Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Neon Exodus Evangelion
Exodus 2: Symphony of Terror
Ceremony of Innocence Part Two
Points of Surrender
Inspired by Neon Genesis Evangelion
created by Hideaki Anno, Gainax, et al.
Most characters created by Hideaki Anno and Yoshiyuki Sadamoto
DJ Croft created by Benjamin D. Hutchins
Jon Ellison created by Larry Mann
Additional material and inspiration cadged from Tomb Raider by Core Design, Ltd.
X-COM: UFO Defense and sequels from MPS Labs
(whoever owns them nowadays)
and The X-Files created by Chris Carter
Written by Benjamin D. Hutchins, Larry Mann,
MegaZone, and John Trussell
Aided and abetted by the Eyrie Productions, Unlimited crew
and special-guest-for-life Phil Moyer
© 1997 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
HTML remastering © 2016 EPU
Misato Katsuragi had often wondered, over the past few months, if her old friend Ritsuko Akagi had been secretly replaced by something else—an android, perhaps, or a pod person. Now, as she stared at the blonde woman who served as NERV's chief scientist, Misato had that feeling again.
"Let me get this straight. Your whole plan is, we get together the biggest pile of battlefield nukes we can find, chuck 'em into the anomaly, and see what happens?!"
Ritsuko winced at Misato's wording, but replied, "I wouldn't have put it quite that way... but in essence, yes."
Misato gestured vaguely at the main monitor, which still showed the black, shadow-like anomaly that had apparently absorbed most of downtown Worcester-3 (its spherical "shadow" still hovering, sentinel-like, above it). "You did remember there was an Evangelion inside there, right?"
"EVA-01's armor should be capable of bearing the stress, so long as the unit takes no direct hits," Ritsuko replied.
"And I suppose the shockwaves will just obligingly go around the pilot?" said Misato sardonically.
Ritsuko sighed as if pained by the necessity of pointing out the obvious. "Unit 01's life support reserve will have failed," here she checked her watch, "some time before we'll be able to mobilize that large a strike force. The important thing now is to disrupt that anomaly and get the unit back. At this point, the condition of the pilot cannot be taken into account in our operational planning."
That, for Misato, was the last straw. Her hand flew out and smacked Ritsuko hard across the side of her face, sending her glasses clattering to the floor. Ritsuko winced, raising her hand to her stinging cheek, then fired an acid glare right back at Misato.
"This is your fault, don't forget!"
"Why are you and Ikari so concerned about Unit 01?" Misato growled. "What is EVA?!"
"I already told you everything."
Misato grabbed the front of Ritsuko's top. "You're lying!"
Ritsuko angrily shook herself loose, and the two women stared at each other in silence for a long, hard moment.
"There's another alternative, you know," said a voice from the doorway. Ritsuko flinched as if struck again, turning away, as Ryoji Kaji leaned on the control room doorway, folded his arms and grinned.
"Who let you in here?" Misato inquired disdainfully.
"Such hostility," Kaji replied with a mock wounded look. "Is that any way to treat me? I can help you avoid having to blow up your boyfriend."
"He's not my boyfriend," Misato snapped. "This is a restricted area, Ryoji. Say your piece and get out."
"Well, look—has it occurred to anybody that you could just send another EVA after him?"
Ritsuko turned an icy glare on him. "And this other EVA would maneuver and find its way back how, exactly?"
"Unit 02's Type S equipment came back functional, didn't it? The maneuver thrusters should work."
"Assuming Newton's laws even apply in there," Ritsuko replied. "What about navigation?"
"That's the easy part," said Kaji with a smirk. "Send Rei. She can always find her way back to Jon."
Both women stared at Kaji as if he had suddenly grown a second head.
"Don't be ridiculous," Ritsuko said at length. "I won't risk a second pilot when we already stand a good chance of losing the first."
"Fine, OK," replied Kaji affably, spreading his hands in surrender. "Don't hurt me, just trying to help. It's what I do, y'know."
Ritsuko's eyes flashed, and for a moment she looked as if she might reply; then she turned away abruptly, folding her hands behind her back and concentrating on the main viewer.
"Major Katsuragi, your objection is noted. Mr. Kaji, this is a secured area, you'll have to leave immediately. John, contact X-COM Fort Devens. We'll need to coordinate the air strike with them."
Kaji shrugged and slipped away, leaving Misato to glare balefully at the back of her old roommate and wonder, not for the first time, what the hell was going on inside her head.
DJ knew he was dying. The LCL circulation pumps had stopped sometime during the brief nap that had ensued after he'd cried himself to sleep, and the LCL was cold around him. As it congealed it stank more and more heavily, a stench uncannily like that of fresh blood. It became harder to breathe, and soon it would be impossible. Even now he lacked the strength to raise his arm and illuminate the wrist chronograph on his plug suit, lacked the strength even to be afraid of the enclosing darkness or of his own impending death.
Instead, he felt strangely calm. It was not at all the way he'd expected to feel at his death. He had always intended to live life on his own terms, do as he damned well pleased, and go out with no regrets; but regret was foremost on his mind as he lay limply in his seat in the cold, stinking, silent pitch blackness of his entry plug and waited to die. Regret for the things he had't experienced, hadn't dared—he, DJ Croft, hadn't dared!—attempt, had lost to circumstance. Regret that he hadn't had the chance to say goodbye. Regret that he'd promised his mother he'd be careful and promptly gotten killed.
There's always a way out. In a hundred tight spots all over the world, Lara Croft had repeated those words to herself and her son, and as they searched, they would always find such a way. A way to win free of crumbling passages and smell the outside air, a way to evade the wild things or the guns of less scrupulous rivals and live to hunt treasure another day.
There's always a way out.
DJ put what remained of his attention span to work on that problem.
There's always a way out...
... The trick is finding it in time.
The sound of dozens of Raiden fighters circling overhead, armed with enough N2 bombs to raze all of New England, filled the air with an anticipatory growl as EVA-00, 02 and 03 took up their positions, just on the edge of the shadow, equidistantly spaced in order to focus their AT Fields most effectively and prevent the expected secondary explosion from damaging more of the battered city. Dawn was just beginning to streak the eastern sky with red as the operation commenced.
"Evangelion Unit 00, Moloch, in position," Jon reported, his voice betraying no emotion.
"Evangelion Unit 03, Orcus, in position," Rei followed, similarly stoic. The unit's reassembly had been completed hastily and TechDiv had warned her that she might experience sync problems, but she had insisted with the quiet forcefulness all at NERV had come to respect. The unit did feel a bit off-center, but it wasn't actively fighting her. It felt little different than Unit 02 had—passive rather than actively resistant, as Moloch had always been for her. Thanks to that, the slight misalignment of a few systems faded to triviality from her perspective.
"... Evangelion Unit 02, Grendel, in position," Asuka took a bit longer to add. The anxiety that Jon and Rei were not showing was seeping through her defenses. They all knew the potential risk in this operation. They all hoped they could beat the odds.
There's always a way out.
DJ turned that thought over in his mind for the fortieth time or so and felt it slip away. He was wheezing as he dragged the almost oily LCL into his lungs, then coughing it back out, feeling enervation seep out to the very ends of his limbs. His fingers were starting to feel numb.
It won't be long now, he thought. I guess Mum was wrong. There's no way out for me now but one.
With that thought, he gave up struggling to breathe and waited for the darkness and silence to become complete.
"All air forces report ready," Truss reported to Ritsuko. "60 seconds to drop."
"Good," Ritsuko replied evenly, ignoring the impact of Misato's glare against the side of her skull. "On my mark—"
But Ritsuko's order would go no further than that. Disregarding her instructions to the contrary, Rei Ayanami had set her EVA in motion, and was now walking purposefully toward the edge of the shadow.
"EVA-03, what are you doing?" Ritsuko called. "Get back to your position!"
Rei flicked a switch and let the control booth eat static. Eyes open, without fear, she walked into the shadow...
"No telemetry from Unit 03," said Maya tensely.
"Damn it all!" Ritsuko spat. "What the hell does she think she's doing?"
"Abort the bombardment," ordered Gendō Ikari.
"What? You're writing off two units?"
Ikari shook his head. "Rei wouldn't do something like this without a purpose. We will wait and see what it is."
"... You're the Commander," said Ritsuko dubiously. "Air units, this is NERV Control. Abort drop, repeat, abort."
In the cockpit of EVA-03, Rei Ayanami closed her eyes, cleared her thoughts, and tried to feel some hint of Lucifer and its pilot in the surrounding void.
DJ... I'm here.
In the shadows, something heard. Ahead, twin lights flashed—Lucifer's eyes. Rei stretched out her thoughts, pushed them against the distorting, reluctantly yielding resistance of the darkness separating the units, but what touched her mind first was not DJ.
"Lucifer... " she whispered, her eyes opening, pupils contracted to pinpoints.
Reilael, said the voice. Help me.
Outside, Jon stared at the dark surface of the shadow, battling the rising panic that always threatened to overtake him now when Rei's calm presence in his mind was cut off. He looked at his intercom monitor; Asuka, knowing his fear and wracked with her own, looked back, trying her best to reassure him.
Their ruminations were interrupted by the sudden violent convulsion of the ground underfoot. And if that didn't get their attention, then the sudden fragmenting of the shadow's surface most certainly did: all across the giant expanse huge rifts tore open, exposing what looked like glowing reddish rock underneath and spraying a red mist into the air which looked disturbingly like blood.
"What's happening?!" Asuka gasped. "We didn't do anything!"
"Could it be DJ or Rei?" Misato turned to Ritsuko.
"Impossible!" Ritsuko replied. "EVA-01's power is completely depleted, and the production models have never demonstrated—"
And if the "ground" splitting open in a shower of blood was not disturbing, what happened next most assuredly was: up above, the reflective sphere which was the attacker's "shadow" shook violently, like a Jell-O mold being subjected to massive seismic shock. Then the striping pattern faded, leaving nothing but a solid black surface which began to warp and distend on one side.
In the next instant, a blade clenched slash-fashion in an armored fist punched through, sending a fountain of red cascading outwards. Then another blade-clutching fist began hacking at the surface of the sphere, ripping it apart. More lacerations began to decorate the surface of the sphere, each spewing a fountain of blood as, its eyes brilliantly glowing, Orcus hacked its way out of the shadow.
With the exception of Jon, who just stared evenly at this occurrence, everyone gaped in mute shock as the black EVA, its AT Field rippling along its surface like bluewhite fire, doubled its efforts to tear the attacker to shreds, pressing home its vicious attack in total, eerie silence.
"Am I piloting something like... >that?" Asuka mumbled, paralyzed by the barbaric sight.
"What... what did we copy it from...?" Ritsuko mumbled, similarly paralyzed but for different reasons. Misato said nothing. She looked up at the carnage evenly, too many thoughts on her mind to allow for paralysis.
It's not just a copy of the First Angel, I'm sure of that, she thought. But... what happens when we've defeated all the Angels?
The intruder's body could take no more, and the sphere exploded, showering the city in gore. In the midst of the carnage Lucifer, coated in blood, dropped to ground level, lying inert on its face. Orcus landed and stood over its fallen comrade amid the devastation, its fists tightly clenched around its dripping blades and its eyes still glowing brightly—its whole body still glowing, though with much less fire than before. It had accomplished what it set out to do. For now, the Prince of the Abyss was satisfied.
Lucifer's entry plug was quickly ejected and opened. The LCL, milky and clouded, spilled out across the torn earth. The fresh soil only strengthened the perception of the smell of blood that accompanied it.
The moment the LCL had drained, Misato dove through the open hatch and shook DJ. "DJ! Breathe! You can't die!"
DJ coughed and sputtered a bit. "Mi... Misato? Wha... What are you doing here?"
"Oh, you fool!" Misato threw herself across DJ, hugged him as best she could, and began sobbing in earnest.
DJ coughed once more, then lapsed back into unconciousness in Misato's arms.
"I never thought of the EVAs as frightening, until today," Ritsuko said, still rattled from the recent encounter. She stood on the catwalk with Dr. Ikari, watching as EVA-03 was bathed from head to foot by high-pressure water spray, washing the blood and gore away. "I wonder if it's even on our side. It might hate us."
Ikari did not reply, merely kept looking up at the Evangelion as the washdown continued. Ritsuko wondered if it was looking back at them, what it was thinking about them.
"Major Katsuragi may know something," she continued.
"It's all right, for now," Ikari responded.
Ritsuko was not entirely convinced. If she discovers the secrets, she thought to herself, if any of them do...
Through the rest of the day, as the children tried to sleep and TechDiv, fighting off sleep, pored over pages and pages of data generated by the newest attack, Misato Katsuragi sat in her office, researching with a fervor she'd not demonstrated since her college days, when Ritsuko had bet her she couldn't make a better score on a a history-of-computing midterm. Just what Misato won is a story for another day; the point is, she won.
What she learned in that byegone evening was, in places, surprising, but it had not come together to form the same sort of picture she was getting now.
They don't want me to know the truth, she thought to herself with a satisfied smile, but they don't realize how many separate pieces I can get with my security clearance...
Or, she continued, frowning, they don't think I'm smart enough to put them together.
Her smile returned, and took on a certain hard-edged cruelty, as she kept digging.
If that's what they thought, they were in for a very ugly shock.
With this thought foremost in her mind, Misato headed for the commissary to get some coffee. Darkness was again gathering outside and her body and brain clamored for sleep, but she wasn't willing to stop yet.
Ritsuko stood at the far end of the commissary, staring blankly at the vidscreen which played a news report of the day's attack. Lost in thought she barely registered the report, her coffee mug neglected in her hand. She'd been standing like that for an indeterminate period, her mind playing a slideshow of images, over and over. Going to the bar; Kaji's grinning face; EVA-03 tearing itself free; trying to resist; the "thing" exploding and showering the city in blood; DJ falling out of his entry plug nearly lifeless; the videogame; more besides. Over and over, in new orders and combinations. So absorbed, she didn't notice Misato approaching until she spoke.
"Kaji really got the better of you, didn't he?"
Ritsuko jumped, her mug falling to the floor, shattering. Ceramic and coffee struck her legs seemingly unnoticed. With real fright she spun to face Misato. "What?!"
Misato, still angry from her altercation with Ritsuko earlier, missed the real depth of Ritsuko's reaction. "Today, in the control room. Approved or not, his idea worked. Who knows what would have happened if they'd carried your plan out. DJ might well be dead." Misato's eyes narrowed. "Not that you'd care."
Still disoriented by her own thoughts, part of her was still trying to figure out how Misato could have known what had happened the previous night, Ritsuko wasn't prepared to deal with the real subject of the conversation.
"What? That... Well, I couldn't very well risk..."
"You wouldn't risk, you mean. 'At this point, the condition of the pilot cannot be taken into account in our operational planning.' That's a damn cold thing to say."
"What did you want me to do? Keep sending them in until we ran out of EVAs? That's the kind of thing you'd do, Misato. Leap before looking."
"Well maybe its because I actually care about the pilots. Are the EVAs all you can think about?"
"The mission comes first. That's the way it is. We can ill afford to lose either EVAs or pilots, but we especially can't be throwing them away on a fool's errand!"
Misato's eyes first went wide in shock, then narrowed with rage. "A fool's errand?!" she hissed. "Is that what it was to you? Does life mean so little to you?"
The color was rising in Ritsuko's cheeks now. "Maybe I'm just too responsible to risk another child's life on a mission into the complete unknown. Yes, it worked, fine. But what if it hadn't? What if we were even now mourning the loss of DJ and Rei?" Ritsuko took a step closer to Misato, fragments of mug crunching under foot. "But then, what would you know about responsibility? You can't even keep your charges from fucking each other!"
Misato recoiled as if slapped, then leaned forward to bring her face close to Ritsuko's. "I'd like to see you do a better job of it. You can't relate to anything that isn't mechanical. Maybe if you loosened up once in a while you wouldn't be such a frigid bitch!" Misato stood back, hands on her hips and a feral grin on her face. "You know, I never thought I'd say this, but I'm glad Kaji won. You got just what you deserved!"
Misato, not knowing the double meaning of what she'd just said, was at a bit of a loss to explain what happened next. She'd expected a strong reation, sure; after all, she'd meant her comment to sting... but not to elicit the reaction she got.
Ritsuko just froze, the color draining from her face, then she pushed past Misato and fled the room. Misato could have sworn she'd seen tears welling in Ritsuko's eyes as she pushed her aside.
"What the hell?" Misato asked the empty room.
Slowly, painfully, DJ Croft wandered back toward consciousness. He was vaguely aware that this was something he did not want to do, but by then it was too late; his eyes were opening.
"Oh, not this bloody ceiling again," he murmured, surveying the infirmary's dull gray tiles.
Soon, he knew, the medics would realize that he had regained consciousness. Soon the Operations staff would be alerted. Soon, the questions would begin.
He didn't want to deal with any of that right now.
By the time they arrived, he was gone. Misato got there first, to find an empty bed with a note on the pillow:
Apologies for shocking cock-up; haven't been myself lately. Off for a bit of a think. Don't come bothering me or you'll bugger it up. Expect me when you see me.
"Damn it all," Misato growled, crushing the note in her hand. So many things she wanted to talk to him about, and he had to go disappearing at a time like this?
DJ sat on his motorcycle at the top of Bancroft Hill, watching the sun set over Worcester-3. It felt a hollow gesture, with no one else there to enjoy the view with him.
I shouldn't have left, he decided after turning the matter over in his head for a while. He was mostly recovered from his ordeal, physically, but he felt... wrong. Hollow inside, and unsteady—not on his feet, but as if he made the slightest wrong move mentally, he'd tumble off into some dark pit. He needed the company of people.
But what people? He'd driven Asuka into a rage with some remarkably-poorly-chosen words. Misato was sure to be upset over his operational stupidity, and anyway, he had no idea how he would take seeing her right now. And Rei...
... He didn't quite know how to face Rei after what had happened in the void. He'd felt something as he slipped into what he thought would be the final unconsciousness—now he knew what Jon meant when he spoke of the touch of Rei's mind to his own. She'd come into the void, she'd reached out for him somehow, and she'd found him. Found him in the depths of his despair, having given up all hope of survival—having committed, in his own eyes, the ultimate sin.
She had touched his soul at the lowest depth he'd ever sunk to. Could he ever look her in the eye again? Just thinking about it made his heart ache.
Amy would listen. Even if she didn't understand, she would listen. She would care. Her viewpoint, uncluttered by the baggage brought with involvement with NERV, would see him through the mess and she would tell him where he really stood.
When he arrived at her house, he found it curiously dark and silent. Checking his watch, he confirmed his initial thought, that it was far too early for the Andersons to have retired for the evening. Also, the doctor's Mercedes was gone.
His heart was already sinking as he noticed the realtor's sign in the yard.
"Oh, no," he said, but it came out as more of a moan. Not wanting to believe, he mounted the front steps and knocked, then pounded, on the door, calling Amy's name.
Presently, the porch light on the house next door came on, and an elderly man poked his head out.
"They're gone, fella," the oldster remarked.
"Where?" DJ replied.
The man shrugged. "Don't know. Packed everything up and headed out of here two days ago. Scared off by that orange fallin' thing, I expect. Lots of folks leaving town after that."
"What?! Two days—packed everything?"
The man nodded. "Big truck and the whole nine yards. Mark me, son, they ain't comin' back. It ain't safe in this town any more. Me, I was born here, I expect I'll die here, but a lot of people don't have that kind of attachment any more."
DJ merely stood and stared blankly at the door to what had been the Anderson residence, so the old man retired into his house and switched off the porch light.
With nowhere else to go, he rode on mental autopilot to the Howard Johnson an I-290 exit closer to downtown, checked in, and went to his room.
Ordinarily, the Worcester-3 Howard Johnson was not DJ's kind of hotel. The room was clean and comfortably fitted, but it was small, and the fittings were old. The door didn't even automatically lock, and DJ, still in a bit of a haze, didn't bother locking it. Who was going to come in, anyway?
Feeling confined by his clothes, DJ undressed and slipped beneath the covers. He lay in bed with his hands behind his head, and contemplated just exactly what a mess his life had become. The results did not encourage him.
At 22 Lee Street, Apartment 3-F, Jon Ellison and Rei Ayanami sat on the sofa. Each appeared to be reading, but neither had turned a page in rather a long time.
Suddenly, Rei looked up, her eyes focused on some invisible distance; then they narrowed thoughtfully. Without a word, she lifted Anubis from her lap and placed him in Jon's, got up, went to the kitchen, got her coat, took Jon's keys from the pocket of his own, and left the apartment.
Jon watched her go, and though he wasn't entirely sure where she was headed, it somehow failed to occur to him to ask. Instead he scratched behind Newbie's ears for a moment, then resumed reading.
He was interrupted again a few moments later, as the divider between apartments opened and Asuka entered.
"Hi, Jon," she said, unusually subdued.
"Hello, Asuka," Jon replied, gesturing for her to sit, which she did, at the other end of the couch.
She looked rumpled, as if she'd slept, or tried to sleep, in the same clothing she'd worn home from Central Dogma that morning, and her eyes were red from crying. For a few moments, she tried to put into words what she was feeling, but the attempt failed, and after a few further failed attempts, Asuka resorted to her usual bluster.
"How could he do something so stupid?!" she burst out. "Running off into a fight without waiting for backup! He should know better than that. Stupid!"
"I'm sure he knows that," Jon said flatly. "He was full of himself, acted rashly, didn't play as part of the team, and he nearly paid for it with his life. Quite possibly the stupidest thing I've seen him do."
"Um, yeah..." Asuka replied, suddenly remembering that fight in the locker room and feeling like an accomplice in the whole debacle. This served to knock most of the wind from her sails, and she sank down onto the couch next to Jon, sighing loudly. "I wonder where the hell he went?" She properly noticed then that Rei did not appear to be here either. "And where's Rei?"
Jon had been wondering about that himself in the time since Rei had abruptly departed, but only now did he reach any kind of solid conclusion. "I think..." he said, choosing his words carefully. "I think she went looking for him."
Asuka looked at him, and the look in her eyes told Jon that her imagination was conjuring up some inappropriate visuals to go with that thought. She seemed further mystified by the fact that Jon did not appear outwardly concerned with the whole thing. He was on the point of saying something when she asked him: "Aren't you worried?"
"No," he replied. Confused, maybe, but he wasn't going to bring that up right now.
Asuka wasn't going to let it go that easily. "But what if they... um..." she trailed off, the color rising in her cheeks.
"They won't." (Well, he couldn't be sure of that, but for both their sakes this was not the time to go down that road.) "They're on a different level: she's more like a guardian angel to him..." he trailed off for a second, then chuckled. "What do you know, I finally figured it out."
"Something Rei said once; it's a long story." What exactly she'd said could wait for later; now was not the time. "Something she said to us a long time back, before you got here."
"She's so strange... and I know she fascinates him." Asuka sighed heavily, looking less angry and more miserable now. "It... it worries me. She could take him away if she wanted to, I know she could."
"She wouldn't do that. What possible benefit would there be in interfering with what you and DJ have? Besides..." the color rose in his face a bit. "...we're happy with each other."
Having given vent to one of her anxieties, though, Asuka was on a roll. "What about Amy? He spends a lot of time with her too."
"They are just friends, Asuka." This at least he could be 100% certain of. "I've seen them working at school. She's on a different level too, and DJ needs friends outside of the program to stay stable." Abruptly he was confronted with the unpleasant notion that the Anderson family might well have been one of the families which moved out after the orbital Angel attack. That might have had something to do with the problems tonight, were it true. "But she can't understand our private world, not the way you can."
"We had an argument right before the operation," Asuka said. "We both said some pretty mean things. I think he was still angry when he... he screwed up. I... oh, hell, I all but accused him of having something going on with Misato, and he told me if that were the case why would have have bothered with me?" She sniffed, fighting back fresh tears, still trying to be strong, then chuckled bitterly. "I have to admit he's got a point there."
"You shouldn't take that personally," said Jon, moving a bit closer to his teammate. "It's just..." Jon considered his words carefully before continuing, "Your relationship... took him by surprise." And everybody else, too, he didn't bother adding. "I don't think he's quite realized that yet."
Tears were flowing freely down Asuka's cheeks now. "I'm sorry, it's just... just so hard sometimes. I've been alone since my parents died, and all I've ever known is piloting EVA. Just another tool to be used, no one to trust, no one to rely on—except myself. It isn't easy for me. I... I don't trust people easily. I don't think I could take being hurt like that, not now."
"... I know, Asuka." Jon moved a bit closer still. "I haven't seen my mother since I was about six... and I never knew my father. The people I grew up with told me I could only count on myself if I wanted to survive, and my mother always told me to be very careful who I trusted. For a long time I didn't trust anyone at all... until I met Rei, and DJ and Misato..." He risked placing a hand on her shoulder. "And you. You've saved my life before, and I would trust you with it again. DJ and Rei would do the same."
Asuka looked back into his bright green eyes, and heard the words which displayed a considerable trust in Rei Ayanami, and realized that all this time she'd never really talked to him on any level other than that of a combat partner. The rest of the time it was Reject, or Freak, or Conformist. She was feeling increasingly foolish, and small, and the idea of crawling into a hole somewhere was growing increasingly appealing. "Must be nice to be able to trust someone so completely..." she mumbled, her voice small.
"Do you trust me? As your marksman? As a friend?"
She nodded mutely.
"Then listen to what I have to say: you have nothing to fear from Rei Ayanami. Trust her, as you trust me, and most of all, trust DJ. We won't hurt you. Ever." He had taken her hand in his to emphasize the point.
Asuka looked down at their hands. Trust. The word seemed to echo in her mind, and the more she thought about it the more she realized how much she needed it now. The old defenses weren't working anymore.
"Would you do me a favor?" Her voice was little more than a whisper, the lower half of her face quite damp.
"Anything," he answered, and the next thing he knew Asuka had wrapped her arms firmly around him and clung tightly, crying into his shoulder. "... oh," he murmured, and out of simple instinct hugged Asuka in return, realizing at the same time how badly he was in need of someone to hold on to at that moment. He could almost feel the torment Asuka was certainly going through, and quietly wished for her to be well.
As the latest wave of tears subsided, Asuka felt as if the pain and uncertainty were being washed away, warmth creeping in from somewhere to fill the void, slowly overtaking her awareness. She could feel the steady thump of Jon's heartbeat as she nestled against him, which only served to make her feel even more tired. She could have sworn she'd gotten a decent sleep... not that it mattered, really... this was nice...
Jon looked down to discover that Asuka had fallen asleep in his arms. Anubis was sitting nearby, looking up at them curiously. "Well this is interesting," Jon remarked to the dog.
"woof," the dog remarked back.
Something else seemed to get his attention then, and he padded over to the halfway-open door between the apartments, sitting there and looking up at something, his tail thumping against the carpet. Didn't take much guesswork to figure what he was looking at.
"Sorry," whispered Misato from the doorway. "I didn't mean to eavesdrop, but... well, I got home, and nobody was..." She sighed. "Well, I guess I did, actually."
Jon shrugged. "No great harm done, I suppose. Can you give me a hand?"
With an effort, Jon and Misato managed to carry Asuka back to her bedroom. More water threatened to escape from her closed eyes as some less than pleasant dream occupied her mind: "...DJ ..." she whimpered, her grip on Jon tightening as Jon tried to extricate himself and set her down. "Lass mich nicht... bitte..."
"shh..." Jon whispered soothingly in her ear. "Bitte ruhe, kleiner Engel... dein Liebchen wird bald zurückkommen... schlaefst du dann."
"Liebchen..." Asuka mumbled. "Ich liebe..." At last, restful sleep seemed to overtake her again, her grip on Jon relaxing enough that he could pry himself loose and, with Misato's help, finish the job of putting her to bed.
As DJ lay on his back and stared at the ceiling, invisible in the darkness of the hotel room, he was startled to see and hear the hotel room door opening. It cast a harsh rectangle of light on the floor, and then closed just as quickly. Unable to see a thing since the brief flash of light had wrecked his night vision, DJ could nevertheless feel and identify the presence of someone else in the darkened room from long familiarity. The presence's identity filled him with surprise.
"Hello, Rei," he said softly. "How did you find me?"
"I don't know," Rei replied. He felt her draw nearer, felt her slight weight push down on the side of the bed. "I followed your pain." Her hand, cool and strong, found his own and held it. "You needed someone."
"I don't know what I need any more," DJ replied, and the admission caught him by surprise even as he said it.
Rei half-turned and looked down at his face; now that his eyes had readjusted to the darkness he could see her eyes glittering in the dim glow of the city lights through the window.
"Do you need me?" she asked him quietly. "Would you like to... to join with me?"
There was a long moment of silence as the question sank into DJ's unexpecting brain. He looked puzzled, then startled.
"What did you say?" he whispered, his eyes searching her face in the dark.
The question echoed in his brain. In a flash, a memory he'd been disconnected from tumbled back into his mind. White light, painfully bright—Rei, naked, her eyes questioning. Her voice inside his head, not in his ears:
Would you like to join with me? Would you like to join your essence to mine? It won't hurt. It will show you the truth. I know who you are. Let me show you who I am.
What does it want?
What does it mean?
What was my answer?
A blinding flash.
The vision ended, but this time it didn't sink out of his conscious memory. Though he was back with himself he remembered it all. He opened his eyes to see Rei, still looking down at him, her eyes full of concern.
"What's wrong?" Rei whispered. "Why did you scream? Did I offend you?"
"No... no... I saw something. I remembered something. Your question... triggered it, that's all." He slumped back against the mattress, looking up at the ceiling. "Now, if I could only figure out what the Christ it meant."
"Tell me," said Rei; in her soft voice it was almost a command. He told her.
"The truth..." she murmured, a faraway look in her eyes.
"I wasn't getting a lot of oxygen at that point," DJ remarked. "Could be the whole thing was just my brain twitching."
"Possible," Rei replied, but her tone was dubious.
We must tell him, she told herself. He knows so much already... and he could tip the scales.
"Why?" DJ murmured.
"Why?" Rei repeated, puzzled.
"Why did you ask me that?" DJ wondered.
"I want to help you in any way that I can. If you need that kind of comfort, I can provide it."
DJ blinked. "OK, well, can't argue with that logic. I thought... you and Jon... "
Rei smiled slightly. "I love Jon very much," she said. "He is... " She searched momentarily for the right word. "He is my soul mate. He and I are alike... joined forever."
"Well, then, why—?"
She looked into his eyes and replied calmly, "Jon and I both love you, DJ. You have done more for us than you can ever understand. We owe you more than we can repay." She paused, choosing her words carefully, and then added, "It seemed right."
DJ reached up and cupped her cheek in his palm, feeling the cool smoothness of her skin, and looked long and hard at her calm and beautiful face. Emotions he couldn't begin to catalog welled up within him, and then something snapped and he was crying like a baby, chanting in time with his sobs.
"I'm sorry... I'm sorry..."
As he cried, Rei helped him up, then held him for a while; as his sobs subsided, she turned back the covers and removed her clothing.
As she slipped into bed beside him, DJ felt his eyes filling with tears again, and he let a brief sob escape.
"No," he whispered. "I'm sorry. I can't. I can't. I'm sorry..."
"I understand," said Rei as she snuggled close against his side, putting an arm across his chest and nestling her chin against his shoulder. "I will simply stay with you. You mustn't be left alone tonight; solitude would kill you."
Her embrace became a notch tighter as she went on, with surprising steel in her soft voice,
"I will not let that happen."
The statement shocked DJ lucid again, and abruptly, everything that had vexed him for the last several days seemed perfectly clear.
"You're a wonderful person, Rei Ayanami," said DJ quietly, putting his own arm under her and hugging her gently with it. "Don't ever let anyone make you believe otherwise."
"I don't... anymore," she replied.
DJ would have thought more carefully about that statement, but he was already falling asleep, so it filtered into his unconscious for later examination.
Rei remained awake for several minutes after DJ dropped off, listening to and feeling his strong, even breathing.
He has a noble, honest heart, she mused. He deserves to know the whole truth.
And he will.
With that promise in her mind, she fell asleep as well, and dreamed of Jon.
"Didn't know you knew German," Misato remarked quietly as she and Jon sat in the kitchen of Apartment 3-D.
"You grow up on a military base where several languages are spoken regularly, you tend to pick up a few things," Jon replied, shrugging.
"What did you say to her, anyway?"
"'Quiet, little angel, your lover will come back soon, sleep now.'"
"What'd she say before?" Misato asked though she hadn't meant to, and mentally kicked herself. The context was damned obvious enough, wasn't it?
Jon answered anyway: "'Please don't leave me.'"
Misato was quiet for a moment, then her shoulders slumped. "God, I feel old."
Jon wasn't entirely certain how to reply to that, and so settled instead for a trip to the refrigerator, extracting a Pepsi for himself and a Guinness for Misato. "Beer?"
"You know me too well," Misato said wearily, accepting the can from Jon and joining him at the table. Jon had popped the tab on his soda can and Misato was about to recpirocate, but instead found herself just looking down at the unopened can and feeling increasingly depressed. It wasn't the same without DJ there. She sighed.
Why does it always come back to DJ?
"You want to talk about it?" Jon asked quietly, and Misato realized she must have been staring at the can for some time. The color rose in her face for a moment and she fought it back down.
"Not even sure what I want to talk about," she mumbled, staring at the wood grain in the table as if she hoped to see her fortune in it. It seemed as if a good portion of her world had recently spiraled out of control and she was at a loss as to how to get a leash back on it.
"Have to start somewhere," Jon offered.
Misato seemed not to notice he'd spoken for a moment; instead she sat back in her chair and regarded the can in her hand for a few more seconds, then set it down on the table with a dull clunk. When she spoke, it was more to herself than to Jon.
"His mother said he'd caught himself another heart..." Misato sighed heavily. "How right she was."
Jon hadn't been present for the discussion in question, but he could hardly fail to realize its subject. He regarded Misato for a moment. "You care about him a lot," he stated. It wasn't a question.
"Probably more than I should," Misato answered, looking faintly ashamed of herself. "I feel like I should have said something, done something... maybe none of this would have happened."
"Why must everyone persist in acting as though something bad has happened?"
"Said what?" Jon replied. "And how were you supposed to know this was going to happen? I don't think anyone did."
"I... I don't know," Misato huffed in frustration. "I just feel like I should have. I should have understood them better, I should have been here... I... oh, hell, I don't know, I'm just talking."
Jon had to remind himself that the touch of someone else's mind, and the instinctive understanding that came with that, was a luxury very few people—certainly no one here—had.
"Misato... I won't pretend I'm an authority on this stuff, but... at this point I think I'm the closest one to this whole mess." That wasn't saying a whole lot, sure, but it was the truth, and Misato seemed willing to listen to anything right then. "I'll tell you what I told Asuka: this whole business took him by surprise. It took everybody by surprise, and that includes Asuka. I don't think either of them meant for this to happen, but it did, and now they're trying to figure out just what it really means to them." He sighed. "All this screeching about it probably hasn't helped any. They need to work this out, and I think they'll have a better time of it if we can all just back off and let them find their center. Whatever that ends up being."
"So where does that leave the rest of us?" Misato sighed, still not put at ease. "I still feel like I blew it."
"I don't see how you could be responsible at all," Jon replied. "As I recall, it was Dr. Ikari who flew off the handle."
"That he did," Misato answered thoughtfully, more pieces of that particular puzzle working at fitting themselves together in the back of her mind. The shouting match, the rather hostile memo that followed, then she'd found out it was Asuka, Ikari had had a meeting with Rei... and then the whole thing had been forgotten about.
"I'd wager you wouldn't be saying that if I were Jon."
... Of course.
"He doesn't want DJ anywhere near Rei, does he?"
"He doesn't want anything to interfere with either of us," Jon replied, bitterness seeping into his tone for a moment. "And he hasn't come out and said it but he's very intent on our starting a relationship."
Misato looked at him, raising an eyebrow. "That's creepy."
Jon shrugged. "It's science, or at least Professor Ikari thinks it is."
Misato looked quizzical for a moment, then snapped her fingers. "You're Project Ascension."
Jon nodded gravely. "I didn't think you were cleared for that."
Misato grinned a not-entirely-friendly grin. "I'm not."
That elicited a smile from Jon. "Seems like everyone here is looking for something they're not supposed to know," he said wryly. Then, becoming serious again, he went on, "Yes, Rei and I suspect we're the key part of Project Ascension. I guess we're supposed to be the new Adam and Eve or something: new breed of humans who can connect to each other on a measurable psychic level, increased understanding of the world, promote the greater good of mankind and all that."
"I could think of better ways of going about that agenda," Misato said.
"I guess they think the end will justify the means."
"Well I'm not impressed," Misato said flatly.
"... Neither am I," Jon replied. "I don't like the idea of being used... and I hate the idea of Rei being used. It's one thing if she loves me for herself, but if she didn't, Ikari would be trying to force us together anyway." Jon's eyes narrowed in the first flash of genuine anger Misato could remember having seen from him. "I don't like the thought of that."
The look and the statement triggered another memory in Misato's mind, another part of the transcript she had read in Ikari's angry memo:
"I've got half a mind to take the others with me when I go."
"Jon... have you ever... thought about leaving? The two of you?"
"Several times," Jon answered. "But where would we go and what would we do? Rei and I have always been part of this program; it's all we have, all we've ever known. And besides, it's either put up with this, or let Third Impact happen. I think the choice is pretty clear."
"Mm. I've never been too clear on exactly what the Second Impact was, come to that. Oh, sure, I know the cover story about the asteroid, but I was there, I know it wasn't anything like that. Just another thing I'm not cleared for... but I've decided it's time I found out anyway."
"SEELE have always been secretive," said Jon.
"Tell me about it. Until today I didn't even know that NERV used to be part of X-COM, or that SEELE all but commandeered it and all the technology developed in the study of the Second Impact. Commander Ikari's wife and Ritsuko's mother were right in the middle of all that... and they're both dead now." Misato scowled. "I'm as big a believer in coincidence as anybody, but to me, that stinks."
Jon nodded. "It certainly seems that SEELE went to great lengths to wrest control of the project from X-COM, but no one on X-COM's side has ever been able to determine why."
"That's what I'm going to find out next," said Misato.
"I think..." Jon spoke tentatively. "I'm thinking two heads might be better that one. Or maybe three." He angled his eyes in the general direction of one of Hal's sensors.
Misato regarded the boy for a moment. There was merit in what he said; he certainly deserved to know what plans the people in charge seemed to have for him, and for Rei. And his own intimate knowledge of X-COM and the training he'd acquired there would be quite helpful in these efforts.
And, well, there were very few stable anchors left in NERV. Lord knew Misato needed one now, and Jon had proved to be nothing if not stable. She reached across the table and took Jon's hand. "Done," she said, and her smile was warm again.
Feeling the strength of her handhold, Jon sensed that she needed a little bit more than a handshake, so he got up and moved closer. The understanding in his eyes told Misato everything she needed to know, and she stood up and hugged him tightly. It was a wonderful experience, and in the back of her mind she wondered how long it had been since there had been any kind of real warmth in her life. She felt greatly relieved... and a little drowsy too, she realized as she wobbled a bit on her feet.
"Are you all right?"
"Er, yeah..." she said. "Just felt tired all of a sudden."
"I seem to have that effect on people," Jon said with a wry grin, and Misato tried to chuckle, though it ended up being a yawn.
"Gah, I must've been up longer than I thought..."
"You get some sleep," Jon smiled. "I'll mind the store."
"Thanks, Jon," said Misato, stifling another yawn. "We'll talk more about this soon."
Jon nodded as Misato waved goodnight and went into her room.
"... what a day," Jon wheezed as he sank down onto the couch, turning his attention to Pen-Pen and Newbie, the only remaining conscious beings in the place. "What do you guys think of this?"
"Waugh!" the penguin replied.
"Woof!" the dog concurred.
"Me too," Jon replied wryly. He sat in silence for a moment, considering his options. He didn't feel like reading. Rei had taken his car (NERV having seen fit to retroactively 'requisition' that Avenger from Harr Dodge), so he couldn't go far. It was too early to go to bed.
He turned his attention toward the glowing red sensor. "Hal?"
"Yes, Jon?" the computer's calm voice replied.
"Are you up for a game of chess?"
For a very brief instant, upon first awakening, DJ felt awkward. Here he was, after all, in a room in a cheap motel, waking up in the morning with someone in his arms who was not, technically speaking, his lover. That feeling passed in an instant with the full memory of the events of the evening before, and thereafter there was no room in his heart for awkwardness. Rei's face was right before his own, and so composed in sleep that she surpassed even her usual impassiveness in serenity. He remained still, watching her sleep, rolling the events of the previous evening over and over in his mind. Part of him realized that common propriety insisted he extricate himself decorously, but he was too loath to disturb her, and remained where he was, enjoying the warmth and closeness, savoring the powerful emotions that rolled through him as he looked at her face.
Presently she stirred, and slowly opened her eyes. An electric thrill ran through DJ as she raised them to his own. Suddenly the ethereal feeling was broken, and he was acutely aware of their less-than-decorous position. With a stammered apology, he made as if to back away and extricate himself.
Rei would have none of that, though, and tightened her arms around him, pulling him closer, into a firm, warm embrace that he soon found himself instinctively returning. For a few long minutes, the two held each other as though they would never let go; but eventually they did, and Rei drew back to look at his face. To his surprise and delight, she was smiling that rare and beautiful smile, her red eyes gleaming in the light coming through the curtains.
"How do you feel?" she asked softly.
DJ considered his answer to that question for a moment or two, then said, "I'm alive." Remembering the black pit of despair he'd been staring into the night before, he shivered a bit and added, "Thanks to you."
She hugged him again, and whispered into his ear, "You're welcome." Then, releasing him and drawing back again, she went on, "We should go home. The others must be worrying."
They dressed in silence; but as they were about to leave, DJ put out a hand and stopped Rei.
"Hm?" Rei inquired, turning to face him again.
"Rei... what you learned of me in the void yesterday... you saw a side of me I don't often see myself. It's not something I'm very proud of... I..."
He trailed off as she placed a fingertip against his lips.
"I'll never speak of it," she said.
He smiled. "Thank you."
They arrived home to find Misato in the kitchen of 3-D, trying her hand at a rare bit of cooking (and, from the look of things, not doing very well). A play of emotions too complex to read passed over her face when she saw DJ, rumpled, his eyes still hollowed from the emotional gauntlet he'd run, but steady on his feet and with something of his old strength back in his eyes. Chief among the emotions at play, though, was relief, and she was still trying to decide what to say when he beat her to it.
"Hullo, Misato," he said. "I'm sorry I was such an ass yesterday. I, er... had a lot on my mind."
To her credit as an administrator, Misato tried, honestly tried, to be stern. "You gave us all quite a turn, disappearing like that. I'm not even going to go into what you did wrong on the mission."
DJ nodded. "I know, I'm sorry. I had some things I had to think about, on my own."
To her credit as a person, Misato didn't try too hard to stay stern. Seeing DJ's honest remorse, the uncharacteristic hesitation in his eyes, she dropped all pretense of being his superior officer and drew him into a hug.
"Welcome home, then," she said.
"Thank you," he replied, returning the embrace. When they separated, his eyes were wet.
Misato looked at DJ then, and, for the first time, truly understood his vulnerability. He was without pretense, all his usual easygoing insulation stripped away. He was uncertain of his footing and of his motivation for the first time in her experience with him. She knew then that, if she wanted, she could alter his course. With a word, she could make him abandon all that had gone before, and make him her own.
She gazed at him long and hard, with a look in her eyes he would not understand until a long time later, and then, finally, she spoke.
"Asuka's in her room," she said. "Why don't you go and talk to her?"
DJ looked dubious. "You're sure that's a good idea."
"Better than the alternative," Misato replied. "I can't imagine you want to leave her hurting. That's not the DJ I know."
"No... no it isn't," replied DJ. Squaring his shoulders, he squeezed her hand once, then went into the hallway.
Over the past six months, Misato Katsuragi had watched DJ Croft go into battle with otherworldly enemies possessed of powers beyond human comprehension, aided only by an ill-understood and temperamental technology only five people on Earth could control; but she had never felt as proud of him as she did now, or feared for him as much.
And watching him go to fight those battles had never given her such an aching feeling of loss, either.
She turned to see Rei Ayanami watching her. As Misato's eyes met hers, Rei smiled, almost imperceptibly, and nodded.
Seeing that, for some reason, Misato felt a little better, and a little closer to Rei than she ever had before.
"Come on," said Rei softly. "Let's get Jon and go have breakfast. My treat."
Misato regarded the sorry remains of her latest culinary attempt wryly, then grinned. "Sure."
DJ knocked, but got no answer. The door was unlocked, so he opened it a bit, poked his head in and called her name softly:
"Go away," came the muffled reply. Asuka was still in bed, facing away from the door, her face half-buried in a pillow, and she did not turn as he entered despite her command.
"Asuka, I came to apologize."
"I was tired, confused. What I said was unwarranted and cruel. I'm sorry."
DJ sat down on the edge of the bed and put his hand on her shoulder. "Look, would you at least look at me, please? I can hardly fling myself upon your mercy if you won't even look at me."
Finally, Asuka turned to face him. Her face was unreadable—not angry, not glad to see him either. She looked mostly confused, and sad.
"I didn't want to love you," she said softly. "I had other plans. I'd read your dossier, watched your combat films. I knew you were good—maybe as good as me, maybe even better. I was ready to hate you... but... you wouldn't let me. When I abused you, you gave it right back, but always calmly, always in control. No one's ever done that. I didn't know how to react to it."
"Let me finish," she interrupted. "I started to realize that you were a lot like me, and I envied you for the things you have that I don't... your mother, your closeness to Misato and the others, the way nothing ever seems to bother you. Suddenly I wanted... wanted you to know me that well. I haven't let anyone get close to me since my parents died, sometimes I think I forgot how, but you ignored my usual defenses and walked right into my heart. I've been thinking about it a lot since we argued, and I know now what made me ask you what I asked you."
She paused, then took his hand and said, "Damn you, DJ Croft. I didn't want to love you, but I do."
DJ looked at her in silence for several seconds, stunned by all that she'd revealed. When he finally did speak, what came out of his mouth was so unutterably lame he briefly wished for a thunderbolt to strike him down for coming up with nothing better:
"I... I'm sorry about the sonnet."
Asuka stared at him for a moment, and he waited, inwardly cringing, for her to explode.
Explode she did, but not the way he expected; it started with a tiny, involuntary turn-up of one corner of her mouth, progressed through a muted snort to silent shivering, and then swelled into a full-on, clean burst of laughter as she sat up and pulled him hard into a hug.
"We're like an old song," she observed between winding-down chuckles.
"'That's All'?" DJ replied.
"You know it?"
"One of my favorites," he replied.
"There's so much we don't know... "
"There's time for us to find it out." DJ looked thoughtful for a moment, then smiled. "Speaking of which, you might be interested to know that I've done some new reading."
Asuka looked quizzical, then sly. "Oh really," she replied.
"Oh yes. Would you like me to give you a quick run-down of what I've learned?"
"You can't change the subject just by doing this," she said sternly.
"Bet you I can."
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of "Spiritus Mundi"
Troubles my sight: somewhere in the sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indigant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
"The Second Coming"
Michael Robartes and the Dancer (1921)
Neon Exodus Evangelion 2:8
"I have always been a part of this."