Warrant Officer Kaji smiled wanly as Lieutenant Commander Ibuki filed past him down the hallway of Outpost Naraka, followed by an entourage of scientists, technicians and other WILLE officers.
"Well, well…" he clasped his hands behind his back as he followed her in stride, her curt, deliberate pace forcing him to walk quickly to keep up. "This is an unexpected pleasure. It's not often that we receive visitors here."
Maya said nothing. Her eyes remained forward as she strode along towards Naraka's engineering deck.
Kaji glanced at his crew as he passed them by in the hallway, peeking out of doorways and passing by on other tasks. The people stationed at Outpost Naraka had all gotten the alert that a liaison from WILLE high command would be coming by for a visit today, but few knew any more details other than that.
Kaji himself was included in that list.
"Not that we don't appreciate your company or anything…" he said uncomfortably, trying to strike up the conversation to something other than cold, aloof silence. "But Katsuragi wasn't entirely clear on what your objective here was. Care to fill me in?"
Maya did not slow her pace or acknowledge him with anything beyond her curt response.
"We're here to get your defenses back to operational readiness."
Kaji smiled. He was finally getting somewhere. Of course, this did not completely answer his question. While their forces had been drastically reduced since the last NERV attack, Maya's retinue did not seem to come with any JA Heavy Armor to replenish their reserves, or any significant degree of military hardware other than the aircraft they had arrived in. All they had brought with them was a single storage container, which, while sizable enough to require the lifting power of three VTOL craft to carry it, was not nearly enough to restock Outpost Naraka to what it had formerly been.
Kaji said as much, and finally Maya smiled, though it was not the sweet, companionable smile he was used to seeing on her face all those years ago. This smile was smug and elitist, a smile that only showed the amount of pleasure she took in how much she knew that he did not.
"I'm afraid this is all you get, Warrant Officer," she said sternly. "Be grateful."
Kaji frowned at that. He was not used to Maya being so tight lipped or unyielding. Usually, she was just the opposite. What exactly had happened these past fourteen years that had made her so cold? Compared to this, Misato's transformation into a draconian war goddess seemed almost trivial.
As they approached the lift to the engineering level, two of Maya's guards stepped forward to block Kaji's path while Maya and her team of technicians moved forward.
"Hey!" Kaji demanded, trying fruitlessly to wiggle his way around the two guards. "What do you think you're doing?"
"Beyond this door, our work here is classified," Maya said simply as she stepped through the elevator doors.
"You can't shut me out!" Kaji objected. "This is my facility!"
"This is WILLE's facility," Maya corrected as she turned to face him from inside the lift. "You're a security risk."
Kaji frowned at that, but he really had no way of rebuking her. He could not really blame Katsuragi for not trusting him. Once a spy, always a spy it seemed. He supposed he had no choice but to trust in Katsuragi's judgement.
"What's in the container?" Kaji demanded, not quite giving up, but no longer putting up a fight.
"That's classified, soldier," Ibuki snorted with a wry smile as the doors closed. "But don't worry, you'll find out for yourself soon enough."
Kaji said nothing as he watched Lieutenant Commander Ibuki and her retinue disappear behind the sliding doors. Overhead, he could already hear the VTOL moving the container into place along the perimeter of Outpost Naraka.
After making his way to the operations center, trying to offer comforting looks to his crew's concerned stares, he watched the external security cameras, as passive an observer as the rest of his men and women, as one of the VTOL craft lifted the side door from the container they had brought, its hinges creaking incessantly as the door swung open.
He already had a pretty good idea of what was inside.
Shinji would not have needed a reminder why he had never taken an aerobics class. He had never been particularly athletic, owing to his slight build, non-competitive nature, and overall lack of enthusiasm. He had always just barely squeaked by in physical education class, always just attaining the bare minimum needed to pass. The only real amount of exercise he ever seemed to get came from taking out Misato's trash back in the old days.
No, Shinji had no illusions about being athletic in the slightest, and needed no reminder as to this fact.
This did not change the frequency with which these reminders seemed to occur, however.
"Come on, pick those legs up, Shinji!" Mari hollered from the front of the mat.
Shinji was nearly at the point of collapsing from exhaustion, whereas beside him, Asuka, while clearly sweating, looked no worse for wear. At least she had forwent her skintight gym shorts for some baggy sweatpants so that now, he could actually focus on going through the repetitive one-two step kick that Mari was conducting them through. Not that he entirely minded the sight of her hips bobbing back and forth as the two of them followed Mari's aerobic kick-boxing routine. Even in in sweat pants and a tee-shirt, it was hard to keep his eyes off of her…
His thoughts were suddenly interrupted by a loud, shrill whistle as Mari called the session to a halt (why she thought the whistle was neccesary, Shinji had no clue).
"Take five, ladies!" Mari jeered, a sardonic grin on her face. "Next up is combat training!"
Shinji promptly fell onto his backside, leaning back on his hands, head tilted back as he breathed a sigh of a relief towards the sky.
"Wimp," Asuka snorted with a smile. "That was only half an hour."
Shinji held up a finger as though to say something, but was too out of breath to vocalize anything.
"What's that, Shinji?" Asuka's grin widened. "I couldn't hear you. Were you about to say how much you enjoy eating my dust?"
Shinji was panting breathlessly. "Just…just you wait, Asuka…as soon as I can feel my legs again…"
Asuka smirked. As exhausted as he was, Shinji's attitude had been steadily improving. After their first workout session, he had done nothing but complain. Two and a half weeks into it, however, and he was now stuttering with breathless euphoria, and even had something akin to a smile on his face.
"Runner's high," Asuka grinned. "Feels good, huh?"
"You kidding?" Shinji breathed, collapsing onto his back, his whole body trembling. "I feel like dying…"
Despite his words though, Shinji's expression was still a positive one.
Asuka frowned. She had no illusions about Shinji's progress. There was no way anything they did here could make any real improvement to his speed, stamina or fortitude, at least, not in a time-frame that would make any difference in the long run. But it seemed at very least, the flow of adrenaline and endorphins was providing him with a much needed attitude adjustment. He was now coming to these training sessions of his own volition, and even seemed to be enjoying them, at least on some level.
She just had her concerns about how long it could last. She knew just how psychologically unstable he was. She knew that one push in the wrong direction, and Shinji would go right back to the way he was. So far, their battles had been fairly one-sided, allowing Asuka and Mari to do most of the work, but she knew that this too would not last. Shinji was neither a fighter nor a survivor. As soon as he was pushed into the fray again, Asuka knew that any hope they had of winning would be at risk again.
Why the fate of the world had to rest so squarely on the psychological fortitude of one young boy, particularly one so off-kilter as Shinji, Asuka could not say. It was a cruel twist of fate that had brought them here, and all she could do was make the most of it.
Mari was right. Asuka had to do whatever she could to make sure Shinji was as prepared for the inevitable as possible. It was insanity to place all their hopes on one untrained and unstable boy. Perhaps, with a little training, their plan might elevate from the level of insanity to one of mere foolishness.
"You ready for your next lesson?" Asuka asked, wrapping a pair of bandages around her hands.
"Not even remotely," Shinji said meekly, getting to his feet. "But let's do it."
Asuka snorted. Shinji's naturally defeatist attitude made him entirely too pliable. It was with resignation and acceptance that he bound his fists and assumed a fighting stance, not with aggression or determination. He was improving in the fundamentals of combat, which was good - he was becoming more balanced, more steady on his feet, and able to last longer overall, which he probably owed to their synchronized musical sessions.
But his punches and kicks had no bite to them. Even though she had assured him that there was no way he could hurt her, she still felt him holding back whenever they sparred. While a part of her acknowledged that there was probably some latent chivalry in the back of his mind restraining him from hitting a girl, she still found it annoying, as if he wasn't taking her seriously. She knew that wasn't the case, but that's still how it felt whenever he didn't give it his all.
Because she still didn't buy into Mari's reasoning that Shinji's version of "trying" just didn't seem like that much by comparison. She had been training with the boy for weeks now, and she knew he could do better if he wanted to.
She just had to figure out how to bring it out of him.
"Alright, get your fists up," Asuka said, holding out her hand, palm out. "Left foot forward, right foot back. Turn your body sideways, make yourself a smaller target. Tuck your chin down, and use your right fist to guard your face, and your left fist to jab."
Shinji assumed the basic boxing stance, and gently extended his left first forward to tap the palm of Asuka's outstretched hand.
"Alright," Asuka nodded. "Once you've gauged the distance to your target, you can alternate between a left hook and right cross."
Shinji nodded, and threw one of each, which Asuka caught deftly with the palm of her hand.
"Again," she said. "Harder this time."
Shinji threw a left hook and a right cross, both of which Asuka caught without so much as flinching.
"Harder, Shinji," Asuka barked. "Put some force behind it."
Shinji tried again, and Asuka just scoffed.
"Come on, Shinji!" she guffawed. "Second Lieutenant Suzuhara could hit harder than that!"
Shinji's face tensed and he let out a grunt as he threw all his weight into a left hook, twisting his hip to put as much force into it as he could.
Asuka caught the punch in her hand, closing her fingers around his fist, a disappointed frown on her face.
"Alright, that's enough of that," she sighed, letting him go. "Let's work on blocking for now."
Shinji was even worse at defense than he was at offense, mostly because of his tendency to clench his eyes shut whenever he saw something coming towards his face.
"I'm not actually going to hit you, idiot!" Asuka exclaimed in exasperation. "Stop tensing up. Just focus on redirecting my attacks."
Shinji nodded meekly, and began to go through the motions she had taught him, bringing his arms up inside each of her punches. Of course, she was punching so slowly that even if she had made contact, it would not have even hurt him.
Still, after he failed to block one of her arms, he went right back to flinching, as if her slow moving fist would be enough to lay him flat.
Asuka sighed and took a deep breath. It took every ounce of her self control not to get angry with him. She had to keep reminding herself that Shinji was still effectively a civilian, and she couldn't expect him to become a fully fledged fighter overnight. What had Mari said to do? Come down to his level and step out of her comfort zone?
Well, so be it.
"Get some music going, Four-Eyes," Asuka hollered absently as Shinji opened one eye, as if to check to see if he was in trouble.
Mari obliged with a smirk, and soon, a familiar, upbeat piano concerto began playing.
"Alright Shinji," Asuka said calmly. "I'm going to move in time with the music. I want you to match my rhythm. And try to keep up with me, cause I'm not going to stop until the song's over. If you miss a beat, don't worry about it. Just focus on catching the next one. Ready?"
Shinji nodded, still unsure of himself.
Asuka threw her first light punch, and Shinji's arm came up to block, just like she'd taught him. With the next beat, she followed right on through to the next punch, and Shinji's arm was already there, ready to block as soon as the next note hit.
Asuka smiled. Time to change things up a bit.
She took a step to the side, trying to angle around Shinji's defenses, which he responded to shakily. But once he caught her first punch, he adapted quickly, rotating his body around to keep her facing him, and continued to catch every single punch she threw.
As the piece moved into its finale, Asuka smiled. "Not bad Shinji…let's kick things up a notch."
Shinji's eyes widened as she threw a left hook, a little faster than before, which he caught easy enough. But then her follow up right cross came towards him long before the next note of the song, and Shinji flinched back as her fist stopped just shy of his face.
"Don't stop!" Asuka demanded, throwing another left jab on the next beat, where her last punch should have been. "Keep going!"
Shinji's right arm was still up where the last strike on that side had been, so he managed to fend off her next attack. But then, just as before, her right jab came up well before the next beat of the song.
Almost exactly halfway between the two beats…
Shinji recoiled instinctively as his left arm still wasn't fast enough to block her right jab, but he had figured it out now. Asuka had sped up her attack speed, and was now striking on every half note! On the next half-note, Shinji's left arm came up to defend against Asuka's right cross.
Asuka's grin was palpable. He was getting it! With renewed enthusiasm, she launched herself at him, shuffling back and forth, and throwing a random assortment of punches his way. It didn't seem to matter if she attacked from the left or the right, as long as she kept her strikes timed on the right beat, Shinji was able to block them!
The song reached it's final note, and Asuka finished off with a whirling haymaker that would have sent him flying had it connected. Instead of hitting him though, Asuka's fist struck only Shinji's arm as it came up right on cue.
Both combatants remained standing in that position for a few moments, both rather out of breath, but locked in a stunned silence at what had just occurred. Aside from the two punches that would have landed once Asuka changed up her tempo, Shinji had managed to block every single one of her strikes.
The silence was interrupted by a slow clap from the front of the dojo, and both turned to see Mari applauding them both with a knowing smile on her face.
"Nicely done, you two!" she winked playfully. "You're way more in-synch than either of you thought!"
That brought a smile to Shinji's face, but Asuka turned away, crossing her arms.
"Pfft!" she scoffed. "It's hardly a challenge to match Pipsqueak's pace. The hardest part is holding back enough not to hurt him!"
Shinji winced at that. Mari just laughed.
"Awww…" she smiled, jokingly. "Worried about hurting the poor Puppy boy? I guess you have a heart after all, Princess!"
"Whatever," Asuka responded, not looking back. "I'm hitting the showers."
Shinji threw Mari a confused look. Things had been going so well; why did she have to constantly be egging Asuka on like that?
Before Asuka could make it to the door, however, the alarm sounded.
"ALERT!" came the automated voice. "ALERT! EVA SERIES DETECTED!"
Shinji flinched at the loud, unexpected noise. Mari looked overjoyed at the news. Asuka just let out a groan.
"Here we go again…"
WILLE was able to defeat the next wave of Eva Series, as well as the next one. And the next. Without the advantage of time to employ the Cassius weapon, they were only able to recover a single core from each battle, and even that was becoming more and more difficult as the number of units per onslaught only increased with each attack.
The next attack had been sounded at 2 o'clock in the morning by Zion's time, and the pilots had been rushed out of bed, into their battle stations on the Wunder, and rushed into combat to deal with the threat.
Yet even as the Wunder flew home victorious that morning, crew morale was still down significantly since the first battle. There were no Dead Sea Scrolls to predict these attacks as there had been with the Angels, and Rei simply had nothing more to offer. The attacks came seemingly at random now - sometimes they were more than a week apart, sometimes they came three times in one week. Sometimes the advancing armies were spotted early enough for the Wunder to take them all out with its Cassius weapon, granting them greater spoils. But one pattern was holding true - each consecutive attack boasted one additional Eva unit than the last one. This last attack had involved thirteen Eva Series, and while they were slow moving, lumbering mindless hulks, there were only so many Unit 08+02 and the Wunder could handle at a time.
The crew were not the only ones suffering from a decrease in morale as a result.
"How much longer can we keep this up, Captain?"
Misato crossed her arms as Ritsuko and the other pilots gave Shinji a nervous look. All four pilots had gathered for a post-mission briefing. By their expressions, she could tell that Shinji's sentiments were echoed across the lot of them, but most had the decorum not to give voice to the notion. It was nearly dawn as the Wunder docked once again with Outpost Zion. The pilots had all barely gotten any sleep, nor had the crew. Ordinarily, Misato would have chastised anyone for making such a bold statement unsolicited, but in this particular case, she was prepared to make an exception.
"As long as we have to, Pilot," Misato responded brusquely. "To do otherwise is to welcome death. You're not throwing in the towel now, are you?"
Shinji shook his head tiredly. "Of course not, Captain…it's just…"
Misato's expression softened. "I know, Shinji…this has been tough on all of us. And from the looks of things, it's only going to get tougher."
Shinji nodded and said nothing more, though Rei unexpectedly cleared her throat.
Misato's eyebrow raised. "Something on your mind, Rei?"
Rei took a militant step forward. "If I may, Captain…you know of a method we could use to ascertain the scope and breadth of these attacks."
Misato shook her head. "We've discussed this, Rei. We've decided that it's too dangerous."
Rei tensed. "With all due respect, Captain, taking on the number of attacks as we have is becoming plenty dangerous on its own. It will only take one slip-up for even one of these attacks to result in disaster."
Asuka rolled her eyes. "Gee, thanks for the vote of confidence, Lobotomy Girl. Four-Eyes and I have been doing pretty good lately, in case you haven't noticed."
"I have every confidence in both of your piloting abilities," Rei inclined her head towards Asuka and Mari, admonishing. "But for all that, the two of you are only human."
Asuka raised an irritated eyebrow. "As opposed to you?"
Shinji threw the redhead a sour expression. "Asuka, that's enough!"
Asuka glared back at him. "Of course you would immediately rise to her defense!"
Mari's eyebrow knit together, evidently not a fan of losing so much beauty sleep.
"Guys, can we just…?"
"My humanity is irrelevant to the discussion, Captain Shikinami," Rei countered. "I make mistakes just as you do. And it only takes one mistake for humanity to fall."
Asuka crossed her arms. "And what if feeding you more Dummy Plugs turns out to one of those mistakes, huh? What then?"
Rei did not answer. She simply turned back to face Misato.
"Captain, you know the truth to Shinji's words," she said gravely. "You know that we cannot keep this up forever."
Asuka looked like she wanted to say more, but Misato held up a hand, and all were silent.
"Enough," she said wearily. "We're all tired, and I'm not having this discussion right now. Rei, my decision stands. Sync training has been rescheduled for noon today. Get some rest, pilots. Dismissed."
Tired and unsatisfied, the pilots filed out in turn, leaving only Ritsuko in the briefing room with the Captain.
"You think she's right?" Misato asked, absently.
Ritsuko's eyes did not leave her computer screen. "I think we've encountered nearly a hundred of the Eva Series, well more than we ever thought possible. And I think that the gradual increase in their number is a deliberate scare tactic on NERV's part. They're trying to destroy our resolve by showing us that they could wipe us off the map if they wanted to, but are choosing not to. If only I could figure out what that reason is."
Misato frowned, closing her eyes in thought. "Could they be after Unit 01?"
"Possibly," Ritsuko frowned. "But we'll never know until we take the fight to them."
"Yeah, cause that worked out real well last time," Misato snorted.
"And how well is our current situation working out for us now?" Ritsuko countered.
"What, are you agreeing with Rei now?" Misato said, raising an incredulous eyebrow.
"I'm agreeing with Shinji, actually," Ritsuko said. "We can't keep passively reacting to everything NERV does. We need to take action."
Misato nodded. "I agree. I'm just not confident in throwing all of our forces into one big Hail Mary just yet."
"Well, at the rate we're going, we won't have a choice one way or the other before long," Ritsuko warned foreboding. "Either way, NERV is going to force our hand eventually. It's just a matter of time."
Misato frowned. She had no answer for that.
To be continued…