One Year Later...
In the weeks and months that followed the defeat of SEELE and the earlier appearance of the Giant of Light at Tokyo-3, the Earth and its people found themselves adjusting to life in what was becoming a new world in more ways than one.
With SEELE destroyed and the UN discredited, individual nations again rose up and much of the overbearing dominion of laws and restrictions set up by the UN under the "emergency" conditions of Second Impact were cleared away. The Alliance of Free Nations, now the symbol of the new world society and the custodian of the Evangelions, provided the framework for a loose unity that would compromise the freedoms of Earth's people far less than the UN had before. The wars were over, the crisis of a world at risk was averted, and everyday life could return to some semblance of normal.
There was much work to be done on making the world "normal" again, of course, and the Alliance knew it. Over the course of the months after their victory, the Alliance used its acquired knowledge from the EVA program and the rapid scientific achievements it had made to help in Earth's recovery efforts. New advances in medicine, in materials sciences, and in information technology were made available, often at only minor cost to any nations and organizations that could use it, and slowly but surely the infrastructure of Earth began to reassemble. Peoples liberated from the economic and social controls of a one-world government were now free to pursue their own dreams and many did. New companies, organizations, and schools began to rise out of the ashes of a world worked nearly to death by SEELE's pursuit of godhood.
The recovery extended not only to places such as Japan, Europe, or North America who were the survivors of the last fifteen years, but also to those parts of the world devastated by Second Impact. Once prosperous lands such as Argentina, Australia, South Africa, and India were re-settled by new groups of colonizers, using determination and the backing of new resources to rebuild what was so dramatically lost years before.
It wasn't just the Earth's people who found a new awakening in those days after EVA, but also the Earth itself. New life found its way to even the devastated areas of the Southern Hemisphere most affected by Second Impact, and flora and later fauna began to return. The Earth's climate was also readjusting, and that first year's summer was the coolest in fifteen years, followed by an actual autumn and winter. Much of Earth again had four seasons and in many parts north and south It was the first White Christmas in two decades.
By the following March, spring had come in full bloom and especially to Japan. The buds on cherry trees seen in January had by March become a full torrent of pink pedals covering the nation, and for the first time in their lives many Japanese children experienced something their parents could fondly recall from their own youth: Hanami, the coming of Cherry Blossoms.
That Spring morning there was a cool breeze in the air as crowds gathered in Hakone's central park. Within all of Japan there hadn't been a proper hanami for two decades and with since the first visible blossoms of the season all of the nation was in high anticipation of the return of one of its favorite pastimes.
Nature didn't disappoint, and as Shinji and Rei made their way to the park the air was filled with the loose pink pedals of blossoms floating all around. The cherry trees that were normally green most of the year were now boldly pink, appearing like clouds over the green lawn below them. For someone who had never seen an actual blossoming it was an incredible sight, and the two of them took it all in as they walked.
"Wow, this is amazing!" said Shinji as they moved towards their reserved area. As in tradition of years past, the park was divided up into small lots marked out by posts and string, reserved by families, companies, and anyone else who wanted to organize parties for "blossom watching." By the time they had arrive, Hakone's central park was already filling up with people from all walks of life. Ladies were dressed in their best outfits and children ran around seeing the many blooms on the trees and pedals floating in the wind.
Rei didn't reply except to nod at Shinji, a slight smile on her face. Today wasn't just the return of the spring for her, but also the return of something more precious and also highly anticipated.
The two children walked through the park on one of the paved pathways, each dragging behind them a small wheeled cart. Shinji wore a white polo shirt and blue pants with brown loafers, his outgrown brown hair now tied behind him in a ponytail worn in a style much like the older Kaji. His face was now framed with eyeglasses, something new he had needed since the events of the previous year.
Rei walked besides him, herself dressed in a delicately-patterned white garden party dress with the hemline at mid-thigh, worn with her legs bare and with fancy strap sandals that matched her dress. Her nails were painted light blue and she wore light makeup, with the look accentuated by small blue diamond-shaped crystals she wore as earrings and a white straw wide-brimmed hat. Like Shinji, Rei also now wore eyeglasses.
Shinji noticed the earrings and remarked to her. "You look really nice today. Where did you get those earrings?" She looked at him in return. "From one of the tourist shops at the lakeside," she replied in her whisper-like voice as she touched one of them.
The boy smiled in recognition. "It's the Fifth Angel." Rei nodded as she touched one of the blue diamonds with her fingers. "I know. I thought they were cute so I bought them."
"There's our space, over there!" he pointed to a patch of ground in the distance. About fifty yards in front of them there a rectangular square fenced in by small wooden posts and string, enough for a group of about twenty to sit comfortably. There were several blossoming trees all around, affording them an excellent view from their space. On top of the grass to one side were also two large plastic coolers, containing pre-ordered food and drink for the upcoming party that had been delivered earlier.
As the two of them approached the reserved space Shinji looked around and saw within thirty feet of them four familiar faces among the crowd. Dressed as regular civilians, Shinji knew the men and women to be part of their family's security detachment and from their distance kept a watchful eye on the rest of the crowds as the children came. After over a year of being watched over Shinji had found himself quite used to the bodyguards in the distance by now and paid them little mind, except to make a mental note to be sure each of them got "thank you's" from him and Rei after the festival was over.
On reaching the space both Shinji and Rei began to unpack their carts, Shinji pulling out the components for a portable karaoke player and speakers while Rei took out various blankets for sitting on. Shinji set aside the karaoke set for the moment and helped Rei unfurl the blankets over the space until they covered most of their reserved area. "When is he coming?" Shinji asked Rei as they jointly worked to spread the blankets.
"Should be soon," she replied. "This time we'll see his twin sister."
"That should be interesting," Shinji commented, not sure what to expect.
The two of them worked for another couple of minutes to set up the space, Shinji searching through the crowds around them for anyone familiar besides the security detail. "Onii-chan," Rei asked him. "Do you think the Second will come today?"
"I don't know," he said. "She told Hikari-chan she might but you know how busy she is." Rei just nodded, finishing with the blankets and then lying down on one of them as she began to go through one of the coolers.
"Hello, you guys!" Both of them turned to see who it was and then saw Misato approaching them, pushing a baby stroller. She was wearing a red polo shirt and denim mini-skirt with red ballet flats, light makeup and hoop earrings, and her dark hair was brushed out long behind her. Seated in the baby stroller's seat was a very small child with black hair, and who's attention was being captured by the sights and sounds of the new behind the two as Misato pushed her stroller onto the reserved area and parked it on the edge where there was still some grass remaining. "Everything okay with the space?"
"This is the right spot," said Shinji as he continued to set up the karaoke machine. Rei looked at Misato, a bottle of Yebuchu beer in her hands. "Food and Drink as ordered are all accounted for," she said in a flat voice, then taking a bottle opened she popped open the beer bottle and offered it to Misato.
"Thanks, I needed that!" Misato took the bottle and then drank down a big swig as Shinji and Rei looked at each other, knowing what was likely to happen soon. "YEAHH!" shouted Misato as she put down the bottle. "Love that taste," she let out a big "Ahhh" as she spread a wide smile. "Drinking beer again during Hanami with the ones I love," she told them, "it doesn't get any better than this!"
From the stroller the infant began making noises, his arms popping up in front of him. "Okay, okay, Akira-chan!" Misato said to the child. "Mommy didn't forget you." Putting the beer down, Misato unfastened the straps on the seat and gently pulled up her six-month old son and held him in her arms. "See," she told him, pointing at the cherry blossoms all around them. "Look at that! All of the flowers came out just for you!" The infant giggled as he reached out with his tiny hand.
A buzzing sound came from Misato's purse. "Oh, I've got to get that. Rei, can you hold him for a bit?" Rei happily complied as Misato gently let Akira into her arms. She took his tiny hand into her own and doted on the child as she made baby talk with him while Misato took out her mobile phone from her purse. "Hello," she answered. "We're here now. It's a great spot, right in the middle of the park. Don't tell me you can't make it?" She listened as the other voice explained himself. "Oh, okay then," she pouted, "but be quick please. I know the fate of the word rests in your hands but I won't be happy if you're not here to join us." The voice then promised he'd do so, and then they hung up the call.
"Is Kaji coming?" Shinji asked, picking up PenPen in his own arms.
"He's slightly delayed, he says. I know running Alliance intelligence is a pretty big job but hopefully he'll still make it here," said Misato. "It's not like he's doing all that spying by himself!"
Shinji kept looking into the crowd and this time saw someone familiar coming towards them. He stood up and waived with his right hand until the others waived back. A minute later, the others saw three coming towards them, one of which was riding on the back of another.
"Toji!" Misato shouted. "Over here!" Running ahead of Toji was a ten-year old girl with her black hair in pigtals dressed in a pink dress with white tights and shoes who rushed over to the group. "Hello, everyone!" the girl said in a cheerful voice.
"Well, hello Nozomi-chan!" answered Misato. "Where is your sister?"
"She's coming. Is PenPen here?"
"Of course!" Shinji then brought over the penguin and handed him to Hikari's little sister, who then tightly embraced the little bird. "PenPen! I'm so happy to see you!" The bird made a loud squawk in reply in seeing the girl again. As Nozomi began to play with the penguin,Toji arrived with his guest on his back. Misato gasped in delight once she saw who it was. "Toji! So, is this Sakura?"
"Yup!" he said as his faced dressed in a red and blue track suit, while his little sister of eight years of age wore a blue denim jumper over a green turtleneck bodysuit and tights worn with black flats. She had long black hair and brown eyes that matched Toji's. "Hello!" she greeted everyone, speaking in the same Kansai accent as her older brother. "It's nice to meet you!"
"It's nice to finally meet you too!" Misato replied cheerfully. "Toji, she's so cute!" Misato said. "Is everything better now?"
"Yes!" the girl answered for him. "Onii-chan, put me down! I can walk now!" Toji laughed a little and then gently set down his litter sister so that she could stand on the blankets. "Finally cleared to go back to school next month," he told the others.
"Well, that's great!" said Misato cheerfully. "In celebration the next time you're over at the house I'll offer you one of these!" she pointed at the beer that was again in her hand.
"Misato!" Shinji scolded.
She smiled and waived at him in embarrasment. "I'm just kidding! I'm only on one beer and already acting goofy," she said. "I can't image what the rest of the day is going to be like."
"I can!" said Shinji in snarky comment.
Toji shifted his attention to his best friend and came over to where Shinji was standing. "Hey, dude!" Shinji smiled and gave him a high-five as they greeted. "Saw you at the concert last week. Wow, you really got good at that cello since the last time!" Shinji didn't say anything at first but instead blushed just a little. "Well, it's coming along."
"It's more than coming along," said Misato. "Since that last concert the Suzuki school gave him an invite to attend. There were also talking about a recording session, too."
"Are you serious?"Toji exclaimed. Shinji tried to look casual about the matter but a smile still managed to get through. "Looks like it. I'm not doing it under my real name, however."
"What," said Toji, "You don't think 'Third Child - First Cello' sounds right?"
"Hey, Cello and EVA do not cross each other. Absolutely not," Shinji said firmly. "I'm using a stage name now. That sort of takes the pressure off a bit." The boys spoke further until Sakura approached them. "Are you Shinji-kun?" she asked. Shinji bent down to talk to her. "Yes, I am."
"I was at that concert too. You play really well."
The boy smiled more confidently at her. "Thank you," he said. "It's nice to meet you after all of this time."Toji spun around to pick Sakura up again but then felt a twinge from his leg, the artificial one. "Ow!"
"Is something wrong," Shinji asked.
"It's okay,"Toji grimaced as he held the leg. "I just got it adjusted again so I could go for the basketball team in the new school year, but it's been giving me grief lately,"
"Onii-chan!" Sakura tapped her big brother with her small hand. "Sit down, I'll take care of it!" Toji obediently did so and then his little sister proceeded to wrap up his pant, exposing the mechanical leg. Withdrawing a tiny set of screwdrivers from her own small purse, she carefully made adjustments to two screws on Toji's leg as if she were a master jeweler, then gently patted her hand on the leg. "All done!"
"Thanks!" said Toji, who then promptly kissed his sisters forehead in reward and then popped himself upwards. "Can't live without her," he said to the others.
"Speaking of that, where's Hikari-chan" asked Misato.
"Oh, she's coming with someone,"Toji replied. "Sort of a special guest today!"
Asuka? "Who is it?" Shinji asked anxiously. Before Toji could answer another familiar voice bellowed to them "Hello, everyone!" The group turned and faced two adults, each dressed in matching outfits consisting of peach-colored polo shirts, khaki shorts or skirt, and running shoes. They were holding hands and looking quite happy.
"Well, if it isn't the newlyweds!" Misato said in greeting to the Hyugas. "I haven't seen much of either of you lately!"
"Still really busy at the GeoFront," Makoto explained, "although now it's all technology transfer and things like that. Sometimes I wish we'd get an Angel or two just to break things up."
"At least that's more straightforward to deal with. How about you, Maya? How's school?"
Maya Hyuga smiled as she cheerfully responded. "Taking classes three days a week at Tokyo-2 University," she said. "It's a bit of a commute and now I've got a heavier load this semester."
"Trying to get that PhD finished in a hurry?" Misato asked.
"Sort of, as I'll taking next year off studies,"
Maya looked up at Makoto and they both smiled knowing. "Because...I'm pregnant!" she declared in excitement. The statement got the whole group's attention, including Rei as she turned to listen while still holding Akira in her arms. Misato was momentarily shocked. "But...but you guys just got married!"
"Well," Maya explained bashfully, "I kind of wanted to start a family and I really didn't want to wait too long..."
Makoto continued for her "It's great news! We'll just deal with it as it comes!" he said with a grin. "If we can handle Angels and EVA I'm pretty sure a new addition to the family will be fine."
"Spoken like a proud papa!" Misato replied as she winked at him. The couple both smiled in embarrassment. "Anyway," she continued, "please have a seat! There's still a few of us to come over." Maya put down a canvas bag she was carrying as she spoke to Misato. "So, how is the new book coming?"
The other woman was thoughtful. "Oh, hectic. As you can imagine, sales on the first book have still been pretty crazy. If nothing else the kids at least have a stable financial future. The second book is still in the works but moving along, probably get it done and published by the end of the year."
"The first book just covered the Angel Wars," Makoto joined in. "They won't let you write anything past 17th Angel?"
Misato frowned a little. "Basically the Alliance doesn't want too much of its own secrets out there, so most of the focus has been on NERV and SEELE, and especially the fight with the Angels. There's already a lot there anyway, and then the one I'm doing now covers what we know of SEELE's plot and all of the back story. But right now nothing past 17th Angel, maybe a little while later when more time has passed."
Maya then shifted closer to where Rei was sitting on the blanket, little Akira still in her arms. She doted on the child while Rei held onto him, playfully toying with his hands as he grasped them while giggling in delight. "So, Rei," Maya asked, "how was your recital?"
"Which one?" Rei asked.
"Well, I meant viola," said Maya. "Was there another one?"
"Her first ballet recital was also last week," said Misato. Shinji leaned over to get a drink from one of the coolers, adding to the conversation. "We watched her. She dances beautifully," he said of Rei.
"I've just started a few months ago," Rei commented more modestly. Maya was pleasantly impressed. "Wow, I didn't know you did that too, on top of school and orchestra and what you do downstairs at NERV. You're pretty busy!"
They were interrupted by Nozomi's voice. "Hikari-chan!" she shouted, waiving with both of her short arms. "Over here!" The rest of the group turned to face where Nozomi was waiving towards and saw two teenage girls walking towards them. Shinji stood up and saw the two, his mouth opening wide in surprise. "Look who's with her!" he said.
Hikari was walking slowly to where the others were, dressed in a yellow-colored sheath dress with matching low-heeled pumps worn with sheer hose. Her hair was still braided but now much more elaborately then her middle-school days, and she wore everything together with makeup and gold earrings. As pretty as she was, most of the group's attention was focused not on her but for the other girl walking cautiously next to her.
"Oh my God!" exclaimed Misato. "It's Mari!"
Mari Illustrious took careful steps as she walked alongside Hikari, holding on her arm for stability as she slowly made her way to the group. Compared to how she looked before her injury she appeared much more thinner, and her skin was more pale. Her hair was worn down and long with a white headband to keep it back, and she still retained her red-rimmed glasses. Dressed in a white blouse and blue vest, and a long blue skirt worn with leather boots, she looked as beautiful as before if somewhat more frail in appearance and despite the many challenges she had needed to face in the previous year she still kept a wide smile on her face as she approached the others.
"Hello, everyone!" Mari said cheerfully as she reached the group. Her unexpected presence had gotten everyone's attention and she was quickly surrounded as nearly everyone got up off the blankets to see her. "Thanks for getting me here," she said to Hikari.
Hikari just smiled as Toji moved alongside her. "It's no trouble at all!" She quickly cuddled with Toji in greeting while everyone else centered around Mari.
"How are you?" asked Misato. "The last we saw of you was last summer."
"I'm sorry I've been so distant," answered Mari apologetically, "it's just been a lot to focus on while I try to get better. They do wonders there at the institute where I was at."
Maya was curious. "Where was that?"
"Shokaku, actually," said Mari. "But six months later here I am. Not quite back to my old self yet, but at least I'm moving around without a wheelchair or walker."
Misato smiled brightly back to her. "In any case we're so happy to see you!"
"Well, you certainly look different from when I saw you last," Mari replied. "Did you bring your little man with you?"
"Yup," Misato said proudly. "There he is!" she motioned to Rei, who had now gotten up off of the blanket, still with little Akira in her arms. Mari promptly doted on the little boy. "Oh, he's a handsome little devil," she complimented as she gently ran her fingers over the boy's head. "Looks just like his father." Little Akira responded by reaching out with his tiny hands and pushing against Mari's breast just slightly, which brought a surprised glance and a giggle from her. "Acts like the father too, I'm sure!" That remark got nearly everyone to laugh along, and the mood among the group was lifted up even further.
Mari continued doting with Akira as she spoke to Rei. "So, Angel girl? How have you been?"
"Very well," Rei said with a small smile.
"Terrific. You look ravishing today, are you expecting someone?"
Rei's eyes twinkled. "Forri-kun's coming today, this time with his sister."
"Delightful! It'll be wonderful to get the whole gang together." Mari looked over her shoulder and saw Shinji standing close by. "And you, little puppy? How are you getting along these days?"
Shinji was just a bit bashful as he spoke. "I'm good."
"Hikari told me about your recent musical pursuits. I'll have to listen to you play while I'm here."
"I have another concert in a few days," he told her, "you're certainly invited."
"Well, thank you," she said, smiling widely and gently patting Shinji's cheek. "You certainly look well, and quite handsome today I must say."
"You look really good too," Shinji said in reply. "You look a lot better than the last time we saw you." Mari nodded confidently. "And I'm feeling right as rain." Seeing Shinji in front of her, Mari found she still couldn't help herself and quickly gave him a kiss on the cheek. He didn't say anything in return but just smiled and blushed a little more. Almost as soon as Mari finished Rei gently nudged Shinji on his shoulder. "Onii-chan?"
Shinji turned around to face Rei, who was now gazing into the distance of the park. "Yes?"
He looked in the direction of where Rei's attention was focus on and through the crowds wondering in the cherry blossom forest was the figure of a another teenage girl draped in a pink and white dress. Her skin was ivory and her hair was fiery red, and she stood in a pose with hand on her hip, glancing right in Shinj's direction from thirty yards away. Mari also saw the figure and then looked at Shinji with a devilish grin. "Oops," she told him, "I've gotten you in trouble again, it seems."
Shinji smiled at her. "I'm sure I can handle it." Without saying anything further, he then left the group and made his way forward through the crowds.
It took Shinji a few minutes to reach her as she stood waiting in the middle of the cherry blossoms. He walked calmly and deliberately, letting his gaze meet hers as he closed the distance. Standing in the middle of a patch of pink-colored trees was Asuka. She had long ago recovered from her injuries from the previous year's climax and was again as beautiful and radiant as she had been before. Now as he was up close, Shinji could see Asuka was wearing a designer dress with pink and white blossom patters that he recognized was from one of the finest fashion houses in Deux Paris, complimented with bright red pumps. Her dazzling blue eyes looked at him in determination, her face maintaining a slight grin of confidence, much like she appeared the first time he saw her over a year and a half ago. Her red hair draped all around her, although the A10s were now gone for good.
As they stood two feet from each other, Asuka examined the boy fully with a jaundiced look, frowning when she did so. "You're taller than me now!" she said in discovery. "A lot taller! What the hell happened to you?"
Shinji shrugged slightly. "I grew up."
"Beer and milk fed by Misato, no doubt. Are you still hanging around all of those losers from 2-A?"
"We graduated a couple of weeks ago," he told her. "I'll probably start at the International school in Hakone for high school, although I've also got an offer to study at the Suzuki Music Academy." Asuka didn't say anything in reply except to just nod in understanding.
"So," Shinji asked her, "we all see you've been busy. Must be pretty hard being on all of those magazine covers."
"Well, being the public face of EVA's not as easy as it looks,"Asuka said with a grin, "But considering that the rest of you pilots are keeping such a low profile someone's got to give the masses something to look at."
"Still," Shinji told her, "It must be difficult dealing with all of that publicity all the time, all by yourself."
"If I can handle cutting down Harpies I can handle this," she declared smugly. "Besides, I figured I put all that work into being a pilot and this is a pretty suitable return on investment. Hey, I'm not the only one who's out there getting publicity. Look at Misato's book, it's freaking everywhere. At least she uses her real name however, unlike someone I know."Asuka pointed directly at Shinji's chest. "Shinjiro Kaji? Japan's new prodigy cello. How droll. That was all you could think of?"
Shinji was nonchalant about it. "I just wanted to keep EVA and cello separate, that's all. It's worked for me so far. But all I've done is play in a few concerts, I'm not on TV nearly every day. I'm surprised you found time to come see us."
"I've had a pretty busy year after my recuperation. Even I need a break every now and then."
"So does that mean you're staying for a while?"
Asuka looked at him skeptically. "I don't know. Am I still welcome these days?"
"I don't really care about anything that you've done outside," replied Shinji in a calm tone. "I'm just really glad to see you back."
The redhead looked around, a frown on her face. "I suppose that you think I can just walk right back in just like I left before and have it all be the same then, huh?"
"You wouldn't have to come back up the fire escape," said Shinji with a slight smile, "but pretty much, yeah. Kind of like that."
She narrowed her glance at him, and looking up at his face she motioned with her finger for him to come closer. Shinji bent over slightly and did so and when he reached her face she quickly took both of her hands and held his face with it, and then landed a slow, gentle kiss on his lips.
After releasing him, she said in a quiet voice "Then that's alright by me." She then pushed herself against him and embraced him, holding him tightly. "God, I missed you," she whispered to him as she trembled in released emotion. "I really missed you. Don't ever let me run away like that again."
"I don't plan to," he told her as he brought his arms around her. "Are you done running around?" Asuka nodded her head while still holding onto him. "Yeah, I've had enough. I hate that world those people live in, they're more fake than I could ever be."
Shinji looked at her and brushed his hand through her bright red hair. "Then welcome back," he said with a back and they kissed again, happy to be back in each other's company.
She took his hand as Shinji walked her back to the others. "I suppose the First is still insufferably cute these days," she said to him.
"Rei still has her moments," Shinji replied. "But she grew up a lot this year. Making up for all that lost time." Asuka only said "humph" in response.
Once they got to within earshot of the group the others called out to Asuka and she then enthusiastically waived as the two of them approached. Within moments she was embraced by both Hikari and Misato. "You came!" Hikari said in excitement. "I was so afraid you wouldn't come!"
"Oh, how am I going to miss this!"Asuka said to her. Looking over Hikari's outfit, she complimented to her. "Wow, you look pretty good!"
"Life's been pretty good lately," she told her. "My dad and Toji's dad started their company this year with the EVA technology license they got."
"You still with this nobody?" Asuka motioned to Toji, who then put his arms tightly around Hikari. "Yes," he answered for her as they both smiled. "She still puts up with me!" Asuka then turned to Misato. "Congratulations on the book," she told her. "You're nearly as famous as I am at the moment."
"At least I don't have to pose in my bathing suit to sell it," Misato joked in return and Asuka realized there was someone new in the group. "Where is he?" she asked the new mom.
"He's here," said Rei from just behind them. She was still holding little Akira in her arms, and once Asuka saw the child she gasped in delight, picking him up. "Oh, Misato. He's handsome!" she exclaimed. "He looks just like Kaji!"
"Why does everyone keep saying that?" Misato shot back. "My genes are in there somewhere!"
"Well, he's adorable," Asuka told her as he doted on the infant, letting him playfully grab her fingers while she held him with her other arm. Turning to Rei she said, "Hello, First. Long time no see." Rei didn't reply but instead just nodded very slightly and smiled. Asuka took a evaluating look at Rei's outfit and how she stood confidently in front of her. "You look almost normal now."
"I see you haven't changed much," was Rei's deadpan response. Asuka was taken back just a little with Rei's directness. "Hey," she smiled at her broadly, "why mess with perfection!" Standing close to Shinji was Mari, and Asuka suitably took note. "I see they finally dragged you out of the tank," she told the taller girl.
"Yes," said Mari with a smirk. "Sleeping Beauty's woken up and is feeling much better now."
"A pity that they couldn't fix the personality issues along with the physical ones," Asuka said snidely.
Mari ignored the comment. "Well, I have you know that while you were out gallivanting over the media world Puppy-kun here was my primary inspiration for recovery," said Mari as she wrapped her arm around a surprised Shinji.
I'm not even back two minutes and she's already moving in on him again."Oh, not this again! Can't you learn to respect other people's property!" Asuka was about to shout even more until little Akira started crying in her arms, stopping her.
Asuka tried not to panic but was still at a loss for how to handle this particular crisis. "Ohhh!. Okay, okay, I didn't mean to yell, just calm down, okay?" she tried to soothe Akira but the child wasn't willing to calm down and wailed as Asuka held him. Coming to the rescue, Misato took the infant from Asuka's hands and held him in her own. "Don't worry, Mommy's here!" she declared as she soothed the child. "Did those scary girls frighten you?" The child's mood immediately bounced back and he reached out for his mother, gurgling as he did so. Misato winked at the baby, jiggling her breasts just a little in a seductively playful way. "What's the matter, little man? Are you hungry?" Akira-chan promptly cooed and giggled in delight, reaching out for his mother. "Well, you'll get your lunch soon."
"What about mine?" a voice came from behind her. Misato turned around and saw Kaji standing in front of her. He was dressed in a dress shirt and slacks, his black hair finally grown back to its full length and tied in a pony-tail. He sported a black eye patch that Misato always thought to herself made him look even more dashing than before his injury. Before she could say anything further Kaji went in for and received a quick kiss from Misato. "Your lunch is over there in the cooler," she promptly told him. "If you want anything else that'll have to wait until you get home!"
"Well," Kaji said as he gently picked up Akira from Misato's arms, "he's a lucky man to have a mother who's so well-endowed." Misato smiled in response and then promptly took her beer and gave it a long swig while Kaji bounced his son up in the air as the others came over to greet him.
Rei stood patiently watching the others when her mobile phone rang to the tune of Divorak's New World Symphony. She saw the caller ID and her eyes widened in expectation. "Hello?... Yes, we're here already. Is she with you?...Good, I'll meet you in front...Bye." She then closed the phone cover. Mari turned to Rei after she ended the call. "Was that Pats?"
"Yes, they're here," she said as she removed her eye glasses and put them in her purse.
"Would you terribly mind if I went with you to go meet them? I haven't seen him since last Summer."
Rei nodded in agreement and after letting Misato and the others knew where they were going, they made their way to the front of the park, Mari balancing herself by gently holding onto Rei's arm as they walked. "So, when was the last time you saw him?"
"He was here last winter holiday, in between Christmas and New Year's."
"He was doing well?"
"Yes. His sister and him were enrolled in a high school in America since last fall. They were waiting until her sentence was completed so that he could take her to Japan this trip," said Rei. "Hopefully they can stay longer this time."
Inside of their taxicab Patrick looked out the windows at the dozens of blooming cherry blossom trees that were lining the roads on the way to Hakone Central Park. "Wow!" he said in wonder, "that is so cool! They look really beautiful when they're in full bloom." He turned back to the one sitting next to him on the passenger seat of the cab. Erin Forrestal sat nervously with her hands in her lap tightly clutching her handbag.
"What's the matter?" said Patrick.
Erin brushed her hair out of her face, an expression of worry and fear suddenly coming over her even as she tried to smile through it . "I'm sorry. I've just got some jitters." Patrick smiled at her, trying to be encouraging. "Everything's going to be fine. Don't worry!"
"It's just that, now that I'm here...I just keep thinking about last year and all."
He gently took her hand as Patrick reassured his twin. "We've been over that. Everyone knows the whole story now, no one blames you for what happened!"
"I know, it's just...sorry, I'm such a hot mess," Erin told him.
"You're not a mess, you're beautiful. Look, everyone keeps asking me about you so that means they really want to see you. You'll be okay. Really!" The taxi stopped at the curb and Patrick quickly glanced out the windows to see where they were being dropped off. "We're here. Time to go." He looked into Erin's emerald eyes and smiled again, and she smiled back but still unable to hide the nervousness she felt inside. Patrick gave her a quick kiss on the cheek as one more way of encouragement and squeezed her hand gently.
They both got out from the taxicab and Patrick paid the driver, their luggage already having been dropped off with the twin's security detail that was following them from a distance. Reaching for him, Erin took her brother's hand in both of her own as they searched for their welcoming party at the park. Patrick wore a white fashionable sweater with khaki slacks, while his sister wore a similar sweater made from cashmere, paired with a long khaki skirt and low-heeled boots. Her hair was collar-length with bangs in front, and she wore makeup and tiny teddy-bear earrings to complete the look. Patrick on the other hand kept his blonde hair neater now and cut short, and not unkempt as he once did. The twins didn't normally coordinate their clothes but today they felt like they needed to match, if only to show the world that they were together.
Patrick searched the crowds in the park looking for Rei and the others and in another few seconds found her, as he spotted her petite self wearing a white dress and waiting patiently at the edge of one of the walkways. "Hey, there she is!" he told Erin as he waived to Rei with his other hand. It was then when he realized who was standing next to her.
"Mari?" His face froze in surprise and for a moment he forgot everything else. Patrick released his sister's hand and then started running straight ahead of him. "MARI!" he shouted as he closed the distance. Mari just smiled and waited and in a few seconds found herself locked into a bear hug as Patrick squeezed her tightly upon reaching her.
After about a minute he finally let go of Mari enough for her to catch her breath. "Hello, partner!" she told him. Patrick was still in shock on Mari's apparent recovery. "The last time I saw you was in August, you still weren't even able to move your legs! And now you're walking?"
"Yup," she told him with a grin. "It's the new me."
"Oh, God that is so great, I..." Patrick turned around to notice that Rei was still standing patiently next to Mari. Feeling guilty for not running to her first, Patrick just quickly waived to her and Rei gently waived back as she smiled at him. He then turned back to Mari. "Wherewere you? I tried to reach you during the holidays and they said you were out on some other medical therapy."
"It's true, I was in Shokaku at another clinic trying to work up the strength to do this," she gently moved her leg slightly upwards up off the ground, something that Patrick could still tell from her expression that was strenuous for her. "I'm sorry to be out of it for a while, I just really needed to focus."
"It's okay, it's totally okay," he said as he gently brushed her hair. Patrick squeezed her hard again in relief to see Mari on her feet at long last. "All's well that end's well."
As Patrick and Mari embraced and caught up, Erin reached the others and also waited anxiously for things to calm down. She looked at Rei and unsure of what she should do just waived at her and said "Hi...again!" while she blushed. Rei responded with a small smile and gently bowed slightly to her, saying "Welcome to Japan."
"Finally, yeah," replied Erin. "Hopefully this time's better than last time."
Patrick finally let Mari go and then turned to his sister. "I think proper introductions are in order. Mari? This, at long last, is Erin."
"Well, hello!" Mari cheerfully said to the girl. Erin was about to reply in kind until he saw Mari's face and recognized who it was, and the last time she had seen it. Her expression again went into fear and nervousness. "Um...Hello..."
Mari was direct with her. "You look much better now than the first time I saw you."
"Well," Erin stammered, "about that...I'm...I'm so sorry!"
"Oh, don't be like that. Here," Mari reached for Erin and before she could avoid the other girl she was caught up in a tight grip, Mari's arms wrapping around and holding her in a hug. Erin for her part was speechless, as this was not the reception she had quite expected.
Rei and Patrick looked on as Mari continued to hold Erin tightly in her arms. "Don't be afraid," Mari whispered to her, "we're all past everything now."
"This isn't what I deserve," Erin said back to her softly, tearing up as she did so.
"If it was about what we deserve none of us would be here," Mari replied. "All is forgiven, old girl." Erin didn't say anything further but instead just buried her head in Mari's shoulder and remained there as let her hold her tightly. Somewhere inside of her Erin felt a burden lift from her spirit and she felt warmer, somehow better. The fear melted away.
They released each other, as strangers had now become friends. Mari turned to Patrick, "I rather like this version of you," she declared. "She's much more reasonable and a lot less stubborn."
"Shut up!" Patrick responded to her playfully. "You are back to your old self after all!"
Erin let out a breath. "Oh, my makeup's probably messed up after that," she told Mari.
"I'll help a bit and then I'll introduce you to the others. Meanwhile I think we need to leave these two to catch up on things, eh?" She winked at Patrick and Erin.
"You're in good hands," Patrick told Erin. "We'll be there in a little while."
"Okay," she responded, still somewhat sheepishly but now more confident then when she had arrived. Mari then took her by the hand and slowly led her further into the park as Patrick and Rei watched. The couple waited until Mari and Erin disappeared in to the crowds and then faced each other.
Without saying anything further Rei immediately pressed herself against Patrick, resting her body against him as she breathed deeply and let it out slowly, relieved to finally be with him again. Patrick wrapped his arms around her and held her tight, letting her just feel his warmth again for the first time in over a hundred days apart from each other. Finally they released each other, as he took both of her small hands and held them while she looked up at him curiously. "Did you get taller?" she asked him.
Patrick smiled slightly. "I do think I got in another inch or so since New Year's. You look great, I love the earrings...and the hat!"
"Thank you," she said, smiling back at him.
"I'm really sorry we couldn't get here earlier" he said apologetically. "I really wanted to see you dance." Rei nodded in reply. "I think I like ballet, so I'm continuing with lessons. There will be more chances." The two of them continued to stand in the park amidst the crowds, still just happy to see each other. Patrick broke the silence again. "You said you had a surprise for me?"
"Oh, yes," Rei told him.
"Well, I have one too."
"Okay," she said to him, her eyes lighting up. "Go first."
Patrick cleared his throat. "It goes like this. I've seen you three times this last year: once for Misato's wedding, once in the Summer, and once for New Year's." Rei nodded in agreement as he continued. "And we both know I couldn't bring Erin with me, not until now, and while I'm not really crazy about this long-distance relationship thing we still managed to stick with it for the whole year."
"It's true," she agreed.
"So, for this year I've said no," he declared. "I'm not going to go another hundred days at a time without seeing you or holding you in my arms. If I'm here," Patrick told her, "I'm not going back as long as you're still here."
"But Forri-kun, what about Forri-chan?" she asked, using her own nickname for Erin.
"The surprise is this, actually: Erin studied really hard all year and, with a little help from me, got a 'Three' on her Japanese language test," Patrick told her. "As of today we're both enrolled in Hakone International High School."
Rei's mouth opened up as he took in a deep breath. "You can stay? You both can stay?" Patrick nodded his head vigorously. "We start classes in April, along with the rest of you," he told her. Rei didn't say anything in answer but again just pressed herself against him. She closed her eyes and trembled and held onto her Forri-kun as tightly as she could, feeling something inside of her that went beyond mere happiness. "So," Patrick said as he squeezed her gently, "was that surprise okay?"
"More than okay," she told him. Rei then had a realization and looked up at Patrick. "Will Forri-chan be acceptable with living here?"
"I admit I was worried about that," he answered, "right up until we got out of the taxi. But then Mari's warm welcome put my mind at rest about it. She'll be fine and we'll all be together and that completely works for me!"
Rei smiled again at him. "Me too." She tightened her grip and let out a deep breath, as the days and weeks ahead wouldn't be so cold for them as it was before. "You said something about a surprise?" Patrick asked her.
"Oh, that," Rei said as she stepped back from him a step. "It's not as good as your surprise."
"I don't' care," he said with a smirk. "Come on, tell me!"
"Okay then." Rei took another step back. "Please close your eyes." Patrick straightened himself out and did so.
"No peeking, Forri-kun!"
"I swear I'm not peeking."
Patrick kept his eyes closed and listened carefully to follow what Rei was doing among the din of the crowds. He picked her out and heard the slight sound of a gust of wind rustling through her dress and her hair. Her hair?
"Open them," Rei commanded and Patrick did so. Once he saw her, his eyes opened wide and his mouth went open with shock. Standing in front of him was the same Rei as before, but she had removed her straw hat, and now sported long streams of azure blue hair that went all the way down to well below her shoulders.
"What the..." was all he could get out at first, as Rei looked at him expectantly. She brushed her long locks out of her forehead. "Do you like it?"she asked him.
Patrick couldn't help but run his hands through her hair, gently moving through and brushing it in amazement. "How long were you working on this?"
"Since last summer," she told him. "I wanted to surprise you this year when it would be long enough, so I kept my hair pinned up over the winter when you last came to visit."
"Wow..." he said in wonder as he continued to play with Rei's hair. "It looks incredible! You can do so much stuff with it now!"
"I know," she said as she brushed it again herself. "It's difficult to get used to care for it. I'm not sure I'll keep it long but I wanted to try."
"You look beautiful, you really do," Patrick said to her. "And I love you for trying, and for everything else that you are."
Rei put her hands to his face and gently pushed up on her toes. "And I love you," she told him in a whisper up close, kissing him on the lips. Patrick kissed her again and then lifted her up and swung her around as they both laughed in delight. They had done it: after passing through so many obstacles, doubts and fears, of surviving the affairs of both Heaven and Hell, and enduring hardship and separation they had found a way to connect to each other and to make their connection to each other real, to sing together in a song of their own composing, and to find a way to love each other and to be together in a new world.
The both of them knew this wouldn't be the end of their challenges, far from it. But despite warnings and the unknown days ahead of them, they knew that they would carry on and one day build their castle on the shoreline together. The two of them had come fully alive in the warmth of each other's love and awakened to the life ahead of them unafraid.