AN: And another one! Yay!

Redemption Song

Chapter 5: So Much Trouble in the World

Rough terrain and broken pieces of concrete made for a harsh ride in damaged Suzuki, knocking his head against the window every few minutes. Sleep had not come easy the night before, and when it had finally enveloped him the sun had already begun to rise and Kensuke was gently shaking his shoulder. He had prepared a small meal for them both in a haze, not truly understanding what the man said or where they were supposed to go. His wrist had stopped burning for the moment; the not so gentle swaying of the car kept him awake more effectively than the burn of the cut.

That small bento had been the first he had prepared in far too long.

"…-nd I started going on trips outside the safe zone to scavenge for parts. It's hard to find the right one most of the time, but when you find something that fits... man! It's the best feeling in the world."

Shinji nodded, just the faint idea that Kensuke left the village regularly stuck in his brain. Had he used too much lime juice while trying to give the rations some flavor? Would the stew be too cold or unsavory after resting a few hours on the table? Would she eat it at all, or throw the food away?

Unlikely, he reasoned. His head bounced against the window again. Everything to his left was tainted crimson; the firmament stopped being blue a few kilometers away from the broken down street. Hands, feet, strange humanoid shapes occupied the horizon; it was too hard to look at, so he focused on the trees, on the recollection of the strange forest, the ruins, and on Asuka's words. Memories returned in droplets as the fever faded completely; he recalled an elder gentleman trying to reprimand him for not eating before Hikari intervened. Or had it been Toji?

Asuka won't waste food. She always says she's not hungry lately, though. I suppose she can just give it away. His unease grew ever so lightly; it was still difficult to process the broken world he had created, where just a few miles away from him nothing but red loomed.

"-so Shikinami doesn't really go to the village."

His headperked up, making Kensuke smirk. "Asuka? Why doesn't she-" He cut himself off before the question could flee his mouth. "Uhm, never mind."

Another bump on the road, another tap of Shinji's head against the window. Kensuke cleared his throat, gave Shinji a sidelong glance, and redirected his eyes to the street. "She doesn't go to the village for lots of reasons. I don't think it's my place to say, though. You should ask her instead."

"Asuka hates me," Shinji whispered in response. "She doesn't want to talk to me."

"Funny you should say that." A package containing six food bars was placed on Shinji's lap. "Since she was the one who put these in the car, with instructions that you were to eat all of them over the course of the day."

The white and red wrapper reminded him of Asuka's jacket, and of the way she had placed it on him as they boarded the VTOL. It now lay folded up atop the blankets, along with the dictionary and the SDAT. She's just making sure I don't starve myself. I haven't earned the right to even do that, apparently. The glaring redness all around the landscape served as a grim reminder of how far away the goal of redemption truly was. Obviously.

"She told me I'm not allowed to die yet, so I have to take care of myself. I have to eat." Shinji raised the bandaged hand. "I have to survive, even if I don't want to."

"Why did you ask to come with me, then?" The inquiry was poignant and direct, yet Kensuke's voice remained amiable, smile ever present on his lips.

The devastated remnants of whatever city lay before them became clearer. "I don't really know. I guess I want to help, somehow."

The car took a slight detour in the direction of the black and red pillars rooted in the ground where the blue of the sky faded, and the wreckage began. "I may not be an expert," said Kensuke, "but wanting to help is not the same as wanting to die, or being forced to live. Heh, you even got Shikinami helping you out, in her own way."

Asuka helped me? The small bag of protein bars felt unnaturally heavy on Shinji's lap all of the sudden. I thought she wanted me to drop dead. "Toji said to me yesterday… that people don't hate me here." The street disappeared, the surface becoming rougher as they left the pavement and threaded over a dirt road. The sky and horrible visage of the outside world became more apparent and impossible to escape from. "I don't understand why they don't."

"Not everything brought about by Third Impact was a disaster, Shinji," replied Kensuke with a more somber voice as they neared the strange, massive pillar. "You met Toji's child, didn't you? And their family. You saw everybody out there working, smiling, doing what they can, and living. That's what matters. And this..." The car stopped a mere few meters away from what looked like a barrier. "This is one of the places where I try to do some work."

The structure was not unlike an Entry Plug, only Shinji could see there were sections in constant motion. A strange energy vibrated and fed whatever barrier kept the waste from advancing into the green grass. Once out of the vehicle, Kensuke pressed a heavy red suit into his chest.

"You'll need this to get to through the work station. It's better for us to stay away from the core-ization waves coming outside the L-barrier. See those?" Kensuke pointed at the massive structure emitting energy. "Those are the sealing pillars. Ever since near Third Impact, that energy spread all over the globe and consumed all in its path. Kredit was kind enough to give us these. They keep the village safe."

Guilt stabbed away with every word Kensuke uttered; they felt like blows to Shinji's guts, or strikes worse than the elbow Asuka had hurled at his temple. Start helping people. However you can, in whichever small way you can. Stop the inaction, Shinji. He repeated the small mantra while donning the suit, head bowed and eyes stuck to the mud underneath his boots. Doing nothing is just you being selfish. Own up to what you've done.

"Doubt," recited Shinji to himself as quietly as possible. "A feeling of uncertainty or lack of conviction." The helmet was sealed to the suit with some difficulty; he was still weak and malnourished. "Feeling unsure about something." His eyes drifted to the bizarre hands and legs, gigantic and grotesque, that stood out in the distance. "Fear." Something akin to a headless Eva came into view, far from the barrier. "To be afraid."

Kensuke motioned for them to move. Shinji walked as quickly as the suit allowed; every now and then the rough material pressed against the bandages and made the scab itch. With the helmet firmly in place, the sound of his voice was even more muffled.

"Choice," he muttered next while licking dry, parched lips. "The act of selecting or making a decision when faced with… two or more possibilities." Pilot the Eva, don't pilot the Eva. Fight, or don't fight. Live, or simply don't die. "Adjective, worthy of being chosen." Help, or don't. Help, in whichever way you can. Choose.

Shinji's legs pushed him forward; mud stuck to the boots, and even through the mask the faint scent of either blood or LCL filtered through. "Start helping people," he urged himself quietly. "In whichever way you can."

After a few minutes of difficult maneuvering the pair reached a dug up hole of sorts. Kensuke droned on about how the pillars protected them from whatever he had started fourteen years before, and how the work being done was important to help them grow whatever they could in the fields. Constant work was being done to better the survival of the inhabitants. Toji, Hikari, their child and family, the nice man who greeted him the day before, the stranger offering lemonade; they all did their share.

No heated glares welcomed him into the work station where a boy no older than himself perked up instantly upon seeing his old schoolmate. Once he reached them, the boy removed his helmet and offered a hand; he noticed similarities he could not quite place until the name tag on his chest registered.

'R. Kaji.'


"Mr. Kensuke! Good to see you!" There was a quiet sense of confidence in the boy's eyes that took Shinji by surprise. "It's been a while! How did your last trip go?"

"Heh, found some interesting things her and there. Shinji," Kensuke placed a hand on his shoulder and nudged him forward, "this is Ryoji. He'll be showing you around today. You said you wanted to help a bit, right?" Shinji nodded, gaze shifting to the pillar. "We always need extra hands getting samples around the core-ized areas. It's hard work, but it pays off. I have to go see to some repairs, I'll be back in a few hours. Kaji, I'm entrusting you with him. Don't overwork him, he just recovered from a fever."

"Copy that, Mr. Kensuke!" Ryoji acknowledged, offering a worn, bandaged hand in Shinji's direction. "Nice to meet you. Here, let me show you around."

Lilac hair, penetrating eyes, something along the jawline as well; every few seconds Shinji found more parallels. He shook the offered hand and was led to one of the more secluded parts of the research area. As he walked Shinji recalled the glares of the crew members on the Wunder with more clarity; the unfriendly atmosphere had been present from the start. Standing by the barrier that kept his sins from consuming the village, there was still no anger, no hatred in the eyes of those who nodded in his direction and kept on with their task.

"This is where we gather earth samples for Viko to analyze. Sometimes we need to dig deep into the soil to find undamaged roots," said Ryoji. Shinji was handed a shovel and instructed to dig underneath a patch of grass. The ground was dry, coarse and difficult to extract; every movement rubbed the wound on his hand and made it itch. "He and his team isolate the healthy sprouts and help them reproduce! That's how we have so many crops nowadays."

Somewhere in his recent memory the word 'Viko' rang a bell, but Shinji paid no mind to it as he forced the shovel deeper into the half-eroded dirt. Ryoji gave him a satisfied nod and carried on with his own task; they were to dig down until some actual dark earth appeared. The ground looked like salt underneath the crimson surface; it did not give in like regular dirt but broke instead, cracking and falling away in smaller chunks.

And I'm supposed to find actual soil under this? Sweat rolled off Shinji's forehead and into the helmet's visor, stinging his eyes and hand. He kept digging regardless of how foolish it felt. A few meters from where he was working a pair shouted in joy as they extracted dark, almost black earth from one of their stations. They're so happy about a little bit of dirt, he mused; anger sizzling and burning his lungs alongside the exhaustion.

This world I broke is one where even dirt or fresh seeds are a commodity. And here I am, not trying hard enough. The shovel dug deep into the unforgiving ground as Shinji's heartbeat thundered in his ears. More cheers came from his left; a boy a bit older than him discovered what looked like old potatoes from a distance. Asuka was right to want to punch me. This is nothing, I'm not helping, and I'm not making any difference. I can dig a thousand little holes and never get my permiss-

"Feels silly sometimes, right? Oh, you can take off the helmet now," Ryoji did so first and took a lungful of air. "Ah! That's the stuff! Mr. Kensuke fixed the ventilation problem." Not missing a beat, he continued to search for any sign of life in the myriad of red death meters away from them. "Maybe it doesn't feel like much, but every new sprout, every fistful of salvageable dirt, it all helps keep expanding our crops. I also heard there's a seed recollection program in the Wunder, and that Viko sends every viable seed he's able to salvage."

A friendly pat on Shinji's shoulder; an act of encouragement, the same gesture Kensuke and Toji had provided. Despite the boy's suggestion, he kept the visor on and continued to drench it with perspiration. There was no place for comfort during his atonement. Whatever penance Asuka wanted him to live through was sure to begin there, at the border that kept the villagers alive and safe from his stupidity. All I did was try to save someone, try to help someone. I tried to do something and I never saw her again.

"It's hard to work around here sometimes." Ryoji's next words fell on deaf ears. A bit of dark earth, a bit of hope, a sign that his miserable existence had a meaning besides hurting people; any respite was welcome. Shinji kept on digging in an almost frantic manner, and caught a glimpse of the grainy ground beginning to darken.

They worked for close to two hours without saying much, each going about their task in their own section. It was grueling, and soon the wound on Shinji's wrist began to flare as it moistened with sweat.

"The air is heavy, and we have to wear this gear most days, but it really pays off," Ryoji said after offering Shinji some water; he took off the helmet just enough to drink. "We might just have peaches this year! Then we can send them to the other villages and they can have their own peach season!" Shinji spared a single thought for the boy; he was a complete antithesis to him.

Joy, a queer air of confidence, a sunny and honest smile completely unlike his own stiff, uncomfortable expression. "This place used to be some sort of park once," Ryoji continued, pointing at Shinji's work. 'We've found lots of new seeds in this area, plus we've learned lots on how to grow food as close to the barrier as possible! No stone left unturned! So even if it feels a little dumb, this work is very important."

We're just digging holes. It's a fitting activity for a prisoner like me, I guess, but not for others that are just trying to get by. This is part of the penance, this is what I did, Shinji mused whilst removing a rock from the ground. When he next dug the shovel in the ground, the soil gave under easily and a dark brown colored the pale dirt all around his boots. His heart raced as a foolish smile plastered itself on his lips. He was about to stab at it again when the boy's voice stopped him in his tracks.

"Hold up, wait! Wait!" Ryoji's raised hand stopped him before the tip of the shovel impacted a small, round sphere covered in salty dirt. "Look at this beauty! And we were just talking about this!" A playful smack to his shoulder almost sent Shinji to the ground; he had not realized how exhausted he had begun to feel after two hours. "Hey, guys! We got one! I think it might be a peach!"

Shinji saw a blonde mop of hair perk up in the distance and take off running in their direction right after the word 'peach' rang out. He suppressed a groan when the now recognizable features of the stranger became visible. He chatted amiably with Ryoji, took the offered seed from him and beamed as though the entirety of Third Impact had ben regressed with naught but his pathetic finding. The stranger held up the seed to the light and smirked widely at both teens after inspecting it thoroughly.

"Prunus persica, perfect condition!" Viko exclaimed. A kinship of sorts was evident between him and Ryoji, judging by how Ryoji beamed at the man's words. "And who knows, we might have gotten lucky and gotten an actual Shimizu Hakuto, the sweetest in the world. Heh, great work there, kiddo. Think I might just keep this one for myself."

"I didn't do a thing! Haven't even found any good soil this morning." Ryoji scratched away at his cheek and pointed at him. "Shinji's the one who did all the work!"

Viko offered Shinji a smug grin after locking eyes with him. "Did he, now? Well, let no good deed go unpunished, as my brother would say. Here!" It was only due to his reflexes slowly returning that Shinji was able to catch the bottle thrown his way. "Have some lemonade, it's good for you. You too, Ryoji. Take a break for now; I'm sure the Commander doesn't want our guest passing out from dehydration or exhaustion so early in the morning, and he's probably got other things to do. I gotta run some tests on this. Great job, you too!"

Speeding off in the direction of the largest tent located near the pillar, Viko disappeared. "I still have… your bag..." Shinji said to the empty air, making Ryoji laugh as he lifted the cold beverage. "And your bottle."

"Viko doesn't care about those bags, much less the bottles. Just don't throw them away," the boy explained with a shrug. They sat down next to the largest hole and drank with gusto, Ryoji pressing the cold bottle against his forehead and groaning in contentment. The air was chilly everywhere else, but being so close to the pillar's energy felt like being in a humid micro climate. "He'll find another one, or sew a new bag if he runs out. He forgets who he gave them to most of the time."

The sun began to rise above the mountains behind them and shone upon the wasteland where those haunting figures stood. "You two seem to get along well," Shinji mentioned without really meaning to. "Have you known each other for a while?"

"Pretty much my whole life, yeah," said Ryoji before finishing his bottle and staring at it with fondness. "I've never met my parents. They told me my mother left me in the village after I was born, and that my father's a great hero. I don't know if it's true or not, all I know is Mr. Kensuke and Viko have been helping everybody out ever since I can remember." He turned to Shinji with a somewhat somber expression. "Do you know your parents well?"

Why would you ask me something like that? The very thought of his father scared and angered Shinji; he was at a complete loss for how to even consider the man's existence anymore. The picture Fuyutsuki had shown him flashed through his mind. I don't know anything about him, in the end. He's as much a stranger to me as I am to him.

"Until very recently I didn't even remember my mother's face," Shinji admitted, eyes downcast and fixed on his own bottle. "She died when I was very young, and… I don't really get along with my father. I don't understand him."

"Hmm." Ryoji laid down flat on the ground, hands behind his back. "Yeah, I don't really get why my mother just left me here. Viko keeps pestering me about that." He stretched a hand to the skies, lost in thought. "He tells me I'm not trying hard enough, and that she probably has her reasons that… that to her, at least, make sense. I guess since he's always been around I never really felt lonely, but I get what he's saying. I haven't really tried to understand her."

A pang of fresh guilt stabbed at Shinji's chest. As if tearing the world apart and most likely being the reason why Ryoji had no clue who his parents truly were wasn't enough, he was also flaunting how he had indeed had a chance to interact with the one parent left to him, a luxury Ryoji probably only dreamed of.

"I guess I haven't really tried to understand my father, either," Shinji concluded out loud and glanced at the darkened horizon. Instead of being envious of Ryoji's declaration of not having suffered the crushing lonesomeness he was familiar with, Shinji felt relieved. "It's never crossed my mind that it's actually possible."

I haven't even tried to understand Asuka, or Misato, or anyone in this village. I don't understand why they do what they do. If Misato really doesn't care and just wants me to go away, why hasn't she pulled the trigger on that choker already, or left me to rot in a cell? If Asuka hates me so much, why did she make sure I had eaten, or that this cut healed? Why did she give me her jacket?

Despite the sweat and the suit rubbing against it, the cut was not burning or itching too much, and the fever had receded almost entirely. "I should try a little harder," he mumbled just loud enough for Ryoji to hear. If piloting only ever leads to me hurting people, then I'll do everything else. "Should we get back to work?"

"Yeah, I guess we should both try a little harder. Let's keep it up!" Ryoji jumped back to his feet and offered Shinji a hand with the same vibrant, confident smile from earlier.

He recognized the expression; it had been on Mr. Kaji's face so long ago, back when the world still made some sense. They went back to digging -with Ryoji finding a seedling of his own after another hour- drank away the refreshing lemonade, and exchanged a few words regarding life in the village. At some point in the morning Shinji found himself smiling slightly; Asuka was nowhere in sight, after all, and he felt free to breathe in the moist air and even laugh at one of Ryoji's jokes.

As he left the small work station, panting and drenched in sweat with a silly little smirk lighting his features and being greeted by the other workers, something caught his eye. Joy quickly morphed into terror. From afar, one of the seemingly petrified monstrosities turned, and began to walk.

Glad to see me. Glad to see me? Why? What's so freaking great about seeing me? It wasn't me you almost ended the world over, after all.

The last piece of protein bar rested on the bento, half-eaten. Some hours had already gone by since Kensuke had left with Shinji; nothing but the sound of birds and the wind filtered through the house. It kept happening that morning, flavors and memories attached to them returned. The bland taste of rations and generic food of her childhood, the spices and smells of stew which brought her back to school in Tokyo. She detested remembering hunger or the stupid school uniform, hated being reminded how she was no longer human, and even so the memories felt painfully sweet.

When had been the last time anybody who was not Kensuke had offered her a meal, and when had said meal actually tasted good at all? Being among the very few who knew of her condition, Aida did not much bother to prepare more than indispensable nourishment. Not that whatever he cooks tastes any better than the rations. Not that I can even tell the difference, anymore. Not that it matters.

Years upon years of drinking water as the only sustenance and growing increasingly estranged to all things human, and then a tiny box with a home-cooked meal and a pathetic assortment of words gentled down the loneliness for a few heartbeats. The pain never left, but waned just as the rage did lately, sizzling down and hiding away under the strenuous task of ensuring the Third Child was alive. It's not horrible when he actually wants to eat. I don't intend to keep shoving protein bars down his throat every time he decides life is too much of a hassle to so much as eat.

Her weight shifted on the chair. The small slice of stew-covered protein bar kept glaring up from the box.

On the rare occurrences where the confinement cage within the Wunder or the Entry Plug were not within reach and she was forced to partake in humane duties such as breathing or having time off, the gaping hole in her soul made itself known. Aside from sitting on the table or lying in bed with her Wonderswan, there was little she was interested in doing outside the old train station.

"Some time off this turned out to be," she muttered into the empty kitchen with a huff. "What a pleasant vacation, sitting here doing nothing and pretending I can actually taste this crap." Regardless of her own reasoning, the last remnant of the meal Shinji had left for her was consumed. "It's not like it's anything short of mediocre, anyway."

Akagi insisted there was nothing wrong with her sense of taste or smell. They functioned as normally as could be expected, yet her reluctance to eat had most likely atrophied something. Everything tasted of ash and felt synthetic; even the water was obtained from purifying urine, so it was far better to simply forget it altogether. With little else to do than to sit and play video games, however, not reminiscing turned impossible.

I hate this stupid crap. Why the hell could I not just have stayed on the Wunder while they sent the brat here by himself?

Her typical activities had borne no result; a walk into the wilderness had done nothing to settle her nerves, and finding the small path that led to the lime trees only worsened her headache. It had taken her a few minutes to return to the small stream. Presumably at some point in her life the scenery would have been considered beautiful and peaceful; lush trees swaying to the wind and forest creatures going about their business, the smell of moist soil and oranges.

All the small forest had done was remind her how the little brat had so effortlessly communicated with a complete stranger and yet failed to so much as look her as he spoke. Asuka scoffed at the table, eye drifting to her Wonderswan. Yeah, you've been doing a great job at speaking in a calm and collected manner to a shell-shocked individual. Never mind that he's a brat, slobbering all over himself for four days, running away, not eating. Cooking.

Her gaze danced between the handheld and the kitchen. Cooking's pretty much the one normal thing he's done ever since being recovered from Unit 01. Heh, and he goes and makes a goddamn bento the next morning. What an idiot. Well, now he's off to do more normal things with Kenken.

Creaks in the wood and her own breathing were all that remained after noon settled and the temperature rose. She did eventually reach for the Wonderswan, and her thoughts hushed to an extent. Even in the quiet, and especially considering how days were trickling by and her doom approached, all she could do was think of the boy's words and recent actions. He had run away very briefly if at all, and could she really blame him after having shoved food into his mouth? How did the Third Child react to her aggression?


Thinking on the word drew her eyes to the dictionary lying on the floor. The book had been lying around the many others Four-Eyes collected, by far one of the heavier ones containing both English and Japanese translations and definitions. Hearing their captive reduced to a catatonic mess that did not eat, sleep or react to anything had cut too close to home to some extent. She herself had fared no better after waking up and realizing the world had almost ended, her humanity was being corroded from the inside by a monstrous parasite, and that she was not aging.

Asuka had read through some of Mari's novels during the endless days and nights awaiting the next battle. The heavy book resting atop her jacket stood out even then; hearing the brat mutter to himself had been the excuse she needed to go through it. Marking down the words had been an unexpected, almost unconscious move.

Screw it, let's see if the idiot has learned anything, or so much as bothered to try and learn something. It's not like there's anything better to do. The scarf was gone from her neck since there was no traumatized Third Child around to trigger into vomiting, yet Asuka's hand still went up and brushed the metal that served as a permanent reminder of what she was. She picked the dictionary and plopped down on the boy's blankets, noticing how the little music player was tugged beside the red garment. A slight wave of curiosity crashed through and was suppressed with brutality; she picked up the book instead.

Let him have his stupid little music box. Four-eyes and her stupid love for pop culture is the only reason I know what song he was slurring. Huh, look at this. Brat woke up to some extent, it seems. He's so mentally feeble, making Toji and Kenken fuzz over him as he sits there and takes his sweet time to recover. Hmm, he's been underlining the definition he prefers, too.

Pens and pencils were all around the old station; Kensuke loved to take notes of every little thing he considered important. She had not seen Shinji pick one up, however, nor had she actually witnessed him marking the pages or thoroughly going through the meaning of each word. On the second to last page, the track he kept listening to was slowly being deciphered and translated.

The Major huffed at the small effort and went to the page where 'redemption' was, blinking in surprise as another word marked in deep blue jumped into view. "Repent," she whispered. "To feel or express sincere regret or remorse about one's wrongdoing. To view or think of an action or omission with deep regret or remorse."

Another blue underlining drew her attention on the other page. "Recovery," Asuka read aloud while a small frown darkened her features. "Tch, a return to a normal state of health, mind, or strength. Yeah, right. Like that's even possible anymore, you idiot."

Several new pages had been marked in both the English and Japanese versions, with most of the English words being the ones she had marked, and those belonging to the song's lyrics. The Japanese equivalent was tinted in either black ink or pencil, and only new words had been marked with blue. No other notes were visible apart from the song being translated in the back.

Valor, struggle, strength, uncertainty, misunderstanding, silence and fear had all been underlined, with the definitions yet to be marked in any way. She scoffed at the boy's choices and yet felt them be an irremediable part of who he was. He appeared to be trying to analyze his own actions and learn the reason behind them, at long last.

Credit where credit is due, even if it's for this idiot, she mused with the shadow of a smirk. Feeble as he is, the brat is trying to grow up.

Before she closed the dictionary and went to retrieve the Wonderswan, a word she had failed to notice before jumped into view. Unlike any of the others, this one in particular was marked in red. The first emotion that jumped into her throat was a deep sense of envy, an all-consuming wrath and desire to rip out the page and burn it on the stove. Then she saw the small depiction of a pirate skull with an eyepatch drawn just beside the word, and her face heated with something besides rage.

The book was slammed shut, she forcefully placed it back on top of the jacket and swiftly went to lay on her bed. She played away as afternoon came and the birds started with their evening tunes, then took a shower and glanced at the choker, wondering what Shinji had seen to make him react so strongly to it. Regardless of what she did, the small, crudely drawn depiction of her roundel forced her to open the closet door and retrieve the pathetic little plushy Mari had vandalized.

"Beauty," Asuka told the little doll. "An attractive quality or set of qualities that give pleasure to those who experience it or think about it."

The word most certainly had nothing to do with her; simply a foolish coincidence from the mind of a broken boy. After all, what quality did she have aside from being an Eva pilot that could be considered beautiful in any way?

Soon after joining the larger group of workers around the pillar and being congratulated on his finding, Shinji was asked to follow the apparent village commander. They drove for a few minutes down the street, heading towards a part of the L-barrier that shone particularly crimson in the distance, still dressed in the heavy suits. Kensuke said very little on the way and only commented on the seed finding, with a vague mention that he'd elaborate on the other boy's past later on along with an inquiry towards Shinji's hands.

There were blisters on his palms and fingers, some of which a gentle elderly lady in the work station had been kind enough to cover with some Band-Aids. He was sporting new bandages on the wrist as well, courtesy of the stranger and Ryoji who had noticed how dirty the gauze had become during work. No headaches or nausea were hindering his body for the first time in days.

I wonder if she ate the food. Kensuke said she doesn't eat much, though. I knew I should've looked for something other than the rations.

Had the thought not entered Shinji's head, then the image of a naked Second Child would not have flashed by, coloring his skin scarlet. He looked away despite knowing the older man had not a clue why he suddenly jerked his head towards the window. In an effort to wipe away the memory and worse, the image of the damned choker on her neck, he refocused on the strange humanoid figure that neared with every passing second.

Trepidation forced his heartbeat to quicken. Remembering her also meant recalling the mentions of her constant refusal of food.

"Why," he started, licking his lips. "Why doesn't Asuka eat much, lately? Do you know? Is it because of the curse of Eva?" Fear added to the mess of twirling emotions; with a mind not completely shattered they were inescapable. Would the same happen to him with the passing of time? "I remember she used to eat just fine back in school, and in the apartment with…" pain and hollow heartache coursed through him, "…with Misato."

Kensuke winced at the question and worsened his already crumbling mood. "She doesn't go to the village for the same reason she doesn't eat much. That's all I can really say, and it's not like she told me. I was simply… informed of some things. It's not my place to say." Shinji felt Kensuke's gaze shift to him and offer a sad glance. "Sorry about that."

"That's okay." Shinji shrugged, faint rubbing at the bandages. "It was rude to ask something like that, I'm sorry."

"No need to apologize. I wish I could be of more help, but some things you just have to find out for yourself. I'm sure she'd love to just talk to you at some point."

Shinji almost laughed at that statement. "Just talk, huh?" The possibility felt far-fetched with the amount of disgust Asuka radiated when addressing him. Never too late to start trying. "Guess it wouldn't hurt to try."

"That's the spirit! Now, this is just a brief little pause, okay? I need to check on something." The car stooped about a kilometer away from the barrier. "Damn, just as I thought. It's getting closer."

It had not been his mind playing tricks, to Shinji's everlasting horror. Once his feet touched the ground and his gaze rose to the figure, the movement of the gigantic being was impossible to miss. It was walking, and it was not only the one. He saw more and more as his gaze scanned the horizon, many of them sluggishly treading through the wasteland.

A particularly grotesque apparition was pawing at the barrier, one which had been obscured by the mountain range before. He spared Kensuke a sidelong glance while his skin turned cold. The creature kept pressing against the barrier for a few more tense moments and slid off to the side, almost falling over; it tried and failed to rise back up. In that moment another of the figures rose from the waste; it manifested right out of the red waste and turned to try and enter the protected area, to no avail.

"We call them Wanderers," Kensuke muttered between gritted teeth as he filmed the creature. "Headless copies of Unit 01, moving around the core-ized areas and occupying any unblemished location they can find." He gestured towards the pillar. "The L-Barrier keeps all these villages protected, that's why I had to go fix the electrical feed as soon as possible. I've been monitoring these for a while. They seem to try and get in but lose interest after a while."

"W-Wanderers?" The words reverberated in Shinji's brain. "What are th-what are they?"

"Our best guess is an accumulation of core-ized life forms trying to take shape. That's just a guess, though. In reality we have no actual clue."

Copies of Unit 01, seemingly semi-sentient beings that rose up out of nowhere and tried to corrupt any healthy piece of land they could find. All living energy in the world was necessary for his father's plan to succeed; this was but another cluster of his mindless soldiers to carry on the war to end all life and reunite the madman with his mother. These goliaths were formed of life.


Kensuke continued to explain how the pillars kept the village safe from any and all direct effects of whatever had happened to the planet. What he had started fourteen years before had distortedly evolved into mindless beings hungering to devour the world, a constant threat to the survivors of his stupidity and inaction. Yet another abysmal problem impossible to reverse or remedy, one more nail in the coffin of his incompetence.

Shinji wanted nothing more than to look away and run, flee to the ruins and lay down on the floor, surrounded by the ocean breeze and penguins instead of death and horror. Reality was inescapable and absolute in that moment; it almost managed to break his mind for a third time and crack whatever stability had been achieved in the past days. How easy it would be to simply fall back to a corner, deny any and all interactions and force himself to die. Death was all around, those beings were death incarnate, and coming to remind their maker there was truly no escape.

No. Look at it, and remember. This is what you did, this is what you've done. Take it in, memorize it; these are your mistakes. You have to help in whatever way you can, as much as you possibly can. That is your penance, Shinji.

Most likely it was a figment of his imagination, an aftereffect of so many sleepless nights and sickness, but for a moment he saw movement from within the humanoid figure. He saw something moving, shifting, crying, screaming. He saw men and women and children and dogs and birds, all crammed into the shape of his Evangelion. The wriggled and whimpered in evident agony, unable to escape whatever hellish fate he had condemned them to.

Kensuke never realized how close Shinji came to collapsing from shock. He bit the inside of his cheek and clenched his fists, determined to sear the vision into his brain. If there was a way to heal this damage, if there was a way to heal whatever sickness had robbed Asuka of a normal existence, all that was left was to fight for it.

"Struggle," he muttered. "To proceed with difficulty, or with great effort."

Sun and heat had been as estranged an experience as actual conversation for as long as she could remember. There had only been her purpose and the orders to be followed, there had only been Eva and the scenario, no thoughts nor decisions to make. Everything was ordained, clear and understandable; seeing the boy face to face had been about the first time true emotion had sprung in her chest.

As she was instructed on how to plant 'rice', the realization came that Gendo Ikari had not ordered her to do so, and yet she was doing it. The kind family who offered shelter and sustenance in the form of delicious meals had also not ordered her to work. The days rolled into one another and her time ticked away along with the plugsuit's clock, and yet she worked. She ate, spoke, went through the books and bathed along with the other female workers.

The world was beautiful.

How peculiar, that she had just recently discovered what the word meant and found it perfect to describe the gentle breeze, fresh water and moist earth. Birds and worms and smiles, sweat and gentle laughter had blended into a new routine, one with continuous learning and surprises at every turn. The days on her own without knowledge of where he was had been challenging at first, with no orders to orient her behavior and no Ikari-kun to follow. She felt compelled to explore, to learn.

The villagers and members of the Suzuhara family had coerced her into facing a different existence, going so far as to press her into choosing a name for herself. A name had never been necessary either, she had had a designated number and it had served well enough. A gust of breeze refreshed her flushed cheeks and matted hair; the caress of the wind had also been a pleasant surprise.

"Okay, miss Lookalike," the woman next to her exclaimed with a smirk. "That's a good amount of work for the day! Great job! You only fell twice, and not on the sprouts either time." A heavy hand fell on her shoulder and squeezed. Curiosity flared once more, if such was a good enough work day, what would an extreme day feel like? What was an 'easy' work day, then?

"Time to get some fresh water!" yelled one of the younger ones as he ran towards the largest shade available and collapsed underneath it with a happy grunt. "This is the stuff! Great weather, lots of work, lots of fun! Hey, miss Lookalike, come sit with us today!"

Even as the words rang in her head as orders, they were everything but. She was compelled to follow the young woman more out of wonder than obligation. Fragrant new scents, sensations unlike any other at every corner; food, drink and warmth were everywhere.

The villagers conversed and inquired about her, not in the slightest discouraged when little more than an inquisitive glance and confused blinking was their response. They mentioned some young man who had come to them years before, broken but curious, and how he had grown to love and care for the village. The tips of her lips quirked whenever the Suzuhara child was mentioned; it was the very incarnation of the word 'cute', and every available chance to interact with the baby instantly became a precious memory.

She sat under the tree with them, hearing stories of how once not too long ago, agriculture to such a level had been but a distant dream. The meal the Horaki lady had prepared was exquisite, yet at a lack of words to describe its flavor, she simply commented it was very good. More smiles and laughter rang through the forest and farmland.

After the break was done, one of the older workers pointed at a hill where a car was parked and two figures had just emerged. The small smile blossomed on her features just as one of the ladies gently nudged her in the car's direction.

"Ah, so you have your eye set on someone, don't you, miss mysterious?" the woman inquired with a smug expression. "Is that boy special to you?"

"Special?" Her heart thundered louder when he was near. There was a strange desire to be beside him. "I do not know."

'Well, staying here and chatting with us old bats won't help you figure it out. Why don't you go say hi to him? I'm sure Mr. Kensuke's just showing him around."

She departed with a nod and set out to the top of the hill. The muscles of her legs burned, her chest heaved with strain and a strange excitement, and regardless of fatigue or trepidation, she walked up to where the boy was standing. He was gazing into the distance when she arrived, eyes wide as though fearful or worse, and widened even more upon recognizing her.

Special? Yes, he most certainly was. Being near him was pleasant and fulfilling, like the congratulatory words received after performing a task for the work group, or understanding what a word meant and having Hikari congratulate her. The boy's presence alone was as gratifying as those smiles.

"Ayanam-oh. Hi," he murmured, and waved with what she assumed was uncertainty.

The adult next to him smiled; he placed a hand on Ikari's shoulder and nudged him forward. "This is where she works during the day. Everyone calls her Miss Lookalike." Ikari nodded in understanding. "I have to go see how the crops are doing. If we have enough this season we can trade with Village 2. See you in a few, Shinji."

They were left alone atop the hill, with the last rays of noon making the air feel moist. The scent of wet earth and fresh water was all around, one she would relate to him for weeks to come. "I did not mean to cause inconvenience yesterday," she started after a few heartbeats of heavy silence. "Are you faring better?"

Ikari hesitated at her inquiry; his gaze shifted over to the fields and the sky before setting on her feet. "N-No reason to apologize," he responded with a tight half-smile. His eyes looked downcast, haunted, yet impossibly determined. "You actually… helped me figure some stuff out." A shaky hand motioned to her work station. "Have you been working here all this time?"

"In the mornings… we work here. I have learned how to plant rice." The admission made her feel uncomfortable; what relevance did her learning have? "I have also learned about books, and what certain words mean."

Disturbed as it was, Ikari's gaze softened. "That's really great to hear. You know, I wanted to say… thank you. Thanks for talking to me yesterday, even if I wasn't… the best listener."

She had been hearing the words for days on end. Whenever she complied with a request or performed somehow effectively, they would say so as well. "Thank you," repeated the girl with a tilt of her head. "How is one supposed to respond when addressed with these words?"

Shinji blinked, taken aback by the question, yet recovered quickly and felt a fresh pang of indescribable pain. At every waking moment, with every new thing about the world he learned, he felt more and more estranged from his father.

"I'm not an expert in this stuff, or even half-good at it," he muttered. The sun burned at his skin and back, a reminder of the scorching heat which had been present the last time he had uttered such words. "But I think you're supposed to say 'you're welcome', and smile."

"Oh." She blinked in surprise, and did her best to do as advised. It felt overwhelmingly pleasant to smile at him. "You are welcome."

He smiled back as best he could, she assumed, but even to her vastly inexperienced perception, the details were there to see. His skin was pale, the smile was strained and trembled along with his body. Something was terribly wrong.

Before she could inquire why he looked so distraught, the bespectacled man came and retrieved Ikari. Just as he arrived, he left in a flash. The terrified yet resolute nature of his gaze seared itself into her brain and soul. There was unfathomable suffering behind those cobalt eyes, and yet something had stirred within him and clashed against the fear she remembered from their first interactions. He was vastly different now, and she was bearing witness to a metamorphosis akin to that of the caterpillars she had seen around the leaves.

Indeed, Ikari-kun was special to her.

While wandering back to the group with a deep sense of satisfaction and the desire to know of his whereabouts, Rei wondered what he would do now, which path he would follow. Would he join her in the rice fields? Would he choose to pilot the Evangelion? Would he follow through with the scenario his father had devised?

Long after the work day had ended, while she lay in the hot bath with the other females of the work group and curiously eavesdropped on their gossip, the question bubbled in her chest. She wanted to know where he would be working; there was no need to ask if he'd be working or not. As it had become a custom in the bathhouse, they inquired about her name, and the reluctance to pick one for herself.

She chose to ask Ikari for a name instead. Spending time with him and with Tsubame, spending time with everyone who welcomed with open arms and enthusiasm felt so much more incredibly compelling than fulfilling her predisposed duty.

For the first time ever since her creation, she knew fear. She feared the coming of an Impact, the erasure of all she was learning to cherish.

They're not the same person.

He had said those same words to Ayanami once after a hellish battle, after believing she had been basically vaporized before his eyes. True, both shared the same features, hair and eye color, height, skin hue and tone of voice; however, they were completely different individuals.

Rei's gaze had held a level of self-awareness and resignation, a certain sadness most likely born out of understanding the implications of her purpose, the implications of his father's deeds and plans. It had felt as though they had been long estranged siblings after a while; he had envied her close relationship with his father, gone through many a battle with her by his side, and had even come close to having a proper dinner with her and his father before calamity stole it all away.

Whoever this Rei lookalike was, she was an individual of her own. Her gaze sparkled with interest wherever it rested, her way of expressing emotion was also different. Her smile was different; much less guarded and natural, almost relaxed and pure in a way. The Rei he remembered was gone, forever trapped inside Unit 01's core most likely, and now this stranger with her face smiled at him and said that his existence was not unpleasant to her.

I told her she should smile. What a generic thing to say. No wonder Asuka calls me a brat and an idiot all the time.

The shapes of women, men, children and animals composing the Wanderer's body flashed into Shinji's mind without remorse, accompanied by the now familiar spray of blood as Kaworu exploded. He was somehow able to keep breakfast within his belly, and regardless of his best efforts the sudden tremor alerted Kensuke instantly.

"You sure you're okay there, Ikari?" Kensuke inquired with a raised eyebrow. "I told you last night. It might be too soon. You've just barely recovered from that infection."

"I'm fine," Shinji ground out, shaking his head in an effort to erase the vision from his thoughts. "Maybe the heat got to me a little."

"Yeah, the weather's been weird lately. Cold, windy afternoons and hot, humid mornings. Sucks with the humidity at night, as well. Did you manage to sleep at all?"

Kensuke had snored lightly during the night, both before and after Shinji had requested to tag along. Perhaps three or four hours had gone by without him noticing. "I think so." If he thinks you're too weak he won't let you work. You won't make a difference. If you're tired, that's your problem. "I slept well enough," he lied after a second's hesitation. "Where are we going next? I think I can do that work near the pillar just fine."

"Yeah, you did quite well for your first day! But that station is a bit too far, I think something a little closer would be better." Aida smirked upon noticing how often Shinji massaged the injured hand.

He's been putting up a brave front for the better part of the afternoon, Kensuke mused. Shikinami won't be happy if that cuts gets infected again. "We're going to Toji's. You know, where you were yesterday? Hikari's dad is in charge of supplying three more families with lumber, but he's been having lots of muscle spasms and back pain lately. Toji says he's worked himself into a bed. Think you can handle a little more hard work?"

"Yeah." said Shinji, and closed his hand into a tentative fist; the wound was not searing as it had been earlier.

Kensuke knew the majority of the labor was done. Viko was overzealous with the lumber work, always willing to dice old trees, study the soil and decide which species was appropriate to grow where the old one had stood. The strange botany enthusiast even went as far as uprooting the dead stumps and utilizing every available part. With wood being already diced in sizable portions, it was only a matter of loading them into a cart and transporting the cargo back to the houses.

"The old man's not even supposed to be doing anything anymore, he's just stubborn. An extra pair of hands is not that common to come across, so I'm sure he'll appreciate the help," Kensuke added, already knowing the eldest member of the household was proud and brash. "Just don't overdo it, okay? You'll be helping with gathering wood and bringing it to the families. It's mostly unproblematic, I think you'll enjoy the peace and quiet of the forest. You can work with them through the afternoon. I'm sure Miss Lookalike will come along at some point, so you can ask her about work in the fields and stuff."

"Right, Toji's house," Shinji's acknowledged, distracted. He vaguely remembered the living room, the amiable environment, the scent of stew, and the endearing gurgles and yelps of a newborn child. "I'll help however I can."

"That's the spirit!" Kensuke said and chuckled. "Remember, today's just about browsing along. We can take a couple of days to see what actually works for you."

"Okay." Shinji nodded, not paying much attention once more. Help in whatever way you can. Choose to help. Choose, and struggle. It's the only thing you can do.

From a distance, he saw another bipedal monster collapse atop the barrier.

The eyes of a little girl opened from within the crevices of the Wanderer's limbs. It was impossible to see such a detail from so far away, yet it still manifested in his mind. Shinji's hand clenched against the track suit as the image manifested. Peace and quiet? Forest? Lovely. Anything to get away from the memory of that horrid figure clawing at the barrier and trying to destroy everything the villagers had built. Finding that seed had felt like a step in the right direction. He was trying, doing his best to help as the stranger had advised, and in return the villagers whose lives he had ruined smiled away and gave him reassuring pats on the back.

Earn those smiles, earn the right to be here Earn. Earn. Shinji's mind became foggier with every passing moment. The guilt closed in just like the beasts attempting to crush all life that existed within the barrier. Asuka's glare followed like a predator every time he considered running away or shutting himself off as he had done on the Wunder. Do whatever you can. Earn. Earn.

No matter what.

Shinji's mind drifted back to the image of a disgruntled gentleman sitting across from him. Even if he had not eaten much of the stew himself, none of it had gone to waste in the end. However, the plate served to him the day before had remained untouched while he whimpered in a corner and tried to disappear. Running away into some ruins isn't an option anymore, he realized. The image of the headless figure continued to follow him.

The now familiar visage of the Suzuhara household came into view.

I don't even know why I'm trying. I'll never be able to take all of that back. I tried… and Kaworu died for it, Asuka almost died for it. Misato, Sakura, everyone on the Wunder, everyone in this village would have been wiped off the face of the earth. I wanted to restart everything, rewrite the world to something that was familiar to me. Something that didn't hurt.

The small child in Hikari's arms, Kensuke's confident smile, Toji's mature gaze, the laughs and jokes of the villagers on their daily activities; he would have erased it all in an effort to wipe away his wrongdoings. It had not once occurred to him during his quest to take the spears that perhaps some of the survivors might not have been too happy about his desire. He had simply assumed that restarting it all and erasing his mistakes from the very fabric of existence was the only logical path.

However strenuous the task had been, life had prospered within the haven of the barrier. Those who had withstood the onslaught of the Angels, Impacts, famine, disease and war had not come out unscathed, but they were stronger than before. Life was difficult, and yet they smiled and laughed and bore no ill will.

"We're here," Kensuke announced with a somewhat defeated voice. "Don't take the grumpy old man too seriously, okay? I brought him some sake last time, so he should be fine."

Shinji hesitated before exiting the car. He had been in the house before, yet many of the details of his visit were in a fog, with a constant low hum thundering in his ears. "Is he injured?" he inquired while looking at the gauze. "I'll help in any way I can so he can heal."

"He's not injured, he's just old and stubborn. Don't worry about it. And like I said, don't overdo it. We don't want that wound festering again, do we?"

They were welcomed at the door by Hikari and the baby, with the former wasting no time to explain him how the cart worked and how much firewood was advisable to carry on every trip. Kensuke bid farewell and departed, telling them both there was another pipeline that needed repairing. After understanding how to properly roll the cart through the irregular terrain, Shinji set off to the clearing the former class rep had pointed him towards, but was halted in his tracks when a hand fell on his shoulder.

"You probably haven't eaten a thing, have you?" Hikari pointed at his sweaty attire. "Those could use a little washing, as well. Come on, I'm sure I saw some more of Toji's old stuff yesterday. Let's get you some lunch and make sure you have a fresh change of clothes for when you're done, hmm?"

You will eat. You will take care of yourself. You will not starve. You will struggle, Shinji, and maybe if you suffer enough, eventually you'll get your permission.

"Oh, right." Shinji nodded and followed without much thought. "Sorry."

"No need to apologize! Now come on, I have some delicious soup and fresh rice ready to go!"

The young woman's demeanor had evolved, Shinji noticed. Hikari still oozed authority with every word, but now it felt more nurturing than commanding. He recalled that the Rei he had recently met was staying with them, and found himself smiling as he entered the house. It eased the pain in his chest to know the young woman with Ayanami's features could experience something akin to a mother.

He thought back on Misato, and his stomach twisted with guilt, anger and despair; he had no appetite despite the morning's hard labor. The rations Asuka had placed in the car remained untouched as well, because he was too nauseated by the image of the headless beings to eat.

Despite the sickness running through his belly, Shinji emptied the soup bowl and ate as much of the rice as his stomach allowed. It was happening again; he kept losing track of time and where he was, or what he was supposed to be doing. The sensation was disturbingly similar to the quiet horror Fuyutsuki's explanation had brought about, only this time there had been no need for anybody to explain a thing.

Some silence and quiet work by the woods was sure to calm the festering anxiousness inside his ribcage.

Moments ticked by in relative silence. Minutes, hours? He was unaware of how many, and only he came to when the man he assumed to be Hikari's father sat opposite to him at the table and glared. For once ever since arriving at the village, another person besides Asuka stared at him with displeasure.

"Good to see you didn't choose to waste good food this time around," the eldest member of the household growled. His eyes narrowed at Shinji. "Look at you, scrawny and broken. How much help can you possibly off-"

"Father, that's enough." Hikari was quick to reprimand her father, but Shinji felt no true animosity radiate off his tone. "You should be happy Shinji's here to help us out today. Toji's been really busy lately, as well, and Tsubame is a handful on her own. We need all the help we can get."

The man's gaze held not a bit of the hatred seen within the confines of the Wunder; he was mildly annoyed at best. "Some help he's gonna be if can't even articulate a damn sentence. Heh, youngsters these days. They just expect everything to be handed to them. Do you know what you're supposed to do, boy?"

Shinji's head rose and he nodded, trying to appear determined. "Yes, sir. I'm to carry the firewood to the houses two blocks and a block from here respectively, then place the cart back behind the house and carry the firewood to the back."

"Meh, I can't even walk up to the door without a cane right now, so you'll have to suffice." The man gave Shinji another measured look and nodded to his daughter; the baby needed attending so Hikari excused herself and moved to the other room. "My name is Bunzaemon," he added once they were alone, and poured himself a small glass of sake. "I hear you were my daughter's schoolmate forever ago. This must all be very strange, I bet."

"It is," Shinji admitted. Once more he tried to smile, once more he failed miserably. At the very least the man's words were helping anchor him to the present. "Most times it just feels like a nightmare that I can't wake up from, but..." He thought back on Ryoji, the workers around the pillar, the sound of laughter in the rice fields, and Tsubame's giggles. He thought back on Rei's smile. "Other times it's… beautiful."

"It's a complicated existence we have here. Neither village can survive on its own." Bunzaemon's gaze turned into a light glare. "Things haven't been easy. We manage somehow, though. And yes, there are many beautiful things to enjoy, excluding back pain and old age of course." The elder Horaki drank and sighed in contentment. "Give it your best, Shinji. And don't you dare reject my daughter's cooking again, young man."

For the second time in what felt like weeks a small involuntary tug pulled at the corners of Shinji's lips, and a tiny chuckle escaped his chest. "I'll be sure not to." His hand clenched and unclenched; the wound wasn't burning. "I don't know if doing any of these tiny things will ever make a difference. Everything that's happened is… my fault, after all. Whenever I think of th-"

"The smallest good deed is better than the grandest good intention."

Shinji's jaw clenched shut, eyes wide.

"Doesn't look like it'll rain this afternoon," Bunzaemon carried on, and pointed out to the trees. "There's work to be done. Focus on what you can do, not on what you can't. I think the commander's had it right all along, a bit of time alone would do wonders for you. The clearing is quiet, and not that many people go through the path. If you want to think, think while you work."

It dawned on him that Kensuke, the crew around the pillar, the farmers around the fields and Toji's family were all accommodating him, expecting him to choose what he wanted to do, not forcing him on a preordained path. It felt refreshing to choose something and not have the world end because of it.

"I'll get to work right away." Shinji rose and headed for the door, pausing to turn to the elder and bow respectfully. "Thank you, sir."

"Get Hikari to give you a pair of gloves; you won't want your hands filled with blisters for weeks on end. It normally takes me about four trips to get the entire thing done." The man nodded and poured himself another drink. "Two of the families I deliver the firewood to need it for their respective work stations. If you can't handle more than two trips, you'll do the rest tomorrow. Understood?"

"Yes, sir." The man's directions felt more like grumpy advice than commands, which elicited another minuscule smile from Shinji. "I'll be sure to help as much as I can."

"Don't overwork yourself like I did, I only need your help for today and tomorrow so don't get comfortable with the job, either," Bunzaemon leaned back on the wall and watched the boy leave. Even when he smiled, the quiet dread in his eyes did not wane nor dissipate.

"He's actually a very nice kid," Bunzaemon mused. Shinji Ikari was anything but a harbinger of death or a villainous figure. As the hours ticked by and he watched him carry the small cart into the woods and back, he realized how right his daughter had been. "What a terrible card life has dealt him. So alone, like that Shikinami girl. No wonder."

From the corner of his eye, he saw a flash of red and green when the Second Child disappeared behind a tree. He smiled.

"No wonder."

"There are, it seems, inefficient emotions. They were just designed to match the cognitive behavior of humans. You are a part of the Ayanami Series. You were regulated to have a strong liking to the Third Child. Your feelings right now were arranged by NERV from the start."

"I see. That is good then, because I feel good."

The forest leaves were moist enough so as not to crack or make any unnecessary noises as she trotted behind the cart. Following the Ayanami clone had not been part of her evening plans, yet after a few seconds of lying in bed and listening as she faded into the distance, her body had moved on its own.

"If that's the case, do as you like. The object of your affection should be around the Suzuhara household right about now. Make sure to ask if he's eaten or not."

"Thank you."


Shinji was on his way for a third trip, having peeled off the sweater and sweating profusely. The brat did not stop to so much as drink water in between trips. There was a new, unfamiliar level of detachment in his gaze and body language; he was not sluggish when moving, but almost robotic. When Toji's neighbors nodded and thanked him for the firewood, all he did was lower his head and nod. Always unable to hold their gazes, always wanting to simply go back to the task at hand.

What am I doing?

She had asked herself the same question the night before, days before when entering his cage or when giving away her jacket, and still it remained unanswered. As a prisoner and an asset for Gendo Ikari's plans, Shinji was to be monitored and followed, or so Misato had muttered in between gritted teeth once or twice. It had long since been determined that he was neither a danger to himself nor others as long as an Evangelion was not in the vicinity.

There was no need for her to be standing behind a tree and counting the minutes and seconds it took Shinji to carry the cart back uphill. There was certainly no need for her to sneak around the damned village so as to ensure Shinji did not collapse, and yet there she was, wasting her time and running the unnecessary risk of being seen.

He's taken an extra three minutes and forty seven seconds this time around. Add the two and a half minutes from the last trip. He tripped twice on the way down last time as well. Idiot.

Being constantly reminded of activation time during the arduous years of her childhood, there was a constant ticking in her head which had only worsened when sleep had stopped being a bodily need and turned into a luxury. The clock was running at all times, just not for her.

The mop of dark brown hair became visible from a distance. Rei had called after her before entering the house, surely to get more specific instructions as to how to ask whether the Third had eaten or not. Judging by how efficiently he moved despite the stiffness, it was safe to assume he was not about to collapse from emaciation. Her position allowed a clear view of the clearing and the mountain of chopped stumps covered by plastic, the path connecting to the neighboring homes, and the roof of Hikari's house.

Years of avoiding people had made her an expert of sorts in going about unannounced and unseen, or so she liked to believe. Local residents and children did not even try to engage her, with children mostly being surprised by her plugsuit or eyepatch. The younger ones always pointed with that shocked look in their eyes, whilst the adults hurried off and tried to avoid eye contact; she was a freak of nature and had one of humanity's enemies snoozing comfortably within her body, after all. The choker did not much help matters, but with the proper lighting and the use of mostly abandoned trails she could maneuver in relative anonymity.

Now he took a full extra minute and a half to rest, she realized, and stole a glance at the panting Third Child. His shirt was all but drenched in sweat, every few moments he'd clench the hand with the bandages as if to ensure the wound was not bleeding, and as he carried up the last handful of logs, Shinji did stop to drink some water.

Finally. A few more second and you would've started feeling light-headed from dehydration. Stupid brat, can't even keep proper care of your own damn bodily needs. Look at you, sweating all over the place, getting that damned cut infected with toxins and dirt, and all for what? So the monkey's neighbors have enough freaking firewood.

Her fists clenched within the jacket. This is so stupid. Why am I even here?

'Unfair' was a term she kept from using at all costs. Moaning and complaining that life had been cruel to her from the first moment had brought naught but more anger and more despondence. Unfair was the very nature of existence, why would his be any different?

The unease returned with a vengeance after Shinji dropped one of the stumps by accident, the dry wood fell from his grasp and scraped against the wound on his wrist. Her eye twitched with annoyance, heartbeat increasing and settling back once the boy retrieved the log; she was too far away to see if there was any actual bleeding or suppuration.

It's fine, the Major snapped in her mind. He has an entire entourage of people to cater to his needs. Toji, Kensuke, Hikari, the villagers, freaking Viko of all people, the Ayanami clone falling head over heels for him. Nobody down here is trying to kill him or hold him accountable for…

Asuka's glare redirected to the floor. What did she want to hold him accountable for, lately? He had internalized her statement and responded accordingly, had set out to do whatever was in his hands to atone for actions that in retrospect, were not even fully his fault. Effortless as it was, the task of assigning blame to Shinji for the way the world had broken was superfluous and childish. The video footage Kensuke had provided was evidence enough.

The sound of the cart wheels moving alerted Asuka. Hold him accountable for what? For trying to save someone he considered special, someone who had actively tried to improve Shinji's relationship with his father? For stepping into a behemoth he knew little about and caring not if his life disappeared in an effort to save someone? His inaction had cost her dearly, true, but Shinji had tried at first to rescue her, and when faced with the possibility of having to kill her, he chose to die himself before consciously harming her.

She had been someone important to him, regardless of how little time they had spent together.

Right after recovering some cognitive function, Shinji had gone out of his way to make tea and cook, he had even left her a meal after the disastrous attempt to force feed him a second time. He offered her lemonade and rations when the idiot was the one that was supposed to be eating more and taking better care of himself, and was now carrying logs to strangers for the fourth time.

Fine, relented the Major at last, for the first time in over fourteen years. It's not his fault, not entirely. Not all of it, not when you consider everything he's been through. You knew long ago, you've always known. It's just easy to remain angry, it's much less painful to pretend to grow up. You keep saying you've changed, Asuka. How? Still blaming this brat for things that were out of his control, still pissed off, all for what? What are you doing?

Her eye narrowed at the pile of firewood. The temperature was already dropping and the silence stretched out even as insects and night birds sang away; surely whatever foolish work Kensuke had arranged for Shinji to do was already done. What are you doing?

The brat was sure to be invited to the Suzuhara household for dinner, and if not there was always the rations she had storaged in the car. After counting the minutes away and noticing how the sky was darkening, she huffed and headed back to the old train station.

She noticed the old jeep parked just outside the house; a glimpse through the window showed that the village leader was indeed sitting and eating with the family, Shinji, and the clone. From afar, the tiny fleck of bright white under the boy's track suit quieted the unease. The bandages had been changed and the wound cleaned. As the family ate, they joked around and smiled, laughed and collectively fumbled over the newborn. The Ayanami clone and Shinji spoke quietly to one another; the girl would address her curious gaze almost exclusively to him. She seemed at peace with her existence, however limited it would be.

A sudden emptiness consumed Asuka after staring a bit too long at the amiable scene.

Not too long after she arrived at the house, where she served herself a spoonful of water and collapsed on her bed, the run-down Suzuki made itself known and announced the arrival of the Third. Too many strange, unsettling thoughts and emotions were simmering in her head, so she decided to stay in bed and ignore the call for dinner.

Some agreement was made between the two males in the other room; she heard Kensuke mention at which hour he rose every day, along with which places he had to visit. The scent of soup being heated invaded her nostrils and made her stomach growl for the second time in years. Ignoring both the strange rumbling of her gut and the constant ache from her head, she closed her eye and pretended to sleep. At some point in the night she heard the brat enter the room and almost immediately turn back.

Damn brat, I could smell that bowl of soup from a mile away. What part of 'not hungry' did you not understand the last four times I said it?

Once both males stopped moving and the light snoring of the village commander bounced off the walls, she stood and made her way to the car. Indeed, three of the rations had been cconsumed. Judging by the amount of crumbs decorating the passenger seat, Shinji had been the one to eat them. Nothing but an extra pair of clothes laying on the backseat and the three surviving rations remained inside the vehicle. With a satisfied nod, she tiptoed back to the room, not before realizing Shinji had woken up sometime during her time in the yard and was huddled in his blankets, reading some word from the dictionary with the earbuds firmly placed in his ears.

He did not turn to look at her; his eyes were fixed on the page, exhausted as they were.

Asuka paused before entering the room and gazed at him. True, his skin was less pale and he was not sweating or shivering at every passing second, either. His eyes had been somewhat calm the night before, a bit less guarded and more alive than in the past few days. That night, she noticed his gaze was resolute and terrified all at once. With every passing day in the village, the magnitude of what the Impacts had brought about became clearer and sunk deeper into his mind.

Idiot's certainly not gonna last, she realized whilst her eye drifted over to Shinji. He went from not pushing at all, to pushing himself as hard as possible. It'll only be a matter of time before it backfires if he's not even sleeping.

The now familiar unease returned; she refused to admit it was concern.

Twenty five logs per trips, four trips in total. Go to the houses, load the firewood in the sheds, carry the cart back and repeat. Make sure to bring extra firewood for Toji's house.

The quiet whispers of the wind, critters and birds, and the clean air of the clearing became more familiar with each day. He did as he was told, worked on the main building distributing rations in the early morning after Kensuke dropped him off, handed the food and whatever he was able to concoct with the available ingredients to the crew working around the pillar, then walked over to Toji's house and dealt with the firewood delivery.

Cooking had been Asuka's idea the morning before, to both his and Kensuke's surprise.

"The brat's always tinkering around the kitchen at night. Put those skills of his to some actual use. Morning crews rarely get anything other than protein bars, so have him make them some rice and fish or whatever you Lilim eat in the morning. There's always scraps in the kitchen areas, have him work with those or something."

She had actually sat down with them, if not at the table at least in its vicinity, and played with her Wonderswan as both he and Kensuke ate. The glares had been diminishing to an extent -or so he liked to believe- and the tremors had stopped altogether. Toji was mindful to change the bandages around his hand and clean the cut after every work session, but insisted Shinji had to keep the gauze on if he intended to continue working.

A familiar daze roamed all over him instead, akin to the fatigue his body had been assaulted with after spending five days with close to no sustenance or rest. His vision failed at times; everything turned blurry and distorted, the shapes were bathed in a strange crimson hue and he saw them again. No matter how tired he was, the image of living beings comprising the anatomy of the headless Wanderers refused to stop manifesting at every given chance. Whether he closed his eyes, memorized the meaning of a certain word to the tiniest detail or listened to the SDAT, the shapes moved and shifted within the body of those monsters.

He had seen Kensuke record them, had reviewed the tape with him and discovered no bizarre motions in the creature's exterior. It was all a figment of his exhausted imagination; the sleepless nights had surely damaged or affected something. Nobody else even mentioned such movements from within the Wanderers.

Sleep had become a strange commodity in the past three days. Ever since first laying eyes on the appalling giants, it had become increasingly harder to shut off his mind and stop remembering every little decision and detail that had led him to sleeping on the wooden floor of Kensuke's home. Instead of trying to comprehend the visions, Shinji simply carried on with whatever task was given to him and devoted every bit of energy to it. He nodded off from exhaustion every night for a few hours, but never too deeply or too long for the rest to be in any way restorative.

Whenever the horrid spectacle of Kaworu or the choker on Asuka's neck did not shake him awake, the Wanderers ensured he woke up drenched in a cold sweat.

"Ryoji said... the curry was good yesterday," he murmured in between gasps. His legs were starting to shake; this made the third day carrying firewood. Three nights without proper rest and barely enough food to keep him functioning. "Wonder if Asuka ate the lunch… I left in the kitchen."

The path blurred for a few seconds. Shinji stopped, yawned into a blistered hand and rubbed at his eyes, seizing the small break to reach for the bottle the stranger had gifted him that morning. Orange juice instead of lemonade today. Can't forget to pick up the oranges he gave me this morning, either. Might be able to cook that rabbit Kensuke caught after all.

His breath was ragged, every few minutes Shinji felt his body grow stiff despite the movement. It was getting harder to walk, harder still to think or respond. Toji's neighbors had already asked if he was feeling alright the day before. Hikari's gaze had also been growing increasingly concerned as hours rolled by and his visage worsened. After emptying the bottle and taking a few shallow breaths, he carried on.

It's fine. Today is the last day, anyways. Mr. Bunzaemon said one more delivery will see them well over the month with firewood. One more trip and you're done.

Along with the fresh air and physical exertion, the time spent alone in the small forest had worked wonders. Even as the image of the giants outside pursued his afterthoughts and dreams, reality was more palpable. People gave him ample space to heal; they were considerate and gentle and not once scowled in displeasure when he arrived. The girl with Rei's face but different eyes inquired about his pathetic efforts at work and smiled. Tsubame was beginning to recognize him, or so he liked to believe.

Shinji tripped and almost fell to the ground. The cart felt unreasonably heavy that day, and the floor was muddy and slippery after the night's rainfall. Hikari's father had also mentioned it was likely to drizzle in the afternoon, so haste was necessary to avoid getting either himself or the logs soaked.

He tried to hurry as best as he could. The last conversation with Kensuke regarding Ryoji's parentage weighed heavy on his mind; it felt strange to know such a sensitive detail that had apparently been kept secret from the boy himself. Misato had opted for complete anonymity and erasure of all ties in an effort to protect her child. She fought tirelessly against Shinji's father and had been forced to relinquish her own family to do so, it was no wonder she had been so different to him. On top of having cost Asuka her humanity, her eye and who knew what else, on top of breaking the world like an egg, he had estranged the WILLE Captain from her child.

The moment the last house came into view, thunder rumbled in the distance.

"Oh, Ikari! Thank you for the firewood, young man! Timely as always!" The burly man who had greeted him days before smiled placidly after opening the door. Despite the exhaustion, Shinji managed to smile back for the first time in three days of meeting him.

"Uhm, it's no problem really," Shinji answered while carrying the logs onto a pile next to the door. "I'm happy to help."

"Well, you've helped plenty these days." The man chuckled and shook his head. "Still don't want to try your luck with the forge? A helping hand is always welcome!"

"I don't think I'll be of much help," panted the boy in between trips. He was finally doing something and not hurting anybody along the way, getting burned or causing an injury in the man's work station still felt too possible to risk. "I'll just get in the way."

"No you won't, but it's fine. Think about it, though! It's good work, and I'll add a couple of fish as payment. Heard you're helping in the ration station in the mornings, so I'll get off your hair for the time being."

The last pieces of wood were carried off, yet before he could start walking away the man's heavy hand fell on his shoulder. "I really appreciate your help these past few days. You should get some rest, kid. You're looking a little tired."

"Right." Shinji nodded and offered a second smile, one he hoped did not feel too forced. He bowed and started walking away. "I'll be sure to do that. Thank you for the food yesterday."

"It's a pleasure. Hey, kid. Take good care of yourself, alright?" Koga watched the boy leave and spared a few glances around the housing district, surprised to see no flashes of gold-crimson or green anywhere. "Hmm, weird. Thought she'd be tagging along today, too. If she ain't around I better call Toji, something doesn't feel right."

With little more than a half-gasped affirmation, Shinji set off back to Toji's house with the cart in toll; the tool felt heavier somehow even though it was empty. By the time he reached around the clearing, his arms and leg were trembling with strain and his vision swam every few minutes. Another yawn erupted from his chest. He stopped just right outside the clearing, where two young men a bit older than him each carried a cart filled to the brim with firewood while they joked with one another.

Had Shinji been in a bit less weary condition, he could have hidden somewhere in the bushes, ignored them altogether or managed a hesitant greeting and then leave in a hurry. The overtiredness slowed his reaction time just enough for the two youngsters to spot him and wave, and once he responded with half a greeting, the teens began walking in his direction. His pulse quickened; tired as he was the idea of interacting with others was displeasing.

"Hey, you're that kid!" the smaller one mentioned with a smirk. "You know, Kota, the one who's been helping Mr. Horaki these past few days."

"Right! I've seen you move around some. Taking care of the old bat's routes, are you?" The larger one pointed at his cart, then back to the path which led to the village center. "Word around the houses is that you're trying to help a little, right? Say, wouldn't you mind giving us a hand?"

"Hey, hey, it's supposed to be our job. Come on, Kota, we just came to say hi and stuff," the boy called Kota was smacked not too kindly in the arm. "Stop being a lazy leech. Let's go."

"No, no, Satoshi. Listen, the guy wants to help in every way he can! I heard Ryoji mentioning something like that the other day after the ball game. Say… Shinji, was it?" Kota neared Shinji and motioned to both carts.

"Listen, man. We've been moving this stupid firewood all around, all over to the bathhouse so the rice workers can chill for a while. They need lots of fuel on rainy days like this, though." The boy placed a hand on his shoulder that almost made Shinji flinch. "Why don't you help us out a little today, huh? Take care of this for us, and we take Mr. Horaki's cart back. How's that sound?"

I'm really tired, he thought dispassionately. Not only was he feeling weak, he had not eaten anything since breakfast, and the clouds were shifting from gray to black; it would rain soon. I shouldn't do any more trips. Asuka told me to take better care of myself. I should go back to Toj-

"I hear that Miss Lookalike goes to the bathhouse fairly regularly," Satoshi mentioned, and scratched at his arm in apparent discomfort. "I'm sure she'd appreciate the firewood. Let's go, Koga. Time to get back to w-"

"Is this the train carriage close to the distribution center?" Shinji asked. Both youngsters quieted and exchanged glances before nodding. "Oh, I know the one." He walked over to the largest cart. "It's no problem. I'll try to help the best I can. Please be sure to tell Mr. Bunzaemon that I'll be there soon."

"Hey, there's no need to do that," the smaller one interceded and tried to stop him. "Besides, you look really tired. This is our route so don't worry about it, okay?"

He had been evading the visions of any Wanderers throughout the day, and just when the boy placed a hand on his arm the sight of one bled through his mind's eye. It was still nowhere near enough, he was doing too little. His efforts were still so insignificant that exhaustion was keeping him from providing that girl his father had raised as a slave from more normality and pleasant experiences.

"I can do it, it's fine." Before the other boy could further protest, Shinji hoisted the handles of the cart and forced his tired muscles to work overtime. The cart was both larger and heavier, plus it was almost twice the distance from his former route. There were two trips to make.

"Hey, Ikari kid! Come on, you don't need to do th-ooof."

Kota elbowed his friend on the side again for good measure and waved with enthusiasm at the Third Child. "Thank you so much, friend! You're a real life saver!" He turned to the whimpering Satoshi. "Dude, shut up! Do you want to get soaked to the bone like yesterday? Let's get this back to the Suzuharas and go home! Extra chicken soup for us!"

"You're such a lazy bastard sometimes." The smaller boy got to his feet and dusted his pants, taking hold of Toji's cart and hurrying towards the house. "Didn't you see how tired that guy looked?"

"Ah, he'll be fine. You're worrying too much. Besides, now we have an extra hour off to chill out! You know Viko ain't looking at his orange trees at this hour! Let's go get some!"

The voices faded into the distance after a few steps. Shinji chuckled, it was not as though the so-called Viko was particularly protective of the fruits. If anything, the man was happy to gift each and every one to the villagers. There was a healthy bag of oranges waiting for him in Toji's house as evidence of the man's seeming generosity.

"Just two of these… trips…" Regardless of the new route length, what would have normally bothered Shinji was walking in the middle of the village by himself. Nonetheless the exhaustion was such that he barely registered when the wagons and houses started surrounding him. "Almost there, turn a right here, two blocks and then to the right. Leave the firewood… by the door… get the second cart… no problem…"

Sweat dripped off his skin with each step. The extra weight of the cart and the muddy surface only made the task harder, yet he stubbornly moved forward. If bringing the firewood meant Rei could have a comfortable bath after a hard day's work, then fatigue was nothing but a tiny setback.

Kensuke has more than enough firewood in his house, he mused while walking. I guess I could help out by chopping the logs. That way I can cook more often. Maybe then I can ask her about the food, but I still don't get it. Is that going to happen to me, too? Am I going to stop needing food? Is that curse of Eva already doing something to me?

Shinji reached the wagon and left the firewood in a haste, suddenly embarrassed at the thought of disturbing the ladies during their bath, and left as abruptly as he arrived. It was only after the slight shot of adrenaline wore off that the tiredness settled once more, this time sinking into his very bones. Sleepless nights and hard days were forcibly making themselves known as he climbed up the last hill and retrieved the second cart.

Rain began to fall down with a final, brutal thunderclap that cut through the relative silence, and just as its echo disappeared, a curtain of heavy rain covered everything in his vicinity. "Might as well finish up the work…" Speaking was becoming difficult. A growing headache added itself to the list of discomforts running through him. "The cart is well covered… should be fine."

Shinji's shirt and pants were soaked in seconds. The water was chilly, mercilessly sending new shivers down his formerly sweaty body. He ignored the growing dizziness and set to the path. It was only a few hundred meters, after all. How difficult could it possibly be to finish this little task? The Wanderers were most certainly undeterred by rain, so was his father, and so were the villagers.

Asuka told me not to be stupid today. Wild gusts of wind sent the rain straight into his eyes and made the road that much harder to maneuver. The road was almost overflowing with mud and easily went through the boots Hikari had let him borrow; the tracksuit was also waiting for him at their living room, which only left the worn-down pants he used for work as defense against the harsh weather.

Good thing this cart's got some decent tires, they're not getting stuck in the mud at all. I can almost see the wagons already. Almost done, just a final delivery and then I can try cooking that rabbit with an orange sauce. I'm sure she'll like it, she liked that orange duck I made for a bento that day at school. Just one last trip and then I'll cook that rabbit. I bet she'll like it.

As soon as he reached the bathhouse, he set about putting the wood in its place without the logs getting overly wet. It had been a bad idea to reject Bunzaemon's offer of an umbrella; before he was done every inch of his body was dripping wet. The downpour was so heavy he doubted anyone in the bathhouse realized he was outside. Carrying the last three logs proved excruciatingly difficult, the world faded twice instead of blurring, and he had to support himself on the wagon so as not to fall flat on the ground.

The cart felt impossible to move when he next tried to push it. The wheels which had so dutifully refused to stick to the mud now worked against him, the rain froze his skin and his vision swam again. All he needed to do was take the cart back to the clearing and return to Toji's house. In between the icy rain and the headache, Shinji only took about twenty steps away from the bathhouse before his legs failed him.

Everything went black, not unlike the first time he had climbed into Unit 01 and gotten a spear through his skull. The headache also reached a similar crescendo to that occasion; he felt a giant needle press into his eyes and extend all the way to his forehead. Shinji stumbled after dropping the cart a second time; he tried to take in deep breaths and focus his vision on something close like the next wagon, to no avail. The nausea morphed into overwhelming weakness, his chest rebelled and stop taking in air, and his eyes rolled to the back of his head.

Shinji slid down the metal surface and into the ground, barely able to ensure he collapsed into a somewhat seated position before the shape of the train carriages went dark. The freezing cold of the rain, the visage of the Wanderers, the fatigue, his desire to finally ask Hikari what the nature of Asuka's relationship with Kensuke was; everything disappeared.

The last thought before the world dissolved into shadows was that he still had not received permission and therefore could not possibly die. This was but a small power nap, he would rest his eyes for a few minutes, just a little while.

It's just a little nap. Just a little… nap…

Half an hour later Rei spotted something strange on her way back. A large cart laying amidst the path arose her curiosity at first, and the heavy footsteps in the mud led her to Shinji's prone form, half covered in mud already, breathing shallowly and continuously shaking under the rain. At a loss of what to do, she altered the other rice workers and together, they hoisted the unconscious Third Child and got him into the warmth of the wagon. Rei was asked to alert Hikari and Toji of the boy's situation, but in a strange, impulsive act of rebelliousness, she chose to stay by his side and have someone else inform the Suzuharas.

It was not until she was reassured that Shinji was in no immediate danger, and after seeing him come to as they helped him into the warm bath, that she felt the rock constricting her breathing be lifted from her chest. Some time passed; she was unaware how long, focused on the boy's skin color and how it went back to normal. At some point the man with the glasses arrived to take him away, looking concerned and more than a bit disheveled. The downpour continued well into the night, only worsening as hours went by.

It might have been a trick of her mind, but for a second she saw the shadow of the Second Child disappear behind the passenger door.

Something was amiss.

The idiot normally arrived just after sundown, choosing to use her path to avoid been seen by people on his way back to the house. For the past three days the routine had been solid enough; after being shown the trail by Toji after the second day's work, the entire trip had gained a full extra fifteen minutes.

One hour; Shinji was already late by more than one hour. It had begun to rain quite heavily some minutes before, making Asuka's brow furrow in more displeasure. Perhaps the brat had been caught unawares by the rain and was waiting it out somewhere; the most likely scenario was that the day's work had been cleared earlier than before, and he simply was with Hikari's family, eating and exchanging lovingly shy glances with the Ayanami clone.

Having observed Shinji for days now, the signs of some level of improvement were impossible to miss. He responded to speech concisely and understood what was said to him, instead of nodding robotically and performing whatever command was given. His movements had been getting lethargic, however. If her nightly visits to 'get water' had proven anything, it was that Shinji slept three to four hours a day at best, and spent the rest of the night reading, translating or simply listening to music.

Shinji would rise out of bed nearly at the same time as Kensuke, cook whatever was available, prepare a bento to be left on the table every single day, and left to work in the village during the morning. The boy's change in attitude was not strange nor unexpected; he was doing everything possible to work and not think, trying to make a tiny difference however possible.

And he's freaking neglecting his health again, the idiot. Eating less, not sleeping. I told Kenken letting the brat see the Wanderers wasn't a great idea. It was just a matter of time though.

The Wonderswan game ran at its fastest speed, yet the thoughts would not fade despite Asuka's best efforts to focus all her attention on it.

I should've… should've what? Kept tabs on him today, as well? She glared at the handheld and relented. The device was left by the bed, as it had been for the past few days as well. I knew something was going to happen today. There was something different in the way he was talking. Sluggish, almost drunk. Too many sleepiness nights right after getting cured of an infection. Idiot brat, here I am thinking he'll actually grow up some, and then this crap happens.

Nothing but the nasty storm going outside could be heard in the house. He was already late by more than an hour and a half. Asuka rose from bed and put on her plugsuit in a rush, then grabbed both the military jacked and the one she had given Shinji. "Where are you going?" she hissed to herself, pacing through the small living room. "What are you doing? You're gonna risk being seen again, gonna get soaked to the bone just because your prisoner's being a childish idiot? What? What are you going to do?"

She sat back on a chair and tried to keep her eye away from both the SDAT and the dictionary. The day before, curiosity had finally won over and the last three tracks had bounced off her ears. He had thanked her again that same morning; an extra set of batteries 'magically' appeared on his blankets after he showered.

Her emotions had shifted from wrath to apathy, and now the strange unease came more frequently than ever before. Some unspoken magnetism forced her legs forward every afternoon and led her to the clearing where the firewood was stored and collected. It felt strangely gratifying to see the idiot try his hardest. It was endearing to a degree, seeing him smile uncomfortably when Toji's neighbors thanked him or invited him over for meals.

The unease boiled and spread all over her chest. Something's wrong.

The moment she rose from the chair the sound of a car's brakes halting outside drew Asuka's attention to the door. Kensuke burst in, drenched and eyes frantic, then dashed straight to where Shinji slept and yanked a blanked away.

"Shinji collapsed in the village," he answered before she could ask the question. "He was delivering firewood to the bathhouse, some guys convinced him to take their delivery routes and he got caught up in the rain. I talked to Toji, he says he'll be fine, he's just exhausted and needs rest. Damn guy, told him to take it easy and he overworks himself into exhaustion. Shikinami, have you seen the j-"

"I've got the damn jacket. Get the car going, I'll pick up the other towel. Perfect, like a little hypothermia isn't just what I needed." The red garment was held angrily in Asuka's grip. After a second's hesitation, she picked up the hat as well. "Gotta keep the brat's head warm or his weak little body will get sick all over again."

"I'll be back in a few." Kensuke darted off to the car, but stopped in his tracks when he saw Asuka exit the house before him. "Wait, what are you doing? He's being held in the village right now, practically in the middle of it."

"So what? He's my prisoner. Hurry the hell up! It's raining!" Asuka offered no further explanation and headed for the vehicle.

"Don't you think that's a bad idea? I mean, you know what the vill-"

Her covered eye glistened blue when Asuka turned to glare at him. "I said hurry up! Act now, talk later!" She almost unhinged the passenger door while opening it, and shut with a resounding thud.

Right after changing his own jacket for a drier one, Kensuke followed suit and stepped on the gas pedal.

"Stupid brat." The Major punched the door with enough force to hear some of the plastic crack. "There he goes, being an idiot. Can't even perform the simple task of taking care of his damn self."

"Don't you think you're being a little too hard on him?" Kensuke rebuked. Tension was palpable in the car; he was visibly concerned and she was seething in rage. "He's been helping out as best he can, even cooking early in the mornings. And not just for them, for you and me as well. Have you been throwing those bentos out the window? Sure as hell doesn't look like it."

"Letting him take over those firewood routes was stupid." Asuka glared at the road, arms crossed, and carried on with a biting undertone. "Told you he was weak. This was nothing but a matter of time."

"I know, I know, this was stupid. I just thought it'd be good for him to spend some time by himself, and interact with people on his own terms." Kensuke's eyes drifted to the fishing rods sitting in the back seat before refocusing on the road. The rain kept worsening. "I was just telling him about the spot by the ruins this morning. Damn it." He punched his right leg. "Mr. Bunzaemon told me it was going to rain and that the day's work was light. Goddamn it."

"Yeah, and still you let him do as he pleases like a spoiled child and are then surprised when he trips and scratches his knee. Tch," Asuka retorted, sarcasm dancing off her tongue. Her eye narrowed at the window. "At least the pampered little boy has the entire village to cater to his recovery. How nice."

"You know as well as I do that being in the village at all is painful for Shinji. Stop being so hard on him," Kensuke said with more firmness. "You don't even mean it, so don't bother. If berating him while he's unconscious is what you wanted to do, you could've just waited in the house until I came back."

Her features darkened under an intense frown. "Don't tell me what to do, Kenken. As I said, the brat is my prisoner. I'm just making sure WILLE's cargo hasn't been damaged."

"That's also probably why you follow him while he does the firewood routes, isn't it?" With that last biting question, silence descended inside the car until they reached the village.

Asuka's molars ground under the strain of her clenched jaw. Kensuke's tone had not even been accusatory, simply inquisitive and strained. She had failed to find an answer to that question for days.

They reached the village quickly with the man's almost frantic driving. Kensuke went to retrieve the Third Child, who to her surprise walked alongside him instead of needing to be carried. He looked more than exhausted but otherwise in good condition; Toji's old track suit was already on him, and the wounded wrist seemed to have been wrapped in fresh gauze. The boy stumbled twice on his way to the car, supported mainly by Kensuke, and once they were close enough to the door, Asuka glared down at the red jacket in her lap.

Great, I brought this thing for nothing. And the brat is conscious. What a waste of time. Ignore the looks, ignore the Lilim, open the door, pull back the seat and let Kensuke put this idiot in the back.

No sooner than Shinji was placed inside, she tugged the hat onto his head and stubbornly went back to her seat, ignoring his slurred words of gratitude. The moment his head hit the window she watched his lids close and breathing become deep. He was out cold before she closed the door.

"The Ayanami girl found him," Kensuke said once the car started moving and he ensured the boy was indeed unconscious. "They think he might've been lying there for a good twenty minutes. It was raining so hard that everybody stayed indoors. We're lucky she's staying with Toji, otherwise she might not have seen him."

"Shocker, that the Ayanami series would follow the Third. It's almost as if they're wired for it," Asuka snapped. Her eye wandered over the back window, where the faint glimmer of the blue roundel caught her attention. "He goes from one extreme to the other. From doing nothing at almost to drowning in mud and rainwater, and all for what? Now we need some damn soup, blankets, more hot water, firewood, and all so the little brat doesn't catch another cold." Her index finger tapped the door incessantly. "He's just being a pain, even if says he's trying. Stupid brat."

Kensuke offered a weary smile. "You don't need to do any of that. Shinji was well enough to dress by himself by the time I got in there. If anything, I can make that soup, and we have those oranges Viko gave him this morning. All we have to do is make sure he doesn't catch a cold tonight and it'll all be okay."

Asuka said nothing and chose to glare out the window. Aside from placing the dumb little cap on the captive's head, she had basically done little else than grumble through the entire ordeal. Why had she jumped in the damn car at all? Why had she taken the jacket along, knowing the brat was sporting the tracksuit instead?

The road back was slower due to the rainfall; the car had trouble climbing up the hill with so much loose dirt around, which only made the silence feel that much more uncomfortable. Shinji was shaken awake by Kensuke once they reached the house, and managed to stagger into the living room and lay on the blankets, body occasionally rocking with a fleeting shudder.

"I have to go back to the village for a moment, there's some kind of short circuit in the main district. Should be easy enough to fix." Kensuke placed the bag of oranges next to the small sink and stole one for himself. "I'll make some soup the moment I get back." He knelt next to Shinji and placed a hand on his shoulder. "How do you feel, Ikari? You gave us a little scare there."

"I'm fine," Shinji rasped back with a faint cough. "Sorry for worrying you. I thought I'd be able to… take back the cart… before it rained." He yawned and rubbed at his eyes, shaking his head in an attempt to remain conscious. "I didn't mean to cause any trouble."

"It's fine, I was going to the village anyway. Just make sure you get some rest, alright?"

Shinji tried to rise from bed and was pushed back to the blankets. "The rabbit," he panted. "I think I read about… a recipe with an orange sauce. The lady at the ration center gave me that butter yesterday. I bet I can make so-"

"You can go ahead and cook whatever you want tomorrow," Kensuke interceded as he got to his feet. "Just focus on getting some rest today. Leave the cooking to me for a change, okay?"

Whatever Shinji mumbled back fell on deaf ears. Kensuke disappeared outside and Asuka was once again left alone in the house with a brat barely able to talk or feed himself. She saw him tremble, surprised to see his gaze drift to the jacket held in her hand before going back to the blankets.

"What?" she demanded with the now usual frown. He shivered again and spared her jacket another fleeting glance. "If you want it because it's warmer than the stupid tracksuit, you can just say so, you know."

She did not wait for an answer, choosing instead to throw the jacket at his face. He wasted little time in putting it on; once he zipped it up and fell back in the wall he looked more comfortable and less likely to shiver every three seconds. From her perch by the sink she heard him rub his hands together, and a sidelong glance ensured he wasn't nodding off every other minute. The cumulative fatigue had taken its toll at the least opportune moment.

"You're not making this any easier on any of us with this newfound attitude," Asuka took three oranges and sliced them in half. Squeezing them dry helped calm the unease in her stomach to an extent. "Going from catatonic to a work horse, and then to catatonic again. What's the point of trying if you can't even stand up? God, you're such an idiot."

She pushed the glass of freshly pressed juice into his chest, not bothering to notice how she had called him by the old pet name. "Drink. I'll pour it down your throat if you don't do it yourself, and you know I will."

A pair of shaky hands grabbed the glass; Asuka noticed how cold his skin was when their fingers brushed against each other, perceptible even through the plugsuit. Drained as he was, Shinji was far from the emaciated and pale state he had arrived at the village in. He looked drained to an extent, with dark lines under his lids but nothing more. His eyes were alive, if tired and unfocused at the moment.

"You were a fool to take those carts," Asuka remarked and headed for the kitchen. The jacket and cap worked well enough; he had stopped shaking and looked less likely to fall flat on his face at any second. "Should've stuck to the route that old toad gave you. Now look at you, a shivering mess, and weak as a newborn. Everything's a problem with you."

Third shelf to the right, that's where he stored the last of those soup packets Suzuhara gave him. Little bit of water and some of that ginger he brought back should be enough. However biting her words were, Asuka occupied herself with preparing something warm for him with whatever gas they had left. Her eyebrow twitched when she watched Shinji reach out and touch the roundels from the corner of her eye. Just freaking take the stupid roundels if they're so fascinating to you! Jeez!

"You're so feeble," Asuka growled while the water boiled. "So mentally feeble, and now physically, as well. If that's the way things are gonna be, I don't want you piloting the Eva at all. You'll just get in the way or attack me again."

A moment of silence, and then Shinji's voice rang through the echo of rain on the roof.

"I'm sorry." The seriousness of his tone made her blink. "I didn't mean to hurt you, and," another stolen glimpse revealed he was staring at the heavy book beside him, "I understand now that what I was trying to do was… really stupid. I think I do, at least."

Once the soup was prepared, Asuka poured it into a large bowl, took a protein bar from the table and handed both to the Third Child, who took them without objection. Whatever power nap he had managed to squeeze in during the car ride had worked enough to make him somewhat lucid. "Really, now? Some big words read in a dictionary, and now you understand everything? That's gotta be a really good dictionary, then."

"Did you..." Shinji stared at the bowl of soup before him in wonder, eyes wide. "Did you cook this for me?"

"I boiled water and poured in the little packet thing Suzuhara gave you days ago. You can hardly call that cooking." The protein bar was pressed against Shinji's bandaged hand. She noticed the large amount of bandaids and small gauze pieces on his fingers. "I can't say carrying firewood is doing you any favors. Now eat, you've been in the storage house already, you know how scarce food is nowadays. Get some fuel into you and go to bed, brat."

"I didn't stop to think what repercussions my wishes would have. I was selfish, and childish," Shinji said in between slurps. Visibly famished, he cared little for how hot the soup was and drank it like water, occasionally stopping to take a bite of the protein bar. He wolfed down the food in less than five minutes, pausing only to drink from the glass of orange juice. "I was being a brat."

Something about the way he looked was oddly endearing. Whether it was the ragged hair that stuck out from under the hat, or the way his face flushed with satisfaction after emptying the bowl, or perhaps just the sheer ridiculousness of how he looked with the red jacket, black tracksuit pants and black cap... something forced the tiniest chuckle out of Asuka's chest.

"Heh." She shook her head in derision and sat by the dining room. This counted as the second time in her life she had bothered to so much as boil water for another human being. Why was it always him? "Look at you, making actual sense for once. I guess there's hope for you yet. If you're good enough to think clearly, you're good enough to understand you need to sleep. The Curse of Eva hasn't taken that from you yet. Try and appreciate it."

The whisper of Shinji's voice halted her before entering the room.

"The curry," he muttered with evident difficulty. "Was it any good? I thought it needed a little salt, and… some more ginger."

"Yeah, some more ginger would have been good. It was passable, at best."

Amidst the torrent of remorse and guilt, Shinji felt a bit of satisfaction blossom in his chest for once in a long time. Asuka had been eating the bentos.

"I see them all the time, when I fall asleep." He hugged his knees and shivered one final time for the night. "Those Wanderers. I see… shapes… in them. People. Animals. Living beings, moving along their bodies, stuck within them. Sometimes I can't go back to sleep because of that."

"Yeah," Asuka nodded without looking back. "I see them too, sometimes." The side of her face covered by the eyepatch turned to him. "Go to sleep, Shinji."

It was the second time since emerging from the entry plug that Asuka called him by his name, and probably only the second time she did so ever since they had first met. He lost the battle with drowsiness soon after, falling into a deep slumber that was not in the slightest bit disturbed when Kensuke next arrived.

Neither the Wanderers nor Kaworu's demise haunted his dreams, for once.


The following noon, Shinji stared at the object in his lap in awe and a slight sense of disappointment. "You want me to fish where?"

"Right at those ruins where Toji came to pick you up." Kensuke laughed as he drove to the village outskirts, down where the ocean water shone like a mirror from a distance. "I have it from a very trustworthy source that there's good fishing there. We're not a huge settlement, and there's a healthy commerce in between the villages. A single fish every two or three days is more than enough to fill the needed quota, and you can have as much time to yourself there as you want. Sound good?"

Gripping the rugged shaft of the fishing rod, Shinji nodded and directed his gaze to the ruins. "Yeah, I suppose. I guess I wasn't much help anyway, was I?"

"Hikari's dad is a crazy old man. He's back on his feet and promised Toji he'll be more careful. Besides, with all the deliveries you made, everybody's set for firewood for at least the next two weeks! You earned a little time off after four days of hard labor. Besides." The vehicle halted a few meters away from the remains of NERV. "You're still cooking in the main hall in the mornings, so you're helping plenty. Ryoji keeps telling me how good that curry tasted!"

Some color rose to Shinji's cheeks at the mention of the curry. Blurry as it was, the memory of Asuka admitting to having eaten the bentos felt like an incredible accomplishment. Knowing Ryoji and so many others were also enjoying whichever improvised recipes he prepared every morning was also vastly gratifying.

Once they were standing before the water, Kensuke pointed towards the penguins guiding a school of fish into shallow waters. "You know, there's a life to be had here, Ikari. We'd all be happy if you choose to take it; we'd be overjoyed to have you, no matter what you believe. Hell, even Shikinami's been eating more lately, and looks a bit more relaxed than usual."

Regardless of how reassuring the words were meant to sound, Shinji's train of thought shifted to the conversation he failed to have with Hikari. Kensuke seemed to know Asuka well; the man was comfortable enough with her presence in the house and did not look overly impressed with her general lack of clothing.

"I'm glad to hear that." Shinji fumbled with the hook, uncertain. "So, what am I supposed to do, now?"

"You just throw the line in the ocean, reel it in every few minutes, and repeat. Heard it's a great way to think, get your mind straight and everything. You get lucky, you just might catch something!" Kensuke headed for the Suzuki after showing Shinji how to handle the fishing rod a few times. "Got errands to run, Ikari! Have fun. I think that Ayanami girl knows about this place as well, so she'll probably drop by, it that's okay."

"Yeah." Shinji's gaze was already fixed on the ocean. "That's okay."

"Good to know! Remember to get back to the house before dark! See ya in a few, Ikari!"

And so Shinji was left in the peace and quiet of the ruins he had reached on his second day in the village. The very first day of his new fishing 'station' was spent hugging his knees and pondering on his own uselessness. Despite being soaked to the bone the day before, the cares of the rice workers, Rei, and Asuka had prevented any further illness from reaching him. He was perfectly fine to work, but apparently there truly was no further need for him to carry firewood, and the stations around the pillars were full.

Shinji though back on Ryoji many a time, pondering on whether or not to tell him of his mother at some point, or at least what he knew and had experienced of her. The latter experiences with her he'd surely avoid, if ever the chance to speak on the subject actually arose. His thoughts also drifted to the girl the villagers happily referred to as Miss Lookalike, and of the times he had sat across from her in Toji's house. Her sparkling gaze was lovely to behold, her inquiries about regularly used terms and overall innocence had made the entire village cherish her. He thought back on Ayanami, on the last time he saw her, and on near Third Impact.

Rei came by late in the afternoon, with rations apparently handed over by Asuka. She asked him about fishing and penguins, and queried his overall health. After a while they descended into a comfortable silence and parted ways. He managed to cook the rabbit at last that night, and while Kensuke complimented the taste and devoured his share, Asuka refused to sit by the table with them. He saved the best cuts of meat with the tastiest gravy in the bento box for the following morning before leaving for work.

On the second day one of the female workers at the main hall gifted Shinji a bundle of spices she grew in her backyard before he left for the ruins. He promised to cook a stew with them, and coincidentally that day caught his first two fish and carried the largest one back to the house. The penguins slowly grew accustomed to him, after the one he assumed to be their leader pecked him on the leg before sundown and nodded its approval. He traded the smaller fish he had caught that day for some kind of peace treaty with them, which seemed to work well enough. That night Asuka mentioned the rabbit had been a bit too oily, but otherwise acceptable.

Shinji shared the stew with the lady the following morning, and was shocked to receive more ingredients than usual, along with many a knowing smile from the crew working by the pillars. The number of lunches he was able to prepare also increased with every passing day. Sensations, tastes and smells were easy to perceive, just as the healing scab on his wrist began to itch instead of ache.

The shadow of the Wanderers never ceased to frighten Shinji, but Asuka's admittance that she saw those figures as well worked to quiet the worst of his fears at night. After more than a week, she still refused to sit with them at dinner; he always found the bento empty and washed, nonetheless. Having most of his wits back also let Shinji recognize how she wore a scarf around her neck when he was in the vicinity, and realized it was her who gave Rei the rations that served as his lunch.

It was on the fourth day, when the Ayanami lookalike left after requesting he give her a name, that he noticed a strange flash of red disappear behind a pillar. It rained that afternoon, and as he huddled under the concrete for warmth with the penguins, Shinji discovered he had yet to try and follow Kensuke's advice.

"Just talk to her," he said to the leader, who squawked at him in annoyance. "What's there to lose, anymore?"

He noticed the birds huddled together for warmth throughout the length of the rainfall. Yeah, he mused, eyes softening at the group. Memories of a particular semi-sentient pet who also chose to huddle next to its human guardian for warmth, and merrily drank beer alongside her returned. It almost looked as though they were hugging. That must feel nice.

"…but you know how Viko gets with any new findings, so he ran off before I could tell him the seed was already cracked in half. Meh, he pouted for that entire afternoon." Ryoji reeled his bait and the line back in the water. "By the way, he said to tell you that fried rice was great, and it was! Man, you have a way in the kitchen, you know."

"Uhm, thanks." Scratching at his cheek, Shinji readjusted his weight on the box he used as a seat. "It really helps that everybody keeps bringing stuff from their houses. I hope I'm not putting their nice ingredients to waste."

"Hey, not only is it ten thousand times better than these," Ryoji held a protein bar for emphasis and bit into it, "not that I'm complaining mind you, and not that these are any sort of milestone to overcome, but... hell." The other boy smiled at the fading sun.

"Viko keeps bragging about how his brother could make just about anything taste incredible, even in that red waste outside the village. One spoonful of your food, and all he talks is about how great it tastes. Makes me wonder if he was lying all these years!"

"This Viko, he's a little… odd, isn't he?" Shinji muttered while replacing the bait with a fresher piece in hopes of catching something that day. "Not like I'm one to talk, anyway."

"Oh yeah. He's not all here, you know." Shinji turned to see Ryoji tap his temple. "Nobody knows what really happened, apparently not even him. Whatever it was, though, it took away his brother. And it wasn't Third Impact if that's what you're thinking." His normally joyous eyes darkened with anguish. "It was people. Whatever happened to him, people did it."

His brow furrowed in confusion. "But he's so nice to everyone all the time."

"Yeah, that's one of the things that make him weird. He's strangely easy to talk to, isn't he? Say, Shinji. Did you ever have a friend you could just talk to, like I have Viko?"

Yes, Shinji's mind responded without a second's hesitation. Kaworu. But he's gone now. "I used to," he replied once a few moments of pregnant silence passed. "I think I'm being given a chance to have that again, though." The penguins hunted in an organized formation just meters away from them, feasting on a school of sardines. "I still don't understand why, and it's… scary to think I can lose it again."

"Yeah, Viko always says to enjoy every moment because it can be your last. And on that note, I'll go enjoy me some dinner!" Ryoji rose and collected his line with a smile. "No luck today! Man, and we caught three of them yesterday with Miss Lookalike cheering us on! Anyway, before I go, I wanted to ask you something."

Shinji blinked at the sudden change of tone in the boy's voice. "Ah, sure. What is it?"

Ryioji leaned in and whispered. "You know she's there, right? She was there yesterday, too."

The curves of his lips turned upwards; the brief flash of red and green had not been a figment of his imagination, after all. "Yeah, I know."

"So what do you want to do about that?"

"I'm not really sure," Indecision, Shinji's mind recited. A wavering between two or more possible courses of action. "I guess I'd like to talk to her. It doesn't have to be about anything important, m-maybe we don't even have to talk at all. It's just..." He looked over at the ocean, and the gentle cerulean, jade and rose hues of the setting sun. "I think it'd be nice to do this with her."

"Well, best of luck to you. I'll see you in a couple of days, Shinji! Don't be taking all the fish for yourself! Save some for the penguins!"

"Sure… I'll be sure to leave some… for the penguins." Shinji's bounty had been a whopping zero, whilst the avian inhabitants of the ruins feasted on a buffet of sardines. A burst of motion behind him alerted Shinji a few minutes after Ryoji left; he saw the now familiar flash of golden-crimson disappear behind the pillar. "Best of luck, huh."

The following afternoon, Shinji was taken off guard by Rei's absence. As the hours ticked away and he captured three decently sized fish, he thought the day would simply be another quiet one, with nothing but him and his thoughts.

Quiet footsteps disrupted the gentle sway of waves crashing against the shore; even the waddle of penguins raised their heads in unison at the coming stranger. One of the boxes lying around the area was dragged down next to his and crunched under the weight of the newcomer. A second line was thrown a few feet away from his.

"You said you wanted to talk," Asuka said, the side of her eyepatch to him. "So, talk."

To Be Continued…

Okay, so first of all a huge thank you to MisterHalt, Su_Exodus, Richitzer, Pilot_Fair, CaffeineJimmy and Asu3 for their invaluable help, feedback and time helping me imporove this chappie! Thank you so much, you legends!

Inspirational Music: Just Killing Time, The day that Heaven had Gone Away, Bridges to Cross, Stillborn – Black Label Society; Welcome Home, Hush, Alcoholin' Ass – HELLYEAH; Fruhling in Paris, Ich Tu Dir Weh – Rammstein; Pneuma, 7empest, Invincible – Tool; Stratego, The Clarivoyant, Sea of Madness, Moonchild – Iron Maiden; Beautiful World – Utada Hikaru.

AN: So! There we go! Hope this didn't suck! I know my chappies get exponentially longer as they go along, but I'll really try to keep these at a maximum of 25k. Hopefully. Yeah.

So, ahem. I suppose it's only fair I communicate this. I felt very stricken by certain parts of the final movie, and yes, I understand the message trying to be portrayed and whatnot, but it hit me hard and for more than one occasion I considered calling it quits on all my Eva fanfic writing. I went through a bit of a depressive state and truly considered 'hanging up the gloves' as it were. Thankfully, my beautiful fiancee and my mofockers in the Asushin Discord managed to get me out of the funk to write this.

I hope it's worth the read, and more than anything I hope it's a bit different than my other stories. I'm really trying to turn a new page on all things writing related, so please let me know what can be further improved, or if the pacing was weird! As always, I thank you immensely for taking the time to read this, and eagerly await any and all critiques!

Please feel free to check this story's version in the website Archive of our Own! Wonderful art has been added!

Remember to stay healthy and eat your veggies!