Kaji stared pensively at the comm screen as the Commander of all of WILLE stared back at him. Kaji was standing with his hands in his pockets; he was too on-edge to sit. Misato, on the other hand, sat calmly with her fingers steepled before her face, much the same way another Commander had once upon a time.
"I wish I could say it was nice to see you again," he said sardonically as he paced back and forth.
Over the past few weeks, Maya had been making frequent visits to outpost Naraka, along with a host of troops and technicians, bringing another container along with her each time she flew in. He had been forbidden from overseeing whatever was being done with the contents of said container, and now, there were entire sections of his own compound that were entirely quarantined off, even from him!
"That makes one of us," Misato said simply, without so much as batting an eyelash.
Kaji crossed his arms. "Do you want to explain to me what you're doing with my outpost?"
Misato continued to remain aloof. "Firstly, it's not your outpost, it's WILLE's. And secondly, not really, no. Was there anything else?"
Kaji grit his teeth. This situation was getting increasingly out of his control. And Kaji very much disliked not having control.
"This has gone on long enough, Katsuragi," Kaji said firmly. "I've been cooperating for old times' sake, but if I don't start getting some intel on this…"
The veiled threat seemed to amuse Misato to no end.
"You'll what?" Misato smirked. "Jump ship? I'm letting you run things there as a courtesy, Warrant Officer, and only because you're the only officer of your caliber crazy enough to take command out there. The moment that changes, I've got a list as long as my arm of junior officers willing to make a name for themselves out in the Hellhole. Some of them might hack it. Some of them. You've managed to keep things running smoothly out there, and I'd prefer it stay that way. But don't think for a moment that you're not expendable."
Kaji ground his teeth, but he held his tongue. He knew he didn't have the leverage he needed, and it was eating him up. The Commander of WILLE was taking one page too many from Ikari's playbook in his opinion.
"Is this some kind of punishment, Katsuragi?"
Misato seemed bored with the conversation. "I'm simply making the most out of a difficult situation. I can't really afford to be picky with who commands Naraka, but I also can't trust you with sensitive intel. This is the compromise, Warrant Officer. Take it of leave it."
Kaji finally sat down, looking defeated.
"When will you trust me again, Katsuragi?" he sighed, glad that there was no one else in the briefing room with him. "How many times will I have to pull your ass out of the fire before you're convinced I won't stab you in the back?"
Misato stood up from her chair in a clear sign of dismissal, looking annoyed.
"When you stop stabbing me in the back, Warrant Officer."
The monitor switched off.
The pilots were gathered in one of the many briefing rooms. The Wunder had been airlifted back to base for repairs by no less than two hundred VTOL crafts, so everyone was situated at Outpost Zion while things calmed down. While the outpost itself had not been hit, the Wunder had taken even more of a beating than it had in its fight with the Mark.09 and Unit 13. It would take a few days to get it flight-worthy again, and that was to say nothing about the damage to its belly where its new legs had formed. The entire dry dock had to be pared down significantly before the Wunder could even be set down upon it.
This did not bode well for WILLE, especially after Rei had revealed what she had learned.
"These attacks are not going to stop," she said simply.
The other pilots as well as Dr. Akagi were all listening to Rei in rapt, morbid fascination. She had transformed quite a bit after merging with three additional Ayanami Types. Her hair, her eyes, even her skin tone were all darker, almost natural looking now. And true to before, Ritsuko had found that her vitals had also been boosted substantially since her last checkup. Her immune system, metabolism, muscle growth, even her brain synapses and reaction times…everything about her body had improved.
She was just worried, however, that those improvements came at a cost.
"What do you mean?" Ritsuko asked.
Rei appeared troubled by the words she was about to convey, as if she could tell they would bring distress, and thus did not wish to say them.
"When I first caught a glimpse of the Ayanami Types, there were roughly two dozen of them, perhaps more," she explained. "Some of the signals were not as clear, but the vast concentration of them were naturally centered around Tokyo-3."
"We've covered as much in our daily briefings," Ritsuko nodded, scribbling some notes on a clipboard. "Though the number of units we've encountered thus far exceeds that estimation, albeit not by an unexpected margin."
Shinji watched as Rei pursed her lips, making a grim expression. He was not used to her conveying such emotion before. Had she evolved this much, he thought absently? Her previous transformation seemed to involve a boost in her intellect. Had this one heightened her emotional responses?
Such concerns were swept form his mind, however, when Rei spoke next.
"The Eva Series, as it stands now, numbers in the thousands."
Ritsuko dropped her pen, which clattered to the table at the center of the room.
"What…?" she breathed, her eyes losing focus.
"Thousands!?" Asuka gasped, rising from her chair, slamming the palms of her hands against the table. "How is that even possible!?"
Rei shook her head. "I could speculate…but it matters little. Their numbers are increasing exponentially. Within a month, there will be more than ten thousand. A month after that, close to a million."
"Then why haven't we been seeing more attacks?" Shinji ventured a thought. "I mean, not that I want them to, but…if they have that many Units, they could overwhelm us with ease. Why don't they?"
"Because we're not what they're after," Ritsuko said, more in realization than in answer, as she rubbed her temples and tried to put all the pieces together. "They've just been toying with us this whole time! Trying to draw out the Wunder! NERV's not interested in taking out humanity…they're after Unit 01!"
Mari's eyes lit up. "You know something, you're right! All this time, the Eva Series have just barely been putting up a fight with us, but as soon as the Wunder gets within sight, boom! They went all out!"
Asuka rose a skeptical eyebrow. "Are we sure that's their goal? They didn't seem to have much of a problem getting to the Wunder before. What's stopping them now?"
Rei bit her lip. "Because they no longer have me or my Eva from which to make copies."
All eyes fell on Rei for a moment, as she gave them all a helpless look.
"The Mark.09 had the power of flight," she elaborated, looking ashamed. "The Mark.06 does not. At least, not with the level of synchronization offered by a Dummy Plug. In a direct conflict, the Wunder could easily evade the Eva Series, so they are instead drawing the Wunder into conflict by systematically targeting our outposts."
Ritsuko nodded, holding her chin in thought. "The most likely reason that the Eva Series is made up entirely of copies of the Mark.06 is because that is the only fully formed Eva NERV has access to anymore. But even the Mark.06 should eventually gain the power of flight at a high enough sync level. Could it be possible that the Dummy Plugs are not perfectly synced?"
Rei just nodded, looking more forlorn than ever. "Just as the Ayanami Types were imperfect clones of the original Ayanami, the Eva Series are imperfect clones of the Mark.06. It is why I was able to overcome three Dummy Plugs at once - because their minds are so fundamentally simple now that my higher brain functions were easily able to retain their hold. They are but incomplete shadows that form a hive mind, only able to follow the most basic instructions from their progenitor, like a colony of ants."
Ritsuko sat down, looking shaken. "And just like a colony of ants, they'll bide their time, relying on their sheer numbers to keep the enemy at bay. And they'll continue to build up their numbers, until…"
The door whooshed open, and Misato Katsuragi marched in. "Until their numbers are so great, it no longer matters how strong we are. That about cover it?"
"Captain!" Shinji said in surprise as he and the other pilots all stood and saluted.
Misato nodded for them all to sit. "Sorry to keep you all waiting, got held up with a meeting. What have we got?"
Her eyes darkened as Ritsuko filled her in on the details, but she otherwise said nothing.
After a moment of silence while the Captain contemplated, Asuka threw her a determined look.
"Captain, we have to take action," she said firmly. "NERV's forces are only going to get stronger if we wait!"
Misato nodded. "I agree. Rei, how many Eva Units are on the move right now?"
"Two thousand three hundred and forty-seven," she replied.
The other pilots all stiffened at that.
"And the next attack?" she asked somberly.
"Eighteen hundred and thirteen hours, two days from today, at Outpost Rotterdam."
Misato smiled bitterly. "Trying to draw us out, are they?"
All eyes were on the Captain as she mulled over the details. No one dared speak until she placed both her hands palms down on the table.
"Then let's give them exactly what they want," she said with a mischievous grin.
Grunts of exertion accompanied the dull pounding of fist on canvas as Asuka squared off against a punching bag strung at both top and bottom by a chain as she sunk her tape-wrapped fists into it's tough, padded surface. Mari gritted her teeth as she held the bag in place, letting the redhead throw each strike unhindered by the wobbling created by the previous one. Asuka alternated back and forth between punching and kicking, forcing Mari to angle herself behind the punching bag to properly receive the blow, and each strike was hitting harder than the last.
"Something on your mind?" she said casually as Asuka continued to mash her fists into the unfortunate sandbag.
"Just fired up," Asuka replied just as casually. "I'm glad we're finally taking the fight to NERV. Colonel's plan sounds like just my kind of crazy."
"You sure?" Mari asked. "You seem a little more on-edge than usual today,"
"Need to blow off some steam," she explained through panting breaths, striking ahead with all her might. "Got a lot of adrenaline to work off after that last battle."
"Just from the battle?" Mari teased.
"Don't start," Asuka snarled, delivering a hard heel kick to the center of the punching bag, enough to send Mari teetering back.
"Whoa!" she exclaimed playfully. "Touchy-touchy…if I didn't know better, I'd say something went down during your morning training with Shinji."
Asuka just fixed the girl with an unappreciative glare. "Drop it. I mean it, Mari."
The British girl blinked at the use of her first name. "Just tell me something, Princess…why do you insist on bottling these things up rather than talking them out? We've both clocked in enough couch time to know that doesn't get you anywhere."
"I need to figure out what there is to even talk about before I start talking about it," Asuka said turned away, rubbing her forehead. "Gahhh…this whole situation is just stupid!"
Mari's expression softened, before hardening again in a stubborn pout.
"Switch out with me for a sec," she said, stepped away from the punching bag and putting her fists up.
Asuka gave her an odd look, but complied nonetheless, grabbing hold of the punching bag to steady it.
Mari sunk her fist into the bag, and Asuka jerked back from the blow, not expecting her to put so much force into it.
"Now, I don't know if you're aware of this, Princess," she said, letting a touch of resentment slip into her voice as she landed another hit. "But I seriously envy you"
Asuka leaned into the bag, letting Mari take out her aggression onto it.
"Something tells me you're not just saying that to butter me up," she replied.
The furrow in Mari's brow deepened. "You really don't recognize a good thing when you see it."
Asuka gave the other girl an incredulous look. "What the hell are you talking about, Four-Eyes?"
"I'm talking about the Puppy-Boy!" she said, whirling around to deliver a kick to one side of the back, forcing Asuka to shift her stance to compensate.
"The Pipsqueak?" Asuka asked defensively, as if she didn't already know that's what she was driving at. "Are you seriously suggesting what I think you're suggesting?"
"What else, then?" Mari demanded, pummeling the punching bag with a series of quick jabs. "You've been completely off your game ever since he's come back."
"Well, what do you expect?" she responded with a roll of her eyes. "Seeing him again after all these years has brought a whole lot of painful memories back to light."
"There must have been some good ones too!" Mari said, undeterred as she hit the bag hard enough to shove Asuka back with each blow.
"Jesus, Mari, what do you want from me?" Asuka grunted as she felt the sting of her blows through the bag. "Yeah, there were one or two good memories from back then, but they were buried under a hundred terrible ones! Besides, you know what was at stake! What we were dealing with! You know perfectly well how little time there was for fraternization of any kind, much less high school romance! You know how seriously I took my job as an Eva pilot, and how little I cared for distractions!"
"How about now, then?" Mari asked, slamming her shins into the punching back on one side then the other. "If I had someone as devoted to me as Shinji was to you, I'd be leaping at the chance! But that's just not good enough for you, is it!?"
"He's been barking up that tree since day one!" Asuka retorted with clenched teeth. "If he were smart enough to know better, he'd know it was never going to happen!"
"Then let me ask you something," Mari said, taking a step back, hopping up and down as she prepared her next attack. "If it had been Kaji instead of Shinji, would you have found time for fraternization then?"
Asuka's eyebrows narrowed. "Ok, this conversation is over."
She let go of the bag and stubbornly turned away, determined to get the hell out of dodge, but Mari was having none of that. She leaped up to give the bag one last kick, sending it wobbling precariously on its now loose chains, striking Asuka in the back hard enough to knock her down.
"Ow!" Asuka blurted as she rolled to one knee. "What the hell, Four-Eyes!?"
"You didn't answer the question," Mari said, standing over her. "You're just running away. Just like he did."
"Fuck off!" Asuka glared back at her as she rose to her feet.
Mari was on her before she could stand, tackling her to the ground.
Asuka responded immediately by rolling her over with an angry grunt, flipping her onto her back, but Mari kept her grip, holding Asuka in place.
"Get the hell off me!" she demanded, struggling to regain her feet.
"You can't ask for more than what you've already got, Princess!" Maried grunted, her arm wrapped around Asuka's neck. "What exactly are you waiting for?"
"Get the HELL off me!" Asuka repeating, tugging at the other girl's hair.
"What are you so afraid of, huh!?" Mari demanded through gritted teeth. "You afraid that he'll see the beast under the beauty? Or are you afraid that he'll still accept you when he does!? You two are so beyond anything so trivial anymore, Princess! He'd follow blindly after you into any hell that you jumped into! Would Kaji do as much!?"
Asuka let out a furious growl before sinking her teeth in Mari's arm. "Get OFF!"
Mari winced in pain and relented, letting Asuka break away and spring to her feet. Mari simply sat up, nursing the bite on her arm, and fixed Asuka with a challenging stare.
"One of these days, Princess, you're going to realize the fact that being alone sucks," she said, turning her eyes away. "And you're going to wish you had done something while you still had the chance."
Asuka's eye-patch was glowing bright blue, but quickly subsided. Despite her fury, Asuka still had the presence of mind to acknowledge how crestfallen Mari looked in that moment. But there were too many emotions spinning through her head for her to address any of them individually.
She turned to face the door as it hissed open before her.
"You really suck at these pep talks, Four-Eyes," she breathed, still catching her breath.
Mari could only watch as she stepped through the door, letting it hiss shut behind her.
Shinji had never seen anyone eat nutrient paste with quite so much enthusiasm before.
Rei had cleaned three entire trays of food, and was hard at work on the fourth one. It was after hours, and the two of them were alone in the mess hall, seated across from each other as the small, quiet, delicate girl that Shinji had worked together with since the beginning practically tore through her food as if she hadn't eaten in days. As voracious an eater as she was being at that moment, Shinji was honestly surprised at how neat she was about it. She attacked the task of eating with the same precision and dedication that she did with every task set before her, making sure every speck of food made it into her stomach as efficiently as possible. Not a single smear of paste littered either the table or her face, and the trays were stacked neatly to one side as she systematically spooned the rest of her meal into her mouth, bite by careful bite.
"Wow…" Shinji said without thinking. "Dr. Akagi wasn't kidding when she said your metabolism had spiked."
Rei paused her eating and fixed him with an odd stare. He'd never seen her make an expression like it before. If he didn't know better, he would have described it as a "hand caught in the cookie jar" kind of look. But Rei had never made those sorts of faces, did she?
Suddenly, she let out a tiny burp that Shinji couldn't help but laugh at. This in turn caused her to blush slightly and cover her lips, which made Shinji laugh even more.
"Goodness!" he smiled, offering her a napkin. "Have you had enough, or would you like some more?"
She accepted the napkin gratefully, before casting a glance over at the dispenser over by the wall, blushing even more. "Perhaps…just one more serving?"
"Alright," Shinji chuckled and went to retrieve her another tray.
He turned the various knobs on the dispenser on the wall, and a series of green, red, yellow and brown gelatinous pastes slurped unceremoniously onto the tray. He regarded the tray with a kind of bitter disgust that came from being subjected to the fake food every day, and he returned to the table.
"Got a favorite flavor yet?" he asked sarcastically as he set the fifth tray in front of her.
She shook her head, eying her food and practically drooling.
"I have not decided," she said quickly. "It all tastes so good."
Shinji raised an eyebrow. "Really? It all tastes pretty bland to me."
Rei swallowed the bite that was in her mouth, before dabbing at her lip with the napkin.
"I believe the saying is that 'hunger is the best spice.'"
Shinji sighed in amusement. "I suppose that's true."
When Rei was finished, she had a very content look on her face. She even licked her lips with her eyes closed, as if she were savoring the memory of the experience. Everything she was doing now, her expression told him exactly how she felt about it. It would have been endearing if it wasn't also terribly unnerving to see. And her darker hair, eyes and skin weren't helping either.
"I…like your hair…" Shinji offered, awkwardly, sounding like he had never delivered a compliment before.
Rei blushed even so, and absently started running her fingers through her navy blue hair.
"It is…unfamiliar…" she admitted, looking everywhere but Shinji's eyes. "But…agreeable."
Shinji frowned. It was like he was talking to a completely different person now.
"You really have changed…" Shinji said, looking at her warily. "I've never seen you display this much emotion before."
This seemed to make her uneasy and she wrapped her arms around herself as she looked away.
"I feel different…" she said quietly. "I have always felt emotion, but it has never been this acute before."
She fixed him with an inquisitive look.
"Is this how you always feel, Shinji?"
Now it was Shinji's turn to blush and look away.
"I…don't know the answer to that, Rei…" he responded, meekly. "I don't know what you're feeling right now."
Rei tilted her head down and closed her eyes.
"I lack the words," she said, trying to articulate what could not be articulated. "The feelings are sporadic at best. Always changing. Often conflicting."
Shinji almost laughed. "Sounds about right."
Rei frowned and looked at him with a questioning expression.
"How do you deal with this, Shinji?" she asked, sounding somewhat helpless. "How do you keep these feelings at bay during a mission? It would seem as though this would be an insurmountable hindrance."
Shinji heaved a great sigh and shook his head. "Sometimes they can be. Very often, as a matter of fact. And most of the time, I don't deal with it…"
Rei gave him a worried look. "You…do not?"
He shook his head, sadly. "The first day I was asked to pilot, I almost didn't do it because I was too afraid. I nearly ran away because of how scared and confused I was. I was this close to letting you face the Sixth Angel all by yourself…just because I couldn't muster the courage to go out there with you. And eventually…eventually, I did end up running away."
Rei's eyes widened as she saw tears in his own eyes. She had seen him cry many times before, but now was different. Now, those tears affected her in a way that they never had before. Once, long ago, she had asked what to do or what expression to make when put in a position like this. Now, she had no hesitation in knowing exactly how to feel in this type of situation.
Before she knew it, she had thrown her arms around his shoulders and embraced him tightly.
"But you didn't!" she whispered as she wept too. "You came back, Shinji! You came back for me!"
Shinji's only response was lowering his head into the crook of her neck. She responded in turn by tightening her grip around his shoulders. It took a moment for her actions to even register with in her mind. She hadn't the vaguest notion as to why she was doing what she was doing, only that it felt like the right thing to do. Her emotions had all but compelled her to do so.
And as she slowly realized exactly what she was doing, she found herself repeating herself.
"You came back for me…" she breathed, eyes widening in realization.
It had finally hit her. Choosing to pilot after seeing her injured and bedridden form, prying her loose from the smoking remains of Unit 00, fighting the Tenth Angel even after his own Evas breaking point and ripping her free from its very soul. After everything he had done for her, all the battles he had fought, all the pain he had endured, all the sacrifices he had made…she finally realized why she felt the way she did about Shinji. Why she felt so compelled to ensure his safety. Why his happiness meant more to her than her own. Why she felt so drawn to him, even now.
And she dared to hope that this feeling had been what drove him as well.
"Shinji…" she whispered, her hands rising to his face to draw his gaze back up again to peer into his tear soaked eyes.
Shinji blinked away the tears, and was stunned by the sincerity in her eyes. Gone was the harsh, aloofness of the girl who had passed him by without so much as a glance in the hallways of NERV; here she was now with eyes full of sympathy and care.
He wasn't sure what to make of it. Was it a betrayal to the girl he remembered to show any kindness to the girl standing before him now? Or were they now truly one and the same? Was the Rei he saw before him the true Rei Ayanami? Had he known only a part of her before? And if not…did that mean that this strange, kindly yet fearful girl before him was some stranger that he had met only today? Was it right to be so close with one so alien?
None of these questions had answers he could reach. But he could not deny the familiar urge deep inside to protect this girl just as he had felt for the first Rei Ayanami once upon a time.
And that was enough for now.
"Hey, Shinji!" came a loud voice.
Shinji jerked upright and out of Rei's embrace just in time to see Asuka stepping purposefully into the mess hall.
She saw the two of them together and paused for a moment, eyebrows raised.
"Am I…interrupting something?" she asked, almost daring them to fess up.
Before Shinji could stammer out a half-baked excuse, Rei simply bowed her head.
"Not at all, Captain Shikinami," she said politely, composing herself surprisingly well considering the heart-to-heart she and Shinji had just been sharing. "Shinji was just keeping me company while I recuperated from yesterday's ordeal."
Shinji gave Rei an odd look. Why was she covering for him like that? Hell, how had she managed it after how much she claimed that her emotions were a hindrance? Dr. Akagi had said something about her reaction times increasing in addition to her metabolism. Was this simply Rei being quick on her feet?
Asuka was giving Rei an equally odd expression.
"Well…do you mind if I borrow him for a minute?" she asked in a tone that suggested that no answer that Rei gave would affect the outcome of Asuka's decision.
"Not at all," Rei said, though from as close as he was, Shinji could tell that she did not mean it at all.
"Good," Asuka said. "Shinji, could I see you for a minute?"
Shinji gave Rei one last look. Her eyes did little to disguise how much more she had to say to him, and he honestly didn't want to leave her like this. But Asuka almost never came to him for anything anymore, so if she was coming to him now, it must have been important.
And she did technically outrank them both.
He gave Rei his best attempt at a reassuring smile.
"I'll just be a minute, okay?"
Rei swallowed once and nodded, looking more pitiful than he had ever seen her.
"Okay," she said back to him.
He nodded and walked over to the door where Asuka was waiting for him, arms crossed.
"Follow me," she said, and walked out the door.
Shinji gave Rei one more fleeting glance before following her out.
To be continued…