Asuka had returned to her crossword puzzles. By producing at least four crosswords per day, she was assured of enough income to survive on: food, utilities, clothes for Kyoko, and a new dictionary when she fancied one. Shinji's long-delayed arrival had cut into her schedule, but not derailed it. In fact, turning the idea over in her mind, there was some kind of inspiration in his arrival. Perhaps she could take some of those quaint images the Japanese associated with love and work them into a puzzle. That would be an interesting challenge! One worthy of the mind of Sohryu Asuka Langley, to be sure. The first word she would use would be "sakura", naturally. But, did "cherry blossom" have an appropriate translation in German? Her editor might not like her using the original Japanese, that meddlesome old fool...too much of Asuka's time was spent rewriting to get around those changes her editor said were "called for". Ridiculous! "Mama, Mama, they're comin' back inshide!" "I hear them, dear. Don't worry, they won't hurt you." It would be like that senile fellow to object to the original Japanese. Well, there were other words to be used. "Parasol" was certainly one. And then there were flower blossoms. Maybe...maybe she could do a crossword around flowers only indigenous to Japan! That would be hard, and truly worth her effort! "Um...Asuka-chan?" Wait. Not Shinji's, that voice. Asuka turned and looked back towards the stairs. Shinji and that friend of his Touji were there, for sure, but it was Hikari who had spoken. Hikari glanced nervously at Shinji. Then, in a bright and happy voice, said "Would you like a job with NERV?" "Eh?" "Would you like to go back to work for NERV? They'd really, really like to have you around. Right, boys?" Shinji and Touji nodded eagerly. "Right, NERV really wants to have you in particular back. In fact, as soon as possible! Today, even!" Asuka set down her pen and turned her chair around to face them. "Did you lot come out here today just to make me a job offer? Is that all?" "Who, us? Why no!" Hikari tried as best as she could to laugh at the idea. She had the sensation that her skin was actually crawling off of her bones. "No, we're here to see you, of course, but we heard about this job, and it seemed just perfect for you! We couldn't resist telling you!" Hikari signaled Shinji to come forward. He was glancing at a small piece of paper clutched in one hand. "There's a fellow in the Materials Sciences Division of NERV, called Dr. Joseph Morgan...and he needs someone to help him work on the EVA exoskeletons. He's looking for someone with an advanced degree in physics, someone who could work whatever hours she wanted...you and I are still technically with NERV, so you'd be a shoo-in for the job." His speech provoked no reaction from Asuka. Before his courage had a chance to wither, he pressed on. "You and Kyoko could come with us back to Nuremberg. The interview might be as early as tomorrow. There's plenty of housing at the NERV facilities for a short stay. Then, when you get the job, the two of you would get to go to Zurich, which is maybe someplace you've never been, but they still speak German, and so..." If she was listening anymore, Asuka showed no signs of it. She was slouched back in her chair, resting her elbow on the arm and staring off into space. Kyoko had disengaged herself from the newcomers and was leafing through a coffee table book on the floor, humming a tuneless melody to herself. A few moments passed. Asuka broke the uncertain silence. "You're not going to Switzerland with me, are you, Shinji?" "Uh.." Shinji stammered, blushing, "no. I've got a job in Hokkaido, you know." "Oh." Asuka swallowed. "What do you do there?" "I'm an advertiser. I've been doing it for almost a year now." He'd long put aside his middle-school memories of life with Asuka; then, in a strange room in a foreign country, he watched her searching her own heart, and those memories began to revivify, to burn. When her eyes stared at him with the ocean of her soul raging in their depths, the memories came. Good times, bad times...but most of all, times when he had been afraid of her presence. Her physical beauty, her physical force, the fear of unknown that came from being a 14-year-old boy around a 14-year-old girl. He was afraid of her again: he knew her heart, she knew his, what was she preparing to say? "You're too busy to come to Switzerland with me, aren't you?" He was scared, because there were only two answers he could give. One was a lie, a sweet lie that could lead him halfway across the world. It could take him to the bed of a beautiful, brilliant young woman. It could give him a beautiful daughter, just beginning her life and her learning. It could get him known in the uppermost circles of science, and possibly society. And the only alternative was the simple truth, a truth that--beyond a doubt--would break his own heart, and that of a girl he had grown up beside. The only thing he could think of was the smile of the Seventeenth Angel, Nagisa Kaworu. "I can't come with you," Ikari Shinji said. "But if you go, Kyoko can be with you. It wouldn't be too much trouble to get a bonus out of NERV to help you relocate. She can come with you. She'll learn French in school, too. Kyoko-chan?" She looked up from her book. "Yesh?" "Kyoko-chan," Shinji said to her, getting down on his knees to look her in the face, "how would you like to live with your mother in a whole new part of the world? You could make new friends and study fun things in school. Would you like that?" "Mama shays I don't have ta go ta school," Kyoko said defiantly. "...but there's still snow! And there's lots of new friends you could meet, you like to meet new people, don't you?" "Yeah!" "There you are!" Shinji patted the little girl's head. "Asuka, Kyoko-chan can be with you instead of me. And you can be a good mother and make sure she gets a good education." Hikari broke in. "I'm sure you'll do just fine, Asuka. Why don't you come with us to Nuremberg? We'll schedule an interview for you. Kyoko can come along." "Plenty of room in our car," added Touji. They fell silent as Asuka stood and started wandering around the room. Her steps were slow and measured. Her dry hands folded and bent round one another. She walked in front of her chair and back again; then past her desk, finally arriving at the window. She gazed down at the empty street below, almost longingly. "Shinji..." Flutter crept into and out of her voice. "Why can't things be simple? Why can't you just say you love me? I'm angry with you, God knows I am. You aren't nice to me. You don't...you don't treat me with the same respect everybody else gives me. Touji's afraid of me, you know that? And Hikari thinks I'm her best friend. I'm smarter than the teachers no matter where I go. NERV needs me as a pilot. That's all fine. But you have to love me. It's like the laws of Physics. Metals expand when they're heated. I need the boy who lives with me to be in love with me. "But you're NOT in love with me, are you? You think I'm just a big set of false impressions. Don't you understand, there's nothing wrong at all with trying to make people love you, or fear you. It's gotten me to where I am today. I am number one, I am Sohryu Asuka Langley!" She jabbed an accusing finger in his direction, her voice still thin. "You don't kiss with me unless I tell you to. You don't do nice things for me because you want to. You compliment other girls, like Wonder Girl, and Misato. You don't take me on dates. In fact, you're no kind of boyfriend at all! You...you can disappear from me for so many years, and then make some kind of grand entrance, trying to save me from some imaginary dead-end life I'm leading. You can do that. But you know what?" She took a menacing step towards him and declared, at the top of her voice, "Ikari Shinji, you can't ever, ever convince me you love me!" "Asuka..." Trembling with emotion, she dared to stare directly into his angel eyes. "...I wish I could." She stared at him, tried to analyze him, for almost a minute: his brown hair, his blue eyes, the cut of his suit, the way that his fists were clenched into tight balls and that Kyoko was moving to his side, staring at her mother with fear. Asuka made some kind of a squealing noise from the very back of her throat. She tried to run through the three adults, but Touji caught her as she passed by him. She whirled on her heel, trying to break his grip. "Asuka, where d'you think you're going?" he asked sharply. "Let me go, dummy! Let me go!" Hikari took hold of Asuka's shoulders. "Asuka, what are you doing? Don't you want to come with us?" "Of course I do! Of course I do! Of course." By the third time she had calmed down enough to look around for Kyoko. She took the child to her side protectively and draped her arms around Kyoko's shoulders. "Did you think I was going crazy or something? Of course we'll come with you. Yes. Let's go. Let's find your car. You said you had a car, didn't you? We can go to Nuremberg. Come along, Kyoko." Kyoko, Asuka and Hikari walked hand in hand to the car while Touji and Shinji made small talk with each other. During the drive to Nuremberg, Hikari fed Kyoko cheese, bread and some big black grapes straight out of the grocery bag. Asuka stared out the window, sometimes at the window itself. Touji was concentrating on the road ahead of him, and Shinji decided that he had nothing to say. His tongue felt hollow in his mouth. They reached Nuremberg in the middle of the afternoon, and were met by Lieberman on the prison grounds. He loaded Asuka and Kyoko into the back seat of a NERV truck. "Asuka," said Hikari through the window, "we'll come and visit you when you get the job." "If I get the job," she replied dully. "You'll get it, Asuka. I believe in you." Hikari blew Asuka a kiss through the window, and waved goodbye to Kyoko. The truck drove off with a moan a few moments later. Shinji felt his heart loosen as the truck became one with the daytime traffic. She wasn't an unknown anymore. Asuka had finally touched the Earth: hard, but not as hard has he had sometimes feared. "So what's going to happen now?" Touji asked. "Asuka's going to get a psychiatric evaluation and therapy, but she's also going to get a real job?" "The job's real enough," said Shinji. "That's what Kensuke told me. But Asuka won't have to go through therapy if she chooses not to. I really hope she does." Hikari smiled at Shinji. "Don't worry about Asuka," she said reassuringly. "She's tougher than she looks right now, Shinji. I believe in her." He replied very slowly. "I've...we've done all we can for her. I guess. It still doesn't seem like enough, but we're done." Touji nodded. "Yeah. Come on, Shinji. You said Kensuke had a lead on where Rei is?" Shinji brightened. "That's what he said. I'm looking forward to seeing her, a lot."