The 2nd try

Chapter 9: The 16th




As always, Ritsuko woke up alone. Not bothering with her nudity, she sat up, reaching for her package of cigarettes on the night table. Hitting the lighter three times, the spark eventually emitted a small flame, shortly illuminating the dimly lit room.

'Foolish girl,' she berated herself as she took a drag, 'Are you still hoping for a wake-up kiss in the morning? Or to find at least a note?'

Why was she still doing this? Why was she that desperate for a human's... for his touch? Someone like her shouldn't be reduced to such state. She was a logical woman of science. She knew it was merely a result of hormones and chemical reactions. And yet, here she was, yearning for that silly emotion called love.

Pressing the halfway burned cig in the ashtray, Ritsuko stood up to get dressed for another normal day. Just as always...



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



It had been a long day for Hisao. That bunch of kids that always hung around at the school's back entrance had kicked another window in. Of course they were denying it and it happened when no one was in sight, but he had no doubt it had been them. They just reeked of trouble. And who had the wonderful task to do the repairs? Of course it was him.

But the door to his small single-apartment slid open and he let out a sigh of relief, as soon he would finally get some rest. He could really use a relaxing bath and then a nice mellow evening with a good movie.

However, he figured his day was still not over as he flipped the light switch – and everything remained dark.

"Oh great, is that bulb burned out too?" he angrily muttered to himself at the prospect of still not being able to come to rest; absently hitting the switch several times against better knowledge.

"No, it's the fuse, actually."

Hisao froze. A cold shiver ran down his spine as he ever so slowly turned to the voice that had come from the shadows.

All he could see was the silhouette of the man that was sitting idly on his armchair, feet on the living room table. The glowing end of the cigarette he was smoking gave only enough light to reveal a stubbly chin and a wry grin.

A fear that he liked to suppress but had accompanied him in the last fifteen years now hit him full force. "Who- who are you? How did you get in here?"

"I've heard you were a member of the rescue team that went to search for survivors of the Katsuragi expedition."

"I... I don't know what you're talking about. I-I'm a janitor. I've never set a foot out of Japan."

"Oh?" He couldn?t see it, but Hisao just knew the man was smirking. "It's surprising that a simple janitor knows that a highly classified experiment had been taking place outside of Japan."

The ice in Hisao's guts spread further. "That... that was just a guess. I don't really..."

"You're a busy man, Mr. Yamaki," the stranger interrupted him. "You made it quite a challenge for me to find you. Changed your identity twice, moved your location eight times. How was the weather in Osaka?"

Hisao swallowed hard. Lying would get him nowhere. No matter how, this guy knew. "How- how did you find me?"

"I've heard some rumors you know? That a certain someone had found some data and documents that he didn't pass on to his superiors," the stranger kept ignoring him.

"Listen!" Hisao yelled pleading. Oh god, he didn't want to die just yet. Why hadn't he just left the stuff on the ice floe where he found it? It would have drifted out on the sea and eventually drowned, never to bother anyone again. "I don't know who you are, but I have nothing to do with that anymore. I-"

"Relax, Yamaki. I'm not here to kill you. In that case you would have long been dead. All I want is that data."

"Yeah, right," Hisao spat back sarcastically, not believing a word. "And once you have what you want, I'm-"

The stranger threw his head back and let out an exaggerated sigh. "If you want me to take out my gun and ask you for the data while shoving it under your nose, just say so. However, I can't force you to trust me. But rest assured, I'm not working for them; quite the contrary. As far as I know, you did your job well enough to hide your very existence from them. In fact, they probably never doubted that it was lost during the Second Impact."

"But... but I don't have it anymore," the janitor tried to explain. "Honestly, when I realized what that knowledge would get me into I was happy to get rid of it."

"You destroyed it?" The stranger's voice sounded grim, making Hisao fear that he had given one wrong answer too much after all.

"No," he tried to justify himself quickly. "About twelve years ago, there was another guy who asked for it. He was the one who told me I should go into hiding. I gave him everything I had. I never made any copies."

The cigarette wandered from one corner of the mouth to the other as the stranger most likely wondered what to make of this info, whether to believe him or not. After a short while of silence, the shadow blew out a last cloud of smoke before the small light was extinguished in the ashtray on the table.

"You wouldn't happen to remember the name of that guy?"



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



Ever since their talk, Misato tried to spend some more time with Asuka. Given their shifts and school schedule that wasn't very often, but at least once a week would be "girls' day", where they'd just go shopping, have lunch or just sit in a caf– Misato hadn't been sure at first if it wouldn't be a bit too "girlish" for the grieving mother and Asuka had indeed been a little hesitant at the idea. Soon enough, however, she had started to enjoy it as much as Misato – surprisingly – did herself.

She had forgotten how much she had missed this, going out with a friend. Ritsuko wasn't interested in much more than a talk, she got most of her clothes by ordering from a catalog. And it just got worse lately. Misato wasn't even sure when the doctor had been on the surface the last time, outside the Geofront. And eventually Misato followed suit, only going shopping when she really needed something.

"Friend" – That's probably the best term to describe how she saw Asuka now. Not "charge", not "surrogate daughter", not even so much "little sister", but a woman on equal level. It even had gotten much easier to see behind the teenage body.

"Hey Asuka!" she got the redhead's attention, who was looking through the discounted lingerie.

Broadly grinning, she held up a red thong for men. "How about this for Shinji?"

Asuka face-faulted. "No, thanks," she mumbled smirking, shaking her head in disbelief. "He once tried to surprise me with one. As much as I love him... well, let's say it doesn't really help the mood when you can't stop laughing."

While Misato sometimes missed the times when her teasing had a visible effect, it didn't stop her from chuckling at Asuka's story. "That bad?"

"Ohh, yes. And he even was better built than he is now."

Misato smiled. She had heard a lot of these tidbits about their time in the Post-Impact world recently: the nice, the bad, the romantic, the naughty (if only implicated), the funny – and of course those about Aki.

She couldn't deny that after all this, she really wished she could have met the girl; to see for herself how a daughter of Shinji Ikari and Asuka Soryu would have turned out. No, had turned out. If she already felt such sorrow for the loss of the little child, it was hard to imagine the pain that the parents must feel.

"I don't think there's anything here for me," Asuka muttered with a final look at the clothes, ending her "guardian's" trail of thoughts. "Let's go to that little boutique near..."

Misato wondered about the sudden stop in voice and movement of her companion. "Asuka?" Following the redhead's gaze when she didn't get an answer, she turned around to be faced with a blue-haired girl.

"Major Katsuragi," Rei greeted, slightly nodding. "Pilot Soryu."

"Ah, hello Rei," Misato replied friendly. "What brings you here?"

"I am in need of new socks," she calmly replied. Glancing down, Misato saw a large hole in the right one, the contrast of the pale skin showing between the dark cotton making it impossible to miss.

"Figures," Asuka snarled as she stalked over to her. The sudden switching of her behavior was almost scary. And she wasn't even as bad as she used to be. "The devil will probably visit the Arctic to spend a holiday in the warmth before you'd buy yourself some new outfit."

Rei, however, seemed as unfazed as usual. "The clothes that were supplied by the school are sufficient for me."

"Sufficient, sufficient," Asuka repeated mockingly, throwing her hands up and rolling her eyes. "This is not a matter of sufficiency. You should do it to feel more comfortable, to show the world that you have another life than school and duty. And most importantly to make you feel better!"

Misato smiled slightly. Despite her tone, it was obvious that she wanted to help Rei rather than to put her down. But her face quickly dropped at the sadness that resonated along with the answer.

"There is no reason for me to desire such thing," Rei said as if "feeling good" was a luxury, so unobtainable anyway that it wasn't worth pursuing. She apparently wanted to leave it at that and walked on, but she didn't get far. As she was about to pass Asuka, the redhead suddenly snatched her wrist to stop her.

"Yes, there is," Asuka told her unusually stern. And even more strange, it seemed to reach Rei, as she did nothing to break the eye-contact or Asuka's grip on her arm.

They would probably have stayed like that for quite a while if Misato hadn't eventually felt the need to intervene. "Uh, Rei?" she gained their attention. "We wanted to go for lunch soon. Wouldn't you like to join us?"

The girl seemed almost surprised at that invitation, but not negatively. Misato took that as cue to continue. "I'm sure they'll have some vegetarian food as well."

Rei's mind was obviously in a turmoil. Hesitatingly, almost shy, her gaze returned to Asuka as if searching for a confirmation, which – what must have been an even bigger surprise to her – she got in form of a small nod.

"I..." She trailed off, her shoulders sagging ever so slightly as did her head. "I apologize. I can not accompany you," she quickly excused herself, freeing her arm without much resistance and walked away at increased pace.

"She could at least say goodbye," Misato mumbled, a bit disappointed. For a second she had actually thought they might succeed. "Well then, let's go get something to eat. Or do you want to check that boutique first?"

There was no reply. Glancing over to her, Misato saw Asuka still staring in the direction Rei vanished, a disappointed frown on her face.

"Asuka?" she asked again, finally reaching the redhead.

"Yeah..." Asuka muttered, forcing herself to move. "I'm coming..."



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



Despite that incident, it had overall been a day of fun. The two women were both laughing loudly about another of Asuka's anecdotes of Shinji's attempts to impress her when they entered the apartment a few hours later, loaded with several bags from the various stores they had visited. Upon arrival, the voice of the third inhabitant could be heard.

"Yes, Mr. Satori, I know it's the third time in the last two weeks, but..."

"Oh no..." Asuka sighed, the previous elation instantly fading.

Misato, however, was unable to see the connection from Shinji speaking with someone on the phone to such a change in mood. "What is it?"

"He's clinging to a futile hope again," Asuka commented flatly, staring solemnly at the form of the boy in the hallway.

"I know... yes, I know you said you would call if you'd see..." they could hear him say.

"Why, who is he talking to?" Misato curiously asked further.

"The caretaker of an orphanage in Gora. After all, it's not like Shinji could just make an official missing report..."

"No! No, please!" the boy's voice suddenly became frantic. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to bother you! Please don't stop... I-I'll even pay..."

That was when Asuka had enough and made that fact loudly known. "Shinji, stop it right now! You're not going to throw your money at that greedy bastard!"

"Eh, I...I have to hang up," he almost whispered sheepishly as if he hadn't even noticed them until then. "Thank you very much for your work."

Asuka shook her head. "You know she won't show up there," she said pitiful and tired. Apparently, this was a long argument they had kept up for already quite some time.

"Are you still so sure that she's not here?" he muttered sadly.

"I realized by now that she's here with us, but not like that," Asuka replied with an equally low voice. "Don't you think she would have shown up somewhere long ago if she would have come back with us?"

"I-I have to try at least..."

An uncomfortable silence was threatening to become overwhelming. But it didn't get the chance to.

The sirens announcing the arrival of the 16th Angel caused all three of them to flinch in surprise and especially Shinji's face was contorted in fear.

"Rei..."


*********


Makoto slammed the phone onto the receiver. "Major Katsuragi is on her way and will arrive in a few minutes along with the Second and Third Children!" he screamed over the overall noise in the Command Center. "Unit-00 is to start over gate 32 by her orders!"

"Fourth Children has just arrived!" Shigeru signaled as well. "Apparently he was close to an entrance when the alarms went off."

"Without an EVA, he is of no use," Commander Ikari stated calmly. "Unit-02 will start as soon as the pilot is ready."

"Sir, what about Unit-01?" Makoto inquired. "Major Katsuragi..."

"Has hopefully not forgotten her limits," the Commander firmly cut him off. "EVA-01 will remain frozen until my explicit order."

"Yes, sir."

"Unit-00, start!" the orders were repeated over the speakers. "Move to intercept position!"

***

Rei held her positron rifle ready as she watched the Angel from behind her cover. The double-helix seemed to do nothing but to spin there over the ground, though she knew better than to trust this apparent peace and not just from past experiences with its predecessors.

Every fiber of her being was calling out to her, screaming that something was wrong. Never before had she felt such impending dread. This unsettling emotion disturbed her so much that the wish that it should just attack formed within her, so they'd get it over with.

"Rei," Major Katsuragi's voice came over the comm, "we'll observe its status for a while."

That the Major had arrived meant that her back-up would be coming soon. But she couldn't feel relieved. That feeling had reached its bursting point.

"No," she voiced her senses, "It's coming."

And indeed, the helix stopped spinning, morphing into a single glowing ring that suddenly opened at one point – before it shot right at her. It penetrated her AT-Field as though it wasn't even there; penetrated her EVA before she could evade. She tried to ignore the pain of the impact that was transmitted from the EVA's stomach to her own, getting a hold of the Angel with her left hand to retaliate. But even though she fired several times from extreme close range, the rounds were deflected completely, causing no harm at all.

Worse yet, the Angel was starting to infect the EVA; she could feel it seeping inside as it pushed Unit-00 to the ground. Rei lost the rifle as she fought to pull her enemy away with all her power, but even using both hands she could do nothing to hold it back. It was invading – not only her EVA, but also herself.

There was something.

A feeling as if there was another, unknown presence along with her in the EVA.

But she could notice only herself, yet... not. As if... as if it was a different part of her that she had never noticed before. Or something else merging with her.

'Who are you?' she asked the being, if only in thoughts. Light flashed before her eyes as the bright snake wavered outside. 'Is that you? An Angel? That being that we call an Angel?'

"An Angel?" she could hear it speaking with her own voice as clearly as though they were talking eye to eye with each other. She could almost see it in her mind, wearing her own face. "Does it matter? We are going to be unified soon. We will be one and the same."

'No. I am I. I do not wish to become something else.'

"No? I see... But it is too late." The voice was so clear, just like her own. "This pain... It is not so bad anymore, is it?"

'Pain?' Rei wondered, recognizing almost instantly the feeling that was shared over their connection. 'You speak of... loneliness?'

"Yes. But I do not understand. You do not have to feel it anymore. Yet you avoid it to be eased because of that other feeling."

'Because... I am afraid...?'

Rei could almost see the smile of this thing with her face. "Yes."

There was a disturbance before she could answer; a feeling that for a second reminded her of surprise and eagerness.

"A new one appeared. She is a talented warrior, is she not? That is what you know of her."

Forcing her head to turn, Rei looked out of the cockpit to see the red Evangelion just exit the elevator that had transported it to the surface. "Soryu?"

"Do not worry. I will adapt to her will to fight us. She will become one with us soon."

'No. I do not wish for that to happen.'

"Liar. I can see it. I can see your heart's desire; to unify with others. You can not deny it."

***

Asuka instantly went into cover behind the few buildings in front of her as soon as she got out of the lift, trying not to draw the Angel's attention by spreading her AT-Field just yet. In some distance, a little outside of the city's borders, she could see the struggles of EVA-00 and the wavering tail of its attacker that had buried itself into the blue Evangelion.

It was doubtful she could shoot fast enough without risk of hitting the hostage, but if she took her time to aim properly, the Angel would most definitely strike before she could fire. Besides, as far as she knew it wouldn't have any effect on it anyway. So it was up to close combat.

She peered carefully around the skyscraper again, trying to come up with a strategy to get near it without being noticed. But that seemed hardly possible, as it was surrounded only by – compared to an EVA – short trees.

"You need a diversion?" Misato's voice snapped her out of her thoughts. Apparently she had been reading her mind.

"That might be helpful," Asuka answered nodding.

"How about a little smokescreen? You think you can attack through that?"

Asuka just shot the Major's face on the comm-window a dry smirk in return.

Misato accepted that answer with a nod and continued to explain her plan. "There's a missile launcher on the hill to your right. We'll shoot a few into the Angel's direction, so that they'll hit maybe about fifty meters away from it. Hard to tell how well it's going to be distracted by that, but I'm afraid that's all we can give you right now."

"Guess we'll have to see about that," Asuka muttered, extracting the prog knife from her shoulder.

"Are you ready?"

She focused her view on the Angel's position. "Yeah."

"Then we'll launch in 5... 4... 3... 2... 1... FIRE!"

Asuka waited another second until she heard the first impact, then she hurled forward. A thick wall of smoke hid the Angel from her view as warhead after warhead detonated on the ground, elevating earth, rocks and trees. She could only hope it was just as blind to her as she was to it as she ran full-speed ahead into the dirty cloud, the knife ready in her fist.

She could barely evade the lightning-tentacle as it shot at her.

Drawing up her longtime trained instincts, she dropped, rolled away and got up on her feet, facing her opponent again from a safer distance; all within a few seconds. But the only thing she saw from the Angel was the part that still stuck inside the writhing EVA-00.

"Damn! I didn't know that thing was this fast!" she cursed, frantically scanning the ground. But under the thick cover of the woods, she could barely make out a faint glowing of the snake-like body here and there, its movement too erratic to follow.

Like a pillar of light, the Angel suddenly shot upwards directly in front of her, startling the redhead enough to stumble backwards. She didn't fall, but the short distraction was all the Angel needed to rush unstoppable towards her. In the very last moment, Asuka saved her EVA from taking a direct hit similar to Unit-00, but her shielding arm was apparently more than enough for the Angel as it burst into it with full force.

Asuka screamed, more in shock than pain, clutching her own arm at the same spot where the Angel was penetrating the one of her EVA. To her horror she felt the same veins spreading under the plugsuit that infected the armor of her and Rei's Unit. But what fueled her fear and her rage most was the tingling sensation on her mind; flickering, but quickly becoming stronger.

"Not... NOT AGAIN!" she yelled with all her hatred as she clenched the prog knife in her EVA's fist, extended it to full length and drove it into the writhing snake-like Angel with all her might; determined to cut the 'head' invading her Unit from its body. But the Angel, screeching in pain, released its unwilling prey after a short struggle, the knife still deep inside it.

"Shit!" Asuka cursed at the loss of her weapon, despite the relief in her shoulder and the fading presence in her mind.

A wailing screech deafened the ears of everyone who heard it as the end of the Angel wavered around in pain. It seemed like it went mad from the agony; slamming into the ground, running against trees in its attempt to get the blade out of itself, but it just ended up uprooting or cutting the wood.

***

Drowned out by the Angel's cry, no one heard the other one who was screaming in pain. Rei could feel the knife as if it was impaled in her own foot; she felt the sharp steel, the cutting vibration of the blade, every movement inside the flesh as the Angel tried to free itself from it.

'Just like the EVA,' she realized, but unlike the creature that was controlled by its mechanical implants there were no safety measures, no one but the Angel itself to dampen the connection between them.

"It hurts, doesn't it? Make it stop! Pull it out!"

Rei grimaced at the Angel's words. "No."

"Are you willing to suffer just to watch me suffering? It is too late to go back! There is no more 'my pain' or 'your pain'! Only 'ours'!"

"If I have to suffer for you to be defeated, I will."

"Then you will have to die with me as well."

"If I have to..." Rei winced as the knife moved in the wound.

"You are a fool! You just think that you are replaceable because you think you are lonely. But no one can really be replaced, not even you. You know that, do you not? That is why you are afraid," the being spoke. "But if you still desire to throw your life away, so be it. I will not give us up. If you do not want to help us, then it has to hurt even more to get better."

Rei screamed, but not even with all her lungs could provide was she able to voice the exploding pain as the Angel slammed to the ground again, driving the knife even deeper inside it. Sparks went flying as it ground the hilt with its body along a street, slicing its own flesh apart. When the blade finally scattered on the road, Rei had the mental image of her foot being split up to her toes.

The Angel's 'tail' looked just like that, torn apart in two, though it was quickly fusing together again.

***

Asuka's triumph of her successful counterblow was slowly turning into frustration again. Despite the Angel's regeneration, it had obviously been hurt more than she had expected and she had even managed to retrieve her weapon while performing an evasive roll. But the snake of light had become much more careful now with its attacks, dodging the knife with ease as it closed in on the red EVA again and again from various angles until Asuka got the impression that it was coming from all sides at once. She managed to fend it off for now, but defensive play was definitely not her forte.

"Damn it, hold still already so I can kill you!"

***

"It's no use if she's too busy evading to attack properly. One alone can't do it," Misato analyzed the situation equally frustrated. "Commander, we need..."

"Agreed," she got the permission much faster than expected, "The freeze on Unit-01 is canceled, effective immediately. Sortie as soon as possible!"

***

Shinji gritted his teeth, urging the forces that catapulted him up to multiply their efforts, but it still took several agonizing seconds until he finally reached the surface. The moment he spread his AT-Field, the Angel jerked away from Unit-02, facing the new threat as it had before. But it didn't look nearly as lost between the two possible targets as he had expected or at least hoped. The light began to tremble strangely, and Shinji was afraid it was not out of fear. Just a second later, he was proven right.

The 'tail' seemed to split up, the Angel parting down to half of its length. However, both ends were of the same width as the single one before, more like it duplicated rather than tore itself apart.

"It can do that?"

Shinji had no more time to wonder about this unknown ability. His instincts barely saved him against the initial shock, getting him out of the way of the end that was speeding towards him. The Angel crashed into the elevator building behind his EVA, but it already renewed its hunt for him before the dust had settled.

***

Rei could only watch in horror how the Angel kept up its simultaneous attack on the two other EVAs. She had already been afraid before, when it was going after Soryu, but now... him too... And if anything, the Angel had become even more determined to succeed.

'"To unify with them",' she remembered the Angel's earlier words. "Is that... my wish...? To become one with them?" she questioned herself for the truth that she hadn't wanted to see before.

She had desired to get away from the loneliness that had consumed her for her entire existence. She had wished to bond with others, to have others as part of her life. But she knew it was not meant to be. For what she was, for her purpose, she would have ended up hurting them and be hurt in return. So she had stayed away from them, even if they reached out to her. That was for the best... or so she deluded herself.

But now she was not given a choice. The Angel made it for her in its own agenda. It would unify the three of them... against their will... and then...

Commence Third Impact...

"No." She couldn't let that happen. Humanity – millions of people she didn't know at all. A few that she did know, yet not very well. But it was her purpose to protect every one of them. Even if that meant...

"It will not work," the Angel's voice suddenly interrupted her thoughts.

"What?"

"Your plan to destroy us. I have seen it inside the other. So I have already deactivated that mechanism before you could surprise me."

Rei felt ice in her guts as her mind registered those words. Should everything be lost now? She no longer had the power to fight. And the way things were going, it was just a question of time until Ikari and Soryu would suffer the same fate as her, even if they could manage to retreat for now. With the Lance of Longinus gone, they had nothing at hand against this enemy, no one...

No...There was still one ally left. An unwilling one, one that despised her very existence and under any other conditions would rather break its bindings that imprisoned and enslaved it than to assist its enemy. But now that it was facing its death at hand of its distant kinsman, she could only hope that it would heed her plea.

"Adam's replica. I am opening my heart for you. Please accept it."

It heard.

It heard and accepted. It would not let her control it, but she had known that. It just needed her heart and soul for itself.

She could already feel herself fading as the Angel's voice rang in her mind one last time and it was full of panic, of fear of its inevitable demise. "You can not do that! You know what will happen in that connection! The Lilim you are trying to protect will suffer just as well! The very thing you try to avoid will be caused by you and you alone!"

"It would, if this was the forbidden bond. But this is not the true body of Adam and the heart I am offering is not that of Lilith, but the heart of Rei Ayanami. This is my gift, my own power to protect those close to me. Even if I have to give myself up for it..."

And with that, as she closed her eyes, she smiled, embracing the warmth of nothingness. As long as he would let her.

***

"Rei's synch-ratio is rocketing! 75 percent! 80! 85! 95! – It's off the scale!"

Misato whirled around alarmed. "Is the Angel merging with her?!"

"No, it," Maya wheezed, giving her a panicked look. "It's the EVA!"

***

The armor wasn't broken, it rather looked like the inside was melting out through invisible pores to create a new skin of a crude mixture of white and blue. Like in fast motion, hairs seemed to grow from the steely head, not stopping until they reached the familiar form of Rei's cut.

Where once had been the prominent single lens were now two red human eyes staring hollowly into the world. A gap opened below, showing teeth and tongue, before lips formed a laughing mouth.

The figure raised in an inhuman motion, leaving the shoulder pylons on the ground as they slid through the body as though it consisted of a semi fluid substance. It somehow resembled a grotesque version of Rei wearing the armor of EVA-00.

***

Misato gaped in horror at the display of the events outside. "How... how can this be? When Shinji... he just vanished into LCL, not... fused with Unit-01."

Forcing her eyes away from the sickening sight, she tried to regain her composure as she turned to the crew for explanation. "Is she above 400 percent?"

"I don't know!" Maya yelled back, the fear in her voice making it apparent that she neither had forgotten the way EVA-01 got its S2-Engine. "The numbers are fluctuating! The MAGI can't comprehend it!"

***

The Angel's body jerked wildly like the tail of a stuck tadpole in an obvious attempt to free itself in vain from the abdomen of the "newborn". The hybrid looked down at it as though it was the first time "she" even noticed the thing sticking inside "her". And just like a curious child, the being reached out for the interesting object with its giant hands.

***

"Unit... I mean... something's being emitted by... it!"

"AT-Field?" Misato inquired despite knowing that something so obvious wouldn't make Makoto so nervous.

"No! Dimensional values are inverting, going negative," Ritsuko replied for him. "Anti-AT-Field..."

***

Shinji didn't even notice that he hadn't moved an inch, not even blinked, as he stared in horror as the Angel suddenly blew up; bursting with a gut-wrenching squashing sound. A fine orange rain of LCL sprayed over the optical sensors of his EVA, dimming the sight from his cockpit before the 16th's remains dripped off.

"Rei..."

As if it heard his whisper, the hybrid's head snapped up, focusing on him. Craning its neck, it looked like it was trying to remember the purple form of his Unit. Then, with slow heavy steps, it swayed forward.

***

"Ikari?" Fuyutsuki's voice quivered ever so lightly as he addressed the man sitting next to him. "Have we failed?"

"No," came the calm, simple answer. "That power is not meant to be held by this union."

***

The monstrosity meanwhile continued its way, either not noticing or not minding that its left arm stretched beyond its limit as the hand became more and more a victim of gravity until it fell to the ground.

***

"What's happening?" Misato wondered at that scene. "Is the Anti-AT-Field affecting her too?"

"No," Ritsuko figured with scientific calmness. "She's draining too much energy. The EVA's internal batteries are empty, but the core doesn't know whether it can rely on a S2-Engine or not, it just keeps consuming more and more energy from her until there is nothing left to hold it."

"Affirmative!" Maya concurred. "The core is getting unstable!"

"So we just wait until the problem solves itself?"

Misato shuddered at Shigeru's harsh definition of what had been Rei just a few minutes ago; a fourteen year old girl, whom she might not have known as well as Shinji and Asuka, but who still had been close to her, to all of them. And now, after that girl had been hurt by the Angel and transformed into that grotesque being out there on its certain way to death, she had become a mere "problem".

But Ritsuko's words made it even worse. "I'm afraid it won't be that easy. When the core leaks with all that absorbed energy inside..."

"You don't mean...?" Her hand hovered unconsciously over the scar on her chest, the nightmarish memory of the Second Impact unstoppable surfacing to her mind. '"It wasn't an Angel that caused it",' she remembered Shinji's words. 'Did he mean this? Have they failed...?'

***

'We... we have failed...'

Shinji unconsciously brought the EVA's arm up as the giant seemed to reach out for him, staring right at him with that deformed, yet scarily joyous smile as the face slowly melted in front of his eyes.

"Rei!"

He hadn't noticed he had been moving forward until he was stopped by Unit-02's hand on his EVA's shoulder.

"Shinji! Shinji, get yourself together!" Asuka's voice came from somewhere, but his mind was not able to recognize it originating from the usual comm-window at the side, too occupied with the being before him.

Their fingers almost touched, only mere meters apart. If he could reach her hand, hold it, then he would save her. He didn't know how, but somehow it would be enough. Even if all logic defied that, even if it was far... too late...

The smile changed to an expression of surprise as the hybrid looked at its arm, breaking off just above the elbow.

Shinji's cramped hands quivered around the controls as he, powerless, had to watch it returning its eyes, full of disappointment and sadness, at him; silently pleading for help that he was unable to provide.

***

"The core is getting critical! Explosion inevitable!"

***

"Shinji!"

Piercing wails of agony echoed in the valley as the white being shook and writhed in pain.

"Shinji!"

As much as he wanted, he couldn't avert his eyes from this gruesome life-and-death struggle. "Rei, no..."

"Damnit, Shinji!" Asuka continued to yell, but he didn't find himself able to answer. "There's nothing we can do for her anymore! But we have to contain...!"

Her voice was drowned out as the scream changed into the agonizing sound of the explosion, the flames of the bursting core engulfing the huge body in a split second, burning trees, evaporating water of the nearby lakes... Then they reached his EVA, blinding him from the sight of Asuka trying to block the blast from the city with her AT-Field. But with the close proximity and the limited range of her shield, her attempts were of little success.

He had failed...



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



Misato sighed as she stepped into her apartment, physically and emotionally worn out by the after-effects of... the fight. Large potions of Neo Tokyo-3 had been destroyed or were now drowning in water from a leak in the formation separating the city from the Ashi lakes. The civilians were safe in the shelters, so there hadn't been many casualties, but now NERV would have to face many homeless people who would demand answers.

Shinji and Asuka were probably home before her and she felt somewhat guilty for not having the time to be there for them. After all, it wasn't like there hadn't been any casualties at all.

Shinji's condition especially worried her. It was bad enough if it were just some anonymous numbers or names of people you never heard of, but it was always worse if it was someone close to you.

So she went to look for him frst, and almost collided with Asuka who just got out of his room, closing the door behind her.

"How is he?" Misato asked as soon they made eye-contact.

Asuka's expression actually said enough already, but she answered anyway. "He's taking it very badly. I guess it was to be expected, but still..." She shuddered, brushing her hands over her arms as if to warm herself from a nonexistent chill. "I just don't like to see him like this."

Misato smiled weakly at that. "If I ever needed a proof that you've matured, I have it now. I'm surprised that you don't show any sign of jealousy that he's mourning her like this."

"Oh, I was jealous, quite a while in fact, even after learning her true nature. But I realized a long time ago that, while strong, his feelings for her are different to those he has for me. She's not a threat to me in that regard."

"Her true nature?"

Asuka closed her eyes. "I think Shinji – or maybe Rei herself – should rather explain that."

"Rei?" Misato's surprise rose even more.

But Asuka shook her head, smirking weakly. "Shinji is sulking because he thinks he has failed. But I'm not so sure if there's really no chance."

"But... you really think she could have survived that?"

"Oh, of that I'm quite certain." the redhead allowed herself a weak laugh, but that quickly ebbed away. "Take over for me a bit, okay? I'm really thirsty from all the talking."

Misato naturally nodded, and went for the door as soon as Asuka moved aside on her way to the kitchen.

"Shinji? I'm coming in," she announced respectfully before opening the door.

She had already wondered why he chose his old room, seeing that he was practically living in Asuka's by now, but it became clear as she entered. The small chamber had no windows that would allow natural lights to come in, and the artificial one seemed perfect to add to the depressive mood he obviously wallowed in.

"Hi, Misato," he greeted without looking at her. He just kept staring ahead, limply sitting on his bed.

"Hey," she muttered back. Despite her earlier confrontations with a depressive Asuka, she still felt far from being an expert in such talks. Giving orders, interrogating, complaining, teasing, she could do well; even admitting her flaws was comparably easy. But when it came to comforting someone, words just wouldn't come.

"You're not thinking of taking advantage me, are you?"

Misato usually wasn't one to blush easily. But she also rarely found herself on the other side of the teasing. Whether it was the implication or the half-hearted smirk he shot at her, she felt her face heating, but she quickly caught herself. "Depends. Does a hug count?"

Before he could answer, she had already made the few steps to the bed, sat down next to the boy and drew her arm around his shoulders, pulling him close.

"To be honest, even after all the thinking I did today, this was pretty much all I could think of to make you feel better," she admitted. Before a playful smirk made its way to her lips. "Until your offer just now..."

That brought the ball back into her game. "Mi-Misato!"

But it just took a second of silence and the moment of joking and smiles was overshadowed again by memories of the hours before.

"So... how are you feeling?" she tried carefully.

"I don't know. I've seen her dying before. And that first time had been devastating. Back then I didn't have Asuka to help me and you... well, I just didn't want anyone near me. So in that regard, I'm a little better off. Also because I know more now. But..." He swallowed a sudden sob, clenching his eyes shut in obvious anger and pain. "But it still hurts! I had sworn to myself not to let it happen again, that I would protect her. Instead... instead she died even more in vain! I don't know how I can face her anymore."

"Face her? Shinji...?" Misato raised an eyebrow. Was he just as delusional as Asuka? Maybe that last time things hadn't been as definite.

"I know you don't understand Misato, but she's still alive."

"Oh... oh, Shinji. I know, as long as we remember her, she'll never cease to exist. But even more so, you shouldn't..." She was cut off by something she never had expected in this situation: A weak chuckling escaping Shinji's throat.

"You don't understand, Misato. Rei Ayanami is still alive. And will probably come off with fewer bruises than me or Asuka." Though the smirk left his face as quickly as it had come. "But I failed to protect her anyway."

"Wha- what do you mean? How could she have survived that? If she did, why does it matter so much that you failed? Is she that badly hurt or...?"

"No. As I said, she will appear to be completely unharmed."

Misato still couldn't follow him. "But then...?"

"It won't be her," Shinji muttered. "Not the Rei we knew."

"So it's mentally? Amnesia?"

"No. No..." He sighed frustrated. "She's... a clone..."

Misato's eyes widened in shock. She had expected a lot, but this? "A... clone...?"

"Do you understand now? Rei Ayanami is alive. A new Rei Ayanami. The one we knew however, the one we... she... she died. She died because I couldn't protect her."

Misato's head was still spinning. The mental image of dozens of identical Reis on an assembly line, all fitted with the same basic "settings", each ready to replace the previous one once she had a "defect"; it gave her chills. How much did NERV keep secret even from her? She had thought she didn't need it with the knowledge that he was still alive and pursuing the truth himself, but maybe she should take a closer look at Kaji's farewell gift after all.

But first things first. "Shinji, you... you did your best..." she tried to console him, but was cut off by the opening door.

"Don't tell him such things or he'll really believe that all is over already," Asuka chided peevishly.

Misato was about to berate the redhead for such harsh behavior, which seemed to contradict the compassion she had seen in her just a few minutes ago. Yet Shinji was faster to protest. "But Asuka..."

"No buts! You yourself told me that you had barely even seen Rei after it happened because you were too scared of her! You have absolutely no idea what she's like and how much of the old Rei is still left! You only presume that she died."

Given that logic, Misato almost felt bad for her previous thoughts. She had again forgotten that she wasn't dealing with a poor, angsty kid that needed some motherly compassion and protection from the harsh world or a little brat who was jealous of the attention the other was getting with his meek behavior, but with two adults; a wife who didn't want to see her husband destroying himself by wallowing in self-pity.

But before she could comment on that, the ringing of the telephone cut her short.

"Come on, Baka!" Asuka demanded, pulling Shinji from his bed by his shirt. "I guess that's our signal."



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



Rei awoke coughing, a faint coppery taste of LCL still lingering on her tongue. Her muscles felt weak, even opening her eyes seemed to be a very straining task. When she finally succeeded, she noticed that she could only see out of her left eye, even though she felt no pain in the right one that was apparently covered with a bandage. Her right arm appeared to be bandaged as well, already bound in a sling around her shoulder.

She realized that she was in the infirmary already before she looked around. Anyone else would have come to that realization by the apparent injuries, the lack of pain due to medication. But Rei knew better.

She didn't know what had happened. And she knew she would never remember. Because she knew that she never made those memories. Because it hadn't happened to her.

She must have been the third now. But...

"I am still alive..." she whispered to herself, the hoarse words burning in her throat.

Of course she was still alive. He would never let her go, not until she had fulfilled her purpose in his scenario. But then, why did he even let her die? She had always known that she was replaceable. Though she had not expected it to hurt so strangely in her heart. He had saved her back then, when the test run of EVA-00 had failed. Why not this time? Why did he let her be replaced?

She suddenly felt the overwhelming need to get up, to get away from that trail of thought. Her body ached as she forced it to sit up in the bed and turn towards its edge, draping her legs over it before slowly sliding down.

The floor felt cold as her unclad feet made contact with it. Carefully she rose, balancing her weight for a moment before she took a first step, then another, slowly nearing the exit. Her hand reached for the knob, encasing the metal with palm and fingers, turning it to open the door.

As she stepped out, her eye narrowed at the invading light coming from the windows on the opposite wall of the corridor. But she didn't shield it by turning her head away from the brightness. She rather felt a kind of curiosity, a need even, to walk forward to look – outside.

Something in her mind reminded her that it wasn't really the outdoor world, but a man-made recreation inside the Geofront. And yet, to see mountains, trees... for the first time...

"Hey, First!"

The call averted her attention, redirecting it on a red-haired girl and a brown-haired boy. She knew these young people. They were her classmates, her comrades... There was something else too, especially regarding the boy, that she couldn't quite place.

The boy, Shinji, didn't meet her gaze; if at all, he just glanced quickly at her. He seemed uncomfortable being there, meeting her; differently from his common uneasiness with the opposite sex. Could he know? Did he witness the end of her second life? It would explain his uncertainty about her survival.

If it wasn't for his companion, he probably would have turned and left, but the girl, Asuka, nudged him forward and mouthed a "Come on".

"Ikari," she greeted with a nod towards the boy, then the girl. "Soryu."

Shinji winced at her words, though she wasn't sure why. Was there something unusual about her greeting? His mouth opened and closed, but she couldn't understand his words.

Asuka glanced expectantly at him, but when nothing came, she eventually stepped in. "Hey, First. Misato told us to check on you, so here we are."

It seemed unreasonable for Major Katsuragi not just to consult the medical reports, but Rei nodded acknowledging anyway.

"I am still rather weak," she reported her condition, feeling the strain on her body even more the longer she was out of the bed. "I would like to sit down."

Already while making that announcement, she went for the nearest of the rows of waiting chairs that stood at the walls in the hallways of the infirmary. Ikari and Soryu watched her taking a seat on the chair in the middle of the empty row, but they made no attempts to follow her example.

Rei noticed that Asuka seemed to be expecting something. She kept glancing back and forth between her co-pilots, her expression growing more impatient and she eventually started tapping her foot. Shinji didn't notice though, or he ignored her, until she nudged him forcefully with her elbow and made a wide gesture towards the presumably injured girl.

"Uhm... how... how are you, Ayamami?" he finally stammered.

Apparently, it wasn't what his redheaded companion had wanted him to ask. "'How are you?' What do you think how she is?!" she hissed at him.

"But... just look at her. She's not..."

"She's not what?! To be honest, I don't even see a big difference, especially not considering her condition!"

They were keeping their conversation low, probably not wanting her to listen, but Rei heard every word, even if she couldn't understand the meaning perfectly.

"But you don't know her as much as I do."

Asuka sighed angrily. "Fine! Maybe some distance is just what is needed here. If you don't want to, then I'll do it!"

"Asuka!"

But his attempts to hold her back were too late, she had already turned away from him and was closing the gap between her and Rei. Once she had reached her sitting teammate, Asuka knelt down so she could meet the red-eyed girl's gaze.

"What is the last thing you remember, Rei?" she asked in a tone that Ayanami had never heard from her usually brash co-pilot. "Before you woke up?"

The memory of the dark chamber came to her mind, as seen from her point of view behind the LCL-filled glass. "I am..." she averted the eye contact for a moment, "not allowed to tell you."

Asuka nodded, but didn't give up. "That's okay. But can you tell me when it was?"

She answered the question truthfully, though something about the Second's unnatural behavior made Rei uneasy. Not only did the redhead's voice seem much softer than usual, her entire body language had changed; no longer attempting to block everyone out, but rather seeking openly, invading in a non-hostile manner. And Rei was now in the focus of that attention, much more than she was used to, much more personal. It certainly unnerved her. And yet... she somehow felt... cared for.

"So you actually still remember everything until yesterday afternoon? You remember me and Shinji?"

She nodded affirmatively, but was still unsure what Soryu had in mind.

"You still remember all the things we did together? Our fights against the Angels? Or when we went to that Ramen stand with Misato? Or our hiking trip? How about when Shinji rescued you from your plug and asked you to smile? Or the time we waited together for him to return from Unit-01?"

All those questions irritated her, but each called up pictures, flashing in her mind. "Y-yes."

"Then tell me, do you remember how you felt those times?"

"How I... felt...?" She broke the gaze in shock as it came back to her.

Yes. Yes, she could remember. Those other feelings besides loneliness. The warm feeling when someone cared for her, when someone wanted to be with her. The comradeship... friendship...

At first, almost on its own, her free left hand started to move. But as she looked back up to the face of her fellow pilot, a small smile graced her lips.

"It would be... convenient," she repeated an old memory, the outstretched arm slightly trembling.

"Yes," Asuka answered with a small grin of her own as she took the offered hand in hers. "Yes, it would."


*********


"Asuka?"

"Yeees?"

He couldn't help but smile at the expectant tone of his love's voice, satisfactorily savoring what was about to come.

"Thank you."

Her head turned only slightly, but it was enough so he could make out the smirk on her face before she looked ahead again. "What? No, 'You were right, oh great Asuka, wisest and of course most beautiful of all, Goddess above all Gods...'"

Shinji cut her off as he took three quick steps to catch up to her, leaning close to her ear. "We'll wait for that until we're home, okay?"

She didn't answer to that, but he saw the playful smirk widen before she went ahead once more.

However, as glad as he was that he had been wrong about Rei, the way Asuka had proved it just wouldn't leave his mind. "You know... The way you talked to her... It almost looked as though you were talking to..." He stopped himself, hesitating a second to finish, "...a child."

Asuka surely knew what he really wanted to say, but she didn't let it affect her – visibly at least. "Well, I thought, in a way, she still is a child," she spoke softly. "Was it wrong?"

He shook his head. "No. I guess no matter what age you are, it's always nice to have someone who shows you that he's trying to help and guiding you. It just..." He closed his eyes, trying to get the last words out. But they were a mere whisper. "...reminded me..."

"Yeah... Me too..." Asuka answered and though he couldn't see her face, her awfully cracked voice told enough. "And you know what?" All the more it surprised him when she turned around and, despite the glittering wetness in her eyes, had a smile upon her face. "Even if it was just for that moment – it was nice being a mother again."



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



These eyes saw it for the first time, this nose smelled it for the first time, her ears picked up the sounds of the neighborhood for the first time... and yet it was also the place she had recognized as hers for many months. Physically, it didn't feel any different, as though she just returned as she had every day. And yet it was very unsettling.

When her first self had died, the second had been too young to fully understand that she wasn't really the same who had just woke up again after a deep slumber. She couldn't have realized that she was another being with the imprinted memories that had been secured from the first.

Thanks to Ikari and Soryu, she also remembered the emotions of the former Rei. But were they actually hers as well? They felt right, but had it been her who made them? Her soul was the same, but had it been her who formed it and let it be formed by the ones she interacted with?

She had become friends with them, but did she even have the right to, when they didn't actually know her but only her predecessor? Wasn't she just a stolen soul in a stolen body with stolen memories and emotions? They seemed to know, but they didn't seem to mind. Did they not understand? Were they in denial? Or could it be that she was the same Rei Ayanami they had known after all? Could she actually be not just a replacement, but herself?

If she had her former self's soul, her former self's memories, her former self's emotions, could she be the same?

Rei felt confused.

And she hated that feeling.





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



'"We don't want to humiliate you any longer." How generous of those old lechers,' Ritsuko mentally fumed, zipping her top back up again. 'As if I could have gotten something into a holographic chamber that could have put them in danger.'

But it was hard to concentrate her anger on a bunch of perverts. All it did was to serve as a little distraction from the other words that had nagged more on her than she would have liked during the whole questioning.

He had sent her to be humiliated instead of Rei.

She wasn't really surprised that he hadn't told her that little tidbit when he had given her the order. She was even less surprised that he wanted to protect his precious Rei. But that didn't help to ease the bitter feeling of betrayal.

Maybe it wasn't much of an incident in a long row of disappointments, but it was the famous last straw, enough to make her finally see what she had always pretended to be blind to: He would never choose her over his precious Rei.

She was still a fool just like the youngster she had been, who had dived into the false affection he had been giving her after her mother's death. The fool that once had dyed her hair blond to get a compliment from someone to her as woman, not as her mother's daughter. The fool who had kept it that way to distinguish herself against better knowledge from her "foolish mother". The fool who thought she might could make him forget her despite the presence of precious, precious Rei.

Ritsuko clenched her hands in anger. She wasn't so stupid not to realize that this reaction was just what the old bastards wanted, but she was more than happy to grant them this satisfaction.

She might be a fool. But he was a bigger one if he thought she was never going to let him know.


*********


"Yes, Dr. Akagi, I understand."

As he hung up the phone, Asuka sat up from the floor where they had made themselves comfortable with each other for a while before the call had interrupted. "So it's time?"

Shinji nodded with a sigh. "Yes, I'll just get myself ready and then I'm off," he said quietly. "You're sure you don't want to come along?"

She shook her head with a gentle smile. "Not unless you want me to," she answered. "That's something I don't need to – or maybe even shouldn't see."

"Alright," Shinji nodded. "I just hope Misato will be there in time. She wasn't very happy when we explained the plan to her."

"That's hardly surprising, is it? After all, she had been her closest friend..."



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



Ritsuko smiled to herself. It hadn't gone as well as she had hoped for, not with Misato anticipating her just when she met up with Ikari's son. The usually so sensible boy also had taken the sight of Rei's "nursery" and the dumping ground much better than she would have guessed; even the mentioning of his oh-so-beloved mother's death had left him relatively unfazed, only glaring at her passively. But that didn't matter. That all had just been a build-up for this.

It might not be fair to direct her hatred for his parents at Shinji. But so what? She wasn't the type for compassion anyway. He was just a tool, everyone was regarding him as that. So why should she hesitate to use him as tool for her revenge? Depending of the impact this shock would have on him, his ability to pilot would considerably drop. And already having lost one active EVA, it would most definitely hurt the Commander to lose another one.

And if Shinji would separate himself from her because of this revelation... well, Ritsuko certainly wouldn't mind seeing her suffer just as she did because of her.

"You said this is the core of the Dummy Plug?"

Ritsuko smirked again. Misato always had to question what she had been told, didn't she? Granted, as imposing as the chamber was with the huge brain-like construction overhead, it seemed rather empty because of the darkness and only the single tube visible in the middle. But that would change now.

Her hand closed around the remote. "I'll show you the truth."

The lights went on with a single touch of the prepared button, illuminating the surrounding LCL tanks. And their contents, their mindless giggling filling the room as they were awakened.

"Rei?" The gasp she had been waiting for had come, but not from the source she had expected. Glancing behind her she saw that her worries were unfounded. Apparently, Shinji was shocked so much that he stood still, his fists clenched, eyes cast to the floor, refraining to look at either side. Misato was the one who stared unbelievingly at the sight of the clones. "EVA's Dummy Plug is...?"

"Yes, these are to become the cores of the Dummy System," Ritsuko explained with satisfaction. "And this is the factory for manufacturing them."

"This is...?"

"These are dummies. Nothing but spare parts for Rei," she cut her college friend off. The repetitions were getting on her nerves. She finally had to get this over with. "Humans found a God and tried to obtain it. As result humanity was punished. That was 15 years ago. The God that they found vanished. However, man tried to resurrect God with his own hands and created Adam. From Adam, man created what resembled God. That is EVA."

"Human? It is a human?"

"Yes, it's a human. EVA, which originally didn't have a soul, now has that of a human. All of them were salvaged." Ritsuko smiled. It felt good to finally get these secrets out, to have this burden taken from her. But it still wasn't enough to be free. Not with her still here, so many of them. "However the vessel which truly contains a soul is Rei. Only she has a soul. None of the other vessels have one. There was nothing in the room of Gauf.

"These," she glared at the laughing forms around her, anger rising, "are nothing but empty containers. They have no souls. Nothing but vessels. So I'll-"

"MISATO!"

Ritsuko flinched, startled by the sudden cry of the boy who had remained so silent until now. It took her just the fraction of a second to come back to her senses, but in that time Misato had already closed the gap between them, grabbing the remote that was still in her grasp.

"NO!" Instinctively, she tightened her grip.

"Let go," Misato demanded coldly, the gun that she had never put away since she had stopped her at the entrance now pressed against the blonde's back.

Ritsuko didn't fear death anymore, though. But she had to do this before at any cost. Then she would gladly go. So she held on with all her strength, trying to reach the button with her thumb. But the well-trained Major eventually pulled the remote more and more out of her hand despite her efforts.

No, she couldn't lose yet. It didn't matter afterwards, but not yet!

Driven by nothing but pure determination she grabbed her long-time friend's wrist with her free hand, using up every resource of strength she could muster to keep the remote from slipping away from her fingers.

A sharp pain against her cheek, strong enough to send her tumbling backwards, ended her struggle as Misato backhanded her with the gun hand. However, it caused both of them to let go of the device that now flew through the air. Cupping her burning face, Ritsuko could do nothing but follow its flight with her eyes before it clashed on the floor, sliding a good way over the slick surface until it came to stop right in front of two feet. Her eyes widened in surprise and they weren't the only ones in the chamber that did.

Slowly, Rei bend down and took the remote control.

A relieved sigh escaped Misato. "Well done," she praised. "Now give me that thing, okay?"

However, the girl just stared at her, then back at the device.

Ritsuko saw that as her last chance. "Give me the remote, Rei!" she ordered, hoping that in the confusion the girl would not be able to decide whether to follow her or Misato's order.

But all she got was a cold look from the albino. "I am afraid I cannot do that," she explained as she stepped closer to the tank, eye-to-eye with one of the clones. It was as though she was looking into a distorted mirror; on the one side clad in her school uniform, seemingly emotionless staring ahead; on the other a floating nude form, carefree as a newborn. Slowly, Rei held the device up. "This is something I have to do myself."

The victorious smirk Misato had held until now vanished instantly. "Rei!? You... do you want to become a mass murderer like she did?"

"You misunderstand, Major. These are not human beings. Their official purpose is to serve as core for the Dummy Plug system, but even that is only secondary. As Dr Akagi explained, they are mere vessels to hold my soul. That was the only reason they were created for, just like the body I possess now and the ones before."

With her free hand, she touched the glass separating her from her copies as she continued. "Without a soul, they can not become aware of their feelings. They notice the feel of the warm LCL around them, of this glass holding them; they can see us, the world outside of theirs. But... it does not matter to them. All they are doing is existing, blissfully unaware of everything. They cannot understand the difference between pain and joy. They do not know the vast variety of human emotions. They do not feel hope or fear for the future."

She cast her head down and her voice followed. "I always wondered whether to pity or to envy them."

A slight pressure of her thumb. That was all that was needed to engage the deadly mechanism that took the bodies' forms forever, the orange LCL reddening as it was mixed with blood and disintegrating flesh.

"Rei..." Shinji asked in disbelief, visibly fighting to watch this horrific sight. "What have you done?"

"I have... set them free..."

Unnoticed by almost everyone, a single tear dripped onto the floor.



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



The Commander had instantly demanded that Ritsuko and Rei were brought to him. She and probably Shinji would eventually have to explain their role in this matter as well, but for now he only wanted the two main suspects, giving Misato time to drive her visibly disturbed charge home.

Not that she wasn't disturbed herself. They had told her about it, but actually seeing all those identical copies of Rei had been such a shock that she had almost forgotten their plan. Maybe also because she hadn't wanted it to be true that Ritsuko was willing to go that far. She had always suspected the doctor of keeping more secrets from her than she would have liked, as Major, as Director of Operations and mostly, as friend. And then there was, of course, what had happened afterwards. As if she didn't already have enough gruesome pictures in her mind to haunt her dreams.

To think Shinji now witnessed that twice...

"I'm sorry. I probably could have stopped Rei, but... I guess she took me too much by surprise myself."

"It's... it's alright," Shinji muttered, for the first time since they left the Terminal Dogma. "It was her decision."

"And you are okay with that?"

"It was surely... disturbing to see 'her' dissolving like that. But maybe... maybe I really don't understand it completely. If even she herself doesn't regard them as humans, then maybe I tried to interfere with something I had no right to – because I couldn't understand it. I didn't even consider such a possibility. That she would want set them – set herself free... I thought I wanted to do it for her. But I guess I just wanted to do it for myself."

"You did what you thought was the right thing to do."

"Yeah. But what is right for one doesn't mean it's right for everyone else." He smirked weakly as though he remembered something. "After all... there are as many truths as there are people."

Then, he fell silent, just staring out the window. But just when Misato thought he was waiting for her to answer, he spoke once more. "It just makes me wonder... what if I'm not as right as I thought in other matters as well?"


*********


Gendo Ikari had no reason to smirk. The destruction of the Dummy System was more than just a slight setback. Treason on such a level, so close to the end, that was something he couldn't afford now.

"Why did you do it?"

He knew that Akagi wouldn't answer that question, at least not now, but that defiant smirk as she stood there at the other side of his office told him enough. She had wanted to hurt him and she had succeeded. He had come to expect to be hated, to be betrayed, but that he could anticipate it didn't ease the bitter feeling inside him a single bit.

But it didn't matter. His scenario wasn't affected too severely. And then he wouldn't need a replacement anymore.

Still, he needed to know. He wasn't sure why she didn't answer. Fuyutsuki probably wouldn't be very surprised if their affair would be revealed and Rei wouldn't care. And it would hurt his reputation more than hers in the current situation.

But he was a patient man. He had enough to imprison her for treason. He could wait while she'd spend the rest of her time in a holding cell until she realized her place and would be desperate enough to tell him everything he wanted to know.

"Dr. Akagi only configured the device as I asked her to. It was my wish to destroy the Dummy System."

Everyone in the room appeared shocked at Rei's words, but no one so much as Gendo Ikari. Other people probably wouldn't have noticed the surprise in his voice as he fought the previous nausea returning a hundred times stronger. "Why?"

"I no longer saw a purpose for them. Evangelion Unit-00 is destroyed. Evangelion Unit-01 no longer accepts me. Everything indicates that it would be similar with Unit-02. With that, not only the Dummy Plug itself is proven useless, but as there is only one more messenger to come, the chance that I will participate in another fight in person is almost nonexistent. Therefore the risks for this body are relatively slim."

As obvious as the lie was, she offered a reasonable excuse.

"That..." Gendo forced himself to remain calm, "was not for you to decide."

Rei, however, made no move to apologize.

"Akagi," he turned to the no longer smirking blonde, "I can no longer accept you as head of Project E. I am aware that it wouldn't be of much use to revoke your passwords and access codes, but be warned that I can and will not tolerate another break in the chain of command."

He saved himself saying "You won't be as lucky to have someone stepping in for you next time" as that was obvious to every attendee.

"You are dismissed," he breathed. He had never expected having to let her go with such light punishment for her betrayal, but what choice did he have with Rei covering her? The doctor seemed equally surprised to get off so relatively easy as she wordlessly nodded and left the room.

But he barely noticed her anyway. His eyes were locked with the red ones of the blue-haired teen. Why was she doing this? What could be the reason for her to want the destruction of the Dummy System? What was he supposed to do with her now? For once, he actually found himself at a loss for words.

Fuyutsuki eventually ended this silent stand-off. "That goes for you as well, pilot Ayanami."

She nodded and moved to leave.

"Rei," Gendo stopped her however, just as she reached the door. She only turned her head slightly. "You have disappointed me."

It wasn't a question, so there was no need for her to respond. But if it bothered her in any way, she didn't show it. The only sign of acknowledgment she gave was the short pause in silence. Then she resumed her movement and left.

As the door shut, the professor gave an amused laugh Gendo couldn't really share. "She's clever. In a way, she made sure that you have to take good care of her now."

"That could easily be done by locking her up in a holding cell."

"I was a little surprised that you didn't. If anybody else would have done it, that would have been the most merciful punishment." Fuyutsuki allowed himself a smirk. "And other parents would have long given their rebellious teen house arrest."

"Other 'parents' aren't dependent on the cooperation of their children. So far, she is still obedient enough not to go against a direct order. But if I were to lock her up now, it would only fuel her grudge against me. She might not accept to fulfill her purpose just out of spite when the day comes. That is something I can not risk."

Gendo knew the old man was regarding him with slight disgust. The professor had always had a problem with his way of using people. And he had to admit that it had its disadvantages, having to stay on their good side as long as he needed them.

But fortunately, Fuyutsuki was professional enough not to voice his discomfort with his decisions. Instead, he brought up another problem.

"They were seen to have made contact with her after her resurrection. You think they have influenced her as well?"


*********


Ritsuko's head was still spinning as she left the Commander's office. What just had transpired there was hard to grasp for the doctor. She had honestly expected to find herself in a holding cell, or probably even dead soon when she had entered and now she was... free...

A deep breath escaped her; suddenly feeling the weariness that had piled up in the last months overwhelming her. That was all gone now. No more secrets to add. No more unbearably responsibility. No more hoping for a love that could never be...

Lost in her thoughts, she almost missed the door next to her opening again.

"Rei!" she called out, almost on reflex, but it got the blue-haired girl to halt, waiting to hear what Ritsuko wanted. If only she knew that herself.

There was a "thank you" on her tongue, but it wouldn't come out. She wasn't even sure if Rei could appreciate such words of gratitude. Instead, the next logical thing got past her lips. "Why?"

"I think... you still have a purpose here," was the calm answer. Slightly turning around, Rei's piercing eyes stared into hers as she continued, "You are not replaceable, Dr. Akagi. You should not waste your life."

The words shocked Ritsuko more than she would have thought. Not out of frustration or anger. But because she heard them from the last person she had expected them from. And a weak smile crept over her lips. "What you did in there... I didn't even know you could be capable of that."

Rei narrowed her eyes. "To lie?"

Ritsuko shook her head. "To help someone like me. Siding against him at that."

The blue-haired girl seemed surprised at her words as though she hadn't even realized what she had done until then. After a second of contemplating them however, she turned to leave. "I am my own person. I can decide for myself."

She left before Ritsuko could say any more, but even if the scientist had wanted to, she found herself actually at loss of words because of that statement. A baffled smile formed on her lips.

He might have chosen Rei over her. But that didn't mean Rei chose him as well. And somehow, that thought was more pleasing to Ritsuko than she would ever have expected. Because, in the end, he might come to see that he had chosen wrong.

And Ritsuko would be there to watch his face then.



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



"Oh God," Daisuke Tanaka muttered, nervously shifting his feet as he watched the transport came to a stop. "Oh God, oh God."

"Relax," the pony-tailed man next to him told him grinning. It was all his fault. "One could think you'd need to take a leak."

"Relax? RELAX?!" Daisuke repeated shouting. His shaking hand ran through his sweaty hair in a vain attempt to calm down. "I'm as good as dead. They'll find out. There's no way they couldn't. Something as big as this just doesn't go unnoticed."

"Don't worry," the other appeased, scratching his stubbly chin. "They take a lot of work from us with all that secrecy of theirs. As you said yourself, no one knows what the other does. The transport company doesn't know what is being transported, the smelters in the plants don't know what it is they're supposed to rip apart and melt into an indefinable metal mud. They'll be happy with the 300 tons of discarded artillery and we're happy with this discarded beauty here." He nodded over to the wide trucks that carefully drove their covered load backwards into the hall.

"'Don't worry'," Daisuke repeated to himself, burying his shaking head in his left hand. "'Don't worry', he says. I'm as good as dead, and he says 'don't worry'..."

"Well, see it like this: We're even now."

"Even? EVEN?!" he threw another hysterical fit, not caring that the drivers were looking by now. "Oh, no, no, no, we're not even. Now you owe me one. A very big one!"

His companion chuckled loudly. "Alright, alright," he laughed, slapping Daisuke's back hard enough to push his admittedly not too muscular frame forward. "But I guess that should be soon, before it's too late, eh?"

"That is not funny," Daisuke grumbled, though the other's opinion was quite different.

"Believe me, dying isn't as bad as they say." The man's laughter ceased, but he kept a smug grin. "And I have experience in that after all."






A/N: Woha, already another chapter. Almost brings back memories of the time when the second chapter followed just a few days after the first, eh? ... Well, this wasn't meant quite as ironical when I originally wrote it. I guess I waited a bit longer than necessary for the pre-readers' edits and I admit, I also took my time to apply the changes. Still not even sure if that monthly release thing will work out, despite me being finished so far. :/

I know I'm threading on very thin ice regarding the canon with the Angel fight, having both Rei and Armisael rather talkative, completely ignoring the "who's soul is in EVA-00?" issue and of course the whole "Mini-Impact". Did I stray too far off? Dunno, but I liked the idea and it's not like I've always clung to the canon before. Sometimes, you just have to throw exactness over board in favor of something original and (hopefully) fun/interesting to read, even if some will moan about it.

Whether to kill Rei II off was the last major decision about the overall plot. Hope you fans of our favorite blue-haired albino don't mind my choice, but her sacrifice is IMO too much of an emotional highlight, not just for us but for her as well. And I think my interpretation that not all of her was as lost as it seemed offers a good enough compromise.

I also hope I didn't give R/S fans (are any reading this anyway?) a false hope here with this or that scene by focusing on that relationship. Personally, I don't doubt that there is love between them; I'd even say someone who doesn't see that is in denial. But while in need for love, Rei never seemed to me like she's in need of a lover. That is why I can't see me pairing her off with Shinji (or anyone else for that matter).
That said, I'm not all that much of a fan of the often done "brother/sister" thing either. Yes, there is that distant relation and I guess it's a convenient alternative on a only slightly lesser level than a romantic love – but I don't quite see why friendship should be so far below it.

Random notes:
- The correct English name for the lake(s) is just "Ashi", with "noko" already meaning "lake" (I guess, I'm no Japanese expert). But they were translated as "Ashinoko lake" in every NGE version I have (checked) so I kept it. (I actually had it "Ashino Lake" before. But I'll probably change it while redoing the early chapters.)
ed: Since I probably got more replies to this little bit than any other thing in this chapter, I changed it for the correct "Ashi" after all. Happy now? :P

- I really wanted to get Gendo's glasses in the scene where Rei III returns to her apartment, but that just wouldn't fit in (IMO at least). They'll make an appearance in a later chapter though.

- The biggest (chronological) gap that I wondered how to fill for the longest time was between Ritsuko's phone call and the revealing of the Dummies. I couldn't quite decide how much of that I actually wanted to retell. My lazy self eventually settled for "pretty much nothing", but given the lack of drastic changes to the series, I guess it's also for the reader's benefit.

- I'm not sure if I grasped Ritsuko's motives there correctly. To be honest, I never quite understood why she had to show Shinji around (aside from mere story-telling purposes of course).

- I noticed that in the scene where Shinji visits Rei in the hospital she suddenly changed from the hospital gown to her school uniform between the cuts. Don't know if that was one of the Gainaxian continuation errors (his plugsuit of all things the manifestation of Shinji's ego? Riiiight...) or if Shinji really waited so long for her to go back into her room, change, get back out to one of those waiting chairs until he finally managed a "Glad you're alive, thanks for saving me." Granted, wouldn't be too un-Shinji like, but I decided to ignore it anyway.

- In return, one chronological "error" I put in was the time between Misato trying to console Shinji and the call from NERV/hospital that Rei was still alive. In the Anime, there seemed to be a few hours, if not days between there. But it was a nice way to end the scene – and there's nothing saying that the "signal" couldn't just have been someone with the wrong number...

- Thanks to LD (hope the change was sufficient, even if it wasn't as big as suggested ;) ) , Eric Blair, Tarage and William T. Martin for pre-reading

- I will make some changes to chapter 1 (and slighter ones to 2-6 or 7 (mostly just corrections on the later ones)) before the next one to tie in better with that. Nothing huge, but if the next installment hits and you find something odd about it, you might want to take another look at the first. ;) 

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