As adamant as Shinji had been to see Misato, Ritsuko would not allow Shinji to leave the Wunder with the enemy so close at hand. If necessary, Ritsuko could issue orders to the Wunder from the base, but the Wunder would not fly without both Shinji and Rei present, so the two of them needed to be kept on board. So as the scaffolding launch pad elevator going from the Wunder to the docking level of Outpost Zion ferried Asuka and Mari down to the JA launch bay, Ritsuko parted ways at the bottom to hurry back to the medical wing.
After rushing through corridors, more elevators, twists and turns, not to mention several lengthy people-movers that spanned the circumference of the facility, Ritsuko burst through the doors of the medical wing, completely out of breath, to find Misato sitting up in her bed, with Lieutenant Commander Ibuki giving her a checkup.
Maya stood and saluted when Ritsuko entered.
"Ma'am!" she snapped professionally.
Misato turned her head to see, her eyes blinking as she focused on the doctor, before smiling.
Ritsuko's relief at seeing her friend awake was palpable. Nodding quickly to Maya, she rushed towards the bed, nearly collapsing on the chair Maya had been occupying just a moment ago.
"Misato!" she gasped, eyes watering, taking the Captain's hand in hers.
Despite her forty-three years of age, Misato Katsuragi had never lacked for vitality. She had been a near constant source of energy, the strong center around which all of WILLE had revolved. Now, however, for the first time, Misato's breathing sounded heavy, as if she were feeling the weight of the world with every breath. Her eyes hung languidly open, her hair hanging loosely around her face, unwashed and brittle. Her lips were chapped from the gastric lavage used to purge her system of toxins, and her skin looked rather pallid overall. The pale hospital gown did nothing to disguise how thin she had become over the years, her unwashed, unmade face was beginning to betray her age.
Despite her condition, however, Misato was still smiling.
"Ritsuko…" she sighed somberly. "What are you doing here?"
Ritsuko's face was a collage of emotions. Grief and guilt mixed with relief and joy as she stared back at her friend, her eyes already going over the minute examination details that Maya had already no doubt recorded.
"Misato…" she breathed, resting her forehead against the hand she clutched between her own, too many emotions swirling around inside her for words to convey. "God damn it, don't ever do anything like that again!"
The Captain offered a guilty expression. "Sorry to scare you, Doctor."
Ritsuko let out another breath, before throwing an apologetic look in Maya's direction.
"Could you…give us a few moments?"
Maya's expression softened, as she nodded.
Ritsuko watched her step outside the door, before turning a more serious look in Misato's direction.
"I…" she whispered, on the verge of tears. "I don't know how to even begin to apologize…"
Misato took a breath, closing her eyes as the air filled and left her lungs.
"What's the situation?"
Ritsuko blinked in surprise.
"M…ma'am?" she stuttered, not sure whether to refer to her by title of first name.
Misato's expression turned serious.
"Ibuki said you were briefing the pilots," she said simply. "There's obviously something going on. My guess is that we're about to be attacked, right?"
Ritsuko nodded, unable to think of any other response.
"Do you have a plan?" Misato asked, simply.
Ritsuko nodded again.
"Good," Misato smiled, swinging her legs over the side of the bed. "Then I'm going to need my uniform. You can brief me on the way."
Ritsuko blinked in utter stupefaction.
"Captain!" she gasped in astonishment. "You've can't seriously mean to take command again so soon after recovering!?"
Misato gave her a wry smile, before slowly rising to her feet. Despite her worn and weary condition, the determination on Misato's face made her look like the strongest thing that had ever lived.
"Are you going to try and stop me?" she smirked.
Ritsuko drew in her breath. Misato was being serious!
"As your doctor, I can't possibly recommend it!" she stated simply.
Misato fixed the woman with a long, knowing stare, in which neither spoke for a time. Ritsuko had always known just what to say to the Captain to coax the desired response from her, but now, she was completely lost for words. If anything, it was proving that the reverse was now true.
The corner of Ritsuko's lips flitted upward.
"But…as your friend and comrade, I could really use your help right now," she said, letting a nervous laugh escape her lips.
Misato nodded her head definitively. "Good. Now where's my uniform?"
Ritsuko glanced at a coat rack by the door, laden with a familiar set of black and red clothes, a pair of boots sitting underneath.
Misato went over to it and yanked off her hospital gown, leaving only a plain set of cream colored undergarments beneath.
"Captain," Ritsuko chimed in, her cautious nature getting the better of her. "Are you absolutely sure about this?"
Misato tugged her pants over her legs. "As sure as I am about anything, Doctor. You were perfectly ready to lead the troops into battle just now, right?"
Ritsuko shrugged in exasperation. "Yes…in a manner of speaking."
Misato pulled her tank top over her head. "Well, that's good enough for me. I'm going to trust your judgement on this."
Pulling her turtleneck over her head, she threw a glance back at Ritsuko.
"I only ask one thing in return, Ritsuko," she said somberly as she tugged her boots on, pausing as she spoke. "I need you to trust me too."
Ritsuko just blinked, not understanding.
"I need you to keep me informed," Misato said as she laced up her boots. "Let me know what you're thinking. None of this sneaking around my back business. If you see a path from point A to point B, then tell me, and tell me straight. Give me your best assessment, and I promise you, I will listen to what you have to say."
She pulled on her red Captain's coat.
"As long as you promise to listen to me too."
Ritsuko was awestruck by the Captain's resolve. How quickly she had reconciled everything that had happened between them. What exactly had been going through her head while she had laid unconscious on that hospital bed?
Misato finally grabbed her Captain's hat from the top of the coat rack, pulled her hair back into the semblance of a ponytail, and tugged her hat securely in place.
"Are you with me, Ritsu?"
Ritsuko drew in a breath.
Now she was sounding like the Misato that she remembered.
Shinji and Rei sat in an uneasy silence within the entry plug of Unit 01.
The Evangelion lay wrapped in an ovaloid turbine that served as the engine within the ship's belly. With the ship's AT drive offline, the frontal lobe of the core slid back, exposing the Evas head and neck to the mechanical arm that ferried the entry plug from the Evas entry port to the catwalk surrounding the core. There, the pilots had to climb in and out of the plug via a ladder and platform which had very recently been built into the catwalk. It was a very rough and unpolished system that had been cobbled together for the purposes of making a serviceable entry system. Over the past week or so, Shinji and Rei had undergone substantial training simply with egress and ingress procedures in order to make the process as fluid as possible under the circumstances.
Another significant portion of their training was standard sync training, with two major differences - the tests took place within the Eva directly, and the synchronization was taking place as much between Shinji and Rei as it was between either pilot and the Eva.
But while the two of them were sufficiently in sync to get the Wunder airborne, Shinji did not feel confident in his ability to take control of the Wunder in combat.
Not with this particular girl at the helm.
Shinji flinched. It would take some time to get used to her calling him by his first name.
The girl in front of him turned her head back to peer at him.
"We are not synchronizing as we once were," she noted simply.
Shinji winced. "Oh…sorry…"
"Have I become so unfamiliar to you since my conjoining?" she asked bluntly. "Can you not see that I am the same person as before?"
Shinji did not want to be having this conversation now. Though frankly, he did not want to be having this conversation ever, truth be told.
"I'm sorry, Ayanami…" he repeated without thinking.
"Rei," she insisted.
"I have already told you," she said patiently. "You may refer to me as Rei. You refer to Pilot Shikinami and Second Lieutenant Suzuhara by their first names. Why not I?"
Shinji set his teeth. "See, that's…sort of what's bothering me."
She blinked. "You do not wish to call me by my given name?"
"No," Shinji said, before thinking about it. "Well, yes, but that's only a small part of it. The part that really bothers me is that…well…before your…'conjoining,' it would not have mattered to you one way or another. The Rei I remember never would have questioned her superiors the way you did. Hell, I don't think I've ever seen you so much as make a suggestion before."
Rei gave him a peculiar look. "So, the fact that I have opinions bothers you?"
Shinji suddenly backpedaled. "What? No, no, no! That's not what I meant at all!"
"Then what is it, Shinji?" she asked, not irritated but definitely challenging in her tone. "Is it merely the fact that I give voice to these opinions now? Did you prefer me when I would silently accept the world around me in quiet conformity?"
Shinji wished he could hide under a rock. This was not going the way he wanted it to at all.
"I'm just…not used to seeing you act like this…" he muttered, turning his eyes away in shame. "I don't think it's a bad thing, to voice your opinions. If anything, it's a good thing. Maybe now, everyone will start giving you the respect you deserve."
He pursed his lips.
"But it's just not…familiar to me," he admitted. "The 'you' that I remember never acted this way. You were always quiet. Reserved. More like…more like me, I guess. And I found it comforting to be around someone I could relate to."
"I see…" Rei said.
She was quiet for a while. All around them, the pre-launch flight check was proceeding as the Wunder prepared to take to the air. Behind them, the circular layout of Outpost Zion appeared oval shaped from their perspective. And all around them, the AT barrier lay, protecting them from danger. A section of it would come down briefly to allow the ship to pass, before raising again to begin charging the Cassius weapon.
The silence became too uncomfortable for Shinji.
"Well, um…" Shinji muttered, weakly. "Sakura had the idea that…maybe each of these clones and Dummy Plugs represented a different part of you. And that as more of them came together, the more…well…'complete' you became."
Rei was silent for a moment more before speaking.
"What do you think?" she asked.
Shinji shook his head.
"I don't like the idea that the person I knew before wasn't complete to begin with," he said, his voice small but adamant. "There was nothing wrong with the Rei Ayanami that I knew before. I liked her just the way she was."
Rei was silent again for a time before speaking.
"I'm afraid you are mistaken, Shinji," she said, her voice sounding sorrowful. "There were a great many things wrong with the Rei that you knew. She…I…was merely adept at hiding them."
Shinji nodded. That he could believe.
"I always looked up to you," he smiled, childishly. "Living with such pain, and never letting it show. I wish I could have been as strong as you sometimes."
Rei shook her head. "Hiding your pain is not strength, Shinji."
He winced. He knew that to be true, and he was a fool for suggesting otherwise. But that still did not change the fact that he had admired her courage.
"May I offer another perspective?" Rei asked.
"Um…alright," Shinji said.
Again, he was not used to Rei volunteering her thoughts so freely. It was not that he was disinterested in what her mind contained, but he was thrown off balance by the frequency with which she now revealed her views. The Rei he knew had always been a creature of few words. But when pushed, she would certainly speak. And what came out of her mouth, while not always making sense, could be downright profound at times. But it was the rarity with which these observations came out that made them so significant. To speak with such regularity almost seemed to diminish the value of what was spoken.
Though perhaps, he was merely over-analyzing things.
"Do you know what amphetamines are?" Rei asked him.
Shinji blinked. If he had to guess a direction the conversation was headed, chemistry would not have been the first topic to spring to mind.
"They're a…type of drug, aren't they?"
"Yes," Rei said. "A stimulant. Now let me ask you…"
She actually stood up in her seat, turning around to look at him more fully. The burgundy color of her eyes had not diminished the piercing edge to her stare, and Shinji found that he could not meet her gaze.
"Would you agree with the assessment that you are a shy person, Shinji?" Rei asked, bluntly. "That for every thought you give voice to, there are dozens that remained contained within, hidden from the world?"
Shinji, still unable to look her in the eye, simply nodded.
Rei observed him passively.
"I was very much the same way, as you have said," she said. "Reserved. Introverted. Reticent."
She stepped off her chair to one side of the entry plug, slowly climbing up towards him.
"In spite of your shyness, however, if you were simply to consume a stimulant such as an amphetamine, you would not be able to contain your thoughts," she said as she approached him. "You would speak whatever thought came to your mind, regardless of whatever reservation held them back before. You would be exuberant. Verbose. You would not behave the way that others have grown to expect of you."
She was right next to him now, her hands resting on the frontal part of his control yokes.
"However, despite this altered perception, you will not have fundamentally changed," she explained. "The thoughts coming forth would still be your own. You would still be Shinji, just a Shinji who displayed a different side of himself."
She loomed ever closer to him, and now Shinji could do anything but look away, his eyes transfixed upon hers as they neared his.
"Look at me Shinji," she asked, though he already was. "Am I honestly so different now?"
Shinji was frozen in place as she put her hands on his shoulders, holding him where he was. He couldn't answer her.
"Before, I was adrift in a turbulent wind," she continued. "I received my orders and I obeyed them to the best of my ability. I had my thoughts, I had my opinions, and I had my desires. But they remained private. Orders came first, and I obeyed."
Shinji wanted to pull away. He wanted to be let out of the entry plug. He wanted to hide under a rock. He felt completely powerless in her grasp, though her hands were not gripping him all that tightly. He had felt less unnerved when he had been beaten to within an inch of his life in the hallways of the Wunder. He had never felt so trapped, so vulnerable, as he did right at that moment.
"But now, after all this time, I finally feel as though I have a purpose, Shinji," Rei went on. "It is a purpose that drives me to action, whether I wish it or not. My inclinations, for the first time, have conviction behind them. The thoughts dwelling within me that would have once remained unvoiced can be silent no longer."
Shinji trembled. Her face was inches from his now.
"I am still Rei Ayanami," she said, her voice a hushed tone. "I am still possessed by all her memories, all her intentions, and all her feelings. These feelings that had once remained sequestered have been driven to the surface. These memories that had once been no more than a learning device now bring me joy and sorrow. These intentions, once secondary to the order of my maker, are now an unstoppable force that drive me to act."
Shinji's heart was pounding in his chest as she hovered over him, her deep, dark eyes gazing down at him, the heat from her body washing over him. It was impossible for his imagination not to get the better of him, and his cheeks colored brightly.
"I have but one purpose now, Shinji," she breathed, her voice little more than a whisper. "One reason for fighting. One wish for which I strive to see fulfilled. It is what drives me to speak out. It is what drives me to preserve humanity, even above my own kin. It is what drives me to save this world. Everything that I do now, I do for this one purpose."
Rei's hands came up to clasp his face. She was almost upon him. Shinji's pulse had risen so high that he was starting to get dizzy.
"What…" he breathed, before swallowing. "What is that?"
Rei's smile was a subtle one, a slight curve of the lips that would have eluded any but whoever found themselves in such close proximity.
"You, Shinji," she breathed. "Your happiness. Your well being. You are my amphetamine, Shinji. You are what drives me to act. Perhaps I am a more complete person now. This feeling, this drive, this purpose has lingered within me ever since the day we first fought together. But only now am I free to act upon it."
Her lips drew dangerously close to his.
"And I should like to do so…"
That's when a face popped up on his screen.
"Shinji?" Misato inquired.
Shinji suddenly sat bolt upright, nearly throwing Rei off of him in the process.
"Misato!" he blared in stunned surprise, his blood running cold with terrified adrenaline. "I…I-I…"
Misato's expression did not change as she tapped the symbol on the front of her hat.
"It's still 'Captain,' you know?" she corrected gently.
Shinji nodded vehemently. "Y-Yes! Of course, I…"
His eyes suddenly widened as he realized who he was talking to.
"Captain!" he shouted in exuberance. "You're awake!"
"Very astute," Misato said dryly. "Now wrap up whatever it is you two are doing in there, cause we need you take control of the Wunder."
Shinji blushed at the insinuation, before blinking in surprise, looking around. The entry plug around him revealed the ship's surroundings, and he realized that they were already in mid-flight! The southern coast loomed just off in the distance, and the ground moved steadily beneath them.
He hadn't even noticed the ship take off!
"R-Right!" he bumbled, grabbing hold of the controls. "Ayanami, are you…?"
He had been about to ask if she was ready, but as he looked around, he suddenly realized that the blue haired girl wasn't where he had last seen her. Looking down, he saw that she had once again taken her seat below him.
"I told you," the girl said simply. "You may call me Rei."
"We're going to be counting on you a lot for this mission, Rei," Misato said through her own view screen below. "In order to execute a simultaneous kill, you will need to fly in at precisely the right angle. Line up the two rear targets so that both centers of mass are in the same line of fire."
"Yes ma'am," she replied.
"The bridge will take care of activating the Cassius weapon," Misato said. "We'll open fire at the same time as Zion fires on the third target. But once we do, the ship will be vulnerable to attack. If we fail to kill all three of the targets, we're all counting onyou to keep the ship safe while our shields recharge. Understood?"
"Good," Misato nodded. "Shinji?"
Shinji looked up, distracted. So much had happened all at once. "Uh, yes Captain?"
"Hold your fire until we've used the Cassius weapon," Misato said. "No need to provoke a counterattack beforehand. If we do miss the first shot, the JA Heavy Armor platoons are going to do whatever they can to slow down the remaining Eva Series until we can charge the next shot. In the event this happens, it'll be up to you to support them. Understood?"
Shinji nodded. "Understood ma'am."
Misato nodded. "Good. Now prepare to transfer control of the Wunder."
As Misato's face disappeared from the screen, Shinji exhaled sharply.
"Whew," he sighed, relieved that Misato hadn't said anything more about what he and Rei had been doing.
Just thinking about it brought color to his cheeks. Why must Rei be so confusing?
"Ayanami…?" he said. "I mean, uh…Rei?"
"I must apologize, Shinji," she said, not turning to look at him. "I allowed my feelings to get the better of me. It will not happen again."
She glanced back at him, smiling gently.
"Thank you…for using my first name."
Shinji blinked, not sure how to respond to that. "Oh…uh, sure."
"We should talk of this later, Shinji," she nodded, back to business. "Now let us synchronize."
Shinji nodded, closing his eyes. He tried not to think about what Rei had just tried to do, and focused instead on what she had said. He concentrated on the true meaning behind her words - that underneath the surface, she was still the same Rei that he remembered from back in the day. The more he thought about it, the more it made sense. All those wordless moments that had passed between them, all those unspoken thoughts left unshared…if this was the reflection of what Rei truly felt inside, then he could live with that. As long as she was herself, then he would stand with her.
The the more he was able to think of her that way, the better he was able to synchronize, matching his thoughts to hers as they both simultaneously assumed control of the Wunder.
Both of their eyes opened as the link was established, and both spoke out simultaneously.
"I have control!"
The three Eva Series emerged from the sea like the trio of shambling monsters that they were. All three bore the grey and green armor of their brethren, their helms laden with the bifurcated horn and visor of the Mark.06.
As soon as the rear two units emerged from the sea, Misato gave the order for Rei to start her approach. As the AAA Wunder got into position a good distance away from their targets, swooping in from the side at a wide, low angle, the bridge crew watched in growing tension.
Everyone on deck had acted appropriately surprised to see Misato return to her post not one day after resigning, but in truth, none had been all too shocked. They knew their Captain well enough to know that she couldn't stay away from all this for long. Most were simply glad that she seemed to have made a full recovery.
"I really wish I was the one doing this run," Nagara said, gripping the control yokes at her station, despite having no control over the ship.
"The Wunder's S2 drive offers much more maneuverability than its AT drive," Misato said from her position behind her. "We may need to get out of dodge in a real hurry, and to do that, we need Rei at the helm."
Nagara clenched her teeth. She knew all this of course, but it did not make her any happier.
"Look on the bright side," Misato said dryly, crossing her arms. "The ship may go crazy again and we'll have to override the controls. Then it'll all be in your hands, Nagara. Won't that be fun?"
The Lieutenant Commander suppressed a shudder. "Don't remind me…"
"AT field running at optimal capacity!" Lieutenant Takao reported. "We're ready to activate the Cassius weapon on your mark, Captain."
"Assuming it even works," Lieutenant Tama chimed in.
"Main weapons systems primed," Lieutenant Kitamaki reported. "For all the good they'll do against those things."
"JA Heavy Armor units are in position," Lieutenant Commander Ibuki added. "Asuka and Mari are ready to jump in at a moment's notice."
Misato nodded. "Very good."
She pressed a button, bringing up a communication screen, revealing Dr. Akagi and about a dozen other technicians working in an elaborate control room along the dorsal structure, just beneath the AT distribution array.
"Ritsuko, we're ready to activate the weapon," Misato announced.
Ritsuko nodded and shouted to her men.
"You heard her, gentlemen! Prime the reflectors and prepare to redistribute the AT projection to the ship's bow!"
As everyone scrambled to set up the shot, the ship drew nearer to its targets. By now, all three Evangelions had left the ocean and were beginning to trod towards Outpost Zion. Oddly, their speed had not increased by much, though now that they were unencumbered by water, their strides were much less labored. Still, it was as if they were in no particular hurry, which was odd, considering how fast the previous attack had been. Perhaps they were attempting a new tactic.
"This will work, right Captain?" Hyuga looked up from his post to give Misato a concerned look.
Misato sighed. She didn't know the answer. She didn't know the answer to anything anymore. All she could do was trust that the people around her were ready, and let the chips fall where they may.
She gave him a reassuring smile. If it was a matter of trusting her comrades, those were odds she would wager on.
"If it doesn't," she said dryly, "Then we're going to have to keep the Eva Series busy for twenty minutes while Zion's weapon recharges. Let's hope the pilots are up to the task."
"Captain," Shigeru called out. "We'll be within firing distance in thirty seconds."
"AT output steady!" Takao hollered.
"Targets still maintaining course!" Tama added.
"We're right on target," Nagara observed. She had to admit, whatever her origins or intentions, Rei was a natural at flying.
Misato looked back towards the communication display with Ritsuko.
"How are we doing, Ritsu?"
Ritsuko pursed her lips, eyes staring off screen at her own display.
"Focusing outputs," she gritted her teeth. "Another fifteen seconds…"
All hands braced themselves as they neared the targets. Around the ship, their AT field glowed prominently, bits and pieces slowly fading out from the rear of the ship to cluster around the frontal portion. Off in the distance, hidden just behind the horizon, Outpost Zion was running through a similar procedure, its AT barrier slowly unspreading from around the base to focus into a single point.
The targets continued to march forward, heedless of the destruction coming their way.
Misato bit her tongue as they flew forward. They were close enough to start making out details on the Evas armor now. It seemed impossible that the Eva Series would fail to notice them! The base's firing distance must have been significantly longer than the ship's for them to have to come so close. Though she supposed firing while moving had something to do with it.
Suddenly, the nearest Eva Series turned its head, its visor glowing bright red.
"Fire!" Misato shouted, slamming her fist into the master trigger.
The monster and the ship let loose with their attacks in the same instant. A beam of pure energy emitted from the Evas eyes, while a lance of absolute terror materialized in front of the Wunder's condensed AT field and shot out towards its target.
At the same instant, Rei nudged the Wunder just slightly to the left. It was not much, but it was just enough to allow them to avoid taking a direct hit from the Evas attack, letting it blow past the ship's hull and just over its right wing. But the movement was also enough to throw the two targets out of alignment.
"Do not crash this ship," Maya had told her.
The artificial Spear of Cassius hit the Eva behind the one that attacked them, as a heartbeat later, another spear came sailing over the horizon from the direction of Outpost Zion, skewering the lead Eva through the chest. Both war machines let out a grievous roar, before shutting down and collapsing to the ground.
The third Eva - the one that had fired upon them - remained standing.
"Did we get them?" Shinji asked adamantly.
As the dust cleared, the answer became apparent as a single Eva Series continued to glare at the Wunder, heedless of its fallen brethren, its eyes glowing red again.
"One target remaining!" Misato shouted over the comm. "Rei, we have no shields! Break off the attack! Evasive maneuvers, now!"
Shinji gripped his control yokes tightly as Rei took the Wunder into an aileron roll, it's wings swiveling in opposite directions, and rolling left to dodge the Evas next attack.
It seemed that, for all her changes, Rei's flying still made him ill.
"Urgh!" Shinji grunted as Rei turned the Wunder sideways, flapping its wings downward to drive the Wunder out towards the sea, slowly leveling out as another blast from the Evas optical beam sailed overhead.
"What's the status of our AT field?" Misato demanded to her bridge crew.
"Charging," one of the crew-members said - Takao if Shinji remembered correctly. "It's recharging faster than we anticipated! We'll be at optimal capacity in just five minutes!"
"Finally, some good news!" Misato said. "Maya, deploy JA platoons. Rei, Shinji, keep the Evas attention on us! Good idea keeping the ship over the water - if we can lure it away from the base, that will give Zion that much more time to recharge."
Shinji nodded. "Aye ma'am!"
As if reading his intentions, Rei banked hard to give Shinji a firing solution, which he took eagerly, focusing all his attention on the Eva Series. The view screen around the entry plug flashed bright red as the Wunder's optical cannons returned fire on the Eva, impacting the slower moving target with a burst of vibrant crimson, which erupted into a cross shaped pillar of light.
The Eva shrugged off the attack and charged forward. It had been moving slowly before, but the presence of an enemy seemed to have spurned it, and the Eva took a fantastic leap through the air, its feet splashing into the shallows of the coastline, the water coming up to its waist.
"It is coming for us!" Rei warned.
Shinji nodded and fired again, but this time the Eva dodged the attack, leaping out of the way, flying through the air towards them.
Rei dodged the Evas arc easily, and the Eva landed in the water with a great splash, disappearing beneath the waves.
"Target lost!" a female voice sounded from the bridge - Kitakami was it?
Shinji studied the water, and just as she'd said, the Eva was nowhere to be seen below the rolling waves. The water was too choppy to make out anything below.
"Stay alert, Shinji," Rei warned.
"You too," he said in return, eyes fixated on the reflective surface of the water. "You may not want to fly so close to the-"
Shinji was cut off as the Eva suddenly leaped out of the water almost directly beneath them, coming right for the Wunder.
Rei kicked the ship forward, but the Eva managed to grab the Wunder by the tail, clinging to the ship like a wasp taking down airborne prey.
"The Evas latched onto us!" an alarmed voice sounded from the bridge. It sounded like Hyuga.
"Rei, you have to shake this thing off of us!" Misato ordered. "We can't use our Cassius weapon on it if it's inside our AT field!"
"Understood!" Rei replied.
Shinji cringed as Rei took the Wunder through a series twists and turns, flips and flops, and even a Crazy Ivan. Its wings allowed the Wunder to maneuver in ways no aircraft could do. And still the Eva would not let go.
"Hurgh!" Shinji placed a hand over his mouth, trying not to throw up. These maneuvers were taking their toll on him.
"Rei!" Misato grunted in pain from her comm station. Apparently, they were taking their toll on the rest of the bridge as well. "The crew can't withstand these G-forces! Try something else!"
Rei leveled out, eyebrows furrowing in concentration.
Shinji felt rather than saw the Eva beginning to climb the length of the ship's skeletal tail towards their vulnerable underbelly.
"Rei!" he shouted worriedly.
Rei gritted her teeth and swooped down towards the water, before whipping back upward, flipping the ship's tail downward and into the ocean, attempting to bat the Eva off by flicking the massive skyscraper sized limb through the water.
Still the Eva retained its grip.
Rei attempted this several more times before a familiar face appeared on her screen.
It was Asuka.
"Hey Lobotomy Girl!" Asuka crowed snarkily. "Why don't you swing by the coastline and let us lend a hand with your Eva problem?"
Shinji blinked in surprise. "Asuka?"
Rei narrowed her eyes in concentration, before nodding. She quickly located the position of Asuka and Mari's JA units and banked hard to swerve towards them.
Shinji saw the two units standing out on the beach, the rest of WILLE's hundred and fifty units stationed behind them. As they approached the red and pink unit, he saw pylons extending from their legs, driving down deeply into the sand to give them extra traction, as each unit aimed a shoulder-mounted grappling claw at the Wunder.
As the ship flew past them, both units fired off their grappling hooks, both of which clung to the Eva Series on the ship's tail. As the ship blew past, the Eva let out a roar of frustration as the grappling lines pulled taut, the two JA units seizing up from the tension as they both held firm. The beast let out a final roar as it detached from the Wunder's tail, leaving a red stain behind where it had begun corroding the Wunder's hull into core material.
With a climactic splash, the Eva fell back down into the shallows, entangled by the two units grappling lines.
"Pull!" Asuka shouted as the two units unclamped from the Earth and sped off in opposite directions along the beach, keeping the Eva entrapped as it slowly got to its feet.
As it stood, the two lines forced it back onto land, one wrapped around its neck, the other around its waist, pulling in opposite directions. The mighty beast let out a roar of anger as the two units held it in place.
With an enraged growl, it fell on all fours, struggling for purchase. Finally it turned its head upward, eyes glowing red, as it aimed its optical cannon at the red JA unit that had seized it by the neck.
"Princess!" Mari shouted in alarm. "Look out!"
The Wunder then swerved back around to take aim with its own optical cannon.
"Oh, no you don't!" Shinji shouted and fired.
The Eva took the blast in the flank, toppling over, screaming with outrage as its own attack flew wildly into the air.
"Cutting it kind of close there, Shinji!" Asuka hollered, though the accusation did not sound heartfelt.
The Eva flailed wildly as the grappling cables forced it onto its back, kicking up dirt and sand and stone as it clawed the Earth.
"Now's our chance!" Maya shouted. "Kamikaze squad! Move in!"
About fifty JA units, mostly older models and those missing limbs and other parts from the previous fight, suddenly tackled the fallen beast. Asuka and Mari released their grappling cables and fled as one by one, the JA suicide units threw themselves onto the Eva until its gray-green armor was nowhere to be seen.
"Dog pile!" Mari crowed, as she and Asuka dove for cover.
Maya signaled the units' self destruct sequence, and all fifty nuclear reactors went off at once, sending a massive plume of fire into the sky on top of the Eva. The ground shook, and the shock wave was big enough to throw the Wunder back by several kilometers.
"Target status?" Misato demanded.
"The blast knocked out our instruments," Kitakami reported. "It will take them a moment to come back online."
As the blast subsided and the smoke began to clear, however, the Eva Series, its armor mostly charred off, climbed back to its feet, growling angrily.
"Target is still standing!" Tama cried.
Misato grunted. "Of course it is. What's the status of our AT fields?"
"Nearly fully charged!" Takao replied.
"Alright," Misato nodded. "Ritsuko, prepare to fire the Cassius weapon!"
"Aye ma'am!" the doctor replied.
"Ibuki, break off the JA attack!" Misato commanded.
"Asuka! Mari! Fall back!" Maya repeated to her two pilots.
"Already on it!" Mari replied.
"Rei, swing in for another attack run!" Misato continued. "Shinji, keep that thing busy until we can get a shot in!"
Even as she spoke, the Wunder swung around for another attack as its AT field began to focus forward, the Eva scanning its surroundings for more targets.
Shinji was happy to oblige. The Wunder fired its optical cannons, striking the Eva Series directly in the face. The blast actually knocked it over and impacted somewhere behind it.
"Fifteen seconds to charge!"
The Eva slowly got to its feet and issued a challenging roar back at the Wunder, whose AT field now only covered its front.
The Wunder fired again, this time hitting dead center. As the debris cleared, the Eva seemed largely unaffected by the attack, standing there, glaring in rage.
The Eva fired back.
Rei dodged right.
The blast sailed past the ship.
The ship leveled off and took aim.
Misato slammed her fist into the big red button that controlled the Cassius weapon.
The single hexagon of absolute terror energy hovering just in front of the Wunder's nose suddenly extended forward from the center into a single vector of bright red light, and just as quickly darted forward towards the Eva Series. With a sudden, loud clang, the spear penetrated the Evas torso, and it feel backwards onto the spear point, which sunk into the earth and quickly cooled to a dull red, its limp body balancing against the lance of energy as it powered down.
Not a stone's throw away, the other two Eva Series lay similarly subdued, the spears of energy embedded in them already subsiding into nothingness.
Shinji sat back in his pilot's seat.
The battle was over.
The launch bays were a bustle of activity as some ninety-eight JA heavy armor units were ushered back into their individual docks one by one. All around, hurrying technicians and massive mechanical arms carrying replacement parts, massive tools and other heavy equipment swung around at breakneck speed to ready for the next inevitable confrontation.
Two JA units stood out from the others, however.
"Hah!" Asuka crowed as she leaped out of the cockpit of her mech and onto the scaffolding catwalk. "Did you see that? I kicked ass out there!"
Mari, whose mech resided on the opposite side of the scaffolding allowing the units to be boarded, just rolled her eyes. "Always so cocky, Princess. One day, it's going to get you in a lot of trouble."
Asuka stuck out her tongue. "Oh, be quiet! You're just jealous! It doesn't matter if it's an Eva, a Jet Alone, or an F-22! I was born to pilot!"
Mari chuckled as the two of them boarded the open elevator, metal grating sliding in place before the small, metallic car slowly made its way to the floor level, the two massive JA units slowly sliding into place behind them.
"I'm just worried about getting Unit 08+02 up and running," Mari admitted. "The Doctor's right about one thing - our sync scores are kind of pathetic. We really need to step up our game, Princess."
Asuka crossed her arms, pursing her lips. "If I didn't know any better, Four-Eyes, I'd think you were blaming me for our sync problems."
Mari blinked. "I wasn't blaming you, Princess. We're both responsible for this."
"Yeah, right," the redhead snorted. "I could hear it in your voice! You think you could totally pilot that thing all by yourself if only your annoying red-headed co-pilot wasn't such a stubborn ass!"
Mari gave her an incredulous look. "Princess, you've seriously got to stop suspecting me of every little thing!"
Asuka rolled her one eye. "Oh, yeah, cause I'm the irrational one here. Out of the two of us, which one very nearly committed treason?"
"I'm not asking you to understand my reasons, Princess," Mari crossed her arms. "I'm asking you to trust me. We're supposed to be friends here!"
Asuka blew a strand of hair out of her face. "Some friend you are…"
Mari gave her friend a wounded look.
"Don't do this, Asuka…" she muttered softly. "Don't ruin this. You're the single greatest pilot I've ever seen."
Asuka's eyebrow went up at that. "…What did you say?"
Mari looked out across the launch bay as their elevator proceeded downward, the machinery of their entire armor force in full motion beyond.
"Look…" she sighed. "I know how much you love piloting Eva. I feel the same way. When I'm inside an entry plug, I feel powerful. Omnipotent. I feel like I actually have control over my own destiny."
Asuka stared aghast, not used to hearing such honesty from the other girl.
"You and I both know a Jet Alone is no comparison to the experience of being inside an Eva," she breathed. "Right now, Unit 08+02 represents our only chance to really get back out there."
She turned to give Asuka an earnest smile, looking like she was on the verge of tears.
"You're too good of a pilot to be relegated to a hunk of junk," she shook her head, sighing. "I can't bear to see that potential go to waste. And I sure as hell don't want to be stuck piloting these things any more than I have to."
Mari swallowed and closed her eyes.
"The only way we get back out there is by working together," she hiccuped. "I'm sorry I've been such a priss lately. I know it must sound desperate, but I need you, Asuka. And like it or not, you need me. If you don't get to pilot Eva, then neither do I. I'm trusting you with my hopes and dreams here. Can't you at least find a way to trust me too?"
Asuka stared at the other girl like she was a completely different person. She was speechless. Had Mari actually apologized to her? Had she actually said something serious for once?
"I…" Asuka stammered, still lost for words. "I guess that's fair…"
Mari wiped a small trickle of wetness from her eyelid. "So what do you say? Friends?"
Asuka nodded and held up her hand. "Heh…alright. Friends."
The two of them clasped hands, squeezing hard, and were smiling like idiots by the time the elevator reached the lower platform. It felt good to finally put all that behind them. A lot had been happening lately, and tensions were getting higher with each passing day. They didn't have the luxury of time to be spending on petty spats anymore. They were a lot more valuable to each other as copilots then they were as a rivals.
No sooner had they left the elevator when both of their radio's buzzed at the same time.
"Pilots Shikinami and Makinami, report to the bridge of the Wunder," Misato's voice said simply over the comm. "I repeat, pilots-"
The two girls exchanged a look and smirked.
"Seems WILLE can't get anything done without us," Mari stuck out her tongue.
Asuka snorted, good-naturedly. "Well, let's not keep them waiting then."
The two of them hurried off to the Wunder's dry-dock.
"So I'm really the best pilot you've ever seen?" Asuka asked as they walked.
"Well, except for when I'm looking in the mirror," Mari smirked back. "Then this other pilot shows up who's just so much more awesome."
Asuka rolled her eyes. She supposed it was too much to hope for Mari to be serious for much longer.
"Oh really?" Asuka retorted. "How close to you have to stand to the mirror to see this pilot?"
"Ah, near-sighted jokes," Mari stuck out her tongue. "Classy. You of all people should know better than to rely on eye-related humor."
"Heh, that's what you think!" Asuka crowed. "Even with just one eye, I can still see better than you can!"
"Sure thing, Princess," Mari snickered. "Want to know the difference between a kiss-ass and a brown noser? Depth perception."
"Ohhhh, clever…clever…" Asuka laughed. "Joke's on you, though. Eye-patches totally kick ass! Way more bad-ass than your nerdy little glasses!"
"Sure," Mari laughed back. "And if you ever need to dress up like a slutty pirate, you're only halfway there."
"Hey, better a slutty pirate than a slutty librarian," Asuka stuck out her tongue.
"You know, I think I just might have to try that," Mari said, before holding her hands up in a mocking impression. "'Oh, Shinji, I just want you to ravish me on this pile of books!'"
Asuka snorted, eye clenched with laughter. "Oh God, stop! I think I'm going to die!"
"Heh," Mari winked. "She thinks I'm kidding! Where's the Puppy-Boy? I want to see what he thinks of the idea!"
"Oh, don't you dare!" Asuka yelped, giving her an incredulous look.
"What's the matter, Princess?" she stuck her tongue out. "Want him all to yourself?"
"Damn it, Four-Eyes!" Asuka growled, chasing after her, Mari laughing all the while. "Come back here!"
It had been a while since Shinji had been to the bridge of the Wunder. The last time he had been there had been the day he'd woken up from fourteen years of hibernation. The faces that had greeted him then had been cold, distant and unforgiving.
Now, the faces that greeted him were not quite so harsh. It was not exactly a welcoming feeling, meeting the stares of each of the surrounding crew, but there was a very real feeling of pride in the air. They had just won a battle that should have been impossible. And it was a battle in which he had played a significant part.
And most importantly of all, he had been fighting on the right side.
The Wunder was once again docked at Lillin Outpost Zion. The hundred or so remaining JA Heavy Armor units had returned to their launch bays, and Asuka and Mari had not even had time for a shower before they had both been ordered aboard the Wunder to join the bridge crew for the briefing. Rei, Sakura and Ritsuko had also gathered to watch as Shinji was escorted up to the Captain's platform, wearing his borrowed WILLE uniform, where he met Misato face to face for the first time since she had awoken from her catatonic state. A state, he believed, that he had been responsible for putting her in.
He couldn't help but remember the first time he had seen her up here. It was her eyes that had hurt him most of all that day. What should have been a warm, welcoming gaze had been turned into utter hatred.
But now, those eyes were calm. At peace. Accepting.
"Shinji," she spoke simply.
Shinji, not knowing what this was all about, simply looked back at her.
"Yes, Captain?" he responded.
Misato returned his gaze.
"I can never forgive you for what you've done," she explained simply.
There was no anger in her voice. No hatred. No bitterness. Just a simple statement of the truth.
"Some crimes go beyond redemption," she went on. "Your guilt for Third Impact will remain with you unto your dying breath. And your actions towards bringing about Fourth Impact on top of all that cannot be overlooked."
Shinji bit his tongue, but said nothing. A shiver ran through his spine however. Something about this gathering suggested that some kind of ultimatum was being decided, and if this was to be the verdict, then he saw his future prospects quickly dwindling.
Misato sighed and took off her hat.
"That being said…the way you've been treated up until now was also wrong."
Shinji blinked in surprise. Was he actually hearing this?
"Your actions may have been criminal, Shinji," she went on. "But your intentions, both then and now, have proven to be anything but. We also cannot discount NERV's influence on your behavior. Acting upon a lie is foolishness, but it is not in itself an act of evil. And in spite of everything that's happened to you, both at NERV's hands and at ours, you have still fought alongside WILLE in a time of need. Without your cooperation, none of us would be here right now. That too cannot be overlooked."
She returned her hat to her head.
"With the proper guidance and training, Shinji, I believe you may continue to be an asset to us all," Misato said. "So I ask you now: will you continue to fight with us?"
Shuddering and at a loss for words, Shinji could only nod his head.
Misato nodded. Not smiling, not frowning. Her expression was one of plain and simple acceptance.
"Then let's make this official."
She gestured for Asuka to come forward, who approached as bidden and withdrew a blue sash from her pocket.
Then, to his surprise, every officer on the bridge stood up from their chairs, eyes remaining on him.
"Shinji," Misato said as Asuka stood beside her. "Do you swear to hold true to WILLE and all of its ideals? To honor your commanding officers, and conduct yourself in a manner befitting your position therein? Do you swear to oppose NERV and everything that it stands for? To do everything in your power to prevent another Impact from ravaging the Earth? And above all, do you swear to fight for the protection and preservation of humanity, even at the cost of your own life, so help you God?"
Shinji shuddered as he felt the eyes of the entire crew around him. He could tell just by looking at them that each and every one of them had made such a pledge when they too were accepted into WILLE.
Shinji swallowed hard.
After this, there could be no turning back.
Misato nodded. "Good."
At her words, Asuka stepped forward and began tying the blue sash around his left arm. Shinji watched her as she did, but she did not meet his gaze when he looked at her, and simply concentrated on her task as Misato continued.
"With this emblem, we do so identify you as a member of WILLE," she said, as each of the crew around them saluted somberly. "With this emblem, we mark our solemn vow to restore the world to what it once was. With this emblem, we forever denounce the institution of NERV and all of its crimes. And with this emblem, we honor those whose lives were lost in pursuit of this quest. Theirs was a noble sacrifice, and with this emblem, we remember all for which they fought and died to protect."
Despite the number of heads held high, Shinji heard the sound of someone crying behind him. He glanced around and saw Sakura, eyes full of tears.
Toji. She was crying for her brother.
Shinji set his teeth. How many of his friends were dead because of his mistake? He could not ignore his responsibility to them any longer. He decided then and there that, for the sake of Toji's memory, and for everyone else who was no longer with them, he would not fail.
Asuka finished tying the sash.
"Don't read too much into this, Shinji," she whispered haughtily, still not making eye contact. "You're still a brat."
Shinji smiled nervously. "Thanks Asuka."
She turned away from him a little too abruptly.
"Idiot…" she muttered.
She had not turned quite fast enough to hide the blush on her cheeks.
Asuka stepped away, indignantly, and then Shinji was alone at the center of the bridge with all eyes upon him.
The rest of the crew seemed to expect him to do something.
Not knowing what else to do, Shinji bowed his head.
"Raise your head, Shinji," Misato said gently.
Shinji blinked and quickly straightened, wondering what he had done wrong.
Misato responded with a slow, demonstrative salute.
Shinji got the message and saluted in return.
Misato nodded. "Good. Ensign Ikari, you are to report to Lieutenant Commander Ibuki tomorrow at oh-six-hundred hours to continue with your training. Pilots, dismissed."
As the other pilots turned to go, Shinji hesitated, his fingers coming up to the choker around his neck.
"What about…?" he said, trailing off.
Misato's expression softened. "I'm sorry Shinji, but the choker must remain where it is."
Shinji looked crestfallen. "But…"
"I've destroyed the trigger," Misato interrupted. "Your life no longer rests in WILLE's hands. The only way it will activate now is by being inside an Evangelion that sets off another Impact. And it is exactly such an incident that you have just pledged your life to prevent. It is your duty now to carry this burden with you until such time as it is no longer needed."
Shinji had to stop himself from crying. This was his penance, he knew. From now until their mission succeeded, or the day he died, he would have to bear this responsibility.
This he understood.
This he must accept.
"Wear your promise proudly, Shinji," Misato nodded somberly. "You owe your life to the world now."
End of Part 2
A/N: Taking a (hopefully) short break to plan out Part 3.
Special thanks go out to Attila1987 for proofreading each chapter I've published thus far. There would be a lot more inconsistencies than there already are without your help. It's people like you who really keep me on the ball!