Shinji and Asuka made their way through the udon shop, looking for some trace of their friends in the midst of the hungry crowd. They found them in the shop's back room, chatting amiably while they waited. When Hikari saw them she smiled and waved them over.
The pair sat down, Shinji looking harried and Asuka some combination of frustrated and bored. Hikari looked them over with a hawkish gaze, scrutinizing them carefully as she looked for anything out of place. After a moment she smiled brightly and clapped her hands. "You did it!" she cheered. There was a triumphant note in her voice. "I'm so happy for you!"
Shinji shot Asuka an accusing look, and she responded with a shrug. "Don't look at me," she said, her voice caustic. "I didn't tell her anything."
Shinji sighed and gave Hikari a bland look. "How could you possibly know that?" he asked.
Hikari grinned. "It's so obvious!" she exclaimed. "Everything about you is the same, but different. You're more . . . relaxed, I guess? It's hard to describe."
"She means you're acting like a couple," Touji said, boredom in his voice.
Hikari nodded eagerly. "Yes, exactly!"
Asuka huffed. "Whatever."
Hikari, undaunted, turned to her husband. "Touji, why don't you and Shinji go check out the arcade while Asuka and I catch up?"
Touji frowned. "Hey," he asked, "what about lunch?"
Hikari scowled. "Touji, this is important."
"So's lunch," Touji said, growling. "A man's gotta eat, you know."
"Touji." It was a single word, but there was an element of menace in Hikari's voice that promised dire things if he argued the point.
Touji opened his mouth to complain, but ultimately thought better of it. "Fine," he grumbled. He turned to Shinji. "Let's go, bud. Girls gotta do what they gotta do."
Shinji frowned, and shot Asuka an inquiring look. She responded with an apathetic shrug, and he sighed. "Alright. If that's what you want, I guess it's fine. I guess we'll see you two later."
Hikari waved them off, then turned expectantly toward Asuka. She rested her chin on folded hands, and gave her friend a sunny smile. "Tell me everything!" she implored.
"Damn, man," Touji complained, turning into the arcade. "Why do they gotta do that?"
"Why are you asking me?" Shinji asked. "You're the one who's married, you tell me."
Touji just laughed. "I dunno, man," he said. "If I understood women, I'd be a rich man." He stopped short, taking in the sight of a familiar figure before him. "Whoa. Is that who I think it is?"
Shinji followed his gaze, and stared at the man before him. "Kensuke?" he asked.
Kensuke did not look well. His eyes were bloodshot, his motions while playing his game agitated and confused.
Touji walked up to him, a smile on his face. "Well, look who it is. How you doing, Ken-man?"
Kensuke looked up at him, his eyes wide. "T-Touji?" he stammered. He turned and saw Shinji, and began to panic. "Shinji!" he exclaimed. "I . . . I . . . " He looked around, searching for an exit.
Touji put a comforting hand on his shoulder. "Hey man, take it easy. We're cool, right?" He looked at Shinji, who nodded. "See?" he went on. "It's all good. Relax."
Kensuke fidgeted, then closed his eyes and took a deep breath. "S-sorry," he said. "I . . . " He shook his head. "Sorry," he repeated.
Touji squinted at him, then shook his head and clapped his friend on the back. "Hey man," he said, "why don't we grab a table and get some grub? Then we can catch up, hey?"
Shinji, Touji, and Kensuke entered the Udon shop and made their way to the back room. As they approached the girls' table Asuka caught sight of them. She took one look at Kensuke and rolled her eyes. "Well well well," she said, "it's the three stooges, together again. How's it going, rat face?"
Kensuke looked away from her, studying the ground intently. "F-fine, I guess," he mumbled.
"Have you graduated to toilet cams yet?" she asked, leering at him.
He scowled. "Hey! I haven't done anything like that since I was thirteen!"
"I see," she said, nodding. "Still sticking with locker rooms, then."
Touji scowled at her. "C'mon, Soryu, knock it off."
Asuka turned to Hikari. "Be careful, Hikari," she whispered. "You never know with this one."
Hikari gave her a nervous laugh. "Asuka, that's not very nice," she said.
Asuka shrugged, then turned back to Kensuke. "Why are you here, anyway?" she asked. "I thought you and your dad went to Hokkaido or something."
Kensuke flushed. "Erm, well . . . we did, for awhile. But he . . . he died in a fishing accident a couple of weeks ago, so I didn't really have anywhere else to go. I came back here to try to find work. Or . . . something. I still haven't quite worked it out."
"Oh," Asuka said. She adopted a bored expression, suddenly finding the walls very interesting.
Hikari smiled at Kensuke sympathetically. "That's awful, Kensuke. Is there anything we can do to help?"
Touji laughed. "Funny you should mention that, Hikari. Y'see . . . "
Asuka stared at the sidewalk as she walked, aware of Shinji at her side. They walked in silence for several blocks. Finally she said, "It's not like I try to be a bitch, you know."
"I know," he said.
She glanced at him sidelong. "I mean, he was a total perv back in middle school," she said.
"Yeah," he said.
She pouted. "What he did was pretty skeevy."
"Yeah," he said, nodding, "it was."
She shuffled along. "And it's not like I knew," she said. "I mean, if I had . . . "
"I know, Asuka," he said. "You'd never try to hurt him if you knew. Everyone knows that."
She scoffed at him. "No they don't. They all think I'm a heartless bitch. Even Hikari thought I went over the line."
"It's not like that," he said. "Hikari loves you. She'll always give you the benefit of the doubt, just like me." He wrapped an arm around her, pulling her close. "And Touji and Kensuke . . . it's complicated with them. But they don't hate you. I know they don't."
"Hmph," she said. "If you say so." She settled into his embrace, and they walked the rest of the way home in silence.
Shinji finished cleaning the kitchen, then smiled with sudden inspiration. "Hey, Asuka," he said, "I was thinking about practicing for a bit. Do you mind?"
Asuka looked up from her manga. "I don't care," she said. "Do as you like."
Shinji nodded, then headed toward his room to get his cello. He was distracted by a knock at the door. "Who could that be?" Shinji asked. He opened the door and found Touji standing on the other side.
"Heya, Shin-man," Touji said.
"Touji," Shinji said, surprised. "What--"
Touji smirked. "Gotta talk to Soryu for a minute," he said. He looked past Shinji at Asuka. "Well?" he asked. "You game?"
Touji looked at Shinji. "Beat it, Shin-man. This is between me and the demon."
Shinji looked at Asuka, then at Touji, then back at Asuka. He sighed, and made his way toward the door. "Just don't kill each other," he said.
Asuka and Touji replied in unison. "No promises!" they said.
Asuka scowled at Touji as the door closed behind Shinji. "Alright, monkey boy," she said, "what is this all about?"
"It's Kensuke," he said. "You need to cut him some slack."
"Look, I'm sorry about his dad--" she began.
"It ain't that," he said, interrupting her.
"It's just . . . " he scratched his head. "He's been through a lot."
She gave him an incredulous look.
He held up his hands, warding her off. "I don't mean it like that," he said. "But . . . " he frowned. "You know how people remember stuff from Instrumentality?"
"Well, he remembers the Fourth Division," he said.
Her eyes narrowed. "What are you talking about?" she asked.
"Just what I said," he said. "He remembers the Fourth Division. He remembers their invasion of Nerv, and he remembers their fight with you."
"That's impossible," she said. "People remember friends, family. Not . . . " She waved her hands. "Not huge groups of people!"
Touji shook his head. "It's different with him," he said. "Kensuke is . . . was, I guess . . . a hardcore military otaku. He absolutely worshipped them."
"Yeah," Asuka scoffed. "I'd expect that of a dweeb like him."
Touji frowned, but let the remark pass. "He also idolized the Eva pilots," he said. "Particularly you."
She blinked. "No way," she said. "He was stuck on Shinji and Ayanami--"
Touji shook his head. "Shinji was his buddy, and Rei was exotic. But you . . . you were from Germany. You were the very essence of cool to him."
Asuka shivered. "Ew!" she said. "Creepy much?"
"Hey, I ain't endorsing it. My point is . . . well, imagine how he felt when he saw the Fourth Division slaughtering civilians. Imagine how he felt when he saw them burning innocent people. Who even does that, man?" He laughed mirthlessly. "I thought no one used flamethrowers anymore, jeez."
Asuka shrugged. "How should I know?" she asked.
"But anyway," he went on, "imagine how he felt when he saw them fighting you. It was bad enough that they tried to kill Shinji, but you . . . They were his idols, and they were fighting someone he revered as a goddess. He had no way to deal with that."
"That's stupid!" she said. "Ugh!" She shuddered. After a time she sighed and said, "Okay, fine, he's had a rough time of it. What do you expect me to do about it?"
He laughed. "I don't expect ya to do anything, man," he said. "Just be aware, that's all. He ain't some perv out to get ya, he's just a fucked up kid like the rest of us. Just deal with that and don't poke at him, that's all I'm askin.'"
She crossed her arms and harrumphed.
"C'mon, Soryu," he said. "If you can get along with me . . . "
"You're different," she said. "You're a pilot."
He gritted his teeth. "Even so . . . "
Asuka dithered, then threw up her hands. "Fine, whatever," she said. "But he's your problem. If he says something stupid I won't be held responsible for what happens."
"Fine," Touji said, holding up his hands. "That's fine. That's a start, at least."
Touji closed the door behind him and leaned against it, letting out a deep sigh.
"How did it go?" Hikari asked.
Touji looked at her. She was in the kitchen, making tea. "Alright, I guess," he said. "Dealing with her is like dealing with a real demon -- I feel like she'll eat me alive if I lose focus for even an instant."
"Oh, come on," Hikari said, rolling her eyes. "She's not that bad."
"Not with you," he agreed. "Maybe not with Shinji. But for me, that's how it is." He sat at the table, gratefully accepting her tea.
"Well, at least she has some amount of respect for you now," she said.
"Is that what you call it?" he asked.
Hikari just laughed at him.
Up next: a little of this, a little of that. And within a week, not a month.