AN: Yo! Hah, so I wanted to make a little one shot, so I did it. Who knew, right? Me? A oneshot? Guess everything's possible, isn't it? This takes place after Zeruel, the 14th Angel's attack. In this story Arael sorta kinda takes his time, he's busy getting a tour of Jupiter's moons and going to Spacey's for some burgers and fries, so yeah, he'll take another month to arrive. Spacey's: It's good food, in space! Anyway, hope you enjoy!

Disclaimer: I own nothing.

Everlong

The glare of the morning sun washed over the remnants of the city; whatever buildings remained usable rose up to absorb as much solar energy as possible and cars drove by all over the broken down streets. Joggers went about their morning routines while others rushed to their workplaces and made a conscious effort to reach their jobs in time. Cicadas and birds sung and vibrated all over; the orange-golden hue of the rising sun gave the streets and buildings an almost luminescent appearance. The rays reflected against the floor, and a certain brown-haired boy realized the morning hues were very much like the tresses of a particular redhead who walked beside him on their way to school.

Her strides were confident and fast, her features displayed a somewhat relaxed expression, one which forced his cheeks to color rose. Two weeks had passed since he had been brought back from Unit 01. Two weeks in which the only person who even remotely interacted with him was her. At first, the Second Child has been nothing short of cold and aggressive, mentioning his Synch rate with a sarcastic undertone and offering nothing but biting remarks and deep, terrifying glares. I felt like she hated me, pondered the boy as he walked just a few feet from her. The dread of having the redhead despise and reject him had felt like blow to the gut. Just when they had started to somehow build a friendship he had ruined their kiss, then dismembered his friend and lastly, had been absorbed into Unit 01.

The first days following his retrieval from the core had been marked by a terrible lonesomeness. Asuka spent the first three days he returned to the house in the Hokari Household, and Misato had all but disappeared, most likely overloaded with work as per usual. Kaji had made his magical appearance by the watermelons and had seemingly poofed out of existence, which was probably part of the reason why the Second Child was in such a foul mood with such frequency.

Synch rate of 400%, he recalled with something akin to bitterness clawing at his chest. Like it means anything. I didn't… I wasn't the one who-

"Hey, Baka!" the boisterous voice broke Shinji out of his reverie; Asuka turned and smirked widely at him, which forced the blush to burn all throughout his nose and cheeks. "Race you to the gate, come on!" He barely had time to blink when the female pilot bolted straight to the school entrance, and having no other choice, he started running behind the mane of crimson dancing before him.

"Asuka, wait up! I can't run as fast as you!" he laughed, not truly realizing why the chortles escaped his throat. Something had changed drastically a week before; apparently mending a tiny bit of the rip in his and Asuka's weird camaraderie. The boy's smile widened despite his legs complaining that they were not, in fact, in great shape and that chasing after Asuka would undoublty result in cramps and pain in his slightly atrophied muscles. Despite her initial negative and stony disposition, as the days went by and they interacted with none but one another, the girl seemed to somehow relax more and more, as though she found his company not too troublesome all of the sudden.

He recalled the event a week before and paid no mind to the soreness of his legs.

He had been cutting some carrots in the kitchen, with Misato gone as per usual and Asuka laying on the floor reading a magazine and ignoring him completely. It came so suddenly, so brusquely that the knife fell off his grip in an instant. The boy felt his arm be slashed away with the ease it would have taken to cut through soft butter; he hissed quite audibly, grabbing onto his elbow with vehemence. From out of nowhere, just as phantom pain began to reside he heard it; the slow, cautious and powerful slams of Zeruel as the Angel attempted to crack Unit 01's core. He covered his ears, shook his head and forced himself to get his breathing under control. The Entry Plug had shaken with every attack, cracked and broken all around him and then, the heartbeat had come.

He lay on the ground now, hands still firmly clasped around his ears, body trembling. What… what was in there, in Unit 01? Who was in there? Why had it felt so warm at times, and so utterly cold at others? His arm flared again, much less intensely than the first time. When Shinji turned, he discovered his female roommate standing before him and observing him with a strange, intense expression. "That Angel cut off your EVA's arm, didn't it?" she stated matter-of-factly. It was the first time in a week that she was not leaking poison or rage off her every pore when speaking to him.

"Uhm…" he started, still on the ground. "Yeah."

Asuka nodded. "It cut off both of mine, and almost beheaded me. I had to face that Angel alone, and it wiped the floor with me." He noticed the way her voice was becoming more agitated. "Maybe if you hadn't ran off, then maybe…" she frowned and looked away, eyes fixed on the floor to her left. "Maybe we could've won, all of us, as a team."

Shame began to crawl in his belly, intermingled with anger when the memory of Touji returned. He had been forced to brutalize his friend, Father had used his hands to butcher a young boy he held dear. He had not only hurt the little sister, he had hurt the elder brother as well. Before Shinji could actually articulate a response, Asuka spoke.

"I spoke with Misato the other day, before Unit 01 spat you out," revealed the Second Child. "She told me you heard everything, saw everything, felt everything that happened to Touji. She also told me you came running back the moment you saw Unit 02's head crash into the shelter you were in. Is that true?"

With a sigh and a nod, Shinji tried to get back on his feet. "Yeah… I… never meant to leave you or Rei… alone… against that Angel. I just… I was so done, just so done with my father… with… with hurting the people I care about… but then I saw… I…"

He tripped, still weak from the dreadful flashback, but before he could fall face first into the ground Asuka took a firm hold of his arm and brought him to a standing position. She glared at him. "This is war, Shinji. People are bound to get hurt." She paused; he saw the redhead's strong shoulders unwind to a degree. "How's your arm?"

Taken aback by the apparent show of interest in his wellbeing, Shinji blinked and flexed his hand, wincing ever so slightly. "It's… uhh, getting better, thanks."

The redhead gave him a curt nod with a stare that could melt iron. Was she not furious with him? What was this behavior? "It'll probably hurt for another week or so," she said, turning to head for her bedroom. Shinji watched her pause by the door. "Welcome home, Baka."

The Third Child blushed, blinking heavily; it was the first time Asuka had spoken those words to him ever since emerging from the EVA. He stood by the kitchen, dumbfounded, paralyzed and feeling… extremely warm. Something was growing inside his chest, realized the blue-eyed youth, something he had never felt before. His thoughts were drifting towards the redhead more and more; after spending a month swimming in LCL, alone but not alone, he suddenly wanted to speak to her, to interact with her, even if it meant her berating him or even worse, getting hurt. He had been hurt so much in such little time, what was an additional ache?

Regardless of her angry attitude, Asuka spent almost every day in the house with him. She walked with him to and from school in sullen silence, not truly saying a word as they came to the half-empty classroom.

That night, just as sleep was about to claim him, Shinji heard his door open and felt a slim, warm body sit down next to him. He turned his head to see if his senses were playing a trick on him. "Don't look over here," came the muffled command of the Second Child, making Shinji address his gaze to the wall with blinding speed. A heavy silence followed; he could feel the faint pressure of Asuka's back against his, felt the enticing warmth of another human being. "I was really mad at you, you idiot. For a long time, I think I still am." She muttered just loud enough for him to hear. "Running away like a wimp, and then leaving me to pick up the pieces. And for what? Just so you'll come back and outclass me again and make me feel mediocre. Baka."

Not really knowing how to respond, the boy opted to simply say the truth. "That wasn't me who beat and… ugh… ate that Angel, Asuka. It wasn't. It was… Unit 01." He licked his lips, uncertain. "It wasn't me at all, I'm not even half the pilot that you are. I've never been, nor will I ever be."

He could almost feel the anger flow out of her in waves. "Yeah, and the Invincible Shinji has the most kills. You come and save the day like some stupid superhero. Every. Time. I hate it. I'm the one who's supposed to be the best."

'But you are the best,' Shinji pondered with a sigh, Asuka's back was pressed against his, she was sitting with her knees up to her chest, as far as he could see, and every now and then stole furtive glances at him. "I… I'm sorry." He replied in automatic, wincing when he heard the girl take a heavy intake of breath. "I'm sorry for… leaving. You're right, we could've beaten that stupid Angel as a team, but I… I was just a wimp… and I ran away."

"Yeah," agreed the redhead. "But then you came back, and you fought. And you won." He felt her turn to her side and observe him from her seated position. "You should really stop selling yourself short like that. I hate that more than I hate you beating my scores, or my performance. If you won, however it is that you won, own up to it. Show some pride."

Shinji shifted onto his back and propped himself up with both forearms, now terribly aware of just how close they were. Hesitant cobalt clashed against determined cerulean. "I don't think I have any…" he responded with a defeated tone. "Not like you, I don't… I don't have that strength."

"Pride is not strength, Shinji." Elucidated the Second Child. Her eyes grew distant and sour recalling Kaji's absence and Misato's words. The gaping hollowness in her chest increased ever so slightly. "I think… I understood something in the days that… that you weren't here." He felt her readjust her weight against him.

"We're… alone… in this battle." She paused, taking a deep breath. "Misato can't be bothered with us, your father only wants to use us like weapons." From the corner of his eye, he noticed the girl's hands curl into fists. "Kaji is… always trying to be away. Ritsuko sees us like some guinea pigs." Asuka's eyes narrowed. A heavy silence followed, one Shinji did not dare interrupt. This was positively the first time she was telling him, actually telling him how she felt and what she thought.

"I've been… alone… my entire life." The young woman carried on after the silence had become almost stifling. "I'm used to it, I thought it wouldn't ever bother me." She shited her gaze to the ground, and another sudden silence descended in the small room. After what felt like a small eternity, she cleared her throat and continued.

"One could even say I grew to like it, but…" Shinji watched, enthralled and terrified, as Asuka tried her hardest to open up, if only a tiny bit. "I don't think I like it, anymore." The mane of red tresses danced when Asuka shook her head and produced a humorless chuckle. "My pride as a pilot… heh… I feel like it's crumbling down sometimes. Sometimes it's hard to breathe." The girl's eyes drifted towards his cello case. "Sometimes it's hard to keep all this anger in. If I don't… if I'm not a pilot, the very best, then what the hell am I?"

Once more, their gazes locked. Shinji felt the terror dissipate and realized this was indeed yet another crossroad, another Wall of Jericho, another chance. All he had to do was not mess it up. "You're… uhm… you're Asuka." He offered lamely with a hesitant half-smile. "You're smart, and strong, and fearless. You're b-" he cut himself off before admitting something he was not yet ready to reveal. "You're really brave, and… why can't that be enough? Why can't Asuka be enough?"

A curtain of crimson-golden locks obscured the girl's face as she reared back and returned to her original sitting position, with her back actually pressing against Shinji's hip. "What are you, stupid?" she uttered, and for a second Shinji heard her voice break at the end. Asuka took a few deep breaths and rose. "I'm going to bed. Try to have something besides rice and fish tomorrow morning, Baka."

Shinji's voice halted her in her steps just as she was about to close the door. "A-Asuka!" he stated, and found himself once again paralyzed as her eyes drew to his. "I… I really wanted to thank you… for… uhm… for being here these past few days. I… felt really alone, in there… in Unit 01. And… After I came back, the first few days were… really difficult. A-And you've been the only one to… uhm… (sigh)… Thank you. Really."

The girl shifted her weight from one leg to the other. "All I've been doing is be mean to you. But… I'll… uhh… whatever. You're welcome."

He managed to reach the gate just in time; they had left the house a bit late so Asuka's idea to run and hurry had been perfect, since by the time he arrived the security guard was about to close said gate. The redhead stood there, hands on her hips, smirking at him while her foot tapped the ground. He felt himself blush again; she did not use to smile at him like that before. What had changed? It almost felt as though she wished to cheer him up, knowing how painful it had become for Shinji to go to school and not see Touji anywhere.

"Slowpoke," she mentioned, signaling to the clock hanging by the wall as they walked into the building. "We barely made it this time. You really have to learn how to set up your alarm clock, I can't be waking you up every day!"

The boy in question chuckled, scratching the back of his head as he panted and wiped perspiration from his brown hair. "Yeah, sorry. I think… I think my body's still not at 100%" He snickered, feeling strangely at peace with himself for the moment. She was… teasing him, joking with him. It was so refreshing.

"What the hell does that have to do with you setting up your alarm clock? Come on, Baka, it's not like it's rocket science. Let's go! Or we'll be late for class." The girl's steps became quicker; she grabbed onto his forearm, eliciting a gasp from Shinji, and began to drag him through the hallway. Ever since that night a few days before, Asuka's attitude had changed into something he recognized from their first days living together. The sense of confidence and pride was there, to be sure, but there was something else… something he could not yet quite put his finger on.

She appeared almost excited to speak to him at times; during the slow, Synch-test free afternoons without Misato at home they sat there, not really saying much, simply reading or watching a show, or lately, playing video games together. He especially enjoyed those evenings, for even when she teased and gloated he got to see a more relaxed, free and honest side of her. Shinji would try to ask her silly, shallow questions, and she'd answer with her typical sarcasm and bite, albeit muffled in some sense.

The young man was unaware that with a few words spoken with sincerity, he had validated the young girl's existence outside of Eva without even meaning to. His quiet mumbling had made the Second Child consider a reality after her piloting days were over, for once in her life. He had told her Asuka was incredible all on her own, Evangelion or not. Moreover, he had told her she was, indeed, the best, and meant every word of it. Of course neither of them knew exactly what had transpired between them, or why after arguing and fighting for well over a week, they were now actively enjoying each other's company.

"H-Hey, come on, slow down, Asuka! We're gonna trip or something!" He complained, forced to run again. He was about to complain a bit louder and hopefully halt the girl's long strides somehow. They came to a full stop all of the sudden, with the redhead freezing in place. "S-Sheesh…" panted the brown-haired boy. "(Pant)… I thought we were late for class?"

He noticed how Asuka's hand was still holding to his forearm; sadly, when she realized how strongly her fingers were gripping him, she released the limb as though it had burned her. "Never mind that, idiot." She pointed towards the pamphlet stuck on the wall. "Look at that!"

OPEN JUDO TOURNAMENT

In hopes of bringing some joy to our city, we celebrate this year's Judo Tournament!

AMATEUR

INTERMEDIATE

ADVANCED

NOVICES INVITED

Shinji's eyes shifted from the pamphlet to Asuka's face, which seemed to have gained a new fiery level to it. Her eyes were wide with interest, and the confident smirk that had started making his knees weak in the past few days was at full display. "Uhh… Judo?"

"Look at this, Baka-Shinji," her forefinger traced the letters printed on the paper, grin widening. "All are invited, from novices to practitioners, in the school's yearly Judo Tournament. Hah! They're even bringing people from other schools. That's pretty cool."

"Oh," somehow, the last statement reminded Shinji of just how empty his school had become. The pang of regret, shame, helplessness and rage ignited in his gut. "I guess… we kinda need more people for a tournament that what the school has, huh?"

The girl's hand rose up and smacked him on the back of the head with much less strength than what he was accustomed to. "Stop it, stop thinking all that crap. Touji's fine, SHinji. He's alive, his sister is healthy. Kensuke is safe, so is Hikari. Even Wondergirl is around. I told you, we're at war. People get hurt, bad things happen."

Yeah, but when the bad things happen because of you, then… then what do I even d- His train of thought was derailed as Asuka poked at his shoulder and redirected his gaze to the paper with a knowing smirk. "Uhm… yeah. The Judo tournament." He felt curious all of the sudden; there was so little he knew about Asuka, even after living with her for so long, so ignoring his more basic instincts, Shinji dove into the void. "Do you… I mean… do you like Judo, Asuka?"

He saw the fire in her eyes come alive, and felt his legs grow wobbly. What was wrong with him? What had changed in the past week? "Hmm…" the girl answered, placing her hand on her chin with a pensive expression. "It's a very good base to have in martial arts. Everyone should know how to perform a Daki Age, a Kuchiki taoshi or a Seoi nage, let alone a chokehold, an arm lock or your basic Seio otoshi."

Shinji's brain cells made their absolute best efforts to keep up and rummaged through his memory with desperation to remember what those words meant, however, all he was able to produce as a response was a bewildered "Huh?"

Asuka rolled her eyes at him and pushed an accusatory forefinger in his direction. "You're telling me we fight with giant monsters, pilot gigantic robots and you don't even know how to do a single leg drop?"

With an uncertain gulp, Shinji's eyes drifted anywhere and everywhere that was not the female pilot's stern gaze. "Uhh, I mean… I did do some… Judo… when I was in school, but I never really got the hang of it at all…"

Huffing in exasperation and with the shadow of anger he was familiar with, the redhead pointed at the piece of paper once more. "Hey, why don't you just join in and participate?" Her eyes narrowed in his direction, forcing Shinji's shoulder's to stiffen. "You say your muscles are sore, well, get to training, then! Join in this tournament, Baka. It says here even novices with close to no practice are welcome."

Brusquely aware that they were already late for class, and that they'd come in side by side, which was most likely to arise comments and whispers from the very few students that remained, the boy grumbled low in his throat. He fidgeted under her stoic cerulean eyes; the very thought of being ridiculed in front of the school and Asuka was everything but a pleasant thought. "I… I'll just get thrown around like a sack of potatoes, Asuka…" he muttered in a defeated tone, shoulders slacking while his eyes drifted to the ground. "I'm no good at Judo, and… this tournament is in one month, what could I possibly d-"

The boy's jaw hinged closed upon recognized the heated glare the redhead was throwing his way. Her eyes were frighteningly intense but to Shinji's shock, they lacked any discernible hatred whatsoever. "What did I say that night, huh? What did I say, Shinji?"

He scratched his arm next, hand clenching and unclenching as he felt more and more boxed in. "Uhm… you said that you were pretty mad at me for… uhm… running away and ever-"

"I'm not talking about that, you idiot!" Asuka interrupted with a roar that had their classmates tilt their heads in the hallway's direction. "I told you not to sell yourself short! Ugh! It's infuriating! Now write your damn name in this paper already!"

There was a big part of him that wanted to deny, complain and another, larger one which desired nothing more than to run away at once. He would be demolished in the tournament, completely demolished in front of… of the girl he was starting to grow quite fond of, as in more than just a copilot or a friend. "Uh… I don't know…" Stranger than the feeling of trepidation, nonetheless, was the sudden desire to perhaps demonstrate to Asuka, who had been about the only person to keep him company for the last month, that he could be more that what he was. "I… I'd need to get a trainer or something, get some classes… uhm… you never told me if… if you liked Judo, you know."

A minuscule part of the girl's anger dissipated at his last words; her frown smoothed to an extent. "Well, yeah, I enjoy Judo. I practiced a lot of it in training back in Germany."

Something transcendent had just happened and it took the male pilot more than a few seconds to understand exactly what felt so extremely important about her statement. Asuka had just shared a small, seemingly innocuous detail of her past with him. "O-Oh!" He exclaimed, excitement suddenly dancing on his chest. "I… I bet you're amazing at it, right?"

Imaginably it was his mind playing tricks on a considerably tired phsyce, but for a second Shinji thought he saw her cheeks color ever so slightly. "What? W-Well, yeah, I mean…" the strong persona he was so familiar with slipped for a second when Asuka scratched her cheek. The moment was too brief, sadly enough, for a heartbeat later the Asuka he was more familiar with resurfaced. "Then again, what can you expect from the Great Sohryu Asuka Langley?" With a tug of her hair, she took a pen out of her bag and proceeded to write his name down on the novice line.

"H-hey!" protested the boy weakly as fear began to cloud over his mind. He did in fact fight giant monsters on a weekly basis, destroyed cities and squashed housed, and yet the thought of participating in any public competition whatsoever forced a shiver down his spine. "I never said I'd do it!"

"Well, now you will, Ba-ka." Asuka tapped his name with the pen twice and offered a somewhat playful frown. "So you better get your skinny little butt in gear and get some training! Now let's get to class!"

Without giving him much of a choice to even consider the implications of what the Second Child had just done, she picked his forearm again, shocking him still, and began to drag him in the classroom's direction. The fact that she was touching him now, taking his wrist in her hand and pushing him in whichever direction she chose to thread on was making Shinji feel very… strange. Indeed, something had majorly shifted in the past few weeks of them spending time with nobody but each other, and despite the dread such a change awoke in him, Shinji felt compelled, for once, to not run away. In the midst of despair, agony and misery that was his current life, being tugged around by the boisterous female pilot was quite pleasant.

After they reached the class and the muffled 'ooohs' and 'aaaahs' and hushed remarks from the very few students remaining died down due to the girl's deadly glare, Shinji went over to Rei, greeted her and went to his seat. He was glad to at least see one familiar face in the half-empty room; even when the blue-haired girl barely acknowledged either of them. The heated glare Asuka addressed in the First Child's direction did not go unnoticed by him, either. It seemed that as the days passed and he and Asuka became… closer in a sense, so grew the redhead's animosity towards Rei.

Class droned on as their old teacher repeated for the umpteenth time how life was great before Second Impact, and how this and that happened which resulted in the whole conundrum which resulted in the Angels coming down on them and destroying the monotone, tasteless existence he called a life. His thoughts drifted back to Touji and the empty seat, stole a glance at Hikari and felt his heart constrict upon noticing dark lines under her eyes.

His gaze drifted over to the remnants of the city; the last Angel had caused so much damage, such a brutal extent than most families had already sought a safer location. There were about ten students attending class; he noticed Asuka's eyes turn to her friend and knew she was thinking of exactly how long it would take for Hikari to move away as well. It was only a matter of time, with every attack the damage to the city's infrastructure worsened considerably; even the mighty Geo-Front had been pierced and nearly destroyed. The male pilot recalled Asuka's words some days before; the way she had so coldly stated how if they had worked together, perhaps the destruction could have been minimized.

Something made the hairs on the back of Shinji's neck rise up; he turned, eyes widening when he caught the Second Child staring straight at him. Both spun their heads at the same time as fast as possible, heated blushes coloring their cheeks. Even through the confusion, pain and heartache of the past few months, something quite warm was gingerly working its way to his chest; the aching lessened somewhat, replaced by a sudden giddiness. There was fear as well, terror at the idea of change, but said change had been happening so slowly during the past few weeks that he truly had no clue when his emotions had shifted to such an extent. Or maybe… maybe those feelings had been there for some time, but his absolute lack of understanding of the Second Child had forced him to neglect them.

Rei, for her part, watched with faint interest the way both her co-pilots stole furtive glances at one another every few minutes as class went on and the day progressed. She wondered if Sohryu now felt a similar warmth in her chest, akin to the one she felt whenever Ikari-kun was near, or whenever he invited her over for lunch with them. It was evident even to her that something had been altered drastically in their interactions; they seemed to be more comfortable around each other. Should I inform the Commander of this strange behavior? She pondered, and once again the eyes of the Second and Third Child met, with both reacting the same way they had been all morning. No, there is insufficient data to make an accurate report. Further observation is necessary.

It was not as though their general behavior had transformed in the slightest, Rei pondered. The Second Child continued to be brash and biting towards anyone and everyone, Ikari-kun included. It was only in the past two weeks that her aggression had descended somewhat, yet only in the case of the male pilot. She continued to glare at everyone else, but in the case of Shinji she acted almost uncertain, as though the girl was attempting to find the proper way to address him. Their interactions were now very much alike the first few weeks they had spent together only… only there was something new there, a newfound sense of companionship, a growing closeness which made Rei feel curious. What had been the trigger for this change of pace? Would it affect their piloting positively, or negatively? Then again, if the latest Synch Test of the Second Child left anything clear was that whatever had happened, it had vastly improved her ability to open her soul to EVA.

And so Ayanami decided to observe a bit more and ignore the strange hollowness which sprung to her chest whenever Ikari-kun blushed due to Sohryu stealing glimpses at him. Some analyzing of said hollowness was also in order, so Rei focused her attention back the window and the ruined visage of the city.

The lesson dragged on, making Asuka feel as though time was going slower than it should.

Her heart was drumming heavily against her ribcage; twice already had she been caught staring at the Third Child, twice already had she realized he had been doing the exact same thing. In all honestly, she felt uncomfortable. The newfound tranquility between them after they had spoken in the middle of the night had translated into her playing video games with him, teasing him, laughing with and not at him, and it terrified her. She had no clue of what was going on, or how to proceed, so in a dashing move to rid herself of the maelstrom of confusing emotions, she had deviated Shinji's attention to the Judo Tournament in hopes of actually having some time to clear and better understand her thoughts, something she had never bothered to do before.

"Why can't Asuka be enough?"

She had been showered with empty praise ever since being accepted into the piloting program; they nodded and smirked falsely at her, always expecting more, expecting her to improve, to be better. Kaji had been about the only person who had given her an honest compliment, well, Kaji and… and the idiot, lately. He had called her smart, strong, brave and fearless, for once not hiding his eyes from hers and with sincerity flowing through both his gaze and voice. She had understood then that Shinji cared not one bit for the mighty Second Child, had no interest in her accolades as a pilot whatsoever; he… apparently enjoyed Asuka's company. Asuka, not the Second Child. The anger clouding over her senses ever since the devastating defeat at the hands of the 14th Angel was slowly dying out. Shinji had been smiling more in the past two weeks than she had ever seen him in the many months they had been living together. Strangely enough, she had felt herself smiling more often as well, for no particular reason at all.

The bell rang, derailing the redhead's train of thought completely. She had little time to collect her ideas; Shinji gingerly placed the Bento on her desk with a nervous half-smile. "Uhm… here. Do you… I mean… I guess you want to go eat with Hokari-san, right? So… I tried to…" she stared at him in wonder, realizing he was speaking more now, not only more often, but also articulating more words in a sentence than what she was used to. "I… tried some new things. I hope you like it."

Asuka blinked, suddenly realizing her friend desperately needed some company, as well. "Uhh, yeah. I'll go eat with Hikari-chan today. You can go ogle all over Wondergirl."

Shinji flustered even worse than during class; she recognized the slight shadow of indignation shine in his eyes just as she noticed embarrassment color his face crimson. "I… I mean, s-she's not… it's not nice to say those things… and I wasn't… ahh…"

"Pff," Asuka chortled, motioning Hikari to follow her and taking her Bento in hand. "I was kidding, you idiot. We'll be having dinner at the house anyways. Start thinking about who you'll be training with for this tournament. Who knows, maybe Wondergirl can help!"

She left in a flash of crimson locks, with a very saddened Hikari in tow; regardless of how elated he had been feeling lately, the sad nod the Class Rep sent his way felt like a blow to the guts. Memories of Touji, Kensuke and himself speaking at lunch invaded his mind momentarily, yet the redhead's words returned to him; he shook his head and readdressed his gaze to the First Child, walking over to where she sat.

"Hi, Ayanami," he stated amiably, and produced a third Bento box. "Are you hungry? I made some Yuba noodles with Sesame seeds and kale. Uhmm… do you mind if we… uhm…"

Blinking at the small box gently placed before her, Rei nodded. "I believe it would be… acceptable. Thank you, Ikari-kun. Should we find another location to eat?"

Shinji looked over his shoulder and noticed the empty classroom; he shrugged, taking a seat beside her. "Uhm… I don't think it's necessary. I-I mean unless you want to…"

The young hybrid had already chosen to pay no mind to his stammering and was already taking her chopsticks and mixing the noodles with an air of inquisitiveness. She took a demure bite, eyes widening. "Delicious." Came the sudden whisper; Shinji felt his face heat up for what it felt like the tenth time that morning alone.

"O-Oh! I'm glad you like it." He replied with a tad of excitement while he opened his own Bento and began eating. The food tasted well enough for him. I just hope Asuka likes it… it wasn't as easy to make as I thought it would be. Who would've thought this 'currywurst' stuff would have taken so much time? As was to be expected, his take on the recipe had been a bit different, he had opted to use some milder flavors and had been careful not to make the dish too spicy, in fear that Asuka burned her tongue and subsequently scorched a fresh mental wound on him.

"It appears your interactions with Sohryu have changed to a degree," Rei offered between bites. Shinji's shoulders stiffened, hand freezing with a piece of curated sausage in between his chopsticks. "She does not belittle you as much as she used to."

"Uhmm… ahh… do you think so?" Shinji stammered and quickly devoured the small portion. He still felt quite uneasy around those crimson eyes, even as the envy he had first felt towards her had all but disappeared. "I mean… I guess she's not being so mean, anymore?"

With a slight nod, the First Child occupied herself with emptying what was probably one of the finest meals she had ever tasted. "Indeed, her…attempts at being unpleasant have certainly decreased to a degree. Has anything changed between you and Pilot Sohryu, Ikari-kun?"

Shinji's hand stilled and placed the chopsticks back on the Bento. Had anything changed? Well, it feels different that before, that's for sure, he thought, mulling over his words. "I… I think so. Ayanami, do you know… uhm… do you know what happened between Asuka and Misato-san before I came back?"

Rei paused in between bites; she picked a sizeable amount of noodles and began to stir them around in the Bento. "I was informed there was an altercation between the Second Child and Mayor Katsuragi before the Major was escorted for debriefing. I believe she is still in the Geo-Front working through the reconstruction of the Command Center's defenses."

"Oh," It was the first time anyone told him exactly why Misato had not yet returned home; the Angel's onslaught had been such that even after more than a month there was too much work for his guardian to do. He blinked when the girl's first statement sunk in. "Wait, what? An altercation? I mean… ah… I thought they talked and stuff but I didn't know…"

"It is to my understanding that Pilot Sohryu became quite aggressive and raised her voice enough to be heard through an entire pantheon of the lower sections. I have no means to confirm such a statement, but the general consensus seems to be that it was a… rather heated discussion."

A heated… discussion? But Asuka said… I mean she barely even mentioned it, she just said they spoke. What did they… what in the world happened between them? He questioned whether said altercation had somehow influenced the way the redhead had behaved lately, but if such was the case, how come she had been so curt and biting to him during his first week back? "Uhm… wow. I didn't… I hadn't realized it was a discussion."

"Quite the loud one due to Pilot Sohryu's anger, if what I heard was correct," not looking at him and engrossed in emptying the tasty noodles before her, Rei replied more in automatic than anything else. This food… had Sohryu been having access to this food for these many months?

Shinji picked another piece of sausage and stared at the door, where Asuka had disappeared along with Hikari. "What were they even fighting about?" He asked aloud, and felt compelled to slap a hand into his mouth; it was not his place to pry on something Asuka did not yet feel comfortable speaking of.

A small silence followed, in which the only discernible noises were the voices of the other students outside the classroom, and Rei's meticulous devouring of her Bento. "I do not believe to have clearance to disclose that information, Ikari-kun. Perhaps the better path would be to address these inquiries towards Pilot Sohryu."

The Third Child looked down at his own Bento as embarrassment flushed the skin around his nose. "Ah… R-Right. I guess I'll… uhmm… give it a try."

"Well," Sad, how her very tasty noodles were all gone now. How should one go about asking for such a culinary delight at the very least once more? "That is good for you."


"Ugh, of all the things the idiot could've picked to make, he makes freaking Currywurst. Gosh, it doesn't get any more generic than this, I swear." Despite her words of displeasure, Asuka took no more than half a second to pick the fork Shinji had left for her and stabbed one of the finely cut pieces of sausage. The scent was quite pleasant, at least, and vastly different from the gruel they served on the streets of Germany. "Hmm," she mused, chewed and swallowed the first bite. "Not bad, though."

"How do you mean generic, Asuka?" asked the Class Rep with a somewhat tired tone. They sat atop the roof at the moment, each going through their own meals. There was a comfortable aura around them; Hikari noticed instantly how in the last few days Asuka had been more relaxed than usual.

The redhead shrugged and even when she had first complained of the choice in recipe, to Hikari it looked as though it was quite enjoyable due to the hunger and voracity the Second Child was displaying. "It's street food in Germany," she elucidated after another mouthful. How come Shinji was remembering to bring her a fork nowadays? "They don't make it like this in Germany, though. They normally use the cheapest sausages they can find. This is…" The brown-haired girl blinked when she saw Asuka smell and poke at the protein with a raised eyebrow. "Knackwurst. Huh. How the hell did that idiot get his hands on something like this? And he chooses to do Currywurst with it? Jeez…"

A muffled snicker escaped the Class Rep after seeing Asuka not only devour the treat but also lick her finger and hum in a strange sense of approval. "Does that mean it tastes bad? Sure doesn't look like it does." She commented, bemused.

"I didn't say it tasted bad," rebuked the young German whilst picking some of the fries Shinji had included in the Bento. "It's just not Currywurst, not at all. Here, have a fry." Asuka offered one of her treats dipped in the curry sauce to her friend with a half-smile. "Idiot's so Japanese he probably used the absolute minimum amount of oil to cook these."

Hikari took the offering, eyes widening when the flavor registered. Woah. "This curry… is really good, wouldn't you say, Asuka?" it was impossible not to cease the opportunity to prod a little in the girl's recently less aggressive demeanor. It almost felt like… before Touji… She shook her head lightly and tried to focus on the taste of Shinji's cooking and not on the memory of the boy still lying in a hospital bed. "At least it tastes great to me."

"Yeah, it's good." The redhead nodded the sudden darkening of Hikari's mood, and opted not to ask about the jock's situation that day. She asked every day more for the freckled girl and Shinji's sake than anything else, but doubted anything had really changed between the past day and the current. Touji was most likely still in that bed, still trying to get the message to Shinji that he did not blame him in the least. She stared down at the Bento; the curry was way more than just good. "The Baka spent the better part of last night cooking, even after I went to bed he was cutting and dicing stuff, pff," her voice turned bitter all of the sudden. "He even made a Bento for Wondergirl."

The way Asuka basically hissed the name made the Class Rep's eyebrows raise in shock and wonder. This was dangerous territory; threading carefully was the only way of retrieving valid information. "Oh, he did?" came the curious inquiry; she was careful to control the tone of her voice. "That's really nice of him. I don't think anyone's ever brought Anayami-san a Bento before."

"Yeah, real nice," snapped the Second Child, choosing to stab the next piece of sausage. "So nice to see him talk to Wondergirl like that, so nice to see he can smile at her like that." The girl's expression turned into a heated glare when the memory of the train station washed by. Kaji was yet to answer any of her calls, and now Shinji was eating lunch with Rei, a lunch he had prepared for her. The anger which had been blessedly absent for the past few days crashed back in a violent wave. "Really nice. He spends a month dissolved in LCL and the first thing he does is go back to hanging around Wondergirl. Typical of that Baka, acts like nothing even happened and runs back to her. Hmpf."

After taking another bite of her meal, the only girl Asuka acknowledged as a friend recognized not only bitter resentment and jealousy, but also a strange sense of defeat. It did not sit well with her at all to see that strange frown and sense of despondence. Added to the dread of the latest battles, the horrible event which had driven Touji to the hospital and the uncertainty of perhaps never seeing Shinji again, Hikari felt irked and annoyed. "Asuka, did something happen that made you upset with Ayanami-san in the last few days?"

The frown deepened even more. "Nobody likes losing," she mumbled in between bites; her shoulders grew stiff and had she been holding chopsticks instead of a fork, they would have most likely broken in between her fingers. "Especially not to a damn doll who can't even show emotion."

The annoyance grew inside the Class Rep's chest, forcing her to make a conscious effort to let it leak into her voice. It was all starting to make sense in her head; the way Asuka had behaved the first few days Shinji had returned, her increasing animosity towards Rei, her desire to spend the first days of Shinji's return in her house. "Losing?" she inquired quietly. "What did you lose, Asuka?"

Another slice of protein was speared through, only this time she did not raise it to her mouth. The glare became more intense. "Nothing." She growled back with coldness. "Nothing important."

"Nothing, huh." Hikari huffed and tried to make it sound like a regular sigh; she was growing more than just a bit annoyed. "Let me ask you something. How often does Ikari-kun prepare your lunch?" It was satisfying to watch the strong female pilot caught off guard for a second as she blinked at her question and shifted her gaze from the Bento to her. "Who does Shinji cook for every day? As far as I've seen, this is about the first Bento he's ever brought to Ayanami-san."

"What?" Asuka snapped angrily. "What does that even matt-"

"Who does Ikari-kun walk to and from school with every day?" she interrupted before Asuka could go on a tirade of denial. Enough. It was enough; so much had happened, so much hardship, so many horrible things now weighed down on her young soul. She had had just about enough of Asuka's blindness. "You told me the other day; he went out and got a video game console and games, didn't he? Does he play video games with Ayanami-san? Does he steal glances at Ayanami-san every two minutes in class?"

The anger gradually melted off the Second Child's face with every penetrating question thrown her way, with the last one actually managing to widen her eyes in shock and bring some color to her cheeks. "He… he does what, now?"

With a roll of her eyes, Hikari put the lid back on her Bento and offered her friend a deadpan look. "Listen, Asuka, I don't mean to be rude right now, but are you stupid or something?" She suppressed a giggle at the way indignation quickly overcame the shock; Asuka really was expressive when she was trying not to be the persona she had created.

"I know you're not stupid, nor are you dense. Ikari-kun always makes food for you, he even goes out of his way to find exotic ingredients and surprise you with meals from your homeland. All he did today was give Rei a tiny fraction of the attention he constantly reserves for you." The hand holding her chopsticks pointed at the red bento on the redhead's lap. "He got that Bento Box for you, didn't he? And I bet you haven't even asked him what happened during that month when he was trapped in the EVA. So tell me, please explain to me; what did you lose?"

Cerulean eyes that were usually brimming with self-confidence became unsteady; Asuka shifted her gaze between the roof's surface, the sky and the small box resting on her legs. This time around, Hikari did smirk. Victory, at last; she had managed to make the stubborn pilot realize just how irrational she was being. In a world filled with gloom and the threat of an impending Apocalypse, perhaps those two who stopped the end of the world time and time again could enjoy just a tiny bit of solace and understanding.

The silence stretched between them, making Hikari's grin widen. "So," she said after a few minutes, noticing how Asuka's head had lowered somewhat and her eyes where almost hidden under the crimson tresses. "What did you lose?"

"You can't possibly be this blind, right? He was out, he was gone, he never had any obligation to fight whatsoever and yet he did. You keep saying all these awful, absurd things, like you're just trying to justify your own senseless thoughts. Shinji came back, and he fought, he fought to the end after we forced him to tear Touji apart limb from limb. Did you know he felt all of it? That he begged and fought and cried to try to stop it? Have you even bothered to watch the tapes, or hear the audio? Of course you haven't, just like you haven't bothered to understand it was watching your EVA's head fall on the shelter he was in what first made him reconsider coming back. He thought you were hurt. God, Asuka, wake the hell up, already, will you?"

She stared at the remnants of her lunch and felt the words of both her friend and guardian sink in; it was infuriating to admit defeat even in the tiniest argument or situation, but unlike that day at the train station, this particular declaration carried no bitterness. On the contrary, it felt like a breath of fresh air. "Uhh… nothing," responded Asuka at last. "I guess I haven't lost anything yet, have I?"

I bet Touji-kun's gonna fall off his bed when I tell him about this, considered the freckled girl with a feeling of accomplishment. "No, you haven't. Now, are you finishing that? It's really tasty."

A hand suddenly went up and protectively covered the meal while the one holding the fork rose; Asuka devoured a large serving of her treat and looked away. She continued to eat, gaining speed with every bite until the box was emptied. Hikari could not help but giggle. "I guess that's a yes."

"Whatever," the Second Child's eyes drifted to the now empty box. Shinji had indeed picked and bought the Bento for her, he washed and rinsed it every day, filled it with food he prepared and gave it to her with a hesitant smile. He truly had been smiling more often, ever since the day she had helped him up and welcomed him back. He had gotten the console a day after their brief conversation, and now the idiot had gone through the trouble of making his own version of one of her country's dishes. "It… (sigh)… it was tasty. Really tasty."

"Now, care to tell me about this whole Judo Tournament thing? I saw Ikari-kun's name written on the novice line, and I'm pretty sure that wasn't his handwriting."

Asuka smirked, to Hikari's delight. The coming month was bound to be interesting, indeed.


Observing him from the corner of her eye was slowly becoming a habit, to her annoyance. Even then, sitting on the table and pretending to read a magazine, her eyes continued their measured observations of his movements and expressions. He looked quite at ease when cooking, not necessarily confident or determined, simply comfortable and… content, to a degree. He had been wearing that same little smile before, whilst cooking their lunch. Probably because he was cooking for Wondergi-

"Who does Shinji cook for every day?"

The Second Child's descent into anger was halted by the recollection of Hikari's words. She took yet another look, a longer one, and recalled Misato was not coming that night either. She had been all but absent ever since Shinji had been retrieved from Unit 01, appearing once a week at the most and leaving with an air of pure exhaustion and gloom. The fridge's reserve of beer was running dangerously low, even when the Baka tried his best to keep their food reserves plentiful with the money their guardian left behind whenever she appeared.

The buds of his music player were securely locked in his ears; even after being through so much, suffering the horrible reality of Touji's injuries and the city's destruction, when he cooked it looked to Asuka that such thoughts went away from his mind. Good riddance, she pondered. It's boring to just see him sad and depressed all the time. Not that I… care if he's sad or anything…

"Here," the sound of a bowl being delicately placed before her brought the blue-eyed girl back to reality. "I, uhm… made some chicken stew since, you know… we had meat for lunch, so…"

Asuka placed the magazine at the far side of table and raised an amused eyebrow at the concoction sitting before her. "Hmm, you've definitely been experimenting in the kitchen lately, huh?"

"I guess," Shinji offered as he sat opposite to her. He looked away, suddenly unsure. "Does it… taste bad?"

"If it did you would've heard of it, already," answered the redhead and took her spoon; lunch had been filling, indeed, but who was stupid enough to say no to such a sweet-smelling chicken stew? "Trust me. Ah, right, thanks for the food!"

Shinji smiled slightly and began to eat his own serving; Asuka saying the food wasn't bad was probably the closest he'd ever get to her complimenting the dishes. I guess it's enough, since this is Asuka, after all. "Oh, right. Uhm, thanks for the food." The small instances in which their eyes had had met that day at school returned to his memory as he watched the girl wolf down her stew. He wondered if she would be up for a few rounds in the fighting game he had gotten some weeks before; the Second Child was always either focused like when she piloted, or grinning wildly as she moped the floor with his character.

The question was on the tip of his tongue when the young woman's voice cut through his thoughts and froze his jaw in place. "So, Baka," propping her chin on one hand, she stared him down with a smug expression. "Did you find a proper practice partner for the tournament? I bet Wondergirl would love to teach you a thing or two."

Nearly choking on his stew, Shinji coughed, slamming his chest, and drank half a glass of water, eyes wide. The Tournament had completely escaped his mind after lunch; not even walking next to the damn pamphlet on his way back home had rang a single bell in his head. Well, I guess that's why she calls me an idiot all the time. "I…" he started, scratching his cheek and failing completely in his attempt to feign nonchalance. "Well…. Now that you mention it, heh… you know…" he chuckled nervously and fearfully watched as the familiar cloud of annoyance descend on the girl's features. "I… not… really…?"

Asuka put down her spoon and took a deep breath, much to Shinji's dismay. Oh, yeah, here it comes, he recognized. Three, two, on-

"What are you, stupid or something?!" roared the female pilot and rose from her seat in a flash. Shinji tried to not flinch, and relinquished himself to the coming storm. There was something he had been meaning to ask from the moment Asuka had written down his name but not her own. The girl in question reduced the distance between them in two shorts strides so as to properly glare down at him. "The tournament's in a month! What the hell are you doing lazing about, Baka? Why didn't you ask Wondergirl or look for an academy or a gym or something?!"

"W-Well it wasn't even my idea!" he retorted half-heartedly, feeling chastised. "I mean I don't know anything about Judo, and suddenly I'm this damn tournament… I… I didn't even wan-"

"You said your muscles were still sore, didn't you?!" she accused next, hands on her hips. Was it strange that he found her to be pretty when she was mad? "You told me so, you've been complaining about it for weeks! And I'm not going to repeat myself again, you know what I said to you."

Shinji sulked, yet did his best to not break eye contact. "Stop selling yourself short." The words resonated back in his mind. "I know… I guess it kinda… slipped my mind. And I don't…" The notion of asking Rei to train him in Judo felt strange; it did not sit too well with him. He cared deeply for Rei, but knew she was rarely in her apartment and was almost constantly doing this or that in NERV. "I don't think Ayanami would have the time to… uhm… it'd be weird."

The young female pilot was taken aback by the statement and forced to reconsider her next words. Weird? Weird how? You look comfortable enough talking nonsense with her all the time! "Okay, whatever, Wondergirl's out. Did you even try to ask any of the PE coaches, or looked for some information anywhere? Jeez, Shinji, I told you to get going with this!"

With a slight shake of his head, the Third Child readdressed his gaze to the table; perhaps this was the proper moment to give this a try. Touji had told him to man up, to take up responsibility and take a damn step forward from time to time, so Shinji took a deep breath. "Ah… but… I guess you're great at this Judo thing…" Still scowling down at his seated form, the boy noticed the way Asuka had crossed her arms; hesitation and uncertainty starting forcing his heartbeat to double. "Do you… do you think that maybe… like, if there are no Synch tests and stuff… that…uhm…"

Asuka's very limited patience ran out. "God damn it, Baka!" she snapped with exasperation. "Just spit it out, already!"

"Why can't I just train with you, then?!" Shinji yelled back in what was by the far the loudest he had ever snapped back at her, rising from his own seat.

They stared at one another in shock, neither knowing what to do next; Asuka's eyes were wide, her former scowl had melted off her face. Shinji appeared to be just about ready to either apologize or bolt right out the door, yet for once, even shaking slightly, he stood his ground. Is he… did he just… But what about the First…? What…

"Uhh…" not wishing to continue to be stared at by that steeled cobalt gaze, she turned her eyes to the table and took a deep breath. The redhead scratched her cheek, feeling heat begin to color her face, and once more the words her friend had told her returned. If she had indeed not lost yet, then perhaps it was time that she actually tried to make a minimal effort in order to actually win. "I guess I could show you some basic moves and stuff…"

For his part, the boy's face became vermilion when the realization that he had actually voiced out the question sank in. Oh, crap. I actually did it. This suddenly does not feel like a good idea, anymore. Wait. Wait. What did she say? Did she say she'd actually do it? She's… not yelling at me, or calling me an idiot. Huh. "Y-You would?" he inquired stupidly.

"I just said I would, are you deaf or something?!" Asuka snapped back, mood quickly reverting to fake anger and annoyance. "We're starting tomorrow afternoon, I'll make a list of all the things we need so I don't want to hear complaints when we go get them after school! And you better not slack off or waste my time, you hear?!"

Shinji straightened up, arms at his sides, and nodded emphatically. "H-Hai! I'll try my best!"

"You better!" Asuka pointed at him, sounding dead serious. "I'm not gonna teach you how to score points. I'm gonna teach you how to win, so you consider yourself warned!"

"Hai!"

"Fine! I'm going to bed now! The stew was good, and the Bento was good as well! Now stop serving me fish and rice if you can actually cook something different!"

"Hai!"

Asuka turned towards her room, striding almost stiffly and doing her absolute best to hide the blush threatening to make her entire face acquire the tone of her hair. Great, now I've done it, she thought with something akin to panic. I actually told the idiot I'd do it. Great. Now what the hell am I supposed to do?! Judo is… grappling, and grabbing and… holding… and… touchi-

"Um, Asuka?" Shinji asked quietly from his spot by the table before she closed her door.

"What?" she snapped much harsher than intended. Lately, whenever anger got the better of her and the Baka was the recipient, a pang of heavy discomfort she related with guilt came to constrict her chest. The girl made a conscious effort to control her voice. "What is it?"

Shinji scratched the back of head, looking sheepish, and offered a nervous laugh. "It's just… uhh… it's kind of early. Would you… I mean if you're not tired or something… I thought we could maybe… play a video game or two…?"

Odd, how he was somehow learning to read between the lines now, or how he was taking small steps in her direction. He wasn't gravitating towards Wondergirl, he wasn't praising the powerful Second Child for a bit of her precious time either. Shinji was asking to share Asuka's company for a while more. A smile manifested on her lips. "For what, so I can demolish you again?"

"Ahh, sure. I mean, I guess I don't really make up for much of an… adversary, but I'll try my b-"

"Go and get the console set up, dork. I still have to brush my teeth. Go on, then. Let's play that 'Bloody Roar' one!" She all but ran over to the bathroom, with a sudden excitement rising up and spreading all over her body. Even the concept of teaching Shinji Judo did not feel so utterly terrifying anymore, not when he kept saying he would try his best.

And so they sat on the floor and played, not once noticing that every few nights, the distance between them both reduced itself a tiny bit. They pressed the buttons, the sounds of slashes, attacks and the like invaded the otherwise quiet apartment, and Asuka boasted of her success while a chuckling Shinji told her he'd get her on the next bout.

PenPen observed, pleased, while he sipped a beer from his preferred perch near the fridge. Yes, things were going as planned.


"Okay, we've warmed up. Listen." She tightened the belt around her midsection and took two steps forward, walking into the matted surface they had purchased and placed in the living room. Misato was rarely around, so what did it matter how they used the space of the apartment? "Judo is contested in single combat, generally in a tournament of elimination." She wore a red gi as was expected, while the idiot sported a blue one she had picked for him and curiously tugged at the sleeves. "Hey, pay attention!" He straightened instantly, to her delight. "Now, I'm pretty sure you know about the scoring system, don't you?"

Shinji forced himself to focus on remembering the names of the pointing system and not on the fact that Asuka looked… very attractive, even in a gi. "Uhmm… an Ippon, Waza –ari, and… uhm… and…"

"And Yuuko, Baka-Shinji. But we don't care about those. I'm going to teach you how to score Ippons, how to win, not how to stall." She had honestly not practiced since her arrival to Japan, but the basics were probably easy enough to teach in an afternoon or two. "We'll go over some stances, basic grips, throws, and maybe a submission or two. What are you doing so far away? Get over here! You lose points for inactivity, you know!"

"Right!" he walked over to where Asuka stood, extremely aware that he was now supposed to… touch her. "Uhmm… so how do I…"

"Spread your legs more, idiot, you need a solid stance, get your lead leg in front of you. Like so." She demonstrated a loose stance, which Shinji copied with surprising accuracy. I knew this idiot had potential, I knew it. Now, time for some fun. A devious smile drew on her lips. "Then comes the grip, a solid grip on your opponent's gi is essential." To demonstrate, she grabbed onto the boy's blue one and urged him to mimic her movements.

She's looking pretty comfortable, I guess, Shinji pondered as he tried his best to imitate every move Asuka made and follow her instructions as closely as possible. This was… not unpleasant, not in the slightest. In a way it felt like the synchronized training they had performed long before, only this felt more natural, more fulfilling; something completely unrelated to EVA and fully related to something normal teens would do. "Okay, so…" Her eyes look pretty when she smiles like that. Huh? What? "What comes nex-"

He thought he saw a burst of motion, a strange flash of red and the feeling of Asuka being much closer and a hand gripping at the back of his gi; yet all his brain registered was how the world suddenly went upside down and when he next blinked, he was lying on his back with the same grinning redhead now holding his arm in place and smirking up at him. While he was indeed flat on his butt and whatever she had done was starting to make his back hurt, the feeling of having her so close was… not something he had ever felt before. "That's an Ippon. Sweet, right? That was also an Uki- Oroshi. Now get up, we'll go through it slowly. I'll teach you how to defend against it, and then how to do it."

They went through the mechanics of the move and Shinji realized the girl had in fact dashed forward, slightly changed position and then somehow rotated him as though he weighed little more than a feather. Throughout the entire process Shinji realized they had not been so close to each other ever since first meeting on the ship Over the Rainbow and being forced to do the synchronized training. At times he thought he saw the redhead blush slightly as well, but it could have well been the constant shifting of the world as he was flipped upside down again and again. I think she's taking it really easy on me, he thought after getting up for the fifth time, already sweating and feeling his stiff muscles dance in joy. Something tells me this should hurt a lot more than it does.

At the sixth attempt he was actually able to perform the block she had instructed him and managed to trip the female pilot and perform a proper foot sweep; however, his inexperience forced the Third Child to fall as well and almost land on top of her. He halted himself at the last second, inches away from her face and blinking heavily. "Uhm… hello," he offered lamely, blushing madly.

For her part, the girl blinked, realizing Shinji was not a slow learner at all, and that he was not as weak nor as scrawny as he looked. "Erm… hello, Baka-Shinji." She noticed how his hands were still holding onto her gi with a deadly grip. He was breathing heavily, eyes wide, nose and cheeks bright red. Huh. Kinda cute, a little bit. What. What? "That was well done. Mind getting off me, now? I think we've practiced this one enough. Time to show you how to do a throw!"

She felt strangely disappointed at the way he bolted straight up and nervously looked away, however, the following stage of the practice would undoublty require him… grabbing onto her arm, back and… I really didn't think this through. Where the hell is an Angel attack when you need one, huh? Shinji was fidgety and nervous, she noticed. She also noticed how he had not complained yet, not once, not after being thrown to the ground five times in a row, noticed the way he was actually focused, listened to her attentively and followed instruction with military accuracy. He was also extremely careful.

After about an hour and half of practice, Shinji was lying on the ground, panting with his gi opened and drenched in sweat, absolutely drained. "Damn…" he panted; the muscles which had screamed of joy at the beginning were now wailing and complaining. "And I thought…(pant)… piloting… was exhausting…"

"Hah!" The faint vibration of footsteps manifested near his head, and he felt Asuka sit not too lightly next to him. A fresh bottle of water was pressed against his naked chest. "This is just the beginning, you idiot." She took a long drink from a soda she had procured from the fridge. "From now on, you're gonna have to do pushups, sit ups and crunches every day if you ever want to actually score an Ippon against another boy."

"Uh huh…" he mumbled. Shinji grabbed onto the bottle and pressed it against his forehead. So good… "Sure…(pant)… push ups… whatever… let's go…"

An honest half-smile drew on her lips. "We're ordering some take-out tonight. And we're buying lunch at school tomorrow, however much it sucks." She was unaware of it, but Asuka was actually gazing at Shinji with a look that bordered on fondness. "Bet you're pretty beat up, huh."

"Let's go… 'nother round…" he mumbled in between pants. How curious, the ceiling was coming in and out of focus. "I can do it…(pant)… come on…"

"Maybe just drink your water and when the ceiling comes back into focus you know, shower and remember to clean and put away the mat?" He felt her rise and begin to walk away. "Drink your water, Baka-Shinji! See you in a few!"

Tired as he was, Shinji couldn't help but smile. She had almost sounded happy a few moments before, about as happy as he recalled she had been during their first sorties. Wow… Asuka could be truly unbearable at times, nasty and hurtful and biting, yet at others something quite endearing shone through… he realized she was also hurting, quite a bit in fact, and that perhaps she was lashing out due to whatever had caused her said pain in the past. She had been smiling almost all through practice, though. Smiling Asuka truly was something else. Wow…

"Hey, Baka, up for a session of video games tonight?!"

He chuckled, and winced when his non-existent abdominals complained. "Sure…"

"What?!"

"I said sure!" More pain, more acute, this time extending to his chest and back. Oww…

"Cool!"

And yet despite the pain, he could not help but smile like an idiot. The next vibrations which neared his face were much milder, almost imperceptible; his eyes drifted to the right, where PenPen was observing him. "Hey…" he mumbled. "You think I'm doing okay…(pant)… so far?" The penguin shrugged. "I'll take that… as a yes…"

"Wark!"

Shinji nodded and groaned as he struggled to sit up. The redhead had even bothered to show him a post workout stretch routine, which was sure to minimize the agony his body would give him the following morning. "I know, I know… your sardines…"

Along with the entire equipment for practice, Asuka also had insisted they get a new game which now sat by the console waiting to be used. They were playing almost every night, now.


A month passed way quicker than either youth would have preferred. Misato had called the night before sounding quite animated, excitedly telling them her massive mountain of paperwork had finally been cleared and that she had been granted a glorious week to return home and rest. Their legal guardian had also promised to attend the tournament, which was truly far-fetched considering the event was to be held in the morning and she was sure to arrive at the apartment late at night.

It was a Saturday, a relatively warm morning, and Shinji found himself wishing he could just turn around and run away straight to the hills and disappear. He had been giving it his all, keeping with schoolwork and training with Asuka six times a week had completely erased the aching and stiffness of his body. He felt healthy, even a little stronger than before. Very few Synch Test had cut in between their time, all of them involving Asuka since there was still a level of uncertainty regarding Unit 01. At some point he had asked if he could tag along, which had evidently taken the redhead by surprise, yet she had not refused to the alternative.

Her Synch Rate had risen to an astounding 91% three days before.

Run. Normally, his inner voice was trying to keep him from escaping whatever hardship or situation that lay before him. Run. Run fast, run far. That mountain range where the Fourth Angel threw you, that should do the trick, just lay down under a tree and wait for all of this to blow ov-

"Hey, Shinji," the Second Child's voice broke him out of his reverie and almost had the brown-hared boy trip over his own feet and fall flat on the ground. When he looked over Shinji easily recognized the confident smirk shining on her features. "You nervous?"

His knees were shaking every now and then, his heart was hammering heavily against his chest, and he was constantly fighting the urge to dash away from school as fast as his now stronger legs could carry him. "Uhm…" There was sweat moistening his shirt and he had not even started to warm up. Why was it suddenly easier to fight Angels? Because when you're fighting Angels you're not trying to impress Asuka, that's why, his mind provided. "I think so…"

A hand slapped his shoulder in a not too friendly manner. "Ah, come on. Stop fussing about it, it's just a stupid tournament, and you're in the novice division! It's not like someone's gonna break your arm or something, you know."

He supposed it was Asuka's way of trying to make him feel more confident and relaxed, and Shinji found himself unnaturally grateful for the effort; he had been training hard, practicing and grappling with the female pilot for nigh on a month. She had been in a… not so foul mood for a while, especially adding how her Synch rate had risen in the past weeks; the girl smiled more often, smirked, laughed and teased him ceaselessly. The night before, as they played… their knees had been touching. Misato's absence had come as some form of a strange blessing, one which had allowed them to behave as they ever so pleased without fear of being teased or mocked by their guardian.

"Yeah, I know," replied the Third Child after a few moments; when had she started giving him time to collect his thoughts, anyhow? "I just… I mean, uhh… you invested so much time… and I've been trying, really trying… so I just…" he sighed, looking over to the side. "I don't want to embarrass you or anything."

"Eh?" Asuka raised am unbelieving eyebrow at his statement, poking his shoulder with her forefinger. "What are you, stupid or something? It's you who's competing, Baka." He saw her shrug from the corner of his eye. "This doesn't have to do anything to do with me, all of this is about you getting that scrawny body of yours some proper maintenance for once."

Shinji readjusted his backpack and tried to breathe deeply, to no avail. He was extremely nervous, and with every approaching step the voice inside his head telling him to escape became louder and louder. "I guess… yeah, but…" But this was all your idea, you didn't even ask me if I wanted to do this, and then… and then you… we started playing video games and training and I… I can't bear the thought of disappointing you, now. "I just don't want to look like an idiot."

"Well, you already do, so stop worrying about that, at least!" Regardless of how the comment did not sound nice at all, the playful tone in which Asuka spoke did make him chuckle. "Listen, you idiot," she instructed; her tone went from playful to stony in seconds. Asuka placed a hand on his shoulders, forcing the boy to stop on his tracks, and turned him so he was facing her. "Win, lose, draw, it doesn't matter, Shinji. Go out there, do what we practiced, and enjoy the experience. Nobody cares if you lose, God knows I don't."

The redhead forced down a chortle at the way Shinji gaped at her. "You… you don't?" he said in obvious disbelief and shock. "But… what… you told me you were teaching me… how to… uhmm… how to w-"

"How to win, exactly," she gave his shoulder a second, less forceful slap. "But this is you doing something you've never done before. Just give it your best, like you did during this entire last month. I'm satisfied with your effort as it is." Shinji felt his knees go weak for reasons alien to the competition when the girl he had been growing increasingly interested in gave him a toothy grin. "With that being said, I expect you to win at least one bout, you freaking idiot. Now let's go. What did I say to you, again?"

The pilots resumed their slow advance towards the school; he scratched his head and noticed the expectant aura of the young woman walking next to him. "Uhmm, right. I shouldn't sell myself short."

"Well, look at that, your brain finally got the concept!" she teased, chuckling. He liked the sound of her laughter, the sincere one not the fake mirth she presented to almost everyone else. "Just do what you do in your damn EVA and you'll be fine, Baka. Position the target in the center, and pull the switch."

"Right," The nervousness dissipated somewhat; Misato-san was to arrive that night. The time had run out, and like the procrastinator he was, Shinji had waited until the last possible moment to ask what he had wanted to ask for about a month and a half. "Hey, Asuka," he started, drawing the girl's gaze to him. "There's something I've been meaning to… uhm… I hope you don't get mad if I do, so… uhm… can I ask you something?"

"You just did, you idiot," came the snide retort, followed by a snicker. "Whatever. Shoot."

Taking a deep breath, the young man threw himself into the void, knowing well this could mean the end to all the wonderful experiences that had happened ever since he had returned from Unit 01. "Uhm… I just wanted to ask… what happened between you and Misato-san if… I mean… if you're okay telling me, and stuff…"

Asuka stopped walking for a second; she felt the pang of bitterness and anger which been blessedly absent for the past few days. Even during Synch test she spoke nothing but the necessary words with Misato, she never greeted, nor said goodbye to her, and whenever their supposed guardian called she said nothing, listened to her words, wrote down whatever it was the woman needed, and once she was done talking the redhead would slam the phone down, not bothering to say anything.

"What the hell do you know, huh?! You don't do anything! Why are we even forced to live with you, you slob!? Can't even get that freaking idiot out of his EVA, pff! Well, good riddance! I hope he stays in there forever!"

"What did you say?"

"You heard me! That wimpy little idiot can stay in there for all I care!"

Then came the slap, hard and unexpected enough to bounce her head to the side.

"Let me tell you a little story, Asuka. Sit."

"Go to hell! Who do you think you are, slapping me like that! I'm leaving, why don't you go and get yourself drunk, huh?! It's about the only thing you do rig-"

The second slap had stung much worse than the first.

"I said," Misato had looked positive incensed then. "Sit."

Shinji had long since stopped walking as well. Crap, great, now I did it. Idiot, idiot! Look at what you did, you freaking idiot! Why couldn't you have asked this earlier? He quickly tried to remedy the situation. "Uhm… I didn't mean to p-pry and… and look it's not like I need to k-"

"We had a talk." Asuka interrupted with anger leaking off her tone. "A bad talk. I said some things, she said some things, and we argued." She huffed and crossed her arms, looking up at the sky with a glare. "Things happened. I heard about Unit 03, and… what happened after it knocked me down." Her glare was then directed to Shinji, yet some part of him understood, strangely enough, that said anger was not directed at him. "So I heard some stuff, then I watched some footage, and that's that. I don't want to talk to her, she may been right about a few things but…" with a shake of her head, she began to walk. Shinji followed suit soon after. "I just don't want to talk to her. She crossed the line."

"Oh, I'm…" Even knowing the words would most certainly upset her more, the male pilot found nothing else to say. "I'm sorry about that."

"I know you are, but it's not your fault, idiot," retorted the young female pilot, catching Shinji by surprise. It was possibly the first time she did not berate him for using his go-to reflex. A chuckle escaped her. "Well, maybe it's partly your fault, or maybe it's not. It doesn't matter. What's done is done." A third, somewhat friendly slap impacted against the boy's shoulder. "What matters now is that you don't slack off in that tournament and show those idiots what it means to be trained by the Great Sohryu Asuka Langley!"

It was impossible not to be influenced by her determination and fire, at least it was so for him, especially after the past month. He tried to smile and nodded; his chest felt lighter than in the earlier morning, with something similar to excitement beginning to make itself known. "Hai!"

"Race you to the entrance, Baka! That's gonna be your early warm-up!"

"Hai! I'm ready!"

They ran, laughing and grinning as the school became visible, and soon enough the redhead was standing by the dressing rooms after having secured both her and Hikari's seats in the school gymnasium. She tapped her foot with impatience, glared down at the floor and kept stealing glances at the hall in which Shinji had disappeared a few minutes before. This was her last chance; the last few weeks had been some of the most fun she'd had in her entire life, hell, even her synch rate was rising! The idiot walked with her to and from NERV as well, now, not just from school. Maybe Hikari's right, but maybe not. I need to make sure for myself. And… and if I really lost then… then at least I had all that fun with the idiot. That's gotta be worth something, right?

A glance into the hallway ensured the time had come; Shinji was walking in her direction already dressed in his blue gi, smiling nervously. She propped herself off the wall and faced the Third Child; he was most likely taken aback by her serious expression, good riddance, the subject she was about to address was quite serious to her. "There's something I want to know." Shinji straightened, blinking; she recognized the signs of worry manifest on his features. "Before you go out there, I want it out of my chest, okay?"

"Uhm… sure, Asuka," he responded with an unstable voice. "What is it?"

No turning back now. I need to know this, I need to know… that… that you… "Why is it so damn easy for you to talk to Wondergirl, huh? It pisses me off. We live together, and it took… ugh… some time for us to talk, just talk. What's up with that, Shinji?"

The way he blinked and subsequently relaxed, as though he had been waiting a different question altogether, left her completely dumbfounded. "A-Ayanami? Well, uhm… you see," he started with a small smile drawing on his lips. "It… It wasn't easy at all, at first, to be honest. I was a little… upset… with her, after I met her. But then," Shinji shook his head and chuckled lightly. "After we fought the… the Fifth Angel, I just felt silly. Uhm… and about what you asked… I don't know. I don't have any siblings, but I guess Ayanami… it's weird. It feels like I've known her for some time, like she's a sister or something."

Oh.

"Oh." She stated right along with her brain. Well, now I feel stupid. I guess that's how the idiot feels every day, huh. Weird feeling. "A sister, huh." Some unknown burden fell off her shoulders and Asuka felt much, much lighter all of the sudden. "Well, the two of you are socially inept and pretty odd, so I guess it makes sense."

The way Shinji sulked at her statement made her laugh, and just like that whatever level of tension that remained between them disappeared. "I'm not odd…" he complained, scratching at the sleeve of his gi. "Am I?"

"Just the right amount of odd, you idiot!" She slapped him on the back and pushed him forward. "Now let's go! I want to see my fellow pilot kick some butt today! Show them what we're made of, you hear?!"

"Hai!" Shinji breathed in, breathed out, and then the determined stare she had been growing fond of overcame him. Yes, this was certainly a side of the Third Child she enjoyed. Not that I don't enjoy other things, as well… Wait, what? Focus, Sohryu, focus. Time to make sure this idiot doesn't mess up!

In a day filled with first times, Shinji added Asuka calling him her fellow pilot to the list.


Never in his life would Shinji have expected the gymnasium to be so packed with students, parents and citizens, all of them cheering and intensely watching the matches as they took place. The entire surface was covered in tatami, and about two to three matches were taking place simultaneously, with the novice and beginner part of the tournament taking place first. Good, that's good, he thought, gulping down the newfound fear simmering in his stomach. That means this entire thing will be over soon, good. Just a few more minutes and then I'll get to go home and cook someth-

"Hey, Baka-Shinji!" the recognizable yell of the Second Child forced Shinji's head to the left, where she and Hikari sat, waving at him. He shakily waved back. "Remember to keep a wide stance! Hip control! Don't mess up your footing, either! Now go kick some butt, you're next!"

Wait, I am? Alarmed, the young man turned to the table where the matches were being announced and felt his heart sink when the 'Ikari' written in bold back glared at him. I mustn't run away. I mustn't run away. Come on, Shinji. I mustn't run away! "Right," with a deep, shaky breath Shinji tried to relax his racing heart and walked over to where a bored referee and an equally nervous youngster awaited. "Come on, focus. Remember what Asuka taught you, remember," he mumbled, and soon enough he was standing next to a young man about his age, a bit taller than him with a very unsure look on his face. 'Remember."

"Hey, Shinji!" His eyes shifted to Asuka's seat; her confident smile worked wonders to get his breathing under control. "Remember what I said to you! I'm watching, you know!"

I know. His hand steeled. He closed his eyes, imagined himself in Unit 01, and allowed any and all traces of uncertainty to disappear for a moment. Position the target in the center. Whatever look overcame him seemed to have some effect in his opponent; the boy back up an extra couple of inches and gulped. His eyes narrowed.

"Hajime!"

Pull the switch.

Both youngsters clashed in the center of the mat; the boy grasped onto Shinjji's gi a tad too late. The male pilot took the initial hold and before his opponent could even move to defend or react, he was already in motion. He pushed himself directly next to the taller boy, grabbed onto the back of his gi, pushed his hips into the opponent's and allowed muscle memory to do the rest. It was the first throw Asuka had taught him, one she had drilled into his being for over a week. A moment after the initial burst of motion, he was looking down at an equally bewildered youngster who was now flat on his back.

"Ippon!" The referee cried out, brining Shinji back to reality. "Winner, Ikari! Ikari advances to the next round!"

Shinji helped his opponent back to his feet, scratching his head. "Uhm, thank you for the match," he said, as Asuka had instructed, and then bowed respectfully. The entire ordeal had gone so quickly that he was still breathing heavily and trying to recall what had happened. "I hope we have a chance to compete again."

"Uhh, yeah, same here," answered the larger boy, who also bowed. "It was a good match, Ikari. You're pretty good."

"Not really," he rebuked: Shinji turned to look over at Asuka. She had her arms crossed, and was looking at him with that intense, determined smirk of hers; after a few moments, she nodded her approval. "I just have a really great trainer."

The Third Child competed in two more matches, winning one just as quickly as he had won the first one, this time performing a similar, albeit more difficult throw to bring his opponent to the ground. The third match was grueling, with both youngsters having a similar weight, height and ability, which led to lots of tugging, pushing against each other and mixing defense and offense so as not to be thrown. In the end, he secured a submission after they both fell of the ground and fought for top position. He advanced to the following match, the semifinal, after successfully pinning his opponent for a good twenty seconds.

Damn, he thought tiredly from his seat on the mat as he waited to be called again. I never expected to get this far, but damn… I'm feeling a little tired. His eyes drifted to Asuka's seat once more; after the second match even she had gotten up and pumped her fist in the air, screaming at him to do this and that with both command and enthusiasm. Her face had even been a bit flushed at the end of the third. Come on… just two more… and I get that… shiny trophy up there… and I give it to her… yeah… just two more. I… I can do this… come on… come on!

Bringing his pulse back to control through several deep breaths, Shinji reminded himself that he had already won three matches, which was three more than he had originally expected. It felt strange, to win, not unpleasant at all. Gratifying, almost; it made him believe the work both he and Asuka had invested had not been in vain. The winner of every category, both in weight and skill, would be determined after victory over five matches. He had already fought three, one of them extremely difficult which had taken all of the allowed five minutes and large part of his limited energy. Come on… just two more… let's go, Ikari.

"Next match in the novice division, 14 years old. Ikari. Higashi, please proceed to the tatami marked as 3rd. I repeat, next match in the novice division, 14 years old. Ikari. Higashi, please proceed to the tatami marked as 3rd."

Shinji pushed himself off the floor and marched over to the designated tatami, gulping when he saw the next challenger. If that boy was fourteen as well, then he had been training and working out for the better part of those fourteen years. He wasn't much heavier than him, Shinji noticed, but looked to be in a much better physical condition. He was also exuding confidence.

"Come on, Baka! Kick his butt! Let's go!" Came Asuka's bellow from her seat, which made him chuckle. The eyes of the boy in front of him narrowed as he stole a glance at the redhead.

"That your girlfriend, Ikari?" he asked snidely once they were close enough. The match was sure to begin at any moment, so Shinji blinked in surprise when the boy smiled deviously at him. Until that point, there had hardly been any words spoken between any of the youngsters: they were all too nervous to actually say something, Shinji included. "Well, is she? She looks hot."

"She's…" he frowned all of the sudden. Something about the boy's look and tone was not sitting well with him, it was making his skin crawl. "She's my friend, and… my fellow pilot." He answered tersely.

With a nod, Higashi descended on his stance. "Good, yeah, the great EVA pilots. I'm going to love putting your ass on the ground in front of her and embarrassing you. Maybe after that I'll ask her out, doesn't that sound fun?"

"Let's stop that senseless banter." The referee cut in with a dry, bored tone before he could respond. "This is Judo. Prepare yourselves."

He could still faintly hear Asuka calling him an idiot and telling him to remember to widen his stance from her spot to his left. Shinji took a deep breath, closed his eyes, and focused on nothing but the opponent before him. The strange anger which had arisen at the boy's uncouth words had momentarily erased the fatigue from his body. The target was already positioned, all that was needed was to pull the switch.

"Hajime!"

During the first seconds of their exchange, as each tried to grasp the other's gi and assume an offensive position, Shinji discovered the boy facing was not only stronger and faster than he was, he was also everything but a novice. Every move he attempted, the boy knew, every move he made was anticipated and countered. Regardless of the strength disparity, Asuka had drilled defensive moves into his being for an entire month, so the Third Child showed himself everything but helpless.

After the first minute Higashi was able to score a Waza-ari (half point), throwing Shinji off his balance after pushing a thumb in his eye and performing a throw which he defended enough to only be awarded half a point. A minute and a half after that, having successfully driven them both to the ground, Shinji also scored half a point as he secured a position and held his opponent for fifteen seconds.

The boy looked livid now, Shinji noticed, enraged, and he was utterly exhausted. His eye was stinging where it had been assaulted. He… actually managed to do it… without the referee noticing… so it's useless to complain… He pondered tiredly. He was so close, just a bit more and he'd go to the next round, just a bit more and maybe the stupid idea of presenting the redhead with the stupid trophy would come true. He descended on a wide stance as Asuka had instructed, prepared himself and glared right back.

The next clash would prove to be the last. Shinji defended quite well all of the aggressive, nearly uncontrolled attempts Higashi attempted. Once they clinched and grabbed onto each other's gis, nonetheless, the seemingly ruthless opponent he was facing pushed forward and almost tripped him to the ground. Shinji resisted, used his weight and momentum agaist him and turned them both, still standing.

"Time to go down… Ikari," panted Higashi; the smirk he addressed his way alerted Shinji. His opponent took a furtive glance at the referee and finding the man preoccupied with watching a particularly attractive woman in the stands, pushed his hand on Shinji's face, almost smashing his nose in and rendering him momentarily blind.

"Hey!" Shinji protested. He slapped away the hand a bit too late; Higashi had already moved in close and was throwing him to the ground sooner than Shinji could manage to react. This time, the throw was performed with every last bit if strength the other boy possessed; Shinji hit the ground and groaned loudly, feeling both skin, muscle and bone suffer through the impact. He now lay flat on his back, looking up at both the dissatisfying smirk of Higashi and the gym's lights, which burned through his tired retinas.

"Ippon! Winner, Higashi!"

With an overbearing sense of disappointment and despondence making his chest sink, Shinji forced himself to bow to the boy who had stolen his chance at actually winning at something. He wanted to complain; two fouls had been about the only reasons the damn Higashi had been able to win. It was a fool's hope to try; if the referee had been preoccupied with something else or simply had not cared, he doubted the man was about to allow his authority and decision be changed or interfered with.

"Hey, Ikari," Higashi said with a smirk as he walked away. "After I win the tournament I'll be taking your… friend… on a date. You wouldn't want to miss it. Why don't you stick around?"

He hoped whatever glare he half-addressed the other buy hid away the misery he was feeling. "Good luck on your next match." He ground out, walked over to the stands and made the grave mistake of looking in Asuka's direction. She looked furious, livid, angrier than he remembered ever seeing her, almost seething rage to an extent that even Hikari was looking at her with a worried expression. And she was looking at him. Unable to bear the shame and such intensity, Shinji lowered his head, let himself fall into the tatami and stared at its surface as sweat rolled down his face.

Failure. What a surprise.

All the work Asuka put in, every morning she woke me up, counted my push ups, made me run and jog, all those afternoons training, all for nothing. Idiot. What else could you expect, huh, what else? He drank some water, throat parched, and curled even tighter into himself. What the hell am I supposed to say to her, now?

The last novice match came and went with Higashi winning quite easily in the first thirty seconds. He watched from his seat in a corner how the boy hoisted the trophy in the air with a triumphant smirk, yet was so engrossed in his own disappointment that he failed to notice many of the attendants of the event booing at Higahi with vehemence. After the award ceremony was over, the Third Child forced his aching body to the showers, changed, stored the gi in the backpack and made his way to the school entrance. He had not seen Asuka anywhere, nor did he expect to; instead of a glowering redhead he found Hikari standing by the door with the same concerned expression from before.

"Ikari-kun!" greeted the Class Rep, and ran up to catch up to him. "You did really great! How are you feeling?"

"H-Hi, Hikari-san… A little tired, I think… uhm…. Thank you." He gazed left and right in a futile attempt to spot a mane of crimson somewhere. "Do you… have you seen Asuka, Hokari-san?"

Fidgeting at his question, Shinji noticed concern descend back to Hikari's face. "She, uhm… told me to tell you not to wait for her. She was… uhm… really angry, and she stormed off after your last match." Their eyes met; Shinji thought he saw a pang of regret and anger shine in the girl's gaze. "I'm sorry, Ikari-kun. That boy was playing dirty, I saw it, lots of people saw it. You would've won that match, he's just a dirty cheater."

He tried to smile; boy, was he exhausted. "It's okay, I guess I gave it my best…" Shinji's cobalt eyes drifted to the gate. "I think I'll head home now, Hikari-san… I'm… kinda sore, hehe. Thank you for waiting for me." He started walking away after saying his goodbyes, but stopped after a few steps. "Uhm… Hokari-san… Could you please Touji, the… the next time you see him… that… that I'm sorry? And that… I miss him."

"Sure, I'd love to," Hikari answered with a sad smile. "He's gonna love hearing about the contest. Take care care, Ikari-kun, be careful on your way home. Don't you want me to go with you?"

"I'm… fine, thank you," came the depleted response. He forced overtired limbs forward, realizing this would be about the first time in more than a month that he walked back to the apartment alone. "I will, don't worry about it. See you…"

He walked, every step becoming heavier and more painful than the former, body rebelling against him, muscles howling in agony. The walk never felt longer, nor colder.


"Hey, what the h-"

Higashi was thrown onto his back violently, impacting the concrete with a a resounding thud. He grimaced and screamed in pain, hissing a few seconds later as he tried in vain to massage his aching back. One thing was being thrown around on a tatami, but to perform a throw in the streets could very well mean breaking someone's skull, hip or back. Luckily for him, she had been lenient with the strength and momentum applied.

Asuka picked the trophy and pretended to examine it for a few moments. "Must be nice, huh. Going to other schools, participating as a novice when you're clearly not one, winning, getting nice little shiny trophies and medals. Must be really nice, right?"

The cheap prize broke into several pieces when she threw it on the ground next to the boy with every bit of strength she had; the terrified look in his eyes pleased her. "You're nothing but a pathetic cheater. First you poked his eye, then you blatantly put your hand on his face. You could've broken his nose, you know." She walked closer to where he lay still whimpering, still hissing in pain. "Had you fought fair, Shinji would've beaten you, and he's only been doing Judo for a month. Look at you."

She glared down at the little bastard with every bit of anger coursing through her veins at the moment. "You're not even worth hitting. Maybe the next time you choose to cheat, you useless little waste of space, don't try to do it against an EVA pilot." She stepped on the last surviving piece of the trophy. "If I ever see you near our school again, though… I'm not going to be as nice as I was today. Get lost, loser."

Turning in the exit's direction, Asuka walked away. Every step became a bit more hurried, just a tad quicker, and before she knew she was making a slow dash to the apartment. Misato's words kept ringing in her head, relentless, forcing her feet to move faster. It had taken a bit more time than she thought to wait for that cheating bastard and catch him before he could run to his parents with his little pathetic, unearned trophy, time in which Shinji would most likely head back home, tired and dissatisfied.

Hang on, you idiot, Asuka thought while running. She'd shower first, get a fresh, comfortable change of clothes, and then face him. He had earned something that day, something that was only hers to give, and his to receive. Shinji had slaved over a single purpose for nigh on a month, a purpose she had placed in front of him, one which he had pursued with diligence, discipline and passion. Perhaps she had no trophy to offer, perhaps she was not even that well versed in giving anyone a compliment, or helping anyone with anything. She had been meaning to give Shinji something for quite some time now, basically ever since he had been retrieved from Unit 01, and this was her chance. Just hang on.


About an hour after he arrived home, changed into some more comfortable clothes, ate two apples and drank a bottle of water and two sodas, Asuka walked into the apartment, breathing heavily. All Shinji managed from his perch on the table was a weak greeting which was not even answered. From the corner of his eye, he saw the redhead walk into her bedroom, retrieve some clothes, lock herself in the bathroom for a good twenty minutes, come out and finally enclose herself back in her bedroom without a word spoken.

Shinji sighed as he placed his arm on the table and let his head rest on it. A hollowness constricted his chest while fatigue and aches consumed every other sensation he might have felt. He was exhausted; reaching the chair had taken the last remnants of his fading strength, his head hurt. His feet hurt, his back hurt. Everything hurt. Nothing compared to the sting inside his ribcage, however. That particular ache felt as though it only worsened as time went by.

"I tried so hard..." whispered the Third Child to the empty living room. "And for what? For some guy to make me look like a loser in front of Asuka and everyone. What a joke..."

It had been, in the end, under the Second Child's not so friendly suggestion that he had joined the stupid tournament in the first place. As the days passed and they became… closer… in a sense, the goal of simply participating had evolved into something he had only felt when piloting EVA and getting pathetically insufficient, empty praise for his father. His wish had been to demonstrate he was... more than just an idiot to her. Asuka's eyes had been furious beyond anything he had ever seen, however, so the efforts were fruitless, as usual. She had not spoken to him since, had even disappeared after the tournament had ended.

The door to her room opened, but he was too tired to even tilt his head.

Changed into a much more comfortable attire and having washed the grime of having to touch that cheater at all, the young girl felt as prepared as she would ever be. The signs of defeat, exhaustion and utter disappointment were almost palpable from where Shinji sat. So typical of him, to continue to sell himself short and not realize just how amazingly he had performed. She shook her head and huffed in derision, slowly waking towards the table as she recalled the last words spoken between her and Misato during their heated discussion.

"So what the hell am I supposed to do, if and when that idiot comes back?!" She bellowed in rage, slamming her fists against the table. "It's not like I c-"

"You've been yelling for some time, now," Misato interrupted in a bored tone. "And I have to go. What are you supposed to do? Hmm, I don't know, haven't you watched any movie ever? You're supposed to hug someone after they've been gone for a while, genius."

It took no more than a few steps to reach him, she noticed how Shinji did not even bother to raise his head. He's probably so exhausted that he literally can't right now. Asuka said nothing at first, mastered herself and nodded to nothing. The time had come. With every bit of delicacy available to her she slowly let her body be pressed against his as her arms encircled his head and arm. She placed her cheek against the right side of his face as both her hands joined around his forearm.

"You did quite well today, Baka," she whispered, and hugged him just a bit more. "Made me proud."

Strange, how Asuka's few words of praise felt more heartfelt and meaningful to those of his father, nowadays. He had made Asuka feel pride… for someone other than herself. She had stated in the morning after all, that it did not matter if he won or lost. He had given his all and now… Asuka was hugging him. Shinji forced his strained left arm to move and tentatively lay his hand on top of both of hers. "Really?"

He felt a strong tug, and then the embrace turned even tighter. "Really."

Wanting to do nothing else than stay there forever, with the redeahd laying on him and holding him while he held her hand, Shinji realize that however shiny and impressive that trophy might have looked, it was not at all a reward which would have fulfilled him. "I tried my best…" he whispered, and felt her nod against him.

"I know you did," Asuka whispered back against his ear. "That's why I'm proud."

The reward was a gentle hug.

No trophy nor medal could ever compare to the comfort and warmth his reward brought about; in an instant the disappointment, despair and sadness were eradicated by the realization that Asuka was hugging him right now. What else was there to do, than to simply enjoy the moment for how as long as it went?

PenPen watched, satisfied, whilst he drank his afternoon beer and returned to the fridge. Indeed, his and the pony-tailed man's machinations to keep Misato away from the apartment for as long as possible had worked perfectly. As was to be expected of him, the plan had worked well enough. Now the cards where in the hands of the young humans under his care. With the sensation of a work done well, the penguin relaxed, and gazed upon a grateful universe.

FINIS.


Intro the fucking song now! YEAH! STOP. REWIND. PLAY.

Hello

I've waited here for you,

Everlong

Tonight, I throw myself into

And out of the red

Out of her head, she sang

Come down and waste away with me

Down with me

Slow, how you wanted it to be

I'm over my head

Out of her head, she sang

And I wonder

When I sing along with you

If everything could ever be this real forever

If anything could ever be this good again

The only thing I'll ever ask of you

You've got to promise not to stop when I say when!

She sang!

Breathe out

So I can breathe you in

Hold you in

And now

I know you've always been

Out of your head

Out of my head, I sang

And I wonder

When I sing along with you

If everything could ever feel this real forever

If anything could ever be this good again

The only thing I'll ever ask of you

You've got to promise not to stop when I say when!

She sang

And I wonder

If everything could ever feel this real forever

If anything could ever be this good again

The only thing I'll ever ask of you

You've got to promise not to stop when I say when!

Inspirational Music: Shortest Straw, The Unforgiven III, Don't Thread on Me, Through the Never, Of Wolf and Man, Hit the Lights – Metallica; Everlong, All My Life, Best of You, The Sky is a Neighborhood, Big Me, Arlandria, Rope – Foo Fighters; You Could be Mine, Welcome to the Jungle – Guns 'n Roses; Bury Me With My Guns – Bobaflex; Nobody Praying For Me – Seether; Harvest, The Baying of the Hounds, Hours of Wealth – Opeth; Be Legendary – Pop Evil; Back in the Day, Trust, She-Wolf, Addicted to Chaos – Megadeth; Still Counting, The Devil's Bleeding Crown – Volbeat.

AN: I know! I know! A fucking fluffy one shot from me, even if it's a monstrous one that could have been sliced in two or three?! And NO cursing aside from my own? Oh, boy. Is the sky falling down on us? Has the Apocalypse arrived? Man, who knows. Whether this oneshot would change the further development of NGE as we know it…. Well Arael's pretty hefty after eating space burgers for a month or more. Maybe Unit o1 isn't frozen when it arrives, or maybe it is. Maybe Shinji still can't help Asuka in battle, but actually crosses over that line and just sits with her, and holds her hand. Maybe Kaji gives Misato the security codes to Unit 01,s cage, and Shinji goes to rescue Asuka. I don't fucking know. Let your imagination go wild!

Oh, and where was Kensuke in all this? I don't know, doing commando shit or whatever. Maybe he moved away, maybe Zeruel ate him. Who knows?

Now!

The idea for this little one-shot came from my motherfuckers in the AsuShin Trash Discord, and I couldn't be any more grateful for the inspiration and ideas! So: Sexodus, Moonman, Lord Carrot, Erik the Blade, MisterHalt, Richitzer, Dac, CaffeineJimmyyyyyy , skyfox, our Queen Noelle. Thank you! Yall mofockers are real! I hope it's worth the read and is not too OCC. If it is, well, fuck it, one-shots are not my specialty! Many thanks to my mofocker Richitzer for helping me purge the misspelling and errors! Thank you!

A very special shoutout to my motherfucker Pilot_Fair who helped me piece this one-shot together as I wrote it.

To all who took some time of their day to go through this piece, I thank you from the bottom of my heart! Hope yall liked the read, my friends! Remember to eat your veggies, do cardio, and be nice to everyone except cheaters lol. . Feel free to drop a review on your way out! Much love.

PEACE.