Disclaimer: I don't own the rights to Neon Genesis Evangelion – Studio Gainax does.  If they have a problem with me writing this non-profit fan-fiction, I will gladly remove it from the web.  Also note that this story contains harsh language and graphic violence.  You've been warned.

Let She Who is Without Sin…

By Random1377

The bright strobe of a camera's flash threw the small apartment into bright contrast, banishing all shadows and relentlessly revealing the gruesome tableau in grim shades of stark black and white.  In the fierce, glaring light of the flash, there was no way to conceal what had happened in the apartment.

A man had died.

More accurately – a man had been murdered.

Misato Katsuragi flinched as the cameraman took another picture, trying to keep her eyes focused on the neo-baroque painting situated on the far wall, pretending to take in its details.  She forced her eyes to trace the bold lines defining a woman reclining on a couch, trying to make that her sole focus, but no matter how hard she tried, her gaze was drawn back towards the front door.

The camera flashed again, and Misato had to force herself not to run screaming from the image that burned itself into her retina.

"That's it, Major," the cameraman said quietly, "we're ready for you."

Misato took in a deep breath, pushing away from the wall.

"Right."

Slowly, she made her way over to the body and crouched at its side.

"Has anything been touched?" she asked, struggling to keep her mind focused on the task at hand.  "This is exactly how he was found, right?"

"That's right, Ma'am," said one of the detectives, "we've gone over the site too, so you can… I dunno, do whatever it is that they felt the need to call you in to do, I guess."

Misato cast the man a narrow glance.  "I don't like your attitude, Mister…?"

"Tanaka," the man replied levelly, "and with all due respect, ma'am, I don't like your 'organization' stepping in and taking over our investigation."

"Take it up with your commanding officer," Misato grumbled, "who knows?  Maybe he can get me off of this."  She offered the man a sarcastic smile.  "Or did you think that I like being called in the middle of the night to come stare at the body of one of my coworkers, hmm?"

Tanaka's lips thinned.  "You knew him?"

"Yeah," the purple-haired woman muttered, "saw him every day."

"My apologies."

Misato shrugged.  "Not your fault," she said lightly, "I know how hard it is to want to do your job and have someone else come in and step on your toes."  She shook her head, turning her attention back to the body.  "Ok, so," she sighed, "haven't done this for a while, but… looks like the cause of death is a knife wound to the throat."  She covered her mouth with her hand.  "Glove?" she asked unevenly, "Can I get a glove, please?"

The other detective nodded, reaching into a small box.  "Here, ma'am," he said softly.

"Thanks," Misato murmured, taking the rubber glove and pulling it on.  "What's your name?  I'd hate to keep yelling, 'hey you' all night."

The man offered her a ghost of a smile.  "It's Hirohito, ma'am," he said quietly.

"Most everyone calls him Hiro," Tanaka offered, trying to make his tone friendly as he realized there was nothing he could do to change the situation.  Might as well make the best of it, he thought dismally.

Misato nodded, flexing her hand in the glove.  "So," she murmured, willing her hand not to shake as she reached out and laid it on the body's neck, "knife caught him in the jugular… umm… but since it stayed in," she looked around the area thoughtfully, "and I don't see any signs of a fight, I don't think he would have bled out."  She slid her fingers around to the back of the man's neck, swallowing with some difficulty.  "Severed his spine," she whispered, leaning back to sit on her ankles.  "Went all the way through his throat and cut his spinal cord."

"My guess is he was dead before he hit the floor," Tanaka observed, "look at his face – he's smiling."

"Yeah," Misato nodded, "I caught that.  So he was…" she shivered, "happy to see his killer."

Tanaka walked over and crouched at the woman's side.  "Girlfriend maybe?" he asked thoughtfully.

"Didn't have one, as far as I know," Misato replied.  Kinda… kinda thought he liked me, actually, she mused sadly.

"Hmm," Tanaka hummed, "might have still had one on the side."  He turned his head, "Check it out, Hiro.  Cover all the bases – hell, I'd put money on a jealous boyfriend if he had a little something going on."  He looked back to the body as the other man pulled out a cell phone and began dialing.  "Look at the way the knife hit," he pointed, "kinda… comes in from below, you see?"

"Yeah," Misato nodded, "I see it."

Tanaka scratched his chin.  "So I'd say, maybe, that the killer was a little shorter?"

"Makes sense," the major replied, feeling thankful to have conversation to take her mind off of the fact that she knew this face.  "Another thing," she inclined her head, "it's still got a little bit of blade sticking out."

"Didn't spot that," Tanaka grinned, "good catch."  He cleared his throat as the woman glanced at him out of the corner of her eyes.  "Yeah," he said briskly, "so… smaller, and probably a little weaker as well – couldn't quite get the knife all the way through in one stroke."

Misato frowned.  "So you're thinking… a woman did this?"

"…or an adolescent."

"Like a child?"

"Hey," Tanaka shrugged, "best not to rule anything out just yet, right?"

"You're right," Misato sighed, rubbing her face with her ungloved hand.  "Moving on," she murmured.  "No sign of forced entry… blood spray and drainage is localized, so he didn't struggle… didn't fight… yeah, I think you nailed it – he died on the spot."  She nodded to the door.  "Then it looks like the killer left… closing the door to make sure no one unwanted walked in, see?  The blood under the jamb is smeared."

Tanaka's voice was low as he replied, "I've been doing this for a while, but I don't like the look of this one at all."

"Murders can look good?" Misato quipped gamely.

"The coins bother me."

Misato glanced to the body's face.  "The ferryman's fee," she whispered, "wanted to make sure he could cross The River Styx to the land of the dead."

"You know your mythology," Tanaka said approvingly.  "But it's a little off.  See, the ferryman's fee is usually placed under the tongue, to ensure that when the spirit rose, it didn't lose its money and get stuck on the shores of the Styx."

"So the killer got it wrong?" Misato ventured.

"Not sure," Tanaka shrugged, "I mean, those are kind of old coins – Greek, if I'm not mistaken – so, no, I don't think he got it wrong per se.  Maybe just a different ritual?"

"Some morticians used to put coins on the eyes," Hiro pointed out quietly, covering the mouthpiece on his phone for a moment.  "It kept the lids closed.  Of course, you couldn't use copper, because the green rubbed off on the body."

"Wow," Misato said flatly, "you guys are a wellspring of death knowledge.  You should be proud."

"I'll tell you something," Tanaka said slowly, ignoring the woman's dig, "I dislike anything that even hints at ritual, you know?  Reminds me of cults and whatnot."  He shook his head.  "Cults are always bad news – they never stop at one killing.  Always trying to resurrect their made-up god, or summon a demon, or prove that they're the new Christ or something stupid like that."

Misato nodded absently as she rose to her feet and took a look around the apartment, wishing she could be anywhere but there.

"I want this kept in-house, Major," she could hear her commanding officer, Gendou Ikari, telling her, "You have been specifically trained in this area… I want you in charge of this investigation."

She had tried to protest that her training, while thorough, was a long time ago, but the Commander had been adamant.

"How was the body discovered?" she asked quietly, pushing past the issue of the coins for the time being.  "He's been dead, what?  Five hours?  Four?  How was he found?"

"No one briefed you?" Tanaka blinked.

"I was asleep fifty minutes ago," Misato replied, folding her arms over her breasts.

"Oh, well… then sit down."

Misato frowned, but did what she was told, taking a seat at the small kitchen table.

Tanaka sat down across from her, tapping his forefingers together in silence for a minute before murmuring, "The killer called us."

"Was the call traced?" Misato asked, leaning forward in her chair.  "Did you have a voice analyst-"

"Please," Tanaka cut in dryly, "I do know how to do my job.  The caller was using a voice modulator to disguise his voice, but as for the trace…"

"Yeah?"

Tanaka met the woman's brown eyes and whispered, "It was traced back to here – and there's more."

"More?" Misato echoed faintly.  "What else?"

"Two things," Tanaka said quietly, "First: everything's been wiped clean – no prints anywhere, no hair, no clothing fibers – nothing. Nothing at all."

"Of course," Misato said tiredly.  "And second?"

"The killer left this."

Misato frowned as the man handed her a plastic bag with a piece of paper in it.  "I don't suppose it's a note telling us why he was killed?" she asked dully.  "And maybe a home address for the killer?"

Tanaka shook his head.  "It's a list," he whispered.

Misato found her breathing growing difficult as she scanned the page.  "God."

Nine names were listed on the piece of paper, typed with smooth, meticulous precision.

Aoba, Shigeru

Ikari, Shinji

Ayanami, Rei

Ibuki, Maya

Souryu, Asuka Langley

Akagi, Ritsuko

Fuyutsuki, Kozou

Katsuragi, Misato

Ikari, Gendou

There was a tenth name, carefully crossed out.

"I'm sorry," Misato whispered, running her forefinger over the name of Hyouga Makoto.

Tanaka cleared his throat.  "I admit that I don't know much about your organization's internal affairs," he said coolly, "but I know the name Ikari, and I know that you hold somewhat of a higher position."  He lowered his voice, leaning closer to the woman as he concluded, "this is a hit-list, and – tell me if I'm wrong – everyone on it is a key player in NERV, am I right?"

"No," Misato replied, shaking her head, "Aoba, Ibuki, and… Makoto, they're just techs – why would anyone want to kill them?  It doesn't make sense."

"They support everyone else," Tanaka shrugged, "cut out a person's support structure and they struggle – sometimes fall."  He shook his head, his tone entirely serious.  "You shouldn't underestimate the importance of techs and assistants and such," he inclined his head towards the list.  "He didn't."

"So you think it's a man, huh?" Misato asked, trying to maintain her composure as her eyes strayed to Makoto's body once more.

"Heh," Tanaka chuckled, "didn't mean to – it was a slip of the tongue, I guess, but it does make it easier to have a handle to hold on to, doesn't it?"

"I guess it does," Misato whispered.

"So," the officer murmured, "any ideas?"

Misato closed her eyes and took a deep breath.  "Not yet."

Tanaka nodded and leaned back as the woman folded her hands in her lap and drew three, deep, even breaths.

"Ok," she whispered, slowly opening her eyes.  I'm eating dinner, alone, she thought, staring down at the table.  I live alone… I'm always alone, but I can deal with that, if… she took a look around the apartment, rolling her shoulders to try to relax, if I keep things tidy and neat.  So, ok… I'm eating… there's a knock at the door, who is that at this hour?  She rose to her feet, her eyes growing hazy and distant.  I set my fork down – not on my plate… next to my plate, because that helps me keep structure.

Tanaka reclined in his chair watching as the woman slowly walked towards the door. 

"She profiling?" Hiro asked, keeping his voice low.

Tanaka nodded.  "Looks like it," he confirmed quietly, "but you can see she hasn't done this for a while – you know Abrams?  That German guy?  He's one of the best… he doesn't mumble under his breath, he just does it."

Misato continued walking, glancing down at the Makoto's body briefly.  Straighten my shirt, she thought, tugging subconsciously at the bottom of her flight jacket.  Want to make sure I look good.  She leaned forward.  I have a peephole, she thought, my neighborhood is ok, but not great, and I'm cautious.  I see… you, a soft smile appeared on her lips.  "Didn't expect to see you at this hour," she whispered warmly, reaching down to turn an imaginary doorknob.  Hi, she thought, how are you?  What?  Umm… sure, you can come in!  I step back… she took a backward step, her heel brushing Makoto's.  I'm still smiling… I never see the knife… I'm looking at your eyes, your smile… then… darkness…

Tanaka leapt to his feet as the woman wavered, putting his hand over his heart as she steadied herself.

"Man," Hiro mumbled, "she really gets into it, doesn't she?"

Abruptly, Misato stepped out the door.  "One of you come over here," she instructed, her tone cold and distant as she started walking away, "stand at the door."

Curiously, both men walked to the front of the apartment, listening intently as the purple-haired woman continued talking.

"I'm going to kill you," she whispered, slowly walking down the hall towards the apartment, her head bowed and her arms hanging loosely at her sides.  I am not angry… I don't want to hurt you, so I will make sure you die quickly – the throat, yes, the throat – but you will die.  She reached the door, raising a hand and miming a knock.  A dazzling smile lit her face, never coming close to her eyes as she chirped, "Hey, Hyouga, can I come in?"

Instinctively, Tanaka replied, "Sure Misato, I was just having dinner."

As the man stepped back, Misato's voice grew cold and hard.  "I'm glad I got to see you, Hyouga, there's something I wanted you to have."

Tanaka gasped as the woman's right hand shot out, stopping an inch from his throat.

Misato's eyes cleared and she blinked, taking a step back.  "You shouldn't have spoken," she whispered.

"Sorry," Tanaka murmured, rubbing absently at his throat.  "Won't happen again."

As the woman nodded, glancing down at the body with a small frown, Hiro stepped closer to Tanaka.  "Did you see?" he whispered quietly.

"Yeah," Tanaka nodded, staring at Misato as she crouched down to examine the knife once more.  "She never stopped smiling."

**

Asuka Langley Souryu rubbed her eyes tiredly, mumbling, "What time is it anyway?" as she made her way into the kitchen.  She could not say what she had been dreaming, but she was confident that it must have involved a dessert – because when she had awoke, tangled in a mass of sweaty sheets, she felt as though her throat was made of sandpaper.

All she could think about was quenching her thirst.

"Hey Misato," she mumbled, scratching her stomach absently, "what's-"

The purple-haired woman was out of her seat, her service pistol halfway free of its holster, in less than the time it took Asuka to blink.  A deathly stillness fell over the two women as their eyes met – one pair wide and suddenly terrified, the other cold and prepared for defense.

"Asuka," Misato whispered finally, slipping the gun back into its housing, "Umm… what are you doing up?"

"T-thirsty," the redhead managed, shaking herself to try to regain her composure.  "I was thirsty, Misato, I don't think you need to shoot me for that."

"Sorry about that," the woman said smoothly, discretely pushing the papers on the table into a pile.  "Just kinda tense today."

Asuka scowled, welcoming the warmth of anger as it rushed in to replace her fear.  "Yeah," she grumbled, stalking over to the fridge, "tense my ass!  You just keep that stupid thing in its holster – I don't want my tombstone to read, 'Killed by her own damn guardian!'"

Misato nodded.  I should sleep, she thought, glancing at the girl's back, I won't be any good if I can't even keep myself from jumping at shadows.

"Get me a beer, will you?" she asked with forced lightness.

Asuka looked over her shoulder.  "A beer?" she echoed.  "I thought you stopped drinking beer a few weeks ago?"

"I cut back," Misato told her conspiratorially, "but I still sneak one sometimes.  Don't tell Shinji, k?  This'll be our little secret."

The redhead considered this for a moment, the small grin on her face betraying the fact that she liked the idea of a secret more than she would ever say.  "He'd get all worried," she said quietly, pulling a beer out of the fridge and handing it to the woman, "he's such a little mother-hen!"

"I know," Misato agreed, popping the can open and taking a sip.  "I guess that's just the way he is."

"He probably would have wet himself when you started drawing your gun," Asuka theorized dryly.

"Maybe," the woman conceded softly, setting the can carefully on the table.  "Look, I'm sorry I'm so jumpy.  Had kind of an odd day."

"What was that call you got earlier?" the redhead yawned.  "You left in a big hurry – was it something to do with NERV?"

"It wasn't anything important," Misato lied uncomfortably.  She disguised her unease with another drink of beer.

In all honesty, she had not thought of what to tell Asuka and Shinji about Makoto – or anyone else at NERV, for that matter.  She knew that she could not keep his disappearance a secret forever, but she was not willing to send everyone at NERV, especially those on the list, into a paranoid downspin.

I'll assign Section Two to the people on the list, she thought, eying Asuka over the edge of her beer can, Commander Ikari gave me full authority to pull whatever resources I saw fit to end this as fast as possible… or  maybe I'll set up 'buddy pairs…' damn it! I don't know!

The two women considered each other in silence for several minutes, occasionally sipping their respective drinks.  "Well," Asuka said finally, draining her juice can and setting it on the counter, "I'm going back to bed."  She stepped out of the kitchen, smiling as she murmured, "My alarm's set for 8:15, so I should be out by 8:30.  Now I know you're not usually up by then, but if by some strange twist of fate you happen to be around when I come staggering to the bathroom, try not to shoot me, alright?"

Misato nodded, but as her eyes fell to the stack of papers concealed by her folded arms, she could not manage a smile.

**

Three days passed with no advancements in the case.  Misato studied every aspect of the killing, from the murder weapon – a nine-inch, rather ornate dagger – to the way Makoto's body fell to the ground, hoping to turn over some other clue as to the identity of his killer.

But when there is nothing to find, there is nothing to find.

The third day found the major reporting to her two commanding officers and trying not to shiver under their intense gaze.

"…so as far as I can tell," she concluded, keeping her back as straight as she could, "the killer did not leave anything behind with which to identify him or herself.  Sir."

"I see," the Commander murmured coolly.  "And according to your report, the killer stayed in the Lieutenant's apartment for an undetermined amount of time, cleaning up after the fact."

"Yes sir," Misato confirmed.  "Every surface between the door and the bathroom was wiped down, and there was a bath towel with traces of Makoto's blood on it, apparently used by the killer to… to clean themselves."

"A reasonable deduction," the Commander nodded, staring at the woman over the tops of his linked hands.  "And there were no skin cells discovered on the towel?"

"No sir," Misato shook her head, "the towel had been left in a sink full of hot water mixed with bleach, and the hardwood from the bathroom to the front door was swept – very meticulously."

"Very thorough," the Commander muttered quietly, leaning back in his chair.  "Any other thoughts you'd like to share at this time, Major?"

"Only one, sir," Misato said hesitantly.  "The killer called us to make sure we found the body.  Now, this could have been out of a sense of duty, or religious obligation – a feeling that a body left untended is sacrilegious or unsanitary… however…"

The Commander pursed his lips as the woman trailed off.  "However," he supplied quietly, "your instincts tell you that it was a challenge."  He glanced at his second in command as the woman nodded.  "It seems that the gauntlet has been thrown."

"So it would seem," the older man replied thoughtfully.  "Are you still confident in leaving this affair in the Major's hands?  She is already burdened with her duties as Operations Director."

Misato kept herself at attention, fighting the urge to protest having her abilities discussed in front of her.

"I do not see another choice," the Commander replied calmly, meeting the purple-haired woman's eyes.  "If it gets out that one of our own has been killed – and we asked for outside help – the damage would be incalculable."  He smiled coldly.  "Many people on the NERV staff have enemies, old friend, it would not due to announce to anyone listening that we are vulnerable."

Misato hesitated, then whispered, "Sir, perhaps the Sub-Commander is right.  It's been years since I've had profiler training, and I'm sure someone within Section Two has more up-to-date-"

"Major," the Commander cut in coldly, "that will be enough."  He frowned, rising to his feet and walking slowly to the observation window to look out at the Geofront.  "I chose you for this assignment based on criteria other than simply training," he said coolly, "and I will not tolerate my authority being questioned.  This is your duty.  Fulfill it."

Misato bowed.  "Yes sir."

The Commander nodded, but did not speak again.  After a moment of silence, the Sub-Commander cleared his throat.  "You are excused, Major."

"Yes sir," Misato bowed again, saluting the two before turning on her heel and striding from the room.

As the door slid closed, the Commander frowned.  "You do not approve," he said quietly.

The Sub-Commander looked to the ceiling, studying the pattern for a moment before answering, "It is not my place to approve or disapprove, sir."

The Commander snorted.  "Don't hide behind protocol," he grumbled, "it is… offensive."

"My apologies," the other man chuckled, "but does my opinion truly matter in the matter?"

"No," the Commander returned immediately, "but I would certainly listen to any input you have to offer.  Your name is on the list as well, after all."

"So is hers," the Sub-Commander mused.  "My main concern is that she might be too close to what is happening," he narrowed his eyes, "or is that why she was chosen?"

The Commander shrugged slightly, studying the outside world intently.  "Partially," he admitted, "but she does have the training, regardless of how long it has been since she has used it, and besides," he turned away from the window, a ghost of a smile on his lips, "while the instinct to preserve the self can be a powerful motivator, the instinct to protect ones considered 'family' can be twice as strong.  Wouldn't you agree?"

The Sub-Commander shook his head.  "I see," he muttered.

The Commander turned back to the window, the smile remaining on his face as he whispered, "Do you?"

**

Shinji Ikari stole another glance at Maya Ibuki, wondering idly if she was as bored as he was.  "So," he sighed, "What do you like to do, Miss Ibuki?"  He flushed as her eyes met his.  "Sorry."

"It's ok," the young woman shrugged, looking carefully around at the other passengers on the train, "I don't mind.  I like to play, ummm… computer games.  And watch movies."

"Oh."

They fell silent for a moment, watching the streetlights flicker past.

"What… what do you like to do, Shinji?"

The Third Child blinked.  "I like to read sometimes," he said awkwardly, "and I play the cello."

"Oh."

Silence returned as the train stopped at one of the stations, allowing two passengers (a young couple that Shinji thought stood a little too close together) to exit.

"What games?"

"Hmmm?"

"What kind of computer games do you like?"

Maya kept looking out the window.  "I kind of like dating sims, actually," she muttered, "and sometimes I play RPGs – but only if I'm in the right mood.  Oh, and I really like sports – it's like, my secret vice."

"Ahh."

Man, the boy thought, suddenly feeling a need to slap his forehead, could I be more boring to talk to??  It's bad enough she's stuck with me because Misato wants to try some new 'get acquainted' program, but she's gotta listen to my stupid, boring, inane-

"I play the cello too."

Shinji cocked his head to the side.  "Really?" he asked uncertainly, trying to decide if she was just making him feel better.

"Yeah," Maya said slowly, "I'm not that good, but I've played since I was your age."

"What's your best piece?" Shinji asked curiously, leaning a little closer to the woman.

"I like Air," Maya replied after a moment, a tentative smile appearing on her lips as she added, "and Spring, from-"

"I love Vivaldi!" Shinji exclaimed, blushing as the woman covered her mouth, stifling a giggle.

"What about you, Shinji?" Maya asked, speaking after a much briefer silence, "What do you like to play?"

The boy gave her an honestly happy smile.  "Air," he grinned, "it's one of my best songs."

"You should play it for me sometime," Maya said, an odd expression passing over her face.

"S-Sure," Shinji stammered, the conversation petering off once more.

She looked… guarded, he thought, stealing a glance at the woman as she looked out the window again, I think that's the right word… or maybe paranoid?

"Did you hear about Hyouga?"

Shinji blinked.  "Hyouga?" he repeated, "Ummm, yeah I heard he went on vacation for a while – sick family member, right?"

Maya nodded, studying the boy's reflection in the glass of the train.  "Do you believe that?"

"Huh?"

The tech shook herself, turning back to face him.  "Never mind," she said, waving a hand, "just kind of tired.  So what else can you play?"

Shinji relaxed a bit as she smiled.  "Well," he said, warming back to the topic at hand, "I'm also a big fan of Clair de Lune, and…"

As they talked, he grew more and more comfortable with the woman's presence, finding her both an accomplished cello player and a sympathetic listener as the topics began to range from music, to movies, to games, to life in general, forging a bond of commonality and empathy.

Exactly as it had been planned.

**

Asuka growled in frustration as an avalanche of love letters fell from her school shoebox.  "Idiots!" she muttered, kicking them aside.

Her best friend, Hikari Horaki, kneeled down and picked one of the letters up, turning it over and commenting, "This one looks pretty interesting… why not open it – just to see what it says?"

"Oh give me a break," the redhead snorted, ignoring the letter and turning away, "Why would I care what some stupid little boy thinks of me?  Just throw it away."

She turned away, casting the small pile of letters a baleful glance before stomping off.

"Asuka!" Hikari called, picking up her backpack and slinging it over her shoulder, "You could at least give them a try!  You never know, right?  Besides," she shook the envelope, "I think it's got something in it.  Sounds like metal."  She dropped her friend a wink.  "Could be valuable."

"So?" Asuka shrugged, "Probably earrings or a bracelet or something – I get them every day.  You can have it if you want."

Hikari sighed.  "You're so mean," she shook her head sadly, waving the envelope under her friend's nose.  "Some guy probably poured his heart and soul into this letter and you can't even be bothered to open it."

"That's why guys are stupid," Asuka said sweetly.

Hikari rolled her eyes.  "What about Ikari?" she nudged the other girl, "He seems pretty nice – hey, I thought I saw him with someone from NERV the other day… what was that about?"

"It's something Misato said we have to do," the redhead sighed, "something about getting to know the other employees. Sounds kinda fishy to me, but I'm supposed to do it to – in fact, when Misato can't drive me I have to ride back from NERV with this guy named Shigeru.  He's kind of cool," she shrugged, "plays guitar I guess, but he's not like – hot, or anything… and I think he's seeing someone."

"Really?" Hikari asked absently, "Doesn't sound too bad… what's she like?"

"Who?"

"The girl Aoba's seeing."

"Oh," Asuka frowned slightly, "I don't know if he's actually seeing her or if she just comes over, but he said there's a girl that he's been spending some time with."  She glanced at her friend.  "Why do you want to know?"

"Just making conversation," Hikari grinned, "or is that something you don't approve of, Miss Langley?"

"Souryu," Asuka corrected, "I hate it when you call me that."

"I know," Hikari laughed.

Asuka threw her hands in the air.  "You're hopeless," she sighed, "I swear… you've been spending too much time visiting that stooge in the hosp-"

"Hey," Hikari cut in quietly, "Touji's not a stooge… and he deserves to have someone visit him."

"Fine," Asuka muttered, seeing that she had touched a nerve, "I'm sorry."  She grinned suddenly, "Have you written him one of those yet?" she teased, "Something like, 'Oh my Touji, my poor fallen hero, how my heart-'"

"Asuka…"

The redhead pursed her lips.  "Alright," she said quietly, "I'll lay off."  They walked in silence for a minute.  "Do you still like him?" Asuka asked finally.

"Yes," Hikari nodded immediately, "I lo- I do, I like him a lot."

Asuka blinked, wondering if she had misheard the girl.  "To each his own, I guess."

They headed on to class, passing Rei on their way.

"Can't stand that girl," Asuka muttered as they all took their seats.

"Ayanami?" Hikari asked quietly, making sure she kept her voice down.

"Yeah, she's such a little windup doll." Asuka put her head on the desk and closed her eyes, "she'll do whatever the Commander tells her too."

"Oh she's not that bad is she?" Hikari asked, glancing discreetly over her shoulder at the blue-haired girl.

Asuka nodded, yawning, "Yeah she is – she'd probably even kill herself if the Commander told her to…"

Hikari looked taken aback, taking another, more considering look at Rei.  "Oh…"

She opened her mouth to ask another question, but when she turned back to her friend she found the girl dozing fitfully at her desk.  With a sigh, Hikari opened her textbook and began studying, absently pulling at the ends of her school tie until they were even.

**

"Major Katsuragi?"

Misato looked up from the small stack of papers on her desk.  "Come in Lieutenant," she said quietly, leaning back in her chair and folding her arms.  "What can I do for you?"

"You wanted an update," Maya reminded her, glancing around the woman's office, "about… Shinji and everything."

"I did," Misato nodded.

"Well," the technician said carefully, "we're getting along ok, I guess."

"But?" Misato prompted coolly.

"But I still don't see the point of this assignment.  I mean, don't get me wrong, I like spending time with him," a faint smile appeared on her lips, "he's nice, and we actually have… more in common than I thought –  but shouldn't I be concentrating on the MAGI or something?"

Of course you have a lot in common, Misato thought, that's why you were paired with him.

"Would you rather be paired with Asuka or Rei?" she asked lightly, "I can arrange that if you'd like – I'm sure Asuka would prefer the change."

Maya frowned.  "N-no," she stammered, "I'd… Shinji's fine, really, it's just-"

"You think it's a waste of time."

"No!" the younger woman protested, "I just…" she blushed. "Well… ok, maybe a little."

Misato studied the woman closely, an odd impression that she was missing something stealing over her.  "It won't be for too long," she said slowly, studying the woman's face as she added, "was there something else?"

Maya opened her mouth, then closed it, her blush intensifying as she muttered, "No ma'am."

An uncomfortable silence fell as the two women stared at one another.  Definitely hiding something, Misato thought confidently, she's too jittery over a little babysitting assignment.

Maya jumped slightly as the phone on the Major's desk beeped.

"Major," a collected feminine voice announced, "I have an officer Tanaka and an officer Hirohito to see you, ma'am.  Should I send them down or would you like to come to the visitor's office?"

"Send them down, please," Misato said into the speaker, "thank you."  She glanced at Maya out of the corner of her eyes, feeling no real surprise as she found the woman fidgeting with her ID badge and unconsciously pressing herself back against the door.  "Is there something you'd like to say, Lieutenant?" Misato whispered.

"N-no ma'am," Maya said quickly, "so, umm, if there's nothing else you needed?"

"You're dismissed," Misato said quietly, waiting until the woman bowed and opened the door before adding, "and Lieutenant?"

"Yes Major?" the tech whispered, keeping her face turned away.

"Thank you for doing this for me," Misato said casually, "it's nice to know that he's with someone… trustworthy, because let's face it, Section Two coverage is nice and all – but they can't always be watching, you know?  And with my busy schedule, it's nice to know that you're with him.  Just in case."

Maya's back tensed.  "Just in case?" she echoed uncertainly.

"Just in case," Misato confirmed coolly, "because I think we both know how upset I would be if anything happened to Shinji – and what I would do to anyone that hurt him… right?"

The technician said nothing for a full minute, then nodded.  "Right."

Misato frowned.  Threaten your coworkers; she thought as Maya took her leave, nothing instills confidence like that.

She sighed, staring at her ceiling until a firm knock sounded on her door.

"Come in."

The two police officers made their entrance with no fanfare, simply nodding politely and standing at attention on either side of her door.

"Stop that," Misato grumbled, "you don't work for me."

"Actually," Tanaka replied calmly, keeping his back straight and staring at a point on the far wall, "we do."  He reached into his pocket and extracted a sheet of paper, reading it aloud with cool, businesslike precision.  "Effective immediately and until further notice, sergeants Tanaka and Hirohito are to consider themselves under the direct jurisdiction of NERV, Japan, per Major Misato Katsuragi, Section One."

"Let me see that!" Misato cried, scrambling to her feet and taking the paper from the man's hand as he returned to attention.  "You've got to be kidding me," she growled, scanning the sheet briefly before looking up to Tanaka's unsmiling face, "I didn't request this!"

"No ma'am," Tanaka replied calmly, "you ordered it."

"Oh cut the crap!" Misato snapped.  "This," she crumpled the paper in her hands into a compact ball, "was not my idea – what am I supposed to do with the two of you?  Put you in my locker??"

A ghost of a smile appeared on Hiro's lips.  "We could sleep under your bed," he observed, his too-quiet voice barely carrying.

"I have a futon," Misato said dryly, keeping her eyes on Tanaka.  "Suggestions, sergeant?"

Tanaka pursed his lips.  "Well, ma'am," he said slowly, "if it really wasn't your order, I'd suggest that we find out who's it was."

"I'm sure it was the Commander's," Misato supplied instantly, "in which case… we're just going to have to live with it – I meant do you have any suggestions on what steps to take next.  I've been going over the scenario for days now, and I still have nothing."

Tanaka relaxed slightly.  "We've got a bit of information on the dagger," he said slowly, "I had planned to have a courier deliver it to you this afternoon, but since I'm already here…"

Misato sighed.  "Look," she whispered, rubbing her eyes tiredly as he trailed off, "we knew we'd probably have to work together on this case, right?  I know this isn't what you were thinking of, and I wasn't either, but why don't we try to make the best of it, alright?"

"Alright," Tanaka said quietly, looking to Hirohito for a nod of affirmation, "we'll make the best of it… ma'am."

The purple-haired woman shot him a sour glance as a faint smile appeared on his lips.  "You're a really crack up," she muttered, "drop the ma'am."

"Yes ma'am."

"Why me??"

"Major," Hiro said quietly, "the pressure on this case… it's higher than either of us anticipated."  He met her gaze levelly.  "Why, do you believe, we were asked to assist with such a delicate, obviously high-security issue?"

"Are you genuinely naïve?" Misato asked softly, "Or are you just trying to see if I understand my situation?"

Hiro continued looking straight ahead.  "The latter, Major."

Misato nodded.  "You were brought in because you're impartial outsiders," she said quietly, "my… Commander seems to have deemed me incapable of handling this affair myself, but does not trust anyone within NERV to assist me, as any of them might be the killer, therefore it makes sense to get the aid of the two officers first on the scene."  She cocked her head to the side.  "Is that your perception too, Sergeant?"

"You speak very plainly," Hiro nodded, "I like that.  Yes, Major, those were my exact thoughts."

"Ok then," Tanaka sighed, loosening his shoulders, "now that we're all on the same page."  He reached into his pocket and pulled out a carefully folded piece of paper.  "Forensics confirmed that the knife was clean," he informed her, walking to her desk and unfolding the sheet, "no fingerprints, no skin cells, no hair – nothing. But," he pointed to the flat of the knife, "whoever did this took the time to carve something into the blade."

Misato leaned down, putting her hands flat on her desk and scrutinizing the single character inscribed on the weapon.  "Retribution," she whispered, her eyes tracing the kanji with ease.  "So it was a vengeance killing?"

"Or a red herring to make us think it was," Tanaka said calmly.

"I don't know," Misato mused, "there wasn't any sign of a fight, or post-mortem damage to the body… but nothing was stolen, and no one has claimed the killing yet, so other motivations are kind of unlikely."  She closed her eyes, imagining the knife in her hand, not noticing as the officers both took a careful step back from her.  "So he died for retribution," she said quietly, her mind making the slow, deliberate walk down the hall in Hyouga's apartment complex, "but what did he ever do that was so bad?  His background check shows no sign of any criminal activity, and he's never had to do anything… questionable on duty."  She opened her eyes, shaking her head to clear it as Makoto's apartment number swam up in her thoughts.

"There's something else," Tanaka said, keeping his voice level so as not to startle the woman, "the knife itself."

"Yes," Misato nodded, "not exactly a kitchen knife, is it?"  She studied it for a moment.  "Let me guess," she sighed, straightening and turning to face the men, "it's something like a ritualistic killing tool, used to send the dead to Charon."

"Actually," Tanaka scratched his head, "no."

"Huh?"

"That's what I thought too," the sergeant confessed, "I figured it was all a set pattern thing, but this knife – it's just a cheap Hong Kong 'medieval' dagger.  Probably cost about fifteen, maybe twenty bucks."  He shrugged.  "It's cheap… but it sure got through this guy's neck just fine."

Hiro cleared his throat.

"Ahem," Tanaka hurried on, trying not to see the woman's pained expression, "so I'm thinking – the killer just used whatever would get the job done, then added the coins as a calling card."

"I don't know about that," Misato said softly, "I mean, you could be right… but they were arranged so carefully."

"Well," Tanaka observed, "you are the boss… ma'am."

"Great," Misato huffed, "the insubordination starts already."  She took the paper, folding it and slipping it into her jacket pocket for later review.  "Ok," she said briskly, "you guys just… do whatever you think will help the case."

Tanaka laughed.  "That's your idea of an order?" he chuckled.

"I'm delegating," Misato muttered, "see if you can find anything new on the coins – since I'm guessing you've been relieved of your case loads, you'll have more time to check all the coin dealers in town to see if they have anything like those."

"Oh man," Tanaka groaned, "should have kept my mouth shut."

"Yeah," Misato grinned, "you should have.  OK, I'm out of here.  I'll see you guys tomorrow, I guess."

"Ma'am," the two bowed in perfect synchronization.

"Bastards…"

**

"What a boring day," Shinji's friend, Kensuke Aida, complained tiredly.

"At least lunch isn't too bad," Shinji offered hopefully, poking at his bento and wondering idly what Maya was having.

Life had fallen into an odd little pattern for the Third Child – one that he did not mind at all.  School, NERV, train ride with Maya, those were the parts of his day, with the last being the most pleasurable.  The more he talked to the tech, the more he found himself liking her.  She was smart, and nice, and always interested in his day-to-day affairs, no matter how mundane.

I have to remember to talk to Misato about this, he thought happily, Maya's always so interested in her, and Asuka, and Rei – and everyone, really… it's like she feels comfortable asking me – because we're… we're friends.

"What are you grinning about?"

Shinji blinked.  "Was I smiling?"

"No," Kensuke corrected, "you were grinning – like an idiot."

"Oh," Shinji found that he was still grinned and shrugged, "I don't know, just in a good mood, I guess."

Kensuke joined in his grin.  "Well, since you're so happy, why don't we go visit Touji later?  That guy could use a smile."

Shinji sighed, his smile fading.  "I don't think he really wants to see me," he said softly, "I mean, I'm the one that p-"

"Stop it," Kensuke cut in, punching him lightly in the shoulder, "how many times do I have to tell you – he doesn't blame you for that!  He keeps asking when you're gonna visit… and I can't think of any more excuses for you, man, so you're going to see him!"

"I know, I know," Shinji said quickly, "I will… just-"  He cringed at the dark scowl his friend gave him.  "Today," he said, trying to sound firm, "I'll visit today, alright?"  He sighed.  "Is anyone else visiting?" he asked timidly.  "He's not always alone is he?"

"Well, I bumped into the class rep last time I was there," Kensuke said thoughtfully, "she said she was dropping off some printouts, but I didn't see any."

Shinji blushed.  "Maybe she was, umm…"

"Pervert," Kensuke snorted.

"No, not that!" Shinji huffed.  "I meant… I dunno… I think she might… like him."

"Like him?" Kensuke asked incredulously.  "The class rep?  No way!"

Shinji shrugged.  "She just… oh never mind."

"Yeah, never mind is right!" Kensuke declared, "Man, Touji would hit you just for suggesting that bossy chick likes him."

Shinji quickly changed the subject to movies, berating himself for even mentioning his observations.  They finished their lunch in relative quiet, and Kensuke excused himself to the bathroom, sending Shinji on to class.

"Hi Ayanami," the brown-haired boy waved, containing his surprise at finding the girl with a small bento in front of her as he reentered the classroom.

"Ikari," the girl returned absently, a very faint frown creasing her brow as she stared at her palm.

Funny, the boy thought, I don't think she's ever brought in a lunch.  I always just thought she went out, or skipped, or something.

"Was your lunch good?" he asked politely, stowing his backpack under his chair as Hikari entered the classroom, giving him a cursory wave before taking her seat.

"It… it was…" Rei's frown grew a bit deeper.

"Ayanami…?"

Shinji's eyes widened as he noticed a light sheen of sweat on the girl's face.

"What's wrong?" he asked, quickly kneeling at the side of her desk.

"P…p…" Rei abruptly hunched forward in her chair, clutching her stomach as a soft, miserable cry tore free from her throat.

"REI!!"

The next two minutes would live forever in Shinji's mind as a testament to horror and helplessness.  It started with a seizure… all of the muscles in Rei's body seemed to go wild, jerking her out of her seat and into Shinji's instinctively protective arms.  Next came blood… an eruption of crimson from the girl's mouth and nose splattering Shinji's pristine white school shirt and instantly drenching it to the skin.  Finally… silence as Rei's back arched one more time, then relaxed, her entire body slumping limply against Shinji's chest.

In the three seconds between the blue-haired girl collapsing against him and his desperate scream for help, Shinji's mind registered the minute movement of Rei's hand opening, allowing its contents – two brightly shinning coins – to roll quietly onto the floor.

**

"So was it on the coins, or in the food?"

Misato looked up, her eyes dull as she regarded Tanaka.  "The food," she whispered thickly, "the concentration in her blood was so high it could only have come from the food… but we did have the coins checked, just to be safe."

"What about the poison?" Hiro asked quietly.  "You said it's pretty common, right?"

"Well, yes and no," Misato said reluctantly, "the technical name for it is hexachromium-picolinate.  It's not a naturally existing poison, but I guess if you know a lot about chemistry, it's pretty easy to extract it from household cleansers and bleach."

"Wouldn't you taste something like that?" Tanaka mused.  "I mean… I'm not, like, a gourmet chef or anything, but I know bleach when I smell it."

Misato closed her eyes.  "The doctor I spoke to said one of the effects of the compound is to numb the taste buds… if you ate it, you would only notice a bit of a stinging on your tongue – and by the time you realized something was really wrong, you'd have enough in you to kill a horse."  She swallowed.  "And I guess… it's powerful enough that a few grams applied to the skin would kill you too, only not quite as fast." 

A small shiver ran through her as she imagined the expression on Rei's face when she found the coins.  What must she have been thinking as her stomach began twisting in knots?  What emotion would have gone through her enigmatic mind as she comprehended the imminence of her own death?  Who would she have thought of as her mind and body began to shut down?  Shinji?  Commander Ikari?  Herself?

What goes on in a person's mind when they know the reaper is coming for them?

Tanaka nodded, folding his arms and leaning his head back against the wall of the hospital waiting room.  "So I guess ritual has nothing to do with it," he said quietly, "she had the coins, but not over her eyes – and there wasn't a knife in sight."

"It's like you said," Misato sighed, rubbing her temples and leaning forward on the uncomfortable vinyl seat, "whatever gets the job done."

"And the note?" Hiro murmured, taping on his laptop keyboard.  "Same handwriting as the carving on the blade, but nothing distinctive enough to isolate a single individual – it was kept deliberately thick and childish."

"Of course," Misato said listlessly, "he wouldn't want to make himself too identifiable."

"You called the killer he," Tanaka pointed out quietly.

"Yeah so what."

An uneasy silence fell, broken when Misato closed her eyes and whispered the note's single word.

"Friendship."

"Could it have been one of the girl's friends?" Tanaka asked hesitantly.  "I mean, that seems a bit careless of the killer, but-"

"Rei doesn't have any friends," Misato cut in softly.  "Not a one – and before you ask, yes, I know that for a fact.  She never spoke unless she was spoken too first, and she's watched very closely by Section Two, so we would have known if she had a friend."

"Guess they didn't watch well enough," Tanaka said levelly.

"They saw who gave it to her," Misato said calmly, "it was one of her fellow students – but it was given to her by someone outside school, claiming it was sent by the Commander, and since Section Two doesn't have the manpower to watch all of Rei's classmates…" she trailed off.

"They didn't see who gave it to her," Tanaka supplied.  "Clever.  Well, did the girl get a look at the guy?"

"She did," Misato nodded, "she thought it was strange that someone would go such a roundabout way to give Rei lunch, so she made sure to look at his face and uniform."

"Let me guess," Tanaka sighed, "top-grade fake facial hair, slumped shoulders and a big coat, hat or a good wig… how am I doing?"

"You forgot the sunglasses," Misato told him, "and it was a hat."

"So if she thought it was so suspicious," Hiro asked softly, "why did she carry the bento?  Why not tell a teacher, or call the cops?"

Misato shrugged.  "Has it been that long since you were in school?" she asked ironically, "You don't tell a grown-up 'no,' you do what you're told – it's disrespectful otherwise.  She did tell her teacher, though, but he didn't think it was worth reporting."

"At least she had the sense to tell her teacher," Tanaka mused, "what was her name?"

"The teacher?" Misato asked, grinning at her own weak joke.  "Don't worry, I'm going to interview the girl later today, after school hours."

"Major Katsuragi?"

Misato stood as a nurse came into the waiting room.  "Yes, that's me."

"Come with me, please," the nurse said briskly, "Miss Ayanami is still unconscious, but the doctors expect her to make a full recovery."  The young man paused.  "Ummm… the Commander is in her room, waiting to speak to you."

Misato closed her eyes.  "Of course he is."

I can't believe she lived, she thought, shifting from foot to foot as the nurse pulled out his access card, that was some pretty strong stuff… there's no way a girl her weight, given that big a dose, should have lived.

The nurse slid his card through an access port, pushing the door open for the woman and whispering, "Good luck, Major."

"Thanks."

Taking a deep breath, Misato stepped through the door.

"Commander Ikari," she said formally, "I was just in the process of-"

"Major," Gendou cut in coolly, "be quiet."

Misato's mouth snapped shut.  Ohhhh man.

"I understand the pressures of your position, Major," the Commander began without preamble, "however, the protection of the Children supercedes even the identification of Lieutenant Hyouga's killer… you understand this, correct?"

"Yes sir," Misato said, "but I was-"

"Major… be quiet."

The iron in the man's voice silenced her instantly.

"Your failure in this duty is most disappointing," Gendou murmured, "however, since the First Child is… alive," his lips twisted up into a brief, ironic smile, "your court-martial will not be necessary."

"Th-thank you, sir," Misato stammered, paling slightly as she glanced at Rei's still form, the oddest impression that her hair was just the tiniest bit too short flitting through her mind before Gendou spoke again.

"Now on this latest attack – let this… person believe that Rei is gone," the Commander instructed coldly, his eyes flicking to the hospital bed, "there is no reason to tip our hand."

"Yes sir."

"And Major…"

Misato unconsciously straightened her back as the man's tone grew cooler still.  "Sir?"

"There have been… questions, regarding your commitment to this investigation," the man mused softly, his right hand reaching out to lightly run over Rei's forearm.  "Therefore I am shifting your focus."  He met her eyes levelly.  "As of now, you are relieved of your duties as Operations Director pending the close of this case."  He raised a hand as the woman drew a sharp breath.  "In the event of an angel attack, you will coordinate the defense initiative, but for the time being, the day to day operations and planning will be deferred to Doctor Akagi, who will give you periodic updates to keep you up to speed.  Understood?"

"Understood," Misato said flatly.  "Sir, if I may ask – are these questions from the committee?"  She met his gaze unwaveringly.  "Or yourself?"

Gendou's tone remained entirely level.  "No Major," he replied, "you may not ask."

"I see."

"You are dismissed, Major."

Misato gave a brief, stiff salute and turned on her heel, striding from the room before she said something she would later regret.

**

Asuka sighed, leaning back from her book and stretching.  "Man," she groaned, linking her hands behind her neck and staring up at the ceiling, "feudal history sucks!"

"It's not that hard," Hikari shrugged, running her finger along a line of text, "at least we get to study Sun-Tzu – which is much better than Confucius, believe me."

"Oh I didn't say it was hard," Asuka grinned, reaching over and poking her friend with the tip of her pencil, "I said it sucks – and of course you know this stuff, you get help from your dad."

Hikari shook her head, absently pushing the offending writing utensil away.  "He's hardly ever here," she murmured, "You know that.  I have to do all my homework on my own."

"Too bad," Asuka sighed, "I mean, he's a pretty smart guy, right?  He should take a minute to help you out."

Finally looking up from her book, Hikari smiled.  "He works hard for us," she said gently, "and I do ok with school, so-"

"Ok?" Asuka cut in, snorting at the very thought, "Miss Straight A's herself does 'ok,' huh?"  She stuck her tongue out.  "Your modesty is breathtaking."

Hikari giggled, glancing at her watch discretely before asking, "You want a drink or something?"

"I saw that."

"Huh?"

Asuka rolled her eyes.  "You want me to leave so you can go visit your little boyfriend," she teased.

"He's not… my boyfriend," Hikari protested, going red in the face.

"Uh huh," the redhead retorted, "that's why you're up there seeing him every day now.  What – don't give me that shocked look!  You think just because my duties have been doubled since Wondergirl's 'incident' that I don't have time to pay attention?"

"How is she?" Hikari asked, sounding as if she hoped this would change the subject.

Asuka shrugged uncomfortably.  "They haven't told me," she muttered, "but personally… I think she's – you know," she drew a finger across her throat.

Hikari stared at her with wide eyes.  "No," she breathed, "you really think she's… dead?"

"Yeah," Asuka nodded, "I really do."

"And you're ok with that?"

Asuka considered this question for a long moment, finally bowing her head back to her homework and whispering, "I don't know… I mean, I know I'm supposed to feel bad – she worked with me and all – but I just… I just don't."

"Oh," Hikari said quietly, "not even a little?"

"No," Asuka replied, her voice going even softer, "my doctor says it's just shock, but I really don't feel that bad at a-"  She cut herself off, her cheeks coloring slightly as she realized she was saying too much.

"So," Hikari said quickly, "do you want a drink?  I'm thirsty."

"Whatever Hikari," Asuka whispered, "you know – no thanks, I think I'll just get going."

"Don't be like that!" Hikari protested.  "Just… have a seat; I'll get you something to drink.  You don't have to be anywhere for a while, right?  Come on."

Asuka stood, stretching her back as she shook her head.  "No thanks," she said airily, "I won't keep you from your busy schedule – and besides, I have to go into NERV for some meeting or other… something about Aoba being on swings this week."

"That's the guy you ride with, right?" Hikari asked.

"Yeah," Asuka sighed, "looks like I'm free for this week… unless Misato's got someone else she wants me to 'meet.'"  She shook her head.  "Such a lame story," she grumbled, "I mean, it's obvious what she's doing!"

Hikari glanced at her friend from the corner of her eye.  "Oh?"

Asuka nodded.  "Well, yeah," she said, as if this should be clear to anyone, "she's feeling guilty that she can't give us a ride every day, so she's making up for it with this lame shit."

"Oh," Hikari nodded, "I see."

"You don't like it when I swear," Asuka grinned, noting the odd expression on her friend's face.

Hikari smiled weakly.  "Come on," she said lightly, gathering her friend's books into a neat, tidy stack, "I'll walk you to the train station."

**

"So Miss Ibuki's not going to be here today?" Shinji said, trying to hide his disappointment.

Misato shook her head, rubbing at her scratchy eyes and yawning, "No, she called in sick… said she thought she might have the flu."

They were on the command deck, where Misato was checking in before heading home.  Though she was not technically director of operations, for the time being, she still felt an obligation to make sure things were running smoothly.

Much to her chagrin, things seemed the same as always.  Guess I shouldn't have expected it to go to hell in one week, she thought ironically, Ritsuko's doing a pretty good job. She glanced at Shinji.  And she's increased the number of tests, she thought, her eyes going hazy, it's kind of hard on me… but I try not to think about it too much – I mean, if I think about EVA too much, I'll think about Father, and then… She blinked.  Oh my God… I've been on this case too long – I'm starting to just profile people automatically!

She felt her senses sharpen suddenly as a tall woman with short blonde hair came onto the deck.  She wore the standard NERV uniform, with an additional patch Misato was not familiar with… and on her hip was a small, unobtrusively slung firearm.

Instinctively, Misato's hand drifted to the butt of her own pistol.

"Major," the woman said crisply, stopping a respectful distance from the purple-haired woman and giving her a formal bow.  "Aya Brea, ma'am."

Misato relaxed slightly, taking the hand the woman offered and shaking it firmly.  "Lieutenant Brea," she said, glancing at the ranking stripes at the woman's neck, "You must be Hyouga's fill-in."

Aya shot Shinji a brief glance and coughed delicately. "That's right, ma'am," she said lightly, "Until his return."

Misato nodded her thanks, grateful that the woman was tactful enough to understand that Shinji was not 'in the know.'  She gestured to the patch.  "I'm not familiar with that badge, Lieutenant… is it a personal effect?"

Aya smiled indulgently.  "No, ma'am," she said softly, "it's a JSSDF Special Forces badge – I'm a transferee."  She grinned suddenly.  "My one condition on taking this position was that I be allowed to continue wearing it… I sweat too damn much to just throw it away."

"I can understand that," Misato laughed, nodding approvingly.

Bringing in Special Forces, Commander? She thought, glancing around the command deck and noting the air of calm, Very clever.  Comfort the remaining techs… fill the open position… and send a message of readiness to the killer all at the same time.  Nicely done.

"Ummm, Major…?"

Misato blinked.  "Yes, Lieutenant?"

The blonde was shifting from one foot to the other, a clear look of discomfort on her face.  "Can I ummm," she took a deep breath and forced herself to stop fidgeting.  "Could you introduce us?"

Misato looked confused for a moment, then laughed, putting a hand on Shinji's shoulder.  "Shinji Ikari," she said happily, "Aya Brea."

Shinji looked awkward as the woman took his hand, her face showing something close to reverence.  "It's very nice to meet you," she said honestly, "I… a lot of us in the JSSDF appreciate what you do, Mister Ikari.  Thank you."

The Third Child turned an interesting shade of red and stammered something about having to get going.  Misato watched him retreat, a bemused smile on his face, and turned to Aya.  "Thanks for that," she said softly, "he could use more of that kind of attention."

Aya's cheeks colored, though not as much as Shinji's.  "I meant it," she mumbled uneasily, "well, most of it.  A lot of us respect what those kids do, but a lot more think it's unconscionable."  She shrugged, clearly uncomfortable with the undivided attention her story was garnering. "But I was in a battalion that tried to stand against the last angel we fought, ma'am.  Everyone in my group was killed but me and two others – and we only made it because we slipped through one of the holes in the armor that lead to the Geofront." 

She took a deep breath.  "We were all limping along, trying to make it to a shelter to get some help when Unit 01 and the angel came up out of the ground."  Her eyes went hazy from the memory.  "He was incredible," she whispered, "he only had one arm, but he kept fighting – he wouldn't give up… like he was full of fire, willing to do anything to make sure we were all safe."  She shook her head to clear it and offered the Major a halfhearted smile, "I put in for a transfer the next day.  I wanted to be a part of this team, Major – to be closer to that fire."

Misato stared at her with open-mouthed wonder.  "So, umm," she closed her mouth, trying to find something appropriate to say.  "Do you want his number, then?"

Aya threw her head back and laughed.  "Don't worry, Major," she chuckled, "I'm not that kind of interested."  She bit her lip for a moment before adding, "But I wouldn't mind talking to him some time, if that's appropriate.  I would like to know more about him."

"I'll see what I can do," Misato promised, trying to decide how she should feel about this strange woman's odd fixation on the Third.

Almost like she's been following his every… no – Ikari would never hire someone he suspected, and she doesn't seem too shy about gushing over Shinji, so I doubt she'd target him so openly.  Of course… that could be a ploy to lull us into – ok, that's it… I need a day off.

She glanced around the deck.  "Hey," she said suddenly, thankful to have a change of topic.  "Where's Aoba?"

"Aoba," Aya murmured, "Oh the guy with the long hair." She shrugged.  "Don't know… haven't seen him yet."

Misato checked her watch.  "He's late," she frowned, feeling a slight chill.

Aya nodded, catching the unease in the purple-haired woman's shoulders.  "I'll check into it."

As she headed over to the phone at her desk, it began ringing.

Relax, Misato told herself, rolling her shoulders, that's probably him now, calling to say why he's late – don't always assume the worst!

"Phone call for you, Major."

She nodded absently, holding her hand out for the phone.  "This better be you, Aoba," she muttered into the handset, "do you know that you're over an hour-"

"Late?"

Misato's mouth went dry as an unfamiliar, nondescript voice whispered to her.  "Who is this?" she asked, reaching out to the side and snapping her fingers to get Aya's attention.

The person on the other end of the line ignored her question.  "Mister Aoba won't be in today," the modulated voice said casually, "I'm afraid he's met with a rather… unfortunate accident."

Misato's eyes clenched closed.  "Bastard," she gritted, covering the mouthpiece for a moment.  "Do we have a trace?"

Aya nodded.  "We traced it the second it connected – standard procedure."  She lowered her voice, "It's definitely coming from Aoba's apartment."

"Kind of a shame," the voice sighed, "he was a good conversationalist."

"How fast can we get a JSSDF Hammer team there?" Misato whispered, trying to keep her nerve from breaking.  Turning her attention to the phone call, she muttered, "Who are you?"

"No one," the voice countered, "and I'll be going now.  I only called to make sure you were kept up to date.  I wouldn't want to keep you from your… busy schedule."

"Wait," Misato said quickly, her mind racing as she tried to think of a way to keep the caller on the line, "the poison you used to try to kill Rei… did you think it would work faster?"

There was a moment's hesitation.  "Very amusing, Major," the voice said coolly, "but I don't have time for your banter.  I hope the Wondergirl's funeral isn't too-"

"She's not dead."

Misato's grip on the phone was like iron, her heart racing in her chest as she waited for a reply.  He doesn't know that Rei's alive, she thought, the Commander wanted that kept a secret, but I HAVE to keep him on the phone!

'Nine minutes,' Aya mouthed, setting down a different phone and holding up her fingers for emphasis.

Misato nodded, holding her breath as the voice whispered, "Goodbye."

"Your plan failed," Misato said sharply, "the medical team got to her before the poison ran its course – she's alive, and she's safe at NERV where you'll never-"

"Goodbye!"

Abruptly, the line went dead.

Slowly, Misato returned the handset to its cradle, trying not to see the wide eyes and hopeful glances all around her.  "Brea," she murmured, wishing that everyone would stop staring at her, "what's the ETA on that Hammer team?"

"Seven and a half minutes," Aya replied quietly, "they're-"

"They're not going to get there before he's gone," Misato cut in, drawing her gun and checking the clip.  "I'm going to see," she glanced around, lowering her voice and stepping closer to the woman, "I'm going to see for sure.  Can you watch things here?"

Aya lowered her gaze.  "Yes ma'am," she said slowly, "if he's de-"

"Lieutenant," Misato cut in quickly, "let's try to keep things positive, ok?"

The technician bowed.  "Yes ma'am," she agreed, wetting her lips as she glanced around at the other members of the bridge crew, "of course."

Misato walked to the door, pausing briefly and looking over her shoulder as she said, "Inform the Commander."

Aya paled.  "Y-yes, I understand."  As the other woman departed, Aya let out a deep sigh, almost wishing it had been her rather than Aoba so that she would not have to call the commander in chief of NERV and deliver the bad news.  Steeling herself, she lifted the receiver and began dialing.

**

"Did you know him too?"

Misato nodded, averting her eyes as Hiro examined the dead man's fingers.  "He was one of the techs, too… sat on the other side of Maya Ibuki – right across from Hyouga."

She flinched as Tanaka took another picture of the murder weapon.

"Louisville Slugger," he said quietly, raising the camera and stepping carefully around to get a better angle.  "Vintage, too… must have cost him a fortune."

"It cost him everything," Misato whispered, glancing around the apartment.

Things were not as tidy as in Hyouga's home, but they were not as messy as she would have expected.  There was a small collection of records – actual vinyl ones – against the far wall in a series of crates.  A fairly high-end television system was proudly displayed in a handmade oak entertainment center, complete with a DVD player, an old-fashioned VCR, and an expensive-looking turner.  The entire setup, Misato decided, would be perfect to display all of the movies and concert videos that were shoved into the center's shelves in no particular order.

Glancing around, she could easily tell what had happened before the man's death.

"You gonna do your thing?" Tanaka asked, lining up the camera for a final shot, carefully arranging the frame to include Aoba's still, lifeless form.

"Yeah," Misato swallowed, taking a deep breath.  She crouched in front of the couch, clutching her hands in front of herself as if she was praying.  "Cause of death appears to be blunt trauma to the head," she whispered, standing up and pointing at the body, "here, here, and… here.  Murder weapon seems to be a baseball bat – the victim's, based on fingerprints taken from it and the presence of a small collection of other baseball paraphernalia in the living room."  She circled around to the back of the couch and continued, "He was hit from behind… apparently while arranging his guitar to play a song."

When she paused, Tanaka offered, "Looks like he was going to play an original – see the sheets?"

Misato nodded, glancing briefly at the small stack of loose music sheets.  "Blood on the fingers indicates that the victim… oh God, I'm going to have to do it, aren't I?"

Hirohito and Tanaka glanced at each other from the corners of their eyes as she ran a hand over her face.  "Looks that way," Tanaka said quietly, "do you want us to do anything?"

"Not on this one," Misato replied, forcing her voice to stay level, "not that I can think of, but… but once I get going, I might, so be ready."

"Yes ma'am."

Misato took a deep breath, walking slowly from one room to the next and drinking in the details before she started.  Dinner, she thought, glancing at the plates on the kitchen table as she tried to get into the right frame of mind.  I cooked for you – I'm like Hyouga, kinda, but a little more carefree… I'm self sufficient, but not fastidious like him.  She sat at the kitchen table, looking at the plate with the most food on it.  Spaghetti, she mused, easy to cook… filling… cheap – but with a little kick.  She glanced at the sink to confirm her suspicions, nodding to herself as she rose.  I made the sauce myself… you… watched?  No – helped.  She shook her head for a minute.  "Tanaka – those spices on the counter… all wiped clean?"

Tanaka nodded approvingly.  "Yes ma'am," he confirmed, keeping any further comment to himself in order to help the woman stay focused.

You helped me make the sauce, Misato continued, her eyes growing hazy once more as she walked to the counter, you stood by my side… we laughed, made jokes… then… kissed?  No, she shook her head, glancing at an open cupboard, "no," she whispered under her breath, "I think… I'm trying to be nice to you, but not that way.  I have better dishes than these – I could have used those if I wanted to impress you... and there's only one beer on the table.  Yeah, we're pals… we're friends… if I wanted to fuck you, I'd have used the good plates and cleaned up a bit more."

"Could have been a surprise visit, or one of the guys," Tanaka offered, trying to be helpful… and trying not to feel awkward at hearing the woman swearing so casually. 

Must have been the way he was, he thought, casting an uneasy glance at the body in the living room.

"No," Misato shook her head absently, "I cleaned before she got here, but I didn't make my bed or take out the garbage in the bathroom or anything like that.  Even if it was a girl I'd been fucking for a while, I wouldn't want to do her on a messed up bed – I do have some standards – and if it was one of the guys I wouldn't have bothered cleaning up at all."

"So we know it's a woman," Tanaka said, impressed at the woman's deduction, "so we've ruled out… half the human race – just have the other half to check into."  He raised a hand as Misato cast him a rather hollow-eyed glance.  "Sorry."

Misato took a deep breath, wishing it was not so easy to get caught up in her roll, and continued.  So we make the sauce… we let it simmer… talk a little… she rolled her shoulders a bit.  "Was the bathroom used recently?"

"The bathroom?"

"Yes."

"Umm," Tanaka glanced at Hiro, "Yes, actually.  We had to check it for evidence, of course, and the water sample indicated that it had not been standing more than 2 hours, putting its last use right around 4:45."

"And was the seat up or down?"

"Up."

Misato nodded.  "Ok, I'm comfortable enough to use the bathroom while you're here," she mused, "probably…" she walked from the kitchen to the living room, showed you my baseball collection.  We're friends, pals… we have… something in common… She frowned slightly, trying to catch an elusive thought, but shook her head as it would not materialize.  So we eat… you're… very neat and tidy, she glanced at the place setting in front of the seat furthest from the stove, you take small bites… you lay your fork and knife straight after you eat – and you wipe them off, but I'm used to that… we're friends… I know you… She wandered back to the living room, crouching in front of the couch with a sad frown. 

"I want to play you my new song," she said, her voice choking slightly, I know you'll like it – and you can tell me if my girl will like it, too.  I sit down… grab my guitar… start tuning it…  She clenched her eyes closed, swaying slightly.  "The first hit dazes me," she whispered, putting her hand on the side of her head, I touch my head, look at my fingers – I'm bleeding!  Why?  I start to get up, confused… papers fall on the floor… you hit me again, knock me back down… I don't understand… why is this happening…? I can hear you behind me, breathing hard… I can hear the bat coming again… I know I'm going to die –  "NO!!"

Tanaka dropped to his knees as the purple-haired woman swayed backwards, catching her under the arms.  "God," he gasped, "don't… don't do that!!"

"Sorry," Misato whispered thickly, wiping sweat from her face and looking up at Aoba, "Shigeru, I'm so sorry."

Tanaka looked up at the dead man, swallowing hard at the look on his face.  He was not smiling like the other tech had been, no – Aoba had died in terror, just as Misato had profiled him.  Unlike the other guy, he had known exactly what was happening… and in spite of his attempts to flee, he had died anyway.

It made Tanaka shiver.

"The tape deck," Misato said, her voice shaking as she rose to her feet, "anything in it?"

Hiro turned his head.  "Looks like it," he replied, pushing Eject with a gloved hand.  "'Naoko's Song,'" he read, examining the tape closely, "tape's all the way at the end."

"Rewind it," Misato directed, glancing down at the scattered sheets of music.  "Maybe he was taping himself."

Tanaka shook his head.  "You don't think she's that careless, do you?"

"No," Misato said honestly, "but I'm not leaving any stone unturned."

They waited in silence as the tape rewound, each secretly hopeful that there may be some clue as to the killer's identity on it.  Misato flinched as Hiro hit Play and Aoba's cheerful voice boomed out over the speakers.  "Hey Naoko, it's me.  I know I said I'd have this done by your birthday, but that slave-driver Akagi up at work has me pulling all kinds of crazy hours, so I'm gonna be a couple days late.  Anyway, I think I got it most of the way done, so I'm just gonna tape it and see how it comes out.  I might redo the bridge, but I dunno… tell me what you think, k?" The sound of a pick running over guitar strings filled the room. 

"Love you."

Misato winced, hunching slightly and covering her stomach as if she had been punched as the song kicked in, washing over them in quick, rhythmic waves.  A rock ballad, she thought, shaking her head as she imagined a young woman clapping her hands with delight as the young technician jammed on his guitar.

It only lasted three minutes, but in that time it felt to Misato as if the man she had come to know was alive and well, playing with all his heart for the woman he loved.

"There it is," Aoba's voice returned, sounding exhilarated, "not too bad, huh?  Like I said, the bridge is a little iffy, so I might redo that, but I think it came out pretty good.  Tell me what you think.  I love you."

The tape spun on, but after a short click, there was only silence.

"Looks like he did change the bridge," Tanaka said thoughtfully, "look at the sheet closest to him – he just scribbled some new notes… looks like a lot, too.  Must have had a breakthrough during dinner and hurried to write it all down."

Misato just nodded.

"Major Katsuragi?" Hiro said after a moment of quiet, "You need to do the other half."

"I know," Misato murmured, "I know, but… I don't want to… I can't."

"You need to."

She took a deep breath, closing her eyes and putting her face in her hands.  "Yeah," she managed, "give me a sec."

Tanaka walked over to stand next to Hiro, watching the woman closely as she stood still, inhaling and exhaling in silence.  "She's getting too close to all this," he whispered, making sure his voice was too low for her to hear, "you can't let yourself get too close."

"Maybe that's why she doesn't do this for a living?" Hiro offered, shrugging slightly.

They both went still as Misato pulled her hands away from her face.  Her eyes were cold and flat as they surveyed the scene, heading into the kitchen and standing by the counter.  "I help you with the sauce," she whispered, running a finger idly over one of the spice bottles, I like the bottles in a row from small to big, like this… but you don't care – I can tell from your cabinets – so I just arrange them as we go, pretending that I'm not doing anything while we chat.  You serve us both… you're a gentleman, in spite of the fact that we're… friends, you're still a good man, so you serve me.  She moved to the table, her eyes growing colder as she put her hands on the back of the seat.  The spaghetti smells good, but I don't taste it as we eat… I'm thinking about something else… I'm thinking of how to kill you.

Tanaka paled as a plastic smile lit the woman's face.

"I'd love to see your baseball stuff," she gushed unconsciously, clapping her hands together, "show me!"  She wandered into the living room, walking to the baseball items and nodding vigorously, I see… and he signed it for you?  That's so cool!  What's that?  Oh, no I don't mind… go ahead, I'll wait…  She glanced at the bathroom, her fingers making a pattern in the air as she caressed an imaginary bat handle.  Hey, did you ever finish that song?  What? You have an idea for the bridge?  No, I DO want to hear it!  You're so good.  She smiled again, and the two detectives took a step back.  "No I mean it!  Yeah, I'm gonna wash my hands, you get set up, k?"  She made a clutching motion with her hand, putting it behind her back and walking nonchalantly over to the back of the couch.  You're so good at playing, Shigeru, she thought, slowly raising her hands and putting them over her shoulder, but… I'm sorry.

Both Hirohito and Tanaka gasped as Misato swung her imaginary bat, a savage cry issuing from her throat.

"Damn it!" she snarled, "Why won't you just die!?!"  She swung again, envisioning the bat connecting with the other side of the man's head.  "Don't get up – don't get up!!"

The two detectives flinched as she raised her hands up over her head, dropping to her knees as she brought the illusory bat down in a brutal, overhand arc – a blow that would kill any human being instantly.

Misato knelt on the floor, her lungs burning as she struggled to control her breathing.  In her mind, she could see the bat in her hands… bloody… cracked… beautiful.  It had done a good job – staying intact until she had completed her task.  Such a good bat… such a good tool…

With a cry of disgust, she opened her hands and got to her feet, covering her mouth and fighting the urge to vomit.

"Major…?"

She waved her hand at the hesitant call.  "I'm fine," she gasped, "just… need a minute."

Hiro nodded, glancing down at the bat.  "Loyalty."

Misato shivered.  "Yeah," she whispered, her mind supplying the image of the single, carefully carved Kanji character.  "Loyalty."

They were silent for a moment, then Misato took a deep breath, regaining her composure.

"This isn't just murder," she said quietly, facing the two men, "this is assassination – and very meticulously planned assassination at that.  This person knows when the victims will be alone, she knows when they have to be at work, she knows… everything."  She shook her head slowly, "And she plans each kill carefully – precisely… without a hint of remorse."

"And," Tanaka said thoughtfully, "she does know sports."

"Why do you say that?" Misato asked, frowning.

When she had profiled the killer being enthusiastic about sports, she was simply imagining that she would want to lull Aoba into a sense of security by showing interest in the things he liked.  She had not even considered that it might be true.

"Look at this," Tanaka said, crouching by the bat and lifting it with great care.  "The blood is all localized in one place, but it should be on both sides."  He gestured to Aoba's body.  "She hit him on one side, then the other, then over the top – if she was heated about it, she should have just hit, seen that he wasn't going down, and swung again, but she took the half second to turn the bat to make sure she was hitting with the same part of the bat on all three hits."

"Why?" Misato asked uncertainly.  "Superstition or something?  I mean… she took the time to tilt his head back and put the coins on his eyes."

"Not a sports fan are you?" Tanaka sighed.  "Well, you see the label on the bat?" he pointed for emphasis, "That's a soft spot, where the wood is weak – they put the label there to make sure you know where it is so you don't try to hit anything with it, or it could break the bat."  He set the bat back on the floor and stood.  "So our killer here knows her stuff."

Misato frowned, that vague thought tickling her mind once more, but again, it would not come.  "Well," she said slowly, hoping it would come to her later, "I've got all I can get out of this.  Let's… call the coroner."

**

The rain-slick streets of Tokyo-3 were quiet and unoccupied, giving the vague impression that this was not so much the capitol of a thriving country as it was a colossal ghost town, populated only by the restless spirits of the damned – souls too impure to ascend to Heaven, and too righteous to be welcomed to Hell.  Through the darkened streets walked two people, weary from the day's work but seemingly comfortable enough in each other's presence to talk and laugh and keep their eyes on one another, taking no notice of the emptiness all around them.

"So he left you at the altar?" Shinji was saying, hanging on his companion's every word and casting an uneasy eye up at the heavy clouds above them – clouds that seemed ready to open once more and drench the city with more of the on-again off-again rain that had filled the morning and afternoon with darkness.

Maya nodded, tucking a bit of hair behind her right ear as she looked up at Shinji's building, towering over them like a brooding, vengeful goddess, ready to smite them at the slightest hint of impudence or blasphemy against her.  "Well," she said easily, pulling the door open and waiting for him to step in, "I think it was my mother's doing.  You see, she never liked him, and I think she just might have called him and convinced him that he would be better off single – or at least, in less pain."  She drew another breath, but whatever comment she had been on the verge of making never materialized.  Instead, she simply stood still, looking out into the still darkness with an intent, piercing gaze, as if she was checking to make sure the street really was empty.

"Is something wrong, Miss Ibuki?" Shinji asked uncertainly.

The woman shook herself.  "Just being paranoid, I guess," she sighed, stepping into the apartment building and letting the door swing closed.  "I thought I saw someone behind us."  She looked at him from the corner of her eye, a tiny smile appearing at the corner of her lips as they entered one of the building's two stairways and started up.  "But umm, I've been thinking that we've kind of been spending a lot of time together lately, right?"

"Right," Shinji agreed, frowning as he braced himself for the inevitable, 'I think we know each other well enough that I can stop coming home with you.'

It was only logical, he decided.  After all, the idea of the program, as Misato had described it, was to get to know his coworkers.  And he had to admit that he knew Miss Ibuki fairly well.  He knew her musical tastes… he knew her secret affection for baseball… he knew that she liked things orderly and structured… and he knew that she liked being on time.  When he stopped to think about it, Maya was a lot like him.

And I know that I'M getting tired of the stairs every day, he thought, Misato said they'd have the elevator fixed by Monday, but it's Wednesday already!

"Well," the tech said thoughtfully, bringing him back to the conversation at hand.  "It just occurred to me that with all this time we're together, and with us being off duty and all, umm… you could probably," she took a deep breath, letting it out slowly as she concluded, "you could probably call me Maya – you know, if you wanted to."

Shinji paused on the third floor, his eyes wide.  "Yeah?" he said tentatively.

"Yeah," Maya smiled.

After a moment of silence, Shinji nodded, continuing up the stairs without a word.  They reached his floor, making it all way to his door before either of them spoke.

"So," Maya said quietly, "there was something else I was thinking, too."

Shinji slipped his key into the lock and opened the door, leaning against the frame and folding his arms in what (he hoped) was a comfortable pose.  "And what's that, Mi- Maya?"

The tech smiled happily.  "Oh, just a little something," she said lightly, shrugging nonchalantly as the boy fidgeted.  "I was just thinking… we're friends, right?"

Shinji's expression became uncertain.  "I, umm… yes?"

He hoped this was the right answer – certainly, this was the answer he wanted to get in return, but he was too unsure of himself to even broach the subject first, let alone presume to know her feelings on the matter.  Unbidden, an image of Rei's still form floated up in his mind, but he pushed it back down, trying to stay focused on what was happening.

Misato said she'll be ok, he reminded himself, waiting for Maya to finish her thought, they haven't let me see her, but Misato said…yeah, she'll be ok.

Though he did not truly believe this, it was far easier to keep his mind on other topics than dwell on the dark certainty that the First Child was anything but ok.

"So," Maya drew his attention back to her and speaking slowly so there would be no misunderstanding.  "Friends do stuff like go to parks and movies and stuff together, right?"

Shinji nodded. "Yeah, I guess they do…" he trailed off, resisting the urge to add 'not that I'd know.'

"Well, maybe we should do that sometime."

Shinji's face lit in a happy smile.  "Really?" he asked hopefully.

Maya seemed terribly uncomfortable, but she managed to nod.  "Yeah, really," she said quietly.  "I don't think it would hurt if we just went to a movie together – I mean, we were supposed to get to know each other better, right?"

"I'd really like that," the boy said, suddenly feeling very self-conscious.  "I mean, it's not like it's a da-" he cut himself off.  "I'd like that."

The two stood in silence for a moment, sharing a deep blush.  Finally, Maya whispered, "So, umm, we'll talk about it tomorrow, make plans and stuff."

Shinji's face fell.  "Misato'll tease me," he sighed.

Maya stepped closer, putting a hand on his shoulder.  "I won't let her."

Their eyes met, and for a very brief, shining instant, unspoken words flew between them.  Loneliness… sadness… frustration… fear… uncertainty… hope… longing… friendship.

"Goodnight, Shinji," Maya said abruptly, letting her hand fall back to her side and taking a step back from the boy.  "Sweet dreams."

Shinji smiled, resisting the urge to reach up and touch the spot her hand had been resting on.  "You too, Miss-"  He cut himself off, averting his eyes.  "You too, Maya."

Finding nothing else to say, they bowed to each other.  Maya smiled softly as Shinji stepped back into the apartment, holding his eyes until the door slid closed.

A movie, Shinji thought, resting one hand on the door and grinning from ear to ear.  "A movie with Maya."  His grin widened suddenly as a thought occurred to him.  "Hey, Maya!" he said happily, throwing the door back open.  "I just had a great ide-"

His eyes widened as he cut himself off, unable to believe what he was seeing.

"Maya!"

In the narrow confines of the apartment building's hall, the clap of gunfire seemed to echo forever.

**

Misato trudged up the stairs one at a time, too weary to move at more than a plod.  "What a day," she groaned, glancing at the sign marking the third floor, "just a few more to go."

Aoba's funeral had been a grim, rainy affair, the sky itself seeming to protest the young man's death by soaking all those foolish enough to stand by his gravesite and mourn him.  Only immediate family had been informed of the truth.  The order to maintain security had been absolute – so absolute that the man's girlfriend, Naoko, had not been notified.  His family had been directed to tell her that Shigeru was out of town on an unexpected assignment, and would not have access to communications for several days.

Misato herself had been forced to give that order. She could still see the look of horror on his mother's face.

"We all do what we have to do," she told herself, trying to sound firm as she wiped a bit of rainwater from her brow, "we can't have a panic on our hands, right?"

She sighed as she reached the fifth floor.

"Four days and nothing," she whispered, putting a hand on the metal railing of the stairs.  "No prints on the bat, no hairs on the furniture – not even saliva on the damn fork!"  She let out a frustrated growl.  "She's like a ghost!  Coming in, killing without-"

A sound, muffled by the distance between floors, reached her ears.  Frowning, Misato picked up the pace, feeling worse and worse with each step.

"Sounded like a scream," she muttered grimly.

Pulling her pistol, she began taking the stairs two, then three at a time, rushing up until she reached her floor and banging the door open with her shoulder.

"No…!"

Even from halfway down the hall, she could see what had happened.

Maya had shot Shinji… and she was crouching over him, peering intently down into his face. 

"IBUKI!!!"

The technician looked up, her eyes wide as her supervisor sprinted down the hall towards her, a service pistol held firmly in her hands.  "M-Major…?" 

She could not rise to greet the other woman, as her hands were covering the innocuous looking hole in the Third Child's sternum.  Blood was seeping between her fingers at an alarming rate.

This isn't happening! her mind tried to tell her, This isn't happening… this isn't happening… this isn-

"Get away from him!"

Maya went white as a sheet.  "Don't shoot!" she cried desperately, finally finding her voice, "Please!  Please don't kill me!"

"I said get away from him," Misato snarled, cocking her pistol and drawing a bead on the tech's forehead.  "Now!"

One twitch and you die, she thought savagely, her knuckles going white on the gunstock, fucking traitor!

"You can't think I did this!" Maya cried incredulously, keeping her hands tightly pressed to Shinji's chest, "I was… you said I should protect him, Major!  I wouldn't do this!"  She cringed as Misato pressed the gun to her temple, tears leaking out of her eyes as she sobbed.  "I… I could have just killed him and ran, Major – think about it… I didn't do this…" she drew a shuddering breath.   "P-please don't kill me!!"

Misato's lips drew back from her teeth as her mind tried to calculate every angle.  She could have gotten away, she thought, she had enough time – and she has no reason to lie.  This train of thought was met head on by another, darker train.  So what? the train whispered, Kill her anyway – she's been a thorn in my side since I got stuck with this fucking assignme-

"AHHH!"

Maya moaned weakly as the older woman cried out, yanking the pistol away from her head and racing off down the hallway.  She continued crying as she heard the door to the building's other stairway bang open, her nostrils filling with the sharp, acrid smell of fresh urine.

Misato hit the door at full speed, rocking it open and jabbing her gun forward, fully prepared to pull the trigger at the slightest provocation.  She held her breath, listening for any trace of sound.  Come on, she thought angrily, COME ON!!

After a moment… she heard it – a soft, faint creaking sound, definitely coming from upstairs.  She was off like a shot, taking the stairs three at a time, doors to other levels of the building flying past… all locked… all secure, until she reached the roof.  Too angry and frightened to be careful, she kicked the door wide open, dropping to one knee and whipping her gun up to sweep the rooftop.

A figure moved, barely visible in the rain and faint streetlight.

"FREEZE!!"

Her pupils dilated, letting as much light in as possible as the figure, which had been creeping stealthily towards the fire escape, sprang upright, running to reach the ladder leading to the ground.

Misato's mind barely registered the dull tan and black NERV patch on the figure's shoulder as she opened fire.  The first shot hit the cement ledge on the rooftop, sending up a quickly dispersed cloud of mortar and granite.  Two more shots went wide, one digging out another chunk of rooftop, the other ricocheting off the ladder's top rung.

"NO!" Misato screamed, jumping to her feet and holding her gun in both hands as the figure reached the ladder.

She pulled the trigger seven times in rapid succession, each shot punctuated by a breathless, desperate cry as the woman tried to keep her shaking hands in line.  All went wide, knocking off chunks of cement or panging off metal.

The figure was grasping the top rung of the ladder.

Misato spread her feet on the rooftop's slick surface, desperately seeking more balance as her forefinger jerked the trigger over and over, burning through all of her ammunition in a matter of seconds and ultimately achieving the desired results.  Two bullets found their mark, driving into the figure's shoulder and lower back.  With a strangled cry, it fell to the roof, writhing for a moment with a horrible gurgling sound before going still.

Shaking… terrified… elated… Misato released the empty clip from her pistol, letting it fall to the ground and slapping a fresh one in before approaching the figure.  She walked slowly, pausing only to pull the slide on her gun and chamber a round.  She kept her weapon trained on the form, nudging it with her toe and watching for any signs of life.

There were none.

Cautiously, she hooked her foot until the thin form, feeling a strange sinking sensation in the pit of her stomach as she took in the faded color and numerous tears in the jacket.  Slowly, she rolled the body over, covering her mouth as the face came into view.

"Oh God…"

Lying on the rooftop, his eyes filling with rainwater… lay a very nondescript, obviously undernourished homeless man, a look of pained disbelief on his face.  The jacket he wore was clearly old and discarded – probably purchased at a secondhand store – and patched several times, with tape in some places.

Time stood still for Misato as she realized what she had done.  She had not solved the crime… she had not stopped the terror… she had not protected anyone or anything valuable to her.

…she had killed an innocent.

**

"Got another one."

Tanaka looked up at Hirohito's quiet announcement.  "That makes how many now, seven?"

"So far," Hiro confirmed, reaching into the black evidence gathering kit at his feet and carefully marking the wall he was crouched in front of.  Once this task was complete, he used a pair of long, thick tweezers to pry the remains of a nine millimeter bullet out and drop it into a small bag.

"She really went all out," Tanaka sighed, glancing down at the hazy chalk outline on the roof.  "Poor sap."

Hiro nodded absently, his sharp eyes scanning the low-slung wall in a meticulous search for more bullet holes.  "Eight."

Tanaka scrubbed a hand through his hair and looked up at the clearing night sky.  "I doubt we'll find more," he said reasonably, "she said a couple went wide, and we know where two of them ended up.  That piece of hers does sixteen in the clip and one in the pipe, so I think that's all we're gonna get."

"Looks that way," Hiro agreed, rising to his feet, "should we check the other scene?"

"Again?" Tanaka groaned, "We already combed over it twice!  It's just a hallway, what else can we find??"

"Well the Major said to be sure nothing got through," Hiro pointed out quietly, "and we did find that one hair."

"That could have been there for weeks," Tanaka muttered, "or years, with the way this place is – and she was pretty shaken… kept repeating herself.  I think we should call it a night."

There was a moment of silence as Hiro reluctantly nodded.

"Can you imagine?"

Tanaka sighed at the tone in his long-time partner's voice.  "What?" he said softly, "What it's like to take down a bystander?  Yeah, I imagine it all the time."

"I winged a guy once," Hiro said thoughtfully, looking down at the neatly arranged row of bags containing Misato's spent bullets.  "I thought he was with the perp I was chasing.  Caught him in the shoulder with a slug."  He shook his head ruefully.  "I thought I would be drummed out of the force, but the captain just shrugged it off, said, 'Don't sweat it kid, happens all the time.'"

"Wasn't that the case that got you your shield?" Tanaka asked, folding his arms across his chest, "I think you told me about that."

"Probably," Hiro nodded, "but it took me a long time to get over, and I was gun-shy for about three months – couldn't even fire on the range."  He met his partner's eyes.  "I can't even imagine what it would have been like if he'd died."

Tanaka gave a gusty sigh and rolled his shoulders.  "Come on," he growled, "let's go check the other scene again."

"Thanks," Hiro said softly.

As they headed for the stairs, Hiro's cell phone began to ring.

**

"Needless to say, Captain," Gendou said softly, "I am not impressed with your performance."

Misato kept her back stiff, nodding as she stared straight ahead.  "Yes sir," she whispered, "I understand that."

They were in the Commander's office again.  The lights had been muted, giving the entire room a gloomy, darkened feel – as if monsters were lurking in every shadow, held at bay only by the bleary, blood-red light from the Systema Sephiroticum overhead but ever-ready to snatch an unsuspecting soul, dragging them into a dark netherworld of pain and suffering and unheard pleas for help.

"Perhaps I was unclear when I told you I wanted this case to be your sole focus," Gendou said smoothly, staring at the woman over his linked hands.  "Or perhaps you felt your judgment was superior to my own?"

"No sir," Misato whispered, shaking her head.

It was difficult to keep from crying.  Her eyes kept threatening to tear – and they did, every time she closed them for more than a moment and saw Shinji's face and the face of the transient, overlapping in her mind's eye… mocking her… reminding her that she was a failure in every regard.  As a guardian.  As a provider.  As a protector.  As a detective – she had failed in each role.

And now she stood before the Commander, stripped of her position and title and under the very real threat of going to jail – for while Shinji's injury was not directly her fault (she could not be everywhere all the time, after all) murdering an innocent man was still a crime, regardless of the circumstances.

"Lieutenant Ibuki tells me that you threatened to kill her," Gendou said softly, leaning back in his chair and folding his arms.  "Would you care to clarify this statement?"

"When I arrived on the scene," Misato began carefully, "all I saw was Maya crouching over Shinji with blood on her hands."  She cleared her throat, continuing with some difficulty as the doctor's report listing Shinji as 'critical and unable to regain consciousness at this time' flashed through her mind.  "She was a partial fit for the profile I had developed for the killer, so based on the information at hand, I feel that my actions were appropriate at that time, sir."

She did not – not truly.  She had held a gun to the head of a woman she had worked with for years… and she had been fully prepared to pull the trigger.

"And your decision to pair the Children with these technicians was based on…?"

"Similarities," Misato replied automatically, "they share similar interests and are similar in bearing in private settings to the Children they were paired with, and they are both trained in hand to hand and firearm combat."

"But Lieutenant Ibuki tells me that she was the target," Gendou pointed out silkily, "she says that she was just leaving your apartment when the Third Child reopened the door to tell her something he forget, then pushed her out of the way – taking the gunshot that was intended for her.  So tell me – were you honestly thinking that she would be safe in the Third Child's presence?  Or were you perhaps careless in your duties?"

Misato averted her eyes.  "There is… safety in numbers, sir," she replied quietly, "None of the killings have been in the presence of others, and… and I was more concerned for Shinji's wellbeing than Maya's… sir."

"As well you should be," Gendou said flatly, "but perhaps pairing the Children and the technicians with Section Two agents might have been a preferred course of action?"

"I disagree, sir," Misato said tiredly, rubbing her eyes with a pained expression, "by bringing in agents, we would have caused a low-grade panic with the techs and Children – we had to stay discrete and-"

"This is your idea of discrete?" Gendou cut in, his nostrils flaring.  "Our number one pilot has been shot, Captain – in the doorway of his own apartment.  There is no way to make that appear to be something other than what it is!"

Since when have you thought of him as number one? Misato thought, trying to be angry at the man.  You just look at him as a tool – one that's broken now… thanks to me.

"My detectives are searching the building now," she said unevenly, wiping her eyes with the heels of her hands, "the killer was careless this time – probably because I told her Rei was alive, so I'm sure she left some kind of evidence behind.  Maya didn't see her in the confusion, but I'm su-"

"Enough!"

Misato felt as if her back might snap from being so rigid.  "Yes sir."

For the first time she could remember, the Commander looked angry – not the cool, collected kind of angry, but genuinely furious.  "Explain to me," he bit out, "how Lieutenant Ibuki 'partially fit the profile' you had for the killer, but she was left as the Third Child's 'partner.'"

This question, Misato had no suitable answer for.  "She… it was only a partial match, sir," she said slowly, "but I still tried to change the pairings.  I told Shinji that I was going to switch with Lieutenant Brea… but he was unhappy with that.  He said he trusted Maya, and… and since she only had a few of the traits I had identified for the killer, I felt it was-"

"Enough!"

Gendou rose to his feet and walked over to the woman, scowling at her over the edge of his glasses. 

"Your firearm, Captain."

Misato paled as he held his hand out, and slowly… she drew her pistol, placing it in his outstretched palm.  She blinked as he drew the slide, ejecting the bullet from the chamber and catching it neatly in his other hand.  He handed her the weapon, holding the bullet at eye-level between his thumb and forefinger, and when he spoke, his voice was back to its usual, cool, calm timbre.

"I'll be keeping this, Captain," he said softly, making sure her eyes met his before continuing.  "Why don't you take the next two weeks off – I will be transferring this matter to Section Two effective immediately."

Confused, Misato stammered, "But… but sir, I'm sure my detectives and I-"

"You have no detectives, Captain," Gendou cut her off; "they have already been reassigned.  You are dismissed."

Misato wet her lips, staring at the bullet in the dull, angry red light.  "What are you going to do…?" she asked tremulously.

When she looked back to Gendou's face, she shivered, finding it lit with a thin, unhealthy smile.  "That is no longer your concern, Captain," he said coolly, turning the bullet over in his fingers, "good day."

Misato took a deep breath, summoning all of her courage.  "Three days," she said quickly, "let me have that much, Commander – I promise I'll find the killer… I swear it."

Gendou started to shake his head, but she hurried on, leaning closer to him and lowering her voice to a frantic whisper.

"I think I know who it is, Commander… let me finish this, I'm begging you!  If I fail… if I fail you can use that on me…" she nodded to the bullet, "but you have to let me try!"

That thin, cruel smile reappeared on the Commander's lips. "I thought you might feel that way," he said softly, slipping the bullet into his pocket.  "You have forty-eight hours, Captain… after that time, you will be delivered to the Tokyo-3 police department with full culpability for all three murders and the investigation will be turned over to Section Two for final closure."

"You… can't be serious!" Misato breathed incredulously.

Of all the threats in the world, this one was the furthest from her mind.

"I am," Gendou said softly, leaning closer to woman and concluding, "because if you cannot find the killer in that time, Miss Katsuragi… I am holding you personally accountable for the deaths of my people.  This should have been a very easy case, Captain… you had a list of victims… you had a pattern of ritualism… and I gave you free reign, trusting that your abilities would be up to the task."  He shook his head.  "But it appears that I overestimated you, Captain, and in my eyes – you are as guilty for those deaths as the killer."

Misato winced… but found that she had no adequate reply to this accusation.

"Good day, Captain."

**

Asuka looked up from the television as the front door closed.  Hesitantly, she rose to her feet, watching as a very bedraggled Misato entered the living room, setting her pistol on the coffee table and throwing herself down on the couch with a weary sigh.  "Misato…?" she said slowly, her voice a mere shadow of its usual, bold self.  "Is… Shinji ok?  I… I heard what happened, but Section Two wouldn't let me go to headquarters… is he ok?"

Misato stared at her for a moment, watching her fidget with the remote control as she bit her lower lip so hard that the older woman thought it would start bleeding at any moment.  "No," she said quietly, unable to summon enough empathy for a gentle letdown.  "He lost a lot of blood, Asuka… and the doctors don't know when he's going to wake up."

To her very great surprise, the redhead made a small squeaking sound and turned quickly away.  "S-serves him right," she whispered, quickly wiped her eyes.  "I h-heard that he s-shoved Miss Ibuki out of the w-way… idiot… s-such a h-hero…"

Misato's shoulders slumped as the girl drew in great, gasping breaths, trying to calm herself.

"Idiot," Asuka muttered, "What did he think he was going to do, catch the bullet in his teeth? They're so stupid – men are all so damn stupid!"

Misato nodded, wishing she had the ability to put a hand on the girl's shoulder, or at least say something comforting – but she was too drained, too worn out.  She would sleep for four hours or so, then call Tanaka and Hirohito and tell them that she needed them to help her close this case… off the record of course – the Commander had taken all of her privileges and special clearances away, telling her that she was now entirely on her own.  She felt scraped out – hollow… she had absolutely no idea who the killer was.

"Well if he thinks I'll start making him bentos and visiting every other day, he's got another thing coming," Asuka said, trying to sound angry, "Hikari's almost as stupid as them… making schedules and lunches – what an idiot.  I would never get that tied down to a little boy – no way!"

Misato was midway through another nod when her mind started clicking.  "Asuka," she said softly, glancing at the clock on the far wall, "where does Hikari live?"

Grasping at straws? her mind whispered cruelly, Ikari was right… you've lost it.

She could still recall the interview with the polite, demure little class representative following the incident with Rei.  She had been so apologetic throughout the questioning: 'I should have asked for his ID, I'm sorry,' 'I never even thought, I'm sorry,' 'Will she be ok, Miss Katsuragi?  I'm so, so sorry.'

Apology after apology… but then, hadn't the girl hesitated just a bit before each answer, as if she was unsure whether or not replying was a good idea?  Misato had discarded it at the time as her imagination, but the more she thought about it, the more her tired mind insisted that it made sense.  She IS the only one to see the killer and live – even if she didn't know it at the time, she thought reasonably; maybe she didn't want to say what she really saw because she was afraid of…

"Retribution."

Misato shook herself, aware that Asuka was staring at her.

"Did you hear a word I said?" the redhead snapped angrily.  "You ask me a fucked up question like that, then you don't even bother to write it down when I answer?"

"Sorry," Misato said quickly, grabbing a pen and notepad off the table, "give it to me again."  She wrote down Hikari Horaki's address and tore off the sheet, trying to offer a comforting smile.  "I'm sure Shinji will be fine," she said, her tone sounding hollow and insincere to her ears, "I'll take you to see him as soon as I get back, ok?"

"Well, am I supposed to go to school, or what?" Asuka asked sullenly, trying to sound tough, "The sun's almost up, you know…"

Misato glanced out the window, noting that it was indeed getting lighter out.  "I don't… think that Section Two wants you to leave home yet," she said awkwardly, "but I'll be right back, and I'll talk to the Commander, ok?"

Not that he'll care what I have to say, she thought as the redhead reluctantly nodded, unless I'm saying 'I'm the killer,' or 'I'm gonna blow your ass away.'

"Why are you smiling…?"

Misato blinked, shaking herself as she realized that Asuka was staring at her with wide eyes.  "Must be tired," she said quietly, hoping this explanation would suffice.  "I'll be back as soon as I can… why don't you start some breakfast for us?"

Asuka's bottom lip quivered slightly as she whispered, "That's Shinji's job."

"I know!" Misato roared, rage filling her at the normally-strong girl's sign of weakness.  "But I don't see Shinji anywhere around, do you?!"

There was a deathly silence, the echoes of Misato's abrupt, brutal tirade ringing through the apartment and fading away as the two women stared at each other, both too stunned to do more than breathe.

"I'm gonna-" Asuka cut herself off, jerking her thumb over her shoulder and pointing to her room.  "I'm gonna go back to bed," she whispered, her voice sounding tiny and altogether too soft, "night."

"Yeah…" Misato nodded slowly, "night."

I'm hurt, she thought, staring at Asuka's downcast face, the only person I've ever considered my equal is – damn it!  She shook her head to clear it, but as Asuka started for her room, her mind continued on, unstoppable.  I found Mamma when I was seven, but I don't think about that if I can help it.  I know it's my fault she hung herself – she was still holding that stupid doll that she called Asuka… but I'M Asuka!  I hate that stupid doll!  Why, Mamma??  Why couldn't it be me that you died with!?

Asuka turned her head as Misato made a soft, unhappy moan.  "What?" she muttered, "what's your problem?"

Misato couldn't hear her – her mind was too busy putting pieces together, flying on autopilot as it rapidly formed a ragged, rough around the edges picture of her charge.  Fragments of psyche reports… half-noticed observations… comments from others… synchronization reports… suggestions for improvement – every aspect of the Second Child's life, details that only Misato had, collided in her mind.

I only have one real friend, she thought, now fully in the mindset of a profiler, Hikari's annoying sometimes with how perfect she seems, but at least she's nice to me, and listens to me – when she's not visiting that stooge, of course.  Then there's Shinji – oh I can't stand him!  Thinks he's better than me… yeah, so his sync ratio's a little higher now, big deal!  It doesn't bother me!  IT DOESN'T!  …and now he's hurt, and I- NO! I won't think about him!  Who else, who else?  Doctor Akagi… I hardly know her, but she's annoying too.  Always making me run more tests… always reminding me of how bad I'm doing.  And Rei – stupid fucking Dolly Rei Wondergirl!  I can't stand her!  She reminds me of Ma- NO!  I can't think about that either!

"What's wrong with you!?"

Asuka's voice came to her from a great distance, but she hardly took notice.

"Misato?"

Misato… so strong, and pretty.  Always showing her tits off to anyone that'll look… making Kaji pay attention to her instead of me – I hate her!  I hate her so much I want to hit her – goddamn bitch!  I hate her, and I hate Shinji, and I hate Rei… I hate everyone!!

Misato shivered, putting a hand on her head as the train of thought continued pounding through her mind.  "I'm… I'm fine," she lied, "just tired, that's all, I've been up for a long time."  She risked a look into Asuka's eyes, hoping that her profiling had been wrong – or at least off by a bit… but to her horror, she found the redhead holding her pistol, her eyes vacant and far away.  "W-what are you doing?" she managed, looking from the barrel of the weapon to the girl's face and back, feeling suddenly that the room was far too warm.  "Asuk-"

"Your gun is heavy," Asuka whispered, hefting the weapon in her hand, "too bad Shinji didn't have it with him, huh?"

 A chill ran down Misato's spine as the girl flipped the gun expertly from one hand to the other and clicked the safety off.  "Don't… don't play with that," she said, trying her best to sound cool.

"I know how to handle a gun," Asuka said quietly, ejecting the clip and surveying its contents, then nodding as she slapped it back in and pulled the slide to chamber a round.  "We had training… remember?"  Slowly, her finger slid under the trigger-guard.  "Why do you think he pushed Miss Ibuki out of the way?" she asked softly.  "Do you think he liked her?"

"He… would have done it for anyone," Misato managed, fighting the urge to jump off the couch and tackle the girl.

Just relax, she told herself, feeling a bead of cold sweat trickle down her back, Asuka was in synchronization training when Hyouga was killed and-  no… no that was the day she wasn't feeling well and left early – by herself.  Oh God…

She tensed as Asuka slowly brought the gun up, not quite aiming it at her.  "Why did he push her out of the way?" she repeated, her voice choked and hoarse, "It should have been her…"

Misato slowly rose to her feet, swallowing hard as the barrel of the gun wavered a little closer to her.  "You would have done the same," she said gently, praying that she was right in that assumption, "any of us would have… right?"

Asuka's blue eyes grew even hazier.  "But he's not supposed to be hurt," she said, her voice barely audible, "he's Shinji the Hero… heroes don't get shot in a dirty fucking hallway trying to save some stupid bimbo they hardly know – that's not how it's supposed to be!"

Misato's heart filled with pity as she recognized the anguish in the redhead's voice.  Not rage, she thought sadly, not anger or vengeance.  Fear… loneliness – that's what she's trying to hide.

With great care, Misato reached out and put her hand on the top of the pistol, gently pulling until it slipped from the redhead's grasp.  "He'll be ok," she said, finally finding a few shreds of compassion in her weary heart as she stepped forward and wrapped her arms clumsily around Asuka's shoulders, "you know he'll be ok, don't you?"

As expected… Asuka pushed back, swiping quickly at her eyes and muttering, "Get away from me."

"I'll stop by later and tell him you said hi," Misato murmured.  "And if you want to – just so you don't have to be alone… you can sleep in my bedroom tonight."

"You're such a freak," Asuka grumbled, trying desperately to hold onto her rage, "bye!"

"Yeah," Misato sighed, "later."

Feeling old, tired, and worn, Misato grabbed her jacket and shrugged it on, trying not to see the last, hateful glance the redhead gave her before stalking off to her room.  I wish I could believe that she was just upset about Shinji, she thought, rubbing her eyes once more as she reengaged the safety on her pistol and slid it back into its holster, I mean – she obviously IS, but this is more than just that.  She really, truly, honestly hates me.

Shaking herself, she headed for the door, pulling her cell phone out and mumbling, "Can't be helped, I guess," as she scrolled through her saved numbers.  Finding the one she wanted, she hit dial and stepped out the door.  The phone rang twice before a groggy voice said hello.

"Tanaka?" Misato frowned, making her way to the elevator.  "Oh… Misses Tanaka, I'm sorry.  Is he… yes, I know what time it is, ma'am, but it's very… oh, he's not?"  She blushed as she hit the elevator call button.  "No ma'am, I didn't know you two were separated, he doesn't talk about his… no, ma'am I'm not the one he's… no ma'am, I am not!  I work with him!  What's that??  Well fuck you too!"

Angrily, she stabbed the off button on the phone, quickly finding Hirohito's number and dialing it.  "Hiro?" she said cautiously.  "Yeah, it's Katsuragi – listen… what?  Yeah… I know, but I still need your help."  She smiled, stepping into the elevator as it arrived.  "No," she grinned, "I didn't know it would violate quite that many rules, that is pretty impressive.  Hmm?  Yeah, of course I'll buy the coffee, but… nine?  Yeah, nine works.  See if you can get in touch with Tanaka, too – see if he wants to get in as much trouble as you.  No, I know – you're only in trouble if you get caught."  She laughed.  "Thanks, Hiro, I knew you would want to see this through 'til the end."  Her smile faded and she closed her eyes as she listened to the detective talk for a moment.  "Thank you," she whispered, "yeah, it really does mean that much.  Ok… I'll see you at nine, and we'll see how much damage we can do, right?  Right."

Feeling marginally better, she hung up and pushed the button for the ground floor.  Good men, she thought grimly, here's hoping I don't fuck them out of a job.

The elevator reached the ground floor, and Misato exited, choosing to walk the short distance to Hikari's house rather than drive.  It was shaping up to be a nice day, she decided, with a light breeze blowing through the city and only a few, fluffy clouds in the sky.  She leaned her head back and inhaled, smiling softly.

"We'll find you," she promised herself firmly, "Hiro and Tanaka won't let me down, and I won't let Shinji down… or Shigeru… or Rei… or Hyouga.  I'll find you, and you'll be punished for what you've done."

She stopped for a moment, indulging in a brief bout of nostalgia.  With her eyes closed, she could envision the face of her lover, Ryouji Kaji.  He had died not so long ago, leaving her in possession of an invaluable memory chip – one that contained many of NERV's darkest secrets.  He had told her that the truth was with her, and that he wanted her to keep striving to find the real reasons behind all that was happening, from the angels to the Children… since he would no longer be there to help her.

"And I am, Kaji," she whispered, resuming her walk and trying to push the man's face from her mind, "I'm protecting everyone right now, and then… then I'll get back to where I should be."

As the Horaki house came into view, however, Misato could not help but feel a pang of doubt.  If Hikari did not know anything, as Misato was now starting to fear was the case, she would be back to square one – and time was not on her side.

"Hikari!" she called, spying the girl as she stepped out of her front door, locking it behind her.  "Got a second? I need to talk to you."

"Oh, Hi Captain!" Hikari said brightly, waving her over, "I was just on my way to school, can we talk on the way?"

"Can't you be tardy or something?" Misato grinned as she reached the girl's front porch.  "I'll cover for you."

"No way – I'm never late if I can help it!" the girl laughed.  "Like when you interviewed me after Ayanami's accident – I'd been waiting in the principal's office for over a half hour for you."

"Really?" Misato asked, trying to feign interest… and finding herself just the slightest bit annoyed by the girl's energy.

No one should be that 'up' at this hour, she thought darkly, it's just not right.

They started walking towards the school, keeping the topic light until they were further from the Horaki house.  Hikari thanked her for holding off until they got further from home.  Misato reciprocated by thanking Hikari for taking some time to talk to her.  Hikari laughed, saying that anything she could do to help was no problem.

They walked on.

"It's such a nice day," Hikari said, tilting her face up to bask in the light of the newly risen sun, "Hey, let's cut through the park!  It's really nice this time of day!"

"Ok," Misato shrugged, following as the younger woman led her into a brightly lit, but currently deserted park.

Very nice, she thought absently, but I need to talk to her now – she's being too cheerful… and I don't think I can handle it.

"Ooo!" Hikari cried, running over and crouching by a bright red flower.  "Look!  Isn't it pretty??  Red Angel… they're everywhere around here."

"It's gorgeous," Misato replied politely.

Hikari reached out and gently ran her forefinger over one of the petals, then rose to her feet.  "They're poisonous you know," she said matter-of-factly, "I read that in a magazine once – but you'd have to eat like, a whole field of them."

"That's… interesting," Misato frowned, taking another look at the flower, "Red Angel…?"

"Funny, huh?" Hikari said as she rose to her feet, absently brushing her hand on her skirt.

"What's that?" Misato asked, not seeing anything amusing about the current topic of conversation.

"Seems like everything named Angel can hurt you somehow."

Misato gave the girl a weak smile as they started walking once more.  "Not everything," she said uneasily.  "Angel food cake won't kill you."

"It'll make you fat," Hikari pointed out with a smile, "and getting too fat can kill you."

"Well, too much of anything can kill you," Misato pointed out, wondering how they had gotten onto this morbid conversation, "even too much oxygen."

Hikari's eyes were wide. "Really?"

"Really," Misato shrugged, finding herself more and more uncomfortable, "eats the lining of your lungs."

"Like chlorine gas," Hikari said sagely.

"R-right."

What a little freak! Misato thought, shaking her head.  Asuka never said anything about her having a fixation with dea-

"It's so nice out," Hikari said, holding her hands out to the sides and tilting her head back to let the sun bathe her face in golden radiance, "I hate the rain – it was so dark yesterday, don't you think?"

Darker than you'll ever know, Misato thought dryly.

"I guess it's ok," she shrugged, glancing up at the lightening sky.

"It's more than ok," Hikai said brightly, "lots of sunshine, few clouds, nice and warm.  Perfect."

"If you say so," Misato said lightly, once again fighting off a surge of annoyance at the girl's chipper attitude.

"I do," she laughed.

They walked on.

"Hikari," Misato said slowly, frowning as the girl began whistling, "about… what happened…"

Hikari sighed.  "Yeah, ok," she said tiredly, her pace slowing considerably.

She DOES know something, Misato thought triumphantly, licking her lips nervously as she glanced at the class rep from the corner of her eyes.  Have to treat it carefully, though, she's just a kid after all.  And what is that song she's whistling?  It's so familiar…

 "You want some gum?"

"Hmmm?  Oh, no thanks," Misato offered the girl a sideways glance.

I'm so polite, she thought, continuing to walk as Hikari began rummaging in her book bag, trying to profile the girl – more out of habit than anything else. I treat my elders with respect, and I always do my best to help others.  She walked a few more paces as Hikari sighed and stopped, digging in her bag with a bit more care.  My best friend pilots an EVA, and she won't let me forget it, but I put up with her because… because I'm so understanding.  Her brow furrowed.  It was not as easy with Hikari, since she did not know her as well, but her mind insisted on completing its task, shutting out the outside world as it hurried forward.  Asuka's nice, and fun to hang out with – hey, I even make her a bento sometimes, just because we're friends… but she's always a little late to stuff, and that bugs me because I hate being late.  I'm always so neat and tidy and…

"You sure you don't want some gum…?" Hikari whispered.

Misato shook her head, a look of slowly dawning horror on her face.  "N-no thanks," she managed, her mind now snapping the fragments together in rapid succession, rushing to complete the puzzle, the picture coming together to that softly whistled, too-familiar tune.

I hate being late, the thought flashed in Misato's mind, accompanied by an image of scattered, heavily annotated sheets of music paper. Schedules mean a lot to me… and I hate messes… and I hang out with Asuka, so I know her schedule pretty well, and Shinji's, and Rei's… and Dad works out at NERV, and… and…

Instinct took over, and Misato threw herself to the side, spinning around even as she reached for her service pistol – all of her senses now burning as she drew down on the surprised girl.

"And I know," she whispered to herself, "that the only way I can kill the Major is to catch her off-guard and alone…"

Hikari's look of surprise faded.  "Kill?" she said softly, bringing her hand slowly out of her book bag.  "Why would I want to do that?"

Misato's body was frozen, her eyes focused on the small handgun Hikari was drawing.  "D-don't!" she stammered, willing her finger to pull the trigger as the girl continued whistling Aoba's love song.  "Hikari – don't!"

Hikari shook her head and sighed, dropping her book bag to the ground and bringing the gun up to level it at the Captain.  "I'm impressed," she said unevenly, "I didn't think you would figure it out so fast… was it the coins?  I bought them in Neo-Okinawa, but I got them all at the same place, and the clerk kept looking down my shirt.  Did he remember me?  Was that what gave it away?

"No," Misato breathed, wondering if she was really answering the question or simply denying the reality of the situation.  "Why?" she asked, "I don't understand why!"

And she did not.  She understood that the girl was the killer, and she could easily see now how she had managed it.  For the techs, and Shinji, it had been after school hours… and for Rei – she had been sitting three chairs up.  She had the opportunity, and she obviously had the wherewithal, but what Misato could not see was the motivation.  Why would this seemingly happy, perfectly adjusted girl become such a ruthless, cold-blooded killer?

It just did not make sense.

"You know why I did it, Captain," Hikari said calmly, keeping her gun trained on the woman, "don't tell me you're that stupid."

"I don't…" Misato trailed off as the final piece she was missing fell into place.  "Touji," she whispered, "you were Touji's girlfriend." 

It all made sense.  Touji would know who was involved with the Unit 03 incident.  With names and ranks – and a little inadvertent help from Asuka and Shinji – Hikari easily could have gathered the addresses and schedules of every person on that list.  Then it would just be a matter of stopping by one day and saying, 'Hey, I'm Touji's girlfriend… can I talk to you about him for a while? Please?'

She'd get them talking, Misato reasoned, picturing each killing in her mind, prey on their guilt over their roles, but not all at once. She'd have to spread it out over a few visits to make them comfortable enough to open the door when she came by – maybe make her a little dinner, since she's so sad about her boyfriend, and then…

"No, not his girlfriend," Hikari shook her head slowly, cutting into Misato's thoughts; "I never had that chance – because you people took him away from me.  You broke him… and crushed him… and threw him away, and now he doesn't even care if he lives or dies."

"What happened to him was… unfortunate," Misato said slowly, "but he didn't-"

"Have a chance," Hikari cut in smoothly.  "He told me all about it – how you blackmailed him with his own sister… how you shoved him in that monster without telling him what could happen… how you told him he'd be helping everyone, then destroyed him!"

"We didn't… didn't know," Misato said brokenly, "the ang-"

"Shut up!" Hikari cried.  "Just… you just shut up!!" She cocked the gun, taking a deep, ragged breath.  "I swore," she whispered shakily, "I swore I would punish everyone that had a hand in hurting him… the technicians that entered the codes and made it happen… the cold-hearted superiors that ordered it to happen… and the other pilots that let it happen!  I will make you all pay!!" 

"But Asuka's your friend," Misato pointed out, desperately stalling for time as she tried to find a way out – any way out.

"Spoiled little bitch," Hikari whispered, sounding as if she was trying to convince herself of her own anger, "she wouldn't even open the damn letter – I had to use the poison on Wondergirl…" she laughed mirthlessly.  "Even that didn't work out.  Who would have guessed Ayanami was so strong, huh?"

Misato swallowed.  "Let me help you," she said hopefully, "I can talk to some doc-"

"There's only one thing you can do to help," Hikari cut in coldly, her face twisting into a horrible parody of a smile.  "'In blood and coin will thy toll be rendered.'"

"Don't," Misato begged, bringing her other hand up to steady her gun.  "Don't make me shoot you, Hikari – please!"

"You won't shoot me," Hikari whispered, a single tear running from each eye, "you're going to die for me."

"No!!"

Hikari stuck her arm straight out, starting to pull the trigger… but Misato was already firing.  Just like the rain-soaked rooftop, her finger kept squeezing, the gun kicking in her grip over and over again as she screamed with frustration and fear.  Unlike the rooftop, however, each round found its mark.  Two bullets caught the girl in the upper chest… one hit her in the crook of the arm, severing it at the elbow… and two took her in the throat, sending her to the ground with a horribly dull, wet thud.

Stillness.

Misato stood panting in the sudden quiet, her ears reporting the reverberating echoes of the conclusion to her deadly, final conversation. Slowly, she approached the girl, her senses drinking in every minute detail of the scene.  Hikari's dress had torn in the back where the hollow-points had punched through her thin body.  Part of her right shoulder was gone, Misato noticed, and one of the bullets had penetrated her sixth and seventh rib, pulverizing her heart in a millisecond.

She was dead, Misato knew, before she fell to the ground.

"Retribution…" the woman whispered, closing her eyes as a starling chirped merrily in a nearby tree.  "Friendship… loyalty."  She opened her eyes and regarded the girl, kneeling at her side and slowly closing her staring eyes.  "Were there more words that meant something to you, Hikari?" she asked softly.  "Strength?  Honesty, maybe?"  She swallowed, the smell of lilacs nearly overpowering her.  "Love…?  What was my word going to be?"

With great care, she reached down and engaged the safety on the pistol in Hikari's hand, flinching as her loose grip allowed the weapon to fall to the ground.  She closed her eyes, shuddering as she spotted two coins resting like tired children in the palm of the girl's hand.

"For me?" Misato choked out, "Or you, Hikari?  You knew I would come for you, didn't you?"  She glanced at the gun.  "Is it even loaded?"

With hands that would not stop shaking, Misato set her firearm to the side and reached out, plucking the coins from the girl's still hand and resting them carefully over her eyes.

"God have mercy on your soul," she whispered, tears of shame and helplessness running freely down her face to patter onto the girl's light blue school jumper.  "I'd ask for mercy for my own," she gasped, her shoulders starting to hitch as the sound of distant sirens reached her ears, drawn, no doubt, by reports of gunfire in the otherwise quiet, still morning, "but I… I…"

Unable to contain her emotions any longer, Misato loosed a wretched sob, putting her face in her hands to block out the young girl's now-peaceful features as she wept.  The dead had been avenged, and justice had been served… and she had killed a fourteen year old girl whose greatest flaw was loving too deeply.

No, she realized hollowly, there would be no mercy for her sin-stained soul.

So when they continued asking him, he lifted up himself, and said unto them, He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.

  John 8:7

The End

Author's notes: no real notes… just pre-read thanks and acknowledgements.  This story was handled by Lord Malachite, Ryoma, Ignatz, and Kovenant – all of whom were invaluable in making sure that it was in character, plausible, and entertaining.  My hat's off to each one of them, because doing all that was a lot of work. -_-  Special thanks to the master of noir/mystery/suspense LeperMessiah for raking the story over the coals and picking it apart for months on end, relentlessly ruining my self-esteem and bringing me to the verge of tears by repeatedly saying 'nah, dude that sucks – fix that part.'  It would have been a much more straightforward story if not for his punk ass.  I blame him for making this project take so long (8 months, thank you very much) and for tearing away the very last lingering shred of my sanity. 

Special thanks is also going out to Karina Kineshi, who said, "The reason I didn't catch the Charon/coin reference is because your research is wrong.  In fact, people are supposed to place a coin in the mouth and underneath the tongue of the corpse. Not on the eyes because when the soul magically got up it was feared the coin would fall." Thanks for reminding me that when it comes to mythology, you are the master and I am not.  _

Feedback is always welcome at random1377@yahoo.com