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.