AN: Made dis, too. I sorry if sucks.
Epilogue, part 2: Here Ever After
It's cold out today.
Shivering slightly in his seat, Shinji rewound the cassette and pressed play. It felt like the first time in over two months that he ventured alone into the city. Rei was surely either already in the waiting area, or on her own way to the prison where his father was to spend the rest of his days.
There it is. His fist clenched, features darkening with a frown when he realized that three or four passengers were pointing at him and muttering to each other. You were screaming and throwing things at me not too long ago. They were disgusted, then they were afraid. Now they pity me. Poor Shinji, mass murderer. Poor Shinji, the coward. Poor Shinji, the victim.
Aches and pains had been a part of his daily routine ever since arriving at Tokyo 3. It came as a shock when the wounds in his midsection flared for the first time in months.
"It's terrible. How many bones did she break? The poor boy, and he still stays with her..."
"Yeah. The nurse said she screamed at him every day. Forbade him to smile in her presence. I mean, how sickening is that?"
He felt the broth scorching his skin, the heel of Asuka's foot breaking his ribs. He saw her eyes, filled with wrath whenever he smiled, then overflowing with guilt and self-disgust once she came to. The train flashed out of focus and shifted into his old room. The murmuring increased.
You don't know anything. We had an arrangement by which we managed to survive, and I broke it. I've never regretted doing that, ever. So shut up about it, already.
A wave of emotions akin to those he felt when piloting simmered along with frustration. Asuka had asked him not to act upon his baser instincts. He was powerless to stop anything, just like during Third Impact or the war on the Angels.
"Some great hero she turned out to be, right? Ugh, they should throw her in jail, seriously. Isn't there anything we can do? Any way we can intervene? Maybe we can collect signatures. Is that him? Oh."
Three of his schoolmates dressed in casual ware were sitting before to him when Shinji regained control of his body. His destination was announced next, and the train came to a grinding halt. He exited the wagon without realizing when he had gotten up in the first place.
Shinji never realized the three girls had been paralyzed with fear either, nor of the murderous intent he had just displayed.
He went through the standard controls by the penitentiary's entrance on auto pilot. Some of the guards stared at him in surprise when he failed to greet them by name. Heavy metal gates closed behind him, sunlight disappeared under fluorescent bulbs, with the long hallway into the solitary confinement area stretching ahead.
"Hey, Shinji." The guard remarked once they were feet away from the cell. "Everything good?"
I need to get my head together, he thought with a hint of annoyance. "Yeah, sorry. Everything's fine, thank you for asking. I'm just… thinking."
"Your bratty, entitled little girlfriend might tell you that's bad for your health."
A small smile drew on both the guard's and Shinji's lips. The former commander and chief scientist of NERV stood with her back to them. She scribbled furiously on a notebook and occasionally added one equation or the other to one of several whiteboards in her vicinity.
"So," Shinji started after taking a seat opposed to the bulletproof glass. "Ahem, looks like you got a bigger cell."
"I did. Thank you for that, by the way." A shadow crept from behind one of the whiteboards and sprinted out of sight. "Boots seems to like the new place well enough."
"Your research is important, and it's not like I did anything to he-"
"Testifying on my ninth court hearing, getting my sentence reduced and visitation hours increased certainly does qualify as 'help'. And I am grateful, believe me."
Ritsuko took off her glasses and turned her chair to face him. Her stern gaze softened with light fondness. "It's good to see you, brat. You look healthy, if a little sleep deprived."
The plate was handed over to the guard, who reluctantly parted with the sweet-smelling dish. "It's good to see you, too. Asuka says hi."
"Does she, now?" Ritsuko wasted no time in gobbling up the meal. "This is incredible," she muttered in between bites. "I love sushi, and this stew is the stuff of dreams."
Heat rose to his face at the honest compliment. The inadequate meals he brought her seemed to brighten her confinement.
"I had some time on Friday, so I cooked ahead and let the stew rest for a night or two. I'm not allowed to cook on Saturdays."
Ritsuko half-laughed and half-gorged herself on sushi. "Banished from your beloved kitchen for a day, how will you survive? Let me guess, they say they're gonna cook something special for you," the woman devoured the last remnants of stew, "then they forget and order takeout instead."
"That's fairly accurate," Shinji retorted with a nod. "I don't mind. We watch movies on Saturday nights. I get to relax a little and not do chores, and most of the times Asuka does cook something."
"Color me unsurprised, then," said Ritsuko. She fixed him with a calculating glare. "So, what's with the rings under your eyes? Did you two break up or something?"
"Not really, but we needed some time apart," Shinji said, and frowned at the floor. "I talked to Kensuke and Toji, they're going camping tonight, so I thought I'd join. She said some time alone with Misato would do her well, too."
"Pfft, right. Because those two love spending time together." Ritsuko leaned back in her chair. "What sort of a kerfuffle did you two brats get into? Wait, no. I know. It's that nurse that went rogue, isn't it?"
The guard excused himself, shutting the heavy gate as he exited, and they were alone.
If Misato's fierce affection felt like a mother's love, Ritsuko's more detached and unswerving approach was akin to an angry aunt. She was too tired and busy to sugarcoat anything, and was keen on finding the more efficient solution with no time wasted.
"Kind of, yeah," he replied with another shrug. The scar on his side itched. "I'm sorry to bother you with these things, but," His leg moved up and down, hand clenching and unclenching. "I feel like you're one of the only people who never raised judgement on Asuka or myself. You even went out of your way to try and help us heal in our own terms. I'd like… I'd like to talk about what's been happening, if that's okay."
"I helped destroy you under your father's orders," Ritsuko replied with a note of regret. "And yet here you sit, across from me, alive and well." She clapped once to try and dispel the heavy atmosphere. "So, is the brat not taking the media backlash well?"
"That's just it." A growl escaped his throat, teeth grinding. The anger that had simmered quietly for week bubbled into the surface. "Asuka pretends it doesn't affect her, what people are saying, what that nurse said about her. Ever since that interview came out, she's been… she's… ugh."
"She's taking it."
The comment stung terribly in his chest. It left a bitter taste in his mouth.
"She's tanking all that hate and disgust and telling you, or anyone who addresses the subject, that she deserves it all, and that it's nothing." Shinji found himself gulping when her eyes narrowed at him. "Please tell me you're seeing the irony in this. For the love of any god out there, prove Asuka wrong right now."
"What irony? What are you even talking about!" Shinji almost yelled and got to his feet. "Strangers in the streets, our neighbors, our very classmates are calling her a monster! And not only is she just sitting there and taking it all, she's telling me to do nothing as well!"
"So you really don't see it. Wow." Ritsuko whistled with sarcastic amazement. "Right, so setting aside the public harassment, this is different from what you did with her abuse… how, exactly?"
Grabbing a fistful of his hair, Shinji flinched out of instinct. He half expected his ribs to flare in pain and was slightly shocked when they did not. Ritsuko remained completely unimpressed at his sudden display of rage.
"What do any of you know about her 'abuse'?" His voice rose up to an actual scream, strong enough to make the guard peek through the bars. "Nothing! None of you was there, with us, when we were trying to survive in that desolate wasteland!"
"Calm down, you gloomy brat. I'm not disagreeing with you."
"Why does she have to be like that, huh?" he demanded at last, ignoring the comment altogether. "Why does she think this is in any way comparable with what we went through?"
"Because it is."
"How is it mature to simply… sit there and let people talk trash!"
In his anger, Shinji completely missed Ritsuko's aggravated sigh. "It is mature," she retaliated tiredly. "It shows how far she's come."
"You're just siding with her! And if she's so god damn fine with it, why is she chopping trees in the mornings?"
"Oh, she is?" she asked, as though to incite more anger out of him. "Well, I'd assume-"
"Her hands are full of blisters! And I'm supposed to just sit there and let my girlfriend be insulted to my face?"
"Has someone actually walked up to you two and said something? Because I highly doubt anyone would be that stupid."
Shinji growled in annoyance and sat back down with a huff. "That's not the point! She's acting like me!"
"You really needed to vent this out, huh." She disarmed him with the same bored, deadpan stare Misato hated. "I might not be the right person for it, though. I mean, keep screaming if that makes you feel better, or do what she's doing."
"What? Let everybody walk all over her?"
"I was gonna say chop wood or hit a heavy bag, but you raise an interesting point. Which I'm not interested in discussing." Ritsuko lifted her forefinger to the air, but then shook her head and shrugged. "Shinji, be a dear and sit while I dissect your problem."
"You make it sound easy," he lamented with a pout. Spent, Shinji's head hung as he stared at his pants. "I don't even know why I'm mad, anymore."
"I do." Ritsuko drew a sphere in the next available whiteboard. "See, this is your anger. This is the part of you that's actually mad at Asuka for everything she did to you, the part you hide from her, Misato, and everyone else including yourself." She marked a tiny speck of the circle.
"This is the part that's infuriated with people talking trash about someone you evidently care very much about." The remaining circle was split in half. "And this is you feeling powerless like when you were piloting, only without the magnificent deus ex machina you used as a stress ball. Cue repressed emotions, memories and horrible flashbacks from both the war on the Angels, Third Impact, and its aftermath. Are you following?"
Shinji blinked, gulping. He nodded once. "I… think so."
"Fantastic." Ritsuko remarked drily and erased the circle. "So, we understand a very big part of this anger of yours is completely justified. You're fifteen, you're in a relationship and people are glaring at your girlfriend."
Ritsuko took a long gulp of water and produced a pack of gum. "We also understand you're not wanting to part from your own guilt, which in your mind justifies Asuka's actions and deems them… not terrible, shall we say."
The memory of his ribs breaking rarely resurfaced. There, sitting in prison before the woman who had saved his life, Shinji felt them cracking and penetrating his flesh. The broth scorched away at his skin, knuckles slashed through his cheekbone. He focused on Ritsuko's coat to keep from hallucinating.
"You're clinging onto the guilt to not let yourself feel, just like Asuka clung to anger," Ritsuko carried on, undeterred. "Isn't there the tiniest part of you that wants to ask Asuka why? Why she hurt you, abandoned you, then demeaned and abused you?"
He offered a second, almost imperceptible nod.
"You've made a breakthrough." She tore a sheet of paper into tiny pieces and threw them on the air. "Huzzah. I would imagine Asuka feels the same way. She probably asks herself every single day of her life why you're still there. Why you took all that abuse, why you don't hate her. You're both basically the same person."
"That's not true." Shinji found himself interrupting, feeling dumbfounded, angrier than before and slightly anxious. He wanted to leave, to mull over Ritsuko's explanation. "I'm nothing like her. Asuka's strong, and brave, and she's very smart and pr-"
"O-kay, sure. Listen, Shinji," Ritsuko interrupted, making his jaw snap closed with her icy tone. "I know you two think you're so very different from each other in so many ways, but you have to understand. As far as I'm concerned? You're both terrible, and identical pains in my ass." She nodded at his shocked expression, and pointed at the whiteboard. "Yeah, I can prove it mathematically. You know what? I've got some time to burn before Maya gets here, let me grab my colored markers."
A bead of sweat rolled down his brow. "I was… actually hoping to see my father today, as well," he confessed. "Maybe this can wai-"
"No no no, this has been a long time coming. Now, this blue line represents you, and this red one is the other brat…"
The guard could only shake his head and pity the poor teen.
She wanted three or four of them. Ten would do the trick and numb her up to a degree where calling Kaji sounded like a good idea. Frowning at the cup of hot cocoa, Misato slumped back on the table and let her gaze drift to the girl sitting on the balcony.
Just a little. Just a tang, a taste. One tiny, itty bitty little can as liquid courage. Not even that, half a can will suffice. Maybe a sip from Pen's can?
Asuka surely had headphones on. She surely did not catch how Misato slammed her head against the table and groaned in frustration. If she drank so much as a sip, the girl would smell it on her in seconds and refuse to speak with her. Her fingers drummed against the wood, eyes shifting to Unit 02's frame. She downed the last sip in the cup in defeat. No beer today.
I used to fight massive abominations and command a military agency. Now, I'm afraid to go talk to a freaking teenager. How the hell does Kaji make this look so easy? And why the hell did he have to go on another mission?
The apartment was quiet. A feeling of strange calmness, of forced civility kept her rooted to the chair. Something as innocuous as asking Asuka if she was okay was sure to escalate into a discussion or end up with a locked door slammed in her face.
I wonder what she's listening to, she thought, distracted. Outside of their usual banter, Asuka wasn't willing to communicate with her or anyone that wasn't Shinji or Kaji. Thinking of them increased the anxiousness. Her stomach churned at the possibility of reversing all the progress made over a simple question.
Screw it. Let's do this. Your ward is being glared down in the street like a pariah. She needs you, Katsuragi. Do something, for once.
The chair creaked entirely too loud in an otherwise silent dining room, making Pen-pen stare at her in wonder. He seemed to understand her doom was nigh, and perhaps wanted to prevent her from creating a battlefield on their otherwise perfect Sunday.
Her feet felt heavy as they carried her to the balcony. Do something, you coward. The small package of a water bottle and gauze sat exactly where Shinji had left them.
"I used to clean her wounds, and… and she'd do the same for me." Shinji's voice whispered in her mind. "Sometimes we spoke, most of the time we were just quiet."
The balcony door opened with a small hiss, yet Asuka's attention remained on whatever novel she was reading. Misato nodded to herself, collected the next available chair, and sat next to her. She poured the water on a metal bowl, and extended her hand.
Asuka paused the music player, removed the headphones and stared boringly at her. "What?"
"Your hands," she said. "Can I see them? We wouldn't want you to catch any infections now, would we?"
The scowl Asuka next displayed almost made her take a step back. "Shinji cleans my wounds. Shinji. Nobody else. Do you know why?"
Oh yeah, here it comes. Great going, Katsuragi. Just perfect. Screw it, if I have to crawl through hell to get to you, honey, I will.
Her hand still lingered in the air, undeterred. "Why?"
"Because he was there," Asuka bit back, and closed the book with a resounding thud. "Because he actually gives a damn, and knows what he's doing when cleaning some dumb blister."
"I give a damn," Misato offered, feeling small in Asuka's presence for a second. "Let me show that I do, please."
"Whatever," Asuka bit back, tone flat. "Just don't bore me with the same old bullshit subjects."
Remember what Kaji said. Calm, gentle, honest. If you lie for a second, she'll notice.
She reached for Asuka's bandaged fingers, surprised to see no resistance when she took hold of her wrist. Guiding the hand to the bowl, she froze for a second when Asuka hissed. The water stung the raw skin healing underneath.
She was being allowed. Asuka remained silent, glaring at the ground but otherwise not resisting. Misato emptied the bowl and refilled it in a rush, pulse hammering in her ears. She cleaned each blister with the utmost care, happy to see close to no infection anywhere.
"When you were screaming your lungs out," Misato uttered. "When you were crying, all those nights after the Fifteenth." The water stained with dried up blood and dirt, darkening under her gaze. "I should've done something."
Daring a sidelong glance at Asuka's face, Misato traced the faded line between Asuka's knuckles.
"I heard you cry and scream day in and day out, saw Shinji close himself off from everyone, and I gave myself all the excuses in the world to not care. You've always said I didn't care, and you've always been right. I didn't."
"No shit, Sherlock," Asuka replied sarcastically, and flinched again. "Ow. Have some god damn finesse if you're gonna do this, or don't do it at all, Katsuragi. And what the hell are you getting at with all this useless banter?"
Something about the way the words bled out of her mouth made Asuka take a sharp breath. Misato's heart constricted. She dabbed at the blisters and started bandaging each, careful not to wrap them too tightly. Counting how Asuka was still sitting there as a victory, she allowed the pain and regret to gush out.
"I'm so sorry," lamented Misato. "Can I… Can I tell you why I'm sorry?"
"Whatever, it's not like I have a choice." Asuka realized her right hand had been tended to, and wordlessly offered the left, shifting in her seat to face her. "These are mandatory sessions to ensure I don't snap back into being an abusive monster bitch."
"No, they're not." Misato rinsed off Asuka's left hand, carefully washing the knuckles which had sliced up Shinji's face, gently washing the fingers that had scratched away at her boy's eyes. "I don't want to impose. This is Sunday, it's been a tough few weeks for all of us. I can finish this up and go to my room or go out somewhere if you want the house to yourself."
"Ugh, fine." She caught the way Asuka rolled her eyes and slumped her shoulders. "Why are you sorry, then?"
"I'm sorry I can't be what you need. That I never was, not when it mattered, and not now." Her voice gained a bit of volume. "I'm sorry those girls in your school are so cruel. I'm sorry I can't put a gun to their parents' foreheads and teach them better. I really want to."
Asuka grumbled. Her eyes peeked out from the curtain of long hair to ensure the fingers were being bandaged correctly. 'Well, we're not in those shacks, anymore. I don't have my bat, you don't have your gun, the idiot doesn't have his Eva. Sucks all around."
The last blister on the left hand was carefully bandaged. Misato squeezed the hand for good measure, and wordlessly moved to the other side. Asuka stayed seated, only glancing every few minutes at her as the band aids were removed.
"Shinji realized it long ago, that they were looking at you, didn't he?" Misato ventured, receiving a slight nod. "Maybe he missed what's been happening at school because he's just estranged from all the school drama bullshit that goes on. I've heard some of the more unsavory things they're saying."
Asuka curled even tighter into herself. Her frown deepened, the strained muscles of her back and arms tensed, and her chest expanded as if readying for a massive scream or a burst of motion. Adrenaline started flooding through Misato's body.
Any time now… She'll explode. I can feel it. I can… I…
Nothing. Not a word.
Swallowing the lump of shame and self-disgust, Misato forced her body still. Asuka was still proving her wrong.
"They talk about collecting signatures, talking to the teachers, starting gossip," she carried on tersely. "Then they stuff your locker with hate-mail, and talk about how they're going to seduce Shinji, take him away from you like he's some object to be stolen."
The last patches roughened of skin were wrapped in thin gauze. Once the utensils and water were disposed of, Misato contemplated the possibility of simply leaving it at that. A tiny victory was infinitely preferable than a devastating verbal spar, or a punch in the face.
She threw caution to the wind and sat as close as humanly possible to her charge, drawing her into a one-armed hug.
Anxiousness morphed into excitement in a heartbeat when no punch or scream followed. She drew her chair even closer, and half-dragged Asuka's stiff limbs to her. No bites, no screams, not even a glare. The girl's body steadily relaxed against hers.
"Those dumb schoolmates of yours have no clue what they're talking about," Misato said. "Shinji loves you. He's not going away."
The change in Asuka's demeanor was evident; her glare finally focused on her. She stared back, letting nothing but honesty seep through her gaze. Once it was clear she wasn't being pitied, Asuka huffed and turned away.
"He left in the morning, told me to tell you not to worry," she revealed. "He's probably going on that dumb camping trip with the other stooges."
Right, onto the next part. I can't believe this is working, Misato realized. Let's do this, let's show Kaji he's not the only half-capable guardian here.
"Shinji knows you better than anyone. He knows how hard it is for you to let your guard down." Misato's hand began to undo the knots in the girl's hair as she spoke, softly massaging her scalp and running her fingers down the tresses. "Besides, he'd probably get absolutely freaked out if any of those sleazy classmates of yours ever tried anything."
"I'll rip their eyes out from their sockets and stuff them down their throats if they touch him," Asuka whispered venomously. Wrath flared off her for a second, only to be snuffed out with a sharp exhale. "But… who am I to deny him of a chance to get… get all the things that I can't give him, and that he constantly gives me?"
"I told you that you didn't deserve him," Misato commented. "Maybe I was right, maybe I was wrong. The only thing I can say for certain is… that you're giving it your absolute best to prove me wrong. And every time, I am amazed at your resilience. Shinji doesn't need some random stranger being kind to him. He wants you to be kind to him."
"He just doesn't know any better. Once he does, he'll leave, just like everyone else. And it'll be for the best."
"Are you drunk?" Ritsuko had almost smashed her head against a wall during their last meeting. "Do I have to fucking spoon-feed this to you? You know what? Fine."
Misato hugged Asuka tighter without realizing. Ritsuko's scowl was so imprinted in her memory that she never realized Asuka's arms had snaked around her frame.
"See, when the bad people constantly and systematically say the bad things, it enforces Asuka's idea that she doesn't deserve Shinji, and makes her feel like she's in her Eva, fighting against the timer. You know, like when she died? She feels that any day now, Shinji might miraculously 'come to his senses' and leave her, since abandonment is all she knows. And not to pour salt on the wound, but your blatant disinterest in her from the moment she moved in has done jack shit to help that particular fear of hers. Now, take this sheet of paper, and kindly fuck off out of my cage. Go do your job."
It was easily the most intimate moment they had shared. Somehow, she heard the dam begin to crack. A hitch, a grunt, then a shaky breath, and tears began to fall down Asuka's face. She barely sobbed, only hitched from time to time, eyes lost in the skies and the hills.
"Does he think I don't want to beat up those bastards? Of course I do!" Asuka's voice rose with every word. Her nails dug into Misato's clothes, and her body shook with repressed stress. "But I… I just can't! And if I do I'm exactly what everyone keeps saying I am…He's gonna realize that he deserves so much better than me," she uttered, trying to mask her misery with rage. "So, what's so god damn terrible about me enjoying what little time I have with him?"
"There's nothing terrible about it," Misato murmured. She kissed the girl's head. "Shinji's not going anywhere. You know that."
Asuka sniffed, untangled from her and furiously dabbed at her eyes. "I miss my mom."
Misato's heart broke.
"What would you talk to her about, if she were here?"
"I wish she could tell me what to do," Asuka lamented, and made no effort to pull away when Misato drew her in a fiercer embrace. "I wish she'd tell me if it's okay for me to feel as happy as I do, sometimes, if I'm doing something right. If I'm good enough. I wish… I wish she'd tell me if I'm a horrible person… if I'm strong l-like Shinji believes, or if it's all a lie."
The midday sun glimpsed through the clouds, almost blinding Misato. She and her own mother had never been close. Her father had abandoned his family and pursued research instead, research that eventually led to Second Impact. There was close to no personal experience she could draw from.
"And that's the point," Ritsuko had said as she pointed at the diagram. "You had a shitty childhood, she did as well. Use that. Common ground, Misato. It's not rocket science."
"I wish I could've spoken more with my father," Misato revealed at last. One curious cerulean eye stared up at her. "I wish I could've asked my mother why she was so distant. I'd like to know if they'd be disappointed in me, seeing how I blind I was to everything. Even getting revenge on the Angels was something others did for me."
She thought back on the many times she sat in an office, wondering, letting the chances slip away. Most days she found the chances slipping away. That Sunday afternoon, Asuka had allowed her to try again.
"Nothing can ever replace your mother. She protected you to the very end, and I'm absolutely certain she'd be so proud of you."
"Proud of what?" Asuka hissed. "Of being the mother of a criminal?"
"Do you think Shinji would love a criminal?" she asked instead. "Do you think he'd love a monster?"
Misato breathed in and out, waiting patiently, not pressing. So much had been achieved already, one more tiny push and perhaps she could offer some comfort once again.
"No," Asuka answered after a long, tense pause. "I don't know. Maybe."
"Stop," she ordered. Her voice turned serious. "Stop believing those insults, those lies. Just stop. You're not a monster, Asuka."
"Then why do you look at me like I'm a ticking time bomb all the time?"
Biting her lip so as not to cry or flinch away, Misato tugged a strand of hair away from Asuka's face, cupping her cheek. "Because I'm worried about you, and I want you to know it's okay to be scared, to be angry and chop logs in the morning with an axe. Even someone as strong as you can get a little scared, and if it's something you don't want to share with Shinji yet, just know that I'm here for you."
They sat together for a good while. Asuka never reciprocated, and Misato never let go. Right when the hottest hours of those cold winter days passed, Pen-Pen wadded his way between them, happy to have a day without the dog in the house.
The wall came down after the penguin began sipping on his beer.
"I might get a little scared the idiot will leave sometimes," Asuka ground out in a harsh whisper. "I don't want him to leave. I don't want to be alone again. But… that shit the girls said about us being young, about me not knowing how to be nice. It's all true. We'll break up, and I hate it. In the end, I'll be alone."
"No, you won't be," Misato responded. "I'll keep saying it until you get it through that stubborn head of yours."
"Liar," whispered Asuka. "You keep saying it, but I know the truth. He's always been the favorite."
"Maybe he was. Fat load of help I was for him, don't you think?"
Asuka chortled despite the heavy atmosphere, and she knew another victory was achieved.
"Don't take my word for it, let me prove it to you. What you're afraid of is perfectly natural, Asuka You're young, and regardless of how strong you are, you're still human. Deep down you know the two of you are probably gonna spend the rest of your lives together. You know it. And… even if you and Shinji were ever to drift apart, I'll be here for you. It's a promise."
"God, you're so annoying," Asuka stated, voice wavering at the end. She did not pull away from the embrace. They stayed there, staring at the cloudy sky as minutes ticked away. At some point, an earphone was pushed into her hand." "So annoying."
"I know," Misato acknowledged. "So are you."
"So, in conclusion. You're both equally mercurial, overly sensitive, clingy, hysterical bird brain homunculi with matching trauma, and I honestly can't tell the two of you apart half the time, because I don't go by sex, height or age. I go by amount of pain in my ass, which as stated, makes you both identical."
Rei exchanged a curious glance with Maya, who offered a nervous smile. The guard behind them coughed into his hand, shifting his weight in clear discomfort.
That was exceedingly thorough, she thought. Coherent and easy to understand, as well.
"Alright, are we clear? Do we understand the blatantly obvious similarities between you two brats now?"
"Yes," Shinji, Maya, Rei and the guard spoke at once.
"Ah, Maya, right on time like always." Ritsuko greeted them with a lopsided smile. "Rei, such a pleasant surprise to see you."
"Good day, Miss Akagi. I've attempted a vegetarian lasagna," Rei announced, and presented the small container to the guard. "Maya's assistance was essential."
"This is clearly an elaborate scheme to make me get fat, isn't it? All you brats bringing me food." Ritsuko sat back on her chair and pushed her hair back. "You didn't have to, Rei."
Rei greeted Shinji with a nod and walked closer to the glass. The new outfit felt strange on her skin, but Maya had insisted it made her look pretty. The strange fondness she saw reflected in Ritsuko's eyes validated her efforts in the kitchen.
"My first two attempts at this recipe may have been… slightly disastrous," she said. "Third time… is the charm?"
"That it is. Thank you." Ritsuko almost snatched away the Tupperware from the guard. Shinji stood from the chair and walked over to her. "And thanks for the visit, brat. Lecturing you was unnaturally pleasant. Go build a dam in the forest with your friends or whatever."
"Uhm, sure," Shinji replied with a slight bow. "Thanks… for the lecture. And for listening. I'll be back next Sunday, if that's okay."
"Sure, sure. Bring the other brat along, if Her Royal Highness can be bothered. I'd love to argue with her a bit. Now shoo, the both of you. The grown-ups have to talk."
A small giggle escaped Rei. They said their farewells to Ritsuko and Maya, and were escorted out to the adjacent prison block. The guard's former friendly disposition melted away with every step taken towards the visitation area, as though ready to face the devil himself. Shinji's hands curled into fists for a moment.
Gendo Ikari sat at a small table, hands obscuring the bottom half of his face. Both his wrists, ankles and neck were entrapped with heavy manacles. He was neither thinner nor thicker than before, his skin was the same hue, and his eyes were as cold as ever.
"Hello, father," she answered, smiling.
Gendo looked over at her brother and nodded. "Shinji. You look troubled."
"Father," Shinji responded, voice more strained than she had heard it in months. "It's nothing."
"As you will."
She felt the man's penetrating glare drink in every detail of her and Shinji's body language, disposition, and appearance. His eyes drew to her, inquisitive.
"Is Soryu back to berating or striking him, Rei?" he asked, as nonchalantly as though he were asking about the weather.
The chair clattered noisily behind Shinji after he stood, body almost shaking with anger. He slammed the table and snarled at their father. Gendo remained impassive.
"What the hell is it to you what Asuka is or isn't doing?" Shinji spat. The guards stationed at the gates shrugged in disinterest. If the boy wanted to strike his father, they would only intervene to ensure Gendo survived the assault. "Don't even speak her name."
"Your wounds have healed completely," Gendo observed with a stiff nod. "During the trials, you still required crutches. Evidently, no new injuries are ailing you. Unexpected. I had assumed you were involved in at least one altercation."
She quietly observed the exchange, eyes narrowed at both Ikari men. Her agreement with Father was simple enough. If he wished to love her as a father and receive weekly visits to oversee her growth and happiness, he had to at least pretend to care about his son once every few months.
"What, I'm supposed to fight Asuka now?" snarled Shinji. He seemed ready to jump over the table and tackle Gendo at any second.
"Not at all, I'd not expect you to defend yourself, even," Gendo easily deflected, drawing out more frustration from Shinji. "Regardless of what may occur in the sanctity of your house, I've been privy to some unsavory news circulating around the populous. The guards appear rather unable to cease their yammering on these interviews with your nurses."
"So? What does that have to do with me getting in altercations, father?" Shinji hissed.
Gendo pushed his glasses up. "As a youngster, I was involved in many street fights. As a matter of fact, it was how I got better acquainted with Fuyutsuki. I would imagine that if I was your age and, in your position, I'd not have the maturity to restrain myself. If anybody were to whisper something discourteous about your mother, I'd have likely engaged them with violence."
Realizing he was receiving the closest thing to praise their father ever displayed towards him, Shinji huffed and sat back down. He glared at the ground to his right and crossed his arms.
"Thanks," he intoned sourly. "Uhm, Rei and I brought you some food. The guards said they'll take it to your cell."
"Noted." Gendo replied. "Anything else?"
"So, are you like… okay in here and stuff?" Shinji ventured after a few seconds of stiff silence. Rei brutally suppressed the urge to laugh.
"I am as well as can be expected." The elder Ikari leaned back and nodded towards her. A slight blush crept up her cheeks. "Rei and another anonymous party have seen to it that I am not knifed in my sleep or beaten to death. The food is… inedible, for the most part."
"Uhm, good. I mean! Ah… I mean, it's not good that the food is inedible, I just meant, uhm…"
"He means that he is very pleased to see you are healthy, father," Rei intervened. Shinji instantly gave her a grateful smile. "Perhaps you have some form of advice to improve his situation? My brother is very uncomfortable with how people are reacting to these… interviews."
"Advice." Gendo's brow darkened. The very temperature of the room felt icier than the winter cold. "If they cross the line and make your partner truly uncomfortable, do not make a scene. It will please them. Patience is key in affairs like these."
"W-What kind of affairs?" Shinji asked and threw her an almost desperate glance.
"Pay attention, and do not feign idiocy," said Gendo. "Follow your target, learn what you can from it. Patterns, schedules, weaknesses. Prepare a competent enough strategy to engage and plan your evacuation logistics ahead. Aim for the throat, the chin, the genitals. Position the target in the center, then pull the switch."
"That's…uhm," Shinji rubbed at his arm, clearly looking for an evacuation route. "That sounds like terrible advice."
"Indeed," Gendo nodded, turning to her. "Is that sufficient?"
Rei's lips quirked upwards. "I believe so. Although I would have suggested some form of physical exercise instead."
"Hmm, that is also acceptable. Listen to your sister, Shinji. She is wise beyond her years."
"Sure, I… understood." Shinji rose from his seat, gave her a quick hug and straightened out his winter outfit. "It was… good to see you, father."
"It was good not to be struck in the genitals this time." Rei giggled at her father's comment. Shinji had not wasted the opportunity on the last day of the trial. "You are evidently very stressed. I've been informed of your camping excursion. Use the time wisely to ponder on what Akagi likely explained to you. Carry firewood, hike, collect water. It will clear your mind."
Shinji motioned to one of the guards and disappeared behind the gate. After the door hissed closed, the torrent of mirth she had been suppressing flowed out without reprieve. Rei shook her head and fixed the man with a playful glare.
"The very last part was actual good advice, Father. I believe we are making progress," she said. "Is it possible you are learning to care for your son?"
"Unlikely, the boy is already a stranger in my eyes. Seeing him act his age was rather pleasant, regardless."
"He is becoming more of a teenager every day, yes," Rei acknowledged, feeling slightly self-conscious. Maya had worked quite a while in her hair and attire that morning. "I am having difficulties finding the proper clothing on weekends. Maya insists that I cannot wear my uniform."
"You look absolutely stunning, daughter," Gendo said instantly. He removed his glassed for a moment. It always felt strange to see him smile. Strange, yet gratifying. "I know nothing of such matters, but it appears your new haircut suits you well."
A hand shot up to her longer bangs. "Ah. Well, it was suggested that I Iet my hair grow out more."
"You should, longer hair suits you," her father countered with ease. Instead of hiding half his face behind his hands, he lay his chin on top of them. His eyes, tired and cold, displayed a tad of warmth and affection. "We have discussed your self-perception before. And while uncommon, your physical traits do not make you unsightly. On the contrary, in fact. You are unique."
Her fingers nervously played with the longer tresses. "Is the attire…"
"Most cleverly assembled." He looked over at the guards, as though to belay an unspoken message. "Thank you for the food. If I'm to spend the rest of my days inside this hole, these meals certainly make it somewhat endurable."
She gripped at the fabric of her new pants. "I am… pleased to know the food I've prepared is acceptable."
"More than acceptable, you have picked up the culinary arts rather quickly," Gendo complimented. "I assume your brother is of great assistance in that department."
"He is patient, but is not the greatest instructor," Rei revealed, smiling. Father had complimented her food and choice of attire. It made her feel human, young. "I have resorted to online tutorials and cookbooks to develop my own recipes."
Part of her arrangement to cooperate with the prosecution had been for her father to not be harassed or mistreated. The first time she had brought food for him, the guards had eaten it before him while laughing. It had come as a surprise even to the former commander that Shinji had been almost as incensed as her.
Even if Shinji did not much care if his father dropped dead, he was not going to stand for the meals his sister prepared being stolen. Family, she mused. How gratifying.
"Last week we spoke of the stares being addressed your way, and the detonation of Unit 00," her father commented after a few minutes of comfortable silence. "You seem in better mastery of yourself. Has the uncertainty decreased? And the stares, I'd like a report on those."
The dog's behavior had been the first evidence of her change. Before the detonation, Kitsune always walked beside her, and would encircle her when they sat on parks and stare suspiciously at strangers. Lately, he wandered off more often, seemingly aware that she felt less out of place.
"I am feeling much better, thank you," she started, mulling over to best express her recent mood. "Eagerness… and doubt are mingling together more often. I have started listening to different genres of music, and Maya has provided books. Novels, for the most part."
"Anything that has sparked your interest thus far?" Gendo inquired with a note of interest. His voice was a tad milder, not the usual cold grunt he'd display around anyone else.
Slamming her fists against the Second's face and anatomy flashed through Rei's mind. "Sparring with Soryu is a hobby I've learned to look forward to," she mentioned. Her father chuckled. "I enjoy classical music at times, but I must admit… certain more aggressive genres are quite fascinating. I'm currently going through one of Faulkner's books. It is acceptable."
"Faulkner," repeated Gendo, placing the glasses back in his face. "Be sure to add Hemingway to the list. His work is most renowned in the west, though a tad too pessimistic for my taste. However, I'd love to hear your thoughts on it."
"Noted." Gendo's smirk widened alongside with her. Indeed, they were father and daughter. "And the stares…"
"Yes?" Her father leaned in a few millimeters, gaze becoming intense.
"There has been a rather obvious decrease of… unpleasant attention from the public as of late," Rei mentioned, and recalled how most strangers would now go out of their way to smile at her. "Perhaps due to it being focused on the Second Child ever since those interviews were televised."
"An expected after-effect, given the circumstances," Gendo replied with a stiff nod. "It pleases me to know you are feeling more integrated in modern society. It will do wonders for your emotional growth."
Heat rose to her cheeks when she thought of several young men, her schoolmates and Kensuke included, occasionally staring at her. Rei's tongue suddenly felt heavy and uncooperative. How was she to explain the newfound form of attention was not at all unpleasant?
"There has been another… development," she all but whispered, looking down at her shoes.
"Which would be?"
Dark irises shining under the blue light, intense and penetrating, akin to the gaze of a starved wild animal.
She fidgeted. Discomfort and embarrassment, two also very new emotions, flooded her senses. "Boys."
The chair creaked as it was dragged through the metal floor, and the manacles rattled for the first time in her visit. Gendo leaned in.
"Tell me everything."
He never saw it.
The root was hidden away under rotten leaves and dirty snow. neither did he realize how quickly he was marching, an armful of branches dangling under his tight grip. The would-be firewood spread all over the ground, possibly ruined as it sank into the slush of wet, half-frozen dirt.
His shinbone burned with searing pain, and although his palms were covered by thick gloves, small rocks had somehow embedded themselves in his skin. When he tried to get up, Shinji tripped on wet snow and fell on his back.
"God damn it!" he screamed, fists slamming against the soft soul. "Damn it, you stupid snow! What the hell is so freaking amazing about this slush, mom!"
Crows stared down from the leafless branches, squawking amongst themselves. It felt like they were mocking him. White hot rage crackled from within; he took one of the larger branches and threw it at the tree.
"Shut up!" Shinji demanded. The birds' angry retorts morphed; to Asuka's voice; to the whispers of his schoolmates. "I said shut it, don't you understand?" Another stick flew and smacked one bird in the back. "Shut the hell up! I'm trying to get some peace and quiet here!"
The squawking turned ominous, as the entire murder of crows sang their displeasure in unison. He covered his ears, to no avail, and gave a final grunt of dissatisfaction before he started picking up the remaining branches.
"Get some fresh air, chop some wood, go camping, yeah right," he glowered into the snow. The crows responded with more aggravated cackles. "Bunch of crap, all of this is crap. I'm cold, this firewood is useless, and now my freaking foot hurts."
Limping back to the campsite only worked to aggravate his already terrible mood. Memories of walking back to the apartment under the rain, barely conscious of his surroundings and ridden with aches all over reemerged. Blood fell from the skies in those days, not snow. He'd carry whatever meager resources he could scavenge from the rubble, huddle inside their tent and wait for Asuka to eat and lay down next to him.
"Look at him sitting there like that. Have you noticed he's always sad? The toll of Third Impact, huh?"
"Yeah, remember that weird thing he did in the press conference? That was creepy."
"Definitely. Still, the poor thing. And now that we know what happened directly afterwards…"
"Oh, you mean the Second Child? Absolutely disgusting."
His chest started to burn with exhaustion just as the campsite came into view. Shinji dumped the branches into the pile they had gathered and set about starting the fire without a word. Behind him, Kensuke and Toji exchanged a worried glance. He felt their eyes on his back, and reminisced even further on the latest times random citizens leered at Asuka.
"You want to try and make a small pyramid there, Shin-man," Kensuke pipped in, examining his handwork with the camera in hand. "Yeah, perfect. I found some dry leaves that we can put under it."
"Who knew building a tent was so easy?" Toji said. The larger of the three was already sprawled on his sleeping bag. "I was expecting something like building a shelter from scratch, not this nylon crap. Ugh, reminds me of those UN shacks."
"You'd be effectively useless in building a shelter, since it requires finesse," Kensuke argued with ease. "And my tent does not stink of cheap, thick plastic, you dick. It's top of the line stuff, so be grateful."
"I bow before thee, survival master. It's cold as hell out here, are you sure we're not gonna freeze to death tonight?"
"Are you kidding? The snow is already melting! And we have the best sleeping bags around thanks to the Shin-man."
"If I die tonight, I'll kill you."
"That makes no sense, Toji."
"Don't care, I'll still kill you."
The sound of his friends talking became incomprehensible after some time. Shinji built the small wood pyramid with minute care, trying in vain to focus on the task and not Ritsuko's voice resonating in his brain. The circle the fireplace was set in became his anger, with one of the smaller stones standing out, like the section she had marked during her lecture.
We've both said our piece on the matter, I understand why everything happened. I'm not mad.
Laughter in the back of his head, louder than Kensuke's voice. A sardonic smile, the smell of blood. He was back at the playground in a heartbeat, and the small pyre was a sand pyramid. The Geofront. Wrath boiled within, scorched at his muscles. The damned pyramid. Third impact. The guilt, the stupid guilt weighing him down. Now guilt was weighing Asuka down. He was weighing her down, as always.
"H-Hey, man, I can do the fire if you want."
Toji's hand gripping his shoulder brought Shinji back to reality. He was standing atop the pyre, firewood reduced to splinters under his foot. He breathed in, breathed out, recalling Asuka's voice as she whispered in his ear. Calm, deep. Just like sensei said, idiot. Slow it down. Calm, deep. You're back.
'I'm sorry," he said. "I-I'm gonna go get more wood. I'll be right back, okay?"
Shinji hurried off back to the trail, fully intent to walk somewhere he could be alone. Kensuke stepped before him, arms extended. The seriousness in the other boy's face froze him mid-step.
"No can do, Shin-man," Kensuke pointed at the sky. "It's cloudy, and it's getting late. It'll be dark soon. You can get lost on your way back. We have more than enough firewood for the night."
His eyes drifted to the stream. "I'll go grab some water, then."
"Water's right here, I took care of that earlier," Toji added, pointing at the buckets near their tent.
Realizing there was no other escape route, and that he had just kicked their pyre into the ground, Shinji sighed and sank on the nearest available dry rock. His shoulders slumped. "I'm sorry."
"And there it is." Toji sat to his right while Kensuke did quick work of the pyre. In minutes, a flame was sizzling out of the rebuilt pyramid.
"Yup, like clockwork," added their local survival expert. He placed a pot of undisclosed broth to boil over the flame and plopped to Shinji's left afterwards. "You don't have to apologize for being mad, you know."
"Nor do you have to talk about it with us," muttered the jock. "But we're not dumb, and we're your friends. Do with that information what you will."
Shifting on the rock and glaring down at the ground, Shinji felt at a loss. He had no desire for further lectures, advice, or friendly commentary. Powerless, he thought. His fist clenched. I can't heal Asuka's guilt over what happened between us, I can't fight the people insulting her over it, and I can't run away. What the hell am I supposed to do, then?
"It probably doesn't help that not too long ago, we were on the same page as everyone else," Toji mentioned. "What that nurse said, we said it first."
"Asuka doesn't want me to do anything about it," Shinji confessed, frowning deeply at the ground. "Ritsuko said I'm angry because I can't do anything about it. I feel powerless, and guilty."
"And angry," said Kensuke with a hesitant smile. "And kind of broody all around. You were screaming at birds a while ago."
The heinous grackle of crows rang occasionally through the quiet forest. They squawked just like the schoolmates he had met in the train that morning. Smirking, mocking him, mocking his uselessness. And now he sat in the middle of nowhere, surround by his friends, who by all accounts agreed with the masses.
"So, what am I supposed to do?" he asked with a grumble. "Being angry is pretty much all I have left."
"I'm gonna sound like a douche right about now," provided Toji as he stretched.
"Then keep your thoughts to yourself." Kensuke countered.
"Nah, screw all that. Shin-man's having some trouble now, don't you see?" Shinji was about to deny the allegation when Toji's fist playfully smacked his side.
"Let's see here. You can't fight back, you can't scream at the people talking shit, which is effectively everyone lately. You can't even argue with them. It would prove them right," Toji explained. "You can't stop Asuka from feeling bad about herself, you can't stop yourself from being angry at her for those things she did."
Kensuke threw an onion him, which the larger boy easily evaded.
"You can't even talk about it with your friends," Toji carried on, undeterred. "Because your friends used to hate your girlfriend. So you're like… waiting for someone to actually do some twisted shit you have to respond to, so you can unload. Like when you were a pilot and stuff."
"Toji, come on. This is dumb, let's just-"
Feeling lectured again, Shinji kept quiet and swallowed down the anger. "I don't really want to talk about it, guys," he interrupted, and pointed at the darkening clouds above. "How about we finish up here first, before it rains?"
The other two teens realized they would get nowhere with a friendly approach, so the trio set about sheltering the firewood, food and electronics from any possible downpour. They worked in silence, with Toji and Kensuke throwing light insults at one another.
His hands moved on their own making knots, snapping branches in half, and later giving some form of flavor to the concoction Kensuke had provided. Asuka's serious expression from the morning flashed several times. Of course it's enough, Asuka, he realized. It has always been enough. I just may need to grow up a little.
Asuka had offered to part with her belief and guilt, but only if he parted from his as well. He shook his head while adding diced wild mushrooms to the soup. Part from the Void? From the memory of having being God, having being everyone? Part from the guilt?
You're going in circles, idiot. Asuka's voice calmed his frantic cutting before he sliced off a finger. It's not your fault, and even if an infinitesimal portion of it was, I forgive you.
It was already dark, with the fire illuminating their campsite and the smell of smoke and onion soup mingling together. His hands stilled, the stiff muscles of his back unwound slightly.
For everything you think you did, for everything I said you did, I forgive you.
The clatter of empty plates next to his ears shocked Shinji awake. He jumped away and almost fell into the fireplace. "W-What the hell, guys? What's the big idea?"
"The big idea is that it's dinner time, dummy!" Kensuke responded with a pat his stomach. "We need to get those nutrients and calories! In the wild, you never know when your next meal's gonna come! Time to dig in!"
"Finally!" Toji was the first to steal a full serving. "Damn, this smells good. All Ken did was throw some onions and meat on a pot filled with filthy water, and now look at this!"
"Dirty water?" Kensuke filled his bowl and pointed the spoon at the jock. "Excuse you, Toji! I purified that water in front of your eyes! Hell, I even taught you both ungrateful bastards how to do it. This is the thanks I get, for planning a great Sunday night for my friends!"
Laughter blossomed in Shinji's chest, emerging in short chuckles. One moment here; sitting with his friends and smiling; one moment back to that beach, with his skin burning. The next it would be Asuka inches away from his face, cleansing the infected blister with minute care.
His fingers brushed the fading mark under his cheekbone. Asuka traced them, kissed them, cleaned them at every chance.
We won. Victory, Shinji thought while eating soup. This is victory. Asuka never took off the necklace. When they spoke of the past, of each isolated violent event, she would not shy away or look for excuses.
Kensuke and Toji were laughing loudly and pointing at him. A piece of onion hung from his upper lip, making it seem like he had a mustache. He laughed along, ate and spoke with his friends of Rei's growth, of Misato's efforts to quit drinking, and of their new canine family member.
They joked, argued and played card games until the cinders of their fire began to dwindle. At around midnight, both Toji and Kensuke lay on their sleeping bags, snoring away while Shinji stared at the tent ceiling.
Sleep came eventually, and when it did, he found himself staring at the Void from far away. The screams were so muffled they sounded like murmurs. They mingled with the whispers from strangers in an unpleasant gibberish. No monster appeared.
The only scent he could somehow register was smoke and nylon. There was a suitcase on his hand, dripping blood that did not stink or stain the floor. He walked forward, placed the bag on the sand before him. It was hard to let go, the bag was so damn heavy. His hand tightened around the handle.
"Where are you…" Shinji whispered, half awake. Where was Unit 01? "So heavy…"
He tried to rip his arm away. The violent heave brought him back to reality. Barely any light came through the tent, meaning dawn was barely upon them.
"Hmm," he mused, laying on his back. A shiver ran through his body without the warmth of Asuka next to him. "Unfamiliar ceiling."
It was the closest thing to a nightmare he'd had in what felt like weeks. The details faded soon after he awoke, leaving nothing but the image of an ocean like the one where he had met Kaworu. He checked his phone, seeing two new messages on the screen.
'No school tomorrow either. Stupid heating system still broken down. Tell the stooges they can freeze for another day. I'll go to Hikari's in the afternoon.'
A small smile drew on his features upon reading the second one.
'Bed's cold. Your sister took the damn mutt, and this drunk won't leave me alone. Come back soon.'
"This bed's cold, too, you know," he whispered while typing. "I'll be back soon. Tomorrow afternoon at the latest."
Silent, he picked up his clothing and belongings, writing a note and leaving it beside Kensuke's head. His chest still felt heavy, his mind was a still a fog.
"Leaving so early?" Toji asked. He peeked from inside the tent. "Sorry we weren't more helpful, man. Didn't mean to be a dick last night."
Shinji shook his head, chuckling. "Do you really used to hate Asuka? You don't hate her, anymore?"
"It's more a strong dislike now, if that's worth anything," said Toji with a shrug. "You're both just… I don't know. Too freaking strong, I guess. But even that girlfriend of yours needs stuff sometimes."
"Stuff? What do you mean?"
"You know, stuff," Toji looked over at the trees, hands in his pockets. "Maybe she needs you to tell her those fuckers out there are wrong, from time to time. Even if she says she knows, or that she doesn't care, or doesn't want to talk about it. Give her a big old hug that lasts hours. Tell her you won't leave, shit like that. Maybe just do that when you get back home."
Ritsuko, Toji, Rei, Misato, and even his damn father had all offered their own brand of advice. He was not alone. There was a home to return to, when he was ready.
"Thank you," he said. "See you later, Toji."
"Yeah. Be safe, Shin-man, you got a demoness who'll be angry if you aren't."
Rei watched Maya converse the clerk with interest.
The café where they sat was in a quieter, more pleasant part of the mall. A few bags already lay at her feet, filled with new clothes the former tech had insisted on purchasing.
The clerk was trying to court Maya, and failing rather spectacularly at it. Regardless, she found the way Maya blushed at the attention endearing, and was intrigued by the social dynamics at display.
She will thank him for the compliment of his attention, yet respectfully refuse the advance, she deduced. The young man in question fumbled with the notepad in his hand, excused himself and promised to return with their orders. Interesting strategy.
"So, quite the day for shopping, right? This day off school fell on us like a blessing," Maya commented. "Is the place okay for you? I made sure they had an ample veggie menu."
"The menu is satisfactory, thank you," Rei answered. Her eyes surveyed the café. "Your observation was correct, fewer of them stare."
Maya's own smile was something she was quickly growing fond of. "Right? And a few young men are looking at you like you're water in the desert."
The gaze flashed again. Why did it seem to glow in the darkness?
"I do not know what to do in such situations," she admitted, and pointed to the clerk. "Could you instruct me on how to best respond? I fear my father's knowledge on the matter was rather lacking."
"W-Well," Maya said, sipping at her tea. "I don't know much on the matter, myself! B-But I'll try my best to help!"
"Your assistance is much appreciated."
They conversed, ate and sometimes even shared a laugh. Maya was indeed not of much help, but at least provided some insight on how to deal with unwanted attention.
Once, Shinji had told her she would be a good mother, yet sitting there with Maya and enjoying a day off school, she pondered on whether this was how it felt to have a mother.
A group of youngsters ran through the hall. They seem very pleased to not attend school today, despite the cold, she thought. She was used to children staring at her in wonder, sometimes even fear. It was not uncommon that the younger ones cried after looking into her eyes.
One of the kids stopped and turned to look at her. She saw his face light up in excitement and cheeks flush with color. Deep green eyes. Kind, like Shinji's. Long blond hair. The boy raised his hand and waved with enthusiasm, as though greeting an old friend.
It was the first time a child smiled at her.
Where am I going?
He set off towards the city limits, not having any destination in mind. The walk to the bus station eased his nerves, and the cool breeze refreshed his lungs. The dream felt special, even when its details were lost in the morning haze.
Shinji's good mood lasted a good hour. He was blissfully unaware of his surroundings until the bus arrived at the nearest train station. It started with a lady who brushed past him in a hurry, then turned back to apologize. She recognized him.
Watching. Waiting. Whispering. Pitying. There was no need to hear them, not that he could with the earphones blaring. He understood, nonetheless. Poor boy, all alone. Maybe he fought with that horrible girl. Hopefully he left her. They're clearly horrible for each other.
His station flew by, and the next, and the next. The train filled and emptied repeatedly while he sat, rewound the tape and glared at his seat.
Would the tabloids speak of it? Were they taking pictures, video footage of him sitting there, not speaking with anyone?
Let them, he thought viciously. Asuka calls you ingrates. We fought for you, for all of you. We saved you. And now you stare at us. Go ahead and say something. Do something. Step up to my Asuka and try to insult her to her face. Try.
The fabric of his pants stretched as he gripped them.
Give me a reason.
A small vibration from his pocket almost made him jump.
'Just got to Hikari's. Get me some tea when you get back home. The one you know I like. Don't do anything stupid.'
Shinji shook his head. His body ached, his muscles were cramped from sitting for hours. Knowing he could have Section Two drive him home at any moment, he stepped out the train at the next available station.
The place was desolate. The streets were still cracked on most places, while buildings looked ragged and decayed. A small mountain range stretched away to his left. Even after so long, he could still see the imprint Unit 01 had left behind when it had been slammed against the hills.
He ignored the ache of his foot and body. It felt as though he was walking towards something, instead of running away.
At least nobody's here, anymore. No more freaking stares. No whispers. Good riddance.
Only after several long minutes of eerie silence did Shinji realize it had been some time since he had seen another person. No sound but the wind and the wails of stray dogs, nothing but the echo of his own steps. He arrived at the foot of the hill, where a massive metal structure hid under overgrown vines. A bomb shelter.
Facing the main gate, Shinji breathed in and allowed the memories to flood. He was alone, there was nothing to be apprehensive about. Tendrils piercing his body, a beam of light melting his chest. An endless sea of nothing. His arm, severed. His skin, molten. Asuka, dead. A wasteland stretching as far as the eye could see. Blood rain. Men, women and children he had both condemned and rescued, scowling at his beloved.
Everything in his chest burned, so Shinji bellowed until his voice broke. He knelt by the gate, powerless. Useless.
"Blyat, you sure have a set of lungs, there."
Shinji jumped back to his feet in shock, and instinctively took a fighting stance. That voice was familiar. Something moved to his right. Once the figure became recognizable, control and sanity surrender to repressed rage.
Both hands curled into fists and swung at the scarred visage with reckless abandon.
Everything went black before he could throw a second punch.
"Ah, god damn it! This is bullshit!"
Hikari grimaced. She looked over at the door, happy to see it still closed. She pressed her forefinger against her lips.
"Asuka, please, let's keep the cursing down. My sister's in the other room, not to mention my father."
"Yeah, yeah," Asuka waved off her request. "Can you believe this stupid game? This is the third time this damn squad fails in a simple assault!" She took off he headphones and bellowed into the microphone. "Bunch of useless little momma's boys! Can you not follow simple instructions? This game sucks! Hell, you all suck!"
The controller slammed against Hikari's mattress. Asuka shut off the console with a huff, then sat back down on the floor, arms crossed.
"You know, it's supposed to be an interactive game." Hikari tried with a hesitant smile.
"It's supped to be a bunch of crap, I'll tell you that much. Interactive my ass."
"Asuka, come on," Hikari complained, and handed Asuka the bag of fries as offering. "You promised."
"Fine, whatever. Hey, let's go to your balcony. I want some fresh air."
The girl marched aout of the room without leaving much room for argument or alternatives.
"Uh, okay. Sure."
Abrupt as it had been, Asuka's visit was most welcome in her droning afternoon. The redhead had not only offered to help her cook, but also complied in washing dishes after dinner, which was rare on itself. They had spent the better part of the night playing video games, conversing about the trip to Okinawa, and occasionally mentioning the latest gossip at school.
She seems more relaxed today, Hikari mused, sipping at her soda once they were both sitting outside. Just keeping up appearances with the snarky mood.
"That game sucks," Asuka repeated, eliciting a laugh from her. "Thanks for dinner, by the way."
"It's always nice when you visit," Hikari replied. Although, a call instead f you banging on the door would be preferable from time to time.
"I'm surprised the monkey wasn't here, in which case I would've left, of course. Watching you two spoon at school is punishment enough for my poor retinas."
She laughed even harder. "You don't hear me complaining about seeing you cuddle up to Shinji."
"Why, of course not. We look cute together. Together. You, on the other hand, you poor thing." Asuka motioned towards her. "You have to carry the team all by yourself."
When did she get so good at making me laugh? Hikari wondered between chuckles. "Stop being mean to my boyfriend, please. Now come here, sit with your friend and tell me what's wrong."
Asuka sighed, eyes lost in the city. "That's just it. Nothing's wrong. The idiot's off doing his thinking, but it feels right. He's not running away like usual, and… even my dealings with the drunk have improved."
"Even with everything that's been going on? Isn't it the reason Shinji took off?"
Oops, Hikari thought the moment the question was uttered. That was a miscalculation.
"Yeah, but," Asuka's gaze drew to the necklace. "Something tells me it's no big deal. I was getting really worked up a couple of weeks ago, but then… I had a good talk with somebody. I think it's it good for the both of us, this little unplanned vacation the idiot took. But enough about me, I'm fine. I really am, Hikari. I came to see you."
She blinked, taken aback. "M-Me? How come?"
"You know, you're quiet at times. Tense." Asuka sat next to her. Hikari almost jumped out of the sofa when she was pulled into an awkward one-armed embrace. "This is what the idiot does when I'm feeling down, or jumpy. So, spill. How are things?"
Asuka had seldom asked about her well-being so openly. Tears spilled from her eyes as she was held. Her friend was showing affection in her own stoic way. It delighted Hikari to know she was amongst the very few people on the planet the redhead was willing to comfort, listen to, and protect.
It was a joy to see the true face of the great Asuka Langley Soryu.
Sweat dribbled down his face and froze against his cheeks.
"Terrible. Your eyes are giving away the game. Again."
Shinji descended into a fighting stance. Three, four, five punches smacked nothing but air as his adversary effortlessly evaded them. His limbs were trembling with exhaustion, his clothes were soaked and heavy. Steam rose from his body in clouds, and yet he had not landed a single strike.
"Nyet, you overextended. Again."
He dug deeper into his chest, looking. Where was it? Where was the Void, the endless wrath?
"Stay still, damn you!" He swung and missed once, twice, thrice. The enemy did not bother to take his hands from his pockets as he bobbed and weaved out the way.
"And where would be the fun in that?"
He tried to tackle his opponent, only to have the world flip upside down and leave him staring at the concrete a second afterwards. The way Shinji was hurled back to his feet could only be described as gentle. As if to add insult to injury, his jacket was straightened in an almost friendly manner, and a hand pat his shoulder twice.
"There, all better now. Again."
Another bestial cry bled out his chest. He swung wildly, forgetting form, stance or technique. Punches, kicks, scratches, bites, screams. Something had to work. Rage had always worked thus far, had it not? Had the wrath not driven him to victory? Why did it fail him now?
The force of his own punches threw Shinji off balance. All his enemy did was lightly push his good leg out from under him, and the floor came inches close to his face for a third time. A third time he was lifted and delicately put back in a standing position. Fatigue clouded his senses, his vision blurred.
"Hmm, you look hungry," Dmitri mentioned, deflecting his next few punches with a flick of his wrist. "When was the last time you ate something?"
"Shut up and let me hit you!" Shinji bellowed. The final punch had no strength to it. It bounced off harmlessly off Dmitri's cheek.
"There you go. Victory is yours," Krupnov arched his body to better glimpse at his face. "Come. It's almost time for dinner."
Shinji's stomach grumbled.
Drained of all energy, rage and left with nothing but powerlessness, Shinji relented. He wordlessly followed Dmitri into what looked like an entrance to the shelter. The heavy gate creaked as it opened. He expected barracks, the ragged remains of the shelter with perhaps a cot and a makeshift fireplace.
'Opulent' was the first word that came to mind as he stepped into the Krupnov residence.
A large hallway riddled with fine paintings meandered into a marbled staircase to the left, and stretched into a meticulously decorated living room ahead. From afar, he heard the echoes of loud music being played. The scent of black tea enveloped the entire area, while glistening lights reflected off a massive window that overlooked the city.
"What is this pl-" A towel landed on his face.
"My humble abode," Child Zero replied. "Bathroom is the second door to your right. Spare clothing on the shelf if you need them. Dinner will be ready in twenty minutes."
Shinji never realized he had dropped his backpack at some point, which dangled innocently in the Russian's hand. Dmitri offered no explanation other than throwing it at his stomach. Everything about the situation was bizarre.
When next he blinked, Shinji was staring at his reflection in the mirror of a similarly elegant restroom.
That's the monster that shot Asuka in the stomach and almost destroyed an entire city, he thought as the warm water ran through his face. His throat was parched, his stomach empty. Now I'm a guest in his house. After toweling off, he stared at the small pocket knife Kensuke had gifted him for Christmas. His father had advised to aim for the throat the day before. All it took was one good slash.
Asuka told me not to do anything stupid. That guy just wiped the floor with me, and he didn't even hit me once.
The knife went back to his bag.
As he walked back to the main hall, Shinji felt the thick walls vibrate with the intensity of the music being played upstairs. A strong whistle cut through the noise, drawing his attention to the dining room. The music stopped, only to blast twice as loud afterwards. Having met the young killer in the middle of nowhere, swinging at him without a word, and being invited to his house, he decided the strangest sight of the day was that of Dmitri with an apron.
He had not felt so out of place since arriving at Toky-3.
"Kids and their music," the assassin said, snickering. "Vasya, dinner!"
"Coming!" A voice much younger, and many times louder replied with a heavy accent. "One more song!"
"Nyet, let it play in the background and come down here! We've got company, so hurry! Food's gonna get cold!"
"Company, really? Yay! I'll be there in two seconds!"
Dmitri rolled his eyes and pointed at the table. "One, two," he counted with irony. "I hope the music doesn't bother you much, we like to have a little fun at dinner."
Why are you being nice and civil? An apron? What the hell is wrong with you? And what the hell happened to your arms? What happened to your face?
"Hmm, this?" Dmitri noticed him staring at the line under his cheekbone. "This was a present from you, Shinji," he explained with a smirk. "Not even X managed to fully heal this one. You have a mean left hook."
"You tried to kill my girlfriend," Shinji said. "You killed civilians-"
"Why yes, I did. Funny how those civilians you saved turned their backs on Asuka so quickly, eh?"
"You killed soldiers."
"Soldiers that were coming to kill you, yes."
"Your own men," Shinji seethed, body shaking. "You killed them, you ate them."
"Damn right I did," Dmitri admitted with ease. He pointed at the scar. "Then you taught me a lesson."
The Russian looked unthreatened by his presence. He set about placing dishes of sweet-smelling food in the table and spared him the occasional glance. Infuriating, how he went about his life in peace, not giving a second thought to the lives he ended.
"You're a monster," Shinji growled. "You shouldn't even be allowed out of prison. You should be put in straitjacket and thrown in a dungeon without a key." His tired, aching feet carried him to stand face to face with the former assassin. "You should be dead, or at least in a cage."
A smile devoid of any ill intent or sarcasm was his response. "Funny, people are saying that a lot about your Asuka, without knowing the minutia of what you had to do to survive. Don't you think you're being a little like them, right now? Not that I'd take offense, anyway."
Shinji's hand shot up to grasp the Russian's apron and shirt. "Don't you dare compare yourself to my Asuka, you bas-"
Loud clattering from the stairs deviated both their gazes at the mass of limbs and golden locks stomping its way to the first floor. A child of about twelve wearing a black shirt too big for him descended the steps.
"-If night will fall black shadows are taking our sight!" The boy sang, pretending to play the guitar. "We carry each other through the darkest moments in life!"
Dmitri easily untangled himself from the hold. "Excuse me for a second," he said, and marched over to the youth. "Stronger than hate, stronger than fear, stronger than all!" he sang along with his brother. "We are one! Hail to the hordes!"
The siblings stood before each other and bellowed. "We are one! Hail to the hordes!"
Shinji covered his ears, feeling the residual anger towards Dmitri fade away when the soldier enveloped his brother in a ferocious hug and lifted him off the ground.
"What were you doing up there, you little rascal? Have you been playing with my guitars again?"
"Hey, you said I can borrow the Les Paul!" the younger boy argued with a playful smirk. He returned the embrace with equal fervor. "And I'm better than you at playing the guitar, anyway!"
"Pfft, you wish. Now." Dmitri placed his brother on the ground and motioned towards Shinji. "This gentleman here is Shinji Ikari. The guy that beat your brother's ass and saved your life. Please, introduce yourself."
The boy gave him a graceful bow. "Hello!" He exclaimed. "My name is Vasiliy Krupnov! I'm still practicing my Japanese, so please correct my errors!"
"Uhm," Shinji scratched at his arm. The boy's dreamy gaze made him uncomfortable. "Nice to meet you," he muttered lamely, bowing. "I'm Shinji."
"I know!" Vasily said. He jogged circles around Shinji, inspecting him. "Wow, did you really kick my brother's butt? That's so cool! Dima is very strong, you know! Stronger than anyone! So, if you're stronger than Dima, it means you're the strongest person in the world!"
"He's a fan," Dmitri explained with a smirk. "We both are. Now, time to eat, gentlemen. And you, sly winter fox, go wash your hands before you sit at the table."
"Ugh, fine! You're being lame, you know!" Vasiliy countered and ran to the bathroom. "Be right back, Mr. Shinji!"
Confusion and bewilderment made Shinji forget about his uselessness and the public's commentary. Try as he would, the memories of Child Zero were locked away. They all were. The Void, the flashes, the unrelenting power were absent.
"Guitar strings tend to get so dirty. Like the cello, I'd assume," Dmitri spoke without the sarcastic bite he remembered; his voice was calm, almost content. He motioned to one of chairs in the table. "Have you been using that old relic, by the way?"
"How did you get that cello?" Shinji demanded instead. "It's an original Stradivarius. Did you kill anyone to get it?"
"Eh, a guy owed me a couple of favors. And," the Russian pointed at the hallway, "easy on the killing talk, there."
"Oh," Shinji muttered. "Sorry."
"It's fine, and no. Nobody lost their lives for that ukulele. Now, eat up."
His mouth began to water the moment Dmitri placed a bowl of soup before him. Along with the scent of pastry and meat stew, the soup's fragrance almost made him faint. How long have I gone without eating today?
Vasiliy joined them soon after. The boy stared at him through the better part of dinner, revealing how he assisted in preparing the dishes.
"I helped Dima make the filling for the pelmeni," he mentioned with a wide smile. "There's three different types of meat! Then I did the shaping. I also helped cleaning the fish for the soup. Is the soup good, Mr. Shinji?"
"It's… a tasty soup," he offered. The food was delicious and warm, it brought a bit of life back to his being. "What type of fish did you make it with?"
"Sturgeon, maguro, mackerel, and salmon," Dmitri replied. The impeccable manners he displayed while dining annoyed Shinji for some reason. "Vasya removed the spikes from the fish and cleaned the mackerels. Vasya, drink your lemonade."
"But it's bitter!"
"Nyet, I added honey and ginger, just the way you like. Now go ahead. Drink your lemonade, it's good for you."
"Fine!" The younger brother picked up the glass and downed it in a few gulps. "There! So… Dima and I went fishing the other day! That's how we got the mackerels!" Vasiliy pipped in. "Have you gone fishing before, Mr. Shinji?"
"I… don't think I have, no."
And so, Vasiliy went on to detail every moment of his most recent fishing trip. In between an array of dishes he had never tasted before, amiable teasing between the siblings, and endless questions, Shinji forgot why he had been angry to begin with.
The evening carried on, making Shinji feel even more exhausted.
Vasiliy's friendly disposition kept him from collapsing, despite his full stomach and drowsiness. He had never met anyone that was not a reporter so interested in knowing him. He was asked about his hobbies, favorite dishes, and music preferences.
With wide, mostly innocent eyes filled with patience and excitement that followed his every move, Shinji hesitantly shared details he normally told no one. After dinner, he was given a tour of the house by the younger host. They ended in a finely decorated garden just outside the shelter. It was ridden with lush, exotic flowers and young trees that gave out a scent of rain and fresh soil.
Asking the name of any plant sent Vasiliy into an excited tirade about the name, family and properties of each. Shinji asked about a few, not realizing that at some point he had begun to smile, and even let himself be dragged by the wrist.
Dmitri said little. He followed them with both hands in his pockets, quiet.
Once they reached the bedrooms, the boy ventured for more personal details. Shinji learned that despite him being Vasiliy's favorite pilot, his preferred Evangelion had been Unit 00, on behalf of it being blue and having one eye. He also learned of Vasiliy's profound passion for plants, animals, rock music and classic literature.
Seated beside the bed and surrounded by books, guitars and toys, Shinji was asked about his nightmares. He vaguely referenced the Void, the visions and their repetitive nature, not realizing it was the first time he spoke of his dreams with someone who was not Asuka, Rei or Misato.
He was introduced to 'Sam', the most hideous doll he had ever seen. It was a crudely manufactured plush toy supposed to imitate an Evangelion, covered in black, leathery fabric and with wide, glaring red eyes. Its arms were too big, the legs were uneven, and the mouth looked like a horrible gaping maw.
Vasiliy's gaze drifted to the ground in embarrassment. "I know it's kind of dumb to have a plush toy at twelve, but it really helps me. Sam is scarier than any nightmare. They can't hurt me if he's around, or if Dima's close."
Asuka hates dolls, he thought. The material was soft to the touch. She'd hate this one the most if she saw it.
"I don't think it's dumb at all," Shinji answered with a small smile. "I sleep next to Asuka every night, you know. She's my Sam, she's stronger than any nightmare can ever be."
"Ms. Asuka must be so cool," Vasiliy had begun to nod off after bringing the doll. "When you talk about her, your eyes light up. I bet she's the most amazing person ever."
"She is," he confirmed with a smile. "You look a little tired."
"Mr. Shinji's right, Vasya," Dmitri pushed himself off the door frame and carried his brother over to the bed. "We have a big day tomorrow. I'll teach you how to build a spear, eh?"
"Yay." Vasiliy tried in vain to sound enthusiastic, only to descend into a loud yawn. "It was so great to meet you, Mr. Shinji… Will you come over, again? Bring Ms. Asuka along? And can I meet… Ms. Rei? She's so pretty…"
"I…" Shinji rubbed the back of his head and looked over at Dmitri. The soldier shrugged. "Sure, I'd love to." He remembered his sister's new clothing and haircut. "Rei is pretty, isn't she?
"She's like … an angel, a real one," Vasiliy concluded between yawns. "Radiant."
"That she is," Dmitri agreed, tucking his brother in and placing 'Sam' beside him. "Sweet dreams, Vasya."
"Be nice to Mr. Shinji, no more fighting," Vasiliy mumbled in a commanding tone. The boy's lids closed, his breathing became deep and even. "…love you, Dima."
Discomfort arose; he was intruding on an intimate moment between the siblings. Dmitri's gravelly voice stopped him as he tiptoed to the door.
"It's strange. I never expected anybody to say those words to me again. Not after our mother died, and Vasya was taken by Samael."
Well, I know how that feels, Shinji realized. In his mind, Asuka rolled her eyes and tapped at his forehead. "I want to stay with you, Ba-Ka."
The moonlight shone on the jagged slashes imprinted on the soldier's skin.
"What happened to your arms?" Shinji asked.
"I tried to save somebody once," Dmitri said quietly. He stood, eyes never leaving his brother. "I failed."
Shinji tried in vain to reach into the pit of memories to understand what the young man meant as they left the bedroom. Nothing. The Void remained closed off.
"Do you still want to fight?"
What for? Shinji thought. "No, I'm good. Sorry for lashing out at you like that."
"Your form is shit. We'll have to work on that," Dmitri offered, pointing to another room. "Feel free to try again anytime. Vasya likes having you around."
"I'll keep that in mind," Shinji said with a chuckle. "This sounds stupid, but thank you for your hospitality."
"Thank you for the visit. Drink."
A bottle of vodka was pushed into his chest. It was more of a demand, so Shinji took a long swig. He let the liquid burn all the way down to his guts, and take with it all doubts about his next course of action.
"Ugh," he grimaced, returning the bottle. "Kampai, I guess."
"Na zdarovie. Now, are you done lamenting over your own uselessness? Or do I have to go show that nurse a lesson?"
The teens shared a laugh.
"Asuka told me not to do anything stupid," Shinji replied. "So, thank you for the offer, but no. I guess I'll have to learn to live with people being idiots."
"Good answer, Shinji Ikari." Dmitri turned and gave him a wicked grin. "A shame, I had plans for her. Now get some rest, you don't want to have your woman waiting too long."
That night, as he lay in a bed best suited for five people, Shinji had that dream again. His hand was heavy as he carried the damned suitcase all through the sand. He wanted to drop it somewhere, give it away, throw it in the ocean, anything. If he did then Asuka would throw hers as well, that had been their agreement.
Blue skies, clear water, and a gentle, afternoon sunlight. No blood, no screams, not even Kaworu to orient him. Shinji walked for what felt like hours until a sliver of purple and black gleamed. Unit 01 was sunken in the sand, with little but the horn and part of its mask peeking out. Here and there a hand, a knee or some other part was slightly visible, and standing by the horn, his doppelganger waited.
He dragged the case, climbed over the armor and at last, came to face himself. Neither said a word. The Third Child took the suitcase, and the remnants of armor turned into sand, fading away. The figure began to walk away, suitcase dragging behind. Lilith walked to his right, his father to the left.
The last thing he remembered before waking up was feeling a warm hand reach up, and rip something rotten from his chest. He woke up feeling cold, curled up in a ball on the giant mattress.
A plate with lukewarm black tea, toast and leftover pelmeni awaited by the door. Asuka said something about tea. Remember, get tea.
Shinji found Dmitri not in his own massive room, but sprawled out in a metal chair facing his brother's door. He pretended not to notice the pistol in Dmitri's right hand, and walked as quietly as possible.
"Leaving so early, brother?"
There's someone I'm dying to see, and there's stuff I have to do, Shinji thought. His heart raced with newfound excitement. "Yeah."
Dmitri threw a cassette titled 'Incredible Mix, Volume 3' into his hands. "My number's in there if you ever need anything."
"I'd really like to try and hit you again, if that's okay."
"Heh." The soldier barked a tired laugh. "Vasya likes plants, the color blue, and the bands Black Label Society, Kreator, and Whitesnake. Your greatest fan deserves a present from his hero, no?"
Shinji nodded and looked over at the room. I know that feeling, as well. Like the one person you've got left will disappear any second. And here I am, wasting my time. "Please don't kill anyone ever again."
Dmitri smiled. His eyes were tired, like an old man who had seen much, and lived too long. "You have my word, Shinji. Sorry about shooting your girlfriend and all that."
Now fully rested, Shinji was able to aim and connect a proper strike. "Ass," he said, rubbing his knuckles. "Say hi to your brother for me."
He sprinted out of the shelter so quickly that the Section Two agents had to get in their car to catch up. The air was crisp in his lungs and invigorated his limbs. The stares followed him on the way back home, in the store where he bought Asuka's tea, but was too content to care.
The apartment building came into view. He grinned.
"Stop staring at me like I'm the one who adopted the mutt."
Pen-Pen glared further, and signaled towards the newly acquired dog bed lying on the floor.
"What? I was out, thing was on sale. Blue took the mutt for a few days, anyway. How is this a problem?"
The penguin narrowed its eyes at her and waddled back to its fridge.
"Pfft, whatever. Stupid grumpy bird."
Asuka was laying on the living room floor, pretending to read a magazine and pleased that despite them not having school, Misato still had a job to attend to. The moment the idiot reached the house, they'd be alone.
"Mhm," Asuka's hand trailed the mark beside her shoulder. "When the hell is the idiot coming back, anyway?"
The door opened as if on cue.
"I'm home!' Shinji yelled from the door. He sounded about as jovial as he ever got, which made her smirk.
"Took you long enough." She jumped back to her feet in an instant. "Welcome home."
"Sorry." She never got to utter her usual retort, since Shinji reduced the distance between them and surprised her with a deep kiss.
"Ugh, fine," Asuka muttered once they separated. Her arms had already enveloped his frame. "You're limping."
"I got your tea."
"Don't derail. You're limping." Her eyes narrowed, inspecting him from head to toe. Aside from a little dirt, there was no evidence of blood or anything extreme. "Did you do anything stupid?"
Shinji looked at the ceiling, the floor, anywhere but her intrusive gaze. "D-Define stupid."
"Did you assault a pedestrian?"
"No. I mean… no. That's a no."
A growl escaped her throat. Asuka drew him even closer. "Did you fight anybody?"
Her hands gripped at his hair. "Did you win?"
Shinji smiled, managing to catch her by surprise. "No," he admitted. "I got my butt handed to me, and the guy didn't even have to hit me once."
"Do I have to go look for my bat?" Asuka asked with a roll of her eyes.
"I don't think so." Shinji snickered and stole another light kiss from her lips. "But thank you. Do you want your tea?"
"I want you to tell me what happened to your leg, Shinji," she ordered, pointing at the couch. "I'll go grab the kit."
"Asuka, I'm fine."
"I'll be the judge of that. Couch. Now."
Excitement ran through her the moment Asuka had caught Shinji's eyes. The iron she adored was easier to glimpse at, while the kindness which unmade her was ever-present. Her idiot had done a little growing up.
They fell into the routine established after Third Impact. She inspected the purple blemish on his shin and sipped at her tea while he tried not to make eye contact, and hesitantly told her of the crows, the root, and his eventual arrival at the foot of a mountain.
"Seems like you were busy," Asuka announced. "Not much to do to this outside a little washing and…" She looked over at her shoulder to ensure no drunken guardian was hidden anywhere, and placed a small kiss on Shinji's leg. "If you tell anyone I did that, I'm not speaking to you for a week."
"I… w-who I would tell, anyway?" he asked, flustered. "You know I'd never talk about that stuff with anyone."
"That's right, you're my idiot gentleman," Asuka said. They lay together on the couch, with her head resting on his chest in the same way it had when they had first moved in.
"Are those ingrates out there still bothering you?" she asked with a few taps on his sternum. "Did you buy a taser, or find a metal pipe that caught your eye?"
"No, not really. That's not really who I am. I guess you were right about me," he said. "Like always. Thanks for checking up on me. It means a lot."
"Of course. I'm always right, idiot." Asuka stretched, feeling the light strain of the last days dissipate at last, and curled against Shinji's body. "So… are you gonna tell me about seeing your bastard father in prison? Did you hit him in the balls again?"
A torrent of snickers reverberated through the living room. They both laughed so loud that Pen-Pen peeked out from his fridge, if only to glare at them.
"Man, not even at home we're safe," Shinji started, poking at her stomach. "Pen-Pen's really angry at us. Is that a mattress?" Shinji's gaze fell on her hair. "Did you get that for Kitsune?"
"What about it?" she bit back. "It was on sale, okay? And that way the stupid mutt doesn't have to stink up Misato's new rug. What?"
Shinji took away a few strands of hair and tucked them behind her ear, cupping her cheek. "I'm glad you warmed up to him."
"Who says I warmed up to the mumph-"
Yet another kiss was stolen from her, only this time Asuka sunk her nails into Shinji's shirt and retaliated with equal passion. When her lips were free, Asuka aimed and lightly bit down under Shinji's neck.
"Getting bold, aren't we," she purred with another kiss. "Good. Because you know our rule. All of me, Shinji."
"And all of me, down to the last breath and strand of hair," Shinji replied in a heartbeat. "That's what the marks are."
"Damn right, idiot. Now." She giggled. Asuka's hand snaked under Shinji's and took its preferred position. "Prison. What happened there?"
"Hmm, now that you mention it, I spent very little time with my father. And no, I didn't manage to sneak in another punch."
"Pity," commented Asuka with a smile. "So, did the Blonde Bitch make a diagram of your anger, divide it and explain to you in a very scientific way why you were angry, and what you could do to remedy it?"
"Wh-How do you know that?" Shinji asked for his part, taken aback.
Asuka's hand traced the length of the largest mark on Shinji's midsection. "I might've been extremely angry a couple of weeks ago. Remember? I threw a soda can at that guy who kept pointing at you."
"I remember, yeah," he said in between chuckles. "Your aim was as perfect as ever."
"Yeah, well. I figured something was not right. A guy basically wanted to come and get your autograph, and I assaulted him with soda. So," she half sat on the couch to face Shinji fully, "I went to the one person in this stupid city who for some reason never raised judgement on me, you, or our… uhm… relationship."
"You're both basically the same person," Ritsuko repeated in his mind.
He realized how after her sudden disappearance that Sunday weeks before, Asuka had become gradually calmer and more nonchalant towards the public. The blisters had also appeared for the first time around those days.
"Did Ritsuko advise you to chop firewood in the mornings?" Shinji asked.
"Pfft, she wishes she were that smart," Asuka snapped with honest irritation in her tone. "The bitch just made a little diagram, which I complimented and analyzed, and them I came to certain conclusions about my feelings. The firewood was just a natural extension of my amazing intellect."
Ah, god damn it, she thought. There you go, leaving an opening, Soryu. Oops, huh. Totally not on purpose.
"A-And," Shinji started. She enjoyed watching him muster up the courage to ask her personal questions. "What sort of conclusions did you reach?"
Come on, now. This is where you put up and show this isn't a one-way-street, Soryu. God, this sucks.
Forcing the walls down was terribly uncomfortable, but not as difficult as before. "That on some days those comments get to me, and make me remember everything I did. And," Asuka pouted, eyes glued to the newest chew toy she had gotten the dog. "That sometimes I'm afraid to think about the future, because it means thinking that maybe you won't be there."
Shinji's arms tightened around her. "I know you probably don't need to hear this, ever, but I'll take the risk of saying it," he whispered near her ear, driving a shiver down her spine. His voice was steel. "Those idiots out there couldn't be blinder. You're the reason I found out what happiness feels like. I want to help you somehow, and stay with you forever. That hasn't changed, nor will it ever."
"Idiot," she muttered. "Like I don't know that."
"Yeah, but still. Can I be an idiot at times?" Shinji asked with a nudge. "You're amazing, and beautiful. And I wanted to say that from the first moment I laid eyes on you. You're the bravest, most interesting person in the world to me. I don't know what may come in the future, but," again, he traced the circular mark on her skin. "I know we'll find the way back to each other."
Her skin was scalding. It was impossible that Shinji didn't realize how flushed her face was. "S-Stop talking nonsense, idiot!" She half-reprimanded and got to her feet. "Go get changed! We're going to the roof!"
"The roof?" Shinji asked in shock. "Wait, but why?"
"Because I said so, now get going!"
"Uhm, sure. Ten minutes?"
Asuka locked the bathroom door and took a few deep breaths, to no avail. She stared back at the mirror and found the same flushed skin she had tried to hide. Something about the way Shinji had uttered those words had quieted most of her fears in an instant.
She hugged herself, smiling slightly, and pretended for a second that her mother was holding her.
"Mama," she whispered. "The idiot did it again. The damn Invincible Shinji grew up a little. Hell, he even walked a few steps ahead of me, I can't lag behind." Her right hand gripped at the small golden heart with fervor. "Is it okay, Mama? Is it okay for me to be this happy?"
Somehow, she knew her mother to be somewhere with tears in her own eyes, nodding happily. Yes. It was time to live.
Happy the winter cold had receded, they both raced to the rooftop in lighter clothes, laughing and teasing each other all the way. For once in weeks, the neighbors saw the pair and smiled along, unable to remain unaffected by the lovely energy they displayed. Misato had taken her up on Sunday, and shared with her a few stories about her time directly after Second Impact.
Asuka ran ahead, occasionally stopping to let Shinji catch up, only to grin and sprint away before he could 'tag' her. They reached the rooftop panting, chuckling and playfully tugging at one another, and finally collapsed next to each other over the small concrete rail. Shinji took the SDAT out of his pocket and handed one of the earphones to her.
The tape was one she did not recognize, not that it mattered. She trusted the idiot's taste in music, and so far, he had not disappointed once. Asuka lay her head on his shoulder without a word. The usual rewinding sound echoed, and sweet tunes began after the familiar click.
"Hey idiot," Asuka said after the first song. She felt Shinji's calm gaze turn to her. "Do you like the view?"
Shinji's eyes never left her. "I love it."
"One more step."
She stood outside the door, alone.
The doll had been thrown away on the nearest dumpster as she made her way up the stairs. Walking had been much better that taking the elevator. Regardless of how much progress had been made, closed off spaces still made her uncomfortable.
Kaji had considered the time had come, so had the dreadful brat, and so had Akagi's blonde spawn. No running away. Her hand shivered as it rose to knock. Once, twice, her knuckles bounced off the metal. Her heartbeat thundered, her fingers, devoid of the usual fabric of the doll, gripped at her coat.
Wishing for forgiveness or redemption would be too arrogant, even for her. Instead, Kyoko Zeppelin Soryu wished for a few precious seconds she had been too foolish to treasure before.
If only I could have that day back, to say goodbye to you properly. Those seconds before they called me in. Only those seconds. I'd ask for nothing more, darling. Only those seconds, to see you off properly, to tell you how much I love you.
Voices from behind the gate. A dog barking, the shrieks of a disgruntled bird, hurried steps coming towards her. The tone she had long to hear for so long finally caressed her hearing. The door opened. Asuka stood before her; strong, healthy, alive. She smiled.
"Hallo, mein Shatz."
Inspirational Music: Unlimited Love (album), Death of a Samurai, Feast of Flowers – RHCP, Death Magnetic (album), All Nightmare Long, For Who The Bell Tolls, Harvester of Sorrow, My Friend of Misery – Metallica; Strange – Kill Devil Hill; Seal the Deal, The Hangman's Body Count, Dead But Rising – Volbeat; On the Backs of Angels, In the Presence of Enemies – Dream Theater.
AN: To my dearest wife, who supported me through not only this process, but the entire array of clusterfucks lately, and has made my life so happy. To my brothers MisterHalt, Su-Exodus and Pilot_Fair for their constant help, feedback and time to help me improve this. To my dearest readers, who have been with me for so long, who have brightened my day with your words of love and support, your feedback and honesty.
Thank you all.
Alright! Yeah, baby! And I'm not kidding. Tis done. However, the plot refuses to die.
I am now contractually obligated by skyfox to continue with a new story that will follow our cast as time goes by! I'm thinking 5'6 chapters albout 15-10k words each. How's that sound? Good? Bad? I'm doing it, anyway. Think it might be fun how my approach to writing changes as these sporadic chapters come to life. This story will be called Under the Bridge, and it will pick up exactly where ST ended!
Scar Tissue was a very special source of respite for me for many years. This remains the case with this last few chapters. I developed a lot of hate for my own story at one point, and for someone who literally sits, updates whatever he writes and gives zero fucks, this thing was drafted a good eight times. In the end, I loved the process. I had a blast writing this, and I hope that despite the brutal clusterfuck that is this story, we were able to give it a proper send off (for now).
I cannot express my gratitude for your time, for the fact that you've been with me throughout this crazy journey. Please, remember to take care of yourselves! Stay healthy, eat your veggies and drink your lemonade! Thank you so much! Please feel free to drop a review on your way out!