An incessant beeping sound permeated the air of the room, its cyclic rise and fall of music notes annoyingly loud amidst the relative quiet of the room. The figure on the bed nearby shifted, trying to block away the noise with a big pillow in a vain hope of recouping some vestige of slumber, but to no avail. The glare of the noon sun, lessened by the tinted windows yet no less weakened in intensity pierced the person's eyelids, making it uncomfortable to keep them closed.
Green eyes opened slowly, had to close again, eyelids reflexively dropping to protect them from the sudden brilliance of the sun. A hand rose up to shield them from the worse of the rays, giving the eyelids the chance they needed to expose the still-unfocused orbs they hid underneath. Clarity replaced the initial bluriness, as her vision came back into focus, her eyes already adjusting to the bright light it beheld.
The person struggled to sit up, but collapsed again before reaching an upright position. Sleep was still stubbornly clinging on to some parts of her now awakening mind, it seemed. Either that, or she hadn't fully recovered yet from the effects of last night's travel. Going from one time zone to another could do that to a person.
Lying spread-eagled on the bed, the figure stared at the ceiling for a few long, unthinking moments, before trying again. This time the person's mind was more or less awake. Her movements surer than before, she managed to sit up, yawning into one hand as she did, the other hand rubbing absently at her eyes, trying to clean away the morning glory that dotted her eyelids.
The person stretched, loosening the kinks her muscles had found themselves in during her slumber, before swinging her legs to the window side of the bed. She was mildly surprised to find one of her shoes dangling by one of her stocking-clad legs, but quickly remembered the events of her arrival here at the hotel. Too tired to even think, she had probably fallen asleep in her clothes.
A cursory glance affirmed this theory, her eyes beholding the crumbled and creased surfaces of her office blouse and skirt. The person smiled, before shaking her head at her own folly. Carefully taking off the shoe, she stood up and walked towards the window, the shoe still in hand. Nearby, her cell phone's alarm function ground to a halt, having finished its pre-assigned function.
Outside the window, the now-thriving metropolis that was Tokyo-3 continued to move with the life its inhabitants had instilled within it. No longer the fortress city of old, its steel gray armament buildings long given way to malls and business high-rises, Tokyo-3 felt alive. The city's looming sense of urgency and danger was gone, replaced instead with something, well, normal.
It was both heartening and mildly disturbing, at least to the person staring down into it. Gone was the city that haunted her dreams, both good and bad. This was something new, and yet something familiar to her at the same time.
It would take some getting used to. Maybe. The City of Angels and Evas was no more, but her memories remained.
A small smile returned to the person's face, an expression that spoke of fond thoughts long-treasured.
"Hello, Tokyo-3," Kirishima Mana said, more to the city than to herself. "I've come home."
Home. It was strange for her to call the city that, considering that she had never spent more than a token part of her life here. Still, the more she thought about it, the more the idea seemed right in her mind. Home was where the heart is, that much she learned, and she had certainly left a good deal of her heart here in this city. Even after more than a decade and a half living overseas, the feeling was still the same.
And who was she to argue with what her heart felt anyway?
Was it because of the events that had bound her fate to the city's original purpose? Probably, but it was more likely because of the people she had been privileged to meet during that time. Or to be more specific, a person she had met, a friend who had ignored the boundaries of circumstance and loyalty to make her comfortable.
Maybe he was even more than a friend.
"Makoto nai yo," Mana said to herself quietly. She had been given a chance to make it that way, and she didn't take it, too wrapped up in her own doubt and insecurities to even try.
If she had, who knew? Maybe her life would have taken her in a different direction than where she was right now. But the opportunity had long since fled her grasp, and the path her life had taken her was, if anything, distant from the course that special person had chosen to take.
That didn't stop her from wondering about him. What was he doing right now? Is he alright? Is he happy? Questions birthed and engraved into the recesses of her mind during her exile, questions that still echoed within her, after all this time.
Had she kept in touch, she would probably know the answers to those questions. Her old life, if anything, was remote from her, and her contacts with those who shared it with her had been so long-disused that, except for the more visible of them like General Katsuragi and Dr. Ayanami, she had no knowledge of what had happened to them.
But she was here now. She had the chance to find out, if only to put to rest those uncertainties that had been created when she left this place behind.
Mana lingered by the side of the window for a few more moments, giving the cityscape a final look. The flavor of her smile had changed subtly, bittersweet nostalgia replacing the mood of wonder that came before it. She turned her back on the panoramic view the window afforded her, and walked back to her bed, and the small pile of luggage beside it.
The city below her beckoned, inviting her to participate in the glory of its new existence, and maybe rediscover a part of her life she thought she had long forgotten.
She looked forward to it.
Mana sat by the side of the bed, and retrieved a small attache case that looked so out of place amidst the large suitcases that held her clothes. Settling it on her lap, she carefully adjusted the numbers on the numeric locks on either side of the briefcase, entering the proper combination to unlock it. There was a soft click, then the top of the briefcase popped up, revealing a neat stack of documents, envelopes, and the occasional mini-disc inside—curios of her professional life.
She gave these objects scant attention, her purpose here far removed from her work, and instead began to set them aside, looking for something far more valuable hidden underneath. Carefully putting aside some envelopes and file folders, she found what she was looking for: a small photo album, its cover showing signs of the wear of being constantly leafed through.
Carefully, she lifted the album up, and placed it tenderly on her lap. Almost unconsciously, she opened the album, and began to view the images preserved therein. A small smile appeared on her lips, as it always did when viewing the album's contents, the present seemingly forgotten as for a brief moment, she allowed herself to re-live one of the few happy moments of her youth.
A co-worker, seeing Mana like this, would have found the sight of her gazing fondly on the battered album a little strange, if not more than a little out of character. She was the type of person, after all, that put more stock on the present than the past, and always had her sights firmly set on the future. Her work ethic reflected this, as well as her public life.
As she always said, "The past is worth looking back at only when you have accomplished something you can be proud of. Since I haven't done anything of the sort yet, I don't have to." She would always have a laugh after saying this, and her companions could only shake their heads in wonder at her way of thinking.
Of course, that was her public face. They could never know the private Mana, the woman who every night wondered if she could have lived her life differently, if she could have done something to change things. The woman who often mulled over the faded images she kept to herself, photographs of a shy boy whose smile seemed as rare as a blue moon, and always asked herself the same question as she looked into his deep blue eyes: "What would have it been like if I had stayed?"
But she didn't.
It was an exile she had no control over, but it had to be done, or else her very life would be in peril. She had barely even enough time to say goodbye. To everyone. To him...
Blue eyes, proud and defiant, stared at her, the face to which they belonged almost like that of a marble statue: cold and unfeeling. It was a façade, she knew, but she accepted it as it was, seeing beyond the mask being presented her.
"Take care of him," she said.
The mask came off for a brief moment, showing something akin to sadness, if that was a word that could be used to describe the look in those blue eyes, soft and caring, so unlike the defiant look being projected earlier. "I will," the other said. "I'll make sure of it."
She would always remember that day.
Though she had expected, and more than a little half-hoped, that Shinji would make the effort to see her on her way, the sight of his red-headed roommate had stunned Mana. It wasn't any secret that the Second Child disliked her, if ‘dislike' was the word to describe the emnity Asuka had shown her.
Even after all this time, she hadn't quite figured out the reason as to why Asuka had singled her out. Of course the most logical reason would be because of her being the ‘enemy'. After all, she had been sent to spy on NERV.
But why was it that she felt that the anger the girl was directing at her was personal? As if she had touched upon something that the girl had felt within her right...
Mana had always prided herself on being a competent judge of character. Not really good, but just enough to get an accurate estimate of a person's makeup. Shinji, for example, was very like her, a person forced by circumstance into a fulfilling a role that was counter to their nature, but now too involved to distance themselves from that role, despite their wishes.
That was probably the main reason why, mission or no, she had come to like the quiet Third Child.
Rei's personality was a little harder to read, but she had a feeling that Rei followed a predesignated plan for her life, though whether or not she had control over it was a mystery. Certainly, the First didn't talk about it.
Asuka, however, confused Mana. Oh, she was quite sure that the girl disliked her with a passion; as if the verbal jabs and unflattering remarks weren't evidence enough.
It just, well, seemed that all the anger was only a front, a conveniently placed mask to cover up something the redhead wanted to keep hidden.
What was she hiding?
Whatever that secret was, it was probably something that was beyond Mana's ability to answer.
Front, or whatever it was, Asuka could be angry at her for any number of reasons, from the rational to the irrational, some of those probably known only to the Second Child.
One thing was sure: Asuka saw her as a threat. Just what it was she had been threatening was open to conjecture.
Her exile should have come as welcome news to the Second.
Why then, was she there?
As she and Shinji exchanged their goodbyes, Mana couldn't help but notice Asuka standing off to the side, looking as if nothing that was going on mattered to her. Mana would have accepted this as a given, and wouldn't have put much thought into it either, if she hadn't, by accident, caught the expression on the girl's face, when redhead seemed to think that she was too busy with her goodbyes to notice.
It was there, for a brief instant, disappearing so quickly that, at first, Mana thought she had imagined it. But she saw it.
In that single moment, Mana saw concern in Asuka's eyes. She followed the direction the girl was facing, and saw that it led to Shinji.
Mana quickly looked back, but the hard visage was back in place.
But she saw it. And for the first time, she understood everything.
She exchanged brief words with Asuka, before she entered the train that would take her away from Tokyo-3. But those words were enough, giving her some measure of comfort as she left a little of herself behind.
She had no doubt that the proud German girl, no, woman, would keep her side of the promise.
Mana closed the album, and turned her gaze once more on the cityscape beyond her room's window. She had all but forgotten that exchange of promises at the train station. Funny that she should remember it now, at the end of her exile, at her return to this city.
She hadn't thought about Asuka for a long time.
Maybe because of the more unendearing things that the Second Child had done, or maybe because of the girl's overbearing attitude—one encounter wasn't enough to wipe away everything that had transpired between them, after all—but Asuka never figured much in Mana's memories.
At least, not as much as her shy roommate.
Then again, it wasn't like she'd heard anything about the former Second Child for some time. Like the famous pilot of Evangelion Test-type Unit-01, Sohryu Asuka Langley seemed to have disappeared entirely from the public eye.
It was a little odd, now that Mana's attention had been drawn to it. It wasn't like the redhead to keep quiet, or lead a reclusive life. Quite the opposite in fact: Asuka basked in attention, if what Mana remembered about her character remained true.
Certainly, Asuka wouldn't sit quietly by the sidelines while her other former NERV co-workers, Dr. Ayanami and General Katsuragi chief among them, figured quite prominently in the world's affairs.
What happened to her?
Mana shook her head, and chuckled a bit, more than a little amused to where her musings had taken her. "Questions, and even more questions," she said to herself, as she stood up. "How long have I kept myself from finding their answers?" She turned her eyes towards the album, sitting quietly where she had placed it on the bed, and smiled. "I won't find out anything if I just sit here and reminisce all day." Maybe she was more nostalgic than she thought she was.
It was about time she found answers to those questions.
Of course, she had to freshen herself up first.
Mana took a quick shower, letting the quick jet of water from the shower nozzle clear away the dust and grit of the previous day from her body, and the last traces of sleep from her mind. Though she would have preferred a long soak in the hot tub—something she'd been looking forward to ever since she returned to Japan—efficiency took precedence over immersion-induced bliss.
Besides, if things turned out well, and her search had given her results, or at least some clues to where she could find what she was looking for, she could always indulge herself later.
Bathrobe-clad, Mana exited the bathroom, feeling invigorated as she always did whenever she took a shower. Drying her hair with a towel, she sat down by the bed, and began to sort out her belongings, choosing from the clothes she had the outfit she was going to wear for her outing today. Blue jeans, a pair of sneakers, and a plain long-sleeved white blouse would serve her purposes quite nicely. Add her favorite sunglasses to the mix, and it was perfect—just the thing for a stroll around the city, which is more or less what she had planned.
Satisfied with her choice, she placed the rest of her wardrobe into the room's closet, before brushing out her fall of dark brown hair. She then gingerly put on her undergarments, before putting on the outfit she had chosen. Mana was more than a little chagrined when she saw that her jeans, an old pair whose blue had all but faded away, seemed to have shrunk on her. She frowned at the tightness of its fit, clinging to some places a little too tight for her liking.
Five or ten years ago, she wouldn't have minded the snugness, the tightness of the jeans actually accentuating the full curves of her hips, and would have actually felt proud that she was able to show her figure off. Now, she just hoped that it wasn't too tight to be embarrassing. If there was something she didn't want to happen today, it was being hit on by various amorous Japanese men, of any age.
After all, she wasn't a dumb 20-year old looking for a date.
She carefully folded the sleeves of her blouse to about elbow-length, and fluffed out its edges. Standing before the closet mirror, she gave one final adjustment to the way her blouse was tucked in, then turned in a full circle to study her reflection. She looked almost five years younger than she really was. It was a pleasant thought she had to admit, though she didn't want to overdo it.
There was one final thing to do though before Mana was ready. She took out the small makeup kit she had brought along with her, and applied a small amount of blush to her cheeks, before looking through the small selection of lipstick she had selected for this trip. Choosing a deep red hue, she spread it on her full lips, pursing them to even it out, before finally using a sanitary napkin to make sure that it didn't spread too thickly.
She retrieved her sunglasses, and perched it on her nose, before returning to the front of the closet mirror. She took one last spin to study herself before she was satisfied.
Perfect! she thought, giving her own reflection a wink to stress her point.
She parodied giving a flying kiss, then walked over to her luggage, and took out a small shoulder bag from one of the larger suitcases. She placed her checkbook and credit card in the purse, as well as a small notepad, while her wallet and cell phone went to her pants' pockets. She checked the bag's contents one more time, before nodding to herself.
She had everything she needed.
Mana slipped on her sneakers, then slung her bag onto her shoulder. Room key in hand, she gave her lodgings one last look before locking it behind her.
Time for her and the city to get re-acquainted.
It was just a short ride via elevator to the hotel's main level, where Mana had one more final place to visit before she could start. A few minutes later, satisfied that she was now fully prepared for her search, she exited the main doors of the hotel, a small traveler's map in hand, and an address, carefully jotted down in her notepad.
Mana unfolded the map as she walked, puzzling over the places marked upon it, turning it this way and that, trying to align what she remembered of the area's natural landmarks with the map legends scattered across its folded surface. Despite being able to match the positions of some of the locations she once knew from the old city, she was practically clueless as to everything else.
So much had changed in twenty years.
Of course, she wasn't too surprised. The city's original purpose of being a fortress, or bait, depending who you asked, had given way to less grave but no less important capitalist pursuits. Development skyrocketed, and the city's layout widened to accommodate the influx of people trying to take advantage of the opportunity. And, of course, they brought their families with them. The population now was easily twenty times more than the original city's number.
"It sure isn't as quiet as it used to be," Mana said absently to herself as she barely avoided bumping into other persons on the sidewalk with her. If there was something she was going to have to get to used to about Tokyo-3 these days, it was the sheer amount of people living in the city, contrasting with the almost ghost town-like quality she felt the first time she came here. "And certainly not as empty..."
She had to swerve again to avoid bumping into someone.
"Definitely not as empty as it used to be," she amended to herself, noticing the rather annoyed glance the local gave her.
Then there was the massive hole that once comprised the central block of the first city. Something that big couldn't be easily overlooked by the city planners who inherited the task of rebuilding Tokyo-3 from scratch. From the ‘N2 Chasm'—or so it was called in the map—the city spread outwards, beyond the original city limits. As a result, new roads, highways, and other structures now occupied areas where there weren't anything before.
It was disorienting for a visitor to the city, to say the least. But Mana was, if nothing else, resourceful, and this problem would only prove a minor hindrance to her, since she had already been here before. Of course, it would make her search a little bit longer than what she expected, but if she managed to do everything right, she would be able to return to the hotel with a clue, at the very least.
Mana passed by a small street-side diner, a rare sight in the old days, but probably quite common now, and stopped to study the people enjoying their meals inside. Immediately, she wished she hadn't; the smells wafting out of the place only served to remind her that she hadn't eaten anything since she arrived. With a sigh, she gave in to her body's impulses, and entered the restaurant, but promised herself to eat only a light lunch.
She promised herself a lot of things.
A bowl of rice, miso soup, a serving of grilled pork, a muffin or two, and a glass of iced tea later, Mana guiltily admitted that the meal was enjoyable, if a bit on the heavy side. Taking a deep breath, she leaned back against the chair, a frown on her face as she felt her jeans, tight as they already were, pinch her stomach. A sigh escaped her lips as she was forced to keep her stomach in—no easy feat, after the late lunch she had just had—so that her pants wouldn't pinch her tummy as much.
You've survived a military program where children have died while in training, an angry red-headed Evangelion pilot, and even a N2 mine detonation, she reminded herself, more to dispel the discomfort she was feeling than anything else. Compared to those, this is just a minor inconvenience. Besides, it only serves to show that you've been eating too much again, and have to cut down on the sweets...
Mana sighed again, more audible this time. A minor inconvenience. Right.
An image came to her at that moment, of an older woman, her once-lustrous mauve hair already showing more than its share of gray, and yet still having a figure to die for... It made her feel—inadequate?—well, something close to that...
Mana took out her notepad, and turned to the page where she had jotted down the address she had looked for earlier. It was amusing, to think that all of her hopes hinged on finding this person's address, something she estimated would take days to locate, only to find it in the city's phone directory. And, if what she remembered was true, then the person she was looking for still lived in the same place!
One would think that someone of her standing would have wanted to keep such information from the public. Of course, considering this particular person's personality and habits, it probably just slipped that person's mind.
"I wonder if the place is still as untidy as I remember it to be," Mana said to herself, leaning back as she tried to remember the dwelling of the most outrageous Ops Director she had ever met.
After all, Katsuragi Misato was nothing if not unorthodox, in her attitudes as well as the way she lived. And the state of her apartment seemed to reflect this: nice and orderly on the outside, and very chaotic inside.
She was exaggerating, of course: the place wasn't really as untidy as she made it sound, primarily due to the pains of the Ops Director's roommate, one Ikari Shinji. Still, there was always this lingering feeling that, once Shinji turned his back, the small slice of order he had been trying to give the apartment would vanish like a brief summer breeze.
Maybe the woman had changed over the years, and some trace of Shinji's tidiness had rubbed off on her...
Mana quickly dispelled the notion. You can't teach an old soldier new tactics, as the saying goes.
She placed the notepad on the table, and retrieved the city map she had brought with her. She spread it over the table, and studied it one more time, making sure that the route she chose would get her to Misato's apartment relatively quickly, if taken on foot that is. Mana still wasn't quite sure of the routes the city's buses took these days, and didn't have the time to puzzle them out; she needed to speak to Misato today, and she really didn't need to waste time getting lost.
The question on why shouldn't she use the city's taxi service imposed itself briefly in her mind. Certainly, it would get her to Misato's home faster, a better alternative than walking all the way there.
Mana frowned as she checked the money she had with her. Taking a quick count of the small fold of bills that was quietly taking up space in her purse, she immediately regretted that she had not brought along more money; after she paid for what she ate, it probably wouldn't be enough to pay for a bus ride, much more a taxi's fare. And she didn't want to use her checking account except for the most dire of circumstances. In her enthusiasm for her search, she had forgotten just how expensive it was to be an outsider in Japan.
She sighed as she closed her purse. She's better get used to walking while she stayed here in Tokyo-3. It wasn't like she was going to figure out the transport routes anytime soon.
Sitting back, Mana sat back and watched the groups of people walk past the diner's streetside window. She took particular interest in the pairs of younger couples, most of them seemingly connected at the hip, relishing each other's presence, and the groups of kids running past, probably going home after a day at school, or going somewhere to play...
How long had she put things off? How long has it been since she listened to the ticking of the clock that governed her body's existence?
She shook her head clear of such thoughts. It's too late, far too late to do anything about it anymore.
Mana paid for the lunch she had eaten, and left the restaurant, keeping notions of family and relationships from her mind. She had a person to find, after all.
That, and she knew that the dreams would come to haunt her later, as they've always done, all these eighteen years. Dreams of children running happily in the sun...
She walked for nearly an hour, map still in hand, following the route she had decided on while she was still at the hotel. Every once in a while, she would stop to rest, and check the map to see if she was still on the proper track. It was during these brief stops she was able to observe the people going about to and fro on their personal businesses: office workers returning to work after their lunch breaks; teenagers hanging out; old friends talking about the events of the day as they sat under a tree's shade. It seemed too much like Houston, the American city where she lived and worked.
It was a constant wonder to her that this place, which seemed to be like any other city in the United States or anyplace else in the world, was once a fortress, a constant battleground whose purpose was more closely tied to weapons than people. But she was finding that image harder and harder to hold on to the more she was exposed to the new Tokyo-3, her memories and perceptions no longer having the same quality as before.
"What did you expect?" she told herself as she wiped off the sweat on her brow, reminding herself of the same thought that had been on her mind since she came here. "Things change," Mana reiterated to herself as she gazed at the city towering above her, and the people who lived there. "You didn't really believe that the city would stay the same for your benefit?
"Of course not. Life is change. This will never stay the same, no matter how you try to believe otherwise," she added with finality. "If you can't change with life, then how do you expect to continue living?"
Mana smiled, and laughed softly to herself. Why was she so philosophical all of a sudden?
Studying the map, she tried to orient herself according to the places she had just passed by. By her estimate, she had come about half way. Not too bad for someone who hadn't done any serious walking for a while. Still, she had a long way to go, and her ankles were already starting to ache. She had to find some place to sit down for a while before she could continue. And, according to the map, there was a park close by... Which meant park benches.
Tucking the map back into her shoulder bag, Mana started off in the direction of the park.
Not even a few paces from where she was standing, she stopped, having seen something from the corner of her eye that caught her attention. Curious, she turned to look. "Now, what do we have here?" she said as she walked over to what seemed to be a shop specializing in souvenirs. On its display window was one rather conspicuously placed poster, one of the type that advertised the release of a new record or movie minidisc. And on the poster...
Behind her sunglasses, Mana's eyes widened in surprise.
A familiar set of deep blue eyes looked back at her, framing a young face that seemed both sad and determined at the same time. One hand, sheathed in blue, black and white, seemed to reach out to the viewer, while the other covered part of the youth's face. Beside him, on either side, were two girls, both with resolute expressions on their faces that matched the boy's own; one, clad in red that matched her hair, the other clothed in white, with strange ice-blue hair and eyes of a deep crimson. Behind them, half in shadows and half in light, a figure sat as if in contemplation, the reflection of light off glasses the only thing visible on the person's face. And towering above them all, arms raised in grotesque triumph, howled a giant of shadows, bathed in what seemed to be a shower of blood...
Evangelion, it read underneath. Damnation. Redemption. Titles of the OAV minidiscs the poster advertised, and below those, release dates and the prices of each individual disc. But she noticed none of these, intent on the finely drawn eyes that gazed at her from beyond the display window.
Whoever painted the original, she mused as she turned away from the poster, whoever was the artist who drew the image, he or she was good. It took her a few long moments before she could look at it again, before she could convince herself that it was not him, but an artful representation on the artist's perception of what he was like. A representation, not a photo, and nothing more.
She had heard about the anime and manga, as well as the movies and OAV series based off the events around the EVA project, of course. Who in the world hadn't? Five or so years ago, when news leaked out of plans to do an anime and manga adaptation of General Katsuragi's written account of the Angel War, it caused a sensation. Production companies and studios scrambled over each other for the rights to oversee such a much-anticipated project. The media had a field day, and everywhere, whether via the internet, newspapers, or the TV, you heard about it.
Even among her co-workers at the software company, arguments raged on just how close the series would be to what actually happened, and how much would be just fanciful interpretations of the events. After all, most of the specifics concerning the Angel War were still kept secret, and it was doubtful what little information that had been released to the public hadn't been ‘modified' by the ever-watchful UN propaganda committee.
In the end, the task of presenting an ‘accurate' exposure of the events in the Angel War fell unto the shoulders of a little-known production studio, whose only claim to fame was a re-telling of a science-fiction classic, and an eccentric director who was more apt to fits of gloominess than making any kind of lasting achievement.
Mana had expected a skewed portrayal of everything, putting even the failed invasion of NERV in a favorable light. After all, the UN was watching every step of the series' creation, despite claiming to be impartial about the whole matter, and were ready to censor anything that it deemed ‘inappropriate' to its interpretation of history. She knew this all-too well, being once under a similar organization's dark shadow.
And she doubted, too, that NERV was as saintly as the history books portrayed them.
Of course, her predictions missed their mark, much to her surprise. The director, despite laboring under a deep depression, had obviously done his homework. When the first episode of Evangelion made its global premiere, most were shocked at the stark realism portrayed, the impersonal telling of the events leading to the sortie against the 1st Angel. It was dark, gritty, and straight to the point, with little melodrama or embellishment.
The world loved it.
She remembered how everything would grind to a halt at the office, as everyone crowded near the lounge's television set just to watch, and that she couldn't help but cry every time she watched, especially during the final episodes, where everything seemed to be falling apart. Most of her other co-workers cried with her as well, but none could know that her tears were of a personal nature. She knew these people, and it pained her to see that they had suffered so much... Even more than she could have ever imagined.
By the end of the series' 26th episode—with its narration of the climactic final battle in the shattered dome that was the Geofront, as well as its bloody aftermath—it was lauded as a masterpiece of storytelling, for the way it tried to stay true to the accounts of the people who lived through the Angel War; for the way that it showed that reality isn't always pretty, and that history often tries to obscure this fact behind the details; and for the way it showed that even heroes were not as perfect as the world thought them to be.
All this, despite the UN's continuing protests and attempts to take it off air. If nothing else, their attempts only served to heighten the world's interest in the series, and everything about Project E.
Mana stood there, subdued, once more lost in the images of her past, memories hoarded and kept hidden. Those eyes... Even though she knew they weren't even real, weren't even his, they stirred up strong emotions she had thought long buried.
Too caught up in her recollections, she didn't notice that she had acquired a companion in viewing the display.
"Wow. That's pretty," a small voice said in awe.
Mana blinked, her train of thought interrupted by that small voice. Looking down, she saw that a young girl, probably around four or five, stared with wide eyes at the poster in the display case. She was a slight little thing, with short black hair, and was clad in a little yellow sundress. Mana also noticed that she was extremely pale, though she didn't seem sickly or anything of the sort.
"You think so?" the older woman looked at her new companion, a little thankful for the distraction; there were some things she wasn't quite ready to face right now. Not yet.
The girl looked up at Mana, and nodded. "Yes, miss!" The girl smiled as she pointed at the poster with one small finger. "The colors are very, very nice," the girl explained enthusiastically. "Especially the other girls; they're pretty."
Mana gave the drawn representations of Asuka and Rei an amused glance, before looking back at the girl. She bent down and smiled, her face level with the little girl's. She took off her sunglasses, and was about to ask just what it was the girl thought pretty about the young women on the poster, when she stopped, noticing something for the first time.
The girl had red eyes.
Mana almost fell back on her heels, stunned by what she saw in the girl. Red. The eye color was rare, especially for someone of Asian descent. To have red eyes... It suggested that the little girl had some sort of genetic deficiency. But, aside from her pale complexion, the little girl seemed to show no signs of albinoism. If anything else, she seemed to be a healthy five year-old who just needed to be out in the sun more.
That, and she recalled that true albinos had eyes of a pinkish hue. Not red. Having red eyes was something else altogether. And as far as she could recall, there was only one person she knew who had eyes of that particular tint.
"I wish that I can make something as pretty as that," the little girl continued, happily unaware of the stunned look Mana probably had on her face. "But my hands are clumsy," the girl's brows knitted together as she held up her small hands. "Mama says its because I'm still little, and that it'll go away once I grow up a bit, but still..." Her face quickly brightened as an idea seemed to come to her. "Maybe my big sister can help me again later!"
"Big sister?" Her initial surprise having dissipated, Mana found herself more than a little intrigued by her young companion. She wondered what kind of connection the little girl had to Ayanami Rei, the enigmatic yet magnetic former First Child who still routinely gave men hemorrhages just by smiling—God knows she's seen enough nosebleeds from her male co-workers whenever they watched the doctor appear on the news.
Was this little girl Rei's daughter?
Mana quickly dismissed the silly notion.
"Yes miss, my big sister," The child paused, then looked at Mana straight in the eye. "Um, she's not really my big sister, but I like to call her that. She's very nice."
Mana found herself smiling in return; the little girl's vivaciousness was infectious. "I see," She looked back up at the poster, then back to her companion. "You know, you shouldn't be telling me this."
"Oh?" The girl's eyebrows knotted together again, this time enhancing the look of confusion shown in her cerise eyes. "Why miss?"
"Well, for starters, you don't know who I am," Mana pointed out. "And I don't know who you are. That makes me a stranger to you... Haven't your parents taught you never to talk to strangers?" She feigned a serious look, but this immediately gave way when she saw the almost innocent look on the little girl's face. "Even though they're very pretty strangers?" She passed a wink to the little girl to accent her point.
The little girl seemed to consider this for a moment, before smiling. "Oh, that's easy to fix miss," The little girl said. She stepped back two small steps from Mana, then bowed formally, leaving the woman to look on in astonishment. "My name is Sadamoto Megumi, and I'm five years old," the girl introduced herself as she straightened. "My family lives nearby, and I go to a pre-school near here. My mother is a teacher, while my father plays in the orches...orches...orchestra." She then smiled her brightest smile. "I'm glad to meet you, miss!"
"Kirishima Mana," Mana reached out her hand, then remembered that she wasn't in America anymore, so she quickly withdrew it. Megumi didn't seem to mind much, still smiling, and still waiting for her to finish her introductions. "And I live, um, far away from here," she scratched the back of her head, thinking of the proper words to use so as not to confuse the girl. "I used to live here, but that was a long time ago. I'm back though, and I hope that I can stay."
"There, we're not strangers anymore," the younger of the two commented. "We can talk together now, miss Mana."
"You're right," Mana hid her smile as a look of glee spread on little Megumi's face. "We're not strangers anymore."
"Hai!" Megumi seemed to be about to say something, when someone called her name. As the little girl looked over her shoulder, Mana followed her gaze. She saw two women, probably about her age, walking down the street in her direction, their hands carrying several plastic bags filled with all sorts of foodstuffs.
"Megumi." One of the women beckoned to the child as she and her companion neared them, her voice soft yet firm. She was dressed conservatively, wearing a long-sleeved yellow blouse and a long gray skirt, a small brooch clasping the collar of her blouse, and a pair of low-heeled shoes. The woman had black hair cut short, and a kind face, having a complexion just fair enough not to be called pale. A mole graced the lower left side of her lips, while her soft brown eyes gazed at the little girl with a mixture of concern and frustration.
Mana stood up as her young companion turned to the new arrivals. Studying the woman who called Megumi's name, it wasn't too hard to guess that she was related to the girl. Maybe she was even the little one's mother.
"Megumi-chan," she repeated, still with the same calm tone of voice. "How many times have I told you not to go without me?" The woman sighed, as the little girl gave an embarrassed laugh in response. "Sometimes, just sometimes, I wish that you were less like your father." She shifted slightly, and turned to look at Mana. "I apologize if my daughter bothered you, madam."
Mana waved her hand a little, and tried to give the woman a reassuring smile. "No, please, you don't have to. Little Megumi didn't bother me at all. Really."
The woman seemed to be unconvinced, but before she was able to speak her thoughts her companion spoke first.
"Oh, relax Mayumi," the woman said. She was a little taller than Megumi's mother, with a long fall of dark brown hair that ended in soft waves, and her complexion was certainly more healthier than her companion's. She had a smattering of freckles on her cheeks, and her dark eyes verily sparkled with life. She was dressed a little more casually than her friend, wearing a wool jacket over a lacy blouse, with matching skirt and sandals, and there seemed to be a sense of the domestic about her.
And familiar. Mana could have easily dismissed it as a coincidence, but the longer she looked at the second woman, the more it seemed that she knew who it was. But who could it be? At this point, her memories turned up a blank.
"I'm sure that Megumi-chan didn't make any trouble this time. Right?" the woman continued, and reached out a hand to tousle the child's hair.
The girl nodded, but not before she gave her now-disheveled locks a forlorn look.
Megumi's mother sighed, before her face creased into a soft smile. "I suppose your godmother is right." She tilted her head a little, turning her eyes to her companion. "She is more experienced in these kinds of matters, after all."
"Of course I am," her companion nodded to herself. "You'd think that three kids of my own didn't teach me anything..." The woman took a quick look at her watch, then gestured to Megumi's mother. "Ne, Mayumi, we have to get going, or else we won't be able to help with the preparations." She leaned close, before adding, "That, and you-know-who might already be there."
If she hadn't seen it for herself, Mana wouldn't have believed it possible for the girl's mother to become any paler.
"You're right," she nodded. "Come Megumi-chan," the girl's mother motioned with one hand, leaving it open for her daughter to hold on to it. "You don't want to miss your big sister's birthday party, do you?"
The rather unhappy look on Megumi's face vanished in an instant, and she happily held on to her mother's hand. The girl tugged on her mother's arm enthusiastically, and tried to make the woman to follow her lead. Smiling, Megumi's mother let the girl lead her away, though she was shaking her head all the while.
"Bye miss Mana!" The little girl stopped to wave. Mana smiled, and waved in return, as Megumi returned to guiding her mom to wherever it was they were going.
She let her hand fall, and sighed, though the smile she wore stayed in place. The encounter with the strange little girl was something that wasn't going to be forgotten anytime soon.
"Children," a voice said from somewhere beside her. Mana turned, a surprised look on her face as she saw that the companion of Megumi's mom was still there with her. The woman laughed, the freckles on her cheeks standing out as she did. "No matter how many headaches they give, you can't help but love them." Her laughter subsided, but the joy she had was still apparent in the sparkle in her eyes. It was happiness born out of experience, the sort of thing you feel if you've lived through something yourself, and gained some measure of wisdom from it.
At that moment, a small part of Mana envied the woman, and little Megumi's mom. It only reminded her of just how much she's let herself miss out on for so long.
"I think I agree with you," she concurred, letting her gaze linger in the direction where Megumi had gone. "Of course, I've never had any of my own, but for some reason, I understand."
The woman beside her gave her a thoughtful look, one that Mana couldn't help but notice. "Is there something wrong?" she asked. "Isn't there somewhere you're supposed to go to, ma'm?"
The woman shook her head, as if something had crossed her mind but had been quickly dismissed. "A strange fancy," she explained. "And more than a little wishful thinking, I guess."
"I heard Megumi-chan call your name," the woman said. "Mana, isn't it?"
Mana nodded, having little else to do, and more than a little confused at what the other woman was hinting at. "Yes, it is. Why?"
The woman smiled. "You might find this a little strange, but I used to know someone named Mana. She used to belong to a class I represented, when I was still in middle school." She turned away from Mana, and took a step forward, before continuing. "She only stayed for a short while... But, as I recall, caused quite a stir, especially among my friends."
"And, what has this have to do with me?" Though Mana would have liked it better to politely end the conversation then and there—the day was already growing old, and it was still a long way to Misato's apartment—something held her in place. It was something about this woman... But what? A small part of her mind kept on insisting that she knew her from somewhere, but she couldn't remember... It was frustrating, to say the least.
"Like I said, wishful thinking," The woman smiled one last time. "I'm sorry that I kept you for too long." The woman bowed to her and Mana found herself doing the same in return. "And, like I said to Megumi-chan, I do have an important place to go to."
"No, really, it wasn't any trouble." Mana said after she straightened.
The woman bowed to her again, then turned to leave. Mana smiled, before shaking her head to herself, as she wondered at the strange variety of people who made Tokyo-3 their home. Turning her gaze back at the storefront, and the poster that was displayed there, she began to think about what had just happened to her.
Imagine that? It felt a little funny being mistaken for someone else.
... She used to belong to a class I represented, when I was still in middle school...
Mana blinked, as somewhere in the back of her mind, in the place where she kept her memories, something suddenly became clear to her.
... But I used to know someone named Mana... She only stayed for a short while... But, as I recall, caused quite a stir, especially among my friends...
A rather foggy image came to her, of certain class representative in a particular homeroom... Though she could remember scarcely anything about the attitude of the representative herself, Mana recalled two things about the class' spokesperson. One, the class rep sported pigtails. Two, she had freckles, so much so that her cheeks were full of...
She was running before she even finished her thought.
"Excuse me," Mana doubled over as she managed to catch up to the woman, her breath coming in short gasps as her lungs seemed to protest their misuse. She had to take a few lungfuls, before she could speak again. "Excuse me," she began once more, her breathing more or less under control again. "But you wouldn't happen to be Horaki Hikari, of Class 2-A, third Tokyo-3 Middle School?"
The woman seemed to be a little taken aback by her question. She looked to her front, where Mana noticed that Megumi and her mother had paused to observe what was going on. The girl waved at her, while her mother seemed to give a tilt of her head. Turning back to her, the woman smiled, then shook her head. "I'm sorry, but you've got the wrong person..."
Mana's shoulders slumped at what she heard; maybe she was putting too much hope on coincidences...
"...Because I don't use that name anymore," the woman finished, her smile seemingly all the more radiant. "Marriage has a way of changing such things, you know?" She gestured to one hand, showing off the golden wedding band she wore around one finger. "These days, my friends call me Mrs. Suzuhara; there're few people who even remember my maiden name anymore."
"Yup," Hikari laughed into one hand. "Who would have thought, huh? Then again, Touji didn't look like much back then, but who cares, ne?" The freckled-woman looked at her, her face thoughtful once more. "But I think that it's more surprising to see you again, Kirishima-san. It's been a long time."
"Is this a bad time?" Mana asked, as she noticed Megumi once more try to pull her mother forward with her. "I...I have some questions to ask, but you seem to have somewhere to go..."
"Actually," Hikari grinned at her. "You couldn't have picked a better time to come back."
"Eh?" Mana felt Hikari's hand in hers, and then felt herself being pulled forward. It almost made her stumble, but she recovered her balance just in time. Bodily anyway. Her mind was still trying to recover from the fact that she had just stumbled unto a major breakthrough in her search just by being at the wrong place at the right time.
"Trust me, Kirishima-san," Hikari reassured her. "I have a feeling that you're going to have your answers by the time we get there... Probably going to like what you see too."
Mana could only nod in response, too overwhelmed to do anything else.