Chapter 1: Ue o Muite Arukō
What Gendo Ikari remembered most about his mother was her hospital room.
The soapy vanilla scent of the sheets and how very, very cold his legs had been, dangling from the plastic chair nearest her bed. It was the kind one might find in an elementary school, cracked at the backrest and with rust spattered stands. Feet kicking side to side, he would examine the holes in his sneakers while his most prized, and really only possession – a clunky cassette player – sat in his lap.
He'd bought it at a festival for his seventh birthday, when his mother had handed him a five-hundred yen coin and told him to get whatever he wanted. They'd been playing songs from Kyu Sakamoto, making him think of her standing by the radio in the kitchen. How she would shake her head and smile whenever his music came on.
"I'm going to be famous one day, Geny, just you wait. A hot American singer like that Sakamoto fella'."
At home on her nightstand, she used to keep pictures of Judy Garland and Rosemary Clooney, and had once owned a wall-spanning collection of swing era albums. She'd gathered them all throughout her younger years, scrounging together every bit of excess yen, but had to sell them once he was born. He used to think it'd be nice to buy them all back for her one day. She loved to sing and had even learned some English to try and echo those American jazz artists just right.
Gendo never had the chance to hear her cadence, at least not at an age he could remember, due to the illness that so often confined her to a bed. He liked to imagine she sounded like the people on his mixtapes, of which he had a handful, tossed in with the player he'd bought from the vendor. They kept him company whenever she was away or in the hospital. When he closed his eyes and started to drift off in their moldy, water stained home, he imagined it was her lulling him to sleep.
They had not been making him very sleepy at the time, and he'd been doing his best to tune out his step-father arguing with the doctors out in the hall. That was when he had felt her fingers in his hair, gently calling his attention.
There wasn't any hair left on her head and she was very thin, so much so he could make out every bony contour under her skin. Her eyelids were droopy, but she managed to smile a little for him. Or it looked like she was smiling. He couldn't tell for sure because of the mask over her face.
She beckoned him with shaking arms and he crawled in bed with her, resting his head against her breast and listening to her heart. A frail hand tugged the silicone cover from her chin, dragging it down with every little ounce of strength she could muster. Holding him, she started to sing. Her tortured throat made the words scratchy and at times hard to decipher, but it was still the most beautiful thing he'd ever heard.
"I look up while I walk... so the tears won't fall... remembering those spring days, but tonight I have you... I look up while I walk, counting the stars with teary eyes... remembering those summer days... but tonight I have you..."
Each word came so slow, shivering from her lips one by one while something wet trickled into his hair. He was not sure when her voice had stopped, or when the whirring of the life support had turned into a deafening whine. She was still warm, even after her heart stopped beating, and he fought the nurses when they tried to pry him free. Up until his stepfather grabbed him and smacked him, eyes furious and cheeks overrun with tears.
Gendo could not be certain why this vast graveyard, gritty and barren, reminded him of somewhere so sterile and frigid. At the very least he was able to bring flowers this time, while his mother and her very small marker had received none. It had taken all of their savings just to give her a proper funeral. He couldn't be sure if his mother had even cared much for flowers.
In fact, Yui had never told him what her favorite blossoms were either. If she had ever entertained a preference. So he settled on white chrysanthemums at the suggestion of the priest, who'd seen fit to offer his advice where it was not asked for. Gendo did not have the strength to hold him under much contempt for it.
Before him was a black slab, decently taller than his mother's tiny marker. But there was no corpse to cremate, no ashes to sift through for bones, starting from the feet and slowly wandering to the head as they were sorted into a small urn. Nor would there be a plaque for her at her family's shrine, which had been destroyed with the entirety of Tokyo. This place was merely a mass grave without corpses, a hollow testament that there was once life here.
No, for Yui, there was just a name and a date. He supposed that would suffice. Gendo kneeled to set the flowers down at its base, plastic crinkling as it left his fingers. After a moment of debate, he decided against praying, resting his hands on his thighs instead. He used to pray, long ago for the handful of times he was able to visit his mother. At least there had been a jar full of ashes back then, something tangible and real to hear his thoughts and prayers.
Worship had ceased at home shortly after she passed. They hadn't been able to afford some of the more grand and elaborate shrines he had seen in other homes. Rather, it was a re-purposed cupboard put on a stool by the front door. One of the panels had always hung slightly ajar from a crooked hinge, allowing one to glimpse the small, weathered bodhisattva statuette inside and mother's prayer beads hanging from its neck.
When they came home from the funeral, he covered it in white paper like grandfather had taught him. To ward away any evil spirits. His step-father smashed it to pieces a week later during another one of his drunken fits.
In his and Yui's home now, there was no shrine to Buddha or God or Ahura Mazda – or any other deity imagined by man. Their religion was one of fields and particles, collections of neural data and cells that congealed to form people and reality as they knew it.
For such a very long time, before the gateway to metaphysics had been opened to him, Gendo had decided that life was just an accidental collision of fields and energies. That, when those two powers ceased to hold together, there was nothing. No afterlife, no rebirth, no great journey to some ethereal plane. It was a sad kind of existence when he dwelled on it, but Yui had never seen it that way. His wife had found the light in everything.
She had, ever so subtly, converted him.
Rock and mineral scraped at his back, where Shinji stood, quiet, but looking to him in askance. So steady and thoughtful for a four year old. He'd completely forgotten the boy was even there. Gendo turned away when he realized there was more than a question in his son's eyes – there was fear. And why shouldn't he be afraid?
Yui had envisioned a future, for herself – and for him. She'd seen something in him that others had given up searching for, and offered him a place in that warm world of hers when no one else cared to offer him anything. In time, he had begun to see it too, in the way she smiled at her round belly and asked him what they would name this new life.
There were hands holding firm to the fabric of his pants as they balled into fists. His hands, but not his hands. They did not feel as though they belonged to him, and he eased forward, hunched in front of her grave as his fingers moved to sink into the earth.
Help me, Yui.
"Please... help me."
The boy was throwing another fit. Over what, Gendo couldn't fathom. Something in the meal? He told the boy to sit and be silent.
Little Shinji threw his dinner plate to the floor and screamed, "I hate you!"
Gendo's hands met the table as he stood, another threat on the tip of his tongue.
"You killed her! You killed her!"
There was a resounding slap and Shinji was half to the floor, cheek splotched red. Gendo's blood went cold in an instant and try as he might in the years to come, he would never forget that face. That look of utter betrayal. He would have rather faced his wife's empty entry plug again than be looked at like that.
Reality tumbled over the boy, drawing out tearful wails. "I want my mommy!" Shinji half sobbed and half shrieked, running to his room and slamming the door shut.
Gendo's shoulders slumped and for a while he just stared down the hall, listening to the rhythmic tick tick of the wall-mounted clock and the muffled chirping of the cicada bugs outside. The mid-summer heat pooled over him and he looked to the open patio doors with a frown. It was always mid-summer... and it always would be. For as long as they were allowed to endure – which did not seem to be very long at all.
His eyes fell to the white shards and remnants of food scattered across their maroon rug. He bent and started to collect the pieces bit by bit. The nerves in his fingers danced and flesh parted as sharp glass carved into his hand. Gendo cursed, clutching his wrist as if that would do something to ease the searing burn. Red flowed from his fingers and palm, thick globules clinging to his knuckles before falling to soak into the carpet.
All at once the apartment seemed darker, heavier. It weighed down on him like a rolling tidal wave, swallowing every ounce of energy he had left. Eventually, Gendo found the will to stand at the sink. Water splashed into the steel basin and mingled with drops of blood, until steam began to rise and he stuck his hand under the scalding water. His skin screamed and he grit his teeth as white-hot pain dove into the pink flesh. He kept it there under the hissing water until he couldn't feel anymore.
He turned the faucet off, flexing his fingers, buzzing with sensory overload. He found the medical kit in the storage closet off of the kitchen and wrapped it tight in gauze. As he went about cleaning up the dining room mess, carefully this time, he noticed the answering machine near the door winking a tiny red light.
Another call from the professor? That would be the most logical answer. The staff, the Committee – being Director of a global research group meant he had little time to himself, especially with that meddlesome old man leaning over his shoulder.
Deciding to ignore the waiting messages yet again out of spite, Gendo started washing the dishes. His watch read 12:01.
The entire day had been spent home, quietly sorting through the "office". Discarding what was not needed, boxing other items and possessions. There were still shelves lined with books, from philosophical to scientific, to just plain fiction. The living room was modest, but well furnished – though at the moment felt bigger than a theater without an audience. In the other room, their bedroom, it was a maze of organized chaos. Everything was probably a bit dusty now. He'd been sleeping on the couch for the past few days.
Shinji had been an utter nuisance the entire time. Gendo supposed that was just the nature of children, and the reason he had so vehemently protested having one. Even with the private tutor, the boy was... difficult. It was a burden he'd never wanted – had never believed he was capable of bearing. It was at Yui's insistence that they'd had a child.
She had believed.
Gendo looked around the living room again to keep his thoughts from drifting, to keep his heart from stinging. Everything reminded him of her. The scent of her citrus body wash permeated every pillow, and the heavy lavender aroma of her perfume soaked itself in the walls and washed through his lungs.
A sparse few photos hung upon simple white plaster: their wedding day – and the night they had brought Shinji home. Upon the mantle piece over the fireplace sat her violin; red wood lighted with warm streaks of gold and cherry, sleek and polished. Though he noticed, with some annoyance, that one of the strings had snapped.
It was so quiet.
Even the slow, oscillating pattern of the ceiling fan couldn't keep it at bay anymore, turning into yet more empty noise. It broke into the house, pouring over every inch and worming its way into his ears. His hands began to tremble and his heart beat faster and faster as his chest swelled – plugging his throat. Gendo clasped his hands over his ears as it crept over him in shuddering tides. He bent over, eyes squeezed shut while his shoulders shook with soundless sobs.
The ringing silence persisted, but as with his quiet grief, eventually subsided. The world seemed to come back to sound and feeling, though his chest felt no less numb.
Gendo slid his hands down his face, a half-hearted attempt to clear his watery vision and streaked cheeks. He sniffed and folded his hands, blinking several times as his eyes drifted to the coffee table at his knees, sliding lethargically over the manila folders spread across it. Then they snapped back, a name catching his eye.
He thought he could be strong enough.
Shinji didn't deserve to be growing up around so much hate and death. But Gendo had helped bring him into this world. Because of him, his mother had been taken away. The accusation snapped a cord in his heart, twisting his veins with virulent malice and disgust. What was he supposed to do – how was he supposed to raise this child alone?
That night, Gendo Ikari did not sleep, haunted by the hatred in the eyes of the boy down the hall.
He hated their living room.
There was a new coffee stain on the white couch and it wasn't even from the child, who'd been taught early on to be wary of making such messes. The long low-end table was a glorified dumping ground for anything and everything, miscellaneous piles of half packed moving boxes stacked high on either side of the entertainment system. At some point, he recalled as if grasping for a dream, that this had been a comforting place.
It had endured the One Year War and various marital squabbles. Gendo had been sitting in the armchair there three years ago with Shinji in his lap, watching the television as a news anchor informed Japan that Tokyo had just been attacked. He'd felt the tremors and thought it little more than an earthquake. The pillar of smoke had risen over the hills shortly after and his stomach might as well have been voided.
The anchor broke the news uneasily. Japan had suffered its third nuclear bombing.
He'd learned they were not the only ones and had spent several days glued to the television, ushered out to attend to his worldly responsibilities only at Yui's quiet insistence. Each night he learned of more sprawling cities that had been turned into ashen planes, of the desert capitals in the middle east - now silent glass craters. Not even the United States had made it through unscathed.
Now, Shinji was off with his tutor as usual, while Gendo again neglected his duties and the chores that needed doing around the house. When the boy returned, they would eat in silence and Gendo would dismiss him to his room, as was also becoming ritual. Night by night he came to resent this burden more and more.
There was a notion in him, stirring as the fledgling tides of the sea. To reach out and speak. To do any of the things that had once been so easy and mundane. Nothing ever came of these efforts, where he forgot to shave and snubbed the opportunity to shower. Some days he could not even be bothered to eat.
When his body had had enough, when his legs carried him into their bedroom – that awful room that smelled like her, that disappointed him every time he did not find her in bed – he returned to the task at hand with mindless purpose. The task of discarding his old life.
While rifling through their things, he came across the old tape player he'd thought lost ages ago. This particular player was one of the newer models, bought for him by Yui for a birthday he'd stopped caring about decades ago.
Thankfully, the mixtapes he had never found the heart to get rid of were still compatible with the more compact portable players. For the first time in years he listened to the jaunty tunes of Sakamoto, understanding the words with a new ear. How his mother had changed the lyrics as a final parting gift.
It did not lift his heart to hear it, yet the old words brought comfort, somehow. He spent his nights here now, in this blasted living room, clutching his SDAT the way a smoker clung reverently to his cigarette pack. But tonight, he was reading. The research files that had landed in a heap on the coffee table were open in a mess of precise medical jargon. Incoherent gibberish to anyone else, but ordered chaos to him.
It was the Eva.
Always the Eva.
It was the key to everything.
Three months later, the new year rolled over.
It was February and Japan should have been shaking off the residuals of winter. Instead, the morning air was raw and humid in the pine laden valley of Hakone. The mists hung lower over the bare skeleton of a city and the cries of the cranes reached far across the serene countryside, not yet disturbed by the blaring of construction.
Gendo waited at the train station, holding Shinji's tiny hand in his. Fuyutsuki stood on the other side of the boy.
"Don't you think a father is what he needs right now?" the elder asked, bordering contempt.
"No," Gendo said, staring off into the fog. "He'll be better off."
Out of the corner of his eye, he spotted the unconvinced look Fuyutsuki made, but no further protest left his lips. Instead, he said, "Just answer me one thing: why Germany?"
"He must be able to pilot if the need should arise."
The man flinched as if stabbed. "Ikari..."
"The Second is no older. We'll gather all of the necessary data while everything is being prepared."
The man's eyes narrowed, his expression hardening. "It's just an all too convenient excuse, isn't it?"
Gendo cast his gaze down at Shinji, who was still rubbing the sleep from his eyes. A narrow rail-car soon squealed into its berth, announcements droning with it. "Grab your things," he said. Little Shinji did as he was told, struggling as he hefted the oversized duffel bag.
"Where we going?" he asked.
"You are going away for a while."
Shinji flinched, eyes wide. "But – I don't wanna'!"
The train doors parted, revealing a man in a long-sleeved white button shirt and black khakis, hair shaved close to his head. The boy's tutor.
"Inside," Gendo said in his quietly firm voice, a hand pushing against Shinji's back.
His bag dropped as his fists went to his eyes. "But why?" he whimpered, trying to wipe away gathering tears.
Something twisted in him and a gnawing pit formed in Gendo's stomach, his hands trembling. He stuffed them in his pockets, eyes lingering on Shinji only a moment longer. One that stretched on forever, spanning nearly a hundred breaths. In that instance, he felt doubt, fear – anger. A torrent of emotion swept over him, though failed to move his impassive features.
That night he had struck his son threw him away from the station and its hissing air compressors, standing him in their house again to watch as Shinji ran from him screaming, "I hate you!"
Gendo stiffened, hands clenching as he clung to resolution before hesitation could snare him again. There was nothing the boy would gain from him. Not as a father.
That was something he could never be.
"You mustn't run away, Shinji," he said and fished the old SDAT player from his jacket pocket, taking a knee and putting it in little Shinji's grasp. He stood straight, sliding his hands in his pockets again to keep them from shaking as he turned and began walking down the platform, Fuyutsuki at his side.
"Dad!" Shinji cried, small hands fighting tears, "don't leave me dad! Please, I'm sorry – I'm sorry!"
Gendo kept his head up as he walked.
Act I: Elysium
Shinji held his knees to his chest, staring down at his white shoes. There was a black streak he thought he should wipe away, unable to muster the will to move unless prompted. The train ride had been really long and he had been asleep most of the plane trip – wherever it was he was going with his Teacher. It seemed like he was being taken to the other side of the world.
Shinji looked up and found everything was brighter, sky-touching trees making the sun wink as they passed by. He had to twist in his seat belt, wishing he was grown-up sized.
In a moment the glowing countryside whisked his discomfort away.
Beyond the road stretched fields of pale green and autumn gold, rolling up to a house – Shinji's brow furrowed in thought – three stories tall! It was like no house he'd ever seen, made up of rough white stone. With its squat, heavy shapes, it appeared to have been squished between the hands of a giant at some point, squeezing its tiny windows together, the edges of which were rimmed with red bricks. Spires poked up from its steep rain-gray roof, where the fingers of green vines clawed up the walls to touch them.
"Where are we?" he asked, face pressed to the glass.
"I will tell you when you sit properly," Teacher said. Shinji's shoulders sagged, but he did as he was told and the man nodded. "This is the Langley estate. The Colonel is very generously providing us with housing here."
Shinji's face scrunched. "Why?"
"It is what your father wishes," Teacher said and Shinji sank in his seat a little, staring at the car door as weariness pulled at his body. He reached into the pockets of his shorts, one hand finding the music player father had given him.
The vehicle squealed to a stop.
"Come," Teacher said.
Waiting for them was a tall man with an ugly face; all square and more than a little wrinkly. There must have been something wrong with him, because he didn't look like anyone else Shinji had ever met. Teacher approached and bowed. The man did the same and then they shook hands, speaking... something. Those weren't words! That was just gibberish!
The man then motioned to Shinji and Teacher nodded, face stretching into a smile as he indulged the boy with a slight bow. Shinji looked to Teacher, who motioned impatiently for him to do the same.
The man chuckled as he did. "It's nice to meet you, junger Shinji."
Junger? Shinji wondered, straightening up a little, awaiting explanation as he looked from one to the other. The two continued their conversation, forgetting about him entirely. The taller man made a few gestures, pointing somewhere beyond the big house.
"Come along, Shinji," Teacher said, pulling the boy from his gazing. As they walked by, Shinji noticed a little girl in a black dress frowning at him from the open doorway. He stopped to stare at her – that red hair and big blue eyes.
The girl sniffed and ran out of sight.
Red. He thought, struck dumb on the spot. Red like fire. Shinji turned to Teacher, only to find he had been left behind. His short legs struggled to catch up. "Who– who was that girl?"
"Never you mind," he said, leading the way through a winding path of archways wrapped with white flowered vines. The looming castle was steadily consumed by the trees and bushes of purple and yellow, which spilled strange stinging scents into his nose. He sniffed and itched, which only made it itch all the more.
There were many pathways and he was thankful that at least Teacher knew where they were going. At the same time, Shinji couldn't help but wonder what lay beyond. Smaller trees reached over the smelly bushes, cooling lily-pad laden ponds with their shade. Slowly the world shifted in shape and color as the trees grew taller and their trunks grew fatter.
Shinji glanced back, glad the stone castle was still in sight. But even that became distant as they reached a tiny, albeit more familiar, house like the ones where he lived. It was then that he noticed the sky had begun to darken, dyeing everything shades of yellow and orange as the sun shrank away. The tallest spires of the castle poked over the tall trees, but he couldn't see much beyond the alien bushes and hulking trunks. Keys jangled and something clicked, Teacher calling him inside. Shinji hesitated at the threshold, staring down at that small line between concrete and wood. His feet and knees felt tight, as if someone had glued his shoes to the ground. Eyes traveling up again, he was met with darkness and s shadow he recognized as Teacher.
"Shinji," Teacher said and a light snapped on, casting his tall caretaker in black, but bathing all else in an orange glow.
"Why... can't I..." he started, but couldn't get the words past the brick in his throat.
"This is your home now."
Shinji swallowed, but the lump didn't pass and he stepped inside. The walls were far too tall, or maybe the rooms were just too empty. His house had lots of stuff. His room had lots of stuff.
Teacher turned to the right, sliding open a door to what must have been his room, a musty smell creeping forth. He set down Shinji's duffel bag and walked past him down the hall. "Go to bed now. Your studies will begin first thing in the morning." then he disappeared to the other end of the house.
Shinji wandered into his room, grimacing at the lumpy looking futon. There was a small black table in the left corner and an empty closet to his right.
Shinji turned back to the hallway and the closed door far beyond it. He reached for the panel, struggling as it got stuck along the floor. With a final push, he managed to slam it closed before falling on his rump. Something thumped along the carpet, the black SDAT player lying behind him. He twisted and picked the thing up, the wires curling between his fingers.
The plastic frame creaked as he squeezed it, skin hotter than a sun – and he cast it across the room.
He regretted it immediately, scrambling to snatch the player up as it clacked against the wall and bounced over the floor. He turned it upside down and over, making sure there were no cracks or loose wires.
It was still together. It was still whole.
Shinji pressed it to his chest, unable to keep his lips from shaking or his shoulders from trembling. With one heaving gasp, the tears started tumbling down his cheeks and he cried in an empty room with nothing but his father's SDAT for comfort.
A light taptaptap pulled Shinji from his dreams, casting him bleary-eyed into the world. He sat up on the floor, one hand rubbing his eyes while the other still clutched the SDAT player tight. The tapping came again and this time his door slid open to reveal Teacher, clad in a white button long-sleeved shirt and black pants.
"Change your clothes and then we will begin your lessons," he said, sliding the door shut.
Shinji blinked, searching for his duffel bag. Finding fresh new clothes, he changed and, not really knowing where to put the dirty ones, threw them to a corner of the room. When he left, Teacher was kneeled at a low table piled with books. He motioned for Shinji to sit on the pillow across from him.
"Do you know where we are?" he asked.
Several answers came to mind, but Shinji just shook his head.
"It is a country called Germany. Since you will be living here for an extended period, you must learn the native language. Thus, in addition to your normal vocabulary and pronunciation lessons, you will start learning German as well," Teacher explained, patting one of the books on the table.
"Why do I have to live here?"
"Because it has been deemed necessary. No more questions now."
Shinji wanted to ask lots of questions, but Teacher waved them away as he was busied with the book full of not-right characters, where he learned how to say 'good morning' in German. But his pronunciation, as Teacher said, required extensive work. He wasn't sure what that meant, but Teacher didn't look pleased with him when he said the weird words.
It seemed to take forever for the sun to crawl up into this other sky, so long he could have sworn another day had passed by while his stomach grumbled. Teacher made soup that tasted like ash and syrup. At least, that's what he imagined ash and syrup would taste like together. It did little for his hunger and afterwards Teacher gave him permission to play outside.
Shinji stepped out of the front door, where several gray stones sat among a small sea of white rocks. Beyond that there were boulders jutting through the greenery, broken by woodchip pathways that led into bunches of trees with mossy heads of hair. Even further in there were other plants and bugs not unlike the ones at home. He was glad, however, to see the horned beetles were missing.
In the distance, on high and lording over it all, was the stone house that stood like a castle.
His right hand tightened around the SDAT and he marched forward, cautiously, ready to bolt at the first sign of trouble. He ventured down one of the safer looking paths, set wider apart than the others and lined with cobblestones.
The plants became stranger and stranger as he went. Narrow things with flat leaves, or stubbier ones with sharp stalks and pointy frills. The flowers were what really took his breath away – so many and in more colors than he even knew existed. Some looked like the water birds with the long legs that bent backwards, while others appeared to be balls of honeycomb. His nose began to itch with the plethora of new smells, becoming red and stuffy again.
The earth started to slope down and the pathway became less defined, giving way to wandering roots. Thin, spindly white trees stretched up higher than he could see into the canopies above, while a sea of orange ferns grew around the base of their trunks. A wind darted through the garden, clacking branches together and making the woods creak.
The foliage rustled further down the path and Shinji froze – jumping as a snake slithered onto the overgrown trail, its body slick and black. The thing seemed not to notice him as he staggered back, relieved it was heading in the opposite direction further into the valley.
The call of his name echoed over the garden and Shinji couldn't run fast enough back to his new house. He had not strayed far, and Teacher was waiting at the door to usher him in.
That night Shinji was in his room again, straining his ears for familiar sounds. The legions of cicadas had gone silent while a handful of crickets chirped, barely discernible over the humming of the frogs and their warbling voices. They'd never been this noisy at home.
Home. He thought, wondering about his things and his bed and his toys. His favorite had been a black armored Samurai who went to space to fight aliens, but didn't age like other people did. In the show, he fought for so long that his home planet changed to become alien to him, while everyone there forgot about him and the battles he fought.
Shinji had ripped its arms and legs off in a fit. Was it still there, broken up on his bed? He wished he had brought it with him, but he didn't know how to fix it. Was that why he'd been sent away? Because he broke things?
A feeling like ice water spiraled down his back and he sat down, hugging his knees close. That must have been it. No one would want a boy who broke things. That's why he'd been sent away to this... other place, far away. The thought made his lips quiver, a warm sting touching his cheeks. He wished he knew how to fix himself. Maybe then his father would let him go back home.
The door to his room slid open and Teacher was there, standing over him. "You mustn't cry, Shinji. You must be a good boy from now on."
Little Shinji nodded, trying to wipe away his tears.
Despite his best attempts, Shinji had barely slept. Everything hurt and he was tired and his eyes burned and he hated this place. But Teacher didn't care. It was time for lessons.
The minutes stretched by and the lessons seemed harder. When he started to throw a fit, Teacher whacked his knuckles with a ruler. Shinji felt the sting on his cheek too, from when...
He behaved himself the rest of the day and as the sun started to sink, he was given an hour to himself before they resumed. He stood outside the small house again, the white rocks warm on his bare feet. An endless forest stretched out before him, bustling with birds and bugs. The snake from yesterday came to mind. He'd never seen one before outside of picture books. All he knew was that he didn't like them. This one had not been a very big one – and didn't have the rattle or patterned colors like in Teacher's books, all shimmering black scales as dark as night.
SDAT secured once more in his pocket, Shinji ventured forth, trying to remember the trail he had taken last afternoon. The walk was longer than before and as he wandered into the valley that had no flowers, he began to think he was lost.
He'd read stories like this, of children lured deep into the forests by spirits, never to be seen again. Here, the calls of the birds faded to echoes, and the fire-gold ferns seemed endless. He froze, straining his ears. The quiet was what told him he was in the right place. The ghostly white trees were like sentinels in the grove, keeping any that might have found shelter within their branches at bay.
He wanted to run, to just curl up and listen to his SDAT and dream the rest of the day away. But running would mean he would have to go back to that tiny house. Running would mean he would have to face Teacher and more lessons. Frowning, Shinji stepped into the grove, cautious – flinching at the crack of a branch or the squealing chitter of a squirrel. A whispering breeze chased the sun-baked air from the glade, shaking life into the still ferns along the forest floor.
The black snake slithered free and Shinji's heart stuck in his throat, its beat thundering in his ears.
The serpent wiggled into the valley and Shinji almost lost it as he gave chase, careful not to make much noise and scare it off. Could snakes even get scared? It came into view again, a shadow moving between the shrubs and roots. As if sensing him it began to move faster, winding in that unnatural way off the beaten paths of mulch and pebbles.
Shinji crashed through a scratchy bushel that snagged his shirt and went tumbling, elbows scuffing as they scraped across stone. He groaned, pushing his now aching body up. He couldn't lose the snake.
Shinji made it to his knees, searching, frantic – but it was gone. His small fist smacked into the stone.
Soon he stood and brushed off, new bruises coloring his knuckles. The flowers here changed to tints and shades of color unlike the bright, exotic hues near his house. Roses, he recalled, noticing the red ones right away. They skirted the edges of a wide stone walkway, stacked in front of one another, neat and ordered. The towering trunks sheltering the rest of the garden were absent, leaving the blue sky open and bare. Dark, pointed trees guarded the edges of the expanse and further back he could see a small dome with pillars, the castle having grown some in the background.
He meandered along the path, where roses on high bushes were perched atop their stalks. They made a series of rings around fountain bowls sprinkling water into a pond. Like a whisper, a sliver of color at the edge of sight called his eye. He was looking at the roses like before, but there was one flower that wasn't quite right. It had a green stalk and violet shades for its long, hanging frills struggling to grow within the gaps between the roses – which encased it in a cage of thorn-laced vines.
Lying next to the strange flower was something brown, white fluff sticking out of its torn chest. It was so stained and dirtied, he might never have noticed it was there if he'd just passed right by. Shinji picked the thing up and realized it was a monkey, or at least it used to be, before getting dirty and ripped up.
He looked around, trying to find its owner. They must have been worried over it. Looking up towards the castle, he saw a shadow in one of the windows. It was hard to tell since he was so far away, but he could have sworn he saw a brief wisp of flame.
It still smelled funny in Germany, thick and pungent, every intake hitting his nostrils with the force of a hurricane. Shinji sniffed, curling a little tighter in his small sanctuary, a squared out depression thick with soft grass. Most of the metal roof and walls had been worn away until sage and red splotches spattered what remained. The light from the sun still had difficulty reaching down through the thick branches high above.
It was quieter here and farther from the castle with the girl and the screaming.
Teacher said he was not allowed to go to the big house. Probably because he was broken. That was why he was sent to this garden with no one in it. He had been bad and now he was being punished.
Sometimes, though, he would find his way towards it. Where the garden ended and the wood and stone platforms began. Sometimes, when he was there just looking up at the massive building, he heard a girl's voice echoing through what must have been grand halls. Maybe the girl he'd seen before?
Face quirking, he fished out the SDAT and poked a bud in each ear.
No one had red hair. She must have been a forest spirit. Only spirits had colored hair. But why did she live in the house? And why did she wear a dress? Ghosts didn't wear dresses... at least not like that. Ghosts were ugly too... and she wasn't ugly at all.
It didn't really matter all that much. Why would anyone up there care what he was doing down here? Still, he wished he had someone to play with. The only real playmate he had was the snake – and it was no playmate at all. More of an adversary, really. Maybe the reason no one came into the garden was because of the snake. Maybe they were afraid of it.
That must be it.
As another day passed Shinji formulated what was, for a soon to be five-year-old, a brilliant plan. To begin, he set up a listening post from which to watch the snake. During his hour of recess, he went into the valley with the ghost trees, waiting for the slithering thing to appear. At the same time everyday it would come chasing out of the sunset ferns and travel down the narrow dirt path – up and out of the grove.
Shinji never chased it. Last time he followed it he'd gotten lost in those stone ruins by the castle. Yet it became more infuriating than anything to simply watch the snake. It was as though it were taunting him, smug in its assurance that he could neither catch it nor keep pace with it.
Shinji would show that stupid snake.
After perhaps a week, he was ready for the serpent when it wriggled free of the ferns, hiding behind one of the birch trees. Shinji pounced, fingers poised to snare the slithering creature. It moved like lightning, bolting beyond his falling trajectory before his hands even met the dirt. Even as it glided over the ground side to side, it didn't seemed perturbed by the incident in the slightest. Not even so much as an annoyed hiss. That just brought a snarl to Shinji's face.
The boy scrambled to his feet and ran after its black form. It only moved faster, darting between the plants in clever zig-zags. He chased it to no avail until his lungs stung from heaving breaths and his sides ached and his legs screamed for rest. Foliage smacked his face, branches snagging his clothes.
Shinji's foot thwacked against something hard and he fell flat on his stomach. Pain pulsed through his left knee, arms matted with dirt. He groaned, looking for the cause of his fall, before realizing the SDAT had skittered from his pocket.
It sat under the crux of a gnarled root, crumpled and oozing sap. He snatched it up quickly, lest the tree steal it from him. He searched the clearing for the snake – but it was gone, again.
Shinji blinked, craning his neck as he looked about. He hadn't been to this part of the garden yet. Thistles and thorn bushes closed off the clearing, wrapping around the other trees and plants to consume them in their biting embrace. All except the tree in the middle of the clearing, which they gave a wide berth.
The thing could have been from another planet for all its strangeness, twisting up as though it were made of huge roots and vines that curled around one another. Not a proper trunk at all. Its stubby branches reached out in jagged arcs, tiny leaves gathered around bunches of small purple-black balls. He blinked, grimacing as he tried to remember the things mother used to pick off the trees for him –
These, however, looked nothing like apples.
Shinji collapsed by the base of the tree, legs too weak to hold him up anymore. His lungs were still starving for air and he obliged as best he could, wondering just how lost he was now. The snake had escaped him too. He'd done his best and even then he couldn't catch it!
As his expression twisted, he slapped his hands over his face, sliding them up into his hair and pulling. A frustrated growl clawed through his teeth before he let his hands fall into his lap.
"Du weinst viel."
Shinji jumped so fast he was sure his heart had popped out of his throat.
He edged back, wide-eyed gaze fixed upon the yokai-girl standing at the other side of the tree, hands on her hips. Those strange eyes were staring at him and he felt himself shrink.
"W-what?" he stuttered.
The girl's brow scrunched and her lips pouted. When he just stared – wishing his legs weren't frozen – her cheeks reddened and for a moment Shinji thought she might burst.
"Cry – a lot," she said, pointing at him.
Shinji wilted, perplexed all the same. He understood the words, but they didn't sound like they were supposed to. "No I don't," he said, rubbing his fists over his eyes, just to be sure there weren't any tears. There were.
The girl didn't seem to understand what he said and he wished he could speak her weird sounds. Why didn't everyone say the same things? Maybe then she would want to play with him. Did she know he was broken?
The girl only stared, as if wary. Shinji fidgeted, now wishing she would go away. Instead, the girl stepped over the gnarled roots and shoved him. He fell to his back, anger tightening his veins only to start shivering with cold as the girl stood over him, icy blue eyes glaring.
"Wer bist du?!" she demanded. Shinji quirked his head and made a questioning sound, which only seemed to make her angrier. The girl leaned over to poke his chest – hard. "Nah-meh?" she asked. It took him a moment because she said it so funny, but then he realized–
"S-Shinji," he squeaked.
She stood straight again, a finger touching her chin as she looked up. "Sh-in-ji," she repeated, nodding as she tested the name. Then, without warning, she snatched him by the wrist, drawing out a yelp as she tugged him to his feet. She was strong for a girl. He let himself be pulled along as she weaved a path back into the garden.
When she stopped, he almost sent both of them flailing. Her eyes scanned him up and down, ferocious and alive. Then, still holding his arm, she jabbed a thumb at herself and declared, "Asuka!"
Du weinst veil: You cry alot.
Wer bist du? Who are you?