Author's notes: And here it is, the finale of Don't Look. I do hope you all enjoyed this brief foray into the unknown.
There were a few very good reviews out there, many expressing delight in the story, as well as some that were negative but constructive in nature.
To Adrift at Sea and Daniel-gudman, your reviews were very well thought and structured. I read them with great interest, and thank you for stating your opinions so politely and with well thought out arguments. I had thought about trying to write a response to them in this section, but it seemed like it would just draw out the notes section too long, so in the end I decided to just settle on the thanks, and to let you know that I'm grateful for your heartfelt reviews.
Many of the other reviews, the ones positive in nature, to you all I say thanks! This story was kind of spur of the moment. I literally came up with it a week ago, and decided to rush it in the spirit of the Halloween season, so I'm glad I managed to give you all a bit of a thrill. This isn't exactly an epic masterpiece, but not every story has to be, so enjoy it in the spirit it was written, a good quick bit of spooky fun!
Now, onto the rest of the notes.
There isn't going to be a spoiler section here. After reviewing the chapter, I've decided that there isn't terribly much here I want to draw attention to. It's mostly slice of life, vague foreshadowing to events which will never be penned but may or may not happen anyway, and a little bit of closure at the end.
So enjoy, as Kaji and Asuka set foot into a world they aren't quite prepared for, Ritsuko questions many things, Gendo shows just how hardhearted he is, and Rei begins to disturb even me.
As for Misato and Shinji...
Nah. No spoilers here. Read on and learn of their fates.
Enjoy, dear readers.
"Man," Asuka whined in a huff. "I thought the Japanese were supposed to be polite! Shouldn't there have been someone to meet us at the door?"
"Now, now," Kaji tried to soothe the teen girl, having to fall back on his lady killer smile. "I'm certain someone will be along soon. The Head of Operations typically greets pilots on their arrival, after all."
It worked, but had the disturbing consequence of the younger girl trying to give him a flirtatious look back. He was willing to admit, in an objective and completely non-creepy sort of way, that Asuka had been growing up nicely in the last few years, but still, she was only fourteen.
Kaji had grown up in the chaos and wars which had sprung up directly after the Second Impact. He had been involved in the fighting back then too, a stereotype and a statistic of yet another child soldier so prevalent of those times. He had seen what some people would do, regardless of age or gender, in the heat of the moment.
There were some things that Kaji would never do, had sworn to die before imitating. And unfortunately for Asuka, pedophilia was one such thing.
Still, that didn't stop him from using his charms to help soothe the savage beast at his side. Even as he smiled, his mind wandered.
When the plan had changed, there had been nothing Kaji could do besides shrug. It wasn't uncommon, in the spy business, for unexpected happenings to occur, and sometimes you just had to roll with the blows. Kaji was a damn good spy at that, so when it had been Fuyutsuki himself who had shown up to meet the two on the 'Over the Rainbow', rather than Misato and the Third Child, Kaji had raised an eyebrow and surrendered the case holding Adam without comment.
The new orders he had received at the time, those had raised the other eyebrow. 'Don't let the Second Child out of your sight.' It wasn't exactly an unexpected order. The safety of the Children was paramount for the survival of humanity. But surely the standard security measures that had been in place for years would be enough.
Still, Kaji had done his best to obey, needing to appear the dutiful and diligent employee in order to maintain his infiltration. He'd done his best to ensure that Asuka was nearby as much as possible. When made sure to be there during meals, and when he was finished with some of the more bland tasks that he had to continue to maintain his cover, he would spend some time with her afterwards as well.
He felt he was doing a fairly good job of keeping an eye on the Second Child. He just wished that she hadn't taken the increased time he spent in her company as burgeoning romantic interest in her.
Still, they had been waiting at the lobby of NERV for nearly an hour now. He wondered just what the holdup was. He knew that Misato was the Head of Operations, after all, and it wasn't like her to be late. He wondered briefly if she had somehow found out that he was going to be present, despite his best attempts to keep her from finding out about his transfer to NERV, and was just keeping them waiting out of spite.
When someone finally did come, he noted with surprise that it wasn't Misato at all.
"I'm sorry for the delay!" the newcomer bowed to them, nervous apology in her voice. She was cute, that much Kaji gave her, but in a mousy, girl next store kind of way rather than the bombshell Misato that he had been expecting. "Synchronization tests ran long, and I completely forgot that I was supposed to meet you here! Please forgive my rudeness!"
"This is the head of operations?" Asuka scoffed, taking in the sight of the older woman with scorn. "What happened to Misato?" she continued, leaving off most of the customary suffixes as she referred to the woman she had already met. "Did she finally pickle her liver or something?"
It appeared that the fiery redhead didn't think that something like a mere synchronization test should have been enough to cause her delay. After all, now that she was here it's not like the other pilots mattered anymore. She was the best pilot that NERV had, and there was no way those extras they had been making due with should take precedence over her!
"Now, now, Asuka-chan," Kaji moved to calm things down, noticing how the mousy newcomer flinched at the German's bluntness. "I'm sure that there were extenuating circumstances. Right, miss…?" He trailed off, ending his sentence with a gentle tone of suggestion, and the newcomer blinked, understanding what he was aiming at.
"Ah! My name is Ibiki," she belatedly introduced herself. "Maya Ibiki."
"Well than, Maya-chan," Kaji favored her with another of his signature smiles. This wasn't Misato, sure, but he could work with this for now. He had been expecting Misato, and had dressed accordingly, but with his current look he was certain he could charm the shy seeming replacement. "Is there anything we can do for you?"
He finished his line with a wink, straightening his jacket as he did so. Originally he had been planning to show up in something more casual, but the change in plan on the 'Over the Rainbow' had changed his mind. It could have been prompted by something he was unaware of, but it could just as easily have been a sign of distrust between the higher ranks of NERV and himself. Until he could determine the nature of the rift, he had decided to try and present a more professional demeanor, coming in full business attire until he had ingratiated himself enough to dress in a more relaxed fashion.
Still, it was Kaji in the end, and he had decided to avoid the tie for now. He never liked ties. Stuffy things, reminded him of nooses. Why anyone would willingly wear one he had no clue.
"That's what I should be saying for you two," Maya seemed embarrassed that her guests were the ones offering to do her favors, and she hastily gestured behind her. "I'm supposed to help you two set up your apartment with housing, and walk you through getting your transfer papers in order."
"Well, lead on, Maya-chan," Kaji held his boyish grin, and this time Maya blushed at the flirtation, rather than embarrassment. At his side Asuka huffed, folding her arms and leveling a glare at the older woman. She didn't like seeing her Kaji flirt with anyone but her! She decided then and there that she didn't like the other woman.
Still, as they navigated the labyrinthine hallways of NERV, there was something that Kaji found himself coming back to, a slip of the tongue that bothered him slightly.
"So, Maya-chan," he began, giving a more relaxed smile rather than a charming one as he broke the ice between the two of them. "Which apartments will Asuka and I be getting? I imagine she will most likely be in the area of the other pilots, but I'll probably end up with the other single employees?"
It was meant to break the ice anyway, and Kaji already had a joke lined up about how cramped his quarters would be in comparison to Asuka's, when he realized that Maya had frozen.
"You," the mousy girl swallowed slightly, suddenly far more nervous than she had been earlier. "You haven't received the briefing yet?" Her eyes shifted again, and she seemed to realize something. "No, you can't have," she muttered quickly, and then much to Kaji's everlasting surprise, the woman actually dropped her clipboard, and began to frantically strip him.
"Stop that!" Asuka shrieked, already moving to stop the woman's strange an unexpected assault. She knew that Kaji was irresistible, but there were limits!
"Whoa!" for once Kaji was in agreement with his charge about her opinion of strange woman stripping him. Maybe later, after they had a few drinks and he had a proper apartment without the teenager around, maybe than he could play along, but in the middle of a hallway on his first day? He was still trying to make a good impression!
"You don't understand," Maya was still trying to undress him, her fingers frantically tugging at the buttons of his suite. "Major Katsuragi and the Third Child, you see, there was an incident…" She trailed off nervously, but Kaji managed to glean some information from her vague statement.
"Major?" he repeated, wondering at Katsuragi's apparent promotion. Then his eyes narrowed as he caught the second part of Maya's disjointed sentence. "An incident? Are they alright?"
Kaji's worried that maybe the reason Misato hadn't come down to greet him might be more serious than he had anticipated.
"They're, um, that is," Maya began, and she definitely looked unnerved about something, but she was interrupted from her explanation as something unusual happened in the hallway in front of them.
There had been a bit of variety in the traffic of the hallway they were walking down, a number of different uniforms denoting the other traveler's occupation. The ones in jumpsuits were most likely mechanics, the ones in NERV's standard pseudo-military uniforms like the one Maya was wearing almost certainly lab or operations personnel, but there had been a few plain clothed employees as well. Kaji had assumed they were most likely Section Two, dressed for infiltration purposes.
One such plain clothed agent had been about to reach the intersection a little bit before them when Maya had begun her ill-timed attack on his clothes. When the man started, and then hurriedly turned around and started jogging quickly back down the hallway he had just traveled, Kaji blinked, surprised at the unexpected about face. The man certainly looked nervous about something.
Even though Kaji only felt confusion at the incident, it seemed to mean something to Maya. With a wince, she released his clothes, and began to back away from him nervously.
Kaji had time to wonder just what the hell was going on, when he saw someone he had been expecting coming through the intersection.
"Oi! Misato!" he called, grinning cheerfully at the sight of his old beau. Finally, someone who would make sense. His former girlfriend was in a black dress that ended a bit high on her thighs, and with a red jacket and barrette. She still looked every bit as good as she did back in college.
And it looked like she had company. Kaji took in the boy walking next to her, and could only assume that this was the Third Child he had heard so much about in the past. The boy was dressed in a white shirt and black pants, a school uniform he assumed though at this time of the day the kid should be at school rather than at NERV. He and Misato seemed to be talking about something, and Misato was laughing slightly as the boy had a restrained grin present even while he kept his head bowed.
Kaji was expecting a lot of things when Misato turned, looking in the direction of the one who had called her name. He had been hoping to get some teasing in on his old girlfriend, maybe break the ice with the Third Child as well. He even had a joke about her being wild in bed that he had been hoping to spring on the two, partially just to get a laugh and partially to honestly judge if Misato was in a relationship now.
He was not expecting the way Misato's eyes went hard. A surge of adrenaline shot through him as she moved, one hand coming up in front of the Third Child, forcing him back and behind her as the other darted with lightning speed into her jacket, drawing her pistol in a disturbingly fast motion. Almost in slow motion, the kind of perception that only came in life or death situations, Kaji saw how her eyes were dilated, how her finger was brushing the safety of the gun off, the barrel aimed dead center between his eyes and he knew, KNEW that he was about to die…
And then Misato stopped. His heartbeat thundering in his throat, he saw how she froze, and it took him a moment to realize that the only reason he had stopped was because the Third Child had reached up from his position behind her to gently touch her elbow. The contact seemed to bring Misato back, and her eyes focused again, taking in just who it was she had been about to kill.
"Oh," Misato muttered, and as though she hadn't just nearly killed him she calmly redid safety of her gun and tucked it back into her holster. "It's just you."
"What the hell are you doing!" again, Asuka shrieked, and the girl was nearly hyperventilating herself at the sudden and completely unprovoked near murder that had occurred only moments ago. "Is everyone here in Japan crazy?" she demanded, looking over to Maya to see how the other woman was reacting to her coworkers' insane actions.
When she saw that Maya did not look at all surprised, and indeed was mostly focusing on cringing away from both Kaji and Misato simultaneously, she decided that yes, everyone here must be mad.
"I…" Kaji swallowed, still feeling his heart racing. "I guess you're still mad about the breakup?" he offered, not sure if he was being serious or making a joke himself at the moment.
Misato snorted at him, before she continued down the hallway, the Third Child silently moving to resume his place at her side. Kaji couldn't read their body language, but he found the way the other boy was so comfortable in such close proximity to the older woman to be a little disturbing. Just as disturbing as the way Misato seemed poised to move, nearly hovering over the Third Child like a guardian, or even a lover.
As though nothing happened, the two turned down the hallway they had been walking down, approaching the trio as though nothing had happened. Misato paused right before they passed by, and gave Kaji a hard, searching look, her eyes wondering up and down his body.
"I don't like your suit," she told him, her voice firm. "Don't wear one again."
With that final statement, the woman and the boy continued by. Kaji was willing to let them go, realizing that there was something going on here, that something was seriously wrong and until he had more information he had no idea just what might provoke the strange hard eyed woman that Misato had become since he last saw her.
Asuka, on the other hand, wasn't so good at refraining from provocation.
The fiery redhead had had enough. Ever since coming to NERV-Japan, things had been weird. Being ignored and made to wait in the lobby, strange women pulling guns on random by-standards, it had been wearing on her nerves.
But the final straw was the way the Third Child had just walked by her, not even looking up! She would not be ignored, and if he was ignorant about just who she was, she would make sure that he knew here and now just who the superior pilot was.
"Wait just a second, Third Child!" Asuka declared, reaching out to grab the boy's shoulder so she could spin him around. She ignored the warning cry from Maya, not deeming the mousy woman worthy of notice.
The moment her hands brushed against his shoulder, the Third Child whirled, his head whipping around so fast that his bangs moved under the inertia as he spun, one hand snapping out to latch onto her own as the other rocketed out of his pocket, and Asuka squeaked at the gleam of steel, a box cutter clicking open as the blade sliced towards her neck, the sharp point preparing to cut through her throat…
And just like before, the sudden assault froze. Kaji had been preparing to move, knowing that he would be too late but not willing to let the Third Child kill his ward right in front of him without him doing something about it, when he saw that this time it was Misato who pulled everything back from the brink of violence. It was just a small touch, the Major's fingers brushing against his back, but it was enough, and the boy's weapon stopped a good foot away from Asuka's neck.
"Oh," the boy declared, and he actually sounded genuinely embarrassed as he gave a sheepish smile to the now frozen German. "I'm sorry," he apologized politely, bowing slightly as he released the arm he had grabbed and pocketed his knife again, "but I don't like it when people come up behind me."
Kaji had his first proper look at the Third Child's eyes then. He had seen pictures before, but the boy had always been looking down, much of his face covered by his bangs. Kaji was finally able to see the premature lines on the boy's face, and he noted with a start that the Third Child actually had a sprinkling of grey spread through his hair.
Asuka was frozen, too shocked by her own near encounter with death to even think of a rejoinder, to even get outraged at his assault. She remained frozen even as the two turned again, continuing their journey to whatever destination they had been heading towards. Kaji took in the way many NERV employees would deliberately cross to the other side of the hallway rather than get close to them.
"You mentioned some kind of incident?" Kaji finally got out, both his throat and his tone a little dry as he finally managed to react to the encounter. Maya gave a shaky nod.
Kaji gave the report in front of him a studying look. Both he and Asuka had been supplied one, and the two had been working their way through it in between various paperwork and administrative tasks that Maya had been leading them between.
It was a well-documented, and very thorough report, Kaji had to give it that much. It quoted statistics, gave facts, and he bet that if he tried to verify it every little bit would check out properly.
He was also willing to bet that most of it was full of shit too.
"So, what? The Third Child has a run in with some crazy stalkers and he gets to walk around NERV with a knife now?" Asuka demanded, and Kaji wondered if he should maybe try to use another of his lady killer smiles to try and calm the girl down. She had been subdued after her near death encounter with the Third Child, and Kaji knew that she had been frightened by it.
He also knew that Asuka didn't react well to being frightened, judging by the increased display of hostility she was unleashing on poor Maya it would be a bit before she managed to calm down.
"Ah, after the assault it was decided to allow the Ikari-kun to carry a weapon," Maya was cringing away from the fury of the German, and Kaji couldn't help but wince. It was going to be much harder to charm answers out of the woman now that she was terrified. So much for a good first impression. "Due to the psychological stress, Doctor Akagi hopes that having some method of defense well help him overcome his trauma."
"Great, the commander's son gets spooked, and now he gets to be a psycho whenever he wants!" Asuka threw her hands up in the air, nearly tossing the report as well. "Thank god for nepotism!"
"It's," Maya cringed again, and this time Kaji couldn't help but feel it was in response to something besides Asuka's temper. "It's really not like that," she mumbled.
"While I can understand a certain change in protocol in response to something like this," Kaji spoke up soothingly, hoping to both calm the atmosphere and change the subject, "I do have to ask at the appropriateness of some of these countermeasures."
Kaji winced, though at the same time Asuka brightened noticeably.
"Due to the chance of further attempts on the pilots' lives, full time personnel have been assigned as bodyguards," Maya droned, sounding as though she was repeating something from memory. "As such, their caretakers are strongly encouraged to spend as much time around their charges as possible, and are given broad latitude in their actions in response to any threats on the pilots."
"Which means we get to live together, Kaji-san!" Asuka cheered, and decided then and there to ease up on the hostility when it came to Maya.
Anyone who gave news as good as that was worth being nice to!
"That makes sense," Kaji agreed, trying to suppress another wince. It looked like the order 'Don't let the Second Child out of your sight' might have been a bit more literal than he had anticipated. "But wouldn't it be more appropriate for guardians of the same gender to take up that kind of role? Like if I were to take up the Third Child and Misato lived with Asuka-chan?"
It made Kaji very uncomfortable to think of having to spend that much time in proximity to an underage girl that had such an obvious crush on him. It was more than just the inconvenience it would cause in his love life, but also how much more difficult it would make some of his more clandestine operations in the future.
Not to mention the way Misato and Shinji had seemed so close. He did not like the implications their body language was giving him.
He had thought better of Misato, and if something really had occurred between the two…
Maya winced, and glanced away. "I'm, sure that the commander has his reasons," she finally declared. Kaji caught that look, and wondered just how close on his guess about the two might be, and just how many other employees of NERV were wondering the same thing.
Asuka snorted, not particularly caring about what might be going on between Misato and Shinji. Those two freaking psychos deserved each other in her book. However, if the commander's son getting some sort of eye candy bodyguard resulted in her having the chance to put the moves on Kaji, than she repeated her earlier statement with a little more sincerity:
'Thank god for nepotism!'
"Um," Maya finally seemed to reach the end of her endurance when it came to both putting up with Asuka and dodging awkward questions. The mousy woman bowed politely as she rose. "Well, I think you have everything now," she awkwardly supplied. "I'll leave you two to settle in at your apartment. There are some things in the control room that I need to attend to."
Kaji decided that he didn't really like that Maya anymore. She had just deliberately left him alone with an amorous Asuka, after all.
"Well, Kaji-san!" the girl chirped happily, latching onto his arm so she could snuggle against it as the two made their way out of NERV. Kaji suppressed a wince, wishing he could escape the grasp without offending the girl. There were already some passersby giving the two disapproving look, and he could have sworn he heard someone mutter 'disgraceful'. "Looks like it's just going to be the two of us now!"
"That's wonderful, Asuka-chan," he told her, masking his distaste for the situation.
"I'll be sure to take good care of you," she cooed. "And I thought you looked really handsome in that suit!" She was somewhat blunt in her praise, but she hoped that by proving she could be supportive of her Kaji-san than she might be able to get his mind of his ex.
"It was a nice suit," Kaji agreed, but now he found his mind wandering to something else.
It had been their eyes, both Misato's and the Third Childs.
Misato's eyes when she pulled the gun on him had been somewhere far away. It was a sight that Kaji was familiar with, one he had grown accustomed too in the hard years after Second Impact. Sometimes bad things happened to people, and even if they lived past them, those things lingered. He saw it before, how something would cause someone to go back to that trauma, how innocent actions could suddenly prompt violent responses.
When Misato had been pulling her gun on him, it hadn't been him she was seeing, hadn't been him she had been aiming at. In her eyes, it was someone else, someone she would kill on sight and without warning.
Shinji too. His eyes, hell, his physical features, they were familiar as well. Kaji had come through Second Impact more or less alright, though many of his friends and companions hadn't. Some had made it, more of those child soldier types, and they had had the same symptoms as the Third Child: stress marks, premature aging, sudden and violent responses to contact.
What the hell had happened here?
Kaji didn't know, but he could guess. That bogus report seemed like a good place to start.
"Well, you'll probably get to wear it again later," Asuka's voice brought Kaji back to the present, reminding him that any investigating he was planning for the future would be far harder than he had anticipated. "After all, I saw someone else wearing a suit earlier, so plenty of people must be wearing them. Just don't let that psycho Misato get to you!"
Kaji gave his charge a reassuring smile, pretending that he really had been worried about the suit and that Asuka's words had been comforting to him. Asuka beamed at him, glad she could have made her Kaji more comfortable as she continued.
"It must have been one of those Section Two guys," she went on. "He looked kind of like a foreigner, and was trying to be all sneaky, standing outside the lobby like that. Honestly, if he wants to act like a spy, he should probably be hiding better, though someone that tall would probably have problems sneaking around…"
"Sir," Ritsuko began, unable to completely shake the feeling of unease that had been forming in her. "Is it really wise to let the official report be so widely dispersed?"
Ritsuko glanced down, letting her mind wander back to the report that had been compiled in the aftermath of the incident. She had been waiting diligently by the phone for when the call came, but she had most certainly not expected for Misato to get on the line nearly three hours later, sounding exhausted, announcing the recovery of the Third Child, informing them about the slaughter house which was the Nagasaki Park, and tiredly requesting medical attention for both her and the Third Child.
The aftermath was something straight out of a horror movie in Ritsuko's opinion. By the time the final count came back there had been thirty five corpses, the vast majority of those bodies children but some of them apparently members of the construction crew which had supposedly been renovating the park, and a few of them were just completely random individuals, men or women who had no apparent connection to any of the others.
The Third Child himself had received minimal damage, mostly just torn muscles and ligaments, symptoms usually associated with over exertion. There were friction burns across various places in his body which were consistent with binding marks, no doubt a sign of his captivity. For Misato, the wounding was far more serious, the great wound across her chest requiring extensive surgery and taking nearly two weeks even with NERV's extensive and advanced medical facilities.
And in the aftermath, it had been left to Ritsuko to try and make sense of the debacle.
And had that ever been a task to strain her creativity.
"There are numerous non-government combat forces and mercenaries that sprung up in the after math of the Second Impact," Gendo reminded her cooly, not even bothering to look at her. Instead he focused on the disturbing sight of Rei, floating nude in LCL as she synchronized with the dummy plug system once more. Around and behind them, the innumerable other clones of the girl continued to frolic, the glass muffling any sounds they might be making, but judging from their spread lips and wide smiles they looked like they were laughing. "That one such organization has been operating in Tokyo Three is nothing unusual."
"I'm aware of the number of different mercenary groups," Ritsuko admitted. They tended to be more active in some of the less developed regions of the world, places where they never fully recovered from the chaos of the past. "But to announce their intention to undermine the defense of the world by attacking the Children?"
"Nothing coalesces the wrath of the masses like assaults on the young," Gendo reminded her. "By announcing NERV as their primary target, and their intentions to be terrorist in nature, NERV has even further become a sympathetic figure in the eyes of the people. The goodwill will go a long way to helping support our organization in the future."
Ritsuko sighed, and couldn't help but admire the implacable man in front of her again. In the end, it had been his decision to announce the kidnapping and murders as the result of a terrorist action designed to undermine the planet's defense. It had been sighted that the multiple sightings of foreigners in suits were actually a number of different individuals, all members of this radical institution. And Gendo was right. Despite the danger, more and more public support was being vocalized on the media and over the internet.
"There have been four more requests for transfers," Ritsuko did feel obliged to point out this little concern. "Growing concern over the safety…"
"Refuse the transfers," Gendo cut her off, apparently already aware of the source of the requests. "Offer them the increased 'abroad expense' package instead. If they remain hesitant, they will unexpectedly qualify for the 'special allowance' package as well."
"Very well, sir," Ritsuko nodded. Support might be coming in from the masses, but for those who lived in Tokyo Three, the threat to their family and children were another matter entirely. Many had tried to quit out right, seeking to take their families to safer cities despite the loss of income. In response, Gendo had seen to it that greater allowances were given to families with children so that they could house them in neighboring cities. It wasn't uncommon for teenagers to live alone these days, and for the younger children they were often accompanied by spouses as the bread winner remained in Tokyo Three itself.
Needless to say, many of the neighboring schools had unexpectedly found themselves under new ownership as NERV silently moved to maintain its monopoly on the education system in regards to the Marduk Institute candidates.
So far, it seemed to be working, and though it diverted funding from several less important projects, the increased public support was so far making up for it.
Ritsuko had trouble suppressing a shiver as she looked around the vast underground laboratory, wishing that the synchronization process would hurry up already. Lately this room had made her uncomfortable. No, lately there had been other things which made her uncomfortable.
"Sir," she began again, her unease prompting her to ask even though her voice was slightly unsteady. "And about the UNOFFICIAL report?"
After the incident, both Misato and Shinji had been questioned extensively. Well, that had been the intention. Ritsuko had firmly come to believe that Misato was right about Section Two, because even though they were supposed to be hardened intelligence officers, they had completely been unable to get anything from what should have been a scared little boy. Shinji had clamped up tight, and nothing could get him to talk anymore. Ritsuko was beginning to have a new respect for Misato to have gotten as much as she apparently had out of the unflappable Third Child.
He kind of reminded her of his father in that point.
As for Misato, she had initially been unquestionable due to the necessity of treating her wounds. However, once she woke, she had given a crisp, clear, and concise report of what had occurred in Nagasaki Park.
It had been enough for Ritsuko to nearly recommend an incarceration in a psychiatric facility.
However, as the investigation of the scene had progressed, more and more questions were raised.
There had been nearly a dozen shell casings for the high velocity rounds that Misato had gotten her hands on, for instance, yet not a single bullet was recovered. Those things had enough force to tear through a half dozen engine blocks each, and yet not a single one was discovered despite extensive searching.
Then there was the wounds themselves. Forensic scientists still hadn't been able to identify the weapon used to make them. They lacked any of the characteristics of a scalpel cut, yet were too sharp to have been caused by most knives as well. If anything, the closest conclusion Ritsuko had come to was that they had been caused by some sort of surgical machine, so precise were they. But those kinds of equipment weren't exactly easy to move or conceal, and no sign of any such device had been located.
And then there were the bodies, or more precisely the wrappings that covered the organs that had been stored in the bodies. Despite her best effort, Ritsuko hadn't been able to identify the substance. It looked like saran wrap, or some other type of plastic, but it had been identified as organic. In a fit of frustration Ritsuko had even used the Magi to scan it, hoping that the pattern analysis might give some insight into the material.
She had been expecting a red pattern, a normal biological pattern indicative of earthly creation. She would have been surprised, but able to deal with it as well, if the pattern had come blue, indicating an angelic origin. That would have made a lot more sense of Misato's unbelievable story.
However, the analysis had come back inconclusive. That should be impossible. Even if it was alien in nature, there should have been something in the scan. Instead, nothing. For all the processing power of the three super computers, for all the versatility in identifying alien material, there had been no way to identify the substance
It was all circumstantial in nature. There was no definitive proof as to the existence or nature of the so called 'Slender Man'. But then again, there hadn't been any to substantiate the abuse of the Third Child, and Misato had been dead on with that one.
And so Ritsuko waffled between belief in her friend, and faith in science.
"The unofficial report of Major Katsuragi remains unimportant," Gendo informed her. If he had any doubts about the events of the incident, he didn't voice them. He had recommended the former Captain for promotion though, so who knew what he was thinking at times. "For now, completion of the dummy plug system remains priority."
That was something that Ritsuko could understand at least. If there was an organization of terrorists trying to cause the world to end by destroying the only viable pilots for the earth's defense system, than having an automatic pilot system was even more important than ever.
And if there was something out there, something hunting the pilots for other reasons, the situation was still the same.
Ritsuko suppressed a shiver again, glancing up to confirm that Rei was still in her tube. The girl remained motionless, eyes closed, giving no sign of notice to anything around her as her short blue hair drifted around her head.
It didn't change the fact that it was creepy down here though.
Thoughts of creepy only spurred yet another topic Ritsuko was concerned about.
"Sir," she began one final time. "About the… situation between Major Katsuragi and the Third Child…"
Ritsuko trailed off, not sure what else to say. She had once joked about having the number to child services, and Misato had laughed at her at the idea of her putting the move onto a child. However, that had been before the incident.
Nearly the entire time Misato had been in surgery, Shinji had been waiting patiently outside the door of the operation room, only leaving for the ineffectual attempt at questioning. When she had been moved to a short term convalescence room, so too had Shinji moved.
When Misato had finally recovered enough to return to their apartment, Ritsuko had thought that things might return to normal. However, when Misato had shown up two days later, cleared for light duty, so too had Shinji come. Ritsuko had asked why he wasn't at school, only to be informed by her friend that she had officially withdrawn him.
Ritsuko thought she could understand her friend's actions. Whatever had happened in that Park, it had been something traumatic, something which would leave marks on the two of them's psyches. Ritsuko had thought that maybe the Third Child just wanted to be around the one who had rescued him, that being around Misato would help calm him and prepare him for returning to an eventual everyday life schedule.
However, there was no return. And things hadn't stopped at just Shinji doing home school work in Misato's office. The two of them went everywhere together.
They ate together, they walked together. When it was time for Misato to have meetings with various personnel, Shinji was always either there with her, or outside the door waiting. He had even taken to helping her carry her supplies, and a few meetings with outside contractors who hadn't known the identity of the Third Child had asked questions at the youth of Misato's apparent office aide. Even when the two were just taking a break down to the coffee or snack machines, regardless of which of them the snack was for they both went.
That alone wouldn't have been enough for Ritsuko to worry, but when Misato had started escorting Shinji even to the locker room for when he changed into his plug suit, and Ritsuko realized that she wasn't waiting outside the door, that was when she had begun to worry. Misato would leave synchronization exercises early as well, so she could greet her charge the moment he left the Eva.
Ritsuko knew Misato, after all. She could make some guesses as to what her own reaction to the incident must have been like. Misato liked to have a little physical assurance after a life or death situation, and Ritsuko didn't want to know how she could have a one night stand when she seemed physically incapable of being outside of the Third's presence.
Well, she could think of a few ways that Misato might find comfort even with Shinji around, and that was what was disturbing her.
He was so young! Ritsuko did not think of how hypocritical her thoughts were, considering that the age difference between Shinji and Misato was nearly identical to the age difference between Ritsuko and Gendo.
"The personal interactions between the Major and the Third Child are of little concern," Gendo dismissed, once more showing any lack of concern for the emotional safety of his own child. "So long as their relationship does not interfere with either of their duties, than NERV will make no effort to impede upon their privacy."
For a moment, Ritsuko actually wondered if this was yet another example of the strange and twisted caring that the man sometimes seemed to display around his son. Just like when he had deliberately set Misato on the path to guard him, was this another of his ways to look after Shinji, despite its apparent callousness? The boy did not seem upset with Misato's constant presence. If anything , he seemed relieved by it, accepting and even visibly enjoying being around her at times. Was Gendo's insistent hands-off approach to their strange relationship his own way of allowing his son to find some comfort in his life?
"In the future," Gendo continued in a diffident tone, "threats to their relationship will prove more effective in keeping both individuals compliant."
And just like that, any thought of Gendo secretly caring about his son died.
"I… I'll just go see to the irregularities in the dummy plug," Ritsuko stammered out, feeling cold at the absolute ruthlessness that her lover was displaying. As she turned, she thought that Gendo would let her go without speaking.
"Doctor Akagi," Gendo disabused that notion too, and Ritsuko hesitated. "You will come to my apartment tonight."
Despite herself, Ritsuko sighed in relief. Even if he was ruthless and terrifying, even if she was beginning to question her own mental state for being so attracted to him, she was still glad that she would be spending the night with him.
In the last few weeks, with all that was going on, Ritsuko was beginning to become frightened of sleeping alone.
As the scientist departed, leaving Gendo alone in the company of Fuyutsuki, the two men stood silently, both of them gazing without words at the still form of Rei as she floated. Both of them couldn't help but see the features of the one woman they both loved, the one they yearned for even all these years after she had been taken from them.
"And if it isn't human or angel?" Fuyutsuki was finally the one who broke the silence. The two of them were familiar with each other, a camaraderie that had developed over years of working together. Gendo didn't need to ask his old mentor to elaborate further.
"The existence of other non-human entities besides the angels does not bear any significance on the scenario," the commander of NERV stated plainly. "The scenario will be completed, regardless of any obstacles."
In response Fuyutsuki gave his paternal smile, accepting Gendo's decision. If Ritsuko had seen it, she would have been struck by the fact that for all his gentle and grandfatherly airs, Fuyutsuki could be every bit as ruthless and terrifying as Gendo could be.
Rei Ayanami the third watched. She did so without moving, without opening her eyes. Even as Ritsuko moved behind and around her while Gendo and Fuyutsuki stayed in front of her, she still watched all three of them.
She didn't remember how she had learned to do so. But even though she shouldn't be able to see anyone right now, she was still watching them.
The fact that she couldn't remember how to do something like that did not disturb her.
Even if she had many bodies, it was still her soul which was transferred when one of her clones were terminated. And the soul didn't remember, not like the body did. Every time she transferred, she was reborn into the world, innocent and ignorant. That was the true purpose of her synchronization, after all, to transfer the memories of her past to the new and unprepared body.
But even if she had to seek outside assistance to recover her basic knowledge, there were some parts of her that did transfer automatically. The soul didn't have memories, but it did have impulses, instincts, collections of hazy recollections which had been marked far deeper than just the neutrons and cells of her brain.
And now, one of those instincts was to watch.
Rei Ayanami wasn't certain how she had learned that instinct. The memories she had received after coming into existence in her third incarnation didn't have the knowledge of that. The memories had come from directly before the confrontation with the fifth angel, and her termination had come before she could update her external record of her past.
And so Rei wasn't certain where the instinct to watch had come from. Nor the other instincts she had discovered that were different from what she remembered having before her second death.
Rei was watching the three around her, but they weren't the ones who she felt the desire to watch. There was one, one in particular, that she found herself drawn to.
She watched him whenever she was in his presence. Without looking, without gazing, she watched. She found that even when she tried, she couldn't stop watching him.
There had been something about his eyes, something she had learned and lost, something which had stayed with her, which teased her with half recalled recollections. She had discovered something about his eyes, and now that she did not have that something anymore, it left a small, hollow and constant aching inside of her.
She wanted to remember. Rei very rarely felt things like wanting or loss, and so now that she felt them there was always some part of her thinking on it.
And so she watched Pilot Ikari, waiting and hoping for the chance to find what had been taken from her.
And there was one other thing that stayed, something she had forgotten.
It had been a game. A marvelous game. One she had played before.
What had the game been? Just like Pilot Ikari's eyes had begun manifesting in her dreams, despite the fact that she had never really had dreams before, so too the game had been making appearances as well.
She could almost recall how to play it…
And so, Rei watched. And as Rei watched, the dummy plug echoing her thoughts, the game finding root through synchronization in the programming which would someday be the dummy plug, somewhere, in the darker parts of the mass holding facility of her clones, several of the giggling swimmers stilled.
And hidden, behind the mass of innocence that were the rest of those clones, concealed in the dark recesses of the vast aquarium like structure, the still ones floated, also watching.
In the dark of their apartment, Misato and Shinji slept. Once, Misato had jokingly thought to herself that without their bed clothes their position would have been best described as 'raunchy as hell'.
Sleepily, contentedly, Misato pulled Shinji closer, feeling smug that she had been right in her prediction.
It had taken her time to recover after they had escaped, after they had fought their way free of Nagasaki Park, but when the two of them finally were alone together back in their homeMisato had followed through with her promise to teach Shinji how adults kiss. And then the topic had moved on to more advanced lessons of what adults did.
She had been even thrilled when her Shinji had proven to be an apt student on the topic.
Misato knew that people were beginning to talk. She knew that there were whispers from her coworkers behind their backs, that some were beginning to give her disgusted or disappointed looks at what must seem like a completely inappropriate relationship to them.
Well, screw those guys.
Misato knew she was damaged. She had been damaged before, after all, and she had done enough self-introspection to recognize what she was. The thick red scar, flowing down over her older and faded one was yet again a symbol that there was something wrong with her, that something inside her was either broken, or twisted, or just out of alignment.
She was fine with that. She would recover, in time. Just like the first time she had been wounded, she would get better, bit by bit. In time she wouldn't find herself drawing her gun on innocent strangers who had startled her, wouldn't find herself biting her lip when she caught sight of some innocent object out of the corner of her eye that just happened to resemble a human silhouette. She wouldn't wake up shaking, crushing the body next to her to her chest so tightly that she worried she might hurt him.
It would take time, but it would happen.
She also knew that Shinji too, was damaged. That was okay as well. This was his first time that way, though it had been a far longer and more exhausting wound than hers had been. But he too would get better. He was already looking up more and more, already capable of giving her those shy smiles and blushes as he met her eyes, or managed to take in the sight of something other than the ground around him. And the times when he would thrash in her arms due to nightmares were already diminishing, maybe in part due to the soothing caresses and whispers she would give him when he did so.
So yeah, the two of them were damaged. And yeah, they had sought refuge in the arms of the only other person in the world who could understand that damage.
Misato honestly couldn't think of anyone else she would want to be with, regardless of the circumstances behind their relationship. Even the sight of her old boyfriend earlier that day hadn't been able to shake her new lover, and wasn't that a giddy though, her Shinji being her lover, for the determined young man who had managed to stand up to impossible odds alone for so long.
And Shinji, Shinji too couldn't imagine being with anyone other than the impossible, teasing, observant, and strong woman who had stood up for him, who had tried to help him, and in their darkest moment had tried to die for him.
And so the two of them slept together, naked except for the thin sheet that barely reached up to their waists.
Well, Misato did have to suppress a giggle. Maybe the size difference was a bit awkward right now. Her Shinji did barely come up to her chest at the moment, though he would no doubt grow. In Japan, pressing your face against a lover's chest was sometimes called 'Spoiled Child', and Shinji was getting very spoiled in the last few days.
He didn't seem to mind though. And honestly, Misato thought he deserved to be spoiled a bit.
Late that night, even though she was deep asleep when the change came, the moment it happened, the moment Shinji stiffened in her arms her eyes snapped open.
She still didn't know how he knew. Whatever it was that was giving it away to him she never asked, but her Shinji always knew.
Misato didn't look behind her, towards the door to her bedroom. She didn't see the way it had been cracked open by a few inches, despite the fact that she had closed it and locked it tight before they had gone to bed. She didn't look at the too white eyeless face set off a dark suit and white shirt as the Slender Man stood, watching, waiting.
Instead, she looked down at her lover, and found Shinji looking back up at her to meet her eyes.
At his back, the gun she slept with clutched firmly in her hand at all times clicked as she released the safety on it. It had a full clip with a bullet chamber. Beneath their pillows were five more clips, all filled with the same high velocity ammo she had come to favor.
And at her back, clenched just as firmly as her gun, another click as the box cutter Shinji always had with him extended echoed her own preparation.
"Try it," Misato told the thing.
Maybe the Slender Man could understand her words, and held back because of them. Maybe it simply hadn't intended to attack at all this time.
Maybe it was just waiting for them to look at it, rather than just each other.
However, for now, the Slender Man just remained at the doorway, its head cocked to the side as it watched without eyes, and Misato and Shinji looked at nothing but each other.
And so the three of them remained, long into the night.
This is not the end.
It will never end.
But it is the conclusion.