Flavor of Life
An Evangelion Oneshot
Premise: Hikari receives a box of Valentine's chocolates but doesn't know who gave it to her. In the one month between Valentine's and White Day, Hikari struggles to realize and capture her love.
- Feb. 3, 2007: First published
- Feb. 12, 2011: Consolidated three chapters into a oneshot
Horaki Hikari was exhausted.
She had put in a lot of effort making handmade chocolates for Valentine's Day. If she hadn't been so shy, it wouldn't have been so torturous, but she just didn't have any confidence when it came to things like love. Thus, in order to give chocolates to Touji without making a scene, she made obligation chocolates for every single male student in the class. She was just that kind of person. Now she was both emotionally and physically drained and just wanted to go to sleep.
"I'm home..." she murmured wearily as she took off her shoes at the doorway.
"Hikari-chan!" Kodama suddenly greeted in a singsong voice. "I found this at our doorstep. It's for you."
Hikari blinked as Kodama shoved a small heart-shaped box into her hands. "What's this?"
"Valentine's chocolates, dummy," the elder Horaki sister laughed.
"Who is it from?" Hikari asked, surprised. She opened the card that was attached and searched for a name but found none.
"A secret admirer who has no sense of Japanese culture obviously," Kodama quipped. Only girls were supposed to give chocolates out on Valentine's Day, while White Day one month later was reserved for the boys. "But it is cute."
"Horaki-san..." Hikari started reading the card out loud, "Thank you... I'm not really sure what I'm thankful for, but I feel really grateful to you for some reason... maybe someday I'll find out why... you don't have to wait for me, but if I do find the reason, I'll let you know... but until then... just thank you is all I can offer..."
"Not your typical Valentine's love confession, is it?" Kodama said, smiling. "But I like it... this guy..."
"I don't really understand..."
Kodama sighed and put a hand on her sister's shoulder. "Here's what I think... this guy has fallen in love with you, but doesn't know how or why... so now he's out on a quest to figure out his own feelings... that's romantic, isn't it? I think I'd like that type of guy better than someone who just confesses the first chance they get without really understanding themselves first."
"But... it doesn't say anything like that..." Hikari protested, turning red at all this talk about love. "It's just a thank you card..."
Kodama shook her head, still giving her that comforting older-sister-smile. "He's thanking you... for giving him such an amazing feeling... love..."
Hikari bit her lip as she held the box of chocolates hard against her breast, as if to keep her heart from jumping out of her chest. "I... what should I do?"
Kodama let out a playful grin and slapped her younger sister on the back. "Enjoy the chocolates, dummy!"
The next day at school, Hikari observed Touji extra carefully for any peculiar behavior. She wanted so badly to believe that Touji had been the one who had left the anonymous chocolates at her doorstep, but he didn't act any differently than he usually did. Besides, she knew in her mind that, no matter how kind Touji was at heart, he definitely wasn't the romantic type.
"What's with the long face?" Asuka asked nonchalantly once lunchtime had rolled around.
"Nothing." Hikari sighed in response. "Did you do anything special yesterday?"
"I wish," Asuka muttered as she blew her bangs out of her face. "I spent all night trying to hunt Kaji-san down, but no luck. He was probably busy with work."
"He wasn't with Katsuragi-san?" Hikari asked. She really didn't want to shoot Asuka's hopes down, but she knew that Asuka should probably try to be more realistic; Kaji Ryouji was twice Asuka's age.
"Nope, Misato was at home all night," Asuka said with a smirk. The fact that Misato had also spent Valentine's Day alone made her feel a lot better.
"How about Ikari-kun?" Hikari inquired. It wasn't that she was really interested in whether Shinji had scored a Valentine's date or not; she was more interested in whether he had spent the day hanging out with Touji and Kensuke. That would mean that Touji was still free game.
"What that idiot does is none of my business," Asuka grumbled as she opened up her lunch.
"So... that means... he did do something for Valentine's Day?" Hikari asked, surprised.
Asuka had a look of contempt on her face as she took a vicious bite out of her food. "He came home a little later than usual, but that's all I know."
"You're not... jealous... are you?" Hikari giggled a little, sneaking a glance over at the three boys collectively known as the idiot trio.
"Hmph, I'm just mad that he got to have fun, while I missed out on a night with Kaji-san," Asuka muttered.
"Oh, is that it?" Hikari sighed inwardly.
"What about you?" Asuka countered. "Score with the jock yet?"
"D-d-don't say it so bluntly!" Hikari protested, instantly feeling her face turn an unbearable shade of red and causing Asuka to laugh. "And no, I went straight home after my class rep duties."
"Booooring." Asuka rolled her eyes.
Asuka's ears perked up. "But?"
"I did find some anonymous chocolates at my doorstep..."
"Like... a secret admirer?" Asuka raised an eyebrow. "Jeez... looks like you have a troublesome admirer..."
Hikari frowned. "What do you mean?" Even though she didn't know who it was that gave her the chocolates, she still didn't like it that her friend was criticizing the person for being sweet.
"Look... we're in Japan... and you crazy Japanese insist that Valentine's Day should be exclusive to girls giving out the chocolate, right?" Asuka sighed. "Probably a lesbian, isn't it?"
Hikari blinked. She had never thought about it like that before. And it was true that girls would often give chocolates to their respected upperclassmen on Valentine's Day. That would also explain why the card was about gratefulness rather than love.
"But... the card was written in masculine form..."
"Hey, just pointing out the facts." Asuka shrugged, laughing.
"But still..." Hikari bit her lip slightly, "Even if it's a girl... I felt really happy, receiving those chocolates... they were my favorite dark chocolates too..."
Asuka gave her a weird look. "You like dark chocolate?"
"Asuka!" Hikari whined. "You're supposed to be my best friend and you don't even know that about me?"
"Attention, class!" Asuka suddenly shouted. "Who here knows what kind of chocolate Hikari likes? Milk, white, or dark?"
"My point exactly," Asuka grumbled, sitting back down. "Don't expect me to know something like that."
Hikari grinned. "The person who gave me the chocolates is not in this class. It has to be someone who knows that I like dark chocolate!"
Asuka rolled her eyes. "Or it could've been a lucky guess. Life isn't all romantic like that, you know."
"If that person didn't know, don't you think he or she would've gotten milk chocolates instead? Everyone likes milk chocolate, but dark chocolate is a really big gamble," Hikari argued.
"One more thing..." Asuka put up a finger and shook her head. "The entire class is not present at this moment... it is lunchtime after all."
Touji! Hikari desperately searched the classroom for the jock, but found no trace to her heart's relief.
"Jeez, you're so easy to tease," Asuka snickered.
"Don't get your hopes up. That jock isn't the biggest suspect at the moment," Asuka elucidated in mock-detective fashion. "I'd say the number one suspect is... that guy on the left."
Hikari followed Asuka's finger out the window towards the grounds where the idiot trio were eating their lunch. "Ikari-kun?"
"He bought dark chocolate for Misato and me even though it's supposed to be the girl's job to give out chocolates on Valentine's Day," Asuka explained. "He really likes dark chocolate. The idiot can only handle milk chocolate in really small portions. He's even worse with white chocolate."
"Oh?" Now it was Hikari's turn to smirk and turn the tables. "You sure know a lot about Ikari-kun... even his chocolate preferences. Could it be that you did some research so that you could give him Valentine's chocolates?"
"IT'S NOT LIKE THAT!"
"Class rep? I thought you had gone home already," Shinji inquired, seeing Hikari standing at the classroom door as he finished up his after school cleanup duties.
"I did, but I came back," Hikari replied with a shy smile. Indeed, she was no longer dressed in her school uniform but something more casual. It was his first time seeing her in something other than her uniform, and he did have to admit that she looked cute.
"Must be tough being class rep," Shinji smiled.
Hikari shook her head as she took a step forward towards him. "It's not that... I came back because I wanted to give you something."
Hikari revealed a small pink bag and handed it to him. "I know it's a day late, but... here, Valentine's chocolate," she explained, her face turning the same shade as the bag of chocolates.
Shinji cocked his head to one side in confusion, but accepted the chocolates anyway. "But... you already gave me chocolates yesterday, remember? You gave everyone chocolates."
"Asuka told me that you didn't like milk chocolate," Hikari replied, turning around to hide her blush. "So I felt kind of bad for giving you milk chocolate like everyone else... you didn't eat the ones I gave you yesterday, right?"
"I ate them." Shinji shrugged. "They were really good... I usually don't like milk chocolate, but the ones you made for me were really good... so... there's no need." He gave her a smile and returned the bag of dark chocolate.
"Really? Were they really good?" she asked brightly, turning back around to face him. He was the first person to tell her that her chocolates were delicious. Everyone usually took her for granted just because she was the class rep; it was part of her job to be nice to everyone after all, so gratitude was hard to come by.
"Coming from a guy who doesn't like milk chocolate?" Shinji laughed softly. "It means that they were really good."
Hikari suddenly felt very shy and immediately turned around again so that her back was facing him. "K-k-keep the dark chocolates..." she stammered. "They're... they're thanks... for being so sweet..."
"Let's eat them together then," he suggested, bringing up a chair for her. "Do you like dark chocolate?"
She nodded earnestly. "I love it."
He smiled as he sat down with her and opened the bag. "You know what they say about people who like dark chocolate... it means that you're a good lover."
Hikari's face turned a bright shade of red and was reduced to incoherent babbling. "I-I-Ikari-kun!"
"Kidding, kidding," he joked, making the don't mind gesture with his hand. He then popped a chocolate into his mouth and offered her some. "It's really good, try some."
Hikari settled down and laughed a little as she reached for a chocolate as well. She had never seen this side of Shinji before, never seen him so relaxed or easygoing before. It was as if he had finally taken off his mask and shown her the true Ikari Shinji that he hid from the rest of the world.
She liked it.
"You sure look happy," Kodama jibed once Hikari got home.
"I do?" Hikari wondered, unaware of the satisfied smile gracing her own lips.
"Ah... now I see," Kodama snickered, spotting a retreating figure through the window. "A boy walked you home, yeah? Was it the guy who gave you the chocolates yesterday?"
"Ikari-kun is just a friend," Hikari retorted, trying to hide her blush with a frown. It was the first time a boy had walked her home, and it made her feel really special, despite how many times she had told him that she would be okay walking home by herself. "And I don't think he's the one that gave me the chocolates... he didn't seem to know that I liked dark chocolate. He didn't seem to know where we live either."
"You should ask him out. It's not like you do anything on the weekends anyway," Kodama suggested frankly. "Even if it's just as friends, you really need more experience with guys."
Hikari frowned. "I somehow can't accept your logic. Only couples should be going out on dates."
"Oh, don't be so old fashioned," Kodama laughed. "It's okay to date around. That's how you learn what type of guy is dependable and compatible with you, right?"
Hikari pouted and shook her head. "That's what guy friends are for."
"A guy friend and a boyfriend are completely," Kodama pointed out. "You don't want to marry a guy knowing that you haven't sampled all the different types of fish out in the sea, right?"
"That sounds so... dirty..." Hikari muttered.
"Only because you're old fashioned," Kodama retorted matter-of-factly. "Don't let yourself be chained down."
'Am I being chained down by my crush on Touji?' Hikari wondered, thinking about her chat with her sister the day before. She watched her fellow classmates scurry out the door as the school day came to a close, and paid special attention to two members of the idiot trio.
The first thing that popped into her mind was that she realized that they really were kind of like three stooges, the peanut gallery of the class perhaps. All this time she had only paid attention to Touji, but now that she had widened her scope to include his interactions with his two friends, she got somewhat a different view. The way they laughed and goofed off with each other, it seemed like they did not understand the meaning of a serious moment when they were with each other. It brought a smile to her lips, seeing Touji strangle Shinji in a playful headlock.
Then, seeing the grin on Shinji's face as the three friends messed around, she realized that maybe Shinji wasn't as shy and withdrawn as everyone had made him out to be. Had she just stereotyped him as a shy kid without really getting to know him? It was a very easy assumption to make after all. Transferring to a new school and being recruited as a fighter pilot at the same time could shock even the hardiest person into an extreme case of introversion. Had she used those initial first impressions to create a stereotype of shyness that just ended up sticking regardless of his true personality? It was entirely possible, and a very easy mistake to make. Quietness, while easily mistaken for shyness, was a completely different personality trait after all.
So then what was the real Ikari Shinji like? Based on her new observations from sharing Valentine's chocolates and walking home together the day before, she would have to say that he was a goofball who hung out with goofball friends, and also entirely capable of flirting.
"You sticking around after school again?" Asuka asked, breaking Hikari out of her observations. "Class rep and student council duties and cram school, right?"
"Um... yeah, sorry, I can't hang out today," Hikari replied apologetically.
"Jeez, you're always so busy," Asuka groaned. "Forget about getting a boyfriend, you barely have time for anything."
"Well, unlike some people, I have to worry about high school entrance exams," Hikari pouted defensively. "You'd probably get into any high school you want just on a NERV recommendation, right?"
"I'd like to think that my university degree from Germany would have more to do with that than anything else." Asuka rolled her eyes. "Anyway, tell me when you're free, so that we can go shopping."
"Okay, see you tomorrow."
Hikari sighed and packed up her books. She made sure the two students on cleanup duty that day were doing their job properly before leaving for the student council room. She was sure she'd be in for another really boring meeting.
She jumped a little at the tap on her shoulder before turning around. "Oh, Ikari-kun. Do you need anything?"
"Do you think you can show me where the student council room is?" he asked with a sheepish smile.
"Yeah, I'm going there right now," she nodded as she led the way. "But why do you have to go there?"
"Funny thing really," he said with a small laugh. "Kirishima-san wanted me to sign up as the captain of the soccer club."
"You?" Hikari's eyes went wide in surprise.
Shinji put on a mock expression of hurt. "Hey, I'm not as athletically challenged as I look, you know."
However, instead of accepting the joke in good humor, Hikari looked a bit ashamed of herself.
"Hey, I was just kidding about the whole soccer club captaincy thing," he added quickly, trying to laugh it off. "I'm not really sure why she called me up."
Hikari pouted and crossed her arms across her chest. "That was mean, Ikari-kun."
"Sorry," he apologized with a sheepish laugh.
"So you really don't know why the president called on you?" Hikari asked suspiciously as they approached the student council room.
He just shrugged in response and opened the door for her, even playfully giving her a butler's bow. She smiled a bit at his gesture of chivalry and walked inside. "Thanks."
"Ah, Ikari-kun has arrived. Sit, sit." Mana, president of the student council, gave him a conspiratorial grin. "Okay, first order of business has to do with Ikari-kun's presence here today."
Shinji gave the members of the student council an awkward smile when Mana had mentioned his name. He wasn't very good with being at the center of attention and was starting to withdraw into himself.
"Ikari-kun, I want you to form an after school tutorial center at the library for students studying for high school entrance exams," Mana announced.
"But Ikari-kun is already overworked with his piloting duties!" Hikari argued immediately. "You can't push this kind of responsibility on him!"
"Yeah, Ikari-san is also busy with his own studies, right?" one student council member pointed out.
"He isn't even in the top ten in his class," another member added. "You can't expect someone like him to lead a tutorial session."
At this, Mana smirked. "Ikari-kun... the integral of sine squared x."
"One-half x plus one-fourth sine two x plus c," he replied mechanically. Then, once he realized that he had already answered the question, he smacked himself in the forehead and sighed, "Damn it."
"What's an integral?"
"Is that calculus?"
"You mean, high-school-level math?"
"Could be university-level..."
As the student council members murmured amongst themselves in surprise, Hikari was reduced to merely staring at him with a dumbfounded gaze. 'What's going on? Ikari-kun's grades were never that impressive...'
"The derivative of e to the two x?" Mana continued, checking her list of prepared quiz questions.
"Two e to the two x."
"N-one sine theta-one equals N-two sine theta-two." Shinji sighed, not fighting it since the cat was already out of the bag. "Snell's law is used to calculate the index of refraction of a particular material or the angle of refraction of a particular wave going through that material."
"So will you do it?" Mana asked sweetly. "With your university-level smarts and a NERV recommendation, there's no need for you to study anyway, so it would help us out a lot if you can help other students get into their high schools of choice. Please?"
"I don't know," Shinji murmured hesitantly, modestly scratching the back of his head. "There's Asuka too, you know."
"She doesn't exactly have a tutor's temperament," Mana pointed out. "Tutors have to be patient, kind, and encouraging."
'Am I those things?' Shinji grew a sweat drop.
"So will you do it?"
"I'll... think about it," he said with a sigh. Saying no wasn't exactly one of his strengths.
"Great, here's an outline of the program I have planned. Look it over before you make your decision." Mana grinned, as if sure that he would accept the job, and handed him a packet of papers.
"Anything else?" Shinji asked wearily.
"Nope, that's all."
"Then... if you'll excuse me," he said politely and made his escape.
Hikari was still reeling from the confusion of the sudden revelation that she couldn't pay attention to anything that went on during the rest of the meeting. In fact, the meeting had ended before she had even realized it. She sighed, annoyed by how unproductive the meeting had been, and packed up her stuff before getting up to leave.
"Ikari-kun?" She was surprised to see him waiting outside in the hallway with that sheepish smile that she had grown accustomed to in the past couple days on his face. "You didn't go home?"
"I was... um... reading," he responded with a soft chuckle, holding up the information packet that Mana had given him earlier. "I'll walk you home."
"No, it's okay, really," Hikari shook her head, despite how much she really wanted him to. "It's too much trouble. Won't it take you a long time to get back to your place... you'll be alone too..."
Shinji lazily twirled his headphones around and shrugged. "I have her to keep me company," he grinned, referring to his SDAT.
"You always listen to that thing, huh?" she pointed out with a smile as they made their way out of the school. "Who do you listen to most?"
"Hmm... Yui," he said with a firm nod.
"J-pop?" she asked, unfamiliar with the name.
"You could say that," he laughed.
"So what's going on with you and this tutorial thing?" she asked, getting back to the topic she was most curious about.
"Hmm... well, I don't think I'm as smart as Kirishima-san makes me out to be," he sighed. "So I really doubt I'd live up to her expectations as a tutor."
"How smart are you exactly?"
Shinji gave her an amused grin. "Sorry, but I've never taken an IQ test in my life, so I can't give you an exact measurement value of my intelligence."
She laughed and gave him a playful punch in the arm. "You know what I mean. Like... was that calculus earlier? Are you at high school level already?"
"I think... I'd be equivalent to a second-year slacker at a university," he answered jokingly.
"Really?" she raised an eyebrow quizzically. "Did you drop out? Which university?"
"Kyoto University, bioengineering," he explained, his grin starting to strain a bit.
She could tell how much he was forcing his smile, that the topic was probably a really sensitive subject. "You don't have to talk about it if you don't want to..." She really did want to hear his story though; she was curious. The kids at NERV really were incredible.
Shinji looked as if he was debating his options. For one, he really didn't want to talk about it. He had, after all, kept it under wraps for a long time. But, on the other hand, he desperately wanted someone, anyone, to care about him.
"Well..." he gave her a half-grin and chuckled, "even if we did drop the subject... it'd be all awkward and we wouldn't talk anymore, right?"
"You're funny, Ikari-kun," she giggled, amazed at his ability to lift a heavy atmosphere.
"I'll tell you my story someday..."
"You must be really close to Kirishima-san, huh?" she said softly, feeling slightly jealous. "You told her your story after all..."
"Kirishima-san? Nah, she just found out by chance. I was helping her with physics when I accidentally used derivatives and integrals in order to solve a problem. You're the only person that I've told; I don't even think my dad knows. Only you."
"So... going by your logic..." he started with his head tilted to one side in a curious manner, "I've chosen you to be the girl that I have the closest relationship with."
Hikari blushed a deep red at that comment. Had Shinji always been this flirtatious?
"I-I-Ikari-kun! Wh-what are you saying?" she stuttered frantically.
He smiled a little in amusement and put a hand on her shoulder, which only caused her to practically jump out of her skin.
"Sorry, I couldn't help myself," he jibed with an apologetic smile. "It's just nice sometimes to be on the other side of the teasing."
Teasing? What was that supposed to mean? How could he flirt with her one minute, raising her hopes by making her feel wanted and attractive, and then immediately dash them by saying that it had all been in jest? Stupid boys! Did they know nothing about a young girl's heart?
"Hmph, that was mean, Ikari-kun," she pouted, trying to act angrier than she really was to cover up how flustered she was. She desperately tried to calm her racing heart, but to no avail, so she instead sped up her walking speed.
"Class rep, are you really mad?" he asked in concern, trying to catch up with her.
"I'm not mad," she retorted hotly. She really didn't want to be angry with him, but it just wouldn't stop. She desperately wanted everything to be okay between them, so she just couldn't understand why she was being so irrational.
"I'll treat you out to some ice cream, how about that?"
"This my house, now good day, Ikari-kun," she said in an overly politely fashion that sounded even worse than if she had yelled at him. She then proceeded to slam the door.
"Whoa, what's going on? Lover's quarrel?" Kodama laughed, highly amused by her prim-and-proper sister's extremely flustered state.
Hikari sighed as she slid down and collapsed to the floor in emotional exhaustion. "That's none of your business!"
The next morning, she kept stealing worried glances over at Shinji. He had conveniently come to class late in order to avoid her, merely giving her a weak smile whenever they made accidental eye contact.
She really hoped that she hadn't been too hard on him. She was sure the old Shinji, the shy and withdrawn one, would've taken her behavior very harshly, but the new Shinji that had surfaced over the past couple days was another story. He was so difficult to figure out, adding to her great confusion. The normally timid and introverted boy had suddenly started flirting with and teasing her, so of course she'd be completely perplexed by the situation.
"Shinji, here, take it. This is enough to cover Kensuke and me, just in case."
Hikari frowned as she overheard Touji's not-so-quiet whispering. She turned around slightly and saw the idiot trio mischievously plotting something at the back of the classroom. The three stooges indeed.
She sighed inwardly as she put her contemplations on hold, noticing that it would soon be lunchtime. Once the teacher ended the lesson, she went through her usual routine of "Rise! Bow!"
But, the second she finished her routine, she heard the door of the classroom slam open, and Touji and Shinji had already disappeared from sight. Kensuke, however, was still at his desk, though he had a satisfied grin on his face.
"Okay, what are you three up to?" she asked, suspicious as she approached the supposed mastermind of the three stooges. If it had been Shinji that had been left behind, she wasn't sure she would have the courage to interrogate him on their questionable activities, but this was just Kensuke. "Spill it."
"Oh, Touji and Ikari just went out to buy lunch at the bakery," Kensuke explained innocently. "You know how long the line gets if you get there late, and they sell out of the good stuff pretty fast, so they rushed out."
"Yeah, Ikari is actually faster than Touji," Kensuke shrugged. "Though Touji is definitely a lot stronger. You didn't know?"
"Kirishima-san wanted me to sign up as the captain of the soccer club."
"Hey, I'm not as athletically challenged as I look, you know."
"Hey, I was just kidding, I'm not really sure why she called me up."
"That was mean, Ikari-kun."
She let the memory of the other day replay in her head, her heart sinking more with each rerun. Either he was a very easily misunderstood boy, or he purposely made it confusing for others to understand him. 'What else is that guy hiding? Is he a race car driver too? Jeez!'
"Back! Whoo! Record time!" Touji cheered, making a scene as he and Shinji victoriously returned to the classroom, looking completely out of breath. "Way to go, Shinji!"
Shinji grinned and returned the high-five before spilling their loot out onto Kensuke's desk. "Okay, so you wanted these yakisoba buns, right? Those red bean buns are mine."
"We can split the custard buns and melon buns, but all the pork buns are mine, so hands off," Touji piped in.
"All right, awesome, these things usually sell out really fast," Kensuke beamed, savoring his lunch.
"And, Asuka, these are for you," Shinji sighed as he handed her the buns she had ordered beforehand.
"Hmph, for your efforts, I forgive you for forgetting our lunches this morning," Asuka muttered, ungratefully snatching her food. "Probably better than your cooking anyway."
Hikari then watched as Shinji made his way towards Rei, who was still stoically sitting at her window seat. She couldn't hear what they were saying, but she guessed that he was inviting her to eat with them.
"Here, I didn't know what you liked, but there's no meat in these, so they should be okay," he offered the silent blue-haired girl as they made their way back.
"Thank... you..." Rei murmured softly, taking her time with her words, as if they were a foreign language.
"Oh, Ikari, aren't you quite the man today?" Kensuke taunted.
"Class rep, you too," Touji added, laughing. "Shinji bought you some stuff too."
Hikari astonished, glanced over at Shinji to see if it was true. Shinji bashfully handed her a small box with a weak smile. "Th-thank you... but I already packed a lunch."
"I know. It's... um... a dessert," Shinji replied, placing it into her hands. Then he coughed and whispered softly, "I'd... um... save it for after school if I were you."
She caught his playful grin, which she had to admit was very contagious and cleared up any awkwardness that was between them. "Um... thank you, Ikari-kun."
"Now let's eat! I'm hungry from all that running!" Touji insisted.
Lunch among the group of friends mostly consisted of Touji, Kensuke, and Asuka making up the bulk of the conversation. Rei, as usual, was her quiet self, which wasn't a surprise. Shinji, however, perplexed Hikari. He had reverted back to his quiet and withdrawn self, mostly listening in on the conversations instead of participating. She saw that there were times where he looked as if he wanted to contribute to the conversation, but then hesitated and decided not to at the last minute. He even tried to pretend to be more interested in his food, probably as an excuse for not saying anything at all. This was definitely the Shinji that most people knew. Where was the goofball that was always horsing around with Touji and Kensuke? Where was the teasing and humor? Where was that sheepish grin that she had become so accustomed to?
"Hey, Hikari, did you ever find out who gave you those chocolates?" Asuka asked, snapping her out of her train of thought.
"Oh... um... no, nothing yet," Hikari shook her head. She couldn't believe that she had completely forgotten all about those chocolates. And who's fault was it? Shinji's.
"What chocolates?" Touji cut in. Hikari felt a little crestfallen at that question.
"Nothing that you should concern yourself with," she snapped, going into class rep mode.
After school, once all of her responsibilities as class rep, student council member, and teacher's assistant were completed, she was surprised that Shinji was once again waiting for her. "Ikari-kun?"
"Kirishima-san had me take a sample entrance exam for Eitoku High School before I start with the tutorial sessions," he explained, that sheepish grin once again making itself known.
"How did it go?"
"I aced it," he said with a shrug.
She laughed a little as she gave him a lighthearted punch in the arm. "I really love how you say it with such a deadpan expression."
He just grinned in response. "Hey, sorry about yesterday..."
"It's okay," she shook her head, smiling timidly. She was glad that the issue had somehow resolved itself without her having to make an effort at all. "I overreacted, that's all."
"You know... it's only because I tease girls I like," he added helpfully.
He had done it once again. Her head almost felt as if it would explode like a volcano from all the blood that rushed to her face. "I-I-Ikari-kun!"
He laughed a little, making that don't mind, don't mind gesture with his hand. "I'll walk you home."
She had somehow managed to calm herself down before declining his offer again. "I couldn't possibly make you go through all that trouble."
"Class rep," he cocked his head to one side and gave her a mock look of disapproval. "Its girls like you who are killing chivalry."
She giggled and took his arm when he offered it. "Fine, I'll allow it this time... but on the condition that you help me eat this," she said, holding up the small box that he had given her during lunch. "We can go to a coffee shop."
He blinked, and that brief moment of silence grew heavy as she realized what was coming. She tried to brace herself, but she knew that it would be useless.
"Are you asking me out on a date?"
'Oooh, I walked right into that one,' she thought, feeling the inevitable blush rise to her cheeks. 'But... at least... he's not so unpredictable anymore... I feel like I'm slowly starting to understand him...'
"Yes, I am, Ikari Shinji," she retorted heatedly, her face still flushed red. "You have a problem with that?"
He shook his head, smiling. "I know a nice coffee shop nearby, let's go."
She followed his lead off campus, still arm-in-arm from their talk about chivalry earlier. She wanted to point it out and tell him that it wasn't necessary, but he didn't seem to mind, or perhaps he didn't notice, and she was too embarrassed to do anything about it. She then realized that it was possible that he was teasing her again.
'Oh, this guy! I won't lose to you!' She frowned and fully embraced his arm, so that they looked like young lovers. Despite how embarrassing it was for her, she still had her pride and didn't take to teasing too lightly.
He then gave her a knowing smile, as if to say, 'It's a win-win situation for me either way.'
"So... why were you so quiet during lunch?" she asked with a pout, trying to put him on the spot for once.
She let a satisfied smile overtake her when she saw that he seemed to be at a loss for words. "So?"
"Hmm... you know me... I'm a shy guy," he shrugged, giving her that sheepish smile again.
"YOU, sir, are NOT a shy guy," she accused, frowning. "Not right now anyway. Are you able to turn it on and off with the flick of a switch?"
"I wish I could..." This time, it was a soft, honest smile, immediately making her feel guilty for being so forward. "But I'm trying... one person at a time..."
"Why? The way I really am... you don't like me this way?"
Hikari could literally feel those words rip her sensitive and romantic heart to shreds. She had to fight her hardest to keep her tears from betraying her.
"No!" She hugged his arm closer to herself and tentatively rested her head against his shoulder. "No... you're a fun person... when you open up..."
"Is that so?" he smiled weakly.
"But... why me?"
"Hmm... I don't know... I guess I feel more comfortable around you... more so than with Asuka or Ayanami or even Misato-san anyway... I don't know why, I just do," he said with a shrug, blushing slightly at the confession. "I guess... it's because I feel grateful to you..."
"You do?" her eyes widened as his words reminded her of her anonymous Valentine's chocolates. "Why? What did I do?"
"You gave me Valentine's chocolates." He chuckled.
"But... they were just obligation chocolates," she stammered, suddenly feeling very flustered again.
"The second set too?" he asked in mock hurt.
"No! I mean..."
He laughed softly, kind of understanding why Misato enjoyed teasing him so much. "Even with those first chocolates... even if I didn't like milk chocolate... I was really happy... really grateful... and I felt that... I'd really like to be friends with Horaki Hikari..."
"Even if you don't realize it... there are a lot of people who must be very grateful to you," he nodded, looking forward the entire time to avoid her gaze. "Even obligation chocolates... even something small like that can really make someone's day."
She saw that he was indeed still the shy and withdrawn boy that she had known all along, but it was a shy and withdrawn boy who was trying his hardest to break out of his shell.
"Did I... make things awkward between us again?" she asked worriedly after a short pause, biting her lip.
"Hmm... wouldn't it be more weird if it weren't awkward between us every now and then?"
It took a moment for her brain to interpret what he had just said. Awkwardness was a staple of teen dating; the absence of awkwardness would mean that they were just friends. When that realization sunk in, she blushed bright red as he started chuckling a little at her flustered expression.
She was about to scold him about being mean again, but instead playfully stuck out her tongue and laughed along with him. Teasing her was his way of keeping the atmosphere light, his way of keeping himself from retreating back into himself. If she were more embarrassed than he was, then there would be no need for him to retreat. That was his subconscious logic. 'If enduring his teasing is what it takes for him to open up and for us to become close... then so be it...'
"Huh?" Shinji blinked as the blank white web-page-unavailable sign loaded up onto his laptop screen. He frowned, noticing that the wireless network icon at the bottom right corner had a bright red X across it. He fiddled with the laptop screen, where the antennae was hidden inside, moving it back and forth, hoping to get a better signal, but the red X refused to disappear.
"Must be the router," he muttered to himself as he knelt down beside his bed. He lifted up the sheets the hung over the sides of his bed and looked underneath for a series of small LED lights in the darkness.
No LED lights.
He grumbled to himself slightly as he pulled his t-shirt collar over his nose before crawling into the dusty abyss of old school papers that he had just tossed under his bed instead of throwing away. He was always a bit paranoid like that, wondering if he would need any of his old school work for future reference, even though he never actually did. Clouds of dust kicked up and swirled around him, causing him to wince and hold his breath. He quickly hit the reset button on the wireless access point that was inconveniently placed under his bed and scrambled back out as fast as possible, completely disgusted by how much dust, hair, and dead skin cells had collected in the darkness.
Dusting himself off, he saw that his internet access was back up but figured that he should clean up under his bed instead before he forgot about it. He sat back down and pulled out a cardboard box from under the bed, coughing a little as even more dust bunnies scampered to freedom. He had already stored a lot of old homework assignments in it, so he began to stack even more of the loose papers into it. After it had filled to capacity, he sorted his papers by subject, deeply contemplating whether he really needed them for future reference.
He ended up just tossing everything into a large garbage bag, throwing it out, and dumping carpet disinfectant under his bed before giving it a thorough vacuuming. He sighed as he wiped the slight perspiration from his forehead, realizing that even though he had done all that work, his room looked exactly the same as it had before, since he had only cleaned out stuff that was out of sight anyway. "That's kind of depressing..."
After taking a quick shower to scrub off that disgusting feeling that he always got whenever he needed to go spelunking underneath his bed, he went back to his computer and hit the refresh button. The web-page-unavailable screen disappeared and the proper web page loaded up onto the browser window. It was the homepage for a large electronics chain that had a branch store in the nearby shopping center.
He stared at the MP3 player that he had been considering for almost a week, his mouse cursor nervously hovering over the add-to-cart button. It was a clearly outdated low-capacity flash-memory player, but it would still be a big upgrade to what he had been using for the past few years. It was all he could afford anyway.
He finally let out a sigh of defeat as he closed the browser window. 'I can't do it after all...' he thought as he leaned back in his chair, his mind wandering to his precious SDAT player. When his eyes finally caught up with his mind, the chair tipped over and he fell crashing to the floor. "Hey... where's my SDAT player?"
He usually left it on his bed next to his pillow, since he usually listened to it while lying down. He lifted up the pillow. Not there. He flung the blanket to the floor. Not there either. He checked underneath the bed, which he did not mind too much this time, since it was clean. Not there.
He scratched his head nervously, desperately wondering where he could've misplaced it. He scanned the rest of his room, but he knew there was no way he could lose something as bulky as an outdated SDAT player so easily. His friends even went as far as to say it was an eyesore, since current portable audio players were so tiny and very fashionable.
"How could I lose something like that?"
The possibility that he could have thrown it out with all of his old assignments suddenly surfaced into his mind. He quickly shook his head, going back to the fact that it was so bulky and black that he would have noticed it among the piles of thin and white papers.
"Damn it." He sighed, plopping down onto his bed, half hoping that he would hit his head on some hard plastic. No luck.
"Where could it have gone?" he groaned, slamming his fists against the soft mattress. It wasn't so satisfying having his fists bounce back up into the air. He let out a frustrated growl before kicking the wall.
"Um... Shin-chan? Is something wrong?" Misato asked worriedly, poking her head into his room.
"Nothing," Shinji murmured, almost seething. "Just lost my SDAT player..."
Misato gave the lovely suite a quick scan without any results. "I'm sure it'll turn up sooner or later. No use in worrying about it."
"How's Nozomi-chan's cold?"
"Hmm... she's feeling better today," Hikari nodded.
Shinji's tutorial session and Hikari's after school duties would usually end at the same time, so he usually ended up walking her home. Sometimes his sisters would invite—or, rather, drag—him inside and thus he would learn more about her family little by little, day by day. It seemed as if, by now, he knew more about her than she did about him, even though she had been the one with the intention to investigate more about him. But ever since his confession about a week ago about trying to open up more, she had uncovered nothing more.
They had gotten a lot closer since then, but there were still so many questions that she desperately wanted answers to. How did he get to Kyoto University at such a young age? Why were his grades at school so low if he was so smart? Why wasn't he part of any sports clubs if he could outrun even Touji, the alpha jock of the school? Had he always been that athletic? He never really seemed comfortable talking about himself though, so she never brought it up.
"It's still pretty sunny," Shinji noted as they made their way off campus. "Won't your freckles get worse?"
"Ikari-kun!" she whined with a playful pout, hitting him with her school bag and causing him to laugh. She had gotten used to his teasing by now, but she was surprised at how quickly he came up with newer material all the time. Probably Kodama's doing. Definitely Kodama.
"Don't worry, I think freckles are cute," he chuckled.
But it was the flirtatious teasing that she just could not handle no matter how hard she tried. She immediately turned a bright shade of red and tried to use her bangs to hide her face. "I-I-Ikari-kun!"
"But... I never knew freckles get worse with sun exposure," he murmured, laughing softly with a contemplative look on his face.
"Well, they do," she muttered.
"That must be why you never tan... trying to avoid the sun?" he grinned, starting the teasing again.
"Hmph, you have a problem with that?" she pouted. "You like tan girls or something?"
"No... I like fair skin..." he shrugged. Then, nonchalantly, he added, "Like yours."
Her face grew very hot as she tried her best to keep her racing heart under control. She could swear that hanging out with Shinji for too long definitely couldn't be good for her cardiovascular health.
When she had suddenly grown silent, he put a tentative arm around her shoulder, causing her to stiffen for a second before relaxing. Now her mind was competing with her heart to see who could race to a new speed record.
'WHAT IS HE DOING?' she screamed internally, but she had to admit that she liked how it felt. Warm and fuzzy.
Neither of them had the courage to speak, and she felt a suffocating blanket of silence fall over them. She kept sneaking glances over at him, but he didn't seem to mind the silence or even think that it was awkward at all. He was the type that enjoyed the silence after all, but she wasn't like that.
"S-s-say something," she finally choked out, sounding completely scared out of her wits.
He gave her a sheepish grin, that grin that she was learning to love, and hesitantly let go of her. "S-sorry..."
'No! Don't let go!' she cried desperately in her mind, but didn't have the courage to voice her desires.
"Well... here's your place..."
"Th-thanks," she stammered. She silently begged him to make a joke to lift the heavy atmosphere, but he didn't. "Then... well... see you tomorrow."
He nodded and gave her a small smile. "Yeah."
She was about to go inside when she noticed something. He usually had his headphones hanging around his neck when he wasn't listening to them, but they were conspicuously absent that day. "Hey, wait. You don't have your SDAT player today?"
"I lost it," he chuckled, scratching the back of his head.
"But... it's a long walk back to your place... won't it be boring?" she asked, now feeling bad about having him walk her home.
"I'll be fine," he shrugged.
She shook her head. "Wait here." With that, she quickly rushed inside and then returned with her minidisc player in hand.
"Here, make sure you return it to me when you find your SDAT player though," she said cheerfully, glad that she was finally able to return the favor for all the times he had walked her home.
"No, buts," she said firmly and forced it into his hands. "I even downloaded all of Yui's albums onto this disc! You said that you really like her right?"
"You actually looked her up?" He laughed. The way he stared at the disk with that grateful smile of his really made her heart brighten. "Hell... you actually remembered?"
"Of course!" she replied proudly.
He had done it again; her cheeks flamed to a bright shade of red. That was the first time a boy had called her by her first name. She was so used to being called either class rep or Horaki-san that the intimacy of suddenly being referred to by first name kicked her heart into overdrive. "N-n-n-no p-p-problem!"
"I only tease girls I like," he reminded with a soft laugh. He flashed her that innocent smile of his before walking off.
"Mou... I can't take it anymore..." she sighed, leaning on her front door for support.
"You like him, don't you?"
"EEK!" Hikari screamed and practically jumped out of her skin when Kodama had slyly made her presence known. "Don't do that!"
"Argh, SDAT, where did you go?" Shinji wailed, having rummaged through every cubic centimeter of his room for the fifteenth time. For the time being, he had resigned himself to playing his music through his laptop's speakers, but it just wasn't the same.
"What if I really did throw it out when I was cleaning out the junk under my bed yesterday?" he wondered out loud nervously.
"What are you doing? Hurry up and make dinner already!" Asuka demanded as she barged into his room.
"But I still haven't found my SDAT player." He sighed, plopping down onto his bed.
"Big deal! Buy a new one later! Hurry up with dinner! I'm hungry!" she repeated.
Shinji sighed again as he got up and followed Asuka out to the kitchen. "SDAT players are expensive though..."
"No one uses them! They're outdated pieces of junk! How can they be expensive?" Asuka ranted.
"They're not outdated pieces of junk! It's just that only professional musicians and studios use them for recording," he frowned, defending his longtime companion.
"You don't look like a professional musician to me, so just get with the program and buy an iPod or something!" Asuka flung her arms up into the air out of exasperation.
He let out a grumpy sigh as he started preparing for dinner. "What do you want? Mackerel?"
"I am serious."
"And you tell me to get with the program," he sighed as he reached into the fridge for the steak. "When in Rome..."
"Hey, it's not my fault that Japanese food isn't exactly the best," she huffed.
"I think the steak sauce is in Misato's room. She was eating popcorn yesterday in there," he said as he started lacing his shoes to go out to the market to buy the steak she wanted. Honestly, he wasn't really feeling fish that day either.
"She eats popcorn with steak sauce?" she asked quizzically.
"This is Misato we're talking about. We've seen her eat weirder things," he rolled his eyes.
"Like... that one time... she poured mayonnaise into her instant ramen..."
Both of them shuddered at the memory.
"Okay... steak sauce, where are you?" Asuka murmured as she looked around Misato's darkened room. "There you are."
She sighed as she tiptoed around the mess on Misato's floor and reached for the condiment bottle that she was looking for when she spotted something else of interest.
With Shinji off to the super market, Asuka quickly snuck into his room and curiously rummaged through his collection of SDAT cassettes. There were a couple that were labeled in Shinji's handwriting, but the rest were written in a very feminine and unfamiliar script.
"These are all university lecture tapes... what the hell?" Asuka muttered in confusion as she popped the one that was labeled First Trimester Calculus into Shinji's SDAT player.
"Hello? Testing, testing, one, two, three! Hey, is this thing recording? Hey, Azu-nyan, Azu-nyan! I don't know how to work this thing!"
"Mou, Yui, you're supposed to be a bioengineering major and you can't work a stupid SDAT recorder?"
"I can't help it! Hurry, I don't want to be late for our first ever college lecture!"
"Yui, we're freshmen, we're supposed to slack off!"
"Geez, stop freaking out. There, it's already recording. See the red light?"
"Okay, now let's go."
There was a short pause where the person named Yui had stopped the tape before starting the recording again.
"Hello, SDAT-chan, this is Ikari Yui, first year bioengineering student at the University of Kyoto! And this is my first ever college lecture! I'm so excited! Today we're attending Professor Takeda's calculus lecture! There he is!"
"Hello, class! This is Single Variable Calculus for Engineering students. I am Professor Takeda..."
Asuka stopped the tape as the weight of realization dropped on her. "It's his mom..."
"Find your SDAT player yet?" Hikari asked the next morning.
"Yup," he grinned, handing her back her MD player.
She frowned and refused to accept the MD player. She knew him better than that. "Then let me see it," she demanded.
"Well... you see..." he laughed nervously.
Hikari rolled her eyes at the totally predictable Shinji-like behavior. "I don't want it back until you find your SDAT player."
"But... what if I can't find it?"
"Then keep it."
"I can't do that!" Shinji protested.
"Well, then now you have one more reason to go find that SDAT player, right?" she smiled at him sweetly.
"Jeez, you're too much for me," he chuckled softly as he pocketed the MD player in defeat.
She grinned widely and jokingly punched him in the arm. "That's MY line!"
"Jeez... since when did you two get to be newlyweds?" Asuka groaned. "Acting all lovey-dovey so early in the morning..."
"ASUKA!" Hikari whined, blushing profusely at the public comment.
She was surprised, however, that she wasn't mad that Touji had heard Asuka's comment as well. In fact, she was somewhat disappointed that Shinji hadn't jumped in with his usual flirty teasing and shown the entire class how close they were. But she knew that that was still exclusive to whenever they were alone. For now, he was just keeping quiet with a weak smile.
'Oh God... I like Ikari Shinji...'
"Hey, Azu-nyan, Mio-chan! Let's record something with my SDAT player!"
"Like we have a choice. That thing is already on."
"It is? Oh, it is, haha. Let's sing something! C'mon, Azu-nyan! Mio-chan too!"
"Um... I'm not really that good at singing..."
"C'mon, we're roommates, aren't we? No need to be shy, Mio-chan! With those large breasts of yours, you're a shoe-in as a J-pop idol!"
"What? It's true!"
"Jeez, this is going to be a long year..."
"Aw, don't say that, Azu-nyan! C'mon, let's sing... um... I know! Let's sing 'Fly me to the Moon!'"
"The music's starting! C'mon!"
"Fly me to the moon... and let me play among the stars..."
"Ikari-kun, your grades have been improving really fast lately," Hikari reported with a proud smile as they walked home after school. Then she ventured a little further, "So... why? All of a sudden...?"
"Are you asking why I bombed on all my tests before?" he asked with a soft laugh.
"Yeah... I mean, why hide it?" she nodded.
"Well, I realized that no matter how high I score on the entrance exams, I still won't get in if my grades are basement level, right?" he pointed out, shrugging. "They'd probably think I cheated on the entrance exam if I get a perfect score along with those grades."
"True... but why all of a sudden?" she asked curiously.
Shinji stared down at his shoes, a forced smile on his face, as he thought about his answer. Then he finally looked up to the sky in order to avoid her gaze, as he usually did when he was about to talk about something sensitive.
"To be completely honest... maybe... the fact that I might not have lived long enough to get into high school in the first place might have had something to do with it..." he admitted in a soft voice, his voice cracking a little.
"Ikari-kun..." That line left Hikari reeling. Perhaps she, like many of the other students in class 2-A, had taken the pilots for granted. She saw and interacted with Asuka, Shinji, and Rei almost every day, as if they were normal kids. They were still kids. Yeah, that's what it was. That's what made it so easy to forget the fact that tomorrow was never a guaranteed thing out on the battlefield.
"But that was a year ago... there haven't been any Angel attacks since Kaoru-kun..." he paused as he let the memory of the silver-haired boy pass, "I'm starting to think that there might be a tomorrow for me after all..."
"Is that so?" she smiled, glad that he had put all that behind him.
"And... I really want to go to the same high school as Hikari," he said with a grin. "It was Hikari who gave me hope for a tomorrow... something to look forward to... a future..."
"N-n-no way! I'm sure you could get into a much better school than me!" she stammered shyly.
"Nope, you're stuck with me no matter what," he said with a laugh. "And... then I'd like to try for Kyoto University... we can go together."
"Yeah." She smiled brightly as she started to imagine what a future together with Shinji would be like. "I'd like that."
"So you'd better study hard, okay?" He chuckled and playfully flicked her forehead with his finger.
Hikari looked up and saw her little sister, Nozomi, waiting for her at the door. "Nozomi-chan."
"Can Shinji-oniichan join us for dinner?" Nozomi asked excitedly.
"Sorry, can't today," Shinji apologized as he picked up the little girl and playfully twirled her around in the air, causing her to giggle wildly.
"Why not?" she whined when she managed to stop giggling.
"I have to cook dinner for Asuka and Misato," he replied.
Nozomi frowned. "Do you like Asuka-oneechan?"
Shinji grinned as he knelt down besides her. "Don't tell your sister, but I think I really like her," he confessed in a mock whisper that was loud enough for Hikari to hear.
Nozomi giggled again and Hikari was speechless as she turned a bright shade of red. "After you marry Hikari-oneechan, you'll really be my oniichan!" she joked.
"Yeah, so be patient, okay?" he winked. "See you tomorrow, Hikari."
"O-o-okay," she managed to stammer.
'MARRIAGE? He was just teasing me, just joking... right?' she thought wildly as she watched him leave. But for some reason, this time, it frustrated her. She wanted to believe that he wasn't just teasing her, that somewhere deep inside, he actually was serious, but there was no way she could tell. All of his teasing was starting to drive her crazy. Was he serious or not?
Nozomi could see how distressed her sister was and offered her a small smile. "He told me to be patient... so Onee-chan should be too."
Hikari blinked and looked down at her little sister, surprised by her wisdom. "Yeah... you're right," she smiled, taking Nozomi's small hand in hers. "It's something worth waiting for..."
When she had first found Shinji's SDAT player, she had been planning on keeping it from him just to torment him, but after finding out its contents, she gave into the angelic voice in her head and reconsidered.
"Here you go, baka," she muttered, handing him his treasured item. "I found it in Misato's room. She was probably drunk when she picked it up or something and completely forgot about it in that biohazard zone she calls a bedroom."
"Th-th-thanks!" he managed to stammer, a bit surprised but glad nonetheless.
Asuka didn't want to admit that Shinji's happiness was very contagious, so she tried her best to put up a gruff exterior. "Are you really that attached to your mom?"
"You listened to the tapes, huh?"
She had expected him to slump into his chair and mutter his trademark "sorry" but neither of those happened.
"She died when I was still young... so what memories I do have of her have already faded," he started with a small smile, cradling the SDAT player gently in his hands. "And my dad destroyed any evidence of her existence... except these... he didn't know about them... they're all I have left."
"But why listen to the entire lecture? That's how you know so much college-level material, isn't it?" she asked. "It's not like it's your mom that's talking..."
Shinji chuckled a little. "She goofed off with her friends during lecture a lot despite how hard she studied... so I ended up listening to entire lectures for those scattered moments. She was a funny person. Is that what it was like for you when you were in college?"
Asuka laughed. "College was easy for me, so of course I slacked off in class."
"Hmm, that must be nice," he smiled. "It makes me want to go too... to college, I mean. I really want to go to Kyoto University... where my mom went."
"Which is your favorite class?" Asuka asked.
"Probably physics," Shinji grinned sheepishly. "This may sound stupid, but... when I was a little kid, I really wanted to be an astronaut. Learning about time dilation during interstellar travel and black holes and stuff like that was really fascinating for me."
The mental image of a four-year-old Shinji pretending that a cardboard box was a spaceship brought a smile to Asuka's face. Despite her attitude, she really did like little kids. Maybe it was because she never had a chance to enjoy her own childhood.
"Does it still interest you?"
He shrugged. "I dunno... I kind of lost interest in even living after a while... my dad sort of has that effect on people, you know?" He let out a weak laugh.
Asuka's innocent mental picture of kid Shinji and his cardboard spaceship was suddenly replaced by an image of Shinji's father trampling over the cardboard box and tearing it to pieces. "Oh..."
"Well, thanks for finding it for me," he said again before getting up. The subject of his father was a real conversation killer for him.
"No problem..." she murmured softly, barely audible, as she watched his retreating form.
"Hey, SDAT-chan! Azu-nyan is teaching me how to play the guitar! How exciting is that? I'll play something for you! This is 'Houki Boshi' by Younha! It's just four chords over and over, so I can manage it."
"Jeez, are you talking to your SDAT player?"
"C'mon, Azu-nyan, sing with me! Please?"
"Oh, fine, all right already, jeez!"
"So how's it going with your boyfriend?" Asuka asked nonchalantly as they stopped at a small cafe for a drink to rest their feet. She and Hikari had decided to spend the day at the mall to do some long overdue shopping. "I'm sure you'd rather spend your day off with him instead of me, but he's busy at NERV today."
"He's not my boyfriend," Hikari protested.
"But you want him to be, right? Jeez, then what's the problem?" Asuka rolled her eyes.
"We're just friends," Hikari pouted. "Besides... I don't think he's interested."
Asuka raised an eyebrow as she studied her friend's suddenly glum expression. This was a very strange scenario. She had always imagined Shinji to be the type who would jump at the chance for someone to care for him, but apparently that wasn't the case. "You... really like him, huh?"
Hikari could only manage to nod shyly.
Asuka groaned and rested her chin on her hands. "What happened to the jock?"
Hikari looked away guiltily. "I don't know... I just... don't see him like that anymore..."
"So... then what makes you think that idiot Shinji isn't interested in you?" Asuka inquired. "From what I see, he wouldn't say no if you asked him out."
"He's different when we're alone," Hikari shook her head. "He flirts a lot..."
Asuka's jaw dropped. "He... WHAT?"
"He flirts, it's true." Hikari pursed her lips.
"Then what the hell is the problem?" Asuka threw her arms up in exasperation.
"I can't tell if he's being serious or not..." Hikari admitted despairingly. "I don't think he would seriously flirt... I don't think he's that outgoing... so I think he's just joking... he keeps saying that he only teases girls that he likes, but..."
"So he's that type of guy, huh? What a bastard..." Asuka sighed and closed her eyes for a moment. "Hikari... I'm only going to say this because you're my friend, but... be patient with him, he'll come around sooner or later. He really does tease you because he likes you."
"But how can you be so sure?" Hikari murmured.
Asuka put a confident hand on her friend's shoulder and grinned. "That guy is a coward no matter how I look at it. You think he's brave and outgoing just because he flirts with you? No way, he flirts with you because he's a coward."
"What do you mean?" Hikari asked, confused.
"He's scared to death of you... of being rejected by you... so he keeps your relationship ambiguous," Asuka explained. "He flirts with you to keep you at a distance, not to bring you closer."
"I... don't understand..."
"He's afraid that if it becomes serious between you two... you might reject him... or that both of you might end up hurt... so he keeps his distance," she explained. "But he'll come around sooner or later... he has his own issues too you know... when he clears everything up and gets his life back together... well, just be patient, okay?"
Hikari smiled. She had never seen this side of Asuka before. She had always disapproved of her crush on Touji, and she was sure that she would've disapproved of Shinji as well, considering how often the two of them fought. "You understand him pretty well... despite how much you say that you hate him," she pointed out.
"I don't hate him," Asuka muttered, frowning.
"Thanks, Asuka, I feel a lot better now."
When Hikari arrived to class the next morning, she felt as if she could face Shinji with a more confident attitude. If what Asuka had said was right, then she had nothing to worry about. All she had to do was wait for him.
Hikari made her way to the staff room to make copies of the worksheets Nebukawa-sensei was to assign that day. Even though it wasn't a required duty of a class rep, she always liked to help out anyway, so she had integrated it into her daily morning responsibilities.
As she was about to open the door to the staff room, she heard voices down the hall. She smiled as she looked up to see Shinji making his way towards class down towards the other end of the hallway. She was about to call out to him when she realized who he was with. It wasn't Asuka as she had previously thought, it was the other redhead, Kirishima Mana.
'Okay... nothing to get jealous over... get a grip, Hikari,' she assured herself, but it was hard to be convince herself that it was nothing to worry about. He looked like he was having a fun conversation with Mana. And Mana was one of the more popular girls at school after all.
She sighed as they rounded a corner and disappeared from sight without noticing her. She tried to shake the image from her mind as she went into the staff room to make the copies that Nebukawa-sensei wanted, but it was difficult to keep all the unwanted thoughts from bombarding her.
'He acts differently when he's alone with me... when no one else is around... what if he's like that with other girls too?' she speculated restlessly. 'What if Asuka was wrong?'
"Ack, I made way too many copies!"
The rest of the day seemed to move at a snail's pace. Hikari just couldn't get the image of Shinji and Mana together out of her mind. And on top of that, she didn't have a chance to talk to him at all. He had been tied up with some student council stuff during lunch, which worried her a lot, since that meant he would've spent lunch with Mana.
To make it worse, her after school duties had ended early, while Shinji's tutorial session was still going on, forcing her to wait even more. She sighed as she lazily browsed through a couple websites on one of the library computers to pass the time. She could sort of overhear parts of Shinji's lecture that was going on at the other side of the library, and she was proud of how natural he sounded in the role of a teacher. Though, she was sure that he would need some improvement in his role as a boyfriend.
She glanced up at the clock and got up when she saw that it was almost time for his lecture to end. She packed up her stuff and made her way over to where the tutorial session was, but then froze when she overheard her name.
"Ikari-kun, are you going to walk Horaki-san home again today?" she heard a girl's voice ask.
"Even if an Angel attacked... the Angel will have to wait," she heard Shinji joke, giving Hikari a satisfied smile.
"You two aren't officially going out yet though, right? You should ask her out! It'd be so cute!" another voice urged.
"Nah, there's nothing going on between us. We're just friends."
This time Hikari frowned. 'Hmph, he sure denied it fast.' For a moment, she contemplated about whether she should just leave and walk home by herself, but instead she decided to give him the benefit of the doubt.
"Ikari-kun," she greeted, making her presence known.
"Go on, Ikari-kun," the two girls that he had been talking to giggled in singsong voices and pushed him in her direction. "See you tomorrow."
"Hey, Hikari," he saluted with a sheepish smile. "Ready to go?"
"Are you good friends with Kirishima-san?" Hikari asked as they made their way out of the school building, trying to get some answers to what had been bothering her all day.
"Hmm... I'm not really sure," he replied with a small chuckle. "We barely know each other, but she acts and treats me as if we've been friends all our lives."
"It's kind of nice actually," he admitted with a guilty laugh. "Those kinds of people are easy to get along..."
Hikari almost immediately shut out the rest of what Shinji was saying. She didn't want to hear any more about Mana or any other girl. How could he do this to her? Talking about other girls to her as if she was one of his guy friends. She couldn't take it anymore.
"Your students seem to like you," Hikari pointed out trying to change the subject.
"Hmm..." he paused at the sudden change in subject, "I don't get any respect though, since we're all the same age," he laughed. "They bug me a lot about you even though I'm their teacher."
"Do they?" Hikari asked, pretending to be surprised. Even though she was disappointed with his answer earlier, she was still glad that he was telling her about what went on during his tutorial sessions.
"They keep bugging me about asking you out," he grinned. "Can you believe that?"
"Y-yeah, imagine that," she let out a nervous laugh. If the talk about Mana had covered the coffin, this was the nail that shut it closed.
"So..." he gave her a smile as he continued, "will you go out with me?"
"No, of course not!" She tried to force her most playful expression, even punching him lightly in the arm.
"Thought so," he chuckled softly. "Now they can't bug me anymore about it."
"STOP IT! I don't want to hear any more!" she cried. She had tried her best to endure it, but she couldn't handle the heartbreak. This was too much. "You're so mean, Ikari-kun!"
Shinji looked stunned as she glared at him fiercely as tears rolled down her face in an uncontrollable torrent. "H-Hikari..."
"I hate you!" she screamed. And she ran. She ran as hard as her legs would take her.
"Um... I got into a fight with Azu-nyan today... ACHOO! And I really want to make up with her, but I'm too scared to talk to her face to face... so I'm counting on you, SDAT-chan, to forward my message to her, okay? Here it goes.
"Azu-nyan... I'm really sorry... ACHOO... I didn't mean to hurt you. I know my ignorance is no excuse, but I really didn't know how special it was to you, and I'm really sorry about losing it... ACHOO! I spent the entire day looking around campus for it, but I still couldn't find it. It was raining all day, so it kind of made it hard to see, but I'll try again tomorrow... ACHOO! I'll be sure to find it once the rain clears up... ACHOO! I'm really sorry, Azu-nyan! Please don't hate me!"
"Hey, what's wrong?" Kodama asked, seeing Hikari lazily sprawled out on her bed with an open box of chocolates. The typically studious and responsible Hikari usually didn't waste time lounging around.
"Nothing," she murmured rolling over onto her stomach.
"Still haven't finished the chocolates?" Kodama asked, referring to the anonymous Valentine's.
"I only eat one a day..." Hikari mumbled limply.
Kodama glanced at the open box and did a quick head count. "Twenty-eight of them... one for each day up until White Day... clever..."
Hikari didn't respond.
"Whatever it is that happened with Ikari-kun... I really hope you to make up," Kodama said softly before getting up to leave.
Hikari just frowned. "That idiot..."
"Yui... you idiot... you didn't have to go catch a cold..."
"Did something happen between you two?" Asuka asked. "You didn't see him off yesterday."
Hikari only blinked in confusion.
Asuka groaned and slapped herself on the forehead. "You two really are the most exasperating couple ever! You mean he didn't tell you that he was going to be on leave for a couple weeks?"
Hikari shook her head, speechless.
"Well, he's going to be spending the next couple weeks over at Kyoto University on some NERV research project," Asuka explained with a sigh. "Something to do with Unit-01."
"Something did happen." It wasn't a question; it was more of a statement. "Spill."
Hikari quickly looked away with a grim expression gracing her features. "It was nothing..."
"I can call that idiot right now, you know," Asuka stated, flipping her cell phone open with her thumb poised over Shinji's speed dial number. "Knowing you two, it was probably some stupid misunderstanding, right? Either you two clear it up and get back to being all lovey dovey or I do it for you."
Hikari knew that Asuka, despite her gruff attitude, was still as caring a friend any girl could ask for. "He just... rejected me... that's all," Hikari admitted hesitantly. "There's nothing between us anymore."
Asuka's jaw dropped. "I refuse to believe that."
Hikari pouted and crossed her arms over her chest. "He did."
"No, you believe he did," Asuka corrected, poking Hikari hard in the arm with a finger.
Hikari sighed and shook her head. "Why are you trying so hard? It's over already..."
"Look, you're my friend... and, as much as I hate to admit it, idiot Shinji is my friend too," Asuka's eyes narrowed, "So I have double the stakes invested in this."
"Sorry, Asuka, but... Ikari-kun is too much of an emotional strain for me..." Hikari bit her lip, almost looking as if she could start crying any second.
"He wouldn't be if you two were more honest with your feelings to each other! God, you two piss me off!" Asuka groaned, desperately fighting the urge to pull her hair out of exasperation.
Hikari gave her friend a pained smile. "Sorry... but I don't want to hear that from someone who's even worse with expressing their feelings than I am..."
Asuka suddenly quieted. She stared hard down at the floor as she clenched her fists tight, deep in thought. "I'm trying... aren't I? I even admitted that Shinji was my friend, didn't I?" she murmured, her voice barely above a whisper.
"Asuka... I..." Hikari's voice began to fail her. "I'm sorry..."
"When that idiot opened up to me and told me his story... for the first time, I thought that he was kind of cool," Asuka grimaced, looking away. "For the first time, I thought that, maybe, it'd be nice to be friends with him... that's why I really want you two to be more honest with each other..."
"He hasn't even told me his story yet..." Hikari bit back the tears as she softly hugged herself.
"That's what I thought... so... here..." Asuka handed Hikari Shinji's SDAT player.
"He didn't take it with him?" Hikari asked, surprised. "Wait... I thought he had lost it."
"He did, I found it for him a while ago," Asuka shrugged. "He left the SDAT player behind... he took your minidisc player with him to Kyoto instead."
"My... minidisc player?"
"Listen to it... then maybe you'll understand why he took your minidisc player with him instead of his SDAT player," Asuka offered. "Maybe you'll understand him a little better."
"I already know that his favorite singer is Yui," Hikari sighed, but accepting the SDAT player nevertheless. She cradled it in her hands as if it were just as precious to her as it was to Shinji.
"He told you that?" Asuka laughed. "I think you're thinking of the wrong Yui."
"Listen to it... you'll understand... you'll understand that you're more important to him than his Yui."
"Hmm? A missed call?" Hikari checked her cell phone once she had gotten home and logged into her voicemail.
"One new message. Sent Saturday at four thirty-two PM. First message," the mechanical voice reported.
"Hey... Horaki-san..." It was Shinji. She could feel her heart fall a little when she had called her by her last name instead of her first name as he had begun to do lately. "I don't know if you'll get this message or not, but... sorry about yesterday... I'm in Kyoto right now... and I'll be here for a while... so... call me... or write... write me... bye..."
As the message progressed, she could hear his voice get weaker and weaker until it almost sounded as if he were about to cry. Once the message ended, she did the crying for him.
"To delete this message, press seven. To save it in the archives, press nine," the familiar mechanical voice instructed. Through her sobs, she managed to find the number nine and pressed it. "Message saved for fifteen days. Main Menu. To listen to your messages, press one."
She lay facedown on her bed, turned on the speakerphone, and then hit one. "First saved message: Hey... Horaki-san... I don't know if you'll get this message or not, but... sorry about yesterday... I'm in Kyoto right now... and I'll be here for a while... so... call me... or write... write me... bye..."
"To delete this message, press... BEEP," before the voice could finish, she hit nine. "Message resaved. Main Menu. To listen... BEEP," she hit one. "First saved message... Hey... Horaki-san... I don't know if you'll get this message or not, but... sorry about yesterday... I'm in Kyoto right now... and I'll be here for a while... so... call me... or write... write me... bye..."
"To delete this message, press... BEEP... Message saved. Main menu. To listen... BEEP... First saved message: Hey... Horaki-san..."
She listened to the message over and over again. But in the end, she didn't have the courage to fulfill his request. She couldn't dial his number, she couldn't even text him, all she could do was endlessly and repeatedly alternate between 'nine' and 'one' to save and play the message until sleep overtook her.
"This class is so boring... why the hell do I even bother to come?"
"Skipping class is bad, Shinji-kun!"
"Yui... you know that even if I do come, I'll just fall asleep anyway."
"Don't worry, I won't cut class. Well... this class anyway..."
"Well... you're always so studious and don't get out much, right? So really the only time I have to spend with you and see your pretty face is in class... I can't miss that right?"
"Kidding, kidding! Here comes the professor."
"Good morning, class. Today we'll be covering some new material, an introduction to eigen values and eigen vectors..."
"The number you have dialed is either no longer in service or in an area that is outside service range."
Asuka glared at her cell phone in annoyance before hanging up. "He's not at Kyoto University, is he? Hikari finally gets the courage to call him, and now she thinks he turned off his phone because he doesn't want to talk to her. He's been gone for an entire week without any contact at all! Where is he really?"
Misato sighed as she soberly heated her hands around her coffee mug. "I don't know." She shrugged. "Around... Section Two intelligence probably knows... not that they'd tell me."
"But what the hell is he doing?" Asuka growled in exasperation.
"You've listened to his SDAT, right?" Misato murmured, lazily swirling her coffee around by tilting the mug back and forth. "He's trying to find his mom's college friends... the people on those tapes..."
Asuka suddenly softened. "But... why now? Does he even have the resources for such a search? It'd be like going on a wild goose chase."
"He already found her two roommates... Azusa and Mio," Misato smiled. "But they both passed away a long time ago. So the guy named Shinji is the only one left."
"But what if he's dead too?"
"For Shinji's sake, I really hope he's out there somewhere... he really needs answers in order to put his past to rest..."
"But is it really worth it to put his future at risk just to settle the past? Hikari is really hurting right now... all she does all day is listen to his message over and over again..."
"It rained... on the day she died too, didn't it?" Kodama murmured softly as she stared up at the tears of the sky from underneath her umbrella. "It seems like it rains every year on this day..."
"Well, it is the rainy season," Hikari reasoned weakly, trying not to put any more weight on such a grave day.
"C'mon, let's go, girls," Mr. Horaki said as he picked up a strangely quiet Nozomi and led the way through the cemetery gate and past a seemingly endless ocean of gravestones.
"Hey, look, there's someone there," Kodama pointed out as they neared their mother's grave. The figure was dressed in a long black raincoat and had a hood covering his face, almost appearing as if the grim reaper had come to fetch their mother's soul.
Hikari bit her lip nervously as she walked forward and held her umbrella over the drenched man.
"Did you know my mother?" she asked tentatively. She wasn't one to readily talk to strangers, but she figured that this person must be a close acquaintance of her mother's considering that he was visiting her grave even after many long years after her death.
"She was a wonderful person, wasn't she?" Mr. Horaki smiled softly at his wife's grave.
"She always had a bit of a temper and had a pretty sharp tongue, but she was really loving," Kodama grinned, remembering the most about their mother out of the three daughters.
"I only met her once, but I felt very grateful to her," the person said in a low voice. "For a long time, I didn't know why I was so grateful. I didn't have a reason to be grateful, I just was. When I finally did find the reason, it was too late to thank her properly..."
Kodama lightly nudged Hikari and she knowingly nodded in reply. What this stranger was saying sounded too much like what her anonymous Valentine's had written to her to be a coincidence.
The stranger then knelt down and put his hand on the gravestone. "So I'll say it now... thank you, Horaki Azusa-san..."
"Hey, Azu-nyan, thanks for letting me borrow your SDAT player for the year. Here, you can have it back now."
"Nah, keep it. I'd never have the patience to listen to a recorded lecture anyway."
"Jeez, you've really gotten attached to that SDAT player, huh?"
"Hehe, you can tell?"
"You also seem to be quite attached to your new boyfriend too."
"Shinji-kun is NOT my boyfriend!"
After running the anonymous Valentine's letter through her head over and over again, Hikari then realized that it had never been addressed to her. It had only said "Horaki-san" and nothing more. Why had they automatically assumed that it had been for her anyway? Well, Kodama had a steady boyfriend, and Nozomi was too young... so it had been natural for them to assume.
"Were you the one... that left chocolates on our doorstep?" Hikari asked hesitantly.
After a long pause, he finally answered, "Yeah... it was me."
"Did you have a crush on her back in college?" Mr. Horaki asked with a curious smile. "I won't hold any hard feelings against you if you did."
"No, sir," the stranger said, suddenly switching over to a playful tone that starkly contrasted his earlier grim nature. "I was just a little kid when I met her. The chocolates were actually for your second daughter. I hope you don't hold any hard feelings against me for that."
The entire Horaki family was now reeling in confusion.
"Wh-what?" Hikari managed to stammer. The stranger then slowly pulled off his hood and revealed that one sheepish smile that Hikari knew could only belong to one person. "I-I-Ikari-kun?"
Shinji continued to stare at Azusa's grave in order to avoid Hikari's pleading and questioning eyes. "That SDAT player that I always listen to... it actually belonged to Horaki Azusa. She gave it to me after my mom died... I never knew why though until I found my mom's old tapes years later... but by then it was too late to thank her..."
"They decided to stay together forever." Shinji glanced over at the preceding gravestone that read Hiiragi Mio and then at the gravestone before that which read Ikari Yui.
"So it was you all along..." Mr. Horaki murmured softly, "one day, after coming back from a funeral, Azusa suddenly wanted to adopt a kid even though we already had our hands full with Kodama and Hikari..."
Shinji smiled weakly. "Was that how it was? I was only four... I don't really remember."
"Hey, that means that you were supposed to be our brother," Kodama grinned as she pulled him into an affectionate headlock. "Marry Hikari and then you can officially call me oneechan."
"I'd like that." Shinji laughed.
Hikari was too shocked for words. She had always wanted to know his story, but she didn't think that it would have intertwined with her own so closely. He even knew more about Horaki Azusa than she did.
"You haven't listened to the SDAT player yet, huh?" he asked, seeing Hikari's confused expression.
Hikari bit her lip tensely. "Not yet..."
"Listen to it... not for me, but for her," Shinji said, nodding towards the gravestone before putting his hood back on and stepping out from underneath Hikari's umbrella.
"Where are you going?" Hikari asked, her eyes pleading with him to stay with her.
"I have to go find Ikari Shinji..."
"Ikari-kun... he never attended Kyoto University, did he?"
In the weeks following the anniversary of Horaki Azusa's death, Hikari hadn't had any contact from Shinji at all. She had managed to listen through a lot of the tapes though and all the loose ends were starting to come together. The tapes also showed her a side of her mother that she had never known, and she often cried when Azusa's voice happened to come on.
"Hmm..." Asuka paused for a moment as she swallowed her ice cream. "He might as well have... those tapes cover two years worth of university-level material pretty comprehensively... his mom never missed a lecture... and he's listened to those tapes over and over again... meaning that he probably understands each element on the periodic table like the back of his hand."
"He told me that he had attended and dropped out after two years," Hikari smiled softly. "At first I was a bit mad that he had lied to me... but... after listening to more of the tapes... I kind of felt like I was their fourth roommate or something... like I had lived out those two years right along with them..."
"Is that so?" Asuka murmured casually, taking another scoop of ice cream.
"What do you think he's doing now?" Hikari asked in a dreamy voice, looking up to the sky as if it might hold the answer.
Asuka grinned as she slapped Hikari on the back. "Don't worry; he'll be back in time for White Day next week."
"Asuka! That's not what I meant!"
"What are you doing here?" Kaji chuckled as he took a seat at a small table.
"Working." Shinji laughed, sheepishly scratching the back of his head. He was dressed in black slacks, a vest, a dress shirt, and tie, looking like a waiter for a high-class restaurant, even though the place he worked at was just a small cafe.
"But all the way out here in Kyoto?" Kaji raised an eyebrow. "You didn't run away, did you?"
"Nah, I got Section Two agents all over me." Shinji shrugged, nodding over at the two men in black suits and sunglasses sitting just three tables over. Surprisingly, the two agents waved back at him, smiling. "Kurosaki-san and Ishida-san are both nice guys though."
Kaji sighed and massaged his temples. "Befriending the Section Two agents who are supposed to be hunting you down... so what brings you to Kyoto?"
"My mom's old boyfriend owns this place," Shinji said with another shrug, nodding over to the back kitchen. "This place is really popular among the high school and university students around here, so it gets pretty busy in the afternoon."
"Your mom's old boyfriend?" Kaji usually prided himself on being on top of things, but this was something he did not expect.
"Well... her first husband anyway," Shinji explained, finally taking a seat across from Kaji. "He took her name when they married... so his name is Ikari Shinji also."
"Then... where does your dad come in?" Kaji asked incredulously.
"Hmm... apparently they competed for her back in their college days," Shinji shrugged. "My mom ended up marrying Shinji-san... but you know... Second Impact and everything... everyone thought that he had died, so my dad ended up taking care of her afterwards and eventually marrying her."
"You are Commander Ikari's biological kid, though... right?" Kaji inquired. It would make a lot of sense if Yui had already been pregnant by her first husband when she had married Gendo. Shinji did not resemble Gendo one bit after all.
"I think I am." Shinji laughed. "This is all new information for me too... Shinji-san only tells me a little bit each day, which is why I ended up living and working here."
"Oi, Shinji-kun! Make another batch of yakisoba buns before the afternoon rush comes in!"
"Well, gotta go. It was nice seeing you," Shinji said, getting up.
Kaji watched as the young Shinji disappeared into the back kitchen before an older man, the older Shinji he assumed, appeared. Now Kaji was pretty sure that perhaps Commander Ikari had never gotten Ikari Yui pregnant. The older Shinji, despite being nearly forty now, still had the nearly-feminine good looks from his younger days, sharing the same soft facial features with the younger Shinji.
"Ikari-san, I presume?" Kaji smiled.
"Would you like to order something?" the older Shinji asked.
"A cup of coffee for now would be nice... but I'd like to ask you a couple questions," Kaji replied.
"Order the udon and tonkatsu combo and maybe I'll consider answering," the older Shinji said, giving him a playful smirk along with his fresh cup of coffee.
"You were on the Antarctica expedition during Second Impact, weren't you?" Kaji concluded, already having put together the few pieces of the puzzle that he had been handed. "How did you survive?"
The older Shinji grinned. "I didn't."
Kaji grinned as he glanced down at his menu. "I think I'll take you up on that udon and tonkatsu offer after all."
"Oi, Shinji-kun! An order of udon and tonkatsu!" the older Shinji called back to the kitchen.
"So what are you to Shinji?" the older Shinji asked as he sat down across from Kaji. "Are you from NERV?"
"Hmm... you could say that," Kaji shrugged casually. "His guardian... you know Katsuragi Misato, right? I'm her boyfriend."
The older Shinji chuckled. "So would that make you his father figure?"
"More so than Commander Ikari," Kaji replied jokingly. "Now do I have you trust? How did you survive? All the reports say that Katsuragi Misato was the only survivor. How did you survive?"
"I told you already... I didn't..."
Hikari let out a depressed sigh as she arrived home that day. It was White Day and she hadn't received any chocolates at all. Word around the school was that Hikari and Shinji were already together, so of course she wouldn't get any chocolates from other guys, but the thing that really bothered her was that Shinji still wasn't back yet.
She was about to fish out her keys when the front door suddenly opened up on her. "Ack! Don't surprise me like that!" she scolded her older sister, who was grinning like an idiot. "And I don't want to hear you brag about whatever it is that you're so happy about."
"Aw, is little Hikari-chan jealous that her boyfriend isn't back to spend White Day with her?" Kodama teased as Hikari bitterly kicked off her shoes.
"He's not my boyfriend," Hikari protested.
"But he wants to be," Kodama said, smiling softly as she held out what she had been hiding behind her back. It was a heart-shaped box of dark chocolates. "He didn't leave a name again... but it's kinda obvious by now, isn't it?"
Hikari's eyes widened as she took the chocolates and opened the card that was attached to it. "Hikari... I really did only tease you because I liked you... sorry if I took it too far... I didn't think that you'd like me back, so I kept taking the cowardly way out... I'm clumsy, tiresome, and a coward... but if you're okay with that..."
Hikari smiled as she kept the last line to herself, hugging the box the chocolates to her heart. "Ikari-kun..."
"So is Shinji-kun back?" Misato asked as Kaji came in and took off his shoes.
"It's White Day; can't you ask me about something a little more on-topic?" Kaji joked as he pulled out a box of chocolates.
"This is serious. You were with him in Kyoto for a few days, weren't you?" Misato frowned. "Why didn't you contact me? I was worried sick! Where is he now?"
"I did contact you, I sent you a text message." Kaji grinned sheepishly.
"Only to tell me that you found him in Kyoto!" Misato accused. "Where is he? Did he find the person he was looking for?"
"Don't worry." Kaji laughed as he led Misato to the kitchen table to sit. "I took good care of the kid."
Misato bit her lip as she searched Kaji's playful eyes. "Really?"
"Yes, really," he said with a nod, giving her a reassuring smile. "And the person that he was looking for... he passed away a couple days ago, so Shinji will be coming back soon enough."
"But did Shinji get to talk to him at least?" Misato asked worriedly.
Kaji nodded again as he opened up the box of chocolates that he had bought for her. "Shinji and I ended up crashing at his place for a few days... I think Shinji learned a lot about both his mom and himself during those few days," he explained as he picked up a piece of chocolate and placed it to her lips.
She blushed, suddenly feeling like a schoolgirl again. She then finally accepted the chocolate, but was careful to avoid his fingers. "Really?"
"He was already dying when we found him... he had been for a very long time... but it seemed like he was holding on to life just long enough to meet Shinji," Kaji murmured, chuckling at the amusing memories that he had shared with the two Shinjis. "He was a funny guy, you would've liked him."
Misato nodded, still blushing as Kaji fed her another piece of chocolate. "So how's Shinji handling it?"
"He still has some stuff to sort out... he did take in a lot of new information in the span of a few days. The guy taught me few things too," he laughed.
"Really? Like what?"
"After spending a few days with a guy who desperately wanted to be a father, but had the chance slip through his fingers... one of the things I realized is that I don't want to be that way when I get to his age..."
"Ayanami, I'm coming in."
Shinji opened the perpetually unlocked door to Rei's apartment and smiled when he found Rei lying down on her bed, reading a book. "Hi."
Rei put her book down but didn't bother to get up. "Ikari-kun," she replied softly, acknowledging his presence.
"Here, White Day chocolate." Shinji smiled, sitting down at the foot of her bed and handing her the small pink box.
"It's been a while, huh?" Shinji leaned back, staring up at the dirty ceiling. "How have you been doing?"
"I am well."
Shinji nodded. Then, after a long pause, he spoke up again, "I think I can kind of understand you a little better now."
She merely cocked her head to one side and gave him a slightly questioning glance.
"I'm like you."
"I'm the third... and the last... probably... the same way that you're the third and the last..."
Rei paused for a moment to process this information before nodding. "Is that so?"
"Yup, that is so," he replied in a half-joking manner and leaning back so that his back was against the cold wall.
"Were you able to meet with the second?" she inquired.
Shinji curled his lips inward as he nodded. "Only for a few days... he was an unstable genetic clone that was supposed to have expired years ago..."
"Was he like you?"
Shinji then studied Rei's emotionless face carefully. She wasn't usually the talkative type, so all these questions were a bit odd. He then realized that she wanted to know her own story as much as he had wanted to know his own. "You weren't able to meet the second Rei... were you?" When she didn't respond, he went on to answer her question. "In some ways... yeah, he was like me... or more like I feel like I'm slowly becoming more and more like him."
"The first Ikari Shinji... after listening to all the tapes my mom recorded, I kind of get the feeling that he was sort of a flirt and a tease. The second Ikari Shinji, the one I met in Kyoto, had that same smart-alecky streak in him. And me, the Third... I feel like I'm the most different, but I guess when I'm around people I'm really comfortable with, I can feel their outgoing nature start surfacing," he explained with an amused laugh.
"Will you inform Horaki-san?"
"I don't know," he admitted with a weak smile, staring back up at the ceiling with a distant yet hopeful look in his eyes. "What would you do?"
Rei paused for a moment to ponder on Shinji's question. Then, a tiny smile appeared on her lips as she finally gave her answer. "If you were dating me, you would not have this predicament."
Shinji laughed. "Did Ayanami Rei just make a joke?"
"I am just stating the facts."
"Seriously though." Shinji shook his head, despite the goofy grin on his face. "What would you do?"
"I do not know either."
"Is that so?"
"Yup, that is so."
"Pilot Ikari has found out who he really is," Fuyutsuki pointed out calmly. "Didn't you really hate him back when Yui was an undergraduate student?"
Gendo clasped his hands together, taking up his signature intimidating pose at his desk. "She loved him first and I respected that," he stated simply in a low voice.
Fuyutsuki chuckled a little at the memories. "They were both third year undergrads and you were their T.A. in my genetics class... Hirasawa Shinji was his name back then if I recall correctly... quite the goofball that one was... always giving Yui such a hard time with his teasing and flirting..."
Gendo merely grunted.
Another day had passed since White Day, and still no sign of Ikari Shinji anywhere. Hikari knew that she had to be patient, but she just couldn't help but wonder about whether to slap him or kiss him when he finally came around.
"Onee-chan, can I get some Pocky?" Nozomi asked as she pulled a box of the chocolate covered cracker sticks off the shelf.
"Sure, but you have to wait until after dinner to eat it, okay?" Hikari reminded as she placed the snack in the shopping cart.
"Oh yeah, I need some shampoo," Kodama stated as she went off on her own towards the hair care products aisle.
Hikari glanced down at all the groceries that they already had in the shopping cart and tried to make a rough estimate of how much it would all cost. "I hope she doesn't buy expensive stuff... Dad didn't give us enough money for that."
"We're already done, right? If we check out now, Kodama-neechan will have to pay for the shampoo herself." Nozomi giggled.
"Good idea." Hikari laughed as they headed for the cashier aisles and started offloading all their groceries.
"That'll be sixty-four hundred and thirty-two yen," the cashier informed. Hikari took out the money her dad had given her and paid. "Here's your change, have a nice day."
"Onee-chan, what are we having for dinner today?" Nozomi asked as they headed for the exit. But then, suddenly Hikari stopped. "Onee-chan?" She looked up at Hikari, who seemed to be frozen in place.
"I-I-Ikari-kun..." she let out in a barely audible whisper.
Shinji blinked, surprised at having run into Hikari at the supermarket. "Oh... um... hey," he laughed awkwardly, sheepishly scratching the back of his head. "Long time no see."
Asuka groaned inwardly and slapped her forehead. 'These two... for crying out loud...'
"Y-yeah," Hikari stammered in reply. "When... did you get back?"
"Oh..." She felt a bit disappointed that visiting her hadn't been the first thing that he had done since arriving back in Tokyo-3. She felt that she should've been the first girl that he should've laid eyes on upon arriving back home, and while she could let Asuka slide since she lived with him, she wasn't sure she could be so lenient if it had been Mana or Rei or any other girl.
"C'mon, let's leave them alone," Asuka grumbled as she took Nozomi's hand in one hand and Hikari's groceries in the other and led the way out. Kodama soon followed, leaving Shinji and Hikari to revel in the awkward atmosphere by themselves.
"What for?" She had to ask, even if she already knew the answer.
He smiled a little and turned around. "I fell in love with another girl while I was gone."
She rolled her eyes and punched him in the arm before taking him in an affectionate embrace. "Why do I even put up with you?" she asked softly, burying her face in his chest.
"I'll stop running away now," he replied in a whisper, his breath sending shivers down her ear.
"Shinji? Are you paying attention? What are you doing?"
"Nothing, just messing around with the SDAT player."
"Anyway, do you think I should go with the white dress or the black dress?"
"Hmm... I think you'd look better without a dress."
"Shinji! I'm being serious here!"
"And so am I."
"Fine, how's this? You like what you see?"
"Well, too bad. I can't go out to dinner in just lingerie."
"Let's not go out for dinner then. Let's have dinner in bed."
"We'd be fulfilling the wrong kind of appetite if we have 'dinner in bed,' so we're going out for dinner and that's final."
"Wow, I didn't even think of it like that, haha. I was actually thinking about making those spicy Thai noodles that you like so much followed by some dark chocolate brownies for dessert. Haha, Hikari's a pervert and I have it all on tape."
"ERASE THAT RECORDING IMMEDIATELY!"
Author's notes: Ikari Yui's younger days are a reference to K-on