It took another five minutes for Asuka to extract herself from Patrick’s pointed questions as an increasingly skeptical Rei looked on. Finally seeing an opening Asuka broke free, nearly running over Patrick in the process. Through the crowd he could see her making it to the center and Shinji, just as Mari slipped away. She was not happy with Shinji when she got there and showed it with what looked like one of her trademark verbal barrages.
Patrick breathed a sigh of relief only to face Rei, who was not at all happy with him.
“Sorry about that,” he started to explain as they both made their way to the pilots' table. “Mari asked for a favor.”
Rei correctly deduced what had just happened between Patrick and Asuka. “You distracted the Second so that she could talk to Ikari-kun?”
“Mari wanted time alone with him, just a few minutes.”
“And you agreed to this?”
“Sorry I didn’t tell you earlier. Mari really likes him.”
Releasing his hand, she narrowed his glance at him. “You did not consider that they will be hurt by this!”
“Not if she just wants a few minutes,” Patrick defended.
“You shouldn’t interfere,” Rei scolded him. She stopped and looked at him as they reached the table. “I do not like this particular part of you.” Patrick, feeling embarrassed and shamed, couldn't say anything in return.
The pilots all gathered next to a long, rectangular table, four chairs on each side and one at either end. At one end sat Misato, while a chair was empty at the other end until Kaji finally arrived. He was not wearing a uniform but had on a dark blue suit with red necktie, and he hurriedly moved over to the other end and pecked Misato on the cheek before motioning to the pilots for them to sit down. Patrick couldn't help but notice that Misato's mood wasn't so good either from the way that she turned her cheek to Kaji instead of just kissing him.
A ting-ting-ting sound was heard on a speaker as the admiral took a spoon and clanged it against a wine glass, giving a call for the room to come to order. Within a minute the couple of hundred officers and others quietly took their seats, as did the pilots.
Patrick looked down his side of the table. Both Shinji and Asuka had hard faces and Rei had gone from being angry to having no visible emotion (which Patrick wondered might be worse). He took a deep sigh and tried to relax, feeling horrible that his wonderful night with Rei had gone suddenly awry.
Admiral Vinson's speech was mercifully short, and came before the meal. In the space of seven minutes he thanked everyone at the new NERV for their tireless efforts, calling special attention to the accomplishments of the scientific and engineering experts such as Doctors Viraat and Foch (who were seated next to each other at one table). He then asked for a moment of silence from everyone for those who had lost their lives, both during the battle of the GeoFront, and in their more recent combat actions. After the memorial Vinson simply encouraged everyone to enjoy the evening, drink and eat as much as they could, and then get ready to fight like hell tomorrow because there would not be another break until they won.
Keeping with the theme of mixing east and west, dinner consisted of a unique mix of both western and Japanese dishes. Steak and lobster was served, as was sashimi and other Japanese seafood creations. Trying to focus on the meal, Patrick took a few bites of everything and found it unusually good.
“This is delicious,” he commented on the lobster. “Is it real?”
“Yes,” Misato told him, “the Alliance pulled strings and got actual lobster. Hard to find these days.”
“The steak is good, too!” Toji exclaimed. “No second-grade meat with these guys!”
Patrick turned to Rei, who as expected limited her dinner to soup, salad and tofu. “How is it?” he asked her, trying to smile. Rei just nodded without smiling and went back to drinking the soup. I'm not out of the doghouse yet I guess.
The meal kept going and as the evening wore on sharp edges began to soften. Asuka, who didn't say a word to Shinji during the main courses finally softened up when Baked Alaska was served along with caramel chocolate crust cheesecake and Japanese mochi. The redhead picked at the food, eating a couple of bites of each and then thrusting the remaining uneaten portion at Shinji, whose apparent punishment for the evening would be to finish everything on both his plate and hers.
Patrick turned back to Rei and saw that she was trying out the mochi. She ate carefully at first, and then had a couple of more after satisfying herself that they tasted good. He tried smiling at her again and this time Rei softened her expression but didn't smile back.
After desert was served Kaji waived to two other men who then carefully pulled portable dividers that were on wheels and separated the pilots' table from the rest of the ballroom. With the dividers around them, the pilots now had some privacy from the growing noise of the other officers outside, on whom alcohol, good food and conversation was now starting to have their full effect. The two men then went outside the new boundry as Kaji reached into a velvet bag he held and pulled out a large green bottle.
Carefully undoing the cap (which went off with a loud pop), Kaji then went from person to person on the table and poured from the green bottle. Each pilot had an empty glass set in front of them at the beginning of the service, and Kaji poured a slightly yellow bubbly liquid in each one.
Mari took a small sip from the glass after hers was poured, licking her lips afterward. Her eyebrows went up. “It’s champagne! Real champagne!”
That Kaji was serving alcohol to the pilots caught all of their attention. “You mean this is loaded?” Toji pointed to the glass.
“An adult privilege,” Kaji said as he continued to fill glasses, “for those with adult responsibilities.”
“Does this mean because we’re pilots we’re legal to drink now?” Kensuke asked innocently.
“It’s just for the dinner, you idiot!” Asuka scoffed from across the table.
The champagne wasn’t Patrick’s first taste of alcohol, as his old friend Vance had once snuck beer into their NERV-2 quarters and they both tried it. Seeing the champagne now brought back memories of their time together in the Nevada desert, long before he came to Tokyo-3. He watched Rei as she sniffed the glass, her eyebrows going up in surprise as the bubbles touched her nose.
Kaji arrived at the end of the table and was about to pour champagne into Misato’s glass when she quickly moved her hand over the top. He raised a curious eyebrow as Misato smiled nervously. “Been overdoing it lately, gotta cut back a bit!” Misato told him as she grimaced in embarrassment. Kaji in turn smiled curtly, narrowing her glance at her for just a moment.
Damn! He knows!
Turning back to his own seat at the end of the table, Kaji poured himself a glass and then set the bottle down on the table. His mood seemed much more serious than his usual jovial self, he was almost solemn as he again stood up and faced the group. The whole group became quiet as they waited for Kaji to speak.
“Each of you bear a unique burden,” Kaji told the children, “one that those of us who are not pilots can not truly comprehend. It’s a lonely task by definition and one fraught with peril, forced to confront terrors that even grown men and women would shirk from. Yet each one of you must bear it and you have borne it through many challenges.” He looked at Shinji as he said this, and the boy just nodded in understanding.
“What I ask of all of you tonight is simply to not bear that burden alone,” he continued. “While your roles as pilots are all unique, and something that each of you must address individually, you are all in the same boat so to speak. You may not be always be able to reach out to someone else to get them to truly understand how you feel, but you can reach out to your fellow pilots and they will understand. Let that mutual understanding be the bond that carries all of you through the difficult times we face ahead. Whatever conflicts you have between you,” Kaji said as he glanced in Asuka’s direction, “whatever differences that exist between you all, what you all have in common with each other is greater.”
Patrick looked at Rei as he listened to what Kaji was saying. She met his glance and then smiled a little, which made him feel a lot more relaxed for the first time that evening.
“Strengthen those bonds between you, all of you,” he admonished, “and leave behind that which only holds you back. Don’t let guilt or anger chain you down. Learn to forgive, and find your fulfillment in doing so.” Kaji raised his glass. “To all of you, cheers!”
“Cheers!” everyone said in unison while they raised their glasses, and then the whole group took a sip. As alcohol was a new experience for most of them, there were a few grimaces at their first taste. Hikari tried to swallow down her sip as Shinji and Kensuke made frowns at the first try. Mari had no difficulty, and neither did either Patrick or Toji. Asuka finished her glass, tilting her head high up until it was gulped down and then quickly clutched her throat.
“Just a sip! Not the whole glass, Asuka!” chided Shinji.
“How the hell was I supposed to know!” she replied with a raspy voice.
Rei took a cautious sip, swishing the bubbly liquid in her mouth and then swallowing it down. “Do you like it?” Patrick asked her. “Not bad,” she told him as she analyzed the sensation she felt.
Kaji poured an additional small amount of champagne in Asuka’s glass and then sat back down, looking directly at Misato as he did so. She was unusually quiet tonight, he knew, and wanted to give her an opportunity to make her own statement with her charges.
“He’s right,” she told the group as they turned their attention towards her. “Don’t let people in your past be a burden to you.” Misato then stood up and raised her own glass, filled with cider. “To Ritsuko Akagi!”
Kaji held his glass up again, joining her. “To Ritsuko.” The other pilots then all joined in. “To Ritsuko”
There was a moment of silence as the children took small sips from their glasses, the experience going smoother this time. The table was then quiet for a while, as everyone waited for someone else to go next.
Mari stood up first, looking a bit reluctant and then holding her glass in front of her. “To Nigel Illustrious,” she said out loud. “To Nigel,” then said the others.
“Who’s that?” Hikari whispered to Mari as she sat back down.
“My father,” she replied. “I’ll tell you more, someday.”
Kensuke now stood up, with his own glass. Nervously, he held it front of him. “To General Tageuchi Aida!” he said. “To General Aida,” replied the others.
Now Toji stood up with his own glass. He tried to look tough and held the moment a bit. “To…Ryu Watanabe!”
“Wasn’t that the kid who would always beat you up in first grade?” Kensuke said to him.
“Yeah,” replied Toji. “Kind of the reason why I grew up the way I did.”
The next to stand up was Hikari, who carefully lifted herself out of the chair. Her face was slightly blush, but tears started to form in her eyes as Toji put his hand behind her.
“Okay, here goes,” Hikari said. Taking a deep breath, she then held up the glass and looked directly at Shinji. “Shinji Ikari,” she said out loud. The others murmured in response.
“Shinji??” Patrick asked aloud.
“When Toji got hurt in the EVA,” she explained as tears ran down her face, “at first I blamed the whole thing on Shinji. I didn’t know then what happened but…I hated him for a long time afterward. It wasn’t until I learned more about…about what the EVA was when I realized the truth.” Hikari spoke to Shinji from across the table. “Shinji, I’m so sorry!” she cried out. Hikari couldn’t finish the toast, as emotion got the best of her and Toji comforted her as she sat back down. Everyone else toasted in her place. “To Shinji!” they said as they raised their glasses yet again.
Patrick sensed it was now his turn. He closed his eyes and let memories run through his mind for a moment. He thought he knew what he wanted to say, and then stood up himself. Raising his own glass, he said to the group “To Vance Vin...” but then held back the rest, unable to finish.
Misato looked at him with concern as the others waited. “Patrick, what is it?”
He looked down at Rei, who met his glance again, her deep red eyes peering right into him. No, he thought to himself as he looked at her face, there’s someone else I need to forgive tonight.
“Sorry,” he said to the others, “Let me back up.” He raised his glass again, and took a deep breath.
“To Doctor Harrison Forrestal,” he finally said. “To Doctor Forrestal,” the others joined in.
He sat back down, strangely relieved. Patrick felt a little light headed and as he glanced down the table he felt something tug at his hand. He looked down and saw Rei’s tiny hand inside of his own. Patrick turned towards her and saw her smiling, and he smiled back. It was like a mountain of pressure coming off of his head and shoulders just to feel her there with him, he thought.
There was a longer silence as everyone absorbed the moment and what was becoming more than a few sips of champagne. Kaji then stood up himself, and lifted up a glass. His face looked hard and serious.
“To…” he stumbled a bit, as he paused himself with the many dark memories that came to him at that moment. “To Ryoji Kaji!”he said, his voice faltering a little.
“Why is he toasting himself,” Toji whispered to Kensuke.
“He blames himself,” Kensuke replied. “God knows all of the terrible things he must have done to get to the truth.”
The others all joined in and this time Misato stood up as well, holding her own glass up high. “To Kaji!” they all said, this time more loudly as all of the children tried to show appreciation for their guardian. Both Shinji and Asuka called out again, “To Kaji!” Asuka then stood up and ran straight towards him, quickly embracing him. Kaji let his hand caress Asuka’s hair as she held on to him tight, and looking down the table he saw Misato smiling at him, putting her hand to her lips and blowing him a kiss from her side. For once in his life Kaji was beyond words at the show of appreciation and he nodded in acknowledgment. Finally Asuka let him go and everyone sat back down. The mood around the table was elevated, in between the champagne and the heartfelt confessions all of the children and their two guardians felt an outpouring of emotion.
Amidst the chatter that had come up from the others Rei took another sip from her champagne glass. The bubbly had a definite effect on her, she analyzed to herself, as she had never felt so light-headed before. Rei looked around the table, smiling and even giggling a little as she watched other pilots playfully banter. Even Shinji and Asuka were back in a good mood and chatting with themselves and the others.
“Did you have too much?” Patrick asked her. Rei looked at him with wide-open eyes as her cheeks blushed bright red. “I don't think so,” she replied in a higher-pitched, very relaxed voice. “I feel just fine!” She then hiccupped loudly.
“I think maybe it's time for you to lay off,” Patrick told her, feeling a bit buzzed himself.
“I need to do something first,” Rei said and then she stood up with her glass raised, waiting until the others started to quiet down.
“To... “ Rei started, and then she hiccupped again to everyone’s laughter. She waited until they were quiet and spoke again, her mood becoming more serious. “To...Ikari!”
“To Ikari!” everyone joined in. “To Shinji!” Toji called out.
“No,” Rei said. “To Ikari...Gendo Ikari.” The entire group went suddenly silent.
Everyone waited for someone to do or say something, and for an awkward minute Rei stood there with her glass in the air while the others wondered what they should do. Finally Misato stood up and took her own glass and held it up. “To Gendo Ikari,” she said in a serious tone.
Kaji then also stood up and raised his glass. “To Gendo Ikari,” he said, in an equally serious tone as Misato.
One by one the pilots all put out their glasses and jointed the toast, until there was only one pilot left. Like the others, Shinji's face blushed a little from the alcohol but his mood has turned very sour.
“No,” he said, looking up at Rei. “No. I can't do it!”
“Ikari-kun,” Rei pleaded with him. “Please.” Everyone else had their eyes focused on Shinji.
“No!” he fought back. “I can't! Not after everything he did!”
Misato spoke to him from her position at the head of the table. “No one's saying what he did wasn't wrong, Shinji,” she said. “But that doesn't mean you need to carry all that with you.”
“How can you just say that!” Shinji protested. “Everyone was hurt by what he did!”
“And many were also saved,” said Kaji from the other side. “Your father was a complex man. There were good and bad things about him.”
“Nothing good that I can see,” the boy retorted. Seated next to him, Asuka put her face in her palm. “Oh, grow up, will you!”
“Oh, like you're totally OK with your father as well!”
“Fine. He's a two-timing bastard. So what!” Asuka said, her voice slurring. “Just don't ruin everyone night with your problems.”
Rei slowly approached Shinji. “Ikari-kun,” she said. “You need to...”
Shinji stood up and for the first time since he had known her became upset at Rei. “I don't need anything!” he shouted, now getting the attention of others that were outside the table. Memories of the last time Shinji had stood in the room were in front of him. Memories of him being handcuffed and brought to his father in humiliation, in the last time he had ever spoken to him directly. “I hate him!” he shouted. “And I wish he was dead!”
“Shinji, that's enough!” Misato admonished. Before she could say anything else the boy turned from the table and ran out towards the door, pushing his way through several of the other NERV officers on the way out.
“Oh, God!” Asuka groaned. “Idiot! How embarrassing.”
Rei turned to follow Shinji when Patrick grabbed her by the arm. “Where are you going?”
“I need to talk to him,” she said, still under the effects of the champagne.
“Maybe you should just leave him alone, okay?”
She immediately pulled her arm away from Patrick. “I’m not your doll!” she sputtered and then turned to run after Shinji. Patrick tried to say something in return but could only watch her go, mentally cursing at himself for blowing it again with her.
On the other side of the room the senior NERV staff was still carrying on with conversation, liquor and now cigars, until Sheffield felt a buzz in his jacket pocket. As the general pulled out his phone, Admiral Vinson watched from the corner of his eye as he was telling tales of an old exploit from many years earlier to the others.
Sir John scanned the screen of his mobile device and then straightened up. Vinson broke off his conversation and walked over to him, a more serious look on his face.
“Omega?” he said quietly.
“Yes,” Sheffield confirmed. “This time target is listed as Alaska.”
“They’re going after our base there?”
“Correct, a direct attack.”
Vinson considered it for a moment. “That’s where we’re keeping the guy with the beard on ice. Funny how they’re pretty anxious to put him out of action.”
Sheffield took a drink from his glass. “They still fear him, enough to go out of their way to eliminate him before he says anything.”
Vinson finished his own drink. “Well, let’s ruin their party then.”
The commander walked over to the pilot’s table and around the dividers. What he then saw of the pilots’ table he was not happy with.
“Colonel?” he asked Misato as she was bending over a retching Kenskue. “Oh, Sir!” she said while standing at attention. Kensuke was on the floor as Hikari and Mari helped clean him up.
Vinson looked around, seeing a group of teenagers in even more disarray than usual. “What the hell are you doing to our pilots?”
Kaji stepped up to the commander, propping up a sleepy, drunken Asuka as he did so. “It’s my fault, sir. It’s sort of an introductory course in how to handle alcohol.”
Vinson sighed and bit his lip to hold his temper. “Looks like they all failed.” He then turned to Misato. “Colonel, please select your two most sober pilots, I want you to get EVA units wheels up in 60 minutes.”
Misato switched back to her officer side. “What’s the target?”
“News from our friend says two Harpies are going to strike our base in Alaska within the next eight hours. If possible I want to do an air-intercept before they’ve got a chance to launch their units on the base.”
Misato turned to Mari. “Are you trained on the Recon system?”
“You mean the flying EVA?” Mari asked, her voice surprisingly calm compared to the other children. “I’ve done the simulator on it but never actually flew in the system.”
“Well today’s your lucky day! If you did the simulator well enough then you should be okay. Patrick?”
Patrick lifted his head up, he had been sitting at the table feeling dejected over what had happened. “Yes, Colonel?”
“Go with her as backup. We’ll drop you on the ground, anything that Unit 05 shoots down you can finish off when it lands.”
“Got it,” he said nonchalantly. He was actually glad to get a mission; it would get his mind off what had become a horrible night.
“Sounds like a plan,” the admiral told Misato, pounding his fist into his hand. “You two also get going,” he told her, also glancing at Kaji. “I want the whole team airborne in 58 minutes.”
“Yes, sir!” they said in unison. Vinson then left towards the exit door.
The officers didn’t waste any time getting things moving. “Hikari!” Misato ordered, “get Kensuke and Toji back to the boys’ suite. Patrick, Mari, go straight to the cages.”
“What about a deployment bag?” Mari asked.
“You won’t need it this time. Quickly please!” Both of the teenagers picked up anything they had left at the table and prepared to leave, Mari saying her goodbyes with the others while Patrick went up to Misato. “I wanted to say ‘bye to Rei,” he asked.
“Sorry, there’s really no time.” She patted him on the shoulder. “Don’t worry. Have some faith in her, okay?” Patrick didn’t say anything but just shrugged and then went together with Mari towards the door. Kaji then approached Misato. “Katsuragi?”
“Yes?” she said, her voice a little weary.
“Perhaps you should consider letting Hyuga handle this operation.”
She looked him straight in the eye. “No.” Kaji tried to say something further but she put a finger on his lips. “Not another word until we get back.”
“Understood,” he said as they both knew the unspoken reasons and then they both made their way out of the ballroom.
Shinji ran down the hallway, away from the place that to him was still his father’s office despite being remodeled and redecorated. He was in a blind rage. How could Ayanami bring him up like that?, he thought as he raced down a corner, not even sure where he was going.
He made it to an observation deck that faced the spacious interior of the GeoFront. Finally he stopped with nowhere to go as he looked around, seeing the inside walls of the GeoFront all around him. A strong wind was felt as it often was at night inside the structure. The moon could be clearly seen from the opening at the top.
Footsteps were heard behind him and Shinji turned around. Standing in the accessway was Rei, panting heavily as she had raced to catch up with him. In one hand were her shoes, as she had removed them so that she could run faster. The feet of her lavender hose had runs and tears from the running. “Ikari-kun,” she said softly after catching her breath.
Shinji moved away from her and towards the railing, turning his back to her as he stared at nothing in particular.
“Ikari-kun,” Rei said to him. “You’re running away.”
“So!” Shinji shot back.
Shinji had sat down on the concrete deck and let his feet dangle from the edge, resting his head on the steel railing. He ignored Rei as she stepped right next to him. “Please don’t do this,” Rei said to him.
“How can you just forgive him like that?” Shinji said to her, his voice still with anger. “After everything that he did...to Mom, to me, to you, to everyone!”
Rei was direct “I don’t ignore what happened but I don’t want to hold onto it either,” she told him. “I want to be free from him, so I forgive him.”
“All I want to do is kill him,” Shinji murmured under his breath. “It’s what he deserves.”
“Do you hate him so much you would give up your life to fulfill your vengeance.”
“I’m with EVA, I don’t have a life!” Shinji shouted. “And every day that I pilot I have to remember why I’m the pilot and what he did to make that happen!”
“And striking at him would change all of that?” Rei asked.
Shinji thought to answer but couldn’t. “He would at least feel the pain I feel,” he finally said. After a moment he said something more, his voice becoming more week. “I thought…I thought I could just let it go, that I was okay to be with EVA now, but when I went inside that room tonight all could think about was what happened, the day that Toji was hurt and…” Shinji’s voice tapered off, sniffling as tears flowed again.
Rei came closer to Shinji, kneeling on the floor as she edged next to him. ”I know the anger you have,” she said to him. “I felt that way also towards him.”
“When were you ever angry?” he asked.
“When I realized I was lied to, and that I was not intended to be anything else but a doll for his purpose. I felt helpless in the anger then.”
“I never thought you would be like that,” said Shinji, now softening his tone towards Rei but still not looking at her.
“He did something else,” Rei told him slowly, “something that broke the trust I once had in him. In that moment I let my anger go and the world almost ended as a result.”
“Why didn’t it?”
“It was because of you,” she said, “seeing you then reminded me of when I first saw you, when I first touched you. I knew at that moment there was something better and I wanted that.” Shinji rested his head on the railing, his strong feelings starting to burn themselves out.
“I have more reason to hate him than you do,” said Rei, her voice now showing more emotion, “but I do not want to travel the same road he did. I do not want you to travel that road either.”
“So he gets away with it,” Shinji said bitterly.
“He has lost his family,” Rei countered. “it is a suitable punishment.”
“No, it’s not.”
Rei felt angered by his indifference. “Shinji-kun!” Rei pleaded, her voice going high pitch in uncharacteristic emotion. “Please don’t turn into your father!”
Shinji turned his head towards Rei in surprise. She was shaking in emotion as she looked at him, her face blushed bright red with the effects of the alcohol. “You called me ‘Shinji-kun!’” he said to her.
Before Rei could reply back to him her eyes rolled upwards and she suddenly collapsed, sprawled out on the concrete deck. Shinji immediately went to her, shaking her to try and wake her up. “Ayanami! Ayanami!!!” He shook her several times and then touched her forehead. Her skin was cold. Panicked, Shinji called for help. “SOMEONE!!! HELP US!!!”
Go on to Chapter Twenty-Seven