Disclaimer: Neon Genesis Evangelion is owned by Studio Gainax animation, not me. Should they, or anyone affiliated with them, request it, I will remove all traces of this story from the web. Thank you.

What Every Girl Wants

By Random1377

"Hello Shinji," Ritsuko Akagi said calmly, looking back down to her computer terminal as the Third Child, Shinji Ikari, stood in her office doorway, "what can I do for you?"

Shinji cleared his throat nervously, taking a quick look around before speaking.  "I just wanted to ask you a question," he said quietly, "about… ummm, about Christmas."

"I'm not a Christian, Shinji," Ritsuko murmured, "I'm a scientist.  The two don't go that well together."

Shinji decided against arguing this point, choosing instead to clarify what he was looking for.  "Well," he said carefully, "you still celebrate Christmas, right?  I mean, even though you don't believe in what it's all about, you still like to get presents and stuff… right?"

"Everyone likes to get presents," the blonde muttered, still typing on her keyboard, "and I DO plan to come to Misato's little party on Christmas Eve, alright?  Now I have to finish this program, so if you'll excuse me…"

"But," Shinji protested, "I… really need to ask you something…"

"Make it quick."

Drawing his courage for the second time that day, Shinji asked, "If I wanted to get something – something for a girl – what do you think would be good…?"

Ritsuko's hands stopped moving across the keyboard.  "For a girl?" she asked, looking up from her terminal.

"Yeah," Shinji murmured, blushing brightly, "for a girl… for Christmas…"

Ritsuko leaned back in her chair and considered the boy for a minute.  "Is it someone I know?" she asked, a faint smile showing on her full lips.  "Maybe someone you work with?"

The color in the boy's cheeks rose higher.  "I'd… rather not say," he said nervously, "but I'd like to have some ideas."

"Hmm," Ritsuko hummed, folding her hands in front of her face in an odd imitation of Gendou Ikari, NERV's Commander-in-chief.  "For a girl your age," she said thoughtfully, "I'd recommend something small – you don't want to get too big on a Christmas gift.  If you buy something huge, it could put her in an awkward position, and that's not what you want to do… especially if it's a girl you like."  She smiled, "Can I have a hint?"

"A hint?" Shinji asked, averting his eyes, "I don't understand…"

"Yes you do," the blonde laughed, "but I won't make you tell me."  She nodded approvingly, "I think it's nice, though…"

"Thanks," the boy mumbled.

"So," Ritsuko said quietly, "I'd get her something small, like a book or a CD or something.  Maybe a little necklace, you know – something that shows that you like her, but that you don't expect anything from her in return.  These are strange times we live in, Shinji, and girls don't want to be used or forced into relationships… and if you give something extravagant, without making it known that you expect nothing back, she could get scared."

"I understand," Shinji nodded.  "Do you have any other suggestions?"

Ritsuko pursed her lips, looking around at her collection of feline figurines.  I know what I want, she thought, an honest relationship… and maybe a little romance.  Don't think that's so much…

"Doctor Akagi?"

Ritsuko blinked, realizing that she had been silent for over a minute.  "Yeah, right," she said quickly, "you could just get her what every girl wants."

"What's that?" Shinji asked eagerly, leaning closer to the woman's desk.

"Chocolate and flowers," Ritsuko said, as if the answer should be obvious, "every woman likes that – don't you watch TV?"

Shinji chuckled weakly.  "Misato said the same thing," he mused.

"See?"

Shinji sighed, glancing around the office once more.

"You might want to try asking Maya," Ritsuko pointed out, cracking her knuckles and turning back to her keyboard, "she's a bit younger than I am, you know…"

Shinji smiled.  "I was actually just going to talk to her," he admitted.

"Always thinking," Ritsuko murmured, starting to type once more.

"Thanks, Doctor Akagi."

Ritsuko nodded absently, her mind already moving from the conversation to the task at hand.

**

Asuka Langley Soryu had just finished arranging the remaining presents under the small tree when the doorbell rang.  "That should do it," she nodded, brushing her hands briskly together and turning away.

She, Misato, and Shinji had all exchanged small gifts earlier in the evening, with the agreement that they would open the rest Christmas morning.

"Get that, can you?" she called as the doorbell rang, leaning down to pick up a fallen ornament.

"And I'd do that how?" the muffled reply came, "I'm in the shower!"

"Plan ahead!" Asuka shouted, hanging the ornament and shaking her head with disgust.  "You told Doctor Akagi to be here at 7:00 and it's 7:05 – you should have had a shower hours ago!"

"Sue me!" Misato yelled back, "Now get the door!"

Asuka gritted her teeth.  "Must… not… kill…" she growled, heading towards the door.

Still grumbling, the Second Child moved through the apartment, pausing to grab a hastily discarded bra ("Shameless hussy,") and shove it quickly into the hamper in the hallway before hurrying to the front door and pulling it open.

"Good evening."

Asuka hesitated only a moment before replying, "Good evening, Miss Ibuki."  She frowned slightly.  "Can I help you?"

Maya blushed, shifting a bottle of wine from one hand to the other with a nervous air.  "I was invited to the party," she said awkwardly.

"Oh," Asuka shrugged, stepping to the side.

Maya cautiously entered the apartment, surveying the layout as she came.  "I've never been here," she said quietly, following Asuka to the kitchen and setting the wine down.  "It's nice."

"Thanks," Asuka answered, taking the wine and putting it in the fridge, "but you don't have to be polite, Miss Ibuki, I live here – I know it needs some work."

In Asuka's opinion, the apartment needed a lot of work.  The erstwhile major's taste in decorating left quite a bit to be desired – a poster of a sports car on one wall, for crying out loud – and her housekeeping skills were definitely lacking.  Asuka could only imagine the state the apartment would be in if Shinji had not lived there.

Imagine and shudder.

"Well," Maya said uncertainly, "I think it's nice.  I mean… it looks comfortable, and," she paused, struggling for the right word, before concluding, "warm."

Asuka was on the verge of retorting that the technician should be around sometime when Misato was feeling chilly – then she could see how 'warm' the little place could get – but before she could speak, the doorbell rang again.

"Excuse me," she said formally.

"Sure."

I don't know how to talk to that woman, Asuka thought as she headed back to the door, I barely even know her.  Why would Misato invite her anyway? Opening the door, she found Maya's superior waiting outside with a look of infinite patience in her brilliant green eyes.

"Asuka," Ritsuko said politely, "nice to see you."

"Doctor," Asuka returned coolly.

The two women assessed one another.  Like Maya, Asuka was not what she would call close to the doctor.  She would use the term 'acquainted' to describe their relationship, or perhaps something a touch less polite, if she was among close friends.  It wasn't that she particularly disliked the woman, it was more that her experience was limited to a superior/subordinate type dynamic, with Ritsuko administering batteries of tests or telling the redhead that her sync ratio was down a point.

In short – she didn't HATE Ritsuko, but she didn't exactly love her.

"Where's the tree?" Ritsuko asked after a moment, "Need to put presents under it and all that."

"In the living room," Asuka answered, moving out of the doctor's way and gesturing her in.  "Try not to step on anything… Misato kinda just threw her stuff under there."

"I understand," Ritsuko nodded.

As for herself, Ritsuko could sum her opinion of Asuka up in three words: brilliant, spoiled child.  She could not deny that the redhead was intelligent – you don't graduate from Neo-Berlin University because of who you know or who you are – but she knew that the girl had a stubborn streak in her a mile long.  The Second Child was prone to sullen muttering and petulant complaining if synchronization tests stretched too long or she was required to stay late for updated training on NERV procedures.

It annoyed the doctor quite a bit, especially when Shinji and Rei simply nodded and did as they were told.

"Hello, Doctor Akagi,"

Ritsuko was a bit surprised to find Maya standing in the kitchen, but she quickly regained her composure and returned the younger woman's bow.  "You can call me Ritsuko," she pointed out, "we're off-duty, Maya."

"Yes ma'am."

Ignoring the other woman's stiff posture, the blonde tilted her head slightly.  "Still in the shower, is she?" she chuckled softly. 

"I don't know," Maya replied, "I just got here."

"You know she is," Asuka grumbled, reentering the room and opening one of the cupboards.  "Always leaving everything to the last minute."

The two older women watched in silence as the redhead pulled four glasses out and set them on the table, then opened the fridge and extracted a large pitcher.

"Eggnog?"

"That sounds really good," Ritsuko said honestly, "thank you."

Asuka filled three of the glasses carefully, setting the pitcher down and meeting Ritsuko's gaze levelly as she reached for one of them.  "Misato made it."

Ritsuko froze.

"I think she bought the eggnog and added the alcohol to it later," Asuka observed, picking one of the glasses up and glancing into it.  "So it SHOULD be safe."

"Did you SEE her do this?" Ritsuko asked, one of her eyebrows quirking up.  "Or are you hoping?"

Maya looked uneasy as the redhead grinned.

"Guess we'll see."

"You go first," Ritsuko said dryly.  "That way, if you pass out, I can get you help."  She turned to Maya, "I've eaten at Misato's before… I have an excellent gastrointestinal doctor on speed dial."

Maya turned slightly green, her hand wavering several inches away from the third glass.

"Drink it, damnit!"

Misato entered the room, dressed (festively) in a yellow robe and drying her hair with a large, fluorescent purple towel.

"I paid good money for that crap!" she exclaimed darkly, "Bottoms up!"

Without waiting for a reply, she left the towel draped over her head and grabbed the pitcher, pouring herself a full glass and holding it up.

"Cheers!"

"Sounds like a challenge," Ritsuko pointed out, raising her glass to her lips and smiling widely, "Cheers."

Maya watched with trepidation as Asuka brought the glass up and sipped it carefully, keeping her eyes on Misato as the purple-haired woman drained her glass in one long pull.

"Hot DAMN!" the Operations Director exclaimed, slamming the glass on the table.  "That's good stuff!!"

"You know," Ritsuko said thoughtfully, running her tongue over her lips and considering her glass, "it is.  A fine job, Major."

"Thanks!" Misato said happily, pouring herself another glass and topping Ritsuko's off.  "You guys head to the living room, I'm gonna throw some clothes on."

Asuka led the other women into the living room, choosing a spot on the couch and setting her drink on the small coffee table. 

"Is… Shinji here?" Maya asked after a moment, glancing cautiously around the apartment.

"He said he had some stuff to take care of," Asuka yawned, "probably be back later."

"Oh."

"Did he come and talk to you yesterday?" Ritsuko asked her understudy suddenly.  "He said he was going to ask you about presents."

"Yes," Maya said uneasily, "he asked what he thought a girl would like for Christmas."

"Me too," Ritsuko said thoughtfully.

"He never asked me," Asuka muttered.  "Who was he getting something for?"

"Don't know," Ritsuko replied with a shrug.  "Just asked what a girl would like to get."

When Asuka's eyes turned to her, Maya said, "Same here.  He said he was looking for a good present to get a girl, but he wouldn't say who it was."  She averted her eyes.  "Maybe it was Rei?"

"Unlikely," Ritsuko said immediately.  When the others looked to her for an explanation, the blonde elaborated, "When I asked if it was someone he worked with, he told me he'd rather not say – but his tone suggested that it was someone closer than that, like a friend," she grinned, "or someone he lives with."  She leaned back in her chair.  "Of course," she clarified, "I'm not a psychologist.  But my instincts tell me he was fishing for ideas for a gift for Misato – which would explain why he didn't ask you, Asuka.  He asked Maya and myself because we're closer to Misato's age."  She took a sip of her drink, looking pleased with herself.  "Simple logic."

"Simple," Misato said as she came into the living room, "but flawed."

"Why is that?" Ritsuko asked, taking another drink.

"Because he asked me too," Misato grinned.

Ritsuko frowned.  "That's right…" she mumbled, "I had forgotten that."

"Logic," Misato said lightly, dropping her friend a wink.

"Oh shut up."

**

Two hours passed in conversation as the four women grew more comfortable, the alcohol they had ingested loosening their tongues and relaxing their bodies until they were all casually arranged around Misato's living room in various states of repose.  Asuka and Maya had both stopped after one glass of eggnog, neither quite sure enough of herself to let go entirely.

The topics moved from work to school to childhood, inevitably coming around to men.

"First kiss?" Ritsuko was saying, her voice ever so slightly slurred.  "Yeah, I remember it.  I was seventeen, and Akira Masaki laid one on me at graduation – right in front of the entire class."  She swirled the contents of her glass thoughtfully.  "Of course," she murmured, "it being so close after Second Impact, there wasn't much of a graduating cla-"

"No downers!" Misato cut in quickly.  "You'll ruin my buzz."

Ritsuko chuckled.  "Sorry about that."  She cleared her throat, looking at Misato.  "So what's Kaji getting you?" she asked.

"Blah," Misato said sourly, "if I'm lucky, he'll get lost."

Ritsuko grinned.  "Still playing hard to get?"

"Oh shut up!"

Asuka's expression darkened as the blonde laughed.  She didn't look like she was playing too hard to get a week ago, she thought sullenly, coming home all drunk – what kind of message does that send?  She shook her head, trying not to get angry.

Since she had met Ryouji Kaji, she had found herself drawn to him – and had even tried to give herself to him on the trip from Germany to Japan, telling him that she would always be ready for him.

She blushed, glancing at the tree as she recalled his quiet, firm refusal.

"Shinji's pretty cute though."

Asuka blinked, realizing that she had missed the beginning of the conversation.  She refocused her attention, looking back to Misato with a curious expression.

"Well," Ritsuko coughed, "he's not too bad.  Maybe he'll grow into those eyes a bit more – then he'll be dangerous…"

"Dangerous?" Maya asked curiously.

Ritsuko smiled softly.  "Have you ever looked into his eyes?" she inquired.  "Try it some time, if you're sober.  That kid's got the deepest damn eyes I've ever seen.  Girl could get lost there if she wasn't careful."

"Oh please," Asuka grumbled.  "Like anyone could stare into his eyes for more than a few seconds without him apologizing and looking away."

"Talking from experience?" Misato needled.

Asuka resisted the temptation to stick out her tongue, instead choosing to reply, "YOU probably couldn't get him to look away from your boobs – you put them on display for him… and everyone else."

"My, my," Ritsuko mused, "guess we know what Asuka thinks of your fashion sense."

Misato waved a hand, taking a sip of her drink.  "She hasn't even been kissed," she pointed out dryly, "Why would I-"

"You're so sure?" Asuka grumbled.

Misato's eyes twinkled.  "Why don't you tell us about it?"

Asuka blushed, recalling her one, abortive kiss with Shinji, shared when Misato was out getting drunk with Kaji.  "I'm not like you," she sniffed, folding her arms over her stomach, "I don't air my private life like a cheap romance novel."

Misato nodded sagely.  "Of course."

"So," Maya said suddenly, "is Shinji coming back soon?"

"You're awfully interested in the Third Child's whereabouts," Ritsuko pointed out shrewdly, "Something you want to talk to him about, Maya?"

Maya lowered her eyes.  "I just wanted to say thank you," she said quietly.

Before Ritsuko could ask for clarification, Misato piped up.  "He left something for you."

"Pardon?"

The purple-haired woman got up and knelt by the tree, retrieving a trio of similarly wrapped packages, handing one to Ritsuko and one to Maya, keeping the third for herself.  "He said we should open these at the party."

"Didn't get me one of course," Asuka snorted, "figures."

"Actually," Misato corrected, "he did.  He said it was important, so I hid it."

"Where?"

"Don't remember!" the purple-haired woman said cheerfully.  "Might try the laundry room, though," she said thoughtfully, pretending not to see the redhead grinding her teeth in frustration, "I hid Shinji's present there until it was time to wrap it."

"Probably means he knows what it is," Asuka grumbled, "Lord knows YOU never do the laundry – I'm surprised you actually knew where the laundry room WAS."

"Yeah, yeah," Misato muttered, examining the small present in her hands carefully, "see if it's there."

"You're unbelievable!" Asuka exclaimed, throwing her hands up in defeat.

"I know." Misato grinned.

With a deep sigh, Asuka set her drink on the coffee table and hefted herself out of her seat.  Mumbling about guardians who could not even guard their own underclothes, she made her way to the laundry room.  "Where is it?" she whispered, cautiously lifting a pile of tee shirts and peering underneath.  "Good thing it's not something important, like her car keys.  I can just see it now," she lowered her voice, pausing in her search to fold her hands in front of her face.  "'Tell me again why you allowed the angel to storm headquarters?'" she asked seriously.  She raised her voice an octave and twirled a strand of hair between two of her fingers, "'Well, sir,'" she giggled, "'you see…'"

She pushed the detergent to the side, frowning as she found nothing but a bit of dust. 

"Feh."

After five minutes of futile searching, she made her way back into the living room.

"Yeah," she sighed, throwing herself back onto the couch, "it's not there."  She looked around, noting that the other three women were sitting quietly, each sipping her drink with an eerily similar look of thoughtfulness.  "What's up?" she asked curiously.

"Nothing," Misato replied, a forced smile appearing on her lips.  "We were just, ummm…"

Asuka frowned as the woman trailed off, but Ritsuko jumped into the breach.  "Thinking about Shinji's presents," she said smoothly.

"Exactly," Maya agreed quickly.

Asuka was not convinced, but the trio was obviously not going to tell her what they had been talking about when she was out of the room, so she decided to just let it go for now.

She could always wait until Misato was a little more inebriated and ask her then, anyway.

"So what did you buy him?" the redhead asked after the others lapsed into silence.

"I got him a manga," Ritsuko yawned, "all boys like that stuff."

Asuka rolled her eyes.  Yeah, she thought, all boys but Shinji.  She stifled a giggle as she imagined him opening it.  Bet he'll say thank you, though, she thought with some amusement, oh yes!  Proper little Shinji would NEVER be rude and tell someone the truth, like, 'I don't really like that kind of stuff.'

"What about you?" Misato asked Maya.

The technician looked embarrassed.  "I ummm… well, I wasn't really too sure what he liked," she admitted, "but I got him an action movie… he'll like that, right?"

Again, Asuka rolled her eyes.  No, she thought immediately, forcing herself not to argue when Misato assured Maya that he would, he likes dramas and comedies.  He's not much of an action watcher.

"Your turn," Ritsuko prompted, nodding to Misato as she took another sip of eggnog, "What did you get him?"

Misato looked proud.

"I got him new earphones," she said with a grin, "and told him I'd do all the chores for a week!"

He won't wear them, Asuka thought, shaking her head, he likes the little earbud things because he hates having his ears covered… and he LIKES doing the chores.  He'll just wait until you're done, then redo them the way he thinks they should be done, you know.

"What about you?"

Asuka blinked, looking around the table.  "Huh?"

"What did you buy him?" Misato asked curiously.  "He looked pretty happy when he left."

Asuka snorted.  "He's easy to please, I guess," she muttered, "and hard to buy for!  I looked around for a while, 'cause I don't like giving lame stuff… but I finally just got him some new strings for his cello and a Beethoven tape for his SDAT.  And the big present is a little boxed set of a book series he keeps saying he likes, but never buys."

She shrugged.

The other three women looked thoughtful.  "How is he?" Maya asked suddenly, "I've never heard him play… is he good?"

"He's ok, I guess," Asuka sighed, "but his strings are kinda old… I can hear it when he plays, because I play the violin.  They're starting to wear out, so I figured… what?"

Misato was shaking with repressed laughter.

"WHAT?!" Asuka demanded.

"N-nothing," Misato giggled, "it's just… that's so CUTE!"

Maya blushed and Ritsuko took a discrete sip of her drink, hiding her smile as Asuka's eyes narrowed.

"I'm sorry," Misato grinned, calming slightly, "But that's – oh yeah!"

The others blinked as the purple-haired woman jumped out of her chair and quickly left the room.

"What's that all about?" Ritsuko inquired.

"Got me," Asuka grumbled, "probably remembered a can of beer she'd missed or something…"

Misato returned a moment later, holding a small box.  "Remembered where it was!  I wanted to keep it somewhere I'd never forget it, so I put it in PenPen's room."

Asuka took the gift skeptically.  "It's cold," she pointed out, holding the package gingerly in case it held something volatile.

"Yeah," Misato conceded, "but you didn't find it!"

"Considering where it's been, maybe I didn't want too," Asuka muttered, setting the item on the coffee table.

Misato shrugged, reclaiming her seat.  "He said you were supposed to have it," she said easily, "but he didn't have time to give it to you before he left, and he wanted to make sure that you got it tonight."

Oddly, Maya and Ritsuko were staring at the box, identical, thoughtful looks on their faces.  "Are you going to open it?" Maya asked softly.

"Yeah sure," Asuka sighed, picking it up.  They look damn intense, she thought suspiciously as she pulled off the simple, red bow.  "Great," she muttered, tossing the small jewelry box to the side after giving its contents a cursory glance, "fake diamond earrings…"

"Asuka…"

"Really!" the redhead went on, rising from her seat and starting towards her room, "I need more show jewelry like I need a hole in the head!"

"Asuka."

"And besides!" Asuka continued, ignoring Misato entirely, "My ears aren't even pierced!  What am I supposed to do with-"

"Asuka!"

"What?!"

Misato gingerly lifted the box and offered it out to the girl, her expression unreadable.  "They aren't fake…"

Ritsuko was nodding, her eyes narrowed as she scrutinized the earrings.  "No," she concurred, "they aren't.  I have a pair at home… they look just like that."  She averted her eyes and sighed, "Nothing sparkles like a real one…"

"B-but," Asuka protested, "How could he affor-"

"You know," Maya interjected thoughtfully, reaching out to tilt one of the earrings in its velvet bed, "I don't have pierced ears either… and unless I'm wrong…" she grinned, pulling her hand back, "Yup – clip-ons."

Asuka slowly reached out, taking the box with great care.  "They are…?" she whispered, lifting one of them up.

"There's a note!" Misato cried gleefully, noting a small piece of paper tucked neatly into the side of the box.  Quick as a flash, her hand shot out, snatching the note before the other women could so much as blink.

"Hey!" Asuka cried, trying in vain to reclaim the piece of paper.  "Give me that!"

"Nope!"

Ritsuko frowned slightly as Misato pulled the note open, holding it high over Asuka's head.  It seemed to her that Misato wasn't truly in a playful mood – not truly.  She seemed honestly curious, and her eyes held no humor as they quickly scanned the text.

"Misato!" Asuka cried angrily, "I want to see-"

"Here," Misato said abruptly, thrusting the paper into Asuka's hands.

"Are you blushing?" Ritsuko asked sharply, "What kind of note WAS tha-"

"Come on," Misato said suddenly, "let's get some more eggnog, you two."

Before Maya and Ritsuko could do more than squeak in surprise, Misato had grasped them both by the upper arm and dragged them into the kitchen, leaving Asuka with the note.

"What is wrong with everyone?" Asuka whispered, "Misato's acting like she just read a suicide note, and Shinji's dropping hundreds of dollars in jewelry stores??  What the hell??"

Slowing sitting on the couch, she held the letter up to the light.

When Ritsuko, Maya, and Misato came back in five minutes later, the note had been refolded and placed back in the box, and Asuka was sitting perfectly still, staring in silence at the Christmas tree.

"So?" Misato asked quietly.

Asuka raised her head.  "So?" she repeated.

Misato frowned.  The redhead's voice was quiet and thoughtful, but seemed noncommittal.  "So what are you going to say to him?" she pressed.

Asuka shrugged.  "Dunno," she said quietly, turning back to regard the tree.

"Asuka," Ritsuko said levelly, "a gift like that… you have to say SOMETHING!"

"I didn't make him buy them," Asuka pointed out, "and his note said, 'I don't expect anything to chan-'"

"You're unbelievable!" Ritsuko cut in angrily, surprised to find her body shaking with rage.  "A boy that age doesn't buy something like that for a girl and-"

"Ritsuko," Misato murmured.

"WHAT?"

"That's enough…"

The blonde turned to her friend, meaning to give her a piece of her mind… but stopped as she met the other woman's eyes.  "Goodnight," she mumbled abruptly, "I think I've had too much to drink… I'm going to catch a cab home."

Misato nodded, leading her friend to the door.

"Well?" Asuka snapped when Maya stayed in the room.

"They… look nice on you, Asuka…" the technician said awkwardly.

The redhead lowered her eyes.

"Thanks."

Maya nodded and turned away, starting for the door.

"Miss Ibuki?" Asuka whispered.

"Yeah?" the tech replied, looking over her shoulder.

"What was your present?  I didn't see you open it."

Maya turned away, slipping her hand into her jeans pocket and carefully grasping the small item within.  "He gave me something… very personal," she murmured, blushing faintly.

"What was it?" Asuka pressed, "Come on – you saw what he gave me, Miss Ibuki… yours can't be better than that."

The technician turned around to face the girl, sliding her other hand into her free pocket and shrugging slightly.  "It was what I wanted," she said levelly, meeting Asuka's inquisitive blue eyes, "but I never told him."

"Huh?"

Maya lowered her voice.  "I told him what all girls want to get," she clarified, "but I was just being nice.  I told him all girls like to get chocolate and flowers – no matter the occasion – and that I wasn't any different."

"Ok," Asuka murmured, confused, "Then what-"

"I got those, too," Maya cut in quietly, "when I got in to work, there was a little box of chocolate, a flower, and an invitation to come to the party."

"That's… indecent!" Asuka protested, "You're almost twice his age!"

Maya averted her eyes.  "I'm 10 years older," she said softly, "but that's not how he meant it."

"What do you mean?"

Maya smiled softly, recalling what Shinji had asked her.  "He left a note with the box," she whispered, raising her eyes once more, "and one of the things it said was, 'Though I don't know you that well, I still consider you a friend.  And friends should get gifts that they want, need, and like.'"

"ONE of the things he said?" Asuka asked, pursing her lips.  "What else did his little note say?"

"It's personal," Maya answered levelly, "but I promise you that nowhere in that note was there any hint of romance."

"Like I'd care," Asuka grumbled, folding her arms, "not like he means anything to me…"

Maya sighed, caressing the small item in her pocket… the one she had been hard pressed not to cry over.  "He gave Misato and Doctor Akagi gifts too," she said softly.  "I don't know if what they got means as much to them as what I got means to me, but I know that none of us got anything near as special as what he's offering you."

"Offering?" Asuka echoed, studying the woman's face, "He gave me the earrings already."

Maya shook her head and chuckled.  "I'm gonna get going," she said, amusement clearly evident in her tone, "Misato and Doctor Akagi have been gone a while… I should make sure they're not drinking more in the hallway or something."

"What's so damn funny?" Asuka asked archly.

Maya's smile slowly melted away.  "I don't know you very well," she pointed out quietly, "and you don't know me, either… not really.  But I don't think you're stupid, and I hope you don't think I'M stupid, so I'm going to pretend that you know what he gave you when he wrote that note and wrapped that package."

"What if I don't want it?" Asuka murmured.

"Then don't take it," Maya answered simply, offering a slight shrug, "I don't think it'll kill him, Asuka… but don't sit there and pretend you don't know – because that would be wrong."

"Whatever…"

Maya started for the door, pausing in the hallway to whisper, "Merry Christmas," before going to find her superiors.

Asuka sat back on the couch and glanced over at the small Christmas tree, biting her bottom lip pensively.  Idly, she reached up and ran the tip of her right forefinger over one of the earrings, wondering where Shinji had gotten the money for them.  Must have borrowed it, she reasoned, maybe from Misato – but she didn't know what was in the box, so if it was her, he didn't tell her what it was for…

When Misato still had not returned after a few more minutes, Asuka went to find her.  Approaching the front door, she frowned.

"…don't deserve it!" Ritsuko's (slightly drunken) voice suddenly spiked.

Never one to lurk in the shadows, Asuka walked straight towards the door, a deep scowl on her features.  I hate people talking about me behind my back, she thought angrily, if people want to say something to me, they should just…

Her thought was wiped out entirely as she opened the door, finding Ritsuko, Misato, and Maya, standing in a rough semicircle around,

"Shinji?"

Shinji did not look up as Asuka called him.  "I… just thought…" he was stammering, his hands clutching a small item she could not see as he shifted uncomfortably.

"Doctor," Maya murmured, "we should g-"

"Don't touch me," Ritsuko snapped, shrugging her understudy's hand off her shoulder, "I'm not done talking to him!"

The whole scene was just… strange, to Asuka.  The way Shinji was standing, and blushing, he was either embarrassed or scared, and while Ritsuko looked upset, Asuka could not quite tell if she was mad or frustrated – and the blonde definitely looked confused.

"Ritsu," Misato hissed, "Not. Now."

"Tell me," Ritsuko demanded desperately, ignoring her friend.  "Tell me, Shinji, how am I supposed to-"

"D-doctor Akagi," Shinji whispered, silencing the woman.  "Didn't you read the note?"

Ritsuko blushed, looking around at the other two women.  "Yes," she admitted, "but… but that-"

"I didn't mean more than that," Shinji said awkwardly, "please understand…"

Asuka frowned as Shinji reached out, taking Ritsuko's hand and pressing the object he was holding into it.

Ritsuko looked pained.  "I don't deser-"

"I think you do," Shinji cut in gently.  "It's ok…"

Whatever it was, Asuka decided, it must be terribly important… because Ritsuko was trembling.

"How…" the blonde whispered unevenly, "how?"

Shinji wet his lips… but did not reply.

"Come on," Maya said gently, putting a hand on Ritsuko's shoulder, "let's go back inside and I'll call a cab, ok?"

Ritsuko put one hand to her head, lowering her eyes as she realized just how she sounded.  "Alright," she murmured, taking an uneven step towards the door, then stopping and turning to Shinji.

"Come on," Maya urged, trying to pull her superior away.

"Thank you, Shinji," Ritsuko said bluntly, reaching out and patting the boy's shoulder clumsily.

Shinji nodded, a weak smile appearing on his face as he replied, "I'm glad you liked it."

The expression on Ritsuko's face seemed to hint that 'like' was too weak a word, but after a moment spent considering the boy she turned away and stepped back into the apartment.

"How much did she have?" Asuka asked as soon as the woman was out of earshot.

"A lot," Misato replied absently, shivering slightly and rubbed her upper arms.  "It's cold out here."

Asuka gaped as her guardian turned and abruptly went back into the apartment, leaving her in the hallway with Shinji.  "It's gotta be ninety in here…" she muttered, "that woman's a psycho."

When no reply was forthcoming, she risked a glance at Shinji.

The Third Child was still staring at the floor, a blank expression on his usually expressive face.  He was still dressed in his normal school attire, and his hands hung loosely at his sides, for once not occupied with the task of balling into fists and relaxing over and over.  If Asuka didn't know better, she thought, she might mistake the boy for a statue.

"Snap out of it!" she ordered suddenly, feeling great satisfaction as the boy jumped.  "That's better," she said when he looked up to her face, uncertainty all over his expression, "now explain yourself."

"Umm, explain myself?" Shinji asked cautiously.

"Yes," Asuka said flatly, folding her arms over her chest, "and try to do it without apologizing, stammering, or insulting my intelligence by saying you don't know what I'm talking about."

Shinji looked around for some escape as three of his defense tactics were stripped from him.  A light sweat popped out on his brow as the redhead began tapping her foot.  "The note?" he said helplessly.

"It was beautifully written," Asuka said coolly, pausing for effect, "but I couldn't read it."

"Couldn't… read it…?" Shinji said faintly.

"Nope," Asuka confirmed, adding, "I saw my name, and yours – and I THINK cabbage… but that's it."

"Cabbage," Shinji whispered.

"Yeah, parrot-boy!" Asuka shot back, "That's what it looked like – so tell me what it said."

"It… said that I didn't want anything for the earrings," Shinji said slowly, trying not to curl into a ball and weep.  "And that you were important to me."

"That's all?" Asuka pressed.

Shinji nodded.

"What about the part where you said you hoped I would still talk to you after seeing them?" Asuka inquired, "And the bit where you said you wanted to spend more time with me?"

"Y-you… could read it?" Shinji gasped.

"Of course I could read it!" the redhead snapped, "I'm not stupid!  Geez!  I've been here for months, Shinji – how long do you think it takes me to pick things up??"

"Then why-"

"I wanted to see if you would say the same thing when I asked you about it."

"Oh."

Silence fell between the two Children.  The Third studied the floor at his feet, blushing brightly as the Second's eyes studied him.  He wanted to say more – all that was in the note he had given with the earrings, and maybe a few other things as well – but the girl's silent, slightly cold assessing of him kept his lips sealed.  Finally, it was more than he could bear.

With a quiet sigh, Shinji headed towards the apartment door, his head cast down and his shoulders slumping slightly forward.   Before he could open it, however, Asuka caught his arm.

"Just a minute."

Shinji glanced at her hesitantly, but she was looking away from him with a thoughtful expression on her lovely face.

"Shinji," she said quietly, "it's still pretty early…"

"Yeah," Shinji agreed hesitantly, "it's not even ten, and school's closed tomorrow."

Asuka turned to face him.  "I can't take these," she said flatly, reaching up and slowly pulling the earrings from her lobes.

Shinji was crestfallen as she took his hand and pressed the diamonds into it.  "I… thought you would like them," he said sadly.  "I and really meant it when I said I didn't expec-"

"I can't take them," Asuka cut in, "unless you tell me, to my face – not in a note – what they mean."

Shinji flinched.

"That's right," the redhead confirmed, meeting his pleading eyes straight on, "I want to hear you tell me what it means when you give me something that valuable."

Shinji took a deep breath, speaking quickly before his cowardice could assert itself.  "It means that I care for you," he blurted, "it means… that I want to see you happy, and that I want to MAKE you happy.  It means that I don't know how to talk to you – how to tell you what I feel – and the only way I can show you is-"

"That's enough."

Shinji closed his eyes as Asuka quickly raised her hand, cutting him off.

"Now," Asuka said calmly, "let me tell YOU something, Shinji."

Shinji opened his eyes, nodding reluctantly.

"If you ever repeat any of this – even to Misato's stupid BIRD – I won't ever forgive you, do you understand?"  When Shinji assured her that her secret was safe from PenPen, she continued.  "I'm not really good with stuff like this, Shinji.  I'm not used to people telling me they care – and meaning it.  I get letters from boys stuffed into my shoebox at school, raving about how much they love me, and do you know what I do with them?  I just throw them away.  No one knows me well enough to love me, and if you had said that you did, I would have told you where to shove those earrings… do you understand?"

Shinji nodded, not trusting himself to speak.

Making sure that Shinji was listing closely, Asuka continued, "It's… scary.  Yeah, I know I've said nothing scares me, but this does.  If no one cares for you, then you don't have to care for anyone else.  Caring complicates things."  She looked into the boy's palm, her voice lowering to a whisper as she went on, "But I think, I can handle that… from you.  I know you… I see you every day… I know what you like, and I know that you mean what you say.  Somehow, I know."  Closing her eyes she added, "So here's what I want you to do for me, Shinji.  I want you to put those back on me, and go out with me tonight so I can see if I feel for you what you feel for me."  Opening her eyes, she met his gaze with a serious, unsmiling expression.  "Think you can handle that?" she asked quietly, "Knowing that I might not be able to be what you want me to be?  I can try, Shinji, but I won't guarantee anything."

Shinji considered the earrings in his palm for all of ten seconds before taking one of them between his thumb and forefinger and holding it out to the girl.  When Asuka closed her eyes and leaned forward, offering him her ear, he nearly dropped the earring in his hurry to clip it back in place.  The second one was much easier, and as soon as it was in place, he stepped back, admiring the way the diamonds caught the light.

"So," Asuka said seriously, opening her eyes to look at him.  "Are you ready?"

Taking a deep breath, Shinji replied, "I've been ready for a month and a half."

Asuka grinned, holding her elbow out for him to take.  "Try not to be too sappy," she murmured as he took her arm, "or I might just sell these and go out with Kensuke instead."  As they started off down the hall, she asked, "How much did you pay for these, anyway? And where did you get the cash??"

His voice fading as they turned the corner, Shinji replied, "Th-they're a present! You can't ask that…"

For a moment, the hallway was silent.  Then the door to Misato's apartment slid quietly open.  Three women stepped out of the apartment, looking thoughtfully towards the elevator.

"That was… unexpected," Ritsuko murmured, rubbing her temples with a slightly pained expression.

"I saw it coming miles away," Misato informed her airily.

"Sure," Ritsuko grumbled, "that's why Maya had to slap her hand over your mouth when Asuka said she'd go out with him instead of telling him to go to hell."

"She could have been gentler about it," Misato scowled, trying to change the focus of the conversation.

"Sorry about that," the technician said, blushing deeply, "I was, umm… a little excited."

"Yeah," Misato said dryly, "a little."

"So," Ritsuko said softly.  "How did he know?"

By silent accord, the three women reached into their pockets and pulled out the presents Shinji had given them.

In three palms lay three small, glittering pendants.  Each was carved into an intriguing shape, and bore a tiny, single-character engraving.  Body, Mind, and Soul gleamed dully in the electric light of the hall.  Three women, three aspects of humanity, three unique presents.

"Do you think he made them himself?" Ritsuko inquired quietly, running her thumb over the Mind.

"I don't think you can buy these," Misato observed, tilting the Body slightly to let it catch the light better.  "But I have no idea how he did it, or when he would have had time.  Maybe he had someone do it for him?"

"No," Maya whispered, closing her hand around the Soul, "He made these himself… I know it…"

"You think he made the earrings too?" Misato teased, nudging the woman gently.

"Did you see the mountings?" Maya returned seriously.

Misato's grin faltered.

"So the question remains," Ritsuko pointed out, correcting herself, "TWO questions, actually."  She looked from one woman to the other as she asked, "How did he get diamonds… and how did he know that these characteristics are the ones that each of us value most?  For all he knows, Misato values her thoughts over her looks… or maybe Maya thinks she has a great body… or maybe I'm more spiritual than I let on."  Her voice took on a lecturing tone.  "So what we need to do," she said briskly, "is find out, A: where he got-"

"Doctor," Maya interjected, averting her eyes as the older woman frowned.  "Please… don't ruin it…?"

The blonde glanced at Misato, who was nodding her agreement.  "Neither of you is the least bit curious?" she pressed quietly.

"Weeeeellll," Misato hummed, "No, not really."  She raised her hand as Ritsuko opened her mouth to protest.  "Wasn't done."  She waited for the blonde to close her mouth before saying, "Yeah, I think I have a good body.  Yeah, you're really smart.  Yeah, Maya's really kind, thoughtful, and spiritual… but really, did Shinji need to be told that?"  She shrugged as Ritsuko's lips compressed into a thin line.  "It doesn't take a genius to see that you're one, and you only have to be around me for five minutes to know that I like my body."

"You're awfully frank tonight," Ritsuko grumbled, "and what about Maya?  He doesn't see that much of her – so how does he know what she's like?"

Before Misato could reply, the young woman herself murmured, "Please?"  She kept her eyes respectfully downcast as she spoke.  "I like this feeling," she said softly, opening her hand to reveal her pendant, "I like feeling like someone knows me, and cares enough about me to make something this special."  She shook her head slowly.  "Didn't you read the letter he gave you with yours?  How can you question something that comes from the heart like that?  Why not just accept it… and let yourself be happy…?"

Ritsuko opened her mouth to retort… but found herself sighing instead.  "Alright," she murmured, "I'll drop it…"

The three considered their presents for a moment, saying nothing.

"So," Maya murmured finally, slowly raising the pendant and tying it around her neck, "I guess he knew what every girl wants after all…"

Ritsuko ran her fingers over her pendant's smooth edges, glancing thoughtfully down the hallway.

"Something else on your mind, Ritsu?" Misato probed quietly, re-pocketing her present.

"Just thinking," the blonde mused.

"Yeah?"

The blonde turned to her old friend, looking her straight in the eyes as she whispered, "I was just thinking I've never been so jealous of a teenager."

"So," Misato winked, "Shinji is what every girl wants for Christmas?"

"Yeah…"

Misato and Ritsuko's jaws dropped open at Maya's wistful sigh.

Realizing she had spoken out loud, the technician stammered, "I… that is, I mean… well…"

"Come on," Misato laughed, "let's go back inside and have a few more drinks… you guys can just stay the night."

The other women agreed and headed into the apartment, leaving Misato alone in the hallway.  She lingered a moment longer, considering all that she had seen and heard this interesting Christmas Eve.  Smiling, she ran her hand over the pocket holding the small icon representing the Body and stepped back into the apartment, closing the door quietly behind her.

The End

Author's Notes: what kind of notes do you really need for a nice, fuzzy little story like this?  What do the pendants look like, you ask?  Well… you decide.  No, I'm not just being lazy – I left them vague on purpose.  I kinda wanted each person to have their own idea of what they looked like.  That way, no one's wrong in their interpretation. Of course, if anyone wants to draw fanart for how THEY think the pendants should look… well, I ain't-a-gonna stop ya!!  ^_^

Since it was Ryoma's Christmas Contest, he's the only one that got to pre-read this.  Blame him if it comes across as rushed – it was his damn deadline!  :P

Feedback is always welcome at random1377@yahoo.com