Disclaimer: I do not own Evangelion, or anything associated with it. I have written this story solely because I enjoy writing.

Disclaimer: I do not own anything belonging to Marvel Comics or anything associated with it. I have written this story solely because I enjoy writing.

Chapter 12: A Tangled Web

As Ritsuko Akagi made her way through the streets of Tokyo-3, she couldn't help but feel exhausted. So much so that she barely paid attention to the emergency crews that were roaming about the city, assisting anyone who had been injured as a result of the 12th Angel during its brief attack, as well as initiating makeshift repairs to bring what systems had been rendered inoperative back online.

It wasn't physical exhaustion. Her spider-enhanced physiology was still going strong. But Ritsuko still felt like she was carrying the weight of the world on her shoulders. And as she continued forward, casting glances at the frail-looking girl who was moving alongside of her, she felt like the moon and a few comets had showed up to make her burden that much heavier.

What am I supposed to do? Ritsuko thought, and not for the first time that evening. Her impromptu meeting with Fisk haunting her thoughts with every step she took. Steps that brought her no closer to either an answer, or peace of mind. I still can't believe that…that he would actually…!

But even as she thought this, Ritsuko frowned, for the truth of the matter was that she could believe it. She had absolutely no trouble believing that Fisk, despite his kind words and gentlemanly airs, would demand that Rei be carved apart like a frog for a high school science project. He was a member of SEELE, the very same monsters that had sent in motion Second Impact. Had gone on with their schemes as if the catastrophic loss of life that resulted meant absolutely nothing to them. How could she believe that, after all the pain and misery they had caused, that the life of one girl would mean anything to them? Especially one that was, in their eyes, so easily replaced?

I guess I got used to dealing with the way Gendo did things, Ritsuko thought unhappily as she once again looked at her companion. Recalling the way that the late and unlamented Commander had burned his hands in order to save Rei. How everything, all his plans and schemes, all revolved around her.

How his attention, his adoration, had always been so visibly directed at her.

Suppressing a shudder as these thoughts caused a wave of pain and malice not quite forgotten to come to the fore, Ritsuko once again looked down at Rei. Barely able to make out the traces of emotion flickering behind the albino's crimson eyes. And while she felt trapped between hatred and shame as she thought of all the things Gendo's creation symbolized for her, the idea of carrying out Fisk's decree…

Heaving a heavy sigh, Ritsuko looked down at her own feet as they tirelessly carried her forward. It was late, and despite the people working throughout the city, despite the occasional sound of sirens as an emergency crew responded to some crisis or another, it was quiet. Too quiet to muffle the chaos that weighed upon her mind and shoulders. Pressing her lips together, the doctor looked down at her companion, who was still every bit as silent as she was used to. "Rei?" Ritsuko started, almost surprising herself as she began speaking. "So…how're you doing?"

Looking up and seeming almost as surprised as the doctor, Rei then frowned in consideration. "I…am well, if that's what you mean," she finally told her, sounding somewhat uncertain as she spoke.

"I mean…are you tired?" Ritsuko tried again, suddenly needing to talk. To bury the horrors of the day with simple conversation. "It's…been a long day, and…I'm sure you must be hungry, and…"

Narrowing her eyes somewhat, Rei seemed to consider the doctor's words. "I am somewhat hungry," she finally admitted. "And I am tired as well." The blue-haired frowned as she studied her guardian. "Why do you ask?"

"Why do I…?" Ritsuko repeated, only to give a short snort of laughter before recovering. "Wh-what do you mean, why am I asking? Is there…some reason I shouldn't?"

"No," Rei answered instantly. "However, neither condition is serious enough to be of immediate concern. And in any case, there is nothing that can be done to remedy my situation until I get back home." Returning her attention to the road ahead of her, the albino concluded, "Therefore, there was no reason to mention these things."

As Ritsuko considered the 1st Child's words, the scientist in her couldn't help but think that her reasoning was nothing if not logical. There was absolutely no use in complaining about something when there was nothing that could be done about it. Her car was gone, and there had been no one available to give two of them a lift back. And thanks to the fact that the subways were still inoperative as a result of the 12th Angel's assault, there wasn't anything Ritsuko could do to get Rei back home any faster.

Besides, it's not as if I can just change into Spider-Woman and carry her back home that way, Ritsuko thought with somewhat ill humor. And it's not like there are going to be any restaurants open in this area. Not with all the power outages we've seen already, she decided as she looked about the dark towers that surrounded her on every side. Hell, I'll consider myself lucky if the damned apartment building still has power!

Suffering a mild headache as she thought of this, as well as the cranky cat that she would likely be met with upon her return, Ritsuko once again looked towards her charge. "I see," she finally told her, deciding that maybe a change in subject might be in order. "Still…I am your guardian, after all. And…I don't want you to think that you can't…talk to me about things like that."

There was silence for a time as Rei pondered these words. "But…Commander Ikari…told me that I shouldn't bother him with nonessential details. And…"

"Well, I'm not Commander Ikari," Ritsuko broke in, a touch of venom adhering to her words. Feeling a slight tremor at these words, at memories too painful for her to want to look at, the doctor focused on the girl, and struggled to find the right words to say. "And…I'm telling you that…well…"

"Yes?" Rei prompted, something resembling concern in her eyes as she studied the doctor.

A sigh escaping her lips, Ritsuko tried to force her brain to cough up the right thing for her to say. "That…" she tried again, her tongue falling flat in her mouth. Forcing her to heave a deep breath before trying again. "…If there's something…bothering you…that you should be able to…talk to me about it." Frowning at how hollow and empty these words sounded, even to herself, the doctor added, "That's all."

Her eyes narrowing, Rei seemed to consider this for a time before finally answering. "Yes, Dr. Akagi."

Which was not even close to the kind of response Ritsuko would have wanted. But in the end, as she continued forward, decided was what to be expected. After all the conditioning Rei had been subjected to, getting her to open up to her…

Then again, what do I really know about her? Or about any of the other children, for that matter? Ritsuko found herself thinking. I work with them on the base, I've seen Shinji and Asuka when I stop by Misato's place, but…

With a furrowing of her brows, Ritsuko found herself thinking back, and slowly realizing just how little she had dealt with the children in the past. And when she had dealt with them, it had either been in a purely professional role as Head Scientist, or simply as Misato's friend, like when she had been to the party celebrating her promotion to Major. And in her dealings with Rei, when she had been carrying out Gendo's will, making sure that his plans for her went ahead unimpeded…

Once again feeling the weight of the world and a few other celestial bodies on her shoulder, Ritsuko turned back towards her ward. Dammit, why am I even trying to think about this right now? she demanded of herself. I'm tired, I've got to run analyses tomorrow, not to mention the rest of the work I have to do, and I still have to figure out some way to…

As each burden piled up with no end in sight, Ritsuko stopped thinking. It hurt too much. She could practically feel her brain raising the white flag of surrender. That does it. I think I'd better put off trying to think until I've gotten a few hours of sleep, the faux-blonde finally decided. When her stomach chimed in with a mild rumble of hunger, she rolled her eyes skyward. And maybe a bite for dinner, while I'm at it.

A hot meal and a warm bed. Just thinking of these two things made Ritsuko nod thoughtfully, the faintest of smiles ghosting her lips. That's it. Besides, I'm going to need all the rest I can get for tomorrow, she reminded herself, glad for an excuse to stop thinking of her many woes. I've still got those analyses to work on, I have to call my insurance agent, I have to arrange for a new car, never mind all the work I still have to…

As these many responsibilities that bore her name danced about in her mind, easily wiping away any trace of a smile. What little emotional strength she had left failing when she remembered something else. One final bit of business that she needed to attend to that night. "Um, Rei?" Ritsuko started, immediately drawing the albino's attention. "Before you go home, there're some things I want to talk with you about at my place. In private."

"Yes, Dr. Akagi," Rei returned immediately.

Gratified by the quickness of the albino's response, at her instant cooperation, Ritsuko was about to turn back towards the road ahead. But to her surprise, she continued to look into Rei's tiny face, and remember that there was one other duty that was required of her. "And…" she began again, once again caught between the many tumultuous emotions that Yui's clone inspired in her. "…while we're talking…maybe I could get you something to eat?"

This time, the blue-haired girl was slow in responding. Her crimson eyes met Ritsuko's own, and for a moment, the doctor could have sworn that she saw something that looked like surprise in them. "Something…to eat?"

"Sure. Why not?" Ritsuko began, feeling an edge of uncertainty cutting into her. "I mean…you said you were hungry, didn't you?" When Rei replied with a curt nod, the doctor managed to curl up the corner of her lip. "Well…I don't see any reason why we can't eat and talk at the same time. Do you?"

Again, Rei averted her eyes as she considered this possibility. "No. I…do not," she finally admitted. Then she looked up at Ritsuko, more emotions swirling mercurially about her face. "Are you…sure?"

"Of course I'm sure," Ritsuko nodded, feeling better at this response. "C'mon. The sooner we get back, the sooner we can finally relax." Turning back towards the road ahead, the doctor found herself feeling just a bit better. For while there was nothing she could really do to make the rest of Rei's night any easier, she was glad that she had decided not to make it any more difficult than it already was.

As Rei followed Ritsuko into the doctor's apartment, the albino couldn't help but think that she was entering a forbidden place. A place where her presence was unwanted, and could only invite danger for her.

"Just sit down and relax, Rei," Ritsuko told her, the pleasant tone with which she spoke completely at odds with the aura the woman radiated. The strange, dangerous, predatory feel that she now had in her human form was still with her. Like she was watching her, even when she had back turned to her. "I'll go see what I have in the fridge."

"Yes, Dr. Akagi," Rei returned as she watched the faux-blonde move away. However, even as Ritsuko disappeared from view, the deadly, bestial presence she had remained. Leaving her to stand in the entry hall for a time, taking in her surroundings.

The first thing Rei noticed was the smell. It was an animal scent, that much was clear, but one she didn't recognize. Frowning somewhat, the blue-haired girl considered what this might mean, only to have her question answered for her when a marmalade tabby appeared before her. Standing stock-still, she watched as the cat gave her a look, as if wondering who this strange person was who was intruding in its home, before giving a loud meow.

"Hmm? Miko?" Ritsuko sounded. Poking her head back into view, the doctor took a quick look at the both of them before smiling. "Oh, I see." Seeming to laugh with her face, she focused on her guest. "Rei, this is Miko." Then looking towards the cat, she added, "Miko, this is Rei. She's going to be having dinner with us tonight."

The cat looked up at its owner, then turned back to Rei. Cocking its head, it slowly came up to the albino, and gave her leg an experimental sniff. Unsure of what to do in a situation like this, she continued to stand there and watch as Miko moved in even closer and began to lick her leg.

"Well, I guess she likes you," Ritsuko decided, sounding rather satisfied with the idea. "So, Rei…I don't have much except for some instant dinners. Do you have any preferences?"

Caught between the unexpected question and the unfamiliar sensation of a cat's raspy tongue brushing against her skin, Rei was forced to pause to consider the question. "No. Except…"

"Except?" Ritsuko repeated, puzzled by the hesitation.

"I…dislike…eating meat," Rei ultimately told her. Still watching and waiting for any sign of rebuff her words might result in.

Blinking a few times, Ritsuko then sighed. "Okay," she finally answered. "Well, I don't have much in the way of vegetarian food, except for some instant ramen. Is that okay?"

"Yes, Dr. Akagi," Rei agreed immediately. With that, the doctor once again disappeared from sight, presumably to begin preparing the food in question. Leaving the albino alone, with a cat that was now brushing up against her leg, like she didn't have a care in the world.

Unsure of what else she could do at this point, but soon deciding that there was no point in standing in the entry hall for the duration of her visit there, Rei decided to go further into the apartment. Moving into the living room, she quickly surveyed the furnishings present. It was clearly set up for one person, with maybe a guest or two. As such, it was limited to a sofa and a couple of chairs. After a moment's consideration, Rei finally settled on one of the chairs, the one closest to the door.

As soon as Rei had seated herself, she heard a plaintive meow. Looking down, she discovered that Miko had decided to follow her, and was now looking up at her, her tail swishing about on the floor. Uncertain as to the meaning of the cat's body language, the girl just sat there and watched, and ultimately sucked in a surprised breath when the tabby leapt up on her lap.

Rei had done many things over the course of both lives. She had lived and trained for combat, she had dealt with the noises and adverse conditions of living in the middle of the old Hakone section. But she had absolutely no idea of what she should do with the large, furry animal that circled about on her lap before finally lying down, purring in contentment.

As Rei sat there, wondering if there was a manual detailing what a person should do in situations like this, Ritsuko once again reappeared. "By the way, Rei, I…" the doctor began, only to break off as she took in scene before her. "Well, I'll be damned…"

"Doctor?" Rei murmured, puzzled by the stunned silence Ritsuko was exhibiting.

"I don't believe this. Miko's never been comfortable with people she didn't know," Ritsuko muttered, giving a slow shake of her head as she examined the purring lump of fur on Rei's lap. "The last time I saw her on someone else's lap was when my grandmother came to visit."

Looking from the doctor to the cat that was slowly going to sleep on her lap and back again, Rei quickly decided that a change in topic was in order. "Did you…want something, Dr. Akagi?"

"Hmm?" Ritsuko started, only to roll her eyes in abashment. "Oh, right. I was just going to ask if you wanted anything in particular to drink. I don't have much, except for some juice, and some herbal tea…"

"Tea will be fine," Rei informed her quietly. When Ritsuko nodded and once again disappeared into the kitchen, the albino was left alone. With nothing but a purring bundle of fuzz and fluff to keep her company as she looked about the interior of Ritsuko's apartment.

As she sat there, listening to the doctor puttering about in the kitchen, Rei couldn't help but think that this was a very different place. Not only from the apartment that had been her home for the past two years of her life, but also from her new dwellings. Even with a layout and color scheme that was virtually identical to her current home, she still couldn't help but thing that there was a vast difference between the two homes. And after a minute or so of consideration, Rei realized what that was.

The apartment she was in was Ritsuko's. As Rei surveyed the furnishings, the various pictures and decorations that were present, she could see the doctor's personality in everything. There were small statuettes of cats, as well as other feline-themed décor to be seen here and there. There were also pictures of the doctor with Misato, the two women dressed in more casual attire, as well as ones with the both of them with Kaji. There were also other pictures of places and people that Rei was unfamiliar with. Obvious things of importance to the doctor. There were books on computers and genetics, amongst others, and even a few old romances. It was like the apartment was an extension of Ritsuko's very being.

This was something that left Rei frowning somewhat, simply because she knew her own home was not the same. She had some marginal furniture, some of them holdovers from her previous apartment, while most were new things that had been arranged for her when Ritsuko had been granted guardianship of her. But there were no books beyond her school texts, no statues or pictures or anything of that nature.

Nothing except for a set of broken glasses that had once belonged to a man that was now dead. Along with the purpose that Rei had once known.

Frowning at these troubling thoughts, Rei continued to sit there, listening to Miko purr happily in her lap. And was only broken from these things when the sound of approaching footsteps was heard. "Here you go," Ritsuko spoke pleasantly as she handed the girl a cup of iced tea. "Your ramen should be ready in a minute."

"Thank you…Dr. Akagi," Rei responded. Still having difficulty with the combination of Ritsuko's pleasant treatment of her and the sheer danger she radiated. And so, she continued to sit there and watch as the doctor returned to the kitchen, and soon emerged with a cup of coffee. Before long, the both of them were seated opposite each other, each with food and beverage.

As Ritsuko sat back, absently maneuvering a set of chopsticks into her own cup of ramen, she gave the girl a weary look. "Rei…I know we've both had a long day already, but…as I said before, there are a few things that we need to talk about." Looking down into her cup, her brows furrowed as she dug about her small meal, the doctor took a deep breath. "First of all…I want to make sure that you understand that, no matter what happens, you can't tell anyone about my…secret. Is that understood?" When Rei continued to sit there in silence, simply looking at the doctor, she snorted lightly before leaning forward. "I mean it. I don't want anyone else to know that I'm…"

Hearing so much in the silence that fell as Ritsuko trailed off, in the way the doctor motioned her hands, Rei concluded, "That you are Spider-Woman." When Ritsuko froze at the mentioning of that name, her eyes instantly sliding about the room as if in search of potential spies, Rei was momentarily confused.

Then it was the 1st Child's turn to freeze, for while she didn't understand emotions very well at times, she was still capable of observing them in others. And what she had seen flashing across Ritsuko's face, what was now hovering wraithlike about the surface, was something that Rei understood very well. Something the doctor even now inspired in her.


"That's right," Ritsuko told her as she slowly recovered her composure. "I…I can't go into it right now, Rei, but it is very important that no one know about this. And I mean no one." Unable to miss the heavy emphasis placed on those last words, Rei just sat there and watched as the doctor heaved a few deep breaths, returning her surface emotions back to the depths. "And so I…I need to know that I can trust you to keep this secret. Understood?"

"I understand," Rei quickly answered. "I will not tell anyone about this."

More of the doctor's fear drained from view, and once again she smiled. "Thank you," was all she said. Then she looked back down at her cup of noodles, and let her eyes linger on it, like she was wondering when it had come from. Then she used her chopsticks to gather up a small portion of the ramen. "However, there is one other thing we need to talk about."

"What?" Rei asked while Ritsuko slurped up the noodles, not bothering to be neat about it.

Pausing just long enough to chew and swallow the mouthful of food, Ritsuko then began, "You said before that you sensed something…different about me. Right?" Rei nodded to this. "And…you said something else. That this…something felt...dangerous to you? Is that right?"

"That is correct," Rei confirmed with a nod. "I…can still sense it. Right now."

For a moment, Ritsuko just sat there, looking at the albino. "I see," she eventually returned, lowering her eyes somewhat. "But…what do you mean, dangerous? Dangerous, how? In what way?"

This time, it was Rei's turn to pause. Looking down at the feline bundle of fur in her lap, she found it was sleeping contently, completely oblivious to the worries and concerns of the waking world. Feeling a touch of envy at this, the blue-haired girl looked back up at the doctor, and considered the matter. "I'm…not sure," she admitted after a while. "I…feel as if something is…watching me."

"Have you…ever felt like this before?" Ritsuko asked, looking intently at the subject of her queries. Shaking her head to this, Rei waited for the next question. "When did you first have this…feeling?"

"At Commander Ikari's wake," Rei admitted. When Ritsuko sucked in a quiet breath, and began nodding, the albino asked, "Doctor…what is it?"

"Hmm? Oh, it's…it's nothing, Rei. Nothing," Ritsuko answered dismissively, waving away her concerns with her chopsticks. "I…might have an idea of what caused this feeling, that's all. But I'll have to run some tests at NERV, before I can be sure." As she looked about the room, the faux-blonde then returned her focus to her guest, and rolled her eyes in apparent chagrin. "Uh, you better finish your noodles. Before they get cold."

Frowning somewhat, Rei realized that Ritsuko had no intention of engaging in further conversation. At least, nothing relating to her alter ego, or the events of that day. So with a weary nod, she said, "Yes, doctor." And began eating her impromptu meal.

As Rei sucked down a mouthful of noodles, Ritsuko continued to watch her, a strange expression slowly spreading across her face. "Uh, Rei?" she began, catching the albino off-guard. Pausing even as she deposited another load of noodles in her mouth, Rei met the doctor's eyes. The two of them just sat there, looking at each other for a time, before she continued. "This…thing you're sensing in me…you said it felt dangerous to you?" Frowning her puzzlement, Rei gave a slow nod. "And that it goes away when I…transform?"

"Yes, Doctor," Rei answered, unsure of what she was getting at.

Tilting her head to the side, Ritsuko then asked, "This feeling…it scares you, doesn't it?" Her mouth opened slightly, Rei's only expression of surprise before she recovered enough to close it once more. "Rei, I told you before. If something's bothering you, then I want you to tell me about it." Leaning towards the girl that she had once admitted to hating, she looked at her with eyes completely free of malice. "Would you be more comfortable if I changed?"

As this question sounded through her ears, Rei sat up straighter, and looked at the doctor, momentarily uncertain if she had heard this question correctly. "You…" she began, only to avert her eyes once more. Working her mouth, the 1st Child, the girl who had absorbed the brunt of the 5th Angel's devastating beam attack without fear, felt her lips quiver before she managed to speak again. "You don't have to…"

"That's not what I'm asking, Rei," Ritsuko pressed on, still looking directly at her charge. "Would you feel better if I transformed?"

For a few minutes, Rei considered this question, as well as the uneasy feelings she still experienced. Doubts and confusion that revolved around the woman who had been given care of her, so much that had happened so fast. Who had absolutely no practical reason to do what she was doing, stood to gain nothing from Rei's continued existence. And yet, had chosen to save her when she had been on the brink of death. Had saved her from the black abyss that was the 12th Angel.

As Rei thought back to that moment, when she had been held tightly within Spider-Woman's arms as she had flown them to safety, she found herself looking at the woman who had worn that mask, and asking, "I…would appreciate that, Doctor."

A moment passed, a moment in which Rei was certain she had made a mistake in saying this. But soon, her fears were dispelled when Ritsuko nodded before standing. "Alright," the faux-blonde said before placing her drink and ramen on a nearby table. "Just give me a moment to get out of these things and into something more comfortable."

"I…of course," Rei answered. Watching in astonishment as Ritsuko departed from the living room, already removing her shirt. The doctor soon disappeared into another room, and roughly half a minute later, the terrible sensation that she created within Rei's mind was gone as well.

As Rei sank back into her chair, practically collapsing with relief, Ritsuko called out. "Is that better?"

"Yes," Rei answered, her voice somewhat shaky. It was as if she had been fighting against an invisible hand that had been squeezing her relentlessly, and she was only now free of its grip. "I...thank you."

"Not a problem," Ritsuko replied. A few minutes passed before the doctor appeared once more, this time wearing a loose-fitting nightgown with nothing but lingerie beneath it. As she once again sat down in her chair, Rei noticed her extra arms moving beneath the gown, draping themselves comfortably over the armrests. "Now, why don't we finish eating so we can get to bed? We've got a long day ahead of us."

"Yes," Rei agreed, and with this in mind, she returned her focus to her meal. The two of them ate in relative silence, with only the sound of Miko's purrs of contentment filling her ears.

It wasn't long before Rei had emptied both her cup of noodles and glass of tea, and felt the warm, relaxed sensation of a full stomach suffusing her. "Thank you for the meal, Dr. Akagi," she spoke as she carefully set the emptied vessels on a nearby table.

"Not a problem, Rei," Ritsuko returned, standing up with her own empty cups. Moving over to the girl, she sent two of her arachnoid arms snaking out of her nightgown. "Here, I'll take these to the kitchen. You better get back to your apartment and get some sleep."

"Yes," Rei agreed, watching with idle curiosity as the doctor took the emptied cup and glass in her inhuman claws. As she turned and left to go the kitchen, the albino then turned her gaze to Miko, who was still sleeping contentedly in her lap. And frowned as she considered how best to remove the bundle of fluff from her person without disturbing it unnecessarily.

I'd rather not awaken it, Rei soon decided. After all, it was clearly comfortable, and she didn't like the idea of rousing it unnecessarily. Also, I have heard that cats can be unpleasant when suddenly awakened. As she continued to ponder the matter, coming up with no ready solution, Rei watched as Miko's side rose and fell in synch with her breathing. Cocking her head to the side, she decided to try and gauge how deeply asleep the tabby was, and so carefully placed her hand between its ears. As if aware of her presence, Miko moved so as to press her head more firmly into Rei's palm.

Hmm. This will not be easy, Rei decided. While she was making plans to track down a manual detailing how a person best dealt with cats, she felt a deeper wave of weariness wash over her. Still, I had better go home, the albino decided, her eyelids becoming heavier. The combination of a full stomach and Miko's warmth quickly adding to her drowsiness. Dr. Akagi was…she was correct when she said that…tomorrow will be…

This was the last thing Rei thought before her eyes fell closed. Without even realizing it, she leaned back in her seat, and was soon as sound asleep as Miko was.

"I…don't…believe this…" Ritsuko muttered, shaking her head in astonishment as she looked at Rei. The blue-haired girl was sound asleep, her head resting against the side of her chair, and her hand unconsciously massaging Miko's ears.

I never imagined that…I can't believe this is actually happening! Is that really Rei? Ritsuko demanded, utterly incredulous. In the years she had known the 1st Child, she had never acted like what one would consider to be a normal girl of her age. Far from it; in fact, there had been several occasions when the doctor had heard people joking about the Commander's little windup toy, commenting that if someone were to replace her with a robot, it would probably take a few years for anyone to notice. And there had certainly been plenty of times when the doctor had thought of Rei as a kind of robot; one made of flesh and blood, rather than metal and plastic.

And now, as Ritsuko stood there, looking at the girl Gendo had created and shaped to be nothing more than a tool, watching her sleep the sleep of the innocent, she heaved a tired sigh. Well…I guess I should wake her up…get her back to her apartment so she can sleep in her own bed… the doctor thought. It would certainly be the logical decision. And it would save her the trouble of dealing with that chore come morning. Or having to deal with Rei waking up in the middle of the night, in need of using the facilities.

But as the doctor continued to stand there, half-expecting for someone to show up and tell her she was on one of those hidden camera shows, she watched as Miko snuggled up even closer to her brand-new friend and sleeping cushion. Watched as a tiny smile curled Rei's lips, the girl sighing contentedly in her sleep. And as feelings warm and unfamiliar to her rose to the surface, Ritsuko heaved a weary breath. Ah, what the hell, she finally decided, quietly chuckling in her throat. Besides, I'm too tired to deal with this, anyway!

With that in mind, Ritsuko turned and made her way back to her room. The image of Rei looking so content, so innocent, still with her even as she surrendered to sleep as well.

"Ah, Harold! Good afternoon, dear boy!"

A puzzled noise sounding in her throat, Misato sat up in confusion. Uncertain as to whether or not her sleep-addled brain was accurately processing whatever it was her ears had just picked up, the Major looked up at her companion, who was already looking towards the source of the voice. "Uh – Mr. Fisk!" Harry gasped, his cheeks coloring with embarrassment. Scooting his chair backwards, he quickly moved to stand up. "Sir, I -!"

"Oh, there's no need for such formality! After all, neither of us is on duty!" Fisk responded even as Misato looked in his direction. "And a good day to you, as well, Major."

"Uh, thank you, sir," Misato replied as she eyed the massive figure. As was usual, Fisk looked every bit the polished, well-dressed gentlemen. Every button was buttoned, his custom-tailored suit was perfectly in place, and there was no doubt in her mind that there wasn't so much as a piece of lint marring his clothes. The result was a man who practically oozed power and control, even in a place as mundane as the NERV café they were in.

And, of course, I feel like a wreck after last night, Misato grumbled inwardly, thinking back to all of the paperwork she had had to deal with after returning from yesterday's operation. Paperwork that had bred and multiplied overnight, leaving her facing a horrendous mountain of bureaucratic bullshit when she had come in this morning. Brushing aside a tuft of her hair that was badly out of place, she added inwardly, And I probably look it, too.

"I see we decided to enjoy lunch together," Fisk commented as he looked between them. Following his gaze, Misato saw a mess of dirty plates and glasses, a mess that she and Harry had been caught in the midst of making even bigger.

Suffering a pang of guilt, Misato looked up at the Marduk representative. "Uh, well, sir…" she started, feeling like a schoolgirl that had been caught in the act of doing something forbidden. Or at least rather stupid. "We were just…"

"Just – talking, sir!" Harry told him bashfully, his nervous voice drawing Misato's gaze. And leaving her looking at someone that neither looked nor sounded like the Commander of NERV, or anything else for that matter. Instead, Osborn looked much like the child that she felt like at that moment. "Misato – er, Major Katsuragi, that is…well we were -!" As Harry trailed off helplessly, looking towards the Major as he expected her to know what to say, the two of them were caught off-guard when Fisk chuckled warmly.

"You don't have to explain anything to me, Harold. And neither do you, Major, for that matter," Fisk told them, brushing aside their concerns like they were dust. "You're both adults. You have every right to enjoy your leisure time in any way you see fit. And in whomever's company you wish."

"Err…right," Misato managed to get out, still not over the sensation of embarrassment the well-dressed gentleman inspired in her. Looking between him and Harry, she struggled to regain herself before gesturing towards a nearby seat. "Would you…care to join us?"

Smiling a bit more, Fisk simply glanced at the chair in question. A chair that didn't look like a chance in hell of even supporting the mountainous man's weight, let alone seating him comfortably. "Thank you, but no," he politely declined. "As it happens, I'm here on a matter of business."

"Really?" Misato returned, frowning with her eyes as she glanced over at Harry. "What…kind of business?"

"The kind that I mentioned to you yesterday, Major," Fisk stated, some of his gentlemanly airs fading he spoke with a cold, hard edge of authority. "I realize, of course, that you must still be recovering from yesterday's trials and tribulations, but these are matters that I would see taken care of. As soon as humanly possible."

Frowning at this, Misato once again turned to Harry, who responded with a helpless shrug. Taking a moment to wonder exactly who was in charge of NERV these days, the Major once again eyed Fisk. "Very well, sir. Just give me a moment, and…"

"Now, now. Feel free to finish your meal, my dear," Fisk told her, once again the polished gentleman that he usually presented himself as. "But as soon as you're done, I would appreciate it if you joined me in my office."

"Uh…yes, sir," Misato answered, still somewhat abashed by Fisk's presence.

"Very good. Until then, Major," Fisk beamed, giving her a polite bow of his head. He repeated this gesture to Harry. "And a good day to you, as well, Harold."

"Um…thank you, sir," Harry replied nervously. But Fisk had turned about before he could complete his comment, and was already leaving. Not even bothering to ask the Commander to be dismissed.

Deciding that there was no real reason to wonder who truly ran NERV after all, Misato gave the named Commander a sympathetic smile. "He never stops, does he?"

"Nope. Not to my knowledge," Harry agreed with a heavy sigh.

Shaking her head at this, Misato eyed what little remained of her noon repast. "Well, I better finish this up and get going. I get the feeling I really don't want to keep him waiting."

"I know what you mean," Harry commented in a knowing fashion. Then a look of alarm crossed his face, and he added, "Well, what I mean is…that is, he's not a bad person!"

"I'm sure he isn't," Misato chuckled even as she forked up a mouthful.

"No, I mean…" His words collapsing into a nervous chuckle, Harry started staring at what was left of his own lunch. "Mr. Fisk…he was a big help to me, after…" The unassuming, boyish man's voice broke at this, broke with a pain that Misato could detect easily. Pressing his lips together, Harry looked up at her, and gave a dismissive wave. "I'm sorry. It's…a long story, and…"

"I understand. I have plenty of long stories of my own," Misato murmured gently, to which Harry gave an appreciative smile. With this, the two of them fell into relative silence, leaving the Major to quickly finish up her meal. Washing her lunch down by quickly downing the rest of her drink, she smiled and said. "Well, I better get going."

"Yeah, I guess," Harry concurred even as she stood from her seat. When Misato reached down to gather up her tray, the Commander waved both hands in negation. "Oh, you don't have to bother with those. I'll take care of it."

"Really?" Misato paused, looking up from her messy tray to her current Commander. "Are you sure, because I…?"

"No, no, it's no trouble!" Harry beamed. Like picking up after his Operations Director was just another day at the office for him. "Please, go ahead!"

Holding still for a few minutes longer, Misato finally smiled and nodded. "Well, okay. Who am I to argue with the Commander, anyway?" When Harry visibly winced at being referred to as such, the Major then chuckled, as if this was a private joke. After a few moments of watching, Osborn gave a halting laugh before rolling his eyes. "Well, thanks. The sooner I get this little meeting over with, the better I'll feel."

"I'm sure," Harry nodded, to which the Major smiled. As she began to turn away, however, he held up his hand. "Oh, and by the way…I will be seeing you next Friday…right?"

"At the Jade Lounge. Absolutely!" Misato assured him. When Harry sank down, relief practically oozing out of his ears, it was all she could do not to start laughing again even as she started out of the café.

I swear, he's so much like Shinji, it's almost scary! Misato thought as she entered the labyrinthine network of halls that ran through NERV. He acts so shy and quiet most of the time, but…it almost feels like he has something…pent up inside of him…

As the Major idly considered Harry's actions and mannerisms, her body was working on automatic pilot. And as a result, she very nearly wound up taking a right where she needed to go left. Fortunately enough, she became aware of her error after only a dozen steps, and with dismayed groan and a series of barely audible curses, corrected her course. After that, she managed to keep her mind on making sure she didn't get lost for the first time in months, and after a few additional missteps here and there, she finally arrived at the small conference room Fisk had appropriated for his own use.

Switching on the small intercom that was set by the door, Misato announced, "Mr. Fisk? Major Katsuragi reporting."

"Then, please, do come right in, Major," Fisk responded in a brisk manner. Misato replied by pressed another button, one that caused the conference room door to slide open. Stepping inside the impromptu office, she was greeted with the sight of an immense, wooden desk, behind which Fisk sat comfortably on a large, highly-stylized chair that she could have sworn was padded with Corinthian leather. As she approached the mammoth figure, he gestured towards the chair opposite. "Have a seat, my dear."

"Thank you, sir," Misato replied with perfect discipline.

As the Major sat down in what to be the most comfortable chair of her life, Fisk once again fell into the role of the perfect gentleman. "Would you care for some tea, Major?" he asked, gesturing off to the side, where a cart laden with a teakettle, as well as cups and small pastries. "I expect this may take some time, and…we may as well make ourselves comfortable."

"Thank you, but…perhaps later," Misato demurred politely, to which Fisk nodded pleasantly before taking a sip from his own cup. "Mr. Fisk…last night, you told me that you were interested in increasing Tokyo-3's defenses…"

"That I did," Fisk agreed, setting the cup aside. Clasping his hands together before him in a manner reminiscent of Gendo's, the gentlemanly giant looked intently at Misato. "However, what I had in mind was to do more than increase the armaments of the city and the Evangelions. I feel that there is much more that needs to be done in order to safeguard our future."

Sitting back a bit, Misato tilted her head to the side as she studied Fisk. "What do you mean?"

"What I mean is that I believe we will need much more than the simple brute force of the Evangelions if we are to ultimately triumph over the Angels," Fisk told her. And once again his polished air faded somewhat as he leaned forward and looked at her with the intensity of a shark on the trail of prey. "You see, when design and construction of the Evas commenced, they were created to combat creatures similar in size and stature to Adam. We acted under the assumption that most of the Angels, if not all of them, would be like the 1st. At least enough so that our forces would be able to dispense with them with relative ease." Snorting at this, Fisk sat back somewhat, the corner of his lip curling wryly. "But that has not been the case, has it. Far from it, I'd say."

"Yes, sir," Misato concurred, suffering an edge of annoyance despite herself.

"Now, that isn't to say that you and the rest of NERV haven't performed admirably," Fisk commented, almost as an afterthought. "However, the Angels have proven to be more…versatile than anyone could have anticipated. Myself included." Despite herself, not even realizing what she was doing, Misato leaned in closer to the giant. Drawn along by the intensity of his words. "And as result, we have come dangerously close to defeat. Something we cannot afford."

"I realize that, sir," Misato told him.

"The 7th and 10th Angels, for instance," Fisk went on, seeming to be talking to himself more than to Misato. "Both of them possessed unique abilities that rendered the Evangelions virtually useless, and it was only through the mental ingenuity of you and the rest of the people here, as well as the fortitude of the Children, that they were thwarted. The same goes for the 12th, as well. Virtually untouchable, until NERV's scientists found a way to break through its defenses." Rolling her eyes as the mammoth gentleman rambled on, Misato turned away, getting more than a little annoyed. "And then there's the 11th."

The moment these words were spoken, Misato sat up that much straighter. "Sir?"

"You know what I'm speaking of, Major," Fisk stated, arching an eyebrow at her. "The nanite-collective that invaded the MAGI, and very nearly forced them to obliterate NERV and all of Tokyo-3. Including the Evangelions." While Misato frowned and stared, the Marduk representative leaned back in his seat, looking that much more thoughtful. "Humanity's ultimate weapon was of very little use to us that day, my dear. Wouldn't you agree?"

Blinking a few times in quick succession, Misato worked her jaw, trying to regain control of herself. "I…yes, sir," she finally got out. Finally, after several seconds of effort, she managed an authoritative glare. "Sir…if you don't mind my asking…how did you know about that? I…I thought that Commander Ikari…"

"Covered up that little incident?" Fisk smiled knowingly. "He certainly tried to. But as I'm sure we're both aware, there's a very large difference between trying to do something, and actually succeeding. And that all it takes is one set of loose lips to allow the truth to be set free."

"You mean…you've been spying on us?" Misato demanded, not liking the course this conversation was taking.

"Spying? Hardly," Fisk returned, a look of such perfect disgust spreading across his features that Misato was hard-pressed not to believe him. "However, it is true that a great deal is riding on NERV's efforts, and it behooves both the Committee and the Marduk institute to make certain that nothing happens to undermine our ultimate goal. That being the elimination of the Angels. Once and for all." Chuckling deep in his throat, the well-dressed giant looked Misato keenly in the eye. "In any case, it's very difficult to cover it up when all three of the Evangelions are evacuated from the Geofront. And when Ikari failed to give a satisfactory account as to why he deemed this necessary, well…suffice it to say, we have our ways of uncovering the truth."

Misato didn't say anything to this. Instead, she watched and waited as Fisk took a sip of his tea. "I can't say it's surprising, of course. For Ikari to openly admit that an Angel had succeeded in invading the Geofront would be tantamount to admitted that NERV's security was deeply flawed, and my colleagues in the Instrumentality Committee take a very dim view of that sort of thing. I knew Ikari well enough to be know just how much he disliked appearing vulnerable. To anyone, and for any reason."

"And you…you're okay with that?" Misato asked, not sure what to make of this.

"Of course not, Major. I merely said that I am not surprised by his actions. And, in all fairness, he may not have been entirely unjustified in feeling that he needed to protect himself in such a manner," Fisk commented. Setting down his tea cup, he harrumphed loudly before frowning. "However, we seem to be getting off-track here. What's important is the Angels. No two have been alike, and neither have their methods of attack. And so, I think it's foolish to leave Tokyo-3's defenses as they are. Especially when we have so many options at our disposal."

"And…what kind of options would those be?" Misato wondered, somewhat disconcerted by the jumps in topic.

"The first option, of course, is to arrange for further Evangelions to be deployed in Japan. Since all of the Angels to date have appeared here, I think it's safe to assume that they will continue to appear in this area. And since we already have several Units standing complete, I see no reason not to employ them in our defense," Fisk commented with a cool air. "However, our second option is a bit more…radical."

"Radical, sir?" Misato frowned.

"Yes, my dear. You see, scientists in my employ believe they have discovered another weapon for us to use in our war against the Angels," Fisk told her. Looking down at his desk, he pressed a series of controls on it, causing a holographic display screen to appear between them. Even as Misato recoiled in surprise, she let out a slight gasp at the technical schematics that scrolled past her eyes.

"What the…what is all this?" Misato demanded even as even more pictures and blueprints filled the air before her. Scooting backwards, the purple-haired woman looked this way and that, trying to make sense the techno-hodgepodge. There were pictures of what looked like weapons, as well as different forms of armor. Strange appendages and devices were all over the place...and unless she was mistaken, all of them devised to be wielded by human hands. "Sir?"

"Our scientists have been working to devise an end run around the many different forms the Angels take against us, and this, Major Katsuragi, is it," Fisk declared, looking like a proud father as he scanned the technical readouts. "The most sophisticated cybernetics and weapons ever devised by the human mind, coupled with advanced bio-engineering. All of which is designed to unlock humanity's full potential…and beget a soldier capable of aiding us in our most desperate hour."

"A soldier?" Misato frowned, raising an eyebrow at the Marduk representative. "Sir, are you saying that your plan…is to alter human beings to fight the Angels?"

"A somewhat crude summary of our intent, but essentially correct," Fisk informed Misato. While she was trying struggling to find the right words to say to this, the bald gentleman continued to manipulate the controls. "You see, due to financial constraints, we are extremely limited in the variety of weapons we can create that would be of use to the Evangelions. However, human analogs are much easier to build, as well as maintain."

An incredulous smile plastered on her face, Misato struggled to keep a mocking laugh from escaping her throat in full force. "I…I don't doubt that, sir," she managed to get out, trying very hard to be diplomatic about what she had to say. "But – with all due respect – what good is having a lot of weapons if they're too small to do anything?"

"A reasonable question, Major," Fisk conceded. "And it is true that these individuals, despite whatever augmentations they may possess, will be as of David to the Goliaths that number amongst our foes." Then a narrowing of an eye and a slight tugging of his lip transformed the Marduk representative's entire expression into one of feral cunning. "However, if I recall correctly, it was Goliath who fell before David. And all because his foe had a sling…and knew of a weakness in his foe that he could exploit." As Misato sat back, somewhat confused as she processed these words, Fisk went on. "We already know the most pertinent vulnerabilities of the Angels - namely, their cores - and with the MAGI and our scientists, we are well equipped to discover other soft spots in our foes. And trust me, Major, we are capable of endowing our forces with weapons far more substantial than simple slings."

Frowning as she found herself drawn along by Fisk's words, Misato sighed as she averted her eyes from his own. "That may be true, sir, but you're forgetting one thing," she told him. Struggling with emotions that were being brought to the surface by both his plans, and the myriad weapons being displayed for her benefit. "Without an AT-Field, these…enhanced humans would be completely powerless against the Angels! So unless you plan to have them work in conjunction with an Evangelion, I don't see what possible good they would be." Looking back up at Fisk, she sighed, feeling somewhat deflated by her own argument. "I mean…no offense intended, but -!"

"None taken, Major," Fisk broke in, holding up his hand. "And indeed, you have brought up several valid points. Ones that I myself raised when I was originally informed as to this project." And once again, a knowing, dangerous glint appeared in his eyes as he added, "Imagine my surprise when they told me they had already found a solution to that particularly knotty problem."

Of all the things Misato could have imagined Fisk saying, this statement of power hadn't even come close to being amongst them. "Sir?"

"It's actually quite delicious, the irony of it all. That the Angels are once again furnishing us with the key to their own destruction," Fisk commented, bringing up another display. One that showed a pattern of glowing gold, one that Misato immediately recognized. "Just as the Evangelions were created from Adam's flesh, in order to defeat his kin, the 11th Angel has furnished us with the key element to complete the ultimate human warrior."

"Wh-what…?" Misato fumbled out, shaking her head as Fisk once again directed the conversation to that particular monster. "What are y-you talking about, sir? How could the 11th Angel possibly -?"

"Be of use to us?" Fisk broke in, completing her question for her. Her mouth still hanging open, unable to say the words the mountainous gentleman had plucked from her lips, Misato quickly felt her confusion turning to anger. "Don't be upset, my dear," he told her, chuckling in his throat. "I expressed similar perplexity when I was told of this concept. But, thanks to some good friends working here, my scientists were provided with a sample of nanites left over from the 11th Angel. Nanites that have been completely wiped clean of their Angelic influences, and are blank slates for us to do with as we please."

Once again, Misato worked her jaw, trying to find something to say to this, anything, but she couldn't. Her mind was freezing up, flooding with conflicting images and ideas. The idea of using the monster that almost destroyed them, actually bonding it to human beings, was so utterly repugnant that it was beyond her ability to give it words. But at the same, she knew Fisk was right about the Evangelions, that they were also created from Adam's cells. And if he was telling the truth, that it was possible to give a human, any human, the power to slay the abominations that had haunted her nightmares for so long…

Dammit! What are you thinking? Misato hissed inwardly, hating how easy it was for her to be so easily sidetracked. How easily her hatred rose up in her. Look, just stay focused here! We're talking about turning human beings into cybernetic monsters! How can you possibly -?

"I understand how some people might be…concerned about such a project, my good Major," Fisk went on, snapping Misato from her thoughts. As she looked about, wondering if the Marduk representative was somehow reading her mind, he stood from his seat and circled about his desk. "But my scientists have been studying the 11th Angel's nanites for some time now. And they assure me that they can be manipulated. They are like stem cells, now; easily adaptable to any host we see fit to bond them with, whether organic, or mechanical." Drawn by his voice, she found herself once again looking Fisk in the eye, just as he added, "And most important of all, each of these nanites contain within them an S2 organ."

"What?" Misato gasped out despite herself. "Then…are you saying that -?"

"Precisely. With these nanites, we will be able to give any human the power to project an AT-Field of their own. And enable them to neutralize those of the Angels," Fisk smiled, as if he knew that Misato was now a captive to his words. "And thus we will be able to create a formidable fighting force. One that will stand against the Angels…and protect all our loved ones from harm."

And once again, Misato was overwhelmed by possibilities. That there was now a chance that she would no longer be forced to stand around the bridge at NERV, watching helplessly as she sent the children out to do battle, all in the name of quenching of her undying hatred of the Angels. That, after so long and so much pain and misery, the chance now existed that the power to exact her revenge personally might finally be in reach.

Overwhelmed by such thoughts, Misato found herself trembling with fear and anticipation in equal amounts, and struggling helplessly with them both. Finally, after seconds that stretched into an eternity, she managed a frown and said, "Sir…I…I don't know what to say about all this, but…"

"You don't have to say anything, my dear. I realize that this is a rather…controversial topic of conversation," Fisk told her.

No shit, Misato thought in response. "I'll say," was what she actually said. "Have you…have you cleared any of this with the Committee?"

His eyes widening somewhat, Fisk smiled in an amused manner. "But of course, Major. As a matter of fact, they have given me their full support in this regard." Then he gave her a conspiratorial look, and added, "After all, isn't the realization of humanity's ultimate potential one of their goals? Why would they object to a project that fulfills this goal and helps defeat the Angels, as well?"

Not surprised by this response, Misato tilted her head to the side as she studied the Marduk representative. "Well, if that's the case, then…why are we even talking about this? It's not like you need my approval when you already have theirs."

"It's not your approval I've come to you for, Major; it's your assistance," Fisk confessed, much to her surprise. "You see, this project hinges upon our ability to find people who would volunteer to be subjected to such a procedure." Coming up alongside Misato, he bowed forward a bit, his features betraying just the tiniest bit of shame. "I cannot – will not – force someone to be changed against their will. And at the same time, we can't afford to entrust such power to people who would misuse it."

"So…what?" Misato asked, her brows wrinkled with distaste. "You want me to…start recruiting people for this?"

"Not recruit, Major. I simply wish for you to approach people whom you feel can be trusted, and give them the choice. No pressure, no coercion, nothing of that sort. Simply be honest with them, and refer them to me," Fisk told her earnestly. "If they have any questions about the intricacies of the procedure, I'm sure Dr. Akagi and my own people will be able to answer them."

Automatically nodding to this, Misato then gasped in shock as her mind double-clicked on the name mentioned. "Wait a minute – Dr. Akagi?" she got out, her eyes bulging from their sockets. "You mean…Ritsuko's in on this little project of yours?"

"Not precisely, Major. Though it is true that I plan to employ her considerable experience in order to insure the success of this project," Fisk told her. "While the people under my command are quite skilled, no living person has as much firsthand experience with the Angels and their capabilities than the good doctor. Wouldn't you agree?" After a moment's thought, Misato found herself silently conceding the massive gentleman's point even as he returned to his seat. "And indeed, both the Marduk Institute and the Instrumentality Committee have come to depend on the good doctor for her assistance on various projects in the past." Chuckling in his throat, the massive figure sat back in his seat, looking quite thoughtful. "Assistance which she has been all too happy to provide us with."

As Fisk continued to chuckle, as if at a private joke, the Major found herself frowning at this unlikely statement. Though there wasn't anything overt about it in and of itself, there was just something about the way it had been spoken that stuck in Misato's craw. "I…see," she finally got, tensing herself to stand. "Well, in any case, if that will be all, sir…"

"Hmm? Oh, yes, yes, of course, my dear. You are dismissed," Fisk told her. With a sense of relief, Misato stood and watched as he banished the holographic displays that still tempted her. "As it happens, I have business elsewhere that requires my attention."

"Really?" Misato answered, raising an eyebrow at the massive man.

"Yes. I have to interview some prospective pilots," Fisk informed her, freezing the Major in place. Giving her a chance to take a good, long look at the distasteful expression the Marduk representative wore. "Most of the Evangelions that have recently been completed are in need of pilots, and if they are to be of any use to us, then it falls to me to fill that need. As quickly as possible."

Which would mean even more children would be drafted into this war. More children would be forced to suffer as Shinji and the other children did. And, with a sense of increasing dread, Misato realized that there would be more children that she would be forced to send into battle. All while she stood by, a helpless witness to their agony.

Every instinct she possessed crying out in protest, Misato glared at the massive figure, on the verge of protesting this injustice. But before she could even speak a word, the Major looked at Fisk…and saw a sadness in his eyes that she would never have suspected. A sadness that left him looking like a haggard old man as he reached into his desk and pulled out a series of file folders and opened one of them. The lines of his face deepening as he looked at the picture of a child that was attached to it.

Unable to stand there and watch, Misato turned about. She didn't say anything; she simply left. Already desperately trying to put the thought of even more children being made to suffer out of her mind. And already failing in the attempt.

And as she continued along her way, thinking of the mountainous figure of Wilson Fisk, sagging beneath a greater weight than that of his ponderous figure, Misato realized why Fisk was so eager to pursue this alternate project of his; because, like herself, Fisk was equally guilty of the things that she had often condemned herself for.

That's why he was so insistent that I ask for volunteers, the Major slowly realized. He doesn't to draft anyone, like we're already doing with the children…

As if on cue, this thought gave way to others, and to memories of earlier dealings with Fisk. I feel I owe it to the children, the Marduk representative's voice rang in her mind. Despite the fact that what we do is born out of necessity, the fact remains is that we are placing the onus of duty, of war, of the very survival of every man, woman, and child on the planet on shoulders far too young to be bearing such burdens. And every time we do so, I feel as if it is my very own son that I place in harm's way.

Heaving a weary sigh as Fisk's voice faded from her mind, Misato felt the weight of her own responsibilities fall upon her shoulders. Yeah, she thought, thinking of the tiny family that she had found. The only family she had in the world. I know what you mean.

Deciding that perhaps Fisk's alternative to the Evangelions was not so distasteful after all, Misato started towards the bridge. Already planning on getting herself drunk as soon as possible.

As Ritsuko performed her duties at NERV that day, she couldn't help but think of this stupid bit of poetry she had once heard. And while she couldn't remember the specifics, she did recall a person asking what possible use his shadow was. It was a question the Head Scientist was asking herself quite a bit that day, for she was rapidly losing patience with her own shadow. The one that she couldn't see, but knew was there, all the same.

From the moment Ritsuko had arrived at NERV that day, her spider-sense had been filling her head with its traditional warning buzz. Letting her know that, much to her dismay, that her invisible shadow was back on duty, watching her every move and making sure she toed the line.

I am so past being sick of this, Ritsuko thought sourly as her spider-sense constantly painted the invisible spy's position within her mind, every second of every hour she spent in NERV. What, isn't Fisk satisfied that I'm a good little lapdog yet? Does he have to have one of his goons tailing me all the time?

Unfortunately, it seemed that the answer was yes. It didn't matter where Ritsuko went or what she was doing, her unwanted invisible shadow followed her like a really shadow did. Whether she was taking caring of the post-battle diagnostics of the Evangelions and their equipment, or supervising the repairs to the sniper rifle's generators, or even something as mundane as having lunch or going to the ladies' room, Fisk's invisible goon followed her everywhere. And continued to do later in the day, when she was overseeing the post-battle synch test.

This is pathetic, Ritsuko grumbled inwardly as she looked from her clipboard to the images of the three pilots, all of them with their eyes closed in concentration. Trying to ferret out any potential problems that may have crept into the works as a result of battle. I haven't even had a chance to get down to Terminal Dogma, thanks to the Invisible Asshole! Frowning distastefully as she thought of all the tests that she needed to run on her physiology, to find out just how much she would have to pay for eating Adam, the faux-blonde glanced in the direction painted by her spider-sense. Wishing that her powers including killing someone with a look, she began to gingerly massage her temple. And if that wasn't bad enough, my head is starting to hurt from all this damned buzzing…

Deciding to put aside some time to whip up some kind of dampener for her sometimes troublesome warning sense, Ritsuko sighed as she went about her duties. Fortunately enough for her sanity, everything else in the world seemed to be perfectly normal that day. Maya and the other technicians were all in their places, working as they usually did. Misato was brooding quietly off in the corner, saying virtually nothing as she oversaw the proceedings. And as for the children…

"Okay. That's enough for today," Ritsuko finally declared as the tests were finally completed. Moving to the control panels, the faux-blonde activated the comlinks for the three Test Plugs. "That's good work, everyone. You can get out, now."

"Okay, Ritsuko," Shinji answered.

"Yes, Doctor," was Rei's response.

"Whatever," Asuka grumbled. Then, just loud enough to audible to the doctor's ears, she added, "You verruckt old bitch…"

Wincing at this comment, one little extra straw on top of a growing mountain of them, Ritsuko sighed as she massaged her forehead a bit more vigorously. While she still felt somewhat guilty over the way she had reacted to Asuka that one night, there was no doubt in her mind that prolonged exposure to the redhead would wear thin on just about anyone. Then again, considering the kind of childhood she's had… the doctor thought, recalling some of the things she had seen in Asuka's file, as well as some of her own experiences while growing up under Naoko. Something that resulted in her headache simply getting worse.

Aw, damn. Maybe I should give up on thinking for today. I've got enough crap going on in my life right now without adding to it. With this thought in mind, Ritsuko made her way over to where Misato stood. "I see Asuka's still in a foul mood."

"Hmph. Tell me about it," Misato commented, not bothering to meet Ritsuko's gaze. "When I got back home last night, she was trying to kill Shinji by looking at him."

"And here I thought that killing that Angel might have improved her mood a bit," Ritsuko commented sympathetically as she looked back down at her clipboard. "Well, I suggest you brace yourself. Because when I tell her about the test results, I don't think she'll be any easier to deal with."

"Joy," Misato grumbled. When Ritsuko looked at her once more, she found her friend looking intently at a speck of dust that had gathered in the corner. An inscrutable shadow hovering in her eyes.

"Misato, is something wrong?" Ritsuko asked, suffering a pang of concern as she looked at her closest friend. When the purple-haired woman folded her arms across her chest, the doctor grew even more upset. "What is it?"

Several seconds passed as Misato continued to look at the dust, as if silently asking it for advice. When it failed to say anything, she heaved a tired breath before rolling her head in Ritsuko's direction. "No…no, it's nothing. Just…a long day, that's all."

Frowning somewhat, Ritsuko studied her friend. Misato was a good friend of hers, one that she had known for several years. And during their days in college, she had learned to read the naturally purple woman quite well. More than well enough to know…that she was lying about something.

For a moment, Ritsuko considered pressing the issue, insisting on knowing what was bothering her. But after a moment, she frowned in negation. I'm tired, I'm fed up, and I haven't been able to find a way of dealing with my own problems. I'm in no shape to deal with anything more than what I've already got on my plate. As all these negatives, all these excuses for not dealing with a problem that was standing right before her piled up, the doctor let out a low sigh of disgust. Besides…she's probably still tired from everything that's been happening. Just like the rest of us.

Before Ritsuko could think of anything further, the doors to the observation room slid open, and three figures appeared. As she turned to look at them, Misato managed a weary smile. "Hey, Shinji. Asuka."

"Hey, Misato," Shinji replied while Asuka settled for glowering at their guardian. As was usual, Rei's expression was inscrutable, showing no signs of the peace and contentment Ritsuko had seen in her both last night and this morning when she had awoken her. While the doctor was once again wondering if that had been some kind of hallucination, the 3rd Child directed his gaze at her. "So, Ritsuko…how are our scores today?"

Taken aback by the eagerness displayed by the lone male pilot, Ritsuko then let out a gentle laugh. Ignoring the sour look Asuka turned on him, she looked at Misato, and was gratified to see a smile upon her face. "At least somebody's in a good mood today."

"I know. It's nice to see some enthusiasm around here, isn't it?" Misato commented, chuckling as well.

Savoring this moment, a welcome reprieve from all the worry and exhaustion that had been so prominent that day, Ritsuko turned her attention towards the children. "Well, Rei, your ratio looks pretty much the same. As does yours, Asuka," the doctor informed them. As she looked at the final bit of data, she glanced up at Shinji, who was looking at her expectantly, like a boy waiting to open up his birthday present. Smiling at this, at such joy in someone who had led such a joyless life, Ritsuko beamed and told him, "However, it seems that Shinji's synch ratio has gone up bit more."

Ritsuko's announcement was rewarded with a broadening look of delight from the boy. Which was quickly followed by an indignant squawk from his redheaded fellow pilot. "What?" Asuka growled, swinging her gaze between her and Shinji. "Are you kidding me?"

"Afraid not," Ritsuko confirmed, deliberately not meeting Asuka's fiery gaze. "It's just by 2.6 points, Shinji, but still pretty impressive, all things considered."

"I'll say," Misato concurred, shooting the boy an affectionate glance.

As Ritsuko continued to look into Shinji's glowing visage, she couldn't help but think that it was too bad that she didn't see him this way more often. After all the times she had seen dour or depressed, to see him light up this way was so heartening. So much so that she found herself wanting to expand on that moment of celebration. "Who know, Shinji?" she went on, beaming at the boy. "At the rate you're going, in a month or so, you could have a ratio in the mid-nineties."

The result was instantaneous. Shinji's already broad grin expanded so much that it looked like his head was in danger of being split in half. "You…you really think so?" he asked, his voice a mix of hope and disbelief.

"No way! Not happening, baka!" Asuka decreed, her voice overflowing with venom. As Shinji, Ritsuko, and a few others turned towards her, they saw her blue eyes burning with indignation. Tufts of her hair had curled up, seeming to form nearly perfect devil horns. "Besides, it's probably just a computer glitch!"

"A glitch? In our systems?" Ritsuko repeated with a raised eyebrow. "I don't think so, Asuka."

"Yeah? Well, I do!" Asuka decreed. Planting her hands to her hips, she turned her angry glower towards Shinji. "And you, baka! Just because these two like you the best, doesn't mean you're better than me! Got that?"

Frowning as Shinji's happy smile was erased far too soon, Ritsuko watched as Misato took a step forward. "Asuka, this isn't about being liked more or less than someone else," the Major intoned with a voice that was probably intended to sound patient and understanding, but was a bit too frayed to be convincing in those regards. "You're here to fight the Angels, not to try and outdo each other."

Snorting loudly at this, Asuka turned back towards the Major. "Hmph! Give me a break, Misato!"

"Asuka…" Shinji started uncertainly. Unknowing what to do in order to settle things down again.

"Oh, stuff it, Third! And don't even think of giving me one of your freakin' apologies!" Asuka told him grumpily. When Shinji pulled back a bit more, the German stomped off towards the door. "Hmph! Seeya later!"

"Asuka, where are you going?" Misato asked, following the 2nd Child with her tired eyes.

"Anywhere but here!" Asuka snorted just before she exited. The sound of the doors sliding shut behind her seeming to give greater emphasis to her ire.

A few seconds passed in relative silence, until Shinji looked up at the doctor. "Um, I'm sorry about that, Ritsuko. But…"

"No, its okay," Ritsuko returned, already trying to put the incident out of her mind. "I knew she wouldn't take that well. And besides, I guess we're all still pretty tired after yesterday."

"I'll say," Misato agreed. Giving a sharp exhale, the Major then turned her attention towards her other ward. "Since we're done for the day, Shinji, why don't you head home?"

"Okay," Shinji nodded.

As she observed the interplay between the two of them, Ritsuko suddenly remembered that she had her own ward to attend to. "Rei, you could go home, too, you know," she said, focusing on the albino. "I've still got a lot of work to do, and since the subway is up and running again…"

Looking up at the doctor, Rei pressed her lips together in thought. "Very well," she finally decided. Turning towards Shinji and the others, the albino murmured, "Good day, Ikari-kun. Major."

"Have a nice day, Ayanami," Shinji returned pleasantly, giving her a polite wave while Misato nodded. Then he turned his attention towards his guardian and added, "I'll…see you later, Misato."

"Bye, Shinji-kun!" Misato replied, her voice a pale shadow of her usual impish manner. With a polite nod, the 3rd Child left, with Rei a short distance behind him. As soon as the three children had departed, the Major sighed before turning towards her friend. "Well, I guess I should get going, too. I've still got rafts of paperwork in my office, just waiting to attack me."

"So you've told me. Several times today, I might add," Ritsuko smirked, enjoying the annoyed expression that her words inspired. When Misato growled in her throat, responding with a sour glare, the doctor sighed and looked back at the data in her hand. "I better get going, too. I've got to get this new data filed and correlated before I can go home."

"In other words, I'm not going to be the only one late getting off the clock today, am I?" Misato commented, somehow exchanging her annoyance with a teasing smile in the span of a blink. Before the doctor could say anything in retaliation, the Major leaned forward and smiled that much more deeply. "By the way, Rits, when you get back to your office, don't be surprised if you find an extra little something special in there waiting for you."

A questioning noise sounding in her throat, Ritsuko raised an eyebrow at her friend. "And extra little…Misato, what are you talking about?"

"Now, I can't tell you that, Rits! After all, if I did…then it wouldn't be a surprise, now would it?" Misato commented, laughing as she started towards the door.

"Huh? Now, wait a minute…!" Ritsuko started, reaching out to pin her friend to the wall. But Misato had already departed, the door sliding closed behind her. Leaving the doctor to growl in frustration, clenching her free hand as she stared daggers at where the teasing woman had been.

I swear, she's even worse than she was in college! Ritsuko grumbled inwardly, rolling her eyes up towards the ceiling, wondering what she had done to deserve all this. Then she looked back down again before she could get her answer, and then gave a sigh that said to the world that she was resigned to her fate. Oh, the hell with it. I guess I'll find out what it is, sooner or later…

Leaving the technical crew behind to wrap up their duties there, Ritsuko started off through the winding hallways of NERV. Already wondering what 'something special' Misato had left in there, waiting to further ruin her day.

It can't be that electric seat buzzer of hers. I scrapped that thing back in college! Ritsuko declared inwardly, thinking of those more innocent, playful times. And she couldn't have dumped her paperwork on my desk! There's no way she could get with shoving it off on me, and she knows it! Giving a tired shake of her head, the doctor curled the corner of her lip as she thought of one Misato's most infamous pranks. At least I know it can't be that stunt she pulled on Kaji! There's no way she could smuggle an entire football team down here!

Recalling the horrendous mess that had resulted from that fiasco, Ritsuko finally arrived at her office. As she slowly entered, preparing herself for the worst, she cast a glance backwards. Her spider-sense happily informing her that, yes indeed, her annoying invisible shadow was still dogging her every footstep. Maybe I can somehow arrange for whatever Misato set up in here to get him instead! the doctor thought sourly as she slowly approached her desk. Only for her eyes to go wide when she saw what the 'something special' really was.

There, sitting safely on her desk, glinting in the low light, was a jar filled with what she recognized as egg-and-saké soup. Marching up to her desk, Ritsuko quickly surveyed the jar, her surprise furthering when she spotted a note folded neatly beneath it. "What the…?" she started, only to cut herself off as she carefully drew the note out from under the jar and unfolded it.

'Ritsuko: Here's the egg-and-saké I promised you yesterday.' the note read. 'I'm sorry I couldn't get it to you then, and I really did want to give it to you in person, but I know how busy you are, especially after a battle. Still, I hope you like it, and that you feel better really soon. Signed, Shinji'

Blinking several times in succession, Ritsuko looked from the note to the promised gift that sat on her desk, and felt herself nearly collapse from surprise. I…I don't believe it… the doctor thought, taking the jar in hand and studying it. I…he mentioned this when we were setting up yesterday, but I didn't expect him to…

Sighing, Ritsuko gently clenched the jar to her breasts, almost crying as she looked down at the jar and all it symbolized. That it had been given to her with no thought of personal gain, no promise of a favor returned. That Shinji had given it to her for the simple reason that he cared for her. That in this gift was more kindness, more consideration and compassion than she had received in more years than she wanted to think of.

"Thank you, Shinji-kun…" Ritsuko murmured as she clutched his gift. Almost completely unaware of the way her spider-sense suddenly spiked, reacting to a surge of malice from her unseen watcher…

I don't believe this… Maya hissed disgustedly. Marginally aware of scales of rock forming about her knuckles as she glared at the woman she had once idolized, had considered her friend and mentor for almost as long as she had worked at NERV. Barely able to suppress the urge to take out her rage on the woman who was so completely unaware of her presence. A woman she was less and less able to think of as a person at all.

After eavesdropping on the conversation between Ritsuko and the Kingpin, Maya had quickly gone home, more than happy to enjoy the benefits of being alone in her own home. To just sit back and relax and watch something incredibly stupid on television, gorge herself on goodies, and maybe indulge in a quick nap or catch up one of the many projects she was currently working on.

But despite her best efforts to relax, to put aside her horrors, Maya had instead mentally reviewed the secretive meeting over and over again. Scrutinizing every action she knew Ritsuko had taken as a part of NERV, and going over every memory, every scrap of information she had about the doctor with the proverbial fine-toothed comb. And every time she did so, her suspicions grew worse. As did her anger towards the woman she had once held so dear in her heart over her apparent betrayal.

The Jet Alone disaster, once something Maya had been glad to dismiss as an accident, was now very clearly her mentor's handiwork. Her comments about Maya being comfortable once she got her hands dirty stuck out like a sore thumb. Her relationship with Commander Ikari, her being so at ease with both Fisk and Commander Osborn, all of these were now irrefutable signs of guilt in her mind. Leaving her unable to follow anything on television, ruining the taste of anything she ate, and completely robbing her of the ability to sleep.

And so, after a miserable night of non-sleep and puttering about with projects that she wound up bumbling and setting back at least a day or three, Maya had been eager to once again don her costume and delve into the depths of NERV. All the while working with Hitomi to gather any evidence of her guilt or innocence. Following her mentor's every move, scrutinized every one of her mannerisms and conversations, all of which had become lies to her. Just a cruel mask to cover up a monster that was every bit as heartless as Gendo or the Kingpin.

How can she be so calm? Maya fumed inwardly, thinking of the abomination that was SEELE's ultimate plan. She's helping them bring about the end of the world, she's helping to ruin the children's lives, and she acts like there's nothing at all wrong with her! Like it's just another day at the office!

Her insides knotting up with her rage, Maya tried to squelch it, to keep her mind clear. But with every moment that passed, it became that much more of a struggle for her to do so. With the image of the doctor accepting the gift she had found waiting for her on her desk very nearly becoming the straw that broke the camel's back.

I don't know how much more of this I can take… Maya fumed. Turning her back to the doctor, the invisible woman reduced her molecular cohesion until she was very nearly liquid and forced herself through the closed doors of Ritsuko's office. Hitomi! Come in, please!

'Hey, Ms. Fantastic! And how nice of you to say please, for a change!' Hitomi needled her mercilessly. 'Looks like I won't have to buy you that 'Miss Manners' book after all!'

Stuff it, Hitomi! I'm not in the mood! Maya lashed out, wishing for the thousandth time that she could reprogram her creation not to call her that ridiculous name. Or at least think of a better name for her costumed identity. Instead, she focused on regaining her proper shape and form as she emerged from the door, and conjured an invisible platform to carry her away.

'Oh, dear. Don't tell me. Let me guess. Having another crappy day at work, are we?' Hitomi commented irreverently. 'Didn't I say that you would be better off waiting at sempai's apartment like you'd originally planned on doing? That hanging about her neck all day would just make you cranky?'

For a moment, Maya was sorely tempted to tell Hitomi to shove it, to remind her that confronting the doctor at her home was to invite the danger of someone else like Rei coming over while she was still there. That if things went badly, if she was forced to use force on Ritsuko, she couldn't afford to chance the walls having eyes or ears. But instead, she decided to respond, Never mind that! You got anything new for me here?

'Aside from the stuff I already told you about? Afraid not!' Hitomi confessed ruefully. 'I'm still trying to hack into the Kingpin's database via his home inside NERV, but he's got firewalls like you can't believe! Even I haven't had any luck with them! And considering the fact that I'm an AI…!'

I get the idea… Maya returned grumpily. Deciding to change subject, she asked, What about my new tech-pack and gauntlets? Are they ready yet?

'Almost. They just need another half hour or so to finish calibrating. Which isn't too bad, considering that we slapped them together at the last minute,' Hitomi informed her creator. 'If you head back home right now, they should be ready when you get there. Assuming, of course, that there aren't any bugs needing to be worked out before you take them into action.'

Nodding thoughtfully, Maya found herself already setting course of the nearest elevator. Grateful for an excuse to go anywhere, do anything other than floating around and feeling her anger and suspicions mount up without end. Good. I'm heading there right now. Keep monitoring NERV's security systems, and let me know when Dr. Akagi is leaving for the day. I'll take it from there.

'Right. Not a problem,' Hitomi returned, sounding utterly professional and businesslike. Then she somehow managed to grin impishly over their nano-link and asked, 'So, just out of curiosity, have you come up with some brilliant plan for cornering sempai all alone so that you can have your evil way with her and your brand-new implements of torture?'

Keep it up, Hitomi, and I'll reprogram you into an insurance agent, and make sure that you're in charge of filing claims from all of Tokyo-3, Maya thought nastily, making sure to keep this thought to herself. Then she began broadcasting to her clone once more. Actually, I do have an idea about that one. I'll tell you about it on the way. Slipping her way through the doors of one of the elevator shafts, the invisible superwoman began making her way up to the surface.

As Ritsuko hovered at the small but efficient lab within Terminal Dogma that she had been using since she had been transformed into Spider-Woman, she felt an odd sense of relief as she set the computers into motion.

Despite the forbidden air that filled the depths of NERV, Ritsuko couldn't help but feel more comfortable as she programmed the various machines there to conduct their analyses. For she was actually able to do the kind of work that she had dreamed of doing when she had been a young woman, the kind of work she had enjoyed before it had been tainted by compromise and pain. And even the fact that she was running the tests on samples drawn from her own body wasn't able to take away from that.

Then again, the fact that I finally managed to finish all of my reports might have something to do with it, Ritsuko admitted with a touch of humor as she inputted the final series of commands. Setting in motion an automated examination that would hopefully be completed by the time she returned there the next day.

Thank goodness Fisk's invisible snoop finally decided to take a hike! Ritsuko thought, rolling her eyes with lingering irritation at the unseen shadow that had dogged her throughout the day. Recalling how she had started to work on her reports, only to realize to her astonishment that her spider-sense was no longer calling for her attention. I was starting to think he would never leave me alone! Brushing aside an errant bang from her eyes, grateful that her head no longer twinged with pain, courtesy of her overly active warning sense. Of course, it would have been nicer if he had given me more time work on this, but…

Shaking her head, the doctor once again reminded herself that half a loaf was much better than nothing. And with any luck, she would have a better idea of how her new connection to the Angels worked tomorrow. At least Rei was able to tell me something about how this thing feels, Ritsuko acknowledged as she pressed the final switch. Now all I have to do is isolate the recombinant DNA sequences pertaining to Adam, and I might be able to isolate the physio-chemical processes that generate this link to the other Angels.

Nodding with satisfaction as she watched the computers already chewing through the various numbers and crunching facts and figures, Ritsuko once again brushed at her hair. And in the meantime, I can go back home, take a nice, long bath…and maybe have some of Shinji's soup with dinner, the doctor thought, once again smiling as she thought of the kindly gift that was now hanging from her shoulder, tucked away safely in her purse.

Her eyes again watering at the kindness shown in that simple gift, Ritsuko sighed before turning on her heels and exiting the lab. Before long, the doctor was rising up out of the depths of NERV, and emerging out into the Geofront proper. Taking a sniff of the grass, the flowers, and the trees that all grew within the confines of NERV's little colony, the doctor turned towards one of the access ways that led up to the fortress city above. Already looking forward to a nice evening of relaxing and little else.

And then her spider-sense started to tingle again.

Oh, no! Don't tell me! Ritsuko moaned, rolling her eyes as she quickly looked about. Wishing more than anything that she could take Fisk's goon and do to him what she had done to Gendo. Can't this creep just go away and stay there?

Then her spider-sense intensified, signaling something much more serious than someone watching her. While Ritsuko was trying to make sense of this, she heard an engine roaring, and with a glance off to her side, realized that a car was racing right towards her. Releasing an indignant squawk, the faux-blonde leaped back just as the car screeched to a halt mere inches from where she had been standing.

Staggered by a combination of a sudden surge of adrenaline, coupled with the renewed buzz of her spider-sense and the realization that someone had very nearly turned her into an okonomiyaki, Ritsuko stood stock-still, staring at the car. And was soon greeted by the sight of Makoto leaning out the window, looking owlishly at her. "Oh, man! Dr. Akagi! I – I'm sorry! I…I didn't -!"

Blinking a few times, her mind overwhelmed by the sound of her heart pounding and the renewed headache was giving her, Ritsuko just stared at the apologetic tech a few seconds. Then all reason abandoned her, and every aggravation and frustration that had been piling up throughout the day exploded out of her mouth. "Lt. Hyuga, what the hell is the matter with you?" she shrilled, gaining no satisfaction from the way the tech recoiled from here. "Are you trying to get someone killed? Is that it?"

"No, no! Really! I'm sorry, Doc! I swear, I didn't even see you! I swear it!" Makoto cringed, waving his hands before him in obvious terror. Her hands clenching and unclenching automatically, dangerously eager to vent her rage on the hapless lieutenant, Ritsuko continued to stand there and listen as he grinned sheepishly. "You see, I just got this sweet new ride of mine, and…well, I guess I was a little too eager to put it to the test. If you get my meaning."

Not even remotely satisfied with this explanation, Ritsuko stood up straighter and placed her hands to her hips. "I see," she growled deep in her throat. While she was trying to restrain the temptation to bring her fangs into existence and really give him a scare, the doctor frowned and looked over the car with a careful eye. Only to be surprised when her anger was slowly replaced by a mounting sense of confusion. "Makoto…just when did you get this…this…?"

"My new baby?" Makoto beamed, reaching out and giving the side of his gleaming red sports car a playful pat on the side. "I picked it up the day before yesterday! I've been saving up forever, just to get my hands on this beauty!"

"I can believe that," Ritsuko muttered appreciatively as she studied the vehicle. There wasn't so much as a scratch on the paint, and every inch of it shone of gleam and polish. "What I can't believe is that you were able to afford the down payment for this thing!" Shaking her head as she tried remember just how much a fancy new sports car cost these day, wincing as she was reminded of her own transportation issues. "So what did you do? Win the lottery and not tell anyone about it?"

"Naw, nothing like that, Doc," Makoto replied with a hint of his usual carefree manner shining through. "It's just a matter of knowing how to save and where to shop."

"Really?" Ritsuko returned, raising an eyebrow at the lieutenant. "Then maybe you could give me a few pointers on that subject for when I have to go car hunting."

Makoto chuckled lightly at this, seemingly relieved that the doctor had forgotten her outrage. "Sure, no problem," the tech nodded happily before cocking his head to the side. "Say, tell you what, Doc. Why don't I give you a lift back to your place?"

Ritsuko immediately smiled to this offer, and opened her mouth to accept. But before her lips could part, her spider-sense, still buzzing since her near brush with the business end of Makoto's car, began tingling that much more intently.

Aw, damn! What is it with this thing, anyway? Ritsuko frowned, trying to make sense of the warning. They were out in the open, there was no indication that Fisk's spy was around, or any other apparent threat. There was nothing to indicate any threat other than Makoto's rotten driving. And yet for some reason, her spider-sense was rattling away at the base of her skull, warning her away from the tech and his car.

"Well…I don't know, Makoto…" Ritsuko began slowly, taking a step away from the tech. "I wouldn't want to take you out of your way…"

"Naw, it's no prob, Doc! I've been wanting a chance to take this baby out for a real spin, and this is as good an excuse as any!" Makoto enthused, still grinning like a little boy. Then a hint of apology shaded his exuberant features. "Anyway, it's the least I can do after what just happened."

Pressing her lips together, Ritsuko continued to consider both Makoto and his offer. On the one hand, her spider-sense had never been wrong in its warnings, and it was currently telling her that getting into the same car as the lieutenant would be an extremely bad idea. But on the other hand, while her warning sense was apparently unerring, it was also unspecific about what kind of threat it was indicating, or what form it would take. So just because it buzzing about in her brain, that didn't automatically mean that something sinister was present.

Besides, this thing went off like a fireworks display the last time Misato gave me a ride, Ritsuko recalled with a strange fondness. And I would like to get back home as soon as possible, so…

"Hey, c'mon, Dr. Akagi!" Makoto continued, giving her a laughing smile. "Just how often do you think a guy like me gets the chance to chauffer a beautiful woman around, huh?"

As this final plea resonated in her mind, Ritsuko sighed in surrender. "A beautiful woman, huh? And here I thought Misato was more to your taste…" she commented wryly as she made her way over to the passenger's side door. Makoto chuckling at this bit of wit, the doctor placed her hand on the door handle, and frowned when her spider-sense protested even more vigorously. Not liking this feeling but deciding that there was probably nothing more to it than a bad reaction to her early experience with the tech's playing around with his new toy, the doctor fixed him with a glare. "Alright, fine. But you better be more careful with this thing. I nearly got killed in the last car I got into. I don't want a repeat of that experience.

"Okay, okay! I get the idea!" Makoto pleaded, holding up his hands in surrender. "Now, hop in and let's get going! I want to get home while there's still daylight!"

"No arguments here," Ritsuko agreed, and with that, she forced her spider-sense to the side as she opened the door and slid into the car. "Just so long as we get there in one piece." Makoto just smiled at this, and as soon as the doctor was securely buckled up, he once again hit the accelerator, and the two of them started away from NERV Headquarters.

Much to Ritsuko's surprise, the ride out of the Geofront was very quiet and peaceful. There was no further sign of the reckless road hog Makoto had been acting like before, and the trip using the automated tram system was smooth and punctuated only by snatches of idle chatter and her spider-sense still trying to give her another headache.

Still, it doesn't look like anything's really wrong, Ritsuko thought as Makoto finally maneuvered them out onto the streets of Tokyo-3. The instant she thought this, however, she found herself frowning in concern. For there was no apparent reason whatsoever for her spider-sense to be acting up, and yet it was. But…what could be setting it off like this?

Narrowing her eyes in concentration, Ritsuko tried to figure what it was about Makoto or his car that could possibly a danger to her. She knew the tech himself was not a part of Gendo or SEELE's plans, so he couldn't possibly be that kind of threat. And she had worked with him long enough to know his personality, his mannerisms, his likes and dislikes. And there was no way the goofball otaku next to her could possibly be a threat. Even his purchasing a pricy sports car wasn't all that unusual; if Misato could somehow manage to afford her Renault Alpine when it had been new, then Makoto buying a car like this was certainly feasible.

Maybe…there's a problem with the car itself? Ritsuko finally considered, raising an eyebrow at this. Something like faulty brakes or a leaky gas line? Furrowing her brows in concentration, the scientist considered this for a time, and eventually decided that this made sense. For while she was far from being an automotive wizard, she knew enough to realize the kind of disasters such defects could cause.

Satisfied that this would certainly account for her itchy spider-sense, Ritsuko looked up at Makoto, already thinking of way to mention that he should probably give his new toy a checkup. But before she could speak, her mind was summarily emptied with shock when she looked past the tech, and didn't see any of the familiar sights of home, or of her neighborhood. In fact, the entire area was completely wrong; all the buildings were horribly rundown and dilapidated, and looked to be on the verge of collapse.

"What in the -?" Ritsuko started, only to break off when she realized exactly where they were; in the oldest part of Tokyo-3, the leftover dregs from Hakone. After a few moments processing this reality, the doctor looked squarely at the otaku behind the wheel. "Makoto, where the hell are you taking me?" He didn't respond to this, didn't even glance in her direction. He just kept driving.

Hissing beneath her breath and practically hearing her spider-sense saying 'I told you so!', Ritsuko leaned over and grabbed the lieutenant by the shoulder. "Stop the car, Makoto!" she ordered him, mustering up all the authority that came with her position in NERV. "Stop it right this second!"

Makoto finally responded to this, and he did so by grabbing Ritsuko by the wrist and turning to look her in the eye. With a gasp of shock, the doctor found herself looking into a face that she could have never imagined belonging to the cheerful otaku. Makoto's eyes were narrow slits, and his features were creased with barely contained fury. "Makoto isn't here, Dr. Akagi."

It took a few seconds for Ritsuko to recover from both the hate-filled glare that filled her view, as well as the impossible statement given her. "Not here?"

"That's right," Makoto snarled at her. "Computer, engage automatic pilot."

"Acknowledged," came a disembodied voice. Her astonishment increasing and her spider-sense going off the hook, Ritsuko watched as the fancy sports car she had gotten into began to fade from view. Every portion of its exterior quickly disappeared, leaving them in a passenger compartment that was apparently floating unaided through the streets. And as Makoto released the wheel, Ritsuko was shocked once again as he began to change as well. His NERV uniform shrank, becoming skintight as it went from a pale tan to a bright blue, with a white 'four' marking it. His pants completely disappeared, and his shoes turned into white armored boots. A visor appeared from out of nowhere, and a set of high-tech gauntlets and a backpack garnished his outfit.

Even as Makoto's outfit changed, his own flesh and blood did the same. His hair went from brown to green, his waist thinned and his face smoothed out. A pair of breasts expanded into existence, his legs became increasingly shapely, and before Ritsuko knew what had happened, he had become a she.

As Ritsuko sat there, stunned into silence by the transformation, she felt her mouth opening and closing apparently at random. "Nothing to say, Dr. Akagi?" the scantily clad woman asked, her features a cross between superior smirk and cruel glare. "And I always thought of you as being so articulate!"

These words as of a bucket of water dropped on her head, Ritsuko finally managed to blurt out, "What in the hell is going on here? Who are you?"

"Who I am is none of your business," her captor snarled hatefully. "And as for what you're doing here, it's because I'm here to get some answers from you." Leaning in closer and practically shoving her face into Ritsuko's own, the costumed female informed her. "And one way or another, I will get those answers! Is that understood?"

Her spider-sense growing more intense with each word spoken, Ritsuko recoiled from the strange woman. The aura of rage and hatred she was radiating all but palpable as her gaze burned into the doctor's own. And with all reason flying from her mind, Ritsuko acted on sheer instinct. "I don't think so!" she cried out, tearing off her seatbelt with one hand. Before her captor could react to this, she leaned over towards the steering wheel, and with all her superhuman muscle, fired a punch into it. Her fist smashed into the console, sending sparks flying and circuits hissing, with Ritsuko wincing in pain as her own flesh suffered from both jagged metal and sparks of electricity.

This time, it was her captor's turn to act surprised. "What in the -?" she demanded, staring incredulously at the doctor's arm, as well as the damage that had been done.

"Warning: automatic pilot offline," came the same disembodied voice from before. "Warning: automatic pilot offline."

Her mouth popping open at this, the strange costumed woman momentarily forgot about Ritsuko, and instead grabbed hold of the wheel with both hands. Leaving the doctor enough time to rip her arm free of the hole she had just dug in the car, wincing as she left bits and pieces of her own skin behind. "Excuse me!" Ritsuko declared before lifting her leg up and directing all the muscle she could into one kick. The door immediately popped free of its frame and was sent flying away. Before her captor could say or do anything to stop her, the faux-blonde flung herself out into the air.

"No!" the costumed woman screeched even as Ritsuko tumbled in mid-air before coming to land on all fours, her injured hand healed before she even touched down. Looking up, the doctor watched as the abductor's car quickly became visible once again, and thus gave her a perfect view of its driver as she looked back at her, her eyes narrowed with outrage.

And that was ultimately the mystery woman's undoing. She was so busy looking at Ritsuko, trying to turn about and go after her again, that she failed to see the building that she was heading towards until she smashed into head-on.

Gasping in shock, Ritsuko watched as the car half-buried itself in the side of an abandoned business. The sound of stone cracking and metal shrieking tore at her ears, leaving her helpless to do anything but watch as the side of the dilapidated building collapsed, burying the car completely.

Her eyes wide and her heart pounding with the nearness of her escape, Ritsuko continued to stand there, an adrenaline-induced fog having settled over her mind. Her chest heaving with each breath she took, she eventually managed to shake her head, to clear it out as her conscious mind recovered from everything that happened. Okay. For future reference, never argue with your spider-sense. It's always right, she eventually decided, exhaling sharply. Then she gasped worriedly, and quickly patted her purse, which was still hanging from her shoulder. Much to her relief, she could still feel the jar that was in there, and it was completely intact.

Whew. Thank goodness for small favors, Ritsuko thought, grateful that this gift to her was undamaged. Then she furrowed her brows and looked at the caved-in building, as well as the maniac that was still in there. Still, I better do something about my new friend there. If she's one of Fisk's goons and she's still breathing, then…

At that exact moment, her spider-sense chimed in with an extra-strong buzz, and this time, Ritsuko did the smart thing, and heeded its warning by dropping down to the street. She was just in time, for an instant later, the pile of rubble that had fallen on her captor exploded with the sound of stone smashing into stone. Chunks of rock flew helter-skelter in every possible direction, with several pieces just missing Ritsuko herself. Wincing at the growing intensity with which her spider-sense buzzed, the doctor waited until the sound of debris falling finally ceased. Then, bringing her free hand up to shield her face, she looked towards the source of explosion…and felt her eyes bulge at what she saw.

The car was undamaged, save for the missing door. And standing right next to it was her abductor, completely unscathed by the crash. Tongues of flame were rising up from her head and shoulders as she stepped clear of the sundered building, flames that didn't seem to hurt her at all. But what truly drew Ritsuko's notice were the woman's arms; instead of being slim and tender, her arms were now massive in comparison to the rest of her body, and instead of pale skin, they were now formed of craggy, orange rock.

"What in the…?" Ritsuko gasped, numbed with shock as the mystery woman stopped only a few meters away from her. Looking at the doctor like she was a piece of dung that was clinging to her boots.

"So…that's how it is, huh?" the woman growled, the flames of her body growing more intense, as did her expression of anger. "Alright, then…we do this the hard way!"

Author's Notes: And yet another one of my cliffhangers. Sorry, but that's how it goes sometimes. Still, I hope you'll read and review! And maybe check out some of my other stories.

Now, one of the tricky things with setting up this chapter is the fact that, coming off the 12th Angel and everything that happened last chapter, there were a great many things that I wanted to explore and expand on. Furthermore, Maya doesn't strike me as someone who simply attack someone without suitable reason. And since her goal was to get Ritsuko's cooperation, one way or the other, preferably without drawing attention, it didn't make sense to have her just stomp her way into Ritsuko's apartment or abduct her from the base.

Darkfalz1172, there is considerable irony in that.

Zoro50, I'm glad you liked that bit with Fisk and Ritsuko. The Kingpin, in my opinion, is a far more dangerous villain than Gendo ever dreamed of being. And very true that the Green Goblin is a villain that is readily associated with Spider-Man, and the two of them have a great deal of history.

Ryousanki, the epic battle begins next chapter. Hope it will be worth the wait!

Quathis, if you think Maya is scary this round, wait until you see what happens next. And yeah, I really hated having to watch Shinji being Asuka's doormat all the time. :P

Mike313, as I've said before, its always the quiet ones. And Maya is about as quiet as they get. I won't spoil anything at this point, but I will say that Doc Ock is certainly a possibility.

Xardion, Harry is going to be getting even scarier as things go by. And things are certainly going to be ugly come next chapter.

Well, that's that. Let's hope I'm finally getting back on track. On to the omake!


"There we go, Shinji!" Spider-Woman smiled happily as she looked over her computer readouts. "Looks like we're done here. You can get out now."

Directing a weary glance at the doctor, Shinji asked hopefully, "Then…I can go home now?"

"What, and risk you taking off for the hills so fast that we're stuck sucking your dust trail?" Ghost Rider asked, looking up from her book of spells to give him a sarcastic rolling of her eyes. "Not a chance, baka!"

"Also, it is not as if you are being mistreated," the Silver Surfer chimed in. "We have already seen to all your needs, and the living quarters I have generated for you have every luxury we could think of."

Frowning as he sat up from the Test Plug he had been sitting in for the past hour, Shinji looked over at this temporary dwelling. And while he was unhappy about his situation, he had to admit that the Surfer was correct; it was incredibly lavish, and came complete with a massive entertainment system, as well as a wide selection of music.

Not to mention enough beer for an army, Shinji thought, knowing full well who had suggested that particular addition.

While Shinji was looking about the hidden lab the superwoman had set up within Terminal Dogma, the subject of his thoughts came stomping down into view. "Hello, ladies!" She-Hulk cooed playfully before directing her gaze at their favorite prisoner. "And how are you feeling today, Shinji-kun?"

For a moment, Shinji was sorely tempted to tell his guardian exactly how he felt about this situation. But then, common sense kicked in, and instead he asked, "Misato…why are you all doing this to me?"

"Why?" She-Hulk answered, looking genuinely surprised as she studied her ward. "What do you mean?"

"You know what I mean!" Shinji insisted plaintively. "Why are you trying to make more of me? You all know I'm going to wind up with each of you in each SOE story, right?"

"That's right," Ms. Fantastic agreed as she processed data from the MAGI while carting around several fuses that had been originally designed for the positronic sniper rifle.

"And you know that Orion is planning on…well, making sure that I can keep up with each of you," Shinji continued, his cheeks coloring somewhat.

"Ja," Ghost Rider nodded. "And its about time that jerk did something I approve of!"

"So…why do you need to make more of me when you know that each of you is going to get me, anyway?" Shinji wondered, thinking this to be a very reasonable question.

"Well, for one thing, Shinji, despite what some people tell, there is never too much of a good thing!" Spider-Woman told him in a matter-of-fact tone. "And after all those disappointing years of nothing but Gendo, I'm ready to have a harem of perfect men all to myself! Good and ready!"

"Besides, even if we each have you in our own stories, we don't see any reason why we can't all have you in every story!" Ms. Fantastic chimed in. "And considering my love life, that would be a blessing!"

As most of the superwoman looked at each other, nodding their agreement, another voice was heard. "You know, actually, Shinji does have a point there," Captain America decided, giving him a thoughtful look. "Maybe putting him through all this really isn't such a hot idea."

"What?" the others said at once. Then Ghost Rider looked hard at the newest Eva girl. "Mari, have you lost it? What are you talking about?"

Yes! Thank you, Mari! Shinji smiled, practically swooning in relief. Finally! Someone around here who can be reasonable!

"Well, sure!" the American superwoman declared, looking at others suggestively. "I mean, I'm good with sharing with the rest of you. And it would probably be more fun that way, anyway!"

While the other superwoman there were giving their compatriot looks of consideration, Shinji was slumping back in his Test Plug. I guess I should've seen that one coming…