AN: This chapter is coming to you 3 years and 11 months ahead of schedule. You should all be proud of me. On a related note, thanks for all the kind reviews. I didn't expect that so many people would still be interested in this story. On a less related note: I'm looking for a beta reader. If you're interested read the Authors notes below for details. DO NOT ASK for the position without reading the info below.
Chapter 7: One Trick Pony
Only after opening the door to the apartment and hearing the sound of the TV did Shinji remember that Asuka existed. He was surprised that he could have ever forgotten about the beautiful girl he lived with, especially since she was probably going to kill him. When she sat up and turned around on the couch to face him, he was also surprised by her expression. She looked angry… but not furious. The difference was small, but he took it as a blessing.
Rubbing his not-yet-reinjured right arm absentmindedly he said, "I-I'm Home."
Asuka stared at him just long enough to let him know that his attempt at casualness had completely and utterly failed.
"Where the hell were you?" her tone was hard. Again, angry. Not furious.
"I was... with Kensuke and Toji."
He briefly considered stating that he'd been kidnapped, but it sounded like a lie to his own ears. Having been there, he barely believed it himself. And even though he had been forced onto the bus, it wasn't like either of them had put a gun to his head. If he had really wanted to, he could have left at any time and spared himself Asuka's ire. But he hadn't wantedthem to be upset with him either…
"I thought we agreed that we were working on the report tonight."
Shinji recalled that as well. "Yes… but..."
She stared at him with furrowed brows. "We had an agreement."
He could only lower his head.
"So you remembered our agreement, then?"
Shinji nodded again.
"And you ditched me to hang out with…them?" There was a touch of disbelief here, as if the idea was as confusing to her as it was infuriating.
"Sorry…" said Shinji. The sight of Asuka taking a large breath compelled him to cut her off before she had the chance to speak at a much louder volume. "I didn't plan it out like that… they kinda just… carried me along with them… and I told them I had things to do but they said we hadn't hung out in forever and… I didn't want to make them feel bad…"
"So it's okay to make me feel bad?"
"No!" said Shinji much louder than he intended. "I didn't want that either I just…" He wasn't sure what he was thinking. He had only known that it was easier to go with their plans than to stick to his own. He'd known that it would upset Asuka. He'd even said it. But despite that, he'd gone with his friends and he still wasn't sure why.
"God you're pathetic," said Asuka. She didn't even sound mad anymore. It was more like irritation. He was weak beyond all helping, yet in her infinite kindness she still managed to put up with him. She wasn't happy with it, but she accepted it. She was resigned to it.
"Do you have to jump through hoops every time some dumbass tells you to?
Shinji no longer felt sorry. He felt ashamed.
No. Of course not. It's only okay when I do tricks for you. Come when I'm called. Go when I'm not needed. Roll over Shinji. Whimper. Beg. Beg for scraps of kindness and never ever give them your dignity. Right, Mr. Kaji?
"Whatever," said Asuka when he would not respond. It was that same sickening tone of complete and utter dismissal.
While staring at the floor, Shinji idly wondered, did he love her now?
Five minutes ago he had been happy. Now he stood in the doorway like a scolded child. Yet he thought that even still, even now… he would never find another girl like Asuka. He wasn't worth a girl like Asuka. She was debasing herself to be with him. He knew it. She knew it. She was resigned to it.
But was he resigned to it as well?
"What do you want to be?"Mr. Kaji had asked.
Not This, He thought. Anything but this.
"They're my friends," said Shinji, still staring at the ground.
"Huh?" said Asuka. She had already returned to watching TV.
"I like hanging out with them sometimes… because they're my friends." He did not know why, but he forced himself to look up at her. To meet her eyes.
Asuka stared at him, her brows furrowed once more, but her head cocked to the side. For a moment there was silence as the two of them contemplated each other. Then abruptly Asuka shrugged.
"Okay," she said offhandedly. It was like she was talking about the weather. "I don't care who you hang out with. It's not like I'm your nanny."
Shinji continued to stare at her back in disbelief. There was something different there. Still a hint of dismissal but… there was something else as well. Like she didn't want to be angry with him or even be irritated. This whole little conversation meant little to her and somehow he'd made it into a big deal.
He suddenly felt foolish in a way that was hard to define. Like he really had jumped through a hoop, when really nothing had been required of him.
The bowing of the head, the apologies and explanations… those had all been unnecessary tricks. All he had needed to say was exactly what he'd said at the end. He was out with his friends.
Feeling an odd mixture of confusion and embarrassment, Shinji made his way to his room. He did need to get a start on his homework and he no longer wanted to stand there stupidly staring at Asuka.
Just as he reached his door Asuka said, "You could have called though. You have a phone."
For a moment Shinji froze. She was right, of course. He should have called her. It was the obvious thing to do. He opened his mouth to apologize… but suddenly that seemed like a terribly stupid idea. Why jump through hoops if no one is impressed?
"Ok," he said quietly. It sounded kind of awkward. But even as he frowned at the foreignness off it all, he knew it was right. And when he walked into his room, his head was not bowed.
It had been a while since the last angel attack and as usual everyone was a bit on edge. The angels seemed to have no set schedule in their arrival, but as a general rule they did not show up for at least a week or two after the last attack. But it had been almost three months now and people were getting antsy. The general consensus was that if weird tentacle creatures wanted to destroy the world, they might as well get it over with already.
Shinji was not of this mindset himself. Let the angels take all the time they wanted. If there were no more angel attacks during the course of his lifetime, it would still be too soon. The only downside to the lack of angels was NERV's insistence on being prepared for them. They'd subjected the pilots to so many "experimental" variations of sync tests that Shinji lost count of them all. There was the infamous naked sync test, the overnight endurance sync test, and the test where the pilots had to float upside down in the LCL. Shinji hadn't minded the one where they listened to classical music to see if it increased their scores, but he was beginning to doubt the validity of the tests when Ritsuko made them all wear "special synchronization helmets" that could only be described as cowboy hats. He sincerely hoped that Misato was joking when she said they'd be combining the hat test, with the naked test next time. Sure she was smiling when she said it, but then she had been smiling when they suggested doing both tests separately as well.
The training activities for this day were in some ways better and worse than the synchronization tests. Shinji, Asuka, and Rei were taken to a part of NERV that he had never seen before. When he asked about it, Rei told him that it was the secondary Evangelion holding cages. Indeed the massive room did look quite similar to the main cages, with one glaring difference. Each cage housed a grotesquely severed Evangelion. The head and torso hung from large cables and wires connected to the ceiling. The bottom half of each Eva was missing, save for what looked like spinal cords trailing out beneath the armor.
Shinji barely held onto his lunch.
"What are we supposed to do with that?" asked Asuka, disgust plainly written on her face.
Ritsuko smiled, "These are the simulation Eva units," she said. "You'll be training with them starting today."
"But how do we train in them?" asked Shinji turning away from the ungodly sight. "They can't move, " he shuddered involuntarily. "Can they?"
"That's why they're called simulation units," said Ritsuko.
She went on to explain how the system worked in the barest of details.
"See the wires that run from the unit's head all the way down to its spinal cord? Their purpose is to connect the simulation unit directly to the magi. The magi then generates a virtual simulation that is broadcasted directly to the unit's central nerve system. When a pilot synchronizes with the unit they experience the virtual simulation as if they were actually inside a moving Eva unit. I'm sure you all agree that it's quite the marvel of modern technology."
Ritsuko clearly took great pride in the project.
"Why don't we just train with our real Evas?" asked Asuka. She seemed to be over her disgust. She only saw the simulation units as something grossly inferior to her Unit 02.
"Because the cost of launching a single Eva is enough to bankrupt a small government," said Misato. "These units are much cheaper to operate and they'll allow us to prepare for situations that would be impossible to simulate in real life. All without risking damage to the main Eva units."
As she explained this she was all business. Sometimes it was like Misato was a different person at work. But then she looked toward the cages and made a face as if smelling something rotten. "So go suit up to the locker rooms and pick your favorite corpse."
The simulation units were identical, as far as Shinji could see. So when he exited the locker room he picked the nearest unit and hoped into the entry plug. He felt some slight apprehension as the plug slid into place. This was a normal feeling for entering an Eva, but usually he found that he calmed down after starting the synchronization process. There was always something comfortable about syncing with Unit 01, something familiar. But it was missing from his interaction with the simulation unit. In fact, it felt as if he wasn't synchronized at all.
"That's because you aren't synchronized," said Ritsuko over the intercom. "The magi is reading your motor-reflexes through your A1 connectors and relaying the information to the simulation unit. It's not as accurate as real synchronization, but the differences should be mostly negligible."
"So we're not really synchronized?" asked Shinji. "We won't feel any pain?"
Ritsuko chuckled. It was rather disconcerting. "There will be pain," she said almost cheerfully. "It was much trickier to configure sensory feedback into the system, but Maya wouldn't settle for anything less than 100 percent accuracy with the simulation."
Thanks a lot, Ms. Ibuki.
"But don't worry," she added as if she could sense his apprehension. "This pseudo-synchronization can be used by anyone, and was extensively tested on 'volunteer' staff." Shinji could hear the air quotes used on the word 'volunteer'. "It's currently set to only output pain signals at 30 percent of their original intensity."
Somehow he wasn't surprised to find that the doctor had a sadistic streak a mile wide. It seemed to suit her well.
"Why does it output pain at all!" yelled Asuka over the intercom.
Ritsuko continued to smile cheerfully. "Think of it as added incentive to do well in the simulation."
Asuka let out a string of German that probably contained more curse words than not.
"Understood," said Rei placidly. Shinji admired her ability to roll with the punches.
Misato ran through the status check with each pilot, and all three gave the all clear signal. In the control room the bridge bunnies reported that everything was green on their end as well.
"Commence the simulation," said Ritsuko.
One moment Shinji was staring at a blank screen, the next he was in the center of Tokyo-3, surrounded by buildings. But it didn't feel as if he was looking at a screen. The vision the screen was almost secondary to the ghostly vision his eyes saw by themselves. In one sense he recognized that he was still sitting in the cockpit in NERV, but at the same time it felt as if he'd been physically transported to the middle of the city. Without any warning, he promptly threw-up.
"Oh sorry," said Ritsuko. She really did sound sorry. "I should have warned you to close your eyes. The transition can be a little jarring on startup."
Shinji found himself staring angrily at the control panel as the whirl of the LCL filters kicked in to clear out his vomit. This was not getting off to a good start.
After wiping the vomit from his mouth, Shinji composed himself enough to look around. Though he probably should have expected it, he was surprised to see the purple armor of Unit 01 when he moved his arm into his field of vision. Moving the Eva's head to look around, he saw that all the unit's limbs were intact. He could feel each movement that the Eva made almost as if he were inside the real Unit 01. There was a small difference. A kind of lagging sluggishness to his movements. There was an almost imperceptible time delay between his desire to move and the actual movements of the unit. It reminded him of how he felt when walking around in a swimming pool, though the feeling of resistance wasn't nearly as strong.
Asuka and Rei, stood nearby adjusting to their units as well. It wasn't long before Misato spoke up over the intercom and asked them all to go through some of the standard movement tests. This resulted in a groan from Asuka. Shinji understood how she felt. The tests were pretty tedious. The three pilots spent several minutes working their simulated Eva's through such daunting tasks as touching their toes, walking in small circles, and doing jumping jacks. Luckily, the tests were cut off much shorter than normal. Ritsuko seemed relatively satisfied that all the units were behaving as was expected.
"Let's move on to the main event," said Ritsuko. "Would you do the honors, Misato."
"Of course," said Misato. "Today you'll be participating a series of one on one battles to assess your strengths and weaknesses. Each of you will have all the recourses available to you that you would have during an Angel encounter, with the exception of the advice and strategies normally supplied by myself."
Asuka mumbled something that sounded a lot like "good riddance".
"I heard that!" said Misato. "As I was saying, the goal of each battle is to incapacitate your opponent while receiving as little damage to yourself as possible. There are no rules of restriction and each battle will be untimed. Questions?"
"What will we be fighting against?" asked Rei.
"Good question," said Ritsuko. "We are currently developing opponents with strong enough artificial intelegence to simulate a real angel attack. But at present the only complete physical models available to us are the Eva units themselves."
"We have to fight each other?" asked Shinji in surprise.
Ritsuko seemed to enjoy this response. "Is there any better way to simulate battle with intelligent life forms than fighting each other?"
Shinji wasn't sure, but he thought there might be a jab at their intelligence hidden in there somewhere. He decided to let it go. He was too worried about the prospect of a no-holds-bared contest with two of the only girls he ever regularly talked with. For one thing, he wasn't sure that he could win. Asuka especially was out of his league when it came to any sort of form when fighting and he'd personally seen Rei withstand a continuous cannon blast of energy without flinching. Even if he did win, what good would it do him anyways? If he tried to brag to anyone, no one would be impressed by him beating up on girls. He had never hit a girl before and he wasn't exactly looking to start now. But maybe it didn't count if he was hitting them in a giant robot instead? He wasn't sure if chivalry made allowances for such outlandish circumstances.
Unfortunately, before Shinji could consult 'The Great Big Book of Gentlemanly Things', he was called by Misato to participate in the first match. He was neither relieved or further dismayed to find that Rei would be his first opponent. He doubted it would make much of a difference.
Without warning, Asuka's Eva unit suddenly disappeared. Only the digital copies of Unit 00 and Unit 01 were left standing in the middle of Virtual Tokyo-3. Shinji tried to calm himself as he stared at his opponent.
She's not a girl, she's a robot... She's not a girl, she's a robot…
The words "Round One!" appeared in the center of his screen in bright red letters and disappeared quickly. And just as suddenly the word "Fight!" appeared and the battle begun.
Shinji hadn't actually thought of a strategy, aside from trying to simultaneously convince himself that it was okay to hurt Rei and trying to figure out how to hurt her as little as possible. He barely had time to move before Rei equipped herself with a progressive knife and charged.
A wave of panic hit him as he franticly unsheathed his own progressive knife and tried to take up a defensive position. He was thrown even more off guard when Unit 00 seemed to completely ignore him and bypass him in its charge. She slashed her progressive knife downwards once and ran right past him into the distance.
Shinji stared at her retreating back for a moment in complete and utter confusion. A five minute countdown timer instantly popped up in the corner of his monitor.
"But I thought there was no time limit," he said.
"There isn't," said Misato. She seemed to be barely containing laughter.
"Look down you idiot!" yelled Asuka.
"No helping," said Misato, but she still sounded more amused than anything.
Shinji lowered his gaze, then abruptly brought the palm of Unit 01's hand to its face. His umbilical cord had been cut. He had less than five minutes before he ran out of power.
The rest of the match was an embarrassing affair. He vainly tried to seek out a replacement umbilical cord, only to find that Rei was systematically destroying all the towers with extra power supplies. He soon realized that the only way he could win the match was by confronting Rei directly. If the speed at which she fled from him was any indication, Rei seemed to realize this too. By the time he caught up with her, Unit 01 had completely consumed its power reserves and Rei was declared the victor.
Shinji barely had to time to reflect on his defeat before he found himself in a peculiar situation.
Suddenly, virtual Tokyo-3 vanished before his eyes… only it didn't. He could still see the city and Rei's Eva through the monitor of his cockpit, but he no longer felt as if he was there. There was no wind blowing on his… (Skin? Armor?)… exterior. And even though he was sitting in the entry plug it felt as if his legs had been take out from under him. When he tried to bring Unit 01's hand up to his eyes for inspection, he realized that the unit wasn't even there. He could feel nothing of the Eva. It was as if he was looking at a video of Tokyo-3 being recorded by a floating camera. A floating camera he could control.
After fighting back a (thankfully) much smaller wave of nausea, he was somewhat amused by the novelty of it all. He zoomed the camera around Unit 00 and the newly visible Unit 02 preparing for battle.
"The next match is between Asuka and Rei," said Misato. "Let's try to make this one a little less one-sided, shall we?"
The rank stench of failure came rushing back to Shinji's nostrils. Even if he could momentarily forget how much he sucked, others sure didn't.
"I don't think it'll be too hard to out-perform that," said Asuka. "Don't get cocky, First. You're fighting a real pilot now." Shinji didn't like the implications of that statement, but he kept quiet.
Unit 00 nodded.
He somehow wasn't surprised that Rei hadn't stuck up for him either.
"Round 1" flashed on the screen, and Shinji wondered why it said round 1 when there wasn't a round 2. "Fight!"
Shinji was surprised when Rei didn't immediately run after Unit 02's umbilical cord. It had been so effective before, that he expected her to use it again. Unit 00 back-peddled away from Asuka's Eva as quickly as it could.
"Major, where is the nearest rifle," came Rei's soft reply over the radio. Shinji felt even stupider than before as Misato quickly gave her the coordinates. He had thought Rei's encyclopedia knowledge of where the nearest power stations were was amazing. He hadn't realized they were allowed to call in for support.
Unit 00 dashed toward the location Misato had specified. Asuka gave chase, only stopping momentarily to equip herself with a long-handled Smash Hawk Axe. There was only 10 city blocks between them (about 8 steps for an Eva) but the distance was great enough to give Rei the advantage. She thumbed the safety on her rifle and let bullets fly.
Asuka seemed to be almost unaware that she was under fire. She continued to rush at Rei, her AT-field seemed to solidify as it deflected each man-sized bullet. Sparks flew with every burst of gunfire, and Unit 02's AT-field flickered and faded steadily under the assault. But Asuka was in range of Unit 00 much faster than Rei seemed to have anticipated. She barely had time to raise her rifle in defense as Asuka slashed clean through it with the Smash Hawk. In a mechanical display of dexterity, Unit 00 dropped the useless gun and withdrew her progressive knife. Asuka gracefully brought the axe to bear once more on the blue Eva. The long handle of the blade gave her a much further reach than the knife. Rei had no opening to attack. She was forced to backstep and doge Asuka's oncoming attacks.
To Shinji it seemed like a mismatched fight. There was no way Rei could win while Asuka had the axe and she only had a knife. But the girls both knew that in this situation the weapon was almost inconsequential. Rei simply wasn't good enough to fight most enemies head on and Asuka ruled close-quarter combat.
The axe swings kept coming one after another in fluid motion. There was no time to react between each swing. So Rei continued to back-step and dodge. She appeared to have no other options. Just as it seemed as if Asuka had her pinned up against a sky scrapper, Rei suddenly threw her Prog knife.
The knife landed behind Asuka and severed her umbilical cord, but Asuka paid it no heed. With her enemy unarmed and cornered, it didn't matter how much power she had left. She brought her axe down once more, expecting Rei to back into the building, using up the last of her free space. But instead Asuka found herself gasping in surprise as Rei lept forward into path of her falling Axe.
A moan of pain passed over the comm system as Unit 00's right arm was cleaved from its body. But Rei did not slow down. She passed by Unit 02 as the momentum of its swing forced it forward. With surprisingly precise movements, she pulled the progressive knife from the ground in front of her.
There was a moment that seemed to last a lifetime as both Eva's simultaneously turned to face each other. Asuka brought her axe up for another swing even as she pivoted to face the other girl. But Rei thrust out her one good arm at Unit 02's center before the Axe could drop. Asuka's already weakened AT field was easily penetrated by the knife and she let out a long yell of anguish as the knife grinded against Unit 02's Core.
The Smash Hammer fell to the ground with a loud clatter. Shinji let out a gasp of breath he hadn't realized he was holding. The comm waves were silent. The yellow glow of Unit 02's eyes winked out of existence and it moved no more.
Misato cleared her throat roughly and quietly said, "Rei is the winner of this round."
Unit 00's arm suddenly grew back into place as Rei nodded once.
The less said about the resulting battle between Asuka and Shinji, the better.
Shinji saw very clearly that Asuka was upset and wasted no time taking a defensive position. This turned out to be a very bad idea. It soon became apparent that taking a defensive position against someone as skilled as Asuka had just as much effect as kindly extending his neck out to an executioner.
But Asuka was not quite in the mood for a "swift and elegant" battle. In the moments to follow Shinji learned exactly what 30 percent of the pain of having your body dismembered slowly limb by limb felt like. As he screamed for what seemed like hours, but was probably no longer than 5 minutes, he could only marvel at the Magi's ridiculously high requirements for declaring something "incapacitated".
He thought it was relatively fair for him to think (for he had not the guts to say) that his girlfriend was quite the sore loser.
From the way Ritsuko had described the testing process for the simulation units, Shinji had assumed that employees were grabbed kicking and screaming and forced to endure hours upon hours of torturous simulated pain. Aside from the kicking and screaming part, he was actually pretty close to the truth. All the initial testers had been volunteers who understood the benefit that simulated battles would bring to Project E and humanity in general, so they sucked it up and took one for team. It had taken lots of experimentation to settle on the 30% pain threshold which both communicated the "Oh crap this hurts, I should have made better decisions!" factor of the simulations and did not leave the tester whimpering in a corner clutching at imaginary wounds. Once that perfect threshold was found, there was no limit to the number of volunteers lining up to pretend to pilot a giant freakin' robot.
As a means of ironing out the rest of the kinks in the system (and as a reward for those who initially risked pycho/neurological damage) the technical staff of NERV held a series of one-on-one battles, not unlike the ones that the pilots had participated in. There was even a leaderboard and betting pools for each match. A Vegas style odds system was set in place, with several bookies working to facilitate it. No one knew who the bookies received the odds from, and anyone who asked persistently were quickly persuaded not to do so. The popular theory was that the odds were calculated by the Magi itself, making them more or less infallible. Though some speculate this theory was spread by the bookies in order to keep betting outcomes predictable.
Shinji became personally acquainted with the betting system when he exited the dressing room that day. The many sad looks and shaking of heads, did nothing but highlight the shame he already felt. As he walked passed a group of people who had been watching from the control room monitor, the disappointment in the room was palpable.
Only Shigeru Aoba had the nerve to actually say something about it.
"I had you both matches," he said mournfully as Shinji passed him. "I backed you all the way…"
"Give him a break, Shig" said Makoto. He only looked slightly less disappointed than his friend.
"I understand losing to Asuka. She has the most training. But seriously… Rei? You were favored three-to-one, man…. Three-to-one."
"I'm sorry," said Shinji staring at anything but the desperate look in the man's eye.
"I just have to ask: Did you even try?" Shinji squirmed uncomfortably under his gaze as he waited for an answer that wouldn't come. Suddenly Shigeru winced as if in pain. "Christ! 40 thousand yen down the drain..."
Shinji flinched back as Shigeru took a step towards him.
"I-I'm sorry!" he said in near panic.
Makoto put a hand on his friends shoulder and gently pulled him away. "Leave the kid alone man. No one could lose that bad on purpose."
Any anger Shigeru might have had evaporated instantly. He slumped visibly into a sad sack of a man.
"Did you even try?" he asked again as he allowed himself to be dragged away.
Shinji couldn't leave the control room fast enough. In fact, he couldn't leave the control room at all. He had to wait for debriefing. The non-necessary staff filed out of the room. Misato cleared her throats and addressed the three pilots.
"First of all, this exercise was for the purpose of combat assessment. There were no winners or losers today, just successful tactics," she spared a glance towards Rei. "And unsuccessful tactics," she added looking squarely at Shinji. The floor became very interesting again.
"Rei, you did a splendid job today. In your first fight, you exploited a known enemy weakness: the Eva's limited power supply. In your second battle, you attempted to avoid close combat, knowing that it was your enemy's greatest strength. When this failed, you adapted your tactics to catch your enemy unawares. Overall, you were tactically the best fighter."
It was interesting to note that Asuka's face turned a unique shade of angry red at this statement.
"But don't let this go to your head," Misato chided. Shinji would have laughed at the idea of Rei being even remotely egotistical, but he was much too busy feeling sorry for himself. "In a real angel battle you will not have extensive information on your enemies' capabilities and will not always be able to rely on your cunning to save you."
"I will take that into consideration," said Rei, though in her head she concluded that Misato had merely stated the obvious with her advice.
"Asuka," said Misato drawing the girl's attention. "You also did very well today."
If Asuka was pleased by this praise she did a heck of a job of hiding it.
"Like Rei, you used your superior combat skills to your advantage, but you put too much stock in the predictability of your enemy. In your first fight, you would have certainly won, if you had not underestimated your opponent."
Asuka nodded tightly, with a scowl on her face.
"Your second battle, however, was flawless… though in a real battle I would expect you to spend less time crippling your opponents and more time destroying them."
Shinji shivered unconsciously.
"Shinji…" Misato closed her eyes and shook her head. "You did not show an ounce of skill, resourcefulness, or even spatial awareness. In each match you were severely outmaneuvered and outperformed. Do you have anything to say for yourself?"
Shinji did not. He did note that the scowl on Asuka's face seemed to deepen even further as Misato recounted his failures.
"Perhaps if you had taken even a little initiative, your performance could be forgiven, but you seem to lack the most basic understanding of strategy. Waiting patiently for your enemy to destroy you, is never a valid tactic. Do you understand?"
"Yes," Shinji mumbled quietly. He hated it when Misato lectured him with her "work" voice. It made his screw ups feel official.
"That being said, you still have the best overall combat record and the highest synchronization score. I expect you to do much better in the future." She eyed each of them in turn as she continued. "Overall you did well, but none of you are perfect. I expect each of you to think about your performance today and work on ways to improve. You're dismissed."
Shinji waited for Asuka at NERV's front gate as usual, but he did so with less enthusiasm than normal. Asuka was angry. He never knew what to do with her when she was upset, even if he wasn't the cause of her anger. When he saw her coming toward him, he felt himself tense. But instead of cowering and shrinking away he forced himself to smile. He doubted it was a very convincing smile, but it was the best he could do. A man should always put his best face forward… or at least that's what Mr. Kaji had said.
Asuka saw his weak smile and her eyes narrowed sharply. The corners of his lips quickly turned downward as she walked pass him without a word. Apparently his best face, wasn't good enough. But before he could think to wallow in self-pity Asuka called back to him over her shoulder.
"Are you coming or what?"
He quickly trotted to catch up to her, hoping he wouldn't provoke her further. He still kept his distance though. He held his breath unconsciously, knowing that the situation could easily blow up at a single wrong word or deed. And so they walked in silence, both of them keenly aware of the other, but neither willing to start a conversation. After a while the scowl on Asuka's face seemed to lighten and Shinji felt himself growing less and less tense as well. He took several sidelong glances to confirm that he was out of the danger-zone. She seemed to be occasionally looking at him as well.
Then abruptly Asuka let out a long sigh. "It really doesn't bother you, does it?"
He was hesitant to answer her. "What do you mean?" he asked.
She seemed less angry, sure, but Shinji knew he had to handle this with caution. All questions asked by females are traps. Or at least that's what Mr. Kaji said.
"What do you think I mean?" she asked with a hint of annoyance. "Getting your ass kicked by wonder-girl. God you're stupid sometimes."
"Why the hell aren't you mad about it?"
Shinji looked away and shrugged. "It was kind of embarrassing."
Asuka snorted. "No. It was pathetic. You completely lost to the worst pilot we have and it…." Asuka seemed to take a breath to calm herself. "It ticks me off that you don't even care about it."
"Rei's not the worse pilot…" said Shinji. He quickly realized that this was not the right approach to take.
"My God, Shinji!" she said raising her arms in exasperation. "She has the lowest sync ratio and she doesn't have a single combat kill. If she's not the worse pilot, who is?"
When she put it that way it was hard to argue, but he could never forget how far Rei had gone to protect him against the fifth angel.
"She's not that bad…"
For a second Shinji thought Asuka was going to scream at him. He was surprised when she forced herself to calm down.
"She's the weakest. She shouldn't have been able to beat you… let alone…" it was almost funny how she couldn't say it, but not really. "You should have been better. We should have been better."
Shinji thought he finally understood what Asuka was getting at. Asuka had done well in her fight. There wasn't anything he thought she could have done better. He was the one who had suffered an embarrassing defeat. She had nothing to be ashamed of. For the first time, he did feel a little angry with himself for losing. She was suffering because in her mind she grouped their performances together. He was like anchor dragging her down. He tried to cut the line by reassuring her.
"But you were good." at Asuka's disbelieving look he added, "Rei just got lucky at the end. And you beat me pretty easily too… "
He shuddered as his mind flashed through the agony of his dismemberment.
"You don't get it!" yelled Asuka stomping in front of him and cutting him off mid-stride. "Do you think I liked doing that to you?"
Shinji just stared at her. He had thought she was venting. He could think of no other reason why she would torture him that way.
"It only takes once," she said. Her voice was much more subdued. "One wrong move, one wrong decision and you're done. You're dead. And you act like it's a game. Like you don't even care! Ayanami's the slowest and the weakest and she killed us both! Do you think it's going to get easier when last time you almost didn't…"
Her voice caught in her throat. Shinji didn't know what to say. He didn't know what to do. He suddenly wished that she was angry again. There was nothing worse than watching her break down like this when he knew it was his fault.
But almost as quickly as the moment came, it was gone.
"Whatever," said Asuka. That same old dismissal. That same resignation. "If you don't care, then why should I give a damn?"
And she walked much faster than before, leaving him behind to stare at her back. For the second time in a week, he realized that he had completely misunderstood what she wanted from him. It left him feeling drained and not a little bit depressed. He tried not to wallow in these feelings as he walked home alone.
It occurred to Shinji in the days to follow that the flaws in reasoning that had lead him to be dissatisfied with his life were the exact same flaws that marred his ability as a pilot. In every battle he'd ever fought, he'd simply gone with the flow. Instead of thinking about his actions, he just followed orders and hoped for the best. And on those rare occasions when he had taken initiative, it was always an impulsive move that had just as much chance of working as it did of blowing up in his face.
The third angel used him as a punching bag before Deus ex Evangelion kicked in.
His impulsive decision to charge at the fourth angel when he should have retreated almost ended badly, as Misato made very clear to him.
He really hadn't needed to do much for the fifth. He just kind of followed orders. The same thing could be said of the sixth, the seventh, the ninth, and the tenth.
And the twelfth…
Asuka was right. He almost hadn't made it. All because he didn't bother to think about what he was doing. He either relied on other people to do his thinking for him, or he simply went with the first impulse that came into his head. Sometimes that worked… but sometimes wasn't good enough. Not when you only get one chance. Not when failure meant death.
The reality that he could die was something he'd tried to hide from. He knew that piloting the Evangelion was dangerous. That was one of the reasons he initially refused. But once he realized how much everyone was depending on him, piloting had felt less like a choice and more like an obligation. It was something he had to do and everyone expected him to do it with a smile. If he considered the risks every time he entered an entry plug, he wouldn't have been able to make himself move an inch, much less smile.
But ignoring the risks, didn't make them go away. The way Asuka had begun to act around him made that clear. She wasn't angry with him anymore, but suddenly there was a distance between them. They still walked to school together and sometimes (though seemingly less and less) they even kissed. But Shinji found that Asuka did not stay in a room very long when he was around. And sometimes when she looked at him, he felt as if she was looking right through him. It was almost as if she was trying to convince herself that he was even there. Shinji shuddered every time he thought about that look.
She thinks I'm dead, he thought one restless night while staring at the ceiling. I was lucky in the past, but how long could that really last? It's only a matter of time. The next angel will kill me. And if it doesn't the one after that will. And she knows that it's coming. She knows that one day soon I'm going to suddenly disappear. All at once. As if I was never there. So she's trying to beat me to the punch… pulling away little by little… until it's like I've already left. And then when I'm really gone… maybe it won't matter to her… maybe it won't hurt her so much to be without me…
But it was already hurting him. It hurt quite a bit to know that the one person he loved had already given up on him. If he hadn't been in so much pain, he would have probably given up on himself as well. But he knew there was no was no point wallowing in pity. It was time to make a change.
Pain, whether physical or emotional, is life's signal to you that something is wrong. Don't think Life's telling you this to be jerk. The pain is a signal that you should get off your ass and change something. Don't get me wrong though. Knowing that you're hurt doesn't tell you what to change or how to change it. And sometimes there isn't anything you can change that will make things instantly better. So I guess Life is a bit of an asshole, afterall... But the point I'm trying to make here is, if you know where the pain is coming from, you have some small idea of what you should be doing. And if you still don't know what to change, you know that you should be changing something. Even if the changes you make aren't an instant fix for your problem, you'll find that keeping busy will at least take your mine off the pain. If only for a little while.
-Excerpt from The Wise and Nobel Ramblings of Mr. Ryoji Kaji
Shinji knew why he was in pain. He was upset because he'd realized that he was likely going to die fighting giant monsters from outer space. The obvious solution to this problem was to find a way not to die. The easiest way to not die fighting giant monsters from outer space, was to not fight giant monsters from outer space. But he couldn't just stop piloting Eva because people were counting on him. And if the angels initiated 3rd impact, he'd be dead anyways, so that solution went right out of the window.
His only other option, would not be easy. He had to become good enough at fighting that he wouldn't be likely to die while doing so. The only problem was he didn't know how to become a ridiculously good fighter. If he knew that, he would already be one. That did not mean that his goal was impossible. He didn't know how to be a good fighter, but he did know people that did.
His first thought was to ask Asuka for lessons, but that idea quickly died in his head. He could barely stand to look at her, now that he knew she was quietly waiting for him to keel over. And every time she looked at him… No, he knew asking for her help with this would not be a good idea.
With that option unavailable, he went with his second choice. He would ask for help from the most ass-kickingest person that he knew. That very same week he stayed late after school. He prostrated himself to the ground and sought aid from a master who had never been defeated in single combat. A merciless warrior who won battles with cunning and guile and never gave thought to sacrifice or defeat.
"Teach me your ways," said Shinji bowing fully to the floor.
Kensuke looked down at his prostrated friend and said, "Eh… Maybe next week." Sadly, his duty lay elsewhere. He had yet to finish maxing out his characters on the beta version of Diablo 4.
Shinji left the school grounds in sour spirits. Kensuke was practically famous in the local arcades for crushing opponents and shattering high scores. He'd run plenty of kids out of quarters as he dominated machines with his deft skill and keen strategy. Contrary to NERV's technical staffs' beliefs, the Eva Simulations weren't just some big video game. Shinji understood that, but he had hoped some of the strategies from games would carry over into the real world. At least that's how it always worked out in the movies. You could always tell who the best strategist was by the way they played chess.
As he walked out of the school, he saw Rei walking a ways ahead of him and his mood only darkened. Having the best synchronization score meant nothing if he didn't know how to be a good pilot. Sure Rei was the weakest of them all in terms of pure strength, but when they fought, it was as if she was thinking three steps ahead of him at all times. He had no confidence that he could ever learn to think that way. Still he had to try. Asking Kensuke for help had been an act of desperation. He just wanted someone who could teach him to strategize. But since Kensuke was busy, there was no one left to ask… no one except for…
He could ask Rei.
Shinji almost laughed at how long it had taken the idea to occur to him. He supposed there were reasons why she hadn't been the first choice to pop into his mind. For one, she was quite withdrawn. Though the two of them got along well enough, they rarely talked much. Also he thought it might be kind of awkward to ask someone for advice on how to beat them. But he was desperate. He wasn't going to risk death because he was too afraid to ask a simple question. Somehow that didn't make it any easier.
Rei seemed not to take notice of him until he was right beside her. She acknowledged him with a brief glance and a nod without slowing her pace.
"Hi Ayanami," said Shinji.
"Hello Ikari," said Rei.
For a moment they walked on in silence. Shinji wished there were crickets.
"Well I was wondering…" if you could teach me how to kick your ass…
"Um… well what I mean is… you piloted very well in the simulation and I was wondering if maybe you could tell me how you did it?"
Rei's eyebrows furrowed as she looked over at him again.
"I do not understand the question."
"Right," said Shinji. He began to perspire. Explaining things was never his strong point. "well… you beat me… pretty badly. And I just wanted to know how you came up with the ideas you used… the… the strategy."
This time Rei raised her eyebrows. Shinji took a moment to memorize the expression on her face. He didn't think Rei was capable of expressing shock.
"Was it not your goal to lose that fight?" she asked.
"You stood still and did nothing. I assumed that you did not want to win."
He hadn't thought he'd looked that bad. He was so embarrassed he almost went along with her misunderstanding. But he knew he couldn't do that. He'd never learn that way.
"I… I just didn't know what to do," he forced out.
"You wanted to win the fight?" asked Rei. If it was anyone else, he would have thought she was rubbing it in.
"Of course I did!"
Rei shook her head slowly. "You cannot win a fight if you never attack."
"I know that…" said Shinji. This was not the kind of advice he was looking for. "I tried to chase you."
It was almost comical the way Rei cocked her head to the side.
"Did you truly intend to catch me?"
"Yes…" said Shinji hanging his head.
"Then I do not understand your actions," said Rei. "Why did you only follow behind me? If you had wanted to catch me, you should have tried to go where I was going to be, instead of moving to where my current position had been."
It all sounded so obvious when Rei said it. Of course he should have gone after a different power supply than the ones she was closest too. But even still…
"How was I supposed to know where you were going?"
"How could you not?" asked Rei. It was strange hearing that tone of disbelief in her soft voice. "I established a clear pattern. My objective of destroying the umbilical cord towers should have been obvious with marginally intelligent analyzation."
Shinji didn't know what to say. He was fairly certain that Rei Ayanami, of all people, had just called him stupid. This was a brand new low for him. He couldn't help but wallow in it.
"Hmm," said Rei seeming to think deeply on something. "Perhaps the second child was right about you all along."
"Asuka said something about me?"
Rei nodded to herself. "Yes, she was definitely correct."
Shinji didn't have the nerve to ask her again.
Once again they walked in silence, but Rei seemed almost completely lost in thought. Shinji could only assume that she was legitimately confused about their conversation. He had stumped her with his stupidity and now she was at a loss for what to do about it. He should have known it would be a mistake to let anyone know how truly hopeless he was.
When they reached the crossroads where they usually parted ways, Shinji was feeling more depressed about his inevitable death than ever. He was glad to part ways and pretend the conversation had never happened, but before he could leave Rei stopped him by placing a hand on his shoulder.
"I have something to give you," she said with quiet determination.
She didn't allow him the option to reject her offer. Without a word she turned and began to walk toward her apartment building. A small glance backwards indicated that he was supposed to follow her. They walked pass the industrial sector of Tokyo 3 listening to the sounds of construction as they grew louder and louder. It wasn't long before they were standing in front of Rei's apartment door.
Rei opened the door and stalked off into her room to retrieve whatever it was she wanted to give him. Shinji wasn't sure if he should follow her or not, so he stood awkwardly in her bedroom doorway. He was pleasantly surprised by some significant changes to the apartment. For one, there were no envelopes piled up outside the door. In fact, there was very little clutter anywhere. The dishes were clean. Her clothes were stacked and folded (though not in her dresser for some reason) and perhaps the greatest improvement was the lack of bloody bandages on the floor. It was a relief to see that Rei had learned to pick up after herself. He had been worried about the way she was living before.
"Your place looks nice like this," said Shinji. It wasn't strictly true, but it definitely looked nicer than it had before.
He saw Rei momentarily pause her search and turn to look at him. She wore a peculiar look on her face as if she were embarrassed. For a moment he almost thought she was blushing. Her reaction was both unexpected and ridiculously cute. Shinji reminded himself that he already had a girlfriend… even if she was subconsciously abandoning him to death.
Rei did not lose composure for long. "Thank you," she said softly and motioned for him to join her by her dresser. He was hesitant to enter a girl's room, but knew that she probably meant nothing by it. He couldn't think of a more straightforward and well-meaning person than Rei. Instead he let his mind wonder apprehensively on what she had in mind for this visit. After the talk they'd just had, he could not picture why she suddenly decided to give him a gift. Perhaps Rei had some sort of trophy that said "World's Worst Eva Pilot" and she was now passing the mantle onto him. Though he didn't know why she would keep such a trophy in her underwear drawer… or why she was insisting that he look inside her underwear drawer for that matter.
But when he stood beside her and looked into her dresser drawer he did not see a trophy, or even any underwear (to his relief and disappointment). Instead there were three books lined up with their spines facing upwards.
One book had a plain black hardcover with a title that read, "The Art of War by Sun Tzu". The next book was also a hardcover called "The Art of Engagement by Naomi Yamanaka". Judging by the wear and tear on the spines of the books it seemed as if they'd both been read extensively. Shinji almost made the mistake of commenting on Rei's surprising appreciation of art before she pulled out the third book and showed to him.
In contrast, this book was a bright yellow paperback with large, almost cartoonish text for its title. On the front cover there was a picture of an anime character with a sword in each hand, being shot by another anime character with a gun. The character with the gun was smiling, while the other character had large X's for eyes. It didn't take a genius to realize that he was dead.
Rei held out the book patiently for him to grab, but Shinji could not bring himself to take it.
"I believe this would be well suited toward your current level of comprehension," said Rei after noticing his hesitance.
Not for the first time, he found himself wishing that Rei had a sense of humor. Why couldn't this be a joke?
But he knew she wasn't making fun of him. Realizing that only made him feel more pathetic. Shinji sighed and took the gift from her hands. He mumbled out a weak 'thank you' and turned to leave. He couldn't help but sigh again as he stared at the title of the book in his hands.
It read: "Combat Strategy for Idiots"
AN: Now that the lame "story" is out the way we can get to what you've all been waiting for. Here's the info you (Yes you!) need to know in order to become my Beta Reader.
Read these qualifications and PM me if you are interested. If you respond via review, you're much less likely to be considered. If you don't address these qualifications in your response, you're also hurting your chances. And who would want to miss out on this fabulous opportunity?
1) Must have decently written story written and posted somewhere where I can read it. By decently written I'm not even saying you have to be as good a writer as I am (though being as good as me or better certainly wouldn't hurt your chances). I just want to see a story so that I know you have a handle on good grammar. God knows I could uses some help with that, in places.
2) Preferably you should know how to use Microsoft Word Reviewing tools. Like comments, and highlighting, and whatnot. This isn't a must, but please tell me whether you can or not.
3) You must have the ability to tell me when you don't like something I've written. Whether it's simply a matter of bad wording, or if it's an issue with the plot itself. I'm not asking you to beta read so that you can look at the story and just say "good job". I want you to tell me what you think works well and what you think works poorly. Although it's not necessary for you to find problems where you don't think they exist. Just tell me if you see an issue, no matter how big or small it is.
1) Mild gratitude
2) Acknowledgement in authors notes
3) The warm fuzzy feeling of accomplishment you get from helping to make a story less crappy for your fellow readers.
Again: If you're interested, PM me. Don't respond via review.
For all of you who could care less about this story receiving a beta reader or not, thanks for reading as always. Stay classy people.