Chapter One

When Asuka had moved into the Katsuragi household, Shinji had lost his alarm clock. He quickly discovered he didn't need it. Without fail, his eyes would open between 6:00 and 6:15 every day.

This gave him ten minutes to bath, then cook. Depending on the food, this usually took thirty to forty minutes. It was a simple matter to heat instant meals, but Shinji could not abide such things. Enumerating the contents of the refrigerator and shelves, and making from those things something a little different each day, was one of the things that kept him sane. It wasn't the smell of simmering vegetables, or the taste of the finished product. It was an act of creativity, and one of the few freedoms Shinji could avail himself now.

Life was slow and real to Ikari, but he couldn't help but feel disconnected from it most of the time. School was mechanical, a ritual process of read-and-regurgitate. Conversations with his friends tended to be monosyllabic and reactionary.

He pandered to Asuka. She tended to be less destructive when she thought herself in control. Misato was rarely encountered outside of NERV proper, her job and habits keeping her from the apartment. The longest conversation they had held in weeks had involved a drunken Major screaming at Shinji to 'finish his sardines.' This had also been their most lucid exchange, outside of Eva.

Eva... was one of the few things that roused Ikari from his waking slumber, and he hated it. The reason he had originally decided to pilot had become little more then a ghost. Rei Ayanami had returned to primitive mind, despite his early efforts to help and understand her.

Asking her to smile, trying to define a thing like 'sadness'... he found those memories idiotic, shameful. That one time in her apartment... that memory made his flesh crawl. His thoughts never lingered on the First Child for long because, like Eva, she could make his waking life horribly lucid.

The Angels... they wouldn't stop coming, and every battle saw Shinji with some new scar. How many now? The invaders retained numeric designation, but he never paid attention during the debriefing and, since he had done his job, no one much cared.

Month XX, 20XX, School Day

Today Shinji cooked a ball of ground chuck, with bell peppers and rice. More brown then white, the peppers narrowly sliced. Another variation. The last of this kind for a while, they were out of peppers.

According to Asuka, the meal was very palatable. Actually, she mumbled something her own guttural language. Shinji didn't actually know what she had said, but "very palatable" made her easier to ignore. He didn't really taste the food as he ate, got up and washed his dish and chopsticks, and put them away. As he worked, he felt Asuka staring at him. Strange, it had been a while since he had felt that. Had he been ignoring it this whole time, or was this simply a rare occurrence?

Shinji didn't meet her eyes, didn't do anything to acknowledge her. It was a school day. He had to prepare.

The walk to school was five blocks long, ten minutes walking. Shinji walked in silence, head tilted, staring at the mountains that crested Tokyo-3. Only visible after the... was it the 17th or the 20th Angel? After some Angel had decimated the city skyline, had the mountains been made visible from Shinji's daily perspective.

The overcast sun hadn't taken the misty shroud from the mountains yet, and they seemed ghostly, indistinct. They were unchanging, and so Shinji focused on them. Better then listening to the hum of traffic, or the staccato of constant reconstruction. His gaze was intense and detached, an early morning stare.

Asuka was talking beside him, in half-heard tones and distant inflection. Shinji's thoughts only acknowledged her when he realized she wasn't speaking anymore, that she was no longer by his side.

He stopped and turned. Asuka was six steps away, wearing a peculiar expression.

"Well?" she asked.

"What?" he replied.

And just like that her odd look was replaced with typical, guarded one. She came at him and yanked him towards school, and the rest of their journey was quiet.

At lunch, Shinji followed Touji to the school store and bought two rice balls and some vegetable sushi. Then the two of them went to the school roof, and Touji talked about a girl he was seeing, and asked Shinji questions he eventually answered himself. Shinji ate his food and nodded. Then Kensuke joined them, talking about the latest scrap of esoteric knowledge he had stumbled upon. This entailed more nodding, a few painfully lucid moments to drudge up a friendly question, and then Shinji was done eating.

"Hey, Shinji..." Kensuke began as the boy got up to leave, "why don't you cook your own lunches anymore?"

A direct question. Torn from his placid state, Shinji closed his eyes and actually considered the question. When had he stopped doing that? Why had he... Oh.

"Asuka doesn't like the food I make," he was saying. But that couldn't be right, could it?

"Hikari told me different," one of them said. Shinji couldn't tell which, his eyes were closed and the voices were warping...

"She said Asuka ain't been aall rightsince that one... what was it?"
"I think she said the 28th."
"The one with the...?"

Shinji tasted copper. He had bitten his cheek. He tried to answer the question, but found his mind wanting to avoid it, to go back to his grey and simple inner world. He bit himself again, and managed a short, neutral grunt.

Then he left. His friends called after him, but those voices were so far away...

School ended. Shinji and Asuka swept the classroom clean with several other students, and then the two left. The walk home had no mountain backdrop, just roads and an incline. The world was red with the setting sun, and the cicadas made plenty of noise. Shinji concentrated on the insect sounds, almost as timeless as the mountain. But the drone ooscillated in pitch, and passing cars made almost the same sound, as they whooshed by. Imperfect. Variable.

Asuka said something. Shinji stopped.

She had been quiet thus far. As far away as Shinji was, he knew that. But she had said something just now, hadn't she? Shinji searched his memory, found it empty... save for that faint impression... then she said it again.

"What is wrong with you?"

But she wasn't screaming it. She wasn't looking at him like he was some insect. That look from earlier in the morning was back. Shinji couldn't read it, and already his mind was being lulled back to the cicada.

"Why are you doing this to me?" she said, in a strange tone of voice.

Shinji wanted to pause and examine this question. To understand and possibly respond to it, but he couldn't. The cicada were calling. He turned and continued home. Asuka followed.

There were no exercises at NERV that day, so Shinji started preparing dinner as soon as they arrived home. They had three more pounds of hamburger meat, so Shinji took some of that and started it sizzling on the stove, along with water for rice. He sliced up mushroom and put them and a narrow slice of butter on the stove as well. Then he cut up some crab meat and carrots.

Asuka came up behind him, and said something. A question or a statement? It sounded...

Shinji dumped a quantity of rice into the now-boiling water, and stirred the mushrooms. He got out the nori wrap, and washed the crab meat and carrots one last time. Thought a moment, then got out and sliced up a cucumber too.

Asuka was still talking, and he could almost hear her.

Took the meat off the stove and covered the pot up. Stirred the mushrooms. Checked the rice, strained it out. Then he started making the sushi.

There was a muffled thump as Asuka hit the table. Her voice was rising.

The mushrooms were done. Shinji took them off and added them to the hamburger meat. He returned to wrapping and slicing the sushi. Eventually Asuka left.

Shinji carefully set the table, set out Asuka's western eating utensils, five sushi, and a plate of the meat and mushroom concoction. On his side: chopsticks, meat, four sushi.

Then Shinji put a candle between the plates, and lit it.
Then he wondered why.

Asuka was in the room again. She was making random sounds, crouched near the floor. She moved around the room, but didn't sit down. Shinji sat, ate, and then left. Behind him he might have heard a crash, but it was time to sleep. He opened the door to his room and

Asuka hit him, hard.