The Birthday: Celebration/When Friends and Family Gather

It was an old joke at school that Teri’s life was intimately entwined with Project EVA, to those involved with it, and the legacy it left behind. This wasn’t necessarily true of course – she was born long after the project had been discontinued, after all – but, in a way, it wasn’t entirely false either.

Though it would be a stretch to say that EVA was in her blood, there was no denying that she was a part of its legacy. Her father, mother, and aunt had been the Children, fabled pilots of the Evangelions themselves. Her adoptive grandmother was once the Operations Commander at NERV, while most of her godparents were, in one way or another, part of NERV’s staff, or – in her uncle Suzuhara’s case, directly affected because of the organization’s actions. Her own grandmother was said to have played an important part in the project’s founding, while her infamous grandfather commanded NERV itself.

It made for an interesting family history, to say the least.

Of course, Teri didn’t put much thought to all of this. To be more precise, she didn’t think about it at all. There were more important things to keep her mind occupied like, oh, trying to survive her adolescence with her wits intact, other than worrying about something that was gone before she was even born. What was the big deal anyway? Sure, her extended family played a part in saving the world, it wasn’t like she had anything to do with it…

Right?

Like it or not though, there were times where her connection to Project-E wasn’t so easy to ignore. Like during modern history exams, for example. Or during field trips to the Geofront, to the EVA museum and battlefield memorial. Or on those extremely rare occassions where Granny Misato managed to take her along for those huge UN general staff gatherings.

Or today.

Unlike those previously mentioned though, Teri didn’t have the urge to run, hide, or feel very, very nauseous. In fact, it was the only time where she could actually enjoy her distant tie to Project-E. And why not? It was her special day, after all.

Their special day, she corrected herself.

“Hey, Teri-chan, are you ready?” she heard her father say. Teri turned around, and saw him standing by the door, his arms loaded with a pair of those two-liter softdrink containers. He had a slightly concerned look on his face. “The guests are going to be here soon, y’know.”

“I know, otousan,” she replied. She waved a hand at him, signalling him to go ahead. “I just need to add a few more adjustments…” The older Ikari looked skeptical. “Oh, just go already, otousan! I promise, I’m going to be ready before everyone arrives.”

“Okay, okay.” Shinji continued down the hall, but called to her once last time before he disappeared from sight. “But you better hurry anyway…”

“I know, I know,” she replied. A small frown appeared on Teri’s face as her eyes lingered by the door for a few moments, before shaking her head. “He’s doing it again.”

“Can you blame him?” Teri turned to Kimomi, who was seated on the bed beside her, hugging one of the bed pillows close. “I think it comes with the job descriptions for fathers to be like that. Papa’s like that all the time.”

Teri sighed at her friend. “Well, I think he’s overdoing it – he’s worrying too much!” She lay down on the mattress, her arms stretched above her head, her legs danging against the edge of the bed. “The one time where everything’s perfect, he starts acting like this.”

Kimomi chuckled. “Well, you never really know…”

“Ha ha, very funny.” Teri sat up, and trained her dark blue eyes on her friend. “Kimomi, nothing’s going to go wrong this time.Your mom and auntie Mayumi helped with the cooking, otousan actually baked a proper cake…We weren’t locked out of the house for a change…It’s as perfect as it can get.”

Kimomi feigned a pensive pose, her eyes averted, one finger tapping her lower lip. “Weeeell, my brothers aren’t here yet, so you never know…”

Teri just grinned. “Kimomi, I doubt that even Kyo and Yuuki can ruin this one even if they tried.” She looked down to the foot of the bed, where Megumi was playing happily with some of her plushies – in this case, a stuffed doll that looked suspiciously like her auntie Mayumi.”Isn’t that right, Megumi-chan?”

The red-eyed girl turned to her and smiled, nodding. “Un!”

Teri-chan faced her friend again, a triumphant look on her face. “See? Even Megumi-chan agrees with me. It’s going to be perfect!”

Kimomi laughed. “Megumi-chan agrees with you whatever you say anyway, Teri-sempai.” The girl put a large emphasis on ‘sempai’. She picked up a small pillow and threw it in the redhead’s direction.

“Hey, cut that out,” Teri pouted as she caught the soft missile. “Drop the ‘sempai’, will you? I’m only barely a year older than you.” She flung the pillow back, though there was little force in the throw. “And we’re best friends… Tell me, just where in the world would you hear a best friend called ‘sempai’ just because she’s older? Tell me?”

Kimomi ducked under the pillow she had been hugging as the cushion sailed overheard, giggling all the while. “I don’t know. You’re the genius, remember? You tell me.”

“Oh! You-you-you… You Suzuhara, you!” Teri said, feigning an exasperated tone, though she was smiling all the while. She crossed her arms over her chest, and closed her eyes, raising her nose up in the air. The girl stayed in this pose for a moment, before opening her eyes to peek at her companion.

Kimomi poked a tongue out at her friend.

Teri laughed, and dropped all pretense of being angry. “So, what do you think?” She nodded in the direction of her closet, which lay open, exposing all her dresses to their view. “Should I go with something simple and subdued, or for something bright and flashy?”

The pigtailed girl considered this for a moment. “Why not something simple and flashy?” Kimomi suggested, grinning. Teri rolled her eyes at the idea.

“Kimomi, could you at least be serious about this?”

“I was serious, y’know,” Kimomi pointed out, wagging a finger at her friend. “Don’t you have that white turtleneck blouse tucked in there somewhere? Well, I sort of remember that you have a dark red dress… I was thinking, well…”

Teri thought about it, before smiling. “Yeah… That would be nice…”

Kimomi raised her hands, and shrugged. “Besides, with what you’re planning for later, I think it would be appropriate.” The girl hugged the pillow again, and settled her chin on its soft surface. “You are going through with it, right?”

“Yup,” Teri stood up and walked towards the closet. “It should be fun.” She thought of the song she had prepared for entertainment, and grinned. She could already imagine the look on everybody’s faces…

“Mou, you seem sure of yourself,” Kimomi remarked as she watched her friend take out the white blouse and red dress she had mentioned. “Why that song, of all things? You could have chosen something else, y’know…” Teri gave her a look over her shoulder, before walking back to the bed, the dresses cradled in her arms. “Like, I dunno, from that Hayashibara lady? She has some nice songs…”

“She does,” Teri said as she laid the dresses out on the bed. “Unfortunately, Hayashibara Megumi songs are auntie Rei’s and auntie Mayumi’s specialties.”

“Yeah, I guess,” Kimomi chuckled, before leaning forward, as if struck by an amusing idea. “Hey, ever notice that they sound almost alike? You don’t really notice it when they talk – I mean, Mayumi-san’s got this soft voice, and your aunt scarcely talks at all – but when they sing, it’s like they’re one person.”

Teri arched her eyebrow at her friend, her hands on her hips. “You’re crazy, you know that?”

“Seriously, were you even paying attention the last time your dad invited us to have some karaoke with them?”

“Of course I was,” Teri huffed, as she started taking off her uniform. “Auntie Mayumi and auntie Rei have wonderful singing voices. It makes me kind of jealous.” She slipped the school blouse she had been wearing over her head, and took it off. “I mean, auntie Mayumi was even able to sing for the EVA OAV soundtrack…”

“Now, that’s certainly a first.” Kimomi stood up, and went to the door, closing it, as her friend continued undressing.

“And what does that mean?” The young Suzuhara had to duck as a blue-green uniform skirt came flying in her direction. “Tell me.”

“Well, I never thought that I’d hear you be jealous of someone,” Kimomi replied, as she picked up the discarded piece of clothing.

“It happens more often than you think.” The redhead chuckled a bit, as she shrugged herself into the long-sleeved white blouse she had chosen. She gave her fall of auburn an idle toss, before starting on the red dress that was to go over the blouse. “I mean, think of it, my parents already accomplished much when they were my age…”

Your parents are a special case, y’know,” Kimomi said, as she walked back to the bed. She lay the skirt down by the pillows, and helped her friend zip up the back of her dress. “Here…” she said, as she pulled up the stubborn zipper.

“Thank you,” Teri said. She stepped over to her study table, and took a look at herself with the mirror there. She turned left, then right, before smoothing the wrinkles on her skirt. She gave one more turn, before nodding to herself, satisfied.

“Well?” She turned to face her two other companions in the room. “How is it?”

“Onee-chan, kirei,” Megumi commented, her strange eyes lit up in wonder.

“It could use some work,” Kimomi bit her lip to stop herself from laughing as her friend frowned at her. “I mean, it’s not like you don’t look nice as it is, but, well…”

“Remind me never to ask advice from you ever again,” Teri said flatly. Kimomi couldn’t hold her laughter in much longer, and started giggling uncontrollably.

“Teri-chan,” a muffled voice called her beyond the door. It was her father. “Could you see to the door please? I think the guests are here…”

“Haaai,” Teri turned from the door, to her friend, whose laughter was dying down, and to the little girl who was staring at her with admiration. “C’mon guys, it’s time to get this show started.”

A few stray chuckles escaped from Kimomi as she stood up, wiping her eyes with a hanky as she did; apparently, she had laughed so hard she had teared over. “Have you had enough?” Teri asked sardonically, despite the fact that she was smiling herself, as she picked up Megumi. “Or do you want to laugh some more? I’d be happy to oblige you…”

Kimomi shook her head, after she managed to regain some of her composure. “No thank you, I think I’ve had enough laughter for one day.”

“Gee, I never would have figured that out,” Teri rolled her eyes again dramatically. In her arms, Megumi giggled at her expression. She was about to slide the door open, when she paused, and let her eyes stray over the whole room. “Ne, Kimomi, the mini?”

Her friend already knew what she was referring to: the two-inch diameter media disc which held the song she was supposed to perform later. She gave the room a brief scan, before she found what she was looking for, sitting on top of her friend’s study table. “Got it,” Kimomi announced, holding the minidisc’s case up.

Teri gave her a relieved look, before she slid the door open and exited the room, Kimomi following close behind her. They were a little surprised to find the living room – which was almost adjacent to the apartment’s door – empty; aside from the big table that held the food for the party, there was no one there.

Teri passed Megumi over to her friend, who found a place to sit on the sofa, while she saw to the door. “Irashai-masen,” she greeted as the the door slid open. “Ah, Kotono-chan, Saki-chan, you were able to come!” the girl said excitedly when she saw who it was.

“Yo,” said Kotono, grinning as she gave a wave in greeting. She was tall, almost Teri’s height, and athletically slim, with dark hair tied in a long ponytail. She was dressed in a blue pantsuit, with a rather bright pink blouse underneath.

“O-tanjoubi omedetou-gozaimasu, sempai,” the other girl greeted, bowing. Sakiko, or Saki, was much shorter than her companion, with boyish-cut short hair, and a pair of spectacles over her brown eyes. Unlike her companion, she still was wearing her school uniform, a brown blazer over a matching brown skirt, her legs clad in long black socks.

“Gee, like I need to be reminded that I’m a year older,” Teri chuckled as she ushered the pair into the apartment. “Come in, come in… You’re the first to arrive, actually.”

“Ah, Ko-chan, Saki-chan!” Kimomi exclaimed when she saw the new arrivals. The girl turned a sly eye at the pair. “Now this is a surprise… You guys are actually early for once.” Kimomi was all too familiar that both had club activities after classes – Kotono was the captain of the girl’s football team at her school, while Sakiko presided over the dramatists’ club in hers.

Though it didn’t mean that they were the last to arrive during any kind of celebration, more often than not they arrived later than the other guests. Teri didn’t begrudge them for this though, and Kimomi herself had gotten used to their tardiness.

Still, Kimomi couldn’t resist poking fun at it. Let the hostilities begin…

“Hey, I resent that,” Kotono said, though her tone of voice said otherwise, as she took a seat beside Kimomi, while Sakiko sat to her left. “I’m not late all of the time, you know.” She waved her hand slightly at Megumi, which the little one reciprocated happily.

“Oh?” Kimomi tilted her head. “I seem to recall a time at New Yokohama… And at Nara… And at New Kyoto…” The girl grinned slightly at her older companion. “Come to think of it, whenever we got together, you’ve always been the last to arrive.”

Teri and Saki shared a glance, before Teri shook her head, amused. The verbal sparring between her two friends had become a common occurrence whenever they met. The birthday girl settled herself against the back of the couch, as her two friends faced off against each other.

What was the standing already? Teri wondered. Ah, I remember, it was a draw last time… Feigning a lack of interest, she leaned back, all the while smiling secretly to herself.

“It’s not like I meant to be late on purpose, y’know…” Kotono turned to her friend. “Right?”

Sakiko nodded. “Ko-chan always seems to lose something at the most inconvenient moment… Last week, she forgot her bag at the train station, and a few days before that she lost her sneakers just before her team’s practice…” Beside her Kotono’s cheeks reddened in a slight blush.

“Oi oi, you’re supposed to be on my side, remember?”

“I’m just stating a truth,” Sakiko said simply. Kimomi and Teri nodded in agreement, much to Kotono’s chagrin. “You’re as careless as a boy, the way you lose things.”

Urusai wo ne…” the tall girl mumbled, as Kimomi laughed at her victory. It was infectious, and soon Saki and Teri were laughing along with her – even Kotono, who shook her head at her own folly.

“In any case, we’re here now, on time, right?” Kotono said as the giggling subsided, and reached into her coat pocket, producing a small square package wrapped in gaudy red and yellow paper. “I even have the gift ready…” Beside her, Sakiko took out something similar from her blazer, and set it on her lap.

“As much as I want to know what those are, they’ll just have to wait,” Teri said from her place at the back of the sofa. “Until the party starts, at least,” The girl took a quick glance at her wristwatch. “Which really depends on just how early the other guests arrive. I hope you guys don’t mind waiting.”

“It’s alright,” Sakiko said.

“It’s not like we can do anything to get the other guests to hurry up,” Kotono shrugged, as she set down her gift on the small table in front of them. “Besides, it’s not like we’re leaving any soon; we came here for the party anyway, so a little wait isn’t going to hurt.”

“Considering how many times Ko-chan here made us wait for her, I think that it’s just right for her to do some of her own,” Kimomi put in. “It just wouldn’t be fair…”

“Cut it out already, will you?”

“Suzuhara, neutral corner,” Teri ordered, chuckling. She turned to her other friends, a supportive expression on her face. “I don’t think that you’ll have to wait too long, though. Knowing some of the guests, they should be arriving here soon.”

“Some sooner than others anyway,” Kimomi sighed. “Papa’s probably going to be one of the last to arrive…”

“Look on the bright side,” Teri smiled, holding up a finger to the air. “Your dad’s never missed a party yet, which is more than what I can say for, oh, uncle Kensuke.” Because of her uncle’s globe-trotting vocation, she could count the number of times he was able to attend her birthday with one hand. “Packages from abroad are nice, but you can’t hug a package now, can you?”

“Yeah,” the girl chuckled, as she realized her friend’s point. “You’re right.”

“Speaking of guests,” Sakiko interjected. “Is Dr. Ayanami going to attend? Or General Katsuragi?”

“Auntie Rei and granny Misato?” Teri asked. Her friend nodded.

“Hai.”

Teri crossed her arms over her bosom, and closed her eyes for a moment. “Well, they haven’t missed a birthday yet, so I guess they’re going to be here.” She opened her eyes and looked at the other girl. “Why?”

Sakiko gave a slight shrug of her shoulders. “It’s for a school project. I need to interview a person of note, and I immediately thought of them.”

“Ah, now I understand why you’ve been so preoccupied lately,” Kotono observed as she relaxed against the sofa’s cushions. “You’ve been looking for someone to interview, someone famous, right?”

Her friend nodded. “Technically, yes.”

“Well, I don’t see what the big problem is then,” Kimomi commented as she shifted in her seat. “I mean, we’ve already met them before, remember? Asking them for an interview shouldn’t be that hard now, could it?”

“Easy for you to say. Talking to them casually is one thing, but engaging them in a formal interview is another thing entirely.” Sakiko sighed, a little despondent. “I’m worried that they might not have time in their schedules for a student interview.”

“Oh I dunno,” the redheaded chuckled a little. “You’d be surprised just how much free time granny Misato can squeeze out of her day. I’m not too sure about auntie Rei though. She’s been busy lately with her projects at the lab…” She glanced at her friend, and tried to give Sakiko a supportive smile. “I’m sure that if you explain everything to her though, she’d be glad to help you out.”

“I guess so.” Sakiko seemed to relax a bit at Teri’s reassurance.

“All we have to do is wait for them,” Teri nodded. “I have no guarantee when that will be though… I mean, granny Misato was never the punctual type. And auntie Rei usually takes her time when she drives…”

“I can imagine that somehow,” Saki chuckled.

“So, I guess Mr. Ikari’s gone all-out with the preparations for the party, huh?” Kotono said, changing topics, as the aroma of food tickled her nose. She sniffed a little, before nodding, an expectant smile on her face as she straightened a little on her seat to look at the table sitting on one side of the living room, where most of the food was waiting. “Just look at all of that…”

Teri laughed a little at her friend’s words. “Yeah, it does seem like a lot… Though, if you consider that my birthday sometimes doubles as a reunion, and the number of guests we usually have, as well as the fact that uncle Suzuhara eats as much as four people-” The redhead grinned at Kimomi, who seemed to be trying to look unconcerned, but was blushing all the same. “- I guess that it’s just right.”

“If you say so,” the ponytailed girl said, shrugging. “I’m just surprised that your father was able to pull this off.”

“Well, otousan’s had practice. After all, he’s been doing this ever since I was two,” Teri explained. “Normally he’d start the preparations the night before, but he’s been kind of busy lately, what with the work he has to do at his school, so he wasn’t able to do that this year.” She bent down a little to ruffle Megumi’s hair. “I was so worried that he wouldn’t be able to finish, that I practically ran back here. I even dragged Kimomi with me…”

“Like the world depended on it, I might add,” Kimomi continued for her friend. “You could imagine how relieved we were to find that everything was taken care of already. I seemed that mom had the foresight to come by and help Teri’s dad out with the food – she and Mayumi-san, that is.”

“Mama helped cook,” Megumi announced proudly.

“It’s a good thing that she did, too,” Teri nodded, smiling at the rose-eyed child. “Or else it would have been a disaster. Even if we’d pitched in, it’d probably be past dinnertime before we finished. And you know what that means, right?” she said, as she turned to her friends. “A lot of hungry guests – not a  happy thought, no matter how you look at it.”

“And there’s no guarantee that we’d be able do everything right, either,” Kimomi favored a slight frown at the thought. It had always been a sore point for the young Suzuhara that she seemed to have inherited little of her mother’s talent in the kitchen. “I mean we could cook, sure, but what do we know about party food? If you think about it, we wouldn’t have been able to come with half the stuff mom prepared for tonight.”

“Oh, I don’t know, Kimomi-chan, I think that you girls would have done fine,” a gentle voice said. The group turned towards the direction of the kitchen, and saw Megumi’s mom, a large bowl of what seemed to be spaghetti sauce in hand. Another woman, with short brown hair and green eyes, followed her, this time carrying the pasta.

“Mama! Miss Mana!” Megumi waved her small hand at the two ladies as they entered the living room.

“Ah, auntie!” Teri stood up and ran to where Mayumi was, and relieved the elder woman of the bowl. “Here, let me handle this,” she said, as she carried the sauce over to the smaller table sitting beside the table where the rest of the food was. “Mou, you could have called me if you needed help, y’know…”

“Well, your father told us thay you were going to greet the guests, so I didn’t want to bother you,” Megumi’s mother said to her, before stepping back, and studying her from head to toe. “Besides, it just wouldn’t do for the birthday girl to do work on her own special day now, would it? Especially when she’s looking so pretty, ne?”

“Ah, okay,” Teri chuckled, blushing slightly at her aunt’s compliment. “Even so, I would have helped anyway…” She assisted Mana with the tray of pasta she was holding, and set it down next to the sauce. She turned to thank the other woman, but she seemed to be deliberately avoiding her gaze.

Strange, she thought.

“Oh come now, Teri-chan, your place is here with the guests,” Mayumi turned to where the other girls were seated, and smiled. “And I see that we have a few already… My, isn’t it Saki-chan and Ko-chan? I’m glad to see that both of you are able to be here.”

“And early for once, too,” Kimomi couldn’t resist adding.

“Good afternoon Mrs. Sadamoto,” Kotono said, waving a hand in greeting, before she gave the Suzuhara girl a sharp look. Kimomi simply grinned in return.

“Good afternoon, ma’am,” Sakiko greeted, bowing slightly.

Teri was about to return to her place by the couch, when she noticed that her aunt’s companion seemed to be quietly moving back towards the kitchen. Apparently, Mayumi was aware of this fact as well. Teri’s aunt closed her eyes, and proceeded to clear her throat rather noisily. This stopped the woman in her tracks, before she could sneak out of the living room.

“Speaking of guests,” Mayumi said, as she glanced at her companion with one open eye. “Ko-chan, Saki-chan, I’d like to introduce Kirishima Mana-san. She’s an old friend of Teri-chan’s parents.”

Mana turned back to face the girls, and gave a slight wave. “Ah, err… hi,” she said a little awkwardly, a slightly guilty expression on her face. “A pleasure meeting everyone…”

“Nice to meet you too, ma’am,” Kotono said, raising a hand in return.

“Konban-wa, Kirishima-san,” Sakiko greeted in turn, giving a slight bow from where she sat.

“Mayumi,” Mana said as she looked back to her companion. “You didn’t have to introduce me, y’know… Really, I wasn’t even invited – I just happened to pass by…”

“On the contrary, Kirishima-san,” Mayumi said, soft laughter issuing from her lips. “I think that makes you as much a guest as Saki-chan and Ko-chan here.” She turned in her direction, and waved a had dismissively, as if disregarding the idea. “Besides, it just wouldn’t be polite if I didn’t introduce you.”

“Granted…” Mana agreed a little reluctantly. “But even so…”

“Don’t worry about it, Kirishima-san,” Mayumi looked to where the girls were seated, and smiled. “Forgive Kirishima-san, but she’s been away from Japan for a while, so it’s understandable why she’s still a little… shy.”

“Mayumi…”

“Yes?” Teri’s aunt turned to her companion.

“I was definitely not shy,” Mana said, a confident tone to her voice. She faced the girls, as if seeking to clarify things with them. “It’s just that I’ve been around Americans so long that I’m trying to get used to people being polite to me again.” Then, the woman grinned. It seemed like all the discomfort she had shown earlier had disappeared.

“Ara-ara,” Mayumi said, chuckling.

“Anyway, we should get back to the kitchen – Shinji needs help with the plates, and we still have to move the dinner table over here before the other guests arrive.” Teri saw the woman’s green eyes stray in her direction for a moment, before returning their gaze to her aunt. “And we have the chairs to carry after that…”

“I remember, Kirishima-san,” Mayumi nodded. She looked at the girls, and gave them a slight smile. “Excuse us for a while girls. There are a few things we have to do before everything’d be ready for the party.” She then walked over to where Mana stood, and followed her to the kitchen.

“Auntie, let me help,” Teri said, standing up to follow. “Besides, it’s not like the other guests are going to get here soon…”

Mayumi stopped, then turned to face her niece, a hand raised to stop the girl. “No.”

“But auntie…” Teri pressed.

“No, and that’s final Teri-chan.” Her aunt looked at her sternly, but the woman’s expression quickly softened. “You have to be here to greet the guests when they arrive. Remember?”

“Yeah, I remember.”

“Besides, I wouldn’t forgive myself if you ruin that dress of yours,” Mayumi said, smiling to the girl. “Today, your only duty is to watch over the guests… And to have fun. Leave the work to us old people, ne?” She took the girl’s hand in her own, and gave it a fond pat, before passing a secret wink over to her niece.

Teri actually found herself smiling back.

“Un.”

Teri let her eyes stray from her aunt, to Mana, who was standing just ahead in the hall. The woman was smiling as well, but there was a different tone to it. Sadder, certainly, and showing more than a little longing, especially as she looked into the woman’s eyes…

A series of rings was heard just then, tones the girl immediately recognized as the apartment’s door chime. This drew her attention away from the older woman’s gaze for a moment, but when she turned back Mana was already gone. As if she wasn’t standing there in the first place.

Definitely strange.

“Hey, Teri, door?” Kimomi called from the sofa. The rings continued, this time with a definite tempo to the tones… Either the person waiting outside had a musical sense of humor, or was simply just impatient. “I think I should get it…” the girl said, already rising from her seat.

“No, I’ll get it,” Teri said, sighing.

Kimomi gave her a look over her shoulder, before she shrugged, and sat down again. “If you say so.”

“Well, what are you waiting for, Teri-chan?” her aunt said, bringing the girl’s attention back to her. “You have guests to welcome, ne?” Mayumi smiled, before nodding in the direction of the door.

Like I need to be reminded.” Teri gave her aunt one last smile, before she took leave to see to the door, calling out as she went: “Just wait a sec, will ya? I mean, really…”

Mayumi’s gaze lingered at the girl for a few moments, before she too started on her way, this time in the direction of the kitchen, where a few last-minute chores had to be taken care of.

“Irashai-masen!” Teri greeted enthusiastically as the door slid open. A tall man turned to meet her gaze, his eyes concealed behind dark glasses. The girl was a little taken aback, expecting someone more familiar, instead of the complete stranger that stood in front of her. She quickly regained her composure, and took a good look at the visitor.

He was dressed relatively formally, with a dark blue jacket over a white turtleneck shirt, and matching dark slacks and shoes completing his outfit. Long bangs streaked with silver fell about his face, a well-trimmed goatee framed his strong chin, while the rest of his long hair seemed to be tied in a ponytail in the back. A rather large package wrapped in gift paper was cradled under his arm, while a large guitar case was slung on one shoulder.

He bent over, and tilted his sunglasses down, revealing light brown eyes. “You must be Teri-chan,” the man said, a wide grin appearing on his face. “My, my, you’ve grown a lot since I’ve last seen you. Shinji-kun must have his hands full keeping the slavering masses away, huh?” The man straightened, before handing her the package he was carrying. “But I forget myself… Happy birthday.”

Teri blinked as she received the present. She eyed the man suspiciously, as there was something strangely familiar about him, but she couldn’t quite put her finger on it. “Um, thank you, I appreciate it Mr… Erm…”

“Shigeru. Aoba Shigeru. I’m a very old friend of the family, well, sort of… Part of the original bridge crew at the ‘Front, along with Maya and Makoto,” the man grinned, sketching a slight bow as he introduced himself. The girl looked on blankly, the reference apparently eluding her. “I don’t blame you if you don’t recognize me, though. The last time I saw you, you were just about this small,” he said, one hand motioning to a place somewhere the level of his knees. “And it wasn’t like I was able to visit that often, either.”

“Aoba Shigeru…” The girl put a finger to her lip, as she thought of where she heard the name before. Then, the memory came to her: Aoba Shigeru was currently one of most successful and well-respected producers in the music business, with several big-name bands under his recording label, some of which he managed personally. Well-respected in the entertainment industry, he owned a famous nightspot called Reverie in downtown Tokyo-3…

Her blue eyes widened as she realized just who it was she was talking to.

“The very same.” The man laughed when he saw her expression.

“Uh-oh…” The girl could feel her cheeks heat up in embarrassment. It was bad enough that she didn’t recognize him at once, but she forced him to wait a long time…

“I’m also your godfather, by the way, though I haven’t exactly been around much to fulfill that little obligation, being on the road and all…”

Teri wondered at that moment if she could turn any redder. It was one of those times where she wished that she didn’t inherit that particular Ikari trait from her father.

Shigeru nodded in the direction of the inside of the apartment. “So, can I come in now, or do I need to have a pass?” he joked, noticing the blush on the girl’s cheeks. “I mean, I don’t see any Section 2 around, but it pays to play safe, y’know?”

“Um, sure…” Teri mumbled, as she led the way inside.

“Well, well, now that’s a face I thought I’d never see again,” Shinji commented, putting down the chair he had been carrying to gaze at the new arrival. As the rest looked on, he walked over to grasp the visitor’s hand, and shook it vigorously in greeting. “By the gods, how long as it been?”

“Eight years actually,” Shigeru answered, returning the handshake wholeheartedly. “Most of them spent either on the road, if you know what I mean…” The ex-rocker chuckled as he pushed up his sunglasses. “Really, you’d think that after NERV, everything else would be less stressful in comparison. Boy, was I so wrong about that…”

“I think I can understand,” Teri’s father smiled, as he led the man to a seat. “Well, I’m glad that you were able to make it.”

“Hey, no sweat… By the way, you know where I can put this? You won’t believe just how much it chafes after just a few minutes’ walk…”

“Who is that?” Kimomi asked as her friend sat down heavily against the couch’s armrest. She looked over her shoulder, to where the older Ikari was talking to the new arrival, even as he was looking for a place to put the guitar case the guest had brought with him. The girl turned back to her friend, who seemed to be trying her best to conceal the blush on her face. “Mind telling us who he is?”

“He looks funny,” Megumi put in, as she pillowed her head against the sofa’s back. The girl waved as her mom and Mana appeared, both carrying a chair in their arms. Mayumi paused, seemingly recognizing the new guest. “He’s got hair almost like Kotono-neesan…”

“My, this certainly is a surprise,” they heard Mayumi say, a genuinely surprised tone in her soft voice. “It’s been a while, Aoba-san.”

“That I’m all-too aware of, Mayumi-kun…” Shigeru chuckled. “Say, do you still sing?”

“No, at least not professionally anyway,” Mayumi laughed. “Why?”

“Well, I have this little idea, and I thought that you might be interested in hearing it…”

“Aoba, huh?” Kotono paused her own study of the new arrival, and turned to her red-headed friend, who seemed to have gone quiet all of a sudden. “The guy sure seems familiar with your dad and Mrs. Sadamoto… He another relative or something?”

“Sort of,” Teri answered, sighing. “Actually, he’s my godfather… I think.” She looked to the side, where Shigeru seemed to be making his introductions to Mana. The green-eyed woman, on her part, seemed to be taking the older man’s advances warily.

“You think?” Kimomi arched an eyebrow at her friend.

“Well, it’s just that I really don’t remember anything about him,” Teri turned her blue-eyed gaze on her friends, her voice low so as not to draw any of the adults’ attention. “From what he said, the last time he saw me was when I was still six years old… And that’s a long time, regardless of how you look at it.”

“I guess that’s true,” Sakiko mused. The girl looked in the direction of the tables, where Teri’s dad and their new guest seemed to be sharing a laugh as they walked to the kitchen. “What did he say his name was again?”

“Aoba Shigeru,” Teri replied, a wan smile on her face. She looked at the package she was carrying, before shaking her head, and had it placed on the small table with the rest of the presents.

“Now, why does that name sound familiar?” Kotono leaned back and closed her eyes, as she crossed her arms over her bosom. Her eyebrows crossed for several long moments as she tried to remember just where she had heard that name before, but eventually drew up a blank. She opened her eyes, and regarded her companions. “Well, I’m sure that I’ve heard of him somewhere…”

“Hmmm, I think I know,” Sakiko spoke, making her friends look in her direction. “He owns the Reverie club, right?” The girl turned to Teri, at which the redhead nodded in confirmation. “He also produces and manages Ecstatic Poison and Shounen Eyes, right? At least, that’s what I know…” Sakiko adjusted her glasses, and was a little taken aback when Kotono nearly lept to her feet, her eyes shining with excitement.

“Really?!?” Kotono squealed excitedly, as she suddenly leaned forward, making Sakiko reflexively  lean back into her seat’s cushioned back. A brief quiet followed, as the adults ceased their conversation to stare at her, adding to the already incredulous looks her friends were giving her. The girl slowly returned to her seat, and tried to salvage as much of her dignity as she could. “I mean, is that so?” Kotono said, chuckling nervously as she resumed her seat. “How interesting…”

The adults gave each other amused looks, and shrugged, before they continued with whatever it was they were discussing. “Kids these days,” they heard Shigeru say, which brought a severe reddening of Kotono’s cheeks.

Kimomi had to cover her mouth with her hand to hold back her laughter. Even Teri, who just a while earlier was worrying about how bad a hostess she was, was once again smiling. Megumi however didn’t quite get what it was that was so amusing, and tried to get an explanation out of the Suzuhara girl, to no avail.

“Ah, shut up,” Kotono muttered. “You guys wouldn’t understand.”

“I think we understand a little too well, Ko-chan,” Sakiko said, as she gave her friend a comforting smile. “We know just how much you enjoy listening to Shounen Eyes…”

“And just how much you’d love to get your hands on an autograph from them,” Kimomi finished, her voice low, a few stray snickers escaping from her mouth. “Let’s face it Kotono, you couldn’t ask for an autograph even if your life depended on it.”

“Shows how much you know,” Kotono shot back, a hurt look on her face. She turned to Kimomi, and gave the other girl a slight frown. “You try getting in line for an autograph, and let’s see just how quickly you’ll find out how hard it is to even get near enough for an autograph.”

“Like I’d be dumb enough to do that…”

“Guys, please,” Teri interjected, before things escalated any further. “I don’t think this is a topic worth having an argument about.” The girl waved her arms, trying to urge her friends to calm down. She gave her best friend a slightly disapproving look, before she shook her head at her. “Kimomi, give Ko-chan a break, okay? She’s telling the truth y’know… It really is that hard to get autographs from those bands. You weren’t with us during the last concert – there were so many people we couldn’t even move from where we were, and that was just a few meters from the stage.”

The younger Suzuhara stared at her friend intently, before a lopsided smile appeared on her face, as she she showed her true feelings on the matter. “Geez, would you guys relax? I know perfectly well how hard it is being a fan,” Kimomi said, as she turned an apologetic glance to Kotono, to which the other girl seemed to accept. “It’s all just fun, y’know?”

“Well, next time, try to have it at someone else’s expense, okay?” Kotono shook her head, a lighthearted grin now apparent on her face. “I don’t want to wake up to the day when I actually get used to your teasing.”

“For once, I agree with that,” Kimomi chuckled. “So, planning to ask Aoba-san to help you out with your little ‘problem’? I mean, he is here and all…”

“I guess so,” Kotono replied, crossing her arms over her ample bosom.”Still… Thinking about it and actually doing it are two different things.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Teri reassured her, having caught the meaning behind those unsaid words. “I’ll ask Aoba-san about it later, ne? I’m sure that he’d be more than willing to help… After all, he does have all those missed birthdays to make up for.” The girl accented her point with a quick wink, which put Kotono even more at ease.

Kotono chuckled. “You’ve got one amazing family, Teri, you know that?”

“Yeah, in a way, they are incredible,” Teri shrugged, smiling. “Or maybe it’s just that, compared to them, I’m, well, rather normal. Just plain, boring Teri Ikari.”

“That’s just fine with us.” Teri arched her eyebrow at Sakiko, a little surprised at her statement. “We became friends because of you, not because of your family,” she explained, drawing nods of agreement from the two other girls. “Besides, if you were anything other than that, we might not have become close in the first place.”

“Yup.”

“Same here.”

“Kimomi, I’ve been stuck with you almost forever, so what you said doesn’t really count,” Teri chuckled a little, her dark blue eyes lit up with mirth. “Remember? Otousan even brought me with him to the hospital when you were born…”

“Well, I agree with her all the same,” Kimomi said, smiling. “Besides, of all of us here, I’m the only one who can really admit to becoming friends with you not because of how remarkable your family is.”

“That I know all too well.” Teri was poised to add something, but paused, as a sound caught her attention. It was the door chime again, its rise and fall of notes already becoming predictable, especially to the girls in the living room. The birthday girl excused herself from her friends, and hurriedly headed for the door, not too eager to have a repeat of what just happened earlier with Mr. Aoba.

The younger Ikari shouldn’t have bothered though – excusing herself, that is – as Kimomi and the others were already quite aware of the duty she had to fulfill. So, the rest of the girls sat back, with Kotono fussing over the bundle of cuteness that was Megumi-chan, and patiently waited for their friend to return.

As for the adults, well…They continued with catching up on lost time, or whatever it was that adults did when they got together.

Of course, Kimomi did note that Mr. Aoba had risen halfway from his seat and looked sharply in the direction of the door. He seemed to have been in the motions of drawing something from within the folds of his jacket, but Mr. Ikari caught the older man’s arm, before shaking his head. The graying rocker calmed down at the younger man’s touch, and sat down again, continuing the conversation he was having with Megumi’s mom, as if nothing happened.

But every now and then, the man’s eyes strayed to the doorway, as if he was warily watching out for something. It reminded her of the same look Teri’s father once had, back when she was still little, as he watched her and Teri play in the park…

The girl decided not to mention what she saw to her friends, thinking it not worth their attention anyway. Besides, having been exposed to Teri’s extended family for so long, she’d gotten used to its members’ little idiosyncrasies.

And wasn’t Mr. Aoba her best friend’s godfather? How should this be any different?

As for Teri herself, she managed to reach the door before the chime rang a fourth time. “Irashaimasen!” she greeted, as she let the door slide open, expecting a guest waiting outside, as usual. However, instead of the guest that she had assumed to be standing outside the door, she beheld a blue and black-uniformed man wearing a cap, a clipboard in one hand, and two packages cradled in the other. He was quite tall, and though she couldn’t see his eyes from the shade of the cap he wore, she could see that the man had a day’s growth of hair left unshaved on his face, as well as the graying ponytail he wore his hair in. The letters ‘DHL’ were visible on both the man’s cap and the left side of his jacket, making it clear just what occupation he held.

“Ara?” Teri said, blinking up at the delivery man, surprise very evident on her features.

“Ikari Teri Sohryu?” the man asked, as he scrolled through the files he had on his digital clipboard.

“Yes, that’s me,” the girl answered as she regained her composure. “What is it?”

“I have two packages here for you,” the delivery man said, as he handed over to her the two rectangular packages he carried. Teri raised her eyebrow at the man, as she studied the parcels given to her – both were sent via express carrier, and both obviously came from overseas. The recognized one address, but the other was left unmarked. Quite odd.

“If you could sign here please…” The unshaved courier cleared his voice before he spoke again, this time handing her the clipboard, and motioned to the area on digital touchpad where she was to sign.

“Okay…” Teri shifted the packages to one arm, anchoring them to her body with her chin, as she felt around her dress for a pen. “Um, could you wait for a moment sir…”

“Here…” The man offered his pen to the girl, after several seconds of fruitless searching on the redhead’s part.

“Thank you,” Teri said, as she signed her name on the receipt, her handwriting still coming out smoothly even in her awkward position.

“It’s nothing,” the man said, smiling, as the device was returned to him. “If you’ve been in this line of work for as long as I do, you’d learn to be prepared for anything.” The delivery man’s eyes strayed into the open doorway, and the apartment within. “You’d be amazed just how many times I managed to avoid trouble just by having the right thing at the right time…” The courier faced the young woman again, smiled roguishly, and gave a slight bow, tipping the lip of his cap to her before he turned and started in the direction of the floor’s elevator.

Teri stared at the receding figure for a while, before she shook her head, amazed at how she always seemed to encounter such unique personalities in this city she lived in. With a slight smile, she held the two packages close to her, and skipped back into the apartment, the door automatically sliding closed behind her.

“So, who was it?” Teri looked up, and saw her father waiting for her near the entrance to the living room. Shinji looked over her shoulder as she approached, making it all-too clear to the girl the why he was standing there, instead of staying with her aunt and the other guests. “I don’t see anyone…”

Teri merely smiled, and gave him a slight shrug as she passed him in the hall. “That’s because there weren’t any guests out there waiting, otousan,” she explained, as the pair returned to the sitting room. “However, there was a DHL guy, and he had some packages for me.” The girl showed off the parcels that she carried, and nuzzled the boxes lovingly with her cheek. “Just in time for my birthday too. There are still thoughful people left in the world…”

Shinji laughed a little at his daughter’s antics. “Am I right to presume that one of those packages came from Germany?”

“Yeah. Probably from uncle Franck again. As if that wasn’t expected…” The girl feigned exasperation, even making a show of rolling her eyes back into her head. Shinji chuckled again at this, before shaking his head, as the two parted ways in the living room, Teri returning to her place near the sofa, while Shinji rejoined his companions by the tables.

“So, who was it?” Kimomi asked her friend as the redhead placed the two boxes she held along with the rest of the neatly-piled gifts. She craned her neck a little, leaning back to look at the hall that led to the doorway, to see who the new arrival was… Only there didn’t seem to be anybody there. “I don’t really see anybody…” She looked back to Teri, and arched an eyebrow at her friend as she flopped down on the divan beside Sakiko.

“There wasn’t anyone there,” Teri answered simply. “Well, okay, there was this DHL guy with some deliveries for me, but aside from that… No guest.” The redhead shrugged to accent her point.

“Deliveries, huh?”

“Yup. Isn’t it convenient? And just in time for my birthday too…” Kimomi didn’t bother holding back her snicker, as she watched her friend stare dreamily into space, her hands clasped together as if in prayer. All that was missing was a few roses and a shiny backdrop to complete the scene.

“So where’d they come from?” Kotono picked up one of the boxes that Teri had just placed. She tried to read the address of the package’s sender. “Su… Stu-to-ga…”

“Stuttgart,” Teri finished for her friend, as she dropped the dreamy look.

“Thank you.” Kotono eyed the box for several seconds, before shrugging and replacing it back on the pile. “So, who’s it from? Someone from your mom’s side of the family?”

“Mmm, more or less. It’s from my uncle Franck.”

“Aah, I remember him.” Both Sakiko and Kotono turned to Kimomi, who now seemed to be counting off something with the fingers of one hand. “This is the, what, tenth year now?”

Teri crossed her arms, and nodded. “It figures. He’s the only relative I know from mom’s side of the family who even bothers sending me gifts for my birthday… Or Christmas.”

“Ano, sempai, who is this Franck you’re talking about?” Sakiko ventured to ask.

“Y’know, mama’s half-brother? The guy who’d probably be more attractive if he just learned to smile more?” Teri turned to her friends, and immediately took note of the look of incomprehension on both Kotono and Sakiko’s faces. “Haven’t I mentioned him to you guys before?”

“I don’t think you ever did,” Kimomi spoke, having just figured out the reason for her friends’ confusion. “Then again, I guess it’s because we’ve always taken for granted these deliveries of his. After all, he’s been unbelievably punctual about it.”

“True enough,” Teri conceded. She turned an apologetic look back at her other friends. “Gomen-ne guys, I guess I have taken the stuff my uncle’s been doing for granted, and forgot to mention him to you.”

“Nah, it’s okay,” Kotono gave a dismissive wave of her hand at the apology, since it wasn’t really needed. “Still, I am curious as to who this Franck guy is.”The young woman stole a quick glance to her side and smiled, seeing the intent expression on little Megumi’s face. “And it seems that Saki-chan and I aren’t the only ones who want to know.”

Teri laughed a little. “Yeah, I can see that.”

“So, who is he, sempai?” Sakiko stared at Teri, who had leaned back against her chair, her eyes closed, as if she was thinking of where to start. “You said that he’s your mom’s half-brother, but I don’t recall reading about him anywhere, at least not in the books I’ve read.”

“Well, aside from a few of us here in Japan, and of course the rest of mama’s side of the family back in Germany, not too many people know about uncle Franck,” Teri finally spoke after a long moment of deliberation. Dark blue eyes opened to regard her friends once more, as the girl sought to share what she knew of the topic. “Hmmm, let’s see… It wasn’t too long after granna Kyoko’s death that my grandpa Sohryu married again. Uncle Franck was the result of that marriage, born just a few years afterwards.”

Teri paused for a moment, before continuing. “While mama was here in Japan, she never talked about her brother, or the rest of her family back in Germany for that matter, so otousan and his friends more or less remained ignorant of him. This continued more or less up to the time of my parents’ engagement, when uncle Franck suddenly dropped by to ‘check’ on his older sister. You can imagine the mess that followed… I don’t think that mama was too thrilled at his arrival.”

“I think I can picture that somehow,” Kotono put in. “So, what happened next?”

“I don’t know about the specifics, but everyone was able to work things out. Uncle Franck’s been more or less in contact with our branch of the family ever since. He seems to be a nice guy, but he’s a bit on the serious side, I think – a little too serious, if you ask me.I guess he gets it from grandpa Sohryu’s side of the family…” Teri shrugged, smiling a little as she unconsciously added that last thought. “He calls us once or twice a year, to see if I’m growing up as a ‘proper young lady’, and even visits, though very rarely.”

Teri paused, and motioned with a hand towards the two packages sitting with the other gifts. “Then of course, there’s the presents. I don’t know what started it, but every year, I always get something from him for my birthday. And Christmas. I guess that’s just his way of doting on his favorite niece…”

“You’re his only niece…” It was Kimomi’s turn to giggle, pointing out that fact to her best friend.

“From his immediate family, you mean,” Teri corrected, as she looked to her other companions. “I do have cousins among the Langleys and Sohryus… It’s just that, for some reason, uncle Franck seems to pay more attention to me than my other cousins.” Teri had an inkling on just why her uncle did this – the connection to mama, his estranged sister, was too obvious to ignore – but decided to leave this out of the conversation. It wasn’t that important anyway…

“Well, he’s been sending you gifts all these years, and that makes him a nice guy in my book,” Kotono placed down the box that came from her friend’s uncle, and motioned to the other box, the one that was left unmarked. “So I guess this other one is from him too, huh?”

“Huh?” Teri looked at the package her friend mentioned, stared at it afor several moments, before replying with a shrug. “I guess,” she answered, even though she wasn’t sure about it herself. One thing she neglected to add about her uncle was that, not only was he extremely punctual with the deliveries he sent, he always made it a point to make sure that she and her father knew that he had sent her something. For him to send something unmarked, well, would be out of character.

Of course, she knew one other person who might send something like this…

Teri stared at the boxed present with a look that seemed to be a mixture of both anticipation and dread. If the person who had sent the package was the same person she was thinking of, then it was very, very likely that the opening of the gifts later would be anything but boring.

Despite this, the birthday girl felt a smile form on her lips. Silly otaku-oji… Overcompensating again.

Teri’s musings came to an immediate halt when she heard her named spoken. She glanced up, and saw her aunt coming over to where she and her friends were seated. She quickly noticed the plate of cookies she held, the last remaining stragglers of the batch she had baked the week before. “Snacks anyone?” Mayumi offered to the girls as she neared. “I thought everyone might be hungry waiting for the other guests.”

“Oooh, chocolate chips,” Kotono exclaimed as she picked out one from the plate. “Thanks, Mrs. Sadamoto.” The girl took a tentative nibble, before proceeding to finish off the rest of it. “Uh-hmm, very nice indeed…”

“You should thank Teri-chan over here for that,” Mayumi said as she offered the plate to Kimomi, then Sakiko, all the while deftly keeping it from her daughter’s reach, much to Megumi’s consternation. “These are her cookies, after all.”

“They’re not that good Ko-chan,” Teri spoke, reaching out for several cookies herself. “I just got lucky with the last batch…”

“Quit being so modest,” Kimomi interjected, munching noisily on the cookie she had picked, which elicited a wide-eyed look from Kotono. “It doesn’t suit you anyway.”

“I don’t think it’s bad for sempai to be humble,” Saki said in between nibbles, one hand covering her mouth demurely as she chewed. “Still, I agree with Ko-chan – these really are good.”

“Mou, flatterers,” Teri said, feigning a disappointed look, despite smiling inwardly.

“Awww, cookies…” Megumi whined as she tried to reach out to the plate of goodies. The child gave her best sad puppydog look, hoping that her mother would relent, but it didn’t seem to be working on Mayumi at the moment.

“Megumi-chan, no more cookies for you,” Mayumi reinforced her point with a mildly crossed look, which quickly silenced the girl’s protest. “Remember what I said?”

“Yes mama,” the girl replied, a sheepish expression on her young face. “I remember.” Megumi sat down, arms crossed and her face settled into a pout.

Mayumi nodded, before she walked over to where the rest of the adults were seated, and offered them some cookies as well. Mana and Shinji both declined, but Teri saw her aunt start when Shigeru swipe more than a few from the plate, the old rocker laughing as he did. Though she and her friends were seated well away from them to hear anything clearly, she did manage to make out something about not being able to eat anything homemade for a long time…

“I’ll just leave these here if anyone wants seconds,” Mayumi said as she placed the plate on the dinner table. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to get everyone their drinks.” Teri almost reflexively left her seat to help, but sat down again when she remembered what her aunt had told her earlier. That, and she saw that Mana had stood up herself, and was already joining Mayumi in the kitchen.

As soon as Megumi’s mom disappeared, Kotono paused in her nibbling to look down at the pouting girl beside her, and gave Megumi a little nudge – a nudge that was felt well over to where Kimomi sat, on the opposite side. Startled, the girl looked up, and saw Kotono wink, a conspiratory smile on the older girl’s face. Megumi, being a smart girl, quickly caught on, and her pout all but vanished when a cookie was placed in her hand. She gave her benefactor a nod of thanks, before munching on the treat.

A snicker was heard almost immediately afterwards.

Kotono glanced in Kimomi’s direction, and saw the smug smile the girl had on her face. The taller girl frowned ever so slightly in response, which raised an alarm in the birthday girl once she noticed it. Teri had seen the very same scenario played out more a dozen times before, and could only groan in exasperation each time.

Despite being close friends, there were times when the two girl’s friendship was anything but; with their near-constant verbal sparring, they seemed more like rivals than friends, as their relationship seemed to rely more on blow and counterblow. Not that Teri didn’t find this amusing, of course – it sure wasn’t boring when they got together, that was for sure! It was just that there were times when one of them would make an accidental slip of the tongue, and all of a sudden those little arguments weren’t so little anymore.

Now, if this had been any other day, Teri would have been content to let their argument run its course; frayed nerves and bruised egos were the usual results of such spats, but her friends always seemed to work things out and forgive each other afterwards. However, today wasn’t just any normal day. It was her day, and she definitely didn’t want to see her friends fight on her special day.

Teri had moved to speak, to try to calm her two friends down, but fate, as it was, took matter out of her hands. Before a single word was spoken, the door chime rang. The tense atmosphere dispersed almost immediately as everyone’s attention was once more drawn to the door.

“Ara, more guests,” Mayumi spoke, as she returned from the kitchen with some a tray of glasses in hand. “I wonder who it could be this time?”

“Teri, could you see to the door?”

“Hai, otousan,” Teri said with gusto as she rose, silently adding a whispered word of thanks to whoever it was up there listening to her. “Coming!” she called out, as she headed in the direction of the doorway.

“Hmm, this I have to see,” Kimomi spoke to no one in particular. She stood up, and discretely followed in her friend’s steps, the previously formenting argument already far from her mind.

Teri depressed the release to the door’s lock, and prepared to give her welcome but, as the door slid open, her words were cut short by another enthusiastic greeting, this time coming from the outside. There was a brief moment of confusion, but as she looked down her face immediately brightened when she saw just who it was who had uttered the greeting.

“So, who is it?” The birthday girl glanced to her side, and saw Kimomi take a place beside her. There was a curious look on her friend’s face, Teri noted. She was probably as interested as everyone else inside who the guests were.

“Ara, Kimomi, it’s your…”

“Oh…” All look of interest that had been on the girl’s face quickly vanished, replaced instead by a look that was midway between disinterest and disappointment, when she saw who it was waiting on the outside. “…It’s just you.”

“…Brothers.” Teri scratched the back of her head, and gave her friend a concerned look. She thought to say something to Kimomi, but thought better of it, and decided to keep quiet for now. She had learned though experience that it was often best to let Kimomi handle situations that concerned her family – which, more often than not, meant anything that was about her brothers and sisters.

“Glad to see you too, nee-san,” a boy dressed in khaki shorts, sneakers, overly large shirt, and a jauntily-placed baseball cap greeted Kimomi, his young face framed by a big grin. Another boy, shorter and a little leaner than his companion, yet dressed in the same manner of clothing and sported the same lopsided grin, gave the older girl a wave. “Just try and contain your excitement at seeing us, okay?”

Kimomi crossed her arms over where her bosom would appear soon, and arched an eyebrow at her brother, her lips curled in a slight frown. “Like that’s likely,” she commented flatly, and noted the bandages on both the boys elbows and knees. “Let me guess, you broke something at school again, didn’t you?”

“Thanks, we love you too, nee-san,” the leaner boy, named Yuuki, replied cheerfully to his older sister’s sarcasm.

“Actually, you’d be surprised how well-behaved we were today,” the first boy, who was named Kyousuke, related, a note of pride on his face. “Of course, there was that broken window, but it was all Mayu’s fault… She threw the ball a bit too fast and…” The boy felt a slight nudge at his side, at which he quickly put an end to his story. “Aaaaanyway, mom picked us up, and so that’s why we’re here.”

“Ah, sou.” Kimomi tilted her head as she studied them, and narrowed her eyes a little to show that, though she was listening, she didn’t believe every word they had told her. “And, just where is mom?”

“Um, she was right behind us…” Yuuki began, but his explanation was cut short when he felt a slight blow to the top of his head, which made him cry out in pain and surprise. It was an exclamation echoed in his brother beside him, and soon both boys were clutching their heads in agony.

“…And that is for leaving us behind in the lobby with the gifts.” The two friends glanced at each other, before focusing their attention on the girl who had so casually walked behind the two brothers and given them a pair of lumps. She was a little taller, and seemed only slightly older than the boys, with dark brown hair tied in a high ponytail on the back of her head, and a slight smattering of freckles on her nose. She wore a dark brown school blazer over a white blouse, and a matching skirt besides. She cradled some wrapped presents in one arm, while she calmly massaged the knuckle of the other, wincing as she did, having just used it as her instrument of retribution. “Geez, and who were the ones who volunteered to bring up the presents anyway, huh? You two are unbelievable…”

“There’s still hope for my family after all,” Kimomi observed quietly, as a small grin came her face at the arrival of the newcomer. Teri, smiling herself, chose not to comment.

There was a pause in the sermon, as the new girl turned her gaze in the direction of the two friends, apparently hearing their soft exchange. The frown she had been favoring the two boys changed, and transformed into a smile of sincere affection. “Yo, Kimomi-nee-san,” the girl greeted as she came forward, pushing aside the two boys as she did. She flashed a wide grin at Kimomi, one that the older girl returned, before she turned to Teri. She smiled, then sketched a formal bow. “Ohayo, Teri-nee-san. Otanjoubi-omedetou.”

The redhead returned the gesture. “Thank you, Asuka-chan.” Kimomi’s sister straightened, her face beaming. “And you can stop acting formal now – it doesn’t really, well, work for you.”

The girl chuckled, as she put her a hand behind her ponytail, poking her tongue out and winking as she did. “Yeah, I guess so.”

Two years Kimomi’s junior, Asuka was the second child in the Suzuhara family, and the second daughter besides that. Like her sister, she had inherited their mother’s petite frame, and quite a bit of their father’s athleticism, but personality-wise she shared very little with her siblings, or her parents for that matter. Instead, much to Touji’s eternal chagrin, her personality was more like the woman whom she was named after – Ikari Asuka Sohryu.

“So, are you guys just going to stand there, or are you coming in?” Teri teased.

Asuka chuckled a little, before she turned to look at her brothers. “Well, are you two just going to stand there, or will I have to drag you two baka inside myself?” The two boys frowned, apparently not happy being called idiots, and gave a few muttered protests, but eventually followed her inside. The pair, who were still nursing their heads, were already at the shoe rack when they paused suddenly. The boys stiffened, before they hurriedly took off their shoes and made haste to the living room.

Teri looked on, confused at the boys’ behavior, when she idly glanced beside her, to where Kimomi was standing. The girl sighed, before she gave a wry chuckle, as she had found the answer to that little mystery.

“Kimomi…”

“Eh?” The girl blinked, her concentration interrupted. Kimomi looked at her, some confusion evident on her features.

“You were giving them ‘the stare’ again.” Teri smiled knowingly at her friend, as she leaned against the open doorframe.

Kimomi chuckled, as she scratched the back of her head in embarrassment. “Oh, that.”

The ‘stare’ in question was an intense look, almost a frown really, used by Kimomi to cow obedience out of her two usually rambunctious siblings. Though little more than a quiet threat with a hint of awaiting punishment, it was very effective, and it was normal to see her use it before any public gathering where her brothers were involved, to forestall any mischief the two had planned. However, it wasn’t her own creation – apparently, her mother had used a similar expression to full effect as class representative during her middle-school and high school years.

“Sorry, I couldn’t help myself.” A few giggles escaped the girl’s lips, as she followed suit, taking a place opposite to where Teri was. She clasped her hands behind her, before she leaned back against the doorframe herself. “Everytime I see those two, I just know that they’re up to no good.”

“Ah, sou.”

“A little support for your best friend wouldn’t hurt y’know…” Kimomi feigned a hurt tone as she said this, in reaction to the look of suspicion her friend gave her. “I was only trying to make sure that they wouldn’t give you any trouble today. You know how those two can be – only a magnitude seven earthquake is more destructive than them.” Kimomi mused for a moment, before she regarded her friend, tilting her head a little as she did before adding, “Or an Angel attack.”

“I don’t think you have to worry too much about that.” Teri paused in her study of the hallway to glance briefly at her friend, before she returned her attention to the hall. “They have a guardian angel watching over them, ne? I’m sure Asuka-chan’s doing her best to keep them out of trouble.”

Her friend chuckled a bit at that. “Yeah, she is, isn’t she?” Kimomi looked in the direction of the living room, a fond expression on her face. “Still, it doesn’t hurt to throw in a little ‘incentive’ to behave, if you know what I mean – just to make it easier for her to watch over them, of course.”

“I guess so.” Teri let her gaze linger on the hallway for a while before speaking again. “Ne, you know, it makes me jealous sometimes… Seeing you with your brothers and Asuka-chan I mean.”

Kimomi immediately caught a familiar tone in her friend’s voice, but pretended not to notice, and continued to look towards the living room for several moments more before facing her. “Here we go again with this ‘I wish I had a little brother or sister’ attitude of yours.” The girl shook her head, and put on the same amused look she used whenever the topic came up. “Listen to me when I tell you this: brothers and sisters are nothing but trouble. They’re cute and cuddly at first, but they’ll make your life miserable in the long run, so if I were you I’d be happy to be the only child in your family.”

Teri laughed at her friend’s logic, but it held a sad quality to it – something that wasn’t lost on Kimomi. “Spoken like a true expert.”

“It’s not like I have any choice in the matter, y’know.” Kimomi sighed, and stared up at the hall’s ceiling. “If you’re the eldest, it becomes a job requirement to know about these things. It doesn’t help that we’re expecting another baby soon.”

“Perhaps.” Teri eyes strayed away from her study of the hall to look at her friend, her face unknowingly mimicking the same look of longing she had seen on Mana’s face earlier. “But I still think it’s nice… To have a brother, or maybe a sister, I mean.”

“Teri…” Though they had talked about the topic many times before, Kimomi still had know idea what to say to her friend – how could she?

“Ah, kita~kita.”

Almost as one, the two girls turned their attention back to the hall at the sound of the voice. Kimomi gave a wave when she saw who it was, and almost ran out to meet the arrivals, but stopped to throw a quick glance at her friend. Teri, for her part, was smiling again, as if their conversation hadn’t happened. Yokatta, Kimomi thought as she resumed her pace, the redhead following close behind. I really like it better when she smiles.

Much like Mayumi-san had said earlier… It just wouldn’t do if the birthday girl wasn’t at her best, ne?

“Heya mom!”

“Irashai, auntie Hikari!”

“My, my, aren’t we energetic this afternoon?” Hikari beamed warmly as the two girls approached. “You know, I’d gladly return the greeting, if I wasn’t so weighed down right now… so to speak…” The woman gave a nod, and motioned towards the small stack of presents she was carrying. Kimomi immediately took the hint, and relieved her mom of her load. “Aaah, much better. Arigatou, Kimomi-chan. I asked your brothers to help me carry those, but when I turned my back for a moment they started running into the building… It didn’t help that Asuka-chan went after them either…”

“Geez mom, how many times did I tell you about trusting those two. All they’re good for is making trouble. But did you listen to me? Noo….” Kimomi sniffed in derision, which elicited a frown from her mother.

“Kimomi, they may be like that, but they’re still your brothers.” Hikari shook her head at the girl. “You’ve as much in stake in their upbringing as your father and I. As the eldest, you should always keep that it mind.”

“I know, I know.” The girl sighed, before looking at her friend. “Now do you see the benefits of being the only child?”

Teri laughed in response to the exasperated expression on Kimomi’s face. “I dunno, it still looks appealing to me. “With that said, the birthday girl turned to her auntie. “Ne, auntie, you must be tired after carrying all those gifts.”

“Chotto ne,” Hikari admitted.”I’d do anything for a nice cup of tea right now.”

“You’re just in time then,” Teri assured the older woman, tilted her head in the direction of the apartment door. “Auntie Mayumi just finished preparing drinks.”

“Oh, really? Then I shouldn’t be wasting any more time just standing here neh?” Hikari passed a wink to her niece, before proceeding on to the apartment. “Wouldn’t want to let Mayumi’s hard work go to waste, ne?”

“Hai!” Teri nodded, as she and Kimomi turned to follow the woman inside. She was almost at the door, however, when she noted that she had taken the walk alone; apparently, Kimomi had not joined her. A little puzzled, Teri turned to look at her friend, and saw her standing by the hall, a pensive look on her face. “What is it, Kimomi?”

“You know, I feel like we’re forgetting something…” The girl seemed to ponder the idea for a little longer, then shrugged to herself, before moving to follow. Kimomi hadn’t even taken one step though, when she stopped again, this time looking like she was being held back by something. Teri’s friend took a look over her shoulder, then spoke, a slightly surprised tone in her voice. “A-cha, I knew it…”

Teri wondered what had happened, but found her answers as Kimomi stepped to one side, to reveal a little girl quietly holding on to the hem of her skirt. She shook her head, walked over, and squatted in front of the her. “Ohayo, Urumi-chan,” she greeted the girl, and smiled.

The youngest of the Suzuhara children, five-year-old Urumi was an unassuming child, as mouse-quiet as her other siblings were boisterous, frail of health where they were robust. She was pale – the sickly pale of one who didn’t leave the house often – clad in a jumper skirt-over-blouse outfit, her small feet enclosed by a pair of pink sneakers. Short black hair outlined her face, while large and soulful-looking brown eyes peeked under a line of neatly-trimmed bangs.

The girl stared at her, and gave her a shy smile in response, before retreating behind her sister’s skirt. “Hey, is that any way to treat someone on their birthday?” Kimomi gently admonished her sister, though there was a smile on her face while she said this. “Well? You were going to say something to her, right?”

Urumi looked up at her older sister, as if looking for confirmation, then nodded. She stepped away from her sister, and stood to face Teri, who was kneeling patiently, waiting for her. “Happy birthday, Teri-neesan,” Urumi greeted softly, a slight blush appearing on her pale cheeks as she did.

The birthday girl stole a glance at her friend, and wasn’t surprised to see Kimomi smiling. Teri knew that she’d been trying to get the quiet little girl to talk to others more – especially people outside of her immediate family – and though it wasn’t much, she knew that the greeting Urumi had given her was a step in the right direction.

Teri turned her eyes back to Kimomi’s sister and smiled at the girl. “Thank you very much for the greeting, Urumi-chan.” The little girl blushed again, her pale cheeks erupting a fierce crimson as retreated behind the folds of her sister’s skirt once more.

“Well, it was worth a try,” Teri glanced at Kimomi, and saw a resigned and slightly disappointed look on the girl’s face. Teri was quite sure that her friend was beaming proudly inside though. “At least I did my best.”

The birthday girl giggled into her hand, and decided to give some words of ‘encouragement’, but had hardly begun when she noticed something from the corner of her eye. Looking down the hall, she saw a girl staring at her – deathly-pale, with long powder-blue hair falling past her waist, and dressed in a navy blue blazer and skirt. She couldn’t be sure from where she was, but Teri thought she saw red irises, staring out from under the girl’s long bangs.

As Teri’s blue eyes met the newcomer’s, timed seemed to slow to a standstill. In that moment, she was reminded of her aunt Ayanami, but there something else… Something eerily familiar about her… She just couldn’t figure out what.

Teri turned, and was about to ask Kimomi about the new arrival, but as she glanced back to look, the girl was gone. It was if she had never been there to begin with.

“What… the…” she murmurred to herself, and started to get up from where she knelt.

“Something wrong?” Teri heard her friend inquire. Kimomi took a place beside her, her own eyes facing the same direction as her companion.

Teri shook her head, and gave her friend a smile of reassurance. “Uhm, no, it’s nothing.”

“Ah, sou.” As before, Kimomi didn’t sound too convinced, but seemed content to let the issue lie. If she wanted to tell her about something, she would wait for Teri to do so on her own. It wouldn’t feel right otherwise.

“C’mon you two,” Teri spoke nonchalantly, outwardly convinced that her mind had just been playing tricks on her. “Everyone’s already waiting for us inside.” As if to strengthen the point that nothing amiss had just happened, she dusted off her red skirt, before standing up, hands to her hips in a confident manner. “And as much as I love standing here in the hall, I prefer being inside my apartment more, thank you very much.”

Kimomi chuckled, and looked down at her sister, offering her hand to the girl. “C’mon Uu-chan, Mom and Teri-neesan’s friends are all inside, waiting for us… And guess what? There’s someone else there who’s gonna be glad to see you too.” Urumi stared at confusion at her sister, but this lasted a mere moment, as her young face lit up in realization. At that, the child placed her hand in her elder’s, and together they walked towards the Ikari home.

Teri herself lingered in the hall a little longer, before she shrugged to herself, and followed the siblings inside.

The girl was about to close the door behind her, when she heard someone coming from the living room. Fully expecting her father, or one of her friends, Teri was mildly astonished to find her aunt Mayumi there instead. “It looks like I got worried over nothing,” the woman said as she approached, her usual warm smile in place. “You don’t look tired at all.”

“I’m not tired. Just… I dunno, embarassed at how lousy a hostess I am.” The girl scratched the back of her head, feeling a little ashamed at her mistakes. “I’m really not cut out for this, auntie.”

“Oh hush, Teri-chan,” Mayumi chastised the girl gently for her self-doubt. “Everyone thinks you’ve done quite well, so don’t let yourself think otherwise.” Again, she took the girl’s hand in hers, and gave it another reassuring pat. “Remember, it’s your day today, and- .”

“- Nothing bad could possibly happen on my special day.” The girl smiled at her aunt’s rationale. “But what about last year, and the year before that? If you think of it…”

“I prefer to think of them as ‘fortunate accidents’. After all, both ocassions turned out better than expected, for everyone concerned, neh? And, most important of all, you had fun. If so, you couldn’t really call those birthdays disasters, right?”

“I guess so.”

Mayumi nodded, before letting go of the her goddaughter’s hand. “Anyway, your father wants to talk to you about when the party might start.”

“Yeah, it is getting kind of late,” Teri stared at the late afternoon sun framed against the open doorway, the radiance it left in its wake as it retreated beyond the horizon bathing the sky in brilliant reds and oranges. Dusk would soon follow, before the day finally gave way to night. “I think he’s just worried that everyone’ll get hungry waiting for the rest of the guests to arrive.”

“I guess he is,” Mayumi acquiesced. “He’s leaving the final decision up to you, though. We can wait until the rest arrive, of course. Misato-san and Rei-san might be on their way right now…” The woman glanced in the birthday girl’s direction, as if waiting for her to make her choice on the matter.

Teri stared at the bright canvas the setting sun set against for several moments, before looking at Mayumi, a decision already in mind. “I’ll wait for fifteen more minutes. If granny Misato and auntie Rei aren’t here by then, we can start the party.”

“Are you sure about that?”

She shrugged slightly at the question. “If it were just me and my friends, we could afford to wait. But it isn’t just us here, is it? Also, I know a certain little girl who’d just waiting to taste what her mom prepared for her…”

The woman chuckled softly at that. “You have a point. I’ll go tell your father about it, then.” Mayumi turned back towards the sitting room, but paused, and stared sharply in the direction of the open apartment door. “Oh, and Teri-chan, make sure the door’s closed; we wouldn’t want any unexpected guests dropping by now, do we?” With that, she headed back to where the other guests were.

“Hai.” Teri replied, not catching Mayumi’s look. Reactivating the door’s autoclose function, and turned to follow her aunt inside, but turned to check on the door one last time. When she found it secure, she shrugged to herself, and continued on to the living room.

Had she turned a milisecond earlier, Teri would have caught a glimpse of a girl standing just outside in the hall, a girl whose face, despite displaying an albino-white complexion and strange red eyes, was almost like her own.

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