Wake up, Ikari!

T minus 27

The world beyond the window was gray and mostly hidden. Shinji stared out into it, half-awake, absently spinning the ring on his finger.

It was 6:07AM. That's what Shinji's phone said anyway. He wasn't sure he believed it. He never got up this early, and only very rarely got up on his own. But here he was, awake, alone, and hypnotized by an early-morning fog.

The melatonin was not working anymore. He had lain in bed for maybe two hours before finally going to sleep, and even then it had seemed like he was half-awake. To sleep like that, then wake up this early and actually feel rested - that was off. That was wrong. But Shinji wasn't concerned with that wrongness. Not right now. No.

In the slow way of someone freshly-awake, he was thinking about Asuka.

It was like he had all these memories in his head that he had filtered. Half-processed. Up until yesterday, Asuka Langley Sohryu had been like the sun. Something you could appreciate, benefit from, and sometimes curse, but never really look at directly.

Now his mind - it was hard to describe. Felt like everything was trying to happen at once. The churning fog outside seemed sympathetic.

"Ohb-lit-ar-ay-shun," he said the english word precisely, relaxing his throat so the word kicked free of his mouth weak and as gravely as he could make it. Subvocalized, really, like a Deathstalker invoking Boost.

No baffles, no counterweights, no respect, none of that protective fear. Everything had just burst free.

He turned away from the window. He wanted to be outside, in the fog. Stripped off the uniform pants and shirt he had slept in. Examined the blood stains on the shirt's collar. Felt his face, felt the faint scar, gave the ring on his finger another few nervous spins.

From the dresser he pulled a pair of jeans and a long-sleeved black shirt with a stylized white lily on it. The shirt was new, still in a plastic bag. Mom must have picked it up for him in Kyoto.

Shinji dressed and then returned to the window. Considered the roof beneath it. The first floor of the house was larger than the second, and an awning ran by his window and wrapped around to the front of the house. He was pondering how to get out of the house without waking anyone.

The awning was a bad choice. The photovoltaic shingles would be slick, and he'd have to jump in order to get to ground level. He used to use an old oak tree that had grown in the back yard to climb up and down, but the utility company had come in the previous winter and cut it down.

No, sneaking about on the roof was hardly needed. His sleep-addled brain was just suggesting unnecessary things. It was early morning after all, not the dead of night. Shinji could just walk out the front door, if he could avoid waking anyone.

So, out into the hall and against the far wall. A support joist ran under the floor there, and walking on it minimized the sound he made. Did not want to risk mom hearing the long creaks walking down the middle would cause, and who knew how sensitive Ayanami's hearing was...

Down the hall and down the stairs, taking them slowly and one at a time. Sitting at the bottom step, listening for sounds of movement above. Nothing.

In the kitchen Shinji paused to go through the refrigerator and pantry. He had not eaten anything the previous evening, save for a bit of sweet rice that had quickly killed his appetite - sweets just really weren't his thing anymore - and he was famished.

Because mom had been gone for a week there was almost nothing worth eating. He ended up with a single rice-gerkin, three sheets of seaweed, and a few daubs of fish paste. He followed that with a full glass of water, to wash away the septic taste of those three items mixed together.

And then Shinji went outside.

The air was heavy and chilled, and too cold to be comfortable. Shinji had never been in a really thick fog before. It hung close and twisted as he moved through it. He was a little curious to find that it did not scare him. The Mist by King had been one of the first books he had ever read, and it had had quite an effect on him, at the time.

But Shinji was more than prepared to believe the only strange thing walking through the fog right now was him. He had an impossible ring. He had seen the cold empty. He was a schoolkid, up before seven on a Saturday. No monster crawlt up out of the todash darkness was going to mess with him.

Shinji smiled, at the thought of yellow-skinned, tripodal, half-lobstered creatures scurrying before him in fear, as he followed the sidewalk down the street, the wet pavement only just visible beneath his dull sneakers. He continued down the road, to where it curved. The Sohryu house was a half-block from that point, and Shinji's first impulse was to go there, to tap on the basement window until Asuka let him in.

But that way was closed to him now. After the phone call, nothing else needed to be said. Except maybe ohb-lit-ar-ay-shun.

His pace had slowed to a familiar, indulgent shuffle. He could feel everything dragging down with the memory of how the Second Child had flinched when he had used her family name. Was he going to be able to take that back? Was he ever going to be able to explain the bits of it that he understood?

But thinking about what had happened at the arcade quickened his pace. Spiked his adrenaline. Punched through Asuka and all the other wreckage that had followed what had happened.

Shinji crossed it at a dead sprint, hopped over the drainage ditch and pushed through the bushes that grew between the sakura and sycamore that lined the road. Through that and past the opening in the chain link fence, and then down a steep rocky slope, and Shinji was at the ruin.

The building had been some kind of processing center, back when the area had been heavily industrialized. Now it was a five-story skeleton of exposed steel and rotting concrete, looming high out of the fog like the carcass of some massive animal. The building face on this side was mostly intact, and threw back Shinji's footsteps as he walked over the broken hardtop of a long-abandoned parking lot. Or maybe that was other hims, walking hidden out in the fog in perfect syncopation.

He went into the building, navigating to colder dimness at first by memory and faint sight, then by the light given off by the ring. Shadows danced on the wall as he walked among the building's wreckage, forming suggestive shapes. The fog walkers had followed him inside, hovering at the periphery, observing. Waiting.

By the time he had arrived at the ruin's roof, a pitted tar slab four stories up, Shinji had found the shape of his fear.

He sat at the edge of the roof, and stared out into the blankness. Dripping wet and freezing by the time the sun came up.

Hungry, he headed to the far side of the lake, broiling in his black shirt. People were up and about now, jogging and walking indecently huge dogs along the lake's edge.

The local commercial district facing the lake was exactly six shops long, and situated just off the boardwalk. Shinji was familiar with the three restaurants here, and after some deliberation decided to eat at Cho's. Their salted fish was good, Old Cho had absolutely no use for sweet omelet, and there were no mirrors in the store, not even in the bathroom.

He ate a whole side of mackerel with a cup of miso. Even ate the nattou on rice Cho provided as a joke. By the time he finished it was nearly 7:30. Mom would probably be up by now. Shinji was a little surprised she had not yet phoned to find out where he was.

After Cho's he stopped in at the western-style bakery up the strip and tried to pick out something with cherry on it. An opening move, a peace offering. Shinji still feared Asuka, but as he had been reminded in the ruin, she wasn't the only thing he had to be afraid of, and if she wasn't an ally anymore, he'd settle for bribing her into neutrality.

The bakery had nothing with cherries though, not the real stuff. Shinji left empty handed.

It was nearly 8:30 when Shinji got home and quietly let himself inside. He had stepped out of his sneakers before he heard the voices coming from the kitchen. Well, so much for getting back to his room without mom knowing he had been gone.

He crept from the entryway into the hall that bordered the dining room. He could make out two voices, mom and...?

"...better in-solution, see?" Asuka was saying. "You can shift between alltropic states just by varying a few picoamps."

"But where's the application?" mom replied. "Sure, it isn't just the standard binary piezoelectrical effect, and the voltage is impressive, but the solution to active component ratio is too high. What you've done here is fascinating, and I'm sure you could get a paper out of it, but..."

No point lingering in the hall. They had settled in on the kitchen table to talk shop, obviously. Though why they would want to do it this early in the morning, Shinji had no clue. He sauntered into the kitchen like it was nothing.

"...this bit with the propagative medium... oh, Shinji," mom had been gesturing at Asuka's gunmetal laptop, still in her morning robe. Her expression grew puzzled. "When did you get up?"

"Just went for a walk," Shinji explained, crossing to the sink and getting a glass of water, mostly so he'd have something nonchalant to do. "I heard you moving around when I left," he lied.

"You went for a walk." Mom made the question an incredulous statement. "...how's your cheek?"

Shinji shrugged. "Fine, I guess. Doesn't hurt or anything." He looked pointedly from mom to Asuka, who was focused on the computer screen. Could he at least get mom on his side for this?

"Asuka just came by to get some advice from me," mom explained, looking back to the girl's laptop.

Silence. Shinji leaned against the counter. Took a long drink of water. Poured the rest down the sink.

Mom was looking at him again. Probably she could guess at what he was trying to work up the nerve to do. She gestured to him slightly with one hand, down where Asuka wouldn't see.

If you're going to do something, get on with it.

"Hey Asuka," he finally said.

"I have nothing to say to you," the girl said, the words coming quiet and fast and blending together. She did not look up from her laptop.

"Asuka!" mom exclaimed.

"Well, t-thank goodness for that," Shinji replied, making for the stairs. His face was burning.


"Hmm?" he stopped halfway up the stairs, looking down at mom. Trying not to shake. "Yes? D-did you need something?"

Mom looked from Shinji to Asuka and then back to Shinji. Started to say something. Stopped. Closed her eyes. Sighed.

"Have you invited the Suzahara boy to the party tonight?" she finally asked in an even voice.

"No," Shinji replied, finally mastering an indifferent tone. "I'll do that right now," and without waiting for any further instruction, he went to his room.

Shit. SHIT.

Asuka had come up and left his mailbag draped over the desk chair. He had entirely forgotten about it. She had carried it for him after the accident yesterday, and must have taken it with her when he had told her to go away. If he hadn't been out walking...

Well, so much for Gray Flowers. Asuka had probably copied the document off his laptop last night and was, even now, having her home computers crack it open. Even if she no longer cared for their wager, it would still be something she could taunt him with later.

A juvenile fumbling the idea of love, she would say, expression warped with the sharp, certain curves of indulgent cruelty. Let me tell you how you have it wrong, Shinji. Let me tell you how it was.

For a while all Shinji could do was pace, his mind a storm of shifting blame and reason. The shifting shadows were pushed into a mental corner, to fester and seethe and plot indescribable metaphysical violence. They were not downstairs talking to his mother.

She had peeked at him. Always carried herself above him, never mind that she really was a genius. She had left him behind first. Always talking in that language he couldn't understand...

Shinji stopped pacing. Last night, there had been an American in the crowd, at the police line. He had said... what?

That was wicked man. Just insane. The guy with the spiky blond hair had said that in English. And Shinji had understood him perfectly.

The impossible ring had been a gradual thing. Shinji had known the thing was there from the moment he woke up, but had ignored it. Waited until someone else noticed it, so he could construct a neat little lie that he could tell himself too, a completely reasonable alternative for his mind to work off of while the much crazier truth existed apart, as something he didn't need to deal with.

He had not been able to do that with the other thing he had brought back from the dream. That... automatic knowledge. The translator. That American asshole had forced it all onto him, even as Shinji was doing his best to ignore it. He had crossed the police line, Asuka had been waiting, willing to carry his mailbag - how thoughtful, how nice! - and then That was wicked man. Just insane. And that should have just been noise to his ears, closer to musical tones than actual information.

Shinji turned to his bookshelf. Picked up his English copy of the first book in King's Dark Tower series.

"The man in black fled across the desert, and the Gunslinger followed."

He skimmed the first page, reading it as easily as if it were Japanese. But that didn't mean anything. He knew this book too well. His translation notes were scribbled in pencil in the margins of every page in the book. He knew the Gunslinger's tale. No, for this he needed something a bit more challenging.

He scanned the bookshelf for other books in English. Finally settled on Snow Crash, by someone named Neal Stephenson. Mom had given the book to him back when he first started translating fiction. Said she had loved it in college. So Shinji, of course, had entirely neglected to so much as glance it.

"The Deliverator belongs to an elite order, a hallowed subcategory. He's got esprit up to here."

Shinji started to giggle. Put Snow Crash down on his desk. Looked back to the bookshelf. Pulled out an old Lupin III manga he had bought online. The seller had neglected to mention it was in Thai or Cantonese or something.

This text was unreadable. The first page had Lupin sitting on a pile of gems, going เพชรเพชร! มีอะไรที่ดีกว่า, whatever that meant. Shinji returned the manga to its spot on the shelf. Picked up Snow Crash again and read further.

"Right now, he (the Deliverator) is preparing to carry out his third mission of the night. His uniform is black as activated charcoal, filtering the very light out of the air. A bullet will bounce off its arachnofiber weave like a wren hitting a patio door, but excess perspiration wafts through it like a breeze through a freshly napalmed forest."

Shinji closed the book. Let the words sit in his mind. Opened it and re-read, giggling all the while. He understood it all perfectly. Well, he had never heard of wren or arachnofiber or napalm, but the meaning was clear through context. Sort of.

Full present-tense prose fiction with multiple comma forms (conversational storytelling), and he had understood it on one read through. Half the vocabulary in there he simply should not have known off the top of his head, never mind it usually took him at least a few seconds to translate even simply-structured sentences.

He put Snow Crash down on his desk like it was made of glass. Turned back to the bookshelf. Spied something simply epic. The constant giggle turned into a full-on laugh.

There was a book on the bottom shelf with a coarse, mute black cover. The name of the book was inscribed on the spine in fluorescent green ink, creating an interesting, toxic contrast.

Totes Meer was the title. Only Shinji read it as Dead Sea.

Asuka had given him the book for his birthday last year. To challenge him, or maybe hold her mastery of a foreign language in addition to English over his head. The whole thing was in German, and Shinji knew absolutely no German. He could recognize and reproduce curses from his experience with Asuka, but he knew nothing about the language. No vocabulary, no structure. All he knew was that it shared a written form with English, and that some words went on like the person writing them had forgotten how to stop.

He pulled the book out. There was a one-color depiction of a sailboat on the front, masts broken and lines torn. The synopsis on the back described apocalyptic ruin and carnage and the walking dead. Shinji wasn't so much into the gore aspect of horror fiction, but this still seemed like a... a really thoughtful choice by Asuka. If you ignored that it was written in a language he did not know.

Shinji opened the book.

The virus that brought the dead back to life was called Hamelin's Revenge because it had been spread by rats. The first chapter followed a black man named Lamar Reed as he fled through the burning ruins of Baltimore, dodging shambling human and animal zombies.

Some authors were content to let the reader's imagination fill in the details. Not this one. Both the zombies and the damage they did to the living was described in nauseating detail. Fleshless faces, intestines hanging from emptied stomachs, dangling eyeballs and decapitated limbs and the constant ripping and tearing of meat. And it was all coming so easy, so quick!

Shinji dog-eared a page and got up to use the toilet, muttering to himself experimentally, seeing if he could make German come out.

The first word that occurred to Shinji, when he saw the thing emerging from the bathroom up the hall, was ZOMBIE!. For one confused second, coming off Dead Sea, he thought there was actually a zombie in the house, somehow. Wrapped in a towel and accompanied by soap smell, fleshless from the neck up.

"Um, Shin-ji" the thing said.

The ridiculous mistake lasted all of one second - Shinji was suggestible, not stupid. But even when it was obvious that the thing in the hall was not really a thing at all, but the Ayanami girl, that word, ZOMBIE, stayed right in the front of his brain. Because there was something horribly wrong with her. He could see inside her, like her skin was filled with watery milk.

"What," he began.

"Why," he tried again.

"Your face, what happened?" he finally managed.

"This is how I look normal," the thing (Rei) said, laughing. "I have to put on paint so I can walk around outside."

"...oh," the boy breathed, head tracking her as she passed by. He could see her teeth through her cheek, little soldiers all in a row. "Er. Does it hurt?"

"The paint? Well, it sort of stings when I take it off, I guess," Rei replied. She was standing in the guest room now.

"Oh. Er," Shinji blinked. Looked around like he wasn't quite sure where he was. "Good morning, then?"

"Good morning, too!" Rei replied, cheerfully. "Are you coming with us?"

"The party tonight? Sure." He wasn't looking at her directly. "I need to go use the... excuse me."

As he stood at the toilet, he felt like slamming his head into the mirror. Just to see if it would crack. Just to confirm that this was all real. Maybe it would knock something back into place, in the bargain.

He had looked for monstrosity. Skimmed her over, picking out the strangest parts. And now, laying on his bed and thinking it over, a second word occurred to him. ASSHOLE. He could have handled that better. Much better.

Shinji picked up Dead Sea. Tried to get back into it. But that new word was stuck in his head now. ASSHOLE.

It wasn't my fault! he raged, fighting against the impulse to go and apologize. No one told me she was... whatever it is you call that!

She's going to be living with you, came the unwelcome voice of Empathy. And you just embarrassed her. You just, maybe, made a girl feel ugly. You like that?

Shinji gritted his teeth. Could he just finish this chapter? Lamar was on a ship, and they were talking about something called monomyth, and...

You probably made her cry, you know, Empathy continued. How would you feel? You're in an unfamiliar place, and afraid, and then, from nowhere, someone decides that isn't enough, they have to make you feel uncomfortable in your own skin, too.

The second word in Shinji's head was replaced with a third now. DAMMIT. He let out a disgusted noise and set Dead Sea aside and left his room. Knocked on the door opposite.

There was a faint sound. A word, maybe, but Shinji couldn't be sure. He knocked again. "Ayanami? Rei? Could, er. Sorry, about just now."

The lock clicked and the door slid partway open. Rei leaned out, shoulders wrapped in a threadbare yukata. Her eyes were closed and her face half-painted, from forehead to nose.

"Yes, Shin-ji?" she said. "I am. Um. Busy. May you come in?"

Shinji took this to mean 'please come in' when the girl turned and walked out of sight.

The room was lit only by the lamp by the futon. Rei shuffled over to it and sat down, hands searching out a bottle with three vertical lines drawn on it in black marker. She squirted a small amount of white onto a foam applicator wedge and began painting a cheek.

"I'm sorry about before," Shinji repeated, approaching the futon. He was a little wary. This wasn't the storage room anymore, after all. It was like there was an entirely new space in the house now. A girl's room. Rei's room. He settled onto the floor at what seemed an appropriate distance.

"I understand," the girl replied, painting her chin. "The way I look is. Um. Unusual. I did not mean to startle you. I will try to put on the paint in the bathroom, next time. I am sorry."

"Huh? No, you were fine," Shinji said. "I was just a little. Confused. And now I'm not. You don't have to do anything different, okay? I'm just. Yeah, sorry. It won't happen again."

"...I don't want to be any trouble," the girl said, pressing a fingertip to each eyelid, then rubbing the two fingers together. She opened her eyes. "I like it here."

"Good, that's good," Shinji rolled to his feet. "Er, that's what I came to say. Was there anything you needed, maybe?"

"Um, actually," the girl turned carefully in place. Shrugged the yukata midway off so the hem dropped to halfway down her back. "Would you be able to get my back? Grandmother used to do it, and I cannot reach, and"

"Hold on a second," Shinji called from the hallway, where he had retreated at the first sign of bared flesh. "I'll get mom. Just..." he closed the door.


He went downstairs. Mom and Asuka were still working at the kitchen table. From the safety of the stairs he told mom Rei needed help, then went back to his room. Laid on the bed and tried to read Dead Sea. Listened to the door to Rei's room open and close.

Counted to ten.

At eight, Asuka padded in and sat at the desk.

Shinji turned a page.


Shinji turned another page. The motion was smooth, easy. There was only the slightest tremor in his hand.

Lamar Reed had managed to escape Baltimore on a ship of some kind. A floating museum. There were a bunch of other survivors with him, including a professor of literary theory. Lamar and the professor were, at the moment, having a discussion about something called the monomyth.

"What the," Asuka said. "Give me a break!" She was out of the chair, yanking Dead Sea out of Shinji's hands.

"Hey," she said, edging away from his reflexive attempts to reclaim the book. "Hey, if you're going to ignore me, at least do it with a book you can understand."

"I can understand it," Shinji answered, sitting up. "Give it back."

Asuka opened the book at random. "None of your little scribbles. You never even even tried to read it, did you?"

"I can read it just fine!" Shinji repeated.

The words bubbled up in his throat like vomit. "About what I said last night," he said, his tongue doing a lot of strange stuff by itself. "I was angry and I was tired."

"Cute." Asuka rolled her eyes.

"May I have the book back, please?" he asked.

"So you can ignore me some more? No, sorry."

"That again?" Shinji pawed at his face. "I wasn't ignoring you. You didn't want to have anything to do with me!"

"I came to your room, didn't I?"

"And then just sat there without saying anything. Waiting for an excuse!"

"Seriously..." Asuka started, then drifted off. Her head tilted to one side.

"You shut me out and then say it's my fault. You always do this, Asuka. You sent those pictures of you and that boy! What was I supposed to think? You did it. You did it then, and you did it just now!"

At mention of 'that boy', Asuka's expression grew guarded again. "And yesterday?" she shot back, finally speaking in German. "You humiliate me in front of my friend, and then in front of grandmother. Tell me, Ikari, how exactly was that self-defense?"

"It wasn't! Asking you to go away so I could actually think, that was self-defense!" Shinji said. "The stuff that happened before that... it wasn't something I could control."

"What are you, a puppet?" Asuka replied, taking a step toward him and gesturing with the book. "You won't take responsibility for your own actions!? You're such a fucking loser!"

Shinji chose that moment grab at Dead Sea, and managed to get it out of Asuka's hands. Hefted the book to the other side of the bed, when she made a grab for it. This led to her overbalancing and toppling forward onto him.

There was a brief sensation of full-body contact.

And then Asuka rolled off and hit him just as hard as she could. The first strike bounced off his ribs, the second sank into his shoulder, and after he'd reached up to shield the inevitable blow to the face, she'd come up low and fast, sinking into a point somewhere just in the upward dip of ribs below his sternum.

Shinji didn't hear the door open, didn't hear it shut. Could do little more than curl around the knot tightening in his gut and try to breath.

"Um," came a voice. "Shin-ji, are you coming to the mall with us?"

Face down in a pillow, Shinji moaned. He had just managed to straighten his body out.

He rolled over. Rei stood at the doorway, in her white dress and yellow hat. Behind her in the hall was a smear of orange-red. Shinji didn't need any additional information.

"I better stay here," he croaked out.

"Um. Okay. H-have a good day, then."

"Mmmph. You too, Rei."

The girl nodded, and closed the door. Shinji buried his face back in the pillow.

When Shinji woke it was dark. He rolled upright, still tired but knowing that falling asleep again would be a mistake. A car horn sounded outside, close. Maybe for him.

Were they going out to eat or...? Oh, right. The party for Rei. The party that the Sohryu family would be attending as well. Great.

Shinji got out of bed. Was surprised to find his stomach did not hurt at all. He gave his ring a few nervous spins.

Outside, the car honked again. Right, right.

Dad and Mr. Sohryu were waiting outside in Mr. Sohryu's car. The women had gone ahead to the restaurant in the Nissan. There was a brief conversation about Rei Ayanami, and what Shinji thought of her, and then the adults left him alone to brood in the back of the car, spinning his ring and staring out the window.

The restaurant, Kaguyahime, was on the bottom level of the Hotel Ichigo, which was in the southern part of the Ayase Ward. The place was fancy. Shared a valet service with the hotel. And the host made dad and Mr. Sohryu put on jackets before showing them to their table.

There were more people than he had been expecting. Mom and Mrs. Sohryu were there, alongside Rei and Asuka. Someone had invited Touji, and Hikari Horaki was there with him, along with a younger girl that was probably her sister. There were also two adults, college-types, a man and a woman, that Shinji only vaguely recognized. Maybe they worked with mom? And Touji was there too, somehow.

There was a space between Touji and Rei that Shinji was clearly meant to take. That left him four people removed from Asuka, which was... well, something, anyway.

When everyone was in place, mom gestured to Rei. The girl stood and did a short, formal introduction.

"Um, my name is Rei Ayanami and I am 14 years old. I come from a place called Chuui-zen, which is dozens of miles from the city of Kyoto, and also a long way from the coast. I like cats, and television, and my favorite color is blue. It is very nice to meet all of you."

"Nice to meet you!" the group chanted back.

And the evening commenced.

Touji had been invited by Hikari, who had in turn been invited by Asuka. That solved the mystery of the self-happening guest. Didn't address why it was that Touji had, like dad and Mr. Sohryu, been forced into a dinner jacket while Shinji did without.

Probably the host had mistaken Shinji for a girl. A very flat girl. It was not the first time this had happened.

Shinji explained this and Touji laughed. "Well, at least you aren't cramped up in this thing, anyway," he offered, rolling his shoulders. "So, how'd last night go, anyway?"

"Ohb-lit-ar-ay-shun," Shinji said. Didn't really want to get too specific. "I ran into Makinami."

"But what about this, uh, this one?" Touji made an unsubtle jab at Asuka, who was talking with the man Shinji did not know. "You said you didn't know her, and now she's here with her folks."

"Yeah, old story. Long story," Shinji said. "My family and hers go way back, apparently" None of this was, technically, a lie. "We just hung out for a little while, and then I headed to the arcade. How was your night?"

"Oh. Uh," Touji glanced sideways in a new, very specific way, at Horaki. "It was good."

"Does Ken know?"

Touji winced. "Is there a way I can say that, where you don't know exactly what I'm talking about?"

Shinji managed a grin. So Touji and Hikari had finally... yeah. He wouldn't have figured Horaki for the type. But then again, what did he know about type? He had never been on a date, and girls in general remained a mystery to him. He had thought the whole pre-marital sex thing wasn't Christian but... well, he didn't know Christians much, either.

"And no," Touji continued. "I don't want Ken to know. I didn't want you to know, either. It doesn't feel like something..." he rolled his wrist, searching for the words. "Doesn't feel like something to brag about, you know? Not this."

"Not really," Shinji replied, "but anyway, yeah. Good night?"

"I had to stand in line for two hours with her so she could buy the new Gackt CD. But other than that, good night," Touji agreed. "Makinami got her hooks in you again?"

"You see what happened at the Ls?"

"I heard about it, yeah. A fire or something?"

Shinji recounted the tale, of his abduction by Makinami and being made to sit at an arcade machine that had subsequently exploded. He hadn't really felt like talking before, but was warming to the subject. And talking made the time pass quicker.

"Think they'll give you money?" Touji wondered. "I mean. Faulty equipment. And it cut you up a little. Ain't the arcade like, liable, or something?"

The party wore on. Touji got dragged into another conversation, and Shinji was left to half-listen to Rei go on about her hometown, Chuuizen, which was apparently just overrun with bears. Different kinds, too, one for each season. In the spring there were large bears, in the summer there were honey-colored bears, in the fall there were black bears with white crescents on their chests, and in the winter there were mad last type, Rei explained, were animals that had not gathered enough food to hibernate, and were made crazy by hunger. The best way to deal with mad bears was, apparently, to drop heavy rocks on them from the safety of a roof top.

The whole thing sounded absurd, but Rei recounted it in a quiet, methodical manner, and so Shinji believed it. Some of the adults clearly did not, or probably thought that she was exaggerating. But Rei spoke precisely, and in specific amounts: 'The year before that there were two honey-bears and grandmother chased one away with stones and hit the other one with her car...' And Shinji was forced to believe that there was an extremely rural, unincorporated township called Chuuizen that was somewhere north and east of Kyoto that, yeah, had a huge bear problem.

The food arrived eventually, two big dinner pancakes stuffed with seafood and rice mixed together with a bitter white sauce. It was really good. Shinji ate a quarter of one of the pancakes by himself.

Mid-way through the meal, he got up to use the restroom. When he came back, the volume at the table had increased, and the conversation was centered around Asuka.

Touji filled him in. "The crazy chick is going to something called suruenu," he explained, stumbling over what sounded like a foreign word.

"CERN," Hikari clarified, from the other side of Touji. "She got a summer internship with CERN. She's going to Swisserland."

Shinji leaned forward. Asuka was smiling, chatting with the woman whose name he did not know. Mom and dad and Asuka's parents though, they were all looking at him.

Why did she do that? they were probably wondering. Why wait until you were gone?

He got up and scooted along the narrow walkway, past Touji and the Horaki girls, until he was side-to-back with Asuka. In this manner, he presented only an armored flank.

"Switzerland?" he said.

"Geneva," Asuka replied, sparing him a glance. "All summer." And she sounded so satisfied, and there was the sharpness in her expression he had feared.

"That's great to hear, Sohryu," Shinji said, mechanically. He stood and side-stepped back to his seat, and then past it and out of the private alcove altogether.

"Shin?" it was mom, leaning out of her seat. "Are you okay?"

"Y-yeah," he replied. "Just feeling a little. Sick."

He walked to the front of the restaurant, and then outside, into the hotel's valet park. Sat down on an unused luggage rack.

Safe. It was safe. He was safe. This made everything easy and simple. There was Shinji, and the other hims. No one else mixing everything up.

The idea of being forced to become someone else was suddenly no longer as much of a threat. He was just another intolerable idiot, now. Asuka would not be coming around, anymore. Now she was going away again, and glad to be free of him.


Shinji looked up. Dad was leaning on the crossbar of the luggage rack, looking down at him.

"Hey," the boy responded mutely, looking out into busy sidewalk and street beyond. "I just need a second. Some cold air."

"Mom said you and Little Asuka were fighting," dad said.

"...doesn't matter," Shinji replied. "...done. Its done and over."

"Bad?" dad asked, sitting down next to Shinji. The boy shied away.

"...Worse, I think." Shinji said. "Worst."

"It's just for the summer," dad said. "You guys have been apart before. You're going to be fine."

Shinji's hand gripped the luggage cart's vertical rail, where dad couldn't see. His hand spasmed in time to some internal tempo, probably his heartbeat, tightening up until it seemed like his tendons would snap free and his nails would pop off.

"Tell you what," dad said, filling the quiet. "Me and your mom, we were talking about Rei. She needs a cell phone."

Shinji looked at dad, confusion at the change of subject plain on his face.

"She's never had a phone before. We're thinking we need to start her out with something limited. So we're giving your phone to her."

"...but." Shinji couldn't manage much more than that. He couldn't figure out how to respond. The phone? Who cared? Asuka hated him. But... how was he supposed to talk with his friends? What if there was an emergency? What if…

"We're going to get you a new phone," dad explained, light and airy. Delivering a punchline.

Shinji opened his mouth. Closed it. He gripped the railing openly now. "But the… my grades," he began. "I can't. What if I can't do it?"

"Training wheels are coming off," dad said. "This isn't about Rei. Just a coincidence. We decided if you managed better than 80% in the testing. You blew that right out of the water so…" dad shrugged. "Its just physics, kiddo."

The rest of the party was tolerable. The promise of new phone was utterly mundane compared to everything else in Shinji's head, but some consolation was better than none, and he slid down the easy path of rising excitement. He was introduced to Horaki's younger sister and the college-types. He talked with Touji about the newest season of Lupin, something they couldn't do around Kensuke, and then him and Touji spent a large chunk of time explaining Lupin to Rei. Then him and Horaki's little sister ganged up on Touji over his views on certain elements of ineffable Lupin canon. Things came to a head when Nozomi Horaki intoned that Touji, for disregarding Cagliostro, was excommunicate diabolus, and following an extended silence from the rest of the group following what Shinji assumed was some kind of Christian deep cut, Hikari decided it was time for the Horakis to leave, extracting herself and Touji and her curse-spewing sister with admirable grace.

That was the crack that broke up the party. Shinji did not mind. He managed to pack up with his parents and Rei in the Nissan without having to look at Asuka once. If a tuxedo cat sprawling across the empty luggage return cart hadn't yowled at him as he walked out of the Hotel Ichigo, causing him to noticed the band of symbols stamped onto the rail where he had gripped it, inverted but identical to the symbol on the face of his ring, things would have ended without even a whimper.

Back home, back in his room, the shadows were creeping in again. He could not sleep. He read Dead Sea. He finished Dead Sea. He fished his phone out of the mailbag, plugged it in, and spent about ten minutes listening to Mari Makinami explore an entire emotional range of fluctuating lucidity in a series of voicemails that were generally about their Deathsmiles scores not being retained by the arcade machine after it had exploded in his face.

It was nearly 2:00AM. He tried to start Snowcrash, but checked out around the time Hiro Protagonist encountered a cock-measuring gargoyle.

He lay on his back and stared up at the ceiling.

He tried staring at both walls.

He had a vivid fantasy about what he would do if zombies ever showed up.

He looked at the clock. It was 4:00AM. He felt like he could run a marathon.

The mailbag was watching him from the back of the desk chair. After he had retrieved his phone, Shinji had done his best to ignore it, but now it was an insistent presence now that all other distractions had been exhausted. He closed his eyes. He was just going to have to go to sleep. But he could feel the mailbag. He could see the wedge of his school-issued laptop pressing out of its side. He got up and retrieved the laptop, set it on his desk, plugged it in and booted it up.

Asuka had not been subtle.

Instead of the school's logo followed by a login screen, Shinji was dumped straight to a Linux shell. The school's OS partition was mounted in place in the Home directory. He navigated to the Gray Flowers file, and could nano into it without inputting any kind of password.

Shinji was careful with himself as he did this, nodding to himself to reinforce that this was nothing to be upset over, because he had already been certain that this would happen. He ate up the feeling of exposure, of violation, and turned it into the inchoate equivalent of a rueful head shake.

Other than being decrypted, or decanted from its encryption container (Shinji wasn't 100% on how that worked), the file was intact and unaltered. But there was another file in the directory now. No type, just called 'README', 1KB big. He opened it.

This was an incredibly boring read. The protagonist doesn't do anything but wander around feeling sorry for himself and his dead wife. Protagonists have to protag. You really aren't any good at this. I am definitely going to win.


Shinji leaned back from the desk.

"I didn't know about Surenu," Shinji had said to his father outside the Hotel Ichigo.

"Mom said she took you to Ruranguri?" dad said.

"Things got… messed up," Shinji said. "While we were there. Before we got there."

"So you guys had a fight," dad said. "Bad?"

Shinji nodded.


"I guess so," the boy said. "I tried to explain, but she just got mad. And now this."

"Did you apologize," the man said.

"I..." he had just said this. "I tried to explain, but..."

"No," dad interrupted, turning Shinji. "That's not what I asked you."

The email was short and to the point. After it was sent, Shinji wandered back to the bed, bleeding the nervous energy that had kept him aloft. He pulled the ring free and set it on his windowsill. It was quiet outside. He could hear distant highway traffic, the buzz of streetlights.

And behind all that, high but nearly overwhelmed by other ambient sounds, the cicada were beginning to shriek.