A/N: Alright, it took me a little while to fix this, but after seeing so many review about how confusing it is, I decided to redo this chapter. Originally I had intended to skip the reunion, since it really didn't seem all that important. Blah blah, Asuka's back, blah blah, I'd rather get to the interesting parts. But the angry reviews made me think, and I think it's better to actually tell that part of the story. Hopefully this explains it better ^_^
I changed the name back as well, just to keep the confusion to a minimum, for now :-p
The Journey Back
"You're cold, I can see you shivering."
"I'm alright, Shinji."
"The only thing you're wearing is my shirt."
"We'll find something along the way."
"O-Okay, I guess."
"It's already dark out here, I guess I didn't realize how long I was in there searching for you."
"Let's go, then."
"You don't have any shoes..."
"But I have clothes from the guards' locker. It's okay. Let's go."
"Oh God! Shinji, is that you? Is that Rei?
"Miss Ibuki, I didn't know who else to go to-"
"It's okay! Set her down on the bed... Did you carry her on your back the whole way here?"
"Well, no, not the whole way, she was tired though, and we couldn't find any shoes..."
"What about your cell phone?"
"Oh... well, there wasn't any coverage down in the Geofront..."
"You could have called when you got back up! Or used one of the emergency phones down there...!"
"Sorry, I wasn't thinking straight."
"Hey. I haven't had a chance to see you since I brought you here, I guess. I've missed you."
"They've been running tests. I will be allowed to leave in the morning."
"Oh, right, that thing you told me before...? Are you still... umm..."
"They are still unsure if I am dying. I am to return every week for further testing."
"Where will you be living?"
"In a temporary dormitory, three blocks from the main hospital wing."
"You sound unhappy. Are you alright?"
"No, I'm fine. I'm just glad you're okay."
A hospital was a stark white cold place, at least in the experience of Shinji Ikari. A place where the only comfort was found in the cold caress of the air blowing from some nameless air-conditioning and filtration system. At least as a patient one might have had the slim comfort of white hospital sheets and maybe a blanket to ward off the chill.
Still, there would at least be someone who cared for you, someone who brought you what you needed for life, someone who might pat your head before tucking you in at night. A chuckle escaped the lips of the former Third Child. Maybe that was a romanticized version of what a hospital might be, supplied by his own memories which were being softened by the passing days, but he couldn't help thinking it as he watched through the cold hard glass. His breath gently fogged the window as he waited, head pressed against the glass.
The walls were white, the nurse's uniforms were white, in fact the only color in the room below was provided by the splash of unruly blue hair across the pillow. She was lying comfortably in the room's single ICU bed, listening as a nurse talked to her. At least it looked like she was paying attention, so he assumed the nurse was talking. And now leaning over, looking into her patient's crimson eyes one at a time.
Weeks ago, when she had asked him if he had been alright, he had almost come out and asked her then. That had been the perfect time, probably. He'd had the ring and everything, even. He pulled the small box out of his pocket, fingering the black velvet that covered it. Cracking it open, he watched as the ring's gemstone caught the light, its facets sparkling.
It was a one and a half caret blue diamond set in a ring made of white gold, and it had cost him about a third of his savings, but the longer he waited, the less confidence he seemed to have. After her return from death, she had changed. Not her personality, or the way she talked, it was how she looked when she answered the door and saw it was him. Whenever he was down, she sensed it, and cheered him up. Whenever he cooked for her, she wouldn't rest until she had pried the recipe from his grasp, and some of them she now cooked better than he did himself.
There never seemed to be a time that she needed him, he was always the needy one. Or it felt that way to him, anyway. Hearing soft footsteps, he shoved the box back into his pocket. The footsteps stopped.
"Thank you for worrying about me."
He turned, smiling wistfully. Not, you didn't have to stay here, or, I apologize for making you wait. Just a simple thanks.
"Did they tell you anything new?" he asked. She was wearing a white short-sleeved shirt underneath a blue v-neck top and matching skirt.
"Miss Ibuki says I am healthy for a fifteen year old girl."
"Oh." Relief made him smile. "Are you?".
"Am I healthy? Or am I fifteen?"
"What? No, that..." He spluttered and turned away.
She had mercy.
"The cellular degeneration Doctor Akagi constantly measured has slowed considerably, but it is still there," she said more seriously. "I've been given medicine."
Shinji recovered as gracefully as he was able.
They walked back to her apartment in silence. He wanted to ask her how long they had told her she might live, but in his mind the question sounded too morbid.
It was no different from normal, though to him it felt different. It wasn't that the silence felt awkward. He glanced over, noting how her close-cropped hair had grown out almost to her shoulders. She was different. Somehow, she wasn't the same person who had told him she was dying, hugged him, and then left.
Eight months he had lived with Asuka after re-awakening on the beach. But during that time, Rei had been, what, asleep? They had talked very little about what she had experienced after leaving him, about what had happened to her in that eight month time-span.
She seemed more distant and unapproachable, and yet she always reached out to him still. Even though it felt harder to talk to her, when he did, she was warm and open. She was still as sharp-witted as he remembered. He had discovered that quite well after the Onigiri Incident.
"What is it?"
He realized he was grinning.
"Just remembering," he said.
She glanced at him side-long.
"The onigiri?" she asked innocently.
"Yeah." He cleared his throat. "I'll get you for that, by the way."
"Yes. You've said that several times now."
He smiled, wondering for a moment if she had sensed his mental state and had brought it up intentionally. Five minutes later they were standing in front of the low two-story structure that contained her current home. Walking up the stairs with her to her door, his feelings returned full force. He wanted to stop her, and ask her to move back in with him, like she had in the dream.
She opened the door, then turned around and smiled.
"I'll see you later."
His feet wouldn't move, and his mouth was dry.
"Yeah," he replied.
She backed up and closed the door.
He stood there for a few moments cursing himself inwardly. He finally pulled out the ring and looked at it. A part of him hoped she might come back out for some reason and find him standing there. Chance would then force him to act, and do what he couldn't seem to do on his own.
Had it been the old Rei, the one he had confessed his love to, he would have asked her in a heartbeat. That Rei was as new to things as he was, and had been learning alongside him. They had been learning together. Then they had been separated. He had grown to care for Asuka, and Rei had grown as well, though he didn't understand it.
He pocketed the ring, and turned to leave.
I don't deserve to live with her. I can't even find the courage to ask her to marry me.
Prelude to Darkness
A young woman sat against a tree, holding a piece of paper in hands that shook subtly. She lowered the paper, leaning back against the hard bark, running a hand through her auburn hair. Seen objectively, perhaps she was a lover who had been heartbroken by a letter from her significant other. Or maybe she had just received news of a death in the family. It would look mundane if not for the shining gray spindle that rose into the sky an immeasurable distance away.
That spire was one of seven giant space elevators that anchored the Kane Band in Earth orbit. The pride of Terran engineering, it served as Earth's main space-port and ship-building center as well. Practically a nation unto itself, the massive construct completely circled the earth like a giant glowing halo.
Seen from this new vantage point, it would be strange indeed to see a young woman holding something so archaic as a piece of writing paper, especially one that looked new, not yellowed with age. A short chirp interrupted whatever train of thought she had been on.
"Skip, it's getting close to our launch window. Will you be lifting from Earth soon?" The male voice was quiet but firm, even with someone who was his superior officer.
"Not yet," she answered, looking back to the paper in her hands. The Communications implant would have picked up even her sub-vocalizations, but there was no need for privacy in this deserted park.
"How long should I hold us on-station?" The man's reserved tone was tinged with question at his superior's strange behavior.
"I don't know."
There was a pause as the man processed this.
"Then, should I-"
"Yes," she answered wryly, "give shore leave to whoever is next up for it. We'll be here at least long enough for that."
"Aye, Captain." There was a soft click indicating the channel had been cut. She smiled to herself. Her first officer was too straight-laced to show it in his tone, but she knew he was looking forward to a little off time just as much as the rest of the crew. Even if he hadn't asked, she would have granted shore leave, but that he asked revealed his personal intent. Her smile faded as she considered the paper again.
It had been days since she had received the encrypted communique after dropping out of hyper in the Nesre Primus system to reorient for the jump to Sol. She had not originally intended to land on Earth, but after reading the message, she had no choice.
It was from her mother, and it seemed to have been written in code. It mentioned certain places, certain events, things that would have meaning to only her, as if her mother had thought someone might intercept or read the message before it got to her.
It excited her, because she had not seen her mother since the woman had disappeared off the face of the Earth several years ago. She had not left on any charter flights, but there were other ways off the planet. So, since they were passing right by anyway, she took the opportunity to stop at her planet of birth, and follow up the strange letter. She had gone to the place hinted at in the letter, and dug in a certain spot. She was only glad that this area was under protection by one of the local historical foundations to preserve old landmarks.
What she had found chilled her to her bones. It was a protective capsule, the kind used to store something over the long-term inside was a short letter by her now-dead grandmother. It was something she should have prized, it wasn't something to throw away, burn, or tear up, even if she wanted to do all those things now. It was the only piece of her grandmother she had left. Taking a breath, she picked the papers back up, and resumed reading.
That bleakness of that place was too much to bear. The low gray sky, the distant impossibly tall mountains, the high arching walkway I found myself on, I thought I'd been working too hard, granddaughter, and that's how I passed it off. Something I'd dreamed up, maybe I had dozed off. Even if I thought that figure had been Shinji, it didn't mean anything, because it had been a dream. Besides, he had been dead for over two hundred years, so how could it be him?
That's what I told myself, anyway. I don't know if you've found the Tome yet, but when you do...
Hah. I say 'when you do' because I hope it's you that finds the Tome, and not the other way around. If you do find it, and I think you will, since the committee has given up searching for it, as far as I know, don't just give yourself to it, like so many of us did, in search of power.
For one, there's no one left to rescue you, to pull you out when things go to hell, which they always do when someone gives themselves to the book. We've all scattered. It took us long enough to find out, and to escape the committee's clutches, but that doesn't mean it's over...
I'm getting ahead of myself. The point is, don't go off and try to read the whole thing, and accept it all, body and soul. That will only wake it up, and who knows what will happen when it wakes up again. Especially since Shinji might not really be...
Anyway. That's just the vain hope of an old woman. Look, I can't tell you where the Tome is, because this letter might fall into the Committee's hands. You'll have to find it yourself, and when you do, only read the parts about Shinji. There'll be a lot of them anyway, so you'll learn enough. Shinji was protected, so you should be too if you stick to that part of the book. I hope. Anyway, good luck. This won't be my last note, so keep looking for them, for where I might have hidden them.
She sighed, blowing a strange of red hair out of her eyes. Where am I supposed to look? She had no idea where to even begin. This was one of the few special places her mother had shown her, when they had been together. She only knew of one or two others, and she doubted there was anything like this letter at either of them. She had been over them many times, whenever the need for her mother became too great.
The tree behind her felt warm, as if it were directly transmitting the hot sun overhead through its bark into her back. The papers trembled in her hands, and she stared at them as they suddenly blurred. She shook her head, trying to clear it of the fog.
I'm tired. I need to rest...
The paper moved. She looked at it, blinking quickly. The words seemed to form a face, when she looked at it the right way, as if it were one of the three-dimensional puzzles on the backs of cereal boxes she had stared at while eating breakfast as a child. A face suddenly stood out, making her gasp in surprise. Was this something her grandmother had planned when she wrote the letter? Had she printed it in such a way that it would produce this effect?
All her thoughts came to an abrupt halt when the lips of the face moved. She heard a faint whisper that set her hair on end. She desperately wanted to throw the paper away, but a part of her was curious. She slowly brought the paper closer to her ear, trying to keep it in the corner of her eye. It was so strange to look at, she didn't want to miss anything. The whisper became louder, until it became words, three of them, repeated over and over.
"...comes, the darkness comes, the darkness comes, the darkness..."
She suddenly jerked awake, shaking her head and trying to remember what had just happened as a soft chime sounded somewhere nearby. The foggy trails of the strange dream were slowly disappearing, escaping her grasp. The dark room around her became recognizable, as the apartment she had chosen to stay at, for her sojourn on Earth. She looked down at the letter clutched in her hand, partially crumpled. She brought it up to her face, but the words did not change. No face presented itself, muttering strange words that she couldn't even remember. Ever since she had found the letter buried in that park, she had been having nightmares.
She rubbed her forehead, trying to think. What were those words in the dream? There had been three of them, but she just couldn't remember. The chime was getting louder. She got up and stumbled over to the closet, rummaging around, trying to find something civilian that wasn't gaudy and attention-gathering.
Finally pulling a plain white jumper from the small closet, she looked all around, trying to locate the source of that infernal chiming. Locating the offending wall terminal, she stabbed the 'accept' button, allowing the call to come through. That was the moment she remembered the words.
"The darkness comes," she murmured, as the screen activated, showing the hard lines of a middle-aged man. She happened to glance at the screen, where the chronometer read 3:33 pm local time. It was getting late.
"Are you Ms. Akane Sato-Soryu?" the man asked. She immediately knew he was someone with authority, probably law enforcement.
"Yeah," she answered, refusing to be swayed by his no-nonsense demeanor. "And you are...?"
"Well," there was a pregnant pause. "This is Inspector Hisashi of the Nagano Prefecture. I've got some news that you'll probably want to hear face to face. It's about your mother."
"About mom?" she asked, unable to keep the surprise from her voice. "Where is she? Have you found her?"
"Well, yes, we know where she is," the man's firm voice began to give away the discomfort he obviously felt. "Look, you should be here in front of me, not over a comm channel. I'm sending you an address. Can you travel?"
"Yeah, I'll be right there." The picture winked off. She didn't recognize the address flashing at the bottom of the screen, but she could find its location easily enough.
The cloudless day made the sky look like a deep blue dome. By now Tokyo-3 had superficially recovered from the hideous wound caused during the war by an N2 mine. Rather, it had recovered enough that Shinji's walk wasn't disturbed by the incessant drone of heavy equipment. Whether or not it was rebuilt to its previous glory, retractable buildings and all, it was still his home. Conscience and memory tugged at him briefly.
I wonder how Sensei is doing? Ever since dad called me back all that time ago, I haven't even checked...
He fumbled in his pockets before remembering that he had intentionally left his cell-phone at his apartment, and that it didn't matter anyway since Sensei hadn't had a phone, at least when he had been there. Not even a land-line. It was true that he had floundered in the years before Eva, having no real purpose in life, but nostalgia colored his memory, making him long for those simple times.
He turned and saw Touji sauntering down one of the sidewalks that intersected the one he was on.
"Back at you," he said grinning. "You were a pilot too."
"What, for all of thirty minutes, you mean?"
"Yeah." Shinji's grin twisted into a grimace.
"Hey, I'm about to meet Hikari," Touji said quickly, "wanna come along?"
"Why not?" Shinji said, matching pace with his friend. "Where's Kensuke?"
"Oh, he's a little antsy about the whole wedding thing. I think he's not sure how to act around us."
In the distance, the suburbs gave way to the few lonely high-rises the city had left, and the many shopping areas they contained.
"Don't you get all weird on me too. I figure since you've got Ayanami, you'd understand, right?"
The silence began to get uncomfortable.
"Hey, did I say something wrong?"
Shinji glanced back, realizing he had looked away.
"What? Well, it's just-"
Arms surrounded him and he froze, but after a momentary squeeze Hikari let go and gravitated over taking Touji's arm.
"You didn't tell me you were going to invite him...!"
"We just ran into each other, is all," Touji said.
"I'll probably just be in the way," Shinji said, laughing a little. He was beginning to feel out of place.
"You won't be!" Hikari insisted. "Really, you won't be!"
And he wasn't, for a while. The two of them drew him into their conversation as they walked, and when they arrived, they asked for his opinion as they shopped. Even so, the more he saw them interact, the more he was reminded of his own failure.
He watched how they talked excitedly together, aware of nothing outside of their own shared happiness. When they eventually met with the caterer, they had even less time to make him feel included. Watching the two of them fairly glowing with happiness as they talked, he withdrew further into his own thoughts.
I just want to see her. Even if I can't ask her, I just want to spend time with her... If I spent more time with her, maybe I'd gain the confidence. I'd know her better...
A lull in the conversation around him brought him back. Hikari was looking at him, having apparently asked him something.
"Umm, I guess I wasn't paying attention-"
"Shinji, I'm so sorry...! We were completely ignoring you!"
"No," he waved her off, suddenly uncomfortable. "It's you two who are getting married. I'm just in the way."
"You're not!" Hikari insisted, grabbing him by the shoulders to keep him from turning away or leaving. "You're not, Shinji!"
He didn't know what to say, but he saw the mood degenerating, and felt bad for it.
"Shinji, you're my fiancee's best friend, you're my friend," she saw his expression deteriorating despite her words. "For goodness' sake, you're going to be the best man at our wedding! You belong here!" The surprise on his face told her all she needed to know. "You never told him?" she snapped back at Touji.
"I thought he would know, it's obvious, right? It's not that big of a deal-"
"Not that big of a..." She looked back towards Shinji, who was blinking rapidly, on the verge of breaking down. "We'll finish shopping later."
"What?" he yelped. "But, but this is the day we planned for. We have appointments-"
"We'll cancel them, and make new ones," she repeated, in a voice that brooked no argument. After a moment, he relented.
"O... Okay," he said. "If you really think so."
"Yeah," she said. "I'll catch up to you later."
"Sure," he said, sauntering off.
Shinji had sunk down onto a bench in the mall they were in, and Hikari sat down beside him.
"I've ruined your day," he finally said when he got his voice back. "I never should have come." He stopped before his voice broke up completely.
"Shinji, why are you so depressed?" she asked, softening her voice. "This isn't like you! Did something happen?"
"Hah." He looked away, helpless to stop the tears from rolling down his cheeks. She waited, a hand on his shoulder as he cried silently. "This is pathetic, I know," he finally said, wiping his face and turning to face her for a moment. "I'm really, really stupid. I love her so much, and I can't even tell her any more." He turned away as the tears came again.
"Shinji," she began, searching for words, "It's okay to talk to me. No one's going to make fun of you here. It's just people going about their business. They don't even know you."
She pulled a folded cloth from her purse and gave it to him. He accepted it gratefully, drying his face again.
"I love her more than anything," he said shakily. "I want to stay be her side forever, but-"
"Why are you telling me?" Hikari finally exclaimed. "You should be saying this to her!"
"I have," he insisted.
"So, she won't marry you? I have a hard time seeing that. I know she's closed off, but-"
"I told her before, before everyone woke back up. I told her in the dream." He fought for words. "She's changed. I know it sounds crazy, but ever since she came back, she's different. Not like she was in school," he said quickly, the words spilling out. He wanted to say it all before she spoke, or he feared he might not be able to say it again. "She's perfect, now. I know that sounds like me putting her on a pedestal, but it's not. She always knows what to say, she never misunderstands things. I'm always the one who does that. I haven't seen her make a mistake once since I rescued her." He looked at Hikari, his eyes desolate. "I can't match her. I'll never be able to match her."
Hikari shook her head.
"You're wrong. I know I don't know her as well as you do, but you're wrong about her, Shinji."
She looked away, thinking. He stayed silent.
"I know," she finally said, turning to face him with a smile. "The four of us are going out. Tomorrow. Don't try to get out of it, either," she said mischievously. "Are you going to ask her, or shall I?"
"No," Shinji sighed, seeing the futility of refusing. "I'll invite her."
"Great!" she said, taking his hands and standing. "I'll leave the plans up to you, then." She turned and walked off, leaving him standing there. "Call me when you decide what we're going to do!" she said, looking back with a smile.
"Right," he said quietly. Even though his heart was still torn, she had planted a seed of hope.
Stepping out of her personal shuttle, what Akane saw was enough to make her pause for a moment. In the middle of the towering buildings and bright flashing light that made up New Tokyo was a mansion. It was large for a house, far too large for a person or even a family. The house was surrounded by an overgrown park, though there had been obvious work at the edges to keep it from encroaching on the rest of the city.
Maybe it's a historical landmark, she thought. There was no other reason for a mansion surrounded by overgrowth to be planted in the middle of the thriving capital of Japan.
The flowing lines and flashing lights of two police cruisers drew her attention as she approached what appeared to be the front of the estate. A group of three officers stood in a close circle talking too quietly for her to hear. One of them looked up, the one who had comm'ed her previously. He hurried over, and she came to a stop.
"Ahhh, Ms. Sato-Soryu..." he reached out a hand, which she took. "I trust you had a pleasant trip?"
"I suppose so, considering..." she said, returning his handshake. It was obvious he was taken by her. She saw no other reason for the unnecessary pleasantry.
"Yes, my condolences. This is most unpleasant. It's a shame we couldn't meet under brighter circumstances."
"Yes, it is..." she said, keeping her expression grave. Whatever might have brought a police presence to this house, it wasn't good, and she didn't need someone in the government getting himself enamored with her. "Can we get this over with please?"
"Of course," he said quickly, directing her to the main entrance. "This way. But I must warn you. It's not a pleasant sight... I'm afraid there's not much to see."
Walking into the foyer, he lead her to a side door. Touching the tell-tale to the side, the door whooshed open.
"This is the library," he said, motioning for her to go ahead. She took in her surroundings surreptitiously as she walked. The house was colored in earth tones, and made to look like an authentic replica of an old-style mansion. Not-withstanding the automatic doors, the illusion was complete.
She stepped through the doorway, and stopped dead in her tracks, bringing her hands to cover her mouth in horror. She couldn't keep from crying out as she recognized who it was on the floor. Beside a chair-and-side-table combination in the center of the room was a body covered by a sheet. Blood covered the immediate area like a giant stain.
"Ms. Sato-Soryu," the Inspector asked, "Is... that your mother?"
"Yes," she sobbed. Her vision blurred, but she couldn't turn away. "It's... it's her." She pointed a shaking hand. "She's wearing our family ring." It was an effort to say the words through a throat which was slowly constricting with grief. "Can't you check dental records or something?" she cried angrily. "What is wrong with you?"
"Look, I'm sorry." The man shuffled uncomfortably, and his tone actually took on irritation. "It's my job, lady. You're the only living relative, and no, we can't check dental records... There's no head. As you can see." He turned, glancing back towards the doorway. "None of this makes any sense," he huffed, looking back to the body. "There's no sign of intrusion, and there was certainly a lot of force used here." He slipped his cap off, scratching his short hair. "I haven't seen anything like this in all my years on the force. We have no evidence, except for the body, and what's left doesn't tell us much."
"Well, you'd better find out who did this," Akane said darkly, wiping a hand across her face. "Find them before I do." She looked the Inspector in the eye. "There must be some clue in this place. It's huge! I want answers-"
"So do I," the Hisashi replied, finally breaking her gaze and looking away. "I wish I had some."
After a few moments, Akane spoke again, her voice under control and her face dry.
"I didn't know mom built a place like this."
"Oh, she didn't," he answered quickly, relieved that the worst was over. "At least not alone. From our records, it appears that your grandparents help build this place, with the help of several others of their acquaintance. It might be even older than that. It's a ship, you know. Able to achieve orbit, even."
"Really?" Akane asked doubtfully.
"Indeed," Hisashi replied. "In fact, you can even do that, if you want. We've searched the place top to bottom and found nothing of interest. I'm almost at my wit's end, though I do have a few outside leads to check out."
She almost snorted disdainfully, but held back. There was no point in angering someone who was only trying to help, but she put no trust in his efforts. She had heard the doubt in his voice.
Well, it didn't matter. She would just have to search the place herself. She would be in a better position to recognize something important than he would, and she felt a touch of awe to be standing in the house that her grandmother had lived in, at least for a time. That it was a ship was a complete surprise, but not impossible. No matter how it looked on the outside, a few strategically place anti-grav generators could make almost anything into a ship, as long as it was air-tight. Which explained the automatic doors, as opposed to the manual ones which would have been keeping in style with the rest of the house.
Still in a daze, she stumbled out of the house and into the comfortable familiarity of her shuttle, sinking down into the plush seat and staring numbly at the controls in front of her.
Her apartment number was no longer four oh three, but it was still the same, and he was still standing in front of her door with familiar butterflies in his stomach. He pushed the buzzer, and waited. She had given him no reason to doubt her. It was his own fears and self doubt that brought that. No matter what he did, he didn't feel worthy, and if he wasn't worthy, someone better might happen along at any time and steal her away.
The door opened and she was there. She wore the same outfit she always wore these days, the one that had taken the place of her school uniform. The welcome in her eyes was immediate when she saw him.
"Shinji," she said, when it was obvious he wasn't going to speak first. He finally found his voice.
"I was wondering if you wanted to go out for a little bit," he said.
"Alright." There had been no hesitation. "Come in, I'll get ready."
After that, it was like always. He waited, she came out of her room minutes later, and they left together. Walking with her to where they were to meet Hikari and Touji, he felt happy. When he was with her he felt normal, it seemed to him that she made sure of that. When he was away from her was when the doubts crept in. It was one more reason he didn't deserve her, in his own eyes.
"Shinji! Hey!" In the distance Hikari let go of Touji's hand and ran to meet them. She touched Rei's casual clothes, looking her up and down. "You look great, Rei, I'm glad you could come!"
"I'm glad to be here," Rei answered with a calm smile.
"See," Touji pretended to whisper towards Hikari as he walked up, "I don't see any problem here between those two-"
"Oh stop it...!" Hikari slapped at his shoulder and he shied away. "He'll behave, I promise," she assured Shinji. "So where're we going?"
"Well, I thought we'd go bowling," he said, glancing at Rei, then back to Hikari.
"Oh, good idea!" she exclaimed. "It's been forever since I've been bowling, what about you?"
"Well," Touji meandered. "It's been a while, I suppose."
"Yeah, if by 'a while' you mean three days, Mister Strike Alley!" she teased.
"Well, I don't like to brag," the boy blushed.
"Liar," Hikari elbowed him. "You're just upset because it's one of the few things you're really good at!"
"Maybe," he admitted.
"So," Rei verbally prodded Shinji, "tell me how to play."
"Okay, I guess. As long as you don't think it'll be too tiring..."
He explained, and she nodded.
"I'll be okay."
The group made their way by tram to one of the three bowling alleys in Tokyo-3. By the time everyone had put on their shoes and made their way to their assigned lane, it quickly became obvious that Touji was very into bowling. Rei had quickly switched her focus from Shinji to Touji, apparently deciding that he was the one to learn from.
"Alright newbies," Touji said, cracking his knuckles and picking up his selected ball, "I'll show you how it's done."
Rei's eyes followed him as he walked to the starting point. Her eyes followed him as he drew his hand back, took a few steps, and released. She did not blink until the ball had struck the pins, knocking down all but two of them.
"Ah well," Touji said with a grin, "just getting warmed up, sooo..."
He easily knocked out the two that were left.
"Well, who's up for a little embarrassment?" the confident jock needled.
Rei looked at Shinji.
"Ladies first," he said with a disarming smile.
She stood, walked over to the rack, and touched the spheres one by one.
"Hey," Touji said, "since you're a beginner, I think you'd better use... hey..."
Rei was ignoring him. She left the rack and walked across behind the counter, ignoring the bemused clerk, who watched the byplay with idle interest. Rei came back with her selection.
"That...!" Touji pointed. "That's a kids' ball! You seriously expect to play with that?"
He might as well have been talking to a wall. Rei took her position and flawlessly mimicked his movements. Hikari giggled as Touji scowled, trying to hide his grudging respect. She released the ball without so much as causing a thump against the floor, and when it reached the end of the lane, two pins were left standing.
"How..." Touji pointed and gaped. "How-How... How?"
"Get a strike next time," she said as she breezed by him, "so I can copy that as well."
"How do you put up with this, man?" Touji whined.
"Well, I usually just suffer alone, but misery loves company, I guess," Shinji replied.
Touji shuddered, looking over to where Hikari was taking the opportunity to try to chat up the quiet girl.
"Yoohoo, Shinji!" She waved. "I think it's your tu-urn now-!"
"Yeah, Shinji," Touji mimed, holding his hands together and putting fake hearts in his eyes, "your turn!"
"Traitor," mumbled Shinji on the way to the rack. Hikari grabbed Touji's ear.
"I saw that, buster!"
"-ouch I thought it was a good-impression-ouch-ouch!"
"Thanks for a great time you guys!" Hikari yelled and waved as the group separated, each couple going their own way. Shinji waved back. Rei had won, of course, but the headiness of the evening was over, and he felt the usual let-down, a depressing of mood now that the cheer of good company was gone. Rei was beside him, but that only served to remind him of his failure to properly approach their relationship after her return from the dream.
As they walked, she suddenly stumbled, though it would have looked more like a shuffle to someone who didn't know her. But Shinji knew her, and knew someone with her grace didn't even make a mistake as small as that.
"Here..." he offered an arm that she gratefully took, leaning against him for a moment before regaining her equilibrium. "There's a park over here, I think," he said, leading her between two buildings towards a stand of trees.
"Thank you," she breathed, as she sat down heavily. He unzipped his backpack and handed her a drink box. She gave him a wan smile as she accepted it, fumbling with the straw. Her normally pale skin was ashen white. He took the box from her hands and deftly put the straw in, handing it back. She drank deeply, and a touch of color returned to her face.
"You were doing to well, I kind of forgot later on. I'm really sorry." He sat down beside her. "I thought you might get tired, so I made you something before I came. I should have asked Touji and Hikari to let you take a break, but like I said, I kind of forgot. I'm sorr-" She had laid a hand on his mouth.
"You were having fun," she said simply. "I could see that. I'm fine, now." When she saw that he understood, she removed her hand. He unwrapped what he had made and handed it to her mutely. She took it, then looked down at it and froze. It was a sandwich. "Roast beef?" she asked uneasily, sniffing it delicately.
"Nope." Shinji grinned. "It took me a while to perfect it, but I finally concocted a mix of tofu and soy bean paste that's a pretty decent roast-beef imitation."
Rei pulled the bread on one of the sandwich-quarters partway up, examining it closely. It really did look like roast beef, even down to the thinly-sliced appearance. Shinji waited patiently as she hesitated. She sniffed it one more time, lifting one of the sandwiches to her mouth, finally nibbling at the corner. She shut her eyes and chewed, finally swallowing. After a moment she opened her eyes in surprise.
"It's good," she commented. She took another bite. "It really is good." She smiled and he grinned back. She ate in silence for a while, before finally sitting back.
"You could not know," she finally said, "but I discovered my dislike for meat when I was very young. The Commander took me as a guest to some kind of meeting. There were large platters of sandwiches. When no one was watching, I took one. It was roast beef." She glanced at him out of the corner of her eyes. "I ate it, and promptly threw up. It was not my best day," she said looking him in the eyes.
"Yeah, I didn't know," he said, happy that she would choose to share something that personal.
"But this really is good," she said, biting into another of the sandwiches appreciatively.
Shinji took a breath, and felt his heart constrict as he looked at her, illuminated by the lamp-light of the evening.
"Rei, I want to live with you. Like I used to." He held his breath after he said it. The moment seemed to have presented itself, and he was afraid that he wouldn't get another chance if he missed it. But having said it, everything was out in the open now, to be accepted or rejected, and he was afraid.
"I had wondered if you had forgotten about that," Rei said quietly. "We never talk about those things any more."
He glanced over, still not daring to breathe.
"It's okay, then?"
"Yes," she said, returning his gaze. She reached out, putting her hand on his, trapping it on the bench. "Why did you wait until now to ask?"
"Well," he swallowed, trying to hide his relief, "you were the one who brought me into your home, back... then. You asked my father to let me take care of you." She blinked calmly. Her hand was warm on top of his. "I was afraid since you never brought it up again after I saved you, that your feelings had changed." He felt ashamed at the words now that he had said them. In his mind they had seemed more benign, less malevolent. Looking at the subtle hurt on her features, and the sudden anger in her eyes, he loved her.
"Never," she said, her eyes flashing as she leaned forward to emphasize her words. "Never think like that again-" He silenced her by moving closer and putting his mouth to hers. He felt her anger melt away as she returned the kiss. Some time later he pulled back, staring at the sudden blush that had spread across her face. She raised a hand in embarrassment, averting her eyes for a moment.
"You're right," he said, grinning like an idiot, "that sandwich does taste good."
She gave him another taste.
Akane's senses returned to her in a rush, from where she had been dozing at the edge of sleep. Stepping out of the shuttle she found that it was already evening, and the shadows were long. The police cruisers were long gone by now, and a part or her wondered if they had ever been there to begin with. She walked over to the front door, palming it open.
The main foyer was bleak and quiet as she glanced to her right, towards the room that held the secret of her mother's murder. The tell-tale blinked slowly, waiting for her to enter. She touched it, and the door slid aside. Remembrance of the pool of blood and the headless body made her shiver. She forced herself to keep a measured gait as she walked into the room.
Something was wrong. Panic welled up in her throat as she came around the chair to find the floor spotless, as if the body had never been there. She stood stock-still for a few long seconds, listening for any sign of intruders. It took her a half minute before she realized that it would have been the police who cleaned the room up, probably while she had been asleep. She sagged down into the chair with relief, cursing her mind for playing tricks on her.
The room was quiet, peaceful.
Mom sat in this chair, whenever she came here to read.
After a few moments she shook her head. I won't find my mother's killer just by sitting here.
The house was huge, and she had seen very little of it. Suddenly curious, she got up and returned to the main foyer, looking around. Several doors led to unknown parts of the house, but her attention was drawn to the set of stairs facing the front door.
She climbed them, wondering at something so archaic. A lift would have been much more convenient. She noted an antique chronometer in passing at the top of the stairs, set into the wall facing the top of the stairway. The small landing at the top of the stairs terminated at a closed door. She touched the tell-tale, but the light stayed red, and the door stayed stubbornly closed. She had no idea how to open it without taking apart the control mechanism itself, and she was hesitant about doing that.
Inspector Hisashi undoubtedly knew how to get in, but he had not told her the code, and she was loathe to ask him. Returning to the top of the stairs, she glanced once more at the clock set into the wall. It was very old, of the style that used twin rotating bars to indicate the time. After a moment's study, she saw that it was frozen, unmoving. Looking closer, she saw what time it had stopped on, and a chill touched the back of her neck.
She carefully traversed the steps back down. Confined to the first floor for now, she returned to the library. Perhaps something could be found amongst the books, and at the very least she would learn more about her mother's reading habits.
Slowly going around the room, she let her gaze wander over the titles of the books. It was strange to see so many of them, since almost everything had long since been converted to electronic form. Her eyes caught on a piece of yellow paper sticking out. She pulled on the book beside it, and it moved. It was stuck to the book. Carefully peeling it off, she almost dropped the book when she saw the numbers written on the back. It was the same as the stopped clock.
She hastily stuck the note back onto the book and shoved it back into the book-case, her heart hammering.
Why am I seeing these number everywhere?
No answer came to her, so she walked over to what was apparently a fireplace, though she doubted an actual fire could be lit inside. Moving past it, she came to the entrance to what looked like a small study. She entered it, eager to be out of visual range of her mother's body behind her.
On the right side of the room was an empty desk. She doubted there was anything of value in the drawers, or Hisashi would have found it. The left corner of the room was dominated by a tall clock with the same ancient face design of the one on the second floor. She noted with some relief that it was not stuck on three thirty-three.
Other than these two items, the small room was bare of furnishings. Curious, she stepped over to the clock, touching the slender arms that pointed to the various numbers inscribed around the edges of the circular clock-face. To her surprise, it moved. She had expected the mechanism to be completely frozen. Idly she turned the long hand, watching as the shorter hand slowly inscribed an arc. It moved closer to the three, and she slowed down. Carefully, she moved the long hand just past the six at the bottom of the circle until it was resting in the same position as the other clock. Satisfied, she stared at it, lost in thought. She jumped at a sudden click and whoosh.
To her left, a wall had suddenly slid aside, to reveal another room. Cautiously she entered it, knowing that this part of the house was almost surely unexplored by the Inspector. Looking around the spacious room, she was amazed to see what was inside.
There was a desk with candles on it, a picture on the far wall showing a giant tower made out of human corpses and bones, and on the left wall, a black lacquered sheath held a katana. Her eyes widened and she padded over, taking it in trembling hands, almost breathless with anticipation. She broke the seal, admiring the craftsmanship of the sword itself. Her own sword was safely back aboard her ship, but this one appeared to be authentic, not a replica.
With the katana in one hand, she drifted over to the gruesome painting. It was hanging on the wall, and she didn't want to look at it any more. Lifting it from its holder, she jumped when a piece of paper fell to the floor. Setting the painting down facing the wall, she knelt to retrieve the paper.
Scanning the page, she found herself unable to decipher it at all. Glancing around in confusion, her eyes came to rest on something that made the hairs on the back of her neck stand on end. She didn't know how she had missed it before.
It was a giant book sitting closed on a low table. She hesitantly walked over, sinking to her knees. The binding of the book was a kind of leather, or something she couldn't quite identify. Setting the page and the katana down, and reached out a hand and touched the cover. Could it be the Tome her grandmother's letter had mentioned?
Why am I acting like this? she thought disgustedly. Without another thought, she opened the book.
Air travel in post-Third-Impact Japan was still restricted, but some people were still allowed to do pretty much whatever they wanted due to their celebrity status. Thus it was that as the engines on this particular private jet spooled down, someone walked out onto the mobile stairs and regally stepped down them to the pavement below. The baby on her shoulder moaned once, and she cooed softly to it.
"It's okay. It's okay, Kyoko," she whispered, rubbing her hand gently up and down the small child's back. "That's right, you're finally going to meet dad." Angry eyes turned towards the horizon.
Even someone as slow as that idiot should have proposed to her by now, so everything should be okay.
Her baby breathed softly, now asleep, and her heart's turmoil was broken, as it always was, whenever she looked at the only piece of Shinji she would ever be allowed to have.
It's enough, though.