"Where are you off to at this hour, Hikari-chan?" Hikari turned quickly at the door. "Oh! Did I wake you, kaasan?" "No, dear, I was already up." Mrs. Horaki was dressed in a robe with flowers printed on it, deep purple on violet. She was clutching at the folds as she walked to the door. Hikari turned to face her full with one hand on the door. "It's Asuka-chan, kaasan. We'll be out for a few hours this morning." "Oh, I thought she wasn't coming until later...and who's that with the automobile?" Hikari had been expecting the questions. She smiled and said, "That's Asuka's guardian, Katsuragi-san. We thought that since she lived through the Second Impact, she'd be as good a resource as any...and since we're talking about the _environmental_ aftermath, she could give us a lift to the Botanical Garden. We'll talk with some of the gardeners there, they'll know a lot. We need to get started now, so not many people will be at the garden." "Not many are going to be at the garden anyway," said Mrs. Horaki. Hikari followed her gaze into the sky. White, grey and black fought for control in the earliest morning light. Banks of clouds wrestled with each other. The sun was hidden. "Hikari- chan, I want you to be home before dinner. They're talking about storms over the next few days, and I...I'm just worried about my little girl, that's all." "Kaasan..." Mother and daughter pulled close together, and Hikari whispered through clenched teeth, "There's something I need to talk to you about this afternoon, but I've got to go now, I can't keep waiting." Then she pulled her satchel to her back and ran out the door, leaving it as wide open as her mother's eyes and the sky over her head. -- "Life sucks." "Yes." "Put your balls into it, Ikari." Suzuhara Touji snorted. "The Second Impact could be going off right in front of you, and you wouldn't say anything more than 'Ah, so', right? I hate homework. I hate these stupid Second Impact projects. You got anything to eat?" "Uh, frozen food. Come inside, make yourself at home." "Thanks." The two boys changed into slippers in the entry way, then walked to the living room and threw their bookbags onto the floor. "How did you get rid of Asuka?" "Misato said she was going to help Asuka and Hikari-chan with their project." Shinji spoke in a raised voice from the kitchen. He was making tea. "Hikari was over here yesterday for a planning session. I didn't talk with her. How's she doing?" "OK, I guess. Actually, last couple of days, she's been kind of distant. She's been nice, but kind of keeping me away. I think she's having her period." The boy fell silent for a moment. Touji was aware of his cybernetics whenever he was around Shinji. The hand that had struck out in anger was now gone. In its place was a pale tan replica, lacking fingernails and hairs; another had replaced his leg. Their mass was about that of human limbs, and they responded to him exactly like the ones he had been born with. They were a product of Evangelion technology, marks of the beast that had almost cost him his life. He had transcended guilt through his pain and sacrifice. He wore his cybernetics like badges, like ceremonial robes. "Hey, where's your toilet?" "Um..." Shinji walked to the edge of the kitchen and pointed. "Go down the hall, it's by Misato's room. Oh, and when you do, take a peek at what's on her desk." Two minutes later, Shinji smiled at the sound of a loud whoop coming from Misato's bedroom. "Hey! Shinji! When did this show up?" "Just the other day. Come out here when you're done, the tea's ready." Shinji poured from the kettle into two cups. "But look at page 32 first." "Page...30...32--! Wow! And she circled it with a pen! What color do you think she'll get?" "Uh..." "I'm guessing moss green. Tell me when it comes, all right? They always send brown paper..." Touji's voice trailed off. Shinji placed the cups on a tray and carried it at chest level to the front of the apartment. "Touji? Touji?" "What's all this?" "What's what?" Shinji walked in to Misato's room, fearless in her absence. Touji had the catalogue in one hand. In his other he had a tablet of note paper. "Oh, that's the paper we use to take down phone messages. Misato must have borrowed it." "I didn't know she was pregnant." "WHAT?" he shouted, spilling the tea tray onto the floor. Mindful of the mess, Shinji stepped well away from the wet carpet to stand by Touji's side. Touji was looking at the top sheet of the note pad. "...free consultation reputable didn't pick up on hints... "...refuse to perform only drugs... "...JI from dorm receptionist's sister BANZAI appointment for..." Shinji shook his head. "No, she uses birth control pills. And anyway, Misato wouldn't call around. She'd just pick someone and go with it...maybe she's getting names for someone?" "Who? Asuka? No, Kaji's not in jail." Touji snickered. Shinji sighed. "Well, who else could it be?...oh." Touji felt himself becoming very heavy, and the world spun around him. He collapsed onto the floor, landing squarely on his rear end in the middle of the tea stain. His eyes closed, and a solemn expression slid into his face. He closed and unclosed his right fist. "Touji..." "It's OK, Shinji. I feel so stupid. "It was over a month ago now. Hikari got invited to a party, and she invited me to come along. That was just fine, we were having a good time. Then some guys showed up with some beer. I wanted to try one. That gave Hikari an idea, so she had one. One was all it took, I was smashed. "Even though I was drunk, I offered to walk her home after the party, and she said that was fine. Then I screwed it up, I took her to my home. _My_ home. I wasn't thinking straight. I thought it was kind of funny, actually. I invited her inside, because we had been on a long walk, and she's fun to be with. "We went inside. Nobody was home. My dad was off fucking his secretary, and my sister's still in the hospital. I was alone, late at night, with the greatest girl in the world. And I screwed up again. I made a pass at her. As soon as it was out of my mouth, I knew I'd done the wrong thing. I'm 15, I'm not supposed to be having that kind of relationship with a girl. "Then she said yes. I didn't have any idea what to do then. And I told myself, well, I can't let her down now. Besides, it'll be fun. So I got one of my dad's condoms out of the medicine cabinet and I had sex with her in my bed. "The next morning I woke up crying. I was furious with myself, for getting drunk, for what I'd done to Hikari, for letting the condom break, for...I think for everything I'd done. I promised her I'd never put a finger on her again until we were both 18, and I didn't promise her that because she asked me to, either. I got her home safe and sound, and we both tried to forget about it. "And now this...oh, my god, now this..." Suzuhara Touji was crying. Ikari Shinji said, "Touji...I just don't know what to say. That's awful." "It--it just doesn't make sense, why wouldn't she tell me?" "Maybe she didn't want you thinking about it. It's her decision, you know." "But doesn't she trust me?" "What if--" Touji looked through tear-stained eyes at Shinji; Shinji swallowed and glanced away. His thoughts were painted on his face, the emotional algebra of unknowns, factors and probabilities. Touji saw the meaning there, and in his eyes it burned red. "No...god, no..." "Touji, now, maybe she, Touji..." "HOW COULD SHE DO THAT TO ME?" he shouted. "HOW COULD SHE EVEN THINK OF THAT? I PROMISED HER MY HEART AND SOUL! DIDN'T THAT MEAN ANYTHING TO HER? WASN'T I GOOD ENOUGH FOR YOU?" His right hand seized hold of one of the tea cups on the floor; and before Shinji could stop him, Touji lifted it up in front of his face and squeezed it in his fist. It shattered inwards. Even as he realized the wrongness of what he was doing, he ground his fingers against his palm and watch the ceramic dust sprinkle to a brown pile between his legs on the wet carpet. Nobody moved or spoke for a few moments. Then Touji said under his breath, "Please tell Misato-san I'm sorry about the cup, and about the tea stain on the carpet." "Oh, don't worry about the carpet. The tea was my fault." Touji snorted. "You'd better explain what it is to Misato when she gets home, or she'll wonder what we've been doing in here." Shinji chuckled in spite of himself. He felt like an idiot for doing so. The boys sat still for a while longer, then glanced around for where their bookbags were. -- Hikari stared into the depths of her salad. The association-- taking food into her body, and getting sensual pleasure from it-- was overwhelming her rational mind. Across from her, Misato swallowed a mouthful and leaned forward earnestly to speak to her. "Hey, Hikari-chan...you _need_ to eat your greens. The doctor said that anemia's going to be a risk for you in the next couple of days, and there's plenty of iron in there. Eat up, eat up." Hikari acquiesced. Fumbling with the plastic fork, she speared a few leaves of lettuce and a crouton and lifted them into her mouth. She set about mechanically chewing up and swallowing the food. Asuka spoke. "Back home in Germany, you could get beer at McDonald's. I think that they should sell box sake here. You'd buy that, wouldn't you, Misato?" "Oh, yes, definitely. But you'd be too young to enjoy it, Asuka." Her mouth was full of hamburger, so Asuka didn't reply with anything more than a shrug. Conversation waned again. "The doctor stuck a scraper up inside me," said Hikari. She spoke earnestly and emotionally, but she was very, very quiet in her speech. "She scraped around and around, and then she used some kind of vacuum on me, and I could feel something down around here being sucked out of me, from here down, it was all flushed right out of me, and then she cleaned me up and I was done. It doesn't seem real. I can't believe that there was a decision now, it's like I was following fate, and I...I just... "Take me home. Now. Please." She stood up and threw on her coat. Without another word, Misato and Asuka collected their trays and dumped them into the trash bins. They followed Hikari out into the parking lot. She cried only a little as they drove her home through the tempestuous afternoon. -- Shinji was sitting at his desk, trying to parse _The Tale of Genji_, when his cellular phone rang. He felt relieved as he put the book down, because he had been bored beyond the point of inattention by his reading assignment. He flipped open the mouthpiece and said, "Hello." "Hello, Shinji?" "Oh, hi, Touji. What are you calling about?" "Well...I've been thinking all this afternoon. Hey, did Asuka and Misato-san come home?" "Uh-huh. They got home about an hour after you left." "...and?" "Um, I asked where they had been, and I tried to make it sound casual, like you said to." Shinji leaned back in his chair. It was becoming the longest conversation he had had on his private phone line. "Asuka told me to mind my own business, and Misato told me to listen to Asuka." "..." "I told them about the tea, and Misato just laughed." Shinji gulped. "So what are you calling about?" The reply didn't come immediately. Shinji glanced out the window of his room. With night had come even darker clouds, and he could see dust and garbage blowing by his window. A storm was coming, if not already upon them. Touji mumbled, "I want to talk to your dad." "Huh?" Shinji whipped around back into his chair. "What do you want to talk to him about?" "I...I want to talk with him...about NERV. I've been thinking about coming back to NERV." "Touji, are you serious?" "Yes, well...I don't know. I want to talk to him about it. Could you call him and ask him to meet with me? With us?" Shinji turned on his chair again and looked at the numbers on his clock. 7:42. It was still early in the evening. He said to Touji, "Yeah, I guess I could call him, but--but--what am I going to tell him?" "Tell him...OK, tell him this..." Daniel Snyder in his new abode at firstname.lastname@example.org If I wasn't such a strange person, this would all seem so confusing.