Three years later…
The capital city of Zion was a bustling place. Where once had been little more than a glorified refugee camp now stood the center of human civilization on Earth. Buildings had sprouted up from where the military complex had been as humanity expanded ever outward. The six other major outposts of WILLE had similarly sprouted into capitals of industry, commerce and growth. Hydroponic power plants began cropping up everywhere across the unpopulated lands to feed off the energy of the sun to produce food and electricity, as machines worked tirelessly to ensure the water was drinkable, the air breathable, and slowly but surely reclaim the Earth that had been stolen from humanity.
This explosion of growth had been a long time coming, and the human race was eager to expand ever outward, tackling the process of rebuilding with innovation, industriousness and courage. Even as the cities grew under the careful eye of WILLE, crops of human populations began to spring out of the woodwork, building their own habitats from here, thither and yon. It seemed that everywhere, refugees and other survivors were establishing themselves, trying once again to live off the land.
That was not to say there were no hardships. Now that NERV was gone, WILLE's unofficial authority over the world had come under contest, and many factions had risen up that outright opposed WILLE's leadership. Colonel Katsuragi had made it clear that WILLE intended to establish an interim government, and step down from command as soon as possible. Nevertheless, raids and piracy soon sprang up from many of the conflicting factions, and WILLE was hard pressed to keep the peace. While the tenacity and resourcefulness of man was profound, sometimes even the boldest needed a little help sometimes.
Which is where Asuka and Mari came in.
"Recovery One, this is Recovery Actual, what's your status - over?" came Misato's static filled voice over the transistor radio inside the VTOL.
Asuka's left eye was a pale, pale blue, but for all that, had been functioning more or less normally for the last three years. All traces of angelic contamination had disappeared the day the Black Moon was destroyed, as had the Eva Series. She had not set foot in an Evangelion since then, and still she looked no older than fourteen. Dr. Akagi had assured her that the effects of the LCL stagnation would wear off eventually, but having spent over a decade bathing herself in the essence of Angels inside her Eva, the effects were still being felt long after the fact. Mari, her co-pilot, had fared no better, though she seemed to be taking it a lot better than Asuka had been. As Mari put it, she never intended to grow up anyway. But as far as Asuka was concerned, she just wanted to get on with her life.
"This is Recovery One," Mari picked up the radio and spoke into it. "We're approaching the drop-zone. ETA about five minutes - over."
Their VTOL continued to fly unencumbered over what had once been Indian airspace. The two of them were wearing WILLE issued flight suits, the same gray-green jumpsuit, minus the flak jacket and plus one full body harness. Asuka did not take her hands off the flight controls, and kept her eyes on the skyline in front of her, while her co-pilot sitting next to her handled communications, which was fine with her. She had been doing a lot of thinking lately, had grown much more withdrawn, and tended to avoid talking to people as much as possible anymore. So letting Mari handle that bit suited her just fine.
Still, there was a job to do, and she was still a Captain, and was fully certified to operate several classes of aircraft. So she and Mari had decided to put their skills to good use in the recovery effort. With the survivors and refugees all lining up to take jobs as unskilled laborers working in fields and factories and power plants, WILLE was hard pressed for people with the kind of skills only years of training and experience could produce.
So here they were, sailing across the world on one of WILLE's last remaining carriers, the Over The Rainbow, along with Misato and Ritsuko and many other members of the force, while the provisional government ran things back at Zion. The recovery effort was a good way of getting the familiar faces of WILLE out of the public sphere for a while, get them back in the field where they were most suited, and extended an olive branch to all the factions by offering their services to all pockets of human life, whether they supported WILLE or not. It had taken a great effort, but the action had managed to quiet many of the dissenting factions, allowing progress to continue.
"Roger Recovery One," Misato's voice droned over the radio. "Report in if you need anything - over."
Mari thumbed the radio. "Will do, Colonel. Over and out."
She switched off the radio and sighed. All their high tech gear had been stripped out to go towards the rebuilding efforts, so they were stuck with whatever could be spared. The aircraft carrier Over the Rainbow on which they had sailed in lay somewhere out in the Arabian Sea, and was the oldest ship in their fleet. They were flying in one of the few VTOL craft they had on board, and Mari was honestly surprised that none of them were propeller powered.
"Ahh…" Mari sighed as she leaned back, stretching in a cat-like fashion. "What is this, our sixth run? This mission's getting pretty boring if you ask me."
Asuka didn't feel the need to respond, and continued to concentrate on flying.
"You mind if I put on some music or something?" she asked. "The silence is killing me."
Asuka rolled her eyes. Always with Mari and her music.
"Sure, go ahead," she said, noncommittally.
Mari reached into the jacket pocket of her WILLE flight suit and pulled out a familiar looking mp3 player. Shinji had left it in his bunk, and Sakura had not wanted it back after what had happened. She plugged it into a pair of speakers that were literally affixed to the corners of the VTOL's cabin with duct tape. She then thumbed the play button.
Asuka closed her eyes. She had known what Mari intended to play, but she winced it nonetheless.
"Did you have to pick this song?" she asked in a tired voice as a familiar piano concerto filled the cabin.
Mari had a wry smile on her face. "This piece of music was made to bring joy, Princess."
Asuka did not feel like arguing. She did not feel like doing much of anything these days. Her Eva was gone - all S2 cores had systematically died after the Black Moon had been destroyed. It seemed that their power was linked somehow. Every Eva, friendly or hostile, shut down as a result, and gradually reverted back to core material. So had the thirteen cores within the Naraka, though Kaji had enjoyed the experience of commanding a mobile battle station so much, he managed to convince the Colonel to install a set of heavy treads on the Naraka to allow it to traverse the terrain around Zion. It made for an effective defense and relay station, and managed to deter any would-be pirates or raiders.
Still, a VTOL was a poor substitute for an Evangelion. It was like being stuck back into a JA Heavy Armor, only worse. Asuka knew there was no point moping about it. If the price of ending the war was losing her Eva, that was fine with her. But that did not change the fact that she would miss it.
There were some things that she would never stop missing.
"Not talking about it won't make it go away," Mari chimed in.
Asuka had expected a comment like that and just sighed.
"I've already said everything there is to say," she said simply. "It's time I dropped it and moved on."
Mari shrugged as she looked out the window at the Indian landscape below. They were flying over dry, cracked and muddy badlands, but farther inland was the Indus valley river, and a small settlement that had sprung up in the last year. They were surviving on whatever technology and resources had been left behind, and WILLE's mission here was to deliver vital supplies such as food, water, and medicine, anything they could easily obtain or synthesize. Their destination boasted a population of about three hundred people. Their VTOL's storage container contained enough rations and supplies to last them for about a year.
"Maybe part of you doesn't want to move on," she suggested.
Asuka knew that in another life, she would have lost her temper by now. But it just didn't feel worth the effort.
"That part of me can shrivel up and die, for all I care," she said nonchalantly.
Mari frowned. She had gotten so used to being able to get under Asuka's skin so easily, and now…
"Recovery One, be advised," Misato's voice sounded over the radio. "We are reading some strange electromagnetic signals in your area. Be on the lookout for anything suspicious. No telling when some group of raiders will get a little too desperate - over."
Mari grabbed the radio and made a face.
"Colonel, don't you know that attitude is what got us in trouble with the factions in the first place - over?"
She looked at Asuka for a reaction, but was again disappointed.
"I don't give a damn about being politically correct out here," Misato chided. "We've lost two shipments in as many days, so be - ZZZSSSHHHK!"
The radio cut to static.
"Could you repeat that, Colonel?" Mari called back. "I didn't copy."
That's when the VTOL suddenly rocked as all of its electronic equipment short circuited, the out-dated instruments on the dashboard sparking and frying.
"EMP!" Asuka cried, gripping the control stick with all her might as the ship began to descend. "We've lost power!"
"Are we under attack!?" Mari cried, shielding her face from the crackling dashboard. "The raiders have never used anything this advanced before!"
Asuka gritted her teeth as she struggled with the controls as the ship began to plummet. "Rrrrrrgh! Damn it, we're going down!"
"Hang on!" Mari said, clamoring into the rear of the ship as the craft rattled and bucked.
"What are you doing!?" Asuka demanded as the ground began to approach them.
"These older models used to have a manual restart back here somewhere!" Mari explained breathlessly as the craft shook as she climbed up the now inclining slope of the aircraft's floor.
Asuka continued to wrestle with the controls, watching the ground get closer and closer. "No time! I'm gonna have to put her down the old fashioned way!"
The VTOL had almost no wings to glide with, and without power, the controls had very little control over the ship's axis of incline. They were pointed almost straight down as the VTOL plummeted towards the ground.
When Mari didn't respond, Asuka began to panic.
"Four-Eyes!" she cried out. "Strap yourself into something! We're coming in hot!"
Then suddenly the engines kicked on and Asuka felt her stomach lurch as her control stick suddenly yanked itself forward.
"Rrrrrgh!" she grunted, yanking the stick back, aiming their jets downward as the ground came up to greet them. "Come on!"
They were still coming in way to fast, and all their instruments were still fried. The dry, cracked badlands were getting awfully close as Asuka fought tooth and nail to keep the airship steady and level their descent. It seemed they were destined to hit the ground, but Asuka was determined to soften the landing as much as she could before…
Then the world suddenly got brighter as something massive fell from the sky. The clouds all rushed apart as what looked like a meteor suddenly plummeted to the Earth at colossal speeds. It was enormous in size, burning as brightly as the sun, and terrifyingly close to where their VTOL had been flying. And as it passed by overhead, Asuka's eyes widened in shock as she watched the flaming mass descend.
That's what had caused the EMP, Asuka realized! The electrostatic discharge from a hunk of space metal would have been enough to knock out anything electronic for miles in every direction! But the more she studied the object as it fell, the more she thought that the shape looked a little too distinctive for a random falling object. Falling debris from the skies had been a reality ever since Third Impact had knocked out almost all satellites. But most of them burned to a crisp before impacting, and those that survived were usually ground smooth upon reentry. This one looked like it was still retaining its shape, not to mention its solar sails, which was very odd, as anything that flimsy was usually the first thing to go. Yet this satellite retained a very distinctive cross-shape as it fell.
Almost bird-like in appearance…
Asuka was thrown against her safety harness as the VTOL hit the dry, muddy dirt below, impacting roughly, kicking up dust and debris, and probably ruining its landing gear but otherwise remaining relatively intact for a crash landing. The aircraft skidded to a halt as its engines powered down, a trail of dust blowing over them from their own impact.
Mari coughed and sputtered as she unfastened her safety harness in the back seat and climbed up towards the main cabin.
"Phew!" she gasped in exhilaration, wiping her glasses clean of the dust. "Well, that happened! I knew you could get us down in one piece, Princess! I wonder how our cargo fared…"
She paused her thought as she arrived at the main cabin. Asuka was nowhere to be found. And the pilot-side hatch was swinging open.
"Princess?" Mari called out inquisitively, climbing out of the VTOL and out into the dusty badlands, shielding her eyes from the clouds of dried clay that were still swirling around their crash site.
She had to squint, but she could just make out the shape of Asuka's fleeing form as she hurried off towards a plume of smoke that Mari had not seen earlier.
Something must have hit the Earth, she realized. Her eyes widened as her mind went over the possibilities.
"Colonel," she spoke into her walkie-talkie. "This is Recovery One. Do you copy?"
There was dead silence on the other end. The EMP must have shorted out everything, even their personal communication devices. Mari spat out a wad of dust that had been accumulating in her mouth as she looked up at the huge plume of smoke. With a smoke trail that high, it was impossible that the Over The Rainbow could have missed it from the sea. There would be rescue craft here eventually, she determined.
Her sense of security satisfied, but her curiosity far from sated, she grabbed an emergency survival pack and rushed off after Asuka towards where the column of smoke touched down.
It was at least a mile before they managed to get a glimpse of the wreckage. Mari had caught up with Asuka easily enough - at least she had thought ahead enough to bring a survival pack of her own - but the hot, dry air deterred either of them from prolonged conversation. They had to stop for water twice, before they reached the smoking husk of the wreckage.
It did not look good at first. It had apparently broken off into at least a dozen pieces, scattered across an area of several kilometers. But as the two girls neared one of the broken pieces, they realized that it looked vaguely human in shape, despite being the size of a building.
Evas. The pieces that had fallen off were Evas. About a dozen of them, all replicas of the Mark.06, and all seemingly composed of dark red core material.
WILLE would be here soon enough to inspect the Evas themselves. Asuka and Mari were not interested in the Evas. Their attention was focused on the heart of the crash site, the flaming carcass of the Wunder that had descended to Earth like a firebird from the skies. It lay torn and broken, but still relatively intact, though its flying days were clearly over.
And there, protected within the skeleton of its rib cage, was Unit 01.
Asuka broke into a desperate run, leaving Mari to catch up to her. The ground beneath her crushed to dust beneath her feet and she staggered through it, before reaching the charred earth where the Wunder lay lopsided and burning. Her eyes remained on Unit 01, its violet armor unblemished from the fall, its pristine form emerging as if reborn from the ashes of a phoenix.
The metal surface of the Evangelion was still blisteringly hot and her polyester flight gloves and rubber boots sizzled as she climbed. But that didn't stop her from scaling the Evas body to reach the emergency entry plug hatch. She pried off the protective plating over the control panel on the Evas shoulder, before slamming her fist into the big red button that she found.
Unit 01's entry hatch blew off in a cloud of steam, and the entry plug itself extended from the back of the Evas neck, spraying LCL in four directions. Asuka knew that she probably should have let Dr. Akagi or someone with an understanding of advanced bio-mechanics take care of this, but she didn't care.
She had to know.
She had to see.
Her gloves burned to a crisp as she pried the entry plug hatch lever, and the skin on her hands began to swelter, but she didn't care. She twisted the latch until the entry hatch finally popped open, and she scrambled in to find whoever was inside.
And for the first time in three years, Asuka Shikinami began to weep.
"Name?" Sakura asked.
The man in the hospital bed looked somewhat bewildered.
"Uh, Toshiro Yamada," he responded, absently.
Sakura scribbled the name onto a clipboard.
"Date of birth?" she asked.
"July twenty-eighth, nineteen eighty-two," he responded.
Sakura raised an eyebrow. The man before her didn't look like he was nearing fifty. If anything, he looked closer to thirty.
"Can you tell me what year it is?" she asked, curiously.
He blinked, looking more confused than ever. "Um…2015…isn't it?"
Sakura's eyes widened as she scribbled down some notes.
"Interesting…" she said. "Sir, can you describe the last thing you remember?"
She was currently in the triage center that WILLE had erected around the crash site of the Wunder. A dozen beds had been laid out under a long tarp to shield from the elements. Her and the rest of Operation Recovery had been dispatched to the site moments after the crash to assess the situation. Once the rust red Eva Series had been inspected, it had been discovered that there were people in the entry plugs! Not pilots, no one wearing anything like an entry plug. Just ordinary, everyday civilians. Yamada was the second patient Sakura had tended to out here, and they had both told her the same thing.
They all had no memories after 2015.
Specifically, the day of Third Impact.
"My name is Yoko Sadamoto."
"Date of birth?"
"March twenty-third, nineteen ninety-one."
"Can you tell me what year it is?"
"Not quite. Can you describe the last thing you remember, ma'am?"
She had wanted to see who was recovered from Unit 01 as soon as she got there, but Dr. Akagi had insisted on performing a gauntlet of tests before anyone else saw either of them. So Sakura went about her duties of tallying down the information of the civilians that they had managed to recover from the entry plugs of the Eva Series that now littered the ground. And as she did, she tried not to imagine what kind of shape Shinji and Rei might be in. But on the other hand, maybe once all the patients were interviewed, they could finally figure out how they had all gotten there to begin with.
"Date of birth?"
"I was born November eleventh, nineteen eighty-seven."
"Can you tell me what year it is?"
"Is this some kind of trick? It's 2015."
"I'm afraid not, ma'am. Can you describe the last thing you remember?"
Reports were coming in from all over the world now about Evas falling from the sky, and already more people had been found within their carapaces, and WILLE was rushing to respond to them all. By the time Sakura's transport had landed at the Wunder's crash site, over two hundred reports had come in, with more arriving by the minute. Sakura had a feeling that as soon as they were done here, she would be whisked away to attend to another battery of patients recovered from those entry plugs as well. That was, if they managed to recover them all. Most were landing in the oceans, and WILLE was having a tough time devising a method to recover them. Their fleet had very few submarines anymore.
One thing at a time, she thought to herself as she moved onto the next patient.
"Name?" she asked without even looking down at them.
"Huh?" came a voice from the past. "Oh, uh, Toji Suzuhara."
A number of heads turned at the sound of the clipboard in Sakura's hands falling to the floor as she stared down wide-eyed at the boy in the hospital bed.
A theory had already been forming in her head of just why all these people only remembered their lives up until Third Impact. She had wanted to run her theory by Dr. Akagi to see what she thought about the data. Maybe run some tests to determine if these people really were who they said they were. But now? Not only did she have living, breathing proof that she was right, but the subject was her own brother!
What were the odds!? Of all the souls to be plucked from the Black Moon, what were the odds that the Evangelions would have picked him? Had his life essence been drawn to Shinji or something, or was this just a freak coincidence? It didn't make any sense! He couldn't be here! She had built up her entire foundation on his memory, on his absence. All she knew from her experiences thus far was that life was a tragedy. What had started with a broken leg from the first Eva battle had spiraled downward into a series of unfortunate events culminating in her enlisting into WILLE. She was used to being handed misfortune at every turn, and had become rather adept at taking life's hardships in stride, putting on a happy face even when the world was unfair.
Because world was unfair! That was how things were! Life didn't just hand you your long lost brother after ten years of tragedy! She simply wasn't prepared for the Gods of fate to bestow upon her such an act of generosity, and certainly not in this manner!
But here he was, gaping up at her, seemingly just as surprised as she was.
"Sakura!?" he blurted in astonishment. "What the hell happened to ya!? How did ya get so old!?"
Sakura couldn't respond. She couldn't speak. She could hardly breathe. She was just waiting to wake up, waiting for someone to tap her on the shoulder and rouse her from her daydream. But as her brother continued to stare up at her with an astonished face, all she could do was collapse to her knees and throw her arms around him, sobbing into his hospital gown.
"Toji!" she cried, clutching him tightly as she wept.
His eyes widened as she collapsed on top of him, taking her into his arms.
"Whoa, hey, it's alright," he said instinctively. "I'm here, alright? Everything's gonna be fine."
Sakura didn't respond. She couldn't. She just kept sobbing as she held him tightly in her arms, not wanting to let go. She just didn't know what else to do.
The other orderlies had to assume her duties for the day. None of them seemed to mind.
Shinji was adrift in a sea of thought where time had no meaning. Every so often, he thought he had caught glimpses of people he'd known at various points in his life, but none of them seemed inclined to linger. At one point, he had been certain that he'd heard Toji's voice, but he hadn't been able to conjure a face from the void.
Then, suddenly, there was a light - and it was as is that light brought with it time and meaning, like jump starting an engine. Suddenly, his material, earthly concerns mattered once again, and he became aware that his throat was incredibly sore, very thirsty, and that it was somewhat difficult to breathe. There was a dull pain in his left arm as well.
When Shinji's eyes finally flickered open, an expectant redhead was there to greet him. He had thought he had glimpsed her so many times before, that he couldn't be sure he wasn't still dreaming.
"Asuka…?" he breathed in a cracked voice.
She took a breath, before turning her head to the side to talk to somebody else.
"How are his vitals?" she asked, academically.
"He's stable, if that's what you're asking," a voice that sounded like Ritsuko's came from off to the side somewhere. "But I wouldn't suggest-"
Ritsuko's voice trailed off as Shinji suddenly felt a strong pair of hands grab him by the collar and lift him upright!
"Hurk!" he gasped, his eyes widening as his vision spun and he suddenly felt like he'd been kicked in the stomach. "Ah…ah…Asuka…?"
"You!" she glowered in an accusatory voice. "What do you have to say for yourself!?"
Shinji was seeing stars, and couldn't even begin to answer.
"Ugh…uh…I…" he stammered, finding it somewhat difficult to breathe.
"All I get is a lousy apology!?" she demanded, glaring at him, red faced, tears in her eyes. "You've got some nerve, Shinji! I swear, if you ever try to pull anything like that again, so help me, I'll…I'll…!"
Shnji winced in pain and shock. The last thing he could remember is drifting through space, awaiting the inevitable embrace of death. But he now found himself in the clutches of something far more terrifying.
"I…I…" he stammered, unable to even put this thoughts together.
"I don't want to hear it!" Asuka cut him off, holding him by the collar of his hospital gown in both hands, her eyes still moist. "You've got a lot to answer for, Shinji! And I fully expect you to make this up to me!"
Shinji winced as she brought his face up to hers, her bi-chromatic blue eyes locking with his.
"Starting with this."
Then she mashed her lips into his own as hard as she could.
Shinji very nearly passed out right there and then. He had been struggling up until that moment, but in a breath, his entire will to resist simply disintegrated within the kiss. He was already too dizzy to sit up straight, and the combination of the shift in blood-flow and lack of oxygen brought on by the kiss caused him to see stars all over again.
He was dead, he decided. That was the only logical conclusion. He must have died. This was what the afterlife was like.
He could get used to it.
"Hmmm," Misato's voice sounded from somewhere in the room. "This just got interesting."
Asuka released her lip-lock with the boy, glaring back at the room's occupants with a challenging look. Misato looked thoroughly amused, Ritsuko was attempting to focus her attention anywhere but on the two of them, and Mari looked like she was pouring every ounce of her willpower into not squealing at the top of her lungs.
And in the hospital bed adjacent to Shinji's was a thin, short blue-haired girl with red eyes, lying flat on her back with her head turned towards them and giving the two of them a peculiar look.
Rei Ayanami. She seemed to have returned to her usual look. Hopefully that would be the end of that.
"You guys got a problem?" Asuka demanded from everyone.
Misato held her hands up in a 'don't look at me' gesture with a smirk on her face, and Mari was squirming in scarcely contained excitement as a high pitched giggle that came out more like a squeak escaped from her clenched lips.
"Well, I might have a problem, if you end up killing my patient," Ritsuko cut in sardonically, placing a gentle but insistent hand on Asuka's shoulder, urging her to let the boy go.
Shinji slumped back down onto the hospital bed, slowly regaining his senses as he stared up at the top of the hermetically sealed plastic tent, which was brightly lit by what seemed to be sunlight through the translucent tarp overhead. There was an IV tube running into his arm, which explained the dull throbbing he felt earlier.
He looked up at Asuka, and was surprised when he suddenly realized that her eye-patch was gone! And her left eye was now a snowy blue, the color of summer clouds reflecting the sky. And despite the anger and hurt on her face, there was such a look of relief in her eyes that left no question about how she felt.
He saw Misato and Ritsuko in the room as well, and they both looked happy to see him, if somewhat hesitant to get between him and Asuka. Mari was there too, still giggling in uncontrolled mirth.
But when he glanced to the side, his heart nearly stopped.
There was Rei, staring back at him with an inquisitive look from another hospital bed. Only, she no longer had black hair or black eyes anymore - instead, her hair had gone back to a familiar shade of blue, and her eyes were once again a deep, vibrant red! She looked just like her old self!
"Rei…?" he breathed, before coughing, his throat sore and dry from what he would later learn was a feeding tube.
She did not lift her head, but continued to stare at him with wide, curious eyes.
"Shinji," she responded without moving. "Are we dead?"
He honestly wasn't sure how to answer her.
"No," Ritsuko answered for him. "You two are still very much alive. Malnourished and dehydrated, but alive. Human beings can only subsist on pure LCL for so long."
Shinji just blinked in confusion.
"That was a pretty crazy stunt you two pulled," Misato commented, crossing her arms. "But we all knew that there were more variables in that plan than there were constants, and most of them were completely up in the air. No pun intended."
Shinji fixed Misato with a confused stare. Had she just made a joke? How long had it been since he'd seen her express any form of levity?
"The Wunder's AT Fields had never received a real stress test since it acquired nearly two dozen extra cores," Ritsuko went on. "So really, if it was possible to generate enough lift to carry the entire Black Moon off planet, who's to say it wouldn't also be strong enough to stave off a detonation like the one it caused when it exploded? Even if it had to place you two into a form of hibernation in order to do so. Like the human brain when it doesn't get enough oxygen - it slowly shuts off everything but the most absolutely vital functions. And in the case of the Wunder, that was you two. The Wunder not only died to save you two, but if initial testing can be believed, it's been dead ever since the Black Moon was destroyed, keeping unit 01, and more importantly, the two of you, alive and preserved inside its remains."
"But…what happened to Rei?" he asked, flabbergasted.
"That, we're still scratching our heads over," Misato shrugged, looking at Ritsuko, who looked just as helpless.
"I can only surmise that whatever had been done to you has been reversed, Rei," she said, addressing the girl herself. "You may still be feeling some residual effects, but this is the form that your body seems to have remembered. With the collapse of the Dummy Plugs, there is no trace of any odd neurological or physiological activity within your body whatsoever. You probably absorbed more than you were supposed to during Operation Kanazuchi, but seeing as the Wunder was serving as the incubator in which Unit 01 metabolized and processed the core matter that you took in, it's not unreasonable to think that it could just as easily allow for an outflow as well. In fact, it was probably this surplus of core matter that allowed you both to survive out in space for as long as you did. You were essentially feeding off the essence of Evangelion for three years."
Shinji paled. "Three years!?"
Misato nodded. "Three years, Shinji. A lot's been happening while you were gone. NERV is gone, the human race is on the rise once again, and there's not a single functioning Evangelion in existence anymore."
Ritsuko sighed. "Except for Unit 01, that is. We still haven't tested to see if it runs yet."
Misato rolled her eyes in exasperation. "One thing at a time, please."
Shinji's head was still spinning at the idea that he and Rei had actually survived! He had fully expected to never see anyone in this room again! He looked back and forth at everyone, feeling like if he didn't take in as much as he could, he would lose them all over again.
"What's the matter, Shinji?" Mari chimed in. "Cat got your tongue? Or was that the Princess' doing?"
Several sets of eyes rolled at that, and Asuka fixed the bespectacled girl with an annoyed scowl, though Shinji found himself blushing.
"Aww, poor Shinji!" Mari smirked, batting her eyelashes at him. "Was that your first kiss?"
Shinji paled suddenly. He knew it was a mistake before he even felt his eyes move, but he just couldn't stop himself from furtively glanced towards Rei's blue haired, red-eyed and ever curious face in the other bed.
That was all it took.
"Wait, what!?" Asuka demanded in outrage, looking back and forth between Shinji and Rei. "Her!? Isn't she, like, your sister or something!?"
"I…I…" Shinji paled, completely overwhelmed.
Mari giggled with delight at the drama. There were few things she found quite as juicy as a love triangle.
"Oh, I'd reckon they're more like cousins at most!" she asserted for no other reason than the sake of argument, glancing at Ritsuko as if to seek confirmation. "I mean, come on, there's enough Angel blood in her to qualify her as an alien at this point."
The close-cut blonde doctor simply held her hands up, wide-eyed, as if to say that there was no way she was going to go anywhere near this discussion.
"I am not an alien," Rei asserted quietly. "However Makinami's first assessment was fairly accurate. Shinji and I would share about as much genetic composition as would two cousins."
"Even so, that's gross!" Asuka wrinkled her nose at Shinji. "What kind of sick pervert are you?"
"I…I…" Shinji stammered again, blushing furiously.
"Cousins are legal in Japan, aren't they?" Mari asked unhelpfully, a cat-like smirk on her face.
"Why are you defending this!?" Asuka demanded back at her, flabbergasted.
"Nya!" Mari giggled, shying away from her.
Ritsuko cleared her throat, deciding to put a lid on this little reunion before it got out of hand.
"Alright, alright, that's enough you two," she said sternly. "Now I have to ask that you both clear out and let my patients got some rest."
Mari and Asuka were reluctantly ushered out of the sterile white medical tent, but not before Asuka fixed Shinji with a look that promised that she wasn't anywhere near done talking with him, and that she would be back to finish the discussion later, among other things.
Shinji could only offer a hopeful smile and wave in return. When she turned to leave, however, he suddenly noticed the bandages around her hands. He felt an unfamiliar feeling well up inside him, and he had to wipe a tear from his eyes.
It couldn't have been Asuka herself who had pried him lose from the entry plug.
After they were out of sight, he cast a curious glance back to Rei, who returned his gaze with equal curiosity. Though whether that curiosity stemmed from their own continued existence or the sight of Asuka kissing him, no one could say.
Misato remained in the tent with them, and Ritsuko gave the Colonel a fatigued sigh.
"You too, Captain," she said more gently. "I have to insist."
Misato nodded. "Alright, just give me a minute…"
She stepped over to Shinji's bedside and slipped a hand into his, giving it a long, hard squeeze.
"Shinji…" she sighed, a heavyhearted smile on her face, a look of peace in her eyes that Shinji hadn't seen in a long, long time.
He tried his best to squeeze her hand in return. "I know, Misato…it was a crazy plan, and we shouldn't have pulled something so risky."
She shook her head. "Shinji…feel the skin around your neck."
Confused, Shinji brought his hands up to his neckline.
And then froze.
The DSS choker was gone!
The tears finally came as Misato smiled down at him, a proud and grateful smile on her face.
"You did it, Shinji," she breathed. "You really did it."
Shinji's chest felt light and fluttery as his heart began to pound. Tears began to flow down his face as well, and his breathing hitched with too many emotions to bear. He slumped back down as his eyes shut, full of tears, and his body was suddenly seized with painful sobs of laughter.
It was over! It was finally over! NERV was really gone, the Evas were no more, and he would never again be forced to carry the weight of the entire world on his shoulders! He couldn't believe it! He just couldn't believe it! It was like a dream! It suddenly didn't matter to him that his body felt weaker than it had ever been, or that he had lost three more years of his life, or that Asuka was still angry with him. The choker was off! Misato could trust him again! No longer did his own private feelings influence the safety of the entire planet! No longer would his father hold sway over him or anyone he cared about! No longer would the world put such unrealistic expectations on his shoulders! He was finally free!
And the tears just would not stop, nor would the laughter.
Misato smiled at him as she stepped out of the plastic medical tent.
"Get some rest, Shinji," she said as she left. "We'll have a lot to talk about later."
By the next day, over two thousand reports of Evangelions falling to the Earth had reached WILLE, and many, many more were suspected of going unreported. When Shinji and Rei were taken by medevac by the to the Over The Rainbow, other impact sites could actually be seen from the air. Clearly, WILLE was going to have its hands full if it intended to recover them all, and if each of them indeed contained a survivor from Third Impact, that made the urgency even more dire.
On the return flight, Sakura had been in charge of Shinji's transfer and care, and he had finally learned that Toji had been recovered, and had spent the flight over reminiscing with the boy, neither of whom having aged significantly since the day of Third Impact. Sakura was still getting over the shock herself, so seeing the two boys interacting again was an absolute delight.
"No way, dude!" Toji gaped at Shinji in disbelief. "You flew into outer space!?"
Shinji was still confined to a hospital bed in the sick bay of the Over The Rainbow, still malnourished and somewhat emaciated from his duration in space. But Toji, as were the rest of the survivors recovered from the Eva Series, looked as healthy as they had ever been, and had been let out of bed within a day. He and the others had been airlifted back to WILLE's carrier, along with Shinji and Rei, as well as the other members of Operation Recovery. A small team of scientists were left to study the remains of the Wunder and the twelve carapaces of the Eva Series that had been left, but Misato and Ritsuko were both anxious to find more crash sites to confirm their findings.
Shinji smiled wanly at the boy. He had been given an unmarked WILLE jumpsuit to wear.
"Well, from what I hear, I spent quite a bit of time in space," Shinji shrugged. "NERV apparently kept Unit 01 in some kind of storage container in orbit while Rei and I were trapped inside."
Toji wrinkled his nose in disgust. "Damn, man! And I thought I'd been through a lot with my body gettin' turned into mush for the last fourteen years."
Shinji shuddered, not even wanting to even imagine his friend being put through that, nor did he want to imagine the larger implication of most of the entire population of Earth going through the same thing. From what Shinji had heard, there were even more Evas falling from the sky, and several that seemed to be just popping up in general, all of them non-operational, and all of them seemingly containing people with no memory after Third Impact. It was not difficult for him to deduce what was happening, but the implications were still disquieting.
"Hey man," Toji spoke up, seeing the unease in Shinji's face. "Don't go thinking that any of this is your fault, alright?"
Shinji looked up. He hadn't realized he had been making any kind of expression to indicate guilt.
"It's…not that, actually," he said, somberly. "I've already accepted that I did all I could in the past. It's what I'm supposed to do in the present that I'm struggling with."
He gave the other boy a pained expression.
"You were lucky, Toji - you woke up with someone you knew looking over you," he sighed. "How many other survivors will be able to say as much? How many of them will even speak the same language as the people that find them? How many will even wake up at all? Dr. Akagi says that there are thousands of these crash sites, and so many more of them probably haven't even been found yet! Getting them back from primordial soup was the first big step, but that's not going to do any of them any good if we can't even get to them all."
Toji crossed his arms. "You're talking about thousands of people here, man. You can't be responsible for all of them. You can't carry the weight of the world on your shoulders."
Shinji shook his head. "I've been doing just that since before the day we met."
"Yeah, and now you can stop, alright?" Toji smiled. "Sakura's been telling me about this new organization, WILLE? I don't understand most of it, but from the sound of it, they know their stuff. They're gonna take care of it."
Shinji frowned. "I hope so."
Toji looked like he wanted to say more, but then the door to Shinji's hospital room open, and Sakura came in, wearing her WILLE uniform.
"There you are," she gave Toji an admonishing expression. "It's time to take your medicine, Toji."
Toji gave his once younger sister a pained look. "Aww, c'mon! The doc said I was fine!"
"You can never be too safe," she said, holding up a bottle and a spoon. "Now sit down and say 'ah.'"
Toji rolled his eyes but indulged his sister's doting. Ordinarily, he would have put up more of a fight, but having been away for fourteen years without even knowing it, he figured he had to make up for lost time on way or another.
"There, now was that so hard?" Sakura asked, maternally as she spoon fed her brother like a child.
Toji made a face at the foul taste in his mouth. "Ugh…like sucking down sour milk."
"Oh, don't be such a baby," Sakura chided. "You'd never guess that you were actually the older of the two of us! Now what are you boys in here talking about, anyway?"
Toji smirked. "Just trying to convince Shin-man here that he doesn't have to stress himself out over saving the world anymore. But you know how he is - always taking on more of the burden than anyone should handle alone. He's a lost cause, I'm tellin' ya."
Shinji frowned. "I never said I was going to try to save the world. I just…wish I could do something to help WILLE with the recovery effort."
Sakura shrugged. "Well, you are still technically an enlisted officer. I mean, you've clearly earned yourself some shore leave after everything that's happened, but after you've recovered, WILLE could always use a few good men."
"Yeah!" Toji smiled a toothy grin. "I'm planning on enlisting myself, once I get through all the paperwork of bein' legally dead for fourteen years."
Sakura's face contained mixed emotions. On the one hand, Toji joining WILLE would allow them to spend much needed time together to catch up, and it would be both a productive and fulfilling use of his time in an age where many people were in need of purpose and direction. But on the same token, the work they did here could still be very dangerous. Asuka and Mari had very nearly died in a crash just yesterday!
"As long as they start you off on something easy," Sakura sighed. "I don't need the stress of having to worry about losing you again."
The boy winked. "Hey, don't you worry about me, Sakura. I'm indestructible!"
He flexed both of his arms.
"See? Even the end of the world couldn't bring me down!"
"My hero," Sakura smirked sarcastically and poked his rib-cage, causing him to squirm and recoil.
"Hey!" Toji blurted.
Shinji couldn't stop himself from smiling. It was indescribable, having Toji back. It made his life, and Sakura's life, that much brighter. Having anything at all anymore was a blessing, Shinji had decided. He had been ready to die and face oblivion for his crimes. But now, it seemed, he had been given another chance, another opportunity to do right by the people in his life. And the more he thought about it, the more he realized that didn't want to leave it all behind.
Which, if he decided not to remain with WILLE, he ultimately would.
It made the decision an easy one to make.
Unbeknownst to the others, a similar conversation was happening in the adjacent hospital room. Rei Ayanami had been the picture of health after so many conjoinings, but now it seemed, much of that virility had been sapped from her body. While she hadn't entirely lost her vitality or sharpness, she was still human, and having spent the last three years in hibernation had not been the easiest thing to do, since it had been her own essence that had preserved both her and Shinji.
She was tired, but not overly so. Which was still saying something considering that she should by all accounts be dead. It seemed that her will to live had been just strong enough to outlast the Wunder.
She was sitting up in her hospital bed, reading a book, when the door opened, revealing a familiar looking redhead standing in the doorway.
"Captain," Rei said politely.
Asuka nodded noncommittally as she entered.
"Hey Lobotomy Girl," she said brusquely. "Was wondering if I could ask you something."
Rei closed her book and straightened her back to indicate her full attention, which Asuka appreciated.
"There's just been so much confusion about just what's been going on with you," Asuka began, walking around the room. "I know you started off as some kind of a science project, but after everything that's happened, even I have to acknowledge that you've got a mind of your own. So I figured it was only fair that I ask you in person."
Asuka wasn't sure whether to expect any kind of reaction from the girl, but she got none.
"So, I had some questions," Asuka continued, stepping across the room as she spoke. "Like, I know there was some concern over whether or not you could still control all the Ayanami Types in your head, but at this point, we don't even know if they're still even in there. And if they're all gone, does that make you the last one? How much of what you absorbed do you still even retain? And if you're no longer bound by any kind of Angelic tampering, what exactly are you? And more importantly, what are you going to do now?"
Rei leaned forward, her eyes focusing on the far wall as she thought. The old Asuka would have likely lost patience with her after ten seconds of that, but this one knew enough that a line of questioning like this at least deserved some time to contemplate. And she was genuinely curious.
"Those are all very good questions," Rei said simply, still contemplating the wall. "I no longer sense any connection to the Ayanami Type hive mind. If any more exist, they still exist within me. Unfortunately, three years is more than enough time for those lines to blur, so if they are within me, I would have no way of distinguishing those parts of me from myself. I certainly do not feel the same as I did when I first arrived at WILLE, if that is helpful, nor do I feel the same as when I first became conjoined."
She pulled her knees up and wrapped her arms around them.
"I have always been an amalgamation," she said. "But it seems now that I have, in a sense, evolved naturally since then. I am the sum of all the Ayanami Types, condensing and distilling, retaining only those parts that were necessary. At least, that is what I can surmise. As there are no Ayanami Types left in this world, then I would indeed be the last. As to whether that is enough to qualify me as human, however…that, I suppose, depends on your definition of humanity, lilin or otherwise."
Rei turned her eyes back to Asuka, who was still looking pointedly at her.
"As to what I intend to do now?" she asked. "That I do not know."
Asuka let out a sigh. "Don't know what to do without someone to give you orders?"
Rei tilted her head to the side. "That is not actually what gives me pause."
Asuka blinked curiously.
"The truth is, there is so much about the world I do not fully comprehend," Rei said. "I have never truly turned my eyes upon the world around me, and the more I do, the more it confuses me. I suppose, my first course of action once I have recovered will be to learn more about the world. To see for myself the current state of the human race, and to develop a knowledge and appreciation for the people around me."
Asuka placed a hand on her hip, a skeptical look on her face. "And after that?"
Rei took another breath to make sure of her decision, before nodding.
"I…should like to help them, if possible," she said, resolutely. "I wish to do what I can to sustain the lilin. I may not have a firm grasp on things, but based on what I've heard, humanity is in dire straits. If there is anything I can do to help, I wish to dedicate my life to accomplishing that task."
She gave Asuka an inquisitive look.
"Perhaps I should enlist with WILLE?" she said, as more of a query than a statement. "I am most familiar with its operations, and they are most familiar with me, so it makes the most sense for me to remain here. And it is WILLE's mission to protect and serve humanity."
Asuka let out a breath, having prepared a slew of slurs that no longer applied, but not convinced that any sort of compliment was due either.
"You are really something, Lobotomy Girl," she sighed. "I just don't get you at all. I try to see things from your perspective, but I just can't figure you out."
Rei shrugged. "My methodology is nothing outlandish, Captain. I am little more than a staunch pragmatist. I approach every problem singularly, and make the best decision based on what information is available to me."
Asuka crossed her arms, an amused smile on her face. "What about when it comes to Shinji?"
Rei looked away. "That…is where my pragmatism falters. He is…a conundrum."
Asuka blew a strand of hair out of her face, rolling her bi-chromatic eyes.
"You know, it occurs to me that someone who doesn't even understand herself shouldn't be trying to save humanity right off the bat," she said. "You've got to figure yourself out before you can make a decision like that. For all you know, that's not who you are. You'll never know unless you spend some time looking inward, and it seems like you've got your work cut out for you in that department."
Rei shook her head. "I already know what I am, Captain."
Asuka smirked and crossed her arms. "Oh? This ought to be good."
Rei frowned. "You say that as if you expect me to inflate my self-image with hyperbole. I intend to do nothing of the sort, Captain."
She straightened her shoulders, a determined look on her face.
"I am Rei Ayanami," she said, decidedly. "Nothing more, nothing less. That is all I need to know."
Asuka uncrossed her arms, giving her a considering look. It seemed the NERV clone really had grown into her own.
She nodded, approvingly.
"Alright then…Ayanami," she said, using her actual name for once. "If you choose to enlist with WILLE, I think I'd be willing to vouch for you."
Rei gave her a curious look. "You would?"
Asuka smiled, nodding. "Well, WILLE can't exactly afford to be picky right now. And you may be many things, sister, but you're no slouch."
Rei smiled at that. "One does try to do their best."
The corner of Asuka's mouth curved up. "Also, if we're going to continue to work together, I feel it's only fair to warn you about something."
Rei tilted her head to the side. "What is that?"
"As far as your little 'conundrum' goes," Asuka tilted her head forward, eyebrow raised. "I don't intend on losing."
Rei blinked, eyes remaining ever inquisitive.
"As you say, Captain," the blue-haired girl allowed. "Then I suppose it is only fair to warn you that I do not intend on losing either."
Asuka's smile widened. This girl was just such an oddball. It was as if the very notion of envy were foreign to her. How was she supposed to compete with that? But then, she would not have been Asuka if she did not thrive on such challenges.
"Hmph," she grinned. "This ought to be interesting indeed."
"I knew it!" Kaji smiled triumphantly over the video screen. "I just knew those two were still alive! I would have put money on it if it wouldn't have been such a terribly crass thing to do."
Misato rolled her eyes as Kaji reclined in his chair, folding his arms behind his head. She had left him in charge of Zion's defense since she had departed on her voyage in the Over The Rainbow.Nagara, Tama, Kitakami and Takao had been reassigned to the Nagara along with him. Leaving the protection of Zion in their hands had been one of the only things that had convinced her that she could even entertain the idea of going on this voyage in the first place. And that had been two months ago.
"Yes, well, the good news is, they're doing just fine," she said. "It seems, however, that their arrival has triggered a mass exodus of Evas cropping up all over the world. Some are crashing down from space, some are washing up on shore, some are just appearing seemingly out of nowhere. It's chaos."
Kaji nodded. "Yeah, we're well aware of that part. We've even managed to recover a few of them that landed close to Zion. Still scratching our heads about the 'how' though. So what's the bad news?"
Misato shrugged. "That last part kind of was the bad news. There are thousands of Evas out there now. If each and every one of them has a person in it, WILLE's going to have it's hands full trying to rescue them all. We're en-route to the next crash site even as we speak."
Kaji crossed his arms. "Well, at least they'll last for a little while, right? I mean, nothing preserves human life longer than LCL, by my understanding. How else would Shinji and Rei have survived for so long?"
Misato shrugged. That was Ritsuko's field, not hers.
"So, nothing to report on your end?" she asked, trying to sound nonchalant. "No raids, no riots, no immigration hangups, anything?"
"Not since the Evas started falling," Kaji shook his head. "Word's been spreading about pre-Impact survivors, and most of the people here are all up in a tizzy about it, but our PR department is doing a good job of putting a hopeful and positive spin on the story to keep peoples' spirits up. And we're getting enough electrostatic interference as it is with all these impacts. Imagine what the raiders'll be dealing with."
Misato sighed. "Well, at least that's one thing going for us. But it won't take long for them to figure out what's inside these Evas. Before we know it, everyone with a hair-brained cause to fight for will be trying to recruit new members from the survivors and fill their heads with anti-WILLE propaganda. We're going to need to get in front of this, fast."
Kaji smiled reassuringly. "You'll figure it out, Katsuragi."
Misato smiled back as the office door behind her opened.
"Thanks," she said, before glancing behind her and seeing Ritsuko step into her office. "I better go, Kaji. Talk to you later."
Kaji winked. "Don't keep me waiting."
Misato smirked as she shut the transmission down, before turning to Ritsuko as she stepped over to her and sat down.
"How's the long-distance thing going?" the close-cut blonde asked.
"It's nothing new," Misato shrugged. "It isn't like we had much opportunity to see each other when we were both in Zion. How are things with Maya?"
Ritsuko reached for the coffee pot on the side table to pour herself a cup.
"I think I'm providing a much-needed source of stability in her life," she surmised, academically.
"And what's she providing for you?" Misato smirked. "Besides a distraction?"
"I'd like to think she's a stabilizing factor for me as well," Ritsuko nodded, offering Misato the fresh cup before pouring her own. "Besides, she can actually cook."
Misato accepted the steaming paper cup gratefully. Actual coffee made from actual coffee beans. It had been so long since they'd been able to enjoy real food for a change. Most of what they had on board was more synthetic stuff, but WILLE's hydroponic plants had begun providing some hardy cash crops like wheat and barley. The prospect of livestock was still little more than a pipe-dream, so it would be years before anyone saw any actual meat, but still, the Over The Rainbow had an actual supply of bread and flour on board, which made a huge difference.
Some of the encampments and habitats they had visited had begun growing their own food as well, and the indigenous peoples - the friendly ones, at least - had been generous enough to offer some in return for WILLE's services. It was one of the more counter-intuitive aspects of human empathy, to become more generous when hardships were felt all around. But the spirit of cooperation and community could be found in even the most remote places.
It was little things like that which made life out here worth the voyage.
"So here's something interesting," Misato said, changing the subject. "Shinji's asking to be reinstated. And Rei wants to officially enlist as well."
"Is that so?" Ritsuko mused at that. "Fascinating. Why not let them?"
"I was intending to," Misato said. "I'm just not sure if I should."
"Well, haven't they done enough already?" Misato asked. "I should think that after everything they'd been through, they would both want to settle down somewhere, relax for a while."
Ritsuko shrugged. "You mean just like you have?"
Misato raised an eyebrow. "Touché. Still, they're kids. They should have a chance to live a normal life while they can."
Ritsuko shook her head. "Misato, even the most average civilian within the walls of Zion is never going to experience anything close to 'normal.' What kind of normal life could those two possibly have anymore? Where else would they even go?"
Misato sipped at her coffee in pensive silence. Every option that came to mind felt too much like imprisonment for her tastes. They simply could not stop keeping tabs on them, that much was inevitable. For the rest of either child's existence, WILLE would be monitoring them. It just came down to a choice between monitoring them in a ten-by-ten housing unit back in Zion, or here on the Over The Rainbow. And who was to say what ultimate fate would await them at the capital of the world, where they knew practically no one? At least here they were among familiar faces, and could do some real good.
She wheeled her chair over to her computer and called up the files on both of them. They were still using their original portraits from when they were at NERV. Neither had aged significantly since then. She wheeled her mouse over their active service status and switched them from "Pending" to "Accepted."
"Let's give at least a few more days' recovery time," she said, taking another sip from her coffee. "Then we can start in on some crash course training. Flying a VTOL's nothing like piloting Eva, after all."
Shinji dug his feet into the floor of the VTOL craft while Rei nudged the controls slightly forward, tilting their flight downward and taking them into a dive. He had to clench his stomach to keep from losing his lunch, but he held fast to the gun control stick, waiting for the targeting reticle in his flight helmet to give him a target.
It was three months later, Shinji and Rei were both flying through their final training course together. Lieutenant Commander Ibuki observed them from another VTOL a few hundred meters away. Both had passed the basics by this point (though Rei had consistently outperformed Shinji's flight scores, he managed to score top marks when it came to target practice), but this final test was one of cooperation to demonstrate that they could still work as a team. They were no longer inside an Evangelion, they no longer had the advantage of synchronization to allow them to predict each others' movements. This exercise was all about instinct.
"Nng!" Shinji grunted through his teeth in the copilot's seat. "I'll never get used to those dives!"
"Targets up ahead, Shinji," Rei said bluntly to get his attention. "Prepare to fire."
Shinji clenched his teeth as he strained his eyes to lock onto the half dozen red marker balloon tied down to a buoy floating in the water of the Indian Ocean. Just like the field test with the Wunder, there were red, blue, black and white markers, and their final score would be determined by how many of the first two they managed to take out, and how many of the last two they managed to leave.
Fortunately, Rei had lined up their approach perfectly so that Shinji could just shoot more or less in a straight line and hit only their desired targets.
"Fire!" Rei urged.
Shinji squeezed down on the trigger, and the VTOL's machine gun opened up, releasing a repeating stream of hot lead that splashed into the ocean ahead of them. As they approached the targets, their line of fire gradually moved along their line of approach, and cut a swathe through the red and blue markers. By the time they passed over them, almost all of their desired targets had been hit.
"Whew," Shinji exhaled, relaxing his grip just a little. "That wasn't so bad. I think I might have hit them all."
Rei nodded. "Almost."
With that, she swung the VTOL around and took it into a barrel roll, flying back through the mess of markers once again. The aerial maneuver left their tail spinning so dramatically that Rei was able to swing their craft down just enough to swipe the last remaining red marker with the tip of the ship's tail, popping the last red balloon as they flew past.
That time, Shinji nearly did lose his lunch.
"Ugh…" he cringed, keeling over. "I wish you wouldn't do that."
Rei threw him a concerned look. "Are you going to be alright, Shinji?"
Shinji yanked his helmet off his head to catch a breath of fresh air. "Nng…yeah, I think so…"
He offered a weak and queasy looking smile.
"Just…keep her steady for a while, if you could…"
Rei nodded. "Very well. We have concluded our test in any case."
Right on cue, Maya's voice came over the radio, as the second VTOL flew up on their wing.
"Not bad, Recovery Two," her voice said, sounding somewhat staticky in the old transistor radio. "You guys passed with flying colors. Especially that last stunt you pulled, Rei. I imagine that maneuver is not sitting too well with Shinji, though - over."
"Neither is his last meal," Rei replied dryly. "Over."
Maya's laughing voice could be heard over the radio while Shinji scowled in irritation.
"Copy that, Recovery Two," Maya replied. "We better get back to the ship before he ruins the upholstery - over."
"Roger that, Lieutenant Commander," Rei replied. "Over and out."
Shinji wrinkled his nose, still looking a little pale.
"I sure hope you're having fun with this," he grimaced after Rei set down the radio microphone.
"Was that not obvious?" Rei asked, completely deadpan.
Shinji had to snicker at that.
"You really are something, Rei," he sighed.
Rei gave him a quizzical expression.
"What does that even mean?" she asked. "If I were not something, what would I be?"
Shinji rolled his eyes. "It means you're definitely something, I just don't know what that is yet."
"Oh…" Rei said, her eyes falling.
Shinji immediately felt like a jerk again.
"Oh, Rei, I didn't mean it that way," he amended quickly. "It was meant to be a compliment."
She gave him another curious expression. "How so?"
Shinji tried to give her a reassuring smile. "It means you're amazing, Rei. After all that's happened to you, you still manage to soldier on in spite of everything. And I just don't know how you do it."
Rei shook her head.
"There is so much that I have yet to prove, Shinji," Rei said somberly. "I was never designed to be anything more than a tool. I was never meant to have a life of my own to live. But now that I do, I feel as though I must live it to its fullest. I have not witnessed much in my time as compared to you or Captain Shikinami, or anyone else at WILLE. But I have seen enough to know just what it means to have nothing left to fight for."
She fixed him with a steadfast gaze.
"I have watched you lose all faith, Shinji," she breathed. "I have watched you suffer through some of the worst toils imaginable. And yet, in the end, you still continued to keep going. And after everything that happened to me, you still trusted me, even when everyone else saw me as an enemy. It would be a betrayal of that trust for me not at least try to fight on."
Shinji shook his head, sadly. "I only kept going because I couldn't stand the thought of letting you…of letting everyone down again."
Rei nodded. "And it is by your example that I do so as well. Your hope…your trust…your faith…it makes the struggle seem bearable. So you see, it is not in spite of everything I have been through that I carry onward, Shinji. It is because of everything that has happened to me that I feel that I must continue to push forward."
"Yeah," Shinji nodded, smiling. "And I think that makes you amazing!"
He thought he saw a hint of color grace her cheeks and she turned her eyes back to the air in front of them.
"You…are exaggerating, of course…" she said quietly. "But…thank you…"
Shinji's smiled only widened. Ever since they had returned to Earth, he had noticed little quirks in Rei's personality that hadn't been there before, most notably a very dry sense of humor. Everything he remembered from the old Rei was there too, but now there just seemed to be so much more to her than the strange little girl he had known in the past. It was comforting, at least, that she still looked like the old Rei again, but even this iteration was somewhat unique. Dr. Akagi had said that she had inherited minor traits from every Ayanami Type she had conjoined with, and the combination had brought some interesting results.
She seemed more mature now, despite the fact that she looked the same age. It was in the way she carried herself. She was smart and confident, without flaunting it like she had after her first conjoining. She was sensitive and considerate, but not enough for it to get in the way of the task at hand like it had been after the second conjoining. And all that came together into an altogether familiar looking package that, quite frankly, looked kind of sexy in a flight suit, Shinji had to admit. Not that he wasn't partial to raven hair, but blue was definitely her color.
Her past and her connection to his mother was still a matter of some contention amongst others, but that was one area that Shinji had been more than willing to ignore. There were so few people that Shinji could say he had a true connection with, and he had only just begun to forge those connections in earnest. He was not about to let someone go just because someone else told him to. The world was entering a new age, and the word 'normal' really had no meaning anymore. The old paradigms really had no place in this matter.
And besides, as Mari so bluntly put it, cousins were hardly off limits, at least in most parts of the world.
Rei must have noticed him staring, for she turned to glance at him as she continued to steer their VTOL back to the Over The Rainbow.
"Are you feeling ill, Shinji?" she asked, still evidently concerned about his motion sickness.
He blushed and looked away. "Oh, um…yeah, I'm fine."
Rei gave him a peculiar look. "Your cheeks are flushed. Are you sure you are not coming down with a fever?"
Shinji blushed even harder. "No, I'm…that's not it…"
Rei just stared at him, before returning her attention to the air before them.
"You are not a very difficult person to read, Shinji," she muttered absently.
Shinji's cheeks continued to burn as he felt her eyes on him. All he could think about was that moment in the entry plug when she had kissed him, and how he had been completely paralyzed, unable to do anything in response. And he hated the fact that, even something as innocuous as this conversation was having such a similar effect.
"Shinji…" she muttered slowly. "Are you…happy here?"
Shinji opened his eyes and looked back at her.
"What?" he asked, soberly.
Rei did not take her eyes off the flight controls.
"Is this what you want?" she asked, slowly and evenly. "Is this where you want to be?"
Shinji shook his head. "What do you mean?"
"Here with WILLE?" she elaborated. "Doing all this? Throwing yourself into danger? Being in a pilot's seat once again?"
She lowered her head and cast a furtive glance at him, and he could have sworn he saw a bit of color on her cheeks again.
"…With me?" she added.
Shinji's breathing hitched, before turning away and nodding awkwardly.
"Yeah…" he hiccuped, shyly. "I mean, of course! Why wouldn't I want to be here? Everyone I care about is at WILLE, and you and I make a good team. And at least here, I know I'm doing something positive."
Rei did not respond for a while. She closed her eyes for a moment, before taking a breath and opening them again.
The Over The Rainbow was coming into view.
"I believe I am beginning to understand the source of Captain Shikinami's frustrations," Rei said as she opened her eyes.
Shinji blinked, completely baffled. "Huh…?"
He was about to say more when she slipped her hand into his, squeezing it tightly. He looked down at her small, pale hand in his own, surprised at how warm it felt, and then looked back at the expectant look on her face.
"Do not ask me to elaborate further, Shinji," she sighed, a delicate smile on her face. "Just let me be here. In this moment."
He took a breath and nodded in silence as he squeezed her hand in return. He sat back in his seat, leaving his hand in hers, a contented smile on his face as she continued to fly.
They remained that way until they landed.
After they landed, Shinji and Rei filed down to the locker rooms to change out of their flight suits and into their WILLE uniforms. Things were even more cramped below decks on the aircraft carrier than they had been on the Wunder, being a little less than a third its size. After a quick shower, Shinji emerged from the men's locker room, looking to see if Rei had come out yet.
Instead, he found Asuka waiting for him, leaning against the far wall and wearing her own WILLE uniform, which still somehow managed to cling to her body rather fetchingly.
"Hey Pipsqueak," she said teasingly, a hand on her hip. "I heard you passed your final flight exam. Nice work."
Shinji blushed under her gaze. He was still not used to hearing honest praise from the redhead, but it seemed that Asuka too had matured somewhat since NERV had fallen. She was not quite withdrawn anymore (as Mari claimed she had been these past few years) so much as she was refined. Her temper was held back with a healthy dose of self-restraint, but not for a minute did she let anyone forget the fiery passion that lay behind those bi-chromatic eyes.
Shinji nodded, trying to pass off the heat rising in his cheeks as modesty at her compliment.
"Thanks," he smiled, closing his eyes as he scratched his still damp head. "Rei did most of the work. I'm just her gunner, really."
Asuka smirked. "Hey, you're her co-pilot. If anything happens to her, you have to be the one to take the controls and get your ship to safety. Which means you both had to at least pass the preliminary flight exam to even get to where you are today, which isn't easy. Trust me, I had to take the same examination when I was ten."
It was easy to forget sometimes that Asuka was a prodigy, but anyone who spent more than a minute around her was soon reminded, Shinji reflected. It made her even more of an oddball, with the body of a fourteen year old and the experience of a woman in her thirties. Just these past three months, she and Mari had lead the recovery effort to the rescue of over a hundred survivors already. He and Rei would have some catching up to do once they were officially enlisted. And he had been so pleased to see that she no longer needed her eye-patch that he had neglected to notice that he never saw her wearing her mother's black peaked-cap anymore. In fact, he hadn't seen her wear it in the entire three month period since he'd been back.
"Hey, Asuka," he asked, treading cautiously. "Where, um…where's your hat, if you don't mind me asking?"
Asuka shrugged as if it was the most insignificant thing in the world.
"At my apartment in Zion somewhere," she said nonchalantly. "Haven't worn it since you pulled that stunt three years ago. Don't need it."
Shinji blinked, staring at her as the full implications sunk in. To him, it had only been three months since Asuka had nearly lost herself in her own rage. She had told him that the hat was a reminder that she was every bit the monster her mother had been. Had she truly just given it up, just like that?
"You…don't?" he asked, somewhat in disbelief.
She smiled knowingly at him. "This is who I am, Shinji. I'm not my mother. I am nothing like her."
She sighed and leaned against the bulkhead.
"Four-Eyes says that there's a monster inside of each of us," she said, wistfully. "But there's also a hero inside of us as well. A hero that constantly battles the monster for dominance over your heart and mind. Every day, with every little decision you make, one of them gains a little ground over the other. The difference that decides the battle, she says, is in which one for whose fire you provide with the most fuel."
Shinji blinked in amazement as he realized just how far Asuka had come since that day she had lost herself. Now that he thought about, apart from her reaction to seeing him again in the triage center, he hadn't really seen her lose her temper once since he'd come back.
A moment later, Asuka let out a dismissive snort.
"Well, it's kind of a silly metaphor," she admitted, absently. "Not having an Angelic infection in my eye has certainly helped a lot too. But yeah - don't need the hat anymore."
"Wow," Shinji said, smiling widely. "You really are incredible, Asuka."
She grinned, self-righteously. "Damn straight. But enough about me; tell me how the exam went!"
Shinji winced slightly as he went over the details of the test, ending with the part where Rei took them into an intentional tailspin in order to nail their last target.
Asuka whistled, impressed. "Damn. Who knew Ayanami could be such a show off?"
Shinji blinked, sounding somewhat surprised.
"What happened to calling her 'Lobotomy Girl?'" he asked.
Asuka shrugged. "The name's long since become defunct. Besides, she's going to become a legitimate member of WILLE soon."
Shinji raised an eyebrow. "Doesn't seem to stop you from calling Mari by a nickname."
She shrugged. "I'll come up with something for her eventually. That name just doesn't seem to fit her anymore."
"If I didn't know any better, I'd say you were starting to become friends," Shinji mused, hopefully.
Asuka rolled her eyes in amusement. "More like rivals."
Shinji blinked. "Rivals? For what? It's not like we have sync scores anymore."
Asuka sighed absently, shaking her head as she closed her eyes.
"Du bist wirklich ein dummkopf, Shinji," she muttered in resignation.
He pursed his lips, not understanding.
Asuka let out a breath and looked away.
"Shinji…" she breathed. "Why are you still here?"
He blinked, feeling a sense of deja vu overtake him. "What?"
"I mean, why are you still here with WILLE?" Asuka asked, looking expectantly at him. "The war is over. We won. You're a frigging hero. Your whole future could basically be a free ride from here on out. Why aren't you living a peaceful life somewhere in Zion or something? Why are you still out here in the field with all of us?"
Shinji paused in reflection. Rei had just posed a similar query during the test, and Asuka had asked him this very question once before he had left the Earth. Back then, it had been a different world. Back then, his world had felt like a prison, keeping him locked in an eternal struggle against a foe he could not even comprehend. It had been a world where it was so hard to even trust anyone for fear of getting hurt.
But now, the world was a wide open place, full of possibility. And in the face of all this endless potential, Shinji found himself feeling quite small. Having spent so much of his life locked in an eternal cycle of trial, error, failure and guilt, comprehending the reality of having actually won something, and to suddenly have options where before there had been none, was almost terrifying.
But there was one option that he just couldn't leave alone. It may not have been the easiest option - hell, it was probably the most difficult, all things considered - but it was the one he wanted. He didn't feel like he had to do it, he didn't feel like someonemade him do it. But he knew that, deep inside, he needed to do it.
"Why would I run away again?" Shinji asked, smiling as if the very idea seemed to baffle him. "There's nothing for me back there. Everything that I know…everyone who I care about…is right here."
Asuka stared at him, head titled as she studied him. His expression was one she had never seen before. Shinji spoke with an assurance that she just hadn't seen before now.
"WILLE represents everything I want to do with my life anymore," Shinji smiled breathlessly. "We may have won the war, but the world itself still needs saving. I could spend the rest of my life trying to save everyone, one by one, and I'd still never get to them all. But even so…"
Shinji smiled at her, a look of honestly sincerity on his face.
"Even so…" he laughed, weakly. "A life spent here…a life spent doing what's right…a life where I'm able to smile and laugh and be with the people I care about…with you…"
He stuttered and quickly caught himself.
"A-And with with everyone…" he said, feeling - as he must appear - like a fool. "A life like that…"
He stuttered again, his breath catching in his throat.
"A life like that…" he sighed, wiping a tear from his eye. "Would be worth a thousand lifetimes of just running away…"
As Asuka listened to him speak, she felt something inside her melt a little.
He'd done it. The little boy really had grown up.
Shinji's eyes widened as she slowly wrapped her arms around him and hugged him tightly to her.
"A-Asuka…?" he stammered, somewhat in alarm.
"Idiot…" she breathed, squeezing him tightly. "Just shut up and let me stay like this for a while, okay?"
He continued to stare dumbly at the wall in front of him as she held him, but he just couldn't argue with Asuka when she wanted something from him. And there was something wonderful about the way her hair smelled that made him forget just why he was so uncomfortable.
He brought up his arms and hugged her back.
"Is…is that a good enough reason?" he asked, warily.
Asuka sighed, leaning in closer to him, letting her breath tickle the back of his neck and send a delightful shiver down his spine.
It was a brand new day on the deck of the Over The Rainbow, and the crew of WILLE had all gathered for Rei Ayanami's induction into their ranks. The sun was shining, and the deck, once sparse, was filled with fighters jets and VTOL craft now that WILLE's recovery effort now included rescuing survivors from Evangelic prison cells. Most of WILLE's soldiers, over four hundred troops in total, minus the crew needed to keep the carrier afloat, were all lined up by rank and file, Toji and Sakura amongst the bridge crew with Maya, Shigeru and Hyuga. Colonel Misato Katsuragi stood at the head of the procession in her full Captain regalia, with Vice Commander Dr. Akagi at her side. And standing before them all were the four pilots in their WILLE uniforms, lined up side by side.
There was a cool breeze blowing over the deep red ocean around them, but Misato's voice projected all the same.
"Rei Ayanami," she called out. "Please step forward."
Rei took a curt and deliberate step, standing at ease, her body naturally falling into the militant motions.
"You have proven yourself to be a capable pilot," Misato began. "And your actions during the war with NERV up to an including your heroic act of self-sacrifice have left little doubt in me and your peers as to your true allegiances. In spite of the events that brought you to us, I believe you are a capable soldier and will continue to be an asset to us here at WILLE."
Misato cast a glance at the crowd of servicemen lined up before them. She wondered how many naysayers stood among their ranks. How many people, like those two older boys who had cornered Shinji in the hallway so long ago, still saw Rei as the enemy? Would anything she said here today convince them otherwise? Misato was determined to try.
"We are more than our past," she said slowly. "We are more than our history. We are more than our parentage, and we are more than the circumstances surrounding our creation."
She made eye contact with as many soldiers as she could.
"Each and every one of you come from all different places, but we all have the same goal!" she projected. "To give the human race a fighting chance in the this strange new world we live in!"
She then turned and locked eyes with Shinji and fixed him with a smile.
"It doesn't matter what hand the world deals to us," she nodded. "What matters is what we do with the cards we are dealt. It is the actions one chooses to undertake that are the true measure of a person. You are all here because you have chosen to take a stand for something more than yourselves."
She turned her eyes back to Rei.
"I believe I speak for all of us when I say that we are confident in your devotion to that cause," she said resolutely. "And it is for this reason we welcome you here today."
Rei took a breath, and with a movement just as imperceptible, she nodded.
Misato nodded in return.
"Rei," she said. "Do you swear to hold true to WILLE and all of its ideals? To honor your commanding officers, and conduct yourself in a manner befitting your position therein? Do you swear to fight for the protection and preservation of humanity, even at the cost of your own life? To put the needs of humanity before your own, and never to abandon those whose lives depend on you to survive? And above all, do you swear to do everything in your power to aide WILLE in its effort to establish and preserve a lasting peace so that future generations of humanity may continue to grow and persevere until such time as we are no longer needed?"
Rei nodded solemnly. "I do."
Misato nodded, and Shinji stepped forward, carrying the blue sash of WILLE in his hand, and blushed slightly as he began slowly tying it to her left arm as Asuka contained a snort of amusement at his awkward fumbling.
"With this emblem, we do so identify you as a member of WILLE," Misato said, as each and every serviceman in attendance crisply saluted. "With this emblem, we mark our solemn vow to establish peace and security in a world torn by war. With this emblem, we forever denounce those who would see this goal unraveled or diminished. And with this emblem, we honor those whose lives were lost in pursuit of this quest. Theirs was a noble sacrifice, and with this emblem, we remember all for which they fought and died to protect. May we bring tidings of prosperity when next we meet them."
Shinji finished trying off her sash, and as Misato finished, Rei's eyes fall upon him as he smiled at her.
"Congratulations, Rei," he said, shyly. "I, uh…hope I didn't tie it too tightly."
She smiled back at him.
"It is perfect, Shinji - and thank you," she said, before turning her eyes on her fellow pilots and the servicemen before her. "Thank you all."
Misato smiled and saluted as Rei saluted back.
"Lieutenant Ayanami," she said brusquely, using her and Shinji's post-mortem rank. "You and Lieutenant Ikari are both to report to Lieutenant Commander Ibuki for your assignment. As you all know, the mission parameters of Operation Recovery have been expanded to include the search and rescue of the survivors of Third Impact still trapped within the Eva Series across the Earth."
She smiled at the four pilots as they smiled in return.
"There are still thousands of human beings that we know to be trapped out there, and probably millions more that are still unaccounted for," she said solemnly. "It is up to us to ensure their survival. It will be a long and painstaking road ahead of us. But with your help, pilots…I believe we can make a difference."
Shinji, Asuka, Mari and Rei all saluted.
Misato nodded. "Dismissed!"
Shinji and Rei boarded their VTOL craft, while Asuka and Mari boarded their own. All were wearing WILLE issue flight suits, and were a much more comfortable fit than plug suits had been, Shinji had to confess. Their hardware had since been upgraded to more standard models - in fact, both of their VTOL craft were some of the newest in the fleet.
Both sets of instruments hummed to life as the pilots went through their pre-flight checklist. Asuka caught Shinji's eyes staring across the tarmac at them, and she gave him a playful wink, which caused him to immediately blush and look away, as expected.
"You sure you're okay, knowing those two are going be in the same cockpit all day?" Mari asked, sounding genuinely concerned.
"It's fine," Asuka smiled, as she flipped a series of switched on the VTOL's dashboard. "This job doesn't really give any of us time to fool around. Besides, as much as he's grown up, Shinji's still too much of a wimp to try anything with her."
Mari raised an eyebrow. "You don't think she's going to try something?"
Asuka paused. She had considered it, of course. It had been a pretty heated kiss she's planted on him the day he'd woken up, after all. But the subject had never truly come up since then. She had dropped plenty of hints, but never outright said anything. She had tossed around the idea of forcing the issue with him, but every scenario she could think of just made her seem like the bad guy. Even if the result was her getting what she wanted, it would not have felt genuine until he came to her of his own volition.
The old Asuka would have made a move. The old Asuka would have acted impulsively. But this Asuka was content to wait. And when the time was right, when Shinji needed her…she would be there for him.
"It won't matter," she said simply. "He'll decide when he's ready. The guy's just saved the world. He deserve some time to digest all this. Hell, I've had three years, and my head's still kind of spinning."
Mari made a face. Asuka could tell she thought she was making a mistake. That or she had just been hoping for more drama.
"So, what are you going to do in the meantime?" she asked.
Asuka contemplated for a moment, before nodding, more to herself than to anyone else.
"I'm going to give him exactly what he needs," she said, thoughtfully. "My faith."
"Your faith?" Mari raised an eyebrow, confused.
Asuka nodded, looking back to her friend and co-pilot.
"I believe in him, Four-Eyes," she said with a smile. "I believe in Shinji Ikari. That's what I've decided."
Mari gazed at her, bewildered and, for the first time in a long time, legitimately impressed. This was the same Asuka who used to blow up at the slightest hint of anything scandalous. The same Asuka who had lost all faith in herself, and everyone around her. The same Asuka who had no idea what to do with all the conflicting emotions inside of her, the simultaneous love and hatred she had felt towards one unfortunate boy.
Now, it seemed, that at last, she had finally contended with all the demons in her heart. Now, at last, she was at peace.
"That's good, Princess," Mari replied as she closed her eyes and reclined into her seat with her arms behind her head. "That's real good."
The boy looked away from the other VTOL as Rei gave him a curious look from her position in the pilot's seat of their own craft. The two aircraft were ready for takeoff, and the flight control tower was already giving them the go ahead signal. Asuka and Mari's craft had already started its engines, but Rei was hesitating for some reason.
"Yes?" he responded.
She gave him a look that was full of sincere and honest concern.
"Are you alright?" she asked.
His first reaction was to answer automatically, but the look in her eyes made Shinji consider the question. How long had it been since he could say that he was alright? The day he'd arrived in Tokyo-3, he had been sentenced to a life of constant warfare, subjected to the whims of his father's organization, the scope of which he simply could not fathom. He had been so out of his depth, that at every turn, every action he took seemed to have such far reaching consequence that he could sculpt the shape of the world without even knowing it.
He had never wanted that life. He had never wanted any of the burdens that came with it. All he wanted was to be a normal boy, living a simple life. And his desire for this safety, this normalcy, this simplicity that could not exist in his world had affected him and his surroundings so dramatically that it had nearly ended the world as he knew it. That simple drive to save someone that he cared about no matter what, that desire did not fit within the realm of possibility in that world. Nothing was that simple, nothing was so clear-cut. And every effort he had made to make such a straightforward decision had resulted in disaster.
In order to survive this world, in order not to destroy it and everyone he cared about, he had needed to learn how to comprehend the extent of his actions, the full implications of his decisions, and the responsibility that had come with it. After it had become clear that those around him would simply abandon him if he continued down the path of simplicity that he sought, he had reacted in a panic. And it was only by the grace of the guidance of those who cared for him that he had panicked in the right direction. And once he had expanded his mind to the point of awareness that came with the perceived reality of this new world he lived in, the path before him had become utterly clear.
The price that came with it, however, was that never again could he go back to that simple world of his childhood, where decisions were clear-cut and his actions held no consequence. Now that he was thinking like an adult, like a soldier, he found that he had simply been unable to stop doing so. But that was alright - he knew that he needed to keep thinking that way in this new world as well. He needed to wear his newly acquired foundation, like armor, so as to protect himself, and more importantly, to protect others.
It was not an easy life, he knew. It was not simple, straightforward, or carefree. But if he remained steady and grounded in his beliefs, then he was pretty sure he could make it.
And as he thought about Rei and Asuka, about Sakura, Misato and Mari, about everyone who had his back in the worst of times, he knew that if he faltered, there was not a shadow of a doubt that someone would be there to catch him.
"Yeah," he nodded with a breath. "I'm alright."
Rei nodded in affirmation, and started their engine as well. Asuka gave them a two-fingered salute as the two aircraft rose into the air. And as they drifted out over the ocean below, the Over The Rainbow began to slowly flicker out of sight as the four pilots flew off into the distance towards whatever path it was that lay ahead of them.
This fic is dedicated to my sister Stephanie, who showed me that all of our demons can be controlled.
The inspiration for this fic came from a variety of sources - "Recovery One" was inspired by Red vs. Blue, Gendo's "Would you kindly" line came straight from BioShock, Misato and Ritsuko's final dialogue with Gendo was inspired by the finale of Gurren Lagann, the scene with everyone looking up at the explosion was meant to be reminiscent of the ending of "The Iron Giant," the final line in the last chapter was inspired by the ending of Code Geass, and pretty much the entirety of the last four chapters was inspired by "117" from the Halo 4 soundtrack.
Originally, this was only meant to be a relatively short fic to help soften the blow of 3.33, but the more it went on, the more and more I wanted to see it through until it had become a full blown sequel. Thank you to all my reviewers who encouraged me to push on. Without your support, I would have likely given up. In particular, I'd like to thank Attila1987 for his thorough and in-depth revisions. This would be a far worse fic without his constant effort and hard work. Merci beaucoup, Monsieur.
I write for you guys a much as I write for myself, and listening to your reactions inspires me to re-read everything I've written up to that point to make it better and to try to get a feel for your perspectives and enjoy it with you, like a big group of fans watching a movie together. There's not much any of us can do but wait until the final Rebuild movie comes out, and all that this fic represents is one fan's hopeless attempt to attain some sense of completion, closure and satisfaction, however temporary, until the creative genius of artists far greater than I are ready to turn their work upon the world for us to enjoy. Until then, I hope to read many more of your works, and write many more of my own.