Disclaimer: I don't own EVA. If the owners say to, I'll take this story offline. Thanks.
The tall, open hallways of NERV headquarters offered little for small sounds like footsteps to echo off of, a fact that Rei Ayanami, having spent much of her childhood in and around that structure, knew all too well. She never really paid the silence much mind, in all honesty, but on the day she ran into Ryouji Kaji, she found herself particularly aware of her surroundings.
A factor, perhaps, in what would contribute to the events of the next three months.
It was 7:55 by Rei's watch, a finely crafted timepiece the Commander had insisted on giving her for her '14th' birthday, and though NERV employed thousands of technicians and scientists and workers of all kinds, the layout of the complex was big enough that the First Child met no one between the Pribnow box and the elevator bank.
And so, when the elevator doors slid open to reveal a lone occupant, Rei considered it nothing more than a chance encounter.
"Good evening, Mister Kaji."
Kaji stepped to the side, making more room for the pilot, though he really did not need to. The elevators in NERV Central were designed to handle bulk freight, and up to 55 people at a time. With two people, the only way there could be uncomfortable closeness would be for one of them to deliberately impinge on the other's space.
Rei stepped onto the elevator and turned to face the doors, letting her arms hang lifelessly at her sides rather than folding or swinging them nervously as many young women alone in an elevator with an older man might. She had nothing to fear. She was worthless. She was replaceable.
Even if Kaji abruptly slit her throat from behind, Rei would find herself in NERV's hospital with a new body, and only a slight lapse in her memory to show for it.
The First Child had no reason to fear anything.
"I saw your sync scores," Kaji said casually, leaning back against the rear of the elevator and folding his arms over his chest. "You're up several points. Congratulations."
Knowing that some kind of reply was expected, Rei gave a curt nod.
Kaji chuckled softly. "Do you think you could turn around?" he asked levelly. "It's a long ride to the surface… and as charming as I find your backside, I'd rather spend the time talking than staring at it."
Though she did not appreciate the sarcasm, Rei complied, turning to face the man, but saying nothing as the elevator clicked off floor after floor in its slow ascent.
Kaji allowed the staring contest to go on for several minutes before softly clearing his throat.
"It's been a tough time lately, huh?"
"Yes… there have been a lot of angels."
"Are you holding up ok?"
"Of course. If I were not, I would not be allowed to continue piloting."
Considering the girl for a moment, Kaji tried to decide what to make of her. They had never really had much of a chance to interact, but anyone with a shred of common sense could tell after two conversations that the First Child did not get out much. The second conversation, he mused, was necessary to understand that you had not offended or upset her in the first conversation.
Rei was simply Rei – and those who could not deal with her abrupt, reclusive nature tended to end up avoiding or disliking her.
Kaji, however, had an inkling of the girl's true nature – not a firm grasp, as of yet, but at least an idea that behind those placid red eyes lurked a terrible secret. And secrets… were Kaji's forte.
"Have you eaten yet?"
"No," Rei replied honestly, "I have not."
"I was just heading out to get something…would you care to join me?"
Rei considered this for a moment. At her apartment, all that awaited her was packaged ramen and a few pieces of fruit she had picked up last weekend… overripe, no doubt, by then. Nothing in the Commander's orders forbade her from eating with others, and while she did not know Mister Kaji very well, she certainly did not have any reason to avoid his invitation. Besides which, she was terribly hungry.
The decision, she found, was rather easy to make.
"I would not mind."
"Great," Kaji said easily. "No meat, right?"
Glancing at him from the corner of her eye, Rei replied, "Correct. How did you know that I dislike meat?"
Kaji waved a hand dismissively. "Katsuragi told me," he said lightly, "we talk sometimes you know."
They said nothing more as the elevator continued to rise, delivering them finally at the surface level.
"Is Italian agreeable to you, Miss Ayanami?"
Rei fell in step at Kaji's side as he started towards the main entrance to NERV headquarters. "I have no preference," she said calmly.
"Have you ever had it?" Kaji returned, determined to strike up a lasting conversation.
"Yes," Rei answered, keeping her answer straightforward.
"What do you like best?"
"I do not have any preference."
"…do you have preferences on anything, Rei?"
"Not many things."
Kaji let the conversation go for the time being, reasoning that he would have better luck after getting to the restaurant. Rei had undergone several rather lengthy tests, he knew, so perhaps she would be in a more talkative mood once she had a chance to relax a bit and get some food into her.
Then again, Rei was Rei, so the odds were not in Kaji's favor.
The ride to the restaurant was spent in relative silence, with Rei staring out of the car window at the darkened streets outside, and Kaji respecting her obvious lack of interest in talking. He brought her to one of his favorite restaurants, parking the car nearby and holding the door for her to allow her to precede him inside. Once inside, he got them a table by pressing a twenty into the matre de's hand and talking to him as if they were old friends.
As the man said that, shockingly, they just had a table for two open up, Kaji noticed that Rei's eyes were lingering on the man's hand. He waited until they were seated, and the matre de was out of earshot, before saying, "You don't approve?"
Rei lifted her menu. "It is not my business," she said quietly, giving the items a cursory glance before setting the menu back down.
"Maybe not," Kaji pressed lightly, "but I'd like to know."
"Then, no," Rei said simply. "I do not approve of bribery."
Kaji laced his hands together and leaned a little closer. "Interesting," he murmured, "may I ask why?"
Rei met the man's gaze without blinking. "It is immoral," she said flatly. "By using money to influence the host's decisions, you are affecting the wait time of the other patrons."
Smiling faintly, Kaji replied, "The wait was over an hour, and I heard your stomach rumbling in the car. Tell me, was it better to let you go hungry, or slip the guy a little spending money to make sure you're taken care of?"
"I could have waited," Rei said, calmly taking a sip of her water.
"Well," Kaji said dryly, "we can always get up and give our seats to someone who's been waiting a while, if it would make you feel better."
Rei set her glass down and glanced at her menu again. "As I said before," she whispered, "it is not my business, Mister Kaji."
Before Kaji could reply, the waitress showed up to take their order. Kaji ordered linguine and a beer. Rei ordered plain spaghetti.
Water seemed to be fine with her.
Kaji regarded the girl for a moment. She did not seem concerned or uncomfortable in any way – an impressive display, really. After all, most teenage girls eating dinner with a grown man in a cozy booth in an expensive Italian restaurant would be a bit unnerved, be it out of infatuation or the simple knowledge that the person sitting across from them was their superior in physical stature and (most likely) experience.
Rei, however, sat calmly, waiting for her meal to arrive and staring fixedly at the table in front of her.
It was this last detail that got Kaji's mind working once more.
"Nice place, huh?" he said lightly, watching the girl closely for any reaction.
"It is fine," Rei replied, looking for a moment at the back of her hand before returning her gaze to the table.
"Have you even looked around?"
Rei lifted her eyes, staring at Kaji for a moment before bluntly replying, "Because I do not want to."
Leaning forward, Kaji said, "Why not, Rei?"
"Because I… do not," Rei said slowly, "there is no other reason."
"You're not curious at all?"
"Why would I be?"
Kaji scratched his chin. "Well," he said carefully, "most people your age – no, wait, most people period – like to take in their surroundings when they go somewhere new."
"Oh," Rei said disinterestedly. "I do not."
At this, Kaji very nearly gave up and let the girl sit in silence.
He had hoped to perhaps get on her good side and slip in a few subtle questions on the EVAs, and herself, if possible… but the longer he stared at her expressionless face, the more he began to wonder if she had a good side to get on. The Commander had trained her well, it seemed, leaving Kaji wondering if she was even capable of normal interaction.
"So," he said, throwing the dismal thoughts out of a mental window, "do you date, Rei? I know the life of a pilot is a busy one, but I'm sure there's room for at least a little extracurricular activity, right?"
"There is," Rei admitted slowly, "but I do not date."
Keeping his eyes on her face, Kaji murmured, "Is there anyone you wish you could date?"
Rei's face tightened slightly, Kaji thought – a flicker of emotion that passed so quickly he was no even sure he saw it.
"It is immaterial," the First said dismissively.
"Human affection is never immaterial," Kaji shot back. "Are you uncomfortable discussing this with me?"
"No," Rei said immediately, "because there is nothing to discuss."
Rei, Kaji noticed, was being stubborn – not blatantly, he mused, but she was definitely digging in for a prolonged verbal siege… so Kaji attacked from another direction, approaching the conversation like a puzzle with a difficult, obscure solution.
"Would you go on a date with Shinji, if he asked?"
Again, Rei's reply was immediate.
"He would not."
"But if he did?"
"He would n-"
"But if he did?"
Rei's mouth – still open in denial of the idea of Shinji asking her on a date – slowly closed. She stared at Kaji for a long, long minute, her eyes betraying no hint of what might be going on in her mind, and as the waitress set their meals in front of them, Kaji realized that Rei was not going to speak again. She had uttered her final word on the subject, and no matter how he pressed, he was not going to get a better response.
Thanking the waitress, he turned to Rei and said, "You know what you remind me of?"
"Mm hmm – a bird that hasn't left the nest yet. You have wings, and you can fly… but you keep them folded up against you, because you're afraid of getting hurt. You'll be taken care of for as long as you want – the nest is safe – but if you don't stand on the edge and spread your wings a bit, you'll always be trapped inside of it."
What Rei thought of this analogy, Kaji could not be sure, as she simply nodded and picked up her fork, turning her full attention to her dinner.
Smiling faintly, Kaji dug his fork into his noodles, spinning it around for a moment before whispering, "You know that Shinji cares about you, don't you? I've seen the way he looks at you."
Rei set her fork down. "He should not," she said, surprising Kaji with the candidness of her reply, "I am self-sufficient. I do not need others to worry for me."
"Maybe not," Kaji admitted, "but you can't make them stop, either. If you take a look around at the people in your life, I think you'll be surprised to see how many care for you… regardless of whether they need to or not."
Nodding once more, Rei picked her fork back up and resumed eating.
The rest of the meal was held in silence.
Rei declined Kaji's offer for a ride home, pointing out that there was a train station less than a block away, and that she was well used to riding it. She gave him a polite bow, but before she could leave, Kaji put a hand on her shoulder and gazed into her eyes.
"What good are folded wings?" he asked lightly, shrugging as he turned away from the quiet teen. "I'll let you get going now, Miss Ayanami. Thank you for joining me for dinner." Hesitating, he gave her a considering glance over his shoulder. "Perhaps you might think about what I've said, some time?"
Though the man was long gone before Rei spoke again, it was still his parting question she replied to before turning towards the train station and starting the long journey home.
Author's Notes: there will be at least one more chapter on this story, and possibly more, depending on motivation and time… though I can't guarantee when they'll be coming, since Rei is rather hard for me to write about without going overboard and having her too emotional or too robotic.
I did not use a pre-reader for this chapter.
Feedback is always welcome on any site with reviewing capabilities, or by e-mailing me directly at random1377(at-sign)yahoo(dot)com.