A wolf tone, or simply a "wolf", is produced when a played note matches the natural resonating frequency of the body of a musical instrument , producing a sustaining sympathetic artificial overtone that amplifies and expands the frequencies of the original note, frequently accompanied by an oscillating beating which may be likened to the howling of the animal.
The first thing Shinji thought — when the world came back into focus with a glare of sunlight over his itchy forehead — was 'Oh, damn, I'm going to have to do something about that wolf.' It echoed in his head, that wobbling howl, loud on the D string, and that was just the worst. It would drive him nuts if he didn't do something about it.
He was halfway through the process in his head. He didn't remember it being so bad. Something must have gotten knocked out of place, or maybe he'd just been too lazy to notice. He wondered if he could ask any of the NERV personnel about music stores in Tokyo-3. Misato wouldn't know, and Asuka could barely read store signs, but maybe if he left something on the notice board someone could tell him if any places could do a check up, or at least sold eliminators. Wasn't one of the NERV techs in a band anyway? Who was it? Not Hyuga. Aoba maybe? What a pain. He hated asking for favors. None of the technicians liked him, and anyway it would mean using the account his father set up for him and he hated—
Then a wave sloshed over his hand, and Shinji remembered that there were other things that roared like a beating cello.
“Ah,” said Shinji, opening his eyes. “I guess I'm alive.”
The skies above him were an empty blue. The sand under him was a scratchy white. The waves were cold, lapping at his hand and his ankle, and he shivered for lack of a plugsuit. His clothes were still a little damp. He hadn't had time to get the suit on before he'd stumbled into the cockpit. His shirt and lungs itched from the dissipation of LCL. He really wished he could have hosed down before being conscious again, even if the NERV decontamination chambers made him think of Nagisa Kaworu and a whole lot of other things he didn't want to remember just then.
“Asuka,” he said, instead, “I think we're alive.”
'Idiot,' snapped the Asuka in his head. 'You said that already.'
But Asuka in the outside world didn't say anything. This particular Asuka wasn't there. Of course she wasn't. How could she be there? He couldn't stop himself from remembering that part: the shouts over the radio, and the howl of all those Evas sounding like the kind of wolf tone you really couldn't get away from, no matter what you clipped to the strings.
“I guess you're dead,” said Shinji, hating himself a little for sounding so resigned to it. It had become a common condition of late, being dead. It was hard to feel extreme about anything just then. His head throbbed, and the lapping of the waves sounded almost peaceful. Feet crunched along the sand behind him, and three shadows came slashing down from the slope. Shinji let his eyes drift up at them. They wore uniforms. They held guns. For a second, one of them had wispy hair and bright, red eyes, but Shinji blinked and — no, that one had a uniform and a gun too, and wore a helmet that hid his face.
“Shinji Ikari,” said the man standing over his head.
“Mm,” said Shinji. He supposed it wasn’t personal. They were just doing what they were told. Most people did. There were studies about it.
“We'd like you to come with us,” said the man, as though Shinji hadn't heard.
Someone took his shoulder. Someone sat him up. He stared out across a pristine, white beach full broken buildings and dead Evas.
“We want to speak with you,” said the man, holding his weapon high.
“I see,” said Shinji, slouching forward.
He threw himself head-first into the man’s gut.
* * *
[Here, there was a collection of scenes, mainly pertaining to what happened to Our Protagonist, between the time he entered into UN custody and the time that the final hearings began, but we do not have the time to discuss things like this. So let us pretend that they bandaged his knuckles and led him directly to a room. In this room, there was a woman. In this woman’s hand was a clipboard. A tag on her lapel said ‘COLLEONI.’ She was a mother with three kids whom she barely knew due to work obligations, but she would be known henceforth as the COMMISSION REPRESENTATIVE, because that is mostly what mattered that day. She had stepped off a plane in a small airport and was suffering from considerable jetlag.]
COMMISSION REPRESENTATIVE: It will just be a few questions.
OUR PROTAGONIST: …
COMMISSION REPRESENTATIVE: The doctors have told us you’re doing very well. In fact, one of them says he had a nice conversation with you the other day. You are a fan of Beethoven, aren’t you?
OUR PROTAGONIST: …
COMMISSION REPRESENTATIVE: That's what we like to hear. Music is good. Music is very relaxing. We want you to feel relaxed about this. We would like it if you had a conversation with us.
OUR PROTAGONIST: …
COMMISSION REPRESENTATIVE: We hope you feel up to it. Just a small vacation. The expenses will be covered. It's just a short trip from here. Just a few questions. It will not take very long at all. Your cooperation would, of course, be much appreciated.
* * *
The light shone in his face, bright, stinging, and somehow utterly familiar. Shinji sighed, and eased back in his chair. Its back legs sunk into the carpet. The carpet was new, at least. So was the wallpaper — a sick off-green, yellow in the right lights.
They stepped into the light. Shinji squinted. His sight was full of spots. The voice may very well have had no anchor. The voice may very well have been no voice.
“Why did you pilot the Eva?”
Shinji stared. Really? A thousand realities and they ask him that that? “I've answered that already.”
There was a pause. “Not according to our records.”
No, Shinji supposed it wouldn't be there. He bent low in his chair, and folded his hands between his knees.
“Why did you pilot the Eva?”
Shinji looked up at him. “For approval and a general sense of self-worth?”
“That isn't an answer,” said the man — for he was, in fact, a man. Shinji could see his face now and, for a second, more than that. He could see he pressed his lips together when irritated. Shinji knew his name was Agent Courbet. He was 45, and French from his accent. Shinji also knew, for a long nauseous moment, that when the world had flattened and pulled it'd been a young girl who had come for Agent Courbet. She'd died at age six of a genetic disorder. His side of the family had been the carrier of the disease, and he had never forgiven himself for it. Shinji thought about telling him that was stupid. Why would he blame himself for something like that? But the man chose that moment to clap his binder shut and cross out of the light again, and as the light hit Shinji's eyes he forgot most of it.
“Why did you pilot the Eva?”
'You were there,' thought Shinji, irritated. 'I know you were there. You were all there. Everyone in the world was there. Why are you asking me this. I gave you the real answer. Shouldn't you already know it's real? Shouldn't the whole of the planet know it's real?'
'Mister,' thought Shinji, who had turned fifteen while in custody, 'like I'm adult.'
But, this was the world that Shinji had chosen, and, with a sigh, Shinji submitted to it.
“Because I was told to,” he said.
“Who told you to do this?”
A great bloom of names and faces ran through his head for a moment. It was the two of them in the room. Him and Agent Courbet, having what was deemed a 'little chat.' Just two of them, if you didn't count the two guards at the door, or the commission-appointed psychologist scribbling notes in the corner. For a moment the psychologist was four inches shorter and thirty years younger. Her hair, which was brown, was colorless in the floodlight. Her eyes, which were also brown, glanced up with a flicker of red.
It had all been a trick, of course. Shinji saw it now. A trick. A ploy for cooperation. He wondered how far ahead it had all been planned. He'd had time to wonder about a lot of things. Still, he supposed it had counted for something, that he'd first seen Ayanami padded in bandages and smelling like blood.
The psychologist, who was, of course, in her fifties, four inches taller, brown-eyed, and had been born in the normal, awkward way most humans were, wrote something down on the pad in front of her. Shinji looked back at the man asking the questions.
“My father,” he said. “My father asked me to pilot the Eva.”
As for the why:
Sample 1: Shinji could say that he did it for the greater good for society, but this would be a blatant lie.
Sample 2: Shinji could say that he did it for the parental approval he had craved for the previous ten years of his life, but this would also be — surprisingly — a lie.
Sample 3: Shinji could say it was because of Ayanami. Because seeing her had made him feel like the little problems like parental abandonment, no combat experience, and an utter state of perfect anger/fear/anger/wow-that-woman-is-touching-me/disorientation were nothing — no one had broken his arm. None of that would be untrue. It was a motivating factor, that added stab of guilt seamlessly orchestrated by his father, but in this context it would also be a lie. A lie Shinji would be sadder about, because he would have liked to believe it was something as plain as that.
'Me. I did it for me. Ask me,' he stared up at the man questioning him, shoulders slightly raised. He hoped it looked defiant. He suspected it mostly looked blank and tired. 'I've been asked this for a few lifetimes already. I'll tell you. I'm ready to say. What are you waiting for?'
But, in the end, the man just looked down at him and asked: “When did your father ask you to pilot the Eva?”
The man repeated the question. He captured the same inflections almost perfectly. A real professional.
“Oh. Um.” Shinji laced his hands together. He couldn't help but feel a little cheated. “Um. In the hangar?”
“So you are saying that you were not aware of your status as the Third Child until after you had passed through NERV's security clearance.”
“I wasn't,” said Shinji, feeling the old twist in his stomach. He waited for the next obvious question: 'Then why would you go? Why the hell would you go?'
“What did you expect would be asked from you?”
Shinji stared. It startled him into laugh. He couldn't really help it. It was so silly. What did he expect? What could he have expected? The letter had been half blacked-out and one line long. It had taken longer to rip it up and tape it back together again than it had to read.
“I thought,” said Shinji. “He wanted me for some job.”
* * *
TRANSCRIPT 3.1, SUBJECT 3.
AGENT DUNCAN: Were you particularly familiar with NERV's commander? Technically you were a direct report.
SUBJECT: If you go by the official company roster, sure. He was off-site a lot of the time. My real direct report was usually the Vice-Commander.
AGENT DUNCAN: And would you say the Vice-Commander was more permissive?
SUBJECT: I'd say the Vice-Commander was a bit less of a bastard, yes.
AGENT DUNCAN: Then you would say general attitudes on the Director's management were unfavorable?
SUBJECT: It didn't matter.
AGENT DUNCAN: And why is that?
SUBJECT: Because I don't think we would have gotten where we had without him.
AGENT DUNCAN: So it's safe to say NERV was a largely centralized structure?
SUBJECT: That's a way to put it.
AGENT DUNCAN: Were you aware of what the commander did during these periods where he was off site?
AGENT DUNCAN: Were you aware of the commander's activities when he was on site?
SUBJECT: I wasn't honored with that information.
* * *
They let him go. They told him it was for his own health and well-being. They told him it was against regulations for them to keep him any longer than a set number of hours a day. The psychologist squeezed his arm reassuringly as he left the room that was full of lights and irritated men. The psychologist told him he did well, and that he was very brave. Shinji didn't look at her as he grabbed his coat. He shrugged into it. It was sized to the height he had been a year ago and he had hit a growth spurt just before the hearings began. His wrists poked awkwardly out of his sleeves. He went out to meet the men with guns at the door. Their job was to let him leave and then, once he had made it to the cab, follow them with their guns to be sure he stayed safe on his way back to the hotel. Their job was also to make sure he stayed safe in the hotel. Their job was also to make sure he stayed safe if he chose to leave that hotel at any time. Shinji supposed he should have been thoroughly intimidated by this, but he thought of the number of nondescript businessmen he had just-so-happened to spot on his way to school in Tokyo-3. It must have been a boring job.
He walked up to the nearest man at the door.
“What time is it?” he asked. Digital clocks reminded him too much of count-downs, and he wasn't allowed to carry a phone.
The man, somewhat surprised, told him. His name was Hans, and he was a twin. His sister lived in the city that had once been called Hamburg. He hadn't seen her in five years, she had helped him learn to read, and Hans believed she was the only one who cared whether he lived or died. Shinji thought that must be an exaggeration. Shinji nearly said as much, but he'd been answering questions all morning, and Hans looked so disgusted when Shinji's stomach growled that it didn't seem worth the trouble.
“I am meeting the lawyer at the cafe,” said Shinji, in his awkward German. They gave him an audio-link to an interpreter during the formal hearings, but that had not stopped him from picking up an old language cassette in an antique store down the road from his hotel. “Would you like to eat with me?”
He may as well have asked in Japanese. Hans exchanged a blank look with his friend. It was not, Shinji guessed, a question they were asked often by the men and women they were assigned to watch.
“No, thank you,” said Hans' friend.
“All right,” said Shinji. “I am going to see him now.”
* * *
TRANSCRIPT 3.2, SUBJECT 3
AGENT DUNCAN: What can you tell us about the '2015' report?
SUBJECT: It's the latest best seller?
AGENT DUNCAN: We have reason to believe you are familiar with its contents.
SUBJECT: I've never read what's in the original manuscript, if that's what you mean. I've only read
what's been in the papers. Congratulations on letting that leak, by the way. That was a nice touch. Did you
tell your source to do that or did he mail them to the press on his own?
AGENT DUNCAN: The leaks were regrettable, I assure you.
SUBJECT: Regrettable in a way that conveniently sparked a media firestorm and five governments demanding a full inquiry within the year?
AGENT DUNCAN: Regrettable in that we were not able to choose the excerpts. We might have at least run it through a spell check, first.
* * *
Herr Scheer was his family's estate lawyer. Herr Scheer had been granted special permission to see Shinji. He arrived via train that afternoon, after passing through the checkpoints set up around the small town where they kept all the witnesses. They'd told Shinji that morning that he would come.
There were plenty of reasons for letting him through. At first, Shinji had wondered if they'd wanted him to testify. He had spoken with the late NERV commander with more frequency over the years than the commander's son — though Shinji doubted that was a fact that would have given him much precedence. It was not hard to have spoken with the late NERV commander more often than he had spoken to his own son. More likely he had records that they needed. Even more likely he was the only man who could figure out the legal mess that Ikari Gendo had made of his accounts prior to his death.
As it turned out, the tribunal was under heavy pressure for full transparency on the proceedings, and it was in their interest to prove that all witnesses were treated fairly. The media was up in arms.
The legal mess was just secondary.
“I thought he'd given up custody,” said Shinji, staring with general dislike at the sandwich in front of him. The lawyer had ordered for both of them, after he had squeezed Shinji's shoulder and told him how he had grown. It was the exact gesture this man had done for him twelve years ago, when they all said his mother had died. Shinji slumped in his chair and picked at his sandwich with a knife.
“Yes, legal guardianship was transferred over as soon as you joined NERV,” said the lawyer, with a merciless love of facts that put paid any of Shinji's strange hopes he might have been wrong. “But the particulars of that are a little troubling. It was done following an extensive review by an organization called the Marduk Institute.”
“Extensive review?” Shinji blinked. He'd been asked about the Marduk Institute several times. He'd come up blank each time. It'd been the source of much note-taking from the men asking the questions. “He sent me a one line letter in marker on an old expense sheet.”
“Yes,” said his lawyer, with a little bit of a helpless shrug. “Therein lies the trouble. Your father, it seems, failed to prove board independence. He also, it seems, failed to file full reports to the UN committee he operated under and that committee failed do anything in kind.”
Herr Scheer had been reading the papers, it seemed. '2015.' It had a snappy title, at any rate.
“His organization is being charged misappropriation of funds that violates financial regulations in at least three regions,” said the lawyer.
“And that means?”
“All of his remaining assets have been frozen,” said the lawyer. “Investigation pending. And if he were alive, he'd be wanted for fraud.”
“Oh,” said Shinji.
There was a pause.
“Er,” said Shinji. “Should I be surprised?”
* * *
“I will call you when I can,” says Herr Scheer. He puts a few notes on the table. “Please have some dessert. You should take care of yourself.”
It was something adults had started saying to Shinji. Shinji thanked him, staring firmly into the open face of his dissected sandwich.
“Really,” said the girl across from him. She slid into the chair after the lawyer left. Her toes just barely touched the floor. “That’s pretty pathetic. If you didn't want to eat it you should have said something before he ordered it for you. You let him to do all the talking.”
“He knows the language better than me,” said Shinji.
The girl laughed. Her one eye was bright and lively, the other stayed behind a slash of her hair. “So point! Gesture! Play charades! You should stand up for yourself a bit. You are the one with the bargaining power in this situation. You clam up, and they’ve lost a key witness! They’re just trying to tell you you’re not important with the hopes you’ll go along with whatever the hell they want. And you should’ve ordered the curried sausage. It's a specialty.”
“That sounds disgusting,” said Shinji.
“Don’t be so ethnocentric,” she said. “Your people eat fish sperm.”
“I don’t like meat,” said Shinji.
“Liar,” said the girl. “You’re just saying that to be contrary.”
“It just all tastes like LCL,” he said.
The girl allowed this, but only with folded arms and a lofty nod. She tapped her fingers against the table. One of her hands was bandaged up past the sleeve of her loose, hooded sweater. “Fine. But you should have dessert, you know. Cake. Something.”
Her voice was always deeper in German.
“You’re so scrawny,” she went on. The criticism was a relief to him. 'Scrawny' was by far a higher complaint than 'scum of the earth' and 'worthless pervert' or 'coward.' He hoped she'd do it more. “Who’d ever believe you beat up four men before they dragged you in.”
He blinked. That was news to him. “Was it really four? I only remember the first two.”
She leaned forward with interest. “Seriously? So it's true, then? Damn! Invincible Shinji does it again. They had to cut me out of my cockpit.”
It was to be expected. He remembered the dripping wreck it had been, he remembered eyes swinging by their tendons, broken and orange.
“They were lucky. If I weren't out of it, I'd have really shown them a thing or two! Opening her up like she was some tin can! I'll show you a dead fish.”
“I... don't think that means what you think it means.”
“What? You think I wouldn't do it?”
“I believe you,” he said, instead.
“We're not supposed to be talking now.”
“I believe that, too,” said Shinji.
“I shouldn't have been able to find you. They underestimated us both. Your tail in the next booth is either stupid or very confused.”
“Or they think I'm nuts, I guess.”
“Going to be a good boy and tell me to go?”
“No,” he said, pushing his plate over at her. “You can have the rest of this, if you want.”
She left it alone.
* * *
TRANSCRIPT 3.3, SUBJECT 3.
AGENT DUNCAN: What was your relationship with NERV's head of research?
SUBJECT: Bi-lateral. We talked.
AGENT DUNCAN: Frequently, wasn't it? Our sources have told us you had contact with her prior to your appointment at NERV.
SUBJECT: Off hours. It's not important.
AGENT DUNCAN: And she never let you in on any... sensitive information?
AGENT DUNCAN: I'm sorry?
SUBJECT: Not until it was too late to matter. Listen, you already know all this, don't you? You said you've read the report.
AGENT DUNCAN: Yes. I'd just like to confirm those findings.
SUBJECT: And have I confirmed anything for you?
AGENT DUNCAN: You have been very helpful.
SUBJECT: Great. It was wonderful talking with you. Is it time to go back to my cell?
AGENT DUNCAN: We have just a few more things to discuss.
[At this point, subject was presented with photos 4A from '2015' report section 15]
SUBJECT: Say, as a matter of professional interest. .. Just how much was actually in this report, anyway? The full one, I mean?
AGENT DUNCAN: 400 pages.
SUBJECT: Well [redacted].
* * *
“UN Completes Preliminary Investigations Into The Tokyo-3 Incident”
“Underground Bunker Discovered In Austria”
“46 Appointees Face Conspiracy Charges in Global Cover-Up Related To Tokyo Implosion”
“UN votes for re-institution of the Human Rights Council amidst allegations of arms proliferation, human trafficking...”
“'2015' Manuscript Alleges Multi-National Defense Fraud”
In the battered, yellow hotel room where he had been living for the past two weeks, Shinji collected newspapers. Most of them were in German, some were in English, he'd managed to find one or two Japanese. He kept them in the black case stowed under his bed. Sometimes he would take them out and lay them out on the table. They were his few personal items from the hospital in Switzerland. A series of headlines pieced back together in the hurried days before they'd sent the car to take him to the airport and away from that quiet place.
That morning, they wanted him to come in for more questions. He'd been due in at 9. It was 9:45. Shinji read his crumpled, old newspapers. He ate breakfast. It was dry cereal, with a powdered milk that turned creamy when you added water. His escort pounded on the door. They'd gone from a gentle knock, to a nagging rap, to an urgent pounding that shook the fixings. Shinji stared out of his window. The music pounded in his ears. He looked down into the alley under his window.
[They want you to go with them.]
[They will be angry with you if you do not go with them.]
“Would you have gone?”
“Did he ask you to go?”
“But would you have gone?”
It was a trick question. He wasn't surprised when she didn't answer. There was no trace of her left in this world. There would never be a trace of her again. Shinji turned the music up. The swell of the horns section drowned out the impatient voices outside. Shinji reached for another paper. It must have been a slow news day, the headline was simply: “Record lows reported in England — could winter be on the way? ”
Someone passing in the alley below looked up, their gaze catching Shinji's through the window. Shinji jolted away from that moment of uncomfortable connection. He dropped his spoon. It fell into the murky cereal bowl with a splash that left a sick clench somewhere in his chest.
Shinji took his ear buds out and went to the door.
“Ah,” he said, to the red-faced Hans. Hans lowered his elbow. He'd been ready to bust down the door. Shinji bowed in apology. “I slept late. I'm sorry. I just woke up. We can go now.”
* * *
When the hearings had begun, Shinji had come back from one of his interviews to discover a message had been left for him at the hotel's front desk via the communications center in the statehouse. It had actually been left some time in the middle of the night, but members of the commission had wanted to look through the contents and review it for potential 'tampering.'
Shinji was surprised, through the telltale hiss of sound-editing and filters, he heard the harried voice of his aunt on his mother's side. It hadn't occurred to him she might be alive. It hadn't occurred to him she'd been dead, either. He hadn't thought about them in years, not since he'd moved in with his instructor. He'd always assumed the feeling was rather mutual.
“Shinji, we are so glad to hear from you,” said his aunt, formally, carefully, with all the concern expected of her. She talked a bit about how grateful she was that the UN officials had come to them asking questions about his father, and how it had come out over the course of those conversations that he was still alive. They were all alive. They had been relocated during the chaos. The schools had been closed. It had seemed for awhile that everyone might die. There were places and names mentioned, but these had been bled out by careful distortions.
“We would very much like to have you home again,” she said, at the end of it. “It would be lovely to see you. I am sure my sister would like to know that you are safe and happy.”
At the end of it, they asked Shinji if he would like to send a reply. It would need to be reviewed, so he had best keep it brief.
Shinji thought about it for a bit.
“Thank you for taking the trouble to find me. The UN doesn't like father very much, so I don't think they would pay you much to take care of me. Father owes them money. Please don't worry. Mother knows I'm all right.”
He put the receiver down. The woman at the desk smiled at him. She didn't speak a word of Japanese beyond 'Good morning.'
“Your aunt sounds very nice,” she said.
“Thank you for taking a message for me.” Shinji bowed.
* * *
“If you hate it so much, why did you come?”
She balanced on the fountain. She never could stay still, not completely. He wondered if there was something to that report about the weather. It was warm that day, like it was most days, but something in the air felt sharper. It reminded Shinji of breathing normally for the first time after being submerged fully in LCL — his lungs prickled and itched when he breathed, and when he coughed on air he was surprised nothing amber came up. It took hours to cough it all up.
“I don't hate it,” said Shinji. “They're asking really easy questions. It's just tiring, I guess. I thought it would be more...”
“You thought there'd be a judge and a lawyer and a whole lot of shouting of 'NOT GUILTY' and 'GUILTY' and 'THE REAL MURDERER, IT IS ME?'”
She said a good deal of that in English. Shinji stared at her. Her heels rocked on the edge overlooking the fountain.
“Yes,” he said, blankly, “That is exactly what I thought it would be. What kind of TV shows did you watch?”
“Well, it's what I expect when there's a trial,” she said. “You should complain. But, seriously, why did you come? No one told you to. I know that. You were supposedly 'unfit for trial.' You could have just stared at a wall for a bit and drooled a little and they'd leave you alone!”
“They did promise me something,” he admitted. She bounced off the fountain. Her feet hit the ground. She used to wear sandals. She wore combat boots now. He thought he'd seen a set like that cleaning out the closet, once. He'd always assumed they'd belonged to Misato. “But that's not why I came, I don't think.”
“You don't expect people to keep their promises.”
“Now you're sounding like the doctors,” said Shinji, dropping his chin against his knuckles.
“I guess I was the one who wanted answers,” he said, “about everything that happened. NERV. Seele. My father. I figured if I threw myself into the middle of it all one more time, I could get those answers.”
“Because these adults are so good at telling you the whole story.”
Shinji felt his lips twitch. He couldn't help it. She could be funny sometimes. How could he have forgotten something like that? “They're all terrible. They're not good at telling me anything at all. They just want me to 'confirm this' or 'confirm that.' They asked me to identify my father's body.”
“Oh.” She paused, one foot in the air. “...well, that's disgusting. Did you?”
“They showed me some photos.”
“Really disgusting. Was it him?”
“How cold,” she said. “You don't sound so bothered.”
“Oh, I broke down and cried. I shouted a whole lot. It was a real scene.”
“Uh-huh,” she said, “and I guess they really spoiled the heck out of you after that.”
Shinji leaned forward and hid his mouth behind his knuckles. It hid the twitch in his lips. “They let me go early, and they bought me dinner and some sheet music.”
Her foot came down on the pavement with a crunch. “Thought it might be something like that. You rat. But were you sad?”
“Were you angry?”
“I think I would have been once.” She had stopped in front of him, her hair falling between them. He looked up. Her bandaged hand rested on the stone next to his hip.
“I guess I just wondered,” he admitted, “what he wanted from all of that. And if he ever got it. It would be just like him, though, never to say.”
* * *
Shinji walked back to the hotel that afternoon. He thought he caught Hans and his friend behind him, but the day had taken a sudden turn for the windy, and the sudden chill had sent his guards to a nearby car. Shinji didn't really mind. It was an odd feeling being cold outside, he was so used to AC.
Halfway to the town square a young man spotted him across the street. “Ah, hello!” he called, waving grandly. “You, there! Can you help me?”
He spoke in odd, enthusiastic Japanese. Shinji blinked.
The tourist crossed the street heedless of all local traffic signs.
“Hello,” said Shinji, startled. He stopped on one heel.
The young man smiled. A lumpy hat kept the sun out of his eyes. He held a German phrasebook and a crumpled map. “I'm a bit lost.”
“I can tell.”
“Can you help me?”
It was one of the toughest questions Shinji had ever been asked. “I don't know?”
“I'm looking for the statehouse,” said the tourist.
So much for security. He hadn't seen anyone who wasn't wearing a uniform or a suit of some kind this close to the building for days.
“Um. It's... back that way,” he pointed, the tourist followed his gesture, nodding happily. He wore a dark lumpy sweatshirt with long sleeves. It was odd to see anything with long sleeves in the middle of the day. Shinji was distracted by his pale, waving hand. He almost forgot to add: “But you won't get in. There's a hearing going on. There's soldiers everywhere.”
The tourist is not terribly bothered. “Oh, that's fine. They're expecting me. I've got a delivery for them. Some unused equipment, or something like that.”
Shinji blinked. The tourist wasn't carrying any packages. Shinji said as much.
The tourist glanced down at himself and laughed, spreading his empty arms. “Ah, no. I'm not very good at this, am I?”
“That makes two of us,” said Shinji, meaning it.
* * *
In the afternoon they brought him to a larger room with a projection screen. They shut the lights off. Shinji could barely make out the long desk to the side, where the people were framed in the blinds. He could smell smoke. He could hear the ashtrays on the desks. They showed him more photos. They asked him if he recognized what he saw. He could keep his questions to simple, declarative statements if he wanted. Shinji tried to stay awake in the dim lights.
“Do you recognize this?” asked Agent Courbet.
“That's NERV's main command center.”
They showed him another. “Do you recognize this?”
“That's the hangar. We launched from there.” We. The word banged around in his head. We. Us. Our. Collectively. Conjoined. Like he’d been a part of the process beyond being shoved into the plug and told, ‘Go.’
They showed him another photo after that, and another, flicking through the space that had become Shinji's whole life and identity in the span of a few months. It surprised him how drab and dirty NERV looked, in retrospect. It had seemed the pinnacle of human accomplishment when he had first come there, now he saw the half-finished corridors and discolored pieces of fiberglass and realized just how pasted together it'd all been. The photos were all taken on a slant, or from above. Shinji wondered who'd taken them all. They were nothing like the clean, promotional photos they'd put in all of the internal manuals. There had been a lot of internal manuals.
“Unit 02, Asuka.”
“Unit 00, Ayanami.”
Mother. “Unit 01.”
Shinji went still. There was a cup of water next to him. He took a sip from it, to wash the coppery taste out of his mouth. He held his hand tight around the glass. It was easier than remembering the way they had itched at the controls, the way the Evangelion had stayed still. It would have taken more pressure to break the glass than it had to break a human body.
“That's... the Terminal Dogma, they called it. It's where they found my father, I think?”
He could feign a panic attack. It wouldn't be so hard. He'd gotten good at doing that. They would walk him out. He'd have a nice talk with his psychologist. Maybe they'd give him tea.
But before he could think to even start breathing hard, they asked: “Do you know what they kept there?”
“I...” Shinji's eyes flickered. “It's... where they made LCL, I think?”
Agent Courbet looked over his shoulder and murmured a few quick things to the man with the computer. He clicked a new file. A new image came up.
“...that's an... Eva?”
“Nevermind that.” The image changed again.
Shinji went pale. The photo had been taken from the edge of the room. It was in black and white, so it didn't quite get the gross glow that filled the room, and half of the panels were obscured in blackness. In their grainy glory he saw the reinforced glass set on either side of the platforms, the sloshing fluid frozen in time, the vague shape of white limbs suspended in the liquid. The picture quality wasn't great — it could've been taken by an old phone but he could just make out the shape of a hand, pressed to the panel to right of the photo.
“Ah,” said Shinji. “It's not very clear...”
“Do you recognize this image?” asked Courbet. He was, at the end of the day, not completely terrible at his job.
“Yes,” said Shinji.
“Would you tell me where you saw this image?”
'Ayanami,' thought Shinji. 'Why didn't I notice?'
“Ritsuko-san took me there,” he heard himself say. His mouth went dry. He swallowed a wave of nausea. He regretted his last sip of water. There were more people in the room that day, and he was sure most of them were looking at him. It really wouldn't be hard to feign a panic attack. He could curl up in a ball and stop talking. They'd declare him unfit and all his testimony could be thrown out. “The... Dummy Plug Plant, I think. Is what it was called?”
A murmur ran through the men in the back of the room.
“And this was in the NERV headquarters?”
More muttering. One of them slid sheet across the desk to Courbet. Courbet glanced at it and nodded.
“In the Geofront?”
“Would they have the space for it anywhere else?”
“In the Geofront, Mr. Ikari?”
The image flickered off.
This began a new process. It was a process with which Shinji was very familiar: all of the adults in the room turned to each other talked like he wasn't there. Shinji leaned back in his seat. He waited for his stomach to settle. He pulled his earphones out of his left pocket. He was about to put one in, but the man nearest to him murmured something particular then. It was hard to say how it carried in the stuffed up room. It might've been luck. It might've been the pale girl standing by the window, with her white fingers hooked in the blinds, bending them out of shape.
“Second facility. Just like he said.”
“That was SEELE though...”
“No samples left... completely destroyed....”
“It does match the Katsuragi testimony...”
Shinji's head snapped up.
“What did you say?”
The adults blinked as though he’d ripped into existence at that exact moment. No one wanted to answer him.
Courbet frowned. “Ah, Mr. Ikari. There's no need for you to wait on us. Please take a break.”
“What did he say?”
“I imagine this must be very stressful for you.”
The blinds hung undisturbed. The only women were the ones in uniform, and the psychologist in the corner, and they didn't sit anywhere near that window at all.
Shinji's chair clattered behind him. He put his hands on the desk across from the man nearest to him, the man he'd heard closest to him.
“Who did you mean? When you said Katsuragi? Did you mean Misato-san? Misato-san's alive?”
“Uh,” said the man. Even in the dark, Shinji could make out the surprise in his eyes. “That's...”
“Mr. Ikari,” said Courbet. “I believe we're done for today.”
Chairs were scraping all around him now. A little voice inside of Shinji warned him about making a scene. Shinji slid his hands off the desk and stepped back, like a good, obedient school boy.
He hadn't been in school for over a year.
“Mm,” he said, curling his hands at his sides. “I guess I'm really not as well as I thought I was. I'm a little hysterical. I have panic attacks. And sometimes I see people I think might be dead. Maybe I should just go back to the hospital. I don't think you can really trust anything I have to say.”
The psychologist shifted uneasily. “Now, Shinji—”
Courbet waved her down. “I don't think you mean that,” he said, more firmly. It might have worked. He had a real glare when angry, but Shinji had suffered worse glares and he stared up at him now — startled to realize he wasn't so tall as he'd come to expect most adults to be.
“I might,” said Shinji.
“You signed an agreement,” said the Agent.
“Did I? I can't remember. I can't remember a lot of things.” The doctors in Switzerland called it a symptom of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It was in his file. It was protected by patient confidentiality laws. He was sure this hadn't really meant a thing to the commission. “I don't really know what I'll know from one day to the next. Sometimes I just stare at the wall.”
A long silence hung in the room.
“I'd like to see Misato-san,” said Shinji.
* * *
TRANSCRIPT 3.4, SUBJECT 3.
AGENT DUNCAN: What was your relationship with Internal Affairs?
SUBJECT: We talked.
AGENT DUNCAN: Sources tell us he was killed prior to NERV's final assault.
AGENT DUNCAN: Do you know anything about the circumstances of this death?
AGENT DUNCAN: Should I repeat the question?
SUBJECT: No. Yes. I don't care.
AGENT DUNCAN: That isn't an answer.
SUBJECT: You'd like an answer? Is that what you want?
SUBJECT: You're talking to me because I'm the last one, aren't I? I'm most senior member of NERV personnel you've managed to find — alive that is.
AGENT DUNCAN: When you say you were head of NERV's offensive strategies, that included overseeing the well-being of the Eva pilots?
SUBJECT: That's it, isn't it? Accountability. You can't find enough SEELE operatives or NERV personnel to let this fall on.
AGENT DUNCAN: What can you tell us about SEELE?
SUBJECT: So now you're trying to figure out who to put on the boat and sail them out to sea. Well. You're wasting your time with me.
AGENT DUNCAN: What can you tell us about the Katsuragi Expedition?
SUBJECT: You're wasting your time in general. Do my hair, touch up my make-up, get me ready for the inquisition, hope I blow a kiss before I go. A real Matahari.
AGENT DUNCAN: I believe you've misunderstood the nature of this meeting.
SUBJECT: If you wanted to put me in front of a firing squad for crimes against humanity you could have just let me bleed out in the hallway. That's really sloppy, you know. A waste of resources. How much did it actually cost to save my life, anyway?
AGENT DUNCAN: Approximately [redacted]
* * *
There were rules, of course. There were always rules. The agents listed them as they marched Shinji past the checkpoints and the many men with guns, through the halls of what had once been a fine luxury hotel. You may not talk about this. You may not talk about that. You have this amount of time. You may not go over this amount of time. You may not leave the premises. You may not leave the room. Your proceedings will be observed. Your conversation may be recorded. Do not talk about details of the case. Do not talk about anything at all.
The doors swung open on the hotel suite. The woman on the other side of it looked up. She stood up from the desk. It was arranged like she'd been taking notes, or checking her computer. She wore plain military fatigues. She rolled to her feet with a trained ease, but there was a faint, red imprint of few of the papers pressed into her chin. She blinked rapidly, smoothing the hair back over her shoulder. The motion looked casual — graceful, even — and a guard took a step back. The guards didn't know that the gesture meant she'd been fast asleep two seconds earlier and was doing her best to pretend she hadn't been taken completely unawares. None of them had ever had to live with her.
“Oh, goddamnit,” said Misato, staring at Shinji across that endless of garish orange and brown carpet. “They said you might show up.”
* * *
TRANSCRIPT 3.5, SUBJECT 3.
AGENT DUNCAN: In light of scrutiny over recent expenditures, as well as [redacted], we cannot afford a 'waste of resources.'
AGENT DUNCAN: Though you are correct. It would be easy to prosecute you for the charges at hand. Still. We would very much like your cooperation.
AGENT DUNCAN: Your knowledge of the circumstances, and your experience, are invaluable to the present matter at hand, as well as matters we can see arising in the future.
AGENT DUNCAN: We are forward thinkers, no matter what NERV might have said at this, and, with your history in mind, we are willing to make allowances.
SUBJECT: And what's that supposed to mean?
[Subject is presented with document form 3452E]
SUBJECT: ...a Deferred Prosecution Agreement?
AGENT DUNCAN: Provided continued good conduct and continued cooperation.
SUBJECT: Government monitor, oversight program, approved personnel...
SUBJECT: You're offering me a job?
* * *
“Are you mad?”
“Not really. I think I was waiting for this. Are you?”
“A little. You really had me going with that whole show. It was kind of overdone.”
Overdone. Like he couldn't remember the taste of her blood on his lips. Misato rubbed her temple and shrugged. What else could she do? She swiped a nest of food wrappers and foam take-out containers off the desk. Still living on take-out, but thinner than Shinji remembered. The Misato in his head had had a slight pudge under the tanktops that'd hidden any of the soldier’s competence. He'd never thought of her as someone who could deliver a roundhouse kick or shoot a man point blank until he'd seen her do it. This Misato was ten pounds lighter and weighed down with purpose — her face was narrower, her hair a little flatter, and her eyes a little darker. Shinji matched the two in his head, and forgave this new Misato for coming up so different. She looked much older than he remembered her, and that wasn't her fault. People changed.
“Another fun thing about the real world, Shinji. You spend half of your life waiting for some big thing in your head, playing it over, and over again — and when you finally get to it, nothing goes quite right.” She rubbed her side, rather ruefully. Shinji thought a lot about that gesture. The guards had retreated to the front room of the suite. Every word could be overheard. In Shinji’s experience, when there were two people and a chair in the room, the rest of existence was somewhat of a questionable state. Misato stopped kicking trash and sat on the desk. She couldn’t be bothered with the chair. She stuck her feet on it. “You didn't have to come.”
“They said you were alive.”
Her eyebrow arched. “Not what I mean.”
“Did I have a choice?”
She looked away. “...this time? Yes. You did.”
“I guess so,” said Shinji.
He reached into the front of his shirt. She watched the motion, for a moment with a flicker of confusion and maybe alarm — then an understanding that settled at the corner of her eyes.
He held out his hand. The cross dangled between his middle and ring fingers.
“You can take this back now,” he said.
“I’m surprise you still have it,” she admitted.
“I don’t really want it.”
“Neither did I.” She grinned, in spite of herself. She let his hand stay where it was for the moment. Her eyes traveled past his closed fist, to the door, and when she moved it was only to sweep her hand back to touch the computer resting at her desk. “Say, Shinji. I’m awful sick of all these conversations in closed rooms. Let’s give them something really stupid to report on. Do you know how to dance?”
“I remember you yelling at me for a week to keep in step.”
She took his offered hand. He let her.
* * *
“You didn't have to come here you know,” she said, walking him through a few basic steps. It wasn’t hard. She led. The music played over the old laptop. It was an old song, but he recognized it. He used to hear it from behind closed doors. An old song. A love song. It’d meant something to her, he suspected. He never thought it made much sense. Jupiter was a gas giant. There wasn't ground on a gas giant, let alone spring. “And here you are. And you twisted their arm to get clearance. This is in violation of so many pieces of protocol it'd make your teeth hurt.”
“Is it, really?”
She paused, nudging him into a turn. “Yes. You little lunatic.”
“I'm a lunatic?” She kept a careful distance between them, hand on his palm and his waist.
“Mm-hmm,” she said. “Completely bonkers. Don't worry. I'm still crazier.”
“I can believe that,” he said. She stepped on his toe. “People keep saying that, though. That I didn’t have to be here. I think I did.”
“Did anyone tell you to go?”
“No,” he said. “Well. Me. I told me to go.”
“Shinji,” she said, shaking her head. “And none of your clothes fit. You could have at least asked them to do that for you. You could’ve asked them for anything.”
“I’m that useful to them?”
“You were useful to everyone,” said Misato. “Even me. For what it’s worth, I’m sorry for that.”
“For what it’s worth, I think I forgive you.”
“You know I’m staying on, don’t you?” He could have guessed: the uniform, the logo on the laptop case, the ID card poking out from under the papers on the desk. “It’s how it works. The UN needs someone to put out the fires for them, and better someone who knows how to take a bit of a fall, but I guess that’s about as much as I deserve for my part in it all. It’s always on the survivors, isn’t it?”
“Is that what we are?”
“That’s what we are, but I don’t think that’s all we are. You still have options. It’s not up to you to spend the rest of your days counting the dead. I think you know that.” She stopped him, nudging his foot into the next position. “This foot backwards. You’re not focusing. They did tell me, you know. What it took to get you to talk to them.”
“You make it sound like I put up a fuss.”
“Oh, and I’m sure you think you were really good about it. I’m sure you think: ‘I didn’t do anything at all,’” she snorted. “Men like you are some of the worst. You’re going to give some girl a headache one day, you know that, right?”
He laughed. He couldn’t help it. He was only just eye-level with her, now.
“Do you think I should’ve asked for more?”
“I think you could have,” said Misato, “but I think you made out pretty well, all things considered. Still. Why, of all things, did you ask them for the cello?”
Shinji ducked his head a little. He shuffled his foot back. “It was my mother’s,” he said, more irritated than sad, he had to admit, “and it was pre-Second Impact. I don’t even know if the maker still exists. If they’re going to go blowing things like that into oblivion, they ought to have to replace them. Do you know how much a good cello costs?”
“I do now.”
“It was really annoying!”
“I’ll bet. Your voice is cracking.” Misato laughed. She gave his foot another nudge. “And you keep trying to lead. Why don’t you, for a bit? I’ll give you to the end of this track. I think it would do you some good.”
* * *
TRANSCRIPT 3.4, SUBJECT 3 (cont)
AGENT DUNCAN: Yes. We are. A position as Special Consultant on our regulatory committee. It would be effective immediately.
SUBJECT: And why would you do something like that?
AGENT DUNCAN: It seems with the disappearance of most upper NERV personnel and the disbandment of its parent organization, SEELE, you would be at loose ends.
SUBJECT: I'd be in prison, at best.
AGENT DUNCAN: We can seek a reduction, in light of your previous cooperation.
SUBJECT: Oh? And what 'previous cooperation' is that?
AGENT: Our intelligence has you listed in our report as a 'vital contact.'
SUBJECT: Oh, that [redacted].
* * *
In the afternoon, Herr Scheer called to tell Shinji that he had discovered something very interesting, and that if Shinji liked, they could meet for dinner. At dinner the lawyer brought a series of binders, which he laid out across the table with a great smile. He explained, in small words, that while his father had died nearly penniless, his mother had been quite a brilliant person. The papers in front of Shinji were copies of his mother's research patents. Bioengineering companies around the world were dying buy the licenses for them. They would pay a great deal of money, and the patents had all been left in Shinji's control.
“My control?” asked Shinji. “You mean my father, don't you?”
“No, no,” said Herr Scheer. “The documents were very exact about that.”
“And...these companies, they want it? The work that my mother did?”
“That's right.” Scheer had a list. He showed it to Shinji. Shinji went through it all with great care. He crossed out the defense organizations. He crossed out the aerospace organizations, and most of the pharmaceuticals. He chose four not-for-profit relief programs, one medical developer, and three agricultural agencies. He circled them, then he had asked the lawyer to order him a salad. It went mostly untouched.
* * *
“And they let you go? Just like that?”
Shinji shrugged. He sat on the edge of the bed in his hotel room, checking the strings on the cello. It was a new instrument. It had a lighter sound than his old one, but it was okay on most of the notes. He could only hear the faintest of wolfs, and only when he really tried.
“I have to stay around for the verdict,” he said. “They haven't decided what to do with me yet. Misato-san said they'll be expected to do something about me. I'm a war orphan now.”
“Well, fine if you want to be all romantic about it.” She jumped on the bed next to him. Shinji frowned, shifting the cello against his thigh and away from the bouncing girl. She peered over at him. “So, they'll write you a check and ask you not to blab to any journalists.”
“I think it's more complicated than that.”
She shrugged. “Have you thought at all about where you're going to go?”
Shinji paused. He didn't really like his new bow. He turned it over in his hands, and resolved to get a new one as soon as he could afford it. If he ever could afford it. He pressed his lips together. He stared out the window, down into the alley below. It was raining that morning.
“I could go see if I could find my teacher,” he said, “if he wasn't killed. I don't think he'd mind having me back. He might not be up to it, though. He's not young. He used to say if I wanted to go to on to university, he could write a few letters for me. So maybe I'll do that, in a few years.”
“A few years? Why wait?”
“Some of us are really behind in our studies,” said Shinji, “and some of us haven't even graduated high school.”
“This teacher,” she asked, “is he your music teacher?”
Shinji blinked. “Well, yeah.”
She leaned back with a scowl. “Oh, you liar,” she said. “You always made it sound like you weren't serious about it.”
It wasn't worth it to argue that point, though he was surprised she remembered talking about it. Shinji fiddled with the pegs. It would be weird, getting to know this instrument — still, it wasn't like he hadn't had to get used to stranger things.
He laid the instrument back in the case. He shut the clasps.
“I'm not serious about a lot of things,” he said. “It's easier not to care about them. I guess I always told myself it made it okay, because if I wasn't serious, and if I didn't care, when those things went away then what was it to me? As though that saved everyone a lot of fuss. But really I guess I thought it was less effort.”
He slid the case under the bed and looked up at her.
“Was it?” she asked, after a long pause.
“No,” he said. “It was really tiring. I don't know when I got into a bad habit like that.”
She scowled at him. “You're trying to distract me.”
“You asked about it!”
“And you're stupid if that's the only idea you've got. Going back to Teacher. Geez. Where's your ambition?” She pulled her legs up, and rested her arms around them. The bandaged hand lay on top. She put her chin on one knee. He couldn't see even her good eye, when she sat like that. “You're missing the really obvious one.”
“And what's that?”
“The one where you come with me.”
“Ah,” Shinji swallowed. He levered himself up. He sat down next to her. “I think I'd have liked that.”
“Well, then, why not?”
“Because you're not here.”
This ceiling had cracks in the wallpaper, and between the specks of dirt and water-damage. He studied this very carefully, as he heard the Misato in his head say: 'It’s not up to you to spend the rest of your days counting the dead.'
But it wasn't the Misato in his head. It was the Misato he'd met in her hotel suite the other day. The Misato who'd existed all this time. He just hadn't known about her.
“I've been lazy,” said Shinji, counting the flaws in the ceiling that looked like stars. “And kind of selfish. Keeping you here. Having you be so nice to me, when I really deserve to be kicked in the head. I guess I thought if I kept you here that'd make it all okay. That'd make it better. Everything I did to you, I mean. But that's not right, is it? This isn't all you are. It wasn't ever all you were, was it? I thought you were really strong. I thought you were really brave. I thought nothing could hurt you. I thought you'd never go away. But that wasn't right, either. That wasn't all you were, either. You were you. You were Asuka. You could get hurt, you could be scared, you could die. And I didn't want to think about anything like that. Even though that made you more amazing. Even though I really liked you. I'm just keeping you here, like you should be here just for me. When, really, you were the greatest when you were you. And I couldn't save you. And I miss you. And I think I will for a really long time.”
He looked up. “I'm sorry.”
She shoved him.
It wasn't as bad as it was in his dreams. He didn't hit a table, and there wasn't any hot coffee to pour on him, but his teeth still rattled as her palm came across his face with one matter-of-fact crack. He felt her weight over his legs. He felt her hands grab his collar. Her hand slid up his neck, and for a second he thought she might strangle him — but no she grabbed his chin, and pulled his head off the bed.
“Look at me,” she hissed. “Don't look at the ceiling. Look at me.”
Asuka stared down at him, eyes wide and vicious and full of tears. A nasty, red line cut through her left eyebrow and across her left cheek bone, shining with freshly knitted skin. Her hair hung in his face like a ragged curtain. “You really think you can kill me off, just like that?”
“You think I went down easily? Against twelve little toys like that? You think I'd die to serve your inferiority complex? You think I'd go, just because you said so?”
“Like hell I would,” said Asuka, letting him go. “I wouldn't give anyone that honor. Not even you.”
She let him go. He heard her footsteps. He heard the door slam. After awhile, he reached for his cassette player. He licked his lips. They tasted salty. She'd been crying, just a bit. But that wasn't right. Asuka would've died before she'd have ever let him see her-—
Shinji dropped his cassette player.
The scar was new.
“Asuka,” he said, his heart beating in his head. He swung the door open, so quickly Hans and his friend barely had time glance his way.
“My god, stop slamming the door,” shouted Hans.
“You saw her?” asked Shinji.
“I heard you both!” Hans grimaced. “What do you think this place is? A zoo?”
Shinji ran down the hall. The elevator doors were just closing. Shinji opted for the stairs, taking them two at a time. The woman at the desk had seen her. So had the men at the door. It had gone like this: An angry girl, flushed with rage, or maybe sorrow stormed out of the elevator. She yelled at the bellhop. She yelled at the desk staff. She flung open the lobby doors, screamed down a taxi, and drove away. It made an easy picture. It was just so like her to make an exit so explosive. It was so completely like her Shinji could have laughed — if his throat weren't already hurting so much he thought he might choke.
He slunk back into the lobby. Hans and his friend had made it down the elevator.
The woman at the desk smiled gently: “It is all right,” she said. She was about 32, blonde, and Shinji didn't know anything about her aside from that. “You are young.”
Shinji considered telling her how tired he was of hearing that, and how he was beginning to learn adults were the same no matter the country, but he didn't know enough German to get that across. Upstairs he found she'd left a note for him in his room. She'd scratched it into the table with a hotel pen. She'd started to write it German, crossed it out, and spelled it out in hiragana instead:
“Call me when you're less of an IDIOT.”
'Idiot' was bolded, and underlined three times.
She'd pressed it in hard enough there would be no scrubbing it out. The indentation would be permanent. The wood hadn't been great quality. Shinji rubbed his finger over it. His nail caught a few times. It stung, but he didn't stop.
“You could have at least left a number,” he murmured. “Don't order me to do something if you don't mean it, Asuka.”
And he might have stayed there, missed the hearing, missed everything — except someone chose that moment to knock.
“Go away,” said Shinji.
The door opened. He'd forgotten to lock it.
“I said go away!”
Except it wasn't Hans, or his friend. It was the tourist from the other day. He'd exchanged his floppy hat and his hoodie for a uniform. He smiled, showed his ID, bowed with one arm across his chest, and commented that it seemed he had walked in on a bit of a scene — but that they were going to reach a decision that day, and if Shinji liked, he could come and hear it.
“Since you know the way better than me,” he added.
* * *
The air was cold. Sitting on the steps of the statehouse Shinji shivered and marveled for a moment at the dry rattle of it in the trees. The TV in his hotel room talked about it. People searched their attic for heavy clothes their parents had owned. It would be the first real winter in fifteen years, they were saying, starting at bitter twelve degrees. Shinji sat out in his slacks and dress-shirt under the cracked arches of what had once been the city’s state opera. He had forgotten that detail until just then. He watched the goose pimples on his arm. The air tasted like dust. There was an art to waiting. He perfected it in hospitals, and in screaming hangars, and many of the places where adults spoke in quiet, rushed tones and ignored the existence of anyone else in the room.
Ikari Shinji was well used to places like this.
He was alone that morning. This was unusual — the old half-fallen statehouse/state opera had devoured the men and women of consequence. They would stand in their rooms, sweat, speak their rushed tones, make their decisions for other people. Some people just existed to make people wait. These people were all government officials and soldiers and teachers and, worst of all, doctors and/or scientists. Shinji was glad there were none of those that day.
Once or twice, a very well-dressed person came and asked him to come inside. It would only be a little longer, but he must want to stay in where it is warm, or where he could have a coffee, or a chocolate. They liked to offer him the chocolate. Once or twice, this very well-dressed person carried an automatic weapon concealed politely beneath their coat. Shinji would glance up at him. Shinji would turn up the audio on his player and he would, very politely, say: No, thank you. He would say it in Japanese, and his very clumsy German, or his even more clumsy English, and they would go away.
So he was not terribly surprised when a shadow fell on him, spilling over him and the broken steps of the old statehouse. He was not terribly surprised, but he still jumped. He’d done his best to stay out of the shadow of the building. He did his best to stay out of shadows, in general, due to a very specific set of circumstances of which he had kept the government-appointed psychologists strictly uninformed.
The young man blinked down at him: neither a tourist, or really a soldier, from what Shinji could tell. He wore a sharp, dark uniform, with his pale, spiky hair barely contained beneath the lip of his cap. He hung over Shinji like hawk, or maybe, more charitably, a streetlamp. He had the look of someone who was even more used to waiting than Shinji. Shinji turned down the volume on his music player.
“A little longer?” he asked.
“Oh no,” said the young man, smiling as bright as the cold morning. “It will be a few hours yet. The reports are all three hundred pages long, but they’re very afraid you’ll run. Why don’t you? I wouldn’t say anything if you did.”
“Waiting is tiring,” said Shinji. And there were people watching on the roofs. He’d waved to them when he’d come in.
“I agree,” said the man in the uniform, sitting next to him, “but you needn’t worry. They’re going to let you go, you see. You’re very important to them. Too important for them to admit you’re important. They’re going to give you a monitor and send you someplace to live quietly. So, really, you could leave anytime you like. You don’t even have to hear the verdict.”
It wasn’t a bad thought. “You know a lot.”
“I should,” the young man grinned, and put his hands on his knees. “They’re going to make me your monitor.”
“You called yourself unused equipment. You’re the witness for that SEELE facility they salvaged,” said Shinji, realizing. “The inspectors mentioned you.”
“And you’re the witness for everything else,” said the young man. “Everyone knows about you.”
Shinji laughed. This was not news to him. He settled back onto his palms, and breathed in the cold not-winter air. “But,” he said, “you’re part of the trial. You’re a witness. You’re from — you’re from SEELE. Why would they make you my monitor? Wouldn’t they want… I don’t know, one of those people in the suits?”
There were a lot of people in suits.
“Mm.” The young man shrugged. He was very slim, under his uniform. It didn’t settle quite right at his shoulders. His ankle bobbed against the step in front of him. Shinji watched that ankle, and wondered at the nervous energy of it. “Probably because I was made for a job like that. I am seized goods, you know. Which makes me UN property, now. They want to economize. They asked me if I would like to do it.”
“Could you have said no?” asked Shinji, curious.
“Maybe,” said the young man, “but I wouldn’t know, because I said yes.”
“You don’t have to just say yes to things like that,” said Shinji. “I’m a real handful.”
“Nevertheless,” said the young man, sticking out a hand like an American. “We are the both of us left-over property, and you were very helpful before. I am Nagisa Kaworu, and I will be your monitor. I hope we can be friends.”
Shinji stared at the hand for a long time.
“Ikari Shinji,” he said, taking it. “…but I think you know that, already.”
The young man beamed and shook it heartily. His hand was very warm to touch. His eyes weren’t really the color of blood, except maybe when it was very, very fresh.
“Nagisa,” said Shinji, very mindfully, because this young man didn't seem very knowledgeable. He didn't look much older than him at all.
“Which one are you?” asked Shinji. “Second, or third?”
The young man’s face froze. After a moment, he laughed. He took off his hat. His hair was white in the right light. He held his hand up skywards and looked thoughtful, and careful, and nearly impressed.
“You know,” said the young man, “no one thought to ask.”
“That’s too bad.”
“It’s all right,” he said, with a laugh. “I’m not so sure. No one had a lot of time to tell me very much. But I think I’m the second.”
“I see,” said Shinji. They sat together in the cold morning, on the steps of the old state opera. They waited. They would be waiting for a very long time, but when it seemed like the young man was determined not to retreat into the warmer state building, Shinji sighed and took out one of his ear buds.
“Nagisa,” he said.
“Do you like Beethoven?”
The look on the young man’s face was answer enough.
“Here,” said Shinji, pushing the ear bud into an eager hand, “and it’s nice to meet you, too.”