Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Neon Exodus Evangelion
Exodus 3: Revelations in Real Time
The Gift of the Magi
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)
The X-Files created by Chris Carter
A Night to Remember by Walter Lord
and 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke
Written by Benjamin D. Hutchins, Larry Mann, and MegaZone
Aided and abetted by the Eyrie Productions, Unlimited crew
and special-guest-for-life Phil Moyer
© 1998 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
HTML remastering © 2016 EPU
All the boats are full, down and away. I have no illusions: that means that, although the ship still floats, practically everyone who will survive this night has already been saved.
I am not among them.
It's strangely calm on the ship now. There are many people—so many!—still trapped aboard the ship, sliding slowly closer to death, and yet there is no panic. We all seem possessed of the same paralytic calm. Perhaps it's just that we have seen and absorbed so much terror already this evening that our capacity for reacting to it is drained. After all the anticipation, the bustle of loading the boats, the brief panicked rush on Boat D, the stark horror of First Officer Akagi's suicide, and all the rest, maybe we're all just too tired to be afraid any more.
Someone up in the superstructure is still firing rockets, but there is no one to see them. The wireless operators are still working. In the first-class smoking room, John Trussell is standing like a man in a trance, staring at the painting over the fireplace. I don't know where Captain Katsuragi went after the rush on Boat D—back to the bridge, I expect. Down in the engine room, Chief Engineer Ibuki and her crew are still valiantly working to keep the lights on and the pumps running, buying us as much time as they can—and buying it with their lives. I don't know if I'll have that kind of courage when my time comes, but I'll find out soon enough, I suppose.
Here on the poop deck things are as placid as the glass-smooth ocean. A knot of first-class men, left behind by the boats, stand around near the band with brandy and cigars in hand, talking about finance. In their tuxedos they look comically like penguins. In fact, I notice with detached bemusement that one of them is a penguin. Across the after well deck, Jon and Rei stand at the boat deck rail, their hands linked, silent and impassive as they look down at the ocean they will soon meet first-hand. I wish to God at least one of them had been saved, but this evening, it seems, God isn't concerned with what I wish for.
"Feels terrible, doesn't it?" asks a quiet voice behind me. I turn to see a tall, dark, dapper and handsome man. He's dressed like a first-class passenger, in tuxedo and tails, but I don't recall having seen him before. He has coal-black hair, ruddy skin, a neatly trimmed beard and the greenest eyes I've ever seen. A thin cigarillo smolders at the corner of his wide, elegant mouth, and when he smiles sardonically, his eyes twinkle.
I don't recall having seen him before, and yet, he looks familiar. I could swear I've looked into those eyes before.
"I'm sorry, do I know you?" I inquire.
"Very well," he replies, tapping some ash from the end of his cigarillo, "but you don't know that you know me."
I scowl. I'm not really in the mood for word games with strangers tonight.
"Forgive me," he says, sensing my irritation. With a sweeping gesture he removes his top hat and bows deeply from the waist. "I have an unfortunate tendency toward the dramatic. We will speak again."
Then he turns, and before I can stop him, he melts into the crowd.
The mood in the control room was one of tense optimism. Maya and John hovered over their controls. Ritsuko looked stern and detached. Rei and Jon looked on from the sidelines. Misato was missing from the control room only because she stood outside on the catwalk by the EVA. Commander Ikari was entirely absent.
"Maya, John, are you ready?" Ritsuko asked.
They shared a glance, then Maya answered for both of them with a nod.
"SHODAN, are you ready?"
"Do the Magi concur with the plan?"
"Yes. Our chances of success still stand at 5.4%."
"Very well. We may as well get this over with. SHODAN, begin reclamation process."
"Beginning reclamation process now. Charging LCL to recorded levels. Begin synchronization stimulation."
"Running dummy plug code DJC-05. Bringing synchronization levels up." Maya watched the gauges intensely. "Simulation at 21.4% and climbing."
"Energy levels climbing." John gingerly adjusted the controls. "Stablizing at predicted levels."
"System proceeding as predicted, Doctor," SHODAN added in her mellow voice.
"Continue," Ritsuko instructed impassively.
"Sync levels at 48.7% and climbing."
All eyes were fixed on the synchrotron as the level climbed slowly higher.
The ship is at an extreme angle now. It's becoming hard to hold position on the deck. Some of my less dexterous fellow passengers are already sliding, falling, tumbling down toward the after well deck. Soon the water will engulf the boat deck. Once it does, the ship has only minutes left.
As I think it, so it happens, and a wave of humanity comes running aft along the deck, pursued by a larger wave of water. Most of the people are caught and sucked away. Around me, people scream, shocked out of their automaton resignation by the suddenness of the occurrance. I cry out in anguish; from my vantage I can see that Jon and Rei are among the lost.
As the ship tilts further, I know my only chance is to reach the after rail. There I can hang on, until it goes under itself. People are starting to jump—stupid of them, with the aft end of the ship so high in the air, they'll just plunge to their deaths—but they must be afraid that if they stay on the ship until she goes down, she'll suck them down with her. I reach the rail near the flagpole, wrap my right arm round it, and hang onto my right forearm with my left hand, facing aft, which at the moment is akin to facing up.
Behind me, below me, there is a terrific juddering crash, the most incredible noise I've ever heard. It's the sound of millions of loose objects crashing forward as the tilt of the ship finally upsets them. Wine bottles, luggage, jewelry, dishes, boilers. I squeeze my eyes shut and try to block out the thought of poor brave Maya Ibuki and her crew, dying down there in the dark and the din. I can't hear myself over the roar of the dying ship, but I know I am screaming.
Then there's a strange springing sensation, and the bottom drops out; for a moment I think the ship is plunging down, then I realize that I'm actually leveling off a bit. I open my eyes and spare a glance over my shoulder, and see the reason why. The noise was a bit more than just things falling—over half of the ship is gone. It's a stunning sight, this great ship torn asunder; her forward end vanishes as the after part settles back, and then she begins to slide forward, picking up speed like a train leaving the station.
This is the end.
In minutes I'll be in the water, which is below freezing. Minutes after that, I'll probably be dead. I close my eyes and wait for the shock.
No, damn it, I won't die like this! I won't! Oh, I'll die, but it won't be cowering with my back to my killer. Eyes open, I climb up, my limbs driven with new energy, and stand balanced on the rail, looking down as the black water rushes up at me. The screams of those around me fade from my hearing. There's only me, the great failed machine beneath my feet, and the ocean, rushing up in its glee to try and murder me.
"Come on, then!" I cry. "Take your best shot!"
"Sync levels at 56.3% and..." Suddenly warning indicators flashed across the board, cutting Maya off.
"Process control lost," SHODAN calmly reported amid the clamor of sirens.
"Shut it down now!" Ritsuko commanded.
"I repeat: process control has been lost."
"Smartass computer! Maya, John, cut the power."
Both worked feverishly at the controls, with negligible results. Maya turned to face Ritsuko, her face drawn in dawning terror. "It's no good, it's out of our hands now."
All eyes turned to watch the EVA just outside the control room window.
The process continued uncontrolled, error piling upon error, alarm upon alarm. Finally, the safety systems blindly acted to preserve the safety of a pilot who was no longer present. The entry plug popped free of the EVA and sprayed LCL across the catwalk as Misato watched, horrified. When the venting stopped there was a long pause; then DJ's jacket, soaked with LCL, fell wetly to the catwalk. That was all Misato could take; she fell to her knees, wracked with sobs, and gathered the wet jacket despairingly into her hands.
Up in the control room Ritsuko's eyes widened for an instant, then narrowed, her face becoming dispassionate, as events transpired. Maya buried her face in her hands, sobbing gently; Truss slid his chair close by her side and placed his arm over her shoulders, crying with her.
Ritsuko gathered herself and spoke, quietly. "Well, I knew that wouldn't work. He's gone." She sighed, rubbing at the bridge of her nose. "I guess somebody had better call his mother and let her know."
Rei Ayanami made a small, sharp sound of anger in the back of her throat, startling everyone present, and her red eyes flashed with a depth of feeling no one would have thought her capable of a few months before as she glared hotly at Ritsuko.
"I won't accept your attitude or your excuses, Doctor," Rei growled with carefully controlled menace. "We'll deal with this ourselves. Come on, Jon."
Jon nodded silently, favoring Ritsuko with a glare of his own as he and Rei left the command center, leaving everyone else to stare after them in confusion.
After a moments pause Ritsuko herself also left, shoulders slumped.
The last little bit of the ship disappears, and I plunge.
Not into icy blackness... but into light.
That was quick, I remark to myself. I expected I'd linger on for a few minutes, anyway.
The well-dressed, bearded stranger is back. He taps the ash from his cigarillo, then smiles at me. He has a black walking stick with a ruby-eyed silver skull for a knob. I find that most appealing for some reason.
"You didn't give up," he observes.
"You didn't give up," he repeats. "Once before, while you've been with me, you were in a similar situation and you gave in to despair. It took Rei to save you that time. This time, though, you faced it. You beat it."
"Who are you?!" I demand.
"Your friend," he replies. "Now it's time for you to go. I've found out what I wanted to know—and you've found out what you wanted to know."
The whiteness grows intolerably bright, blotting the bearded man out completely, and in the instant before it all goes dark I realize that he's right.
Through eyes hopelessly blurred with tears, Misato looked up to see two others standing on the catwalk, in front of EVA-01. Blinking to clear her vision, she saw that the people were Jon and Rei. They stood there, holding hands, looking up at the EVA.
"Lucifer..." they said in perfect unison.
And Unit 01 moved. It would have been imperceptible had Misato been on the wrong side of the Evangelion, but from this side it was easy to spot: the exposed right eye swiveled around, focusing directly on the children.
Again, in perfect unison, Jon and Rei looked back into the EVA's eye and spoke: "Please... give us our friend back. We need him."
The three sub-pupils on 01's right eye sprang open and the jaw moved ever so slightly, emitting a faint rumble. Then the EVA's exposed core glowed red for a moment, and in the next distended and warped as an unclothed human form was extruded from its surface and fell unglamorously to the catwalk with a muted splat.
Rei and Jon looked back up at 01 again. "Thank you," they said, more quietly.
Asuka Sōryū-Langley sat in bed, bored and tired. She was out of traction, but so weak she could barely stand up; she spent her days alternating between despair, frustrated rage, and enervated boredom. Only the visits from Misato, Jon, Rei and Maya kept her on anything resembling an even keel. Gendō Ikari never visited, but that was fine with Asuka. Depending on the time he stopped by, she would only have ignored him, spat in his face, or, in her more ambitious moments, tried to claw his eyes out.
There was a bit of a commotion in the hallway. Asuka scraped together some interest and looked out the windows built into the side of her room, but didn't see much of anything—there were too many green-smocked medtechs crowded around the gurney being wheeled by.
I haven't heard an alert, she thought to herself. Did I miss one? God—has Jon been hurt, or Rei?
She got no further with that line of thought; the door burst open and in came Maya Ibuki, beaming, still teary-eyed with joy.
"He's alive!" she cried. "DJ's alive!"
For a moment Maya's words failed to register; then Asuka's blue eyes widened as she felt the first feeling of genuine happiness she'd felt since before EVA-02 had slipped out of her control, over a month before. No—not happiness—it was pure white joy, washing away the residual pain in her weak, stiff limbs, the weakness and helplessness, the isolation.
DJ is alive.
Asuka reached out and took Maya's hand in the firmest grip she'd mustered in a month.
She held the thought firmly in her mind—DJ is alive.
Jon found Misato Katsuragi wandering around the Lower Wedge, not really watching the eyecatches on the game machines. Tears still tracked her cheeks, but they were no longer tears of sorrow, and though she still clutched DJ's damp motorcycle jacket in her hands, it was no longer a grip of despair, but one of hope.
"Major—Misato?" asked Jon tentatively. "Are you awake?"
Misato sat down in one of the chairs in the T5K observers' gallery, grinned absently and replied, "You know, I'm not sure," with a slight giggle.
Jon sat down next to her and smiled a small grin. "It's not a dream."
"It feels like one. I'm afraid, y'know," Misato said, not really looking at him. "I'm afraid I'll wake up and lose him again."
"You won't lose him again."
"Are you sure? I have, every morning for the last month. I'm not sure I could take it if it happened again today."
Jon mulled that over for a moment, then said, "Well, then go stay with him. If you don't believe me, believe your own eyes. He's not going to leave us again."
"... Yeah... I think I will." Misato stood up, then looked at, and really focused on, Jon for the first time in the conversation. "Jon... I don't know how you and Rei did what you did, and I don't really care. But..." She kissed his cheek, whispering, "Thank you."
Jon blushed a little and replied, "It was the least we could do."
DJ's head was swimming. It felt like an EVA had stepped on his head. EVA! The Angel—the ship is sinking—I must defeat—!
His eyes snapped wide open and he sat bolt upright.
And promptly recoiled in agony as a laser bored its way through his eyes. Well, if you had asked him at that moment, that's what he thought it was, anyway. And someone was beating on his skull with a mallet, now that he thought about it. It was only when his head hit the pillow that he realized he was in a bed. Probably in the infirmary; nearby he could hear someone moaning pitifully. Problem was, it sounded like his voice.
Oh... it was his voice.
Other voices were burning their way through the pain. They seemed harried yet concerned. He only caught snippets through the haze: "...damnedest thing..." "...he's damn lucky..." "...heart rate ok..." "...severe electrolyte imbalance..." "...vitals check..."
His unexpected lunge had startled the medtechs working on and around him, but only for a moment. No one really knew how he would react after his experience, inasmuch as he was first one ever to go through it and all. But once they'd cleaned the—whatever it was—off of him, he looked rather well. His vital signs checked out, brainwaves looked OK, and no signs of physical damage. In fact, he seemed to be a textbook example of a perfectly healthy 14-year-old male.
(His electrolyte balance was way off, one noted, but that wasn't a major problem. Poor bastard probably felt like he'd been on the bender to end all benders, though.)
DJ opened his eyes again, slowly this time, and only to the point of being slits. That laser had apparently just been the examination table lights, which still clawed at his optic nerves with billions of shrieking, razor-edged photons. Medtechs were abuzz around the table, packing their gear.
"Wha..." he croaked; his mouth felt like cotton.
"Oh good, you're awake." J. Random Medtech said as she helped him to a sitting position. "Here, drink this. You'll feel a lot better."
DJ did as he was told. The bitter taste was familar; it was the same stuff Ritsuko gave him when he was recovering from his first battle. It had the same effect this time as last—he did feel much better. The mallet was more a ballpeen hammer now. He considered for a moment, before asking: "May I have some more of that?"
The medtech silently complied. After a second glass the ballpeen hammer began fading. This is marvelous stuff, he thought to himself, they really should sell it as a hangover cure. Feeling much refreshed his countenance brightened considerably. "Thanks... What's your name, love?"
"Jenna," the medtech replied with a smile.
"Thanks, Jenna, you really know how to make a bloke feel better." He gave her his trademark rakish grin.
Jenna blushed a bit. "I can see that. Are you feeling up to a few vistors? There's a number of eager people waiting outside."
"Well, far be it from me to keep my fans waiting."
Jenna laughed. "Ok, I'll let them in."
A moment later DJ's room was full of people. There was a moment of uncertainty as no one knew just what to say; then Maya broke the tension by rushing forward and hugging him fiercely, tears of joy wetting her cheeks. "It's good to have you back, DJ!"
"It's good to be back, love," said DJ, tears of his own rising in his eyes. For some reason he couldn't name, he felt unspeakably glad to see that Maya was alive, as though he had somehow feared she wouldn't be. As he considered that, she stepped back to give others their chance.
"Welcome back, DJ," said Truss diffidently. The engineer held out his hand tentatively; DJ took it, and, feeling that same powerful gladness, hugged him, too.
"It's so good to see you all again," he whispered as Truss, touched but a bit confused, stepped back.
Ritsuko looked uncomfortable there, in light of what had happened earlier. Still, she felt it only right to welcome him back. She stepped forward, kind of stiffly, and took DJ's hand. "Welcome back, DJ, I'm glad you're OK."
DJ's smile made its way back. "None of that, now." He used his grip on her hand to pull her down to him, and, before she could protest, hugged her. "It's good to be back, love. Sorry about that whole pullring thing—I was in a rotten mood that day."
When he released her Ritsuko stood back away from the bed, a completely confused expression on her flushed face. Maya and John exchanged a glance and bit their lips to avoid laughing.
DJ turned his attention to Misato, who stood waiting her turn. "Now you—erf!"
DJ was cut off as Misato pulled him into a fierce hug and planted a kiss right on his lips. Putting his initial shock aside he decided to go with it—how often do opportunities like this come along?—and kissed her right back. When they came up for air almost a minute later, Misato pulled back from him slightly, and, while stroking his hair, spoke quietly. "Welcome back, DJ. I missed you."
Taken by the emotion clear in her eyes, and voice, DJ replied in the same quiet tone: "If I'd known that was waiting for me, I'd have returned sooner, love."
Misato smiled as she stood and straightened her uniform, still streaked with LCL.
Everyone else wore looks that were part bemusement, part shock, and part confusion.
DJ didn't need a shower. In the course of caring for him after his abrupt reconstitution, the medtechs had washed him—though he had been perfectly clean upon his emergence, so there really hadn't been any need for that, either. But over the course of his career, DJ had grown to view the act of showering as a ritual as much restorative as it was hygienic, so he took one anyway, because it felt so good.
Afterward, he decided he was sufficiently refreshed to venture forth. The medtechs had fished the rest of his clothes and effects out of the entry plug and dried them, so he was dressed and shod. Amazingly, his watch was entirely unharmed by the ordeal, giving him yet another reason to feel profound respect for the HAL hardware designers.
He felt remarkably well for someone who apparently hadn't existed for the last month or so, but he did have one disadvantage. He had no memory of anything that might have happened during the month he spent at one with his EVA. From his point of view, the fight with... oh, hell, he'd completely lost track of the numbers by now, whichever Angel that was... had happened just a few hours ago. And shortly before that, his EVA was trying to kill Asuka.
DJ sighed. Asuka.
The last time he'd seen her she was battered and bloody, still unconscious in the infirmary. That view through the window, seemingly just a few hours old, haunted him still... and with it came guilt. Even though, logically, he knew it wasn't his doing, he still felt responsibility for the whole incident. Most of his memories of early that day—correction, he reminded himself, last month—were disjointed fragments. Those that he could recall weren't very good at all.
"Well," DJ muttered to himself, "no sense in putting this off any longer."
DJ paused outside of Asuka's room to gather his strength and composure before entering.
It didn't help. When he entered the room and saw Asuka, still bruised and bandaged (but not near so battered as the last time, his brain reminded him) he couldn't hold back his tears.
Asuka heard the door latch, but didn't hear anyone approaching. Curious, she turned to look, and had to blink a few times to be sure of what she was seeing.
DJ brushed a tear from his cheek and sniffed. "Hullo, love."
"DJ! Why are you crying?" She felt a bit silly asking, as she could feel her own tears beginning to flow.
"I'm... I'm sorry, love. It's just... I'm... I'm sorry..." DJ broke down and started sobbing. Asuka began sobbing too, both in joy for seeing him, and in sympathy for the torment he obviously felt. Ignoring the pain, she sat up in bed and opened her arms. DJ ran to her, and they hugged like they would never let go.
"Shhh... It's OK. It's OK." Asuka combed her fingers through DJ's hair, as much to convince herself that he was really there as to to soothe him.
"I didn't mean... I couldn't stop it. I tried to, I really did. I couldn't do anything. Oh Christ! I felt so bloody helpless."
Asuka cringed at the pain in his voice. "It's OK, I'm OK. I know it wasn't you. I've seen the tape. You tried your best, it wasn't you." Asuka's voice took on an icy tone. "It was Ikari."
DJ's body tensed at the mention of that name. "Ikari. I'm going to kill that bloody bastard with my bare hands."
"Don't worry about that now. You're back, and that's all I care about now."
"Sorry, love, you're right, that can wait." DJ pulled back to look her in the eye, bringing his hand up to brush away her tears. "Are you all right, really?"
Asuka paused for a moment. "Yeah, I'm pretty much OK. They tell me I'll be out of here soon, maybe another week or so. I've started with some physical therapy already. They tell me I'm doing well. So, yeah, I'm OK..."
DJ looked deep into her eyes for a long moment. "Asuka, love, there's something you're not telling me. What is it?"
Asuka tried to adopt an indignant façade. "And just what is that supposed to mean?! Hmph! You think you know so much about women! I told you, I'm fine." Asuka crossed her arms across her chest and turned her face away from his.
DJ calmly tipped her chin up with his finger, looked into her eyes and kissed her gently. "I don't need to know women well—I know you, my heart. Please, I'm asking you as a friend and a lover, what is it?"
Asuka's lower lip trembled as she fought with her emotions for a moment. Then, with a sob, she threw her arms around DJ and kissed him fiercely, then rested her head on his shoulder. DJ stroked her back now, as she had his earlier. He knew better than to press her further. She would talk when she was ready.
Neither one of them knew how long they sat that way. Each was lost in their own thoughts, enjoying the simple contact with the other. It was Asuka who first broke the embrace. She pulled back and, not looking at DJ, began to speak.
"The injuries I suffered were severe. When the entry plug was crushed it did a lot of internal damage. They were able to save my life, and they tell me I should make a full recovery. Except..."
"Except?" DJ asked gently.
Asuka raised her eyes to meet his. "Except I will never be able to have children."
Her face remained impassive for a long moment, as a single tear rolled down her cheek. And then the levee broke and she threw herself against DJ, howling, "I'll never have children!"
When she had calmed down enough to hear him, DJ spoke in hushed tones. "I didn't realize it was so important to you."
Between sobs, Asuka answered. "My entire family is dead. I'm the last one of my line. Ever since my parents died I'd dreamed of someday having children. Building a family, continuing the line. Now... now that will never happen. When I die, the Langley line dies with me."
"Oh, my love. I'm sorry."
There was nothing else to be said, so they sat, embracing, in silence.
Misato's blue Z pulled up in front of the modest house owned by Ritsuko Akagi, a few blocks off Lincoln Street in northern Worcester, and Ritsuko climbed out, then leaned into the passenger doorway.
"Thanks for the lift, Misato." Ritsuko paused for a moment, then brightened as an idea struck. "Hey—do you want to go for a drink? It's been a long time since we did that."
Misato shook her head. "Sorry, Rit'—I can't. I've got some other stuff I have to do tonight. Maybe next week sometime?"
Though feeling inexplicably depressed by the negative response Ritsuko only shrugged. "Sure, whatever. What's important enough to keep you out on a night like this?" she asked, gesturing at the rather heavily falling snow and hoping to change Misato's mind.
Misato smiled, her eyes far away. "I have a promise to keep."
That cleared matters up for Ritsuko not at all, but she wasn't in the mood to play twenty questions with her old roommate, so instead she wished Misato a good night and shut the door.
As she unlocked the door to her house, Ritsuko turned and watched the taillights of Misato's Z pause at the corner, then disappear into the snowy night. She knew it was foolish, but she couldn't shake a feeling of rejection.
"Well, how do you like that," she observed. "Soon as we know DJ's all right, she's off to meet some guy, I'll bet. Well, I guess at least one of us deserves to be happy tonight." Entering the house and stamping the snow from her boots, she sighed. "I suppose I shouldn't jump to conclusions."
As she entered her house, before she could turn on the lights, she felt something warm and soft rubbing against her legs. "Hey there Chandra, how's my baby?" she asked, flipping on the lights and crouching to scratch the cat between his ears.
*Purrrr* was her answer.
"Well, looks like it's just the two of us again. You as hungry as I am?"
As she made her way to the kitchen she continued talking to the cat, a habit that had only increased as of late. "Well, I'm feeling a little naughty tonight. What do you say we just make complete pigs of ourselves, eh?"
Chandra just looking at her, blinking.
Five minutes later Chandra was busily devouring the can of Fancy Feast Ritsuko had placed on his dish. Ritsuko herself was sprawled on her couch, legs up, with the TV on and a huge bowl of Breyer's strawberry ice cream, smothered in Hershey's chocolate syrup and a healthy dollop of Cool Whip, in her lap. She sat in the dark, half-watching some old B movie on cable, slowly consuming the monstrosity, and thinking.
At length, the medtechs came by and shooed DJ out of Asuka's room; by then she had fallen asleep, and they'd found him contemplating her quiescent face with a sad and wistful look. Told to leave, he didn't put up a fuss; instead, he rose from the bedside chair he'd ended up in, placed a gentle kiss on her sleeping forehead (eliciting a murmur and smile without waking her), and departed.
It was no night to be riding his motorcycle home, though he felt up to it and the machine had been well cared for by the NERV motor pool in his absence. Standing next to it in the NERV garage, he sighed, acknowledging this fact, and then turned to go back to the office and see about bumming a ride home from somebody.
Having turned, he found himself facing a tallish man in a black suit. Since he recognized the man's face, though, this didn't particularly intimidate him.
"Evening, Jon," he said. "You didn't turn up for the autograph party in Medical, I was starting to think you didn't miss me."
"Had some things to do," said Jon with a smile. He extended a hand, but DJ used it to pull him into an embrace. Jon was a little taken aback, but not too much.
"It's good to have you back," he said as they separated. He fought the urge to straighten his tie. "For a minute there we were afraid you wouldn't make it."
DJ shrugged. "For a minute there," he confided, "I was afraid I wouldn't make it."
"How much do you remember?" asked Jon.
"Not a lot," replied DJ. "I think I dreamed, but it's all slipped away from me." He blinked, looking a little alarmed. "Where's Rei?"
Jon frowned thoughtfully. "I'm not sure. She left right after the infirmary told us you'd be OK."
"But she's all right?" DJ pressed.
"Of course she's all right. I'd know if she wasn't," replied Jon.
DJ sighed. "Of course. Never mind. I just had the most awful feeling... " He shook his head. "I'm just a little wobbly still, I guess."
Jon nodded. "Understandable." He pulled an object out of his pocket and handed it to DJ, who took a couple of seconds to realize it was a key ring. "I have to stay here for a while longer. Why don't you take my car for the evening? I'll hitch a ride home from J when we're done."
"Sure, it won't be a problem."
"Well, OK, then."
"Tomorrow," said Jon, "we need to talk."
DJ nodded. "I'll look for you."
Jon stood and watched his friend drive away, his face pensive.
As he drove up the S490, DJ considered his options for the evening. It seemed to him that he should be tired, and want nothing more after his ordeal than to go home and sleep, but he wasn't and he didn't, particularly. To the contrary, he felt peculiarly energized. Not wired, as if he'd had too much coffee or anything like that, but rested and refreshed. Part of it, he mused, might be because of the snowfall; he had always enjoyed snow.
He shivered a little and turned up the Avenger's heater, then smiled as an impulse struck him. As the car reached the surface, he took the turnoff for Gold Star Boulevard instead of staying on I-290, and headed for the Greendale Mall.
Twenty minutes later, he emerged, whistling a happy tune, swinging the bag that held his old clothes around his free hand as he fished the keys to the Avenger out of the pocket of his new gray wool overcoat. Here was a point at which his opinions and those of his mother diverged: Lara Croft had never had much use for clothes other than to keep the important bits covered. DJ, though, had some small appreciation for the elements of style. Sometimes, if it wasn't too much trouble. One of the reasons he liked cold weather was because it gave him an excuse to wear bulky overcoats, scarves, and those cool commando sweaters with the cloth bits on the shoulders and elbows. He was especially fond of those sweaters.
Now, as he drove homeward, he was struck by another impulse. Since it seemed to be the evening for obeying impulses, he turned off before Lee Street and instead worked his way up the hill, and ended up in front of Bancroft Tower. Here, he stopped the car and got out.
Standing next to the black car, looking out through the falling snow at Worcester-3, DJ took a deep, cold breath and blew it out again in a great cloud of vapor, feeling so good just to be alive, however crazed the world had become.
He turned and crunched over the newfall across the parking area to the gates of the tower complex. As he did so, he realized that he wasn't alone. His eyes flicked up to the rim of the miniature turret standing on the right side of the walkway to the Tower, to see Rei Ayanami standing there.
He climbed the steps to the inside of the turret, walked around the stone "table" in the middle of it, and stood facing Rei for a few seconds. Neither of them spoke as the moment stretched taut.
Then, silently, she stepped forward and hugged him, her arms slipping inside his unbuttoned overcoat and crossing his back as she pressed the side of her face to his chest. He smiled and closed his own arms over her shoulders, drawing the coat closed around them. They stood, a pool of warmth on a chilly night, for almost ten minutes before Rei spoke.
"I'm sorry," she said softly.
"What?" said DJ.
"I never told you all you needed to know," Rei murmured. "I was... I was selfish. I was afraid you would draw away if you knew the truth. I'm sorry."
DJ held her silently for a few more seconds, then said gently, "Rei, do you remember when we fought the Fifth Angel?"
"Of course," she replied.
"Do you remember what I told you afterward?"
Rei looked up at him, tears tracking her face. "Which part?"
"The part where I said you never needed apologize to me."
"I remember... but..."
"You know, there was a time when I actually resented the connection you and Jon have," said DJ abstractedly, his eyes focused in the middle distance. "I thought... thought I knew you better, had known you longer... deserved you more. I was completely smitten with you from the moment I first saw you, dreadful as the situation was."
"I—" said Rei.
"You're about to apologize again," said DJ; she stopped and looked abashed. "It's all right, I got over it. Well, the resentment part, anyway. I think I'll always be smitten with you," he added, grinning. "But I've had to face facts. You and Jon... well, not to put too fine a point on it, you were made for each other."
"Jon..." Rei stopped, and a little color came into her cheeks. "Jon wouldn't mind sharing."
DJ laughed, a sound not of scorn but of pure merriment. "I bet he wouldn't at that," he said, his eyes twinkling, "but it's not the way I'm wired. I..." He paused, his amusement slipping a little. "I'm not sure what Asuka is to me, or I am to her, but until we know, to do anything else would be foolish. Besides—you two are the brave new world, I'm afraid, and I'm much too old-fashioned to keep up with you." He tightened his arms around her for a couple of seconds, then added, "I do reserve the right to do this from time to time, though."
"Any time you like," she replied.
More minutes passed in silence.
Then, softly, regretfully, Rei said, "I have to go."
"Can I give you a lift?" asked DJ.
"No, that's all right," she said. "I have my own way."
"Of doing just about everything," he added, grinning; then he kissed her on the forehead and let her back out of his coat. "I'll see you tomorrow, though, yes?"
"Of course," she replied. "Good night, DJ."
"Good night, Rei."
He watched her walk away down the hill, stood looking at the city for a while, then went back to the Avenger and drove off the other way.
Behind and above the spot where DJ and Rei had stood, at the top of Bancroft Tower, Kevin Nelson stood, hands in his coat pockets, the wind whipping his coattails around picturesquely.
Kevin smiled to himself, and then, without apparent effort, jumped from the Tower to the top of a tree at the edge of the clearing, his landing amid the topmost branches not even shaking off the snow. From there, he jumped to another tree, thence another, thence a rooftop, until he was gone, vanished into the snowy night.
DJ parked the car by the curb in front of his apartment building and rode up in the elevator, keyed his way into Apartment 3-D, and discovered it quiet and empty. Pen-Pen's refrigerator was shut; the bird was probably sleeping. Asuka was, of course, in the infirmary, and Misato was nowhere to be found; but there was a piece of paper on the kitchen table, and DJ picked it up, unfolded it, and read:
Please go to the Crowne Plaza Hotel downtown. There's something important there you need to see. All will be explained.
Folded into the paper was a plastic keycard with the logo of the Crowne Plaza printed on one side.
Puzzled, DJ tucked the keycard into the inside pocket of his jacket, looked around the kitchen in confusion, and then left the apartment.
DJ wondered, as he entered the Crowne Plaza, just which room he was supposed to be going to. There was nothing printed on the keycard to tell him, and he'd feel a right git going to the front desk to ask. It occurred to him, though, that most high-end hotels like this used the keycards to access the elevators as well as the rooms—if that were the case he'd at least end up on the right floor. So he didn't bother asking, and just went to the elevator and slotted the card.
With a soft chime, the button labeled P, all the way at the top of the control panel, lit up. DJ looked at the keycard in surprise. The penthouse suite?
The elevator arrived on the twenty-fifth floor in a few seconds, and the doors opened onto a short corridor leading to a single unmarked door. His curiosity raging, DJ went to the door, slotted the card into the security panel next to it, and watched with satisfaction as it showed a green LED and unlocked the door.
He hung up his overcoat and took off his boots out of habit in the foyer that door opened into, then proceeded into the living room of the suite, a large and comfortably appointed room with a row of windows that looked out over the downtown area, a big flatscreen TV, a wet bar and all the trimmings.
Of course, he was paying attention to none of that.
For, standing in the middle of the room and waiting for him, was Misato Katsuragi, impeccably attired in her black NERV dress uniform, its double row of silver buttons polished to a bright gleam. She wore no makeup, but her bright eyes and the light flush on her cheeks made it unnecessary in any event.
"Hi, DJ," she said with a smile. "I'm glad you came."
"What's this all about?" DJ wondered.
Misato glanced down and said, almost shyly, "I wanted to make this night as special for both of us as I could..."
"When I get back, you owe me an evening of your undivided attention, love."
"You'll get it. I promise."
The kiss earlier. The look in her eyes.
"I missed you."
Misato went to the overstuffed white leather sofa and sat down at one end, patting the cushion next to her. "Have a seat... let's talk for a while. Room service ought to be along any minute."
For the next couple of hours, they sat, ate, and talked—about the past month, the indeterminate future, the others, current events, everything, nothing at all. Constantly their eyes would meet; constantly each would feel the sparks—and yet they were relaxed, letting events flow at their own pace, savoring the buildup. Both knew this sort of circumstance was unlikely to happen again.
"On Christmas Eve," he said softly, a sentimental smile forming on his face, "Mum always lets me open one of my gifts early."
Misato grinned. "Maybe we should go shopping, then."
He leaned back and slipped an arm behind Misato, smiling as she nestled warmly against him. "No, I'm not greedy... and I've one great gift already." His smile turned sly as he added, "One I intend to take my time unwrapping..."
Misato chuckled and leaned closer, her hair brushing against his ear; she met his eyes with her own and smiled happily.
"DJ?" she murmured.
"Yes, Misato?" he replied, his voice equally subdued.
"I..." She hesitated, then chuckled at her own nervousness. You've come this far, she told herself, the time for hesitation is long past... and anyway, there's nothing to hesitate about. You have nothing to fear from the truth.
"I love you," Misato said.
DJ had known it for quite a while, of course, but he'd never heard her say it before. He felt his eyes filling as a wave of emotion swept over him—pure, sweet, untainted love for this beautiful woman who had formed the cornerstone of his life here in Worcester-3 from the very beginning. Friend, foil, protector, protected, leader, follower... their roles had meshed together in such intricate ways that no one had ever truly understood their relationship but they themselves.
He took her hand, lacing his fingers through hers, and kissed her gently before replying, "I love you, too."
Then he grinned. "Now! Let's get down to business."
Two hours later, the clock approached midnight.
Misato's jacket lay draped across the arm of the couch where it had been haphazardly tossed.
On the television screen, no one was watching a tape-delayed re-run of an Australian Touring Car race.
From the next room came the faint sounds of people greatly enjoying themselves:
"Aha! Take that, smartass! 92 points."
"What?! That's an illegal play!"
"No it's not, it's perfectly valid."
"You can't take a triple word score or any word score with bloody 'Evangelion'."
"And why not?"
"Well it's a bloody proper noun, isn't it!"
"No it isn't."
"Besides, it's not in the dictionary."
"So? It's a real word anyway."
"Look, if you don't retract that play immediately I shall be forced to lodge a formal complaint with the National Scrabble Association."
"Oh, stop whingeing."
"What can I say, you're turning me into a Brit."
"My revenge for you turning me into an American. I can't believe I prefer my beer cold now."
"Oi, Pen-Pen, that isn't even a word!"
"... I'll be damned, it is a word."
"DJ, the penguin's beating both of us."
"Humbling, isn't it..."
At the stroke of midnight, as the snow continued to fall on the sleeping city of Worcester, Jon Ellison arrived home to an unexpected but certainly welcome doorway hug by Rei Ayanami, who he'd expected to have retired for the evening by now.
Otto Keller was on the telephone with his father and mother in Germany, where it was early morning. Admiral Keller was asking after the health of the young people he'd met at sea that summer, and it gave the Colonel considerable pleasure to be able to tell the old man they were fine.
Ritsuko Akagi sat on her couch at home, scratching Chandra and watching an old movie on cable. She wished briefly for an angel to come and show her what the world would have been like had she never been born.
John Trussell and Maya Ibuki were at Truss's apartment, watching the same movie. They held hands, and Maya leaned against Truss's shoulder, and Truss couldn't help but feel that all was as it was supposed to be.
Ken Stanfield and Jim Edwards were in a booth at the Kenmore Diner, savoring the chili and the momentary lack of any pressing need for action.
Hal exchanged situational data with the triumvirate of 9000 Series computers at X-COM Halifax.
Kevin Nelson stood at the top of the highest point in Worcester—the very tip of the radiotelecommunications antenna atop the Fleet Tower downtown—with his hands in his coat pockets, and smiled contentedly.
Gendō Ikari sat in his office, staring dispassionately at the framed photo of his estranged son that sat, incongruous amid the severe sterility of purpose that was Gendō Ikari's life, on the corner of his desk.
DJ Croft, Misato Katsuragi and Pen-Pen remained engaged in gleeful cruciverbalism.
And Asuka Sōryū-Langley, free of casts, wires, and despair, slept the sleep of the just.
For a moment, if only just, NERV's slogan came close to being true.
Information-sharing, a bit of B&E and the return of an old familiar face...
Neon Exodus Evangelion 3:3
The Doors of Perception
"You're probably thinking I'm completely mad."