Disclaimer: Evangelion is owned by Studio Gainax animation, not me. I claim no rights to their work, and will gladly remove this piece of fan-fiction from the web should they request it. Also note that I took some liberties with the fight against the ninth angel. This was necessary to create the scenario I wanted. Hopefully, it's believable enough not to be too much of an issue.

Chasing the Wind

By Random1377

Evangelion Unit 01 hit the already damaged office building at better than seventy-five miles per hour, smashing it to pieces like a rag doll thrown carelessly into a stack of blocks.

To put it mildly, it wasn't a good day.

Shinji Ikari shook his head to clear it and brought the giant mecha back to its feet, looking around frantically for the fast-moving angel. Where is it? he thought desperately, Can't lose it, gotta-

"On your left, idiot!"

Shinji threw his Unit to the right as one of the angel's razor-sharp legs shot out, skimming his purple machine's forearm. He hissed involuntarily as the brief contact set off a flare of pain in his own arm, painfully reminding him that the EVA was more an extension of himself than a mere suit of giant armor.

The voice of the Second Child, Asuka Langley Souryu, came to him again. "Get out of there, moron! You wanna end up like the First??"

Shinji risked a look in the direction Unit 00, Rei Ayanami's mecha, had been thrown less than twenty seconds prior, crashing to the ground in a swirl of dust which obscured its fate from his eyes.

"Have you been able to reach her yet?" he asked, quickly dodging another attack. He was worried about the blue-haired girl, She should be able to talk to us… he thought with some concern, God, please let her be ok…

"Like I have time for that!" the redhead said angrily, "In case you hadn't noticed, I've kind of been busy!"

Her Unit had also been hit, and was streaming blood from a hole in its chest. She was still in the fight, but things looked bad to Shinji.

Because in less than two and a half minutes, it would all be over…

"The main shaft is blocked…" Ritsuko Akagi said as the three Children finished suiting up, "so you'll have to use a secondary and attack the angel from the side."

"How are we supposed to fight it?" Asuka asked incredulously, "You said we only have a few minutes, right? That's not enough time to-"

"You can get to the surface in three minutes," Ritsuko cut her off, "and the extended battery-packs on your Units should give you enough time to kill it… but hurry."

"Plenty of time…" Shinji muttered at he watched Unit 02 make an aborted attempt to charge the angel… only to be driven back by the creature's legs. At least it can only use that acid with its bottom eye, he thought thankfully, I guess that's something….

"SHIEST!" Asuka screamed. "Ok, Shinji…" she said, her voice becoming businesslike, "here's what we're going to do. I'll attack the angel from one side, and you attack from the other. It's only got four legs – it can't attack us both, right?"

"Got it," Shinji said, nodding in approval, "but we have to do it fast… I've only got a minute and forty seconds left."

"Of course, dummy!" the redhead shot back, her fear making her snappish, "I didn't plan on taking my time. On three, ok?"

Shinji opened his mouth to agree… then froze as he spotted something in the wreckage to his left… something that filled his gut with ice and rendered him incapable of answering the Second Child.

"God…" he whispered softly, "Oh dear God…"

In her Unit, Asuka watched in confusion as Unit 01 stooped, scooping something up in its gargantuan hands. What is that idiot doing?? she thought, noting that the angel had apparently decided to continue its attack on Headquarters and was once again dribbling acid into the ever-widening main shaft. It'll be through soon, she thought, looking from the squat creature to the Third Child's mecha and back again, we have to hurry…

Asuka's blue eyes widened in horror as Unit 01 stood… and began running at top speed away from the battlefield, never once looking back.

"Shinji?!" Asuka's voice rang out over the tac-net, sounding panicked, "What are you doing?!?" Her voice grew small, "You-you're leaving me, too…?"

Shinji ignored her, his eyes locked on his mecha's gently clasped hands… his mind focused solely on the invaluable cargo within.

"Ok," Asuka said shakily, "I'll do it myself." She thrust forward on her control yokes, willing Unit 02 to rush the angel and hoping to take it off guard.

She didn't succeed…

**

In Unit 01's entry plug, the only sound was Shinji's labored breathing as he forced the mecha to move faster. The communications system was shut down, the external audio pickups were deactivated – even the secondary LCL filtration system was offline… all that mattered was running.

As the Tokyo-3 general hospital came into view, Unit 01 dropped unceremoniously to its knees, digging up huge furrows of earth as it skidded to a stop. Shinji activated the external broadcast system. "I need a doctor," he shouted, unable to hide the terror in his voice, "NOW!"

He knew that some doctors never left the hospital – even in spite of the evacuation orders… they were too dedicated to their vows. He prayed that they hurried, there was no time – no time at all.

Cautiously, a young, black-haired doctor peeked out of the building, biting his lower lip pensively. He slipped out the door and slowly approached the kneeling machine, addressing it as calmly as he could.

"How can I help you?"

Shinji lowered the Unit's hands, opening them with all the care of a child showing his mother a butterfly that had happened to light on his palm. The doctor's eyes widened as he beheld the body of a young girl, no more than nine years old, lying motionless in the enormous purple hand, her blood-streaked blonde hair spread around her head like a halo.

"NUUUUUUURRRRRRSE!!!!!!" the doctor shouted, running forward and climbing up onto the giant without any further hesitation.

Shinji watched as several other hospital staff members ran out of the building, carrying various supplies and instruments. "Save her…" the brown-haired pilot whispered, unaware of the choked quality of his voice, "you have to save her…"

The doctor made no reply, he was too busy checking the girl's life signs. "She's alive!" he said quickly, peering into the girl's light blue eyes one at a time with a small penlight, "Get that stretcher over here… she's in bad shape."

He looked up at the giant purple robot, wondering what kind of person piloted such a thing. He must have kids too, he thought, why else would he be so frantic? Hell, maybe it's HIS kid. He opened his mouth to tell the pilot that they would do what they could… but the machine's eyes suddenly went dark, and it slumped forward, a low whine issuing from it as its power cells went dry.

"Save her…" Shinji whispered again in the silent cockpit, realizing with a sense of horror that one way or the other, the fight was over now… but still hoping that the little girl would be ok.

He would have his answer when the retrieval crew pulled him out of the plug… and took him into custody.

**

The door to the holding cell slid open, but Shinji didn't look up.

Why bother?

"Ikari," a quiet voice said, "I would like to speak to you."

"What do you need, Ayanami?" the brown-haired boy asked, his voice dull as he continued to stare at the floor, "And why are you here? I'm supposed to be confined with no visitors… that's the sentence for a traitor." His lips quirked up a bit at the last word. Who ever thought I would get THAT title? he thought.

"I have permission," the blue-haired girl said, stepping into the cell, "from the Commander, and I would like to speak to you about what happened yesterday."

"Why?" Shinji asked, "I've already been spoken to… I've already been accused of crimes against humanity," he let out a deep sigh, "I've already been accused of being crazy…"

"The angel was defeated," Rei replied, "Pilot Souryu and I-"

"Yes," the Third Child cut her off, "I was informed…" he finally looked up, smiling faintly, "I heard that you were the one that really beat it."

Rei looked away. "No," she said quietly, "I simply utilized Unit 00 to hold the angel's legs as it brought them back to strike. Pilot Souryu delivered the killing stroke."

Shinji sighed. "I guess who did it doesn't really matter as long as it's dead. After all… killing the angels is all that really matters… right…?"

"Yes," the girl confirmed, "that is why we are here."

Silence descended as Shinji dropped his head, saying nothing more. I thought we were here to save people, he thought sadly, shows what I know.

Finally, Rei stepped closer. "I would like to ask you something," she said, coming to a halt in front of the despondent Child. I have not seen him like this before, she mused, perhaps he HAS been damaged mentally.

Shinji looked up at her again. "What, Ayanami?" he asked tiredly, "I've already been asked every question Misato, Ritsuko, and my father can think of… what could you possibly need to know that's not in a report somewhere?"

She frowned slightly. It wasn't like him to be this abrupt… and that was part of her question. Meeting his gaze steadily, she asked softly, "Why did you leave the battlefield?" Shinji blinked, the look on his face clearly indicating that he wondered if she had listening to what he just said about reports and questions. In the face of his silence, Rei clarified, "Why did you place the life of one child over the lives of everyone in NERV?"

He sighed and considered her probing red eyes for a long moment before answering. "I don't know…" he said softly, "when I saw her lying there… it was like nothing else mattered. I wanted to save her, Ayanami… just her. She was so…" his voice cracked slightly, but he pressed on, "so small."

Rei tilted her head to the side. "But you did not succeed…" she pointed out quietly.

Shinji shivered. "I know…" he whispered.

"Why are you crying?" the First asked, feeling an irrational urge to wipe the tears away.

"I failed, Ayanami…" he replied brokenly, "she died… I ran as fast as I could make Unit 01 go… but she still died – and for what? What good did it do? She was eight…" he wiped his eyes with his manacled hands, trying to keep from crying in front of the girl… and failing as he whispered, "eight years old…"

The blue-haired girl watched him weep for a moment before observing gently, "You feel responsible…"

"Unit 01 crushed the building she was standing by…" he answered after a moment, his voice hollow, "I moved her when she should have had a doctor come to her… and I couldn't get there fast enough…" his face crumpled once more, "I couldn't get there fast enough…"

Rei felt oddly conflicted. On the logical side, she knew that this was an irrational deduction. The girl should have been in a shelter anyway, and the fact that the building had been crushed was merely an unfortunate coincidence. On a deeper level, however, she felt that whether he was responsible or not, she should do something to comfort him, because she was… what, exactly…? What was the feeling she had?

"Ikari…" she said gently, shaking her head to clear the odd thoughts, "you tried."

Shinji shook his head slowly, and the First Child was stricken by the emptiness in his eyes as he stared at her, or rather – through her. "I've tried a lot of things, Ayanami," he said softly, "and all of them failed."

Rei frowned slightly, but said nothing.

"Why are you here, Ayanami?" Shinji asked after a moment.

She opened her mouth to reply that he already knew… then closed it and shook her head slowly. "I do not know," she admitted quietly, "I felt that I needed to see you."

For the first time since she had arrived, Shinji smiled. "Thank you, Rei…"

A slight blush suffused the blue-haired girl's cheeks. "You are… welcome…" she said, a touch confused by the odd feeling his words brought forth. Odd… she thought, odd that it should please me to hear something so simple.

"Is there anything else you needed?" Shinji asked quietly, "I don't think I can tell you anything more about what happened… and I don't really know if I can repeat it again anyway…"

Rei tilted her head to the side again, considering him for a long moment. "I would like to talk to you again, if that is acceptable…" she said simply.

As she turned and moved towards the door, Shinji called out, "Ayanami!" She turned back to face him, and he forced himself to meet her eyes. "I won't be here past tomorrow," he said, blushing a bit, "if you… really want to talk again… you'll have to wait until after my hearing and they decide what to do with me…"

Rei considered this for a moment before nodding. "I see," she replied quietly.

Shinji sighed and leaned back as the First Child left, wondering if he was going to be executed as a traitor… or simply stripped of his status and imprisoned. He decided that it didn't really matter one way or the other. What good is doing anything if I can't even save one life? he thought tiredly.

Shinji Ikari's eyes slipped closed and he slept, his dreams plagued by visions of a small girl with hair like the sun and eyes like the sky, and a smile that he knew – though he had never seen it – must have been like Heaven itself.

**

"I… what?" Shinji asked, his mouth hanging open.

"I don't think I was unclear," Kouzou Fuyutsuki replied, holding the young man's gaze steadily, "I said you are to be confined to Captain Katsuragi's apartment pending your first psychiatric visit. After that, you will be released to her care on the condition that you visit the psychiatrist twice a week."

"I… don't understand," Shinji said, confused as he looked from the older man to his father, Gendou Ikari, and back again, "this is my punishment?" Is this a joke? he thought, slightly dazed, This is like a slap on the wrist…

The sub-commander folded his arms as Gendou continued to stare in silence. "You were expecting to be executed perhaps?" he smiled faintly as the boy admitted that he had indeed considered that a possibility. "Perhaps you did not notice the fact that the angel was defeated… or that we are not well-stocked with spare pilots."

"B-but," Shinji stammered, "Asuka was almost killed."

"Pilot Souryu is unharmed," Fuyutsuki replied, "and all is well." He shook his head, "Do not mistake this for charity," he said calmly, "or believe that this was done because of your father. You will be confined to Captain Katsuragi's apartment and treated as if you are mentally unstable. Also, you will take medication for it, should the psychiatrist see fit."

"Yes sir…" the Third Child replied, his cheeks burning.

"Good… you are dismissed." As the younger Ikari turned to leave, Fuyutsuki added softly, "There will be a funeral service for Miss Kurasawa tomorrow. Her parents have asked that the pilot of Unit 01 attend."

Shinji stiffened, his heartbeat accelerating at the thought of facing the little girl's family… of explaining that he was the one that had been unable to save their little girl. "I don't think that I can-"

"As a representative of NERV," the old man cut him off, "you will be expected to conduct yourself accordingly. Is that clear?"

"Yes sir…" the boy replied, defeated.

"A car will pick you up at three," Fuyutsuki said, "be ready." As Shinji nodded and took his leave, the elder Ikari leaned back in his chair.

"Do you think he'll pilot again?" Fuyutsuki asked softly. The older man had maintained his calm through the entire exchanged with the young pilot, feeling rather out of place, but knowing it was his duty to be there.

"That's what the psychiatrist will tell us," Gendou replied smoothly, his forefinger drawing absent patterns on the arm of his chair, "but the Marduk Report is ready to 'find' the Fourth Child… just in case…"

"You are a hard man, Ikari…" Fuyutsuki said quietly, shaking his head in wonder, "he's your son – you could have a bit of compassion…"

"Compassion is a luxury, old friend…" the Commander retorted levelly, pushing his dark glasses further up on his nose, "and besides, it would have been very easy to deny the parents their request."

"Only if you're inhuman…" the older man whispered. Silence descended between them, broken finally by Gendou's quiet sigh.

"On to other business," the dark-haired man said firmly, leaning forward in his chair to examine the papers on his desk.

Fuyutsuki studied his former student's profile for a minute. No man should be as hard as you, he thought sadly. Shaking off thoughts of the Third Child's downcast face, the older man turned his attention to the work at hand.

**

Shinji opened the door to the apartment slowly, feeling like an intruder as he stepped across the threshold. The first visit is day after tomorrow, he thought tiredly, tomorrow… God, how am I going to face them? He slipped off his shoes and headed towards his room.

Misato had dropped him off, instructing him to go straight in. When he had asked where she was going, the purple-haired woman had shrugged, unable to look at the boy as she replied, 'Just driving.' She couldn't tell him that she had been instructed to treat him as if he were unbalanced… and that she had orders to 'disable' him, should she feel he was 'worsening.'

It didn't sit well with her that she had been told essentially that the boy she had lived with for months was crazy, might attack her, and should be shot if he did so. So she chose to escape for a few hours, feeling that a drive would clear her head… or at the very least keep her from facing reality for a little while longer.

Shinji would have understood. Running away was something he had a lot of experience with. At least she smiled at me, he thought as he passed the kitchen, I don't THINK she hates-

"Hey…"

A soft voice from the kitchen interrupted his thoughts, and he stopped walking, turning to look for the source. "Asuka," he said, swallowing hard as he found the Second Child sitting at the table, a piece of toast in her hands and an unreadable look on her face.

"Well, well," the redhead whispered, absently pulling the crust off of the bread as she gazed at the brown-haired boy, "if it isn't the famous Third Child."

Shinji averted his eyes. "I'm… glad you're ok, Asuka…" he said truthfully, "I'm sorry that-"

"You left me to die," Asuka cut him off flatly, methodically crumbling the toast in her hands and letting the crumbs fall as she went on, "you fucked me over, Third Child… you think 'I'm sorry' is really going to make up for that?" She continued to stare at him, unblinking as she added, "Would 'sorry' bring me back if that thing had killed me?"

Shinji flinched at the odd, hollow quality of her voice, turning back to face her. "I'm really… what is that?" he asked curiously, finally taking note of the shoebox sitting on the table in front of the redhead.

Asuka's azure eyes met his, making him shiver from the intensity of the unstated emotion behind them. "Want to see?" she asked softly.

The Third Child nodded and stepped closer, his eyes widening as he looked into the box. A pair of oil-black eyes peered up at him as he found a small, plain brown field mouse inside, daintily eating the crumbled toast. A small, unconscious smile crept across the boy's lips as he watched the small creature feeding… never noticing the intense stare the girl sitting at the table was giving him.

"Cute, huh?" the redhead asked softly, studying the Third Child's profile closely as she got to her feet, "So small… and helpless…"

Shinji shivered. "What are you going to do with it?" he asked, feeling suddenly cold. It must have come from another apartment, he thought, frowning as the redhead withheld her reply for a moment, probably came in through one of the vents.

"Shouldn't I kill it, Shinji?" the girl answered, leaning closer to him and whispering in his ear, "Isn't that what you do with vermin…?"

Shinji felt his mouth going dry as he slowly looked up from the small rodent (who had finished its meal and begun cleaning itself with its paws) and into Asuka's face. He swallowed, hearing his throat click as he identified the emotion in her eyes: rage. "Asuka…" he breathed, trying to back away.

The Second Child's hand shot out, catching the Third's before he could escape. "Isn't it soft, Shinji?" she asked quietly, pulling his hand forward to stroke the tiny being, "Don't you want to protect it… Shinji…?" She nodded as he froze, a small whimper coming from somewhere deep in his chest. "Would you save it from me?" she breathed against his ear, "Would you hurt me to do it? We haven't known each other very long… would you chose it over me, Shinji?"

The brown-haired boy moaned miserably. "Why are you doing this?" he asked brokenly, "Asuka, I-"

"Shhh…" the redhead whispered, "don't answer yet, Third Child… I want you to think about it… I want to know how far you'll go to protect all the weak and helpless things in the world." Her lips brushed across his ear, "Misato told me not to tease you, Shinji," she breathed, "she said you would be… fragile when you got back – but she hasn't once asked me how I felt about being forced to rely on fucking Wondergirl, of all people." She paused, "Do you know how I feel, Shinji?"

"You're mad…" the Third Child whispered tremulously, "mad at me, and you-"

"I'm not mad anymore," Asuka interrupted, her grip on his hand tightening slightly, "there isn't a word that I know of to describe how I feel right now." She ran her lips across his ear again, her voice dropping so low he could barely hear it, "Do you want to protect me, Shinji…? Am I weak?"

The Third Child shook his head, trembling at the conflicting signals she was giving off. He wasn't sure if she was going to grab a steak knife and impale him… or kiss him – and truth be told, either would have been a welcome change from not knowing. "You're not weak," he answered softly, forcing himself to speak as she continued to make him pet the mouse, "but… but I would protect you… Asuka…"

"I don't need you to," the redhead whispered flatly, abruptly letting him go and stepping away as he slumped forward. "I don't need anyone, Third Child, and if you ever pull some shit like that again, I will definitely fuck you up!"

As she started for the door, Shinji spoke again, fighting the urge to just let her leave… knowing she would never trust him if he didn't say what was on his mind. "Asuka," he began softly, "I know you don't need me, and I know I messed up… but I'd still protect you if I ever thought you were in trouble… I'm sorry if you hate me for that, but-"

"Why?" the Second Child cut him off, her back still facing him, "Why, Shinji? I've told you I don't need – or want – your help. Why would you even say that you would still try and protect me?" she turned look at him over her shoulder, "Are you deliberately trying to piss me off, or do you just think I'm so pathetic that I'll fall into your arms and scream, 'oh Shinji, you're so strong! Hold me! Protect me!' is that it?"

"No," Shinji said softly, frowning down at the small creature, wondering if the redhead was truly planning to kill the poor thing, "because you're my friend." He considered adding more to this simple statement, explaining what friendship meant to him… but he knew it wouldn't matter. She would do whatever she felt she needed to, and no amount of talking would change her mind now… but at least he had told her why.

There was a long silence in the kitchen as Asuka considered his words. Finally she turned away, gesturing absently at the box and whispering, "Do what you want with the thing…"

Shinji couldn't help smiling as some of the tension left him. "Thank you, Asuka…" he said quietly, "and I'm really sor-"

"Don't…"

Shinji bit back the rest of his sentence and bowed his head as Asuka walked to her room, opening the door and slipping inside without another word.

**

It should be raining… or at least darker than this… Shinji thought, looking up at the perfect, cloudless sky as the priest continued to talk about the young girl's short life.

The funeral was lengthier than he had ever dreamed possible… or perhaps it was only his perception of it, but either way, he longed for it to end, struggling not to fidget as the man went on about the little girl's friends, hobbies and activities. Since the family had been Christian, it had been a bit of a culture shock for Shinji, as they not only insisted on a casket, rather than the customary crematory urn, but a preacher and flowers as well… and they had opted to have the funeral outdoors instead of in the family's shrine at home. Misato had accompanied the brown-haired boy, (having no real choice, since she was technically his jailer) and sat silently at his side, staring at her folded hands with a small frown on her pretty face.

Even in white, she looks gorgeous… the pilot mused, considering his guardian's modestly cut dress, but I think I like her flight jacket better.

They rose as the black-haired preacher concluded the eulogy, bowing their heads in prayer as the coffin was lowered slowly into the ground. Misato closed her eyes, unable to watch as the heavy wooden casket disappeared into the earth. She had seen too much of this ritual… and she hoped it would be years before she was forced witness it again.

"Momiji's parents would like to say a few words," the priest announced, gesturing to a middle-aged couple, flanked by a boy of about twelve and a girl who looked to be sixteen, both possessing the same sunny blonde hair that Shinji had seen on the young girl.

The couple stood and turned to face the rest of the crowd. "We'd like to thank you all for coming," the father said, his voice strong, but subdued, "I know Momiji would be happy to see so many familiar faces." He smiled, casting his eyes downward, "Of course… it wasn't that hard to make her happy – usually just getting out of bed did that for her."

He swallowed laboriously, taking a deep breath before going on. "I've… never been too good at… at saying what's on my mind," he said quietly, shaking a bit as his wife laid her hand comfortingly on his shoulder, "but I know that I have to say this… for her." He raised his head, ignoring the tears that had begun sliding down his cheeks. "I know that… if she was here, she'd be smiling… because that's what she did best, and…" he put his hand over his mouth, "I'm sorry…"

Shinji closed his eyes as the man returned to his seat, unable to finish.

Momiji's mother kissed her husband's hand gently, looking at him steadily. "What Keiichi is trying to say," she said in a soft, soothing voice, speaking more to the man beside her than the rest of the crowd, "is that Momiji wouldn't want to see everyone sad – that's not the way she was. She would want everyone to be happy… to talk, and laugh, and smile."

She smiled herself, looking out over the crowd, "We've decided to cancel the gathering we had planned…" she announced gently, "instead, we'd like you all to go out, with your families… and be happy." She looked back to her husband, her voice dropping to a whisper, "And smile…"

Slowly, the morose crowd began to disperse, many of them forcing smiles as they approached the couple to offer their condolences. "Come on, Shinji…" Misato said softly as the crowd began thinning, "let's go talk to them."

Shinji looked around, suddenly desperate to find a way out as the reality of facing the girl's family was suddenly thrust before him. Calming a bit, he nodded. "Ok," he sighed shakily, "let's go…"

Misato approached them first, bowing formally as they turned to face her. "Mister and Misses Kurasawa," she said quietly, "my name is Misato Katsuragi, Director of Operations for NERV." She stepped the side, putting a hand on Shinji's shoulder as he stepped up beside her, "This is Shinji Ikari, the pilot of Evangelion Unit 01."

Shinji swallowed as the family scrutinized him, their reactions varying from surprise, from the mother, to admiration, from the son… to open hostility, from the father.

"I'm… very sorry for your loss," he said softly, unable to look at their eyes, "I really tried to… to…" he trailed off. They don't want to hear that you tried, he thought sadly, they probably don't want anything but your resignation. He had reasoned that this was why they had wanted to meet Unit 01's pilot – what else could they want? He had killed their daughter.

"Mister Ikari," the girl's mother said, stepping closer to him, "please forgive me for this." Shinji closed his eyes, fully expecting to be slapped. Instead, he found himself being embraced by the woman. "Thank you," she whispered softly, "thank you for trying to save my baby."

The brown-haired boy simply froze, unable to believe his ears. The division between husband and wife was driven home with brutal force as Momiji's father muttered, "You don't have to hug him, Kozue…"

The woman released Shinji, sighing softly and stepping back. Misato could see in the tightness around her eyes that Kozue Kurasawa shared her husband's displeasure… if not to the same extent, at least partially. Regardless of how hard a doctor, or firefighter, or person off the street TRIES to save a life, ultimately, should they fail, there is still a certain amount of anger that the individual's family members will hold.

The difference between the two Kurasawas was simply that the mother could see past her pain and sorrow, and recognize that Shinji had at least done what he could. "Keiichi," she murmured, blushing slightly, "hush…"

Shinji flushed. "Well, I…" he really didn't know what to say. Of all the scenarios in his mind, this one had never even surfaced. He had expected the anger… but not the hug, or the thanks. "I'm sorry I wasn't faster," he whispered finally, "I'm so sorry…"

"You tried," the girl's mother said softly, "and that's more than many would have done." She bowed her head, smiling sadly, "Even though she's gone, you still did all you could do… and you'll always be a hero to us, Shinji Ikari…" before the Third Child could reply, the woman reached into her purse. "Please take this," she said quietly, offering Shinji a small, stuffed owl, "it was Momiji's favorite… and it would mean a lot to us if you had it."

Shinji stared at the small, brown toy as if it was some form of exotic (and poisonous) reptile, waiting to strike at him the moment he reached out.

"Thank you," Misato said smoothly, accepting the gift for the dumbfounded youth, "I'm afraid Shinji and I need to get back to NERV now." She bowed again, "I'm sorry for your loss." She gently turned the still-silent pilot around, saying quietly, "Let's go, Shinji…"

"Please wait," a quiet voice said behind them as they started to move away. Shinji turned to find Momiji's sister stepping forward, "Mister Ikari," she said formally, "I don't think my mom made it clear to you exactly how much what you did means to us." She took a deep breath, "I had another younger sister, she was between Momiji and me… and she died in the second angel attack." She held the young man's eyes with her own, "She was also crushed by some debris, Mister Ikari… but no one tried to save her. By the time they found her, it was too late." She bowed to Shinji. "I know – we know – that you wanted to save her, Mister Ikari… and that means a lot more to us than the fact that you weren't able to." Keeping her head low, she added, "Please… forgive my father his rudeness. Momiji was… somewhat of a favorite, and I think, maybe… he still expects to wake up from a bad dream."

Shinji's mouth worked, but no words came out. Finally, he simply nodded, wishing that he could express to the girl just how much her words affected him. The girl smiled sadly, just the barest upturn at the corners of her lips, and returned his nod, seeming to understand at least part of how he felt.

"Come on," Misato said gently, leading the young man away from the girl's family and back to the car, "let's get home, Shinji… you look worn out." Shinji just nodded and slid into the car, looking back over the seemingly endless rows of tombstones to where the family was still watching him.

The girl waved to him, yelling something that was lost in the distance before turning to embrace her mother.

**

"You won't need to go to school today," Misato said quietly, resting her head against Shinji's door as the rustling of clothes reached her ears from within, "probably tomorrow, though, after… after the doctor says it's ok." She forced a smile as his room grew quiet, trying to put some levity into her voice, "I guess he has to figure out if you're loopy." Her smile fell away, and she sighed, turning to lean against the wall beside his door and slide to the ground, pulling one leg up and resting her arms on her knee.

There was a moment of silence, then Shinji's voice whispered softly from the other side of the door, "Do you think I am… Misato?"

The purple-haired woman said nothing for a moment, her brown eyes locking with the Second Child's ice-blue ones as the girl slung her backpack over her shoulder. She shook her head as the younger woman turned to leave. "Shinji," she said softly, watching the redhead depart, "as your guardian and, I hope, friend, I think it was heroic that you would try to save that girl," she paused, taking a deep breath, "But as your commanding officer, I think it was stupid. You betrayed your fellow pilots, you betrayed me, and betrayed the other three billion people who depend on you to keep the world safe."

She waited for a moment, then went on. "Shinji," she said, looking down at the floor, "I don't think you're crazy. But I do think you need some time to sort some things out. Arrange your priorities. I need to know I can trust you again." She sighed, "I think you're very brave… you just need to decide what's most important…"

"Brave…" Shinji echoed, his voice almost inaudible as he pondered the things she had said, "sure doesn't feel that way. Asuka hates me… my father thinks I'm insane… and I haven't been able to talk to my friends." He issued a small, sad chuckle, "Yeah… I'm a hero…"

Misato sighed softly, her eyes unconsciously finding the little girl's stuffed owl, barely visible on one of the small end tables in the living room. Hero, she mused, that's what the Kurasawa woman called him. To Shinji she said, "Heroes don't always win," she pulled her eyes away from the toy bird, bowing her head, "but they always do what they can, Shinji…"

"How long before my appointment…?" the boy asked quietly.

His guardian closed her eyes. "It's in three hours," she told him, "do you want me to order something for lunch? I will, if you want…" she hoped he would say yes – she needed him to say yes… to let her do something for him, to allow her to ease at least some of the burden. God, she thought tiredly, opening her eyes and tilting her head back until it touched the wall, is this what having kids is like? Never thought anything could be this hard…

Shinji's door slid quietly open and the brown-haired boy emerged, looking down at the Operations Director. "I'll just make something," he said softly, "what do you want, Misato?" He smiled weakly as the woman awkwardly told him that he really didn't need to, "I do need to," he whispered, "I really need to… it's something I would do anyway – please don't make me just sit around, Misato… please…?"

Misato looked up at him, nodding reluctantly. "Whatever you want to make is fine," she said quietly, "I'm easy…" she smiled, "well… not easy, but you know what I mean." Her heart lifted as Shinji's face lightened a bit, a small smile appearing at the corners of his lips. "About Asuka," she said softly, meeting the boy's eyes levelly, "just give her some time, ok? I think she's more scared than mad, and once she has some time to cool down, she'll understand."

Shinji sighed. "I don't know," he said quietly, "she… hasn't said much to me since the fight." He had decided not to tell the purple-haired woman about Asuka's conversation with him in the kitchen, since he felt that the redhead was well within her rights to be mad at him.

The Operations Director blushed slightly but didn't look away. Asuka had told her about talking to Shinji – had thrown it at her almost, as if she was daring the older woman to punish her for it. She's confused, Misato reasoned, gazing up at the brown-haired Child in front of her, he's confused – fuck, everyone's confused… it's just a fucked up situation all the way around.

"Do you want some ramen?" Shinji asked after a moment, "I'll make anything you want…" Anything at all, he added mentally, if you'll just let me DO something – even just cooking. God, if I can just pretend none of this ever happened… just for a little while.

Misato smiled. "Ramen sounds really good," she admitted, "I didn't get any dinner last night, so I'm kinda hungry." She wished suddenly that they had the kind of relationship that was based more on touch. She longed to hug him, to cradle him in her arms like he was her son and whisper words of comfort to him until all of his fear went away.

Shinji's smile was so pathetic in its gratefulness that Misato almost sobbed. "I'll get started," the boy said happily, turning to head towards the kitchen, "just need to get out the big frying p-" He broke off abruptly as Misato's hand shot out, grasping his gently. He looked down to where she was touching him, his eyes moving slowly, confusedly up her arm to her face.

Misato's eyes were glued to their linked hands, her expression almost comically amazed. She looked up, meeting his questioning gaze with wide eyes. She licked her lips, trying to tell him what was on her mind… how she wanted to comfort him… how she wanted to keep him safe… how she wanted to see him happy… but she found herself incapable of speech.

How long they might have stayed there, staring at one another in silence, is anyone's guess. As it is, the moment was shattered by the sound of the doorbell. "I'll get that," Misato said quickly, releasing his hand and getting swiftly to her feet, "why don't you, umm… start cooking…"

Shinji simply nodded, his eyes focusing on his hand, trying to remember exactly how her touch had felt. I should have said something, he thought, still amazed at the little encounter, I should have hugged her. He shook himself, Yeah, he mused sadly, then maybe she would have read me a bedtime story. God, I'm such an idiot, she was just being nice. But still, he couldn't banish the sensation of having her hand in his from his mind… and he secretly hoped that it might happen again sometime.

Misato's face was flushed as she reached the door. I should have said something, she thought, kicking herself mentally, I should have hugged him… told him it was ok. I hope he doesn't think I'm a freak now – or that I was putting the moves on him… God, that's the last thing I- her thought process was interrupted as she opened the door, finding, "Rei?"

"Hello, Captain Katsuragi," the blue-haired girl greeted her quietly, "I am here to see Ikari." She waited in silence as the woman collected herself, wondering why she looked so confused. It is not an abnormal request, she thought as the purple-haired woman finally nodded.

"Sure, Rei," Misato said, stepping to the side, "he's in the kitchen." She watched the First Child step past her without another word, closing the door and following curiously. Why is she here? she thought, Commander Ikari didn't say anything about not allowing visitors, but she's sure the last person I thought would up and stop by…

Shinji seemed to feel the same way, or so Misato guessed as the boy almost dropped the carrots he had been retrieving from the fridge as he turned to find Rei standing in the doorway. "Ayanami," he said after gathering his wits, "hi."

"I would like to continue the conversation we started while you were detained," Rei said softly, not bothering to greet the boy.

Shinji hesitated, looking from his guardian to the First Child and back again. "Umm… let me get this going," he said quietly, gesturing to the pan, "then we can talk while it cooks… ok?" He smiled timidly, "You can stay if you'd like… for lunch…"

Rei looked over the collected ingredients. "I… dislike the taste of meat," she said quietly, her eyes lighting on the beef strips on the counter.

"I can leave those out," Shinji said with a shrug.

"Then I accept," the blue-haired girl said, watching him expectantly.

"You going to cook?" Misato said, arching an eyebrow at her charge. As the boy blinked, stammering an apology and pulling out a cutting board, the purple-haired woman turned to Rei. "So… you visited Shinji…" she said thoughtfully, dropping the girl a wink, "have some trouble with your homework, Rei?"

Rei turned her red eyes to the older woman, replying blandly, "My grades are currently above average, Captain." She turned away, "Furthermore, I do not believe it would be appropriate tell you what we discussed, as that would be a private matter between Ikari and myself."

The purple-haired woman stared at the girl for a minute. Is she trying to make a joke? she thought, confused. Deciding that the younger woman was, in fact, quite serious, Misato chose the less-than-tactful route, unwilling to be denied the last word. "Forgive me, Rei," she said dryly, "I won't pry into your personal matters further, but umm…" she paused for a moment, smiling sweetly, "just so I know, should I avoid knocking on the door while you're alone with Shinji in his room? I wouldn't want to interrupt anything… private."

As Shinji stammered that nothing was going on, Rei turned back to the Operations Director, stopping Shinji's fumbling in its tracks by stating flatly, "Yes."

**

"The Captain is most excitable," Rei observed several minutes later as they headed towards Shinji's room.

"I know, Ayanami," Shinji replied, shaking his head as he once again pictured the look of shock on Misato's face, "I just think you caught her a little off guard, that's all." He smiled, sliding the door to his room open, "I'm sure she would have had a comeback in another minute or two." Stepping into his room, he looked back at the First Child, "Is something wrong?" he asked as she remained in the hall.

The blue-haired girl inclined her head slightly. "There is a rodent in your room," she pointed out.

Shinji followed her line of sight. "Oh," he said, smiling softly as he leaned down to scoop up a few errant clothes, "he won't hurt you."

Rei stared at the small creature, her red eyes assessing its black ones as it stared unconcernedly back at her from its small, wire cage. "Why is it there?" she inquired, still not moving from her place in the doorway, "Are rodents not vermin?"

Shinji dropped the clothes into the small hamper by the wall, slowly straightening. Vermin… he thought, frowning slightly, that's what Asuka said. To Rei he replied, "Sometimes… but sometimes they're pets."

"What purpose does a pet serve?" the blue-haired girl asked skeptically.

"They just…" Shinji struggled for the right words, "make you feel good," he said with a shrug, "it's nice to know that there's someone, or something, that looks forward to seeing you, even if it's just because you feed them." He sighed, sitting on the edge of his bed, "I guess… everyone needs something, even if it's just a little companionship."

Rei's red eyes strayed to his blue ones, meeting his gaze for a long moment. "What do you need, Ikari?" she whispered.

The brown-haired boy blinked in surprise, unprepared to have his (insightful, he thought) observation thrown back at him in the form of a question. "Umm…" he hummed softly, "I… need to feed him," he said, looking away from her intense stare, "that's what I need right now."

The First was not so easily distracted. "Do you need companionship?" she asked quietly, "Or are you seeking more, Ikari?" Finally stepped into the room as he rose from his bed, turning to the small animal's cage.

After a moment of silently regarding the mouse, the young man's shoulders slumped slightly. "I don't know, Rei," he whispered, watching the animal burrow into its small nest of cedar chips (recommended by the pet shop clerk to Misato when Shinji had asked her to pick up the cage). "I want to believe in something, I guess… to believe that I'm doing this all for a reason…"

For a moment, Rei was silent. Then, stepping closer to Shinji, she said softly, "Belief must come from within, Ikari." As Shinji looked at her, surprised, she nodded. "I do not know much on the topic," the blue-haired pilot admitted quietly, shifting her gaze and looking down at the rodent with a small frown, "but from what I have gathered, you must allow yourself to believe. It cannot be forced."

"What do you believe in, Ayanami?" Shinji asked quietly.

"I believe in Commander Ikari," the girl replied without hesitation, "though many do not. I do not question him." Her frown intensified slightly as the brown creature rose up on its hind legs, scenting the air in her direction and once again staring at her.

An uncomfortable silence descended on them, broken finally when Shinji cleared his throat. "Would you like to feed him?" he asked, smiling weakly as he added, "The mouse, not my father…"

Rei blinked. Why would I feed the Comm… her thought trailed off as she realized he was joking. She looked from the mouse to the boy, considering his offer for a moment. It is a vermin creature, she thought as she looked back down at the thing's black eyes, but it is caged… it cannot harm me, and Ikari believes it to be alright. After another, slightly less awkward silence, she nodded. "Yes," she said simply.

Shinji released a breath he was not even aware he was holding, reaching down and picking up a small box of the food Misato had bought for him. Have to remember to thank her again, he thought, methodically shaking a handful of pellets into a small bowl and handing it to Rei. "If you pinch one between your fingers," he said quietly, "he'll take it from you… he's really smart."

The blue-haired girl nodded, doing as she was instructed. She pushed the pellet through the bars of the cage, forcing herself to remain still as the small creature bounded over to her and reached up, its paws brushing her fingertips as it took the morsel.

Shinji looked dejected as Rei handed him back the bowl, wiping her hand unconsciously on her school skirt with an unmistakable frown. "I have changed my mind," she said softly, "I would rather not feed it."

"That's ok," the brown-haired boy said, opening the cage from the top and placing the bowl carefully inside. Guess I shouldn't have expected her to start fawning, he thought, still a bit disappointed.

"I do not understand you, Ikari," the First Child said softly, shaking her head slightly. You are willing to sacrifice the lives of everyone you know and work with to save a child you do not know, she thought with a frown, and you are willing to keep a creature that is considered vermin as a pet. And yet… you do not know what you believe in, nor do you seem to want to find out. She looked once more at the rodent, "I do not understand…"

Shinji flushed at the critical, almost accusing tone of her voice – as if it was his fault somehow for not explaining it properly. "I don't understand me either…" he whispered finally, unable to look at her.

Rei considered this for a moment, then turned and walked towards the door, whispering, "Goodbye." There is no reason for me to be here, she thought, I cannot understand.

The Third brought his head back up, opening his mouth to call to her… but it was too late, she had already gone. "Hey," he whispered, turning to watch the small mouse as it ate contentedly, "you're a vermin. Does that hurt?" The creature continued feeding, munching its pellets without so much as looking up at the boy addressing it. "Must be nice," Shinji said quietly, "never having to worry about what people think of you."

Slowly, he sat down on his bed, leaning back against the wall to watch the animal feed. He closed his eyes as his nose informed him of what his guardian announced a moment later. "Shinji?" Misato's voice reached him, "I think the food's burned, I wasn't paying attention, I guess… sorry…"

"Yeah…" Shinji whispered.

**

"So, Mister Ikari… why don't you tell me about yourself."

Shinji fidgeted with the collection of glass paperweights on the doctor's desk, his eyes wandering around the sparsely (though comfortably) furnished office, taking in all of the certificates and diplomas on the wall. His eyes lighted on one displayed proudly over the desk, declaring that Kentaro Fujiama was indeed a licensed psychiatrist.

They had already gone through the prerequisite, 'I thought there'd be a couch in here/that's mostly just a movie thing,' exchange, and were each sitting in one of the two leather-padded armchairs in the room.

"I don't know what to tell you," Shinji said after a minute, still looking around, "I'm sure you have a file or something on me…"

"Of course," Kentaro said brightly, "but I want to hear what you have to say. It's my experience that 'official' documents tend to be impersonal – and often incorrect." He smiled reassuringly, "and you can tell me anything you want to – I'll listen to whatever you have to say."

Shinji looked at the tape recorder sitting on the edge of the desk. It wasn't so different from his SDAT, though it had a larger capacity tape, and an auto- shutoff to conserve space when no one was talking. Must be really expensive, he thought idly. To the doctor he said, "I don't even know what to talk about…"

Kentaro bit the end of his pen thoughtfully for a moment before answering, "Well, I could come up with a topic… but I'm a bit of a green-thumb – I love my garden – and you don't strike me as much of a florist, am I right?" He smiled indulgently as the boy nodded, "Really, though… we can talk about whatever you want, as long as it's something you want to talk about."

Though he was smiling on the outside, inside the doctor was seething with anger. This kid is messed up, he thought, that much pressure… and he's never once had an evaluation – not one! He waited as the boy continued to look around, That doctor that worked on the girl… what was his name? Anderson, that's it… foreign guy. Even he knew something was wrong from just the few words the kid said to him…

"I have a mouse…" Shinji said finally.

"I have a gecko," Kentaro countered easily, "it likes crickets. What do you feed your mouse, Shinji?" This is something, anyway, he thought with some approval, not in his file… and I only had to prompt three times. Maybe there's some hope after all.

The boy shrugged. "Mouse food," he said with an awkward smile, "I didn't really read the box."

"Long as the mouse likes it, right?" the doctor said with a wink, "Is it a boy or a girl?" he inquired, "What's its name?"

Shinji averted his eyes. "I… don't know if it's a boy or a girl," he admitted, "I don't know how to check, but I call it a boy."

"Why?" Kentaro asked curiously.

"I don't know…" the brown-haired boy admitted, "just… seems like a boy to me…"

"Well," the doctor said with a laugh, "Lucy, my gecko, is definitely a female. Demanding, irritable – downright hard to live with sometimes… but very, very cute."

"Lucy?" Shinji echoed.

"It's from an old, old show," Kentaro said with a smile, pleased to actually be interacting with the boy, "so what's your mouse's name?"

"I… haven't given him one yet," the pilot admitted.

"Really…" Kentaro said thoughtfully, "trying to find the right one?"

Shinji's reply sent warning bells through the doctor's mind. "No," he said softly, "just didn't give him one."

Any parent will tell you, the first thing a child does when he or she gets a pet is give it a name. It's a way to make the child closer to the animal, to make it seem more like a family member. Sometimes a child will come up with a name long before even seeing the pet they would be naming.

For the boy to have a pet, even a small one like a mouse, and not name it… just didn't sit well with the doctor. He had two children of his own, and every time a new pet was introduced into the house, the naming of the creature was like a family event, with each member giving their input and arguing good-naturedly over why theirs was superior.

Instead of the direct approach, Kentaro chose a roundabout line of questioning, deciding to sneak up on the topic of naming rather than tackle it head on. "Where did you get him?" he asked, "Pet store? Friend of yours?"

The Third Child bristled slightly, staring at the back of his hands for a moment before answering simply: "Asuka."

Sensing danger, the doctor changed tactics yet again. "What does your guardian, Captain Katsuragi, think of you keeping him in the house? I know a lot of women don't like mice… kinda one of those stereotypes that's true, I suppose."

Shinji shrugged. "She said it was fine," he said, "she was the one who bought the cage and food for him…" he smiled halfheartedly, "and she likes the name Akira…"

"Do you?" Kentaro probed, thrilled that the boy had come back to the topic of naming on his own.

"It's ok I guess," the young man replied, his tone noncommittal.

"Tell me about school…" the doctor said, deciding that he needed time to ponder the boy's odd lack of interest in something that he considered rather commonplace. He listened as the brown-haired youth briefly outlined his relationships with his classmates and teachers, asking questions from time to time to clarify or to encourage him to go on.

After a while, he looked at his watch. "Well, Shinji… time's just about up."

The Third Child frowned slightly. "Aren't you going to ask me about the EVAs?" he wondered, "Or… Momiji?"

Kentaro shrugged. "Do you want to talk about those things?" when Shinji shook his head, the doctor went on, "Well then… we won't. Like I said, I'll listen to whatever you want to talk about, Shinji… but how 'bout we make a deal." He leaned forward, regarding the boy closely as he said, "I'll let you choose the topic – whatever you want to talk about… but you have to agree to talk about something that you want to talk about, not what you think I want to hear… ok?"

Shinji thought about this briefly, then nodded. "Ok," he said, cautiously optimistic, "so… you won't make me talk about EVA?"

"I won't make you talk about anything, Shinji," the older man replied, "all I ask is that you share your life with me, truly share – not just talking about your homework, or what you had for breakfast… I want to hear about you and the things you like." He smiled, rising to his feet, "It was a pleasure to meet you, Shinji," he said, extending his hand, "I'll talk to you again in three days."

As Shinji took his leave, Kentaro sighed and sat at his desk, picking up the receiver and calling the number he had been provided. After identifying himself, he was transferred to the person he was to report to and quickly ran down his observations on the Third Child.

"Then he will pilot again?" the man on the other side of the phone inquired.

"I believe so," Kentaro said with a sigh, "but he is not a happy child."

There was a brief pause on the other end before the man replied. "Will he pilot? Yes or no?"

Kentaro pinched the bridge of his nose. "Yes, but-" before he could finish, the line went dead. Returning the handset to the cradle, the doctor went on, "but he's incredibly unhappy… and I think he's going to get worse unless someone tells him, 'I'm your friend.'" He sighed. "And that can't be me… he already thinks of me as 'His Doctor,' he'll never open up to me like he would to a friend of his."

He glanced at the picture of his wife and two daughters, then closed his eyes and leaned back in his chair. I'll help you… he thought, just let me, Shinji…

After a few minutes, Kentaro opened his eyes, gathered his papers, and headed home to the family that he knew loved him… though for the life of him, he could not shake the image of Shinji's face as he said, 'I just didn't give him one.'

For some odd reason, he hoped very strongly that Shinji would have a name for the small creature before their next session.

**

Asuka looked up from packing her schoolbooks into her backpack as a soft, diffident voice spoke to her. "Pilot Souryu…?"

The redhead narrowed her eyes at the blue-haired girl standing by her desk. "Thought you didn't want to be friends," she muttered darkly, "were you finally ordered to talk to me, or something?"

The last time she had approached the First Child, she had been brushed aside. Granted, she had been a bit flippant about the whole affair, but being dismissed by the red-eyed girl – who had barely even looked up from her book – had galled the Second Child… she wasn't terribly keen on trying a second time.

"No," Rei replied calmly, holding the other girl's gaze, "I would like to discuss Ikari."

Asuka's brow drew down dangerously. "I don't want to 'discuss Ikari,'" she said flatly, "go away."

The First Child frowned slightly, wondering how to proceed. It was the second day after Shinji had returned to school, and she still found herself puzzling over his odd behavior… but a new wrinkle had been added to her musing, in that she was now curious about the boy himself, and not just his actions.

"Why don't you just talk to him?" the redhead asked, shouldering her backpack and shooting a glance over at where Shinji was still sitting at his desk, waiting for Misato to pick him up. The purple-haired woman had been ordered to take Shinji to and from school until after the second psychiatric evaluation… just for safety's sake, of course. "Better yet," Asuka said with a malicious grin, "why don't you ask his rat?"

The fact that the boy had kept the small creature inexplicably upset the redhead, though she knew she should have expected it. He was soft, after all, right? Why wouldn't he go out of his way for a tiny, pathetic little mouse?

"I do not understand his answers," the blue-haired girl answered truthfully, "and his rodent is uncommunicative." As the Second Child gaped at her, momentarily taken aback by the idea that Rei might have actually spoken to the mouse, she continued, "You are his housemate, and would have the opportunity to observe him on a daily basis."

Asuka stared at Shinji for a moment as he simply sat there, his hands folded in front of him and a blank expression on his face. She knew that his friends had tried to cheer him up, but there was only so much they could do – not that she cared mind you… of course she didn't. She was still far too mad to actually have anything but contempt for the brown-haired boy… right?

"What do you want to know?" the redhead asked softly, not looking away from the Third Child. I DON'T care… she thought sullenly, he's just a loser – a little wimp that runs away from anything important. She bit her bottom lip pensively as Touji Suzuhara and Kensuke Aida, two of Shinji's friends, approached him, smiling reassuringly as they spoke to him, So why did he try to save her… why did he risk so much?

"I would like to know what he is like," Rei said quietly, turning to consider the boy in question, "when he is not here… or with EVA… I would like to know what he is like when he is comfortable."

"What makes you think he's comfortable at home?" Asuka asked with a shrug, "Wherever he goes – he's a dork… why would home be different?"

"Home is home," the First Child replied levelly, "home is safe…"

The redhead looked at the other girl out of the corner of her eyes. "Is it…?" she asked skeptically. For a long moment, neither of them said anything, watching in silence as Shinji quietly spoke to his friends. "What are you looking for, Ayanami?" Asuka said finally, "And why are you asking me to help you find it?"

Rei shook her head minutely. "I am seeking understanding," she whispered. She met the other girl's crystal blue eyes, "I am asking you because he admires you."

Asuka blinked. "What?"

The blue-haired girl looked back to the trio of boys, who were discussing the current state of their favorite baseball team. "He admires you," she repeated quietly, "after the eighth angel he spoke of little else but your bravery for over a week." She tilted her head to the side, "He was most talkative then, and he mentioned several times that he wished he could be more like you."

"He said all of this to you?" the redhead asked skeptically. And speaking of talkative, she thought suddenly, when did she start talking in sentences longer than three syllables?

Rei shook her head. "He said it to Mister Aida and Mister Suzuhara," she replied, "I merely overheard them."

"Eavesdropping, First Child?" Asuka said with a grin, "And here I thought you were all quiet because you were bashful… turns out you're just a little spy." She sighed, rolling her eyes as the blue-haired girl denied the charge, "Whatever…" she said, waving a hand, "look, I don't spend a lot of my time watching uberdork over there, ok? I don't know what to tell you."

The red-eyed girl pondered this for a moment, then looked back to Shinji. "That is unfortunate." She whispered, pausing for a moment before whispering, "Perhaps you could… observe him now?"

"Excuse me?" the Second Child said incredulously.

Rei stared at the other girl blankly, obviously seeing nothing wrong with her request.

"Why are you so interested in him, First Child?" Asuka demanded, dropping her voice as she asked, "Do you… like him?"

The First Child was silent for a long moment before replying quietly, "I do not know… all that is clear is that I want to know more about him, I cannot say why."

The redhead considered this, then nodded. "I'll do it," she said quietly, "but not for you." She looked to the door, where Misato was coming into the classroom, and stood, preparing to leave. "I'll do it because now I want to know," she said thoughtfully, "you got me curious, First…"

"You will tell me what you see?" Rei said, her voice betraying a faint hint of hopefulness.

Asuka shrugged. "Coming!" she called to Misato as she asked if she wanted a ride too, and pausing to glare at Shinji (which was fast becoming a habit). She stepped past the blue-haired girl, whispering, "Yeah… I'll tell you…" as she passed.

Finding herself alone in the classroom, Rei sighed softly, returning to her seat and looking out the window for the next hour, wondering if the Second Child would be able to find sense where she had only found chaos.

"There is more here than I can see," the blue-haired girl whispered to the empty room, frowning slightly as she thought of her unexpected ally, "Perhaps Souryu will see it… but why could I not…?"

Finally rising to her feet, the First Child took one last look out at the setting sun, then headed back to her small apartment to continue her ruminations.

**

Shinji sat on his bed, listening to his favorite SDAT cassette. What was up with Asuka tonight? he thought, his eyes wandering to the small, wire cage on his desk, I know she's still mad, no-, he corrected herself, remembering her words, not mad anymore. He sighed, cutting Bach off in mid-note, and rose from his bed.

He was unaware of his door sliding open silently behind him as he picked up the rodent's box of food pellets. "Hungry?" he asked softly, oblivious to the sparkling blue eyes studying him as he moved. "I don't think she'll ever forgive me," he whispered, shaking some of the food into the creature's dish, "and I can't really say I blame her… I mean-"

"It's not going to talk back," Asuka's voice interrupted quietly.

Shinji jumped, dropping the box of pellets onto the floor, where they created a miniature rodent feast. "A-Asuka…" he stammered, averting his eyes and looking down at the small mess at his feet, "hi…"

As the brown-haired boy knelt, scooping the dry food back into the container as best he could, Asuka folded her arms, leaning against the doorframe. "Edgy, Third Child?" she asked quietly, arching an eyebrow.

The Unit 01 pilot blushed, finally managing to get most of the pellets back into the box. "Sorry…" he whispered, rising to his feet and putting the package on the desk, then opening the cage and placing the bowl inside.

"Why are you apologizing?" the redhead asked, frowning. She waved a hand, sighing as Shinji fumbled for something to say. "Forget it," she said flatly. Uninvited, she entered the room, stepping closer to the mouse's small dwelling. "I see you haven't killed it yet," she observed, tilting her head towards the cage, "maybe you should invite its friends and family in?"

"He's… alone, I think…" Shinji managed, unable to look at the other Child, "he's the first mouse I've seen, actually." He shook his head, correcting himself, "Not, like… ever… but in Tokyo-3." He smiled weakly, "Kinda thought they'd be too smart to be here, with the angels and all." He finally managed to look at the redhead.

Asuka was not smiling… but she wasn't exactly frowning, either. Her expression was carefully neutral. "What are you doing, Shinji?" she whispered, staring down at the small creature as it explored its surroundings. "First, you leave an angel fight to go hopelessly chasing after something you can never catch – and should have left to someone else… and now you're keeping this," she gestured at the small being, frowning slightly, "thing as a pet."

The brown-haired boy looked at the mouse, biting his lower lip for a moment before replying. "I don't like pain," he said softly.

"No one does!" Asuka retorted, struggling to keep her temper in check, "What makes you different from everyone else, Third Child? Huh? You think not liking pain gives you the right to abandon me and…" she trailed off. Damnit! she thought angrily, How come I sound like a spoiled brat?? HE'S the one that ran off!!

Shinji turned away from her. "You didn't see her…" he whispered, his voice barely audible, "you-"

"The angels are more important!" the redhead snapped, grabbing his arm and spinning him back around, prepared to give him the rough side of her tongue. "One life against the lives of… of…" her anger vanished in the blink of an eye as she saw the true depth of the Third Child's anguish, printed plainly for anyone to see on his infinitely sad, tear-streaked face.

Closed off, hurting, confused… alone – the Third Child reached out, struggling like a drowning sailor for anything he could cling to… seeking solace in the only other person close enough to touch.

Before Asuka could react, Shinji threw his arms around her, burying his face in her chest and loosing a sound unlike any the redhead had ever heard before. Pain, the Second Child thought, clenching her eyes shut and wishing he was not holding her so tightly so she could cover her ears, if pain was defined by a sound, that would be it.

"Let go of me," Asuka said, her voice shaking with a combination of pity, confusion, and a touch of fear as the boy clung to her, now sobbing openly, "Shinji…get off of me!" She tried to make it a command… but it came out more like a desperate plea.

And if the boy heard her, he made no indication. If anything, he clutched her tighter than before, gasping out, "So… s-sorry…" over and over again, wondering if he would ever be able to stop crying… and if she would ever even come near him again.

As for Asuka, she didn't know quite what to do. She felt sickened by his weeping, disgusted by his naked display of weakness… but she also felt something else, something she wasn't familiar with… something she rarely had call to feel.

Understanding.

After a long, long moment, Shinji felt the redhead's arms slowly encircle him. He cringed slightly as her right hand reached up to stroke the back of his hair. God, he thought, struggling to get himself under control, I'm so pathetic… she's not trying to hurt me, she's trying to comfort me. That thought in itself, the idea that the strong-willed Second Child, invincible EVA pilot extraordinare, Asuka Langley Souryu, found him so pathetic, so incredibly weak and hopeless that she took pity on him… shook him to the core.

"Be still, idiot," Asuka muttered as Shinji suddenly tried to pull away from her, still sobbing wretchedly, "just… just be still…"

Shinji finally stopped fighting, letting the redhead guide him over to his bed, but refusing to let her go as she tried to lay him down. "N-no…" he managed, "please…" Please don't leave me all alone… he thought desperately, please. No matter how hard he tried, he simply could not stop crying.

He had no idea how… but somehow, in the midst of his sobbing… he managed to fall asleep.

**

Misato stepped into the darkened apartment slowly. Why are all the lights off? she wondered. "Shinji?" she called softly, slipping her shoes off, "Asuka? Where are you guys?" She frowned. If anything serious had happened, she mused, making her way into the living room, turning on lights as she went. Section Two would have contacted me… unless… unless Shinji… she pushed the thought away, he would never do anything to hurt anyone, she thought firmly, I don't care what the Commander thinks!

The purple-haired woman looked in Asuka's room first, thinking that maybe the two might have gone to bed early. It IS kinda late, I guess… she thought, looking at her watch, but neither one of them usually goes to bed THIS early… and BOTH of them?? Unlikely…

Feeling a vague sense of unease, the Operations Director slid Asuka's door shut and went to Shinji's, idly fingering her pistol through her jacket. As she opened the door, her hand flew to her mouth. "A-Asuka…?" she gasped.

In the dim light from the living room she could just make out the forms of the Second and Third Children, lying on Shinji's bed with Shinji looking almost like an extension of the girl. Asuka's eyes were open, and looked slightly glassy from where Misato was standing… and the front of the redhead's tee shirt looked as if it was soaked.

In a flash of horrifying insight, Misato could see it all. Asuka, coming in to Shinji's room and tormenting him about him being a coward and running away, pushing harder and harder until the boy couldn't take it any longer. Shinji, slowly growing more and more upset, finally snapping and grabbing a knife, or a pair of scissors – or anything sharp enough to get the job done – screaming as he brought it down, ignoring her cries as he struck again and again and again…

The illusion of a violent murder was dispersed as Asuka slowly blinked, her eyes meeting Misato's. "What?" she asked belatedly, "What is it, Misato?"

Not… blood… the purple-haired woman thought, feeling faint from the relief that flooded her, maybe water… looks like she spilled something on herself. "Just couldn't find you guys," she said, trying to sound light in spite of the tremor in her voice. After a slight hesitation, she asked, "What are you doing?"

Asuka frowned, looking down at the boy that, Misato noticed with some surprise, was in her arms. "Just resting, now…" she said softly, "don't be too loud, you'll wake him up."

Misato swallowed, stepping into the room and whispering, "What's on your chest, Asuka… and why are you in here? I thought you were mad at Shinji?"

"What's on my chest?" Asuka murmured, looking down, "You mean besides the king of all idiots?" she sighed, finding that her joke wasn't terribly funny – even to herself. "Tears, Misato…" she whispered, "tears…" She took a deep breath, squirming around until her back was against the wall, though not letting go of the boy clinging to her. "But why am I here?" she whispered, closing her eyes, "I don't know, Misato… I honestly don't. I am mad at him… but… I don't know," she sighed, "I don't know what to tell you."

Misato nodded, her hand itching to reach out and stroke the boy's hair as he trembled in his sleep, pressing himself closer to the redhead at his side. "I think I understand…" she murmured, "when they took him out of the plug, I swear to God – I wanted to beat the living…" she took a shaking breath, realizing she was getting worked up from the memory, and she had unconsciously clutched his bedspread in her hands. "Anyway," she said after a moment, forcing her hands to open, "what are you going to do now?"

The Second Child shrugged, trying to look nonchalant as she opened her eyes. "Sleep, I guess," she replied, yawning broadly, "not like I can go anywhere." She considered the already-sleeping boy sharing the bed with her, "I was almost asleep when you got here."

Before she could stop herself, Misato grinned and whispered, "Didn't mean to interrupt."

The look this comment earned her from the redhead would have caused the toughest weed to wither and die. "Gee, thanks, Misato," the Second Child commented dryly, "Now that the evening's obligatory sexual innuendo is out of the way, I'm going to sleep." She closed her eyes, murmuring, "You can leave now…"

Blushing, the Operations Director nodded. "Sorry…" she whispered. Instead of leaving, however, she went to Shinji's closest, extracting a light blanket and laying it over the two youths. "Supposed to get a little chilly tonight," she said, by way of explanation, "stay warm."

As the older woman made her exit, Asuka sighed. "This doesn't change anything, idiot," she whispered to the sleeping Child, "I'm still mad at you… and you still have a lot of explaining to do before I'll let you off the hook for running away…"

She smiled slightly, realizing that she sounded rather like Shinji himself, talking to his mouse. In the morning… she thought, closing her eyes, we'll talk about it… in the morning…

When Misato surreptitiously checked on them five minutes later, they were both sound asleep… Shinji still resting his head against Asuka's breast, and Asuka resting her cheek against Shinji's head.

The sight almost brought a tear to the purple-haired woman's eye as she slowly, quietly slid the door shut.

**

Shinji woke feeling better than he had in days, though he was blushing as he recalled the details of the prior evening. "Gotta find Asuka," he murmured, opening his eyes, "tell her sor…" he trailed off as he found himself at eye level with the redhead in question's sleeping face.

The brown-haired boy swallowed, studying her beautiful features. She's so pretty when she's not mad, he mused, holding perfectly still as Asuka mumbled in her sleep… and gasping in shock as she pulled him closer to her, sighing contentedly.

"Asuka?" he whispered, fearing that this was a trick of some sort, "Are you awake?"

The Second Child stirred slightly, burrowing her face into the bed beside his head – as if she was trying to escape the light that was streaming through his window.

Shinji's mouth went dry as he realized that his hand was laying against her bare stomach, and her shirt had slid halfway up in the night, exposing the bottom half of her bra. Trembling terribly, he pulled his hand away, slowly, carefully reaching up… and pulling her shirt back down.

The tentative, sneaky-feeling movement brought Asuka to consciousness, and her eyes snapped open, finding his instantly… and narrowing dangerously. "What… are… you… DOING?" she hissed, glaring at him and clamping her hand painfully over his.

Wincing, the Third Child desperately tried to come up with a reasonable excuse. Failing, and in pain, he gasped, "Your… shirt was sliding up…" he met her eyes levelly, praying that she believed him, "I was… pulling it back down…"

Asuka considered this, unwilling to release him just yet. "How much did you see, pervert?"

Shinji considered lying to her, God, he thought, she's gonna kill me… and I didn't even do anything! "Umm…" he hummed, blushing deeply, "not… not everything…"

For a long moment, the redhead continued glaring at him, her nostrils flaring angrily. Abruptly, she let him go, ignoring his sigh of relief. "You'll never get that lucky…" she muttered, blushing faintly at the thought of him looking at her naked body, "freak." Shinji opened his mouth to apologize, but she silenced him, slapping her hand (not gently) over his mouth.

"Listen," the German girl whispered, looking into his eyes steadily, "last night means nothing… I just felt sorry for you because you were blubbering like a baby…" she narrowed her eyes, "and you wouldn't let me go, so I couldn't exactly leave." She nodded as Shinji swallowed, looking miserable, "Now that that's out of the way," she pulled her hand away, her voice softening, "tell me why, Shinji… tell me why you abandoned me…"

Shinji blushed deeply, ashamed, and a bit startled, by the unabashed pain in the girl's blue eyes. "Asuka, I…" he took a deep, rattling breath, "I didn't even, ummm… think of you…" he averted his eyes as she frowned at him, "I don't mean it like that," he whispered, "I just… I didn't think of anything – anything at all. I just… I wanted to save her, Asuka… I didn't think of how it might hurt you… I'm sorry…"

"Look at me," Asuka demanded softly, waiting until the boy looked at her before whispering, "I can't trust you anymore, Shinji… I don't know if you're going to go off trying to save some other little girl, or boy, or a cat stuck up in a tree – or whatever." She sighed, noting with some surprise that she was still holding him, "It might make me sound like a monster," she said quietly, "but some things have to be more important, Shinji… I have to know that you're going to be there if I need you… do you understand?"

The Third Child nodded, feeling oddly very close to the girl, even as she dressed him down. "I won't let you down anymore," he promised, his voice quavering, "I swear… ever…"

The redhead considered this for a moment, then nodded gravely. "Alright," she murmured, "I'll believe you, Shinji… but if you let me down again," she frowned, closing her eyes as she whispered the words she knew would hurt the most, "I'll never talk to you again… ever… not even 'hello' or 'good morning' just… nothing. Am I clear, Shinji?"

Shinji's bottom lip was quivering, and his voice was tiny as he whispered, "Yes… I understand…"

Asuka yawned. "What time is it, anyway?" she inquired.

"Six fifteen," Shinji replied, taking a glance at the clock sitting on the shelf across the room.

"I'm going back to sleep," the redhead announced, her voice already sounding faint.

"H-here?" Shinji gasped, "With me?"

Asuka smiled, keeping her eyes closed (though she longed to see the expression on his face, knowing it must be priceless) as she answered, "You're an idiot. My arm is asleep from you laying on it, and I'm too tired to go to my room…" she paused, then added, "close your eyes and go back to sleep… and I'll pretend you never tried to feel me up."

She laughed softly as Shinji stammered that he hadn't. Should let him go now… she thought as she spiraled down into sleep, aware vaguely that her arms were still around the boy, pervert might… think… I like… him…

Shinji watched her for a full ten minutes as she slept, wondering if things would be different when they finally got out of bed. Maybe a bit, he thought, one conversation doesn't change everything – that only happens in the movies.

He closed his eyes, thinking as he drifted off that he hoped it would be a lot better rather than a little… as he was finding it harder and harder to greet each new day without seeing Momiji's face…

**

Several days passed without incident, during which Shinji found that one conversation does not change everything. Asuka still spent most of her days avoiding him or shooting him withering glances… however, she did speak to him – however curtly it may have been – and that was truly all Shinji was hoping for. He knew forgiveness was not something that could be won by breaking down and sobbing all over her.

At least she walks to and from school with me… he thought as they returned to the apartment one rainy afternoon, even if she doesn't smile like she used to. He went to his room, setting his bookbag down by the door as Asuka tossed her raincoat over the arm of the living room chair, dropping herself onto the couch and grabbing the remote. Wonder if the mouse is hungry? He thought, shrugging off his own jacket, I should really find out more about them… I don't know if twice a day is enough…

His second visit to Doctor Fujiama had been entirely uninteresting, as far as Shinji was concerned. The doctor had asked how everything was, inquired if Shinji was doing ok back at school, and asked if Shinji had named the mouse yet. Shinji told him he had not, and thought that the doctor looked rather… disappointed, though he didn't know why. Past that, he had simple asked Shinji to talk about anything on his mind, and sat back, listening attentively and taking notes on a large, yellow tablet.

"Do you want a name?" Shinji whispered, standing in front of the small creature's cage. "They're really not so great," he mused, kneeling in front of the desk and resting his chin in the crook of his elbow so he could be at eye-level with the mouse, "mostly, people just use them to shout at you when you do something wrong."

The mouse ignored him, preferring to pad one corner of its small abode with bits of shredded paper to the topic of names and their uses.

Names have other uses, his mind whispered cruelly, Momiji was very sweet… Momiji was kind, and loving… Momiji's spine was snapped in three- Shinji clenched his eyes shut, trying to stem the tide of dark thoughts.

The sound of the doorbell saved him from the tears that would inevitably follow that train of thought. He took a deep breath, rising to his feet as he heard Asuka's exasperated sigh. "Why don't I just get that?" the redhead's voice came to him, "Not like I was actually watching that show, or anything…"

Shinji wiped at his eyes, making sure that they were sufficiently dry in case it was someone that he had to see, and sat down on the edge of his bed. "She was beautiful…" he whispered, his mind relentlessly assailing him with images of the young girl's still form.

"Ikari."

The Third Child blinked. "Ayanami?" he said uncertainly, "Is that you?"

"Yes," came the soft reply from the other side of his door, "may I come in?"

Shaking himself, Shinji rose to his feet. "Yeah," he said, unable to keep the wonder out of his voice, "just a second." Why is she here? he thought, pushing a small pile of clothes to the side with his foot as he walked to the door, I don't think she's said more than 'hello' to me since last time she was here.

"Hello," Rei said simply as the door was opened.

Shinji blinked, somewhat bewildered. "Ummm, Hi, Ayanami," he said slowly, looking down at the First Child's hands, "why do you… have cheese with you?"

"It is… for your rodent…" the red-eyed girl said somewhat awkwardly, "is that not what they are supposed to eat?"

Shinji simply stared for a moment, wondering why he had the sudden urge to laugh… and not stop. Makes sense, he thought, eyeing the small package of cheese slices, mice eat cheese – all the cartoons say so… but Rei? With cheese? He shook his head, trying to lose the feeling of surrealism that threatened to overwhelm him. "I… think it is, yeah," he said, stepping to the side, "thanks, Ayanami…"

"I think I'm getting a cavity."

Shinji flushed (noting with some small part of his mind that Rei looked a bit red also) and looked over the First Child's shoulder. "Asuka," he said hesitantly, "I didn't see you there…"

"That's because you were too busy ogling Wondergirl and her cheese," the redhead retorted, folding her arms under her breasts, "really, Third Child, it's amazing that they let you anywhere near Unit 01…"

Before Shinji could stammer an apology, Asuka pushed past Rei and into his room. "Are you going to give your rat some cheese, or what?" she mumbled, "The thing sure looks interested enough."

Indeed, the small mouse looked downright intrigued, standing on its rear paws and scenting the air, its whiskers twitching slightly. "How can he smell it through the plastic?" Shinji wondered.

"Maybe it's sniffing Wondergirl," Asuka suggested smugly, "she is kinda pale – maybe it thinks she's a big, walking piece of mozzarella."

The First Child looked down at the cheese, then her hand. "I do not see how I could be mistaken for a dairy product…" she observed, her tone faintly disapproving.

"Oh shut up…" Asuka grumbled, "come on, Shinji… let's see if the rat likes cheese."

Rei silently offered the package to Shinji, who took it with an apologetic look. Sorry about this… he thought, wishing she could read his mind. He stepped over to the cage and opened the package. "I hope it's ok," he murmured, unwrapping a slice, "All he's had so far is pellets…"

"It's a rat," Asuka said sardonically, "I'm sure it doesn't exactly have a discerning pallet."

To the redhead's surprise, Shinji flushed slightly and his free hand clenched unconsciously into a fist at his side. "He's a mouse…" he said quietly, "not a rat…"

For a moment, Asuka said nothing, she simply stared at him in mute wonder. Finally, she shook her head. "Just give it some cheese…" she muttered, "no need to get all bent out of shape, Third Child…"

Shinji dropped his eyes, nodding slightly. "Guess I should break it up," he said quietly, slowly tearing the cheese into strips, then small squares.

This place, Asuka observed as the boy sectioned off the cheese, looks like shit. She frowned at the small pile of clothes that Shinji had kicked out of the way not five minutes prior, Not like – Misato bad… but it's sure not as clean as it used to be…

She pushed the thought out of her mind as the brown-haired boy opened the top of the cage, dropping a square of cheese in. "There you go…" he said gently, "see how you like that…"

The mouse looked down at the small piece of cheese, then back up to Rei, still sniffing the air.

"Maybe it doesn't like an audience…" Asuka mumbled.

Shinji glanced curiously at the red-eyed First Child. No… he thought, it's her. He's definitely looking at her. As Asuka took a breath (most likely to berate the creature, Shinji thought) he put a hand on her shoulder, nodding towards Rei.

Asuka turned around, blinking as she found the blue-haired girl standing in perfect silence, her eyes locked with the mouse's and a small frown on her face. What is up with that? the redhead thought, fighting the urge to wave her hand in front of the First Child's eyes.

"Why is it looking at me?" Rei asked finally, not breaking eye contact with the mouse, "What does it want?"

"Ummm… maybe he wants you to hold him?" Shinji offered.

Up until then, both Shinji and Asuka were not aware of just how fast the First Child was. By the time Shinji finished his sentence, however, Rei was backed up against his door, shaking her head rather emphatically. "No," she said flatly.

The Second and Third exchanged a confused glance. "What's your problem?" Asuka muttered disapprovingly. Suddenly, her eyes widened, "You're scared!" she exclaimed.

Shinji blinked as Rei's face was graced with a small blush. "He won't hurt you," he said softly, "are you scared, Ayanami?"

"It is… unclean," the blue-haired girl said softly, not looking away from the small cage, "it should not be a pet… it should be exterminated…"

The mouse seemed unconcerned by the girl's agitated tone, and bounded over closer to the bars of the cage, sniffing at her with great interest.

Shinji, however, easily picked up on the distress in the normally calm First Child's voice. Stepping closer to the blue-haired girl, he said soothingly, "I've held him lots of times… he won't hurt you, really."

"You're such a spaz," Asuka said, disgusted, "what's it gonna do to you, Wondergirl? Savagely nibble at your throat? Look at it! I could crush it with my thumb!"

"You should…" Rei said quietly, "I have read about them. They carry diseases, and they have fleas and-"

"You sound like my mother!" Asuka snapped.

The most painful silence Shinji had ever had the displeasure to be a part of slammed down over the three. Rei dropped her gaze to the floor, the expression on her face so perplexed that it might have been amusing at another time. Asuka's face, on the other hand, displayed a mixture of shock, sorrow… and the slightest hint of anger – as if she believed that the First Child had somehow tricked her into saying what she had said.

As for himself, Shinji found himself torn. Half of him wanted to say something – it didn't matter what, just anything to break the awful stillness. The other half wanted to curl up into a ball and hide under his covers, pretending that neither of the girls was there until the thought became a reality.

Ultimately, it was the mouse that broke the paralysis, uttering a small, almost curious squeak. Shinji would later think that the silence would have been preferable to what happened next.

Asuka's eyes narrowed, and she turned quickly to the cage, opening it in a flash and reaching in, grabbing the mouse (whose squeak was decidedly agitated this time) and turning back to face the First Child.

"Asuka…" Shinji said concernedly, taking a step towards her.

Before he could take a second, the redhead crossed the small space to stand in front of the blue-haired girl. "What's the matter, First?" she grumbled, "You can pilot an EVA, kill angels, and live in that crappy little run-down apartment you call home – but you're scared of a little mouse?!"

Rei's eyes were wide and staring as the Second Child brought the mouse up to eye level with her. "You want to understand your little Ikari?" she whispered angrily, ignoring Shinji's ever-dropping jaw, "You want to know why he does what he does? Start here!" So saying, she grabbed Rei's hand, turning it palm-up and dropping the mouse into it. "You wanted to exterminate it, Wondergirl?" she said through gritted teeth, "Now's your chance…"

"Take it back…" Rei whispered, her voice also too quiet to hear, "please…"

"What's wrong?" Asuka asked sweetly, "I thought you said it should be killed? Don't you have the stomach for it?"

Shinji noticed with some alarm that the First Child was shaking, her breath coming in short gasps. I've never seen her like this, he thought, licking his lips and taking a hesitant step closer to the two female Children, "Asuka," he murmured, "maybe you should-"

"Shut up!" the redhead snapped, "She wanted to know what makes you tick… well, now she knows."

Shinji blinked in confusion.

"I do not understand…" Rei whispered, her face paling as the small creature put its paws on her thumb and looked up into her face, "I do not… understand how this helps."

Asuka frowned deeply, impressed at the other girl's (albeit forced) calm tone. "Then you never will," she whispered, "I just figured it out now… watching him feed it cheese." She shook her head, "You've got the answer in the palm of your hand, Wondergirl – literally. If you would stop and think about it, you would get it…"

Shinji finally stepped forward, gently plucking the mouse from Rei's trembling hand. "You're… scaring her…" he mumbled, unable to look at either of them.

"You mean scaring you," the Second Child said, her tone incredibly soft.

Before the other two could ask what she meant, the redhead moved Rei to the side and stepped out the door, her eyes downcast and a thoughtful look on her face.

"I'm sorry," Shinji said after a long moment of quiet, "I'll put him back now, Ayanami… you don't have to be scared."

When he looked up at the blue-haired girl, he was shocked to find her staring at her palm, her bottom lip quivering slightly. "I should… not be scared…" Rei murmured, her breathing uneven, "there is no reason…" she looked up, her eyes not quite focussed on the Third Child. "Why, Ikari? Can you… help me understand?"

Shinji didn't know what to say. He stepped back to the cage and opened it, depositing the mouse gently inside. "I… don't know, Ayanami…" he said softly, turning back to face her, "I don't think I can help you understand… but I can try and make it feel better…"

It was at that moment that Shinji Ikari forced down all of his fears and did one of the bravest things he would ever do. He silently stepped forward… and embraced the frightened girl in front of him. Rei's eyes widened and she froze, confused by the Third Child's sudden, unexpected action.

"I-Ikari…?" she whispered, "why…" she trailed off as something wet ran down her face, pattering gently onto Shinji's shoulder. Is this a tear? Rei thought, confused, Am I the one who is crying?

"It's ok, Ayanami…" Shinji said softly, turning his head and resting it on her shoulder so he wouldn't have to see the pain and confusion on her normally unreadable face, "it's ok…"

The way Shinji's head was situated, he could easily see his clock… so he knew that it was precisely three minutes from the time he embraced the blue-haired girl to the time she let out a shaky, ragged breath and slowly slid her arms around him.

He also knew that it was exactly five minutes past six when Rei Ayanami, the stoic, unflappable, seemingly emotionless First Child began to cry softly. It was a very odd experience. Rei never quite made any sound, she simply… shook – holding onto the Third Child almost tentatively, as if she was doing something wrong.

"I am… sorry," she said finally, pulling back from him and reaching blindly for the door. "I did not mean to… I am sorry…"

"It's ok…" Shinji said quietly, letting her go and taking a step back, "I'm sorry you were scared, Rei." As the blue-haired girl finally succeeded in getting the door open, he whispered, "Thank you for bringing cheese, Ayanami… it was very nice of you."

Rei froze. "Was it?" she whispered.

"Yes… it was…"

"Then… you are welcome," the blue-haired girl said quietly, her voice once again even and cool.

The Third Child watched as the First silently slipped out the door, never once looking back. After a moment, he peered out of his door, noting that Asuka's door was closed and the redhead's yellow windbreaker was not where she had dropped it when they had gotten home.

He sighed. "Why is life so complicated?" he whispered, looking over his shoulder at the small cage.

Since he was no longer confined to the apartment, he picked up his jacket, hesitating only a minute before throwing it on and heading for the door. "I'm not going to look for her," he mumbled, "she'd kill me if I did. I'm just going for a walk… and if I happen to bump into her… then I happen to bump into her…"

Into the rain-soaked streets of Tokyo-3 the Third Child ventured, chasing after a girl that did not want to be caught to try and understand something he did not truly want to understand…

Himself.

**

"Stupid Wondergirl," Asuka muttered, wincing in pain as she walked slowly through the rapidly darkening street, "this is her fault."

How, exactly, it was the First Child's fault, the redhead still hadn't quite worked out – but she was certain her current predicament was in no way her responsibility. No, the blue-haired girl had tricked her into remembering those dark, hidden memories… she knew – somehow – that Asuka's mother… no, she wouldn't think about it!

Little tramp! she thought angrily, she's NOTHING like mamma…

She growled to herself, recalling the afternoon two days before, when she had delivered her 'report' to Rei.

"What do you believe that means?" Rei asked, pondering what she had just been told

The two stood on the roof of the school, Asuka leaning against the door to the stairs and Rei standing three feet to her left, looking out at the setting sun. Since school was over, they were alone, but Asuka still looked around nervously from time to time, unable to shake the feeling that this meeting was wrong.

"It means nothing, WonderDORK!" Asuka snapped, "It means it was late and he was hungry, so he made a sandwich – it's not a metaphor! Sometimes a sandwich is just a sandwich!"

"I must understand," the First whispered, speaking as if Asuka had said nothing, "there must be a reason…"

"Yeah," the Second muttered, turning to open the door, "whatever. If anything REAL happens, I'll let you know – maybe. This is getting old, First Child… I can't hold your hand forever." She turned the knob, feeling some of her anger ebb, "I'll keep watching him," she said softly, "but like I said before – not for you…"

"I understand…"

The redhead blinked, roused from her thoughts as a girl with golden hair rounded the corner in front of her. She had seen the pictures… she knew what Momiji Kurasawa looked like. She stopped, frowning slightly.

"Can I help you?" the girl asked, coming up short as she found her path impeded by a scowling, blue-eyed girl.

"Kurasawa?" Asuka asked flatly.

"Y-yes…?" the girl replied, "do I know you?"

"No," the redhead said evenly, "but you know my roommate… Shinji." Why she had decided to speak, she wasn't entirely sure… but the response that mentioning the Third Child's name got her was almost breathtaking.

"Shinji Ikari?" the blonde asked hopefully, her body language instantly moving from defensive to attentive.

Asuka nodded, confused by the girl's suddenly intense gaze. She must be the girl's sister, she thought, grimacing as she shifted her weight to her other foot, but Misato said they only saw her family for like, five minutes… so why is she all interested?

The girl looked up at the pouring rain, then back down to the redhead. "Can you… tell me about him?" she asked hesitantly, "we can get some hot chocolate, or something…"

"Why do you want to know about him?" the Second Child asked, narrowing her eyes slightly, "He's not that interesting…"

The blonde averted her eyes, blushing slightly. "He… tried to save my sister," she said awkwardly, "he's interesting to me…"

Asuka considered this for a moment, looking her up and down. She's gotta be sixteen, she thought, assessing the girl openly, maybe even seventeen… and damn if she isn't more than a little 'interested.' She bit her bottom lip, oddly remembering the feeling of the mouse as she had lifted it out of the cage. "What do you want to know about him?" she asked quietly.

"Does he have a girlfriend?"

The redhead's jaw nearly dropped to the ground at this question. "Look," she said, taking a step back from the obviously deranged girl, "I don't know what you're-"

"Wait!" the blonde said quickly, "Please… I just… I want to know about him…"

"Why? Because of what he did?"

"Yes," the girl admitted, "that's part of it…"

"What's the rest?" Asuka asked coolly. I doubt you'd be so interested if you could see his room, she thought suddenly, he used to keep it spotless, but now…

"Can we go somewhere drier?" the blonde asked, cutting into Asuka's thoughts, "I was just coming out to drop off a book I borrowed from a friend of mine… I don't have a coat…"

The Second Child considered this, studying the shivering girl carefully. Why should I talk to this freak? she thought, She's loopy, if she wants to know more about Shinji The Dork. Finally, she nodded. "Yeah, whatever," she murmured, "there's a coffee place I passed about a block back… come on…"

As they started that way, the girl asked, "What happened to your foot?"

"Twisted it," Asuka muttered angrily, "slipped off a curb." She glanced at the girl out of the corner of her eye. "Do you have a name?" she asked sardonically, "Or should I just call you 'you'?"

"Sorry," the girl said with a blush, "I forget my manners sometimes." She stopped for a moment, bowing slightly, "My name is Kyoko Kurasawa. Nice to meet you."

Asuka could not reply for a minute. Shaking her head, she turned away. "Asuka Langley Souryu," she mumbled, forcing her tone to stay level. What are the odds? she thought dismally, I leave the house so I don't have to think about Mamma… and I bump into not only the sister of that girl – but the one person in this whole godforsaken city that has her name…

As they reached the coffeehouse, the redhead stole another look at the blonde… and decided that maybe this was her chance to find out a bit about the girl Shinji had risked so much to save.

**

"You know," a loud voice pointed out, "man invented the umbrella for a reason."

Shinji looked up, blinking rainwater out of his eyes as he squinted out into the night. "Misato…?" he called, hopefully, "is that you?"

"It isn't Totoro-san," the woman replied dryly, "what are you doing?"

Shinji considered the question for a moment, shivering in the chilly evening air. He was reluctant to tell his guardian that he had been out chasing after Asuka because he thought she might know more about him than he knew about himself. He also was not thrilled with the idea of telling her that reason for thinking this was Asuka terrorizing Rei with a mouse.

"I'm… just going for a walk," he said finally.

Misato stared at him blankly for a minute from the relative dryness of her umbrella. "Want some company?" she asked softly, breaking into a broad grin as she added, "Not, you know, in a hooker sort of way."

Shinji blinked, then returned her grin with a small blush added in. "Sure…" he said, stepping out of the feeble shelter of the store awning he had been huddled under. "What were you doing?" he inquired, rubbing his arms as he stepped under the umbrella.

The purple-haired woman looked embarrassed. "I was, ummm… out buying some Cup Noodles… 'cause we're out…" She looked away from him, thinking, And 'cause I came home and no one was there.

In spite of her previous living arrangement, the Operations Director disliked being alone. It was fine when Shinji and Asuka were in their rooms, she reasoned, because at least they were there… but when she was entirely by herself, with no human contact and only the company of her penguin, Pen-Pen, she grew anxious.

"Get closer to me and you won't get so wet," she said as she noticed that Shinji was only half-covered.

The Third Child hesitated, then stepped closer to the woman, his hand brushing up against hers accidentally. "Sorry…" he murmured, yanking his hand away quickly.

Neither of them spoke a word as they began walking, as they were both wrapped up in their own thoughts. Shinji wondering why he had ever thought he could find Asuka in a city as big as Toyko-3, and Misato wondering how she had managed to find Shinji in a city as big as Tokyo-3.

Must be luck, she thought, stealing a glance at the boy at her side… and finding him doing the same.

They both blushed, looking away. "Was, ummm… work good?" Shinji asked awkwardly.

"Yeah, not bad…" Misato said, equally awkward, "same old same old…"

They lapsed into silence again.

When did things get so tense? Misato thought, pausing with her charge to look into a store window. We used to be so comfortable around each other – no, that's not right… not comfortable like friends are comfortable, because we didn't talk about everything under the sun, it was more like… she struggled to find an analogy, more like we could just BE together. There was never any need to say something… never any pressure to start a conversation. She studied the boy's profile as he examined a new line of cell phones, Like now, she thought sadly, I keep thinking I should say something…

She knew the answer to her question of course… the source of all of their anxiety was resting peacefully in the Kunekida National Cemetery, never once suspecting that her death (just one of many) had had such a profound impact.

They continued their walk, letting silence rule. I'll never find her, Shinji thought, barely stopping himself from calling out as he spotted a girl with red hair, guess I'll talk to her about it later – or better yet, he added ironically, I won't talk to her at all. Not like I can-

"Shinji…?" Misato asked softly, breaking his train of thought.

"Hmm?"

He turned to find her holding the umbrella out to him. "Hold this for a sec, ok?" Shinji did as he was told, watching curiously as she turned away. His eyes widened as she quickly unzipped her jacket and pulled it off, then turned back, offering it to him with a faint blush. "Why don't you put this on…"

"Misato, I…" he trailed off, confused by the oddly pleading look in her eyes.

Please… she thought, God, I can't keep you from being hurt, at LEAST let me keep you from getting wet…

Slowly, Shinji reached out and took the jacket, handing the umbrella back to her as he slipped it on. "Thanks…" he murmured, unable to look at her.

"Welcome…" the purple-haired woman smiled, unable to hide her pleasure.

They continued to walk, once again cloaking themselves in quiet. As they paused at a stoplight, Misato reached out, almost laying her hand on his shoulder… then the light changed, and she reclaimed her hand, blushing slightly and hoping he had not seen the aborted attempt at closeness.

Silently, they walked on…

**

Three days later, Asuka sat in the living room, watching television… or pretending too, anyway. She was actually observing Shinji as he worked on a school project, laying on his stomach and carefully cutting out a map of the post-Second Impact world that he had enlarged and glued to a piece of cardboard.

Shinji was very focussed on his work, partly because it helped him avoid talking to Asuka, or thinking about how he couldn't quite bring himself to ask her about the incident with Rei, and what she had meant when she said she understood him.

"I just think he's fascinating…"

The redhead frowned as she recalled Kyoko's starry-eyed, dreamy expression as she had informed her (rather casually) that she was in love with Shinji. Moron, she thought darkly, watching Shinji running the hobby knife slowly around the Gulf of California, his tongue barely peeking out between his lips as he concentrated. I wouldn't be surprised if she knocked on the door and told him she wanted to have his babies…

"I don't know what it is about him… he's just… sexy…"

"Shinji!?!?"

"Yeah…"

"Pass me the X-acto box…?" Shinji murmured, placing his hand flat on the map in an attempt steady it, "this blade is too dull…"

"Sure…" Asuka mumbled, "next commercial…"

The Third Child nodded absently. "Ok…"

Sexy… the redhead mused, I don't know about that. Cute – maybe – but SEXY? That girl's messed up. She's probably got one of those post-traumatic fixations, or something. Why else would she be so interested in someone that-

"OWW!"

"What?" Asuka shook her head, dismissing the thoughts with a slightly confused look on her face and looking down at the boy, "What's the problem?"

"Cut myself," Shinji grumbled, clutching his left hand in his right as he sat up, "guess the knife wasn't too dull…"

"Let me see."

The brown-haired boy looked up, perplexed. "Huh?"

"Wow," the Second Child said archly, "I didn't know you could go deaf from cutting your finger. I said let me see it, dufus!"

Shinji hesitated as the girl knelt down in front of him, waiting expectantly. "Ummm… ok…" he whispered, finally holding his hand out to her.

"That doesn't look too bad," Asuka said, reaching back to grab a few tissues from the box on the end table, "hold still, I have to see how deep it is." She frowned at the wound, "It would be just like you to need me to rush you to the doctor for stitches on my afternoon off… I swear…"

Shinji said nothing. I don't get her, he thought, watching the girl carefully dab at the wound, I never know-

"Don't stare at me…"

Shinji dropped his eyes. "S-sorry," he stammered.

"Is there something you want to say, Third Child…?" Asuka asked quietly, pressing the tissue firmly against the cut, "or are you just awed by my stunning good looks?"

The Third Child looked up, finding the Second grinning broadly. What did you mean when you said you figured it out? he thought immediately, Why do you understand me when I don't understand myself?? WHY ARE YOU BEING NICE TO ME???

"I don't think you'll need stitches," the redhead murmured after a few moments of silence, "a Band-Aid maybe. Geez! The way you yelled, I thought you had cut off your-"

"Asuka…"

The Second Child blinked and backed up slightly as Shinji suddenly leaned forward, an odd, almost desperate look in his eyes. "W-what…?" she muttered, willing herself not to break eye contact. "What is it, weirdo?" As he stared at her, she found herself thinking of Kyoko again. She'd just die to be here now, I'll bet, she thought, keeping her composure firmly intact, she'd probably kiss him, too…

Briefly, she considered doing just that. She admitted that he was cute, and he was always kind to her… a relationship with him could prove to be fulfilling, if the timing was right. However…

"I'll get a Band-Aid," Asuka whispered, suddenly flushed as she rose quickly to her feet, "Misato'll kill me if I let you get blood all over the carpet – God knows she needs to replace it anyway…"

"Thanks," Shinji said awkwardly, staring at the spot she had just vacated.

He was in the same position when she returned three minutes later, first offering him the bandage, then putting it carefully in place herself when he made no move to take it. "You'll probably want to reopen this and clean it out," she murmured, focusing on her task, "it's just a Band-Aid… it won't cure it, but it'll do for now…"

Shinji remained motionless as she fell silent, quietly rising to her feet and heading back to the couch, trying to avoid looking at him as much as she could. Had she been paying attention, she might have noticed that his eyes had shifted focus, going from the spot she had occupied to the bookshelf on the far wall… where Momiji's stuffed owl sat looking down at him.

'The cut's not the only thing that needs to be cleaned out,' the creature seemed to say, 'you know that, don't you… Mister Ikari…?'

Shinji was still staring at the stuffed creature when the angel alarm sounded.

**

Rei waited patiently in Unit 00's entry plug for the order to move out, pondering the current situation… and shivering slightly as her mind recalled the softness of the mouse that she had been forced to hold three days before. It did not bite me, she thought, unconsciously rubbing her hand on her thigh, but it is still unpleasant…

She leaned back in the pilot's chair, her eyes lighting on the pair of glasses that she secretly took everywhere she went. It was both a comfort and a reminder to see the half-melted eyepiece sitting next to her (she had needed to find a way to attach them to the seat, and had managed to do so without anyone knowing), proof that she was cared for.

"He must care," she whispered softly, "he injured himself to…" her words trailed off as the obvious connection was made. She activated her communications system, whispering, "Ikari…?"

After a moment, Shinji replied, "Yes, Ayanami?"

"In the battle with the angel," the blue-haired girl asked quietly, "were you injured?"

After a brief pause, the Third Child replied, "No… I wasn't hurt at all…"

"But," Rei said gently, "you still feel pain… correct…?"

She felt a trill of excitement as the boy contemplated his response. She knew she was on the brink of discovering something important – a glorious epiphany about the Commander's son, and maybe herself as well. She could sense it… tickling the edges of her consciousness… hiding just out of sight… waiting for him to tell her how he felt so she could put the pieces together.

She could hear Asuka's voice in her mind, urging her closer,

"You've got the answer in the palm of your hand…"

Please tell me… the blue-haired girl thought, enlighten me, Ikari. I can feel it, waiting for me. Understanding. I can feel it…it is…

So… close…

**

"Angel has been sighted," Shigeru Aoba's voice reported, saving Shinji from having to tell the First Child about the agony that he still carried with him, "Captain Katsuragi says to begin the operation."

"Roger," Shinji said quietly, triggering the command to eject the umbilical cable, "Let's move out!!" He thought he heard Rei whisper, 'wait,' as he brought Unit 01 to its feet, but he ignored it. I can't think about that right now, he thought, concentrating on making the mecha run, I've got to do this…

He could hear the other two Units announcing that they were in motion – Asuka's shout first, and Rei's soft declaration second – but he ignored them too. The angel had to be stopped, or everyone would die… and he could not allow that. Not again. He would not let himself fail.

Momiji… he thought, aware that his heartbeat was accelerating, if I fail… will I see you? Will I finally get to see that smile that your father talked about…?

"Unit 01 accelerating," he could hear Maya Ibuki's voice report softly, "approaching top speed…"

Faster… he thought, thrusting up on the butterfly controls as Unit 01 leapt off of a small embankment and landed on the smooth, polished concrete of a road, faster than this… Images of the little girl assailed him, and his breathing became labored. A smile he had never seen… a laugh he had never heard… a touch he had never known… lost… all lost.

"Top speed…" Maya announced, her voice sounding faint to his ears, "No… top speed exceeded! Still increasing… Sempai…?"

Shinji ignored the rest of the conversation, willing his mecha to close the distance between itself and the falling angel, never even noticing the terrain as it blurred past. Faster than anything on record, Unit 01 roared towards the source of its pilot's anxieties, chasing the wind itself in the vain hopes that it could somehow regain all that had been lost.

Before he knew it, Shinji was skidding the purple machine to a halt. "Spreading AT field!!" he cried, raising Unit 01's hands high over its head and catching the falling angel within its confines.

For a moment, the balance was perfectly equal, with neither able to gain the upper hand… then the angel began bearing down on the purple behemoth, trying to flatten its comparatively minute opponent.

Should just let it go… Shinji thought tiredly, let it hit. I couldn't save Momiji… why bother with anyone else? He cried out, feeling Unit 01 dig into the ground as it struggled to hold the angel. Let… go… Pain shot through his right arm as something within the purple mecha gave way, a gout of blood arching across his field of vision as the angel continued to push downward.

Just let go…

Slowly, his eyes slipped closed… the weight of the past few weeks crashing in on him, forcing him to make his decision. He gritted his teeth, his voice quivering as he proclaimed,

"I… will… NOT!!!"

"Unit 02!" Rei's voice came to him, as did the sound of giant, pounding footsteps, "Expand your field…"

"I'm already doing it!" Asuka's voice replied, anger plainly evident in her tone.

Shinji's eyes opened, dry, in spite of the horrible anguish within him. He watched as Units 00 and 02 reached his side, raising their fields and pushing the angel back up into the sky. "Do it now…" he whispered raggedly as Unit 00 cut the angel's AT field open and held the incision wide.

"Eat this!" Asuka screamed, ramming Unit 02's progressive knife into the angel's core with a savage growl.

Rest…

Shinji obeyed the soft, gentle voice, closing his eyes as the angel fell to the earth. "Misato…?" he whispered, suddenly very, very tired.

"Unit 01 is down!" he heard Maya's voice cry out, "Pilot life signs falling!"

"Eject the plug!" Misato's voice commanded, a note of panic in her tone.

"No good," Maya responded, "and the angel-" She was interrupted as the angel exploded, creating a large crater on the outskirts of Tokyo-3.

Shinji never heard the blast, he was already spiraling down into a warm, safe blanket of darkness, imagining that his mother was cradling him in her arms and whispering that everything was going to be ok… and that he never, ever had to pilot Unit 01 again…

**

"The loss of Unit 01's pilot was unforeseen," Kouzou commented quietly, "how do you plan to recover?"

Gendou said nothing for a moment, his eyes focusing on the medical and psychiatric evaluations in front of him. "We will have to procure another," he said finally, "notify Doctor Akagi."

"Are you going to visit him?" the older man inquired, looking over his former pupil's shoulder at the current sync results, his eyes easily finding the one labeled Third. All zeros, he thought ruefully, and Akagi has no explanation – medical or otherwise.

"There is no need," the Commander replied, "he has already stated his desire to be released from NERV employment, and there is nothing I need to speak to him about."

"Nothing?" Kouzou asked quietly.

"Nothing."

The older man considered this for a moment, then shook his head. "You're a cold man, Ikari," he said softly, heading for the door, "and I think you know why he can't pilot anymore."

"Of course," Gendou answered, his lips turning up in an ironic smile, "but she'll accept another pilot – she knows what's at stake."

"Don't we all," Kouzou said dryly, laying his hand on the doorknob. He hesitated.

"There is something else?" the Commander inquired quietly.

"About the Third Child," the other man said slowly, "you really don't feel a need to see him?"

"No."

"I see…"

There was a long moment of silence as the two men faced each other.

"Good day, Fuyutsuki," Gendou finally whispered.

Kouzou sighed, shaking his head. I suppose I should have known that you wouldn't care, he thought sadly, I just wish I didn't either. It's too hard to think about her son suffering…

"Good day… Commander…"

**

Shinji looked out the window of the Renault as it cruised through the city. Awfully quiet, he thought idly, even for a Sunday… He stole a glance at his guardian, but her eyes were fixed on the road, guess this is her way of saying goodbye, he thought sadly, can't really blame her… I AM useless now…

He closed his eyes, thinking of the sync test.

"Shinji?" Ritsuko said, her tone conveying exasperation, "Are you even trying??"

"Yes ma'am," Shinji replied, opening his eyes in the LCL, "I'm doing it just like you told me…"

"Nothing?" Misato inquired anxiously, "Shouldn't it register that he's in the plug? Something? I mean-"

"It SHOULD!" the blonde cut her off angrily, "But it's NOT! As far as Unit 01 is concerned, there's an empty plug in the socket…"

"Then… he can't pilot?"

Shinji opened his eyes as they arrived at their destination, wondering when he had fallen asleep. This had been happening to him a lot lately, though Doctor Fujiama had assured him it was probably just his body's way of dealing with the stress. "Why are we… here…?" he asked, looking around in confusion.

"Just… visiting…" Misato said softly, unfastening her seatbelt and climbing out of the car.

In silence, they wandered through the graveyard, passing Momiji's grave without so much as pausing. Shinji wondered if he should say something, but the look on Misato's face precluded any conversation.

"Do you want to, ummm… put this in your room, Shinji?"

"N-no… I, ummm… had a better idea, Misato…"

Shinji shivered, looking back at the grave. I'm sorry, he thought, turning away with a slight flush on his cheeks, I just couldn't.

The stuffed owl that the little golden-haired girl had loved so much had found a new home. It looked proper, Shinji decided, nestled in Touji's sister's arms. The little girl had been thrilled to receive it, and had insisted on laboriously climbing out of her hospital bed to hug Shinji.

So ironic, the Third Child thought, the doctors said another two hours, and she would have ended up just like Momiji… and both were my fault. He looked over the other graves, wondering how many of them had died because of him. Doctor Fujiama said I shouldn't think about stuff like that, he thought, deciding that Misato's back was a better focus for his eyes, but I-

"Here," Misato said finally, nodding to a certain grave as she came to a stop, "I had her moved here after I was stationed at NERV…"

"Chiharu Katsuragi…?" Shinji mumbled in confusion, shaking off the darker thoughts, "is this your mother's grave?"

Misato nodded slowly. "It's been four years since I visited her last," she whispered, "it… got too hard for me to face her after a while."

"How come?"

The Operations Director shook her head slowly, her attention focused more on the grave than Shinji. "I tried so hard to be a good girl for her," she murmured, not truly seeing what she was looking at, "for twenty years, I did everything a good little daughter is supposed to do." She wiped at her eyes briefly before going on, "I got so tired of it…"

She looked up at the boy, who was watching her uncertainly. "Have I ever told you about my father?" she asked. When he shook his head, she said, "All he ever thought about was work. His friends used to say that it was because he was so sensitive and cared so much about my mother that he wanted the best for her – but that was bullshit… he was just scared of being tied down, so he ran away." She took a deep breath. "I prayed," she whispered softly, "day and night… for my mother to leave him. I was so tired of hearing her cry herself to sleep at night…" She laughed abruptly, "Do you know," she said bitterly, "when I got my wish, and my mother told him she wanted a divorce… I laughed at him – right in his face. I was so happy I didn't know what to do with myself. I hated him so much for never being there for her…"

Her voice dropped so low he had to strain to hear it, "I'm not happy anymore, Shinji… I've done bad things… lots of bad things – most of them just to prove that I wasn't daddy's good little girl anymore. And what do I have to show for my hatred? Two graves… two graves and two 'I'm sorrys' that will never be heard…"

"Why are you telling me this?" Shinji asked, confused by the intense confession. He waited in patient silence as the woman said nothing, watching as her long, purple hair fluttered in the light breeze.

Finally Misato turned away, staring out over the rows and rows of graves. "Because I care about you…" she whispered, her voice barely audible.

The Third Child paled slightly, unprepared for the emotional conflict her simple words brought him. A blend of pleasure, pain, hope – and abject terror that this might be some form of cruel joke – ripped through him in the blink of an eye, taking his breath from him and scrubbing thoughts of her trauma right out of his mind.

He couldn't have answered her even if he'd wanted to.

"I'm not… really good with this kind of stuff…" the Operations Director said softly, feeling her cheeks growing hot as the boy made no reply. "But we've lived together for a while now, Shinji," she went on, forcing the words to come – in spite of the trembling in her voice, "and I was thinking – at the funeral – that I… that you and me… I mean…"

Shinji swallowed as the woman trailed off, unable to complete her thought.

"I'm sorry," Misato said softly, bowing her head, "I shouldn't have told you all this." She sighed, "I guess we should go back… I don't even know why I-"

"I care about you too…"

The purple-haired woman's head snapped back up, her face registering as much surprise as Shinji's at the sudden confession. Slowly, carefully… she reached out and put her hand on his shoulder, feeling more afraid than she ever had in her life. "I'd… like things to change with us…" she said hesitantly, "I don't care about Unit 01 – I want you to stay with me… is that ok, Shinji…?" She smiled as the boy slowly nodded, his eyes fixed on her hand as if he simply could not believe that this was happening.

For a long, long moment, neither of them said a word, then Misato let out a small gasp of surprise as Shinji's hands tentatively slid around her waist, embracing her with all the awkwardness of someone who has never known another's touch. "Can we go home…?" he asked timidly.

"Yeah…" Misato replied, her voice shaking almost as much as the rest of her as she slowly hugged him, "in a minute…"

They stood quietly for several minutes, a surrogate mother and her broken child, oddly content amongst the dead as they listened to the softly sighing wind…

**

"Have they found the Fourth yet?" Asuka asked, staring at the wall of the locker room. Sync tests were inevitable, she thought, wondering if she would dream about being in the plug that night… or if she would dream about something (or someone) else.

"I do not believe so" Rei replied softly, hanging her plugsuit on the hook in her locker, "hopefully they will soon…" She paused for a moment. "Since Ikari is no longer a pilot," she said hesitantly, "I will only see him at school…"

"I guess so," the redhead said noncommittally, frowning at the idea of someone else boarding Unit 01. Could be worse…she thought tiredly, at least no one died this time… She sighed, wondering suddenly if Shinji had cleaned his room. Because that's important, she thought ironically, he'll never pilot again, and he looks like he wants to cry all the time – but if his room is clean, maybe everything will be ok…

She frowned slightly, knowing that – in spite of her levity – it was very important… perhaps even the most important thing the Third Child could do. Like if he could just get that done, she thought, maybe he could get on with-

"It… does not make me happy…" the First whispered, interrupting the Second's thoughts, "to only see him there…"

For the first time since meeting her, Asuka took a good, hard look at the blue-haired girl. She studied the girl's face intently for a full minute, then turned away, unable to cope with the pain she saw in the girl's red eyes… the pain, and the similarities. "You could still visit him," she murmured, slightly surprised at the gentle tone in her voice. I'm getting soft, she thought with some amusement.

"That would not be proper…" Rei answered reluctantly, "he is not my coworker any longer, and I-"

"You know something Wondergirl?" the Second Child interjected, rising and heading towards the door.

"What?" the blue-haired girl asked curiously.

Asuka opened the door, turning to look over her shoulder and grinning slightly as she winked at the other girl.

"Fuck proper."

Rei considered this for a moment as the door swung shut. "Fuck proper…" she whispered, tasting the odd, coarse words with a look of amused contemplation. "You say things so easily, Pilot Souryu…" she murmured, pulling her school uniform on, "and you never consider how complicated it might be to act upon your suggestion…"

It is simple, her mind whispered, making her hesitate as she closed her locker door, do you or do you not want to see him? The blue-haired girl bowed her head. "Yes," she said softly, "I do… though still, after all this, I do not know why… or what I might gain from it…"

I do not need to gain anything… she thought, trying to fight off the idea that the voice belonged to someone else. He never requires any recompense when he acts – that is what sets him apart… that is why he is special… that is why… her thought trailed off before it could reach the inevitable conclusion.

She stood in silence for another five minutes, staring blankly into space as she pondered what she should do. The epiphany she had verged on in Unit 00 had vanished… and she held no hope that the Second Child would share her insights – she had already stated that she would not clarify her understanding any further.

Finally, Rei sighed softly. "There seems to be no alternative," she murmured. Quietly, she closed the locker and headed for the door, wondering idly what she would say to him the next time she saw him…

And if she should bring cheese with her.

**

"You seem in high spirits today," Kentaro observed as Shinji took his seat.

"Do I?" Shinji asked, genuinely uncertain.

"You do," the doctor confirmed, "you weren't smiling outright, but you were close… something good happen to you?" He smiled ironically, "Or is it because this is your last visit…?"

The brown-haired boy considered this for a minute before shrugging. "No," he said quietly, "it was something I did…"

"Care to share?"

Shinji stared in silence at his hands, contemplating how to reply. He thought about Asuka, Rei, and Misato. He thought about the falling angel, and Unit 01. He thought about his father, and himself.

And he thought about Momiji, and the small, helpless creature waiting for him to come home.

"Jibun…" he said quietly, not looking up.

"Come again?" the doctor asked, perplexed.

Shinji's eyes came up, confused tears beginning to flow down his cheeks as he whispered brokenly,

"The mouse… I named him Jibun…"

Oh, I feel it,

Coming back again

Like a rolling thunder

Chasing the wind…

Live, Lightning Crashes

The End

No story should take itself too seriously – so here's a short omake!! ^_^

Concept and some lines supplied by Rhine.

Asuka pushed doorbell marked 402, gritting her teeth in frustration. "Figures that Misato would take Shinji to Toko-2 for the weekend, leaving ME to bring Wondergirl reports… like I don't have enough to do."

She sighed, pushing the button again. Since the Fourth Child had yet to be found, Asuka's responsibilities had been practically tripled. Figures that WONDERgirl never has any REAL assignments, she thought darkly, holding the doorbell down with a feral smile, God forbid she should ever lift a finger!

Finally realizing that for all the times she'd pushed the doorbell, no sound had issued within the apartment, Asuka pushed tentatively on the door. "Very secure," she muttered dryly as it swung open, "Hello? Anyone home?"

"Come in," Rei's quiet voice instructed.

The redhead pushed the door the rest of the way open, stepping into the small apartment and slipping her shoes off. "Wondergirl?" she murmured, "I've got some reports you need to…" she trailed off as she came into the main room, "what are you doing?"

The First Child looked up from the small cage she had been studying. "I must try to understand Ikari through a pet," she explained quietly, "then I shall attain enlightenment."

Asuka looked down at the cage, then back up to the blue-haired girl, blinking as she pointed out, "It's a rock…"

"Shhh…" Rei whispered softly, her eyes focusing on her newfound friend, "she is talking…" The Second Child edged back as the red-eyed girl cooed, "what's that? You think that Pilot Souryu dislikes you?" She shot Asuka a suspicious, assessing glance from the corner of her eyes, "Do not worry… I will not let her harm you…"

The Second Child took another step back, agitated by the way the First was absently (lovingly) stroking the piece of shale. "Ummm…" she murmured, "I'll just… be going now. Here's your reports."

Throwing the papers on the bed, the redhead beat a hasty retreat, determined to just put the reports in the mail slot next time.

In the ensuing silence, Rei sighed. "Some people," she whispered, smiling faintly, "do not have a sense of humor…"

Her rock… made no reply…

Author's notes: the hardest part of this whole story… was the interaction between Asuka and Rei. Since it's set kinda early in the series, Asuka would not yet have developed her deep and abiding hatred for Rei… but she still would not be fond of her, since Rei had already snubbed her when she 'tried' to be friends with her (tried… demanded… whatever… ^_^). I thought that Asuka might be willing to (grudgingly) work together with Rei – if it was presented right… so hopefully I presented it right. ;) About Rei's interaction with Jibun (look up the meaning of his name, if you're curious… I might not have been so subtle on that point, but I liked it ^_^). Well, everyone's got something they're afraid of… Rei just happens to be afraid of mice – and the more she read up on them, trying to find out why Shinji was keeping one, the deeper her fear ran. ((shrug)) phobias are funny that way – they rarely make sense.

Technical notes: this story was started on January 28, 2002, and completed on July/01/2002. It weighs in at 23,250 words comprising 56 pages, which includes the disclaimer and the author's notes. For anyone that cares about that kinda stuff. ^_^

Pre-read thanks going out to Ryoma and Rhine… thanks, you guys. For the pre-read, and for the other stuff – you know what I'm talking about. I owe you a lot more than one…

Feedback is always welcome at random1377@yahoo.com