The 2nd try

Chapter 8: raise




It was still dark in these early hours. Mist crept over the lands into the valleys of the Hakone region, embracing the ruins of the once proud city of Tokyo-3. No sound was heard, no bird sang its song yet, not even the ever-present cicadas were awake. Every being in and near the single inhabited house was still asleep.

At least until a – by now quite familiar – cry disturbed the morning's peace.


"Mmm... Shinji..." a tired voice murmured. "Shinji!"

"Wha-wha'is...?" a no less tired voice answered. "Jus' five minutes, 'kay...?"

Since her prior light nudging with the foot didn't bring the desired result, Asuka decided to kick him a bit harder. "It's your turn..."

Shinji sighed as he slowly sat up, his eyes still closed. "How come it's always my turn...?"

"'Cause you're the best father and husband in this world who would do anything for his family."

He grinned wearily. Her words would have probably been more encouraging if he wasn't the only father and husband in this world – and if she wouldn't have used that praise so often already that it was nothing more than a sleepy mumble by now. "She's most likely hungry anyway, so you won't get back to sleep either."

Just chuckling at the low growl that he got in response, he slowly stood up. He didn't feel like arguing over something he didn't really mind – not that much at least. Sure, he too would like to stay a little longer in the warm, comfortable bed and he was praying for the night that he could finally sleep through again. But Asuka was right with one thing: He would do anything for his family.

Before he knew it, he was already in front of the door with that familiar heart-shaped sign. On the day they had returned from the hospital, he had crossed his name out and replaced it with the one of the new inhabitant of the room. It had been a little more than two months since then.

He could still remember how long the trip back had been. Asuka had refused to let go of her child the whole day, no matter how often he told her that it would be much safer to use the baby seat. If Asuka had fought that day in her usual manner, he might have been able to persuade her. But he hadn't stood a chance against the still tired yet serene smile that she had worn the whole time, so he eventually had given in when she softly asked him to just drive extra carefully.

To satisfy another demand that he would never be able to deny, he opened the door and entered "Aki's Lovely Suite".

Quickly, he stepped over to the crib where his small daughter cried for attention. He gently picked the wailing girl up, rocking her lightly. She had gotten noticeably bigger in that little time already, but she still seemed so fragile. It wasn't as bad as it had been at first though, when he had feared to hurt her with every wrong touch.

His fingers ran soothingly through the small patch of brown hair as he inhaled the sweet scent of baby powder that surrounded her – most of the time at least.

"Shh," Shinji cooed as he turned to leave the room. "We'll get you some food, hm?"

He didn't know if it was his warmth and his soothing or if she actually realized that her demands were about to get fulfilled, but her crying softened into a low whimper.

When they entered the bedroom, Asuka had already made herself comfortable in a sitting position with the pillow at her back against the bed's headboard, just as he had almost expected. They only exchanged a knowing smile when he carefully handed their baby over to his wife's waiting arms, before he returned to the bed himself.

Asuka also whispered some soothing words as she shifted Aki in her hold and pulled the top of her pajamas up. As he watched her drawing Aki's mouth to her breast and started to feed the infant, carefully holding her and caressing the back of the little head; he couldn't help but stare at the two most important beings in his life, mirroring the contented smile of his wife as he eventually lost himself in that sight.

"And what are you staring at?" Asuka's question wasn't in a very menacing tone, but it finally snapped him out of his trance. Indeed she never lost that smile. "You're not jealous of your own daughter, are you?"

He chuckled lightly and shook his head. For someone always calling him a hentai, she sure had a dirty mind to think of something like that even in a situation like this.

"No," he told her. "But seeing you two like this always reminds me how much I love you..."

"Baka," she hushed, before meeting his lips in a quick kiss. "If I wouldn't like it so much, I'd hit you for being so sappy."

Again he chuckled before his tone got a little serious. "I'm just glad that breastfeeding her actually works, and so well so far. But I'm still not sure if it'll be enough until she can eat solid food."

"So what do you want to do? Go searching for a cow after all?"

"Well, a goat would be easier to move..."

"Goat milk? Are you trying to poison my child?" she smirked. Noticing that Aki had stopped sucking, she put her child up to her shoulder, lightly patting the small back. "Besides, you haven't complained so far, have you?" Asuka asked the baby, accompanied by an approving burp from her daughter.

"Oh, it's not fair when the two of you team up against me," Shinji tried to complain, though he couldn't help but chuckle. He had been concerned about the whole issue of breastfeeding, not just whether or not Asuka's young body was capable of producing enough milk to sate Aki or if the baby would accept it properly, but also because he had learned that it could be painful for the mother.

Of course, Asuka had instantly dismissed that. She admitted that it "felt a bit weird", but she had quickly added how the ability to actually feel herself providing her child with nourishment was much more intense than any possible discomfort. In that way, he actually did feel a little jealousy.

But even if he couldn't share such an intimate connection with his daughter, he would be doing everything in his power to show Aki his care.

"Now that we're awake already," he eventually began, his view going out of the window at the fleeting darkness of the early morning, "shall we get going?"

Asuka nodded, smiling, not looking up as she gently stroked the hair of her child that had already fallen asleep in her arms again.


*********


"Well, it's been a while..."

"And the last time wasn't quite the best..."

"But we managed to sort things out and now..."

"We'd like to introduce someone to you."

With those words, Asuka presented the bundle in her arms towards the vast sea that sparkled in the rays of the early sun, brushing a wrinkle of the blanket from the child's cheek. "This is our daughter. World: This is..." She flashed her husband a wry grin.

"This is Aki Ikari!"


*********


"Do you still feel uncomfortable without artificial lights?"

Asuka wasn't sure what he meant at first. But as she looked ahead at the dark silhouettes of what was once Neo Tokyo-3, the memory of the discussion returned, even though at that time the city hadn't been in ruins and there hadn't been Rei's giant disembodied head in the distance. In fact, she had been right there with them.

The grassy hill outside the city's borders had seemed inviting to end their trip and time flew by as they had merely sat there, enjoying the view and the closeness to each other in the shadows of the trees behind them. Eventually, the sun had set and one by one the countless stars had appeared on the darkening sky. Aki was already fast asleep in her mother's arms as the night fell, but her parents still didn't feel like going home already, trying to keep this romantic setting as long as possible. The heat of the summer day was fading very slowly, so Asuka didn't worry yet that it would get too cold for the little one anytime soon.

"I guess I got used to it to some extend. But there are no humans there anymore, so my point stands," Asuka answered her husband's question dryly, leaning her head against his shoulder. But as she glanced up, a little smile appeared on her lips. "You we're also right though. The sky is much more beautiful like this."

It was hard not to feel that way. Even with the red streak crossing them, the stars shone brightly, untouched by anything that had transpired on this little planet. But even against such an overwhelming display of vastness, Asuka didn't feel intimidated or small. She rather felt welcomed as a part of them.

"Rei might have been even more of a philosopher than I – and maybe even herself – thought back then."

This time it was Shinji who was taken by surprise. "Huh?"

"You remember what she said about humans surviving by mastering fire to escape the darkness? She apparently just meant that the human advantage of science, which allowed us to evolve to what we've become, was born out of fear. But I wonder if it can't also refer to something inside the human heart instead. That without that fire, that light within us, we'd end up consumed by the dark loneliness."

A low sigh let her look down to the bundle in her arms and she smiled as she saw and felt Aki trying to snuggle closer against her mother's warm bosom in her sleep. "I have my brightest light right here. And I'll protect her from the darkness just as she does for me. I'm sure, as long as we have each other, there's nothing that could hurt us."




********************************





"Ouch! Aki! Aki, stop that please!" Asuka winced as the straining pain returned once again. "Ah! Aki, you're hurting Mama!"

However, the giddy baby in her arms couldn't understand the meaning of her pleading tone. Carefully, Asuka tried to entangle the strand of loose hair from her daughter's grip with one hand, but the close angle and the fear to drop her child accidentally when changing her hold of Aki left her only her fingertips to work with. And for someone so small, her little daughter was quite strong. With big eyes, Aki looked up to her mother as she tried to put the captured hair into her smiling mouth.

Eventually, Asuka gave up. "Shinji!"

"What is..." he called back from the floor, but trailed off as he entered Aki's room and saw his wife's predicament. "She's pulling your hair again?" he asked the obvious, already stepping over to help.

"Ah?" Aki looked at him with bewilderment as he held her and entangled the red strands from her small hand. Before she could start to cry at the loss of her "toy", Shinji carefully took her from Asuka's arms and held her close.

"Just what does she always want with my hair?" Asuka asked exhausted, though the question wasn't directed at anyone in particular.

"Well, she sure likes it," Shinji concurred anyway, placing Aki cautiously into her bed. "It smells good after all, and it's sooo bright red." He exaggerated the last words, tickling his baby-girl, who responded with a wild kicking and wide laugh on her face.

"Don't upset her so much," Asuka muttered, not really looking at him as she twirled her hair between her fingers. "It's time for her nap, that's why I wanted to lay her into her bed."

"Okay, okay," he now whispered as her pulled the blankets over his daughter and gave her a kiss on the small forehead. "Sweet dreams, Aki."

The girl whimpered a bit as he went out of her sight, but he forced himself to ignore it. He turned to Asuka and came closer, but she stopped him before he could wrap his arms around her. "Shinji?" she asked lowly. "Could you get the hair scissors?"

"Huh? We did the haircuts just a few days ago," he wondered.

Asuka sighed deeply. "I know. I... I think it might be better if I lose a bit more."

"Eh? You mean...?"

"Well, it would be more practical. I mean, how often did I already forget to pull my hair back, especially when she's crying at night?" She turned to him, somehow managing a weak smile. "And it's not like you love me just because of my long, flowing hair, do you?"

He still stared at her, apparently wondering if she was sure about this, but after a second he returned her smile and nodded slowly.

"Okay then. Get yourself ready, I'll be with you in a moment."


*********


Asuka was watching herself, sitting on a small chair in front of the bathroom's mirror. She couldn't deny the sentimentality she felt at that sight of her, knowing that another aspect of her life was about to end. She tensed as she saw Shinji approaching behind her, picking a pair of scissors from their haircutting utensils.

"So, how...?"

"Not- not too much," she cut him off, harsher than intended. Immediately, her shoulder sagged again. "Just so much, that she... well, that she won't be able to reach them that easily. I-I don't know... the shoulders?" She sighed in defeat. "Maybe a little above...?"

He just nodded.

Asuka closed her eyes as he began his work. She didn't want to see it. It was hard enough to hear the constant clipping of the scissors as they lifted the familiar weight off her. It had taken her years to grow and take care of it, and she had always been proud of the healthy strands, basking in the compliments for her hair already before she had come to Japan where it stood out even more thanks to its natural bright red color. And now it was just a matter of minutes until Shinji made the final snip.

"Okay, I think I'm finished," he announced.

She took two deep breaths, unsure if she really wanted to see the result, but then, hesitatingly, she opened her eyes again.

He had actually done a quite decent work. Her hair now stopped shortly above her shoulders in several fine strands, a little shorter to the sides. But it somehow felt strange to believe that the person looking back at her from the mirror was actually herself. Almost absently, she trailed her hand through the remains of her red mane.

"I'm looking old..." she stated wearily.

"No," Shinji said, reassuringly smiling as he leaned down to her. "You look like a mother..."

And for some reason, getting rid of all that messy hair suddenly didn't seem all that bad anymore.




********************************





"Oh, not again!" Shinji whined, holding his daughter away from him as he sprinted with her to the bathroom. If her "Uh-Oh"-face wasn't enough to tell him what she just did, the stench surely was.

Asuka was just busy loading the washing machine for the second time that day, as they stormed in, going straight for the changing table.

"Again?" she instantly asked, just as worn out as him. "That's the third time since this morning!"

"I know," Shinji grumbled, already pulling Aki's romper off. "If it goes on like this, we'll have to go and get more diapers today after all."

"I'm rather wondering where to put all the used ones! We can't waste gas with daily trips to the dumpster."

"Maybe we should use cloth ones?"

Asuka pointed at the heaps of clothing at her feet. "And have even more laundry?" She made the mistake of walking over to them just as Shinji took off the diaper. "Ooh," she clenched her eyes shut, trying to wave the stench away, while Aki was just giggling at the funny faces her parents made. "Could it be that something's wrong with her digestion?"

"I'm afraid not," he shook his head, wiping his child clean after throwing the full diaper into the "contamination unit" as they tended to call the lidded trash can by now. Meanwhile, Aki just waved her fingers at her grossed out parents while baby powder was applied.

"But she's also barfing a lot," Asuka pointed out, looking back at the heap of clothes where Aki's dinner from yesterday was easily to be seen on her favorite shirt.

"Maybe we're just giving her too... HEY!" Shinji protested as he was shoved aside by his wife.

"Let me handle this," she announced, grabbing a fresh diaper from the stack.

"But she's always whining when you do it! You put them on too tight!"

And indeed, Aki's face turned into a slight frown as her mother pulled the sticky straps taut. Asuka however stayed true to her firm stance.

"No, I'm putting them on just right! You put them on too lightly! It might take her a little while longer to get comfortable in them, but at least it won't leak afterwards, which would be much worse for all of us!" Asuka explained while redressing her daughter, who, true to her mother's words, was already forgetting the uncomfortable tightness when she was picked up from the table. Scooped up in the cozy arms of her Mama, she quickly returned to her energetic self...

For about ten seconds.

"AGAIN?" her parents whined in unison.

Sighing, Asuka began to unbutton the jumper once more. "Remind me, how long till we can try potty training?"




********************************





"I'm home!" Shinji called into the house as he slipped off his boots and put the bucket with the underwhelming results of his fishing-trip to the side. Aki's loud crying hung in the air, so when he got no answer, he thought that Asuka just hadn't heard him.

That this interpretation was far from correct became apparent when his wife stormed into the hallway, rocking their baby daughter at her shoulder. A look into Asuka's puffy red eyes just heightened the impression that something was terribly wrong.

"Shinji!" she sobbed on the border of being hysterical. "I already wanted to go searching for you! I-I think she's sick! I – she – "

Shinji didn't lose time and quickly closed the space between them, placing one soothing hand around his upset wife who instantly buried her face against his shoulder, the other on his agonizing child's back. Feeling Asuka calming slightly, he took Aki carefully from her, feeling for the baby's temperature, but finding no signs of a fever.

"She- she's been crying the whole time," Asuka told him sniffing. "But there's nothing in her diaper and she's not sleepy and she's not hungry either. And no matter how much I carry her around, she won't calm down."

"Have you tried her pacifier?" Shinji tried to keep rational, wiping the wetness of tears and saliva from Aki's chin.

Asuka shook her head. "She's been drooling so much, I feared that it might give her trouble breathing. But she doesn't seem to have swallowed something either."

He nodded in acknowledgment as he gently pushed a probing finger into his daughter's mouth, which she instantly clamped down on. Her jaws weren't strong enough to hurt him, but her reaction was just another indication for his assumption. "She probably just wants something to chew on."

"Chew?"

Shinji tried his best assuring smile at her flabbergasted expression. "I think she's teething," he explained. "They don't seem to be out already, but I guess that can be any day now. We should have a teether somewhere; that might ease..." He trailed off as he noticed that Asuka didn't share his enthusiasm, but slid exhausted down the wall. A quivering hand went up to her forehead.

"T-teething?" she breathed before sobs rocked her body as tears formed streaks on her face.

Worried, Shinji got onto his knees himself, careful to keep Aki balanced in his arms who was also watching her mother with troubled eyes. "Asuka..."

But she just flinched away. "I-I thought... and then she just..." She shook her head. "I should have known. I should have known, but it didn't even come to my mind. What... what kind of mother am I?"

"Asuka, don't say such things. You're not a bad mother just because you can't instantly read every sign she gives you."

"B-but this is not giving her a wrong toy or... or trying to feed her if she just wants to cuddle. I should have known this!"

"Shh," he tried to calm her, pulling his finger free and lay his hand on her cheek, drying the tears of the sniffing woman. "How long did you sleep last night?"

"W-what?" Asuka sniffed, obviously puzzled about the seemingly unfitting question.

"I've noticed that you're often lying awake as if you were still waiting for her to start crying any moment," Shinji explained, shifting his position to gently rock Aki on his right knee who already seemed like she was about to start wailing again.

"I... I don't know," Asuka eventually admitted. "I'm... I keep fearing that she could need me any time. Every little sound keeps me awake in anticipation of more to come." She sighed with an angry frown; a sign for Shinji that she was chiding herself. "I guess I'm often just imagining things..."

"There you have it," he concurred. "You're just tired. I think Aki's sleeping much better by now than you did the last few weeks."

"Ah!"

The sound let both look down to their baby who also was reaching for Asuka with a concerned look in her bright blue eyes.

"See?" Shinji asked smiling as his wife closed the space between the two girls' hands. "She doesn't like to see her great mother sad either."

That finally got a small laugh out of Asuka. Shinji gave her a short kiss before he continued whispering, "Get some rest. I'll take care of her for the rest of today."




********************************





One last time, Shinji checked the contents of the pots on the stove before he was satisfied enough and turned to leave the kitchen. As he entered the living room, he saw the two women of his life facing each other.

Asuka lay on her stomach, head resting on her left arm, as she stared into their daughter's sparkling eyes. Aki was on her small hands and knees bobbing giddily up and down as she watched her mother from her "training mat". They had spread the fluffy blanket there on the floor where they could keep an eye on the child while she could make her attempts to crawl on a softer ground than the carpet.

Between mother and daughter, however, weren't the usual toys that currently lay scattered on the blanket behind the baby girl, but a piece of paper and a box of crayons, a blue one in Aki's tiny fist – on the way to her mouth.

"Oh no no no, that's not to eat!" Asuka quickly interjected, cupping Aki's hand with her own and brought it down to the paper, leading it over the surface so the wax formed a circle. "There, you put that on the paper and draw nice colored lines."

"Ah!" Aki's eyes went wide, her free hand clapping against the floor in excitement at that new amazing discovery, smiling broadly as she looked up to her talented mother who could produce such wonders.

Shinji, however, was watching that scene from a much more concerned point of view. "Eh..."

"Oh hey," Asuka turned her head as she noticed him, "Dinner ready?"

"Yeah, but... Asuka, I... eh..."

Her eyes narrowed. "What?"

He sighed, the flat tone of her voice warning him of the inevitable. "Ah, nothing..."

"What, baka?" she pressured more aggressively, but not as menacing so as not to scare Aki, who was further curiously examining the crayon in her hand.

"Well... don't you think it's a little early for her to draw pictures?"

Asuka just rolled her eyes. "Of course she can't draw a second Mona Lisa, but I'm sure she likes seeing that she can create something, even if it's just a bunch of wild lines."

"Yeah, but I'm afraid not only on paper but also on walls, the carpet, her clothes... and of course her mouth," he concluded, pointing at their daughter who was already trying to taste the wax again.

Startled, Asuka spun back around, grasping the small hand once more. "Oh, Aki, no! I told you that's not to eat!" she pleadingly repeated the earlier lecture, but given the baby's wondering look, with the same sorry result. Asuka sighed in defeat.

"Well then, if you're that hungry, we better get going," she mumbled to her child, picking Aki up while rising. "Papa has dinner ready after all."




********************************





She had fought many fierce battles, fought against monstrous enemies, fought on the brink of death for the sake of nothing less than the entire human race (and her ego). But none of those fights had taken as much toll on her willpower, had brought her so close to admitting defeat as the times she was faced with these ultimate weapons: The bright blue eyes of her daughter.

"Don't look at me like that," Asuka pleaded quietly, rocking Aki on her arms as she carried her towards the crib in the already darkened room. "You know it's time for you to sleep."

"Eh?"

Asuka sighed tiredly, but at the same time couldn't help but smile as Aki cocked her head to the side, cuddling closer in an attempt to gain more sympathy. Motherly instinct or otherwise, she somehow was pretty sure her little one just feigned ignorance, actually knowing quite well that it was about time to call it a day.

Her little one... she was already not quite as little as she used to be actually. Asuka had always rolled her eyes at parents lamenting about their children growing up so fast, but now that she was facing the rapid changes herself, she had a bit more understanding for such statements. Aki had already outgrown three rompers and the pink piece she donned now was also starting to strain. The fine layer of brown hair had become rather thick and comparably long, a good inch hanging freely down her neck.

And it wasn't just in terms of size. She was crawling around the house and garden so fast now that Asuka almost felt old, having to keep up with the energetic girl whenever Aki took too much interest in all too yummy-looking small objects, open doors that led to the outside world, or in stairs and other miraculous heights.

They finally got her to eat solid food a while ago – as much as actually goes into her mouth that is. It wasn't that she didn't like it, quite the contrary. The first time Shinji had tried to feed her, she had waved her arms in joy at the first taste so much that she accidentally hit the bowl on the table of her highchair at such an angle that it somersaulted into the air, spilling its contents over his shirt before it landed in his face.

Asuka still had to chuckle at the memory of him covered in the mashed carrots – he surely didn't. Nonetheless, feeding was still the better option. It's not like she couldn't hold a spoon and certainly not that she was unable to shove something into her mouth with her hands, though coordination was still certainly lacking. But most importantly, she'd often forget the contents of her hands or would purposely start to play with it, so feeding her was much less time consuming than having to clean the entire kitchen (as well as the little girl herself).

It was only a question of time though that the little rascal in her arms would learn that as well.

But Asuka didn't feel the twinge of sadness that usually came along with some parent's concerns about changes. No, she felt elated, proud whenever she saw Aki making new discoveries, learning new facts about the huge world around her, gaining new abilities. After all, it was her daughter, her little child. To see her blossom was the biggest accomplishment that Asuka ever got.

The red-haired mother hadn't realized until then that she was humming a lullaby for the now yawning girl, who finally ceased her resistance and accepted that it was bedtime. Aki didn't fight at all when her mother carefully laid her down in her bed and after another sung verse of the song, her eyes fell shut. Asuka smiled at the peaceful sight, caressing the brown locks of her daughter once more.

"Gute Nacht, mein Schatz." A last kiss on the forehead of her baby, then she went to go and let her sleep as usual. But this time she didn't get far.

"Nah!"

Asuka instantly whirled around. "What?" With only two big steps, she stood back at the bed where a very awake Aki was giggling at the sight of her. "Did you just say...?"

"Nah!"

Wide-eyed, she picked her daughter up again, a proud grin slowly formed on her mouth that still stood open from surprise.

"Shinji!" she yelled. "SHINJI!"

It took him only a few seconds to come bolting into the room with a panicked look on his face. He must have mistaken the urgency in her call as an emergency, which was also evident in his voice. "Wha-what is it?" he panted.

Feeling guilty, however, was the last thing on Asuka's mind. "She said her first word!" she exclaimed beaming, not even thinking of apologizing for scaring him.

Shinji sighed in relief. "Ah, that's all? I already thought..." he trailed off as her words finally reached his higher brain functions. "Wait, what?!"

"I wished her a good night and she tried to repeat," Asuka explained, not taking her eyes off the giggling girl in her arms who obviously enjoyed the extra attention she was getting tonight.

Shinji however scratched his head, looking rather disbelieving. "You're probably just interpreting a bit too much into the sounds she made. She always mumbled a bit, hasn't she? It's a little early for her to speak."

"Do you hear that?" Asuka didn't bother to answer him directly and just addressed Aki. "Your Papa doesn't believe that you can talk already. But we'll show him, right?"

"Uh?" the child cooed.

"Can you say 'Mama'?"

"Asuka," Shinji interjected half-sighing.

She still ignored him however. "Come on, say 'Mama'," she plead.

"Ah?"

"'Ma-ma'."

"Asuka, it's no use to force..."

"Amam!"

The room fell instantly silent aside from the innocent laugh of the ten months old as these syllables left Aki's mouth.

"See?" Asuka beamed.

"That's... certainly... uh... surprising," Shinji admitted, but for once, his wife ignored him instead of gloating in the fact of being right.

"Can you say 'Papa'?" she urged the child she was rocking her arms further on, bursting with pride of her smart daughter. "'Pa – pa' "

She wasn't disappointed. "Baga!"

The two almost-adults looked at each other with mirrored surprise, but while Asuka's turned into amusement, Shinji's rather became – fearful? "She didn't really just say what I think she said, did she...?"

Asuka was too busy laughing to answer though. But that ebbed away to a weak smile as she felt the little body against her, and she noticed her arms tightening a bit more around Aki, cuddling closer.

Another "first" gone...

Okay, so maybe there was a certain twinge after all...

But just a really, really small one.

Really.




********************************





"Two weeks..."

Not quite understanding the meaning of the words he muttered to himself as he sat hunched over his desk, Asuka's curiosity demanded to know more.

"Huh?"

Shinji jerked slightly, apparently not having noticed her in the doorway until she had made herself aware. "Oh, hi. Done for today?"

"Yeah, I hope so," Asuka yawned. "She's fast asleep and I feel like I'll follow her soon."

The sun hadn't even totally set, but she felt more tired than after an endless training session. Why hadn't anyone told her that taking care of a small baby could be so straining?

"Why don't you go to bed then?" Shinji predictably offered. "I'll be with you as soon as I'm finished here."

She shook her head. "Take as much time as you need, I probably won't notice anymore when you come in anyway," she muttered feeling her eyelids becoming heavier again. "Just... what did you mean by 'two weeks'?"

"Oh that..." A little smile spread on Shinji's face. "In two weeks it will be one year."

"One year since...?" Asuka repeated expectantly until she realized. Her drowsiness was instantly pushed aside by excitement, if only for a moment. "You mean... it's Aki's birthday? You kept track of it?"

"Yeah. Did you never see it?" he asked, holding up a makeshift calendar that, at least for now, seemed to consist of only one huge month. "It's been 351 days now."

"Time went by so fast. I always thought that's just something old people think when they have nothing better to do but to age. But I guess it doesn't stop for us either," Asuka mused, smiling faintly. "So it's two more weeks, huh? Let's see, what do we need for the party? Presents of course and a cake, oh, and decorations; do we still have balloons?"

"Party?" Shinji cut her off. "Do you think all that will be necessary? She's still too small to have any fond memories of it later anyway."

"So what? It'll be fun! And as good parents, it is of course our duty to take photos of her first birthday, wearing a cute hat and her whole face smeared full of cake to torture her with in a few years."

Shinji chuckled at that. "I guess I better search for the video camera too then."

Asuka chimed in to his laughter, ruffling his hair. "Oh, I love it when you're evil."




********************************





"God, you really start to look like Kensuke with that thing," Asuka groaned, before she had to evade being hit by the camera as her addressed husband turned around without taking it down from his eye.

"What? I missed recording her first crawling because I hadn't thought of it and I missed recording her first words because I didn't believe that they actually were her first words. I'm not going to miss her first steps too."

Asuka rolled her eyes while shaking her head as she let herself fall back against the back of the couch. Next to her, Shinji instantly focused the lens back on their daughter who had heaved herself up to look over the table, bobbing slightly up and down as she stared transfixed at her favorite ball on it, like a lioness watching its prey. A small and much too giddy lioness. Asuka considered just giving her the red and yellow-striped toy, but she had learned that it would ruin most of the fun for Aki and she would get bored with it soon after receiving it that way. At worst, she'd even start to cry for having her "game" ruined.

It was true that she was due to start walking. She had actually taken a few wobbly steps already when holding tightly onto the furniture or her parents' hands, but so far never freely on her own. It was just a question of time though.

So, Shinji had started to follow their child's activities with the camera he got awhile ago the whole day long. A part of Asuka found that rather cute, but even that part got slowly overshadowed by the one who found it incredibly silly. And there was also a small part that started to feel neglected...

"Just give it up already. You're doing this for almost three days now," she complained. "She apparently has no intention to become a movie star."

"I doubt that," Shinji murmured without even looking at her. "She's your daughter after all."

"WHAT WAS THAT?"

He almost dropped the camera, maybe not even having been aware that he had said it out loud. Asuka already loomed over him, putting her best efforts into her most intimidating grimace and it didn't fail her, as fear and confusion were written on his face.

"Are you saying that I'm egocentric?!" she accused him as he backed farther away.

"W-well... no... I-I..." He reached the end of the couch and slid off as long as he still could.

But she kept pursuing him. "That I always have to stand in the spotlight?!"

"H-Honey, I..." he weakly tried to appease her, and Asuka had to watch out not to crack a smile. They only used such terms of endearment if they acted overly sappy for fun or if they (he) tried to calm the other.

"That I want to be glorified by every breathing being on the planet?!"

She pretty much had him pinned against the wall by now, even though he still tried to back up farther as she glared directly into his eyes. "N-no, of course not..."

"No?" she suddenly shrunk away, placing more than enough disappointment in her voice. Now she couldn't hide her grin anymore as she didn't leave him any route to escape. "I thought you would know at least that much of me by now."

With a sigh, he slumped down as he finally realized the prank, and she couldn't help but giggle.

"After all this time, you're still..." she trailed off as she turned around and found her path blocked.

Aki just smiled at her baffled face. "Mamam?"

The prior amusement was mixed with an endless amount of pride and Asuka's renewed grin was no longer from a silly little joke. The whole thing hadn't taken longer than a few seconds; the small girl couldn't have crawled over, and even less, stand up without help in that time.

A sigh came from behind her. "And I missed it again."




********************************





Aki laughed loudly, obviously enjoying to walk over the funny ground, holding onto both of her parents' hands. Her eyes were fixed on her feet that dug into the grains of sand each time she made a wobbly step. Either she was completely unaware of her surroundings or, what was also quite likely, she didn't care, not knowing about the horrific sight or even the abnormality of the crucified EVAs or the giant head in the distance.

"That she's not even bothered by the smell..." Asuka wondered out loud.

"Well, it's her first time at the beach," Shinji reasoned. "The first time she isn't carried and sleeping most of the time, at least. So it's just another new thing yet to discover for you, isn't it?"

He met Aki's grinning face at that last sentence, the girl, even though it was unlikely that she understood much of the discussion, able to tell by the change of his tone that he was talking to her. She pulled her hand free from her mother's pointing to something before her.

"Mama wawa!" she exclaimed giddily.

"Mama what?" Asuka asked her, but only got her answer in the girl also prying free from her father's hold and starting to sprint.

Then, to her horror, Asuka understood. With her very limited vocabulary, Aki had more than once used the word "Mama" as a synonym for something red. Her heart almost stopped as she saw her daughter running laughingly towards the LCL-sea.

"No Aki, wait!"

Instinctively, she leaped forward to catch her child before she could come in contact with the fluid, before she would become... like them...

But she suddenly found herself held back. Staring at Shinji in shock and disbelief, she tried to break free, to save...

"Let her," he said, unbelievably calm, as if nothing was wrong. "It's shallow enough around here."

"But..." She finally escaped his hold, but saw that it was already too late, Aki ran splashing around, obviously amazed at the "Mama-water". Nothing had happened.

Asuka's shoulders sagged in relief, but she also felt incredibly silly for her unreasonable panic attack. Of course nothing happened. They had been in contact with LCL thousands of times without instantly being reduced to it as well. But since all of that happened... Neither of them had ever touched it since they had escaped the sea.

Naturally, it still made her feel sick to think of what it truly was in which her daughter was running so carefree, but of course, Aki couldn't know it.

She had never envied her daughter's ignorance so much.




********************************





"Aki, don't dawdle, please!"

The one and a half year old looked up at her father's call, quickening the pace of her wobbly steps to catch up with him. She smiled brightly, clutching her new possession in the form of a coloring book with both of her arms.

Shinji tried to return that smile, but it was rather forced. He would feel better if he could carry his daughter. Not only would that be much faster, but also much safer for a small girl that was still a bit uneasy on her legs, especially in these surroundings. But his load from their "shopping" trip was already straining his capacities to their max.

He could understand that it was exciting for her to come here, but the ruins of Tokyo-3 were a much too dangerous place to fool around for his liking. But if they'd keep her just in the house and garden, the more she would get curious about the outside world and would do who-knew-what to see it.

A little curiosity was hardly a crime, at least not for a child her age. But he wished it wouldn't include crawling in every hole that was in danger of collapsing, spying around every corner and climbing on every pile of scattered concrete, just to see what new and exciting things might await her there.

That already was enough for him to worry about each of her steps. He would have rather driven the truck right in front of the store, but the area was one of the most affected, the debris of the once majestic buildings making it almost impassable for anything but a 4 wheel drive or something thin enough to pass the small corridor of what had remained of the broad street.

And the unstable surroundings weren't even the biggest danger.

"Papa?" Her curious voice made Shinji stop again. She looked up to him with wide blue eyes and pointed to something with her small left hand. "Doggy?"

His combat-trained senses instantly sharpened. Following the direction with his eyes, he stepped defensively in front of his daughter, slowly lowering the three full shopping bags to the ground. He wasn't quite sure what it was that lay still behind a pile of rubble with only it's orange-brown fur showing, but it lurked in their path and he wouldn't risk a surprise attack from it.

"Stay here," he hushed to Aki. "I'll be right back."

Grabbing a rusty steel rod that had once been part of a building's netting mesh, he carefully stepped forward, praying it would be something harmless that would be running away at the mere sight of him. Making a loud sound might have the same effect and safe the thrill, but it could just as well make something less harmless aware of them in the first place and he preferred to have the moment of surprise on his side in that case.

As he climbed over the pile, weapon raised above his head with both arms to strike with full power at any time, he cursed as he accidentally kicked a stone off that clanked several times on its way down. Fortunately, whatever it was must have been either deaf or fast asleep or...

... dead.

As he reached the top of the hill, ready to strike, he noticed that there was no more need for that. What must have been a stray cat lay ripped open in a puddle of blood.

Fresh blood.

It wasn't so much the gory sight that sent chills down his bones, but rather the fact that this must have been done very recently. Whatever did this had probably been disturbed – and most likely by the two of them. Which meant it was still nearby.

He instantly turned around to look for Aki. There was a moment of panicked shock, when he only saw her new book at the place where he left her, but felt quickly relieved when he recognized her form trying to climb on a big piece of a shattered quoin. He was behind her in a matter of seconds, eliciting a startled shriek as he lifted her off the concrete until she realized it was him.

"Didn't I tell you to stay there?" Shinji tried his best to form his concern into sternness, but under her innocent look it didn't take long to melt that mask away. With a sigh, he pulled her close, a weary smile on his face. "You're really a little monkey, aren't you?"

"Mongy!" Aki concurred cheerfully, giggling against him.

"Come on. We better see that we get back." He shifted her so he could hold her with one arm, slouched down to pick up her book and gave it to her, then grabbed the bags with his free hand. He wasn't sure how, but apparently even at their max, his capacities still managed a little extra weight as long as it came in form of a little brown-haired girl.


*********


"We're home!"

"'ome!" Aki chimed into his greeting as they entered, quick tapping indicating that she ran past her father.

"Welcome home!" Asuka shouted back from the bathroom, where she quickly dried her hands off and came out. The exhaustion the last few hours of work had caused her was quickly forgotten as she was immediately greeted by a 90cm tall rocket that aimed for her.

"Mama!"

Beaming, Asuka didn't hesitate to bend down and let her daughter run into her open arms. "Hey, hallo mein Schätzchen," she welcomed Aki as she picked the lively girl up. "Did you have fun?"

Aki nodded eagerly, then presented the book she was holding. "Loo'!"

"Ooh, what do you have there?" Asuka asked overly curious.

"Co'owin boo'!"

"A coloring book?" she again asked feigning utmost fascination, continuing to play her role as unknowing parent. "Did you 'convince' Papa again to get you something?"

She glanced smirking over to her husband who was busy unpacking the shopping bags. He quickly averted his view, playfully pouting at the hidden scolding. "It's not my fault that she's irresistible when she wants to be. She got that from you."

That she had never been someone to easily blush at compliments didn't mean that Asuka didn't know to cherish them, even if they came off as casual as then. Smiling broadly, she brought her attention back to the girl in her arms. "So why don't we go out on the porch and color a few pages?"

"Yah!" Aki squealed happily, but when her mother took a few steps towards the door leading to the garden, she started to tense. "Wai'!"

"Huh? What is it?" Asuka asked, knowing fully well what was still missing.

"No c'ayo'!"

"Oh yes, we need crayons for that! I totally forgot! Good thing you're such a smart girl!" she praised her daughter, ruffling her hair to elicit a giggle. "You know what? You go on and pick the pictures you want to color now and I'll go and get the crayons after a short talk with Papa, okay?"

"'kay," Aki nodded and as soon as she was put down on her feet toddled outside after struggling with the "heavy" door, but the "big girl" she was, she managed to shove it open. Still wearing the proud smile, Asuka managed to break away from that display and went over to Shinji who was still busy sorting the goods.

"So, how was the trip?"

Shinji sighed, not looking up from his task. "You know how I feel when we take her to the city."

"So you rather spoil her to make up for it?"

"I'm not spoiling her..."

"Riiight, that's why she gets something every time you two are out," she teased. But her grin fell as her attempts hit him like a breeze of air that hits a rock. "Oh, come on, it was you who said she would need to get out more often and there hadn't been a major incident yet."

"Yet..." Shinji repeated silently.

Asuka groaned. "Okay, what's really bothering you?"

"Hm?"

"When you're spacing out so much that you won't even look up while talking with me, it usually means that something big is troubling you."

Now he did look up, blinking in surprise.

"What? Shouldn't a good wife know her husband's habits?" she questioned indignantly, though it had actually just been a good guess, as a blind man would have seen that something was wrong with him. "I bet you would do that hand-clenching-thing too, if they wouldn't be in use right now."

"That's something I do when I'm nervous about a decision," he retorted flatly.

"Eh... so what is it you're thinking about?" she quickly changed the topic.

"I was thinking that..." He paused for a second to take a breath. "Maybe we should strengthen the fence."

"Why? It seems in good shape."

"I've seen another one. Still fresh."

Now her shoulders sagged just as his, immediately understanding his words. The atmosphere suddenly became tense. "Did Aki see...?"

He quickly shook his head. "Don't think so; I blocked her view with my body as we went past it."

Asuka sighed angrily, holding herself as an involuntary shiver ran down her spine. "That would be the sixth in the last few weeks: Two rabbits, a cat, the baby monkey, even a dog, and now..."

"Another cat," Shinji finished. "At least I think so, guessing by the remains. Maybe it's that pack of wild dogs passing through again. They didn't stay long last year, but..."

"But you're right. We might should upgrade our defenses."

Shinji suddenly shook his head. "It still doesn't make sense. Killing but leaving the prey behind... Isn't that an unusual behavior for an animal?"

Asuka smirked weakly. "Why should humans be the only ones with a mental sickness?" She took a deep breath then, trying to force the potential danger out of her head, not wanting it lingering on her mind when she played with her daughter. "Well, we can continue this later. I better not let Aki alone too long."

As if she had summoned it, a loud squeal erupted outside.

The shock froze the concerned parents in place for a second before they bolted to the door to the veranda. The coloring book lay open on the table, but Aki wasn't sitting on the bench in front of it. She was nowhere to be seen at all.

"Aki?"

The panic that was dwelling within Asuka rose with every second she frantically scanned the area for a sign of her little child, without result. Her heart leaped when she heard Aki's clear laugh, strangely seeming to come somewhere from above.

There! The branches of the tree near their fence were moving despite the lack of wind! Asuka ran the short distance at a speed that exceeded her best times during her training, fueled by the fear for her daughter that let her forget about Shinji or questions as to how Aki could have gotten up there on her own.

The answer to that was rather easy: She hadn't done it on her own.

"Mama!" the girl greeted her cheerfully. "Mongeys!"

Aki was laughing giddily, unaware of what was actually happening to her as two of her screeching new playmates tried to heave her up, holding the child suspended in the air at her upper arms in their attempt to climb. They must have somehow used some of the branches that reached over the fence to get in. A third macaque yelled fiercely at Asuka, but she heeded it no mind, not even when it broke off a stick and threw it at her. She barely even noticed it hitting her forehead.

"AKI!" She jumped, trying to catch her baby, but her fingers only brushed against the little feet. Instantly, she tried once more, but not only failed again, yet also missed the landing and stumbling, she fell to the ground.

Cold steel seemed to crush against her heart as she struggled to her feet, watching the animals screaming and mocking her as they were about to continue their flight – along with her daughter.

Asuka had never felt so helpless in her entire life.

It couldn't be. It couldn't be that she couldn't do anything

But just as she contemplated her chances of climbing after them up the slick tree, a shovel came into her view.

Shinji had used the diversion his wife had provided to get close without being noticed, managing a perfect swipe at one of the monkeys that were holding Aki, causing it to lose its grip. Aki's weight was too much for the second, and she slid out of its grasp. Moving purely on reflex Asuka lurched forward and somehow managed to catch her still laughing girl, instantly pulling her into a tight hug, tears of relief breaking free.

"Aki," she sobbed, stroking the brown hair. Something she almost feared for a few agonizing seconds she would never be able to do again. "Oh God, Aki."

Never before had she felt so powerless. Never before, not even while looking straight into Death's eyes, had she felt such fear.

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Shinji swinging the shovel around, threatening the monkeys away and in the back of her mind, an old mock-name surfaced. The "Invincible Shinji". Doing everything she wanted but couldn't. Taking the fame and glory that should have belonged to her.

But her ego didn't have a say in this today. Not when he had saved her baby.

The toddler's laughing had ceased in her mother's arms, finally realizing that it hadn't just been a fun game.

"Mama no cwy," Aki said sadly, backing slightly away from Asuka's hold and reaching with her small hand for her mother's cheek in an attempt to imitate the soothing patterns she had received herself often before.

"It's okay. It's okay, Schätzchen," Asuka assured her child, her voice still as shaky as her heartbeat while her breathing slowly calmed again. She looked around for her husband. "Shinji? Let's start with that fence right now."

He just nodded, already aiming for the tool shed. "I'll start with cutting that tree down."

She returned the nod thankfully.

Never before had she felt so powerless. Never before had she felt such fear. And whatever it took, she would make sure that she'd never feel this way again.




********************************





Sticking the shovel in the soil, Asuka leaned on it as she wiped the sweat from her forehead. The heat and the work were bad enough on their own, but together, they were certainly taking their toll on her and she needed a break, even if just for a few seconds.

Of course she also used it to look, as every so often, over to the veranda. It had always been normal for her and Shinji to keep Aki at least within sight if neither of them were able to take care of her. And even though she didn't want the toddler to feel like being under constant surveillance, the incident with the monkeys a few months ago had only made her more wary.

The bigger was her shock when she didn't see her brown-haired girl bouncing her ball as she had done just a minute ago anymore. Fortunately her panic attack only lasted a second as the very same ball landed in the dirt right in front of her feet.

"Wanna pway!" Aki stood before her, pouting.

"Nein, Schätchen, I told you I have to work. I can't play with you." Asuka smiled a tired smile. She could very well understand that her two years old was bored with her mother working and her Papa gone fishing. These, along with the wish to have some time alone with her husband now and then, were the times she wished she could just hire a babysitter once in a while.

Aki huffed angrily, though she looked much too cute like that to be threatening. "Wanna pway!" she repeated.

Asuka's shoulders drooped and she glanced over to the rest of the line she was digging up in the soil. As much as she'd prefer to play with her daughter, her conscience was nagging her not to give in to the Pleasure Principle. Time for a compromise.

"Look, I'll finish this line, plant the seedlings and make sure the birdies won't eat them. Then, I will play with you, okay?" She would have to forget the two additional lines she had wanted to do if she'd want to get anything done at all.

"Lon'?" Aki asked concerned that she'd have to wait endlessly for her Mama.

Asuka sighed. "I don't know; if I hurry up I might be able to do it in thirty minutes."

Aki just blinked though. "Tha' lon'?"

"It's not too long," Asuka tried to assure. But she knew well enough that it would be an eternity for a child of her age. Bending down, she picked the ball up and gave it back to her daughter. "And the sooner I can get back to work, the faster I'll be finished."

The girl seemed to accept that, as she nodded and walked back towards the veranda.

However, Asuka hadn't progressed much when Aki already returned.

"No, Aki, thirty minutes aren't o...." she trailed off with the reminder to the impatient child she had expected to be in order, when she saw that Aki no longer held her ball, but a small plastic shovel in her hand.

"Ah he'p!"

"You... you want to help me?" Asuka inquired surprised.

"He'p!" Aki confirmed nodding. "Then pway soo'!"

Asuka couldn't help but laugh. There was no doubt that the help would be – literally – rather small, given the close to non-existent manpower of the helper and the unsuited tool.

She would have been a fool not to accept it.




********************************





The mattress squeaked loudly as a body fell onto it and a feminine sigh emitted utmost tiredness.

It had been one of the harder days. Aki had been quite "uncooperative" when it was time for her bath again. The result of the ever-repeating battle of wills was once more a clean child, but also a flooded bathroom and two worn-out parents. As soon as Asuka lay in her bed, her eyes fell shut and waited for sleep to embrace her.

However, it was someone else who did that. Apparently Shinji had a better idea than to sleep. And the way he was doing it, she would easily be convinced, the tiredness already starting to wear off.

"Wha- what are you doing?" she half-moaned as he continued kissing all the way up her neck, while his hands began to roam.

"Oh, I thought that's pretty obvious," Shinji whispered seductively into her ear. It took all of her concentration not to give in right then as his hot breath tickled her.

"We... we can't," she muttered. Though wrath upon him if he should dare to stop for real!

"Yes, we can," he proclaimed, either playing along or unwilling to silence his needs for her that easily this time. "Aki is fast asleep and the times she's waking up in the middle of the night are long over."

Asuka gasped as he started to nibble on her earlobe. Enough with playing hard to get. They had way too few nights of desire and passion since Aki was born and the last one was way too long ago. "Oh, you're making the earth tremble already!"

Shinji stopped abruptly. "I'm afraid that's not me."

They both looked up, and indeed, everything that wasn't heavy or secured enough to the floor and walls was shaking and shattering.

"Oh no..." Asuka groaned as she let her head fall back onto the pillow.

Earthquakes have always been rather common in Japan and the Impacts hadn't helped much in that matter. But while she had witnessed enough by now to put such a weak one off as mild annoyance, there was one little fellow who rarely experienced a quake, even less while being aware of it.

So it was only a matter of seconds that the door was timidly pushed open.

"Mama! Papa! Everythin's shakin!"

Putting a – as she hoped – calming smile on her lips, Asuka sat up to look at her daughter who was clinging scared onto the door frame. "Yes, Schätzchen. That's an earthquake," she tried to explain.

"Ear'quick?" Aki asked shyly.

"Yes," Shinji chimed in. "But this one isn't bad. It will be over pretty soon."

Aki still didn't look very convinced, as she glanced back and forth between her parents, shifting nervously on her legs.

"Can I sweep here?" she eventually pleaded with big eyes.

Asuka quickly exchanged a knowing smile with her husband. They both had expected that question from the very moment the slight tremors started.

"Sure," Asuka said with a hint of a sigh, pulling the blanket back. "Hop in," she added, emphasizing the invitation with a gesture of her head.

Already before she ended that short sentence, the two years old trampled quickly over to the bed and climbed in between the warm bodies of her parents, who also lay down again.

"Gut' Nacht, mein Schatz," Asuka whispered as the three of them snuggled together.

"Nach', Mama... Papa..." Aki mumbled, already drifting back to sleep. Soon enough, her chest was heaving in a steady rhythm.

As Asuka looked up from her to Shinji, she couldn't hold back the low chuckle, finding him in a similar condition.

The trembling had long ended already. And so had another night full of desire and passion...


*********


"Shh..."

The soft sound was the first thing Asuka heard when she woke up the next morning.

"Hmm?" she groaned, not completely awake to understand Shinji's instruction to stay quiet. Blinking, she saw him gesturing to the big bulge under the sheets on his chest.

"She's still asleep..." he whispered.

Rubbing the rest sleep out of her eyes, she recognized Aki peacefully slumbering on top of him. "How long have you been awake...?" she whispered back.

"Dunno... thirty minutes, an hour perhaps..."

"And you're still in..." She cut herself off as she finally noticed that he seemed somewhat helpless. "What's wrong?"

He gestured again at their daughter. "She's still asleep," he repeated with a sigh, returning his view to the ceiling. "And as much as I love her, it's getting quite uncomfortable after a while."

The girl always got easily cranky when woken up, and at worst wouldn't speak a word to the one that had ripped her from her slumber the whole day, so it was not much surprise that he didn't want to risk that. But it's not like he had to, as long as he was careful, did he? "Why don't you just lay her next to you?"

"I tried," he explained, demonstratively placing his hands on Aki's sides to carefully pull her up. But the response came quickly in form of a sleepy, disapproving groan, and the little hands grasping tightly onto his shirt.

Asuka had to cover her mouth to suppress the laugh, causing her husband to sigh once more.

"I don't even know why she likes to sleep like this," he muttered, softly stroking Aki's back. "My chest can't be that comfy, can it?"

"Well, your heartbeat is very soothing," Asuka said, still grinning as she moved a bit closer. "I know from experience..."

He groaned silently, his cheeks coloring ever so slightly. He didn't attempt to fight the inevitable kiss though.

"Don't worry, I'll take care of breakfast," she hushed before she slipped out of the bed, stretching her limbs demonstratively. "But I guess first I'll take a looong refreshing shower before."

Her laughing drowned out his groans as she hurried out the room.




********************************





"...und wenn sie nicht gestoben sind, dann leben sie noch heute..."

His curiosity raised by the unknown words, Shinji looked around the corner into the room just as Asuka closed the book, gazing dreamily at their daughter who seemed to have fallen asleep in her bed already awhile before the story had come to its end. This picture probably would have stayed this way for quite some time, if he hadn't accidentally shuffled against the carpet, causing Asuka to notice him, snapping out of her trance.

"Oh, hey," she whispered, carefully standing up so the chair wouldn't creak.

"Hey," he greeted back just as quietly, meeting her halfway in the room to share a loose hug and a fleeting kiss. "Did she give you much trouble? I heard you two from the back of the garden."

"Ah, she just got a little cranky about having to brush her teeth, but that was quickly forgotten when I threatened not to read her a goodnight story today."

"You can be really mean, you know?"

"Yeah," she admitted, her sly grin mirroring his. "But it works as long as she doesn't realize that I'd never even want to give this up."

"What did you read anyway?" Shinji finally wanted his curiosity satisfied. "It sounded German."

"Well, probably because it was," Asuka said matter-of-factly, pointing to the book. "It's a German collection of fairy tales."

"And that was....?"

"Dornröschen," she answered, but seeing his puzzled look, quickly continued, "'Sleeping Beauty'. That's her favorite," she muttered, nuzzling against Shinji's chest who followed her gaze to Aki.

"No wonder. She's one herself." And looking down where his wife seemed about to doze off, giving only an agreeing hum in reply, he got the impression that Aki might not be the only one for long. However, that still wasn't quite what he wanted to know. "But why are you reading something in German? She can't really understand it, can she?"

He could feel Asuka's sigh blowing against him. "She hasn't really complained. It is a part of my heritage – and so hers as well. Isn't it understandable that I want to teach her some of it too?"

"Yes, but... isn't it a bit early? I know she's smart, but she barely speaks Japanese properly."

"I thought it would be best for children to learn a second language early on?" Her head suddenly jerked up, her eyes almost panicking. "I-I'm not forcing her to anything, I'm just reading. I'm not putting her under too much pressure, am I? I really... I really don't want..."

"Shh," he quickly calmed her, drawing her close to him. He could really slap himself for implying something like that after what Asuka had told him how she had suffered under the constant pressure to learn as much and as fast as possible when she was small. "No, you don't. And you're right I guess; other bilingual children probably get to hear even more and earlier. So maybe we should even speak some more German for her to catch up."

"We?" she asked with a mix of disbelief and amusement, matching the look on her face as she raised it once more. "Since when do you speak German?"

Shinji didn't ask twice to play along, pouting slightly. "I do know some German words."

Asuka, now broadly grinning, slowly pulled herself closer and closer to his face with her arms around his neck. "Yeah? And that would be...?"

"Well, I know 'Baumkuchen'," he began and almost had to stop already as they both fought to keep their laughter quiet at the memory of their first Angel-fight together. "I know 'Guten Morgen' and 'Gute Nacht', I know that 'Schatz' or 'Schätzchen' means something like 'honey' or 'darling' as you call Aki that quite often, I know..." his eyes wandered shortly to the sleeping form on the bed, "...a lot of swearwords that I shouldn't repeat with her in the room..." Another small giggle was suppressed as quickly as possible, fading instantly as the couple looked into each other's eyes again. "And I know another one..."

"Yeah?" she questioned expectantly.

"Yeah," he replied, feeling her breath on his lips already. "Ich leibe Sie."

The upcoming kiss... was instantly aborted as Asuka failed to stifle another chuckle.

"What?" Shinji asked perplexed.

"No-nothing," she shook her head, gasping for air. It wasn't very convincing. "You just have a... cute accent..."

"I got it wrong, didn't I?" Shinji groaned disgruntled.

"Not that much," Asuka said apologizing, catching herself again.

Resting her forehead against his, she brought her lips in the position they were before. "Ich liebe dich," she breathed, finally kissing him softly.

"I guess I still have a lot to learn if I want to keep up with the two of you," he muttered as their lips continued to tease each other.

"You can always ask..."

"How about now...?"

"Okay," she whispered huskily, glancing quickly over to the still unaware child. "But not here..."




********************************





"..af de See,
shimmen af de See,
Köpfen in das Wassa,
Schänzen in die Löh!"

Asuka smiled to herself as she watched Aki eagerly sitting on her child's seat in the back of the car, curiously taking in the new surroundings outside while she sang. Eventually, the redheaded mother managed to break away from the heartwarming display and sighed happily as she leaned onto her husband's shoulder.

She had never really noticed how much the past four years of work had strained her, but when Shinji had come up with the idea, the prospect of a vacation, even if just for a few days, seemed like an invitation from heaven. The animals were taken care of, provided with enough food and water to be all fine for that short period, and in case of mother nature interfering with their trip, it was a less than an hour's drive home.

"We're almost there," Shinji reminded her. "You might want to wait to relax till you're in a hot spring."

Asuka mock-groaned, but fortunately he was right. It took only two more minutes until the car stopped right in front of the hotel they'd be staying in for the next two days. The excited redhead hardly could wait, so the luggage was quickly unloaded and shoved into the next best room big enough for the three of them.

Just ten minutes later, after quickly shedding her clothes, a deep moan escaped Asuka as her body slowly submerged into the hot water of the hotel's outdoor spring, all the little and big cramps and knots in her muscles instantly seeming to fade. A splashing sound let her open her previously closed eyes again to see that Shinji had followed her. It had taken him a little longer as he had to help Aki undress as well.

The girl, however, hadn't done as her parents yet, she looked wearily at the steaming pond.

Asuka held her arms out to her. "Come in, the water's great."

Aki glanced back and forth between her parents and the heat-emitting water. Eventually, she decided to trust her mother and reluctantly stepped forward.

She shrieked as soon as her feet touched the surface and instantly jumped back a few steps.

"Hot!" she whined.

Asuka nodded sympathetically. "Schätzchen, it's supposed to be that way. It's not that bad."

But Aki shook her head wildly, tears threatening to come any moment. "Hoooooot!"

"Maybe it's really a bit too much for her," Shinji diagnosed as he leaned over to his wife. "Children are more sensitive after all."

Asuka still looked at her hesitant daughter with growing sadness. She really wanted to enjoy the refreshing springs, to lean back and relax for the weekend. But it would hardly be a family vacation if Aki wouldn't join them and only sit at the side.

Quietly, Asuka climbed out of the pool and went over to her child. "It's okay," she told Aki as she picked her up to soothe her. "You don't have to go in if you don't want to."

"You mad at me?" Aki mumbled apologizing as she was carried towards the hotel.

Asuka sighed, stroking the brown hair. "No, I'm not mad at you," she told her truthfully. But while she couldn't feel angry at her daughter, it was hard to hide her disappointment. "It's just that I was looking forward to our vacation."

"So you sad?"

Asuka bit her lip before a 'yes' slipped out and made Aki feel even more guilty. "I-I'm sure we can think of something else that we all can..." She trailed off as Aki pushed against her, signaling that she wanted to be put down and Asuka complied before the struggling girl slipped out of her arms and fell.

As soon as Aki's feet touched the ground, she ran back to the pond, past her equally baffled father who had followed them. She stared hesitatingly at the water for a moment, before she carefully brought her right foot in again. She winced noticeably at the contact and Asuka already wanted to tell her that she didn't have to do this, but she bravely went farther in.

"Not so bad on dis side!" she proclaimed as she sat down on a stone in the water, obviously lying, as her chest was heaving heavily in attempt to get cool air in to compensate the heat outside.

Smiling thankfully, Asuka quickly returned into the hot bath as well, kneeling in front of her daughter. "You're really okay like that?"

Aki hesitated, but, seeming a little surprised herself, nodded eventually as her body accommodated to the temperature.

"Thank you," Asuka whispered and kissed her on the forehead. "You know what? I'm going to teach you a new game for that." She leered at her husband who just joined them. "It's called 'Dunk Papa'."

Shinji gulped.




********************************





"Aki! Time to..." Shinji trailed off, flabbergasted as he entered his daughter's room.

It certainly wasn't the mess that startled him; Aki had always come after her mother in this regard, so seeing blocks, stuffed animals, coloring books and crayons scattered around the room was no surprise.

Not even that the child he had (carefully) tried to wake had apparently long ended her sleep on her own scared him.

No, the sight was much worse.

"Dwessed mysef!" the more than awake girl exclaimed, standing on her bed where she proudly presented her outfit.

"Yeah... I can... see that..." Shinji mumbled with a nervous smile. The initial shock fading, he thought wildly how to avoid hurting his daughter's feelings while telling her that the combination of an oversized yellow T-shirt (its head hole so wide that the shirt barely remained on her shoulders) and equally baggy brown pants was anything but suitable. "You've done that... eh... very good. But don't you think something else would fit better?"

Aki smelled the rat however and clutched her shirt with both hands, shaking her head wildly. "No," she said defiantly.

But Shinji was not willing to give up so easily. Stepping over to the wardrobe, he opened the door and quickly skimmed through the clothes to find something more fitting.

"Here, how about that little blue skirt?" he asked half-pleading, half-demanding as he pulled the said item out. "That along with the top with those cute bunnies, hm? You always liked that one."

"No!" Aki yelled pouting. "Dwessed mysef!"

"And that's great, but..." he tried to argue once more, though was interrupted when Asuka came in to see what the yelling was about.

"Something wrong?"

"Mama!" Aki's face brightened again at the sight of her mother and outstretched her arms. "Look, did all by mysef!"

"Awww!" Asuka squealed, hurrying over to her child and pulled Aki close to her, picking her up while Shinji just groaned quietly. "My big girl dressed herself for the first time!"

"Asuka..." Shinji whined, but only got a hush as answer that was harsh yet quiet enough that the proud, giggling girl in her arms wouldn't hear.

"You know, that deserves one special Omelet à la Soryu for breakfast. Big little girls need extra nourishments," she announced instead, lowering a beaming Aki to the ground, patting her lightly on her back as she rose again. "So let's hurry up, before someone else gets it."

Eagerly nodding, Aki brushed past them, storming off to the kitchen.

"Asuka..." Shinji tried again, sighing.

"One fried egg won't kill her," she replied before he could ask, still facing away from him to stare in the direction her daughter vanished.

"You know that's not what I meant. We should be on the same side, not taking each other's authority."

Groaning slightly, Asuka bent down to pick up the dirty clothes from the previous day that were scattered on the floor. "I know. But she's doing this to impress us," she explained. Standing up, she finally turned around to shove the used clothes in his arms while taking the still neatly folded ones from him to put them back. "And there aren't much more 'first times' to look forward to, so we should be proud of all these little things she wants us to praise."

"It's not like I'm not proud that she's getting more independent," he admitted, though he wasn't even so sure that there was no trace of a certain twinge of sadness in that fact. "But it's not enough to know how to do it, but also how to do it right."

"Oh come on," Asuka groaned, closing the wardrobe. "Does it matter how she looks? There's no one who would point their accusing fingers at us 'bad parents' even if she would prefer to run around in rags."

"But those loose clothes are much too dangerous for her!" he protested. "She could get tangled up, stumble and fall much too easily!"

"Aw, poor Shinji," Asuka mocked, caressing his cheek "comfortingly". "If she stumbles, she probably remembers the concerns of her smart Papa and choose something more fitting next time." Kissing the other side of his face, she made her way over to the door. "Now get that stuff in the washing machine and come to breakfast." She winked. "Don't want someone else to eat it, do you?"




********************************





"I'm home!"

Normally, Shinji would have chuckled, hearing Aki's energetic call. For some reason, she had found great fun in announcing her presence, doing so whenever she had a chance to. That meant not only when she returned from a trip, but also when she just went inside from the garden; he even heard her once as she merely went to her room.

As cute as that was, today it made him curse. It was much too early!

Looking frantically for a way out, he quickly grabbed the stack of papers and shoved it into the next best drawer of the kitchen cupboards, before he hurried to intercept his two women. Sure enough, Aki launched into his arms as soon as he came around the corner.

"Hey, welcome home," he greeted her back with a short hug. "How was the playground?"

"Wet," Asuka answered for her daughter, shuffling after her. "If you haven't noticed, it's raining outside."

"Oh?" He blinked, looking out to the window to see it indeed pouring outside, and Aki's shirt surely felt rather damp as well. But the girl broke the embrace, already on the move again as she ran past him.

"I didn't notice, I was – you know – busy," he told his equally drenched wife as he rose. "And you are a bit – you know – early."

Asuka groaned, a few drops escaping her short hair as she shook her head in disbelief. "You're still not finished? That shouldn't have taken more than a few minutes!"

"That's easier said than done," he whispered back. "It's hard to make a choice..."

"You've got to be kidding me! All you have to watch out for is not to leave a too big space somewhere in between and if possible not the newest..."

"What's that?!" a call from the kitchen cut her off, causing both of them to flinch.

Asuka gave him a "There you have it"-look, before they went to meet Aki, hoping that she hadn't noticed. She was, however, already at the very drawer he had used to hide his "crime" in. Apparently a bit too fast, as the lower half of the stack was sticking out.

Shinji wanted to tell her that she should ignore it, but, interrupted by an elbow of the peeved redhead next to him, was unable to stop his girl from pulling the papers out.

"My pictures!" she exclaimed, visibly confused.

A look Shinji hated most, second only to one. And he was sure he would see that dreaded look of hurt any moment if he couldn't come up with a good story.

Hope for help from his wife was already crushed before he could voice it. "I'm going to get towels and fresh clothes," she announced, already leaving him to handle his mess on his own.

Aki was still staring at him with wide expectant eyes, clutching her "masterpieces" to her chest.

He sighed.

"Come here, Aki," he asked her, dropping to a chair, helping her onto his lap. Once she was seated and his arms closed around her, he continued. "Look around you, what do you see?"

Aki glanced around for a while, her eyes darting everywhere. "The kitchen," she eventually answered honestly and he couldn't help but smile at that.

"Yes, but what's on the walls, and the fridge, and the cupboards?"

This time the answer came a little faster. "My pictures?"

"Yes, your pictures," Shinji sighed again, letting his eyes wander as well over all the crude drawings, most of them representing their little family or other important sceneries of her short life. Honestly, he would call none of these a piece of art worthy of exhibition.

But it had been his daughter who had drawn them, presenting them with pride and joy. How could he have not put them up? Asuka often complained that he gave in too easily, that because of that the rooms were so full with pictures that they might as well be wallpaper. Of course, she often "forgot" in such cases that many of them had been put there by herself.

Nonetheless, it had long become too much. They finally had to draw the line. But neither of them wanted to be the "bad guy" to tell Aki that they no longer wanted her pictures. So they had decided to secretly make room for new works now and then, taking an old picture off here and there; not too many, not too recent works that would catch the little one's attention. It had worked quite a while.

Until now.

His right arm tightened around the small body of his daughter, his left hand brushing through her still wet shoulder-length hair. How to tell her this without hurting her feelings?

"You... you see, you're so productive that we're running out of space for your pictures. So... so we have to take some of them down."

"Don't you like them anymore?"

Shinji winced at that voice. "No! No, that's not it. But we couldn't put up any new of your... beautiful drawings. Do you understand that?"

Aki scratched her head. "I think so..." she mumbled. "So what are we going to do with the old ones?"

Shinji bit his tongue. He could hardly say "put them in the trash", could he?

"H-how about a big box for them?" he offered. "'Aki's big picture box'? Would that be an idea?"

A wide smile spread on the child's face as she nodded.

"Why don't we go upstairs and search for one then?" he continued eagerly, utmost relieved. The things he had to do to see her smile.

But before Aki could reply, a fluffy towel suddenly dropped over her head, eliciting a squeal.

"Not so fast!" Asuka stopped them, flashing Shinji a smirk as she started to rub the drenched girl's hair. "Don't want to catch a cold, do you?"

"Nooo!" Aki protested giggling, before her mother ceased to dry her off.

"Then we should get you out of these clothes first," Asuka explained as she picked her up from Shinji's lap, setting her back on her feet.

Aki continued to dry her hair as she was led by her mother out of the kitchen. But just before they left the room, she pried herself from her mother's hand and turned around to Shinji. "And Papa," she said, raising the towel a bit from her beaming face. "Don't worry. Since you like them so much, I'll do my best to draw many new pictures as fast as possible for the ones that have to go!"



****************



"And I can really pick whatever I want?" Aki asked for the thousanth time as she energetically led her father through the city.

"Well, that's what I promised, didn't I?" Shinji replied with a sigh. He already regretted having chosen such words to appease his conscience. She had taken the thing with the pictures much better than expected, but he still had felt guilty for having lied to her all the time. And it could work as an early present for her upcoming third birthday. Still... he should have been more specific in terms of its nature.

"As long as it's something reasonable," he tried to remind her.

The broad grin his daughter flashed him was anything but reassuring though. She obviously had something special in mind, but he didn't even dare to think what she would choose. And even less how he was supposed to explain it to Asuka. The bigger was his sigh of relief when after several minutes of being pulled through the ruins, he noticed that they stood in front of the toy store they had frequented together once in a while.

Aki was already about to climb into the broken display window, before he caught her in his arms.

"Careful!" he warned his ever so hasty child, lifting her up. "You'll cut yourself on the glass if you don't watch out!" the overly concerned father explained, as he helped her over the sharp and pointy remains of the window and set her into an area without any shards.

Shinji smiled proudly as he watched the big eyes of his daughter searching for the object of her desire, even more so as they started to sparkle as they found it. But that warm feeling instantly chilled as he saw what Aki had chosen when she reached for it.

"I want that one!" she proclaimed happily as she cradled it in her arms.

"Of all things... that one...?"


*********


"I'm home!"

Asuka's smile at hearing her daughter's voice changed into a full laugh when Shinji added: "Me too."

The more it surprised her to see his sullen face as she went to greet them. Aki, however, beamed brighter than ever, even more so when she spotted her mother.

And then, everything seemed to freeze.

Asuka's eyes widened in fear, a fear she thought she had long forgotten, as she saw what her daughter held up so happily.

"Look, Mama!"

A doll.

"It looks like you, Mama!"

A little rag doll with fuzzy red hair.

"Now Mama can always be with me!"

"NO!"

In a blind fury, she grabbed the toy out of the small hands and threw it away with all her might. It crashed against the wall, causing an already loose seam around its neck to burst.

For a moment everything was silent but her own panting.

That was until a small whimper brought her back to reality. As she whirled around her heart was gripped by a terrible feeling of guilt, when she saw Aki looking at her in disbelief and hurt.

"Wh... Ma...?" Her sobs even cut her words off. With watering eyes she looked to the now broken thing that had been the reason for her happiness just a few moments ago; then she looked back to her mother. It wasn't hard to guess what she wanted to ask, her eyes saying more than enough.

Why had she done this? How could she, her mother, hurt her feelings like this?

Asuka, however, had no answer. And Aki's low wail grew louder into a heart-wrenching crying.

"Aki..."

But as Asuka stepped hesitatingly forward to reach out for her daughter, the little girl flinched away from her.

"Aki, I..."

But Aki spun around and ran crying to her room.

Asuka wanted to hold her back, to say something, that she was sorry, that she hadn't want to hurt her, but when she opened her mouth her voice failed.

'What have I done...?' She fought back her own tears. How could she have scared her own daughter away...?

"I'm sorry..." Shinji, who had been silent the whole time, muttered as he picked up the doll's remains. "I tried to persuade her to pick something else. I knew that you might react... touchy on that. But she – she wanted it so much. She looked so happy, I just couldn't..."

He suddenly fell silent again as Asuka shook her head and hesitantly reached for the doll's body in his hand and its head in his other.

"I'm the one who has to apologize," she mumbled, carefully taking the separated parts. "It's about time that I bury my demons. Especially if they're starting to hurt my daughter as well..."


*********


Asuka took a deep breath, before knocking softly against the door to Aki's room. Not really expecting an answer, she slowly opened it and stepped in.

Pain of guilt again gripped her heart, seeing her daughter's small form flinching at her presence, lying curled on her bed, facing away from her.

"Aki?" she called her softly, but the hurt child's only response was to cower even more.

Asuka sighed sadly. She knew that she wouldn't be able to reach her in this state. Quietly, she walked over to the bed and sat down on its side. Aki's only reaction was a low whimper between the silent sobs.

"Aki, I... I'm sorry for what happened out there. It wasn't your fault, I was just... I don't know... scared for a moment. It was just a reflex from a bad memory. But that's over now, I promise."

She glanced over to her daughter for any sign of response to her excuse, but Aki either didn't quite understand or she was being her mother's child, too stubborn to give in that easily. And maybe Asuka didn't deserve to be let off just like that anyway.

But that's why she paid with two stings in her fingers while she was doing the stitching. "I can understand if you don't want to speak with me again for hurting your feelings like that. But... here's someone you might want to talk to."

When she placed the doll right in front of her eyes, Aki's tautness immediately vanished. Hesitatingly the girl reached out for the small redhead, then instantly wrapped her arms around it. She sat up, mouth agape as she finally looked at her mother again, any grudge forgotten.

"But... head...?" she wondered between her sniffing.

"I fixed it," Asuka told her smiling, stroking her daughter's hair.
Aki's quivering lips were the only warning she got, before the small body rocketed into hers. Asuka pulled her arms around her child, holding Aki close as she wailed.

"Shh," she soothed her, "I'm sorry. I'm sorry that I scared you. You didn't do anything wrong. You don't have to cry..."

Still sniffling, Aki dried her tears with an arm. "It's okay. I won't cry anymore."

A chill went down Asuka's spine as she heard those words. Consciously, she knew Aki hadn't meant it that way, but with the ghost of the past still lingering in her mind, it sounded too much like a fatal resolve she once made herself.

"No," she pleaded, cupping Aki's cheek to keep her gaze. "Cry when you're sad. Laugh when you're happy. Never hold back your feelings or one day you'll forget which is true. Promise?"

The child seemed confused, but she nodded anyway. "Promise."

Asuka breathed a sigh of relief, pulling Aki around and onto her lap, who in return had the doll in her hands.

"So... what's her name?"

"Name?" Aki wondered.

"Whaaat? You haven't thought of a name yet?" Asuka asked exaggeratedly. "I'm sure she'll be sad without one. We have to think of something we could call her."

Aki scratched her head. "But I don't know..."

A smile spread over Asuka's lips as an idea hit her. What would work better against demons than bravely facing them without showing a trace of fear?

Her fingers brushed through the red strands of the doll's head as she rested her head on Aki's shoulder. "How about Kyoko?" she merely whispered.

"Ky- Kiko?"

"No, no, Ky-o-ko." Asuka tried to explain, but Aki's attention was apparently already somewhere else than listening to advises.

"Kiko!" she exclaimed gleefully, hugging the doll. Her huge smile making it obvious that there was no way that she would change her mind again.

Asuka chuckled at the heartwarming scene, ruffling her daughter's hair. "Okay then," she said, leaned down and kissed the back of Aki's head, "'Kiko' it is."

It felt great to finally let go of the past. But that was nothing compared to seeing her happy.




********************************





"Nooooo!"

"Yeeees," Shinji retorted the protest of the child in his arms. No matter what she said, she was obviously tired, already having extended her wake time by an hour. "Or do you rather want to brush your teeth again?"

"Nooooooo!" Aki squealed even louder, shaking her head as wildly as she still managed.

"Well, it's settled then," he declared as he sat her down on her bed. She didn't fight as he started to pull her shirt over her head. Wordlessly, she let her father redress her into her nightgown.

"Aki, did you go out without your sandals again?" he asked as he saw her feet when she crawled up to her pillow..

She just nodded as she turned around, reaching for her doll to place it next to her.

"No sandals, no shoes, no socks," Shinji muttered, shaking his head. "Doesn't that hurt to run around like that when you step on all those pointy little rocks out there?"

"Uh-uh," Aki denied.

"Yeah, I guess so. Just look at the callus you have there already. You're not even ticklish here anymore." A malicious grin flashed over his lips. "But I bet you still are under your armpits!"

Aki couldn't do much more than squeal in laughter as her father jumped on her, his fingers drumming under her arms. The attack lasted only a few seconds though as he watched her come to rest, her giggling fading to a broad smile.

"Goodnight," he told his daughter, placing a kiss on her forehead, before he tucked her in. "Sleep well."

"Kiko too!" Aki instantly mumbled from under the covers.

Shinji chuckled before he bent over her and gave the doll a quick peck. "Goodnight, Kiko," he said playfully. As he looked back to his daughter she already had her eyes closed. The sight warmed his heart and he savored it a few more seconds until he went to dim the lights.

"Papa?" Aki's low call stopped him. "Tell me a story."

'I should have known.' He smiled to himself as he returned to the small armchair next to her bed.

"Any special wishes?" he asked, glancing at the table at his side where her favorite storybooks lay in a loose heap. The only reply was a small shake of her head.

"Well then..." he began quietly. "Once upon a time there was a lonely prince, who was always too scared to reach out to others, a mysterious princess from angelic blood, and a fiery princess from a far away country. Together, they fought many beasts with their huge magical armors that were blessed with their mothers' spirits. The armor of the prince was purple and a large horn sprouted from its head. The one of the mysterious princess was blue and had a single eye. The four-eyed one of the foreign princess was as red as the princess' flaming hair.

"The prince never really liked to fight, but he knew the princesses and his other new-found friends were in need of his help and so he did it for their sake, as they were the reason why he didn't feel so lonely anymore since he got to know them. But he only fooled himself. He was still too scared to reach out to them; he told himself that he already reached happiness by being accepted for fighting their enemies.

"But when the two princesses were hurt in battles, he realized that he was lonely again. A stranger approached him during that time, and again the prince chose the easy way. But the kind stranger turned out to have been sent by the enemy. The prince had no choice but to fight him, yet the stranger offered no resistance, asking to be slain as he did not want the prince to lose his life. Having been forced to make a gruesome decision, the prince had lost the remaining faith he had in other people and himself.

"Nine white beasts attacked as he was in this state. The foreign princess, who had just recovered, fought them bravely and seemed to succeed. But these foul beasts could not be slain and they attacked her again and again. The prince knew of this, but he was still lost in his self-pity, telling himself he could do nothing to help her anyway, that he would eventually lose her anyway.

"It was his armor that took the decision for him, moving him on its own to the fight. The prince screamed as he reached the battlefield: The princess had apparently fallen at the hands of the beasts; he could only see them devouring her red armor. The loss pained his heart, as he had grown to love the foreign princess and guilt clouded his mind for not having come earlier to her side.

"The mysterious princess heard the prince's agony and decided to grant him the powers of her angelic ancestors. With them, he called upon every soul on earth and they helped him come to realize that he could have anything he wanted if only he believed in himself. By the prince's wish, the mysterious princess used her remaining powers to cleanse the planet from friends and foes alike, but had also exiled herself in that process. The prince feared that he would be the only one to roam the earth from now on, but then he saw the foreign princess that he loved. She had been revived and together they'd..."

"Papa?" Aki interrupted him tiredly.

"Yeah?"

"You shouldn't always bring yourself and Mama into your stories..."

He smiled, gently running his hand over her head. "You noticed?"

"Hmm..." was the last she could say in affirmation.

Shinji kept sitting next to his sleeping daughter for several minutes, the proud smile never vanishing from his lips as he slowly stroked her hair, sharing his warmth to let her know, even in her subconscious state, that her father was there for her to protect her from any bad dreams.

The prince had never liked fighting. But he would do anything in his power to ensure that his and the foreign princess' child would live happily ever after.




********************************





"PAPA!!"

Startled, Shinji's attention was drawn from the heap of dirty clothes he had been sorting to the wailing figure of his daughter that came running to him into the bathroom. Instantly, he scooted her up in his arms.

"Hey, hey, shh," he tried to soothe her, "what's wrong?"

"Mama... Mama had been mean to me..." Aki sniffed as she clung closer onto her father, and it dawned to him what the earlier yells coming from outside had meant. She had done something to upset Asuka who scolded her for it and now she was trying to get him on her side against his wife. And he really hated to be caught between the two women who both could make him do anything they wanted.

"Oh... well, I know Mama can become very angry sometimes..." he tried to argue in the best way he could think of to please Aki, but before he could clarify, he felt a stinging slap against the back of his head. "But I'm sure she had a good reason..." he quickly finished in fear to anger the redhead behind him even more.

"You bet I had!" Asuka's angry voice boomed at him, before addressing Aki. "And I thought I explained myself well enough, kleines Fräulein! Didn't I tell you to go to your room?"

"But..." Aki tried, but was instantly blocked.

"No buts!" Asuka yelled, her finger pointing towards the child's room. "Right now."

Aki's face was a mix of hurt and anger, brows furrowed, lips quivering, but she eventually ran out of the room, the sound of a door slamming shut following shortly after.

Shinji could tell that she was just upset, scared only of punishment if at all, unlike the incident on the day she got Kiko. But still, seeing her like that hurt him as well. "Wasn't that a bit harsh?"

"If she doesn't want to listen when we're explaining things to her calmly, I guess we'll have to raise our voice sometimes!" she grumbled anyway.

Shinji swallowed hard. He knew there was some truth in that, but he doubted he would be able to be that aggressive to his little girl.

Stepping behind Asuka, he laid his hands carefully onto her shoulders, somewhat afraid that she would snap at the touch. "Why... why don't you calm down a little first? Was it really that bad what she did?"

He had more success than he expected as she suddenly sounded crestfallen and tired as opposed to her prior rage. "I was on the roof, checking the solar panels. I could see her playing in the garden from up there and she knows not to follow me, so I thought it was all right. But then she was suddenly up there, balancing near the gutter, even with Kiko in her arms. She probably just wanted to see what I was doing, but..." She shuddered slightly under his grip. "What if she had leaned too far over? She could have broken her leg or arm or even worse if she had fallen down. Last week she burned the carpet as she pulled down the lamp and now this!"

"Well, she's probably testing her limits," Shinji figured.

"Yes, and that's why we need to draw a line now or she'll go further and further! She finally needs to understand that some things are just too dangerous to do."

Shinji sighed, biting his lip as he looked up to his wife. He knew she was right, but...

"And stop that pleading look! I'm not going to be the lone 'bad guy'! You're going to chide her as well when it's necessary!"

Once more, Shinji sighed. "Yes, dear..."




********************************





One thing Shinji Ikari couldn't complain about were the lack of surprises in his life. Not always were they as earth-shattering as being persuaded to pilot a huge "robot" against some monster that almost squashed you before; learning that you would become a father; or even a much too human-like penguin shaking itself dry just as you were about to enter the bath. But that didn't mean he was immune to the smaller ones.

Just like that one morning as he, still drowsy and yawning, entered the kitchen to find it only illuminated by several candles. He would have expected some problem with the power – if the candles wouldn't have been on a neatly decorated cake that stood on the table and his two apparently much more awake women waiting behind it.

"SURPRISE!" they greeted him loudly, driving the sleep instantly out of him, but his confusion did not fade so easily.

"Happy Birthday, Papa!" Aki squealed as she ran to him, stretching her arms out to give her baffled but complying father a big hug that she only unwillingly broke to let her mother have that place.

"Happy Birthday, Liebling."

"But we don't even know when my birthday is," Shinji indirectly asked his wife quietly as she kissed his cheek.

"She asked me on hers and I just said yours is three months after that and mine in another two," Asuka whispered back. "I didn't really expect her to remember, but three days ago she asked me what we would give you as a present."

"A present too?" he asked, louder this time.

Loud enough for Aki to hear. "Oh, I get it!"

"No, wait! That's too heavy for you!" Asuka called after the girl that was already out of the room, quickly following her daughter.

Shinji took the chance to let himself slump down on a chair. "Too heavy?" he wondered.

Soon enough, the two conspirators returned, carrying (or rather Asuka carrying and Aki holding her hands against) a large, bulky object, more or less hidden by several layers of wrapping paper. Shinji smiled at the cute sight, but also because he could already guess the nature of his present by its form, especially with the neck pointing out.

"Wow, now what could that possibly be?" he feigned ignorance nonetheless as he received the package.

"It's a shello!" Aki revealed excitedly before he even started to unwrap the package, instantly hiding her sheepish laugh behind her hands now that she had told despite not being supposed to.

"Is it?" he played along, ripping the last shreds of the paper off, exposing the instrument and an accompanying bow. "Aw, it really is!"

"You like it? Mama said you would!"

"Yes, it's great," Shinji exclaimed, pulling his daughter into a one-armed hug, careful with the cello in his other. "Thank you very much," he added, though while also looking at his contently smirking wife.

"Well, what are you waiting for?" Asuka questioned demanding, after he had let go of Aki. "Aren't you going to test our generous present?"

Shinji stared at her, then at the instrument. "Uh... I'm probably quite rusty," he mumbled apologizing, fumbling with the bow in one hand as the other positioned the cello. "And I probably need to tune it first..."

"Oh, come on!"

"Okay, okay, let's see if I can remember something," he conceded. Her eagerness on this made him wonder somewhat. After all, he had never got much chance to play for her before. Over the years, he had almost forgotten that he had ever played at all.

The bigger was his own surprise as he set the bows on the strings and the music started to flow out, sounding almost as though he had never stopped. Hard to believe that he actually missed something so much that he had done for so long just because no one told him to stop.

Asuka caught Aki just before her fingers mashed into the cake she was reaching for and pulled the slightly startled girl onto her lap as she sat down herself. She shut her eyes, holding her daughter close to her as she listened to his playing. The way she smiled, she quickly seemed to melt into the music, let it carry her wherever her mind went.

A few minutes into the song he could hear her whisper to Aki. "You know, the day I heard your Papa play on his cello for the first time was also the day we had our first kiss."

Shinji could hardly contain himself from joining the giggling of his women, but as much as he concentrated on the notes, a wide smirk would reveal that the memory of that kiss had made its way into his thoughts as well.

Finally the song ended and he gave a small bow as his wife applauded overly loud to signal the young child to do like her. But Aki didn't chime in.

"That's all so sad," she mumbled disappointed. "Why don't you play a happy song?"

Shinji raised an eyebrow. "A happy song?"

"Yeah, you know, a song that's more..." The girl looked to the floor, pondering for a moment, before she threw her arms expressively out. "Happy."

"Ahhh... a 'happy' song..." Shinji tried to sound as though he understood, but he could only take a good guess at what she meant. She might have been clever for her age, but sometimes he wished her vocabulary was just a little more explicit.

"Tell you what," he continued, leaning down to her. "I'll practice some more until I get as good as I used to be and then I'll play the happiest song ever, just – for – you." With the last word he lightly poked her nose with the tip of the bow, eliciting a giggle from his daughter.

...Who continued to stare at him with wide, expectant eyes. "Now?"

Shinji swallowed his whimper behind a weak smile. "N-not right now, okay? Give me a little time..."

"So at lunch then?"

This time, he didn't even try to hide his sigh. "W-we'll see..."

He wasn't sure if Aki would be satisfied with that as an answer, but Asuka intervened anyway, letting her child back to the floor. "Didn't you make a special birthday picture for Papa?"

"Oh yeah! I'll get it!" Aki exclaimed, already on her way to her room.

Shinji breathed a sigh of relief, before aiming a pleading look at his wife. "Please tell me you know any 'happy' song that I can play with this."

"Me?" Asuka laughed, patting him on his shoulder. "Oh no, no, no. You got yourself into this; now see how you get yourself out."




********************************





The day was as sunny as Aki's face. She couldn't remember how long it had been since they had their last picnic, but to her it seemed like an eternity.

"Aki, not so fast!"

But like a typical three year old, the girl had no intention of listening to the well-meant request of her mother, whose hand she had just pried herself away from. Now that the glittering blue of the lake was already in sight, the temptation to run the rest of the way to get there as fast as possible was much too hard to resist. Of course, in comparison to her parents she had the advantage that she was only carrying Kiko, not fishing utensils, cool box and two more bags with the remaining items and food they needed for their day full of swimming and picnicking.

But like a typical, much too hasty three year old, Aki realized that she better should have listened to her mother as she stumbled over a root and fell flat on the grass. The pain wasn't bad enough to reverse the previous enthusiasm completely into a loud wailing, but the shock had wiped the smile off her face. Even before she managed to get back on her legs, the warmth of her mother's arms already surrounded her.

"Oh, Aki, everything all right?" the woman's soothing voice comforted her as she was carefully spun around. Aki nodded slowly as her Mama's concerned eyes examined the small body thoroughly for any bruises, but there was only some dirt at the knees that was quickly brushed off. A kiss on the child's forehead completed the short check-up.

"See? That's why I told you not to run so fast," her Mama explained, fortunately sounding not too scolding.

Again Aki nodded and grabbed for her mother's hand as she rose, timidly walking along with her parents the rest of the way. But no matter how startling that incident had been, it quickly drifted into the back of her mind when they finally reached the lake. She instantly hurried to the shore, laughing as she let the water that washed around her naked feet splash as she ran through it.

"Don't go in yet," came the unnecessary reminder from behind her, where her parents were setting up the big blanket. She loved the lake, but even though she wouldn't admit it, she was still a little scared to be in there without Mama or Papa next to her to watch out.

"Go to her," she heard her Papa say. "It doesn't look like she can hold out much longer. I'll finish this."

She turned around expectantly to see her mother approaching with two familiar objects in her hand, her broad grin mirroring Aki's own.

"So, is my little goldfish that eager again to go swimming?" she asked as she squatted down to her daughter, who answered with a wild nodding. The woman chuckled at that. "I don't really get why you're not nearly as enthusiastic at home when you're supposed to take a bath. Oh well, let's get you ready then, huh?"

Quickly, her Mama helped Aki to take her clothes off, before she pulled the water wings over her small arms. Aki didn't like them very much, but her parents insisted on them and she had long learned that protest was useless in this matter. Once her mother let go of her, the girl slowly waded into the lake until her feet were entirely encased by water, before the uneasy feeling returned and she looked back, waiting for her Mama to finish undressing herself and follow.

Kiko had to watch from the shore while they went deeper into the water and Aki quickly felt the wetness rising up to her chest. It still gave her a sense of danger, but feeling her mother behind her, ready to help her in any case, she didn't worry. Even when her feet no longer touched the ground.

She tried to move on a little more, proving her bravery to go farther than ever before. But of course, Mama had instantly noticed.

"No Aki, that's far enough!" she reminded her.

Aki wanted to protest, trying to get allowance to be more daring today, but she never got a chance. Her Mama grabbed her, whirling her around in the water to face her, and Aki couldn't help but laugh as her own body cut the surface, creating a huge wave.

Her Mama was too large to fully submerge, but she crouched so that Aki could directly look into her smiling face. Her expression turned into one of shock though, as the giggling girl splashed her.

"Oh you little...!" Mama threatened playfully, her red hair dripping.

A water fight ensued almost instantly, squeals and laughter echoing over the lake until both were drenched almost equally under and above the surface. Eventually though, the fun was starting to cease and Aki was getting a bit tired, so peace was declared (for now).

Looking around, she saw a distant figure sitting on a large stone at the shore, a fishing rod in his hands.

"PAPA!" she yelled, waving excessively. He responded with a more reserved one.

"Why's he so far away?" she asked her mother.

"Well, that's because we'd scare the fishies away if we're too close and then Papa couldn't catch any."

"Fishies?"

"Yes of course," her Mama told her. "Have you never seen them swimming around here?"

Aki shook her head.

"Guess you're always a bit too loud then, eh?" Mama laughed. "Maybe if we're quiet, we can go to where Papa is and watch some fishies?"

Her curiosity sparked, Aki eagerly nodded, promising her silence by bringing both hands up to cover her mouth. Not making any unnecessary noise, they slid out of the lake and rounded it after Mama had taken the water wings off to meet with her father.

"Hi, Pa...!" she began, but was instantly met with both of her parents raising their fingers to their lips, and she chimed into the "shh"-ing herself, before she ended whispering with "...pa".

"Aki wanted to watch the fishies," her mother explained with a low voice and Aki nodded.

"Oh?" her Papa wondered. "Do you want to help me then? You can see many of them from here."

Aki's eyes widened as did her mouth. That offer to "work" with her Papa was, after all, even more attractive. He let his left hand go of the rod and motioned her to come closer, helping her onto his lap once she was in range.

"Here," he whispered, guiding her hands to the rod with his own. "Now we're going to catch some fishies."

"Look, Aki," her Mama said as she nudged her, pointing at a gray, quickly moving mass under the glittering surface. "There's one."

"Oh, and there's another," her father noticed. The one he pointed out was bigger and slower, watching the underwater-world with his glassy eyes.

There was a splashing a bit away, the tail fin still at the air as Aki looked. "THERE'S ANOTHER!" she exclaimed excitedly, though instantly covering her mouth again, giving her parents an apologizing laugh as she noticed her mistake. Neither made an attempt to chide her though.

It was forgotten anyway, when there was a firm tugging at the other end of the line.

"Oh, we got one!" her father explained. "Quick, you've got to pull!"

She gripped the rod and pulled with all her might, leaning back as far as she could, while her Papa "helped" reeling it in. Her Mama giggled at something, but Aki was too busy to bother thinking about what, huffing and clenching her eyes shut as she strained against her powerful opponent.

"Yay! You got it!" her mother applauded finally and Aki opened her eyes again to see the fish flapping wildly at the other end of the rod, her Papa already pulling it closer. He unhooked it and threw it in the red bucket at his side.

Beaming with pride, Aki climbed off his lab to investigate her (and a bit her father's) catch. The fishy still splashed nervously in the shallow water of the bucket.

"What're we going to do with it now?" she turned back to her parents, who's smiles fell somewhat.

"Well," her Papa started to explain. "Ehm... you... you know what we usually do with the fishies I bring home...?"

The ones he brought home...? He would bring them in the kitchen and then....

It took a few seconds for her to realize, but then her face contorted in shock. Her fishy was supposed to become dinner?

"NO!" she yelled, stepping protectively in front of her catch.

"Aki..." her mother tried, but she wouldn't have it.

"NOOOO!" she screeched, trampling with her feet to emphasize her point. She wouldn't let them have her fishy to eat. Clutching the bucket that was half as big as herself with both arms, she just threw it to the side.

The fish flapped twice over the ground before it reached its safety and freedom in the lake.

Aki turned back to her baffled parents, her smile proud and defiant.

"Somehow I fear we'll always have to find a way to feed her fish secretly from now on," she could hear her Papa whispering to her Mama.




********************************





Asuka nervously paced back and forth in the living room, waiting for Shinji to return from Aki's. The nerve of that idiot, telling her to leave! He should be professional enough not to be distracted by her suggestions. So what if she wasn't of much help?

Her baby was sick after all!

Sure, it's not like Aki had never been ill before, but it was usually not more than a cold. A high fever like this was an entirely different level.

It seemed like an eternity of anxious uncertainty until Shinji finally emerged from the room.

"Well?" she instantly asked as he walked closer.

"I think she has measles," he reported his diagnosis.

"Measles?" Asuka repeated aghast, her eyes widening with fear.

"Yes, she even got some red dots already," Shinji began, instantly bringing his hands up as he noticed her concern. "But don't worry. We still have some medicine that should work and I already gave her some fever-reducing..."

"No, no, you don't understand!" she broke his attempt to calm her. "I... I never had measles!"

He stared at her in obvious shock, his eyes still wide and fixed at her as he slumped down into the armchair close to him. Asuka actually started to worry when he still hadn't moved after several seconds. His reaction was hardly a surprise, the news couldn't have come at a worse time, even if it hadn't been likely to have been unveiled otherwise.

"But..." he finally gave a sign of life, his voice carrying a hint of hope, "you're surely vaccinated?"

"Don't know," Asuka muttered solemnly, shaking her head. "I mean, it's likely. But no one bothered to tell me and I never bothered to check such things."

Again he fell silent, the thoughts and worries that were going on in his head almost visible for her. If she, as an adult, would get a child's disease, it could easily become much worse and lead to complications. For her, it could easily be...

"Okay..." He eventually breathed out, still seeming in thought despite having started the sentence. "I... it shouldn't be too much of a problem to get her through it, but for you..." Shinji swallowed, nervously rubbing his forehead. He suddenly looked her straight in the eyes. And she certainly didn't like that look. "It'd probably be for the best if we do everything to make sure not to get you infected in first place."



****************



Make sure not to get her infected. She had hated the sound of that idea immediately, because she had known what that meant before he had been able to say so.

Isolation.

She had to be separated from Aki for the whole time of the girl's sickness. Separated from her little sunshine for days when she needed her more than ever.

The temporary goodbye had been more heart-wrenching than most everlasting ones. Aki had already started to cry before she had been able to finish explaining the reasons to her anxious child and all hope to make Aki understand the situation was in vain. Shinji had to hold the wailing girl back, failing to soothe her as she had desperately reached out for her mother, wanting nothing but to be taken in her arms. It had never felt so hard for Asuka not to give in herself. Many tears were shed that night, way too many. Maybe it would have been better if she'd just avoided her without having announced it.

She really had her doubts that this was really worth it. Pharmaceutics weren't at their best in the years right after Second Impact, but the chances were still high that Gehirn/NERV would have taken care that their pilot candidate wouldn't suffer a mere children's disease. And it was more than likely that wherever Aki got the virus from, she would have long gotten it as well. After all, she had spent lots of time with her daughter during the incubation time. And even if she was indeed not infected by sheer luck, a few seconds with her daughter wouldn't kill her right away.

But what after those few seconds? She had to admit, she had little faith in her strength for another separation. Seeing the small arms reaching for her without being able to embrace the child; the wide, tearful eyes full of fear of abandonment without being able to make any those worries go away – she felt incredibly selfish, but she couldn't bear such a heart-breaking scene again.

But this wasn't much better either. She was too worried to work, her attempts to get her mind off of it never succeeding longer than a few minutes. So she stood there in the hallway, next to Aki's door, reduced to listening to her husband's attempts to cheer the sick girl up.

"Do you want me to play your happy song?" she heard him ask. It was bedtime by now, the song supposed to be a lullaby.

There was no vocal answer, but there was a faint rustling which Asuka figured was the movement of Aki's head against the pillow.

"No?" Shinji sounded exaggeratedly disappointed. "I even got the cello. Do you want me to play anything else?"

"I jus' want Mama!" Aki's tired whine made Asuka flinch. It was bitter-sweet to hear that her child was missing her just as much, but it hurt all the more that she had to deny her that wish.

"Aki..." Shinji sighed sadly, noticeably tired himself for having to tell her again and again through her tears that her mother couldn't see her for now. "I'll play anyway and you try to get some sleep, okay?"

He started to play the song he had composed himself extra for her when he couldn't find anything that matched her request of a "happy" one and Aki had been very pleased with the result. He really had managed a small masterpiece, much better than anything he could have gotten from some century-old sheets, and it had quickly become a favorite that was often heard in the house, whether hummed or played on the cello. Today though, it didn't sound quite as "happy" as usual, the cello's natural somber tone shining through much more often.

But Asuka's focus was elsewhere anyway. She strained to listen to sounds of her daughter, her movement, her deep breathing, the only contact she had. Becoming so engrossed with the signs that Aki was drifting off to sleep, Asuka failed to notice that the melody had stopped until the door went open.

Shinji seemed equally surprised. "Asuka!" he angrily whispered instantly. "What are you doing here?"

"What do you think I'm doing?" she quietly hissed back, waving her hand to the dark room, towards the bed. "My baby's sick and calling for me! You can't expect me to just do my chores and not even check on her! I can't stand this anymore!"

"Of course she's calling for you. She's sick and has a fever, so it's no wonder that's she's a little cranky. But that isn't going to change just because you are there. She'll just cry for something else then."

"'Something else' is hardly comparable to her mother's love! Sure, maybe she'll cry just because she wants it, but you can't tell me that this isn't something she really needs!"

He averted his eyes. "I don't want and can't argue that," he admitted and she took it as sign of defeat, moving towards Aki's room.

"Good that we agree on tha..." She was cut off when his arm went around her waist just as she wanted to go past him, holding her back.

"I'm afraid we don't," he muttered, looking back into her eyes. "Do you think this is easy for me? She's afraid, Asuka. And it pains me seeing her like this every time I go in there, having to tell her that you can't come in currently! I know she's suffering and scared that you might abandon her and don't want to see her again, despite what I tell her! But what do you think how scared she would be if I told her that it could kill you to be with her right now?"

The slap came too quick for either to avoid it. But even if it was the first one in years that had been anything but playful, Asuka didn't regret it one bit. "I love you, Shinji," she panted. "But don't you dare to get between me and my child."

Shinji, however, just tightened his grip. "I'm sorry, Asuka. You can pummel me all you want, but I can't..."

"Mama...?"

The soft voice instantly ended the fight, though Shinji shot her one last warning glare, before he let go and went back in the room, closing the door behind him.

"Hey, I thought you were asleep by now?" Asuka heard him ask.

Aki ignored the question though. "Thought I heard Mama..." she muttered.

Shinji said something, but Asuka couldn't quite understand it. She stepped closer, pushing her right ear against the wooden door.

The next spoken words, however, pierced her heart.

"Mama hate me?"

Her ears heard Shinji's attempts to appease the sick girl that this wasn't the case, but her mind wouldn't register it. Her fists trembled as the cruel accusation echoed in her head, she had trouble to breathe.

She couldn't bear it anymore. Not looking back, she ran as fast as possible.


*********


"...still loves you more than anything, but..."

Shinji didn't get any further as the door was forcefully pushed open. The figure was shadowed by the light from the hallway behind it, but that changed as it rushed inside.

"Mama!" Aki squealed happily, reaching her arms out to Asuka, now donning the quickly retrieved medical face mask.

"Asuka!" Shinji instantly protested, but she silenced him with a quick glare that left no doubt that she wasn't willing to discuss her decision any further.

"Mama!" Aki repeated, before her face got accusing. "Where have you been all the time?"

"Oh, I'm sorry," Asuka apologized as she knelt next to the bed, pointing at the white mask. "I have to wear this for a while and I was afraid you'd laugh at me for that." She obviously lied, but it was enough for the sick three years old.

"That's a stupid reason," Aki merely rebuked pouting.

Stroking her child's tousled brown hair, Asuka smiled behind the mask, glancing back to her husband who still seemed far from happy about her change of plans. "I guess I'm a little stupid then."



****************



"And you always called me 'baka'!" Shinji muttered as he shook his head, a few tears glittering in his eyes.

"God damnit, Shinji, I'm not dead yet," Asuka groaned, feeling her whole body aching as she turned on the bed that she had inhabited for the last two days. "Get yourself together! What if Aki sees you like that?"

Yes, he had been right. Yes, she had been infected. Yes, she felt like she was burning up.

But she didn't regret it, not one bit. This was much better than losing Aki's trust and love.

However, she couldn't deny a certain fear that he was also right about the severity of her condition. It wasn't big, even though she felt worse than ever. But the thought of leaving him... and her... behind was plaguing her conscience. What mother she'd be to force her child to grow up without her? Just like their own...

"Mama?"

Both of their startled views went to the door, where the timid call had come from. Aki was still wearing her pink pajamas, Kiko clutched in both arms.

"Hey," Shinji moved to intercept her, "you should still be in bed yourself."

"But I'm fine again!" Aki whined, and even though she indeed had gotten much better, her voice was still proving her wrong. Her eyes too, quickly softened again as they darted from her father towards the bed. "And wanted to see Mama..."

"Aki..."
"Let her," Asuka cut him off as harshly as her aching head allowed. "For a few minutes."

Shinji visibly disagreed, but reluctantly nodded and Aki made the few steps over to the bed.

Asuka forced herself to smile. "Hi, Schätzchen."

"Hi," she mumbled weakly, her view averted as she tugged nervously at her doll's hair. "H-how are you Mama?"

"It's not that bad," the redhead lied, but she realized herself that it hadn't been very convincing. "What about you?"

Aki didn't answer. She was still staring at the ground, her lower lip starting to tremble. "Is... is this my fault?"

"Oh..." Asuka was close to tears herself as she saw her daughter so ridden by guilt. Using her remaining strength, she robbed over to the edge of the bed, and threw her arms around the rocking body. "Oh, Aki...

"No. No, it's not your fault. If anything, it's..." She stopped, rethinking her words. Taking the blame on herself might be more noble and truthful, but it could lead to misunderstandings that would only increase the burden on her child's shoulders if anything should happen after all. "It's nobody's fault. Don't worry, I'll be fine soon, just like you."

But despite her reassuring words, Aki's tears flew freely now, sobs breaking her voice. "Love you, Mama."

Asuka's heart skipped a beat at those words and her smile was no longer forced through the pain. It even broadened.

It wasn't the first time Aki said them, she had uttered her first "Ah luv ya" rather soon after she had started to speak. But Asuka could tell that this was the first time she said it without just repeating a phrase she heard often from her parents. This time, Asuka knew, she meant it with all her heart.

"Ich liebe dich auch, mein Schatz," she hushed as reply, kissing her child's brown hair in the tight embrace. "I love you so much."

She held on until Aki calmed down to a mere sniffling. "Get... get better soon!" the three year old half plead, half demanded.

Coming from a tear-stricken child, it seemed rather funny and Asuka didn't even try to suppress the laugh. "I'll do my best, okay?"

Aki nodded, drying the wetness on her cheeks with the back of her right hand.

"Aki," Shinji brought the attention back to him, "Mama really needs her rest now. And so do you."

Again she nodded, but turned back to her mother once more. Wordlessly, she held her doll up with both arms.

"You want me to have Kiko?" Asuka inquired bewildered. Ever since she had got it back from her, Aki had basically never been separated from the toy.

But once again, a nod, though a timid one. "She can watch out for you when I can't."

Smiling broadly, Asuka took Kiko. "Thank you," she said, giving her child another kiss. "Now, go back to bed, yes? Or do you want me to be fit first?"

Aki smirked weakly, but didn't say anything. Obediently, she shuffled to the door, but not leaving without turning back once more to give a small wave goodbye and receiving the appropriate reply from her parents.

Asuka kept looking after her for a while even when she had long closed the door behind her. Eventually, her view shifted to the red-haired doll in her arms.

"See?" she muttered to her husband, brushing her fingers through the red tresses of her daughter's most valuable property. "I couldn't be further away from being dead."




********************************





"I don't wannaaa!" Aki whined, jumping at the other end of Shinji's hold.

"Well, whether you want it or not, you're going to take a bath," he said calmly.

"But I can't! I'm still sick!"

"You've been completely fine for a week," he didn't accept her excuse. "Even Mama has long been cured."

He held his hand in the water that streamed into the tub, even though it was pretty pointless. His little rascal had the amazing ability to somehow notice it when the temperature was off by even a single degree.

And of course, just as he heaved her into the water, she instantly yelled and kicked when her feet barely touched the surface. "Too hot! Too hot!"

Shinji rolled his eyes, slightly nudging the lever of the faucet towards "cold" with his elbow, so that Aki finally let her be lowered into the water.

"You don't have to do that anymore anyway..." Aki grumbled pouting, shoving some of the foam away. "I can get in the tub on my own."

"Is that so?" Shinji smiled at her as he gathered the soap and washcloth while she started to play in the bath she had declared her everlasting hatred of just moments ago.

"Yeah, I'm big enough for that!"

"Well, that's good for you," he chuckled, ruffling the brown mob of Aki's hair. The disgruntled child instantly protested as she had always done lately when he did that with a loud shriek, flailing her arms around in the water.

Smiling, he remembered the first time he had used those familiar words. He hadn't even realized their origin until later, after Aki had long stormed out of the room to go playing again and he already sat back at his desk, hunched over his books. They came just naturally with his pride whenever she came running to him, calling his attention with an excited "Papa! Look!" to show something new she had found or made, a picture that came off especially good in her eyes or if she learned something that completely amazed the three years old.

"The problem is just that I somehow fear you won't get very clean anymore when we decide to let you take care of that alone," he explained as he started to lather her.

Aki pouted again, but at least didn't try to fight him. "Why do I have to bath anyway?"

Shinji laughed, she always asked this at one point or another. But unlike most of the time, he now had a better answer than "Because you have to."

"You," he emphasized, nudging the washcloth against her small nose, "have to be clean, because we're going to make a special visit tomorrow."



****************



It was quite an unusual sight for her parents to see Aki so timid. The usually so energetic girl now hid behind her mother, clinging frightened to her skirt with her free hand while the other held her ever-present doll close to her.

"What is it, Aki?" Shinji asked his daughter, concerned, who barely dared to look up from fear.

"What is all this?" she replied timidly, barely audible.

Asuka reached behind her back to cup the child's head soothingly with her hand. "This is the place where all the people we told you about have gone," she explained, giving an appeasing smile over her shoulder. "You've been here before, don't you remember?"

The girl shook her head. As the tears started to dwell up in her eyes, her parents exchanged a mournful look.

"You... you don't have to go, if you don't want to," Shinji tried to calm her, having gotten onto his knees to be on the same level as Aki. "But I swear there is nothing you have to be afraid of."

The girl bit her lower lip, unsure whether to take that offered escape or to trust her parents' words.

"Hey," Asuka softly called to get her attention back, reaching her hand out. "You know I'll be there, no matter what."

Hesitatingly, Aki took the presented hand in hers, tightening the grip instantly as she felt her mother's warmth.

"Okay to go then?" Asuka asked and got a shy nod in response.

As they made their way over the beach towards the red sea, she could feel the small hand constricting around her fingers ever so often as Aki took in the eerie surroundings. It probably was a bit too much for someone her age after all, but since she had been so carefree despite all this the last time they had been there, they hadn't quite expected this sudden change of heart.

"What are they?" her daughter's almost whispering voice reached her. Following Aki's eyes, she saw the crucified statues that had once been two Mass-Production EVAs.

"They... hurt me once..." she told her a bit too truthfully, not realizing her bad choice of words until she felt Aki pressing herself whimpering against her, away from the monster. "Don't worry," she hastily added. "They won't do anything anymore."

Sniffing, Aki relaxed a little, but flinched yet again as she made out the shape of the white "hill" in the horizon. But she didn't sound as frightened as before; curiosity and maybe compassion for the sadly smiling giant apparently having taken over as she lay her head to the side. "Who's she?"

"She... she was a friend..." Shinji answered her, the melancholy unmistakable in his voice as he stared over the sea.

"A friend...?" Aki repeated wondering. "Were all people like that?"

Her parents' eyes met in confusion as they did often in hope the other understood what she meant. But all too often, asking was the only possibility to find out what was going on in the little one's mind. "Like what?"

"So big!"

With a light chuckle from the two elder, the mood seemed to have turned completely by that innocent question of the amazed child.

"No," Shinji told her smiling, "she was pretty... exceptional."


*********


"Hello! Mama and Papa told me to talk with you, but I'm not sure what," the girl scratched her brown hair. "Uhm... well, I'm Aki and this is Kiko! She's my favorite, 'cause she has red hair just like Mama and also a red dress! I really like red! And I really love Mama, and Papa too!

"They often say I would have liked you too and you me, so why did you leave? Mama and Papa won't tell me. They often seem sad when they talk about you. I don't like when they're sad. So I don't know if I would have liked you, 'cause you make them sad." Aki pouted at the red sea. "But Papa said it wasn't your fault and they're sad 'cause they liked you so much that they miss you now. So maybe I would've liked you after all!

"Well, uhm..." She glanced back to where her Mama and Papa sat smiling on the sand, her Papa nodding at her. Turning to the sea once more, she waved. "Bye then; see ya!"


*********


It had become rather late when they finally returned home, the darkness of the night only pierced by the car's headlights as it rolled the last meters onto the drive before it came to a stop. Asuka stalled the engine and gave a last look into the rear mirror. Aki naturally still sat secure in her child seat, clutching Kiko to her chest.

The girl had fallen unusually silent awhile ago, but Asuka blamed it on tiredness. It was long past bedtime after all, and once in a while she had wondered whether her child had given in to the tempting call of sleep. She still seemed awake for now though.

Shinji had already loosened his seatbelt and got out, moving to the back door on his side to retrieve Aki. Asuka had just got out herself when she heard the low mumbling on the other side as he was scooping his girl into his arms.

"Papa? What's a friend?"

"A friend...?" Judging by his voice, he was just as surprised at Aki's question as Asuka herself. She was at an age where she'd ask many questions seemingly out of nowhere, and they weren't always easy to answer. But this was certainly different from "Why is the sky blue?"

"Well..." Shinji began his attempt to explain, no doubt that his brain was working overtime. "A friend is someone who... plays with you and... uhm... you can talk about everything, who's there for you..."

"So Mama and you are my friends?" Aki tiredly asked further, barely audible from her mother's position.

"Eh, not... not really..." Shinji half-sighed, half-groaned. "A friend is usually someone who is not in your family."
"So I can't have any friend?"

Silence fell over them like a suffocating curtain.

Asuka didn't move to intervene, not just because of the agreement they had made that neither should interrupt when the other explained something to Aki to prevent her to favor one as being smarter. She actually saw him through the windows of the car, giving her a pleading look. But how to help him when she couldn't think of any words herself?

"Papa?" Aki waited for an answer.

"Look, it's not that bad, Mama and I never had..." he stopped what he had stupidly blurted out, taking a calming breath. "We... we'll see what we can do to find you a friend, okay? But it's really time for bed now."

Aki fortunately didn't protest at his way out, rubbing her tired eyes with her arm as her father carried her inside the house.

Asuka didn't follow them right away. Her view went to the dark city behind her.

She wasn't sure whether it was the whole day, visiting the sea of LCL, or just Aki's innocent question that had hit a much touchier spot than the little girl could have anticipated, but – for the first time in years – she had that uneasy feeling at the lack of lights...






---------------------------------------
A/N: Well... It weren't eleven months, were it? >_>
Granted, I got distracted here and there with this and that. This chapter was still anything but helpful with writer's block; in fact, was more than often the reason for it. The very episodic content, much more so than even "love" and "bear" as it stretches over several years and harder to "bridge", lead to the lack of a single thread running through the chapter, which made it sometimes hard to pick it up again. One of my pre-readers also commented that it was the slowest chapter due to this, but I hope it's not too bad. It is, after all, "just" about Aki growing up, or in other words: Excerpts of the "normal" life of a young Post-Impact family.

Granted, everyday life isn't always all that exciting, but I really didn't want to take any scenes out (as the pre-reader suggested) to gain a better pacing, as, at least in my eyes, all of them have their purpose, even if it's for balance or not apparent until later chapters. Actually, refraining to only these excerpts was already another problem. I had plenty more ideas, but many of those were simply too small or really wouldn't have done much for the chapter/fic to be worth an entire scene. Birthdays, eating, potty training, Aki's "I'm home"-thing, Shinji's composition and others were either scrapped or fused with others to wrap it into an at least partially interesting context.

The most important function of this chapter is unarguably giving you guys a proper picture of Aki. While I know her perfectly well, characterizing the very center of the fic (as everything more or less revolves around her) in a single chapter was certainly giving me troubles. She had to be cute and lovable enough to make it believable that someone as Asuka would see her as the most important thing in her life (without completely depending on "Duh! She's her mother!"), but also had to be cranky and whiny and be a little troublemaker sometimes to make her believable in general. I hope I somewhat succeeded neither to make her look like a perfect little angel nor spoiled little brat, but a pretty normal child.

More or less at least. Since I don't really have a role model near me (other than the 18 month old daughter of friends of my sister who visited earlier this month), I was most likely off with her development at some points, which was already the reason I upped her final age from three to "almost four" years. And the rest, I can blame to her taking after her mother. :P

Random notes:
- I really wanted to have the earthquake in. Not because that small scene is very important to the fic. In fact that's the very reason. It always seemed odd to me that fanfics, but also Animes and Mangas for that matter, rarely ever seem to mention such a for Japan natural phenomenon, unless it's playing a big role in the plot.

- Dornröschen actually doesn't end with "...und wenn sie nicht gestorben sind..." in the classical Grimm version. But it is the phrase that's generally perceived as final line of German fairy tales.

- The song Aki's singing on the trip to the hot springs is "Alle Meine Entchen", a pretty common German children's song – though just as her "Japanese" at that time, she's not quite fluent with the text.

- The story Shinji's telling... While I "needed" it in, I'm not sure if it came off very well. On one hand it seems a little to simplified, but on the other it might be already a little complicated for a bedtime story. But then again, it might be wrong to look at it with the eyes of an eva fan, and of course, there's nothing to prove that Shinji is a very good storyteller anyway. XD

- Yes, I'm taking a jab at myself with the "limited vocabulary" thing.

- The measles-crisis was actually meant to be an example for Shinji to use in the flashback in "The 15th" when he's telling Misato about Asuka's deep connection to her child. Not completely sure myself why I left it out anymore. I think it had something to do with me not wanting to tell it twice, when one detailed version would be enough. But maybe I'll re-add that.

- Spot the doujin references. There are at least two I remember.

- Seems like it's the final version after all. The remaining pre-readers gave me their okay with it as it is. So my thanks remain to Eric Blair, William T. Martin and Dan01.

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