Disclaimer: I own Nothing.

AN: Hi! Sorry for the delay, life sorta… happened, so there was no time for me to write at all. NGE ended, huh. Damn. Did not particularly care for the specifics of it, but the overall ending pleased me… somewhat. To an extent. No. No, it did not, not at all. Anno, go to hell. Mari, burn in Hell. Hence, NGE and I continue with our toxic relationship, and in the spirit of such toxicity… here's a new chappy! Yay!

I said yeah baby sing that song
It's the last song
you'll ever get the chance to sing
you sexy little thing
Show me what you got
Give it your all
Look at you bawl
Why you cryin' to me
Same song and dance

The first victim I had, she was a big one
Big movie star, party girl, big fun
She was the girl the media always picked on
In and out of rehab every four to six months
She was always known for little pranks and slick stunts…


Chapter Six: Same Song and Dance

Humidity and cold filtered into his lungs along with the nicotine as he drew long and unhurriedly from the cigarette and exhaled a second afterwards, smoke filtering into the darkness of a new day. It was nigh on four o'clock, when his girlfriend was sound asleep along with the rest of Tokyo and even the cicadas were quiet, with nothing interrupting the slow advance of dawn except his thoughts. He picked up the shot glass and drowned its content, grimacing at the bitter taste and the way it burned all the way down his stomach. The bottle glared up at him, with the bright 'Flor de Cana, Gran Reserva' demanding to know why its consumption was so slow and measured; it was not his preferred drink, after all. He only ever drank rum when the thoughts and memories of a certain person became more overbearing than the endless calculations, sketches and plans he was demanded to perform and deliver.

Reality was a cruel mistress, to be sure.

He refilled the glass, closed the lid on the bottle and almost slammed it down to the small table beside him, where the folder rested innocently and failed to take into consideration how much suffering it represented, how heavy the toll of delivering the arrangement of papers and pictures had become in recent years. Once, long ago, he had compared the task with taking photographs of the schoolgirls and selling them to hungry teens, he had laughed at his own expense and taken the job just like any other. If only the task could be as simple as what it had been in the old days perhaps the weight of it would not sit so comfortably on his chest. It constricted his breathing at times; watching what he wanted with every fiber of his being be so effortlessly flaunted and at hand's reach while it remained untouchable, not meant to be was surely a specific form of torture devised by life to torment his already restless brain.

Envy coiled in his ribcage, burning worse than the rum when he emptied the glass and refilled it in seconds; of course she would come this time around. Shinji had been walking down the razor's edge too long now, he had been sick for so many years that he had forgotten it was not at all normal for a person to be so burdened, so utterly destroyed. It was not normal for someone to be hospitalized with such concerning frequency, to survive overdoses and brutal beat-downs again and again. The Third Child's sickness had blended into life's routine with time; just as buildings rose back up, people laughed and ran and cried and prospered, just as life was digging its heels back in the planet, so was its hero's essence been effectively expunged from his body.

"US 1004BD, standard issue, twelve centimeters," with a fluid and almost natural manner he produced the knife which hung from his belt and gazed at both the darkened metal and the glistening edge. A blade not unlike his own had been used, a war-knife meant to eviscerate, gouge flesh and leave open wounds that would never truly close or heal properly. He thought of the men who had committed the crime and glared briefly at the city before him. The knife returned to its holster in an almost stabbing motion. "Cheap fucks, could've at least gone local."

Scum, they were. Criminals trying to kidnap a child, tear her open like a fish and sell her for parts like a used car, all considering the best scenario where they went straight to the killing and dicing. Shinji had stopped and almost killed four armed men with a blade like his imbedded in his gut, had fought them off with his leg, back and stomach bleeding like a fountain. Years before, the same boy who had saved him from the Fourth Angel had brutally murdered four of six men who had tried to beat and molest him, even going as far as tearing out a man's windpipe with his teeth and another's ribs with his bare hands. The men who had died were all convicted rapists, murderers and drug dealers hired to beat, abuse, and ultimately murder the Third Child, or so the suspect had revealed in the interrogation. As far as he was concerned however… the men had always been meant to die, killed by Shinji, so as to inflict another devastating wound the pilot's soul and permanently leave him to rot in the abyss of self-hatred and regret.

"They had it coming," he whispered, recalling the man's words and the queer smile which manifested whenever the subject was addressed. "Yeah, they sure did, Shin-man…" At times, he truly wished for Shinji's former guardian to stop being so idiotic; Misato misinterpreted the smile every time, seemingly unable to glimpse at the profound regret that hid under the nasty expression and not bothering to recognize the inner turmoil the subject brought about.

He drew another long breath and exhaled, drank some more and remembered Shinji lying in the hospital bed, disconnected, dissociated from reality, gazing into nothingness as the doctors ensured he had no major injuries. The rum was too damn sweet, why did Shinji like the stuff so much?

Even knowing what shits the men had been in life, the Third Child was still so kind-hearted that their deaths haunted him to the point of having permanently altered his daily life. In order to survive another day he drank and smoked and took his pills, hid away in his apartment, shut himself off from the world and allowed the gaping wounds to fester. Society at large took care of those who interfered with the former pilot's affairs, every single time there was a bloodbath, a public lynching, and people disappearing. There was less tolerance for malevolence in the world after Third Impact, certainly, but malice never fully disappeared. People never bothered to ask, before or after the killings, if perhaps them shedding more blood in pursuit of a pointless grudge only ever accomplished to alienate their hero further.

Every single one of them was dead, he knew. Five assassination attempts in seven years, two of them perpetrated and planned by a single person in a span of less than two months, one of them orchestrated by two desperate JSDF soldiers looking to make a name for themselves. Had it not been for that car trying to run over Asuka so long ago, and the bullets which had been so close to penetrating Shinji's chest and killing him; had it not been for such a horrible event, then his current arrangement with the Second Child would have never existed.

"Ironic, right?" He asked the morning fog, inhaling as much smoke as possible in the next draw of the cigarette. "If it wasn't for that phone call seven years ago, I wouldn't have to deal with any of this shit." Smoke intermingled with the morning dew; yes, they had morning dew once more, they had winter and snow, they had seasons. "Hypocrites and cowards, all of them."

A drowned out cough escaped his dry throat, so he replenished the glass and grimaced at the strong taste. Yes, he had been present for some of those rebellions, had seen his superiors drop like flies, had seen the emperor himself be threatened at gunpoint. Everybody who bothered to try ended up dying, so why were those four men still breathing?

The perpetrators of the boy's most recent date with the operating room were hidden away, most likely held up in one of the small, secret prisons Misato preferred to throw any and all of Shinji's aggressors into and let them rot away without food or drink. She either placed a bullet in their skull or had one of her subordinates perform the act; there was rarely a trial, and when it took place and the suspect was convicted, the transport supposed to take them away got lost along the way some times. Other times the matter would be handed legally; with the most common sentence being twenty years in a cell... if they ever managed to reach the prison at all. The convicts who died acted strong and tough sometimes, they bit and clawed and threatened until the direness of their situation finished sinking in. In the end they begged, they cried and whimpered like little children, all of them did. They begged for the lead, begged for that bullet to put an end to it all.

He huffed; it was all Misato's half-assed attempt to somehow find redemption through brutality, to find solace in knowing she had made those women and men suffer a fraction of what Shinji had suffered. The memory of the terrible affair years before made the young man shudder. Perhaps Misato had in fact not been the one to sabotage the prisoners' transportation to the maximum security prison two days before.

Bile rose up in his throat, so he spat out the bad taste and drew from the cigarette to settle his nerves. "Cowards…" he muttered. The folder seemed to agree with him; in the end they all cried, Misato most of all, she cried all the time when her daughter was not close. God, was he happy she was no longer his superior. "Nothing but little cowards…" He rose, stretched in a vain attempt to dispel the stiffness of his muscles, and sat back down. There was still some time left, just a bit more before he was forced to face reality. His thoughts drifted back to the Third Child.

Not a single person walking the Earth had paid as heavy a toll as Ikari Shinji, the price of allowing humankind to flourish had taken everything from him; sanity, health, friendship… even love. The man was in constant pain and yet here he sat, in his own house, his balcony, overlooking a city that by all means should not exist and breathing in oxygen which was in no form meant to enter his cells and still, he envied. Still, he angered. He had everything Shinji did not, he had a woman who loved him for who he was, a career which fulfilled him in every possible way and consumed his time, he had been trained, prepared and sharpened for battle like a bayonet, sitting atop a rifle and waiting to be used. He had a purpose, health, youth, companionship, love, and a set goals to strive towards. There was a vigorous support group around him, he had a family that loved him, a father who was proud of his achievements and a dead mother who protected him from above. He had everything a man his age could possibly hope to grasp and possess, and yet the one thing he desired most was slowly, steadily walking further and further away.

Aida Kensuke took a hold of the glass and presented it to the rising sun in a mockery of a toast. He tasted ashes in the back of his throat, a taste much more acrimonious than the cigarette's kiss. The glass was emptied and refilled; there was no escaping the stoic glare of the file now, just as there was no denying the light that ever so slowly permeated the gloom of the new morning. Birds sang merrily and rose to feed, cicadas began their vibrating echoes, and the twirling mass of inadequacy and envy spread over his chest.

Yes, he had it all… all except for one particular, fiery redhead. Calloused fingers took a hold of the glasses, removed them from his face and rubbed his eyes in a vain attempt to disperse the absurd emotions which manifested whenever his gaze rested on the plain package. With Asuka being in the country after seven years this was officially the last task he was to perform, the last piece of data he was to deliver. At last the grueling task of collecting information for her was done and over with, finally he would be free of any and all responsibilities towards either her or Shinji, at last he would be delivered from the pain of seeing her and not being able to reach her at all.

Or so he told himself.

He took the bottle next, removed the lid and gulped down all he could take in a single swig. He had seen Shinji empty one of those bottles in less than ten minutes more than once, but the burning was such that he almost choked on the fifth mouthful. How the hell did he manage to drown out entire bottles of this poison?

"Pff," he growled, glaring back at the gilded words for the first time since rising from the bed. "Even at drinking, he still kicks my ass."

The cigarette butt was pushed inside the glass, extinguishing the tiny flame with a hiss that was lost in the growing symphony of the morning. Kensuke wondered why, even at this stage of his life, he was unable to hate either one of the Evangelion pilots and leave them behind, just as he had left behind his aspirations of being a film director or a creative artist. Being a soldier was such much easier, after all, so wouldn't hating them not make matters that much better for him?

Aloof to his inner turmoil, the file continued to stare at him whilst the bottle laughed at his pathetic attempt to give it a proper fight. Admitting defeat was so taxing, so rancorous that Kensuke drank another mouthful of rum to try and rinse the taste away, to no avail. The morning smelled of wet soil, of breeze and the promise of a cold, windy afternoon.

The sharp edge of simple words was not to be underestimated; the small message locked away in his phone had so very quickly soured his mood at dinner the night before, after all. Even Mana had been slightly concerned with the gloom that overcame him once the small beep manifested the ever so familiar 'untraceable' shone on the screen. Cars began to drive through the streets and early workers left their homes in a rush with most wearing a coat or jacket to fight off the morning chill. Despite him not wishing for it, the day began and announced that it was, indeed, the end just as he reread the text and reconfirmed his doom.

'Can we meet? You pick the spot, you know this town better. Last time. Promise.'

Kensuke scowled and spat on the ground. Sohryu Asuka Langley did not indulge in lies as of late, so if she said it was the last time there was no reason to doubt her words. Seven years and all he had to show for it was a lousy kiss and half a hug. In all the years of them knowing one another she had never fully hugged or embraced him, not once; such luxuries were reserved for one person alone, and said person was not him.

Who was he anyhow, to ever compare to Ikari Shinji, the Third Child and savior of mankind?

"Love," he said to the nothingness of the morning, scowl deepening. "What a dreadful bond."


The wall of the gymnasium had been coldly digging into the recently healed ribs on his back, he recalled; he was at the gym, satisfied to practice nigh on a month after he had returned to the daily routines of training for hours in the mornings and nights, and numbing himself to near-death in the afternoons. Once more, Sundays had become those quiet days where he'd sit around with the crew and watch them laugh, grumble and interact from afar.

Breathing came easy again, moving was not agony, his knee had miraculously not required surgery after he had basically overextended it beyond human understanding, his wrists and fingers were able to hold a knife a do precise cutting and dicing without the sensation of crunching bone shards cutting him from within. It had been explained to him that his body was abnormal, that it healed quicker and more efficiently than others even when he was making a conscious effort to poison it on a daily basis. He had been close to death, and now he was back, sitting on the gym on a normal wrestling Sunday. Another day passed, in which where he slowly felt more and more detached from what happened around him, another day in which she did not enter his mind but for a fleeting moment, one more day when the words 'idiot', 'useless', 'puppy boy' and 'EVA' were not swimming in his brain.

Another day where he quietly, diligently, and efficiently seethed and sunk deeper into despair without anybody noticing. Somewhere deep inside him, the chains holding the boy in place thickened, turning heavier.

"How about you stop it with that damn thing, huh?" Krista demanded next to him, panting. A grip strengthener in his left hand had been squeaking endlessly along with the ritualistic clenching and unclenching of said limb. He turned to the woman in question, whose annoyed scowl reminded him of another female he did not care to think about that day. "That noise…(pant)…. is annoying the hell out of me, Ikari. We've been…(pant)… training…. for hours….(pant)…. A bit of peace and quiet would be…. very well received."

He had chortled quietly, if the memory was still clear, and turned his dead eyes to four metal rings sticking out from his palm. "Right." He said with a miniscule, fake smile, not bothering to remark how the speakers were at maximum volume with the sound of a fight being televised. "Sorry."

Krista huffed, taking a large gulp of water and supporting her head on the wall after the overbearing noise ceased. Hanayama-kun had gifted him a vast array of the devices after his last visit to the hospital to help the former Third Child pass the time as he lay in bed for a month; he carried them everywhere lately, and instead of just letting anxiety dictate the strange tick, he now used it to systematically strengthen his hands.

"OOOOOOOOOHH, unbelievable!" The commentator of the fight screamed into the microphone, turning the heads of the gym's attendants to the one available television placed on a high wall. "He's hurt! He felt that last body shot, DC! OOOOOOOOOHHH! Left hook! One, one, two! How much punishment can a man take?! That's it, he's going down! Elbow! OOOOOH he's out!"

"Hoooly smokes Joe, that was crazy!"

"And Max Hooloway remains the undisputed king of 145 pounds! The best is indeed Blessed!"

A small choir of exhausted voices added to the commentators' excitement as the fight came to an end and Coach stood up, stretching with a massive grin on his face. "Aight, mo'fockers, pay up! Gomez, Estrada, Karakov, Lindemann, Davidson, one hundred extra pushups a day for doubting my boy Blessed! Gruber, Ayaki, Kazumi, Oki, y'all mo'fockers is paying for drinks tonight! Ikari, yo' ass is on cleaning duty!"

He had been nodding absently to the charges of all who had accepted to bet on the fight, and shook his head upon hearing his last name. "Wait, what? I didn't even participate in the bet!" He exclaimed; cleaning up a gym as big as theirs on a Sunday, right after wrestling practice, was a grueling task he'd very much be without.

"Exactly!" Coach offered with a toothy grin. "Since yo' ass is apparently too good for our games, now you get to wipe the collective crew sweat off the mats! And I do expect my house to be spotless tomorrow, ya dig? Teach you dumb ass to participate every once in a while, little Ruthless."

He was about to complain and demand justice for the transgression being committed with a flash of red on the TV derailed his train of thought completely and forced it to crash against a brick wall. His eyes widened, and his fist clenched the grip strengthener so hard the poor object began squeaking in outrage.

"And in other news, the world of Muay Thai was once again shocked after Sohryu Asuka, former Second Child, defeated Sawsing Sor in her first unofficial bout, and then announced she would be coming back to Germany after her scholarship ended!" Anything Krista or Coach said after the reporter said Asuka's name became white noise. He had even demanded the channel not be changed, had risen from the ground and stared at the TV with so much intensity that the entire gymnasium quieted down to a few murmurs. "Sohryu, who competed and won the prized Tiger Muay Thai scholarship last year, had been finishing her thesis while training abroad, and after a disagreement in a sparring session, both women decided to square off in the ring! Sohryu took some devastating knees to the body and heavy damage to her lead leg in the first rounds, but secured a knockout with a spinning heel kick and retired after her unofficial victory!"

He remembered feeling strange in that moment; for almost a year the detachment and bitterness had so comfortably clouded over any rational thought and suddenly, it all went quiet inside his head. Had she injured herself, had the damage in her leg been permanent? A shake of his head was what probably alerted Krista when he frowned. Why did it matter to him whatever that woman had done to Asuka? Why did the screams in his head die down so very suddenly? "With nothing more than a heavily bruised leg and midsection, Sohryu retired unblemished after defeating one of Muay Thai's deadliest women!" He sighed in relief and felt his shoulders slacken for a second, only for them to tighten up worse when the reporter next spoke.

"This is just in, after an amiable press conference upon her return to Germany, the former Evangelion pilot was almost brought to tears after a paparazzi with a record of harassing his victims referred to the barely perceptible scars around the pilot's body!"

This time the grip strengthened squeaked as though asking for help when his hands clenched without mercy, his eyes narrowed and a shallow growl reverberated low in his throat. He heard Coach move from behind him in an effort to turn the television off, but he cut the man's way with his back turned, wide eyes fixed on the screen. "Now, while we do have footage of this interview… viewer discretion is advised. This is a woman who fought for us, in a land not her own, and in the most valiant of ways. In this reporter's opinion this behavior is beyond reprehensible… it's disgusting."

They cut to the large entourage in Germany, with a beaming Asuka answering the questions thrown her way in an unnaturally sedated manner, seemingly unburdened by the psychological damage of her childhood for once, accessible and outspoken about details she had never mentioned before. Coach's hand fell heavily on his right shoulder and Krista's on his left, as though they meant to contain him if he suddenly felt like tearing the TV into pieces. There was a deep grating sound coming from somewhere, a disturbing noise not akin to someone drawing their nails down a board. His heart was racing, but his mind was strangely calm, collected and focused.

"But Doktor Sohryu, how were you able to handle training full time in Tiger Muay Thai, one of the most decorated gyms in the words, and continue with your thesis work simultaneously? And did you not injure your hands in the process? You've been acclaimed as a genius in surgery, can we rest assured that your hands and fingers are working properly?" One overly excited female reported asked. Not her, his mind whispered.

"Multi-tasking has always helped me reach a state of relaxation, however contradictory that sounds," the redhead answered smoothly with just the slightest gleam of crimson in her left eye. "Being absolutely depleted physically and mentally forces you to face your emotions with no possibility of escape. It was… extremely therapeutic for me. I've learned very much about myself, and I've acquired new goals in life I didn't believe were possible before. My hands have actually grown much stronger and steadier thanks to the training, my coaches were extremely adamant on preventing any injuries on me after I won the scholarship. So no! I won't be nipping any arteries any time soon! That was a very good question. Thank you. Ah, yes, you. The gentleman in blue."

Elegant, he remembered thinking. Beautiful, as well; she was much fitter than the last time he had seen her on TV, her arms and legs were evidently more defined and her entire frame had become the stuff of any man's wildest dreams. The scars were ever so slowly becoming invisible, so who had been foolish enough to upset her? His mind repeated again and again that it was no problem of his; if he was nothing to her, then why bother to care in the slightest about what she did, anymore?

"Doktor Sohryu, while your performance in the fight against Sor was truly great, it has left your truest fans with some very loud questions in their heads!" Shinji's gaze narrowed in the man's direction, memorizing every tiny detail of his face in seconds. The reported produced an enlarged picture of the redhead the day of her fight, with Asuka sporting the typical minimalistic attire of Muay Thai events with small shorts and a top. "Were you aware that the scars of your battle with the EVA Series are a bit evident in this?"

"Oh," he heard Coach whisper behind him. "Oh, shit." The grating increased, his grip on the device began to turn inhuman as plastic and metal bent and cracked. The camera turned to Asuka, whose pleasant expression had been replaced by one of incensed anger which quickly dissolved into complete terror for a fraction of a second as the flashback manifested; the white of her eyes was evident to him once she saw the picture properly, even if the TV did not depict it. He felt it in that moment, felt the spear run down his arm and split the limb in two, felt his eye explode and the insides of his head be pierced and start oozing blood like a fountain; he relieved the experience alongside her down to the millisecond.

"I mean, don't get me wrong, one can barely see them at all, but I do tip my hat at your incredible confidence and bravery! This must mean you've left that fight behind, haven't you? Like here, in the abdomen, you can still somewhat see at least six of those entry wounds if one is to scrutinize," the camera focused even more in Asuka's face, and the way her lower lip started to shiver as her wide eyes slowly filled with unwanted tears before a furious scowl drew over her features. He could only imagine the looks of disgust the other reporters were giving the man at that moment. "On your left leg, bruised as it was, you can see one as well! Do they bother you at all when you fight or train?"

"Shinji," Krista urged directly into his ear and possessively held onto his left arm. "Breathe. Don't be thinking about doing any stupid shit right now, you've barely just recovered. That woman is not your problem, she's not your responsibility. Stop it." She tried to pry the grip strengthener off his hand to no avail while Coach worriedly shared a look with the rest of the crew; they knew this, they had felt it before. Something had entered the gymnasium the moment Asuka's eyes had widened in fear, something which left them feeling like children who had just seen a monster.

Him, his mind whispered. He's the one. There was but one or two ways to drive Asuka to a frantic, desperate state and for so many years people had been considerate enough to not delve in such traumatic details. The muscles of his back tightened, the tips of his lips curled upwards in a naked snarl.

"The scar on your arm I'm especially curious about, you seem to love throwing elbows with it. Does it hurt at all, considering this scar ran all the way up and down? It's almost invisible now, though." The limb was split in half once again in his mind; the rage and helplessness, the unimaginable torture of being disemboweled alive and impaled by seven double-edged spears washed over him, combined with the queer sensation of the metal and concrete freezing his back as Asuka died and he sat there, immobile. He welcomed the phantom pain and despair. "And your vision! You know nobody speaks about it, but your fans really want to know! Can you see well out of that eye? I mean, by your performance as a doctor it's pretty obvious, but-"

At last, the interviewer was nearly tackled by two other reporters who looked incensed enough to beat him into a pulp then and there, yet Shinji could care less about that fact. He saw Asuka's eyes draw to her right arm and place her left hand on it protectively, as if wishing to hide the now almost invisible line on her skin. Her head lowered just at the moment when a few furious tears ran down her face, she shuddered and suddenly both her arms went to hug her midsection and he knew… he knew she was feeling those white beasts take out her entrails and devour her, even as she tried to mask the agony with wrath. He remembered the way the scars looked right after they came back, before Lilith had begun working on their deal; every scratch and bite, every one of those semi-circular brands running from her collarbone all the way down to her legs had been a vibrant, unforgiving red.

She had stood there once, naked and terrified, staring at him from across the bathroom door, as if wanting to hear his explanation as to why she was never to feel beautiful again. As usual no words had enlightened him, no heroic action had been performed. The silence had only worked to wound her deeper still and respond for him; it had broken him how despite it all, she had not bothered to point out how he was at fault for every scar. Not even birds had returned at that point; the silence had been stifling and the image of her emaciated and disfigured form had been branded into his mind.

Her father tried to put an arm around her, he noticed, and Asuka flinched in a violent frenzy, almost slapping the gesture away as she rose and a barely contained wrath washed over her features, chest heaving. "I apologize," she said in an unsteady grate, and his mind was made. The task was clear, the target had been pushed into view and now floated in the display, waiting to be positioned. The redhead hid the tears momentarily under wild auburn locks; the hand was still holding her midsection whilst her shoulders shook and fists clenched. The bastard had targeted her self-image and the most horrifying experience of her life to enact some reaction that would please the hungry 'fans', the tabloids and media. "I need to go. T-Thank you all for coming." In an act so typical of her nature, she glared into the camera and the man in question briefly before departing. "Excuse me."

She left in a hurry, the scene was cut and returned to the reported speaking about the incident itself and Shinji realized he was the only one watching the television; every other member was looking at him with concern evident in their hardened eyes. The grip strengthener stopped wailing at the abuse, being bent beyond anything it was made to resist, and fell to the ground in a heap of broken plastic once his hand stopped shaking and opened. He never saw how grotesquely he had just destroyed the poor object, never bothered to remember it had been a gift, all he knew at that moment was the name of the man he was going to hunt down.

Jürgen Heidelberg, he breathed in, breathed out. Jürgen Heidelberg. Kensuke's aid was out of the question of course, he'd have to go to the Yakuza or the Government to get the information and resources. A bizarre mixture of frigid ice and sizzling lava swirled around in his guts. Jürgen. Heidelberg.

"Yo, man, listen to Krista. Don't go doing no crazy shit, aight? Breathe, Shinji. We've been through this, relax. Breathe." Krista's fingers were almost digging into his arms with evident urgency, tugging at the limb to arise some form or reaction. She whispered in his ear as well, telling him to breathe, to relax.

Relax? Oh, he was relaxed. He was absolutely at peace with himself and the universe, because now his existence had a purpose and that purpose just so happened to have a name and address attached to it.

The dreadful grating noise came to a crescendo, and only then did Shinji realized it was him who was producing it; his jaw was shaking and his teeth were both chattering and grinding against each other so hard it was audible. "I'm sure she's okay, bro. Just let it go, aight? Let's go to the Makis, man, let's just go and grind, Shinji. Shinji. Yo. Shin-"

He turned so quickly and which such force that Krista was almost dragged to the ground when he headed for the door. A ghastly recollection of molars, hands, fingers, jaws, tearing, biting, gnawing washed over him; he felt them reach into his innards and take out his liver to feast on it, he felt his own breathing begin to dwindle in the Entry Plug as the massive bleeding from the entry and exit wounds stole the life from him. It had not been the end, nevertheless. She had been half-awake and synched with Unit 02 when they descended once again and began tearing her limb from limb and eating her alive for a second time.

Krista blocked the door, Coach grabbed his forearm with vehemence, and every other gym member was on their feet, ready to intervene. There was no time for this, no time. There was a task to be completed, one which would undoubtly take him to Germany, and if the news had just recently flown in it meant the wound was fresh and bleeding still. Good. He has no time to waste, so before the blonde girl could open her mouth and reason with him, he called upon Her.

The weight was immeasurable to them, he was aware; the sensation so ghastly it transformed seasoned fighters in quivering children. Lilith's manifestation was still engraved in the subconscious of each and every one of her children who she had murdered and dissolved into primordial soup, her very essence arose a primal fear in every person in his vicinity once summoned. Even animals ran away, terrified. After the task was done he'd apologize to them all, buy them beers, get them some good weed and forget all about it, perhaps even tell them why they were suddenly paralyzed with dread, but right then… they were in the way.

"I'm sorry," he muttered when Krista was brought down to her knees and began to hyperventilate and some of the members screamed and whimpered out in dread. Jackson's hand fell off his forearm as the man stared, terrified, at something in the distance. Whatever it was she showed her Children rendered them motionless enough to leave him be at any given situation; it made little difference to him how She did it, so long as everyone and everything in his vicinity was dragged away. He felt his legs being torn off next, his thorax be ravaged, he felt his own heartbeat stop when one of the beasts began to chomp down on Unit 02's windpipe.

"I won't be able to do clean-up duty today, Coach. I think…" Then he saw it, eyes dangling off their sockets and pieces of the cervical vertebrae visible under the torn flesh of the neck. Strange, how in his visions it morphed from being the EVA's head to Asuka's in the blink of an eye. "I think I'm going to be gone for a little while. See you guys."

It was funny now, right? Everything, anything to get a negative reaction; everything was allowed. It was funny to make her cry, to remind her of Third Impact. It was funny now, was it? Ha ha, so very funny. Everything for the reaction, right? It was always easier to be putrid than to be nice, after all. Tears and rage drew in more spectators, boosted the views, made for a perfect story for the lazy journalists of the world. His fists clenched even tighter; Asuka had never, ever cried on TV, ever. What sort of experience had she just gone through, to leave her so vulnerable and willing to expose herself in such a way? A poultry year before she would have decapitated the disrespectful waste of space with her own hands, and now she was crying. Crying, her of all people, in public at that; he snarled and nodded to the apparition on his left.

It was decided.

Joy and concern had danced together in his being when he had first read the news despite his best intentions to drown out any and all emotions with alcohol and narcotics. Coach had helped him track down the gym's direction without him asking for it, the Yakuza had ensured his package arrived on her birthday, no questions asked. He didn't bother to call, not anymore, not for more than a year. She had been growing so much, becoming so strong that it forced him to live on for some twisted reason; it was best to just leave her to be happy on her own. Any information, nevertheless, any video of her training in Thailand floating in social media, every last bit of data or footage he could find had been eagerly consumed. His addiction to her never waned.

"Jürgen Heldeiberg." He uttered the name slowly, deliberately.

The bastard had made her cry in the only way it was even possible to bring her to tears, he had poured salt on the gaping wound Ikari Shinji had helped create six years before. Now Ikari Shinji was to collect the cost of such a transgression with unmerciful prejudice.

"Position the target in the center," he murmured, walking ever so calmly yet with a firm stride back to his apartment. The world melted before him, with only the path to follow remaining clear. The sensation of almost ripping Zeruel's face away washed over, and it became very quiet in his head. "Pull the switch."

He felt cold all over even when the blood inside his veins was boiling, boiling so much it bur-

"Owwww, that freaking burns!"

Shinji was violently retrieved from memory lane by the scalding sensation of disinfectant being applied directly to the slightly reopened cut on his leg; he had dozed off again, almost falling onto the redhead for a second time. A low growl emanated from his…. caretaker and he hissed when the liquid was applied with more intensity than before. His very brief nap was terminated by the smell of antiseptic, the burn of disinfectant and a pair of wild blue eyes.

"Oh, does it?!" Asuka bit back, glaring him with a fire he had not seen since after Third Impact, a fire which paralyzed his tongue and hinged his jaw closed. Gone was the bright smile and relaxed features he had seen a few hours before, replaced by a furious scowl and menacing look which promised much more pain if he kept feeding the fire. Now this… this was familiar. "That's what happens when you open a freaking knife wound by running on it! Look at this, you could've torn it open!" she exclaimed, fuming, voice gaining decibels by the second. "What part of no sudden movements is too difficult for you to understand, huh?! How many times have I said this to you, already?! Are you not going to listen until you're puking blood, Shinji?! Or maybe when you start bleeding so much you'll trip on your own freaking blood, maybe then you'll listen, huh?! What the hell were you thinking?!"

The injured young man's brow furrowed as anger unhinged his jaw and he glared back, growing increasingly annoyed himself. "You were screaming, Asuka! What else…(cough)… what else was I supposed to do?!"

His eyes broadened even wider when he noticed she was glowering at him with barely contained fury. Her hair was ragged, there were dark lines under her eyes, and she was unmistakably tired and stressed; she looked more menacing than even her father in that moment, especially considering his wounded thigh was held in her hand and her fingers were almost digging into his skin. If she wanted him to wither in agony all that was necessary was to apply the slightest of pressures to the stitches.

"What, wouldn't I have been screaming all the same if you walked with your crutches like you're supposed to, without any fucking sudden movements, and came to check on me without upsetting your injuries, huh!? You could've caused severe internal bleeding! Arrrrgh!" he watched, enthralled and a bit terrified, the way she grasped at her own scalp in clear irritation, and did not quite yet decide to hurl a punch at the wound on his leg.

"You're an idiot!" She declared in case his neighbors had not understood the concept yet, glaring death into him. "What difference would it have made?!" Shinji's anger was extinguished in a second as the realization of what she was saying sunk in. "What huge assistance was the Invincible Shinji supposed to provide me, huh?!"

And then there was silence.

He had no answer for the demand, not even a snide remark which earned him a well-deserved slam to the reopened wound, so Shinji fell into the familiar pattern of not saying a word and stayed there, quiet, gazing in quiet shock at the depth of the girl's ire. He swallowed down a sarcastic retort and turned away to look down at his hand; there was no way he could aid with those nightmares. He was the cause of them, was he not? What worse torture was there than to tend for the person who had almost killed her and robbed her of everything, even before Third Impact occurred? It had been his "miraculous" Synch Rate what had begun to corrode her pride so many years ago, after all. Why on Earth was she here, then? Why was she taking care of him? Why had she done so much for him the day before?

Why did he feel like he was fourteen again and she was screaming alone in her bedroom while he hid under his SDAT?

There was nothing he could offer in return, not a damned thing he could do or say that would make her feel even slightly better, even after she had gifted him a near perfect experience just hours before. She did not wish for any of his pointless banter either, empty words would only work to upset her even further. The silence which befell them felt constricting, heavy, it almost forced the air inside Shinji's lungs to freeze; he felt trapped all of the sudden, trapped in a cage with a hungry predator, and was violently reminded that however much he desired it, Asuka's presence was still so intense to him that it made him uncomfortable. Why had he wished to see her all these years, again?

She continued to glare at him for as long as the quiet stretched, not even bothering to return to the disinfection and analysis of what his stupidity had just provoked, continued to speak to him without saying a word, simply by glaring the words into his very being. You didn't help me then, remember? I was counting on you, and you failed. Then I saw what you did in the hospital, right after being torn to pieces for you. Then when I refused you, you strangled me. Remember that?

The former Third Child gulped down the bitter taste of guilt and turned away at last; his eyes drew to the small scar between the knuckles of his left hand, right between the pinky and ring finger. Of course I remember. The evident lack of any sort of heavy medication or substance in his system was also not helping matters in the slightest; his heart rate kept accelerating, he felt impossibly small and meek and inadequate, just as he had when he had first met her. Nothing had changed in seven years, nothing… except the length of that shelf of boiling hatred and self-hatred that sat in his chest.

Asuka huffed and turned her penetrating gaze to the injury, going about cleansing it and ignoring the slights jolts the limb produced every time Shinji felt the sting of antiseptic in his tissue. Her glare ever so slowly transformed in a pout, unbeknown to him. "Who were you going to rip apart, anyway?" She asked, sulking, and forced Shinji to blink in surprise. Just as it had come the stinging glare and maelstrom of resentment, anger and disappointment went away and he was left with a tired, angry redhead who on top of having slept two hours at the most, was now redressing his wounds with minute precision.

The pain felt dull as his mind began to wonder back to the memory, back to the last time he had set himself on one of his little 'missions', as Krista called them. "Anybody," he answered after a while, astounding both himself and Asuka as the young woman ceased the redressing for a moment. "Anybody or anything that was bothering you," the line across his knuckles jumped back into view when he clenched his hand into a fist, the man's tooth had been lodged in there, at some point. He recalled her tears on TV, and what he had done, he recalled the sensation of the journalist's facial integrity giving under his unadulterated assault. "I'd rip them apart if I could. All of them."

Opting to glare into the wound and continue repairing the slight damage done to the closing edges of the gash, the redhead remained silent; it left Shinji perplexed how she did not point out the incongruity of him tearing apart some inexistent vision of the past, or the absurdity in trying to fight the nightly horrors inside someone else's dreams. She did not further argue if at all he was qualified to offer any assistance, neither did she deny nor approve of his statement, Asuka simply allowed it to float in the air and make oxygen feel like burning gasoline in Shinji's damaged lungs. Silence, nonchalance: the same responses from so long ago, the same answer he had received in Third Impact, the same exact method he had attempted to use against her. His hand clenched into a fist once more, recalling the sensation of her pulse under his palm as he strangled her.

The silence was only interrupted by Shinji's hisses of pain. He did not inquire why it was taking so long, nor did he ask exactly what he had done to the wound; the quiet had been enough of an answer for him, however poorly he had understood it. "So…" He mumbled whilst focusing on the pain to keep from actively shaking. "What did I… what's wrong with my l-"

"You jumped on it I'm guessing, by the way these stitches are stretched, tried to run on it, and it gave under. You almost regressed the entirety of yesterday's therapy in seconds." The lack of any insults in the sentence only made Shinji more nervous; her anger towards his stupidity was one thing, the repressed wrath caused by his disgusting behavior during Third Impact he could still handle, but whatever strange, new emotion Asuka was currently exuding was unfamiliar and therefore absolutely terrifying. "You detest LCL, do you? How much, exactly? Because at this rate you'll be swimming in it for the better part of the next two months!"

Shinji flinched out of instinct, upsetting his other injuries in the process, and reassessed the current miserable situation Lilith had concocted; he was seated on Asuka's bed, feeling unnaturally out of place in his own house and in a room he had kept clean and orderly for years, while the Second Child crouched on the floor to his left, almost breathing fire like a dragon, irises still irritated and reddened, and cleaned the mess he had created.

"Is it…" he stated, licking suddenly dry lips. "Is it bad?"

"It was bad enough already. A serrated blade gouged out flesh, tendon and almost nicked the nerves out of your leg, the fucking knife almost came in contact with your femur." Still not an 'idiot' thrown in there, no evident insult had yet sprung out her lips. Every cell in his body was screaming at him that yes, indeed, he was in danger. "And then you jump on it. Of course you'll jump on it, won't you? Why don't you pick a bigger, sharper knife, like the ones in your kitchen, and rip all of the stitches all at once, while you simultaneously deepen the wound!? I mean," she breathed, face growing incensed with anger. "Since you're in the business of trying not to heal, why don't you just pick another knife and stab your other leg while you're at it?!" The fact that she was attempting to mask most of her anger, with her face flushing and almost growling as he had done the night before only made Shinji feel more afraid as time went by.

"So… it's… bad…?"

Her frown went up and fixed itself on his eyes, the clear message was delivered with deadly accuracy with no words needed. The realization clicked so strongly in his brain that he almost heard it, and became impossibly baffled by it; she was worried. What… the hell… he pondered. "No, it's not bad, you freaking idiot." He breathed in a sigh of relief, more out of hearing Asuka use her pet insult for him than from learning he had in fact not worsened his already serious condition. "It could have been bad if you ran another step on it, though. The fact that you're not puking or drowning in your own blood is evidence enough that it's not bad. Do they hurt?"

"Huh?"

"Your back, Shinji. Your stomach, your abdomen. Do they hurt?"

"Uh…. Yeah, I mean no!" He was quick to correct himself. "I mean… ah… they hurt, but… you know, no more than usual, I guess."

"Good, I've already redressed them twice in a span of twelve hours. You can thank that magic potion I brought from Germany for the fact that you're not bleeding to death right now." Asuka stated flatly. "And all my work goes to shit because now I have to take you to the facility again and do the entire therapy session again."

"What?!" He demanded, coughed and hissed. Where had the wonderful feelings for her gone, he wondered? Where was the amiable environment they had enjoyed the night before, and why was he feeling like it was 2015? "I have to go back to that freaking tube today? Are you kiddi-"

"No, not today, you dumbass." elucidated the former female pilot, acid dripping off her tone. "I've got lots of things that need to be taken care of today, so you're staying here while I go handle my business. Do you honestly think you wouldn't be in the hospital right now if I for a second thought these wounds needed extra medical attention? No. I have tons of shit to take care of, so you're staying here."

"You can't make me stay," he stated stupidly, forgetting just how dire his situation was; something about the entire morning was making him indescribably distraught. It felt as though nothing had changed between them at all, like it was still the same forced broken camaraderie from years ago. "What if I need to go out and take care of something myself? I'm not y-"

"Then you can call one of your training partners and have them do whatever it is you need for them to do, or you can call me. Listen, I've literally had no hours of rest, and I basically dedicated all of yesterday to you, dumbass. So I'm going out after I'm done with my training, and you're staying here." Asuka finished wrapping the bandages around his leg and rose, heading for the door with a scowl on her features that was most likely to melt iron.

Just before she reached the door and headed for the kitchen, he whispered "…I'll go outside if I w-"

SLAM.

Asuka stomped her foot on the ground so hard it almost made Shinji jump out of bed and straighten himself. "Did I stutter?" She demanded with finality and began to rummage through the many unpacked bags. "I'm going to train for the next two to three hours, and no, I don't want breakfast. Some food before I leave would be appreciated, but it's not like I can't grab something on the way-"

"I'll make you something." He blurted without a second thought, interrupting the redhead and earning him a raised eyebrow and a reddened, evidently angry cerulean orb. "No sudden movements, promise. It's… uh…" he blushed for some reason, feeling both chastised, subdued and oddly insulted at the thought of Asuka eating some tasteless crap from the street. "It's the least I can do for…(cough)… for… uhm…"

"For almost generating internal bleeding inside your stomach and lung and almost forcing open a horrible leg injury in order to ask me if I was okay?" She deadpanned after straightening up, her back to him. "Deal, then. You make some food, and I'll go train. Oh, I don't like headphones, so it's gonna get real loud in here very soon."

These are apartments with very thick concrete walls and bulletproof windows, he said to himself and watched, enthralled, as she left to change in the bathroom. The only reason I can hear the neighbors and their constant fights is because they leave their balcony door open. You could kill me and nobody would hear it. This is your house, you can be as loud as you want. "Uh…" he said to the empty room, noticing the slight changes being done; the curtains were orange now, there were pictures and posters of musicians stuck to the walls, the drapes of the bed were now a deep crimson color; the area smelled of chocolate butter, conditioner of the highest quality and of Asuka. "Uhm … okay."

It felt strange and unpleasant, ghastly enough for him to resent the wound in his stomach which impeded him from drinking rum to his heart's content. He felt like he was fourteen again, going over to the building's rooftop and being halted by a thin, harmless yellow police line, only this time a wooden door and not some bright plastic was the barrier impeding him from reaching out. Yeah, he thought, glaring down at the slash on his leg. Just minutes before the redhead's hands had grazed his skin there, just minutes before she had been sitting beside him. She could not have felt more far away even if she was in Germany. Same song and dance from seven years ago…

0

True to her word, the Second Child had some form of metal music blazing off his living room in less time that it took him to wheel his aching body back to the kitchen and get started on breakfast. The music was so loud he expected the poor speaker to begin malfunctioning at any given moment; the redhead had basically rearranged the living space so as to maximize the room she had to move, and had all but thrown his limited furniture to the side and set a large mat on the floor. It shocked and almost insulted him how the girl was conscious enough to cover the surrounding furniture with blankets, the origin of which remained a mystery as of yet, so as not to sprinkle the sofa, chairs and small table with sweat.

Shinji sighed and tried not to burn the sausages whilst someone growled and screamed in what he assumed was English and the redhead threw another set of kicks and knees with almost perfect form. For someone who had not trained in days and rested close to nothing the night before, she moved with efficiency and precision; her elbows in particular had left him both gaping like a fish and grimacing at the idea of being cut by them. She mixed Karate, Tae Kwon Do and Muay Thai in a beautiful and deadly fashion which left him feeling mediocre at best.

"Is something burning?!" Asuka huffed in between kicks, forcing Shinji's eyes quickly back to the frying pan where what were now his morning protein was turning a lovely charcoal color. "Careful there, Iron Chef! No sudden movements (pant)…. either!"

"Yeah, yeah," the young man bit back half-heartedly. He yawned and hissed in quick succession; even if the pain was not blinding, it was almost permanent; a mere few days before sleeping on any surface and breathing had been agonizing enough to keep the visions at bay. As his body mended, his appetite for both food and drugs returned and breathing became tolerable, the fear slowly crept back to the former pilot's mind. Mother was sure to make an appearance soon; Lilith was never fond letting him rest in the quiet normalcy of his small home.

The burnt sausages were set aside, and after scraping the pan clean he set to the task or not burning the redhead's food as he had done with his own. If you could stop flaunting your very, very attractive and sweated body in those tight freaking clothes around my living room, then maybe I could actually focus on cooking! He forced both his neck and head to not move from the pan, yet his eyes betrayed him every chance they had. She was incredibly fit, not to the point that her muscle fibers were jumping with each movement, but certainly healthy and… solid. Focus, you idiot! One more slip of his attention and the morning menu would be completely ruined, so Shinji tried to drown out both the loud music and Asuka's pants and yells as she kicked, kneed, elbowed and generally punished the oxygen in her vicinity.

With the wound on his leg flaring every now and then, Shinji was taken aback at how incredibly aroused and envious he felt at the moment; Asuka was not only displaying her beauty at him, leaving very little to the imagination with her clothes, she was also exposing her ability to move without the use of a chair or constant agony in her entire left side. He growled and served the unburnt sausages on a clean plate and set up to prepare scrambled eggs and diced fruit.

She rearranged my kitchen so I could maneuver and reach things without dying in pain, pondering on how someone who had been so indiscriminately egoistical and overall abusive could somehow become so considerate only worked to worsen his headache. It's not like I had any sleep, either, he stifled another yawn and stole a glance at the mass of red hair and feminine curves swaying violently to her own beat. She had been on his mind and direct vicinity for the better part of the day, hugged him, cried in front of him, gifted him an incredible experience and then spoken with him for hours. While all I did was grumble like some goblin and complain… shit… and now that moment's gone, and we're back where we left off on that fucking beach…

Her scream that morning had frozen the blood in his veins; how after so many years the sound remained the same as in his memory was inexplicable and terrifying, and the way his body had jolted off the mattress and suppressed any and all pain receptors only worked to worsen the headache building in his brain. His scalp itched, his right leg began to dance up and down, his nostrils flared when the smell of her sweat intermingled with that of molten butter and toast. She was all over him; whenever the memories of past failures were not smothering him, the girl's scent or presence kept him anchored to reality, unable to flee back into the void of non-emotion that the many substances in his apartment provided.

Soon enough now the corpses of those he had failed to save would start crawling back into his conscious mind, demanding justice in their endless cries. He felt the dismay claw at the back of mind, heavily clouded by the arousal of having a woman, let alone Asuka, exercise and sweat before him. The clock was already ticking, the moment she walked off the apartment door Shinji was certain the torture was sure to begin. The sausages in the pan turned and twisted, the scent of burnt meat turned into that of charred flesh, the redhead's grunts turned into wails of horror. Gunfire manifested from the back of his head, so the former Third Child shook it, shuddered and focused on the pain radiating from his leg and stomach, pushed himself against the chair to flare up the one on his back and breathed in, coughing.

It was only due to muscle memory that the next batch of protein did not burn into a crisp.

Two hours came and went without him noticing; the coffee did little to rattle his overtired brain and the sensation of wishing to just masturbate and sleep became overbearing. He watched Asuka eat in silence with something akin to disdain dancing in his eyes and not fully grasping why he felt so rotten and useless. She showered soon after, locked herself in her room and blasted more music in his direction, as if to ensnare his frail sanity in the current moment by blatantly using his gift to its maximum potential and volume.

It was only when she marched over to the door that Shinji realized he had not bothered to shower, relieve his intense sexual desires or even eat for that matter. He had taken no CBD that morning, no pills, had smoked no cigarettes, and had gone nigh on two weeks without cocaine; even the plate of cold eggs and burnt sausages was looking up at him in wonder. His molars ground against each other, the sensation of that man's windpipe hanging from his jaws washed away and disappeared. He was back at the alley in a second, and then violently pushed back into the wheelchair when Asuka's voice rang.

"I'll be back late at night, probably." She told him in a flat tone, back turned. Her hair was as lustrous as ever, she was wearing a black shirt and blue jeans which fit her snugly but contrasted strongly with her former attire, there was almost gloomy feeling to it, to her. "If you can manage it, don't overdose while I'm gone will you? My number's on the table, if you feel like you're about to do something stupid again, do try and give me a call."

"Okay," he muttered, distracted. The plate of uneaten food was still staring at him from across the table. Faintly, he heard Mother giggle from a distance. 'Pilot the Evangelion', said father before he bit him in half. Why did he always taste like stale chicken? "Yeah."

He felt the Second Child pause at the entrance, which forced his exhausted orbs to draw in her direction. She stood beside the mechanical gate for some time; it was only then Shinji noticed she was carrying a black leather purse and that her hand was pressing against the doorframe. Shinji was about to ask what the matter was when Asuka next spoke. "You would, wouldn't you?" She asked, not turning to look at him. "Rip them apart."

Even if she could not see it, he nodded.

"Yeah," After a few seconds of silence the words fled his mouth just like the night before, not allowing his mind to fully grasp what was being said. "I would."

He saw the girl's strong shoulder slacken somewhat. "Thank you."

The gate hissed closed, and she was gone. Unsure of what to do with himself, Shinji felt ire bubble up in his stomach. Why was she thanking him? What did those words even mean, why had he spoken without thinking? And why did her words of gratitude upset him so? A low life piece of scum like him did not deserve such words, after all, not from her, not from anybody.

"For what?" he asked the empty apartment.

With a dissatisfied grunt, Shinji pushed the blasted chair in the table's direction and picked the piece of paper. Seven years he had struggled to manage a single phone call, seven years he had dealt with gangsters and politicians to have the number which was now so innocently being held in his scarred fingers, and suddenly she just gave it away like it was nothing.

'CALL. REALLY. IF YOU NEED ANYTHING, CALL ME.'

He wished to do so at once, to call her now that she was away from his house, and scream. For what, huh? For what?! What do you mean? Where was this phone number two years ago? Call you? Need anything? Like I needed you two years ago?! Where were you?! He balled the note in his palm, tried and failed to throw it away and ended up unfolding the knotted mass of paper, if only to glare at it some more. I needed to call you seven years ago, six years ago, two years ago. As is past tense, Asuka, needed.

The last line written in the paper offered nothing but the elegant handwriting as a response. When had she gotten so good at kanji?

'YOU'RE NOT ALONE.'

"I'm not?" His lower lip shook, so he bit down on it. The speaker was resting comfortably next to where the note had been placed, one wild flick of his hand and the device was certain to crack. "Sure as hell feels I am..."

This particular brand of despair was familiar, once when he was sitting under a stairway and expecting someone to put a bullet in his head something akin to it had been sitting in his chest. Panic arouse from nowhere and before he knew what was happening, the former Third Child was frantically searching through the kitchen, on the false bottom of the second drawer. His hands shook and he dropped the pills twice, only at the third time he managed to get enough focus and two or three of them into his mouth. He chewed and swallowed, focused on the pain in his leg and stomach, and tried not to hyperventilate when the visions threatened to manifest for the first time in more than a day. The fridge was assaulted next, he hissed in pain from opening the door with such urgency, extracted a beer and drowned its entire content in one go. Grunting and shuddering in pain, he picked up a second one and opened it, took several long swigs and threw the empty can to the ground.

Laughter erupted from somewhere; he was in too much of state of panic to acknowledge it was only the neighbors sharing a joke in Swedish. Lilith's laughter, so akin to that of a child who had just done a naughty thing, rang loud behind his right ear, so he swapped to it to no avail. The muffled echo of a foot slamming on the floor above him reminded him of Zeruel's cautious, constant banging against Unit 01's core. It's not real, it's the past. It's the past. You're alive, you're here, you're here, you're…. here…

He placed his hand on the speaker and closed his eyes, trying to focus on the spots where the knife had penetrated his flesh. "You're here, this is real. This is real. This is not a dream, I did not run… I did not run away from that beach… I did not…" 'You are useless to me, then,' father said in his mind. The hand holding the speaker developed twisted, growing veins from which tiny little Reis manifested, and started smiling at him. 'Ikari-kun, Ikari-kun, become one with me' they sang with Rei's voice and snickered as they bulged out of his arm.

He closed his eyes and shook his head once more; the flare of the wound on his back forced the grotesque extensions of flesh to disperse. "I did not… I mustn't… I mustn't…" Spasms began to force themselves out of his depleted form, a cold, clammy sweat which stank of toxins and narcotics draped his skin in seconds. "I…(cough, cough, cough)… I promised… I'd try… I mustn't… I mustn't…" The word BAKELITE in his bicep started to burn.

Mother stood before, dressed in her stained draped, staring at him with glee. Go on, Shinji-kun, the apparition adorned, extending a rotting hand and signaling ever so lovingly to the bottom drawer on his right. Run away. Forget all about that stupid promise, and just do what you always do. Run away.

A loud clang echoed through the empty apartment when he forced the drawer opened and took out the bottle with the yellow prescription, the one the Yakuza so effortlessly provided. The men from that alley two years ago crawled from under the kitchen floor as he tried in vain to open the lid. "Fun times with the Third Child!" the biggest one boomed through the crude opening where his trachea had been. One of them was holding his intestines in his hands, with his face sporting deep, irregular slashes and entry marks where the piece of glass had pierced through. The third one had a hole in his gut where he had removed two ribs in a fuild motion, and his face sunken in. "Remember, Puppy boy, this is all so you learn your lesson!"

Shinji shook his head violently, refusing to give in. "Not real, all of you, you're all just in my head, all of you… you can't hurt me, you–"

If can't have you all to myself, Mother spoke with a voice not her own, forcing a chill to run down Shinji's spine the moment he pushed a pill into his mouth and bit on it. Then nobody will have you at all. He ate another, and another, took out a third beer and drowned the bitter taste of pharmaceuticals, grabbing the speaker for a second time and grasping the can with his free hand; the gilded star and white wording of 'Sapporo' ever so slowly became more tangible.

That's my good boy, the apparition smiled and tilted its crooked head to side; he forced himself to tear his eyes away from the bottle and glared up at her. Isn't it easier this way, Shinji-kun?, Mother's figure disappeared from his vicinity, and the screams died down somewhat, just as a shivers ever so slowly began to dissapear.

"Shut up…" he said to nobody, and to everybody all at once. "Just shut up…"

Nothing had changed. Even after such a beautiful evening, he was still stuck in a loop between the fifth Angel and Third Impact, unable to make amends, unable to let go. Rei was still dead, Kaworu-kun was gone and the moon was still stained crimson. Mother was not going anywhere anytime soon, and he had failed in even the simple task of keeping himself somewhat sober for more than five hours. Pathetic.

Shinji threw the pills back in the drawer and shut it with vehemence. With heavy lids and stiff arms, he pushed himself back to the counter and took out the Miyabi Kaizen set Sukiya-san had gifted him for his last birthday. Cooking always seemed to ease his mind, and for once in seven years, he was cooking neither for himself, strangers or his gym partners. It mattered little who he was cooking for he told himself… so long as he was cooking at all, then the visions were to eventually drift away and he could escape into the comfort of routine. The blades glistened under the light, sharp and ready. They called him a prodigy of the kitchen, a marvelous chef; they did not understand that the hours and days so rigorously invested in the craft could make even someone like him a rather decent cook. Yeah, just run away, Shinji pondered and examined the fresh ingredients available; he'd have to make a few calls. Run away like your father, Shinji. Run away, just run away.

He shook his head and snorted at the idea of having to ask for a favor, since he was apparently under house arrest. He dreaded the idea of having anyone come to his house, terrified he might hurt them, petrified that he might grow attached to them in any way or form, while thirsting for almost any type of contact all the same. Despite having a cocktail of beer and narcotics swimming around his battered midsection, Shinji's stomach grumbled in hunger. He chose to start attacking some potatoes and ignored how his fingers shook or his vision swam every few seconds. "I mustn't run away… what a joke…"

For once in over two years, he found himself disgusted with the dulling effects of the drugs.


The sudden ringing of her phone distracted Krista from the fight she had been watching and even made Kanao pause in her cooking, but just as she was about to answer the call, the line went dead. A second afterwards, a message came through from a number that simply read 'UNTRACEABLE'.

"Pff," she snorted, shaking her head. "Fair enough."

'THE IDIOT MIGHT DO SOMETHING STUPID TODAY. CARE TO PAY HIM A VISIT? LEFT YOU A KEY WITH THE SECURITY GUARD ON THE THIRD FLOOR. XOXO'

"So he's the 'Idiot', now, is he?" Krista sunk back into the couch with a heavy grunt and turned off the TV. "Hey, baby, care to meet Shinji's apartment? The Crimson Bitch just invited me over." She asked with a tight smile. Kanao returned it with a sunny one of her own, clasping her hands together.

"W-Really? But do I get to do what you promised?! Do I get to… tidy up the place a bit?"

Her next snort was one of amusement; and knowing well how obsessed the former Third Child was with the placement of every little detail in his house, this would make for a tremendous opportunity to mess with him. "Sure!"

Shinji had never invited her over to his house, he never did with anyone, even if he was dying; the only reason the restaurant knew his address was because he was the one who picked the food and ingredients for the kitchen on his morning jogs and sometimes had said ingredients also delivered to him directly. He would cook for the crew after hard training sessions or their 'Third Impact Scraps', attend their parties when invited, but never offered to have his apartment visited. "Go crazy on it, I bet he loves it when someone else cleans up! We're gonna have an Ikari housewarming party at last!"


Katsuragi Residence. 11.33am.

Tick-tick-tick-tick-tick-tick-tick-tick-tick-tick-tick.

11.34am.

"So."

The purple-haired woman refused to stare back at her from across the table, nursing the teacup with both arms. Strange, how she had offered her a beer but opted for the tea instead. The alcohol would surely loosen some of her stiff, uncooperative muscles, so Asuka took a long swig of the can and placed in the table with a brash thud.

"So." She responded, nonchalant. The house was nice; it was located in the outskirts of the capital, with a large garden that overlooked the mountains and a terrace that faced the city. Small drawings and toys were littered about, with no sign of either the child or the father being at home. The air smelled of cinnamon and lemons, her chair was comfortable, perhaps not as much as the large couch facing the television, but it did wonders for her pained back. The clock on the wall was a bright grass green, with the numbers painted in different colors.

Tick-tick-tick-tick-tick-tick-tick-tick-tick-tick-tick-tick-tick-tick-tick-tick-tick.

"So," Misato repeated. "I guess you've been pretty busy these past few days, taking Shinji on walks and dates," the woman took a demure sip of the cup, glaring down at the floor. "You could at least return my calls."

"You've called twice in ten days, both times at about 1am." the redhead deadpanned and pushed her hair back. "I've answered all your messages. You've been getting my daily reports, pictures enclosed, haven't you?"

The nod the older woman produced irked her in some manner. "Yeah. You're very thorough with your job. I guess congratulations are in order for that permanent plaza the University of Tokyo offered you. You plan on taking it?"

Asuka shifted her weight on the chair, noticing how Misato had not bothered to so much as glance in her direction. "I haven't decided," she retorted with something akin to indifference. "They gave me six months to think about it which is more than generous, and I don't really want to be thinking about anything else than the task at hand, right now."

"Right, about that task," cut in the soon to be retired Chief of Police. "I guess I must be pretty lost in the whole modern 'rehabilitation' subject, then again you taking my offer of a beer before it's even noon might have caught me off guard, so I might very well be wrong here. Tell me something, though. Aren't you supposed to like... I don't know… maybe not give Shinji alcohol and pills every single day or leave him by himself in an apartment filled to the brim with drugs?" The woman's eyes drew over to the window as she shrugged. "I'm not an expert, but maybe filling those shredded stomach walls with chemicals and booze might not be the best choice, even if red wine is said to be good for your health. I mean, I'm just throwing it out there, you know."

"Uh huh," Asuka nodded and raised a bored eyebrow, signaling to the can. "It's five O'clock somewhere, isn't that what you used to say? And regarding Shinji… Of course, so remind me again when was the last time you got stabbed four times while being terribly dependent on narcotics?" A heavier swig was gulped down with gusto as though meant to emphasize her point.

"Oh, that's right! Never! You did get shot once and died bleeding on the floor that one time. You never changed the stupid carpet, either." she exclaimed sarcastically before Misato could retaliate. "So please, go ahead and preach to me how I'm supposed to keep a patient who suffers from hallucinations and fits of blind dread or rage seated in his chair without at the very least giving him painkillers. Feel free to educate me in what's been my job for more than a year, go on. Do you want me to put him under for the next ten days while his body cleans up? Because I can do that, too. I know this incredible anesthesiologist in Moscow, he'll be thrilled to have Shinji in their facility! Would that make you feel better? Just have him waste away in a medically induced coma, trapped in his own mind for about ten days until the drugs are rinsed away."

The silence stretched between them; the small ticking of the clock hanging from the wall became more audible. Nothing's changed, Asuka thought grimly. It's like somebody froze time seven years ago.

Misato's shoulders slumped, she refused to look Asuka in the eye and opted to next stare the contents of the mug. "Who knows," she murmured, and Asuka noticed how quickly the sadness and despair overclouded her former guardian. "Maybe that's what's best. Then you don't have to be here, do you? You can just leave once he's clean. You can just leave."

Well, this is certainly escalating quickly, Asuka shrugged back and perfectly masked away how her heart constricted in her chest with vehemence upon hearing her former guardian's statement be ushered with such bitterness. "If you want me gone so badly then why did you sign the papers? This is Shinji we're talking about. You can snap your fingers and you'll have a hundred, a thousand doctors and psychiatrists with far greater academic achievements than mine, all of them begging to provide assistance and donate their time. You can take him to Moscow yourself, and have him go under. So what's with the attitude?" She glared at the woman who had once been her charge and superior officer. Go with it. "You want to shoot me or something?"

"Yeah," Misato admitted almost instantly, nodding into the cup. "On certain days, I really ask myself how the hell you squeezed yourself into that VTOL and ran before I could put a bullet in your head." Her head bowed even more. "Most of the time, I just wonder what right do I have to even be mad at you at all." She laughed mirthlessly. "I guess I'm a pretty shitty person, huh."

"Welcome to the club," Asuka answered without missing a beat. "Membership's paid annually, newsletters arrive every third of the month. Pay a little extra, and we print you your own certificate that you are indeed, a shitty person. You get your gilded diploma, we can either plasticize it or deliver it to you framed, and signed."

More deafening than her yells and threats throughout the years, Asuka found her silence and vulnerability at the moment to be particularly displeasing; the woman was basically exuding unease and a maelstrom of different emotions. What she wouldn't give to simply not be in that house at the moment…

She saw Misato's face turn into a deep scowl. "You pushed him." The statement rung heavy in the already thick air. "You pushed him, and ran."

And there it is.

Asuka nodded, even knowing the gesture went unseen. "I did," she admitted without hesitation. "I pushed him, and I ran. He fell on a table and had his ribs punched into his insides. I hid away for seven years after I did that. Seven. Years." She emphasized every word. "He was at the verge of death thrice, and I wasn't here. And yet you signed the papers."

Drawing a shaky breath, Misato took a last gulp of the warm tea and set the cup aside, choosing to support her head between her hands and stare at the wooden table rather than actually look at her. The woman's body language displayed barely contained rage, helplessness and regret all at once; she gripped her skull as though trying to crack it in her grip, but gave up halfway and slumped even deeper in the chair. "I still have a hefty lawsuit for attempted murder sitting right next to my bed, you know," she all but whispered, shaking her head. "You haven't answered for what you did."

"Well, then, prosecute me," the redhead shrugged once more and emptied the remains of her beer. Her eyes danced around the large living area, the somewhat chaotic set of the kitchen and the many pictures of the three family members smiling and laughing. "Throw me in jail, make me pay my due, I'll plead guilty and save us both plenty of time and court fees. Go ahead, see if I care what you do."

Misato snorted in derision. "Yeah, like you'll last more than two days in prison if I throw you in there."

"Bet money if you wish," she rose, stretched and walked over to the fridge to retrieve a second beer, dissatisfied to find something besides beer filling up the large space. She sighed in contentment when the satisfying click of the can opening rang through the room. The tension was so thick that even breathing was becoming difficult. "I'll survive, your secret little victims don't last a full week most of the time, do they? I'll do better than that, bet a million Yen on it. Bet your life on it."

She sat back down just in time to see the former Mayor's head clash against the table and hear the loud groan ring through the kitchen. "You were just supposed to come here, make amends, and leave."

"And yet you signed the papers, gave me the keys to his house and completely disappeared for the last… ten days." The image of a certain gigantic, bald and heavily muscular man jumped into her thoughts. "But that's what you do, nowadays, isn't it? You pretend to give a shit for a while, and then you go on your merry way to your wonderful life that he gave you and then poof, you're gone! He's not piloting anymore, is he? So who cares, right?"

Misato's furious gaze found her bored one for the first time since she had entered the household. "I care," she deadpanned. "Unlike you, Ms. Doktor Sohryu-sama, I'm not in the business of pretending. I care. I give a shit, sorry if I'm trying to live that life by raising my child." Her eyes narrowed in the redhead's direction. "Where have you been, exactly? Oh, that's right; you were with Fabio, weren't you? You were out partying, drinking and getting DUI's and showing up in TMZ, blasted off your mind, saying how he meant nothing to you. You were busy being the famous Second Child. You were doing coke in the stalls and bathrooms and kicking people in the face, you were out fucking Moritz, you were out meeting with Kensuke of all people… you were out pretending he didn't matter at all."

The woman's voice began to gain volume just as her body trembled with rage. "He got pushed into a hospital twice in the span of two months, somebody tried to punch him to death, people conspired to have him killed and they made it a public affair, Asuka. And where was the Oh so Großdoktor Sohryu? Where were you?!" The woman growled, growing increasingly hostile. "You were hiding, weren't you?! Hiding from the fact that you pushed him!"

Misato slammed the empty cup on the table.

"You pushed him, you little… you stuck up… stupid… entitled little bitch! You pushed him!" She rose from the seat so quickly that the chair toppled over. "You pushed my Shin-chan off a fucking rail, do you hear me?!" Eyes wild, Misato slapped the cup away from the table; it slammed and broke against the wall with a deafening crash. "You pushed him after he tried to take you out on a date, after he found ice cream for you in middle of the fucking apocalypse! You pushed him after he saved your miserable life! You left him to die!"

The last scream echoed through the empty house, reverberated in the walls and constricted Asuka's heart even more. She swallowed down the pain, however, and allowed the cold, rotten part of herself take over. Misato had said her piece by the look of her shaking frame, which meant it was due time to air out some old, festering injuries. Be precise in your speech.

"Yeah. I did that." Never breaking eye contact, the redhead took a drink. "I pushed him. I also had a fight with him a few days before that happened, did you know that? Did you know he stopped me from killing myself just three days before that?"

Snarling like a wild beast, Misato slammed both her fists into the table. "Spare me the bullshit, Asuka!" she demanded next. "What, so now you were just confused, just hurting, is that it? And you choose to throw him off a fucking rail?! Have you seen what you did, have you!? Have you seen the scars on his body, have you seen his back?! Have you?!"

Asuka gave a curt nod; yes, she had seen the effects of her outburst. She had also spent the last three years of her life dedicated to finding a way to reverse said damage in its entirety. Not that Misato cared; the woman was seething in a way she had never seen before and only ever heard through the phone.

"He's been sick… he's been sick and miserable for seven years, miserable!" A finger well versed in ending lives pointed straight at her forehead. "And now you come back, you come along and you continue to fucking give him drugs! Arrrg!" The wood creaked with the nest mighty punch which impacted on its surface. "Have you not seen what he does, Asuka?! Have you not seen the news, the videos on Youtube?! He fights… Shinji… he…" A hitch broke the woman's rambling and raging. "He fights… he drinks… only… I… he never stops! Why, damn it?! Why doesn't he ever stop fighting?! Why?!" her fists repeatedly slammed against the table. "Why?!"

The bored expression clouding her features did not waver much at the sight of tears escaping her former guardian's eyes. The rabid dog inside her barked its contentment while the healing parts of her soul ached for what she was about to do. A deep breath, and Asuka's cold cerulean orbs narrowed at Misato's tearful brown ones.

"Because of you."

The woman's shoulders stiffened, Asuka realized, her entire demeanor turned incredibly aggressive in seconds. "What?!" Misato demanded, almost spitting out the words. "What did you say to me?!"

The time had come; even if it hurt both of them, Misato needed to hear the unfiltered truth from someone at some point. "Shinji does what he does because of you." She repeated, taking a few gulps of her beer to erase the nervousness which arose when Misato's glare turned hateful. "Let's very briefly revise what he went through ever since you personally recruited him into your private vendetta, shall we?" The redhead lifted her forefinger.

"On his first sortie, within less than half a day of him setting foot in Tokyo 3, Shinji got his arm broken and his shoulder dislocated. He had a gigantic needle pierce his eyeball and exit through his skull." She noticed with brutal satisfaction how Misato's eyes widened in understanding and lost their dangerous edge altogether. "On his second sortie, the skin of his palms was melted down and he was essentially impaled by two gigantic tendrils, burning hot tendrils that were moving around as they pierced through his midsection. On his third sortie, his insides were cooked, his chest and inner organs were melted down by an energy beam that pierced straight into his chest."

"That was, he… he was in Unit 01, the synch rate, the…" Misato interrupted wildly, sounding almost chastised. "I didn't, he… I wasn't-"

"No." Hearing the woman try to rebuke her statement had Asuka grinding her teeth in indignation. "No…"Control, control, control. Control yourself. Control. Be precise, don't lose your cool. Don't lose your temper. Control. Control, Asuka, cont-

"Shinji… he…" Misato's mouth kept moving, however, uncaring of how it was unhinging a gate that was better off closed. "It wasn't… it wasn't real… he was in Unit 01… and… the synch rate w-"

Ah, fuck it.

-SLAM-

At last, the coiling rage manifested and Asuka stood from her chair as well after almost punching through the table. "No, this is where you zip it!" She boomed. "Were you ever inside that Entry plug, were you?! It wasn't real? Are you kidding me?!" She demanded with a roar that thundered over Misato's earlier outburst with ease. "And you're calling me a bitch?! No! You put an innocent child inside a killing machine and pushed him into a war he wanted no part of! And you have the gall to ask why he doesn't stop fighting? I don't know, maybe it might have something to do with the military-grade conditioning in his head telling him that if he does stop fighting, then the enemy will blow us all to hell! Did you ever stop to think about that, you selfish cunt?!"

Misato shrunk away from her, almost cornered into the wall as Asuka predatorily inched closer, positively glowing with unbridled wrath. "Why would he stop fighting if someone breaks one of his bones, or stabs him? He's been literally dismembered! He's torn apart in his dreams every fucking night! And you… you…" Unforeseen amounts of strength were required to keep her from actively beating her former guardian within an inch of her life. "You, who never so much as took a step inside an Entry Plug, you stand there and ask me why? I'll ask you this instead; who caused Third Impact, Misato? Who is to blame?"

"W-What do you mean?" The woman stammered, trying to regain her composure. "SEELE is to blame, they did it, they planned all of this shit! Ikari is to blame, Ritsuko is to bl-"

"Wrong." Asuka interjected in a flat tone. "Who dragged Shinji into the cages? Who placed him in NERV's supervision after the final Angel was eliminated? Who decided to go on a witch hunt? It sure as hell wasn't SEELE, Misato."

"I… you…" she saw the older woman struggle for words and felt a slight, albeit painful needle of guilt dig deep into her already battered heart. "I didn't… they were going to kill him…. I… I saved him…"

"You should've seen to his safety, you drunken slob. That was your job, it was your only job, since he killed all the Angels for you, did he not!?" The notion of Shinji being hurt had always upset her, it irked her just as much as the way the boy refused to admit his own self-worth and… endless potential. It infuriated her to see people use him for their own twisted means. For years the emotions had been pushed aside, ignored and misinterpreted until some crazy bitch made it her job to torture and utterly destroy Shinji.

At the present time, she was ready to have just about anyone killed in an unsavory manner if they touched him, and in her case at the very least, the desire for retaliation had nothing to do with Third Impact and its 'therapeutic' effect on most of mankind. "He was a child, Misato," the former pilot carried on bitterly. "A child, and so was I. You used us to get your revenge, you treated children like solders, like killing machines, and completely neglected them at the first sight of trouble."

They were standing face to face now, with Asuka's forefinger digging into the older woman's collarbone. "What was that you said, when you were dragging him to the cages? Ah, right. You told him how pathetic it was, that he was asking for help from the only other person in his world he felt connected to. What was it? 'Asking for a girl's help', or some stupid shit like that?"

"Shinji… he…" Misato's lower lip trembled uncontrollably. "There was no one else… who could pilot Unit 01."

Asuka stepped back, and nodded. "Exactly."

Misato shuddered, almost paralyzed with dread. "What?"

Offering a second nod in her direction, the redhead walked back to her chair and sat down with a loud groan. "Exactly," she repeated. "No Unit 01, no Third Impact. Had you done your job even somewhat decently, then Shinji gets to walk away from all this madness. SEELE never gets to activate Unit 01, and all their hopes and dreams go down the drain. Maybe they would've chased him down to the ends of the Earth, maybe not. Maybe it would've been all for nothing, but it was your duty to make sure he got away." She took a long drink, emptying the second can and signaling at the woman before her.

"You made him walk into a black abyss and almost die of exposure in a metal tube that stank of blood." It was the redhead's turn to shake her head in absolute derision and disgust. "You made him tear one of his friends apart piece by piece, you and that bastard father of his," she carried on. "You forced him to watch me have my mind raped and Rei explode and be reborn, you had him squish Kaworu with his own hands, the only person in his life who ever told him he was loved. You left him to fester in depression and solitude in that apartment, hell, even the freaking penguin was better company than you! He certainly provided more comfort than you ever did, didn't he?!"

She was shaking almost as heavily as the woman opposed to her for completely different reasons. The memory of the elevator washed over again, forcing Asuka to grind her teeth together. The gate had been forced open and now there was no stopping the venom from leaking out.

"Oh, but wait, there's more! You didn't just stop at breaking him completely, did you? Of course not! What happened next, Misato, do you remember? Do you?!" The empty can was crushed between her fingers without the former Second Child ever realizing it. "Let me refresh your memory, then. You physically dragged him to the cages, and kissed him. You, a woman twice his age. You said you'd 'do the rest' when he came back. You forced him into that cage filled with Bakelite and promised to repay him with sex if he acted like your obedient little killing machine one last time. Shinji didn't cause any of this, he wasn't bred for this war like I was." She pushed her hair back and forced the frantic breathing back into some semblance of control.

"You recruited him, you pushed him. You used him, you dragged him, you broke him. It was you."

Another sharp, scorching needle pressed against her breast when Misato's legs gave under her and she collapsed in a heap of hysterical tears. "Oh God, oh God… God!" She wailed and frantically pulled at her long lavender tresses. "G-God… I… he….(sob)…" An almost maniacal laughter escaped Misato's mouth as she let go of her hear and shrugged in utter helplessness. "You're right, you're right! I did it… I… (hitch)… I did it, didn't I? I…(sob)… and I've been…God…" she grasped her head once more and curled into a fetal position on the ground. "I've been…(sob)… doing these awful things t-t-t-to the people who –(hitch)- to those bastards who dare put th-their hands on him… and it's just an excuse!" Misato was now bawling like a child on the ground, curling even tighter into herself with every quaking sob. Another desperate laugh escaped the woman's constrained ribcage. "It's a fucking excuse!" she bellowed in despair. "All these horrible things I've done, all of them, pointless! I've… done…(sob)… horrible things, all t-t-t-to c-cope for the fact that I… helped destroy the three of you!"

Desperate cries stifled the living room and kitchen, tears stained Misato's sleeves and face as she wailed and tried to tear at her own hair. Asuka sighed and rose, letting the can sit atop the wooden surface. For a moment she towered over her former guardian in a very familiar way, just the way she had towered over Shinji before he snapped and strangled her. And now this is the part that sucks the most, she pondered, and wondered if it was at all possible for her to ever change in the slightest. This is the part where you let go, Asuka. Let go of the anger, let go of the pain. Just let go.

She crouched ever so slowly, and measuredly drew the other woman in a tight embrace, cradling Misato's head in her hands. "It was harsh, but you had to hear that. It wasn't all you, per se. But you were the shittiest guardian and role model you could've ever been," she confessed when Misato's arms drew her even closer and she howled into her shoulder; it was the very first time they shared a hug. The sensation was so overwhelming that the former Second Child found herself biting down on her lips to keep herself from collapsing in a heap of tears.

"You didn't. You sure as hell didn't help much, but I know… I know you cared, somewhere in that crazy head of yours." Being in any way caring or tender was almost unnatural; so it upset and surprised Asuka when her hand caressed Misato's hair. She placed a gentle kiss on her forehead, and whispered. "For the time of being… I forgive you. Because he'll need you soon, and this time you can't fail."

If Misato had not yet been crying in earnest, she surely let go after the redhead muttered the three words she had been unaware she had needed for so long. They stayed on the ground for a while, with Asuka keeping a firm hold on the only other somewhat less catastrophic mother figure life had granted her with. "You're pregnant, aren't you?" She whispered after a while to the woman who continued to shudder in her hold. "Congratulations."

An ear-curling howl crawled its way from deep within Misato's chest and the woman almost bit down on Asuka's dress to keep from screaming even louder. "Shh…" The redhead cooed in a gentle whisper. Once, long ago, she had placed a knife on her veins and had been on the verge of slicing her wrists open in just the right angle so the bleeding would be nigh unstoppable and fatal; when Shinji tore down the door she had opted to slice her neck open, but he had moved so quickly, quicker than she had ever seen, and had stolen the blade from her and thrown it out the window with a strength and desperation which had momentarily paralyzed her. The look in Shinji's eyes back then had been engraved in her memory; just as the events which unfolded after her senses returned.

Every few minutes Misato would try and half-heartedly break away or fight her off, yet the efforts were so faint and forced than a simple nudge or a whisper would unleash a new cascade of fresh tears, and have the woman's nails would dig deep into her skin. This is absolutely nothing, Asuka realized with a queer sense of lightheartedness spreading over her chest. I hit him, I hit him as hard as I could. I elbowed him in the temple, punched him in the back of the head. I tried to gouge out his eyes, I tried to strangle him. I bit him. And he never, ever let me go. He made me feel like I was not alone. Now he needs you, and I'm gonna make sure he has you.

"How far along are you?" she asked with a tight smile.

Having seemingly quieted down somewhat, Misato drew in a shaky breath. "I-I (sob)… I found out l-l-last week…" she answered, voice breaking at the end.

"I hope it's a boy this time around," Asuka confessed, snickering. "If it's a boy, what are you gonna name him?"

"S-(sob)-… S-Shinji…" the entirety of Misato's nearly unbendable will and strength seemed to abandon her, for Asuka noticed how the female's body suddenly pushed into her and the last of her resistance crumbled. "We want… if it's a boy… we… we'd like to name him Shinji…"

Asuka's minuscule smile widened just a tiny fraction. She kissed the temple of the woman who had abandoned her in the midst of her most horrible defeat and watched with indifference as her sanity crumbled. Enough time had been spent hating, denying, damaging and lying already. She chose to not address her own rage and hatred towards Misato for the time of being; for once in her life, just this once, she wanted to do something for someone else. Shinji, her mind enunciated with tenderness and ever so slowly, as though wishing to savor every letter.

"That's a lovely name."


BEEP-BEEP-BEEP-BEEP-BEEP-BEEP-BEEP-BEEP-BEE-

The glare of the midday sun burned through his eyelids, forcing uncooperative hands to swat the offending light away, and just as he found a comfortable position with an arm draped around his face, the alarm clock continued to wail straight into his eardrum and effectively robbed him of any more rest. The same arm which had been so comfortably blocking the sun slammed down on the old piece of 90's technology and with a resounding crack, the senseless ringing was extinguished and the only sound that remained turned into his own breaths.

A resounding click and an unpleasant sensation manifested from his jaw; his neck muscles tensed and the click rang loud in the room when he ground his teeth. Biting down hard on anything had been nigh on impossible for a while, but ever so slowly he was getting the sensation back, and ever so slowly the click reduced its cracking wail; a shame at that, the constant pain and eternal discomfort had only felt fair to him, after all. A tragedy it was, that his body was strong and growing, that his bones could still mend and heal.

Hit me. He told himself, reminiscing on the last time he had produced words without the annoying click. A morning hardly ever went by without the words bouncing in his aching head. Hit me as hard as you can. I fucked up, man, I fucked up bad. I did. Hit me. Hit me. Hit me! In his memory, the world turned black and everything disappeared; it made him despise himself all the more, the way he had not even felt the punch land.

Touji rose from bed with a groan, rubbing at his jaw and biting down several times to ensure it was hinged properly, his fingers grazed against the small, pale scar that ran down his jawbone, and scratched at the branded circle around his leg. Sometimes he slept bad on the leg and the sensation of it died, and then he rose in absolute dread, breathing with enough urgency to almost hyperventilate and sweating off his every pore, hands desperately grabbing the limbs that had been gifted back to him. Sometimes, on the good days, he punched himself exactly where the small scar was, and relished in the ensuing agony of bones that had never healed properly.

"Fucking Red Devil's in town, huh," he muttered, rubbing at his eyes as he scrolled down the news on his cellphone. With enough luck the crazy redheaded bitch would pay him a visit and hopefully, total his jaw in a more definitive manner than what Shinji had ever managed. He shook his head. "What a time to be alive…"

Hikari's picture rested on his nightstand, but even after more than a year he could not bring himself to look at it.

His jaw clicked. If he tried hard enough, Touji could still find the places where Shinji's knuckles had turned his jawbone into splinters. He had never thanked the man either for doing him the favor of providing some sort of punishment for his unforgivable transgression, or for carrying the heavy burden of having broken apart two relationships without being the one at fault at all. The hand which had been so generously offered back to him caressed the rugged edges of reassembled bone and tooth; the marks were still there, thankfully. It all felt pathetically ironic; he had been brought back to life, had been granted the choice to be with the girl of his dreams and had pissed it all away in a drunken night, led by an irrational grudge. A single punch felt like too light a castigation.

He wondered what it felt like to have Shinji's hands curled tight against his neck or how it would feel to be placed in that dreadful anaconda choke he did so well, wondered if anyone beside his sister would notice if he confronted the former Third Child, pushed him over the edge and let himself be devoured by the closest thing to a god his generation had ever known. Trying to hit Sohryu would suffice; she was currently taking care of him, was she not? One day, after Shinji was all patched up, he could look for them. He could look for them and try to hit the Second Child, even the mimicry of it would suffice.

Would Shinji pummel him to death or tear out his throat? Would he snap his neck, or crush his skull into a bloodied mess? How easy it would be… to put his life and death in the hands of someone else and let go. "Nonsense…" he muttered, rubbing at the edges of his jaw. It would be unworthy enough on itself to attack the person he cherished most, a girl at that; Shinji was too good a human being to be burdened with his worthless death atop the many sins he had convinced himself to carry.

A bad Monday filled with the thundering echoes of his hangover and thoughts of being punched into an early grave. Well, it's a Monday, isn't it? The now almost graduated doctor and current physical therapist picked up a bottle of warm beer resting atop the pile of garbage that decorated his nightstand. "Gotta love Mondays…"

The damaged clock announced in bold numbers that it was well over noon. Drowning out the lukewarm, stale flavor of the once refreshing beverage, Touji picked the pendant Sakura had gifted him a few weeks before when Shinji was admitted to the hospital, and choked out a strangled sob. His friend had been crawling into the gates of death for the third time in two years and he couldn't be bothered to get up and offer his assistance, or his company. "And to think I ever felt jealous of him… what a waste of a man you are, Suzuhara…"

His fingers grazed on the bold letters punched into the small pendant. "God tightens the noose," he muttered to the empty, disarrayed apartment, sighing in dejection. The jawbone clicked. "But He does not choke."


"I love how he's utilizing that flicker jab, Jackson-san. Keeping his opponent at range, just keeps him guessing. Nice evasive movement, as well, is this something you've been working on lately?"

"Yeah, yeah, we been putting in the hours –Oh, look out for that right, Ruthless! You just cannot sleep on Kobra's power, Nawaki. Look at that, he getting frustrated from them flicker jabs, but he's eeeeever so slowly closing the distance and-Ow, that one landed! Hands up, Ruthless, hands up!"

"And what a beautiful straight cross it was, right down pipe, no wind up. Kobra not only has power, he has speed. Ooff, heavy exchange in the middle of the cage, and Ikari connects with a right hook of his own! He ate that left, though. Body kick! Uhhh, that one stung Ikari!"

"Yo! Distiance, distance! Look out for the single leg, boy! Uppercut, uppercut, yes! Yes! More of that!"

"And Kobra's smiling right at him, Jackson-san. First he had Ikari wobbled, and now he's on shaky legs himself! Look at that smirk!"

"Yeah, that's when you know when they're hurt, when they just smile like that."

Her gaze drifted away from the screen and into the busy street; people rushed on the sidewalk, hell-bent on maximizing their lunch breaks and pushed pass one another in a very orderly fashion. The car's soft motions distracted her as they once again started to move. The sting of Misato's words rang through her again, making the girl's chest ache and feel hollow within the limited space of the luxurious vehicle. There was no love lost between them both, she had been made aware of as much with the unscheduled visit to the Katsuragi household, and had thankfully exited said house before Kaji returned from work and brought little Rei back from the daycare. She would save the confrontation with the pony-tailed man for a day in which her mind was sharper, and she was able to deliver castigation in a clean, direct manner.

There was a small line just above Shinji's right eyebrow where she assumed a knuckle had sliced the skin open and created a small but deep gash, and while the man who had provided said line had been beaten almost within an inch of his life, no permanent damage had been left. Shinji had his fists, true, and she had her elbows, which had been sharpened through years of rigorous training and endless practice. Slashing right overhand, she decided, nodding to nothing in particular. Delivered from close range, exactly above the left zygomatic bone to ensure skin penetration. Permanent damage.

Her gaze slowly became a glare when a restaurant came into view, one which had some tables out on the sidewalk so as to enjoy the relatively fresh day the seasons had presented the populous with. The redhead's eye twitched as her glare zeroed in on a pair of youngsters sitting at opposing ends of one such table, with food already served in the surface, fully engrossed in their smartphones and not even bothering to engage in some casual conversation. Ungrateful little shits, all of you, the dog snared inside her glowered with distaste. Do you have any idea of how much was sacrificed just so you could sit there on a nice day such as today, and you're just ignoring each other?!

It was nothing but the resentment of knowing how many hours, weeks and months she had done the exact same thing. Sure, my smartphones were books, corpses, organs, sums, math and physics, drugs, alcohol, every possible Diazepam I could find… but it's the same. A heavy muzzle was placed on the raging hound; there would come a time when the angry little beast she had been would be released that day, it was only a matter of keeping herself controlled until night came. In the end I was doing that exact same thing. I was ignoring reality, running from it. I was running from my own damn feelings, like a coward, while he faced his and turned them into a strength. He never stopped caring, ever.

A loud clap diverted her eyes back to the screen. "Uhhhh, heavy leg kick from Ikari! That's the third he's connected ever since the round started."

"Yeah, Kobra was talking that mad trash in there, Nawaki, ya dig? Yo! Cover up! Hands up, Ruthless! He gon' throw that left kick when he changes stances!" As if to illustrate the point Shinji's coach was making in the video, the somewhat larger young man switched into a southpaw stance and produced a roundhouse kick that impacted heavily in the former pilot's midsection. She heard the so called 'Kobra' say something to Shinji and try to put him out with a fast one-two combination that landed almost perfectly. "Yo! Listen! Do your thing! Don't let him get you distracted!" Something changed in an instant, she noticed the way Shinji's eyes and body language changed upon hearing Kobra's next taunt.

The deafening clap of the next leg kick had her grimacing in pain. "Oh, man! Kobra connected well with those shots, but he didn't check that kick!"

"Yeah, man. Look at the way he's walking, that leg is dead already. He can kiss those straight rights goodbye. Yo! Get him again, boy! Get him!" The boy in question kicked again twice with incredible accuracy and savage brutality, turning Kobra's calf into a horrid mass of reddening and purple blemishes, and upon connecting, the larger opponent hissed in pain and tried to retreat. He almost fell into the mat when the leg gave under his weight. The next attack marked the ending of the affair; Shinji threw a single, well-placed liver shot and the man went to his knees, wheezing and turning over as the former pilot stalked away with a savage expression clouding his features.

"And that's it! Brutal left hook to the liver, and we have a winner!"

"Nasty, naaasty, I tell ya, dawg! That boy be carrying N2 mines in his gloves!"

"You saw it here! You saw it live in Lilith's backyard! Ruthless Ikari Shinji defeats 'the Kobra', Naoya Eiichi with only seven seconds remaining in the first round! Give it up for your winner!"

"Yo, don't forget to subscribe, mo'fockers! Show my man some love in the comments! From Lilith's backyard, this was the main event of our fifth ever Third Impact Scrap! Holla at your boys!"

Turning off the screen of her cell, Asuka sighed and looked over the passing setting. The buildings were ever so slowly replaced by trees, the people walking the streets became birds and rabbits, and the familiar scenery she had seen the night before came into view. Both the street and sidewalk ended just at the spot where the botanical garden had once stood, the concrete had cracked and given under many years before and now only a dirt road and the trail Shinji used for running were visible entries to the Third Child's personal safe haven.

"We have arrived, Madam," the driver and her personal bodyguard for the past three years said quietly. "Shall we continue on foot?"

"Yeah," she replied, distracted. The sight of the broken down structure where she had sat and opened Shinji's gift tugged at her heart, and she found herself recalling the young man's words that morning. 'Tell me where they are.' Somehow, the bitterness that came with the visit to Misato's house began to melt away under the sudden fuzziness growing in her stomach. Her right hand curled in her chest, and a sudden blush heated her cheeks. "I'll rip them apart."

And he would, without knowing, Asuka's right hand was pressed even harder against her heart and a small smile tugged its way into her lips. I know he would.

"Madam?" She was brought back to reality by the driver's smooth, soothing voice. "May I say something?"

"Of course, Fritz," the smiled broadened as she locked eyes with the man. "You've been looking after my unworthy behind for years. You can say whatever you want."

The seasoned warrior gave her a warm smile in return. "Just now, you looked… content, for the first time since I greeted you this morning… ahem… for the first time in… some time. It looked as though for a moment, just a moment you felt… safe. Pardon me for stating it so bluntly but… I don't think I've ever… ever seen that look in your eyes before, Madam." A pause, and Fritz's gaze turned both incredibly warm and indescribably melancholic. "I must say it's quite refreshing. I am very glad you chose to come and bring me with you. In retrospect, now… I feel as though life has dealt us a rather unpleasant hand in the past month, with your stepmother's surgery taking place on the day before we were to travel here…"

Asuka's demeanor sobered as she recalled the woman's tearful gaze begging for her forgiveness from the operating table, stating how sorry she was to be a burden. She had planned everything so very minutely, had been engrossed in crashing into the Third Child's life in a manner not unlike the first time they had ever met; an entire year of planning and preparations had burned into cinders. "Stupid," she muttered, shaking her head. "Kept quiet about something so delicate for so long, such a stupid hag."

"You did save her life, Madam," Fritz remarked, seemingly unbothered by her badmouthing of her stepmother.

"Yeah, well… it took me eleven hours to save her life, then I collapsed into bed and four hours after that… the phone rings." She opened the door with a shake of her head and stepped out, taking a deep intake of fresh air. "Life didn't just hand us a shit hand, it spit on it and on our faces while farting loudly and flipping us off, but fuck it. I'm here. He's alive, and I'm going to save him."

The driver's door closed with a gentle clip. "Perhaps you will not be the only one doing all that… saving, Madam, if all goes well." added the bodyguard with a smirk. "It would be a nice change of pace, certainly for you."

With a shrug of her shoulders, Asuka motioned for them both to start walking towards the wild forest of bananas extending to their right. "It's his nature to be nice," she offered once the man was striding beside her. "He's saved people from dying lots of times already, me included… both before and after Third Impact, and saved this entire… ungrateful… undeserving wretch of a species from extinction, all of it at immeasurable personal cost." At first glance the small forest looked too dense to tread through, yet Asuka's trained eyes quickly caught a glance of where the trail turned and twisted inside the overgrown tropical plants. "The only problem is… he's an idiot."

And so she dubbed the clearing they arrived at as Idiot Valley.

The trail of destruction was as evident as the word branded into Shinji's arm; he moved on a spiral motion to the left, which ended up almost giving the entire area a circular form. A vast majority of the maltreated and murdered innocent banana plants were thrown together in a pile to the far right, one which reeked of decomposition and had flies festering and circling around it. She wrinkled her nose in distaste, the entire area smelled humid, the air was thick and the ground was uneven, with sprouts of fresh new victims rising from the moist soil. She saw a particularly large stump lying about in the way, with clear imprints of Shinji's fingers as they had dug into the plant's soft material.

It took them both about ten minutes of silent, cautious trekking but eventually Asuka and Fritz came upon the most recently assaulted group of sprouts. "These are much heavier than one would think," offered the man smoothly with his eyes momentarily locked in the decomposing pile. "To think Lord Ikari carries them all that way…"

"When stuck to the ground, a banana plant is mostly water and connective tissue," she elucidated, and placed her hand on what she assumed was the mark of a punch denting the surface of the oldest, largest sprout in their direct vicinity. "If not diced in smaller portions, a single young trunk can weigh more than a hundred kilo, hence why you see how he rips them to sizeable chunks."

She saw the man's expression turn incredulous. "There are close to no cut edges, do you mean he does this with his hands?"

She had already felt Shinji's grip a number of occasions, and was aware that the only reason her windpipe had not been crushed was because the boy had begun to strangle her almost reluctantly at first, so many years ago. With a nod, Asuka pointed to a pile of fallen stumps with clear signs of impact all over. "This environment is perfect for all numbers of Mamushi and Habu vipers to proliferate, and I bet he's had his fair share of encounters."

The last notes in Kensuke's report from a few months before jumped into her tired brain. "Did you know Inoue loves to spar with him? They do so at least once a month, if the data I've received is accurate. I know for a fact that it is accurate, KenKen doesn't fuck around."

"Inoue?" inquired the once decorated member of the German Special Forces, green eyes suddenly wide as saucers. "As in Naoya Inoue, 'The Monster'?"

"The very same," the redhead confirmed, hands tracing over the imprint of his fingers in the trunks. "He says sparring with Shinji is the closest thing to… death… he can ever hope to encounter in a controlled environment. Shinji's ability is nowhere near Inoue's, but… there's just something about him…"

She picked a yet unscathed young sprout and hit it flat with the full surface of her fist a few times, making the large leaves shake. "He probably starts slow to make sure no snakes are gonna rain down on him, and once he's sure there's not a viper lurking in there, somewhere, he…" Asuka took up her regular fighting stance, with a high guard and her left side forward. She punched the tree with all her might, producing a picture perfect right cross not unlike the one Shinji had been bombarded with in the fight. "Then… he surely starts letting loose, and…" A roundhouse kick impacted on the banana plant's surface, producing a resound crunch as her leg dug deep into the trunk and left a visible mark. "Ah, shit, and now I stained my pants and I still have to go see KenKen. Great, just great. Thanks a lot, Baka!"

"Ohh, ausgezeichnet!" Frizt adorned and studied the imprint in the plant with ferocious scrutiny. "Madam, your form is still impeccable! That was an excellent kick."

"That's nothing, look at this," she pointed towards the old, ravished sprout she had been inspecting upon arrival. "By the looks of this dent, if he kicks you and gets you in the right angle," her fingers grazed the depression of the trunk and recalled the many discolorations and marks now decorating Shinji's shins. "He can cripple you. And then if he hits you with a left…" If she was to take a wild guess, Shinji's fist had left a mark that was four times the depth and twice the size she had been able to produce. For some strange reason the realization filled her with a mind-numbing, chest-warming sense of pride and accomplishment. "That's what we call a peacemaker, because it's all peaceful and quiet afterwards."

Her gaze caressed the damaged surface of the plants with something akin to fondness; Asuka felt her own features soften and her heart constrict all at once. To think she had missed all this growth, all of this painful development and blind determination to push forward… to think Shinji had almost been stolen from her forever before she could ever come here and admire the marks of his struggle, glance upon the battle against the unrelenting malice the world had thrown in his wake, and respect his unwillingness to succumb entirely to despair and oblivion.

She was fascinated by the hardened skin around his knuckles, overwhelmed by the solidity of his bones, enthralled by the sturdiness of his muscles, and captivated by his troubled, suffering mind. He soldiered forward, uncaring of how much the battle against his own existence hampered his soul with endless grief; Shinji refused to give in, providing false reasons and half-truths whenever confronted as to why he was alive at all. He mentioned Rei, referred back into the sins of his past or the people he thought he had irremediably hurt, called himself unworthy to die and burdened himself with endless self-hatred.

And yet, he lived on. The doctors had told her upon arriving in Tokyo, after all; despite him claiming to be happy to die at any given day and having taken out the knife himself, he had held onto life with a stubbornness that rivaled her own once rushed into the hospital. The pureness of his fortitude…

It was beautiful…

He was beautiful.

Fritz's steady hand came to slowly, cautiously rest on her shoulder, and squeezed in a reassuring manner once she did not flinch or move away. "You are looking… safe… again, Madam."

"I am safe," she answered sadly. Mama had not yet dared to come across her consciousness with Shinji nearby, most likely aware that he would sense her in whichever freaky, unnatural way had been made available to him after Third Impact. 'I'll rip them apart,' he had announced that morning, seemingly to both her, the world and the all-powerful, interdimensional entities they had battled and controlled. "Because I'm with the Invincible Shinji, now."


There was a small cabinet in her drawer that nobody, not even her younger sister was allowed to see or touch. The space had been careful disguised, obsessively looked over and overzealously protected against any one member of her household who dared interfere with it.

Even after a year of it all happening the pictures, cards, letters and gifts stored in the small drawer had become the a shrine of comfort in the darkest, most life-numbing days while at the same time they provided a daily sting and a constant reminder of blunt, senseless betrayal. Regardless of how much it hurt her, she could not yet part from the carefully arranged and lovingly decorated space, nor could she part from the sensation of being engulfed in a protective embrace.

Hokari Hikari gazed down at a picture of her and Touji engrossed in a hug, with the older boy smiling sheepishly at the camera whilst holding her close. Right next to the frame, a smaller picture of her and Shinji standing side by side rested. She shuddered when the memory resurfaced.

"Leave, Hikari. Leave, please. I'm begging you, please. Just leave me alone."

"No, Shinji! I know you're hurting! How can you possibly ask me to leave you alone at a time like this?!"

"Just… just go back Touj… and be safe… just l-"

"Go back to Touji?! After what he's done?! NO! Shinji, I'm here! Let me help you, let me h-"

"I said… leave!"

She jumped in surprise, breathing frantically and looking over to her right to ensure there was indeed no kitchen knife stuck to the wall and no growling Shinji pinning her against it. It took some time to get her breathing back under control, which only worked to make Hikari feel more inadequate. Why was she never enough? Why was there always some ominous shadow perpetually fated to cloud over her?

"Hey, sis!' The voice of her younger sister rang loud from the kitchen. "That friend of yours from school is on the news again! Come check this out!"

Hikari sighed in dejection and closed the closet door with much more force than necessary, rolling her eyes. "Gods, what did she do this time, huh?!"


The heavy melody of the guitar riffing into the main choir bounced in his head, yet it was still not hard enough to drown out the sound of people walking by in the bar's relative vicinity. His SDAT and old headphones had been much, much louder, or so he liked to remember. He drew a long, heavy toke from the cigarette and scratched the mark on his arm. It was almost time. The song carried on and drowned out any and all uncertainties in his brain; life was cruel, after all. He was but one of life's instruments, and nothing more. The Bringer of Death, the almighty Third Child.

"…mess with her and you'll see a man getting mean! She my sweet little baby," Stevie cried out into his eardrum, forcing his lips to murmur the words in unison. "She my pride and joy! She my sweet little baby, I'm her little lover boy…" The door of the bar opened with a loud clang, and a man dressed in a bright green jacket exited the establishment with a frown, spitting on the door for emphasis. "Ja, ja, fick dich auch, du arschloch! Es war eine Frage! Ist doch mein' Arbeit, Fragen zu stellen, nicht?!" The half-emptied bottle of beer impacted the door next. Shinji took a last draw of the cigarette and threw it to the ground; his hands rummage through the trousers' pocket and extracted the valuable package acquired upon arrival at the airport.

Shinji opened the small plastic bag and inhaled its content in one go; the shaking stopped, the phantom aches of his leg and jaw disappeared, and the sensation of being inside the Entry Plug ran through him once more. His feet marched forward without consent just as the man's features became more recognizable in the dim street light. This was his prey. Introductions were in order.

"Jürgen Heidelberg?" He asked, removing the black cap from his head and grabbing onto the green jacket with vehemence. The man's eyes widened and he nodded, gulping. "Hallo. Und… tut mir Leid."

"W-Was? Wofür? Wer bist d-"

Everything melted down to the sensation of his knuckles crashing onto the poor man's face, and he couldn't be happier for it. Unbeknown to him, Shinji smiled wider with every punch landed. "Tränen" –PUNCH- "haben" –PUNCH- "ihren Kost!"

PUNCH.

He was once more forcibly brought back to reality, this time both by the heavy banging of his front door and the increasing agony of his half-healed wounds crying their discontent with his constant shuffling and shaking. Shinji blinked, heavy-lidded and struggling to overcome the dulling effects of the pills. Where…? I… fell asleep…

"Hellooooo, are you in there!?" Krista's voice rang from the door. "Are you alive?! Open up!"

She slammed the door for emphasis and managed to drive three needles straight into Shinji's brain, worsening his already blinding headache. He hissed, barely holding onto the chair while the pain subsided and reality slowly came back into focus. What was I doing, again? Right… cooking… I was cooking…. for… I was cooking for As-

"I said open this fucking door already, Ikari! Are you in there?! If you don't answer in the next ten seconds I swear to all the Gods I'll tear this fucking door do-"

"Okay, okay, I heard you, damn it!" he half wheezed, half yelled and forced the sweaty uncoordinated arms to work and propel the blasted chair in the door's direction. "I'm co-(cough, cough)- I'm coming, geez!"

Pushing the button of the front gate to unlock it had Shinji cringing in agony; he wondered which was worse; the leg injury crying out is outrage from earlier, or the very thought of having Krista in his house for an unprecedented amount of time. The gate opened to reveal a somewhat formally dressed female fighter, with her very attractive and also finely dressed girlfriend. Krista sported a loose blue blouse which accented the shine of her baby blue eyes, with a fitting pair of light blue jeans. Kanao wore a matching ocean blue dress. The girl's long brown hair was down and finely cascaded down her shoulders in an overly familiar way which made him shudder. Shinji shook his head and pretended the image of her did not manifest in his brain. "Hey," he muttered. This is certainly Asuka's handiwork. "Kanao-san, nice to see you again. Thanks for visiting me in the hospital."

The female in question blushed, taken aback. "Wha… D-Did you notice? Ah! I mean, I'm sorry, Ikari-san! I-I mean! Thank you for being so selfless! You really are a he-"

"Anyways," Krista interrupted, stepping into the house without being invited and earning a set of puffed lips from her girlfriend in the process. "What's with you? You look like you just ran a marathon." The woman sniffed in his general direction and flinched. "Ugh, you stink, Ikari. Did you even bother to shower this morning?"

"Nice to see you, too, Krista," he responded with a grunt and shifted back into the chair, pushing the wheels towards the kitchen. "And no. As you might imagine, it's a little hard to maneuver at the moment."

Kanao tiptoed into the spacious apartment and began rummaging through the areas with a gleamy, almost blinding grin and positive disposition. "Well, get your ass in the shower, then. I don't plan on standing next to a man who reeks of alcohol and stale food. Come on, off we go!"

He almost bit off the girl's finger when she took a hold of the wheelchair's handle and pushed him in the bathroom's direction. "Hey! What the hell do yo-(cough)- do you think you're doing, huh? Kanao-san, please let go of that vase, will you? That was a gift from my boss!"

"I'm being careful!" The young woman snapped back with a carefree smile. "Kris-chan, tell Ikari-san not to worry, please! I'll tidy this place up and before he knows it, he'll feel more at home than ever before!"

"You heard the boss," the muscled girl took no further encouragement and began to push him towards the bathroom.

"Hey, hey!" Shinji cried put in outrage, and hissed in pain for his trouble. "Don't touch my stuff! Hey! Kanao-san, don't you open that drawer! Are y-(cough, cough)- are you listening to me?! Hey!"

The girl question smiled even wider while holding one of the very few trophies he had ever won, and ever so slowly closed the cabinet she had opened with a sheepish grin. "Ikari-san, I'll be super careful! Promise! Please leave it all to me!"

"Leave what to you? My house is fine! Hey, I said don't touch, damn it! Krista you let go of me, now! (Cough)- This is my house, god damn it!"

The bathroom door was closed with a loud crack when Krista kicked at the handle. "Yeah, nobody's arguing that this is your house, Idiot." The girl hissed, baring her teeth at Shinji's own disgruntled frown. "And what were you trying to do, on the first day you're actually left alone in your house, huh? I've known you for years, Shinji. You were trying to cook, weren't you?" Without giving him much of a chance to argue or resist, the girl began to help Shinji remove his sweated shirt and completely ignored the way his skin was almost scalding with fury. "Typical. You're bound to a fucking chair, with wounds created by a fucking serrated military knife, and you're cooking. What the hell were you even trying to prepare, anyway?"

"Some traditional Japanese dishes, what's it to you?!" he retorted with a shrug once relieved of the clammy piece of clothing. "She was always bitching about how Japanese cuisine was bland for song long… I just wanted to shut her up, for once."

"Sure, sure," the girl tried not to flinch at the sight of Shinji's bandaged form. "And this works… how, exactly? Do I put a shirt on you or something?"

The young man rolled his eyes and pointed towards the bucket with a small towel resting beside it. "Unless there's someone around to change the st-(cough)- uhrm, change the stupid bandages, it's…" he trailed off, scratching the word permanently stuck to his arm. "I can manage it from here."

"Yeah, right," she tugged at the chair and placed him near the tub, proceeding to fill the bucket with warm water and boringly stare at the way he shifted uncomfortably and blushed ever so slightly in embarrassment. "Stop acting like I haven't seen you naked before. It's weird, Shinji."

"Sorry," he offered in automatic.

"And stop apologizing, geez, that's so annoying!"

Déjà vu, a chill ran down his spine with the realization that he had, indeed, heard those words before, uttered in a more juvenile, shrill manner years before. "You're annoying."

The wet rag was then throw at his face. "And you're getting water all over that chair, so come on, let's get you on this stool."

"I can do it myself," Shinji replied, tediously taking the warm towel which had blinded him seconds ago and throwing it back to her. The girl's reflexes were fast, however, and she caught it before the warm fabric could impact her face.

"Sure you can, but you don't have to, asshole," deadpanned the woman. "That's what having help means. Now come on, let's get that stench off of you. Unless of course you want to, you know…" Her hand made a pumping motion which effectively colored the young's man's face vermillion. "In which case I can go outside and wa-"

"Give me the stupid towel," grumbled the former Third Child. His molars ground at the way the blonde smirked at him when he ripped the wet fabric off her hands. "Every freaking woman in my life, I swear…"

"Hey, don't be comparing leopards with lions, now, Asshole King."

"Again with this lion shit? What does it even mean?" Shinji demanded with a grunt of derision and tugged away at the perspiration which had accumulated around his chest and shoulders.

"It means your Asuka is right to call you an idiot, because you are one, Idiot!" Krista deadpanned as she rinsed his right leg clean. "She and I have nothing in common, and you better remember that before I choose to fucking engrave it into your skull, do I make myself clear, Asshole King?"

Hellish temper apparently brewed in the fiery pits of Hell? Check. Obsessive desire to overachieve in everything? Check. Pathologically competitive nature? Check. An apparent permanent mental state of PMS?! Check! Evident desire to cause misery and despair in my existence?! Double freaking check! "Right, my bad," the young man dried the excess water off his left arm with evident agony as the edges of his recently upset wounds manifested their discontent. "Absolutely nothing in common, nothing at all."

"Watch the sarcasm, I've never cared for it. It doesn't suit you, it's not natural in you," Krista tugged at the overgrown brown tresses and dried them with cruel efficiency. "You didn't use to be such a dick before, you know."

The comment stung even worse than the wounds, forcing Shinji's mouth shut. Yeah, I guess… but that was before someone I thought was dear to me tried to have me killed and I realized I was… alone. It seemed as though even from afar, Asuka's presence in the country continued to arise in him all the pathetic elements of his personality he had thought had been abandoned. Shinji's shoulders sagged in defeat, and his eyes turned bitter. "I know," he admitted, and tentatively placed his hand on top of Krista's who had been busy with carefully cleaning the unbandage surface of his back. "I'm sorry."

To his surprise, instead of a bity insult or a smack to the head, the girl's hand patted him on the shoulder affectionately. "I know you are. It's fine, you know I'm just fucking with you, right?"

His lips parted into a small smile. "Thanks… for putting up with me."

"Meh," with a decisive last tug of the dry towel, Krista stood back and shrugged. "You've been putting up with my shit for years, you even dragged me out of an abandoned building and tied me up to a bed for a week. I think about the only thing I didn't do was throw my own stool at you like an angry monkey, and that was just because my body was convulsing and I didn't have the dexterity to do it. So don't sweat it about being an asshole, I know you're working on it… and I know it's gonna get way… way worse. Let it out, it's good for you."

A small package containing one of Asuka's gummy bears and two of her strange pills were placed in his hand. "The security guard told me your Asuka left you these with him."

Knowing well the effects of the narcotics he had swallowed down in the morning were sure to disappear at any given time, Shinji forced himself to gulp down whatever it was the redhead was providing his body with. "She's not my Asuka." He remarked with a slight undertone of anger.

"Isn't she, now?" After helping him get to the chair, Krista snickered. "And all those pictures and files, all those folders filled with all the great shit she's accomplished ever since pushing you out that rail and running away?" She carried on before he could properly threaten her for mentioning that particular incident. "Didn't you beat the ever living shit of that Fabio guy for what he said about her on TMZ? And how about that journalist, about a year ago? Or that stalker who kept sending her weird shit? Didn't you hospitalize that asshole for a week? Or what about all the lengths you went through to keep that Moritz guy nice and quiet? I can keep going, you know."

"She's not mine." Shinji deadpanned just before they exited the bathroom. "You can't own people."

No, but you can own their hearts, you freaking blind asshole, Krista thought to herself, feeling incredibly satisfied to see the young man's injuries healing so very quickly. "And yet she's owned your undivided attention for seven fucking years."

A colorful and spiteful retort died in the former Third Child's lips when the door to the bathroom opened. "W… What…" One of the very few things in life which gave him some form of peace or solace was the minute way in which he kept his house in what he thought was perfect, balanced order. Kanao thought differently, it would seem, for almost all of his very limited furniture had been moved and replaced again, for the second time that day.

"What the…(cough, cough)… What the hell did you do to my house?! And how did you do it so quickly?!"

Above him, the neighbors snickered as the commented in Swedish how the home of a very particular inhabitant of their complex had become much, much livelier in the past few days. They could not be happier for the pleasant change of pace.


The shirt Mana had suggested for that particular evening felt a bit too tight around the neck; he rarely, if ever, dressed as formally as he was at the moment, but after a long conversation with the brave young woman who had last stolen his heart, he had agreed to dress for the occasion. Asuka's attire was always impeccable, after all, carefully selected from what he knew to be a massive drawer and what appeared to be an endless supply of clothes.

A shudder travelled down his spine. That's right, Kensuke pondered; the sight of that man's teeth spraying all over the bar counter flashed though his eyes. Yeah. I know her drawer, I've been to her house, I've been to her room. I've… He swallowed a heavy lump in his throat. There was no way in Hell he would ever reveal that particular detail to anyone but Mana. I've kissed her…

The clock on his wrist beeped twice, and not a second afterwards a black BMW pulled over to the parking lot where he stood. Nervousness, anxiousness, longing and anger all began to bubble up inside him when the door opened to reveal a Second Child dressed in dark blue jeans and a stylish black shirt glaring out at the word in the way which had for so long enthralled him. He watched her put on a pair of black leather gloves and a comfortable-looking black leather jacket with golden trim, minding to greedily drink in every detail of her body language and engrave every passing second of the experience into his being. This was goodbye, for good. This was the day his heart would devote fully to Mana and abandon any feverish dreams of ever being with Asuka, this was the day where he could finally be free and love Mana with the intensity she deserved.

Why does this hurt so fucking much, then?! He demanded to the emptiness simmering comfortably in his chest and stomach. Both Asuka and the man he knew was her trusted bodyguard approached him. The warm, friendly smile that shone over her features upon laying eyes on him only made the agony sink in deeper into his gut. "KenKen," she said amiably, in a tone reserved practically for either him or Shinji, or so he liked to believe at least. "How's Mana-chan doing?"

"She sends her love," he answered, and pulled her into a very brief, very tight hug. "And she demanded I say to you that I am, as of last week, officially taken." The golden band on his left hand glistened as he presented to the former pilot, who ogled at him in utter shock. Yeah…. At least once in my damn life, I caught her off guard. Take that, Ikari!

"Nooooooo…" Asuka responded, mouth still agape. "You're telling me you actually proposed?! Oohh, KenKen! That's freaking awesome!" he received a second hug, something completely unexpected, and marveled at how tightly the former pilot was holding onto him. "Congratulations, you big dork!" She screamed into his nape, and Kensuke allowed hi arms to unhinge and give her a proper embrace, one which lasted at least more than five seconds. He made sure to count. "How did this even happen?!"

Kensuke's smile turned bittersweet once they separated, forced to be brought back to the memory of what had transpired on that particular week. 'Well, remember the last time we talked? You were telling me how much of an ass I was being, not being grateful for the amazing woman I somehow managed to trick to be with me, and how if I didn't get my ass in gear I'd lose her, so…" he scratched the back of his head. "I just went for it the next day. You helped me pick out the ring in the morning, remember?"

Asuka's eyes widened once more, the cerulean he so adored glanced at him with pure, unbidden pleasant surprise; she truly was happy for him, which only made the blade twist even deeper in his chest. "That's what all that asking was about?!" the scream would have raised the eyebrow of anyone in the vicinity, were they not in that particularly secluded canteen close to the rubble of Tokyo 3, where Shinji preferred to spend his Saturday and Sunday nights and not a single soul aside from the random drunk walked over the sidewalk. "You could've just told me, you know!"

With a wide smile, Kensuke motioned towards the beaten down establishment to their right as he shook Fritz's hand. "Well, it's not like someone of your intellect didn't put two and two together," he started walking towards the entrance and ignoring how her heartfelt and honest joy wounded his already pained soul. "Come on, Frau Doktor."

"You could've picked a better spot, jeez," Asuka's voice gained volume as the two of them walked into the run-down bar and Fritz went back to the car. "But I cannot argue with the… privacy of the place. You know I got pulled over by some crazy religious group on my way here. Guys were screaming Shinji's name like it was the second coming of Christ. Weird."

Kensuke chuckled. "You wanted privacy, right? Well, this is the price for it. And… yeah, I've seen them. Weird people." Kensuke conceded and opened the door for her. The space before them had most certainly seen better days; the counter was splintered and damaged, the paint was peeling off the walls, the tables and chairs had seen way too many events of drunken violence, the cracks on the surface and the way the wood complained and crunched at their weight as the pair sat down was evidence that they had long since outlived their usefulness. Seemingly unbothered by the rather unkempt environment, Asuka sat down and offered him a satisfied grin, moving to support her chin on her joined hands.

"I just can't believe you worked out the guts to do it after all," she confessed and for a second Kensuke convinced himself that her eyes turned just a tad less intense, just a bit… disappointed. "I though you weren't going to take me seriously."

Have I ever not taken you seriously, Asuka? His mind demanded, while his mouth said "I kinda did, something needed to happen. I wasn't being…"

"A proper boyfriend?" the young woman remarked snidely, with a smirk of her own. "And your choice to abandon your own inadequacy was to propose?" he watched her shake her head in amusement, and felt something die inside him when her hand patted his own, fingers dancing on the wedding ring for a second. "I'm really happy for you, you know."

And so, the knife was dug inside his heart, twisted, and was extracted a fluid motion. Kensuke fought the need to hang his head in some form of defeat. "I know," the file was burning from within his jacket, but he refused to let go of the fantasy; what were a few more minutes in delusion, anyway? "You're…" He noticed the dark lines under her eyes, the way her pants, apparently new, were crumpled up around her thighs, as though she had put them on in a hurry. Her hair, a matter of permanent pride in her, was a tiny bit less shiny than what he recalled. "You're looking a little tired, there, Asu."

The girl's smirk turned a bit strained, he noticed. "Yeah, well, turns out taking care of that idiot takes more time and energy than I originally thought."

Kensuke's eyes softened; this time it was him who patted the girl's hand. "How's he doing?"

The flash of unrestrained agony in the redhead's eyes forced the knife to lodge itself permanently in a particular spot in his heart. She's… so worried about him. Like two years ago, only… only she looks… his train of thought was derailed when the girl's fingers tugged at his own. She's never been so open about this, before.

"He's…" she started, gaze dancing between the wall and the table's surface. "He's hurting…" Asuka revealed in a slow whisper. "A lot." The way her eyes turned stoic all of the sudden and trapped his gaze made the trained soldier gulp. "He's gonna need his friends."

"Ken-chan, do you want to go through life with that regret sitting in your chest?" Mana had asked once, referring to Shinji. "If he hits you then… well, he hits you. Hit him back, you're friends, aren't you? Get a couple of good smacks on him and then let him buy you a beer after he knocks you out. What's so wrong with that?" A flow of strained chuckled escaped him and he shook his head; it seemed as though both his girlfriend and Asuka had no clue of who the current Ikari Shinji was. The envy and rage arouse once more after being silenced since the wee hours of the morning; the taste of ashes and bile jumped back at his throat. "Yeah, I bet he's gonna love the way I've been providing the girl of his dreams with intimate information about him for the past seven years."

He noticed how Asuka's cheeks colored again, this time in embarrassment. The knife's blade turned scalding and burned away at his guts. "I'm sure he's gonna love it when I tell him how I've been to your house, how I even kissed you that one time." Kensuke shook his head, motioning for the waitress to bring two beers and two shots. "I bet he'd just love to hear that."

A poisonous glare was next addressed his way, forcing the former EVA otaku's back to straighten. "I kissed you, not the other way around, Kensuke. And I'll say that to him, to his face, when the time comes. I'm not afraid."

Yeah, because you haven't seen what he does up close, Asu, he pondered with cynicism. "You should be," he confessed, and took the hellish burden off his jacket pocket once and for all. The manila folder was pushed in the girl's direction with a bitter smile just as the waitress arrived with their drinks. "Shinji is… something else."

"Here you go, honey, first one's on the house," adorned the rugged looking older woman, reacting to the sight of the famous Second Child with nothing more than a raised eyebrow. "Been a while since I last saw you. How's that nice girl of yours doing?"

In a rush to quench the misery dancing around from within his insides, Kensuke drowned the rum in one gulp and hissed. "Ugh, that's the stuff," he pointed towards the shot glass. "Thanks, Megumi. She's doing great, thanks. I'll be sure to tell her you said hi." He sipped the beer next, glad to feel the stiffness of his limbs loosen to an extent whilst Asuka wordlessly picked the file and browsed through the pictures. "How are things over here? It's really been a while since I last came."

"Well, things are quiet, as always. Pin-san said to thank you for your help the other day." The owner of the run-down establishment smiled at him from the deserted counter and lifted his glass at him. "Fucking cops never seem to get we've never instigated anything. How was it our fault that the little bitch got lost and ended up in this particularly horrible neck of the woods?"

"It's fun to have someone to blame, and it's also easier that performing an actual investigation" he provided, and instead noticed how instead of a second, much less positive expression of surprise would shine upon Asuka's face. As she went over what he knew to be extremely graphic pictures including the puddle of blood Shinji had left under him, the bloodied knife lying on the ground, or the horribly stained suit of the man who had called in the ambulance, the girl's frown only deepened and turned… bestial. "We know he specifically loves this place because you guys leave him be."

"Well, us animals need to watch out for each other, right?" The woman winked at him and refilled his shot glass with a knowing smile. "Still, it was really nice of you. You're awesome, Ken."

"Nah, I'm just doing my job," responded the young man and pushed his glasses upwards. "You're awesome, Megumi."

"Congrats, by the way!" She pointed towards his finger and positively gleamed in approval. "Next time you guys drop by we're gonna get the both of ya plastered!"

The second shot went down much easier than the first one, he noticed how the ache began to dissipate bit by bit, replaced by a sudden worry that continued to escalate with every new tug of the lips or narrowing of the eyes that Asuka displayed. Suddenly delivering the file felt very wrong for reasons alien to him, paying attention to her. "I'll take you up on that offer!" He waved when the woman turned back to the counter and walked away. The velocity with which the girl was going through the information convinced Kensuke that she was sure to develop a headache or dizziness from the blinding rush alone. "So…" he started. The atmosphere on their table had changed from friendly to tense in seconds. "I take it you hadn't seen any of these pictures until today?"

The file was closed and slammed down on the table hard enough to almost tip over both their beer glasses. Asuka had still not so much as touched any of the two drinks before her. "No, I hadn't," she replied tersely; when her glare fixed on his bespectacled face he understood a bit why Mana always told him those two were almost mirror images of each other. He had seen that terrifying intensity before, just not in her eyes. "Thank you. This is the last element my research needed."

Last, huh, the bitterness returned with a vengeance, so Kensuke took a less demure sip. Well, okay then. His shoulders sagged a bit, and the dying remnants of his own anger must have shown in some for, for he noticed Asuka's features relax and her eyes turn back to normal. The feeling of being devoured by a hungry beast dissipated. "Sure thing, glad to help in any way I can."

"I know," she tapped at the manila folder with her right forefinger. Gods, why did she have to be so fucking beautiful all the time? "I've been a major bitch to you for all these years…" The girl's head lowered and her frown deepened, this time in obvious sadness and regret. "I bet you must hate me now. I wouldn't blame you if you did."

It would make my life much, much easier if I could hate you, yes, his mind replied sarcastically, but Kensuke shook his head; his expression turned somber as he refused to break eye contact. "Everything I did, I did because I wanted to. I don't remember you ever leading me on or anything of the sort. You can be… a major bitch when you feel like it, though."

A chortle escaped the former pilot, bringing some much needed solace to his chest. Hell yeah, he could still make her laugh. And Aida remains undefeated. "Yeah, but we're just stating facts, now…" Asuka's expression softened even more; the small smile she offered was one of the most sincere expressions he had seen on her. Gullible idiots believed the formal persona she offered the media, but Kensuke knew that Asuka rarely expressed how she was truly feeling, and the most sincere she ever got was being furious and lashing out. "Still, I know I've been a bitch to you, and I'm sorry for that."

He shrugged and chose to swallow down the agony with another drink. "Don't sweat it, you'll find a way to pay me back, someday. I was just helping a friend."

"You try to help everybody, KenKen," she responded in a sad tone. "Kinda like someone I know."

Ouch, the failing organ in his chest constricted. Yeah, love to be compared with him of all people, love it a lot, Asu. Just freaking great. Wave that impossible fucking standard in front of my face again, why don't you? "You wish he had my charming looks and impossibly beautiful eyes, you wish, Madam Sohryu." He snickered behind his glass. The pet name apparently did not sit too well with her, for she grumbled under her breath and shook her head in derision.

"Where did that shit even start at, huh?" demanded the Second Child, and pulled her hair back. The torture was about to end; he could easily recognize in her body language that she was ready to leave to whatever next errand awaited her seemingly long list of things to do. "It's the stupidest fucking thing I've ever heard."

"I can bet you money that I can top that. Google 'ShinRei appreciation Page' sometime today. It'll be fun."

"You shut your mouth right now, do you hear me?" came the boisterous reply accompanied by a sweet, perfect rumble of honest laughter. 0 for two, Ikari. The table's all yours. "Gosh," Asuka shuddered next. "Do they know they were related, as in blood relatives?"

"The internet doesn't care about such details, Asu." He was almost done with the beer glass, now. "The sky is the limit. Excelsior. But really, do pay that website a visit. I'm pretty sure Madam Souryu originated from some weird BDSM fan theory where you domesticated Shinji or something. And then Rei came to the rescue, noticing how he only ever called you 'Madam Sohryu', even in public."

"That's a frighteningly precise theory you've got there, KenKen," Asuka snickered a bit more. 0 for 3! And we retire undefeated, undisputed. Respect the grind, Ikari. "Have you been researching this in your free time?"

"Well, nights are long when you're programming supercomputers for the government," he replied with what he supposed was his best smile according to Mana. "One gets bored, from time to time. Some audiobooks in that website are… slightly less disgusting than one would imagine."

"They have audiobooks?!" Asuka responded, flabbergasted. "You're kidding."

"Am not," he winked in her direction and a very slight, almost imperceptible blush manifested around her cheeks. 0 for 4, this is turning to be a not so sucky day, after all. Well… son of a bitch. "See for yourself, or don't. Just take a bucket with you, you'll need it after a few minutes."

"And with that, we close today's session of 'things that are so disgusting we will never discuss them again'. Thank you for participating, better luck next time!" In a move that made both him and the few other visitors of the bar blink in surprise, Asuka took up the shot glass and dropped it into the beer. "Prost!" She picked up the cub and merrily slammed it against his own, drowning the entire content in one go in a way not unlike Misato or, nowadays, Shinji. "Ahhh, yeah. That's the fuel we need on a day like today."

The way Asuka carefully picked up the file and pressed it flush against her chest did not go unnoticed by him, nor the way her calm, content expression darkened as she rose from the old chair. And this is how it ends, with a smile. The way it began that day on that awesome ship… kinda fitting, I guess, though Kensuke and emptied his own cup and extended his arm for a last, fleeting hug. "Take care, Asu." He whispered into her hair when the girl allowed him to embrace her, arms still tightly clasping the folder to her. "Let me know when it's time, okay? Mana-chan says you can count on her too if you need a hand."

He felt her nod against him, and finally an arm snaked around his back and very briefly hugged him back. "Thanks, but I don't think I'll do that. This is my fight to win, or lose. And I'm not going to lose."

Do you, ever? You'd rather die than lose, Asu. Once they separated a knowing smile manifested in his face, he squeezed Asuka's right shoulder encouragingly. "I know you won't." His heart ached at the very idea of her precious little smile ever being interfered with. "I'd say good luck, but you don't need it."

"Damn right I don't," And so she placed a hand on her hip with a very familiar smirk coloring her features. "I'm the Great Sohryu Asuka Langley. See ya, KenKen!" She spun away in a flash of red, crimson locks dancing in the stale air of the bar, and soon enough she was gone and he was still standing there, eyes stupidly glued to the door.

Shinji, I swear to any God or being out there that if you hurt her, I'm going to be the one to hurt you back. His fist clenched in utter helplessness and sudden wrath. Even sitting on a wheelchair and barely clinging to life, something told Kensuke that Shinji was capable of killing him if he ever so desired. He remembered how viciously he had smiled when smashing the man's mouth against the counter, and cursed himself for being a coward when the familiar shudder of fear ran down his spine. You better wake the hell up already and take her before she decides to stop waiting for you to do it, you dumbass.

He felt… small. Out of place. Disentangled from reality. He felt like a fifteen-year-old Eva and army fanatic again, watching the crush of his childhood walk away from him and into certain misery and heartache. The rap song bounced through the walls, coming from the old, damaged speakers close to the bar counter, as though soberly announcing the agony to come.

"Yeah baby, do that dance it's the last dance you'll ever get the chance to do. Girl shake that ass, you ain't never gonna break that glass, the windshield's too strong for you… I said yeah baby sing that song, it's the last song you'll ever get the chance to sing. You sexy little thing, show me what you got, give it your all! Look at you bawl, why you crying to me?"

Kensuke sighed. "Same song a dance…"


Ikari Residence. 3.02pm.

For the first time since his boss and coworkers had dropped in to visit, the bell rang without someone banging at the door like he owed them money.

Shinji pushed the chair to the door with a raised eyebrow. "Hey, Krista, did you call anyone else?" He asked as loud as the injuries allowed, and then realized something was seriously amiss with what he had just asked. "Have you been giving people m-(cough, cough)- my address?!"

"You said you wanted to cook, right?!" Krista bellowed back from the kitchen. "Well, Kanao and I can't cook for shit, so I called someone who can!"

The door opened without him opening it, which shocked Shinji enough to leave him momentarily immobile, eyes wide. "Adriana?" he asked, perplexed.

"Pendejo," she replied, arms tightly crossed across her chest. The Latin American woman scowled down at him with disappointment shining in her brown orbs. "Are you gonna let me in, or what?"

"How did you open the door?" he asked instead.

"I opened it!" rang the familiar voice from behind her, making Shinji groan. "Yo! Ain't you supposed to be resting and shit, man? The fuck you doin' trying to cook some complicated shit all fucked up like that?"

Shinji shook his head, where a headache not unlike the one from the morning began to crawl its way to the back of his skull. "Hi, Coach." He remarked drily. "I guess you know how to cook, as well?"

"Me?! Heeeeeell naw, man, you crazy?!" he showed her two gigantic bags held in his hands with a sunny smirk. "I'm just here bringing in the groceries, dawg!"

"Hey, Ikari, what's with the place?!" Added a third voice, earning a loud grunt from the seated patient. "Can you live even freaking father from me, huh? Shit! You're paying for my gas, ese! I can't be driving my van all around this town to get to this creepy ass apartment building! Hey, why don't you live in a house like a normal person? Ain't you got the money for it? Huh? And what's with that ugly ass dude outside, glaring at people? Yo, you know we were pulled over five times just to get here?! Hey, cabron, I'm talking to you!"

"I didn't invite you here, Luis, I didn't invite any of you here. Why are you all in my house?!" His eyes widened, recognizing the inescapable truth. Seven years of trying to seclude himself completely from humanity… shattered in seconds. Oh, no, no, NO. Please, don't answer that question, Shinji felt panic bubble up in his wounded gut. Why would you be so stupid as to ask that?!

The entire entourage took out their phones and presented the screens to him. "Asuka invited us!" The thunderous, unison response made Shinji shake his head relent at last, moving the chair away from the entrance and growing increasingly angry and concerned of just how many of the gym members were stepping in one after the other. Of course she'd send someone to make sure I behaved, but the whole freaking crew?! Who the hell does she think she is?! This is my house!

"Ikari-kun, hello!" Unaware that he had been sitting by the still open front door for a few minutes now, and that the gym members were all making themselves cozy in his apartment, Shinji was surprised to hear the voice of the other chef in Sukiya-san's restaurant greet him with a smile and what appeared to be a large portable cooler and a bottle of wine. "I hope you don't mind me dropping by, Sukiya-san insisted on making sure I delivered all this myself!"

"Ahh… Kamado-san… hi…" he said, confused. "Aren't you supposed to be working or something?"

The man's gaze softened in his direction. "It's Monday, Ikari-san, we're closed on Mondays."

"Ah!" he blinked in surprise and scratched his cheek. "Right… Monday. A-Ah… Kamado-san, that was terribly rude of me, sorry." Shinji-s shoulders sagged in defeat as he turned a hesitant eye at the group now actively taking the food out the bags and placing them in the counter. Ah, fuck it, what's one more, anyways? "So… do you want to come in?" he motioned towards the kitchen. "I could use a hand or two today, I guess. O-Only if you're not busy, of course."

The chef's gaze turned pensive as looked up at the ceiling and toyed with the bottle in his hand. "And… what would we be… eventually… cooking, should I accept your generous offer?"

Despite himself and the growing pulse cultivating in the back of his head, Shinji smirked. "Traditional Japanese food."

A gleam comparable to that of a raging fire ignited in the man's eyes. "Really?" he asked with a broad smile. "How… traditional?"

The smirk widened. Asuka's gonna hate this, and yet she'll be forced to love it all the same. I'm going all out today, to hell with these stupid wounds, to hell about the how. "As traditional as it gets, Kamado-san."

"Oooooh, Mama!" The man's eyes glowed like the glare of Unit 01. "Count me in, sir!"

Kamado marched into his house with care and finesse, minding to take off his shoes as had the entire entourage, and began to inspect which of the bags his gym partners had brought contained actual food and not beer or stronger booze. As he wheeled himself back into the main room Shinji noticed how despite Kanao having so very slightly altered the location of the furniture, his books, discs, files and overall the very few things he owned had not been interfered with in the slightest of ways.

Nobody had dared touch his belongings; the knives he so carefully honed, the cabinets were precious pictures and mementos were held had been left in the same order they had always been. Some small part of him, one that had been broken since the day his father had abandoned him in a train station, was somehow mended back into the twirling mass of pain and despair that was his soul. It felt warm, not the scorching heat Asuka's presence brought about but a more gentle burn, one he had been forcing himself away from for too long.

He noticed how Krista flipped him off and signaled towards the now neatly organized ingredients resting before him; even the small corner where he had been dicing the potatoes that morning had been left untouched. "Well, here you go, Mr. Master of the Culinary Arts."

"Huh?" The group stared expectantly at him as though wishing for him to begin barking orders and instruction. Adriana was scowling, arms crossed, looking at anything but him, Coach was smiling broadly, unopened beer in hand, and Kamado-san was already wearing an apron and his preferred black plastic gloves.

Krista rolled her eyes at him. "It's your house, isn't it?" She clarified. "Tell us what you want to do, and we do it for you. We can cut and dice and boil, but you'll be doing the cooking, the choosing of courses, the order in which every ingredient goes, everything will be supervised by you." Being the one who was closest to him, the muscled girl took out a knife from the set he had taken out in the morning and held it almost menacingly. "Let's go."

"I thought you didn't cook," he provided snidely, almost being forced to smile by forces yet unclear to him.

"Shut up, you donut," with the tip of the knife pointed straight at him, Krista glared down at him in a way not unlike how Asuka preferred to do. "Now get going before I change my mind."

He shook his head in disbelief, truly wondering if he had actually overdosed in the morning and was now actively dreaming in a drug-induced coma. Again, he felt like the inadequate brat he had been so many years ago, being shocked to silence by the mere audacity of the Second Child and her impulsive nature. With little to no regard to his desire for personal space, she had chose to act. A strained chuckle mixed in with a sob escaped his suddenly parched throat. "You're a donut."

Both the crew and Kamado-san were gracious enough not to mention or react as a few renegade tears escaped his eyes, or how his voice seemed to tremble when an unsteady hand picked a ripe tomato so he could pretend to inspect it. "S-S-So we're making lots of –(hitch)- stuff today… uhh… thanks for... uhh… being here and h-helping… me… I really don't know what to s-"

"Yo, Ikari! What's the wifi password here, man? How am I not live-streaming this right now? Yo! This is your boy Luis, coming to you live from Ikari Shinji's house, yo! Ay wey, look at that view out the balcony! I gotta tell you it's a dope ass house he's got, some sweet carpets we got here, nice sound system, some books and shit, a delightful collection of wines and rums, but no wifi yet! Yo! What's the password, ese? You listening to me? I got fans who need to see this shit in 4K! Look, I'm already trending! Yo! Ikari Shinji's house is dapper as fuck, yo! Got that… Feng shui feeling to it! "

Shinji's smile turned somewhat pained in that moment, as a portion of the indescribable guilt stored inside his chest crawled its way out. Krista wasted no time in smacking the man over the head for interrupting what was probably the only time he had ever allowed himself to be vulnerable around them. Shinji snickered; it was as though Luis had been aware of how uncomfortable the thought of opening up made him. "Just three letters," he said, and marveled at the fresh mackerel Inoue had brought; a nice Miso soup would be lovely as an appetizer. "R-e-i."


Asuka tried not to think of Frizt's concerned reasoning and his attempts to will her out of walking into the building; she summoned the wrath locked within her core and forced herself to remember not only what she had encountered in the hospital bed, but also the pictures Kensuke had just provided. Blood everywhere, his blood, spilled senselessly all over the bedsheets, the floor and the ambulance which had had picked him from the streets. Wide gashes cruelly imprinted into his flesh, tearing veins and tissue apart, threatening to steal away his ability to walk, much less run. The wide, doe-like stare of the little girl… the little girl with a tone of hair just a tad darker than her own.

Position the target in the center, she thought with viciousness, stride doubling in speed. Pull the switch.

The air around her stank of mold and humidity, the rotten wooden floors cracked with ominous decay and damage with her every approaching step; the very stairs to reach the designated floor on the piece of paper were rotten away. Walls and floors had already collapsed, the well-built foundations were the only thing holding the corroded structure together, cracks on the wall and the evident glare of the metal underneath were but a grim reminder of the horror Third Impact had brought about.

This was the building where Shinji had almost overdosed on black tar heroin two months after having been released from the hospital. Her frown worsened; of course the pricks would pick this location of all abandoned buildings in the ruins surrounding the crater. Nothing like a sprinkle of irony to worsen her already terrible mood.

Only after climbing the fifth set of decaying stairs did Asuka recognize the guttural tones escaping from the third room to her right. Bracing herself for the sight, she took a deep breath and opened the door. She saw a dirty, abandoned apartment where trash and used clothes lay about both on the floor and some of the meager furniture of the uninhabited space, which consisted in a worn-out couch and a table filled with boxes of instant food and bottles of beer, whisky, vodka, rum and other beverages that lay all over, many of them broken. She could also distinguish what looked like used and bloodied needles thrown about on the table and the kitchen, if the rusting color on the tip was to be considered. The kitchen possessed a gigantic pile of dirty dishes that appeared to have been there for years, the paint on the walls was falling off and there was what looked like a small puddle of dried up blood on the corner of the room staining the putrid carpet.

Asuka walked around the living area, watching the decomposing state of the building, glancing at the drawn but half-eaten curtains that allowed receding gleams of sunlight to shine through and somehow illuminate the chamber. There was an old television facing the dried up, decaying couch, yet it was more than useless. It looked as if someone had thrown one of the bottles at it. The walls themselves presented fist marks on some parts, the windows were broken or so dirty it was impossible to glance through them, there was even some kind of unreadable graffiti on the wall adjacent to the couch. The house looked a bit too much like the apartment she had chosen to waste away in after her Synch Rate reached zero.

From behind the kitchen, the grate manifested again, slow and deliberate in enunciating every word with a sad, lingering undertone. "Þat mælti mín móðir…" ran the slow, cavernous growl. She sighed in dejection and walked over to the darkest part of the apartment, where not even the fading sunset light dared to glance. "….at mér skyldi kaupa…" She stole a final glance at the couch and denied the turmoil of guilt and dread no more; Shinji had almost died in this God-forsaken hellhole. "….fley ok fagrar árar…" At last, she came upon the only two surviving wooden structures inside the building; a table and two chairs, one of which was occupied by a man with a thick beard, thick arms and a black glove in his right hand. He smiled in her direction with a rugged grin that made his white skin turn flushed with enthusiasm. "Fara á brott með víkingum…"

"Alexandyr Volkov," Asuka muttered with a sigh, taking a seat opposed to him and tapping the table twice with her finger. "The Mad Viking."

The man's crooked smile broadened, shining through his beard, letting her see a row of silver teeth gleam ever so slightly through his lower jaw. "Księżniczka!" he answered merrily, and drank from a massive glass held in his gloved hand. "So glad to see you!" The man motioned towards the array of dishes served before her, apparently unbothered by the sight of cockroaches and rats roaming about on the floor. "Please, eat!"

She picked one of the dumplings resting on a white, minutely decorated plate. "Are these…?" she started, and sniffed.

"Tak, tak!" Volkov picked a dumpling himself and swallowed it whole, drowning it with a healthy gulp of whatever swam in his gigantic cup. "Pierogi, you say you like, yes?! So I bring Pierogi," the gnarled finger pointed towards the first dish. "Naleśniki," he motioned towards the thin… pancakes sitting on the plate adjacent to the dumplings, toppled with what appeared to be jam and powdered sugar. "And of course, we have Kaszanka, and Mayonez." A healthy portion of blood sausages came into view. "Witam!"

"You know damn well," she ground out, taking one of the blood sausages and devouring it in an instant. "That I don't speak Polish. So either speak English or speak Japanese, you brute." Despite her increasingly darkening mood, the redhead had to admit the treat was exquisite. "Did you bring what I asked?"

"Of course!" the older man replied with another snicker. He placed the glass on the table with less than the necessary delicacy for a piece so large, and produced a hefty gallon of a golden liquid, heavily placing it on the spot beside her left foot. "Only the finest for my little Brat!"

She kicked the gallon half-heartedly and was satisfied with the overall consistency of the liquid. "If I find out you bought this shit in a store and filled this gallon up, I swear to you…"

"Hey!" The bearded figure cried in outrage, pointing at the other five gallons sitting behind him. "I make this, okay? Okay?! I make this! This is best mead you'll ever have!"

"The best mead?" she retaliated, raising an unbelieving eyebrow. "So, do I get to taste it?"

Volkov snorted in derision, and produced an equally large glass from under the table, placing it in front of her while he gave her an amused, somewhat disapproving glance. "Nie, nie. Mead is for him, yes?! Make him strong!" Just as he had produced the gallon resting by her leg, the green-eyed man took a flagon from underneath the table and filled her monstrous cup with a brownish looking liquid. "We drink Kvass, you and I, księżniczka."

A shrug and a roll of her cerulean orbs was the only reaction the man managed to get, for Asuka picked the glass and presented to him. "Whatever," her stoic gaze fixed on the man's playful eyes. "Skál."

The satisfying clatter of both glasses impacting heavily on one another signaled the official beginning of their meeting. "Skál!" he answered with another smile which not only showed out the prosthetics in his teeth, but also forced a healed gash in his lower lip into attention.

"You know, that song you were singing," she muttered after taking a hefty gulp of the delicious, cool drink. "It was written by a seven-year-old who killed his brother with an axe, and got praised for it by his mother."

The metal teeth gleamed under the fading sunlight; Volkov's grin turned almost impossibly wide, making the man look almost deranged. "Tak-Yes!" he corrected, and inhaled the contents of his own glass with gusto. "Very Viking of him, you not think? Take a ship, sail, plunder, slay your enemies!" The cup was emptied loudly enough to make Asuka's eyebrow twitch in annoyance. "Good song, good mother, to inspire son to be great!"

Annoyance quickly soured into displeasure of the highest quality; she had to fight the urge to reach for the gun in her purse to such an extent that the former Second Child's nails dug through the fabric of her new pants and had the material screaming in outrage. "Great mother and role model, to push her son into a life of war and bloodshed, parenting done right, huh?"

Somehow the sight of those teeth arose an ever deeper sense of anger in her; Volkov took no notice of her displeasure and smiled even wider. "Strength is justice, my lady Sohryu," he retaliated while taking the bottle of Kvass and serving himself a full glass. A gloved hand stole one of the pancakes and pushed it into the man's scarred mouth. "So she was making sure her son survive, nie?"

"Yeap, she gets all the points in the 'Awesome Mom' contests," Asuka mumbled after taking a dumpling in between her fingers. "What's with the glove? Are you honoring Michael Jackson or something?"

The comment earned her a deafening bark of laughter as the man known in the underbelly of the world's assassins as one of the worst ones cackled and slapped his leg in glee. "Ha, ha! Yes! Like King of Pop! Billy Jean! Ha, ha!"

He presented the hand to her and removed the leather glove in a fluid motion. "This no Billy Jean, Księżniczka, this… this is…" once the layer was removed, the robotic prosthesis attached to Alekandyr's hand was impossible to miss; a large metallic wrapping covered most of his hand, with the two last fingers extending into clawed appendixes clearly made to maim. The man chuckled and unwrapped the straps holding the prosthetic in place, pressed some button just under his wrist and a hiss invaded the moist atmosphere of the room. "This is… Fenrir did this…"

Once the prosthetic fell heavily on the table Asuka was able to fully observe the extent of the damage done to the hand; the pinky and ring finger were completely gone, with irregular signs over the metacarpals signaling where they had been amputated, and there was a noticeable mass of scar tissue where two bite marks had once tried to rip the flesh clean off. Without the steady support of the prosthetic, Asuka caught a glimpse of how much the three surviving fingers twitched ever so often from the neural damage sustained.

"Fenrir?" her voice rose with evident indignation. "Have you been drinking too much of this mead you made? These are human teeth, I can see the evidence from a mile away. So he bit your fingers off and now he's the wolf of the Apocalypse?" A fist impacted the table and made the glistening china dance. "Don't ever pretend to compare Shinji with a dog, do I make myself clear, asshole? Ever. He's a person, a human being, a man made of flesh and blood just like you."

More chuckles escaped the man as he grasped the large glass cup with his scarred hand and had evident trouble lifting it to take a drink without the help of his mechanic appendage. "Is he, now?" he said in between gulps. "Ask anyone who was there, Księżniczka. Ask them what they see, standing next to him that day. Ask them what they see, ask them what they feel. He is human, yes… but he is…" the man paused, licking his lips. "…More…"

Asuka chewed on another blood sausage to quench the growing sickness in her belly. She had asked them, already. "What did you see?" she asked instead, leaning forward. "Who did you see, standing next to him?"

Volkov leaned back on the chair and scratched his beard with the three fingers left to him.

"Well, no offense, really, but earlier in fight I do see Fenrir, just for a moment, before fight became… one-sided." Volkov responded with a shake of his head and the shifting of his overall energy from jolly to reserved and solemn. "Then, when I'm lying on ground, I think I see Allfather, looking down at me," the man revealed in a steady growl, eyes fixed on his disfigured hand. "I think 'Yes, this is. This is Death, I am finished, and I am dying. But I was not dying, it just felt like I was dying."

"It felt like you were dying?" the redhead inquired and devoured a dumpling heavily coated in mayonnaise. "Care to elaborate on that?"

"Like Third Impact," Volkov said with ease and a shrug of his broad shoulders. He wiped his beard with the uninjured hand. "Like… melting, dying… me, everything that make me… me… disappearing." An ominous shudder shook his body; he shook his head and turned his gaze to the ground momentarily. "Not a nice feeling. Even worse than losing."

"Hmm," Asuka's forefinger drummed against the table. "You say you think you saw Odin and Fenrir and we can attribute that to heavy concussions, but… what did you truly see, in that moment?"

Volkov mulled over his words carefully, minding to refill his glass with a pensive look. "Just him…" he offered after taking a sip. "I just see him… and someone… something… standing next to him." The impaired mass of muscle and bone turned into a tight fist. "Something..." He frowned, eyes fixed on the uneven edges and damaged skin surrounding his bad hand.

"What's standing next to him?" She demanded with steel under her voice. "Who was there, that day?"

The Man's muscled shoulders sagged visibly as he sank into his seat and shook his head, eyes turning distant. "Loki." He spat out the name as though the very letters tasted sour. "If I have to put name to it, I say Loki."

She nodded once. "Was he smiling?"

The man's legs uncoiled from under him as he stretched them and almost touched her ankle with his right boot. He displayed unease all of the sudden, a primal sensation very much akin to blind dread. "No," he said quietly. "No smile. Just… stood there."

Asuka nodded once more and emptied her own oversized cup. "Shit."

"Yes," Volkov said, gaze still secured on the place where his fingers had once been. "Shit," he snorted again, louder than before. "If everything was so easy as Bakelite, life would be… simpler."

She frowned into the empty glass and demanded it be refilled again. Once full, she took a long drink and made sure to drown at least half its content in one go. "I should kill you for what you did to him," she confessed in a manner not unlike the way Misato had spoken to her just hours before. "I should have you torn apart slowly, or burned alive. Do you even realize… how lucky you are?"

"Oh, yes," Volkov agreed wholeheartedly and presented the missing fingers to her again. "I know how lucky I am, Madam Sohryu. I know how lucky we are, you and me." He produced a low, malevolent snicker. "She was not so lucky, was she?"

"Trial by fire," replied the former pilot while moving some overgrown tresses off her eyes. "Sink or swim. Live… or die. Certain standards have to be met if you interfere with Ikari Shinji, as you very well know." She pointed towards the missing fingers. "Case in point. I never asked you why he didn't kill you, now that I think about it."

"I tap!" The assassin revealed with glee. "I tap tap tap like chicken before he snap my neck, and he let go! Ahhh!" He effortlessly inhaled half the cup's content, to which she also smirked and responded with a sip of her own drink. "It was not my time to reach Valhalla!"

Asuka raised an amused eyebrow at the man's strange nature. "Are you a Viking, or a Gopnik?"

"And why not both?" The man devoured another pancake, doused a dumpling in mayonnaise and gulped it down along with half a blood sausage.

"So you tapped." Her forefinger drummed against the worn surface of the table. "In a fight that was meant to be to the death."

"No, no, no, you no understand," clarified the man who had brutalized Shinji's body. "In fight, winner has control of life and death. In war you lose… you are dead. You know this, but in combat… when I tap, I telling him 'you win, I lose, I am dead now, please don't kill me'", he tapped heavily on the chair for emphasis. "Please, please, please, don't kill me. Then, in that moment I am dead, good as dead. And even more powerful than just kill me, he now can choose to kill me or not."

Her expression turned sour as the anger began to cloud over her senses. There was still one more visit she had to take care of that day, just one more matter and then at last… she'd go back to Shinji's apartment, to the only place that had felt like home in over fifteen years. "If the tables were turned," the redhead voiced out in a menacing growl. "You would've killed him regardless of whether he tapped or not."

Volkov's gaze became more somber when their eyes locked. "I wonder about that."

"What, you're telling you're pretending not to be this ruthless killer everyone paints you out to be? The Mad Viking, really? In the underbelly of the world of contract killers you stand out like a sour thumb. And now you're giving me this bullshit talk about control over life a death in a fist fight," she drank and shook her head. "And you're telling me you wouldn't have killed him, yeah… I'll believe that. Are you some sort of recovering monk or some shit nowadays, Alex?"

It was rare that the intimidating aura of someone else managed to unbalance her in any way, not lately at the very least. The way the atmosphere in the room thickened and how the air suddenly felt colder were impossible to miss; he gave her a small, cold smile this time around, a vast contrast to his earlier disposition. "No," the word fell coolly from his lips. "I'm mass-murdering, people-torturing, sadistic, obsessive, precise, violent international criminal who has killed and will continue to kill people. Is what I do, is what I am."

"What is he, then, some special case?" Asuka demanded.

Volkov erupted in a short fit of deep, throaty laugher and slammed the table with a disfigured right fist, making the now empty plates dance in the surface. The barks took some time to descend into small chuckles, the time it took Asuka to empty her glass and refill about a fourth of it.

"Oh, Księżniczka," the man leaned forward and winked at her. "You know he is."

With the formalities now officially over, Asuka nodded and cracked her neck, turning an increasingly colder gaze towards the apartment's exit, and drank in heavy gulps. "The food was great today," she said in a forced whisper. Her eyes narrowed, nostrils flaring. "Much better than that gruel from last time, way to step it up."

Volkov answered with a shrug and a pat to his midsection and proceeded to reset the prosthetics on his hand. "Is good to do things on full stomach. Now, shall we?"

"We shall," the floor creaked audibly when she pushed her chair away and rose. "It's about time I finished this shit and went home. I've been running errands all day."

"Do you want it to be quick, then?" He asked as they exited the apartment and walked towards the roof of the decaying building. "I can make it quick."

"For those three, I really don't care how you do it. Gosh, so many freaking stairs!" She complained loudly to the empty hallways and the circling staircase taking them to the tenth floor. "Pick a one-story building next time, will you?"

"You mean there will be next time?" inquired the assassin, intrigued. She watched him smile from the corner of her eye and pushed a strand of her back from her face.

"There's always an asshole waiting to do something stupid right around the corner," the punishment brought upon to her muscles by the rigorous training sank deep into her limbs; she had been inactive for too long. The morning and the constant moving and sitting of the day's events had only added to the aches and left Asuka feeling stiff; her knees ached and resented her for taking them up and down so many stairs. She was tired. "No offense, but I can't say I'd miss you if we never happen to meet again."

"None taken," she noticed the augmented fingers produced no apparent mechanical sound when Volkov opened and closed his hands to ensure they were functioning properly. "You not have to be here, you know."

The redhead's frigid glare turned incensed with anger. "On the contrary," she rebuked, hands turning into fists. "I have to be here. Shinji was supposed to be with me that day, with me." At last, the clammy night air of that particularly rotten part of the ruins of Tokyo 3 welcomed her, so Asuka greedily breathed the smell of stale water and wet concrete. Had it rained that night? "How many of those horrible events could I have prevented by just being here?"

"Yeah, well… what's done is done," was Volkov's nonchalant reply. "You needed time, is understandable. War and death and all that shit," he spat on the ground when the figures of several other men came into view. "He is grown man, nie?"

"Being a grown man has nothing to do with being targeted by a severely crazy bitch, or saving an innocent child from certain death." About five men dressed in fine suits awaited, one of them almost inhumanly large. "Crazy to think one is the reason we met, and the other is the reason we're talking right now."

Alexandyr laughed. "Life is cruel like that, Madam Sohryu." Once they reached the more illuminated part of the roof the four men bound and kneeling also became visible; in a complete contrast to those holding them down at gunpoint, blindfolded and gagged, these men were dressed in rags. Old, worn out clothes that looked as though they had not been changed for more than a week that she could even smell from a distance was all that covered them. "Ah, Hanayama! I like the new glasses!"

The man who easily towered over them all gave the bearded murderer a curt nod, and offered her a very formal bow. "Volkov-san, Sohryu-sama, welcome. I hope the travelling was not too bothersome."

"Too many freaking stairs," she offered as an alternative to any sort of greeting. "Smaller buildings next time, have some consideration." The remaining four men chuckled and bowed as well, which she in turned acknowledged with a curt nod; placing her hands on her hips. Her eyes travelled over to the captives; two of them were shaking in dread, one of them was praying if she had to guess, and the last one was quiet. "Let's get this over with."

"As you wish," For a man so freakishly large, Hanayama appeared exceptionally gentle to the former Second Child when he removed the blindfold from the first one. A smaller one dressed in a dark red suit stepped forward and cleared his throat after hunching over in a half-assed bow. She did not like the gangster's eyes or expression in the slightest, and found herself irked when the first captive began to scream out for help.

"We, of the Yamaguchi-gumi, humbly request you give us one of their lives to take, if possible, Sohyu-sama." The gangster bowed and showed her a row of perfectly white teeth. "It would be our honor."

"I'm feeling generous tonight," Asuka pointed at the one screaming and the one shaking the hardest and offered a nonchalant shrug. "I'll give you two for the price of one. Make it quick, I have others places to be that don't stink of ten-year-old piss."

"We thank you for this generosity, Sohryu-sama," Asuka observed the two men now being forcibly dragged to their feet had evident signs of blunt for trauma on their faces, one had severely disfigured, broken nose, one was sporting a hefty bandage on his skull and the remnants of some swelling in his cheekbone. She also noticed a slight limp. "Hanayama-kun, if you'd be so kind."

Taking off his spectacles with gracefulness unexpected of someone of his contexture, the big man nodded in their direction and offered said glasses to her, which she took with a raised eyebrow and stored away in the jacket. "You give them first serve?" Volkov asked, bemused, chuckling beside her.

"I don't care," Asuka replied and pushed her gloved hands into the jacket pockets. The night had turned darker all of the sudden, darker and chillier; she pushed the growing nausea deep into her belly. "This isn't about serving anyone anything. I'm just making a statement."

Hanayama's large hand came to rest on the first man's skull, covering almost the half of his face with his gnarled fingers. "N-n-n-o, come on, Boss, don't do this to me! I swear we didn't mean to, I swear, oh…" His eyes glanced in her direction and widened once they recognized her. "Oh… oh, God, please, please don't do this! Please- PLEA- ughmm-" The man's other hand covered the captive's mouth and reduced his mindless screaming to muffled cries. Volkov chortled again. "And what would this statement be, if I may ask?"

Her cold cerulean orbs fixed on him, making the older man smile widely and show the row of silver teeth in his lower jaw again. She nodded to Hanayama while never breaking eye contact with the self-declared Viking. "Don't touch my stuff."

-CRUNCH.-

The man's lower jaw was removed with a monstrous tug of Hanayama's colossal hand, forcing blood to sprinkle all over the concrete and turn the criminal's wails into incoherent screeches. The night turned silent soon after when the man was picked up by the hand holding onto his skull and was slammed face first into the floor once, twice. The second time the disfigured features impacted against the ground and produced a sickening crack the body went stiff as a board.

The second victim was held by the neck while forced to make eye contact with her as he was strangled with a single, blood-stained hand that clamped down on his neck like a vice. Just as the man's face was starting to turn blue, Hanayama pressed even harder and turned his thraquea into a twisted mass of skin and flesh, picking them man's now limp body by it and hurling both recently deceased former inmates into the center of the roof.

Asuka nodded towards the one praying on the ground. "That one you can have, Alex. He was the one of the two in charge of extracting the organs."

"Don't mind if I do," he said, stretching. He picked up the third one by the scruff of his neck and hoisted him to his feet. "Ey, ey, you," he asked. The man's eyes were forcibly closed and his hands were held in front of him as he trembled and sweated out his every pore. Asuka's nose wrinkled in disgust when he loosened his bladder in front of them and droned even louder while signaling to the skies with his joint hands.

"Ey, Ey" two solid slaps impacted on the third one's cheek. "Who you praying to? Are you not… a child killer? An organ seller in black market? You take money from pigs and cut children open like quails. Who do you think will listen to you, eh?"

The man's desperate ramble ceased, his eyes went wide and he stared deep into Volkov's smile, horrified. "You know, the saddest part of all this… is that he would probably listen to you." The bearded assassin placed a comforting hand on the man's shoulder, almost holding him in a one-armed hug. "Such a pity you tried to kill him, nie?" In a second, he had sunken the man in a rear naked choke and was now strangling the victim with ease. The criminal tried to fight back, to no avail, Asuka noticed the power and technique discrepancy in a heartbeat. "Hanayama, look at this one!"

Volkov abandoned the choke and began to simply rotate the man's head to the side, and with a brutal twist the deafening and familiar crack of vertebrae being destroyed assaulted the redhead's senses. The man's head was effectively coiled to the point that it almost looked to be upside down; the body began to spasm as strangled chokes and wheezes once more permeated the quiet night. Volkov stood over his prey, arms and fingers spread wide open. "I call this… the Lionbite."

"Interesting," Hanayama commented, pointing at the victim. "He is still alive."

"Oh, yes, it will take little bit before he dies," realizing his stance had not much impressed her, the assassin crossed his arms and smirked. "You see, I dislocate cervical, then I twist thraquea and finally I compromise spinal cord enough that he will die of asphyxia while body paralyzed."

She watched with a steeled, unbroken gaze at the man's terrified expression as his body trashed about, spasmed, and ultimately went silent. And another one bites the dust, Asuka walked towards the biggest captive, the one who had remained quiet during the entire ordeal. Now, for the Pièce de Résistance. This one had an entire cowl obscuring his face, which she removed with a violent motion.

The man frowned and shook his head, blinked heavily, and upon locking eyes with her smiled impossibly wide. "Well, look at you…" his mutters were almost incoherent through what sounded like a compromised jaw. "The Great Sohryu Asuka Langley, come to pay little ol' me a visit…"

She planted the heel of her foot firmly in the bloated spot of the man's jaw which produced a satisfying thud and a howl of agony that rang into the night. "Yeah, the honor's all yours. Ishidoro, is it? You should keep quiet, I didn't say you could talk yet."

The man spat a glob of pink spittle and pieces of a molar into the concrete, baring his now bloodied teeth at her. "You bitch!" He half-mumbled, half-screamed, and would have spat on her brand new pants had his jaw not been in such a deplorable state. He managed to drool all over himself at best. "What're you here…(gurgle)…for…heh?! Hanayama, and you! How many girls did I deliver to you, you fuck?! Horseshit!" He shook his head in derision. "Yeah, I stabbed that bastard, I did it! So what!? Useless little shit that he is, and look at all of you acting like he matters, like he's some poor martyr! Give me a break! Ain't that what you used to say all the time, Sohryu, ain't it? That he doesn't matter, that he's nothing to you?! Well, you're right! He doesn-"

She kicked him hard enough to ensure whatever fissured bone in his jaw cracked in a way that made speaking more than painful. "You're being rude," Asuka said dispassionately. "I said you should keep quiet."

Almost falling on his side from the impact of her shin on his jaw, Ishidoro reared and supported his weight on his right hand, still kneeling. He searched his mouth for more loose teeth, and sprinkled blood all over his pants as it cascaded, mixed with saliva, down his mouth. "Pff…" he produced a few chuckles from the ground. "All of this… for that fucking nobody…"

She stepped on his hand next, eliciting a loud scream from the man who had stabbed Shinji thrice. "Get him up." She ordered, and not a second afterwards both Hanayama and Volkov had hoisted him to his feet. "What did you say?" The words ran through the empty building with enough force to make two of the Yazuka members gulp. "I'd advise you to choose your next words very carefully. Now you may speak."

The last of them tried and failed to spit at her face, he was in visible pain with every word he tried to articulate. "He…" he started while his eyes narrowed in her direction and his face turned into a snarl. "Is a fucking… nobody. He… is… nothing…"

Tilting her head to the side and crossing her arms, the redhead refused to break eye contact. "I suppose you consider yourself better than him, then, am I right?"

"May… be… a killer…!" he admitted with a groan as he half-heartedly fought against the men restraining and smiled through bloodied teeth. "But not… a failure! Or a wimp!"

"A failure, huh," Asuka nodded and tilted her head up. "Fair enough, let's run your hypothesis through some experimentation, then." She motioned towards his clothes, effectively erasing the man's smirk as his eyes widened in surprise. "Take off his shirt, and make sure not to hit him anymore. Oh, his pant leg, the left one, take that off as well." Being close to emaciated, the man could do little more than try to bite with a broken jaw and tug helplessly as the rags were removed with anything but gentleness. "Does anybody have a pen?"

The other four men offered finely decorated pens in her direction in a heartbeat, and since the bastard with those white teeth made her skin crawl, she took a black and golden one being offered by a tall and slim member dressed in a glistening black suit with crimson trim. "Anything else we might do, Madam?" he asked with a smooth undertone.

"Yes." Asuka stated without emotion. "Spread out his arms, like that, and hold him up in a standing position. No punching, as I said." Despite the man's increasingly violent motions, he now had two more Yazuka members holding onto his legs as he struggled to break free. "Let's see…" She examined the battered midsection, prodding at it with a gloved finger. "Hmm, right here." A line was drawn and retraced a few times to make it visible in the sweated skin.

"Nice pen, by the way," She dew a long line in the man's now naked leg next. "Turn him around." Once his back was presented to her, the former Second Child finished drawing the last line, and returned the pen with a nod. She noticed how the Yakuza picked it back up with a handkerchief and place it back in his suit. "I'm done." The man was forced back to face her. "Now, to put your theory to the test, we're going to revert to the most logical path in the scientific method."

Asuka's hand extended in the Yakuza's direction, to which the gigantic man nodded and produced a black army knife, placing it in her hold. "US 1004BD standard issue, twelve centimeters, as requested, Sohryu-sama."

The blade glistened under the rising moonlight, with the edge reflecting the crimson stain in a single, perfect point near the pommel. "A similar experiment has already been performed, you see, and we have data to compare, so it's a simple matter of repeating the specific conditions and observing the results." The former pilot educated as the man's mouth was forced shut by Hanayama's massive hand.

"Before you stabbed him," She started, and spat out the word like poison. "Shinji used to get up to jog and get the restaurant's ingredients at about 4.30am every morning, worked ten hours shifts at the least and still managed to squeeze in time for his insane training regimen." The knife was handed over to Volkov, who smiled like a child who had been offered a marvelous gift. The surrounding men chuckled in unison with mirth evident in their eyes.

"On that particular week, he had been taking twelve hour shifts, all of this while medicating heavily on different substances and sleeping either out of exhaustion or of a near overdose. I suppose two weeks in a shit cell will have to suffice to recreate these conditions. So, Ishidoro, regarding your hypothesis… Shinji walked several steps after you so expertly stabbed him once in the back, once in the leg, and once in the stomach."

She marched to stand face to face with the captive and scowled straight at him, glad to see some uncertainty begin to cloud over his deranged gaze. Both Volkov and Hanayama nodded in agreement, with the latter pressing his hand more firmly in the man's face to keep him from babbling more nonsense. "I'll make this easy for you. Five steps, that's all I'm asking. Give me five steps, and I stitch you back up and rehabilitate you myself, that's a promise. All you have to do is confirm your hypothesis." She gave a sheepish smile then, and pat him in the shoulder twice. "Good luck!"

Volkov wasted no time and pressed the tip's blade against naked skin. "Don't worry, I'll be gentle."

The knife went up his back slowly; Asuka saw the precise way in which the Polish assassin dug the blade in the exact angle she had traced out and specified, and no matter how hard Ishidoro tried to struggle, if Hanayama alone was enough to hold him down, then five men doing so assured no unnecessary damage was done. "Twist it a five degree angle," she instructed, to which the victim responded to by withering and whimpering as the blade's teeth cut open his flesh. "Good enough. Next."

Volkov removed the knife from the man's back only to drive it deep into his leg with a bestial bellow; Asuka nodded her approval, for regardless of the attack's viciousness the knife had dug almost the exact distance it had travelled inside Shinji's leg. "Sink it a little deeper… there, perfect. Twelve degree angle, twist and go to the last one."

With blood effectively showering all members involved except her, the Mad Viking positioned behind the fourth one, ripped the blade from his leg and pushed it deep into the ribcage, this time taking his time to penetrate both skin, muscle and organ thoroughly. Once more, she nodded in approval and walked exactly six curt steps away from the group. "Leave the knife there, let's make this even easier for him. Time to begin the experiment; you can release him."

The captors quickly let go of Ishidoro and began to complain, displeased, at the state of their attires, with the exception of Hanayama. He wobbled, unsteady, and tried to speak but coughed instead, sprinkling more blood on the ground, and stared at the blade imbedded in his gut with a gaze that looked almost incredulous.

"All you have to do… is take five steps. Five. Come over to where I'm standing, and I make sure not only that you heal, but that you walk away from all this mess. Give me five steps, and you're free."

The man's leg failed him twice as his left hand helplessly held onto bleeding wound in his stomach, turning to look at the remaining gangster as though asking for assistance with sudden confusion and helplessness. She saw him whimper, look at the increasingly moist and stained ground, and nod to himself before he took the first uneven step and winced as blood ran all the way down to his shoe. "That's one," he shifted the left hand to the gaping wound on his leg which kept cascading out in a constant stream, and forced his uninjured side forward with indescribable difficulty. "Two. Almost halfway there, come on."

Tears of panic fell down his face next, intermingled with the blood, as more crimson drool escaped his mouth and he realized just how much of the precious liquid he was losing. "You better get going before you pass out from blood loss," Volkov commented, amused.

With an even deeper whimper and now openly bawling as his right hand held the knife lodged in his stomach in place and his other covered the gash on his leg, the man pushed the uncooperative left foot forward. The wretch with the glistening white teeth whistled in amazement as he wiped his face. "That's how you do it, Ishi, my boy! Just two more!"

He shuddered in evident agony and forced the right foot forward one more time. "You're basically there, already," Asuka admitted. "One more step."

Just then the man's left foot slipped on the blood seeping from the leg and he crumbled face first into the ground; he sobbed, coughing and spitting on the floor, body trembling whilst shock began to overcome his senses. The redhead huffed in dissatisfaction. "For shame, you were almost there. Do you know what this means?" The man tried to get back to his feet but failed, turning paler by the second as he bled out and his frantic eyes moved from one gangster to the next and a puddle of crimson broadened under him.

Asuka crouched next to him; he tried to claw at her but was too weak and ended up by almost falling into the concrete a second time. "This means your hypothesis is incorrect. If the results of this experiment show anything, it's that you are not, in fact, better than Shinji even in the most basic of ways." She snarled and grabbed a fistful of his hair, turning the man's now glassy gaze in her direction. "You know, in their last moments… people show you who they really are." She whispered with venom leaking off her tone. "I guess you and little friends were nothing but sniveling wimps at your core." Her grip on his matted, oily hair increased. "You tried to take my Shinji away, and for that… you're going to die right here, right now… alone… and forgotten." She rebuked his terrified, glassy expression with a cold smirk. "Who's the one who's nothing now, huh?"

Pushing the man's face away, Asuka rose back to her feet and glared up at Volkov. "Put him out of his misery." Not ten seconds after her command, the sound a fourth neck snapping filled the empty apartment complex for the last time.

Hanayama walked over to her, scarred face still half-caked in blood, and bowed his head slightly. "I apologize that it had to come to this, Sohryu-sama. I thought you needed to know who, when, and how."

"I would've figured it out, anyway," Asuka responded with a dismissive flicker of her hand, and handed the glasses back to him. "This was my party, all of you just happened to be invited, that's all." The nausea returned with a vengeance; she didn't feel like being up that building for another second. "I hope you understand… that starting tonight all those nice little deals you had with him are done."

Much to her surprise, instead of reacting negatively to her attitude, Hanayama offered a warm smile as he placed the spectacles back on his face. "It pleases me to know Ikari-san is in such capable hands."

"An absolute honor it was, to be graced with your presence tonight, Sohryu-sama!" The wretch croaked from behind the massive man's back the moment she thought there would be silence at last; his voice felt like someone was dragging their nails down a board. "I will be personally making sure Ikari-san is no lo-"

"Zip it." Asuka ordered in a flash, and the man's molars clomped down on each other as an expression of indignation washed over his face. Her eyes narrowed at him. "You, I don't like you." She glanced at Hanayama. "Keep him away from Shinji."

She left without even waiting for a response, walking away in a hurry as Volkov struggled to keep up once he retrieved the knife from the corpse. The walk down the staircase was silent, with neither saying a word until they reached the street and the nausea became too great to handle. With just enough time to sprint to the building wall, Asuka hunched over and vomited back the food and drink she had eaten minutes before. "Heh," she said, spitting. Another spasm followed, and she supplied the dead garden with more useless bio matter. "Guhh… Gotta say…(pant)… Alex… tastes as good coming out as it did going in –(burp)-, ugh…"

"That certainly is compliment, I will take it! And you, take some of this!" he offered a bottle full of the familiar brown liquid, which she took once she had removed the gloves and thrown them next to the pile of vomit. "Kvass is magical cure for everything, księżniczka! That and some good vodka, too, ooh and some mead!"

She rinsed her mouth with the first gulp, spat it back out, and took a small sip to try and drown out the taste of bile from her throat. "Uh huh, super awesome cure there," the nausea subsided somewhat, only replaced by the seething rage, the overwhelming sense of regret and the heaviness of what she had just done. "Been there, done that; it did not work out well for me."

"You looked mean today." Volkov remarked while rummaging through his stained coat and effectively changing the subject altogether. "Really mean. Gave me scare and everything."

"Thanks, it's what I am." She took a few gulps of the beverage to try and rid herself of a blossoming headache which had only begun to manifest. "Everyone else seems to agree with it."

"No," rebuked the bearded soldier and crouched as though to get a better look at her. "I don't think you really mean," he pointed at Asuka's gaze. "You have sad eyes."

For a moment she was left speechless, trying to articulate a proper insult or heated response turned almost impossible, to which the assassin smirked. "Here, for the road," Volkov offered her a hefty plastic bag filled with three or four containers. "Some taste from homeland. You say you like, no? Polish delights! Ah! Almost forgot," he took out the vase of mayonnaise from his coat pocket and deposited in the bag, seemingly unbothered by the fact that aside from his hands, his whole body was still covered in blood. "There, now is complete!"

"You're a very, very strange person, do you know that?" Asuka took the bag with a shake of her head and a chuckle. "Until we meet again, Mr Volkov." She offered her hand, which he eagerly shook with a smile.

"How about let's never, ever meet again, is that not better?" he rebuked, and pointed to the row of silver teeth. "Business with you two is a painful affair!"

Asuka feigned a pout and pointed to the bag. "How am I supposed to get my Polish delights, then?"

Volkov gave a few barks of laughter and began to walk away. "I send by mail! Like normal person, kurwa!" he waved at her with the trademark enthusiasm shew had seen two years ago, turning his back and beginning to walk away. "Bye bye, Madam Sohryu!"

She stood there in silence for quite some time, sipped on the bottle and quietly watched Volkov disappear in the distance while the twirling mass of emotions made her dizzy. Life was cruel, indeed, and strange. Shinji had killed four men, once. She was now officially one death ahead of him in the scorecards, and if for once life decided to not be so cruel to her, perhaps those scores would never be changed again. The only official proof that she had, indeed, gotten a superior score in anything of true value; it was only to be expected that such a victory left her with the taste of bile in her mouth. Of course the only thing she'd ever manage to best him at was to be macabre and sickening. In retrospect, the dulling effect of the Kvass had been incredibly helpful throughout the entire ordeal, so she took another hefty drink and glared up at the heaven.

"Madam Sohryu," she muttered with a disapproving shrug. "That's even lamer than the Invincible Shinji…" Her step turned ever so slightly uneven as she left the building behind and did not bother to look back.

Yup, just great, and now I'm a little drunk and I'm exhausted and I've just killed four people and ooh goody, look at that! If it isn't Fritz who's coming along, to give me a moral bashing! Great! The las remnants of the drink were drowned out a few steps before she was standing next to her bodyguard. The man who had been in charge of her security for well over three years sighed, which battered her already aching chest worse than the sight of a man choking in his own blood. "Did you pick the bottles from over in that room like I asked?"

Fritz looked over at her with a pained, almost parental look. "All loaded up in the car, Madam."

Asuka nodded with a sigh and turned her cerulean orbs to the ground. Somehow the man's silent, steady gaze was more penetrating than any reprimanding comment he might have made. "Am I a bad person, Fritz?"

A familiar comforting hand made its way to her left shoulder, squeezing. "I think you are a very lonely person, Madam," Fritz offered with a sad smile. "But in your core, you are just as good as him. Your essence is the same, so no. You are not a bad person. As you've said to me before, that would mean he is, as well. I believe you are… simply someone who is protecting that which is dear to them." Once her head lifted just enough to see the man's eyes, Asuka saw his smile widen. "Which also happens to be one of the most well-known people in the world, and someone who has had people conspire to hurt him before."

She huffed, lip curling up. "Misato gives them court cases, time in prison, lawyers." She spat out, feeling sick. "She gives them graves. She lets their families mourn them, lets their bones know a resting place. I'm not Misato, and I'm not here to play cat and mouse." They walked over to the car and once inside, the sound of several detonations manifested. The building she had been standing on crumbled into nothing as they drove away, leaving behind only a gigantic cloud of smoke. "Lions don't play, lions devour you straight down to the marrow, with not a trace left behind."

For the first time in that whole day, Asuka sighed with something akin to contentment when she sank back to the car seat and remembered that she was not, in fact, going to an empty mansion filled with useless space, and less than helpful people. Present company excluded, of course. "Fritz?"

"Yes, Madam?"

Her eyes turned to the nearing glow of the city. "Take me home."

"Yes, Madam."


Ikari Residence. 8.42pm

"Ow."

He winced, hissed, and returned to the task at hand without much thought. Sushi was actually simpler than most thought; once all the ingredients were prepared it was a simple matter of taking the rice in between his fingers and molding the piece into whatever form he desired. The tuna, salmon, mackerel and about three other kinds of fresh fish had been cut in the way he liked, courtesy of his coworker. If anything in life were as easy as making sushi, he would probably have been at least half-decent at it. He pressed in the wooden roller and felt the sting of the jagged cut in his back bite back. "Ow."

With the last row completed, he set about cutting the pieces into even, perfect slices and placed them with as much care as his situation provided in a large plate gifted to him after his second anniversary in the restaurant. The beef, elegantly marbled and diced in exact squares was ready for the grill; both the ramen broth and the Miso soup provided the apartment with a much needed aroma of spices and broth. The beef curry received a much needed sprinkle of salt, and was covered with another hiss. "Ow." The Matcha Mochi was placed with more finesse than he could ever hope to manage at the moment, courtesy of Adriana's precise hands.

The Soba noodles were cut and ready, freshly prepared exclusively for the evening. "Ow." He blinked upon realizing a crucial detail. "Shit, how am I supposed to cook all of this by myself, now?" The kitchen counter was uncomfortable enough to maneuver around, and even standing on the crutches was out of the question since he could barely support himself, let alone move hot dishes around and detect the exact moment when the ingredients needed to be added together. Of all the recipes he had concocted that day, pretty much all of them except for the sushi and Anmitsu required to be mixed in together right before the dishes were served. "Great, perfect. Now I'll have to ask her to cook… the food that I cooked for her. Yeah, great reasoning there, Ikari. Solid."

His eyes drifted over to the way Kanao had so effortlessly moved his things around in a new order and had somehow made the apartment more spacious and balanced than whatever he had managed in the years of inhabiting the space, now even his sad little collection of plants was on display, right along the first new addition of pictures his wall had seen in two years. The place was spotless; not a sign of the many people who had visited remained, which made the silence he had become accustomed to that much louder. A traitorous smile escaped him, despite the sudden realization that such a tiny details such as the mechanics of his own recipes had chosen to flee his numb mind.

The frame was large, the largest he owned by far. In it the picture Luis had snapped with his phone was displayed, with the whole group standing beside him and him, sitting on the stupid chair in the middle of the large entourage; they were all smiling, even Krista, even him, however small and meek his smile was it was still there. Right after snapping the picture and getting his prized gas money, the most talkative member of their gym had dashed to get the picture enlarged and had raced back to the apartment with an efficiency very much unlike him. Coach's bald head and wide smile came into view, much like Kamado-san's sheepish expression as he held the freshly prepared Kobe beef to the camera. Despite her apparent hatred for him and her constant desire to call him 'pendejo' ever since being admitted to the hospital, Adriana was also smiling brightly.

Something moved alongside his chest, and constricted his heart with vehemence. He pulled the piece of paper from his pocket and unfurled it between his fingers. The words were glaring back at him in the same way they had that morning and so very easily made the permanent hurting in his soul subside to an extent.

'YOU'RE NOT ALONE.'

His eyes drifted to the large picture once more. Despite him basically trying to bite her fingers off when she touched him and turning her morning into a cesspool of concern and anger, Asuka had made certain that he had a second good day ever since setting foot in the country. He scoffed at the reflection on the frame's glass. "And now she's going to come home tired as hell, probably, from doing Gods know what the whole day, and I'm gonna have her cook her own damn meal." He palmed his forehead strong enough to have the wound in his stomach flare in its displeasure. "Nothing like some uselessness to make her feel at home, right, Ikari? Ow."

The wound in his leg complained when he readjusted his weight on it; if he behaved well enough then maybe in a day or two he'd finally be able to take a few steps on his own without the aid of the crutches. As if on cue a small tremor manifested all over his body and settled on his lower abdomen, bleeding the ever familiar sensation of anxiety to his already overtired brain. Hours had gone by already since both the visitors and the nurse in charge of helping him bathe and change his bandages had left; hours in which he had wheeled around the now empty house and stared down at the single pair of shoes sitting by his entryway.

So many other pairs of shoes had lain in all innocence right there just hours before; the people he refused to acknowledge as friends had so very forcibly pushed themselves into his home without a second thought after years of respecting his wishes to be left alone. He wondered what sort of message Asuka had delivered in the morning, to make those around him ignore his desire to rot away alone and destroy the balance of bitterness and self-destruction he had been pursuing. The redhead had never been one to measure her words, after all; what has she told them? How had she known that he would have actually managed to hurt himself badly, had she not acted behind his back?

He felt a tremor ran through his body just as the itching manifested; the branded skin of his left arm was always the first place where the itches first found their home, so Shinji scratched away at the scar and hissed when his stomach complained. His eyes turned over to the kitchen counter with the false bottom; Shinji shook his head with vehemence and moved the chair back to the now spacious living room. Mother's laughter and Lilith's giggle crashed against his brain; yet with a stubbornness comparable to that of the Second Child, Shinji bit down on his lip and blatantly refused to ingest the narcotics that kept the visions away.

I promised I'd try, I promised. The scratching turned more aggressive. He had managed to somehow relieve himself of the sexual appetite consuming him since the morning, at a terrible cost. Orgasms were supposed to relieve stress, not produce it, and yet he was still so broken that such a natural act left him feeling sickened and forced a particular memory in a hospital room to blossom and resurface. The source of inspiration for his little personal escapade washed over him again. Gods, why did she have to be so beautiful? Why was her hair so long? Why could he not simply revise pornography like a normal young man instead of focusing on the recollection from that morning? The battered left hand he used to reduce the faces of his opponents to bloodied messes curled into a fist.

Are you not feeling well, Puppy? Mother asked from the corner of the room. She was looking at him from across the bedroom door, speaking with a voice he knew not to be her own. You have to take your medicine, Shinji-kun. It's what's best. Didn't the doctor prescribe them, didn't he? Take your medicine, Puppy. It'll make everything better.

"Fuck you," he whispered back. The left fist began to clench and unclench. Asuka was bound to arrive at any moment; there was no room in the evening for his frantic, senseless mumbling of horrid visions. There would be time aplenty for such episodes in the future. "Leave." He commanded to the apparition. "I don't have time for you today, go back to burning in hell for the time of being. I'll be with you soon."

The decomposing corpse scowled at him, and ever so slowly began to mutate. The short brown hair remained while the features morphed into a younger woman, one he had known well. Oh, so you're thinking about her again, aren't you? She demanded with a glare. How many times do I have to tell you she's not welcome in this house, huh? What have we been talking about? She's a disease, Shinji. Be a good Puppy for once. Do you want me to get mad, is that it?

"I said go back to Hell," he turned his back on the ghost and almost jumped out of the chair when it next manifested, standing before him with a disapproving stare. Instead of turning his head away a second time he used to, however, this time around he glared right back at the empty space. "Leave, you're the one who's not welcome." The girl's face became incensed with anger; her hair changed from short to long in a heartbeat, the lab coat disappeared completely and he saw her as clearly as he had the day he had sunk into the abyss. Her indignation pleased him. "Get the hell out of my house before I show you real terror again."

The girl's mouth clamped shut, eyes wide in shock and surprise. Yes, she had been wearing that same expression of naked horror the last time he had seen her. He never broke eye contact, not even as he wheeled back into the kitchen through the apparition and went back to recounting the elements and ingredients resting on the many dishes set about. He did not look back, and was pleased to hear no response spring out of thin air and into his ears. Again, the memory of that underground arena bounced inside his skull; the cheers, the laughter, the looks of undisclosed glee and hunger at the way he was beaten and ridiculed. He had felt truly, utterly and indescribably alone that day and the feeling had accompanied him for so long that he wondered when, exactly, the shift had occurred.

'YOU'RE NOT ALONE.' The small paper said to him, whispering in Asuka's voice even when she had never spoken the words herself. It made for a very unlikely lifeline; the small note was already beginning to disintegrate from the abuse and sweat. Shinji had refused to believe the words for the whole day and now, at night, sitting on the blasted chair in silence and recalling how his head had almost been dug into the ground two years before, he suddenly felt compelled to consider them.

"Heh, I guess she's right, then." His neck craned over to look at the latest addition to his very limited 'public' collection of pictures. How long had he been able to reach out for a helping hand and refused to do so? Did he truly have no friends at all, like he loved to say all the time? "I am an idiot." another tremor ran all the way up and down his body and forced another hiss from his mouth. "Ow."

Just as he was about to extinguish the flame underneath the broth the door hissed open, and what he assumed was a very disgruntled Asuka marched into the apartment with an air of impending gloom. "I'm home," he heard her grumble. "Yeah, right there, on the table." A second pair of feet alerted the young man, who forced his uncooperative arms to function properly for once and propel him towards the entry. "Thanks for all the help today, Fritz."

"It's always a pleasure, Madam." The man he knew to be the Sohryu family's head of security bowed to both him and the redhead. "Mr. Ikari, good evening."

Shinji offered a half-smile and bowed his head in turn. "Mr. Weber, hello." His eyes drifted over to the redhead, who he found was scrutinizing his apartment with a frown and a raised eyebrow. "Welcome home, Asuka."

"What happened to this place?" She inquired, not truly acknowledging his greeting. For his part, he blinked at the large gallons of a yellowish liquid not unlike LCL was placed on the table. "It feels… different."

The comment elicited a chuckle from his battered abdomen; Shinji pointed towards the large frame behind him. "Well, apparently my house had no… how did she put it, again? Ah, yeah, no taste. Now, though, it would seem the place is 'dapper as fuck'."

He noticed how tired Asuka's eyes looked when they fixed on the picture, and found himself immensely ashamed that he would have to ask for her assistance in the kitchen. A half-smile dissipated the frown she had been displaying ever since entering the apartment. "So your crew gave the place some Feng Shui, huh?"

"Not really," he shrugged after Asuka walked over to the frame and began to analyze it from a closer distance. "That was mostly Krista's girlfriend, Kanao. She does it for a living. I don't even know how she did it so quickly, either."

"Huh," Asuka squinted to engrave the image of the girl standing next to the bit- standing next to Krista and do a bit of research in the coming days. "I guess I'll have to thank her at some point, then."

Thank her for what? He wondered with a fleeting frown. Does she… does she like the place better like this? "Yeah, now my house is trending all over the internet and people I refused to give my address to for years now know where I live. I have to be thankful to you for that, don't I?"

The gaping pit of wrath, disgust, guilt and numbness that festered in the redhead's heart began to close. Shinji was smiling in that picture with that little uncomfortable smirk of his; the smile had reached his eyes, she noticed, it was an honest smile. He was smiling. "You're an idiot," she provided as a response and shrugged. The warmth of the only location she had ever called home had a magnificent dulling effect on the wounds Misato had torn open in the morning. Asuka sniffed the air, noticing the enticing aroma for a second time ever since entering the apartment. "I knew you were gonna try something stupid like cooking, so I planned ahead."

"What are those?" Shinji asked her with honest curiosity and more than a little trepidation as he pointed towards the bottles. She blinked when the many sets of dishes and minutely placed treys jumped into attention. How had she not seen any of those when she had first set foot inside the apartment? "Is that… (cough)… LCL?"

She rolled her eyes and chuckled; her feet moved without her consent and approached the sitting form of Ikari Shinji. "It's mead, dummy," she answered with a smirk. "Why would I bring LCL to the house?"

"Mead?" the injured former pilot looked up at her with something close to complete shock. "I don't know, maybe it had something to do with the therapy or something. Mead? As in real mead?"

"Real mead, Baka. Ugh, can you imagine having LCL in your house? Yuck, just the stench alone… yuck." she remarked, lightly kicking one of the bottles for emphasis. "Starting tonight if you feel like you're going to snap like a twig and need to drink, this is all you'll be having. No rum for at least another month, and definitely no Whiskey," the word was enunciated with strength behind it to ensure he remembered the transgression from the day before. "Beer is also allowed for the time of being, just no excess. Oh, that reminds me," she placed a hand on the chair and felt something akin to relief to find Shinji give her an amused, almost intrigued glance. "We're gonna start physical therapy tomorrow. I can only imagine how stiff your muscles must be from sitting there for the better part of three weeks."

"Physical therapy?" he asked once his gaze turned slightly incredulous. "What, am I supposed to walk from the bathroom to the living room without the crutches, now? How am I going to exercise at all sitting in this fuc-"

"Language." Asuka interrupted. "And there are plenty of ways to train while injured. Leave all of that to me and just focus on not dying or shitting your pants tomorrow."

"Pff," for his part, Shinji shook his head in derision. "Language, Frau Doktor. You're damaging my very impressionable young mind here, you know."

The comment forced a chortle to escape the young woman as she placed a hand on Shinji's shoulder, amazed at how he did not in fact try to nip away at her fingers. There would plenty of work to do in the coming days; just by pressing her digits into the mass of his deltoid Asuka realized how strained it was. "You're an idiot."

"Nope, I am the Idiot, Frau Doktor." The hollowness inside her heart was then removed almost in its entirety upon seeing some warmth jump into Shinji's gaze. It almost felt like… fondness. "How was your day? Are those new pants?"

A very large part of her wanted to fall to her knees, press her head on Shinji's lap and cry and scream until no more tears escaped and no more sounds came from her parched throat. She so very intensely wished to see his reaction and wonder if he'd articulate some form of comforting gesture, of if he'd just watch her bawl with a look of disgust on his face. She reflected the former to be the more accurate possibility, considering the way he was looking at her. "These are new pants, as a matter of fact. My day was shit. Complete and total shit from the moment I woke up."

Shinji's eyes, if possible, lost most of the dangerous edge she knew he had crafted for so many years, which only made her bite down on her lower lip to keep it from quivering. "Do you… uhm… do you want to talk about it?"

YES. Her mind screamed without reprieve. So badly, so badly I want to. I want to tell you everything, everything, every last little detail of not this day, but my entire fucking life so badly it's physically hurting me right now. I want to tell you ever little fucked up thing I've ever done because I know you'd never judge me for it. "Nah," she answered instead. "Some other time, maybe." The time to tell you all that shit will come, eventually. I hope. It's just not today, Baka. Today is about you. "How was your day? Judging by all these… dishes… I'm assuming you were pretty busy, huh."

Despite the table being already filled to the brim with whichever recipes the idiot had been preparing, she saw how the speaker was in the exact same position she had left it when she left the house. Another dreadful tug manifested in her heart when Shinji, the real Shinji, peered from behind the wall of deep blue wall and gazed at her. "I had a… I had a really great day." He confessed with a hesitant smile, as though sharing the marvelous news of actually enjoying his life for a day was somehow a bad thing. "Thanks."

"I'm glad to hear it," It was almost impossible to halt the trail of despair and pain that was stabbed into her soul at the realization that Shinji was so estranged from receiving encouragement and a positive reaction that a nothing short of a few words spoken with honesty made the veil of hatred he hid under lift in an instant. "Truly glad to hear it, Baka. So, what's all this, huh?" Relinquishing her firm hold on his shoulder was harder than watching the bastard die; Asuka forced herself to change the subject so as not break into a fit of sobs. "What the hell did you do… how the hell did you do all this? And what is it? It smells delicious."

Wow, Asuka felt herself blush; Shinji's eyes turned into steel for a very brief moment. "Traditional Japanese food. I… had some help." The realization forced what the young boy categorized as the cutest snort that had ever graced his senses. He had managed to make Asuka laugh somehow. "I'm… gonna need a hand finishing everything, though." Stop that, she ordered. Stop it now, don't do this to me, please don't do this to me. She had seen Shinji smile sheepishly about as many times as she had seen an Eclipse, which boiled down to three. As his eyes closed and his lips turned upwards Asuka felt as though time was regressed and she was there, walking back to the apartment after a normal school day with no Synch Tests, and he was walking beside her. "Sorry."

Asuka spun around to hide the tears from him as hastily as possible. "Figures," she mumbled while marching straight to the bathroom. "No problem, I can do that. I'll take a shower first." In her mind's eye she saw his smile broaden even more; Asuka bit down harder on the tissue of her lower lip and managed a jagged deep breath. "Did the nurse come to change your bandages and help you shower?"

Shinji nodded and wheeled himself a bit closer to the bottles of yellow liquid lying on the table. He poked at one with curiosity. "Yeah, she left a few hours ago. She's crazy good with the bandages, not as good as you, though." Wait, what? What the fuck did I just say? Again?! Why the hell are you betraying me, motor functions?!

Without meaning to or being conscious of it at all, Shinji managed to both make her laugh and cry simultaneously. He just complimented me. She stared at the bathroom mirror and shook her head, forcing her stiff limbs to enter the small space and rinse off the grime of the day in its entirety. She also had to take the dreaded little pill she so very vividly detested. Shinji just complimented me, he said I'm… good. He said it, I heard him. You… bastard… you're not supposed to be the one doing the healing right now. "Nobody's as good as I am, Baka."

She peered from behind the cascade of crimson-golden locks which obscured her face; Shinji chuckled in amusement, poking fun out of the largest gallon of mead. "Isn't that the truth," he stated.

The bathroom door was closed with a resounding thud; she laid back on it and slid over to the cold floor in a heap. The heavy leather garment she had been wearing all day was hastily removed; the sleeve was pushed into her mouth and she bit on it to prevent the shaking sobs that course through her body to be audible. What a total, absolute idiot he is, she pondered while failing spectacularly to stop the flow of tears coursing down her face. Baka. Baka. Baka!

Her showers were normally long, freakishly long. She liked baths, liked to soak in the hot water and just feel the invigorating effect of letting her nerves settle. At times Mama appeared in the bathwater, broken neck twisting and turning in a way not unlike the ones of the men who now lay under an endless pile of rubble. That night she showered in a haste, minding only to effectively cleanse her body and make herself somewhat more presentable and comfortable; Asuka had jumped into the small space with such haste that she'd forgotten to pick up clean clothes, and tiptoed back to her room with nothing more than a towel to cover her. She felt irrationally thankful that Shinji was so engrossed in setting up pans and stirring broth that he didn't quite catch the moment she left the bathroom.

A quick change of clothes later she was standing next to his seated form, dressed in a large, cozy pink shirt and a pair of comfortable shorts, covered at the moment with her apron.

"Wait, wait," Shinji instructed beside her with a voice very much unlike him, filled with seriousness and concentration as she tried to pour the greenish looking noodles into the plate. "Now. Just let them simmer in the broth for a few seconds and… there. That's it. Perfect. They're ready, it's done." She poured the now boiling broth and noodles on the plate and watched Shinji add pieces of beef, cooked egg and spices in a slow, deliberate fashion. "Here you go. Sorry that you have to do this. Ahm… Guten Appetit."

Asuka did not much wait for the plate of hot Ramen to cool and instead opted to pick a large serving of the noodles and inhale them in a massive bite, suddenly blind with hunger. Her eyes almost rolled to the back of her head when the taste of the broth hit her tongue, regardless of how inhumanly hot is was. "Fuck." She said, enunciating the word with every intention of letting the neighbors know what they were missing. "Fuck. This is incredible."

"Hey, language." Shinji retorted, and chortled despite himself as he carefully laid a piece of Kobe beef on the now sizzling iron on the stove. The meat hissed at first contact and began to cook; he couldn't help but smirk wider as he watched the redhead alternate between burning her mouth with the steaming broth and consuming every last piece of sushi he had prepared. He took a much more controlled serving of his own Ramen bowl, and turned the meat over. "It's Japanese food, you know." He clarified, now effectively unable to stop grinning like an idiot. "Is it bland?"

"Ha ha, so funny," Asuka responded between mouthfuls, and devoured another three pieces of sushi dipped in soy sauce. Once the beef was served and diced with the precision he enjoyed the girl wasted no time in taking more than half the serving and basically chomping on it like a ravenous bear who had just woken from hibernation. "Fuuuuuck." He found himself pleased beyond words when Asuka basically dipped to display the evident pleasure of eating the perfectly cured cut. "How do you do this, huh? Even the Miso soup is so freaking delicious I can't stop drinking the stuff!" As if to illustrate her point, Shinji watched the former female pilot slurp away the small trey which held her Miso and refill it in a fluid motion. She took a large, loud sip. "Fuuuuuuuuuuuck!"

"Stop it, I'm getting contaminated." He snickered; minding to carefully observe her every move. There was not a trace of falsehood in her, not a trace. Every word, every reaction she was letting him see was genuine. Take that, Aida. Can you make her smile like this, can you?! No, no you can't. Of course you can't. This is my ballgame, my mat, my ring. You lose, I win. Don't ever, ever again touch what's mine, Kensuke. He thought, viscerally satisfied in ways words could not properly express. I will devour you if you do. I will devour you, do you understand that? "My ears are gonna start bleeding if you keep cursing like that. I'm a very innocent young man, you see." She laughed with a mouthfull of both Kobe beef, curry, sushi and half the trey of Moshi. "You're contaminating my very pristine, untouched and unblemished vocabulary, here."

Asuka almost choked on her food, spitting just a bit of it on the counter while holding her stomach and almost doubling over in evident glee. It was a deep contrast to the perfect manners she had displayed the night before, of the day his work partners had come to visit. He fell deeper into that gaping black hole of a crush he had developed for her years before, Shinji noticed the way the sensation clouded over single craving he had developed in the last seven years. It was the same emotion he had felt as a teen, matured and somehow so dense and absolute that he found himself unwilling to ask why the pills he had consumed earlier that day were working so well after such a long period of time.

They hadn't even bothered to sit on the table; both former EVA pilots were still in the kitchen, while a very hungry, very overzealous Asuka continued to follow his instruction for the very first time in both their lives, without trying to act superior or take the control away from him. Fuck. His mind repeated in a tone not unlike the one the redhead had used to describe her approval of the food. The shadow was absolutely terrified; he imagined it holding onto the little boy chained inside his being with a desperate hold, shaking and whimpering like a hare about to be eaten by a hungry fox. So absolutely beautiful. Fuck.

"Yeah, so pristine that I have to keep reminding you to display your manners like a gentleman should in front of a lady, Baka." She laughed, free for a very small and perfect moment of all the overwhelming pain and uncertainty the events of the day had brought about. He was smiling again, so very brightly, so very honestly, and this time around there was no stupid drunken coworker of his to ruin her perfect moment. "This stuff is not bland," she concluded after having consumed basically everything Shinji had prepared for her. "It's…" It's perfect. It's home, this is my home. This is what I've been dreaming about for seven years, only it's so… so much better than it was in my head. "It's really good, Shinji."

It did not escape her keen senses how Shinji was struggling to stay still, unconsciously tugging at the scar on his left arm or ever so often scratching near the wound on his leg. "I'm glad you like it." He revealed with the little smile that melted the ice covering her heart with heat that would have made the magma that surrounded her during the fight with the Eight Angel blush. The source of said heat blushed as well, to her surprise. "It was… you weren't supposed to be helping me here, in the kitchen. I wanted…" his eyes drifted over to the table. "I wanted to s-"

"This is much better than eating at the table," Asuka admitted before he could utter whatever he was about to say; she noticed how his body language had changed into something a bit more reserved, as though not wishing to yet present himself vulnerable to her in any way. "Much better. Say, Shinji…" the hand holding onto the boy's chopsticks shook ever so slightly. "You… have you been taking your pills, today?"

Shinji's smirk turned just a bit melancholic, she noticed the way his shoulders loosened in some form of defeat, yet not the utter destruction he had displayed a mere two days before. The little spark of hope ignited in the hospital room a few weeks before turned into a raging fire. There he is. My Baka Shinji, there he is. I can see him. Do you hear, Misato? I can see him. "No," the former Third Child replied, and scratched away at his arm. "Not really. I… I promised."

With a shake of her head Asuka turned back to the growing pile of dirty dishes standing before them both. I'm proud of you. I'm so proud of you I could literally cry right now. I could cry. I really could, and I think… that this time you would actually do something about it. She placed a sticky, rice-filled hand on the boy's shoulder and squeezed. "You really are an idiot, huh?"

Shinji sighed and nodded. "I guess so. Do you have some room for dessert? I made some…uhm…(cough)… well… the crew made some Anmitsu, it goes really well with some tea. Would you… would you like some?"

Anything that you ever cook from this moment on, absolutely anything you present to me I will consume, Shinji. Even if I'm not hungry, because it tastes that good. The words rang loud in her mind and settled deep within her soul. She was home, at long last. "So long as it doesn't involve any sudden movements, Baka… surprise me!"

A few hours without either noticing, they settled into a comfortable pattern of her washing the dishes and Shinji placing them on the counter to dry, and soon enough she was helping him settle on the mattress and get ready for bed. Before she could exit the room, however, a sudden thought crashed into her brain with the force of a raging Angel. "If I wake up screaming tomorrow," she asked from the door. "Are you going to do something stupid again?"

She turned her head to drink in the way Shinji chuckled. I see him, Misato. I can see him. I think… I think I'm going to save him, now. "Probably."

Asuka nodded absently and pretended that the sigh her body produced was one of exasperation and not absolute, blissful relief. "And if I get a futon and put it on the ground next to your bed, are you still going to try to do something stupid?"

The former Third Child scratched away at his cheek, with the same sheepish little smile she so fervently adored in full display. "Yeah. Probably. I will."

Her feet had already closed the distance between the bed and the room, with the right arm shutting the door closed with a forceful push. "Alright, then. Scoot over."

Shinji blinked in surprise. "Huh?"

"Scoot over, Baka," Asuka repeated, and signaled to the right side of the mattress. "I have to make sure no more of your stupid little antics interfere with your recovery," One day very soon she'd get around asking Shinji why he had opted to own a bed and not a futon, and how on Earth he had picked such a comfortable one at what she assumed was his first try. Once Shinji cautiously moved and gave her an ample space in the large bed to lay, she let her body collapse and turned to her side, with her back to him. "Good night." She said with an air of finality. "No sudden movements."

Shinji felt the tension begin to manifest in his room with an intensity he had scarcely ever felt before. Beside him, the girl who so very easily produced such tension lay just a few inches away from her, yet he found himself terribly away. The yellow police line somehow materialized in the middle of his bed; they had held each other on numerous occasions without the need of a single word to explain why they were trying to mold into a single being every night after Third Impact.

He was still unable to reach her. Asuka was probably exhausted at that point; he was aware that she had not slept even regularly well for the past two nights. Exhausted, dragging her feet and most likely angered in some way, she had ensured that he felt unalone. Anger began to bubble and boil in his battered stomach; the yellow of that hated police line shone like an AT-field in front of him. No more of this, the shadow decided for him, to the young man's everlasting shock. No more.

The sensation of so vividly piercing through said AT-field permeated the skin of his right hand when it gently fell upon Asuka's arm. No more. It was such a simple thing to do, to ever so slightly reach out and let himself bare the rugged edges of his soul to another, such a simple thing. Just a touch, a slight grazing of his fingers against her skin and Asuka wasted not a second in turning and curling her frame to the right side of his body. Her hand rested on his collarbone and her leg encircled his own with vehemence. She was so careful, so mindful to not so much as graze the wound on his midsection. He felt like crying all of the sudden, felt ready to unleash the tidal wave of absolute misery that festered and coiled in his heart.

Asuka's forefinger came to rest near his eyebrow, eliciting an even heavier blink out of him. His arm, which had sprung up in the air at the sudden burst of motion fell on the girl's form and pressed her flush against him. YES. The response was simultaneous, both from his mind, soul and every single molecule in his body. Yes, yes. YES.

"Who did that to you?" The finger caressed the small line on his brow with a gentleness that left Shinji almost shaking. "Was it Kaji?"

He had managed to articulate a somewhat decent, suitable response to the sudden scream for help and comfort which manifested in his brain. He could hear her voice crying out, just like every night in his dreams; the only difference was that this time around… this single, perfect time the inadequate, uncertain and pathetic Third Child made the right choice, and reacted properly. "Yeah," he answered, smiling for reasons he could not understand.

Even more shocking than the feeling of soft, perfect skin tracing the misshapen edges of the old wound which brought him more comfort than any drug had been able to provide until that point, was the way she slowly traced down to a second scar, one located just a bit lower than the one she had first touched. She did not press further for any more data or any clarification as to why his face now displayed a scratch effortlessly placed by the man she had convinced herself to love at a younger age.

Shinji had to keep himself from actively purring at the way her nail ever so softly traced down his face and found a home in the next available mark. "And this?" her index applied some more pressure on the jagged line on his cheekbone.

"Sparring," the boy revealed before he could stop to consider what was being said. "I didn't put my head gear properly, and an elbow strike slipped." Shinji closed his eyes so as to engrave the sensation of Asuka's fingers running circles down the small scar and move over to the line above his hairline.

"And this one?"

Neither youngster realized when they fell asleep that night; they talked for what it felt like hours and not once untangled from the fierce embrace. At some point Asuka's hand came to rest just above his sternum and she fell into a deep slumber. Shinji, for his part, fought to stay awake for reasons alien to the horrors locked away in his mind for what it felt like the first time in his life. He had lived so many lives already, had seen so many dreadful possibilities and realities that the very thought of actually enjoying reality and sharing details about his life he never considered even slightly interesting sounded absurd and impossible.

The girl's intense gaze and undivided attention disproved his beliefs with ease. She had drank in every word, every sentence, every detail. Her interest had been genuine, her words truthful and concise. There was no falsehood. There was no ulterior motive. She was truly curious; the girl had opted for him to describe any and all possible elements in his boring little fight stories. Mother manifested at some point in the night, for once not smiling. She was staring at him in wonder, so he stared back and nodded.

"That's right," he muttered before succumbing to sleep at last. "I'm still here. We're still here. Do something about it… try… see if I don't rip you apart… this time around…"

Lilith watched him with a gaze that he could only describe as contemplative. She never bothered to such much as glance in Asuka's direction. He found himself somewhat disappointed that she did not try, somehow conscious that he would hunt Her down to the ends of the universe, should She try to hurt the girl sleeping next to him. Let Her try, let the world try, let the world try to stop him this time around…

Wait, what…? Am I not… trying to die…? Why do I not want to, all of the sudden…?

"Baka…" Asuka whispered in her sleep, and Shinji was lulled to a deep, dreamless slumber when the slight tickle of her breath caressed the skin of his neck. "Baka… Shinji…."

TBC


Quotes and Stuff

Luis: We all need a Luis in our lives. Get yourself a Luis.

My Mother Told Me: an Old Norse poem, as the story goes it was written by a child who had just killed his brother and been told by his mother he had what was needed to become a Viking. Yeah. Halfdan the Black from Vikings sings it a lot. Also, the Polish man Volkov is based on sings this shit every time he gets drunk. Every. Time. In Old Norse, at that. Giant prick that he is…

Brat: Polish word for Brother.

Księżniczka: Polish word for Princess.

Gopnik: Stereotypical Slav; Adidas, pack of smokes, vodka, squatting everywhere. Drinking with Gopkniks is something everyone should do at least once. Blyat. Kurwa.

Pierogi: Polish dumplings, generally filled with pork beef, in my limited experience at least. Delightful. When in Poland, try this.

Mead: Honey wine, vastly used and celebrated throughout human culture, literally made from fermenting honey and water. Has supposed health benefits which derive from honey itself, which are debatable considering it is an alcoholic beverage. Regardless, Polish mead is especially delicious. Viking drink make you strong!

Kaszanka: Polish blood sausage, awesome when accompanied by Vodka.

Kvass: Sort of a soft (sometimes hard) beer made out of fermented bread and water with different spices, to my understanding at least. This is a very refreshing drink, sparkling if done properly, and absolutely delicious when you add a bit of lemon peel and fruits during the fermentation process.

Skál or Skol: Old Norse for 'cheers!'

Leg Kick: 'Leg kicks don't end fights!' Yeah, well, go get your leg kicked by a Thai fighter once, and see if it doesn't make you reconsider your entire life decisions.

Iron Fist: Getting hit by someone who conditions their hands is not fun. Hands are not meant to be hammers, condition them into hammers and you can break someone's orbital, cheekbone, jaw and/or nose. Feels like getting your face smashed by a precise boulder. Yeah. Don't try to do that Makiwara shit at home unless supervised by a professional. Shit hurts, dawg.

Misato: She'll get her chance to shine, y'all know I love me some Misato awesomeness. For the time of being, however, I wanted to point out that as an adult… she's a terrible guardian in NGE. She did save Shinji's life from that guy, but honestly. Terrible, just terrible.

Asuka: Yes, she referred to Shinji as 'stuff'. She's surrounded by gangsters and killers in that scene, though, so yeah. Don't touch my Shinji just didn't have that kick that I wanted.

Shoutout: I'd like to take this moment to sincerely thank wgolyoko and Richitzer for helping edit and revise these monstrous chappies! Thatn you for taking the time foto revise and improve these monstrous pieces of text I call a story. You are amazing, thank you from the bottom of my heart!

Injuries: Cousin of mine got stabbed in these exact places some years ago. Getting him to recover was a clusterfuck. Respiratory infections, reopened wounds and ulcers, since the asshole was an alcoholic and heavily dependent on painkillers back then. It fucking sucked; hence, this serum Asuka-chan brought. Yeah.

OCs: There was a little symbolism in Volkov saying bye bye. That's as far as our OCs take us, their role has been fulfilled so we can say farewell to them. Yeah

Inspirational Music: Pride and Joy, Lenny, Little Wing, Tin Pan Alley – Stevie Ray Vaughan; Same Song and Dance, We Made You, Insane- Eminem; Better, Prostitute, Estranged, November Rain, Civil War – Guns 'N Roses; Fight Music, Get My Gun – D12; Just One Time, 1000HP, Eye Of The Storm, Stress, Keep Away, Something Different, Faceless – Godsmack; All My Life, The Pretender, Something from Nothing – Foo Fighters; Until It Sleeps, Halo on Fire, No Leaf Clover, Frantic (Live in Portugal 2019), Am I Savage?, Fixxxer, Where The Wild Things Are, Bad Seed, King Nothing – Metallica; Fear Inoculum (album) – Tool; Impossible Brutality, Murder Fantasies, Totalitarian Terror, Hail To The Hordes, Servant In Heaven, King in Hell – Kreator; The Clairvoyant, Heaven Can Wait, Aces High, Iron Maiden, Running Free, The Evil that Men Do, The Sign Of The Cross (Rock in Rio), If Eternity Should Fail, Children of the Damned (Live Chapter; Book of Souls), Powerslave (Flight 666) – Iron Maiden.

AN: Yo! I'm back! Hah! Ya know, I was actually there for that last song, I was there! If you happen to be a fan of Iron Maiden feel free to watch that particular song from Flight 666, I was there, damn it! UP THE IRONS. lml

Super sorry that I did not deliver before the end of 2020, but I honestly had no time at all to sit down and write. Anyways, I hope you liked the read. So! We got see a little bit more of the depth of Shin-chan's addiction, and ... the plot thickens with the gang! Expect the three wombats to play an interesting role in this story. Some more world building, some… unrelenting justice being handed down, and some delicious WAFF as dessert.

Yeah.

In this crazy reality we live in nowadays, I wanted to stop for a second and just thank you clicking on and reading this. I don't know if it's any good, but I hope it is. If you found some enjoyment in it, damn, that just warms my heart, truly warms my heart. On behalf of Shin-chan and I, we sincerely thank you for your time! (Shin-chan and deathbringer-kun bow).

THANK YOU so very, very much for taking some time of your day to ready what I write. Thank you, you are awesome. You are beautiful. Thank you, continue to be amazing and please, stay healthy! Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, drink lemon juice, take a walk once in a while, flip a neighbor off and then run away laughing manically (super fun). Do cardio, dance, move your body. Listen to awesome music. Hug your close ones, tell them you love them every day. Be nice to doggos and kitties. Love to you all, truly.

PEACE.