Asuka had to admit, Shinji was getting the hang of combat training faster than she had anticipated.
While he was still no match for her, Mari, or even Sakura she imagined, he was definitely able to fend off her attacks on a much more regular basis. She almost didn't have to hold back against him anymore.
He was still almost primarily a defensive fighter, and only attacked when she demanded he do so, and when they landed, his punches did not so much as leave a bruise. That said, Asuka's love-taps were no longer making contact. She would not go so far as to say that she had to actually try to land a hit on him now, but she couldn't exactly get by without trying anymore either.
After weeks of training, she had to admit that she was impressed.
Not that she would ever admit that to him.
"Nice try, Shinji," she grinned, her fist stopped two inches from his face. "But you're still dead."
Shinji's eyes widened a half-second afterward - Asuka had moved so fast, he hadn't even seen the strike coming - before whirling away, assuming a shaky but still very much a combat stance.
Asuka smirked. She would be lying if she said that part of her didn't enjoy seeing him squirm.
"You're improving, but you're still looking kind of wobbly," she observed casually.
Shinji winced. "Sorry - I'm just tired. We've been doing this for an hour now."
Asuka nodded. "That's a good thing. Your greatest flaws become apparent the more tired you become. Now come at me again."
She was glad that Mari had opted out of training today, as Asuka just knew that the favored Four-Eyes would have made some dirty joke about the way Asuka had phrased that.
Shinji, whether he got the innuendo or not, simply furrowed his brow and tightened his stance.
Asuka grinned. Classic mistake. She whirled and feinted right, before swinging back around to the left to deliver a high kick, which Shinji barely managed to catch.
"Got to keep up, Shinji," Asuka crowed, a teasing grin on her face.
Shinji gritted his teeth and pushed back on her shin, tossing her leg back in an attempt to throw her off balance. Asuka could have recovered easily, but she allowed herself to wobble a little from the throw in the hopes that the display might goad him into attacking.
She was not disappointed, for Shinji then swept his leg underneath hers, and Asuka suddenly found herself tumbling to the ground.
"Oof!" she grunted in surprise.
She twisted as she fell to minimize her impact, but froze when she suddenly saw Shinji's fist two inches from her face.
Shinji, kneeling down in front of her, still out of breath, just smiled.
"How was that?"
Asuka blinked, somewhat stupefied by how much she had underestimated him, before cracking her mouth into a wide grin.
"Don't get cocky…" she warned heatedly.
That was all the warning he got before her leg stretched up and clothes-lined him across his chest, sending him flat on his back.
Shinji saw stars for a moment before his eyes suddenly refocused on the ceiling, wondering briefly how he got there. Then he became aware of Asuka's leg pressing him to the floor, and perhaps even more alarming, the web of her thumb and forefinger gently resting against his throat.
"Still…" she laughed down at him, winking with her good eye, her hair dangling around her face. "Not bad, Pipsqueak."
Shinji swallowed visibly, face reddening as she pressed him to the floor, and suddenly Asuka felt heat rising in her own cheeks as well. She was suddenly grateful that Mari had been absent for this training session, as she could imagine just how little she would be able to live this down had she witnessed this.
"Um…" Shinji breathed, swallowing again. "Asuka…?"
"I'm thinking…" she said hurriedly, trying to buy herself time.
Crap, she thought. What exactly was she doing? Shinji was the one responsible for this whole mess! Well, maybe not the whole mess, she admitted to herself, but he certainly hadn't done anything to help. Other than voluntarily become the Wunder's co-pilot. Not to mention saving her and everyone at WILLE during each attack that came before Unit 02 or 08 could be restored. And all this was after suddenly being hit over the head with the terrible reality of what NERV had been doing to the world, not to mention what his father had done with the Ayanami Types, and whatever other horrors they had subjected him to since then. After all that, here he was, still trying to do the right thing, still trying to improve.
But why? Was it because someone had told him to, or was it because it was what he wanted?
Shinji looked away uncomfortably. "Can you, um…let me up now…?"
"Shinji…" Asuka responded sternly. "Why are you doing this?"
Shinji blinked up at her. "Doing what? Lying here?"
"No," Asuka harrumphed like it was the most obvious thing in the world. "I mean, why are you helping us? Why are you still with WILLE after all the shit you've been through? I know I said what happened to you doesn't compare to what happened to us, and I still stand by that sentiment…but still, you've seen more shit than the average human being. By all accounts, you should be down there, with the rest of the civilians, hiding in a hole while us big kids go to war."
Shinji looked away. The thought had certainly crossed his mind.
"So why are you up here?" she demanded. "Is it because you think you don't have a choice? Cause you were ordered to? Or are you really trying to accomplish something?"
Asuka's hand had still not left his throat. Shinji got the feeling that whatever his response was would influence what that hand did next.
"I…guess I decided that I can't keep relying on my gut instincts anymore…" he admitted, looking away, nervously. "Everything about this situation…even right here, right now…everything about this is telling me to run away."
He turned back up to look at her inquisitive expression.
"But I can't keep living in the moment like that," he said. "I have to think in the long term. And in the long term…no matter how bad things seem now, they're going to get worse if I don't endure this trivial stuff now. Sure, it may make me uncomfortable…but if it means avoiding getting hurt…or that other people won't get hurt as result…then it'd be completely irresponsible of me to try to weasel my way out of it."
Asuka stared down hard at him as he gulped, guiltily.
"Is…that a good enough reason?" he asked.
Asuka pondered his words for a moment, before nodding, standing to her feet and offering a hand to help him up.
"It'll do," she said simply. "At least you're thinking like an adult now."
He took her proffered hand and she hoisted him to his feet. He stumbled a bit, and had to grab her shoulder for support, and Asuka's cheeks colored a bit as she found herself inches from his face.
To her own surprise, she didn't pull away. In every scenario where something like this happened in her head, her reaction had always been to push away. Every instinct in her body was telling her to pull back, to turn away, to do something to keep her distance, but her body wasn't obeying her commands, and it was annoying as hell.
Because no matter what her body thought, it was not fourteen years ago. This may have been the same Shinji, but she was not the same Asuka. No matter how much her LCL-infused cells liked to think otherwise. She was older, wiser, and was above these stupid teenage hormones that continued to plague her body, even at that very moment.
So why? Why couldn't she stop herself? Where were these inclinations coming from? Why was she teetering closer to this boy, who, for all practical purposes, she should have despised?
It seemed she would never find out, for at that very moment, the alarm went off.
"ALERT! ALERT! EVA SERIES DETECTED!"
The moment shattered, both pilots recoiled from each other, as if their better senses had taken over.
"Another attack?" Shinji blurted, face still red, stating the obvious as if that would somehow distract her from what had just happened.
Asuka wrinkled her nose and gritted her teeth as she followed Shinji out the door.
"Damn it!" she cursed. For a multitude of reasons.
Sixteen Eva Series emerged from the ocean around the eastern Siberian coast, just a stones throw away from WILLE Outpost Zion. A mindless mechanized army of brown and green, red visors glowing a heartless crimson, bifurcated horns all pointed towards the base, the sinister glares on their faces leaving no doubt in anyone's mind what their intended target was.
"Alright guys," Misato said gravely from the bridge of the Wunder as it hovered well above the read of any of the oncoming attackers. "We've got twenty minutes before they reach the base. You need to finish them off before they reach Zion."
As the launch bay doors opened, Unit 08+02 stood poised to descend.
"No problem!" Asuka crowed haughtily, before propelling the giant war machine out into the air to descend upon the rugged tundra below.
Despite the lack of activity on their part, Shinji still peered down at the battlefield below in trepidation. He and Rei sat in relative silence - as had become the norm for them - as they watched the fighting below. The Wunder cruised at a high altitude, well above the battle below. The Eva Series were scattered nearly ten kilometers along the coastline, so Unit 08+02 had its hands full going back and forth between them all, wrestling one to the ground while the remaining mechs plodded onward.
Shinji would have willingly continued watching the battle without a word, but for the first time in a long time, Rei broke the silence.
"Have you made your decision?"
The question caught Shinji completely off-guard.
"Huh?" he asked. "Made a decision about what?"
"Nearly two months have passed since my conjoining," she declared simply. "Have you made your decision about whether or not you trust me?"
"What?" Shinji stammered. "Is…is the middle of a battle the best time to be talking about this?"
"How can we be expected to fight side by side if you cannot trust the person beside you?" Rei asked, undeterred.
Shinji's expression fell. He could tell he wasn't going to get out of this. "Rei, I…of course I trust you."
"Then why have you been avoiding me?" she asked. It was not a demanding tone, but there were a mingling of emotions within her voice. "You have treated me as a stranger since that day. It would appear as if you no longer regard me as the pilot you once knew."
Shinji was aghast. He didn't even know where to begin to respond to that.
"What…?" he stammered in stupefaction. "I…I thought you were avoiding me!"
Now it was Rei's turn to look surprised.
"That is untrue, Shinji," she shook her head, looking unsure. "I have taken no such action."
"Every time we get out of the entry plug, you go straight back to the briefing room with the Captain and Dr. Akagi," he pointed out.
"As I have been ordered to," Rei justified. "Though I suppose it is true that I have been…preoccupied these past two months. But what about here, when we are alone together in the entry plug? We used to speak at length, and now…"
Shinji looked ashamed, though relief colored his expression to a degree.
"I was too embarrassed after what happened," he explained bashfully. "I was waiting for you to say something."
Rei looked back at him in disbelief. "That is absurd, Shinji…it is I who have been waiting for…"
She trailed off as her eyes widened, and it dawned on both of them just how foolish they had both been.
"I see…" Rei said, inclining her head. "I suppose I can appear…aloof at times."
"Most of the time," Shinji admitted, smiling bashfully.
Rei sighed and nodded. "Yes…however…as cold as I may appear, it does not mean that I do not care."
Relief openly colored Shinji's face now and he was smiling.
"I'm sorry, Rei," he sighed. "I didn't mean to give you the cold shoulder either. God, I must have seemed like a total jerk to you…"
She slowly shook her head, a slight smile on her face. "No, Shinji…you were just being yourself."
He lowered his head. "Maybe…but that shouldn't mean punishing you for just being yourself too."
Rei nodded. "Let us agree then that we have both made incorrect assumptions about the other."
Shinji actually found himself laughing a little. He couldn't even remember the last time he had laughed. The situation just felt so absurd. Here he was, piloting a giant robot alongside a girl who was becoming stranger by the day, awkwardly mulling through some miscommunication that had lingered on for months now, all the while a clash of titans raged on below them.
That's when he noticed it.
"Umm…Rei?" he said, eyes fixated on the scene of carnage below.
Four of the Eva Series were down, but the rest of them were still marching on, and Unit 08+02 was having to scramble to keep them from advancing. They had already progressed more than halfway towards the base. In fact, Outpost Zion was just coming into view not ten klicks away.
"Judging by their progression so far, eight units will reach the wall before Unit 08+02 can deal with them," Rei surmised, doing the math in her head. "The base's AT field can withstand the onslaught of three units, but eight is far too many. Their combined AT Field will compromise the outpost in a matter of minutes."
That was all Shinji needed.
"Captain," he said urgently into his comm unit. "Be advised - we estimate eight of the Eva Series will reach the base before Asuka and Makinami can take them down. Should the Wunder intervene?"
Misato's face appeared on the screen, giving a nod. "We reached a similar conclusion. Prepare to transfer control of the Wunder."
Shinji set his teeth as he gripped his control yokes tighter. As tense as these battles were, he and Rei hadn't done any actual fighting since the second Eva attack. It had been about two months since then, and now the number of Evas they faced on the battlefield had increased dramatically.
"I have control!" they both shouted simultaneously.
The Wunder came to life for the first time in two months, its eyes lighting up and its wings flexing ever so slightly as its higher functions hummed to life.
Rei tilted the wings down ever so slightly, and the Wunder began to descend towards one of the targets below, and Shinji opened fire with his the warship's optic laser.
The Eva tilted its head up to glare at the Wunder with its bright red visor, before opening its mouth in a loud, challenging roar. An instant later, it was thrown back by the impact of the Wunder's optic cannon.
It didn't seem to make a difference. As if summoned by Evas ferocious roar, the other Eva units instantly ceased their mindless trek, and without warning, suddenly charged the Wunder from all sides.
"What the hell!?" Asuka cried as even the Eva she was wrestling to the ground managed to pull itself free from their grasp and made a mad dash towards their flagship.
Rei saw the attack coming and yanked back on her control yokes to reverse their direction and bring the Wunder back up out of harm's way. But the ship was just too big with too small a turning radius, and they had too much momentum from their descent. By the time the Wunder had even managed to rise again, three of the Evas had latched onto it, with the rest of them following suit.
"We're under attack!" Misato hollered in alarm. "Asuka! Mari! Defend the Wunder!"
Unit 08+02 was in hot pursuit of the Eva Series it had just been tussling with, but the remainder of the units were piling on top of the Wunder one at a time, some clinging to its wings and throwing off its flight, others to its tail, diverting its trajectory further as Rei struggled to keep the ship in the air. The Wunder's neck twisted as Shinji fired its optic laser, but it wasn't flexible enough to aim at its own body, which is where the majority of its targets were now.
Suddenly Rei let out a cry of pain as one of the Eva Series bit into the Wunder's wing, causing the whole ship to list to one side.
"Rei!" Shinji cried, clutching his own arm as the pain was shared across their link.
"They're getting through our AT Field!" someone from the bridge yelled, almost as an afterthought.
Unit 08+02 was chasing the Wunder now as it flew out of control, trying desperately to shake the eight remaining Eva Series off its hull while attempting just as futilely to stay afloat.
"We can't reach you!" Mari cried in alarm as their Eva bounded over the rugged terrain. "Miss Ayanami, you have to slow down, or we'll never catch up to you!"
"I…can't…" Rei whimpered in pain and fear as she clutched her arm where the Evas were biting the Wunder's wing. Shinji barely had the presence of mind to take notice, as he still fired off blast after blast to no effect. Panic was beginning to take hold of both pilots, their own fear mingling with each others', as well as something else, something deeper within the giant beast.
It was being attacked by a swarm of annoying, pesky gnats. And it did not like it one bit.
Suddenly, another lance of pain seared through each of their arms as an Eva bit down into their other wing, and the Wunder simply fell out of the sky as its wings gave out. It spiraled out of control and crash landed roughly upon the rocky hills below, impacting with a deafening boom, throwing up rubble and dirt as it skidded across the landscape, tearing up entire hillsides as it tumbled. Its passengers were tossed around in a heap inside its hull like rag-dolls as it finally landed on its back, settling at an odd angle in the dirt, its wings splayed and tattered, its belly exposed.
Shinji and Rei were in similar disarray, grimacing in pain as anger flared inside both their heads that did not originate from either of them. And as the Eva Series continued clawing and biting at the Wunder's fallen form, a feeling of rage began to claw into the forefront of their thoughts.
"Get…" Shinji growled between his teeth, eyes suddenly a vibrant red. "OFF!"
The Wunder's mouth opened to release a furious scream of rage, as the skeletal spiral around its belly began to swell, buckle and crack as the bone began to grow. Then all at once, two monstrous talons shot out of the underside of the Wunder. Like those of a bird, each talon had four digits ending in a cruel, wicked looking claw that dwarfed the Evas in size.
As they erupted from the broken armor of its belly, dripping with raw LCL, they both shot out and seized the two closest Evas in their grip, each letting out a scream of pain and rage.
The Wunder then brought its victims to its mouth, before tearing at them, ripping into their bellies and yanking out their cores one at a time, before swallowing both of them.
The Eva Series did not seem dissuaded by their fallen comrades, but by then, Unit 08+02 had arrived and tore through the Evas even as the Wunder began to right itself, standing upon its two new legs.
"Shinji!" Asuka cried out in alarm over the comm channels, but got nothing but static.
The Wunder didn't respond, and instead let out another roar before it snapped with its teeth and seized another Eva between its jaws.
"Captain!" Mari shouted in alarm as they saw what the Wunder was doing. "Sever the connection to Unit 01's pilots!"
There was no response from the Captain, or anyone on the bridge for that matter.
Unit 08+02 turned its attention away to dispatch one Eva after another, all of whom were still clawing and biting at the Wunder's hull.
"Captain, do you read!?" Asuka demanded, fearing the worst.
The Wunder's jaws clamped down around its third prey, crushing it between its teeth, letting most of the body fall away, with only the core remaining in its mouth as it titled its head back and swallowed greedily.
"Captain!" Asuka called again as she and Mari sent Unit 08+02's fist straight through the last Evas core, liquefying it almost instantly.
And that's when the Wunder's eyes suddenly faded into darkness as the bridge crew finally managed to retake control of the Wunder.
"We read you, Asuka!" Misato's face appeared on the screen, though there was noticeably more static then before. What could be seen behind her was absolute chaos. "We got flung from our seats in the crash! It made getting to our controls rather difficult! Now what's the status on your end?"
Asuka and Mari inspected the carnage around them. Bodies of the Eva Series were everywhere as LCL pooled at their Evas feet. The Wunder was standing still on two legs now, LCL dripping from its mouth, as behind them, a path of destruction carved into the landscape from the Wunder's crash stretched out beyond sight.
"The enemy has been neutralized," Mari reported in a concerned tone. "But Captain…the Wunder consumed three of the Eva Series in the process!"
"It also sprouted some legs!" Asuka added, sounding just as panicked. "Is the crew safe in their? Cause we'll dig you out if we have to!"
Misato didn't respond. Instead she turned her attention to another screen.
"Shinji! Rei! Do you copy!?"
Asuka bit her lip and brought up Unit 01's comm channel on her own screen.
"Ensign Ikari!" Misato barked angrily. "Come in!"
Asuka ground her teeth in anger and frustration. If that idiot had gotten himself killed now of all times…
Finally, Shinji's comm screen lit up - it looked like he too had been flung from his chair as he leaned in from one side to peer awkwardly at the screen.
"Shinji!" Asuka blurted, unable to disguise the relief in her voice.
"Captain!" he stammered, sounding out of breath. "Asuka! You're alright!"
Misato closed her eyes, allowing herself a brief moment of relief, before she adopted her fierce attitude once more.
"Sound off, soldier!"
"Oh! Uh, ma'am!" Shinji responded immediately by straightening his back. "No injuries to report! But…um, Rei is…"
And only then could everyone see the girl in his arms.
She had dark, navy blue hair, and eyes that were a dark umber with just the barest hint of red. And her complexion seemed almost normal now.
She looked completely different.
"Rei…?" Misato blurted without even thinking. All at once, the fear of Rei losing control to the Dummy Plugs arose anew in her mind. The last time this had happened, Rei had been out of commission for a full day. And that had been after the Wunder had only consumed one of the Dummy Plugs. And it had just eaten three of them! Though now, while she appeared exhausted and out of breath from the ordeal, she appeared very much lucid and awake.
That was either a good thing…or a very bad thing.
"Captain…" she muttered weakly as Shinji held her steady in his arms. "I…I must speak with Doctor Akagi as soon as possible!"
"Rei!" Misato responded, mistrusting. "What happened? Are you in control of yourself?"
"Yes, Captain…" Rei assured her, patiently. "But if we do not act soon, we will be too late to stop what is coming."
To be continued…