Ritsuko had her reservations about Misato's plan, but that was nothing new for the Doctor. She had already done wrong by the Captain once, she was not inclined to do so again. So she would support the Captain in her plan, as crazy as it was. And it wasn't like Ritsuko could come up with anything better. Every scenario she ran through her head simply fell apart from the fact that every day they spent preparing and fending off attacks, NERV was growing ever stronger. No, the time for waiting had come to an end. It was time to hit their enemy hard, and hit them fast. And if that meant the end of the world would come that much sooner, rather than slowly and painfully over time, then at least they will have gone out swinging.
That was Misato's mentality at least.
Where Ritsuko became even more worried, however, was when she had invited the Doctor to her quarters on the base to sit down with her for a drink.
Ritsuko eyed the bottle before her suspiciously, before giving Misato an incredulous look.
"Do you happen to recall how this stuff nearly killed you a few months ago?" she demanded.
Misato held up a single hand, already kneeling at the low floor table, a solemn look on her face.
"That's why I want you here, Ritsu," she said calmly. "I need you to keep me in check. Just like you always do."
Ritsuko didn't seem at all relieved by the prospect.
"Why are you even drinking this at all?" she demanded, gesturing to the bottle in front of them. It was even the same bottle for crying out loud, its contents still unfinished from the previous binge.
Misato picked up the bottle. "Because we may very well be dead by tomorrow, and I'll be damned if my last memory of drinking is going to be of what happened last time! We're doing it right this time!"
She poured two small glasses for her and the Doctor.
"Besides, I don't want the last of this to go to waste," she said, sounding more like her old self.
Ritsuko's expression softened, before she pulled out an unmarked pack of cigarettes and dropping it on the table.
"Fine then," she said, sitting down across from her. "But if you're drinking, I'm smoking. You can bum one if you want."
Misato chuckled and shook her head. "I'll pass. I am curious, though, exactly how you've been keeping yourself supplied all these years."
"They're synthetic," Ritsuko explained, lighting one up. "My own concoction. It's completely free of carcinogens, and mostly just helps provide a nicotine fix. Kind of like an electric cigarette, but more like the real thing."
She took a long drag and exhaled a cloud of smoke into the air.
"No point in saving the world just to die before I can live in it," she summarized.
Misato raised her glass. "Makes sense."
Ritsuko clinked her glass to hers.
"You've outdone yourself this time, Misato," she sighed, using her first name. "This plan of yours banks on quite a lot going our way. I don't have to tell you how rarely that happens."
"I think our pilots are up to the task," the Captain said, leaning forward against the table. "And I do mean all of our pilots."
Ritsuko couldn't help but smile. "The great Misato Katsuragi going out on a little faith? Will miracles never cease?"
"Not faith," Misato correctly prudently. "Optimism. Which is something we've all been sorely needing around here."
"After everything that's happened, I didn't think the word was even in your vocabulary anymore," Ritsuko observed.
Misato nodded. "It wasn't. And for good reason. We had no cause to be optimistic. Survival was our only goal for all those years. But I'm optimistic now."
Ritsuko took another puff from her cigarette. "Dare I ask why?"
"Cause now, after so many years, the end is finally in sight!" Misato downed the last of her drink and placed her glass top down on the table. "I don't know if it'll be a good ending or a bad one. But I can promise you one thing, Ritsu…it's going to be a bigone."
Ritsuko blinked in amazement at Misato's sudden exuberance. She was not used to seeing her Captain so vivacious before. It seemed the events of late had certainly had an effect on her psyche, and not all of them negative.
She just hoped that optimism could survive the final battle.
The wind tussled Asuka's hair beneath her black, peaked cap. She wore her jacket over her WILLE uniform to stave off the cold evening air on the top deck of the Wunder. Around them, cranes, technicians and construction crew worked tirelessly to get the Wunder back into fighting shape. They had until tomorrow to set Misato's hair-brained plan into motion, and the sun had already passed below the horizon. The Wunder had to be battle ready well before dawn, or Outpost Rotterdam would be destroyed.
The ship itself was already flight-worthy, and staff were permitted to move about the cabin. But even now, its weapons were being retrofitted with salvaged cores taken from the Eva Series, which in theory gave each gun the same kick as a Cassius weapon. The Wunder itself had already eaten and absorbed four additional cores, making its own AT Field and optic weaponry five times as potent. However, as to how effective these measures would be against the odds they were up against, only a live field test would tell for sure.
Asuka, however, was not up here to discuss their ship or their mission.
"I was in a coma for three years," she volunteered simply.
Shinji blinked, not understanding what she was saying.
"After the Ninth Angel infected Unit 03," she elaborated, fixing him with an appraising gaze. "After the Dummy Plug took control of Unit 01 and I was nearly crushed to death."
Shinji flinched instinctively from the accusation behind the words.
"Don't chicken out on me now, Shinji," Asuka said sternly. "I'm not blaming you for any of this. I just want you to understand where I'm coming from."
Shinji opened his eyes. Asuka wasn't even looking in his direction. Maybe it was easier for her not to, he thought. Instead, she was leaning against the railing, looking out at the pale whips of sunlight that still lingered where the sun had set.
"When I woke up, the world as I knew it had already ended," she said simply. "The war with NERV had begun. And before I knew it, I was a fugitive from my own organization, which was hunting us down with angelic drones unlike anything we'd seen before. My eye was corrupted by angelic contamination, so now I have to cover it with this stupid eye-patch in order to keep it contained. My Eva was crippled after being piloted by some nobody from England, my hometown and everything I had known was destroyed, most of the world's population had been wiped off the face of the Earth, and you were nowhere to be found."
Shinji flinched again, but not as sharply. He felt like he ought to say something, but he quieted his fears and just continued to listen.
"I just wanted answers!" she said in a huff, standing up straight and pacing about the top deck. "How was I supposed to feel after losing three years of my life? After losing the use of my eye? After losing everything I had known? How was I supposed to keep living, to keep fighting, when I didn't have anything left to fight for but my own life?"
Shinji kept his eyes on the redhead as she spoke. He still was not sure what was happening up here. But he felt like somehow, Asuka needed to get something off her chest, and being Asuka, had to preface it all with soliloquy before she was comfortable getting to the heart of the matter.
"So, answers became what I fought for," she said. "When they told me to get back into the Eva, I did it. When they told me to help recover Unit 08 from that derelict NERV facility, I did it. When they told me to fly to outer space because they'd finallyfound you, I did it. And why? So that maybe once I did, I might finally learn what it was all for! Why everything had turned out this way! Why I was left alive after so many others had died!"
Shinji was speechless now. He had never expected Asuka to open up so much, and was not entirely sure it would go well for him in the end.
"And what did I find?" Asuka gave him a sour look. "That you hadn't changed one bit! That you were nothing more than another pawn, just like I had been! And not only that, but it turned out they weren't done with you yet! I had already been written off as expendable! NERV didn't want me! But you? Oh, no, they needed Shinji! The one pawn they could still control, and you played right into their hands like an idiot!"
Shinji wanted to speak up, wanted to defend himself, wanted to explain why he had done what he'd done.
But he'd done that already. He'd already spoken his piece. It was time to let Asuka speak hers.
"I wanted to leave you there," she sighed. "In the ruins of Tokyo-3. I wanted to leave you buried in the ashes of everyone else who'd been written off, just like me."
Finally, her expression softened.
"But I didn't," said quietly. "I dragged you along with us. I don't know why I did it, I don't know what good I thought it would do. I know it's what the Colonel would have expected, but I could have easily come up with an excuse for leaving you. But I didn't."
Shinji wasn't sure what she wanted from him. A thank you?
"Was it worth the effort, Shinji?" she demanded, crossing her arms. "Are you going to surprise me? Or are you going to remind me why I hate being right all the time?"
Shinji swallowed hard. It was time for him to speak. Now if only he could do so without completely pissing her off.
"I…I trust you, Asuka," he said, hesitantly. "I trust Misato and Ritsuko and Rei…I trust all of you a lot more than I even trust myself."
He looked away. The sky was now completely dark.
"So if all of you have still chosen to believe in me after all the mistakes I've made, then I can't just give up fighting."
Asuka snorted, unimpressed. "Great speech, Patton. You read that off the back of a fortune cookie?"
"I'm being serious!" Shinji exclaimed.
"You honestly think you need someone to believe in you to succeed, Shinji?" Asuka asked.
She lifted the black peaked cap from her head and held it out so he could get a good look at it.
"This used to belong to my mother," she said. "Found it when we went looking for survivors in NERV Germany. It's the only thing of hers I have left, one of the only memories I have of her. Right before the one where she went crazy and tried to kill me."
Shinji's eyes widened into pools of white.
"What?" he blurted.
Asuka gave him a snarky smile, bitterness in her voice. "Oh, did I never never tell you this story? It's pretty fascinating, in the strictly academic sense of the word. Yeah, my mother was a freaking psychopath. Kept trying to commit double suicide with me until she finally gave up and just did herself in without me. Oh, and the best part? I was six when this happened."
Shinji could only stare at her, wide-eyed and unblinking.
"I could fill a textbook with all the diagnoses they tried slapping onto me afterward," Asuka laughed, as if it didn't mean a thing to her. "Was it depression? Was it PTSD? Bipolar disorder? Schizophrenia? The list goes on and on."
Shinji was still staring aghast, too stunned for words.
Then Asuka fixed him with the deadliest glare he had ever seen her make.
"There was no pill I could take, no therapy I could attend, no bullshit twelve-step-program, there was nothing!" she pointed an accusatory finger at Shinji's chest. "Nothing they could do for me could 'fix' me, Shinji! Nothing that anybody else does is evergoing to be enough to make you feel better! Get it?"
She closed the distance between them, poking his chest with her outstretched finger.
"There is one person, and one person only, that can make things 'alright' for you, Shinji," she said, her voice cracking somewhat. "And that's you!"
It was dark, and hard to see, but Shinji could finally see that she was crying.
"Not Rei…" she said, her voice lilting as she spoke. "Not Misato…and certainly not me!"
Asuka sniffed back her tears, wiping her face with the heel of her hand.
"I didn't have a mother to mourn, Shinji," she sobbed. "Mine was a monster from the beginning so far as I could tell! There's no cure for that! All you can do is get over it and move on!"
Tears were trickling down her cheeks in rivulets, her teeth clenched so hard it hurt.
"I had to keep going!" she cried, looking into his eyes. "For fourteen years! And I had no one to lean on, no one to support me, and no one to tell me it was alright! You left without any explanation, and I had to soldier on without you!"
Her hand clenched into a fist, gently drumming it against his chest.
"And now, here you are again!" she hiccuped. "You just come waltzing back into my life out of nowhere, and suddenly everything's supposed to be alright? You don't even know how lucky you have it, Shinji! Whether you realize it or not, you're the most important person on this God damned ship, and everyone knows it! And you got to sleep through the worst parts of this war! You get to see a part of your mother every day when you look into that girl's eyes. My mother wished I had never even been born!"
He didn't know why - and certainly thought that he would suffer the consequence if he was wrong - but Shinji felt the need to bring his hands up around Asuka's shoulders and gently press them into her back. She didn't resist the embrace, pressing her face into his shoulder, her hands still clenched into fists of frustration and regret.
"When you rely on someone else for safety or happiness or peace of mind, then they're just going to end up hurting you!" she moaned. "I had to learn that the hard way! I was too stubborn to just die off like everyone else, so I lingered on! People around me were dropping left and right because their lives were in someone else's hands!"
She squeezed him back, her arms shaking.
"So I dug in!" she grieved. "I didn't let anyone get close to me - not my Captain, not my comrades, not even my co-pilot! I couldn't trust anyone to get that close to me! Don't you get it, Shinji?"
She lifted her head up and stared at him, tears running from from both eyes, even beneath her eye-patch.
"The only way for me to survive was to wall myself off from everyone!" she cried, looking more desperate than she had ever seen in his life. "Even you! Cause no matter how much I wanted to forget you, I just wasn't strong enough to write you off the way you did for me!"
Shinji's eyes widened, and his arms pull her back to his chest, hugging her as tightly as he could.
"No!" said in a tremulous voice. "I could never that to you, Asuka!"
Asuka sobbed into his embrace, fingers entangled in the folds of his clothes.
"I doesn't matter what you intended," she breathed. "I was sentenced to fourteen years of hell either way. And if I had waited for you, I wouldn't have ever made it long enough to actually see you again. You want to know why I keep this stupid hat, even after she tried to kill me!? It's because deep down, I know that I'm no different from her! Just another pawn, waiting to get traded in for a better piece!"
Shinji wasn't entirely sure if Asuka was still talking about her mother when she said 'her,' but he didn't think it was appropriate to ask. He couldn't really understand a lot of what she was saying anymore, but he held her in his arms either way. He didn't know why she was telling him all this, but even if it was frightening to listen to, he was grateful that she had finally deigned to let him in.
"Who makes up these rules?" she demanded, her head still buried in his arms. "Who got to decide what the world made of us? There's no God cruel enough to plan out something like this! Why couldn't he have just made me the damsel in distress and gotten it over with? It's obvious that someone up there thinks that's you're supposed to be the real hero here, no matter how much of a wimp you are! I might as well stop trying at this point! It doesn't matter what either of us wants or needs! The world's just going to foist our roles on us whether we want them or not!"
Shinji squeezed her even tighter, saying nothing and refusing to move, no matter how badly his gut told him to run. The Asuka he knew didn't believe any of this. At least, he always thought she hadn't. How long had she been keeping this insecurities locked away inside of her? How much pressure had she been under to try to be the hero that he could never be? How much pain had he been causing her just by being here?
"Why did I have to be the strong one?" she breathed. "Was I not even supposed to survive this long? If it just could have been me instead of you who got swallowed up for fourteen years, maybe I wouldn't have needed to ever build these walls around me. Maybe then…maybe then…"
She trailed off, and Shinji still said nothing. He just continued to hold her there, listening to her every emotion spilling out at once, disjointed, confused and unyielding. He could tell how much she needed this. And as much as it scared him to admit, he knew he needed it too. There had been so much he had wanted to say to her the first time he'd seen her after waking up. But then he'd noticed the wall that had come up between them, made all the more clear by the one made of glass that Asuka had struck with her fist. And he knew just how far away he was from everyone, how much of a stranger he was to them now. He felt like he had no place among them.
But things were different now. He had been accepted amongst them once more. Forgiven if not forgotten. And now they were planning to plunge into the void once more.
What could they possibly be thinking?
"I never understood how I fit into any of this, Asuka," Shinji said gently, breaking the silence. "You, you always seemed to know exactly what you were, exactly what you wanted to do. And I envied that. I wished I could be more like that. More like you."
Asuka didn't respond. She didn't lift her head from his shoulder either.
"But for all that…even after everything I did…you never gave up on me," he said simply, squeezing her tighter. "You had every reason to just leave me behind. You were more than capable of doing it."
Asuka still did not stir.
"But you didn't…" he sighed. "You gave me more chances than I ever deserved. To this day, I don't know what you saw in me…but you must have seen something to make you think I was worth your time."
Asuka lifted her head, her one good eye red, and looked at him.
"It may take me the rest of my life to find out what that is," he said with a sad smile. "But I know I'll find it eventually. If you saw it, then I know it's there. It has to be."
She just continued to gaze at him, as if looking for something in his eyes.
"So I'm not giving up," he said simply. "Not on myself. And certainly not on you."
Finally, a smile appeared on her face, as she wiped one last tear from her eye.
"I swear, you say the corniest things sometimes," she said in a voice that was half laugh, half whimper.
Shinji shrugged helplessly.
Asuka seemed only then to notice that he still had his arms wrapped around her, and her cheeks colored slightly as she looked down. Mari would have had a field day if she had caught them doing something like this. But despite herself, Asuka had to admit that she didn't really want this moment to end. It wasn't often that Shinji manned up enough to do something this bold. And now that they were here, she was surprised to realize just how much she had missed him these past fourteen years.
Maybe this time, things might be different.
Maybe this time, she just might have enough courage to-
"Captain!" a familiar voice came from behind her.
The two of them separated almost instantly as they both flailed in response to the intrusion. Shinji's face was beat red, but Asuka looked like she was ready to bite the head off of whoever had interrupted them.
"This had better be important, Lieutenant," she growled at Sakura, who was sticking her head out from the hatch behind them.
"You're both needed on base," Sakura said, her expression no-nonsense. "Dr. Akagi needs to brief you about the operation."
The pilots were all staring up at a dormant Eva Series, recovered from one of their many, many battles, hanging suspended on a black cross just above the ground, outside the JA-Heavy Armor launch bay of Outpost Zion. Two reinforced steel tethers held the crucifix aloft from one of the base's gigantic steel cranes, as many more held the beast affixed to the cross. Its eyes were hidden behind an unlit dark mask, its face a grim replica of the Eva it was designed to emulate. While the Doctor assured the pilots that it posed no threat, having faced these enemies non-stop for the past two months, the scene was a daunting one, and left everyone feeling uneasy around the colossal corpse.
Facing the Eva Series was a steel track made from the slingshot that WILLE had used to mount Operation US when they retrieved Unit 01 from space. Instead of a spacecraft mounted on the slingshot, however, there was a wicked and, for some, familiar looking yellow trimmed weapon.
"A Magorox sword?" Asuka asked out loud, giving the giant blade an appraising look. "Didn't we determine that those weapons were ineffective against AT Fields?"
"We did, and they are," Ritsuko said, concentrating on the readout before her. The lot of them were safe behind an enclosed barrier inside the launch bay, with a plexiglass window allowing them to see what was happening outside the base. "That was until we tried to outfit one with its own micro-core."
"Micro-core?" Asuka asked.
"A super-condensed Eva core, salvaged from the Eva Series," Ritsuko replied. "It lends the weapon properties similar to an AT Field."
Everyone exchanged an odd look at that. Was this phase one of the operation?
"Magorox?" Shinji whispered in question to Mari.
"Magoroku Exterminate Sword," Mari explained. "Named for the Japanese swordsmith Kanemoto Magoroku. Don't you know your own country's history?"
Shinji gave her a sour look. "Swords aren't really my thing."
While they spoke, Ritsuko leaned in to speak into the microphone on the console in front of her.
"Initiate power-up sequence to Eva Series Mark.06-2579," she said. "Sub-systems only, if you don't mind."
The pilots all exchanged a nervous glance as a droning voice over the PA system in the background announced the progression of each successive phase of the test in progress. Why in the world was she trying to reactivate one of the captured Evas?
"Bring its AT Field to ready-status and stand by," she continued. "Begin power-up sequence for the Magorox Type-2."
The air in front of the fallen Eva began to shimmer as its AT Field hummed to life, and even off in the distance, the shimmering of the air surrounding the prototype sword could also be seen.
Suddenly the Eva Series' eyes lit up, and the beast let out an enraged roar as it suddenly began to tug at its restraints.
"Dr. Akagi!" Shinji shouted in alarm.
"Hmm…that was quicker than expected," Ritsuko said calmly as she leaned into the microphone again. "Skip the auxiliary systems check and begin the test proper. Scramble the countdown."
Despite the Evas activity, Ritsuko not appear worried as she returned her gaze to the pilots.
"The base's Cassius weapon is on standby in case of a break-out. But I doubt we'll need it."
She punctuated the thought by motioning out the window towards the sword at the end of the catapult.
In the background, the voice over the PA counted down.
The hydraulic unit in the ship catapult sprang into action, accelerating the sled down the track, carrying its prototype weapon with it towards the raging beast. The Eva Unit struggled against its restraints, several of them snapping under the duress. Another minute or so, and it would have broken free.
Except it didn't even have five seconds.
With a deafening boom, the catapult thudded to a halt at the end of its track, sending the sword flying forward, straight towards the Evas chest with enough force to send a rocket ship into space. There was a sickening sound as it rent flesh and bone, before a loud CLANG as the tip embedded itself into the cross behind it.
The Eva let out one last scream of pain, before its eyes dimmed and it fell silent. It lay prostate on the cross, impaled by the Magorox Type-2 sword, its core liquefying in its stomach, pierced by the blade. Its body was soon to follow, turning a sickening red, before crumbling to powdery pieces from its sacrificial altar, leaving the crucifix and sword behind.
All four pilots stared in bewilderment. WILLE had just destroyed an Eva. Not just shut down or paralyzed, but utterly destroyed it. Without the use of another Eva.
This changed the game entirely.
Ritsuko turned to the others, watching with no small amount of pleasure as the reality of their situation sunk in.
"The test results are conclusive, then," she said with a nod. "Be ready to mobilize by six hundred hours tomorrow. Unit 08+02 will use the Magorox Type-2 weapon to neutralize any and all enemy resistance it encounters during Operation Kanazuchi."
Asuka, who had a delighted smile on her face ever since she had seen a sword utterly liquefy an enemy Eva, couldn't resist the urge to punch her fist into the palm of her hand.
"'Operation Hammer,'" she grinned. "I like it."
Shinji blinked, looking confused. "Why is it called Operation Hammer if we're going to be using a sword?"
Ritsuko let out a small chuckle. "Oh, don't worry Shinji. Misato's on the horn with Kaji about the hammer."
Asuka's eyebrows rose. "Kaji? What's his role in all this?"
Ritsuko's smile widened as she watched the WILLE technicians pry the Magorox sword from the cross it had impaled.
"He's going to be in charge of phase two."
Kaji tapped his foot as he stared at Misato's face on the screen of his private study, arms crossed with an unhappy look on his face. Contrary to her previous appearance of stone cold aloofness, this Misato had what appeared to be an adrenaline fueled smirk on her face, as if she knew she was about to do something crazy.
It was a look Kaji knew quite well.
"So, what's this about now, Katsuragi?" he asked, feigning disinterest.
Below his feet, Maya and a crew of WILLE technicians were busy installing the latest in just over a dozen modifications to his facility. His and his crew's movement had been so restricted from the quarantined areas that he had to circumnavigate a very large portion of the base just to get from his quarters to the operation's center every morning now!
"You've made your point, alright?" he said, before she could answer. "You own my ass, and there's nothing I can do here without your say-so. No need to rub it in."
Misato seemed amused by this. "Actually, Kaji, I wanted to apologize."
Kaji uncrossed his arms, his eyes unblinking. He hadn't heard her use his name for nearly a decade! And had she just said she wanted to apologize? This, he had not expected at all.
"Naraka is located so close to NERV headquarters that I couldn't trust anyone with what we were doing there," she explained. "It wasn't personal."
Kaji raised an eyebrow. "So why did you make it seem so personal?"
"Perfect cover, don't you think?" Misato shrugged. "I bet your men couldn't resist spreading all sorts of unfounded gossip since we started working here."
Kaji wrinkled his nose. He didn't want to admit it, but he couldn't deny it either.
"Anyway, I'm sorry for keeping you in the dark," Misato continued, unabated. "But it's a moot point now - we're moving out, and we need you to mobilize Outpost Naraka. Lieutenant Commander Ibuki has been dispatched to oversee operations. She should have brought you a briefing."
Kaji nodded at the large tome on his desk, laden with "For Your Eyes Only" stickers.
"Katsuragi," he said, slowly taking in the situation. "You know my men here are always ready for a fight, but…unless you've been shipping over JA Heavy Armor Units under my nose, Naraka is in no shape to offer any kind of support if you mean to move against NERV directly."
Misato's smile widened.
"You may want to give that briefing of yours a closer look, Warrant Officer."
Kaji raised an eyebrow, before picking up his briefing and thumbing through a few pages.
His eyes got a little wider.
And then a little more.
And a little more after that.
By the time he set the briefing back down on his desk, he was staring at Misato's face in stupefaction.
"Katsuragi…" he breathed in disbelief. "Are you yanking my chain?"
Misato's smile widened even more.
"Like I said, Kaji," she grinned. "I need you to mobilize Outpost Naraka."
To be continued…