Disclaimer: I do not own Evangelion or anything associated with it. I have written this story solely because I enjoy writing.
Disclaimer: I do not own anything belonging to Marvel Comics or anything associated with it. I have written this story solely because I enjoy writing.
Superwomen of Eva: Emerald Fury
Chapter 9: Trials and Transitions
As the darkness of the room he was in was replaced with light, Shinji found his eyes filled with purple. After a moment's time, he let out a yelp of shock before jumping back, taking in the full view of what he was seeing. "It's…a face!" Shinji finally realized as he took in the details of the horned aberration before him. All he could really see of it was the head, however; the rest of the body was obscured by some kind of reddish-purple fluid. "A giant robot!"
Staggered with confusion, Shinji began leafing through the manual that had been handed him by Misato upon their arrival at the vast, underground complex they were in. "You won't find this in there," Ritsuko assured him in a cool manner. As Shinji regarded her in surprise, the doctor continued. "This is humanity's ultimate weapon; the synthetic lifeform known as Evangelion Unit 01."
"Is this…what my father has been working on?" Shinji wondered blankly as he stared at the monstrous bio-mech.
"Correct!" came an all-too-familiar voice. As Shinji looked up, he saw his father staring down upon him, a cold expression marking his features. "It's been some time."
Staggered by the appearance of his only remaining family, Shinji slowly muttered, "Father…"
As Shinji finally looked away, Gendo hissed. "We're moving out."
"Moving out?! But Unit 00's still in cryo-stasis!" Misato cried out in protest, just before she looked at the purple behemoth in realization. "Wait! You're going to use…Unit 01?!"
"There's no other way," Ritsuko spoke coldly.
"Hold on! Rei's still injured! There's no way she can do it!" Misato countered, clenching her fists. "And we don't have any other pilots!"
Ritsuko simply narrowed her eyes at this. "We just received one."
As this sank in, Misato's features hardened with barely concealed rage. "You're serious."
Turning her eyes towards the boy that had only just arrived, Ritsuko started, "Shinji Ikari." As the boy jumped and looked into her eyes, he found himself greeted by a visage that was unimaginably cold. "You will pilot Unit 01."
"But even Rei took months to synch with her Eva!" Misato countered, Shinji dully aware that this person he didn't even know was trying to protect him. "You're asking him for the impossible!"
"All he has to do is sit in the seat. We aren't expecting anything more than that," Ritsuko countered coldly.
"But -!" Misato tried again.
"Defeating that Angel is our ultimate priority. If we have someone who can synch with an Eva, we have to make the attempt," Ritsuko explained, acting like Misato was just a child. Completely beneath her. "You do understand that, Captain Katsuragi?"
For a time, Misato was silent, her brown eyes turbulent with unspent emotion. "Yes, ma'am," she finally got out, her words heavy with animosity. Animosity that was broken when she heard someone laughing.
The laugh was light in volume but heavy with bitterness, cynicism, and hatred. As Misato looked about, she saw that Shinji was the source of the laughter. "So…is this the reason you sent for me?" he asked, barely looking at his father. "You want me…to take this thing…and fight?"
"Correct," Gendo replied, no emotion at all in his voice. "I brought you here because I have a use for you. Nothing more."
As Gendo looked down at his son, Shinji simply laughed even more. "I should have known. You never have any feelings for anyone, even me. Only…uses," the boy retorted harshly, looking up to glare at his father with ill-disguised hatred. "All right, Father…I'll fight that thing. But I won't use your creation to do it. I don't need it."
"Don't need it?!" Ritsuko blared, staring in shock of the tiny boy. "What are you saying?! It's impossible to fight an Angel without an Eva!"
"You'd think that, wouldn't you?" Shinji gritted, turning to look hatefully at the faux-blonde. "But I you see, you don't to pilot a monster to fight…when you already are one!" Before Ritsuko couldn't wonder what Shinji meant by that, green exploded in his cobalt blue eyes, green that soon spread through his veins.
"What the hell?!" Ritsuko screeched as muscles suddenly erupted from Shinji's slender frame, his shirt being torn apart as the boy reached out and grabbed the doctor by her head.
"Using people…that's what people like you do, isn't it?!" Shinji roared hatefully as the rage held within him continued to transform him. "Well, here's what I think of that!" Without the slightest qualm or sign of hesitation, Shinji tightened his grasp. Ritsuko let out one pained shriek…and was silent.
Tossing the woman aside, Shinji leaped up into the air and landed before his father. As Gendo stepped backwards, looking up in fear at what had once been his son, the green beast took hold of his neck and brought him closer. Close enough to look him right in the eyes for the last time. "Yes, Father, I'll fight the Angels…but you won't be around to use me any longer!"
"No! No! Noooo!" Gendo screamed Shinji applied ever greater amounts of pressure…
"No!" Shinji cried out, shooting up from his bed, sweat coursing down his body in waves. His chest heaving with each desperate breath he took, the boy looked wildly at his room, at the few familiar things he had in there. Fear and confusion radiating from him, Shinji looked down at his own hands. His normal, human hands, and finally out a deep sigh of relief.
"A dream…not real," was all he said. All he could say as he tried to banish the images from his mind. Images of senseless slaughter. Images of mindless hatred and rage made flesh. Images of…
Father, Shinji thought, an edge of the bitterness he had experienced in the dream returning, turning the corners of his mouth down. You brought me here…because you had a use for me. Still shaking as he turned and let his legs flop down over the side of his bed, he leaned forward and clasped his hands together. And now…you have a use for Misato.
As Shinji's heart continued to pound furiously in his chest, the boy got to his feet, knowing that further attempts to sleep would be futile. His body and mind alike were trembling with fear and rage and a thousand other subtle shades of emotion. Too much emotion for him to be able to deal with. Instead, he made his way to the kitchen, hoping for something to calm his nerves.
Moving silently to avoid disturbing either of his housemates, Shinji prepared a glass of milk and a plate of cookies. As he sat at the dining table, he sighed heavily, studied his snack for a moment before finding his gaze drawn to Misato's bedroom. A room that was empty, and would remain empty for some time. Perhaps forever. Because of Adam. Because of Jet Alone. Because of…
Father… Shinji thought again, another bit of rage finding its way into his stomach, where it proceeded to burn. For ten years, he had essentially been alone, had felt nothing but pain and loneliness, until the day some stranger had taken him into her home…and made him feel wanted. Let him know that there was someone who wanted to be a part of his life.
Though he had never seen Misato like a mother, he knew that she was more than his friend. She had been everything to him, given him every chance she could, despite her own duties at NERV. And now, she was trapped in NERV headquarters, a specimen to study for Gendo's own uses. Trapped alone, with nothing but her tears…and the beast within. And though he had visited her in the past two days as he had promised her, doing his best to bring her comfort, he could already see the toll her isolation was taking on her. Her smile a little more forced, her pain that much harder to conceal with each passing day.
"Misato…you knew it was Father all along…didn't you?" Shinji murmured as he lowered his eyes once more. "Why didn't you tell me before? Was it because you couldn't prove it, or…were you afraid…that it would hurt me?" Taking a bite out of a cookie and forcing himself to chew, Shinji frowned as he took a quick sip of his milk, even as tears began rolling down his face. "I don't know how, Misato, but…I'll help you. I'll prove what Father has done. I'll…I'll…"
His voice breaking down entirely, Shinji began to cry in earnest. As hi misery spilled down on the table, his thoughts went back to the nightmare, of his becoming a beast like that which dwelled in Misato. He thought of the frenzied anger he had displayed, and realized that, as much as the dream had been an illusion drawn from his past…the emotions that had fueled it had been real.
Horribly, terribly real…
As breakfast sizzled nicely on the stove one morning, Hikari Horaki kept one eye on it and another on her father, who was straying into the kitchen for his morning coffee. "Good morning, Hikari," Tanaka Horaki muttered, rubbing the sleep from his eyes as he approached her. "Oh, please tell me that there's more coffee lying around here. After last night, I get the feeling I'm going to need more than just the one pot."
"Don't worry, Daddy. I've got two more cans tucked away in the cupboard," Hikari responded as she handed him his cup of get-up-and-go. When he immediately downed a mouthful without even waiting for his cream and sugar, the Horaki matriarch shook her head sympathetically. "Still having a rough time at work?"
"Hmph. That's one way of putting it," Tanaka responded as he took his seat in the dining room, joining the other members of the Horaki family. "Dr. Akagi's got us working on this big project, and it's turning out to be a real killer."
"Really? What kind of project?" Nozomi piped up, bubbling with youthful curiosity.
"Well, we're putting together a new research lab, as well as a lot of testing equipment and sensory gear down in NERV. It's not all that big, but seriously! Akagi's got two whole tech teams pulling double shifts to get everything done as fast as she can! Then there're all the shipments of new equipment and what-not they've got coming in there, and…" Groaning in dismay, as if simply discussing his labors was tiring for him, Tanaka pressed his hand against his temple. "Ugh…a full night's sleep and my back is still killing me…"
"Whew. Whatever it is they've got you working on, it must be really important," Kodama noted, taking a deeper interest in the conversation. "So…what is this new lab for?"
As Hikari looked over her shoulder, she smiled as her older sister and her father looked at each other, the looks on their faces open books to her. Kodama was instantly curious about anything scientific, and the sudden need for a new lab was doubly intriguing to her. As for Tanaka, he visibly hesitated, trying to keep his face straight as he tried to resist the temptation to tell his daughters about his work, even though so much of NERV was top secret that it bordered on the ludicrous. "Well," he hemmed and hawed for a few moments, which lasted as long as it took for Kodama to employ her ultimate weapon. Leaning forward and scrunching up her shoulders to look as tiny and adorable as she could, she then flashed her puppy dog eyes. "Okay, okay! I surrender already! You can put the look away now!" Chuckling in triumph, Kodama did as requested as Nozomi giggled. "Now, don't you start on me too, okay?"
"Sorry, Daddy!" Nozomi smirked, her continued snickering ruining her apology.
Rolling his eyes to the ceiling as if asking what he could have possibly done to deserve this, Tanaka sighed before muttering, "Oh, what the heck. With everything that's been on the news, you probably know about most of this, anyway."
"Huh?" Hikari frowned, glancing over her shoulder even as she prepared the individual servings. "What do you mean, Daddy?"
"Well, I'm sure you've already heard about…that creature that Section 2 managed to capture?" Tanaka began slowly. "That thing they're calling She-Hulk?"
Instantly freezing up and very nearly sending the entire family's breakfast plummeting to the floor in the process, Hikari recovered just in time to avoid disaster as Kodama replied, "Who hasn't heard about that thing?! Her pictures have been in all the tabloids lately!" Turning around to look at her family, Hikari sweat-dropped upon seeing her elder sister glaring at her. "And then there's that big fight she had with Spirit…"
"Whew! You don't need to tell me about that!" Tanaka exhaled, shaking his head in seeming disbelief. "I heard some of the guys from Section 2 talking about it, and wow! I -!"
"Uh, breakfast is ready!" Hikari called out before darting to the dining table. "Here you go, Daddy! And this one's for you, Nozomi!"
"Why, thank you, darling!" Tanaka beamed, bending over to take a whiff. "Hmm, the perfect way to start the day!"
Frowning somewhat as their father started eating, Kodama started, "So, those Section 2 guys, what did -?"
"Here's your breakfast, Kodama!" Hikari announced, rushing up with her sister's serving. "Now, hurry up and eat before it gets cold, okay?"
"Uh…sure," Kodama muttered, not the slightest bit impressed by her sibling's stern demeanor. "So, anyway, what was it that those guys said?" Hikari was about to ask if her father wanted some more coffee, but as soon as she opened her mouth, her older sister glared unhappily and continued, "About that fight between this…She-Hulk and Spirit?"
"Only that, whoever or wherever Spirit is, she's lucky she's still breathing!" Tanaka commented with a touch of grim humor. "From what I understand, that thing really tore her up, tore off her wings, and…" Pausing in his narrative, he glanced over at Nozomi, and took note of the sickly green that was coloring her face. "Well, anyway, she took a pretty bad beating," he shrugged, bypassing the graphic details and completely missing the look of low horror the youngest Horaki sent Hikari's way.
Her insides twisting, Hikari realized that her father had just put her in a bad position. When Kodama and Nozomi had pressed her for details regarding that battle, she had done her best to downplay the beating she had taken, saying only that she had done her best to keep out of the creature's grasp and had taken just enough of a beating to account for her ruined costume. Clearing her throat as she found herself the subject of her siblings' looks, all too aware that she had some more explaining to do, Hikari forced herself to look at her father. "So, uh…what about the…the creature? What is NERV doing with it – I mean, her? And…what does she have to do with this new lab?"
Pausing to take a bite of his breakfast, Tanaka responded, "Well, as you've probably heard, this creature…she used to be human. That she was infected by that last Angel, and that's what turned her into…into this thing?" When the sisters nodded, with Hikari thinking of the NERV press conference that she had known to be at least mostly lies, he gave a weary sigh, "Well, Dr. Akagi and her people are going to be working on finding a cure for her. To change her back to the way she was before."
"Really?" Hikari got out, somewhat concerned. She had yet to come up with a way of finding out about Misato's status, so the fact that NERV was apparently looking into a cure for her was a good sign. Or at least, that's what they're saying, she frowned, unwilling to take such sentiments at face value. I'd be happier if I could be sure about that...
"So…who is this creature?" Hikari broke in, frowning in concern. "Does NERV know who she…used to be?"
"I guess so, but Dr. Akagi made it clear that that information is classified," Tanaka informed them around a mouthful of his breakfast. "When somebody asked her about it, she just said that she has a better chance of being able to go back to her own life if she doesn't have to worry about the rest of the world haranguing her about what she did when she was stuck as a monster."
"Then…it's true? What they said on the news?" Kodama frowned in concern. "That this…She-Hulk or whatever you called her…she's some kind of…mindless beast?"
"Unfortunately, yes. Her mind is essentially gone, or close enough to it. That, coupled with her sheer strength, makes her a danger to herself and everyone in Tokyo-3." Frowning as he took another mouthful of his breakfast, Tanaka chewed it over before speaking again. "So until we get the new laboratory and testing facility completed, Dr. Akagi and her people have to keep her in a constant state of sedation in order to keep her breaking loose."
"They're keeping her sedated?" Hikari muttered, red flags shooting up in her mind. Recalling how Shinji had said that Misato was only the creature when adrenalized, she paused to consider her next question. "Wait…does that mean that…have you actually seen her, Daddy?"
To her dismay, Tanaka nodded somberly. "Yeah. Just once, though. When Dr. Akagi was briefing us on the situation, they took us to the holding facility where they're keeping the thing." A weary sighing gusting out of his lips, the Horaki patriarch sat back, seeming to go back to that moment when he was confronted with the creature. "I couldn't believe how huge that thing was. Like nothing more than eight feet of solid muscle. It was all hunched in its cage, staring at the ground. Barely even noticed we were there, and…"
When Tanaka trailed off, Kodama cocked her head to the side. "But…Dad, if this thing's so dangerous, then why is NERV taking any chances?" Kodama wondered. Pausing to glance at Nozomi, she shrugged and asked, "I mean, couldn't they just…?"
"Now, don't even think of that, Kodama!" Tanaka scolded her, wagging a finger in her face. "I know this She-Hulk thing must sound pretty scary, but don't forget that there's a human being trapped inside of it. A human in need of help." He then took a large bite out of his meal, not missing the unsatisfied look worn by his eldest daughter. "I wouldn't wish what happened to that poor woman on my worst enemy. And Dr. Akagi and Major Katsuragi, they looked ready to cry when -"
"Major Katsuragi?!" Hikari all but shrieked, her eyes ballooning out of their sockets at this. When her father looked up at her in surprise, along with her sisters, the pigtailed girl realized her fumble, gulped, and struggled to recover. "I – I mean…Misato-sama? I…I thought she was a Captain…"
The manner in which his brows furrowed making it clear that he wasn't quite buying Hikari's lame explanation, Tanaka shrugged and returned his attention to breakfast. "Well, she was just promoted about a week ago. I'm not surprised you haven't heard about it."
"Oh…um…I see. I'm…glad to hear that…" Hikari fumbled, trying to get on a more solid footing for what her father was telling her. "So…you saw Misato and this…She-Hulk?"
Nodding, Tanaka elaborated, "She came down to check out our progress, along with Dr. Akagi and some technicians." Exhaling sharply, he took a quick sip of his coffee before continuing. "Man, she really looked worn out. Especially when she stopped to look at the creature. I thought she was going to start crying, right then and there."
"She must feel really sorry for her," Kodama noted, once again looking at Hikari. Making it clear that she didn't buy her lame explanation, either.
'We'll discuss this later,' Hikari silently mouthed to her older sibling, feeling like her head was about to explode. Returning her attention to her father, she tried to milk him for a little more information. "So…NERV really is going to try and…cure her?"
Once again, Tanaka nodded. "Dr. Akagi is taking a personal hand in the research effort. And she's already arranged for an entire division to be dedicated solely to treating this creature."
"Makes sense, I guess," Kodama muttered sourly. "After all, if this could happen to one person…who's to say it can't happen to others?"
Looking between her two sisters, with an especially long look at Hikari, Nozomi turned to their father. "Do you…think it could happen to us, Daddy?"
"Oh, of course not, dear!" Tanaka answered, beaming as much confidence and reassurance as he could muster at his youngest daughter. "I promise you, nothing like that is going to happen to any of you! Dr. Akagi and the others, they're just trying to help this poor woman. It doesn't mean that something like that is going to happen to any of you."
I really wish I could believe that, Hikari thought somberly, thinking of the days of fever that she had suffered through in the days before she had first transformed into the creature she had become. Frowning pensively, she studied the food before her, another problem occurring to her. But…Misato-sama is She-Hulk! So…then who or what was it that Father saw?
"A hologram?" Shinji asked, looking at Kaji in mild disbelief.
"That's right, Shinji," Kaji replied with a ready smile as Shinji set up the places at the table. Then he paused to ask, "Um, Asuka, you really don't have to hold on so tight. It's not like I'm going anywhere."
Yeah, I know. And I want to keep it that way! Asuka thought, determined to make the most of this latest opportunity.
It had been a relatively normal day, or at least as normal as things had been since Misato had been locked up within the confined of NERV. The two of them had been working to straighten up the apartment, with Shinji cleaning up the lingering mess and Asuka supervising the repairmen that NERV had sent to there to replace the shattered windows, as well as make a few other repairs and repairs. Then as evening approached and Shinji began work on dinner, the doorbell had rung. To Asuka's considerable surprise and delight, she had found Kaji standing outside. As promised, he had come to see how they were doing, as well as report on the things happening at NERV that involved Misato and her savage other self.
"As you know, we want to keep the fact that Misato and She-Hulk are the same person under wraps. Unfortunately, those punks who attacked you saw her transform, and might be able to identify her," Kaji explained in a casual fashion. "Now, they're under arrest until we can make sure they'll keep their mouths shut, but still, we have to make sure that no one knows that this thing is Misato. That means having witnesses who have seen them both, and as separate individuals. So Ritsuko arranged to put on a show for some of the people working on the new lab and the testing range. She and some of her tech-head friends cobbled together a cage with a hologram projector. Then when she showed the hologram of She-Hulk – that is, the creature," he corrected himself as Asuka once again grunted her displeasure at that ridiculous name, "to the technical crews."
Pausing to wonder what on earth had prompted the press to use the same moniker Makoto had come up with for Misato's transformed self, Asuka asked, "So, what did they do then? Did they have a holographic Misato show up and look in on the thing?"
"Nope. Ritsuko decided it would be better to have the real Katsuragi come down for an inspection and a status report, instead of a stand-in," Kaji joked casually. "She thought that an interactive Major that people could touch and that could hold reports and what-not would be more –"
"What?!" Asuka squawked. When the unshaven man frowned at her, she sputtered for a moment before crying out, "Kaji, are you kidding me?! You mean they actually let her out of her room?!"
Whirling about at this, Shinji fixed an appalled look at her. "Wh-what's wrong with that?!"
"What's wrong with that?! Third, have you lost it?!" Asuka shot back. "Don't you remember what happened here?! All it would take is for her to trip on something or bang into a wall or something, and then big, green, and gruesome shows up and turns NERV into a smoldering crater!"
"No, she wouldn't!" Shinji retorted defiantly. "She wouldn't just…I mean, now that she knows…"
"Hey, Shinji, relax!" Kaji smiled as the boy's voice sputtered and failed him. "Personally, I'm with you. Now that Katsuragi knows what's up, I'm pretty sure she wouldn't go ahead and lose her temper after stubbing her toe or something like that." Then he looked down at Asuka and added, "And just so you know, she had an escort of Section 2's finest disguised as technicians when she came down for the big tour. Just to be on the safe side."
As Asuka was preparing to say that Section 2's finest was only slightly less worthless than the rest of them, Shinji asked, "And…if something had happened…what would they have done?"
"They would have shot her. With a tranquilizer dart, that is," Kaji added, noticing the way Shinji's eyes bulged at first. "It was only a precautionary measure, of course. I know Katsuragi has a temper, but like you, I'm inclined to believe that she'll do her best to keep it in check. Now that she knows…"
As Kaji trailed off, the silence that followed spoke volumes, and those volumes had Shinji nodding in agreement. The silence continued until the timer on the stove buzzed, sending him whirling about. "Oh! Dinner's ready!" he cried out on impulse. Opening the stove, he then pulled out the lasagna that was now sending out wonderfully refreshing aromas throughout the apartment. "Uh…sorry, Kaji. I…"
"No, that's okay. The two of you have to eat, after all," Kaji smiled, holding up his hand in understanding. "And for that matter, so do I. So, if you two will excuse me…"
"Uh, what's the rush, Kaji-kun?" Asuka wondered, caught between remaining casual and making sure that her crush stayed for as long as possible. "You only just got here, right? And besides, the Third made plenty for all of us." Then she narrowed her eyes, and putting just a touch of menace in her voice, she asked, "Didn't you, Third?"
"Hmm?" Shinji started, not quite picking up on her tone. Then he jolted upright, looked at the pan of cooling lasagna, and shrugged. "Well…sure. Yeah."
"Well, that's real thoughtful of you, but I really don't want to keep you up late or anything," Kaji responded easily even as Asuka moved him over to the table. "Besides, I just wanted to make sure that everything was alright, and that you had the cover story memorized and everything. After all, tomorrow is your first day back at school, and…"
"You don't have to worry about that!" Asuka replied dismissively, determined not to let this chance slip away. "It's not like we need anyone to see us off or make our lunches or any of that! We've got everything under control." Then she squeezed his arm a bit more tightly and added, "And anyway, it's not like we get to see you that often, Kaji-kun! So why don't you just sit back, relax…"
Pressing his lips into a thoughtful frown, Kaji cocked his head to the side for a time before saying, "Well…okay. I guess it can't hurt." As Asuka grinned triumphantly, a mental version of herself throwing up her arms in triumph, her crush continued, "And besides, I would like to know what's been going on with you. And how Katsuragi's doing, of course."
Wincing as a pin was stuck in her balloon, Asuka frowned as Shinji asked, "Huh? Y-you mean…you still haven't seen her?"
"Unfortunately, no," Kaji replied with a hapless shrug. Slipping free of Asuka's numbed grasp, he seated himself at the table. "Ritsy-poo is keeping the visitors to a minimum, at least until Katsuragi's new quarters are complete. As she told me, she doesn't want her dealing with anyone that might set her off, a list which unfortunately includes yours truly."
Fuming at this setback, Asuka forced herself to remember that it had only been a few days since Misato had been locked away. That she and Kaji did, in fact, have a substantial history, having been an item back in college and that the German simply couldn't expect for him to forget it in such a short period of time. But despite this, she couldn't help but bristle over the fact that he still hadn't realized that she was an exquisite young lady, not some little kid, or that Misato was a drunken slut who acted like she belonged in kindergarten, not the woman of Kaji's dreams.
Suppressing a loud snort and telling herself that she had time, that the cards were in her favor, Asuka forced herself to speak in the sweetest manner she knew. "Okay, sure," she got out before focusing on the resident chef. "Hey, Third! Why don't you serve dinner? You know, before it gets cold?"
"Huh? Oh…right," Shinji replied. Sighing heavily, he turned to the counter and began serving dinner. Occasionally glancing over his shoulder at the chair where Misato had always taken for herself, he finally finished his preparations and began serving them a full meal. "Here you go, Kaji."
"Why, thank you," Kaji answered. Instead of diving right in, he continued to look at the forlorn boy. "So…how is Katsuragi holding up?"
"Uh…not so good," Shinji muttered lowly, seeming to sink beneath his own words. He went on to give an abbreviated account of his two visits to Misato, along with his observations as to how she was doing.
"Well, I have to admit, that's pretty much what I expected," Kaji muttered, shaking his head slowly as Shinji presented Asuka with her dinner. "Katsuragi never did like being all by herself. And with this thing in her…" The 3rd Child nodded unhappily at this, looking as if a thundercloud was going to manifest over his head and rain down even further gloom and doom upon him. "Now, c'mon, Shinji. We've been over this before." Looking up at this, he frowned somewhat as Kaji once again smiled in the face of despair. "Ritsuko isn't NERV's top scientist for nothing. She'll find a way to cure Misato, and she'll be back home before you know it."
Heaving a tired sigh, Shinji shook his head before seating himself. "I hope so…"
Asuka glared at the only possible rival she had for the status of top pilot, deeply considering saying something truly cutting in regards to his preference for being a spineless wimp, but ultimately decided against it. She didn't want to do anything that might spoil her image as an adult woman before Kaji, and while she still didn't like thinking about it, she could understand what it was like to watch someone precious to you deteriorate before your very eyes, leaving you powerless to do anything about it.
But…no, this isn't the same! she shuddered, trying desperately to drive such thoughts from her mind. Trying not to think about how she had refused to go with Shinji to visit Misato, simply because of the memories it brought back for her. Besides, it's not going to do me or anyone else any good to sit around, moaning about it! Akagi will cure her, or she won't! And that's all there is to it!
Taking this thought and hammering it solidly into her mind, Asuka sat back and began to enjoy her evening repast. She didn't taste the first few bites, but as she continued to eat, she looked up at Kaji, and was delighted to find he was smiling at her. Slowly, she was able to relax more, savoring the taste of a familiar food, something better and richer than the accursed things the Japanese ate. And as the evening progressed, she found that she was able to distance herself from the moment, and embrace her own fanciful interpretation of this setting. In place of the apartment, she envisioned a lavish restaurant, the perfect place for a romantic dinner for two. Shinji became the waiter, who was only there to facilitate the perfect evening between her and Kaji. The two of them were dressed in their finest clothes, thinking of nothing but their meal and each other. Sweet, romantic music filled the air, perfect for dancing to, and…
"Uh, Kaji…?" Shinji piped up, shattering the wonderful dream just as it got to the part where Kaji took Asuka in her arms and carefully slipped her dress off. "I, uh…there's something I wanted to…ask you."
Glaring daggers at her fellow pilot for being so rude to ruin such a wonderful vision for her, Asuka barely noticed when Kaji replied, "Well, sure. What is it?"
Looking intensely at the unshaven man, Shinji hesitated for a moment before asking, "What do you know about Jet Alone? You know…about what happened to it that day?"
Taken aback by this, Kaji stared at Shinji for a time before speaking. "Well, that sure came from out of nowhere," he remarked before forking more lasagna into his mouth. "About what everyone else knows about it, I guess. Why?"
"Well, it's just…what if it wasn't an accident?" Shinji wondered, his features hardening as he spoke. "I mean, what if didn't just malfunction? And somebody…"
"Aw, Gott! Not this again!" Rolling her eyes in disbelief, Asuka stood from her seat and glared down at her fellow Child. "Give it a rest, baka! I'm sick and tired of your stupid conspiracy theories already!"
"Whoa, whoa! What's this all about?" Realizing that she had just blown her womanly demeanor, Asuka looked to see Kaji looking rapidly back and forth between the two of them. "What are you two talking about? What…conspiracy theory are you talking about?"
Disgusted by whole easily a perfect evening had been blown to blazes, Asuka glared hatefully at the useless, spineless, pathetic little wimp who was supposed to be an Eva pilot. "Apparently, the baka thinks that NERV sabotaged that stupid hunk of junk robot! And is therefore responsible for Misato going monster on us!" Snorting loudly and wishing she could truly display just how low of an opinion she had of such idiocy, the German stood up even higher, as if to proclaim from on high, "Which, just for the record, is completely nuts!"
His mouth opened and closed seemingly at random for about half a minute before Shinji meekly replied, "I…never said that I thought NERV was responsible..."
"You didn't have to! It's pretty obvious that that's what you've been suggesting, Third!" Her ire growing at Shinji's refusal to take a stand even now, Asuka planted her hands to her hips and leaned forward, glaring all the scorn she could muster. "And like I've already told you, that's crazy! Why would anyone, especially NERV waste their time trying to sabotage that pathetic kludge?!"
"Whoa, you two!" Kaji broke in, making a 'time-out' gesture with his hands. The two of them turned and looked at him as one, an opportunity he seized be asking, "Now, come on, Shinji! What would ever make you think that Jet Alone was sabotaged?"
"Well, Misato told me that…she thinks that's what happened," Shinji explained lamely, earning an annoyed look from Asuka. As quickly as he could, he explained to them how they had talked during the period of time after Misato had reverted back and they had been waiting for the ambulance to arrive. "Anyway, I…I gave it some thought, and…well, it would explain why it just took off like that for no reason!"
"Well, true," Kaji nodded casually. "And Asuka? Why are you so sure he's wrong?"
"Because I read up on that stupid thing as soon as I heard about it!" Asuka returned, recalling the day that she heard that someone had cooked up a robot that might replace the Evas. Fuming at the very thought, she had researched the prototype mecha and had quickly found herself reassured. "That walking can was totally useless! No AT-Field, a nuclear reactor that would do more damage to us than the Angels if it melted down! Besides, it obviously wasn't as strong as an Eva, and its AI could never replace a living pilot! At least…it could never replace me!" Taking a moment to let these words sink in, the German glared irritably at her fellow pilot. "Besides, Third, have you forgotten what would have happened if Misato hadn't been able to stop that thing? It would have nuked an entire city, that's what! And you really think NERV is willing to pull a stunt like that? Get real!"
"But, Asuka -!" Shinji protested.
Before Asuka could read him the riot act for even trying to contradict her, Kaji held up his hands to the both of them. "Now, now, both of you! Settle down! Please, we're supposed to be having dinner, not a shouting contest!" Glancing at her crush, Asuka then grimaced hatefully at her fellow pilot for a time before finally sitting back down. "Okay, then. And now that we have a bit of silence for me to work with, maybe I can get a word in here. Now, Shinji, I can't blame you for being suspicious over what happened. I mean, a malfunction like that would come off as being a bit unlikely. And I certainly can understand you wanting to take out our your frustrations on something. But Asuka made some very good points here. Despite what Jet Alone's backers would have had you believe, there was never any real chance of a robot like that ever actually working in the battlefield. And therefore, there's no reason for anyone to try and sabotage it."
Gratified by the knowledge that Kaji was squarely in her corner, Asuka grinned in triumph. "See, Third?"
"But…are you sure?" Shinji muttered warily. "Besides, Misato said that…"
"I know. I heard you. And I can't blame her for being suspicious, either. Especially considering what's happened to her. But I wouldn't make much of it." Then Kaji gave a rueful smile and added, "Besides, and I hate to admit it, but Katsuragi has always been a little paranoid about people in government. It's nothing new."
"There! See? There's no stupid conspiracy!" Asuka decreed, satisfied that she had been proven right. "Just a bunch of incompetent morons who managed to screw everyone up with their worthless robot!" She then sat back in her seat, waiting for Shinji to agree with her. To apologize as he always did so they could get back to enjoying the evening he had interrupted.
Shinji didn't apologize. He didn't say anything, do anything, save for lowering his eyes to the table. His face unreadable as he frowned in thought.
What?! Don't tell me he isn't even listening! Asuka growled inwardly. She was sorely tempted to give voice to this sentiment when two things stopped her. One was that Kaji had already returned to his meal, apparently satisfied that the matter was settled. And if she attempted to continue the argument, then she was the one who would look bad, not Shinji. And making herself out to be the bad guy was not going to win Kaji's heart. The second was that she was rapidly losing patience with the situation at hand and really wasn't in the mood to pursue this matter any further at the moment.
Honestly! What's the Third trying to do, saying stuff like that about NERV?! Asuka wondered incredulously. We get enough bad publicity from the dummkopfs of the world as it is!
While Asuka didn't like thinking of it, she knew that NERV required vast amounts of financing in order to function, and that admittedly came at the cost of higher taxes, fewer jobs, and an overall weaker economy. And she knew that this was a difficult thing for many people, even in her native Germany. But still, it wasn't nearly as bad as a lot of the crisis hounds on the news and internet made it out to be, saying that NERV was above the law, that it was responsible for widespread poverty and starvation in numerous countries. And while no rational human being could deny that the Evas, and thus their pilots, were of absolute importance and necessary to the survival of humanity, she had no doubt that there were plenty of idiots who would love to take the 3rd Child's inane theories and blow them all out of proportion.
Seriously, what is he thinking?! Doesn't he realize how it would look if people found out about this?! That an Eva pilot and the Commander's own son is going around saying that NERV was trying to send entire cities up in mushroom clouds?! Not for the first time, Asuka wondered what exactly went on in the so-called mind of Shinji Ikari. Why didn't he realize that being an Eva pilot was incontrovertible proof that he was superior to most of the drudges that inhabited the planet? Why did he insist on acting like a spineless wimp instead of milking his place in the world for everything it was worth? Why didn't he grab the power, the prestige, the fame and popularity and glory that came with being an Evangelion pilot with both hands like he could? What, it's not bad enough we have losers like the people who made Jet Alone and Spirit making NERV look bad?! He has to pitch in and help, too?! As soon as she had completed this thought, Asuka found herself wincing in almost physical pain. Ugh! Why'd I have to go and think of that glory-grabbing slut?!
Taking an especially vicious stab at her meal, Asuka began thinking of all the torments she would love to wreak upon the winged girl. The superwoman so many of the boys at school thought was so hot and so amazing, who pranced about in the air, acting like she was better than everyone else. Who had managed to steal Asuka's thunder by killing two of the Angels since the German had gotten to Japan, had gotten the UN and several other organizations tightening their purse strings and increasing their scrutiny of NERV and its operations. And possibly worst of all, getting some people in school and even in the media suggesting that instead of blowing so much money on the Evangelions, it would be more practical and much cheaper to simply hire Spirit to kill all of the Angels for them.
I've been training all my life to be pilot, and everybody winds up thinking she's a hero?! She's just another Angel who happens to look human! And if Akagi hadn't screwed things up, I'd have…! Her chain of thought deteriorating before the wave of searing anger Spirit caused in her, Asuka found herself glaring at Shinji again. Still sitting in the same position as he had been before, probably thinking the same treasonous thoughts.
You better watch it, baka! Because Misato isn't around to make excuses for you or to let you slack off anymore! Asuka declared, the image as Shinji as a waiter returning to her. An image that quickly morphed into him as being a butler. A servant whose only reason to exist was to carry out the whims of those better than him. As of now, I'm in charge here! Which means that you're going to be doing everything that I say, including shutting up about those stupid conspiracy theories of yours! And you better accept it, because if you don't, I'm going to beat you into a pulp and make you accept it!
As Maya walked alongside her mentor towards the desk behind which NERV's second-in-command now sat, she couldn't help but relieved that Gendo was presently away from NERV. That they were meeting Fuyutsuki in his office, rather than the horrid, forbidding expanse of darkness that was known by so many as Gendo's Lair.
I can't imagine how the Commander manages to stand to work in his own office, Maya thought as she and Ritsuko were greeted with a warm smile from the old professor. Or the Sub-Commander, for that matter!
"Greetings, Dr. Akagi. Lieutenant Ibuki," Fuyutsuki greeted them, giving them a polite bow of his head. "Thank you for coming so quickly." His smile faltered a bit as he added, "Especially under the current circumstances."
"It was no problem, sir," Ritsuko replied, a slight tremor to her voice the only sign of exhaustion she allowed to slip out. "So, what did you want to see us about?"
Leaning back in his seat, clearly trying to make himself more comfortable after too many hours relying on caffeine and willpower to keep him going, Fuyutsuki began, "Well, to put it very simply, we heard from the Committee earlier this morning. They demanded a meeting with Ikari regarding the…recent events."
"You mean…about the Major, sir?" Maya gathered.
"Hmph. What else would it be, considering the chaos her She-Hulk self caused?" Fuyutsuki muttered tiredly. "With all the publicity that thing's been getting, I'm amazed that they didn't call him in sooner."
Frowning tensely, Ritsuko asked, "Then…he's already left to meet with them?"
"That's right. And after that, he's got an inspection to take care of. Which leaves us to deal with this mess we've got on our hands and keep it from getting worse," Fuyutsuki noted with a wry look. He paused to close his eyes, and when he opened them again, he looked at the two women with an air of consummate professionalism. "Dr. Akagi, what's the status of the new testing and laboratory complex?"
"We've just finished primary construction of the new laboratory and testing range, sir. We'll be able to begin our analysis of her mutation just as soon as she's moved into her new quarters," Ritsuko reported quickly. "However, we still need another day or two in order to complete that part."
"And why is that?" Fuyutsuki wondered, his displeasure clear.
"Because we've had to keep the fact that the Major is She-Hulk a secret, sir," Maya spoke up.
"That's right. Ikari told us not to let anyone outside of the A-Class personnel know that She-Hulk has a human form, lest people start getting curious about whom that human form is," Ritsuko confirmed. "As a result, we've been limited in constructing her new quarters by the amount of manpower available to us."
Nodding briskly, Fuyutsuki replied, "Alright. But keep me updated on their progress. I want the Major relocated to the testing complex as soon as possible." Ritsuko nodded her understanding, a gesture Maya quickly echoed. "And what about the security protocol? What precautions have been taken to keep Katsuragi contained…just in case?"
"We've equipped the entire area to release a high-potency sleeping gas, which can be released manually or by an array of sensors," Ritsuko explained, her voice growing heavier as she spoke. "These sensors have been calibrated to detect She-Hulk's unique energy signature. The instant Misato begins to transform, the area she's in will be flooded with gas."
"Very good," Fuyutsuki nodded thoughtfully. "And what about the testing area itself? What are the chances it could contain her, in the event the gas fails?"
"Well, we've used the same kind of armor plating that's used in the Evas in building both the testing range and the outer walls of the Major's quarters," Maya reported. "It's three feet thick on all sides, sir."
"That's true, but I have to be honest, sir. Given what happened during Misato's previous transformations, I doubt those walls would last even a minute against her," Ritsuko declared.
"So our best chance to keep her contained is to keep her from transforming in the first place," Fuyutsuki intoned, to which Ritsuko quickly nodded. "Very well. But see if you can find some other way of keeping this creature contained. If She-Hulk were to escape and start rampaging through NERV, I can't even begin to imagine the destruction she could cause."
"Very well, sir," Ritsuko answered, her face making it clear what she thought of the odds of them stopping something that could rip through an AT-Field like it was nothing. "Will that be all, sir?"
Fuyutsuki didn't say anything at first. Instead, he clasped his hands together before him in a gentler version of the infamous Gendo Pose. "Well, there was one other thing that I wished to discuss," he admitted before turning his aged eyes on Maya. "Lieutenant Ibuki?"
It took Maya several seconds to realize that she was the one being addressed. It took her even longer for her to recover from the shock of this realization, meet Fuyutsuki's eyes, and sputter out, "M-me, sir?"
"Yes. You see, before Ikari left, he, myself, and Dr. Akagi discussed another problem caused by the Major's condition." While Maya frowned, trying to figure what that problem could be, the Sub-Commander answered that question for her. "Namely, until we're certain that she won't transform again, she can no longer function as our Operations Director. Leaving a hole to be filled in the chain of command."
"Hmm…yes, that's true, sir," Maya hesitantly agreed. While she hadn't given much thought to that, having been more focused on how horrible it must be for Misato to be stuck sharing her body with a mindless horror, she did understand that her superiors had to think of NERV's own good as well. "But…what's that have to do with me?"
"A great deal. You see, we need someone of sound judgment to fill the Major's shoes, someone who can be counted on to work well under pressure. Someone that the people here know and respect." Unconsciously nodding to this, Maya didn't realize where Fuyutsuki was headed with this until he said, "And Ikari and I have decided that that person…is you."
Her eyes bulging at this, Maya was initially tempted to laugh and ask if Fuyutsuki was joking. But then she processed the look on his face, a look that made it abundantly clear that he was not engaging in anything remotely humorous. At which point her brain suffered a cascade failure that sent her jaw plummeting to the ground. "Wh…what?!" she somehow managed to garble out as her brain rebooted itself. "M…me, sir?!"
Fuyutsuki nodded briskly, and told her evenly, "Before Ikari left, we decided to make you NERV Central's Operations Director." While Maya's was again struggling to cope with this impossible notion, the old professor reached into one of the drawers of his desk and brought forth a tiny case. "In light of this, we've decided that you be promoted…to Captain Ibuki."
"M-m-me, sir?" Maya stammered out, taking a step backwards as Fuyutsuki popped open the case. Her eyes threatening to pop out of their sockets at the sight of the new rank insignia within.
This simply couldn't be happening. There was absolutely no way this could actually be taking place. Maya had to be having a nightmare, or some other form of delusion. Why else would anyone be trying to promote her out of a job which she loved doing? To give her a rank and position that she didn't want, and more importantly, couldn't handle?
But even as Maya thought of these things, she knew that she wasn't dreaming. That Fuyutsuki honestly wanted her to take over Misato's role, to be the one who ordered the children to risk their lives against monsters intent on wiping out all life on Earth. "Uh, sir?" she sputtered out, trying not to grimace in sheer horror at such a situation. "I…really don't think I can accept this."
"This isn't a matter of acceptance, Captain," Fuyutsuki told her, his voice hardening just the tiniest bit. "Ikari and I have already decided."
"I…!" Maya squeaked out, feeling much like a rat in a trap. "B-but, sir, with all due respect, I…don't believe I'm qualified for such a position."
"Perhaps, but Commander Ikari and Dr. Akagi do not share that opinion," Fuyutsuki countered, glancing over at the Head Scientist. "They believe that you are more than capable of handling your new responsibilities. Also, I am fully aware that you have undergone courses in command training, and scored quite well."
But…I just did that because I thought it would look good on my resume! Maya grimaced inwardly, recalling the 'helpful' suggestions she had received from several of her friends back at the academy. Friends who assured her that she would never have command unless she actively pursued it. Friends who were really stupid, she now decided.
Glancing over at Ritsuko, wondering what could ever have possessed her sempai to make such an erroneous recommendation, Maya took a deep, stabilizing breath, and tried a different tact. "I may have command training, sir, but I don't have any military background. I…honestly don't think could handle the Major's duties."
"Not on your own," Fuyutsuki admitted in a more grandfatherly tone. "But you have a keen mind and have proven yourself to be reliable in a crisis situation. Things that are essential in dealing with the day-to-day responsibilities of your new position." Opening her mouth to protest that it wasn't that part of her job that scared her, Maya was promptly cut off when the old professor went on. "And as far as your…other duties are concerned, I wouldn't worry too much."
"You wouldn't?" Maya gaped, wondering if the world had gone insane or if it were just her.
"Indeed. Don't forget that, while Major Katsuragi's condition renders her potentially unstable, she still retains all of her knowledge and experience while in her human form," Fuyutsuki pointed out. "I'll be expecting you to take that into consideration when the next Angel appears."
While Maya was trying to digest this, Ritsuko offered her a reassuring smile. "That's right, Maya. If an Angel shows up, all you'll have to do is go down and ask Misato for some advice." Startled when she felt the doctor's hand gripping her shoulder reassuringly, the new Captain looked up as her mentor told her, "Besides, if I honestly didn't think you could handle this, I would never have recommended you for it."
As Maya processed this compliment, her face shed some of the fear that adorned it. "Oh…thanks, sempai," she responded with a slight blush. Then she looked down at the rank insignia, considered everything that it represented. Glancing between it and Fuyutsuki, realizing that he would not take no for an answer, that Gendo wouldn't take it, she gave a weary sigh as several tons of responsibility appeared out of nowhere to come crashing down upon her shoulders. "Very well. I…accept, sir." As the Sub-Commander held her new insignia out for her to take, she held out her own hand. "But…only if this is a temporary assignment. As soon as the Major is cured, or you can find someone…better equipped to handle this post…"
As Maya trailed off, unsure of how to continue, Fuyutsuki nodded and answered, "Fair enough. After all, this was never intended to be a permanent assignment, Ibuki. Merely a holding action until Major Katsuragi has been cured."
"Uh…okay," Maya replied nervously. Her hand shaking, she slowly reached forth and took the new rank insignia and held it out to the light. Despite knowing in the pit of her stomach that things would be nowhere near as simple as they were being made out to be, she took her Lieutenant's badge and nervously replaced it.
"Very good," Fuyutsuki beamed before getting down to business. "Your first assignment will be to find someone to take over your previous duties. Preferably someone who already has A-Class clearance." Nodding nervously, Maya almost missed the Sub-Commander adding, "And you had best do it quickly. It won't be long before I have to join Ikari."
A beat passed as Maya once again found herself hoping that she hadn't heard what she had just heard. "Join – you mean, you and the Commander…you're both going to be away from the base?"
"That's correct. We have a special assignment, one which the Committee apprised us before this situation with the Major developed." Clearly anticipating her next question, Fuyutsuki added, "The reason we haven't told anyone about this assignment is because Chairman Keel wants to keep as much about this assignment as secret as possible. All I can tell you is that we're to be gone for some time."
"But…that means…" Maya got out, too dumbstruck to even give voice to her realization.
"It means that, until our return, you will be in sole command of NERV Central," Fuyutsuki confirmed. As Maya's mouth popped open again, her worst fears confirmed, the old professor once again switched over to his more grandfatherly mannerisms. "Now, don't worry. It won't be that difficult," he assured her in a calming manner. "Most of the daily going-ons here are fairly routine. And I still have a bit of time left before I have to leave. Enough so that I'll be able to acquaint you with your new duties."
Maya was unable to take any comfort from this. All she knew was that, in the span of a single meeting, she had been wrenched from her cozy, comfortable position in NERV, doing a job she enjoyed, and forced into overall command of the single most vital military installation on the face of the planet.
What could I have possibly done to deserve this?! Maya wailed inwardly, even as Fuyutsuki rose up and came alongside her, already proceeding to give her the lowdown on her new title and all the burdens that came with it. About the only things that could make this worse would be the Major transforming or an Angel showing up to attack!
"Greetings, Ikari," came the voice of a man awash in white light. A man who sat at the opposite end of the table Gendo was now seating himself, his eyes obscured by a cybernetic visor. "How good of you to come here, and on such short notice."
"Chairman," Gendo returned, nonplused as he met and returned the gazes of the five members of the Human Instrumentality Committee. "I trust that this won't take too long."
There was a definite pause as the four members sitting on the sides of the table gazed at Gendo with a mix of surprise and distaste. The member lit with green sneered in disgust, muttering, "Is that so, Ikari?"
"Indeed," Gendo responded, assuming his typical pose as if it were his own desk he was seated at. "As you are all well aware, the expedition to retrieve the one true Lance will be leaving soon. An expedition that you have put me in charge of." Leaning in closer to study the faces of the old men seated before him, faces that were seamed and lined with petty greed and cruelty, the Commander elaborated, "And considering the time constraints put upon us by the Dead Sea Scrolls, the sooner I am able to depart, the better."
"Of all the insolence…!" the member bathed in red light hissed dangerously.
"You will leave when we so decide, Ikari! And the same goes for the expedition!" the man shaded with blue decreed. "And you will leave only when our current business is concluded!"
"I am aware of that. Which is why it behooves us to keep this meeting brief," Gendo muttered, indulging in a moment of triumph at the irritated looks given him.
"Correct," the cybernetic figure tersely agreed. "Let us get down to business, Ikari. You know why you are here."
"Indeed, Keel," Gendo replied evenly. "You wanted a report on the recent…events that have taken place in Tokyo-3, and…"
"Events?! Try catastrophes, Ikari!" sniped the man awash in yellow light. "We've all seen the reports coming out of Japan! You've allowed another monstrosity to come forth and compromise the scenario! Another beast with Angelic abilities!"
"That's right! As if it wasn't bad enough when we only had one such creature running loose!" Blue sneered hatefully.
"And from what we've seen, this latest creature, this…Hulk or She-Hulk or whatever it is they called it may be an even worse threat than Spirit is!" Yellow jumped in again. "It's been all over the news, Ikari! Tokyo-3 in shambles, and NERV proving to be incapable of reigning in this monster! Do you have any idea how this makes you look?!"
Red nodded grimly before saying, "The UN has been asking a lot of questions, Ikari. We've already been forced to forestall an investigation into your activities, and if there is a similar incident -!"
"There won't be," Gendo broke in, fixing the old man with a glare. "As I've already explained to Chairman Keel, the creature…this She-Hulk…has been secured."
"Indeed," Keel admitted, not bothering to pay attention to the rest of the Committee members as they looked back and forth between them. "However, there remains a great deal that you have yet to explain, Ikari. Such as how such a monstrosity came into being in the first place."
"Of course," Gendo replied, knowing it best not to play games with the one man who might well be his equal in this arena, and was at times an ally he could not yet afford to alienate entirely. "I've brought to you all of the information we currently have available on the creature." Reaching into his pocket, he then withdrew a tiny object and held it out into the light. "On this flash drive are all the results of all the blood analyses and genetic tests Dr. Akagi has been able to perform to date. But the bottom line, gentlemen, is that we are dealing with some form of Angelic infection."
"Is that right?" Green muttered, raising an eyebrow at this. "So, you're sticking with the same story you gave the press, huh?"
"Not precisely," Gendo returned, meeting his latest attacker's gaze unflinchingly. "The story we gave the press was part of the truth, simply because it is data that we can easily corroborate. And, unfortunately, there was no time to manufacture a complete fabrication." Then he sat back and eyed the other men there meaningfully. "And in this case, this partial truth may indeed be our best weapon."
"What do you mean?" Red wondered with a stony scowl.
"As we all know, Spirit's freedom represents a potential danger to the scenario. A human with powers such as hers could very easily interfere with the final stage of Human Instrumentality. And to make matters worse, she has quite a bit of support from the public at large. Enough so that any open attempt to eliminate her would likely backfire, increasing the scrutiny upon NERV," Gendo explained carefully, making sure that the focus of everyone there was upon him. "However, with the emergence of this creature, with origins potentially similar to those of Spirit herself…"
"What are you saying? That you plan to say that Spirit is the source of this infection?" Green sneered. "More likely the media will say you're just trying to find a convenient scapegoat! And they'd be right!"
"They would be, if that was indeed my intent," Gendo countered deviously. "However…"
"However, we seem to be getting distracted from the actual purpose of this meeting." Looking up sharply, Gendo found himself against up against the soulless gaze of Keel, his features taut with readiness. "Ikari, you were ordered here to give a full and satisfactory explanation as to both how this She-Hulk came into existence, as well as what you intend to do with her now that you have…successfully captured her."
Just keeping his expression under control, Gendo refused to give any hint as to his annoyance. He had hoped to distract the old men somewhat with the possibility of eliminating one of the thorns in their side, but of course, Keel had seen through that tactic. "At this point, there is still a great deal we don't know about the creature, aside from the fact that it was at one point human. Dr. Akagi is proceeding with her analysis, but for now, everything known this beast," he frowned, holding up the flash drive, "is in here."
"We will, of course, be looking over that," Keel muttered dismissively. "But what about the creature herself? Have you been able to identify her? And what caused this…infection you speak of?"
Focusing solely on Keel, Gendo took a moment to consider his next words. Making absolutely certain that he said nothing that could be used against him. "At this time, we haven't been able to identify the source of the infection. Dr. Akagi and the entirety of NERV's scientific division is working at full capacity to study the creature and find out everything they can about it. However, it will take time."
"Is that so?" Yellow demanded derisively.
"Yes," Gendo returned nonplused. "Don't forget that there is a great deal that we still don't know or understand about the Angels themselves. And a creature such as this, being a hybrid of two separate species, is even more complex."
"Something you yourself would know very well, wouldn't you, Ikari?" Blue stated.
Ignoring the baited comment, determined not to let himself be rattled by these men, no matter the power they wielded, Gendo continued. "Also, Section 2 is working to discover the identity of the creature, but that will also take time. Although we've managed to lift fingerprints from things this creature has touched, they don't match any currently on file. We've also been on the alert for any missing reports. But so far, none has come in."
"How convenient," Red muttered ominously.
"Perhaps, but far from impossible if this creature came from the old section of Tokyo-3," Gendo countered effortlessly. "That area if rife with vagrants and addicts, any one of which could have been exposed to the Angels or some biological contaminant created by them."
Keel didn't say anything to this, nor did the other members of the Committee. Gendo knew that there was no way they could disprove his story at this point. No matter how many accusations and insults they hurled at him, without tangible evidence to levy at him, there was little they could do without risk of escalating the situation. And that was a risk he knew they would be unwilling to take, not when one of the great keys to Instrumentality lay within the Geofront, under his control. Leaving them with no viable course of action.
For now, Gendo reminded himself a moment later. For in the dangerous game they played, he always had to be wary, lest someone attempt to take from him the winds and dragons he had worked so hard to collect. A game that was always in motion, making it necessary to constantly be prepared for the next move.
"Very well," Keel began, his tone making it clear that the current round of that game was over. "We'll make the data you've collected available to our scientists. Perhaps they will find something that will help Dr. Akagi and her people in their research." Saying that they would also be checking for any holes in Gendo's report without actually saying so, the head of the Committee added, "For now, we are adjourned."
"Very well, Chairman Keel," Gendo responded, satisfied that this round had gone to him. Although there was a risk that they would see through the alterations Ritsuko had made to the information he was now handing to his backers, it was an acceptable gamble, given the potential gains. But for the moment, he had other things to deal with.
The next stage of the game upon him, Gendo stood from the table and left, already prepared to make his next move.
"So, seriously, Misato-sama had to go on some kind of special assignment for you father?" Toji asked querulously. "Just like that?"
"Uh, yeah," Shinji lied lamely, his eyes falling to the ground as he continued forward, feeling strangely out of place for the first time since he had arrived in Tokyo-3.
It was his first day going to school since the Day of Destruction, as several of the newspapers had referred to She-Hulk's mammoth rampage. And even though much of the damage done had been repaired, there were several signs to be seen as Shinji and Asuka walked along Toji and Kensuke. Massive cracks were seen in both the concrete and even some of the buildings, despite the earthquake-resistant construction. But he had seen the city recovering from battle before. That wasn't the reason he felt so disconcerted.
"Man, does that suck! We didn't even get the chance to say goodbye to her or anything!" Kensuke chimed in, reminding them not for the first time of how upset he had been not to get a chance to see Misato that morning. "And you're sure you don't know when she'll be coming back?!"
"Hey! How many times do you have to ask the same question, you creep?!" Asuka demanded, placing her hands to her hips even as Kensuke recoiled to a safe distance. "Honestly! She's not here, we don't know when she's coming back, and that's that!"
"Hmph. For once, I have to agree with ya, Devil," Toji tossed in. While Asuka fixed him with a poisonous blue glare, tufts of her hair sprouting into perfect devil horns, the jock added, "Seriously, Ken! Shin-man's got it tough enough as it is without having to deal with you bugging him." Shinji heaved a thankful sigh at this, though he really didn't want to know what exactly Toji meant by him having a tough time. Hoping like crazy that Asuka didn't inquire about that one, he was then startled when Toji asked, "Still, it does seem kind of sudden. What kind of 'special assignment' would need her to bug out of town without so much as a word?"
"Uh…" Shinji began, only for his mouth to fail utterly. Leaving him with his two best friends waiting expectantly, without a clue as to what to say.
Fortunately, Asuka didn't have the same problem. "How should we know?! You know how much NERV loves all this top secret schisse! They thrive on it!" the redhead declared, her forceful voice tearing their eyes from Shinji and fixing them squarely on herself. "Seriously! The Commander can be such a jerk! First he promotes Misato, then he sends her off to who-knows-where and -!"
"Whoa, whoa! Wait a minute!" Kensuke piped up, his jaw falling in surprise. "Misato-sama got a promotion?! Seriously?!"
"Uh, yeah," Shinji responded, grateful that he didn't have to lie about that. With his limited experience when it came to social niceties, he had never learned to be a convincing liar, and he was not turning out to be a very quick study in the field. "She's a…Major now."
"Oh, wow!" Kensuke exclaimed, his eyes expanding in awe. "Say! As soon as she gets back, we should throw a party for her!"
"Hey, that's a good idea!" Toji grinned, looking very much the hormonal idiot. "Besides, I think her new rank really suits her! After all…she sure is Major!"
"Oh, please!" Asuka grumbled irritably, sticking her nose up in the air.
Thankful to have escaped any more unanswerable questions regarding Misato, Shinji and the others continued to school. Before long, they had stopped at their lockers and were soon on their way to class. "Hey, Asuka! Shinji!" Hikari greeted them warmly as they entered. "How're you doing today?"
"Oh…we're okay, I guess," Shinji answered morosely as Asuka went up to her best friend.
"I was a bit worried when you didn't show up these past few days," Hikari explained as Asuka came to sit right next to her. "Did something happen?"
"Ugh. Nothing much. Just had some stuff to take care of," Asuka responded, sounding every bit as casual as she did before. "Our place got hit pretty badly when that big green freak showed up again!"
"Yeah, I heard," Hikari responded, her voice subdued. "Toji stopped by your place the day after and…he said that the police were there for some reason."
"Yeah, they were there. Apparently, that damned monster came pretty close to where we are, and did a number on the parking lot," Asuka grumbled with a roll of her eyes. "Though why they were wasting time there instead of -!"
"Whoa, wait a sec! You mean…She-Hulk was actually near your apartment?!" Kensuke cried out in geekish delight. "Aw, man! Talk about luck! Did you get to see her?!"
Her expression souring like overripe lemons, Asuka glared at Kensuke and retorted, "No, we didn't! And why in Gott's name do you care, anyway?!"
"Are you kidding?! Have you even looked at the pictures of her?!" Kensuke demanded, his enthusiasm rapidly mounting. "Talk about huge! And I'm not just talking about her muscles, mind you!"
Fighting the urge to blush as Kensuke's words conjured up pictures of She-Hulk's bare body, Shinji clamped his mouth shut even as Asuka flared, "Ugh! Why do I even waste my time talking to these stupid perverted Stooges?!" With a shudder, she grimaced at Hikari. "Honestly! I just hope their idiocy isn't contagious!"
"Hey, you think this is bad? Just think about what I've been putting up with these past few days!" Hikari replied good-naturedly. "She-Hulk this and She-Hulk that! The poor woman was infected by an Angel, and they talk about her like she was a glamor model or movie starlet!"
"Feh! I can just imagine!" Asuka muttered, sending a venomous glance at Shinji's fellow Stooges as they sat down, still talking between themselves.
As the two girls continued chatting, Shinji found himself losing himself in his own thoughts. He didn't want to talk to anyone just then. There was just too much still seething inside his heart, so many emotions jumbled up and pouring into one another. And with so much that he absolutely had to keep secret, as well as the close calls he had already suffered that day, he folded his arms on top of his desk, rested his head on top of them, and lost himself in his own silence.
That didn't mean that the rest of the class was silent, of course. Toji and Kensuke were talking about the various sighting, with the otaku going on about how great it would be to get some pictures of She-Hulk, to which the jock wondered how much such shots would sell for. Asuka and Hikari were discussing some of the events of that day, with the German giving her friend their cover story word for word, including how Misato had been sent on an assignment.
When Hikari asked Asuka if it were true, that NERV really was trying to cure the creature, Shinji found himself wanting nothing more than to put on his SDAT and drown out the rest of the world. For while he could understand them talking about She-Hulk and her destructive ways, that didn't make it any easier to listen to everyone go on and on about it. To listen to them talking about Misato as a creature, a thing to drool over, or worse, an object of fear.
They don't know it's her, Shinji reminded himself, trying very hard not to listen to them. They don't know its Misato…to them, she's just a monster. Like the Angels. Frowning pensively, he told himself that this was for the best. That if they ever found out that Misato was She-Hulk, she would never be able to get her life back, even if she was cured. There would always be those seeking recompense for the actions of her other self, who would look at her with fear for things that were completely out of her control.
A wisp of Toji's and Kensuke's conversation filtered through Shinji's wall of silence, enough to tell him that they were still talking about She-Hulk, as well as costumed females in general. Misato…a costumed hero, he thought idly, quirking a smile as his mind conjured up an image of the muscle-bound jade giantess wearing a costume of her own. It would probably something simple, given the difficulty in finding clothes that would fit such a massive figure, as well as Misato's own teasing nature. Probably a leotard, or even a bikini, something that would show off her fully-formed body for the world to see. If only Misato were like Spirit, and were in control of herself as She-Hulk. Then…
"Shinji?" Spirit spoke up, her voice startling him out of his inner world. "Shinji, are you listening?"
"Huh?!" Shinji started, looking wildly about for the superwoman. Then he realized that Hikari was standing in front of his desk, looking at him in concern. Belatedly, his overwrought mind realized that it had been the Class Representative he had heard and not the winged superwoman.
Oh, what am I thinking? Spirit's probably a hundred miles from here, Shinji thought wearily. Deciding that listening to Toji and Kensuke talking about that sort of thing was affecting his mind, or perhaps that he was more out of it than he had realized, he sighed and answered, "Oh, yeah. Sorry, Horaki-chan."
"You don't have to be sorry, Shinji. But since class is about to start, I think you should probably start looking like you're paying attention," Hikari told him, her voice a mix of tease and reprimand. With that, the pigtailed girl took her place at the head of the class as Mr. Takashima entered. "Stand, bow, sit."
Working on automatic pilot, Shinji went about that routine, and with that, class began. But even as Mr. Takashima prepared for their lessons, which would almost certainly trail off into another dialogue about the pre-Impact days, he glanced back at Hikari as she seated herself. His thoughts drifting back to the Day of Destruction, when a battered and exhausted Spirit had shed her wings and silver hair in a desperate attempt to survive. Becoming an ordinary girl like any other...
No way. That's…that's crazy! he told himself with a frown. He told himself this over and over, that it had to be a coincidence, that the two girls simply sounded alike in his distraction.
And yet, even as he did so, Shinji found himself glancing back at Hikari. Trying to picture a mask over the face of the prim and proper Class Representative, replacing her school uniform with a tight-fitting costume. There's no way, he told himself again. But at the same time, he realized that no one would realize that Misato and She-Hulk were the same person, just by looking at them. And as he did so, he realized that even a superwoman had to go to school. Had to have a normal life. Had another face beneath her mask.
And as he thought these things, Shinji wondered if he had found something that might be able to help him, in case of the worst…
As Misato sat in the cramped room in NERV Medical, her gaze turning from the window that showed the world of the Geofront to the small computer and back again. And although the daylight that filtered into her room was artificial, it was still far better than no sunlight at all. For at least she had the illusion of the outside world…an illusion she wanted to take part in. She wanted to feel the sun beating down on her skin, to feel the wind whipping through her hair. She wanted to go driving through the city, taunting the police with their inability to catch her. She wanted to sit back on the balcony of her apartment and enjoy a few cold ones before going to sleep. She wanted to talk to her friends, to be with people, to be with…
Shinji, Misato thought miserably, recalling how he had come to visit her in the past four days. How are you doing today? Are you doing well at school? Heaving a weary sigh, desperately looking forward to her ward's daily visitation and the relief it gave her from her solitude, and terrified of the risk he took, simply by being near her. And PenPen…and Asuka…are you okay? Do you…?
Unable to complete her thought, Misato clenched herself tightly, the people in her life appearing in her mind. As thoughts of everyone her transformation had separated from filled her mind, tears once began forming in her red-rimmed eyes. She thought of her apartment, her Renault Alpine, of everything that had filled her life, only to be taken away from her. Stolen from her by a mindless monstrosity that was now hiding within her very body. Such thoughts were her companion throughout the day and well into the afternoon until she heard someone at the door.
"Shinji?" Misato murmured, looking at the one way in or out of her tiny world.
"Misato?" a female voice answered instead. "It's me, Ritsuko. I'm coming in."
"Huh?" Misato spoke sluggishly, looking at the door as her best friend entered. "Oh, hi, Rits." Wondering how long it had been since she had last seen the Head Scientist, she looked blankly at her, trying to figure out what exactly to say. "Uh…where've you been? I haven't…seen you lately, and…"
"I know. I'm sorry about that, Misato," Ritsuko smiled in sincere apology. "I meant to stop by yesterday, but things got a little hairy."
"Hairy?" Misato repeated warily. "What, is something wrong, or…?"
"No, no, nothing like that!" Ritsuko quickly assured her. "Just had to put in some double shifts to finish the new research area." Then she gave her a tired smile and added, "And your new quarters, of course."
Misato blinked in surprise at this. "You mean…it's ready? So soon?" the Major spoke wonderingly, recalling the preliminary tour she had been given of the area when work had first begun.
Ritsuko nodded, obviously pleased with herself. "We pushed to get done as fast as we could," the doctor explained, gesturing for the Major to get up. "Come on, let's get going. I've arranged for a clear path to the lab, and besides, I'm sure you'll be a lot more comfortable there than in here."
Feeling an edge of bitterness at this statement, Misato replied, "Alright, just give me a minute here." With that, she stood up and pulled out a set of clothes that Ritsuko had brought for her. Moving as if on automatic pilot, the Major was soon dressed in her typical blouse, skirt, and flight jacket, just as she had been when she had last left the tiny room she had been trapped in by her own internal monster when she had taken the faux tour.
Once dressed, Misato followed Ritsuko out of the room. As soon as she was in the hallway, she discovered several people dressed as NERV technicians flanking the doorway. But she could already tell that, like before, they were Section 2 agents dressed for the role. All of armed with tranquilizer guns, ready to put several darts in her the moment she seemed to be even thinking the color green.
"You ready?" Ritsuko broke in, stirring Misato from yet another reminder of what she had become. A moment passed before she was able to look away from their escort, and when she did, she responded with a simple nod. "Alright. Let's take it easy, okay?" Not needing the reminder, but not possessing the energy to tell Ritsuko what she could do with it, the Major fell in behind her, not even paying attention as her armed escort fell into position alongside her as they started down towards what would be Misato's new home.
The trip was made in silence, a trip Misato spent drilling in every detail of her surroundings that she could into her mind. Painfully aware that she would not be seeing even the hallways of NERV or the cafés or any of these things for a long time. That is if I ever… she found herself thinking, only to quickly squelch that thought. No. Ritsuko will find a way to cure me. She's a goddamn genius, remember?! And besides…!
Despite herself, Misato let her train of thought trail off as she looked at her friend. Suspicions buried but not forgotten buzzing in the back of her mind. Nagging doubts and fears poking at her from all sides.
For the remainder of the trip, Misato was forced to keep these evil things at bay by force of will alone. Making it a relief when they finally reached the portion of the NERV pyramid that had been transformed from a storage facility for Evangelion components to highly functional laboratory complex. Despite her inner fears and niggling doubts, she couldn't help but be awestruck by the transformation. And while no scientist, she knew enough about the tools of their trade to know top-of-the-line equipment when she saw it.
Seeming to sense her thoughts, Ritsuko looked over her shoulder at her friend and asked, "So, Misato, what do you think?"
"Hmm…it's not bad. For a rush job," she replied with as much humor as she could muster. Then Misato looked over towards one corner of the room and suffered a hint of relief. "I see you got rid of that damned cage."
"I thought it would be best if we moved it before bringing you down here," Ritsuko explained sympathetically. "I know you didn't enjoy dealing with the last time."
Again, Misato was tempted to make a snide remark but lacked the energy to even attempt it. Confronting the holographic doppelganger of her monstrous other was quite likely one of the most horrendous experiences of her adult life, for while she had seen the creature in the recordings made by Section 2, seeing the 3-D version had been a far different thing, one made far worse by the illusory IV tubes feeding sedatives into the creature's body. The sallow expression on its face, like it was barely alive.
It had been all-too-easy for Misato to see that as her own future, should there indeed be no cure. Living as nothing but a specimen for study by scientists for the rest of her days. She knew that she would sooner die than live such a nightmare.
"I'm sorry you had to go through that," Ritsuko continued to apologize, again seeming to read Misato's mind. "But…we had to make sure that…"
"I know, I know," Misato responded, waving aside the doctor's words as she examined the various technical displays and workstations before turning towards a heavily fortified structure that stood nearby. "So…is that my new place?"
Ritsuko nodded to this. "We did everything we could, to make sure that you would be…comfortable here, Misato," she explained, to which the purple-haired woman said nothing. "Come on, I'll show you around."
"Alright," Misato responded, and with that, she let Ritsuko lead her into what looked like an ultra-deluxe trailer that had been designed by the people who had created Fort Knox. There were no visible windows, and the walls were made of heavy armor plating, as was the door the doctor was approaching. With practiced ease, she slid her NERV ID through the reader, prompting the thick, heavy door to hiss open a couple centimeters. There was the sound of hydraulics at work, and then with a distinctive groan, the door slowly ground open.
Three feet of armor plating, Misato frowned as the door opened fully. And I bet that it would barely even slow that monster down…
As this dour thought ran its course, the door finally opened enough to let Ritsuko slide on through. Once she was on the other side of the entryway, she turned and smiled in a gentle fashion. "Come on, Misato." Pausing momentarily to take one last look at the world outside of her new prison, Misato sighed heavily and followed her friend inside.
As soon as Misato had entered, Ritsuko pressed a control on the wall. Forcing herself not to watch as the door closed and automatically locked, sealing them both in, the purple-haired woman gaped at her current surroundings. While the exterior of her new lodgings were harsh and forbidding, every aspect of its design dedicated to strength and imperviousness, the interior was that of a large, clean apartment-like structure that she would have killed for. Painted in warm colors similar to her own home, it was filled with every conceivable modern convenience. There was an extensive entertainment system, as well as a sofa, and a kitchen apparent, as well as a multitude of books, video games, and DVDs. What really caught Misato's attention was that the furnishings and the apartment were proportioned so that, while she could fit in everything comfortably as herself, they would also fit the much greater proportions of her other self as well.
"Come on, Misato, I'll show you where everything is," Ritsuko spoke, gesturing for her to follow as she began showing her friend where everything was, including the bed, bath, and other necessities. "Now, I brought a few of your things from home, but I also arranged to have some more…elastic clothes brought here. You know, sweats, jumpsuits, that sort of thing. Anything that can stretch a bit for…her to be able to fit into, and…"
"And will be cheap enough to replace if that thing manages to destroy them," Misato grumbled, seeing the sense in this. As bad as things were, she didn't want to make them worse by totaling her wardrobe of good clothing. "So, what about that door? Where's that go?"
"That? That leads to the actual testing facilities," Ritsuko explained. "When we're ready to go to work, you just go through that door, and you'll find most of the equipment we'll need for conducting your examinations."
"Right," Misato nodded as she glanced over her new home one more time. "So…is there anything else?"
"Well, actually, yes," Ritsuko started, an undercurrent of regret in her words. "You see, Misato…I have good news and bad news."
"Aw, shit! Ritsuko!" Misato immediately growled, giving a shake of her head.
"Wait, I haven't even said anything yet!" Ritsuko protested.
"You don't have to!" Misato growled, crossing her arms as she stared at her friend distrustfully. "The only time somebody says that they have good news and bad news is when the bad news really sucks!" Ritsuko immediately sagged, and with a groan of dismay, the Major knew that she was right on target. "Alright, we might as well get it over with. What's the good news?"
It took several moments for Ritsuko to find her voice, something that made Misato even warier. "Well, the good news is that we've made a lot of progress in examining the blood samples we took from you, and we should make even greater progress once we take biopsies of your various tissues. The MAGI should be able to map out most of the functions of the mutation from those without any difficulties."
"And the bad news…?" Misato prompted, growing impatient with Ritsuko's stalling.
Sighing as she realized that there was no getting out of it, the doctor took the plunge. "In order for us to get a precise understanding of how your transformation works, as well as what's going on in your mutated physiology, we built an evaluation range, which is part of the testing facilities," Ritsuko explained, once again gesturing towards the door. "In there, we'll be able to…artificially induce your She-Hulk state, and study it firsthand."
Several seconds passed before Misato shook her head disbelievingly, letting out a hoarse laugh as she did. "Rits, I must be more out of it than I thought. Because I could have sworn that you just said that you wanted to study that green nightmare!"
Ritsuko didn't laugh. Instead, she looked somberly at her friend and responded, "Yes, Misato. That's exactly what I said."
Her eyes widening in incredulity, Misato stared at the doctor for a time before decreeing, "Then you're crazy! That thing will tear this place apart!"
"No, you won't," Ritsuko countered coolly. "We've taken several precautions to restrain you. Every section of this facility can be flooded with sleeping gas, in case of the worst." The faux-blonde paused to let out a ghostly sigh, and added, "And as for the actual testing…we already have something in place for keeping you under control."
"Like what? An AT-Field?!" Misato snorted, wishing that she could truly give vent to her annoyance. "Have you already forgotten what happened to Spirit?! That thing will tear through an Eva's AT-Field like it was toilet paper, the same way it did with hers!"
"No. Not an AT-Field." Set back by this admission, Misato stared at her friend in confusion as she explained, "We had something else in mind." Before the Major could ask what that was, the heavy entry door creaked open, prompting Ritsuko to turn and smile sadly. "Ah, right on cue."
Unable to speak, Misato watched as the door slowly slid completely open, allowing Shinji to come in. "Hi, Misato!" he piped up as he moved towards her, two bags of groceries in his arms. "Sorry to be late, but I had to stop at the grocery and pick up a few things for you."
A puzzled squeak escaping her lips, Misato watched as Shinji made his way to the kitchen. She turned back toward Ritsuko, only to see Shigeru and Makoto come in, also carrying bags. "Hey, Major!" Makoto greeted her as he and his fellow bridge bunny joined Shinji in bringing out an assortment of groceries, as well as a couple six-packs and kegs of Yebisu, along with other goodies that Misato enjoyed.
Misato studied the boy who was happily stocking the kitchen, the wheels turned in her mind, and she slowly began to shake her head as she returned her gaze to Ritsuko. "No, no, no, no!" she moaned, hoping desperately that she was wrong. "Don't you even think about it!"
Raising her hands, Ritsuko moved closer to her friend. "I'm sorry, Misato, but it's the only way!"
"No! You will not lock Shinji in here with that thing!" Misato cried out in desperation, her anger forgotten in a wave of fear. "She'll tear him apart!"
"Misato, please, calm down!" Ritsuko pleaded, taking a few steps back. "Look! You know full well that you won't attack Shinji! You've already seen that creature protecting him, haven't you?"
Jolted by this reminder, Misato's immediate fear abated a bit but was quickly replaced by a deeper pessimism. "But…what if she does?!" she asked plaintively, picturing her ward standing alone with the unstoppable beast-woman, with nothing to protect him. An image that quickly changed to one of herself waking up to find herself stained with Shinji's blood, the boy's shattered remains lying on the ground before her. "She could rip him to pieces, she could…!"
"No, you won't!" Shinji cried out in protest. The two women turned to face him as he left the small, functional kitchen behind, no fear in his eyes or hesitation in his voice. "Misato, please! I know you would never hurt me!"
"But, Shinji…!" Misato gasped out, kneeling down to look the boy in the eyes, fear, desperation, and adoration appearing in equal amounts. Wishing that she had the words to express the tumultuous feelings churning within her.
As Misato looked at her ward, Ritsuko silently gestured for the lieutenants to leave. Taking a moment to process the unspoken order, Shigeru gave a quick nod and tugged at Makoto's shoulder. "Misato, I'm sorry, but I couldn't think of any other way," Ritsuko told her as NERV's resident guitarist escorted the otaku out. "But She-Hulk clearly responds favorably to Shinji, and from what we've been able to learn, she never attacked anyone without provocation. I can't imagine that she would even think of harming him."
"But…!" Misato croaked out, only to have her voice fail her again.
"Misato, it's going to be okay!" Shinji insisted, moving even closer to her. "I want to help you!" Swallowing loudly, his eyes moistening, he continued, "I…I wasn't able to help you with Jet Alone, so…please…let me do this for you!"
"Shinji…" Misato got out, issuing a muted sob as her eyes began to fill with tears, covering up her mouth as she stared at the brave young man before her.
"That's not all," Ritsuko informed the Major. "Shinji's already volunteered to come by every day, and cook your meals for you, as well as visit and to help with your testing."
Looking up at her friend, Misato could hardly speak. "What?"
"That's right! Here, I'll show you!" Shinji smiled before heading over to the kitchen. Her mind all but blank, Misato followed and watched as the 3rd Child gestured to the various foodstuffs that now decorated the kitchen. "I cooked up some small lunches and dinners, and all you have to do is warm them up in the oven. I put instructions on each of them, and…" Stopping to fetch something out of one of the bags, Shinji turned around…and showed Misato a sumptuous-looking strawberry pie.
As Misato stared at the pie in absolute shock, Shinji smiled shyly. "You never…got to chance to have any of the last one, so I made a fresh one, just for you," he explained, just before he carefully placed the pie in the refrigerator. Just as he closed it and turned to pick up more food and put it away, Misato lost control of herself. Dropping to her knees, she grabbed hold of the boy's shoulders, turned him so that they were looking at each other…and crushed her lips against his, clenching him tightly to herself, as if desperate to keep him close.
"Misato!" Ritsuko cried out in shock as she looked at two of them. "What are you doing?!"
As the Major slowly regained control of herself, she pulled back and found herself staring into Shinji's blue eyes. Eyes that were filled with surprise, bashfulness, and kindness. "What am I doing?" she spoke in a ragged voice, just before she managed a tearful smile. "I'm kissing the kindest, bravest, most wonderful young man I've ever met!" Punctuating this declaration with another determined kiss, she clenched Shinji as closely to herself as she could, the normally meek boy surprised but doing nothing to fight it. And as she continued to lock lips with him, emotions surging from her to him, he soon returned her embrace.
When Misato finally broke away, more out of a need to take another breath than anything else, the two of them just looked at each other, with Shinji staring almost numbly at her. The two of them just kept looking at each other, until Ritsuko cleared her throat. "Shinji…if you're going to be staying for a while, why don't you start dinner for Misato?"
As the two of them looked at each other, only to blush slightly, Misato pulled away. "That sounds like a good idea," the Major admitted as she stood up, turning to look at her best friend. Confused and uncertain by what she was feeling, she shrugged and asked, "So, Rits…care to join us?
"No, I don't think so," Ritsuko answered easily. "I've got a lot of work to do, and besides, you need to get settled in." Shrugging helplessly, she asked, "Maybe some other time?"
Frowning somewhat as her doubts once again gnawed at her, Misato eventually nodded. "Sure, no problem." Then she turned towards Shinji and shot him an impish look. "Well, Shinji…shall we get to work on breaking this place in?"
"Okay," Shinji returned, and without another word, set to work on preparing dinner even as Ritsuko departed.
A short time later, after dinner was done and eaten, the pilot and the Major sat at the table, smiling as they finished off two slices of the strawberry pie. "This was totally worth the wait, Shinji," Misato smiled, shaking her head as she scraped some remaining strawberry off of her plate before forking it into her mouth. "Thank you."
Shinji blinked at this. "For what?"
Sniffing, Misato just looked at the boy that had done so much for her. "For dinner. For dessert. For putting up with me and that…thing." She gave a quick shrug and added, "And, I guess…just for being you."
Taken aback by Misato's words, Shinji blushed before looking away. "Uh, Misato?" he murmured slowly as if he were carefully picking out each word before he spoke. "I was just thinking that…well, if you wanted, I…could stay here with you."
Stunned by both Shinji's offer and the way with which it was spoken, Misato asked, "What? St-stay…?"
"Well…just for tonight, anyway," Shinji amended. "Besides…Asuka is having dinner with Kaji, and…"
Shaking her head, Misato looked at the boy, barely able to hold back the emotion welling up within her. "Shinji, I…I'm grateful, but…you should just go home."
"But…I thought it might help if you didn't spend the night here alone. At least, not on your first night here." Then he shrugged, and with deep emotion, Shinji told her, "Besides…it won't be home…until you're cured."
As Shinji's words filled Misato's mind, it was all she could do not to fall apart, to scoop him up into her arms, to hug him and kiss as long as she was able. As it was, a broad, grateful smile exploded across her face. "Well, in that case…what say we spend tonight checking out that fancy entertainment system Rits put in here?"
Shinji quickly smiled in delight, tears also began welling up in his eyes before he nodded. "Okay," he returned, getting to his feet. "Uh…would you like me to see what movies we have here?"
"Sure," Misato beamed, and with that, Shinji made his way over to the DVD case. Watching him as he perused the various titles available, she frowned as something caught her eye. Something that was watching her.
What the…? she frowned, sitting up to get a better look. And she soon realized that she had seen was just her reflection that had been caught in the cabinet's glass doors.
And at the same time…it was something else entirely.
The image caught in the glass was distorted, twisted. The features of Misato's face were twisted to look larger, more brutish than they actually were. And the color was distorted as well. Leaving her confronted with a face that stared at her from the glass, glaring at her warily a menacing scowl.
It was the face of Misato's inner monster. The creature that had been dubbed She-Hulk. And it was looking at her.
Misato responded by looking and scowling right back at it. If you do anything to hurt Shinji…ever…I don't care what happens to me, she growled inwardly. I will kill you. Even if it means that I die as well.
As Misato looked at her twisted reflection, she could hear something whispering in her mind. Never hurt Shinji, the voice seemed to say. Never.
Author's Notes: Another chapter down. Not a lot happening, but I'm trying to set up for something big in the future. Still, I hope you'll read and review, and check out my other stories as well.
Now, regarding the quick construction of the new facility and the holograms, let's face it. NERV has some pretty impressive technicians and technology. Besides, people who can put together that sniper rifle they used against the 5th Angel can do a lot of things. And trust me, Gendo has plenty of reasons for wanting Misato's secret to remain just that.
Now, for those of you wondering, I have no intentions of giving Shinji superpowers in any of the current stories. "Heroes United" might be another story, and I might do some "What If…?" stories along those lines, but the main reason behind the "Superwomen of Eva" stories is to get away from a superpowered Shinji.
That being said, I wanted to do something to express his growing outrage over what's happening to Misato, and his dream seemed to be an excellent way of doing it. Also, Shinji is a guy with a lot of repressed rage, and on a subconscious level, the idea of being able to let some monster appear and pound the daylights out of whatever is hurting him would probably be very appealing.
Konous the grey, Asuka may have gone to college, but in my mind, she doesn't have the kind of sneaky smarts to make the mental leap you attribute to her. After all, we're talking about the girl who was shocked when told she was told that a pilot responsible for protecting the world wouldn't be allowed to go gallivanting on some class trip that would take her far away from her duties.
Mike313, your comments about the Evas going totally Hulk is well taken. However, don't forget that you gave Rei III in "Spirit" powers similar to those wielded by Hikari, and her powers came from Adam's DNA. Also, there is the possibility of only partially mutating the Evas, ala Doc Samson. He got a power boost, but he didn't turn totally green, and he's nowhere near as strong as the Hulk.
Until next time, Excelsior. But for now, let's have some omakes!
"Ah, Kaji-kun!" Asuka beamed as she sat back in her chair. "This has been the most wonderful night of my life! Thank you so much!"
"Ah, say nothing of it, Asuka-chan," Kaji replied, raising his wine glass up to her. "It's the least I can do to thank you for saving me from a life when that purple-haired nightmare!" Shaking his head wearily, he sighed before asking, "What did I ever see in her, anyway?"
"Oh, don't feel bad about it, Kaji-kun," Asuka cooed as she rose from her seat. "What matters is that we're together now." Rounding the table, she then knelt down to look the freshly shaven man in the eye. "Now, c'mon! Now that dinner's done, let's have some real fun…and make me feel like a woman!"
"My sweet little sex bomb, nothing could make me happier!" Kaji declared as he rose up, the sight of him splendid in his tuxedo inspiring Asuka to hike up her dress and…
"Ehh, no. That doesn't sound right," Asuka muttered as she deleted the last few words, deciding they sounded like something Misato would do. "How about…he rose up and came to her, easing her out of her satin dress, and…"
"What's going on here?!" came a painfully familiar voice, one that froze Asuka and made her clench her teeth before turning to look over her shoulder. Sure enough, Orion was standing behind her, his arms folded across his chest and a supremely annoyed look on his face.
"Ugh…Orion! I thought you were taking the day off!" Asuka screeched as she realized that she had been caught with her hand in the proverbial cookie jar. "What – what are you doing here?!"
"Well, I was taking the day off until the silent alarm I installed in here went off!" Orion growled irritably.
"Silent alarm?! What silent alarm?!" Asuka demanded.
"The silent alarm I installed when I caught Misato in here, making some modifications of her own to the script!" Orion informed her. While Asuka was wincing, thinking evil things about the purple-haired woman, the fanfic writer narrowed his eyes and added, "And it looks like it's a good thing I did, too! The last thing I need is for you to trash the script before it's even done!"
"Trash it?!" Asuka screeched, tufts of her hair curling up to form perfect devil horns. "Hey, don't you go saying that to me! You're the one who's always trashing me, a sweet, innocent -!"
"Sweet?! Innocent?! That's a bad joke if I've ever heard one!" Orion declared, reaching into his pocket. "And if you think I've been trashing you before, just wait until you get a load of my latest invention; the Automatic Bitch Pacifier!"
"Automatic what?!" Asuka shrilled as Orion pulled out a remote control and pressed a large, red button on it. A moment later, a portal appeared above the desk at which she sat, from which a large, gloved hand appeared and grabbed her right out of her seat. "Gott im himmel!"
"There! That'll teach you to stay out of my office!" Orion snarled as another set of gloved hands appeared, holding various implements of torture. "This is my studio, and we're playing by rules here! And if you don't get it now, then trust me, you will be getting it very soon!"
"I can't believe you did this to me!" Spirit gulped as Nozomi led her top the boxing ring. "What were you thinking?!"
"Come on, sister! I know there's no way that big green creep couldn't beat you in a fair fight!" the little girl spoke confidently. "So I thought it was only fair to set up a rematch!"
"Ladies and gentleman, and fight fans of all ages! Welcome to the grudge match of the century!" Kodama announced, dressed up like a referee as she stood in the center of the ring with a microphone in hand. "Just arriving in the red corner, weighing in at just over a hundred pounds, we have that famed destroyer of Angels! That winged wonder known as Spirit!" Then, gesturing towards the opposite corner, she continued. "And in the green corner, weighing in at over seven hundred pounds, we have that famed Amazonian destroyer! The beast of Tokyo-3! She-Hulk!"
"Hey! Didn't anybody tell you that it's not polite to tell somebody a woman's age and weight?" She-Hulk asked even as the audience roared, practically drooling over the fight that was about to take place.
As Spirit was practically shoved into the ring, she watched as Kodama came closer. "Kodama, I don't believe this!"
"Hey, college is expensive, sis!" the eldest Horaki sister explained. "Besides, it serves you right for just taking off in the middle of the night!"
"C'mon! Let's get it on already!" Misato grinned, slowly cracking her knuckles, a sound that greatly resembled machine gun fire.
"Oboy!" Spirit sweat-dropped, wondering if a few prayers might be in order.