Even Smaller Particles
Summary: Huang Qin Shi approaches Leo Stenbuck about NERV. The two get along smashingly.
Who: Huang Qin Shi, Leo Stenbuck
When: April 9, NCA 120
Where: EFS Shirogane

<Radio: A - A-Chat> Huang Qin Shi transmits, "Excuse me, Captain Stenbuck. Are you listening?"

<Radio: A - A-Chat> Leo Stenbuck sounds like he's in a pretty good mood, which is basically unheard of since Ralla's disappearance. "Yyyep. What's up?"

<Radio: A - A-Chat> Huang Qin Shi immediately ruins it. "I was hoping you would be available to clarify certain matters related to my report for Her Highness."

<Radio: A - A-Chat> Leo Stenbuck's good mood yet remains. Maybe he's on hard drugs. "I can find the time. In person or long-distance?"

<Radio: A - A-Chat> Huang Qin Shi transmits, "In-person would be preferable, I think."

<Radio: A - A-Chat> Huang Qin Shi beeping noises. "I'm transmitting a docking request to the Shirogane now. Can you be at the hangar in five minutes?"

<Radio: A - A-Chat> Leo Stenbuck transmits, "I'll meet you there."

<Radio: A - A-Chat> Huang Qin Shi transmits, "Excellent. Qin Shi out."

It is possible that this was not the most diplomatic of ways to go about it, but Huang Qin Shi is not a diplomat. At his core he's an engineer, trained to solve problems or remove them at the source. And from the moment he walked into the door for his meeting with the director of NERV and saw Leo Stenbuck standing behind the man - with a gun - the young captain became a problem.

One Huang intends to solve. Or remove at the source.

The engineer's little machine docks without difficulty and only takes about a minute to cool down to safe temperatures once air is vented back into the hangar bay. The armour's surface has by now returned to a solid grey, and the Rasavatam kneels down in a three-point crouch, its chest armour sliding up as the floor of the cockpit opens up. Huang slides easily down the tow rope, keeping an eye out for Leo. The hangar bay is probably the best place to speak unobserved, he reasons, as he can spot approaching engineers from some distance. The short warning and unannounced visit mean it's unlikely anyone will have had time to plant listening devices to boot. And just in case someone decides to vent the bay, he's keeping his flight suit on and helmet under one arm.

Huang used to trust people. His list has grown much shorter of late.

Leo Stenbuck also used to trust people. Not necessarily persons, mind you, but people, the whole of the human race, the fundamental idea that at its core, a given human being can be assumed to be a good person.

His list has grown much shorter of late, too.

Despite this, however, there's little trace of Leo's ongoing internal moral and philosophical struggle today; he meets Huang as he reaches the hangar floor, strolling casually up to the feet of the kneeling Rasavatam. Unlike Huang, he's out of normal suit, clad in his A-LAWS uniform, the huge golden revolver he carries firmly in its holster on his right hip.

Far more noteworthy, however, is his demeanor change. Since Ralla Traln Triald went MIA - up to, and including, his meeting with Huang and Gendo Ikari - Leo has been downright sullen, even when he wasn't actively sulking. Today, however, he seems in perfectly fine spirits. There is even the metaphorical spring in his step.

Maybe he really /is/ on hard drugs.

"Warrant Officer," the young Captain greets, halting a few feet away from Huang and snapping off a salute. "Welcome to the Shirogane. If you'll follow me, I can show you to one of our briefing rooms," he offers, turning slightly to gesture deeper into the ship.

Huang steps off the cable and tugs it once to lock the winch in place. He turns to face Leo, switching the helmet to his left hand and returning the salute crisply. "Captain," he says quietly, appraising the young officer. The tension he was obviously feeling at NERV seems to be gone now, and he's at his ease, far from the raving madman who threatened to kill him twice. It's a positive change, but it doesn't change why Huang is here. "Thank you for the offer, but that won't be necessary," Huang says, stepping to his left to place his back to the Rasavatam's leg; the machine is still warm, but it's cool enough to approach is not yet touch without discomfort. "We can do this here."

The engineer detects the heat in his voice and checks it with a sigh. He really needs to watch the temper. Huang slowly controls his breathing, frowning as he looks up at Leo's eyes. "This is an off-the-record briefing in any case," he adds in a calmer tone. "I've had questions about his organization since they sent out that ridiculous pamphlet about Angels a couple of months ago, and despite their...forward-seemingness," he says, inventing a word on the spot, "I have yet to receive any of the information promised me. I am suspecting I never will. And so your presence at Director Ikari's preliminary interview, though a surprise, was not entirely unwelcome." The engineer's eyes narrow. "I need to know what the hell is going on over there, and you're going to tell me."

Leo's eyebrows raise in surprise at Huang's statement; apparently, he wasn't anticipating such... bluntness. The young man rocks his weight back onto his heels and reaches up to rub thoughtfully at his jaw. "Off-the-record, huh," he muses aloud, turning his head to scan the area around the Rasavatam. It looks clear enough, at least, but...

... /but/, Leo reminds himself, just because you're in a good mood doesn't mean the situation has beccome any better.

Or, necessarily, any more real.

One can almost see a weight settle back onto Leo's heart; his shoulders stiffen and his jaw sets, and over a period of a few seconds, he transforms from looking downright happy-go-lucky into looking something more like what you might expect from an armed forces Captain. Eventually, he drops his hand from his jaw and crosses his arms tightly over his chest, and speaks.

"Information on NERV is extremely classified," Leo explains. "What makes you think I know anything more than you do? Or that, assuming I do, I would be able - or want - to let you into the loop?"

Well, that could have gone worse, Huang thinks as he relaxes a little in response. The downside of surprising someone is that it can provoke unexpected reactions in turn. It hadn't been likely that Leo would attack him, but it was a possibility. More likely was the possibility that he'd simply refuse to talk at all. But questions? Objections? Those he can deal with.

"All good questions," Huang says, smiling faintly. "Let's deal with them in turn, shall we?" The engineer leans his back into the robot's leg, feeling the captured heat run through him as he begins ticking off his fingers. "First, as to why I think you know more than I do," he says. "You are an employee of NERV, apparently, contracted to fight Angels. And so you certainly have some access to information, at least of a tactical nature, about their capabilities and tendencies. And seeing as I know next to nothing about them," he adds with a drawl, "It would not be difficult for your knowledge to exceed mine."

He shifts position slightly. "Second, as to being able to inform me," he begins. "If your objection is to the classified nature of the material, I should note that I am, as you will recall, the personal representative of the Ruler of All Known Space to A-LAWS," he says, his voice taking on a faint edge. "I am conducting a review of alien threats to the Earth Sphere at her direct request; so I think you will find that my authority when acting on her behalf is sufficient to the task. I could call her and request a written order if you wished," he says, spreading his hands, "But as I said - this is an off-the-record conversation for the moment. I'm offering you a chance to explain things to me without the...troubles that would come with making this a formal inquiry." He adjusts his glasses. "Her Highness believes you have suffered a great deal lately. I'm simply trying to follow her will and use a softer touch."

Huang's eyes narrow. "As for why you would want to let me know, well...that I suppose you can only answer for yourself," he says. "But I will simply say that I find it curious that you would be seen in the personal company of Director Ikari, commander of NERV, an organization directly responsible for the medical treatment that saved the life of Miss Ayanami." This is a bit of a shot in the dark, and Huang is watching intently for reactions. "A treatment which you insisted, until recently, did not occur." He spreads his hands. "I found it curious, as I said. And if I am asking these questions...others might as well."

As Huang goes down the list, Leo shows - perhaps surprisingly - little overt reaction to the individual points. He looks a little irritated at times, perhaps, but he manages to maintain a veneer of professionalism and, overall, neutrality.

At least until 'saved the life of Miss Ayanami.' At those words, the young man exhales sharply, and drops his eyes away from Huang's, to stare at the hangar floor. That, it seems, has hit a nerve, and even with his eyes averted, it isn't hard to see the expression of barely-controlled anger on his face.

"All good answers," Leo concedes without looking up, after a few seconds of silence to calm himself down. He opens his mouth to continue, but hesitates. It's... a tricky situation, to be sure. On the one hand, if he doesn't at least bullshit an answer for Huang, it will almost certainly turn into a formal matter, and that'll put him between a rock and a hard place.

And if he tells him the truth... well. Leo is increasingly uncertain just how deep the rabbit hole goes with NERV. If he starts bandying secrets around, even in whispers, they might find out, and make a Bad Thing happen to him.

Of course, that assumes that Huang isn't simply a NERV agent testing his loyalty. But /that/ assumes that they already know he knows more than he's supposed to. And /THAT/ assumes he actually does know more than he's supposed to.

And - assuming that Huang isn't a NERV ploy - his worry assumes that they'd find out, and that if they did, they actually would make a Bad Thing happen to him. And /all/ of it assumes that Rei has been telling him the truth.

Which, itself, assumes that she's even been real.

Leo unfolds his arms to reach up and massage his temples; all of a sudden, he has a headache. Go figure, right? And today seemed like it was going to be such a nice day, when he woke up.

Eventually, he lifts his eyes back to Huang's, hardens his expression, and says, "I'll do what I can. You'll have to ask me something more specific, though."

Huang gives Leo the time he needs, letting his silence drag out and fill the conversation while the younger man works it out for himself. It's a sort of psychological pressure tactic the former officer picked up from his superiors in the DC. He feels a little sick at himself as Leo's expression becomes increasingly tortured - these kids shouldn't look like that at their age - but holds his tongue and his ground. If Leo knows something, then Huang doesn't have any choice but to convince him to cooperate. He can't do his job if he doesn't know where the threats are coming from. The conference taught him the dangers of assuming every variable was under control. He lets out a breath as Leo nods his agreement...and does not shoot or otherwise inconvenience the young officer, which probably rules out the NERV agent hypothesis.

Unless he's waiting to report back to Gendo, which assumes (et cetera, ad nauseam)

"Thank you," he says quietly. "I know this may be painful, but it's important...and I'll help you however I can." He grins a little. "Princess Hausen would insist." Huang clears his throat. "Let's start with you. I assume you joined NERV some time ago, then met Miss Ayanami and got to...know her better. But then you didn't break ties with the organization, not even when Ikari's son confronted you at the ball. And now, despite whatever has happened, you're in conference with Ikari directly. What are you hoping to accomplish? And what have you learned?"

Anger flickers across Leo's face again when Huang guesses at the origins of his relationship with Rei; he barely bites back a cutting barb that would most likely have come out as a personal attack, or perhaps simply a command for Huang to 'BE FUCKED!'. But he holds it in, and by the time Huang makes it to the actual question, he manages to look mostly calm again.

Except, of course, for how his face appears to have locked itself in a permanent grimace.

Leo takes a few moments to work up his answer. On the one hand, it is still a very real possibility Huang is just a NERV agent dicking with him. Sure, there was that whole thing with seeking an audience with Gendo, to learn more, but... well, maybe that was just part of the show, to lead up to this, or something even further down the line.

It's not paranoid, Leo reminds himself, if they actually are out to get you. He's not sure if he'd be happier if he's right, with all the political intrigue horseshit that entails, or if he's wrong, and this is all just part of the insanity he is increasingly afraid is taking ahold of him.

Ahem. Moving on... on the /other/ hand, well... Huang's a smart guy, right? He went to school with Coordinators, the young Captain recalls dimly, so if he managed to do so without quitting in shame he /must/ be smart.

And because he's - Leo ingraciously summarizes - an old man and an asshole, Huang almost certainly thinks he's smarter than Huang. And without Gendo here, Leo doesn't have to walk on eggshells quite so much... so maybe - /maybe/ - if he's careful, he can find a line to walk. A line where if Huang is a NERV agent, he'll think he's just a stupid kid... and if he isn't... well, then.

"Accomplish?" Leo says, almost a little too incredulously, after another long pause to sort out his thoughts. "I'm trying to protect the human race, Warrant Officer. The Angels have proven themselves to be a serious threat to all of mankind, with their... /repeated/ attacks on the Geofront at Tokyo-03."

"NERV - and the Evangelions - are the only reliable we have against their AT Fields," Leo explains. He throws on the friendliest smile he can, but it never touches his eyes; if anything, they get even harder, as if daring Huang to... something. But what? "Mankind has never seen anything like it before. We're lucky the Evangelions, and /their/ AT Fields, were ready by the time the first attack happened."

"The one by Sachiel," Leo adds helpfully, after a brief pause. "The Third Angel."

An old man at 29. That's cold, Leo Stenbuck.

The remnants of Huang's guilt at pressuring a grieving 18-year-old vanish when Leo starts answering his questions as though he's being interviewed on a morning news program. Oh yes, it's a good thing NERV is here to save us all from the evil Angels. By the end of it, as Leo names the third Angel, a flush has worked its way up Huang's neck and cheeks, and his jaw muscles work over his temples as a dull headache begins to form. His right hand tightens into a fist as he tries to contain his irritation.

"Stenbuck," he says in a low, angry tone, "I am trying my best to be civil. Her Highness took personal interest in you and offered you some time to recover from your recent situation. I would think," he says, words clipped, "That you might be inclined to show some appreciation in return for the consideration she is showing you." This is going over the line somewhat - Shine would certainly be horrified to hear Huang treating kindness as a negotiating tool, but the engineer's temper is well and truly flaring. "And yet when I come here and ask you for help, you stand there and sing me a beautiful song."

He takes a quick breath, eyes flashing as he takes a single step forward. "But you're making it very difficult for me to want to care, let alone help with whatever it is." He jabs the left hand with the helmet forward, not into Leo's chest - they're too far away for that - but in the younger man's direction. "You're trying to protect the human race? Well, get in line!" he snaps, voice raises as he points at his chest with his right hand. "I'm trying to come up with a battle plan to present to the Ruler of All Known Space on how to defend our planet from no fewer than /four/ alien races that want to kill us, one of which could zip in at light speed and takes bites out of our sun /tomorrow/ and you're standing there acting like a NERV public affairs officer!"

The flush spreads across Huang's face as he continues to shout, tension he's been internalizing rushing out rapidly. "Never seen anything like it before? Earth to Leo Stenbuck!" he snaps. "The Devil Gundam could have consumed half the planet. Two freaking /days/ ago, we fought agents of the Balmarians who held off a couple /dozen/ of our best pilots. You want me to believe the Angels are an order above that? That NERV is all that stands between us and annihilation?" Huang asks, throwing both hands in the air out of frustration. "Then why keep everything secret? Why not get /everyone/ in on the action? It doesn't make any sense. And I think you know why they're playing it that way," he says, lowering his voice. "And while I'm willing to not stomp all over whatever is going on with your personal little drama if I don't have to," Huang says, "I've got obligations you can't possibly imagine. So stop wasting my /fucking/ time."

Huang doesn't swear often. He's a little hot under the collar now.

Well, that was unexpected.

Leo's broad smile becomes less and less friendly the longer Huang's tirade continues. By the end, it's gone entirely, replaced by a furious snarl. This is probably just a ploy to get him to open up so Gendo - or someone else at NERV - has an excuse to disappear him. He has to stay calm, or he'll play right into Huang's hands.

... on the other hand, his anger does seem... awfully genuine. Huang Qin Shi has never seemed the type to be a particularly good actor... which, Leo supposes - if dimly, thorugh his anger - could all be part of the act. For the first time in awhile, Leo finds himself envying Newtypes. This would be a lot easier if he was one, and his current... abilities are far less useful than he was assured they'd be.

So Leo does what he does best; he loses control of his anger and makes a bad decision. Leo abruptly takes two steps forwards, putting himself squarely in Huang's personal space, and reaches up to grab at the collar of Huang's flight suit with his left hand.

"For such a smart guy," Leo hisses, his voice surprisingly quiet considering the massive amounts of anger in it, "You're pretty fucking stupid. Let me make my point /perfectly clear./" His eyes stay locked firmly on Huang's, but he lifts his right hand up to eye level, and holds up one gloved finger.

"One. The last time Rei Ayanami was severely injured in the line of duty, it took her six months and /extensive/ physical therapy to recover. After her last little 'miraculous survival', she was off the battlefield for under two weeks."

A second finger goes up. "Two. An Angel has, thus far, never attacked NERV defense forces except in self defense. The most recent - Sahaquiel - /did not even have any way to defend itself./ Their only goal is destroying NERV HQ... but they don't care about destroying its assets."

A third finger. "/Three./ The /first/ recorded encounter with an Angel was with Sachiel, the /Third/ Angel. NERV only emerged victorious thanks to the use of the Evangelions, and their AT Fields, which are based on the AT Fields /utilized by Angels./"

Leo pauses, briefly, and then snarls through gritted teeth, "Do you understand what I'm saying to you?"

Huang is indeed a terrible actor; the only reason he managed to fool Haman Karn as long as he did was because he kept away from her and did all his talking by radio. Of course, he also did this because she could have looked into his head, something he'd have little defence against.

And while he does have a multitude of ways (pushing hands, jabs to sensitive areas, painful joint locks, even more painful joint breaks) to defend himself against Leo's assault, but is frankly shocked - even in his anger - that the younger man would actually lay hands on him. By the time he thinks to react - his right arm dipping under Leo's grip, rising up toward his elbow - the younger man is talking. And the insult gives him enough pause that he stops moving and starts to listen, the snarl sliding off his face as he starts to remember he's supposed to be the adult here. And so he listens. And thinks.

Finally, he speaks. "I understand that I've undergone physical therapy myself," he says in a low tone, meeting Leo's stare. "So I know how long it takes to recover. I had concerns about Miss Ayanami as well, which is why I asked her to recite prime numbers when she spoke. I wanted to be certain she was not a recording." He licks his lips. "It's obvious there's something up with her. It's obvious to /me/," he says, lip curling, "That you're trying to find out exactly what that is. And if I figured it out, other people can too."

Huang's eyes narrow. "I also understand that it's terribly convenient that they developed this technology just in time to repel Angels...and if the AT fields are on the same frequency, how did they know how to do it before the first encounter?" He shakes his head slowly. "This also makes one wonder what happened to the other two Angels before the third. So no, Stenbuck," Huang says acidly, "I am not stupid. I understand your points quite clearly."

He takes a breath. "But what /you/ need to understand is that I am not in your shoes. I can see the data points, but I don't know the answers to these questions. I don't have evidence of anything, only suspicion. Which is why," he adds, his tone of voice sweetening slightly, as though he's talking to a small child, "I tried to ask the only person I know who might /have/ answers to these questions what they might be."

Huang's finger taps twice on the underside of Leo's elbow. "And I understand that if you don't remove your hand from me this /instant/," he hisses, "I am going to remove it at the elbow. Or perhaps the shoulder."

By the time Huang demands that Leo unhand him, Leo isn't even sure who he's angry at anymore. He's definitely angry at Huang; that, at least, he's sure of. But he's also pretty sure he's angry at himself, and increasingly certain he's angry at Not-Rei, too.

Which, of course, might also count as being angry at himself.

Leo waits just under a second after Huang makes his threat, and then all at once releases the older man's collar and steps backwards out of his personal space. He folds his hands behind his back, closes his eyes, and forces himself to take a deep breath.

He's right. The shit he's pointed out to Huang so far, it's all stuff most people could dig up. That makes it safe... or, at least, safer. It also makes it undeniable. Verifiable.

BUt the things beyond that... Rei's nature, Gendo's vaguely-defined plan... he has no way to prove that. They're all plausible, logical leaps from what he /does/ know, what anyone could know, but... if anything, that's just an argument in favor of them being false.

If it was that simple - if he could draw a line from A to B without even one surprise turn - why wouldn't someone else have figured it out before? Sure, people believe what they're told, but... some people don't. Huang's obviously given it some thought; that is, Leo supposes, his job.

Maybe he should just tell him. That'd be an easy way to get some resolution. Maybe he's not going insane, and he's brought someone else - someone, presumably, reliable - into the loop. Maybe he's not going insane, but he's just tipped his hand to NERV, and is about to wake up dead.

Or maybe he /is/ going insane, and he ends up with a dishonorable discharge, or in a padded cell, or something.

Of course... there is one part of what he's been told that will - that would /have/ to - occur before it's too late. If it's true. If it occurs at all. And it's always possible that, even if it does, nothing else he thinks is true is.

When Leo finally speaks again, he barely even sounds angry anymore. He just sounds exhausted, and in pain, as evidenced when he reaches up to rub at his forehead with his left hand. "Someday soon," he says, without even opening his eyes. "The girl you think is Rei Ayanami is going to die. NERV is going to declare me to be the Fourth Child. I'll be assigned to pilot Unit-00."

"If this happens..." If, not when. "... come see me again. Then... I'll tell you anything you want to know. And maybe we can stop it."

Huang Qin Shi grunts as Leo releases him, tugging his flight suit back into shape. He has never struck another person in anger before, but a dark and angry part of him experiences a hint of regret that that streak is continuing. Chibodee Crockett, Sai Saici and the other Gundam Fighters are worlds beyond him, but Huang still has twenty-five years of training, none of which he's ever used. Part of him has always wondered...temper, Huang berates himself. He watches Leo for a moment, then grows tired of it. He makes a disgusted sound in his throat and reaches down to pick up his helmet. But before he can turn, the younger man speaks again. The engineer's expression is irritated. Then disbelieving. Then furious.

"What do you mean I think is...she..." Huang reaches up with his free hand and rubs at his eyes under his glasses, trying to sort out his thoughts. Leo is implying that Ayanami is...a fake of some kind? And that she's in danger, and he's about to be drawn in to replace her as this Fourth Child. But why is he saying to wait until it happens to discuss it? Didn't he care for...Huang lets an angry breath out of his nose. Turns and twists and hidden agendas - at this point he's sick of them all. But if Leo is claiming this child is going to die...he can't just let that happen. Not after he failed with the School.

Huang grunts, slowly lowering his body down to the hangar floor and placing the helmet down near his left side. He folds his legs together in front of his body - though the bulky suit means he can't cross them over entirely without risking damage to it. He straightens his back and neck, then rests his forearms on his knees. His hands turn palm up, and he forms a circle with forefinger and thumb. Huang closes his eyes and breathes in deeply, holding the air in his lungs for a moment, visualizing it filling him. As he breathes out, he pushes his irritation out of his body, letting it flow out slowly. He counts to three before speaking again.

"All right," he says in a low tone. "Start from the beginning. The Children you speak of are NERV's pilots, yes? I've seen three Evangelions - Ayanami's, Ikari's son's, and the crimson one belongs to the third." He opens his eyes. Start with the most pressing questions. "How do you know they want you to replace her? And what makes you think she's going to die?"

Eventually, the rustling sounds of Huang taking a seat pique Leo's curiosity enough for him to open his eyes again. He blinks several times in surprise when the other man's face is not where it was when he closed them, and then drops his gaze to where Huang has... taken a seat on the floor.

Well, that's unusual. He's familiar with meditation, to an extent, but he's never seen someone stop in the middle of a conversation to do it... and besides, most of his experience with the act is more along the lines of standing under a waterfall.

It isn't as fun as it sounds.

But this is just how the conversation has gone so far, so he can be patient. He watches Huang in silence until he speaks again... and, a few seconds after he does, shakes his head and squats down, to put his eyes closer to the older man's.

"I /don't/ know," he explains tiredly. "I might be... wrong," he settles on, after a few beats. He's not about to go advertising his crazy. Not to Huang. "And that's why I can't tell you anything until it happens."

"For the sake of argument," Huang says, a hint of irritation creeping back into his voice, "Let's pretend that I know all too well that people can be make mistakes, and have learned to account for that in my own decision-making." The engineer takes another breath. "Look at the recent Balmarian attack, for example. Mitsurugi is convinced, completely and totally, that one of them is Colonel Kar-Wai Lau. I find this extremely unlikely...but I'm not discounting the possibility, because I know that I don't know everything. She, however, refuses to consider the possibility that she is mistaken...and that is why she is a fool, whether she ends up being correct or not."

Huang frowns. "So don't assume I'm going to take everything you take at face value," he says. "Whatever you know has obviously convinced /you/ that it is likely to happen, and until I know what you know, I can't draw my own conclusions, nor present them to Her Highness...which means I'd be willfully ignoring a possible threat from among our own. To say nothing of the fact," he adds, his words slightly clipped, "That I am not at all willing to let a young woman /die/ in order to confirm a hypothesis, not when there's a chance she can be saved."

The engineer shifts position. "I thought I could solve everything myself when I took control of the Divine Crusade, that I couldn't burden anyone else, even the people I trusted, with the danger. I stole that choice from them. And I failed." His lips peel back in a fierce grin. "You don't even have that excuse, Stenbuck. I don't much like you at all. So why bother trying to protect me?"

The comments about Meiya Mitsurugi elicit a snort of laughter from Leo; one can almost /see/ the increase in his (begrudging) respect for Huang. His amused expression doesn't last long, when Huang keeps talking, but the fact that it showed up is probably a good thing. Possibly. Maybe?

"I'm not protecting you," Leo curtly assures Huang, without even a moment of hesitation. /Then/ comes the pause, as he rolls the other man's words around in his head. A chance she can be saved...

Leo closes his eyes again, and for a few seconds, he looks positively tormented as he reflects on his last conversation with Not-Rei. The things she said... 'It's wrong that I exist. It's... wrong. I don't want to live or die. I just don't want to /be/.'

Several seconds later, when he speaks again, his face has set back into a grimace... but his voice still sounds downright haunted. And, best of all, he's on a tangent.

"You know what the hardest part about trying to humanize Cyber-Newtypes is?" he asks. It's a rhetorical question, obviously, because he continues speaking immediately. "It's that you have to make them want it, while their 'doctors' pound into their head over and over that they don't."

"You could order them to do it, of course. I could turn around right now, go find Soma Peries, and tell her to put on a dress, get a hobby, start smiling more. Maybe it would even stick," he admits. "But that wouldn't really be humanizing her at all. She'd still just be doing what she was told."

"That's what makes it so hard. That's the difference between guiding someone, and commanding them. Between being a hero, and being a tyrant." By this point, Leo sounds liable to start crying at any moment... but when he opens his eyes, they're bone dry.

"If she dies, it will be because she wants to. Because she wants oblivion. You know that's horrible. I do, too. But is that our choice to make? Is it right for us to make a decision like that for her?"

Judging by his inflection, that one /isn't/ a rhetorical question.

You have to make them want it. Huang knows well enough what Leo's talking about, having gone through similar experiences in the DC. The young Latune series Adler Koch had put in his care, for data analysis...he couldn't just order them to be happy. He had to try to make them understand what happiness was, by giving them food, small treats, better working conditions. Even Solis and his crew ...well, that was a slightly different story. But it's a question Huang has asked himself before.

"There's no such thing as a right or wrong answer in a decision like this," Huang says as he pushes himself to his feet, sounding weary. This rabbit hole is going far deeper than he first anticipated. "Was it right of me to keep secrets from my friends, even though it hurt them? Was it right of me to lie to the woman I cared for because I believed she and her family would be threatened if she knew what I knew? I'll never know the answer," he says, shaking his head. "But I know she's alive. And even if she hates me, that's good enough for me."

The engineer bends over and picks up his helmet. "This isn't a cartoon," he says as he turns toward the tow line dangling from the Rasavatam's cockpit. "There's no perfectly right or wrong answer to problems, not in the real world. Ask eight people the same moral question and you'll get nine different answers." He shrugs. "It all comes down to what we're willing to live with, and whether we're strong enough to bear the consequences of those decisions. You're teenagers," he says quietly. "I'm nearly thirty and /I/ don't have all the answers. So what makes you think she does?"

The engineer places his foot in the stirrup and stares upward for a moment before looking back at Leo. "I've seen too many young people whose lives were ruined because of this war to stand by on the sidelines if one of them is in trouble," he says, eyes narrowing. "I've been the cause of some of that misery myself. And so I am not willing to let a girl who's not even out of adulthood die when it might be in my power to stop say nothing of the /billions/ who might be at risk because NERV is playing silly buggers with me," Huang says. "So now you have a choice. You can choose to help me, or not. You can choose to trust me, or not. That is the choice you face, and one I cannot make for you."

The engineer's hand tightens around the rope. "My patience is not unlimited," he whispers as he tugs the rope twice to begin his ascent. "Think quickly."

Leo remains crouching when Huang rises to his feet, although he lifts his gaze to follow the man's face. It doesn't look like 'there's no right answer' is what he much wanted to hear... but, at the same time, it doesn't look like he's very surprised, either.

Leo Stenbuck's internal moral dilemma has been ongoing for a long, long time now, over everything from whether it's okay to lie to someone to tell them something they want - or need - to hear, to whether it's possible for a person to do so many bad things that they deserve to die.

He still doesn't have an answer to any of it, in spite of his recently discovered resolve to kill Yazan Gable. It isn't that he's finally decided he's right, and that Yazan deserves to die; it's that he's too exhausted to care anymore. He'll do what he will, and if that makes him a monster, well... oh well.

Maybe, Leo muses, it's for the best. Maybe Huang's right; maybe there is no right or wrong answer. Maybe there's no answer at all.

The young man forces the thoughts out of his mind before he collapses into the downward spiral of philosophical bullshit he knows he's headed for, and rises stiffly to his feet as Huang begins his ascent back up towards his cockpit. He doesn't say anything. He has no idea what he even /would/ say... so he just salutes, turns, and storms out of the hangar, the long tails of his headband and the duster of his uniform billowing in his wake.

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