Source: geocities.com/tokyo/teahouse/Teahouse/2236/myfics

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I USED TO LOVE HER (R-rated version)
 
Written by Alain Gravel 
Assisted by The Mysterious Collaborators
Who are The Mysterious Collaborators? Sore wa himitsu desu ^_^

http://www.geocities.com/rakna01/

Based on characters created by and copyright GAINAX
Started on November 26th 2000
First pre-reader draft finished on April 25th 2001
Second pre-reader draft finished on May 12th 2001
Final draft finished on May 29th 2001


Note: This is the R-rated version of the original lemon edition. The 
complete edition can be found on my webpage as some other place I'm not 
keeping track of.


=======================================================================


    Horaki Hikari, age twenty-one, stood on the other side of the 
street, watching the workers she had hired make the final touch to the 
building standing in front of her. While Hichibara Street wasn't as busy 
as a street located in mid-town Tokyo-2, the numerous private little 
business located on it still made it relatively crowded, with cars 
blocking her view every minute or so and countless people walking behind 
her, each with their own purpose in mind. 

    It was all lost to Hikari, however, as her attention was focused on 
a single object. She squealed in joy, momentary startling a few 
pedestrians, as the men walked down their ladders and the white and red 
sign remained fixed over the building's entrance. Proudly, the red kanji 
characters and English letters announced the birth of a new business in 
the Juuban district: Hikari's Cafe.

    "Mother... I hope you're proud of me. Our dream has become a 
reality."

    As she crossed the street and walked toward the building housing her 
restaurant - no, *her* building - Hikari felt overwhelmed by 
contradictory feelings, mainly excitement and fear. Finally, all her 
efforts, those three years in cooking school and that year in a special 
college in France, would pay off. Her childhood dream, a dream she had 
shared with her mother before illness had taken her away, would no 
longer be a dream. 

    She would be a cook; no a chef, as Pierre, her French teacher had 
often insisted, in her own restaurant. All those people working daily on 
Hichibara Street would come eat her food, then they would bring their 
family for dinner, and if she worked hard enough, perhaps she would even 
get clients to come from other Tokyo-2 districts! The little bar and 
four karaoke rooms in the basement would also assuredly provide her with 
a handful of regular customers.

    It was scary, really scary. No doubt it would be hard managing this 
business while having to do the cooking herself. No doubt she would have 
to work harder than she ever had in her life. But it didn't matter. As 
much as it scared her, she looked forward to it.

                              - - -

    The best way for Hikari to describe the following sixth months would 
probably be "as a blur." It had been indeed a lot of work, even more 
than she had expected. But Horaki Hikari had never been afraid of work 
and she gave it her best... and was rewarded. As it was, Hikari's Cafe 
was booming, to the point where people had to take reservations if they 
wanted to be sure to have a table on weekends and where Hikari was 
starting to seriously consider hiring a cook to second her. 

    She could still handle the workload, but her days lately left her 
more and more drained, not to mention that she hadn't done much in the 
last weeks aside from cooking. Even if it was her life, she still 
started to crave some time off to finally go out and see what was out 
there in Tokyo-2. She hadn't really visited the city since her return 
from France and it had only been to find a suitable place to set her 
home and business. She had lost touch with the place ever since she had 
started her college studies in Osaka, over three years ago. It didn't 
really feel right to know almost nothing of what her new home looked 
like now. And while it kept busy, work didn't fill the gaps of a 
solitary life.

    Loneliness. That was what was affecting Hikari the most. She had 
never been on her own before and it was getting to her. In high school, 
she had been living with her father and sisters. And even if her older 
sibling eventually left for college two years before her, she still had 
her little sister Nozomi and her father. In Osaka, she had lived on 
campus with a roommate called Akari with whom she had quickly made 
friends with. The same had occurred in France, with a Russian girl named 
Tanya. Hikari giggled as she remembered their first awkward attempts to 
communicate in French, before both girls realized that they were more 
fluent in English. Those had been good days.
 
    But now she was on her own. Living alone on the second floor of the 
building she had bought, using an inheritance left by her mother, to 
house her business. She managed the living part easily, after all she 
had taken on herself most of her family house-caring tasks after her 
mother's death. The alone part, however, was not as simple.
 
    She had friends... of sort. She was especially close to Keiko, one 
of her waitress. Two years younger than her, she was a student in 
management, who was looking forward to enter Tokyo University the next 
year. She was a very bright girl, who could manage the best grades even 
while having a part time job and indulging herself in the occasional 
party. Unfortunately, either some duties to take care of or simply 
fatigue had forced Hikari to decline so far all of Keiko's offer to go 
out and "have fun". Which saddened Hikari as she really liked Keiko and 
really wanted to spend more time with her.

    "Yo! Hi-chan! A Salmon Special Okonomiyaki and a Garlic Shrimps & 
Snails Deluxe Plate for table thirteen!"

    "On its way, Kei-chan!"

    "Oh, and I think that someone wants to talk to you..."

    Hikari groaned, leaving her pots and pans for a few seconds to poke 
her head through the opening between the kitchen and the tables room, 
the opening by which the waitress made their orders and picked up the 
meals to be delivered. As she had suspected, a five foot Chinese girl 
was standing there, heavily blushing.

    "Yes Sze-Mi?" asked Hikari frowning slightly.

    "Ta... table two will take an order of pork and eel ramen with rice, 
a small western style pizza with fries, and a serving of tempura 
noodles, Ho... Horaki-san."

    "That'll be ready in ten minutes. Take care of their drinks, then 
you can take table one and three's order. Just... just leave notes here, 
and I'll pick them up in a few minutes."

    "Yes, Horaki-san," replied the girl, blushing further under Hikari's 
gaze before running away to prepare drinks.

    "Yes, Horaki-san," repeated Keiko in a rather bad imitation of Sze-
Mi voice. "Why are you blushing like that, Mi-chan? Is it because of 
'Horaki-san'?"

    "Ah, ni hen tao yen!" (1) replied the small girl before running 
toward one of her tables, blushing all the way. Keiko just stared and 
blinked.

    "What did she say?"

    Hikari shrugged and sighed as she returned to her kitchen, made the 
final touch to the meals already cooking and prepared the new orders. 
She had had mixed feelings about the girl. Sze-Mi had been working for 
her for one week and it had been enough to determine that the girl was a 
hard worker. She also had a cheery demeanor which, added to her frail 
china doll look, had actually won her a part of Hikari's nightly 
clientele. From what she had observed, as well as what Keiko had told 
her, Sze-Mi had no trouble handling her clients. In fact, Keiko even 
mentioned how "wild" the little girl had been when the two of them had 
gone out one night. 

    For some reason, however, each time the Chinese girl found herself 
facing her, she appeared to freeze, blush as if her cheeks were on fire 
and act like a shy schoolgirl talking about her first crush. Hikari 
couldn't really understand why. As far as she knew, she wasn't much of 
an intimidating employer. 

    It was really weird, not to mention that it was at times annoying. 
Fortunately, Keiko had came up with the suggestion of simple written 
table orders, although from time to time, Sze-Mi seemed to want to give 
her the orders herself. Still, Hikari liked the girl and she had never 
fired an employee yet, so she was ready to overlook that little problem 
for now. Besides, it wasn't that much of a problem overall as 
productivity didn't suffer, Sze-Mi compensating quite easily with her 
hard work.
 
    For a while, Hikari went through the motions of cooking, loosing 
herself in a sort of art she had spent years attempting to master. 
Eventually, the dinner rush was over and soon, Hikari emerged from her 
daze as she realized that the orders were no longer coming anymore. A 
glance as a clock on one of her stoves confirmed that is was nearly 9 
PM. This was confirmed by the arrival of Kasumi, a part time employee 
who currently took care of the kitchen until midnight and then would 
assist at the bar until closure time. There was not a lot of customers 
at night, and Hikari had limited the menu available at this hour, so she 
didn't have to handle things herself.

    Removing her cooking apron, Hikari walked out of the kitchen to 
check on the girls. As she had suspected, all tables were now customer-
free and being cleaned by Keiko and Sze-Mi while only two customers were 
left in the more private boots. Glancing at the other side of the room, 
she could see that the bar was full as expected. 

    Ayame, a thirty-year old woman who reminded Hikari a lot of NERV's 
Major Katsuragi, part-time waitress and part-time barmaid, smiled at her 
to indicate that all was fine and lifted a finger to point out that one 
of the four karaoke rooms was currently in use. Hikari nodded and 
returned to the kitchen to give Tokiko, her assistant, a hand. Even with 
two dishwashing machines, there was still a lot of cleaning to do before 
Hikari would deem her kitchen ready for another day. Then, she could 
leave the rest in Keiko and Ayame's hands, take a long soak in the bath 
and hop into bed. She looked forward to it.

    Things didn't really work that way, however, as Ayame came to her as 
she exited the kitchen for what she had hoped would be the last time 
until breakfast.

    "Got a problem."

    Knowing that Ayame was a woman of very few words, Hikari didn't ask 
for details and followed the woman. She didn't really mind, as Ayame had 
proven herself to be very reliable and competent, not to mention hard 
working. She did also complement Keiko well as the younger girl, 
contrarily to Ayame, always had something to say.

    Ayame lead her to a booth where a man was sprawled on a table, with 
half a dozen empty sake bottles around him.

    "Did you try to call a cab for him?" asked Hikari.

    "Says he doesn't want to go home."

    Hikari nodded. This wasn't the first bar Ayame had worked in, 
although it was probably the calmest. She had handled worse cases too. 
However, Hikari was her employer and most likely the woman wanted her 
approval.

    "Didn't pay for those too," added Ayame pointing at the empty sake 
bottles.

    Hikari's right eye twitched. Someone getting too drunk to get out of 
her place on his two feet she could handle, but someone who wouldn't 
pay...

    "Why?!"

    "Got mugged."

    Grabbing the man's shoulder, Ayame pulled him in a sitting position, 
which revealed a swollen eye, numerous bruises and a bleeding lip.

    "Holy shit! This guy really isn't nice to look at!"

    "Keiko!"

    Hikari frowned, considering her options. The best thing was likely 
to get the man to an hospital. She could handle the loss of six sake 
bottles and couldn't really be upset at someone who got beaten up like 
that. Furthermore, there was something about this face that seemed 
familiar...

    "Well, it's true!"

    "Perhaps, but it's not something nice to say about someone who was 
clearly a victim here, Kei-chan. Guess we'll have to try and get the 
guy's name then call for an ambulance, uh?" Hikari asked Ayame.
 
    "Was what I had in mind. Guy's name Ikari Shinji by the way."

    Hikari gasped. That was why that face was so familiar! Now, while 
the bruises made it a bit harder to tell, this did seem like what Shinji 
would look like if she aged the face in her memories by six years.

    "Ikari-kun..."

    "You know that guy Hikari?" asked Keiko, a bit worried. Hikari 
seemed obviously disturbed.

    "Back... back in Tokyo-3..."

    "Is that the guy...?"

    Hikari shook her head. The girls had shared stories about their love 
lives... well, rather stories about Keiko's love life as Hikari's was 
rather empty. She had talked about her first love, back to her days in 
Tokyo-3, and how it had ended.

    "No, that was Touji-kun. Ikari-kun was... a friend."

    Looking at Shinji, she couldn't really tell the girls that this man 
had used to be one of the three Evangelion pilots that had saved all 
mankind. While some of NERV's actions and goals had been heavily judged 
and criticized, mainly their implications in the near Third Impact 
disaster, Evangelion pilots were considered heroes, particularly in 
Japan. It wouldn't do for people to have their images of those saviors 
shattered by the sight of a beaten up drunkard.

    "Oooooh! A friend!" said Keiko with a grin.

    "Cut that out!"

    Hikari's mind was racing as she considered her options. Shinji 
didn't seem hurt too badly, and perhaps it would be best if not too much 
people heard of what had happened to him.

    "Ayame, I'll take care of him myself. We'll close for tonight. 
Keiko, go take the names of the people using the karaoke room and offer 
them a free night, whenever they want. Then you two clean up and you can 
go. I'll take care of him."

    Ayame nodded and returned to the bar, where she announced to her 
customers that they were closing for the night.

    "You're sure that guy won't be a problem?"

    "Don't worry, Kei-chan. Ikari-kun is totally harmless," replied 
Hikari with a smile, remembering with nostalgia some of her days in 
Tokyo-3 and the way Shinji always melted and seemed ready to run away 
under her class rep gaze.

                              - - -

    Everyone had left when Hikari walked out of the kitchen, two mugs in 
hands, one filled with her favorite blend of Cappuccino and the other 
with strong black coffee. She knew of course that coffee was no remedy 
for alchohol intoxication, but if she wanted to know what was going on, 
Hikari had a feeling that she might need something strong to keep Shinji 
up long enough for her to decide what exactly she would do with him. It 
had seemed like a good idea at first to take care of him, but now that 
she was alone...

    Time could change people. And it certainly wouldn't be any different 
for Shinji.

    This *was*, however, Ikari Shinji. A gentle but meek boy who had 
never been able to make a stand for himself.

    But that same boy had also beaten more Angels than any other 
Evangelion pilot and had literally torn apart nine Evangelions in 
frenzied anger. Hikari had seen footage of that battle on TV. It had 
been shown as part of a public inquiry about NERV and its involvement in 
an attempted Third Impact. Even after a few years, she still shuddered 
as she remembered the bloody demise of those Evangelions. At the time, 
it had given her nightmares for days...

    And that hadn't come close to the sight she had seen in the sky, 
above Tokyo-3, where Shinji's Evangelion, looking like a demon from 
hell, had torn apart that giant white Angel that looked like Rei...

    Maybe it wasn't such a good idea. Perhaps she should just call a 
taxi and have Shinji sent to an hotel or something. After all, it wasn't 
too late.

    Only then, did she realize that Shinji had regained conciousness and 
was looking in her direction.

    Perhaps it was too late after all...

    The young man squinted his eyes, or rather his left eye as the right 
was practically swollen shut, in what Hikari guessed was an effort to 
focus on her. Then he tried to get up, but he was so unsteady on his 
feet that he couldn't even take a step toward her, before collapsing to 
the floor. Seeing this, Hikari put her two mugs on the nearest table -- 
the Cappucino she used was an European import and she had no intention 
of risking one drop of it -- and went to Shinji's aid. He was trying to 
get up on his own, but was rather unsuccessful until Hikari gave him a 
hand. While taking care of drunk men was more Ayame's job, Hikari still 
had some experience dealing with this type of problem.

    "Will you be okay, Ikari-kun?"

    "I feel sick... can you tell me where's the nearest restroom."

    In a decision made both to help her old friend and to keep her 
floors clean, Hikari didn't take any chances and led him.

                              - - -

    Hikari was beginning to worry. It had been a bit over ten minutes 
now since she had left alone a pitiful-looking Shinji in the men's 
restroom. She was pondering whether she should go and see if he needed 
any help when she saw him approaching. While still clearly inebriated by 
his unsteady steps, Shinji looked much better than before. He seemed 
more awake, didn't look as sick and had apparently cleaned himself up a 
bit. There were still a good number of bruises on his face, but without 
the blood it didn't look that bad. 

    Actually, if she judged by the left side of his face, which wasn't 
as badly injured than the other side, Shinji had grown to be actually 
rather good looking. Not surprising, since he had already been cute back 
in the days of the Angels War. She could remember vividly a few 
whispered conversations bewteen some of her classmates in the PE 
changing room about how nice his ass looked. Hikari blushed as she 
remembered agreeing with them. She looked up to see a mixture of 
confusion and guilt on the young man's face.

    "Sorry to be a bother..." said Shinji, looking flushed and 
embarrassed. "I... I... don't handle alchohol well. I try to keep that 
in mind, but... it tends to slip. Sorry."

    Hikari smiled. She had been worrying for nothing after all. He was 
the same old Shinji, always apologizing for little things. Although, 
Hikari certainly wished that all her clients were as nice...

    "It's alright, really. You managed to hold on until you were in the 
restroom instead of puking all over the floor, which is a feat 
unfortunately not everyone can manage."

    Shinji stared at her, something apparently troubling him. For a 
moment, he looked at her face, then her chest, then seemed to scrutinize 
every inch of her body not hidden behind the table she was seated at. 
Hikari couldn't help but feel very nervous being stared at like that. 

    What if she had been mistaken about Shinji? Asuka had often called 
him a pervert... what if she had actually been right? Besides, sometimes 
alcohol could change the nicest of man into a wild beast.

    "Do I know you? Because, you look a bit familiar, but... I... I just 
can't think straight. Sorry."

    To emphasize his words, Shinji blinked and let out a long yawn. 
Hikari figured that he was struggling a bit not to go back to sleep on 
her table...

    "You don't have to appologize, Ikari-kun. Here, why don't you sit 
and have a cup of coffee? It should help relieve the bad aftertaste you 
surely have in your mouth after emptying your stomach and I made it 
really strong, so it should wake you up a bit."

    Shinji nodded, and sat down, then politely tasted the coffee. And 
smiled.

    "A bit strong for my taste, but it's good. You... you called me 
'Ikari-kun'... so I do know you, right? I'm really sorry that I can't 
seem to put a name on your face. It's really familiar, but..."

    "Well, I guess you're not to blame. After all, I'm not as flat 
chested as I used to be and my hair used to be brown and done in twin 
ponytails," answered Hikari, grabbing her black hair in both hands and 
bringing it to each side to create the illusion of her old hairstyle.

    Shinji nearly choked on his coffee.

    "Horaki-san!"

    The girl laughed at Shinji's outburst.

    "If this was a quiz, you'd have won a prize. Although, I wouldn't 
mind offering you another cup of coffee if you don't choke on this one."

    "Horaki-san! I..." The initial surprised left Shinji's features to 
be replaced by a more somber mood. "I didn't expect to see you again... 
I didn't expect to see again any of the people from... back then..."

    "I was pretty surprised to see you too. I mean, after the inquiry, 
you and Asuka disappeared without a trace."

    Shinji cringed at those words.

    "All... all I wanted was to move on. And... I... I couldn't face 
Touji."

    Hikari nodded. She knew that Touji held no grudge against Shinji for 
what had happened to him, but she was also pretty sure that a reunion 
between the two would only bring back bad memories on both parties. She 
could understand Shinji's decision to try and forget the past and move 
on. It was a shame Touji hadn't been able to do the same.

    "You... you work here?" asked Shinji, visibly tempting to change 
subject. Hikari didn't object to that. The mention of Touji's name had 
brought back memories she didn't really want to dwell on herself.

    "Not only do I work here, but I also own this pleasant little 
establishment! Welcome to Hikari's Cafe, Shinji! Here you can find the 
best Japanese and European cuisine in all Tokyo-2, a cozy little bar and 
rent a karaoke room for the night! But I think you already tasted what 
our bar has to offer."

    Shinji looked sheepishly at his hands.

    "Err... yeah..." He looked up again, still visibly embarrassed. "It 
really sounds great. I know you loved to cook. It's nice to know that 
you do something you like."

    Hikari nodded.

    "It's hard work, but I'm really happy here. So, what do you do for a 
living, Shinji, now that there's no need for Evangelions?"

    "Just a salaryman for Makajima Heavy Industries. I... I'm not really 
talented at anything, so I don't mind."

    Shinji gulped as Hikari gave him "The Look". For a moment, he had 
the impression that he was back in high school in Tokyo-3.

    "Ikari Shinji! Don't think so little of yourself!"

    Shinji recoiled in his seat at Hikari's outburst. He suddenly 
remembered why Hikari had been a well respected class representative.

    "So... sorry..."

    "No, Ikari-kun, it's okay..." said Hikari, surprised herself by her 
reaction. "I'm the one who should be sorry. It's just that... it pisses 
me off when good people undervalue themselves like that, when they think 
'Oh, I'm not good enough for that'. It's not true, Ikari-kun. If someone 
puts all his heart in making something work, then it will work out. You 
just need to take the chance and give it your all. You can do more than 
a simple salaryman job if you don't like it, Ikari-kun. I mean, despite 
being busy saving the world, you still managed to get passing grades 
back in high school, so you're not dumb."

    "I... I don't know Horaki-san... I... I... maybe I should go..."

    Something was bothering Shinji, Hikari could feel it. Something more 
than simple low esteem. Shinji's opinion of himself had never been high, 
even back in Tokyo-3. No, there was some other reason and he was ready 
to run away to avoid mentioning it.

    The question was... did she have to do something about it? After 
all, Shinji was an adult, and therefore he was responsible of himself. 
She didn't have any obligations over him and he would no doubt want her 
to mind her own business. 

    But... he had been a friend. One of the few links she had to her 
past, and she didn't feel quite ready to see him walk away... at least 
not like that. But she couldn't really force his hand, could she?

    "Are you sure you don't want another cup of coffee?"

    "No, I... thanks, but... it's okay. I've got to go..."

    As Shinji left his seat, Hikari noticed the way he winced and tried 
not to show it. Maybe he was hurt a bit worse than she had expected. Her 
concern only grew as Shinji stumbled and fell to the floor after a few 
steps.

    "Ikari-kun! I don't think you should be walking on your own. Sit 
down, I'll call a taxi to get you home."

    "No!" Shinji shook his head, with a bit too much energy for Hikari's 
taste. "Horaki-san... it's... it's not necessary..."

    "You won't get there on foot," she said sternly.

    "It's alright... I... I won't be going so far anyway. I... I 
remember there was an hotel not far..."

    Hikari frowned.

    "And with what money will you rent a room?"

    Shinji just looked away.

    "I'll... I'll manage..."

    Hikari sighed.

    "You don't want to go home."

    Shinji just remained quiet.

    "You don't have to explain. But you might as well stay the night 
here. Come on... I have a room upstair."

    "Horaki-san..."

    "I won't take no for an answer. Come on..."

    Shinji resigned himself and just remained quiet as Hikari helped him 
get on his feet and carried him upstairs to her apartment.

                              - - -

    "Now, hold on... one more step..."

    Hikari signed in relied. Apparently, the pain Shinji was trying to 
hide, added with the alcohol he had ingested and tiredness, had put him 
in worse shape than she had expected. Shinji had nearly collapsed after 
struggling to walk up half the stairs on his own. So she had been forced 
to help him with the rest, which hadn't been an easy task, as Shinji 
could hardly stand on his own and hadn't really helped her much. At 
least, it was fortunate that Shinji didn't weigh that much, but dragging 
him upstairs had reinforced how tired she was after a full day of work.

    "I really need to find the time to exercise more often," thought 
Hikari bitterly.

    Finally, they reached the top of the stairs and Hikari helped Shinji 
sit down, before taking her keys out. Despite the fact that the stairs 
leading to the second floor of the building were only accessible through 
the kitchen downstairs, Hikari preferred to lock her door, just in case, 
even if she trusted all of her employees.

                              - - -

    For a moment, Shinji found himself struggling not to fall asleep. 
His eyes fluttered a moment, his vision blurring, before he finally gave 
up and kept them closed. He felt so tired, all he wanted was to sleep 
and forget all that had happened today. But he knew that he could fall 
asleep here, not with all the efforts Hikari had made to carry him up 
here. He felt really bad for imposing on her kindness.

    Shinji winced as he applied pressure on one of his sides, the pain 
making his eyes snap open. Just in time to see that Hikari had unlocked 
a door that presumably led to her apartment.

    Ignoring the pain and tiredness, Shinji tried to get up.

    "Ikari-kun, don't..."

    Shinji pushed away Hikari's efforts to help him get up. He just 
couldn't keep selfishly abusing her help like that. Hikari was kind 
enough to wait for him to get up on his own, before, leading him inside 
her apartment. But as they walked inside, Hikari froze in her steps.

    "No! Don't look!"

    Shinji blinked as Hikari pushed him through the doorway and closed 
the door behind him. Chuckling, he opened the door to see Hikari 
struggling to pick up clothing laying all over the place. Scanning the 
apartment, Shinji was surprised by its size. It was twice as big as his 
own apartment in Tokyo-3. But what Shinji found more surprising was how 
it seemed reminiscent of Misato's apartment a few days without him to 
put it in order. The kitchen table was covered in old empty microwave 
food packaging. The living room floor was covered in papers. And of 
course, there was the clothes that Hikari was now holding in her hands.

    "I've been busy..." explained Hikari sheepishly when she noticed 
Shinji staring at her.

    Shinji just nodded. Then blushed, as he pointed toward one piece of 
clothing Hikari had missed.

    "You forgot... those..."

    Hikari gasped as she looked toward the pair of pink satin string 
thong panties Shinji was indicating.

    "Don't look!" shouted Hikari, as she dropped the bundle of clothing 
she was holding to snatch the panties from the floor and hide them in a 
pocket. "You... you shouldn't be up... Why... why don't you sit down 
while I put... that... away?" suggested Hikari as she indicated a large 
sofa in the living room.

    Shinji nodded. Hikari would feel less embarrassed that way and he 
was feeling a bit dizzy again. While heading toward the sofa, Shinji 
picked up one of the papers on the floor. Accounting. It probably 
explained why Hikari was too busy to even take care of her apartment. 
Administrating her cafe while also working there surely took a lot of 
her time. Hikari was someone with a dream and who made every effort to 
obtain it. Unlike him...

    Shinji sat down on the sofa and let out a sigh.

    He closed his eyes. The sofa was rather comfortable and sleep was 
just too tempting.

                              - - -

    Shinji woke up at the sensation of a wet towel against his skin. He 
winced as he felt the fabric against his swollen right eyebrow and 
opened his left eye to see Hikari at his side, apparently cleaning his 
wounds.
 
    "Sorry to wake you up, but I thought it would be better to clean 
this up to make sure it doesn't get infected."

    Shinji didn't know what to think. Someone... an old friend... 
actually cared enough about him to help him.

    "Thank you, Horaki-san."

    "It's nothing. And you know, you're lucky. It's not as worse as it 
looks. It'll heal quickly. Still, by the looks of it, you got severely 
beaten up."
 
    "It wasn't so bad. They only hit me a few times. Think I didn't make 
an interesting target for them when I collapsed after the first few 
punches. And I wasn't looking so great to begin with. Guess they took 
pity on me," added Shinji with a lifeless chuckle.

    "Well, those guys are creeps." Shinji winced as Hikari cleaned the 
last bit of dried blood around his swollen eye. "Sorry."

    "It's alright... I've been hurt worse."

    "Yeah... after all, Asuka used to hit you often pretty hard back in 
Tokyo-3."

    Hikari had expected Shinji to blush. She hadn't expected his 
reaction to be one of shock and fright. Shinji pulled away from her and 
seemed about to bolt from the couch, in the same manner a rabbit would 
try to flee from a fox.

    "Ikari... what's wrong?"

    "Nothing! I... I..."

    Shinji suddenly got up and would have run away, hadn't Hikari 
grabbed one of his wrists. Shinji let out a yelp that was impossible to 
miss this time.

    "That's enough! I know there's more than your face that's hurt! Show 
me!"

    "Horaki-san..."

    "NOW!"

    Cowering under Hikari's gaze and tone of voice, Shinji reluctantly 
pushed back the sleeves of his shirt to reveal multiple purple and 
yellow bruises. While she was no doctor, Hikari could clearly tell that 
most of these dated from a period prior than just a few hours. Hikari 
began to feel rather uneasy as her brain started to put two and two 
together.

    But... no, it just wasn't possible.

    "Take off your shirt..."

    "Horaki-san..."

    "I need to see... please..."

    Very slowly, Shinji began to undo the buttons of his shirt. Hikari 
gasped as he removed it. The could see clearly where Shinji had gotten 
hit by the muggers. His left side showed a lot of fresh bruises. But 
there were also numerous older bruises all over his body, mainly on the 
sides and arms. Hikari also felt very disturbed in seeing distinct and 
fresh marks on his right shoulder that seemed to be bite marks. It was 
easy to imagine many reasons to explain the other injuries, but that 
one...

    "Can... can you turn around?"    

    His back was worse, Hikari noted. There were bruises like on the 
rest of his body, but also two sets of parallel marks; Hikari guessed 
that they had been done by nails. Very certainly, these had hurt badly 
and were very uncomfortable every time Shinji sat on a chair or laid on 
his back.

    "Dear God..."

    Shinji winced as Hikari traced those last injuries with her own 
fingers. They had been made by small hands. Like hers. A woman's hand...

    No, it wasn't possible... but...

    The way he had just reacted to her name before...

    "Not... not all those bruises on your faces are the result of you 
being mugged, aren't they? You... you said that you hadn't been looking 
so good before you were attacked... that's because someone hit you 
before they did. She hit you... didn't she?"

    "It's not her fault Horaki-san... sometimes... she just gets 
angry..."

    Hikari couldn't believe what she was hearing.

    Shinji just looked at the floor in shame.

    "Liar! You must be lying! Asuka... Asuka would never..."

    "It's not her fault," repeated Shinji, tears streaking down his 
cheeks. "I'm clumsy, annoying, useless and I don't always mind my own 
business..."

    Hikari could deny Shinij's words, but... not his pain and tears. 
Dear God... her friend... Asuka... was abusing poor gentle Shinji. 
Hikari shuddered at the thought.

    "Why... why would she do this?"

    "Asuka... She also works at Makajima Heavy Industries. She's the one 
who actually got me hired there. She... she's very ambitious. She's been 
slowly working her way to the top, promotion after promotion. Now, I 
always suspected how she did it, but... today was the first time I saw 
it..."

    The hurt in those eyes... Hikari knew that Shinji had always been a 
sensible person, easily hurt. But this... it went beyond anything she 
had ever imagined. These eyes spoke of deep emotional wounds...

    Shinji gasped as Hikari took one of his hands into his. She gave him 
a reassuring smile, which seemed to put him more at ease.

    She didn't really want to hear more, she didn't need to hear more, 
but she felt Shinji needed it... and she needed to hear it... to 
believe.

    "Go... go on."

    "I had some urgent work to finish, so... I... I missed the tramway 
ride I always take to go home. Since I'd have to wait another half hour 
for the next ride, I... I went to see if Asuka was still in her 
office... in case she decided to go home early today... so that I could 
ride with her. She has her own car you see. So I went to her office... 
and I saw vice-president Ichihoji... kissing her and fondling her 
breasts. I... I couldn't help it... I got angry... and told her that she 
shouldn't do such things just to get a raise. So she got angry 
herself... and told me to mind my own business. Then she beat me. She 
punched me in the face, then, when I lost my balance and fell to the 
floor, she kicked me a few times... I... I couldn't really stand so I 
had to crawl outside her office... People laughed... I... I ran... 
then... I don't know, I walked without knowing where I was going... then 
I got mugged... then... I ended up here..."

    And Shinji went on. It was as if a dam had suddenly burst and now 
everything was coming out. Hikari listened to each stories, knots in her 
stomach getting tighter and tighter with each story. He told her of the 
injuries Asuka sustained in the last battle of Tokyo-3 and how she 
blamed Shinji for everything. How Asuka would punish him for every 
little single thing that didn't work right in the apartment they shared. 
How she used him as a sex toy, even at times when it was obvious that 
she just had sex with someone else. How she threatened to make him lose 
his job if he ever left her.

    In the end, Hikari felt almost overwhelmed by Shinji's pain and was 
about to cry herself. Something inside her wanted to do something for 
him, but... she had no idea what.

    So she settled for things she could do here and now.

    "Ikari... you look exhausted... let me show you to your room..."

    Shinji nodded as he followed her. Normally, he would have been 
impressed by the size of a room for a guestroom, but he was currently 
too emotionally drained to notice anything. Hikari led him to a bed, and 
helped him in, going as far as even tucking him comfortably in the 
covers. She hadn't done anything like that ever since the time her 
little sister had been a child.

    "Goodnight, Ikari-kun."

    Hikari then surprised both herself and Shinji by kissing his 
forehead. Both of them blushed and Hikari wasted no time to head outside 
the room. But Shinji's words stopped her.

    "Horaki-san... thank you... for listening..."

    Hikari turned around and gave him a slight smile.

    "My pleasure, Ikari."

    And then she let him get a well deserved rest.

                              - - -

    Her daily bath was by far Hikari's favorite moment of the day. 
Nothing could give her more satisfaction than the smooth feel of soap 
washing the day's worries as well as the smell of cooking from her skin 
and hair, and nothing could relax her more than a dip in the furo's warm 
water. 

    Ever since she had started living in this place she now considered 
as home, Hikari had been able to enjoy taking a traditional Japanese 
bath, something she hadn't been able to do in her teenage years. While 
the apartment her family had used in Tokyo-3 had been big enough for 
their needs, it had been far from having the accommodations Hikari had 
been used to in her childhood in Izumo. The same had applied to the 
dorms she had used in her college years, especially in France. So when 
she bought Hikari's Cafe, Hikari didn't hesitate to have a furo 
installed in her new home.

    Each time she came into this room, Hikari always found herself 
filled with sweet memories. As far back as she could remember in her 
childhood she and her mother had always bathed together until the Horaki 
family moved to Tokyo-3. It had been a sort of privileged time between 
them, where they could chat while soaking in the warm water. Hikari had 
greatly missed those times when they moved to Tokyo-3, but now, she 
would gladly give up using a furo ever again if it could bring her 
mother back.

    Hikari closed her eyes as she dumped cold water over herself, before 
taking her bathing accessories and going through the usual motions 
performed day after day. She couldn't really find any peace of mind, 
however, as she always did. Her mind was focused on Ikari Shinji, and 
all he had told her. At first, she had been doubtful of him, but now she 
realized that there was no way someone could fake the amount of pain her 
old friend seemed to be in.

    Had she not known Asuka personally back in Tokyo-3, Hikari might 
have doubted Shinji's words. The idea of a woman abusing a man seemed... 
inconceivable. Men were violent, not women. Some men still considered 
themselves superior to women, some even almost considering them as 
slaves. That was particularly true in Japan where the mentalities had 
been slower to change then in occidental countries. Hikari had an aunt 
who had been forced to leave home because her husband beat her up almost 
daily and she feared to inform the authorities. 

    But Hikari had seen Asuka hit Shinji for no reason on too many 
occasions. She had seen her use every opportunity she had to insult and 
belittle Shinji. She had seen the level of anger Asuka could reach. Was 
it really possible that Asuka was an abusive spouse? Was she really the 
kind to keep Shinji around just because he was convenient in bed and 
around the house?

    Sadly, Hikari came to the conclusion that it *was* possible.

    But she couldn't understand why. The Shinji she knew was all she 
could want in a man herself. He was kind and sensitive, to the point 
where it actually hurt him to hurt others. He didn't often stand up for 
himself, but he had proven time and time again that he was more reliable 
than anyone she knew of. When motivated, he could be an incredibly hard 
worker. In a way, he was a lot like Touji, without the rough edge. 

    And he certainly was good looking. He no longer was the small almost 
bishonen boy from high school, but had grown into an attractive man. The 
soft looking face had taken more serious edges, which could probably 
inspire respect if Shinji wanted to. While still not showing much 
muscle, Shinji's body had grown taller and he no longer looked scrawny. 
In fact, those wider and larger shoulders and arms looked rather 
comfortable and Hikari could very easily picture herself snuggling 
against his chest, while being held by him.

    She shook her head as her thoughts began to take a more naughty 
turn.

    Dousing herself in cold water to rinse the soap of her skin, Hikari 
then made her way toward the furo. She sighed in delight as she slipped 
herself into the warm water. The day had been exhausting. If her 
business kept improving, hiring a new cook wouldn't be a convenience, 
but rather a necessity. She'd have to seriously think about looking 
around or putting an ad out.

    And then, there was Shinji... Dragging him upstairs, preparing the 
extra room for him and then actually dragging him there had added a lot 
of strain to an already exhausting day. But, despite the circumstances, 
she was actually glad they had met today. Her relation with her new 
friends was still new and bit shaky, so she still often felt lonely and 
seeing his familiar face a brought back a lot of memories. Some bad... 
like Touji... but most of them good.

    She closed her eyes, letting herself relax and smiling at the 
memories of some of her friends antics. Until she heard Shinji scream.

                              - - -

    Sohryu Asuka Langley sighed as she drove her red Phoenix (2) to her 
designated spot in her apartment complex's underground garage. Finally, 
home. She really looked forward to a shower. She felt dirty. None the 
less, she had come to term with the fact that the business industry was 
led by old perverts who were more interested in young flesh than 
people's skills. She wouldn't let that stop her.

    At least, servicing the vice-president of Makajima Heavy Industries 
was an improvement over Administrating Manager Anno, or rather former 
Administrating Manager since the title now belonged to her. The old fool 
had never seen that coming. Ichihoji, however, would be more careful, so 
Asuka figured that she would have to wait a year or two before 
approaching the President. The thought was almost enough to make her 
sick.

    Asuka had once learned that you couldn't trust anyone else, only 
yourself. She'd forgotten that simple fact for awhile in Tokyo-3, but 
her last battle had burned the savage truth into her soul. If you wanted 
something in life, you had to do it yourself.

    What right did Shinji have to complain about her fucking the vice-
president? It didn't mean anything; just a means to an end. Didn't he 
realize that someone had to pay for the apartment, the food, and make 
sure their jobs were there for them? Since the perverts who ran the 
company couldn't recognize her brains, she used whatever tools she had 
to succeed. If Shinji couldn't see that, then it was too bad for him.

    The need to be better than what she was now, the ambition to become 
more was merciless for her, a beast that judged her every action. But 
she faced it down with equal fortitude. Whatever it took, she would beat 
them all. One day she would stand above them all so she would never have 
to do any of these things again!

    Shinji had never understood this however. It ticked her off that he 
was willing to just accept certain things in his life, that he had no 
fire in him. While she was out degrading herself for their benefit, 
clawing her way up with these perverted freaks he just sat there, 
wasting space. How did he expect to achieve anything if he wasn't 
willing to do what was needed!?

    It was infuriating. She didn't enjoy hurting him, despite how 
frequently it happened. She tried not to release all her frustrations on 
him, but eventually he would get on her nerves and she would explode. 

    It wasn't working out. She was aware of it. They weren't meant to 
live together. But each time she considered kicking him out of her life, 
she remembered that Shinji was inept at living on his own. As a man, 
Shinji was a failure. His whole attitude in NERV's last battle had 
showed it quite clearly. People had invested their trust in him and he 
had utterly failed them. Misato had paid for this error with her life 
and she had lost the use of an eye.
 
    She couldn't trust him. Not with anyone's life and even less his 
own.

    Her musing was interrupted when she noticed a man approaching her. 
Someone familiar. Asuka frowned.

    "About time, Sohryu. I've been waiting for hours. Working late 
trying to gain Ichihoji's favors I presume? Or were you out doing the 
streets like the cheap whore you are?"

    "My, if it isn't *former* Administrating Manager Anno. What an 
unpleasant surprise." Asuka said, putting as much venom she could in her 
voice. "Couldn't even stand a month without sweet little me, uh? Too bad 
that I no longer have a use for you..." She then gave him her best angry 
look. While she didn't expect him to shiver and hide like Shinji, she 
did hope it would emphasize her intentions. "Now, get that ugly face out 
of here before I kick your ass!"

    The man didn't appear threatened; in fact his face twisted into an 
expression of furious anger.

    "You bitch! Because of you I lost everything! My job, my 
reputation... When my wife learned of this, she left with my children! I 
received the divorce papers this morning!"

    Asuka snorted. Like she'd care...

    "Ah, an intelligent woman. Although, why she married you in the 
first place is beyond me..."

    "You ruined my life! Don't you even care about that?"

    Asuka took a pause, as if to seem to reflect on the question.

    "No."

    While she tried to keep a neutral expression, she smiled inwardly at 
the shock that appeared on his pace. She frowned, however, when the man 
closed his eyes, looking resigned.

    "Well then... why should I care about taking you with me?"

    As Asuka wondered what he had just meant by that, the man pulled a 
gun from a pocket of the business trench coat he was wearing.

    "Wait! What are you...?"

    She was interrupted by the sound of gunfire.

                              - - -

    After hastily covering herself with a large towel, Hikari rushed out 
of the furo and into Shinji's room. There had been something about his 
scream, a sort of desperate anguish, which had made her shiver.

    She found the young man curled up in ball on the bed, shaking and 
whimpering. For a moment, Hikari found herself at a loss about what to 
do. The last time she had seen such a sight had been years ago, the 
night following her mother's death. She had gone to her father's room, 
seeking comfort, when she had found him in a similar position. 
Obviously, he had taken her mother's death even harder than she had and 
had finally broken down when he had no longer been required to look 
strong.

    Emulating what she had done all those years ago, Hikari joined 
Shinji on the bed and hugged him, a hug which the young man returned 
fiercely, almost frightening Hikari for an instant. As he buried his 
face in her shoulder and wet hair, Hikari tried to reassure him, to tell 
him that everything was alright now. Apparently, it worked, as Shinji 
soon calmed down.

    "Ikari-kun... what happened?"

    Shinji remained silent, his breathing now regular. For a moment, 
Hikari wondered if he hadn't fallen asleep in her arms.

    "Ikari?"

    "Nightmares... it happens some times. I'm sorry..."

    While she loosened the hug, Hikari didn't try to move away, at least 
not for now. She supposed it was better to give Shinji a few more 
minutes, just to be sure that he had really calmed down.

    "It must have been a very bad dream. Do you want to talk about it?"

    Mentally, Hikari kicked herself for asking. She didn't really want 
to pry into Shinji's life, and she wasn't sure she wanted to know what 
could have disturbed him so much. But it was a question born of habit; 
after their mother's death, her little sister Nozomi had developed a 
tendency of coming into her bed after being waken by a nightmare.

    "Kaworu... Misato... Rei... Bad memories. I'd rather not talk about 
it."

    "It's alright..."

    While she didn't know anything about someone called Kaworu, she 
could guess why the two other persons would be part of Shinji's 
nightmares. The fate of Major Katsuragi had been revealed when the JSSDF 
made a public apology in the take over attempt of NERV, which had played 
a role in the near success of a Third Impact. It had been said the Major 
had been killed in the line of duty, in a valiant effort to protect one 
of the Evangelion Pilots. Ikari Shinji. 

    As for Rei... while there had been testimonies that the First 
Children had been seen afterward, the official word was that she had 
sacrificed herself to kill the Sixteenth Angel. Although, Hikari had 
some doubts about that, considering how that giant white Angel, which 
had almost triggered Third Impact, had looked just like Rei.

    "Thank you."

    Hikari blinked at those words, realizing that she had been lost in 
thought again. She then realized that he was staring at her face. She 
found herself locking her gaze on those soft dark blue eyes, which spoke 
of pain and turmoil, but also gratitude. Those beautiful blue eyes. 
Before she realized what she was doing, she lowered her lips toward his.

    Shinji broke away from her embrace, eyes wide. Hikari gasped 
herself, not believing what she had done. She had kissed him! She had 
kissed someone who was living with a girl who had once been her best 
friend!

    "Ikari-kun, I'm..."

    A girl who couldn't appreciate what she had and didn't deserve him.

    "I'm sorry..."

    The feel of his lips against hers had felt so nice... it took Hikari 
all her willpower not to jump on him and kiss him again, forcefully if 
needed.

    "I should leave...

    She was just about to get off the bed when Shinji grabbed her 
shoulders and drew her to him. For an instant, their eyes met again, and 
this time, Hikari read a hunger and longing she hadn't seen before.

    Shinji was the one who initiated this new kiss, and Hikari found 
herself melting into his arms as he deepened it. They shared a soft, 
languorous kiss, unlike anything she had ever experienced before. A kind 
of kiss that didn't make her feel warm with arousal, but rather 
something else. Not a burning heat, but rather a comfortable warmth.

    "Don't leave," he whispered to her hear, before hugging her close, 
then making her lay on the bed at his side, his arms embracing her, his 
head resting against one of her shoulders. It felt strange to lay this 
way in bed against someone, yet... it also felt... very nice.

    With a smile on her face, Hikari soon followed Shinji into sleep.

    Shinji had no more nightmares that night.

                              - - -

    Asuka's eyesight was going blurry, making it hard for her to focus 
on the only thing in her field of vision, the ceiling of the underground 
parking lot. She realized it wouldn't be long now since she was feeling 
as cold as the concrete she was laying on. Any warmth she might have 
felt was escaping her body in a pool of red all around her.

    While she couldn't look around, she knew that Anno was also laying 
on the concrete. There had been another gunshot after she had fallen. He 
probably had a gaping bloody hole in his skull.

    It was strange that she was still aware of her surroundings, she 
mused. Shouldn't the shock of a bullet in her stomach and another in one 
of her lungs have knocked her out? But then again, she was used to worse 
pain, even if the last time had been six years ago. But now... she just 
felt numb. Physically and mentally. She was dying, she knew it, and this 
time no amount of struggle would change that fact.

    It was pathetic. She had survived fighting giant monsters, just to 
be killed by mere 9mm bullets. 

    Often in the past, she had found Shinji mutter something about 
mankind being the eighteenth Angel, when he was either showing disgust 
toward her or himself. It was something Misato had apparently told him 
before her death. Asuka had never realized how true it was until now.

    Man didn't need Angels to ruin its life... all it needed was itself.

    As she thought about Shinji she felt an odd kind of relief that 
she'd chased him away earlier. If anything could bring a bit of 
consolation to her, it was the knowledge that he would still be alive. 
Had he been here with her, Anno might just have killed him as well.

    But then again, maybe he would have been able to save her. He had 
always managed to do so somehow. Too bad she always managed to wreck his 
efforts.

    "I guess this is my punishment", she thought, as tears slid down her 
cheeks. "I couldn't never love people. I didn't have that quality. I 
could only reject the entire world, hurt myself and others." She closed 
her eyes, knowing that her time was about over. "I'm sorry," she 
thought, although not knowing to whom she was apologizing.

    It was the last thought that came to her before darkness enveloped 
her like a blanket.

                              - - -

    She was dreaming.

    She was in a mist covered forest, walking a narrowed path. The mist 
wasn't too thick however, so Hikari never found herself having problem 
seeing where she was going.

    She just had no idea of what her destination was.

    Not to mention that it was a bit chilly only wearing a simple 
sundress. One she didn't own and had never worn before in her life. But 
since she was dreaming, it didn't really matter, did it?

    It was strange. It was the first time Hikari could recall being 
actually aware that she was dreaming.

    Soon, she emerged from the forest to end up on a small hill. Before 
her was a small clearing, lush green grass and tall trees around it. 
Hikari gasped at the sight before her. Not at the landscape, but rather 
at a person she could see standing in the clearing. Herself. She was 
staring at an older version of herself, perhaps by five to ten years. 
Her hair was back to its original color, she noted.

    The Hikari in front of her was laying a blanket on the ground. 
Hikari gasped, as Shinji walked by her side, apparently unaware of her, 
carrying a heavy basket. Hikari blinked as that Shinji, also older, 
grabbed her copy's waist with his free hand and kissed her neck, before 
the other Hikari turned around and kissed him on the lips.

    "Mama! Papa!"

    Hikari felt her heart skip a beat as another figure, this time 
smaller, walked past her. It was a little girl, only a few years old, 
wearing a white and blue sundress. Her brown hair was done in a familiar 
twin ponytails style. She hugged the older Hikari, before Shinji grabbed 
her and made her pulled her in the air, spinning on himself, making the 
child giggle in delight.

    This dream was simply eerie. Without giving it much thought, Hikari 
walked toward the people standing before her and gave the child a good 
look. She gasped, as she recognized on her face familiar freckles, as 
well as other familiar traits, mixed with dark blue eyes.

    "My God..."

    Hikari nearly collapsed, this whole scene nearly overwhelming.

    "What is this?"

    If someone heard her question, that person remained quiet.

                              - - -

    Hikari woke up with a start. What a weird dream!

    She quickly relaxed however, relishing in the feeling of being 
snuggled against a man. It was very warm... very comfortable. It was 
something she had longed for a while, a simple tender act she had wished 
for, but had begun to doubt she would ever experience. Even if this 
setting wasn't the one she had dreamed of, to wake up in the arms of 
someone she loved and loved her back, she still felt a certain feeling 
of fulfillment. Even if this was a moment not meant to last, even if 
this was only an illusion, a twist of reality... it still felt good.

    But... it could become reality...

    It was... Hikari didn't know if the thought was either scary or 
attractive. Better try to forget that stupid dream. Her, perhaps married 
to Shinji, and being the mother of his child?

    That was definitely too wild of a dream...

    Opening her eyes, she carefully watched his sleeping face. He seemed 
a completely different person than the Shinji she had seen hours 
earlier. He seemed... at peace, as if all his troubles no longer 
existed. Hikari surprised herself in actually wishing that she could see 
him this way more often.

    Eventually, her ears picked up the faint sound of her alarm coming 
from her bedroom. Time to prepare for a new day. Trying to avoid sudden 
movements, Hikari slowly freed herself from the arm which was draped 
over her and crawled out of the bed. Shinji could be entitled for a bit 
more sleep.

    The woman blushed as she suddenly realized that she had spent the 
night in the same bed as Shinji only wearing a bath towel. Quietly, but 
as fast as possible, she went to her room in search of something to put 
on and to turn off her alarm.

                              - - -

    A few careful steps alerted Hikari that Shinji was up. And that he 
was trying to leave without her noticing.

    "Now, Ikari-kun, it's very impolite to leave without saying a word, 
especially when your host is cooking breakfast for you," said Hikari 
without drawing away her attention from her cooking. "Why don't you sit 
down, it's almost ready."

    Hesitant steps told Hikari that Shinji did as she had told him.

    "I... I'm sorry... Not just for that, but... yesterday night, I... 
I..."

    Hikari turned around with two plates and a smile on her face. Shinji 
was standing in front of the kitchen table, a sheepish expression on his 
face.

    "It's alright, Shinji. I shouldn't have kissed you first. Besides... 
you're a good kisser."

    Shinji turned crimson at that remark.

    "Come on, sit down. I don't know what you usually like, so I made a 
traditional Japanese breakfast," explained Hikari as she put down a 
plate, on which stood a bowl of miso soup, a bowl of rice and a plate of 
grilled fish, as well as a cup of tea. "Although, I thought that tea 
would be more suitable than sake considering how much you had last 
night. Hope you like earl grey, that's all I had left. I'm more of a 
coffee person."

    Finally, Shinji gave her a small smile as he sat down and picked up 
the hot cup of tea.

    "She rarely drank anything other beer, but... earl grey was Misato-
san's favorite..."

    Hadn't Shinji been smiling, Hikari would have felt very bad for 
bringing up something that would remind him of the past. It was 
fortunate, however, that this seemed to bring back only good memories.

    "So... what are you going to do, Ikari-kun?"

    "What... what do you mean?"

    "Asuka."

    Shinji dropped his chopsticks. It was a good thing Hikari had asked 
before he had time to pick some rice.

    "Have you ever considered leaving her?"

    Mentally, Hikari kicked herself. What was she doing? She shouldn't 
get involved in this...

    Shinji surprised her by taking a very serious expression.

    "I can't."

    Hikari rose an eyebrow.

    "Why?"

    Somehow, she expected him to answer that it was because he loved 
her. It would be like him... to take such weight on his shoulder for 
such a reason.

    "If I do that, I won't have a home or work anymore."

    This surprised Hikari. Apparently, Shinji had given the idea some 
thought.

    "Why would you find yourself without work?"

    "She can have me fired. She said she would if I left."

    Hikari gasped. Did Asuka really go that far? Using blackmail over 
her own....

    But then again, the way Shinji had described things to her, Shinji 
was at most a slave for Asuka. So why wouldn't she use blackmail on him?

    "Shinji... do you like that job? The way you spoke of it 
yesterday..."

    Shinji just looked down at his plate, chopsticks picking on his 
fish.

    "I... There's nothing else I can do... I'm not good at anything..."

    Hikari gave him a scowl, which was missed entirely by a Shinji still 
looking at his food. But it occurred to her that perhaps it was true in 
a way. Shinji lacked too much self assurance to get any important job. 
She actually doubted that he would seriously look for one.

    "Surely Shinji, you must be good at something! There must be 
something you like doing!"

    "I... I'm not good at anything... The only thing I do right is clean 
and cook..."

    Something clicked in Hikari's mind. Cook. Shinji could cook. She 
could remember how delicious the food was the few times she had been 
invited to eat at the Katsuragi household back in Tokyo-3. The few times 
she had exchanged recipes with Shinji...

    Hikari got up and slammed her palms against the table, the shock 
nearly causing Shinji to jump through the roof.

    "I know! You can cook for me! I've been thinking of hiring a second 
cook for a few weeks now... you'd be perfect for the job!"

    Shinji blinked a few times, as the words registered in his brain.

    "But... but... but... I... I'm not that good. Be... besides I don't 
know the sort of dish you probably have here."

    Hikari didn't waste time on any of Shinji's feeble attempts of 
protest.
 
    "You can learn! You have the ability, I remember how good your food 
tastes. I can teach you the dishes and you can watch me work. And in the 
mean time you can work on the more simple dishes, which will still take 
away a lot of my workload. Yes, it's perfect! And... and... you can even 
stay here until you find a new place!"

    "But... but..."

    "Look around, this place is huge. I can take in a roommate for some 
time. And... to be honest... the company would be welcomed."

    "Hikari, I..."

    Hikari gave Shinji a warm smile.

    "If you're not interested or simply don't want to do this, it's 
alright. I can't force you. But I think it's a great idea, so why don't 
you at least take some time to ponder on it. You don't have to answer 
right away."

    Shinji nodded, obviously relieved.

    "Listen, I'll have to go soon to open for breakfast. Why don't you 
stay here to take some time to think. I don't think you can go to work 
with a bloodstained shirt. And I doubt that you can go to your 
apartment, then get to work without being late anyway. So why don't you 
call in sick? To at least give yourself some time... I'll be back after 
the breakfast rush, what do you say?"

    "A... alright."

    "Good."

    Hikari finished her meal and then put her plate away to be washed 
later.

    "I'll be back soon, Ikari-kun."

    Shinji nodded, finishing his meal himself. She noted he seemed more 
relaxed now. Maybe there was hope for him after all.

    She left him behind, wondering, as she had often done since 
yesterday, what exactly she was thinking and what she was getting 
herself into.

                              - - -

    A wide smile on her face, Hikari entered the restaurant section of 
the building to see Keiko and Sze-Mi already hard at work. While neither 
of then could handle some of the more complicated Japanese meals and 
most of the foreign ones, they were sufficiently skilled to handle the 
breakfast section of Hikari's Cafe's menu. 

    A quick look around confirmed that the girls had already set up the 
place and that two of Hikari's regular early customers, a salaryman 
answering to the name Tanaka and mister Hida, a police officer from her 
district, were at their usual tables, sipping hot coffee and reading the 
daily paper. Hikari waved at mister Hida who smiled back. Tanaka's eyes 
never left his paper, but Hikari was used to that.

    Now that she had gone through the usual morning ritual, Hikari put 
on her apron and went to supervise the girls' work. She could have taken 
over, but she knew that the girls loved to help in the kitchen now and 
then, especially Sze-Mi for whom it seemed like a great ego boost.

    "Hi girls! Umm... that miso soup smells good."

    "Really? Thank you, Horaki-san," answered a beaming Sze-Mi, before 
giving her a polite bow. "And good morning to you too."

    "Yo! boss..."

    Hikari watched Keiko turn to great her, then frown. Hikari suddenly 
felt very self conscious by the way Keiko glared at her.

    "Hikariiiii-chan... Did you get laid last night?"

    Hikari gasped while Sze-Mi almost dropped a bowl she was holding.

    "WHAT?!" chorused both girls.

    "That goofy grin, the way you're almost oozing happiness and 
contentment... someone here got laid last night and it isn't just me."

    "Well... uh..."

    Sze-Mi blushed and seemed to suddenly find her shoes quite 
interesting. Keiko groaned.

    "Not you, Mi-chan! I mean Hi-chan!"

    "Ooh! Congratulations sempai!"

    Hikari tried to look upset at the girls for thinking such a thing, 
but she knew she was blushing too.

    "I didn't... I... I didn't... do anything of the sort!" Hikari 
finally managed to blurt out.

    "Umm.. this sounds fishy..."

    Hikari gulped.

    "I... I swear I didn't... have sex last night. Or any previous night 
for that matter."

    Keiko frowned again.

    "There's still 'man' written all over you. Heck, I'm sure if I were 
to take a sniff at you..."

    "I DO NOT SMELL! Now, back to work!"

    Sze-Mi cringed and turned back to her soup.

    "Hai, hai..." just shrugged Keiko.

    Deep down, however, Hikari knew that Keiko was partly right. She 
felt happy, almost giddy. It was probably stupid to be like this just 
because she had slept in a man's arms, especially considering that it 
hadn't meant anything, but she couldn't help it.

    "Don't worry, Kei-chan," said Hikari as she gave her a smile, before 
picking up a frying pan. "If something does happen, you'll be the first 
I'll tell."

    "You better."

    Both girls giggled.

    "Life is good," thought Hikari with a smile. 

                              - - -

    Hikari gave her watch a dark look. Nine past ten. Somehow, breakfast 
time had seemed to keep stretching over and over. Or was it that she had 
never been in a hurry before and had never noticed the time? Hopefully, 
it hadn't been too long of a wait for Shinji. Maybe he had gone back to 
sleep? Three more hours would probably have done him good.

    The young woman gasped as she entered the apartment. What had just 
happened here? It was as if a tornado had gone through the place, but 
instead of putting everything in disarray, it had put everything in 
order. She blinked in disbelief as she realized that she could see her 
faint reflection on the now polished wooden floor.

    Obviously, such a feat was Shinji's work. There were no other 
explanations. Then, something occurred to her and a feeling of dread 
washed over her.

    "Oh no..."

    In an instant, Hikari was in the living room to find the previously 
spread, but otherwise organized in her mind, paper used for the cafe's 
accounting. It was lying on a neat pile on a low table.

    "No..."

    Hikari felt like crying... days of work, ruined.

    She picked up the pile and looked through it, then blinked in 
disbelief. She skipped directly to the last page to see that everything 
had been done, apparently impeccably, accurate.

    "My God..."

    Finally relaxing, Hikari realized that there was a familiar sound 
coming from the kitchen.

    "Not that too..."

    Hikari raced there to find Shinji wearing her pink apron and having 
just completed washing her dishes. Shinji turned around to smile lightly 
at her gaping form.

    "Welcome back."

    Once again, Hikari found herself staring in disbelief. Was that the 
same Shinji she had left alone earlier this morning? There was no way he 
could have cleaned her apartment, done her accounting and washed her 
dishes on so little time. It wasn't humanly possible! Or was it?

    "How...? What...?"

    Somehow, Shinji seemed to guess what she was asking.

    "I felt guilty abusing of your generosity, so I thought I could lend 
an hand. This was really nothing compared to the messes I used to clean 
up in Tokyo-3."

    Hikari had heard rumors about the Katsuragi household, but still...

    "And this? How do you explain this?" she asked as she showed him her 
accounting papers.

    "Oh, that... I noticed a few errors last night, so I thought I might 
help with that too."

    "But... how..."

    "I've worked for the finance department at Makajima Heavy Industries 
for about a year. That was my first assignment. It was tedious work, but 
I guess I still learned some stuff... Would have been quicker with a 
computer however. I was surprised to see that you still do all that by 
hand."

    Hikari looked at the floor in shame.

    "Well... I didn't quite understand how the software worked. I was 
supposed to read the manual, but I never took the time and doing it by 
hand seemed faster than trying to struggling to make it work..."

    Shinji nodded.

    "I can show you some time, if you'd like."

    "Really?"

    Shinji smiled. Hikari didn't really understand how, but somehow, he 
seemed happier and more at peace now. Perhaps an effect of losing 
himself in all that chore work? Either way, she preferred him that way. 
He was rather cute when he smiled.

    "Thank you," she whispered, then surprised both herself and Shinji 
by kissing his cheek. Both of them turned crimson red, embarrassed by 
that gesture, even if it was only a friendly one. Still, Shinji touched 
the spot where her lips has touched him, in mild disbelief, while Hikari 
looked away and stared at the floor. "Dear God, I feel like I'm turning 
back into a high school girl or something," she thought.

    A long tension filled moment passed, this single act reminding the 
both of them of the kiss they had shared the previous night.

    "Hikari..."

    The mention of her name startled the girl, who looked back to see 
Shinji staring at her seriously. Thoughts of the kiss had also reminded 
him of the reason why he was standing there in the first place.

    "The proposition you made me... I'd like to try. I've called the 
office and was granted a week of vacation time I had been due to take a 
while back. I want to try this... I want to try if I can work here... 
You're right, I don't like it there, but I always liked cooking, so, 
maybe..."

    Hikari beamed at that. And not only at the thought of *finally* 
having dedicated some help in the kitchen.

    "And... her? How are you going to deal with her?"

    Shinji frowned, but his expression didn't lose it's seriousness. If 
anything else, it seemed to get more determined.

    "I... I'll leave her a note saying that I'm leaving to visit Father. 
She hates that place (3), so she won't ask to come."

    Now, it was Hikari's time to frown.

    "So you're going to lie to her."

    "I... I can't face her... not now. If this works, I guess..." 
answered Shinji sheepishly.

    Hikari's expression softened.

    "I guess I understand. You can try this first, then... well, we'll 
see what happens, alright?"

    Shinji nodded in relief, while Hikari found herself wondering once 
again why she was involving herself in all this.

    She sighed.
 
    "Would you like me to accompany you?"

    Shinji nodded, relief again evident on his face.

                              - - -

    While uneventful, the trip to Shinji's place surprised Hikari as 
they found themselves riding a tramway all the way through Tokyo-2 to 
reach the opposite side of the city. She hadn't expected Shinji to live 
so far. No wonder their paths hadn't crossed until now. In fact, it was 
sheer luck that they had met at all.

    As if destined by fate.

    Quickly, Hikari tried to chase that thought from her mind. She 
believed in free will and not destiny. And she wasn't sure what to think 
of the idea of a fated meeting.

    The stop where they got off was relatively close to where Shinji 
lived, as it took less then five minutes by foot. It was a rather dense 
residential area where most of the buildings were multilevel apartment 
blocks.

    "It's here," said Shinji as they stopped in front of a modern and 
well kept building. It was clear that it housed above average 
apartments, only judging by the fact that it was equipped with an 
underground parking lot. The floor tiles in the hallway and nice carpets 
on the higher levels confirmed it. That place wasn't just for your 
average salaryman.

    They took the elevator to the fifth floor, and Hikari followed 
Shinji, until he stopped in front of a door. Apartment 55 she noted.

    "If her career is as important to her as you say, I doubt she'll be 
here," said Hikari, guessing what was worrying Shinji.

    "I guess you're right..."

    Pulling out a keycard Shinji slid it into its slot and entered a 
code, opening the door for them.

    Hikari followed Shinji inside, to find herself in front of a sight 
similar to one she had witnessed earlier; a clean apartment. Actually, 
her mind noted that this place nearly sparkled, in contrast to the 
'simply' clean state of her apartment. One could tell that this place 
was meticulously taken care of. Hikari also noted how well furnished the 
place was, and gasped as she mentally added the cost of a few things 
like the expensive wooden kitchen table and chair set, or the leather 
couch in the living room, which sat in front of a home theater set. She 
nearly bumped into Shinji as she kept walking, her mind wandering.

    "Something wrong?" she asked, as she noticed that Shinji was 
frowning.

    "It's strange... Asuka didn't come back last night..."

    "How can you tell?" asked Hikari, as she looked closer at the living 
room, gaping at the huge forty-inch TV. On a storage shelf, she saw 
numerous video and music disks, as well as a dozen pictures, all of 
Asuka. In some, she was wearing a feminine business suit, on others she 
wore more casual dressing. Hikari glared at one in particular where 
Asuka only wore a skimpy bikini, which barely hid ample breasts. She 
felt pangs of jealousy, as she compared the redhead's figure to her own 
modest one.

    Until she noticed that Asuka wasn't smiling in any of the pictures.

    "She doesn't do the dishes..." replied Shinji, worry evident in his 
voice.

    At first, Hikari didn't get what he had meant, until she joined him 
in the kitchen, very well equipped, part of her mind noted with envy, 
and realized that there was no empty dirty dishes around.

    "Maybe she ate outside this morning. After all, I bet she doesn't 
cook..."

    "Perhaps..."

    Hikari frowned.

    "Why worry about her anyway? You still owe her that," she said, 
lightly touching Shinji's still bruised eye, which made him wince.

    "I guess... Let's... let's get this over with."

    "Good idea."

    Like the apartment, Shinji's room was spotless. The sight, however, 
greatly disturbed Hikari. Unlike the rest of the apartment, it was 
almost completely bare. The furniture only consisted of a king sized 
bed, western style and with plain gray bedding, a chest of drawers and a 
bedside table, on which stood an alarm clock. There was no sign of life 
in this room, nothing to reflect the soul of it's owner. No posters, 
paintings, or pictures. No books or crumpled magazines, none of the 
little useless sentimental knick-knacks one would normally find in 
someone's private sanctuary. 

    Nothing. 

    The extra rooms in her own place had more life than this room, 
despite being unused. Hikari felt her eyes grow wet, as she witnessed 
first hand just how empty Shinji's life seemed to be. It was almost a 
wonder that he was still alive. Such a room gave the impression that its 
owner had no hope in life.

    She felt like saying something, but she found herself at a loss of 
what to say. And somehow, words seemed meaningless here.

    While Hikari had been looking around, Shinji had walked toward a 
wardrobe, from which he had pulled two duffel bags. Hikari moved behind 
him to take a look. Like the rest of the room, it was limited to the 
strict minimum. Sets of pants, shirts and jackets, one for each day of 
the week. An extra pair of shoes at the bottom. A heavy coat, for those 
days where it was cold outside.

    Shinji picked up three sets of clothes, folding them with care so 
that the fabric wouldn't wrinkle. Then he closed the wardrobe and moved 
toward the set of drawers. From there, he picked up more casual clothing 
such as sweaters, t-shirts, shorts and jeans, then picked up a good 
number of socks and some underwear Hikari tried to avoid looking at. He 
then surprised Hikari by reaching under a pile of clothes in a drawer 
and pulling two frames.

    "What are those?"

    Shinji simply handed the frames to Hikari.

    "Those are..."

    To the young woman's surprise, the frames held two pictures. The 
first one was a group picture, which had been taken at a party she had 
attended to celebrate Katsuragi Misato's promotion to the rank of major, 
over six years ago. On the picture she recognized herself, as well as 
Shinji, Asuka, Kensuke, Touji, the Major and blond woman she couldn't 
quite remember the name. The picture had been taken by that mister Kaji 
Asuka had fancied so much. Hikari felt contradictory emotions as this 
picture brought back good and bad memories.

    The other picture was a very small one, only an inch by an inch of 
an half, taking only a small portion of the frame. It showed a familiar 
blue haired girl with red eyes, looking as impassible as she always had.

    "How did you get those pictures?"

    "Misato gave them to me. I had been keeping them in my locker, at 
NERV headquarters. It helped, sometimes, when I would ask myself why I 
was riding that thing. That's why they weren't destroyed along with 
Tokyo-3."

    "I see..."

    Hikari smiled as she handed the frames back to Shinji. There was 
some hope for him after all, if he had managed to keep those few 
precious memories all this time.

    "I think I have all I need. I'll leave a note for Asuka, then we can 
leave."

    Hikari nodded. She didn't want to stay here too long. It felt wrong 
somehow, coming inside the home of a person she somewhat wanted to 
separate Shinji from.

    Written in clean and clear writing, Shinji's note had been explicit 
and to the point. "Gone to see Father." If felt rather cold, but Hikari 
couldn't really blame Shinji. And despite everything, she hoped that 
these weren't the last words which would be exchanged between Shinji and 
Asuka. Although, she doubted it. Already Hikari feared to face the 
German girl once Asuka learned Shinji had moved into her home rather 
than being in Kyoto with his father. She had no doubt that Asuka would 
eventually know everything; Shinji wouldn't be able to lie to her.

    But then again, if what Shinji had said was true, and Hikari found 
herself doubting him less and less, Asuka was the one who was cheating 
on him. Not that they were that much of a couple in the first place it 
seemed...

    They were about to leave when the door buzzer made itself heard. 
Shinji nearly panicked, until Hikari pointed out that Asuka wouldn't 
ring at her own door.

    Still, Hikari thought it would be better to answer the door instead 
of a still nervous Shinji. She pushed the open button and the door slid 
open to reveal a black haired woman in a police uniform. Immediately, 
Hikari got a bad feeling about this. The police rarely visited without 
reason.

    "Mister Ikari Shinji?" questioned the police officer, looking past 
Hikari and toward Shinji.

    "Y... yes? What... what can I do for you?" asked Shinji, as he 
approached the door.

    "My name is Kobayakawa Miyuki, I'm from the Bukooto Precinct. You 
share this apartment with a Sohryu Asuka Langley, correct?"

    Shinji simply nodded.

    "Can I come in? There's a few things I need to tell you."

    "Su.... sure. Would... would you like some tea?"

    The officer blinked, then smiled.

    "Thank you, I would love to."

    As Shinji lead the female officer toward the kitchen, Hikari's 
worries grew as she noticed the smile on the woman's face fade once 
Shinji wasn't looking at her, to be replaced by a sad look in her blue 
eyes. Something told Hikari that she would have to call the restaurant 
and tell them to close for the day. She had the feeling that she 
wouldn't make it back for lunch time.

                              - - -

    The sky was gray and heavy, as if it had sensed the reason why the 
couple stood in front of the black marker. Hikari found herself 
disturbed by the lack of people who had come to pay their respects to 
Asuka. Were Shinji and herself the only ones who had cared about the 
German woman? 

    For a moment, Hikari wondered if this was the reason why things had 
gone so wrong. Would things had been different if someone had been there 
for Asuka, as a friend? Would Asuka's life had been the same if she had 
never left for college? Hikari chased those thoughts away. Wondering 
about 'what if' never brought anything good.

    As they stood in silence, Hikari looked at Shinji. She frowned. He 
was staring at the marker, but there was something weird about his whole 
composure. His gaze was focused, his face serious. She had expected many 
reactions from Shinji, but not one of apparent cold indifference. Had 
she ever entered NERV Headquarters, Hikari would have been amazed at how 
much Shinji was currently looking like his father.

    "There was a time I used to love her, Horaki-san," finally said 
Shinji after nearly ten long minutes. "So, I should be sad, shouldn't I? 
I should be sad, but I'm not. I tried to cry. I tried to feel hurt. I 
really tried. But I can't. All I can feel is relieved. Does that make me 
a monster, Horaki-san?"

    Hikari gasped. Was Shinji really feeling this way?

    "No! You're... you're no monster, Ikari! I don't know any one as 
sensible and nice as you. I think... that some times, things just don't 
work out. Like me and Touji."

    Shinji just stood there, looking down at the marker. Hikari 
approached him and put a hand on his shoulder, surprising Shinji by 
their close proximity.

    "Just let it go."

    Shinji nodded and gave Hikari a look she had learned to recognize as 
a silent thank you. Approaching the marker, he kneeled down and 
deposited a rose in front of it. He did the same for two other markers 
standing at the left of Asuka's. They were marked "Katsuragi Misato" and 
"Ayanami Rei". This done, Shinji faced the middle marker and pulled from 
his pocket a white cross.

    "I'm sorry, Misato-san. I failed again. No... I failed her six years 
ago. I... I don't know what I'll do now. But... I hope I can one day 
make you proud."

    Finally, Shinji was crying, but Hikari wondered if it was a good 
thing or not. Then again, crying was better then letting his feelings 
eat him from the inside. Shinji now had a new chance. Hikari just 
regretted that Shinji hadn't been able to grasp it while Asuka had been 
alive. It might have been harder for him, but it probably would have 
felt better in the end.

    "Come," said Hikari, sensing that Shinji was done. "Let's go home."

                              - - -

    As the car speeded on the rarely used road, the landscape changed 
quickly, the desolate land of death that had once be proudly known as 
Tokyo-3 being replaced by empty plains, still recovering from the blow 
dealt by Second Impact on each side of the road, and the hint of Tokyo-
2's highest towers far ahead. The car's engine roared as Shinji pushed 
further on the accelerator, the wind blew against the car's passengers 
faces and hair, and the hands of one scared Horaki Hikari were holding 
on her seat and door so tightly that her knuckles were turning white. 

    Paralyzed by fright, she found herself unable to expressed them, 
until Shinji made one sudden move with the steering wheel to avoid 
crashing against a car moving only a bit faster then the speed legally 
allowed on this road.

    Unfortunately, Hikari's frightened "eep" was drowned out by the 
sound of the sport car's engine.

    Finally managing to move, Hikari looked at her right to see a 
contented smile on Shinji's face. Despite the insane speed he was 
driving, he looked calm, at peace and not in the least concerned by 
anything, even going as far as driving only using one hand. While Hikari 
was glad to see him smile, she couldn't help but worry for her life.

    What if... what if the latest events had been too much for Shinji? 
What if he had decided to finish it all, to kill himself in a 
spectacular car crash? Maybe the peaceful expression on Shinji's face 
wasn't one caused by the joy of the rush of driving this car like a 
madman, but rather one of resignation to his fate? Hikari tried to push 
those thoughts aside. While a reckless Shinji wasn't a common sight, it 
was more believable than the idea of a Shinji intending to take her with 
him into death.

    Right?

    "Aren't... aren't we going a bit too fast?" Hikari finally managed 
to stutter out.

    "We're barely over the two hundred kilometers per hour. This car can 
handle much more abuse," just casually replied Shinji, before making a 
sharp motion with the steering wheel, to avoid another car.

    "I'm gonna die..." mentally whimpered Hikari.

    Thankfully, they soon reached the outskirts of Tokyo-2 and the 
growing traffic forced Shinji to slow down. But he's driving was still 
too recklessly for Hikari's taste.

    "I... I didn't know you could drive. When did you learn?" 
tentatively asked Hikari.

    Perhaps if she got him to talk, he would slow down a bit? Then 
again, breaking his concentration might not be such a good idea after 
all. But it was already too late.

    "Well, Asuka forced me to learn, just in case. Like when she would 
go to a bar and end up too drunk to drive. Although she would never let 
me drive this car unless it was really necessary. I never had the chance 
to enjoy it as I did today. Reminds me of the old times, when I was 
forced to ride with Misato-san," explained Shinji. "Her driving was wild 
and scary," he added with a chuckle.

    The smile that had appeared on Shinji's face when he had said those 
words quickly faded as his expression sobered, most likely because of 
the happy memories had also brought back less enjoyable ones. Hikari 
felt sorry for bringing that up. It was so hard trying to know more 
about him without bringing back painful memories. Perhaps she should 
refrain herself from asking personal questions until some wounds had a 
bit more time to heal...

    "Oh... I see..."

    "I hope I didn't scare you too much. But I wanted to enjoy this car 
one last time..."

    "No, it's... it's alright. It was... fun," Hikari lied. "But why 
would this be the last time?" she asked worryingly. There were a few 
ways to interpret these words, and some of those she didn't like.

    "Too much trouble. I don't want to go through the expenses and 
hassle necessary to take care of this car. I don't really need it, and 
here, in the middle of Tokyo-2, it's more of a pain than anything else. 
Besides... it was Asuka's toy, not mine."

    "I see..."

    For a moment, they rode in silence. Hikari couldn't think of 
anything positive to say, or which might cheer Shinji up, so she opted 
for not saying anything at all. She looked at him again, but his eyes 
were partly hidden behind sunglasses. She wondered what he was thinking. 

    Were his thoughts as erratic as hers, jumping from mundane things, 
like how she would soon need to buy new frying pans, to deeper thought, 
like Asuka's death and it's consequences? If her old friend's death was 
affecting her in such a way, then wasn't it reasonable to guess that 
Shinji was much more affected by this then her? Even with his current 
feelings toward her, he had still loved her for a long period of time, 
and had shared is life with her for far longer. 

    Yet, aside from a short display in front of Katsuragi's grave, 
Shinji hadn't shown any sort of grief ever since they had left for the 
funeral earlier that day. Knowing him, he was probably keeping it all 
bottled inside. It worried her. And now that Asuka was gone... she 
wondered how he would handle himself.

    "Are you sure you don't want me to drive you all the way home?" 
asked Shinji, pulling Hikari back to reality.

    "I'm sure, no need to trouble yourself in trying to drive all the 
way there. I know it would be a hassle and it'll be quicker by tramway 
anyway."

    "Alright. I'll leave you at the closest station then."

    Shinji seemed somewhat disappointed. And... she felt disappointed 
herself. She really should have invited him to come with her... but 
considering the recent events, it didn't seem right. Somehow... she 
could guess that Shinji would need some time on his own to sort out his 
feelings.

    No, it was better not to rush things.

    Then, why did it hurt to see him drive away after he had left her at 
a tramway station?

                              - - -

    Hikari looked up at the afternoon sky, darkened by heavy clouds. The 
wind was strong, the rain falling hard on the city. The intensity of the 
storm paled compared to some of the storms that had once hit Japan in a 
time where seasons were clearly defined, but still it was enough to 
prompt people to avoid going out unless it was absolutely necessary. 
Which meant that Hikari's Cafe was empty. If it hadn't been for the fact 
that Hikari was reluctant to send the girls out in such a weather, she 
would have given them the day off. But for now, she decided to wait and 
see if things would calm down. If not, she would call a cab to send 
everyone home.

    How appropriate. The weather reflected well Hikari's state of mind: 
dark and gloomy, her thoughts raging in her mind. Focused on a single 
thing.

    Him.

    "Horaki-san... are you alright?"

    Hikari turned to see her young Chinese waitress looking worryingly 
at her.

    "Everything's fine, Sze-Mi. Don't worry."

    Wanting to avoid further questioning from the girl, Hikari returned 
to the kitchen. Perhaps she would find some peace of mind there. If she 
didn't find a way to keep herself busy, she would just find herself 
thinking of him again. Maybe it was time to attempt some a few dessert 
recipes she hadn't found the time to try yet. Something with chocolate 
might be nice.

    Again, Hikari signed. She knew very well that no amount of bakery 
would let her escape from reality.

    That idiot! It had been four days! Four days since the funeral... 
and he hadn't shown her any sign of life. No visit, no phone call. 
Nothing. It really infuriated her. She worried about him, and that jerk 
didn't deign to give her any news.

    Part of her was aware that she was over reacting to this, and it 
worried her. After all, he was only an old acquaintance who had just 
reappeared in her life, wasn't he? Why should she worry so much about 
him? They hadn't even bee that close before.

    Yet... she did. Somehow, as days had passed without any news, she 
had found herself thinking of him more and more, wondering how he was... 
and if she would see him again. That last thought perturbed her the 
most.

    She wanted to see him again... and the possibly that she might not 
upset her greatly.

    "Baka Shinji..." she muttered to herself, while looking for a few 
bowls. She might as well try her hand at a triple chocolate cake after 
all...

    Her attempts were cut short, however, when Keiko entered the 
kitchen.

    "Hey, Hikari."

    "What's wrong, Keiko?"

    Hikari gave her friend and employee a worried look. She was acting 
serious and this was something that didn't happen very often. Hikari had 
no idea where Keiko took all that energy, but she almost always had a 
smile on her face, a cheery disposition and an habit of teasing her.

    "I don't know... there's this guy who just came in and asked for 
you..."

    Hikari rose an eyebrow.

    "Oh? And you're passing out this chance to tease me?"

    "Well, the guy is cute, but... it's weird. I have the feeling I've 
seen him before, and... Look Hikari, just looking at this guy, you can 
feel that he's not here to order the Sunday special. That guy is here to 
see you and his business is important enough to go out in a storm like 
this one. So I'm worrying about you, okay? You're my friend, and... 
you're one of the rare persons who cares about me aside from Mamo-
chan..."

    Hikari could feel the worry in the younger woman's voice and in her 
eyes. She smiled and hugged the girl.

    "Don't worry, I'm sure it's nothing."

    That seemed to satisfy Keiko and cheer her up.

    "Alright... and if this guy tries something weird, I'm gonna kick 
his ass!"

    "I have no doubt about that," chuckled Hikari.

    Keiko rarely spoke of her past. It seemed to be, for her, a sore 
subject. Hikari knew, however, that her friend had spent a short period 
of time in juvenile detention. From what little Hikari knew, Keiko's 
parents had both been NERV employees, her father a security agent and 
her mother a simple technician. Both had been killed in the JSSDF 
attempt to take over NERV. Keiko had eventually ended up in a foster 
family that hadn't really cared for her and that, added to her hatred 
for the Japanese government and their involvement in her parents' death, 
had led to what Keiko had referred to as 'rather troublesome and wild 
teenage years'. The only thing that had been able to calm her down and 
save her chances at a bright future was her meeting with her boyfriend 
Mamoru.

    In any case, despite the fact that Keiko had now mellowed down, 
Hikari was still certain that the girl would be able to actually carry 
on her threat of kicking ass... literally.

    Hikari signed. In many ways, Keiko reminded her of Asuka, especially 
now that this part of her past had been brought back into her life. The 
fact that Keiko had lately taken into dying her hair in a fiery red 
shade just added to the impression.

    Removing her apron, Hikari stepped out of the kitchen, Keiko close 
behind, her mind apparently set in acting as her bodyguard. She found 
Sze-Mi at the restaurant's entrance, talking with a man, trying, 
apparently futilely, to get him to follow her to a table. The way he was 
standing, Hikari couldn't see his face.

    A drowned rat. That's the first thing that came to Hikari's mind 
when she looked more closely at the man. Obviously, he had been outside 
for an extensive period of time; he was soaked to the bone. His hair, 
while short, was matted to his head, the heavy gray trench coat he was 
seemed to cling to him, as did his equally soaked pants, and a small 
puddle of water has begun to form under him.

    Had this man really put himself under such a state just to see her. 
Hikari had a bad feeling at that thought.

    "Sir, are you sure you don't want to sit down and get a cup of 
coffee?" Hikari heard Sze-Mi ask. "It's fresh and it'll warm you up. 
Maybe some hot apple pie with that? I really like a good piece of apple 
pie when I'm cold..."

    "No thanks, really... I'm just here to see miss Horaki."

    That voice...

    "Ikari-kun?"

    The man turned to indeed reveal a very wet Shinji.

    "Horaki-san... Hi."

    For a moment, Shinji stated at her and she did like wise, Shinji 
apparently feeling as embarrassed and as confused as she was.

    Keiko and Sze-Mi gave them curious stares.

    "Ikari..."

    "Horaki..."

    "...how..."

    "...I'm..."

    "...are you?"

    "...sorry I didn't give you any news..."

    Both of them blushed, while Keiko grinned and Sze-Mi looked slightly 
distressed.

    "You first," suggested Hikari.

    "I'm... I'm sorry I didn't give you any news... I could have called, 
but... Things have been so strange and hectic these few days. I had to 
take care of the succession, and... well after the funeral I called to 
quit my job at Makajima. I've also made an arrangement with the owner of 
the place I live. With what happened, he agreed to let me go if I pay 
the next two months. He couldn't argue much, considering that the lease 
was under Asuka's name."

    "You two know each other?" interrupted Keiko. "I wasn't aware that 
Hi-chan had a boyfriend..."

    Shinji blushed.

    "I'm not... it's not like that..."

    "Keiko! It's not like that at all!"

    "Yeah, right..."

    Hikari fumed and ignored that.

    "So, Horaki-san... Does... does your offer still stand. About... the 
job, and... well..."

    Hikari blinked.

    "Oh! Of course! Of course my offer still stands! It doesn't look 
like it today, but I sure can use an extra cook."

    "Extra cook?" both asked Keiko and Sze-Mi.

    "Yes. It's getting crazy out there in the kitchen."

    "Ah, yeah, I remember... you mentioned the idea of a new cook 
before... so... are you going to present your mysterious guy to us?"

    Hikari nodded, choosing to ignore what Keiko might have tried to 
also imply.

    "Ikari-kun... the two lovely ladies are my friends and your future 
fellow employees, Amano Keiko and Lau Sze-Mi," said Hikari as she 
designated each girl as she mentioned her name. "Girls, meet my old 
friend Ikari Shinji."

    Keiko frowned at that.

    "Wait a minute... Ikari... My god! Is that the guy from last time? 
The guy you slept with?"

    Sze-Mi gasped as she heard those words and might have lost her 
standing hadn't Shinji caught her.

    "I... I haven't slept with him..."

    Hikari felt herself blush deeply. She didn't want to lie to her 
friends, but if she said this...

    "Well, not *that* way, anyway."

    Now it was Shinji's turn to blush.

    Keiko grinned wickedly, while Sze-Mi fainted.

    Hikari developed a sweat drop.

    "Keiko, why don't close the door and put the 'closed' sign. I'll 
warn Ayame. We won't be getting any customers today anyway, so there's 
no point in keeping open. You can join us upstairs afterward. Ikari-kun, 
I'll help you carry her to my apartment. I'm sorry, the poor girl is a 
bit emotional. Oh, and we can get you out of those wet clothes there 
too. I'm sure you'll like a cup of hot tea too."

    Shinji smiled, before surprising Hikari by lifting the small Chinese 
girl in his arms.

    "I'd appreciate that."

                              - - -

    Hikari had to keep herself from laughing out loud. Poor Shinji 
seemed like he wanted to dig himself a hole and hide. Since all his 
clothes had been wet, the only thing available for him to wear was 
Hikari's pink cotton nightgown. It was something Hikari kept for chilly 
nights, and it was the only article of clothing in her wardrobe she 
figured would have fitted Shinji's frame.

    Needless to say, Keiko didn't miss this opportunity to tease him. 
Hikari smiled at that... between laughs. If Keiko was teasing him, then 
it meant she liked him, which pleased the cook. Shinji sure could use 
all the friends he could get, and Hikari wanted all her friends to get 
along.

    Which made her worry about Sze-Mi. She didn't seem to take well 
Shinji's appearance in her life. Hikari had suspected that there might 
be more to Sze-Mi than simple admiration, but... she didn't know what to 
think of it. While it was flattering... she had no real interest in 
women. And she didn't want to lose Sze-Mi's friendship. She sighed. The 
situation could get... complicated...

    "Let me get this straight..." said Keiko, after taking a sip at her 
beer. "You hire him as a cook... and he'll be living here from now on?"

    After Shinji had changed, everyone had gathered around the kitchen 
table, where Hikari had distributed everyone drinks and a piece of lemon 
pie. For some reason, she had baked a lot of desserts in the last few 
days... Then, she had explained to the two girls the proposition she had 
made to Shinji. While Sze-Mi's expression became somber, as she had 
feared, Hikari hadn't expected Keiko to take this as seriously.

    "Umm... yes... Well... until he finds something closer and more 
appropriate for him."

    Shinji agreed to that, after a sip of tea, before trying to look as 
small as possible again.

    Keiko grinned widely.

    "About time girl! You finally managed to get yourself a male. And a 
fine looking one at that," she said, before turning toward Shinji with a 
thumb up. "Way to go Ikari, didn't think any man would ever manage to 
break Ice Queen Hikari. Oh, and don't hesitate... give her all you got! 
The girl's got a lot of catching up to do."

    Hikari choked on her cappuccino, and then tried to beat Shinji in a 
blushing competition.

    "KEIKO!!!"

    Hikari glared, while her friend laughed. Everyone suddenly became 
quiet, however, when Sze-Mi turned toward Shinji and gave him a solemn 
look.

    "Ikari-san... please be gentle with Horaki-san..."

    Hikari groaned and felt like banging her head on the table.

    "Sze-Mi... not you too..."

                              - - -

    The early morning sun woke up Hikari. For a moment she nearly 
panicked, realizing that she was late. Then she remembered and calmed 
down.

    Her alarm hadn't woken her today because she had the morning off. 
Shinji had reached a point where Hikari had considered him capable of 
handling breakfast and had decided that this morning would be his first 
solo experience and that she would sleep late.

    She had been so used in waking up early to go to work that it seemed 
her body had forgotten the notion of sleeping late.

    Well, while it was still early, at least she had slept longer than 
usual; and she was really feeling great this morning.

    Lazily, Hikari went through her usual morning motions. It felt 
really good to relax. If this experience worked out well, she might just 
let Shinji handle breakfast once in a while. Perhaps even on a weekly 
basis? She had no doubt that Shinji would be able to handle that.

    Shinji had been working for her for about two months now and quite 
frankly, Hikari had found herself impressed by the man's cooking skill, 
if not a bit jealous. He seemed to take in every recipes she would show 
him as a sponge would water. She had always suspected that Shinji could 
do a lot ot things if properly motivated and was far more talented and 
intelligent than he believed, but she had never expected anything like 
this. If things kept up the way there were going, it would only be a 
matter of a few months before he would have mastered recipes and 
techniques she had spent years learning. It was both impressive and 
infuriating.

    But it also pleased her. He was happy, she could see him. He would 
cook, help the girls serve clients, give Ayame a hand at the bar at 
night, he even sometimes helped clean the place and he all did it with a 
smile. A genuine, happy smile. To see him so different from the day they 
had met again weeks ago... it was very heart warming.

    And it had been a good business decision. If Shinji lacked ambition, 
he was an hard worker and an excellent administrator. He had quickly 
organized and optimized the restaurant's inventory and book-keeping and 
he was currently making negotiations with the Tokyo-2 Culinary School 
for graduate students to have a training period at the Cafe. This way, 
Hikari would be able to have free part time workers, she could learn the 
latest cooking techniques and in exchange students could acquire real 
life experience. A brilliant idea, one she wished she had thought of 
herself.

    But Shinji's best move had been without contest... the TV.

    When he moved in Hikari's apartment, Shinji had been at a bit at a 
loss about what to do with the forty-inch screen TV from his old 
apartment. It had really mainly been Asuka's as Shinji admitted that he 
rarely watched. Likewise, Hikari never watched TV either. She hadn't 
have the time before. Shinji thought about trying to sell it, when he 
had an idea. It took some convincing, but finally Hikari gave him and 
let him put it in a corner of the bar as well as subscribe to a number 
of sport channels.

    As word of this spread, the bar suddenly developed a more 
substantial steady clientele. Sumo competitions, as well as boat-racing 
and horse-racing events were particularly popular and when those 
occurred, Ayame usually borrowed Shinji for a few hours and Hikari had 
found herself at first forced to borrow chairs from the restaurant area. 
Not that it was a problem, since people tended to migrate from the 
restaurant to the bar anyway.

    Yes... offering Shinji a job was one of the best decisions Hikari 
had done so far, she decided with a smile. And best of all, the girls 
liked him too. Even Sze-Mi had actually grown fond of him... perhaps a 
bit too much for Hikari's taste...

    As she was about to make herself breakfast, it dawned on her that 
Shinji was actually doing just that downstairs. With a grin, Hikari put 
her ingredients back into the refrigerator and cupboards. It couldn't 
hurt to visit the customer side of her own establishment once in a 
while. Besides, it was a good way to evaluate Shinji's progress, right?

    Hikari found Shinji in the kitchen, totally focused on his task. His 
movements were precise and fluid, no moment was wasted when he moved 
from the grill, to boiling pots, to a cutting board. The odor of various 
meals and ingredients were mixed in the air, making Hikari's stomach 
growl and her mouth water. It was a sight she hadn't seen in years, ever 
since her mother died. The sight of someone cooking and pouring all his 
heart into it. It brought a tear to her eye.

    She was about to make her presence known, when a mischievous idea 
crossed her mind. It was something she had always loved doing to her 
mother. Moving silently until she stood behind him, Hikari waited for 
the right moment, not wanting to cause an accident. Then, when it was 
finally safe, she gave Shinji one big hug from behind.

    His reaction was not what she had expected.

    While her mother had always appreciated this affective gesture and 
would usually turn around and hug her back, Shinji freaked out. He 
screamed and Hikari found herself thrown to the floor was he freed 
himself from her embrace. He instinctively ran behind a table and gave 
Hikari a frightened look.

    "Ikari-kun... I... I didn't mean to scare you... I'm sorry, I..."

    Keiko and Sze-Mi entered the kitchen at that moment, alarmed by 
Shinji's startled scream.

    "Ikari-san? Are you alright? Did you hurt yourself?" asked Sze-Mi as 
she began to inspect Shinji closely and probe him.

    "I'm fine... something just startled me," answered Shinji with a 
fake smile for the shorter girl, before looking worryingly toward 
Hikari.

    "Yeah, I'm sure everything is fine. Let's get back to work," said 
Keiko with a frown as she also noticed Shinji's expression, before 
grabbing one of Sze-Mi arms to drag her, while also dragging Hikari with 
the other arm. "Now, Hi-chan, why don't you tell us what happened..."

                              - - -

    Keiko fumed, her cop of coffee shaking in her hand. Hikari had just 
finished explaining about Shinji's past and how it was related to what 
had just happened. She wondered if she hadn't just done a mistake.

    "That bitch! How could she do that to someone like Ikari? He's the 
nicest guy I know! Well, aside from Mamo-chan..."

    The mention of her boyfriend seemed to calm down the fake redhead 
somewhat.

    "I don't think any of this happened on purpose, Keiko. Asuka... I've 
never known the details, but I think in her own way, Asuka suffered just 
as much as Shinji. They probably... just weren't meant for each other."

    "Still... well, at least he has you now."

    "Keiko... I... I told you many times. It's not like that..."

    The waitress took a sip of coffee and gave Hikari a serious, 
knowledgeable look.

    "Bullshit. You two work together. You live together. When you have 
some time to yourself, you guys go out to see movies, or to have dinner, 
go dance or whatever... You two go on what a normal couple would call a 
date," said Keiko, surprising Hikari a how true it was. "I've seen the 
smiles and glances Hikari. The looks you give him when you think no one, 
and specially not him, is watching. And I've seen how he looks at you... 
how he began to smile more with each days, how you're more cheerful now 
than you were three months ago. Deny all you want, you two are made for 
each other. It's just a matter of both of you facing facts and one of 
you daring to bring it to the next level. And I think you know as well 
as I do that he won't dare that."

    Taking a last sip of coffee, Keiko left a stunned Hikari to resume 
her work. The waitress had said a lot of things that felt right and 
Hikari found herself with a lot to think about.

                              - - -

    Hikari stared at the ceiling of her bedroom and contemplated her 
life. A week had passed since the kitchen incident. Everything had 
seemed to return to normal, but only on the surface.

    On the inside... confusion raged within Hikari. She didn't know what 
to think. She was at a loss. Shinji. There was something between them... 
that went beyond simple friendship. Trying to define their relationship 
was always a very frustrating experience for her.

    Keiko's words had made it much more complicated. Because she had 
exposed truths she hadn't been quite ready to face.

    She enjoyed every moment spent with him. One moment, he could make 
her laugh and smile, while other times she would worry about him or even 
hurt, when his eyes would show the hurt caused by wounds not yet healed. 
Shinji was kind, gentle, trustworthy, the perfect gentleman. While often 
shy and unsure of himself, he had numerous times shown a strength nobody 
suspected within him.

    Lately, Hikari had found herself missing him when they were 
separated for an extended period of time. Seeing him in the morning made 
her smile, and seeing him leave for his room at the end of the day left 
her with a tiny void inside her.

    What she felt for him was nothing like the blind passion she had 
felt for Kishiro Kazushi, someone she had met in college. Nor the 
teenage crush she had felt for Touji. No, it was different, yet Hikari 
wondered...

    Could it be....?

    Love?

    She didn't know. What Hikari knew was that one day, this old friend 
had appeared and brought havoc into her life, and now... while she could 
imagine her life without him... it somehow looked gray without him.

    She cared for him, this she was sure of. Very much in fact. But 
love...?

    Perhaps...

    The possibility alone was both scary and exhilarating.

    In any case, she had come to a decision. It was a very bold one. 
Perhaps even a bad one. Still, she hoped that it might give her answers, 
and perhaps it would also do Shinji some good, as well as herself.

    Tomorrow would be Shinji's twenty-first birthday. But Hikari 
intended to give him her gift tonight... if he was willing to accept it.

    Getting off the bed, Hikari took a few seconds to look at herself in 
a full body mirror. Despite the dim illumination, Hikari could still 
make out the way the satin low-back slip she wore hugged her every 
curves. She winked at herself, then walked toward Shinji's room.

                              - - -

    For a long time, Hikari watched Shinji sleep. He looked so peaceful. 
For a moment, Hikari felt a bit guilty about waking him up. The 
frequency of his nightmares had increased lately, and perhaps she was 
about to ruin one of the rare uninterrupted nights of sleep he had in a 
while.

    But she had a task to do.

    Slowly, being careful not to wake him up, Hikari crawled on his bed, 
until she was kneeling on all fours above him. Slowly, she lowered her 
lips to his, shivering in anticipation.

    Then they made contact.
 
    It was just a simple contact, but it sent spark of electricity along 
her spine.

    Slowly, tentatively, she licked his lips. Despite still being 
asleep, Shinji answered by parting them. Hikari took the opportunity to 
deepen the kiss. Still asleep, Shinji followed suit and Hikari almost 
gasped as one of his arms grabbed her waist and pulled her against her. 
Dear God, she hadn't realized how much she wanted to kiss him again 
until now. Suddenly, her eyes went wide as she felt something hard rub 
against her thighs and try to position itself against her sex. All the 
while, his hands roamed on her body, bringing her marvelous sensations.

    Then, Shinji apparently realized this dream was a bit too realistic 
and woke with a start, pushing Hikari away who landed on the floor.

    "Ouch! My butt! Ikari, play nice!"

    Shinji blinked, coming fully awake as he realized Hikari was glaring 
at him. It was only then he noticed what she was wearing.

    "Horaki?! What... what are you doing?" he asked, gulping hard.

    Mentally, she asked herself the same question. Well, too late to go 
back now... "Happy birthday, I-ka-ri-kun."

    Shinji gulped again.

    "It's midnight... so I thought that now was as good a time as any to 
give you your gift." Hikari tried to give him an alluring smile, then 
slowly turned around, showing him how the satin lingerie showed every 
curves of her body. While she tried to give him a good show, she was 
nervous as hell and knew it was a poor performance. But Shinji didn't 
seem to notice, as he just stared at her. She smiled as she saw him 
unconsciously lick his lips. "I bought this... *just* *for* *you*. What 
do you think?"

    Shinji stared at her, then covered his body with the sheets. There 
was something akin to fear in his eyes now. Hikari bit her lip. Was this 
really the extent of what Asuka had done to him? This was one more 
reason to do this... to fix the damage she had caused.

    "Horaki... I'm sorry... I don't think this is a good idea..."

    Hikari sat on the bed and took his hand into hers. He tried to take 
it away, but she held it tight.

    "Ikari... you don't have to apologize. You don't have to do anything 
you don't want to do. This is my gift to you. If you want it, you just 
have to take off this sexy wrapping off. If you don't... well, it's 
okay."

    The fear disappeared, but he was still tensed, unsure, confused, 
Hikari could feel it. With the tip of her fingers, she could feel 
through his wrist how rapid was his heartbeat.

    "Horaki... I... I can't... it wouldn't be right..."

    Hikari shook her head, then kissed his knuckles, before releasing 
his hand. He didn't try to pull it away this time.

    "The only thing that wouldn't be right would be for you to do 
something you don't want to do. Ikari... I... I wouldn't be here if I 
didn't want this. I... I care a lot about you... and... I... I... I 
would like to see if our friendship can move beyond what it is right 
now. If you're willing. But if not... it's okay. I'm not Asuka. I won't 
force you into anything. And I know this is very sudden. But don't 
worry, whatever our choice, you'll still be my dear Ikari-kun."

    They stared at each other. Hikari tried not to show how much she 
wanted it, and hoped that if he said no, that she could manage to hide 
her disappointment. She gave him a shy smile, which seemed to have more 
effect on him than anything she had previously said.

    "Even if I wanted... it would be too risky... You could get... 
pregnant."
 
    "No risk," Hikari said, although she hoped that she was right. "I've 
been using birth control pills for a few years," she explained. "My 
periods are really irregular, so it makes dealing with them easier," she 
felt the need to add.

    Shinji looked at her uncertainly.

    "Horaki... I... I..."

    Hikari lowered her head. She had promised that she wouldn't insist 
and she would keep her word. She was disappointed, but also, relieved. 
It had been a bad idea, she could see it now. She couldn't believe she 
had been so selfish. She could only hope that this wouldn't be the end 
of their friendship. Already, she wondered how she would be able to face 
him in the morning.
 
    "It's alright Ikari-kun... I understand..."

    Hikari was leaving the room, when she felt two arms encircle her 
waist and someone hugging her.

    "I don't want you to go..."

    She didn't.

                              - - -

    Despite being exhausted, Hikari found herself unable to sleep. Her 
mind was in turmoil. Somehow, she had managed to seduce a man into 
making love to her. Not only her first time had been an experience many 
girls would have been jealous of, but it been so incredibly good that 
Hikari couldn't even think of anything else that could equal the 
experience, much less surpass it. And she had been promised that the 
next time would be even better. She was laying in bed with a not only an 
exceptional lover, but also a man she was now certain that she loved.

    What were they now? She had no idea. Friend? Lovers? A couple? She 
didn't know. She would need to discuss with Shinji. Hopefully, his 
feelings were the same as hers. She had no idea what she would do if it 
wasn't the case.

    Hikari didn't know what would happen next, what the future had in 
store for her. The uncertainties were scary. But, somehow, Hikari felt 
that her future, no, their future, would be a bright one.

                              - - -

    She was dreaming again.

    She was standing on a small hill. A familiar one. Which the scene 
before her confirmed. It didn't seem as eerie or even scary as it had 
the first time. There was no reason for that anymore. In fact, as she 
watched the family enjoy a picnic on a bright sunny day, Hikari found 
herself envying the other Hikari in front of her.

    Hikari looked at the couple down the hill. Both of them were laying 
on the picnic blanket, her copy's head resting on Shinji's chest. That 
other Hikari looked very comfortable. Then she looked at the child, who 
was giggling while watching a bird on the branch of a tree. Hikari found 
herself wondering what it would be like to have such a child. After a 
moment, she found herself envying that other Hikari...

    "Horaki Ikari Yume. That would be a nice name for a little girl," 
she thought, as she closed her eyes and laid on her back in the thick 
grass, to let the sun warm her skin. It was very comfortable.

    No, it wasn't a bad dream after all...



FIN


---


Author's notes:

(1) "Ah, ni hen tao yen!" Mandarin which roughly translates to "Ah, 
you're very annoying!" or even "Ah, you're impossible!" I should know 
about this one. 


(2) Think Ford Mustang, but around twenty years in the future and built 
by a Japanese company. (Hey, I think Phoenix would be a great name for a 
sport car) Also, while owning a car is uncommon in Japan, since it's 
very expensive and also not needed with public transportation, this is 
Asuka we're talking about. Also, how Asuka managed to have acquired a 
driving license with her visual handicap will remain unknown. Perhaps 
it's best that way.


(3) Refers to the high security Kyoto state prison. Ikari Gendo has been 
found guilty of acts of treason against humanity and sentenced to life 
imprisonment. Other countries, namely the United States, still request 
at that time that he be executed for his crimes instead.


Some may have noticed that I mentioned events occuring in EoE. I'm 
keeping vague the details on purpose, as it's not the focus of this 
story. The only important thing is that Third Impact was avoided.


My use of honorifics. Considering what happened to him, I'd imagine that 
Shinji would have grown even more meek and polite with time, hence the 
use of the suffix "-san" after Horaki. Also, considering that he and 
Hikari weren't that much of a close friends, Horaki seemed more 
appropriate than Hikari. The same thing applies with Hikari's use of 
Ikari-kun, in opposition to the more friendly way she calls her 
employees.


Nozomi. Out of the first eight readers, two have shown concern with that 
simple line. While this is now less of an issue then in the initial 
draft (where I forgot to add a year to her age, after I changed the time 
from five to six years after EoE) I still think a note could be useful. 
First off, her boyfriend would be the same age as her, so, unless I'm 
mistaken, statutory rape laws don't apply. Also, while the other doesn't 
either denounce or condone underage sex, it is still a reality. If you 
look at statistics, at least for Canada and the US, you'll see that 
these days, there is a very high percentage of people having sex for the 
first time between the age of ten to fourteen. This line is merely here 
to reflect this reality. Besides, if a story can have Asuka end up 
pregnant at age thirteen and be a wide success, is there really subject 
to concern about a sixteen year old Nozomi having sex (especially if 
it's only a one line mention)?


Why kill Asuka you might ask? Some will probably think it was because I 
wanted to be mean to her or because it was an easy way to get rid of 
her. It's really not anything like that. It's more a matter of irony, 
really. She did everything to push Shinji away and the only time he's 
not around... this happens. Poetic justice in a way. But this is the 
Asuka in this story. Normally, I like Asuka ^_^

Actually, I was a bit inspired by these lyrics from a song from Guns and 
Roses:

     I used to love her
     But I had to kill her
     I used to love her, Mm, yeah
     But I had to kill her
     She bitched so much, She drove me nuts
     And now I'm happier this way, yeah
     Whoa, oh yeah

     I used to love her
     But I had to kill her
     I used to love her, Mm, yeah
     But I had to kill her
     I had to put her, Oo, six feet under
     And I can still hear her complain

(wouldn't that be typical Asuka?)

Oh, and yes... I know some people will hate me for this. So I'll just 
say this... it could have been worse.


This story is dedicated to my good friend Deina, without whom it 
wouldn't have existed in the first place. She gave me the encouragements 
I needed when I doubted being able to manage this story. Thank you, 
Deina.


Alain Gravel
April 25th 2001

(edited for R rating on February 27th 2003)


---


One More Final... The Morning After


    Hikari sighed as she entered the furo. The hot water felt wonderful, 
relaxing her muscles and dulling her aches. While it had been less 
painful than she had feared, the events of the previous night had left 
her with an aching soreness. But as she thought back about those 
moments, a blush growing over her cheeks, she felt that it had been very 
well worth the inconvenience. It had been just as she had dreamed. 
Shinji had been so nice and gentle... And it had felt so good! While a 
possessive part of her regretted that she hadn't been his first, she had 
to admit that she was glad her chosen partner for her first time had 
been knowledgeable about what to do. It pained her to admit it, but in a 
twisted way, she owed Asuka for such wonderful moments.

    Asuka... She wondered, what would the redhead think of her is she 
was still here? Would she hate her for taking Shinji to herself? Would 
she had even cared? She would never know... and it was probably better 
not to ponder about it.

    So engrossed in her thoughts, she didn't notice someone entering the 
bathroom, until Shinji was there. The both of them gasped in surprise 
and covered themselves in reflex, Hikari with her arms and Shinji with 
his cleaning accessories.

    "Shinji!"

    "Hikari! I'm sorry! I didn't mean too..."

    Hikari couldn't help but worry at the fear that showed on Shinji's 
face, then her expression softened and finally, a shy laugh escaped her 
lips.

    "Shinji, it's okay," she said as she shyly uncovered her bosom. It 
was difficult to think that she had been much bolder only a few hours 
ago. "I mean... we've..."

    Shinji reddened at that and nodded.

    "I... I guess..."

    Timidly, he uncovered himself as well.

    The young woman felt her heart skip a beat. While she had seen him 
the previous night, seeing him in a lit room felt entirely different. 
She looked away, not wanting to stare too much. She could tell that 
Shinji felt uncomfortable. The calm assurance Shinji had shown the 
previous night, once they had gotten past the awkwardness, seemed to 
have completely left him.

    "So..." she began... but failed to continue. She didn't even know 
what she wanted to say.

    Shinji looked at her expectantly for a moment, then, began to clean 
himself. Hikari didn't miss the disappointment that had showed on his 
face, however, before he picked up his cleaning accessories. She bit her 
lower lips... she had to do something, say something!

    "Shinji... about last night.... I'm glad we did this," she finally 
managed to say. "And I hope that... you won't think less of me now."

    "Hikari..."

    He didn't say more than this. He didn't need to. She could see it in 
his eyes. She could see how grateful he was. And how much he cared about 
her. And she could see the bright smile that illuminated his face. 
Something that definitely belonged there.

    "Shinji, I..."

    Should she say it? Was she even sure of her feelings? Could she say, 
without a doubt, that she did truly love him? Perhaps...

    Yes, maybe she could tell him, and be certain that she meant it.

    But not now... not yet... not here.

    "Want me to wash your back?"

    Shinji's eyes widened in surprise at the question, and she could see 
them lock unto herself as she rose from the furo. His surprise was short 
lived, however, and his gaze became much more intense. She could almost 
feel it on her skin as he looked at her from head to toe in rapt 
fascination, as if to commit every detail to memory. Instead of being 
embarrassed by the way he looked at her, a warm feeling washed over her. 
She felt attractive... sexy... confident.

    "I'd like that," he answered, with the same assurance he had shown 
only a few hours ago.

    They would probably need to clean the furo later, she mused, as she 
returned his gaze.

    She didn't care at all.