Chapter 10: Scorched

If Shinji squinted from the graveyard visitor's hub – planted where the town of Isesaki once stood – he could just barely make out the water-filled crater from the nuclear bomb dropped twelve years ago. From Takasaki and all the way to the flooded coast, nothing remained of Old Tokyo but rolling swells of dry, orange earth. Firestorms from the blast had consumed everything within reach. Rampant flames burned for weeks while Japan's shell-shocked rescue teams struggled to put them out, resulting in thousands of casualties atop the 30 million already suffered.

A part of him couldn't help but think it was appropriate that the graveyard dedicated to the lives snuffed out during and after Second Impact would also be at the edges of the old capital. A more real reminder of the tragedy than any memorial would've been. It was far from the epicenter and any actual risk of exposure to radiation, or so he had been told. There was no point in using the land for anything else, half-flooded and decaying. The living had become a part of it, their ashes meshed with the arid soil.

Misato tugged at the shoulders of Shinji's school uniform jacket, straightening his tie a little too. He would've protested, perhaps grumbled a little, but even that seemed like an exhaustive effort today.

"Stand tall," she said, trying to catch his eyes, "she'll be watching today."

His brow bent. "I know."

They ventured out into the dusty plains. Winds howled across the scorched hills, lined with row upon row of perfectly spaced grave markers. Each rank and file was alphabetically ordered, and the walk to his mother's marker took thirty minutes.

The crunching of dirt alongside his own ceased, which made him turn. Misato had come to a halt just a few feet away. At his silent askance, she nodded him forward. He would have to go on alone.

Beyond, he spotted what could only be his father as a wavy, black pillar on the horizon. The man watched him through a pair of tinted glasses, a stone-gray VTOL gunship sitting in the space between graves. That seemed disrespectful somehow, even though he knew only a small percentage of them actually held bodies.

A tension pulled on his gut, pressed down on his shoulders and weighed in his feet. What should he say? What should he talk about? Would his father be happy to see him? Had Shinji been missed at all in the years he'd been away? These fears still stuck with him, inhabited his every thought, even when Asuka had been around to distract him.

It wasn't long before he was on the hill, standing in his father's shadow and peering up into those sunken, subdued orange-brown eyes. They were sanpaku eyes: where one could see the white space beneath the irises, lending his stare a stark intensity. He was taller than the image in Shinji's memory, and the straight back and sharp edged shoulders of his dark uniform exuded a sense of authority. Even left unbuttoned as it was and lacking any formal rank insignia.

Something blossomed in Shinji then, embers spurred on by a thought half torn and abandoned.

"Hello, father."

"Shinji," the elder Ikari said, voice like gravel. That stare lingered but a moment longer and his father turned, facing the obsidian plaque that rose to his waist.

Ikari Yui.

Shinji saw his reflection looking down on the name. The date of birth and death rested under it, nothing else left to give credence to her existence. If it wasn't for this slab of glossy rock, Shinji wouldn't have believed she was ever real. His head dipped, running the math in his head.


His mother had been twenty-seven when she died. Without being sure why, he took comfort in that insignificant number. It allowed an image of her to form. Countless times he'd tried to imagine her, with nothing but faded memories to build off of. He thought of someone like Misato, but with brown hair and blue eyes like his – a soft smile and waiting arms.

"I still don't understand what happened to her," Shinji said, unsure of whether or not his father was merely an apparition, partially convinced he was just talking to himself amidst the gravestones. "Teacher told me... there was an accident in the lab you worked at."

The screaming winds cut between them, making his father's unbuttoned jacket flap. "You thought that I had killed her," he said, never looking up from the black marker.

Had he? Shinji couldn't remember. No one ever told him what she was doing or what had caused the accident. One day she was just gone.

What was she like? Had she drank tea like Teacher? Or maybe she preferred coffee like the Langley's? Was she a decent cook? Would she have enjoyed the flowers in his garden? Or the sunlight skittering across the ponds? Did she have any boyfriends when she went to college? Where did she go to college? Would she have liked that he and Asuka were friends?

"It doesn't feel like eight years," Shinji mumbled when it became clear his father had nothing more to say. They stood for a while longer, two feet apart, boring holes into a false tomb.

"Unit-01 is nearly complete," his father said, just when the echoing graveyard became too much to bear. "You will be leaving for Tokyo-3 in three weeks time."

It was a sledgehammer to his lungs and for just a second – he really couldn't breathe.

"Three weeks?" he asked, the question almost swept away in the wind.

"As per the orders you were given five years ago."

A fire gripped him. Surged up his spine and spider-webbed over his nerves in hot pulses. "I want to stay in Germany," he said.

From his father, there wasn't a pause or a glance. "That is irrelevant. You will do as ordered."

"Or what?" Shinji bit out through grit teeth, hands gripped tight enough to hurt. His father turned halfway, regarding him with stony, unwavering eyes. It wasn't that they were cold – if anything they made the burning in his chest all that more real. No, it was something else, something Shinji had learned to see in others without even realizing it. A look that was somehow divorced from reality – from feeling.

"You will receive proper deployment papers in the next forty-eight hours," Gendo said, hesitating a moment longer, before taking his leave. The VTOL's turbines whined. Shinji watched it roar off, until it was just a little gray speck fading into blue on the horizon. Somewhere over the mountains was Tokyo-3, he'd seen it on the flight in. Over there was his Eva and the First Child.

And he was being left behind again.

He wanted to scream. He wanted to cry. He was taken by a current and resisted the violent urges that rushed over his thoughts, if nothing else than because of the emptiness around him. The dead and their markers watched on, apathetic.

The walk back to Misato's parked rental took no time at all. Not with his mind whirling. He was thankful when she didn't press him, or really talk at all, even though he wanted to explode. He didn't want to talk.

The flight back took twelve hours. They landed in Munich, where a NERV gunship took them up to the landing pads just outside the black pyramid in Berlin. Then he was home. By then, he had calmed some, even though it was taking all of his willpower to keep down the in-flight meals churning in his stomach.

Through the trellised paths, he came to his small Japanese hut, dark with Teacher's absence. He must have been out buying groceries. Only silence greeted him in his room. Not even the wind chimes sang.

Placed atop his desk was a letter and he quirked his head at that. No one but Ilka wrote him and he'd received and replied to a letter from her less than a week ago already. Picking it up, he discovered his name signed in Asuka's elegant cursive script – punctuated by a tiny heart. They hadn't talked in over a month now, and neither really had the time to even send texts. Well, he had time, but why bother sending a message that had a 50/50 chance of not getting a response? Shinji had gotten tired of that pretty quick.

After another moment's hesitation, Shinji tossed it in the nearby trash bin. His legs carried him only a few steps before it tugged at him and he stopped. Marching back, he snatched it out of the trash, a few new questionable stains marring it. He still didn't want to read it, and found a drawer to throw it in.

Later that night, he settled amid that old, overgrown husk of a shed at the edge of the dandelion field. It had seemed so much larger when he was little – he almost felt too big for it now. The stars were dim that night, and Shinji lay there, rolling his father's words over and over in his mind. Thomas Anders poured through his ears from the SDAT resting on his chest.

Asuka called him something along the lines of 'shut-in hipster' whenever she caught him with it plugged in. A smirk tried to break free, but faltered. He remembered they used to sink their legs in the fountain by the roses, sharing the ear-buds side by side. How she'd gently bounce her head side to side and mouth the words every time track 22 came on, her favorite. Mika Matsubara – stay with me.

The cassette clicked, switching to the next track. It was the same player his father had once held. Listened to on quiet nights. Picking it up, he examined it under the moonlight wondering – like he'd always done – why the man had ever given it to him. The answers he'd thought were real and true had been shattered.

Its frame creaked as Shinji squeezed, the black box resisting him, knowing he wasn't strong enough to break it.

"I hate you."

Friendship with Erika and Swina was strange.

The former was playful and girlish in a way that he didn't understand at all, which was as exciting as it was perplexing. While the latter almost became a shadow, a companion at his shoulder everywhere he went – which didn't seem at all unnatural.

They met at the brick wall of Building A everyday. School was just a suggestion now, a worthless notion that one would smile politely at while disregarding everything that was said. They often went down the street to the convenience store, where Erika looked at him with those pretty eyes and smiled, wordlessly enticing euros from his pockets in exchange for the vanilla ice cream cones she loved so much. Swina mostly bought, and sometimes stole, smoked jerky. He taught Shinji how to spot the cameras and how to move so anyone looking in the mirrors couldn't tell you'd stolen anything. They usually left with their jacket pockets stuffed full.

Shinji felt guilty every time, but tried not to think about it much.

The boy was also fond of American country music, and once shared an album from his ipod. Shinji didn't like it, but he didn't hate it either. Swina said he really wanted to be a singer, but his parents absolutely hated the idea. Wouldn't even let him get a guitar. His father wanted him to be a paralegal. The boy had his coarse, reddish brown hair grown out down to his shoulders, which he brushed back over his head whenever it got in his face.

Shinji could almost see him strumming a guitar in a smoke filled bar.

Most weekends they'd take the S-bahn to the Tiergarten, right in the heart of the city. Autumn was beginning to sweep over northern Germany, sapping the life from the leaves and bleeding them gold. Carpets of red and yellow covered every walkway and created patchwork swells of color across the lakes. Chilling winds swept them up in whirlwinds while they walked, as though playful. Erika yelped when it threw her hair up and fought with her skirt. It made Shinji's hair a mess too, keeping it standing on end. Erika giggled and Swina bowled over laughing.

Here they made trouble wherever they could find it, whether it was harassing the boat-people living on the Landwehr Canal, or hanging off the fencing by the Spree and chucking rocks at the tourist cruisers. At least until an officer or someone else hollered at them. Other times they'd find the monuments and statues scattered about and strike a pose while someone took a picture. Shinji hanging off Otto von Bismark's leg. Erika lounging on a lion. Swina sitting in Wagner's lap like it were a throne.

When Erika wasn't around, and when they didn't seem to be competing to make her laugh, he and Swina crossed through the concrete coffins of the Murdered Jews Memorial, a pristine and ordered concrete barrier reef between them and Mitte. The stones rose and fell like waves, sometimes reaching high enough to consume them in their cold forest, the red of the setting sun creeping over the edges.

From Mitte they crossed to the north of the Spree, where the police mustered in heavy-plated black riot gear. They came in armored trucks and bullet proof vans. Hot, stinking crowds of people had been gathering there to riot – and the two boys came to watch, unsure of what there was to protest. They took the opportunity to buy fishing string and found empty cans, tying them to the underside of cars. When the rioters got tired of rioting, Swina and Shinji hid nearby, watching the drivers begin to roll off – and freak out when the cans dropped from the bottom!

Other days they traveled along the Spree to the west, where it was covered for miles with graffiti. Tagged relentlessly by the youth gangs that littered the market places.

"The West and the East are the same now," Swina hummed, dragging a stick along the stones. "That's what my da' said. Now everyone is poor."

"Doesn't seem that way." Shinji said, a wind prompting him to shove his hands in his jacket. "How would he know everyone's poor?"

"He doesn't. My da' likes to think he knows everything. But I think the city used to look nicer than this."

"Has there always been a difference?"

Swina shrugged. "Probably not."

His father had been born and raised in East Berlin. Said he was just fourteen when the wall had been knocked down. Swina said his family was pretty poor, but that his dad managed a power plant in Jänschwalde. Drove two hours every day there and back. No one at the Kloster really cared if you were from the west or east side of the city, but some just called Swina "Easterner" since he was one of a handful that could actually afford to attend.

Erika never talked about home or her parents, which was fine with Swina, who always had something to complain about. They were both fine with that. Every now and then Shinji would find his inner smartass and rib Swina while he was in the middle of a story. Erika would slap his leg or push him and chide him. She made a habit of this, over the smallest of things – like how he ate his Chinese takeout, or when the heels of his shoes scraped the ground as he walked. He shrugged her off with a practiced ease developed over years of friendship with the Nag of All Nags, and egged her on. It was all just a game, and even though they didn't know the rules, at least they knew one another was playing.

Today they sat beneath shady trees, knees a few inches apart. Swina was off down the street, trying to convince the food vendor he was a homeless child and needed to feed his sister. They'd helped rip up and dirty his clothes some to make it convincing. Shinji and Erika waited between a pair of statues, the grass lime green and painted with swathes of amber. The one closest to Shinji had two dogs – their fur as thick as a wolf's – running under the whip of a man in old sixteenth century clothes. The kind with those funny triangle hats. He pointed down at Shinji.

"I wonder why they only hunt foxes?" Erika asked. He followed her gaze to the other statue, depicting a man holding a dead fox up by the scruff of its neck, dogs nipping at its dangling feet.

Shinji shrugged. "I don't know. I think it's because they're pretty smart, so they're harder to catch."

"Hm, that sounds right," she said, pursing her flesh-pink lips. "I think my Uncle said they hunt bobcats in America."

"What's a bobcat?"

"They're like lions, but smaller, and with spots."

He paused and looked up to the sky. "So wouldn't they be more like a cheetah?"

"Whatever! You know what I mean!"

"Well now I don't know if it looks more like a lion or a cheetah."

"Oh my gosh! It looks like both," she whined, but with a smile.

They could hear the sounds of the city all around, muffled, as though coming from miles and miles away. The blare of a train's horn, the dull hum of traffic. Somewhere, a church bell tolled. The park was insular, sheltered in its own world like the garden back home.

"So if you ever caught a fox, would you kill it?" Erika asked, taking the band from her ponytail. Blonde locks flowed around her neck.

"Isn't that why people hunt stuff?"

"Yeah, but you don't have to."

Shinji leaned back. "Probably not, then." he wasn't really thinking about it, finding it hard to keep his eyes from her face, or how soft her lips looked.

"What if by killing it, you got a wish? Like, you don't have to do anything but shoot it, and you could have anything you ever wanted. Would you do it then?"

"How would killing a fox do that?" he asked, sitting straight. Hypotheticals were one of her favorite things, but he didn't have much patience for her what ifs.

"It's a magic fox."

"Okay, but why?"

"It just is. So would you? What would you wish for?" she asked. Those crystal blue eyes peered into him, searching.

He decided to look at the pond instead. "I don't know..."

Why would she ask him something like that? So adamantly too? The more he thought of it, sinking into the depths of the nature around them, the less he came up with to wish for. There were things he wanted, but when it really came down to it, he didn't know that he wished for anything. Maybe of never having to leave Germany. Maybe finally getting to pilot his Eva. Or... or having Asuka back at the garden. Part of him thought he'd like that, but with it came a surge of other thoughts and feelings. All like a knotted, black jumble of cords wrapping tight around him.

He stopped thinking about her, made himself fret over school or the next sync test. Brooding. Still, maybe there was something else he wanted – really would give anything for again. The memory of his mother's grave marker came.

Shinji found he liked dwelling on that even less.

Erika broke the silence, legs held up to her chest and ankles crossed. "If it meant I could be different, I think I'd kill the fox."

That startled him, and he took a moment to stare at her, occupied by the twittering birds in the trees. She was always so happy – why would she want to change anything? He looked up too. The branches creaked, bright leaves shuffling. A softness crept over his hand, warm. He jerked, but didn't pull away when he saw her hand over his. There was an instant where he debated what to do next, where the bounding of his heart just about convinced his fight to take flight. His fingers folded with hers.

"My dad used to hunt," she said, facing away from him. The tips of her ears were red, like they always got whenever he was close to her. "Not foxes... it was, deer, I think... or, um–"

Thoughts like sparks flared in his mind, fixated on her hand with his. Shinji found himself closer to her, only a breath away. She looked his way again and he froze as her eyes studied him. Her lips nearly brushed his – and she turned, utterly crimson. A punch of anger and embarrassment crashed through him.

For an awful few seconds, every impulse in him screamed to leave and escape his humiliation. For a second, he even hated her. But he continued to lean in anyway, just as she whirled back to plant her lips on his. Except their teeth ended up knocking together. They bumped off one another, each with a hand up to their mouth. Then they tried again, slower this time. Made just as awkward as they both tried to figure out which side to put their head on. He screwed his eyes shut as their lips closed – realizing he didn't actually know what to do. She must've kissed before, because she moved her mouth a little, even when all he really did was press his lips harder to hers. It was wet, more than he'd ever imagined. A bit of spittle still clung between them when they decided they'd done it long enough. He supposed it was nice – why did adults do that so much?

She wiped a sleeve across her face, cheeks red enough to burn, while he rubbed a back hand over his mouth. For a while, neither could meet the other's eyes.

Soon, Swina came back, a powder-loaded funnel cake in his hands. He greeted them with a big grin, boasting his silver-tongued talents in a rush of detail. Shinji noticed his hands were shaking as he passed them the plate.

Two weeks left.

Shinji had since received the orders his father promised. Just the sight of the NERV stamp had his breakfast ready to tumble all over the floor.

Two weeks.

And he still hadn't told Erika. He was just delaying the inevitable, he knew, which was becoming harder and harder to face in his mind. Especially after they'd held hands and kissed. He didn't know why, but the memory burned him. Had him angry over nothing and for no good reason. She'd been calling and texting him too, but he felt less and less like answering as his confusion grew and compounded into frustration.

He liked her, or he thought he did. They'd kissed, after all. On their brief train ride home that night, she'd sat close enough for their thighs to touch, and even fell asleep on his shoulder. Swina sat away and pretended to be asleep. Shinji knew because he always snored whenever he fell asleep.

Still, as many times as Shinji wished he could take it back, and mentally bludgeoned himself a dozen times a day, Erika seemed to like him too. He thought about kissing her again, wondering if it would feel different a second time. He'd probably done it all wrong.

Shinji groaned, wishing he hadn't left his SDAT back home. He hated thinking about it so much, and he didn't want to with Asuka in town. It should've been a good distraction, but it wasn't – every muscle in his chest was wound tight to snapping.

Today was German Unity Day and Asuka had come back home for an extended stay. Currently, he was waiting in the car, his imagination torturing him every minute of the ride with possibilities of an angry or hurtful confrontation, riddled with a festering guilt.

It was well into the afternoon by the time they went, rolling into the thriving vibrancy of Berlin. Even Teacher was going, claiming it was for the sake of being cordial. They'd gathered in the foyer of the house, waiting for Ilka and Margaret to come down stairs. Shinji had protested going, even considered feigning sickness. Well, he started by saying he wasn't feeling well, wishing Margaret were there instead of Langley. That way she might have taken pity on him and convinced the man to let him stay, that Asuka probably wouldn't mind.

But she wasn't, and Langley nodded, mulling over a thoughtful grimace. "You know, if a soldier at Hohenfels is caught lying to avoid drills – we make him sweep the sunshine off the sidewalks." he paused and a smirk spread across his face. "Takes them all day."

It took Shinji a second to get it, and a deep laugh rolled from Langley when it clicked. He must've been in a good mood. Shinji had only seen him openly laugh maybe one or two times before. The man soon became serious again, fixing the tie of his suit. "Even if you are sick, Asuka insisted that we bring you. Seems you're out of luck."

He really was. If it was something Asuka wanted, then there definitely wasn't any getting out of it. The world faded to a painted blur, his brain on auto-pilot, trying to decipher why Asuka couldn't have informed him of that herself. He hadn't seen her once since she'd arrived earlier that morning.

His phone buzzed and he peered at the screen. A message from Erika.

I don't know why you won't answer, but me and Swina are going to the Gate tonight. If you want to see me.

His fingers hovered over the screen, but what was he supposed to say? There was too much to explain, too much he didn't want to talk about. Erika had texted him a few times to see if he was going, but he hadn't answered, knowing he was probably hurting her feelings. He could feel the desperation behind it. The worry.

Was he a bad person?

What should he do?

They found parking in a garage by the Landwehr and they had to walk a ways up to the Postdamer Platz road. It was hard on grandma Ilka's legs, so Shinji let her hold onto his arm as they walked.

The festival had been going on for three days and tonight was the last night. Police were out in force, practically lining the main road to the Brandenburg Gate. They'd marked out where the wall had once been, and the place was frothing with a blurring mass of color and voices. Black, red and yellow bars sailed over a sea of heads, hundreds of flags billowing and swaying with the waves.

All down the Bundesstrasse road were carnival rides and food tents, catering far too many dishes to smell all at once. Sweet swirling toffee and caramels from powdered cookies and jelly filled cakes, their compounds glowing honey and gold. They mingled pleasantly with the flowery sweet and spice rich scents of charred meats and fresh soups, wafting over from pavilions with massive hanging grills hooked to the middle. Which were packed with every kind of sausage, steak and hamburger known to man.

Langley was in dress uniform tonight – what he wore to all formal occasions. Blue trousers and dark coat, topped with a black beret. Commendations sat proudly on his left breast, a cobalt tassel wrapping under his right arm. The uniform itself seemed a bit worn for wear: color faded and with a few stitches out of place at the sleeves and underneath the golden buttons. Shinji briefly wondered if he'd ever thought of getting a new one.

He soon lost sight of the man and Margaret as they stopped to talk with other men that must've been with his unit – garbed in the dress grays of German soldiers. That left him with an estranged aunt and uncle, and their college attending children. None of them were as young as Asuka.

Shinji had yet to see her, but didn't want to ask anyone if they'd be meeting up somewhere. The more they walked, the more of their entourage that fell away. Lost in the crowds.

There were actual snowfalls of confetti as the night went on. He could see the pipes shooting out an endless stream of them. Ilka bought him bits of pretzels striped with caramel. By then it was just the two of them and Teacher. The night had come on in full and people occupied every stretch of road.

They were close to the Gate, glowing orbs marking where the wall had stood in a wide ring around it, once claimed like a trophy by the Eastern conquerors. Teacher watched, unphased by the excitement, and Ilka had tears coming to the corners of her eyes, though wouldn't share whatever sweet memory she was reliving. Shinji found himself searching for Asuka, even though there was no way he could possibly spot her among so many people. But he did.

She was standing by the border, next to her dad and step-mom, except there was a good three feet separating them. She watched the fireworks burst over the gate, pensive. Splashes of red and blue painted her face. The thought to call out to her crossed his mind, but she wouldn't have heard him. Not with tens of thousands singing the national anthem in one echoing voice.

"Flourish in the radiance of this happiness!"

"Flourish, German fatherland!"

Shinji got up earlier than usual for school.

Asuka would be sleeping in until ten at least, and he'd be well into some boring lesson at the Kloster, or outside the chapel with Swina. Today turned out to be the latter. His friend had been acting weird, which was a smaller part of the reason Shinji had been less inclined to hang out the past few days, due in no small part to Swina's absence at the canals. Or how he'd stopped taking to following Shinji around, talking up whatever new tricks he wanted to try on the poor, unsuspecting citizens in the city. Whatever it was, Shinji hoped he was over it.

They met by the big oak outside the chapel. Erika was stuck in English class and Swina watched him as he approached. "Where have you been?"

He shrugged. "Busy."

Swina shrugged back, stuffing his hands in his pockets as he turned and started walking. "Erika was just wondering. She's always bringing you up now."

Shinji just grunted, eager to change the subject. "So what's this about Luitpold?" he asked, referencing their chapel priest. Swina mentioned by text they should try and sneak inside, but hadn't elaborated on how.

Time ticked by and Swina didn't respond. Then he came to a stop, regarding Shinji as one might a ghost. "Why did you kiss her?"

Shinji glared at him, cheeks boiled red. "You saw?"

Swina made something of a grimace, then another shrug.

Shinji chewed on the inside of his cheek. Could Swina had liked Erika too? He had sort of suspected it, but had never considered the idea in a thoughtful manner. It was always on the periphery. Undertones to how they spoke and how they acted when Erika was between them.

"I dunno... I just did," he said, not willing to even tug at the tangled thread that was his feelings for her.

A shadow of resentment fell over Swina, but he nodded. "Someone's been leaving the back door to the chapel open. I think it's Sister Maria. She always forgets stuff like that. We're going to see if she left it today."

As much as Shinji liked the chapel sisters, the idea of being somewhere he wasn't supposed to be, and doing what he wanted – was exciting.

The courtyards leading up to the chapel were tightly packed, surrounded on all sides as they were by other buildings of the Kloster's large campus. It widened to an open field as they went out back, where Shinji had earned his fair share of cuts and bruises on the playgrounds.

"Are you sure no one's going to see us?" Shinji asked, glancing over his shoulder.

Swina was still ahead. "Everyone is busy with classes right now and the sisters have gone home. No one will see us."

Shinji's eyes squinched. Swina didn't talk like that. Maybe he shouldn't have come at all if his friend was going to act so weird. Caught up in his thoughts, Shinji didn't really notice as they came around the back of the church, where this side of the school's bike rack was set up. Wide enough on all sides to fit far more than it needed. Most of the racks were empty. But it led right up to the back door of the chapel. If he remembered right, it would lead them to the hallway just behind the altar.

The only problem was that there was already another boy sitting on the steps. Shinji was about to tell Swina they should go and try again, when he took a good look at who it was.

Günter stood as they stopped amidst the rows of metal racks, shaking his head to clear the hair from his face. Shinji glared, heart racing, and was about to turn – when chainlinks crashed together, a pair of the usual goons having just closed the fence leading out, now standing guard before it. On his left, two more rose from behind a row of bikes, faces stony, by eyes amused.

"Thanks Scharnhorst," Günter said, coming down the steps and taking his hands out of his pockets. Swina didn't say anything as he clapped him on the shoulder.

Shinji's lungs were practically in his throat, fear lancing through every nerve. Weissenburg had taught him how to control that, how to tune it out. But he couldn't manage. He'd never had to test all those lessons before, and Günter never fought unless the odds were in his favor. Five to one was never a winning scenario for anyone, except maybe Alexander the Great. But Shinji didn't have a few thousand pikemen at his back. All he could do was stare at Swina, trying to find some explanation, some hint of what he had done so wrong to deserve this.

"I thought we were friends, Swina," he said. The boy flinched and looked away. He'd already chosen his friends.

"He's not friends with a Japse." Günter said, "nobody's your friend here."

Shinji knew he was wrong, but the words hit him harder than any stone or fist. Caged up and surrounded by enemies. One of whom he'd trusted. That was always the issue, wasn't it? How did he always let this happen? With Günter, it was different. They'd been scraping ever since he was seven, and Shinji had given up a long time ago trying to understand why the other boy hated him so much. He'd never wanted to come to Germany and attend its schools or learn its language. Other people had made him do that. They made him fight and told him he was supposed to save the world from something.

He never wanted any of that.

Shinji's defeat must've shown, because Günter smirked and stepped in to deliver a punch. Shinji moved on reflex, but too late. Günter's knuckles slammed his lower lip into his teeth – drawing blood. Staggering, Shinji still managed to catch his wrist. Dismay flashed over the other boy's expression, just for a moment. It threw him off balance enough for Shinji to pull him into his outstretched elbow, face first. Flesh crunched and the two of them fumbled steps as Shinji twisted him around, bending his arm up against his back. Günter had time to shout before Shinji, stumbling, pitched him down at the bar of a bike rack. The metal reverberated with the impact of his head and Günter was on the ground, dazed.

A rush of movement came from behind. Shinji half turned, bending his knees and drawing his arm in. He rammed an elbow into the gut of another boy as he stepped into the charge. His attacker doubled over, but kept his footing, and Shinji struggled shoving him away.

He couldn't feel anything after that, adrenaline pulsing hard. It was like his mind went blank – total darkness. His body didn't belong to him, driven by a melting heat that phased out every real and rational thought. Possessed.

Shinji took two long strides and lunged for Günter, turning him over and straddling his chest. The boy threw desperate, sloppy punches, teeth grit. Shinji slammed his fist down on Günter's nose, making him scream. The second sank into his cheek – impact shuddering through his arm. It felt good, and Shinji found that he couldn't stop. Didn't want to stop. Hammering down again and again and again – each blow more vicious than the last. Each more feral and desperate and wild for blood.

Distantly, Shinji knew he was pounding his knuckles raw–

A wet crunch snapped the air.

Shinji stopped.

Hot, sticky blood dripped from his fingers, arm half raised for another hit. It spattered on Günter's neck and chin, streaks of red rolling down his neck. Shinji's breath came out in ragged gasps, and a sickness swelled in his stomach. Günter's left cheek didn't look right, pushing up into his eye, which was hidden by split and hemorrhaging tissue. His flesh was bulbous and black in places, lips puffy, nose crooked.

For a terrible, gut ripping moment, Günter didn't move.

A cough jerked his chest. Then another, and he whimpered, head rolling to the side. Shinji blinked, and realized he couldn't see out of his left eye, blood seeping from a ripping gash he didn't remember receiving. On his right, a gangly boy stood with a wooden pole in his hand, only half raised in a lax grip.

At some point, he must have managed a grazing hit, failing a second attempt when he realized the blow hadn't deterred Shinji in the slightest. Weissenburg had told him people could do things, unbelievable things, when they had enough adrenaline moving through them. Could even ignore pain from crippling wounds. It was lucky he hadn't been hit in the temple or back, otherwise he'd have been out cold.

Everyone was frozen in place, horror stricken from the sheer tenacity and hate behind his violence. They didn't even think of taking a step, or uttering a word, until Shinji crawled off of Günter, still panting. Feeling all of the fatigue and hurt roll into him. He probably had a concussion. The boys rushed to Günter, all shouting in a panic. One of them fumbled for their phone, another hesitating with his hands over Günter's face, utterly helpless. The gangly one dropped the pole and ran off around the corner, calling for help.

Feet shuffled to him, Swina's hands latching tentatively around one of Shinji's arms. His head burned and he launched himself up, shoving Swina hard. "Get away from me," he snarled, staggering back from weak legs. The fear in Scharnhorst's wide-eyes stung him.

Two of Günter's friends tried helping him to his feet, a third boy of brown hair and green eyes, unable to lend a hand, stared at Shinji, looking lost. "What did you do?" he asked, not understanding the question himself.

Shinji slowly, steadily, got up and walked out of the bike cage. Bleeding fist tucked against his stomach, he leaned on the wall at the corner of the chapel for support. But didn't make it very far before pitching forward and throwing up.

Herr Langley arrived an hour later to pick him up. Shinji's head had been bandaged by a disturbed looking Sister Maria, her movements hesitating and her sentences short and halting, as though he were more like a dangerously delicate explosive than a bloodied boy. She gave him pain relievers for the headache. Then he was sat outside the Headmistress' office, a police officer at his side. The man seemed uneasy over the whole situation, calming some when he and Langley spoke off to the side. He was in his olive green service uniform, shined shoes soon clapping to a halt next to Shinji's chair. He couldn't tell if the man was angry, annoyed or disappointed. Langley only waited for him to rise, then led him out without a word. Shinji drew stares from the other kids as he left.

Langley sighed as they got into the car, pausing with his hands on the wheel. "Katsuragi is supposed to be here to handle things like this," he said, then started the engine and made for the estate. Shinji didn't have anything to say. So what if Misato wasn't here? She was never here, not unless it was to train. His body ached, and his knuckles stung, even being wrapped in neosporin and gauze. Sister Maria said he hadn't broken any fingers, but they'd be stiff for weeks and he could feel every fiber of split skin.

They arrived at the estate, brick walls dark in the late evening. Sunlight slowly crept beneath the horizon, blues and grays overtaking it in long shadows. Still, there was some light left to tinge the flowers in twilight. Langley walked around the side of his grand home, and Shinji knew he was meant to follow.

A tool box sat by the fountain amidst the roses, contents scattered lazily atop it from yesterday. Langley fit on a pair of gloves and handed some to Shinji. He stuffed them in his pocket and picked his favorite sheers – blue colored handles with rusting blades. He could've gotten new ones, but these were the pair Gepard had given him.

Together, they started by the yellow Hesperrhodos roses, clipping at thorns and dead branches. He had to use his left hand, its movements unrefined. Thin cuts began to appear.

"You shouldn't do it bare handed," Langley said, nudging his chin in Shinji's direction. He only shrugged. So the man straightened on his haunches, arms resting on his thighs. "They had to take that boy to the hospital, you know."

Shinji kept working, the thorns of the rose bushes covering every open space of the stalk before him. He could've killed Günter. Maybe with a mess of broken fingers by the end of it – training didn't translate well with rage – but he could've. The thought was alien to him, as if being spoken in a completely different language. Just the idea was difficult to grasp. He had known they were being trained to do those things, or at least had an inkling before Misato really told him. But then... Moskva had said they were fighting monsters. Things called Angels. After that, he'd forgotten Weissenburg's first lesson in the art of soldiering. It was after Shinji had beaten Asuka in a CQC practice. She had dropped her guard and he'd pinned her to the ground. Embarrassed, annoyed, and maybe a little hurt, she'd complained that if they were learning to fight, why couldn't they learn to use real weapons yet?

Weissenburg actually came to his knees to address them and held out his open palms. They were rough hands, but otherwise unremarkable. "Guns and knives are only tools to make killing more efficient," he said, pausing to look at both of them in turn. His hands closed into fists. "If you do not have those, you must be able to kill with your hands."

Shinji's mind had been... turned off. Had been somewhere far away. Now that he dwelled on it, he didn't remember much of the actual fight. He just remembered that rush of anger. He just...

A lump twisted in his throat.

Twilight started to fade and darkness overtook them.

"Don't worry," Langley finally said. "So long as you're a pilot, nothing will change."

Shinji didn't see the flowers much as he worked, mind falling inward, thinking about Günter in a hospital room surrounded by his family. If he still had one.

"Yes, sir." he said, knowing he should stay away from school for the rest of his time in Germany. There was no reason to go there. Erika had stopped trying to reach him and he didn't want to tell her he was leaving. He didn't want to see her cry.

"My daughter," Langley said, pulling him from those somber thoughts. The man was only a foot away, staring at a fresh cut across his wrist. "What's she like?"

Shinji's brow scrunched, confused. How could he not know? Hadn't they lived in the same house? What made him think he knew any better? "I don't know," Shinji said, going back to the roses, a knew frustration building. Langley set his gaze on him, waiting.

Shinji let out a sigh. "I mean... she's loud, and nosy, and isn't really all that prim and proper like everyone at school thinks she is. Sometimes she's mean... well, a lot of the time..." he stopped, for a moment horrified over what he'd let tumble out. A glance at Langley told him he wasn't about to be kicked to the curb. The man's stoic expression didn't change, content to listen.

So Shinji went on. "But... she just acts tough, I think. I guess I really don't know."

That wasn't true of course. He knew a lot about Asuka, or he used to. How did he put something like that into words? His mind wandered to Unity Day, how he hadn't seen her since. Her window above was dark. She must've been out somewhere.

"I see," Langley said.

As night came in full, they packed the gloves and sheers away, going their separate ways home. Shinji went to sleep in his uniform, kept awake by a restless and fevered mind. Günter's broken face wouldn't leave him, a long thorn stuck deep in his brain. It shouldn't have bothered him so much – the fight. Asuka's absence. He'd been getting along just fine without her. He didn't need her to defend him. But he'd let himself rely on her for too long, made himself blind to Swina and his betrayal. Made himself fall for feelings towards Erika that weren't as real as he thought.

So that night, Shinji decided.

He decided he would never rely on anyone again.

The next morning, Shinji prepared for school. There was one last thing he had to do before he left. A familiar girl's voice echoed out of the open windows of the Langley house. He thought of stopping in only for a fleeting second. There was a part of him that wanted to face Asuka instead of the two people huddled under the shelter of Building A's brick wall.

Swina looked up as he approached. Shinji pretended he wasn't there. Erika was engrossed in her phone, but soon sensed his eyes on her.

"I have to leave," he said as she opened her mouth.

Erika flinched. "What?" he hated the hurt in her voice, and decided to stare at her shoes.

"My father says I have to move to Tokyo-3."

She stood up, quick, but didn't move away from the wall. One hand clutched at the pleats of her skirt. "When?"

"A few days."

Kids shouted from the halls nearby, oblivious to them. Lockers creaked and slammed closed.

Erika's voice cracked. "That's not fair."

"Lots of things aren't fair," Shinji said, regretting it too late. He looked up and that was it – her bright blue eyes on the verge of tears. There was nothing he could do. Nothing he could say. The words just wouldn't come. So he turned and left, walking as fast as he could.

At some point, he started running.

Night crawled forth, bleeding the sky of color as it drew ever nearer. Even resting on the short S-bahn ride to Bernau, Shinji still felt the crushing sting in his sides and doubled over at the front gates of the Langley estate. Weissenburg's gruff voice howled at him from the past, demanding he stand straight and give his lungs proper oxygen. Eyes cast back down the road, he wondered how long he had been running, Berlin left in the distance. Feeling came back in sweat slick skin and muscles that oozed, so sore his legs trembled.

He stood there, gulping in air and staring up at the Estate before deciding it was time to go home. The quiet trees and whispering shrubs were out of place tonight, the dark red of sunset casting them in a sinister light. His small Japanese shack came into view.

Nowhere was home now.

He found her in his room, rifling through his things. She stood as he entered, though only acknowledged him with a glance, acting as if she had every right to be there throwing his belongings about. As though she'd seen him only yesterday instead of months ago. She was wearing a soft pink dress scattered with blue and lavender flowers – something that felt distinctly un-Asuka like, yet didn't appear out of place on her.

"What are you doing in my room?" he asked, feeling something starting to come to a boil in his stomach.

Asuka jumped, but then shrugged as she pried open another drawer, making an annoyed growl when whatever it was she was looking for didn't appear. Some of his sketch pads were thrown atop the bed, pages splayed open. He nearly stepped forward, stopping when she spotted something in one of the other drawers, though he couldn't see what she picked up. Her shoulders drooped a little, only for a second or two, and she whirled around, scathing words on the tip of her tongue. At least until she took in the raw cuts and bruises decorating his face.

"What happened to you?" she asked, furious. Anyone else would have missed the concern beneath it. She stepped forward, hand reaching out to touch the gash over his eye.

He brushed her arm away, taking a step back. "Why do you care?" he snapped, unable to think beyond the hammering of his heart. All of his belongings lay about, drawings exposed and bare – closet tossed open and contents spilled out like an open wound. A desk drawer hung crooked: old watches, coins and shoe laces scattered to the floor. Misato's beret lay somewhere amidst it all.

A storm had swept through his room.

"You made a mess," Shinji said, feeling his expression twist into a grimace, full of disdain. Asuka became guarded, her arms stiff at her sides. He wanted to scream at her. His right hand trembled, remembering the same blind fury that had gripped him only a day before.

Shinji started to clean up, pretending that his old friend had already been swept up and vanished into the garden. She stayed where she was, and he could feel her watching him as he collected his books and tucked clothes and binders back in the closet.

"Are you going to come up to the house or what?" she asked once he'd put everything away, tone haughty. She hadn't lifted a finger to help.

"No. I have a lot of homework to do." he said. A lie.

Her voice sounded tight. "Fine. Stay here for all I care." and then she was gone.

Shinji frowned, kicking one of the half open drawers. What did she have to be angry about? All she'd done was ignore him and then – and then this. Even that justification didn't stop him from feeling utterly rotten. He shouldn't have said that. He shouldn't have said anything. Stupid. Stupid thing to do. For an aching minute, Shinji considered going up to the house anyway and finding her. Hooks stuck in him, formed from pent up emotions that had him angry again. She may as well have been a stranger to him.

The last out of place item he plucked from the floor was an envelope with some soup stains. The letter from Asuka that he'd never opened. Out of a doubt masked by spite, he left it on his desk, where it remained sealed.

For a while, Shinji actually did try to do homework. It didn't matter anymore, but maybe it would take his mind off things. He ended up sitting there for an hour, staring at nothing. 23 tracks passed. Miki Matsubara again – wash. He tugged the earbuds out and tossed the SDAT at the closet, still playing. A hand combed through his hair, grabbing some of it in a knot. Then something caught his eye.

Miki's voice whispered through the buds, right beside a stuffed animal that'd fallen free of the chaos in his closet. Shinji moved to pick it up, recognizing the thing. A plain, pudgy little monkey doll.

He sat on his bed with it, examining the clean fabric. Dirt stains just barely showed. He'd asked Teacher to sew it for him, back when he first found it. The man refused, so Shinji learned to sew. It had taken weeks, and a whole box of band-aids for his poor fingers.

Shinji left it by his pillow, body aching, needing to move. He decided to tend the garden in the dark, feeling the vines and flowers close off from him in preparation for the night. It wasn't long before he found himself, as always, by the roses again, patrolling them each but not caring to trim or hedge. One of them caught his shirt as he moved by.

It was Hesperrhodos, a western rose that held a pinkish, yellow hue. It must have been the same bush he'd once cut his arm on. None of the others held quite the same rich, vibrant color. His fingers skimmed through its leaves, sheers carefully picking away at errant stems or dead wood. He recalled – almost fondly – falling into it after being pushed. The thorns pricked his fingers, but he didn't care – he'd gotten used to it a long time ago. Next to the bush was the Amaranthus flower, always so out of place within the rose garden, thriving despite the biting thorns and bushes that overshadowed it in their competition for sunlight.

All those years of adversity had finally started to wear away at it. The edges of the Amaranthus were touched with tinges of blackish brown, though the radiance of its petals hadn't diminished in the slightest. He hoped it wasn't dying. It would be a shame after all these years. Maybe if he moved the Amaranthus, it would still grow. Maybe he could still save it.

His hands dipped into the soil, surprisingly soft and rich. He had no idea how deep the roots went, but if he was careful...

It was meticulous work, and the night was warm and calm enough for the mosquitoes to start making a meal of him. Trailing some dirt, he brought the frail little Amaranthus to the olive tree. Grass had covered the small clearing, the tree's leaves fuller and more widespread than he remembered. The trunk had grown fatter too, its roots stretching farther.

At the center of the clearing Shinji started to dig out a new plot. During the day, it would get all the sunlight it needed and, without other plants to crowd it, have enough water to gather from the rains.

It would be able to grow now.

Still, as silly as the thought was, Shinji couldn't help but think the clearing was awfully lonely for the Amaranthus.

It didn't seem so long ago that he wandered into the Langley's vast garden, banished from the only home and family he'd ever known. Well, that place wasn't home, not like Germany was – but he supposed it soon would be.

Shinji perused the garden one more time, familiar with each hidden path and stone, each fern and birch. The memories attached to their smells and their feel didn't come – he wouldn't let them. At least until he met again with the olive tree. Moments hidden in each huge, swirling finger of root coming together at the trunk and spreading out from the branches to greet the sunshine.

Shinji, setting his duffel bag down, took a red sash from his NERV-issue tan trousers – provided with the new military uniform mailed in with his transfer orders. The material was stiff, and though it fit just fine, the sight of him in it was still an oddity. Even with Misato's red beret snug over his head. He'd spent so long in the Kloster's jackets and ties, that this new image was unrecognizable. He supposed he would get used to that too.

Unfurling the crimson cloth in his hands, he stepped up the welcoming roots of the olive tree. Asuka hadn't been home when he willed the courage somewhere to check around lunch time. Yesterday had been her last night in before leaving for Heidelberg again. Gone early in the morning. So he came out here with the noon sky overhead and tied the sash around an arm of the tree. He wouldn't have to return it now.

Shinji bowed to Teacher and thanked him before he left.

Saturated bursts of white from cooling air and water vapor lorded over the skies, distant travelers soaring in. Shinji, now standing on an air-pad with Misato at NERV-03, watched them float overhead. The screaming of a VTOL's engines grew to a high-pitched sting in his ears, upsetting the air as it touched down. He and Misato boarded, settling in for the journey divided between three flights. They were going to the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Misato said that's where their 4th Branch was situated. From there they would board a military transport flying out to New Yokosuka, and then they would be traveling by car to Tokyo-3.

The prospect of seeing the city up close excited him a little and he let himself look forward to going to Japan again, if nothing else than to fight down his anxiety. At least Misato was traveling with him.

"Are you sure you don't want to go say goodbye?" she asked, studying him from the seat adjacent. "There's a base near Heidelberg we can land at before getting on course."

He shook his head. "No. She's probably busy," he said, looking out the window.

"Are you sure?"

He answered with silence and they stayed the course without detour. Shinji turned his right arm over in his lap, grabbing his wrist as he inspected the long sliver of discolored skin left behind after the rosebush had cut him open at only five.

They talked little on the trip, or at least Shinji did. Misato was hard to stop once she got going, not that he wanted to. Much like Asuka and Erika, she was able to hold long, rambling conversations almost entirely by herself. He wondered if that was just a girl thing. Once they transferred at Baikonur, she told him it had been decided that he would be living with her, since he wasn't old enough to live on his own yet.

She breezed over it, hoping he wouldn't question the order, but he knew who had decided that. The fears he'd been ignoring as a child, despite creeping suspicions, were confirmed for the second time in a month. His father didn't want anything to do with him. Asuka had been right.

"Here we are!" Misato cheered, pointing for him to look out the window. The sky was black by then, but Shinji could clearly see fragments of moonlight lapping off the waters of a lake. Beyond that, a midnight city glistened with neon at the feet of dark pillars dotted with orange. Sentinels of steel and glass guarding a secluded valley. Cold concrete walled off the metropolis and its ordered water purification pools and quiet honeycomb clusters of solar panels. The most advanced city on the planet, a hub of human ingenuity greater than the sprawl of Chicago-2 in America.

"Home sweet home!" Misato cheered.

"Yeah," he said, taking in the warm glow pooling off every building and illuminating every road, soft like embers of a dwindling fire. The heavy black mountains all around rose like waves to consume Tokyo-3's gentle radiance. A weak flame in a land that otherwise looked empty and barren.

"Home sweet home."

At the Langley estate, the garden remained empty, its occupants cast out to the world. The pathways became overgrown, stones uplifted and consumed. Water stopped flowing through the fountains, run dry until they held nothing but the baked corpses of lizards. In the clearing with the old olive tree, the Amaranthus started to succumb to a slow, cellular rot that sapped away its vigor and life. When it shriveled and dipped down to touch the barren soil at its roots, its rich color remained. Unfading.

A/N: Well, that concludes the first of four acts for Amarantos. There will eventually be a brief Interlude chapter featuring Misato and Weissenburg, but - unfortunately - it'll be quite a while before I actually publish Act II. Life is time consuming and so is indulging in fanfic. I don't want to rush out any chapters, so I'll only start posting Act II when I have it sufficiently fleshed out. Think of it like waiting for the release of a second book.

Until then, I'd like to thank you all again for your comments/thoughts/criticisms and I hope to see you around for Act II.