization. 'No. I did notice. I guess it was just more convenient to go on without showing it. Not having to face the confrontations.' Her stern view returned to the playful couple that seemed busy with a tickling match. 'Is it that what you are doing now?'

"Ah, shit! We're late!"

Asuka's yell snapped Misato out of her thoughts, startling her enough that she almost spilled her beer.

"I have to make myself ready to get to NERV as well," she announced, slowly rising from her chair in contrast to the "children" who had hectically jumped off theirs, grabbing their satchels and running for the exit. "I can drop you off on the way."

The two halted midway to the door. "Well..."

"No protest!" She warned, walking towards them. "Been there already or not, it would get suspicious if you'd always come too late to school."

"Can I at least drive?" Asuka whined, earning a disapproving glare from Misato. "Hey, you know I can!"

"My Alpine is no pick-up!"

The argument went on as usual while last preparations were made and shoes put on. While the subjects have changed a little, it was almost as every other normal day before. As if Misato had never learned about Third Impact, time-travel or a girl named Aki.


Just as the door closed shut behind them, the telephone began to ring. Since no one was there to pick it up after the third sound, the answering machine kicked in...


*********


Outside the city, in a small, lone phone booth, Kaji hung up the receiver. He had said what he had to say. It would have to be sufficient.

"My last assignment," he muttered, as he stared at the document in his hand. A wide smirk spread on his face. "Just as predicted."



****************



Hikari couldn't believe it. The declared love of her life had been back for more than a week and not only Asuka still hadn't made any move on him, she didn't even seem to think about it.

"Huh?" was the only answer she got when she asked about it as the two of them went through the city on their way home.

"Cooking you know? He's always making your lunches, why don't you make a special one for him for a change? 'The way to a man's heart is through his stomach', they say."

She could already hear the complaints that Shinji wasn't like Toji the food-annihilator and so on, but none of that came.

"If you say so..."

That was the last straw for the class rep. "Oh, come on, Asuka! If you love someone you have to tell him!"

Asuka's smirking glance that was directed at her quickly reminded Hikari of the flaw in her argument.

"Well, that's different," she defended herself blushing. "We're not constantly at the brink of death... At least not like you... Not anymore at least..."

Asuka's grin, however, didn't falter and Hikari knew better than to try making up further excuses that would fall on deaf ears. After a while though, the curiosity started nagging on her again.

"Seriously, when are you going to tell him?"

"Eventually..."

The brunette was about to groan in frustration, but held it in as she realized that they were passing a toy store. "Ah, I almost forgot! I wanted to look for a present for Nozomi's birthday next week! Would you mind to wait a moment for me?"

Asuka huffed as her gaze wandered over the large window where various toys were presented in several rows. "Who would want such childish things?"

"Well, my little sister for example. Who happens to be a... Asuka?"

Hikari trailed off as she noticed that the redhead was no longer regarding the expositions with disgust, but rather looked like she had seen a ghost.

She was staring at a plain rug doll with fuzzy red hair that was sitting in the display. Hikari heard her unconsciously muttering something, but couldn't really make it out. 'Ki...ko?'

Wasn't her mother's name something like that? She had seen it once on some school papers. Keiko...? No, Kyoko was it. But no, why would she call her mother's name at the sight of a doll? Maybe it was the doll's or the brand's name?

"Everything alright?" Hikari asked concerned, causing Asuka to snap out of her trance.

"Y-yeah. Just hurry up!"



****************



'Just what had gotten into him to do such thing?' That was the question that kept repeating in Misato's head as she was led to the isolation wards by the two agents that had already confiscated her gun and ID. To them, she tried to appear calm and professional, but inside she was in turmoil.

'He knows where this will get him. Ikari can't pretend not to see any longer and with SEELE already on his trails, it's only a question of who will get him first. That idiot!

But it wasn't just her worry for him that troubled her. Once again her thoughts went back on her time-traveling charges, but unlike before it was much less compassionate. 'Why didn't they tell me? Why didn't they tell him?' She inwardly shook her head, feeling a bit guilty for accusing them without knowing the whole picture. 'Maybe that means everything will be alright with him. Or maybe... he is an idiot after all...'

"Thanks again for your cooperation," one of her guards said as she entered the cell that would hold her as long as "the matter needed to be solved".

Then, darkness surrounded her.



****************



Shinji silently walked next to Asuka, glancing over to her every so often in attempt to read her face. It was rather unusual to hear only the tapping of their plugsuit-clad feet echoing in the empty halls as they went through the corridors of the NERV Headquarters on their way to their next test.

They didn't have to hide their relationship at home anymore and they made good use of that situation. But even though he had more or less officially moved into her room, they still had only these rare moments truly alone where they could freely talk about anything. However, Asuka didn't seem to be in a very talkative mood since she returned from school today.

"You know, Hikari made some strange remarks lately," he tried to lighten the atmosphere, watching her reaction from the corner of his eye.

If her flushing face hadn't been enough, her low voice dripping with guilt betrayed her of knowing exactly what he meant. "She... she did?"

"Yeah. Asking me if there's someone I like; saying that I probably wouldn't have to look that far to find someone..." He glanced over to her, not only secretly enjoying being on the other side of the teasing for once, but also that he successfully distracted her from whatever she had been brooding over. "And I doubt she was talking about herself, the way she's clinging onto Toji recently. Any idea who she wants to hook me up with, Asuka?"

"Why can't that silly girl keep quiet as she promised to?" the redhead grumbled angrily, only indirectly answering.

Shinji chuckled at that. But eventually he turned to her again more serious. "Asuka, remember that it was mostly your idea to keep it secret. And for good reason, as you quickly convinced me. But... Misato and now Hikari too..."

"It was while you were gone. I've tried to keep her away for almost the whole month, but she continued to bug me about you and – eventually, I just blurted it out. I- I just had to tell her." She sighed. "Hikari just knows that I love you. She has no idea about that. I mean, she obviously doesn't even know that we're actually together. And with the way she's acting I'm not even sure if she really understood that it's not just some teenage crush."

"Well, she still is a rather normal teenager after all. It's hard see beyond one's own nose."

"So you're not angry?"

"There's not much we can do about that now," Shinji said shrugging in hope that it would hide the twinge of disappointment he indeed felt, not so much because she told her friend, but that she didn't tell him afterwards.. "Maybe it would even ease some things for us if we would indeed let her hook us up."

"Well, that might..."

"Shinji!" someone suddenly yelled behind them, cutting their conversation short. "Hey Shinji! Wait up!"

The boy in question turned around to see the newcomer waving wildly as he ran towards them. "Toji?"

The jock came to a halt; slightly panting from his sprint. "Oh, good thing I met you here. I think I'm kinda lost."

"Well, that's nothing new," Asuka scoffed, having instantly switched back in character. "But what the hell are you doing here?"

However, Toji obviously ignored her completely. "You know, I've been here only once before, when they did that synch-test, and then that doctor chick showed me around, so... can you tell me where I find the changing rooms?"

"Sure, you take this corridor back to the elevator, two levels up, then to the right and just keep straight on, you'll see it then," Shinji explained to him. "But Asuka's right, what are you doing here?"

Toji shrugged. "Well, they said now that I'm fit again, I'm officially back on duty. Though until I get a new EVA, they just want to do some tests now and then."

Shinji could hardly believe his ears. "But... After all that happened to you, you're still doing this?"

The Fourth Children felt visibly uneasy, despite his feeble attempt not to show it. "Sure, being inside an Angel wasn't the best experience of my life," he admitted. "But I'm a man who sticks to his word."

"Since when are you a man?" Asuka interjected taunting.

"Very funny," Toji sneered. "Anyway, two levels up, you said? Well then, I'll see ya once I'm finished."

Giving a wave with his hand, he turned and left his renewed co-pilots behind.

Asuka waited until he was reduced to a small form at the end of the corridor. "You think they're really going to let him pilot again?"

"I seriously doubt it," Shinji said, shaking his head as he confirmed her apparent suspicion. "As far as we know, the only EVAs that are being built are the series they want to use against us. I don't think they'll give one of those to him and have it under my father's control."


*********


Ritsuko just returned to the control room from a cigarette-break as the next 'subjects' arrived on the gangway down in the test chamber. The children weren't much bigger than a finger from this point of view, but the different colored plugsuits would have made it easy enough to distinguish them if they were even further away. While Shinji and Asuka instinctively went to their plugs, Toji moved only hesitatingly, obviously lost.

Grimacing, Ritsuko went over to the instruments and opened the comm channel. "We've tested Rei a little earlier already, so you're using her test plug, Toji."

Apparently seeing the need to point it out for him, the red figure aimed her arm towards it.

"Which pattern should we load for him, Sempai?" Maya inquired, her fingers ready to type the commands.

"Keep the one of Unit-00. It has the weakest bond to the pilot, so it would be the best candidate for him if it will be necessary some time."

While the children entered their plugs down in the chamber, Makoto kept looking around behind him.

"Something wrong?" Ritsuko asked.

"Didn't Commander Fuyutsuki say he wanted to oversee the tests today?"

"He knows that it's scheduled for now," the doctor said slightly annoyed. "And it's not like his attendance is needed. He just wanted to see how the boys would do in their first test after being out of action for so long."

A quiet gasp suddenly escaped Maya. "The comm channel didn't close on its own."

"Again? Good thing we didn't talk about Misato's various 'positions' this time," Ritsuko muttered lowly. "Guess that last optimization didn't work out as good as..."

"Ehm, Dr Akagi?" Shinji's voice suddenly interrupted them.

Ritsuko sighed as he sounded overly nervous again, which usually meant that it would take a while until he calmed enough for useful results. "What is it, Shinji?"

It took him a while to answer, as if he felt uneasy about whatever was on his mind. "Is... is Misato there?"

The doctor blinked before looking at Maya, then Makoto, silently passing the question on. But both shrugged or shook their head, coming to the same answer as she did. "Uh, no, I haven't seen her today. Is something wrong?"

"No, I- I just wanted to ask her something..." he said obviously disappointed, making it a not very convincing excuse.

"Does she have to hold his hand for the tests nowadays?" Ritsuko muttered just loud enough that it wouldn't be heard over the channels either way, but got a low chuckle by the attendant crew. She silenced them, clearing her throat. "Okay everyone! Could we begin now? I have the feeling it's going to be a long day."


*********


"His phone is off!" Asuka cursed, putting hers away again while they ran towards the nearest station, where they hoped to get a train that would get them home in time. "Damnit, if you wouldn't have ruined the test, Akagi wouldn't have had to restart it twice!"

"Sorry, it's kinda hard to focus on 'concentrating' when someone who's close to you is in danger!" Shinji shot back, heavily panting from their run. He decided against mentioning that he had the feeling that it hadn't been only him "ruining the test" from the way Dr Akagi had sounded the second time.

They both had exchanged a concerned glance over the comm-window when they had overheard the conversation during the test that Commander Fuyutsuki was missing. After Shinji had asked about Misato's absence, all doubts whether the next dreaded day had arrived were blown away.

The Sub-Commander not there. Misato not there. It fit to what he heard afterward about what happened. It was today.


They managed to jump in the train in the very last second, granting them the opportunity to make it home in record time. Out of breath, they entered the apartment, greeted by a distorted male voice.

"... Ritsuko too." Neither had to say a word; they both knew the other realized the same as they looked at each other in shock. Not losing another second, they hurried to the kitchen. "Katsuragi, the truth is with you. Don't hesitate. Move ahead. Should I see you again, I'll say what I couldn't eight years ago. Ciao."

The tape of the answering machine stopped clicking, but the tears of the heartbroken woman, that lay hunched over the table in front of it, continued to flow.

"Misato..."

She jerked up at Shinji's low call, apparently not having noticed them coming in until now. Her tear-stained face quivered, changing from shock to cold fury. "You... you knew this, didn't you?!" she demanded to know, her voice dripping with accusation.

Shinji could hardly hold back the sobs himself. Knowing what had happened was painful enough, but seeing his guardian like this was even worse. "I... I'm sorry, Misato, I..."

"You knew and you didn't tell...?!"

"I... I tried to..." he stammered, backing away also from a not less hysterical Asuka.

"Didn't you give him the letter?!" the redhead questioned unbelieving.

"Of course I did! Maybe he didn't read it or thought it was just some kind of joke, I don't..."

"No, he didn't," Misato interrupted him quietly as understanding settled in, but she was visibly fighting for her calm. "It just didn't tell him anything new. He knew very well that this time would eventually come, as did I. Otherwise, he wouldn't have bothered with that message. He knew that this would be his last job. That idiot and his stupid quest for truth!"

"The message...?" Shinji suddenly furrowed his brow. "Wait a moment, something..." He didn't finish voicing his thoughts; instead walked over to the answering machine and replayed the message. Misato whimpered slightly, hearing Ryoji's last words to her once more, but Shinji's lips turned into a weak smile when the tape stopped. "He didn't ask to water his melons..."



****************



"The customer you called cannot be reached."

"Still nothing," Asuka groaned as she hung up her mobile phone.

"You know him," Shinji tried to calm her. "He can take care of..." He was cut off by Asuka's glare that reminded him instantly that Kaji had not been able to take care of himself last time.

"He might know what he's doing, but we still don't even know if he's really alright," she berated him. "What if he just forgot to mention his melons? Where you at the patch already? Maybe we accidentally stomped on it during the last fight, so that he had no reason to ask us to water them."

Shinji was about to counter that she had been the one who had a whole month to check for that, but he held himself back. Sensitive as she had become lately, it wouldn't be a good idea to mention the very reason – his fault, not to forget – that had affected her that much. That, and he didn't really want to make a scene in a public place like the train station.

"Either way it would be too dangerous for him to answer his phone, so we won't know for sure until he contacts us," he eventually said. "And I doubt that would be anytime soon."

"I know," she sighed sadly. "I know."

Instinctively, his arm went around her shoulder to draw her closer. But just as she settled against him, something caught his eye that let him snap away from her.

"What is it?" she grumbled understandably angered.

"Rei is over there," he explained, pointing with his head to a platform a little away from theirs, where the familiar mop of blue hair stood out of the crowd.

"Do you think she saw us?"

"I'm not sure. She seems to be reading something," he said, craning his neck. "Do you think we should go to her?"

"No."

The dejected tone of her answer got his attention back on Asuka's downcast face. "Something wrong?"

She shook her head, taking a deep breath. "Never mind. I just remembered..."

Their conversation was cut short as the train arrived, drowning their voices out.


On the other side, across the station, Rei Ayanami returned her attention to her literature.



****************



"I still don't see what's wrong about that..."

"I didn't say wrong, it's just..."

The ringing telephone cut Asuka's argument off, and rarely before was Shinji so glad for this diversion from the heating discussion between his two roommates over their dinner. It wasn't the silence he wished for, but at least it gave him a good reason to excuse himself from the table before either side got the idea to use him against the other.

"I'll get it," he announced quickly and stood up, not caring if Asuka or Misato would even noticed as they already resumed their conversation whether a pet like PenPen should eat at the table.

Shinji shook his head as he reached for the receiver. They probably used such silly topics to avoid certain others, but still... "Hello?"

"Uhm... hello? Can... speak... with Asuka?" a female voice asked in broken Japanese. Shinji tensed, recognizing it already before the speaker revealed herself. "Here her Mother..."

"E-einen Augenblick, bitte."

Gasping, Asuka turned to him instantly when she heard him speak German. They had expected this call for some time now, and he had even caught her practicing for this talk. But in the end such things always come as a surprise.

Hesitantly she stood up and went over to him, taking the phone, too fixated on it to even notice him silently wishing her good luck.

"Hallo... M-Mama..."

Shinji watched her as she spoke, listening carefully as he tried to understand what she said with the little knowledge of German he learned in the last years.

"What, am I not allowed to call you that?" she joked, growing more confident as the ice was slowly breaking. "Yeah, maybe it's a little... really, never? Well... quite a lot happened since the last time we talked and – no, that's not a reproach, I could have called as well. It's just... I- I wanted to say sorry, okay? I've never been very easy on you, even though you tried to be nice to me. And it's not that I didn't like you, it was just... well, because you're not my real mother. That wasn't fair to you, I know, but I hope you can understand... Hello? You're still there?" She blinked twice, waiting for a response. Then she rolled her eyes. "Yes, of course it's really me! Ye- who?... Oh yes, that's him... He's okay I guess," she said, winking at him.

Shinji smiled back. Now that his emotional support wasn't needed any longer, he stopped listening and let Asuka continue the now casual talk in private. He didn't look at the clock, but it was quite a while until he heard her finishing.

"Ja... ja, werd ich. Du auch. Mach's gut."

A tired sigh accompanied the beep of the hang up button and Shinji was quickly behind her. He wrapped his arms around her as she gratefully accepted his offer to rest against his body.

"That was quite a long call," he whispered, causing her to chuckle slightly, but it was short-lived. "Are you feeling better now?"

"A bit." She sighed once more. "But to come to terms with her was one thing. Compared to what's awaiting us soon, it was nothing..."



****************



"Almost another 5 points down again? That's even worse than the 3.7 from yesterday!"

Misato bit her tongue hearing Ritsuko's comment about the current readings of Asuka's harmonics test. She knew that there was a lot troubling her charge, but she couldn't just say "Hey, let's cut her some slack. After all, she went through a hell that led to the destruction of the world, recently lost her child, then for some time her lover as well, now probably another close person, and is about to face that aforementioned hell once again." But she still felt the need to defend Asuka's score somehow.

Eventually, she settled for an excuse that had worked for herself several times in the past. And as far as she knew, there could even be some truth in it. "Well, she's currently having her period."

"The synchro ratio is not affected by external bodily disorders," the doctor blocked her argument almost before she could finish it. Also the look the blonde was giving her made it obvious that she had been caught. "And it's not like her results are that terrible. She actually recovered some of the serious drop that followed her defeat by the last Angel."

'Yeah right. Because she was defeated.' Misato rolled her eyes mentally. 'If only you knew...'

"But it's still far below her average score, actually not much above the one when she started her training. And that even though it was just a little while ago that she had the highest ever recorded," Ritsuko continued sighing. "It raised a little again, and now in the last three tests it took the path down once more. It's fluctuating way too much lately, in a much bigger range than Shinji's ever did. If she can't sort out whatever is on her mind..."

"You... you were serious about that?" a startled Maya interjected.

"We can't use a pilot who's mind is elsewhere during a fight."

"Oh, come on Rits," Misato argued, not liking the way the discussion was heading at all. While she didn't know for sure what the two women were referring to, it wasn't hard to put two and two together. "This is Asuka we're talking about. She lives for the EVA and the fight against the Angels, not for some synch-test. You saw how well she was doing against that last one. It wasn't her fault that it overpowered her."

"Yes, but I also saw that she ignored orders to attack it with long range weapons before. She could've at least weakened it," Ritsuko reminded. "And as I said it's not that bad – yet. I'm not saying we should replace her right away. But just in case, I think it would be for the best if we'd see how well the Fourth would do with Unit-02."

Misato groaned. "Somehow I doubt that will raise Asuka's mood."


*********


"You're doing WHAT?"

Misato sighed inwardly at the predicted outburst of the redhead. She wasn't even sure if there was much of an act in Asuka's reaction when they briefed the four pilots that had only been waiting for their results, before they could leave.

"Relax," the Major tried vainly to calm the furious pilot. "Ritsuko just wants to see if Toji would actually able to use one of the remaining EVAs, just in case..."

"Just in case someone needs to be replaced..." Asuka finished bitterly.

Seeing her not with the common fiery-, but such a frustrated anger made Misato's stomach wrench in guilt, even more so after glancing to Shinji who seemed to fight not to go over to his lover to stand by her.

"He will only replace one of you main pilots in case you are not able to fight. We are not considering a permanent change," Ritsuko lied without hesitation, but given Asuka's reaction, Misato was sure something similar had already happened to her before to know the truth well enough.

But for now, none of them had a choice other than to accept the doctor's instructions.


*********


"Are you feeling alright, Toji?" Misato's voice reached him as the plug was inserted. "After all it's your first 'real' time... well, since..."

"Yeah," he just mumbled, trying to sound relaxed enough, even though it wasn't quite the truth. Well, it wasn't quite a lie either, but it was – strange.

He wasn't nervous about sitting in an EVA again after what happened with Unit-03. He didn't remember much of that incident actually. And after being in those test tubes so often, there wasn't much difference (and with that not much to be anxious about) between those and the real thing from the point of view of the one inside.

But there was still... something. Something about it being Asuka's EVA. He couldn't quite place it, but somehow it didn't feel fitting for that brash, arrogant girl he got to know on that aircraft carrier. For some reason, he rather felt reminded of the small, comfy room of his little sister.

Maybe Hikari wasn't completely wrong about her after all.

"Okay, we got all we needed," said the voice of the doctor eventually, carrying a trace of disappointment along with it. "You can come out again."



****************



It was a natural reaction for people to be startled when they would instantly look into her eyes as soon as the elevator's doors opened. She was aware that it was unusual to stand right in front of the exit, despite not having an aversion against this type of transport and the resulting wish to get out of it as quick as possible. But it was practical enough for her not to change this habit.

So she just stepped once again to the side to permit the Second entrance. As the elevator continued its way through the levels of the Headquarters, she found herself strangely unable to focus on her thoughts. Normally, she could easily ignore persons that were accompanying her ride, but this time she felt the presence of the unusual quiet girl in her back growing as though she was physically reaching for her.

It could prove to be a severe disadvantage for NERV if they would lose a valuable and experienced pilot, but there had also been something else when Dr. Akagi had spoke, hidden by the obvious lie of not replacing Asuka.

That feeling. Was it pity? It was empathy at least.

Rei was unsure about the expectations that were put in this emotion. Wasn't she supposed to ease the sorrow of the pitied one? The Second had never been someone who was very willing to accept assistance and Rei didn't know if she was actually willing to offer it. A beneficial advice was all she could...

"You know," the unexpected voice of the redhead interrupted her thoughts, "Someone once told me I have to open my heart, otherwise the EVA wouldn't move."

Rei didn't answer, her experience telling her that more information would follow a sentence in this kind of tone. But she did wonder how similar that was to the advice she had been about to give.

"I thought... no, I know I did," Asuka continued as suspected. "And I'm sure it won't go as far as to stop moving. But it's hard sometime to keep an open heart."

"Why are you telling me this?" Rei inquired.

"Do you open your heart?"

Asuka's direct question brought an uneasy silence between them for several long seconds as Rei's mind raced for an understanding of her words – or rather what they implied. "What... do you mean...?"

"To make it move."

An unnamed relief washed through Rei, but it didn't last long. "I mustn't."



****************



Asuka stared at the tub as the water gushed in, but as absent as her mind drifted ever so often, there was no guarantee she would notice it overflowing in time.

She didn't hate herself anymore. But she was anything but happy with herself. Why was she doing this? She remembered her downward spiral still far too well. So why was she taking that path yet again?

Everyone seemed to notice. No wonder, her synchro rates must have gone through the floor. Even Toji had given her a look full of pity when he got out of her EVA. And Shinji of course...

He had already made some feeble attempts to talk to her and it was just a question of time until he got more pressuring. It wasn't like she didn't want to talk to him, but every time there was something that held her back at the very last moment. And she knew well enough what that was.

Fear. That same ugly thing that she had felt the last time like this in those first months of her pregnancy. The only thing that still managed to get between them.

"Staring at the bathtub like that probably doesn't mean anything good."

Instinctively, Asuka jerked away from the voice as she snapped out of her self-absorbed trance. "Ever heard of knocking?! I'm naked in here, Baka!"

"Nothing I haven't seen before," Shinji replied with a sly grin.

Her arms fell hesitatingly back to her sides from trying to cover her, but she still avoided his gaze in embarrassment. Not because of her state, but because he was right and she hadn't thrown a nearly similar fit for real in reaction to such situation for years.

"So what do you want," she asked still a little peeved, though her confidence slowly returned as she placed her hands on her hips. "Just wanting to get a look at this luscious, though scandalously underage body again?"

"Well, I don't mind that either."

"Old Hentai..."

"Oh, as long as I'm in a scandalously underage body as well, I don't think I really have to fear of being arrested for pedophilia," he said chuckling.

"Maybe," Asuka chimed in, "But that doesn't change the fact that someone who is in a way over twenty years old is attracted to a fourteen year old body. And that's – just – wrong!" she said while stepping closer, poking him against the chest with the last exaggerated words – before she wrapped her arms around him. "Be glad that I'm such an old hentai myself."

She leaned in for a kiss, but found herself surprisingly stopped by his hand. "Asuka," he began with a more serious voice, smiling in apology, "I actually just wanted to talk."

"And that couldn't wait for bed?" she whined, snuggling closer against him in hope to get him into the mood.

But he actually got a hold of her upper arms and pushed her gently to a safe distance, which could only mean he was being serious.

"You know it won't be much longer. One, maybe two days if I remember right," he said, trying to look into her eyes, but she quickly averted them. That was really not the topic she wanted to talk about now. "There's not much more time and I...I can't hold back much longer to wait for you to do it on your own. They're starting to worry already. That test with Toji was proof enough for that. From what I heard it's not as bad as last time, but that doesn't matter much to them; it just looks 'worse than before' without the comparison we can draw." He sighed, softly cupping her cheek. "I wouldn't even need to hear about all that to see that you're nervous. I bet that's also why you were staring holes into the water just now. So why don't you...?"

"NOT NOW!" Realizing that it had come out more fierce than she had intended, she mellowed back. "Please, not now..."

"But..." A sigh announced his defeat, wrapping his arms around her concluded it. "Okay. First that bath, maybe then you'll feel ready to..."

"Are you saying you want to bath with me?" Asuka interrupted him again, twisting his words before he could say what she didn't want to hear. She knew anyway. And she knew he was right. But she just couldn't bring herself to face them. She could deceive herself as long as he wouldn't remember her.

"Uhm... I didn't..."

"Bathing in the same water baka Shinji is using?" she asked with a smile she knew he wouldn't be able to resist. "Yeah, I think I'd like to do that."


*********


Shinji lay on their bed, passively waiting for Asuka to change into her pyjamas. Not that their shared bath hadn't been an enjoyable pastime, but it hadn't felt as relaxing as it should have to him and, as far as he had been able to tell by her stiffness, neither to her. He just felt ashamed of his inability to help her, just because it was against her will. Apparently, the past years hadn't changed anything in that regard.

She had avoided him yet again and he couldn't bring himself to force it out of her. Why? He knew it would just make everything worse if she didn't talk to him, and he was quite sure that she knew as well. And now it lingered over them heavier than ever before.

"Shinji," she suddenly cut his thoughts off with a rather timid voice, not turning around to him while she finished buttoning up her top. "Just promise me one thing: When it comes, don't try anything stupid. Don't try to break free and help me against orders. I know you well enough to know that you'd want to, but please don't."

"But..." He barely even noticed that he jumped from the bed.

"You know it would be too suspicious." Done with changing, she turned around, shrugging with an obvious false smile on her face. "And, hey, who knows? Maybe it'll just use the same memories against me as the last time. I've accepted those by now after all."

"Asuka, you don't seriously believe..." he pleaded, but was cut off yet again, as she raised her hand close to his mouth.

Asuka tried her best to put on a confident smile, but her eyes betrayed her. Maybe the reasons why she didn't want to admit her fears weren't the same as those she had all those years ago, but doing it to keep him (and properly herself as well) from worrying too much was hardly any better.

"Shinji, I have to do this by myself and you know that," she said calmly. "You already disobeyed them so many times in your 'career'; another insubordination of this extent and they might keep you locked up in those cells and only get you out to fight. And we can't just let Rei take the blow. Or do you think he would let me get the lance?" It was more of a rhetorical question and before he could answer, she did by shaking her head. "You faced your Angels, now I have to face mine – alone."

Reaching for the light, she ended the discussion by bathing the room in darkness, before she slipped next to him under the cover of their shared bed. He knew her well enough to know that she would not accept any more arguments now and pretend to be asleep if she must. Especially when both knew she was right – mostly.

He probably would have to let her face it on her own. But there was no way he would let her do it alone.


*********


An unexpected knock on her door ripped Misato out of her just-found sleep. Groaning, she rolled over on her futon to take a look at the clock, just to realize that it was much too early to be awakened without good reason. Crawling from under the blankets, she heaved herself up to slouch over to whoever better had indeed a damn good reason.

"Shinji...?" she asked mumbling, recognizing the shadow at the other side of the door as she slid it open.

"I'm sorry if I woke you, I couldn't sleep very well," he instantly apologized.

"It's ah-awahit," she yawned her acceptance, though it was more out of politeness than anything else. "W-what is it?"

"Misato, I... can I ask you for something?"

"Sure."

His head quickly turned to Asuka's room, as if checking that she hadn't come out of it. "Please, Asuka mustn't know this. She... wouldn't agree. But... when the next Angel comes..."

"If you want me to unfreeze your EVA to help her, I'm afraid I can't do much for you," she quickly reminded, the sleep – much to her dismay – slowly wearing off. "That's all in your father's hand."

His shoulders sagged in a sigh. "Yeah, I kinda expected that. But since that doesn't work, could you try to get us a secure line? You know, so I could speak with her without anyone noticing or it being recorded?"

Taken aback by that unexpected request, it took Misato a few seconds until she found herself able to answer. "I-I could try, but I'm no technician. I can't really promise you anything. And I seriously don't know how we could filter Asuka's answers to you out of the regular communications."

Seeing his crestfallen face in the faint moonlight, she wished she could have told him something else. But Shinji reluctantly nodded anyway. "Please try. It would already help a lot if I can at least talk to her freely if it gets too bad."

Misato frowned at him. 'Just what are we going to face?' Slowly though, she nodded. "I'll see what I can do."



****************



"'I'll see what I can do'", Misato repeated muttering to herself as she typed furiously on the console. "Me and my big mouth."

Working under pressure often tended to let her work twice as efficient, but just having a couple of minutes for something she wasn't overly suited for was still a little much. As if it wouldn't be bad enough to miss lunch today. But the time when most of the bridge crew was in the cafeteria seemed to be the best choice to go through with the plan, as she would only have to persuade the overworking Maya (who was always the one opting to stay behind) that she should get something warm to eat for once. It had still taken much too long to convince the Lieutenant that she could handle the bridge herself for twenty minutes.

'Ritsuko could have probably done this in a couple of seconds, and better at that. Hell, even Ka...' Her fingers came to an abrupt halt as her heart dropped at that thought. But she angrily pushed it away. 'Don't think like that. They said he's alright. At least they hope so...'

"Major?"

Startled, Misato quickly saved and closed the window. Did that girl inhale her food or was she really just so obsessed with her work?

"What are you doing there?" Maya asked with innocent curiosity.

"Eh, I was just... wanting to play a bit Solitaire," Misato "admitted" sheepishly as she jumped out of the chair, what immediately got her the expected look of pity at the presumed lack of knowledge of the superior.

But she had managed to finish what she wanted to do. At least she hoped so.

After all, she didn't get the time to recheck anything as the blaring alarms announced the arrival of the 15th Angel.


*********


The bridge was filled again within few minutes as everyone assumed their respective battle station.

"First, Second and Third Children are in their EVAs," Makoto reported while Misato's eyes were fixated at the blinking spot that was all they had of the Angel for now. "Fourth Children is on the way, but is not expected to be here within the next 15 minutes."

'Not that it really matters,' the Major thought absently, but her mind was rather on the unknown enemy. Even more than usual she wondered what it could have in its sleeve to make Shinji so worried about Asuka that he wanted a secret communication line.

"Visual confirmation of the Angel," Shigeru announced in the same moment as the screen changed into a shot from a satellite in orbit, quickly updating with a closer look of the glowing bird-like form. With these "wings" it was the most "angelic" appearance so far, but Misato was willing to bet that, if they could get a better picture, this impression would quickly falter. However, the long-haired tech already confirmed that this was at maximum zoom.

And that it wasn't moving at all.

"Does that mean it's waiting for a good chance to come down?" she mused loud. "Or does it going to attack us from up there?"

"Won't be easy for us to reach it," Makoto commented.

"Either way, we can't do anything as long as it's out of our firing range. EVAs can't defeat an enemy in orbit." She cursed silently. What had she done last time to beat it? The only logical measure they had against such opponent was the positron rifle, but was it the best? Could she have had a better idea that she now just couldn't get because she was wasting her brain with thoughts like that? Something apparently had happened to Asuka, but because she fired or because she shielded? If only she knew so she could make other decisions this time so Shinji's plan wouldn't even be necessary. But what if the only choice was to let Rei take her place? That wouldn't be fair to her.

Why couldn't they just have told her?

"Major?"

Makoto's quiet call let her flinch. She had to pull herself together and give orders, otherwise she could just as well retire from this position. After all, she had sent these children to their possible deaths several times before. That she now knew that something will happen for sure this time shouldn't cloud her judgment... right?

"How's..." she calmly began, but was suddenly interrupted by an opening comm-channel.

"Come on, Misato! Just let me get at that Angel already!" Asuka impatiently demanded.

"Asuka, I don't..."

"Misato," Shinji chimed into the discussion as well. "I... I think it might really be best for her to do it."

The Major sighed, painfully aware of the eyes of the commanders' in her back. Getting strategic advice by her subordinates was heavily undermining her competence, but they really should know best in this situation. And she never really cared much for her military rank anyway.

She raised her thumb to Shinji who smiling shut the comm-window down, Asuka following his example. "Very well, Unit-02 start! Prepare for long distance firing! Rei will provide back-up!"

"You know, it will not really help her if she's going to mess this up," Ritsuko commented.

"Maybe," Misato admitted, "but let's hope her problems will be over if she won't."


*********


The waiting had been bad enough when she was full of adrenaline and eagerness, with just a hint of fear of the then unknown abilities of the Angel nagging in the back of her mind. But the knowledge of what was about to come was even worse.

Asuka's efforts to calm herself down and ignore the nervousness were in vain, but she tried nonetheless. She didn't even watch the small light that was the Angel and the crosshairs that constantly failed to target the out-of-range enemy. Her eyes were closed under the visor as she listened to her ragged breathing that sounded loudly over the deep, always present hum inside the Entry Plug. It was strange that no one had complained about her pulse and other vital signals so far. Her heart felt like a jackhammer in her chest. She almost wished it would finally begin so she would be over with it.

A thought she regretted all too soon.

***

One could have thought it was a mere beam of light that hit EVA-02 as it wasn't inflicting any visible damage, but even without the blaring alerts, Misato didn't need a lot of imagination that it was hardly the case, coming from an Angel.

"A directional weapon?" she asked anyway.

Makoto however quickly confirmed her assumption. "No, no thermal energy reaction detected!"

"Abnormal patterns in the psycho graph!" Maya suddenly interjected. "Mental contamination will start soon!"

"An Angel's psychic Attack?" Ritsuko questioned, apparently more to herself. "Can they understand the mind of human beings?"

'Psychic?' Misato gritted her teeth as she helplessly looked back at the display where the EVA was spasming under the assault. An assault they had no means against. 'Asuka...'

***

She screamed, screamed at the burning pressure that surrounded her, drilled into her. Despite the pain, she somehow managed to resist the reflex to pull the trigger and forced herself to let the rifle fall before she would cause more damage than preventing it. As selfish and cruel it seemed, a part of her regretted that she hadn't let someone else take her place.

How could she have forgotten this pain?

The pain as her defenses were slashed open as though they were not even there. The pain as the most inner depths of her soul were ripped out and exposed. The pain as her mind was defiled by that god-damned being they called an Angel.

"Mama!"

Please!

"Help me... "

Mama?

"Please..."

Where are you?

***

It was dark.
There was nothing.
Nothing but a sound.

Of a crying child.

'What? Is it really just like last time?' she wondered as the form of a girl materialized, standing with her back to her. 'There I am. I'm crying. But why? I put that long behind me...'

But then a cold fear gripped her heart as she noticed that the girl's hair wasn't red like hers, but rather a dark brown like...

Before she could decide if she rather wanted to let her curiosity win over her fears or run away from the unavoidable, the girl suddenly ceased her crying and slowly turned around. "Why did you leave me alone?"

***

"NOOOOOOO!"

The scream was painful in Misato's ears, but that was nothing against the sickening feeling in her stomach. Something must have gone wrong. There was no way they could have planned to have her hurting like this.

"Asuka, retreat!" she ordered, but got no reply.

"No response!" Shigeru affirmed.

"Maybe she's already too lost in her mind to hear us any longer."

That hypothesis got Ritsuko a silencing glare by the Major. Such thoughts were the last she needed now.

"What about Rei?" she called, listening into the chatter of reports that the pilot got before she was allowed to fire.

"...and gravity, .03!"

"Pressure in the chamber is at maximum!"

"Release the final safety lock!" Makoto was the last to make an announcement. "All personnel prepare for firing!"

Not a second later, the powerful blast of Unit-00's positron riffle shot into the sky, perfectly aimed at the Angel – only to be split in several straying beams as it hit the blocking AT-Field.

"No effect!" Shigeru confirmed. "There's not enough energy to break through the AT-Field from this distance!"

"But the output is at maximum! We can't get more power!"

Misato cursed silently under her breath. If their only long-range weapon wasn't enough, there was nothing they could do to help Asuka anytime soon. She could only hope that Shinji had understood her signal. If he couldn't reach her...

***

She found herself back, back near the garden, near their home. But she could barely recognize it anymore. Several broken planks lay scattered on the ground, or were bent inwards by the force that must have hit it, leaving a gaping hole in the fence.

Climbing through, the sight before her only grew worse. The soil was dug up and bare, giving no sign of the plants and vegetables that had filled the vast space. The greenhouse was just as empty, tables and boxes thrown to the floor, several of the glass planes broken. Clashing behind her in the wind, the door to the chicken house hung only at the lower hinge, giving the view to feathers and blood. It looked as if wild animals had made their way through, destroying unhindered everything in their path.

The wind blew into her face. Something was carried into her direction, rolling over the ground and eventually stopped at her feet. She stepped back in horror as she realized that it was the head of a doll with bright red hair. All she wanted to do was to keep her eyes shut, not being able to bear the horrible sight around her any longer. But she couldn't, as much as she feared what would come next. Not even a scream escaped her in shock when her eyes followed the way back that the head had taken.

The body lay barely three meters away, tattered and bloody. Deep scratches covered it and it almost looked like a leg was missing. There she lay, the remains of the doll still in her arms...

"No..."

...smiling...

"No!"

...dead...

"NO!"

"You left me..."

"NOOOOO!"

The scene vanished as she broke down, but she wasn't left alone. The small body was still there.

"You know something like this would have happened either way. Eventually I would have gotten hurt badly. Or I would have gotten sick with something Papa couldn't cure. In the end it would have been like that."

Asuka couldn't bear to look up to the form of her daughter. She cowered whimpering as it slowly stepped closer. "This is not real. This is not real," she whispered to herself in a mantra.

"What? Do you think you could have protected me? You know that's not true."

"This is not real. Aki never died. This is not real."

"How do you know? Maybe you're just in another time dimension while mine still exists."

Asuka wildly shook her head, not wanting to hear this anymore. "This isn't real."

"You're such a hypocrite. Saying you're sad because you lost me?" the appearance spoke, cruelty mocking. "You never wanted me from begin with! You tried to kill me by yourself!"

Asuka tried to hold her ears, but it did nothing to block out the horrible accusation, torturing her heart even more as she knew of the truth behind it. "This... this isn't..." Her voice was drowned in sobs.

"But maybe you really didn't want to leave me. Maybe you wanted to see it first hand. Maybe you wanted to hold me... " The child was now just in front of her, with each word leaning forward a bit more.

"This isn't real."

"...when I gave..."

"This..."

"...my very last..."

"...isn't..."

"...breath..."

"...REAL!"

***

"Now opening barriers 16 through..."

"We lost all communication with Unit-02!" Hyuga interrupted the report distressed.

"What?" Ritsuko asked, her surprise matching his. "Is the Angel blocking her from us?"

"Unkown!"

Misato ignored the uproar around her, keeping her eyes fixed to the screen. 'Here's your chance. You better use it well.

***

"Asuka?" There was another voice reaching her, a quiet one, but she heard it somehow. "Asuka?"

"Sh-Shinji?"

"Hang on, Asuka! Father has just ordered Rei to get the Lance! It's almost over!"

"Shinji? It- it hurts so much Aki, she..."

"Asuka, remember what you told me! What it shows you is nothing but your fears!"

"But... Aki... I... she must hate me..."

"Asuka, you've always been a great mother. She loved you way too much to ever hate you. The only thing she hated was to see you sad."

"She...?"

"Remember how happy she always was. Remember her smile!"

"Re... remember?"

***

And she remembered. How could she have ever forgotten it? Aki's wide smile was the first picture that washed over her. And as though a dam had broke, it flooded her mind: The first time she caressed her; Aki's first steps; the weight and warmth of her small body as she held her; the way she often was sleeping in her bed with her clothes still on and her feet having kicked off the blanket; her innocent look when she was caught doing something bad; her first words and all those that followed...

"Nsh' "

"Whas dat?"

"Don' wanna!"

"Mongey!"

"Look, did all by mysef!"

"Now Mama can always be with me!"

"Love you."

"Mama!"

"Mama?"

The voices silenced at once. Asuka's eyes snapped open, but she couldn't look up, too afraid that her hopes were fooling her.

"Don't be sad, Mama..."

"Aki?" she asked softly, raising her head ever so slowly. As she looked into the sparkling blue eyes in front of her, there was no doubt. This was the Aki she knew; this was her daughter. Abruptly, she threw her arms around the small girl, pulling her into a tight embrace. It seemed so long, much too long that she could hold her like this.

"I'm sorry," Asuka sobbed freely, not caring about the tears. Her hands carefully stroked the small back, trying to feel every inch of it. "I'm so sorry."

"What for?"

"That- that I wasn't able take you with me! That I left you behind!"

"Did you want to go?"

Asuka shook her head wildly.

"Then it's not your fault, is it?"

At her daughter's words, Asuka's heart suddenly felt a thousand times lighter. But it didn't make her feel better, knowing what was about to come.

"It's... I... I just miss you so much..." she confessed, tightening her hold, unwilling to let go again.

Aki backed away slightly and looked at her questioningly. "Why?"

"Be-because you're not there with me. Because we're not together anymore."

The brunette child blinked, obviously not understanding. "But we're together now," she said and her smile reappeared. "Doesn't that mean I'm there with you?"

Asuka's eyes widened at that realization. She managed a shaky smile as she looked up to her daughter. "Yeah. Y-you're right. You'll be with me where ever I'll go." She sniffed and reached up to caress Aki's cheek. "You've always been such a smart girl. You got that from me. Just don't let your father know that."

The child's pure giggle echoed in the vast emptiness as her shape started to fade.

"I love you, Mama."

A last tear trailed down Asuka's face as she, smiling sadly, reached out for the vanishing form of her daughter. "I love you too."

Then, Aki was gone. The pain in her heart was not as bad as she had expected it to be when she would have to say goodbye, but it still hurt.

Suddenly feeling a hand on her shoulder, she startled turned her head. A red-haired woman was smiling down to her, nodding approvingly. Before she, too, disappeared like everything around her as the 15th Angel was speared by the Lance of Longinus.



****************



Asuka pulled her knees a little closer to her chest as she watched her red EVA being lowered through the gate in the ground. She felt a kind of melancholy dwelling inside her, but she didn't have to fight the tears in vain as she once had. It wasn't the angry sadness of having been helpless and defeated in more than one way that she had felt then, it was a whirling mix of loss and acceptance that, while appearing calm outside, only needed a small drop to burst the emotional dam.

And even without turning around, she could hear that "drop" stepping closer with plugsuit-clad feet and the rustling of the "quarantine"-barrier tape as it climbed over it. When Shinji finally sat down behind her and drew his arms around her, she relaxed a little, being soothed by his warmth, but for now didn't let out more than a tired sigh.

"Who knows how much could have gone differently if you had done that last time...?" she whispered musing.

"I guess that's a question I asked myself quite often lately..."

"Yeah, I know," she agreed, "But for me, this was a most crucial turning point. I was confused, scared, angry, hurt like I was never hurt before – when you came to see me, a part of me screamed to accept it, at least that once, to let you ease that pain, if just a bit. But I didn't. I don't know anymore if or how much I would have fought it, if you would have tried anyway. But you didn't. And when you turned around and left, I just felt... empty."

"How do you feel now?"

"I don't know. It hurt. At first it hurt even more than last time. I'd never thought that could have been possible. But then..." A small smile played on her lips, "She was there..."

"Asuka," Shinji sighed. "That was just..." He couldn't finish the sentence as she straightened against him, facing him with all the determination she could muster.

"She was there, Shinji!" She assured, not only him, but also herself. It may not have been the truth, but the last thing she wanted to think about now was that it had been just a figment of her imagination. "I held her in my arms! I could feel her..." A sob broke her off, as she slumped back in his arms in exhaustion. "And then I had to let go of her again..."

Whether Shinji couldn't think of a lame attempt to soothe her or kept quiet on purpose, she couldn't say, but she was grateful for it. That he was there for her was the only thing that mattered right now.

"I... I just don't know if I can take this much longer. It hurts so much. As if her loss isn't horrible enough, I'm not even allowed to mourn her openly. No! Instead I have to act like I'm just fine and nothing ever happened! I – I..." She hadn't even realized that she had started to scream, until he tightened the embrace to calm her. "I'm so tired of this. I'm tired of hiding my pain. That was something I never wanted to do again. But now I have no choice.

"I guess I have to get used to it that I can only see her in my mind and memories," she eventually continued lowly. "I know, in that way she's always with me. But that – it's hardly a substitute for actually seeing her each day, watching her growing up, having new experiences I could never imagine. And memories are such fragile things. Over time they slip away and you only remember bits and pieces of something you never wanted to forget."

"You know... sharing memories with others can help to keep those bits and pieces."

"But... am I not doing that right...?"

"Not with me," he explained. "I don't think you can get everything off your heart that you want or need to by telling someone who already feels just the same. Maybe that's why you couldn't talk to me before."

"Maybe..."

He kissed the back of her head. "Come," he said, slowly getting on his feet again, "Let's get home. Maybe we'll both be ready then..."



****************



Her colleagues at NERV would probably have trouble to believe that their Major, who was an eyewitness of the Second Impact, faced so many Angels, jumped on a walking nuclear reactor close to its explosion without hesitation and had admittedly not the safest style of driving, had to take a deep breath before she could muster the strength to open a room in her own apartment. And that feeling didn't get much better as she saw the figure that sat cowering on the bed.

"Shinji said you wanted to talk," Misato explained as she stepped closer and eventually sat down next to the silent girl. When several seconds passed without a reaction, she continued. "I don't have much experience with such talks. Ritsuko isn't one to share emotional problems and aside from her... well, I've never had that many friends aside from her. But if you want to tell me something, I'll listen."

Asuka closed her eyes, but still didn't answer. Misato grew quite uneasy with that silence. It was true, she didn't have very much experience with this; if anything she was used to consume comfort, not giving it. But if she could, she wanted to help this girl.

'No. "Young woman",' she reminded herself.

She didn't want to put her charge under too much pressure though. Shinji had said it would help her as it had helped him that one evening, but if Asuka didn't want to talk, then...

"You... you know about Aki, right?" the low voice ended all thoughts to leave early. Nodding, Misato encouraged her to go on. "She... I... I'm not sure where to start..."

"How about at the start?"

Asuka returned her smile even if only slightly, but she didn't give in to begin at that start. "You know, after her birth, when I held her for first time, I thought I could never let go of her. That I would always be there for her, taking care of that beautiful little life in my arms. Of course that was silly. And I made plenty of mistakes. But... I always had the chance to make up for them. But... but not this time..."

Sobs racked her body as she continued. "Some... sometimes I think it would have been easier if she... if she would have... died. At least then I would have known. There would be something left of her. Even if for some reason her body would have been lost, there would have been so much she would have left behind. But now... now there's nothing but Shinji and my memories. She just never existed." As the tears fell freely, Asuka buried her face in her arms again. "And... and she never will..."

Hesitatingly, Misato reached out, pulling her left arm loosely around Asuka's shoulder. She was able to make decisions in combat situations in a matter of milliseconds, but now she just didn't know what she could do or say to comfort the redhead. "Well... you never know. Maybe... maybe if you time it right..."

She could slap herself for that silly attempt already before Asuka shook her head. "Even if we knew the exact time down to the milliseconds, even if by an incredible wonder we could match that time perfectly, even if we got the very same spermatozoon and ovum together, she would never be the same person. There could be others, but it will never be her again..."

"What was she like?" Misato suddenly asked before the silence could fall over them again.

"Huh?"

"I may not have the chance to meet her, but that doesn't mean I couldn't get to know her," she explained smiling. "She would no longer exist only in Shinji and your memory, but in mine as well. And maybe sometime we can tell others too. She would exist then, in the mind and hearts of many people. Wouldn't you like that?"

It took Asuka a little thought, but eventually she nodded. "But... I thought Shinji...?"

"He told me some things, yes. But I'm sure you can help a lot to fill that picture."

"Picture?" She chuckled lightly at that. "She always liked to draw pictures. I guess all children like to do that, but we really had tons of papers flying around with equally many variations of us as stick figures."

"Quite the little artist, hm?"

"She got a lot from me, maybe more than was good for her. She could be pretty headstrong sometimes. Always wanted to dress herself since before she was three and as you can guess not with the best results. Often clothes that were much too big for her. And we eventually had given up trying to make her wear socks and shoes unless we'd be going into the ruins where there were too many things she could hurt her feet with by stepping in."

"Sounds like she got you wrapped around her little finger all too well."

"Oh, you don't even know the half of it," Asuka laughed. "I thank God that she never realized or at least never used the full power she had over us. It was hardly possible to deny her anything and all she had to do for it was to smile." Her voice grew a bit quieter as her eyes got more distant again. "She had a smile that could melt even the coldest heart."

"And that was worth...?"

"Everything," Asuka finished before Misato could herself. "To think never to see it again..." She shook her head. "Sorry. I-I'm not even sure if you can understand this."

Noticing her tensing, Misato knew she surprised her as she pulled her closer. "No, maybe I can't really understand. I'm not a mother and who knows if I ever will be, so I can't comprehend what it's like to have a child and even less what it's like to lose it." A sad smile played around her lips as she looked into Asuka's wondering eyes. "But I can imagine what it would be like to lose one of you. And that thought is already painful enough for me."

It was now time for Asuka to startle the Major, suddenly flinging herself at the woman. Misato returned the hug without hesitance. It was true, these children had become the closest she ever had to ones of her own. Just that they weren't really children anymore. But even adults sometimes needed the comfort of a parental figure. She knew that well enough herself.

She hadn't cared much about the time, so she couldn't tell how long she held Asuka in silence until the redhead suddenly jerked up.

"Sh," she quieted Misato before she could ask what's wrong, enthusiastic pricking up her ears. "Can you hear that?"

Copying her charge, Misato listened to the noise that she had missed at first, but quickly asked herself how she had. The sound of Shinji's cello filled the apartment in a way that she had never heard before. The speed and lightness didn't seem to fit the instrument, but somehow he managed to keep these notes in a harmonic melody.

"What is that?" Misato wondered.

However, Asuka just smiled brightly. "A happy song."



****************



"And you're sure he'd like that?"

"Well, I don't know Ikari's personal taste, but it's quite popular. But it's not that easy to make, at least not for a beginner. As far as I know, you haven't cooked very often before, have you?"

"I don't think that'll be a problem," Asuka assured with apparent amusement. "After all, I'm the great Asuka Langley Soryu! I already have as much talent now as others would have after years of experience!"

"Uhm... if you say so..." Hikari was still a little surprised by the sudden change about the redhead's opinion on the matter. Though she surely didn't mind the newfound enthusiasm of her friend. "But if you want me to help anyway..."

"Then I'll..." Asuka trailed off and her face dropped. Following her gaze, Hikari noticed that a certain toy store had come into view. Her friend's steps slowed down as they neared it, until she came to a complete stop.

"Asuka?"

"Could you wait for a moment?" she asked flatly.

"Uhm, sure, but..." But before Hikari could finish, Asuka was already inside.

It took only a few minutes until she returned, now cradling a red-haired doll in her arms, the one she once had been staring at.

"Oh, it's so cute!" Hikari chimed. "But I thought you didn't like these 'childish things'?"

Asuka's lips curled to a serene smile. "Well, this one's special," she said, stroking the doll's head.

Much to their surprise, the head followed her hand as it reached the side. Apparently some of the seams that held it attached were loose, holding only about half of the head on the body.

"Now that's cheap workmanship!" the brunette accused. "You should get your money back or have it exchanged!"

But strange enough, it seemed just to increase Asuka's delight as her smile widened as though she just hit the jackpot.

"No, I'll take care of that myself," she exclaimed happily.

Hikari quickly shut her mouth as she noticed she was gaping at her friend. What was so special about a doll that she was rather willing to repair it herself rather than getting a new one? Even if it should somehow remind her of her mother as she had thought at first. Unless it was her mothers, but how should her mother's doll have ended up here?

"Is it some rare collector's item?" Asuka had never seemed in need of money, but it was the only solution she could come up with.

"In a way... yes..." the redhead answered mumbling, not leaving her eyes from the toy. "The only one of its kind."



****************



["But... Aki... I... she must hate me..."

"Asuka, you've always been a great mother. She loved you way too much to ever hate you. The only thing she hated was to see you sad."]

"An unexpected conversation, to say the least," Fuyutsuki commented while the recording continued to play in the background.

His companion however didn't show the surprise that even he surely felt. Gendo also took his time to speak up, so Kozo wasn't sure whether the Commander heard him at all or just ignored him, rather concentrating on the dialog between the pilots.

"Do you think this could endanger the scenario?" Ikari asked, surprising his loyal subordinate with an unusual, even if only faint trace of uncertainty in his voice. Just having altered the plans in his interest by "losing" the Longinus Lance, it was of course not very desirable to have someone else interfering to them yet again.

"Under other circumstances I would have said she was hallucinating under the Angel's influence and he played along with a wild, but apparently correct guess. But that someone attempted to hide this communication from us sets the situation in a quite different light."

Again he received no answer, but this time he doubted that his words had fallen on deaf ears. The younger man's eyes were unreadable behind the glasses that reflected the bright light of the display in the otherwise dark office, but Kozo could picture the anger in them anyway. A mystery he wasn't involved with and did not know about, a probably sabotaging one at that, was not something Gendo Ikari was used to and even less liked.

"What are we going to do about this?" the Sub-Commander anticipated. "It could still be some kind of coincidence. Especially as there is no reasonable explanation behind their words. The reports of the last throughout physical examination are less than a month old and the Second proved to still be a virgin then. Recent tests didn't show any changes in the hormonal balance or other signs of a pregnancy either. Neither was she ever seen with a child or an animal that she could have 'adopted'. It is not possible that she is or ever had been a 'mother'."

"No," Ikari concurred murmuring, but Fuyutsuki heard nonetheless. "Not yet at least."

"I beg your pardon?"

"We are not going to do anything for now," Gendo declared louder, instead of repeating what he had been thinking. "But we should keep an eye on them. Whatever the meaning of this is, if they are trying to interfere with our plans, we will interfere with theirs."



****************



He winced slightly at the pain that shot through his body, and he instinctively reached to the bandage on the left side of his chest.

"Careful, that rib is fractured," the man he only knew as "Doc" reminded him. "Bulletproof vests might keep you from dying, but not from being injured. Especially not such lightweight ones as yours."

He chuckled roughly, ignoring that the pain increased with each heave of his chest as he sat up from the bed. "If I had known that I'm only worth such a beginner I probably would have used a better one. I already thought I was done for when I couldn't reach my 'emergency gun', but the blood packs and my little act were obviously enough to fool him."

"Didn't try to make sure to finish his task?" Doc asked, glaring disapprovingly at the cigarette he was pulling out of a package from the clothes next to him and placed between his lips.

"Didn't even check on me," he said shrugging and lit the tobacco, ignoring Doc's silent denunciation of smoking in this desolate, yet still sterile environment. "Must have been so proud of his shooting skills that he didn't believe I could have survived. If it wouldn't have made things so easy for me, I'd almost feel hurt that they'd send such a guy."

"Are you sure they didn't let you off on purpose? It's not like them to make such mistakes."

"These goons aren't the JSSDF. You know how this works: Hire someone, who hires someone, who hires someone. Secretiveness has its advances, but some lack of quality in these channels is a common flaw that comes with ensuring it. And if that means I don't have to think of how to get rid of a body and getting a fake 'mission accomplished'-message passed through I sure won't complain."

"You know, you just could have avoided that mess altogether."

"To be honest," he began to confess while starting to put his shirt on, "I was about to accept the inevitable. I had learned the truths I had been searching for myself, so I had no reason not to. But then I realized that there were many others who also fight for it, wanting my help more than I thought. It wouldn't be fair to disappoint them. Especially when they give you yet another mystery to solve."

"I was actually talking about going a little deeper in the underground and try not to cross their path again."

"Too much hassle that eventually proves useless. This way is much more preferable," he laughed, loosely pulling the tie around his neck. "The greatest value for a spy is to get everywhere and not being seen. As a ghost, that shouldn't be much of a problem."






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A/N: *yawns* My what a good, long sleep. *looks at clock* What, almost a year? My, how fast time runs sometime, huh?

Can't say I was overly happy with this chapter. Personally I found it a little stale, with too repetitive themes without going much farther, a somewhat rushed feel in the middle despite the long writing time, and a nice, incompetent killer at the end. But then again, when have I ever been happy with a chapter? Most of the time it was "introducing Aki without having her there", so it might be more interesting if you don't know her as well as I do. :P
I was thinking here and there whether to add another scene, like Misato musing during her talk with Hyuga about the construction of further EVAs, Asuka lamenting about her period in a different way, etc., but chances were good that they wouldn't have added anything new either.

While I could have easily done the phone talk completely in German as it's supposed to be, but I guess then most of you wouldn't have much of it. :P
While it isn't overly important, I thought it was better having Shinji doing a translation.

As for Misato hacking the Magi, not sure how far off that is. We see her doing that in EoE, though it could have been with Kaji's "help". I guess it's safe to assume she has at least some skills and since she wasn't overly successful, it's not like I was implying she was a second Iruel.

The mind rape is something that's often mentioned as "hardest to write". Maybe it's the "rape"-part of it, being such a touchily topic, but as a writer, should one really be ashamed of having the necessary sadistic streak to make your characters suffer, especially when they come out stronger afterwards? At least I never really understood that, in fact, I was looking forward to it. Granted, it ended rather WAFFy here, but that's not what I meant. As cruel as it might sound to some, I just love the scene, especially in the DC version, not because of what is happening to Asuka, but because of the insight of her that we get.

And once more: Sorry that it took that long. I wasn't "sleeping" as implied above, but I'm afraid I wasn't quite as active as I could have either, though I probably made up for that quite a lot in the last few months. Now all remaining chapters are already pretty far along (all over 7000 words by now) – despite the next one, of all. Not that I hadn't much for that yet (actually a good 2000 words above the rest), but it's most likely going to be much longer, so it will take yet again a while (though hopefully not another 11 months). But after that it shouldn't be much more than a month between the rest.

Thanks to my pre-readers Tarage, dan01 and Zeroasalimit.

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