till human voices wake us, and we drown
but do i chase myself into the dark
in the thousand ways to lead me back to the start?
(but you make it easy, you,
to be who i want to be.)
And somehow, waking up in the dead of night to find Rei sitting statuesque on the edge of Asuka’s bed isn’t unusual at all.
For reasons outside her understanding, Asuka had almost known she’d be here, known it in that dark space between the world and her eyelids before they’d opened and found her. Still, there’s a strangeness that hangs just at the edges of everything, like a glitch in a system; blinking through her sleepiness, Asuka sees the outline of her dresser blink with static, becoming a double of itself before settling back into its organic shape with the grating sound of a television short-circuiting. She scoffs and rubs her eyes, nudges Rei’s back with her knee. “Hey. Stop doing that.”
“I’m not,” Rei says softly.
“Then who is?” Asuka sits up in bed, her hair tangled and unwashed for the second day in a row. Rei seems unfazed by it; that’s a comfort, at least. “This is, like, the third time you’ve done this. It’s pretty gross that I’m almost getting used to it.”
“I’m not sure what you mean.”
“The dreams crap.” Asuka gestures vaguely at the air with a twirl of her hand; it leaves a trail of many other hands behind, tiny snapshots of her own movements before they fizzle and spark out to nothing. “I know I’m not really awake right now.”
Rei turns slowly to face her, hands folded in her lap. “But you’re not dreaming either.”
“Trust me, I know. This definitely isn’t any dream I’d wanna be having.”
Rei stares through her. Asuka holds her gaze for a few beats before scoffing and getting out of bed, hearing her knees pop when she straightens. “Well?” she says, huffily pulling on a baggy hoodie and sweatpants. “Where are we going this time?”
“That isn’t my choice to make,” Rei says, eyes to the wall. “This is your subconscious reality. You get to choose.”
Asuka hops on one foot while trying to pull on a boot. “Then take me to the city. Get me out of here.”
“Are you tired of this place?”
Asuka blinks at her, stepping into her other boot, but looks away quickly. “Who cares if I am? I have a reason to be here. That’s enough for me.”
She ignores Rei’s silence, how it speaks for itself in all the ways Asuka can’t. Like a pin stuck in a voodoo doll - that’s what her silence feels like. Asuka double-knots her laces and collects her hair in her fist, a rubber band held between her teeth as she watches Rei watch nothing. She looks stiff and plasticine, still in her starchly-pressed uniform, but something about her feels more alive than in the conscious world. Maybe it’s the static swirling in her eyes. That must be it.
“I mean, like…” Asuka shrugs, ties the rubber band around her hair and hunts for her gloves. “Do you hate where you come from?”
Rei’s eyes find her in the darkness, but Asuka won’t look. She feels her gaze as a dull hum at the crown of her head as she tugs on her gloves and stares down at the floor cluttered with magazines and half-empty bottles of nail polish. She gives a tiny snort of derision. “Who am I kidding,” she mutters. “Even in this world you wouldn’t tell me something like that.”
Asuka doesn’t dare analyze why the reality that exists only within her is cold, dead-of-winter cold, when all she’s ever known is summer. She glances sideways at Rei, half-expecting some sort of explanation, but she gets none; Rei looks calm, and not even in her complacent way that makes Asuka’s blood boil in the real world. Frowning, freezing, she pulls her hood up over her head and tucks her gloved hands into the front pocket of her hoodie to keep warm in this suddenly frigid city. Her breath puffs out in white clouds when she asks, “Aren’t you cold?”
“No,” Rei says right away. “It feels nice.”
The clouds her words make on the air meld with Asuka’s before they vanish. Asuka watches them leave. There’s something hollow hanging in her chest, like the feeling of being nostalgic for a place you’ve never been. “So…guess this is what things felt like before we were born.”
Rei hums out an affirmative.
“I think I’d hate it,” Asuka says quietly. “Having to stay all covered up just to keep warm. I’d go crazy.”
Rei’s eyes are strange and probing on her profile. Asuka won’t look at her. What keeps her from looking in this world is the same thing that keeps her in the other, but Rei doesn’t need to know that, or any girl, or anyone at all. “But,” she mutters, “at least then I wouldn’t have a bunch of perverts staring me down everywhere I go.”
Asuka scoffs. “Boys, obviously. It isn’t weird when girls stare.”
Rei’s hum is lullaby-light. She reaches out a hand and touches at the air as if testing the cold in her palm. “You seem angry when I look at you.”
Asuka nurses her embarrassment with exasperation, an easier pill to swallow. “You’re an exception. No one likes being looked at like they’re a specimen.”
“A specimen,” Rei repeats, still touching at the cold air with bare fingers. There’s a pause, and Asuka swears the world stops moving for just a heartbeat while Rei gathers herself to speak; when she blinks, lights in the tall buildings flicker and glitch in time with her. “I wouldn’t like that either.”
Asuka huffs out a breath and cups her hands over her mouth to warm her cold nose. “Well, take that as your cue to stop. ‘Treat others how you want to be treated’ and all that.” She holds up a finger now, an asterisk dotting her statement. “Unless someone pisses you off first. Then you should just do whatever you want.”
“Is that why you yell at me?”
Asuka stops in mid-stride and looks over her shoulder at Rei, who stands glimmering and strange on the sidewalk, lit up in the purple glow of the Tokyo-3 midnight. Red eyes blink at her in wait for an answer. Asuka looks back at her for a beat before turning around, staring out onto the city sprawl.
“Because I…'piss you off’ first?” Rei asks.
Asuka’s lips curl in a bitter smile. “Sounds funny coming from you. Those words.” She shoves her hands into the front pocket of her hoodie and slumps her shoulders against the cold. “I don’t even know why you care. I thought you were immune to me yelling.” She stomps her feet against the sidewalk for thematic effect, imagining herself as a giant, her feet crushing the city beneath her until nothing is left. “Here comes Big Bad Asuka, shouting and screaming like an animal! Everybody run!”
Rei’s eyes burn into her back.
“She’s on a rampage!” Asuka hollers, stamping and stomping, her hood flapping around her head and the long red mane of her ponytail swinging around her face. The buildings begin to shake; beneath her boots, the world trembles. “Everyone saw this coming but they did nothing! Said it was just a phase! And now we’re all gonna die! No one can stop her! No one is safe! No one except…” She turns now, gesturing weakly to Rei with an outstretched arm as all the bravado leaves her in one nauseous rush. “Except the perfect girl.”
Rei watches the performance but gives no applause, just gazes at Asuka with a depth that could almost fool Asuka into thinking she’s trying to understand her. Something about that is enraging, and she whips around so her back is to her again, glaring out onto the city which no longer quivers and sways at her every stomp. “Not all of us can be so unaffected,” she gasps out. “Shinji sure isn’t. I yell at him and he burrows into a hole for days, and for what? To hide from me?”
“Yes,” Rei says, flat and simple.
“Well, maybe I wanna hide too! Does anyone ever consider that?” Asuka whips the hood off her head and yanks out the rubber band holding her hair back. It’s thrown to the ground, her hair flying everywhere as a cold wind screams through her. “Everyone just assumes…”
Rei’s voice is alarmingly quiet through the howling wind. “Do you hide through anger?”
“So what if I do?” Asuka snaps. “Better than crying like a baby and not getting anything done.” She swipes a hand through her hair, breathing heavily, eyes wild on the dark pavement. “Better than feeling nothing…”
“I do feel.” A pause. “I do feel things. About you.”
It’s a strangely defensive line coming from Rei’s prim mouth, edged with something defiant that makes Asuka’s heart leap high in her chest. Whether that leap is out of fury or something else, something softer, she doesn’t know and doesn’t care to pick it apart and assess it; it’s too dangerous of a place to get lost in, and so all she can do is feel it growing like an electrical fire behind the locked-and-bolted door of her resolve. Her shoulders jump with a breathless laugh. “Oh, yeah? Then what are you feeling about me right now?”
In an instant, Rei is suddenly in front of her, her outline the only steady shape in this city of glitches. Her eyes scan Asuka’s face with a concentrated intensity unlike her usual doe-like aloofness, and there’s that leap again, furious and embarrassed and something else. “I feel,” Rei says, very quietly, “like you don’t like it when men look at you.”
Asuka’s eyes go wide on Rei’s face. Her chest turns cold, then impossibly warm, like she’s burning up from the inside out.
“I feel,” Rei goes on, “like this is something you can’t tell anyone.”
“It isn’t!” Asuka shouts, desperate and overheated even in this dream-winter. “Let alone toyou, who…who -”
“I don’t like it, either,” Rei murmurs. Her eyes drop to the pavement for a moment, as if assessing how stable the ground beneath her is and whether she can shake it apart with just a blink; Asuka knows she can. “I don’t like it when men look at me.”
With a sudden screech, the city glitches out into a wild medley of colors with no names, and then into blackness. Asuka awakes in her bed, panting, dressed in flannel pajamas again. Her hair fans out loose atop her pillow. Her shoes are right where she left them, knocked sloppily against the foot of the dresser. Rei is nowhere to be found.
Squinting through the darkness, Asuka surveys her room for any signs of static. The edges of things are stable and solid, and everything feels more or less the same - everything, that is, but her own body, which shakes and twitches in a white band of moon staring through the blinds. Asuka clenches her fists atop the blankets and steels herself before turning to the window and gazing up at the sky. The moon sits pinned pearly and huge against the night. It stares straight through her. Unblinking. It’s irritating in its prettiness, and Asuka wants to bear her teeth to it, make it afraid of her.
But she doesn’t. Slowly, silently, she slides the blanket off onto the floor and rolls over onto her side to face the window. She and the sky meet in a moment’s cold clarity. When a gentle white light falls over the curl of her body, she grits her teeth, braces herself, and lets it sink into her skin. It doesn’t hurt.
(The next morning, Rei’s eyes meet hers on the train, and Asuka almost mistakes them for two red moons ghosting through the sunlight. She wishes all was night. She wishes, with her hands clasped sweating in her lap, that the static making rings around Rei’s stare would clear and she’d look through her. Straight through her. Unblinking.)