Shinji found Touji and Hikari chatting over coffee in a cafe near where they had left the car. They were surprised to see him. "You couldn't have been with him more than a few minutes, Shinji," said Hikari. "I told you, I didn't think it would take that long." Touji rolled his eyes. Hikari went on, "Did Lieberman-san give you any information about Asuka?" "Uh-huh," Shinji replied. "Well, not much. He said she's living a few kilometers outside of town in someplace called Pegnitz. We need to go east out of town and then north along the river." "What was that name again, Shinji?" said Touji as he struggled to unfold a map. "Pegnitz." "Pegnitz...by a river...mm, that looks like more than a few kilometers. We'll finish our coffee and go, then." The drive took them a little over an hour. The road passed between a wide, slow river and forests of oak, growing back with neglect from centuries of harvesting. They drove through some small towns, but saw few people, and the buildings away from the road looked run-down. Hikari was reading the tour book she had brought. "The book says that this area used to be well populated. But after the Second Impact, the German government started encouraging people to move to the cities. At the same time, there was a depression in the local businesses, so almost all the young people have moved to the cities. Most of the local businesses are services, with a little lumber." "Doesn't it bug you that Asuka lives here of all places?" asked Touji. "I'm not criticizing her, really, because she can live where she wants to. But this is the sticks! Asuka got her first college degree while I was still in the 'girls are icky' part of my life, and then she got another one while we all were in high school. What's she doing living in a place that doesn't even look like it has a public library?" "I'd wondered that also, Touji, dear," Hikari replied. "Shinji, did Lieberman-san say what she was doing for work, or anything like that?" "Nope, all I got was this address." Shinji pulled out the paper. "Number 49 Einbahnstrasse. I guess we'll find out all when we get there." Touji glanced up at Shinji in the rear-view mirror, then took his eyes off the road for a few moments to turn around. "Shinji...really, how did things go with you and your dad?" "It was pretty much what I had expected," Shinji murmured. His voice was almost lost over the sound of the road. "Did he give you a lot to think about?" "No. That's...that's probably why I'm behaving like this. I'm sorry." "No apologies needed," Hikari said reassuringly. "We understand now." Shinji made no reply. They were soon inside of Pegnitz. It was decrepit, a town that had been abandoned to atrophy. Entire city blocks were boarded windows and peeling paint. In verdant contrast, the forest around the town seemed to be flourishing. Touji parked the car outside of the town's one tangible business, a greengrocer. While Shinji and Touji picked up supplies for a light lunch, Hikari got directions from the cashier, her half-remembered German supplemented with a phrase book and a warm smile. Einbahnstrasse was on the very edge of the town. Although they could have parked anywhere, it was a nice day, and Hikari insisted on walking. Touji and Shinji were each burdened with a bagful of picnic supplies. "Isn't this fun and exciting?" Hikari said to her two companions. "No," came Shinji's frank and cutting reply. He looked more miserable than he had in the car: his eyes were focused straight down on the ground; Hikari saw that the bag of groceries was shaking in his hands. "Shinji?" she asked. "What's the matter?" "It's nothing," he snapped, "forget about it." "Oi." Touji spoke loudly both to draw attention and to silence the other two. "What do you want to bet that that's Number 49?" He was pointing to the only building in decent repair on the cobblestone street. It was a two-story wooden house, identical in shape and construction to the others on the street. All along its front, and along the neighboring buildings', were abstract drawings in a child's hand. The artist was a child just old enough to be starting school. Although her back was to the small group, they could see that she was wearing a dress of immaculate white lace and sturdy black boots. Her dark brown hair, tied in a ponytail with a pink ribbon, had a slight wave to it. Shinji said something under his breath, but Hikari didn't quite make it out. She was hurrying up to the little girl. "Mein Fraulein!" she shouted, but the little girl didn't stop her drawing. As Hikari drew closer, she heard a snatch of what the little girl was singing. It was two lines from Beethoven's Ode to Joy, sung over and over as only a child can focus on a snatch of song; but the lyrics were different: "Kimi ni mo nimineru...harugana hoshi ga...kimi ni mo..." "Mein Fraulein!" Hikari said again, and went on, "Guten Tag, können Sie mir sagen..." She fell silent when the little girl turned to look at her from beneath epicanthic folds. She said in imperfect Japanese, "Oh, you're foreignersh! Mama will wanna meecha!" The girl ran across and up the street, disappearing into Number 49. Hikari didn't move. _That child's face,_ she thought. She turned back to where she had come from. "Shinji, do you..." "To hell with it all," he said brusquely as he brushed past her, "let's go on in." Hikari looked to Touji, who had been saddled with both bags of groceries. He shrugged perplexedly and fell into step behind Hikari. >From the doorway, the girl poked her head out excitedly. "Come on! Come on!" The trio found themselves in the unlit living room of the house. Dust lay everywhere; only a token effort had been made to sweep the floors and clean the windows. There was furniture present, all hidden under dust cloths like giant beasts slumbering. An odor of decay cut through the murky air. Directly opposite the foyer, a staircase led up to the second story of the house. Their psychopomp stood at the bend in the staircase, beckoning them. At a loss for words, Shinji, Hikari and Touji fell into line behind her. "Mama! Mama!" the little girl shouted as they came up to the top, "we got vizhitorsh!" The staircase had made a half-turn as they walked up it, so that the three Japanese people were now facing towards the street. The room that they were looking at once might have been a dining room, but had been converted into a study. There were a few more pieces of furniture beneath slipcovers. The light streaming in from outside showed piles of books, many open and showing recent signs of use. The tableau was dominated by the large windows of the second story and the writing desk that was next to it. It was covered in magazines and reams of paper. At the desk was a young woman in a black full-length dress. Her auburn hair was long and unkempt, but clean. The nails of her fingers were properly clipped. In her right hand she held a quill pen, a throwback to a forgotten age, and was scratching away on a sheet of paper. Her left hand was pointing at words in the dictionary. "Zeitung...Zeitschkraft...Zunge? No. Zehe...perhaps here...with Zähne...ja, das ist gut...nein, besser..." Sohryu Asuka Langley set down the pen and laid eyes on the three people standing at the head of the stairs. Her eyes lit up and she smiled, a broad, unhealthy smile. Her giggling began. "So! You finally came back to me! I just knew you would! You couldn't stay away from me could you? All that nonsense about how you weren't interested, it was just to...to challenge me, to see if I could do it, wasn't it? Well, I did it, Shinji! I made it! I'm successful! I did it all by myself, I didn't need you, or your stupid NERV, or anybody but myself. Kyoko and I are just fine without you, Shinji. We're happy. And now, you've come back to us, CRAWLING like the little bug that you are, all the way from Japan!" "Hey, hey!" bellowed Touji. "What's going on here? Asuka?" Asuka snorted. "Well, I wouldn't expect a complete idiot like you to understand, so let me explain. I am none other than your old acquaintance Sohryu Asuka Langley, former pilot, former physicist, and now the single greatest compiler of crossword puzzles EVER known in the entire history of the German language! And this is my lovely little daughter Kyoko, the product of my love and about 5 minutes of help from Shinji." At the mention of her name, the little girl ran over to stand proudly at her mother's side. "This is our own private neighborhood in the beautiful town of Pegnitz, in the heart of Bavaria. And we're happy. We're so, so happy without you, Shinji you big stupid...stupid thing! Go on, run away!" Shinji was staggering down the stairs as fast as he could, with Touji in hot pursuit. Hikari stared slack-jawed from one pair to the other. "ASUKA? You WHAT?" "Go get him, Hikari." "Come again?" "I said go get him, Hikari. I'm not done talking to him yet. I'll talk to you in just a minute, but I want to finish up with that stupid Shinji." "Asuka..." Hikari gulped down some air and made a snap decision. "Asuka, I'll be back in just about five minutes, I need to talk to Shinji, but I'll be right back, so don't go anywhere, all right?" "Go on, we'll be right here. That idiot..." Hikari careened outside of the house to find Touji supporting a sobbing Shinji in his arms. He was struggling to say something. After a tissue paper from Hikari's handbag, he managed to say "Namu...amida..butsu..." "Shinji," Hikari said gently, "what was Asuka talking about? Please tell us, we want to know." Touji helped Shinji down to the cobblestone pavement. Shinji accepted another tissue, and was silent for a moment before going on. "It's been so long...I don't know if you remember, Asuka was furious with me after she came out of her catatonia and piloted the EVA for the last time. She thought she had won the battle against the Production EVAs and then I'd stolen away her victory. Before we started going to school again she'd spout off about how all along I'd been plotting with Father to humiliate her in order to make the perfect EVA pilot. "I couldn't take seeing her every day anymore, and she had plans to go back to college, so we started living apart. I was handling it just fine, I guess. But Asuka didn't ever quite recover, I don't think. Maybe it was the stress of her new school and the fact that she was living all alone, with just her thoughts, that drove her over the edge. "There must have been some point I could have stopped her, or said no, or pulled her back. But I was 15 at the time. I didn't know anything about that kind of stuff. She'd come over at odd times and complain to me about how aggravating her life was, and how she was barely hanging on. And I'd pretend to listen. "That worked well for the first two years or so. Toward the end of junior year we were all worried about exams. That meant that if Asuka wanted to come over and talk at me, I'd let her in, but I had work to do. Sometimes, if I was stuck on a math problem or something, I'd ask for her help. She'd solve it all right, but spend more time telling me how dumb I was than teaching me about math. She started bringing over cheap booze and getting drunk watching television while I was cramming. "During our senior year she got so drunk she threw up all over the floor. I cleaned the mess up and told her to go, and she went. She didn't come back for a few months after that. One night...one night I caught her, trying to climb up to my third story balcony carrying a six-pack of beer. She told me herself when she got up there, it was about the dumbest thing she'd ever done. I told her goodbye, she told me goodbye, and I thought that was the end of that. I wasn't happy with it, how it had begun or ended...'cause...because I know Asuka is a better person than that. Or I thought so. "Five years ago the end of this month Asuka showed up at my apartment complex buzzing to be let in. I'd already been admitted to the University, it was the weekend, so I thought there wouldn't be any harm in her talking to me. I let her in. She was already piss-drunk. She sat me down at the kitchen table...and for two hours she trashed everyone she knew. You, and you, and Kensuke, and...everyone from our class, even people like Misato-san and Kaji. Everybody, she counted off their faults and how pathetic everybody was. "When she finally got to me, she... "She handcuffed me underneath the table and had me against my will." Touji and Hikari were thunderstruck. When he could speak again, Touji said, "What do you mean, she had you against your will?" "I MEAN I DIDN'T WANT TO FUCK WITH HER, THAT'S WHAT I MEAN!" Shinji shouted. "Shinji," said Hikari. Her eyes were watering. "That's all a bunch of lies, isn't it? You're kidding, right?" "You saw the proof. Maybe in some other universe it could have worked with us. Maybe if we'd started something right after we met. But by the time we were in high school, I knew what kind of a nut she was, and I didn't know how to handle her. I was tired of trying. She was a friend who wanted to stay part of my life, and that was it. A very beautiful, very lonesome friend. "I realized in college, after it had happened, that it wasn't the sex she wanted as much as the sex act. She couldn't have my heart, but she could take my body. And I don't know if it was a moment's inspiration or her genius, but she got what she wanted. Only Sohryu Asuka Langley could rape a man. "The worst of it is...there was never any question in my mind that I wouldn't tell you guys. I felt like I deserved it. I felt like I had pushed her away for long enough and not known what to do that I was asking for something like this to happen. Well, it did. I don't hate her for it anymore. It's just a big empty spot in my life." They were all three seated on the cobblestone road, staring at the lithic sea that made it. Above them scattered clouds, borne on a gentle wind, blocked out the sun now and again. In the empty street, none of the usual sounds of cities could be heard. "Shinji, you're a complete mess," stated Touji. "Yeah. I know."