"Shakespeare!" the teacher announces. She is slender, but energetic, with a repressed vitality and love of the stage that makes it easy to see why she teaches drama. "The Bard himself. It will be good for you all to experience a little culture. Thus, we are going to be performing Ma- the Scottish Play."
Shiro sticks his hand up, "I thought Shakespeare was English?" he says, confused. "Are you telling me he was Scottish instead?"
"... no, the Scottish Play is one of the plays he wrote. It's set in Scotland."
"Weird," muses Kensuke, "I don't remember any of his plays called that..."
"No," explains the teacher patiently, "it's not the name of the play, it's just what it's called."
"... that sounds wierd. And stupid," another boy comments.
"Oh oh oh! Is that the one where they both fall in love and it's so filled with ROMANCE and stuff?" Rei asks.
"You're probably thinking of Romeo and Juliet," the teacher says. "No, that's a different one."
"Pity, 'cause, really, I gotta ask people why they'd do someone as silly as fallin' in love from someone with a completely different family-thing if they're not gonna plan properly and so end up with either of them dying. Or both."
Resting her head in her hands, Sasoriko observes the flustered attempts of the teacher to explain the situation with bored distaste. "Honestly," she sighs, "why did I have to get stuck in the stupid class? I'm half-tempted to explain it myself."
"Nah, where would the fun in that be?" Emi grins. "Let her sort it out. An' anyway, the longer it takes her, the less actual work we gotta do, right?"
"No, Emi." Kiri sends a mildly disapproving look at her to her short-haired friend, which utterly fails to have any effect whatsoever. "Besides, she might keep us behind longer, to make up for it." This is rather more effective, and Emi blanches.
"Fine. Okay, Saso-chan, fire away."
Levelling a glare at Emi for the nickname, Sasoriko speaks up, caustic tones cutting clearly across the hubbub that the classroom has descended into. "You mean Macbeth, right? I read that it's considered unlucky to refer to it by name on stage."
The teacher catches the emphasis on the last two words and nods with a hint of gratefulness. "Yes, well... I expect we can probably dispense with the custom while discussing it, then." She shifts uncomfortably, unsettled by the rapid loss of control over the class of thirteen year olds.
She clears her throat. "I thought we'd take a slightly different approach to the role of MacDuff," she announces, the dog-eared script in her hands. "Namely, I really think we should have a girl play the part. For one, it shows a revocation of the dominant patriarchy which is natural to the setting, wherein the women were reduced to brood-mares, and... and, I should add, the one woman with agency, with protagonism... she's cast as the villain, no less! Is that fair! No, it's not fair!"
Most of the class has already tuned out.
"And, on less ideological notes," she adds, "there's a lack of female roles, and there's nothing about him which means that he has to be male... well, I mean, his wife and children are killed, but that can be a husband just as easily, and indeed it becomes more poignant, because it's a mother out for revenge for her murdered children! Now, MacDuff needs to be strong, and have a commanding stage presence, needs to be a rival and opponent to Macbeth in every way, and considering his background, at the time it was believed that someone like that would have a touch of the strange about them."
Slowly, inevitably, the teacher's attention - and indeed most of the class's - shifts towards Rei, who is trying to balance a pencil on her upper lip.
"Huh?" Noticing the attention, Rei looks up and glances around.
"Miss Ayanami? Would you like to play Macduff?" the teacher asks, patiently. "It's one of the fairly major roles, and indeed that means that you'd get to kill Macbeth. Macduff is not a man of woman born, so he... or in this case, you... gets around the prophecy of the witches."
Rei... freezes. It's slight, but Kiri knows her... and Hatchi as well... well enough to notice it. Her eyes narrow, the corners of the mouth turn down, and her teeth are no longer exposed in a happy way. And then she recovers. "But I'm not a boy," she says, with a grin that looks a little stiff.
"Yes, I know that. I did explain it," the teacher says, patiently. "That's one of the things. It means that when you go 'but I am no man of woman born', it's a moment of levity, because you're a girl."
"Oh. 'Kay. Sure, then," Rei remarks.
Kiri is about to ask if Sasoriko saw that, but she notices that the dark-haired girl is intently reading through her photocopy of the script, flipping over pages at a slightly worrying speed.
"Then there's Lady Macbeth. A strong female character, intense and with a major role in the story. Certainly a good choice for anyone enthusiastic about this!"
Silence, broken only by Chichi, "But... she's a creepy murderer who's crazy, though." She perks up. "Hey, I know! Yochi, you can be the creepy psycho!"
Sasoriko glares back at her, but one look at the teacher is enough to see her enthusiasm for the idea. Now that the woman has a candidate, Sasoriko can see the chances of her relinquishing the role dwindling rapidly. "Oh joy," she mutters, scowling. On the other hand... it might impress her parents. And they might give her time off music practice to rehearse. With a mental shrug, she concedes and nods her agreement.
"Okay then," says the teacher, now on a role, "how about Macbeth? Ah, Suzuhara! You'd be well suited for this role, I think. The titular character, a torn figure at the centre of a web of betrayal and lies. Very strong role, a lot of charisma required." Grinning cockily at the implicit praise, Toji agrees.
Sasoriko distinctly feels the temperature beside her drop by several degrees. To her right, Kiri seethes. But politely.
Sasoriko considers looking round, but can feel the eyes on her. 'Stay calm,' she tells herself, 'she can't do anything to you in public. She'll wait until you're alone. In her territory. Vulnerable. Like... the homework session at her house we have planned for tonight. Oh crap. Cancel. Yes, I can cancel. Say that I have extra music practice, or a family... thing. Yes.'
The atmosphere throughout the rest of the lesson is still rather tenser than she is comfortable with, though.
"... and she has Lady Macbeth! She g-gets to b-be married t-to Suzuhara, and- and I'm just a stupid minor c-character c-called Siward with eleven lines in the whole p-play! I mean... I g-get to act next to Rei, b-but... still! It's not fair!"
Hatchi purses her lips, leaning back in a virtual hammock with her arms behind her head. "Well then," she says as if it is obvious, "why don't'cha just challenge her for the role?"
"I- I c-can't do that!" Kiri exclaims in horror. Though... the idea of challenging Sasoriko to a fight for the role... is strangely appealing. She imagines it for a moment, savouring the inevitable conclusion of getting to play opposite Toji after Sasoriko gives up in fear of her, and... and...
"No! That w-would b-be b-b-bad!"
Hatchi shrugs idly, "Eh. Your choice, I guess. S'only a role, though, right? Not super-mega important or stuff. An' just rehearsing will give you more time around him, if you like him so much." She seems a little sulky at this last part.
Kiri smiles slightly, and delicately nudges the conversation into safer waters, "I g-guess you're right. What have you been d-doing? Did you manage to finish the new simulation yet?"
Hatchi visibly brightens at the new topic, leaning forwards enthusiastically, "Uh huh! It's awesome! Algorithms for impact modelling that are tonnes more efficient, so I can stress-test stuff way better! The upgrades to the physics engine were totally worth tradin' my spot with Little Mommy this week with Kei."
A ping sounds next to her, and Hatchi glances sideways at an alert. "Oh, huh. Yeah, forgot about that. You remember the thing with the rabbits, right? Few months back?"
"... um... sort of." hedges Kiri warily. That night had not been at all fun, and she has no desire to be dragged into a repeat of the experience.
"Yeah, well. Basically, Iti wanted to thank you or something, so she made you a sorta flower headband thingy. Rei'll give it to you tomorrow, if she remembers. Oh, an'... uh... just wanna say... it's from Iti. So, you know, if it starts growing into stuff..." She pauses, considering the likely options Kiri will be capable of. "... probably tell me or Rei."
"Um... okay?" Kiri ventures, by now thoroughly unnerved.
Hatchi nods thoughtfully, "Yeah, tell me or Rei. You probably won't be able to fight it on your own."
Slumping at the offhand disparagement, Kiri nods glumly.
"But hey," Hatchi interjects cheerfully, "thing you might wanna know. Those recipes you wanted me to put in? They're finished, an' the algorithm's come up with more for you to look over!"
"Ah!" Kiri smiles, bad mood dissipating. She had initially been surprised when Hatchi had asked her to look over some experimental recipes generated on her computer, but some of them had actually turned out to be fairly palatable, and a few were downright moreish. "That's g-good! Uh... you checked them for things I c-can actually get, right? Only saffron is sort of hard t-to find, especially in those quantities..."
"Yeah yeah, I weighted them and checked through them all myself, so they're all good. I'll read 'em out, yeah?"
"Okay!" Kiri hastily finds a pencil, paper and a beanbag and sits in front of the mirror. "Okay, I'm ready!"
"Kiri!" her mother's voice cuts in from downstairs, "you have a letter!"
"Uh..." Kiri hesitates, looking from the door, to Hatchi's smiling face, and back again, "... um... wait there just a minute, p-please?" Not waiting for an answer, she hastily scrambles up and out of the room.
Hatchi blinks once or twice, mildly nonplussed, but shrugs off the unusual haste. She looks around Kiri's room with mild interest, bouncing absently on her seat. A thundering sound comes from outside the virtual room she is sitting in, and she glances backwards to see the tail end of what looks like a Tyrannosaurus passing by. A few seconds later, Zyuu appears in hot pursuit, waving an oversized butterfly net. Hatchi quirks an eyebrow and gives momentary thought to joining the chase, but eventually shrugs and turns back to the screen. It occurs to her that Kiri is taking a rather long time.
In the room on the other side of the floating window, the door opens. Kiri trudges through, and it is immediately obvious even to Hatchi that something has changed drastically in the short time since she left the room. Her shoulders are slumped, her head bowed, her stance depressed and morose. In one hand, she holds a card - generic and plain, with three blocks of colour on the front.
"Uh... Kiri?" Hatchi asks, unsettled by the sudden change, "You okay?"
No answer. A flick of a wrist sends the card spinning onto the bed, and Kiri half-turns toward the window, as if only just remembering it. Her eyes are shadowed by her fringe, but Hatchi can make out faint tear-tracks on her cheeks.
"Kiri? C'mon, Kiri, say something!" Hatchi is worried now, something is wrong. Her sidekick is upset about something, and it's her job to look after her sidekick, and stuff. She changes tack, aiming to cheer the mousy girl up. "Hey, I still got the recipes! You were gonna go through them, right? Look, I'll read out the first one-"
Stepping forward, Kiri jerks the newly installed curtain across the window. Stunned, Hatchi is left staring at an opaque wall of heavy fabric. A cough of static signals the speakers in Kiri's room being turned off.
For almost thirty seconds, Hatchi sits still in sheer disbelief. Then reality kicks back in and she scrambles into action. If her sidekick won't tell her what's wrong face to face, then... she calls up a virtual phone and orders the MAGI to dial a number she knows off by heart. The line dials once, twice, thrice...
... after eighteen rings without Kiri picking up, Hatchi gives up and terminates the call. Her mind whirs for a moment as her breathing hitches. No, she tells herself. Stay calm. Something is wrong with Kiri. Okay, fine. All Hatchi needs to do is find the source of what's wrong, beat it up, make it right again and then everything can go back to normal. Like it should be. So, if Kiri won't tell her what's wrong...
This time, the phone picks up on the third ring. "Hello," a familiar voice says, "Harasami residence, Hyouka speaking. Who is this?"
"It's Hatchi," says the blunette, and cuts off the start of Hyouka's next sentence before she can speak, "I'm not asking to talk to Kiri, I wanted to know why she just came up to her room all sad an' stuff an' turned her window off an'... an'... she had a card, right? Was that it? Was someone mean to her in the card? Or... or was the postman all evil an' stuff, or... um..."
"Hatchi!" Hyouka interrupts the flow of questions, "Kiri... is a little upset, but it's nothing you need to be worried about. I'm sure she'll be fine in a few days, so just... hang on until then, okay? It might be better if you let her work through this by herself."
"But-" Hatchi starts, but Hyouka hangs up before she can protest or ask again. For the second time in as many minutes, she rocks backwards, stunned. Something... something is wrong, something she needs to fix, and...
... and yet she can't. She doesn't know what to attack, what to beat up. It even seems a little bit like Kiri doesn't even want Hatchi to fix things.
"But... what am I supposed to do?" she asks to nobody in particular.
Her only reply is silence.
"A-and so, G-god b-be with him! Here c-c-comes newer c-comfort," Kiri finishes, stumbling over the words and trying not to fidget. Moments later, she gratefully secedes from the stage as the play comes to a close. She wanders over to Hikari, who is relaxing in a chair and watching the performance with thinly veiled boredom. Wordlessly, the mousy girl sits next to her.
"Alright everybody," calls the teacher, painfully earnest and apparently under the impression that more than half the class is listening to her, "that was very good! Now, practice makes perfect, so one more time from the top!"
Hikari and Kiri stay where they are, neither playing roles that come on until late in the play. As they watch the mad scramble, Hikari blows out a slow sigh. "So," she says, "why so nervous? It's not as if there's anyone watching at the moment."
"I just... I'm not c-comfortable with it." Kiri resists the urge to fidget and forces herself to stay still and quiet as Sasoriko passes, arguing with the teacher.
"It's... degrading, and unfair, the way that she has to be inept at being evil, and feel guilt of all things, when her husband doesn't!" the pale girl is saying, "It's as if they're subtly suggesting that women are all meek, subservient little creatures who are incapable of doing wrong! And the ones that go beyond that are all plagued by doubt and guilt, while the men can do whatever they want!"
"I know, I know," agrees the teacher, "But, sadly that's the way that it's written, and changing the script isn't a possibility. I'm sure you'll play it wonderfully, though."
Hikari raises an eyebrow as their small, dark haired classmate nods in acknowledgement and meanders backstage to prepare for the third run-through of the play. "Direct, isn't she?"
Kiri twitches a smile and nods slightly before returning to pensive brooding. The freckled girl frowns, puzzled at the drastic change in Kiri's usual composure. She glances at Sasoriko and Emi, but neither appears to be aware of the depressed mood - or if they are, they're tactfully ignoring it. Hikari considers the latter possibility for all of three seconds before remembering that 'tactful' has never been a word that could realistically be applied to either Emi Akaho or Sasoriko Yochi, much less both at the same time.
Fine then. It looks like it's up to her to figure out what has Kiri so depressed. First, though, Hikari needs a way to snap her mousy friend out of her brooding...
"You know," she ventures, "my sister's started this gaming thing. It's... kind of fun. Sort of... like a story, only with you as the main characters, and you say what you do, and the storyteller says what happens, and stuff. I'm thinking of setting up a game of my own, but I need players. Do you want to take part?"
Paying attention properly for the first time since Hikari sat down next to her, Kiri blinks at her. "Um..." she says, "it sounds... wait, why are you asking me?"
"Well, we've known each other ages," replies Hikari, "so that should make it easier for me to run the story with you in it, since I know how you think. And... you seem a bit down. I thought this might cheer you up."
Kiri considers, eventually settling her decision with a shrug. "Sure, I suppose. D-do you want me t-to ask Sasoriko and Emi if they want to c-come along as well?"
"Sure! The more the merrier, after all. Well... uh... not too many, since it's my first game. But yeah, three or four should be fine."
Kiri nods, eyes drifting back to the stage where Macbeth is confronting the witches. Emi, she notices, is eying whatever is in the cauldron dubiously and gingerly prodding the bottom with the stirring ladle. A thought occurs to her, and she voices it absently, "D-do you mind if I ask Hatchi as well? It would make things a b-bit more d-difficult, and... um... w-we'd have to p-play in my room, b-but... I think it would be g-good for her to... well, not g-get out a bit, b-because she would be p-p-playing through the mirror, but... um..."
She chances a glance at Hikari, expecting a pale denial of letting one of Rei's sisters into the game, but the freckled girl is nodding thoughtfully. "Hmm... sure, why not? She seemed fairly... uh..." Hikari glances at Rei quickly and appears to search for a word, "... well, she didn't do anything unusual, and she seemed nice. And I know I would go crazy if I had to stay inside all the time." She shivers faintly before offering Kiri a smile. "Yeah, go on then. But you have to bake snacks for us!"
Kiri giggles, bad mood evaporating momentarily, "Alright, alright. Whatever you say." Her gaze drifts inexorably back to the stage again, watching the juvenile Macbeth stumble through his lines with the occasional prompt from the sidelines. A small sigh escapes, and she again laments the unfairness of the universe.
Hikari breaks off from trying to think of a tactful way to broach the subject of what's bothering her friend at the sound of the sigh and follows her line of sight. Tracing it to Toji, she blinks and looks back at Kiri, who is oblivious to her staring, and then back at Toji again, just to make sure. Coming to the inescapable conclusion, she sputters incoherently.
"But- you- for the- what?" Kiri's head snaps around to focus on her, guilt written across her face. "I-" she starts, but Hikari cuts her off. "Suzuhara? Seriously? Of all the- why him? He's not exactly prime material." She glances at the athletic boy again speculatively, assessing his looks, "... though... I guess he is kind of cute..."
"I- I- I-" Kiri stutters, face crimson, hands half raised as if to ward off the verbal assault. Hikari blinks, and takes pity on her, "Oh, don't worry. I won't tell anyone." She eyes the mortified girl speculatively, and decides that it is probably best to give her some space. On the plus side, she reasons, at least Kiri is no longer thinking about whatever had her so depressed when Hikari first sat down.
Retreating diplomatically, the class rep fails to notice a blue head of hair heading over towards Kiri from the other side of the hall. The mousy girl is thus caught somewhat unawares when two crimson eyes set in a pale face drop in front of her own. The small shriek she lets out is, in her opinion, entirely defensible under these circumstances.
"Heee~ey," chirps Rei, "Listen. Got something I need to talk to you about. Very important, so you gotta come somewhere secret to hear."
"... ... ..." Kiri looks around. There is nobody within at least a dozen metres in any direction, and most of the people in sight are busy in their own conversations and paying no attention to anything going on in the rest of the hall. Rei follows her gaze and seems to take her unspoken point.
"... okay," she relents, "you remember the land in Mongolia I got you for your birthday?" Kiri goes very still and suddenly regrets not taking Rei up on her offer of going somewhere private to talk. Discretely, she checks that Emi and Sasoriko are still busy, and out of hearing range. She isn't entirely sure what her dark-haired friend's reaction to learning that she owns a plot of land in Mongolia would be, but she is absolutely certain that the inevitable theories are not ones she wants to deal with. Assured that both friends are engrossed in their own activities - Emi still acting and Sasoriko debating passionately with the teacher - she turns back to Rei and nods jerkily.
"Uh huh. Cause, right... well, there might be... um... stuff, coming. And stuff. And the stuff might be a teeny bit dangerous, maybe-"
"Um... Hatchi already warned me about this," Kiri interjects, "Sort of. She was a b-bit vague, but the g-gist was there."
"Oh," Rei blinks. "Huh. Should probably talk to her 'bout that. Not sure she was allowed to. But yeah, basically, we have sensors and stuff, to detect... stuff. And we don't ree~eally have enough of them - well, we technically do, but more is always better cause it gives more redundancy 'gainst damage and helps with triangulation. Of stuff."
"So Little Mommy was complaining 'bout that, and I reminded her 'bout your present, and basically NERV is offering you a subsidy if you let them put a sensor array on your land, so you'd get pocket money and totally be helping save the world, which would be awesome!"
Rei grins happily at Kiri, who is struggling to process the blue-haired girl's rambling speech. After a moment, she tentatively raises a hand halfway, "So... um... NERV... have a network of sensors... and they want to p-put one on my land in Mongolia?"
"And... they'll p-pay me to p-put it there?"
"... and... there's no d-downside?"
"Are you sure?"
The mousy girl considers this information. On the one hand, years of experience scream at her not to jump into anything offered by Rei before checking very carefully to see what the catch is. On the other hand, Rei is waiting, and looks eager and cheerful. And she did promise that this was a genuine offer. And-
'Alright,' her mother's voice echoes in the faint tones of memory. 'If you need me, I'll be downstairs working on our finances. Your father was a little late on the payment this month, so we may have to be a little stingy for the next week or so.'
"How-" Kiri starts falteringly, staring fixedly at the floor and biting her lip, "how much w-would the subsidy b-be?"
"Um..." Rei frowns, "not sure. Sort of a lot, though. Way more than you'd get from pocket money. C'mon, it'll be really good!"
Kiri thinks about her mother's expression, so tired some nights as she goes up to bed. About the tense, nervous air she gets whenever a support payment is late. About how, despite having to manage a tight budget and work long hours, she always makes time for her daughter.
"Okay," she says in a small voice. "Okay. Um... t-tell... whoever... that... yes. I agree."
"Cool!" sings Rei, and bounces away with a mad grin towards the stage, making a beeline for the props chest. A rather expensive-sounding clatter a few seconds later announces her arrival, but Kiri pays no attention.
Instead, her eyes bore a hole in the floor as she tries in vain to convince herself that she hasn't just made a very large mistake.
Sasoriko glares at the boisterous calico kitten which has interrupted her. "You're awfully loud for such a small beast," she informs it through narrowed eyes.
Kiri giggles. Partly at the utter seriousness that her friend seems to be treating this with, but mostly because the sentence could also be used with startling accuracy to describe Sasoriko herself. She pets the black and white female in her lap, drawing contented purring from the tiny creature. Oly is still just about small enough to sit curled up in Kiri's cupped hands, and her heartbeat is a rapid thrum under the warm fur. The kittens are a recent addition to the bakery her martial arts teacher runs during the day, and one she has quickly found she enjoys. Tickling Oly under her chin, she looks around the small, cosy shop, cream walls lined with pictures and scenes from France, along with the occasional shelf of souvenirs.
"Anyway," continues Sasoriko irritably, "as I was saying, they're actually fairly happy. I have the leading female role, so... yeah. They've even let up on music lessons to let me rehearse more. I swear; it's like the end of a jail sentence." She frowns, "Unfortunately, it's a temporary one. Hmm. I wonder if it's worth looking into joining the drama club? I mean, if it worked once- ow!"
She flinches visibly and glares down at the small feline latched onto her leg. "Ow, ow! Ah- get it off! Ow!" Jerking it violently, she forces Kal to let go in order to avoid being sent flying. The kitten emits a low rumble disproportionate to its size and leaps at the chair leg, clambering up it and settling in the pale girl's lap. Circling once, oblivious to Sasoriko's winces at the uncomfortable feeling of small paws treading around her lap with claws partially extended to provide traction, he gives an approving mewl and butts his head against her hand, demanding attention.
Mystified, Sasoriko looks at Kiri for guidance. The other girl's lips are twitching uncontrollably, and she has to bite back a gentle giggle at the sight. "He wants you to stroke him," she explains. "T-try it. It's not so b-bad."
"Hmph. I'm not a cat person, in general," replies Sasoriko haughtily. Nevertheless, she gingerly rubs the feline head, Kal's eyes closing in bliss as she strokes him, pushing his head against the slender fingers. "Cats," she says flatly, with an exhalation of disapproval. "You know, they're a lot like you, Kiri. They look innocent at first, but then they... pounce." She glares down at the little beast again. He rather ruins her point by mewling happily again and, with what she is sure is a cattish grin, twisting around to lick her hand. A happy purr announces that he considers Sasoriko worthy of the feline stamp of approval.
The girl in question looks rather less than overjoyed at this.
"I'm glad your p-parents are happy, then," says Kiri, picking up the conversation once more with the faintest trace of a smile at Sasoriko's situation. The smile slips away and her eyes lose focus slightly, staring off into the distance as she has been doing frequently for the past week or so. Sasoriko watches with narrowed eyes as Kiri shakes herself slightly and snaps out of it. "Mama is proud, of course, and she's not t-taking late nights anymore, so that's g-good. She's going to come to the first night, as well." Kiri pauses, considering this. "Um... so I hope it goes well."
"Hope what goes well?" cuts in Emi, setting down a tray of drinks and pastries before throwing herself into the remaining seat. "Your latest plan for world domination?" She throws a grin at Sasoriko as she says it.
"Emi!" protests Kiri, "I don't... I'm not..."
"Heh. Lighten up, Kiri, I was only teasing." Leaning back and stretching, Emi notices the kittens occupying her friends' laps and raises an eyebrow. "I see the furballs are still here. Cute. Hey, you know who they remind me of?"
"Dare I ask?" Sasoriko sighs.
"Oh, don't be like that, Saso-chan. They're like Kiri! All cute and shy and cuddly!" A faint, stifled snort from Sasoriko draws her attention, but the pale girl has a poker face on by the time Emi looks round, which quickly switches to a glare as the rest of the girl's comment registers.
"My name is Sasoriko. Not Saso. And please use the -san ending when talking to me; I don't feel that close to you."
"Aww, Saso-chan. I know you do care really. Deep down." She pauses for a second in consideration. "Deep, deep down." A glare from Sasoriko is her only answer. "Anyway, I got us all muffins, so- huh. Um... Kiri?"
"Hmm?" Kiri lowers her cup of tea, looking up inquisitively. "What is it?"
"Uh... I'm not certain, but... I think that kitten is trying to murder your schoolbag."
Backing away slightly, Asana takes stock of her situation. Her attack on the blocky-cow-skin-prey-thing had got off to a bad start when she'd headbutted it and it had deviously turned out to be full of hard things. However, after reeling for a moment, she had leapt into action, backing it up against the chair leg and pinning it with her mighty front paws. This left it helpless against her as she sunk her fangs into its throat, revelling in its weak, pathetic struggles as the end drew near.
Or it would have done, had she been able to locate its throat. Or possessed front teeth to bite it with.
Nevertheless, the blocky-cow-skin-prey-thing bore grievous wounds in various neck-like areas from her gnawing, and its side was lacerated from where she had kicked at it with her back legs, claws opening rents in its tough hide. It had put up a brave fight, retaliating with devastating salvos of not-tasting-very-nice and being-full-of-hard-things-with-uncomfortable-corners, but any moment now it would show weakness and she would pounce once more to finish it off. Warily, she stares her foe down, daring it to attack her or attempt to flee. She is the huntress here. This is her realm. The stupid creature had never stood a chance.
"Ahhh! My schoolbag!" Abruptly, the chair she has her victim pinned against shifts back and one of the food-givers reaches down to grab the blocky-cow-skin-prey-thing. Asana hisses and swipes a claw at the food-giver's hand. That's her prey! If the food-giver wants one, she should go kill her own!
"Ow! Bad kitten, bad! Stop that!" Asana dances back from the retaliatory swipe, hissing again. She isn't going to let anything steal her kill, even if it is someone who gave her food sometimes. Why can't the human go back to being distracted by Oly and leave her to finish off her weakened quarry?
Realising that the human's attention has been diverted from her, Asana starts to creep closer, stalking the wounded object in her grasp.
"My schoolbag!" moans the girl to the other humans, "she's d-destroyed it! Look, the strap's almost b-bitten through! And she's p-put half a dozen holes in the side! All my books will fall out!"
Asana edges closer still, tail lashing behind her, readying herself to pounce. Her eyes are fixed on the dangling strap attached to her goal, and she gathers herself to lunge for a final blow...
And all the hairs along her spine stand on end. Involuntarily, she lets out a low yowl of borderline panic, which is echoed by the other two kittens nearby. Oly's nerve breaks at the sixth sense and she bolts, a black-and-white streak of terrified feline aimed for the stairs. Eyes wide, Asana casts around for the source of the unnameable, unidentified terror hanging thick in the air along with the faint smell of blood and plant matter. She identifies it a second after Kal, and the calico male leaps from the dark-haired human's lap to attack the threat.
Watching from the corner, with all the hair on her body standing on end in fear, Asana can only watch and mewl quietly as her companion bravely faces down the terrifying creature, knowing that he can't possibly win, in a vain attempt to defend her and Oly.
"..." Iti says, looking down at the small calico kitten which is attacking her shoe. Gently, she nudges it away with a foot and watches as it hisses at her several times before turning tail and bolting. She blinks in mild bemusement.
"... that was strange," she says. Emi stifles a giggle, and the blue-haired girl turns back to the trio. "Harasami-san," she nods in greeting.
Kiri nods back warily. "... Iti, yes? It's g-good to see you." She ignores Emi's whispered "how the hell does she tell them apart like that?" to Sasoriko. Dropping the damaged schoolbag as a lost cause, her eyes narrow slightly. "Hatchi didn't send you, d-did she? I've told her to stop pushing, I don't want to-"
"Not about that, no," interrupts Iti, and Kiri relaxes slightly. So, imperceptibly, does Sasoriko. "Rei forgot your present. I'm delivering it."
The mousy girl blinks in surprise. "Uh... I... um... you mean for the rabbits? B-but that was... months ago. Wasn't it?"
"Yeah. Had to get the formula right, and make sure there were no advent affects. Better a late present than one that doesn't work, right?" Unwrapping several layers of tissue paper from the object she is holding, Iti produces a headband and offers it to Kiri. Delicate-looking flowers in shades of yellow, pink and pastel blue line the top to form a living display of colour and texture. All three girls eyes widen at the sight.
"It- it's... it's gorgeous!" gasps Kiri. "I can't- this is-" Carefully, she reaches out to accept the gift, and breathes out in wonder as she touches the petals. "They're not fake, they're... they're still alive? How?"
Iti looks faintly offended. "Course they're not fake. Or dead. I bred them for this. The headband is designed to funnel water and nutrients to them. You just have to leave the ends in a glass of water and plant food three times a week. They'll be resistant to damage, too." She pauses to think for a moment before adding "Also, it'll keep your hair back."
Reverently, Kiri lifts the headband to her forehead, sliding it on and wrinkling her brow a few times to get used to it. "Emi," she requests, "do you have a mirror on you?" The item is produced and proffered, and Kiri is quickly absorbed in admiring how it looks on her.
Emi slides over to Sasoriko, whispering surreptitiously while Kiri is distracted. "Sooo... odds that they're brain-eating parasite flowers?"
Emi jerks in surprise at Iti's interjection. "... oh. I thought you'd... never mind."
The blue-haired girl smiles slightly, watching Kiri admire how the flowers frame her hair and compliment her face. "I have good hearing," she replies.
"Huh. Cool." Emi cocks her head in interest. "You know, I don't think I really know much about Rei's sisters, apart from Hatchi. Where-"
"Emi?" Sasoriko cuts in. "One thing, before you two start talking?"
"Uh... hang on a tick," Emi says to her prospective new friend, "yeah, Saso-chan?"
Sasoriko suppresses the brief flicker of irritation at the pet-name and quietly pulls Emi to one side. "Listen. Kiri's been... off, for the past week. Zoning out, moping, generally depressed, stuttering more. Hatchi keeps calling me every night to find out about what she's doing - I think either Kiri or her mother told her to stop pestering Kiri herself to find out what's going on, but she's going frantic and keeps asking for updates on the situation. She said something about Kiri getting a card, and then cutting off all contact." She pauses thoughtfully, "It's... actually the closest I've ever seen her to scared."
Emi nods, frowning. "Yeah... she has been a bit down lately. I thought it was just the play, and not getting the... uh..." she bites her lip, glancing at Sasoriko. "Anyway, yeah. I'm guessing you want me to find out what's going on? Sure! I'd be happy to help you out, Saso-chan!"
Sasoriko nods gratefully. "Okay, thank you. Just... try to be subtle. And don't get her angry." Her gaze drifts over to Iti, waiting patiently nearby. "Three now... I wonder what she-" abruptly remembering how good the girl's hearing is, she cuts off that train of thought. "Anyway, yes. Avoid her temper, but try to find out what's bothering her. And please, do it soon. My parents are... concerned that I appear to have the acquaintance of two Ayanamis. Apparently, my mother had some kind of safety briefing about them which... well, I'm fairly sure that she was joking about that. Probably. But I'd still rather the nightly phone calls from Hatchi stopped."
Emi nods reassuringly. "Sure, sure. I won't let you down, Saso-chan! And... heh, I really don't need reminding about her temper." Both girls wince slightly at the memories associated with their usually meek friend losing her patience. Moving back over to Iti, she resumes her conversation. "So, how many of you are there, anyway? I have a little sister, but I don't really see her much, and... oh, oh, and what kind of music do you like? Do you all have the same tastes and stuff 'cause you're twins- well, okay, not twins, but... quadruplets, or septuplets, or whatever? Or are you all really different? And..."
Leaning back, Sasoriko allows Emi's babbling to wash over her, noting Iti listening quietly and occasionally interjecting with a comment or answer. A smile traces her lips. Emi might be annoying sometimes, but it's good that she seems to be making another friend. Turning her attention to Kiri, she observes her childhood friend, engrossed in examining her new headband - which even Sasoriko can admit is a work of art. From the depth of her intensity, Sasoriko deems it unlikely that Kiri will be available to talk to for some time.
No matter. They are, after all, at a cafe, and her mug of coffee is still untouched. Savouring the aroma, Sasoriko takes a long sip and a bite of muffin.
"Heh," chuckles Emi nervously at Kiri's expression. "Yeah... uh... sorry about the mess. We've mostly finished unpacking all the boxes and stuff, but we've still got a bit of clutter left over."
Kiri's eyes sweep over the heaps of miscellaneous items piled haphazardly on the floor, the jackets, socks and other items of clothing tossed carelessly over furniture and the occasional empty glass or plate left lying abandoned on a shelf or atop a pile of DVD cases. Despite herself, a slight whimper of horrified dismay escapes her.
"H-h-how c-can you live like this?" she stutters in morbid disbelief.
"Eh," replies Emi. "I'll agree it's a little small - nowhere near as big as your house. But it's just me and my dad, so there's usually enough space for us both to feel comfortable."
"N-no, I mean..." words fail Kiri as she looks around the main room of the small apartment. It looks like a bomb has hit it. In fact, Kiri is prepared to wager that a bomb hitting it might actually improve matters.
Unprompted, some of the advice that Hatchi has given her on Molotov Cocktails, their construction and their usage comes to mind, before she hurriedly stamps it out. Taking a deep breath, she turns to Emi, who pales slightly and starts to back away. Kiri cuts her off before she takes more than a few steps.
"You are going to introduce me to your father," says the mousy girl in the tone of razor-edged steel that so rarely glints from behind the comfortable, warm softness she usually presents to the world. "And then you are going to show me where the cleaning supplies are, and we are going to make this apartment liveable, because currently it is not fit for human habitation." She glares, and her tone drops to one of liquid nitrogen, "Do you understand?"
Emi nods frantically and she vanishes deeper into the apartment, as much to get away from her suddenly terrifying friend as to retrieve her father from wherever he is sequestered.
Kiri sags as Emi leaves, feeling faintly embarrassed at her aggression. But... the state of this place... there is no way she can consent to leaving one of her best friends living in this... this... this pigsty. Her eyes flick upwards to the greying plaster on the ceiling and the prominent cracks, and for just a moment she considers what would happen if she asked Hatchi for help in making this place more liveable. A very short moment, before a voice which sounds a bit like Sasoriko points out that such a thing would be unutterably stupid and likely result in the entire apartment being destroyed. At best.
"Well then," she mutters to herself, "where to start?" Surveying the room, it isn't an easy question to answer. The range and breadth of detritus is horrifyingly extensive, and there seems to be no convenient point to start at and work outward from. Kiri tables the issue momentarily and edges toward the nearest inner door, feeling vaguely guilty for poking Emi's house without the short-haired girl there.
The guilt vanishes rapidly as she takes in what lies beyond the door. The contrast between the cosy, neatly sorted kitchen of her home and what she sees now is enough to bring a pained moan to her throat and further heaviness to her shoulders. Kiri is a resilient girl though, and after only a moment of depression she sighs and begins to take stock. The floor is clear. Mostly. That's good. The sink is almost invisible beneath the pile of crockery and cutlery that seems to have been aimlessly abandoned in and around it. The surfaces are littered with more, along with various boxes and ingredients. A pile of dirty laundry sits in front of the washing machine and an ironing board leans forlornly against the side of the fridge. Overall, however, it isn't quite as bad as she had expected.
Throwing a glance at the door Emi left through and seeing no evidence of her friend's return yet, Kiri busies herself sorting the kitchen out. She knows kitchens. She can do this. She hopes.
By the time Emi drags her father out of his office to meet her friend, Kiri has bundled the laundry into three separate piles by colour, one of which is churning away in the washing machine. The spoiled ingredients are in the bin and the fresh or unspoiled remainder are packed away in the cupboards. The dirty crockery and cutlery is all neatly piled on one surface next to the sink. And the mousy-haired girl herself is dragging the mop out from its resting place behind the door as the sink itself fills with hot, soapy water. She looks up as Emi warily pokes her head in and leans the mop against a counter.
She throws the girl a brief, wordless glare before turning her attention back to the sink.
"Um... Kiri? Uh... my... um... my Dad. Uh." Emi's eyes flicker over the kitchen as she stumbles over the words. It's never been this... tidy, before now. "He... um... Kiri?"
Kiri sighs, nods and turns the tap off. She hesitates before going back out into the living room, busying herself by putting a few of the more grime-encrusted bowls and plates in the water to soak. Internally, she is nervous again at the prospect of meeting Emi's fater. Poking around on her own and exploring his kitchen was bad enough, but she'd just come in and completely taken over! Started moving things around, and rearranging his belongings, and berating his daughter... she worries her lip uncomfortably. Maybe she should start with an apology... hopefully he wouldn't take her presumption in acting the wrong way? But she couldn't just have left the house like this, not in this state.
An image of Hatchi drifts through her mind. She says nothing, arms folded. She doesn't need to. Kiri closes her eyes, nodding in resigned acceptance to the unspoken criticism. Mustering the scattered threads of her confidence, she takes a deep breath and goes to meet her host.
"Hello there! I apologise for taking so long, work never really lets up in this job," Emi's father greets her warmly. He is an average man in many ways - balding slightly, with a bland face and average build. If Kiri were to see his face on the street, she would take no notice of it.
The crutches, however, are decidedly unusual. Jaren Akaho's legs are weak, largely crippled from the explosion that put him in hospital for a year and lost him his position in the JSSDF. His crutches clatter as he picks his way across the cluttered room with the ease of long practice, leaning on one as he offers a hand for Kiri to shake. The motion snaps her out of her daze, and she bites back a pang of sympathy as she greets him politely and stutters through an explanation and apology for her assault on his kitchen. What must it be like to be walking one moment and crippled the next, with no chance of a complete recovery? She shivers as she imagines it, and feels her eyes tear up slightly.
"You're Kiri, yes?" Jaren says, failing to notice her emotional turmoil. "Emi's talked about you a lot. And... ah... please, by all means, don't feel you need to apologise for... um. Are you sure it's... uh... okay for you to spend your time helping us out like this? I'm sure there are other things that, um, girls your age do?" He glances at his daughter, expression mystified and uncertain. "I wouldn't want to keep you from... uh... shopping, or... arcade games... um..."
After a short, awkward pause, Emi steps in to rescue him. "You know, I bet you've still got a bunch of work to do, so why don't Kiri and me let you go do it while we do this? She's fine with helping, I'll help her help, and you can give both of us 2000 yen as a reward to go shopping with tomorrow. Kay?"
Kiri's look at her is full of horror. "I... I can't t-take money!" she protests, mortified. "I was d-d-doing it to help!"
Jaren, however, grasps eagerly at the offered straw, "Yes, yes, of course," he nods. "And you can get something nice as a token of appreciation... I couldn't ask you to come and help with... uh... all of this, for free." Hurriedly, he backs away, carefully picking his way backwards over the untidy floor. "Well then, I'll be working in my office if you need anything. Have fun!" Turning awkwardly in the doorway, he beats a hasty retreat.
Kiri stares after him for a moment, mouth working silently, before snapping out of it. "O-Okay then," she manages. "Emi, you take the- um..." She hesitates, glancing between Emi and the sink full of dirty washing up. "Come over here," she orders, grabbing a plate "and look. See how I'm making sure it's completely clean? You c-can't be half-hearted about it, you have to do it right. And then rinse it off."
"Hey, c'mon Kiri! I know how to do the washing up!" Emi protests. Kiri looks at her in frank disbelief and glances at the pile of washing up on the counter. "... I just... sort of only wash dishes when I need them? So we wash up dishes when we're... making dinner... and... um..." She trails off, looking faintly embarrassed at her friend's horrified look.
"But that means... bacteria! A-and germs! Just... sitting there, mouldering for an entire day! That's disgusting... argh! How can you live like this?" She cuts off Emi's attempt at a reply by thrusting the scrubbing brush at her and determinedly snatches up the mop. "You do the d-dishes! And I'll clean the floor, and the counters, and then we can g-get started on the next room, and then the next, until we're done with the whole apartment. Okay?"
The work moves surprisingly quickly, months of accumulated debris vanishing like snow before a blowtorch as the girls busily set themselves to the task. Half an hour passes in relative silence as they clear the kitchen and move on into the living room before Kiri draws Emi's attention.
"Um... Emi?" She offers a framed picture to the other girl. In it, a short-haired eight-year old Emi balances precariously, sitting on the shoulders of an older boy in his late teens. She is wearing a leather jacket several sizes too big that hangs down past her ankles and an overlarge beret draped askew to the right. Despite her eclectic clothing, she looks overjoyed, a wide, laughing smile on her face as she joyfully shouts at something outside the picture. The boy under her is looking up fondly, and with a trace of exasperation as he holds onto her legs to stop her falling off.
All in all, the image is so adorable that Kiri can barely hold back a squeal at the cuteness. Emi takes it reverently and smiles wistfully as her eyes flick over it.
"Yeah," she says softly. "Yeah, I thought I'd lost this. That's my cousin, see?" she glances at Kiri, tracing the boy's face, "I lived with my grandma for a while when I was younger, when Dad was in hospital and Mum... yeah. He looked after me a lot. Well, him and his friends. Heh. That jacket is his - I still have it somewhere. I must've looked so ridiculous running around after them in it..." She stares at the figures for a moment longer, lost in thought, and Kiri fidgets nervously. It feels like she's intruding on a private moment, something special and intimate. But then Emi looks up, and the moment is lost.
"We had good times, him and me," she grins, "I learned a lot." She props the picture up on a recently uncovered mantelpiece that probably hasn't seen the light of day in weeks and turns back to the sofa, unravelling a half-decayed length of string from where it is wound around the legs.
"So..." she ventures after a moment of silence, "you've been a bit down lately." The question hangs in the air unanswered, Kiri busying herself extracting papers tossed carelessly on the floor and sorting them into 'rubbish' and 'keep' piles. After another brief pause, Emi tries again, "Is there anything wrong? Anything you wanna talk about?"
Kiri glances up dismissively, "N-no. Everything's fine at the moment. Do you want to keep these manga? How did you get so many, anyway?"
"Huh?" Emi cranes over to look, "Oh... wow. Boring, boring, sappy... yeah, chuck them. But... you don't seem fine, Kiri. You sure there's nothing wrong? You're not feeling sick, or in trouble with your mum?"
"Yes," Kiri insists, a note of irritation entering her voice, "I'm fine. Mama is fine, school is fine, everything is just... fine." She concentrates harder on clearing up, refusing to meet Emi's eyes. They lapse into silence for a while, moving onto Emi's bedroom. Catching a glimpse under Emi's bed, Kiri shudders wordlessly and orders Emi to get rid of the accumulated gunk and grime while she hoovers the living room. As she scrubs, Emi mulls over her options, and by the time Kiri comes back in, she has a workable strategy.
"Look, Kiri," she starts, before the mousy girl has a chance to speak, "I'm worried about you. So is Sasoriko and... and Hatchi is going frantic. We're all really worried, and upset, and... like, you say you're fine, but you're obviously not, and you're our friend." She waves off Kiri's protests, gets up from next to the bed and hugs the girl. "You're scaring us. Scaring me. Please, Kiri, we want to help. We can't help if we don't know what's wrong."
The words hang heavy in the air for a moment. Emi pulls back enough to watch Kiri's expression change, guilt and shame clear as they flit across her features. After a short internal struggle, Kiri bites her lip and bows her head.
"Okay," she whispers in a small voice. "I'll tell you."
"... and... i-it was a b-birthday card." Kiri sniffs, breath hitching, "f-from my- from my father."
"... I don't get it," says the blue haired girl in the mirror after a brief pause. "I mean, yeah, it's a bit late... well, 'kay, a lot late, but still, how's a birthday card a bad thi-"
"He got the date wrong!" Kiri's voice cracks like a whip, stutter vanishing as if it never existed. "His only daughter! And he didn't even remember what day my birthday was!"
Silence falls. The faint sound of traffic is unreasonably loud in the sudden hush, interspersed with the quiet movements of Hyouka downstairs. Hatchi and Kiri stare at one another through the mirror-screen, unsure of what to say.
Finally, after an agonisingly long wait, Hatchi speaks.
"Oh," she says, and falls silent again, biting her lip with an edge of nervous uncertainty. "Um... if you want, I could go find him and-"
"No," Kiri cuts her off flatly, and Hatchi rocks back slightly. This... this isn't good. Usually, she knows what to do, how to fix stuff. But this isn't a problem she can beat up or smash through, and that makes it scary, in a way she doesn't quite have words for yet.
The girls sit awkwardly for a while longer before Kiri sighs tiredly. "I'm... sorry, Hatchi," she starts, and Hatchi instinctively wants to make her take it back, tell her it isn't her who should be apologising. She isn't even really sure why Kiri is upset in the first place... why is it so important how old people think you are? But she can't find the words to express herself, so she stays quiet and listens to her mousy-haired friend.
"I- Emi t-told me how I was making everyone upset, a-and I'm sorry for g-getting you worried. I just... um, after my father even got the date wrong, I d-didn't want to talk to anyone, and... s-sorry." She hangs her head quietly, looking very small all of a sudden.
Hatchi searches for words, unnerved by Kiri's depression. She's meant to fix this sort of thing in her sidekick, and she can't, and that means something is wrong, and bad, and... and she's starting to get worried that maybe she should be more upset about being sort of seven and sort of thirteen at the same time. She shakes the uncertainty off and falls back on what she knows, resolving to ask Little Mommy about the confusing stuff later. Besides, she reasons, Kiri will probably be most comforted by familiarity.
"Alright," she chirps, "S'okay. But that said, don't you ever, ever, ever dare not talk to me again! I mean, I was worried about y-"
For the third time in one conversation, the blue-haired girl is cut off. This time, by an explosion.
Kiri watches, stunned, as two of Rei's sisters run into view from the left. She doesn't recognise them offhand, so they're probably ones she hasn't met yet-
Her train of thought abruptly terminates as one of the girls makes a frankly physics-defying lunge to grab the other.
"Give it back!" she screams angrily. The other squirms out of her grip and dances backwards, waving her hands frantically. "Give what back?" she protests at equal volume, before diving out of the way to avoid another lunge. Hatchi watches from next to the screen with faint but growing traces of annoyance.
"You know damn well what you did!" accuses the first sister, blurring slightly as she pushes the second toward a corner, boxing her in with sheer speed and fury. "No, I don't!" the latter responds, feinting left before trying to get away to the right.
She isn't quite fast enough, and the first girl's fist slams into her cheek, stunning her for long enough to be pinned down. Her attacker glares down at her angrily, "You stole my filespace and formatted two sectors and I want them back!" she hisses, and Kiri blinks in confusion. That's what this is about?
Then her thought processes are abruptly derailed again as the pinned girl wrenches a hand free and pulls a genuine bazooka out of thin air to rest against the other's head. "Did I?" she asks innocently? "Don't remember doing anything like that. Anyway, you know I'm bad with that sort of stuff!"
Her sister's eyes narrow, and a flick of a wrist produces a glowing lightsabre, which she rests across the prone girl's throat. "Listen, you little-"
"Hey!" interrupts Hatchi, apparently tired of being ignored. "My space! What're you two doin' here?"
Both her sisters break their mutual standoff to look quizzically at her. After a second, the one on the bottom scratches the back of her head in faint embarrassment. "Well, see, Kei's after me for some reason, and I thought this was the explosion room, so I-"
"Liar!" interjects Kei angrily, "Nana was the one who smashed through the security protocols!"
"Only cause they were there! What did she expect, leavin' a big 'Do Not Disturb' sign up, anyway?"
"Both! Out! Now!" yells Hatchi, stamping her foot. Both sisters pause again and take in her expression. Apparently deciding not to press the matter, they retreat. Faintly, the sounds of battle can be heard as they resume their argument in safer territory.
"An' stay away from Siyon's area!" Hatchi yells after them, "She's having a bad day today, you know what she gets like! Go blow stuff up where you're supposed to!"
"Urgh," she grumbles, returning to the mirror-screen and sitting back down. "Sisters. Sorry 'bout that, they can get a bit... annoying, at times."
"... that was a r-rocket launcher," manages Kiri faintly. "A-and an energy sword. I-in a sibling argument." Her father, and the depressed fugue that has occupied the past week or so, have been momentarily forgotten as she tries to adjust to the battering her sense of reality has just taken.
"... oh, yeah," says Hatchi. "Um... yeah. We... kind of don't exactly live in the real world."
"... ... ..." says Kiri, still staring straight ahead with a shell-shocked look.
Hatchi frowns, "You aren't gonna ask about that?"
"N-normally I would. B-but after what I just saw, I'm willing t-to believe almost anything."
"Huh. Guess I gotta give you that," Hatchi concedes. "Well, basically, cause of our heart conditions, we can't be out and about much, so we're generally kept in sort of stasis tube thingies. Only that's not good for a growing girl's mental development," her voice changes as she says this, and Kiri gets the feeling she's quoting someone, "so we're plugged into a VR simulation. Which is what this is! A simulated world where we can run around and have fun and do stuff! S'called the Reetrix." She beams, before a sudden wistful look overtakes her. "Still not as good as the real thing though," she sighs, "like Rei gets to have. Actually being out in the real world, underneath the sky - I mean, we can program it here, but it's just code, an' sometimes Nana breaks holes in it when she's in a blow-things-up mood. Which is most of the time, really."
"I... um..." Kiri attempts to grasp for words, and fails. Luckily, fortune steps in and offers an easy escape as her watch starts beeping. "Oh, I have to g-go and feed Hoshi. Um... can we talk later?"
Hatchi nods happily, and the mirror returns to its default state. Kiri stares at her reflection briefly, absorbing what she's just learned about her friend's life, before shaking herself and trotting downstairs to get Hoshi's feed ready and take it out to him.
She's two steps out of the door when she sees the cat. Well, the feline. It looks more like a small ginger lion than a housecat, and it's sitting on the roof of Hoshi's hut and smiling what has it done with Hoshi?
Raw, primal panic grips her. "Hoshi!" she screams, rushing across the garden with her heart in her throat. The relief when she sees the little rabbit safe in his hutch is enough to tear a sob from her, collapsing as the terrified adrenaline leaves her system. After a moment's rest, she looks up blearily at the monstrous feline still curled on the roof of the hutch.
"Shoo. G-go on, shoo! Go away!" She waves her hands at it, urging it to scurry off somewhere.
The cat regards her with a flat, unimpressed look. 'Try me,' the gaze seems to say, 'go on. Make my day.' Kiri blinks, puzzled. "I said go aw-way!"
Her only response is another bored, superior stare. Then the cat slowly looks down, as if it can see straight through the wooden roof of the hutch, at the tiny ball of quivering terror huddled as far away from it as possible. It licks its lips slowly, and returns its gaze to Kiri.
"You... you want to be fed?" she asks. The cat's eyes flash with brief interest at the mention of food. Kiri gulps. "I could get you some cat food, if you want?" she ventures, trying to think of where she might get some. Maybe she could borrow a tin from a neighbour? "Or maybe some mince?"
The look the cat - which she has privately named the Evil Blackmailing Killer Feline from Hell, with only a slight twinge of guilt at making up such a nasty name for a creature that's only following its instincts - gives her a look of utter, absolute disgust so palpable she can almost feel it.
"... s-some p-pork chops, maybe?"
The disdainful glare becomes almost insulted, and a low, rumbling growl resonates from the cat. Claws scrape slowly across the wooden hutch roof, which is sagging slightly under the enormous creature's weight. Beneath it, Hoshi appears to be frantically trying to dig through the floor.
"Steak! We have steak! I-I'll give you that, just p-please don't hurt him!" Kiri yells in desperation. The growl stops, and the giant feline uncurls from its resting place with unnatural grace, hopping silently down from the hutch and strolling over to rub its cheek against her leg with a low purr.
Five minutes later, watching the cat - whose name seems to be Merrill, from the immaculate silver tag on its collar - scarf down the last of the steak before vanishing over the fence with a last glance at Hoshi, Kiri tries to work out how she's going to explain the missing food to her mother. And more importantly, what she's going to do if the monster comes back.
"Yes, so it turned out that she- what? But... if you already knew, why did you call me?" The short, pale girl frowns, listening to the reply and growing more and more irritated. "Yes, but I was the one who told Emi to find out. Why wouldn't she tell me?"
The response makes her stare at the phone in frank disbelief. "What," she says flatly, barely remembering to keep her voice low enough to be inaudible from the front of the car. Another pause, as her incredulous look intensifies. "... yes, it is normal to get upset if someone calls you the wrong age. Why would it not be?"
She closes her eyes in frustration, praying for patience. "No, Hatchi, there is nothing wrong with her, she- look, I have things to do. And don't pester her about it, it'll make her worse. Ask-" Sasoriko briefly runs through the list of people Hatchi knows. Her sisters, Emi, Kiri, Sasoriko herself... maybe her mother?
... who... raised Rei. Perhaps not. In fact, that's a point... maybe she should look into that further? What kind of parenting is required to raise someone so... so Rei, anyway? Sasoriko makes a mental note to brainstorm some ideas later, and returns her attention to the conversation, "... ask- just ask someone else, alright? An adult, or... someone."
She snaps the mobile shut, ending the call, and sighs. Her arms ache from an hour and a quarter of ballet practice, and - she flicks a damp lock out of her face - her hair is taking far too long to dry from her shower. From the front seat her mother speaks up without taking her eyes off the road, "Who was that, Sasoriko?"
"A friend of a friend, mother," she replies softly. It's tiring, wearing the polite, obedient mask for her parents. Still, it's not as if she has much of a choice in the matter. "Her name is Hatchi Ayanami."
It's incredibly well hidden and almost instantly suppressed, but Sasoriko still catches the sudden tension in her mother's shoulders. Her eyes narrow as her attention focuses, but he voice remains sweet and formal. "She's an... interesting girl. One of Kirima-san's friends. I believe Rei Ayanami is her sister."
She's watching for it this time, and the slight stiffening of her mother's shoulders is easy to detect as she says Rei's name. Sasoriko purses her lips in interest. Rei is strange, yes, but what about her could engender such a reaction in her mother, who has never, to Sasoriko's knowledge, even met the blue haired girl?
It's a mysterious little stumble in her daily routine, and one that she wasn't expecting. She allows herself a faint grin. She likes mysteries, and this one will be very interesting to solve.
The car draws up to a stop next to the comfortable detached house, and Sasoriko grabs her violin case from the seat next to her and gets out. Bidding her mother goodbye, she makes her way up the intricately tiled path as the car pulls away.
As always, her music teacher greets her at the door. He smiles warmly, welcoming her into the music room, and takes his seat at the grand piano as she prepares her violin.
"Alright, Sasoriko. We will start with scales and arpeggios to warm up, and then move onto Andante Cantabile, if you would be so kind?"
Sasoriko nods wordlessly, raises the violin to her shoulder and begins to play.
Forty five minutes later, the ache in her arms has intensified into a dull, insistent throbbing and she can feel the faint traces of a headache coiling its icy tendrils between her temples. Her fingers are sore from the exertion, but she nonetheless executes the last few bars of the aria with only the faintest tremor and Yasuhiro seems to accept it.
"Thank you, Sasoriko. You were somewhat shaky on the last half of that last piece, but apart from that I am pleased. Keep practicing Valse Lente - you still haven't quite perfected the timing. And once again, do try to put more feeling into the music as you play. The added emotional dimension between a clinical performance and a soulful one can often tilt the first prize to the latter."
Sasoriko nods politely, ruthlessly suppressing a twitch at the parting remark she has heard often enough to quote word for word. Quietly thanking him for his time, she departs with a sigh of relief, sliding into the waiting car and resting her head back against the seat, eyes closed. Normally, her mind would be whirring, theories and deductions forming and being discarded or developed in equal measure. But today has been exhausting, and with school tomorrow she can't help but take an opportunity to slow down and relax, even if only for a few minutes.
As they arrive home, Sasoriko has reason to be grateful for the upcoming play in two weeks. Rehearsals, she has found, give her an impressive amount of leeway. It isn't just music lessons that have been relaxed; as long as she is practicing her lines she is allowed to get away with less time spent practicing each night as well. She pulls a bedside drawer open and roots around the clutter inside for an energy bar. After overturning most of the contents twice, she concludes with no small amounts of irritation that her supply has run out, and shoves the drawer shut again with a muffled clatter. The hollowed out book for Kiri's cookies yields only crumbs, and examination of the stash taped to the underside of her bed reveals only a few empty wrappers.
Exhausted and peckish, script in hand, she slumps back down on the luxurious double bed, noting with mild annoyance that she can still fit on it without her feet hanging over the edge. Even when lying across it sideways. Grudgingly, she looks at the sheaf of paper, scanning over the words she has long since memorised.
"I heard the owl scream and the crickets cry," she quotes, gesturing dramatically towards the ceiling. "Did not you speak?" The role of Lady Macbeth is fun to play, she has to admit. It's certainly more enjoyable to practice than endless hours of boring, repetitive music. Even if she has to play opposite Suzuhara. She really doesn't know what Kiri sees in the boy. And the less said about the... alterations to the plot that Rei's presence as an actor has necessitated, the better.
"Who was it that thus cried? Why, worthy thane, you do unbend your noble strength, to think so brainsickly of things." She pauses, ignoring a twinge from the general area of her stomach, "Hmm. Needs more scorn." Really, she thinks, it's for the best that she got the role instead of Kiri. While her friend's acting skills could certainly pull off Lady Macbeth's personality - indeed, it wouldn't even require that much acting - it would reveal far too much of her hand and risk revealing her true nature.
"Infirm of purpose! Give me the daggers: the sleeping and the dead are but as pictures... urgh." The pages flutter as she tosses the script aside. Her eyes wander the room, drifting over abstract paintings and rich furniture. Guiltily, her gaze flicks to the wall-mounted board over her desk before she wrenches her attention back to the script. She should really be rehearsing her lines, even if she does already know them all...
"Sasoriko," her father's voice drifts up from downstairs, "supper is ready."
An escape, however temporary. And as she processes the words, it occurs to her just how hungry she actually is, from the ballet and the music practice. She doesn't hesitate, hurrying downstairs and straightening her school uniform on the way. Halfway down the stairs, the scent of yakisoba hits her and the rest of the descent passes in a sort of food-crazed blur.
"So how far along are you in your current project?"
"At the moment, we're still working on the further ramifications of the work that Berlin has produced on the Weyl curvature tensor's implications for the absolute terror field in greater than four dimensions. They've shown that the tensor doesn't vanish in the proximity of such a field, so the metric isn't locally conformably flat, but their model doesn't explain the implications that the local geometry of such spaces is hyperbolic."
The corner of Sasoriko's mouth creeps up slightly as she watches her mother animatedly explain her work. She recognises the blank look in her father's eyes; one she probably shares. He still asks her mother what she's doing at work, because she seems to enjoy explaining it, but neither father nor daughter can do anything but pretend to understand the advanced mathematics. And the woman seems to notice this, because she blinks. "Basically, we're trying to build a mathematical model for how certain fields propagate," she concludes, "and at the moment, we're hitting a blank." She runs a hand though her long, dark hair - so like Sasoriko's - and sighs. "It's a bit depressing."
Tuning out the conversation, chopsticks diving into the bowl of noodles over and over again, Sasoriko concentrates on conveying food to mouth with the maximum possible efficiency, and the least possible noise. The last thing she wants right now is a talk about her table manners. That would delay food.
"Sasoriko? How have you been doing with your studies?"
Damn. She swallows her current mouthful, suppressing a grimace, and lowers her chopsticks with a mournful look at her half-full bowl. Answer quickly, finish eating and get back upstairs, she thinks. And don't get dragged into a scolding.
"I've been doing well, mother. My schooling is progressing well - I got an A in the last test, though I think I could have done better. Moko-sensei says that my violin technique is almost perfect." She takes another bite, considering, "And the rehearsals are going excellently. I have all my lines memorised, and I'm working on perfecting the delivery."
Sakura nods in satisfaction, turning back to her husband with a query about his day. Bored again, Sasoriko allows her eyes to wander as she eats. The setting sun gleams through the large windows, reflecting off the framed pictures and awards decorating the wall. The nearest catches her eye momentarily - her Grade 6 piano certificate, framed and put up on display.
Her chopsticks hit the bottom of the empty bowl, earning a scowl from the pale girl. She throws a slightly predatory look at her parents' bowls, calculating her chances. Minimal, she decides. And with her secret supplies dwindled to nothing, she has no fallback waiting in her room, either. An uncharacteristically apprehensive look crosses her face, hidden behind the veil of hair that has fallen forward across her face as she looks down. She may be forced, with no other options left open to her, to risk raiding the kitchen later on.
Later that night, the house stands dark and quiet. The moon casts a pale silver glow over the outside, and the faint hum of distant, late-night traffic can be heard, blown on the cool breeze from the direction of the inner city. Nothing stirs.
Almost nothing, that is.
Stocking-clad feet pad silently over the black marble floor as Sasoriko pads across the kitchen with every ounce of stealth she can muster. Carefully, she shifts a chair into position and clambers onto it to reach the high shelves. Retrieving the bowl she placed on the counter earlier, she fills it with rice cakes, turning the packet so her parents won't immediately notice that any are missing. Everything is returned meticulously to its original place, and the girl ghosts back out, no-one having noticed a thing.
Raiding the kitchen would be a lot more of a challenge, she muses, in a smaller house where your parents weren't in one of the rooms in an entirely different wing.
Arriving unmolested back in her room, Sasoriko wastes no time in secreting her haul of delicious food between her various hiding places. The last two she keeps, cracking the wrapper on one to take the edge off her lingering hunger. Settling in at her desk, Sasoriko flips open her notebook and reviews the day's theories and observations. She glances up occasionally as she transcribes, referencing the large corkboard dotted with sticky notes, pinned scraps of paper and the occasional picture.
Kuro still making advances, she prints neatly, Is Kiri encouraging/unbothered by his behaviour, or simply unwilling to risk breaking her cover? A brief check through a folder lying nearby, flipping through the pages to find the archived observations she wants before continuing. From prior evidence (see notes KH112-KH125), likely to be the latter. Watch for any signs of change.
Reaching up to the top left hand corner of the board, she carefully adds the note to a mind map that looks like the offspring of a many-legged spider and a small explosion in a library. Nodding in satisfaction, she moves onto the next point in her notebook.
Another set of hand-eye coordination tests at the nurse's office. Using a joystick to move a cursor to suddenly appearing objects onscreen. Varying sensitivity on the joystick. Sasoriko deftly adds this entry to the lists of tests, along with the date and time of day.
Stifling a yawn, chewing idly on the second rice cake, the small figure continues her self-appointed task, cutting away the lies to uncover the secret truths that the world at large is trying in vain to hide from her.
And also to get some sleep, at some point. But that can wait, for now.
Yui sighs. Something in her head tells her that she should be working right now, but she can take one evening off to see Rei's play. "Gendo, you've got Section 2 in place?" she asks her husband beside her.
The man nods. The motion dislodges his glasses; he pushes them back up with a finger. "Both internal and external," he replies. "And one aimed at Rei, just in case she gets carried away."
Yui nods uncertainly. "Alright... I still can't say I'm comfortable with the idea, though. Are you sure this teacher's background came up clean? Putting Rei as Macduff... I don't like the message. It might be the Old Men both telling us that they've found something about her... past, and... well, Macduff kills 'the usurper'. So..."
Gendo nods reassuringly, "I'm 95% sure I didn't miss anything. I can't be certain, but it seems to be innocent. And Rei is a fairly good choice for the role. She certainly has the energy to carry it off well. Just relax and enjoy the play."
Reluctantly, Yui accepts the advice and settles back in her seat. Glancing around, she spots a few faces she recognises from NERV - two women from the Science team, a technician, someone she vaguely remembers as being one of the maintenance staff.
"It seems that we've got quite the turnout," she murmurs. "More than a few familiar faces. Oh, actually, that's-"
"Yui," Gendo cautions, "you can talk to whoever it is later. Don't network now, we're here to watch the play."
Gradually, the general clamour and bustle of talking and movement in the hall quietens down, and an anticipatory silence takes its place. A slender young woman in her early twenties walks on-stage from the left and turns to face the audience.
"Greetings, ladies and gentlemen!" she declares. "I am proud to present the fruits of much practice and rehearsal! Tonight, for your pleasure and entertainment, we will be showing... the Scottish Play!" She claps her hands once as she finishes, for emphasis, and the lights dim. An appreciative murmur ripples through the audience as she quickly walks offstage again. Then the curtains rise, the actors take their places and the play begins.
The play isn't bad, Yui has to admit. Obviously, she has seen better, but the acting is remarkably good for children as young as these. The boy playing Macbeth is quite good, and the girl cast as Lady Macbeth has the role down perfectly. Her mind cross-references names and faces to files she's seen, on their use as pilot-candidates, despite her best efforts not to. It seems she can't manage to just relax and watch the show. And not just because Rei is in it.
Despite her reservations, a smile pulls at her lips as she watches Rei passionately lament the deaths of her family and swear revenge on their murderer. Her blue-haired daughter might have more than a few oddities, but nobody can ever claim that she isn't enthusiastic. It might be Yui's imagination, but she fancies that Macbeth is a trifle paler when he next comes onstage.
Grumbling internally, Yui tries to silence the overactive analytical part of her mind and focus on enjoying the show. After all, it may not be professional quality, but it is fairly entertaining nonetheless.
"Then yield thee, coward," spits Rei, brandishing her shield at Macbeth, "And live to be the show and gaze o' the time: we'll have thee, as our rarer monsters are, painted on a pole, and underwrit, 'Here may you see the tyrant.'"
Macbeth looks as if he would much rather take this offer, but rallies admirably and slashes his hand through the air in denial. "I will not yield," he says, though his voice sends a rather different message, "To kiss the ground before young Malcolm's feet, and to be baited with the rabble's curse." His voice wavers as he completes his lines, for which nobody familiar with his opponent can really blame him. "Lay on, Macduff,", he finishes, "And damn'd be him that first cries, 'Hold, enough!'"
Expression grim, MacDuff draws a rather incongruously placed katana and leaps to the attack, aiming and pulling the blow just enough for Macbeth to shriek and block it by accident as he pulls his arms up in front of his face. The force of the impact knocks him over, and MacDuff backs off as he struggles to get up again.
"Uh..." The look he gives the grinning blue-haired vision of terror is terrified, but to his credit he attempts a few half-hearted slashes and stabs. Rei dodges and parries, allowing the wooden sword within inches of her body before spinning away. Yui's hands clench on the armrests as she watches the casual display of near-superhuman agility, her lips pressed into a thin line.
Gradually, as the fight progresses, the boy begins to get into the swing of things. His fear recedes under the adrenaline and he becomes surer, more confident, accepting the occasional easily blocked attack and responding in kind. He attempts a few acrobatics of his own, leaping over the cardboard bushes and even executing a few rolls.
He is thus somewhat understandably paralysed when one of his lunging slashes connects, and a bright red spray of arterial blood spurts out, his opponent falling backwards with a pained cry. Wide-eyed and frantic, he examines at the wooden sword, checking to make sure it's still the same one he remembers picking up. It is.
Turning, Macbeth stares blankly at the audience before him, the sprawled form of Macduff - who appears to be bleeding quite heavily, which certainly wasn't something they had rehersed - before him. From the wide eyes of the onlookers, they appear just as surprised as he is. "Um..." the king manages.
Macduff coughs heavily, a wet, choking, pained noise. "Finish it," she rasps, "if you be a king, not a mouse!"
Someone in the audience coughs. Backstage, Miss Kagurazaka has collapsed in horror at the desecration of The Scottish Play.
"So... so be it," Macduff continues, trying to pull herself up to a sitting position, blood dripping from her mouth. "Let the world see that Macbeth, who killed Duncan, who was a father to me, who killed my wife, my love and one true heart, who killed even my babes... see that Macbeth is a mouse unworthy of the crown. Let my death inspire others! Let the kingdom cry out 'Down with Macbeth', and he will not endure!"
"Shut up!" Macbeth yells, eyes flicking from left to right. "I... um... I am no mouse! I am a man, and a... king! Take that!" The stage blow is clearly pulled, but Macduff lets out a final scream, and collapses on the stage, in a pool of blood. He blinks, and after a moment's thought, collapses to his knees. "Oh no! Um. My... wife is dead... and the words of Macduff have bought sudden doubt to me. Though I may have won the fight, I am still defeated." Shuffling around, he thrusts his blade between his arm and his body, screams, and collapses on top of Macduff.
The shocked silence goes on, until one fast-thinking person in the technical crew drops the curtain.
"I'm... not sure that's how it's supposed to go," says Yui doubtfully. "And is Rei-"
"Best not to ask, I think," says Gendo firmly. "All in all? I think this is probably one of the better ways this could have played out. Nothing got broken, the stage isn't on fire, and most of the play went like it was supposed to." He smirks, "And I have to admit, it's a twist I haven't seen before. I must confess, the novelty is enjoyable."
Backstage, Sasoriko turns wide eyes on her friend. "Did you know she was planning to do that?" she hisses in stunned disbelief.
Kiri blanches. "No!"
"... ah, I see. So you planned that, and she was just carrying out your orders. But why?"
Kiri can feel the steel jaws of the trap that is Sasoriko's logic closing around her. Even so, she makes a vain attempt to fend off the inevitable conclusion. "Even m-more no! You have it all wrong!"
"Are you sure you didn't ask her to do it to let Touji win? It's a shame he wasted that victory with his suicide." She crosses her arms, "I wish I'd known. I wouldn't have killed myself then, if we were going to win."
"Sasoriko, listen to me!" Kiri notices the looks they are attracting and drops her voice to a sharp hiss, "I d-didn't ask her to do it, or order her to do it, or know she w-was going to d-do it at all!"
Sasoriko barely seems to hear her, already frowning in the focused way that Kiri knows so well. Any moment now, the notebook will come out. "Then why-" she murmurs, "oh Kiri, for god's sake! I apologised for getting the role, it wasn't my fault! There was no need to wreck the play over it!"
She produces her small, leather-bound notepad and a pen, casting around for something to lean on while she writes. Kiri slumps slightly. It's too late to protest now, she knows. Resigned to her fate, she fidgets in her seat and determinedly starts trying to block the memory of the entire afternoon from her mind.
From experience, it will take some time to do so.