|All the Dogs and the Horses That You Have to Outlive|
|Summary: Excellen Browning, under orders from Johnny Domino, checks up on Rei Ayanami. And then kind of maybe breaks her.|
Rei Ayanami's quarters are in an out-of-the-way corner of the Minerva's corridors. She doesn't live near the other members of the Minerva's Lance team -- if the ship can be considered a town, she's somewhere out by the train tracks. This is either a mark of the status afforded her by being under the wing of Paptimus Scirocco -- or a mark of ostracization despite being under the wing of Paptimus Scirocco. In any event, it's thoroughly outside of the main traffic routes of the ship, and sits at the very end of a long corridor, most of the other doors leading to storage closets or jeffries tubes or something.
The nameplate on the intercom just says 'AYANAMI.' No rank, no squad, no other information.
It's quiet in this neck of the woods. There's only the dull hum of the ship maintaining itself -- at once both quiet and inobtrusive, but in the absence of any other sound, it becomes overpowering.
Running idle fingers over bright blonde hair, there's a long sigh from the ATX Team pilot as she disembarks from the elevator, blue eyes drifting up and down the corridor before dropping to the directions Johnny left for her. She may not have Weissritter to pilot at the moment, but she's hardly limited to one machine; the RMS-154 Barzam painted in her colours and marked with her squad's logo currently sits in the Minerva's hanger.
Since she was in the neighbourhood, having escorted supplies being swapped between the Shirogane and the Minerva for reasons she didn't bother paying attention to, and waiting on orders in the hanger is six shades of boring, Excellen Browning went walk-about. She certainly has rank (and enough notoriety) to get by with few questions, and it's never a bad idea to tour one of the ships in your own fleet.
You never quite know when you might get reassigned there, after all.
Nonetheless, she is here, and she did make a promise. Certain parties might not /like/ it, and will not doubt make assumptions, but frankly, when they don't accept your calls regarding mission objectives, they can go aggro Marion Radom for for all SHE cares! ...But since she's here, because /someone/ else cares, no point wasting time. Especially since it takes quite a while to get to her intended destination anyway.
Johnny mentioned the girl kept to herself, but.. "Geeze, it's like a deadzone down here." Lips press for a moment into a thin line, before being replaced by a bright smile, Excellen's hand lifting to rap sharply on the door. "Knock, knock~ Anyone home?"
There's a long moment of silence that suggests that the answer to Excellen's question might be 'no.' Just the lonely hum of the Minerva's belly. Maybe this is how Neo Jonah felt.
But then, the door whisks open, the 'shiiish' noise of the metal panel sliding into the wall enough standing out even more against the brutal buzz of the rest of the corridor. In the doorway stands Rei Ayanami.
The girl is short -- she's five feet, maximum, if that. Her blue hair is shaggy and just a little long; it looks like a pageboy that's been neglected and left to grow of its own accord, mostly because this is exactly the case. She's dressed in most of an A-LAWS uniform -- well, okay, maybe not 'most,' but it's certainly a reduction in any event. It's also extremely familiar, because it happens to be Excellen's design. Rei just isn't wearing the duster. The outfit looks ill-suited to her, mostly because she's tiny, frail, and pale. It's like dressing up a corpse.
Rei's red eyes stare into Excellen's insistently, but her face is this dull, expressionless void of a thing -- though she looks very much human, something seems... /off/ about the way she doesn't so much express neutrality as fail to express anything at all. Maybe these things stand out more to people who spend a lot of time (whether they were aware of it or not) hanging out with robots. Maybe they don't. Who knows.
Rei has a book clutched in one hand, finger stuck into the pages to keep her place. It's printed in Japanese, but the paper cranes on the front are a good clue toward deciphering the title anyway ('ORIGAMI FOR BEGINNERS').
But Rei says nothing.
Excellen is not unaccustomed to being taller than many of her friends. She's pretty close to Latooni, for example, and the School Child isn't exactly a towering giant. Even Arado isn't that tall, though Bullet has finally caught up in terms of height. But the lack of hands do remind her of how young so many of the conscripts in both the EFA and A-LAWS are, and there's a softening of blue eyes as they drop down to meet the silent Rei.
One brow can't help but arch at the uniform, though. Especially since her own particularly curvacious frame happens to be modelling it as intended. On Rei, it really does look like someone attempting dress-up, though the blonde can't quite decide if that's through her own choice (seems unlikely), someone on the ship or in her squad suggested it as a rather poor joke (not something she'd put completely past them, if she takes Johnny's tale at face value) or she's found her own Garnet..
If she's particularly creeped out by Rei's expression (which she is), it doesn't show. "Hi!" is the incredibly bright sound of Excellen's voice echoing into the room and down the corridor. Leaning partially into the room without stepping in side, head cranes left then right; as much to see if there are any minders as it is to see what the room's innards look like. "You're Rei Ayanami, right? Mind if I come in, or are ya busy?"
Rei's quarters look like a particularly unassuming hotel room. There is literally nothing, save for a few books organized neatly on the desk, to mark the place as hers. The clothes are all put away, the bed is made (with no embellishment -- just the standard-issue sheets and pillow), and possessions seem to be at an emphatic minimum. It really is, apparently, just those books. Near them on the desk, a few sheets of paper have been laid out; two or three little origami cranes sit near them.
When Excellen leans forward to get this view, though, Rei recedes. She steps backward, and with the right pressure applied by her heel, the low gravity is enough to send her drifting backward as if she was moonwalking. Rei halts herself with another clap of her foot on the ground, and turns to drift over toward her desk, where she rests her book down atop the squares of colored paper. She doesn't look at Excellen while she does this; for an awkward stretch, it's as if the ATX Teamster momentarily failed to exist.
Then Rei speaks. Her voice is the inverse of Excellen's: flat, monotonous and colorless, it's so soft that it's more like a whisper marginally asserting itself than anything else. "Do as you wish," Rei says.
The girl in the Junior Excellen ensemble turns to face her fashion progenitor. "I'm not busy."
In this room, that statement is almost eerily believable.
'Wow', Excellen thinks. Either the girl has absolutely no spine to call her own or she's the ultimate in passive aggressive.
The room reminds her, unpleasantly, of the clinical cleanliness of Lamia's quarters after the intelligence unit stripped it clean from top to bottom after her 'death'. Or deconstruction, however one might care to term it. "Hey, it's your personal space. If ya want me ta leave, just say so, I won't be offended or nothin'. Much better ta be open and honest about these things." As though running counter to her words, Excellen calmly floats into the room; for someone Earth-born, she's pretty comfortable with the lack of gravity, and the tails of her coat seem to billow out behind her elegantly.
It's not often that Excellen is outright ignored, but this is just plain weird. Ignoring the chilled sensation of hairs standing on end along the back of her neck, the blonde woman continues smiling warmly at Rei. This is probably unusual for the blue haired girl - Excellen neither wants nor needs anything from her. Heck, prior to now, they've barely greeted one another on the radio? Just why is she here?
Why, she'll tell you! "Ya may or may not know, but a buncha folks got assigned to a 'secret mission'," she even does quoty-quoty finger gestures to go along with those two words, "Domino -- Johnny Domino, he's on your squad -- he was one of 'em, and asked me ta check in on ya while he's away for a bit."
It's not like she was told to not mention that part, after all.
Rei stands / floats, her arms hanging at her sides uselessly. Her body language can't even muster the energy to indicate passive-aggressive standoffishness. She just seems like a doll that's been left to sit in its toy box in the absence of any game to be played.
"I am being honest," Rei says. Again, her voice is a shapeless monotone. She doesn't sound offended at the implication. Nor does she sound particularly keen to convince Excellen of her honesty. She doesn't even sound defensive, in defending herself.
Then, Excellen explains why she's here, and in that moment it seems like the blonde has gotten through to the bluenette, because her lips slacken and part slightly, and her eyes widen just a touch -- this is what surprise looks like after the passion's gone.
SOME TIME AGO
Rei Ayanami stands outside of Johnny Domino's door. In her hands is her lunch, contained by a covered space-plate so that she doesn't have to deal with the salad floating everywhere. It looks like a real meal, too. Salad in the one pocket of the ergonomic plastic space-age eating platform, A-LAWS staple of Velveeta-on-rice in the other, and a Top Squadron-approved 'physical enhancement shake' besides. Rei's food has long since gotten cold, because she's been standing there for two hours since ringing the buzzer.
"...secret mission...?" Rei always sounds like she's in shock -- that is, the medical condition, not the emotion -- but now she really does seem, well, shocked. Her gaze averts from Excellen, and she stares down at the floor, roughly in front of Excellen's feet. Her hair hangs limply and obscures her eyes. Her lips curve -- 'curves' in the barest sense, just like the rest of her body -- and she is silent for a long moment. She's gone from the complete absence of emotion to a dull, flickering spark of one: sad.
"Oh." Maybe a little lonely.
Floating until she is dead center of the room, Excellen nods as she makes an assessment. Totally, utterly boring in here. This just won't do for a girl her age. "Some folks got conscripted last minute, and others.. Well, volunteered? Dunno, didn't ask," none of her business, though Excellen is certain that if she played it right, she could get the gossip grapevines singing a tune or three. "I suspect he was one of the form though, cuz he didn't have much time ta chat before he got called away."
Turning to face Rei, the sliver of surprise that melts into a hint of unhappiness earns the short girl a blink. And the widening of Excellen's smile, as she quite deliberately closes the space between them. She's never been any good at not invading personal spaces on a whim, but at least (for once) she refrains from slinging arms around shoulders.
Instead, hands clasp behind her back and she leans forward, so she's at least face a-bit-too-close to face with the EVA pilot. "Yuh huh. I'm guessin' he didn't have time ta warn ya about that, did he? /Boys/." SIGH. She shakes her head. "Don't you worry none, I'd wager they'll be back in a couple o' weeks, and until then, I'd be happy ta hang out with ya when I'm not busy with stuff." Like..working with Leo Stenbuck, who'd probably be the opposite of thrilled by this conversation, assuming he could think through the alcohol poisoning fogging his brain.
"I'm Excellen," she adds, as though an afterthought. "Excellen Browning~! I'm with the ATX Team on the Shirogane! You might have heard of me~" Must have, to be wearing that outfit.
Rei's thoughts are her own -- despite betraying her unhappiness, there's no real window into her world beyond that. Which is probably a good thing. The girl is creepy enough, but to know what she's thinking would probably be -- well, likely not too much for the likes of Excellen, but it'd certainly nonetheless be akin to taking what budding conversation there is and beating it with a wrench until it's mostly pulpy red mush.
Because, well, for one thing, Rei is planning what amounts to one of the grandest suicides in human history, and so she knows all about the impulse to want to make sure her friends -- what few there are -- are 'checked up on.' So it's not a tremendous logical leap for her to assume that Johnny Domino--
Rei suddenly moves to her bed and all but falls backward onto it, her bony butt landing on the un-plush surface with a 'whump' noise whose bounciness is definitely 100% the work of the mattress. She still doesn't look at Excellen. In fact, she pointedly looks away. Maybe she /wasn't/ being honest.
"Oh. Are you why I received a 'Browning Custom' uniform?" Rei's question doesn't have any life to begin with -- ending it with a ? is almost disingenuous -- but what little there is bleeds out of it well before the sentence finishes.
She seems tense, like she doesn't want Excellen to be there -- and the reason why comes soon enough, when, despite her best efforts, Rei has to reach up and wipe at the eyes she is studiously concealing from her present company. Which sort of defeats the point of why she was hiding them.
Excellen doesn't know much about Rei.
Some of this is purely because they don't -- or, rather, didn't -- run in the same circles and certainly had no reason to interact outside of mission assignments. Excellen isn't always as good about doing as she's told -- but she's still a soldier. Ever now, she's not quite sure what Rei (and the other NERV kids) are.
And that's purely in terms of job assignment. It's not like she'd think to get metaphysical or genetic here. It's not like she's even aware of her own....unique DNA properties.
The blonde pilot is used to people not being completely honest - with her, or with themselves. This isn't the question she was expecting however, and she simply shakes her head. "Nuh uh. That was a personal design choice for me, since I like being..." Pause. "Unconventional." She chuckles, before shaking her head. "Wouldn't make anyone wear it who didn't wanna, 'specially since it's designed with me in mind. I'm not sure how you ended up with one." Unless Paptimus approved it for use by anyone, perhaps? Or, and her eyes darken slightly, someone thought it'd be funny to make her wear something like that, knowing she wouldn't argue over it
Was this Stenbuck's doing? ...No. She's pretty sure he wouldn't do that, no matter what the circumstances of their *incredibly* /awkward/ 'breakup'. And surely she's not crying over /Johnny/. Because--oh God, she's not even going to go there.
The shift in eye colour doesn't adjust her smile or tone of voice at all, as an unexpected swell of sympathy forms to see the sudden break in the monotony. Sitting herself down on the bed next to Rei, the pocketless coat would be a disadvantage under any other circumstance -- if you didn't plan for such things accordingly. "Hey, hey, none of that now.. " A white handkerchief is pulled from her left sleeve, ATX bright in red on one corner, and it's offered to the younger girl immediately. "It's okay. He'll be back before ya know it, Domino's a tough kid."
"And you know, it's cute on ya, but we can try and come up with somethin' that suits ya better if ya like?"
Some people wear their hearts on their sleeves. When they cry, they really cry. Their chins scrunch up and their lips flatten into a deep arch and their nostrils flare and leak and their cheeks tighten and-- But that's not really Rei, is it? And true to form, even her tears fail to spark much expression in her face. Her lips are bent into a frown, and there's a profound sadness in her red eyes, but other than that, she doesn't do much facial acting.
Rei accepts the handkerchief and dabs at her eyes gingerly. She doesn't respond to the question until she finishes, and even then there's a pause. There's always a pause with Rei. It's like talking via telegraph.
"I apologize," Rei says, softly. Presumably for crying.
"I was not aware that this uniform was meant to be uniquely yours." Okay, maybe not. "If I had known, I would not have worn it." The question of why she /is/ wearing it is one that may never actually be answered, but still. Rei looks down at her knees. She's starting to get into shape, but only just starting. The effects are only really apparent because she didn't really have much fat to burn through -- it's like layering up a skeleton.
And now Excellen Browning gets the same crash course in Rei Ayanami 101 that everyone else does sooner or later. Topics that she has no real response to get ignored. The offer of designing clothes together might as well just not have happened, because Rei has decided that it's time for the conversation to jump onto a different track entirely: "Why did Johnny send you?" she asks, sadly, softly, still staring down. She said once, but -- Rei, too, is used to people not being completely honest.
"You have nothing to apologise for." Excellen sounds surprisingly serious as she crosses her legs, threading fingers of both hands together so that they can rest over one knee. "I'm not blamin' and you didn't know. No harm's been done, save maybe you bein' made uncomfortable..?" The blonde is fully aware of the kid of stares this outfit gets, and enjoys the attention (to some degree). But she can also handle any hassle it brings with it.
She's not so sure Rei can, though hers is certainly one hell of a poker face to hide discomfort behind. "Custom uniform's are open for others ta wear if they like the look of 'em. I got it signed off, but that doesn't mean I get ta pick and choose who gets ta wear it." But if this has merely /added/ to an excess of distress that no one else has cared to notice..!
For a moment, her nostrils flare in temper. She hates bullying. Absolutely hates it. Excellen might be unaware that she's (mostly) incorrect about her assumptions on the primary causes of Rei's behaviour here, but she's already mentally making a List.
There's a sidelong glance at the girl. "It doesn't quite suit you right now cuz, sorry hun, but you're a bit thin for it.." Though, apparently, Rei's working on that. It doesn't prevent Excellen commenting: "Geeze, what do they even feed ya over here? Gotta remember to eat right, you're a growin' girl."
She doesn't seem that surprised by the topic change; Excellen herself is pretty quick to make things segway off onto weird tangents if the mood strikes. Hands slide back along her leg, before resting lightly on her lap. "He was worried about ya," she replies. Her 'adoptive brother' will probably kick her in the shins for being bluntly honest about it, but it isn't like she's playing matchmaker here. "He doesn't think people treat ya right, and he was worried you'd be lonely. That people would pick on you."
"He asked me ta make sure you were okay while he was away, cuz we're friends, and he trusts me." Blonde ponytail slips over her shoulder as she leans forward, tilting her head a bit to peek at Rei's eyes. "You don't have ta trust me, or even like me. I don't mind. But if ya need someone ta talk to, 'bout anythin', I'd be happy ta listen."
Rei just looks at her knees throughout Excellen's reassurances. Occasionally, a hand comes up to dab at her eyes. It's the damnedest thing, though -- most people scrunch their eyes shut when they're doing that. Rei just keeps them wide open, as if she were cleaning glass.
"I wear it because it was given to me," Rei says, her voice still quiet and distant. What Rei fails to add to that half-baked explanation is that it was because of a misplaced checkmark on an invoice, but why would Rei think that anyone would consciously give her such an outfit? If it /is/ a cruel joke, or something adding to an excess of distress... screw everyone else. Would /Rei/ even notice?
The comment on her body shape isn't enough to get Rei to look up. She does, however, nod -- exactly once, but in her semi-hunched state, it's not extremely obvious. "Coach has put me on a better diet," she says, without explaining /that/, either. It could be that Rei is trying to stonewall Excellen, but if that were the case, would she even have accepted the handkerchief? It could be that Rei somehow believes that Excellen can just magically read her mind and know what the hell Rei's talking about.
Or it could just be that those expository details just don't matter to Rei.
What does matter, though, is Excellen's explanation of Johnny's concern. /That/ gets Rei to look up. Her eyes are half-covered by the unruly, overlong bangs of her electric blue hair, but that they're wide and wet is unmistakable, as is the fact that her irises are nearly the color of blood. She seems to breathe more heavily for a long moment as she stares down Excellen, unblinking. The offer is made to listen, but Rei doesn't speak. Does she ever, unless ordered to?
What Rei does instead is -- after nearly twenty seconds of silence -- suddenly wrap her arms around Excellen in a weak but determined hug, like she were clinging for dear life to a piece of a shattering ship. She doesn't say a thing -- doesn't make a noise -- and doesn't seem to start crying again. Rei's face buries into Excellen's shoulder all the same, and the hug just -- maintains itself until Excellen extricates herself from it.
Actions speak louder than words, but that doesn't make the meaning any clearer.
"You don't have to keep wearing it, just cuz someone gave it to you," the blonde informs the bluenette in the kindest tone she can muster. "If someone toldja to walk off a skiff, wouldja do it?"
Misplaced words aside, Excellen would hope Rei would have better sense than that. She is, of course, entirely unaware of suicidal logic interfering here.
If Excellen was a mindreader, the entire world would be under threat....and she'd still be unable to find out what she -really wants to know- from Kyosuke Nanbu. Rassumfrassum.. "Well, *that* is good news," Excellen smiles approvingly, well aware of who 'Coach' is -- only one man around here gets referred to as such without fail, you'd really have to be paying the absolute minimum attention to figure that out. "He'll have ya back on track and lookin' and *feelin'* healthy in no time." Instead of like a ghostly white skeleton, eesh.
The silence is painful to wait in, though Excellen isn't about to push her. She CAN be patient, when circumstances require it, in spite of her own hasty behaviour on some things and love of speedy mecha. She does not expect Rei's reaction, though -- it's such a sudden, emotional one from such a quiet, withdrawn person!
She does not pull away, though her initial reaction is to stiffen slightly. But only long enough to let Rei settle against her shoulder before, carefully returning the hug. It's a very sisterly thing, one hand settling to rub Rei's back lightly in a soothing gesture. There's no shushing. But Excellen can't help but think the poor girl's probably been needing a hug for a while.
Even if she's not entirely sure what the gesture's supposed to mean for her specifically.
After a minute or two, she does pull back regretfully. "I can't stay super long. I'm expected back at the Shirogane, and they should be done refueling my Barzam soon.."
And Excellen may never be sure, because as this conversation has proven, if nothing else: explanations are not Rei Ayanami's forte.
The small girl pulls back when Excellen does. Despite the suddenness of the physical contact -- and the lack of permission requested -- she seems to know enough not to outstay her welcome. (Which is probably a sign that the variable 'x' in this equation need not necessarily come out as 'Excellen' when solved.) Throughout the hug, Rei didn't move at all -- just gripped her skinny little arms around the older woman, failing to even remotely respond to the rubbing of her back. Rei has this amazing ability to be hugging someone -- actually making real physical contact -- and still seem like she's in a world where no one else exists but her.
Is this what Leo Stenbuck's relationship with her was like? Hugs from an autistic robot?
Still, Rei puts her hands in her lap, sitting up a bit more straight than she was before. Her eyes aren't as wet. She's back to looking neutral, rather than sad. She still hasn't blinked. Staring at Excellen when she moves, the effect is not unlike those oil paintings that 'watch' you no matter where you are in the room. From creepy to pitiable to creepy again: that's how Rei Ayanami rolls.
"Here's your handkerchief," Rei says, offering it to Excellen as if that whole embrace had never even occurred. It's like someone hit a switch somewhere.
Rei looks away after handing it back, turning her head so that it faces directly in front of her, staring at nothing in particular. Then, after a pause, her head suddenly turns again, to face Excellen, frowning in confusion:
Poor Rei. It's okay if you don't know everyone's name's yet. A-LAWS is a big organisation, and it's not like you're a mixer. "Yeah. 'Coach' Ohta, on the Exelion. He's in charge of some of the pilots with the Fraternity squad."
Who else could Rei have possibly have meant, seriously.
"Keep it." In regards to the handkerchief. The lack of blinking /is/ creepy, and that return to neutral is too -- but Excellen recognises a coping mechanism when she sees one. Calmly folding the square of cloth back onto Rei's palm, she closes the younger girl's fingers over it, then rises to her feet.
"I meant it, by the way. If ya need some one ta talk to. Or anythin'. Just let me know, 'kay? I'll try and keep tabs on ya when I can." From her belt, Excellen pulls free a slip of paper she tucked away for safe keeping and places it on the bed next to Rei; it has her radio frequency on it.
"And don' you worry about Johnny. That boy can take care of himself. He'll be back here in no time."
When the handkerchief is folded back into her palm, Rei lets her hands simply droop back into her lap, as if Excellen had shoved them there. It appears she really is that easy to push around, as she doesn't protest, or make any attempt to fight against Excellen telling her to keep it. She accepts it wordlessly (and also thanklessly). Her eyes follow Excellen as the other woman moves, watching her set the slip down but not immediately checking it.
"Oh," Rei says, quietly (a given by now), while Excellen writes. "I meant Coach Takaya."
Then Johnny gets mentioned again, and Rei -- squints, slightly. It's a peculiar reaction to being reassured that her friend will return from the hell of space alive. But then, Rei's a peculiar girl, and who knows what's going on inside her head from moment to moment, if anything. She glances away for just a moment, before returning her red eyes to Excellen, and saying, simply:
Beyond that, Rei offers no thanks, no apologies, no goodwill, no goodbye. She sits there like a toy that's been arranged in a dollhouse -- a particularly sparse dollhouse -- and doesn't move from that position until Excellen leaves, though her eyes do follow the ATXer.
But she doesn't say that (out loud, or in ear shot). Instead, there's merely a sad smile for the simple 'acknowledged', before Excellen shakes her head and offers a small wave for the girl, before heading out the door. Rei's red eyes watching her, unblinking, until the door closes behind her.
It's only when she's in the elevator that she leans back against the wall and lets out a long, slow breath. And raises her eyes ceilingwards. "Jeeze, Johnny, the Hell have you gotten me in to?"