Now, for Misato. ************************************************ An Oddzilla Productions fanfic, by Andrew Huang. The Heart, the Soul In Front of My Eyes Based on Neon Genesis Evangelion, c. Gainax Studios and ADVision. ************************************************ How do children become adults? I've watched two of them do that right in front of my eyes. Well, no; sometimes, it feels like I blinked at that crucial moment, and missed the process. Before I closed my eyes, they were youthful and innocent, though hurting; after I opened them, they were.... What am I to them? I must have played a role in this somehow. They're in my care--I'm in charge of them. Despite the fact that both of them still have living parents, let alone living blood relatives, I'm their legal guardian. I'm their guardian, their advisor, their big sister. Asuka called me 'Mama'. I remember the first time I found Shinji in Asuka's room. Damn paperwork kept me up all night, that night. When I'd finally finished, when it was all ten times signed and ten times sealed and ten times cursed, I went to the bathroom to brush my teeth, and found Shinji's door open. He wasn't in. I found Asuka's door open. They were both in. He'd fallen asleep by her bed, sitting there as if watching over her. No, not as if. He really was watching over her, and he did so because she had been crying. I could see that. It made me feel tired and dizzy. I hadn't been expecting this, not at all. Who would? Who could? They had been snappy with each other all night, if only in a half-hearted manner. As I turned to go, I thought I heard a whisper behind me. I strained my ears to listen, even though I knew I shouldn't have--but I had missed it. I didn't even know which one of them it had been. Shinji was growing up. I had almost missed it, and that made me feel ashamed. But at least, it was only almost, and that then made me feel better. ------------------------------------------------ "Let me see those." Ritsuko looked at me, shrugged, and handed over the reports. Mmm. Good, Asuka was improving. For a girl who had been...psychically raped, for lack of a better term, she was doing rather well. Her brain waves were approaching what had been normal for her beforehand. "When do you think she'll be able to get back in the Evangelion?" Ritsuko asked, in a soft voice. I couldn't help but glare at her. "When she's ready, and not a moment sooner." My voice was rather sharper than I would have liked. This hurt her, I saw, and I regretted it. "I know. After what happened, I understand," she answered. "It would probably be best if she never had to get back in there. But...." Her voice trailed off, and she gave a weak shrug. But. There's always that 'but'. "The fate of humanity rests on these Children," I heard myself say, morosely. "I'm sorry for snapping at you." I sighed, looked over the graphs again more out of habit than of hoping to learn anything else, and closed the folder. "They went above and beyond the call of duty long ago. Not just for children, but even for adults." She took the folder back when I held it out to her, and nodded. While she absently riffled through the papers, also probably just out of habit, she said, "In ordinary times, yes. But these aren't. The duty had to fall on someone's shoulders. It fell on theirs. We can wish it didn't--and I do wish that, believe me--but it did. It has." "I'd take their place if I could," I said, suddenly. Ritsuko looked up at me, stared at me for a long moment. I felt my face flush. "Yes, you would. I believe you." Just the barest hint of a smile. Not much humor in it, though. Then, abruptly, she looked at her watch. "It's about lunchtime. I'm going to the cafeteria. You coming?" I looked at the wall clock, then nodded. "I should eat, yeah." I fell into step next to her, advancing down the hallway. And that was when something that had been bothering me vaguely made itself known to me. I look up and over at her, frowning. She noticed this, and asked, "What?" "Why did you ask me when Asuka would be ready to go back to piloting? You're the doctor, you're the one with the test results." I nodded toward the folder. She slowed her pace slightly. "Yes. That's true. I hold the numbers and the graphs and the analyses. But these aren't what a person is." The folder fluttered, then closed. "There's only so much you can tell from how close her present brainwaves are to her old ones, or how her heart rate rises in response to stress stimuli in a controlled environment. Synch tests aren't the same as getting out on the battlefield and facing down a real Angel. It takes someone like you to fill in the rest." "What, me?" "Well, yes. Of everyone in Tokyo-3, I'd say that you are the one who knows those two Children the best. The ones in your care. Maybe not just Tokyo-3, but--everywhere." She smiled once more. "In that way, you're the one best qualified to judge if she'd be in any position to go back to piloting. You said so yourself: only when she's ready." "Oh," I said, nodding slowly. My face flushed again. ------------------------------------------------ More paperwork. I hate paperwork. At least I was trying to get this load out of the way at HQ, instead of having to drag it home and deprive me of more sleep. I should have been in my office to fill it all in, but I didn't want to be by myself--hence taking a clear spot on a table in the control room. The chatter of the technicians and the hum of the computers were reassuring. Less reassuring was the Commander's presence on the balcony above, but that couldn't be helped--perhaps he had the same idea I did. I did my best to ignore him. "Major." I'll have to apologize to Makoto later for hitting him in the head with my pen, I mused to myself. "Com-commander! I, I didn't hear you come up behind me," I stuttered. There wasn't any point in trying to hide my surprise. So much for trying to ignore him. Light glinted off his glasses; I couldn't see his eyes. Nevertheless, I squirmed slightly beneath his stare. "Commander?" "How are they doing?" he finally asked. I choked down my anger. He's your own son, you cold bastard. And she's...well, you probably don't even know how much they care about each other. "Asuka is coming back to her old self," I answered, keeping my voice carefully modulated and calm. "And Shinji is doing all he can to help her." I stopped there, daring him to ask about.... "Have them come to my office after school today. I should talk to them." I stared at him as he turned away. "I suppose that's a start." "I think you mean to say, 'Yes, sir,' Major Katsuragi." Damn! I said that out loud? "Yes, sir! Right away, Commander.... Um, sorry about that, Hyuuga-kun. Yeah, he startled me. Could you hand me the cordless phone, too? Thanks." --------------------------------------------------------------------- I wondered why, exactly, I told them not to hold hands just before letting them into the Commander's office. Kind of silly, now that I thought about it. They both looked at me funny before going in, leaving me alone outside in the hallway. So now, I was sitting on the ground, leaning against the wall beside Ikari's door. There was a chair, but it wasn't particularly comfortable. Besides, I was feeling oddly rebellious. He wants me to sit in that chair? Well, I don't want to. Geez, maybe I'm the one who needs to grow up. My mind drifted as I waited. Those two--heh, I'd like to say that they reminded me of...myself and Kaji, but that'd be a lie. We were very little like them. Oh, dammit, why did I have to think of Kaji? I'd finally managed to push him out of mind, and now.... No. He'd always been there, would always stay there. So many regrets. And yet-- The sound of footsteps approaching the doorway from within sent me scrambling up to my feet. As I stepped back from the wall, hurriedly wiping at my eyes with the back of my hand, Shinji and Asuka both emerged. Asuka looked a little excited and worried. Shinji just looked worried, continually shooting glances at the girl beside him. "So...." I began. "I'm getting in Unit 02 tonight," Asuka announced. The dismay on Shinji's face increased. I could only stare. "No, Misato...I want to. I want to try again. Commander Ikari didn't force me to, he just asked." Shinji shuffled his feet. "If you said no, he probably would have forced you," he muttered, darkly. Asuka just looked at him, frowning. I sighed. "You really want to, Asuka? I mean...he just asked? He didn't...." "No, he didn't," the girl answered. "Right?" "...he didn't," Shinji grudingly acknowledged. And all I could do was nod. In doing so, I noticed something. "Your hands." They both blushed brightly. Asuka spoke first. "The commander knew. He asked us how we were getting along. I guess...well...." Now I shook my head. "All right. Whatever. I guess he doesn't think it'll interfere with your piloting. All the better, you don't have to hide it from him." I smiled weakly. Shinji smiled in turn, finally. "Yeah. It's strange, but I guess I'm actually kind of glad that he knows. I mean...he's my father." "So he is," I said. ------------------------------------------------ I've always been anxious when one of the Children steps into an entry plug for whatever reason. Whether it's to pilot an EVA to fight an Angel in a honest-to-goodness battle, or only to run a synch test in the simulation pool, because even synch tests can have unintended side effects. Dear God, I was dreading Asuka getting back into one of those things tonight. "Misato, I'm with NERV because I'm supposed to pilot. I have to go back in sooner or later. Better sooner if I feel up to it and there isn't an Angel around, than later, when I don't have a choice because there _is_ an Angel around. Right?" That's what she had said to me when I repeated my concerns to her after we'd gone home for the afternoon. That was true enough, I grudgingly admitted. But I didn't have to like it. So now I found myself sitting in the living room, an empty beercan in hand, some mindless game show on the television. I could barely hear them talking in the kitchen, their words mostly masked by the blather coming from the show's host, who was introducing today's contestants. What the hell was I doing watching this crap, when one of my charges was going to be going into a situation of, well, great uncertainty within--I checked the clock on the wall--three hours? Click went the remote, poof went Zenjirou-chan and his silly little game and prizes. I stood up, stretched, and headed to the kitchen. For some reason, I paused and leaned against the doorway, instead of entering right away. They didn't notice me, but continued talking. "...but I like the lake," whined Shinji. "And it's just a hole in the ground with water dumped into it," answered Asuka, just a bit haughtily. But even from here, I could tell that they were joking. Maybe not about what they were saying, but the tone in which each was speaking. I wanted to stand there and listen to them some more, but I knew that would be rude. So I took a couple steps back from the door, and let out a loud sigh and grumbled, with just a tinge of whine, "I need another beer." Then I entered the kitchen. This time, I was greeted with the sight of them sitting at the table quietly, blushing slightly. "What's with you two? Planning your next date?" I grinned, heading over to the refrigerator to acquire my choice drink. From the other side of the opened fridge door, Shinji answered. "Just talking a little bit." "Shinji's nervous about my synch test. Silly boy's more worried than I am." "Hey!" I closed the door and smiled, wiping off the top of the can with my sleeve. "Isn't that sweet?" I teased. They both hmphed at me. I laughed, popped the top, and took a drink. "I'm worried too, Asuka," I continued, now serious. She looked down at the table and nodded. "I know. So am I. But I have to do this." Shinji reached over and took her hand, squeezing it gently, but she didn't seem to notice. "And I finally feel ready for the first time in weeks. It's time I faced it again." Despite it all, I just couldn't be reassured. I shook my head in frustration and gulped down more beer. She was determined, though, and there was no real reason for me to object anymore. Besides, when I thought about what Ritsuko said, and really watched and listened to Asuka and tried to be objective...maybe she was ready. Damn my professionality. "I know. I know. But promise me that if you feel even the slightest thing wrong, tell Ritsuko to stop the test and withdraw. Okay?" Shinji gazed directly at Asuka, who looked between me and him a few times. Then she nodded. "I promise." ------------------------------------------------ So now I found myself in the control booth, overlooking Cage Six. It was one of the backup cages, devoid of everything but Unit 02 and monitoring equipment attached to it. The view into the cage was protected by a triple layer of reinforced plexiglass. We were taking no risks. For the observers, at least. "Asuka, how are you feeling?" "I'm _fine_, Misato. For the fiftieth time!" I winced at her peevish tone. "Sorry, Asuka." She sighed. "It's okay. I understand." "We have the power feed on. It's ready to go," said Maya. I glanced around. Ritsuko was next to me, Maya was at a terminal a slight distance away. And Shinji...was in the back of the room, sitting in a chair, staring at the floor. He insisted on coming, but now that he was here, he couldn't bear to look. Not at EVA-02, seen in profile from our vantage point, not at any of the equipment readouts, supplying her vital signs. Not at Asuka's face, looking anxious on the monitor in front of me. "I'm ready." "Start it up." The familiar whirr of the system coming online filled the room. My gaze flickered between Asuka, the data on her neurological response, and the EVA itself. It seemed to be proceeding normally enough. "Threshold passed," announced Maya. Ah. Now, here it was. Twelve percent? "It's...it's not working," grunted Asuka. Her face looked strained. "Are you feeling all right?" asked Ritsuko, leaning over toward the microphone. "Anything strange at all?" There was a pause. "No. Just...so hard. It won't...come on, dammit!" "Relax, Asuka," Ritsuko said. "Don't try to force it like that. Back off, and let it connect. Ease up." I watched her close her eyes and take a deep breath of LCL, then checked the synch rate. It flickered upward, but barely. "Um...at least it didn't fail outright," I said, half-heartedly. Asuka glared at me, and my face reddened. "Well, it didn't," I mumbled. "What's it at right now?" she growled. "Twelve point six. Point seven." "Argh! That's not good enough!" She cast aside ideas of relaxing, and screwed her eyes shut in concentration. Again, it flickered, but didn't really change. Suddenly, I found Shinji at my side, looking at the monitor. I hadn't heard him approach--he was just there. It startled me, but I merely stepped to the side slightly. He spoke. "Asuka...why do you pilot?" "Because I have to!" "No, not that. Why are you piloting? Why are you sitting there, right now, trying to do this?" His voice was plaintive, almost pleading. "Because...I have to. I need to...protect people, and fight the Angels. I have to...." She paused, then continued. "I have to show my mother that I'm good enough." "Really?" he asked. "Yes," she whispered. "Then think about that. Think about your mother. Think about...the people you want to protect. Okay?" I found myself simply watching these proceedings. So did Maya, blinking at Shinji. Ritsuko, at least, was continuing to look at the graphs and indicator bars, but I think I could see her smiling just faintly. Shinji, of course, was oblivious to all except for Asuka. There was silence for a while. Then the synch bar twitched, and began to climb upward. Thirteen. Fourteen. Fifteen. A pause. Seventeen. Twenty. Asuka began to laugh. "Yeah...yeah! I can...it's--it's working. I can feel it. Ha!" Her eyes were still closed, and she grinned widely, as if she were experiencing a good dream. Shinji, too, began to smile. Maya finally got back to her prescribed duty of watching the output. "She's still climbing. Thirty...thirty-two...wait, her heart rate--" I whirled. So did Shinji. "What is it?" "It's rising somewhat...nothing really to worry about, but her pulse is speeding up a little." Maya shrank beneath our combined glares. "Just... wanted to tell you." Asuka was still giggling, apparently oblivious to this development and our concern. I drummed my fingers nervously; despite Maya's words, I was still on edge. It didn't help that her laughter seemed, to me, to touch on the hysterical. "Oh, God, it feels so good to be able to do this again! It's...it's... ow, it's starting to hurt. Ow." "Shut it off!" Both Shinji and I shouted at the same time. "Don't! No, I want to...ergh, I want to see this through. Please!" I was already reaching for the switch, though. But Ritsuko blocked my hand. "She's not in any danger yet. There may be psychological echoes of some of the damage that was done to Unit 02 from before. It's all right. It's all _right_, Misato!" She met my furious gaze, and actually managed to succeed in staring me down. Shinji was eyeing the control board, probably thinking of doing what I had been intending, but he probably couldn't make head or tails of it, and wasn't going to try. My fingers quivered, itching to hit the cutoff switches, but Ritsuko was ready to intercept. "Synch ratio is leveling out at forty-six point three percent," Maya said. "Holding steady." I finally turned to the monitor again. Asuka continued to smile, though it seemed a little strained. She finally looked at me, a bit unfocused. "Is that all? Aww. I was hoping...for better." Then her eyes closed and she slumped over sideways in her seat, head lolling. At that moment, the world went very distant, very slow, and very cold. Dreamlike, really. I pushed Ritsuko out of the way, ignoring her squawk of protest. My fingers danced over the keyboard and switches, while my eyes greedily drank in the information from the various displays. Asuka was going to be all right, by God, and I was going to be the one to make sure of that. As I was quickly coming to a conclusion, I felt Ritsuko grab me by the shoulders and give me a rough shake. Then her hand flew toward my face. A good attempt, but I was faster, and I caught her by the wrist. She was saying something...ah. "...telling you that she--" "--is all right. Yes. I just realized that, Ritsuko. You don't have to hit me." She blinked at me, looking slightly pale. "Ye...yeah. She was just tired, and passed out from exhaustion." "But why?" "It took a lot out of her, a lot more than normal so that she could break through that block. That's all, really." I nodded, curtly, but didn't say anything. She took this as a cue to go on. "She'll need sleep, probably a good twelve hours or so, especially since it seems like she wasn't too well rested to begin with. But she's okay." I finally released her wrist. She winced slightly, rubbing it; I'd have to apologize for that later. Or maybe not, since she _was_ going to slap me. Silently, I turned toward the window, and saw Shinji running on a catwalk to Unit 02's back. He must have gone out there as soon as Asuka passed out. Maya, who seemed to be smiling just a bit, quietly pressed a few buttons, which popped the hatch and slid the entry plug out, which opened up after a moment to drain off the LCL. I watched him climb in, disappearing from view for a few seconds, then carry Asuka out, holding her gingerly. I finally relaxed, letting my body sag against the console. I was tired. "I think I could cry," I muttered. "Too late," answered Ritsuko, holding up a box of tissues toward me. ------------------------------------------------ The ride back home was pretty quiet--Ritsuko cleared us to take her, instead of keeping her in the infirmary. It wasn't really warranted, she said. Asuka woke up briefly, asked where we were going, then went back to sleep. Shinji insisted on carrying her back to the car by himself, where he sat in the back seat with her. I was careful to drive slowly, not like my usual manner, so that she wouldn't wake up. A glance in the rearview mirror showed no one behind us, and Shinji looking at Asuka with worry and affection. "I haven't felt that scared in a while," he said then, as if realizing I was watching. I nodded, returning my visual attention to the road ahead. "Same here." A short laugh. "She better not do something like that to us again." Silence. "She'll have to. Every time she gets in there again...." I sighed, then thought about that briefly. "Well...you're doing the same thing to her every time you get into the plug. To me, too." "I know. I'm sorry." "Don't be. We all have jobs to do." I bit my lip, repeating that to myself. We had our duties to attend to. A few more minutes passed in silence. Then something occurred to me. Well, also, I was trying to get my mind off of this. "I haven't seen much of Rei lately. How is she doing, Shinji?" "Hm? Oh...she's...she's mostly the same, I think. Although sometimes I think I see her looking at us a little strangely. Me and Asuka, I mean." I grinned. "Maybe she's jealous." "...maybe." There was an unspoken 'but' in there, I could tell. So I spoke it. "But?" "I doubt it. At least, not the way you seem to mean it. I don't think she...feels that way about me, or ever did." "Hmm...it's hard to tell with her." "Well, I don't know. She does seem kind of, um, curious about the way things changed between us. There aren't very many couples or anything in our class...she's never paid any attention to the ones there. She doesn't know them." "Hm. So--you two are the first real pair that she knows?" "Um...yeah, I guess." I fought a chuckle; I could almost feel the blush from his cheeks coming from behind me. He more or less admitted that they were an item, just now. Not that it really had to be said, but I understood how it was different to state it out loud. "Then what did you mean about her not being jealous in the way I meant?" There was a thoughtful pause before he answered. "Well...I suppose I don't speak with Ayanami as much lately, because I'm with Asuka more. You know? I guess that's my fault." "And Asuka's, too. Well, I understand. Things like this tend to happen. Just don't let it continue, okay? She still can be a good friend to you. Both of you. It'll be a little different, that's unavoidable, but...." "Yeah." And it did seem like he really understood. We arrived at the apartment building soon after that. Shinji carried her up and deposited her gently in bed; I shooed him out, took the plugsuit off of her with a slight bit of difficulty, and slipped her into a nightgown, then left her to sleep. Shinji and I decided to make it an early night, and went off to our rooms afterward. ------------------------------------------------ It was an early morning for us the next day, too. Well, for Shinji and myself. Asuka slept like the...continued to sleep very heavily. He wanted to stay with her, but I insisted that he go off to school; he shouldn't miss class unless he really had to. I'd be home to watch over her, I said. He reluctantly went, and I remained, with my thoughts for company. And Pen-pen, too, but he decided to go watch some TV. Once more, Kaji's face bubbled to the surface. I sighed, and fought off the impulse to get myself some beer. It was seeing Asuka and Shinji together that was making me remember him, I decided. Though they weren't much like us as individuals, their relationship...yes. There was definitely fire here, although in their case, it came more from Asuka, though Shinji could contribute at times. With Kaji and me...it was always interesting. I just hoped that they had a better chance at this than we did. It wouldn't be fair--not to them, who deserved better, and not to me, who would have to watch them fall. Maybe they could make up for our mistakes. That thought made me laugh. Was I trying to relive certain parts of my life through these two? Just possibly. It was kind of sad, perhaps, but.... A little before lunchtime, as I was again tackling more paperwork--I swear, it breeds or something while sitting in my to-do pile--I finally heard someone walking around. I looked out my bedroom door, and saw some red tresses disappear into the bathroom. Good. A few minutes later, Asuka came back out, looking a little groggy. She smiled at me wanly as I leaned against the wall of the hallway. "Guten Morgen," she said, blearily. "Good morning. Almost noon, though. You feeling okay?" "Yeah...I'm okay." She yawned hugely. "Hungry, though." The two of us trooped into the kitchen, and I put on some water to boil for tea. "Do you want breakfast or shall we skip ahead to lunch?" "Um...lunch." Knowing that her stomach would rebel at my usual sort of thing, I decided to try to put a little more effort into my cooking today, and I pulled out some fish and vegetables to cook. "Congratulations," I said, once I had the fish grilling nicely. "Huh? Oh...you mean...yeah. Thanks." "You didn't keep your promise, though." There was a pause filled with uncertainty. "I'm...I'm sorry, Misato," she mumbled. There was obvious reluctance in her voice, to say those words. But she did apologize. I turned around and looked at her severely. "You gave us all a good scare," I said, crossing my arms. "Why didn't you stop it?" "Well, because...it wasn't nearly as bad as most of the stuff I've gone through when I've piloted. It was just a sharp pain in my arm. I wouldn't even have said anything if it wasn't so unexpected." I continued to look at her. "Still. It could have meant something bad." "Yeah, but--hey, Ritsuko didn't stop the test, did she? She let it continue. She knows better than either of us whether it's okay or not." I blinked, and looked at her, before turning back to the stove. "That's only sort of true. She doesn't know what you're feeling better than you do. And...well." I turned the slice of fish over, shaking my head. "I know this sort of thing is going to happen still, but...." "I had to, Misato." "...I know." Soon, I had a plate of fish and vegetables in front of each of us, as well some tea. We fell silent to eat, initially. "Shinji went to school?" "Yeah. He wanted to stay, but he shouldn't miss class if he can help it." "He was worried too, huh?" "You bet." "Guess I need to apologize to him, too." I couldn't help but chuckle at the grudging tone in her voice. "Yes, you do." I drank some tea. "You two are really close now, aren't you?" She nodded mutely, and her hair fell across her face. I think she was trying to hide a blush. So strange, how these things could change people. I just smiled, as I remembered a roguish man in college who, they said, went through girlfriends like tissues.... "Good. I think you're both the stronger for it." "I should hope so. He needed to grow some more backbone, and I'm proud to say I've done my part in doing that." Ah. That was more like her. "And how are you better off, hmm?" "Why," she answered, smirking, "now I have a positive outlet for all my energy, by helping Shinji out." I couldn't help but roll my eyes. "Of course." I blinked, and recalled something. "Ritsuko said that you weren't very rested when you began the synch test yesterday. Restless night or something?" She blushed badly, and I raised an eyebrow. "Um...well...the night before, Shinji and I were talking a little, and...." My other eyebrow went up. She flushed even more deeply. "No! We didn't do anything. Just... kinda...talked for a while. Later than we should have, I guess." "Talked." "Yes!" "And cuddled too, no doubt." "Mmmph." I laughed. "Okay. Fair enough. But you're right, probably later than you should have. You're growing kids, and active EVA pilots no less." I placed an emphasis on 'active' and smiled as I did. Her face brightened, and I think she understood. "You need to get enough sleep. And don't you two go too far, right?" I concluded, shaking my finger at her. "Do as you say, not as you do?" "What!?" Laughing, Asuka ran from the kitchen while I chased after her. ------------------------------------------------ After a quick shower, Asuka came to me and asked me to drive her to school. "The day's already half over, though, and you're cleared to stay home already. I called your teacher." She shrugged. "Don't feel like being cooped up in here like this," was the negligent answer. My lip quirked. That was doubtlessly true enough, but just as doubtlessly not the only reason. "Well, all right. The reports can go burn themselves. I'll get my keys, and we can go." Soon, we were on the road. I glanced sideways at Asuka, in the passenger seat; she was looking out the window at the landscape which passed by at a blur. I kept my silence. We'd said all that really needed to be said already earlier this morning. She was no doubt composing her reluctant apology to Shinji in her head right now. The kilometers swept by, and we were pulling into the parking lot. I did my patented screech-into-the-space swerve, which elicited a surprised squawk out of Asuka. I'd decided that she was getting too pensive, too absorbed. And besides, someone had to tell him we were coming. Asuka glared at me. I just smiled back benignly. "What?" "I swear they'll take your driver's license away if you keep this up." Then she smiled. "Thanks for driving me here." "You're welcome," I answered, as she grabbed her bookbag and exited. I reached for the gearshift, then changed my mind and reached for the keys, instead, and turned off the engine. What can I say? I was curious. By the time I'd gotten out of the car and sat down on the hood to look on, Shinji had already come running out the front door, just as Asuka was arriving. Sadly, I was too far to listen in; their voices were swept away by the wind and the assorted noises coming from the athletic fields. My imagination filled in the conversation, instead. She came to a stop right in front of him, head bowed. He was looking straight at her with arms crossed. It was as if they'd switched their usual roles.... They were like this for a little while, speaking inaudibly to anyone but themselves. Finally, though, she looked up, and I could see him smile. And then they stepped close and hugged each other. The cheers that then came from the windows up above told me that I wasn't their only audience. I laughed and cheered along even as they abruptly drew away from each other, surprised at the sound. I grinned at them. They glared at me, then at their classmates, before disappearing into the school, hand in hand. Aren't you proud of them, Kaji? I know I am. End. --------------------------------------------------------------------- Thanks to Alain Gravel, Toh Ee-Loong, and Daniel Snyder for their insightful C&C on this. Next...hm. Rei, perhaps? Or maybe even Gendou. Yes, I realize that, by moving away from Shinji and Asuka's POVs, it's not showcasing their relationship that much. But I don't want this series to be all completely about them, you know? Misato, Rei, and yes, Gendou too, matter in here. Besides, sooner or later, I'll want more of Shinji and Asuka, and will do another TQM type of story. :) -- Andrew Huang...Shizumaru@KawaiiMUCK http://www.hcs.harvard.edu/~alhuang/ NAC MAC FEEGLE!