Chapter Not a Baker's Dozen: Slow Piano Cover.
Nabiki sat in her small, one bedroom apartment, and tried again. "Saotome threatened to kill me." The words bounced around her head for a moment, and then seemed to fade away. It was, to her, absolutely inconceivable. Saotome was violent, kind of stupid, and had no tact, even after his military training and marriage, but threatening death, and meaning it as he still hadn't gotten any better at lying in the past decade, was something she'd only ever heard of him doing twice, and both times had involved extreme situations.
This, of course, piqued her curiosity. While the threat had been very clear, that had also been a good thing in that it spelled out exactly what she was allowed to get away with. She removed her laptop from its case, laying on the bed beside her, and opened it, creating a file and beginning to transcribe the conversation she'd had with the pigtailed martial artist earlier. She couldn't report on the situation, for now, and that was fine. Shaking her head, she noted that Saotome knew her far too well. He had said nothing about stopping her investigation.. as long as she didn't get caught.
Shinji Ikari looked at the screen before him, wondering why it was that he had to see this again right after lunch. Granted, this time, the armorless EVA wasn't horribly burnt, but what it was doing to the Seventh Angel easily made up for that. "Where did you get this?" he finally asked, after the image faded out with the sound of squealing brakes.
"It was on that reporter's computer," Asuka responded, looking much more pale than the Third Child. Realizing this, and connecting it with the observation that Shinji seemed a lot more squeamish than she was, she finally observed, "You aren't surprised."
"Well, if her EVA got that badly torn up, it would sort of explain why she wasn't here," Shinji responded, wondering if he should hazard drinking the rest of his orange juice. His question was answered when the second child angrily tapped several keys, cycling to a picture of Unit 00 with a hunk of dripping angel flesh in its fist.
"Doesn't this freak you out just a little?" she asked, her expression incredulous.
"Yeah, so don't keep doing that," he muttered, hitting a key combination and banishing the image.
"It doesn't bother you at all that we're apparently piloting Kaiju?!" The entire class, including Kensuke, who had been lurking at a constant three desk distance since the Second Child had told him she'd sic section two on him if he spied on them, looked over at the redhead's exclamation in curiosity or surprise. This, surprisingly, included Shinji.
"You mean Katsuragi-san didn't tell you?" he asked, tilting his head as though it were common knowledge.
Asuka twitched, her hands making little clawing motions towards the Third Child's throat before she forcibly calmed them down. "No, Shinji, she didn't tell me my EVA could re-enact a zombie movie. Why, did they tell you?"
"Um, Asuka?" The brown haired boy sounded very nervous now, and the redhead thought that she may be getting through to him, before he pointed over her shoulder. Reluctantly, she turned to see the entire class, including the teacher, staring at her.
"We'll talk about this later," she muttered, slinking back to her seat.
"Welcome home!" The hall was spartan, but a banner had been hung in the kitchen, the words "Welcome, Rei" written on it in some of the sloppiest romaji she'd ever seen. She slowly stepped past the threshold, not really sure why she felt hesitant, as Captain Saotome and Dr. Akagi stood in front of her, the former obviously fidgeting while the doctor looked a little more at ease.
"So, how do you like it?" She looked around again. The room she was in was much brighter than her apartment, though it did seem equally economical. She nodded, and Captain Saotome stopped fidgeting with his braid.
"Well, that's great," he said, still seeming somewhat nervous. "You can chose any of the rooms down the hall, and we'll move your stuff."
She looked at him questioningly. "I assumed I was to live here," she responded, and gestured to the perfectly usable couch she'd noticed tucked off in a corner. Both of the adults looked at each other, confused.
"It's way too early for this," Ranma Saotome muttered, staring down at a file folder that Misato had plunked down on his desk five minutes earlier.
She checked her watch. "It's 3:30." To tell the truth, she was almost as tired as the strategic operations officer looked, as she'd just gotten off a fast transport from Matsushiro after spending a day and a half locking down a new Evangelion that they hadn't been informed was going to arrive until late last week.
"I thought they weren't going to make their selection for a while," Ranma grumbled. "Don't even know why the Americans transferred it here, rather than testing it themselves. Not that I'm not grateful to get another EVA, just seems too nice, that's all."
Misato snorted. "It isn't nice at all," she responded. "Apparently, before they got the data from the Angel we sent over, Unit 04's S2 engine was primed to rip a hole in space-time."
Ranma's head shot up, all sleepiness temporarily forgotten. "So... they're sending it to us because they're afraid..."
"It's gunna blow up, yep," Misato finished off, with a big grin.
"Yeah, definitely too early for this," Ranma repeated, dejectedly.
The purple haired woman smiled to herself. She had been trying to avoid Ranma for the past few weeks, but now she sort of wondered why. She'd known from college that the guy couldn't hold a grudge if you gave him special equipment to do it, and he was still fun to tease. "So, what's so bad about this pilot?" she finally asked, turning the pages of the Marduke file on the desk.
"Nothing, really, I just sort of wish it wasn't someone Shinji and Rei already know." Ranma replied. "Of course, it's kinda inevitable when the place is set up as a storehouse for candidates."
Misato nodded as though she'd known that already, making a note to write it down and investigate the claim later. "So Commander Ikari wants us to go and recruit her as soon as possible. He would have sent you and Ritsuko, but the entire scientific division's chewing on something right now."
Ranma winced. "Yeah... School should be out in half an hour, and..."
"Good, I'll drive! Meet me in the parking lot." The pigtailed man was half way through articulating an objection, when the report seemed to vanish from in front of him and Misato walked out the door, humming loudly.
"Damn it," he muttered, reaching into his desk and pulling out a can of coffee, popping the tab and beginning to guzzle. "I didn't expect her to come along."
When Kodoma Horaki rolled off of the couch in the small apartment that she and her two sisters shared in order to answer the door, she was expecting a few things. Possibly one of Hikari's school friends, bringing her paperwork for her job as class rep, or yet another annoying salesperson. What she did not expect were two adults, both wearing military looking uniforms with the NERV patch on the shoulder. "Can I help you?" she asked, trying to clear her head of the fog that had been there while she was dozing.
"You're Kodoma Horaki?" the man asked.
"Yes," she said, trying to recall where she'd seen his face before. "Is there something wrong?"
"Depends on how you look at it," the woman muttered, obviously believing that she had been too quiet to be heard.
"There's nothing wrong," the man said, deciding to ignore the comment. "We just need to speak to you and your younger sister, Hikari."
The eldest Horaki sister nodded, stepping back into the apartment and gesturing the NERV officers to follow her. When she entered the living room, she called her younger sister's name. About a minute later, Hikari exited the kitchen, wearing a pair of oven mitts and looking rather annoyed. When she saw the visitors, her eyes widened slightly. "Captain Saotome?" she asked, confused. "Did Aida do something dumb again?"
Misato brought a hand up to unsuccessfully hide a laugh, while Hikari's sister gave her a confused look. Ranma just shook his head. "No, this isn't about Kensuke," he responded, seeming to consider something. "Do you remember those tests your class took at the beginning of the year?"
The girl nodded. She'd found the reflex and mental acuity tests rather pointless, especially when she'd found out that they were going to some place called Mar-duck, rather than the school's records.
"Well," Ranma continued, "those tests were meant to figure out who had the ability to pilot an Evangelion. You've been selected as the next pilot."
"What?!" the yell came in stereo, while Misato rubbed her forehead, wondering if she should have taken care of the announcement.
Hikari had staggered backwards, tripped over the edge of the couch, and was now sitting on it, looking up in disbelief. "But... me, an EVA pilot?" She shook her head, rapidly, a hundred different objections coming to mind at once, including Asuka's yelling earlier that day, and her worried silence when asked about it later.
Fortunately, Kodama was a little more articulate. "I was under the impression that you had pilots for all of the Evangelions."
"A new one just arrived, Unit 03." Misato said, covering for Ranma's flinch.
"Well, couldn't you ask someone else?" Hikari finally burst out.
The two NERV officers looked at each other for a moment, and then Ranma shook his head. "No," he said before explaining. "Each EVA works best with a certain pilot. I don't really understand the selection process in detail, but if you don't synchronize well with the Unit, it won't be able to move or fight."
Hikari still looked pretty poleaxed. "I... don't," she said, trying to construct a sentence and failing.
"I know the idea of piloting an EVA is frightening," Misato started. "But we do everything in our power to keep the pilots safe."
"Like what happened to Rei," Hikari said, before she could stop herself, and was startled when Captain Saotome pinned her with a glare for a moment before turning aside.
"What happened to Rei?" Kodoma asked, vaguely recalling the name, as Hikari had told her a little bit about her.
"Rei was injured in combat," Ranma finally said, reluctantly.
"Oh," Hikari said, suddenly realizing what the glare was about, as she'd seen Captain Saotome during parent teacher interviews, and knew that he and his wife had pretty much adopted the strange red eyed girl. "I'm sorry, I didn't know,"
The pigtailed man shook his head. "It's fine," he said, before thinking for a few moments. "We're not going to stand here and tell you that piloting isn't dangerous. It is, and it's gotten pilots hurt before, but it's going to be a lot more dangerous just to be living on the planet if we don't stop the Angels."
The girl nodded, thinking. "So I'm really it, huh?" she asked, her voice shaking a little bit.
"We may be able to get another candidate from the Marduke organization, but I'm unsure how long that would take." Misato answered, honestly.
The room was silent for several minutes, as Hikari thought. When she spoke, she sounded almost as quiet and reluctant as Shinji had. "I'll do it."
"Hikari, are you sure?" the brown haired girl's older sister asked, noticing her expression.
"Yeah, it's the right thing to do, right?" the younger Horaki said, and then giggled a bit. "Besides, Aida's face is going to be classic."
"So, what were you two talking about?" Misato asked, as she and Ranma headed towards her car, the man looking over some paperwork that had been signed during the meeting.
"I was just explaining the payscale and alternative housing stuff," the pigtailed martial artist said.
"And nothing else?" Misato prodded, grinning. "You sure I shouldn't be telling Ritsuko about this?"
Ranma snorted. "You can tell Ritsuko anything you'd like, it was nothing."
"There's a whole lot of nothing going on lately," the purple haired woman said, sliding into the drivers seat of the car and slamming the door. Ranma just ignored her last comment, busily staring at the dashboard as the engine roared to life and the vehicle jumped forward, shifting through gears as quickly as Misato could manage.
After about a minute, Ranma sighed. "We're going the wrong way."
"No we're not," Misato responded cheerfully.
"Well, we're not headed for NERV or the apartments, so where are we going?" Ranma asked, exasperated.
"Now where would be the fun in telling you that?" The man just rolled his eyes.
"I do not understand the point of this," Rei said, as she looked down at the book in her hand. "It has no educational value and does not prepare me for piloting."
Captain Saotome sighed and leaned forward. "Look, I know I ain't the best one to be telling you this, but readin's about more than just learning and piloting," he began. "Ya can also read for fun. Fiction's good for that."
"I have not seen you reading anything other than paperwork for NERV," Rei replied.
"That's just because I read too much with work already, and I never got into it," he said. "It's too still for me, so I relax by practicing Martial Arts, but Ritsuko seems to enjoy it."
"So training is... fun for you?" Rei cautiously asked, not sure how she was supposed to respond. When the captain nodded, she added, "Then I would like to train as well. It would allow me to continue preparing for combat while completing this 'recreation' you and Doctor Akagi require of me."
The man blinked before replying, "You know, that's not really the point of what we're trying to get you to do."
"It would be a more efficient use of my time," Rei insisted.
Again, Captain Saotome sighed. "Fine, I'll train you in the Art. But if I do, I want you to give reading a try. If I don't see you reading at least a little bit, I'm going to call the lessons off." After a moment he added, "And I don't mean none of that educational stuff, either. Some pleasure reading is just what you need."
Rei was unsure. "Would this not be a waste of time?" she asked.
"Nah," Ranma replied with a wave. "It's not like we're expecting you to pilot for a few years yet, so there's no reason you can't just be a kid occasionally."
"Understood," Rei lied.
"Okay..." Misato mumbled, before taking a deliberately long sip from her beer glass. Next to her, Ranma had his head resting on the top of the bar, his own first glass of amber liquid half full. "So the First Child's been... eaten?"
Ranma lifted his head and nodded. "Seems to happen a lot around here," he replied, obviously recalling the incident with the Sixth Angel. "Apparently this has happened before, and Ritsuko's working on a recovery program, but that's probably going to take a while, and in the meantime..." He shrugged, indicating his helplessness in the situation.
Well, the dark haired woman thought, that explained his tiredness before. He'd probably been worried over the pilot. "If anyone can retrieve her, it's Ritsuko," she comforted. He didn't look convinced, taking a slow drink. Trying to think of a means of distracting him, she hit upon an idea which, as an extra bonus, would actually answer one of her own questions. "So, how did you get together with her, exactly?"
"Ritsuko? Um," he fidgeted with his pigtail for a moment, before finishing off his glass. "We got together after you... uh..."
"After I left," Misato supplied, realizing that she'd ended up making the conversation more awkward.
Ranma responded while making a gesture to get another glass of the same. "Yeah," he admitted. "I'm not even really sure how it happened, we originally started out talking about you," he shook his head again. "Then, I guess, since all of the messes in my past had already tried to kill me, and we got along pretty well..."
He'd just stopped, seeming to try and continue to formulate his explanation, but nothing came to mind. "It just sort of happened?" she replied, rather surprised. Neither of them had really seemed to be the type to just 'hook up,' but stranger things had happened. Then, after taking a sip of his just arrived drink, he asked the question she'd sort of been dreading ever since she'd come to Tokyo-3. "So, why did you leave, exactly?"
It was delivered casually, but neither of them were fooled into thinking it was actually casual, even if Misato knew that if she asked him to, he would drop it. Still, what was she supposed to tell him? As time went by, the reasons had started seeming just plain... stupid, but it'd happened.
She'd gotten close, grown to like, maybe even love him, and then the doubts had come. The observation that he seemed to focus on martial study with a zeal that she'd only seen before in her own father's eyes, the fear that one day, like him, Ranma would get so lost in his work that he would forget she even existed, or worse... She flinched, her vision overtaken for a moment by an image from her past, the desperate look on her father's face when he'd shoved his cross pendant into her hands, and sealed the small pod in which she'd escaped the second impact. "I don't want to talk about it," she said, after almost twenty seconds of silence.
Ranma nodded, and tossed back the rest of his second glass.
Rei approached Dr. Akagi, somewhat nervous. "Dr. Akagi, I may have a problem," she said, waiting for the woman to finish the work she'd been doing at the dining table before proceeding. "I have reason to believe that I have revealed my identity as a prospective Evangelion pilot."
"What happened, Rei?" the older woman asked.
"I met a boy at school today who had obtained images of a ship of the same class as the defense unit at Terminal Dogma. I assumed that the image was of said ship and may have given him classified information."
"So this was another student?" the brown haired woman asked, her face clearing slightly of the worried expression that had come over it previously. "Exactly how much did you tell him?"
"He was very interested in NERV's defensive armament, and we shared theories on possible coverage angles and ordnance load-outs." Rei reported, dispassionately. "I did not mention any of the Geofront's facilities below level C, as it isn't allowed without physical evidence of clearance level. I learned that he did not possess any clearance when I asked him for his card. He seemed to believe that we were speaking of hypotheticals."
"Rei..." Ritsuko started, before rethinking her comment. "It's probably best if you assume anyone in your age group does not have any NERV clearance. Actually, you should probably ask to see Identification before you discuss anything within the Geofront."
"I understand," the blue haired girl replied, eliciting a smile from Dr. Akagi.
"Could you tell me who it was that you talked to?" the older woman asked, producing a note pad.
"Hello?" Asuka asked, answering her cell phone and stopping the episode of Big O she'd been watching while writing a history assignment.
"Asuka?" The voice was that of Hikari, the class rep, and she sounded pretty upset.
The second child sighed. "Did that idiot Touji say something?" she asked, recalling the other girl's crush on the tall, dark haired jerk.
"No, this isn't about Touji," Hikari started, "and he's not an idiot."
"All right, then what is it?" Asuka asked, though she was glad that the jab at her 'boyfriend' had been defended against much more slowly than usual.
"They've chosen me to be an EVA Pilot!" The german girl almost dropped her phone. Come to think of it, she really hoped that the cells used in Tokyo-3 were secure.
"They chose you as a pilot?" she returned, deciding to hope that they were, as the idea began to sink in.
"Captain Saotome and a purple haired woman came to my apartment this afternoon to tell me about it," the class rep explained. "I... I wanted to talk to you about it."
"Oh," Asuka said, suddenly recalling the 'special delivery' Misato had been managing the day before. She shook that off for a moment, deciding that the current situation was a little more important. "So, what did you want to talk over?" she asked, trying to sound cheerful.
"I thought that, since you know what piloting an EVA is like, you could tell me," Hikari replied. "Is there anything..." she trailed off, seemingly unsure of what to ask. "What did you mean about them being Kaiju?"
"Um," Asuka winced, recalling the video she'd seen of Unit 00. "They're really big, and smash buildings," she offered, lamely. She'd like to say exactly what she'd meant, but she wasn't completely sure that Hikari had actually become a pilot rather than going insane, or playing the least funny joke in history on her. Recalling where Shinji claimed to have found out, she suggested, "I'd ask Dr. Akagi questions about the EVAs."
"Oh..." Hikari said, her worries obviously not decreased in the least. "Is there any advice you can give me at all?"
"Just go with the flow," Asuka responded, "And don't worry, I'll be around to help you out. Shinji and Rei too, probably."
"Thanks, Asuka," Hikari said, sounding a little less tense.
"No problem,"" the red haired girl replied. "I'll talk to you some more in school tomorrow, all right?"
"All right," Hikari said, before the phone clicked off. Seconds later, the door across the main room of Misato's little apartment banged open, and said woman staggered in, a definite flush coloring her cheeks. "Welcome home," Asuka said, irritably, wrinkling her nose.
"Hiiii Asuka!" Misato replied, cheerfully drunk. "You're up late, aren't you?"
"It's eight thirty," Asuka replied, deadpan.
"Oh, really?" The older woman sounded rather mystified at this revelation, so Asuka sighed, standing and walking across the room.
"No, actually, both of us should really get to bed," she offered, leading her caretaker across to her bedroom.
"Yeah, that's what I thought," Misato nodded assuredly. "You're not staying up 'till two watching Gundam again, I hope."
"No, Misato, I'll go to bed right now," Asuka replied, resigned. So much for asking her anything tonight. Then again, she'd sort of expected this to happen at least once since the carrier.
"Come on, come on..." In a darkened, out of the way portion of one of NERV's lowest levels, a locking panel beeped, the first of two layers of security falling. "Yes!" a voice hissed under its breath, as its owner reached into one of their uniform pockets. Retrieving a card from it with two images on it, they were about to swipe it through a reader next to the keypad when someone tapped on their shoulder.
Spinning as quickly as possible, she reached for a sidearm, before her gun hand was grasped in an iron grip, and the dark surroundings were lit by a dim blue glow. "R... Ranma?" Misato Katsuragi squeaked, as a rather unamused Captain looked at her levelly, a small energy ball held in his hand.
"Hey, Misato. Beautiful morning, ain't it?" he asked, sarcastically.
She sighed. "How did you know?"
"Honestly, you figured a Saotome wouldn't notice bein' pickpocketed?" Ranma snorted. "You've gotta be as good as the ol' man to get something out of my wallet without me noticing."
"But... you were smashed." Granted, Misato knew she was digging herself deeper, but was rather curious in spite of that.
"Actually, no. Ordered apple juice," he replied. "It's a trick I picked up so I can drink at parties without getting embarrassing. Decided to see why you wanted the card, so I had Hyuga flag it and he called me when it got used for the elevator down here."
"Ah," Misato winced. Seeing that he was expectantly watching her, and he'd released her hand, she slowly began to turn around. "I wanted to see this." Saying this, she slid the card through the reader, and the seemingly solid wall in front of them parted to reveal a giant chamber, its floor flooded with orange water, only a single wide walkway leading to the center.
In the middle of the room was a massive red cross, from which a nearly equally massive doughy white humanoid figure hung by spikes driven through its hands.
"How... it's grown so quickly," Misato said, amazed, despite having some idea of what she was going to see.
"You know what this is?" Ranma asked, gaping. He'd never been within the room, as one of the two main security measures required a code known only to Commander Ikari, Vice-Commander Fuyutsuki and Ritsuko to pass.
"Yes," Misato nodded. "I brought it here."
"No," Ranma's flat statement caught the female officer off guard. "You couldn't have brought this here."
"When I came with Asuka," Misato shook her head. "I carried Adam in a suitcase, but I didn't know how quickly it could grow."
"Um, I'm probably gunna regret this, given you tried to steal my card and admitted to bringing the First Angel here in a suitcase," Ranma said, giving Misato a very strange look, "But if that happened, then this ain't Adam. I've never seen it, sure, but I've felt this thing down here since..." He shrugged. "Since pretty much forever."
"I..." Misato shook her head. "What the hell is going on?"
"That's what I'd like to know," Ranma replied, and then turned. "But for now, we should get out of here." He thought for a moment. "I want you to tell me exactly what you've been up to, but unfortunately, the activation test for Unit 03 is today and I need to prepare for it. How about you come along?"
Misato thought for a moment, but realized that it hadn't been a request. Ranma didn't want to let her out of his sight until things were explained, and she could understand why. She just wasn't sure what she was going to tell him. "All right," she said, taking a steadying breath. "Should be fun."