Night was falling over the long dead remains of Tokyo-3. What had once been streets, buildings, parking lots and shopping centers overlapping with concealed nuclear fallout barricades, heavy caliber gun turrets, missile silos, and enough munitions and heavy artillery to start a world war several times over had given way to the result of that very war. Though the exact course of events that lead to the catastrophe which had reduced the world to rubble and a handful of survivors would probably remain a mystery to all, it was pretty clear exactly who the catalyst was who had set these events into motion.
Captain Shikinami glanced up from her Atmospheric LCL Oximeter, which chirped in distress at the amount of LCL in the air, and stared up at the darkening sky with her one good eye. Beneath their feet, and stretching out for what appeared to be forever, was the dry, dusty wasteland that was once the Kanagawa Prefecture. Her scarlet plug suit offered little in the way of protection from the elements, but the air was warm and dry, and there was little worry about freezing to death, at least during the day. It would drop significantly by night however, and they were still several kilometers from the nearest Lilin encampment, and it was slow going with all the extra baggage that the former Third Child represented.
He hadn't spoken a word since she had hauled him bodily out of his entry plug, his eyes unfocused, like he was in a state of perpetual shell shock. Asuka wasn't a medical expert, but she'd experienced enough of it firsthand to see the signs of an acute stress reaction in the boy. But she'd also had enough training in field medicine to recognize that his physical health was well within acceptable limits.
So as long as he was able to put one foot in front of the other, then she wasn't going to lose any sleep over his mental condition, even if she had to practically drag him by the hand towards their destination. And besides, it wasn't as if his physical health was even her primary concern at the moment. She would have been negligent in her duty if she had simply left him to die, but she was still WILLE's top pilot. If it came down to it, her own survival came first. And after everything he had done – and failed to do – just in the last day, Asuka found that it was duty and duty alone that made her even lift a finger to help the Third Child, for all the waste of oxygen he was.
At least the Ayanami Type that had been following them around wasn't slowing her down, and was keeping mercifully silent throughout the trek. It hadn't said or done anything besides follow steadily behind her like a stray cat. Or a robot on standby. Captain Shikinami wasn't really concerned that it would attack them or otherwise hamper their progress; after what she had learned about the Ayanami Series, she doubted the clone had enough willpower to do much of anything that it wasn't directly ordered to do. And Asuka had already checked its bag and plug suit for bugs or communication devices, so it wasn't liable to receive any orders from NERV, at least not without her knowing about it. And if luck favored them (she wasn't optimistic, but statistically, they had to luck out at some point), assuming they ever made it back to the Wunder, WILLE might actually be able to dissect something useful from the clone.
Asuka slipped her chirping ALO back into her rucksack.
"We'll camp here for the night," she announced plainly, sliding her pack off her shoulder and kneeling down to rummage through it for her survival gear. She pulled out a flashlight, a canteen of water, some canned rations, and a rolled up Mylar blanket, setting them out where she knelt.
She glanced uncertainly at her two travelling companions. Shinji would be absolutely no help, she knew, but the Ayanami clone might at least have some basic survival skills.
"You," she pointed at the blue haired girl in the black plug suit. "Do you know how to start a fire?"
The clone stared back at her, blankly.
Asuka sighed. "Okay, how about looking for firewood? Otherwise, you're eating cold trail rations."
The clone just blinked.
Asuka felt a vein throbbing in her head. "Looking for drinking water?"
Another blank stare.
"Pitching a tent?"
Asuka took a deep breath. This was not worth losing her temper, she knew. Whoever designed this clone probably didn't intend for it to survive for longer than it was needed to pilot Unit 09. Disgusted, Asuka shoved the rolled up Mylar blanket towards the simulacrum.
"How about unfurling a blanket?"
Rei reached out to inspect the proffered silver roll. After giving it some thought, she slowly unrolled it, and with little ado, had it unfurled and waving lazily in the wind. She then fixed the Captain with a look that unmistakably translated to 'what now?'
"Ach, du lieber…" Asuka grunted, snatching the shimmering silver sheet back from her. "What do they teach you at NERV? How to successfully imitate a lobotomy patient?"
Rei threw a quick glance towards Shinji, as if searching for elaboration. No explanation was forthcoming, however, as the boy's eyes remained unfocused and untracking, his arms hanging limply at his sides, his head hung low.
Asuka let out another sigh. It would appear the burden would fall squarely on her shoulders to get the job done. Well, she thought somberly, that was certainly something she was used to at this point.
"Okay, give me your pack…" Asuka said dismissively, reaching out with an expectant arm towards the clone.
Rei surrendered the rucksack, and Asuka relieved Shinji of his own, and she emptied their combined contents onto the dry, dusty dirt.
"Alright," she said when she had all their supplies organized the way she wanted. The light was fading fast, and she already had to use her flashlight to see the other two clearly. "You two stay put. I'll go find something to make a fire out of."
She went off in search of something flammable. She didn't like her odds, given the state of the landscape out here. It was mostly dirt, dust and rocks as far as the eye could see. It was fourteen years too late to find anything that had once been living anywhere this close to ground zero. The chance of finding something that could hold a flame looked pretty slim, but it was still worth the effort if she could get some extra warmth, and didn't want to have to rely on flashlights until sunrise.
She found something that looked like it may have been a twisted root, and trying tugging it out of the dirt. After a good hard yank, it came free, its other end a splintered mess. She turned it a few times, before she tucked it under her arm, satisfied that it would make good tinder, and moved on. As she continued her search, she glanced back at where she had left the other two sitting. She had left one of the flashlights on where they sat and had it pointed upwards, which highlighted the trace amounts of dust in the air that the light breeze was kicking up, making it easy enough to find in the darkness. Still, she really had no guarantee what the status of the camp would be upon her return. She had left the two other pilots with instructions to keep beneath their space blankets and to eat their cold trail rations if it took her more than an hour to make it back, but experience had instilled her with a healthy dose of suspicion, and she wasn't entirely positive that she wouldn't find the two of them dead by the time she got back.
But her paranoia was unfounded, as she returned to find both of them exactly where she had left them, as she carried an armload of unhealthy looking twigs, roots, branches and sticks, twisted in every way you could imagine. She deposited her haul in a pile between the three of them, and arranged them in a way that she thought would hold up. It was slow work, having to hold her flashlight at various angles to inspect the setup, but finally she got to her feet, satisfied, before reaching into her bag for a knife.
Asuka turned to approach Rei, knife in hand, who was seated on her Mylar blanket where she had left her, and she tucked the flashlight between her shoulder and cheekbone, freeing one of her hands.
"Now hold still…" she ordered, reaching for the clone with her free hand.
Asuka was surprised, however, when the First Child's hand snapped up to grab the Captain by the wrist, a deadly look reflecting off her red eyes from the flashlight.
Asuka smirked. "Heh…glad to see you have some survival instincts. Relax; I just need some of your hair for kindling."
The clone seemed confused by this.
"Why not use your own?" the Ayanami Type asked. They were the first words Asuka had heard from the creature since leaving her Eva. "You have far more than I do."
"I'm not even dignifying that with an answer," Asuka snorted, before freeing her arm from the clone's grip and taking hold of a lock of the Ayanami Type's hair from behind her left ear, and slicing off a good three inches of it.
Captain Shikinami got to work getting the fire started, while the clone fiddled with the hair behind her ear, as if confused as to what exactly Asuka had just done to her. Well, she thought, let her wonder, as she got to work adding tinder to the smoking kindling.
Soon, the fire was going strong enough for Asuka to shut off the flashlights, and she got to work prying the tin lids halfway off of their rations and sliding them partway into the fire to heat up. Once the contents began to steam and bubble, she used one of her unused sticks to prod the three tins out of the fire, and let them cool down.
"Here," she set one of the three canteens next to the Ayanami Type, who was still fiddling with her hair. "We have enough food and water for maybe a day or two, tops. I don't need you passing out, so keep yourself hydrated."
Rei looked at the proffered canteen, as if she had never seen it before, but eventually took it and put the opening to her lips, tilting it back to take a small sip.
Asuka set the second canteen next to Shinji.
"That goes for you too," she said brusquely.
The Third Child had still not so much as moved from his sitting position, with his knees pulled up to his chest and his arms wrapped around them, his head buried against his legs.
Asuka snorted at the sight he presented, and turned and retrieved a small, metal spork from their supplies and prodded the contents of one of their steaming dinner trays, which contained about an airline food tray sized portion of watery, over-salted beef-flavored nutrient paste and dry bread-like crackers to soak it up with. Not the most appetizing fare by any standard, but it would still taste better now that it was warm.
"Alright," she said, testing the tin to make sure it was cool enough to touch, before handing it to Rei. "Food's as close to cooked as it's going to be."
Rei blinked at the tin in her hands, before obediently shoveling the nutrient paste into her mouth with the accompanying metal spork.
Asuka placed an identical tin of steaming foodstuff next to Shinji.
"Eat," she commanded, simply.
Shinji did not seem inclined to move a muscle.
Asuka was feeling her patience begin to wear thin.
"Shinji, if I have to force feed you, I will," she snapped, with a touch of menace in her voice. "Eat."
Shinji acted like she hadn't said a word.
Asuka had just about had it.
"Listen!" she growled, grabbing a tuft of his hair and yanking his head upright, causing him to wince slightly. "I have half a mind to leave you out here to die! But like it or not, it's my responsibility to at least try to get you back to WILLE in one piece!"
She leaned down and shoved her face right up into his as he winced, unable to open his eyes to meet her gaze.
"It is not, however, my responsibility to pamper you or to baby you or to make sure your feelings aren't hurt!"
She was shouting now. Rei was watching the one-sided exchange with silent attentiveness. Shinji was still wincing in pain from Asuka's grip on his hair, but otherwise was still completely inert.
"Now shape up!" she demanded, grabbing him by the jaw with her other hand, slowly forcing his mouth open. "I've got enough to worry about out here without also having to worry about you slowing me down because of how malnourished you are! Now eat!"
Shinji began to lean away from her grip on his jaw, and one of his eyes slowly began to peek open.
"Rnnng…" he grunted finally in irritation. "…Why…why should I even care?"
Asuka relented slightly and leaned in closer to glare into his eye with her own.
"What?" she demanded.
Shinji pulled his head away from her completely, glaring back at her with a ferocity that she hadn't seen from him for the entire time she'd ever known him.
"Why the hell should I even care!?" Shinji blared in outrage.
Asuka's scowl darkened at the outburst as she squeezed her hand into a fist.
"Listen you little brat," Asuka breathed in a deadly tone. "I'm only going to say this once…"
"Why bother?" Shinji spat, looking away. "You're just going to yell at me again! That's all you ever do! None of you have given me a single reason to care anymore!"
She grabbed him by the collar of his black and blue plug suit, yanking him forward on his knees and up towards her.
"I don't give a flying fuck what you care about!" she glowered.
"Then why should I give anything more about the rest of you!?" he demanded in retort. "You and Misato and practically everyone I've run into has kept me prisoner ever since I got out of Unit 01!"
He tugged free of Asuka's grip (though it felt more like she just simply dropped him) and he fell back onto his haunches, looking away in anger and frustration.
"The only one…" he began to sob. "The only one who ever even treated me like I was human anymore was Kaworu! And now he's…he's…"
He clenched his eyes shut, tears streaming down his face.
"And now he's dead! The one person left in the world who actually gave a shit about me, and now he's dead!"
Asuka towered over his crumpled form, her one good eye hidden behind her hair in a dark cloud of rage.
"Do you honestly mean to tell me that you think you're the only one who's lost someone during this war?"
"No…" he muttered, his fiery mood dissipating into red-eyed agitation. "But you're a fighter, Asuka. A captain! You've trained to be a pilot your whole life!"
He placed a hand on his chest.
"I was just some kid! I was never pilot material! And you all knew it! You could tell I was going to be a failure from the moment you laid eyes on me! But everyone still told me to pilot!"
Asuka still had not moved from her standing position, though her fists were clenching tighter with each passing moment.
"And you think that somehow makes you completely blameless then?" Asuka breathed in scarcely concealed fury.
Shinji shook his head.
"No," he growled under his breath, his throat dry from disuse and dehydration. "Kaworu explained everything to me. Or at least, more than I knew before. And you're right. I am the one who caused all of this. But do you want to know what the difference is between me and the rest of you?"
Asuka crossed her arms, un-amused. "Enlighten me."
Shinji turned his eyes up to glare back at her.
"My worst crimes…were only ever committed out of ignorance," he rasped.
His eyes were red with tears, and his voice was half scream, half sob.
"I had just seen you nearly get crushed to death by my own Eva! And I was about to lose Ayanami too!"
He turned to glanced at the Ayanami Type sitting across from them both, her eyes unblinkingly fixed on the two of them.
"All I wanted…all I wanted to do was save her…" Shinji breathed.
The Rei clone shifted uncomfortably in the firelight.
"And I refuse to apologize for doing what I thought was right!" Shinji wheezed, turning to stare defiantly back at Asuka. "You can blame me for being ignorant of the consequences for my actions, but you don't put the keys to the apocalypse in the hands of some kid who only knows that his friends are dying all around him! And if you do, you don't keep him in the dark about it! NERV and WILLE and everyone who knew about Unit-01 shares the blame for what happened that day! Cause nowhere in the operation manual did it say anything about being able to cause Third Impact from the entry plug of an Eva by making a fucking wish!"
Shinji was gasping for breath now, his voice panting and wheezing. Rei's eyes were fixated on him, as something inside of her seemed to try to comprehend what his words entailed. And Asuka continued to scowl down upon him with a cold, hard stare.
After everything that had happened, he had the gall to try to shift the blame onto all of them? After spending fourteen years doing nothing while the rest of them fought and died because of his childishness…
She took a breath.
"All you've proven, Shinji…" she muttered in scarcely contained wrath. "Is that you're even more of a danger to the world then anyone already believed…"
Shinji looked up, still breathless from his outburst, his eyes still red.
"Then why are you even keeping me alive?" he demanded. "I didn't choose to be where I am, Asuka. I don't choose to pilot Eva, I didn't choose to start Third Impact, and I didn't choose to survive it. Everything that you hate about me was something that was chosen for me!"
"Fine then," Asuka spat in indignation. "You made the best decision you could under the circumstances. That decision still wiped out a nearly all of humanity."
Asuka leaned in once again to glare at him with her good eye.
"You may not be the one at fault for this," she breathed nastily. "But you're the one who's going to pay for it."
Shinji's eyes widened as he shuddered beneath her gaze. He could swear he could make out an iridescent blue hiding behind her eye-patch. He bit his lip and swallowed, quavering beneath her, only able to wonder what she would do next.
"And it won't be with your life," Asuka continued, reaching down to grab his food tin, her words dripping with venom. "Your life isn't worth a fraction of the people who've suffered at your incompetence. No, WILLE is going to find something for you to do, some small role for you to play and maybe start making amends for all the damage you've caused. And until you've done something about that, your life is not yours to end however you wish. Only after Colonel Katsuragi says that she's finished with you…only after WILLE has extracted every last modicum of usefulness out of you, and you have nothing more to offer us other then your cold, dead body…then you have our permission to die."
Shinji felt himself break into a cold sweat. He had never heard such earnest, cold-hearted malice from someone, particularly Asuka. He couldn't conjure up the words the respond to her, much less keep her gaze. All he could do was flinch as she shoved the cooling food tin rudely into his hands.
Shinji shuddered as she stepped away to get her own serving. Asuka had scared him before, but never like that. It was just another reminder that things would never go back to the way they were.
Just another reason to hate himself.
He stared glumly at his food He'd been subsisting on the exact same fare during his stay at NERV, and he had absolutely no desire to put a single bite of it into his mouth. But he did it anyway. He couldn't think of anything else to do. Asuka had suffered at his hands. Maybe not directly, but enough that he felt like he still owed her something. She may hate him. Misato may hate him. Ritsuko and everyone at WILLE…they all may have hated him. But he still owed them something.
So he ate. And resigned to survive another night longer.
A/N: Inspirational thanks for this fic goes out to "Some Nights" by Fun.
Asuka's line, of course, inspired by Bane from The Dark Knight Rises.