Happy Chriskwanzakah! And my many apologies for leaving you, my dear readers, hanging for almost two years for the ending to what has surprisingly (to me, anyway) been my most popular fanfic to date. I could blame many things for my hiatus from the world of fanfiction writing, but you've heard all the excuses before from other writers, so I won't bother.
So without further ado, I present the final chapter to –
Life Goes On
Written by funvince
Tears ran down Asuka's face...
Shinji grimaced at the sight.
...because she was laughing so hard.
"It's not that ridiculous," Shinji muttered crossly.
"Oh, Shinji, you always know how to cheer me up," Asuka said, wiping her face with the back of her hand.
Shinji looked down moodily into his tea. "Yeah, I know it sounds stupid, but it doesn't look good for you. You've admitted that you used to like me and even that you're a little jealous of Rei..."
Asuka stared at him with amusement in her eyes. "Your ego really is ginormous now, isn't it?"
"My ego has nothing to do with this!" Shinji snapped. "I'm just looking at the facts and-"
"Yes, let's look at the facts," Asuka interrupted. She leaned across the table with a somber look. "If you recall from your eavesdropping last time, I told Wondergirl that you aren't my type."
"Maybe despite that, you didn't want anyone else to have me either?" Shinji suggested meekly. Even as the words came out of his mouth, he flinched at how stupid they sounded.
Asuka pressed a hand over her mouth to try to repress her snickering. "Shinji... please don't... take this... personally..." Asuka took a deep breath and said in a strangled voice, "You don't exactly have the kind of face that would launch a thousand ships. Maybe a rowboat..."
The redhead finally gave up and started giggling again.
Shinji waited a few moments then asked acerbically, "Are you quite done? This is serious! Rei was really hurt by this!"
That seemed to sober the girl up. She even looked a little abashed. "Sorry. I'm really not trying to piss you off, but you should really try to see this from my point of view. Let's say for the sake of argument that I really am unstable, I am only pretending to be nice and friendly, and that I'm hot for your bod."
Shinji shivered at the last part. "Please never say that again."
Asuka gave him a look. "Anyway, are you really suggesting that if I didn't want you and I didn't want anyone else to have you, my brilliant stratagem would be to send a nasty email?"
"Well, when you put it that way..."
"Not to mention that it's a really inefficient solution. I'd have to drive away all your future girlfriends as well. That seems like a lot of work." Asuka considered what she said then added hastily, "We're just assuming for the sake of argument that you could get other girls to go out with you."
Shinji rolled his eyes. Asuka always acted like it would kill her to genuinely compliment him. He replied, "I guess you have a point..."
"I know what you're thinking. Crazy people don't think long-term like that. Well, I must be crazy like a fox then if I was able to avoid all the cameras and guards in this military hospital, find an unoccupied computer station, hack my way in, look up Ayanami's school email address, set up a fake email account, type up and send a- what was it, five pages?- a five page hate letter, reroute the IP address so it wouldn't lead back here, and then sneak back to my room without anyone noticing that an escaped mental patient was wandering around in all that time."
"Ok, ok, I get your point..."
"Or maybe I didn't do it all at once. Maybe I've been planning this for months. Yes, that's the ticket. Ever since I got out of my coma, I've been plotting your downfall, Shinji Ikari! You getting self-confidence then meeting up and getting together with Ayanami so that you could be torn asunder for all of 24 hours was all part of a master plan orchestrated by me, the great Asuka Langley Sohryu!"
Asuka snapped her fingers. "Wow, it's so evil and diabolical that I'm beginning to wish I had done it! I'm flattered you have such a high estimate of my skills."
"Enough with the sarcasm already!" Shinji said, holding his hands up in a gesture of defeat. "I'm sorry that I accused you without thinking things through."
"Touji thought this up, didn't he?"
"Yeah..." Shinji admitted reluctantly. "Are you mad?"
Asuka shrugged. "Not really. You're just exploring all the possibilities and it'd be stupid to take that personally. Besides, you don't have any real reason to trust me since I'm not cured yet, and it's not like I couldn't have done all that." Her voice was filled with smugness. "I am a genius after all. I'd just like to think that I'd spend my time on something useful like taking over the country."
"Not the world?" Shinji asked dryly.
"Too much paperwork," Asuka replied with a wave of her hand. Then her features softened and she said, "You want to know the biggest reason I wouldn't do that to you?"
She hesitated for a moment before Shinji gave her an encouraging nod. Asuka said, "Because you helped me get out of a very dark place. I want you to be happy. Even if I thought that you were completely screwing up your life... that's not my call. It's yours. You've had enough people running how you live, I think."
Shinji swallowed the lump in his throat. "Asuka..."
Asuka turned her head away and cleared her throat. "So if you're done playing detective, why don't you head back to your girlfriend?"
Shinji turned crimson. He started to protest, but he realized that it wouldn't do him any good. He settled for an unamused frown then stood up to leave. But when he reached the doorway of Asuka's room, he paused briefly, realizing that he had one more thing he had to say.
"You're wrong, Asuka."
He turned around and said softly, "I do trust you. With my life. You can be a jerk, but you're always upfront about it." Shinji smiled. "Your ego wouldn't allow otherwise."
Asuka stared after him, open-mouthed, as Shinji left still smirking.
"...and that's why I don't think Asuka did it," Shinji finished.
Rei thought this over. "Could she not have just written out a letter then paid off a nurse who is moderately skilled with computers to email it for her when he or she got home from work?"
This had not occurred to Shinji. "Uh..."
"Do not be concerned," Rei said after seeing the look of consternation on Shinji's face. "I do not believe that Sohryu did it either. I merely wanted to demonstrate that she is not as clever as she likes to think she is."
Rei's lips curved upward slightly. "The fact that Sohryu's first instinct for revenge is to behave like she's in a Mission Impossible movie makes it doubtful she could have come up with such an impersonal method of hurting me. Sohryu is- or perhaps I should say was- a hammer. She would want to look me in the eyes when she pounded me down."
"Kensuke still hasn't found who sent it?" Shinji asked.
"He has not. I told him that it did not really matter now, but he told me that it was now personal for him," Rei replied with a raised eyebrow. "He appears to be upset that the perpetrator has so far eluded him."
"Kensuke's always been stubborn," Shinji agreed, remembering how that particular trait got him and Touji clustered inside his Eva's cockpit during his second Angel fight. "I think it's good though that he's still working on it. How do we know that this isn't the work of some psycho who wants to hurt you?"
"We don't," Rei replied simply. "And until we do, I see little point in worrying about it."
But I can't help but worry about you, Shinji thought but didn't say. It had only been a few days since he found Rei in the cemetery, and he was a little unsure of how to act around the girl. He had seen her at her most vulnerable, and he didn't want to upset her by making her think that he thought she was overly fragile or anything like that. He'd been trying to treat her as normally as he always did.
The fact that she hadn't responded to his declaration of love one way or another wasn't helping matters.
Every time that particular thought came up, Shinji felt ashamed of himself. He hadn't had any ulterior motives when he revealed to Rei his true feelings, but he wouldn't be human if he didn't feel anxious over what the girl thought of him in return.
No news was supposedly good news, but he couldn't tell if Rei's silence meant that she was thinking over the matter and examining her feelings or if she had already put the incident behind her and moved on.
But then he remembered Rei's heartfelt sobs as she broke down in front of his mother's grave and he knew that she had not forgotten.
Shinji was so lost in his thoughts that he almost didn't notice when they reached Doctor Samuels's office. He glanced over at Rei and asked, "Are you sure you wouldn't rather do this alone?"
"You are the only person that I feel comfortable with," Rei replied. She gave Shinji a look that made his heart beat faster. "I would appreciate it if you were with me."
There was no way he could say no to that!
Samuels greeted the both of them with a warm smile when they entered his office. He said, "Hello, Shinji. And you must be Miss Ayanami. I've heard many things about you."
"None of them are true, I assure you," Rei replied with a slight smile.
Samuels's grin grew wider. He said, "Oh, but I can see that they are. Please have a seat."
After the two teenagers sat down on the couch, Samuels leaned forward and studied Rei intently for a few moments. Finally, he asked, "Why are you here?"
It was a simple question, but it was obvious that it was one that troubled Rei. She frowned a little and said quietly, "I... do not know where to begin."
Samuels nodded as if he had expected that answer. He said, "Shinji told me that you asked him if you could have a session with me. This was your idea, correct?"
"Then maybe you could tell me how you are feeling."
Rei hesitated and her face twisted as if she was in actual physical pain. Shinji grabbed her hand in concern, which drew her attention. She stared down at their joined hands then her face smoothed out, signaling whatever internal struggle she'd been waging had resolved itself.
In her soft, feathery voice, Rei said, "I am afraid. That is a difficult thing for me to admit. Every day I discover that there is so much that I do not know. I tell myself that I will eventually catch up, but I am afraid that there is something fundamentally different about me that will keep me from learning. Ikari-kun told me that I could make my own choices now but it is... hard."
"You have spent most of your life isolated in one way or another," Samuels said gently. "It's only natural that you feel like an outsider. That doesn't mean that something is wrong or different about you."
"If I was a normal girl, perhaps that would be true, but I am not. You must be aware that I am not entirely... human," Rei said with downcast eyes.
Shinji felt that he had to speak. "Who you are is more important than what you are. Please don't make the same mistake I made with you. To be human means more than what race or color you happen to be. I don't even think the DNA part of it really means that much either. I mean, yeah, that's important from a biological view, but..."
"I think that what Shinji is trying to say is that humanity is also a state of mind," Samuels interjected.
Shinji nodded, grateful for the time he needed to think. He paused, struggling to organize his thoughts. At last, he said, "Rei, as long as you continue to try your best at whatever you want to do, I couldn't be prouder of you. There's nothing more human than that."
Rei glanced downward with reddened cheeks and said, "Thank you."
She composed herself then looked over at Samuels. She said, "This is why I requested that Shinji accompany me here. He believes in me. I do not understand why, but I am glad that he does. Without him, I would be dead."
"Rei..." Shinji breathed.
Rei looked at him directly. "It is the truth. You told me that you wanted to show me that life was worth living for its own sake. You did that, and I am a better person for it."
She turned back to Samuels. "You asked me why I was here. I need advice and I cannot ask Ikari-kun for help this time."
"Why is that?" Samuels asked.
"I do not wish to put him in an awkward position." Rei hesitated then she continued, "He told me that he loved me."
If Shinji's eyes could have bulged out, they would have. He stared at Rei in shock and apprehension. Was she finally going to reveal how she felt about the matter? And would that news be good or bad?
If Rei saw his discomfort, she gave no sign of it. She said, "When I was recently very depressed, he told me that I was special. He also told me that he had learned that it did not matter if he was different and that I needed to learn that too. Then he told he loved me."
Rei's eyes took on a faraway gaze. "I needed to hear that, and I am glad he said it. I do not think he meant it in a brotherly way." She paused then said resolutely, "And I do not want him to mean it that way."
Shinji felt like he was going to faint. He tried to speak, but the hope burning in his throat prevented him.
"Tell me why you feel this way," Samuels coaxed.
The amount of red now on Rei's face was startling. She said, "When I am around Ikari-kun, I feel... warm and safe. He understands who I am and is willing to help me with who I wish to be. He is gentle and kind and has done so much for me. He wants me to be happy. I want him to be happy as well."
Rei raised her eyes and stared directly into Samuels' eyes. "I don't understand love, but I would like to learn. I am told that I can only understand it through experience. So I am here to ask you what I should do."
Samuels leaned back in his chair and seemed to lose himself in thought. A few minutes later, he stirred himself and said, "I have never intended to be a relationship counselor, but you'd be surprised at how often I'm consulted on the subject by the other people at this base. Miss Ayanami, I'd be willing to advise you, but I must speak to you in private."
"Why?" Rei asked.
"Good relationships contain an element of mystery. If Shinji was to remain here while I told you to do so-and-so at such-and-such a time, then all spontaneity would be lost. Trust me, it would be incredibly awkward."
Rei tilted her head in thought then said, "Your reasons are valid. Your request is acceptable."
Samuels stood up from his chair. "Please wait here while I have a few words with Shinji."
Shinji had only taken a few steps after Samuels when the doctor stopped in mid-step. He snapped in fingers in annoyance and said, "I almost forgot. There is one thing you can do first, Miss Ayanami." He bent over and whispered something into Rei's ear.
Rei gave a small nod then her head tilted slightly to the right as she stared at Shinji with thoughtful contemplation. She was obviously nervous and she didn't seem to be making any effort in masking her emotion. Her eyes shimmered with uncertainty and her hands twitched as if she didn't quite know what to do with them.
It was one of the most beautiful sights Shinji had ever seen.
But if her demeanor was anxious, her voice was as calm and serene as always. She asked, "Ikari-kun, would you do me the honor of going on a date with me this upcoming Saturday?"
Shinji could almost feel his brain starting to shut down from this latest emotional shock. He gave a jerky nod and mumbled something that sounded vaguely like words from his native tongue.
With great amusement in his voice, Samuels said to Rei, "I believe that he accepted."
"I am glad," Rei replied. Her face had returned to its customary blankness, but there was an air of satisfaction around her that was obvious to those who knew how to look.
Samuels motioned for Shinji to follow him. Shinji, who was still in a state of semi-shock, was easily led into the hallway. He snapped out of it once they left the room and he turned to the older man with a bewildered look. "What just happened?"
The doctor chuckled. "I think you just got yourself a girlfriend."
Shinji's brain simply could not compute that concept at the moment, so it put it aside for later analysis.
"This is definitely going to take some time to sink in," Shinji informed the other man. "What am I supposed to do now? I'm as clueless as Rei on this sort of stuff."
"I'd be happy to talk to you later on this sort of stuff, but advising the both of you would make me too much the master puppeteer. I suggest you ask someone you trust to help you. And there's one more thing."
Samuels put a hand on Shinji's shoulder. "I hope you don't mind that Rei asked you out first. I know it is traditional for the man to do this, but I think it would be a good idea for Rei to take the lead in planning out your first date."
"Da-date?" Shinji's head whirled. Everything was moving so fast!
Samuels gave a firm nod then continued, "From her files, I've gathered that Ayanami has always been very careful about maintaining strict control in her actions and emotions. She's probably feeling very vulnerable right now. The best way to counterbalance that is to allow Rei to set the pace and initiate the decision-making. At least in the beginning. After all, women like their men to take charge now and then."
Shinji was still staring off into space when Samuels went back into his office. He tried to puzzle out what he was feeling. He felt a bit of confusion and indignation that he'd been shuffled off without a chance to really respond to Rei's declaration of interest. But he mostly felt happiness, and a silly smile couldn't help but break out on his face.
Who would have thought that Rei had such a high regard for him? He wished that Rei could have said her feelings directly to him instead of through a middleman, but that was probably too much to ask of her at the moment. He wondered what Rei would plan to do for their date.
Shinji was then almost knocked by a bolt of realization. Never mind Rei's actions, what was he going to do? He'd never been on a date before and while Rei had taken on some of the responsibilities that probably didn't relieve him from the rest of it.
Was he supposed to pay? Or was that considered old-fashioned these days? Speaking of old-fashioned, was holding doors and such still thought of as good manners or just plain silly? Most importantly of all, what was he expected to do at the end of a date? Obviously, he'd walk her to her door since she lived right next door, but should he hug her or even ki-kiss her, or would that be too much for a first date?
He could feel a headache coming on and he knew that he needed expert advice and fast.
"Shinji and Rei sitting in a tree K-I-S-S-I-N-G!" Misato sang in badly accented English.
"Misato!" Shinji gave a huge sigh as he adjusted the phone into a more comfortable decision. Perhaps he should have thought more carefully about whom to ask for relationship advice.
"Oh, come on! This is a once in a lifetime opportunity!" Misato cried over the line. "There were times that I was convinced that you were going to die a virgin!"
"Wh-what are you talking about?" Shinji sputtered. He was extremely glad that Misato could not see the blush on his face. "We're just going on a date."
"You're never going to score with an attitude like that," Misato teased.
Shinji sighed deeply. "Are you quite done?"
"Spoilsport. Okay, what do you need to know?"
"I don't know! That's why I'm asking you!"
Misato gave a long, rich laugh. Then she said, "Shinji, you're making too big a deal out of this. Just act like you've always have. It really doesn't matter what you do or when you do it as long as you're doing it because you care. Rei asked you out because she likes you. She doesn't need for you to do any fancy moves or ploys. And I doubt that she'd even realize what you were doing if you tried."
"I know that," Shinji replied, as he sagged on the couch. "But Rei has never been on a date before. Yeah, yeah, I haven't either, but… it feels different in her case. I just want to make it special for her."
"It'll be fine," Misato said gently.
"I must sound pretty silly to you," Shinji said with a small grin. "I bet that you've never had problems like this. You've probably always been the life of the party."
"Now, don't be so sure of that. I wasn't always the gracious and gorgeous social butterfly that I am today. Would it surprise you to know that I didn't have my first date until college?"
"You know about my past. Let's just say that I didn't exactly have time for the finer things in life." Misato's voice was light, but she couldn't completely mask her pain.
Shinji closed his eyes in sympathy. Between the destruction of Antarctica and the effects of Second Impact, her father's death, and her catatonic state, it was amazing that she was so full of life. He opened his mouth to apologize for being so insensitive, but then he closed it when he realized that his guardian and friend needed him to hear this.
"You and Rei are far braver than I've ever been in the love game. And I think that you know as well as I do that it is fear that ruins so many things. As long as you resist the impulse to run away, then I think that you can handle whatever comes your way. I wish…"
Shinji wished that he had known more about Ryoji Kaji. He had obviously been a major influence in Misato's life as well as his own. The spy had seemed like he didn't have a care in the world, but that had obviously been part of his charade. Shinji had seen aspects of the real man behind the mask in moments like when he watered his watermelons. The man had many responsibilities, but he didn't allow them to weigh him down.
"I'm sure everyone has things they wish they could change. As long as we don't obsess over them then we'll find a way to manage to live on," Shinji said.
"So you're saying that life sucks and that we should just suck it up and deal with it?" Misato asked with obvious amusement her voice.
"More or less," Shinji replied. That had been the hardest lesson that he'd ever had to learn.
"Thank you, Shinji. I don't know how, but your cynicism has actually cheered me up."
"I never claimed to be an optimist. I don't think any amount of training will ever change that."
"Bah, you teenagers and your angst," Misato grumbled good-naturedly. Then in an almost casual tone she asked, "So how many condoms will you be bringing to your date?"
The big day had finally arrived. Shinji stared at himself in the mirror and wondered if he was overdressed. He had initially thought about wearing his school uniform as usual in order to keep things casual, but his friends had convinced him that wearing his school clothes on a date was just lazy and cliché.
He was currently wearing a sports jacket over a long-sleeved shirt and pants. Shinji checked his breath again and made sure that he had his wallet on him. Then he checked his watch. It was five minutes to seven. He still had time to change quickly if he really wanted to…
No, he shouldn't be second-guessing himself. What he was wearing was fine for if they ended up going to a fancy restaurant or just hung out at the local arcade. His nerves were just trying to rattle him. Unfortunately, they were doing a very good job.
He was being ridiculous. He had gone out with Rei dozens of times. How was this any different? But the reality was that it was different. This one date could determine whether or not Rei and he could be more than friends. His entire future could be resting on-
Stop it! Shinji banged the heel of his palm against his head as if that would shake the irritating thoughts from his mind. He always did this, putting too much pressure on himself that he couldn't even think straight. All he had to do was relax and have a good time. There was nothing to worry about.
"Okay, there's ten seconds… seven, six, five, four…"
The moment the watch display changed to 7:00, Shinji's eyes snapped to the door, expecting to hear Rei's customary soft knock. Her punctuality was legendary after all.
Seconds went by. There was no knock. In disbelief, Shinji took out his cell phone to make sure that his watch wasn't off on the time. The times matched. It was now 7:01 PM.
So Rei was a little late. That was no big deal. The panicky part of his mind disagreed. How could she be late? She lived next door!
Girls take longer to get dressed, the rational part of his mind asserted. Yes, that was probably it. He was not going to succumb to irrational fears.
The time became 7:10 PM.
Okay, it's time to panic. Oh god, maybe she isn't coming. Maybe she suddenly realized what a stupid idea this was. Maybe she forgot. What if something happened to her? Should I go next door and ask? But I'd look pretty stupid if it turns out I just had the wrong time or something…
There was a knock.
Shinji almost collapsed to the floor in relief. With great restraint, he kept himself from flinging the door open.
Rei stood in front of him, smiling. That particular expression was still rare enough that he couldn't help paying special attention whenever he saw it. He hoped to never take it for granted.
There was a time when the only person Rei showed such animation for was his father. Seeing the characteristically somber girl light up around the commander had shocked and even angered Shinji at the time, but it also made him realize that Rei Ayanami, despite rumors the contrary, was capable of expressing happiness. He had wished for a long time that he could also be someone who could generate such a response from her without prodding, and now he was.
Shinji had never imagined Rei in a kimono, but now that he was seeing the sight right in front of his eyes he had to admit that she looked really good in it. Her kimono, a summer yukata, was dark blue with flowers imprinted all over it and tied off with a red bow. Combined with her pale skin and classical look, she could have, with a little more ornamentation, passed for a geisha.
He then realized that he had been staring and not saying anything for the last thirty seconds. He forced a rather fake-sounding cough then said, "Rei! I was just about to go over and see if you were having any problems."
"Were you concerned about my tardiness?" Rei asked.
"Not at all," Shinji lied.
"I have read that a young lady is supposed to keep her date waiting in order to build up his anticipation. He will then be struck speechless when she finally arrives and show him what he's been missing." Rei's smile grew even larger. "That information appears to be correct."
There was no proof of this in either her tone or demeanor, but Shinji would swear that somewhere behind her composed exterior, she was laughing at him in childish glee for having mastered a new trick.
Shinji found himself smiling back at her. "Rei, you never cease to amaze me. And you would look great no matter what time you came."
"You flatter me."
Rei turned away but not before Shinji saw the redness of her cheeks that undoubtedly matched his own. So he was not the only nervous one here. This fact actually helped him in damping down his anxiety.
The two made their way down to the street level and started heading toward the train station. Shinji commented, "I didn't even know that you owned a kimono."
"I did not until yesterday. Miss Horaki was kind enough to help me pick one out at the mall when I informed her that it was my intention to take you to the festival tonight."
"Why the festival?"
Rei came to a stop before she turned and faced Shinji. She stared at him with her bright, red orbs for a moment then she said softly, "Because I have never been to one. Because I wanted to see fireworks in person and not just from my apartment window. Because I thought we should see the reason behind why we fought."
Without waiting for a response, Rei turned again and continued walking. Shinji hurried to keep up. But her words kept echoing in his mind.
He couldn't help but remind the night they had spent talking before their fight with the Fifth Angel.
You told me then that Evangelion was your bond to all people. These were people that you didn't know or understand, but yet you were willing to die for them and not simply because my father told you to. I think that was when I first realized that you were much deeper than I had given you credit for.
Rei had grown so much in the past weeks, but in many ways she was just nurturing a side of herself that had already existed. He hoped to always be there to see what type of woman Rei would turn out to be. He had a feeling that she would be wonderful.
The festival was being held in a park near the commercial district. The place was brimming with life by the time the two teenagers arrived. It was a beautiful night, which was made even more so by the soft, yellow glow of the lanterns hung everywhere. The evening was warm but not uncomfortably so.
Families and couples were strolling all over the place. Normally, such a sight would have made Shinji uneasy as old habits died hard. But with Rei by his side he found that he wasn't bothered at all. It was such a syrupy thought, the type that would make Asuka gag if she knew of it, but that didn't make it any less true.
He and Rei spent about half an hour simply wandering about and examining the stalls. It was like a flea market in many ways with vendors extolling the virtues of their wares.
Shinji decided that it was a good time to start playing some carnival games. Even though he knew that Rei still didn't care very much about material possessions he thought that she would like a souvenir by which to remember this night.
"Let's try this one," Shinji said to his companion when they stopped in front of a simple ring toss game. He explained that the purpose of the game was to get the rings to hang on the pegs, and the prize they got depended on how successful they were. He brought five rings and threw his first toss.
Ten minutes later…
The demonic board and pegs were mocking him. He hadn't anticipated having so much trouble or having to shell out so much money. It didn't seem possible, but he had yet to make a single successful throw. Shinji gave a low growl. He had been an EVA pilot for heaven's sake! Granted, the targets he hit were usually bigger and he hadn't been trying to throw rings around their necks, but he could surely do better than this!
Shinji felt Rei watching him and he knew that she was on the verge of asking if she could help him. He knew logically that Rei would be much better at winning these prizes with her superior hand-eye coordination, but he wanted to win something for her with his own efforts. And there may have been a tiny amount of male ego involved.
But at the rate he was going, he wouldn't have enough money to buy Rei food or take her on the rides. Who was he trying to impress? He wasn't Asuka, who would have been accusing the game person of rigging the game by this point. With a final sigh, he carelessly threw his final ring.
It landed perfectly around the center peg.
Shinji stared at the board in disbelief then he decided not to question his victory, if that was even the appropriate word.
"Here's your prize, kid!"
Shinji found himself holding a pair of pink nekomimi. He held it gingerly away from his body and asked, "Uh, can't I pick something else?"
The man behind the booth shrugged. "Sorry, kid. That's the only prize we give out for the one-ringers. Besides, your girlfriend over there seems to like them."
Shinji was about to bristle at being called a 'one-ringer' when the man's last few words struck him. He turned his head and saw that Rei had taken the cat ears from him without his noticing and put them on.
The blue-haired girl currently sporting pink feline ears cutely tilted her head in response to Shinji's slack-jawed expression.
Shinji reddened at the sight.
"Interesting," Rei said thoughtfully. "I was not aware that you possessed such a fetish."
"What? No! That's not it at all!" Shinji exclaimed. He was now the color of a tomato.
"It is nothing to be ashamed of. This interest in cat-girls is actually quite common among your age group and is harmless."
"Not so loud!" Shinji hissed. He frantically looked around to see if anyone he knew was nearby. He had to keep better track of the manga Rei read!
"You are correct," Rei replied at a marginally lower volume. "This type of thing should be saved for more private moments."
She took the ears off.
Shinji found that he was feeling oddly disappointed. Then he felt alarmed about what that meant. And Rei's talk of 'private moments' was not helping!
In an effort to not spontaneously combust, Shinji quickly dragged Rei over to a goldfish catching game. Rei's cool and methodical movements easily enabled her to scoop up her prey in almost no time at all.
"That's amazing!" Shinji enthused as Rei was handed her prize. He made a mental note to get Rei some material on how to care for her new pet. Taking care of another life would probably be good for her, but it would be really bad if she accidentally killed it.
Rei stared at the plastic bag in her hand that contained her new charge. The goldfish stared back. Shinji had the eerily feeling that he knew who would lose if there was ever a blinking contest between the two.
"I will name him Spot," Rei declared solemnly.
Shinji groaned. "Do you know how old that joke is?"
"What joke?" Rei asked blankly.
Shinji was taken back until he saw that the right corner of Rei's mouth was twitching. The full impact of the last fifteen minutes hit him, and he tossed his head back and laughed until his stomach hurt. Though Rei didn't do more than smile slightly at his antics, he knew that she felt the same way he did.
The lines at the food stands were almost gone, so it seemed like a good time to introduce Rei to the novelty of festival snacks. As he expected, Rei's unique view of the world soon made itself known.
After Shinji finished paying the vendor, he turned to see Rei staring at the cotton candy in her hands. She was examining it with all the seriousness that one would normally reserve for an exam question.
Rei looked like she came to a decision when she turned to Shinji and informed him, "This is too pretty to eat."
"I never thought I would hear you say anything like that," Shinji teased. He gave an amused look at Rei's cotton candy. "I have also never seen anyone consider cotton candy to be an art form before."
"Art comes in many forms," Rei insisted.
"The vendors are creating edible clouds," Shinji agreed, trying to keep a straight face.
"There are also the health aspects to consider," Rei continued. "I suspect that this confection is made almost entirely out of sugar."
Shinji suddenly had the image of Rei on a sugar high. He couldn't hold it in any more. He burst out laughing.
"I enjoy making you laugh," Rei said. She met his eyes with her penetrating yet warm gaze. "It is quite a liberating feeling to know that I have the power to make someone happy."
"I'm just happy to be with you," Shinji assured her.
Rei was now looking at the corndog in Shinji's hand. "This is a very practical method of eating. Why is eating food off sticks not more common?"
Before Shinji could reply, he was interrupted by people gasping in wonder. He lifted his eyes to see bursts of light spreading out across the sky.
He looked over at Rei who was staring up at the fireworks with a look of childlike wonder in her eyes. Mustering up his nerve, he grabbed her hand. When she looked at him in askance, he said, "Let's find a good spot to watch."
The couple ended up finding a secluded area of the park. They made themselves comfortable under a tree. Shinji knew that the area would probably be filled up in a few minutes, but for the moment he cherished the privacy of being alone.
Shinji took the moment to really consider where he was now. If anyone had told him that he would one day actually be on a date and that he wouldn't be tripping over himself like an idiot, he would have turned up the volume on his SDAT because he was obviously being made fun of.
Even now, he could hardly believe how calm he was. Maybe it was his newfound confidence or maybe it was just that he spent most of his time with Rei already, but he couldn't imagine being anywhere else.
Watching her stare at the pyrotechnics show in the sky, her skin almost glowing from the reflected glare, he was reminded of how much he loved her. He loved the person that she was and the person that she was becoming.
There was a part of him that was afraid of these changes. The fear told him that it was only a matter of time before Rei changed enough that she would not need him any longer and would move onto someone who would better meet her needs. The part of him that had only recently awoken after years of being buried under insecurity and self-loathing told his fear that it was missing the point.
It was at this moment that Rei turned her head and their eyes met. Shinji found himself forgetting how to breathe. He always got a warm feeling in the pit of his stomach whenever he ended up really looking at Rei.
"Are you having fun?" Shinji asked, trying to cover up his reaction at being caught staring.
"I am," Rei replied. She shifted her body to face Shinji's, and he could see the uncertainty in her eyes. "I had felt apprehension about trying to change our relationship to one of a romantic nature. I still feel that, but that feeling is outweighed by my desire to become closer to you. Perhaps it is too premature to say this, but I would like to be your girlfriend."
His heart was pounding so loudly that Shinji could barely hear himself say, "I would like that too."
"You want to be my girlfriend?" Rei asked. Despite her teasing tone, he could see the look of relief and happiness on her face.
Shinji smiled and shook his head fondly. He then noticed that Rei's face was rapidly closing in on his. "W-What are you doing, Rei?"
"I believe it is customary to make such a declaration official with a kiss," Rei replied. Her voice was actually quavering and her face was slightly flushed.
Shinji was certainly not feeling calm now. He also found himself in a painful quandary. Rei was such an enigma. She had the knowledge and wisdom of a much older woman in many ways, but she was barely more than a child in so many other areas. So, almost reluctantly, he said, "Despite what you've read, you don't have to kiss on the first date…"
Shinji pondered this statement for a moment then he began leaning his head in. He could see Rei's eyes widen in surprise. Right about when their lips were about to touch…
Shinji cursed silently to himself as he cut off the incoming call. The only people who knew his number were ones who knew that he was on a date. He was going to give whoever it was a piece of his mind when he got home! Shinji clutched his fist in frustration. He thought briefly of continuing where he left off, but the mood was gone now and it would be too awkward. Of all the times for this to happen…
He suddenly felt a pair of hands grab his head and before he knew it, another pair of lips were pressed up against his. For the briefest of moments, the world ceased to exist except for the intense sensation of softness.
Then one heartbeat later, a dozen thoughts appeared in his head at once.
Oh my God, Rei's
kissing me. And I'm kissing her! Thank goodness she doesn't care
about stupid things like embarrassment. Am I doing this right? What
should I do with my hands? Is she enjoying this at all? I think it's
rather nice... It's a hell of a lot better than the kiss I had with
Asuka! Don't be thinking of another woman while you're kissing Rei!
Baka, stop thinking so much at all!
And then as if a switch had been thrown, it was quiet again and he was able to focus on the kiss itself. Even as inexperienced as he was, he could tell that neither of them really had any idea of what they were doing. And because he hadn't gotten a chance to adjust to a more comfortable position, he could feel a knot on the tree pushing into his back. Yet, none of that seemed to matter.
He could taste the cotton candy that Rei must have finally gotten around to eating while he wasn't looking, and he could smell the faint scent of flowers that was probably from the shampoo she'd picked out the last time they'd gone shopping. He could feel her shiver from the gust of wind that just came by and without even thinking about it he drew her in even closer to him. The sudden warmth he felt was quite a contrast to the cool night and he was reminded of sitting in an outdoor bath.
And then just as quickly as it had started, it was over.
Shinji took a deep breath. He felt like he just swam twenty laps. He was even feeling a little lightheaded. He would never have guessed that Rei would be such a passionate kisser. But he really shouldn't have been surprised. He had known for a long time now that underneath her calm exterior was a hodgepodge of intense, fiery emotions.
Looking over at Rei, he saw that she seemed to be in deep thought. He almost didn't want to interrupt her, but he felt that he should say something. "Rei, are you okay?"
"I believe I now understand the appeal behind this action," Rei replied.
Shinji smiled. "I think I do too."
The two of them went back to watching the fireworks in comfortable silence. Because he was in such a good mood, he decided to see what had been so important that it was worth interrupting his time with Rei. He took out his phone and checked his voicemail. A few minutes later, the smile faded from his face.
"What is wrong?"
Shinji glanced up from the screen to see Rei looking at him with an air of concern. He wondered if he should keep this news for later, but he quickly decided that Rei deserved to know.
"I got a message from Kensuke. He found out who sent you that email."
The neighborhood had seen better days. It wasn't quite as shabby as the area where Rei and now Shinji lived, but it was clearly heading in that direction. After Second Impact and the massive decrease in the world's population, people fled the suburbs into the city for safety and simply to get away from the loneliness. Left behind was a crumbling infrastructure and those who simply could not afford to live in the grand metropolis that was Tokyo-3.
A door of a particularly run-down building flew open with a slam. The woman who walked out stumbled and had to hold onto the doorway for support. Her features were hard to make out because the only light came from a single flickering street light overlooking the end of the alleyway.
The lack of light seemed to amplify the yelling that was following the woman outside. The sound was muffled but the hoarse voice of an angry man could clearly be heard.
"How many times do I have to tell you to stop drinking on the job?"
"Give it a rest already! This is a bar! I'm a fucking cocktail waitress. Nobody gives a shit."
"I give a shit when you're constantly short on the till count. Hey, I'm not done talking to you!"
The woman gave a weary wave like she couldn't care less. She walked unsteadily toward the light. Her bloodshot eyes blinked rapidly against the glare coming from the streetlight, and because of this she was startled when a voice came from only a few feet in front of her.
"Is there some place we can talk… Ibuki-san?"
The woman, the aforementioned Maya Ibuki, took a few steps back out of fear and surprise. She blinked a few more times as if to confirm what she was seeing. Then her look of shock faded and was replaced with a bitter grin.
"I have nothing to say to you."
She made a move to brush past the two figures who had just stepped out of the shadows. As she tried to walk past, the boy reached out and grabbed her arm. She simply turned her head and stared at him, not bothering to hide the confusion and anger she was feeling.
Shinji released her arm like he had been burned. He stared at her and said quietly, "Maya, what happened to you?"
What happened to the shy yet cheerful woman he had known? Who was this woman in the rumpled uniform that reeked of sake and cigarette smoke? Why had she done what she did to Rei?
These were all questions that he wanted to ask, but he was too stunned to do more than gape at his former co-worker. Rei came to his rescue.
"Ibuki-san, I think it would be best if you talked to us."
"I'm not in the mood for a reunion if it's all the same to you."
The glare that the older woman gave Rei loosened Shinji's tongue. "We know that you sent that email to Rei."
Maya moved her gaze onto him. "So it's Rei now? How nice. I don't recall sending an email to be any type of crime though. I take it the contents didn't meet with your approval."
Shinji had to turn his head away. The emptiness in those eyes was too much to bear. He growled, "Damn it, Maya! Why are you acting like this?"
"I don't see why I should have to tell you anything." Maya turned to go. Her steps were halted by the words that came from behind her.
"Does this have to do with doctor Akagi?" Rei asked tonelessly. Her lack of expression indicated that she had withdrawn into her protective shell
Maya whirled around, her eyes blazing. The hatred in them was almost tangible.
Shinji's eyes widened. "Don't tell me…"
Maya's voice was choked as if she was trying to hold back tears. "Akagi-sempai was a wonderful woman. She was the smartest, most compassionate woman I have ever known. She deserved better."
"She did," Rei agreed. Her face was still carefully blank. "I do not see how I am to blame for her death though."
Maya acted like she hadn't heard her. "She was miserable because of you. Everyone knew about her relationship with Ikari. Some days she would come in and pretend that everything was fine, but it was obvious that she wasn't fine at all."
"Again, that is not my fault."
Maya was currently sitting with her back against a wall and her arms wrapped around her knees. She looked up at Rei and gave a soft chuckle. "I had forgotten how cute your naivety was."
If Rei was confused, she didn't show but simply kept pressing forward. She said, "I believe who you are truly angry with is Commander Ikari. But he's dead and I'm the only one around that you can blame."
"Yeah, he's dead. She's dead. After years of fighting over a dead woman. Lots of dead people in this story. It's a fucking soap opera."
Rei simply stared down at the broken woman and said nothing. She did not seem to know what else to say. Shinji shifted from his silent position and sighed. He hadn't wanted to come here in the first place.
He was still very angry at Maya, but it seemed that for whatever reason Rei was not. And if Rei wanted to help her, then he would try his best as well. Rei had grown so much, but she had not yet learned that not everything in this world could be solved if enough logic and reason was applied to it.
Shinji knelt down besides Maya and said gently, "Maya, this isn't like you. You shouldn't be here. We just want to know what happened."
He could almost see the cold rain behind Maya's eyes, and he was surprised when Maya actually responded to his request.
"It wasn't so bad at first. It was hard to feel sad with Makoto and Shigeru always hanging around. Those idiots could always make me laugh. They constantly came over and ate my food and lounge around all day. I'd yell at them to go find a job and somehow we'd end up at a karaoke bar or the arcade. We were one happy, dysfunctional family."
Maya's face which had noticeably lightened while she was talking suddenly crumbled again.
"But it couldn't last. Makoto's aunt in America got sick and he had to go take care of her. About a month later, Shigeru got a chance to tour Japan in a band that he and his friends put together. I couldn't just tell him not to go, right? He was worried about leaving me alone, but I told him I was a grown woman and it wasn't like I didn't have other friends.
"I did have other friends. I wasn't lying. But none of them understood. NERV was something they read about in the news. I thought I'd put that life behind me, but I kept having these dreams… I couldn't concentrate on my job and I was eventually let go. It was just as well. My job was the only reason I ever left my apartment those days, so now I didn't have to. After that…"
Maya spread her hands with a sarcastic flair. "I got to the point where I couldn't stand the silence any longer and ended up here. A classic, rather mundane case of depression, wouldn't you say? Are you disappointed?"
The expression on her face belied her harsh words.
"But you're not interested in any of that. You just want to know why I insulted the precious First Child. It's not a very exciting story. I was driving toward here to start my shift one day, and I suddenly see you two walking and talking like you don't have a care in the world. I was surprised to see Rei with more life and energy than I've ever seen in all the time I've known her. I don't know why, but seeing that, seeing her so happy just made me so angry…"
Maya leaned her head against the wall behind her and gave a mirthless laugh. "It sounds so stupid when I say it out loud, doesn't it? I have no grudge against you, Shinji-kun. You of all people deserve to have a good future. But Rei…"
Maya's gaze moved over and locked squarely on Rei's silent form. "She hated you so much. She would talk to me after she'd had too much to drink. She never remembered these conversations, and I never let on how much I knew. She'd tell me that it was bad enough that she had to compete with the memory of a dead woman, but having you around as a constant reminder of her inadequacy was almost too much to bear. You were there from the beginning. You were why her mother killed herself. YOU'RE THE REASON RITSUKO DIED!"
Shinji found that it was his turn to not know what to say. He could only stare at the grieving woman in stunned silence. Damn you, Father. How many lives have you ruined in your mad quest?
"Ritsuko Akagi committed suicide because it was too difficult for her to go on living."
Maya stared up at Rei as if she couldn't comprehend her words.
In her cool, measured tone, Rei said, "There were many reasons for this. She measured her accomplishments to those of her mother and always found herself falling short. She was in love with a man who cared nothing for her and only used her for his own ends. She had no life outside of work and few friends. She loathed herself for being unable to escape the prison she had put herself in."
"I know this already," Maya muttered in a dismissive tone. But her eyes never left Rei's.
Rei continued without pause. "There are many people to be angry with in this situation. Commander Ikari for making her life miserable. Me for my part in his plans. Yourself for not being able to stop her death. But I believe the person you're most angry with is Ritsuko Akagi herself."
Maya gave a derisive laugh. "Oh, this is rich. You're a psychiatrist now? Go ahead then. Why am I angry at Ritsuko?" She laughed again. It was a harsh, mournful sound.
"Because she did not care enough about you to live for your sake."
Maya's laughter froze in her throat.
"She never trusted you enough to reveal her fears and insecurities while she was sober."
"Despite your obvious admiration and respect for her, she never reciprocated your desire to have a deeper relationship."
"You don't know what you're talking about!" Maya's body was trembling now.
"You hate her because she didn't consider how her death would affect you. You hate me because I found a reason to keep on living. You hate yourself because you couldn't be that reason for her. The guilt and shame you feel for such thoughts is too much for you to handle…"
"Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!"
Maya shook her head wildly back and forth with her hands clamped over her ears. Tears streamed out from her tightly closed eyelids and ran down her face.
Shinji may have had his misgivings, but his heart couldn't help but go out toward Maya. He took a step forward, but Rei had already knelt down and enveloped the former first lieutenant in her arms.
Maya weakly protested and struggled, but she subsided when Rei, with a warmth in her voice that hadn't been present a minute before, shushed her and told her that it was okay to cry.
And that's what Maya did. Great, heaving sobs of anguish and despair poured out of her while Rei gently rocked her back and forth and murmured comforting words.
"It's not fair… I miss her so much…"
Rei gently stroked Maya's hair. "I know."
"It is all right. Shush…"
Shinji felt a lump in the back of his throat. It looked like he had severely underestimated Rei. He knew that Rei had learned to be a comforting person, but he hadn't expected her to treat so kindly someone who had caused her so much pain. Rei looked very motherly as she soothed the older woman in her arms, and he almost didn't want to disturb them but the sudden chill in the night air told him that they should get going.
He cleared his throat. "Come on, Maya, we'll take you home."
A few minutes later, Shinji was in the driver's seat of Maya's car while the two women sat in the back. The ride to Maya's apartment was a silent one. After he pulled up in an empty parking space, he noticed that Rei had nodded off and was currently leaning against the car window.
He reached out to shake her awake when Maya grabbed his wrist. She said, "Let her sleep. You can return the car tomorrow. I have the day off anyway."
"Thank you," Shinji replied. He sensed that there was something more, so he waited patiently.
Maya looked at him with uncertain eyes and asked, "Why are you helping me?"
Shinji considered the question carefully, and then he replied, "I haven't exactly been the nicest person to Rei myself. Yet she was able to forgive me. Seems the least I can do is the same for you. As for Rei's reasons…"
Shinji glanced at the sleeping girl in the rearview mirror. "Look at her. The old Rei would have never dreamed of letting herself fall asleep while other people were around. She's changed and she knows it. I think she sees no reason why you can't change either."
Maya gave him a steady gaze. "And do you believe that?"
Shinji smiled. "People are always changing. But what you're really asking is whether you can change in a certain direction. That's really up to you, Maya, and nobody else."
Maya didn't look like she quite believed him, but she didn't contradict him either. Instead, she looked over at Rei. "I really hurt her, didn't I?"
Shinji kept his face impassive. "Yes, you did."
"I didn't really think that she could be hurt."
"I once thought that too. Now we both know better."
Maya bit her lip then she asked, "Can you tell her thanks for me?"
"Tell her yourself when we come by tomorrow," Shinji said.
Maya looked a little surprised, but she merely nodded in reply. She got out of the car and walked up the steps toward her building.
After making sure that she had made it safely inside, Shinji shifted gears and pulled the car away from the curb. He drove for about fifteen minutes before he was startled by the sound of an impact on the seat next to him.
"That's not safe," Shinji scolded mildly as he glanced over at Rei who was now sitting in the front passenger seat. It still amazed him how silently the girl could move when she wanted to.
Rei glanced at him oddly. "I am aware of that."
"No, I meant… never mind." Shinji's eyes flickered back onto the road. He said, "Maya's letting us borrow her car for tonight. I'll have to bring it back tomorrow."
"That saves us the trouble of coming up with an excuse to visit her again," Rei replied. "Her home is undoubtedly filthy and could use some maintenance. Depression is no excuse for not taking care of one's home or body."
Shinji couldn't repress his grin. "And what wise individual did you learn this advice from?"
"And my surprisingly insecure boyfriend," Rei added.
"Hmph," Shinji replied with mock annoyance.
"My apologies." Rei leaned over and gave him a kiss on the cheek. He really hoped that he wasn't blushing, but that hope was crushed by Rei's next words.
"I trust that you are no longer irritated."
Damn, she was a fast learner.
Shinji glanced at her out of the corner of his eye. "I must admit that I hadn't expected our first date to end like this."
Rei tilted her head in a familiar gesture of curiosity. "How did you expect it to turn out?"
"Uh, I don't know. Not really anything now that I think about it. What did you expect?"
"I did not expect anything." Rei turned her body so that she faced Shinji. "I have learned from you that when it comes to life one can not truly expect anything."
Shinji thought about all the events that had happened that night. "You're absolutely right. And speaking of the unexpected, want to drive to the park and watch the sun rise? It's one of those cheesy movie date things I've always wanted to do."
"The sun will not rise for another four hours," Rei informed him. "What will we do until then?"
Shinji could think of several things, but that was just his libido talking. He forced the unsavory thoughts from his head and said, "We could take a nap or just talk."
Rei nodded. She said, "Oh. I thought that we would be 'making out.' If I am using the term correctly."
Shinji swallowed hard. "Uh, we could do that too."
Too late, he noticed the amusement in Rei's eyes. She said, "Sohryu was right. Boys really are rather single-minded."
Shinji struggled for a rejoinder then he sputtered, "This is entrapment!"
Rei's small, feminine hand laid itself over his right forearm. She looked at him with a gentle expression and said, "I would enjoy watching the sun rise with you, Shinji."
Sometimes, Shinji felt like pinching himself to confirm that he wasn't dreaming. His life had grown progressively better since his days as a pilot. There would naturally be misfortunes, but he felt that he was strong enough to confront them now. That was because he had people in his life that he could rely on now to help him when he faltered.
He had somehow gotten Rei to learn that lesson for herself. Neither of them was lonely any longer. He was happy, and judging from the peaceful look on Rei's face, he was sure that she was happy as well.