Sakura Suzuhara stared in ill-concealed disdain at the two figures lying on the bunk beds behind the bars. In her hands were two trays stacked on top of one another, each laden with equal portions of nutrient paste, something that the entire crew of the Wunder had long since gotten used to eating. Thought she supposed it was a blessing that she had managed to survive long enough to be able to eat this crap for yet another day, considering the events these last few days. The question that truly irked her, however, was whether or not these two should get another chance to eat again, considering the trouble they'd each caused.
To Sakura, the name Shinji Ikari was like something out of a bedtime story. It was a name she had grown up hearing about, never fully understanding, but invariably carrying an immeasurable weight to it. Her own brother used to tell her stories about him, and having become a part of WILLE, his name had appeared as a footnote in just about every other mission briefing, report and memo she had come across. Yes, his name had carried the negative connotation of being the one responsible for the end of the world, but good or bad, such a name was enough to evoke awe in any junior officer.
Her ire did not come from his nearly destroying the world the first time. It came from nearly doing it a second time, after she had pleaded with him not to get into an Eva again. Lo and behold, he had done just that, which left Sakura with little recourse but to assume the worst about him, that Captain Shikinami and Katsuragi had been right all along, that he was just a sad, helpless little boy who would do whatever anyone asked him to, including destroy the world, if he thought someone would praise him for it.
Makinami, on the other hand, was another story. As a pilot, she and Captain Shikinami carried about them a certain mystique, an air of confidence and notoriety that could only come from being an Eva pilot. It was the same swagger, the same cockiness Sakura had seen in fighter pilots back at base, but this was on a completely different level. Sakura could not help but envy the Eva pilots for their skill, their respect, their confidence, their strength, not to mention their good looks! Few members of WILLE would have volunteered to be an Eva pilot knowing what it entailed. But Sakura would have signed up in a heart-beat. Piloting Eva would have been a dream come true to her!
To Sakura, nothing in her life made her feel more powerless than growing up a child in Tokyo-3, living in constant fear of Angel attacks. Everyone had to live with that fear. If the Angels came to Tokyo-3, the world would be over, and that was it. And what made it so unbearable was the simple fact that there was literally nothing she or anyone else she knew could do about it. But not the Eva pilots! Eva pilots could actually do something about the Angels that ravaged their city! To Sakura, being an Eva pilot meant having control over her own life and death. To Sakura, being an Eva pilot meant never having to fear that each day might be her last.
For Mari Makinami Illustrious, one of two people in the world that Sakura had admired most, to turn her back on WILLE and everything it stood for…
"Here's your breakfast," Sakura grunted, displeasure evident in her voice, as she shoved the trays under the bars a little more forcefully than she needed to.
The sudden clattering caused Shinji to wake with a start, having still been asleep.
"Wh-Wha-?" he sat bolt upright, looking around and nearly falling off his bed.
Mari, who had long since awoken, and had merely been lying there with her eyes closed for lack of anything else to do, sat up and helped herself to the provided nutrient paste.
"Wow!" she beamed, sounding both gracious and sarcastic at the same time. "Room service! Awesome! I thought you guys were going to let us starve to death."
Sakura's eyebrow twitched at the pilot's lack of any outward display of remorse for her actions, but she kept her comments to herself.
"Oh!" Shinji blinked the sleep out of his eyes, taking stock of what was going on. "Umm…good morning…Miss, uh…Suzuhara…"
Sakura kept her arms crossed. She had been expecting his usual passive decorum, but was still waiting for one of them to acknowledge what they had done.
"Don't you two have anything to say for yourselves?" the Second Lieutenant demanded, eyebrow still twitching as Shinji climbed down from the bunk to retrieve his meal tray.
Mari and Shinji exchanged a look, before Mari clasped her hands together.
"Oh, uhh…thank you for the meal?" she said, saying grace as more of a question than a statement.
Shinji, fearing reproach, followed suit by clasping his hands together in complete sincerity.
"Thank you for the meal!"
Sakura clenched her fists into two little balls.
"I can't believe you two!" she glared at them. "You're not even sorry about what you did!"
"Of course we're sorr-" Shinji started to say, when Mari held up a finger mid-bite.
"Don't apologize, Puppy-Boy," Mari commanded, fixing the other girl with a firm stare. "We're not about to apologize for staying true to our beliefs, Lieutenant. Can you say as much?"
Shinji was taken off guard. He had said something like that to Asuka only yesterday. He couldn't help but admire the other pilot - for that, and for allowing herself to be taken prisoner on Rei's behalf, never mind that he had no idea what her plan was for that.
Sakura just looked more irked.
"What beliefs?" she demanded, bluntly. "Forsaking the greater good so that you can feel better about yourselves in the short term?"
"Call it whatever you want," Mari replied. "But Puppy-Boy here has fought and bled in this war just as much as the Princess or I have. And so has Miss Ayanami. They deserve to be respected for that."
"They fought for NERV!" Sakura exclaimed in disbelief.
"So did we all, at one point or another," Mari said evenly, sighing inwardly. The clear black and white distinction in Sakura's worldview was staggering. "Besides, they had no other recourse. Miss Ayanami and Miss Q have known nothing else for all their short, deprived lives. And as for the Puppy-Boy here…"
She turned to give Shinji a sympathetic smile.
"If you had awoken from a fourteen-year slumber, Lieutenant, only to find the world in the shape it's in now, and that everyone you cared about was either dead or hates your guts, what would you do, huh? Would you gladly stand beside the people who've spurned you?"
Shinji was completely lost for words. When had Mari suddenly decided to play devil's advocate? Whatever her reasoning, she had demonstrated herself thus far to be the only person in the world, besides Kaworu and maybe Kaji, to give his perspective any consideration whatsoever.
If he wasn't still feeling groggy from just waking up, he probably would have cried.
Mari returned her gaze to the other girl.
"The world isn't so cut and dry, Lieutenant. The Puppy-Boy makes for an easy target to place all your blame on when things get hairy. But the truth isn't as simple as all that. All he wanted was to be treated like a person. You can't blame someone for wanting a little human decency."
Now Shinji was worried that he was still asleep, because he was now hearing Kaji's words coming out of her mouth. Maybe Misato's theory about her and Kaji being in league had been right after all. Whatever the reasoning behind it, he was grateful. Almost too grateful for words.
Sakura hung her head, letting out an exasperated sigh.
"Why couldn't you have just listened to what I'd said, Shinji?" she asked, bitterly. "I told you not to pilot Eva, and you did it anyway. If you would just listen to what the people around you have to say, you could easily figure out what's right from wrong eventually. It's not that hard!"
"I was listening, Miss Suzuhara," he said gravely. "To WILLE and to my father. To Asuka, to Fuyutsuki, to Misato, to Kaworu, and to you. Everyone was telling me something different. I had no idea who to trust."
Sakura returned his frown. "And you trusted them more than you trusted us?"
"You all didn't exactly give me any more reason to trust you than NERV did," Shinji replied. "I…I want to help you. I want to help all of you. But…I'm not feeling a lot of trust from you guys. And you haven't exactly gone out of your way to make feel welcome."
He tugged on his choker to illustrate his point.
Sakura sulked, looking away. "Well, you haven't exactly given us any reason to trust you either."
"Then tell me what I need to do to earn it," Shinji said plainly. "You've all been living and breathing this world for the last fourteen years, but I had to see for myself just what the world had become before I could believe it! I had to see just what NERV had become. What my father was trying to do, the truth about Ayanami and my mother and Unit 01…it's all made the decision much easier to make."
He clenched his fist and furrowed his brow.
"I want to fight alongside WILLE," he said, more forcefully. "I don't care if you all hate me now; everyone that I care about who isn't already dead is with WILLE. I'm willing to do whatever it takes to prove myself. I may not be useful as a pilot anymore. Maybe I'm not even useful as a regular soldier. But if there is something I can do around here that could help everyone, even a little, then I want to do it! Tell Misato that for me!"
His expression suddenly softened, as if he suddenly realized what he'd said, and lowered his eyes again.
"…That is, if you would please…Miss Suzuhara."
The lieutenant pursed her lips.
Shinji looked up, surprised to see an approving expression on the girl's face.
"My name is Sakura," she replied with a wry smile. "You might as well use it."
Shinji blinked in confusion. "Uh…ok, um…Sakura…"
She inclined her head in a polite bow.
"And I'll be happy to take your message to the Captain," she said, good naturedly. "Thought I can't guarantee she'll pay it much heed. Anyway, please enjoy your breakfast, Shinji."
Shinji watched as Sakura left the brig area, the door whisking closed behind her. He was left wondering what exactly had just happened.
His thoughts were interrupted, however, when he heard a slow, pronounced clapping sound coming from Mari.
"Very good, Puppy-Boy," she smiled, slowly clapping her hands together, a catlike smile once again on her face.
Shinji's cheeks reddened as he looked away. "Oh, quit teasing me…"
"I mean it," she smiled. "You handled that very well."
Shinji just looked away. "Well, I…I mean…that is to say…"
He cleared his throat, returning his gaze to her face.
"Thanks," he said, pursing his lips. She could tell this was coming out with some difficulty. "Not just for saying so, but…for standing up for me. No one's…"
He swallowed hard, fighting back tears.
"No one's…ever done that for me before…"
Mari sighed, playfully. "Aww…does Puppy-Boy need a hug?"
Shinji closed his eyes and sighed. "I'm being serious here…"
Mari just giggled. "It's no wonder the Princess is so fixated on you. You're awfully cute, you know that?"
Shinji felt a vein throbbing in his forehead. "Come on, quit teasing me."
Mari's mockery did not abate. "And now it seems our dear Second Lieutenant Suzuhara may have a bit of a crush on you too! What a Casanova you are, Puppy-Boy!"
Shinji just sighed, leaning back to rest against the wall. It appeared that opting to work with WILLE was like to be more trouble than it was worth.
"Tell Misato that for me!"
Ritsuko paused the video, giving her Captain an inquisitive look.
"He seems to be coming around to our way of thinking."
The two of them had been in Ritsuko's lab, reviewing the results of the Doctor's prognosis of Unit 01. The day before, the lab area had been an utter disaster zone, but now it looked utterly impeccable, thanks to the work of a dozen hard working lab technicians. The doctor had worked all through the night as the Wunder drifted aimlessly across the ocean, probing the depths of Unit 01's core, until she was convinced of a method to siphon the foreign contaminant from it. It involved inserting the unit's entry plug back into its socket, and activating the unit's core recycle process, just as Mari had predicted.
She had been in the midst of explaining all this to Misato, when the motion tracker alert in Shinji and Mari's cell had gone off, so she had queued up the security display footage for the two of them to review. After Second Lieutenant Suzuhara had left, Ritsuko had rewound the footage to play back some key bits, including this one little gem.
"So?" Misato said, unimpressed. "I said it before: he's a threat as long as he's alive. It doesn't matter what he wants, Doctor."
Ritsuko furrowed her brow.
"With all due respect, Captain…" she said bluntly, "Yes, it does."
Misato fixed her with perplexed look.
Ritsuko massaged her forehead. "Look…if recent evidence is to be believed, then Shinji's very emotions have an effect on this Eva unit. And it doesn't even seem to matter whether he's in the Eva or not, now! To me, that says, far from not mattering at all, Shinji's feelings matter more than anyone else's on this ship! It's not enough for us to just imprison him, Captain…we need to sway him to our side! We need to convince him that we're the good guys, that what we're fighting for is what he should be fighting for! We need to make our cause his cause!"
"But how can we even trust him not to destroy us all?" Misato asked, sounding somewhat helpless. "Maybe we should just kill him now and get it over with…"
Ritsuko's frowned, shaking her head. "You don't believe that anymore than I do. Besides, you and I both know that Unit 01 would not react well to that. Not after what we've seen. If he even gets a hint that we're planning to execute him, there's no tellingwhat the Eva will do. Best case scenario, it never starts up again, and we'll be forced to scrap the Wunder. Worst case scenario…"
Ritsuko lit another cigarette. Already, her ashtray was piling up.
"I know what you fear most now is Shinji activating Unit 01 and causing Fifth Impact," she said in a quiet voice. "But do you want to know what my nightmare scenario is, Misato? Right now, my greatest fear is a Shinji Ikari who doesn't care if the world ends. Or worse yet, a Shinji Ikari who wants the world to end. If Shinji ever gets to a point where he's so angry, or frightened, or sad, or frustrated or miserable, or just plain depressed, such that he actually wishes for this world to end…"
She fixed Misato with a grave look.
"Then there is no prison, no choker, no weapon, no tool designed by humanity that will stop Unit 01 from granting him that wish. Whatever your feelings on the subject, Captain, we have to take his emotional state into consideration. We have to appeal to him. We have to earn his trust."
An indicator light flashed on Ritsuko's screen, and she glanced at the message, studying it carefully. A mixture of emotions appeared on her face at that moment - surprise, shock, confusion, trepidation, and finally enlightenment.
"And I think I may know just how to do it."
Misato watched her old friend throw a couple of switches, before hurrying out of the lab area, across the metal grating that served as a service platform, and into the large Core area, itself the size of an aircraft carrier, the head and shoulders of Unit 01 partially visible from one end.
"What is it?" Misato asked, following the doctor as she hurried along towards the exposed portion of Unit 01.
Ritsuko got to the control panel by the Eva unit, and entered a key command at the keyboard.
"The fruit of our labors," Ritsuko smiled, as Unit 01's head bent forward, the armor plating shifting out of place to expose the entry plug within. An enormous mechanical arm from the ceiling descended down to the Evas back, it's claw clasping the tip of the entry plug on four sides, before turning in a slow, deliberate circle, unscrewing itself from the locked position, before drawing it all the way out, letting out a mechanical groan as it brought the entry plug down to floor level.
Ritsuko pressed another button on the control panel, and the hatch swung open, letting bright orange LCL flood out of the opening, splashing down through the grating of the floor, and seeping down to the bottom of the core, which acted as a catch basin to recycle such fluids.
As the LCL continued to drain from the entry plug, however, a pale, nude figure tumbled out, flopping unceremoniously to the floor.
As Misato's eyes widened in disbelief, Ritsuko produced a towel from beneath the control console, and strode over to the girl on the floor to drape the towel over her shivering body, doing a quick check of her vitals.
"Try to relax," she said quietly checking her pulse for abnormalities. "You've been through quite an ordeal."
The girl was quivering, her breath coming out in trembling breaths as her eyes flickered open, scanning her surroundings.
"Can you hear me?" Ritsuko probed further, shining a pen-light into the girl's eyes to check for dilation. "Can you understand what I'm saying?"
The girl blinked from the bright light, still looking around in confusion.
"Y…Yes…" she managed to whisper, her throat sounding dry and weak.
Ritsuko nodded, wrapping the towel more carefully around her body. "Good. Do you know who I am?"
The girl paused for a moment to consider, before nodding. "Dr. Akagi Ritsuko…"
She nodded again, taking her by the hand. "Very good. Can you stand?"
By way of response, the girl tremulously got to her feet, relying heavily on Ritsuko for support.
"Outstanding," Ritsuko smiled, aware that Misato was standing behind with what must have been a look of absolute incredulity. "Can you tell me your name?"
The girl wheezed, before swallowing, still apparently recovering from the shock of having been in a discorporate state for fourteen years.
"My name is…Ayanami Rei."
Shinji looked up as the door to the prison area slid open as Doctor Akaji emerged.
"You get your wish, Shinji," she said simply by way of greeting.
She then turned to peer out the door into the indiscernible darkness of the hallway.
"Come on in," she said in a surprisingly maternal tone.
Shinji was about to ask what she meant by 'his wish,' when his eyes fell upon Rei Ayanami, wearing the same hospital gown as he was, as she stepped through the door and into the cell area, and all other thoughts vanished from his mind.
"Ayanami…" he breathed in surprise, his eyes widening.
In that moment, it was as if everything else had stopped existing. As if he and Rei faced each other in an expanse of pure darkness. He was not even cognizant of Dr. Akagi explaining what had happened, or of Mari observing his response and making some coy remark.
All he saw was Rei.
The more he observed her, the more he noticed something off about her. Different. This was not the same girl who had been following them around the wasteland of Tokyo-3. At least, not entirely. This Rei seemed much more aware of her surroundings. She was fiddling with her fingers, as if looking for something to do with her hands. Her eyes would meander from place to place, as if constantly unsure of what to do next. She seemed to be looking for something to focus her attentions on, as if she sought not to merely be an observer to the world, but an active participant in it.
This Rei looked alive.
"Rei, do you remember who this is?" Ritsuko asked her, distracting her eyes from their endless wandering, as she focused them on Shinji.
She took a moment to mull the question over before speaking.
"Ikari…Shinji…" she said in a tiny, breathy voice.
Shinji's heart skipped a beat as he heard her say his full name.
"And do you remember what happened fourteen years ago?" Ritsuko prompted.
Rei's eyes flickered as she drew back into her memory with obvious effort.
"Fourteen years…an…an Angel battle," she said as she strained to answer the question. "Fire…and pain…loneliness…and…"
Then recognition suddenly flooded the girl's face.
"And then…Ikari…saved me…" she breathed, almost sounding like she didn't believe it herself.
Her eyes widened further, and unbidden, she stepped up to the bars to peer at him.
Shinji suddenly drew in a breath and was reciprocating the action before he even knew it, grabbing hold of the bars to peer back at her.
"Ayanami!" he exhaled, a mixture of exuberance and relief in his voice.
He dare not hope.
He dare not imagine.
He failed to notice Ritsuko press the button on the wall that opened the cell door, and he suddenly stumbled forward, having been leaning on the door a half second prior. Rei's eyes widened as he stumbled forward, falling into her, sending the two of them toppling over, landing in a very awkward, yet somehow familiar position.
"Whoops," Ritsuko blinked in honest surprise. "Sorry about that. Are you both okay?"
Shinji blinked as he regained stock of his surroundings, only to find a pair of red eyes staring up at him.
Fortunately, his hand hadn't landed anywhere compromising this time.
"Uh…I…" he stammered in complete stupefaction.
"Oooh," Mari's teasing voice came from behind him. "Moving in on Miss Ayanami already? What would the Princess think!?"
"It's not like that!" Shinji suddenly shot back instinctively, cheeks red.
"Will you get off?" Rei asked, simply.
"Oh!" Shinji blurted out, recoiling dramatically. "S-Sorry!"
He blushed hard, climbing to his feet, before offering a hand to help her up.
"Sorry," he repeated, holding up his other hand apologetically. "I'm just…really happy to see you again…"
For a moment, Rei seemed bashful.
"Happy…to see me…?" she asked, as if she had to consider the words he had told her, as if the words didn't quite make sense to her.
"Yeah!" Shinji affirmed excitedly. "I thought you were gone for good! I thought that I'd never…"
His expression suddenly darkened when his eyes fell on the choker around her neck.
"Dr. Akagi…" he said quietly. "Why is she wearing one of these?"
Ritsuko did not need him to specify what he was referring to.
"It's necessary, Shinji," she said simply. "For our protection."
Shinji stared at Rei in utter disbelief. He had just gotten her back after believing her to be dead for so long…and now they meant to put a noose around her neck that could snuff the life out of her at any moment?
"Please, take this off her, Doctor," Shinji said, giving her a pleading look. "Leave mine on if you have to, but please don't make her wear one too!"
Ritsuko frowned. "Captain's orders, Shinji. This isn't just the Rei you remember anymore - she's an amalgamation of both BM-00α and BM-00β. A unique individual who possesses both of their memories and personalities; a more complete person than either of them."
Shinji's eyes were as wide as saucers.
Shinji took another look at Rei, her crimson eyes, blue hair and alabaster skin pristine and perfect, save for the black circle of unforeseeable death around her neck. He had suspected that he had been seeing her through rose-tinted glasses, but now that he was looking more closely, there was something more…natural about this Rei. More alive. Healthier. The subtle movements of her body seemed to suggest someone who felt more at-home in her own body. Someone who was more…human.
Ritsuko nodded. "Which means that she's just as dangerous as you are, Shinji. It's just too big a risk."
Shinji shook his head in disbelief. This was not what he had wanted at all! It just wasn't right to play with Rei's life like they have been doing! She didn't deserve any of this! She may have been created artificially, but she still had feelings! She still felt pain! She still cried! The first time he had really seen her, he had held her quivering, crippled body in his arms!
She had felt real! Her fear and agony had been real!
And as this new Rei returned his gaze, tilting her head slightly in curiosity as the souls of both his Rei and the Rei he had been coming to know looked back at him, Shinji had to fight back tears.
Ritsuko's revelation only made the girl he saw before him that much more precious to him. This Rei was all he had left now. But if NERV and WILLE and anyone else didn't stop thinking they could play God with her life, than even this young, innocent girl would be sacrificed for nothing.
Just like Kaworu.
"Dr. Akagi, I am begging you…please, don't do this!" he said, his voice quavering. "I've already lost someone I care about to one of these things! I'll do whatever you want me to, Doctor! Tell Misato she can keep me locked up in the coldest, darkest cell she can find! Just please…I can't watch this thing kill any more of the people I care about!"
The doctor lowered her eyes. "I'm sorry Shinji, but this is not open for debate. Captain Katsuragi made it very clear that this is non-negotiable. She is absolutely adamant about this. It's the only reason you're even getting to see her at all."
The tears finally came, and Shinji threw his arms around Rei's shoulders, sobbing as he clutched her to him.
It wasn't fair! It just wasn't fair! Not to him, and certainly not to her! All he had wanted to do was save her! What they had all been doing to Rei was just plain and simply cruel!
"Ikari…?" she asked inquisitively, sounding confused.
He shuddered. She must not have been aware of what the collar's purpose was. With all the jumbled memories floating around inside her head, it was a miracle she could even think straight, let alone have a conversation.
Oh, what she must have been going through right now…
"You're going to be alright, Ayanami…" Shinji choked out, smiling through his tears. "You're going to be just fine. I'll keep you safe…I promise…"
Rei did not seem to know how to react to that, until finally her hands came up to press against his back, returning his gesture for lack of any other recourse.
Ritsuko looked away, leaning against the wall with her arms crossed, seemingly not wanting to let her scientific objectivity waver at the sight.
Mari put her hands on her hips and stared up at the security camera, giving it a dirty look.
"I hope you're watching this, Colonel," she spat in a bitter voice. "I hope you're proud of yourself. Such a shining example for all of humanity you are."
"Your glibness does you no credit, Makinami," Ritsuko chastised.
"Do I look like I give a damn?" she responded almost jokingly. "I've predicted just about everything that's happened here, up to and including you, Doctor. Your opinion of me is not very high on my priority list."
Ritsuko returned Mari's haughty smile with stern resolution.
"And you're going to stay locked in here until you tell us exactly how you did that."
"Well, I am a genius, after all," she smiled smugly. "But you'll figure it out eventually. And when you do, I'm going to be your new best friend."
"We'll see about that…" Ritsuko sighed, pulling away from the wall and gesturing to the two guards waiting by the door. "Alright - we're moving you three to a larger cell. I'm sure the Colonel will want to speak with you all at some point later."
Shinji fixed Ritsuko with a cold stare as he was lead down the corridor to a more spacious holding cell, this one with two sets of bunk beds, holding Rei's hand in his own as she followed him in.
Ritsuko thumbed the switch on the wall, locking the three of them inside. Shinji's reaction to the DSS choker on Rei was severe, but not unexpected. Unfortunately, that had been one of the stipulations the Captain had made in order to agree to something like this. It was unfortunate, but if it made the Captain feel more secure, than it would ultimately be worth it.
Misato personally thought WILLE should be keeping them separated, but Ritsuko had been insistent - Shinji's emotions needed to be kept in check. And nothing would accomplish that better than spending some time with the girl he'd been desperate enough to cause Third Impact to save.
And as for Mari…as crowded as the cell was, as much of a lapse in decorum it was to detain men and women in the same cell, there was plenty good she could do in their company. All she had to do was keep taking Shinji's side on things, and there would be little worry that Shinji would rebel.
Ritsuko smiled as she left.
The little actress was playing her role to a tee.
To be continued…