-- SPOILER ALERT - The following fan-fiction contains spoilers. It is advised that you see the entire series before reading this fic. -- This fan fiction is adapted from Neon Genesis Evangelion, produced by Gainax. All characters thereof are the sole property of Gainax. They are used without permission and no claim on them is made by this author. -- Previous parts can be found at: http://www.umich.edu/~wyrm/abp/fanfic.html Rei's Birthday Present, part 3 by Chris Burke -- Rei's eyes opened to a dark room. She lay on her back, staring up at the ceiling she could not see, not fully awake but feeling something amiss. The familiar screech of the alarm clock echoed off of the bare walls; a reminder of her duty. She breathed slowly, deliberately. The sound of her breathing was lost in the din.
she thought groggily. She wondered why she was so hot. She was sweating. She shifted, and moved her arm from under the blanket. The dry air sucked the sweat from her arm, chilling it and accentuating the heat of the rest of her body. The sensation awakened her more fully, and she noticed the weight on her stomach. She pulled back the blankets and sat up. The puppy yelped as it was tipped off her stomach onto the bed. She stared at it, her mind not yet able to merge the dog into its picture of things. She sat quietly for a moment, allowing the pieces of memory to slowly fall into place. Her whole body felt the chill when she got up from the bed to turn off the alarm. She turned on the fluorescent lamp over her bed. The bulb illuminated a circle on the bed; a small island amidst the encroaching shadows. Rei walked out of the room and into the bathroom. She stepped into the shower and pulled the curtain. She turned on the faucet, and icy water blasted away the last remnants of sleep. Among other deficiencies, the water heater in her building was not working. When she turned off the water and opened the curtain, the dog was sitting there, wagging its tail. It followed at her feet when she got out of the shower, dodging the water droplets falling off of her and barking when it got hit. Rei returned to her bedroom, toweling her hair. The bag of dog food caught her eye, reminding her to feed the dog. She finished drying herself, then opened the bag. The puppy barked excitedly as she poured the food into the bowl, leaving it three quarters full. She watched it devour the food eagerly as she dressed. Then she picked up her satchel and walked to the front door, to leave for an early morning with Dr. Akagi. As soon as she opened the door, Rei heard the click of the puppy's feet on the ground. It came scampering around the corner and ran down the hallway toward her. It barked as Rei began to close the door behind her. She looked at it through the narrowing opening before the door clicked shut. She could hear it barking and scratching at the door as she turned and walked away. A few minutes later Ayanami stepped out of the apartment building onto the street. The first rays of sunlight from beyond the horizon lightened the sky to a soft indigo. -- Asuka slouched in her chair, one hand on her chin, the other on her desk twirling a pencil absent-mindedly. She was staring across the room at the First Child, which was considerably easier now than it had been a week ago. In the past month alone three students had left the class, including most recently the one who had sat directly between her desk and Rei's window seat. Families leaving the danger of Tokyo-3 had become so common that no one even mentioned his absence. Asuka didn't care other than that now she had a clear view of Wonder Girl -- a view she would not have appreciated on any other day. Not that the albino was doing anything particularly interesting. As a rule, she never did. It was just that what she was doing now was different than what she normally did at school, which made it more interesting than yet another inaccurate rehash of the Second Impact. Thus Asuka watched as Rei read a book instead of staring out the window. Asuka sighed. Of the many exciting and important things she saw herself doing in her life, watching a strange blue-haired girl read a book was not among them. At the very least, she would have rather just talked with Hikari, who was sitting in front of her. Unfortunately the Class Rep insisted on maintaining class discipline, so that option was out. Just as Asuka's already limited interest dwindled to nothing, Rei shifted positions, giving Asuka a glimpse of the cover of the book. She couldn't catch the title in the brief second it was visible, but she did see a picture with a dog. Interest pushed back above the threshold, she turned to Shinji. "Hey, stupid," she whispered in a voice meant to carry three desks away to where Shinji sat, but no more. Shinji, who had been practicing sleeping with his eyes open but only getting the first part right, started at hearing his name. He caught Asuka's look, and leaned over his computer to type. The message appeared on Asuka's screen. /What is it, Asuka?/ Asuka typed in her response. /Did you get her that book?/ /What book?/ Asuka rolled her eyes and gestured with her head in Rei's direction. Shinji turned toward Rei, stared for a moment, then looked back to Asuka. He nodded in affirmation. /See?/ his next message read. /I told you so./ /Told me what?/ Asuka turned to face Shinji so he could see her incredulous expression. /Look at her. She's only reading it because she thinks she's supposed to; like it's an assignment. It won't make any difference./ /It shows that she's trying,/ Shinji insisted. /It shows she doesn't know what she's doing,/ Asuka wrote. /And she can't learn love from a book. Though I wonder if she can learn at all./ "Ayanami can learn about love!" Shinji said aloud in a harsh whisper. "You're just mad she didn't come to your party!" Behind Shinji, Kensuke perked up. "What did you say about Ayanami and love?" he said in a whisper louder than Shinji's. "Shinji loves Ayanami?" Touji said, not whispering at all. The rest of the class began laughing, and Shinji's face turned deep red. Hikari was not amused. "Quiet all of you! We are still in class!" she cried. She leveled an icy stare on Suzahara, who instantly assumed a stiff-backed studious air. Asuka turned forward again, and sighed. While amusing, that hadn't turned out the way she had wanted. Now she would have to strike down yet more rumors about the First and Second Children. It had been bad enough when Shinji had chased Wonder Girl after school to give her that stupid invitation. Worse had been at his party when he had sat in that secluded corner with her all alone. Asuka had been forced to intervene there to prevent the gossip from getting out of hand. She wondered sometimes why she bothered to do damage control for her roommate, but she knew she had no choice. Shinji was so pathetic; he just caved in the face of embarrassment and made things worse. He needed her. That, and she just couldn't stand to have everyone believe something so stupid. Because it _was_ stupid. Absolutely ridiculous. Whenever she pointed out just how moronic the idea of Wonder Girl and the Spineless Wonder as a couple was, suspicion would immediately shift to Asuka herself. Fortunately those rumors were easy to kill. An appropriately condescending look was enough to remind people that she would never fall for a loser like Shinji. she thought. She looked at the friend who insisted on making class as boring as possible, then at the clock. Asuka rested her head on her hands, and resigned herself to her fate. She glanced over at Wonder Girl, who was still reading as though nothing had happened. -- "So how did your adventure in guilt appeasement go yesterday?" Dr. Akagi sat at her desk in the upper offices of NERV, enjoying the view of the Geofront out the window. On the desk were the unfinished reports she had been working on before the Major had arrived. Not that she minded the distraction. Years as a scientist had not made report writing any more palatable than it had been in college. She silently thanked her friend for giving her an excuse to put them off. "Oh, not so bad," Misato replied, ignoring Ritsuko's choice of wording. Ritsuko had a tendency to put things in the most negative terms, which was annoying even -- especially -- if she was right. "Not much to say. It's _Rei_ we are dealing with here. But anyway, I feel better now, having done something." Ritsuko hid her bemused smile behind her coffee mug. "I still don't see why you felt guilty in the first place. You aren't her guardian." "I know, but that's part of it." Misato sat down on the edge of Ritsuko's desk. "Of the three pilots, she is the one I give the least attention. I'm always looking after the morale of Shinji and Asuka, but I never worry about Rei. No, Rei is always fine. Good ol' dependable Rei. I was even willing to be guardians to Shinji and Asuka, and look out for them in their lives outside of NERV. But I didn't even remember Rei's birthday." She sighed. "It's pretty obvious I don't treat her very well." Ritsuko nodded. "So you feel bad because you treated Rei like a tool and not a person?" "Yeah, pretty much." "Did you ask her how she feels about that?" Ritsuko reached past the porcelain cats to the coffee machine for a refill. "You might be surprised by her answer." "I know. The way she acts makes it easy to treat her that way. But that doesn't make it right." She shifted, and set her own mug down on the desk. "Mind if I...?" She gestured to the carafe. At Ritsuko's nod, she poured herself a cup. "Have you ever seen Rei's apartment?" Misato asked. Ritsuko shook her head, and leaned back in her chair. "Oh! It's an absolute dive! The whole building looks like it could fall down at any moment. And there's this construction right by the building that never stops and the noise just drives you insane! I can't imagine how anyone could live there." "Is that so?" "Her apartment is just about empty, too, and so dark and dingy it's depressing just being there. I'm not sure anyone else even lives in the building. It must be lonely, and I have to wonder about her safety..." "Misato!" Ritsuko cut her off. "You aren't thinking of becoming Rei's guardian, are you?" "No!" Misato quickly answered. "I mean, I thought about it, but it just wouldn't work. I'd have to get a bigger apartment, which I can't afford. Asuka would raise hell if I even mentioned the idea. And I'm just not sure that's what Rei wants or needs." Ritsuko scoffed into her coffee. Misato thought. "And the final reason is that the thought of taking on another kid -- especially Rei -- is horrifying. I've got all I can handle and then some with just Shinji and Asuka. It's selfish, but I can only do so much." "A good decision," Ritsuko agreed. "Besides, shouldn't the Commander be her guardian? He acts like he is." Ritsuko looked out the window over the lake. "No, not really." Her voice sounded detached. "If you say so. So she's out of luck, then." Ritsuko just shrugged, still facing away from her friend. "She hasn't needed one so far." "Hmm..." Misato frowned. "Well, I still think Shinji was right," she said, even if she didn't fully believe it. "I thought the puppy was your idea," Ritsuko said. She picked up one of her cat figurines and toyed with it absently. she thought. "Yeah, but that's just because I overheard one of the maintenance staff talking about these puppies she was trying to sell. Based on what Shinji had said about her, I thought it would fit. So in a way, it was his idea." "Are you trying to give Shinji the credit he deserves," Ritsuko asked, "or abdicating responsibility in case it doesn't work out?" "Hey, stop that," Misato said, glaring. "I'm sorry," Ritsuko said exhaustedly. "I'm not being very fair. Will you forgive me?" She turned around, faced Misato with a slight smirk. "When haven't I?" Misato said, smiling. "You're just in one of your moods." She stood up and made a show of checking her watch. "Well, I'd better let you get some work done." "Oh, no, that's okay," Ritsuko said quickly. "We don't talk much these days..." "Ah, well, I have to go," Misato said. "Maybe we can get together after work sometime." Ritsuko nodded. "We will," she said. She did want to, so it wasn't really a lie. She watched Misato leave, then turned to her desk. To her disappointment the reports had not written themselves. she said, casting a last wistful glance to where her friend had gone. Yet she was not entirely unhappy that Misato had left; she had been getting pretty tired of talking about Ayanami Rei. -- Another day of school had past and gone, and Ayanami Rei made her way home. She walked with a gait neither hurried nor relaxed. She walked purposefully, eyes straight ahead, back rigid, ignoring the sights of Tokyo-3 as she ignored them every day. The world that held her attention was internal. Rei was at the moment trying to work through the state of confusion she was left with after reading the book. It consistently failed to provide details, and regularly contradicted itself. That the entire situation was completely outside her limited realm of experience made her feel discomfortingly dependent on the book. The book was not the only thing that had confused Rei that day. Suzahara-kun's comment had made her cheeks hot, a reaction that she did not understand. She had known then that Suzahara-kun misrepresented Ikari-kun's words, but she had still reacted in that way. Even remembering made her feel uncomfortable. She decided not to think about it anymore. Instead she reflected on what Ikari-kun had whispered to the Second Child just before. Ayanami Rei heard a lot more than she was given credit for. Most people will assume that if someone isn't looking at them, or not showing any interest in what they are saying, then the person isn't listening. They will then say things that they normally wouldn't. Rei rarely showed any visible interest in what was being said, but she was almost always listening. It wasn't a trick that she did consciously. People around her would speak as if she wasn't there, and to her this was normal. It never even occurred to her that Ikari-kun hadn't intended for her to hear him. she repeated to herself. She entered her apartment building, and went to the stairwell. At the same methodical pace as before, she ascended. she admitted readily. She had heard of the concept of love, but did not think she had ever seen it. She could not even begin to comprehend what it would mean to love someone, or to have someone love her. she thought, obliquely arriving at a satisfactory answer to that question. Thinking about love and Ikari made her feel strange. Her feet automatically carried her up the last flight of stairs to her hallway. She was supposed to take care of it. Katsuragi-san had said it was for company, something Rei had never had much of nor felt a need for. She stood in front of her apartment door. She hesitated a moment, then reached to open the door. When she opened the door far enough to step into the apartment, the dog was already in a headlong dash down the hallway. Barking loudly, tail wagging furiously, it ran between Rei's legs, then around in front of her. It jumped up, tongue lolling, paws on her thighs. It fell, then jumped again. It rolled over in place, stooped to look up at her, then rolled again, tail still beating. Rei watched this display impassively. She stepped out of her shoes, then walked passed it. The dog jumped up to follow her, weaving between her legs. She set her satchel down on her bed. She looked around the room, and saw that the puppy had in fact used the newspaper she had laid out. Unfortunately it had also used just about every other part of the floor. She filled the dog's bowls, then cleaned up the various messes on the floor. When that was done, she sat cross-legged on the floor. The dog, finished with its meal, didn't hesitate to jump on Rei's lap and extend upward to lick her face. Rei put her hand on the dog's back and rubbed it gently. While it was still licking her, she took the collar from the bag next to her, and affixed it around the dog's neck. It dropped down on her lap, and looked up at her questioningly. She pet it again briefly, then affixed the leash to the collar. She could not imagine how to answer the question. For the moment, she would just care for the dog as required. Which, if she understood the book correctly, meant taking the dog for a walk. She stood up. The puppy twisted, trying to catch the leash in it's teeth. She moved away, stopping just before the leash became taught. "Come," she said. "We are going for a walk." The dog snapped at the leash again, and trotted toward her. Rei walked out of the apartment, puppy at her feet. -- The sound of the cicadas filled the air near the small park in central Tokyo-3, even more so than in other parts of the city. Trees were scattered around the lightly hilled park, providing patches of shade in the afternoon sun. A few paved trails crossed the well-maintained grasses and passed the man-made carp pond. A mated pair of Mandarin Ducks rested on the still water. On the path next to the pond a young woman walked, humming a pop tune to herself over the noise of the insects. She wore blue jeans and a loose white t-shirt with a Totoro on the front. A pony tail tied with a blue ribbon hung down to the middle of her back. In her hand she held the handle of a retractable leash. At the other end of the leash, nose to the ground, was a black Labrador Retriever. She continued down the path, moving slowly to give her dog time to sniff at everything, which it gladly did. Near the end of a stone terrace in the side of a hill she stopped to let her dog do its business next to a tree. While she waited, she heard a voice coming from the trail past the terrace. "What are you doing," the feminine voice said. "Stop. You cannot go that way. If you do not turn around, we will be..." The voice stopped. Himiko was curious. She saw that Hachi was done. "Hachi, heel," she said, and Hachi moved to her side. She walked around the terrace, and stopped when she saw that in the middle of the paved path stood a girl. A very strange girl. The girl was wearing a junior-high school uniform, which was not unusual. The blue hair and white skin were. As were the red eyes, the color of which were visible even at ten meters. The girl did not move at all. The probable reason was that a leash was wrapped tightly around her legs. The small puppy at her feet had one foot caught on the leash and was twisting its body around to bite at the offending strap. The girl for her part was looking down at the puppy with a blank look of confusion. The young woman stifled a giggle and walked toward the girl. "Having a problem?" she said, keeping her gaze deliberately on the puppy in order to avoid staring. She stooped down. "Here, let me help you. Hachi, sit." She patted her dog lightly when it complied. She reached toward the puppy. The puppy barked sharply at her and tried to back away, but only caught its leg even more on the leash. She took the leg and gently lifted it, freeing the pup. She unwrapped it from the girl and set it down. The puppy's tail wagged happily. She giggled. "There, that's better. What a cute puppy you have!" She watched it approach her dog. The two animals sniffed at each other, tails wagging. "Did you get it from a breeder, or do you own the dam too? It looks a little young for weaning. Oh, but where are my manners!" She stood up and bowed. "My name is Ueda Himiko. This is Hachi." "I am Ayanami Rei," the girl answered flatly. "Pleased to meet you," Himiko said, smiling. "And what is this adorable creature's name?" Ayanami stood silently until Himiko almost thought she wasn't going to answer, then spoke. "I do not know," was the reply. "Ah," Himiko said. "Haven't decided yet? How long have you had him? Or is it her?" Ayanami stooped and picked up the puppy. Turning it around, she answered "It is female." She set the dog down, which turned and tried to climb up her leg. She stayed crouched down for a moment to stroke its head before standing. "I see..." Clearly this was a brand-new dog owner, though they seemed to have bonded quickly. She decided to give the girl another chance to engage in the favorite conversational activity of dog owners: talking about their dogs. "So, what kind of dog is it?" Another pause. "I do not know," the girl said, still without tone. "Oh," Himiko said, downtrodden at realizing how little the girl knew about dogs, even her own. Still, she couldn't help but talk to a fellow dog owner, no matter how new. "Well, it kinda looks like a Cardigan Welsh Corgi," she said tentatively, not wanting to sound too sure of herself. "How did you get her?" "It was... a gift," Rei answered. Himiko looked up at Ayanami for the first time since the beginning of the conversation. She couldn't help being struck by the girl's strange appearance. She became self-conscious about noticing and looked away, then became self-conscious about looking away. she thought. She didn't let her concern show, however. "Oh, that's nice. Puppies are a lot of work, but they are also a lot of fun. Hachi here is two, so he's still pretty much a puppy." Himiko stood watching the young pup bounce back and forth between Rei and Hachi. Hachi sat grinning, his tail slowly swishing back and forth. He bent his head to touch noses with the smaller animal. "If you want some advice," she began to fill the void in conversation, "I would suggest leaving the leash on when you get home. It will give her a chance to get used to it." she thought. She looked at the girl again, who had the same impassive expression. "If you haven't already, you will also want to start training. It takes patience, but it's easiest to do it now rather than after bad habits develop. It's also a good way to get to know your puppy." Rei nodded, then opened her mouth slightly. Himiko waited patiently for her to speak, and tried not to stare. "Ueda-san... am I supposed to give it a name?" Now Himiko couldn't help but stare. "Of course you are, Ayanami-san!" "What name do I give it?" "Any name you want!" she responded, waving her arms. "You can give it a name just for fun, or name it after something, or a name that means something to you. For example, I named Hachi after the famous Akita that waited every day at the train station for its master to come home, even after its master died." She reached down to pat her Lab's head. "My Hachi is very loyal and will wait for me outside of class, which is pretty good. Though the main thing he waits by is the food dish!" She laughed, but her laughter died before her audience's stoic gaze. "Eh..." Himiko floundered. Between the girl's strange appearance and equally strange behavior, this encounter was becoming more than she knew how to deal with. "Well, it has been very nice meeting you, but I have to get home." She ran a hand through her hair nervously. "Good luck with her." Rei simply nodded. "Hachi, heel," Himiko said and took off, masking her sigh of relief in the command. She walked for a ways, until she was sure she was out of earshot, and looked behind her. The girl was walking in the opposite direction, puppy weaving back and forth on its leash. "What a strange girl..." she commented. "Although... maybe I'm not being entirely fair. After all, I was pretty rude. It's as bad to be caught trying not to stare as it is to stare, right?" She looked down. Hachi looked back up at her, mouth open in a non-committal grin. "So what do you think, Hachi? Was that a nice girl?" Hachi barked cheerfully, and wagged his tail. "Well, then I agree," Himiko laughed as the pair walked out of the park. -- "Come," Rei said. Without hesitation, the puppy ran to her, claws clicking on the hard apartment floor. The leash trailed out behind it. "Good dog," she said, and petted it. One thing Rei could not understand was why it was necessary to praise and reward the puppy for doing what it was supposed to do. It should do what was expected of it, and that was that. The book, however, insisted praise was important and Rei had no choice but to accept it as authoritative on the subject of dog training. She picked up the puppy and walked across the room. She set it down, and backed away. The puppy sat on its haunches and looked up at her questioningly. "Come," she said. Before she had even finished the word the puppy was running to her, barking happily. She bent and rubbed the puppy's side. "Good dog," she said, and continued to pet it. The book had also said to use her dog's name when issuing commands, but as of yet she hadn't given it one. She decided to try a new exercise. Going on the books instructions, she filled the puppy's food bowl. It stood and barked excitedly at her feet. "Sit," she said as she raised the bowl up past the puppy's head. It followed the bowl with its head, and reflexively sat on its haunches. "Good dog," she said as soon as its bottom touched the floor, and petted it. It stood up immediately and barked. Rei set the dish down and it began to eat. The first lesson in "sit" completed successfully, Rei sat down beside the bowl. She thought for a while, but nothing came up -- at least nothing that seemed like it would be a good name. For some reason naming the dog Ikari didn't seem... appropriate. The puppy finished eating, and took advantage of its master's reflection by jumping onto her lap. Still lost in thought, Rei held the dog to herself with one hand and stroked it with the other. She pressed its ears back against its head and watched them spring back up. A meaning she was never allowed to forget. "Ichi," she said to the puppy, rubbing its head. "Your name is Ichi." Ichi wagged her tail happily in response. -- Night was held at bay in Ayanami's room by the single lamp affixed to her bed. She stood in the center of the floor, Ichi at her feet. "Ichi, sit," Rei said. Ichi stood up and put her front paws on Rei's shin, then dropped back to the floor. For almost an hour Rei had been repeating the command; for almost an hour Ichi had refused to sit. She had long ago exhausted what little advice was in the book, and was hoping that repetition was what was needed. She crouched in front of Ichi. "Ichi, sit," she said, and tried to tuck the puppy's hind legs and force it to sit. Ichi yelped and twisted away from her master's hand. Rei wasn't surprised, since that was exactly what Ichi had done the last two dozen times she had tried that. "Ichi, sit," she repeated, making sure to use her firmest voice. Or what she assumed was her firmest voice. She wasn't really sure what "firm" sounded like; she hadn't ever had any need to use such a voice herself. She supposed that she would characterize Commander Ikari as "firm", but if she was supposed to sound like _him_ then there was no hope. Firm voice or not, Ichi didn't sit. She did lay down, look up at Rei, and huff. Her small tail swept slowly across the floor. Prompted by a need for some success, Rei stood and backed away from her puppy. When she was across the room she called out: "Ichi, come." Ichi jumped up and scampered across the room to her, tongue hanging out and tail flapping. "Good dog," Rei said, not caring if her voice sounded sufficiently affectionate. Her hand reached to Ichi's head of its own accord. Ichi responded by licking her fingertips. No answer materialized. Rei noticed that it was late, and decided to quit for the night. She unhooked Ichi's leash, feeling a sense of failure. Moments after Rei got into bed and turned the light off, Ichi leapt onto the bed and nestled into the crook of her neck. -- Morning came, and Rei awoke covered in sweat once again. She turned off the alarm and wondered how such a small body could generate so much heat. After her cold shower, she filled Ichi's dish. "Ichi, sit," she said in a futile gesture as she lifted the bowl above the puppy's head. To her surprise, it sat immediately, eager gaze on the dish. "Good dog," she remembered to say, and set the dish down. Rei puzzled over this for a moment. It was her second use of the bowl, and her second success at getting Ichi to sit. She wondered briefly if she would have to carry a food dish around for whenever she wanted Ichi to sit. That would clearly be impractical. She would have to find another way. She dressed and headed for the door. Before she had put on the first of her shoes, Ichi came tearing around the corner toward her, barking furiously. Rei avoided the jumping dog and finished putting on her shoes. She opened the door, and Ichi immediately tried to rush through. Rei grabbed her and set her down away from the door. "You cannot come," she said as she was forced to stop Ichi from running out the door again. As she said it, though, she had second thoughts. Could Ichi come with her? Ueda-san had mentioned taking her dog to school. Rei had never seen any of the other students with an animal in school, but perhaps they didn't have pets. Her decision made, Rei closed the door. She got the leash from the bedroom and affixed it to Ichi's collar. "Let's go, then," she said, and led her puppy out of the apartment. -- Rei carried Ichi in her arms as she ascended the stairs to the school. She had already discovered that stairs proved a formidable obstacle for the small dog, and Rei did not want to wait for Ichi to face the challenge of each step in turn. The halls of the school were empty, the combined effect of Ayanami's early arrival time and the decreasing population of the school. As she approached her classroom, she saw the one person who consistently arrived before she did: The Class Representative. Horaki Hikari, about to enter the classroom, glanced in Rei's direction. As per usual, she didn't pay much attention to the pilot. A moment later what she had seen registered, and she turned to stare in shock. "Ayanami, what is that?" she said accusingly, pointing at Rei's chest. "It is a dog," Rei said. "I know that!" A vein popped out conspicuously on Hikari's forehead. "I meant you can't bring a dog into school! No pets allowed! Get it out of here! What were you thinking?" she finished for good measure. She looked to see the effect her tirade had. She would have liked to see chagrin, but knowing it was Ayanami she settled for blinking and breathing. Rei stoically absorbed this information, then did the only thing she could think to do. She turned and walked out of the school, headed for her apartment. Hikari entered class satisfied, once again reassured that without her personal intervention the entire world would degenerate into lawlessness. When Ayanami reached the top of the stairs, she saw the other two Children at the bottom. "Why do we have to come so early, Asuka?" Shinji grumbled, clearly mourning the lost half-hour of sleep. "Because if I can't talk to Hikari during class, I at least want to talk to her before class so I don't go insane... I mean, it doesn't concern you! Just do as you are told, like always!" "Yes, yes," Shinji replied, indicating that he never had any intention of doing otherwise. He looked up just in time to see Ayanami walking down the stairs, her puppy cradled in her arms. "Good morning, Ikari-kun," she said as she passed him. "Eh... Hi Ayanami," he managed to say to her back. He turned to Asuka, who was staring intently at Rei. She stood there for a minute, then said "Come on, stupid," and walked up the stairs. Shinji followed. Hikari greeted them when they entered the classroom. Asuka sat next to her friend. Shinji took his seat near the back and got a head start on making up for lost REM cycles. "Hi, Asuka. You're here early." Hikari talked while she arranged the printouts for the day into stacks. "It's because I'm such a dedicated student," Asuka declared. Hikari giggled. "Hey, did you by chance just see Ayanami leaving here with a _dog_?" "Oh, yeah. It's just like the First Child to do something strange like bring her puppy to school." "You know about this?" Hikari asked. "Sure. Misato and Shinji had the bright idea to buy her a puppy for her birthday." "Really?" Hikari beamed. "Shinji, that's so nice!" "Uh, what? Oh, thanks," Shinji mumbled, then went back to sleep. "I had no idea it was her birthday," Hikari said. "She didn't exactly advertise," Asuka pointed out. "So that must have been what you were talking about with Shinji yesterday." "Yeah. I'm just worried she won't give the puppy the love it needs," Asuka said, repetition stealing the conviction from her voice. "Oh, come on," Hikari admonished. "How could anyone not love a puppy?" "I guess," Asuka said, not entirely paying attention. She was busy trying to think of a way to change the subject. She was getting pretty tired of talking about Wonder Girl. -- In the center of his expansive office, Commander Ikari Gendo sat at his desk. Uncharacteristically absent was Sub-Commander Fuyutsuki. Instead, at his side stood Ayanami Rei. "Commander," Rei began, looking straight ahead. Gendo's silence told her to continue. "I have a question," Rei said. She always felt nervous asking him questions. Anything she needed to know, he would tell her; to ask for more information was to suggest otherwise. It wouldn't do to question the Commander's judgment. "Yes, Rei." He was also looking forward. They would often have entire conversations this way, never looking at each other. "Major Katsuragi... she said that it was my birthday two days ago." The wording satisfied Rei. She was merely trying to clear up contradictory information. "That is true," was the Commander's response. Rei nodded. The Major had been correct. Yet the Commander had not seen fit to mention it, so it could not be as important as she and Ikari-kun had made it out to be. "Why did you wish to know?" "Major Katsuragi and the pilot of Unit 01 believed it to somehow be an important day. I did not know if this was correct." "I see," Gendo said. "Were you in school today?" "Yes, sir," Rei responded. Clearly the subject of her birthday was closed. "Is that going well?" he asked; a common question. "There are no problems," she said quickly. She wasn't sure, however, if that was true. Outside of her encounter with the Class Representative, she hadn't gotten in any trouble for taking Ichi to school. The teacher hadn't seemed to notice her entering the classroom late. Still she wasn't sure if it was something she shouldn't mention. Or at least mention Ichi herself. Uneasily she decided not to bother him with something so unimportant. With a start she realized that he was looking at her now, his brow furrowed in displeasure. "Rei, there is a synchronization test tomorrow?" he said in the tone he used with all subordinates who were not meeting expectations. "Yes, sir," Rei replied shakily. "And I will be with Dr. Akagi before that." She couldn't meet his eyes. She hadn't been paying attention, and the Commander disliked having to repeat himself. She stood there in uncomfortable silence, and bent her arm across her body to grab the opposite elbow. She squeezed her arm, and tried to control her breathing. She could feel his hard gaze studying her. He remained silent for several minutes, and with each moment her anxiety grew. She could feel sweat running down her forehead. "Well then," he said at last, expression and tone softening. "Let's go get some food." "Yes, sir," she said, tension escaping to the air in her words. In a flash her anxieties were gone, and she smiled in spite of herself. She couldn't help but smile whenever he used that voice. It was his Special Voice, and it was only for her. They ate together in silence, as was their custom. During the meal, Rei worried that there wouldn't be time to walk Ichi before it became dark. If she could catch the next train out of the Geofront then she could make it home in time. She ate hurriedly, then excused herself. The Commander said nothing. -- end part 3 first posted 3/11/2000 email@example.com http://www.umich.edu/~wyrm/abp -- Thanks go to TJ Hamilton for providing C&C and a little bit of nagging, and to Daniel Snyder for the same.