Mayumi took a slight breath, and blew on the small amount of spaghetti sauce she had in the ladle before her, dispersing a small amount of the sauce's vapor in the process. She blew a few more times, and waited a moment before giving the sauce a tentative sip, at which she closed her eyes and let the taste play against her tongue.

Aside from being a tad hotter than what she expected it to be, there didn't seem to be anything wrong with it; the taste of the tomato sauce wasn't as overpowering as she had feared, and seemed, at least to her tongue, to be mingling quite well with the other components of the sauce.

"Ne, Mayumi, how's the sauce coming?"

Mayumi gave the sauce one last sip, before she replaced the cover on the pot, placing the ladle off to the side as she turned to face the table, where Hikari was busying herself with putting the final touches on what looked like--to Mayumi anyway--glazed pieces of meticulously-cut pork.

"It's better than expected, I guess," she said quietly as she took a seat opposite to where Hikari was working. "Though, it's still nothing compared to what someone else I know could do." She crossed her arms over the table, and pillowed her head on them, a small smile on her lips as she watched her friend work on the garnishings for the dish. "Am I right?"

Hikari chuckled as she heard this, and turned her brown-eyed gaze in her companion's direction. She sprinkled one last handful of the herbs she had in hand, before she wiped her hands clean on the apron she wore. "I think you're overexaggerating again, Mayumi." She gave her a wink, before she took the tray where the food was on and brought it over to the kitchen counter, where the rest of the finished food was waiting. "I'm not that good. Really."

Mayumi gave a soft laugh at that comment. "No need to be modest Hikari-san." Sighing, she straightened in her seat as her eyes continued to follow Hikari as she finished putting a cover over the food tray. "Compared to you and Shinji-san, I'm barely even competent. You should see the mess I make of breakfast everyday." She brought her hand to her mouth to stifle another laugh, as an image of the chaos that was her kitchen the day before came to mind. "I don't know many recipes, so I usually improvise when I cook... And most of the time, it doesn't really turn out right."

"I don't see Megumi-chan complaining much," Hikari said as she came back to the table, a grin on her freckled face. "And that husband of yours still looks healthy enough to me, so that should say something about the way you cook, ne?" At that, she took a seat for herself, and sat down beside her friend. "Besides, if you could please that guy, then you're doing fine."

"Megumi-chan can't complain because she doesn't really know otherwise, Hikari-san," Mayumi passed Hikari a grin, and allowed herself a short laugh before sighing. "My home cooking's all she's been exposed to, I guess. But she's started going to school already... Oh, you know how it is." She turned her friend, a resigned look on her face as she did. "She'll make friends, and it'll be just a matter of time before a schoolmate shares with her their lunch. And then she'll find out just how mediocre I am in the kitchen."

Hikari perched her elbows on the table, steepling her hands as she did, before she perched her chin on them. She titled her head a little towards Mayumi's direction, and gave her friend a soft smile of her own. "Don't be too hard on yourself, Mayumi." Hikari laid her hands on the table, and leaned her head back, her wavy brown hair cascading down her shoulders as she seemed to stare straight into the ceiling, to something beyond it. "You're a mother, right? I think that whatever a mother prepares, as long as it's done from the heart, can't be bad for their child." She turned and looked at Mayumi, then grinned. "Ne?"

Mayumi gazed at Hikari with more than a hint of admiration; once more, her friend was right, and again she felt a little embarrassed for doubting herself. "I guess so," she acceded, and smiled in response. I wonder if I can ever be as wise as Hikari-san, Mayumi thought to herself as she leaned back against her chair, her own eyes drifting towards a horizon only she could see. She didn't have to think on it long before she found an answer within herself--it was probably there all the while.

Maybe. Someday.

Hikari extended her arms forward a little, and stretched, loosening the knots her muscles seemed to have found themselves into. "It's finally done," she said as she looked in the direction of the kitchen counter, where most of the food they had worked on waited. "Except for the pasta and the spaghetti sauce, all we have to do is wait for the guests to arrive." She settled back in her seat, closing her eyes as she did, as if something profound came over her. "And to think I was worried that we might not have enough time to prepare everything before everyone got here. That Shinji, deciding to use Western food all of a sudden."

"Still, everything turned out okay, right, Hikari-san?" Mayumi commented softly. "Besides, Western food or no, it wouldn't have been a problem with you. Am I right?"

"Mayumi, it's been a while since I cooked anything Western, and even then it was nothing like this," Hikari said, nodding in the direction of the food. "A full course meal for more than twenty people, plus dessert and side dishes... I haven't prepared anything of this size since, well, since... Since Asuka got married." The excited glow in her dark eyes dimmed, as she looked away, towards the kitchen windows. "And that... That was a long time ago."

"Sixteen years..." Mayumi murmured to herself. She stole a quick glance at her companion, and noticed the sudden quiet coming from her. A quick thought came to her right then, and she didn't waste any more time waiting on it; she pushed her chair back, and stood up, startling Hikari from her musings as she put a hand on the woman's shoulder. "Ne, Hikari-san, you want some tea?"

Hikari blinked, and took a moment before she could reply. "That would be nice," she said, as she watched Mayumi walk towards the cupboard and take out some cups. "We don't have anything else to do anyway, so I guess it would be alright."

"That would make, let's see, four cups, right? One for you and me, and one for Shinji-san and Kirishima-san..." Mayumi poked around a little, before she found the small container where the tea leaves were placed. She took out a small tea kettle, and placed enough water and tea leaves for four people. "I hope Kirishima-san likes earl grey tea though."

"Trust me. She'll like it," Hikari said as Mayumi carried the kettle to the stove. She placed it down beside it as she took a look at the spaghetti sauce still simmering there. "I think that should be done by now." Mayumi nodded in assent, and took the pot which had the sauce in it, and put it aside, before replacing it with the tea kettle. "Speaking of whom, where is Mana anyway?"

Mayumi turned to look at Hikari, and wondered herself. "Didn't she excuse herself a while ago? When Shinji-san was putting the icing on the cake?"

"I remember that she said she wanted to check on Megumi-chan. Or something," A worried expression crossed Hikari's face, before she shrugged. "I guess people do change in twenty years."

"Eh? What do you mean?" Mayumi took off the baking mitts she had worn when she took the container off the stove. "You mean Kirishima-san?" She stood by the side of the stove as she waited for the tea to heat up.

"Yeah. The Mana I remember isn't this..." Hikari paused as she looked for the appropriate word to describe her observation of their guest. "Well, subdued before. Especially around Shinji." A confused look came to her face, as she seemed to try to puzzle out the large discrepancy between her memories and the person she had just been reacquainted with. "I figured it was because of trying to readjust to coming back--it has been a while since she's been here after all. But now, I'm not so sure..."

"Is that so?"

"Yeah." Hikari stopped, and chuckled to herself, and scratched the back of her head. "Oh, I'm sorry, I totally forgot."

"About what, Hikari-san?" Mayumi stood, a little confused by the last remark. "What are you apologizing to me for?"

"I forgot that Mana had left Tokyo-3 long before you first came here Mayumi," Hikari laughed in embarrassment. "Sorry about that." The woman brought a hand to her mouth to stifle her mouth as she laughed for a few more moments. "I guess my memory's not like it was when we were back in middle school, huh?"

"Now, that would be very surprising," Mayumi brought a finger to her lips, almost totally concealing the small smile that appeared there. "Hadn't you just recognized Kirishima-san from memory?"

"I guess," Hikari shook her head and waved a hand, as if dismissing something. "Though I think it has more to do with everything that happened when she first arrived here. You'd think that our class was unique enough, what with the Children there, but when she came..."

Hikari shook her head again, but this time there was this odd smile on her face, as if she was talking about something especially memorable. "Well, you can say that the situation between Asuka and Shinji reached a whole new different level when Mana showed up. I mean, it was exciting already as it was, but when Mana started getting 'familiar' with Shinji..."

"It must have been an fascinating time," Mayumi put in. Though she didn't outwardly show it, she was more than a little interested in learning more about their guest. Hikari was right--she didn't know a single thing about Kirishima Mana, which was a little annoying on her part, considering that she's been friends with the Ikari family for a long time now.

There were some things that were never shared, Mayumi supposed. Certainly, of the time she's known both Shinji and Asuka, she's never heard of them talk about Kirishima-san. Either it was one of those topics that the two didn't really want to talk about or, well, it wasn't really relevant to the relationship they already shared.

"That's not the half of it," Hikari leaned forward in her chair, looking quite eager to relate the whole story to her friend. "It was the first time I saw Asuka so worked up over something that wasn't even remotely connected to EVA."

"Like that time during the Cultural Festival?" Mayumi couldn't help but smile when she thought of that time, when she was first introduced to Shinji, Touji, Hikari, and the others, in particular a certain red-headed foreign student. That audition, in which the Three Stooges had hoped to find a lead singer for the band they were forming, was memorable to say the least.

"Yeah, that was kind of wild," Hikari admitted. "Then again, Asuka was always the competitive type. I didn't think that she would pass up that chance to put the guys in their places, and show everyone how great she was." The woman quieted, a wistful look coming over her features. "She was always like that..."

"I know." Mayumi recalled some of her own experiences with the Second Child, especially when the redhead unexpectedly appeared at the apartment she was staying in. "Proud and confident, smart and talented, and unashamed to tell everyone her opinions on everything," Mayumi turned around to check on the tea kettle. "I was a little jealous, for a time, you know? She was everything I wasn't." She paused, before continuing. "She was a strong woman. I don't think I could ever be like that."

"And then, somewhere along the way, you learned that she was just as human as we were," Hikari said, cradling her chin in her hand as she watched her companion. "With her own fears, weaknesses, and insecurities..."

"And it made me admire her even more," Mayumi finished.

There was a length of silence between the two friends.

Hikari was the first to break the contemplative mood the two had fallen into.

"You have to admit though, the song she used that time was a little too much," she pointed out, the wistful expression on her face replaced once more by her cheerful smile. "I mean, I'm her best friend, and I thought that she went overboard with it."

Mayumi had to laugh at that; it was true, after all.

"Still, wild and awkward are two different things." Hikari sighed as she reflected on that particular point in the past. "Everything was starting to go so well between the two," the woman paused, then tittered. "Relatively speaking, of course; stability wasn't really the case around Asuka and Shinji. But even then, even when they argued, you could see something right between them."

"I can't really comment on that Hikari-san," Mayumi checked the teapot and, satisfied at what she saw, turned off the stove. "When I first came here, I didn't know Shinji-san and Asuka-san too well; all I knew was that they were noisy, and they disrupted my reading." She took the tea kettle off the stove, and set it down beside the readied teacups, before she began looking for the sugar. "How many teaspoons?" Mayumi inquired, after she found the sugar holder.

"Just one, thank you," Hikari replied. "But you agree with me, don't you? That it was like there was a connection between the two? Something right."

"No, not really," Mayumi admitted timidly, as she finished distributing what she thought was the right amount of sugar for Mana and Shinji. She then took the kettle, and poured hot tea into each cup in turn. Behind her, Hikari suppressed the urge to sigh as the aroma drifted over to where she was seated. "I was too preoccupied back then," she continued, as she stirred each cup just a little. "That realization came much later, when I saw them again while I was trying for Kyodai..."

"Then you agree with me then?"

"I didn't say that I didn't, Hikari-san."

"Though I didn't tell Asuka at the time, I thought that she and Shinji were a great match," Hikari continued, as Mayumi reached for an innocuous-looking cookie jar that sat near the oven. "And it seemed that they were starting to get along fine, too."

"It depends on how you define 'getting along', Hikari-san," Mayumi observed, as she began to place the cookies on a platter. "As it was, the way they interacted with each other made it look like they weren't friends at all." An image of Shinji's face, his left cheek prominently displaying a bright-red and very painful-looking slap mark , came to mind. "Or rivals."

Hikari snickered behind her. "True enough." There was a short pause, before she continued. "Still, at the rate things were going, it looked like there was going to be a breakthrough between them." Mayumi stole a glance over her shoulder, and saw her friend make a sweeping gesture with her hand. "Then Mana transferred here... And all of the sudden everything went from 'getting along fine' back to 'awkward and semi-hostile'."

"Hikari-san, you're making it sound like Kirishima-san's arrival was such a bad thing." Mayumi walked over to where Hikari was seated, and offered her a cup of hot tea as well as a small platter of cookies. Hikari took these gratefully, and gave her friend a 'thank you' as she took a slight sip from the cup. "That isn't fair to her, don't you think?"

Hikari took another sip from her cup, before setting it on the table. "I know, I know... It's just, well, she made an already complicated situation even more difficult." She took a cookie from the plate, and nibbled on it a little, as Mayumi transferred the rest of the teacups to the table.

"Hikari-san, as I recall, things weren't exactly 'simple' when I first arrived here, either."

Hikari decided not to comment on that. Mayumi figured that she had made her point to her friend, as she saw the reflective pose the woman had fallen into. She shook her head at this, before smiling to herself, as she returned one last time to the counter to get the rest of the cookies.

"Mayumi," Hikari said finally, the cup still held in her hand. She set it down, her palms close against the cup's sides, and turned in her direction. "Why don't you ask Mana to join us? It's be a shame to let the tea cool, after all the trouble you went through preparing it, ne?" She smiled, before adding, "Besides, something this good is better enjoyed with friends."

"I know, Hikari-san." Mayumi wiped her hands on her apron, and was about to leave the kitchen, when a soft beeping sound broke the calm of the room's atmosphere. She felt for her skirt's pocket, her movement mirrored by Hikari, as she took out the cellphone kept there.

"Mine," Hikari announced. She had raised the phone in her direction, and Mayumi could see the small LCD monitor lit up on it. "Don't worry, it's probably just my big lug of a husband." Hikari rolled her eyes, smiling all the while as she did this. She fumbled around her skirt, before she found the wireless earpiece for her phone.

She gestured to Mayumi with her hand to go on, as she answered the call. Mayumi didn't even bother hiding her smile as she left the kitchen, and pocketed her cellphone as she walked towards the apartment's sitting room, figuring that she would find Kirishima-san there.

It was empty. Mayumi stood there for several moments, studying the room that was, during normal days, the Ikari family's living room. The sofas and the small table had been set aside, replaced instead by the large square table that would hold the food and the drinks for the party later on. She crossed her arms over her bosom and nodded to herself; everything seemed to be in order.

No Kirishima-san, though.

Mayumi didn't worry too much. Unless Kirishima-san had decided to go out, she'd be able to find her in the apartment; there was only so much room to go around after all, even in an apartment the size of the one the Ikari family lived in. She was about to start for the bedrooms, but stopped, as the sound of voices reached her ears. Of particular interest was the sound of laughter, one that obviously came from a young girl. That was a sound that she would recognize anywhere.

Mayumi smiled, and shook her head; it seemed like she didn't have to look far, after all.

She paused in front of one of the bedrooms, sure now that it was the source of the voices she had heard in the living room. A large heart-shaped sign dominated her view, with a strange mix of Japanese and foreign characters written on it; it was the younger Ikari's room. Standing there, in front of its door, she could hear the young girl's voice--that of her daughter, Megumi--though she could make out very little else. It was as if the child was talking to herself or, which was more likely, her companion was content just listening to her lively chatter.

Mayumi slid the door open a little, and took a peek inside. She couldn't help but smile at what she saw; Megumi and Kirishima-san were seated on the bed, the girl resting on the older woman's lap. A large book in turn lay open on Megumi's lap, and the girl was excitedly pointing at its contents. It was a photo album, it seemed. Around them toys and books were scattered across the room, the ordered atmosphere that Teri-chan had once proudly maintained turned upside down as a result of childish enthusiasm.

"...And this was the time onee-san went to the zoo with me," Megumi continued to narrate to Mana, pointing to a picture in the album, as Mayumi quietly slipped the door open more. "Mama and papa went with us, and Uncle Ikari too, though papa and uncle didn't get along too well, and mama had to walk between them to keep them quiet."

"Oh?" Mana said softly in response, as she leaned over the girl's head to look at the picture she was pointing to. She seemed to be genuinely interested in Megumi's story. "And then what happened?"

Megumi looked up, her red-eyed gaze catching her companion's green one, and smiled. "Big sis and I went and looked at the animals. I got to see an elephant, and was able to ride a horse..." The girl indicated another photo. "But onee-san had to ride with me, because I'm still too little to ride on my own."

"Well, that's true. Right now, you're still a little girl," Mayumi saw a smile grace Kirishima-san's face, but immediately noted the melancholy tone to it. "But someday, you'll grow up."


The woman nodded. The sad look vanished, replaced with a more cheerful expression. "Really."

Mayumi laughed softly, effectively announcing her presence to the pair. "You know, that's what I always tell her myself," she said as she walked into the room. "She never listens though." Mayumi settled herself on the side of the bed, and smiled at them.

"Mama!" Megumi verily squealed in delight, surprising Mana a little as the girl squirmed out of her place on her lap to hug her mother. She seemed to reach out for the girl, but stopped, and just smiled to herself, as if it something occurred to her just then. Mana leaned back against the pillows, shaking her head, the photo album left open on her lap.

Mayumi gave her a fond pat on her head, which brought a bright flush to the young one's pale cheeks. "She wasn't too much trouble, I hope?" Mayumi asked, turning her gaze to where Mana was seated.

Mana waved her hand dismissively. "Not really." She laughed a little, as she gestured to the mess surrounding them. "I can't say the same of the room, though."

Mayumi gave the room a cursory glance, before giggling softly to herself. "Don't worry about it too much. This always happens whenever we visit," She looked down at her daughter, who was seated on her lap. "I try to remind Megumi to behave, and not to trouble Shinji-san and Teri-chan, but she never listens to me." A feigned frown came to her face. "Megumi waru~ii a-no-ko."

The red-eyed girl merely smiled at her mother's pretense. "Un! Megumi waru~ii!" She reached up with her hands to touch Mayumi's face, and against her charms the woman couldn't keep the facade up for long; the child was just too cute to resist.

"Teri-chan doesn't seem to mind though," she continued. "She's sort of gotten used to it, I guess."

"Teri, huh..." Mana said softly to no one in particular. Mayumi gave the woman a sidewards glance at this, and saw an abstracted expression come over the woman's eyes. "Teri..."

"Kirishima-san, is there something wrong?" she asked, breaking the woman's reverie.

"Um, nothing, nothing." The woman laughed, before smiling, the distant look gone. "Just thinking about some things, that's all."

"Ah, I see." Mayumi said. She regarded Mana briefly, then shrugged.

"So, how's the cooking going?" Mana asked. "I'm sorry for disappearing like that, but I couldn't leave Megumi-chan alone when I found her here." The woman's cheeks flushed, sincerely embarrassed. "I kind of lost track of the time..."

"It's okay. Hikari-san and I've finished cooking everything, so we're taking a break. Sort of," Mayumi smiled. "Actually, that's why I've been looking for you; I've just prepared some tea, and I was wondering if you'd like to share some with us. Hikari-san and me, I mean."

She placed her daughter down on the floor, and stood, adding, "After looking after Megumi for as long as you have, I think that, of all people, you'd appreciate the refreshment. Ne?" Mayumi felt a tug on her arm, and saw Megumi smiling up at her; the girl probably had already figured out that tea time also meant that there were cookies to be had. With a shrug, she let herself be led by her daughter, not entirely an unenjoyable experience in itself.

"I think that would be nice," Mana agreed, as she closed the album and lay in on top of the matress. She slid her legs to the side of the bed, her stockinged feet alighting softly upon the floor. "It has been a while since I've enjoyed a decent cup of tea."

The trio stepped out into the hall, but were barely out of the brink before they encountered Hikari. There was an odd look smile on the woman's freckled face, as if she had something to say, but was a little uncomfortable sharing it, so Mayumi asked her about it.

"I won't be able to stay for tea, it seems." Hikari explained to her. It was Touji who had called, and it looked like he might not be able to pick up the kids and bring them to the party as promised; it seemed that there was more work to be done than expected, and he still had to buy his present for Teri-chan. "So I'll have to pick up the kids myself," she finished. Hikari gave her an apologetic look. "I'm sorry about this, Mayumi."

"It's okay, Hikari-san. "

"Hold the fort, okay?" Hikari instructed, as the three of them walked her to the door. "Shinji'll be back in a while with the drinks for the party, so you guys won't be alone for too long." She slipped on her sandals, then bent down to ruffle Megumi's hair, which made the pale girl blush. "And the birthday girl should get soon after that, so be ready. I'll see you guys at the party later."

Hikari straightened, and turned to Mayumi. "Oh, and Mayumi..."

"Yes, Hikari-san?"

"Let's try to share some tea next time." Hikari let her brown eyes stray over to Mana, catching the woman's green-eyed gaze in her own. "The three of us, I mean. We have a lot of catching up to do, y'know." She looked back to Mayumi. "If that's fine with you."

"Of course, Hikari-san."

"Good." Hikari turned, and opened the door. She faced them one last time, and waved, before the door automatically slid shut behind her.

Mayumi let her hand fall after returning the wave. "I guess it's just the two of us then, Kirishima-san." She tilted her head in the other woman's direction.

Mana let her hand drop as well. "I guess so."

"Shall we?"

"Of course."

The girl pulled on the apron her mother was still wearing, and once more the two women relinquished the lead to the girl. Megumi verily sprinted as they went, her lively voice filling the hall as she told her mother what she had been doing while her parent was busy. It was less lonely it seemed, as if the mere presence of the child filled the atmosphere of the empty apartment with life.

Mayumi, on her part, was more than content in letting her daughter guide her, as she listened to the child narrate what she had been doing for the past hour or so. She would have been quite happy on letting the child do whatever she wanted, if it meant just being there for her.

For as long as she could.

For as long as she was allowed to be.

For as long as she was needed.

She stole a brief look at the woman walking beside her. For a moment, Mayumi wondered about what was going on in Mana's mind; it seemed like something was troubling her, for her face was set with the same distant look she had observed earlier.

It wasn't in her business to pry though. It wasn't like she knew her companion that well; she hardly knew her at all, and she had a feeling that the same went with Kirishima-san. If Kirishima-san had something she had to tell, she would do so when she was ready, or when she wanted to.

It didn't take too long for them to reach the kitchen. Megumi detached herself from her parent and took a chair for herself, while Mana chose a seat beside her. Mayumi circled around the table to the counter, where she poured tea into the cups she had prepared for herself and her guest. The large plate of cookies she had placed there earlier sat as a tantalizing centerpiece, and the professor was already sure she knew what would happen next...

"Megumi, sweets aren't good for you," she said unexpectedly, without looking up from what she was doing. She smiled to herself, and could almost picture the embarrassed look on Megumi's face as she tries to reach for the cookies; there was a soft exclamation, and she figured that she wasn't too far off the mark.

She kept her face neutral as she turned back to the table, a cup in each hand. Megumi, as expected, sat quietly, a subdued look on her face as she gazed forlornly at the cookies in front of her. It reminded Mayumi of her husband, the way her daughter was staring at the sweets with something more than simple longing. She couldn't remember how many times he had used the same pouting look to get what he wanted...

It was actually the reason why Megumi was born.

"Megumi, you take after your father in rather useless ways," Mayumi said as offered Mana the cup she was holding. "It'll ruin your appetite, and I don't think you want that."

The girl looked down, as she swung her legs from where they hung out from the chair.

Mana gave Megumi a concerned look, before she took the proffered cup from the other woman. "I don't think you have to be that hard on her, Mayumi-san," she said, as Mayumi took a seat directly opposite to her. "I don't think that a few cookies would do any harm." Mana looked to her side, and tried to give the girl beside her a conforting look. She turned back to the other woman, and continued, "And it's not like she did anything really wrong."

Mayumi took a sip from her own cup before answering. "I'm not punishing her, Kirishima-san," she said as she put her cup down on its platter. "It's just that if I let her eat some now, she might not have the appetite for the party later." She let her eyes stray to where her daughter was sitting quietly, before turning them back again to the woman before her. "And she's been looking forward to this for a while now.

"I guess that is a valid point." Mana took a sip of tea, and took a moment before continuing. "Still, it isn't enough to do this. A few cookies wouldn't hurt, would they?"

"Kirishima-san, I don't think that would be a good idea."

"Mayumi-san, just let her have some. Just this once." Mana gave Megumi a quick glance, before turning to the girl's mother. "I'm sure that it wouldn't make much difference when the party starts; she's likely going to be there anyway, to enjoy the food prepared with everybody."

"Kirishima-san..." Mayumi stared at the woman seated across her, inwardly surprised at her words.

"She's been telling me about it all afternoon, y'know," She continued, a fond expression on Mana's face as she looked at the girl beside her. "On how excited she is, and how she wants to try every dish there is on the table at least once... And try to guess which of those her mom made." The woman gave Mayumi a smile. "I don't think a few cookies are going to stop her, Mayumi-san."

Mayumi sat back, and fell quiet, her expression thoughtful. Her eyes stole over to where the girl sat, and saw the downcast look in her normally bright ruby eyes. The dispassionate look on her face melted away, and soon a gentle smile appeared on her lips.

"Kirishima-san," she said when she finally spoke. "You're right. A few cookies won't hurt."

At this, the young girl raised her head, and stared at her parent, her strange-colored eyes looking for some indication of approval. Mayumi gave a slight nod, the tender expression still on her face. It wasn't much of a sign, but to her daughter it was enough.

The girl's mood improved almost immediately.

Megumi didn't waste her time, and it seemed to Mayumi that it was all Mana could do to rein in her laughter, as the girl stood up on her seat, and began reaching for the plate where the cookies where waiting. She leaned over, one of her small arms extended, but she found that the cookies remained beyond her reach. With a slight pursing of her lips, the girl leaned over a little more, her hand almost catching the edge of the plate...

Her mother's heart skipped a beat.

On reflex she started forward to catch her daughter, as the girl seemed to topple forward unto the table. Across her, she saw Mana going through the same motions, but Megumi caught herself at the last moment, and stood back, a slight look of disappointment on her young face. This didn't seem to deter her any though, and the girl looked like she was poised to try again.

Knowing her daughter, Mayumi knew that she would.

"Here," Mayumi said, as she leaned forward to edge the plate of cookies closer to her daughter's side of the table. "I think that this will help."

The girl paused to stare at her, before her young face blossomed once more into the cheerful expression that Mayumi had come to expect from her progeny. She took a cookie from the platter for her own, and plopped back down on her chair, happily nibbling on it, as Mana looked on, laughing softly beside her.

"You'd think that she's never tasted a cookie before," the woman commented, as the girl finished eating the pastry she was holding, and started reaching out for a second. Intrigued, Mana took one from the plate, and gave it a tentative nibble, closing her eyes as she let the cookie's taste play on her tongue.

"This is good," she said, after several moments of deliberation. She gave the cookie another bite. "Really good," Mana said, a pleasantly surprised expression on her face.

Mayumi merely smiled at that, and decided not to comment, letting Teri-chan's cookies speak for themselves. She stood up, and walked over to the counter to retrieve the teapot. "Kirishima-san, more tea?" she offered as she returned to the table.

"That would be nice." Mana finished the last of her cookie, and slipped her cup over to Mayumi so that she could refill it. She gave her seatmate a sidewards glance, and didn't bother hiding her smile as she saw Megumi happily munching on another cookie... Probably her fourth, judging from the amount of crumbs dotting her sundress, hands, and face.

"Hey, slow down Megumi-chan," Mana laughed. "What about the party later?"

If the girl had heard her, she was doing a great job of pretending that she hadn't. As it was, Megumi finished off the cookie she was eating, and was already reaching for another.

Mana gave the child a surprised look, before turning to Mayumi, who offered her back her teacup. "Does this normally happen?" she queried, as Mayumi refilled her own cup.

"Most of the time," Mayumi replied casually. She set aside the teapot, and resumed her seat.


"We don't have cookies at home," Mayumi sought to explain, shaking the cup in her hand gently from side to side, as she watched the tea slowly swirl in its depths. "I never learned to make them." She raised her face, and saw the other woman regarding her. "And even if I did learn to prepare them, I wouldn't have the time to bake the cookies anyway; I barely have time to take care of Megumi as it is, what with the work I have to do for the university."

Mana perched her chin on her palm, her elbow holding them aloft from the table. "For some reason, I think I understand," she said, as she turned her face to where the girl was happily eating beside her. "So this happens whenever you visit?" Mayumi saw the woman give her a sidewards glance, one of her sculpted eyebrows arched.

Mayumi nodded, smiling. "I couldn't stop her even if I wanted to." She took a sip from her cup, before continuing. "This is the only place she knows of where she can get tasty cookies. They're for free, too." She gazed at her daughter, and shook her head. "That, and she likes the person who baked them, so she sees it as more than enough reason to eat her fill of cookies."

Mana laughed softly at that, raising her cup to her lips. "Shinji must be happy that Megumi-chan here likes his cookies."

"Shinji-san didn't make those cookies."

"Eh? Nani?" Mana favored her with a slightly confused look.

"I mean, Shinji-san didn't make those cookies," Mayumi answered simply. "Well, at least, not this batch." She smiled, and set down her cup, before standing to take a cookie from the plate. "These are chocolate chip cookies..." Mayumi pointed to the cookie she had in hand. She sat back down, and took a slight nibble. "Shinji-san usually uses peanuts in his cookie mix, or raisins, but not chocolate." She took another bite out of the cookie she held, covering her mouth with her hand as she chewed.

"So I guess Asuka made them then?" Mana smirked, continuing with her drink. "If she did, I wouldn't be too surprised; I always figured that she had a sweet tooth." A wistful look came over her face. "I guess it's one more thing I'd have to ask her when she gets back..."

Mayumi put down the cookie she had been holding on her cup's platter, as her smile took a decidedly sad tone at the mention of her friend's name. "Asuka-san didn't make them either," she replied quietly. "Teri-chan did."

"Hmm?" Mana didn't seem to hear what she had just said, the woman's attention focused on Megumi, who had seated back, a contented expression on her young face.

"I said, Asuka-san didn't bake the cookies; Teri-chan did," Mayumi repeated, her brown gaze falling unto the tabletop. She fell quiet for several moments, before she raised her eyes again. She almost spoke, but decided against it; it wasn't her place to talk about this, after all.

"Ne, how long have you known Shinji? Or Asuka, for that matter?" Mana asked suddenly, interrupting Mayumi's reflections. The woman's green eyes lingered where Megumi sat, before looking in her direction. "When did you first meet?"

Mayumi blinked, a little startled by the change in topic.

"I met them back in middle school--Shinji, Asuka, and Rei, I mean," Mana sat back, her eyes distant, clearly not hearing her. "Along with Hikari and Touji. And Kensuke." She giggled, as if tickled by a particularly funny memory. "I still remember the look on Shinji's face, when I chose to sit beside him... The way he blushed... It was cute."

Mayumi found herself a little surprised at the woman's words. It was the first time she'd heard another person call Shinji-san that way. There was only one other person who described him that way...

"Well, you haven't answered my question Mayumi-san," Mana said smiled, the look in her green eyes showing telling Mayumi that she was sincerely interested in hearing her response. "When did you meet Shinji and Asuka?" Beside Mana, Megumi had crossed her arms on the table, her face cradled upon them as she looked at mother. Like Mana, she seemed interested in what her parent had to say.

"Ee-to... I've known Shinji-san and Asuka-san since middle school," Mayumi said slowly, deciding that it would be best if she answered Mana's questions, seeing that she wasn't able to get a word in, anyway. She figured that the woman would know the truth about Asuka later anyway. "I was a transfer student, you see."

"What a coincidence," Mana said. "I was a transfer student myself. Sort of." She stifled a chuckle this time, as if she was sharing a private joke. "It wasn't an accident that I was assigned in Shinji's class, though." There was an odd note of reticence in Mana's eyes, Mayumi noticed, as if something was holding her back from divulging more.

For some reason, Mayumi found herself relating to what the woman felt.

Maybe it was because her transfer to Tokyo-3 was hardly coincidental as well. She had been called, if 'called' was the right word to describe the urge that brought her to the fortress city. The voices, the strange songs, the dreams that haunted her when she slept... Even now, she could still remember those sibilant whispers, strangely seductive yet chilling her blood at the same time.

Come to us, one of the voices had murmured. It was boyish, she recalled, with a light tone that wasn't as threatening as the others. You feel empty, do you not? As if a part of you is missing?

It galls you, does it not?
the voice continued. No matter how much you try to ignore it, going about what you call your 'life', you always know it is there.

You question, try to make sense of it, but try as you might, you cannot find any answers. You are different, separate from those around you, even to those Lilim you call your 'parents'; you will never fit in, never be truly part of their world, but you do not know why.

We know the answers that you seek... Return to us, and learn... Sister.

In twenty years, Mayumi had only been able to share her experiences of that time with two people. One was the man who was to become her husband, Sadamoto Koichi. He had suddenly proposed to her, and she was scared. She was afraid that he would reject her if he knew that, somehow, she was less than human. So she confessed, convinced that he would leave her.

But he still wanted to marry her.

The other was Ayanami Rei. Though she could never read what was going on behind Rei's unusual eyes, she had felt that the woman understood her situation completely. Mayumi felt that it was because of Rei's close intimacy with the EVA Project, an involvement that went beyond mere piloting. Or maybe, behind that quiet fašade, the former First Child had always been the perceptive type?

Regardless of the reason, she was glad that Rei took the time to listen to her story.

She had planned on telling Asuka as well, but that chance was abruptly taken away long ago. She had shed tears back then, had cried so much that her fianceÚ feared for her health, but Mayumi knew that it would not bring her friend back.

Mayumi returned to the present, and found the world around her enveloped by a watery haze. She hastily blinked, and ran her hand across her eyes. They had teared over, it seemed, a reaction brought about by her brief reverie. It normally didn't happen with her--Mayumi had always thought of herself as a composed person, rarely letting strong emotion affect her--but try as she might, whenever she thought of Asuka, it brought tears to her eyes.

The movement didn't go unnoticed by Mana. "Mayumi, are you alright?" she said, concern evident in her features. Next to her, the young girl mirrored her worry. Without a second thought, Megumi eased herself off her chair, and crossed under the table, reemerging by her mother's side.

A soft smile returned to Mayumi's face, when she saw her daughter beside her. She shook her head, and gave the child's hair a fond ruffle, before she turned her gaze back to Mana's direction. "I'm okay, Mana-san," she said, as she raised her daughter unto her lap. "I just remembered something, that's all."

"Ah, so." The woman stared at her oddly, then shook her head, as if she had dismissed an odd thought from her mind. There was a brief pause, before Mana talked again. "Ne, Mayumi," Mana said, her eyes averted, her fingers tracing circles around the lip of her cup. "When you arrived, how did Asuka react? I mean, was she nasty or anything?"

"I don't think she even aware of me until the school fair," Mayumi confessed, as she reached for a cookie. "I spent most of my time alone, avoiding everyone. It's kind of sad, but that's how I was." She broke the sweet in half, and gave one half to Megumi while keeping the other to herself. "When I first met Asuka-san at the audition, she didn't seem to be interested in me at all."

Mana laughed a little at that. "Then you came off lucky. She wasn't too thrilled when I was transferred here, that's for sure." She leaned over, arms crossed over the table. "So, you met everyone at an audition? I can only imagine why Asuka was there, so I guess it was for something important, huh?"

"Umm, I don't think that you could call it important," Mayumi answered, absently running her hand through her daughter's hair. "Shinji-san, Touji-san, and Kensuke-san were looking for a lead singer for their band, so they held an audition for the part." A short laugh escaped from her lips as she recalled what happened. "I wasn't interested, but Hikari-san insisted that all of the girls in the class try for the position, so I sort of ended up in the music room with them."

"Ah, now I see... Asuka was just there to show off, wasn't she?"

"I wouldn't go that far, Kirishima-san," Mayumi countered, feeling obligated to defend her friend. However, she couldn't deny the truth of Mana's observations; in a way, Asuka was there at the audition to flaunt her superiority. "Though, I admit that Asuka-san, uh, stunned everyone with her piece." This was true, of course: after Asuka's song, Mayumi would have been surprised if anyone present that day weren't stunned.

The redhead's choice of song didn't help much, either.

"SHINJI!" she remembered hearing someone shout. "By the kami, do not choose her!" She looked to the front, and saw an slight young man with russet-colored hair and spectacles arguing with another boy, who had dark hair and muddy-blue eyes. It was her first close look at Shinji and Kensuke. The former looked noticeably distressed, while the latter seemed to be trying his best to placate his friend. "If you value our friendship, please, DON'T choose Satan's Bride!"

"Kensuke," she heard Shinji reply. "I don't think we have any choice... We've only a week left before the festival, and frankly Asuka's the best we've seen so far." The boy didn't seemed to be thrilled at the idea, but it looked like they had run out of options.

"Dere's always a choice, Shinji," another voice joined in the conversation. She saw a tall boy dressed in a black gym suit walk over to the pair, a frown on his dark face. It was Suzuhara Touji, the third of the group. "And, quite frankly, I'd take
any, if 't meant not ta put up with big, red, and nasty 'ver dere." The boy nodded to where Asuka was still singing, before shaking his head in disgust.

"Well, I'm out of ideas," Shinji said finally, his frail shoulders slumped in defeat. "What do you guys suggest?"

"Dere's jus' gotta be an alternative ta Sohryu," Touji said, his arms crossed. "Ya absolutely sure we've seen everyone?" The boy's eyes gave a sweep of the room, to see if he'd missed anyone. His friends followed his lead, desperate for another choice.

It was at this point Mayumi decided to move to the back. She hadn't been called by the trio yet, and if she could help it, she didn't want to be called. However, her movement caught Kensuke's eye, and it wasn't too long before she heard the words she dreaded hearing...

"Hey, how about her? The new girl, I mean..."

It had been one of those times Mayumi wished that she was somewhere else... And she was glad that it hadn't been granted.

"If you say so," Mana remarked. She was more relaxed now, Mayumi noted, less reluctant than she had been earlier. To a casual observer, it would seem that they had known each other for a long time, instead of just being introduced to one another. "Regardless, I'm sure that it wasn't boring ."

"Definitely." Mayumi, of course, knew that it was a major understatement.

"So, what happened afterwards? Don't tell me that Asuka was actually picked..." The idea seemed to amuse the woman somehow.

"Well..." Mayumi sought to reply, but found herself unable to complete her sentence, as the young girl on her lap answered before her.

"I know, I know!" Megumi said enthusiastically, eliciting a surprised look from both her mother and their guest. "Mama was asked to sing by Uncle Aida, and they liked her voice so much that they asked her to become their singer," the child answered, quite familiar with the story. It was one of her favorites, and it was one that Mayumi wasn't tired of telling.

"Really?" Mana looked quite impressed. Apparently, anyone who got away with besting Asuka was a person worthy of respect to her.

"Really really!" the child replied, a proud look on her face as she raised her gaze to her parent. "Isn't it true, mama?"

"It is," Mayumi confirmed, as she stared at the woman across her. "Shinji-san chose me as their band's singer. After all these years, I still honestly believe that I was the most surprised person in the room. It was so unexpected--I was the girl no one recognized, much less gave much attention to. And all of a sudden, just because that a short song, everyone in class knew who I was."

"Including Asuka, I'd wager," Mana snickered. "Let me guess what happened next: she wasn't too pleased with the decision, and so made the life of everyone concerned difficult until the festival came?"

"Actually, it didn't seem to upset her that much." Mayumi gave a slight shrug. "Of course, I don't know what went on back at Katsuragi-san's apartment, but in the days leading to the festival Asuka-san never bothered us. She even came and watched, once or twice."

"Now, that is surprising." Mana voiced, chin on palm. "Either I've misjudged her from the start, or she'd changed much since I left Tokyo-3, because she sure wasn't like that when I first met her."

"Maybe." Mayumi paused, and thought about what Hikari had told her of the time Mana stay in their class. "Hmmm... You enrolled during the first term, am I right? It was already near the end of the second term when I met Shinji-san and Asuka-san... Maybe the change happened during that time?"

"I don't know about that. If a person wants to change, sure, it can happen overnight," Mana shook her head. "But this is Asuka we're talking about here; I don't think that she's the type of person to which drastic changes just happen."

"You'd be surprised, Kirishima-san." A knowing smile graced Mayumi's face, as a few memories came to fore which contested the other woman's view. "Asuka-san can be very spontaenous..."

"Oh? And why do you say that?" Mana asked, intrigued.

"Because I went to university with her."

"You and Asuka studied together?" The woman seemed surprised at the revelation. "In America?"

Mayumi laughed gently, noting her companion's confusion; Mana probably knew that Asuka already had a college degree before she even arrived in Japan, and must have thought that she had known her then. "Of course not, Kirishima-san," she clarified. "Asuka-san and I were schoolmates at Kyodai... Along with Shinji-san. She was working on her second degree, while Shinji-san and I were just starting on ours."

"Ah, I see."

"I've been with them so long, I've seen sides of their personalities that people thought never existed," she continued. "You might not believe this, but Asuka-san could be very gentle if she wanted to." Mayumi chuckled a little, as another memory came to mind. "And Shinji-san... Well, it would be safe to say that when he got angry, he really got angry."

Mana chuckled herself. "Well, I wouldn't really know; I wasn't their classmate from middle school to college. I'll take your word for it, though." She smiled at her, an odd glint in her green eyes. To Mayumi, it seemed to be a look of mild jealousy and, strangely enough, guilt; envy at not being able to experience those events for herself, guilt for not being there when they happened.

She wasn't entirely sure though, so kept these thoughts to herself.

"Ne, Mayumi, how was Shinji back in high school?" Mana suddenly asked. "Or Asuka?"

"I wouldn't know," Mayumi answered honestly. There was a slight tug on the sleeve of her blouse, and she lowered her gaze, and saw the her daughter reaching for the cookie she was still holding. She shook her head, smiling, as she gave the half to Megumi, who proceeded to munch on it, albeit quietly.

The brown-haired woman gave her a confused glance. "What do you mean?"

"I mean that I don't know. I wasn't their classmate when they were in high school," Mayumi said as she raised her face. "I had to leave Tokyo-3 a few days after the festival. My family had... problems, and my parents decided that I had to come back home until they were resolved." This was not exactly true of course--though she did have to leave Tokyo-3, it wasn't because of trouble at home.

"You left?"

"Yes, I did," Mayumi admitted.

"But hadn't you just said that you've been friends with them for a long time?" The woman arched her eyebrow at her.

"I am... It's just that I wasn't their classmate during high school," Mayumi sought to explain. "I met them again when I was preparing to take the university entrance exams. I was surprised to see them there, at first anyway. It turned out that all three of us were trying to get into the same school." She paused for a moment, as the girl on her lap tried to reach for the cookie plate. Her mother shook her head disapprovingly, and pushed the plate out of reach--that was enough cookies for the day. There was still dinner, after all. "I became Asuka's friend during that time, and when we all passed, well, I've been close to them ever since."

"I guess that explains much," Mana mused. "Sorry for mixing things up..."

"It's okay, Kirishima-san." There was a moment of quiet, before Mayumi spoke again. "You left Tokyo-3, right?"

The woman was startled at the question. "Yes, I did. Like you, I had... problems, and I decided that it would be best to leave," she answered, a little hesitant. To Mayumi, it seemed like she was telling the truth, but was leaving several important details out--much like she had done earlier. There were more similarities between them than she had first thought. "Shinji and Asuka saw me off at the station... It was the last time I saw any of them, until now that is." Mana laughed, though there was no humor in its tone, and shook her head sadly. "It's something I've always regretted..."

"You shouldn't, y'know," Mayumi interposed. "You were able to make friends, and have memories to take with you of your time together, right? If you have those... then it wouldn't be all that bad... Leaving, I mean."

"Maybe..." Mana stared at her intently, some measure of guilt still obvious in her green-eyed gaze. "But I've missed so much. If I had stayed, I might have been able to change things. Even if it meant just being a friend to talk to... If just to ease their pain a little..." She averted her eyes for a second, blinking, before she faced her again. "He's been through a lot, Mayumi."

"I know, Kirishima-san. But there are times times in your life where you're never given a choice, because others have already chosen for you..." Mayumi gave her an understanding smile; she too, had wondered if things would have changed had she stayed, after learning about the trials the Children had gone through in the waning months of 2015. "If I knew what would happen next, do you think I would have left?"

"No, I guess you wouldn't."

The woman seemed poised to say some more, but a new voice interjected in the conversation, a voice that Mayumi was very familiar with. In fact, she had been expecting it.

"Hello? Is anyone here?" Mayumi saw a girl peeked around the corner of the hallway into the kitchen area, her face curious. Shoulder-length red hair framed her features, while a smattering of freckles was spread on her cheeks. "Helloooo?" she asked one more time, before her dark blue eyes caught glimpse of the people seated at the dining table. The girl's face lit up in a smile almost immediately at this.

"Ah, the birthday girl has arrived," Mayumi greeted as the girl fully revealed herself to them. "Good afternoon, Teri-chan." On her lap, her daughter squealed in delight, and Mayumi didn't bother holding her back as the little one jumped off to run and hug the new arrival.

"Onee-chan!" Megumi shouted happily.

"Hello auntie Mayumi," Teri returned the greeting, smiling as kneeled to catch Megumi half-way. "And hello to you too, Megumi-chan." She stood, and lifting the little girl in her arms with ease. "Have you been waiting long?"

The young girl shook her head. Teri laughed, when she saw the cookie crumbs on Megumi's face and dress. "Sure..." she said, smiling, as she glanced at Mayumi. "I guess that I'll need to bake a new batch after this, huh?" Her blue eyes strayed to the opposite side of the table, where Mana was seated. She bowed a little awkwardly because of the child she was holding. "Ah, good afternoon, um..."

"She's Mana," Megumi piped in, giggling. "She's really nice." Teri gave the girl a slightly puzzled look, before turning to her aunt.

"Teri-chan, this is Kirishima Mana. She's an old friend of your parents," Mayumi introduced her companion. "Kirishima-san, this is Ikari Teri."

"Good afternoon, Kirishima-san." Teri repeated her greeting.

Mana gave her a slight nod, before she returned the greeting herself. "Good afternoon, Teri-chan." Mayumi saw the same sad smile the woman had worn earlier return to her face.

Mayumi turned her attention slightly away from Mana, as she saw that Teri wasn't alone. "And a good afternoon to you as well, Kimomi-chan," Mayumi said, as the girl followed her companion into the kitchen. Kimomi blinked, before catching herself, and bowing slightly, her long pigtails bobbing as she did. "You just missed your mom, y'know."

"Ah, good afternoon, Mayumi-san," she said, before straightening. "Mom was here?"

"Just a little while ago," Mayumi replied, as the girl bowed to Mana. "Something about having to get your brothers and sisters because your father had a lot of work to do..."

"Figures," the young Suzuhara girl said, as she settled in the seat Megumi occupied earlier. "Papa can just be so hopeless sometimes." This comment brought out an amused chuckle from Teri, who had just set down Megumi, and was putting on an apron.

"Yours and mine both," Teri concurred, tying the apron's bow behind her.

"You're a little early, I think," Mayumi observed.

"Could you blame me?" she replied, as she shuffled about the kitchen, Megumi following closely.

Mayumi smiled, as she remembered the events that preceded the girl's previous two birthdays. "Not really... Though, I don't think you have to worry about it too much. Hikari-san, Kirishima-san, and I've already taken care of everything." She turned to her companion, who had gone oddly silent ever since the two girls arrived. "Right?"

"Um, chotto..." the other woman replied meekly. "Hikari and Mayumi did most of the work... All I did was watch over Megumi-chan while they helped Shinji..." Mana sighed. "Actually, that's the only thing I did."

"Well, that's still helping, right?" Mayumi reassured her.

"I guess..."

"In either case, you don't have to worry about the preparations anymore, Teri-chan," Mayumi said to her niece. "Why don't you get dressed for the party? Your father should be back soon, and it shouldn't be too long until the guests arrive." She pointed to the apron Teri had just put on. "It wouldn't do if you don't look your best for them, y'know."

Teri took a moment to look at herself, before chuckling. "Yeah, you're right, auntie..." The young woman slipped off the apron, and started for her room. "I have to tell mama a few things first, okay?"

"Okay," Mayumi nodded, as she watched her leave, her daughter following in the young Ikari's wake. She shook her head, before turning in Kimomi's direction. "Aren't you supposed to go with her?"

"I'll catch up with her later, Mayumi-san," Kimomi answered, nodding in the direction of her friend's room. "She needs some private time with her mom..."

"I see."

Mayumi was a little surprised when Mana stood up. "Where are you going, Kirishima-san?" she asked, as the woman seemed to retrace Teri's steps.

"I'm going to have a word with Asuka..." she said simply. "It's been twenty years, and I've a few things to ask her about..." Mana paused, before continuing on her way. "Yes, a few things."

Kimomi's gaze followed the woman as she exited the kitchen, before looking towards Mayumi. "Ano, isn't Mrs. Ikari..."

Mayumi shook her head, as she stood up herself. "She doesn't know."

She went after Mana, already guessing where the woman's destination. She found her in the hall beside Teri's room. Mayumi was about to call out to her, but stopped, when she saw that the woman was sitting there, her back against the wall, her eyes raised to the ceiling. Beside her, the door to Teri's room lay open--she seemed to be listening to what was conspiring within. Teri's voice was clearly heard down the quiet corridor; she seemed to be talking to someone, but if she was, it was only a one-sided exchange.

"...At first, I was afraid that otousan was going to have trouble with the preparations again, so I rushed home as soon as I could... You know how he is--he's so clueless sometimes. But I guess that's otousan for you..." Teri-chan paused, and Mayumi heard her laugh. "But when I saw auntie Mayumi here, I saw that everything was okay..." There was a pause, before she talked again. "I... I wish you were here, mama... I'm going to be fourteen today... Fourteen...

"Papa really misses you, y'know? Oh, he's good at hiding it, but I can tell... I'm not a little girl anymore, after all... I know that he's been crying these past few nights... It... it scares me sometimes... I've always pictured him smiling, always strong... But he's never gotten over losing you...

"Sometimes... I wonder. If they could have done something... If they could have been able to save you... I wonder what it would have been like if you've watched me grow up... Of whether you'd been a good mother to me, or if you would've been proud of me...

"I guess there's no way of knowing, huh? No way..."

Mayumi watched as Mana closed her eyes, and bowed her head, clutching her legs underneath her chin. Even from where she was standing, she could see a tear roll down the woman's cheek.

Inside the room, Teri finished her short talk.

"Anyway... Happy birthday, mama... I know that you're watching over me..."


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