"Who was she?"
Shinji awoke. He had not been sleeping all too soundly, and stirred easily awake. The fire had dimmed to embers, and stars glimmered overhead, their cool dim light casting the faintest illumination of the blue haired girl at his side, her face seemingly hovering in the night air, her black plug suit blending in seamlessly with the colorless night.
Shinji sat up, knowing that sleep would be evading him regardless of plans he had. The sadness and the shock he had been carrying with him had slowly been corroding into bitterness since Kaworu's death. It was hard not to direct his ire at this Ayanami clone, this pale copy of the girl he had once known…and had only recently learned was an incomplete clone of his own mother, whose soul resided in…
Something turned in his stomach, and he looked away.
"Who?" he asked wearily.
Asuka slept just opposite the fire. Or so it appeared. For all he knew, she had woken instantly at Rei's voice and was listening in to every word.
"The real Ayanami…" the Ayanami Type muttered despondently. As Shinji's eyes adjusted to the pale glow of the fire coals and the scarce luminosity of the starred night sky, he could make out her form standing over him, her arms held tightly together around her waist.
Just like his Rei had done.
"Who was she?" the Ayanami Type repeated.
Shinji stifled the urge to lie back down and roll over.
"I really…don't feel like talking about her…" he admitted, hanging his head, focusing his eyes on the flickering flames of the fire.
A long moment went by as he waited for Rei to go back to sleep, but she did not move a muscle. Shinji sighed. It appeared that she would not be dissuaded. The problem was, however, that even if he was interested in talking about her, he wasn't sure what exactly to say, especially to this clone. How do you describe a person to an incomplete copy of that very person?
"Well, uh…" he said, stammering over his words. "She looked like you…"
Shinji's grimace was palpable. He felt like an absolute idiot for making such an obvious claim. As he stewed in his awkward stupor, however, he failed to notice Rei reach a hand up to touch the hair behind her left ear where Asuka had cut it earlier.
"How was she different?" Rei asked, interrupting his fretting.
Shinji looked up again. Again, the differences that came to mind were difficult to put into words. At least, not without sounding impolite.
"She, um…" he muttered, pondering what to say. "She spoke out a little bit more than you do. Not much…but she would talk to me…"
"Like I am doing now?"
Shinji's ears colored red. He supposed he wasn't presenting his case very well.
"Well…yeah…" he stammered. "I guess…"
Rei did not seem quite satisfied yet.
"You attempted to rescue her from the 10th Angel," she stated simply.
Shinji felt something cold well up deep inside him. He told himself it was just the night air, and pulled the Mylar blanket over his shoulders.
Rei said nothing in response. She still had not moved a muscle that he could see. She just continued to stare at him with those deep, crimson eyes. Behind those eyes, he saw the obvious question she had, but seemed disinclined to ask.
"She…she didn't deserve to die like that…" Shinji explained simply.
Rei's head turned slightly to side, the calm stoic face silently pressing him to go on.
"I'd…failed so much already by that point…" he said, lowering his eyes to stare at the orange-red coals. "I let Asuka get hurt by my own Eva…I abandoned Misato and everyone at NERV…and then I…"
He turned his gaze towards the girl, tears filling his eyes.
"I saw you…I mean, the other you…get eaten alive…"
He shuddered again and wrapped his arms around his shoulders. The Mylar blanket was doing nothing against the cold wind.
"I was so tired of failing…" he muttered. "So sick of being powerless to do anything…"
He sniffed, looking up at the girl, whose expression had changed very little, but he thought he could see the faintest glimmer of inquisitiveness. He had to remind himself that she was an incomplete person, and probably couldn't understand the meaning behind his words, the emotion he was trying to convey.
"Am I…making any sense?" he asked helplessly through his tears.
Rei blinked. He could almost see the pieces trying to fit together in her head, but her deep red eyes kept the true depths of her thoughts completely hidden from him. He supposed this was all a lot to put on her all at once. All she had wanted to know about was her former self, the girl she had been designed to replace. She didn't need to hear this sob story, and almost certainly couldn't begin to process it. Hell, Shinji could hardly process it himself, and he had been stewing over it all for days on end.
She surprised him, however, when she spoke again.
"Why are you crying?"
Shinji froze. He was suddenly back in time, right after the battle with the 6th Angel. Rei had just saved him from certain fiery death by placing her Eva in front of his own, and nearly burning to a crisp inside her own Eva as a result. He was desperately prying open the seal of her entry plug, frying his own hands right through the rubber gloves of his plug suit. He was yanking the hatch open and climbing inside, hoping against hope that she was alright.
Why are you crying?
That was what she had asked him when she saw him that night.
It was too much for him to take. He burst into tears, curling up and burying his face into the hard, stony ground beneath his blanket.
"Because I still failed her!" he sobbed uncontrollably.
It was as if reality itself had been too much to bear, and was slowly coming to him in chunks as his unconscious ability to stifle it all began to wear down. After everything he'd learned from Misato, from Asuka, from Ritsuko, from Fuyutsuki and from Kaworu, the state of the world as he knew it, and how he had shaped it, was simply unimaginable. But then, Kaworu had offered him a solution – pilot his Eva one last time, and he could make everything better. He could fix the world as he knew it. It didn't matter that he didn't understand, or that the process itself didn't make sense, or that he had no real reason to trust that the solution would work; it had been a way out. And he had so desperately wanted a way out that he had been willing to go to whatever length it required to do it.
In the end, the solution he had been given had just been another lie, another pitfall for him to stumble into, and do even more damage to the world in the process. Even Kaworu had seen it, but Shinji had been so desperate, so addled with grief, that he had refused to believe that it was all just a pipe-dream, a carrot for him to follow that allowed him to believe that there had been a way out of all this. He had been so blinded, so determined, that Kaworu had sacrificed himself in the process of cleaning up after Shinji's mistake.
It was as if Shinji was surrounded by shards of broken glass, each one of which represented someone he cared about. Not only did every move he make result in him cutting himself on another of the razor-sharp shards, but also did irreparable damage to whoever happened to be the unlucky soul he had inadvertently stepped on.
The fear had been crippling. His mind had nearly broken. He had walled himself off from the world, petrified of doing anything at all lest he risk hurting himself and others simply by putting one foot in front of the other. He just couldn't win. No matter what he did, someone seemed to get hurt, and the blame always seemed to fall on his shoulders.
It was his fault. His fault the world was the way it was. Misato was right. Asuka was right. He had nearly wiped out existence as he knew it. The entire human race, reduced to a group of freedom fighters, and the last remnants of his father's company. Everything he had known of his life before that, erased in its entirety.
All for the cause of saving one girl - one girl who he had still ultimately failed.
It was too much. It was too much for him to bear.
"Have you truly failed her?"
Shinji's head was buried in his arms, so he couldn't quite be sure he had heard her correctly. When he managed to wipe away enough tears to peer at her through one eye, however, he saw the question etched on her face.
"I…I don't think I could have done anything but fail her…" he croaked, his voice once again a hoarse rasp. "Fuyutsuki…the Vice Commander…said that she was absorbed by Eva Unit 01. Just like…"
He buried his head once again, closing his eyes from the world.
"Just like my mom…" he shuddered, feeling sick to his stomach. "There's…there's no way of getting her out now. She's stuck in there. For good."
Rei seemed to contemplate that for a moment, before her eyes returned to him.
"If she is within Unit 01, then she is not dead," she said simply.
Shinji shook his head. He knew this clone wouldn't understand how he felt.
"She might as well be…" he whimpered.
Rei seemed unaffected by the sentiment. "You succeeded in rescuing her from the 10th Angel. Had you done nothing, she would have been bound to its fate. Instead, she resides within Eva Unit 01, which yet remains."
She tilted her head slightly as she studied his face, as if still curious about the presence of his tears.
"Is this failure?"
Shinji was still reliving the past few days in his head, and wasn't all too keen on listening to consolation prizes. He knew that later, when he thought it over, this Rei would be right. It was marginally better to be a discorporate soul trapped within an Eva that was still around than a discorporate soul trapped within an Angel that would have either been destroyed by NERV, or succeeded in reaching Lillith and destroying all of creation anyway.
But right then, he just didn't care. This Rei's words weren't enough to console him. He didn't want some vague idea of the girl he'd left behind that he could ponder over whenever he was near his Eva. He wanted the real her. He wanted her to be right there next to him, as this clone was.
It seemed that the Ayanami Type was sensing this as well.
"You should sleep," she advised, turning away to return to her own blanket.
Shinji watched her black plug suit fade out of sight, even though she was laying no more than a stone's throw away, before rolling over to turn his eyes away from either of the girls beside him. He knew he wouldn't be getting any more sleep that night. He wondered if he would ever sleep again.
So his Rei still existed, in some vague sense. So the sealed remains of his Eva still contained her soul, just as it contained his mother's soul. Like a coma victim, their essence may be preserved in the hollow shell of their body, but no conscious thought ever came to the surface. She would never be the Rei that he remembered. He would never again be able to share a meal with her, hear her speak, or see her smile. Having her back in this state was poor justification for the sacrifices Shinji had inadvertently forced on the world. He had essentially sent everything he had known onto the path of destruction just to bring back a shell of the girl he once knew.
There was no way Asuka or Misato or Ritsuko or anyone could forgive him for that.
So caught up in his thoughts, Shinji failed to notice that this was the most he had ever heard this Rei speak since he'd met her.
Shinji was roused by an abrupt kick to the hindquarters.
"Get up," he heard Asuka's voice say behind him. "It's time to go."
Shinji's eyes flickered open as he blinked to take in their surroundings. It was a gray and cloudy morning, and the dim light offered poor illumination, but there wasn't much to pack, and Asuka words hit like a lash as he and Rei packed up their gear and prepared for the next leg of their journey.
By about the second hour, the sun had risen, and was beating down on them with a harsh degree of heat. Captain Shikinami checked her ALO every hour or so, but so far they were still too deep in the LCL soaked atmosphere to hope for rescue. Their best hope for the Lilin encampment at the edge of the old Kanagawa Prefecture, which was still too far out to see. But at least Shinji had deigned to walk on his own now without her having to lead him by the hand.
By around mid day, the sun had taken its toll on the group, and Asuka could see Shinji beginning to flag from the heat. The Ayanami Type wasn't as transparent, but even she was breathing harder than usual. Their black suits were absorbing more of the heat from the sun than Asuka's, and even she was beginning to tire.
"Let's take a break," she declared, setting down her pack and retrieving her canteen.
Rei knelt gracefully and sipped at her water supply. By contrast, Shinji sat down on his haunches, retrieving his own canteen and began gulping it down.
"Go easy on that, you dolt!" Asuka barked from her seat on a nearby rock. "That's all the water you get!"
Shinji stopped drinking and gave her a wounded puppy look.
Asuka ground her teeth together. Keeping tabs on Shinji was like monitoring a toddler. It was like he was regressing as a human being. At this rate, he wouldn't even be able to look out for himself, much less be of any use to WILLE.
"Look," she huffed, giving him a stern look. "I don't hate you, alright?"
Shinji gave her a cautious look.
"You said that I hated you," Asuka maintained. "I don't. I'm plenty pissed at you, and I still expect you to make amends for this mess we're in. But I don't hate you. Got it?"
Shinji just blinked, looking more confused than ever.
Asuka sighed. "Ughhhh…Four-Eyes was right. You really are just a dumb puppy. And hating you for being this big an idiot is like hating a dog for barking. It's annoying, but…what can you really do about it?"
She screwed the cap back onto her water and got back to her feet.
"That doesn't mean I'm going any easier on you though," she declared, pointing a finger at him. "A dog can be trained, and so can you. So from now on, watch what I do. You do as I say, when I say it, and you learn from me. And learn well. Cause this isn't the world that you left behind."
She stared at him with her good eye and pointed back in the direction they came.
"The Tokyo-3 that you remember?" she said, darkly. "Back when we were all pilots? That was just boot camp."
She pointed at the ground she stood on.
"This is the war. We're fighting it every day. And we're fighting for the very survival of our species. There are less than a million of us left in the world. Make no mistake: it wouldn't even take a Fourth Impact to wipe us out completely. And you very nearly caused just that."
She stepped over to him and towered over him as he sat back, looking up at her, terrified.
"Do you understand just how much shit we're all in?" she demanded. "Just how much is at stake? How much of an impact even one little misstep can have at this point in game?"
Shinji wrapped his arms around his knees and lowered his eyes defensively.
"I understood that…from the first day it all started…" he muttered.
Asuka put her hands on her hips.
"Then you know that you can't afford to be making any more childish mistakes!" she said definitively. "You can't go back, and you can't stay where you are. The only thing you can do anymore is move forward. You either walk with us, or walk with NERV. And you've seen just what NERV wants to do."
She crouched down in front of him so she could peer into his eyes.
"Like it or not, Shinji," she said, more softly this time, "Your father is a criminal. You listen to what he or any of his cronies have to say, and you'll only be that much closer to dooming us all."
She threw a mean look at the Ayanami Type.
"And that goes for this clone over here too," Asuka snorted, looking back at Shinji's cowering form. "Whatever she tells you, Shinji, don't you dare forget one thing – she's something that your father created. Believe whatever you want about her, or who she really is, but you can know this for certain: she was put on this Earth to do your father's bidding. And that makes her an enemy of WILLE."
The Ayanami Type did not seem to respond to Asuka's accusation with anything more than its usual stare. Captain Shikinami half expected to get some sort of reaction of outrage or at least contempt. That would have been a normal person's response. But instead, all she got was staunch stoicism.
Asuka snorted. She was once again reminded why she didn't miss having to deal with all this anymore.
The same could have almost been said for Shinji, except deep down, Asuka knew that she still had something akin to hope for the boy. Shinji at least, she believed, could aspire to more if he'd just get off his ass and stop moping all the time. The Ayanami Type, however, would never grow or become anything more than what it was. It was the sad truth behind the Ayanami program, she knew. And it was unhealthy for someone in Shinji's mental state to remain so fixated on something as temporary and stagnant as a clone of a clone of a woman who had effectively died in his infancy. She represented an eternal escape back into the halcyon days of childhood, which was as illusory as it was futile. And if Shinji ever hoped to grow up, he would have to leave behind the trappings of his childhood, troubled as they were, and that included his memory of Rei.
It didn't look as though Shinji would be taking this advice any time soon, however.
"We should get moving," Asuka decided, getting back to her feet. "Pack up. Break's over."
Shinji did not seem inclined to obey. He was still sitting with his head pressed to his knees. He was as unresponsive once again as when she had dragged him out of his entry plug.
"Did you hear me?" Asuka demanded, hands on her hips. "I said it's time to go!"
He remained absolutely still.
Asuka sighed. He seemed to have regressed once again. She supposed the middle of nowhere was no place to be trying to drill any kind of valuable life lessons into the boy's head, not when she needed him to move more than she needed him to listen.
"Shinji," she said, grabbing him by the shoulder. "Come on, let's go."
When she pulled his arm loose from its grip, she saw a vacant look in his eyes that she was all too familiar with.
"Ach du Schande…" she grumbled to herself. She did not want to have to drag his ass for the rest of their journey.
She turned to the Ayanami Type.
"Hey you," she barked. "Would you tell this idiot to get his rear in gear?"
Captain Shikinami wasn't sure what she expected the Ayanami Type to do, but it seemed she would never know the answer, for at that moment, her ears detected the far off sound of an engine roaring high in the sky.
She swore and darted her gaze back and forth, looking for cover that simply didn't exist out here in the bleak desolation of the wastes of Kanegawa. The roaring began to increase, and Asuka finally surrendered to the fact that they would most likely be spotted one way or another, and reached into her rucksack and withdrew a pair of micro-binoculars. She pointed her gaze at the sky towards the far-off sound of engines roaring, decided that, if they were going to be found, they should at least know if it was by a friendly or not.
She finally spotted her target - a single VTOL craft, seemingly on patrol. It did not seem to be flying from the direction of Tokyo-3, but that wasn't enough to allay any of Shikinami's fears just yet.
Then she spotted the familiar sigil of WILLE on the side of the craft and she smiled.
She immediately reached into her bag to pull out a flare gun and shot off a glowing, vibrant orb into the sky, which burst into a bright red signal.
"HEY!" she shouted, waving her arms around wildly, trying to get the pilot's attention.
The VTOL wobbled its wings in response, before banking around to circle back towards them.
Asuka smiled back at the Ayanami Type.
"Scratch that last order, lobotomy-girl," she grinned. "It looks like we just got a ride."
To be continued…