EVANGELION: Ascension of the Lamb
By: Dante Abbey

 Episode 35: This Broken Shell Of a Child / Transference

     Shinji awoke to the sound of crying.
     Around him, it was pitch dark.  The central block had been secured tonight, and the lights of the buildings were absent.  Normally, the moon, too, would have contributed its glow to improving the visibility in his room, but it was wrapped in thick steel clouds.  Not that it would have mattered, since it was a new moon, and barely visible anyway.
     The dearth of night surrounded him, enveloping him and swallowing him as a python swallows a strangled deer.
     Not easily, though.  As it had been these recent nights, he was not condemned to suffer the cold quiescence of darkness alone.  Perhaps self-inflicted, the banishment and isolation that had once been imposed upon him in perpetuity had slowly disappeared over time.
     The first forced confinement with her had not initiated this slow relief and release, but had certainly given it a healthy shove in the right direction.  Ever since, he could feel the nearly tangible oppression fading daily.
     Now, as with the previous few, but ever so precious, nights, he could not feel it.  There was a pressure on his chest, he could feel it both physically and emotionally, but it was not the same.  It was very different.
     It was not uncomfortable.  It was not painful.  It was not trying to harm him, command him, hurt him.
     It was light.  It was enjoyable.  It was gentle, warm, almost serene in the solace it brought him.
     It had a name.  That name was Asuka.
     And she was crying.
     She wasn't crying out loud, only weeping quietly.  He couldn't feel any overt agony, sorrow, or grief.  But she was crying.  The pleasant feeling of gentle weight he could feel pressed up against his chest was tempered by the clenched fingers that had gathered handfuls of his t-shirt, on either side of his body.  She convulsed lightly in her sleep again, tightening her fists and pulling herself deeper into him.
     There were the tears, too.  He could see them, welling up in closed eyes that could not see the real world but knew its darkness all too well, behind shut lids that could not protect them from the gloom.  If anything, they could make it worse, shutting out the dark without to show the dark within.  Shinji knew this, too, as he felt the first glistening pearl drop onto his body and soak through the fabric.
     Her mouth moved as she shuddered again, creating words that no one was supposed to hear.  "...Nein..." she whispered, "...nicht mich hinterlasse, mama...nein!"
     Shinji frowned in the darkness, unable to comprehend her mother tongue.  But he did understand one word.  One word, so simple in structure, which had so many homonyms in every language that it was impossible not to know what it meant, no matter where you were from.
     'Mama'.
     This was not the first time he had heard this word, and certainly not the first from her lips.  Usually, it was in a context not unlike this one.  Most of the time, when he had wakened to hear her utter it, she was not so troubled in her sleep as she was now.  For the most part, her expression was neutral.  From time to time, content.  Sometimes, she frowned, but he had only seen this a few times himself.  And she had almost never cried while conscious.  He'd only seen it once or twice.  The anomaly of her current state and the power that seemed to drive it -- she was now pressing her right temple almost painfully into his breastbone -- tortured him, and impelled him to act.
     Gently cradling her tense body next to his, he began to sit up, hoping to wake her and dispel her torment.  Just as his free hand reached up and brushed against her face, though, she began to gradually relax, her whimpers dwindling to a shaky intake of breath.  Her hands opened, the fingers releasing the fistfuls of cloth and falling on either side of his somewhat scrawny torso.  They stayed there for a moment, then tightened unconsciously around him.
     Shinji eased as well, figuring the dream, or memory, or both, had passed, leaving her unfettered by its burden.  He watched as her face settled back into what he could only describe as contentment.
     "Shinji..," came the murmur, just drifting over the omnipresent cicadas.
     Sighing in some relief, he let himself settle back onto the mattress, being careful not to crush her hands underneath himself.  He never fought the impulse to wrap his arms around her in return, and lay still after carefully enfolding her in his embrace.  Minutes passed, and he stared at the darkened ceiling, at the silent panels.  He had spent so much time here, in this room.
     Whenever he felt pursued or harried, which had been a fairly regular experience with him, this room had been his refuge, his sanctuary.  He had once had nothing but questions, and no one, it seemed, could ever answer them for him.  So he asked himself, trying to understand.  Whether it had been about his parents, why his mother was where she was, why his father was the way he was; or Rei, or Misato, or even Asuka...  He could only ask himself and the ceiling he had become accustomed to.
     Since the awakening -- it seemed so long ago and distant now -- he had neglected this activity.  For the most part, he felt incredibly detached from his old life, from the way things had been.  Granted, he had preserved much of himself from before Impact, but quite a lot had changed for him.  He could still remember the day when he had actually gotten sick of staring at the mute panels by himself.
     He still had the questions, though.  Although some had been answered for him, others remained.  He had abandoned the ones about his parents: no one, it seemed, could answer those, and would likely remain inexplicable mysteries for the rest of his life.
     The gentle warmth resting on his chest drew another deep breath, and he listened to the exhalation that followed with great attention and awe.  In the morning, she might not remember her dream, but he would.  For the moment, he was glad she was no longer distressed, but he was also pained that she should have to suffer at all, given the hell she had already survived here.  Evidently, she was not yet at peace with her mother, and that there was something about that relation that still lurked behind her happiness.
     Already, he had tried to understand that.  But that had been last year, before she...they...had changed.  She's not my real mother, anyway...  Asuka had said that much before realizing it, and turning on him.  That upon the other memories, from as far back as the first week.
     So what was it that bothered her?  Was it a divorce?  Death?
     As much as he hated to admit it, he knew almost nothing about her, and that this was above all an impediment to understanding.  He'd already discovered the need to understand, the need to know and allay fears, bolster weaknesses.  That was what he needed to do for her, for himself.  If not, he would only suffer in ignorance.
     Suffering was pain.  And before the awakening, he always shied from the pain, always sought to escape its tormenting grip.
     No longer.  He resolved himself to find out; to draw from her, as gently as possible, what thorns remained embedded.
     Of course, it was likely to be extremely painful for her.  Some part of him implored him not to do it, to leave things as they were.  He didn't want her to suffer because of him, and his needs, either.
     The ceiling panels stared down mutely at his dilemma.
     Ultimately, he decided to take the risk.  He didn't want to have to watch her cry at night any more, nor did he want her to feel this.  Asuka moved, keeping an arm wrapped around his side, and bent the other under her cheek for support.  Her unfurrowed brow graced the tiniest hint of an untroubled and angelic smile.  What he wanted...was what he had at that very instant, for all eternity.
     He turned his head towards her, just to watch her a while longer before closing his own eyes.  Hopefully, she would understand what he meant to do, he thought, frowning as his jealous sleep caught up on him.
     The python of night unhinged its jaws and continued to swallow, while the cicadas continued their indifferent song.

* * *

     Very, very slowly, one delicate flesh portal opened on the world, admitting the newly-minted morning light into an oft-anguished realm.  It was still dark grey outside, the clouds over the rising city had not been swept away by the winds as of yet.  Already, it was past seven, and Asuka's alarm clock-radio had finished its summons without rousing either of them.
     Asuka's other eye followed its partner, and as they focused in tandem, she came to realize that the blue space she was staring at was actually Shinji's shirt.  It was odd that he had not woken up yet.  Normally, he was up as or even before the alarm went off, already making breakfast or lunch.
     Nevertheless, she felt a little wave of warmth wash over her.  The short burst of panic she felt in the mornings for his absence never pestered her today, as she could feel the rise and fall of his warm, if bony, chest under her arm.  She knew it was strange to feel this way, and that she should have been used to his schedule by now.  Still, it was an unconscious reaction, and she had no control over it.  In a way, it made her happy that she would miss him like that, even a room away.  This also helped to erase the last vestiges of the nightmare that had come to her during the night.
     Perhaps because of this, she wondered how she had been able to resist sleeping here earlier.  Her memory of the first night, even if it was a little awkward and impulsive, had almost been too pleasant to deny repeating immediately.  Evidently, they hadn't been able to resist the separation any longer, after the second iteration.  She was here, next to him, wasn't she?
     Disentangling their arms, she pushed herself up on an elbow, and looked down at him.  He seemed...upset, in a way, an odd expression tightening his features.  She ran a hand through his sleep-tousled hair and was gratified to see his face soften in response.
     If she became lost in watching him, she never realized it.
     Eventually, she decided that they would have to get up.  It was, after all, a school day.  But Shinji looked tired in addition to whatever emotion he already wore, so she would let him sleep for now.  It was acceptable to emulate Touji for one day and purchase lunch at the school shop.  Quietly, she crawled over him, and headed out to her room.
     Today was not going to be a usual day, she thought.  Already, Hikari's absence had meant a marked change in the habitual routine.  It had been nearly three weeks since her friend had been extracted from her Eva and taken to the geofront for recovery, and there was still no word of her, from either Commander Fuyutsuki or Captain Shigeru.
     Much of this time, here alone with Shinji, had been spent agonizing over Hikari's predicament.  Shinji had been...well, himself.  He'd tried his best to keep her more or less upbeat and happy, just like when they had been waiting for that Angel -- damned Angel -- to return.  But then, Shinji was almost always nice that way.
     She smiled as she picked up a pair of her towels.  Maybe that was one of the reasons Shinji was so lovable after all, or why he did actually make her feel better from time to time.  Idly, and perhaps scolding herself a little, she wondered why she hadn't seen it before.
     Then again, she would have never accepted it then, and would most likely have scorned or refused him for trying.  And, she remembered, she had.  He had been the first to come to talk to her after her...mind...rape...  She shuddered as the memory of that incident came back to her, but let it run its course.  She pushed him away then, and had continued to do so.  Almost right up until his control finally snapped, like a dry branch, and left him desperately out of control.  She let this recollection run past her as well.
     There was no point in denying the past, it could only cause more pain.
     Back to Shinji.  In any case, he had come to talk to her, to comfort her, perhaps, but she'd shoved him away, if only verbally.  It must have scared him off, because he'd left after a few minutes.  No, she did feel guilty for all of that.  Certainly now.
     In her absent state of mind, Asuka nearly tripped over the penguin, who was passed out on the floor in front of the fridge.  He'd finally run down Misato's store of beer, which, even for a frequent drinker like Pen-Pen, had taken two months.
     Pen-Pen's newest antic lightened her mood considerably as she entered the bathroom.
     Nothing else mattered now, though.  She was here.  So was Shinji.  They were happy.  And she grinned, justified and vindicated in her joy.

* * *

     "Aren't you awake yet?"
     Shinji yawned in the faded shadow of one of the overhanging trees next to the sidewalk.  Already, the morning had not been kind to him.  Because his sleep had been interrupted at such an early hour the previous night, his body was still begging him to slow down and rest.  Not to mention the fact that he had had extraordinary difficulties in clearing his mind after witnessing her.
     Asuka's query could not go unanswered, so he mumbled something, and wiped at his eyes again.
     Once they were clear of fluid and the crust, he went back to watching her.  There was an astounding contrast between her and her background, he thought.  Each step she took seemed to be endowed with a healthy, if not positively cheerful, bounce.  Each of these, in turn, seemed to give her flowing mane of hair a life of its own, waving and twisting almost jauntily in the slight morning breeze.  He wondered momentarily if it was the shadowed trees and unlit buildings beyond her that were actually that dark, or if it was just her that was particularly bright and cheerful this morning.  Maybe it was both.
     In any case, the events of the night didn't seem to have placed any kind of damper on her mood.  For some reason or another, she was extremely happy this morning.  There had been a sort of bipolar swing overnight, or so it appeared to him.  Having exhausted the pathetic and wretched side of her heart over Hikari's absence and...her mother...she had become the epitome of content.
     Shinji managed to figure out, even though his mental capacities were still warming up, that doing this was not going to be easy, and his resolve flagged under a desire to let her enjoy the day.
     Asuka turned towards him, still sporting a grin that was rapidly destroying any hope Shinji had of solving this problem for himself.
     "What's with the long face, baka?" she asked, interrupting an unidentifiable tune she was humming under her breath.  "You can't still be tired.  You already slept in this morning."  As if it was unable to wait for her to finish talking, her melody crept back into her voice as she finished her last sentence.
     Shinji gave her a lopsided smile in return that reeked of mild embarrassment and apology.  "I...yeah.  A little."  Could he ask her now?
     No...he still couldn't bring himself to do it.
     Asuka bent over slightly, as if inspecting his face with the utmost of care.  She could see he was still tired; it didn't take a genius to figure that out from the heavy eyelids, dull eyes, and slightly bent posture.  Still, though, she was compelled by her very nature to tease him a little.
     Shinji endured the good-natured banter and ribbing without complaint.  Now that it had lost much of its acrid edge of hurtful malice, at least towards him, it no longer bothered him.  Sometimes it was even enjoyable to be the butt of a joke between Asuka and Hikari, now.  Case in point: claiming it would serve to wake him up, Asuka gave him a little smack on the back of the head.  He smiled a little, but genuinely, now, while they waited for the pedestrian signal to change favorably.
     As they stood there, he saw that he had nearly forgotten about her nocturnal pains during the duration of the joke, and felt almost guilty about losing his concern.  At least until the sign switched to 'walk', and he found himself being dragged along behind her.
     With a sinking feeling, he realized that once they arrived at the school, it would be impossible to talk to her about it.  The matter was too private -- worse, too personal -- to disclose in full view of the public.  First of all, Asuka couldn't admit any weaknesses to others; that they were shared with him, and him only, was a level of trust he could not betray for any prize.  And second, other than a few rumours that were discounted as too ludicrous to be true, no one at school knew that they slept together, save Hikari.  And if knowledge of that leaked out...instant scandal.
     At the end of the street, he could see the twin three-story structures peering out from over their leafy blue-green shields.  He was running out of time.
     "Asuka..," he began, slowly.
     She didn't stop humming, but did tip her head towards him and squeeze on his fingers, prompting him to continue.
     "Just a second," he said, still gingerly, "stop?  Please?"
     Asuka's tune died out gradually.  "Sure.  What is it?"
     Despite all the time he'd just spent trying to work up the nerve to ask her, he still had no idea how to put the question.  "...Last night...I..."  It did feel kind of uncomfortable to be discussing this with her.
     He looked up to find her staring at him entirely puzzled and clueless as to what he was going to be talking about.  Shinji picked up again, but couldn't stop stammering for the moment.  Cringing at his own stupidity, he closed his eyes and tried to focus his mind.
     Finally, he opened them again.  Now that he had something to say, it made it much easier, as if he was reading off a script.  "Asuka...  Did...did something happen to your mother?  I mean...you were dreaming...and...crying..."
     Asuka was still staring at him, silently.  Shinji gulped as he realized that her eyes had lost much of their sparkle, and waited for some kind of reaction.  None came.
     "...You're always..," he began again, trying to clarify himself, but he trailed off.
     Even if her eyes had dulled, they were wide open in surprise.  Shinji hadn't needed to finish the thought for her to get the general direction of his concern.  "I did?"
     Shinji nodded mutely.  The silence that followed wasn't complete, the cicadas droning endlessly into the warm air, but it was heavy.  Another breeze shook the leaves overhead, and their brittle rustle rattled over the two.  After a long few seconds, Asuka took a better grip on Shinji's hand and directed him back towards the school.
     "I'm sorry," he said, still torn between trying to understand her and respecting the privacy of her inner world.  "I...didn't mean to...um..."
     He realized that she likely hadn't heard a word of his attempted apology.  The spring in her stride was long dead, and even the perpetually flowing hair looked comparatively limp and flaccid.
     Shinji felt a spine of ice work its way into his chest and stick there, radiating tendrils of frost throughout his entire body.  He grimaced with the pain, and wondered what he was going to do now.

* * *

     Probably the most interesting thing in the classroom was the grain of the plywood used in the desks.  Straight lines diverged around dark knots, then reconverged past the obstruction, coming back together in parallel again.
     Certainly not the teacher, whose lined and wrinkled face continued to prattle on about the official causes of Second Impact...  Definitely not interesting to those who knew the truth, or at least part of it.  Touji and Kensuke counted among these people, and held a long and fruitful discussion about school gossip over the local network while thoroughly ignoring their professor.  Touji, ever the trusting one, was surprised when it had been explained to them by the now-departed Dr. Masaharu.  Kensuke seemed to have been expecting it, and had made some commentary on government conspiracy.  Even the studious Hikari -- still absent -- had ignored these lectures since having reality unveiled to her.
     This lesson was even less interesting to those who knew part, if not all, of the truth behind the most recent impact, and whose minds were entirely elsewhere.
     One of Asuka's fingers traced the lines on her desk, slowing its course to follow the circular path around one of the brown knots, and picked up speed again past the obstruction.  Once it arrived at the following circle, she stopped, and her finger dwelled there, occasionally tapping absently on the wood.
     She did this partly because she was bored.  Nothing that ever happened here had anything to offer to one of the youngest and brightest graduates her university in Germany had ever seen.  Mostly she did this because she was not present in mind or soul.
     Without moving her head, Asuka looked up from her slender finger and across the room.  Because she was resting her head on the palm of her hand, the world tipped at a crazy angle, and the floor almost became a wall.  Shinji, sitting across the aisle and one row forwards, as usual, was staring blankly at his computer screen.
     Of course, today, he was slightly different.  Two hours had already passed since they had arrived at the school, and he had barely moved.  Normally, he did something to indicate he was still alive, if nothing else.  Asuka followed the seam up the centre of the back of his shirt with her eyes and allowed her gaze to settle on the back of his head.
     The troubled expression that his somnolent body had worn in the morning was amplified now that she had seen his clear but evidently troubled eyes.
     She cast hers back towards the desktop.
     Shinji...had asked about mama.  It wasn't off-hand, as if something had just occurred to him, nor was it really a calculated move.  He'd just asked her, after which he'd tried to explain himself.  Apparently, he'd seen something of her dream the previous night, some external indication of a problem that hadn't plagued her in weeks, if not longer.
     Last night, she had seen her mother.  Not hanging from the dark hospital ceiling as had been usual, and the broken, destroyed...killed...and ever-hated doll was absent.  Those images had been long banished.  Rather, she had seen her mother, as she was on the threshold of rising from the geofront's lake into the midst of the UN forces.  This time, her mother had departed, leaving her alone in the water, depth charges detonating around an abandoned Asuka.  The anticipation of the meeting gave way to utter disappointment and an internal collapse.
     There it ended.
     Asuka knew very well it was improbable that her mother would resurface to see her from within Unit-02 again.  In a way, it irked her that the circumstances required for such an apparition were so painful as to be eminently undesirable.  Understandably, she missed the mother she had once known more than ever before, due to the refreshing effects their short connection had had on her.
     But as to Shinji...  He wasn't just curious; he was concerned, and very much so.  Evidently, he cared.  He cared that she cried.  That was part of love.
     The question remained, though.  Why did she cry?  She knew where her mother was, and that she, like Shinji, cared and loved.  So why did this still matter for her?
 Still, simply knowing that she was there was insufficient to calm the vast majority of Asuka's fears.  She had intended not to let it trouble her, as it was an isolated incident, although one without precedent.  In any case, she had Shinji on hand to comfort her now, and he was capable of considerable help in that regard.
     Gradually, she looked back up towards the over-shy and particularly still Shinji, still staring into the shallow depths of his computer's LCD display.  It was strange that he seemed to be in more pain than she was over a matter that hardly should have mattered to him.  She wasn't sure if the light impression the irony was making on her heart was born out of mild amusement or sentiment.  Slowly, she began to remember the last time she had shared something of this importance with him.  It had been about her death -- at least, that's what she supposed it had been -- at the hands of SEELE's Evangelions.
     She remembered that allowing Shinji into that part of her mind had effectively quashed any bad memories of the incident.  If anything, she should have had frequent and supernaturally painful nightmares about that, rather than her mother.  But Shinji had been so understanding and helpful then that it seemed like her subconscious seemed to know he could be relied on for further support in the future.
     No, the Eva Series didn't bother her any more.  She wasn't afraid of them.  Not while he carried a share of her pain for her.
     The tiniest laugh, stifled so as not to disturb the class, escaped her lips as she reflected on her new willingness to open up to Shinji: the boy denser than lead.  Hikari, as usual, had been right all along.  He was pretty sensitive, in a nice kind of way.
     Shinji must have caught her minute cough, because his head began a slow turn towards her.  Because of where he was sitting, he had to look back over his shoulder at her.  Asuka, from her detached and reflexive state of mind, noted the mixture of curiosity and anxiety that warred and flickered in his dark eyes like desperate fish in a bowl.  Somewhere in that short moment, their eyes met, and Asuka was hard pressed to rectify the mild frown of thought on her face with a more cheerful expression before he tore his gaze away.
     Dummkopf, she thought, smiling to herself, you're still the same.
     Turning her attention back towards the concentric patterns in the wood next to the keyboard of her idling computer, she decided it was not only right to let him know about this particular aspect of her past, but that it would be above all beneficial to herself.  She would do well to put it behind her, and if Shinji was the best road to take towards this goal, so be it.  If anything, he might even make it a...comfortable...experience.
     Nevertheless, it was something that she wanted to share only with him...it would have to wait until they were alone somewhere.

     Shinji tore his eyes away from the two deep blue wells that were staring back at him, and desperately sought out something else to look at.  Anything would have done, but he felt obliged to look down at his hands.  He clenched them and damned himself yet again.
     Once past the school gate, once into any kind of company other than himself, no matter what she was feeling, Asuka always became the same person.  For example, today, she had suddenly gone from subdued to jubilant.  This much of her he knew, even if he didn't understand why.  Not that it ever really mattered to him.  Whatever persona she wore on the outside had no impact on the Asuka he knew and his feelings for her.
     Why did this always happen?  This wasn't the first time he'd decided to ask her about her family.  Each time, it seemed, he wound up hurting her somehow.
     Painted onto his retinas was the image of her eyes of ten seconds ago.  They weren't dull anymore, not like in the morning, but he couldn't be sure whether or not she was hurt in any way.
     Who knew what horrible memories Asuka still had of her past?  His, he knew, were of his mother's nightmarish experience with Unit-01, and the subsequent abandonment in an unfamiliar city into the hands of unfamiliar people.  In some ways, that wasn't far different from what he knew about her.  Already, he knew she had been living with her father and step-mother...an unfamiliar person superceding a familiar, caring one.
     Doubts flooded back into his mind.  He knew he hadn't been too happy when his memories were pressed back onto him, and it had to be inarguably the same for her.  Slowly, he sank down against his desk, arms just touching the plastic keyboard of the laptop in front of him.
     Damn, he thought, letting his weight slide him along the desk, nudging the computer forwards slightly.  His left hand, palm bent over the edge of the ochre plywood surface, slid forward at the same pace.
     The entire class, excepting the rambling teacher, was suddenly interrupted by a strident yelp of pain and the scrape of a chair against the floor.  Shinji's hand, suddenly convulsing with an intense, burning pain, clenched into a tight fist as he clutched it to his chest.
     He could have sworn it was at least a minute before the pain subsided enough to give him the courage to look into his palm, although reality was closer to a few seconds.  His fingers uncoiled grudgingly, revealing the source.  Sticking out of his hand in from in between his second and third fingers was a large, jagged thorn of a splinter.  Already, a tiny dome of blood was beginning to well up within, dying the miniscule shaft of wood a deeper brown.
     He stared at the thorn, unsure of what to do next, or of how to remove it.  Likely, he would have remained that way for quite a while longer, except that two warm sets of fingers wrapped themselves gently around his hand, extending it so that the thorn was more easily visible.
     Looking up, he saw Asuka standing over him, examining the offending wound with a critical eye.  Carefully, she tugged the thorn free of his hand and gave it a casual and derisive flick onto the floor.
     "Dummkopf," she whispered, "it's just a splinter."
     "I...thank you."
     She glanced up from the tiny puncture, and let him take his hand back.  The rest of the class, save the other two pilots, had returned their attention to the teacher.  None paid any attention to the idiot with the splinter.
     "Um...Asuka?"
     Asuka turned back towards him, half-way into her first step back towards her place.
     "About this morning...I..."
     She cut him off quickly, before he put together the inevitable 'I'm sorry'.  "Don't worry about it," she said, in all seriousness, and smiled.
     Shinji, even after she had left to sit down, still couldn't shake himself out of looking at his hands and the rapidly clotting patch where the thorn had been.  He'd caught the smile from the corner of his eye.
     This was more akin to the Asuka he knew, although he couldn't quite place it.  It was somewhere near the smug, knowing smile she gave when she teased him, but it was less superficial.
     Don't worry about it.  What was that supposed to mean?  As if to seek confirmation for her words, he looked back at her.  No...she wasn't upset any more.  While she still wasn't as bright as she had been, she appeared devoid of any clouds of unhappiness.
     Shinji decided he didn't understand.
     Ouside the windows, under the teacher and his monotonous rant, the cicadas continued to buzz quietly.

* * *

     Asuka had long since determined, at least for herself, that the harmonics test facility had a particularly unpleasant smell.  The harsh, chemical odour of the coolant mixed badly with the coppery, blood-like smell of LCL in a cold, cavernous room of enormous proportions.
     There were five gold-yellow test plugs sticking out of the wall at a shallow angle, arranged such that the later production models found themselves further away from the control room.  The one that had once been linked to the now destroyed Unit-00 remained unoccupied and abandoned next to the window, followed by those connected to Units-01 and 02, then the three newest Evas.  Today, of course, Unit-15's would remain unoccupied, as Hikari was supposedly still healing somewhere inside the NERV base.
     Within each plug was a command chair like those inside the Evas.  For obvious reasons, they entailed only the cushioned surface the pilots sat on and mock control levers.  The test itself was only really a maintenance activity, to evaluate any changes that might have occurred in each pilot's synchronization ratio that might affect their future performance with their Evas.  They were usually held on a biweekly basis; regular enough that data could be collected accurately, and far enough apart that the changes would be more visible, if there were any.
     Asuka had figured that she would have been able to talk to Shinji after school ended, except that Kensuke had reminded them all that there was a harmonics test scheduled for that evening and that it was imperative that they all show up.  This meant at least another hour and a half of elapsed time before they got home.
     As usual, her synch ratio had not changed from its abnormally high point.  Neither had Shinji's.  Both had acheived maximum plug depth several weeks ago, and now it was a matter of waiting to see how long they could maintain synchronization at the limit of mental contamination.
     The test had taken quite a while already, and it had given Asuka perhaps more time to think than she wanted in the perpetual bass hum it generated.
     Because this wasn't the true entry plug, inserted into her proper Eva, it felt different than usual; it always did.  It never felt quite right in the harmonics plug.  This difference was probably caused by the fact that she was far separated from mama, and that the connection was remote rather than direct.
     She didn't like the separation.  It made her uncomfortable, to be so much further from her mother than she already was, when she could be closer.
     On that subject, she thought, could Shinji be told about her, and her connection with Unit-02?  Maybe he already knew, from what she had been yelling during her fight with the JSSDF and the Eva Series.  But then, if he did, he would have asked sooner, wouldn't he?  Probably, he had never heard her.
     While she liked the fact that he was so interested, she wondered exactly what she was going to tell him.  The entire story was just so abominable and twisted that she knew she would have been shocked at the extraordinary misery of the tale had she not lived it.  Sighing, she decided that she really needed to talk to someone about this.  Hikari, had she been able, wouldn't have been good, because she knew nothing of her past anyway.  Misato was dead.  And mama, of course, was inaccessible.
     For a moment, she wondered what life could have been like had none of this ever happened the way it did, but she shook away the thought.  There was no point in denying the past.
     The movement of the command chair beneath her towards the upper end of the test plug was enough to inform her that the test was coming to a close.  Of course, there were certain limits on coming up from plug depth too quickly after extended synchronization, so it would likely be at least another five minutes before it was completely over.
     She supposed that when she went to talk to Shinji, she would just tell him as much as she knew...except maybe for her Eva and its nature.  If she could get that far without falling apart.  Already, the images began to crowd on her mind again, straining at the barriers she had placed against them.  To stave them off, she stopped thinking about them entirely.
     Around her, the sickly amber fluid drained away, leaving the plug hollow and depriving the command chair of its buoyancy.  There was a loud, percussive clanking, followed by the hatch of the test plug sliding up and away.  Asuka bent over, took in a deep breath, and coughed discreetly to one side of the chair, expelling the LCL in her lungs.  The cold air of the room rushed in to fill her chest, and she straightened up.  The others were likewise purging their bodies of the liquid into the sides of the entry plugs, and she took a moment to watch their reactions to the fluid.
     Dr. Robertson's voice, amplified such that the volume finally suited his holier-than-thou intonation, echoed throughout the chamber.
     "Alrighty then," he began, "the two rookies are still doing well despite some minor decreases, and nobody else went down today.  You can all go home except for Asuka."
     Asuka sat up straight at the mention of her name.  "What?  Why?"
     They could hear Dr. Robertson's eyes rolling in his speech.  "We're doing another test on the LCL buffer after this, and you were picked as the subject.  Take a break and come right back."

* * *

     There were many access points to the geofront, leading up from the massive excavation buried under Tokyo-3.  The city itself was rife with the card-locked doorways, most connected more or less directly to an elevator or escalator that led into NERV's heart.  Because of security, individuals lacking actual passes could expect a wait of anywhere between a few minutes to hours while their backgrounds and histories were checked before admission.
     It was for this reason that Shinji had a place to sit, just beyond the exit doors in a waiting area designated for these people.  Touji had been there a half-hour ago, trying to persuade him to go home, but had given up in the face of his repeated refusals.
     Kensuke had never left the geofront, though.  Arguing that as a pilot and a member of NERV's personnel he should have a permanent room in NERV's own barracks, he had apparently been provided with one of the miniscule closets that were normally abandoned by said personnel for more spacious lodgings on the surface.  Even Commander Fuyutsuki had been somewhat surprised and bemused at the news of the request.  So, he'd said his goodbyes at the door of the change room.
     Shinji supposed that had Hikari been here, she would have pestered him about doing his homework instead of listening to his music, but she had yet to reappear.  Touji was still pretty pissed off at the NERV brass for their inability to disclose where she was and what her condition was.  He had gone so far as to argue that their class representative could have perished after the last battle and that this was going to be denied until kingdom come.  Nevertheless, he still had no proof, and Kensuke doubted that NERV would allow the death of one of their pilots to go unreported.
     In any case, Shinji mistrusted his current ability to concentrate on anything for very long anyway.  For some reason, he couldn't quite decide whether Asuka's marked change in attitude during the day was just another of her masks, or if she really wasn't worried at all about this thing he'd forced himself to ask about.  When she was really upset, she wouldn't say much, compared to other days, even lessening whatever interaction she had with the other students at school and her usual and continuous berating of his two friends and fellow pilots during the trip into NERV.  That didn't seem to be the case today.  Nevertheless, that she could do this at all fascinated him to some degree.  Perhaps it was still strange to him that she could lead two lives simultaneously, that she could shake off her pain and present a fresh face to the outside world.
     He certainly couldn't.
     For a moment, he felt something uneven scratch against the skin of his left palm.  Looking down, he saw it was only the edge of his SDAT player moving over the tiny bump of a clot that had formed inside the tiny puncture, where the morning's splinter had been.
     It wasn't really red any more...more a dirty brown-red triangle in the otherwise smooth surface of his hand.
     Sighing, he tapped the stop button with the pad of his thumb.  The machine clicked audibly in the silent and slightly shadowed room.  Even the fairly hyper-kinetic songs he'd picked for today were getting monotonous after so much time.
     In nearly three weeks, this was the longest he'd actually been separated from her...strange, actually.  He couldn't think of another time, even after several minutes reflection.  Even the tests with the Evas were done simultaneously, and there were always communications links between the plugs, whether they were true or just mock-ups.  At school, they were usually never further than a glance away, and at home...other than the use of the bathroom...
     It couldn't be normal.  He didn't know anyone else who did this. Still, though, he didn't feel it was wrong.  Nothing in his life, he'd decided a long time ago, would ever match anyone else's definition of normal.  And he did kind of miss her, over this last hour.
     Was that it, then?  Were they actually sharing their lives this way?  And what did she think?  Obviously, she wasn't adverse to it, otherwise the situation would have been considerably different.
     He stared back at the rounded underside of his knuckle, where the tiny scab almost seemed to glow in the dim light.
     Before he could think anything else, one of the doors before him slid open, rattling in the vertical tracks in the jambs.  His heart rose in his chest, but the person who stepped through was just some red-suited NERV technician, probably on his way home.
     "Hey, kid," he said, adhering to the rulebook's security recommendations, "what are you doing here?  Does anyone know you're here?"
     Shinji looked up from his hand.  "Um...I'm...waiting for someone.  I've got my card, if you want to see it..."  He began digging into his school bag, knowing it was in one of the pockets.  Finding it, he presented it to the man for inspection.
     The technician thought over the implications of this boy having a security card, then saluted and left, embarrassed.  Shinji watched him go.  He probably knew where he was headed.
     He probably had some personal space somewhere he could call home.  Or, if he was lucky, he had someone to share it with.  Shinji could remember a few places that had been called his over the course of his life.  He'd always had his room, whether it was in Misato's apartment or his old teacher's place.  They had always been asylum from the world.
     In some way, he'd always been a little bothered by the solitude of the rooms.  As well, his own impeccably tidy habits lent them an antiseptic air, like no one lived there.  He realized he'd always treated the space that was supposed to be his like it belonged to someone else, like he didn't want to disturb the original order and cleanliness that he always found waiting whenever he moved into a new place.  They were always so lifeless.
     Of course, he thought, Asuka had changed that somewhat.  There now seemed to be an eternal pile of towels and socks growing at the foot of his bed, no matter how often he did the laudry; and she always had a significant supply of crumpled magazines and dog-eared books lying at the other end.  Not to mention the hair brush that now adorned his small desk, and whatever else had been imported into his realm for the day.
     At least it looked lived in.  Maybe because it was closer to 'their' realm, now.
     "You were waiting for me?"  Watching the man walk down the incredibly long corridor, Shinji had lost track of the doors that led into NERV, and had missed Asuka's entrance.  "You could have just gone home."
     Except that it wasn't really the same without her.
     Like the man, Shinji felt his cheeks flush at the appearance of this Eva pilot, and turned his head to look at her.  "...Yeah...I just thought..."
     Asuka smiled, and shook her head, letting her LCL-moistened hair wave with the movement.  Shinji stood, slowly, packing away his SDAT as he did so.  "Hey, baka!  Are you coming or what?"

* * *

     The days were getting longer, now.  The official start of spring was a mere two weeks away, even though the weather remained summer-like all year round.  And even though the sun was still getting close to the horizon in the early evening, it would set later and later with each passing day.  As usual, it was unseasonably hot, but this would be helped by the heavy storm clouds that could be seen gathering to the east, over the ocean.  With any luck, or misfortune, depending on who you were talking to, they would bring heavy rains back to the city.
     Shinji noticed Asuka was back to humming the morning's tune, just under her breath, and just under the leaves shaking in the wind.  Still, though, he couldn't be entirely sure if her eyes had regained all of their brightness, or if that was just the effects of the setting sun.  Nevertheless, it was still the barest corner of a smile at the edge of her mouth that was most instrumental in keeping him from despairing, as he was apt to do.
     She had told him not to worry about this at school, already several hours ago.  As it was, he'd done his best to obey her wishes, and hadn't really thought about the events of the early morning and their consequences.  Instead of regretting his concern, he'd been able to spend the rest of the afternoon more or less normally.  While Touji and Kensuke had noticed some minor differences from his usual demeanor, they hadn't remarked any overall change.
     Not that he hadn't been thinking about her, of course.
     Asuka stopped for a quick pause, just long enough to adjust the way she was hanging on to his left hand as she reached the end of her tune.  There was a strange sensation that ran through his fingers as her smallest finger pushed against his tiny wound at an odd angle.  It wasn't unpleasant, just weird.  It was probably just because he wasn't yet used to the healing clot behind there, changing the normal contours of his hand.
     In time, he'd probably get used to it.
     It's almost been a whole day...
     He couldn't really resist coming back to the original topic of the day, though.  In one way or another, he felt he wouldn't really be at ease without resolving it somehow.  He decided he was going to have to break the ice again.
     Not surprisingly, he wasn't the only one to be a little anxious about it.
     Ironically, for someone so fearless and remorseless, Asuka couldn't help wondering why exactly she'd agreed with him and herself that she needed to tell him about her past, about the story of her mother.  Her eyes wandered up towards the leaves that overarched the cracked sidewalk on which they were walking.  In the beams of the sinking sun and the wind, they seemed to oscillate between the dark and often sombre green they wore during the day and a strange scintillating and flashing that was produced when the light struck them just the right way.
     Like her mind, they seemed unable to settle down for very long.  Certainly not long enough for her to build up the courage to let Shinji see everything she had wanted to bury so long ago.
     Now, though, it lay on the surface, barely covered, a rotting corpse waiting to be discovered again.  For herself, at the hands of the Angel, she had been unable to stand the sight of the returning memories, and they had torn her apart.  She couldn't risk letting them do that to her again...she would lose everything.  Again.  Possibly even her life.
     So it was even after this perfectly reasonable rationalization that she found herself procrastinating, waiting just a little bit longer.  Promising herself that she would find the courage to shake this miserable abomination that gave her such nightmares off her chest.
     She had needed to wait until they were alone.  Even that was fully acceptable.  But they had been just that, alone, for the last twenty-odd minutes.  Just like at their school, the people in Tokyo-3 were few and far between.  No one in their right mind would live here, except if they worked for NERV, and had to.  The Angels made sure of that.  She could have started telling him right when she'd passed the official border between the geofront and the outside world.  Aside from a single technician well out of earshot, she hadn't seen a single soul since.
     So why the long wait?
     Was she afraid of doing this?
     No, she wasn't.  Or wasn't going to be.  Asuka took in a deep breath, filling her lungs to their fullest capacity.  She held on to it for a few seconds, then let it all out slowly, trying to dispel some of the tension that was really starting to annoy her.
     They walked out from under the roof of foliage, into the dazzling brilliance of the sun.  There was an incredible natural silence here, even in the middle of this big city.  It had a sort of beauty on its own, a kind of library-like atmosphere that can keep one in a state of awe-induced quiet.  And if not through awe, then at the very least it had the capacity of shaming one into keeping one's mouth shut.
     Perhaps they felt that.  Shinji didn't say anything, even resolved as he was to finally get this out of their way.  Neither did Asuka, even insisting to herself that she was going to do this after all, without failing.  In a way, both did enjoy the walk at least a little.
     In any case, it was the return to familiar surroundings that finally did it, although it did take some time.  The lobby and elevators were passed through without much change, and even the walk through the hallway, open to the complex's massive atrium, was relatively silent.
     Shinji indulged his talent for stating the obvious as he let go of Asuka's hand so she could retrieve her passcard to the apartment they normally shared with Hikari, but still bore Misato's name.  "We're home."
     Asuka gave him a slightly sarcastic shake of the head, as if to say, 'I can see that' in her usual way.  But, they were the first words between them for a while, and they did do something towards improving the overall state of communications for now.
     Pen-Pen appeared to be running his third daily bath, but Shinji laid out the penguin's dinner anyway, so that he wouldn't have to worry about it later.  They'd already eaten, before the tests; Kensuke had insisted on seeing what the food one of NERV's many cafeterias was like, even despite Asuka's comprehensively caustic critique on the quality.  Even Touji had had to agree.
     Sensing perhaps that he was going to need it, Shinji began boiling some water for steeping tea bags.
     Asuka, on the other hand, dropped her bag on the kitchen table and proceeded out into the living room, where she promptly lay down on the carpet, stretching out to her full length on the thick white carpet.  She stayed this way for a while longer, while Shinji waited in the kitchen for the water to finish.  He couldn't help checking on her from time to time just to make sure she was okay.
     Finally, she spoke, softly.
     "You asked me something this morning, Shinji.  I'm ready, now," she said, finally committing herself to this course of action without leaving even a single escape route.  There would be no backing down, no retreat.  This was her way.  There would be no denying the past.
     Shinji hesitated momentarily, then joined her a minute later, with two cups of tea, one of which was destined for her.  He accepted her soft thanks, and took a moment to look into the ever-moving and swirling tea leaves.  Somewhere between the ripples and waves, he caught a reflection of himself.
     The reflection was distorted, of course, by the irregular surface of the dark liquid in an already darkening room, but it was him.  Somewhere inside him, he still didn't want her to do this if that wasn't what she wanted.
     Beyond Asuka, beyond the window, beyond the balcony, the city and the horizon, the sun was setting.  A glorious sunset, of rich reds and purples, with regularily layered bands of clouds each catching the light in their own slightly different ways, adorning the dusky sky.
     The light itself, an intense orange-yellow, threw itself at Asuka's outstretched feet and illuminated her face like a shower of gold.  Only the shadow of one of the window frames cast a dark line over the centre of her abdomen to mar the picture.
     Normally, her face would have seemed neutral, or thoughtful, at the very least.  In this powerful illumination provided, however, it caught the imperceptible creases in her brow, lending a sort of poignancy to her features that begged sympathy and compassion.  Shinji had been watching carefully for several long moments, and came to this conclusion as well.  He offered her a way out.
     "Look," he started, with some trepidation, "if you don't want to tell me...you don't...have...to..."  He suddenly trailed off, as Asuka's eyes suddenly snapped open, and she sat up, crossing her legs under her.
     "Shinji," she said, picking up her tea for the first time, "you can't ask somone to do something and go back on it afterwards!  You'd just end up wasting all their time and effort, got it?"  She was free with her words now.  And blunt.
     Shinji watched as she started on the tea, enlightened.  If he broke his resolve to find out now, he would have spent much of the entire day worrying, caused her the pain of remembering, and wasted both of their exertions.  As she finished, he took a sip on his own, still watching her sheepishly over the top of his cup.
     In a way, giving up was a form of running away.  It meant abandoning everything, leaving it behind for personal comfort and an untroubled world.  He grimaced inside as he sat down.  He'd believed he wasn't going to run any more, and this was proof that the process of leaving behind his old ways was still ongoing, and that there was still much work to do.
     So that was that.  It was going to begin soon, inexorably.
     Asuka put her empty cup down on the floor.  The tea and its pleasantly bitter taste seemed to have a calming effect, which she knew she needed quite badly.  She decided to wait until she had his undivided attention, and sat patiently until he drank down the last of his cup's contents.  The setting sun seemed to create a feathery halo of light around his head, an atmosphere of calm unlike any that she had seen around him before.
     She remarked to herself that this moment in time would be well worth remembering.  Since her last comment, he seemed to have lost some of the insecure and unfounded, although well-meaning, concern that seemed to disturb his features frequently enough.  Now, he bore the beginnings of a look of determination, of intent and purpose.  While still diluted in part by his previous expression, it was in fact plesant to watch.  Not much to look at, she thought, old words coming back to her, yeah, right.
     Shinji started in sudden surprise, followed by a sudden and near-instantaneous relaxation as she lifted a hand to bat playfully at the omnipresent cowlick that seemed to refuse any attempts to get it to go down.
     "I think," she began, "it starts with NERV.  I'm pretty sure mama worked for NERV's branch in Germany."
     Shinji listened quietly.  There wasn't anything else he could have listened to, had he wanted to, other than the muted but friendly hum of the cicadas outside.  As to NERV, he wasn't surprised.  They seemed to have the ability to twist everything for the worse.  Asuka tried describing what she could remember of her mother: how they shared the same hair, how tall she was, what her voice was like.  She didn't have any problems with these.  These were harmless details, even happy, if there was an anecdote to be attached to them.
     "Now that I think about it...I think mama was Unit-02's first test pilot.  I never saw the test, but I think I overheard someone telling papa something had gone wrong."
     In her mind's eye, she saw the scene through the eyes of a child, from waist height, from around the corner of a doorpost.  Her father, a tallish sort of man with greying hair, standing at the front door of their house, talking with someone in a dark suit and sunglasses.  Or maybe there were two.  For an eight year old, it had been kind of strange listening to others talk about mama in her absence.  After all, her mother had said it wasn't nice or proper for people to do that.  Asuka remembered a sort of mixture of curiosity and apprehension.
     "She never came home, even days later.  Papa didn't say very much to me, but he seemed to be on the phone a lot.  Finally, he took me to see her at the hospital.  She was okay, physically, but she had lost her mind."
     Asuka seemed to cringe visibly at that.  In a way, that had happened to her, too.  Shinji watched her as she stared up at the ceiling, unsure of what to do.
     A little girl watched her mother through the glass.  Kyoko Zeppelin Sohryu sat upright on the hospital bed, cradling something in her arms.  She seemed to be laughing, like she did whenever Asuka told one of her childish jokes.  The lighting in the room wasn't very good, and she couldn't see what it was very well.
     There was a fairly long pause before Asuka continued.  It was like there was still some form of barrier in her mind, blocking out all the exact details that created the most painful memories.  She fought those barriers, trying to bring it all out for Shinji to see.  She tried to describe for him, in as much detail as she could drag out of her mind, everything she had seen so long ago.
     The lights in the room came on.
     Her mother was holding a doll.  Asuka had seen dolls like them before.  It wasn't one of those store-bought plastic dolls, with the nylon hair and fashionable acrylic clothes.  It was like the kind her grandmother liked to make, old-fashioned.  She had one herself.  It had strips of red cloth for hair, an embroidered smile, and malevolent buttons for eyes.  Its handless arms and footless legs hung limply from her mother's arms, lifeless.  She detested that doll.
     "She had a doll.  She was laughing.  She was talking."  Asuka shuddered.
     Shinji decided to pull himself closer to where she was lying, and offered her one of his hands to hold.  Without looking, she took it.  This time, he never noticed how she had touched the miniscule wound the splinter had dug; he was too concentrated elsewhere.
     Another one of the barriers in Asuka's mind collapsed violently, crumbling away.  It hurt, like when the Angel had...come.  The wall protecting that event fell, too, and she had to tense every muscle in her body to keep focused.  This...this was like what the Angel did.  She was forcing herself to remember, to pour out her mind for all to see.  Except that only Shinji was watching.  Not some damn Angel whose only goal was to torture her.  This was for him, for his information, and her well-being.
     "She was talking," she continued, strengthened, "to the doll.  She called it by my name.  She played with it like she used to play with me."
     By this time, Shinji had already concluded that Asuka's story was similar to his own, although more sordid and terrible in a very definitely way.  It looked like she was ready to cry, at any time now.  He squeezed her fingers, reminding her that he was still there.  At the same time, he wanted her to stop, to rest, to leave it be; but a perverse curiosity and horror wanted to hear her finish.
     There is a human aspect we share that prevents us from shying away from the most disgusting or fearful things.  The side of our psyches that makes us watch horror films through the gaps between our fingers, or stare at the visceral consequences of a bad accident.
     Shinji couldn't find any words as it manifested itself, just listened.  Asuka sagged visibly as she went on.
     "She wouldn't recognize me any more.  She referred to me as 'that girl over there', and counseled her doll to ignore me."  Asuka's eyes narrowed to slits momentarily, and she stressed the word.  It was odd, this sudden manifestation of the long-ignored hatred, but that, too, was part of the experience.  She regained her composure, drawing on the knowledge that Unit-02 was her mother, that it -- she -- cared, would have called her the true Asuka.  More importantly, Shinji was here, and he loved her.  She was Asuka to him.
     She snorted, pausing long enough to force herself to go on.
     The false mother continued to talk to the doll.  She did so for several days.  And each time the little girl came to see, nothing changed.  She never got better, never stopped talking to the doll.  At times, the false mother was nicer to that inanimate object than she had ever been to the little girl.
 Asuka knew of the next event even before she remembered it.  She knew it was coming.  She wanted to curl up, like she had when the Angel had come; wanted to try to close it all off.
     This was different from the Angel, she told herself yet again.  This was done willingly.  This was better, she thought, as Shinji broke his stillness to hold her.  She liked that.
     "Then, they told me I was going to be the Unit-02's pilot.  I was too happy.  I went to tell her everything."  Her voice was stronger again.  She continued to describe the men who had come to see her, who had explained everything to her.
     The little girl knew that mama would prefer this select, elite child who was better than anyone else over a stupid doll.  That was for sure.  The little girl ran to her mother, smiling and laughing.
     Asuka turned in Shinji's silent embrace.  The sun had disappeared now, and the last of its light was rapidly fading behind the mountains to the west of Tokyo-3.  The cicadas always seemed louder at night.
     Shinji caught the slight rise in her voice, the strengthening.  Perhaps she had, in fact, reached the end of her story.  Or, from the way she shook anew, maybe not.  Either way, he felt compelled to tighten his arms around her a little more.  This seemed to calm her, and it felt good, too.
     The doorknob turned in her minute, stubby-fingered hand, and the hinges creaked softly in the dark as the door swung open.  The image roared back over the last destroyed wall in her mind to fill the empty doorway, filling the little girl's field of vision.
     "Shinji...she...hung herself.  In front of me..."  Asuka's voice finally broke into a violent sob as the worst of the memories returned to her, cracking and deforming like the quiet, languishing howl of an injured animal.  It seemed like her body had been snapped in half in Shinji's lap, like he was holding two disparate parts of her.  Her hands convulsed reflexively around him, as she had in her sleep.
     Shinji's eyes snapped wide open in sudden surprise and horror.  No...this was far worse than he would have ever expected...far worse than the most depraved limits of his own imagination.  What she was describing...was hell, again.  No wonder she was so scarred, so self-defensive.  No wonder she had never let anyone know about this before.  Because her life was so damned horrible.  And her story wasn't over either, he realized, as she pushed herself against him.
     "...And she killed the doll...that was supposed...to be me..."  She had long since been forced to forsake the use of her voice in exchange for a strained whisper that was barely audible.  Shinji found himself at an utter loss for words.  It was never supposed to be this bad, this destructive.  But he, like her, had chosen this.  He had not yet run, and he reminded himself that there was no need to.  His chin slowly moved downwards until it was resting in the cleft of her shoulder.
     The additional contact served her better than any self-instituted measure of defence ever could have, and she sank into it, focusing on him and their shared proximity rather than the hollow, ancient memories whose iron grip on her was slowly being loosened.  The interaction of warm flesh against flesh found itself between his cheek and the back of her neck, and she could feel the faint billows of mild breath and whispered apology mingling with her hair.  He was so warm...
     Shinji, for his part, sat there, eyes closed, arms unmoving.  Yes, there had been pain, lots of it, but he couldn't feel the lance of ice in his chest any more.  He ached to see Asuka reduced to this state, and by his hand, too.  And yet, it felt...different...from the night before when she'd been in less agony than she was in now.  It took quite a while before he realized that the difference lay in that she hadn't actually cried like she had, at night...she was just quietly sitting with him.
     He could understand, now.
     They stayed like that for a very long time, possibly upwards of an hour, neither moving, nor willing to move.  Gradually, the rhythm of their combined breathing stabilized with the beating of their hearts.  It was now extremely dark outside, only the faintest sliver moon showing in the sky among the few visible stars.  The darkness extended into the room, too, as none of the apartment's lights had yet been turned on.  It didn't bother either inhabitant, though, as Pen-Pen finished his dinner quietly in the kitchen and climbed into his fridge.  They each had their own light to comfort them.
     "I'm sorry," he said, though more from sympathy than regret or remorse.
     As Asuka finished freeing herself from her demons, she began to pull away slowly, rocking back onto her own knees.  She felt better, a weight on her mind removed.  Shinji seemed to have settled something for himself, too; his eyes were still and calm, not troubled as she was used to seeing.
     She smiled.  All of that had been the past.  The time of grieving was long since over, but this marked the end.  And now he knew, too.
     This, on the other hand, was the present.  As she found her voice again, albeit a little shaky, she reached out to him the way she always did.
     "For the last time, stop apologizing!  None of what happened to mama could possibly be your fault, you know," she said, with the closest approximation to her usual tone of voice and smile as she could muster.
     "I know," he replied, a sudden and seemingly misplaced grin of understanding lighting up his face.  Both exhausted by the ordeal, they collapsed against each other again, laughing lightly in defiance of the world that had borne them so much ill-will.
     After a moment or two of silent reflection, Asuka whispered a quiet word of thanks.
     Shinji reached up to the side of her face as he had done while she was sleeping, and she responded by pressing her lips against his.  They were both still hurting a little, and this seemed the best way to deal with it.  Shinji closed his eyes and let himself drown in her, letting her taste and scent drain into his lungs through his mouth and nose like he absorbed the LCL of Unit-01's plug.
     The cicadas swelled in the night, crescendoing to a feverish rhythm and volume, driving off the great black python.  Their warmth would dominate the night. 1