"You seem a little different today, Ikari."

"Hmm?"  Shinji looked up, a few of his notes still clutched in one of his hands, the other holding open his briefcase.  He had been so caught up with sorting out the assorted piles of paper, sheet music, magazines and other things that seemed to litter his desk whenever he left it alone, that he didnít notice that someone had entered the small room he shared with the other teachers of the music department. 

Of course, he didnít need to look up to know who the voice belonged to; warm and matronly, but with a hint of humor and steel, it was a voice that everyone in the department was familiar with. 

"Oh, good afternoon, Nagaoka-san," Shinji greeted the head of his department.  Putting down his notes and releasing the cover of his attache case, he stood up and bowed to the senior educator.

"Now, now, thereís no need for formality around here, Ikari," the older woman waved him off.  Her face creased into a smile, before she shook her head.  "How many times have I told you that?"

"Sorry, I keep on forgetting about that," Scratching the back of his head, Shinji returned the smile, before returning to what he was doing.  Putting aside the last of his notes in his bag, he proceeded to  arrange the myriad collection of class-related material scattered about his desk into neat piles, while relinquishing what he considered junk to the trash bin beside his desk.

With a final dusting off of his palms, Shinji finished.  The department chairperson only shook her head in amazement, as the orderliness of his desk contrasted wildly with the barely-contained chaos that characterized those of his peers.  "There, much better," he remarked, oblivious to the bemused expression his colleague was giving him.

Professor Nagaoka Shiho had seen some odd characters in her thirty or so years of teaching, ten of those as the head of the schoolís Music department, but she considered Ikari Shinji to be one of the oddest people she had ever seen.  Though she constantly prided herself on being a good judge of character, the man continued to mystify her.  He certainly wasnít like any of the other faculty, that was for sure.

Of course, considering his background, he wasnít exactly normal either. 

When he first was assigned to teach in the school, she didnít know what to expect of the man named Ikari Shinji.  Her knowledge about him at that point had been confined to what she had seen in the news so many years ago, and the articles and books written on the topic of Project-E: He was a hotshot mecha pilot, with a combat record that spoke of unmatched skill, having personally defeated seven of the creatures called Angels unassisted, while participating in the rout of the others with his comrades Ayanami Rei and Sohryu Asuka Langley; he was fearless, facing down the full might of the JSSDF and nine SEELE EVAs alone; he was selfless, willingly putting his life on the line to save his companions. 

And she was suppose to supervise this...hero, who saved the world from oblivion many times?

When she first greeted him at the front of the school, she expected an imposing young man, who probably could have any job on the planet if he wanted, but chose teaching on a whim.  She expected him to drive up in a sports car, and upon meeting her, look down on his nose at her, his demeanor haughty...

She certainly didnít expect the seemingly insecure and quiet man with sad blue eyes, large cello case slung over one shoulder, and a large envelope of sheet music in hand, walking down the main gate.  She couldnít help but suspend her disbelief when he bowed to her, and proceeded to apologize for being late, before handing her his credentials.

This was the great Ikari Shinji?

Apparently, he was.

"You still havenít answered me, you know," Shiho took off the reading glasses perched over her nose, and let it dangle in one hand, reiterating what she had commented on earlier.

"What do you mean, Nagaoka-san?"  With a final click of his briefcaseís lock he turned to face his superior fully, a slightly puzzled expression on his face; he had completely missed the initial statement.

The elder woman pointed at him with the hand that held her glasses, a curious look in her brown eyes.  "I said that you looked a little bit different today, Ikari."

"How so?"

"You look...well, happy," She shook her head.  "Most of the time, you seem so detached...except when youíre with the kids, that is."  The chairperson smiled inwardly at that thoughtóat the best of times, Ikari wasnít very talkative, even to his peers, and kept mostly to himself.  It always seemed that he had something important weighing on his mind, and it was normal to see a pensive look on his face whenever he wasnít teaching or doing anything.

But when it came to the students, the kids he taught in his class, ah, it was a whole different thing entirely.  The mild frown that came with his thoughtful pose vanished, the far-off look in his dark eyes giving way to something close to wonderment and sincere exuberance...  As if whatever weight he was bearing upon his shoulders was carried away just by being with them.

Once, a few years ago, when that history professor friend of hisówhat was her name again?  Mayumi?ócame to visit him, Shiho overheard him tell his friend, while the two were in the staff room  having some coffee that, "No matter how painful the world can be, as long as there are children in it, thereís still a chance for it to be a better place."  Those words spoke of a genuine concern for the welfare of the students he taught, and the old department head was touched to see that trait in him; it was a rarity in the teaching profession, these days.

He was popular with the kids, that was for certain, and it had almost nothing to do with him being an ex-EVA pilot, and of the mighty Test-type Evangelion Unit-01 no less.  He was quiet and gentle,  always approacheable, and was never quick to anger, far from the reputation of a howling bezerker that the history books and media made him up to be.  That, and he had this...presence...about him that put the students immediately at ease, and it served him well whenever he taught.

A perfect example was what she observed a few days before, while she was doing her usual rounds of the morning classes, looking for those students who were just loitering around doing nothing, or were skipping out on their lessons.  It was around the third period when she passed by the class Ikari taught and, as her custom, she took a quick peek inside.  Sliding the back door open just a little bit, so not to be noticed, she quietly observed what was going on inside...

The instruments were carefully stored away in the back of the room, meaning that instead of practice, Ikari was giving a lecture...  She slid the door open just a little bit more, just enough to see that most of studentís desks were moved up nearer to the teacherís table, and the students themselves were hunched over their seats, apparently taking notes, while the sensei himself was pacing around the front, book in had, narrating the lessons for the day.

With a nod, she was about to move on to the next class, when something caught her ear

"Sensei, do you think this is really necessary?"  A boyís voice spoke up, more than just hinting at annoyance.  "This is a music class, isnít it?  Shouldnít we be tuning up our instruments, or something?"

Shiho retraced her steps back, resuming her, ermm, discreet Ďobservationí of the class.

Ikari shared a healthy laugh with his class at the remark.  As the laughter died down, he put down the book he was holding on top of his table, before seating himself at its edge, an amused look still apparent on his face.  "Point taken, Mr. Satoh, but music isnít just about playing your instruments."

"Thatís right," one of the girls had piped in.  "Itís also important to know how the music we know developed." 

"What Ms. Himekawa said is true, Mr. Satoh...  Music is also about its history, how it grew from its humble origins, and the people who developed it into the artform that it is today."

"I know, I know..." The boy seemed to agree with his teacherís point.  "But that still doesnít change the fact that Iíd still rather be tuning my violin than writing down how Chopin or Mozart created most of the melodies I play."  This brought upon another wave of laughs, as most of the class conceded to his statement.

"Agreed.  Iíll try to keep it as few and as far in between as I can manage," Ikari smiled, as the class seemed to take this announcement favorably.  As he picked up the book he was holding, he added, "Though that wonít keep you from finishing writing down your notes for today."  Though the addendum decreased the studentís morale somewhat, the promise of less notes and more time with their instuments seemed to make the task easier.

"I guess things werenít this boring when you were a kid, huh Ikari-sensei?" One of the girls remarked before the teacher could resume his dictation. 

"Oh definitely,"  The sensei gave his students an odd look, the same expression he wore whenever he talked about his time with Project Eóeyes unfocused, as he was distracted by memories he didnít want to remember.  "Sitting around in a liquid-filled plug for several hours, half-naked, meditating on how bad your life is so far, as preparation for battling creatures from beyond who would just love to tear you and your EVA apart is much, much better than taking down notes."

There was a moment of silence after Ikariís comment, as if the class was surprised of their professorís revelation...  Everyone knew that Ikari was reticent at best, and closemouthed at worst, and this went double with everything about his involvement with Project-E. 

"I still say that itís far more exciting than taking down notes."

The cloud of gloom that seemed to descend upon the professor disappeared with the studentís innocent retort, and as the class shared a laugh once more, Ikari joined with them.  Everything went back to normal, and the class proceeded as it should.

Still, as she was continuing her rounds, Shiho couldnít get the image of Ikariís troubled face as he let slip that small piece of his past.

It was one of those times that reinforced the older educatorís belief that Ikari, despite his sincere enthusiasm at teaching his students, was working under some sort of deep-seated guilt or pain.  Or sorrow.  It wasnít always apparent, but it was always there somehow. 

Something resulting from his past at NERV?  Possibly.  After all, it was well-known how stressful the conditions he had to work in...  Being straddled with saving the world from monstrous entities coming from God-knows-where was too much of a responsibility for the child he had been at the time.

She was surprised that he, or any of his companions, didnít just crack under the pressure.

Today was different though.  She could see it in his motions, his eyes.  The sadness, or whatever it was that he always brooded on, seemed to vanish, replaced by something else...  It was enough for her to take notice and actually comment on it.

"You think so?"  Shiho couldnít help but stifle her laughter as a befuddled expression came to the manís face.  It was also this seemingly clueless demeanor that endeared him to the kids, a fact well-attested to by the classes in the senior year.

"I know soóI didnít become head of this department just because of my charm and good looks you know."  She arched one of her eyebrows at him, almost like challenging him to say otherwise.

It was Shinjiís turn to smile inwardly at that; it was a well-known fact that his senior used to have a nickname, back when she was still a student herself, of ĎKawaii-Shiho-chaní or ĎCute little Shihoí.  That, and she had a reputation for being some sort of karaoke nut...  Of course, it wasnít like anyone ever said that fact out loud in her presence.

Her voice quickly lapsed back to its conversational, if somewhat jesting tone, though.  "So, whatís the occasion?  Family-related?"

"You could say that." 

It was also a recognized fact amongst the schoolís various departments that Nagaoka-san had a propensity for being a little bit too nosy for her own good, another of her teenage habits that hadnít quite disappeared with age.  Still, she never pried into anyoneís personal business unless she deemed it extremely necessary, and only when she saw that she could help out with the situation.

Shinji himself had no problem with this, as it only showed how much concern she really had for the students and the other teachers who worked for her.  It reminded him, to a lesser extent, of Misato sometimes, but without constant teasing in between, and the lingering smell of alcohol that normally followed the ex-Major around.

Of course, as with the chairpersonís karaoke exploits, Shinji prudently kept his mouth shut on her penchant for gossip.  It was healthier that way.

"I see..."  A moment of silence reigned, as the chairperson seemed to withdraw into herself, her manner pensive.

Shinji merely shook his head at this; his superior wasnít exactly the intospective type, as far as he knew of her.  Whenever she wanted to say something she said it, and didnít even bother with the opening pleasantries so common with other people.  Seeing her like this was odd, at least for him.

Taking a quick glance at his watch, he checked on the time: almost two oí clock.  There was still more than enough time to begin preparing the food for the party later on, and getting the house ready for the guests, but it wasnít good to chance it; the earlier he left, the better. 

Gathering up his suitcase, he walked over to the corner where his cello case stood, and was about to sling it on his shoulderóa very unhealthy practice, he realized now, as his back wasnít like it was when he was in college.  It actually made him seriously consider his daughterís suggestion of buying a case on rollers, but his thoughts were interrupted when the chairperson spoke once more, stopping him in mid-motion.

"You know, for the life of me, I couldnít figure you out Ikari," The woman massaged her forehead with one hand, while the other, the one holding her glasses, went to her hip.  "Any other teacher would just take the day off whenever their kidís birthday came around, or at the very least call in to ask my permission to do so.  But you..." The chairperson shook her head in perplexity.  "I donít think Iíll ever understand you."

Shinji merely smiled at this, as her last comment once more reaffirmed something that Asuka had observed long ago, during that fateful day when she confronted him in college: for most people, he will forever remain a paradox at best, even though he was simply just acting true to his personality, to his self.  Other people, those who never got to know him back when he was still in NERV, found it hard to understand himóand with good reason.

But that didnít stop them from trying.

"Itís my responsibility to the kids to teach them, Nagaoka-san," He answered simply.  "If I didnít come to work today, it would be like turning my back on my responsibility, running away from it."  Shinjiís blue eyes seemed to resume their sad look for a brief moment, before brightening once more.  "And I wouldnít want to do that to them, neh?"

His superior merely cocked an eyebrow at this.  "I take back what I said earlier; youíre not just odd Ikari, youíre really, really weird."  She gestured with her hand towards the door of the faculty room, towards the hall, and the classrooms that lay beyond it.  "Do you think that those kids would care if you came in or not?  Iíd think that theyíd be more happier if you took the day off." 

Though her words said otherwise, Shinji couldnít help but notice the smile the woman had on her face.  "Maybe, maybe not.  I just knew I had to."  Itís the only thing I could do for them, after almost depriving them of a future...I owe them that much, he added to himself.

Shiho watched as he shrugged the rather large and bulky cello case over his shoulder, shaking her head again as he grunted and almost toppled over.  "What would your daughter say, if she knew that you put your job over her birthday preparations?"

Shinji tried not to wince as the cello caseís strap bit into his shoulder; he definitely needed to buy a rollable case the next time he got his salary.  "I think sheíd say what she said to me last year: that I try to get home before she starts preparing the food on her own."  He paused, before turning to the department head.  "And to think, it almost happened once."

"Youíre joking."

Seeing the rather embarrassed expression on Shinjiís face, Shiho immediately gathered that he wasnít.

It was all she could do to keep from laughing. 

Eventually, she gave in to her urges, and laughed, despite the look Ikari was giving heróin fact, it made her laugh even more. 

Somehow it seemed oddly appropriate that the manís daughter, whom she heard was a very intelligent and gifted young lady in her own right, would be the one to remind her father of what he needed to do.  Certainly, it wasnít too hard to imagine the girl admonishing her father for his slowness, and Ďsupervisingí the work he was supposed to be doing in the first place...

It made Shiho wonder about the girlís mother.  She seriously doubted that the girl inherited that kind of attitude from her father, who seemed to be more of the passive type than anything else.

The department shook her head, still chuckling, and waved him off.  "Just get out of here Ikari," She smiled as she perched her glasses once more on her face.  "I think you still have a lot of preparations to do...and you wouldnít want to disappoint your daughter now, would you?" 

Shinji didnít argue with that.  Struggling a bit with the cello case he bore, and the suitcase he held, he bowed to the chairperson, almost losing his balance in the process, before shuffling out the faculty door.  But not before he heard his senior say, "You know, itís nice to see you like this every once in a while Ikari,"  Even behind his back, he could feel the smile on the elder teacherís face.  "Your daughter must be one special girl to make you this happy."

He couldnít help but agree.

"One question Ikari."

Shinji stopped in his stride, and gave the elder woman a brief look over her shoulder, waiting for what she had to say.  "What is it, Nagaoka-san?"

"Donít you think it would be easier if you had a rollable case for your cello?"  Shinji wasnít surprised that the chairperson had a wide grin on her face as she said this, as she gestured with her hand the case he carried.  "I mean, really, just looking at you carrying that heavy thing around makes me tired."

"Uh, right..."  Unconsciously, an image of himself carrying an oversized cello case came to Shinjiís mind.  To other people it really did seem uncomfortable, he supposed.  "Maybe when next monthís salary arives..."

Miss Nagaoka nodded, then motioned for him to leave, the grin settling into the friendly smile he was more used to.

Without bothering to turn back to his superior, Shinji gave a final wave and slowly, if a bit ungainly, made his way out to the hallway.  Though the load he carried seemed a bit too much for his compact frame, Shinji was able to reach the end of the hallway without much hassleóone of the small blessings of having the faculty room located on the ground floor. 

It was a short walk to the main entrance of the school building from there.  By the time he got there, though, the muscles in his arm and on his back seemed to complain quite pointedly about the load he was carrying.  Pausing to rest a bit, he set down the attache case he bore, and took out his hanky to wipe off the sweat that had formed on his brow.

Funny, he thought to himself, as he watched some of the students of the school pass him by.  It didnít feel this heavy a while ago...

Concentration is a such a strange thing, he decided.  If his attention hadnít been drawn to it, he probably wouldnít have noticed how cumbersome his cello case was...  Like most of the constants of his life at present, it just had to be pointed out to him for him to notice it.

Much like what Nagaoka-san said earlier, he mused.  If she hadnít commented on his behavior, well, he wouldnít been made aware that there was a change in the first place.  I guess I didnít look somber enough today. 

Contrary to what most of the staff of the school and some of the students believed, Shinji wasnít the grave and serious Mr. Ikari that they make him up to be.  Nor was he the moody Mr. Ikari, always brooding in some isolated corner of the school yard, distant and unapproaceable.  In fact, he was quite the opposite; the few kids who had actually made the effort to speak to him found a teacher who was easy to talk to, willing to listen to what they wanted to say.

He couldnít really blame them for having such a perception of him.  It was partly his fault, after all.  If there was something from his past he never got to change, it was his habit of introspection.  Though time and the help of others had vanquished most of his inner demons, there were still some lagging doubts and insecurities from his youth, questions that begged to be answered.  Whenever he retreated within the workings of his own mind, the outside world became a mere afterthought...

With a past as dark as his, it was hard to completely move on and put everything behind him.

It was partly the mediaís fault as well, not to mention the UNís propaganda machine, of placing upon his shoulders a mantle that, if truth be known, he didnít really feel he was worthy to bear; should he feel worthy, when all he did was hurt the people around him, those he really cared about, and worse, actually run away from the responsibilities given to him? 

Some hero he would turn out to be. 

If it wasnít for the courage of one girlóno, young woman, he corrected himselfówell...It was hard to think of what would have happened if she hadnít opened his eyes to the truth that he had deluded himself from realizing for so long...  To live was to be constantly exposed to pain, but whatever pain inflicted is conterbalanced by an even greater degree of happiness...  Without one, it is not possible to fully appreciate the other.

Shinji smiled, and could not help but feel a mild sense of irony whenever he heard someone quote that much-spoken truth.  It had taken him some time to accept it, much less get used to the idea, that the world wasnít a horrible and scary place after all, and even longer to recognize that happiness was within his grasp.  If he just knew where to find it. 

Eventually fate, or whatever motive force that governed existence, let him attain that elusive feeling of joy, though what surprised him was where he found it. 

Or, more specifically, in whom he found it in.

The universe had a sense of humor, it seemed.  For him, happiness and its antithesis came in one package, in the form of the same person he had been so fascinated in, yet so scared of.  Yes, it was definitely ironic. 

But...  For some reason, it seemed all the more fitting.

The memories still came with the same intensity as they had earlier, but they no longer pained him as much.  Indeed, they only served to remind him of the pleasure he felt in his life so far.  The loss that had marked the day in his thoughts had been eased with the life that had been gained in turn.  It was not a replacement, but something else, something just as wonderful, a healing salve to the wound left in his heart.

Shinji shook his head, as the mists of his past parted, the vision in his mindís eye fading away, returning him to his life at present.  He still had an important task to do, he knew, and his musings would have to wait until later. 

Giving his cello caseís strap one final adjustment, he managed to perch it as comfortable as he could manage on his shoulder; it was a two-block walk from the school compound to the nearest bus stop, and he didnít want to be inconvenienced by frequently stopping to adjust the heavy container.  Satisfied that he wouldnít tip over when he walked, he reached down for the sheet music-laden bag before him, and continued with his journey.

Even with all of his preparations, it had taken him some eleven or so minutes to reach the bus stop.  Luckily, the load Shinji carried didnít pose quite that much of a problem to him, though he had to pause once to rest on the way. 

With a sigh of relief, he settled the heavy suitcase he carried on the ground, before massaging his right shoulder, which had gone a little numb because of the heavy weight it bore.  Shinji glanced around him, and found that he had the bus stop all to himself.  It wasnít all too surprising; most of the other people were probably still at work. 

He didnít have to wait long for a bus to arrive, and Shinji didnít waste any more time, entering the vehicle as soon as the automatic doors opened; it wasnít as easy as it seemed, considering the bulk he carried.  Thankfully the driver was patient, and waited to him to find himself a seat before resuming the busí circuit of the cityís streets.

Shinji sighed again, as the load was relieved from his back.  Though there wasnít any convenient overhead compartments, the bus itself wasnít crowded, and there was no shortage of space.  With a little maneuvering, he was able to ease the bulky cello caseís wider end into the edge of the seat, the part near the window.  Lifting the narrow end of the case, he managed to gain some space to himself, seating himself by the aisle, the sheetmusic-laden attache case settled on the floor in front of him.

Shinji sat back against the padded seat, and reveled in the small comfort given by the seatís cushions.  He stifled the urge to sigh in pleasure; though he hated to admit it, the cello case was very heavy and cumbersome, and he wasnít getting any younger.

His hands still gripped the narrow end of the self-same case though, bracing it tightly against himself.  It was an unavoidable force of habit; after his daughter, the old cello was the second thing he cherished the most.

He protected what he cherished.

A keepsake from the time his mother was still alive, the instrument had seen him through most of his life.  More than a mere momento, it was a witness in a way to each of his lifeís major turning points.  From the abandonment by his father, to his arrival in Tokyo-3, and the chaos of the Angel War that followed; to the aftermath of the battle of NERV, the Second Childrenís eventual estrangement, and his efforts to try to piece back together what amounted to his life; to his college years, and the fateful encounter with Asuka that changed both of their lives; to his long courtship of the proud German woman, their marriage, and the birth of their child.  It had observed his bereavement, and the near-mania that followed...

It saw everything.

And now, fourteen years on, it was still here, an eyewitness once more, this time to see a period of joy: his daughterís birthday. 

If he was extra careful, the cello might even outlive him.

It was a wonder that the old thing had managed to survive Teriís early years.

The smile he had earlier returned to his face at the thought.  Though his daughter didnít look like it now, she was once a veritable tornado when she was a child.  She was hyperactive, and had been prone to tantrums, intersped with bouts of sulking in between.  Misato joked that it was because of the disperate mix of blood she had flowing inside heróAsukaís often volatile disposition and his own more serene, if severely introspective, nature. 

Maybe it was.

He was glad that Teri had mellowed down as she had grown older, and seemed to have found a balance within herself.  The traits she had inherited from her proud mother had been tempered with facets of his own personality, creating a persona that was neither that of her parentsí, yet at the same time everything that was Ikari Shinji and Sohryu Asuka...

She was her own person.

She was Ikari Teri.

If only she could get rid of her habit of underachieving, then everything would have been perfect...

Of course, there wasnít really anything he could do about that.  It was her own choice to be Ďnormalí, not to stand out amongst her peers, so she wouldnít alienate her other schoolmates. 

Her decision.

At that, he was proud of his daughter.

And he was quite sure that if his wife was here, she would be proud too.

Shinji closed his eyes, and for what seemed to be the first time that day, allowed himself to relax a bit, his mind free of the constant stream of memories.  He leaned back against the bus seat, and enjoyed the moment of reprieve, his mind filled only with sounds of the bus plying its way across the streets, and the idle chatter of the other people sharing the transport with him. 

He was so relaxed in fact, that he almost dozed off.

Shinji caught himself just as he was about to slip into restfulness.  He was tired, yes, but he still could not allow himself the respite his body was asking him for, even after that restless night and more than half a dayís worth of teaching.  Only when everything was done, when everything had gone according to plan, then he would rest.

He would not disappoint Teri.

Shinji didnít have to worry too much about the food he was to prepare for the party later, at least not too much.  He had already bought everything he needed, plus a few things that he might need, several days earlier.  Before leaving for work, he had laid out all the ingredients on the kitchen table and counter, where he could start the moment he got home. 

The cake was already partly finished.  It took him a little longer than expected to prepare, but he managed to finish baking it before he went to work.  Just a few finishing touches to add when he arrived, specifically a thick glaze of chocolate icing and a sprinkle of mint, and it would complete.  It wasnít too fancyócertainly not like the stuff that Hikari could come up with during the same amount of timeóbut he allowed himself some pride at what he had been able to accomplish.

As for the present he had chosen...  It now sat quietly in his closet, wrapped in simple gift paper, waiting for him to give it to his daughter.  Shinji had to suppress a smile as he thought of it; it was quite a departure from his custom of practical gift-buying.  But this was his daughterís special day, and no expense was too great if it meant Teriís happiness.

Of course, that didnít mean he had to tell her just how much it was he spent just getting her that gift.

There was one last detail that concerned Shinji, and rightly so, because it was beyond his control: the guests to the party.  Though he had made sure to call everyone concerned, there was still this tiny part of him that was afraid that some of those invited might not come.  It hadnít happened yet, but who knew?  It wasnít exactly something you can plan in advance for.

This was a minor worry, though.  A very minor worry, as far as Shinji was concerned.  He trusted his friends, and he was sure that they wouldnít let Teri down.

Even without the phonecall earlier, he was sure that Misato would be able to attend.  Despite her duties at the UN, and the fact that, officially at least, she no longer had anything to do with him or his family, the former Ops Director would go to great lengths just to be present in any of the Ikari familyís affairs.  This inevitably got Misato in trouble with her superiors, but no matter how many times Shinji reminded her of this fact, he had the feeling that the general would gleefully thumb her nose at the UNís top brass if it got her a chance to spend time with her foster family. 

Courtmartial be damned.

Now, if only Misato wouldnít dote on Teri too much; she had this bad habit of overdoing her Ďadoptive grandmotherí role to the girl.  Shinji could only hope that his former guardian didnít have anything outrageous in store for this year. 

Like buying a car, for example.

At least he could count on Rei to show some measure of restraint when it came to gift-giving. 

Of course, the woman doted on his daughter only slightly less than Misato.  Shinji had to take comfort in the fact that Reiís gifts reflected her own practicality; he was quite sure that she wouldnít buy Teri a car.

Shinji didnít have to confirm if the Suzuhara family would be able to attend or not; itís practically a given, considering the fact that they lived little more than a few blocks away from the Ikari apartment.  Which also meant that the place would be once again invaded by Toujiís and Hikariís (growing, as Kensuke had joked a few years back) brood of children...  A situation not entirely unwelcome in Shinjiís opinion, considering how much he and Teri adored the Suzuhara kids.

He would be happy if Kensuke would be able to attend, but the last he heard of his friend was that he was somewhere in the African confederation covering a change of government, or something of the like.  Being a freelance photographer, his friend wasnít even in the country most of the time.  Still, it would be nice if he could come; if thereís anyone who can understand the importance of a party, it was Ken.

Though Mayumi alluded when she called a few days before that she might have some problems attending, she would try her best to come.  Of course, Shinji would have understood if she wasnít able to be there; it was a particularly busy time at the university, or so he heard.  That, and there was supposed to be a big convention to be held there after New Yearís...  No doubt that his friend would be involved in the preparations for that as well.

At the very least, he could expect little Megumi to come in her motherís stead.  He had to admit, he was very fond of the girl, and wouldnít be too surprised if the little one would find some way to convince her parents to let her come. 

It was hard being an only child, after all.

Now, if only he could stop himself from strangling Megumiís father...  Not a very far-off possibility, considering that if Mayumi was busy, her husband would be the one to take their daughter to the party.    He seriously hoped that this wouldnít be the case, or else it would take every ounce of his patience just to stay civil with the smug violinist.

There were several more he had thought to invite, but unlike the others, their replies were more or less unsure.  He had left the offer open to Miss Nagaoka, but his department head could only promise that she would try to come.  The same went with the other faculty members.  Dr. Ibuki was too busy with her current project to be able to attend, so her gift and her greetings would probably go with Reiís.  Dr. Akagi wasnít even in Japan.  Only Misato knew just how to contact Mr. Hyuuga; Shinji could only hope that his ex-guardian would remember to contact the man.  Shigeru was too caught up in managing his band to come.  And Miss Kirishima...Shinji propped his arm up against the seatís armrest, and sighed as he turned his gaze towards the window, his eyes watching the city streets glide by.  "Youíve done all you could do to make everything perfect Shinji," he told himself.  "Now, youíll just have hope that everything works out."

It didnít take too long for the bus to reach its destination.  Shinji reached down to retrieve his attache case and, with a heave and an oath, he worked the strap of the heavy cello case back unto his shoulder.  It was rather embarrassing, especially when Shinji saw the patient look the bus driver gave him as he ambled up the aisle with the heavy load he had.  He managed to pay his fare with some effort, but disembarked without any more problems.

From the bus stop, it was just a short walk to the apartment.  The cello case wasnít as uncomfortable as it had been earlier, probably because of the rest he had while on the bus, but it strengthened that urge in Shinjiís mind to find a better way to take it along with him.  He couldnít really complain though; it was his fault, in a way, having gotten used to the way of carrying the heavy thing.  Old habits donít go away that easily, it seemed.

Besides, its probably going to be a while before he manages to replace the casing, so heíll have to endure for a little longer.

When he reached the main steps of the apartment complex, he stopped to catch his breath.  Taking a hanky out of his pocket, Shinji wiped away the sweat that had formed on his brow, before he continued his hike, this time in the direction of the complexís elevator.  He set his suitcase down as he arrived in front of the elevator doors, before he pressed the elevator call button, and waited for the elevator to arrive.  He didnít have to wait too long, and soon the elevator doors opened.  Seeing that it was unoccupied, Shinji picked up his briefcase, and stepped in.

Shinji depressed the button with his apartmentís floor number on it, and stepped back a little as the doors had begun to close, signalling the beginning of the elevatorís ascent.  As floor counter began its count upwards along with the elevatorís climb, Shinji felt around for the apartmentís keycard.  He allowed himself a sigh of relief as he felt it inside his shirtís pocket; it just wouldnít do to be locked out of the house now. 

No sense repeating what happened two years ago.

The elevator doors werenít even fully opened when Shinji stepped out unto his floor, eager to start on the last bit of work he had to do for his daughterís special day.  From there he turned a corner, and looked down to take out the apartmentís keycard with his free hand.  Not that he was worried of tripping over or anything, despite of the awkward load he was carrying; after some sixteen or so years living at the apartment, youíd think he wouldnít get used to the distinctiveness of this particular hall.  It would really surprise him if he ever tripped on his neighborsí potted plants again...

Which is why he was a little startled when something stopped his course, a something that had just wrapped its small arms around his leg, and seemed to be quite glad at what it was doing.  Shinji didnít even bother to hide his smile.

"Surprise!" Megumi, her face lit up with the most adorable smile Shinji had seen in a while, greeted him.  On cue she let go, and stepped back to look up to her godfather.

"Surprise indeed," Shinji nodded, smile still in place.  He knelt down and gave the girlís ebony fall of hair a fond pat, which brought a rush of red to her pale cheeks.  "And what have I done to deserve this honor, hime-chan, hmm?"  Feigning a sly look, he looked over the little girlís shoulder and, as expected, saw other people waiting by the apartment.  And he was quite sure he knew who they were.

Shinji raised an eyebrow at the girl, before feigning a disappointed expression, even shaking his head to accentuate it.  "Oh dear," he said.  "Guests already, and I havenít even started preparing yet..."

Megumi, being a smart girl, immediately saw through her godfatherís act.  She merely smiled, then sprinted ahead, to join her other companions by the apartment door.  Shinji shook his head, and stood up to follow, smiling all the while. 

"Hey there," a grinning Hikari greeted him as he approached the apartment door.  "And we thought youíd never get here."  She gave him an amused look, before chuckling to herself.  "Although, seeing you now, I wouldnít have blamed you if you did."

"I try, donít I?"  Shinji laughed at himself in return.  "Glad you could come, Hikari." 

"Well, I couldnít just let you do everything this time.  Look at what almost happened last year..."  The woman rolled her eyes at the memory.  "Besides, I did promise to help whenever I had the time, and there arenít that many people at the cafť right now, soo..."

"Regardless, thank you for being here, Hikari.  Iíd be stupid to not admit that I need help in this one."

The freckled woman gave him a wink, then motioned to the side with a tilt of her head.  "Thatís why I brought along helpers."

"I can see, and such skillful ones at that."  Shinji gave a wink at little Megumi, who was hiding behind her momís skirt, which made the girl giggle with mirth.  He looked at the girlís mother, and smiled, which brought a small smile in return from his friendís face.  "Thanks for coming, Mayumi-san.  I know youíve been really busy..." 

The woman gave a slight wave of her hand, as if dismissing the thought.  "Itís not too much of a trouble, Shinji-san," Mayumi answered to his unsaid words, her normally formal tone of voice showing the barest hint of the delight she felt.  "The school board wouldnít begrudge me too much if I missed this afternoonís classes.  Besides, even youíll have to agree that I have earned this short break."  There was an almost imperceptible widening of her smile, but it said enough to Shinji; when Mayumi was right, she was right. 

He did share the same profession, after all.

Shinji almost turned towards the apartment door, when he noticed that there was someone else there aside from Mayumi.  "Hello," he greeted, half-expecting Toujiís sister, but his greeting faltered when he noticed that it was an altogether different woman.  Shoulder-length brown hair framed a sculpted face, with a pair of sunglasses perched upon her head like a strange-looking hairband, while exotic gray-green eyes peeked from long bangs...  Eyes that quickly looked away, he immediately noticed, as if avoiding his gaze.  She was dressed casually, with a long-sleeved white shirt, its edges fluffed out and sleeves folded over her elbows, while faded denim pants hugged the curves of her legs. 

Shinji blinked, as he noticed that she seemed to be quivering, her hands balled up into fists by her sides.  What the... he thought, as he brought his eyes back to her face.  He was surprised to see that he didnít recognize her, and he was sure he recognized most of Mayumiís co-workers, as well as the people working under Hikariís employ at the coffeeshop. 

It took a moment for him to try again. 

"Er, hello," He began tentatively.  "You must be one of Hikariís Ďhelpersí...  Iím glad that you could..."  He stopped, as he saw that the woman was looking at him once more, but this time he noticed the moisture that seemed to be threatening to flow.  "Miss, are you okay?"

"Mmm, daijoubu desu," the woman took out a napkin, wiped her eyes, and apologized for what she just did, slowly blinking her eyes to stop further moisture from forming there.  "I just couldnít help myself..." she explained, an odd smile forming on her lips as she looked at him again.  "Itís been a long time.  Too long, I think..."

"Um, pardon me miss, but have we met?"  Shinji gave her a confused look, before giving his two friends the same.  The situation was getting more and more bewildering to him, it seemed.  "I donít seem to recall..."

"So, you donít remember..."  The woman bowed her head, as if the revelation wasnít that unexpected, and averted her eyes, turning her green-hued gaze towards the floor.  "I guess, time does that...  Canít really blame you..."

Megumi, who was watching the scene with mounting puzzlement, tugged at her motherís skirt.  "Ne, mama, why does Mana-san look sad?  And why is Ikari-oji-san..."  Mayumi looked down at her daughter and put her finger to her lips, at which Megumi immediately quieted.

But not before Shinji heard.

"Mana-san?"  Shinji looked at the woman, before turning inward, searching his memories for the images of the only other person he knew who possesed that name; it wasnít like he was going to forget about that person, even after more than twenty years.  It couldnít...

His eyes widened behind his glasses.


The woman closed her eyes, and the tears began to flow quickly this time.  But she had a smile on her face. 

"You remembered."

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