AN: I'm back, bitches! Hah! Here's another chappie!
Chapter 4. Survival
There was no need for sleep, nor did any desire for food or drink assault her. The being inhabiting her eye provided more than enough energy and sustenance for her to part from elemental human needs; she ate and drank out of habit, in an effort to convince herself that there was, indeed, a little piece of humanity left inside. At times, she dozed off as well, lulled to a dreamless slumber that left her feeling unchanged; she was always tired, always angry, always feeling terrible. The sickness running through her made her more of a monster than Shinji's actions made him one. She had meant those words in the prison cell, every one of them.
Her body twitched, pain erupting from her covered eye, and Asuka almost jumped from the chair she had been resting on for the past four hours. It took her a few seconds to get her bearings back, and upon recognizing the house's surroundings, the first thing she noticed was the absence of a certain prisoner who was supposed to be sleeping or laying on the ground. She certainly recalled that at some point in the last hour, Shinji had risen and covered her with the same blanket she had used to protect him from the cold. A few minutes before opening her eye, Asuka had heard him get up and open the door. Probably ran away, the brat. Wouldn't that be fun, huh?
"Stupid," she muttered, and was about to march out inthe small hours in search for her captive when Shinji opened the door and stepped inside, a handful of strange herbs in his bandaged hand. He had taken off the jacket, she noticed, which made the covered area on his arm that much more noticeable. "What the hell is that, and who told you to go outside?" she barked, pointing at the sprouts with a glare.
"Good morning, Asuka," responded the Third Child in a slow murmur; his body language let her know that he was faring much better than the day before. He was not shaking, his skin was not as pale and his eyes were not as unfocused, yet they were still very much gone. His movements, although somewhat healthier, were still stiff and uncoordinated.
"I found some… chamomile just outside and thought I'd make some tea." He refused to make eye contact, as was expected, eyes shifting between the plants held in his palm and the floor. "Would you like some?"
Some tea? Tea? To go with what, with the tasteless freaking food bars I'm supposed to push down your throat, idiot? Instead of the well-thought of, and well-prepared retort dancing at the tip of her tongue, the Major simply raised a skeptical eyebrow and glared. He was speaking more fluently, as well, even when his eyes were still very much expressionless. "How do you even know that stuff's chamomile?" she said with an accusatory tone. She noticed he had trouble finding a way to articulate the words. Quickly running out of patience, Asuka turned back to the room and shrugged. "I don't care, do what you want. Don't waste the gas, there's precious little as it is."
The echo of slow, tentative footsteps informed the Second Child the brat was well on his way to squandering her resources on making tea of all things. "Right," she heard him say. "I'll be careful."
Asuka picked up the broken down cellphone and the small console, marched over to the door and slammed it shut, forgetting about Shinji's offer altogether. His slow way of speaking and delayed reactions irked her beyond reason. What the hell is wrong with me? The rage was there, unyielding and coiling against her chest as always; the rotten sensation of absolute lonesomeness was crushing her ribcage as was custom, as well. And yet, something was definitely amiss. It was getting harder to ignore the boy's bandaged hand, and the words in that little video reverberated ceaselessly in her head, even as she collapsed on the stiff mattress and began to play with the WonderSwan. Stupid freaking Suzuhara asking stupid questions, what does it matter to you how he got the stupid cut, you dumb freaking jock? The buttons of her handheld cracked ever so slightly as she applied more force than necessary.
Every time the bandages came into view, every single time, her stomach felt even emptier than usual. The fever, the hollow cheeks, the bruise on his forehead… Screw it, screw him and his little fit. Screw that cut. Yeah, you elbowed him, you hit him. You did that. He hit you, as well, didn't he? Major Shikinami remarked; hands gaining speed as she went through the levels of the game with ease. Someone important to you. Yeah, right. Like we even got to know each other enough to be… He had been smiling that day as he handed her the Bento.
In the solitary existence that was her excuse of a life, bred and trained as a dog of war since she had first opened her eyes, her time in Tokyo had been about the only thing close to normalcy she had ever experienced. And now, fourteen years after, she had seared a permanent mark in the wrist of the boy who had offered her that small box, so long ago. It doesn't matter. The Major reminded her in a hushed whisper. So what? He all but bit me in half, and if I wasn't already inhuman enough, I'm now a freak mixed in with some unholy monster.
Right before her Synch test with Unit 03 there had been… emotions, thoughts, all of them unfamiliar, rattling in her brain and chest, most of them revolving around him. Then he had given her an eye-patch, and a permanent illness which did not even allow her body or brain to grow old. Major Shikinami nodded her approval, but Asuka shook her head, turning off the game with a deep sigh. Yeah, and now I gave him a scar he's going to carry for the rest of his life, however short it is. The choker on her neck felt stifling all of the sudden; the one around his surely felt the same. Four days. You left him in that cage for four days.
Why was it becoming hard to stay angry at him? He had betrayed her, after all; Shinji had fought against her. His inaction had cost her whatever fading meaning had been offered in her young life, or so she liked to believe. And you almost left him to die. Look at him. He's not even there. He was unresponsive for more than five days. You put on those cuffs too tightly, and you knew it. Then you let him sit with that wound, and it festered to the point that it'll leave a nasty mark. And he barely even felt it; the idiot's probably gonna burn the house down trying to make his stupid tea. Her eye twitched; the damned memory of the cellphone returned.
"You should just go and lose someone important to you!"
She shifted on the covers, feeling uncomfortable. Heat and cold rarely bothered her, yet her skin felt frigid. It felt like an irresistible itch all of the sudden; she could charge the stupid cellphone battery with one of Kensuke's many chargers, finding one would not be a problem either. What for? The Major demanded; her frown deepened. You've seen it enough times, you know what happens. If she tried, Asuka could picture the visage of Unit 01 crushing the tip of the Geo-Front, threatening to destroy it. Her hand was on its way to the old phone when a knock on her door froze the redhead in place.
"What?" she growled, hand curling into a fist. Her shoulders tightened when no response came from the other side of the door "Ugh, come in, already."
The door opened and Shinji stepped in as though the room was a landmine field, every step more tentative and hesitant than the other. With the jacket on she could at the very least ignore the gauze, which to her strange and sudden relief showed no concerning stain of suppuration. The steaming glass held in the boy's hand shook slightly while his left held a plate with two protein bars. He stopped advancing towards her and decided to awkwardly stand a few feet away from the door and extend the glass in her direction. "Uhm, your tea."
I don't want it, you freaking child. I don't need it, I don't need anything, not food, nor drink, especially not tea, not from you. Regardless of the Major's demands inside her aching head, Asuka rose from bed and almost snatched the hot glass from him. The scent was unmistakable; the idiot had actually gone and found chamomile. Back when she had had two useful eyes and the world had not been broken into pieces, Asuka recalled how Shinji's gaze would nervously travel between her and the floor, the way he would try to hide from the fact that he was staring. Now, though, he simple stared at a place between her feet and the ground, eyes vacant.
"Such a waste," she said more spitefully than intended, and grumbled low in her throat when the comment elicited no reaction from Shinji. "Using gas to boil water for some herb juice, pff. Next time you can help yourself to the wood and make a fire, brat. That's the last of the house's resources you squander."
When he failed to so much as nod at her statement, Asuka felt like throwing the hot tea on him to see if he would react at last. The grip on the glass increased; seeing both the bandages and the collar made the unease she had been tormented with for the past few days rouse and spread over her senses. She took a drink, blinking at the faint aftertaste that lingered on her tongue. It was rare that she was able to taste a thing, anymore, and yet… the smell and taste of chamomile began to slowly relax her tense muscles, despite the redhead's best efforts to keep them strained and on high alert.
"I…" Shinji muttered, and extended the small plate in her direction. "I found these. Thought you might be hungry."
"I'm not." Downing the hot beverage in a rush, the Major almost pushed the glass back into Shinji's chest; he was slow to retrieve it. "I told you to eat. Now gulp that down before I decide to do it for you again."
Shinji nodded, turning to walk off the room without another word after her not-so-subtle warning sank in. From the corner of her eye, she watched him sit on the table and begin to nibble at one of the bars as he measuredly drank from his own cup. The smell of chamomile floated all through the house; how come Kensuke had never found those stupid little flowers before? The discomfort returned as she stood just barely out of the boy's sight and watched him eat. The military coat began to feel stifling; Asuka noticed she had buttoned it up all the way to her neck the night before. How would he react, she wondered, if he saw her collar? Would he even care at all?
Why would he? And why the hell would I even care? I'm not even human, anymore. Just trapped a human's body, nothing more, she pondered in disgust; the rage started to boil in satisfying fashion once more. How come it was now more directed at the way her life had ended up, and not at him, per se? She had believed for over fourteen years that she'd never see the idiot again. She recalled Mari's words, and the dry explanation Ritsuko had offered so many years before, detailing to her in a very disgustingly scientific manner how Shinji was positively dead for all intents and purposes. One call of his name from a few hundred meters away, in the middle of freaking space, with no rational reasoning or explanation of how or if he had heard it at all, and then the Angel was wiped out.
Fourteen years of nothing, fourteen years of assuming you were nothing but LCL. Pushing her fisted hands into the coat, Asuka walked out of the room and went to sit opposite to the Third Child, with the eye-patch facing him. Her hair was loose for once, devoid of the neural clips. Not that this brat will even notice, or care for that matter. And why the hell does that matter to me? It was just a stupid video, Asuka. It doesn't change anything. You don't need to feel anything, it's pointless. You've grown out of it, and he, pff, he can't even process reality. Why the hell does he keep looking at the stupid roundels?!
The silence stretched between them, interrupted by the sound of Shinji's quiet eating. Several minutes after he was done he sat there, staring at the empty plate without even blinking often, eyes darting ever so frequently to the hat. Putting that stupid blanket on him was a mistake. You tried to do something for someone else once. Yeah, for that brat. And it cost you everything. One look at the clock on the wall and Asuka realized she had not only slept more than her accustomed two hours every four to five days, but also that she had not heard Shinji get up and exit the house. If he was so damn broken, how come he had taken the blanket and covered her with it?
"Suzuhara's bound to arrive soon," she stated. "I don't know, nor do I care where he'll be taking you. He's also going to redress that cut. Get yourself ready. And by that I mean get in the shower." She waited a few seconds, for a reaction, and upon hearing him begin to rise from his chair breathed in a small sigh of relief. He was speaking less, but at least the brat continued to obey simple commands. "Don't get the bandages wet."
The sound of Shinji gently placing the plates and glasses on the sink made her shift her gaze, the redhead caught the moment when he grazed the spot where the wound was against the counter and hiss quietly to himself. The image of the infection returned; flesh becoming purple and red and pink all over, pus leaking out of the cut, the edges widening with each day that bacteria feasted on the damaged tissue. It was bound to leave a permanent mark.
Her jaw tightened in an effort to say nothing, to no avail. "That shouldn't have happened," the words bled out of her despite the Major's best efforts to bury them. The hollowness was stifling; the weight of it felt it would drown her anger at any given point.
"Huh?" For once ever since offering the tea, Shinji reacted with more than silent compliance. "What do you m-"
"That wound on your wrist. You don't even remember, do you?" Watching him shake his head only managed to drive the nausea deeper into her belly. Of course he had no memory of it. "I put those cuffs on you. I put them on too tightly, and twisted them. That wasn't supposed to happen."
Shinji paused, taken aback, reacting quicker than she had seen in the last few days. "What? Cuffs? I don't…" His gaze shifted to the injured hand. "Is that… what happened?"
"Yes, it was." Asuka turned her head to glare at the wall. "Sure, you let it fester to the point of considering amputation, but it shouldn't have been there in the first place." She rose in a flash, hands still deep in the jacket pockets, and walked over to the door. A bit of fresh air was sure to ease the unrest the stupid bandages ignited. The video flashed in her mind for the umpteenth time. "Careful with the gauze. Do as you're told, brat. Shower. Second door to your right. Towels are next to the mirror."
Apparently still in a daze from the information he had just received; Asuka watched him move what looked like extremely stiff limbs and enclose himself in the bathroom. The Major glowered. What the hell was that, huh? What was that? Shouldn't have happened, what? You know what shouldn't have happened? Him attacking me; now that shouldn't have happened. Him trying to end the world, maybe that. Has he even tried to apologize for that? Of course not. Stupid brat can hardly talk. Despite her initial thoughts, the crisp morning air did little to settle her mood; having him in the house and barely reacting to her at all was getting increasingly annoying.
Her life had always been empty, fueled by nothing short of the basic instinct to survive and thrive. How many like her own had she defeated, if only to see the light of the next day? How long had she been living one day after the other, not truly realizing if time passed or not? It was always so cold. Even clad in the military coat, she shivered; her covered eye itched and her mood worsened with every passing second.
"I'm so tired of looking after this dumb brat," she whispered, eye fixed on the green patches of forest. There was nothing waiting for her at the village, nothing except the stares. Lilim had long since become annoying. "I've always been alone. I'd much rather be alone than with him," came the quiet statement; her tone grew increasingly melancholic without her realizing it. "Of course that brat wouldn't make any difference. He never did. He doesn't do anything, and when he does it backfires and makes everything worse." He was weak; Shinji was both weak of mind and body, and more than useless in his current state. "Pathetic."
It was unclear to her which was more pathetic; his attitude and actions, or her stupid thoughts. Why the hell had he made her feel accompanied that one time? The recollection was brutally suppressed; she refused to remember the night in Misato's apartment, along with the sensation of companionship and warmth it brought about. It doesn't matter. Nothing matters. Nothing except the next mission. You're alone, Asuka. The festering wound and dead stare flashed through her mind. And it's for the best.
The wood and metal constructing the restroom wall stared back at Shinji as he stood there, motionless. He was supposed to shower and go with Toji to the village. Why? Every person there probably detested him as much as the crew members of the Wunder, if not more. There was no point in him going out, there was no point in him doing anything, anymore. The memories of being pushed and dragged through the remains of a city, all cloaked in red, had begun to resurface. Gigantic arms stretching from the ground, a bloodied, cross-covered moon hovering above, the scent of blood at every turn, on each corner. Asuka's glare, disappointment and disgust with his person. Rei, or rather, a different Rei.
What was the point of it all? He was to continue living and take care of himself survive and fulfill whatever it was the Second Child wanted him to do. She won't let me just disappear, because I don't deserve something as good as death. I have to carry on. Shower. Barely acknowledging his own reflection in the mirror, Shinji undressed and stepped in the small, reconstructed space and let the cold water impact his skin, minding to keep the bandages out of the way. "Shouldn't have happened," he muttered, shivering lightly. He had taken the antibiotic right along with the food rations, as instructed by Toji the day before.
His memory became fuzzy after leaving the house where the bandages had been replaced and the wound cleansed. There was a hazy recollection of Asuka taking him by the arm, walking through what felt like a while until they reached the house. He shivered; the aches and tremors were slowly starting to fade; his wrist would throb constantly and flare if he moved his hand too much, but the pain was barely registered. I wish I could just not think, just… The words he had last read in the dictionary bounced in his head.
Precisely due to his unwillingness to do anything Unit 03 had been brutally destroyed, and his desire to disappear had only earned him a disease and a heavily infected cut. Why was it, then, that all he still wanted to do was to curl up and die in some corner? All I ever do is hurt people, he mused while toweling off; a faint glimpse at the gauze ensured it had not gotten soaked during the brief shower. Smaller, not so extreme quakes continued to run up and down his body until he finished redressing. His nose caught the faint scent of strawberries.
The image of blood splattering all over the Entry Plug had awoken him early in the morning; every now and then the flashback returned with a vengeance. He caught a glimpse of the DSS choker in the mirror and felt a wave of heavy nausea assault him, eyes quickly darting over to the door. In an attempt to calm his aching head the sudden need to retch, Shinji picked up a wooden spoon lying next to a water bowl and drank several times. The dizziness abated to an extent; the agony clouding his mind only seemed to increase as he dressed.
Out there, in whichever place they were, everyone had been subjected to his foolishness and were probably forced to struggle in order to see the following day. And it's all my fault. I did all this, and I can't even starve myself in peace. Why do I have to do anything? A jab of vicious rebelliousness almost managed to make him consider forgetting all about Asuka's words and her ridiculous demands, even living to serve out some long, painful life felt like too good a castigation. "Failure to do anything," He recited, despite his psyche being all but shattered into a million pieces, the words in the dictionary were seared into whatever awareness he still possessed. "That might provide a solution to a problem."
He tried clenching his fist and the cut underneath the gauze burned its displeasure into his pain receptors. "Lack of action when some is expected or appropriate." He muttered in monotone; whenever he focused on the words, or on the recollection of the last song in the cassette, his mind relaxed. Kaworu's body exploding was momentarily suppressed under the image of that cap, and the two roundels stuck to the black material.
Once he exited the restroom, Shinji realized for the first time that the house had two bedrooms, a bathroom and the living room-kitchen; the small futon where he had slept the night before laid on a corner with both the jacket and book resting on the soft material. Voices filtered from the other side of the door; he recognized Asuka's clipped responses and Toji's somewhat amiable inquiries, and felt his limbs grow increasingly heavy. I don't want to go anywhere, he realized. I don't want to do anything. Every time I do something, everybody gets hurt. I should just die, but I can't.
"Redemption," he spat out quietly, lightly glaring at the floor. What a joke, as is I could ever make it up for ev-
The door opened, derailing his train of thought, and the elder Suzuhara came walking in with a placid smile. "Hey, Ikari. You're looking a bit better, already. Did you make those soups I gave you? And did you take the antibiotics?"
His gaze shifted, absent eyes drawing to the man who had once been his schoolmate. So many years had passed, so much hurting brought about to everyone just because he tried to save somebody important after failing. "Hi, Toji," he muttered; cobalt orbs dancing between the man in the coat and the wooden floor under his feet. He was wearing the pants offered to him in the vessel; the shirt did little to cover his skin from the cold gush of wind that snuck through the opened door. "Yeah," producing the package which contained the pills, Shinji showed the first two had already been consumed. "One in the morning… and in the afternoon."
"Great!" He pointed towards the table. "I'm glad you're feeling better. You're up and about and you're not shaking every few seconds. Please, take a seat." The former jock kept his positive attitude, noticing the Third Child's mental condition was the same, if not worse than the day before. "Let's see how that cut is doing, okay?"
Shinji nodded and said nothing as Toji carefully looked over the bandages and prodded the area around the wound; it disturbed him to see the boy barely reacted each time he pressed against one the healing edges to see if any suppuration was present. His skin was no longer clammy or hot to the touch, which meant the worst of the fever had passed. Looks to be healing well enough, I don't see any stains or moisture. "I think we can wait until the afternoon until we change these. You've been really careful with it, huh?"
Again, silence and a stiff nod were his answer as Shinji continued to stare at the ground; his arm barely twitched at all whilst the bandage was being analyzed. He watched a pair of cuffs lying on the ground, discarded far apart from the black cap and the game resting on the table. So that's what happened, I think I remember her carrying those cuffs before they boarded. No wonder Shikinami can't even look at it. Just as he had expected, she was in her perpetual terrible mood, yet something changed the night before, to be sure. The wrath in her eye was not so extreme; if he had to guess she looked like she was itching to ask or say something to Shinji. She probably saw that video Kensuke told me about. Funny how she keeps calling Shinji a brat. All grown up, right, Major? Pff, yeah right.
"Well," The man rose, smile widening, and extended a hand towards the motionless teen who barely blinked at all as he stared at the ground. "You're definitely doing better. A little movement won't hurt, but we won't go all around the place today. I think there's plenty of time for that. Some fresh air, some hot food, some familiar faces."
I really hopes it helps even a little, Shinji. He pondered as they both headed for the door; Shinji's steps were steadier, he noticed, the fumbling of his feet had reduced considerably. He also caught how the boy's eyes momentarily drifted to the futon where a large book lay next to the red jacket. The air in the small house was permeated with tension, one which he suspected was not to diminish in the slightest even if he took the Third Child away. It was a welcomed blessing to step outside and smell the fresh morning air.
"See ya, Shikinami!" Toji waved, walking towards the settlement. "Don't worry, Ikari's in good hands."
"Like I give a damn," snapped the redhead, and as though wanting to contradict herself marched into the house in a flash. "Hey, brat!"
Shinji turned just in time to have the soft material impact against his face. The jacket almost slid into the ground, Toiji raised a surprised eyebrow upon realizing Shinji moved quicker than he'd seen all morning to keep the piece of fabric from falling on the moist grass. A swift, knowing smirk was hidden away as the elder Suzuhara averted his head to stare at the village.
"It's cold, you dimwit." Asuka growled from the house. "Don't get it dirty." The door closed with a boisterous thud after she disappeared inside. A gush of cold morning breeze made Shinji shiver slightly; he held the fabric in between his hands, as through trying to understand the girl's incongruous actions with an already fractured, recovering mind. The task alone would break any man's psyche, sane or not.
He patted the boy's shoulder, satisfied that the male pilot jumped slightly at the contact. "She's right, it's been cold lately."
"Okay," he said. Once clothed in the garment, both former classmates made their way into the village. The sound of chickens, dogs, birds and ultimately people became clear; Shinji's legs refused to work properly the more he neared the settlement. These were all people who had suffered because of him; whatever life they had aspired to build was certain to be difficult in the broken world he had left behind. His penance was now to look at the lives he had permanently altered and wallow even more in misery; as if there was anything at all he could possibly do to remedy destroying everything. I don't want to do anything, he realized, forcing the stiff limbs forward. I shouldn't do anything.
"Inaction," he muttered, barely loud enough for Toji to hear. The chilling sensation of regret and guilt curled and enveloped him, forcing cold into his skin despite the warmth Asuka's jacket offered. His feet felt unnaturally heavy, his body unresponsive; the sickness coursing through his veins had abated, giving ample space for the unimaginable shock and remorse which had forced him to try and initiate a true Third Impact.
"Hmm?" inquired the older man after a while, pretending he had not recognized the word.
Shinji lowered his head even more the moment he realized more and more people were starting to appear. "Nothing." His tone came out weak and strained, almost shaking at the end. He's probably expecting everyone out there to lynch him or something, Toji mused, eyes growing heavy with sympathy. Can't blame him after the way Misato, Shikinami and everyone in Wunder have been treating him. "Just… something I read."
The black-haired man let a tight smile shine through his features. "Oh, you've been reading? That's great to know! Rei has been asking about some books, actually." It brightened Toji's mood to see a minimal, almost non-existent glimmer of curiosity dance in Shinji's eyes for a fraction of a second. "We're going over to my house right now; Rei's probably out in the fields, but she'll be home later today. If you feel up for it, we could try visiting the fields, as well."
"The fields?" murmured the Third Child. Every step made him more ashamed, tensed his muscles with hesitation as regret made it impossible to properly grasp what was being said to him. "Rei is working in the fields?"
"Yeah, she was curious, still is, about lots of things." They were about to enter one of the living districts; Toji's keen eyes kept a firm vigil on the boy's behavior. Exposing him to people so early after his arrival had probably not been the best idea, however, there was hardly another way to have him see Rei. "There's lot of crops all over the place. This is Village -3, Shinji, one of the largest settlements."
"Hey, Suzuhara!" Came a sudden yell from his right. A large, bald, bearded man waved amiably at the pair, pausing just a few feet from them both. Shinji stared at the ground, head low, opting to enclose himself in his mind than to deal with the glares of strangers. "I heard the next shipment is about to arrive in a few days! Did Wunder follow through with the medical supplies?"
Toji crossed his arms and smiled placidly. "Yeah, you bet they came through." He motioned towards Shinji, to which the man responded with a smirk of his own. "Did we get any other communication from Kredit?"
"Not much, only a heads-up to get ourselves ready for a possible outage of resources in about a month," The larger man shrugged, shifting his gaze to the youth quietly standing beside Toji. "And I guess you would be Ikari, right?" With a nod that evidently went unseen, the man drank in the sight of the renowned Third Child. Poor kid. Reminds me a lot of Shikinami. "I'm Koga, nice to meet you!"
It was sad to see honest shock shine in the boy's gaze. "Nice to meet you." Shinji bowed his head and made eye contact with the bearded stranger; Koga tried his best not to cringe at the absolute, overwhelming defeat, misery and haziness in the youngster's gaze.
The man tapped Toji's shoulder; they exchanged a knowing look and physician offered a minimal nod. "Send my love to the family, doc! Thanks for talking care of my boy's arm."
"You say that every time, it's been four months, already, Koga!" They shook hands and the man picked up the large bag he had been carrying, hurled it over his shoulder and began to walk away. "I'll give the family your love! And please do give my regards to yours!"
"Will do! See ya, doc! Take care, Ikari!"
The mention of his last name made Shinji rear his head to the man's retreating back. He realized they were now standing amidst houses, railroad tracks and wagons. Women, men and children walked, some more hurriedly than others, laughing, joking and occasionally waving at Toji as he followed the older man wherever they were supposed to be going. The man continued to speak to him, going into detail about whatever this Kredit organization was and how they were the ones endorsing the village's existence and how their crops and fields worked. It all became white noise to him at some point.
Discomfort blossomed within his stomach and spread over his chest; amidst whatever little of reality he was able to comprehend, Shinji did notice something. There were no glares. The discomfort ripened and expanded, turning into something akin to annoyance or anger. Toji droned on about the systems in place made to prevent whatever he had done to the atmosphere from stopping the existence of human life, or how the hills and areas abandoned by the event's destruction were now quintessential for the continued production of food and water.
His brow furrowed upon looking at the crimson coloring of the jacket he wore. Even Asuka was acting strange, lately. Her hatred he could take; he had fought her, after all, struck her and refused to listen, even when she had been the voice of reason in that situation. Being the brat he was, as she liked to call him nowadays, he had acted stupidly and Kaworu's body had exploded before him as a result. Of course, she was only making sure he did not get his wish of dying an easy, pointless death. She didn't have to give you her jacket, though. And she did.
Greetings, happy waves and smiles were all around as he followed Toji; a blue sky filled with white clouds glared down at him, the smell of damp earth, animals and smoke registered in his tired brain, along with the scent of LCL and strawberries coming from the jacket he wore. The color did not sit well with him all of the sudden; dressed in red and white, he was sure to be easy to spot from far away. The inhabitants of the village would distinguish the harbinger of chaos and destruction, the living, breathing reason the moon was gigantic and cross-hatched with blood.
More greetings, a dirt road that became sturdy rock, Toji saying something about the way the air was purified and the effects of the near Third Impact were minimized in the establishment; he grasped none of it. The unease was gaining strength and becoming unbearable with every friendly smile thrown his way. Maybe they just don't know, he reasoned; his brow twitched. His hand clenched and unclenched, the gash by his wrist burned lightly. Why would they smile like that, otherwise?
"- and that right there is one of the main generators. Neat, isn't it? Without it, it'd be pretty hard for us to breathe. Hah, and look! See all those solar panels? Every house has its own electricity supply, not too much, but more than enough for what we need. Ah, look, here we are!" Shinji tried his best to remember the trail they had just walked through, or how long they had been walking; little came to receive him. There was a strange familiarity in the scenery, one he did not fully understand yet.
The door to the house before him opened, revealing a brown-haired woman wearing an apron and, if Shinji had to guess, the sounds of a toddler behind her. "Hi, Toji! I didn't expect you so early! Oh, Ikari-kun! Welcome!"
His eyes broadened ever so slightly. "Hokari?" His eyes recognized a few of the freckles around her nose and cheeks. "I, thank you." She smiled at him as well, so did the other members of the household, right down to the eldest member of the Suzuhara family. Amiable conversation permeated the air of the living room, a vast contrast to the ambient in the house he had slept on the night before. They sat, asked him questions he barely answered with more than a few words forced through his stiff lips. Not even the fever's bone-crunching agony had felt this uncomfortable.
Nobody said a word about the fact that he sat in a corner, hugging his knees to his chest and basically hiding his face from everyone as lunch was served. They offered him a bowl of stew, which he accepted and ate once Asuka's words rang back in his mind. Time became inconsistent; he was unable to grasp the meaning of what they said, and even the amount of people in the house was lost to him. Some came, left, others came around. They all greeted him with a smile, they all recognized him and smiled at him.
Shinji's jaw clenched. His hands gripped the jacket sleeves with vehemence.
Why are they being so nice? Why can't they be like the people in the ship? The cut burned as he pressed the bandaged area around his knee. The household members continued to amiably share details about their days and activities; it felt as though his presence was not even bothering them at all. They did not ignore him, neither did they reject or push him away. The Suzuhara household simply let him be. He sat, knees drawn to his chest, bowl of stew half-emptied, barely responding to them, and they continued to smile. A frown began to manifest; the more they laughed and seemed to enjoy life in the world he had broken, the more the discomfort grew. Why can't they just be like Asuka?
The house was small and inviting; the eldest Suzuhara spoke gently and amiably, Hikari's child was chubby and healthy. Why were they happy in the planet he had destroyed? If I do nothing, everyone suffers. If I do something, everyone suffers. The voices quieted down eventually; the small entourage diminished until naught but Toji, Hikari, their child and the elder man remained. The babe began to wail; he saw the former Class Rep console it with a grin, saw Toji hug her and try to offer a helping hand. His grip on the soft fabric increased; why was he in the house, again?
At some point in the day Toji redressed the cut and commented how it was healing nicely. Memories of seeing the wound grow increasingly red and purple bled into his brain, flashes of the cage he was held in became clear; a hand pulling his arm along, forcing him to move. When had he taken off the Plug Suit? At long last, the memory of red hands curling metal rings on his wrists resurfaced. He had no recollection of the pain or when, exactly, the cut had been produced.
Shinji dabbed at his eyes; he had been frowning at the floor for way too long. He noticed Hikari and Toji sitting by the table, with Hikari rocking the baby gently on her lap as the child giggled and gurgled with joy. His eyebrow twitched; had they told him the child's name, already?
"Come on, Tsubame, be nice to your Mama's apron, now," Hikari said as the child tugged at the fabric. "I think she's about to arrive. We should let them go and take a walk, Toji. It might be good. Oh, is Ikari wearing..?"
"Oh, yeah. You told me about that. I'll be right back," he heard the former jock say as he sprinted towards one of the rooms. He was left alone with Hikari and the baby; every few seconds the young woman would address with a sympathetic, melancholic glance. It was the same look the others in the village had given the Third Child; there was hardly any pity in it. Their eyes irked him, their smiles angered him; the sound of the baby being so alive almost forced him to rise and escape the house.
"I know it must be pretty hard for you, right now, Shinji," Hikari told him, managing to draw his half-frown to her. "That's a nice jacket you have there."
Realizing his hands were still gripping the sleeves with vehemence, Shinji recalled to whom exactly the garment belonged. She said I could keep it, though. Did she mean it? "Thank you, Hokari." He had eaten slowly, forcing the food into his mouth despite not being hungry at all; he was to eat and take care of himself. He was to survive, and struggle, whatever that meant. "It's not mine," he confessed quietly. "At least, I don't know if it is."
At the very least, he had had made certain no food stains had tarnished the red and white cloth.
"We wouldn't want it to get ruined, would we?" Toji's voice rang from afar; he carried a bundle of black and white clothes, which he placed next to him with the same patient, gentle smile every other person drove his way. The discomfort blossomed into anger. "Try that on, it's some of my old stuff," clarified the village doctor with a smirk. "Trust me, they're comfortable and clean."
He did as he was told; Shinji walked over to the small restroom, changed into the track suit and returned to sit in the same corner, with the pants provided by him and Asuka's jacket neatly folded beside him. Neither member of the Suzuhara household tried to speak with him further; he remained there, immobile, anger rising in his chest, until the child screamed out its hunger and managed to distract him.
"What's," he started, licking his lips and realizing his throat was dry. When had he last had water? "What's the name of the baby?"
His eyes drifted to the familiar voice; Shinji's eyes widened instantly. Rei Q was standing by the door, dirt and grime clinging to the boots and cloak she wore on top of the black plugsuit, cheeks slightly flushed and crimson eyes staring back at him. Ayanami's eyes, and at the same time, not her eyes at all. Familiarity shone in her gaze.
"Ikari-kun," she greeted with a hesitant smile. Again, the bitterness coiled through his insides; he could not stand their kindness any longer. "I am glad to see you."
He stood abruptly, hands curled into fists, and marched out of the house without another word, holding nothing but the redhead's jacket in between his fists. It was too much; their gentle voices, the baby's cries, the sound of dogs, cats, birds, the smell of fresh water and moist earth. He detested how neither Hikari nor Toji said a word and simply allowed him to storm out in a haste, detested how as he passed by Rei, she immediately began to trail behind him. The strides became more hurried; he had no clue where he was or where he was going, any place without people or nice little smiles directed his way would suffice.
A prisoner, was he? Allowed to wander around, leave when he pleased with not a word or so much as a glare while he basically began to sprint, desperate to get away. How was he a prisoner if everybody kept smiling at him like there was nothing wrong? He pushed past strangers who aside from an initial annoyed glance spared him nothing more than those friendly little grins. His head bowed until it was almost touching his chin. Something caught his attention as he neared the remains of a large building where NERV's logo was barely recognizable. The glistening reflection of the sun crashing against the battered ruins drew his attention; he could not recall ever seeing the ocean so blue.
Gentle waves crashed against the concrete, ocean breeze welcomed with along with the smell of saltwater, the horizon stretched before him, blue disappearing and turning into crimson after a few miles. The red-covered moon reflected in the sea, as though not willing to let him forget for a single second about his actions. He heard the girl's steps approach him after a few minutes of staring into the water. His gaze shifted to the jacket curled up in his fist; why was he even bothering to carry it anywhere? There's no point. There's nothing I can do. How can I pay a penance against everybody in the world? He turned back to the building and sat on the hard surface of the largest room, opting to stare at a wall and not the water.
The disease waned with every passing hour, but the memories and the weight of his actions felt like a sickness much more horrendous than any fever or infection. Not even trying to close off his brain and self into shock had worked; the promise of oblivion after starving himself had been hastily removed with Asuka's demands. I really don't see why I should live on only because she tells me to. Every time I do something somebody gets hurts, or dies. Kaworu's smile before the choker exploded ran through his mind.
Shinji shook his head to clear it of the memory, yet despite his best efforts, the nausea manifested. The relaxed and amiable expressions came next; driving the desire to retch away for the moment, and instead filling his stomach with bitter resentment. Towards himself, towards his father, towards his own foolishness and ignorance, towards those happy women, men and children; it became stifling as he held onto the red fabric and did his best effort to not rip it to shreds.
"Ikari-kun," Rei's voice echoed through the empty hall. "I heard you were unwell. Are you faring better?"
Why does that matter? Clenching and unclenching the bandaged hand was evidence enough; the pain was also becoming less scalding as time went by. He was not shaking, nor was he sweating and shivering simultaneously. Why was it than the pain in his chest never abated, then? "I'm fine," he responded, drawing his knees into his chest and hugging them along with the jacket. "I was sick, but I'm feeling better now."
Was he feeling better, though? With every passing second the anger pulsed along with his heartbeat and spread over him like the infection had some days before. What the hell is this punishment of mine supposed to be? The SDAT lay forgotten, resting beside the dictionary; there was no possibility of just listening to the tapes and escaping. He had no clue of where he was, or where he had run to, Shinji honestly had no idea of how to return to either the Suzuhara household or the house where Asuka apparently lived.
"Why did you fall ill?" Rei inquired next; a backward glance revealed she was a good ten feet away from him. Her gaze was filled with what he could only describe as childish curiosity and wonder. "I have noticed some villagers fall sick at times. Were you soaked by the rain?"
"No," Shinji proclaimed through gritted teeth. He could not remember at which point his body had begun to throb, or when the fevers had first manifested. His eyes drifted to the bandages, and to the memories of the cell where Asuka had condemned him to live on. "I got an infection, and a fever."
"Oh." Quiet footsteps approached him, yet he refused to turn his head again. "I am glad to hear that, Ikari-kun."
Something cracked or broke; the pressure in his chest became unbearable.
"Why?" he asked, bitterness dripping off his tone.
"Hm?" The girl drew closer still, yet was still a good five feet away. "Why what, Ikari-kun?"
"Why are you glad?" His erratic breathing increased, the frown turned into a glare, which he turned to Rei, incensed. "Why are you glad I'm better? You barely even know me. Why are people glad? Why are they happy, here?" He curled even tighter into himself. "Why are they all smiling at me! Don't they know what I did?"
Rei titled her head to the side. "What you did? Do you mean Third Impact?"
"Yes! Of course I mean Third Impact!" he half-yelled, half sobbed; the anger mingled with agony and guilt, the simple task of articulating words, which had eluded him for days on end, now became stifling. "I'm the reason everything in this world is broken! How come they're all smiling?! How come they're smiling at me?!"
"Why would they not?" rebuked the Ayanami clone, forcing Shinji's eyes to widen in shock. "I am learning many things about this world," she revealed, and showed Shinji the brownish stains in her hands. "It would seem planting rice is a rather difficult task. It would also seem that I… truly know very little of everything that was not my purpose. I may not know much, but I know I do not dislike you, Ikari-kun. I do not believe anyone here does, either."
Feeling increasingly frustrated, Shinji climbed to his feet and threw the jacket he had been protecting so long to the ground. "That's exactly it! Nobody should like me! I don't want anyone to smile at me! I don't want anyone to look at me, or talk to me! I don't want anything!"
He panted, feeling the weariness of whatever remained of the disease burn through his stiff muscles as they complained at the abrupt movement. The wound around his wrist wailed in discontent while his fists continued to tighten and glared at the ground. A few more inches to the left, and Asuka's jacket would have been most likely been ruined by a puddle of dirty water lying next to it. "Every time, every single I try to do something, I end up messing it up," added the Third Child in a desperate whisper. "So I should just not do anything at all."
The silence that followed soon after was only interrupted by the sound of the sea, of birds flying by, and by Shinji's own irregular breathing. Despite voicing out his anger and frustration, there was no unburdening in his rib cage, his heart and mind both felt constricted and broken to pieces. I almost ruined Asuka's jacket, and for what? The wrath vanished far swifter than it had arrived, leaving nothing but more helplessness and exhaustion behind. It was so tiring, everything was so overbearingly exhausting.
"Do you believe doing nothing will help improve your state of mind?" Rei said, devoid of any malice. Her tone was inquisitive at best. "If that is the case, perhaps doing nothing is the proper course."
If that came from Asuka, it would've been terribly sarcastic, he mused, shaking his head. "I wish it were so easy," My punishment must be more severe. And what better punishment than seeing all those people smile at me? "I can't. I'm not allowed to just do nothing."
Rei blinked in surprise. "And who is denying you this, Ikari-kun?"
Asuka, his mind provided with ease, and just as the name surfaced, so did the self-disgust. Whatever her reasons, Asuka had done nothing short of ensuring he was still alive, to his own dismay. Myself. I say I want to die, but it terrifies me. I just don't know. I don't want to live. "I'm a prisoner." He revealed bitterly.
"No, you're not."
Both teens turned to Toji, who was leaning on one of the broken down walls, with the lopsided smile he had been wearing all morning dancing on his lips. "Nobody here thinks you're a prisoner. It might be some stupid formality Wille pushed into Shikinami, but to us, you're just Ikari. We're glad to have you here."
"Why?" demanded the boy a second time. "Why would you be happy to have me here?! Don't you know wh-"
"Third Impact, or Near Third Impact, however they call it, brought a lot of terrible things," the doctor interjected. "But I'd be lying to you if I said it's been all bad or something. Lots of incredible things have happened, as well." He motioned behind him, where the village was located. "We've persevered, despite the circumstances. I'm married, and have a beautiful child. Hell, Kensuke's our Commander! Remember him?" Shinji nodded absently, recalling the bespectacled boy. "You'll probably meet him soon, anyway. He'll also be happy to see you, believe or not."
Shinji shook his head, eyes darting to the garment thrown on the ground. It would seem Asuka was the only one in the village who made any sense in her behavior towards him. "You shouldn't waste time on me," whispered the male pilot. She never smiled at him; the redhead never smiled at all, and of course, it was due to him. "After what I've done, I haven't done anything to deserve this… kindness."
Regardless of his best efforts to be rid of those happy grins, Shinji's words had the opposite effect on Toji; the man's smile widened, brown eyes softening in relief. "It's nice to see you more lucid, Ikari. I'm really glad you're slowly getting better." In a vast contrast to the first time he had seen Shinji, completely catatonic and unresponsive, the boy was now talking without stammering half as much, his eyes were more alive, even if it was anger what shone in his gaze. "Come on, I'll take you back after I change those bandages. Hikari and Tsubame send their love. You know the way back to the house, right, Rei? Tsuba can't wait to play with you!"
"Oh, yes, Tsuba-kun," the blue-haired girl began to walk away, not before shifting to gaze at the Third Child and give him yet another unearned smile. "It was nice to see you, Ikari-kun. I hope your health continues to improve. I was very glad to have spent time you you, today. I will be in the Suzuhara household."
Toji chuckled. "I think you're gonna see a lot more of him in the coming days," he commented as Rei made her way back. Some unnamed burden on his shoulders slackened somewhat; Ikari was at least present, able to articulate sentences, and moving more normally than before. "Let's leave the fields for some other day. Time to get you back."
Irresolute of what to do and feeling the edges of his mind begin to close off again, he allowed himself to be led back, not before picking up the jacket from the floor. He folded it as neatly as possible, glad to see no concerning dirt marks on the white and red cloth, and trailed behind Toji a few seconds afterwards. He would have forgotten the jacket altogether, had the man not pointed at it with a knowing smirk before he began walking away. Why am I following him? Why am I doing anything? Why didn't I just stay there? Why was Rei so nice to me, just now?
Unlike when arriving at the ruins, this time Shinji's mind was able to memorize certain paths, the overall appearance of the village; the features of the villagers molded from shadows with smiles to actual humans. The scents of oil, dirt, sweat and food being prepared, the feeling of loose earth and stone under his feet, the gush of the wind, or the different weight and fabric of the track suit he had been given provided; he could process most of these sensations. Some time had passed since the sight of blood all over and the grimy remains of Kaworu had washed over, and the fatigue born out of the fever had allowed him two nights of a dreamless slumber.
The walk back to Toji's house revealed just how much distance he had covered in what had felt like a fleeting dash to escape. Fear began to bubble in his gut and chest; if he was anchored to reality, after all, nothing would protect him from the memories.
When he returned to the Suzuhara household, Shinji was once again greeted by most of the family. He tried his best to smile back but was thoroughly unable, no matter how fervently he forced a smirk to manifest. The Third Child spoke a bit more with Rei, felt a strange sense of relief upon watching her brimming with curiosity, and sat at the table instead of in the corner to have the wound reinspected.
"By the looks of it, we won't be needing the bandages in another day." His eyes drifted to the wound for what felt like the first time, glancing at the shape and length of the cut. It began just above his wrist bone and stretched all the way down to the underside of his forearm. It was not deep, or at least had not been at the beginning; the infection had broadened the edges and still, after some days of being thoroughly washed and redressed, was a tad swollen. He hissed when the antiseptic was applied.
"I know it stings, we'll be done soon," Toji mentioned with a chuckle. "It's healing quite well, Ikari. We're done. Do you want to go back, now?"
Do I have a choice? He wondered, but remembered Suzuhara himself had told him nobody in the village saw him as a prisoner, regardless of the fact that he was, indeed, the one at fault for destroying everything. In all fairness, Asuka had not once mentioned if she minded or cared if he returned. "Yeah," he agreed hesitantly, eyes drawing to the jacket resting by the table. "I guess."
"I'm telling you, she doesn't hate you." A hand squeezed Shinji's right shoulder. "Shikinami gave you that jacket, didn't she? I've known her for fourteen years. She's never given anybody anything."
Howver comforting the statement was supposed to be, it only made Shinji want to curl into a ball and die on the floor, far away from where her resentful eye could reach. Fourteen years. Fourteen years about a life I know nothing about. Fourteen years living with whatever I did to her. Whatever Father did to her with my hands. Inaction. Inaction, Shinji. "How can I ever even," he started, staring at his palms. "I don't know what to do."
Toji shared a knowing smirk with Hikari, who gently lay a small covered bowl on the table. "Here, Ikari-kun. There's not that much to go around, but here are some fresh ingredients Father got today. Maybe you should try cooking something for her," offered the young woman. Asuka's 'condition' was well known, but it would most definitely not hurt to make the female feel some sort of familiarity. They both recalled her face while eating those Bentos in school, after all. "I'm sure she'd like that."
"You should just go and lose someone important to you, too!"
She paused the video feed, glaring at the dented object with renewed irritation. This was the fifth time she had seen the damn video in a row after charging the old phone. Five times, already. Why did hearing those stupid little words made her chest shudder? The small admission meant nothing, not after fourteen years, and yet it bled a different type of remorse and bitterness, not at all the anger and hollowness she had gotten so accustomed to. Stop this crap, stop it. The Major demanded, baring her teeth as the eye underneath the eyepatch shone bright blue. So what, that tantrum suddenly solves everything, huh? That's it. Stop. Stop. She remembered the sight of him after the Impact had been avoided, the way he could not even stand or move on his own. Why had she even bothered to take him?
"What, and make Nerv's plans easier to accomplish by bringing them their favorite little catalyst for destruction?" she asked the empty house the perpetual frown wrinkling her features. "Or let him die like he wanted to, die easy. No questions asked, just let him rot in his own inadequacy." Hours and hours had gone by, hours in which the batteries of her WonderSwan had died, and she had felt too lazy to scavenge for some extras in the many boxes littered around the house.
She had promised to punish him, or more accurately, to let life punish him until such point that she was satisfied. And what would satisfy her? Why did she feel unease at the thought of him dying, after having considered him dead for over fourteen years? Your punishment must be more severe, brat. For a while, the pilot had thought seeing or causing Shinji pain would suffice. It made her sick instead. Her finger was about to press play for a sixth time; it halted just centimeters away from the screen. Stop. This is foolish, it's a waste. Stop pretending like you actually give a damn. Stop!
The cellphone was hurled against the nearest wall; the state of it was already so deplorable that it broke into several pieces after she used all of her strength to hurl it as far away from her as possible. Standing from the one available bed in a fluid motion, Asuka forced herself to not look at the broken pieces lying on the floor as she made her way to the bathroom.
Good riddance, she pondered, ignoring the stab of agony that tightened around her heart and squeezed. It was getting ridiculous. You're alone, Asuka. Never forget that, never, ever. You're alone. That Shinji… is no longer Baka-Shinji. Having done little else than lay around playing her games throughout the better part of the day, just as the sun had begun to set, the Second Child's attention had focused on the now ruined little device. The result of his actions, however heroic in nature, had probably broken him beyond repair or possibility of return, already. He's weak, after all. Always was, and now on top of it all, he's broken.
The Entry Plug lay just outside the house; Asuka paused and stared at it for a long time. That Plug was most likely to be her coffin in the near future; the thought was strangely reassuring. She had been going about from one morning to the next, surviving, existing, but not truly living for so long, that the thought of a life beyond her next mission had become nonexistent.
And yet, the taste and smell of chamomile had reminded her of days past, of a small apartment and a penguin. For a fleeting moment in that lonesome existence she had felt like something akin to a human, to the extent that she had taken Rei's place as the pilot of Unit 03, in an attempt to have the First Child make her little dinner with the Commander and his bratty son. Yeah, and look where that got you, her hand traced the eyepatch's surface. A day in which she had tried to so something other than exist for her given purpose had taught her how foolish it had all been.
The Entry Plug remained impassive; out of place beside the small house, strange, intimidatingly unfamiliar, and sticking out like an abnormality, just like its owner. How long now, how long had she been merely surviving until the next day? However empty, that existence had been something she had grown very used to; she was supposed to be a pilot, be the best, to fight and win. Otherwise nobody would accept her. Asuka sighed and shook her head. As if anybody other than Four Eyes or Kensuke had truly accepted her as she was. An entire existence, over twenty eight years, doing nothing but fighting, training, and seething in anger and solitude.
Something about keeping the idiot from letting himself die felt odd, almost compelling in a sickening, unreasonable way. It's just something different to do, that's all, the redhead reasoned, nodding to herself. Compelling, bah. I'd wish for nothing else than to have that brat as far away from me as possible. I don't care about him. I don't care.
There was nothing else other than the next mission, nothing. Fourteen years had flown by; years meant nothing to her, not anymore. Then, how come a month felt like too little time, all of the sudden? I thought I was waiting for this, this one last chance to stop those bastards. One chance to finally fall asleep again. She undressed and stared at her reflection, glaring deep at a body that betrayed all logic and reasoning, a body that did not age nor change. Her hair and nails grew, but nothing more; at times if felt as though her very mind was also trapped in that never-ending youth.
"It'll be over soon," she told the redhead who glared just as intensely from the mirror. Whether it was the curse of Eva, the sickness called Angel contamination, or her life, Asuka did not clarify. She showered in a haste; the water was too damn cold and she had no intention of bothering to wait for it to warm. After a thorough rinsing of her hair and a sip of spring water, Asuka walked over to the kitchen area in the nude, seeking the next available rations and throwing them on the table. Her eye twitched when the remnants of the tea came into view. I won't let that brat die a self-serving death, even if it means pushing this food down his throat every freaking day.
"… sure to drink those twice a day, okay? I'm glad to see you're doing a little better, Ikari. Say hi to Shikinami for me." Toji's voice distracted her from sipping on the now cold beverage. The idiot had even found the sugar and added some to the tea; even cold, she could faintly taste it. Suzuhara was wise enough to leave Shinji by the door and did not bother coming in, himself.
Standing naked by the dining room, Asuka did not bother to cover herself as the boy entered the house; she spared him a sideway glance and noticed how he froze in mid-step, eyes widening, and his skin colored pink and then vermillion as he averted his eyes as quickly as humanly possible. For whatever reason, his reaction pleased her. "What?" demanded the female pilot. "What's with you?"
"You're, uhm, n-naked." The way his hand came up to the side of his face she had kicked so long ago made some strings in her heart tighten fervently; so at least there were some pieces of him still there. He did not move at all, simply stood there by the door, eyes drawn to the ground, making his best effort to not steal glances at her exposed skin, at which he succeeded. Annoyance blossomed, followed by anger, so Asuka walked over to the bathroom and covered herself with a towel, hair still dripping wet.
"There. Now stop acting like a child," she ordered with a steely growl. The jacked had almost fallen from his grasp; she noticed how the male pilot's right hand held it, neatly folded, close to his body. "I'm assuming Suzuhara gave you that bowl. Ugh, what an annoying bunch. Well, leave it at the table."
A bored cerulean orb went up and down Shinji's new attire; she recognized the jock's former tracksuit immediately and was half tempted to demand her jacket back. She watched him go about setting the bowl on the kitchen area, stopping to smoothe the folded cloth and carefully lay it beside the dictionary. As he rose and came face to face with Asuka, however, Shinji's eyes widened in terror instantly when the DSS choker on her neck came into view. She watched, cold and disinterested, as the Third Child bent over and retched all over the floor, wheezing on the ground as tremors began to course all over his body.
Fantastic, the fresh puddle of clear vomit continued to pool on the floor. Asuka's eye narrowed. "You barely do anything seeing me naked, but you see this little collar and you puke all over the floor." She took a few heavy steps towards the kitchen, grabbed a wet rag, an empty bucket, and hurled both in Shinji's vicinity. "Clean up your mess, brat. I'm not your maid."
The brat tried to muster up the courage to look her eye in the, still shaking and heaving. "W-Why do you have th-" Before he could finish articulating the question, a fresh wave of nausea forced the last remnants of Hikari's food onto the ground. He lay on his hands and knees, eyes frantic and mind constantly returning to the horrible moment when Kaworu had exploded before him. Unable to so much as glance at the collar, Shinji felt hot tears burn through his lids as they fell. When he next spoke, his voice came hitched, and barely audible. "Why do you have that?"
"Curse of EVA, told you already," was the only thing she revealed, frown deepening. "Clean up that crap before it stinks up the house. Go get some water, brat. Now."
Shinji paused, eyes growing increasingly terrified; he stole a final glance at her, gaze filled horror or remorse. "Is that because of me? Did I do that?"
I could break him in half right now, with nothing but a single word. Ugh, his mind is too weak. He's a little child. "No, you stupid brat." Asuka bit out, jaw clenched, wondering why she had chosen to respond as she had. "I told you it's none of your business. Now get that cleaned up, damn it!"
The way he stared at the collar, as though reliving some horrible experience, unnerved her to the point that she felt ready to actually hit him in the face. Did you do that? Do what, you brat? Bite my Entry Plug in half? No, you didn't do that. Let your father bite my Entry Plug in half? That. That's what you did. After a few seconds, the boy gave a somber nod, averting his gaze from hers, and rose to hastily collect water from the reservoir outside.
Asuka saw the regression begin to take place in seconds; he was closing himself off again. The shocked expression was starting to transform in that detached stare she had seen after retrieving him from the Entry Plug; the thought of having to carry the idiot around like a rag doll began to irk her beyond belief. As he cleaned, lost in a haze of whichever memory the choker triggered, she headed for the room and dressed in some shorts, the military jacket and lastly, after much consideration, a scarf. Can't have this idiot puking all over the house for no reason.
Once she emerged, most of the mess had been rinsed off the floor; Shinji refused to meet her eyes, choosing to focus solely on removing the bile, hands shaking and body trembling ever so often. It came as a slight surprise that he remembered to go in the bathroom and brush his teeth. Just what I needed, she thought with annoyance. Now his immune system is gonna crash because of whatever this stupid choker triggers in him, Great. Perfect. She sat by the table, produced the Wonderswan from a jacket pocket and began to play. Despite her best efforts, Asuka still sensed every one of Shinji's movements; she saw how he basically crawled back to his sad little corner, plugged the buds in his ears and picked the heavy book, probably to browse upon the next word she had marked.
This is stupid. The silence stretched between them; with nothing but the faint echo of the songs, her game and the flipping of pages marking the passing of time. At some point the idiot apparently memorized whatever he was reading, closed the dictionary and gingerly placed it on top of the jacket. The way he curled into a tight little ball, with his legs held tightly against his chest only worked to annoy her all the more. What am I doing? Why does that stupid little video keep playing in my mind? Why did I-Why am I… why am I glad this brat had the decency to look away? This foolishness needs to stop.
More than two long hours passed with neither saying a thing; the bowl Shinji had brought from the Suzuhara household at on the table, untouched, as Asuka played and Shinji sat on the old futon, listening to the SDAT's last song over and over again. After the eighth time she conquered the final level of the game, the redhead exhaled in exasperation and realized neither the rations she had left on the table nor whatever Suzuhara had sent had been touched.
The silence and the boy's lack of movement whatsoever rubbed against her limited patience. Every second felt heavy, every moment filled with tension and unease. Every second he failed to move or so much as blink like a regular human being brought her closer to a state of fluctuating fury. "Those rations have been sitting on the table for hours," she bit out, eye focused on the game and not the Third Child. "Eat."
She counted ten, twenty, thirty seconds, and upon receiving no answer almost slammed the handheld on the table. "I think I spoke loudly enough." Just as the anger began to bubble out and fuel her actions, so did the unease of thinking of having to force-feed the boy a second time. This is a task, a mission, nothing more. There's no other meaning behind it. Stop thinking about that day, stop thinking about that video. Just stop, Asuka. "Eat the damn rations, brat."
The boy had the decency to give her a tentative glance and look away; her mind must have been playing tricks on her, for the redhead thought she saw his skin flush slightly. "I heard you," Shinji mumbled in return. "I'm not hungry right now." Then his stomach decided to betray him as it growled, having been unmercifully emptied just hours before.
He had not only seen Asuka naked, but also puked all over the floor of what he assumed was her house. Shame became a new, wonderful addition to the negative feelings overwhelming his every breath and constricting his every movement. In the brief seconds he had mustered up the courage to look at her, the image of her bare skin had flashed over his brain.
"I'm not deaf." The Major's hands fisted; she was so angry all of the sudden, so incredibly dissatisfied with his moping attitude that she never realized when the pale-colored ration was gripped in her hand and she stood and stalked over to where Shinji lay, blissfully ignoring that he was still recovering from a fever, and had just relived a sickening memory which probably had him nauseated still. "I just heard your stomach grumble. I'm not going to say this a third time." She stood before him in a manner not unlike when then had first met. She lowered her head, hands on her hips, to glare straight at his face. "Eat. Now. Do something for once in your damn life."
"Why should I?" he retorted, refusing to look at her. "Every time I do something, everybody gets hurt."
Then what was that stupid tantrum about, huh? Almost blinded by her own misery and wrath, ignited by his defeatist statement, Asuka pushed him onto the floor, and pressed a knee against his midsection. A crumbled piece of the protein bar was forced into Shinji's mouth; her heart was hammering in her chest. "What, so now after you've done all this, you're just going to sit there and do nothing! Have a taste of this tasteless crap! This is what your stupid inaction gave everybody else!" The Second Child was taken aback by the renewed resistance Shinji was displaying; he almost crawled away and tried to fight her off, but her reflexes and years of practice were too keen.
She pushed a second piece of bar onto Shinji's mouth, who, in a rare act of defiance, spit it out almost instantly. "Why do you think I wanted to punch you the moment I saw you, huh?" The scream thundered over the empty walls of the house. Once more, Asuka never noticed how her voice quivered ever so lightly, eve as it gained volume and became a scream. "Have you even given any thought to that, have you? What the hell are you reading that stupid dictionary for, if you don't understand anything? You weak little brat, stay still!"
In an effort to keep him in place, Asuka's free hand unintentionally clenched around his bandaged wrist, eliciting a loud hiss and an expression of absolute grimace, akin to the one she had seen when first cleansing the infection off the cut. Her grip loosened in an instant, and just as it had arrived, the wrath quieted down and decreased to the permanent low hum she had gotten used to. It was only after getting off the male pilot, and stiffly getting back to her feet that Asuka realized her fist had been raised and almost ready to strike him.
Shinji sat up, rolled up the jacket sleeve and brought the bandaged to view, hissing a second time as he clenched and unclenched his hand. She saw a small stain begin to color the white gauze; her stomach lurched and the image of a certain bento resurfaced with a vengeance. In her anger, the redhead had also unconsciously revealed the main reason for her anger and dissatisfaction with the Third Child. On top of everything, the wound she had produced had probably reopened.
Another silence stretched between them. Her pride kept the girl rooted on her stance, arms crossed, glare obscuring her features as Shinji's own frown drifted from the book to the SDAT, and the pieces of protein bar lying beside him. Without a word, he picked the largest, relatively untouched piece and began to take demure bites of it. The reddish mark on the bandage was small, but present; it felt like the mark was glaring right back at her.
The young pilot sluggishly got to his feet, passed by her, eyes downcast, and walked over to the table to pick a second protein bar. He ate the second much quicker than he did the first, going through the third in what felt like a rush. Asuka heard him gulp down some water along with the antibiotic, eye twitching in annoyance. Annoyance directed at him, at herself, or at everything, it was unclear which it was.
"There, I ate," Shinji stated from the table. For the first time he addressed her without stammering, even if he did not yet dare to look straight at her. His tired feet dragged him over to the door, fully intent of putting at least some distance between himself and everyone else, even for a while. "I think I'm going out for a bit."
That shouldn't have - I didn't mean to do that. But I did. I did. She feigned nonchalance; it was easier to fall back into a familiar behavior pattern than to deal with all these unwanted, unnecessary emotions, after all. "Do what you want. So long as you don't croak stupidly, I don't care. Just remember, brat." Shinji paused by the door. "You still haven't done a single thing to earn your permission. Not in my eyes."
The door opened and a gust of cold night air filtered in the house. "I know," Shinji retorted, barely loud enough for her to hear.
She scowled at the doorframe for some time after he disappeared behind it; the thought of trailing after him only to deck him in the jaw for good measure took a few minutes to dissipate. There you go, her mind remarked boringly. Look at you, wasting time on this. Let the idiot go and trip over a root and scratch his knees like a toddler. He'll last a few hours with what he ate, at the least. Snatching the WonderSwan off the table, Asuka threw herself on the mattress and began the ritualized pressing of buttons after changing the cartridge, all in a fruitless effort to rid her mind of any thoughts regarding the annoying prisoner she had been burdened with.
"Some prisoner," she grumbled under her breath right after passing onto the game's next level. "Free to roam around and run away as he pleases. I should've just tased him." The grimness of her own reaction to Shinji's attitude was still baffling. Uncertainty, unease, anger, resignation; emotions not unlike the ones she had felt before embarking on the mission to retrieve Unit 01. She tried to reject them and forced her eye to focus on the screen. He had been stealing glances at the hat again, just before the situation turned sour. I basically punched him with food, what would've been worse, really? At least if I had tased him, he wouldn't have resisted as much and that stupid cut wouldn't have reopened. And now I have to redress it. Great, just great.
Four-Eyes' foolish words had even made her tape up the old, worn-out Plug-Suit, wearing the damned thing had awoken that stupid memory again, that memory that haunted her at night when she gazed at the moon, and a carefree smile came to greet her. The only piece of normalcy in her life, now tainted as well. Yet despite how precious the memory seemed to be to some part of her, Asuka continued to reject it, along with rejecting the realization that she was, in fact, acting in a confusing and overly contradictive manner.
One moment she was picking up a blanket to cover Shinji with, ensuring his sickness did not advance by throwing him the jacket, and the next she was pushing him to the ground and basically slapping him with a protein bar. Stupid brat's stomach was growling, and he was just sitting there like a spoiled child. Then when I ask him something, he chooses to run away instead of answering. The game's battery began to run low just around the time the door opened, and footsteps heavier than Shinji's rang through the wooden floor. A heavy bag was placed by the table as the steps neared the room.
"Shikinami, hey!" Kensuke greeted, fully dressed in a vest and black cargo pants, giving her the relaxed grin which had for so long become familiar. "How've you been doing lately? I heard Ikari was in the village!"
"Hey, KenKen," she grumbled from bed, not really looking at him as her frown melted into a sulk. The man's presence only worked to settle whatever remorse she was feeling into the base of her belly. "Same as always. Brat ran away, he's probably around the lime fields right around now."
A sideway glance confirmed the slight frown appear on the Kensuke's face. "Damn, I hope he's okay. Has he been eating at all?"
"Basically force-fed him a second time, then he decided to eat by himself." A pause; she grew bored of the game, placed it on the mattress and sat up to give her host a deadpan stare. "He'll last a few more hours, at least."
Kensuke nodded, eyes drifting to the floor where the broken pieces of the cellphone were easy to make out. Well, he thought with a bit of humor. There goes a full day of searching. Jeez, Shikinami; I hope that you at least took the time to watch the video. "Thanks for taking care of him," he stated with a smile. "You didn't have to, and you did."
The comment earned him a heated glare from the Second Child. "I didn't do it for him," she spat out, wrath leaked off her tone and made her statement sound absolute and irrefutable. "I won't let that idiot die a self-serving death. If he wants to die, he has to earn the right."
That's certainly macabre; living just to earn your right to die, thought the Commander, taking a few steps off the room to recognize Asuka's jacket neatly folded in what he assumed was the cot where Shinji was sleeping. He also saw the dictionary which had gotten 'lost' some time before, sitting comfortably above the jacket, and just on the book's cover, lay the SDAT he remembered Shinji carried around all the time. "I suppose at this point the best we can do right now is leave him be. If he went to the lime fields, after all, he's as safe as he can be."
Kensuke went over to the bag he was carrying and began unloading several broken pieces of technology and storing them in their preferred boxes. "I'm sure he'll be fine, you'll see."
"Not like I care," came Asuka's clipped reply; she rummaged through the closet and produced the old doll she had owned for many years, and once she retrieved it, paused for a few seconds by the closet door. There was a smaller one, not truly a doll but more some sort of plushy, one she had found about ten years before whilst walking in the outskirts of the village. The small plushy had dark brown hair and two big blue eyes painted on it. Mari had discovered it at some point and painted the thing's clothes blue and purple, drawing a huge 01 on its back.
She closed the closet door and threw herself on the bed a second time. Kensuke went about reorganizing whatever important spare parts he had acquired in his latest trip to the ruins. The doll danced above her, dead eyes glazing into hers with the permanent smile which had been her only true companion for years. Even if Kensuke was used to her, and through the years she had become comfortable around him, there was naught but a sense of familiarity. The solitude never waned, not even a tiny bit.
"You're alone," she said to the doll in the mantra she had perfected since her early childhood. "Nobody will care, nobody will accept you unless you pilot. And even then, heh, even then, you're still alone. Always." The doll nodded in enthusiasm; at the least, the small toy never disagreed with her, it never offered words of comfort, either, but at least it was not clinging to her like Four Eyes preferred to do. "It's just the way this life is. You're used to it."
Her eye betrayed her, glancing over the closet, to the corner where the pathetic little plushy was stored. The citrus fields including limes, lemon and orange trees close to Kensuke's house were in the center of an overgrown forest area; the ground tended to get muddy due to a natural spring occurring near the older cherry trees. Roots were sometimes hard to dodge if one was not careful; some were formed in hooks perfect for tripping someone. She tried to focus every last bit of her attention in the doll and her mantra, to no avail. Again, Asuka's gaze returned to the closet, and her memory flashed with the sight of the stained bandage. Another fall and the damned cut could get infected again, a fall into the mud or the spring and the fever was sure to return. More days of tending to a sickly brat who could not even get up by himself, let alone eat.
"God damn it," she threw the doll next to the WonderSwan, tightened the jacket around her, turning to the closet to grab a hold of a pair of shorts and boots. She marched out the door in a huff, and just as she was about to open the door, Kensuke spoke from the kitchen, where he was inspecting the bowl Shinji had brought.
"Hey, Shikinami, it did strike me as a little weird that you guys got picked up and dropped off so quickly," he mentioned while disarming what looked to be the mainframe of an old computer. "Did the Colonel have a sudden change of heart or something?"
Asuka stopped by the entrance, and pointed to her eyepatch without fully turning. "Unit 02 took a lot of damage, so the restraint needed to be changed." Had she been looking at him, she would have seen Kensuke grimace slightly. "The brat was a coincidence. They decided it was better to not waste ship supplies or energy on him." She shook her head in derision and anger. "And then Misato tells me this is supposed to be a vacation or something."
A small, comfortable silence followed, one in which Kensuke grew increasingly puzzled and amused at the redhead's actions and words. She's planning to go look for him, after all. Shikinami, after all these years, I'm really happy for you. I bet he can actually make you smile. Wouldn't that be something?
"I just got a call," he said in an amiable tone. "Looks like he's by the stream, you know the one. Apparently he's just sitting there." He opened the bowl, smelled its content and smiled. "Good luck, see you in a few."
"Luck for what? Pff, yeah, see you in a few," she agreed, closed the door and pushed her fisted hands into the military jacket. The taser felt heavier than the cuffs had but if it came to it, she would electrocute Shinji and drag him by his feet back to the house. His debt was yet to be settled. Is that what you want, some debt repaid? Is it? Her mind demanded, impatient. Are you still not done lying to yourself?
I don't care about that idiot. I don't. I'm just making sure he - As she walked through the trees, Asuka's permanent glare melted away, and eye reflected, for once, the solitude and misery she felt. Somewhere, from a distant part of her, buried and hidden, a small child screamed she no longer wanted to be alone. The scream was muffled, nevertheless, and it never fully reached Asuka's mind. "I don't even know what I'm doing."
I never said I wasn't going to eat, Shinji pondered bitterly. He sat near what he assumed was a pond, surrounded by trees both large and small, some of them permeated the air with a citric scent, which made the entire area smell of fresh forest and wet soil. The grass under him was comfortable enough, and the tracksuit provided by Toji did wonders to protect him from the cold. I was feeling nauseated. I just rememb-
The memory flashed again, Kaworu exploded into a thousand pieces of blood and gore. He shook his head, focusing on the sting of the cut on his wrist to try and keep the food in his stomach. More important than the protein bars and water, he was not supposed to be wasting antibiotics, so after several deep breaths, Shinji managed to keep the latest flashback from reducing him into pile of tremors and stammers. He glared at the water, gripping the black material under his palms. Asuka's jacket had been much softer, and more comfortable. I don't understand why she did that. I get that she's angry, I get that. But why. Why did she have to ask me that?
He did not want to be near Asuka, not at the moment. Every time he had tried to gaze at her in the last hours the image of her naked body had replaced her glare, and if his skin heating up and embarrassment were not enough, there was no possible way for him to dismiss the fact that Asuka was wearing one of those dreadful chokers, as well. All due to him, most likely; fourteen years had passed, and she had not changed, not in the physical sense. She had looked almost exactly the same as that time in the apartment, when a kick to the face had been his reward for looking in the wrong moment.
I don't know what I'm supposed to do, I don't know how to answer your question without you getting mad, he thought. If he focused on the annoyance and anger the day had produced in him, if he focused on the smiles of the villagers, his thoughts became just a bit clearer, if only for a few seconds. Everything I say is wrong, everything I do hurts you. What can I do? "Can you please tell me what I can do, please?" He whispered to the trees. "Mother," mumbled the boy in dejection. He buried his face in his lap, biting into his cheek to keep from crying even more useless tears. "What can I do?"
Owls, crickets and other nocturnal creatures created a small concert he had scarcely, if ever heard before. As if to mock him, life decided to manifest itself instead of providing an answer to its destroyer. There were no words of encouragement, only the world shoving in his face that despite his stupidity, life was still thriving. Shinji had never heard an owl sing, but was so engrossed in misery that not even their calls and hoots in the night were of any importance.
"I hate this," he said to the pond. "I hate it. Why can't I stop feeling like this?"
There he sat, seemingly alone but for the night creatures and the trees, watching as time went by and the blood-covered moon half-reflected in the water. The lack of his SDAT alerted Shinji of heavy footsteps rumbling through the dead leaves, and of a loud, yet soothing voice coming from his right.
"-hand me your doubts, worries and fears, within this embrace, they shall all disappear." His head tilted to the sound.
"A love beyond, a love unreal! The sadness you felt, you will no longer feel." Shinji's eyes drew to the figure now visible in the moonlight. "This world and all that there is, I give it to you! All to you! Hand me your love and all that you are! Could you promise me, as I promise you?"
He recognized a man of about Toji's height and build, swaying to whatever song he was hearing with something that looked not unlike his SDAT. The intrusive figure had what looked to be clear, almost blonde hair, but the dim light made it difficult to see much more of him. He continued to sway and dance; the boy saw him analyze the ripe limes hanging from the branches and pick the best ones in the dim moonlight, which he deposited in a bag which hung from his belt as he whispered in what he assumed was English. Upon locking eyes with him, said stranger stopped his singing and smiled placidly, turning to walk in his direction.
Shinji's teeth ground in frustration.
The music was being played so loudly in the small device that even from a distance the youth was able to hear heavy guitar riffs and what he assumed was a male voice. Determined to not interact with him at all, Shinji chose to glare at the reflection of the moon and not at him, even as he felt the grass a few feet from him ruffle and give under as the man plopped down next to him without a care in the world. Instead of speaking or clarifying why he was there, sitting beside him at all, the stranger's head continued to move in tune with the piece; he entertained himself with analyzing the freshly picked fruits more thoroughly as he hummed.
Every now and then, when the stranger caught him stealing a furtive glance, he'd grin as though they were friends or close relatives. Shinji noticed he had what appeared to be green eyes and a tanned skin hue; unlike Kaji, the man kept his long, shoulder-length hair loose. He looked foreign, a complexion he had not yet come across, and his constant smiling and apparent joy with the simple task of inspecting limes worked to anger Shinji more and more.
After what felt like too long, and just when the discomfort was making him consider going back to the house, Shinji cleared his throat. "Uhm, who are you?"
He heard the click when the music player was stopped. "Hmm?" The stranger removed one of the earbuds and gave him a curious glance. "I'm sorry?"
The disquiet rang loudly in his voice, despite Shinji's best efforts to remain polite and civil. "Who are you?"
Addressing him with a raised eyebrow, the man chuckled and motioned towards the tress. "You're the one sitting in my favorite spot, and I'm not asking you who you are," he rebuked, snickering even louder. Before Shinji could recover, he continued. "Doesn't matter who I am, does it?" A plastic bottle filled with a cold liquid was placed before him. "I'm just a friendly stranger. Here, have some lemonade, it's good for you."
It would seem the stranger was more than content with ignoring Shinji; he took out the small music player, which the boy recognized as an even older version than his SDAT, rewound the tape and pressed play. Silence fell upon them; each second in the presence of the odd man made the pressure in his chest extend and become stifling. There was a sudden compulsion to get it out, to expel whatever bile had been building in his chest.
"I don't know what to do," he revealed. The man did not much react other than a curious glance as he inspected the limes and lemons. "Everybody smiles at me like I did something to deserve it." His glare on the moon's reflection returned, stronger than before. He could not possibly say these things to Toji, let alone Asuka. Toji had simply discarded the statement, and Asuka would most likely sneer and reprimand him. "I don't. I wish they would all just stop."
Pungent, honest laughter reverberated through the trees; with a slap on his thigh, whoever this person was regarded him with a relaxed, inquisitive expression. "You want people to stop smiling? Don't you think that's weirdly messed up?"
This person is making me angry. "I don't want them to stop smiling altogether," clarified the Third Child in a strained whisper. "I just don't understand why they smile at me at all."
"Maybe it's because you feel like you don't deserve those smiles, right?" A lemon was cut in half with a small knife; the stranger offered one half to Shinji and devoured his without hesitation. Shinji, for his part, stared at the diced fruit before venturing to nibble on it, shocked to find it not as bitter as expected. "Yeah, I know the feeling, at least a little of it. So, tell me." The blonde threw the emptied fruit onto the water. "Doesn't it make you want to start trying to earn those smiles? Certainly did with me."
"I don't want to earn them, I don't want to receive them," he muttered bitterly as he sank his head deeper into his legs. "I don't want to do anything."
The sound of a bottle being opened permeated the night air; the stranger drank long from his own bottle, sighing in relief and contentment once he was done. "Anything. Hmm, yeah. I remember a time when I didn't want to do anything. How's that working out for you so far, you know, this not doing anything?"
No, he thought with despair climbing into his awareness. Nothing works out, I don't - there's no possible way I can ever make amends. "Not very well, I suppose," he confessed at last, defeated and suddenly very thirsty. "Nothing really works."
He took the bottle laying by his side and took four gulps of delicious, fresh lemonade. He wanted to laugh all of the sudden, but the energy to do so was absent. After being surrounded by ghosts from the past wearing familiar faces and warmly welcoming him into their home, he was now venting to a complete stranger. The faint sound of a third pair of footsteps alerted him, yet before he could look behind him, the visitor spoke.
"Well if you don't do anything, you can't expect a thing to change. I learned that taking care of these trees." He motioned towards the lush patch of forest surrounding them. "Sometimes, when a tree's growing, the best thing to do is to do nothing. You're supposed to let the roots sink into the soil and let the little sprout gain strength."
A gloved finger pointed towards a small, particularly crooked and feeble-looking tree. "But if you do nothing at all, if you don't remove the weeds, clear off the dead leaves or sick branches or protect them from disease or plagues, then the tree will grow weak, and crooked." Even when he refused to look at him, Shinji felt the man's gaze fix on him next. "You don't really have to do much, it would surprise you how far small actions can go, sometimes."
"You don't get it," Shinji bit back, shaking his head. "Every time I try to do something, everybody I care about gets hurt, everybody!" he heaved; the image of Asuka's choker came to mind and made the guilt become almost unbearable. "So why should I try doing anything at all, anymore?"
"I see, so." Another lemon was sliced in half and consumed, the peels fell in the water in a quick succession. "You don't want things to change. Are you happy with the way things are? Happy with those smiles you mentioned? Doesn't sound like that to me."
Shinji sighed in utter frustration. He was going in circles with this stranger now, leading to nowhere but a greater headache. "No." The word was spat out more than spoken, filled with every bit of self-hatred he had developed ever since being salvaged from Unit 01. "I'm not."
The bag filled with ripe limes was placed next to the bottle, forcing Shinji to lift his head in surprise. "Would you like to earn those smiles, then? Or are you happy just doing nothing?"
"What if I end up hurting them again?" What if I hurt Asuka, or Toji, or Hikari or their child? What if I hurt this place more than I already have? The thought of doing anything at all was slowly becoming terrifying.
"You might think it's too late, but it's not." The blonde's gloved hand patted the bag of limes with fondness. "I thought it was too late once. Couldn't eat, couldn't sleep for days. Weeks. Then I came here, and they started smiling at me, as well. I remember thinking 'why would they?' It pissed me off. I spent every day barely moving, barely breathing."
He produced yet another healthy fruit from his pocket. "Then I heard somebody say the village needed someone who knew of botany. I'm not an expert, but my brother did teach me how to grow things and survive. I started trying to grow fruit trees of all kinds, to try and boost the immune system of the population. Took me a few years, but it paid off." Their eyes met, and Shinji felt a rare, overwhelming sense of kinship with this rare person sitting beside him. "I didn't start with the whole forest, though. I started with a single sprout, then two, then three, and so on."
"I don't think anything can ever take back the things I've done," Shinji said after a few moments of silence.
The stranger laughed heartedly once more. "And you think I plant and care for these trees and plants to take back what I've done? No, I know I can never take that back, I can never take back the bad and twisted things I did. What I can do, however," seemingly unaware that Shinji was not appreciative of personal contact, he pressed a hand against his shoulder, "is try to bring some goodness into the world, in any small way that I can. That, I think, is what real redemption is. It's never too late to stop running, never too late to stop apologizing, it's never too late to stop hurting people. Start helping people, Shinji." The boy's eyes widened at the mention of his name. "Just a little bit, and when next you notice, you'll be doing things you thought were impossible."
A second bottle was pressed against his arm. "Here." The man rose, leaving the bag of ripe of fruit and the two bottles with him. "For your friend." As he walked away and the cryptic words hung heavily in the air, the stranger motioned towards the spring and the trees. "Feel free to come here any time you want. It's nice and quiet, helps you think. Your friend is welcome, too."
Shinji realized the stranger had not only left two bottles of fresh lemonade with him, but also the larger portion of the limes he had been collecting, and before he could shout or pursue him to give back the heavy package, the figure had already faded through the dense forest. "Your…" he said to nobody in particular. There was a slight rustling behind him, the scent of LCL and strawberries assaulted his nostrils, making Shinji's shoulders drop. "Hey, Asuka."
"Are you done moping?" spat out the redhead, who had long since stood a few feet away from him, resting on one of the larger trees. She walked a few steps closer to him. "Or are you planning to take a dive in that puddle? It's not even deep enough for you to drown in, in case you're wondering."
Feeling the rough material of the bag between his fingers, Shinji occupied himself with placing both bottles in it as he slowly got to his feet; his eyes drifted to the bloodied moon for a last time. I just wanted some time to think, he thought, slightly annoyed, but then sighed and nodded; tired as he was, with the antibiotic ceasing its dulling effect, the tremors were slowly beginning to manifest. Then again, I'm a prisoner. She's right, I haven't done anything to earn that permission.
"If you know the way back, I'm leaving. If you don't, I'm still leaving, so tag along or stay here and freeze, your choice." Asuka began to walk away in her usual hasty pace, forcing Shinji to ponder which the lesser evil was, staying there near the spring, or going back to the house. The footsteps halted, a heavy intake of breath, and then her voice rang through the still of the night. "Move, Shinji."
That he remembered, it was the first time Asuka called him by his name without adding a 'Baka' or a 'brat' next to it. Blessedly enough, his hazed mind was clear enough to acknowledge the fact at that moment, which forced his limbs to function despite the shakes and pain and pick the bag. He followed soon after her, and despite her earlier warning of leaving him behind, Asuka walked just fast enough for him to tag along behind the green jacket.
He memorized the way into the strange patch of forest without meaning to; the small haven was but a few minutes away from the house, a trail relatively easy to find meandered from the house all the way to the greenery. At some point the redhead's pace slowed; once he was within earshot, Shinji ventured to ask. "Uhm, who was that person?"
"Go figure," responded the Major with irritation. "Nobody knows. He just showed up one day, about twelve years ago, covered in red sand and blood. Said he couldn't remember his name." As she walked, Asuka remembered the scarce occasion in which she would coincidentally be in the village and decide to visit the small forest. The stranger in question had never bothered to speak a word to her. "There was a V.K. on his vest, so people just call him Viko. He takes care of the citrus trees."
"Oh," the bag held in his uninjured hand felt heavy; how many of the small fruits had the man just gifted him? "He seems… nice."
No answer came from the Second Child; they continued to thread through the soft grass until the lights of the settlement became visible, and soon enough the house came into view. Before she opened the door, Asuka extended her hand and signaled to his bandaged wrist. "Let me see," she demanded. Shinji complied, averted his eyes from her and rolled up the jacket sleeve. Asuka wasted no time in snatching the wrist and holding it up against the dim moonlight. "Hmm, nothing but a bit of suppuration, should hold up fine until tomorrow." Her hold on the wrist loosened just a bit; the uncertainty manifested stronger than ever. "Get inside. KenKen's home, go make him some food. Make yourself useful."
Her statement felt like nothing short of an order, so Shinji nodded, hid away the bandage with the jacket sleeve and stepped into the house, where the tech enthusiast was still picking apart the computer mainframe. For a moment he expected Asuka to follow him, yet apparently the redhead was more than comfortable standing outside and glaring at the dark surroundings.
"Ikari, hey!" the elder man greeted as he rose from the table and came to stand next to him. "It's good to see you up and about," he commented with a grin. "It's surely been a while, huh?"
"H-hi, Kensuke," desperate to both rid himself of the amiable stare of his former schoolmate and the memory of Asuka calling him 'KenKen', Shinji averted his eyes and focused them on the kitchen area. 'H-Hokari gave me some ingredients, and I," he motioned to the heavy bag held in his palm. "I think I could cook something. Are you hungry?"
"Always," the village 'leader' motioned towards the larger stove located just outside the small cot. "Remember how to make a fire? I'm afraid we're gonna have to save up the gas until tomorrow morning. We'll just get the hot coals and move them inside."
Shinji went about the task of forming a small pyramid of wood and filling it with small, balled up pieces of paper. He could not help but relax as they build up a small pyre, with not a word spoken. Kensuke seemed to be quite at ease with silence, and did not press him for conversation or drone on about details concerning the village. He was happy to provide minimal instructions and soon, under his placid, patient instruction the fire was ignited. Once the wood burned to a satisfactory level, they carefully carried the cinders to a stove sitting outside the kitchen.
"That way the heat's transported inside without the need of all that smoke, see," Aida clarified as he fed fresh wind to the flames with a fan. "Next time you feel like cooking something, just remember to do this and you don't have to worry about running out of gas or anything. I built this this thing with the idea of not having my house smell like charcoal every time I get hungry."
"Right," Shinji blinked, for once realizing how intricate the device actually was. "Wait, you built this?"
"Sure did, shower too, and I'm trying to get an old car working again," Kensuke shrugged, grinning. "I like to be busy. Well, this looks just about ready, let's go back inside. You said you wanted to cook something, right?"
Shinji's gaze drifted towards the mane of golden-red visible under the moonlight. "Uhm, what about Asuka?"
Hear that, Major? Broken as he is, he's asking about you. Hell, I know you heard that. "She'll come in when she feels like it," Aida elucidated with a shrug, and pointed to the bowl resting on the table. "You said Hikari made that? Ah, man! Finally, some decent grub. What were you planning to cook, anyway, Ikari? I remember those bentos from the aquarium." Kensuke stole a glance at Shikinami and grinned.
"I... was just thinking of maybe condensing the stew a bit more, and adding some fresh herbs I found in the morning, a-and a bit of lemon peel. Might add some flavor." Shinji did not much wait for permission to start; as soon as he felt the stove heated, the boy set about cutting up some limes and adding the fresh peel to the stew. Hikari's words rang loud in his mind, not unlike Asuka's own orders had forced him to eat, shower, and continue existing.
The cap rested on top of the table, opposite to where Kensuke chose to sit whilst he continued to extract salvable pieces from the mainframe. "The roundels are nice, aren't they?" he commented off-handedly; Shinji had just stolen a fourth furtive glance at it, after all. "You like 'em?"
With the boy's back to him, he could not truly tell if Shinji reacted to the question or not, other than the way his shoulders stiffened for a second. "I think I like the red one," he admitted quietly, careful to only let Kensuke hear the admission. "It's like a pirate, right?"
"Yeah," the man's eyes drifted to the spot where he knew Asuka to be eavesdropping. "Like an angry pirate flag." Every few minutes, Kensuke went to feed the stove outside, and every time he came back inside the smell of the stew grew more irresistible. He was immensely happy to see Shinji at least move with some sense of coordination, even happier to see him cook and respond, albeit slowly, to his infrequent questions. Before he knew it, there was a hefty serving of stew, diced protein bars, and a glass of fresh lemonade before him.
"Ah, look at this!" He abandoned the task of retrieving a chip from the mainframe and dug into the stew with gusto. "Thanks for the meal! Hey, you're not eating?" The food tasted fresh; it was warm, welcoming and familiar, like a hug from a relative. Kensuke almost forgot he was supposed to make sure it was Shinji who ate, and not him. "Ikari?"
The Third child was halfway out the door, he noticed, carrying a tray. Ah, but of course, mused Aida, smiling though bites. Ladies first, of course, of course. Damn, this is good food. "Never mind," he said with a wide grin, devouring another spoonful. "Shikinami doesn't eat much," he lied, knowing well of her condition and general opinion of food. His eyes fixed on Shinji's detached gaze. "Try and change that for me, will you?"
The door opened and closed, allowing Kensuke to breathe a big sigh of relief and sink into his chair, stretching. "Jeez," he stared at ceiling; despite the stressful air around the house, he could not help but feel oddly optimistic. "Look at you, Aida. Babysitting the married couple, who would've thought." He patted his full stomach, and went about taking off the vest and body suit. Asuka had never bothered to hide the choker, and now she was wearing a scarf; she had even parted with that red jacket she seemed so fond of. "What do you think, old man? Did I do right, so far?"
"I don't want it."
Shinji paused by the door, eyes drawing over to the woods. "I though you might be h-"
"Not hungry. I told you I wasn't a few hours ago. Still not hungry now." With her arms crossed and back pressed against the wall, Asuka chose to glare at the wooden wall to her left, trying to ignore how the scent of the stew made its way to her nostrils. "Stop wasting time and food, brat. Just eat and go to sleep."
Shinji scowled at the stew and the bottle of lemonade, wishing for nothing else than to lay by the cot and ignore both Asuka and Kensuke. Cooking had been unexpected, even asking to do so had come as a surprise; why were Hikari's words resonating in his head with such frequency? "Hokari-san made this," he commented, and walked a few steps in her direction. "There's fresh lemonade, as well," he added quietly. It's good for you, the stranger mentioned with a smile. "It's, uh, good for you."
Keeping the nature of her sickness away from him became increasingly difficult, especially when the brat insisted on wasting valuable lilim resource on her. The memory of the times at school and the apartment kept her from reacting with a yell or grunt; added to the latest pang of guilt driven from her violent behavior only hours prior, Asuka felt almost unable to reject the small peace offering Shinji carried.
"Good for me, sure, like you know anything." Asuka sneered at the food, gulped down exactly half of the stew without minding to taste it or worry if it was hot at all, took the lemonade and emptied it, slamming the bottle on the tray and signaling to both the rations and the bowl. "There. Now eat the rest, brat. And take the stupid antibiotic."
It took her by surprise how Shinji did not much complain about her command, and did as he was told. He ate the rest of the stew, the entire portion of rations and drank from his own lemonade bottle, pausing to take the antibiotic with the last remnants of his drink. He looks even more lucid than a few hours ago, she realized. I thought I tasted some… lime peel? Impossible. Those are just memories of how things used to taste. Remember that. You can't really taste anything, anymore, Asuka. Just flashes, snippets, that's all you have.
She waited for Shinji to leave, not saying another word and pocketing her hands in the jacket. Her eye drifted to the moon, so as to remind herself of the grim reality she lived in and erase the memories of schoolyards, banter, and warm food. Stupid brat probably hasn't even thought of what I asked him, weak as he is. A heated remark was about to make its way out her mouth when Shinji's soft voice hinged her jaw closed.
"I think I understand, a little," he said, head bowed and tone somber. "It was my inaction, whether to help you, or to kill you. Had I… chosen to do something, then maybe things would have been different." Never too late to stop apologizing. "I'd like to apologize, but I realize that won't help at all." The boy's hand paused on the doorknob; a scream assaulted his senses, a memory manifested so suddenly he almost dropped the tray and tripped. "I thought I'd never see you again. I thought you were gone, forever, and then… I think I heard you say something."
"What?" Asuka barked back, arms tightening around her midsection and pretending Shinji had not just rationalized one of the core reasons behind her anger with him. "What the hell are you talking about?"
"Before I woke up in the Wunder. Is it called Wunder? I don't really remember," Shinji said, and for once, without him even noticing, a small smile drew over his lips. "I remember you telling me to do something, though. For so long, it was quiet, and then I heard you." His brow furrowed, trying to piece together the faint details if the event. "You told me to do something, so I did. I tried to do something."
The reminiscence of the battle in space resurfaced; the way Unit 01's enclosure had cracked and the beam had destroyed the angel in seconds left the Second Child frowning into the grass, struggling for words. Was this idiot truly implying he had heard her?
Broken glass, a red jacket, a black cap and a flash of red; it all came back to him quite easily, the complete antithesis of everything that happened after Kaworu's death. "That Plugsuit, I remember it. It's the same you were wearing the first time we met."
Asuka's eye widened, and for a third time, the wrath melted completely off her gaze.
"I was so glad," Shinji revealed, daring a sideway glance in her direction. "I was so glad to see you."
She turned her head away, hiding her eye from him under a curtain of light crimson locks. She heard the doorknob croak as it opened, and something jumped out of her chest before she could properly hinge her mouth closed. "They told me you were gone."
Shinji's hand stopped cold. "W-What?"
"They told me you were gone, Ritsuko gave a very detailed explanation of how in the midst of causing this Near Third Impact or whatever, you were turned to LCL and absorbed into Unit 01's core. About thirteen years ago, they told me you were nothing more than sludge swimming in the Eva's core."
The rails had felt especially cold that night, as she gazed into the skies and realized that she was risking her life for a fleeting memory and a spare battery for the Wunder. "Getting you back was never the objective, nor a priority. It was a mission to retrieve Unit 01." For whatever reason, the sight of Shinji's cut flashed through her mind, forcing a slight grimace out of her. "It was never expected that you'd be retrieved from the Eva."
I was glad to see you, too, Baka-Shinji.
"I wanted to deck you in the face the moment I saw you." Asuka produced a dry chuckle, yet no smirk reached her lips. "I suppose you understand why, now."
"Yeah," The door opened; Shinji paused before walking in, lost in thought. He breathed in; Rei, Toji, Hikari, the villagers, the stranger, they all seemed quite willing to let him try. Maybe doing nothing was not truly what he wanted, after all. He could try, just a little bit. "I deserve more than a smack in the face."
"I'll be the judge of that," she rebuked, shooing him away with her hand. "Go to sleep, brat. I don't want to know about you being sick, anymore."
She stayed outside a few hours; every other moment, the lingering aftertaste of fresh lime would return, and Asuka would shake her head in derision, eye lost in the bloodied moon. "What an idiot." The little smile she had just seen; it reminded her of those smirks from long ago, those smiles at schools, the taste of food prepared exclusively for her. And now, fourteen years later, there was the idiot, offering her a bowl of stew.
The guilt of having almost force-fed him a second time with no need for it whatsoever settled on her stomach. What had he seen, anyway, to make him react to the choker in such a way? Brat, she thought; her lips, nevertheless, recurred to an older, much more familiar word. She made sure he was well out of earshot before it escaped, ever so quietly, from her lips.
Later that night, as she lay on the one available bed and pretended to sleep for the umpteenth time, Asuka's eye opened in surprise when she heard Shinji's voice ring across the room.
"Uhm, Kensuke, are you awake?"
"Hm? What?" the man answered, groggy and clearly awoken from a heavy slumber. "What's up, Ikari, did you need something?"
A small pause; she tried to control her breathing enough to make it inaudible. "I... I wanted to ask you something."
"Sure," Kensuke answered with a tired voice.
"Is there anything… I mean, is there any job that I can do in the village?"
She heard the rustling of fabric as Kensuke rolled over to stare at Shinji in the eye. "I don't know if that's a good idea right now," he admitted. "Do you really feel like you're up for it? It's only been a few days, Ikari. I think it'd be best if you take it slow."
What, so fourteen years isn't slow enough for you? She wanted to stand and scream it to both their faces, however, Shinji's next word kept her rooted to the mattress.
"I don't really know what I want to do." The murmur reverberated through the room. "I just know I'd like to help. H-However I can."
From the corner of her eye, Asuka saw Kensuke pat Shinji lightly on the shoulder. "Okay, if that's how you feel, I think we can find something for you in these days. Don't worry about it, we need every available pair of hands we can get. Now let's get some sleep, alright?"
"Ah, yeah. Sure, thank you, Kensuke."
Soon enough, the breathing of both males became rhythmic and quiet, and she was left alone with her thoughts. Pff, listen to that idiot, saying he wants to help. What's he gonna do, cook for the whole village or something?
Sleep never came, as per usual. The following morning, Asuka pretended to sleep as the sound of food being cooked and quiet conversation rose along with the sun, adamant on not interacting with either male for the remainder of the day. Her eye throbbed, as it always did, and the emptiness in her stomach never abated; the aches had grown so familiar she hardly ever thought of them. Dreams were scarce, and when they came, they were mostly reruns of her lonesome childhood, or the ever-familiar sensation of her body being torn to pieces along with the sound of the Entry Plug being crushed in Unit 01's jaw.
Once the house was empty and quiet, the Second Child rose from bed. Awaiting the next battle was all she had left, and with Unit 02 being repaired, there was little else she could do beside sit around and avoid being looked at by the villagers. She was about to walk outside and get some fresh air, yet the glistening of metal from the table made her pause.
There, sitting on the old table, was a worn-out, dented bento-box. The dictionary lay open on top of her jacket, with at leat one new word marked with a pen; Asuka decided to check on the book later, drawn by the scent coming from the small metal box.
"This is a waste," Asuka repeated even as she sat on the table, took a spoon and began to eat from the cooked protein bars bathed in lime sauce and the concentrated stew. "Such a waste." Just as it had happened with the tea from the day before, her neurons began to associate the taste with events and experiences from the past, thus allowing her to actually taste the meal, in some sense.
"Hmm," she stated, and ate the last portion of stew. "Kinda bland. He's not slipping, but he can certainly do better."
It barely went noticed by her, but for the first time in about fourteen years, Asuka's stomach grumbled in hunger.
Inspirational Music: A Love Unreal, Rust, Sold My Soul – Black Label Society; Californication, Meet Me At the Corner – RHCP; Pyro, Closer – King Of Leon; Turn The Page, Of Wolf and Man, The Unforgiven II, For Whom The Bell Tools – Metallica; Lateralus, Right In Two, Fear Inoculum, - Tool: Adieu – Emily Bindinger (Cowboy Bepop); Sakura Nagashi – Hikaru Utada.
AN: Alright! There it is! If it has an "inspirational music' section, it's an official DB fic. Fuck yeah. Promised another one, delivered another one! Longer as the previous chapter, as is custom lel. Hope it didn't suck! So, yeah. I'll be taking a lot from the source material and turning it in the direction I want this to go. This chapter took a while to write mostly due to work and adul life-related issues, but it got fucking done and I'm happy with the way it came out.
My own fucking 4.0, hell yeah, with gambling and hookers! Well, maybe not, but you get my drift. I have like a month of time to explore interactions, which in my story style is plenty of time to create some nice shit, so yeah, this story is taking shape. Want da Waff? I will deliver waff, mofockers.
No flash into da future this time. Sad. Is Shinji deaded? Hmm, not sure, we'll see. Want a glimpse into da future in dis chappie? I can make it happen. Just, you know, beware what you wish for and all that. Lemme know in the review section.
Note: Things I predicted like fucking five years ago. 1. Shinji being so broken he would basically not eat. 2. Force-feeding scene. 3. Asuka not letting Shinji die so as to not let him 'die a self-sevient death', or 'your punishment must be more severe'. Same difference. Call me Deathtradamus, or Nostrabringer. Fuck yeah.
A special shoutout to my motherfuckers in the AsuShin Trash Discord, and a special, incredible mention to my brother Richitzer for helping me with this chapter, you legend!
Still revising ST, still writing Epilogue! Still writing next Relapse chapter!
Thank you all so much for reading! Make sure to stay healthy and eat your veggies! Much love!