Wake up, Ikari!

T minus 29

Gray Flowers. Shinji Ikari typed it blind, staring up at the ceiling. Trying to plot it out in his head.

Grayflowers? No. Too romanji. Hip, Kensuke would call it. He deleted the non-word.

Seiji Takora will always love his wife. Maybe too heavy? And King got away with the infrequent journalistic present-tense, but opening with it? Something that hints the end? It could work. Of course she's going to die. That's the point.

The boy's fingers tapped over the keyboard. They had married on a bright, clear day in early March. Him in a black family kimono, Naoko in a simple white gown.

Okay. Sweet, simple image. Now what?

The window was open, and a breeze pushed through the room, smelling of grass and the lake and... Shinji's eyes closed. And rot. It was late Spring, but a cold rain had passed through less than an hour ago, and the air that wafted through the window was chilled and wet. It was easy to imagine Summer bleeding into Autumn, and that outside the leaves were turning, falling, rotting damp on the ground.

Leaves turning bright colors, becoming something remarkable and different, right before they fell. There was something to that. They diagnosed the cancer two months later. He typed it fast, following the impulse.

He pictured a healthy Naoko, even though there wasn't space for her just yet. He could spend a whole chapter contrasting wedding-day Naoko and the thing she eventually became. Healthy was too easy a start. So he took that image of Naoko in a wedding gown, and went the other way with it:

He would never forget how she looked the morning the last of her hair fell out. Stormy blue eyes sunken into bruised sockets, she cried, tears running down her puffy face. She had not taken the guard (guard=mouthguard. Prescribed. Pain makes her grind teeth at night) out yet, and her sobs had been muffled, like she was a child (gasping for air?) and far away. It was hard to remember the Naoko that had come before, the one he had married.

The young would-be writer surveyed these first few sentences. Painful, but it seemed an honest start. Plenty of space to pad. He could always shift things around.

Today is also bright and sunny, and Seiji is again in his black family kimono, but instead of a yard-shrine in Kyoto, he is standing at the desk of a crematorium in Yokohama. Naoko is not by his side, but in front of him, in the small ceramic urn he signs for. Her final resting place is a deep red - her favorite color - and has a picture of her printed on the front.

Now Shinji tried to picture Takora. Imagined a salaryman in his mid twenties in a too-large kimono. Black hair atop a cold, unremarkable face. What would be in his expression? He loves her, he'll always love her. He's holding her ashes in his hands. Emptiness, probably. Hollow. Vacant. Not very interesting. If Shinji described that, the reader would think Seiji was stoic or something. Better to leave the specific out for now.

Seiji Takora will always love his wife. But she made it a difficult thing, at the end,

There! His breathing sped up. Something had clicked. Something was coming. He didn't care how terribly cheap it was going to sound.

as her mind decayed and her body fell apart, (too many fall-apart synonyms?) (too general? Details? Too early?) while the tumors in her brain that caused her such pain (brain/pain rhyme -note) bloomed, like gray flowers (grayflowers?).

Shinji got up and paced the room for a minute, working off the extra energy. Bad move getting so worked up, it was already... he looked at the clock on his dresser. 1:40 AM. He had promised himself ten minutes of writing time after homework. That was part of Asuka's little challenge, after all. Ten minutes a day for a solid month. Better have at least a chapter done at the end. Shinji had technically lost the challenge already, since his ten minutes had started well after midnight, but Asuka didn't need to know that.

That stupid aptitude test. He just had to have gone and gotten a higher mark than her in Composition. Nevermind that she was at the top every other category. Composition had been enough to make it personal.

Shinji saved the nascent chapter and began to shut down the laptop. Stopped, went back, put a password on the document. He did not want anyone to see this. Especially Asuka. Not something so rough.

As the laptop shut down, Shinji stripped to his boxers and undershirt, dry-swallowed half a tablet of melatonin, and crawled beneath his thin bed-covers. The breeze drifting through the open window was cold and pleasant.

He did not bother to set an alarm for the following morning.

Ikari. The voice came from far away. Maybe underwater.

"Ikari." A new distance. Something familiar. Downthehall.

A bang as his door slid open. Shinji groaned, tightened into a ball. He was just dreaming this. He still had another few hours of blissful, sweet...

"Ikari! Wake up, dammit!" footsteps to his bed. The covers were yanked off. Footsteps to the window but, ah-hah, the window is already open.

The window slammed shut.

"I'm up," Shinji lied, crouching face-down into his pillow, his whole body in a roll, rebelling at the concept. His skin was damp. Felt good in the air, drying. No more footsteps. Must have been a dream. He could just go back to sleep and...

"I'm coming back with water, Shinji," came a soft, dangerous promise. Footsteps out the door. Shit.

"Shit," he muttered. She would do it. She had done it before.

He scraped his face against the pillow a few times, then rolled out of bed and onto his feet. Groggy. Everything blurred. He picked up a pair of uniform pants. Sniffed and discarded them. He repeated the process three times, got impatient, took his last clean pair from the closet. The shirt over the back of the chair at his desk was still pretty clean. He'd just worn it the last two days. That and deodorant and a stick of mint gum, and he was just pulling on a second black sock when Asuka marched in with a glass of water.

"Good," she said. "Now..." she stopped. Took a step closer. Sniffed audibly. "Your undershirt stinks."

She went downstairs, to give him a bit of privacy.

The door to his parents' room was open. Dad had gone to work already, if he had ever made it home. As Shinji passed through the empty kitchen, two pieces of hot toast popped out of the toaster. Asuka showing off. He snatched one up and joined her on the front step, locking the door behind himself. Asuka made a show of replacing the emergency key she had used to gain entry under a nearby planter's rock, and they set off for school.

With mom off to Kyoto for the week and dad doing crunch-work at the firm, Shinji had thought he'd have the house to himself. It had been a nasty shock to find Asuka in the kitchen Monday morning, reading the newspaper and munching on a toast covered in raspberry jam. Shinji had assumed, by some diseased and horribly flawed bit of logic, that if his parents were not around to let Asuka into the house, the red-head would not be able to enter - that his long-time friend would break a habit of nearly two years and fail to come to his house on the way to school and terrorize him out of bed simply because there was no one around to unlock the front door.

It was an awkward situation, really. As close as the Sohryu and Ikari families were, and as well as mom got on with Asuka, having the girl let herself in was really, well... it was rude. And Asuka was too damn smart not to know that.

He could have stopped it. Could have mentioned it in passing to mom when she called to check up on him. And then mom would have talked to Mrs. Sohryu, probably using the "teaching Shinji responsibility" pretext to request Asuka stay out of the house - because they all knew Shinji was the one that needed a lesson in responsibility. Yeah, mom would say that, while she and dad appreciated "little Asuka" looking after their only son, it was time he learned to do things for himself. This conversation between mothers would have been friendly and social. Maybe in the course of discussion plans for a two-family dinner would evolve. Then Mrs. Sohryu would have talked to Asuka, and the red-head would have stop coming over until, at least, Shinji's parents got back. But...

But maybe she wouldn't ever come back, once he tried blocking her out.

Their friendship was a strange thing. The slavish daily routine, the barbed conversation. Shinji worried that if he disrupted that routine, it would never reform. That Asuka would decide he was not worth the trouble. And she was too ingrained in his life, too much of a constant, for him to want that.

Shinji and Asuka had grown up together. The story went that they had met in the day-care, back when his family and her family all worked at the same firm. They had stood out from the six other children in the play-pen because Asuka, three months younger than Shinji and barely a toddler, had taken to ordering him around. The staff found that adorable enough to bring to their parents' attention. From there, what mom remembered as "play-dates" had been arranged, and when one family had crunch-work or business trips, the other family would look after both children.

It had been a little awkward because Mr. Sohryu was, at the time, dad's immediate superior. They had to keep things quiet. The firm had been in the middle of a long fall, and the management was exercising any pretext to fire someone. Even if the only evidence of, say, favoritism, was the play of two children. That little secret had firmly cemented the relationship between the Ikari and Sohryu families.

The earliest memory Shinji had was looking up a steep incline from ground-level and seeing a five-year-old Asuka at the top, yelling for help. He had wanted to go down the slope because, as mom put it, he had thought it was faster than walking ten feet to the sturdy and enclosed flight of stairs so thoughtfully provided by the city planning board. Asuka had been afraid, so he had gone first to show her she was being silly, and ended up ass-over-elbows.

That was how things tended to end up. So it was little surprise when Asuka began to outstrip him scholastically. Even less of a surprise when they began to grow apart around the 6th Grade, upon the conclusion of their first standardized test. There was a shameful memory: of walking up to a poster the teacher had put up, wondering what it was, seeing Asuka's name at the top, and his name... well, it had been unacceptably close to the bottom.

After that, everyone had gotten really excited about Asuka. She was placed in some weird after-school prep program, while Shinji tried to scrape together a decent grade so he wouldn't be held back.

Really, that could have been the end of it. Because Shinji had resented Asuka. Resented how she seemed to like learning, how she didn't treat school like it was unpleasant and compulsory. By the end of 6th Grade, he had started to actively avoid Asuka... though mostly to mask the fact that she seemed to be actively avoiding him. And, yeah, that could have been the end of it. With Middle School coming on, it would have been the easiest thing in the world for both of them to show up on the first day and simply decide they did not know one another. That was certainly how things seemed set to turn out.

And then Shinji had gone and failed his final Elementary School exam.

In the present day, on his way to school and four years distant from the event, Shinji shuddered. He had failed to graduate the 6th Grade. Because he had been a little idiot who hated school and thought it didn't matter because he was going to grow up and be Getter Robo anyway. A 11-year-old acting like he was 8. Present-day Shinji had no idea how it had gotten so bad.

When he left the Elementary School on the last day of spring session, Shinji had been openly bawling. The teacher had kept him after to explain things to him. How he would have to retake the stupid test or repeat the year. But taking the test again wouldn't matter, the 11-year-old Shinji knew, because it was unfair and impossible to pass. So... no Middle School. Dad was going to hit him. Mom would cry.

The teacher had enumerated each of Shinji's failings as a student, going over each test and piece of homework. It had taken about an hour - long enough for the student entrance to be mostly deserted by the time Shinji got there, so he hadn't bothered to hide his tear-streaked face. He was so angry and ashamed, he failed to notice little Asuka sitting on the cinderblock retaining wall that hemmed in the side of the playground facing the street. When she called out to him, he had almost - almost - ran away. Because she was perfect. Because mom and dad wished she had gone to them, and the Sohryu's had gotten stuck with the retard.

All she said was his name. There hadn't been a tone to it or anything, but once Shinji had suppressed his instinct to flee, he had turn around and shouted "What do you want?"

Asuka was eating a blue Popsicle. The smart kids got treats. Her lips were purple. She had looked down at him as though from a far greater height, and asked him why he was crying.

That look, that condescension. It had made him angry. Furious. But not at her. Somehow, even back then, before he really knew how to live, Shinji Ikari had managed to take Asuka's look and turn it on himself.

Where it belonged.

It took him a while to answer her, because he had suddenly realized that all the rage that had been building up inside him, at the stupid teacher, at his parents, at the impossible test... really, he should be mad at himself. And that had made him cry harder. By the time he was in a state to answer Asuka, she was almost done with her Popsicle.

"Because... I'm... stupid!" he hitched, scraping his knuckles painfully down the face of the cinderblock wall she sat on. "The teacher says I have to take the year over."

Asuka ate the last of her frozen treat. Put the stick into her bag. Then she said: "You aren't stupid, Shinji."

That had not helped. Lots of people said that. His parents. The teacher.

"Y-yeah," he had responded, dragging his knuckles down the wall again. "I think. I think I am."

"Nope," Asuka hopped off the wall, landing neatly. "You're just trying to excuse your failure."

That was how 10-year-old Asuka actually talked.

"I tried!" Shinji insisted, knowing it was a lie, knowing he was just creating self-satisfying drama, though of course he didn't frame it with that term. "I tried and it wasn't good enough." He scrapped his knuckles down the wall a third time, and saw Asuka go pale. There was a sharp pain in his hand as he pulled it from the wall.

His fist had caught a bur of cement. The skin on his index knuckle had broken, and had left a long smudge of bright red down the cinderblock. It had not really hurt at first, and Shinji was already crying and miserable anyway, so he raised his fist to scrape against the wall again, ready to make things worse.

And Asuka hit him right on the ear, with a force far greater than he would have thought her to possess. If her fist had landed flat, the compression probably would have ruptured his eardrum.

He went down hard.

"If you say it, it'll be true!" she was shouting for some reason, and her usually articulate speech was gone. "You'll be okay with being dumb. Maybe your parents will even start believing it."

"They'll hold you back, yes. They'll put you with the Brazilian kids," she said savagely. "You'll have to marry one, and then you'll have Portuguese babies!"

She kicked him in the side in emphasis, but there wasn't much force behind it. "You aren't dumb. You're lazy. Watching TV doesn't help you live!"

Shinji hardly heard the last bit about television. He was laughing too hard. Portuguese babies. Even though there was no trace of humor in Asuka's still-pale face. Even though his parents were likely, at that very moment, on their way home to have a very serious discussion with him. Shinji Ikari lay at little Asuka's feet and laughed.

She said he wasn't stupid, and it occurred to Shinji that Asuka was right most of the time so... okay. He was just acting stupid. Playing at being stupid. In a very convincing way. When he admitted this, Asuka had helped him to his feet, and they had walked home together for the first time in months.

She had waited with him in the living room, until his parents stormed in, and announced she was going to tutor Shinji until he could pass the Sixth Grade final. Her presence, her statement, and Shinji's injuries - which were obviously self-inflicted, at least in part - had spared him most of his parents' anger.

They spent a good portion of the summer together. Asuka had her own thing, and Shinji was pretty absorbed with being grounded, but they met once a day, even on weekends. At first it was mostly to review for the test, which was passed after a month with embarrassing ease. After that, they continued to meet up because, well. It was summer. They were friends again. Shinji was starting to notice how Asuka filled out a bathing suit, and she... well, he never understood her very well, but she seemed to like being around him.

Their rekindled friendship survived one year of Middle School, and then Asuka had gone to study abroad in America. That had been... hard. At first she had emailed him once or twice a week, but the interval between communications grew and grew. The pictures she attached were filled with exotic-looking people. People that looked like her, and with whom she seemed to feel at ease. Mr. Sohryu was from America, which made Asuka a citizen, so Shinji supposed it was a little like going home for her. Didn't stop him from being jealous at first.

But as that communication interval grew larger and the two lost an active interest in one another, the jealousy faded. Shinji made friends with Kensuke, and got Touji in the bargain. When he noticed that the few photos Asuka was sending all appeared to be of her and the same blond boy, a yanki, Shinji had actually been able to confront the obvious without breaking down.

She had a boyfriend. Well, she deserved a boyfriend, just like she deserved the study abroad post. She and Shinji, they weren't on the same level. He wasn't a genius. It wasn't like he was even an option for someone like her.

Shinji had thought all these things quite lucidly, then placed a block on his email account so he would not receive any more email from Asuka - although he did so in such a way that prevented the messages from bouncing and alerting her to what he was doing. He started gaming a lot more, spending almost as much time and money at the arcade as Kensuke. Losing himself in the competitive crush.

A few weeks before Asuka was due to come back, Shinji removed the block on his email account. The first email he got was... confusing. Most of it had to do with Asuka being aware of the email block, and wondering why her oldest friend would decide suddenly to ignore her. There were references to previous emails he had never read. Her tone was polite, exact, but somehow desperate. Shinji received this message twice in the course of two days, both sent at the same hour and minute. She had obviously been running a program, sending the message over and over. For how long, he did not know.

His apology was equally confusing. Something about her pictures being too big, crowding out his inbox, and he figured he'd hear most of it through her parents anyway. After a few email exchanges, they had managed to get back on good terms. The blond boy from the pictures was not mentioned. When she returned, he and his family had been invited to welcome her. Shinji had gotten a long hug from a slightly taller Asuka, who seemed quite happy to be home. And during that hug, with her mouth less than an inch from his ear, she had hissed: "Never do that again, Ikari. If you do, you will regret it."

That had been nearly two years ago. Their friendship was more or less unchanged since then: formal, privileged, and always a little strained.

"Ten minutes?" Asuka asked from up ahead.

"We usually make it in seven..." Shinji replied to her back, thinking she was talking about their route to school.

"The deal was for ten, Shinji."

"Oh. The writing thing."

"Of course, dummy, what else is there?" she made a good show of sounding exasperated.

"Oh, yes." He answered. "I did."

"You wrote. For at least ten minutes."

"I said that."

The red-head allowed Shinji to catch up with her. "What did you write about?" she wanted to know.

No. No no no. We aren't doing this. Not yet. "I thought we were supposed to do that, you know, at the end of the month?"

"But you did write," she asked for a third time, then added "you're taking the challenge, then?"

I was not aware it was optional, Shinji thought, glowering at her.

"Okay. Okay," Asuka started walking ahead again. She was smiling. Not a good sign.

They were nearly to the school. At the gate, Asuka turned and said: "If I win, you'll give me a mon for Golden Week." That holiday was, like the deadline, one month away. "And," the red-head continued, "you'll cover my train costs too."

That was hardly fair. He barely had a mon in his savings, and he was supposed to be going to Club Sega with Kensuke and Touji tomorrow after school. Maybe he could loan her the family travel-pass mom got from her job, but Asuka's name wasn't actually on it. And anyway, he wasn't entirely comfortable with lending out Ikari property like that.

He said as much. Asuka held up three fingers before he was finished, then proceeded to tick them off.

"One, you spend too much time at that arcade anyway. You don't need to be spending what will soon be my money trying to beat your Deathsmiles or Metal Slug high-scores. Or," she quickly said, as Shinji opened his mouth to give her the real particulars, "whatever it is you blow 100 yen on, per attempt. Your grades are still high, but all this gaming could make it easy to backslide." The last word was in English. It was from King's Carrie. Slang for relapsing into bad behaviors. Like being an academic failure.

"Two," the red-head curled her middle finger. "You'll be coming with me, so no need to worry about loaning out your precious family pass."

Shinji was shaking his head before she finished. "I've got a tournament. There were six qualifying rounds. It happens that Thursday. Look. How about we just do this for a mon? I can barely afford that, anyway."

Asuka waited until he stopped, jaw swelling, eyes shut. Like he was dragging his fingernails down a chalkboard. She was still holding up her index finger.

"Three," she let out the breath she had been holding, opened her eyes. "All of this is moot if you win. If you do, I'll give you a mon."

"What about travel expenses?" Shinji automatically challenged, and fell neatly into a trap as Asuka laughed dismissively and said: "Okay, I'll give you 1,600 yen to ride the Yamanote. And before you ask, no. I'm not going to follow you around to a bunch of seedy arcades. I have better things to do with my time."

And with that, she turned and went through the school gate.

Shinji said nothing in reply. Let her have the last word. Looked at his phone. Wondered why they had gotten to school so early. Still a half-hour before first bell.

He did not want to continue the argument now. If he did Asuka would get annoyed, and then the situation would get even worse. Push things too far, and she'd ignore him the rest of the day, then wake him tomorrow morning with a glass of water and no warning. If he was going to fight Asuka on this, better to leave it to tomorrow afternoon, so she would have the weekend to cool off.

It wasn't that Shinji was deaf to the notion of spending Golden Week with Asuka. Traveling with her, probably without any parental supervision. Its just that he had done the whole travel-thing with Asuka before, and it had not left him especially interested in a sequel.

The Sohryu and Ikari families had gone up to Hokkaido last winter to see a festival. Together.

It was all very cultural. Watermelon, ice sculptures, everyone in kimonos. Shinji loved watermelon, and he supposed the ice sculptures were pretty, but the whole kimono thing? Not for him. Too much like a dress. Especially since the only kimono he had wrapped across the front as a child's would, completely preventing him from having any resemblance to a television samurai. He would have gladly spent his own money for something else, but the only kimono merchants in Hokkaido were bulk-sellers that catered to American and European tourists who tended to respond more to bright colors than functional, well-made, warm clothing.

So yeah. Hokkaido, winter break, wearing a kimono that made him look like a girl. Only arcades in sight were a few pachinko parlors that smelled of old men and sadness and too much tobacco smoke. No laptop, no portable, and he had managed to already re-read half of 'Salem's Lot - in English, no less - on the shink ride to Hachinohe. And oh, yeah. Asuka was there. Mostly to boss him around and comment on how his kimono accentuated his feminine curves. Not unusual behavior, coming from her. Mom and dad had come to think of it as normal, so Asuka's comments were not remarked upon. Normally, Shinji would have taken it in stride. It was just that... six straight days of it had been too much.

Normally, he and Asuka saw each other almost every day, but usually for no more than an hour, maybe two, not counting time at school. Sometimes they did stuff over the weekend, but only as often as not. The way they got along, it worked, when cut up like that.

But being together for six days? This was a joint vacation. The two families slept in adjacent rooms and took their meals together. Even though it was mom luring him out of bed in the morning, Asuka was still one of the first people he saw: usually wrapped up in a heavy yukata in the inn's dining room, drinking from a mug of hot chocolate or a (measured) dish of sake, her eyes focused on something distant and invisible. And then her attention would fix on him in the light, appraising way it always did, and she would turn to managing him, so he fit in the world better. It was sort of a parody at mothering that somehow never became old with his parents, or hers.

And of course the parents made it worse. Parents always do. Bad enough they had planned a joint vacation over a major holiday without consulting either of their children... But then Mr. Sohryu had to go and made a... a really strange suggestion. He had mentioned it in the half-joking way parents use when they are testing for approval but don't really require it. To put it another way, when Mr. Sohryu wondered why they didn't all go in on a private hot springs, he had been speaking rhetorically.

Shinji had kept quiet, a sick, nervous excitement building in his gut. For couples to do that... mixed bathing... It was not unknown. Not especially taboo. But to include him and Asuka...

"Because it's sick, daddy," Asuka had replied, treating her father's statement as literal. "We go to school together. I don't want him to see me bathe." This was all said in a flat, matter-of-fact tone. She did not look at Shinji when she said it. The sick feeling in Shinji's stomach lifted and he was rather disappointed but, well, no point in doing it if she would hate him for it. If she thought it was sick.

The subject had quickly devolved into a nervous joke between the two families. It would later occur to Shinji that Mr. Sohryu would not have proposed something like that without first discussing it with his wife and Shinji's parents privately. With them being in on it and Asuka so casually disarming the suggestion, Shinji was probably the only one made to feel awkward by the whole thing.

Mix that strangeness up with a lack of gaming and decent television, add a dash of constant exposure to Asuka, and Shinji was miserable by the end of the trip. On the shink ride home he had gone forward to the smoking car toilet to be away from all of them - his parents, Asuka, her parents.

"And now I might be heading for another week of it," Shinji said aloud to himself, at the school gate. He hefted his bag, feeling the weight of the school-issue laptop.

He had agreed to the challenge. Asuka had stated the terms, and would likely not be persuaded to change them.

Better get to writing.

The first half of the day passed lazily. No major tests for another week, so all Shinji had to do was sit and soak up some notes on 19th Century History, do part of the homework assignment ahead of time during Math class, and play the simple language games the American ALT - a pretty, roughly Caucasian girl - had for them in English. When lunch came around, Shinji bought a shrimp tempura from the cafeteria and joined Touji and Kensuke on the roof. As they talked, Shinji looked out over the school grounds. He was starting to feel it in his fingers again, that tingle from when he had typed the last sentence in the opening of Gray Flowers. He wanted to write, but the situation prevented it. Bit annoying really, like getting an erection toward the end of a class and having to hold it against your leg when you leave the room.

Prose was skating at Shinji's mind even as he pretended to argue with Kensuke about passive vs. active defenses in Castle+Die. Both of them were in the Golden Week tournament and Ken, even though he was listed high, seemed to be worried about the lower-ranked Shinji. They would both be doing a lot of lying to one another in the coming weeks.

As Shinji affirmed that a one-shot landmine could be useful in the mid-game, cooldown or not, someone in the school yard caught his eye. Mari Makinami was walking to the building, one hand raised in greeting, apparently to Shinji. He cautiously returned the gesture. She pointed at herself, then at the roof, then disappeared into the building.

"Uh. Guys?" Shinji said. "I think Plaid is coming up."

"I'm out," came Touji immediately, gathering up his trash.

"Any excuse to get back to Hikari, you notice?" Kensuke said to Shinji. "And not even boob yet. He's like a dog."

"Fuck off, Ken," Touji responded in a good-natured way, then made for the access door.

"I heard she beat you with Dan!" Ken called after his friend, in reference to Mari. The other boy's response was swallowed up in stairwell echo, and then the slamming of the access door. "She beat him with Dan," Ken affirmed to Shinji, turning to him. "In Super Street Fighter 4 Turbo. So, what is it this time, you think?"

"Probably got around to beating my Metal Slug X score," Shinji said, a rueful smile on his face. "I only kept it this long because she was playing the series in order, and since, you know, 2 and X are so similar, she skipped it over."

"Your own fault, Ikari. Should have stuck with the strategy games. You know, stuff that requires thought."

"You going to say that in a minute, when she gets up here?" Shinji asked, fishing a beet slice out of his soup.

"What's there to argue? Castle-ecks-Die is like chess. Metal Slug is..."

At that moment, the access door slammed open. Mari Makinami strode onto the rooftop, her horn-rimmed glasses catching the light.

"...less complex, linear..." Kensuke trailed off, mumbling a few large words meant to insult the game's genre.

"What was that, hikki?" Mari asked as she approached them, a predatory grin on her face. Her plaid skirt, an apparently acceptable variation of the school's dress code, blew in the breeze. To Shinji, hopped up on writing as he was for the moment, she appeared almost normal - but the bit of difference that allowed for the 'almost' qualifier, that was totally alien. Two drops of deep black ink on otherwise blank, white paper.

Kensuke moved away from the railing. "I was just talking about..." he paused. Shinji held his breath. "About how Castle-ecks-Die is all abo..."

"About pretending to be thinking deep while you sit and jerk off in your booth, yeah?" Mari had stopped grinning to adopt a thoughtful repose. "It's all about diverting attention from your stunted intellect, isn't that right?"

She paused for one second. Two. Ken opened his mouth.

"I notice you aren't responding, hikki," Mari spoke before he could, stalking forward. "Would it help if I gave you sixty seconds to plan out a strategy? Perhaps shuffle your deck of nouns and adverbs? Check your game-guide for pithy remarks about whether or not I'm ovulating? Or maybe I should..."

"Uh, hi Mari," Shinji interrupted. "What's up?"

Kensuke had been backed against the railing, a dull look on his face. When Mari turned to Shinji, Ken hurried by her and off the roof.

"And its pronounced Castle-cross-Die, fuckwit!" Mari twisted to deliver this last insult, then turned back to Shinji. "Hey there, S-I." She was calling Shinji by his initials. Because that was how he attributed all his high-scores.

"Mari," Shinji greeted in return. "What's up?" he repeated.

For a moment Mari looked confused. He had broken her momentum, distracting her from Kensuke like that. She'd gotten herself so worked up it took a second to switch gears. Green pupils dilated. She bent forward slightly, tucking a stray line of hair behind her ear. She raised one foot back, and brought it down at the exact moment she cried "right!"

"So yeah, Hey is getting in the new Deathsmiles tomorrow. They put out a board this morning. Are you going to be there?"

Shinji opened his mouth.

"Because, see, they've got this new competitive mode I really really really want to try out. See, they have two cabinets back to back and they throw waves of enemies at you and the other person and whoever collects more points gets fewer enemies while the other person gets swarmed see?"

"Like in Tetris," Shinji put in.

Mari looked blank for a moment. Shinji wondered if she'd managed to never play Tetris before.

"Anyway," she brushed the reference aside. "There are two different scoreboards with this version of the game. One for solo and one for competitive. So. You've got the second-highest Deathsmiles score in the El-El, yes?"

"Uh, as of last week..."

"Right, and I'm number one," she was bouncing on the balls of her feet. "So we need to play against each other tomorrow to get the very highest competitive score we can."

Shinji hesitated a moment. "Does it have to be tomorrow?"

"Yep. Yes. And you'll need to get there early. Like, last period? Skip it. I want this done before five. My boyfriend wants to pick me up at five. You know that new theme hotel that opened in Uguisudani?"

Shinji tried not to conceal his surprise. Boyfriend? And by theme hotel, she must mean love hotel.

"They've supposed to have these baths that are huge transparent bowls. And white and red tiles, like its Valentine's. And these backless chairs that are really good for..."

"Mari?" Shinji's voice was shaky, but he spoke with volume. "I d-don't need to know about that."

Makinami cocked her head to one side. "What, are you a faggot?"

After lunch was Science. The class had finished a lab Wednesday, and most of the discussion was about that. Shinji had already finished his lab book the night before, and so had opened his laptop to try and work on Gray Flowers. Didn't really feel like writing - that particular impulse had leapt off the roof somewhere between "boyfriend" and "faggot" - but at least he could do some editing.

As he was moving to open the story, a chat window appeared. "Why the fuck does she even like you?" Kensuke had sent. Shinji responded with the meat of his encounter with Plaid. Touji joined in. Half the period was spent re-telling the conversation and watching Ken and Touji react to the news that Mari had a boyfriend. The body of their remarks had to do with what the stencil on the back this boyfriend's canvas jumpsuit would read. Touji favored "Fuchuu," that being the proximate Federal penal facility, while Kensuke figured it would be "Kazakuiyoui," which was an insane asylum supposedly located somewhere in the Nishi-Magome area. Both agreed the jumpsuit would be filthy and covered in blood spatter. The boyfriend also probably affected a hockey mask and, beneath that, a second mask of human skin.

Shinji did not feel much like adding to the conversation. When Mari had taken an interest in him, he had figured that might be the starting point for something. Maybe something like what Touji had with Hikari, or more physical than that. She was pretty and fun. She did not mind casual physical contact, and appeared to go out of her way to talk with him. Shinji had interpreted all these things as cues to a mutual attraction. He had obviously been mistaken.

After Science came P.E. The three boys ran together, speculating on - between gasps - what sort of stimulant Makinami was abusing. She had joined the school mid-session two months ago, and had demonstrated the same manic personality on every occasion they had encountered her. Shinji had been lucky enough to meet her at the Hey first, a week after she started at their school, and apparently managed to impress her. That was why he didn't have a nickname other than his own initials. Kensuke had been labeled hikkimori instantly, and Touji had been dubbed fuckstick. "He has the right make for a porn extra," Mari had commented, boxing the boy with thumbs and fingers. She had done this in a crowded hallway upon learning of Touji's association with S-I and the hikki. Hikari had been on hand for the encounter, and was apparently still troubled by it.

After six laps the boys rested against the sloped retaining wall that ran from the edge of the track up to the sports building. Shinji caught a flash of reluctant brunette slightly above and to the right, at the fence that ran around the girls' pool area. He blinked sweat from his eyes and saw a figure at the fence, profile so defined she had to be wearing a swimsuit. She was either looking down the slope or had her back to it, Shinji could not tell which - the sun had her in silhouette. But still, he knew exactly who it was. Her shoulder-length hair was the reddish-brown color it turned when wet.

"Maybe she's a call girl or something," Kensuke was saying.

Shinji sat up. Blinked. "What?" Mari. Right.

"I mean, she spends time playing those quasi-ecchi games, maybe she's just trying to, you know, meet clients."

"Figure there are a lot of better ways for an underage hooker to advertise," Touji replied. "Maybe she just got, you know, body issues."

"I thought it was kinda cool, that she was a gamer," Shinji joined in. "But, I mean, why would a girl bother?"

"Yeah," Touji agreed. "I always figured it was something you do when you don't have anybody."

"Eh?" Kensuke.

"I mean, if you don't have a girl or, you know, anything else to do. Maybe its different for them."

Kensuke responded to that in a defensive tone, but Shinji wasn't listening. Because Touji was right, and as Shinji again reclined against the slope, he began to think Friday, with this Deathsmiles thing and Club Sega, was going to be a huge waste of time.

His eyes wandering back to the fence by the girls' pool, searching for the red-haired silhouette that was now gone.

Dad was home. His tiny gray Nissan was in the drive. The neighborhood tuxedo cat was sitting on the hood, and watched Shinji as he walked past.

"I'm home!" he called out in the entryway, kicking off his shoes.

"Kitchen," came the low response.

The elder Ikari was at the dinner table, drinking a green tea and shuffling papers. The table was covered in open envelopes and business documents and the hi-tech laptop dad's firm had given him.

"How was your day?" Shinji asked, pulling off his bag and putting it in one of the kitchen chairs. "Is the work over?"

"Until the next thing, anyway" dad replied, picking up an envelope and holding it out to Shinji: "Have you seen this?"

It was from the school district. More information on the aptitude test results. With the notable exception of Math, Shinji was over the 97th percentile in every category. He showed the letter to dad, who smiled as he read it.

"And you failed the 6th Grade," the man said, proud and bemused.

The Ikari men decided to eat out at Ikaa's, the noodle shop a few blocks down the street. It was as much celebration as they felt like having, without mom there. Dad had suggested it, even though he was clearly exhausted from the crunch-work.

They sat at a tiny table away from the counter. Shinji had ordered a cold udon special with tangy dipping sauce, and dad got some soumen and a miso. They talked about the minutia of Shinji's day, the lab results in Science class and how his track time had gone up six seconds. They talked about dad's work, about the tedious process of conferring with the government patent office and the firm's patent lawyer, and how the whole system was thirty years behind the structure of modern science. They spoke together as easily as could be expected, between father and son.

And then, as Shinji was bringing his bowl up to drain the broth, dad dropped a bombshell.

"We might be having an addition to the family."

Shinji tried to gasp and drink soup at the same time. Had to go out into the street to his cough under control. Dad joined him, still eating the last of his soumen.

When his son could finally stand upright again, dad clarified: "I meant, we may have a relative coming to live with us soon." He was conspicuously not grinning. Dad's humor was either entirely coincidental or relied on perfect timing, Shinji had never been able to figure which.

"Thanks for that," Shinji panted. "Really."

"Do you remember Rei?" dad dumped his bowl, and the two started home. "You met her at the family reunion a few years ago?"

"Not really," Shinji said, thinking. The name didn't mean anything to him.

"From the Ayanami branch."

"Oh, the..." Shinji hunted for the word. "The albino?"

"She does have albinism, yes," dad allowed, wincing at Shinji's choice of words. "Did you actually talk to her at any point?"

"I don't remember," there had been fifteen kids there, all about Shinji's age. He remembered a pale girl with graying hair and pink eyes. Maybe she had been really shy? He couldn't remember talking to her.

"Well, Rei may be coming to live with us soon."

"Why?" Yeah. Not the most accepting question.

"Mother wasn't very clear on that point. Is it going to be an issue?"

Shinji bit back an immediate response and tried turning the idea over in his head. It couldn't be that bad, surely, or mom wouldn't be doing it. But still, having to share the house with someone else, a sick someone especially, that seemed like a burden. But... maybe this would be okay. They wouldn't make him give up his room or anything. He didn't really have any grounds to complain.

"I don't think so," Shinji finally answered. "When is she coming? What do we need to do?"

They were back at the house. The tuxedo cat was still sprawled across dad's Nissan. It yowled as they passed by.

"Well," dad sighed, betraying some amount of frustration, "we'll need to empty out the storage room, for a start. Your mother has already started the paperwork with the district..."

"When is this going to happen, again?" Shinji interrupted. He'd been thinking weeks - hopefully months. After Golden Week, please?

"Knowing your mother, tomorrow."

Shinji stared at his ceiling, waiting for the melatonin to take effect. He hadn't done any review tonight. Had not managed to write anything, either. He had sat at the computer for ten minutes, just so he wouldn't have to lie to Asuka in the morning, but the impulse to write just wasn't there. If only Mari hadn't shown up at lunch.

He was going to have to start responding to that writing impulse, whenever it came. Even if it meant stopping whatever he was doing in order to do so. But maybe feeling wouldn't come back. Maybe he had wasted it, and would have to start writing something new before the feeling would return. It was annoying, having to wait like this. And brooding over it probably wasn't helping at all. He shifted over to the other big subject, Ayanami.

Him and dad had cleared out the room across the hall from Shinji's. Stripped it down to a futon and a dresser and a lamp on the floor. The storage room had never been properly furnished, so that was the best they could do. Moving all that stuff had left Shinji exhausted, and dad was basically dead on his feet by the end. He had tried calling mom, but had just gotten her voice-mail, so Shinji was still very much in the dark about the whole business.

He thought back to the Ikari family reunion. The little white girl, huddled under an umbrella because the day was too clear, too bright. He had been playing soccer with a cousin, looked over and seen... girl, umbrella... She was wearing a white kimono with red effect. Maybe red and orange? Bands of some color like that, running diagonal across her chest. One of her tiny hands was a fist around the umbrella pole, the other was curled loosely around it further up, twitching as she noticed him noticing her.

Was he making stuff up? Shinji couldn't be sure. It had been a long time ago, but she had certainly been unusual enough for him to devote some attention to a stolen glance. Rei Ayanami.

"Rei Ayanami," he muttered. The melatonin was taking hold. His face was getting warm, his legs were growing heavy. Just grab the extra pillow to your chest and drift off. Easiest thing in the world. Think about this strange girl, plumb your memories and pretend to gain insight. Think about this disease, and all the others in your life.

Shinji pulled himself out of the doze with an effort of will. Rose into a sitting position like there was a twenty-pound weight on his chest. Disease.

Right. Disease. Disease!

He looked at the clock. 10:15 PM. Okay. Okay.

He got to his feet and stumbled downstairs, started the kettle. Ripped open six bags of green tea and poured them into a large bowl. Got a jar of honey out of the pantry and set it beside the bowl. Pulled the salad spinner up from under the sink and removed the inner plastic strainer. Dumped the powdery tea leaves into the strainer, shook it over the sink to filter out the finer residue, then replaced the strainer in the salad spinner. All set.

As he waited for the water to come to boil, he filled the empty bowl with three spoonfuls of honey.

After the water boiled, he shut off the heat and gave it a second to cool. When the water was ready, he poured perhaps a liter into the salad spinner, then went and used the toilet. When he came back the water was a light green color, and cloudy with tea leaves. He raised the strainer out, judged the color of the liquid in the salad spinner, then replaced it. He went upstairs and got his laptop and its power cable. By the time that was set up on the kitchen table, the liquid in the salad spinner was an acceptable shade of green. He dumped wet tea leaves out of the plastic strainer and into the sink, then poured the tea he had made into the bowl, stirring it until the honey at the bottom had dissolved and the whole thing was a deep amber-green color. He sat at the kitchen table, brought the concoction to his lips, and drank deeply. Rich and earthy. Horribly sweet.

One gulp after another, seven in all, before the bowl was empty and discarded on the table. The laptop was powered on, Gray Hearts was opened.

Disease. Rei Ayanami's albinism. Naoko's brain tumor. Mari's mania. Take what you know. Mix it up. Integrate.

But he didn't have space for it, not yet. Seiji loved his wife, had just remembered her toward the end, and picked up her ashes. There was work to do yet. The fact of disease, and then...

The honeyed tea was hitting his system. Shinji lost his train of thought.

He didn't really know anything about Rei Ayanami, or albinism. He fought the urge to do research online. It wasn't important. Not to this. But how he felt about it, that unease, that sense of potentially have his own health threatened by the illness of someone nearby. He could use that. Seiji and Naoko would go through a period of shared despair after the diagnosis, but their emotional response would eventually split along two different paths. Seiji would come to fear and... and resent his wife. Because she was a precious part of his life that was withering, dying, despite his protests. Naoko would...

Naoko would be the girl with the black umbrella, watching the other children play. Thinking about... about what she didn't have, about what had been taken. Thinking about not having children, not growing old.

Shinji typed. Set Seiji walking away from the crematorium, coming home to a burn-out shell. Naoko's work, at the end. The bland-faced salaryman walked through the remains of his home - their home - trying to remember what it was like to be young and healthy and in love. Thinking about how disease can wither that love down to almost nothing, until your wife is little more than an acquaintance whose presence you tolerate out of pity and patience because you know she will soon be dead.

There's the mechanism for narration, right there, Shinji decided. Seiji feeling things out, reaching back, trying to relive the day Naoko became his wife. Confronting every horrible memory on that path. Trying to get the hate within him to die like Naoko had, so he could remember her as she had been on their wedding day, beautiful and perfect.

Shinji typed for one hour. Two. At 12:50 AM he swallowed two melatonin - four times his usual dosage - and tried to manage a stop in the story. Then he saved the document, shut down the laptop, brought it upstairs, and sprawled out on his bed.

He tried to sleep. Couldn't. Too anxious. He got up and took a quick shower, without a bath. Slid beneath the thin bedcovers, his hair damp, a cool breeze from the open window and the melatonin dragging him down into sleep.