Disclaimer: I own nothing.

AN: Yo! I'm alive, still! Some shite happened in these last months, y'all know what it is. I can't write like I used to, where I had a full week or two to just get everything out and publish it, but I've just proven myself it is possible for me to write in some other time frame. SO! Here's a big, big chappie to add to my new baby! Long read! Hope it doesn't suck! Read at your own risk, I'm rusty! Anyways, Baka-Shinji and I just wanted to say… Hello!

Hello! Allow me to introduce myself (myself)
My name is Shaaady
So nice to meet you (So nice to meet you)
It's been a long time (long time) sorry I've been away so long (So long)
My name is Shaaady
I never meant to leave you (Never meant to leave you)


Chapter Five: Hello

Back when the world had been broken in pieces, back when the skies had been tainted black and grey and the blood of billions had permeated the oceans, back when stars were invisible and the moon shone with its tainted surface, they had held one another. In the shadow of an abandoned building where shelter had been secured the day before; on the beach's surface, teeth chattering with the cold after a building actually caved in and almost killed them, within the stinking relative dryness of a tent, under the rotting futon Misato had secured after they had been found, they had slept side by side, limbs almost blending them into one single being with the severity of their embrace.

Asuka had never spoken a single word about it, not before or after climbing into bed with him and lying there, waiting patiently for whichever articulate part of his deranged mind remained and controlled his basic motor functions, forcing them to ensnare her slim figure close to his during the night. 'I feel sick', she had told him, with eyes that coldly gazed into the deepest, most decomposed parts of his being and scoffed at their very existence. 'You make me sick', she had hissed, so very fluently, in a clear and concise manner, and yet that same night her body had lain next to his, breathing deeply and not withering in misery as was custom whenever they did not share bedding space.

In those moments of absolute unwarranted bliss, Shinji's unconscious had memorized every aspect of the experience. Terrified to open his eyes and see the end of the world all over again, his other senses went into overload. The small remnants of salt and moisture clinging to her skin, the scent of her sweat mingled with distilled water and soap, the sensation of tiny strands of hair caressing his face, the enticing feeling of her breath and heartbeat next to him, the scalding texture of her creamy skin, and the tickle of her hair; he greedily drank it in and buried the recollections deep into whatever functional remains of his soul Third Impact had left behind.

Shell-shocked was the word most of the physicians loved to use to explain the state of him after the world had ended, and restarted. They rarely considered the spiritual damage, nonetheless, the way his soul had been ripped to pieces and put back together, the way his brain had received so much information that most of it remained blocked somewhere in those dark, stinking hallways of the unconscious he dared not thread, the way he knew everything everyone alive had experienced up until Third Impact. He had been more than devastated, almost unable to articulate three words together, God forbid a full sentence, and still his body had known what to do. Seven years before, shortly after climbing on her defenseless self and trying to strangle Asuka, he had held her.

Seven years…

Had any of those memories changed in the slightest, perhaps he would have been able to ignite the wrath slumbering in his chest and rage at the unfamiliarity of it all, but the scent was basically the same. Perfume, shampoo, smoke or cream would never efficiently disguise the fragrance he was so familiar with and addicted to: the scent of her, the only other person in the world towards whom he felt a connection. Her hand burned in his grip, the heat coming off her body was enticing, a fatal toxin he was slowly growing dependent on all over again. The not so cheap mattress the young man's body rested upon had not felt so comfortable since the day he'd first bought it.

The Third Child had never realized how pleasant the damned bed could actually be.

This is, by far, the lowest point we've reached, he concluded, exhausted orbs drew towards the hands clutching so very tightly to his arm. He smiled to himself, and choked out a strangled sob which suddenly sprung up his chest. Seven years, and after all this time it's still the same. Nothing's changed… I'm still… she… ugh…

The redhead's very existence had unleashed a completely unexpected response in the man's subconscious mind while he slept; for the first time in many, many a night Shinji's damaged lungs had expanded fully, greedily taking as much oxygen as allowed and driving it to his overtired limbs, thus soothing muscles which had been stiff for months. The subsequent respite the scent of Asuka apparently provided had made Shinji's chest swell and forced the stitches and half-healed wounds to spread. His brain had been only too glad to then send the clearest of pain signals to his slumbering self, extracting the young man of the torture chamber he called dreams, and into an unthinkable reality.

He tiredly glared into the ceiling, eyes softening ever so slightly whenever they drifted over to the young woman next to him. She slept so soundly, even snored in the cutest, most feminine of ways after he'd started holding her hand; so even with grieving wounds and the need to both relieve himself and take whatever kind of drug currently in stock in the house, Shinji dared not move a muscle. He cautiously explored just how deep he could breathe in her scent before the three more grievous knife wounds made themselves present, and in spite of the pain inhaled as much of her as was possible.

I'm a junkie, Shinji reasoned, nodding just as his hand uncoiled its grip on hers and painfully came up to grab a strand of those wild auburn locks. I'm addicted to many things, her included. So I'll take my fix, because I know sooner rather than later she'll leave and I'll go back to Hell. How strange, that Mother had not returned throughout the two hours he had been awake, and how very bizarre that he was resisting the urge to drug himself, if only to lay quite uncomfortably next to a woman who had abandoned him. Light was ever so slightly glistening through the drawn curtains of his window announcing it was almost six O'clock; he had precious little time left to enjoy the new, original little fantasy Lilith had concocted to torture him with.

Krista's bound to have narrowed down my address by now, the brown-haired man reasoned; his left hand held a tress of golden fire locks in between his fingers and caressed the strands with tenderness. She'll want her answers, and then she'll make a fuss, and then… she'll leave, to her girlfriend. The shampoo Asuka had chosen vaguely reminded him of oranges and freshness, her hair felt much softer than anything he remembered from years prior, where conditioner or regular showers had been hard-earned luxuries. And I'll be left here, alone with her…

Why, after so many years of convincing himself otherwise, did that simple fact unnerved him so? Seven years before, sleeping next to each other had become a second nature, right down to the day she had left him to die. She had left him to die, to die, alone, bleeding on the outskirts of a restaurant of all things, after falling from a street and crushing a wooden table with his emaciated body. And yet, as she lay there next to him and he tried again and again to hate her, to remind himself of the men she had been with, of the things she had done and said, of all the things he had told himself for years, all that came to greet him was the instinctual craving to draw her even closer, and in time, lose himself in her.

God, he recalled the particular event where he'd first thought the phrase, so long ago, yet try as he might, Shinji could not force himself out of bed. I'm so fucked up.

Not even the memory of that hospital room and what he had done was enough to force his arm from her clutch. She had most likely been exhausted, after all, travelling to Japan, operating on him, cooking for him of all things, entertaining his guests... There were no creases in her brow now, no words being uttered from her lips, no tears falling from her eyes; Asuka looked more beautiful than he had ever seen her, laying next to him with apparently not a worry in her mind. He wished, within his insanity and desperate crave for substances, to engrave the sight of her sleeping on his bed right into his soul, just has he had done so many years before.

We shouldn't, the boy rattled, clutching the chains close to his chest and shivering. We shouldn't get close, we could taint her. We're dirty and she's so… so…

Shut up, he rebuked, throwing the brat deeper into the Abyss of darkness and putting a muzzle on his mouth for the time of being. I don't care if Lilith herself has a problem with this, I've been dreaming of this for seven fucking years, and nobody will take it from me.

"They weren't you." Shinji sighed, eyes fixed on the locks trapped between his fingertips. Morning was quickly making itself known, reminding him over and over that the dream was soon to end.

Each time the words washed over, Shinji's chest heaved with a deep intake of air and disregarded the pain of very unhealed wounds all over his body. Whatever had she meant, they weren't him? Were they not pathetic enough? Had one of them not crawled through existence in the correct manner? Had their meekness been unsatisfactory? Had they been actual, functioning human beings who promised a healthy relationship, God forbid even a helping hand? What could a broken, dysfunctional piece of trash like him possibly offer to such a glistening beacon of strength such as Asuka?

The cell phone on his nightstand buzzed a few times in announcement of a particular agent of doom crashing into his almost perfect morning. Secluded as he was, what with keeping his personal address as private as humanly possible, the chances of anyone finding him were slim, at best. The stubbornness of one female fighter he knew well, however, was only overshadowed by her obsessive nature; she would claw and blackmail her way into an address or die trying. And there, oh irony, lies the answer of why I even bothered with her in the first place. His left hand began to shake while it held onto Asuka's hair, his teeth chattered; his skin crawled and itched, announcing the recognizable effects of withdrawal. Even when his mind was solely focused on not disturbing the slumbering redhead, his body was rebelling and demanding its early supply of narcotics.

The phone buzzed and vibrated over, and over, and over again. Lips curling into a half-snarl, the former Third Child cursed under his breath and picked the thrice-dammed object with half a mind to hurl it at the wall for daring to disturb what was likely to be the only nice moment of his day. How very unfair, that a plastic and metal object had forced him to relinquish the hold on those long tresses of silk and fire.

YOU BETTER START THINKING OF THREE OF FOUR GOOD LITTLE LIES TO TELL ME ONCE I GET THERE, YOU LYING SACK OF SHIT. The message was written in the biggest font available to the device, it seemed, and loaded with angry faces and other negative emojis. I'LL BE THERE AT EIGHT, AND NO, I DON'T WANT FOOD. I WANT ANSWERS, AS IN WHERE THE FUCK HAVE YOU BEEN FOR THE FAST FEW DAYS?! FINE, DON'T ANSWER YOUR PHONE. I'LL FIND A WAY TO GET INTO YOUR STUPID APARTMENT IF YOU DON'T OPEN WHEN I ARRIV-

He shut off the screen and growled deep in his throat. At the very least Krista had granted him a luxurious two hours before she came in and invited herself to his life and house. Indeed, it was her boisterous attitude and strength which had drawn him to her, and however messy their friendship had been, with him helping her overcome addiction while heavily sinking into it all on his own; Krista seemed to respect his wish of drinking and drugging himself to an early grave to a degree. A tremor forced his teeth to chatter even worse, his bladder complained and all four of his newly acquired wounds stung simultaneously. The dream was gone, and Hell waited just outside his bedroom, salivating at the possibility of extracting even more misery from his already agonizing self.

"Shit…" he carefully began to disentangle his arm from the redhead's hold. "Hey, Asuka…" Shinji whispered and bit into the soft flesh of his cheek to keep from actively shaking. "I… need to… (cough)… I need some coffee…" a lie, of course, so he hated himself just a tad more when the girl's brow twitched and she inhaled, clearly disturbed from what was likely a good dream. The former pilot's situation was dire; Asuka had opted to sleep on the right side of the bed, blocking the easiest access to the bathroom and forcing Shinji to depend on his deeply wounded left side to maneuver. To make matters more complicated, the crutches were also on the other side of the bed and far away from his limited reach, and he had consciously drawn her closer a few hours prior.

"Hmmm…?" Asuka mumbled back, half-asleep and clearly very tired. "You wanna what? Bathroom..?" Without giving him much of a choice or the time to articulate a response, Asuka had already risen in a fluid motion, eyes half-closed, and expertly held on to him to hoist the wounded young man's body closer to the edge of the bed. Before he knew what was happening, Shinji found himself blinking at his own reflection, alone in the bathroom, wobbling on the crutches. "Gonna sleep for a little…(yawn)… while more, 'kay? Left you some stuff on your night stand… some other stuff by the ta…(yawn)… table… Gute Nacht, Baka…"

She closed the door soon after, and Shinji's keen hearing caught the sound of her collapsing back on the bed. She pretty much just carried me here, and was not shocked at all to wake up next to me. She didn't sleepwalk into my bed, not last night. He pondered while relieving himself and trying not to fall face first into the toilet. Without me having to say much she got up, and carried me, and then she just went back to sleep…on my bed… like we've been doing this for years. The itching became more prominent and the scalding sensation of burning anxiety began to cloud his senses; so the young man wobbled out of the bathroom just as the small area began to feel stifling, and not even bothering to ascertain the content of a small plastic bag lain on his nightstand, made his way as quickly as possible to the kitchen.

Shinji forced himself out the room before he stayed there like a leech and admired the exquisiteness of Asuka hugging his pillow close and breathing evenly in her sleep, ignoring the agony on his side and leg. He recalled what had transpired so many years before whilst she slept, so unevenly collapsing onto the dining room's chair, he held onto the self-disgust like a lifeline.

I'm a psychopathic, schizophrenic, addicted shitstorm of a human being, the mantra, damaging and sick as it was, helped him keep some semblance of control, even while his hands shook and took out the Olanzapine Asuka had left for him. Shinji dry-swallowed it along with what he assumed to be a considerable dose of Valium or some other opiate, and half of those deadly Ninja Stars. I have psychotic episodes, hallucinations, I'm a killer, a coward, a piece of scum that shouldn't exist. I am nothing. Weak. Useless. Worthless. Violent criminal. Murderer.

A cigarette or three would help most likely, yet he knew the mere effort of pouring nicotine and tar into the damaged tissue of his lung would only result in him coughing blood and forcing Asuka to work overtime on his injuries. Well, fuck it, go get a joint and smoke it, scum… or better yet, a cigarette, like Kaji would, he reasoned, suddenly able to focalize the rage sitting on his chest. How had he gone from actively plotting to hurt and insult her, to now consider the effects of wheezing coughs on her rest? She signed up for this, didn't she? Instead of searching for his stash, however, Shinji slowly rose and went about making some coffee, which was made much, much easier given that the redhead had already left all of his breakfast-related paraphernalia at ease access on the counter.

Shinji opened the faucet and hissed in pain when the stomach wound flared. The sound of water filling the pot and his own ragged breath became overbearing; his heartbeat rose exponentially in seconds, jaw clenching in agony; Shinji could hear her breathing and shuffling on his bed, could feel the ire bubbling like hot magma in his stomach.

He hated it.

Asuka was being considerate. Honest. Hell, respectful even. She was behaving in a mature, vigorous manner, and for the life of him during the entire time he had shared living space with her, not a trace of deceit had crossed the cerulean orbs which hypnotized him so. She was being everything he was not, rubbing her success and progress into mental health in his face.

Just hate her already, the shadow growled, demanding to be let out, salivating at the thought of more violence. You have every reason, seven long, horrible, fucking years you tried to have a conversation with her. When had frowning and glaring become a second nature, he wondered? The water began to boil. He stared into the pot with disdain, lost in thought. Now here she comes, the great Hero, coming to save poor little junkie Shinji, and just like that all my fucking rage vanishes and I can't even insult her to her own face! I can't even curse at her!

For years now he had wanted to wound her in some way, to force his existence in her face and make her react, if that was what needed to be done for her to acknowledge him. We can never hurt Asuka, the brat had apparently loosened the gag on his mouth, for as the coffee percolated through the filter, Shinji felt him shaking in pitiful despair. We shouldn't be near her, we can taint her. We're dirty…putrid… rotten.

Yes, he conceded, and inhaled the scent of fresh, invaluable goodness. It's not like I didn't hear you the other fifteen thousand times you've said it today. Rotten to the core, and still… can't even be mad at a person who abandoned me and left me to… ironically enough… rot. As he sat back down and grunted when the slash on his leg made itself known, Shinji realized he could not hate her, even trying to stay angry at her was proving exhausting. She had been nothing short of the perfect hostess the night before, had even engaged with him in casual conversation, smiled wholeheartedly at him and had clearly enjoyed his food. Her deliberately slow way of eating, the expression of pure bliss she tried to mask and the way her plate had been emptied twice… fulfilled him in a way no other accomplishment had before.

Whose brilliant idea had it been to push together two astoundingly broken individuals in the hope that they somehow fix each other, anyhow? The plain thought of him actually making some form of recovery brought a bitter laugh mixed with a cough after he had the first sip of coffee. Ludicrous, how anyone in their right mind would place him; a convicted felon and psychopathic schizophrenic with violent tendencies in the care of a recently graduated young physiatrist whose specialty wasn't even psychiatry or psychology. She was a renowned surgeon, but not a renowned therapist.

Not like any shrink ever made a difference, did they? He had been crammed into almost every psychological approach available to man, from Freudian psychotherapy to behavioral approaches, systemic treatment and even medicated LSD trips, DMT and Ayawaska. Nothing had ever made much of an impact. Sure, Shinji, do this, don't do that, drink this up, don't think about that, those visions aren't real, count to ten. These pills will make you feel better. They make you tired? Well, drink these to get some of that energy back. Have this prescription, have that one. Tell me about your father, and your mother. Who was Rei to you? How does that make you feel?

Reminiscing the trashy suggestions and many, many drugs the state shrinks had offered only worked to make him angrier. "How does that make you feel?" He repeated to himself, growling.

The not so… traditionally western approaches had only managed to somehow deepen the frequency of his hallucinations and terrify both him and the 'shaman' in charge of 'guiding' through whatever catharsis the drug was supposed to facilitate; he'd had enough run-ins with interdimensional beings, Seeds of Life and his dead parents for five lifetimes, after all. Meditation had proven boring and ineffective; half the time his mind wandered off to those hallways filled with other people's lives, and the noise became unbearable.

Educating himself extensively on the subject of the mind in a vain effort to pursue some path into health had also proven futile. Shinji had gone through Jung and Freud to the point of almost making sense of the obscene amounts of dark information they provided, had come in contact with his 'shadow' many a time, analyzed his dreams, studied the concept of archetypes and basically plowed through a hellish ride of disgusting introspection with the help of various heavy, leathery books and psychotropic substances.

The coffee was hot on his tongue and throat as he swallowed down half a cup in a few gulps. The house was clean and spotless, quiet. I'm not angry at her; I'm ashamed to be in her presence. My own weakness infuriates me; the state of me is deplorable. Is this what I wanted her to see for so many years? This pathetic piece of shit unable to even take a piss on his own? These deformed hands and knuckles, these scars all over? This pitiful excuse of a man?

He understood himself to a frightening level, or so liked to believe, and repeatedly told himself it was the obvious choice to turn towards heavier drugs and oblivion, than to succumb to the visions, the crippling anxiety, the flashbacks, trauma and constant pain. Gonna write some soap-opera now, you pathetic piece of trash? Something along the lines of how hard your life is? How about the lives of those millions, billions who suffered because you were a weak little shit?

A deafening thud brought the young man back to reality when his arm slammed the cup not-too-nicely on the wooden surface. Insight crashed after the pills and THC managed to dull out some of the disquiet currently corroding his senses; he was without doubt furious at himself for being unable to hate the former Second Child. The way she seemed mentally stable enough to be open and honest with him was driving the brown-haired man insane, but not with rage.

I'm… happy for her, he realized, and choked out another bitter laugh, a louder one. She's so strong. So very, very strong. She managed to heal some unfathomably broken part of herself and turned it on its head to become stronger. She never stopped moving, even if it was away from me. I'm not angry at her. The blackened remnants of caffeine stuck to the bottom of the cup were his only response; he truly was pathetic. I hate myself even more now, because I missed it all. She became this great person, this incredible woman I always knew her to be, and I missed all of it.

"They weren't you. They weren't enough."

He clutched the finely crafted, minutely decorated cup and had his body not been so weak, the material would have most likely given under the pressure. He hated recalling those words because he believed them. If killing all of mankind, becoming one with it and being God for a moment had taught Shinji something it was to sniff out falsehood and lies. Hardly anyone could disguise their true intent when interacting with him; he had been used like a toy for fifteen years, after all. He thought himself better than a dog in detecting dishonesty. There had been no falsehood in Asuka's eyes; as she had taken the leap of hope of revealing a deep, personal truth to him and had done so without doubt or fear. She had basically stated that there were feelings there, in her heart, unresolved, regarding him. The Great Souhryu Asuka Langley had confessed that she held him in some form of positive regard.

I am unworthy of anything of that sort. He glared into the mug, half expecting it to agree with him. And because she so valiantly lays herself bare before me… I can't… I feel even more like the lowest… of the low…

The truth, the deeper truth behind his shame, however, was much more complex than Shinji allowed himself to delve into. Perhaps it was the brat chained to the darkest parts of his mind, perhaps it was the basic need for any sort of affirmation or honest encouragement devoid of the endless pity of his co-workers and training partners, perhaps it was the way she had looked at him the night before, open and unguarded; he was glad. Happy even, just a tiny bit.

They hadn't been enough, these men. They had not managed to know the person he so fervently, desperately wished to get close to for so long. They had been attracted to the great pilot, most likely. Enticed by her natural beauty, or maybe drawn by her fame or position in the world, they had pursued her and failed. They had been enamored with a part of her most likely, a vision, an afterimage, and probably never bothered to think what lay underneath, nor had they truly shown interest in looking beyond at all. Perhaps they had been terrified when Asuka's bad side shone, with good reason. And so one by one, they had failed.

The birds sang, the cicadas tortured his eardrums as they would; the wind blew with a smell of humid muskiness. There was no stench of rot, no non-existing footsteps, no blood trickling down. It was quiet, both inside his mind and out.

Therein lay the difference between them, he pondered, and therein came the small smirk, for once devoid of malice and filled with sadness and resignation, which drew on his face as the slow hours of the morning passed. He had no interest in her fame, her status, her physical beauty or anything so shallow. No, all he wanted…

All he wanted was her. Asuka. Sohryu Asuka Langley, with all her flaws and virtues, with the beauty and ugliness, with the broken shards and innate aggressive behavior, with her crippling trauma and fear; he wanted all of it, all of her. She was the only person aside from Rei who understood him, and did not pity him. After seven long years he still wanted all of her, and felt genuinely relieved to see her healthy. It was one thing to see the young woman's life through the lens of television, magazines and news, it was another matter altogether to be almost blinded by the intensity of her presence.

Asuka, he thought, resigned in some strange way. You really didn't need me to help at all, did you? No wonder you told me not to do anything; even then, you knew how wretched I was. The one good thing I can do for you, seeing how far you've come… the only thing I can possibly offer is… to draw you away. For your own good, you should just continue to stay away.

Alas, he was a junkie; and as such was to revel in this new, intoxicating drug until it ran dry. Until she truly was in danger of being hurt, he'd play along, if only to selfishly enjoy her company for a bit more. Three months or less of this new, addictive bliss had just fallen on his lap.

"They weren't you…" Shinji repeated, mulling over the words. The cicadas quieted and birds began to feed, the wind rattled the drapes adjacent to the balcony. Hikari had been too meek, he realized, too nice and doting. It had almost driven him to the point of violence more than once, her clear, polite and heartfelt concern. Krista had been the closest thing to a friend he'd had in years, and had probably fucked him out of pity that one time. She was too much, though, too hard and unyielding, too direct and strong, too utterly disgusted with him, too filled with hate, and too marred by life. He was poison to such a person.

Mari had only led him on to enact some poetic revenge of hers; the little devil had drawn him into the trap two years before, one of the so called "triggers" of his relapse, according to Misato. Six men had beaten him within an inch of his life almost molested and him, had he not snapped and killed most with broken glass shards and his bare hands in a feat of unbridled rage; it had not been the first, nor the last time the woman would try to kill him. Had it not been for the former Major's generosity, Mari would be dead by his hand as well.

"They weren't you."

The smile widened somewhat. "No, they certainly weren't, Asuka…"

The stirring in his wounded chest was not hope, unquestionably he deserved not a thing so rewarding as a light at the end of the tunnel. Something did coil in there, though, something unfamiliar, and not entirely unpleasant. Junkie delusions, he told himself, wishing for a cigarette. He breathed in deep, hissing in pain, coughing, and readjusting himself on the chair. Krista was bound to arrive soon.

Something caught Shinji's attention on the corner of his eye just as the anxiety was about to reach a crescendo and force him to actually look for a cancer stick and ignite it. A small glass jar rested on the middle of his table, with a small note under it where Asuka's handwriting was easy to recognize. The trembling, scarred fingers of his right hand clasped both objects and brought them close.

'CBD AND SWEET, DELICIOUS THC IN LIQUID FORM. BE CAREFUL WITH THIS, TAKE TEN DROPS IF YOU FEEL ANXIOUS ENOUGH TO THINK ABOUT SMOKING. NO SMOKING ALLOWED, BAKA. AREN'T I A GRACIOUS CARETAKER? XOXO, ASUKA.'

"Ten drops, huh," repeated the young man, and unclasped the jar. He took a long swig, drowning out a third of the small bottle in one go. "Prost, Frau Doktor." She was gracious, indeed, and apparently had a keen, downright frightening knowledge regarding his daily routines. "Here's to you." He took a glance at the door to his room, and chugged another small drink of the super concentrate. The trembling of his fingers ceased somewhat, so Shinji closed his eyes.

It was the first morning in three years he had not extensively spoken to, nor smelled Mother's rotting corpse nearby, the first time in three years no memories of Rei had been related to Lilith. He did not quite know what to make of the situation at all.


"What's all this, huh?! Care to explain?!"

She eyed him with evident disinterest for a brief second before going back to her paper on muscular rehabilitation through neuromuscular electric therapy. "What?" she bit out, bored and distant. "It's a picture, never seen one?"

"It's a picture of him!" Möritz exploded, trembling with rage. They were in her living room, and had been happily ignoring one another since the last time she had almost bitten off his head for pushing her in the wrong way. "It's a picture of Ikari, a recent one at that! Do you take me for a fool, Asuka?!"

"No, I don't think you're a fool," she reasoned, closing the book with a resounding thud and glaring daggers at her… boyfriend. "I'd rather not think about you at all, if I'm honest."

He recoiled as though physically hurt and Asuka could almost count down in her head the milliseconds in which the young man's handsome face turned bright red with fury. She was so disenamoured with him that his raging scowl almost made her burst out laughing. Möritz snarled, lips curling back in disgust.

"Oh, but you have some time in between your two majors and medical practice to stalk this… this… Ikari of all people?" This time it was her eyes that narrowed; she had risen from the chair without realizing it and was curling her hands into fists. In the farce that was their very shallow relationship there were few rules; he had almost crossed one of the quintessential ones. "You scream at me, don't let me touch you for days, only come to me when it pleases you, and now I have to act like some submissive dog when you're clearly following another man around?!"

A very heavy folder was thrown on the table, and upon closer inspection Asuka had to actively stop herself from jumping over the wooden surface and ripping the man's lungs out. "You have an entire file on this guy! Look, look!" He grabbed onto said folder for emphasis and ran through the pages with less than the necessary delicacy for something so dear to her. "Look! Medical reports, psychological evaluations, pictured taken in an alley or some shit, what the fuck, Asuka!? Are you like, obsessed with this asshole?!"

Strike one. Her right eye twitched.

"What the fuck is the matter with you?! Are you really following some fucking loser, some nobody junkie like him?" The folder was then thrown away and smashed into the wall, dropping valued information, pictures and material into the floor.

Strikes two and three, she was now actively striding towards him, hands curled into fists. Boy, had he thrown the ball off the court.

"Did you not see the news?! He killed those men! That asshole is a murderer, do you understand that?! He's a fucking war criminal, a convicted felon, and he's insane! What the fuck could be so captivating about that lose-"

Asuka let the following strikes slide, considering how much of her strength had been driven into the devastating kick she hurled at the man's midsection, a right front kick delivered precisely above his floating rib, thus sinking the poor fool's liver into the surrounding organs. Möritz's last insult died on his lips just as his knees buckled and he fell to the ground, coughing and struggling to breathe, paralyzed in agony. Most likely due to her calm, seething rage he had not seen the attack coming; her speed had allowed no reaction or defense on his part, either.

She picked her now former boyfriend by his blonde locks and presented him with the nastiest expressions available to her, a warface reserved only for her Muay Thai practice and Mother's vision. "Never, ever… Ever go through my stuff. That was rule number one, remember? And don't ever insult my fellow pilots in my presence. Rule number two, Möritz, it wasn't complicated at all." He tried to speak, or maybe hit her back, yet the moment his hand shot up Asuka's body reacted and she positioned herself on his back and sunk him a very nasty rear naked choke.

"Be grateful that I'm not slitting your fucking neck open right now…" She growled as he turned an ever deeper shade of red and flailed about. To the man's credit, he was almost able to throw her off before oxygen deprivation forced him to his knees. She released the hold and let him fall on the floor with a resounding thud. "You want to see a loser, a nobody, huh? Look in the mirror for once in your life, you sniveling whelp. Your little brain cannot possibly comprehend how low you rank if compared to any of my fellow pilots." Resisting the urge to enact more violence upon him, Asuka rose back to her feet and kicked the man in the door's direction. "Get out of my sight, and don't bother coming back. I'll have somebody drop off your shit in the afternoon."

Ignoring the scalding glare, the redhead turned her back on him and began to very carefully pick every single paper strewn about; many of the pictures contained graphic images of Shinji being treated in the operating table, others were depictions of him fighting in alleys or empty streets, some had been snapped as he trained or ran in the mornings. It was all… her precious research.

"Pugh," Möritz spat on the ground, glaring down at her with disdain in a way not unlike how she had once done with Shinji before he strangled her. "Pathetic," he said, and turned to leave with whatever dignity he still had. "You freaks deserve each other. Be glad I don't believe in hitting women. Good luck, you crazy wench."

She let him have the last word and relished in the sound of his footsteps drawing away. Wrong, wrong, it was all wrong now; her careful work had been disorganized almost completely, now she'd have to gloss over the entire material in order to fully understand it. She was so close, as well; her skills were almost honed to the level she desired them to be when the moment came, her training was a nigh year and a half off being complete.

"Arschloch," Asuka spat under her breath, glowering at the way one of the rare pictures of him smiling had been dented in half, now a distasteful mark ran through her photograph and she'd have to get a new one printed. "You're lucky you didn't go prodding any further… du Arschloch…"

All things considered, the evening had been quite productive; she had managed to banish her father's latest effort to have her public image improve and she'd ridden herself of yet another useless Beta with overbearing arrogance, all at once. Had the little Beta managed to open the small door located in the small attic above her wardrobe… had he touched one of Shinji's presents or letters… the toll would have been much greater than a few bruised ribs and angry red marks around his neck. Had he tarnished any of those packages in any way or form, she'd have most likely beaten the young German within an inch of his life.

Sitting on the floor and grazing through the pages she'd have to reorganize, Asuka lost herself in the evident deterioration in Shinji's eyes. Even in the pictures the increasing damage made his stare harder and colder, just as scars and marks appeared on his brow, knuckles, knees and arms. He was beginning to look frighteningly alike his father.

"Just a little longer…" She clutched the folder close to her chest, and was glad, for once, of the emptiness of her father's mansion. "Hold on just a little longer, Baka… just a bit longer… back-up is coming… Just a bit longer…"

"Just a bit longer…"

The pillow was tightly clutched against her chest; it served as an anchor to reality as she reminisced the ending of her last… relationship, were it ever able to be described as such. She was engulfed in Shinji's scent, feeling quite comfortable and well rested, so Asuka refused to fully accept consciousness. They were a gift, those few more precious minutes without having to deal with the fact that she had jumped into her patient's bed like a toddler, and held onto his healthy arm for the entirety of the night. She had shared a something more than personal with Shinji and allowed a sliver of vulnerability to show, half expecting him to jump at the opportunity and crush her.

She huffed; her experiment, improvised as it had been, had failed in the most spectacular fashion. Stupid considerate gentleman asshole… she thought and tried in vain to be annoyed with the former Third Child. Instead of calling me names and throwing all I've been doing in my face all he said was… my own damn words back to me.

"She's not you."

Envy and wrath quickly incited within the redhead's chest, forcing a growl out of her throat and her grip on the pillow to tighten considerably. No, by all means those two, at least the two she knew of, were not Sohryu Asuka Langley. The introduction of the Krista character had been a displeasing surprise; her investigation had only ever shown Shinji's active role in getting the former addict clean and regularly checking in with her in this gymnasium of theirs, but never had it occurred to her that this girl and Shinji might have been… close.

She's too aggressive; the words came back with ease just as her loose limbs began to demand movement. Too unstable, too much, just too much. So much anger and hate and despair, mood swings worse than PMS, a tendency towards extreme violence, heavy addiction to heroin, too much of a hassle for someone like him. Huffing in sudden displeasure, Asuka sat up abruptly and glared up at the ceiling, stretching. Fuck, the girl is my mood on steroids, cocaine and rivotril all at once, she pondered, molars grinding together and eyes fixed on the light bulb. I miscalculated; I was stupid enough to not see the resemblance, fuck. Fuck.

"Fuck…" The former pilot was about rise from bed and face what was probably the most embarrassing moment in her life yet before heavy slams on the apartment door and random feminine scream stopped her in her tracks. Lost in thought as she had been, Asuka had completely missed the sound of the door opening and a strange person striding into the house.

"You lying piece of shit!" rang the unbearably loud bellow from the kitchen. "You swore to me, you swore to Coach that you'd be in the gym all afternoon with us, that you'd celebrate your birthday with US!" She noticed a heavy accent, and tiptoeing to the slightly ajar door, took a furtive glance at the woman now standing over Shinji's seated form, fuming and occasionally kicking the man's table for emphasis. "And what does the great hero of the city do, huh?!"

-SLAM.-

A heavy push kick almost knocked Shinji's cup off the board. Asuka noticed the girl's attire; comfortable cargo pant and a black, sleeveless shirt which revealed a heavily built physique and tattooed arms. Her back muscles were highly developed, and with every wild movement, the individual fibers around her arms jumped into sight.

"What do you do, what do you always do, you fucking liar!? Huh?! You go and drink, don't you?! You go and do coke in places where you know people are gonna mess with you, where you know there's bound to be trouble! You want them to fight you, don't you?! You love it, don't you?!"

-SLAM.-

The woman seethed, and to Asuka's surprise she actually caught a glimpse of Shinji lowering his head, hiding his eyes and frowning at his feet as the tirade went on. She felt sick to her stomach; this was probably how it had seen to others every single time she yelled at him in public and he took the verbal bashing with nothing more than a nod.

"You could've trained with us until you were puking blood, you asshole, and all of this shitstrom could've been avoided! You're gonna throw your life away for some slut who hasn't even bothered to call and ask if you're alive?! Huh?!" She kicked the table with more force than before, turning Shinji's mug to the side. The large cup, larger than any Asuka had seen before for mere coffee, and something she knew the boy to be somewhat fond of, almost fell to the ground.

She was about to jump in, headbutt the disrespectful little bitch for good measure and rescue the mug, but said little bitch reacted first, moving quickly to retrieve the finely painted porcelain object. She placed it on the counter with extraordinary care, and unleashed another kick for good measure.

-SLAM.-

"You want someone to pull a gun on you, don't you?" Instead of kicking it again, Krista held onto the table's edge and glowered down at the seemingly mute Third Child. "You want someone to escalate it, to stop giving a shit that you're the world's hero and shoot you, don't you?! You want to find another Volkov guy, who'll slam you into a fucking hospital bed for a month again, don't you?! How many ribs did that guy break, Shinji? Seven, eight?! Both your hands, broken! Your fingers, your right shoulder, your knee, fucked! How about your cheekbone, or your jaw? He almost punched your skull into the ground! You couldn't move out of bed for weeks! Fucking weeks! Ugh, you fucking LIAR!"

"I won that fight," the quiet former pilot interjected, shrugging.

"SHUT UP!" Even Shinji winced in pain at the scream that followed. "You fought a fucking Polish monster who kills people for a living for shits and giggles, Shinji, and he almost killed you!"

This time around she hammer punched the table, making the wood jump. "Every time you do this shit, every time you're getting just a little bit better you shoot yourself in the fucking foot! Did you know those thugs run an underground organ trafficking business for the Yakuza, huh?! You saved that little slut from being dismembered, Shinji! And God only knows what they were going to do before they started harvesting her organs! And where is she?! Where the fuck is the gratitude for what you did?!"

"I don't need any gratitude, from her or anybody else," Shinji spoke at last with a definitive tone, a hard voice which made the Krista girl pause momentarily before rage overcame her and another fist impacted against the table.

"I fucking know, okay?!" Krista raged, and forced a cringe out of the other two occupants of the small apartment. "You don't want gratitude, you don't want love, or acceptance, or any of that! You want someone to punish you, right?! Someone to pummel you into the fucking ground, so you can go ape-shit and fight to the death, isn't it?! Am I wrong?! Huh?!"

Despite herself, hidden within Shinji's room as she was, Asuka had to respect the young woman's insight. She had described Shinji's conscious desire to perfection, and in response the young man's body language and general aura had now changed from repentant to aggressive. "Yeah, that's about it," the former pilot answered, and glared up at the woman. "That's what I want."

"Well then, tough shit, you fucking asshole!" Krista turned on her heels, fumed, huffed in rage, kicked the ground, punched the wall with evident force behind it, and turned her attention back to the heavily injured young man. "You were the one who saved my fucking life, you got that?! I didn't ask you to, I didn't want your help, and you forced me to fucking live on, you asshole!" Krista accused, and Asuka's eyes widened in shock; that particular detail had eluded her research altogether.

"And now I'm just supposed to sit back and let you fight one too many criminals with your bare fucking hands until one of them actually manages to kill you?! You go tell Coach any of that shit, go on! Go and tell him, and we'll see if he ever, ever goes out drinking again with your sorry ass!" Shinji's brow twitched in clear annoyance at the mention of their trainer, the redhead realized, which meant he held the man in high esteem.

"I'm not letting you, do you get that, you selfish bastard?!" Krista exploded, breathing heavily. "The moment you heal, you're going to the gym with me and we're going to grapple like you promised, do you get that?! I'm gonna force you to sweat out every last drop of those fucking narcotics and with God, or fucking you as my witness, I'll tie you up to a fucking bed like you did me, and I'm not letting up until you're clean!"

A second of silence, and just when Asuka was about to breathe a sigh of relief, the woman roared one final time. "Am I clear, Mr. Lying Asshole?!"

Shinji shrugged, once more taking the redhead by utter surprise, and muttered a 'whatever' under his breath, turning to glare down at the floor near his room, which forced Asuka to make a strategic retreat. From behind the door, she heard the female fighter huff with indignation, walk around the living room, inspect the balcony, the small living area, kitchen, and finally move over a chair to seat herself opposite to the unwilling host.

"Your house is nice," Krista offered tightly. Asuka stole a few glances in their direction, noticing how the girl's crossed arms contrasted with her outstretched legs. "It's clean, and smells like you." The last comment turned the redhead's analytical mind into hateful mush. Smells like what, you slut?! "It's a boring fucking house, though. No adornment, barely any life. You should let Kanao come and help you decorate." I will have that Kanao girl dig up your grave as I slowly dismember you, Krista.

"Your girlfriend makes a living decorating houses, Krista, and no," Shinji clarified, head moving up to glare at his ceiling. The energy between both occupants of the table was extremely tense, Asuka noticed, and had there ever been any… intimacy between them, it had long since been replaced by what looked like a begrudging companionship. "She's not touching my stuff. Nobody touches my stuff. You know that."

"Yeah, yeah," Krista waved off his comment with a dismissive move of the hand. "Heavens forbid she accidentally drops those pieces of newspaper and magazine you're so fond of, or one of those stupid little mementos you have of that traitorous bit-"

-SLAM.-

Asuka jumped slightly from her perch by the door, the sound had been so sudden she had almost descended into a fighting stance. It had been Shinji who had slammed the table, she realized, and had done so with much more force than what the young woman had produced earlier. It had been beyond sudden movement; the punch was nothing short of conditioned response to a specific stimuli.

"Hey," he said curtly, in a tone that brokered no argument. "Careful."

A very tense silence followed, one in which Asuka herself tried not to breathe too loudly. As a child, Shinji had been anything but intimidating; he had had no teeth, no edge, no visible danger to him, and precisely due to that apparent nature Asuka had initially been infuriated with him. There had always been something in there, though, inside the boy's gentle nature, something quite nasty. As a young adult, Shinji had honed whatever that edge was, and called upon it at will.

He was by far just as intimidating as his father, if not more, whenever anger overcame him.

"Pff," after a few minutes of silent competition, Krista gave in and turned her eyes to the sink. Blue eyes, quite electric and akin to hers; she noticed the girl's gaze was a very lively baby blue, her skin was tanned but originally white, so far as Asuka could see. Her hair was blonde, buzzed to nonexistence on the sides while the rest, long enough to reach half of her back, was held in a tight pony tail. "There you go again, barking at people whenever they say anything about h-"

"I said careful," Shinji interrupted, fist clenching just as his scowl deepened. "I'm not going to say it again, Krista."

"Uuuuuuhh, soooo scary," the girl mocked, dismissing his dangerous aura with a tsk and a shake of her head. "And you're gonna do what now, exactly? Jump on me over the table with four fucking knife wounds on you?"

"Say something regarding that again and I guess we'll find out, won't we?" In her mind's eye, the redhead did in fact see Shinji jump over the table, injuries bleeding anew, grab the girl by the neck in a fluid motion and hoist her into the air, the vision felt as real as the one the night before. A jolt ran down her back, and a similar must have made itself known to Krista, for the other girl shuddered a bit.

The third sepulchral silence fell upon the living room until Shinji coughed, clearing his throat and sighing in apparent defeat. "You want something to eat?"

"I've been threatening your work partners and boss for ten fucking days, Ikari," Krista provided with a terse connotation. "Yes. Yes, I want something to eat. Make me something with lots of butter. And eggs. Lots of those, too."

"So…" Shinji looked around, noticing the lack of the blasted wheelchair around his immediate vicinity. "Scrambled eggs, then? With lots of butter?"

"And some of those little green things you add to them." Even while being pampered and served by a man with severe, deep incisions in his soft tissue, the girl managed to maintain an air of nonchalance and petulance which had Asuka's jaw clenching and a vein popping by her forehead. The nerve of this woman; to simply sit there and be serviced by an injured patient, her patient at that, her very attitude rubbed the redhead in all the wrong ways. It cut too close to the bone; the girl reminded the former Second Child very much of herself.

"Your wish is my command, oh Great Queen Bitch," Shinji had visible trouble rising from the chair, he hissed and grunted with every step and without realizing it, Asuka had already started to make her way to him. The sight of Krista stopped her dead in her tracks, however. Even while appearing uninterested, the girl's nails were physically digging into her own skin, her foot was moving up and down in a hurried manner, and she stole glances every half a second to Shinji's evident pain. "Anything else I might accommodate for thee, master of all things Bitch and Annoying? I do have neighbors, you know. I bet they…(cough)… resent your… rather uncouth way of expressing your-(hiss)-yourself."

"Yeah, fuck you, Ikari, and fuck your neighbors." Krista rebuked. "Get on with it before I take pity on your sorry ass and get some takeout instead."

Asuka took a few steps back and retreated to the room, unnaturally glad nobody had been alerted of her presence yet. "You're gonna go… (cough, cough)… spend money on some third-quality crap when I can have…(hiss)… the world's greatest scrambled eggs in seconds here? It's your money and appetite to waste, I guess."

"Whatever you say, Gordon Ramsay," the details were all around for Asuka to see, the other girl's very body language revealed everything her trained eye needed to know. "Just don't kill yourself over some scrambled eggs, Shinji. It's not worth it."

Whatever double meaning the last sentence might have had was ignored; Shinji continued the grueling task of cooking while barely being able to stand with the help of the crutches and Krista's leg moved quicker and quicker as time went by.

She's trying her absolute hardest not to jump in and force him to sit, the young doctor realized, eyes narrowed in the girl's direction. With Shinji's back turned to her, Asuka caught a glimpse of the utter helplessness and despair that darkened Krista's brow. She really, really cares about him huh, Asuka inferred. She's worried sick and masking it with anger. She wants… to hug him. To make him feel better, if only for a little while. She swallowed down the bitter taste of envy and unnatural possessiveness that jumped at her throat. She just knows Shinji hates to be helped now, and she's respecting it.

Asuka quietly pushed the door closed and slid off to the ground to wait for the unexpected guest to leave. She could not possibly think of interrupting; the data being collected was essential if Shinji was ever to heal, and more than some greater calling and sense of responsibility, she simply did not want to interrupt. Krista was not competition, not in the slightest; if anything, the girl could become an ally in time. Despite the evident tension between them, both estranged, damaged young adults visibly enjoyed the other's company and had a much more complicated relationship than what she had first thought.

Minutes ticked by, the scent of scrambled eggs, toasted bread and cooked butter along with coffee invaded her nostrils and forced a growl from the girl's stomach, but she overlooked the growing hunger and simply listened. Going unnoticed went against her very nature and bothered the redhead enough to continuously clench her teeth and glower; the many years of suffering, learning and more suffering had, nonetheless, taught her the value of patience.

She heard the somehow amiable conversation in the living room with keen interest, noticing how Krista's concern with Shinji's wellbeing was made clearer as time ticked away. Shinji inquired about their trainer, and Asuka could almost see him grimace when the female fighter told about how the man had first been overcome with blinding anger and pulverized a heavy bag for about an hour after initially hearing the news of his latest visit to the hospital.

Whatever deities were out there, they had seemingly taken a bit of mercy on her, for after a brief joke regarding the character they called Coach, Shinji laughed with some true humor behind it. Thanks, unworthy, uneducated, annoying bitch Krista, Asuka thought, and closed her eyes to enjoy the moment.

She had been granted even more time to avoid the confrontation with her host and patient, and had been gifted with the young man's laughter twice in two brief days after many years of waiting. Truly something to be grateful for; hope was not lost. The Shinji she was yet to know, the young man who had struggled against trauma and disease alone for so long, the stranger who glared at her and bit back when she pushed had suddenly become much, much more interesting. Thanks for trying to take care of the Baka until now. You can stand down. Back-up has arrived.

Soon enough the door hissed open, hissed closed, and the girl was gone. Apprehension corroded the relative calmness Asuka had been enjoying the whole morning, and hunger was very actively making her stomach grumble and complain. "Ihayo, Asuka."

After a deep breath and a nod to herself, the redhead rose from the ground, took a hold of the wheelchair and strode confidently over to the living room where a full breakfast, complete with a fruit salad, fresh orange juice, a cup of steaming coffee and a healthy, fluffy portion of scrambled eggs awaited.

"Morning," Shinji signaled from his new perch by the balcony, where his eyes drifted to the skies and the city. "Thought you'd be hungry."

"No sudden movements, no bleeding or excessive stinging from the injuries?" She inquired after leaving the wheelchair next to him and ignoring the annoyed grumble he used as a response. She had seen him punched the table, hell, his neighbors had probably heard it as well. He was lucky her keen eyes caught no sign of blood or liquid clinging to his white shirt. "I'll take that as a yes, Third. As soon as I'm done I'll check on them, 'kay?"

"It's not like I can say no, is it?" Shinji bit back, and dared a sideway glance in her direction. Strange; his approach towards her was apprehensive at best, as though he wished for nothing more than to not discuss why after just a few days of living together again, she had chosen to share his bedding space without so much as a by your leave. Still, she had specifically told him there were more days to be spent on the wheelchair and he had blissfully ignored her. "The food's gonna get cold before you melt the skin off my face, Asuka."

True enough, she thought and turned back to the table, abandoning the annoyed stare she had been directing his way. "Good morning, Baka," she said at last, sitting down. God, did the coffee smell delicious, and the aroma coming off the scrambled eggs made her ravenous. "Thanks for the food, you didn't have to bother."

"You took off three months off your career, your life and left your damn country to clean up these disgusting freaking slashes on a daily basis, for God knows what reason," Shinji responded with a hint of anger in his tone. "Scrambled eggs, coffee and toast are nothing."

There was a serrated knife inside your chest, Shinji, and in your leg, and in your lung, she bit back in her mind, and wolfed down what probably were the best scrambled eggs she'd ever tasted, and by the Gods had Gordon fucking Ramsay cooked for her once during some event she'd been invited to. The pain the young man must have gone through, standing unevenly on one leg and forcing the crutches to stretch out the stitches as he worked must have been nothing short of torture. Scrambled eggs, coffee and toast are too much. Too much to offer for a traitorous bitch such as I. Seven years.

She basically gulped down the protein while taking long sips of the dark goodness and exhaling in delight. I could've been eating these scrambled eggs for seven fucking years, now. Oh, but I had to run, didn't I? I had to get away from you, from the light. The light burned, hope was an unfathomable concept, and you would've brought about a Fourth Impact, had it meant that I could be just a little happy. What you represented scared the shit out of me.

"You heard the whole thing, didn't you?"

Asuka almost choked on her very delicious coffee when Shinji spoke. "W-What?" She struggled between coughs, and ended up having to take a larger gulp of the hot liquid so as not to send it flying through her nostrils.

"You're probably very familiar with this," the young man started, eyes lost in the distance. He looked… strangely at ease, in some sense, which only worked to alert Asuka all the more. Why the sudden change in attitude? Was he not actively seeking to irritate her into abandoning him again? "When you live by yourself… (sigh)… you memorize every sound, right?" Shinji looked over at the ceiling just as she stabbed a ripe piece of cantaloupe and devoured it.

"The footsteps of your neighbors, the tone of their voice, the songs of birds throughout the year, hell, even the way the wind blows." He explained further while the grinds on Asuka's brain worked overtime to understand what the hell was happening, and why it felt so important. "Suddenly someone else is in the house… their breathing is amplified. Every movement they make is alien to you, and you sense it, every movement, every change. You've been awake for a few hours now. Did Krista wake you?"

"No," the redhead answered before thinking. "I kinda drifted awake at seven thirty or something like that…" Her eyes widened once more; she had it. He's… sharing something. The way he lives, the loneliness of being all by yourself, so alone that even the screams of your neighbors are some kind of comforting back noise. He knows I can relate, he knows. When you're alone, every sound is so loud. "She sure can yell, this Krista, can't she?"

Shinji chuckled slightly. "You don't know the half of it. That, right there, was about… seventy four percent."

"Damn," Asuka drowned out the orange juice in one go, setting the glass down with a resounding thud. "One would say she's almost as loud as I am, huh?" The comment earned her another chuckle from the recovering former pilot.

"Now that I'm not sure about," Shinji answered. "I'll have to let the neighbors decide which of you is the winner of the 'shatter Ikari's eardrums' award." They shared a small laugh, something they had not done since the day that car had sped up in her direction, and everything had gone to hell in a basket.

"Hah, I'll have you know I excel at everything, Baka. And if it's a competition, I'm bound to win it, anyways," she grinned with playfulness dancing in her eyes. "Might as well hand over the prize now and be done with it."

"True, true," Shinji turned to look at her, and for a second, only a second, the heavy armor came down and she saw him. "You are the best, after all, Frau Sohryu."

"Yes, I am," she agreed and rose, stretching fully and moving the plates over to the sink. A comfortable silence befell them; for whatever reasons Shinji was not actively seeking to offend her or bite at her fingers if she approached, and the sensation of a quiet, relaxed morning was a feeling she had grown unfamiliar with enough to know when to enjoy it.

The former male pilot gazed up at the sky, letting the wind freshen up the sweaty skin around his brow. My condition is absolute shit, he concluded, and promptly ignored the memory of Asuka screaming her lungs out when the Lance went through her eye socket. Indeed, there was no competition to be held; he knew how loud she could scream only too well. I was almost passing out from making scrambled eggs of all things. Going back to running is gonna be a bitch… maybe I won't even be able to run anymore... He glared at his midsection and leg with disdain; the severity of his injuries sunk in, for once. Maybe training's out the window, for good. Fighting, going to the gym, how am I going to do any of it, now?

For a man obsessed with the idea of dying at the hands of some gracious stranger, the very few things from which he extracted some joy were somehow invaluable. Now, with grieving wounds which endangered his daily motions, the outlet of being utterly exhausted, chest heaving, began to dissipate ever so slowly and drove a blade of bitterness down Shinji's relatively stable mood that morning. Not even all the CBD in the world will help when I can't run, or train, or so much as smoke. Shit. CBD. Oh, right.

"Thanks," he said off-handedly, breaking the stillness of the house. "That CBD stuff… is really… helpful." I was insulting her, trying to hurt her, and now I'm thanking her. What the fuck, Ikari?!

"I still can't believe you haven't smoked a single cigarette yet, CBD or no," Asuka walked over to him, but did not quite feel comfortable standing before him just yet, so she opted to stay by the table. "You never did strike me as the chain-smoker type, though."

"I actually hate the smell of cigarettes, and the taste," Shinji admitted; the smell of nicotine was more nostalgic than anything to him, something which anchored him to the past, and reality. "I'd smoke weed all day if it didn't slow me down and gave me more anxiety in the long run." He lied, smirking slightly. "Guess it was just… convenient."

It was a smirk filled with bitterness; she had said something along those lines to Rei once, if memory served. "I miss the hell out of it, but…" he was nursing a quite comfortable buzz between the massive amounts of the liquid, the Ninja star and the opiates, and if he lit up a cigarette, then Asuka's scent would be distorted. "I'm good for now."

Well, one down, Asuka pondered inwardly. Twenty or so more substances to go, some horrible, horrible withdrawal episodes, some craziness, and maybe… I get to hug you, huh? "That's surprising to hear, want some more Ninja Stars, Baka?"

"Whoever your uncle Joey is, he's gonna burn in hell for producing that… capsule poison you call edibles," he replied, managed a strained laugh mixed with a cough. "No wonder you call them Ninja Stars, those are killing weapons, I tell you."

"They work wonders for the shakes and the anxiety, don't they? I told you so, Ba-Ka." Asuka agreed. The aura between them felt inviting all of the sudden, and it was precisely because just as she had done the night before, Shinji had opened himself and confided in her just a tiny bit. "Trust me, I know a thing or two about not being able to sleep and feeling like your heart's gonna burst out of your chest."

The atmosphere was nice; his house, once a coffin of solitude which chilled him to the bone felt inviting. I'm gonna fuck it up, the dark part of his mind whispered.

"Asuka…" Shinji uttered; a frown shadowing his brow. I am this much of a sick loser that I can't even let myself enjoy this small moment. I'm gonna fuck it up. I'm gonna fuck it up. He truly did not want to, he was feeling good for once, feeling relaxed and just a tad optimistic about what the day held, but self-sabotage was already engraved in his being. "Why did you… you were sleeping on my bed this morning… holding onto my arm…" I'm fucking it up. Stop. Stop. Please. Just this once, don't. Let me enjoy it just a little more. Let me – "Right after telling me some strange crap about some guy who wasn't me. It's been… seven years, now. Seven. Years. What…" I fucking hate you, I hate you Ikari Shinji, so fucking much. "What the hell's all that about?"

The redhead's shoulder slackened somewhat and the smirk melted off her face, and he hated himself all the more for it.

You knew this was coming, and you have nothing to feel ashamed of. You are Sohryu Asuka Langley, you did what you did, and you are who you are, Asuka sighed whilst walking so as to stand face to face with her seated… patient. Shinji won't hurt you… if your research and these past few days have proven anything is that he's physically unable to do so. No fear. No hesitation. He deserves as much. Be… be the Asuka he envisions. Be that beacon, carry the heaviest load you can manage, and fucking own it. Let him see it's possible.

Unsure of what to do with her arms, Asuka crossed them around her chest, abruptly hyper aware of the revealing shorts and oversized shirt she was wearing. "Well," Sohryu Asuka Langley does not hesitate, and she always looks you in the eye. Her gaze fixed on his, glad to find some form of uncertainty in Shinji's hard expression. "A few… days… after Third Impact, we… started doing this. Remember?"

Shinji nodded with suspicion; his eyes narrowed and the intensity of his stare increased. "I remember."

"Well," she repeated, drawing a large lungful of air. "Those were the only nights I can remember when I slept well at all, before or after Third Impact. No nightmares, no thoughts about my mother, no memories of how the EVA Series butchered me alive," Shinji visibly flinched at the last statement, looked away first to the floor, and then instinctively to his left arm, where the word 'Bakelite' was engraved. "I slept well, Shinji. I dreamed… nice things, nice memories, if I dreamed at all. I woke up feeling well rested, and not hell-bent on killing myself or someone else. I ran… that day, because of this, as well. I couldn't stand how my body would just move without me being able to do a thing about it, how I'd just go and lay there next to you, and you'd… hold me. And we'd sleep."

"I remember," admitting with resignation, Shinji forced himself to look at her; she was doing it again. She was being courteous, honest, open, strong. Respond, if there's any honor left in you, you little worm. Be a fucking man, for once, in this little thing. "I also… uhmm…" Coward, fucking useless coward. Speak. Speak! "I slept really well, those nights…"

Nodding in his direction, Asuka swayed ever so slightly, moving her body weight from one foot to the other. "Back then I was… blindingly mad at you. You… you disappointed me in the worst ways possible, you used my body to pleasure yourself when I was unconscious… you… left me there, with those… fucking hyenas…to be torn apart, alone."

It's the truth, own it. Speak the truth, even when it hurts. Even when it hurts him. Don't lie… not anymore, not to him. "But every night, I'd want for nothing else but for you to hold me, and to sleep. In the middle of the god-dammed Apocalypse, in a shithole of a city, on that fucking beach, in those cold ass buildings and that chilling fucking concrete floor, I slept well. I knew I would, because you were there, the guy who tried to kill me." Asuka licked her lips, sighing. "Then I come here and you're… there… again. I couldn't resist, hell, I didn't want to. I did what I did because I wanted to do it, just like all those years ago, and… that's that."

The heaviness of her words was overwhelming with honesty. She had… willingly climbed into bed with him, the man who had left her to be butchered alive and committed an unspeakable travesty while she was in a coma, defenseless. He had tried to strangle and kill her, twice, yet still she had come to lie beside him. Her statement made no sense, none whatsoever, and it broke through the fury he engulfed himself with ease for reasons he could not hope to understand. His throat was burning without warning, his eyes stung. He felt weak, sober, and defenseless.

The bloodied, beaten little brat chained inside his chest broke free from the bonds which sunk into his flesh; Shinji, the dying remains of him, looked up at Asuka in utter despondency. "I'm sorry." He blurted out. In the months following Third Impact, he had never truly articulated a coherent apology that did not end in stuttering and tears.

"I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. Asuka, I'm-" A hitch suddenly shook him, Shinji's chest heaved, causing the wounds to flare, but the abrupt emotion choking and constricting his insides was stifling and absolute; it would not be denied; it had been simmering for years, after all. "I… Unit 1 was covered… covered in fucking Bakelite, Misato had just been shot… I…" He bit down on his cheek. Gods, the lack of heavy drugs was making him feel again. "I was so weak… I just sat there… I fucking sat there… God…(sob)… I'm so sorry… I did nothing…"

"It's okay," Asuka told him, and the way she was looking at him made Shinji want to sink into the ground and disappear. There was no pity there, in those cerulean orbs. No disgust or rejection came to greet him, no false empathy, nothing but the brimming confidence and strength he admired. "It's okay, Baka. Cry it out of you. Let it out, I'm not gonna call you weak, or pathetic, and I'm sure as hell not gonna laugh, or yell at you."

"Why?!" Shinji screamed raggedly as he dabbed violently at his eyes and weakly punched the wall behind him. "Just… do it, already!" He coughed and hated the way his stomach rebelled in pain. The invisible knife twisted in between his ribcage and on his back. "Fucking just let me have it, already! Stop… (cough) … stop treating me like I deserve your respect, or your help! You just said it! (Cough, cough)… you said it…! I left you to die! Then… (cough, cough)… then I tried to kill you on that beach!"

"You did." Asuka agreed, nodding.

"I fucking masturbated… I jerked off… I almost raped you, Asuka… Gods… what kind of a sick fuck… would do what I did, huh?!" The way she stood there, valiant, resolute and unwavering forced Shinji to slam his palm over his face and break away from the stern, penetrating stare of the woman in front of him. There, I said it. I did it, to her face. There, he thought, suddenly fatigued as the bounds cruelly sunk in the boy's flesh and dragged him back to the darkness. There, I said it. There. Slowly, painfully, Shinji managed to stop the sudden flow of tears and brought his breathing back under some semblance of control. "I'm so fucked up…"

The birds chirped, the neighbors above cursed at each other in Swedish and slammed a door. Asuka neither agreed nor denied any of what he said.

"It's early," she commented offhandedly, trying her hardest to remain implacable at the first true glance at the real Shinji she'd had since arriving. "It's not even noon, Baka. We don't have to do this today, okay? But… let's not pretend, either. Yeah, you tried to strangle me, and not an hour after that you had a shelter made ready for me. You had food for me, you carried me, you fed me, changed me, bathed me, for days. I never did anything that warranted the slightest human decency from you; I said this to you already, and you know it's true." Even without seeing him, Asuka noticed how much the truth of the matter disturbed him. Shinji had convinced himself he had done everything wrong, and that she had done nothing to earn the righteous anger stored in his chest.

"I treated you like shit, for whatever reasons, I did, Shinji. Real mature of me, to send you the most fucked up mixed signals, to demean you on a daily basis and then expect you to be not just some hero, but my ideal hero as well, all the while expecting you not to get in the way of my supposed 'greatness'." She huffed, pulling a strand of hair away from her face.

"Real nice of me, real human, to leave you to die in your most horrible moment, at the peak of fucking Armageddon. No. I'm not letting you lie to yourself, not in my presence. You know damn well what I did to deserve the things you did. And if I made you… uncomfortable… last… uhm… last night, let me know and it'll never happen again. Okay?"

Shinji remained quiet for a few moments, blinked and nodded stiffly, eyes wide.

"Now," Asuka breathed in, exhaled in a huff, and turned towards the bathroom. "I'm gonna go take a shower, and after you shower I'll see to the wounds and give you the serum. Need anything?"

Shinji stared at his palm where the dark circle was branded, trying in vain to control the whirling chaos inside his mind. "No, I…" There's some Oxycotin in the drawer by the kitchen, pop two, take another swig of that CBD, and take the anti-psychotics from the top counter by the sink. "I'm good, I guess…" Please, go away… don't look at me anymore… stop making me feel, damn you.

He looked up just in time to see the redhead nod in his direction and head over to the room he had reserved for her, and where he assumed her bags and belongings to be. "Oh, and Shinji?" He blinked in surprise when she stopped in front of the door. "I've been with four men… intimately, you know. Five times. Two of them were one-night stands I can barely even remember, two with that guy your co-worker mentioned last night. It was messy, and I barely enjoyed any of it at all, to be honest. I was almost pitch-black drunk most of those times. I hated it; I hated them afterwards, and myself. I led them on sometimes, both the stupid media and some of those supposed boyfriends I had. I've never… cuddled… with another man. Ever. Not once."

He was truly at a loss after such a direct statement, and yet somehow Shinji's lips started moving and he articulated words without actually knowing what was being said. "Four," he muttered, staring reluctantly at Asuka's poised back and the wild locks of dancing, vivid auburn. The truth was being… squeezed out of him. "Krista, once. Hikari, we… did it, once. It was not a pleasant affair. Never really… cuddled... with any of them… maybe… (cough, cough)… a hug or so…Then… twice with… with…"

"With Mari. Manikami, right?"

This time, Shinji's eyes did widen in shock. How did she even know that woman's name? Misato had sworn no information had been leaked, not even the news had been made aware. Ever the giver, Misato had secured a way for the girl and what remained of her family to flee the city and avoid public lynching. The car accident which had taken her life a few months afterwards had come as a surprise, but not an unpleasant one. He had not thought of her in months, years even. "How do you…" he started, tongue heavy and leathery. "How do you know her name?"

"Oh, something I read in the news, once." With her back turned to him, Asuka adopted the pose he was overly familiar with after proudly pushing her hair back and placing a hand on her hips. "A tragedy, really. How very sad, how her car caught on fire and she couldn't open the door, huh? In the middle of that horrible traffic accident, too, right? Trapped between two trucks, seats on fire, windows caved in… poor thing…" A cold shiver ran down Shinji's spine, skin turning chilly with something besides withdrawal symptoms. "Terrible, how she cooked in that car, for hours, before any help could get to her. And so peculiar, how with that level of heat and flames surrounding her, the damn car just never blew up! Not a very quick or clean way to go, I'd say, and I know quite a bit about unclean deaths."

Asuka turned, and in her left eye he saw a crimson glint he knew so very well and had encountered more than once. A shadow, a hungry, salivating Beast was watching. During the visions it had always taken the form of Unit 01, a rabid, mutated version of either himself or his mother, but what stared at him from across the living room was neither ungodly nor human. In his mind's eye Shinji gaped at the visage of an imposing, scarred, heavily muscled lioness glaring back at him.

A predatory smile drew over the redhead's face. "I guess she had it coming, didn't she?"

Disappearing behind the door in a flash of red, Asuka left Shinji dumbfounded, shaken to his core and unable to utter a single word in response. The implications of her words were heavy, strenuous and almost impossible to process; she had basically admitted, however vaguely, to having detailed knowledge of the death of Mari, the woman who had almost driven him insane and organized many assassination attempts on him.

"Geez…" he whispered after a few moments of silent contemplation; the chair sat to his left, the crutches to his right. "What a morning…"

If anything, the rest of the day and the following months promised to be interesting, at the very least. Shinji took a hold of the crutches, unbearably painful as it was, and began to waddle towards his room to pick some clothes. They were supposed to visit the gym that day, along with some medical facility in the city's outskirts and for the life of him, Shinji did not believe there were sufficient drugs in the world to make him forget what he had just heard. Asuka truly knew a frightening amount of information regarding him, and held some secrets he was suddenly extremely curious about. He was overcome with curiosity about everything, every little detail from the last seven years of her life.

"What a morning…"

Mother remained strangely quiet; the brat hugged his chains tighter, the shadow coiled in utter helplessness and snarled at nothing as he threw the clothes on the mattress. Shinji's chest constricted with confusion and… a strange excitement. The redhead's intensity was such that it was starting to rub on him at a terrifyingly fast pace. There was no hope after all, he told himself while rummaging through his limited attire, not for someone who had done what he'd done, not for the Bringer of death and destruction, not for the Third Child, so what the hell was up with this giddiness?

He sat on the edge of the bed after a few minutes, exhausted from walking hardly any steps and thankful for the extra pills he had taken on the way to his room. The wound on his back wailed as he tried to breathe in deep and savor Asuka's scent, his rapidly tensing muscles reminded him that it had been more than ten days without cocaine, now. "What the hell… is going on? Am I really going crazy again? How much crazier can I even get?"

In a sad, pathetic way, he was very disappointed not to hear Mother answer him; she had just been there a few hours prior, what had changed? Nothing but the faint sound of the shower running and Asuka's hums greeted him, accompanied by the faint echo of cars driving, footsteps above and birds chirping outside. Nothing, no putrid stench of rotten flesh, no Unit 02, torn to pieces, flying above him, no Asuka with a gaping hole where her eye should be, no bleeding kiss from Misato; there was no response from Hell, that particular morning.

So much had been said in such a small frame of time that Shinji's head still spun, even as he lay on the bed and waited for the redhead to aid him in the removal of clothes and cleansing of the thrice-damned wounds. Gods, she had not even mentioned Krista at all besides referring to how loud she could be. The unlikely chain of events felt unreal, and yet so very real at the same time. The young man felt weighed down, completely opposite to the episodes of post-traumatic stress where he felt dissociated from reality, he was almost anchored to it and unable… worse than that, unwilling to flee into the oblivion of a self-induced coma.

Alone in his room and at once, for the very first time in years actually not alone, Shinji felt terrified. Nothing had ever panicked him more than reality, after all.


Lorazepam. 6mg.

Hatred emanated from her very being as she tore open the metallic wrappings and pushed half of the poisoned pill down her throat. Her strategy was ludicrous and held no true water at all when spoken out loud; her long years of study had made no difference at all if her strategy was clinging on a fleeting, impossible factor, most of her professors would say. She had grown to hate almost all drugs with the exception of weed-related products and alcohol; from hallucinogenic to opiates, however, the ones she hated the most were benzodiazepines. If you thought I'd just come here like some flawless hero out of a comic book and heal you with my magic touch, Baka, you have another thing coming, she thought while letting the water warm before jumping in. You're gonna see some shit, and I'm going to force you to take some responsibility. But today, I'm going to give you a great day.

With the subject of her past encounters with other men behind, and the knowledge that Shinji had fared no better at all, the former Second Child allowed herself a moment of bliss as the hot water almost burned her skin. She was slowly making her body dependant on the disgusting substance one more; if her calculations were correct, just as the cleansing of drugs and the worst of Shinji's withdrawal began, so would hers. The entire city held him as an unspoken hero, almost a god-like entity, and respected his desire to be left alone to such an extent that even his address was secretly held, so his substance-dependence had never been addressed with any amount of seriousness.

If Misato crammed Shinji into a program, there was not a person alive beside the drunk herself who would control his assistance at all. Shinji was a hero, after all. However unwillingly or selfishly, he had allowed each and every breathing human on Earth to continue existing. It was not secret information, either, everyone alive knew. He had jumped in to save some ungrateful little girl from a mob. He had rescued Krista from an early grave and basically strong armed her into living. He had jumped into the fiery pit of a volcano to save a stranger who insulted him and took his room away. He had taken the knife away from her and thrown it as far as humanly possible, even after she had pummeled him half to death for it.

However flawed, Shinji was a hero, and given the chance she was certain he would will himself into health if it meant he could save someone else. Put your house in perfect order before you criticize the world, the Professor's words came back to her mind. Her house was now as orderly as it was ever likely to get. Withdrawal would be hell, literally; her first time getting clean from the hellish pills had almost killed her, but Shinji would be there this time. Treat yourself like you're someone responsible for helping. Tell the truth, or at least don't lie. Do what is meaningful, and not what is expedient. Live up your fullest potential, there is virtue in that alone. The nobility of purpose, if you have that, you have something to set against the malevolence of the world. It has saved you, already, Asuka. Who's to say it won't save him, as well?

The key to helping Shinji was simply to let him help himself by taking on as much duty as he possibly could, and rising above his own expectations. The mental scarring and hallucinations aside, if the matter of his nonchalance towards life was not addressed, then the young man's days were counted. It broke her heart to pieces to know just how little encouragement he needed to begin rising above the misery; a few days of her treating him as a human, and the pieces of his former self were already starting to show.

Asuka faced the scalding water with a determined frown before turning it as cold as it went. The sudden splash of ice brought her energy back despite the pill's dulling effects. Her strategy was simple. She would place her life and recovery in the hands of Shinji. Whatever happened afterwards, be it death, relapse, or resurgence, she would accept and welcome with open arms.

She owed him that, at the very least.

"Ikou wa yo, Asuka."

The day held so much promise; she was better rested and sharper than… ever before, truthfully, felt as though a gigantic weight had been lifted off her shoulders and was genuinely excited to meet Shinji's training partners and the place he so religiously turned to. Drugged, hung-over, injured or heavily sleep deprived, Shinji never missed practice, not once in years, were it not for the frequent hospital visits. She smiled at her reflection, glad to see none of the former scars which had marred her body glaring back. What evidence did she have that the approach which had helped her crawl back into life would work on Shinji of all people?

Oh, well, maybe just the tiny fact that we're the same. The only difference is… that he's even stronger than I am, he just doesn't know it yet. After drying off and setting her hair in a braid, Asuka marched out the bathroom and began making sure everyone in their vicinity knew just by whom Shinji was being accompanied. Perfection was expected, and nothing short of it would suffice her desire to scream at the world that yes, she was back and yes, she was going to save him.

She expected the fragrance of her shampoo and soaps to reach the man's room, and knowing how keen his senses were, Asuka smiled in triumph. Even a girl such as Krista would have certainly smelled the presence of a female in the house. The arrangements for paint, posters and many other things had already been placed; if this room was truly hers, it would bloody well look like her room. Even if… I really don't plan on using it at all…

"How the hell he managed to trick everyone around him is beyond me," She reasoned while combing the long auburn strands he seemed fond of. "The Baka's still the same overly nice idiot I remember, thinking he can't die because it would upset those who hate him. Sheesh… what an idiot…"

Despite the invariably nihilistic verbal banter he threw her way, Shinji was still alive. At any point during those seven years he could have killed himself, hell, he could have actively tried at the very least. She had, on four different occasions after Third Impact; she had actively tried to end her own life. Once Shinji had saved her, once her father, once the memory of her mother and the final time… she had saved herself. He, on the other hand, had not slashed his veins open. He had not taken, willingly or consciously, enough drugs to kill a man three times his size. He had not wrapped a noose around his own neck, nor placed a loaded gun on his temple with every intention of pulling the trigger. The fortitude of that solemn attitude alone was astounding to her.

With a sunny dress which both provided her with freshness and mobility, and was satisfyingly alike the one she had worn that day on the ship 'Over the Rainbow', supple, gleaming hair and stylish shoes to match her outfit, Asuka nodded to herself. The fun was about to begin; and the two little surprises under her sleeve forced a mischievous grin on the redhead's face. Shinji was blissfully ignorant regarding the second part of their day, after all.

It felt like Sachiel all over again.

"Chaaaaaance…"


After a long, stinging, complicated shower, the redressing of bandages which had him blushing of all things, and two shots of whatever new magical potion NERV had concocted, Shinji found himself gazing out the window of the spacious car Asuka had procured. Ever the classy one, the former Second Child had opted for a 2020 BMW 7 model, one which was equipped with a window to separate them both from the chauffeur/ bodyguard who drove them around. The smell inside the soft, leathery seats meant the vehicle came straight out of the shop, as well. She does like to make an entrance, and travel in style, the young man reminded himself, suppressing a smirk. The day was sunny but not too hot, perfect for the attire she had chosen; the radiant yellow dress was undoubted to turn heads and be noticeable from miles in the distance.

With his… caretaker… currently speaking in German on her phone, Shinji did smirk at the contrast between his clothing and hers. He had gone with a black shirt, dark as it went, and a pair of beige cargo pants with leg pockets where some of his pills were safely stored. They could not be further apart as far as first impressions went, as well; Shinji's face, knuckles, forearms and lower legs were marked in visible places from injuries he had not bothered to clean until they festered terribly, thus leaving deeper scars. His shoulders, finely built from years of combat training, were hunched over, eyes lowered with either a seemingly permanent expressionless façade or a deep scowl shadowing his brow. For the last two years his body language had screamed danger to any and all strangers who crossed him on the streets.

Asuka walked on the sidewalk the way she lived her life, it would seem, in a complete antithesis to his. Despite having to wheel him around through the apartment building and street her demeanor was confident and straightforward, lacking much of the false arrogance he remembered from their days as pilots. Shoulders squared and spine straight, she moved along seemingly unconcerned that to the trained eye, the line running down her arm was ever so slightly noticeable, unperturbed or how her left pupil shone just a tad crimson under the proper lighting, uncaring of the hardened skin around her own knuckles from what he knew to be combat of some sort. When people stopped and gaped, and boy did they gape at the sight of the Third Child being pushed in a wheelchair with a scowl on his face by the Second Child of all people, she actually smirked at them. 'Here I am', she appeared to say to them all. 'Ask your question, throw your judgment, see if I care.'

"Ja ja, alles gut. Nein, wie gesagt gestern Abend, sicherlich werden wir gegen sechzen Uhr da sein. Hmm... naja schauen wir Mal heute, ne? Wie, bitte? Ja! Genau, das neuste Gerät, ganz genau. Einverstanden! Tschüss!"

Shinji scratched the last three letters around the skin of his bicep. "So, four O'clock? Where are we supposed to be by then?" He was expecting to catch the redhead off guard with his knowledge of German, but to his dismay the girl simply shrugged and started messaging on her phone. "The newest device, what's that about?"

"Oh, you'll see at four, Baka," Asuka dismissed the inquiry with a wave, not unlike the way Krista had done in the morning. "Can't you be a little patient? I'm getting some stuff prepared that is gonna ensure you can keep creating those ugly scars on your shins in this stupid gym of yours."

"Huh? What does that even mean?" She was playing with him, he realized, teasing him ever so slightly, which both irritated and delighted him. His line of questioning had the opposite effect of keeping the redhead in a good or teasing mood, nonetheless, for Asuka huffed and turned off the phone's screen before addressing him with a dry, annoyed glare.

She brought her thumb and forefinger close together to the point where they were close to touching, and pushed them in front of his face. "This close, Shinji," she growled at him. "Half an inch, that's what it would have taken for the knife to get to the artery and kill you from blood loss before you had the brilliant idea to take out a serrated fucking knife out of your chest." He gulped, caught completely off guard. The distance between Asuka's fingers closed even more.

"What was that about language again?" He tried to joke, only to have the former female pilot actually bare her teeth at him.

"Shut it," she growled. "Less than a fucking millimeter, Shinji, less than a millimeter. That's how close the knife got to your femur." The girl's fingers drew apart, and her snarl deepened considerably. "A centimeter and seven millimeters, that's how much of the knife actually penetrated your lung tissue. The issues of a possible respiratory infection for that alone could kill you. It could kill you in days, were these wounds not treated the way I treated them. Do you honestly believe physical therapy, which I'm sure wouldn't even go through if you had the choice to skip it, can repair all of the damage your muscles and nerves received, huh?!"

She flicked in him the forehead next, forcing Shinji to blink and recoil from her, thus upsetting his injuries. "Baka! I said no sudden movements! Do I have to say it in German so you'll understand?!"

"You're the one who flicked me on the forehead, Asuka! What the fuck?!" And then she flicked him again. "What is your problem, woman?!"

"Language." She had the gall to say, igniting even more ire from the former Third Child.

"Are you shittin-!" he was about to yell as loud as possible given his current state and most likely upset the wounds even more, but she silenced him with a deadly glare.

"Hey," Asuka pushed her forefinger almost directly into his nose. "No yelling, Baka. And mind your language when you're with a lady."

"A la-(cough)- A lady?! Ohhh, that's rich! And the lady can just curse her fine little red head as much as she…(cough)… pleases, huh?!" He was seething with something other than rage, for once. He was not ready to throw fists, nor was he feeling completely alienated from the exchange at all, even considering how many drugs were in his system. He was… annoyed. "How does that work, exactly?!"

"Well, the lady is also your physician and caretaker for the foreseeable future, so I'm guessing she can pretty much say whatever the fuck she wants, huh?!" Asuka challenged, trying in vain to force another snarl and failing miserably. The corner of her upper lip started to quiver at the mere sight of Shinji, Ikari Shinji, destroyer of Angels, number one pilot, street fighter and violent psychotic schizophrenic… pouting. Even the poor man's mouth began to turn upwards without his consent.

"Then I guess I'm pretty much fucked, right?" He emphasized on the curse word and for a moment there was a heavy silence. Then it came, surprising them both.

Both of them burst out laughing simultaneously, down right to the millisecond in which it occurred. Asuka lost all the seriousness to her demeanor in a second, snorting before huge smile manifested and she howled with laughter for no particular reason. For his part, Shinji began to chuckle and soon was cackling in between coughs, even going as far as slapping his healthy leg a few times.

It felt familiar; her teasing and his tiny efforts of defiance brought them back to the time they had first met, before the Angel War and Third Impact destroyed any chance at a normal interaction between them. Precisely due to the past the simple, relatively harmless interaction they had just had felt so… refreshing.

"Oh, Gods…(cough, cough)… damn, it actually hurts to laugh… he he…" Shinji shook his head, and convinced himself that yes, he was in some form of hallucination, for there was no possible way in hell he had just enjoyed such a pure moment of bliss. "What… ha ha, what were you even saying, anyway?"

Asuka giggled, drawing a hand to her face. "Ahh… ha ha… geez, what an idiot you are, Baka-Shinji," she sat back on the seat. "Imagine if we were actually high right now…"

"I'm pretty high," Shinji confessed, and chuckled loud enough to almost sent spittle flying before he controlled himself.

"Bull-Shit." For her part, the redhead denied his declaration with a shake of her forefinger. "You're barely even slightly buzzed right now, just right above the edge where you can function properly. Come on, Baka, you drink enough prescription pills every day to burn a hole in a man's liver and medicate three patients with different ailments."

"You shouldn't underestimate your uncle Joey, though. I had the other half of that Ninja Star before we left." Shinji admitted as a rebuke. She was right, after all, he was ever so slightly buzzed. "That stuff is poison."

"You've said that," the girl repeated to him. "Anyway, you're undergoing some of the finest rehabilitation technology available to man, if you must know, and I'm gonna make sure you can go and practice your little kicks and punches to your heart's content in three months, tops. That means one hundred percent rehabilitation." She nodded at the incredulous expression which jumped on Shinji's face.

Simply to be sure, Shinji recounted the detailed explanation Asuka had given regarding his wounds, and shook his head in derision. "That's impossible, what are you talking about? God knows how my stupid leg is gonna work from now on, let alone this gaping hole in my gut, so I really don't-"

"Nothing," the girl interrupted with a firm undertone. "Nothing is impossible to me, Baka. Nothing. I'm Sohryu Asuka Langley, believe that."

"What?" Shinji managed, increasingly baffled. "You didn't even tell me anythi… I… nothing?" How fucking stupid am I that I can't even articulate a simple fucking question, huh?! What is this woman doing to me?!

"Nothing, Baka." She nodded in his direction just as the car came to a slow stop. "We're here. Ready to see your precious little gym?"

"Ahh… you… but… (sigh)… As ready as I'll ever be, I guess…" Shinji shook his head once more in defeat; apparently there was yet another new piece of technology NERV had to poke fun out of him, and the ever-good little Guinea Pig Ikari 03 was simply reporting for duty. His current predicament, however, was much, much more dire. He had been coming to the establishment for years now; almost every member knew him and had seen him at his absolute lowest points. The sickening obsession he had with Asuka did not help matters in the slightest; after all, he had started fights with some members for a comment or a snide remark many times.

Many times.

And now here I come, on a wheelchair, broken into pieces, with nobody else than 'She Who Must Not Be Named' in tow… boy, am I in for it… The redhead's door opened to reveal their chauffeur bowing respectfully, with the wheelchair at his side. This is Hell, this is literally Hell… I'm never, ever going to hear the end of it. I'm so fucked. After painfully climbing in the hated chair, Shinji took a deep breath, ignored the pain on his back and side, and looked up at the sign.

THIRD IMPACT GYMNASIUM

SELF DEFENSE. MMA. GRAPPLING. BOXING. MUAY THAI. LETHWEI. JUI JITSU. KUMITE KARATE. TAE KWON DO.

"If it involves fighting, we do it here. Enter at your own risk. Leave at your leisure." – Head Coach; Kelvin 'Pneuma' Jackson.

"Pneuma?" Asuka inquired with a raised eyebrow. The gymnasium was in a far-off part of the city where much rubble and debris still remained; it was a tall concrete building where she assumed once a storage facility had been located, and far bigger in person that she had first expected. "As in the song from Tool?"

"As in the Greek word for 'spirit'," elucidated the former pilot as she rolled him over to where Doom most likely awaited. It was past noon on a Sunday, which only meant not only Krista, but most of the people who knew him were attending Wrestling Sunday, with drinks in the afternoon. "He's like a savant of mixed martial arts, so they call him 'Spirit'. He was champion in all these different styles and made his name in the old Pride days,"

The door was open, as was custom, so Asuka pushed them both inside without a care in the world, not even bothering to knock or make her presence known. Metal hitting against the ground, limbs slamming pads and bags, grunts and curses aplenty, and the blast of Eminem's 'Till I Collapse' greeted him like an old friend. "Coach liked the martial arts culture in Japan, so he stayed and after Third Impact, he opened this g-"

"OH, SHIT!"

The young man's brow furrowed; oh shit, indeed.

"OH, SHIIIIIT! OOOOOOOH SHIIIIEEEET! LOOK WHO WE GOT HERE! YO! YO!"

Shinji's head hung low, so low in fact, that he missed how Asuka's attention was suddenly drawn to the many heavy bags located on the gym's right wing and she floated out of his vicinity before Coach could catch a proper glimpse of her. Maybe if I sink deep enough into this chair I can actually vanish-

Two heavy hands clasped him by the shoulders in a not too friendly manner, breaking his train of thought, and the glistening bald head of Jackson had Shinji almost blinded while his eardrums exploded. "You, YOU! You… have got to be… the dumbest mo' focker I've ever met, Je-esus Loooord!"

"Hey, Coach," Shinji grumbled and returned his attention to the floor. "Sorry I… uhh… missed practice."

"Missed practice?!" The man's large paws released him, and Jackson's muscled form turned its back on his. "Negro, please. You think I'm some sort of fan o' yours, boy? Listen to me, Ikari, yo! Listen! Don't be bullshitting me like that, it ain't fair, dog. You better remember the rules of my house before you step foot under my roof!"

"I'm actually on a wheelchair," Shinji provided snidely, which only earned him a heated glare. He felt them; the predatory gleam in the gym members' eyes, the way they were ever so slowly stopping their reps as their heads turned in his direction, and the fact that they had already noticed the new girl in the bright yellow dress. "So I haven't really –"

"Boy, talk to me like that and I'll have you go ten rounds with Krista today, see if I give a damn about the how." With a deadly warning, Jackson turned back to him and fixed Shinji with a disappointed gaze which only served to increase the former pilot's wish to disappear altogether. "You crazy ass little white boy, you almost died on us, man." The man's eyes softened a tiny fraction when Shinji's chin actually came in contact with his chest.

The evident shame and gloom oozing off the 'boy' caused Jackson's lips to split in a huge smile.

"Yo! YOOOO! Everyone, look who came to visit! Ruthless is back, Ruuuuuthleeeeeeeeess! Come on, ya'll! Show this crazy ass boy some love! Mo'focker took on a fucking organ trafficking gang! Beat up four mo'fockers with a god-damn knife in his gut! Saving little girls all around! Give it up! Show some love! Let me hear it! He protec! He attack! But most importantly, what is it, boys and girls?!" The man howled, and soon the attending members of Third Impact gymnasium had already surrounded him.

"HE GON HIT YOU BACK!" Came the roar from the group, followed by an echo of laughter and many careful taps on Shinji's back. They all knew his aversion with being touched and could not care in the slightest about it, which was one of the reasons why he loved the gym.

"Yo, Ruthless, you are a bad motherfucker, man! Bist du verruckt, Mann… Shhh…"

"Try not to die every time you fight, eh? You owe me a sparring, Ikari! Five rounds, bitch! Imma beat that ass! It's Japan vs Canada in six months!"

"Shinji, sos estupido! You should've never gone out! We had a party set up for you, pendejo! Ugh!" One of the girls slapped him over the head, ever careful not to hurt him any more than he already was.

"Yeah, man! We had a cake, beers, even your fucking rum! That's hard to get, man! And fucking expensive, too! Not cool, ese!"

"Yeah, pive, we could've had your back! You never call when you're in trouble, man! Fucking going on those shitty caverns to get shit-faced, come on man…"

"Why you fight in street, eh?! Why you stupid, Ikari?" A man Asuka assumed to be Ukrainian or Russian by the sound of his heavy accent walked forward, signaling to Shinji with his arms. "You want smesh, you smesh in gym, you smesh in fight! You no smesh in city, with armed thugs! When thugs, you call, you send location to us!"

"Yeah man, you got a crew, my brother! Why don't you holla if you in some shit, huh?!"

"That's because our boy is…" Jackson interjected as he stood before him and placed him in the middle of the former storage house. Shinji rolled his eyes. Here it comes, every time with this shit…

"Cooooold-blooooooooded!"

The entire hall erupted in laughter and began circling him. The worst was yet to come.

"I'm not even a fan of Rick James, Coach," the boy managed to complain in between handshakes, pats on the shoulder and random insults thrown his way. "What's with your obsession with me and him?"

"Oh, Ruthless, I guess you alright, but man, you're just a… super freak, super freak, super freak!" Not only Jackson's, but the groups' shoulders began to move at the groove of the old song, earning a growl from the former Third Child.

"That's a song about a woman, Coach, what the fuck?!" Complaining louder only managed to send in more howls of laughter as about ten guys and girls began singing and dancing in unison with the Coach.

"Ohhhhh, he's alright, he's alright! That boy's alright with me! Heeeeeey! Everybody now!"

"He's a super freak, super freak, super freak!"

"He's a super freak, super freak, super freeeeak!

"He's alright, he-eeee's alright! Once you get him off the streets!"

Shinji palmed his face in utter despair; Asuka was somewhere in the gym, watching as he was strolled around against his will, paraded and ridiculed. "Come on, guys, stop this shit! (Cough)… give a guy a break, will you?"

"Ohhh super freak, super freak!" Jackson pushed his right hand into the young man's face, pretending to hold an imaginary microphone. "The super freaky Ruthless wants the song to stop! Give us the password then, my boy! Give us the password, come on!"

Shinji growled under his breath; of course they'd make him say it, and in front of the former Second Child, no less. "You all collectively fucking suck, you know that?!"

"You hear that, boys and girls?! He's a….. super freak, super freak, super freak!" The chant carried on until Shinji's hands turned into fists and he exploded.

"Alright, alright, god damn you all, I'll fucking say it, okay?!"

The non-existent microphone was pointed at his face like a gun, with Jackson's perfectly white teeth shining behind it. "Give us the password, boy! Come on!"

"Ugh…" Just as they had started singing in unison, all of the sudden the entire gym went dead; even the rap music blasting from the speakers was paused. Shinji's shoulder slackened. "Cocaine's a hell of a drug."

"And he said it!" The large martial artist declared while howls of laughter once more deafened the injured Third Child. "That's right, Ikari, so you're never, eeeeeeeever sniffing that white shit again, you hear?! Or else we gon' all 'Intervention' on your ass! Now!" The man's attention turned to the young woman who visibly stood out in the dark, gloomy environment of the gymnasium with her bright yellow dress and golden-crimson hair. "Who might that be, hmmm?"

Asuka had apparently been distracted with inspecting the dented and heavily taped heavy bags and throwing a few random kicks on the largest one. When addressed with the joint stare of about twenty five people whose expressions went from utter shock to open disdain and in some cases blind admiration, the redhead simply pushed her hair out of the way and placed a hand on her hip. "Hey! The name's Sohryu Asuka Langley! Charmed, huh?"

The silence which descended upon the group was neither rehearsed nor expected. Whatever relationship Shinji had with the gym members it was obvious that she was, at the very least, a touchy subject. She smirked even wider, trying to maintain her pose until someone acknowledged her energetic greeting. Most eyes were hard as stone, Asuka realized; women and men who had been through laborious, unimaginable circumstances to remain alive. Many of them held several tattoos and scars all around, with the Ukrainian giant actually missing an eye. These… fighters… were not the type one encountered in sanctioned competitions; these were the types of people one simply did not fuck with under any circumstance.

"Yo, Ruthless," The coach poked Shinji in the arm and pointed at her after the silence became stifling and Asuka's lips began to twitch from having to smile for so long. "That shit in the news about the… is she like… taking care of your ass for real, dog?"

"Yes," Shinji forced an uncooperative left hand to signal in Asuka's direction. "Everyone, this is… Asuka. She…uhm… took some time off her career to… (sigh)… you know… ah fuck it," Stop pretending, asshole, he told himself and let some of the anger free. "You all saw the news and you know who she is. Everyone, Asuka. Asuka, this is everyone. There, introductions done." Shinji tried to cross his arms and failed, courtesy of the stomach wound, waiting for the inevitable ridicule.

Instead of the many 'oohh's and 'aaahs' he was expecting, Jackson only nodded in Asuka's direction. The gym was silent. "You the Second Child, ain't ya?"

Asuka nodded, eyes gleaming. God, he could feel the male members of the team drooling at the sight before them. "In the flesh, Mr… Jackson?"

"Call me Coach, girl," The man nicknamed 'Pneuma' nodded in her direction. "Respect." He punched his chest twice with the right fist right where the heart was located. "Welcome to my house, Ms…Suriu?"

"Asuka's fine," She walked over to the group, surprised to see even those in the gym who were actively trying to make her spontaneously combust with their glares nod in her direction, slam their chest in the same way Jackson had and mutter the word 'Respect' to her, going back to their drills a moment afterwards. "So, you're the guy who taught the Baka how to lose a fight?"

In his mind, Shinji screamed in utter frustration, loudly.

"Girl, that is cold! What a way to start a conversation, damn!" Jackson laughed off Asuka's aggressive approach and extended the monstrous appendage he called a hand in her direction. "I taught the little mo'focker how to beat mo'fockers up, and I assure you, he does not lose!"

"Nah," Asuka actually patted him on the head like he was some pet after amiably shaking the man's hand, so Shinji flinched back and glared. He was promptly ignored. "He only gets stabbed, beaten and hospitalized while drunk and high on coke, huh?"

"Asuka, what the hell are you doi-" Shinji began.

"Listen, woman!" Jackson interrupted and motioned towards the gym. "You go over with your fine little self around my gym and ask any of my fighters if they want any of this smoke sitting right here!" He pointed towards Shinji. "I assure you, ain't nobody fucking with our Ruthless, here! And I got some real cold, bad mo' fockers training in my house, ya dig?! Now, what the mo'focker does on his free time… well I don't get paid to babysit a grown-ass man, you feel me?"

"I feel you," Shinji had initially thought his coach would get offended by Asuka's sarcasm and comments, but they seemed to have established a quick friendship at his expense and continued to happily pretend he did not exist. "We're lucky I do get paid to babysit Bakas like him, right?"

"I am literally sitting right here, between the two of you," Shinji grunted dangerously; he was beginning to feel anxious and itchy all over. "This is some schoolyard bullshit. Are we not grown f-"

"Yo A, how do you like my house?" And thus, he was ignored once again. "We got MMA, Muay Thai, and grappling over here," Jackson pointed to the octagon and ring to his left. "We got street drills and weapon shit goin' on over there," he pointed to the small groups practicing locks and takedowns with fake knives. "Aaaaand we got some Karate goin' on over there! Today's wrestling day, so even my strikers are gonna grind, hell to the mothefuckin' yeah!"

"Weapon shit?" Asuka inquired with a small laugh. "I guess you do all kinds of things around here, huh?"

"Yo! If it be fighting, we do it here! Tell me somethin' A, ain't you in Tiger Muay Thai? Kru Phet told me about you! Didn't you knock out Sawsing Sor on a sparring match? Baaw! Headkick! Go to sleep!" Jackson seemed engrossed and fully committed to his conversation with Asuka, to which the young woman responded in kind.

"Yeah, out cold." Shrugging, the Asuka's smirk widened at the memory. "She was saying some shit, so she got hit. Lucky shot, I guess."

"Yo, ain't no lucky shots at that level! You train with Shevchenko, too, right?"

"Yeah, well, whenever we happen to coincide in the gym, which is rare mind you, we go a few rounds! She obliterates me every time, of course."

"This is bullshit," Shinji commented, fuming. "I'm sitting right here. Right. Here. You see me, right, Coach?!"

"Yo, Krista!" Jackson yelled, and forced Shinji to flinch at the mention of the girl who had not-too-kindly invited herself to his house hours before. "Time to chew this mo'focker's head off! Care to take our little Ruthless for a walk?"

"Coach, I literally cannot walk without crutches right now, what are you-"

"Coming!" Krista answered, and let go of the man she had been currently choking and turning blue. She dropped the poor victim on the mat and rose to stride towards them with supreme confidence and her ever-familiar scowl of displeasure.

Yup, Hell. Asuka and Krista were about to meet. Face to face. And he was sitting between them, unable to run away and being treated like a football, at best. This is Hell, and the Devil is about to claim my soul for daring to enjoy a day of my damn life. It's fair… but there are cleaner ways to go...

He had expected everything, from an active fist fight to a glaring contest, from snarling and yelling to biting and clawing. All Krista did, however, was take the wheelchair's grip after Asuka pushed him forward. There was a tiny, almost unperceivable moment of tension where Shinji swore he saw both young women jump at each other's throat. Their eyes met, baby blue clashing against electric cerulean and delivering infinite messages he would never comprehend.

"Sup," Krista nodded once, minding to glare with hateful intensity at 'She Who Must Not Be Named'. "You're with him?"

Some unspoken battle had just transpired, and neither man dared to so much as breathe too loudly as both girls glared each other down. "Yeah," Asuka said, voice terse. "I'm with him."

Krista nodded again and took hold of Shinji's wheelchair. "Cool. See you around."

And just like that, she pushed the former pilot away without another word. Jackson stared at the girl's retreating back and took a calming breath; he had also expected much more than what had just transpired and was glad to find no loose teeth or blood after the first interaction between the girl they called 'Demoness' and the girl they did not speak of at all.

"Sooooo…wanna check out the place?" Kelvin motioned towards the heavy bags. "I got some extra gear around if you wanna work some sweat, girl."

"Ah, yes to the tour, no to the sweat session, thank you," Asuka nodded and began walking around the spacious area, lost in thought. Jackson truly was rarity of the human species; he was more than six feet tall, build like an ox and with body language and balance in his stride that told Asuka he was quite proficient in the fighting arts, fast, and dangerous. His shining bald head only added to the factor of intimidation. "I'd like to know a bit about Shinji's training. His routines, drills, strengths and weaknesses, you know, the works."

"Sure thing, A," He motioned to the 'Karate' portion of the building. "Wanna go check the footwork circles?"

"Ahhhh… sure?"

"Ruthless spends lots of time with those, well; he did, before he decided to be fucking Batman or some shit. He trains… two to three hours a day, at least, when he be coming. He be boxing on Mondays and Thursdays, Tuesday is always Muay Thai and shin conditioning, then he goes… wresting on Sundays, ya know, like today, Wednesdays he does Karate and street shit. He takes Friday and Saturday off. "

"Okay, a full week for the Baka." Curiosity spiked, and presented with such an unexpected chance, Asuka asked away. "So, Coach, how would you best describe Shinji's… fighting style? I mean, does he go out there with a game plan when he competes, or does he just smash his fist against something?"

"Well, I ain't gonna call it game plan, but soldier boy does have his little pattern," They reached the spacious area where diverse hexagons, circles and squared were displayed with varied numbers and colors. "Hmmm, let's say that you said the wrong shit to the wrong mo'focker, right? So…Ruthless gon' go for your legs. Your calves, thighs and knees are gon' stop working before three minutes have gone by, your lead leg is gon' be history before you even warm up to the fight."

There were scars all over the former Third Child's shins, ankles and feet, the evidence of years of hitting them against many a hard surface. "Leg kicks? Those hurt."

"Yeah, hard ones. It's like he's kicking a football into a field goal. He don' give a fuck if his foot or shin breaks, but he ain't dumb enough to let it happen. The game Ruthless be playin' is… 'You ain't gon' hurt me more than Imma hurt you'. Ya heard that thing we said back there? He gon' hit you back?" Jackson started to sway from side to side and descend into a very complicated footwork pattern over the largest circle. For man so heavy, he moved with alarming speed and agility.

"He gon' get in your face, like so," Jackson demonstrate with minute accuracy the way Shinji shuffled forward, generally on a south paw stance with his right hand staying low and the left guarding the chin. "Then he gon' kick your legs from under you when you try to go forward." The fighter's leg sliced the wind as he rotated fully after throwing the attack, a much more refined versions of what she knew Shinji's preferred calve kick to be.

"You get close? He gon' jab you' ass, and you ain't gonna see it. Flicker jabs, I taught him that. Bam!" Jackson's right hand flew from its position with no wind up or any movement from the shoulder which telegraphed the move at all. "Bam, bam!" Two more punches and he turned to gaze at the bemused redhead. "Say you punch him? He don't care, he gon' roll with it, and then…" An imaginary fist threw Jackson's head back in slow motion, he over exaggerated the punch's effects, rolled underneath and came with a vicious left overhand. "Bam! Go to sleep!"

A snicker managed to escape Asuka's lips while observing the way Shinji's trainer so effortlessly mimicked him. "And if the other guy doesn't go to sleep?"

"Hey girl, that's why I've been trying to get him to do some more footwork, 'cause he just be walking forward. If he can't knock you out, then…" Jackson suddenly abandoned the fighting stance and grabbed an imaginary opponent by the neck with a rear naked choke. "He gon' sleep you."

The way the man engaged in the demonstrations had the redhead more than entertained, yet all the while she made small mental notes; the way Jackson moved, and the increasingly bored expression which befell his face the longer the demonstration went. "Submissions, huh? Very nice."

"Yeah, A, in practice, normally, ya dig? But sometimes, some dumb mo'focker says the wrong shit, and out little Ruthless teaches him a lesson." The invisible hold tightened considerably. "Say the wrong shit, and you gon' go to sleep once or twice… or worse." Jackson's eyes turned cold when he next eyed the redhead. "Ya feel me?"

Asuka nodded. "I feel you." I know exactly what you mean; I've been on its receiving end. Warning acknowledged. "Well, that's very insightful of y-"

"Okay, so we done playing this game, A?" The larger man interrupted and released the nonexistent victim, slapping both hands against his shorts. "I ain't a fool, woman. There be videos all over the damn internet of our sparring sessions, of our little private competitions. 'Third Impact Scraps', like, share, and subscribe! Five million hits last month, girl, thanks to him! Yeah! So, everything I just said you already know, right?"

Wow, the former Second Pilot blinked, crossing her arms and nodding in respect to Jackson. "Well, I can't say I haven't seen a video or two of h-"

"So what'cha really wanna aks, then?" The trainer pocketed his hands and began walking towards the Karate section of the gym. "Come on, A. There's gotta be something you actually wanna say, ain't it? Why do I feel like ain't close to nothing about our little Ruthless you don't already know, hmm? How about it, girl? You the one looking after his ass, so shoot."

Feeling strangely chastised by the instructor, Asuka tightly crossed her arms and trailed behind, frowning. "Okay then, I'm going to pretend you didn't just infer I have some crazy… insight… regarding the idiot. So, what's he like when he's… not so respectful? When someone says some shit?"

"Nah-aah," Jackson's forefinger shook left and right. "Do your fine, fine self a favor, girl, and don't waste your own time. Everybody know how Shinji be when he be going crazy. It's on Youtube, darling. And listen, listen! I had nothing to do with that little short-haired bitch from two years ago, or any of that crazy shit that happened. But you already know that, don't you, A-star?"

Jackson winked at her, gaze growing colder and more suspicious by the second.

DISCIPLINE. HONOR. RESPECT.

The boldly painted characters on the wall welcomed them to the Karate area, where a group of twelve large wooden boards covered in rope, cloth and pad material were lined up. Asuka huffed in displeasure once they came to stop next to a particularly worn, damaged set placed about eight feet away apart from the rest; there was a thick plank board and a smaller, round one next to one another. "What's all this?"

"Makiwara. Homeboy be spending lots of time here, too, after practice. Bet ya didn't know that, huh? Hand and leg conditioning, girl."

I actually did know, yes, Asuka growled in her mind. The state of the training object was beyond deplorable; there were pieces of the rope already so soaked in what she assumed to be blood that they had given under, the wood was splintered in every other visible part, the base of both structures were damaged and almost at the point of collapse, which was in itself surprising considering how thick the wood was. You don't get bones like his from running every morning.

Jackson placed a hand on the smashed object. Upon closer inspection, Asuka noticed five or six broken boards behind the current one, all of them sporting the same blood-covered marks, each bigger than the one lying underneath.

"Hand conditioning? Shinji does lots of this? You let him turn his bones into mush and make sure he gives himself arthritis at thirty years of age? And I'm supposed to believe you're this awesome trainer who looks after him? Who has his best interest in mind? Want a real question? Fine. Are you a friend of him, or just his trainer?" She opted to play the game a bit longer and see how the large man responded, knowing well she was pressing the boundaries. How loyal are you to him? How have you let him deteriorate to such an extent if you're his Coach?

A whistle of amazement came as a first response. "Damn, that's some cold shit, there, A." Jackson said. "You almost sounded like that cop lady who pretends to give a fuck 'bout our Ruthless every other year." The large hand patted the damaged Makiwara a few times. "I ain't gon' lie, girl. Shinji don't want no friends, some crazy shit goes off in his head where he think he gon' be some burden to you if he's your friend. Also, he don't trust nobody. Not after that shit two years ago. Ain't shit we can do about it except try to give the guy some respect, ya dig?"

The redhead temper flared instantly. "Respect?!" She snapped. "So you let him come here with infected wounds, feverish, drugged, and hung-over, you let him beat on your other students, you let him do all the drugs known to man, you let him slowly kill himself, and that's respect?!"

Jackson's left hand rose to his chin; he gave her a quizzical look, as though he were sizing her up. "Yeah, I guess I get why Ruthless be trippin' over your ass. You gotta be three types of crazy to come to my house, throw these accusations just like that and expect not to get the beaten the fuck up."

"Oh, look at this," she rebuked, angrily pushing a strand of hair back. "Something I actually want to know, and you don't answer. Isn't that rich? Who's wasting my time, now?"

The trainer's jaw clenched as he glared down at her, hand firmly clasped on the Makiwara. Seconds ticked by where neither said a word, with the faint echo of exercising becoming stifling. Asuka's eyes narrowed, making one of Jackson's nonexistent brows arc upwards. "You'd rather I leave homeboy to do his other hand conditioning, then?"

"What?"

"Girl, Shinji been hitting shit way harder than these for years," Jackson sighed. "Walls, doors, trees, you tell me. When he first came here, his bones were brittle and his joints were at the point of collapse. I started him on weight training, kettle bells, farmers' walk, basic shit to build up your forearms, fingers, tendons, grip strength. He be doing all of my workouts, but insists on doing this. Ain't it better than instead of breaking his hand every other day, he comes here and grinds with these?"

The man's reasoning caught her off-guard, so Asuka tightened her arms and looked away.

"Well, if you put it that way, then I guess it's not s-"

"He had already broken his hands before he came here." Jackson stated, interrupting. "He's lucky the mo'focker's so young, his bones are still growing. If there's some shit he needs to work through, you know, in here", Jackson's forefinger tapped his temple. "He comes here and grinds now, most of the time. I been trying to get the mo'focker to do that instead of going out and getting fucked up for years. You think you can do better? Be my guest, girl." The fighting expert raised his head in defiance. "Break a leg. Just be careful, or he gon' break it for you."

Asuka responded the man's skepticism and threats with a confident smirk. "Yeah, fat chance of that. Shinji would never hurt me. Don't you know who I am?"

The absolute resolution in her voice and body language made Jackson snort and shake his head. "Bitch, please," He answered with mirth. "Everybody in this gym knows 'She who must not be Named'. Aight, then. Any other questions, A-game?"

A rosy color burned the young woman's cheeks, betraying her before any articulate insult could give her the high ground in the conversation. She had been caught off guard and the bastard knew it, judging by his smug expression. The broken shards of wood came back into focus all of the sudden.

"So… Has he caused any… uhm… trouble?"

"Consistently." Jackson nodded at her. "He be respectful, sure, but you know him, right?" Jackson pushed a forefinger against his temple again. "He has this switch up here; once it goes on rampage mode, you better pray to your God of choice, 'cause you gon' need it. I've had to separate and restrain him about a hundred times, and I'm not exaggerating."

I believe you, Asuka thought whilst analyzing the lonely Makiwara on display. Shinji walked with a knife stuck to his stomach, bleeding from his leg and back, he almost killed three men while high on coke and almost pitch-black drunk. "Why haven't you expelled him yet, if he's so troublesome?"

"Troublesome?!"

The large man's aura shifted in seconds, reminding Asuka that he was a trained killer, that she was in his house and had just crossed some invisible line. "Shinji be trippin' sometimes," his tone lowered as he placed a hand on the stained training equipment. "But it breaks me apart, girl, to see a guy that good in so much pain... troublesome..." Jackson's head shook twice, with his energy turning from aggressive to melancholic. "This is… what he has. We're what he has. We don't judge, we don't ask questions. Everybody knows about Third Impact, everybody in this old ass city, in this world… knows what he did, what he went through, we saw it, we felt it."

The man frowned all of the sudden, and without warning hurled a left punch to the board next to the one he had been holding. The wood cracked and almost gave under the massive force. Jackson fumed with rage. "And eeeeeverybody in this fucking city points their fingers at him when they think he ain't watching. They call him murderer, they call him a traitor, they call him weak, they say this and that, these cowards. And he just takes it; the man who backpedaled the end of the fucking world and saved us all..." A second punch was hurled, the wood complained loudly against the abuse, but did not yet give. "And people just want to hurt him. He ain't done nothing to nobody, he just asks to be left alone, he wants to carry all this weight by himself and he don't let nobody help him out!"

PUNCH.

A deafening crack and the Makiwara fell down at last. Asuka nodded in grim understanding. "You can't take it away from him. This is… the only therapy that actually gives him some respite."

"Yeah, girl," the boy's trainer took a glance behind him, where the group was wrapping up their stretches before wrestling practice began. "So what if he goes a little crazy when some disrespectful asshole says some shit? After what he's been through, it be a miracle that he can actually talk, or function on a daily basis. Even so, homeboy ain't never even… like… really hurt anybody in the gym, ya know? He comes in, he grinds, he shows respect. That's all I need."

Several visits to the hospital, overdoses and criminal charges had been building up Shinji's legal file. To Asuka's knowledge, Jackson had always confessed, or informed in the young man's favor, and even paid bail for him a couple of times. Despite it all, however, the man did not refer to Shinji as his friend.

"I don't have any friends. Not that I know of."

"And the drinking, the drugs? How does that play a role?" The man's strength was something to behold; he had broken the thick wooden board and was not even breathing heavily. And she was actively asking him if he enabled a student who was evidently held in high regards. "Does he get any of that here?"

Jackson glowered down at her, presumably to intimidate and make the young woman rephrase her question, but Asuka had fought monsters and died fighting monsters. A particularly large human was not about to frighten her or so much as stand in the way of her research. "You are… really something, right?" Shaking his head in derision, the man's hand came down on the tainted wooden board once more. "Ain't no stopping you, huh, girl?"

Asuka's eyes widened visibly at the last comment.

"We drink together, yeah. I drink with all my students, those who ain't recovering alcoholics, it's a tradition. We get some rum, some beers, smoke some weed, get some music going and grind. Right here, in my house. Ain't nobody in this gym fucking with them bars and canteens, ya hear me? Not if they're with me. Ain't nobody in my house selling some narcotics to any of my students, and if I ever found out they were, well," In a massive show of grip strength, Jackson's fingers dug into the wood. "They ain't leaving my house walking, ya feel me?"

"I do," Asuka answered, satisfied. "And the times seasoned professionals run all over him in practice and laugh about it afterwards?"

"Woman, who you been talking to, exactly?" he asked with evident shock and outrage in his voice. "If Shinji gets beaten down, it's because those fighters out there respect him, ya dig?!"

"What? Again with this respect crap?" the redhead's nostrils flared in anger. "Beating an opponent with inferior skill and laughing about it is respect, now?!"

"Don't nobody be laughing like that in my house, believe you me," The man's iron grip unclasped from the makiwara, he shook his head once more, hands on his hips, and looked at the ceiling. "Shinji don't want no pity. It's a thing we say here. If he's training with you, fighting you, he wants the best of you. He don't want no run-down version, naaah, he want that real shit. You'd be insulting the guy if you don't go all out."

"The laughter, the jokes?" For her part, Asuka crossed her arms.

"We be smoking weed, sometimes. Especially on Jiu Jitsu day. Listen, woman, I ain't even gonna bother." Jackson's colossal frame neared her, and while he faced her with a smile, the man's eyes reflected some form of defeat, and resignation. "I know you know everything, aaight? You know who comes to my house to grind, don't ya? Junkies, drunks, whores, rejects, mental patients, former convicts, you name it. I ain't judging, I don't give a fuck. In my house, abide by the rules of my house. Outside my house go and do what you want. That's the way it is."

"Then how come all these are cracked and broken?" Asuka signaled to the many boards lying behind the bloodied, worn-out one before her. "Is this you not giving a fuck about what your students do in their free time?"

"A, you be trippin' for real," Jackson spun around and began walking in the group's direction as he stretched out. "Them ain't mine. Those are Shinji's Makiwara. And sure, I give a fuck. I give a fuck about him. Can you say the same thing? Do you give a fuck? Seven fucking years, girl, and you come to my house and say this shit. You know what happens every time before he comes here and slams them wooden bitches for hours and hours until somebody stops him?" The redhead shook her head, and Jackson nodded at her, looking back and scowling. "Yeah, I guessed so."

"So what happens, huh?" She snapped back in defense.

Shinji's trainer shrugged and readdressed his gaze towards the fighters now engaged in locks and basic grapping positions. He sighed; his massive shoulders sagged substantially. "Somebody speaks about you."

The biting, well prepared retort died in Asuka's throat. Jackson continued to stretch, bones audibly popping as he readjusted, enjoying the way the girl's mouth had been left slightly ajar.

"My house is your house, Asuka. Drinks on your right, towels on your left. I got a class to teach. Holla at your boy, and hey," The man's deep brown eyes glared straight at her soul when he next turned, letting Asuka see just how much this man actually hated her. "You better not fuck this up. My boy's got us now, and if you do fuck it up and he ends up… worse than where's he's at now, you gon' be answering to me, girl. I ain't no Katsuragi, ain't no government stopping me." He punched his chest twice. "Respect."

The former fighter began barking instructions to his students, yet time seemed to have grinded into a complete halt for her, eyes suddenly glued to the training equipment. The surface was brutally smashed, marred in such a disgusting manner with brownish, dried up blood everywhere; droplets were evident on the floor, the base and all over the broken pieces of wood lying on the vicinity.

The bones of both his hands are basically sledgehammers now… thousands of microfractures, maybe two or three actual fractures on each. He hits anybody with that, and they're going down. And this is why. Asuka's hand delicately traced the dents Shinji's knuckles had produced on the surface. Six broken boards, in God knew how little of a time frame. There was a bowl of salted water next to the board, she noticed. The skin around his knuckles feels like sandpaper. There's… there's more scar tissue than actual skin on them.

"Somebody speaks about me…" She was familiar with hate mail, threats to her life, screams and profanity as she walked on the street; it was all part of being the public figure the world had turned her into. Never slow to anger or respond, Asuka would crush a stranger's verbal banter in seconds, intimidate them or downright assault them if they crossed the line. She was untouchable in the eyes of the law, after all, what with being an international hero and former child soldier and all that. The feeling of being… protected in any form was so unfamiliar that it made her shudder slightly. Only Mother had ever tried to protect her… right before she abandoned her again and left her to die a horrible, gruesome death.

If anyone spoke ill of her in Shinji's presence they would be attacked, plain and simple, her research had been clear on that matter. But the mere mention of her apparently produced something that forced Shinji to slam his fist on a hard surface for hours, scrape the bones clean off skin and flesh and turn them into hardened concrete. All because somebody mentioned her; he held such extreme feelings towards her that the slightest recollection would bring him to those Makiwara.

It's a self-destructive behavior, a masochistic, deeply unhealthy and archaic response to a childhood crush, if anything. It's sick, it's bad for him, he's probably not even using the damn things properly, he's just... Her thumb and forefinger caressed the deep imprint of his fist in the wood. Her heart was dancing in her chest, pulse climbing in seconds. Why does knowing this… make me feel so damn happy?


"You look like shit," Krista commented, displeased. "I hate that shirt, and you know that. Why can't you wear that nice blue shirt Kanao got you?"

"Gee, thanks," Shinji responded drily, eyes fixed ahead of them, where the parking lot and a small green area extended. He could smell the girl's sweat from the chair, almost as much as he could sense her immense displeasure with him. "Guess having life-threatening wounds doesn't account for a lack of…(cough, cough)… taste, hmm?" The fingers on his left hand shook against his will; they did so whenever he had insufficient opiates in his system after breaking them two years before. "Sorry for trying to look decent for the crew."

"You're so full of shit it's not even funny," the female fighter snapped back. "Go on. It's not like I don't know you're recovering right now, right? It's two years ago all over again. Come on, take them." She pushed a water bottle against his chest, seemingly materializing it out of nowhere. "I know that shaking, Shinji. I know." Krista's frigid stare turned away from him. "Go on. Two risperidones, some Xanax, a Tramadol or two, and some Oxycotin to keep you from scratching off the skin off your face. Get on with it."

Yeah, shame me like it's my fucking fault I smell rotting flesh and see my dead mother every day, Shinji thought while rummaging through the pants and grimacing in both agony and increasing necessity. He gulped down the pills, not even bothering to count them or make sense of what he was taking; anything would suffice. "Thank you," he managed, drowning the bottle. When had he gotten so thirsty, anyway?

Krista said nothing. She continued to push him around the parking space, not saying a word, until they reached a particularly secluded area where the girl's damaged Peugeot was parked. "She's beautiful."

Shinji almost choked on his own breath, shocked. "W-What?"

"Your Asuka. She's stunning, beautiful. She's so freaking perfect at first sight it's… annoying. I hate it." He could actually feel the woman's grip on the chair tighten. "But I get it. It's blinding… what she is, what she carries. There's some scary shit behind those eyes."

"Pff, she's anything but perfect. She's a mess, believe me." Shinji remained quiet for a few moments, mulling over his next words. Asuka had always been an untouched subject between them; it had been the defining reason why the two remained 'acquaintances' and did not deepen their relationship. "I'm sorry," he relied on the automated, well practice response from old, feeling repulsed with himself and the way he had behaved towards the woman so fervently glaring down at him. "I never meant for us t-"

"I said I get it, Ikari." She answered with a tone of finality, huffing. "There's not a person in this world who can compete with that. It's not even a fair game."

"Fair game, what?" The chair suddenly stopped, forcing Shinji to blink and turn his head in wonder. "What are you going on about?"

Krista smiled at the sky, sadness and defeat suddenly dancing in her stern gaze. "Do you think the lion considers the leopard competition, Shinji?"

It would seem that particular Sunday was bound to be shrouded in mystery and confusion, for it was all Shinji had felt since rising from his bed, where Asuka of all people had chosen to nap. "I don't understand a word you're saying, Krista."

"Of course you don't. You're a guy, a stupid one at that. You don't even realize it, do you? What you are, where you belong." The girl's eyes turned to the sky; it was a clear day for a change, devoid of any clouds or signs of rain. "No, Shinji. To the lion, a leopard, a cheetah, hell even some hyenas are no competition." The Second Child's stoic, frighteningly intense gaze had almost captivated her. "Nah… to the lion, everything else is just… prey. You're either food or a mate; that's the world of apex predators who sit atop the food chain."

"Krista, what in the world are you talking about?"

"Nothing your damaged neurons could ever hope to comprehend, Ikari," Despite him never giving her the chance to make a difference in his life, positive or negative, Krista actually understood Shinji to a considerable level. "Just be quiet for a while." She understood he hated unannounced physical contact all too well. "I am going to hug you now," the girl uttered very slowly, careful to enunciate each word. "For about five to ten minutes, depending on how fast my legs cramp up. You are to remain silent. I don't want complaints, shakes, growls, bites or insults. Just stay quiet. Can you do that?"

You'll just taint yourself, coming close to a vermin like me, Shinji thought while nodding, eyes caught in the very expensive black car that had just parked next to Krista's. He chose to ignore it for the time of being; her strong arms clutched his shoulders then, neck and head and cradled them with tenderness she reserved only for her girlfriend. Her fingers even scratched his scalp in that way Asuka had not too long before, but regardless of how much he tried to pretend and sink into the embrace, his mind was adamant in repeating a single thought over and over again.

Wrong.

Wrong. Wrong. This is wrong, it's wrong. The scent, the sensation of her skin, the length of her fingernails, the feel of her hair, her breathing, it's all wrong. He cursed himself for a selfish bastard and a fool, unable to accept a simple human gesture of caring and compassion. "Krista…" Even so, his hand clutched one of her arms in a vain attempt to show gratitude, at the very least. "I'm sorry I worried you… I'm an idiot… so-"

"Quiet." Krista hissed. She breathed in deep, body rocking with sudden heavy sobs. "Bastard…(hitch)… selfish bastard…(sob)… every time, every time, Shinji! Stop… Stop, please, I'm begging you. Don't… (sob)… don't you dare leave me here, alone…"

It was hard to swallow the heavy taste of guilt after Krista started crying into his nape; she had no need of him as a love partner, nor an actual friend. He had simply done it as well; he had stared into that deep, horrifying abyss, and while it had terrified her to the point of wanting to die, he eagerly returned to it. Shinji was the only person she knew who understood her and did not raise judgment of any kind, her girlfriend included. They were kin spirits, drawn together by the maliciousness of life. "You're… (sob) the worst sack of shit…(sob)… in this world… Ikari…"

"Yeah," the blue-eyed youth agreed, he gripped her arm a bit tighter. "Yeah, I know…"

She understood life was meaningless if the road one threaded was always chaotic, negative and painful, the world had hurt her to the point of almost killing herself, after all. Shinji dwelled in the darkness, reveled in it, disgusted with the idea that him opening up to another human being would hurt them. He had no light to follow, no goals except surviving until God, or Lilith as he called it, claimed its vengeance upon him, and therefore had no right to die either. He soldiered on alone, drugged, living through unthinkable episodes of post-traumatic stress, never trusting anyone.

Krista saw Shinji's path in life and saw nothing but gloom; a stony road headed for a crimson eclipse, decorated with the corpses of the people he had supposedly killed, it was a cyclone of chaos. In the few moments she had interacted with Asuka, it was clear that the woman lived to conquer chaos. She was the type of person to face the end of the world with a smile, and thread through a whirlwind of misery wholeheartedly believing she'd arise victorious. There was no possible way she could ever compare… there was no way anybody could compare, and if by any chance they somehow measured up in terms of inner strength, who was to say anybody would emphasize with Shinji in the sickeningly easy form Asuka could? Why, if not for this, had Shinji been obsessed with her silence for seven years?

"Krista… I'm…" Shinji bit the inside of his cheek, somehow more ashamed of himself than ever before in recent time. It's all her fucking fault, she's making me be this weak little whelp again, he thought while trying in vain to dissipate the shame with rage. "I'm going to… try…" Fuck. The pain on his side, on his leg, his back, the itching, the anxiety, the stench of rotting corpses, of Unit 02 rotting before him, the screams, the corpses, the sight of Asuka's mangled body, the knife stuck permanently on his back, he was getting so tired of it, so exhausted. He wanted… to rest, to sleep, and…

And hold her. That's all I want. "I'm going to try… and get better… okay?" Fuck. His mind repeated, panicking. God, he actually meant it this time. "I can't promise I'll… I can't promise you I'll get clean like you did, but… I… I…"

"I thought I said quiet." Krista pulled him even closer; he could almost feel the crease on her brow tighten against her skin. Some unknown burden fell off her strong shoulders and she slackened, almost pushing Shinji's wheelchair away before she managed to regain some form of composure. She recognized the pain inside his voice, hers had sounded just so when the same words had been forced out her own mouth. "Quiet… just…(sniffle)… just let me be here… for a while… okay?"

"Okay…" Shinji nodded and laid back, fingers entangling with hers. "Okay…"

They stayed like that for more than a few minutes, and way past the point where Krista's legs did cramp. It felt… so melancholic all of the sudden; Shinji felt like he was saying goodbye to her, for some unfathomable reason. The crazy bitch I'm obsessed with showed up, so I'll just go running to her now. Thanks for the laughs, and the hugs, and the kisses and all that good stuff, but fuck you. I'm leaving now. He almost drew blood on the inside of his mouth to keep him from bawling like a child. God, I've become such a… shit… how much have I hurt Krista all these y-

"You've never hurt me." Krista confided directly into his ear, forcing Shinji's eyes to widen in shock. "Never, not once, not even when I gave you reasons to. Even drugged to the point of drooling, not once have you been anything short of a gentleman. You showed me that there were… things to live for, for me. I don't care about Asuka, not after meeting her face to face. It's okay. We're okay. You pulled me out of the abyss... Know that. You've helped me, Shinji. I'm grateful."

She kissed his cheek, forcing the boy's damaged chest to shudder in despair. He said nothing in return, and chose to raise both arms and hold hers firmly; such moments of intimacy and human contact were too few and far between and lately, ever since waking from what he had assumed to be his last descent into sleep, he felt feverishly thirsted for it. They held each other, an unlikely pair of peers, not friends but something deeper, stranger, not saying a word and simply engraving the sensation of the other's body deep within.

He would not have minded to stay there the entire afternoon, but heavy footsteps and someone clearing his throat reminded the former EVA pilot that Lilith was overzealous of letting him enjoy more than two or three seconds of his existence at a time. A man of about thirty years of age, built like an ungodly mixture between a sumo wrestler and a bodybuilder, with an expensive black suit and glasses calmly walked over to the unsuspecting pair.

"Hanayama-kun," Shinji's stoic voice brought Krista back to reality after barely managing to bring her crying under control, and just before her legs gave under her from the incessant abuse the uncomfortable position provided. Her gaze turned forward, where a monstrous man wearing a black suit, glasses and expensive shoes had materialized all of the sudden. His face was horribly scarred by what appeared to be knife slashes, and whatever skin was visible through the suit shone with vibrant colors of body art. "It's been a while. Are those new glasses?"

Krista scowled, of course they'd come. Of course they would make an appearance, they always did after Shinji had any sort of trouble with the authorities; her fists clenched.

Yakuza.

The large man respectfully bowed his head to the former Third Child. "Ikari-san, good day, sir. Why, yes, they are much lighter than my former ones. As always, you are a gentleman of detail," the man removed the small garment with gargantuan, marred fingers riddled with scars. Uneven eyes, one ocean blue and one whitened and faded, forced Krista's hold on the chair to tighten even more. "I'm afraid my manners are lacking, today. I do hope I'm not interrupting, Ikari-san, Gruber-san. I've come to accompany you, sir. The Master wishes to have a word and extend his good wishes in person." The gangster signaled towards the luxury car. "Shall we, Ikari-san? Or should I return at a more opportune moment?"

Street brawler since he was four years old, ridiculously strong, Shinji's eyes turned cold and distant as he padded Krista's hand behind him. Killed his father at thirteen to save his mother, choked his boss to death at sixteen, by 2015 had already killed 43 men, most of them with his bare hands, most likely to be the next leader. "I think a more opportune moment than right now won't be possible today," he nodded towards the gigantic man, who began walking in his direction.

"Shinji," Krista bit out quietly, concern evident in her strong voice. "I'm not l-"

"It's okay, Krista. This is business," he offered a fake half-smile hoping it would comfort her, it did not. "I'll be back in a few minutes, no biggie."

"Shinji," Every time the young man met with the Yakuza a heavy downward spiral ensued, every single time he would come back sick to his stomach, pale, shaking and delirious. "Don't do this, please, just… just heal right now, okay? Let's go back to the gym n-"

"Krista." Shinji's voice turned resolute. "Let go. Go back to the gym, I'm sure Hanayama-kun will bring me back as soon as we're done. Nothing bad's gonna happen this time." A strange thing happened then, one which caught the female fighter completely off-guard; Shinji was actually sincere. "I promise." He said to her, nodding.

Regardless of the culling words he uttered, Krista still bore her teeth at the gangster as he very respectfully and gently took over the wheelchair's handle. "I'm not scared of you," she told the man, who only offered a miniscule smirk in return.

"Nor should you be," the young man's eyes had completely morphed by then, Krista noticed, gone was the quiet, sarcastic and negative boy she was familiar with, hidden under the veil of… malice that covered him. "Hanayama-kun hasn't ever killed a woman. It goes against his personal… code of manliness and chivalry, if you will. He refused to kill a young girl once, and strangled his soldiers when they tried. He then got promoted, and… here we are. Right, Hanayama-kun?"

Hanayama's smirk widened in her direction, and the man's cold eyes drew a shudder down Krista's spine when they settled on her neck. "I take my leave, Gruber-san. Dare I say that you look positively ravishing today? I am glad your relations with Kanao-chan are getting along so well."

"Ah, Hanayama-kun, that would be close to stepping on the boundary, there," Shinji commented with apparent nonchalance. "Let's not make the Master wait, yes? I have other things to do today, as well."

"Of course, Ikari-san." The man nodded in her direction. "My apologies. Good day, Gruber-san, may you have a pleasant wrestling Sunday."

"Tell Coach I'll be there for practice, even if it's to spit at you guys from a safe distance. Be right back."

She was left alone in the spacious area before any response could be thrown in the young man's way. Shinji had a bizarre pact with both the law representatives and the criminal families; they were all to leave him the hell alone, or else. It seemed like simple enough of a thing, yet the how and why of such an arrangement baffled her. How had a sickly boy cowed entire governments and international crime rings to simply let him be? She supposed it had something to do with whatever Third Impact had left in Shinji's brain, the thing he never spoke of, even vaguely, but was truly unsure.

There were no people trying to mug Shinji on the street, and it had been years since anyone had tried to kill him. Even then it had been the machinations of one deranged human being and not a group of politicians or a crime syndicate. The people stupid enough to pick a fight with him were either drunks, idiots with an imaginary grudge regarding the Angel War, or a mixture of the two; very rarely did an actual criminal or police man try to get even remotely involved in what Ikari did, and in the case they did get involved, it was to hunt and punish those who had hurt him in the first place. There was of course the rare event of someone simply wanting to fight him, Shinji, for their own twisted personal reasons, as it had occurred three years prior in their gym, and then again with the Volkov man two years before.

For the general populous he was… untouchable, and the tiny fact that three of the Yakuza's goons had stabbed him was certainly to create heavy repercussions for all parties involved. Heads were sure to roll, people would die, many of them, and in the end society would be just a little more afraid of the terrifying entity they called Ikari Shinji.

"Wait, but…" Krista thought out loud, looking back at the building. There was a crucial factor she had completely forgotten before the gangster had taken Shinji away; the tiny detail of a hungry, unyielding, terrorizing lioness sniffing about in their gym and looking for weak prey to feast upon. "What am I supposed to say to her if she asks me where you are, huh, genius?"

It was seldom that Krista respected anyone after meeting them just one time, almost impossible even. Shinji had been nothing but some annoying gnat to her during the first few weeks she had known him, even Coach had been nothing short of a bother to her before getting clean. There had been a clear message in Asuka's vicious stare, however, one which for some strange reason made her feel significantly less pessimistic about Shinji's future.

Yeah, he's mine. Her eyes had told Krista, loud and clear. I was gone, and now I'm back, and he's still mine. He was always mine. Touch him, and I'll rip out your heart from your chest and eat it before you. She knew the look well; it was similar to the one she threw at both men and women who dared to ogle at her perfect Kanao. The only difference lay in the intensity, while Krista's was a not too subtle warning, Asuka's was a promise. I will kill you if you hurt him. And not only will I kill you, I'll do it slowly… and I'll enjoy it. I will devour you. Believe that.

And she did, despite her hatred toward the girl, despite knowing at last why Shinji had never taking interest in her as a woman, Krista believed her. There was something regarding the ridiculous absence, seven long years, and the sudden appearance of this female exactly when Shinji was at his most vulnerable, literally unable to use physical violence to escape. It felt oddly… transcendent, were she to name the sensation, like finding the two missing pieces of a large puzzle one had been working on for months and putting them together at last.

Krista scowled, suddenly envious, as she walked back to the gym and prepared for practice. There was something there… something strange… between those two. Massive amounts of unresolved tension, to be sure, but also some form of camaraderie she did not fully grasp, a connection born out of unwilling cooperation and deep empathy. Shinji knew everything about everyone, after all, and that profound knowledge tortured him and formed him to push himself away from people in order to survive. But, who… who in this world…

Who had ever bothered to know everything about him?


"Tsukasa-sama sends his best wishes, Ikari-san, and truly hopes your recovery is going smoothly," Fujisaki Yukata, current 'active' boss of the Yamagucki-gumi commented as he poured two finely crafted glasses with generous portions of 'Four Roses, Single Barrel' whiskey, one of his favorites. "You understand, of course, that at 79 he is quite… adamant… of moving too much."

"Of course," the man kindly offered one glass to him, which he took with gusto and held at arm's length. The liquor's scent alone was enticing; the whole car reeked of alcohol, cigarettes and narcotics. Shinji's heartbeat doubled. "How is our Kumicho-sama, anyways?" He raised the glass and brought it to his lips, but did not drink a sip. "Kampai, Yukata-san."

"Kampai!" For his part, the gangster drowned out the glass and set it down, refilling it in a fluid motion. The man's green suit was tailor-made, he noticed, and new. "Well, the Master's health has improved in the past few days, he will pleased to know you asked." Yukata offered him a forced smile; Shinji returned a cold one his way. "Now, Ikari-san, I do understand your time is a bit limited today, so let us be done with the formalities for the time of being, yes?" Shinji nodded and chuckled, taking a sip of whiskey.

It burned all the way down to the crevices of his stomach wound, but boy was it worth it. "As you wish, Yukata-san. While I am quite grateful for your good wishes and concern, I fail to see how my injuries would interfere with our… business transactions."

The Yakuza leader laughed then, a throaty, heavy sound which clearly came from his belly and showed his expensively repaired teeth. However expensive; the prosthesis did little to hide away the man's advanced age and leering stare. "Oh… Ikari-san," he said between barks. "You are truly too kind a man, heh." He drank a second glass, so Shinji followed his example and emptied his own, extending it for a second pour. He ignored the agony around his stomach or the fact that Asuka would smell the alcohol from a mile away. "Now, though," after filling his glass almost to the brim, the man's friendly attitude turned stern. "A travesty… an unspeakable transgression was committed by a branch working indirectly for us."

The whiskey bottle was slammed on the counter of the Rolls Royce with vehemence. "Unthinkable, sickening, how these men were kidnapping young women and selling them on the open market like cattle to be butchered…" the gangster shook his head in apparent disgust. "And to think they would lie to us to be granted safe transportation… how shameful…"

Yeah, sure, Shinji pondered, both bored and deeply revolted to the point of vomiting. Let's not pretend the Yakuza didn't make most of their… revenues… by performing human trafficking. "Maybe I am an idiot, like my friends keep telling me," he commented after gulping down half the glass. Alcohol always made the transition easier; it kept the nausea and visions away for a while, at least. "But I'm still not understanding how any of this involves our-"

"These… men, however indirectly," the gangster interrupted, head bowed as he lay his forearms on his legs and leaned forward. "They were in business with us. There are rules in every house, Ikari-san, as you very well know, that if violated, will require a disciplinary action from the host."

Yukata pushed his right hand into the suit and extracted a bloodied rag which had evidently been white once. He presented the fine handkerchief to him on the table which separated them, and upon unrolling it revealed three pinky and four ring fingers, all cut off at the base. Yukata then pulled three finely crafted rings ad placed each near the rear finger he assumed the owner to be. "All the bosses and soldiers involved in this trafficking ring have been rewarded in a most generous manner for their stupidity. Others have taken the honorable path, as you can see. I do hope that this… minuscule gesture of our shame will suffice for the time of being as more… severe… measures are taken. We cannot possibly allow anyone to even think that we wish you any sort of harm, Ikari-san. Please allow me to apologize in the name of the organization."

The Yakuza bowed to him without much decorum; Hanayama, seated beside him, bowed with much more poise and sincere respect, while the driver looked back and hid his stare from him. Shinji's eyes coldly turned to the severed fingers and the blood permeating the fabric. Without hesitation, both Hanayama and his boss produced similar knives and presented their pinky fingers to him with every intention of slashing the appendage off.

He raised a hand to halt them and shook his head. "That is… not necessary, Yukita-san, Hanayama-kun. I hope you understand I chose to fight those four, so I was the one who stepped in looking for trouble. Please, put those away. If you insist, I accept your apology wholeheartedly."

The man's visage changed to a jovial one in a second; he pocketed the knife and smiled, pouring himself another glass. "Ah, Ikari-san, you truly are one of a kind! Such a generous young man!"

"One must conduct himself with chivalry, or not at all," the gargantuan gangster provided, head low. "It is unacceptable to have any relations with this business, anymore. All ties have been cut, Ikari-san. Still, we apologize; this incident is a stain on our name."

"Well, don't think too much of it, I know I won't." He drank what remained of the whiskey, and coughed raggedly twice. "The girl, is she safe?"

"She is with her foster family, yes. We have security detail around the estate; both the police and the organization are keeping an eye on her. She could not be safer." The larger one provided, nodding. Shinji scowled at the response; the nerve of these people, to keep their disgusting eyes on an underage young woman they had been planning to dissect and sell in parts, pretending they were protecting her.

The Boss's porcelain white teeth caused his belly to churn with something beside stinging pain. "The youngsters are the future, Ikari-san. We must protect them, no?"

Fifteen girls, he recalled while glaring at the Yakuza boss in a way he hoped his father had once glared at his subordinates. You've raped fifteen girls, at least until 2015. You love them, the younger the better. You murdered your wife, strangled her with a piano chord, and you killed many of these innocent children, as well. He could see their expression of absolute terror and despair, almost taste their tears as Yukata drove his tongue up and down their faces. What a disgusting human being you are, Fujisake. How many more girls have you raped and murdered till now, I wonder? How many more graves have I helped dig, how many families have I helped break, by letting vermin like you come back to this world?

"Yeah, protect them." He made sure both gangsters saw the look in his eye and understood the meaning behind it; he knew. He knew it all, from the moment they had been born, up until Third Impact Shinji had profound knowledge of their thoughts, beliefs, experiences, decisions and very nature. "I'm sure that's all we want, right, Yukata-san?"

"I'm glad we agree on this matter, and I'm humbled by your graciousness. Now," the man snapped his fingers, and not a moment afterwards the driver produced a small piece of glass with generous amounts of cocaine on it, drawn in long lines across the surface. "May I interest you in a little something to celebrate, Ikari-san? You are alive; after all, thank the Gods, what better reason to celebrate than this one?"

The powder was basically pushed into his face, and for a while Shinji stared at it, transfixed. His heartbeat kept increasing, he gulped the sudden urge to lick his lips and bit down his cheek. "Uhh… well… I'm not… really…" Coach will notice in a second, the drinking's already bad enough. Krista will realize it the moment she sees my face. Asuka…

Just one line, when had a single line ever harmed him? Just a taste, just a tiny bit, to counteract the heavy effect of both the pills and alcohol, just a tang, just a taste. Asuka will see you, high on coke. You will hurt her, badly. No.

Even the little brat growled when the Yakuza's smile widened while watching his internal struggle. Cocaine was always the catalyst of violence for him, the path to his absolute worst self. No, Asuka's right there, outside. No. NO.

"I think I'll… pass… thank you…" Shinji managed after what had felt like the longest minutes of his life. "It wouldn't go well with the rest of my… medication… right now."

"And since we are on the subject of medication, Ikari-san," the driver stepped off and opened Hanayama's door so the man could retrieve his wheelchair. "Should we proceed as scheduled with the month's supplies? Same locations in your house, including the kitchen drawers?"

He was thankful the dreadful substance was removed from his direct vicinity; it had almost cost him showing these gangsters a moment of weakness, which was surely a poor strategic move when the Yakuza were involved. "Yes, that'd be… acceptable. You know the rules, don't go anywhere near-"

"The drawer hidden under the washing machine, the other room and the small storage room in the back. Of course, Ikari-san."

"Good… good, then… I'll have the money wired to you before nightfall." He grunted and almost bit off the driver's hand when the man made an effort to help him rise from the car and seat back on the wheelchair.

"Oh, Ikari-san, that won't be necessary. Tsukasa-sama insists that for the next few months, we are to cover the charges of your… medication. It is the absolute least we can do after… well… after this horrible travesty."

"Thanks," he turned to glare at the gangster, and called upon Lilith's presence. She was only too happy to comply, as always. The air became thick, the hardened criminals suddenly felt terrified, unable to breathe or move, their shoulders almost bent at the immense weight which so unexpectedly fell on them. God had arrived. "Asuka's in the country. You understand of course, that she is never to be touched by anyone, or there will be dire consequences to pay, yes?"

"W-Well," the Yakuza tried his hardest to inhale and respond before the heavy air constricted his lungs and killed him. "O-Of course, Ikari-san, you can rest assured t-t-that Ms. Souhryu's s-s-s-safety w-will not be in any point c-c-c-(hitch)… compromised. You have our w-w-w…our w-w-word, Ikari-san."

Shinji smirked the way his father had, he recalled the expression to the tiniest detail and pull of every facial muscle; he had also been his father during Third Impact, after all. "Splendid," the cold smile widened, and Lilith's presence vanished just as quickly as it had come. Even Hanayama was gasping for air, eyes wide and perspiration clear on his face. "Now, gentlemen, while I do appreciate you taking the time to bring me here in such luxury, I'm afraid duty calls. Please tell Kenichi-kun to take care of that staph infection, we are all praying for his speedy recovery. I take my leave, Yukata-san. Hanayama-kun, would you be so kind?"

And so he was escorted to the gym, leaving the other two men dangerously close to soiling their expensive, tailor made trousers. "Ikari-san," Hanayama said just before they reached the door. The man's calloused hand fell on Shinji's shoulder and squeezed with vehemence. Even with his back turned, Shinji could feel the hungry smirk on the gangster's face. "You are strong. When can we fight? I would love to push you beyond what that Volkov man managed."

Shinji smirked and turned his head towards the street fighter and assassin, eyebrow raised. "Even if it kills you, Hanayama-kun? You'd be at a gross disadvantage, were we ever to reach that point of no return. Would it be worth it?"

"A man's pride and resolve will push his fists into victory or defeat," the large man offered cryptically. "Everything else is nothing but impurities."

"A gentleman of culture, I see," Shinji adorned with a frigid smile. "Well, if my physician is to be believed, I'll make a miraculous full recovery in something like three months."

"So in a year, we can fight, no?"

"I guess we could, yes."

"Magnificent. I will wait, quite impatiently, for this gracious opportunity once you are fit to engage. Please, feel free to come at me with everything you have."

"Hanayama-kun, you're a man cut off a similar cloth," Shinji was pleased to hear the man's heavy footsteps grind to a halt. "How would you describe that fight in that underground ring, two years ago?"

"In so many words, Ikari-san?" Hanayama removed his glasses and smiled. "Sublime."

He had been bedridden for a month after that fight, with many broken bones and muscle fibers stretched beyond any human comprehension, that fight had cemented his downfall into the abyss and resignation to stay there and become one with the shadows. He had been manipulated, lied to, deceived and pushed into an impossible situation where the only option was to fight, or die. He had believed for nigh on two years that there was no hope anymore, there was no possibility for salvation or human empathy for him; the events had broken everything inside him that had managed to recover from Third Impact and his jaded childhood. He had relinquished the hope and severed his bonds; all except the conditioned practice of sending Asuka letters and presents.

"Hey, Baka," A push made him aware of reality again; the redhead had somehow crept behind him without Shinji realizing it, as though summoned by his thoughts. "Wanna go see that clusterfuck your crew calls wrestling practice?"

"Uhmm… sure," he shrugged, feeling incredibly self-conscious. In the effort o intimidate the gangsters to the core, Shinji had forgotten to ask for a mint or something along the lines. "How do you like the gym?"

"It's a dirty, hellish unattractive box of concrete with crazy people hitting each other and themselves and cursing every known word in… seven languages that I've heard, so far." The redhead beamed down at him as they moved closer to the training area. "I love it! It's everything a gym should be."

"Well, that certainly was not Misato's first impression."

"Yeah, well… who gives a shit about the old drunk slob, anyway? Hey, Baka," Asuka's chin painfully descended on the top of his head, forcing hiss out of him. "If I catch you drinking again without my supervision I'm going to literally take that alcohol out of your system through the fucking stomach wound and make you drink it again. Do we understand each other, so far?"

Fuck. Fuck, she noticed, of course she did, it's great whiskey for Christ's sake, he thought in despair. What was it about her that disarmed him so? Where the hell were his wit, sarcasm and negativity? "Sorry, there was some business I needed to… finalize, before… coming b-"

"I don't care," Asuka interrupted. "I never said don't drink ever again or anything of the sort. That little stunt you pulled there could give you an ulcer, or damage your already shredded stomach walls. You're lucky I'm in such a good mood."

"You're in a good mood? Damn, how does your bad mood even look like, then?"

"Oh, Baka-Shinji, like you don't know better than anybody in this world how my bad mood looks like."

"Well, it's been seven years, you know. People change."

"Do they, really?" She sat down next to him, offering that same sunny smile he so fervently despised and simultaneously craved. "You're still an idiot. Still kind, and considerate, you're so stupid you don't even realize how selfless you are. So no, some things don't really change, Baka. I can assure you, though, my bad moods are not something you'd want to encounter."

"We'll be spending some odd three months together if what you told me is true," Shinji offered. Practice carried on with Coach barking instruction, diffusing stressful situations and teaching the proper form or this technique or that takedown. "There's bound to be many times that I'm gonna get on your nerves."

"Intentionally, you mean?"

"… Maybe…"

"Be my guest, Baka!" Shinji's eyebrow twitched; nothing worked to even dampen her joyous attitude. What was it with her, anyway? What had Coach told her, what had she realized which caused such a boisterous boost in her already radiant disposition? "I told you, if anyone has the right to get on my nerves, it's you. So give it your best shot!"

Shinji grimaced at the idea of having Asuka's yells turn his eardrums into bloodied mush. "I think I'll pass on that one, Frau Doktor."

The Polish guy managed to take Coach down during practice, Shinji noticed; the large man had a glorious two and a half seconds of top control before Jackson reversed the position and pulled him into a triangle choke. "Hey, Baka."

"Hmm?"

"I…" he must have been hallucinating, because Shinji saw a rosy color brighten the redhead's pale cheeks. "That sure looked like a nice hug, you know." She noticed the way he recoiled, and sighed dejectedly. When am I going to get to do that, huh? If… if I ask you, like she did, would you let me?

"It was," the former pilot admitted after a few heartbeats. "And at the same time, it wasn't… I don't know why it felt… like a-(cough, cough)… like a farewell or something…"

"Hmm, well, weird is your calling card, isn't it, Baka? Not even a hug is a normal thing with you." However dressed as an insult as the comment had been, Shinji caught the meaning behind her words and chuckled. If I hug you… would you bite me, would you hit me? She wondered, stealing furtive glances at the distracted Third Child. Would it be weird if I didn't let go, like you didn't let me go that time, seven years ago? There was a circular scar on Shinji's forearm, an old wound which had first been attended to, cleaned and stitched after she had pushed him off that rail; a bite mark, the searing evidence of her teeth as they almost took a sizeable chunk off his flesh when he jumped in and took the knife from her. Despite her biting, hitting, kicking, scratching and deranged screaming, the so called 'shell-shocked' Shinji had not let go.

She took a page off Krista's book. "I'd like to… inspect… your left hand now," she whispered slowly, as her hand made its unworried way to Shinji's disfigured knuckles. "I saw those broken boards back there. Do you object?"

They were in his gym, in the presence of all the women and men who had seen him spiral out of control, curse until he was hoarse, beat upon unsuspecting members and batter his hands and legs until they bled. There was no possible way he'd allow them to see Asuka of all people take a hold of his hand, never, not a chance in the world. He'd yank his hand away on instinct and scream at her for good measure, most likely cause a scene and a disruption during practice.

"No, but…" What the fuck did I just say? What?! "Asuka, I… I'm sick. You shouldn't… you shouldn't get close, I don't want-" he cut himself off just as her fingers innocently rested atop his knuckles. I don't want to soil you with my decadence. I don't… I don't want to hurt you. Please don't let me hurt you. Her skin felt so warm, so very unlike the mass of callous and grounded bone she was caressing it was laughable. "Don't…"

"Seven years ago, before… before that car tried to run us over, I thought about doing this, about letting you hold my hand…" her grip on his fingers tightened. "I felt sick with myself, thinking 'why on Earth would I ever want to touch him, of all people, huh'? But the truth is I did want to, and I knew… I just knew that if that day carried on, you'd actually take the initiative and do it, and I wouldn't object. It terrified me."

"And for good reason," he said; God, was he selfish. He'd take it, this small respite in a life of pain, this positive sensation another human produced in him, even if it was for a few moments. "I'm no good to anyone, I'm a mons-"

"Stop." He felt her nails almost dig into his skin. "If you say you're a monster you'll be saying I'm a monster. Am I a monster, Shinji?"

"No! Of course not!" He was quick to object, then mulled over her previous words. "Wait, what did you… huh?"

"Then you're not one, either. We have a long way to go, but I'm kinda glad there's so much time. I'm not gonna run, Baka. They can shoot me in the head, you can strangle me, you can skin me alive or disembowel me. But be sure that by the time I'm done with you, you won't be saying such sick shit to yourself anymore."

"It's the truth, though."

"Yeah, no. It's not the truth. We'll talk about it later, though. Hey, is that guy trying to pull off…?"

"Yup, the Russian tie snap. He's been at it for three months, now. It's a near impossible move to pull off in competition, much less a fight."

"Hah! Look at that, he almost had it! That guy's good, you train with him?!"

"Sometimes, yes, but most of the time I mostly… (cough)… try to not show up for wrestling practice."

"Baaaaka, like you need that stuff in an actual fight."

"Hey, don't be dissing wrestling, Asuka, wrestlers make great fighters!"

"I never said they didn't, Shinji! I'm just saying, if I'm surrounded by three or four thugs who want to beat the shit out of me, I'm not shooting for a double-leg!"

"Well, yeah, but you know the level of cardio that it gives you?"

"So then why are you always skipping it, huh, Ryu? You prefer to throw a Hadouken at your enemies?"

"Haha!" Shinji laughed, honestly at that, and smiled in the group's direction. A good thing as well, for he did not see the way Asuka's cheeks colored once more. "Well, Coach keeps calling my left hand an N2 bomb, you know. Not too sure about the whole Hadouken stuff, though."

"Pff, no kidding, look at this thing!" She picked their intertwined hands for emphasis with a wide smile. "It's a freaking hammer, Baka! Say it with me, come on!" Shinji rolled his eyes and looked down in an attempt to save face when Asuka gently extended their intertwined fingers to the ceiling. "Come on, on three, ready? Three, two one…"

"HADOUKEN!"

"…ugh… umm… Hadouken…"

"Hah! I guess for you, though, it'd be the Bakadouken!"

It was the first time she offered something close to a compliment to him by calling his fist a hammer, the first time in seven years they held hands, and the first time in their lives they did so while being awake. Of all the songs, banters, jokes and insults Shinji's training partners threw his way during and after practice, not one made the slightest mention of how 'She Who Must Not Be Named' was sitting there, right there in their gym, holding onto little Ruthless' hand like they were a pair of love-struck high-school students.

None of them, not even Krista, had ever heard Shinji laugh or joke in such an unguarded manner before. For women and men who had lived hard, protracted existences filled with sadness and tragedy, seeing something so evidently… pure… felt like a breath of new life. Suddenly the Crimson Bitch didn't seem so bad or toxic, after all.


"Y'all better leave dat boy alone, 'cause if they don't, you know they going come back on em, and they don't want him to come back strong, I wouldn't dare get that there boy going!"

The badly sung English lyrics were being shouted without much care for the fact that they were in fact in a public space, and a park to top it all. The redhead was pushing the damned moving chair along the sidewalk where he usually started his daily jogging sessions, uncaring that her voice was reaching alarming levels or that people were stopping in their daily activities to gape, open-mouthed, in their direction.

"Asuka, can you please stop singing that stupid s-"

"I said leave dat boy alone! 'Cause y'all don't know him, that there boy he out cold, and that there boy he been known… to stir some shit up when he in that zone!"

"Come on, people are watching us, for crying out l-"

"Better leave dat boy aloooone, better leave that boy aloooone, better leave dat boy alone, 'cause y'all don't want to get that boy going!"

She had been singing the damned song ever since emerging from the bizarre, NERV-ish facility they had visited. "Asuka, most people don't even understand English, but they're staring… could you maybe-"

"Better leave dat boy aloooone, better leave that boy aloooone, better leave dat boy alone, 'cause y'all don't want to get that boy going!"She beamed at him, ruffling the young man's hair energetically and earning a growl and a glare in return. Yes, just like that. Fight me back. Bite. I love it! "I didn't know they had so many songs set up for you, Baka! You're quite popular in that gym!"

Taken aback by the statement, Shinji tried and failed to establish a coherent sentence. "Ah… well… you know I've been going there for some time now…" I've done many of the stupidest, most shameful things of my life in that gym, he pondered, strangely glad that Jackson had so much patience when he was concerned, and more than glad the redhead had stopped bellowing the rap song to the seven winds. "Guess they like to mess with me a little... heh…"

"I'll say!" Asuka pushed him even faster; he noticed where they were headed just as the number of people began to dwindle. They were moving towards the secluded ruins where he practiced, fumed and screamed his lungs out every morning. "It's nice, though! Definitely nicer than that little therapy session a while ago, wouldn't you say?"

"I'd like to point out that you never so much as mentioned what the freaking therapy entailed, Asuka." Shinji bit back with actual anger clinging to his voice. "I detest LCL."

"You and me both, Baka," the way she apparently got more encouraged every time he voiced out his annoyance only worked to make Shinji fume in the stupid chair all the more. He had been made to strip down to his underwear again, had been placed in a tube not unlike the one he knew Rei to have spent most of her life in, and had been prodded with tiny 'nanobots' as the redhead had called them for nigh on two hours, unable to move. "I did tell you it was a surprise! How did you like that, to feel your neurons firing again, to have neuronal mitosis occur on your body… did you know that was impossible a few years ago?"

She poked his arm in a childish manner, Shinji noticed. She had been touching him in one way or another, almost incessantly, ever since inspecting his hand in the gym. For the life of him, Shinji could not muster up the strength to flinch away or insult her for tainting herself on him. "You had me float naked on a gigantic test tube, all the while breathing that foul crap, while some robots made sure to electrocute me exactly where the cuts are. Yeah, some surprise, Doktor Sohryu."

"Ba-Ka." Asuka emphasized each syllable with a hard poke to the back of his skull. "Those electrocutions were neurons being born! That means, in terms even the Lord Idiot can grasp, that in one session of this new therapy I helped develop, we have reversed 26% of the neural damage in your leg, closed your lung up for good, thus reducing the possibilities of an infection by 92%, and are even restoring what you've done to them for seven years, you know, by smoking."

Note to self, if I ever want to really get her mad, light up a cigarette, nodding to himself, Shinji sighed; the leg was burning with searing pain like never before, the sting on his side flared frequently despite the pills he'd taken after getting dressed, yet the wound on his back felt… oddly better. "Yeah, yeah, the miracles of modern medicine. Ugh, I smell like blood now."

"You do not," the girl assured him; they were close. A few more minutes and they would reach her second surprise, one she hoped would strengthen whatever bond was in the way of developing between them, a surprise she had been working on for close to a year. "I made sure of it. I know how… clingy that stench can be, that's why I was gracious enough to lend you some exquisite cleansing products before you showered, Baka. I can assure you, you smell like fresh lemons, not blood. So chin up!"

God bless Oxycotin and THC, he was right at the verge of sobriety, just dulled enough to not have any visions force a scream out of him or the withdrawal to force him to shake uncontrollably. "Explain to me again how systematically getting these slashes wet it's going to help them heal." He wanted to cross his arms for some reason, annoyed as he was, but the deep puncture wound on his stomach would not comply, so Shinji propped his chin with the right hand. Curiosity got the better of him, and he sniffed around the marred tissue of his knuckle. Lemons, he smirked despite himself. She likes lemons, the scent of them. I didn't know that. Wait, what? He blinked, shocked. What the… I didn't know that about her! What the fuck?!

"Listen, Baka, while I do appreciate this newfound concern of yours regarding your recovery," The chair stopped all of the sudden, surprising an already shocked Shinji even more. He felt it, oozing off in waves behind him; her confidence, her absolute resolution in what was being done.

"Need I remind you that I've spent years working on this therapy? And before you start getting all pessimistic and spew some nonsensical shit like 'I don't deserve this incredible new treatment, give it to someone else who actually needs it' or some crap along those lines, remember," She crouched to glare at him, and Shinji had to actively bite his cheek to keep the blushing under control. She was so close, hair falling to one side and those eyes glistening at him. "I've already done that, I've gotten people out of wheelchairs, people with severe nerve damage and muscular atrophy. Do not doubt me, Shinji. It…" Asuka then straightened out, feeling a pang in her chest. "It… doesn't feel good if you doubt me."

They had long since stopped moving; in front of him lay the ruins of the building where he trained, where a skinny but deadly old man had taught him how to kick. She's vulnerable, the shadow whispered, salivating. Go for the throat, this is our chance. Hurt her, get her away! What, you're telling me you want to go back to feeling again?! Do it, already! "I've never doubted you…" he responded instead, surprising himself. What is the matter with you?! Can you not just listen like you always do, you little sh- "Not since we first met, never. I know… that if you… Ugh… I'm sorry, okay? I was being a smartass, what do I know, right?"

Inside his mind, current Shinji kicked young, chained up Shinji right in the face, drawing blood and forcing teeth to come flying out. In Asuka's mind, everything turned blank for a second. Twice in a day now Shinji had apologized to her, and not in that old, conditioned answer from his youth, he meant the words, every one of them.

I… am going insane, for real. I can't stop… being this weak bastard in front of her… Fuck! What is wrong with me?!

He's still there, he's never died. He's there, calling out, crying out, waiting for me. Don't worry, Baka-Shinji, we're almost there. Just a few more months, just a ton more of pain, and then… then… we…

"You foolishly believe I'm not keeping count of every little pill you take behind my back, Baka," Despite her lightened heart, extravagantly positive mood and current… happiness, Asuka disguised the joy with annoyance. "I do take notice, you know. And I have to say Aplaus Aplaus, Herr Ikari, since you've taken… three Oxys today, at most. Some three or four antipsychotics, and that Tramadol you love so much. Ah, yes, and that Xanax, two of those today, huh? Not even close to your normal dosages."

This is not possible, Shinji gulped, panicking all of the sudden. His eyes drew from left to right in a hurried manner, noticing there was nobody around, not a soul, and that the sun was about to set. How does she know that to the exact number of each pill? Even I don't know that shit! "Ughh… I… and that has to do with what we were…(cough)… talking about, how, exactly?"

"Your little mushed up brain cells forgot about the special gauze pad I've placed on every wound before and after each of your baths, didn't they? Sheesh, Shinji, I'm not a novice here, you know!" Asuka drew a smile, knowing he'd be unable to see it from his position on the chair. She did notice, however, how his shoulders somehow flinched at her statement. "LCL isn't exactly comparable with water, if anything, it allows the nanobots to work in a more stable environment while it oxygenates your body, feeds your bloodstream with nutrients and increases platelet production. Did the nurses not thoroughly clean up your wounds afterwards?"

Shinji growled again, he hated being treated by more than person at a time, and the two female nurses of German descent who had assisted him in dressing and undressing had been… exceedingly thorough in their job once he had been let out of the damned tube and wheeled into the shower area. "I knew I shouldn't have asked," he muttered, head shaking. "Yes, they did their job… I guess…"

I know they did, Baka, the redhead thought, satisfied, and began pushing the chair forward again; only a few more meters and they'd reach the day's final surprise. I told them very specifically they were to tell you every time they needed to touch you, and warned them that if they hurt you, I'd take out their eyes from their sockets and push it down their throats. But you don't need to know that!

"See?" she smirked; the day had gone every bit according to plan; Shinji had remained at a somehow stable mood throughout the day, the procedure had been a total success, and the sun was just about to disappear from their high perch on the mountains. "Despite what most people think, you included, Baka, I actually do know what I'm doing most of the time."

There.

There's the bait. She gripped the chair's handles with vehemence. Come on, bite, I know you want to. I've seen you, in front of me, trying to kill me, trying to kill him. Come out and play, boy, come on. Bite!

"Oh," Shinji's calm demeanor changed instantly, she noticed the way his left hand squeezed the chair to the point of almost ripping the armrest's soft material. "So I guess you knew what you were doing seven years ago, then. And all these years, all this time I've been trying to get a simple fucking hello from you… but I guess you knew what you were doing, right?"

Yes, yes, yes! I got him, I fucking got him! Hah! Suppressing the urge to smirk wider in triumph, Asuka simply continued to push the chair. "What are you…" she started, knowing fully Shinji would not let her finish.

"What am I doing, what am I saying?" he was furious now, she noticed, almost at the point of blind rage, and exactly where she wanted him to be. "What the fuck are you doing, huh? What's all this shit, Asuka?! You're taking…(cough, cough)… taking care of me, now?! What the fuck?! You left, Asuka! You. Left! You left me the-(cough)-you left me there, didn't you? Bleeding on that table, broken in half! So! Did you know what you were doing then, huh?!"

Here we are, she realized; the destroyed walls and random debris announced they had arrived. Shinji was angry with her, very much so, and with good reason, but refused to admit it even to himself. Now, almost sober and injured, more in touch with his emotions than in years, he could not hope to raise the mask of cold indifference he protected himself with. This was her chance.

"No." the former Second Child answered at last, after a few seconds had passed and Shinji had gone from raging to seething. "I had no idea what I was doing, not during that whole day. I remember it like it was yesterday, you know." Shinji's rapid breathing was her only response, but she was acutely aware of how he was almost cracking his neck in an impossible angle to glare at her properly. "Three days before you asked me to go with you on that date… I tried to kill myself. Do you remember that?"

"I do, so what?" the young man grumbled; his right leg was moving up and down, left hand clenching and unclenching, his skin was scalding, almost burning.

"I bit you, right… here…" she placed her fingers on the back of his arm, making the former pilot flinch in response. "I tried to gouge out your eyes. I strangled you to the point that your face turned blue, I hit your face, made your nose bleed, elbowed you, hit you in the balls, and you didn't let go. That whole night, bleeding, you held me while I filled your shirt with snot and tears. You didn't say a thing, you just held me. The next day, and the next, you gave me space, but you never stopped making sure I wasn't trying to die. Heh…" The first stars had made their appearance at last; the night's air reminded her of that night after they had beaten the Tenth Angel, so long ago. "It was the… second time in your life you raised your voice to me. You didn't quite yell, it wasn't even a full sentence."

"What?!" Shaking his head in derision, Shinji actively took hold of the wheels and turned the chair to face her. "I didn't… what? When… what are you talking about? I never yelled at you!"

"You're yelling right now," Asuka commented snidely, and crossed her arms. She wanted so badly to smile, to hug him and tell him what a tremendous breakthrough he was having, making his ire with her conscious, but there were actions to be taken still.

"Asuka, come on!" He changed from absolutely enraged to enraged and annoyed in seconds. "I asked you a question, damn you!"

"And I'm answering it. It's not going to be two sentences, though," she shrugged. "Want me to continue, or are you happy just yelling and growling like a chained Rottweiler?"

God damn you! Shinji thought, palming his face once more. "Ugh… you're…" You haven't changed… and at the same time you've changed so much… stop. Stop it. "Ugh…"

"I'll take that little snarl right there as a kind and considerate 'Yes, Asuka-sama, please, do continue." This time she did grin at him, glad to see Shinji's annoyance quickly begin to overshadow his livid wrath. "As I was saying, Baka, you didn't quite yell. You were pretty emphatic, though."

"No."

She stared at him in disbelieve, which quickly morphed to anger. "What did you just say to me?!"

"No. You will eat. You will." Shinji's left eye twitched, he flinched at some non-existent threat, shook his head, and continued to glare at her. "No dying, you won't. You won't die. Not this time. Eat. Please."

"Fuck off!" She was about to throw the meager scraps on the plate along with the damned table, but he grabbed both her arms with a deadly grip.

"Asuka, please." He hid his eyes from her, head lowered. The grip turned painful, and she was suddenly unable to move and very, very hungry. "You… you said something the other day… ice… ice cream… I know a place, not far. The…" Shinji shook his head with vehemence; she felt it. He was anchoring himself to reality by holding onto her forearms. "The owner's… nice. We could… go… if you… like. I could… take you there…"

"What?! Are you… asking me out on a date or something?!" she found her voice, filled with incredulousness as it was. "You? You?! Are you serious?!"

"YES!"

Her eyes widened, her breath caught in her chest. Had Shinji just… raised his voice at her?

Said youngster was still staring at her as though she had just grown a second head, and it was conversing Latin with her. "Remember now, Baka? You were emphatically asking me out on a date. I didn't know which way was up. Shinji, I was…" Now, walls down, Sohryu; it's time to let him see you're not just strength and courage. Let's see what happens. Her eyes filled with honest uncertainty. "I was… not myself. I didn't know what myself was, even. I thought I'd lost everything; EVA, my mother, Kaji, my status as a pilot, my pride… everything…. Destroyed. What was left? Who would ever even give a shit about what was left? Who'd give a shit about a broken, scarred, crazy child soldier who screamed her lungs out at anyone who came close?"

The knife wound on his thigh reminded Shinji he couldn't get up just as his body was inching forward to stand. Don't… no, no, no, no, no…. no. Don't be sad, shit, not because of me. Fuck, stop. The primal instinct of rising from the chair and drawing Asuka into a hug was so strong Shinji had to anchor himself to the damned armrests so as to remain seated. Asuka had scarcely cried in front of him before, if tears did start to fall, however, there was no wound which would stop him from getting up.

"It never occurred to me that you were there. You cared, you of all people wanted to go out with this… this horrible, disrespectful little bitch that didn't know how to be nice to anyone, not even herself." She caught the indignation start to arise in him; the way his lip curled backwards and his hands turned into fists.

"Don't speak about yourself like that," Shinji muttered, glaring at her general direction but averting his eyes from hers. "Don't… just don't, okay?"

"Ohh, and you can say the sickest… sickest shit about yourself and that's okay, Shinji?!" She bit out with her own displeasure shining through. "You do it all day, every day!"

"Arrg!" Shinji scratched his scalp in a vain attempt to rid himself of the whirlwind of emotions corroding his chest and making him dizzy. "What does any of this shit have to do with what I asked, Asuka?!"

"I was fucking confused, Shinji!" She answered back with full force. Her eyes began to sting, but Asuka paid no mind. "I wanted to die, and at the same time I was terrified of dying! I thought I was a horrible little monster that nobody would ever accept, let alone care about! I… fuck! And then you come along, and after everything I did to you, everything I said, even after letting you know it was okay for you to kill me for it, what did you do, huh?!"

"I…" You're making her remember, you little devil, the shadow coiled in joy, satisfied. Excellent strategy, the past cuts deeper than any other blade. "Asuka, I… you don't need to-"

"Oh, no, no, you don't!" the redhead fumed, unconsciously walking closer to him. "You wanted your answer, and by fucking Lilith you're getting it! You deserve it, damn it!" Were there tears actually running down her face? Why was Shinji so blurry all of the sudden? "I was disgusted with you, and at the same time I couldn't stand the thought of being apart from you, you freaking idiot! Of course I had no fucking idea of what I was doing! That… that was the best ice cream of my life, Shinji! I was feeling… good! And… and I thought I didn't deserve to feel happy! Why would a failure like me, a loser who got butchered alive, ever deserve that happiness?! So I was livid that you didn't let that car turn me into paste! And… And I… I pushed you…"

Agony was visible and clear when Shinji forced his injured body to comply; he propelled it forward, filled with fury, shame, and the queerest sense of duty he had ever felt before. She was blessedly close enough that he only had to take a single step to pull Asuka into a hug. He had half expected her to push him away or force him to sit, but all the young woman did was snake her arms around his neck and back, and support his injured side as he held her. "Hey, that's enough…" he whispered. There was no thought going into his actions or words, everything had gone to auto pilot the moment Asuka had started crying. "I'm sorry for that, I am. It was… it was just a little pus-"

"Stop saying that!" she screamed right next to his ear, forcing a cringe out of him. "It wasn't just a little push! It wasn't just a little couple of words! I betrayed you, Shinji! And I left you to die, twice!" He was almost at the point of physical collapse; the new therapy had left him exhausted, and his newly acquired nerves were crying out in outrage. "You talk and talk about how you left me to die, then what about that, huh? What the fuck did I do if not that?! Never say that again, you got me, Baka?! It wasn't… it wasn't just a little push, damn you!"

He's… Shinji's hugging me! He's hugging me, right now! The part of her brain she never listened to was jumping with joy, but the rational side of her was slowly returning, and recalling how much pain Shinji was at the moment, panicked. Shit! He actually got up from that chair on his own!? Fuck! This was not part of the plan! "Baka!" She managed between sniffles, pushing the man's body towards the chair. "I told you not to move like that!"

Instead of listening to reason, the wounds, the evident signals firing up in his brain or the redhead herself, Shinji only hugged her even tighter. Finally, seven years. Fucking finally. "Sorry," he said, smirking into her hair.

"Baka!" Why do you have to be so hurt, huh?! Why do I have to let this go? It's unfair! Despite his best efforts, however, Asuka managed to deposit the injured Third Child back on the wheelchair, not before a tug from his right arm had her dangerously close to sitting on his lap while he held onto her nape. It felt so good, to hug him, to be hugged by him. For a few seconds, a few precious heartbeats, she had felt protected.

"Are you going to stop saying that shit, huh?" Asuka demanded, wiping the tears off her cheeks with evident annoyance; her cheeks had become quite flushed, as well, which was somewhat hidden under the curtain of night. "Well? Are you?!"

Shinji, for his part, had returned to a semblance of sanity, and the implications of what he had just done were not even starting to sink in. "I…. uhhh… yeah, sure…"

"Good!" He flinched; there truly was no competition to be held, Asuka was liquefying his eardrums with little to no effort. "So, do you get it, Shinji?! Do I have to spell it out for you?! No! I fucking did not know what I was doing! And it's made me… it's made me feel like a walking, talking piece of human garbage ever since! So there! Gooods… I said most of the time, you idiot!"

How in the name of everything sacred Asuka was able to connect the argument together was unimaginable to him, Shinji's brain felt fried and for once, drugs had nothing to do with it. "I… (gulp)… understand…" he finished lamely, looking at his feet. She had apologized, and thanked him for saving her life a mere few days before. There was no denying her honesty, as per usual. "I didn't mean to make you… upset…" What the fuck, man?! We're supposed to be making her upset so she leaves, you idiot! What. Are. You. Saying?! "Sorry." Fuuuuuuuuuuuu-

Asuka sniffled, and smiled at him. "It's okay, Baka. Women cry a lot, get used to it. No need to open up your stitches for some stupid tears. Now," she took a deep breath. "Do I get to ask you something?"

Shinji sighed, taken aback for the umpteenth time that day. When had it gotten so dark, anyhow? "Uhh… sure…"

The smile turned into a relaxed, defeated expression. "You're angry with me, really angry, furious even, and with good reason."

An awkward silence descended upon them, it stretched out for what felt like minutes until Shinji raised an eyebrow, uncomfortable beyond words. "Was that… your question?"

"Nope," the girl shook her head. "Why?" She had to be careful at this stage; unexpected reactions far beyond her expectations had already ensued, this was walking on the razor's edge. "Why are you furious that I left, or that I didn't answer you for all these years? If it's me you're mad at, then say it to me. This isn't some therapy crap, Shinji. We fought those monsters together, we went through the end of the world together. I think I deserve to hear it directly from you. Why are you so furious with me? After your own words; we weren't friends, we weren't a couple. I owed you nothing, if you're to be believed at least. So, there's my question. Why?"

Are you being serious right now?! The shadow recoiled, teeth bared in a snarl. How long do you have?! Because it's a pretty long fucking list! "I'm not… who said I was angry with y-"

"Six. Broken. Makiwara. Of different size and girth." Asuka interrupted, crossing her arms. "Every time somebody mentions my name, you go and slam those wooden boards until your hands are bleeding, then you pour salted water on the wounds. Did you know your skin feels like sandpaper because of that? Your left hand is a hammer, I wasn't joking when I said that, it's evidently heavier in density than a normal hand. I'm a doctor, Shinji, I know how regular bone feels. So, spill. I answered your question."

The 'you owe me the same courtesy now' was left unsaid, forcing the youth's molars to grind together. He wanted to deny it, so badly he wanted to. It had been such a great day, he didn't particularly feel like spoiling what was left if it, strangely enough, but Asuka was standing there, arms crossed, with an expectant expression on her pretty face.

The rage scratched about, burned inside his chest and stomach, wishing for nothing else than to be let out. The shadow was dancing in glee, fully aware it had been granted control at last. "Fine," Shinji barked through gritted teeth. "You want your answer? I'll give it to you. All I ever wanted was to… to…. damn it…" he scratched the brand on his arms with urgency. "All I ever did was be nice to you, all I ever did was, to the extent of my very limited fucking social capabilities, was try to get to know you, to be your friend."

He was raising his voice with every word, Asuka noticed, and nodded. "Completely true. You were never rude to me." Shinji huffed, almost bearing his teeth at her.

"I was a… worthless… broken little brat who couldn't even make friends, I was trying…(cough)… however I could… to be your friend. And all you did, all you did all the time was scream and yell and push me down! Every single day, every day I tried! How the hell was I supposed to know any better, huh?! I was the most socially inept bastard walking the Earth! "

His chest was heaving. Who was in control right now, anyhow? Was it truly the shadow, or was it the brat? "When I… after I killed Kaworu… I needed you… not even to be nice to me… I just needed you to call me an idiot! An-(cough, cough)… and you didn't! You… left me, like everybody, like my father, like my mother! Then… you just wouldn't help me! You left me to fucking suffer Third Impact! Alone! Do you-(cough, cough)- do you know the shit that's in my head because of it?! Do you!? No! Nobody does, nobody has a clue! And then… you just… you just leave! You left! And for seven fucking years, not a single word! How am I supposed to not be furious, huh?!"

After the words left his mouth Shinji blinked, and drew back into the chair, shocked beyond words. All the years of therapy, all the sessions, the drugs and the books, and he had never said those words out loud. He was panting like he'd just run a marathon, and despite the growing headache threatening to crack his skull, his chest felt… lighter. "Shit…" he whispered, head shaking. "There... there's your answer. Are you satisfied?"

There was no response, not even a peep came to greet him. Perhaps it had all been a vision, a dream, and he was still in the hospital bed, in a coma, clinging to life by nothing short of the miracles of modern medicine. Still, Shinji felt unable to look Asuka in the eye after what had just crawled its way out of his guts. He was about to ask again when a wrapped object was delicately placed on his lap.

For: Asuka

From: Shinji

Shinji stared, dumbfounded, at the bright red wrapping he had picked seven years before. This was… But… they told me the government threw it away… what… how does she have this? Sitting innocently on his leg was the first present he had ever picked for her. "How… what is… this…"

"I am," the redhead's voice came from behind him, startling the young man. When had she moved, how had he not noticed? "I'm very satisfied, Baka. Feels good, doesn't it? Letting the anger out, to the person you're actually angry with."

He was entranced all of the sudden, fingertips grazing over the small note stuck to the present. The state of it was pristine, except for a few spots on the cardboard and wrapping, the object looked every bit as well-wrapped as he recalled. "What… how do you have this?" In his disbelief, Shinji picked the small box to confirm that yes, there was something inside. "They told me… it was thrown away…"

"Pff, like I'd ever let them do that," Asuka walked to stand in front of him once more, with the bright smile illuminating her features, the traces of former tears gone. "I told you there's a lot you don't know about. So, here I am. Is that for me?" She pointed at the box, feigning ignorance. "It has my name on it."

"I…" The sudden urge to smash the gift into the ground disappeared just as quickly as it came, unlike when she had first given him the letter. This was… a birthday present, the first he had ever bought for anyone, there was no way he could damage it in any way. "Uhh… this…" What was Lilith playing at, exactly? What was this? Why was he being given a chance to do these things in the proper manner, the way she deserved it? "This… is for you, Asuka," he mumbled, stiffly pushing the wrapped box in her direction. "It was… uh… ha… happy birthday."

When she took the present from him, Shinji felt her hand graze over his and felt an unnatural urge to pull her into another hug. "You know," the young woman uttered while carefully unwrapping the old paper. "This is the first present I've been given that I actually want to open. What did you get me?"

Some old shit that probably doesn't even work anymore. It's been in a box for years, it's old, crappy technology from forever ago. "I… ah… open it and see for yourself," he ended up saying, regardless of the negative input in his head.

"Ohhh, so mysterious…" shocking him again, Asuka decided to seemingly not care about her dress at all and proceeded to sit on the ground, so as to better concentrate in unwrapping the gift without actually tearing any of the paper. It was driving him insane, the way she so slowly detached the worn binding tape and dared not to tear a single piece. "Hmm, what could it be? I can't wait!"

Then fucking just rip it off, already, woman! He screamed internally, almost at the point of perspiration. Why was her approval of this old box important to him at all? He had given up on it completely; it had never occurred to Shinji, not once in seven years that he would be at the point of biting off his fingernails at the sight of Asuka opening his gift. Come on! Just do it! I'll do it for you! Just tear it off!

"Would you look at this!" Asuka hoisted the object to whatever meager luminescence the street light a few feet from them provided. "I haven't seen one of these in years!" She studied the vibrant writing on the box, smiling even wider. It was red; of course it was, and exactly the tone of red she preferred.

JBL Xtreme. Portable Bluetooth Speaker. 2016.

"Soooo…" the redhead beamed from her seated position, moving the box up and down, left and right. "How come you got me this, Shinji? I love the color! It's just like my Unit 02!"

She had never behaved like that with him before, grateful, graceful, happy; so Shinji was at a complete loss of how to react. Instinct took over once again, forcing the truth out of him. "I… well… I really like music… and listening to it and stuff… so I thought… (cough)… I thought you had your music that you loved, as well. And… and maybe… maybe you'd… listen to it… with this…"

No rotting stench, no Lances, no EVA Series, no Mother, no Father; he was alone with Asuka, in this deserted part of town, surrounded by trees and debris, spilling out things he had not even brought to full consciousness. The girl in question was engrossed in reading every little detail from the box, he had… never seen her smile with such brilliance. She was genuinely excited and glad for his present; the realization was so tremendous that Shinji had to breathe in deep several times to keep himself from crying. Something… unwounded in him, and his shoulders slackened.

Asuka stole a glance at him, feeling her heart thunder violently in her chest. She was selfish as well, after all, she was having such a great time, honest excitement and delight were dancing in her chest. It was such a thoughtful gift, right down to the color, such a Shinji thing to give to someone. There it is, there it is! The former Third Child looked relaxed, for once; the small smile on his face was that of quiet satisfaction, of unperturbed joy. I knew it! I'm going to save him! YES! YES! I win, world! There he is!

She rose in a fluid motion, grasping the package close to her chest, and almost tiptoed to where Shinji sat, frozen. "Thanks, Baka. I can't wait to charge this thing and test it!" She fidgeted then, eyes drawing away. "I… I'm going to hug you, now."

Before he could object and push her away, Asuka placed the box back on Shinji's lap, and completely uncaring of how her breasts were practically rubbing against the young man's cheek, took his upper body and drew it to her. Fuck yes! There! You don't get this, do you, Krista?! You don't! Look! Instead of hitting, biting or cursing, Shinji's right arm sprung up and drew her even closer in an instant. Look! Look! I told you, he's mine! Mine and mine alone! YES! I finally got to hug this idiot! YES!

"Uhmm…" unsure of how to proceed and failing in the simple task of controlling his own limbs, Shinji succumbed to the sensation of Asuka's skin against his, and reveled in the way his mind only seemed to scream a resounding 'Yes' all around. "I'm… glad you like it…"

They stayed in the uncomfortable, unlikely embrace, enticed by the other's scent and body heat, radiating into their very souls. This was it, what they had been longing for, searching for through the years, this connection they had been unable to deepen or explore as teens; it was still there, beating crazily like their heartbeats.

I want to kiss you. I want all of you, now.

The thought apparently went through both their heads at once, for just when Shinji's breath caught and his arms stiffened, Asuka jumped slightly and unhurriedly began to draw away. Both of them were blushing brightly, and neither felt quite comfortable looking at the other at the moment. "Umm… I…" Shinji began, licking his lips. I want to kiss you so bad I'd literally never do drugs again if you told me not to, right now. The anger was absent, leaving nothing but the raw desire to have her as close as humanly possible. "I don't… know… what just… I'm… I'm sick, Asuka. You shouldn't-"

"Shinji?" His jaw hinged closed, cobalt orbs drawn to her. "I don't care about getting hurt. I don't care if… when we go through… withdrawal… you turn into some demon or something. I've been studying, practicing, doing this, for years." She sighed in contentment. "Look me in the eye right now and tell me you'll hurt me. Intentionally. Say it, and I'll believe it."

Never. How strange, that the scream came out of the shadow as well as the brat, that time. "No…" he conceded, head dropping in defeat. He was exhausted, it had been years since he had felt so much in such little time; the day was not even over. "I wouldn't… Asuka… I can't… bring myself to do that… not after…" Not after trying to kill you, not after using you like a comfort toy, not after being so weak and pathetic. "Not after what's happened…"

"Then stop acting like me hugging you is going to somehow make me spontaneously combust, will you?" She reasoned loudly, pointing at him. "Gosh, Baka. I think we've been through enough shit together to be able to share a simple hug without having to explain ourselves to the world. Don't you?"

Did she just imply… that she wants to hug me or something? "I… I guess so…"

She got right into his personal space then, right in front of his face, with that beaming smile she had been wearing since leaving the gym. Had Shinji not been petrified in place, he would've most likely moved away on instinct. "I'm not afraid of you, Shinji. I've never been afraid of you." She confided, and enjoyed the way Shinji seemed to gape like a fish. "Not even when you were strangling me, either time. Here, I'll say it again; I've never been afraid of you, and that's not going to change. So bite, scream, hit, let loose. I'll stay right here." She placed a hand on his shoulder while the other retrieved her present from his lap. "Promise."

Shinji offered a smile of defeat in return. "It's only going to get worse from here on out, Asuka." He confessed, feeling the urge to cup her cheek. "I don't want you… to see me… like that…"

The redhead had the gall to close her eyes and smirk at him in such a way that it left the young former pilot unable to say another word. "I've already seen you like that, Baka. I've seen worse, because I've been here," her forefinger poked him on the forehead. "And here," her hand descended to rest on his chest. "Let me help. I know I can, you just have to let me. Will you? Will you try to get better?"

Shinji's bottom lip shook without consent, his eyes burned with something. A promise had already been given that day, if not to her, to a person he held quite dear. Asuka was… Asuka, however, and she would not rest until she had her own promise. Fuck her, his mind screamed in despair; his skin was itching again, he was beginning to feel hot and cold all at once. Fuck her promises, her words, and her actions. Fuck her. Get her away. Do it now! Now! This is what you are, what you deserve! Stay, dog! Obey me!

"I…" it was her who was asking, though. She was holding his shoulder, eyes fixed on his, concern radiating off her being like he'd never seen before. She was unguarded once more, pleading with him. A deep sensation of self-disgust clouded over his senses; for once, he wanted to be worthy of concern. "I'll… try…"

Asuka's forehead came in contact with his. "That's all I need, Shinji." She whispered. Your breath still tickles, but I couldn't care less. "I'll try right there with you, okay?"

I'll do it. For you, I'll get clean. Will you betray me then, like Mari did? Will you? Why do I not care all of the sudden? "I'm…" His lip shook even worse, so Shinji's left hand rose to grasp Asuka's wrist. "I'm… scared."

"I know," he watched, hypnotized, as she closed her eyes and nudged his head with hers in an intimate gesture. "But I'll be right here. I told you so, already. I'm not leaving. You don't have to believe me, either, Baka. I'll prove it to you."

Seven years… I've waited for this for seven fucking years… She was close to him, touching him willingly, speaking to him, interacting, sharing, being supportive and being herself at the same time. "I don't think… I can do this… on my own…"

He'd said it, the truth which shamed him to the core.

"You don't have to," the redhead patted his cheek, straightening up. "Not anymore. That's all done, now." She held the present close to her chest again, feeling incredibly light. "I won't do it for you, but I'll help you get back up." You're the reason I'm alive, Shinji, her mind provided while flooding her sensed with the need to let him hold her for the rest of the night, or the rest of their lives. I've been away because I couldn't help you back then, but I can, now. "I plan on making up for every second I've been away."

"Hmph," Shinji muttered, eyes drawing to his left. "Right…"

"Anyway," the redhead stretched, present held tightly between her hands. "This is where you learned to kick, right?"

Being brought back to reality by her statement was unpleasant, Shinji realized, but not unexpected. This was the closest thing to a sacred place he had; it reminded him of Rei, for whatever reasons. "Yeah…" he nodded, recalling his mentor. "I've been practicing on those banana trees there… for years, now."

"Here, take care of this, will you?" She pushed the package into Shinji's unsuspecting hand and resumed her position behind the chair, pushing him forward with more energy than before. "Did you know this used to be a botanical garden before Second Impact, Baka? Look! Those are light blue hibiscus, right there! Don't they remind you of Rei's hair a bit?"

"I… did not know that, no," the brown-haired youth admitted, squinting to see the color of the flowers properly. "Yeah… it does kinda… remind you of her, doesn't it?"

"I'll say. Did you never wonder why there were banana plants of all things in these hills, Baka?" The final step was nigh, Asuka realized. She was basically jumping out of her skin with excitement; her ministrations and effort had paid off greatly, with Shinji exteriorizing his anger towards her and owning up to it. "Or were you only concerned with bringing them down?"

"Ah…" He did not, in fact, know anything about the botanical garden which had formerly existed there; he had limited himself to being drawn towards the many light blue flowers surrounding the ruins, and some time afterwards to the hundreds of banana plants sprouting off the ground. "Not… really. I never really…(cough)… gave it much though."

"Pff, just as expected," she provided snidely. "Well, get ready. Are you hungry? I know I am."

Hungry, what? What am I supposed to do about that, in here? He thought, scandalized. Was he to look for ripe bananas now, and create some new recipe while seating on the blasted chair? "I could eat," he admitted offhandedly, noticing how as they moved along, a light in front grew brighter and brighter. "Why?"

"Because," without warning, Asuka pushed down on the chair and placed her feet on the metal underneath, propelling both forward and earning a surprised yelp from the injured patient. "I've made preparations!"

"Asuka, are you crazy? What the hell are you doing?!" Shinji panicked, realizing that if he tried to halt the wheels the effect would be disastrous. He was forced to close his eyes and hope for the best. "We're gonna crash!"

"No we're not, Baka!" Just as they reached the illuminated clearing Asuka jumped off the chair and brought them both to a halt with more finesse than Shinji believed possible. Before them lay a former flower garden, overgrown and wild, which had grown atop the old walls surrounding them. There were dim lights placed strategically to illuminate the place just enough to be visible; a table was set in the middle of the garden, with two chairs, candle light, and their chauffeur patiently waiting with a handkerchief on his hand. "We' going to eat, not crash."

Shinji stared in absolute awe at the arrangement; it had always played like this, in his head. He had been planning on a moonlit dinner by the stars in that exact same place for years, now. How the hell had Asuka known? How was this possible? "This is… Asuka… what…"

"It's been seven years." She pushed him towards the table, got rid of the unnecessary seat and placed him before the fine platter, wine glass and light blue decorations. "You almost died, Shinji, and it wasn't the first time. This is… something you've been meaning to do, right?"

He had left her a drunken message once, detailing every little element he wanted to include in this impossible dinner date his overtired brain had concocted about a year before. It was beyond impossible; to think she had heard it, hell, to think she had paid attention to his slurred nonsense. "I… but…"

"I don't know the future, apparently not even you know what's going to happen," Asuka mentioned causally, sitting next to him and elegantly pushing her hair back. "All I know is that we're here, now. This… this dinner… never happened before because I never came back. Well, I'm here, you're here." She smirked at the baffled Third Child. "Happy birthday to you, too, Baka. Let's eat!"

The chauffeur came close to the table with a pair of menus… his menus, the ones he had sent her once, prepared specifically for that night alone. "Good evening," the man bowed, handing them the laminated possibilities. Shinji was beyond wordless; nobody ever, ever had bothered to do anything remotely as… personal… as what Asuka was currently doing. She was proving him that she had indeed been listening, not only to his rational pleads, but to all of it. "May I interest the lady and gentleman in a Carmenere? 'Marquez de Casa Concha, 2016', an excellent vintage, if I may say so."

"Yes," Asuka nodded emphatically, signaling in Shinji's direction. Gods, he had told her about that wine in the voice message. "Would you mind, Shinji?" A resounding 'pop' brought the young man back to the world, just as the beverage was poured on his glass.

Such decorum, such fine manners were displayed in every single move she made on the table. It was exquisite to watch, almost enticing enough to make Shinji forget he was to approve the wine, so he shook his head lightly, tasted, closing his eyes to enjoy the flavor, and nodded. "Perfect," he muttered, looking around and realizing that it was, indeed, perfect, right down to the weather conditions. "Perfect."

He had originally prepared a set of three possibilities for appetizers, main course and desserts, believing Asuka would appreciate the variety. The appetizers included a mixed Caesar salad, shrimp risotto and/or a Japanese styled seasonal Carpaccio with fresh Takati sauce. The main courses varied from a filet mignon, which Asuka eagerly took, to a chicken breast with white caper sauce, or a seared Blue Fin tuna in soy sauce. Every detail, right down to the tiniest ingredient he had mentioned in that hour-long tirade, was elegantly glaring back at him from the laminated paper.

"So, Baka-Shinji," she held her glass with a confident smirk, pushing it towards him. "Is it everything you hoped for?"

Asuka had effectively taken him out on a date, on what he had thought to be the perfect date for her, without him even realizing what was happening. The matter of his drunken slurs aside, she had rendered him unable to reach into the pit of perennial rage stored in his chest; he was trapped in this… overly pleasant, incredible dinner with the woman of his dreams and nightmares.

The satisfying cling signaled dinner's official beginning, along with Shinji's smirk. "The lights are off, you can't possibly see the Sumires or the Shobu blossoms like this," He looked to the table. "I would've gone with a velvet tablecloth. As regarding dinner itself… well, that'll depend on who you've got cooking these dishes, Asuka," he said, feeling strangely irritated at being robbed of the chance to cook his dishes for her… for the time of being. "But it's light-years ahead of anything I would've been able to put together. Did you plan this? Seriously?"

And she laughed; it was not some false screech designed to appease the masses, nor was it a bitter cackle designed to demean him; Asuka snickered behind her glass, eyes filled with honest mirth and glee towards his bafflement, not even bothering to hide her good mood. "I told you there were some surprises today! So, Baka, tell me about this mysterious mentor of yours; the one who taught you how to chop banana plants down with your legs."

"You mean Sagat-san? Well… that's an interesting one. I came across this place a few years ago in a jog, and there he- (cough, cough)… there he was, just ripping those plants in half! (Cough)… So… So I asked him what he was doing, and…"

He was transfixed, sharing information nobody but the goons who followed him around knew, telling of how a Muay Thai legend had taught him how to punch and kick. So engrossed was he in the tale that that the redhead herself was forced to remind Shinji to drink his medication, since he never noticed the tremor on his hands as dinner progressed.

The meal was not in the least impressive to him; he could outperform the amateur cooking Gods knew where any day of the week. The company, nonetheless, and the precious time he was allowed to spend there, alone with Asuka under the stars, in his favorite place in the city, was beyond imagining. He had to actively pinch himself many times as the dishes came and went to stay anchored into reality.

No drug in the world had ever made him feel so at ease.


Refusing the idea of yet another shower, Shinji had opted to head straight back to his room and change into some more comfortable clothes once they reached his house. Asuka had eagerly emptied about three quarters of the bottle, and fervently told him about her time in college and the inhumanly strenuous task of finishing two medical majors at once. He, for his part, had reminisced of the time spent in the university studying philosophy and psychology, and of the many times he had fallen asleep on top of a book, only to find it drooled and spoiled a few hours later. They had shared stories about trainers, spars, teachers, classmates and things they had never spoken of before.

-Enter Lateralus, by Tool.-

Wow, he pondered, staring at the pills in his hand. Three risperodones, two Xanax, three Oxycotins and a full gummy bear glared up at him. I don't think I've ever… enjoyed myself like tonight… he had gotten pitch-black drunk many a time, gotten high on as many drugs as there were in existence, and none of the experiences came close to the queer warmth that spread over his chest whenever he recalled Asuka's youthful expression while opening the gift. He glared back at the substances in his hand; the more buzzed he was, the less he would be able to recall her time with him.

He dropped about half of them back into their respective jars and dry-swallowed the rest without a second thought. He wanted to enjoy her company now; there was no denying the fact, and he was evidently incapable of insulting her without feeling like the lowest scum on the planet, so Shinji chose for once not to fight against himself, even if it was for a day.

He sat back on the chair once he'd changed, sighing in strange contentment. It's been… close to twelve hours, now, he realized. Mother's bound to come any time now… any time… now… The curtains of unconsciousness were ever so lightly brushing against Shinji's mind, lulled by a familiar melody which suddenly sprung out of the living room. What… what's that… sound…? Heavily sleep deprived and more tired than he recalled being, the blue-eyed youth forced his uncooperative arms to push the wheels and gaze into the living room. The song was something he had heard once or twice somewhere, but had never really paid any close attention to it. He was almost asleep when the transition to heavy riffs shook him awake.

Shinji opened the door to his room with evident difficulty and pushed the chair forward, stopping dead in his tracks.

"Black then white are all I see in my infancy, Red and yellow then came to be, reaching out to me, lets me see…. "

He was about to ask the redhead what was going on when he saw it; there it was, the speaker he had gifted her, fully loaded, blasting the recognizable tune at full volume. Shinji blinked, almost jumping off the chair as the song carried on. What kept him seated was not the incredible sound quality the small object provided, or the sheer musical prowess of the piece; no, Asuka was swaying to the song, wearing nothing but an oversized shirt of the album cover and some comfortable shorts. Her hair was down, free of any clips, and shaking wildly as she moved here and there, dancing into the complicated rhythm.

He watched, unwilling to move, unwilling to interrupt, watched the way her hair looked like liquid fire while moving up and down, left and right. She was cutting some fruits on the counter, he noticed, occasionally returning to the task as the song carried on, singing every few lines so loud he thought the neighbors would complain, for once, but uncaring if they did so. Before him danced the very image of freedom, of strength, of passion and unattainable perfection, drawing him nearer to the heat. Was this the reward, he wondered, for having saved that little girl in that alley? Was he being rewarded, or punished? Were the feelings stirring in his chest a blessing, or a curse?

"Over thinking, over analyzing separates the body from the mind!" Asuka stated, right along Maynard. "Withering my intuition, missing opportunities and I must… feed my will to feed my moment, drawing way outside the lines!"

She went back to cutting the fruits, cantaloupes if his nose was to be trusted, her entire frame shaking with anticipation just as the next stage of the song flowed from the speaker and drew her into a trance of cutting, humming and swaying. Shinji, for his part, felt… aroused, allured, completely and utterly speechless, in supreme awe of the goddess-like creature dancing in his kitchen. He was unable to articulate a single thought; it felt just like the first time he had seen her in that ship. This person, this woman before him, this alien creature glistening with so much life, was poisoning him ever so slowly with the desire to see if he was able to reach something of a similar state, if only to be worthy of being next to her, she was beautiful.

"Withering my intuition, missing opportunities and I must… feed my will to feed my moment, drawing way outside the lines!" The girl yelled again with evident mastery of the English language.

He wanted, so very suddenly, to be the strong one this strong person turned to when she needed support. Whatever was necessary, he wondered, to attain such a privilege? Was it even possible for someone like him to dream of such a goal? There was no way in Hell Lilith would allow him, no way in hell the world was to let him have some form of respite, some fire to pursue. He had always feared the implications of trying to get close to anyone; so why did he not care at all, all of the sudden?

"Feed my will to feel this moment… urging me to cross the line! Reaching out to embrace the random!" Asuka hugged herself and spun around in the most elegant manner he had ever seen. "Reaching out to embrace whatever may come!"

Just as the song came to a sudden halt, assaulted by nothing but the bass notes and drums, she began to quietly move back to the cutting, eyes closing and opening while her hands expertly sliced and storage the cantaloupe in the fridge. She took a hold of the speaker then, he noticed, swaying along, lids fluttering, muttering to herself and circling through the kitchen area. "I embrace my… desire to… feel the rhythm… to…. feel connected… enough to step aside and… weep like a widow… to… feel inspired… to… fathom the power, to… witness the beauty… to… bathe in the fountain…" She brought the object close to her chest once the song began to pick up, still singing, still smiling.

He swore he was hallucinating, but after pinching his arms, the deafening heartbeat and feeling the evident bulge in his crotch, there was no denying it. This was reality, he was alive. Alive.

The Second Child stood still in the middle of the living room, twirling in crazy circles, hair dancing before her as she mumbled the lyrics, evidently oblivious to him or anything else. She kept using his gift as some imaginary guitar just as the bass and drums blasted him into oblivion. She danced, touching her skin, shoulders and hair in perfect unison with the song, drawing more of whatever emotion had just started to flood Shinji's being. The guitar solo crashed into him, and Shinji felt his heart skip a beat when Asuka raised her elegant neck to the ceiling, exposing the a face of unperturbed bliss, eyes closed, locks dancing crazily all over, it was all over him, she was all over him.

"With my feet upon the ground I lose myself between the sounds and open wide to suck it in, I feel it move across my skin!" She raised both arms to the ceiling, head moving wildly. "I'm reaching up and reaching out, I'm reaching for the random or what ever will bewilder me, what ever will bewilder me!"

Shinji stared, and stared, skin turning hot, heart racing and blood boiling in his veins. Death… did not offer this sight, not in the slightest. This was life, at its most vibrant, right there before him, unhinged life, wild and untamed. Fire; a fire he wanted to be consumed by. Lord, he wanted to be burned by it, he feared not the spikes or the heat, for once. His eyes almost jumped out their saucers; this was…

"Spiral out, keep going! Spiral out… keep… going! Spiral out! Keep… going! Spiral out! Keep! Going!"

Fuck, he thought, watching the way Asuka's erratic head banging intensified along with the song. I love her. I love her so fucking much. Look at her, just look… she's… perfect… The realization hit him so violently that even the arousal faded away in an instant, leaving nothing but the elation.

Perfect…

The song came to an end and the redhead shook the wild tresses off her face, turning to stare at him. She smiled. "I know, Baka. It's loud. I love my speaker!" The object in question was raised towards his face; all the poor man managed was a stiff nod, mouth open wide. "The way I see it, you either love Tool, or you're wrong!"

I love you, he thought back, terrified. Fuck. Fuck. This is bad, really bad. This is a disaster, a fucking disaster. "Uhhh… Ten Thousand Days is awesome," he repeated what Jackson had told him once, almost robotically. "Has… some of the rawness of Opiate and… (gulp)… this bitterness to it… while at the same time…(cough)… bringing up something completely new. Just like Lateralus, every album has its own… personality."

"Now you're speaking my language!" The redhead beamed at him, placing the speaker on the table just as the next song began. "Say, wanna tuck yourself in yet?" She lifted up a tiny plastic bag containing the ever familiar black stars. "Or do you want to elaborate on that last thought?"

Shinji smiled back. It was devoid of malice or bitterness, it was a simple, innocent small grin. "Enter at your own risk, Frau Doktor," he said, and extended his hand.

"Leave at your leisure," the small sweet was placed on his fingers, just as Asuka turned to energetically push him out to the balcony. "I hope you're ready for a long night, Baka. You never finished that story about those dickeheads in your gym three years ago!"

Chuckling to himself, Shinji breathed in the night air. Perhaps living just a few more days, or months, was not so bad after all. Perhaps there was something to attain, to pursue there, with the former Second Child. "Long nights are kind of my specialty, Asuka. You know, with the insomnia, visions and all that."

She could not possibly erase the smirk off her face, nor pretend in the slightest that she was not ecstatic to have a night of causal, unguarded conversation with Shinji of all people. He was, after all, the one person in the world who understood and accepted her, flaws and all. If the cost of his recovery was her life, she realized, it was all well worth it. Something told her, besides, that Shinji would not let her die or decay of he had a say in it. "Shinji, what was that I said earlier today?" She grinned at the stars, phase two had begun. "I am the best, even at making long nights… unforgettable… so… they came up, these three thugs, and just challenged you out of the blue, in the middle of practice?! How does that work!?"

And so they spoke about nothing and everything all at once, joking sarcastically laughing and yelling until they were hoarse. When morning came, a mere few hours after they had decided to turn in, the first rays of sunlight caught her standing next to Shinji's bed and shaking her head sadly when he offered a spacious empty space to his right. He hadn't ever answered if the sleeping arrangement him bothered him or not, but with the excuse of having to report to Misato, Asuka sheepishly pointed to her bedroom and muttered something about breaking in the bed once and for all, pointing to his many wounds for emphasis.

He nodded in evident disappointment, to the redhead's secret delight, and offered a hearty 'sweet dreams, Asuka' before his head turned to the side and fell unconscious. It was basically morning already, there were hardly any chances of her catching a wink of sleep, and if she did the nightmares were sure to be waiting. Shinji had been happy that day, though, truly happy, taken off guard, surprised, shocked; he had displayed a full range of honest emotion in her company. She had received her birthday present and more than a simple speaker, had listened to music with the former Third Child for a full night, had spoken with him like never before. The nightmares would be well worth it, that day, were she able to fall asleep at all.

There was a dark, painful road to thread ahead of them. For once in both their lives, however, they would not wander through the darkness alone. Her heart danced in excitement when she fell on the stiff bed and closed her eyes.

When she next opened them a mere two hours afterwards, tears tracing down her face and horrified scream burning her throat, with the very lively sensation of having hands rip out her inner organs and teeth devour her flesh, Asuka stared, shocked beyond words, at the wobbling form of Ikari Shinji standing by the door.

"H-(hiss)- Hey…" he muttered, visibly winded. The nerve of the idiot! She could already see a miniscule crimson tinge in the apposite sticking to his leg. "Are you okay?"

With her lips quivering with both despair, phantom pain, trauma and unrelenting annoyance, Asuka realized Shinji had basically sprung out of his own damned bed to come check on her, when she was the licensed physician and he was the seriously injured patient. A few days before, he had told her not to touch him, and now he was inching closer, as if wanting to draw her into a hug.

"Asuka?" he walked a few steps with evident difficulty. "Hey, what is it? Are you…(cough)… seeing something, someone? Where are they?" He pushed the crutch into the ground with vehemence. "Tell me where they are, I'll rip them apart. Hey… hey… A…. Asuka?"

Fists clenched tightly with an ire she had not felt since climbing into the VTOL which had brought her to Japan, the Second Child rose from bed and faced him, ckeeks almost as red as her hair. Just when Shinji was about to ask of she was okay again, she exploded.

"What are you, stupid?! I SAID NO SUDDEN MOVEMENTS, BAKA!"

There had never been any competition needed, after all. If Shinji's neighbors were ever to be asked, they would always refer back to the inhuman roar which had made them jump that day. They were glad for it, in some strange way; though. It felt good to know there was somebody there, with him, with their hero, struggling to save him from the abyss.

The abyss was deep, however, dark and inviting; and misery loved company. Who was to say it was not Shinji who would pull Asuka back into the darkness?

TBC

Inspirational Music: Opiate (album), Aenima (album), 10000 Days (album), Lateralus (album), Fear Inoculum (album) -Tool. Self Titled (album), The Oracle (album) –Godsmack; Rotten Apple –Alice in Chains; Sleeping Dogs, Angel of Mercy – Zakk Wylde; Hell, Pain Redefined, Ten Thousand Fists, Asylum – Disturbed.

Shoutout to my mofockers wgolyoko and Richitzer for helping revise and correct! Solid chads.

To quote Asuka and my best friend; you either love Tool, or you're wrong. Yes, I am aware, pure fluff. This is not Scar Tissue, this is a new story, barely jump starting. You a fan of angst? Hold tight, it's coming, just bear with me. Light songs in the album, light chappies. Dark songs, dark chappies, you get the drift. Revising will take place through the week, feel free to PM for mistakes and typos.

Love to all! Read and review! Reviews provide writing power!


RAMBLE.

AN: Yeah…. That happened. So… I've been gone for some time, pretty rusty, so bear with me with this chapter while I somehow shake the cobwebs off, eh? Nah, fuck it, ain't my style. Give it to me clear! You like? You no like? Tell me about it, however you want. Vent, express yourself, or don't. I love ya for reading up until this point, though.

If ya think Shinji's improving too quickly for it to be true, or that they're magically solving their issues on the first chapters, or that there's too much fluff, yeah, no. The title's Relapse, we ain't seen any of that yet. This chappy's a lot of world building, I think. It was strenuous to write, and take into consideration that the entire chapter revolves around one day. Aaaaaand, you'd be surprised of how quickly a depressed person reacts to positive stimuli when it comes addressed in the right way, and from the right person.

Y'all know I write from personal experience, so there you go. Also, the song Hello is pretty upbeat despite the lyrics, so this is somewhat upbeat chappie. Asuka's being too nice? Hmm… weird. There's gotta be some reason behind this, what's her agenda? Why the sudden interest in our little Baka? Keep reading to find out, or don't! Imma keep writing anyway.

Coronavirus came, huh? Shit. My grandpa almost died, some uncles died, some cousins… lost some of my elder friends, and some clients of mine. Lost my job and got two new other ones, left the second one when a great job offer presented itself, or should I say, I fucking strong-armed my way into it. Anyway! I'm back to writing, and maybe due to the…dire nature of today's world, I got to thinking….

This story is like… a blank canvas. ST was my baby, you know?! My baby, my little premature child that I had while being too young to know what the fuck I was even doing; I learned with it, grew with it, and it grew with me. At least I like to think so, but this new baby, this has… unlimited potential, perhaps due to that I set it seven years after TI. Maybe I actually do what I'm doing half the time I'm writing… maybe not, you be the judge.

My point is… this story is a blank canvas, and Imma gon paint some good shit on it, now that I've actually learned how to give a mediocre try at it. OCC-ness? Me no like, I'm going to aggressively mature these characters due to the lives they've led, but they will be the ones you remember and love. If anything seems too OCC, let me know, I'll work on it. I can edit, this is no book it's a Fanfiction story.

This will not be another Scar Tissue, I don't want it to be. Maybe the writing style is frighteningly similar, but hey, Imma try to give it its own personality.

Side characters! Pay no mind to them, they're here to help the story move forward and to let us, the readers, get to know the main characters better. Despite it, I facilitated a list. Don't expect these character to have more than a few lines for chapter after this one. So; list.

Krista Gruber: Swedish descent, moved to Japan as a young child. 24 years old, former heroin addict and street worker, currently in a loving relationship. Only person aside from Asuka or Misato to have actually hugged Shinji without him turning ballistic with rage.

Kelvin Jackson: American descent, 42 years old, single. Former MMA fighter, former Green Beret, retired and owning a gym in Tokyo. Shinji's trainer for the past five years. Based on a trainer I had when I went to Florida for a course.

Hanayama Kaneda: Based on Hanayama Kaoru from the mangas Grappler Baki and Baki Son of Ogre. 34 years old in my story, wears black instead of white, and is not the boss. Will not make many appearances at all.

Sagat-san: NOT the guy from Street Fighter, but based on the actual Muay Thai Leyend. Watch some of his highlights for context.

Mari Manikami: Wouldn't you like to know, huh?

Volkov: Yup, no clue. Wait for the next chappies.

Aaaaaaaaaaaaaanyway, This story is gonna be something that cuts really, really close to the bone, it's going to cover addiction, the treatment of mentally ill patients, the horrible side-effects of withdrawal, very detailed descriptions of the process, of hallucinations, drug induced and not, and many other related subjects, but in the end, it's gonna be a story about growth. Seven years have passed, who the fuck knows what happened in between? You'll know, once I'm done with this painting. Also… I'll try to like, instill something in this and maybe I don't know, remit someone who's hurting to the place where they can be oriented in the right direction, or something like that. This is gonna be a story about struggle, deep and painful, about existentialism and reality, about the mind.

But it's a story about EVA, so you already knew all that.

Many of the things I'm gonna be referring to in the future can be traced down to Nietzsche, Dostoyevsky, Jung, and Dr. Jordan Peterson's work regarding responsability, feel free to check that out. Love ya'll, we need some loving in these fucked up times. I will update before the year ends, believe you me.

Be safe, stay healthy, and love one another.

PEACE.