Disclaimer: All rights belong to Gainax.
"Ah, a butterfly…" Ritsuko watched the winged insect leave the flower it fed from. It took to the air, flying to a safer place as the woman walked by with her boyfriend not far behind. "It's been a long time since I saw one."
"It's because you're always so busy." Shinji smiled at her when she turned around. "When you work really hard I guess it's easy to miss the stuff you don't really care about."
"I like animals, Shinji." She shared his smile as they walked through the park. "I always did. If I wasn't so interested in biology then I probably wouldn't have even considered genetics."
Ritsuko pointed at a spot ahead and her boyfriend walked by her to lay out the blanket he had tucked under his arm. Gently, he spread it out and laid it down right in the shade of the tree she leaned on. He placed the basket on top of the blanket and his girlfriend watched as he pulled out the lunch he made in advance.
They were having a picnic.
She approached him with the idea after dinner and, though the fallout with his guardian was still on his mind, he was happy to go. He never went on a picnic before and neither did she, but the basic concept of it wasn't too hard to work out.
The weather report promised a sky full of sun and it was exactly what they got. The only thing that shielded them from the rays was the solitary tree behind her, but the weather was perfect for eating outside.
Another line was crossed off her mental checklist. She already picked a good spot, there were only one or two people around, and Shinji was with her. The only thing she had left to worry about was the food and the wrapped-up sandwiches he pulled out the basket were small promises that everything would be alright.
"You're right about working too hard." Ritsuko strolled over to him after he finished laying out all the food he brought. "I even feel kind of underdressed without my lab coat…"
"Not at all." Shinji titled his head, offering her a smile along with a sandwich as he looked up at her. "You look really nice in that."
"T-This…?" She blushed, bowing her head not only to hide the red on her face but to glance at the sundress she wore. It was something she bought for date she ended up not going on. It rested in the back of the closet, a cream-colored traitor in the midst of stark white lab coats, sleeveless blouses, and knee-length skirts. "This is old. I…" She couldn't stop blushing. "It was by chance that I found it."
"I'm glad you did."
"Y-You're awfully forward today…"
"Ha," He shook his head after she accepted the sandwich. "It's just the truth, that's all. It reminds me of when we first met."
Ritsuko frowned. "I wasn't wearing-"
"I know, I know. Whenever I see you dressed differently, it reminds me of the first time I saw you." Shinji interrupted before she misunderstood him. "Do you remember? Misato got lost so she had to call you. I was so busy looking around that I didn't notice someone was in front of me."
"Yeah…" The doctor sighed, she remembered the rest well. "You bumped into me and we both fell into the pool. I was pretty angry—and I could have sworn your hand went somewhere it wasn't supposed to be."
"I apologized for that three weeks straight…"
"You don't understand." Ritsuko took a deep breath, sighing before shaking her head from side to side. "That's how long it took for everyone to stop cracking their jokes behind my back, too. I walked into rooms and people snickered till I left but, now that I look back on it, NERV…"
"Wasn't all that bad…?" He wondered, looking at her to see if she agreed his sentiment.
"It really wasn't. Not at the beginning, that is." She took a bite out of his sandwich and silently thanked every god she could think of before taking another. "It was work and I'm a scientist. Research and maintenance … Optimizing and calculating… It was a world inside itself, Shinji. I lost myself in theories and number crunching, but it was what I wanted…"
"Why though?" He put off eating his own sandwich as he stared at her.
"I was distracting myself." She had no lies to tell or secrets to hide. "I wasn't working for money. I wasn't working to prove that I was better than my mother… I knew all along that I was my own person. I just…"
Ritsuko sighed again, slightly shaking her head as she reflected on the darkest days of her life. "I just realized that what I was doing wasn't what I thought it was. I wasn't doing work for the good of the world. I began to see that everything… everything I strived for every day was just apart of his agenda but I couldn't just stop."
"Why?" His own lunch was halted, his question asked before he could quiet the desire to know. "Why did you keep going if you were unhappy?"
"Because he was the only one that saw me…"
While her co-workers pranced around chatting about what they were going to do on their days off, she was deciphering equations that looked like riddles and putting off sleep in hopes of figuring them out. When everyone was gone for the night, she was in front of a computer reviewing data that other people simply didn't care about. She did her work alone and didn't even notice she was lonely until she realized she had no one to talk to and no one to go home with.
She knew why.
It was because she was Doctor Akagi. She was the blonde bitch that couldn't take a joke, the woman that always put people to sleep with her explanations, the queen of ice who had a shoulder so cold that people left her notes instead of talking to her… It was a persona, an image she projected by mistake but used to sink herself even deeper into her work.
"I can't even remember how it started…" Ritsuko leaned back, the heel of her shoe digging into the grass as she stretched out. "I was working one day and he asked me if I was hungry…" The fondness the memory instilled in her brought out a smile regardless of the things that happened. "He asked me if I was alright."
"Was it before I came?" Shinji started eating again, his reluctance to ask questions something that failed to appear thanks to her expression. "I didn't really notice until you… uh… said something about it."
His girlfriend nodded. "Yes, it started way before then and I wasn't exactly trying to flaunt it. I was just lonely. I guess being smart doesn't do anything for you when you're vulnerable."
"Don't put it like that…" Shinji moved closer to her, the gap of space between them filled as she leaned into him.
"No sense in denying it. People do things they normally wouldn't do when they're lonely…" She thought for a while, the head she rested on his shoulder lifted as she was struck by a thought. "Hey."
He pulled another sandwich out of the basket before responding. "Yes?"
"Shinji…" She blinked, mystified that she never thought to mention it before. "Your father. It didn't bother you that I… murdered him?"
"It did." He went back to his sandwich, his indifference noted as he started eating again. "Well, I cared but I was more—I don't know—I guess surprised that you killed him. I kind of figured that he had some secret way out or something, but I never would have guessed that he was trying to start Third Impact…" He stopped to remember how he felt before speaking again. "To tell the truth, I was more worried about Rei than my father. I just kept telling myself that you did it to stop them."
"Then why didn't you get angry at me? Why did you do… that for me right after I told you?
"You were like me." Shinji placed aside the half-eaten sandwich before laying down, his eyes directed at nothing but the pretty blue above. "I saw you that night and I wanted to do something. I had to do something. I wanted to make something right for once…"
"Shinji…" She laid down beside him, her lunch finished as she smiled at he same sky he looked at. "I believe you. I really do but…" Her smile died a little as she turned towards him. "If you're angry at me even a little then-"
"I'm not. Honest." His voice was soft, his tone affectionate as he reached for and grabbed her hand. "I didn't necessarily feel good about it but, that day, I learned something important… You were going to cry yourself to sleep but you woke up the next morning happy. You woke up and smiled at me even though you felt so sad the night before. I was kind of envious… but I was really happy. It made me happy when you smiled and I knew then that it was something that I could do, too. Sometimes it feels like my mistakes creep up on me but you taught me to keep looking forward."
He drew another blush, the praise he showered her with more than enough to flatter her even as it lifted the old weight that was on her heart. It was not that he forgave her. He couldn't forgive her because the wrong she committed wasn't against him. Instead, he openly accepted the wrong along with the right and acknowledged that things just happened. Good people did bad things the same way bad people did good. What she did was bad but he knew she was a good person. There was enough comfort in his understanding to lull her to sleep but she was so grateful that all she could do was smile.
The cloud that held back the sun's radiance passed by and its rays filtered through the tree branches to land on them. Shinji sat up, the shadow he cast on his girlfriend blocking out the sunlight as he matched her smile with his own. "I miss Rei and I wish I could have gotten to know my father better, but you saved us. You did do it out of spite but no one can argue about the end result."
It was hard to believe she taught him how to aspire for the future considering she often believed herself to be stuck in the past. It didn't seem too long ago when she just Naoko's daughter instead of Ritsuko or Doctor Akagi herself. She spent so much time trying to get away from her mother that she didn't even notice how similar she really was to her. It was because of her ignorance that she never set her sights on nothing more than the work on her table or another late dinner with the commander.
No, she didn't teach him anything at all. He just misunderstood her and turned it into something positive. It was subtle way to cheer up, so subtle that he didn't even notice he was doing it. He was doing it solely for her sake because he loved her.
Ritsuko closed her eyes and briefly basked in the bare sensation, the feeling that enveloped her every time he smiled at her. "It was because you were there. It's only because you were with me…"
Another butterfly fluttered by and a friendly spring breeze touched them, ruffling her dress and his hair as it passed by. Birds called to each other as she opened her eyes and admired not only the day but the fact that she was even alive, the fact that she finally had what she always wanted.
If she had known in advance that Shinji of all people would suit her the best then…
As she laced her hands behind her head, Ritsuko decided she didn't have any regrets or any more lingering feelings from the things that happened. It was precisely because things happened the way they did that they came together the way they did. There were certainly things that made her sad, but she was happy. She was finally happy.
"Do you want to play?" Her lover pulled a deck of cards out of his pocket after posing a question he didn't even have to ask.
"Shinji…" She nodded, the invitation to a game something that touched her because of memories of solitaire. "I love you."
"Huh? How did you break your phone…?"
Shinji scratched the side of his face as he kneeled to give the tray of milk to the cats. He was tired of lying, but another confrontation was something he didn't want at all. A white lie was still a lie but it was just something he'll have to lay on his conscious until he could make it up to her.
"I dropped it." He sighed a little upon remembering how hard his guardian threw it at the floor. "Well, I dropped it kind of hard…"
"It's alright. I'm just glad you brought it up but," Ritsuko took off her apron and placed it on the back of a chair. "You should have let me know earlier. We could have got you another one on the way back here."
"It's alright…" He stood back up and went back to the sink to finish washing dishes. "I'm kind of glad it's gone. I mean I still used to get nervous when people called me but at least I'll be able to get a better one now."
"You can let me get it…" She suggested as she dragged her fingers across the apron that rested on the chair. It was a gift that he gave her last year for no particular reason or, at least, that was what he said. It didn't take her genius to realize the reason he bought it was because she got sauce on her coat the day before but that wasn't really why he got it. It wasn't a gift born from necessity but, instead, just the general idea that it would be helpful, the touching thought that he could do something for her. "You want one that can play music, right?"
"Oh, you don't have to worry about that." He finished, grabbing a towel to dry his hands before rolling his sleeves back down. "I'm sorry that I forgot to tell you, but I was really trying to ask if I could use yours."
"To call her?"
"Yeah," Shinji nodded, tossing the towel on the table before he neared Ritsuko. "I'm still going to go see how she's doing tomorrow but I wanted to check-"
"She already made her decision. If she doesn't want our help then there's nothing we can do for her." The blonde pulled back the hand she extended to him and the phone along with it. "If she wants to be alone then let her be alone."
"Ritsuko… She's not alone." Her boyfriend reminded her. "I just thought it'd be good if I left her by herself for a little while but I'm not going to give up on her. Can I please use your phone?"
She watched his eyebrows rise for a moment, confusion then disbelief setting in as he stared at her with wide eyes. He was stunned, shocked that she denied him something as simple as a phone call, but she was making her stand once and for all.
"She left. She went over there on her own power. She doesn't need our help, Shinji. I don't even think she wants it." Ritsuko turned around, leaving the kitchen in favor of the living room as she walked away. "You said yourself that you'd give her a day to calm down."
"That didn't mean that I didn't want to know how she was doing."
She spun around to face the boy that followed her. "What happened to not wanting to be her crutch?"
"I just want to know if she's alright…" He stopped in front of her, making eye contact as he tried again. "I know you don't want me to talk to her. I understand that, but isn't she still your friend? Wouldn't you understand how she feels more-"
"Don't." She started with an edge to her voice. "Don't try to make it seem like she's the most pitiful person in the world because she's not. I told her to get some rest and she didn't listen. I gave her a room to sleep in and she left. I gave her my clothes, I kept her company, and I'm the one who watched over her for months when she was practically an invalid."
"I never got a thank you. All I got from her was spite and that's all she is going to give you." Ritsuko continued her monologue, growing angrier the more she thought about the woman she resented. "She just wants you to pity her, Shinji. She wants you to feel sorry for her so she can drag you down to her level. Do you want to let her pull you down with her?"
"Misato doesn't think of you as Shinji. She thinks she owns you. She thinks that Shinji is something that belongs to her and all she wants to do is use you as a trophy. I told you this before." The doctor took a deep breath and let it go as she shook her head. "I explained this to you but you don't understand. You just don't-"
"I do." He interrupted her softly, his silence lifted in an effort to make her see where he was coming from. "I know you think I like Misato more. I know you think you can't compare with her. I know that you don't even mean half the things you say about her."
When Misato got angry, she got livid. She'd throw things, call people names, and even draw her handgun if she had it on her. He knew that because he experienced her anger before. He saw her get mad a lot of times but it was only when she was enraged that she twisted words and intentionally gave them edges sharp enough to cut. It was impossible to talk to her when she got that mad, but Ritsuko was different.
His girlfriend was always cool. She was cool when she was happy, when she was sad, but especially when she was angry. Instead of being loud, she whispered. Instead of moving about a room, she opted to stay in one place. If Misato was like a steady flow of lava, then Ritsuko was like poison on the silverware. Both of them dangerous in their own right, but he could never quite see where the blonde was coming from until it was too late.
"No," She countered, her voice low as she narrowed her eyes at him. "I do mean every single thing I say about her, I am better than her, and if you didn't love me more than her then you wouldn't be here right now."
She didn't have any doubts about her confidence anymore and wouldn't address them even if she did. Misato, at least the one he knew, wasn't a person. His Misato was a concept. His Misato was the person he wanted her to be superimposed on the flawed reality and it was with that thought that she relented. If he wanted to talk to his guardian, she'll let him do it.
"You know what?" Ritsuko walked up to him and held out her cell phone. "I take it back. Call her."
"Okay…" He was wary, slow to accept the phone from someone he knew was stubborn. There had to be a reason. She was trying to show him something by letting him talk to his guardian. There was a lesson to be learned, but all he wanted to do was check on Misato. He took it. "Thanks."
"You're welcome." She replied before leaving for her bedroom, her interest in being around him while he spoke to his guardian little to none.
Shinji watched her walked away as he held the phone up to his ear. He listened, patient as it rung twice and then four times. It was after the fifth when she picked up. "Hello? Misato, it's me. I just wanted to know if you were—Huh?"
She hung up.
"She hung up already?" Ritsuko returned with a lit cigarette. "I'm surprised she even picked up."
Shinji didn't say anything as he hit redial, the sound of the numbers being pressed greeting him in place of the dial tone. He waited, tapping his foot as his girlfriend took a drag from her cigarette.
"I told you." She repeated herself after shaking off the ash into the tray she held. "She thinks of you as an object. If you are not hers then she doesn't want or need you."
Shinji lowered the phone after realizing she wasn't going to answer again but he still had something he wanted to know. "How can you talk about each other like that?" He flipped her cell phone close and sighed as he looked at her. "I… I knew Misato would start hating me sooner or later, but I thought you two would understand each other. I thought you would be able to help her more than I could, Ritsuko…"
"You thought wrong." She was clinically cold, her eyes as harsh as her words as she took another drag from her cigarette. "I honestly don't care. If it makes her feel any better then let her keep calling me a bitch. Frankly, she can call me whatever she wants but the truth is that I'm the one that's here and, if you keep crawling back to her, you're going to become exactly what she wants you to be."
Ritsuko titled her head to the side, his sight following the direction she nodded in until he saw the wheelchair his guardian left behind. "A crutch? She leaned on you long before you even noticed it, probably long before she even slept with you." She blew out a faint, gray cloud. "That's what you'll become…"
She'd used him when he was convenient. She'd use him, but he wasn't something she really needed. Her point was made with pinpoint accuracy and Shinji could only stare at the rejected wheelchair in silence. He didn't want to become something like that… He swore on his life he'd take care of Misato but at what cost?
"She broke your cell phone, didn't she? After I called you?"
He was caught in a lie.
"I…" He felt something similar to a lump in his throat, guilt making it hard for him to talk. "I dropped it."
"She got angry when it rung and took it from you." Shrewd eyes gazed at him as she smoked. She knew something just didn't sound right about him being careless like that especially when he usually went out of his way to take care of his stuff. It wasn't difficult to put the truth together when there was only one reason he would lie. "Just think about it. You're trying to protect someone that broke your phone and then hung up on you when you tried calling her."
"She was angry and… I didn't mean to lie to you. It's just-"
"You didn't want me to get mad at her?" She finished his sentence for him. "I'm not mad. I was never mad at her. I'm just sad that she doesn't understand that things have changed."
"Ritsuko…" All he could think about was the wheelchair. "I just want to help her. That's all I-"
"That's good." She took another drag from her cigarette. "Really, that's good Shinji, but what do you think she wants? She doesn't want you. She doesn't care about Shinji. All she wants is someone to play boyfriend with her. She is the type of woman that feels like she needs a man around so the best you can do for her is leave her alone."
"Are you sure?" He looked pensive, the things she said continuing to register in his mind as he looked down in thought. "Are you really sure that's the best thing to do?"
Ritsuko turned to walk towards the ash tray and smiled as she tapped her cigarette on top of it. She did it. She finally got him to see things her way and, at the same time, she got a few more days to spend alone with him.
"Shinji," She said his name sweetly, her first cigarette in months put out before she turned back around to face him. "Give her a few more days. If she was angry enough to hang up on you, do you really think she'll want to talk to you tomorrow or even the day after that?"
She weaved her web and caught him in it. The potential to pull him even further away from Misato was there, but she had more important things to think about. Satisfied that she stole him away from his guardian for at least another day or two, Ritsuko was quick to close the distance between them.
Author's note: Just a little more to go… You can do it, CF!