Obligatory Obligation

Disclaimer: I do not own Evangelion.

/\/\/\/\

The scent drew her to the kitchen. Not that she was looking for a diversion but her collection of fashion magazines was thoroughly reread again and as usual Japanese primetime television was nothing but trashy melodramas and game shows. She gave up watching the news ages ago, disgusted with the disinformation the government was peddling and the severe lack of highlights from her glorious victories in battle. Angel attacks barely earned a passing mention anymore. The populace grew inured, insulated from reality by whatever momentary distraction piqued their ephemeral interest.

Asuka entered the kitchen and was enveloped by a bouquet of luxurious dark enchantment.

"What are you doing?"

Shinji stayed behind after dinner. She assumed he was washing dishes or something. It was too easy to tune him out when he wasn't whining for attention. He was at the stove, apron smeared with streaks, tending several saucepans.

"Making chocolate," he responded.

"Why are you making chocolate?"

"Valentine's Day is this week."

"Yuh huh." She glanced at the calendar to affirm the date. Not like she'd blindly trust Shinji's word on anything. "Don't you Japanese celebrate it all weird-like? I thought only girls made chocolate." The less said about his suspect masculinity the better.

"Ms. Misato asked me to do this. She wants to hand them out at NERV."

"Then why isn't she making them?"

Shinji shrugged. "She told me she didn't know how."

Just like Katsuragi to foist menial responsibilities on an underling. And just like Shinji to blindly accept it. But what other redeeming qualities did he possess if not tedious meal preparation?

Asuka inspected the cooling racks on the counter, dotted with neatly arranged bite-sized chocolates, all sculpted to resemble half fig leaves. She plucked up one and deftly pitched it into her mouth.

"Blech. Why'd you use dark chocolate?"

"It's what Ms. Misato wanted. And it tastes better."

"Says the boy with no taste. Milk chocolate is more of a crowd pleaser. Isn't Misato handing these out to foster gratitude and increase team morale?"

"It's what she wanted," he repeated.

"And you always do what you're told." She readied for his pathetic counterattack. He calmly made chocolate. "Whatever. Don't blame me when following her every order ruins the holiday for all involved."

A sour mood fell over her and she stalked out of the kitchen to her bedroom. The sliding door refused her effort to slam it shut. Asuka dropped into bed, staring across the cluttered floor. The lingering scent of chocolate pried under her door with velvet fingertips.

/\/\/\/\

She forgot about Valentine's Day until the morning of, when, despite the rigid social norms, a heaping mound of gift wrapped chocolates waited on her school desk. Asuka looked them over, disgusted with the needy devotion of her admirers. Handwritten love notes and flowery poems rested among the pile, boys and a few girls declaring their unwavering affection for the plastic public persona she wore.

She gathered the chocolates and letters in her arms, walked to the open window and hurled them out into the courtyard below.

She returned to her empty desk and met a weary voice pleading for decorum.

"Asuka."

"Happy Valentine's to you, too, Hikari."

The class representative sighed, needing to enforce the rules despite already accepting defeat. "Do I really need to tell you throwing things out a second story window is not okay?"

"It was closer than the garbage can."

"It was littering."

"It was an act of charity. Losers who didn't receive anything can claim them as their own. Problem solved."

"So you're not going to help me pick them up."

Asuka rolled her eyes. "You're the class rep of 2-A, right? You're not the rep of the courtyard. This school has janitors. Let them earn their meager paychecks."

"But—"

"What are those?"

"Huh?" Hikari followed Asuka's jabbing finger to the basket she carried. "Oh. Uh, chocolates."

"That's a lot for one guy."

"I-It's not like that. These are obligation chocolates for everyone in class. See?"

She displayed the contents; dozens of small, lovingly crafted personalized hearts in plastic wrappers.

"Everyone, huh?" Asuka rooted through the basket. "This one's different."

Toji Suzuhara's heart was unmistakably larger than the rest, and the name's lettering was brighter and fancier.

"I, I sort of messed up on it," Hikari told her. "Um, yeah. I just used all the leftover chocolate for the last one, which happened to be Suzuhara's, and I ran out of the letter dye I had for everyone else's, and since he has a big appetite I thought it made sense, and…"

She rambled on but Asuka wasn't listening. She clawed through the chocolates, snatching one out. She unwrapped and ate it.

"Asuka!"

"Just sampling. Not bad."

"That was Ikari's," Hikari said. She was crushed. "Now I don't have enough for everyone."

"Was it?" Asuka shrugged one shoulder. "Thought it said my name."

"What am I supposed to do?"

"What's the problem? Just pass out what you have left."

"I can't exclude one person," Hikari fretted.

"Then just pass out to the girls. Crisis averted."

A litany of reflexive arguments rose to her lips. She drew a breath to voice them. She remembered who she was talking to. Hikari swallowed them all and slumped into a bow.

"Thank you for the suggestion."

Asuka accepted her personalized chocolate with a distracted thanks.

The school day passed with the expected amount of awkward confessions, unrequited crushes and vocally dejected boys lacking true love chocolate. Kensuke recorded as much as possible, admirably hiding his own misery behind the lens of his camera. Toji eyed the candies the class representative handed out to the girls, more hungry than envious. Rei ignored the day's events in favor of the view out the window.

Shinji's desk was devoid of Valentine treats. Asuka didn't think he looked disappointed, at least no more than usual. It was hard to tell sometimes. Living with him had attuned her to read sulky teenage boys, not that she needed or wanted to. But since Shinji was sulky all the time the ability was a wash. His face and body language were calmly neutral, placidly absorbing the romantic commotion around him. Even his eyes were dull.

She realized he caught her staring at him. He wore a questioning expression, waiting for her to explain what she wanted. How dare he think she wanted anything from him.

Asuka scowled and stuck her tongue out at him. He turned back around, facing the front of the class. He did not look back again.

/\/\/\/\

The front bell rang. For a long moment Asuka considered ignoring it. Dinner was pleasantly digesting and she just carved out the perfect rut in Misato's cheap living room carpet. The television droned on above her position flanked by several new magazines. It wasn't fun but it was the most she could force from her current living situation. It was also a very visible flag planted in the apartment, alerting everyone else who was in charge. Let Misato foster her delusions of parental authority, let Shinji mooch off her misguided goodwill with a few freak accidents of combat prowess, let—

The front bell rang.

"Bird," Asuka addressed Pen Pen, propped against the couch armrest. "Answer the door."

He tilted his head at her, dark bead eyes reflecting the TV.

"Go. Get the front door. Poop on their feet and make them leave."

Pen Pen looked back to the game show. Asuka hurled a pillow at him. Animal instincts dulled by years of tortuous experimentation and then relative comfort of cohabitating with Misato let it hit him squarely in the beak. The penguin fell off the couch squawking.

"Good, go. No, I said the front door. Don't you waddle into the kitchen. Don't you claw open your refrigerator. Don't you look at me like that. Don't you—"

The front bell rang.

The universe hated her. Fine. She hated it more. So she won.

"Yeah, what?" she greeted as the apartment door slid open.

"Ah, Asuka," Ritsuko said. "Good evening."

"If you say so. Misato isn't here."

"I know. Is Shinji in?"

"He's garbage."

"Excuse me?"

"He's taking out the garbage."

"Oh. Do you mind if I wait?"

"Knock yourself out."

"… Do you mind if I wait inside?" Ritsuko asked.

Asuka looked over her shoulder on her way down the front hall. "I guess not."

They entered the kitchen. Dinner's enduring aroma laced the air. Ritsuko nodded approvingly.

"Shinji's turn to cook tonight?"

"No; it was Misato's. But she conveniently had to work late."

"She does have a rather important job."

"Which takes priority over the teenagers she's tasked to provide sustenance for?" Asuka asked.

"Yes."

"You didn't have to say it." She bothered to look the doctor over. "Awfully dressed up for a house call."

"Am I?" Ritsuko wore a smug nonchalance.

Not that Asuka could accurately recall what the woman normally wore. Nothing this flattering. "Got a date or something?"

She soured.

"I'll take that as a no."

"And you?" Ritsuko asked. "Watching TV alone on Valentine's?"

She wasn't alone. That smelly bird was with her. Until she drove him into refrigerated exile with verbal and physical violence.

"It's not my fault," Asuka complained. "Mr. Kaji isn't answering his cell. Again. He's always MIA on these important holidays. And Hikari's aunt is in the hospital or something. And it's not like anyone else around here is worth spending time with."

"Well, at least you have Shinji to keep you company."

For a scientist in charge of giant biomechanical robots, Dr. Akagi was pretty stupid.

"Shinji is hardly company. He's less than a pet. He's a burden. At least Misato's bird is fairly self-sufficient. Shinji demands constant attention. It's exhausting."

"Hmm. Still, it's nice of him to stay here tonight."

Did she just imply he felt sorry for her? As if Shinji would otherwise be fending off rabidly adoring groupies with a prog knife. Then again, most of the girls she met in Japan weren't exactly rebelling against the crushing societal pressures to get hitched and pop out a few kids. They should thank her for saving their collective standards.

"Yeah, I should be grateful he cleared his busy social calendar for little old me."

"Wouldn't hurt."

Was this lady so desperate for a fight? Asuka was about to affirm that, yes, it would hurt her, emotionally, psychologically and probably physically, when Shinji's voice called out from the front hallway.

"I'm back. Did you want your dessert now or—" He stopped as he entered the kitchen to wash his hands, seeing their visitor. "Oh, Ms. Ritsuko. Sorry; Ms. Misato is still at headquarters."

"I'm here to see you."

"Huh?" Asuka blurted, more forcefully than she meant. "You weren't waiting for Misato?"

"I thought that was obvious."

Ritsuko fell silent, staring at her. It dawned on Asuka she was the third wheel. A graceful, underutilized, underappreciated third wheel, but a third wheel nonetheless. Fine. Let the flat tires run into each other.

"Don't let me interrupt your secret kitchen powwow," she grumbled, and left for the severely unprivate living room to try and find her rut in the cheap carpet.

Ritsuko watched her go, the television blaring trivia answers over her tense back. She rolled her eyes to Shinji, who waited on a razor's edge of reprieved distress.

"Wh-What can I do for you?"

"Thank you," she told him.

"Huh? For what?"

"I am positive Misato did not handcraft all of those chocolates she passed out today. I am equally positive she didn't outsource or pay to have them made. Reason dictates you produced them."

"Oh. Uh, yeah."

"Well, they went over very well. They became something of a hot commodity on base. I personally witnessed Maya stealing Lieutenant Aoba's from his work station."

Shinji looked uncomfortable. "Sorry for causing trouble."

"Don't apologize for other people's weakness." Ritsuko sighed. "Anyway, your effort won't be easily forgotten. It was quite good. Especially compared to what I'm usually subjected to on base. And from Misato."

He offered a polite half-smile, still uneasy. "I'm glad people liked them. You didn't have to come all the way here just to thank me."

"I get the feeling no one else would." She glanced past him to Asuka, doing her best not to appear like she was eavesdropping from the living room. She brushed a disobedient lock of yellow hair from her cheek. "How did your day go?"

"Okay?"

"I meant how much chocolate did you get? Can we expect a sizeable return on White Day?"

"I didn't get anything today."

Ritsuko was taken aback. For a moment she pondered the scientific impossibility of that. "I… Oh." She recovered. She fidgeted. "Well, it being Valentine's and all…"

She drew out a box jutting from her purse. She offered it to him.

"Take it," she said when he didn't make a move.

Shinji looked down at the box of chocolates in his hands. Although store-bought the brand was high-end and expensive. A velvet ribbon tied around it nestled a cat-shaped card reading "To Shinji."

"I know it's not much," Ritsuko said when he remained silent. "I'm no good in the kitchen. It's the best I could do."

He shook his head. "No, this is great. I, um, I've never received chocolates on Valentine's Day before. I'm not sure what to say." Shinji looked up at her with wide, wondering eyes. "Thank you."

She coughed, trying to hide her blush. "You're welcome. Don't eat them all at once or you'll get an upset stomach."

"Right."

He held the box delicately, like the cardboard and plastic was the finest of antiques. His mouth tugged upwards in small, quiet bewilderment. Nothing smug or proud, simply genuine awe at being given the unimaginable.

Ritsuko eyed with dismay her left hand reaching out to him. She lurched to change direction and stiffly patted him on the head twice.

"Well… Bye."

Shinji stared after her retreating form as she fumbled with her shoes and escaped the apartment. His eyes fell to the chocolates and he sat at the kitchen table. He unwrapped the box with a spiritual reverence, the rest of the world forgotten. He carefully selected one. He nibbled it. He frowned.

"Oh," he said, bothering to read the menu insert. "They're all milk chocolate."

"I suppose beggars can be choosers," Asuka said, peering over his shoulder.

Shinji snapped the box shut, leaning over it protectively. She scoffed at him.

"Calm down. I'm not going to steal any. There's probably cat hair sticking to all of them." She became amused when he didn't relent. "Geez. Are you that desperate? Is it true you really never got chocolate on Valentine's Day before?"

"You were listening to us?"

"Don't blame me for overhearing your public declaration. It was painful for me, too."

Shinji slumped. "So what if it's true? I'm not popular like you."

"At least you realize that much."

"It's different for me," he went on. "I saw you throw all that stuff out the window this morning. You're used to getting things like that."

"You make it sound positive." She recalled his thoroughly unmoved face during school. "I thought you didn't care about getting anything on Valentine's Day."

"I didn't." He glanced away. "Because I never received anything before. So I figured that was how it would always be." He held the box tenderly.

Asuka watched his face. It displayed such an earnest, straightforward joy. And it was directed at some obligation chocolates he hated given to him by an older coworker he barely interacted with. She never saw him make an expression like that before.

"Oh, God," she groaned, and stalked off to her room.

Shinji looked after her. She reappeared, marched into the kitchen, stood over him and heaved a sigh of benevolent defeat.

"Here."

He peered at what she was presenting him, then her. "Isn't this what the Class Rep handed out to the girls today?"

"Yeah."

"And it says your name."

"Yeah."

Shinji tried putting two and two together and came up with negative three. "So… Shouldn't you have it?"

Asuka breathed. In and out. She tried to relax the white-knuckled death grip of violent frustration she held the chocolate with.

"You need to take this," she bit out.

"Why?"

The dam burst. "It's to stop you from being such a loser. You can't count store-bought crap from Dr. Nicotine and Kitty Litter as your first Valentine's chocolate. That's too wretched, even for you."

"Do you not like Ms. Ritsuko?" he asked.

"That is not the point here!" She jabbed the chocolate at him. "This is a do-over for you. Be smart for once and take it."

"But—"

"I am giving you this. So take it already!"

Like retrieving bait from a hair-trigger bear trap, Shinji accepted the chocolate. He looked it over. Asuka watched him, waiting for his face to curl into a greater delight than what he displayed for Ritsuko, waiting for her win.

He looked puzzled.

"Oh, right," he suddenly said, standing up. "I never got you your dessert. Sorry."

He put down the chocolate and hurried off to a cupboard by the sink. Asuka contemplated overturning the kitchen table. Why couldn't he do what he was supposed to do?

"I still had some ingredients from the other night so I made something else," he was saying.

She squinted past him. "I'll pass on your unwanted leftovers. And I already told you dark chocolate is gross."

"It's not like that," Shinji said. "You told me you like milk chocolate. So, I wanted to make you something you'd enjoy."

He uncovered a small plate and slid it across the table to her. Asuka ran over the creation with a critical gaze. The eyes were too close together. The chin was all wrong. The color was darker than it should be. But it remained an uncannily accurate milk chocolate depiction of Unit-02's profile.

"So, what is this supposed to be? Some weird traffic signal?"

"Um, it was supposed to be Unit-02's—"

"I know what it was supposed to be." She frowned, not sure how to feel about the prospect of chewing apart her Eva's likeness, swallowing it, digesting it, and passing it. But after chucking all that chocolate out the window earlier the only sweets she had that day was what she stole from Hikari. And the needy look on Shinji's face was somehow worse than his lack of grateful elation for her gift. "Fine."

Asuka dropped into a chair. She pinched her Unit-02 at the base of its neck, warily eyed him once more, and nibbled the chin off.

"Well, it isn't terrible," she told him, striving not to inhale the rest.

Shinji smiled. It was not his timid, uncertain, hesitating expression of perpetually reined anxiety. It wasn't his socially conscious self-gratifying mask, either. This was relaxed joy. His contentment with her contentment spread over him so easily and completely she forgot why she was upset with him. All she knew that moment was the quiet true pleasure of his smile directed solely at her.

Oh, Asuka thought. I did win.

/\/\/\/\

End

Author notes: Surprise! It was WAFF all along!

I still need to improve my attempts at it. Practice makes better. Maybe.

All that catty passive-aggression between Asuka and Ritsuko put me in the mood for more. More, I say!