Special thanks to Jaredin Snow for beta reading this chapter.
Author's Note: Wow, it's a cold day in Hell today.
I'd like apologize for taking so long in updating Taking Sights. It's been over seven months since the last chapter was posted and it'll be a few more months before the next one is too. It's a long story so let me explain.
As some of you may remember, the length of time between updates of Taking Sights was growing longer and longer with each chapter. This was a combination of the chapters growing in total word count -- longer to write, longer to beta -- and in me losing interesting in the story. I've talked at length on my livejournal about the plotting problems I've had with Taking Sights so I won't repeat myself here. To sum it up, I painted myself into a corner and didn't know what to do next. I had an 'action plot' outlined but the 'character plot' was lacking. Writing this story became like pulling teeth. It was something I had to do, not something I enjoyed doing in my free time. That couldn't go on forever. So I started writing new fanfic in other fandoms.
But I never forgot about Taking Sights and I always intended to finish it. A number of things eventually led to me revitalizing my interesting in this story after several months, but foremost among them was the Evangelion fanfic "Nobody Dies" by Gregg Landsman. It's fun and great and you should read it if you haven't yet. There's a link to it in under my Favorite Stories in my profile.
The final ten chapters of Taking Sights will be written in one block, then, once they're finished and completely beta'd, I'll be posting a chapter one week at a time for ten weeks total. This will not be for some time, but it will happen. If you ever want status updates in the meanwhile, check out my livejournal. There's a link in my member's profile. I'm posting this chapter to tide y'all over until that happens.
But enough flapping of lips, let's get on with the show!
(The Near Future)
With its battery reserves depleted and its umbilical cord severed, there was no power for Unit-02 to operate its external sensors. In such a state, the Second Child's world had been reduced the bare metal walls of her Entry Plug.
Because the capsule's own power pack had been damaged during her failed ejection, the emergency lights were running at less than a quarter of their normal brilliance. The thin ambient light, mixed with the yellow tinge of the LCL and the red color of Asuka's own plug suit, resulted in everything taking on a crimson tinge.
Eyes bloodshot, mucus streaming from her nose and choking back another sob, Asuka was helpless as her doppelganger calmly lectured her on her many failings.
"SHUT UP!!" she screamed at the shade, curling tighter into her fetal position.
"And you," said the one-eyed imposture, steamrolling on, "with your stupid pride and your need to prove yourself so special and so good an Eva pilot... dying alone and unloved."
"Shut up! Shut Up! SHUT UP! SHUT UP!! SHUT UP!! SHUT UP!!" she roared, snapping out of her infantile state to bang her fists uselessly on the Plug's butterfly control handlebars. "I'm Asuka! ME!"
"No," countered the bandaged girl. "Asuka Langley Soryu died over a hundred trillion years ago on a white sandy beach, strangled to death by a spineless coward. Trust me, I was there. I've been awake ever since."
"No need to yell," sniffed the doppelganger. "I mean, Zeruel's going to initiate Third Impact with all the Evas disabled or destroyed, but that's not a reason for childish outbursts, bitch." The ghost in bandages tried to playfully punch Asuka in the shoulder but all her gloved fist did was pass through Asuka's skin like it was air. "Try to face your death with dignity. Don't struggle. You'll just end up being torn apart by the harpies of fate.
"It all turns to dust, 'Asuka'. Trust me. What happened with our mother hanging herself? That was just the beginning." Her shadow self smiled wanly. "Say... do you remember when you and Rei got into that apple peeling competition? It sure seemed important at the time, didn't it?
"And to think," the one-eyed ghost said, her voice echoing off the blood-hued metal coffin, "all the children you were trying to impress that day are dead now."
# # # presenting # # #
Chapter 16.5/26 The Great Classroom 2-A Apple Peel-Off
(Part 2 of 2)
Written by: Lavanya Six
(please dont sue)
# # # another installment in a continuing series # # #
Quickly minimizing the pornographic webpage -- Melon Time -- open on his web browser, Special Inspector Ryoji Kaji spun around in his office chair to face his visit. "Well, well! The Third Child himself is gracing little ol' me with his presence. 'Shinji', wasn't it?"
Standing in the doorway, the boy smiled shyly. "Asuka talks about you all the time," he said, "but we've never been introduced."
"Please," said Kaji, gesturing generously, "step inside. What can I do for you? Does Katsuragi need something?"
Shinji stood stock still. "Um, no. I actually wanted to ask you for some advice. Everyone says you're the man to talk to."
"Advice?" Kaji blinked. "On what?"
"Um, women." He coughed. "Girls. Well, a girl."
Crossing one leg over his knee, Kaji leaned back in his office chair. "Well then, you've come to the right place..."
The Commander's Office, Fuyutsuki decided, either had far too many windows or far too few drapes. "I'm too old to drink like I did last night."
"Half a pint of beer hardly counts as drinking, Professor."
"I have a small liver."
"Yes," Commander Ikari mumbled under his breath, "well, I suppose God had to even the score somewhere..."
"What was that?"
"Nothing. So, where does Project ARKA stand?"
Fuyutsuki said, "Doctor Ramamurthy reports that his team has finished construction on the devices. Final calibrations are still necessary, but that will be completed by the middle of the week."
"Excellent. Everything is proceeding exactly on schedule." For once.
"Yes," the older man dryly noted, "everything except the selection of the Fourth Child."
"On the contrary, Captain Katsuragi presented her second candidate to me this morning. I approved the application."
Fuyutsuki sipped his tea. "It's nice to know you value my opinion on the matter so highly, Commander."
"Your opinions are inconsequential with regards to the draftee choice, Professor. The Fourth is at worst a placeholder and at best a spare AT-Field. The Dummy Plug will provide the requisite combat ability."
Fuyutsuki grumbled, "It's a foolish chance we're taking, recruiting a Fourth. Even Rei hesitated to engage Unit-03, knowing who its pilot was. Encouraging comradery among the pilots will only make it more difficult to destroy the Thirteenth."
"It's a risk," Gendo admitted, "but now we know with certainty that Unit-03's pilot won't be physically or mentally contaminated by the Angel. That single fact opens up options that were intolerable in the previous timeline."
"It'd be simpler to just tell the Children that the pilot was killed during the Angel's takeover of Unit-03."
Gendo smirked. "Is that a note of cunning I hear, old man?"
Fuyutsuki was not amused. "It's practicality."
The smile slipped off the Commander's face. "No, it's the sin of convenience. The Children would learn the truth eventually -- and at the worst possible moment."
Gendo leaned back in his chair, surveying the intricate arcane carvings spread throughout his minimalist office. The cosmic order they offered would have been a comforting intellectual myth to anyone who hadn't climbed atop the Godhead already. Gendo knew better, now. "If the last few months have made nothing else clear to me, it's that the universe is inherently hostile to the notion of rational planning."
"Maybe God just hates you."
"If I were a religious man, I might believe such." Many men had professed to sitting at the right-hand of God. Gendo held no such ambition, nor gave any admiration to the Don Quixotes that strove to push back the go beyond the impossible and to break into the heavens. God had sat in Gendo Ikari's right hand. "However, considering I have the best two candidates for God are either crucified in Terminal Dogma or cryogenically frozen, I must discount your theory."
"Hm. Speaking of the universe going wrong, Section-2 reports that the Second Child has entered into a... peculiar situation."
Gendo waved off his friend's concern with a vague gesture. "Mere childishness."
"Or a sign of further instability," he countered. "Instability that will undoubtedly affect production of the Mk. II Dummy Plug."
Adjusting his glasses, Gendo said, "A schoolyard bet is hardly worth obsessing over, especially considering the performance of the Second during the Eighth's attack. Nevertheless, I am personally monitoring the situation." He referred to the cameras and microphones hidden throughout the Katsuragi household. "If anything untoward happens, I'll be the first to know."
Fuyutsuki chuckled. "Nothing good on TV, Commander?"
"If I wanted to watch inane soap operas, I would. The surveillance of the Children is hardly entertainment." He drew up the monitor for the Katsuragi Household's live feed. "See?"
peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel slip
Asuka tossed the ruined apple over her shoulder and reached for another with juice-stained fingers.
peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel p--
"Pilot Soryu, do you require assistance?"
Nostrils flaring, Asuka sneered, "No, Robot Girl. I don't."
Rei nodded imperceptibly. "I must inform you that Captain Katsuragi ordered me to ensure you did not waste edible fruit."
"She did?" Another slight nod. "That's great, Ayanami! Why don't you make yourself useful for once time in your life and, I dunno, bake a pie or something?!"
"Yes." Rei moved to the tabletop and began to collect the many water-filled bowls in which peeled and half-peeled apples soaked to prevent browning. "I will bake pie."
Asuka picked up a fresh apple. As she worked at the peel, however, her juice-slick hands slipped and the knife sliced across her thumb. "SHEIST!" Both the apple and the knife clattered to the tabletop. Asuka stuck her thump into her mouth.
Rei continued to gather up apple pieces.
"What?" Asuka demanded, scowling as she sucked on her thumb.
"Pardon?" asked Rei.
"I asked what you're staring at, Robot Girl!"
"I was not staring."
"You were staring for whatever freak standard constitutes staring for you!"
Rei's hands ceased their labors. Eyes downcast, she did not turn to Asuka as she explained, "I was merely observing your technique."
"What about it? You think you can do better?!" Asuka stood up, knocking her chair back. She slammed her knife down atop the juice-slick kitchen table. "Prove it! Show me how it's done, Oh Mighty Peeler of Apples!"
Rei paused. After a few seconds, she drew her hands back from her frozen efforts and stood up straight. "Very well."
Rei slipped around Asuka, pressing her back into the German girl's. Resting her chin on the other girl's shoulder, the albino reached around and laid her hands atop Asuka's.
Asuka stiffened up.
Knife in one hand, whole apple in the other, Rei guided Asuka through the motions of peeling the fruit. The kitchen was completely silent, save for the breathing of both girls and the soft, squishy whisper of the knife edge gliding through the apple's flesh. Rei worked the fruit piece slowly, trusting Asuka to absorb the motions of their hands as they worked. After about a minute's efforts, a whole and complete apple peel fell to the tabletop.
Rei stepped back from Asuka's body. "I will require bleached white flour to complete the pie crusts. Do you know where Pilot Ikari keeps his stock?"
"...Um." Asuka blinked heavily. "Flour? Under the, uh, sink. S-Second cabinet on the left."
Rei nodded and set to her baking.
"Well," Fuyutsuki said, breaking the long, strained silence, "that certainly settles the 'Nature verses Nurture' argument, doesn't it?"
Gendo Ikari rose from his chair. He stood silently for several seconds before reaching up, removing his glasses and rubbing her eyes. "I need some air."
"...and she's an amazing cook. I guess you'd have to be, taking care of her whole family like that."
"Sort of like you?" observed Kaji as he walked down the hallway with the boy.
The Third Child shook his head. "Kind of, I guess. I mean, they're not my family. Misato's nice but I really just live with them."
Kaji filed that away. "Well, I wouldn't worry, Shinji. This girl from your school sounds like she likes you too."
"But I messed up." His shoulders slumped. "We don't even really talk anymore."
"Shinji, it took me three tries to get Katsuragi to go out on an actual date with me back in college."
"I was thinking we could get together after the party and talk..."
"Screw off, Ryoji."
"Did I mention I have this waterbed I've been meaning to break in? It's new too, not a pre-Impact refurbishment."
"I said 'no', creep!"
"Darn. Oh well, I guess I'll have to polish off that keg back home all on my own."
"Where's your dorm room again?"
"If you like someone, you can't let failure get in the way." Kaji paused. "A court order, yes, but persistence is a virtue."
Shinji pressed the call button for the elevator. "But every time I try to talk to her I freeze up."
Kaji held up two open palms to emphasize his next point. "Always remember, Shinji, even if you're terrified, pretend to be confident. It doesn't matter if you think you're going to piss your pants. Other people don't know that. If you take a chance and fail, there's always a next time in love. If you succeed, just act like you knew it would work all along. Girls love that."
"Take risks," repeated Shinji.
Kaji clapped him on the shoulder. "Exactly! Taking risks is the only way to get what you want in life."
The elevator chime dinged.
The doors opened.
Across the gulf between them, the two Ikaris stared at each other.
"...It's been a while," said the Commander.
Only the sheer unexpectedness of the attack allowed it to succeed. Vice-Commander Fuyutsuki, Ryouji Kaji, and the anonymous Section-2 floating at the edges of the scene -- all could only stop and stare as Shinji's balled fist connected with his father's nose.
"RAGGHHHH!" roared Shinji.
Cartilage snapped. Blood sprayed. Shinji drew back his fist for another punch, only for his father to pick him up by his throat and then throw him against the nearest wall. Kaji darted to the boy's side, putting himself between Shinji and his father.
Commander Ikari pinched his nose, trying to stem the blood flow. His eyes blazed with anger and hatred, more from bleeding in front of his employees than from the assault. "Get that child out of my sight!" he roared. "NOW!"
Reluctantly, Kaji stood back. It took three Section-2 agents to drag away the Third Child: two holding onto his writhing arms, and a third holding his legs together. Hauling him off to a detention cell, Shinji looked like nothing less than a hogtied pig ready to be roasted.
"I GUESS WHAT I'M TRYING TO SAY," the Third Child, delirious with angry joy, shouted back at Commander Ikari, "IS THAT I'M PROUD OF YOU, FATHER! AREN'T YOU STILL PROUD OF ME?! AHA HA HA HA..."
The prison was cold and dark.
My father is going to kill me.
He probably could, too, Shinji knew. Somebody like his father must have killed people in the past. He was just that kind of man.
And it wasn't like Shinji was valuable anymore. He piloted Evangelion Unit-01, but who didn't these days? Asuka had as many Angel kills to her record as he did -- though a lot of people seemed to die whenever Asuka fought on her own. And his father loved Ayanami.
Who was Shinji Ikari anymore?
An extra spare.
An unwanted child.
In the darkness, Shinji gingerly explored his sore knuckles. It had felt so good, making his father hurt. But what did he have to show for it? A tender right hand and indefinite detention for assault, that's what.
"Useless," he muttered.
Shinji sat in the dark of the cell for a long while before the electronic door snapped open, flooding his prison with hot white light. Squinting against the glare of the hallway, a dark figure walked into his cell. Shinji's heart plummeted at the thought of Misato's anger, but his depression gave way to confusion.
"Vice-Commander Fuyutsuki?" he asked.
The beige-suited elderly man stepped forward, hands folded behind his back. Dryly, he said, "Your father has declined to press charges. Captain Katsuragi will arrive shortly to take you home."
"Thank you," he mumbled.
"Don't thank me. He made his decision before we spoke on the matter."
Softly, Shinji said, "Father must be very angry with me."
Fuyutsuki turned and walked out of the cell. In the doorway, he paused and glanced over his shoulder, "Trust me, Shinji. If there's one thing the commander doesn't get, it's angry."
(Thirty minutes ago.)
"I am going to murder that little shit."
"Ikari, calm down." Fuyutsuki bent down to access the bottom-left drawer of the Commander's desk. Inside, unmoved since the arrival of the Second Child, was a half-empty bottle of expensive bourbon and two glasses. "Here, have a drink." The burning, phosphorus-like glare he received from Gendo nearly made him mess himself. Fuyutsuki was suddenly intensely aware that he had just offended a man that had helped premeditatedly murdered three billion people. "Or don't."
Leaning his head back and pinching his nose, Gendo sighed and said, "Leave the bottle."
Dropping the glasses back into the drawer, Fuyutsuki unscrewed the cap on the bourbon bottle, took a swig, winced and then set the liquor on top of the Commander's desk.
Gendo immediately reached for the bottle. When he was done with his best impression of Misato Katsuragi, he set it aside and, still pinching his bleeding nose, said, "I have many things coming to me, most of them justified. Is it too much to ask that the Third Child be professional about his hatreds?"
Fuyutsuki sat. "When you're a teacher, you learn never to expect wisdom from the young. They're idiots."
Gendo nursed his drink.
"You know," Kozo said, venturing to break the silence after several minutes, "I can just imagine what hay Keel will make of this incident."
"Several snide comments concerning my ability to maintain order, but nothing will come of it."
"Hm. You know, maybe we should have saved the strip club for today. I could go for a lap dance."
"Perhaps." Gendo smirked. "Though the women yesterday were amateurs compared to Naoko and Yui working together."
"For my birthday, Yui brought home Naoko."
Fuyutsuki knocked back more bourbon. "I could have gone the rest of my life without knowing that."
"All I need to do is rope in Captain Katsuragi and I'll have slept with every senior-level administrator in GEHIRN and NERV."
"You're a whore, Rokubungi."
"Why thank you, professor," he said, staring up at the ceiling. "You know, I have this recurring dream. Several -- actually. But there's one with you and Yui and Shinji, when he was just a baby, under a tree in the sunlight."
"Really?" Kozo Fuyutsuki took another hit of bourbon, savoring what might be his last meal. "How odd."
"No. Not odd." Gendo paused. Then, in a slightly less firm tone of voice, he added, "You and Yui are probably the only people in my life I could call friends. I suppose it makes since that after all... this... my subconscious would focus on an idealization of happier times."
Very carefully, Kozo asked, "Do Yui or I ever say anything in this dream?"
"No. You're talking, but I never hear you."
Thank you, God. "Huh."
"We're all going to die, you know."
Kozo blinked. "What?"
"I've been thinking about it," Gendo said, relaxing into his chair but still sounding a touch irritated. "No matter how much we bribe, threaten, or blackmail the rest of the world, once the truth comes out, they'll never tolerate NERV. Our continued existence will be repugnant. It won't even have to be the governments that do it -- angry mobs, terrorists, pick your poison.
"But if we don't tell the world about SEELE and Second Impact, then we'll all be murdered in our sleep by those who do know and a generation from now Keel's successors will instigate Third Impact. And we can't tell the truth and then cut and run -- we'd never survive in the long-term. Therefore everyone in NERV, including the Children, will most likely going to be dead within the next six to nine months."
"But the Scenario--"
"Will accomplish most of its goals," said Gendo. "It just won't keep the Children alive. At best, they'll spend the rest of their lives under house arrest. Rei will be dissected." He started reach for another drink, then thought better of it. Putting the bottle and glasses away, he added, "But there's a chance that Shinji will live, and Yui would have wanted that. Otherwise I'd say just let the Angels win."
"Hmph. You're certainly a ray of sunshine today."
"I'm tired of losing, Fuyutsuki."
"Yes, well, better luck next time."
Gendo snorted. "This is my next time."
"We're home!" Misato called out.
No one said anything back.
Padding into the kitchen, she found Asuka and Rei busy at work baking. "'Hi, Misato,'" the captain mimed pointedly, walking past them and retrieving a beer from the fridge. "'Welcome home!'"
Shinji came into the kitchen, then halted when Ayanami fixed him and his blood-spackled school shirt with a dirty look. He frowned back at her. "I didn't know you could bake," he said.
"I am proficient in many skill sets."
Yeah, like sucking up to my father.
"Hey, Third Child," said Asuka, taking three pies out of the oven and setting them aside to cool. "Heard how you beat up your old man. I'm not sure what's more surprising, the fact you showed spine or that you're not cooling your heels in a shallow grave somewhere in the Geo-Front."
"Asuka!" snapped Misato. "Leave him alone."
"I'm fine," said Shinji, bristling at being protected. He could handle the crazy German girl.
Asuka rolled her eyes. "I didn't say it was a bad thing, Misato."
Their guardian rubbed her face with both hands. "Okay," she said, dropping her hands. "I'm going to change clothes. I want you kids to clear off the table." Glancing over the baking paraphernalia strewn across the kitchen, Misato added, "Since there's no room to cook things other than apples, we're ordering out. Decide what you want. I'll be back."
"So," Asuka said conspiratorially to Shinji, "did it feel good?"
Ayanami walked between them.
"Yeah," he said, glancing aside at the First Child. "It did."
Asuka asked, lips quirking into a knowing smile, "Did it feel as good as when you hit me?"
Ayanami glanced sharply at Shinji, eyes narrowing almost imperceptibly with curiosity. He flustered.
"Hmph. I guess not," said Asuka, returning to the work of removing apple muffins from their baking tray. Her back to him, she continued, "Not surprising. You must really hate the old fart."
Ayanami was still looking at him. Flinching, he said, "I-I don't want to talk about this."
"Why?" Asuka asked casually. "Because we should be avoid a public show of emotion like good little Japanese children? Oh wait -- I'm exempt from that rule, aren't I?" She started to hum cheerfully. "So, just how much does it burn that your father loves Rei more than you?"
Fists clenched, Shinji took a deep breath. "We're through talking about this."
"No, seriously, why?" Asuka turned to face Shinji. Hopping backwards up onto the kitchen counter, her hands coated in white flour and bits of apple, she said, "We're living together because the commander has some sick social experiment in mind. I think talking about our problems with each other would be the most positive result of such testing. Team bonding and all that jazz, ja?"
Shinji stammered, "We don't have any problems with each other."
Asuka snorted. "Yes we do. You hate Rei because she's all buddy-buddy with your father. I hate you because you're a simpering, spineless wimp who can only get it up when he beats women."
He said, "You're not sunshine and rainbows yourself, Asuka."
"Who do I hate?" Rei asked, perplexed.
"You don't hate anyone," observed Asuka. "You'd have to have emotions to hate someone."
"Hey!" said Shinji.
"What? Now you care about Rei?"
The First Child said, "I feel emotion."
"Huh?" said Misato, clad in cutoff jeans and a ratty tank-top, walking back into the kitchen. "Of course you do, Rei."
Asuka ignored both the objections and Misato. "Look at it like this Shinji -- no one here likes you. And why should they? You hate Rei. You choked me. At school you have Hikari and-- oooh, wait, that's right, there isn't anyone else. NERV only wants you because you can pilot."
"Asuka," said Misato, "I think that's enough. Let's order dinner."
Shinji averted his eyes. "That's not true," he mumbled.
Asuka jumped off the kitchen counter and got up in his face, nose-to-nose. "Show some fucking backbone for once in your life! I know you can! Chew me out! Cuss out Rei -- everyone already knows you hate her! Or"
"ASUKA!" screamed Misato.
"is it that you need asphyxiation to get your blood flowing, Shinji?! Are you THAT pathetic?!"
Shinji turned away. "I don't need this. I'll be in my room." He walked out of the kitchen.
Misato, gritting her teeth, ordered, "Asuka, go to your room. You're not eating tonight."
The Second Child dismissed her with a wave of the hand. "Whatev--" She was silenced when a firm hand fell on her shoulder, spinning her around.
"You will go to your room," said Misato, "and you're not coming out until tomorrow morning. This is not negotiable.
Asuka shrugged off her grasp. "Yeah. Sure. Fine." With more than a touch of bitterness, she added, "See you in the morning, Captain Katsuragi."
Left in a kitchen smelling of apples, Misato turned to Rei and forced on a smile. "Well, have you decided what you want to order for dinner?"
"I am not hungry. I believe I will retire early in preparation for tomorrow night's festivities." Rei walked out.
"Why do you pilot the Eva, Shinji?"
He stood on a catwalk before the giant's horned mask. The air hummed with the power of the great machine. At his side, Misato stood. "I suppose it's the right thing to do."
"Are you going to leave us again?"
"If I did, where would I go?"
"Nowhere," answered Rei Ayanami, taking Misato's place. "You have nowhere to go, no one who cares for delicious red cocks."
Shinji did a double-take. "W-what?"
"Cocks, Shinji," Rei replied in her customary monotone. "Delicious, delicious sausages with a side of man-gerines. Yum."
"Wh-what the hell?!" He pivoted about at the sound of mocking laughter, tearing his eyes away from the albino. There, again, stood the Second Child. As in his last dream -- which he just now remembered -- she was dressed in a mix of bandages and her plug suit.
"Sorry," Asuka said. "That was beyond juvenile, but I'll take my kicks where I can get them. Stupid little blue-haired bitch wouldn't know a good dick if the Commander shoved it up her albino ass."
"Anyway, I was wondering if we could talk for a minute. You're not busy being all introspective and deep and shit, are you?"
"Am I still asleep?"
Asuka stared at him. "...Yes. Yes, you are definitely asleep."
"I thought so!" He paused. "Wait. If this is a dream, how do you know it's a dream? How do I?"
"It's called a lucid dream," the heavily bandaged Asuka answered quickly. "It's when you can control your own dreams and be aware of them as you sleep. Remember that medical TV special you watched when you were eleven? That's how you know it, and how I, who am an illusion of your mind and definitely not a phantom from the Dark Era at the absolute end of the universe's entropic arc, know it too."
"Great! Moving on -- eyes up here."
"Er-! Sorry!" This was crazy, Shinji decided. Why was he apologizing to himself? It's not like this was the real Asuka!
"As I was saying before you got all perverted -- I see at least some things still haven't changed -- the reason I wanted to talk with you was because -- "
After all, he mused, if this really was a lucid dream, and he could control it, maybe he could... no.
No, that'd be perverted and wrong.
So very, very wrong.
" -- blah blah blah blah revenge blah blah blah blah ADAM blah blah blah blah Third Impact blah blah -- "
But it was just a dream, right? A fantasy. He had those all the time during his daily shower. What could it hurt?
" -- blah Instrumentality blah blah blah blah blah your 'Asuka' blah blah isn't one of the three time travelers blah blah blah blah clear and present danger blah blah blah blah -- "
'Okay', Shinji, he thought to himself, concentrating at the talking Asuka figure, 'I order you to undress.'
" -- blah blah blah Heat Death of the Universe blah blah blah your father is secretly planning to blah blah chosen to blah blah blah blah Yui and I hoped blah blah blah blah -- "
" -- blah blah blah blah Kaworu Nagisa is blah blah blah blah blah blah kill billions if necessary to blah blah blah blah -- "
'Show me your breasts, Asuka. Breasssssssts.'
" -- blah blah b-HEY! ARE YOU EVEN LIS-- OH MY GOD, WHY DO YOU HAVE A RAGING ERECTION?!"
"SHINJI, YOU ID--"
"NOOOOO!" he screamed, bolting upright in bed. Shinji, soaked in sweat, gasped for breath. He hadn't felt that terrified since the last Angel fight, when he waited outside the volcano for Unit-02 to come back up. All because of...
...what had he just dreamed about? He narrowed his eyes, trying to remember the details before they slipped away. Something involving... Asuka's breasts? And her in her plug suit?
Shinji settled back down into bed. He stared at the ceiling for what felt like hours, waiting for sleep to come. When the night did reclaim him, his sleep was a dreamless one.
"Good morning, Asuka," said Misato, pulling on her bomber jacket. "Are you feeling more like a decent human being today?"
"Good morning to you too." She looked around the kitchen. All her apple crap was gone. Everything had been put away. In its place were several large grocery bags on the kitchen table. "Shinji cleaned?"
"No," she said. "I did."
Asuka blinked. "You can clean?!"
"Of course I can clean! I'm just... philosophically opposed to it at times." Misato cracked open a new beer and downed it. "I thought this apartment could feel a little more homely, is all."
"I think it's a little late for that."
Misato crumpled up her beer can and made a three-point shot for the garbage bin across the kitchen. There was nothing but net in her game. "Shinji went ahead early today. He said he had something to take care of before school. Your and Rei's breakfasts are in the oven. Just uncover 'em. If they're not warm enough, use the microwave."
Asuka checked. Sure enough, a plate of Western style breakfast waited for her on a plate on the oven rack. So whipped, she thought with a grin.
"Oh," added Misato, jangling her car keys, "and I ordered your Section-2 detail to make sure you carried all this food," she gestured to the grocery bags on the table, "to school today to share with your classmates. If you don't -- or if you throw it out -- they'll report that to me. Then... well, I'm sure Ritsuko can think of lots of long, boring synch test to run on you. Did I mention that you're her new favorite person in the world after beheading Unit-00?"
"There's NO WAY to carry all that crap by myself!"
"I'm sure Rei will be glad to help out. Have a wonderful day!"
* * * *
Hauling all the apple-related baked crap on foot across the city was, Asuka decided, total bullshit. Even with her stoic little albino baggage handler helping out, Asuka had to take several breaks along the walk to school when her arms got too sore. This meant that she and Rei ended up being late for school, which was just fantastic. Nothing like being forced to carry water buckets after being forced to carry bags of apple pies.
When they finally arrived at school, however, Asuka found two strange boys waiting for her in the deserted front courtyard.
"You're late, sempai," said the lead boy.
"Yeah?" countered Asuka. "What's it to you?"
The other boy said, "You gotta pay the price or will tell everyone you were late to class."
"Underclassman Keita and Underclassman Musashi," Ayanami said, because (of course) she had memorized the school's register, "I do not believe either of you are in a position of authority to dispense proper penalty for our tardiness. Furthermore, I fail to see how a First Year student merits the right to dispense a penalty to Second Years."
Keita leaned over to his friend and stage-whispered, "I call dibs on Ayanami. She seems like the kind to take orders."
Asuka wrinkled her nose. "Okay. Ew. You're a creep who's obviously read too much poorly characterized, misogynistic hentai." Asuka hefted her bag of apple-based goodies and stepped past him. "Come on, R--"
"Tsk tsk tsk," Musashi stepped between her and the door, wagging his finger in her face. Asuka was tempted to bite it off but figured he would mistake that for a come-on. "It's not appropriate time to discuss this. You have committed a crime and now you have to be punished. You know that."
"Okay, dickwad," Asuka said, voice tinged with menace. "This is your last chance."
"Or what, princess?"
Rei Ayanami set down her bags, reached out, took hold of Musahi's wagging finger and snapped it backwards. "This."
"OW! FUCK! FUCK!!" Musahi doubled over, cradling his hand against chest. "You fucking BITCH! You fucking broke my fucking finger! Fuck!"
Asuka blinked. "Jeez, Rei. I didn't know you had it in you."
"I was curious to see how it felt."
" -- I felt nothing. --"
" -- It fucking hurt you fucking dyke bitches! -- "
"Wow," said Asuka. "Okay, Ayanami, just remember: it's down the highway, not across the street."
"Street?" Rei paused, then asked, "What is a 'dyke'?"
"It's a rude word for lesbians," Asuka explained, "like Lt. Ibuki. And possibly Shinji."
"I do not believe I have seen evidence of the Third Child displaying indicators of gender dysphoria or, indeed, of any non-heteronormative behavior that would lead me to label him as such. However, his small stature, interest in the arts, disinclination to sports and lack of male contemporaries does lend a degree of supporting evidence to your supposition of the Third not embracing a traditional male gender role."
"Ugh. You know, I realize you don't have the gift of a liberal college education like I do, but just because post-Impact global society has reinforced traditional views of sexuality and reproduction doesn't mean you have to take cheap shots."
"My apologies for being imprecise, Pilot Soryu. I was merely utilizing the prevailing nomenclature for ease of -- "
"EXCUSE ME?!" Keita yelled. "Yeah, we're still here." He cracked his knuckles. "Nobody treats my friend like that! Now get on your knees right now, you stupid bitches, or you'll be sorry."
Asuka frowned, then turned to her fellow pilot. "Wait, wait. Ayanami, how the heck did you know the definition of 'heteronormativity' but not 'dyke'?"
"I believe the answer lies in my upbringing, which Dr. Akagi once described as sheltered."
"HEY! Are you going to apologize to us for your rudeness or not?!"
Asuka looked around the empty courtyard. "Man, where the hell's our Section-2 security detail? You think they'd be all over this like a fat kid on chocolate cake."
"Ain't no bodyguard gonna save you bitches!" said Musahi, leaning forward with his uninjured hand curled into a fist. "So what'll it be?!"
Rei said, "I believe Pilot Soryu was referring to our Section-2 detail preventing gross bodily harm to you, Underclassman Musahi."
"What? By you two skinny bitches?"
"I call dibs on Soryu's mouth," said Keita.
"Look," said Asuka, rubbing her sore nose, "I'm really not in the mood right now. If you knew the first thing about me, you'd realize I'm not some submissive little schoolgirl who's going to spread my legs for the first boy who decides to act like an asshole towards me. Hell, I'd rip out your throat if you tried. NERV wouldn't even throw me in prison, either, 'cuz I'm a special person. So I'll let you go -- this time -- with a warn"
As one, the boys blitzed them.
"Um, h-hi, Hikari."
The Class Rep and the trailing gaggle of girls paused in their walk down the hallway. Hikari glanced aside at them and then, receiving some message he wasn't prone to, the other girls left. Shinji heard them start to whisper when they had moved far down the hall. He hoped the resulting flush burning down his neck and back didn't show on his face.
Notebooks grasped to her chest, Hikari looked him squarely in the eye. "Is there something I can help you with, Shinji?"
"I was... uh... I wanted to ask you s-something. Something important!"
Fake confidence! Take risks! "Well--"
"HEY!" shouted some pony-tailed girl. She was leaning out the 2-A Classroom door, into the hallway. "Everybody come and see! Soryu and Ayanami are beating two underclassmen to death!"
Shinji and Hikari glanced at one another, then rushed to join the rest of their classmates in scrambling to the classroom for a looksee. A surge of bodies smashed up against the windows, so Shinji grabbed hold of Hikari's hand to pull her through the jostling crowed and reach the windows.
"Oh wow!" "Cool!" "I didn't know you could do that with an apple!" "Keita's getting back up!" "I didn't know Ayanami could bend like that!" "What is Soryu doing with his -- OH MY GOD." "Shouldn't we tell a teacher?" "No." "No!" "Are you daft, man?"
Touji turned to his best friend, who, of course, had his camcorder out. "Please tell me you're getting all"
"Oh my," Hikari said. "Can you fight like that, Shinji?"
He paused. "...Yes. Yes, I can."
"Everyone," said Touji, speaking over the fray, "new rule: do not screw with Eva pilots. You will fuckin' lose."
"Agreed," the class chorused.
Misato leaned back in her seat across from the principal. "I'll handle the pilots," she told him. "You sentence all four of the children to detentions. Nothing too serious for the girls, but enough for them -- well, Asuka -- to get the message that they aren't above the law. The assholes you can grind into dust for all I care."
"Miss Katsuragi," the principal said, his voice frosty, "your wards assaulted two underclassmen and put them in the hospital. I needn't remind you that this is Asuka Soryu's second infraction for violent behavior in a month. You are in no position to dictate the rules of this school."
"Oh?" Misato leaned forward. "I'm in no position of authority, huh?"
The principal looked as if he had just smelled something foul. "When NERV admitted Rei Ayanami to this school, I was asked to treat her like any other student. Have you yourself forgotten our meeting when the Second and Third Children came here? You wanted them to have one thing in their lives that was normal, that gave them grounding. Ms. Katsuragi, you can't have it both ways."
"I understand," Misato said, "and I am fully aware of my own hypocrisy in this matter, but suspending or expelling Asuka won't solve anything. She needs this school."
"She's disruptive, insubordinate, violent, rude and barely literate in Japanese."
"Don't change the subject. Asuka needs this school; she needs to be around children her own age. If NERV put her or the other Children through a 24/7 military lifestyle, they'd crack. We don't know how long it will take the Angels to attack. It could be years -- decades, even. Just because they've attacked sporadically over recent months doesn't rule out a long hiatus."
"So, what, I should just sweep her every infraction under the rug?"
"Yes," said Misato, "or NERV will find a principal who will."
It was the middle of the afternoon before everything was settled and Misato could take her wards back to their apartment. Upon arrival, she made her three wards sit at the kitchen table in silence as she prepared a late lunch for herself. It consisted of random items, some of them considered edible, thrown into a bowl of instant ramen and then microwaved.
Misato unceremoniously dropped her Styrofoam cup onto the table with a 'thump' that was somehow all the more terrible for its softness. Shinji and Asuka winced. The greasy, charred, pulsating stuff that had once been instant ramen sloshed inside its container. A bit of it spilled onto the table. No one paid any attention to the spill's resulting bubbles, nor would anyone notice the damage to the table varnish for several days. Everyone was too focused on the kitchen's suffocating atmosphere of tension.
"So," said the pilots' guardian, cracking open some canned beer, "we're going to have a little talk about this household."
None of the Children spoke.
The twenty-nine year-old spooned some 'ramen' into her gob and swallowed. Misato Katsuragi was in no danger of food poisoning. Once you survive being at the Second Impact's ground zero even botulism knowsthat if it goes up against Misato Katsuragi it will fucking lose.
"Fine," said Misato. "Then I'm going to talk and you're going to listen. In the last two days you three have displayed bad judgment." She laughed. "No, bad judgment doesn't even BEGIN to cover it.
"I understand," Misato grunted, "that you all hate living together. And that's my fault. I forced you all into this situation. You should have had a choice." The captain shifted in her seat. "I've been thinking a lot about our situation over these last few weeks. Today's only crystallized something that I've been considering up until now... that it's time for us to stop living together like this."
Asuka asked, hopeful, "So we can move out?"
"Hell no," said Misato Katsuragi.
"Like it or not, we're a family now. Families don't quit."
"Sure they do!" said Asuka. "That's what divorce is for! Just ask my papa! Besides, you just admitted we all hate living together!"
Misato smiled. "Just like a real family! Is that neat?! It took me years before I'd admit that I hated my own father. The fact our real feeling about each other are out in the open should give us a rare opportunity for growth!"
Shinji's eye boggled in their sockets. "That's insane, Misato."
"Familial love does not logically follow from hated," observed Rei.
Misato shrugged. "What can I say? I'm your commanding officer and, like it or not, the de facto mom around here. My word is law." She crossed her arms. The excessive amount of creamy cleavage that gesture produced did somewhat undercut the maternal sympathies of what she said next. "I've been treating you three like you're my best friends. Like this apartment is a college dorm that we're sharing as equals. Well, that ends today.
"Today, here, now, we're starting over. I'm not going to coddle you kids anymore. I'm your guardian and it's time I started acting like it. So let's talk punishments and responsibilities."
The Second and Third Child sagged.
"Asuka," said Misato, "your actions today were inexcusable. Your Section-2 detail would have stepped in had those boys tried anything. I ordered them to give you personal space in school."
The redhead said, "Thanks for telling me that ahead of time. Y'know, before I got hassled by wannabe rapists."
"Nevertheless, there were other ways to resolve the situation besides excessive violence. You could have called for your Section-2 detail on your speed dial. You could have gone to a teacher. You tried ignoring those boys, which is commendable. You can't go beating up every asshole you run into. You'll never find time to sleep." Misato paused to wet her throat with some beer. "But you went too far. You have years of gymnastics and combat training under your belt, Asuka. Dropping that boy to the ground shouldn't have left him in traction.
"After a talk with your principal, I've managed to convince him not to expel you. You'll be doing extra chores around school for the next three months, before and after school."
"And if you have another incidence of violence behavior, young lady, then you will be expelled."
Asuka's eyes brightened.
"Before you get any bright ideas, you should know that being kicked out of school doesn't mean you get absolute freedom during your day. NERV will see to it that you have private, one-on-one tutoring in the most wretched, boring academic subjects you can imagine, all while inside a room with no windows and no computers. You'll spend the same time with those tutors as you would in school on a normal day, except there'll be no one else to talk to." Misato narrowed her eyes at the redhead. "And, as your commanding officer,I'll see to it that the Dummy Plug is made the primary pilot of Unit-02."
"YOU CAN'T DO THAT!"
When Misato spoke next, her tone of voice was anything but maternal, "Yes, I can. And I will. I won't have a loose canon in control of an Eva. The only reason I'm letting you pilot after today is because you didn't throw the first punch, but that's a one-time exception. Am I clear?"
Biting her cheek so hard that it bled, Asuka mumbled a clipped, "Yes, ma'am."
Misato nodded. She took a swig of beer. Some of the tension left her shoulders. "In the meanwhile, I am hiring you a tutor for Japanese. If you're going to live here, it's time you learned to read and write the damn language. You have a college degree -- I expect you to be in the Top 10 of your class after the next round of school exams. Understood?"
"Do you understand, young lady?"
Misato turned to the First Child. "Rei."
"Yes, Captain Katsuragi?"
"According to everyone's account, even your own, you were the first person today to act violently." She arched an eyebrow. "I have to say I'm surprised. I've never heard anything but good things about your personal record. You've never been trouble for me in the past."
"I apologize for the transgression." He crimson eyes flickered over to Asuka. "I felt... threatened by the underclassmen. I overreacted."
"Yes," said Misato, "especially since you of all people should have known to follow proper procedure. But I understand where you're coming from. That's why I'm not personally punishing you."
"WHAT?!" burst Asuka, knocking her chair back as she jumped to her feet. "Why does the First get off but I don't?!"
"Because it's her first offense. Not her... gosh, Asuka, what's your count these days?" Misato tapped her lips with a painted fingernail. "I've lost track."
Asuka sat back down with a huff. "It's still not fair."
"If life was fair it would be boring," said Misato. Turning her attention back to Rei, she added, "You'll be joining Asuka in her daily school chores."
"Also," said Misato, "I want you spend more time with us. No more reading in your bedroom with the door shut or wandering off to your old crappy apartment, understand? We're a family. Families spend time together. They talk."
"Is that an order, Captain Katsuragi?"
"Yes, Rei. It is."
Misato shifted her gaze to Shinji.
"I'm sorry," he said preemptively.
"Shinji," Misato said, "you will also be joining the girls at school every day, for three months, to do extra chores."
"What?!" he cried. "That's--"
"Perfectly fair," she finished. "Especially considering that you assaulted a superior officer yesterday."
Shinji scowled. "Man, this sucks."
"Actually," Misato said, "you should thank the girls for providing you this opportunity. My original plan was for you to clean Unit-01 with a toothbrush. But now you'll have plenty of time to bond with your fellow pilots while you perform tedious manual labor!"
"Oh God," whispered Asuka. "She's serious."
Shinji asked the redhead, "About the toothbrush or the bonding?"
Misato smiled. "Also, Shinji, every night from now on you're going to be practicing your cello for a half hour in the family room. You've been neglecting your music studies since you came to Tokyo-3 and it's been irresponsible of me not to push you on the matter."
Asuka asked, "Since when do you play the cello, Third Child?"
"Um, since I was eight?"
"He's actually pretty good, Asuka," their guardian said. "In fact, I think he's even better than you are on the violin."
Asuka narrowed her eyes. "I find that hard to believe."
"You play?!" gasped Shinji.
The teenage German smiled. "Since I was seven!"
"See?" said Misato, saluting them with her beer. "Isn't it amazing what happens when we sit down and talk with each other? Like a real family?"
"Real families usually involve more lingering recrimination and tension," said Asuka.
"Asuka's right," said Shinji.
"See?" said the redhead with a grin. "Doesn't it feel good to say that out loud? In fact, I think you could stand to say it a bit more often, Third!"
"...I play violin as well," Rei said softly.
Misato clapped her hands together. "Oh! It's practically a Christmas miracle! We should throw a recital for all our friends! There should be cake! And beer!"
"Wait a second!" Asuka's arm shot out, index finger leveled squarely at Misato's forehead like a rifle. "If you're going to start playacting mommy dearest, this is can't be a one-way street. Families aren't dictatorships."
"Yeah!" said Shinji.
Misato scratched the back of her head. "Um, Asuka? They kinda are."
The Second Child recovered quickly. "Fine, but you can't be some negligent mother. Parents have responsibilities."
Shinji grimaced. "Or at least they're supposed to."
Feeling the thin ice under her feet, Misato asked carefully, "What are you suggesting?" The resulting significant glance shared by the three Children chilled Misato to her core.
"Well," said Asuka, "for starters, if were going to have to start calling you Mom--"
Oh God, Misato realized, I hadn't thought about that.
"--you could stop dressing like a stripper."
"I DO NOT DRESS LIKE A STRIPPER!!"
"You're right, Misato. Strippers put on clothes before they take them off."
"I'm just saying," the German explained, "that you're all Miss Professional at NERV but then when you get home it's all about popping open a beer and showing off your tits." When Misato started to object again, Asuka added, "Shinji, Rei and I are mature enough not to need a mother, but if you insist on us having one then it shouldn't be a 'naughty mother'."
Shinji, who was currently dabbing a tissue to his bloody nose, said, "And it'd be nice if you didn't leave all the chores to us." He hastily amended his statement, "But not the cooking. We'll handle that."
"God, not the cooking," Asuka concurred. "The only help with the cooking we need from you is opening your checkbook when we order out."
Misato... sighed. After taking a long draught from a fresh beer can, she said, "O-okay. I'll buy some new clothes with my next paycheck. Grown-up clothes." Her eyebrow twitched. "And we'll figure out how the new chores are divided up later. But I expect you kids to put some real effort into making this family work, understand?"
Asuka said, "One more thing. It'd be nice if you didn't get drunk as skunk every night."
"Don't push your luck." Misato then asked Rei, "Is there anything you want?" The First Child shook her head. "No? Are you sure?"
"I am satisfied with the proposed arrangement."
"Well, if you s--"
Asuka's cell phone rang. "It's Aida," she said, reading off the Caller ID. "It must be time."
Misato stood up with a shot. Pressing the knuckles of her fists against the table, she leaned forward and declared boldly, "Then let's go peel some goddamn apples!"
It was dusk when Misato careened her car into the school lot, double-parking no less than three other cars in the process of find a good spot. The three children of this family of four exited the sports car, shaken but alive.
Rei and Asuka, both carrying bags of apples, headed inside. Misato and Shinji joined the growing crowd assembled in front of the school. The captain noted with satisfaction that the blood on the ground there had already been washed away.
A banner was draped across the second story windows of the school. It read "APPLE-A-GEDDON '15".
"I guess Aida couldn't make 'The Great Classroom 2-A Apple Peel-Off' fit on the space available," said Shinji.
"I like it," said Misato. "It's pithier." A flash of blonde hair caught her attention. She waved and called out, "Hey, Ritsu! Over here!"
The bleary-eyed scientist wondered over, cigarette dangling from her lips. A brown-haired woman with a baby in her arms glared at Ritsuko and the cloud of grey-blue smoke that followed in her wake. Ritusko ignored the mother and the pitiful coughs of her baby. "Hi, Misato. Heard you had a little excitement today."
"Nothing I couldn't handle."
"I'm sure." Ritsu look over the murmur crowd, to the decorations framing the schoolyard. "The dcor's nice, but all these flaming torches have to be a safety hazard."
"I think it adds ambiance."
"I'll be back. There's a thing." And without further explanation he wandered off.
"A 'think'?" echoed Ritsuko, confused.
Misato grinned knowingly. "He means a girl."
* * * *
Shinji Ikari, a little out of breath, edged his way through the crowd. "Hikari!"
The two teens stared at one another.
"So, ah," said Shinji, "where are your sisters? I thought they'd be here."
"Nozomi has cram school and Kodama couldn't make it. She said something about being dead on her feet." Hikari smoothed out a wrinkle in her uniform skirt. She hadn't had time to leave school and change, what with all the help needed to get the event's decorations ready. "How are you? And... how's Asuka?"
"She's fine. So's Ayanami." He shifted his weight from one leg to the other. "I was wondering. This morning."
"I didn't get to... that is, um..."
He fell silent.
Hikari glanced at the school entrance. "Oh! I think it's--"
"Would you like to do an activity together sometime?"
Slowly, she repeated, "'Do an activity together'?"
Shinji Ikari cringed. In a low, low voice, he said, "A, ah, date. You and me. T-together."
Hikari hated herself a little for how her heart jumped into her throat. "A d-date?"
"Yeah. Like... a movie? Or dinner?" Shinji almost choked. "Or something."
He froze up. "Huh?"
"Why do you want to go on a date with me?" she asked, crossing her arms. "I'm curious, because you didn't seem that eager to date me when I was the one asking you out."
He flushed a deep, crimson red. "Uh, well, that is... I'm really sorry about that, by the way. I panicked. I'm not..." Shinji sighed. "I'm not very good at, you know, this."
"You're forgiven. Go on."
"Well, you're just so..."
"This is kind of hard to explain." Shinji swallowed audibly. "You're nice."
"I'm 'nice'?" Oh God, this must be how men feel. Hikari looked around for a hole to crawl into.
Shinji nodded, not realizing his misstep. "You take care of everyone around you even though you don't have to," he said, growing surer as he went on. "You take care of your whole family even when you older sister should be the one helping, but you never complain. You don't think it's unfair. You honestly want to help Kodama graduate school so she can get a good job, and you want Nozomi to be happy so you help her study and make sure she eats three meals a day.
"You're our Class Representative too," he continued, their eyes locked, his explanation flowing as if someone had opened a flood gate between his mouth and his heart. "You always make sure Asuka, Ayanami and I catch up on our work when we miss school. You brought us pictures from Okinawa even though we didn't ask, just so we didn't feel left out because we couldn't go on the class trip.
"You're a nice person. You're the best person I've ever met. You care about people because you love them." Shinji took a deep breath. "But... but sometimes you look so tired, like it's all getting so heavy on your shoulders and you're afraid you'll be crushed. But you never give up. You don't complain. You keep going. And it's beautiful. I... I wish I could be like that." He paused, fists clenched. "That's why I want to date Hikari Horaki."
Shinji looked positively green. He just stared at her, waiting.
"Yes," she said.
He jerked, as if electrocuted. "'Y-yes'?"
Hikari nodded. "Yes, Shinji."
They smiled at each other, and somehow their hands found one another.
Kensuke Aida, standing atop the overturned apple crate, wheeled his cane around enthusiastically. "Come one, come all! See two smoking hot Evangelion pilots face-off in a battle for the ages! Two girls enter WITH KNIVES but only one leaves! Yessir! Step right up; tickets are only twenty thousand yen each! All proceeds go to charity!"
"Yeah," said Misato, "I think he's enjoying this a little too much."
Ritsuko raised an eyebrow. "Where in the world did he get that red and white pin-stripped suit and matching straw hat?"
"Hell if I know."
(Earlier that day...)
Kensuke gave the money to the costume store owner. The elderly man moved to hand over the paper bag but, mid-motion, hesitated. Clutching the bag tightly, he asked, "You wouldn't happen to be ringmastering bum fights, would you?"
"No, no. It's an apple peel-off."
"Oh," sighed the store owner. "Well, I suppose you can have it anyway." He handed over the outfit. "You wouldn't happen to know where I can find a bum fight to wager on, would you?"
Kensuke took a half-step away from the counter. "Um, no. Sorry."
"Damn!" The store owner snapped his fingers. "Stupid Angel attacks," he muttered to himself under his breath, "always scaring off daddy's bums. I never get to have any fun these day." He paused. "Well, I suppose apple peeling is okay." He looked up. "Hey kid, are you taking any bets on... hey! Where'd he go?"
Kensuke, however, was already sprinting halfway down the next block.
A single table had been set up on the auditorium stage. Next to it were two folded chairs and two barrels of apples. Off to the left and the right of the table were mobile dry erase boards, one labeled, in blue, 'REI AYANAMI' and the other, in red, 'ASUKA LANGLEY SORYU'. Misato noted that some waggish soul had drawn a halo above Rei's name and devil horns above Asuka's.
"Ladies and gentlemen," said Kensuke Aida, standing under a spotlight at the forefront of the stage. "The rules are as follows: both contestants have one hour to peel fifty red apples. The peels must be unbroken. Any peel that breaks or is incomplete will not be counted by our impartial panel of judges -- namely, me -- as being a true apple peel. If a peel breaks, the contestant must go on to a fresh apple. Broken peels do not penalize the contestants. We are only counting points from successfully peeled apples, folks. Nothing else.
"Now, with that said, let the APPLE-A-GEDDON begin!!"
The lights for the rest of the auditorium snapped on. Rei and Asuka, each having taken their seats, began to peel their first apples.
peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel p-- slip "Shiest!"
Rei, on the other hand...
peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel
...completed her first successfully peeled apple and then set it down on the tabletop.
The crowd watched with baited breath as the tallies rose. There was a loud cheer when Asuka set down her first peeled apple and reached for her second, but the tension heightened at the same because Rei was reaching to start her third peeled apple.
peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel p-- slip "Damn!"
peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel p-- slip "Damn!"
peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel peel p-- slip "Frick!"
It was all over in less than eight minutes.
The final tally read: REI - 50, ASUKA - 4.
"Man," said Misato loudly in the quiet auditorium, "this sucked."
Asuka shouted from the stage, "Thanks for the support, Mom!"
"Oh well," said Asuka, breathing in the cool night air. "Peeling apples was a stupid bet anyway."
"That's the spirit!" urged Misato. She then turned to Rei. "Congratulations on your win!"
Rei hefted her four foot tall golden trophy from one arm to the other. "Thank you, Captain Katsuragi."
Shinji said from behind the females, "At least we pawed off all those apples on the audience." He made a face. "I don't want to even see an apple ever again after this last week."
"I don't know," said Hikari, who walked alongside him. "If it weren't for these apples, a lot of things might be different. They can't be all bad then, can they?"
Asuka almost turned to make a snarky comment, but a death glare from Misato silence her.
Ritsuko lit up a fresh cigarette. "Well, back to headquarters."
"You should come by to the afterparty, Ritsu," said Misato. "All the Children's friends are going to be there--"
"Aw man," said Asuka, speaking over her guardian, "you didn't invite those dorks, did you? I told you, they're not my friends!"
"--and I wouldn't want you to miss the big announcement I have planned."
"That's great, but I really have to get back," said Ritsuko. "Unit-00 isn't going to regenerate its own musculature." She smiled wolfishly. "I'll be sure to tell everyone about the results of tonight's contest though. Everyone will be very curious to hear how Asuka did."
"They will?" asked the redhead. "I'm popular even with Unit-00's support crew?"
"Oh yes," said Ritsuko, her bloodshot eyes narrowing. "Everyone in the whole Technical Department knows what you did to Unit-00. Even with round-the-clock labor, we're still repairing the damage."
Asuka chuckled, oblivious to the poison lacing the blonde scientist's words. "Heh heh. Yeah. I really kicked that blue tin can's ass, didn't I? I'm not sure what was more awesome, ripping out its brains with my bare hands or decapitating it with gunfire."
"ANY~way," said Misato, slipping an arm over her oldest friend's shoulder, forcibly steering the blonde scientist away from the Second Child, "I think I should see Ritsu to her car. I'll be right back, okay? Don't wonder off! Otherwise you might miss the afterparty!"
When the four teenagers reached Misato's car -- and the irate people waiting for the person double-parking them in to return -- they found someone unexpected waiting for them.
"Vice-Commander Fuyutsuki," said Rei.
The elderly man leaned off the sports car. "Good evening. I was wondering if I could borrow the Third Child for a moment."
"Um, sure." Shinji glanced at Hikari. "I'll be right back."
"What does my father want now?" asked Shinji.
They stood in a clearing around the corner from the lot, near a loading dock for the school. Sodium-vapor lights hummed overhead and multitudes of bugs flittered around them in nonsensical orbits. At a respectful distance were several black-suited men wearing sunglasses. The fact it was night out didn't seem to bother them.
"Your father asked me to talk with you," said the Vice-Commander, "because he knows you have questions about your mother."
Fuyutsuki nodded. "However, you and your father are no longer on speaking terms... as you so clearly demonstrated yesterday... so it falls to me to answer any questions you might have. Yui Ikari was my finest student and a close friend." He handed Shinji a slip of paper. "My private number. Just call and make an appointment with my secretary. I'll work out something with my schedule."
Shinji hesitated for a moment before pocketing the paper slip.
"You've had your difficulties with your father," said Fuyutsuki, "and trust me when I say that I understand he's not an easy man to like. I know it doesn't seem it, but your father does want to do right by you, Shinji. However, Gendo has never been the best when it comes to... dealing the hearts of others."
"He's an asshole," said Shinji. Then, belatedly, added, "Sir."
Fuyutsuki sighed. "I'm sorry he wasn't here tonight."
"I almost expected him to be, since it was Ayanami's big night."
"He would have liked to have been here, I imagine."
"But he wasn't. Are you going to say it was because of his busted nose?"
"It wasn't his nose," said Fuyutsuki. "Though the Supreme Commander of NERV can't exactly walk around in public looking like he got into a bar fight." He paused, grinning softly. "Your father isn't much for socializing in general. About the only things Yui could ever get your father to go out and do had to involve drinking, drinking and karaoke, or drinking and spoken word poetry."
(Elsewhere in Tokyo-3...)
Aided by his swollen nose, the beret-wearing figure with tiny, round, black sunglass would have been unrecognizable to those who knew him. Yes, it was always the mark of a true chessmaster to incorporate unseen road bumps into their grand design. Fools stuck to plans. Winners adapted. And he would have been a fool not to take advantage of a disguise as perfect as a swollen nose.
Leaning forward on his stool, a man listed as 'Toru Furuya' on the club register spoke into the microphone:
I tried to understand this
I thought that they were outta their minds
How could I be so foolish
To not see I was the one behind?
So still I kept on fighting
Losing every step by the way
I said, I must go back there
In Jackessee still the things are the same
At the back of the club, Hyuga Makoto said, "Hey, he's good."
"Man," muttered Shiergu Aoba, "what does ever every-damn-body have to massacre the classics on open mic night?"
It made Shinji feel strange, thinking of his mother and father as real people. He shook off the sensation. It didn't matter.
"I don't need someone to tell me what kind of man my father is. I know him. I needed my father ten years ago," Shinji said, the utter indifference in his voice inwardly startling Fuyutsuki, "and he wasn't there for me. I already gave him a second chance -- because he's still my father, no matter what he's done."
Shinji went on, "When I first came to Tokyo-3, I wanted so badly to hear my father to say something to me; that he was proud of me, that he loved me -- "
" -- that he was sorry?" ventured Fuyutsuki.
Shinji nodded. "That too." He glanced towards the corner that led back to the parking lot, and the people waiting there for him. How strange that was. "But that time, when I called him to let me come back here, I realized I did hate him. He's never wanted me, not like he wants Ayanami."
"That's a remarkably polite way of telling your father to go to hell, Shinji."
Shinji shook his head. "I don't want my father to go to hell, even if I did hate him."
"It gets tiring," he admitted, "hating all the time. I've tried it, pushing people around. It's fun at first. Being in control. Not having to worry about what others think of me. But all that hate doesn't go anywhere." His absentmindedly traced a path along his neck with the fingertips of his right hand. "You just end up with sore knuckles." He shook his head clear and added, "Plus treating people like chess pieces just makes me like my father, and... and I'd rather be sad and lonely than be anything like him."
"How do you know your father isn't also sad and lonely?"
Shinji didn't know how to immediately respond to that question. "I... I guess that means we're more similar than we're not, but... I just want him to leave me alone. I don't need any more coaxing or threats to pilot Eva. I'm doing it for myself."
"That's not a bad reason," replied the old man. He bowed politely. "Good night, Shinji."
Shinji bowed back. "Good night, Vice-Commander Fuyutsuki."
At the Katsuragi Household, the party was soon in full swing. Somehow Misato had arranged for the dance pad from Asuka and Shinji's training against the Seventh Angel to be set up while they were all away at Apple-A-Geddon '15. A music selection made by Asuka played on the apartment stereo system. While people waited for their turns on the dance pad, they gorged on takeout and gossiped.
"Seriously," said Asuka to Hikari, "I don't get what you see in him."
"I know," the brunette said, grinning.
Asuka blanched. "Ugh. You're going to be one of those people now, aren't you?"
The doorbell chimed.
Misato perked up and leaped off the dancepad, invalidating her negative point score against Rei in this round of the game. "Ah! That'll be him."
After about half a minute, Misato came back in the family room with two new guests in tow.
"Aida?" asked Hikari. "Suzahara?"
Asuka scowled. "What are they two doing here?!"
"They're your stooges," said Shinji, sipping his cola. "Ask them."
The redhead glared at the Third Child, who in turn shriveled a bit under her evil eye. He was able to meet her gaze without blinking, though. Asuka snorted and turned her attention to the two newcomers. "Spill."
Kensuke took a moment to polish his eyeglasses, avoiding Asuka's eyes all the while. Touji just shrugged. "Hell if I dunno. I'm just tagging along for the ride."
"Everyone," said Misato, raising her latest Yebisu in a salute, "listen up. It's my pleasure to introduce you the Marduk Institute's candidate for the pilot of Evangelion Unit-03, the Fourth Child -- your very own Kensuke Aida!"
Touji Suzahara, Hikari Horaki, Shinji Ikari, and especially Asuka Langley Soryu regarded the bespectacled teen with naked shock. Rei Ayanami just blinked, but those that knew her grasped that the understated reaction was her equivalent of a spit-take. Only drier. Infinitely drier. But then what about the First Child wasn't dry?
"Wooooooooo!" The freckle-faced boy in question thrust his fists up in the air. "I ROCK!"
"What?!" said Asuka, bolting upright. "NO! It's can't be! Not HIM! This is IMPOSSIBLE!"
"No," declared Kensuke Aida. "This is AWESOME."
# # # TO BE CONTINUED
Next Chapter: Doing Whatever a Spider Can -- Kensuke is shown the ropes by Shinji and Asuka. Rei gives "living life" her best shot. Oh, and there's another Angel attack.