AN: Fuck yeah I'm back! Here's a new chappie for my baby Relapse. I apologize in advance if it sucks ass.

Relapse

Chapter Eight: We Made You

There was an absence of something when he woke up; the uninjured side of his body was cold and empty. Shinji opened his eyes and tried to breathe in deep, regretting it almost instantly. The cut in his stomach flared, while the one on his back stole away his breath and forced a cough out his damaged lungs. It was disturbingly quiet aside from his own shallow breathing. Most mornings the nightmares roused him before sunrise; he had gotten overly accustomed to hearing the crows, magpies and sparrows go about their early songs.

Huh? His hand reached for something out of instinct, not curling into an angry fist as was custom, but wishing instead to bring whatever warmth had been pressed against him back. He had been sleeping so soundly that reality and the memories of the night before were somehow still strangely absent. A few beams of orange shined through the dim light as he lay on the pillow. The color brought back the memory of Asuka lying next to him, touching the lines of his face and tracing them as she inquired about their origin. Even as he grimaced in fresh, poignant agony the injuries so easily provided, Shinji felt his face grow warm.

What? You've been with women, Ikari. You've… what? What have you done, so far? Some drunken one-night stands, an intensely uncomfortable event you'd rather forget? And then… her? And then this. What was this? With the momentary lapse of apparent insanity which had allowed him to put his arm around Asuka the night before completely evaporated; Shinji felt reality sink in and shivered with something beside the regular morning tremors. The fingers of his left hand twitched and ached, the gash on his leg began to burn slightly as his muscled shook; anxiety beyond anything he had felt in days blossomed in his chest and expanded through his body. Oh yeah, that's right. I'm trying to keep my promise.

Damaged as it was, his chest heaved and moved erratically. Sweat was sure to start leaking off his pores at any moment; his shirt and the covers were half-soaked in it already. Before the first fresh wave of panic overcame his senses, a faint humming averted his attention to the lit light in the bathroom. Shit. His breathing became even more irregular. If he concentrated, the sensation of Asuka's finger running along the lines and marks on his face returned with a furious vengeance; the damaged skin around his cheeks heated. Need something, the panicked voice of his addiction felt like teeth in his head. Haven't had anything since yesterday afternoon.

There was close to no energy running through his body despite the many hours of rest. The haziness of his mind was fading as the aches, tremors, itches and the burning of his wounds became acute. The feeling of her smooth skin under his palm and the slight imperfection under her lip made Shinji's fingertips itch. They had been so close the night before, entangled in an embrace unlike anything he had felt before.

The humming turned just a tad louder; by the sound of it Asuka seemed content and unperturbed. What the hell happened? How did it happen? Why? I, we, ugh. His left hand came up to massage his temple, and before he let it fall back on the mattress, the former Third Child held it before him.

The shaking was there, as always, same as the dark circle branded in his palm. Whatever magic had existed just hours prior had evaporated, and the insatiable desire to not feel manifested at full force. He was about to get off bed and reach for one of the hidden stashes of pills hidden in his nightstand when the bathroom door opened and Asuka emerged, hair loose. She wore a content, relaxed little smirk until their gazes met and Asuka realized he was awake.

"Oh," she muttered, and blinked twice as her smile disappeared under a lightly shocked expression. "Good morning."

Whatever amiable atmosphere had existed the night before disintegrated when a heavy strain fell upon them both. "Good morning," Shinji managed to respond without stammering; however he was unable to keep his eyes locked with hers. His heart thundered, pulse quickening, and he gulped in a vain attempt to hide how vulnerable he felt. "Did you, uhm, slee-" He coughed twice. "Did you sleep well?"

Being too preoccupied with the shape of his bedsheets, Shinji failed to see how Asuka's face heated and flushed at his question. He did, however, hear the slight trepidation in her voice. "Yeah," she answered, barely loud enough for him to hear. "Best night of sleep I've had in years. How about you, Baka?"

Damn it, he thought as his left hand curled around the bedsheet. Regardless of how embarrassed he felt, the young woman's honesty continued to disarm him in the same way it had for days. Why did you have to go and say that, huh? In years? Years? A few seconds went by before he was able to gather himself and respond. "I slept really well."

A glance at the clock only helped to reinforce the statement; ten hours had gone by without a single nightmare. He was about to thank her for reasons yet unexplained, yet the following tremor was powerful enough to force Shinji's clenched hand to grasp at the wound on his midsection. He felt the burst of motion, and his fighting instincts almost made the young man jump out the bed when the mattress sank.

The next thing he saw was a pair of electrifying blue eyes gazing down at him with an intensity not unlike the one the night before. Why does she look worried? Having never truly learned to differentiate between pity and concern, his inner defenses instantly spiked. Her silent observance did not help matters at all; it felt as though she was just as scared to proceed as he currently felt. And why is she so quiet?

"Uhm," Shinji managed to mumble after the silence and her stare became too uncomfortable. "What?"

"You were just hissing in pain, Shinji," Asuka stated flatly. Her eyes were unbearably intense as per usual, digging into his midsection and trying to find any stain or sign of possible bleeding, and finally going over to his leg before redirecting to his face. "You weren't trying to do anything stupid, were you?"

Something stirred inside him, a sense of overbearing familiarity mixed with annoyance. Added to the ailment of withdrawal comfortably settling in his body, the unpleasant reflex to react negatively to any sort of help or assistance almost forced a sarcastic reply. "I, uhm," A smirk broke through his lips. Fuck it, go for it. "Probably."

She rolled her eyes, apparently unbothered by their proximity, and once more left him speechless when she began rummaging through his nightstand as though it were her own. Indignation quickly manifested in his chest, forcing the young man to ignore the tremors going up and down his body with alarming frequency. What is she doing, going through my stuff? Nobody touches my stuff! Hey! "What the h-"

"You're such a freaking idiot," Asuka's tone turned soft, and the closest to soothing he had heard since the night before, which forced him to hold his tongue. "You're hissing in pain and not even realizing it because you're shaking like a leaf."

Three pills were then gingerly presented to him. He caught Asuka's gaze, surprised to find her eyes downcast, and a slight flush around her cheeks and nose. I promised, came the growl from within his mind, unbidden, as Shinji's right hand lifted to pick whatever medication she had been giving him for the past few days. His hand curled into a shaky fist, and he looked away with a shake of his head. I promised. I won't do it. I'll resist all I c-

"I know it's hard, Shinji." With the memories of her quiet, diligent questions hours prior now fresh in his mind. "But you're still healing, you idiot. You probably already noticed I'm reducing the dosage, little by little. But you can't just stop, not with wounds like that."

A trace of trepidation, a slight shake in her voice resonated through his room. The way she was letting herself be vulnerable around him in such a way reflected what was becoming one of his greatest fears. Whatever weird relationship they had was changing, maturing, and becoming unbearably intimate.

I don't," he said as his left hand gripped the sheets. "I don't want them. I said I'd try." The Idea of hurting her terrified him more than before.

Please, get away. Get away, don't get closer. Let's just stop right here, let's stop; I swear I'll get clean but for the love of any god out there don't let me hur-

"You're keeping your word." The girl's tone became stern. Even when he refused to look at her, Shinji knew she was at him. But I'll be damned if the sweats or a tremor open or infect those wounds. So come on, I told you not to ruin my knitting work. Remember how you just said you'd probably do something stupid? What you're doing right now is pretty stupid."

Had he the ability to cross his arms been granted back, he would have done so. The air was dense and uncomfortable, and yet he felt himself terribly excited to irk her some more, even for the sport of it. The cuts on his back and stomach, however, took that moment to start pulsing with pain as a heavier quiver tensed his back and oblique muscles, and had him hissing even louder. Shinji's hand flew over to the gash in his midsection, face wrinkling up in pain. Anxiety and unease bubbled in his chest, the faint sound of giggling echoed in the back of his mind; his skin began to burn.

It was yet unclear how exactly the physical barrier had been breached between them, yet the way Asuka's free hand took of a hold of his wrist and almost forcibly deposited the pills on his palm left it clear. She had no problem touching him and when she laid beside him, her warmth almost consuming him, he found that he did not mind.

"I hate having to give these to you," she confessed, and Shinji became enthralled by the way her hands gingerly closed his fingers and held his fist. "I do. Stop making it harder on me, and on yourself. The worst of it will start soon enough."

Let me enjoy this. Just for a little while longer, just a little more. Please.

Shinji relented at last, nodded, and tried to sit upright as he forced every functioning neurons available to engrave the feeling of Asuka's soft hands holding onto his closed fist. If felt enticing enough to make forget he was supposed to take the medication.

I hate that you have to give these to me, too. I hate that you have to see me like this, he thought, and once she reluctantly let go of him, took the offered glass of water and drowned the blasted pills. Why are you even here? What are we doing? Every passing second the atmosphere around them turned heavier with tension; it dawned on Shinji that he had no clue of what to do. Yes, he had held her the night before. Yes, she had hugged him back, grazed at the many scars he had been collecting over the years with a tenderness that left him undone.

"You really mean it, don't you?" He blurted out without thinking; his eyes were fixed on the line beside his knuckle where the reporter's tooth had been lodged. "What you said. Helping me, I mean."

"What are you, stupid?" A chuckle escaped them both at the mention of her favorite phrase for him. "Of course, I did. Now get your ass in that chair so we can get some breakfast. I'm hungry!"

Apparently after so many years, Asuka had been the one to learn how to acutely handle strenuous situations. Yet, as she rose to head for the kitchen, Shinji's hand shot up and grabbed her shoulder, and squeezed as reassuringly as he knew how. Even when the growing dread of having to deal with emotions he tried to bury and murder on a daily basis, the queer and unusual courage blossoming inside him slowly won over his desire to simply be numb.

What did it matter to feel so much pain, anyhow, if it meant he could enjoy such nights, such moments? A darker voice chuckled deep within his mind, a girl smirked; he ignored both. "I had a really great time last night," Shinji mentioned as he bit down on his lip to keep from hissing. "If you want to talk about yesterday, I'd be happy to listen."

"I'm still happy to hear it. I am. And yeah, maybe," The way she halted her movements the moment his palm made contact with her shoulder made Shinji feel strangely encouraged. "If you must know," she started, having turned in the doorway's direction. "I had to meet lots of people, Misato included, and it took more time and energy than I expected. That's all."

"You're lying," A small knowing smile drew on his lips; how had he picked up on it so easily? "I guess that's okay, I'm not going to press for it." I should, though. Yesterday was incredible, sure, but you're still sick, Shinji. You're still poison. You need to get her away. We should stop. "Did Misato say something to upset you?"

Several seconds had already transpired and Asuka had still not shaken away his hand. "Why, are you going to rip her apart if she did?"

While the semi-iron grip of the young man's fingers lessened, he refused to let go. This was the one of those rare times in which he mustered up the courage to touch her. "I don't know yet," he smirked. "Depends on what she said, or what she did."

"Yeah, yeah, keep howling you big, bad wolf." They shared a laugh, one which finally evaporated the awkwardness in the room. Asuka's hand came to pat his own twice. "I appreciate it." She waited a few seconds, and then her fingers tightened around the gnarled surface of his knuckles. "It's not like she was lying, not that she had to. Sometimes truth hurts more than any lie could."

Shinji frowned; the dulling effect of the pills was slowly making itself known, same as his fervent need for a bit of caffeine. Any and all bodily needs were extinguished, as they usually were, when the wave of irrational, overprotective wrath crashed into him.

"Here I am telling you stories about some random bar fights, and you won't even tell me what Misato said that upset you," I'm sorry, but if I only have this little limited time to enjoy whatever this is, I'll cheat as much as I need to. "What was that about trying alongside with me?"

Asuka turned her head just enough to offer a deadpan look. "You're kind of being a jerk right now."

No, I'm not. I'm actually not being a jerk. Huh. Go figure. His frown shifted into a tight smirk."Was Misato a jerk to you?"

"Sort of," Asuka admitted, relenting at last; he noticed her gaze soften to a degree. "But I didn't pull any punches, either. She just reminded me of some stupid shit I said in the past. Something I really regret saying."

Oh. There was no way for him to confirm whatever had been said regarded him whatsoever; Asuka had a vast number of reasons to despise the woman, after all. Still, the thought of it made his hand leave her shoulder at last. "Well, whatever it was, it's in the past. I think I'll need to have a word with her, though."

If memory served, the last few times he had interacted with Misato at all, the experience had been all but pleasant for all parties involved. It did not matter to him in the slightest to make her more than a little uncomfortable, had his former guardian chosen to upset the Second Child in any way. Of the many things he regretted, his little missions were certainly not a part of them.

"Whatever. Get a sizeable chunk out if you do, okay? I really didn't appreciate what she said to me." With a shrug and a flip of her hair, she rose from bed and opened the door. "Let's get some food in that belly of yours before the pills burn a hole through it."

He snickered half-heartedly amidst grunts and curses as he carefully maneuvered into the chair, and for a second the armrest mutated into the broken piece of glass from years before. "It won't be long now, dear," Shinji smirked even wider; there was something in his life now, something he had to keep safe, even from the worst parts of himself, at the very least for the following three months. "Soon enough you'll regret letting her in," the shadow growled. "And you'll drag her down with you. It's what you do, it's what yo-"

"I can never hurt Asuka," he repeated the boy's omen to the ghost of his mother, and choked out a bitter laugh when the shadow of Gendo's lower half casually walked out the bathroom, spraying blood on the floor before it disappeared altogether. Indeed, these were not his pills, and however gracious Asuka was being, she had not been lying, after all. The doses were diminishing, the worst was yet to come, and the manifestations of his dread and trauma were already making themselves known. "I can never hurt Asuka."

Never, not when she had just told him to keep his word and rip Misato apart, verbally or otherwise, for whatever she had forced Asuka relive. Yui giggled with Mari's voice. They mingled together and again the rotting corpse transformed into the young woman, only this time he could see her body aflame, her skin melting off, her blood evaporating in the air, and her smile; gone. "You're being difficult, Puppy. I don't like it when you're difficult like this. Especially if it's because of her. What have we been talking about?"

"Last I remember we were talking about you getting the fuck out of my house," Shinji responded in a defiant whisper. The lines and knots decorating his fists had never been a particular source of solace or pride, but now, impossibly so, there was a pleasant memory attached to one of them. "I know I'll be regretting this soon." The figure began to fade away. "But right now I couldn't care less."

We can never hurt Asuka. Never. But we can definitely try to make her smile again. It'd be worth simmering in hell for the rest of my life. And, oh yeah, there's that other thing.

Shinji's hands curled around the wheels and pushed them forward.

Hanayama-kun did mention something about a 'KenKen'. The last time he had seen one of his former childhood friends, a man's teeth had been sunk into the counter of his favorite bar. Perhaps it had been the wrong jaw to smash, after all. I'll have to see to that.


"You haven't answered for what you did."

"…blasted off your mind, saying how he meant nothing to you!"

"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?"

"Eh? Why would I care what that idiot does or doesn't do? He's nothing to me. Now get that camera out of my face!"

Coincidentally, one of the nights she had been recalling was the one where the nefarious news arrived. A paparazzi had been the one to tell her, one that even in their line work found himself disgusted by her apparent blatant disregard of her fellow pilot. Neither Moritz, Fritz, his step-mother or his father had bothered to give her a call, none of her coworkers had mustered up the courage to even send her a message.

Asuka stole a furtive glance at Shinji, who was eagerly inspecting of the dumplings she had reheated and served along with the coffee that morning. Two years before, a kid even younger than them had wrinkled his face in utter repugnance at her, and once for all forced her to look at herself in the mirror. How a few words, spoken in little more than a whisper amidst the chaos of photographers, media coverage and her own security detail, had forever changed the course of her life for the better.

"You did know someone tried to kill him, right? Shinji Ikari is in the hospital, right now, barely alive. How can you say such a thing?"

As much comfort and solace as Shinji's embrace had provided, and regardless of the growth she felt developing in their own interactions, there was no escaping the truth. Her finger grazed the cut on her lip as she diced onions and peppers to try and prolong the inevitable; she had told him they would be starting physical therapy, after all.

I said those words, and I didn't just say them once. Who the fuck am I to dare to feel guilty about that? And why, if I just- she almost sliced off half a finger in her effort to avoid her own thoughts, knowing full well the strategy was fruitless. I just killed people, how are those words the only damn thing I can think about?

"Where'd you get these? They're awesome." Shinji commented from the table as he nibbled on her precious, limited stock of Polish delights.

Oh, you know, the guy those assholes hired to kill you in a public, televised execution a few years ago. "I have an acquaintance who also likes to cook," she revealed. It was not a lie at all, so it was okay in her books. She had promised herself not to lie to him, and intended to keep that promise as well. "He happened to be in town, so he brought me some stuff he knows I like."

"Hmm, mysterious Doktor Sohryu and her acquaintances," She dared another sideway glance, glad to see him distracted by the Polish pastry. "You said you like these?"

His tone turned inquisitive and lost the sarcastic bite in an instant; he took a more cautious serving next, as though trying to discern every flavor and ingredient just by tasting it. "Why does it feel like I've eaten these before? Some pork meat, some potato, nice crust. Hmm. Definitely eaten these before." Recognition dawned in the young man's gaze. "Ah! This is Pierogi. Heh, never actually tried this recipe."

That's Alex for you. She shook her head in an effort to clear the lowlife bastard's words and Misato's remark from her mind by remembering the assassin's crooked smile and glistening silver teeth. Pretty sure he had some of those delivered to your hospital room when you were recovering. "Does that mean you'll be cooking something like this in the near future?"

Asuka strained her hearing and closed her eyes to better savor the surprised intake of breath Shinji produced. "Wha- I mean, do you want me to?"

She snickered in response and offered him a lopsided smile. "What do you think?"

"Uhm, I mean," It was becoming easier to make him laugh, she realized. There was not so much of a need to tease him at all. Regular, sardonic remarks were enough to make him snicker at times. "Alright, I'll try this in a few days. Not telling exactly when, though."

"Of course you're not," The closer they became, the larger the threat grew; the time to say all those horrid, rotten things was very close. The packages had arrived that morning, as well, the ones he knew nothing of. "I'm waiting to be surprised, Third."

"Oh, you mean like the way you were cursing all the way up to the heavens last night? Was that good enough surprise? Traditional Japanese food, and you saying it actually tasted good?" A forefinger pointed at the ceiling while he diced and studied the pierogi with his other hand. "Even I was surprised. I'm sure my neighbors' neighbors heard that."

If you only had an idea of how long I've been waiting for a meal like that, you idiot, she thought. Asuka placed the diced produce in a container and grabbed her own coffee mug, and sat opposite to Shinji. "They'll survive," a long sip of the hot, refreshing beverage helped settle her nerves. The boy's words repeated in the back of her mind. "They better, considering they haven't even heard seventy-five percent."

He laughed again, louder this time, and she pretended not to hear the way me grunted to himself a second afterwards, as the cut in his back complained. "Heh, it's good these walls are so thick, then."

"Yeah." Asuka's eyes softened; there was no mirth nor sarcasm in Shinji's voice, no double meaning behind his words, yet they resonated and dug into her being. How thick had she built her own walls, before they all came crumbling down and almost crushed her? "Not that it's gonna make any difference if you really get on my nerves, anyway."

"Damn, so my ceaseless efforts to be an ass have borne no fruit? How sad," Her eyebrow twitched a little when she saw all but two dumplings had been devoured. "That's some good pierogi, right there."

"Tell me about it." Her fingers quickly stole the last pieces and placed them on her own plate. Once more, the morning was calm, Shinji's tremors had reduced to the random scratch of the scar of his bicep, and the sun was out. There was therapy to do, the medical facility where Shinji's reconstructive procedure had already received her specifications for the day. He was smiling, ever so slightly.

Don't say it. Don't, please. Just fucking don't. Don't mess this up for me, please. Just a little more, let me enjoy this just a bit more. Come on, how many mornings does he have, in which he's smiling like that? Stop. The boy's eyes glared back at her from the reflection in the coffee mug. She had later learned he was an admirer of Shinji, and as far as someone who did not truly know him, was concerned beyond words and desperately wanted to have his worries validated. Fucking stupid conscience, stop.

"How can you say such a thing?"

"I didn't mean the words I said in those interviews." she said.

Shinji's little smile disappeared, and this time she had no stupid little drunk coworker to blame it on. The words had been threatening to spill out her mouth the moment his thumb had touched the scar under her lip.

Half expecting a sarcastic or hurtful retort, Asuka was slightly taken aback by Shinji's sudden frown. "What interviews, when?" was his measured response. The temperature of the room descended in an instant, and she realized he truly had no clue of what she was referring to. The chopsticks cracked under his hold. "Did Misato say something about an interview?"

He was angry on her behalf, and quickly becoming furious.

Lie. Lie right now, lie to him and say literally anything but the truth. Lie, please lie. Please. Let the drunk bite the bullet and buy yourself some more time. It's not too late to ge-

"Those times," she elaborated despite the girl's best efforts to stay silent, twist the truth or blatantly lie. It was close to impossible for her to deceive him, not after seven years of silence. "It's been bugging me since yesterday. The times I said that I," She paused, took a longer drink and pretended the coffee to be whiskey, hoping its effect would force the words out at last.

"The times that I said you were nothing to me." Unable to fully look him in the eye, Asuka lowered her head and allowed some loose tresses to partially hide her gaze. "I've never meant those words. Either time I said it."

Yeah, because you were so rotten you said it more than once, you bitch, the part of her mind which had been quiet and nonexistent for most of her life was now as loud as the cicadas singing outside. Own up to it. You need to let him know.

If possible, her heart constricted worse upon realizing Shinji's eyes widened in shock, only for the cold exterior to cover them a second afterwards. He was about to wall himself in. "Oh, those interviews." His voice shook as he tried to make it sound as nonchalant as possible. "That happened forever ago. Who cares about that?"

You do. Her hands wrung around the mug. I do. "I said that after you got put in the hospital and were fighting to stay alive, two years ago," the young woman muttered. Anger started to coil inside her stomach and chest; his nonchalance to the subject altogether only fueled her desire to speak her mind. "And what the fuck was I doing while that Polish asshole pummeled you to the ground? Oh yeah, that's right, I was off partying, getting coked out of my mind."

You were also parading around with Moritz in toll in that pathetic effort to have him feel something, weren't you? Look him in the eye. He was gracious enough to hold your pathetic person throughout the entire night. The quiet morning became overloaded with stress and electricity, as though it were the final moments before a fight in a stadium.

"I said you were nothing to me," she continued, realizing Shinji was quietly glaring at his own cup while he tried and failed to act unbothered and aloof. "Once during that stupid interview three years ago, after whatever happened with Hikari happened, then two years ago, twice. First when some idiot asked about you and that Makinami girl, and the last," A sad smile drew on her lips, tugging at the small line her knuckles had produced. "The last time after you were hospitalized. I never meant that. Never."

Shinji offered a half shrug with his uninjured side. She could almost hear him demand why the hell she had decided to ruin their morning, when it had all been going so well. "Oh, you didn't?" was his short, clipped retort. "Hmm, well, you could've fooled me."

The words felt worse than a kick to her ribcage, yet she could not help but notice the young man's iron-like tone was slowly becoming warmer. "But that doesn't matter. If what you said was true, those years ago, then what the hell would you be doing here? Why would you be with m-" He coughed, whether due to his healing lugs or the wish to not say that last word, she did not know. "Why would you be in my house, taking care of me? Jeez, Asuka, you're even cooking for me and everything."

Shinji dismissed her concern with a flick of his hand, and just as intensely as it had manifested in the morning, the ache began to dissipate. "I know I'm an idiot, but I'm not blind. Besides, uhm, you know," Shinji looked down and scratched at his cheek. "Last night, we… Look, I don't care. I do care that it's bothering you. I get that. So for what it's worth, when you say you didn't mean those words," And so, the small smile returned to his features, making Asuka's face flush. Handsome, she thought. "I believe you. You haven't given me a single reason not to, these past few days."

So fucking nice. Every time, every moment of every day, he's always so fucking nice, even when he's trying to die or disappear, even when he's trying to be someone he's not. Such an idiot.

"I didn't say a word to you for seven years," the words escaped her without reprieve; the stupid voice in her head continued to ridicule her. "And when someone asked me about you, I downright ignored the question or insulted you." The boy's eyes followed her everywhere, they had chased her down all the way to Thailand and back. "Then I said that, and it…" Their gazes locked. "It haunts me."

Regardless of her effort to effectively ruin the day right at the beginning, Shinji made no effort to display the bestial aggression she knew him to be capable of, nor did he capitalize om the chance of having her vulnerable, only to hurt her in some horrible way, as he said he would do.

"I know a thing or two about things you did and said haunting you." Asuka watched, enthralled, as Shinji's smile turned into the one she saw in her dreams and memories, the good ones, whenever a few moments of respite were granted. "Just let it go. I don't care about any of that, if me saying that helps at all. Not with you here, sitting across from me, telling me all this. It doesn't matter."

The concern she had about those words and those interviews faded in its entirety. Soon, very soon, when he was going through the worst parts of the treatment, these small snippets and memories would be what held them both afloat.

I forgive you.

He never said it, nor would he ever; if her research had let anything clear, it was that Shinji felt constant and irremediable guilt for what had happened before and during Third Impact. "Hey." He uttered, and searched for her hand on the table, daring to reach the physical barrier for a second time that day. "I mean that. It doesn't matter to me."

The time had come at last; seven years and the damned envelope could finally stop weighing on her. "I know it doesn't," rummaging through the pocket of her pajama shorts, she produced the letter and placed it on the table. "I got the letter that year, and the phone call, and the presents. It was the last time you called. But you always sent the presents."

"W-What's that?" She relished in the way his eyes widened in shock at the sight of the piece of paper lying on the table. How curious, he had been steadfast and just about ready to jump in a cab and go to Misato's house to chew her out, but the sight of a small piece of paper paralyzed him. It's because this, you. You mean so much to him. "Is that one of my…"

"Nope," Shinji always used a particular brand of envelope and paper, bone-white and resistant, he always wrote the letters by hand, at least she could tell as much when she held them to the light before storing them away. The paper resting on her palms was slightly rose, wrinkled and broken on some spots. Many a time she had debated to throw it to the trash, actually succeeding once before dashing into the trashcan to retrieve it in a maddened frenzy. "It's one of mine."

"Yours, you mean y-" With a look that bordered on absolute incredulity, he pointed at the now unfolded letter held gingerly in between her fingers. "Did you write that… for me?"

The envelope slid over the table; one glance at the handwriting was enough to confirm his worst fears. Written in a bold black ink, her pet insult for him glared up at him from the table.

For: Baka-Shinji

From: Asuka.

"I haven't read a single letter you've sent. You know how I feel about letters," crossing her legs and taking a deep breath, Asuka dove into the void. The night before many things had changed, one of the key ones being her willingness to show weakness around him. "So I wasn't about to be a bigger hypocrite by sending these when I never mustered up the guts to read the ones you wrote. Anyway," she elaborated, clearing her throat.

"Asuka, come on, it's morning. You don't need to do th-"

"I got your stupid letter." The young man's jaw clenched shut as she began reading; his eyes were still bewildered, and through occasional glimpses she saw how penetrating his gaze was becoming. "I haven't read it. I don't want to open it, I don't want to think about, or about you. Every time I do, I remember everything again, and it hurts just like it did the first time." She spared another sideway glance; his stony glare began to falter. "If I think of your idiot face, all I see is you strangling me."

I swear to God, if I could beat my own ass from seven years ago, I would, Shinji. But I can't, I've beaten myself up enough, it's time to let you have a go. There was no interruption after she paused, no comment, not a thing from Shinji except him looking at floor, and his expression becoming incredibly pained. Yeah, force him to remember it, why don't ya? Maybe Misato was right. Then again, who cares if the stupid drunk was right for once in her life?

Just when Shinji looked about ready to speak, she continued reading. "But then I see you offering me that stupid ice-cream, and I see you walking with me to school, and I see you asking me if I'm okay after that stupid Angel raped my mind. And I see what you did in the hospital, too. But you know what I see most, you stupid freaking idiot? Do you!" Asuka accentuated the last question with enough force to redirect his attention to her. "I see my mother, and I see those EVAs, and…" her eyes drifted away in a similar way to his after reading his letter to her. "… and I miss when you were there. I guess I'm so fucked up I miss you."

"Asuka," his voice rang through the room. "That's, I mean. You don't nee-"

"PS:" This time, she actually heard his teeth clamp together as he forced his lips shut. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean that. I didn't." She sighed, folded the letter as minutely as she knew how, and slid it over to where the envelope was resting, next to Shinji's clenched hand.

"I know you're not okay," the words came naturally; she had braded them into her brain as he had branded the word 'Bakelite' on his arm. "I know you're really hurt right now, and I'm aware it's my fault. Why did you have to push me away, huh? Why did you have to be a stupid hero? I hate that about you." Asuka's lower lip shook slightly. The memory returned, unbidden; the day she had pushed him off the rail flashed through her mind. The look of surprise, not even anger or rejection or sadness, simple surprise as he fell was inescapable. "I didn't mean that. You probably don't even want to hear about me right now. Just," her head bowed. "Don't hate me."

With slightly shaking hands, whether from the remaining effects of the drugs or something else, he picked up the letter and began reading. Asuka chose that moment to look away and focus her gaze on the floor; the letter was in a deplorable state. She had scratched over many lines, wrung the paper into a ball and thrown it far away, tears had cascaded as she wrote the last lines and stained the paper in many places, washing away parts of the ink.

The doctor's Kanji then had been terrible at best, yet he made no mention of it; he squinted his eyes to better read the almost incomprehensible gibberish she had produced seven years before. Once he was done, and his fingers gently gripped the envelope, she felt herself gulp and felt the perspiration moisten the back of her shirt. The envelope was not empty, after all.

Shinji unfurled the next three pieces of paper, clearly shocked to find three whole pages completely empty, with not a word on them except a miniscule 'gomen' right next to an 'Entshuldingung' at the bottom right corner of the last page. He went through the pages once, twice, thrice, until he was convinced there was nothing else for him to read, and addressed her with an inquisitive glance.

The hurt in his eyes was clear for her to see, as well; whenever their gazes would meet for a few seconds, it shone almost as brightly as his rage would. His defenses were down, her Shinji was present. Her sad little smile turned sheepish. "I tried writing something else, a few times, actually. It didn't really work."

Please don't hate me. Please. I can take it if you do, thought the young woman with desperation. I can take it, and it won't change how I feel. But please, please Shinji. Don't hate me. She kept her eyes fixed on the floor tiles, trying to make sense of their pattern and flow instead of seeing Shinji's face.

Minutes passed without either saying a thing.

At last, after very carefully placing the letter in its coverage and setting it on the table, Shinji cleared his throat. It would appear that despite her best efforts to ruin the morning, his mood had not been terribly affected. If anything, he seemed much calmer, almost content. The reveal of her words during those interviews and the letter had had a completely opposite effect to what she had been expecting.

"I think I tried to hate you. For a long time, I tried," he chortled mirthlessly and shook his head. Asuka's gaze shifted to him, taken aback by the way he was caressing the scar around his knuckles, the one she had traced the night before.

"I could never do it, not completely. How could I, after all the things I've done? Heh, well, if we're being honest here," she saw the hungry beast lying dormant inside him peak through for a moment. "I did feel like I really hated you when, uhm," his right hand clenched back into a fist. "When those guys were in the picture. I'm just an idiot like that."

"You're not the only one," admitted Asuka, gaining yet another surprised stare. I like that, catching him off guard. Almost feels like teasing him. "There were times I felt like I hated you, too. Right after Third Impact, for example. Or when that stupid, four-eyed bitch came into your life. I don't particularly care for that Karla girl, either."

"Krista," Shinji corrected with a chuckle. The energy in the room felt inviting, calm, and her patient was not only responding positively to her admissions. He held her letter close to him, occasionally glanced at the letter, then back to her. "Yeah, I never cared much for Moritz, either."

"Hmm, that makes two of us, then."

They shared a laugh, not unlike during the date she had so carefully planned and executed. They were laughing; laughing and joking about having tried to hate one another in the past, and it all felt familiar and inviting. Regardless, the admission that they had each indeed made a conscious effort to despise each other, mainly when they were dating somebody, finished sinking in. Even almost eight years afterwards, the remnants of their synch training manifested whilst both their faces flushed and they looked away.

Does that… so I can assume then, that you were jealous. To put it very lightly, you were jealous. "Uhm," it took quite a while for either to recover from the realization. I think that's enough of a breakthrough for now, for the both of us. "So, are you ready for your physical therapy, Baka?"

Shinji blinked in surprise, took a glance at the miserable state of his body and looked back at Asuka, who was already on her feet and stretching. "Wait, you weren't kidding about that last night?"

"What? Of course I wasn't!" And just like that, the boisterous voice that not-so-secretly enthralled her host rang through the apartment. "Your muscles are stiff as a damn board! And I'm not gonna have you lose any sort of mobility over those wounds!"

"There is a literal hole in my gut, my leg and my lung, what the hell am I supposed to do for training?!"

"Oh, oooh, like I didn't know you actually went through cutting weight for a fight two years ago, while you were going through withdrawal and healing from a leg injury! All to fight that stupid fucking Fabio guy! Or like you weren't trying to hit your little banana trees with a broken hand and compromised ribs! Oh, and how about that one time when you thought it'd be a great idea to let a knife wound on your side go unattended for a week while you sweat all over it day in and day out!? Or what about two y-"

"Okay, okay, I get it!" Shinji interrupted. "I've done a lot of stupid shit while," he coughed. "Injured! But how in the hell am I supposed to exercise with these wounds?"

"Just leave it to me! It's not rocket science, you idiot! Little bit of weightlifting, little bit of stretching, and you'll be feeling better in no time! Of course, we'll be focusing on your uninjured side more these next few days!"

"You're insane if you think I'm going to be doing it any weightlifting while sitting in this stupid chair, Asuka." Shinji deadpanned, wheeling himself away from the table sooner than Asuka was able to snatch the handles. "But whatever, like you said, surprise me."

"Oh, Baka, you are so gonna regret those words!" She grinned, making her face look all the more lively, animated and beautiful to him. The battle was already lost.

"I think it's early enough in the day for me to do that. There's plenty of time."

"Okay, then!" The yell made Shinji flinch as his failed attempt to escape into the bedroom for a few more minutes was crushed. "Get ready, Baka!"

From above, the neighbors exchanged a knowing look as they enjoyed their own breakfast, and the echo of the Second Child's voice filtered through the window. Shinji had always been kind and respectful to them, even in his worst periods of crisis he tried not to disturb those living in his vicinity.

"Jävlar, stackars pojke (Jeez, poor kid)" the wife muttered in Swedish, snickering.

The husband nodded, cringing when a second, more energetic yell flew through their balcony door.


"Is this supposed to be a joke or something? You did not just tell me to turn my head and cough."

Asuka scowled down at him, pointed at the towel she had just deposited on his hands, and went back to her own warmups. "I said, in case your stupid little brain didn't catch it the first time," she pointed at the towel again, then at Shinji's stomach wound, "hold the damn towel against the wound while pressing your back against the chair, and cough. It's not rocket science, Baka. There's phlegm stuck in your respiratory system, and we need to get it out before we do anything else."

Shinji huffed, exasperated, and placed the towel around his midsection as instructed. There was a thicker towel pressing against his back, as well. "So I just cough? Just like that?"

Continuing to stretch in his direct vicinity was not helping matters at all; Shinji's mind drifted off to the curves of her physique every chance it got. That perfect anatomy had been pressed flush against him just hours prior. "Yes, Shinji, you just cough. Try not to do any sudden movements, and remember to drink some water after every expectoration. Also, there's a spit bucket next to you. You know what that's for, right?"

His eyebrow twitched in annoyance. "The name's pretty self-explanatory. I've also been doing boxing and Muay Thai for years. I'm familiar with the use of a damn spit bucket."

The way Asuka beamed down at him only fueled his annoyance. He had been trying and failing all morning to remember how she had been with other men, only to instead think of her words again and again; she had never cuddled with anyone else, nor hugged anyone else. He, Shinji, the bringer of death and destruction, was the only one.

"Well, look at that, you coughed! That wasn't so hard, was it?" Quick, precise punches and elbows started punishing the air in her vicinity; even when starting up the routine, her shadowboxing was smooth and fluid, Shinji noticed. "Now do it a few more times until you feel like your chest has cleared up some, and we move onto the next exercise."

My skin feels like it's on fire and I feel anxious enough to want to break my own fist against a wall, Shinji thought, but did as instructed, shocked to feel whatever had been impairing his breathing for the past few hours get expelled in a continual flow of pinkish glob and spit. I can almost hear her, but it's faint, like an echo, or a whisper. It's like I'm barely holding onto the razor's edge, while somehow not freaking out.

At times, when the coughs became a tad too aggressive and he hissed when the stitches stretched, Asuka would halt whatever exercise she was doing and stare at him from across the room. She would wait for him to nod or otherwise signal that he was not dying or choking on his own breath, before going back to her routines with a knowing smirk.

Asuka offered to take care of the bucket, yet Shinji shook his head. He made his best effort to hide away the pain and increasing unease gnawing at both his body and mind as he emptied and washed the bucket in the laundry room. During his small break, he noticed the washing machine had been recently moved and put back in its place, which meant someone had been sniffing around his house and had found one of the sacred havens of his precious narcotics during their constant, unsolicited watch.

He chose to speak nothing of it.

The next exercise required him to lay on a mat and slowly bring his right leg up and down; the agony of sore and slightly atrophied muscles worked wonders on the disquiet, replacing it with crisp, almost consuming pain whenever the muscles surrounding his stomach, back and leg wounds voiced out their discomfort at every slight movement. Despite his initial doubts, the movements forced perspiration from his pores, stinging from his wounds and helped his mind to focus on something other than the giggles or grunts of anguish in the back of his skull.

When the time came to move his injured leg, Shinji did in fact hiss and almost screamed in pain; the muscles around the wound were stiff and uncooperative, his abdomen burned all the way to his stomach as the knee came up, and had it not been for Asuka's presence near him, he would have most likely given up on the effort entirely and swallowed three or four painkillers to alleviate the aches.

"Come on, you idiot, just one more rep." God, she fucking sounds like Coach and everything, Shinji mused, trying to smirk through the agony of moving his body properly since the day he had been stabbed. "There we go, now put the leg down slowly and breathe. I said slowly, damn it!" Asuka reprimanded after he grunted; the leg wound was starting to make the nerves in his thigh go numb. Scratch that, she's worse than Coach. "No. Sudden. Movements. I'll really start saying it in German unless you start listening, you idiot."

"How the hell was that a s- ugh... a sudden movement, huh?" Shinji demanded in turn, coughing once or twice. "You were counting the fucking seconds, Asuka!" A finger flicked him on the forehead in that same manner from so many years ago, on the first day they had attended school together. "Damn it, I told you to quit doing that!"

"And I told you to watch your language, Baka!" Asuka retaliated, and pointed to the hand signaling every passing second. "You rushed between seconds two and five! I said slowly!"

Eliciting a loud groan of displeasure, Shinji went back to the exercise and pretended the angry girl's presence so very near to him had no effect whatsoever. I can literally smell her scent from here. Keeping his body in check around her was already starting to become impossible, so he reverted to the aggravation born out of the growing itch of his drug-dependency. "How much freaking slower am I supposed to do this, then? My leg is killing me, and my gut feels like someone just put a knife in it again!"

"Well, duh! There was an actual knife in your gut less than a month ago, you idiot!" How thick were the walls, actually? Until Asuka's arrival, he had never stopped to ponder on that particular thought. "Of course it's going to hurt, now get to it! One more rep to go! Let's do it! And stop with that stupid grumbling; focus all that energy on actually doing what you're supposed to!"

The throbbing in the back of Shinji's head became more acute; drowning out the voices completely. "I'm freaking doing it, already! Will you start the stupid countdown already, instead of just yelling like I'm deaf?"

"Ugh, fine! Are you ready?"

"Yes, damn it!"

"Oooh, look at the big, bad Baka actually minding his language! Isn't that a sight? What happened to all those f-bombs, huh?"

"Fuck off," FLICK. "Hey, you asked for it! Are we doing this or not?" Shinji growled as loudly as he possibly could.

"We would be halfway done already if you stopped being an idiot about it! Last rep, let's go!"

Yes. In turn, Asuka forced herself not to grin for what felt like the tenth time that morning. If this happiness was to end, after all, she'd seize every last bit of it before it faded away. Bite back. Fight me. Challenge me. Show me you're alive, show me how strong my Shinji really is. God, I want those wounds to be healed up right now, so I can trace them down, as well. I closed up those wounds, I'll be the one to heal them. They belong to me.

Her fingers tingled and burned whenever one of the marks on Shinji's face came into to view. She now effectively knew the story behind most of them. Well, not that I didn't before. The thought made her snicker even when she started counting the seconds for Shinji to move his leg down. I just got to hear it from him. And that's all that matters. What he chooses to tell me, what he chooses to do; I'll be glad to listen to and witness every bit of it, good or bad.

Watching over and directing his training regimen helped Asuka drown out any and all thoughts of what she had done and witnessed before arriving at the apartment… before coming home the night before. There was not a single trace of regret for her actions, only the ominous knowledge that she had taken not one, but four human lives. Seeing Shinji struggle through the pain the wounds provided only helped to solidify her mindset, and eased the nausea with every passing second. At times, her hands would rest on his shins and brush some of the old cuts around them; her curiosity spiked each time a new scratch came into view.

More than two hours passed. Asuka focused on her own routine after the last of Shinji's exercises was done. The clock read 2.27pm, so there was still time aplenty to complete her training and depart to the medical facility.

"Crap," Shinji panted as he struggled to get into a seated position. "That was…" He huffed, let out a cough, and took a long swig of water. He lifted hus right hand, surprised to see it not shaking like a leaf in the wind. "That was something… I can't believe I'm in such lousy shape."

A high roundhouse kick sliced through the air. "Not as lousy as you think!" Asuka remarked with a smirk, then threw a succession of strikes that ended with a flying knee. He noticed the slight flaw in technique when she threw the next following attack. "I mean, you did jump out of bed and run all the way to my room! Never mind how you almost opened up the leg wound all over again!" Again, the roundhouse flew, and in the back of his mind, Shinji heard Sagat-san critique his own efforts years prior. "Your physical condition is nowhere near as bad as I thought it would be!"

None of your business. You're not a trainer, hell, you're barely a novice and a brawler, Ikari. No place for you to say anything. The small fault had not been present at all the day before; no matter how he tried to ignore it, every time Asuka threw a roundhouse, which she was doing with more frequency as her body and mind reached a flow state, the mistake was there, glaring at him. You've never… corrected her in anything outside of battle. And even then, it was just me calling her a rookie, or going ahead like an idiot. A fifth kick, the errors worsened, and his teeth ground. Shut up, shut up, don't say anything. Not your place, Shinji, keep quiet. Quiet. Say nothing. Say noth-

"Uhm, your kick," he quietly began. Perhaps the whisper had been low enough for Asuka to ignore. Damn it! She stopped mid-kick, nevertheless, and turned to him with a raised eyebrow and a hand on her hip. With the snug training clothes she was wearing, it was close to impossible to ignore her beauty.

"What about it, Baka?" Her leg leg bounced up and down, hands raised high in a traditional stance. God, how can anyone be so fucking beautiful? It should be illegal. "Got any pointers, Lord Iron Hands? Mr. Ruthless has perhaps a piece of advice for me?" Asuka threw a teep and turned to produce a perfect spinning heel kick. "Don't be shy, now, Baka! God knows that's one thing about you I don't miss!"

And what the hell is that supposed to mean? Shinji shook his head; Asuka's predatory gaze would turn more intense every time he spoke, and directed her attention to him. She doesn't miss me being shy? When the hell was I-oh.

"Your kick." He gulped, turning away from her and fixing his eyes on the table. "You're not pivoting enough with your lead foot," he clarified, pointing at where he assumed her left leg to be, and hid his blush as best he could. "Y-Yesterday you were doing it perfectly; now your lead foot is not turning enough, a-and you can definitely turn your hip more to maximize the momentum."

Will you stop it with those stupid little smiles? His body shuddered, yet the injuries failed to burn or ache. The tremors coursing through him had nothing to do with drug abstinence; nervousness was dropping his eyes down to the floor, to his injured leg, anywhere but Asuka's eyes.

"Oh, you mean I need to add 'more hip' to it, Baka?" She recalled the screams and overly animated corrections of her coaches in Thailand, smile ever present, and improved her form slightly with the following attack. "How was that? Hey! You're not even looking!"

Yes he is, thought the side of her that hungered for Shinji's attention above all things. Every move, every breath, every word; there's not a single thing he misses. Shinji averted his eyes just as the momentum of the kick brought her back to her stance. The slight lack in technique had been entirely intentional, and had borne excellent results.

"T-That's better." Even the damned stammering Shinji had been struggling with for years returned with a vengeance in Asuka's presence. I think I'll have the visions, now, thank you. "But you're still not pivoting enough, your foot's also coming off the ground way too much. You can get tripped or thrown off balance like that. Uhm," He scratched his head, recalling the old Thai's smile and sunny attitude when forcing him to train until the point of collapse. "The heel of your lead foot should be facing your opponent once the kick is thrown, and you need to open up t-the..." He felt his face burn with embarrassment.

Asuka placed a hand behind her ear and leaned forward. "And open up the what, Shinji? I didn't quite catch that last thing you said." This is so much fun! As far as she remembered, the only person she had ever teased in recent years had been Fritz, and even then it had not felt as intimate, nor as natural as it did in this moment. "Can you be a little more specific? I'm not really getting what I'm doing wrong. I mean," she produced a much cleaner kick without much effort, "what's wrong with it?"

"Your arm." He awkwardly made a rowing motion from his chair, still dripping sweat, and did his best to demonstrate how to snap the arm back completely. I've seen hours of footage of you practicing, Asuka; your kicks are flawless. You're doing this… why are you doing this? And why am I partaking in it? His voice grew quieter with each word. "You can swing it a bit more and open u-up the chest."Another cough interrupted his instructions.

"However do you mean, open up the chest, Shinji?" For a single, perfect moment, they were back at NERV, and she was teasing him about his physics assignment all over again. "You mean, like so?" She demonstrated the kick slowly, minding to take her sweet time and have her upper body face him fully. "Was that enough hip? And how about that arm swing, good enough for the Master Baka? You do know I studied in Tiger Muay Thai, right?"

I even know the names of your trainers and sparring partners, Asuka, Shinji's mind answered while he forced his voice not to waver. He took a deep breath to master himself and gave her a smirk of his own. I know you're enjoying this, but I regret to inform you I'm not that sad little kid from before. "Then why the hell are you making such rookie mistakes, then?"

"I don't know," Asuka retorted without missing a beat. She stopped practicing altogether and moved behind the wheelchair where she pressed a hand against his shoulder. "Maybe I just want the great Ruthless Third Child to give me some pointers, considering your vast experience in fighting and current undefeated record in… how do you guys call it, again? Ah, yeah, Lilith's Backyard. Not very original, by the way."

I wish this wouldn't end. Ever. I wish everything could stay like this.

Just like the night when they had first shared an honest hug, the thought went through both their minds at once. "Not original at all, but hey." He smiled, to Asuka's delight. "Still better than being called Madam Sohryu all over the internet."

The hand moved from his shoulder to deliver a soft, almost affectionate pat meant to be reprimanding on the back of his head. "Yeah, but still not as lame as being referred to as the go-to god of the dispossessed. I ran into one of your cult groups yesterday, as matter of fact. Weird people. Lame, too."

Shinji chortled, upsetting the healing cuts even more as he wheeled himself into the room to pick a change of clothes for the day. "Yeah, nothing quite like being worshiped like a deity by sick maniacs. At least they don't call me Ruthless or any of that stupid crap."

"Maybe they just call you Lord Ikari." A quick check on her cellphone confirmed they had about two hours until the advanced therapy took place. Precious few hours remained, if her calculations were correct, until the horrors locked in Shinji's mind along with his wrath and resentment began to manifest. Hers were sure to follow suit, considering how she had been religiously ingesting the benzodiazepine poison on a daily basis. "Doesn't that have a nice ring to it, Lord Ikari?"

"Well, if that's the case," remarked Shinji from his doorway. He had minded to grab the letter from the table; the paper felt rough against his fingertips. "Can I call you Lady Sohryu or some crap along those lines?"

"I don't know, Baka, can you? Anyway," she pointed at the clock on Shinji's living room, "we have an appointment with that little glass tank you love so much, you know, since you decided to jump on your injured leg and run?" Annoyed, incoherent grumbling was her response. "So get yourself ready, get in the shower, wash off the stench of several days worth of toxins, and then we'll go enjoy your beloved LCL!"

"How fun, I can't wait," Shinji deadpanned, and opened the door to his bedroom. It smells like her now. My room smells like Asuka. He brushed his fingers along the letters written on that small piece of paper. If she had written one, the question arose as to how many letters there were at all. His research had never so much as hinted anything of the sort, after all. Despite the sarcasm in his tone, Shinji actually felt inclined, a bit excited to spend the day with her. "Just give me a few minutes to get myself ready, Lady Sohryu."

"No sudden movements, Baka!"

"Yeah, yeah, no sudden movements. Promise."

They each disappeared behind their bedroom doors.

Lilith stood next to a corner of the living room; her crimson eyes wandered over the training gear, the weights, the mat lying on the floor where Shinji had almost died of pain by just moving his leg up and down, and came to rest on Asuka's room. Her eyes softened under the whitish bangs; no longer inquisitive, the apparition observed with an almost defeated stare. The demons which had molded them into who they currently were had been biding their time, hiding under the carpet, and salivating at the thought of being released.

They were alike Her in a manner; simple yet terrifying, intangible figures from the past, twisted by trauma, horror and malevolence. The memory of a mother, warped beyond comprehension to inflict nothing but fear and terrible agony upon their children. Indeed, they shared some similarities. She was fated to exist and not exist, trapped in between the tangible world and Her children's unconscious. The shackles keeping Her grounded had nonetheless begun to rust in the past few days. The chains weakened, as horror slowly made its way towards to the consciousness of one particularly troublesome child of Hers, one who had for so long refused to just let go.

Perhaps the time had come, at last. Perhaps She too, could be free.


'Don't hate me.'

Shinji shook his head after reading the last line of the letter for the third time. A small smile grew on his face. "As if I ever could." He unfurled the worn-out piece of paper; some of the words were barely legible anymore. "Not alone, huh. Guess it does feel like that, for once."

"But Puppy, you've never been alone."

The whisper crept into the back of his mind; he had to stop his hand from curling into a fist and crushing the new treasures he had just been presented with. She appeared near the closet, skin melting off and falling to the floor as her clothes burned all around her. In a vast contrast to the visions of his mother, where he could smell the rot of her flesh and breath, there was no scent of charred meat or smoke. Instead, the almost imperceptible aroma of vanilla and strawberry filtered through his consciousness. She had opted to use that strawberry shampoo the last few days they had seen one another.

"You always look so alone, so sad. Do you want to talk about it? I'm all ears!" In that memory, Mari had been smiling placidly as she sat next to him. He had been taking a break off work, smoking a cigarette outside whilst the pill he had taken worked its magic, and then she had been there, grinning. She had invaded his personal space and almost earned a punch for it; yet she had tried it again and again, visited the restaurant almost religiously for close to two weeks before he decided to respond in any way. The smoldering apparition sat next to him in bed; her eyes gleamed behind the broken, bloodied glasses she wore. "What'cha thinking about, Puppy?"

Not speaking back to her or even bothering to think of a rebuttal, Shinji focused his attention on the letter. Lines were scratched away, the paper itself was in a deplorable state, and stains of some moisture had fallen and blurred out several phrases; it felt like for once, he had something which was truly Asuka's to hold on to.

Mari's twisted smile turned into a cruel scowl; he was only too happy to ignore her that morning. "Thinking about that girl, are you? That Asuka? You know, Puppy, that's a little dumb, what you're doing. Do you watch the news? I know you're pretty busy all the time. Did you catch the thing she said the other day? Somebody asked her about you."

"Shut up," Shinji growled in a harsh whisper. The letter's empty three pages made him wonder what she had been pondering on writing, only to settle for two tiny words. "You're not here. You don't matter at all." He was so engrossed in reading that he barely noticed the manifestation of his mother's corpse, dried up and decomposing as he dreamed it to be, traveling forever inside Unit 01. The headless lower half of Gendo never failed to elicit a chortle of laughter from him; great, now all three of them were there. Come and get me, assholes. Give it your worst.

"Oh, my dear son, you really don't mean that," Yui remarked. She took Mari by the hand and stood there, smiling, always smiling whenever Asuka was not close to him, and glowering at the redhead at any given chance. "That little girl out there, we don't like her, Shinji. We don't like it when you ignore us, or try to forget about us. It's not a mature thing to do." The blackened, charred hand of Mari removed some half-burnt tresses away from her eyes as she nodded to Yui.

"Besides. That girl is nothing but bad news." The corpse shook its head in disapproval, so Shinji focused even harder on the faded words in the letter. "She's hurt you so much, baby, for so many years. You say it doesn't matter, what she said. I thought I taught you better than that, Shinji."

A snarl darkened his features; no matter how many times he shook his head, the visions would not fade. No matter how hard he focused on Asuka's letter or her scent, the smell of rotting flesh remained. Taught me? Please. You never taught me anything, you let yourself be swallowed up by Unit 01 when I was four years old. And you made sure I watched, he responded, without saying a word. The morning had been going so well; it would be a shame to concern Asuka with his insanity, not when he could still prevent it to an extent.

Yui's twisted smirk widened until the lips cracked and bled. The second drawer of his nightstand had a fake bottom, one where he kept the cocaine and many other substances. A pill or three were certain to put an end to the senseless rambling of those brutish ghosts. Mari's charred hand came to rest on his mother's lab coat as they shared a knowing look and a laugh. Why did it feel to him that the two of them would have actually gotten along in real life?

"Listen to my baby boy, isn't he the cutest, Mari-chan?"

His eyebrow twitched, Shinji nodded to himself and hobbled over to the drawer. A tiny bit of that horse-tranquilizing medication the yakuza got for him would suffice. Before he could reach the false bottom and open it, however, the scar on his left arm began to burn without reprieve. The scorching sensation froze his arm before it could reach the precious little pills.

"Look at you, trying to be brave. How delightful. Just like during Third Impact, look at my brave boy." A bony finger pointed at the letter being gingerly held in his right hand. "I was thinking about that little interview of hers, darling. Was what she said all those years ago not the main reason why you went to that building after they released you from the hospital? Remember that lovely black tar heroin you got? Or how you were drooling, dying there for days before they found you? Wasn't that right after you saw that video of her? And now you say it means nothing. Hah. That's ironic and pathetic all at once. Nothing; exactly what she said you were."

"Shut up, already," Shinji mumbled, and curled his left hand into a fist. Putting weight on his injured side helped him focus on the pain rather than pay any more attention to the apparitions standing beside his closet. "You'll all be gone soon enough."

Mari smirked, laughing in that way he had learned to hate before breaking up with her, years before. "You're hoping that I fade into nothing, right? Like the memory of you in her head as she was being rammed by that Moritz guy? She was probably down on her knees, doing him a little favor while you were on that operating table, getting your own knee and hands reconstructed. I wonder what kind of face she was making then. Don't you wonder about that, as well? Would you say you made a terrible mistake choosing her over me? I guess time will tell, won't it? You'll see. In time, you'll come to realize what you lost when you broke up with me."

At the moment those words had been uttered to him for the first time, Shinji had been in a drug-induced coma after almost being punched into an early grave. Somehow, Mari had managed to sneak into his hospital room and speak to him one last time before disappearing and, subsequently, burning to death. "Go to hell, all of you."

"It would be unwise to deflect your medication altogether," the headless corpse added, speaking for the first time. "If you are not suffering or slowly killing yourself, after all, then I have no use for you."

Shinji's eyes closed in an effort to ignore the visions as he sat back down; his brain was only too happy to present him with the image of Unit 02's remains being dragged and devoured. Without the dulling effect of the drugs, there was no foreseeable escape. Such instances were not uncommon nor unfamiliar with him; he had gotten clean twice without much help, after all. Voices and screams, blood, memories so vivid he felt as though he were there, permanent nausea, excessive sweating, dehydration, itching, hollowness, and dread. He was no stranger to any of it.

"It's all in my head." Both his mother and Mari giggled at his defiance; he supposed Gendo would have offered no such reaction, nothing aside perhaps pushing his glasses up, yet there was only half of him. "It's all in my head. And it doesn't matter, none of that shit does. It's in the past." He turned to glare at them all. "If you're all so fucking knowledgeable," came the brash whisper, "tell me why she's here, right now, and why she just gave me this letter."

Rarely did the apparitions' thirst for suffering wane or stop but at times, when he focused on those little things that kept him from putting a bullet in his head, hanging himself or dying of an overdose, they shifted their form and went quiet. Yui's bloated, dark skin turned back to a healthy hue, Mari's burns faded, and Gendo stood at full height, no longer towering over him as he had in his childhood. Of course they said nothing; they were figments of his broken imagination. If he had no true answer to that question, neither would they.

The ghosts continued to stand there, no longer trying to speak to him but not fading away either. Shinji ignored it all as best he could, and opened yet another hidden compartment under his bottom drawer. About a dozen pictures were thrown in there; images where Asuka was joking around, training, or in two of them, the two most precious to him, actually smiling. The envelope was delicately placed above them; his hand lingered on the paper as his eyes read the 'Baka-Shinji' one last time before closing the drawer.

Nothing but some faint noise from Asuka's room came to greet Shinji as he commenced the strenuous task of choosing an outfit for the day. The ghosts dared not say a thing. He nodded to them before heading for the bathroom. "Yeah. That's what I thought."

Despite his rebellious attitude, his hands were shaking slightly. His skin itched, he felt thirsty beyond belief and the anxiety pressed harder and harder against his chest. Shinji showered despite knowing he'd have to do so once more after being sunken into the disgustingly gigantic tank of LCL, and before leaving for the door, he was surprised to have Asuka call him back into the kitchen. She was dressed perfectly as always; her hair shone under the late morning light, eyes dancing playfully in his direction as she pushed a glass filled with mead towards him.

"Here." She grabbed a smaller one from the counter, and gently touched the bottom of her glass to his. "Skål."

They were still standing there in the corner, the three of them sporting new, somber looks on their faces as he pondered whether or not to continue indulging in more drinking. "Should I be drinking this right before you put me in that LCL tank, and" -he chortled, and hissed in pain for his trouble a second afterwards- "should you be drinking at all when you're the one doing this weird therapy of yours?"

"I watered it down considerably," Asuka explained, and took a long drink from her own glass. "You did quite well today in training." Shinji felt himself blush at her words. "This is just a small reward. And this is strawberry juice, Baka. I'm not about to mess up my careful work just because I had a little drink."

You deserve the very best of me, and that's exactly what you're getting, Asuka mused. She could almost visualize every little detail she had to take care of while closing up Shinji's wounds, and suppressed a small laugh when she saw him blink at the mead, most likely surprised at its good taste.

"This is great." The glass was emptied in seconds; he was desperate to have anything besides the few pills in his system, and for the first time in years he was actually eager to leave his apartment. Any place where those three were not looking at him in silence, daring him to forget, daring him to enjoy life, was preferable. "I never thought mead could be this tasty and refreshing."

"That's because I mixed it with just the right amount of fresh lemonade, water and spices, Baka." Once the glass was placed on the counter, Asuka started pushing his wheelchair without even consulting its occupant, which earned her a very satisfying growl. You kept looking at that corner of the room, and I heard some of what you said, she thought with a pang of anger. It was unjust to simply let him do all that emotional heavy lifting, when it had been her to say she would be doing all the saving. Don't worry, they won't dare hurt you if I'm around. I won't let them.

Her eyes narrowed; she glared at the corner Shinji had been glancing at.

I'll rip them apart.


"Story starts, quiet town, small town boy, big time frown! Never talks, never plays! Different path, lost his way!"

The drink warmed him up all the way to his insides, eliciting a hiss and a shake of the head as he brusquely slammed the shot glass on the wooden counter and demanded a refill. The particular establishment he had been sitting in since early in the morning was unfamiliar; the chairs and tables were dented and worn, there was a constant smell of humidity and cigarette smoke, and even the counter itself showed signs of violence all around its wooden surface. The splinters scratched away at the underside of his forearm; brown stains of what he assumed to be blood were still visible around the largest of dents.

"Pff, some place you picked," he muttered to the glass. The woman who served him was friendly enough, however there was some strange suspicion dancing on her gaze whenever she looked at him. She probably knows you, Suzuhara, he thought with a bitter smile. Who doesn't? You're that friend of Shinji's, that guy whose former girlfriend dated the Third Child for like what, a week? Two? Your ugly mug has been circling through the media for some time, already.

Not even bothering to wait for the person who had dragged him to the bar, he downed the second shot and glanced at the clock. "Soon to be drunk as fuck just around noon. Great going there, Suzuhara. Pour yourself another, why don't you."

The small glass was raised in a signal to the bartender, who wasted no time in serving him yet another full shot of vodka. Rum had been almost intolerable to him; the sweetness of it and the burn in the guts were things he could live without. Once, during one of his last episodes of blind rage, he had opted to wash the healing cuts the surgeons had left in his mouth with Shinji's favorite rum. The damned alcohol had been so strong it had brought him to his knees, doubling over in absolute agony as his nerves went haywire.

"Damn, talk about bad etiquette. You didn't even wait for me to get here."

A familiar hand slapped the back of Toji's shoulder playfully; the stool next to him creaked when Kensuke sat on it and offered a hesitant smirk. "Hey, Toji. It's been a while, huh?"

With another tap on the counter, yet another shot was served. He ignored the small conversation that ensued between the waitress and his old comrade, and did not even bother to acknowledge the greeting at all. Readjusting his jaw produced that familiar click; he bit into it twice to ensure it was properly hinged. The anniversary of his stupidity was drawing near, and as was custom he met with Aida in whichever lowlife canteen the bespectacled soldier chose. It made no difference where they sat, so long as he got to drink himself into oblivion and not have to worry about getting back to his apartment in one piece. They could be drinking by the stupid crater again, for all he cared.

The sound of a beer being placed next to his left arm brought Toji's attention to his beaming friend. "Congratulations on your engagement," he ground out, nursing the last remnants of his drink. "When's the wedding?"

"Wow, a little bit more excitement and I'd think you're about to jump out the window and scream your joy in the street. And it's in six months, you ass. You got the invitation." Kensuke snickered; his gaze quickly went to the waitress, who raised four fingers to respond the unspoken question. "Don't you think it's a little early to get shit-faced, man? It's barely noon."

"Pff." Toji downed the shot and demanded another one. "I'm through my final exams, about to graduate. To hell with what time it is, I'll be partying today." He raised an eyebrow at his only true friend with an expression of vague annoyance. "So, you met with the Devil yesterday, huh? Finally got that shit out of your system?"

Another drink, another refill. Yes, it was always the fifth one that had any effect at all. The night he had faced Ikari, the fourteenth had been the one to force his legs to move. Everything short of him seeing Shinji half-staggering himself, along with the admission of his fault, was covered in fog. There was no memory of him walking to Shinji's apartment, no memory of him knocking on the door, nothing. Heh. The reconstructed jaw clicked. I don't even remember if it hurt at all when he punched me.

Kensuke took the cool beer glass between his fingers, recalling how the emptiness Asuka had left as she waltzed away from the bar had been quickly replaced by shame. True, letting go of the crush had been painful, yet once freed from it he was able to fully embrace Mana's love, and felt fortunate beyond words. His old friend was not faring so well; Toji's frown let him know he was reliving that night over and over again, trying to punish himself. Man, it would be nice to have one friend aside from my fiancée who's not bat-shit crazy.

"I don't know," Kensuke replied snidely with a cold smirk. "Have you stopped hitting yourself in the jaw in hopes it never heals?" The heated glare addressed his way only made him laugh. "It's a fool's hope. The doctor who treated you is the same who reconstructed Shinji's own jaw and hand. If my information is correct, he's also the one who operated on our dear friend when Asuka pushed him."

Toji glowered at his shot glass; he scowled as the memory and its ramifications quickly unfolded in his brain. "Yeah, that bitch pushes our friend over a rail, onto a table where he almost dies, and the great Aida does what?" Whatever remained of his drink was consumed in a flash.

"Goes on a seven-year long adventure to spy on our friend and keep that same bitch informed of every little thing he does."

A sixth drink was served and consumed, with the seventh already resting beside him. The waitress had had the drift; the drinks were to keep coming until he fell off the stool.

"Fucking creepy asshole," Toji ground out with a disapproving shake of the head. "Even with a damn girlfriend you kept giving her little bits of info. Fuck that slut, what did she ever do for you? She didn't open her legs for you, after seven years of groveling. Pff."

Seventh gone, on with the eighth. Fourteen was the magical number, the sweet spot; with enough vodka in his system, the idea of facing both Asuka and Shinji did not sound so far-fetched. The now soldier and engineer said nothing in return, stoically staring at his glass.

"Bet it must've made you feel so very special, to know she was fucking that German prick while she wailed at you over the phone. Wait, or was it in person? It was, wasn't it?" Toji's head was starting to swim a bit, and for once in over three weeks, his muscles began to unwind. "Hah. Pathetic, as she loved to call him. You went all the way to her house, got the clearance Shinji's been dreaming of while he lay in a hospital bed, half-dead, and you found her, didn't you? The great Sohryu, the great doctor and therapist and scientist and all that bullshit, about to hang herself from a fucking noose. Bah." Toji turned his head and spat on the rotting floor. "What a sight that must've been."

"She tried," answered the only other occupant of the counter, tone quiet. "By the time I got there she had already managed to save herself from asphyxia, somehow. She didn't push off the chair hard enough, so her neck didn't break. There was red all over her skin, turned purple the following day, I heard. She never needed my help, or wanted my company outside of a friend. I get that; I never intended anything more than what she was willing to give. With that being said..."

He punched Toji in the shoulder with enough strength to almost knock him off the stool, and finished his beer.

"Must be nice to talk all that crap with your buddy. Let's see you try to speak like that in front of Shinji, and see if he doesn't remove your ability to say another word." Megumi had been attentive enough to leave a generous shot of their best sake next to his beer; it went down far easier than rum. "You've always had a fat mouth. Even having Shinji break it to splinters wasn't enough to teach you. You didn't even bother to go to the hospital, and now you're here, talking shit."

Massaging his arm in faint nonchalance, and realizing the punch had actually packed enough steam to leave a bruise, Toji swallowed the eighth drink. This time around, the waitress waited until Kensuke nodded before serving him. Sakura's gift dangled impassively from his neck, reminding him of her displeasure with him. Eight shots of vodka were not nearly enough for him to hide from her eyes, or the memory of Shinji's fist.

"I was there the last time he was admitted, two years ago." That gaze of his had been haunting; disinterest with existence or life in its entirety. Absolute, total defeat, even in victory. "What difference did it make? While you ran off to that bitch, I stayed behind and tried to do something. Fat load of good that did. Not even when you came back and tried yourself, not even then did we make a damn difference. That girl, Krista, and his trainer. You name them. So what does it matter if I wasn't in that hospital?"

Kensuke's gaze softened; he placed a hand on Toji's shoulder. "We really haven't earned the right to go see him, have we?"

With a nod, the eighth shot went down. "We started it, Ken." The stoic and angry façade crumbled, and Toji's strong shoulders sank. "We were there the first time it happened, and we helped. I helped the most, even when you told me to stop. Then everybody in class joined in, and…" His eyes drifted to the dent in the counter. "That poor kid."

Yeah, poor kid who called Asuka a coward and a bitch several times as we held Shinji down and tried to keep him from committing manslaughter. Kensuke drank the rest of the sake; the waitress was kind enough to serve him a fresh one, and placed another beer alongside the fresh drink. "He had it coming," he whispered back. "Isn't that what he always says?"

"So then why the hell are we still here?" Toji retorted with another scowl. "We should be the ones in graves, considering we started it all. Wasn't he assaulted a week before he snapped in school?"

It had been the first time they had seen Shinji's face bruised and swollen; a horrid warning of what was to come in latter years, instead of an isolated event as it should have stayed. "About a week before, yeah, give or take a day or two." Kensuke sighed and sunk into the stool. "He never did tell us what happened, when, or where. And then we started pushing it."

"You know the scariest part?" Yet another nod from his friend, yet another shot of vodka in his hand. Kampai, happy anniversary, Hikari-chan. "He wasn't even fully healed from that beating, or from that operation on his back. And he still… that guy's face was sunken in. Sunken in, Kensuke."

"I know, I was there." Had they not been so childish as to meddle and demand Shinji stop worrying over Sohryu, had they held their tongues… No point crying over spoiled milk, like Mana tells me. "It was terrifying, just like that time when we were in the Eva with him. And just like then, we couldn't do a thing."

Some of his vodka spilled as Toji's hand clumsily picked up the glass; his vision was blurring ever so slightly. You've gotten soft, Suzuhara, haven't even gotten to ten and you're plastered, already. How many drinks did you have that night, when you fucked up? How many was that? "We never made a difference, not a positive one, anyway. You know, I'm so stupid I was jealous of him before."

"Tell me about it." Just the day before, Kensuke had been pondering on a similar thought. "I spent years chasing after Asuka, all the while deluding myself that I was doing it for him. What a crappy friend I've been."

"You're not the only one," Toji added with a shrug. "We're a pair of crappy friends, and crappy boyfriends to boot. What a fucking waste." More bitter laughter reverberated through the empty bar. "All of them deserve better; Hikari, Shinji..." He glanced at Kensuke with a weary gaze. "...Mana."

Yes, number nine, three or four more and I'll be ready to break your face, Ken. Better yet, have you break mine, Toji thought as he downed the next serving of alcohol. "And now the Crimson Bitch comes back from the depths of hell, and just like that Shinji's suddenly supposed to get better? Give me a fucking break. We should tear that selfish little slut away from him before she breaks his mind more than it already is."

"Uh huh." Kensuke ignored the lame jabs his friend threw at every given chance to try and get a rise out of him. It was the day of his and Hikari's anniversary, after all. "Keep insulting her like that, go on. Don't make me repeat myself, Toji. If you're so comfortable saying all this shit about Asuka, go and do it to her face. She's taking care of Shinji right now, so you kill two birds with one stone, and then die yourself. Good combo there, at a low price."

"Give me four more of these and you got yourself a deal," Toji responded with a bit of a slur to his words. "I was considering it, but then I thought to myself 'how can I burden Shinji with my fucking meaningless life, too'? Like the guy doesn't have enough to deal with."

For the first time ever since arriving, Kensuke raised the glass towards his friend. "Hikari's doing just fine, in case you were wondering, and I know you were. She misses you." They toasted and drank, each choosing to stare at the damaged wood under their fingers than at one another. "Yeah, Shinji's been through enough. I just hope something changes for the better, now."

"Of course, you believe in that since the oh-so-great Second Child came back to save him. Excuse me if I'm a little apprehensive about the girl that disappeared for seven fucking years coming back to do whatever the fuck it is that she does." Toji asked for another drink, but this time the waitress raised an eyebrow at him and, instead of giving him vodka, placed a full glass of cold water next to his hand. "Then she comes back and Misato, in her eternal stupidity, gives her the keys to Shinji's house and disappears, as she does. And we're just supposed to sit here and blindly trust this traitorous wh-"

"I would advise against badmouthing Sohryu-sama, whether in Ikari-san's present or not."

Both young men turned their heads at the voice. Kensuke's eyes widened in recognition, whereas Toji's narrowed in suspicion. Neither had noticed the gargantuan monster of a man who had apparently tip-toed his way to the counter, and now stood behind them, hands in his pockets. He was both tall and broad, his face was marred with countless scars, and his eyes, covered by glasses not unlike Kensuke's, had a stoic intensity to them. The man smiled, disinclined to share how he had so effortlessly sneaked up on them without a sound, and took a seat to Kensuke's left.

"Megumi-san, the usual, if you'd be so kind." Rummaging through the pockets of his tailored suit, the newcomer produced a pack of cigarettes and wordlessly offered one to each.

Toji wrinkled his face in disgust, where Kensuke gladly took one. A bottle of Wild Turkey bourbon was placed before the man with no glass; he easily tore off the top half of the bottle's neck with a flick of his forefinger, and emptied three quarters of the content in several long gulps. Seconds afterwards, the finely-suited giant produced a box of matches, lit Kensuke's cigarette first then his own, taking a long drag that consumed almost half the cancer stick. After effectively covering the counter area with nicotine-induced smoke, he sat back and sighed in contentment. Nothing short of the music playing from the bar's old sound system reigned over the empty hall for long, stressful minutes.

"He screamed 'lost my way, this bloody day'! All things wash away, but blood stained the sun today!"

Hanayama drank down the remains of the bottle and lit a second cigarette in a fluid motion.

"It is not proper to insult a person behind their back." He threw the cigarette butt into the bottle, nodding towards the marks of violence resting beside Toji's arm. "Least of all Sohryu-sama, now that she is in the country. The walls have ears and eyes, dear Suzuhara-san." Once he removed the glasses, both youngsters were able to see the discoloration in one of his irises. "It would be in your best interests to refrain from such remarks in the future."

"Eh?" Toji exclaimed. A confrontation or a fist fight was exactly what he had been waiting for. "Who the fuck do you think you are, to come here and talk to me like that? Just 'cause you're some big fucker you think you can tell me what to do, huh?"

Toji would have risen off his stool and attacked, had Kensuke not placed a hand on his shoulder yet again and given him a warning look. "Hanayama-san, how nice of you to drop by." He tried diffusing the tension with a relaxed, engaging tone, to no avail. Toji continued to glower at the yakuza, not truly realizing any transgression against the man was sure to end horribly for him. "I apologize for my friend's comments. He's had a few drinks, you see. We're..." he chuckled with a hint of honest nervousness dancing in his voice, "we're sort of celebrating. Or better said, we're just… reminiscing."

"And that is well and good," was Hanayama's cold response. The soldier was more than familiar with this man's name and reputation; moreover, he was aware there existed a strange camaraderie between him and Shinji, born on the day his friend had almost been killed on national television. "I, however, believe your… friend… crossed about two or three lines just now. A man is to be aware of how much alcohol he can consume before becoming inappropriate. Disrespecting young ladies is not something I believe Hokari-san would approve of."

"What the fuck did you just say?" Regardless of how strongly Kensuke tried to hold him down, Toji was still taller and stronger. He clumsily rose sent the stool to the ground as he tripped over his own feet, grabbed a fistful of the man's suit and did his best to glare at him. "Don't you dare mention her name, you hear me!"

Despite having Toji's spit impact both his face and suit, Hanayama did nothing to retaliate other than offer a cold smirk. "Oh? So my mentioning your beloved's name upsets you? Imagine then, how Ikari-san would feel, knowing you are so blatantly disrespecting a woman he'd be quite willing to die for at any given chance. Such words coming from the mouth of one he considers a friend, to top it all, and not some stranger. Quite hypocritical, no?"

The gangster's monstrous fingers wrapped around Toji's fist, effortlessly disengaging his hand from the suit and squeezing until the young man's eyes widened in realization of just how unmatched he was, and how pathetically he was behaving. With the small smirk never leaving his face, Hanayama stood at his full height and looked down at them as though they were insects.

"Aida-san, it has been brought to our attention that your… services… will no longer be necessary in the task of collecting information for Sohryu-sama. Given her decision to come and treat Ikari-san, one can safely assume no further reports will be required." The second cigarette was thrown into the half-emptied shot of sake. "While the organization does thank you for your tenacity and devotion, at this stage of Ikari-san's recovery, a step back would be much advisable."

Asuka already told me that, you fucking prick, Kensuke thought with rage igniting in his chest, but chose not to act on his baser instincts. The man before him was acclaimed for murdering with his bare hands, and he had just gotten engaged. "Yeah. Thankfully I've been officially laid off that duty," he lied with a smile. The desire to grab the bottle and smash it against the yakuza's skull was too tantalizing to ignore altogether. "By the way, Hanayama-san, I heard you're getting promoted, seeing how your boss suddenly went missing this morning. Anything you might want to say about that to the authorities?"

For a wild moment, Kensuke felt as though his face was about to be permanently disfigured by the man's colossal fist; he almost saw the arm rear back and fly at him at blinding speed. However, no such attack occurred. "Hmm, yes," Hanamaya said with the same placid smile, smoothed the suit and put his glasses back on. "Do not touch Sohryu-sama's stuff."

Toji and Kensuke were able to distinctively hear the larger man's footsteps as he walked towards the door. "Ikari-san might need your assistance as actual friends in the coming days or weeks. I would be most overjoyed to know you participated in his recovery. Farewell, gentlemen." The man's frigid smile became predatory; unaffected by Toji's drunken snarl or Kensuke's glare. "Oh, Aida-san. It is not righteous to desire that which belongs to another man. Kirishima-san has been through enough hardship as it is. Let us not be harbingers of negativity to those important to us, we never know when it might be the last time we see them, after all."

Leaving the unspoken threat float in the air, Hanayama took his leave with as much decorum as when he had first entered. Kensuke exhaled in relief and almost collapsed back on his stool, while Toji tried to remain standing without stumbling, glare fixated on the door.

"You and your big, fat fucking mouth, Toji." Kensuke downed the second beer in an effort to slow down the racing pulse hammering inside his head and chest. "That's the boss of the yakuza. You'd be killed just for looking at him the wrong way. What the hell were you thinking?"

"I was thinking that I don't feel like hearing some giant asshole talk shit about Hikari," Toji slurred back, staggering back to his own seat and drank the last of his vodka. His legs were shaking, and despite the efforts at displaying wrath and disregard, his body had been screaming at him to run away as fast as humanly possible. Holding his right hand in front of him only confirmed it; he was trembling in fear. "This shit," he mentioned in a much quieter tone, voice both slurring and shaking. "This feeling, I've had it before. You have, too, haven't you?"

Even the waitress behind them nodded, having been almost petrified by the yazuka's menacing energy just seconds before.

"See that dent on your right, next to your arm?" Kensuke slapped himself on both cheeks to try and break out from the trance. How odd, that when completely unhinged and wearing that dreadful smile, Shinji displayed an overbearing presence not unlike Hanayama's, a man twice his size and three to four times heavier. "Some poor bastard started talking shit once. It was a Sunday night, things were cool. We were talking, he was telling me about this new recipe they had been trying, and then," the echo of a man's teeth being dented into the wood washed over him, "and then it all got out of hand very quick."

Toji's hand brushed over the dent, recognizing the imprint of a jaw and the brownish spots where blood had dried. "He's such a gentle, caring guy all the time," he mused. "Even when he's high, or drunk, even when he's trying to be an asshole."

Shinji had two masks; the stoic, stony glare he had developed in the past two years, along with the charming, slightly sarcastic and witty personality he had developed. His true self, the shy and gentle boy they had met so many years before, remained hidden underneath both masks. There was also the smirking beast he became after rage overtook his sanity and self-control. It's so fucking sad to see him go crazy like that, only to regret it three seconds afterwards and try to drink and drug himself to death.

"I think we really need to step up our game as friends." With a trembling hand, Kensuke gestured for Megumi to serve him the next shot. His teeth chattered; Shinji had his own information network, one fueled by both the government and the underworld kings. There was no way in hell the Third Child had not yet been informed of everything he had done. "This is pretty sad, even for our standards. As you said, Shinji deserves better."

"All he has is us, though." The world was going in and out of focus. Ten drinks had been enough to leave him out for the count, so Toji picked up the glass of water in a hopeless effort to clear his head. "Us and that b- us and Asuka. Can't even count on Misato, anymore." He slurred every word and could not be bothered to care any longer. If he did something, if he actually helped Shinji in any possible way, then maybe he would not be so ashamed to pick up the phone and call Hikari. "He's been out of the hospital for a few weeks. Remember the last time he got clean?"

"He almost died," said Kensuke. "His coach was smart enough to put that IV in him before he collapsed after that fight. What an idiot, trying to get clean while training for a fight and doing weight control." Both shook their heads in derision, toasted, and drank again. "I don't think he'll need us at all. He's just as strong as Asuka, if not stronger."

"Much stronger." Toji gripped the pendant in between his fingers and pressed it against his chest. "Doesn't matter if he needs us or not, it's our job to do something anyway. Wouldn't surprise me if Sohryu calls us, to be honest. She hasn't seen what we've seen, so how the fuck is she supposed to know?"

"Oh, she knows." In his dread, Kensuke had forgotten to ask Hanayama for another cigarette. His reports had always been excruciatingly detailed by Asuka's own request. Every bit of data available, every picture, every commentary, and every witness testimony; she always wanted to know everything. "Asuka knows what's coming. She told me he might need us."

"Nah." They exchanged a knowing glance. "She might need us."


HERZ Laboratory, Tokyo 02

Among the vague memories of a distant smile, warmth, and the ever-present image of a corpse and a doll dangling next to one another, Kyoko had never given Asuka much. The woman had reached out to her during Instrumentality, yet the contact had been so brief and insubstantial, and the pain in her mind and soul so acute, that it was little more than a passing memory. A warm hug, a kiss on her forehead and an apology; it was all she had gotten after being torn apart and devoured.

Then I woke up and the idiot was trying to strangle me.

The damage to Shinji's leg had been, against all odds, minimal, as she had deduced the day before. Regardless of how brutish Shinji's movements had been, the stitches had held up amazingly well. The stomach wound was healing as well as could be expected, and the one on his back was currently being worked on to be closed up completely. The serum would have sufficed in any other patient, yet Asuka wanted no surprises nor any setbacks in this patient's recovery. Each wound needed to be perfectly healed. The damage to his lung tissue, the wound she had so kindly provided years before, was finally receding; his neurons were regenerating at a ridiculous pace, and his movement had not yet been permanently compromised. There was still a chance.

"Have you seen the scars on his body? Have you seen his back? Have you?!"

Asuka suppressed a shudder, biting down on her lip to keep the pain locked deep within, and redirected her focus to the screen. "The blood work came out better than expected," she muttered to the doctor sitting to her right. "Much less presence of chemicals than we anticipated for this week. His body seems eager to keep up with the serum."

"A most impressive development in the rehabilitation of the left lung, as well," the older man added. "Though I must say, quite the remarkable job performed in the last intervention." With a satisfied nod, Asuka observed how the mostly dead tissue had begun to react to the constant exposure to enriched LCL. "This old laceration, on the underside of the cardiac notch, is healing beyond my expectations."

As it should, Asuka thought with a small sense of satisfaction, and a heavy pang of guilt. It shouldn't even be there at all. It's the only reason this treatment exists at all. "Redirect some of the bots to the leg, we need to make sure that nick on the peroneal nerve hasn't been affected these past few days. The patient is quite restless; he seems to not understand the concept of 'no sudden movements'."

The man snickered and shook his head, doing as he was told.

"He's lucky to be in such good health, all things considered," Asuka remarked. "The treatment is progressing faster than anticipated. Also, the enriched LCL is doing a great job of cleaning his bloodstream from possible infection, and from narcotics."

Regardless of how good it felt to say that Kyoko had left her nothing, it would be a blatant lie. Asuka's father had produced several boxes of notes one day, full of pictures, letters, and many a thing she had not ever seen or bothered to look for. Resting innocently among them had been the diagrams and notes to use LCL in the healing of human tissue, and even promote the reconstruction of nerve damage; Kyoko's ideas had been far beyond her time, considering she had done it as more of a side-project to occupy her mind with something besides the Evangelions.

In a way, where Kyoko had failed to save Asuka, she was actively participating in saving Shinji. Or maybe she did save me, after all.

Asuka's eyes drifted to the young man floating in the large tank and stubbornly keeping his eyes closed with a displeased frown. He did detest LCL, no matter how enriched; the entire process probably bothered him to no end. Can't blame him, I would certainly not be thrilled to be floating in a giant test tube, half naked, breathing in yellow goo that stinks of blood. Despite Shinji's precarious situation, Asuka snickered. His frown was cute, and at times such as these, she could observe his physique without him noticing. It's not even like he's trying to bulk up when he trains, it's all just a by-product of it. His muscles are like body armor.

She hated the way the stomach wound stood out, marring his abdomen with bruised red. It probably stung worse than the wound on his back every time he moved or took a breath, and it would leave a visible scar regardless of what she did. Her small smile turned into a satisfied smirk; the man who had placed that horrible mark on him was now little more than mashed paste.

"Frau Sohryu, we should be ready for the second immersion soon," the doctor mentioned after a few minutes of silence. "I see that even with a reduced amount of anesthetic, the patient does not show much signs of pain."

"He has an abnormal pain threshold, just like me," Asuka responded with a curt nod. "And he's become stubborn over the years. It's a good thing the LCL consistency also helps." Shinji's left lung had recovered twelve percent of its former functionality; the lines and dots around the tissue where the ribs had penetrated were beginning to fade. "Still, I'm sure he's having trouble holding that brave face."

"Hmm, he does seem to grimace from time to time. Treating the wound on his back first was indeed the better path." The doctor's face wrinkled in slight concern as he reviewed Shinji's bone structure. "There are numerous fissures and fractures," he remarked while going through the x-rays of the jaw and ribcage. "They appear relatively recent. Both hands were severely compromised, and the left one... mein Gott. Lower jaw, zygomatic bone, both supra and infra orbital foramen, six… seven ribs. Do these all stem from the same event?"

"Yes." Asuka's gaze narrowed in the man's direction. "I'm sure you've heard of it. There will be no further mentions of that event." The part where she would break his face against the computer went unsaid, but was quickly understood. "This is as far as the bots can go; the rest is up to his own body and how well it keeps taking in the nutrients and serum. We still have another thirty minutes, so let's go over neurological responses and the last EEG. No CTE detected so far, you said?"

"Uhm, no, Frau Sohryu, none."

"Good." Her teeth grinding, Asuka did her best try and stop the memories, but the doctor's innocent remarks had already forced them back into consciousness.

Don't think about her, don't let that bitch have another second of your time or his. Don't. Stop. Focus. But relentlessly, the many pictures stored in her folders surfaced in Asuka's mind. Shinji was smiling in most of those at the beginning and for a while she had considered it the better course, to let him enjoy his life with someone who actually took care of him. Then the irrational and overpowering envy had come into play, and her father's offer to go meet a family friend had sounded enticing.

God damn you, you stupid bitch, she said to both herself and the girl who had haunted her thoughts for over two years. God damn you to hell. The logical side of her brain carried on with the task, whereas her subconscious chose to relive the one and only conversation she'd had with Mari Makinami.

As agreed upon, Volkov had messaged her the moment the car accident took place. A simple 'DONE' had never felt so dreadful and so gratifying, all at once. She had been on her way to a meeting that day, about to explain the treatment her mother's notes had led her to for the fourth time, only to be stopped in her tracks. Choosing a room from the many empty halls of the University had been easy enough.

The man had not been lying or gloating the night before; he was obsessive and precise to the point of having installed a small screen and given Asuka complete control of the car's sound system. The seatbelt and doors had been made to lock the moment the airbag deployed. Containers including Mari's coffee thermos had been filled with acetone and set to ignite at her volition, while the car's engine and fuel tank had been covered with capsules containing Bakelite. The fire had been made to be controlled, the gas tank isolated.

By answering the message with 'GOOD', the capsules had exploded and effectively turned the woman's car into a coffin. Some level of satisfaction had been expected, perhaps a bit of joy or excitement, yet all Asuka had felt had been wretchedness, a feeling which followed her every time the memories returned. Unlike now where she held the pictures of Shinji smiling as some form of treasure, two years before she had set many of them ablaze in an effort to erase that woman's little smirk from existence. She recalled her father telling her that Gendo Ikari had done something similar with the pictures of his wife once, only he had not bothered to discriminate and had simply thrown it all away.

Even as they burned away, the pictures had been seared into Asuka's mind like the scar on Shinji's arm. In her pursuit of vindication before their relationship crumbled to the ground, she had redoubled her own efforts to make public displays of affection with Moritz, regardless of how much it sickened her to do so. According to KenKen, that relationship was already burning to the ground by the time I decided to start doing that stupid shit.

Unable to concentrate, Asuka stood in a haste and glared death at the doctor. "Take it from here; the sutures have held well. Have the outer stitches around the leg wound removed, we'll do the others in three days. I'll be in the hall."

Asuka did not bother to acknowledge the man's furious nodding, and strode past the nurses and interns. Shinji's eyes had remained closed, and within the tube he could hardly hear a thing, so hopefully he never realized when she left. The rehabilitation schedule is going faster than originally planned, and his body's responding so well. Heh, I guess all that time swimming in LCL and being the first to come back had something of a positive effect, after all, she thought as her legs sped up and sought the office given to her by the laboratory.

Once the door was shut and she collapsed on the comfortable chair behind her desk, Asuka held her head in her hands, grit her teeth and tried to bring her irregular breathing back to some semblance of control. Past experiences had taught her how to deal with these episodes as they came; isolation was always the best course. Letting Shinji see her in such a state was still out of the question. It's always like this when I remember her bitch face, or every time I see those scars where they operated on him. Fine.

In some horrid, sickening way, she often felt as though Mari had won.

"Good afternoon, Miss Makinami. It is afternoon in England, is it not?"

The video feed on her computer screen was amazingly detailed for such a small camera; she could make out individual strands of hair over Mari's face, could see the tiny crack in her glasses and the blood tricking down her face from a cut just above her forehead. The trucks had impacted in such a way that the car was stuck between them, with no possibility of escape for several minutes. On that deserted highway, with both truck drivers running for both their lives and a hefty bribe, there was nobody able to ask or call for help.

Shock, initially; it was written all over Mari's face when the seatbelt failed to unlatch. After she tried the door and realized she was facing an overturned container, it quickly ripened into panic. The ringing in her prey's ears had most likely deafened her initial greeting, so Asuka dialed the car's volume system up to the maximum. She cleared her throat, which drew Mari's wide green eyes to the screen.

"I said good afternoon. You'll learn very quickly, Miss Makinami, that I do not take lightly to being ignored." Crossing her legs and shifting on the chair, Asuka gave a tight smile. "That looks like quite a precarious situation you're in right now. You know, I've been meaning to speak to you for a while. More than a year actually, but the chance never presented itself. No better time than now, I suppose."

"Who-What are you… how is this in my car!" Mari demanded, tried in vain to disentangle herself from the seat, and grimaced in pain when the shock succumbed enough for her to look down. Volkov's next message confirmed her suspicion. 'Broken left leg', it read; the girl grasped at it, hissing, and surprisingly, took a deep breath and began to assess her predicament. Her gaze narrowed at the screen and she vainly tried to reach it, to no avail. "You," she whispered as blood dripped over her right eye. "You. You're- damn it! Let me go, you stupid little piece of s-"

"Oh, that seatbelt is not about to loosen. It's a really good car you bought. I'm sure most of these models don't come with such a blatant design failure in the buckle. I'm afraid that's very much jammed, and won't be giving in easily." Desperation was evident in her prey's flailing and pathetic attempts to punch the buckle into breaking. "You can hit it all you want, and you might even get free, but how about you take a few seconds more to look at your surroundings? You were doing it just a second ago. Come on, you have some level of military training, agent Iscariot. Remember the basics; evaluate your options and exit routes."

Mari clawed at the air in the screen's direction, eyes moving left and right. There was a small moment of recognition where her body stopped moving, followed by even more frantic struggling. Asuka punched in the words of the final message and slammed the phone against the table, breaking it.

'FEUER'

The first canister located under the back seat ignited. "I hear you've been having trouble sleeping these past few days. How long have you been back in the UK? About three weeks and four days, huh. Almost a month. Oh yes, I never asked; is Japanese okay for you? Feels sort of fitting, but I'm aware you're fluent in both English and German, so we can switch languages any time you want."

"What is the matter with you?" screeched her prey, helpless in her attempt to escape. "What are you talki- get some help! Help, help me, anybody! Hey! Why are you even here? What is this! Is that smoke? Hey, help! Help me!"

Asuka shook her head in mock disappointment. A small voice in her head continued to scream that there was no turning back after this; with one more message the entire operation could be canceled and Volkov would ensure Mari survived. Shinji had been forced to take lives -it was either kill or die- and he had chosen to survive. The very reason he had gone through that horror was finally within her grasp; this was not the time for hesitation or regret.

It took all of three minutes for smoke to start leaking out of the broken windows. "I'll just assume Japanese is fine. By all means, scream a bit louder; there's a roadblock twenty kilometers away from you, on both sides of the freeway." Mari began to cough and drew a hand back when the backseat slowly began to burn. "Such a bad day for driving to the countryside, right? Not quite like those walks you took Shinji on, to the mountains, the forests, the old cities. Did your fair share of traveling with him. You know, I was really happy for you. Well… not so much for you, but for him."

"Shut up!" Mari screamed back, while the fact that there was no escape began to sink in. "You're gonna sit there all high and mighty and do this? You of all people?" She coughed in between sentences, eyes growing bloodshot with the smoke. "What did you ever do for him? What? Not a damn thing! It's all your fault! Everything he's been through is your fault!"

The last comment earned Asuka's prey a raised eyebrow. "Funny you should say that, considering you hired convicted criminals to 'teach him a lesson', as you put it in the police report. Or how about the part where you conspired with the yakuza to get yourself kidnapped? All for what? To have Shinji's undivided attention-"

"Don't you dare say his name, you bitch!" Mari shouted. Asuka caught sight of the flame glowing behind her prey; the girl was sweating and coughing more frequently. "If it weren't for you, Shinji would love me completely! You ruined everything! I was so close to having him all to myself and then you go off flaunting your perfect little boyfriend in front of the world, making a big deal out of it! Shinji's mine! I'm the only one who can save him! I'm the only one who can heal him! I was the one to get him clean, I was the one who was with him every day! I'm the only one who deserves him!"

Asuka's hands clenched into fists. "For a while there, I really did believe that. I did; I was willing to let him go forever, and was about to send him this letter," Asuka produced a small envelope and presented it to the screen.

"This would have been goodbye from me, for good. This would have been me wishing the both of you the best. Saying all the things that I wish I would've said in the last five years, but then..." Asuka's gaze turned cold and deadly just as Mari began to whimper; the fire would burn her nerve endings in a few more minutes. "Then I heard you were giving him pills. Pills and pills and more pills, all from your dear yakuza friends. You kept telling him the 'doctor' recommended them, and when he wouldn't take them with the frequency you wanted, you started sneaking them into his drinks and that dog shit you called food."

With the second canister exploding under the passenger seat, the sentence was finalized. "He has visions, you stupid whore!" Mari exclaimed in absolute despair and wrath. The sweat on her face was vaporizing, and the skin around her left hand had already begun to color red and black. "Visions of you, dying, every single fucking night! Visions of his mother! He smells blood and rot every day! What the hell was I supposed to do, huh? What the hell did you ever do? Five years of nothing, after you tried to kill him!"

"I never tried to kill him," Asuka growled in return. Consumed by her own anger, she never realized when her cool façade broke. "Unlike you, I didn't want to hurt him. You're the one who had him beaten and almost molested by a gang of criminals, you crazy bitch."

"Go to hell!" Mari started to laugh manically as tears fell down her face and faded into vapor before they reached her chin. "I tried my best! I tried everything! Y-You're the reason Shinji never got better! Every little thing you do, every little thing has an impact on him! You do things just because you know it'll hurt him! Didn't you say he meant nothing to you? And now you did all of this to me, because you feel bad! Hah! Look at you!"

Asuka's teeth ground as a naked snarl darkened her features. "You know nothing about me. And you're about to die, so better make these next words memorable, Makinami. They'll be the last you ever speak."

"Look at you!" Mari repeated. The back of the car was burning, the passenger seat was burning and her own was starting to smoke and glow. Regardless, Mari smirked and pointed at her, voice growing deeper and harsher; her vocal cords were being roasted. "You're pathetic! Pathetic! After saying all that foul shit about my Puppy, you're pretending like you care just so you can look at your miserable self in the mirror for another day! You think doing this to me is going to change a thing? He's mine, all mine! I left my mark on him, you pathetic little girl! I'll always be with him, always! I win!"

"Win what, you witch?" Asuka demanded and punched the table for good measure. "You're about to die, do you understand that? What the hell did you win?"

More demented laughter mingled with sobs and grunts of pain blasted through the laptop's speaker. "You don't see it? Are you stupid, Princess? You never even mustered up the courage to admit you cared! You left him all alone! I was the one who tried to love him, I am the one who deserves him! And I took him, you hear me? You will never… ever get to kiss or hug him without thinking that I did that first! Hah! But as if you ever would, you pathetic little girl! So I win! I win, Sohryu! I seared myself into Shinji's heart, and he's mine! You get nothing, you are nothing!"

"I'll remove you like the tumor that you are," Asuka coldly replied. Mari's face was beginning to melt; the sound of laughter was quickly replaced by horrid gurgles and screeches. "Aside from being a witch, that is. Witches get burned. Oh, and since these are the last words you'll ever hear, do take them with you to hell."

Asuka moved closer to the screen, viciously aware that Mari's face had frozen its movements and her eyes, which were the next to melt, were staring unblinkingly at her. The scarf covering the bruised skin around her neck was removed with a harsh tug. "Shinji was never yours. I just let you borrow him for a while, a decision I'll regret for the rest of my days, one that almost made me end my own life not too long ago. You said it was all my fault. That's probably true; I guess it must've sucked to know every single time he was with you, during every intimate moment you shared with him, he was thinking of me."

The heat became too great for the screen to function; just before the feed died Asuka saw the brown strands of the soon-to-be corpse get engulfed in flames. It was done.

No joy erased the regret and shame, no satisfaction filled her chest. There was no burden removed, nor did any sort of sadistic pleasure arise. Asuka closed the laptop, placed the scarf back around her neck and went about her presentation as though nothing had happened. Nobody asked a single question; the doctors merely nodded at her, the investors gave their signatures, and clearance was provided to begin implementing the treatment on humans. It was only after she exited the University that Asuka allowed herself to double over and vomit all over the sidewalk.

"I guess you did win something in the end, you witch."

Asuka intoned the same words that had been uttered that day, with the same sickness growing in her stomach. The office felt stifling all of a sudden, so she stood and went back to the room where Shinji's wounds were being cleaned. She needed to see him, if only to reassure herself that he was still alive, and that Mari had not yet emerged victorious. Nausea made the room spin for a few seconds; the line going up and down her arm began to burn. Pausing for a moment by the door, Asuka massaged her neck; instead of Shinji's hands squeezing, her nightmares had now replaced his frigid, detached gaze with the feeling of a rope.

"God," It would be a waste to puke out Alex's little treats a second time, so she tolerated the unease in her stomach on her way back the main laboratory.

"I feel sick."


The reflection staring back at him was strange. Aside from shaving, Shinji never really bothered to look at himself in the mirror; the fear of suffering from a vision and the permanent self-disgust that plagued him kept him from gazing too long into his own gaze. Without any medication, the possibility of seeing a flashback from Instrumentality, or worse, was constant. It was bizarre to look at the gash in his stomach, or to see the line on his thigh slowly heal and close up. What shocked him the most was the look in his eyes; they were somewhat alive and less guarded than he had seen in years.

"You know," the nurse said with a heavy European accent whilst bandaging his back. "It is quite noteworthy how quickly you're healing. According to your medical history, this was not always the case with other injuries; I see a repeated pattern of infection and redressing that caused deep scarring afterwards. Hmm, your immune system is also perking up after so many antibiotics. Have you been sleeping better, or eating differently lately, Mr. Ikari?"

"Uhm, yes," Shinji answered with unease, his skin heating up. His current health was basically Asuka's doing; even the improvement in his sleep was mostly due to her presence. She was also cooking regularly and constantly gave him fruit smoothies and salads, ensuring his body got the necessary nutrients it required to heal. "Been… feeling a bit better lately, all things considered."

"And it shows in spades. Plus, that treatment through enriched LCL is the stuff of a nurse's dreams! Look at the way these wounds are closing! There's not even a slight trace of infection! Oh, which reminds me," The nurse patted around the most shallow of the knife wounds, and pressed her finger against a relatively old scar. "If you don't mind me asking, what happened to this wound? The edges are so irregular, and it looks deep."

How about none of your business, lady? Stop touching me before I'm tempted to remind you of your dead sister. Shockingly enough, Shinji held his tongue. "Just an old scratch I never bothered to have treated," he lied through gritted teeth, quickly becoming incensed. The sternness of his tone made the nurse blink, to his satisfaction. "I have lots of those."

The young woman nodded her understanding and said not another word while she worked on Shinji's leg and midsection; every now and then she'd throw either an apologetic or inquisitive glance at his face, eliciting no reaction aside from him crossing his arms. Once the wounds were bandaged, she helped him get dressed in uncomfortable silence. Nobody touches me, nobody should; they'll just get tainted. Keep your hands to yourself if you want to keep them. Damn it. His attention drifted to the door with some level of expectancy; after having his wounds repeatedly cleaned and dressed by Asuka, it felt off-putting to have anyone else do it. Don't ask me about the scars. You're not her, what right do you have to know about them?

Before the nurse exited the room, she offered a sidelong glance and a smile."I know this probably doesn't mean anything coming from a stranger, but it's nice to see you doing better, Mr. Ikari. I bet it's a pleasant change to have someone watch your back for once."

Shinji froze in shock and quickly turned his head in the door's direction, only to see it closed with a resounding thud by the nurse. The question died on his lips; why had she used those words? He was instantly transported to that day seven years before, the sun had been shining brightly then as well. It had been the perfect chance for ice-cream.

"It's stupid. This is stupid, the sun is ridiculously hot, and everything's destroyed. What the hell are we supposed to do?"

"I know a place." He put every bit of energy into focusing on reality, on the sound of voices and footsteps, and for once he did not have trouble constructing a full sentence without stammering or staring off into the distance. "It's really good. Some ice-cream would be nice for the heat, right?"

"I guess." A pause, something akin to a heavy intake of breath. "Are you going to let me see your arm now? I did that, let me at least clean it up."

"Oh, it's alright. I rubbed some alcohol on it today, I think it'll be fine."

"What about your neck? Your voice is still hoarse. And your head, what about that?"

"I'm fine, Asuka."

She kicked a pebble lying on the cracked sidewalk, and for a moment he felt her eyes on him.

"You're an idiot."

"Sorry."

"Ugh, whatever. Anyway, I was wondering… how come you did this today? I mean, did the world really have to end for you to ask me out? Did you have to jerk off next to me while I was in a coma? Do you know how weird it feels to be walking next to you, knowing I've been in your head and you've been in mine?"

He gulped down the insecurity by recalling how fiercely she had held onto him after the confrontation some days before, how she collapsed next to him almost every night and let herself be held. "Yeah, it's pretty weird." It was only after she stopped walking next to him that he realized he had caught her off guard. "I-I mean I think you're right, and… I can't really apologize for any of that. What difference would that make? I know you don't want to hear it, I just wish I would've…" He sighed. "That cage. Bakelite. I hate it, almost as much as I hate myself."

"Hating liquid plastic is about as good as the apology, you selfish idiot." She had spoken so softly, and the whisper had carried none of the usual wrath he had gotten used to hearing ever since emerging from the LCL. "You can't change it. Just… just do what you didn't do back then." Their eyes met, and from that moment on until the car rushed at them in the street, every second had felt wonderful.

"Just watch my back, and I'll do the same for you."

The small line between his knuckles came into view. Maybe they had not spoken of it aloud, but those words had felt like a pact, or some sort of promise. He had taken them to heart and acted accordingly every time the opportunity arose; even from the behind the curtains, observing far away and being denied a response or even so much as a goodbye, Shinji diligently did as they had agreed upon that day.

"Ice-cream was really good, and she even smiled," Shinji murmured to the empty room. His eyes drew back to his reflection. It had all happened so fast; one moment he had been doing his best to smile back as they crossed the street, then she had frozen in the middle of the road. The car came rushing at her at blinding speed, he had heard the wheels before the actual movement registered, and the rest was nothing short of instinct. Some words were exchanged, the sound of a gunshot and pain in his midsection, Asuka's expression turning from annoyance into horror, then everything went black.

"Can't be bothered to even fall properly, Ikari," he said to his reflection. Voices cried and screamed and laughed in the back of mind; the lingering effect of the morning dosage was about to fade away so his skin began to itch. "Can't be bothered to help when it matters, can't be bothered to do anything other than apologize and be a burden. So she hugged you. And?"

We can never hurt Asuka. Shinji rolled his eyes and hissed when he managed to maneuver back to the wheelchair. Yeah, I'm well aware, thanks for the hourly reminder, kid. How about some quiet time right now? Scratching at the letters slashed into his bicep, Shinji ignored the brat's words. The sight of the EVA Series carrying the pieces of Unit 02 flashed briefly in his mind. Adrenaline and excitement were no longer coursing through his body; with every passing second the anxiety became more unbearable.

I promised. His nails dug deeper into the uneven cuts. There was always a small secret stash in his pants; a few pills were sure to quench the small tremors of his fingers and the shivering. To hell with that, Ikari. Stand by what you said. It wasn't hard to track down those poor bastards, was it? It wasn't hard to sit on that floor and listen to her get mangled. You're not even completely off the pills and y-

"What'cha thinking about?"

"Huh?"

Shinji blinked and raised his head; the memories had turned so intense that he had never heard the door open or Asuka walk in. "Oh, just..." The small line between his fingers came back into view. As she walked towards him Shinji noticed Asuka's step falter slightly; her shoulders were hunched, as well. "Just remembering something."

"Yeah? That makes two of us then." About half of her star-like edibles and two of her strange pills were pressed into his hand. "You've gotten a lot better, did the injuries bother you more today?"

It still felt strange to be asked, with frequency at that, how he felt and whether or not he was in pain by Asuka of all people. Throw them away, pretend to take them but don't. Take your own, or take none of them, just find a way to keep her safe. You're gonna hurt her if you don't do it. This is what's safe for her right now. Nodding, he relented and took the glass of water was practically shoved in his face. "I hate this."

Asuka's hand patted his shoulder and squeezed. "I know, I hate it too."

"Did as you told me, by the way," Shinji muttered when she began pushing the chair forward.

"You mean you stopped making sudden movements?" They shared a strained chuckle; he noticed the change of tone, the way her voice sounded almost forcibly cheerful. "That's a relief."

"Well, that too. What I meant was..." His thumb grazed over the scar on his left hand. "...I watched your back. Tried to at least; that's where this came from. You told me that poor bastard's name so you probably already heard what happened to him. I did that, and some other things. On most days if I think about it, it makes me feel sick. I don't regret doing any of it, it's just… Heh." He shook his head in derision. "I'm so fucked up."

"I know you are. Again, that makes two of us, and yeah I'm aware that you rearranged his face. Shattered his cheekbone, broke his jaw, took out seven teeth. Guy had twenty seven stitches around his right eyebrow alone. That was quite a beating. It was probably one of his teeth that did that, wasn't it?"

Shinji shrugged once more. "I guess." Asuka's hand went to pat his head; the contact of her palm on his hair almost made him jolt out of the chair in surprise. "What are you doing?"

"I'm saying thanks." Even more shocking than the hand ruffling his hair was when Asuka turned it into a fist and bopped her knuckles against his skull. "You're an idiot, I don't need you traveling across the world to beat on every asshole that chooses to throw an insult my way." About to protest the aggression against his scalp, Shinji was silenced by the sensation of her lips gently pressing against the same spot she had just rapped. "Even if you're an absolute idiot, I appreciate it. Thanks for watching my back."

"Don't thank me," protested Shinji, scratching at his arm. "I didn't watch your back when it mattered the most."

The wheelchair stopped abruptly enough to almost elicit a grunt of pain. "I'll thank you all I damn well please, idiot. And again, at risk of sounding like a broken record, that makes two of us." Behind him, Asuka looked down at the ground; her eyes filled with bitter regret. "I didn't watch your back when it mattered, either."

They continued on in silence, each feeling the heavy burden of their past actions or lack thereof. They nodded absently at the doctors, nurses and scientists they passed, and exited the facility without saying another word. Unlike when they first drove in, the car ride was void of pointless conversation and harmless teasing. Neither dared add any more strain to the already heavy discomfort, Asuka stared out the window and pretended to play with her phone, whereas he occupied himself with clenching and unclenching his hand as he listened to music.

She's upset, you pathetic coward, even an idiot like you can see it. Say something. For a second time the shadow was pressing him for action, any action, rather than whispering how he was too inadequate or useless to be in Asuka's presence. Say something, god damn you. Do something. Anything. Come on!

"I-It's pretty sunny today,"

What? Sunny? Sunny! That's the best you got? For fuck's sake, Ikari!

"Huh? Yeah, I guess it's kind of hot. Nothing like those days in that perpetual summer from way back then." Asuka glanced at him, forcing Shinji's eyes back to his hands while the skin of his face heated up. "It is pretty sunny, though."

She's playing along, she's giving you a leeway, an in. This is what Krista talked about. Come on, you useless wimp, she's been taking you out and giving you so many amazing memories. Give something back. Make her feel better.

"There's… uhm," Shinji did his best to take a deep breath, ignoring the way his wounds complained. "There's a place not too far from here, they have this incredible peach cake a-and they always have fresh ice-cream, as well. Are you, I mean," After a few heartbeats, and noticing Asuka was neither snickering nor mocking him, he dared a sidelong glance. "Are you hungry? It's not far."

Just as quickly as it had first begun to manifest, the strenuous atmosphere between them evaporated in a heartbeat. Asuka smiled snidely at him, eyebrow raised. "So… are you asking me out on a date or something, Baka?"

"Maybe," he replied with the smoothest tone he could muster. "I remember you telling me you liked ice-cream, some time ago."

Asuka laughed loud enough to make Fritz smirk from the driver's seat. "You mean seven years ago? What if I stopped liking ice-cream?"

"What person ever just stops liking ice-cream? Are you kidding me? A-And anyway it's not like we have to go." Stupid, stupid Shinji opening your big fat fucking mouth. Backpedal, or abort mission completely. This has been a complete failure. "I just thought it'd be nice to buy you lunch and some dessert, but I guess I can cook somet-"

"No!"

Asuka's shout was loud enough to make Fritz pause and almost halt the car in the middle of the road. "I-I mean," she stammered, cheeks and nose coloring pink. "I could definitely go for some lunch, and that would mean none of us have to cook today if we get some stuff to take back home." Her face turned even redder. "I mean back to your apartment! Ah, and so where is this place you're talking about?"

"About ten minutes away. Mr. Weber, could you please make a right turn h- there. Just take this street, the place should be to your right; it's called Aoyama Restaurant." The bodyguard nodded, smiling, and turned to give Shinji a knowing look and a wink. "R-Right, so they have this great platter of sushi, and some incredible yakitori, they spice the chicken in such a way t-"

"Wait, wait, wait," Asuka interrupted with a playful smirk. "So you're taking me on a date to a Japanese restaurant? After we ate Japanese food last night, and this morning?"

"Pierogi is not Japanese," Shinji argued senselessly. "It's European."

"Yeah, but you ate all the pierogi this morning, you idiot. If you hadn't put away some of the leftovers from last night, I would've gone hungry all day long!"

Hearing Asuka snicker at his sullen, straight face was a gift in itself, and well worth the discomfort the odd treatment brought about. "Hey, that's not true! You had some, I saw you eat them!"

"Yeah, one of them! Because my patient, who's supposed to be on a rather strict diet by the way, decided to let the munchies get the better of him!"

"Again, not true! There were at least two of those dumplings on your plate!"

"I brought twelve of them last night, Shinji!"

Fritz did his best to hide the chortles which threatened to escape his mouth. In five years of being appointed as Asuka's protection, he had never seen her joke or tease anyone with such openness. Every time she did so the teasing became more natural, and her smile continued to grow brighter. He took the longest available route, if only to treat himself to his ward's laughter for a few extra minutes.


"-but then the freaking idiot doctor goes on and nicks an artery! And he's the one supposed to be in charge of the stupid operation in the first place! Ugh, I had to push him away! And the asshole had the gall to glare at me while I tried to fix the problem he created!"

Shinji almost spat back the orange juice into the table, snickering and coughing at once. "Well, but then what happened to the patient? This was the ventricular… vena caba…?"

"It was the right pulmonary artery, and the vena cava is a vein, idiot. Good guess, though. And everything turned out alright, of course. It was a tiny nick, but that little mistake almost filled the patient's lung with water." Asuka took a sip of her own fruit smoothie, her eyes drifting towards the table's surface. They had chosen to sit on the restaurant's patio so as to better enjoy the sun and the cool breeze, akin to the youngsters from the day before. "He was a major dick about it for the rest of my internship."

"Hah! Talk about being insecure. I bet he was just so insulted to have a young intern instruct him in his own job. Did he try to push you under the bus or something?"

"Nah, but he was always a condescending little prick, even before that surgery took place."

Unlike the teens she had seen while driving to Idiot Valley, Shinji's attention did not once waver away from her. She had felt his penetrating glances every time she took a bite of her food, as though wishing to confirm she was indeed enjoying it. Her initial expectation for a shy and reticent Shinji had been shattered in the first few minutes after they sat down to eat. He conversed with her, evidently glad to spend time with her and interested in her every word, exactly as she had been the night before. Not a single detail was missed; at every opportunity he smoothly probed for more information and offered his own opinions and thoughts instead of nodding like a lost child and fumbling for words.

"I..." Shinji played with the last piece of cake resting on his plate. "I wanted to ask you something, but I don't think it's the proper time since we've just eaten and everything."

"Eh?" Before he could make up his mind and eat it, Asuka stabbed the dessert with her own fork and stole it, eating it with a smirk. "I deal with guts and bleeding on a daily basis. I don't think whatever you're about to ask would upset my stomach."

"Well, that's just it." Shinji looked away, left hand coming to rest on his nape. "I mean, you're one of the smartest people I know, if not the smartest." Asuka's face flushed in an instant upon hearing Shinji's unintended compliment. "I've been meaning to ask this for years, and I did ask in some of the letters. Why did you choose medicine? You can do anything you want, anything you set your mind to. Your career is just evidence of it, but I wanted to know the reason."

Asuka's smile faltered for a second; she was not ready to admit the true reason behind her choice of profession. I suppose a part of the truth wouldn't hurt, though. "It wasn't my preferred career path, if you must know," she started. "I wasn't really thinking about going to college at all, or doing anything at all after… after I ran away."

The wince Shinji produced upon hearing her last sentence only solidified Asuka's suspicion; he had a good portion of those horrid memories stored in his own head. "At some point during the first few months back in Germany, though, I found out I had developed an aversion to blood. I couldn't see it, not even my own, or I would puke and sometimes even faint. Every time I saw it I'd be back in the Entry Plug, blood pouring out of my eye. It made me feel weak and useless, being scared of blood of all things. So I dove into a career that forced me to face my phobia at every turn."

"Damn." Shinji's cobalt eyes found hers, filled with an overbearing sense of empathy. "That must've been horrible."

"At one point my colleagues thought I was bulimic or something along those lines, since I kept puking almost every class for the whole first year. It eventually disappeared altogether, thank goodness." The only times she had felt sick upon seeing blood lately had been the night before, both by watching Shinji's blood puddling on the ground and that of those directly responsible for it. "I wanted to deal with my fears and do something productive with them at the same time."

"That sounds like it must've sucked a lot," Placing a healthy amount of yen on the table and not even bothering to ask for the check, Shinji motioned towards the sidewalk. His reactions and overall attitude were a thing to behold; he had figured out she was feeling unwell and did something to make her feel better. "Thanks for telling me that. Say, want to… I don't know, walk or something? It's still pretty sunny out. No sudden movements from me, promise."

You sensed I really didn't want to elaborate on that subject, but realized it made me feel good to say it out loud. Quite the improvement from the last time you asked me out, Baka-Shinji. "Aren't you gonna wait for the waiter to bring you your change?"

"I live here, I know how much the food costs," Shinji rebuked with the hint of a bite that made her excited. "Unless you want another serving of ice-cream, in which case we can wait."

Asuka stood and rolled her eyes, placing both hands on her hips. "Yeah, yeah. The ice-cream was good, I'll give you that much. That salmon could've used a bit more seasoning, though. And the miso was mediocre, at best. You can't expect me to give this a positive review after last night's dinner."

"Well, I did say the desserts were the highlight. I hope they didn't disappoint."

"They did not." Offering a slight nod to Fritz, who had chosen to sit a few tables away from them as he enjoyed a hot cup of coffee, Asuka took hold of the wheelchair and began walking along the sidewalk. "Ice-cream was delicious, and so was the cake. I even had them pack a few pieces to take back. The sandwich was also not terrible."

"Not terrible," Shinji echoed, with some slight hesitation; Asuka noticed how he paused to gather his thoughts. "Certainly the best review they've gotten in years. Truly eloquent, the stuff every cook hopes to hear about their food! I mean, it's not an extended and well enunciated 'fuck', but it's definitely up there!"

This is his own attempt at teasing. That's adorable! "Well excuse me for having high standards! It's not like you did the poor place any favors by cooking that meal last night!" Inquisitive glances raised eyebrows, even open jaws and unbelieving stares followed their every step as both former pilots moved through the streets.

Every detail available about both their personal lives was a constant target of the media; the world was deadly aware of their relationship, or lack thereof, and even weeks after arriving in Japan people still stared. "I say what's on my mind. If I liked it I liked it, if it wasn't terrible it was just that, not terrible. And if it was fucking amazing, I'll be sure to say that as well. The ice-cream was fucking amazing, though. I'll give you that much, Baka."

"Remind me to get some ingredients next week, I know a recipe for a great apple pie that goes wonderfully with a bit of ice-cream."

"Do I look like your secretary? Remind yourself, you idiot. It's my job to keep you from dying in heap of blood and sweat, not to keep up with your grocery list." Come on, show me that little sarcastic side to you. Give me that angry shit. Bite back, like you did the other night. Come on!

"Well, excuse me for asking," Shinji shot back. "It's not like you did all the shopping in the house and completely changed the location of everything in my fridge, right? No, impossible! Sorry for asking you to get some ingredients so I can make you one of your favorite desserts, I guess."

Asuka snickered good-heartedly, barely noticing how people had slowly begun to circle around them. Success! Hah! I got the idiot! Take that, you four-eyed witch! I bet he never joked with you like this, did he? "Oh come on, don't be like that. I'm sure buying ice-cream or baking a pie is not even on your priority list. And how the hell did you know I like apple pie, anyway?"

"W-What? I just read it in some article, or saw it on the news… don't really remember. And I cook for a living, food's always on my priority list."

Asuka's smirk widened. Every time! He tries to be this badass little Baka, but I get him every freaking time! This is great! She had to keep herself from laughing out loud at Shinji's attempt to maintain his smooth persona, she had told one interviewer she liked apple pie about seven months before traveling to Tokyo. Once, in seven years, and it had been for a rather unknown magazine to boot.

"Right, the incredible Iron Chef Ikari, who cooks with his right hand and breaks faces with his left!" said Asuka. "Do people who fight you even know you're right handed? You tend to fight southpaw most of the time."

"And how in the hell would you know that, Asuka?" Shinji questioned with a raised eyebrow. Regardless of how collected he wanted to appear, she caught the uncertainty in his expression.

"It's because you can throw your left with reckless abandon and break it, right? Then you show up at your restaurant with a cast and make a damn mess trying to cook with one hand." Asuka ruffled his hair again, and was rewarded with yet another annoyed growl. "Have you tried not fighting in bars in the middle of the night while high on coke and black out drunk?"

Ah shit. I overstepped, he's about to fire back hard. That was a mistake.

In her quest to further enjoy the day, Asuka had forgotten Shinji was almost blindingly and justifiably angry at her for not having said a word to him in seven years; she could not question his life choices. However, instead of a biting retort, all he did was shrug and offer her a fleeting half-smile that made her heart constrict.

"Yeah, I've tried to stop doing that lately. Clearly it didn't work too well on my birthday though, but I guess you would know. Kensuke's always been descriptive with his reports, hasn't he?"

Asuka almost stumbled at his words; it took all of her energy to not freeze mid-step.

"Never mind." Shinji chuckled with too much of a dark tone for her liking. "But anyway, not really. I just like to fight southpaw most of the time. I've broken both hands already, so I can cook with either one."

The wheelchair stopped moving as they reached a small park. Fritz followed not too far behind, carrying their order to go as he glared at the forming mob which trailed behind the pair. "So... you know about those, huh."

"You said you knew a whole bunch. Well, right back at you, Frau Doktor."

He's doing this on purpose, Asuka realized with a blink. We were having a great time, then I fucked up, he tried to recover it and then felt uncomfortable himself, so he's trying to push me away. Heh, that's sort of the thing I would've done. Imagine that. "You want to talk about that? About me getting intel on you? Or about Kensuke? Because we can."

"I suppose talking to me is frustrating when I'm like this," admitted Shinji, looking down at his pants. "No, I don't want to talk about that. If I had to know anything, I'd just ask you why you didn't just pick up the phone, or answer any of my letters if you wanted to know stuff about me so goddamn much. I mean, it's not like I didn't try telling you for seven years."

Unlike whenever her father, her bodyguard, fans or anybody else asked that same question, Asuka felt inclined to actually respond with honesty. "I was ashamed," she replied. Her hands released the handles and fell to her sides. "I still am. How the hell was I supposed to call you back, or even dare to answer when you called? I pushed you over that rail, Shinji."

The mob continued to grow behind them, and regardless of Fritz's efforts to keep them away, a few had already sneaked through the security detail.

"Yeah, so what?" he growled. "That's never been what bothered me and you know it. I know you didn't mean it, I remember your face from back then. I remember it like it was yesterday, Asuka. But why would you be ashamed to answer the phone? That's… that's stupid."

Acute pain began to pulse through her chest, accompanied by the bittersweet realization that Shinji knew the the way that day ended had never been her intention. "Maybe I didn't want to push you, but I did want to run away. I was feeling good, I was having a great time with you, and it scared me. Then I pushed you, and the idea that you weren't mad about it scared me even more. Every time you called I just got more ashamed. Every present that came in, every letter just made me feel worse."

"Had I known that, I wouldn't have bothered to send more," muttered Shinji sarcastically.

This is it. Perfect timing, just the right spot, not too many people around. We've both had lunch and it tasted great, and he's not shaking like a leaf or sweating just yet. This is it. "If that's the case, I'm glad I didn't answer. I'm glad you didn't stop sending them."

Asuka took out the envelope that had been resting comfortably in her jacket pocket. It was the letter she had received two years before, exactly on her birthday as she went through a horrible withdrawal of her own in Thailand. She pressed it against Shinji's chest. "Just receiving them, looking at your stupid handwriting on the outside of it, writing letters like a twelve-year old in the nineties… it gave me a reason to carry on. It made me realize what I wanted."

"Getting letters from the creep who jerked off next to you and did nothing as you died gave you a reason to carry on?" Shinji took the wrinkled, stained paper from her hand and held it before his face with an air of slight suspicion. "This one's from two years ago. How the hell were these of any help if you didn't open them? How would that make you realize what you wanted to do?"

Both of Asuka's hands latched onto his shoulders, squeezing as hard as possible. "It reminded me that there was somebody out there in the world who was thinking of me. Somebody out there cared, and not because of blood relations, guilt, or debt, or false praise." Among the many grueling training sessions during her scholarship, a particular one on the day of her birthday stood out. "In case you're not following my drift, Baka, that somebody was you."

"More hip! Power! Power! Helbow, knee, closs, kick! Kick! Come on, no time for bleik! Power! Why you no kick hard? More hip! More hip!"

She failed to guard her body properly due to exhaustion, so when the trainer jabbed a gloved hand into her midsection, Asuka collapsed to the mat on her hands and knees. The trainer kicked her down, placed a foot over her bruised ribs and pressed down. Having puked twice on her way to the gym and sweating off the narcotics through her every pore only made the fatigue sink deeper into her bones.

"You no tired! Yesterday we tlain hour more, you not fall down! So why you lie? Why you here? Eh? What you doing here, what you want? What you want?"

For once, the truth escaped her without consent. "I want to help him!" she half-screamed, half-wheezed back. "I want to help Shinji!"

The trainer stepped away. After a few seconds of silence only interrupted by her irregular gasping, he spoke again. "Who Shinji?"

His fumbling of the worn-out envelope and the faint echo of voices behind her brought Asuka back to the present. His head was slightly bowed, keeping her from being able to see his eyes properly.

"I always said that people caring didn't matter to me, and we both know that's a lie," said Asuka. "In the end I wanted people to accept me and I thought the only way they ever would was through my piloting, but then I met you, and five, six… seven years after the Evangelions stopped existing, you still gave a damn. You kept writing these letters, kept sending me gifts for no reason at all. I noticed you stopped calling, but come on, I can't blame you for that."

"For some time I thought this would be the last letter I ever wrote to you, same as the last one I sent." In an act that left Asuka speechless, Shinji handed the envelope back to her with a sad smile. "I think it's better if you read that one yourself. I'm not… I don't think I want to."

Oh.

Asuka retrieved the letter with some reluctance and placed it back in her jacket pocket with as much care as possible. "That's okay. I'll… I'll be sure to read it tonight."

As the day progressed, the wind had gone from fresh to chilly; it made Asuka wonder whether the tremor that shook Shinji was due to change in temperature. "I never gave a damn about piloting," he whispered, voice stern. "Not about myself being a pilot, much less about you being one. It was a curse in my eyes; still is. Everything that made me..." He paused, licked his lips and took a deep breath. It warmed Asuka's heart to not hear him hiss in pain for once.

"Everything that made me care about you is completely unrelated to piloting. Look at your career, look at everything you've accomplished outside of it. Look at the way you've matured, look at how strong you are all on your own. Sometimes it's hard to recognize you, but then you do something that's so irremediably you that it reminds me of the old days. Heh, can we even call them the old days? Whatever. I feel like you needed to know that. I know being a pilot meant the world to you back then, and I understand why, really I do. It just never mattered to me."

It did not escape Asuka's notice how at twenty-two years old, Shinji's pattern of speech and behavior was strangely similar to hers in many ways. They were polar opposites while at the same time being exactly alike.

I'm well aware that it never mattered to you, idiot. Asuka pressed her forehead to the crown of his head, to which he surprisingly did not retort with a growl or a shake. Initial contact successful, proceed with heavy artillery, Sohryu. Her arms snaked around Shinji's shoulders and chest in a manner not unlike the hug Krista had shared with him. "Thanks," she murmured. "You really are an idiot, you know."

Her proximity allowed Asuka to feel him nod against her hair; he placed a hand on top of her own. "So you tell me every day, every hour on the hour. I..." He relaxed in her awkward embrace and nudged his forehead against hers. "I really missed that, like you have no idea."

"Then I'll keep calling you an idiot, every hour on the hour, so you don't have to miss it anymore. How's that?" For as long as you want me to, as well. I don't particularly feel like going back to Germany, anymore. Again, Shinji nodded against her. How much longer would it take for him to kiss her? Asuka's heartbeat doubled in seconds. Not long, if everything keeps going well. I bet he wants to, right now. I bet he will.

Shinji's head turned to her while his left hand cupped her cheek and came to rest under her chin. Oh shit, it's actually going to happen. This is it, he's really going to… his breath tickles so freaking much! Stop breathing, Baka! Or better yet, get on with it! She was about to close the minimal distance between their lips, a mere few millimeters away when a disturbing screech forced them both to straighten up in shock.

"Doctor Sohryu! Mr. Ikari! Over here!"

Her hands curled into fists in perfect synchronicity with his. They had been able to evade the paparazzi for the better part of two weeks, but after so much time spent in each other's company it was only expected the rat bastards would catch up with them at some point. It was terribly unpleasant to have them shatter such an intimate moment as well; she had purposely walked as far away from massive gatherings after lunch just to have some time with Shinji, which was being completely ruined.

Not long after the first bellow forced them away, a cascade of reporters, paparazzi, flashes and deafening questions finished destroying the pleasant moment they had been enjoying. This was a long time coming. I can't really expect Shinji's bodyguards and Fritz to hold them off forever. Should've talked to that guy from the yakuza about this. Resisting the urge to scream at them to go to hell took most of her concentration, so Asuka barely noticed the way Shinji began to exude wrath and animosity.

"Mr. Ikari! How is your recovery coming along? Did you know the men responsible for your injuries mysteriously disappeared two days ago? Any comments on this strange chain of events!"

"Doctor! Many of us are wondering why you chose to return to Japan after so many years! Any comments on the events that led to Mr. Ikari's hospitalization seven years ago?"

"Ms. Sohryu! Are you aware that the Third Child is a repeat offender and has been convicted for violent crimes before? Any concerns about your safety?"

"Mr. Ikari! Why would you accept to live with this woman after she tried to murder you? Are you aware of her former relations with a… Moritz Albrecht?"

"Elaborating on my colleague's question, any comments on what she said on the night you were admitted to the hospital two years ago, Mr. Ikari?"

"Ms. Sohryu, doctor! Over here! What is this experimental treatment you are subjecting the Third Child to?"

And that's strike two. One more and you're out. Asuka crouched next to Shinji's left ear and whispered, ignoring the flashes that threatened to blind them both at any moment. "Wanna get rid of all these vermin? This is basically my life in Germany, so I know a couple of ways to scare the shit out of them."

"Oh, I have my ways, too." Shinji nodded, eyes incensed with bitterness; the last few questions had quite evidently soured his mood in its entirety. "But I'm curious to see how you handle these… people. To quote something you said to me last night; surprise me."

"Acknowledged," she said in a much more somber, dry tone. "Cover your ears."

After Shinji did as she ordered, Asuka closed her eyes and strained to hear every question. One of the best pieces of advice she had ever been given was to give everyone the benefit of the doubt, even if they had not earned it. Since it was close to impossible for her to actually give anybody said benefit, she gave them three chances. Three strikes, three chances to get up from the mat before a technical knockout was announced; it was all they ever got.

"Mr. Ikari, doesn't it bother you to be in the presence of this woman who abandoned you in the middle of the street?"

"Ms. Sohryu, there is word of some security footage from the Geofront, where the Third Child is shown pleasuring himself next to you, who was at that time in a coma! Any comments on that?"

The wheelchair shook with the severity of Shinji's flinch upon half-hearing the last question. And that's strike three, plus a foul. Disqualified.

She took a deep breath.

"RUHE!"

Her scream cut through the questions and sounds of flashes, feet and whispers from the mass of about twenty to thirty intruders. "And in case you don't understand German, let me phrase it in your mother tongue." Yet another deep breath. "Shut up!"

Once the silence reigned over the park for a good minute, she pointed at the first victim. "You! Three steps forward. You want a conference, I'll give you a fucking conference. I said three steps forward, move it!"

The poor youngster, probably about nineteen years of age if not younger, was pushed by the others until he was but a few feet away. "You, with the white shirt, and you, purple, three steps forward! The two of you brutes! Hurry up!" One of them walked on his own to the front, looking at the rest for confirmation, while the one in the purple shirt was pushed forward like the first one had been.

Freaking cowards, super brave in a pack, and terrified on their own. You bastards remind me of the Eva Series. I hate the Eva Series.

Not moving from her position behind him, Asuka nodded in his direction as she glowered at the three fools who had chosen to ruin her own brief good mood. Shinji had been trying hard to entertain her the entire day, even going out of his way to be charming and engaging only to have his efforts be ruined by the crude mannerisms of modern journalism. It was time to show him that she had been watching his back, as well.

"What is his name?" she demanded with an iron tone. "You three. What's his name?"

The men exchanged worried glances and occasionally stared back at her. Asuka caught a massive entourage of suited men coming in her direction, but raised her hand as a signal to halt them for the time being. You wanted your circus. Now you're getting it.

"Don't look at each other, look at him." The sentence was uttered like a command, so the three of them redirected their gazes at Shinji. "Don't just stand there. It's okay for you to ask questions about our personal lives and relationships, it's okay for you to follow us and interfere with my patient's day, but if I ask you bastards a question, you suddenly forget how to speak. Pathetic. Or maybe you're so stupid you need things repeated to you several times, so let's try again. You three."

She pointed at Shinji, who now sat with a puzzled expression and watched the exchange with interest. "What's his name? Try not to choke on your spit. Oh, by all means not all at once! Now come on, it's the most basic question ever!"

"A-Ah, it's Ikari." The youngest of them was the first to speak, as expected. His voice quivered with every word. "He's S-Shinji Ikari, the Third Ch-"

"Does he look like a child to you?"

"W-Wh-I'm sorry, Ms. Sohryu?"

Asuka threw her hands up in the air. "Oh, so you know my last name, and you apparently know his, but you're calling him a child. Third Child. It's been seven years since he stopped being the Third Child, and now he's a grown man. Third Man just has a terrible ring to it, wouldn't you say? So, we've established you know his name. Now use it."

"I-I mean, Mr. Ikari… I apologize if in any way I caused offens-"

"Ah, ah, ah," Asuka interrupted with a shake of her head, waggling her index finger "I don't remember asking you to apologize just yet. I asked if you knew his name, and you answered. Good boy, have a cookie." She rummaged through her pocket and threw the unsuspecting youth a small bag containing one of Uncle Joey's edibles. "You, the one who asked about the security footage."

The man was shoved forward when one of the elder reporters kicked him in the back. "Uhm, yes?"

"Mention anything related to that event again and I'll stick that camera so far down your throat you won't ever have to pay for a gastroscopy in your life." Her glare and voice turned colder and deadlier with every passing second. "Who the hell do you think you are, asking me something like that? Another one of you assholes mentioned my fellow pilot being convicted for violent crimes. Did you know I have been, as well? It's called post-traumatic stress disorder, you should look it up. Oh, and I won't think twice about being convicted again if any of you chooses to be a smartass like your little friend over here. So, you. Apologize."

Frantic nods followed her statement as the man bowed his head and broke eye contact with Shinji. "I'm sorry! It was not my place to say such a thing! I do apologize, Ms. Sohryu. I-I just wanted to k-"

"That's enough out of you." Asuka's eyes drifted over to the rest and exchanged a glance with Fritz, who stood a few meters away. "As for the rest, let's see. Shinji's recovery is going better than expected, he's healing fast and there are no signs of infection. What led to his hospitalization years ago was me pushing him away, after he unexpectedly saved my life from a car trying to turn me into paste. Yes, we heard those men went missing, go cry me a river over child murderers and organ sellers. Hmm, what else… Right, I was planning to return to Japan on June the fifth, but was sadly unable to do so due to an emergency surgery that needed to be performed on my stepmother."

Even Shinji turned to look at her, eyes wide and mouth slightly agape. That's right, Baka. I was always coming to see you. I wanted to surprise you on your birthday, I was even counting on you being aggressive about it. I was ready for all of it, ready for you to walk away or insult me. She gave his shoulder another reassuring squeeze.

"Shinji's mental state is none of your goddamn business, nor is it who he does or does not allow to care for him as he heals from these injuries, which by the way only exist because he saved an innocent young woman from certain death. I don't need to remind you that he's the reason you're all alive right now, you already know. Have a little class, won't you? Treat a hero the way he deserves to be treated." Asuka flicked her hair back and feigned nonchalance.

"As for what happened seven years ago, your beloved Chief of Police Katsuragi has, in her own words, a hefty lawsuit for attempted murder waiting to be processed the moment Shinji's physical and mental recovery is complete. And it will be complete. So be patient for a few more months, and you get to ask all your questions while I sit behind bars. Is there anything else?"

Silence. None dared speak a word or even lock gazes with them, they all bowed their heads like children being reprimanded by their parents. Asuka raised her hand and the security detail proceeded to none-too-kindly push the wave of reporters and photographers away. "I guess not. Next time you want your questions answered, be polite about it and maybe we'll feel inclined to respond. Oh, using our actual names also works quite well. Now scram, I'm trying to talk to my fellow pilot who I haven't seen in seven years."

"Oh yeah, but whose fault is that!" screamed one of the youngest ones; she noticed he was sporting the same shirt the religious group from the day before had worn. "You don't deserve to be in his presence! You whore! Go back to your country and your dear little boyfriend! Leave! You'll only make things worse!"

The low, menacing growl that erupted from Shinji's chest was the only warning both Asuka and the kid needed. While she did her best to push him back into the chair, the little boy scurried off at top speed, having seen something unfathomably terrifying in Shinji's eyes. In the end it was all they wanted, whether they pretended to be interested in anything else or not; everybody wanted a taste of it, born out of morbid curiosity. They wanted him to be the Third Child again so their fears could be justified.

Not on my watch. You already had your show two years ago.

"Well, that takes care of those bastards. Feel like heading back just yet?" Asuka counted the seconds in her head, noticing how Shinji's face kept flushing with barely restrained rage, walked over to crouch before him.

"Did I just hear you say you came to Japan to turn yourself in?" Shinji incredulously asked, as he began to cough. "What the hell is that all about? A lawsuit? Over my dead body, do you hear me? Is this what upset you in the morning? I swear to God t-that woman is just…"

A simple pat on his head was enough to stop Shinji's tirade. "You're starting to sound like those reporters, firing off five questions at a time, Baka." Asuka's head turned to the side whilst a playful, albeit saddened expression washed over her face. "Pick one and I'll answer it."

"Did Misato threaten you with some lawsuit?" Shinji ground out, jaw clenched and angry gaze locked on hers.

Kind of, yeah, but not really. She's not that stupid; I assume she knows how you would react if she ever tried. "No, you idiot. She didn't, she just mentioned there was a file for one next to her bed."

"A file of what?" Shinji demanded, practically screaming as he rummaged through his pants to retrieve his phone. She had since started pushing the chair forward and was certain her bodyguard would bring the car around at any given moment. "Who the fuck is she to get involved in anything?"

"A file that says exactly what happened, I would imagine. A file that says I pushed you over a rail and into a table. You don't need to do that. Don't call her."

"Why wouldn't I?"

Just as expected and not missing a beat, Fritz arrived. A few seconds afterwards Shinji was limping into the BMW, cellphone still grasped in his hand and frown ever present. "Because," Asuka responded once they were seated and the car started moving. "I'd like a front row seat to that massacre. Talking, even yelling over the phone doesn't have the same effect."

"Well... I suppose you're right about that. Fine, speaking to Misato can wait." Relenting, Shinji put away his phone and scratched away at his arm, hand clenching and unclenching. "What those people said though, I had a question about that."

Don't ask me about yesterday. Please, anything but that, she thought, resolute to keep her word to him as well. If he asked, she would not lie. Anything else. Just not that. Please, don't make me say it just yet. "Shoot."

Every second felt heavier than the next; even Fritz felt the tension grow in the air with each moment Shinji chose to stay quiet and mull over his words. He took a deep breath, features setting into a contemplative frown. "Shit-" Asuka flicked him over the forehead quicker than he could react. "Damnit! Okay okay, I get it. Language. Listen, that letter… I wasn't in the best state of mind when I wrote and it might be a bit," he coughed twice into his palm, "rough."

"Okay, duly noted. That did not sound like a question at all." Come on, Baka. Just spit it out god damn you. Her leg had already started to twitch up and down while anxiety clawed at her chest.

"That's because it wasn't. I forgot to tell you that a moment ago." Yet another torrent of scratches assaulted the word on Shinji's bicep. His shaking was becoming more pronounced, and his mood was growing volatile. It had begun. Their nice little dream had come to an end; reality was already knocking. "What's the deal with this Moritz guy?"

Oh. That's it. That's it? That's the question? Geez, you idiot, you gave me a hell of a scare there. Not that I'd ever tell you that.

Asuka exhaled in relief and pushed her hair back. Shinji had chosen to avert his eyes and was instead looking out the window, scowl ever-present. "Moritz?" The wave of laughter which erupted from her chest was spontaneous and so unexpected that Shinji and even Fritz stared at her in wonder. "That loser? What about him?"

"Don't know." Trying to feint nonchalance and failing miserable, Shinji stole quick glances at her before turning to the window. "What's the deal, what's the story? You guys seemed to be quite serious at some point, and then suddenly he disappeared from media. Even my coworkers have heard about the guy. So, I was wondering about that."

Come on, you idiot. Do you seriously think I wouldn't find out you threatened the son of the richest man in Germany with, and I quote, 'impeding his ability to say another word for the rest of his life'? Asuka crossed her legs and exchanged a knowing glance with the driver. "Okay then. My father introduced me to him about three and a half years ago. He was everything you expect from someone of his background, i.e. he was a snobby ass most of the time. Part of me going out with him was an honest attempt at having an actual relationship with a guy."

"I see," Shinji muttered, almost too quietly for her to hear.

A small pause, an intake of breath and Asuka continued. "You were doing well for yourself. You were getting clean, getting better, being seen in public with a girl who was nice to you. Or at least that was what it looked like on the surface. You stopped having street fights for a while, stopped going to bars every weekend." Asuka's gaze softened at the memory.

"I was legitimately happy for you, but at the same time I felt… empty. Everything I did left me feeling empty. I said wanting to have a real relationship was only part of it. I also said that those guys weren't you. Well, I wanted to get a reaction out of you. I didn't realize it until after a week of 'going out' with Moritz. I never liked him, not really. Handsome? Sure. Strong? Not even a little bit. He was more of an accessory for me, a tool to send a message. Something to make you feel jealous."

Their eyes locked, shocked cobalt clashing against somber cerulean. "What? Jealous? Make me jealous?"

"It's exactly like that. You tried to do something similar once, if I remember correctly. Hikari told me about it last year. Anyway, that was the whole deal. I wanted to get my father off my back, let the world know I wasn't a giant mess, and that my mental state was not, in fact, a dumpster fire heading downhill at a hundred kilometers an hour. And I wanted to see if you reacted. You said you were fucked up." She offered a sad smile. "I said that makes two of us, see what I mean now?"

Shinji's expression remained stony for a few more seconds, before a similar smirk manifested on his own features. "Yeah, I see." He relaxed into the seat and stared at the roof of the car. "It worked, by the way."

"Hmm? What did?"

"Your strategy. I was jealous, more than I can even put into words. And the saddest part about it is that I also believed you were doing better. I thought you had finally found someone worthy of you. It made me both irrationally angry and indescribably happy." The car stopped at the entrance of Shinji's apartment building. "What an idiot."

He did not clarify if he was speaking about himself, her, or the both of them. They quietly headed to the apartment, not speaking much. Shinji's itching and scratching became more visible, so he occupied himself with cooking the moment they arrived and ignored the food brought from the restaurant. She stared from across the living room and pretended to read a report. Shinji had chosen to say nothing regarding Kensuke, and had barely reacted to the story of Moritz, or the realization that she had been meaning to hurt him from afar, or at the very least make him react.

He's changed, Asuka recognized, feeling a blush heat up her face. And at the same time, he's the same idiot I remember. People keep telling me, warning me, trying to scare me. 'He's dangerous, Asuka. He's changed, Asuka. He's not the same Shinji you remember, Asuka.' Yeah, he's changed, and water is wet. Fire burns. Don't they see it? Even as he concentrated, Asuka saw a tiny smile devoid of sadness shine on Shinji's face. Don't they see how beautiful he's become?

When night arrived, they shared a light dinner and spoke of other events during their time apart. Shinji's mood settled into a calm, measured demeanor whereas her curiosity began to take hold and heighten her voice with every bit of new information provided.

They did not speak of the night before, nor did any of them say a word when Asuka settled next to him on the mattress or when his arm pulled her against him.


The days bled into one another, each bringing about a new challenge in Shinji's recovery. A week came and went with them sharing a bed and not speaking of it, a week in which Asuka did not dare open the letter she had tried to ask him to read. Shinji's tremors became more acute during the night; at times he would rouse her with the itching and shaking, shirt half-covered in sweat; he would apologize as she cleaned and dressed the injuries, muttering to himself while she grabbed him a fresh shirt and grumbled like an old man when she changed the bedsheets.

Caution was essential; she was careful to reduce the dosages every few days, and constantly observed Shinji's reactions and behavior throughout every passing hour. They settled into a routine both during the day and later in the night. The nights were cold, a contrast to the almost unbearable heat whenever the sun was shining; even with nothing more than a blanket to cover themselves, both woke up drenched in sweat more often than not. It came as no surprise to see Shinji had a vast array of bedsheets, spare shirts and blankets. According to his own words, waking up as though he had just run a marathon in a snowstorm was the norm, not the exception. He never asked about her dreams, either, choosing to remain quiet and impassive until she decided to either talk about the horrid memories, or drift off to sleep again. Most nights she said nothing, and did not pry in his own nightmares when he began to trash about in bed.

Shinji's self-restraint was admirable. He dedicated all of himself to the strenuous exercises that ensured his mobility did not disappear, evidently enjoying some of the harsher sessions. At times, mostly very early in the morning or late in the afternoon, he would stare at a random corner, glare, bare his teeth and whisper half-bitten words at whatever he saw. It had begun as an isolated phenomenon and increased exponentially each day he did not consume the medication equal to a horse tranquilizer the mob facilitated.

He dealt with the anxiety and thirst for numbness by either crushing the sturdiest of grip strengtheners he owned, cooking for them both as best he could while she assisted and teased, or reading some deeply intricate nonsense about the value of the soul in modern society. Exercise was the most efficient method, Asuka had discovered, and with every passing day Shinji was able to fend for himself more and more. Now able to walk with the crutches without collapsing, he wobbled all around the house and tried to clean or tidy up.

Jackson visited the most; he came every other day to deliver some ingredient or simply to spend some time with Shinji. They talked and most of the time laughed as the trainer demonstrated moves or techniques performed in the latest fights, yet very rarely did Jackson accept Shinji's offer to eat dinner with them, instead leaving after a couple of hours. The jolly restaurant owner came around a second time and was smart enough to come alone and not bring the waitresses. The man had good taste; he had complimented both the mead and her cooking.

Krista banged on the door once every three days, screamed for a good ten to fifteen minutes and left in a rush of wrath, mostly threatening Shinji with painful retaliation if he slipped on his recovery. Ironically enough, she liked Krista the most.

Krista was a tornado of fury, yet seemed to have a strange blind trust in Asuka and the process her friend was undergoing; it was not every day Shinji swore to do something. Therein lay another advantage to Krista; she was always willing to go into detail about past experiences or events. She had told Asuka about her random encounter with Shinji at the gym, and the strange camaraderie which resulted in him saving her from an early grave, going as far as fighting a drug addict who stabbed him, and caring for her during the entire time she detoxed.

It was also Krista who talked to her eight days after their visit to the restaurant. "Homeboy's about to either slip or snap. He's not even scratching anymore, he's shaking. He's angry, and he chugged that mead like it was water in the desert. Get ready for the upcoming shitstorm."

On the following morning Asuka's nightmare was intense enough to almost force her out of bed, and in her blind wrath and panic had pressed against Shinji's stomach wound as he tried to restrain her.

"God damn it, Shinji! I told you no fucking sudden movements, you idiot!"

"What sudden movement?" Shinji screamed back with equal force. "You're the one slapping the shit out of me at four o'clock in the morning!" Having been healing exponentially with each day, he no longer coughed with as much frequency. "I was just making sure you didn't fall out of bed! What's the problem?"

"The problem is your freaking stupidity!" roared Asuka. "I'm not deaf! I heard you hiss in pain when you reached out to keep me in bed! I told you not to move your arm like that yet! Ugh, you tried throwing a punch yesterday, and now this! If you opened that wound again, I swear on my mother's grave, Shinji…"

"Again? What do you mean again? You told me it didn't open three days ago!"

"I said it didn't completely open, you dumbass! No thanks to you, by the way! Now stay there, I'll go get the freaking bedsheets. Fucking unbelievable, you do so well for eight days and then boom! Let's shit on Asuka's careful work!"

Shinji painfully got back to his feet. The injury was indeed tender, but no major damage other than an acute stab of agony had been done. A glance at the gauze pad and some prodding around the edges ensured him nothing had occurred. "Hey, for your information, Frau Doktor, the stupid wound is doing just fine!"

His statement was waved off with a flick of Asuka's hand. "Like you'd know, right! You just told me about that wound on your back the other day, idiot! Four days without so much as bothering to do something besides change the bandages!"

"I was careful, damn you! The fucking thing closed, didn't it?" Shinji hobbled over to the kitchen and helped himself to a glass of mead; he was already running low on it and the healthier he got, the more acute the need for a stronger drink became. "I ask you, what's the damn problem? I'm fine!"

"You're also dripping sweat, now change out of that shirt, since the wound seems to be doing just fine!" A fresh garment was thrown at his face. "We're out of clean bedsheets. Do you have any extras somewhere?"

"Yeah." Shinji emptied the glass in a few gulps and refilled it, glad to have some access to alcohol left. "Laundry room, to the right of the washing machine. There's some extras there." Being half-asleep and nearing exhaustion, Shinji completely forgot that next to the sheets rested the secret compartment where many of the pictures were stored, preoccupied with serving himself more mead and painfully changing his shirt. "The others should be dry by tomorrow, anyway."

"Whatever you say, idiot." Asuka disappeared through the doorway to the laundry room. The sheets were easy enough to find, but once she picked them up off the floor something creaked lightly under her foot. "I'm gonna grab some more things so don't overdo it with the mead! It's four o'clock in the morning!"

"Yeah, tell that to my neighbors! I'm not the one screaming!"

"You're totally screaming! And stop that, by the way! Stop stressing your lungs any more than necessary!" Curiosity got the best of her, so Asuka crouched and found the clasp that opened the small cabinet.

"Fine, whatever." She heard him chug down the second glass, sigh in apparent satisfaction and waddle back to the bedroom with the crutches. "I'll start with the sheets."

"I'll start with the sheets," Asuka repeated with a roll of her eyes, which widened upon glancing inside the cabinet. Her own face stared back, wearing a confident smile as she held her diploma high. Pictures, many of them loose and all of them protected or laminated were thrown about. Underneath the images lay a heavy photo album, which she thumbed through with both speed and haste. Many of them had newspaper articles attached to them, cut pieces from a magazine or a note scribbled with his handwriting.

Her first ever award; the graduation ceremony; her arrests; even pictures taken in Thailand. From the news headline of her first arrival to Germany, all the way to the latest tabloids; the collection was thorough and evidently cared for with scrutiny. Her chest constricted after realizing the only photographs lacking a protective layer were the ones where she sat in a restaurant, canteen or otherwise in public with Kensuke, or the ones of her standing next to her ex-boyfriends.

Fuck, can't even stay mad at him for an extended period of time anymore. You've gotten soft. She quickly stowed the secret treasure away, recalling how the envelope remained untouched inside her jacket after so many days.

Upon entering the bedroom again whatever remnants of her annoyance dissipated. Shinji was sitting by the corner of the bed, eyes wide and body shaking. She followed his detached gaze towards the direction of the bathroom, and instead of asking who or what he was seeing, walked directly into his line of vision and closed the bathroom door with a resounding thud. I know you're there somewhere, Yui. Gendo. Mari. Those are the three he sees the most.

"Thanks for getting the sheets," she said, noticing how he slowly returned to reality. So far the approach had worked, whatever he saw she could interrupt by simply being there and speaking to or touching him. Fourth time in three nights. Krista was right, he's not even scratching anymore. It's like he's simmering in anger, waiting to explode. Can't blame him, being angry is better than being terrified. "You okay over there?"

"I'm... fine," Shinji panted, and shook his head. They wordlessly changed the bed linens and settled back down on the bed; it did not take long for him to poke her in the shoulder and pull her next to him. From such a close distance the rage in his eyes was all the more evident.

"You're not, though. You want something really strong right now, don't you?" She poked at the scar Kaji had provided with a playful smirk. "Maybe some rum. Bet it's rum, right?"

"What do you think?" was Shinji's terse rebuttal. "Some? Give me a whole bottle, maybe that'll make a difference. I'm tired of this stupid shaking."

He tried to stop the tremor from manifesting, she noticed, Shinji bit the inside of his cheek and closed his eyes, to no avail. "You don't need to suppress them. They don't bother me."

"Yeah, but they bother me." Shinji stared at the ceiling for a few seconds; his eyes drifted to the bathroom again, then back the ceiling and finally settled on her face. "Told you there were no sudden movements. Not aside from the damn shaking, anyhow. I don't understand how it doesn't bother you."

"I'm soaking your bed and shirt almost every day with sweat and I don't hear you complain. It's part of the process, so I don't mind. But I really should start sleeping somewhere else… that was close, today." Her hand gently tapped the gauze pad on his midsection. "Can't have my stupid nightmares ruin your rest."

"Not like I was sleeping, anyway. And I'm sweating even more than you. You sure that fan is enough? I do have air conditioning."

She tapped on his shirt twice. "Yeah, pretty sure. Air conditioning gives me a parched throat, and screw all that. What's a little sweat anyway? We used to swim in a liquid that smells like blood at the best of times." Considering how short Shinji's fuse was becoming, Asuka had expected some form of sarcastic reply, but was saddened to see him frantically staring back at the bathroom door. "They're still there, aren't they?"

Her patient and… friend nodded faintly. "Yeah."

"Are they talking to you?"

Shinji closed his eyes and shifted his weight in the bed. "Yeah. They're talking."

"What are they saying?"

"Nothing important. Bullshit, like always." His fingers tapped her shoulder to get her attention. "Aren't you in the tiniest way freaked out that I just admitted to talking to people that aren't even there?"

He's been getting more and more defensive with each passing day. Maybe it's time to let him know a few things. "Would it freak you out if I told you I sometimes talk to my dead mother while she hangs from the ceiling?"

"You what?" Shinji's head whipped towards her, arm tightening around her body. "You see your mother?"

"And talk to her sometimes, yeah. She's usually hanging from that rope, you know the one. I hate the sound of it more than seeing her bloated face all blue and black and rotten. I can smell the antiseptic from her hospital room, sometimes." Asuka raised the hand resting on his chest to the ceiling.

"I feel that pain like it just happened every single time. It doesn't get better with the years either, as you've probably noticed. Sometimes it's just the arm, sometimes just the eye, sometimes it's the whole thing and I can't wake up. Well..." Despite the growing tension between them, the time shared resting in bed was apparently sacred for them both. "I couldn't wake up, past tense. Good thing you're such a light sleeper, too. Are they still talking to you?"

The next tremor was the only answer she needed. Shinji's body was growing tenser by the day; the only moments where it actually unwound were during physical therapy or the first ten to fifteen minutes they spent lying on the mattress. "Kind of, yeah." His foot moved left and right; she had noticed how at times he would upset the injuries on purpose to focus on that pain instead of the visions. "They're always talking, lately."

She pondered the next question carefully, and chose to dive into the void. "What are they saying?"

"Same old crap as always." It came as a shock that Shinji so easily opened up when a few nights before he'd been more than reluctant to share any details of his visions. "Calling me useless, stupid, telling me I'm a monster, everything I already know. When I ignore it for too long, though..."

Shinji's expression turned more guarded. "They start bombarding me with memories. That pain you mentioned, I can feel it sometimes. Faintly, but it's there. They keep showing me that day from every possible angle, or they give me a first-row seat to some NERV employee who was stabbed or burned to death. It's like a broken record that just never gets old. It's just like you said. Heh." He gave her a sidelong glance. "I've never said that to anybody before."

"Blame it on being exhausted, we went to sleep like four hours ago. And do me a favor and tell whoever or whatever's bothering you to shut the fuck up so we can sleep for another two or three."

"If only it were so easy."

"It is! Look." Asuka picked one of the discarded pillows from the ground and threw it at the bathroom door. "Shut the fuck up! See? Easy."

Despite his bad mood, Asuka managed to get a few smiles out of him. "It's pretty weird, all of this. Back then we never used to talk at night. We'd just sleep." She poked him around the eyebrow yet again.

"So you're telling me to shut up and go to sleep or something?" Asuka retorted with mirth evident in her tone. "Wanna keep having a heart-to-heart with whatever's talking to you? And by the way, did it stop?"

"Huh?" With his anger effectively fading for the time being, Asuka was able to discern that Shinji's gaze was no longer drifting between the bathroom and her. "Oh, yeah. They shut up for now, guess that mead did its magic."

"It's not the mead, dummy." An elegant finger pressed against Shinji's forehead. "I'm directing your attention to other things. When you're talking about the things you see they stay quiet, don't they?" Hah! Caught him off guard again! "As far as your experience with alcohol goes, wouldn't you say it does more harm than good? I tend to have more visions when I'm drunk; unless I'm at the point of blacking out it really only makes things worse."

For his part, Shinji felt increasingly uncomfortable by simply existing. Yui's voice had begun to fade, and strangely enough the stench of death had been absent that morning. I can't believe Asuka just told me about her own visions. I had heard something of the sort; one of those reports said something about her staring off into the distance and talking to herself. She was also right about the alcohol, as always; booze only helped wash away the exhaustion and side effects from the anti-psychotics and opiates. On its own the best it did was dull the voices to an extent.

"Yeah, you're right. Tell that to my stupid head or my body, though." He raised his left hand, angry to see it tremble. "Ten more days of this shit."

"Not yet, Baka. We still have some days to go before you can go cold turkey. I can't have you drooling and sweating just yet." Asuka settled back beside him with a contented sigh.

Screams and half-bitten insults faded under the bright sound of laughter as they both snickered. "I'm already sweating like I was in a sauna, Asuka. Not drooling yet, though."

Even as he struggled and fought against the thirst for narcotics, Shinji kept to his promise, and regardless of how many times a night he woke up in a pool of sweat, Asuka liked to think she had a positive effect in the few hours he managed to doze off, unassisted by pills or alcohol.

"Pff, well you can thank this goddamn humidity for the constant sweats, and you're not the only one! I mean, I had to change my shirt twice!"

Rolling his eyes, Shinji pointed at the device on his wall. "Again, I have air conditioning."

"Again, I don't care. I lived in Thailand for a year, Shinji, I know humidity. Leave the fan be and try to get some more rest." Asuka wordlessly covered them with the blanket and nuzzled her head beside his shoulder. "Tell those little shits to stay away from you or I'll rip them apart."

"Isn't that supposed to be my line?" Steeled cobalt clashed against her tired cerulean. "Who are you going to rip apart, anyway?"

"Who's bothering you?" Asuka rebuked, hoping for the best and prepared for the worst. She had lowered her guard enough to let Shinji glance at her own sad daily life and visions; it was entirely his decision whether to share the horrors of his own mind. "You don't have to answer, idiot."

"It's my mother, most of the time," he said in a harsh whisper. His hand rested on her head and his fingers began to thread through her hair. The minuscule gesture soothed them both. "Other times it's my father, or… heh, what's left of him since I bit him in half during Third Impact. Other times it's Makinami. When I try to ignore all of them then the worst visions begin. I start seeing body parts, blood, people exploding into LCL and bones and guts all around me. I can hear them screaming, all of them at once. The worst of it is, though..."

Shinji took a few strands of Asuka's hair and held them up to the dim light. "The worst of it is when I hear you screaming. Every time I feel that wall pressing against my back, and I hear them getting back up. Then I see it all, from every angle, I see your memories, I feel them. Other times… it's the stuff I've done, stuff I've been through in the last few years."

"You mean two years ago, right?" Asuka inquired, feeling impossibly inclined to give Shinji a tiny peck on the cheek. Regardless of the somberness in the room, he had achieved yet another breakthrough. "Your mother can go to hell. So can Gendo Ikari. So can Mari Makinami. They're all gone, and we're still here. Tell them I said that next time you see them." Her fingers delicately touched the scar under Shinji's jaw. "Tell them they lost already, and we won. We're still alive."

"Funny you should say that." Shinji was too fatigued to struggle against the drowsiness the mead had provided. I'm laying here with the woman of my dreams, and all I can think of is of smoking three packs of cigarettes, drinking a liter of rum and downing six to ten pills. Get it together, Ikari. "I've been telling them exactly that for the better part of the last ten days."

"Good." Asuka pressed a small edible to Shinji's chest. "This isn't as potent as the stars, but it'll help you relax. I know you're trying to think of something other than getting high, and that it's not going very well."

Shinji chewed and swallowed it in a haste, yet still held his hand before him to watch the tremors slowly die out. The shaking of his fingers was always a sign for bad things to come. To his relief, the involuntary movements began to recede after a few minutes. "Thanks. When are we getting rid of the opiates?"

'We'? What! Jeez, Ikari, for once in your life can you actually think before you speak?

"We?" Asuka purred with a loud chuckle. "Well, Lord Ikari, if you keep doing as well as you have this week, we can start reducing those dosages tomorrow."

"Let's do that," Shinji agreed, fully aware the worst had already begun, and was about to turn hellish. "Last time I got clean, I locked myself in a room with nothing but water and fruit for three days. Coach found me on the verge of total dehydration."

"Uh huh, he told me that story yesterday. Don't worry, you're not alone anymore."

The story behind every line and every scar had already been told, and to her the most precious one was a jagged cut beside his cheekbone, one she liked to brush over with her thumb. For her part, she had yet to reveal the origin of a single one of hers, and he had yet to ask.

"Yeah, I know." Shinji's arm tightened against her. "Neither are you."


Two days later, as a plate flew into the wall and broke into tiny pieces, Shinji did wish he was alone.

"God damn you!" he bellowed hard enough for the neighbors to cringe. "I said give it back! Who the hell do you think you are, going through my stuff like that?"

"What! You think I wouldn't find them, did you? Wrong! That big monster friend of yours from the mob told me about your little stashes! No wonder I saw you being more relaxed yesterday! How many, huh? How many did you take behind my back?"

"I didn't take any!" Shinji shot back with equal force, coughing for his trouble, and pointed at the containers she was holding. "All of those are sealed! Now give them back, put them back in their place or give them to me!"

Asuka held the plastic bag overflowing with prescription pills, marijuana, cocaine and many other substances almost menacingly before her. "Like hell I'll give these back to you. I spent all morning looking for them! What kind of person keeps fourteen grams of pure, Colombian cocaine in their apartment?"

"The kind of person that fights assholes in bars for no particular reason!" With his body much stronger than before, Shinji effortlessly pushed the table away as he stalked in her direction wearing a twisted snarl. "Give them back!"

"Or you'll do what?" Asuka screamed right in his face, unafraid. "You're gonna take them from me? You still can't even jog, let alone run! I can push kick you back into the fucking chair for another week! What are you going to do, huh?" She shoved a finger against his collarbone with defiance. "What are you going to do? Strangle me? Well come on then, get it over with! But you'll have to choke me to death if you think I'll give these back!"

A hand tried to sluggishly grab onto the bag, to no avail. Healthy as he was, Shinji was still very much injured and could only move slowly at best. He could probably hoist her up in the air if he ever so wished, yet all he did was grumble and glare straight into her eyes. "You don't want me to do that. Now hand them over to me, Asuka."

"No way in hell, Shinji. Do something about it, come on. If you didn't take any of these, it means you still have some laying around somewhere, and I will find them!" Two steps backwards was enough for her to dodge the next half-assed attempt to grab the drugs. "Sit down before you hurt yourself, idiot."

Dinner had been a sacred moment between them. In the last few days Shinji's physical improvement had allowed them to cook together, which made meals all the more special. That night, the comfortable cycle they had fallen into had been broken.

"I'll sit down the moment you give those back. Asuka, I'm not playing! Give them to me!" Gone was the playful smirk or the small, insecure smile; Shinji was snarling like a hungry predator and continued to follow her around the apartment without the help of his crutches. This fucking woman. Who the hell does she think she is?

"Does it look like I'm playing in any way, Shinji?" Another slow jab at the bag, two steps back, and his resistance began to wane as he panted and shivered. "Now explain yourself! Why were you so mellowed out yesterday?"

"I had a ninja a star of yours! Found it in your jacket pocket, okay?" The yells bounced off the walls and into the night. "Been a while since I had one, so it hit me harder that I thought! What's the problem? I told you I haven't opened any of those! I told you I'd keep my word, Asuka!"

"And you're doing it! I can accept that about the ninja star, but why the hell do you need all this if you're trying to get clean, huh?" Having been preoccupied with backing off, Asuka did not realize when her back had hit against the wall. "Why is this so damn important? If it's so valuable to you, I'll give you my word that I won't throw them away! Would that suffice? I'll just put them somewhere you can't reach!"

"Fine!" Shinji exploded in anger, punching the table and hissing for his trouble. "Put them whenever you want, so long as you don't throw them away!" His right palm slammed against the wall, mere inches away from Asuka's head. He hovered over her, panting and sweating heavily. "But stop touching my stuff."

Asuka glared back with equal, if not greater force, snarling herself. "You're the one touching my stuff, mister. Going through my jacket to get some edibles, going through the drawers of my room while I shower. Think I wouldn't notice, or be stupid enough to leave your medication lying around? Give me a break, Third."

The hand on the wall curled into a fist. "I was- it's not what you think, okay?" Asuka pushed forward so her nose was almost touching his. Shinji turned his glare to the floor, unable to maintain eye contact. "I was just-"

"Not what I think? You were just looking for some more pills to soothe the voices, I get that!" Asuka placed the bag behind her back and put her free hand flat on Shinji's chest, easily pushing him back. "But talk to me first, you stupid jerk! That's why I'm here! We've been talking about this crap these past few days. Come on, talk to me. That's all I'm asking."

The change of tone in Asuka's voice drove the exhaustion into Shinji's bones. He relented, backing away and wobbling over to the dining table."That's all you're asking, right. You're here accusing me of taking some pills, going through my apartment like a police sniffer dog, then accusing me some more. Kinda like the same shit from when we were pilots."

"Elaborate." The answer echoed from Asuka's bedroom, where she occupied herself with hiding the bag well away from Shinji's reach. "What the hell do you mean by the same shit from way back when?"

"You know, the way you used to mess with me for no reason at all and get mad at me for apparently no reason." Sarcasm was heavy and poignant in his tone. "That. I'm talking about that."

Once the drugs were hidden away Asuka marched back into the living room and stood before Shinji, hands on her hips. "You've been getting grumpier with every passing day, as expected. Feel like airing out some old laundry right after dinner? Fine. Let's air them out," she spat out in anger. The chair creaked as she sat across from him. "Go on, say your piece. Before you do, though, allow me to properly apologize for believing you had not kept your word. That was out of line. I guess finding an entire pharmacy in your apartment threw me off for a second. It wasn't my place to doubt your word. I'm sorry."

And she does it again! Fuck! Every time… every time in the last ten days! Every single fucking time she does something wrong, she actually apologizes for it and then I can't say anything back! Shinji's mind was in disarray; without any of his secret stashes available, there truly was no longer an escape from withdrawal. "Ugh, nothing. Forget I said anything. Sorry."

"See? That's the difference," Asuka responded with the same brusqueness. "When I say it, I actually mean it, which was the case with your dumb ass for the last few days, as well. Right now, though, you're full of it. Spill, Baka. It's not even that late, so feel free to unload any and all grievances, since you're not getting back that poison so long as I have a say in it. Got it?"

Various biting remarks were dancing on both of their tongues. "Yeah, I got it. But how do you expect me not to get pissed off when you're going through my stuff? And not just going through it, you're basically assuming I lied to you! I thought we agreed on a no lies policy five days ago!"

Asuka's fist was the next to crash on the table. "Which we did!" she exclaimed. "It doesn't mean I didn't notice your behavior yesterday, idiot! And who the hell are you to talk about anything, when you've been scavenging through my drawers?"

"I said I was sorry, okay!" Shinji bit back, scratching at his arm for the first time in more than a week.

"Oh, and now you mean it, isn't that just perfect?" Rising from the seat in a huff, Asuka marched over to the fridge and extracted two beer cans, placing one next to Shinji and opening her own. "Here, this and one more are all you're getting today, so enjoy it. We'd have way more mead to go around if you hadn't decided to give it away to your boss."

The can was snatched away; Shinji opened his and took two long swigs. "Whatever. You wanted me to elaborate, right? Okay then. I'll elaborate." After a few seconds of rummaging through his pants, he slapped the letter on the table. "It's been ten days and I find this. If you're so damn adamant on me reading these to you, I'll just do it and get it over with."

He was about to tear the envelope open when it was snatched away from his grasp. "Like hell you will!" Asuka bellowed as she invaded his personal space. "Want to be a dick? Fine. Be a dick. Want to yell and scream? Go ahead. Want to dig up shit from the past you've already told me you've forgotten? Be my guest. I'm right here." Asuka's palm impacted against the table once more. "And I'm not going anywhere, no matter what you say and no matter what you do."

The letter was held up just in front of his face. "You said I should read this myself, and yeah I haven't done it yet. That doesn't give you the right to take it. You sent it to me. It's mine." Her forehead collided against his, pushing Shinji deeper into his seat. "Don't touch my stuff."

"Right back at you," he growled back, acutely aware that they were inches away from each other, so close that it was easier to focus on her lips than on her eyes. "Stop going through my stuff. And stop saying shit without having anything to back it up." He pushed back, almost crashing the crown of his head against hers.

"You're going nowhere near any of that poison, you got it?" Asuka whispered, close enough to actually make her breath tickle against his face. "And I already said it was my bad. I'm asking you to talk to me, not go behind my back like some low-life junkie."

"Haven't you been reading the news?" growled Shinji. The expression on each of their faces mirrored that from years ago, as they prepared to fight the Seventh Angel. It was yet another competition where they were forced to cooperate, only this time there was no otherworldly threat to conquer. "That's exactly what I am. Some low-life junkie, some loser, a fuc-"

FLICK.

"Damn it!" Shinji yelled as he reared back and rubbed the spot on his forehead, putting some distance between them at long last. "Will you stop doing that?"

"Stop cursing and saying nonsense and I'll consider it!" Asuka half-yelled, half-grumbled. "Now, for the fifth time, talk to me, you idiot! That's why I'm here!"

"Yeah, that's why you're here? You weren't here when I needed to fucking talk, not for the last seven years, so why the hell should I now?" Shinji spat out. He crossed his arms and huffed in exasperation, no longer in blinding pain as he did so. "There's nothing to talk about. You were being annoying and you owned up to it, then stopped being annoying. I was being an ass and apologized. You found the drugs, and you hid them. What's there to talk about?"

Frustration and reluctance began to bubble throughout his chest. She knows, she fucking knows. She noticed it three days ago and has been on it ever since. The silence stretched out, forcing even more ire out of him. Come on, ask away. We both know it's coming, let's get it over with. Come on, you want to have a fucking fight, Asuka? Let's fucking have the fight, let's talk about some pointless shit.

"Kensuke called me three days ago," Asuka muttered tersely, eyes narrowing in his direction. "I didn't bother to go outside, or to the balcony, or anywhere, because I don't feel like hiding my conversations with my friends from you. He wanted to know how you were doing. We spent the entire phone call speaking about you, and how you've been getting so much better."

Fuck your phone call. The shadow coiled against Shinji's insides, pressing against his awareness with renewed defiance. It kept getting harder and harder to keep it chained, or to keep the little brat from spewing nonsense as he had done for the past few days. Fuck Kensuke, fuck him all the way to hell. "Who you talk to over the phone is your business. What do I care if you speak with Kensuke or not?"

The itches had long since disappeared thanks to the modern treatment which had helped his injuries heal; the opiates and other chemicals were almost completely flushed from his body, with the last remnants persisting in giving him constant sweats and a permanent state of alertness and unease. Sleeping had only been possible due to Asuka's soothing presence and the edibles, yet the night before not even two of the damned stars had been enough to force the voices out his head. He had spent the entire night hearing Yui and Mari mock his efforts, and when faced with his indifference the apparitions had begun mentioning how animated and relieved Asuka had sounded the day before while speaking with Kensuke. His blood had been boiling ever since.

"Bullshit. You do care, and I don't blame you. It was a rotten thing to do, to force your friend to spy on you because I was too much of a damn coward to ask you personally." Asuka's voice lost its dangerous edge, he noticed her body slouch into the chair, which forced the shadow's lips to curl into a satisfied smirk. "I told you why I did that days ago."

If what you're trying to do is to keep me away from the urge to get smashed, you're doing a piss-poor job at it right now, Second, Shinji thought dispassionately. "And I said it doesn't matter to me. Oh, I haven't talked to Kensuke in more than a year, in case you're wondering. I don't think we're friends anymore." Especially after he dared touch and kiss you. I'd sooner drink bleach than spend another second in his presence.

"You might believe so, but he thinks otherwise. He's worried about you, and so is Toji." Asuka casually mentioned the people he refused to acknowledge as friends. "So are all your gym partners, and your coach, and Karla."

"Krista."

"Whatever her name is. Listen, I get it. You won't say it out loud even though you want to, so I'll do you the favor." Asuka put both elbows on the table and supported her chin with her hands. "You want to know why I kissed him, don't you?"

Pretend some shock at least, you creep. Don't let her see you've known all this time. Pretend, lie, do something. Shinji inner voice was mingling more and more with that of his mother. Sometimes all he heard was either her or Mari whispering maliciously into his ear. Better yet, don't pretend. Use it to get her away. Every day, you're losing it a little more.

"I don't care," Shinji deadpanned, and emptied the beer can. "It's none of my business what you did or didn't do, we've talked about this. I asked about that Moritz guy and you answered. I haven't asked anything about Kensuke, because I don't car-"

"I tried to hang myself from a noose the day I kissed him. It was easily the worst day of my life, Third Impact notwithstanding."

The can fell from his hand and into the floor. "You tried to… what are you saying?" Shinji's voice shook, for once not due to the growing shivers that manifested every few minutes. His body went cold the moment Asuka spoke. "You didn't try-how… when was this?"

"Don't play dumb," said Asuka, and ran a hand through her hair. "It was two years ago. I was off partying the day those bastards called you up to that underground slaughterhouse." Her eyes hardened, hinging Shinji's jaw closed before he could offer a snide rebuttal. "I was drunk and high on coke that day. Moritz was the one serving the fucking cocaine in the car, getting me more loaded, giving me drinks. I'd love to say nobody told me what happened, but the truth is I never bothered to ask. I was too busy getting fucked up. I wanted to forget."

His right hand clenched and unclenched while his left remained frozen in a tight fist, eyes downcast and frowning at the table. "What were you trying to forget?"

"That you had just broken up with your girlfriend at the time, and that you had been recently hospitalized after killing four of the six assailants that tried to beat and abuse you. That's what I was trying to forget." Even if the subject was macabre, Asuka could not help but grin at the fact that Shinji had actually relented and wanted more information regarding the events of those days.

"I was trying to forget I was worried about you to the point of not eating," Asuka elaborated, voice growing quieter. "I wasn't really sleeping, either. Got drunk, so drunk I couldn't see straight. I went to that loser and did my best to have sex. Heh, it turned into a shit-show. I ended up throwing my hair dryer at his head when he tried to hold me. I was blocked; everything I thought or said had something to do with you."

Having reduced the medication to a minimum, Shinji was subjected to feeling every bit of the emotions he had been trying to kill for so many years. The mentions of both Moritz and Kensuke were enough to reignite the desire to punch a hole through a wall, yet the implications of Asuka's words were slowly eating away at the jealousy and fury. The thirst for narcotics increased.

"Didn't mean to cause so much heartache," he muttered, and despite his best efforts spoke with bitter disgust leaking through his voice. "Next time I'll be sure to die and not bring about any more troub-"

"Shut up." Asuka glowered at him and finished her own beer. This marked the last day Shinji was allowed to drink more than two beers a day. The stomach walls had closed, and up until then he had refrained from opening one of his beloved rum or whiskey bottles. "If you had died either of those days two years ago, I wouldn't be here."

"...Huh?" The conversation was turning increasingly personal and uncomfortable. Shinji's original plan had been to read the damn letter to her, make her uncomfortable after dinner and perhaps have some time to dig into one of his secret stashes, only to have the entire plan backfire when Asuka noticed him staring repeatedly at one of the kitchen drawers.

"Keep looking at the laundry room, go on. I took all the pills from there, too. The coke, as well. Good job hiding it in a pillow," Asuka said with forced nonchalance. "So, should I keep going with this story, or are going to jump out of that chair and into my room? Already took those pills from under the bed, by the way."

Sometimes Hanayama's sincere friendship and blind faith in Asuka's supposed prowess was disheartening. The large yazuka was sure to have told her of each hidden drawer and false bottom within the apartment. "Go on," Shinji groaned. "I can't even see what all of these events have to do with each other. What the hell do you mean by 'wouldn't be here'?"

Asuka's glare became more intense; she leaned over the table and pulled her hair back, exposing the slight discoloration just beside her nape. His fingers had been grazing the scar for the past few days, ironically enough. "This. This is what I mean. After you got admitted to the hospital, after Misato did what she always does and interfered way too late, she called me. She was drunk, but even drunk as fuck she was excruciatingly detailed about every little thing. She told me all the things I already knew, and some I didn't. Told me you weren't really talking to anyone, had some bruises and scratches, but were otherwise okay."

Her voice got even quieter. "She told me you killed those bastards, told me how you killed them, and what she found when she opened the door to that warehouse. I didn't... I couldn't say anything back. Said nothing instead, and hung up the phone. Then I went to the kitchen and drank five beers, one after the other. Went out. I don't remember much after that."

I hate this so much. Every time I'm trying to go back into the void, she pulls me back. She opens up, and tells me things about herself, tells me all the things I'm too much of a coward to ask. What kind of fucking therapy is this, anyway?

"You don't remember much, huh? Me neither," said Shinji, and tried to stop the truth from gushing out, to no avail. The pattern kept repeating; no matter how anxious or disconnected he was feeling, the moment she shared a deep truth or secret, he felt compelled to do the same.

"Those days are a fog. I got released from the hospital, went to the liquor store and came back to the apartment. Hikari tried to intervene, and I almost jammed a knife through her eye. Then," he looked away, right hand massaging his left fist, "then I got that call… and the rest is history. What does that have to do with that mark on your neck?"

"Stupid question, Shinji. It's a friction burn from the rope." Asuka gathered up her overgrown tresses to make the old mark more noticeable. "I wasn't any better off; while you were here drinking yourself to death, I was doing the same. I was taking five diazepams with half a bottle of vodka every night just to sleep for about five hours at best, because otherwise I couldn't sleep at all. It wasn't even the Eva Series I was seeing, I just kept seeing myself pushing you over that rail. Kept seeing that picture in the news, with you covered in blood. When you were next admitted, I had some young kid say it to me."

Anger, despair, irremediable sadness; Shinji's saw all those emotions in Asuka's eyes. The word on his arm burned worse than ever before. "Say what, that I was in the hospital?" he abruptly inquired.

"Yeah," with a nod, Asuka rose and took out his second and last beer along with her own, then sat back down and drank. "I went back to the house, told Moritz to go home, which he did as the obedient little shit that he was at the time, then closed the door to my room and started trashing it."

She pointed at the mark under her lip. "I did this, like I told you some days ago. I turned the entire room upside down and ended up hitting myself in the face. My father came in and jabbed some absurdly potent anesthetic into my arm. He's the one who called Kensuke. Tried calling you first if you want to believe him, but you were being operated on at the time. Somewhere between me waking up and Kensuke traveling to Germany, I got hold of some rope."

Crying, she's crying. Please, no. Everything but that, Shinji thought with resignation, feeling every bit of aggression die out the moment the first tears dripped down her face. "Asuka, come on." He desperately wanted to take a hold of her hand or give her a hug. "You don't need to do this. I don't care."

"Yes, you do," Asuka rebuked while absently massaging her neck. "And you need to hear it."

Shinji's chest shuddered. Long forgotten and sourly missed was the sting of the wounds; there was no longer a need for strong doses of painkillers so every emotion was heightened beyond anything he had felt for over two years. "This whole thing is ridiculous, do you seriously think something like a phone call is going to destabilize me to the point of going back on the meds? I've gotten clean before, I can do it again. There's no need to talk about this crap."

"I tied the rope to the same pole I hang my heavy bag from," Asuka carried on, ignoring his statement altogether. "Placed a chair under me, put the noose around my neck, and was about to let it all end then and there. Right before I pushed the chair away, though..." A tentative smile starting blossoming on her lips. "...I saw you."

Shinji tried to speak, went as far as asking both the shadow and the little boy for assistance, any assistance; nonetheless, she carried on before any coherent response could be offered.

"I saw you, and I saw myself." Asuka's hand instinctively sought his and grasped it with vehemence. "We were older, and we were laughing. We were seated at a restaurant or a café, somewhere where the sun was setting. We were… happy. No worries, no trauma, no pain, no drugs, no Evas, no mothers; we were just happy, you and me. So I held onto that rope the moment the chair gave under, and I vowed to not let myself die until I made that vision a reality."

Most of the desire to down pills crumbled under the weight of her words. Shinji could not help but smile back. "We had a lot of fun last time in the restaurant. The owner came out and warned us about the noise. I felt..." His leg kept shaking, his skin burned and felt frigid all at once. The voices came and went along with Asuka's voice. "I felt... happy."

"So did I, you idiot. So did I." She gave his scarred knuckles another squeeze. "Really happy. Anyways, that day..."

Whereas his gaze became more guarded, Asuka's eyes and body language displayed a strange relief. "Kensuke came to the house just as I managed to untie the knot. He found me in the middle of that mess and tried to talk to me. I don't even remember half of what he said because the tranquilizer was still making my head fuzzy. I know that's no excuse, but," her smile widened ever so slightly, "he was there, and he did his best to help. I couldn't… it felt wrong to let him just hug me. So I kissed him. He had done so much for me already, and he continued to help me afterwards. He knew I could never be what he wanted, or what he was looking for, and still he helped."

"He's a dick," Shinji retorted and glared at the bedroom door. "How fitting, that the only time the security clearance gets cleared out is when I'm about to die. Yeah, he's a great guy; went out of his way to go see you and all that. Great guy. Thanks for telling m-"

"He's your friend, and he misses you." Asuka placed the letter back on the table. "This letter means more to me than that stupid kiss ever would, it means more to me than any one night stand I ever had. I know hearing all of this helps, Shinji. It also helps when you tell me things like you've been doing. We're more than the monsters that made us, we're more than our past. We're more than just Eva Pilots."

"More than just Eva Pilots?" Shinji laughed mirthlessly, shaking his head in derision. "Who would be stupid enough to tell you that?"

Asuka's other hand came to rest on his fist as well. "You."

Silence descended on them, and for a few minutes they did nothing more than sit and enjoy the few moments of quiet amidst Shinji's increasing mood swings and fits of anger or discomfort. "You shouldn't take the advice of a guy that tried to kill you and did so many disgusting things to you. I'm not exactly the world's best role model."

"That's what you think, because you're an idiot. That's about the twentieth time I've called you an idiot today. Still missing it?" Asuka asked in a somewhat more jovial tone, and rose from the table. "So, that's the story of Kensuke. He's a dear friend to us both, let's leave it at that and stop souring the evening."

"He's your dear friend, that guy's nothing of mine anymore," Shinji muttered under his breath. For a second, his face morphed into a savage frown, which did not go unnoticed by his caretaker. "I'll sink his face in the next time he touches you."

Even the neighbors below Shinji's apartment sighed in relief when the screaming stopped for good that evening. The generic threat or remark pointing out how she would not let him beat up her friend, or how she did not need him to fight her battles, was strangely absent. "I suppose that's understandable. He's your friend more than he's mine, believe it or not. You should just punch him once you're all healed up and get it over with."

Beers were hoisted into the air at the neighbors' house after the laughter of both youngsters filtered through the balcony door. The daily screaming competition had ended.

"Don't tempt me," said Shinji.

They settled back onto the routine; Shinji did his best to put away the food and clean the broken glass off the floor while Asuka washed the dishes. Regardless of how ugly or unpleasant dinner had been, the negative remarks or biting comments ended the moment their bodies hit the mattress.

"You know, I wanted to ask you something," Asuka murmured well into the late hours of the night. "How is it that your damn food still tastes so good even if you're cooking while angry?"

Shinji laughed, glad to not feel the knife wounds flare or complain. "There have been plenty of times when I've been really angry, but had to cook anyway."

"Oh?" Asuka's finger brushed against her preferred scar and poked twice. "Tell me about that. I know you're not even tired right now. It'll take about an hour until the edible hits. What's the angriest you've been while cooking?"

"Well, there was this one time three years ago. I had just gotten the news about this Fabio idiot, and the restaurant was having a private event for the royal family. There was this… absolutely useless sous-chef working the garnishes. He fucked up three orders and tried to sneak raw salmon into the diner. As if that wasn't enough of a nightmare, he then threw a perfectly good steak into the trash 'cause he thought it was overcooked. And the news just kept droning on and on about this jerk…"

Lilith continued to observe from a distance, surprised Her presence had not been called upon lately. The redheaded girl was making gigantic strides in the healing of the irritating child who refused to let Her go. Being both omnipresent and tied down to a single mortal was maddeningly frustrating. From afar, she felt the wave of agony come forth and was unable to so much as warn either of them.


'Here's something to remember me by, Ikari. Have fun with my sloppy seconds.'

The following day, Shinji stared at the mass of pharmaceuticals held in his bloodied hand. Asuka had gone out to replenish the fridge and run some of her mysterious errands with the faint promise of bringing lunch when she returned. The message arrived at his phone just before noon, as he settled to read a novel the girl had gotten for him a few days before.

Whatever text there was he could blatantly ignore just as he had ignored the voices and visions for the past few days. The pictures, nevertheless, were imprinted into his brain and drove him to punch the bedroom mirror and open fresh gashes on his hand. Injured, beaten and barely recovering, he felt absolutely helpless.

Keep your word. Keep it, don't do this. Stop, please. This shit happened forever ago, and it's not important anymore. Let it go. Let it go, Shinji. Let it go.

Asuka had been all but passed out, he could tell that much in the pictures. Everything the bastard had done, he had done to a mostly unconscious woman; that fact made the disgust and rage to drown out every other sensation. The wails died down. Yui, Mari and Gendo observed with glee as he shoved the array of pills into his mouth and washed them down with half a bottle of rum. No matter how loud the brat and the shadow begged, screamed or raged at him to stop, Shinji served himself another handful and glared down at it. He had failed to keep his word, but would first die before hurting Asuka in any way. Since his body was far from being healed and an impromptu trip to Germany was out of the question, he chose to escape.

"Just you wait, you bastard…" he slurred, collapsing into the couch and drowning whatever remained in the bottle. "Give me another month, and I'll hunt you down… just a few more weeks…"

Asuka found him there, passed out on the couch, pale as a leaf and about to go into a self-induced coma. The phone lay on the floor displaying vivid pictures of her, naked and basically unconscious, right next to her ex-boyfriend.


To Be Continued…

First of all a huge compliment and thank you to MisterHalt, Su-Exodus, CaffeineJimmy , Richitzer, and Wgolyoko for helping me improve this monstrosity!

Inspirational Music: Ronnie, Creeping Death, To Live is to Die, The Four Horsemen, Through the Never – Metallica; We Made You, Stay Wide Awake, Underground, Bufallo Bill – Eminem; I Am Above, Stay With Me – In Flames; DOA, Run, Everlong – Foo Fighters; The Red and the Black, Panhandle – Iron Maiden; Moth, Human – HELLYEAH; Do What You Do, Scarlet Letters – Mudvayne; Once (album) – Nightwish.

AN: Hi! Well, I hope this didn't suck. I thank you immensely if I managed to keep your attention up until this point! Yeah, things are not going so well… as it is, the story is called Relapse, and it needed to happen at some point. Since Shinji is not yet fully off the medication in this one, the more visceral elements of withdrawal were not present, which will be more than expanded upon in the next chappies. Still got seven to go, so the next two or three will be much more… somber. This one was like a taste of what's to come so to speak.

I hope the change of pacing on the last third of the chappy wasn't too discouraging or anything. I might expand on particular events of these ten days in the next skit I put up for Relapse in case there's interest in such scenes. Anyhow, any details or things that can be improved upon I'd be glad to hear! I'm doing my best to try and be a bit more concise and not so meandering, so I tried to only point out only truly important events in this ten day lapse. Again, open for another skit (Paul skit), should one be requested. Details such as the letter and the other presents will be relevant in the following chaps, as well.

Thank you so much for reading! Please let me know what you think either in reviews or through DM! Remember to stay healthy and eat your veggies! Much love!

PEACE.