"Good afternoon, Ma'am. May I ask for your identification, please?" The guard on duty suppressed a smile as he waited patiently for the woman in front of him to find her ID card in the small shoulder-bag she carried. He wondered why he even bothered; the woman was a regular visitor here at the installation anyway, and most of the security detachment assigned there recognized her.
Heck, even if she didn't come by the base often, he would still identify her. A face like that was very hard to forget. However, procedure had to be followed, even for someone who was probably known by half of the World.
"Here it is sir," the woman said, her tone of voice suggesting concealed mirth, even if her blank face and formal way of speaking said otherwise. The guard smiles in thanks as she gives him her identity card, and pauses for a moment to study the face staring back at him on the card's plastic surface.
On the picture was a pale young woman, with piercing cerise eyes and unruly blue hair. On her face was an expression of mild annoyance, and looking at the picture, the guard could probably guess why: one side of her strange ice-blue mop seemed to have been cut shorter than the other, making it look like her head was side-heavy. To the right of the picture, written in bold letters, was the woman's name, though little else was on the card; her birthday, her age, her height and weight were deliberately kept blank. Above her name, printed in computerized script, were the words GEHIRN TOKYO-3, announcing the organization for which she worked.
"Thank you, Ma'am," the guard said as he handed back the ID card. Stepping aside, he allowed passage through the mechanized security gate, which slid open with a 'bang!' behind him. "Welcome to the R.D.C.'s main headquarters."
Ayanami Rei, once more famously known as the First Child, smiled almost imperceptably as she replaced the card in her bag. Her left hand reflexively went to the left side of her head, the part which had been the unwilling victim of Asuka's hairstyling expertise. Although it was now immaculately cut, it never seemed to have recovered from that experience, even after all these years.
The guard almost melted at his post with the smile. Paying no mind to the appreciative look the sentinel-on-duty was giving her, she quickly passed him by, immediately disappearing behind the large security doors, which slammed shut behind her again.
Normally, Rei would have taken the elevator, which was just a few steps away from the main gates. It was quicker, and much more importantly, lessened the time that she would have to stay in what was once NERV Headquarters, now the central nervecenter of the United Nations Rapid Deployment Corps, more commonly known as the R.D.C. If truth be known, she was loathe to return there, even if for official functions; the place of her birth, some would even say her old home, held too many bad memories.
Memories that haunted her to this day. Memories that she would rather do without.
However, the purpose of her visit today was a more unofficial one, and for once she actually looked forward to walking the long steel hallways of former-NERV central. She had a problem that needed resolving, and she knew of only one person who could help her in this matter. And that someone (unfortunately) had her office in the massive pyramidal structure many kilometers below where Rei was walking right now.
Rei's pace was unhurried, her movements slow and leisurely, contrasting with the almost frantic gait of the military personnel passing her by, on their way to some of the facilities that were still aboveground. She barely spared the other people around her a glance, weaving her way amidst the passersby, making her way steadily towards the long escalator that heralded her first stop on her trip downwards.
The other people she passed by on the hallway did not deny her the space, some actually stepping back to allow passage to this amazing looking woman, whose driven tread hinted at a greater purpose as to why she was here.
Indeed, in her casual outfit, a light blue blouse over some faded denims, her feet sporting a pair of archaic-looking sneakers, Rei looked the part of a woman on a mission. A few years associating with three of the most fashion-conscious women she had ever known—a certain ex-Major, a bleach-blonde bioengineer with a maternal complex, and an unforgettable Redhead—had done miracles for Rei's outside appearance and persona.
Before, even when she had some very striking physical traits, Rei's introvertive manner made her fade into the background quicker than one of Misato-san's dinners (meaning 'Instant'-ly). Her quiet attitude didn't help matters either. And what was more frustrating on her own part, Rei didn't want to fade into the background.
At least, not anymore.
She had wanted to reach out to people, but because of the air of mystery that constantly surrounded her, the one thing that seemed to attract people's attention to her also pushed them away.
She didn't want to push them away, though. But then again, she didn't know how to make people feel comfortable whenever she was nearby, either. Still coming to grips with her emotions, she was at a loss to what to do to change herself, and at the same time change the way people perceived her.
Needless to say, it had taken a lot of work to dispel her 'Ice Maiden' reputation.
Once, a long, long time ago, Shinji had commented something about Asuka. "Whenever she sees something as a challenge," he laughed, "She'll never yield. She said it herself: Sohryu Asuka Langley doesn't back down from a challenge!"
Of course, she was more than familiar with the Second Children's determination, in battle, and in her personal life. It was a trait Rei had always admired in her teammate, though she never said it out loud. Even after she was hospitalized in the aftermath of the bloody battle against the Mass Production Evangelions, even when she was told by the doctors that she probably wouldn't be able to walk normally ever again, Asuka hadn't given up. She just gritted her teeth, and then showed how wrong those doctors could be.
Apparently, she didn't know Asuka well enough. Or just how focused the fiery German fraulein could be.
When she had first heard of Rei's, um, fashion problem, Shinji's better half—they were already engaged by this time, after a long and, at times, very frustrating courtship—threw herself into her new 'pet project'; her previous endeavor had been getting Shinji to dress more like a man and less like a wuss. At least, that was what she termed it. Immediately enlisting the aid of both Misato and Ritsuko, she prepped up 'Wonder Girl' for what she deemed as the ultimate makeover.
First, she had Rei start from scratch. As in literally start from scratch. It was something that the First Child actually viewed with trepidation, at first.
Asuka maintained that since they were trying to make a new Ayanami Rei, they had to dispose of everything the old Rei had. The wardrobe full of school uniforms was the first to go, followed by the usual fixtures of apartment 403: the medications lying everywhere, the stack of books that looked like they had never been opened, the endless stack of white underwear…
Well, not quite the undies, but everything else was thrown out.
Then, Rei was to be moved to a more fitting residence. Preferably somewhere the three Wicked Witches of NERV could keep a close eye on her. What was it that Asuka said again? That she (Rei) needed an environment where she can more easily make the transition from her old self to her new self. And besides, the place one lived in reflected the oulook of the person living in it, right?
With the changes, both inside and out, that Asuka was trying to bring about, that icky old apartment complex didn't suit Rei anymore.
Luckily, Shinji, the dear, found a quick solution to their problems, instating Rei in an apartment just two floors up from Misato's place. With a few minor hitches, like trouble finding the right furniture, and Misato somehow losing her credit card along the way, Rei was ushered in to her new home, a bright and clean place for a change.
Rei found herself liking the place immediately.
The hardest part came when she was to be tutored in the basics of social interaction. The fact of the matter was you couldn't force a change on a person like that without the person actually looking forward to it.
And the question was, did Rei really want to go through with this?
Not one of them actually had any ideas of what she really felt about it, and how she felt about anything. If it seemed that she was being forced into changing, it wouldn't work. Although she would be guided each step of the way, the fact of the matter was that Rei had to start the change herself.
Someone had to learn about Rei's feelings, and had to find out if she really wanted to come out of her 'shell' that badly. Someone, preferably someone she knew, needed to talk to her.
Of course, convincing Rei to talk at all could be said as a minor achievement in itself. Getting her to talk openly about herself could be considered a major stepping stone to eventually opening up to others. If Rei could speak freely, without being embarrassed of the reactions of people to what she said, then getting her to interact would be much, much easier.
The logical choice, as far as Misato and Shinji were concerned, was Ritsuko. She did, after all, know more about Rei's origins than anyone else. She could probably understand her better than the rest of them.
So it came as a surprise to everyone, even Rei herself, that Asuka had volunteered for the task. Taking her leave from Misato and her fianceé (Shinji still hadn't found the right place for them to live in), Asuka moved in with Rei, despite some reservations from all parties concerned.
And with good reason. Asuka was still loud, brash, and oftimes pushy when it came to everything. Even with Shinji, the young man she had given her heart to. Though it was already clear to everyone how much the two cared for each other, more often than not, she had been seen ordering around her hapless mate-to-be.
Carpetbagged was not the word to describe poor Shinji's situation.
For the first time in her life, Rei felt intimidated. And it wasn't because of Sohryu's vociferous behavior. Oooh no, her anxiety came from the thought of opening up to the Second Child, trusting her with her thoughts and feelings, then having Asuka take advantage of what she had learned to make fun of her.
Yes, having considered how devious the redhead could be, there had been a good chance of that happening.
Luckily, she didn't have to worry about that any longer. The moment Asuka walked into the First Child's new home, a large duffel bag full of clothes in tow and a bright (not scary) smile on her face, Rei felt that she had nothing to fear from her. Whatever it was that made Asuka decide to be the one to talk to her, she had no doubt that the intentions behind it were good.
Asuka stayed with Rei for more than two weeks. During her entire stay with her, Asuka actually became nicer than when she was around Shinji, and she was definitely more open than usual. Relatively speaking. She had shown sincere interest in learning more about her former teammate, and seemed to actually look forward to Rei finally breaking free of that cocoon of shyness she kept herself in.
Soon, Rei became comfortable with her new roommate. Asuka had a passion for life rivaled only by her drive to excel. Sometimes though, when she looked into the German girl's blue eyes, she saw a hint of sadness, melancholy that seemed tempered by the knowledge that happiness wasn't too far away to grasp.
Asuka had talked a lot during her stay. Most of the time, the subjects of her usually rambling commentaries drew upon the things she found interesting, mainly clothes, the latest campus gossip she had come upon, or the latest movie she had seen. Sometimes, she even talked about some of the guys she thought as cute, which surprised Rei a bit since it seemed that although Asuka's heart was for Shinji, her eyes were free to admire any other member (not that member, you ecchis!) of the male species.
Rei quickly saw the purpose behind her companion's 'discussions'; she was trying to get her to join in the conversation, so that she could hear what she thought about it. However, it didn't get the desired results. In fact, it all seemed more detrimental since she just clammed up even more.
Rei wasn't exactly comfortable with those subjects. She never cared much about what she wore, and wasn't up to gossip anyway. And boys? Finding the words to describe her feelings about that subject would strain even her expansive vocabulary.
Asuka didn't relent. Surely, there must be something that interested Rei, something that she was actually at ease sharing with her.
It was only when she spoke about Shinji one day, regarding the quiet conversations she had with him while they were both still in the hospital, that Rei felt finally comfortable enough to talk about what she felt on that subject. Judging by the expression Asuka had, she had been a little taken aback by that, but quickly put the feeling aside, and gladly heard what the First Child had to say about her (she stressed the word 'her') baka-Shin-chan.
It had been the breakthrough she had been waiting for, it seemed.
The two talked all through the night, and into the wee hours of morning. The conversation had taken on a life of its own, as the two began to talk about all sorts of subjects, some of which were connected in no way to Ikari Shinji. By sunrise, they had just ended a good-natured argument about the metaphysical symbolism of the first kiss, particularly Asuka's first kiss, when they fell asleep from exhaustion. However, they had small smiles on their faces when they did.
Rei never imagined how much she actually enjoyed sharing what she had always felt, to someone who actually wanted to hear what she had to say. It was a liberating feeling, to say the least.
And what more, it gave her some confidence to speak her mind, and to put her trust in other people. If she could talk comfortably with Asuka, the notorious 'Red Devil' of Tokyo-3 Junior High, then she could do so with anyone else.
One day, near the end of that two-week period, Asuka invited Rei to join her visit Misato's apartment. Despite the fact that the two were now more at ease with each other than ever before, and found it no longer hard to communicate with each other (Asuka always started the discussion, of course, but there were times that Rei begun some of her own as well), the true test would be how Rei would apply what she had learnt and observed of their conversations together with other people. And the Major's house, with its rather animated owner, would be as good a place as any to start.
[author's note: I'm careless with my adjectives and pronouns, so sue me.]
Rei always had the feeling that Sohryu had some other place in mind though, some where more crowded…Like the university cantina…Ah well…
It so happened that Dr. Akagi and Dr. Ibuki had come over for a visit. The three elder women were having a somewhat lively argument about the skyrocketing prices of good perfumes, and how it would be next to impossible to get that new fragrance that just come out, when the two entered the apartment. Asuka, upon hearing a subject that she was interested in, quickly joined in. Rei however waited for the right opportunity to make her ideas known.
Her chance came when the four other women began to ask each other about what their favorite fragrances were. As the other women watched with shocked expressions (with only Sohryu as an exception), Rei begun to talk about a particular scent that caught her fancy during a visit long ago to a department store.
Sohryu immediately commented on her poor taste of perfumes. Rei countered that she liked that scent, and whenever she smelled it she felt happy…The exchange continued back and forth for a while, until Dr. Akagi interjected, her mind having shook free of the surprise it felt, and joined in the discussion, curious about the new development in Rei's behavior.
Misato and Maya had soon followed, interested as well. It seemed that whatever method it was that the Redhead used, it had succeeded in making the introverted First Child express her feelings through words easier. Things shortly became more relaxed between the group of women, and, after a while, the apartment was soon filled by the sounds of female voices joined together in casual conversation.
Rei went home that day feeling better than she ever felt before.
Though thankful that she was more at ease now sharing her feelings, Asuka warned her not to put her trust in people too much. Not everyone was like her, Shinji, Misato, Dr. Ibuki, and Dr. Akagi. Some would want to take advantage of her, and she might get hurt if she put too much faith in the kindness of any person she met.
Sohryu didn't have to tell her that. She knew the feeling all too well.
Seeing that Rei had finally gained some measure of confidence, in terms of her being comfortable enough to interact with other people, Asuka's next step called for a more outward change. Since she felt confident, shouldn't she now look confident?
Her wardrobe was no longer a problem, although Rei had to play a more active role in choosing what kind of dresses she wanted, and what color they came in, or else she would have a whole closetfull of sundresses and nightdresses in all the colors of the rainbow. She had wanted something less flashy, attire that simple in make and design, since, although she didn't want to be the center of attention, she didn't want to be left unnoticed as well.
Surprisingly, the kind of shabby chic that she wanted actually suited her. Even just in a long-sleeved black blouse and plaid skirt, Rei looked great. Katsuragi-san and even Sohryu approved to her choice. The only thing left for her to change was the way she carried herself.
That adjustment, amazingly, was something that Rei didn't have difficulty in bringing on on her own. After all, she had been projecting an indifferent attitude before. How can showing confidence be any different?
Thus, the Ayanami Rei of the present day was brought to light: charming, outgoing (if a bit guarded), and a person who didn't have problems mingling with other people. She had to admit, those lessons were something she was very thankful for, as well has the three ladies that took time to help guide her through the change.
These days, in all probability, when people see her, they would stop to admire her confident demeanor, the way she held herself so well that it seemed that nothing in the world could ever harm her. "Yes," they would say, "There goes a woman who knows what she came here for."
They would never learn the irony of those words.
Rei took no notice of the stares sent in her direction. She had this look in her eye that told everyone looking at her that she had a very, very important reason for being there.
A frown passed briefly upon Rei's features. Any help concerning her dilemma would be quite welcome at the moment. It wasn't something that she could ask from anyone she might meet on the street, though. She needed the opinion of an expert, and she couldn't think of anyone else to fill that role other than the person she was seeking right now.
As it was, Rei was barely even coherent of her surroundings, her body going into a virtual autopilot ever since she crossed the security doors. It wasn't like she needed to be lucid to get around NERV, anyway; every passage had since been ingrained into her mind, every intersection commited to memory. In all probability, she could have gotten to where she was supposed to go sleepwalking.
No, though her body was going through the motions of navigating its way to one particular office in what was NERV's administrative department, Ayanami Rei's mind was far, far away. She was deep in thought, so deep that she didn't even notice that she had just stepped on the almost kilometer-long escalator, and was already on her way downwards.
It was like, as a certain redheaded friend of hers once commented, 'she had zoned out'.
Rei's lips curved slightly in the beginnings of a smile. Yes, Sohryu (she never really got used to calling Asuka by her married name) would want to think of it that way. Or make it sound like it was that way.
Although she sure looked like it at the moment, this was far from the truth.
She had to admit, in her youth, she was actually guilty of 'zoning out'. And why shouldn't she? Nothing really interested her back then, and she basically knew almost everything she needed to know about the world anyway.
Nothing else mattered. Why should they matter to her? She had one purpose, and one purpose alone. Everything else were just details to be dealt with. She had no life, only existence. She was told that she would never need anything else.
So, more often than not, she let her mind wander over various mundane, sometimes even philosophical, topics. Even then, those same ruminations held little meaning for her, serving only as mental exercises that prepared her mind ease the transition of synchronizing with EVA. There were very little insight gained from those far-stretched fancies.
Sometimes, none at all.
Why should she care anyway? The world in general didn't even pay her a small bit of notice, her existence nothing more than an means to an end she had no control of.
But even as she ignored the world around her, focusing on her one purpose of living, it didin't mean that other people ignored her in turn.
Ikari-kun. Katsuragi-san. And, later, Sohryu and even Dr. Akagi. They, more than anyone else, showed her that she was important, to them, for just being Ayanami Rei. Not because she was tool that could be used to accomplish something.
They showed her that, even though she never fully acknowledged it at first, that people cared for her.
Rei tried to refocus her mind on the dilemma plaguing her thoughts for the past few hours. Shaking her head clear, she pondered the choices she still had, given the little time she had left. It was just so silly, really, giving such a fuss over something that could be easily dismissed as trivial and of no consequence. Nonetheless, it was important to her, and as far as she was relate to, the fuss was well-merited.
That, and she cared for the person that particular problem was concerned with.
"Uh oh, it looks like Wonder Girl's been in the sun too long. Look, she's just staring off into nothingness again." A teasing voice, full of mirth. A wide grin, set against a backdrop of sun and sand, the sounds of the ocean heard clearly in the background.
Rei allowed herself a slight smile, as she let that particular memory come to her. It was a welcome one, unlike the many other recollections that usually haunted her as she entered deeper into the bowels of the Geofront.
But, on the other hand, this place always had that effect on her.
Pausing her musing for a bit, Rei returned to reality for a moment, studying the length of the escalator had yet to travel. As expected, it would probably be more than a minute or so before she reached the main platform below, as it was so long. There would still be plenty of time to think.
Her cerise eyes seem to cloud over, as if she was turning inward, and soon Rei lost track once more of her surroundings, her mind again running through the possible solutions to her little predicament. Even the soft hum of the escalator's machinery was lost to her.
For any other person, it was very easy to lose oneself to boredom once traveling into the depths of the Geofront. With the sheer size of the massive installation, any kind of quick transport between locations, even if it is just from the surface to the monorail platform, took a large amount of intervening time. Thus, they would find things to do as they waited to reach their destination.
Talking was one of the usual things that the personnel in the Geofront did. It was one of the most easiest ways to alleviate boredom and pass the time shuttling between one post to the next. Maybe that's why you barely can find a lone technician or lab assistant walking the grounds anymore; everyone wants to suffer their wait with someone else.
"It makes the place a lot more noisier than I remember it to be," she commented absently as a trio of bridge techs, judging by their uniforms, passed her by on the opposite escalator, on the way to the surface, their spirited voices filling the wide corridor of glass and metal with sounds of girlish amusement.
Still, she couldn't really complain. The sounds of conversations being held almost everywhere, even in the dark depths of Terminal Dogma, gave the place a life she never thought it would possess before. It certainly wasn't boring anymore.
Rei, however, didn't have the same luxury when she was young, the presence of another to talk to. Well, there was Ikari-kun, but usually it was only he who talked while she listened. And that wasn't really a conversation now, was it?
No, back then, she had to be content with just herself as company, and her mind as an escape from the tedium that assaulted her whenever she had to go to NERV HQ. Rei was many things, she knew, but she was also human, and human beings, despite their capacity for intense patience sometimes, got bored rather quickly if their senses were exposed to such long periods with nothing to do.
Ayanami Rei, ethereal as some may think she was, was no exception from the rule.
Guiltily, she acknowledged to herself that it was often during these times that she preferred to zone out. Anything was more favorable than spending more than five minutes staring away at thin air, after all. Even Sohryu, with her lively outlook, would agree with her on this.
Even though her thoughts were definitely more focused now, especially with the important matter weighing on her mind at the moment, Rei felt that she was still doing what she had been doing so often in her youth. She was still losing herself in thought to pass the time. How Dr. Akagi and Dr. Ibuki would laugh.
She had to admit, it was something she hadn't done in quite some time. The last time she came here, she had Maya-san to talk to, even if the subject of their conversation was of a more technical nature. Or the times before that, where either Sohryu or Ikari-kun would accompany her, whether for meetings or just casual visits to the parkland below.
Then again, with Ikari-kun and Sohryu along, they didn't need to talk to lessen the constant ennui of waiting to arrive at their destination. Sohryu in particular found some very unorthodox ways to pass the time.
Rei smiled slightly as a stray thought crossed her mind. It had happened right here, on the escalator she was on at the moment. And the funny thing about it was the event was brought on by a simple statement, phrased so innocently by her red haired coleague.
What was it again?
"Shinji, I'm a little bored."
Oh yes, around those two—the 'newlyweds', as Suzuhara so bluntly put it—things weren't exactly dull. Even now, with all the changes that had happened to her, Rei would never even think of trying half of the things those two had done in public.
But, then again, love tended to do strange things to people.
It was even more so when it was just her and Asuka. Sohryu never ran out of things to talk about, a little facet of the Second Child's personality Rei learned during their brief stay together in her new apartment. The redhead could just go on for hours just talking about anything.
When she and Shinji finally got engaged, and Asuka learned that she was bearing a child, the discussions they had, if possible, got even livelier. It was kind of ironic, considering that not too long ago, Sohryu herself had announced that she had no intention of having children. Now, it would seem that she was even more excited of the prospect of becoming a mother than ever before.
Time would just stop, as they talked about what the baby would look like, if the child would take after her or Shinji, even the child's gender. They talked about names. It would either Akiko or Teri if it was girl, and Andreas or Koichi if it was a boy.
They would talk of the baby's bright future, growing up with two parents that would show the little one so much love…
Stepping off the escalator finally, Rei decided that she missed those little talks she had with Sohryu. Looking around, finding no one else nearby, she took out her hankerchief and wiped her eyes. Damned dust…Always made her tear over. The ventilators should be maintained better, if just to filter out all the gray stuff flying around…
Composing herself a bit, Rei stood there for a while. Taking a deep breath to steady herself, Rei shook her head, smiling ruefully to herself. "Now I know I am getting old," she muttered, as she continued onto the monorail platform. "Thinking about the past, of friends long gone." She chuckled inwardly a little. "It is just silly really…"
She stopped for a moment, looking up at the cold metal ceiling of the rail station. "Maybe it is just me, Sohryu, but I liked it better when you were here with me. Trips to the 'Front were not that lonely when you were around."
Receiving no response, Rei shook her head once more, before proceeding onto the main platform, where various military and RDC staff congregated. "And it is infinitely better than talking to myself," she added to herself, as she waited with the rest of those there for the arrival of the means of convenience that would continue her travel downwards.
Rei didn't have to wait very long. Barely a minute had passed before the single-track mode of transport made its way into the station, the screech of brakes heraldring its arrival. Waiting a bit for the glass and metal doors to open, she and the rest of those on the passenger dais filed in. She took a seat near one of the doors, and settled herself in for the ten-minute ride downwards.
As Rei closed her eyes, the doors of the train car slid shut, and soon, there was a feeling of movement, as the train continued its irrevocable course towards the main base of the R.D.C.
Yawning a bit, Rei didn't even bother opening her eyes as her eyelids were suddenly flooded with light, an irregularity, considering that she was now deep underground. The Geofront, though it still brought gasps of wonder from those who visited it, didn't warrant her attention anymore. She had more important things to think of, and didn't have the time to look out of the train window to the man-made wonder she was sure to be seen outside.
There had been little change in the massive underground sphere more widely-known as the Geofront, except of course for the massive hole caused by the N2 strike during the JSSDF's and SEELE's assault on NERV so many years ago. Aside from the new skylight, things were essentially the same, even down to the veritable forest of trees surrounding the structures that now served as the home of RDC's command. Rei could even see, in her mind's eye, the great pyramid of metal and glass that was once NERV Central.
In the aftermath of the bloody confrontation of the army and NERV, and the trials and tribunals that followed it, the United Nations decided to put what was left of the superstructure in the Geofront to use. NERV HQ was renovated, to accommodate the relocation of the UN's own Rapid Deployment Corps, which was to make it their new home. Barely a year and a half after the conflict, the pyramid had become once more a center of activity, this time around supervised closely by the UN.
The area around it was rehabilitated, eventually being turned into a public park to which the populace was given access to, commemorating the place of one of the most violent encounters in recent memory, and the people who died needlessly participating in it. There was even, to the Childrens' ultimate embarrassment, an Angel War museum dedicated. Next to the museum stood memorial wall, on which was written the names of all who had died, soldier, civilian, or NERV staff alike. In front of the long obsidian barrier, completing the scene, burned an eternal flame.
It was all poignant, striking, and ultimately, humbling, a monument to the folly of mankind, and the horrors it was capable of bringing upon itself. In time, it had become one of the most visited spots in the whole city.
Rei barely spared the place a thought.
As the train rumbled on around her, Rei tried to gather her thoughts as much as she could manage. There didn't seem to be a solution in sight. She hated to admit, but for once, she, a doctor of bio-engineering who had solved the most complicated equations concerning the viability of merging biological matter with complex mechanized systems, was stumped.
It was almost like what happened last year.
How terribly inconvenient.
A few minutes later, as if on cue, Rei felt the train car slowly decelerate, then finally stop. Opening her eyes, she stood up as the automatic doors slid open with a hiss. She waited for a few moments for everyone else to get out, before she herself excited the train. As she stepped out, a crowd of people, visitors to the park who were about to return home, quickly marched in, replacing a the passengers who had just stepped out.
Rei took one last look at the monorail as the doors slid shut, before starting for the exit of the monorail station. As it rumbled for the surface, she idly wondered what it was about those kind of trains that irritated Ikari-kun, before pushing the idea out of her mind.
It was another ten minute hike through the park, before Rei finally found herself within the familiar halls of former NERV central. With a visitor's permit attached to her blouse's collar, she proceeded on to the administrative wing of the complex, where the office of the person she was looking for was located.
Stepping unto an elevator, Rei found it ironic that the person she was seeking out had her workplace here, a veritable maze of steel hallways and departments. It was confusing enough for someone who didn't work here to find their way around, but the person Rei was looking for, as far as she could recall, still had to ask for directions just to get to her office.
After more than twenty years of working in this same halls, the idea would seem ludicrous, but knowing who it was, it didn't seem entirely implausable either. She did get lost when she first brought Ikari-kun here, didn't she?
Getting off at the appropriate floor, Rei traveled a short stretch of hallway, before finally reaching a particular steel door. Upon it was a small nameplate, on which was stencilled the following initials, K.M., followed by a rank and the department the room's owner was under. She waited for a few moments, before the door slid open automatically in front of her.
"Good afternoon, ma'am," a young aide, just barely out of military academy, greeted her as she stepped through the door. The girl's eyes suddenly widened as recognition dawned as to who it was standing in front of her, and it seemed to Rei that she was trying to keep from sputtering out anything stupid.
Rei gave the aide a curt nod, immediately crossing over where the lieutenant, judging by the marks of rank she wore, stood at attention. "I have an appointment with the general. Is she in?" she announced, not a little atonal. The young woman nodded eagerly. A bit too eagerly.
"No need to announce me then," Rei remarked as she headed for the door to the inner chamber. As she stood at the brink, she turned back to see the young woman still standing at attention. "And try to relax a bit, lieutenant. I am just an ordinary scientist; you do not have to do that for me." The aide did relax a bit, at which Rei gave a barely noticeable smile, before she stepped into the room within.
It came to no surprise to Rei that she found her arrival had gone unnoticed. Closing the old-fashioned wooden door, which to her seemed so out of place in the steel-clad structure of the headquarters, behind her as quietly as she could manage, she took a moment to study the room. Or more importantly, study the room's owner, who, with picture frame in hand, seemed to be caught up in her own bit of reminiscing.
Time had been kind to Katsuragi Misato, former Operations Director of NERV and guardian to two of the Children. Even after nearly seventeen years, she still looked striking, and still turned the heads of men all around the compound whenever she passed by.
If she was not causing nosebleeds in the process, Rei added quietly to the thought.
The form-fitting general's uniform she wore—a three-piece affair consisting of a long-sleeved white shirt covered by a black uniform jacket trimmed in white and red, cinched at the waist by a wide belt, over a knee-length black skirt—if anything else only served to heighten the older woman's already inherent sensual allure. That the male staff under Misato-san were still capable of cognitive thought never ceased to surprise her.
Some worry lines were already forming near her eyes and mouth, though, along with some traces of silver and grey that were beginning to show in her exotic fall of dark mauve hair. Though she never admitted to it, Rei knew that the general's eyesight was already failing her, and she also knew of the pair of reading glasses kept in her uniform pocket.
With the way she still carried herself, few would notice that 'the Fox' (penned on her because of the radical battle tactics she had implemented during the Angel War, and not because of her ungodly figure) Katsuragi was growing old. Oh, there was no stoop to her frame, nor was there any less swivel to her hips when she walked, and her mind was a sharp as ever, but sometimes, when no one would think to look, the affects of age could be seen on her features.
And with all the worries she had been carrying around on her shoulders, Rei was astonished that Misato-san didn't look older. It was a testament to her worth as a person that, after all that had happened to her, the ex-Major didn't lose sight that she was still a human, that she could still find it in herself to care for other people even in situations that would make even grown men weep.
Maybe, just maybe, it was that little detail that made time seemingly slow down for Misato-san. Or, at least, it made it easier for her to ignore that time was actually passing her by.
"Good afternoon, Katsuragi-san," Rei said, her clear, crisp tone passing easily through the still air of the room, enough to announce her presence, but not enough to startle the general from her musings. She wished she could have said it not as tonelessly as she had, though. "I hope I am not disturbing you too much."
Misato blinked a few times, whatever thoughts she had been ruminating on dissipating with the unexpected encroachment of reality. Shaking her head clear, she replaced the picture frame on top of her table, letting it rejoin the half-dozen or so other frames clustered on one side. "Rei?" The older woman smiled as she swiveled her chair to face her visitor. "No, not at all; you know that you can always come here whenever you like. Please, sit." Misato gestured over to the chairs in front of her table.
Rei nodded, moving towards one of the proffered chairs.
"You know, it's funny…I was just thinking about you," Misato said as the younger woman settled herself into the chair's padded wooden frame. She leaned back against her chair, letting her chin rest on the knuckle of her right hand.
"How so?" Rei resisted the urge to sigh in pleasure—well almost anyway—as the chair did wonders for the backache she felt ever since she got off the train.
Misato's glance darted briefly towards one of the picture frames. "Well, I was just thinking of the last time you visited here, Rei," she smiled as she returned her gaze back to the woman sitting in front of her. "You know, during that meeting the top brass set up between Gehirn and our R&D department?"
Rei nodded. The conference had been a poorly-veiled attempt by the United Nations to restart Project-E, or at least a partial spinoff of it.
There really was no denying the fact that the Evangelions were the most powerful implements of war that Mankind had ever created, despite the oft-ignored fact that they were specifically designed to fight foes of a clearly unearthly origin. Even more than the Atom bomb and its decendants, a single EVA could prove to be a deciding factor in ending armed conflicts around the world.
The problem was, with the exception of the two Evas left intact—unit 01 and unit 02, respectively, copies of which were on prominent display in the Angel War museum—the UN had nothing on Project-E, just those two self-same constructs. All crucial data concerning the construction of the Evangelions, as well as other sensitive material that NERV had manage to gather in their encounters with the mysterious Angels, had all vanished. The three MAGI supercomputers' memory, which would have been useful in normal circumstances, had been wiped clean.
The official cause, stated doing the tribunal of 2016, pointed to the MAGI's logic system collapsing under the onslaught of its five clones. The UN found this reason too contrived to be believable, but since they had no evidence to say otherwise, they accepted it as fact.
There would be no help from the hard-copies that NERV kept of those documents as well. This time, the UN had only itself to blame: one of the places that the JSSDF had perfunctionarily destroyed during its attack had been NERV's archival vault. Careless and short-sighted, to say the least.
"That was not an enjoyable experience, as I recall," Rei commented, her voice betraying little the distaste she actually felt during the whole proceedings. She leaned back on the chair before continuing, "It was very…frustrating. The UN panel continued to insist that they needed EVA to protect the world, needed EVA to keep people safe. I was under the impression, though, that they needed EVA to make the whole world afraid of the UN."
Rei made a sound, almost too soft to be heard. Even if her countenance didn't change, Misato could have sworn that the doctor had just snorted. The general arched her eyebrows at this, as it was truly rare for the First to express her feelings on a physical level, whether it was dislike or anything else.
Of course, she could be just imagining things. Seriously? Rei, snorting? That would be as odd as Shinji-kun playing the electric guitar.
Still, Misato chuckled ruefully at the brusque way Rei put it. She had been there during the summit, held some eleven-odd months ago, as a representative of the UN's RDC branch, and from her own observations of the reactions of her peers in the organization, she agreed wholeheartedly with the younger woman's opinion.
The UN wanted the power that came with the EVAs, and wanted it badly.
Oh, they could reason all they wanted, about how it was all in the name of world peace, but the fact of the matter was the UN needed the EVAs to provoke the necessary fear to effectively police its members better.
But once the UN had the power, the EVAs, what would stop its members from getting their own? It would usher a new age of warfare, all the more bloody than before because of the inherent superiority of the EVAs against conventional weapons. And that was something that many of those there, Misato included, did not want.
"Well, you have to hand it to them…they sure tried their best to pressure you guys into agreeing with their plans, or the very least get you to give them the data they need to make their own EVAs."
"Maya-san had something to say about that though," Rei pointed out, as the memory of her mentor's impassioned speech before the UN panel entered her mind. It was so out of character for the normally calm doctor, and Rei felt a tiny bit of pride whenever she remembered how Maya-san had presented her argument. World peace or no, resurrecting Project-E was out of the question; too many people had suffered because of it, the doctor understood, and she would never be a party to such an undertaking.
The council was adamant. Despite Dr. Ibuki's complete refusal, they were still intent on trying to re-start the same project that almost led to the end of Mankind as they new it. The power was just too tempting to let it disappear forever, it seemed.
Dr. Ibuki had other ideas. A while later, she presented a tiny vid disk to the UN board. Playing it in front of them, it was revealed that the disk held records of an Evangelion, Evangelion Test-type Unit-01 to be exact, in all of its unchained beastality. The images of the EVA's more spectacular, and increasingly disturbing, performances flashed before them, culminating in the butchering of the Angel of Might.
Some of the officers in attendance, those who had never been in a real battle, and had never been exposed to real carnage before, lost the contents of their stomachs then and there.
They watched as the beast, free of the restraints Man had put on it, awakened fully, its howl, nearly akin to a shout of grotesque triumph, echoed amindst the enclosed shell of the Geofront. It was almost like Mankind's innate savagery was given form, the base emotion creating a terrible Avatar that was now once more free to walk this plane of consciousness. A living nightmare.
Yes, with EVA, the UN would have power. But it was something that they could never control, something that might as well turn on them when they least expect it.
The decision to revive the EVA Project was turned down the very same day.
Rei had always wondered where the video had come from, though. As far as she could recall, Maya-san hadn't brought anything with her that day except for a small pen and her palmtop, and her senior herself admitted to having no idea where the disk had come from. It was another mystery that might never be answered.
"Indeed," the general allowed herself a short laugh. "No one wants to wish upon others what happened to you kids, or to miss Kirishima and her companions." The horrors of the EVA project, and its JSSDF counterpart project TRIDENT, were things that any normal person wouldn't want to experience. Ever.
Horrors that should be best forgotten.
"You know, Katsuragi-san, I was wondering, what was it that you were thinking about during my last visit here?" Rei suddenly asked, after the two had lapsed into silence.
The bluntness of Rei's question caught Misato off-guard, something that happened very rarely, even these days. Blinking for a few moments, Misato cursed herself silently for losing track of the original subject of the conversation. "Ermm, well, I was thinking that it's been a while since you passed by," she said as she tried to collect her thoughts. "Around here, that is. When was that? A year ago? It's an awfully long time, you know."
"Maya-san has been keeping me busy these past few months, what with that new project she has been working on. I hardly find the time to even shop anymore." And I am really not that comfortable here, Rei added to herself.
Misato understood the unsaid comment; she was all too-aware of the discomfort the younger woman felt whenever she ventured into these steel halls. She felt the same thing, although to a lesser degree.
"Rei, I've seen a lot of busy people in my day, and what you are right now is not what I would call 'busy'," Misato smiled. "Heck, I just live two floors down from your apartment, and I barely see you anymore. I know it's good to focus on your work, but if you're not careful you just might end up like me and Ritsuko: we focused so much on our duties that we almost forgot that there was a world outside of our careers."
"In other words, you are worried that I might become an old maid like you and Akagi-san?" Rei queried blandly.
"Ermm, I said no such thing."
"But I see that you are implying it." Rei's face didn't change, nor the tone of her voice, but something about how she said the words gave Misato the impression that behind those blank features, the blue-haired woman was grinning broadly.
It was unnerving, to say the least, even for someone like Misato, who had known Rei for a long time, to hear her like this, implying that she was a normal girl within, while acting completely emotionless without. Then again, it would probably be more unsettling for Rei to break out laughing; the younger woman was more sociable and open now, certainly, but some things will never change.
Rei shook her head, her formal tone reasserting itself, relatively anyway, as she returned to the business at hand. "Do not be worried Katsuragi-san. I do have a life... it is just that I do not get to live it as much as I would like at the present." She raised her shoulders lightly, in what might have been a shrug for her, as her back settled into the chair's upholstered depths once more. "I was serious about Maya-san keeping me busy, though; she actually had me move some of my possessions to the lab, so I could assist her with work full-time. I doubt that I can return home anytime soon, until the project we are working on is concluded."
"Not too 'busy', I hope." Misato said with a hint of mischief in her voice.
I should have expected this, Rei thought. Not that running joke again.
"Do not even start, Katsuragi-san," Rei's eyebrows began to minutely cross, her crimson eyes glinting with veiled impishness. "I do not think Maya-san would appreciate it."
"Well, don't you say I didn't try. It's not everyday that I can poke fun at some of my friends, and actually get away with it." Misato shook her head, leaning back on her chair as well. "It's the most I can do for fun around here; everyone's just so serious around me, so formal. Just because I'm the 'great and legendary General Katsuragi Misato', the woman whose tactics helped win the Angel War!" Misato made a grand gesture with her hands, her left arm sweeping across from one side of her body to the other.
"You did a lot of great things, Katsuragi-san. It should be just natural that other people look up to you." Rei argued.
"That may be true Rei, but I'm still human, y'know," Misato sighed, as she replaced her hands on the desk. "And I wouldn't mind a joke or two during coffee break, or some casual gossiping whenever times are slow. But whenever I try to start something, especially among the newest batch of officers, they start to have this look—and I'm sure you know this kind of look, too—like they're taking everything I said as law. It's as if I'm some kind of infallible hero that they have to emulate."
Rei knew the feeling. Some of the newer interns and lab assistants, those who were barely into puberty when the Angel War broke out, who grew up on the stories, and afterwards, history lessons written on the conflict, regarded her with the same awe and reverence usually reserved for saints and rulers. It was also like that for Ikari-kun and Sohryu.
The newest generation, it seemed, had been conditioned, both intentionally and unintentionally, into believing what Katsuragi-san had just said: they were perfect, faultless heroes, who can do absolutely no wrong.
That perception couldn't be farther from the truth.
"They don't want to see the graying old lady, who can barely manage to get her house cleaned in the morning, the grandmother who worries too much about her children, and dotes too much on her only granddaughter," Misato continued, giving Rei a look that challenged her to say otherwise. "No, all they see is the great woman, whose daring plans helped defeat the Angels, who served as a good rolemodel and surrogate parent to two of the Children."
"People are allowed their opinion, Katsuragi-san," Rei commented, thoughful. "In a time when people needed heroes, you were there to be one. They do not want to see your problems; they have enough of their own already to worry about. What they do want to see is the strong woman, who did her job and helped save the world."
"You're right about that, I guess…" Misato became silent for a short moment, before speaking again. "Still, that doesn't make me entirely comfortable with it, now does it?" A smile creased her face, as she looked at the woman seated in front of her. "I gather you've met my aide?"
Rei nodded to once side, gesturing to the entrance to the general's office. "The eager young girl outside?"
Misato chuckled a bit at Rei's off-handed description of her assistant. "Eager would be putting it lightly. When she was first assigned to me—without my knowledge, of course—I could have ordered her to go give the supreme commander a kick to the shin just for the heck of it, and I swear, she would have probably done so quite happily."
"I can imagine. It is not everyday that a junior officer like her is assigned to work under a legend." There was a minute shifting of Rei's shoulders, another shrug that wasn't. "What of her?"
"Well, you can say that I've been trying to get her to be more comfortable around me, and if possible, casual; like with Maya, Hyuuga-kun, and Shigeru."
"Breaking down the wall that separated a ranking officer with a subordinate, I see."
"Something like that," Misato ran a hand through her hair. "Though I think that it's more like making a window through that wall." She replaced her hand on the table, and shook her head. "Among us veterans of the Project, there are just too many issues to keep hidden for the wall to come down completely, both personally and professionally."
"You are correct about that, I guess," Rei said, reflecting on what the other just said. Project-E was gone, its legacy scattered to the four winds, and yet there were still so many things forbidden to be told, kept secret by those who were ill-fated to be a part of it. "Any progress in your endeavor, Katsuragi-san?"
"I am proud to say that I've been able to make her comfortable around me. It took a while, but I did. Not quite casual as I would like, but at least we talk now." Misato smiled, her face tinged a bit with melancholy. "Still, it's not quite the same, unlike talking to people I really know," Unconsciously, her left hand began to caress the surface of one particular picture frame. "Like Ritsu and Maya, Hyuuga-kun and Shigeru, even you, Shinji-kun, and Asuka…"
Misato's eyes narrowed in what seemed to be sadness at the mention of that last name. The look was there for but a moment, but Rei caught it. "It makes the days more bearable, even just a little bit." The general's expression quickly brightened. "But I'm glad that some of you guys pass by, even if it's just every now and then."
Her hand lingered on the edge of the frame, caressing its lacquered surface. At that moment, Rei realized how lonely the general must have been; with everyone having their own lives to live, it was hard to keep in contact anymore. She resolved to pay a visit to the Katsuragi-san's place more often, after Maya-san's project was finished.
"I take it that you have not shown your aide to your house yet, Katsuragi-san."
Misato passed a secret wink to Rei. "I'm still entitled to some privacy."
"You just do not want to destroy her pre-determined perception of you. One visit to your home is enough to destroy any good impression that a person might have of the great Katsuragi Misato."
Misato laughed at that, one of the few times she'd sincerely laughed for a while. All of the pressure she felt during the day was washed away, and, for a brief moment, the weight of the world seemed to be eased off the woman's shoulders. Trust Rei, one of the most serious people she had ever known, to come up with something so blatantly true that it was funny.
Misato continued to laugh on for some time, before she calmed down a bit, her belly laugh eventually dying down to a few amused chuckles.
The general wiped the corner of her eyes, enjoying the moment for a little longer. "Well, I did say that I wasn't perfect," she said, stifling a few stray giggles that escaped from her throat.
"Yes, you did," Rei agreed.
"Sillyness aside Rei, I gather that you have other, more important reasons, for visiting me, other than poking fun at my poor apartment." Misato leaned forward, steepling her fingers in front of her face, a shrewd smile peeking under the shadows of the bridge her hands created. Though the pose was hardly menacing, Rei found herself uncomfortable all of a sudden.
Well, for about two seconds anyway.
Rei invisibly regained her composure, and breathed in a bit before speaking. "I have this…problem, Katsuragi-san."
"Oh?" Now this was certainly odd. Rei, having a problem? And coming to her for help. Must be serious.
Misato tried to read the younger woman's expression, looking for some clue to what it was bothering her. Of course, since it was Rei, she found it virtually impossible to do so; the younger woman's face remained as empty as ever, almost like the porcelain dolls that she used to give Teri-chan when the girl was still little.
It was the face of the doll that Asuka had always hated.
And it was the face that made Rei the terror of card tables everywhere; a fact that Misato could easily attest to, having been cleaned out several times over the years by the First Child whenever an impromptu NERV reunion occurred.
For someone whose line of work depended on the ability to read the minds of the people under her command, it made the situation a little bit frustrating.
Fortunately for Misato, she had some idea as to what Rei's problem was. The general forced down the smile creasing her face as Rei tried to relate her predicament—of which she was making no headway, as she seemed to have some trouble putting it into words.
The wonders a single phonecall can do…
"It has been troubling me since this morning, and I have been having trouble focusing on my work because of it." The graceful curves of Rei's eyebrows imperceptively curled up, making the older woman start in surprise. She almost looked, well, annoyed.
Almost. Still, it was certainly one of the strongest emotions Misato had ever seen on her pale face. "Maya-san excused me from work today, so that I can gather my thoughts on the matter, but so far I cannot see any solution to it."
Misato let her hands fall to the table, revealing an expression that Rei couldn't define. "And you've come to me for help?"
"Have you asked Maya or Ritsuko about this?"
"Maya-san is too busy with her project to help, and Dr. Akagi is still in Germany for our organization's annual forum. And I think the subject is very embarrassing to discuss with them." Rei forced the frustration from showing on her face. Considering the issue, it would be silly for her to do so anyway.
One of Misato's eyebrows arched up, making Rei blink.
"Hai." How else could she define what she was about to tell the general? Frustrating? Over such a simple…
Rei looked up. "So, will you help me, Katsuragi-san?"
"It depends on the problem, Rei." A playful smile plastered itself once more on the elder lady's face. "If you're pregnant, you can forget about it. I had enough trouble explaining things to stern and severe Mr. Sohryu, thank you." Misato chuckled unconsciously at the memory of her meeting with Asuka's brother, to explain Asuka's unexpected 'condition'. "No more family meetings for me."
"Katsuragi-san!" Rei was so surprised that she stood up, the calm mask on her face slipping off at the remark. Misato found it hard not to smile at the normally unemotional-looking woman sputtering like a high-schooler being given a surprise question.
The general waved one hand, trying to calm the girl down. Considering Rei's genetic origins, it was doubtful that she would have any children of her own, at least, naturally anyway. "You're just so easy to tease Rei. C'mon, just relax, neh?"
Rei let a breath escape, before the usual mask of indifference settled once more on her features, although any other person would have frowned at Misato's repartee. "I am serious about this, Katsuragi-san," She ran a hand through her ice-blue bangs, her shoulders sagging a bit as she collapsed into the chair. "I am getting very annoyed with this problem."
"Hmm…" Misato leaned back, pensive, one finger tapping her lower lip as she looked upon Rei. "Well, if you've come to me for help, then it must be serious." The look on her face softened, though the teasing smile was still there. "Though I think I have an idea what it is that you need help with."
"You think so?" Rei knew that Misato was many things, but she was no mind-reader.
"I know so." Misato slipped Rei a wink, before she pushed her chair back and stood up. Retrieving a long, black overcoat, which was, strangely enough, folded neatly on top of a file cabinet, she quickly slipped it on, giving a casual toss of her long fall of lilac before she walked over to the door of her office. As the blue-haired scientist watched this with mounting confusion, the general waited at the brink, with a patient look on her face.
"What are you waiting for, Rei?" Misato asked, as Rei still remained seated at her chair, her eyebrows curved in what approximated for puzzlement on her face. "C'mon, we've got places to go to…"
"Katsuragi-san, I do not understand. Where are you going?"
"We are going to solve you problem," Misato shook her head. "Though we aren't going to finish anything if you're just going to sit there and stare at me all afternoon."
A bit hesitantly, Rei stood up and joined Misato at the door. "Katsuragi-san, I think there has been a misuderstanding. How are you supposed to resolve my problem, when I have not even told you anything about it?"
"You want to find the perfect present for Teri-chan now, don't you?" Misato remarked, as she opened the door to the reception area of her office. Rei blinked, and stood stupidly for a second in front of the open door. Misato looked back at her, as she tried to recover from the surprise she felt at the moment.
How did she know? How could she know?
"Well, what are you waiting for?"
"Katsuragi-san, how did you…"
Misato cut her off with a playful wave of her right hand. "I may be old, Rei, but there are things that are really hard to forget. Do you honestly believe I could forget an occasion as important as my adoptive granddaughter's birthday?" Misato shook her head slowly again, this time with that melancholy look she had earlier. "Among other things…"
Rei scolded herself at the lack of hindsight she had shown. Of all the people she had known, Misato had greater reason to remember the significance of today's date. Of course she would be able to help her out with her problem, considering that the people concerned were what the elder lady considered her family.
"Among other things…" Rei concurred.
Rei stood there for a few moments, as Misato walked over to her aide's table. The lieutenant, looked up, looking a bit confused and surprised at the same time that the general was dressed up, and was seemingly going somewhere.
"Lieutenant, cancel all my appointments for this afternoon," the general announced casually. "I'm going to accompany Dr. Ayanami on…erm…important business." She glanced over to where Rei was standing, before looking back to her young aide. "Very important business." Misato added extra emphasis on the word 'very'.
"I might not be able to come back later, so I would like for you to put all my work for today on top of my table so thank I can start on them tomorrow morning."
The aide, smart girl that she was, didn't seem to be buying it. "Ma'am, you have a meeting with the RDC's general staff later on, plus a debriefing after that on the deployment of UN for—"
Misato didn't give the girl time to finish. "Make up a reason, like I was struck down by the flu, or something." The girl's eyes, which Rei observed were a deep azure hue, widened in incredulity. Seeing her assistant's expression, the general quickly tried to explain.
However, the junior officer reacted faster.
"Katsuragi-sama! I can't believe you're telling me to lie for you…" To the surprise of Misato, and Rei (and maybe even the lieutenant herself),the girl stood up, a hurt expression already on her face. She almost looked ready to break out into tears, the way her voice sounded.
"Lieutenant," Misato sighed. "Look, I know how you feel about this, but it's really important that I escort Dr. Ayanami to where she needs to go…"
"Lieutenant Tamashii! 'Ten-SHUN!" Misato didn't exactly enjoy acting like a drill seargeant all of a sudden, but if she didn't do something, Rei and herself would find themselves going nowhere.
The lieutenant reacted quickly, nearly four years of military training making such quick responses to orders nearly second nature. Her posture straightened, her shoulders squared, her hands positioning themselves at her sides. With a final click of her bootheels, the aide stood at perfect attention.
"At ease," Misato followed up on her order. The young officer relaxed, as her superior scratched the back of her head with her hand. The general sighed, as the aide looked on with an expectant look on her face, as if she was waiting for some explanation as to why such a request was given to her. Seeing that face, the former NERV Director of Operations found her task a bit harder.
Misato liked the girl, she admitted that. She was industrious, and polite to a fault. Not only that, but she still possessed a sense of idealism that had managed to survive despite the rigors of a training regimen that, for all intents and purposes, should have snuffed out that view a long time ago. The lieutenant gave her dreary office a spark of life missing in so much of the facility's steel halls.
She made a nice cup of coffee, too.
The only problem was that the lieutenant was a tad too idealistic. Like most of her generation, she saw Misato as a hero, and thus, treats her as such. To her, the ex-Major was everything that a young offcier could hope to be. In other words, the general was perfect, and can do no wrong.
General Katsuragi Misato, leaving office, when there was an important conference to attend? Asking her to lie for her? It was unheard of.
Yes, Misato had been able to make her subordinate more comfortable towards her. But she hasn't quite started deconstructing the unrealistic view the lieutenant still held of her. The general certainly didn't feel like she was worth being looked up to.
Quite the opposite in fact.
She was a coward, running away from her problems instead of facing them. She killed people, many times over, with her own hands, and had ordered the death of many others. She tried to be a good guardian, but had failed miserably, and her charges almost lost their lives because of it. She pushed away the only other person who had the slightest chance of understanding her, all because it made her uncomfortable.
Did that make her a hero?
She wasn't perfect.
She was just plain, old Katsuragi Misato.
It was only circumstance, and history, that granted her the laurels she didn't feel deserving enough to be placed upon her.
People still saw her as such, even those who knew that she was really far from perfect. It's one of those great ironies, I guess, Misato said to herself. Some hero I am.
The lieutenant still stood, waiting expectantly for some explanation form the person she idolized. Misato spared Rei a brief glance, before turning back to her assistant. The scientist still stood like a statue by her office's door , watching her, as if she was taking in everything that was happening and storing it for future reference.
Or maybe she always had seen Rei like that, analytical and calculating?
In either case, Rei wouldn't say anything unless it was really needed. Besides, Tamashii was her assistant anyway, so shouldn't she know the best way to handle the situation?
So why did she have the nagging feeling that she had less chance of convincing her subordinate that what she was going to do was more important than a meeting with some stuffy old military men, who couldn't care less of her opinions, than the possibility of success for Operation Yashima?
Well, I better tell her something… Her brown eyes softened as she saw Tamashii's blue eyes gazing at her. Those azure orbs still held a sort of innocence and optimism that Misato had lost a long time ago; it almost made her jealous that the girl could still have such ideals within her. Or Rei'll get anxious…
However, before Misato could say anything, Rei startled her by speaking first. "Lieutenant? I don't believe I asked your name."
The young aide blinked at the blue-haired scientist's sudden remark. The girl blushed in embarrassment, and seemed tried to gather as much of her dignity as she could before she spoke. After all, this was another hero she was speaking to. "It's Aoi, ma'am," she said softly, her voice meek.
Rei looked away for a moment, seemingly considering the aide's name, before she returned her gaze back to her. "Aoi," the scientist began, as if trying to get used to the inflection of the girl's name. "What is it that you consider the most important thing to you?"
The younger woman seemed to be a little taken aback by the directness of the query directed at her. Even Misato started at this, confused as to Rei's motives for presenting such a question to the lieutenant. "Rei…" she said, cautious, not quite understanding where the ex-First Child was going with this question.
The blue-haired woman didn't seem to hear. She was intent on the lieutenant, who looked like she would rather be somewhere else, other than under the scientist and hero's scrutiny.
The young officer closed her eyes, and took a deep breath, as if gathering the courage to answer. She let the breath out, before answering as clearly as she could manage. "My family, ma'am. My parents, and my two younger sisters." There was a slight quavering to her tone, a hinted nervousness, but Rei could hear some pride in the statement as well.
Rei posed another question. "Do you consider them more important than the organization you serve?" Her red eyes gazed in to the girl's deep blue ones. "Even more important to the world you are sworn to protect?" The scientist gave the general a brief look, before focusing once more on the aide.
"Even more so!" the younger officer exclaimed. Rei tilted her head slightly at this, as the girl's cheeks flushed a shade of red similar to the Second Child's hair color. "I mean, they're the reason why I joined the UN in the first place, so, yeah, they're more important to me." The lieutenant was starting to have trouble looking straight from embarrassment, as her eyes continued to stray again and again to a single point on the desk in front of her.
Rei nodded, as if she was expecting the response. She decided to pose one last question. "So, if you were asked to choose between your duty and your family, you would choose your family, even if it would mean disregarding everything you had worked for just to reach your current status, am I correct?"
"Y-yes ma'am…" The girl's blue eyes focused more on the table that was in front of her. "Yes, I would." She closed her eyes briefly, before giving the scientist a resolute look. "My family means everything to me. Without them, being here would be useless."
Rei moved from her place in front of Misato's office door towards the front of the aide's desk. "Then you understand," The doctor stopped, and held the aide's gaze. "You have an understanding of why Katsuragi-san is breaking regulations just to accompany me today." The girl blinked at this, confused at first at the doctor's statement.
Then, realization dawned.
She looked at the general, who was smiling beside Dr. Ayanami. "Katsuragi-san?"
Misato nodded. "Do you remember when we talked about my own 'family', a while back?"
"I remember. It was about Miss Sohryu and Mister Ikari," the girl answered. "You told me that even if you didn't adopt them officially, you always considered them your children." Th aide gulped, before continuing. "And that you were so happy that they finally stopped fighting and tried understanding each other…"
"…And decided that they start a family of their own." The general finished for her. "It was only then that I truly felt that everything I did meant something, even though the world might argue otherwise. Everything I did, it was for them."
"Today's a very special day for my family," for a moment, Misato's face lost its casual look, almost becoming that of a parent proud of its progeny's achievements. "It's my granddaughter's birthday today, Aoi." The lieutenant's blush, if possible, only deepened at her superior's use of her first name. "And Dr. Ayanami wanted me to accompany her buy some presents for the party later on."
"Ma'am, you should have told me. I would have understood."
"I was trying to. But you started making a big fuss on me sneaking off that I didn't get a chance to explain." Misato gave an amused shake of her head. "Really now, lieutenant…"
"Gomen nasai!" The girl bowed almost to her waist level, of which Misato started forward, thinking that she might collide with the top of the desk.
"It's okay, it's okay," Misato waved dismissively as her aide straightened. "You've my blessing to tell the council the truth later, neh?" She passed her assistant a wink. "I promise that you won't get into trouble for it."
The aide nodded. Misato gave a glance to the woman standing next to her, and smiled. "Shall we go, Rei?" And thanks for helping me, again. I guess I owe you another one, First Child, she added silently, grateful.
The doctor gave a brief nod of agreement, before following the general towards the main door of the office. However, as the automatic door slid open and Misato stepped out, Rei seemed to hesitate for a moment, before she turned her gaze back into the reception area.
"Did you forget something, Rei?" Misato asked from the hallway. Rei didn't answer her. Instead, she looked at the young aide, trying to busy herself with the stack of paperwork in front of her.
"Lieutenant Tamashii," she said, making the girl look up from what she was doing. "Have you ever seen Ikari-ku…I mean, Pilot Ikari before?"
"I guess." the girl replied. "I saw him before, with you ma'am and miss Sohryu, in those videos they showed us in history class." Lieutenant Tamashii smiled, her cheeks coloring once more. "And in officer's school. I thought he was cute."
Rei had to agree with that last statement; Ikari-kun had that effect on young girls. "Have you ever met him personally?"
The girl shook her head. "No, I haven't."
Rei looked at Misato, who was standing in the hallway, a curious expression on her face. "Do you want to?" She paused for effect. "It is his daughter's birthday celebration, so it is only logical for him to be there."
The aide almost straightened in her seat, excitement evident on her features. "I'd like to." Then, the excitement evaporated quickly. "But it's impossible, I guess. Besides, from what Katsuragi-san told me, he's pretty busy; I wouldn't want to bother him."
Misato shook her head, understanding what Rei was trying to do for once. "2nd Lieutenant Tamashii Aoi! Front and center!" She cocked her head in Rei's direction, while the doctor tried to be as oblivious to the look given at her as possible, despite the fact that inwardly she was smiling.
The aide quickly stood up at the summons, hurrying to stand in front of Misato. She saluted crisply. "Hai?"
"You are hereby ordered to escort join me in escort Doctor Ayanami to wherever it is I am showing her to," Misato announced, her voice formal and commanding. With the next statement, that changed, though, her voice relaxing into the more casual tones it was more used to. "Besides, I think that we're going to need help in picking out a nice gift, and it doesn't hurt to bring someone to help out with the party preparations, neh?" The general smiled, then looked towards Rei.
The lieutenant seemed a little bit reluctant, though. "But, ma'am, I've still all those paperwork to do. And I'll have to explain your absense to the general staff later on…"
"Are you disobeying a direct order, lieutenant?" Misato grinned. "And are you passing off a chance to meet some, if not all, of your childhood heroes?"
"Um, yes. I mean, no. I mean…" The girl began to babble in indecision. It was all that Misato could do not to laugh.
"Look, didn't I just promise that you won't get into trouble?" Misato looked the girl in the eyes and held her gaze. After a few moments, the girl smiled, then nodded. The general waved her assistant towards the direction of the office. "Well, what're you waiting for? Grab your jacket!"
"Hai!" The girl said enthusiastically, before running back to her table and grabbing her tote-bag and her uniform jacket. She quickly returned, turning of the power before closing the office behind her.
"Told you she was enthusiastic," Misato whispered to Rei.
"I agree." The doctor gave the elder woman a sideways look, tilting her head a bit. "So, where is it that you propose we go, Katsuragi-san?"
Misato absolutely beamed. "I some nice places in mind. They've got some very low prices too…" The older lady chuckled. "I hope that you're in the mood for some shop-hopping Rei."
"Anything for Teri-chan is worth it." For the first time in a long while, Rei's eyes betrayed the strange wistfulness she had felt, ever since the start of the day, her glare losing its usually humorless candor. "I want to see her happy, like I wanted to see Ikari-kun and Sohryu happy…"
Misato nodded. "Agreed." She turned to her aide. "Aoi?" The girl seconded as well.
"Let's get to it, then." With a laugh, the general began to lead the way, regaling the aide that was following beside her with some of her stories of her time at NERV, of which the lieutenant listened eagerly. Misato was so engrossed with her storytelling that she failed to notice that Rei had lagged behind.
The blue-haired scientist, stood for a few moments, her eyes closed, as if listening for something. Then, after a while, her eyes opened again.
"Yes." With a final look at the steel passage around her, she resumed her walk, hastening her pace to catch up with her other two companions. "I want to see her happy."