The Second Other
Disclaimer: I do not own Evangelion.
"Hey, Shinji-kun," Misato called from her room, face down in her futon, "grab me a beer, okay?"
It was just before eleven am on a disgustingly bright and sunny Sunday morning. The blind on her window did little to stem the obnoxious light from invading her room, and Misato briefly considered taping a cardboard sheet over it. But the monumental effort the task would require soured her on the idea almost immediately.
Or she could get Shinji to do it for her.
"Shinji-kun? Where are you?"
Being so early for her on a day off, two things of inescapable merit were realized. First, that she'd need at least two beers before climbing out of bed. Second, those beers would have to be supplied by her de facto maid, one Ikari Shinji.
"Shin-chan," she whined louder. "Where's my beer?"
Her plea was rewarded when she heard her door slide open and tired yet obedient footfalls entered her room. Face down in her futon, Misato blindly hefted one arm out, awaiting the crisp, cool splendor of an unopened beer can. It was a simple pleasure for her, to keep her fingers wrapped around a cold can until they hurt slightly. It made the anticipation that much stronger.
But when nothing met her expectant grasp, she angrily waved her hand up and down.
"Today, Shinji-kun. Geez."
She heard the telltale burp of alcohol being lifted swiftly. Then a sharp hiss of air as the can whipped downwards and slammed into her skull.
"Ahhhh!" Misato screamed, curling into a ball. "God damn it! That hurt!"
"Then next time get it yourself."
The major flipped her blanket off, alarmed by both the utter disgust in the voice that answered her and its unusual pitch. Her bleary, tearing eyes focused on a disheveled mane of fiery red hair.
"You've solved another one, Holmes."
"But… but where's Shinji-kun?"
"Off living on borrowed time." Asuka rubbed her eyes. "That moron must have come home after you were asleep and left before you woke up. He isn't here." The girl eyed the adult in disgust and turned to leave. "Our guardian."
"Hey! I was up working until the dead of night so you can continue to pilot, missy! And—God damn it—I'm bleeding, Asuka! Jesus Christ!"
"Scalp wounds tend to do that. Stop being such a wimp. You wanted a beer and I delivered. Don't complain now." The redhead kept walking.
Lacking her sidearm, Misato opted to launch the closest object at hand at the girl. But by the time she grasped the beer can and oriented her wounded head to the task of hurling said beer can to knock a few teeth out of the Second Children's skull, the redhead was already gone. The can sailed through the apartment, crashing into what could have been last night's dishes in the kitchen.
"Shit," Misato said.
She hobbled out of her room to the kitchen, still clutching her head, stemming the blood flow. It wasn't a bad wound, but the principle was enough to infuriate her. She threw open the freezer and fished out a handful of ice cubes. She winced as she applied them, frowning at the sticky sensation of blood trickling through her hair.
"Spoiled brat," she hissed.
She alternated pressing ice to her head and wiping with her free hand, her eyes cast upwards in a futile attempt to see the wound. When she finally realized that, no, she couldn't detach her eyes from their sockets to look at the top of her skull, she sighed and sat down heavily at the table.
The remnants of last night's meal lay spread before her like a feast of the cold and sour. She had fleeting memories of grabbing an amalgamation of leftovers from the fridge in the small hours of the night, too tired to bother reheating them. She had eaten over the table, cramped with dirty dishes and old food.
The dishes were still there. The sink was practically overflowing, too. Odd. Usually Shinji had taken care of that little chore as soon as it appeared. He seemed to have an allergy to soiled flatware. She wondered why he was shirking his responsibility. While being as far from a stern taskmaster as she could manage, Misato expected certain things done in exchange for her above par guardianship. The chores she doled out to the two teens were far from difficult or time consuming (she made sure of that. She still considered herself entirely too young to have teenage children, and whatever reaffirmed that reality worked for her), but she felt a touch of maturity wasn't asking too much.
As she thought about it, Shinji had been a bit off in the few times they had all been able to be together for dinner. He seemed distracted, and would often not respond to being called. It was true that Misato hadn't been around as often lately; work had been killing her slowly since the Fourteenth Angel incident. NERV was still scrambling for reliable people to delegate duties to, and the major found herself pulling double shifts overseeing the final stages of the reconstruction nearly every day. That, and commander Ikari seemed content to duck out whenever the mood hit him. The man's absence was all but expected lately, ever since the successful activation of the Dummy Plug.
And of course there was Kaji to consider. She swore sometimes that man needed so much attention she'd be better off with Hyuuga.
"He'd love that," Misato said, smirking. "Sorry, but nerd chic isn't my thing."
She checked her wound again, frowning when her fingers came away still smudged with crimson. She cursed Asuka again, hoping for a hell that paid special consideration to arrogant, boastful, catty, bitchy, pain in the ass foreign redheads.
Misato tossed the melting ice cubes in the sink, hearing them clatter down a hill of dishes, and was on her way to spit in Asuka's favorite liter of soda when the front door opened.
Misato frowned, struggling to guess who on earth was coming in so early. She glanced at the clock. Okay, so late.
She heard the stranger take off its shoes, then pad into the apartment. Misato peeked out.
"Shinji-kun?" she asked as the boy walked into the living room. "Um, where were you just now?"
"Oh, just out for a walk," he replied.
"On a Sunday morning?" She shook her head. "Well, whatever. If you really want to ruin your only day off, fine. But leave me a note or something next time. Or at least tell Asuka. Little brat."
"Are you okay? Why are you holding your head like that?"
"Oh, I'm peachy. Your roommate decided to drop a beer can on my head. Great way to wake up." Misato winced as she tenderly probed the wound with her forefinger. "Still bleeding. God damn her." She turned towards Asuka's door. "I'm still bleeding, you little foreign witch! Hope you're having a nice, sound sleep! I really do!"
"It doesn't look too bad," Shinji said, standing on his tip toes to peer at the injury through her hair. "Just a bad knock. A little swelling, and it'll probably be sore for a few days."
Misato peered at him with a raised eyebrow.
"Um… are they teaching you first aid in school now?"
"Oh… no, not really. I just saw a medical documentary on TV the other day." He smiled sheepishly. "I don't really know anything." He paused. "Sorry."
"Well, okay." The major sighed. "Come on. Grab a seat. It's Asuka's turn to cook, so we can expect takeout pretty soon." She rubbed her hands together as she sat. "I hope she'll order from that Thai place again. They had these great little spicy things with a yellow sauce and… Shinji-kun, come on. Keep me company." She patted the spot on the table next to her.
"I… I think I'll stand."
"How come?" She observed the boy. "You okay? You're standing kinda funny. You feeling okay?"
"Oh, yeah. I'm just a little tired. I think I'll actually skip lunch if that's okay. I'm going to go lie down for a bit."
"Oh. Uh, okay. Have a good rest." Misato watched him walk to his room, with a slight hobble. Like he had injured his lower back or tail bone. She stood and fished the beer can from the sink. "Shinji-kun," she called after him. "Make sure you remember to wash these dishes later, okay? They're really piling up."
"Oh, right. Sorry. I must have forgotten."
"Just remember," Misato said, taking a foamy sip. "It's an eyesore."
"Alright; I will." Shinji opened his door, glancing quickly at the placard that read Shin-chan's Suite. He glanced away, shaking his head softly.
"You sure you're okay?" Misato asked again, peering at him out of the corner of her eye.
"Yes," he said, staring at the floor around his feet. "Yes, I'm okay."
The major continued to idly watch him, the beer can tipped up, spilling its contents into her mouth. She watched him, and rolled her eyes. Shinji was always a touch odd. Probably had a rough night. She could commiserate: nightmares were never fun. And she could only imagine what his were like. Especially recently.
"Okay," Misato said, and looked away as he entered his room. His door slid shut, and she lost all thought of him.
Shinji left the bathroom with a sigh, letting his hands rest on the door for several seconds after it was shut. He licked his dry lips, and wiped a fine sheen of sweat from his brow. Was it always supposed to hurt this much?
He looked down at his hand and found it opening and clenching shut repeatedly, like a reflex. His nails scratched the surface of the door. Long, strained screams muffled by pressure and force. He watched his fingers trail down, then flex out. Like a heartbeat. Like a pulse, alien and deafening under his skin, pushing and wrenching until nothing remained.
He looked away. He stared at the door, trying to focus. To focus on the door, made of thin wood, with a silver metallic latch and handle, which led to the small room with the washing machine and hangers to dry clothes on, and a hamper for dirty laundry that hadn't yet went through the washing machine that was in the small room with the hangers that was enclosed by the thin wooden door with the silver metallic latch and handle that—
—led to a surprisingly spacious walk-in bathroom with a sunken tub and a drain in the middle of a tile floor that was rusted with heavy use but it only added to the charm of the apartment because at the moment they couldn't afford too much but it was still nice and lovely and homey yes homey was the word they had decided on and—
"Shinji. Idiot. Stupid pervert."
A slap on the back of his head.
"What?" he asked.
"Move," Asuka barked, standing behind him with arms crossed over her robe, stamping one foot in frustration. She heaved an impressive sigh.
When he made no action to fulfill her wish, she gripped his thin arms and forcibly shoved him to the side.
"God," the redhead growled. "You've been such a flake lately. Now get out of my way. Or does the great and invincible Shinji-sama need to monopolize the bathroom for another hour?"
Shinji blinked rapidly.
"Oh, sorry." He stared at her glaring face. "Asuka. Sorry, Asuka."
"Whatever. God, what were you doing in there anyway?" she asked, her voice mildly tinged with disgust. "It sounded like you were passing a boulder."
"Oh, I'm just a bit constipated," he said. "I must have eaten some bad meat or something. Sorry."
"Whatever," she said, turning up her nose. "It better not stink in there."
She left with a flash of red hair, slamming the door shut behind her.
The thin wooden door with the silver metallic latch and handle and—
Shinji shook his head. He sighed again.
He was tired. Sleep didn't seem to be restful anymore, ever since he returned from his month long stay inside Unit-01. He had been amazed when he found out an entire month had slipped past him. It didn't seem possible. How could he survive thirty days with no food or water? Had he eaten the LCL? The thought turned his stomach. Consuming something that smelled so much like blood…
The first time I ever bled I was so scared I thought I was broken and I didn't tell anyone but my aunt found the red clothes because I was staying with her at the time and she explained it was natural and a part of growing up and—
He looked up.
"Shinji-kun?" Misato said again. She was sitting at the kitchen table, hunched over a newspaper. "Are you okay? You look… I don't know, far away. Feeling alright?"
"Yeah… yeah, just…" He shook his head. "I'm okay."
"Okay. Good." She observed him for a moment. "Shinji-kun? Um… you said you'd get to them today…"
"Dishes, Shinji-kun," Misato said with a sigh. "The dishes in the sink? You said you'd clean them. They're already piling up something fierce."
"Oh. Oh, right. Sorry. I forgot."
"Well please do it. And please remember next time. I don't want to have to keep reminding you and the little baroness about your chores."
"Right. Sorry." He stopped in mid stride towards the kitchen. He felt a chill wet sticky patch on the seat of his pants. It made his blood run cold. He swallowed. "Um, could I do it later? I'm still pretty tired, and I have a headache, but I promise I'll remember this time, okay?"
Misato sighed again. The nervous smile, the anxious fidgeting, the pathetic submissiveness… she'd missed it. She'd missed him.
"Sure," she said. "But I'm holding you to it, okay?" She smiled.
"Okay." He backed away from her, holding his hands over his pants. He reached his room by blindly bumping into the door, and fumbled for the handle.
"Shinji-kun," the major said, not looking at him. "You have a synch test scheduled for tomorrow morning, alright?" She waited, tightlipped, for a response. His scores had been slipping recently, and while he was still higher than Asuka or Rei, he was on an unmistakable downward slope. She honestly had no idea as to how he was taking it. "It's early, so get some rest, okay?"
"Sure," came the reply. Then a door sliding shut. Then silence.
Then Asuka leaving the bathroom, still in her robe. She looked around slowly, then finally settled on Misato.
"Where's Shinji?" the redhead asked.
"In his room. Why?"
"Just…" Her eyes trailed to his door. "Is he… okay?"
"Yeah." Misato glanced up. "Again, why?"
Asuka shook her head and scoffed dismissively.
"Because the bathroom smells like dead cattle." She left for her room. Her door slammed shut.
"Teenagers," Misato said, rolling her eyes. She turned back to the newspaper.
The drive to NERV the next day was slow and silent. The city was still in the final reconstruction phase after the Fourteenth's attack, and traffic was periodically halted due to detours and road crews. Despite their conspicuousness in the last few weeks, Misato was still unsettled as she drove past them. This city was supposed to be a stronghold, a castle, where the demons of the outside world couldn't harm them. It was arrogant, but keeping the company she did it was hard not to be a little cocky.
But it was nothing but hubris that made me think an Angel could never touch us.
Misato stopped at a red light, and glanced at the two children behind her in the rearview mirror. Shinji was staring out the window. Asuka was stewing. No surprises there. She'd been moody and irritable ever since the last battle. She hadn't even bothered to visit Unit-01 the entire month Shinji was gone. Even Rei had made the trip once, quietly watching the mech from a high gantry.
The redhead had spent the entire month at home, no doubt beating herself up for her perceived failure, at least until she was able to beat Shinji up for it.
Misato sighed. Her makeshift family was coming apart. Things had never reached a point where they felt completely natural around one another, but it was better than being alone. For all of them. Misato knew she wasn't cut out for isolation, and the less said about Shinji's abandonment issues the better. And Asuka, despite her sharp tongue and public disdain for her roommates, craved constant attention and reinforcement. In a way, they were all using each other. But for Misato, at least, that was okay. She didn't have a good model for a happy home to begin with.
She was trying her best here, she really was, but lately things had been so… strained. Restrained hostility. Misato knew she wasn't being as attentive as she should be, but the elusive truth Kaji had opened her eyes to seemed to be just within her reach. She could taste it. The truth, about Second Impact, the Angels, the Evas, the world, everything. She wanted to know, she had to know. What the fearsome power of the Evangelion truly was meant for. Why the Angels kept attacking Tokyo-3. Why her father was killed. And what fate mankind was fighting so desperately for.
And while pursuing one goal, all others fell to the wayside. She knew she was never cut out to be a parent. It was a firmly cemented fact in her mind. She liked kids; she always smiled at infants in town, and waved when they looked her way. But the responsibility of molding a human being terrified her. What if she did something wrong? What if they were traumatized, or hurt, or taught wrong?
What if they turned out just like her?
Misato wished she was a more compassionate person. She wished she could be there for Shinji and Asuka, listen to them, console them, love them. But if mankind and NERV continued on the path before them nothing she did would matter anyway. She wanted to believe she was fighting for them, for a better future, for a world that didn't depend on children to further itself. That was the overriding truth she told herself whenever she couldn't sleep at night. It was for them. All for them.
She glanced back at the children again. Asuka was still seething, barely managing to put up a sociable façade. Shinji was still staring out the window, outwardly lost. Misato frowned in worry. He seemed to be doing that a lot lately. Zoning out. She couldn't blame him. So many things had gone to hell recently.
She wished he'd open up to her. And at the same time she desired it, she thanked whatever dead God spawned mankind that he never did. She couldn't think of anything she could tell him to make Shinji feel better. Ever since he came back, she'd been careful around him, wearing kid gloves, not wanting to frighten or excite him. There was just a tiny, nagging doubt that quietly snarled in the back of her mind. That after he was dissolved inside that monster and devoured an Angel whole, that maybe, just maybe…
He isn't human anymore.
Misato savagely bit down on her cheek. She wanted nothing but to forget that thought. But after everything Kaji had shown her, after all the secrets and lies NERV kept from her, after the nightmare reality had become…
He's the same, she thought. He's still Shinji. He's no different. Nothing's changed. He's still Shinji.
She looked back at him again. He looked the same.
"Can't wait for today's tests," Asuka grumbled from the backseat as she noticed her guardian's eyes. "Can't wait to see how amazingly futile my efforts are compared to our all powerful Shinji-sama. Maybe they'll throw you a party. With a big cake. One candle for every point you beat me by. Would you like that? Get to blow out all those candles with your own personal cheering squad behind you?"
"Asuka," Misato warned through her teeth.
"No really, I bet you'd think it was a good idea. Boost the morale of our one-man army here. Who needs weak little girls like me and the First when big, strong, manly Shinji is here to fight? Certainly not the bridge crew, who owe their lives to him. Certainly not you, who must have just melted when he saved your life, too. All dramatic and heroic. He can wallow in self-pity and shame, but when the chips are down, we can always count on Shinji. Even if he's more Eva than human now."
"So throw a party. Throw a huge freaking bash and invite everyone who loves and adores stupid Shinji!"
"And of course," Asuka said, leaning in close to Shinji, "you'd just love it if daddy was there too, wouldn't you?"
"Sensei," Shinji whispered.
The redhead backed off with a puzzled look.
"Shut up, Asuka!" Misato yelled. "Jesus Christ! Get off your high horse and leave him alone! Maybe we wouldn't need him so much if you and Rei weren't so fucking inept lately. No arms? No rifle? Go ahead and charge blindly at the enemy. Brilliant plan. I'm amazed it failed as spectacularly as it did."
Asuka sat back as if hit, her face contorting into a dark scowl.
"You always take his side," she hissed.
"No! You do! You always take his side! Every single time! It doesn't matter what happens, or how bad he screws up. It doesn't matter how totally unfair it is for me, you always take his side. Well guess what, Misato? I never ran away. I never questioned my commanding officers. I never fell into disgrace and humiliation just because something shitty happened to me. So go right ahead and pick Shinji like you always do, but don't count on me the next time he decides to act like a God damn pussy and split town again!"
"Asuka!" Misato slammed her hands against the steering wheel. The entire car felt like it shook. "Enough," she breathed. "Please."
The car lurched ahead. Asuka frowned, then turned to the boy beside her. He looked like he had heard nothing. He was just staring out the window. She wanted him to shrink away, or get angry, or cry, or something. She wanted him to hurt, to hurt as bad as she did, because he was the cause of it. She wanted him to suffer. She wanted to see his blood again, just like it had been laced over the bottom of the toilet last night.
"Say something," Asuka whispered to Shinji. He did not respond. "Say something God damn it. Stop wussing out in your own little world and say something!" She punched him on the arm. He did not react. "Stop ignoring me!"
The car stopped.
"Get out," Misato growled, her knuckles white around the wheel.
"Get out of the car right now."
Misato did not wait for compliance. She tore her door open and marched to the backseat, ruthlessly pulling Asuka out by her arm as soon as the door was open a centimeter.
They were parked haphazardly in the breakdown lane outside one of NERV's checkpoint stations within the city before the linear car rail. The left rear tire was still on the road. A tree stood to the right, shading them from the early morning sun. The city framed them.
Misato spun the girl around, pushing her against the side of the car, trapping her in place with her arms. She stared at her, their noses inches apart.
"He almost died," the major stated, tightlipped.
"… so what?" Asuka mumbled, glancing away. She tried to shrink from the woman. She had never felt Misato this furious before. "So what? Every time I go out and fight I almost—"
"He almost died. And since you didn't show up for the salvage operation, let me tell you what happened. We failed." Misato waited for Asuka to look back up at her. "We failed, and I cried like a little baby. Because for all of our knowledge, all of our scientific achievement, all our arrogance and pride and self importance, we failed. We failed the one boy who continually saves our worthless lives again and again. Even though he has to live through hell, even though he probably wishes he was dead. And when I realized that I cried harder than I ever had in my entire life. We all failed him, killed him, and it was for nothing at all. Everyone dies. I know that. All humans die. So what should it matter if we manage to save the world? It won't matter. Because we'll all kill each other sooner or later. That is the only thing waiting for us at the end of this war. Not happiness, not glory, not paradise. Death. That is the only thing waiting for any of us."
Misato took a quick breath.
"And I cried not because someday I'll die, or you'll die, or everyone we're working to save will die. It was because we killed him and it wasn't for a God damn thing. What the hell's the point of all of this if we sacrifice whoever we please on the altar of mankind's sins? We should be doing all we can to save everyone we can, if we believe the crap we spout. We shouldn't be sending children out to kill and be killed. Every life should be equal. But it isn't. Not in NERV's eyes. And that makes us no different than the enemy. What's the point of anything we do if we have to kill to achieve our goals?
"But he came back," Misato said. "He came back, regardless of what the MAGI and Ritsuko said, and you know what? I'm already yelling at him about the fucking dishes.
"So listen to me very carefully, Asuka. I will only tell you this once. And I don't care if you do this just to shut me up, or prove me wrong, or show the world you have a heart. I don't care. But believe me when I say you will be nicer to Shinji-kun from now on. I don't want you to be his friend. I don't want you to put on an act and hug and kiss and laugh with him. I want you to not make believe he's the Angels that beat you. I want you to treat him like a human being. Don't talk to him, give him the cold shoulder, whatever. But do not ever make him regret he came back to me. Don't you ever do that again or I will ship your failing ass back to Germany without a second thought. Are we clear?"
Asuka's entire body was trembling with rage. Her jaw was set in a tight lock. Her eyes swam in tears of fury. Her knuckles popped white over her shaking fists.
"Are we clear?" the major asked again.
Asuka waited until Misato stepped backwards to return to her seat in the car. The girl sat very still, her back very stiff in the cushioned seat, her eyes unfocused staring straight ahead. She did not look at Shinji. Shinji did not look at her. He was still gazing out the window, the same as when Misato stopped the car.
The major got back in the driver's seat a moment later, throwing the car into gear without conscious thought. She pulled back on the road and continued their trek to NERV in silence. Buildings, people, cars, trees, places, life, flashed outside their windows in blurry fingers. The Renault growled and hummed. Somewhere far away the sounds of construction flitted to their ears on crumbling grey wings. No one spoke.
Shinji blinked slowly, and looked down at his hand. It was clenching and relaxing again. He gazed at it, like he was seeing it for the first time. He stared in fascination at the short nails, the slender joints, the nearly invisible veins running just below the skin. Did his hands always look like this? Were they always this shade and shape? Were they—
Sometimes he likes it if I just use my hand.
He shook his head and looked beside him, to a redheaded girl with a very serious face. Her blue eyes sparkled with an emotion he couldn't quite place. She did not return his look.
At length he glanced away, back to the window. He was in a very strange city. There were buildings growing out of the sky.
"Go straight to the lockers and change," the woman driving said evenly. "We're running late."
"… yes, ma'am."
He looked back at the redheaded girl who had spoken. Then back away. His brow beetled.
"… Kyoko?" he whispered to himself. "Was that her name?"
"This is a disaster," Ritsuko said, biting angrily at the end of a cigarette. "This is a God damn fucking disaster."
The command bridge overlooking the synch testing chamber was deserted except for the doctor and Misato. The other techs got out of there as soon as possible. Ritsuko had been on the warpath lately, snapping at the tiniest accident and charging systemic incompetence at any honest mistake. She was smoking a lot more, too.
"Are you sure of the results?" the major asked.
"Yes, I'm sure! Unit-01 rejecting its pilot doesn't happen everyday. It rejected him seven times. We're pretty fucking sure what the results are."
Misato swallowed hard. She hadn't seen her old friend upset enough to swear in a long time.
"Is it really so bad?" she asked, trying to defuse the doctor. "I mean, maybe it's a glitch, or he's having a bad day. We still have Units -02 and -00 at the ready, so we're not in too great a danger. Besides, I was thinking of giving Shinji-kun a little time off. He's been a bit flakey lately."
"Give him time off?" Ritsuko nearly shouted. "Are you crazy? Do I need to remind you which pilot has been the deciding factor in over half the sorties we've been in? Especially these last three times? I would rather not entrust our future to Rei, who's at best average, and Asuka, who's been steadily losing her footing." She shook her head. "And it isn't a glitch, and a bad day wouldn't equate total rejection. God, this is a fucking disaster."
"I thought the commander froze Unit-01 from active use anyway. Does it really matter if Shinji-kun's failing a simple synch test? Maybe someone mistyped something. The commander—"
"He's not even worried about this," the doctor spat. She sounded like she was accusing the elder Ikari of a crime. "Unit-01…" Ritsuko forcibly calmed herself. "We need all the Evangelions. All of them, regardless of current circumstances."
"Well," Misato said after a moment, "I suppose you'd know. Being around here lately is a little like a history lesson. Or a mystery novel. Nice to know I'm still in the dark about so many things."
"Count yourself lucky," Ritsuko spat out. She sighed hard, calming herself. "Listen. I want Shinji-kun back in here tomorrow, first thing. Pull him out of school, whatever. I'll run a full diagnostic on the MAGI tonight, go over everything with a fine tooth comb. There has to be something. There has to be."
Misato left the doctor to her work and sour mood. The major knew everyone was on edge since the last battle, it was hard not to be, but she never knew Ritsuko to be this vocal in her displeasure. She was usually far more passive aggressive about these things.
"Maybe I should apologize about slapping her again…"
Misato checked her watch. It was just before noon. Maybe the kids would want to eat out today. She typically reserved restaurant trips for special occasions or treats, but she felt they could all use a break. Perhaps the forced joviality of a fast food joint would infect them. God knows nothing else seemed to.
And since she had effectively banned Asuka's only source of entertainment by defending Shinji, things couldn't help but get worse. The apartment was feeling far too small these days. And they had only been back together again for little over three weeks.
Misato crested the final turn before the pilots' locker rooms, and saw Rei in the middle of the hall, staring up at a clock on the wall.
"Rei? Why are you…" Such a weird girl? "… just standing there?"
The pale girl languidly turned to face the major. Her eyes trailed almost painfully on the clock hands.
"I am awaiting the commander," she answered. "Yesterday he spoke to me of eating lunch together."
What are they, related? Misato thought. Why does he do such friendly things with her?
"But," Rei went on, "he is thirteen minutes late." Her red eyes returned to the clock.
"Well… maybe he's just running behind schedule. Thirteen minutes is no big deal."
"He is never late."
The authority and security the girl spoke with upset Misato in a completely irrational way. So what if he was late for a lunch date? Big deal. The commander had been making a habit of not appearing for events for awhile, ever since his trip to the Antarctic. He'd be present at battles, and pivotal meetings, but his presence was a pale shadow compared to his past actions, like when he manually aided the launch of the Evas during that power outage, or the rare praise he bestowed on his son following the Tenth.
He could really use some more of that encouragement now.
"Well," Misato said aloud to Rei, "maybe he's already in the cafeteria. You could go look."
"Impossible. The commander and I never dine in the public cafeteria."
Misato sighed, feeling weary whenever she spoke with Rei.
"I really don't know what else to tell you," the major said with a quick shake of her head.
"I do not require anything," the girl stated. She resumed staring up at the clock.
Misato gave up, sitting down on a bench along the wall. She was currently running on little over five hours sleep, and while it seemed like hibernation compared to some nights recently, she kept waking up. If it wasn't Asuka grumbling in her sleep, it was Shinji walking to the bathroom, or Penpen trying to secretly watch late night TV. They all seemed to be conspiring to keep her awake. Sometimes making sure she wasn't alone wasn't worth it.
She was sitting on the bench, reclining against the wall, eyes shut, listening to the clock count off the seconds, feeling Rei standing stock still in the middle of the hall. She was sitting for a good ten minutes before the locker room door slid open, and Asuka stepped out.
"This place is just so messed up," she muttered, watching Rei stare at the wall and Misato slouched low in her seat, snoring lightly. "All we need is Shinji sucking his thumb and the picture's complete."
The redhead stalked over to her guardian, and snapped her fingers under her ear.
"What?" Misato jolted upright, blinking the sleep from her eyes. "What?"
"You dozed off." The redhead glanced at the pale girl. "I don't blame you."
"Asuka?" Misato slowly peered around the hall. "Where's Shinji-kun?"
"What the hell do I look like? His keeper?" Her eyes darted angrily to Rei, then to the ground. She forced herself to calm down. "I don't know. He's obviously not here. Try the guy's changing room or something. I can't be expected to know everything."
"It never takes him this long," the major said, slowly rubbing the sleep from her eyes. "Rei? Did he already pass you?"
"Thanks for the help." Misato started walking down the hall. Asuka trailed behind her, lacking any other means of returning home. "Wait for me in the lounge, alright? I'll get Shinji-kun, then maybe we can all go out to eat, okay?" Her words lacked any real emotion, any conviction. It was devoid of even the desperate hope she felt.
Asuka did not respond. She strode past her guardian, and was soon lost behind a bend in the hall.
Misato rolled the heels of her palms over her eyes. She breathed in the metallic recycled air of the base. She thought of several creative swears. When she had exhausted her considerable list of invectives, she set out for the boy's locker room.
She found the hall around it empty. She opened the door without knocking, knowing he wouldn't hear it anyway.
"Shinji-kun?" she called out. "Are you in here?"
She waited sixteen seconds, and when nothing answered her, she entered the room.
She had only been inside it once before, when he ran away following the fourth Angel. She had insisted on cleaning out his locker personally. It was a pointless, stupid gesture, and he would never find out about it, but she felt she owed him something after everything she had forced upon him.
After the Unit-03 incident and the Fourteenth she had purposefully avoided cleaning his room and locker. A part of her would not accept the fact he was leaving. She hoped, despite herself, despite the horrendous situation, that he'd come back. To her.
To the world of hell that followed her like a puppy. Even now Misato had no clue why he stayed within NERV and the city. The Angel was dead, and his friends were safe for the moment. What was keeping him here? Why did he agree to pilot again? The major could not imagine he had forgiven everyone for Suzahara yet. Misato doubted he ever would.
She did not find him among the tall rows of lockers. She did not find him in the showers. The tile floor was dry. No one had been here.
Misato found his locker and opened it. His school uniform lay crumpled in the bottom corner. His shoes were propped up against a side. The major shook her head in frustration, and spun around helplessly.
"Where are you?"
At length her eyes drifted down to his clothes. It meant he was still in his plug suit, wherever he was. She sighed and bent over to fold them. Usually he was so tidy about these things. But lately he was getting forgetful and sloppy. His room was a mess. And his corner of the bathroom shelf was a pile of chaos. Maybe he was just outgrowing his childhood meticulousness.
Misato folded his shirt and placed it delicately on the bottom of the locker. Then she picked up his trousers, and snapped them straight.
A bottle slipped free of the right pocket, and clattered to the ground at her feet.
The major stared at it for a long time. Her brain worked slowly for a few minutes. She felt like she was dreaming. Why would her Shinji have drugs? She bent to retrieve it in slow motion on creaky joints.
Was this how a parent felt when they discovered their kid was an addict? This feeling of simultaneous fear, pity, fury and disappointment? The parallel desires to hug them until they're all better and smack them stupid? Misato found her hands were shaking.
She turned the bottle in her fingers, like she was examining an ancient artifact. It was empty. For a breath the words printed on the label fell on her eyes like a foreign language. She blinked, and knowledge filled her.
Pain killers. They were pain killers. The kind you get after surgery. Prescribed to Ikari Gendo.
Don't jump to conclusions, she told herself. Actions must always follow investigation. Charging ahead blindly will accomplish nothing.
Misato carefully replaced the bottle in the pants pocket, and shut the locker door softly. She ran a hand through her sweaty hair, and left.
It was four o'clock. Meaning Kaji was sure to be at his usual haunt at this hour, the vending machine wall. Never mind that it was a prime location for traffic coming and going out of Central Dogma and its many branching sublevels, and as such a wealth of information garnered through gossip, flirting, and more flirting. Misato liked to think of it as nothing more than his penchant for canned coffee.
"Kaji," she said, finding him leaning against a soda machine. "I need a favor."
"Oh?" the spy replied, in a tone that clearly communicated he took the word favor as a sexual allusion.
"Yes," the major answered, gritting her teeth. "A favor. A normal favor. You know, the kind people do for each other out of the goodness of their hearts, and not the constriction of their pants. That kind."
"Oh," the spy replied, in a tone that clearly communicated he expected the favor to be of the latter kind. Kaji grinned anyways. "What is it and can I ask a favor in return?"
"If you must," Misato sighed. "This is serious. At least, I think it's serious. It's about Shinji-kun."
"The latest test results?" he asked, turning somber.
"No, not that. Not really. I don't know. I'm worried. He's been so… weird lately. I know he's been through a lot recently, but he isn't acting like himself. And he keeps disappearing on me. After the test he just took off. I don't know where he is."
"Maybe he's just a bit down," Kaji said. "If he can't pilot anymore, NERV won't have much use for him."
Misato frowned, knowing it was the truth.
"Or maybe he just needs some time alone," the spy went on. "Even with his track record, I doubt we have to worry about Shinji-kun. He did come back, after all. He came back."
"I know, but… I'm serious here." Misato frowned. "I… I found an empty bottle of pills. I think Shinji-kun's been taking them."
"What kind of pills?" Kaji asked slowly.
"Something called Celebrex. It's a painkiller used after surgery, right?"
"I think so…"
"Why would he have that? It was prescribed to his father, so why on earth would he have that?" She looked at Kaji, but he did not answer. "And I think Section-2 is asleep at the switch again. I went through their backlog for Shinji-kun yesterday earlier, and there's a strange problem. He told me he went out for a walk, but the report shows him never leaving the apartment's grounds."
"Strangely enough, Section-2 isn't known for their superior tracking skills. The blind leading the blind."
"I know they're a little lax sometimes but…" Misato shook her head. "I'm just worried. Something feels really off. And I'd like to just put my worries to bed, okay?"
"You're really worried about him, aren't you?" Kaji said, staring at her. "I'll see what I can do."
"Thanks. Just tail him for a couple days, but keep out of sight. From him and Section-2. I don't need any more headaches."
"So drinks are off tonight?"
"Drinks are off. I have to tend to Asuka's ego." She leaned over and pecked him on the lips. "Goodnight, Kaji. Thanks."
It was sunny. Bright and clear and blue. No clouds to obscure the sun. A light wind, carrying the scent of green. Beautiful.
They met on a bridge within the Geofront, overlooking the lake at NERV's feet. They arrived separately, using the scheduled shift change for Section-2 to hide their tracks. It was a small window, but he insisted on it. He needed to see her quickly, and without the shadow of NERV watching.
Misato agreed to Kaji's stipulations. He was always careful, but when he called her to set up the meeting, he seemed almost paranoid. Using a scrambled line, the shift change, the remote rendezvous site… he was really earning his double agent status.
It had been four days since she asked him to tail Shinji. Four days since the last test for Unit-01: despite Ritsuko's protests, the commander ordered a complete freeze on the Evangelion, including further synch testing between it and the Third Children. Misato couldn't say she agreed with the decision either, but then again she never claimed to understand the elder Ikari.
Shinji could not synchronize, and that seemed to be the end of the story. Yet the boy remained within the city, within NERV. He was not debriefed, he was not erased from the records, he was not sent away. From the start everyone knew he was a unique asset, but past actions alone weren't justification for keeping him around. The official reason was something she could not discover without raising red flags. Misato instinctively felt this was something she needed to know off the record.
And Shinji kept vanishing, more and more. He told her he just needed some time alone, to assimilate everything that had happened. But Section-2 could not put together a coherent trail for his whereabouts. The last time Misato had spoken with them, a new voice answered, one she hadn't heard in Shinji's detail before. Something was off. And there were the drugs to consider. While not a bastion of abstinence regarding controlled substances herself, Misato knew how damaging they could be if not used in moderation. But she wanted to give Shinji the benefit of the doubt. After the grievous injuries his friend Touji received, she felt it was the least she could do.
"What did you find out?" she asked Kaji.
He looked pale.
"You were right: Section-2 has been blinded. The reports on Shinji-kun are being doctored. By someone very high up. I don't want to carelessly toss accusations around, but it is being done by a person or persons with enough authority to command Section-2 to disavow entire periods of time." Kaji sighed through his teeth. "This is serious. Active surveillance on the Third Children is now suspended barring official demands."
He ran a hand through his bangs quickly. His fingers shook.
"Did you wonder why more tests for Unit-01 and Shinji have been suspended?" he asked. "The official explanation is fear about contamination from an untested S2 engine, but why is that worry only now surfacing, after Shinji was rejected?
"And his security detail has been changed. The team of agents shadowing him was rearranged weeks ago, drawing on veterans from the commander's personal pool. People close to him, loyal to him.
"And I've uncovered hospital records," Kaji said. His eyes looked haunted. She had never seen him like this. "It isn't clear who it is exactly, but given the times and dates, and incredible discretion that's been being displayed, I can guess. It seems Shinji-kun has been being seen by a private doctor off the books for weeks."
Kaji ran a hand over his brow.
"What?" Misato arched an eyebrow. "What are you talking about?"
"He's received corrective surgeries to repair trauma to his lower bowels. There have been three separate contacts over the last month. It explains the drugs. Celebrex is a COX-2 inhibitor used to cure adhesions after surgery to the rectum."
Misato sat down, feeling cold. She slipped along the rails of the bridge's overlook. Her hands could not function. She felt like she was in a dream again.
Her mind refused to process it. Kaji continued to speak, but she could not hear him. The world turned fuzzy and indistinct. She could hear nothing but a dull buzzing. What the hell was going on? What the hell was happening to her Shinji?
But her confusion and fear was gradually swallowed whole by fury. The world came into sharp focus. Misato stood abruptly and checked her sidearm.
"Katsuragi… easy." Kaji held up his hands. "Take it easy. This won't help him. We need to act rationally."
"Fuck rationally. I will kill whoever did this to him. And then kill the bastards who are covering it up."
"You won't have to go far, then."
Misato stopped and turned to face him.
"The man ordering the surgeries…" Kaji said, "… the man who the drugs were prescribed to, is commander Ikari."
She stared at him, trying to understand.
"He's authorizing everything," the spy went on. "No one else has the level of clearance needed for a blinding of this scale. He's the one who rearranged Shinji-kun's Section, he's the one who froze all tests on Unit-01, he's the one with the means."
"It's obvious Shinji-kun is being hurt or abused," Kaji said. "And it's obvious the commander knows. What isn't obvious is the why for all this. And it isn't exactly like we could open an inquiry." He shook his head. "I don't know why."
"Who else knows?" she whispered after a moment.
"As of now, assuming I covered all my tracks, just you and I. We have to be careful. If we tell the wrong people, or make it public, we—"
"Will get killed." Misato swallowed hard. She was panting; breath was leaving her faster than she could recapture it. "The security sections are blinded… we're on our own. We could kidnap Shinji-kun… no. Damn it." She was shaking. Her entire body was light with fury. But her mind was fast, faster than she could ever remember. "Contact the Committee…"
"It won't be fast enough," Kaji said solemnly.
"I know. I know." She licked her lips. "The old man. Fuyutsuki."
"It's a huge risk. He could already be in on it—"
"No. Not him. It has to be him. No way he'd ever cover something like this."
"It's a huge risk," Kaji said again. He knew firsthand how much the vice commander was keeping from public knowledge. "We can't trust anyone in direct contact with the higher ups. We're on our own."
On our own, Misato thought. What else is new? Everyone is on their own.
"Then if we act fast there won't be any time to counter." She fixed Kaji with her eyes. "Gather as many people as you can, who you know can be trusted. Who are loyal to NERV over the people running it." She checked her gun again. "I know at least three. And Hyuuga and Aoba have had weapons training. That should be enough to seize Ikari."
Kaji suddenly saw all of his careful plans turn to dust.
"Save it. I do not want to hear anything from you except yes, ma'am. It's far too late to talk me out of it." Misato sighed through her nose. "Kaji… do you know how absolutely helpless these past few months have made me feel? All I ever do is watch as he and Asuka and Rei go out to fight and die. All I'm allowed to do is watch from the sidelines like a spectator. I'm tired of watching.
"Shinji-kun's… he's the closest thing to a family I have right now. I won't allow anyone to willfully hurt him if I can help it. I may not be able to save him from piloting, or from NERV, or the Angels, but if there's something I can do, then I'll do it without hesitation. He has to be in trouble. Why else would all of this be kept from me?"
Kaji saw all his plans being buried under the weight and force of the woman before him. It was like watching the tide claim a sandcastle you've worked all day on.
"Where's Shinji-kun now?" she asked him.
"… I don't know," Kaji whispered tensely. "The Section is being directed right now to disavow activity. He could be anywhere."
Misato checked her gun for a third time.
"Not anywhere. He's somewhere. I'm sure the commander knows."
"Katsuragi… why not just wait and secure Shinji, then go after the commander?"
"I want an answer right now. And if I have to get it by sticking a gun in the man's face, fine."
Kaji knew firsthand how difficult Misato could be when her mind was made up. But for the sake of his own designs, he had to try one last time to dissuade her.
"Either I'm right and Shinji-kun is being hurt and we stop it," he said, "or I'm wrong and we're out of a job. Everything you've worked towards will be for nothing. Are you honestly ready to say goodbye to your life's work?"
Misato swallowed something big. Just a few weeks ago she had vowed to give anything to get Shinji back. The anything, it seemed, was her life. Repaid to him a thousand times over. Her father was dead. He wasn't coming back. But Shinji was alive. And she would do everything in her power to keep it that way.
"I'm willing to take that risk," she said.
"Katsuragi…" Kaji waited until she looked back at him. "This could destroy NERV."
He really was like her father, she thought. It was usually something she didn't openly acknowledge, simply because the memories it dredged up were far from being healed. But there were moments, instances when she could not deny it.
They were both so insecure, burying themselves in their work, keeping relationships shallow and superficial. They both kept secrets they would take with them to the grave. Both traveled, merely because they disliked calling any one place home. A home was a responsibility. A home was a weight. It was a burden, for those who lived in it, and those who did not.
It was the same way for Misato. She never had a happy home. For her it was just a word. It was just a building where people slept and lived and cried. The concept of being pleased with where you laid your head at night was beyond her. It still was. But she was far closer to the ideal than she ever had been in her life. She would fight to keep it. If it meant the end for her, fine.
She wanted to mean what she told Asuka. If people had to suffer and die for her revenge, what was the point? She knew she'd never be able to live with it. Who cared if she got what she wanted, only at the expense of others?
And Misato realized something. She would never be happy. It wasn't like Kaji; he believed like gospel that they didn't deserve happiness. Misato wasn't that fatalistic. Her entire life was based on the all consuming lust for vengeance. But all the trampled morals, the broken ethics, the sacrificial scapegoats… they haunted her. Even if she found and punished all those responsible for the Second Impact, her hands were far too stained to partake in anything other than misery.
She would never be happy, but that didn't mean Shinji was damned to the same fate.
Misato headed back to her car.
"Then so be it," she said.
His phone was ringing.
He checked his clock. Only three hours had passed since he came home from a triple shift. Well, technically it had been three hours and thirteen minutes, but he was rounding it down to express his ire at having been woken up so soon after hitting the pillow and—
His phone was still ringing.
He turned over, his limbs feeling immensely heavy, and pulled the sheets over his head. He hoped it would drown out the sound.
His phone was still ringing.
Just one more and the answering machine would activate. Just one more, and he would be able to slip back into that great dream where he and that super cute Ayumi he went to high school with were on a deserted beach at twilight, with the waves tickling their bare feet, and the stars were just blossoming on the horizon's edges, and—
The machine finally turned on.
"Hello. This is Hyuuga Makoto. I'm not here right now, but if you leave your name and number, I'll be sure to reach you at the soonest possible time. But please be patient; saving the world is hard work!"
"Get your ass out of bed, Hyuuga. I mean it. Get up right now and answer the fucking phone or—"
"Major?" Hyuuga asked, blindly bringing the phone on his night stand to his ear. "Major, what's wrong?"
"Do you trust me, Hyuuga?"
"Of… of course I do, major Katsuragi. Of course I do. What is this—"
"Do you value the lives of the people who work at NERV over its purpose?"
"I do," Hyuuga said. "I do."
"Then I need your help. Get dressed. I'll be outside your apartment in seven minutes. Bring your gun."
The line went dead.
Hyuuga slowly replaced the phone on its cradle. He flopped back down on his pillow. He brought his right hand up to his cheek, and pinched hard.
It wasn't a dream.
Hyuuga shut his eyes, then hauled himself out of bed.
Misato pulled up in six minutes. She left the motor running, and flung open the side door.
"Get in," she barked.
Hyuuga got in the car. Aoba was in the back seat, as well as a tall man he recognized as one of Asuka's security detail. Hyoushi, he thought. Hyuuga sank down next to the major, the bulge of his gun pressing angrily against his left thigh.
"What is this about?" he asked quietly.
"Shinji-kun's in trouble," Misato said, and gunned the engine.
She drove quickly on the back roads of Tokyo-3. It was early; there was almost no traffic at this hour. The predawn sun was creeping over the edges of the lower buildings, and night was fleeing from it. Hyuuga shielded his eyes as sunlight glanced off a reflective series of windows and slammed into his face.
"Major…" he started.
"I need to know where your loyalties lie," Misato said, taking a sharp corner. "Because this could very well cost you your job. If you have any reservations about this before we start, then I'll let you out. If you aren't one hundred percent on this, you're of no use to me."
"How can I be one hundred percent on anything if I don't know what it's about?" Hyuuga asked.
"I'm not going to force you," she went on. "But I'm not going to lie. I need help. You have to decide where your loyalties lie. With NERV and its commanders, through thick and thin, or with the people who work for it, and put their lives on the line. Whole parts, or parts of the whole."
"… Shinji-kun is really in trouble?"
"Yes." Misato stopped the car. "I need your answer now. If you say no, we'll forget this ever happened. If you agree with me, then we'll go ahead. I need your answer."
Hyuuga momentarily put aside his attraction for her, and focused narrowly on the woman the major was. Despite her personal life, Hyuuga knew that Misato was not one to blow things out of proportion. She had a keen tactical mind, and while she did take risks, they were highly calculated, and never suicidal. Which meant if she said Shinji was in trouble, he was.
Long ago he had made a stupid, childish pact with himself. That if she asked, Hyuuga would die next to Katsuragi Misato without any hesitation or resentment. He never thought it would become reality, even with his job. But he knew, despite the fact his love would remain unrequited, despite the fact this could get his fired or killed, that he'd forever regret not doing it. Hyuuga had been at peace with his eventual death for a while now. He'd fight to live, but he wasn't desperate about it. And he knew there would always be things worth fighting for.
"I'm in," he told Misato.
She stepped on the gas.
Commander Ikari's house was located outside the Geofront, in a privately owned community on Tokyo-3's north edge, in the hills surrounding the city. It gave the impression of wealth and prestige, but really it was closer to hereditary privilege. It was cheap if you were established there, and nearly impossible to gain access to otherwise. Privacy and security were its primary attractions.
The house was long and low, only two stories, but it lay sprawled over enough land to comfortably situate three houses from the inner city. A row of bushes lined the property, rich green and meticulously cared for. The lawn was small but manicured, the paint fresh and flawless, the stone walkway polished and scrubbed. It was exactly what Misato envisioned the commander's house like. All surface, designed to hide what was truly inside.
She was parked behind a wall on a hill overlooking the house, safely out of sight from anyone below. She had been there for twenty four minutes. The others in the car were being polite. Aoba never made a sound. Hyoushi kept wiping his forehead. Hyuuga fidgeted every few seconds, but kept quiet. Misato continued to stare.
Seventeen more minutes passed, and a long black sedan pulled to a stop before the house. Gendo ducked out from a side door, and hurried around to the other side. Misato watched in fascinated horror as the commander opened the other door and Shinji got out. The boy was limping, and the man carefully scooped his arm across his son's back for support. He helped him to the front door of his house. Gendo turned his head and exchanged a few words with the two guards shadowing him, then proceeded inside. The guards walked back down to the street, parted company, and left the perimeter of the house. Misato waited for five minutes. They did not reappear.
"Let's go," she said.
Misato wished Kaji was here.
But the two had decided that, in case one of them failed, the other must be free to act. It took very little convincing to make sure Kaji was out of the city, and Misato would lead the charge. She honestly didn't want to dwell on his behavior when talk turned to a coup. Despite his calm exterior, she knew he was a little skittish about field work. She supposed it was his underlying belief that everyone was going to hell when they died.
He told her he would organize a second team to look for Shinji, or to provide backup in the event she needed saving. How he would do that on such short notice escaped her. While Kaji was well known to many people in NERV, the contact was carefully superficial. In all likelihood, he was pulling in favors with his other employer. Misato honestly didn't want to think about it. But if it meant the end of NERV, the end of her, the end of the quest for knowledge and vengeance, she would accept it later.
The irony was not lost on her. It almost seemed ridiculous. If someone had told her even a month ago that she would be sacrificing her personal crusade to save the life of a boy who wasn't even related to her, she would have laughed. Life has a funny way of destroying the most carefully planned scenarios. She hoped her father would understand, since she did not.
Misato led the three men along the edges of other houses, keeping low to the asphalt. It was still early, and every window they passed was shuttered and dark. The section guards were nowhere to be found.
They reached the walled driveway of the house across from the commander's. Misato carefully peeked out in both directions. The street was deserted either way. She wiped the sweat from her brow, signaled the others, then bolted across the road.
She reached the front door without looking back. She crouched beside it. Thorny bushes tickled her shoulders and neck.
"Keep a lookout," Misato ordered.
She fished in her pocket and withdrew a dummy key card. She inserted it into the electronic slot for the door's locking mechanism. The card was connected to a small portable screen. The display began to rapidly flash numbers in descending columns, slowly coming to a stop, and lining up in a row on the bottom.
"Wow," Hyuuga said as the second number stopped. "I, uh, didn't know you knew how to do that."
"There's a lot about me you don't know."
"Agent coming from the left," Aoba said quickly. "He's armed. Hurry up, major."
"Just a second more…"
"Another from the right. Major…"
"I'm in. Let's go."
The doors opened. Misato slipped in with her gun drawn. Aoba and Hyuuga swarmed in after her, and Hyoushi slammed the doors shut. He locked them, then used the butt of his gun to smash in the face of the electric control panel.
"It won't hold them for long," he said. "Go."
The front hall was surprisingly long. It was a dark, narrow, wooden arched affair, buttresses flaring out from a spine along the ceiling. Beneath her feet, cushioning her steps was an expensive rug, circles and brackets and leaves and swirls in a complicated and ornate design. To the left was a small coat room, to the right stairs leading to the second floor.
Misato continued down the hall, crouched low, her gun pointing straight down towards the floor. The others followed quickly behind her.
Hyuuga glanced at Aoba. The long haired man already had his gun drawn.
This is insane, Hyuuga thought. This was absolutely insane. He'd fantasized plenty of times about assaulting the commander, but the reality, the actual fact that he was right now storming his boss' house was crazy.
"He's going to kill us," he whispered.
They stopped short when the major halted in mid stride and signaled for them to as well. She stayed silent for a long moment, listening. Hyuuga tried to capture what made her stop, but he couldn't hear anything over his own terrified breathing. He looked at Aoba. His eyes were drawn almost shut in concentration. He glanced back at Hyoushi. He was white as a sheet.
He was considering asking someone what they were waiting for when he heard it. A low, whimpering sound, like a wounded animal, or an infant crying in fatigue. Hyuuga followed the major as she began moving again, still keeping low and silent, but progressing at an impressive rate. Far away the sounds of the security guards banging on the front door wafted like a drumbeat. It wouldn't be long before they gave up and tried another door.
Maybe they already had. Maybe they were already in the house, sneaking up behind them. Hyuuga swallowed complete panic and gripped his gun.
Misato led them to the end of the first side hall, past a pantry and kitchen, to a double door. The whimpering sound was louder here. She crouched beneath the knob and carefully tested it. She nodded; it was unlocked. Her eyes searched out the men behind her, making them all pledge loyalty and compliance with a single look.
Misato gripped the doorknob, took a breath, and swung it wide.
Her brain refused to process what she saw. It took a moment for any thoughts to surface from the pit reality had become. Aoba turned away. Hyoushi covered his mouth. Hyuuga just stared. Misato felt boundless fury and disgust and fear. Some amazing alien force prevented her arm from raising and pulling her weapon dry.
Far, far away, she thought she heard cars pulling up outside the house, and many feet pounding the pavement up to the door. A small detached part of her brain supposed it was Kaji with the reinforcements. But her conscious mind did not hear it. She saw nothing, heard nothing, was aware of nothing but the image before her in the room. Finally after ages her voice found her mouth.
"Oh dear God."
"He's been through some severe trauma," the doctor told Misato. He was a balding man of fifty, beady eyes hidden behind thick glasses. The major for the life of her could not remember the man's name.
"No, I mean… when your security detail found him he was… in the middle of something. With that man."
"Well, yes, you were there, but…" The doctor licked his dry lips. "He's in an advanced state of shock. He doesn't seem to know where he is, or who he is for that matter. I shouldn't even be allowing him any visitors, regardless of rank—"
"This is a matter of security for NERV," Misato stated, her face blank. "I have to ascertain the level of damage to our pilot. Usual protocol does not apply here."
The doctor sighed tiredly, disgustedly. He shook his head slowly and stepped aside.
"Fine," he said, knowing full well his arguments were a mere courtesy. "Don't excite him."
Misato entered the small hospital room, locking the door behind her. The blinds were drawn shut; it was dark. The only light was from a dim fluorescent overhead.
He was in bed, the covers reaching up to cover his waist. He was reclining on several pillows. He stared at the wall opposite the bed, his eyes searching the space in an alert, careful manner. He looked like he was reading a good book.
The boy turned and smiled, an expectant curve of his lips.
"May I help you?"
The major trailed off. She knew he had been through some truly horrific things since they met, even before they met, but she was at a complete loss with what to do for him now. She knew she wasn't particularly adept at soothing emotional injuries, but this was totally out of her ball park. This was unimaginable. It flew in the face of every learned moral and societal taboo she could think of.
"God, Shinji-kun, I… I am so, so sorry."
"For what?" he responded, smiling.
Was he blocking it out? Misato had heard it was possible, that children facing abuse sometimes obstructed memories they couldn't cope with, but did it take effect this quickly?
"Shinji-kun," she said slowly, "do you know where you are?"
"The hospital," he said, glancing about the white room. "Right?"
"Yes. Yes, you're in the hospital. There were extensive… injuries that we had to repair."
"Oh, I know. I've been treated for them before. Though not in the public hospital."
"Before?" Misato stared at him. She licked her dry lips. "You mean… someone's been helping you?"
The major ran a hand over her forehead. A light clammy sweat had settled over her eyebrows.
"And what injuries were those?" she asked. She knew, but she had to know how much he was blocking.
"Reconstructive surgery for my pelvis and anus. It was necessary. That was what they said, and I believe it was true, since I seem to remember it was quite painful to move my bowels or even sit down. It was necessary."
The smile never left his face.
"Shinji-kun," Misato said through a sob.
"Excuse me, but I do wish you'd stop calling me that."
"What?" She blinked. "Calling you what?"
"My name. I'm afraid you've got it wrong."
"What do you mean?"
"I don't know anyone named Shinji."
"Then… what is your name?" Misato asked.
"My name is Ikari Yui."
"Have you finished your report?"
"Do I have to yet again refresh your memory that I'm not a psychologist? I deal with numbers and equations, real facts I can apply and use in real world situations. This is completely outside the scope of my—"
"Just tell me."
Ritsuko adjusted her glasses, taking her time. She stared at Fuyutsuki across from the conference table. The man looked old, she thought. Older than usual.
I suppose everyone is, now.
"Okay," the doctor said. She glanced to the folder before her. "Unit-01's first pilot was Shinji-kun's mother, Ikari Yui. She was the pilot for its first activation test, in 2004. During the course of the test, she was lost."
Fuyutsuki remained stoic.
"She was discorporeated; her physical body was, for a lack of a better term, absorbed into the Evangelion."
"Similar to what we experienced with Shinji after the fourteenth," the old man said.
"Yes. A salvage operation was attempted, but it obviously didn't work." Ritsuko rubbed her eyes under her glasses. "And when Shinji-kun was lost after the battle, he must have… found part of his lost mother. Maybe a portion of her psyche imprinted onto his, or parts of her memory were supplanted over his own… the effect appears to get greater the more time passes. It's cumulative. At first, it was probably nothing but flashes, or hazy dreams. His tests immediately following his retrieval appeared normal at the time. There were slight irregularities, but I chalked it up to stress and trauma."
She took a breath.
"But the same anomaly continued to grow, like a cancer. It affected his scores, his behavior, his thoughts. I had the MAGI purposefully discount it for basic tests: I thought it was just residual feedback from his time in Unit-01. I…"
"This isn't your fault," Fuyutsuki said softly.
Ritsuko closed her eyes and stayed quiet for a long time.
"Over time," she finally said, "the changes became more noticeable. To anyone who wasn't looking for them, it may have appeared as nothing more than teenage anxiety or hormones. It was so subtle anyone could have labeled it as a phase, or growing up. In a way, he was.
"Ikari Yui's psyche was somehow transferred to Shinji during the retrieval process. It lay dormant for a time, then gradually integrated with his consciousness, like traumatic memories slowly surfacing under duress. His mind was strained, terribly, and at some point it folded in on itself, and the two selves were mixed together, until they were inseparable."
"And this is where my knowledge enters pure theory. Psychologically, Shinji has severe abandonment issues. He wants to be loved by his father, even though he probably hates the man. It has been the overriding and sustaining factor in his continual presence as a pilot. Ikari is too smart not to know this. I know he's been purposefully distant and hurtful to keep his son here.
"But the fact remains that Shinji desires to be close to his father. And when he began having memories of his mother influence his thoughts and actions, I can only assume it equated into a kind of… sexual connection. He had the thought patterns of Ikari Yui coupled with his desire to be emotionally intimate with his father, and this was the result. Shinji wanted a way to be close to his father, and he found one."
Fuyutsuki bowed his head into his hands. He stayed still for many moments.
"And Ikari… what he did… to his own son…" He sighed, a wretched sound from his throat. "God."
"And as to why he couldn't synch with Unit-01," Ritsuko said after a moment, "I'm fairly confident if we reset the data for Ikari Yui, the Evangelion will activate. But…"
"If it doesn't… I'm afraid Unit-01's core may be irretrievably lost. Short of it reabsorbing Shinji and sorting the mess out, we might be down our trump card."
Fuyutsuki shook his head again. He fell into impotent helplessness.
"God," he said. "Is it… is it really… her?"
"I don't believe so," Ritsuko said slowly. "But I won't know for sure until we interview him. He… he still functioned as Ikari Shinji, in some fashion, for weeks. It isn't Yui. It's a twisted, perverted image, colored by Shinji-kun's desires." She took a breath. "It isn't her," she said deliberately.
Fuyutsuki took a breath. He swallowed. He breathed out.
"There are also reports," the doctor said, "about unscheduled visits to the Dummy chamber. Unregistered activation of the memory system recorder. I've checked. It isn't Rei." She cleared her throat. "The personal data is a five point match to Ikari Shinji."
"If I had to guess, the commander was recording Shinji-kun's brain wave patterns, and was in the process of downloading them into one of the clones. Of course, by himself, there is no way he could ever complete such a complicated procedure. Not without help." She paused. "It seems he couldn't wait for a new body."
"Jesus God," the old man muttered.
"I do not know how Shinji-kun coped with it. His grip on things must have been extremely tenuous. I can't even imagine. And being found with the commander must have pushed him over the edge. Or maybe it was the consummation of their relationship. I don't know. I've scheduled a session with him tomorrow, to try and see if there's anything left of Shinji-kun inside his mind." She hesitated. "The major insisted on being there personally. She hasn't left his side, except to spit on Ikari when he was being transferred into NERV's holding cells."
Ritsuko paused again.
"Sir," she asked, "what are we going to do with him now?"
"The Committee already knows," Fuyutsuki said softly. "They have to. The men who assisted in Ikari's capture had all the earmarks of the JSSDF. How else could agent Kaji have assembled them so quickly? I'm sure the old men were chomping at the bit for any chance to take Ikari out. All we can do now is await their next move."
He took a slow breath and rubbed his eyes.
"After that… I've lost what little stomach I have for this work. And with a scandal of this magnitude and type, I can't see NERV existing independently anymore. Maybe the UN will oversee us, or perhaps the JSSDF will directly incorporate us. It's up to the old men now. It's not like we could wage a war, even with two Evangelions. This is the end, far earlier than predicted."
"We still hold proprietary command against the Angels," Ritsuko stated. "Perhaps we could speed up the selection of the next few pilots—"
"And do what?" The old man's words were tired. Unbearably exhausted. It sounded like a death rattle. "We do not control the rest of the series. Soldiers without weapons are of no use to us." He kept shaking his head. "God."
"What do we tell the other pilots?" the doctor asked, needing to cover all her bases as soon as possible.
"I cannot imagine the truth being successfully kept from them for long. Have the major sit them down and calmly explain it out. As to how it will affect them… I have no clue. Rei… Rei may be a problem. I don't know if she'll be able to absorb it all."
Fuytutsuki stopped. He blinked and looked down at himself. Still wearing the sub commander's uniform, still the lanky limbs, still the old weathered hands. And now, suddenly thrust into his grasp was what he feared and despised. He was commander of NERV. He was in control of the uncontrollable. He was talking about people's lives like they were liabilities to be guarded against. He no longer had the cushy disconnect of Ikari to ease his conscience. He was alone now.
He was alone.
"God," he said. His fingers dug through his thin hair. "Please," he whispered, bowing his head into his hands. "I need some time."
He did not see Ritsuko nod tersely, or see her rise from the table, or head out of the room. But when she was at the door, he called out to her again without raising his head.
"… after you see him tomorrow, please report directly to me."
Fuyutsuki felt a wave of utter revulsion at himself.
The door slid shut.
I knew he was desperate to see his wife again, he thought. But… God. This… this is what finally defeats NERV. Not an Angel, not the Committee… a human being's sickness. Yui… forgive me. Forgive us.
"God," he said again.
"We're going to ask you a few questions, okay?"
"If you feel dizzy, or strange, or it's too difficult to continue, please tell me and we'll take a break, okay?"
"I… I mean that. If… if anything happens that makes you fell uncomfortable, tell me and we'll stop, okay?"
Ritsuko swallowed hard, and sat back in her seat. Misato was beside her, silent and staring at the boy in the hospital bed, who seemed a bit sleepy, but otherwise fine. His hands were folded delicately over his stomach. His face appeared infinitely soft, and a wispy smile played on his lips. Ritsuko swallowed again.
The doctor yet again mentally renewed her objection to her leading this interview. She wasn't a psychologist; she wasn't trained for this type of setting. But anyone else would be a grievous security breach, one NERV wasn't prepared to take.
Because our security has been so stellar recently.
She glanced at Misato once again. The major was deathly still. Ritsuko took the plunge.
"Ikari… kun," she said. "How are you feeling today?"
"Oh, okay. A little sleepy. Being in the hospital always makes me tired. Isn't that odd? I suppose it's just a coping mechanism, like possums. Playing dead."
He was still smiling.
Ritsuko felt faint. She had no clue how to transition into the interview proper. So she just did.
"What is your earliest memory?" she asked.
"Why do you want to know?"
"… humor me, please. It's important."
Shinji brought his left forefinger to his chin, and looked off, remembering.
"When I was a child, my parents lived in a large green house. I remember the color because all the other houses around us were mass produced, and were the same grayish tan. But my mother insisted on painting ours a different color. I don't think any of the neighbors liked that. We were always on thin ice, I think."
"What do you remember about your parents?" Ritsuko asked, inwardly relieved his kowtowing to authority figures was still intact.
"My mother died when I was very young. I don't have many memories of her. All there is is a presence. A calmness that surrounds me when I think of her. My father raised me, and he did a fine job, only… well, I think he wanted a boy. He was very smart, and I tried to connect with him through academics. It worked, to a degree. But by the time I was old enough to distance myself from him, it was a habit. To excel. I wanted to learn all I could. It was that drive that originally attracted me to biology and bio-engineering."
The boy took a breath, preparing to say more, when the doctor interrupted.
"Do you know what year it is?" Ritsuko asked.
"It's…" Shinji hesitated. "2001, right? Of course it is. I'm so proud of our species, for surviving the tragedy of the Impact, and picking ourselves up to continue on. It makes me proud to be a human."
He sounds nothing like himself, Ritsuko thought. He must sound like… like Yui. This certainly explains why Ikari stopped sleeping with me. She suppressed the overwhelming urge to empty her stomach. The mere hint of ever being touched by that man filled her mouth with bile.
She distracted herself by making a few notes. This Shinji, whoever it was, was far too talkative. Knew too many things. Without extensive training in the field, Ritsuko was pleased with her new assessment. Shinji, the real Shinji, was hiding somewhere, trying to block out the pain and fear and confusion and abuse, and this phantom personality was providing the cover. Protection. Almost like schizophrenia.
"Where's Gendo?" Shinji asked, nothing but innocent wonder. "Can I see him soon?"
"He's…" Ritsuko hesitated, then swallowed hard. "He's busy."
"Oh, I see," the boy said, completely satisfied with the answer. "He was always so busy, with work and school and acquaintances. I had to get used to it. But it made our time together that much more special."
"When did you first meet him?"
The boy smiled, reliving the past.
"I remember… the first time we met. It was in the fall. The leaves had just started to change colors. It was cold, colder than usual for that time of year. I think I was wearing the sweater my grandmother knitted for me when I was fifteen. It was green, like my eyes, and even though I had grown a bit since then, it still fit perfectly. Like usage adapted it to wear. I personally was never very adept at sewing and the like. Manual dexterity wasn't my strong suit. I was a bit clumsy with my hands.
"The first time I saw him, I was in a physics lecture at the college. Dr. Aino was explaining a new perspective on variable wave theory, and at one point while he was speaking, I noticed someone looking at me. You know the feeling, when the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, when you know someone is watching you. I was used to it. People looked at me a lot. I lost count of the well-meaning buffoons who told me I had no place in science, that I should join a modeling agency or something equally ridiculous. I never gave my looks any real concern. I mean, I took a pride in appearing presentable, but I wasn't vain or pretentious about it.
"Sorry. I'm digressing. Anyway, I saw him watching me from across the room. He had an intense look on his face, and my first thought was fear. I've had a lot of men look at me. But with Gendo, it wasn't 'checking me out' or anything like that. He looked at me like he was deciphering a problem. And he didn't glance away or blush in shame at being caught. He just stared at me. And as odd as it sounds, I was interested.
"We talked after that, and I was pleasantly surprised. He was smart, but in the same way a successful businessman was smart. He delegates duties to others beneath him and takes the credit. It sounds a little insidious, but he had a humble charm about him. He was driven. He was very driven. Not just to be rich or famous, but to be someone. Someone important, who made decisions that effected the whole world. I admired that about him. When I researched a subject, I was narrow-minded in my focus. It was to accomplish a specific task. But Gendo… he made me expand my field of view. He made me see how my work would change the world.
"I had never been concerned with influencing others. But as I got to know him, I became obsessed with it. And after the Impact, I realized life can end in a heartbeat. I didn't want to die. I wanted to live, to have my work exist far past the end of my days. I wanted to show people hope survived, that man would survive this new world. That science would prevail where God had abandoned his children. It became my dream to forever preserve mankind, in one form or another.
"It drove me on. No problem seemed too great, or beyond my skill. I felt empowered. Like I was finding my true potential. It was exhilarating. And it was all thanks to Gendo."
"Do you…" Ritsuko sucked in a breath. "Do you remember anything about the Evangelion?"
"The what?" the boy asked.
"The Evangelion." The doctor leaned forward slightly. "Any of the units. Anything at all."
"I… forgive me. I don't know anything like that."
"Do you remember Adam? The Giant of Light?"
"Is that a character? I'm sorry," Shinji said. "I don't know what you're talking about."
Ritsuko felt like sighing in relief. This truly wasn't Yui. It seemed this persona was shielding everything that Shinji deemed painful or frightening. It might take years to undue the damage, if that. She couldn't see the boy recovering quick enough to be of any real use in the final three Angel attacks.
Which meant they were all but assured to fail. Without Unit-01… SEELE could stop them any time they wished. With Gendo gone, the end, just as Fuyutsuki said, was here far sooner than anticipated. They were all living on borrowed time, more so than ever before.
"Do you remember what Gendo did to you?" Ritsuko asked. She glanced at Misato. The major was staring straight at Shinji, her jaw in a tight lock.
"What he did? Oh, you mean… that." The boy blushed. "Well, I… I heard the first few times are painful, and they were. I… bled a lot, and I had to be treated." He shot forward. "Oh! But it wasn't his fault! I told him I wanted to. He said we shouldn't, but I convinced him."
Ritsuko blinked hard, fighting off a wave of prickly lightheadedness.
"I convinced him," he said again, "because I… I love him. I told him that, but he was still reluctant. Even when I told him about how we met, and how much we meant to each other, he said no. So, I mean…"
He blushed again.
"…but we did… other stuff for a while." He covered his eyes. "I can't believe I'm telling you all of this."
"It's important," Ritsuko said. She swallowed all emotion. "Please continue."
"Well, sometimes we... you know… did stuff. At first we just hugged, or touched. Sometimes he'd simply hold me while we talked. But as time went by… one night be told me he needed me. It was the first time we kissed. We had been talking about our first date… it seems like ages ago now… and we'd seen this awful movie, but we both laughed because it was so bad. That was what we usually did, lately I mean. He loved hearing about what we used to do when we first met. I liked hearing it too.
"But that night, he said he needed me, and he held me so tight it hurt to breathe. But it felt good, too. He held me for a long time… and then… and then… then he told me… he loved me."
A bright blush lit up his cheeks. His smile was uninhibited ecstasy.
"I just felt so… light. I was elated. I think I cried a little. I mean, I was shaking I was so happy.
"Then he leaned down to me, very slowly, a hand on each of my shoulders. And softly, gently, he kissed me. It was with such care and tenderness. It was just a bare grazing of my lips… it was amazing. It wasn't like on TV. He didn't use his tongue, or tear at my clothes, or crush his mouth to mine. It was just a grazing. Like he was in no rush. Like he had all the time in the world. It was perfect.
"I love him, and he loves me. He said so. He loves me now."
The lavender haired woman was crying. The blonde haired woman looked white as a sheet.
"Please… please don't cry. It's okay."
They did not listen. The woman in the red jacket was openly weeping, great wracking sobs. She was curled into a ball on her chair, fingers clawing at her hair. The blonde doctor appeared to be in a losing battle to retain the contents of her stomach. She held one hand over her mouth. Her eyes were screwed tightly shut.
Yui smiled at them good-naturedly.
"Please don't cry," she said. "It's all right. He said he loves me. That's all that matters."
Her smile never wavered.
"He loves me now. He loves me."
The Second Other
Author notes: I wanted to leave it to the reader to determine how aware Shinji truly was during this whole episode. Yeah, Gendo is pretty effing crazy, but how sick would Shinji have to be, to do all that, just to hear those words from his father…
I could have dragged the assault on Gendo out a bit more, but by the section on the bridge where Misato talks to Kaji, I think most readers have put it together. No need for length.
Celebrex is an actual drug. I know by 2015 something else would be available, but who cares.
I really wanted Shinji and Rei to meet in this, but it just didn't work out. Oh well.