AN: I'm a man of my word. I made dis. I sorry if sucks.

Scar Tissue

Epilogue, part 1: Honest Eyes

Here she was again, after promising herself not to set foot in the wretched, hollow depths of the place which soured her daily life, after swearing to every God and Demon in her existence to never, ever be caught in that horrible situation, here she was again.

"Morning, Okada." The neighbor living two doors to their left waved far too energetically for her taste. She bit out a half-hearted greeting and tried to not make her displeasure obvious. "Yup. Walking the dog. Just walking the d- Hey! You, come here. Be nice to the damn squirrels."

The mix-breed shook its head, ears tilted in her direction, and ran back to her side. Shinji constantly tried foolish commands like 'to me, sit, stay'. The hound seemed to grasp her intentions more from her tone than words, so she never bothered to clarify much what she wanted. Its tongue lolled to the side, Kitsune sat and stared at her in expectation.

"Yeah, yeah. Here you go, fetch." A small branch was thrown over to the young trees growing near the entrance of the park.

The slight limp on the dog's hind leg was more noticeable when it ran so quickly, yet it never complained or reduced its speed. There were marks over its muzzle, a cut on one of its ears, and patches of fur failed to grow back on the deeper lacerations on its neck. Most likely it had been forced to wear a collar too small, too tightly and for far too long.

"And off you go, jumping and slobbering over everybody, happy to be patted. Back when the idiot found you, it was more likely you'd bite anyone that came close. Awfully familiar, huh." Swift as the early summer light, a small smirk caressed her features. "Turns out all you needed was for a certain idiot to look past the barking, past the scars. To give you some hugs, some warm food, and…"

Her mouth closed, words choked off by the stares on her back. Not everybody was as ecstatic to see her as Okada; most held no objection to gawking and whispering to themselves. Every time she caught them glaring at her nape, the small group would smile nervously and nod in her direction.

Pathetic hypocrites, she thought while throwing the branch further away. The dog sprinted behind it, and the whispers increased once he was gone. You don't need to glare at the mutt and pretend it's him you have a problem with.

Fame and attention had been so enticing to her once. The Great Asuka Langley Soryu, brave warrior and savior of mankind, would feel no pain or loneliness. The adulation of the masses would envelope her, and she would be cold no more. Such had been the lies she had believed in for so long, but in the end her own subconscious had bellowed out the truth.

The great Asuka Langley Soryu was a sad, lonely and terribly broken girl, grasping at somebody in the dark.

"You won't even hold me!"

A hug, an honest, shy smile, a home-made meal; any of those was infinitely better than empty praise or feigned respect. And now, as if whatever Gods existed found continuous pleasure in her torment, the fame she had chosen to forsake chased her like a curse.

Dried up leaves crunched as the adopted pet trotted over them, signaling autumn had settled in for the first time in fifteen years. Kitsune returned with an entirely different branch, placed it before her feet and sat with an expectant huff. More eyes settled on her back. Her fist curled upon realizing the group's collective gaze fell upon the dog, then jumped back to her tresses.

The stares were there in the mornings as she took the dog out, following each step, measuring her every word, the tone of her voice, and her demeanor with an air of salivating expectancy. The living ticking time bomb, when would she explode? Would they be able to get a front-row seat of what their newfound hero had experienced for months? The Second Child, brave warrior and local nutcase.

Compared to the details of how she and Shinji had survived, testimonies from the security detail and the nurse who had treated him, not to mention local gossip exaggerating those already dreadful eight months, seeing to a rescued dog was nothing. It was all part of her penance, whether Shinji willed it or not.

The invasion and battle had forever changed the city's opinion on the Third Child. His innermost emotions and agony had been broadcast to the world, opening their eyes to the horrors he had endured, the wrath born out of helplessness and solitude burning in his core.

Asuka Langley Soryu was a different matter altogether, as far a society was concerned.

"Stay there," she ordered. Kitsune sat even as she threw the stick, body shaking in expectation. "Not yet."

Just as three of the nosiest females in the complex walked by the stick, she nodded and Kitsune darted in a straight line towards them. The girls shrieked and yelped in high-pitched as their pet dug into the mass of piled up leaves, broadening her minuscule smirk.

"Whoops," she shrugged and suppressed a pleased smile. "Didn't mean to scare you, neighbors. He gets so excited whenever Shinji's not with him, you know."

"Oh, is that so, Ms. Soryu? Such a… nice dog he is," the tallest and oldest offered. "Send our regards to Mr. Ikari!"

"Sure," she bit back, feigning nonchalance. It had become much easier as of late. At least the neighbors tried to be subtle, they were nothing compared to her own schoolmates, or the random person on the street. "Come on, you. Time to go back."

With a nod, she turned back to the apartment building. The morning sun was barely starting to warm the soil, birds chirped with the chilly wind, and the faint sound of cars and people in the distance increased. Before long cars and trains would add their echoes to the unpleasant concerto of machinery. Construction was constant, cranes and trucks were visible from her perch near the gate and more than easy to spot on their balcony.

More than a year after Third Impact, its aftereffects were still evident. The craters, rubble and dust did nothing to halt the demographic explosion that followed her victory, nonetheless. More people moved back to the capital in search of a job, government compensation, or a better life. These hectic strangers flooded the streets. In the few seconds they crossed paths, they glared at any given chance. It angered her how Shinji had to point out those who stared in awe at her presence, since she only ever noticed the disgust and disbelief.

"How can she possibly be allowed near him?"

"Didn't she put him in a hospital?"

"There was talk of sexual assault, as well. Disgusting."

"She fought bravely, yes. But then, is everything she did to him before supposed to be okay?"

Kitsune pushed against her leg, rubbed his muzzle on her palm and nipped playfully at her fingers. The coldness of his nose anchored her to the present, reminding her in his own way to take a deep breath of crisp morning air. It was better to just enjoy the quiet and collect energy for the coming day.

Whatever they uttered or screamed made no difference in the end. She had won, for once.

Victory was the simple pleasure of entering the house and smelling fresh coffee, toast and whatever else Shinji chose to prepare. Speaking quietly at night, the feel of his heartbeat under her hand and the sound of healthy breathing. It was the echo of Misato's laughter as she sat with them and watched a movie, the many times a day Pen-Pen squeaked out his discontent to the dog when it blocked the fridge. Victory was a sunset on a lazy Sunday as he practiced the cello and she read.

"It's all lame, boring stuff in the end," she commented after the elevator doors closed. Kitsune sat without being told to, and barked as if to respond. "Old people stuff. Going on actual dates, going to the movies, knowing the idiot slaved over a meal for me. Even seeing the drunk in the mornings. I wonder sometimes… what Mama would think of all this. I wonder if she'd understand. Heh, even I don't understand it any better after all this time."

The numbers on the screen ticked away, signaling with every floor the ending of her quiet morning. It was easy to pretend it was walking the dog what bothered her, and not having to go through another miserable day in school afterwards.

"I wouldn't worry too much. I mean, we're all so young, right? Soon enough Ikari will realize how horribly he's been treated, and all he's missing out on, and then he'll dump her. You'll see."

Attending school had just recently become mandatory once more, and many a time she wondered why to bother in the first place. Kaji said she was now free from the curse of Evangelion and supposed to be a teenager, enjoying all the wonders of being young along with the aches of growing up. Like I need any more aching in my life. Tch. It'll keep coming, though, so it's best to keep enjoying these mornings.

Her footsteps reverberated through the empty hallway. Very few of her neighbors bothered to even move at such early hours, which made annoying them easy. She kicked the First's door a few times whilst walking by it and snickered after hearing a surprised yelp from Ibuki. Asuka paused before her home, crouched and allowed her armor to peel away for a few seconds as she caressed Kitsune's head. Her gaze softened, fingernails lazily scratching the soft fur under his muzzle.

"I'm the early riser in the house, so it's my job to wake all those lazy bums from their beds. Might as well take you on your morning walk. You wreak havoc on those nosy idiots, I get used to the stares and whispers. We can call it training. How's that?"

A playful bark and stinky breath affirmed the dog's complicity in her precious minutes of solace. The aroma of an omelet and fresh coffee solidified her resolve. Regardless of how horrible a day awaited, or how many nightmares tormented her subconscious, she'd fall asleep and wake up to these mornings.

It was enough.

"The Red Queen, pfft. What a stupid name." Asuka muttered. "At least it was Misato who got me the dumb portrait, and Kaji's keeping his word so far. Life's good, I guess."

Shinji's voice called out from the kitchen the minute she entered the apartment. Her guardian bellowed for more coffee, head splattered on the table, and grunted as a form of greeting. The dog and penguin annoyed one another, and a fresh breeze entered through the balcony door, intensifying the scent of breakfast and home as it caressed her hair and skin.

People would hate and judge, Misato would remain distrustful and, in the end, they'd all eat their hearts out. Shinji was by her side, finding new ways to show her how much he cared, how grateful he was for every day, for every moment.

"I made some omelets," he revealed with a hesitant smile. "Misato had a pretty rough night at work, so I thought a strong breakfast would be good. Is a regular Bento okay for lunch today?"

Her lips quirked upwards. Comfort food. Such was his specialty. "I'll forgive a simple Bento today, granted the food's not bland," Asuka responded.

"Is it ever?"

Misato groaned, Pen-Pen squeaked at the dog and Shinji smiled. Foolish comments and nasty looks were forgotten under the taste of buttery toast.

Victory was sweet. It tasted like comfort food.


"…heard they're even planning another field trip. It's great seeing so many students in school again, don't you think?"

"Uh huh," her female charge mumbled between bites. "Guess the trip to Okinawa's finally happening. Unless the Angels start attacking again."

"Come on, what are the odds of that happening? Besides, the Evangelions are gone. They'd make quick work out of us. The army only ever managed to slow them down for a little while."

"True, true. Look at you making some sense! Is puberty awakening your neurons at last, idiot?"

"I guess so, or it could be your influence on me. With you being so smart and all."

"Smooth, real smooth, Ba-Ka. I'll finish up the dishes, go finish getting ready or we're gonna be late."

For once ever since collapsing onto the table, Misato lifted her head and inhaled the fresh coffee before her. A generous serving of omelet, toast and rice was almost slammed where her head had been nestled, and the cup was refilled without a word or a glance.

Still not a word, she thought, rubbing her eyes. Exhaustion from her latest double shift mingled with hesitation, forcing out a tired sigh. Her stomach churned in discomfort whenever the subject of school was addressed. Damn it. Damn me, and damn those senseless kids.

"Thought you didn't like walking the dog in the mornings," Misato started between bites after the silence grew stifling. Her omelet and toast disappeared in four bites, the only sound aside from the sink running or Shinji changing in their room. Another sigh, longer and more pained. "Noticed you're doing it every day now, though. Poor Shin-chan doesn't even get the chance with you waking up so early."

"I don't like it. I didn't adopt the damn mutt," Asuka clarified. "But someone has to do it, or he'll just start yelping until one of us gets up and takes him to the garden."

The mutt in question turned its head to them both, as though sensing tension in the air.

"He's pretty polite, all things considered. Hasn't left another little present on my rug in months." Melancholy rose up to Misato's chest. "Asuka, listen." The way her ward's shoulders stiffened was unmissable. "The parents of that girl in your class called my office last night."

Really, Katsuragi, really? God, you suck at this so much. How does Kaji make this look so easy? She's gonna throw that plate at the wall, with good reason, all because of your meddling and callous-

A heavy intake of breath and Asuka's back relaxed, leaving her perplexed. "They did? What'd they want? They don't like the fact that their daughter's still alive?"

Misato recoiled at the poison in the girl's tone. "They called to apologize for their daughter's behavior towards you. Both were very… remorseful, and a little scared. Care to tell me what happened?"

"Let's not do the whole 'pretend' game today, how about that?" Asuka bit back with a tinge of spite. "I'm aware you talked to Hikari. So have at it, already. What, I didn't grovel in the ground properly? Should I have laid on my back and showed my belly in submission or something?"

Gotta hand it to her, keeping her voice down like that, Misato thought, surprised. "No, honey, not at all." She spoke with a much softer tone, one she hoped was comforting. "Do you want to talk about the nasty things that girl said? I'm aware you acted very maturely and didn't sock her in the muzzle like she deserved. Hell, I would've hit her at your age. Those words must've been really hurtf-"

"It's fine," Asuka cut in with a shrug. "We've been through this, I'm not your precious Shin-chan. Don't need a pep talk every time some stupid schoolgirl tries to act tough for her friends."

"What she said was not okay."

She noticed Asuka's back stiffen like before. "It's true, though. What she said."

Another pang of agony straight through Katsuragi's heart. She had uttered those words regarding a similar incident not too long ago, but it felt impossibly disheartening to hear the statement come from the strong youth's mouth. "Come on, honey. Don't be so hard on yourself."

The last plate was stacked with less than the necessary delicacy. "Someone has to be, since everybody else is so lenient, the idiot included. You know I hate lies now, so why lie to myself? She wasn't saying any lies, and I only got in her face when she started badmouthing Shinji. You talked to Hikari, she can back me up on this."

Clipped sentences, almost pushed through her gritted teeth. However strong and unaffected she pretended to be, Misato noticed the small note of hurt in her voice. "I'm not blaming you for anything, and you know damn well I'm trying to do the opposite. Let me try, you promised you would."

"Fine," Asuka ground out. "Get it over with before the idiot comes in."

Wasting no time, she enveloped Asuka in a fierce and brief embrace. "They don't know what they're saying… and whenever you feel like talking about… anything, I'll be here."

"Promised you to let you try and do this guardian crap, not spill my guts to you." Asuka patted her arm and squirmed out of the embrace with ease. "Thanks, though. I'll keep it in mind."

"You're not alone, Asuka," Misato intoned. The door to the kids' room opened, so she leaned in to whisper. "And I'm not dumb or blind, at least not like before. It's starting to get to you. If I can see it, that means Shinji can see it. Don't hide this stuff from us."

"Sure, whatever." Her concern was dismissed with a nonchalant wave. "Hey, idiot! You're gonna make us late!"

Drawers closed with a resounding thud, something fell on the floor and then Shinji's voice rang out from the room.

"Coming!" He answered. "Just trying to find something!"

"Bentos are packed, stop looking for them on the counter! Let's go!" Asuka bellowed, foot tapping on the floor.

"Oh, thanks!" Another thud, the sound of a zipper closing and Shinji came running to them, dressed in his typical uniform. He gave his guardian a tiny smile. "Have a great day at work, Misato, and… please don't overwork yourself. It's not like we need the money or anything. Your lunch is on the table. I made it a large one in case you… have to take a double shift again."

Look at him being all nice, worrying about little ol' me. "It was a project that needed finishing, Shin-chan. No more double shifts for a while, thank the gods. Now shoo, you need to get those grades up! No lazing about just because you saved the world!"

Shinji's face flushed, words stumbling over one another in a quiet mess of 'I didn't save the word' and 'I am trying' until Asuka pinched his arm and pointed to her wristwatch.

"Late, late, we're already late! Move your butt, Ikari!"

"Sorry! See you, Misato! Bye Pen-Pen and Kitsune!"

Shinji hurried through the door, in large part pushed outside the apartment by his girlfriend before he could scratch the dog's ear. Said girlfriend lingered by the door, gaze obscured by the first shadow of uncertainty she had seen ever since emerging from the entry plug. Their eyes met for an instant.

"He's gonna realize it soon enough, isn't he?" Asuka inquired, as if to herself. "That it's me they're all looking at now."

If it only were as easy as them all shifting the blame on somebody else, Misato considered with a pang of anger. Too often she wanted to ram a pair of chopsticks into the eyes of every bastard who glared at her children lately. Regardless, I've noticed it in the past few months, the way they leer at her. Ever since that interview with the nurse went 'viral' or whatever, it's gotten way worse.

"Yep, give him some credit, though. I bet Shin-chan already realized it and is waiting for you to bring up the subject. He's probably gone over what he'd like to say a hundred times."

"Yeah," Asuka conceded. "Is your secret mission really over? The idiot's getting worried about you not coming home at night."

"Over and done with." Misato sat back and emptied the second cup. How she missed the days when they were beer cans and not coffee. "Take care of yourself, Asuka. And always remember that you're not alone, not anymore. If you don't want to talk about this stuff with me, there's always Ka-…ji. And you're gone. Of course you are."

The door hissed closed as if to mock her. The girl had long since ran off to catch up to Shinji and Rei, leaving Misato talking to the air, the mix breed snoozing on her carpet, and the penguin now sitting across from her. Pen-Pen stared at her in curiosity after his breakfast beer can was emptied.

"How the hell did that crazy bastard find you, anyway? Not to be harsh Pen, but I thought you were a goner."

Said penguin squeaked in protest, ruffling his feathers to accentuate he was indeed alive. The bird's eyes fell on Kitsune and narrowed ever so slightly.

Misato chuckled and took a third, more relaxed sigh. With the 'secret mission' now over and done with, the trial's sentences in effect, and the latest remnants of SEELE eliminated, she could indulge in a quiet day at home. The shaking voices of the girl and her parents begging over the phone rang through her mind after the first quiet minutes ticked by. After months of an abusive relationship brewing and bleeding under her roof, screams and stutters, broken glass and empty threats, silence felt strange.

The moment her assistant had mentioned who was on the phone, she had naturally feared the worst. It came as no surprise that Asuka was involved in altercations whilst attending school. What continued to shock her, however, was the resolution of most of them being nonviolent. If a discussion ever got physical it was due to someone insulting Hikari, her, or Shinji.

According to the class rep and teachers, whatever basic human decency that had kept the students' mouths shut had eroded with time. There was no limit to the horrid bile Shinji's classmates would spew lately. And yet…

Silence.

"It's frustrating at times, seeing how blind you are," Ritsuko remarked with her bored, condescending tone in the back of her head. "You're looking the wrong way. Not like it'll make a difference in the end, but I'm telling you. You're blind, both you and the brat."

Life had certainly been easier before the war ended. She'd numb herself with alcohol, go through the motions and be oriented by nothing but her desire for revenge. There had been no concerns about her being a proper role model, or how she was supposed to raise two teens who were almost young adults, much less how she was to deal with their extensive, debilitating trauma.

Nowadays, Misato found herself reading books on psychology, parental practices and had systematically eliminated alcohol from her life. Being sober brought no clarity whatsoever to Ritsuko's words and Asuka's actions. The uncertainty was there, slithering in her guts. Suspicion, doubt, anger, frustration. Why was this behavior concerning her?

Why, after all they had shared, were they still unable to communicate?

"I'm trying, Pen," she confessed to the penguin. "We all are. I just wish she'd talk to me more about… stuff. Her life, herself, how she's feeling. Shin-chan does that a little now. I sometimes feel she talks to the dog more than she does to me."

Pen-Pen shot an unfriendly glance at the hound, feathers bristling. He offered little enlightenment that morning, as though more interested in watching her struggle through building healthy communication with her charges. She looked over to the wall where the portrait of Unit 02 hung and smiled.

"I feel like we're making progress, though," Misato admitted. "No more double shifts for a while, maybe I can try to talk to her more often. Can't stand the idea of another quiet hell brewing under my roof."

The girl's slip had been too evident to miss. The granite wall Asuka placed between herself and the world was lowering ever so slowly. Whether this change was good or not, only time would tell.


"And what was this woman responsible for besides the day to day operations and study of the Evangelions?"

The prosecutor looked impossibly foolish after his initial statement and first question. He puffed his chest and stood before his little desk as though wishing to frighten them all. A fool's errand, to try and intimidate Gendo Ikari and his offspring.

"Doctor Akagi was responsible for projects such as the cloning facility where I was created. She oversaw the availability of… replacements, should the need arise."

"So this woman," the tiny man almost screamed. "Along with that man you now call your father, were actively cloning human beings and raising them like cattle to the slaughter! Your Honor, and this is just the tip of the iceberg in their heinous crimes."

Shinji sat on the other side of the massive hall, head bowed and shifting uncomfortably in his chair. The harlot glowered at everybody who dared glance at either of them. Always so pretentious, so protective as of late of the person she had tormented for months on end. The man's words became white noise, while her answers and tone turned clinical.

Describing the innermost sickening secrets of her upbringing was more than unpleasant, yet she held nothing back. It surprised her to see Ritsuko look away in shame or despair more than once, shake her head and basically ooze self-disgust. Neither former Commander denied a thing.

"So, in the end you decided to act on your own free will for once, Ms. Ikari, and rejected the man who raised you like a lamb to the slaughter. The man who wanted to take control of the Apocalypse for his own twisted ambition."

"Yes."

Gendo Ikari's impassive stare worked as a strange anchor throughout it all. He was to be trialed last, once all the compiling evidence and statements were collected. The prosecutor continued to probe with questions and dramatically wave his arms.

Both Ikari and Akagi had turned themselves in, and provided most of the evidence that was to be used against them. Her father had mentioned humans requiring some sense of justice being handed down, some small victory against those who had robbed them of so much. The entire spectacle was useless.

The trial was more of a circus than a formal proceeding.

"And this so-called doctor who treated children as guinea pigs and gambled with human life as a simple statistic… idly frat as the world was destroyed."

"Doctor Akagi tried to stop the then Commander Ikari by destroying the Geofront. However, the MAGI's systems belayed the order." She cut in quietly, and the room fell silent.

"She was also responsible for housing, feeding and medically treating over forty-three thousand citizens the moment she managed to access whatever remained of the Geofront."

"Why, yes, Ms. Ikari, but you must-" the prosecutor tried to interrupt, only to be silenced by a glare from the judge committee.

"She was single-handedly responsible for obtaining the resources used to rebuild not only the city, but this country." Rei carried on, undeterred. "Without her knowledge, it would have been impossible to withstand the attack carried out by the remnants of SEELE. She reconstructed not one, but two Evangelions essentially out of scraps and spare parts, and commanded a battalion of international armed forces in a coordinated counter-attack that saved millions of lives."

The man became smaller, infinitesimal in a room that felt larger with every second. Her expression remained stony, her voice level and barely above a whisper that bounced with an impossible echo through the walls.

"Since we have listed her crimes for the better part of an hour, perhaps it would be wise to say what she has done to atone for them. Shinji Ikari's life was saved by her, as was Pilot Soryu's, not to mention the vast advancements in medicine such as the serum she developed."

As though whipped to submission, the prosecutor flinched and almost disappeared into the ground. The dark shadow looming over the judges lifted, one of them smiled with Lilith's mangled visage. Her own face, butchered and torn in half stared back at her-

"Hey, time to wake up, sleepy-head! Otherwise you'll be late for school!"

Rei rubbed her eyes and stretched in bed with a slight groan. Normally, she'd be the first one to rise and make breakfast for her assigned legal guardian. That morning, however, she felt no inclination whatsoever to leave the apartment. Her body felt heavy, as though bone and flesh were made of lead. There was no sickness rooting her to the covers, just the grim realization that a part of her identity was to disappear.

Maya hovered by the door with a small, melancholic smile. "I'd understand if you told me you don't want to go to school today, you know."

"Good morning, Miss Ibuki-"

"Maya. And good morning to you, too."

"Maya. That is unnecessary. I will attend school as scheduled." Forcing heavy limbs out of the safety of her blankets, Rei gracefully rose and took a deep, calming breath. "The detonation of the remains of Unit 00 and the Evangelion experimentation evidence will take place in the late afternoon."

Gloom simmered in her chest whilst brushing her teeth and hair. The same face stared back from the mirror, the face that was mixture between Yui Ikari and Lilith. Red eyes, blue hair, pale skin. Her life's purpose had been tied to EVA from birth, it was the very reason she existed. And now it was to disappear forever in a ball of fire.

"The facilities, or whatever remained of them, were dismantled yesterday," she whispered while eating breakfast. It was surprisingly easy to speak with Maya. "There no longer exists a place where I can be cloned."

Maya was caring, attentive and honest, even if mostly helpless at how to respond to her statements or doubts. She fidgeted before her, as though deciding how to respond. "Oh, and… do you think that's why you didn't sleep so well last night?"

Dead crimson eyes flashed through Rei's mind along with broken snippets of the dream. "I believe so," she responded. "Perhaps I should speak with Shinji of these strange dreams."

"Well, if anybody knows about strange dreams, it's him!" Maya's attempt at humor fell flat on their living room. "Uhm, sorry about that."

"There is no need to apologize. His nightmares are still frequent, and more than well documented."

"Yeah, heh," the former tech added, and rubbed at her arm with a sheepish grin. "You know that if there's anything else I can do for you today, I'd be happy to. Right?"

"Of course."

Her gaze drifted across the room. It was nice, their apartment, the area felt warm and inviting, well decorated and amiable, the complete antithesis to her former home. Light came from all sides, the windows and balcony offered a near constant brightness which quieted her mind. The misery recoiled even further, permitting Rei to breathe normally again.

"I am grateful for all the arrangements you've facilitated already," she admitted with her best attempt at a smile. The cellphone beeped from its perch on the table. "I had best be going to school. Will you be able to attend this afternoon?"

"Absolutely!" Maya beamed and handed her a small Bento. "My schedule's cleared, I'll meet you by the lookout at… five o'clock?"

"That is acceptable."

Rei left for the door after packing the meal and bowing slightly to her guardian. The mattress where Kitsune snoozed was empty again, meaning the harlot had taken him on an early walk. Caressing the dog's soft fur and scarred snout worked to ease her emotions as of late. He would watch silently and lick at her features while she murmured whatever details the dreams left behind in the early morning hours.

And as per usual, the great Soryu cannot stomach the thought of anybody but her being comforted, her mind mused. No matter, he will be here when I return, and this day is done.

Shinji's smile was the first thing that greeted her once the door opened. Fresh air, the scent of dry leaves and moist earth, the feeling of seasons changing. The songs of birds instead of the hammers of construction early in the mornings, and the scent of fresh lavender instead of oil, alcohol and grease. Perhaps living without a purpose tied to mass genocide was not so terrible.

"Finally up and about. What is it with you two always making us late for school?" Asuka demanded with a bite of sarcasm, hand on her hip. "Time to go! Smirk uncomfortably at your brother as we walk, would you?"

"Asuka, please don't be like that with Rei."

"Ugh, whatever. Anyway, get moving, Ikaris."

The Second huffed and feigned both annoyance and reluctance to be civil, crossing her arms. Rei walked just a few steps behind the pair, minding to keep the glares to a minimum. Both teens whispered harshly to one another for a solid minute until Asuka straightened up and turned, drawing the trio to a halt.

"Fine." She said to Shinji through gritted teeth. "Morning, Rei. This is an important day for you, as I understand, so… if you need a shoulder to cry on or whatever, help yourself to the idiot and I'll do my best to pretend you don't exist. Can we keep going now?"

"Noted," she responded, nodding towards the sidewalk. "If you have other plans, feel free to see to them. Your presence is not obligatory."

"There you go again, cutting so deep. I was only trying to be nice." Asuka smirked at Shinji. "What? I was!"

Of course you were, Rei reasoned with a small sigh. About as nice as you can possibly be with anyone who is not Shinji or Kaji.

It happened again when they were close to the school, after a rather relaxing and quiet walk. She had first noticed it a month before and had shrugged it off as a rare occurrence, yet its frequency increased with every passing day. Being the object of stares whenever she was out in public made Rei very aware of unwanted attention. When people looked at her, however, their eyes widened with wonder, as though watching an exotic bird in the wild or a wild animal in a zoo. Surprise, shock, a bit of fear.

They looked at Asuka with disgust, and addressed Shinji with brimful pity.

Occasionally, the redhead would catch one of them watching and glare back. Some would flinch away, others would just shake their heads in derision. More gazes followed them along the street, not predatory, only dismissive, sickened.

Shinji either didn't notice them at all, or thought the attention was directed at him and blamed himself for their anger with slumped shoulders and his head bowed. Asuka's reactions were infinitesimal enough for the boy to miss them. The muscles on the harlot's upper back would tense, and whatever hand was not holding onto Shinji's curled into a fist for a heartbeat and relax.

Eleven, twelve, thirteen times Asuka's hand curled and uncurled, almost in a mirror image of Shinji, yet no harsh words leaked through, no venom manifested. It infuriated her. It was so easy for you to spew out your rotten soul to him during your time alone, Rei thought once they reached the gate. She struck him, maimed, and humiliated him. And now she holds her tongue against strangers. Very bizarre.

As days passed, the sight of them together became bearable. She clung to the anger and indignation that never left, but simply simmered in the back of her mind. However, bearable was not the same as normal or acceptable, it simply was an ache that refused to dissipate altogether. The two seemed to grow closer with each day, whereas she lost whatever purpose was left and isolated herself in Maya's apartment.

Hours ticked away with the dance of trees outside the class window, as lessons droned on. The branches swayed with the breeze as their leaves turned scarlet and fell on the ground. Autumn was tainted crimson, like Lilith's eyes. It was only fitting the color she detested was everywhere on such a day.

Something tugged at her shoulder, making Rei notice she had been lost in thought even after the bell for lunch rang.

"Do you want to sit with us, Rei?" Shinji asked with a smile. His hand squeezed again, offering reassurance with his calm presence and steady gaze. "I tried a new recipe, hope you like it."

The corners of her lips quirked upwards. She shook her head and opened the Bento resting on the desk. "Thank you. I will eat alone, Shinji. Have a nice lunch."

Shinji's hand hovered a few more seconds. It felt pleasant to know he worried for her, and sought out recipes to surprise her at least once a week. "Are you sure?"

Even from afar, she knew the harlot to be glaring daggers in her general direction. The thought of sitting through false civility during lunch was nigh unbearable when contemplating the damned redhead was to attend the tiny event.

"Yes, thank you," she intoned. "Now be a good brother and go eat your lunch."

Eighteen, and still no reaction. She pondered on the possible reasons the volatile Second Child was still subdued as the carefully arranged meal was consumed. Months had gone by, the grandeur of their victory faded away into a somewhat normal existence, or at least what she assumed was one. The curse of Evangelion was to disappear, her status as a pilot would mean nothing soon.

Only the gossip remained for the hungry masses to consume, only the disgust and morbid curiosity at the relationship the Second and Third Children had developed. At school, where they had been heralded as saviors and thanked publicly by the principal, the dark seed festered. Heaviness infected the air until the pair exited the classroom, as though the students were obligated to hold their breaths in their presence.

Girls who had fawned over the great Asuka Langley Soryu stared, sneered and murmured. Boys who had drooled over her turned away in fear. They no longer stuffed Soryu's locker with love letters, only with 'hate mail' and anonymous insults. And now, after the interview with Shinji's former nurse was televised, the whispers had started. They hissed at one another like snakes, eyes wide and curious, salivating at the thought of a scene, a scandal, something to confirm the interview's content.

The trial and her father's stony face came to mind. All through the proceedings the man had not flinched once. The world squinted down at him, and he did nothing but glare back in defiance. Her fingers twitched at the memory of his glasses breaking under her hold.

Honest eyes, she thought, staring at the empty box. Lunch had been delicious, yet she had barely registered the flavors from the new recipe. They burn. Do they not, Soryu? It is now a curse we share.


"-talk about an idiot. Speaking of which, did you hear of Ken's latest dumb idea?"

"I take offense to that, dick!"

"As well you should, because it's the stupidest thing I've ever heard!"

"Why would I not live-stream my survival camp drills? I'll be famous in no time!"

"Amazing, you've outdone yourself." Asuka nudged his shoulder with a grin. "Can't wait to read the comment thread on your videos, Stooge. Follow your dreams!"

Kensuke puffed his chest and signaled to her. "Thank you! Finally, someone with vision! You should feel ashamed of your lack of faith, Toji. It's just crap. Your attitude, that is. I'll have a legion of loyal followers, and the girls will-"

Shinji chortled into his hand, almost choking on his food. Kensuke's eyes turned glassy, his shoulders slumped as he collapsed back onto the ground.

"You too, Brutus?" He whispered, dispossessed. "Soryu was being sarcastic, wasn't she?"

"I absolutely was not." The girl's addition made Hikari giggle too loudly to pass it as a sneeze. "Reading your comment section will be liquid endorphins! I can't wait for you to start arguing with your own 'fans' online."

"See?" Toji shrugged and wrapped an arm around Hikari. "Told you, dumbass. All Soryu wants is to watch you fail in spectacular fashion, and possibly bask in your misery."

"Correct," Asuka confirmed with a wider smirk. "It learns, Shinji. Maybe it's evolving? I was right all along, it's all Hikari's influence on its cognitive function!"

"Yeah, ha ha. I'm a monkey. Adorable."

"Why, yes. I am. Thank you for noticing. Shinji likes that about me a lot. Don't you, Shinji?"

His face reddened at the question. "I… do, actually," he admitted with a hesitant smile. "But I think Ken should do his video project. He's pretty good at survival skills like making a shelter, finding a water source, or cooking in the wild. I'm sure he'd get actual fans and learn some new things."

Kensuke's eyes glistened once more with determination. "See? Why can't you all be nice like Hikari or Shinji?"

"Because some of us must tell you the cold, hard truth. It's what friends are for, and you happen to blessed with plenty of them," Toji responded without missing a beat. "Also, Shinji's too nice, so there's gotta be something to balance it out."

"Like you being a dick?"

"Yup."

"Damn." Unrelenting, Kensuke produced his video camera. "Too bad for you, then! I will not be deterred! I'll record your lack of faith, and throw it in your face after I succeed!"

"You know, sometimes I wonder if he would've made a good pilot," Asuka whispered to him after Kensuke and Toji started arguing. "And then I shudder. Can you imagine him being a leader in a battle?"

"I think he'd do much better than most people expect," Shinji replied. "He might just surprise you being a great commander one day."

"The monkey's right in one thing. You are too nice. But whatever, I was being honest when I said I'd be interested to see the results of his dumb little project." She leaned back against the wall and grasped at his hand. "Still worried about Blue, huh?"

He nodded, picking up a small piece of sushi and placing it on her Bento. "A little."

"Hmm. She's been quieter than usual, and coming in less frequently. Second time this week she eats alone, too. Hopefully it ends today, though."

"Yeah, I hope so, too. If not, I'll just keep bothering her and reminding her that she's not alone." Asuka's fingers squeezed his. "Thanks for taking care of Kitsune lately."

"Eh, just don't get used to it."

Going along with the game, he pretended to not know how much she enjoyed her quiet mornings with the dog. "You seem to be doing fine considering what's happening today."

Asuka dismissed the heaviness of the event with a flick of her free hand. "I parted with Eva some time ago, as you well know. Made my peace with it and whatnot. Today's just another day for me, so use that energy to worry about your sister dearest."

"I will, Asuka."

"Ba-Ka."

Another smile tugged at his lips, which withered a little when his eyes locked with Hikari's. She was quieter nowadays, always stern in her position as class rep, but fearful when alone. She and Toji ate together almost every day, and he always walked her home.

Just another after-effect of you, of people wanting to hurt you through your friends, his mind remarked drily with a very familiar growl. Pathetic. Look around. It's not in your head, you idiot.

Footsteps reverberated through the hall as a group of girls from a nearby classroom ran near them. He felt it like one of Samael's assaults. Pity. They looked at him as though he was an injured bird on the ground, about to be eaten by a hungry cat. None of the pity was spared for the 'cat' in the equation; he saw the girls scowl at Asuka before they entered the classroom.

The bell rang and students hurried back in class. Hours went by, eating away at his happiness with every crossing glare he noticed. The girl he loved remained impassive, almost aloof, whereas some unfamiliar wrath coiled inside his ribcage and clawed at his patience. Shinji Ikari could be forgiven for letting the world die, but Asuka was to now be treated as a pariah over some foolish interview?

Stop. His eyes narrowed at one of the new students, one who had little qualms about hiding her distaste for his girlfriend. She kept looking at Asuka and rolling her eyes. Stop it. It's rude to stare at someone like that. Can you please stop?

Laughter resonated from the back of his mind. Not the maniacal titters from before, only a dry, short scoff at his foolishness. Of course they won't stop, they never do. Lots of people stare at you in the streets, spit at your feet, try to hit you or hurt you. If Misato and Section Two weren't there to keep you three safe, you'd be long dead. This is the world you chose, Shinji. This is home.

Home, he mused with a defeated sigh. Home is being at the apartment, relaxing while we listen to music. Asuka laying in bed while I practice the cello. Her lessons on grappling and striking. Misato's complaints about her job. But… I also want to be able to enjoy a normal day outside. A movie date. I don't want people looking at her like that. Am I selfish for that?

History droned on after Biology, as nonsense about cells became nonsense about the world before Second Impact. Shinji's gaze drifted towards her. If she said nothing on the matter, neither would he. She's probably trying hard for it not to bother her. Can't afford to lag and simply do as I'm told like before, I have to keep up and be strong today. Rei's counting on me.

What was bothering him so much? Was it truly the attention in public? He had long since accepted humanity's hatred for his inaction and choice, yet suddenly it shifted, targeting his loved ones instead. Leaving the sheer injustice of life aside, nonetheless, something itched. Scenarios started unfolding in his brain as class was about to end. Typing and whispering behind him, the students were surely mocking her and pitying him.

Shinji's hand clenched and unclenched. He took several small breaths to calm his racing pulse.

Asuka's bored eyes went over the girls he was glaring at. Their gazes met for an instant, making him freeze as thought they were caught stealing. She shrugged and shook her head.

It's not worth it. Let them scream themselves hoarse talking crap about me.

Her dismissal should have made him feel better, relieved even. Instead, anger boiled even further. It was unclear what enraged him the most, the insults themselves or her cold indifference towards them. Was he expecting something different? Was he to keep pretending nothing was amiss?

Time flew by without him realizing, and soon the room began to empty. Drifting too much again there, Shinji. Wake the hell up.

Hikari and Kensuke smiled, while Toji grumbled as he cleaned the board. He vaguely recalled the class rep had arranged their shifts so they all could stay behind and accompany Rei to the viewpoint. The first part of the day had flown by, leaving nothing but strange emotions behind.

Asuka's hand slapped the back of his shoulder. "Time to perform there, idiot. Let's bury this curse once and for all."

A long, calming breath and he nodded. "Right."

Rei waited at the door, hands at her sides. At a glance, her features displayed no emotion, the very image of Rei Ayanami as he had first seen her. He noticed the slight tremor of her hands, the lines under her eyes, the way she strained to stare at anything other than the ocean.

Shame overshadowed the anger for the time being. She needs you, since Father is not here. Do something.

"You are making us late," Rei commented. Her attempt to ease the stress was well received.

"Sorry." His hand shakily rose to lay on her shoulder again. "Let's end it. Together."


Her hand twitched, clammy as it was. The lookout's rail had been recently rebuilt and freshly painted.

Why was everything in her vicinity red that day?

The small group was encircled by a tight security detail. No pedestrians could be seen for miles, they were all near the shore, or high up in the hills where the sight was optimal. Hikari, Toji and Kensuke walked behind, quiet. Aida was strangely not recording the event, and instead threw uncertain glances at her every few minutes.

It was humid and cold. The climb up the small mountain was riddled with dry leaves. They lay all over the path in a manner most people described as beautiful. Repulsion jumped at her throat recalling the way Lilith's eyes bled in her dreams. Legs and lungs burning, she had trodden faster without realizing.

Misato was on her left, Shinji stood to her right and held her hand in a tight grip. A few of the crew members, some senile old men she had never seen before, Maya, and Kaji were also present. Everything she had ever been was about to be wiped out of existence.

Even the damned sky was shining a light cherry cue, with a perfect spot at the point where the sun set.

"Here you go, honey," Misato placed a controller in her free hand. "Whenever you're ready. You can take as long as you like."

I feel warm despite the cold breeze, she realized. A gush of wind lifted the leaves and carried them down the small forest. They danced, slowly turning brown and crumbling away into nothing. Dust, it was all turning into dust. A profound agony enveloped her, paralyzing her thumb. It lingered there, set on the button meant to detonate the ships.

One click and it was over. Her preordained fate would end. It was supposed to be a happy thing, Shinji insisted, along with her own creator. Freedom from Evangelion, the chance to find happiness in life. An opportunity to choose, as she had in the end, and strive towards a meaningful existence. Freedom from the shadow of Lilith. She had a somewhat functional social circle, a brother who cherished her, a father who loved her, all of them awaiting after the tanks where she was born was vaporized.

Why do I hesitate?

The grip on the controlled increased. Ritsuko had barely hesitated at pressing the button and eliminating her… replacements. Sisters. Other selves.

I chose this path. I was given the opportunity to return, to be parted from the cycle of death and rebirth. I will no longer be tied to it.

EVA had connected her with mankind, with everyone. Fear, I fear this meager bond disappearing, she realized. Eva might disappear, but its mark upon me will never fade.

Her hair and skin, her eyes and very face were unsightly. Unnatural. Marred to forever stand out as something that did not belong. She had outlived her purpose where Unit 00 had not. There was little connection with the Goliath anymore, not that there had been much of one to begin with.

And yet it hurts to say goodbye.

"It's okay to be scared," Shinji told her, voice barely above a whisper. "I'm kind of scared, too. But we have each other now."

Rei's eyes closed as warmth spread further through her being, combating the fear little by little. She was surrounded by all those who cherished her existence, however freakish it was. There was nothing left to fear, and nothing left to hold on to. Rei Ayanami was no more, meaning Rei Ikari could live.

The click was inaudible. The massive explosion that followed was not.

Unit 00's remains, spare parts of Units 01 and 02, schematics, failed experiments and entire sections of Terminal Dogma and the Geofront melted under the heat of NERV's remaining N2 mines. A bright flame stained the firmament with golden hues. The shock wave impacted the hills as massive waves crashed ashore.

Her eyes stung for no reason. What was so important about a hunk of rotting flesh, a giant cloning tank and some computers?

It is all I was once, Rei realized once tears refused to stop cascading down her face. She allowed herself to be enveloped by Shinji and Misato in a tight embrace. Biding farewell to her former life, she relished in the company of all those who had arrived. Even the harlot had chosen to stay quiet, making her presence not altogether unpleasant.

One final stain faded from the ocean along with the sun. The curse of Eva lifted.

She cried for what felt like hours, and finally, once the sky was dark and all traces of red disappeared from her sight, the second explosion came, and the third, and the fourth.

"Fireworks, huh?" Asuka mentioned. "Nice touch."

The night sky suddenly came alive with blues of all shades, detonations echoed one after the other in a breathtaking spectacle of color.

"Ritz insisted. 'Something for the brats', she said. That's why I had to take that last double shift, clearance, permits and all that crap. What do you think, Rei?"

Never before had the hue of her hair looked so bright, nor so many strays of light so unique.

She smiled, and felt the dark hand constricting her chest relent at last. Lilith was gone.

"It is… beautiful."

Just as the spectacle was about to reach its crescendo, Rei noticed an unfamiliar figure point at the fireworks. A child she did not recognize jumped in excitement and motioned towards the ocean. Next to him, a youth wearing a black sweater nodded, then placed a hand on the boy's golden locks. The larger figure's head turned to her.

Their eyes met under the glow of blue light.

"Hey, look at that! Doesn't it look like Unit 00 a little?" Shinji asked, shaking her out of some bizarre trance. "Hmm, what are you-?"

Both Ikaris turned to where she had seen the boy. Both him and the larger one had vanished, leaving only Aoba and Shigeru being stared at and fidgeting in discomfort under her intense gaze. The boy, she had seen him before. Where?

"Is everything okay?" her brother inquired next.

Strange. I could have sworn somebody… no matter. Rei smiled again and drew her attention back to the beauty unfolding before them. "I believe so," she responded. Her hand squeezed Shinji's with fervor. "Thank you."

"Of course," he drew her in another hesitant one-armed hug. "How are you feeling?"

The lead weighing down her limbs had melted down, the constriction on her chest was gone. Sadness lingered as more of an afterthought. The misery from earlier dissipated with every deep breath, while the fires of a new adventure, a purpose yet to discover ignited in her soul.

"Light."


The rotten wood cracked far too loudly in an otherwise silent morning.

"Look at her holding onto his arm like it belongs to her. It's like that nurse said. She owns him, the poor bastard."

Another log was carefully placed on the chopping board and sliced in half. A strained grumble escaped her parched throat, misting in the cold air.

"It's toxic, it's absolutely toxic. They shouldn't be allowed to be within fifty yards of each other."

"Did you know it wasn't the first time she put him in a hospital? It was a monthly thing!"

The muscles of her back and arms burned and complained at the brutish treatment so early in the day. Shut up, she snapped at the aching limbs and chopped another log. The leftover wood was getting too dry, it cracked under the axe's assault and threw splinters into the air.

Nobody in the building seemed to mind if she or Shinji used the fallen trees as an outlet, then gave the firewood to Kensuke for survivalist antics. Nobody came this deep into the woods near their apartment building, at least not so early. The Section Two agents groaned at each other every time she exited the apartment before 5am.

"That's not even the worst thing. There was sexual abuse. Can you imagine that? Surviving in the hell that was the city right after Third Impact, and getting abused in every way imaginable?"

"And by someone you fought alongside with, too. Everything about it is twisted."

"They shouldn't be together."

"Definitely not. We should do something. Can we do something?"

"It's probably best we stay away. I feel bad for poor Ikari, though. He's the real victim here."

Kitsune sat not too far away, immobile. The dog's gaze followed her every time she retrieved a new log, yet he refused to fetch those she threw his way until her small ritual was complete.

"Yeah. All we can do is try to be nice to him. God knows she's not capable of even that."

"Shut up," Asuka whispered. Realizing how labored her breaths were becoming, she chose a final victim. "Like you know anything."

The wood creaked horribly and almost exploded into tiny pieces instead of cracking in half. Kitsune barked once in alarm after a splinter almost pierced her eye.

"Damn it!" she screamed. "God damn you!"

"She's a monster, but then again… so is he. In the end he let SEELE win, didn't he?"

"Yeah, maybe they do deserve each other. That kid, he was really terrifying during that battle."

"More like every time he fought. Talk about a wild animal."

The axe embedded itself on the chopping block when she next swung it.

"He never had any training, you fat cow!" she exclaimed, ripping the tool from the old log and hacking at it some more. "Shut up, you bunch of ingrates. Shut up!"

Sweat dripped off her chin despite the cold. The unrelenting assault had left two blisters in her hands, something Shinji was bound to notice immediately. Her grip on the handle tightened and unwound a second afterwards, letting the axe fall soundlessly in the snow.

"Keep your damn mouths shut and go back to your miserable lives, cowards."

Asuka took several gulps of frigid morning air, fists curled tight until Kitsune padded towards her and nudged at her hand with its wet muzzle. Her shoulders loosened, and she was able to think clearly again.

"You're a patient one, just like your master," she cooed in quiet grumble, relenting to scratch behind his scarred ears. "Alright, let's get you some actual exercis-"

The dried branches behind Asuka snapped into pieces, alerting her. She was about to reach for the axe, but recognized the person's attire from afar.

"Hey Okada," she greeted half-heartedly. "Little early for you. You okay there?"

"Y-Yeah, I'm fine, thank you!" The girl quickly got to her feet and dusted off the tracksuit. "I didn't see that root under the snow. Thought I'd go for a little run before it gets… loud, you know?"

Great. Tell me all about your morning, why don't you? she thought whilst rolling her eyes. It was impossible to pretend the girl had not just witnessed a small meltdown.

"Good to hear," Asuka patted Kitsune's head. "Just walking the dog."

Okada's frantic eyes looked at anything but her. Terrific, more gossip material for those skanks. I bet she recorded a video or something, her mind bellowed with annoyance. Meh, who cares. Another day another insu-

"They are, you know."

Her foot paused in mid-step, back tensing and body preparing for a confrontation. Asuka's head whipped back in the girl's direction. "They're what?"

"A bunch of ingrates. And a bunch of cowards. Especially those snakes that live in the building."

Taken aback, Asuka struggled for words. "I was… that's my business. You shouldn't have-"

"I don't mean to impose, but I've meaning to say that for a while," the neighbor walked a few steps in her direction until Kitsune growled and placed himself between them. "You're really incredible, miss Asuka. Many of us are… so very glad and fulfilled to see the three of you happy. It gives us hope."

Some unfamiliar sensation coursed through her body when the girl bowed and started walking away. "Huh?"

"And no worries, my lips are sealed. Have a great morning!"

The girl jogged away and faded through the trees. She was used to Shinji admiring her greatness, but this was new. As someone used to being dishonest with everyone, herself included, Asuka could smell a lie most of the time.

Okada's eyes held neither malice nor deceit. The odd warmth eased a bit of her rage once Asuka recalled the girl's words. Not too long ago, I would've flipped out and barked at her for daring to show basic empathy towards me. I would've taken it as pity and bitten off her head. It still feels weird.

Kindness from a stranger, and the emotional maturity to discern it from pity. Another addition in the growing list of blessings her victory had brought about. Asuka smiled.

"Now the penguin lays on my stomach whenever I'm feeling down, or you start making a fuzz so me and the idiot will take you out," she told the dog with a sad smile. "Most of those times we're about to get into a fight too, you clever mutt."

"Asuka," Hikari had asked two days after Unit 00's remains had been blown to bits. "Does it really not bother you? All the things they're saying? Do you want me to go say something? No? But then… how come you don't say something?"

"What, you want me to hit them, then?" Asuka repeated as though Hikari was still beside her. "Fight every third person I come across? Scream until I'm hoarse, make a scene, or walk around with a bat? And embarrass Shinji more than I already have?"

She crouched and wrapped her arms around Kitsune. The dog's gentle breathing reminded her a bit of embracing Shinji, only it was nowhere near as comforting. She patted Kitsune's side hald-heartedly, took a deep breath and picked one of the smaller pieces of wood laying on the floor.

"All right, mutt. Your patience is appreciated, and your silence is golden," she uttered with a laugh. "Blue can't seem to keep her mouth shut when we spar."

One look at the sorry state of her fingers confirmed Shinji would notice before breakfast was over. As if it's not blatantly obvious to him without the stupid blisters. Don't underestimate the idiot. Knowing him, he's probably trying to give you space and let you bring up the subject on your own terms.

Her eyes closed to better enjoy the few last minutes of quiet, while her hand rose to grip the necklace.

"I used to scream for attention, even go as far as hitting Shinji if he didn't provide it," Asuka murmured. She thought of her mother and what advice the woman would possibly provide. "Now I come to have quiet time like a granny. Pathetic."

Kitsune barked at a squirrel, the birds chirped as snow melted off the branches. The cold wind made her hair sway and her teeth chatter. A world filled with snow, a world with Shinji. No foolish comment could ever steal that truth away, their victory was absolute.

Still, when the statements of random pedestrians rang the same as her own thoughts, they stung twice as much. She longed for a hug from her mother, for wisdom and advice she had never gotten.

"Mama," Asuka said to the forest. "I miss you."


Her head smashed against the console one, twice, thrice. The empty walls mocked her inadequacy and cowardice by bouncing back the sound of her frustration.

"My darling," Kyoko murmured back as her hand gently traced the screen. "And I miss you… so very much."

Another episode crashed without warning. The walls, massive as they were, closed in and started constricting, containing, and drowning like a steel prison. Asuka's young features flashed, a sign of the horrors to come. She was brutally transported to the day of the experiment, anchored and forced to live through the torture all over again.

Her soul was ripped away, a part of her consciousness and self was brutally severed, consumed and entrapped within metal and flesh. The fragmented remains of her body and mind began to wither almost instantly after emerging from the plug. Soft fabric akin to that in her hand, a doll she confused her daughter with. She needed to be with her, to love and protect her. Asuka would suffer unimaginable horrors unless she shielded her of them. She needed to be complete, to return to an unbroken state, and take her baby along. Otherwise, they would butcher her.

The noose offered no sweet relief as it wrapped around her neck, only the feeling of her vertebrae snapping and the unbearable silence which followed.

Kyoko vomited all over the floor of her borrowed office whist tremors loosened her hold on the doll.

"G-Get me the medicine," she managed to croak into the comm. Reality spun in and out of focus. "Hurry."

Years of silence and screams mashed together in a horrid living nightmare. Screaming at her daughter through a glass wall, one the poor girl erected to protect herself from the world. Despair at being unable to truly reach out to Asuka struck her like a tidal wave.

Her awareness began to be gnawed at by the very monster she designed, a monster that learned, shifted and evolved. It took pieces of her, few as they were, took pieces of Asuka, and molded itself a consciousness. Like a parasite, it fed off her misery and her daughter's trauma.

Sizzling acid melted her back. Both arms were slashed away like butter, with her head following a second afterwards. It was only the burning in her chest that reminded Kyoko she was not in inside Unit 02 anymore. Asuka's mind was intruded upon, exposed and butchered with her being unable to do a thing to remedy any of it.

Respite was given after more than a decade of torture in the form of one moment. One single moment where her daughter's walls had crumbled enough for her to reach out. And in the aftermath of their embrace, the spear split her arm in half. She was impaled, eaten alive and torn apart.

The needle pressed into the back of Kyoko's neck just as blind rage began to settle in.

A glass of water and two pills were placed on her hands. She consumed both without a second thought while the muscle relaxant unwound her cramped muscles.

"They're manifesting less frequently, these flashbacks," Kaji mentioned with a sigh. He went about cleaning the bile off the floor and settled on a nearby chair once he was done. "You've also decreased the dosages. Here."

Her arms closed in like vices on the tiny doll after the man handed it back to her. "Thanks," she muttered, managing a deep, shaky breath. "What? What are you looking at?"

"You. I'm looking at you," he retorted. His voice, worn as it was, carried a few notes of quiet disbelief. "How the hell did you manage to hunt down the most powerful men in the world, save said world and strongarm entire countries? No offense, but… you're holding onto a doll while trying not to hyperventilate. Again, I mean n-"

"None taken." Kyoko interrupted with a lazy flick of her hand. The tranquilizer made her tongue leathery. "Have you ever heard of Edmond Dantes?"

"The count of Montecristo?" Kaji laughed, making the gloom in the office dissipate to a degree. "Well, I see what you mean. Quite a few similarities, but that still doesn't answer my question."

"'How did I escape?'" she quoted. "'With difficulty. How did I plan this moment? With pleasure. Hatred is blind; rage carries you away; and he who pours out vengeance runs the risk of tasting a bitter draught.'"

Kyoko tapped her temple. "I had so much to do and think about, it kept the worst episodes isolated. I had to dig out every detail from the lives of my enemies, so that my revenge was enacted to perfection. There was no time for existential trauma."

"Hmm, no time," he recited with a wry smirk. "It always felt like the clock was against me. Now all we have is time… and we're too foolish, too broken to use it properly."

The man's gaze softened as it drifted to the paused video feed, where Asuka stood in the forest. "I can't give Asuka what she needs. Half the time I want to strangle the disrespectful ingrates myself."

"So do I, so does Shinji," Kyoko added with a nod. "She's acting more maturely than all of us, at a great personal cost. And I sit here, quivering, puking and drooling like a toddler, like I was still in the psych ward waiting to kill myself."

"The last time we went out you had a panic attack, started screaming and almost murdered that poor lady," Kaji recalled and stretched, rubbing his eyes. "These things take time, and you're doing leaps and bounds in your recovery. I'm sure you don't want to get back to your daughter's life only to be a burden in it."

"I'd seriously prefer death to that alternative," she confessed, producing an old, rusted kitchen knife. The edge was still razor sharp. "So, I just sit, try to get back my grip on reality, and wait."

"Pretty much." The old spy stood and walked over to the door. "How does that line go, again? 'Until the day when God shall deign to reveal the future to man, all human wisdom is summed up in these two words.'"

Kyoko managed a sad half-smile. She'd try another walk outside the next day, and the next, and the next. If her daughter never stopped trying, what right did she have to quit?

"Wait and Hope."


"May we come up?"

A loud groan resonated through the living room, alerting both snoozing pets. The movie froze.

"God, even the music got goofy. As if that sword fight was not torture enough. Look, Baka, they're about to unleash some pathetic catchphrase."

Shinji chuckled at the unrequested commentary. "That's like the fifth time you've stopped the movie tonight, Asuka."

"A classic, at that." Misato grumbled from her chair.

The redhead untangled from their embrace and pointed at the screen. "But it's true! They could've at least tried to sell the action a little more. All that build up for such a lame ending."

"It's not lame, it's romantic," Misato grumbled back, standing to quickly steal the remote from Asuka's grasp. "See, he's reunited with the woman of his dreams, vanquished his foes, learned the true meaning of a good life, and found his happy ending! And his beloved had been waiting for him all along!"

"I think it was a good movie," Shinji stated. As usual on movie night, the young man's comment fell on deaf ears.

"He went through this intricate revenge plot and in the end, he gets a happy ending up in a tree? What's that all about?" Asuka argued back. She settled back beside him and took a possessive hold of his arm. "Some lesson there. Get rich, crush your enemies, grab what's yours and screw everything else."

"Exactly!" their guardian agreed. "It's both badass and romantic. Like you two."

Feeling the girl twitch beside him, Shinji laughed again. It felt good to laugh, to enjoy a simple Saturday night at home with his family.

"You just don't wanna lose," Asuka muttered once he drew her closer. "Going all sappy and nonsensical."

"Right, because I really need to win this argument on whether or not a literary classic is lame to you." Misato emptied her one weekly beer can and rewound the tape. "Now be a dear and cuddle so we can finish this movie and go to the next one!"

"May we come up?"

"You find your own tree."

Heh, that's right, he thought with a smile. We worked hard to get here. This is ours, our happiness. His head lay on top of the girl's golden mane, eyes closed. And nobody's touching it, ever.

"Okay, so it wasn't that horrible," she conceded whilst the credits rolled. "Nice touch there, how he politely tells them to get lost."

"Aha!" Misato exclaimed, grinning at the pair. "A standstill! Come on, there's lots of great messages in this movie. And the book is even better, you should read it."

"Spoken like a person who actually reads, bravo."

"I read reports all day, what are you talking about?"

"Whatever."

It was rare enough that Asuka let herself relax enough around Misato to watch a movie, rarer still when she relented on an argument. About halfway through the movie the girl had moved closer, allowing him to venture into embracing her in front of their guardian. On such nights he would be banished from the kitchen; neither female allowed him to work or clean on Saturdays.

"I still don't get why you two behave so weird sometimes. You're a couple. Own it, even in front of me!" Misato yelled from her room. "Remember to use protection, though."

"Shut up!" Asuka snapped, flustered. "J-Just pick another damn movie and stop being annoying!"

The teens exchanged a shy glance and looked away. They kept most details of their relationship a secret, and public displays of affection were still a challenge, even at home. Misato rarely intervened. She allowed them to explore their bond as slowly as they saw fit.

"You've been really quiet lately, more so than usual," Asuka's voice whispered near his ear. "What's up with that? Blue been too annoying with her existential crisis?"

Well, you've been strangely quiet as well, Asuka. Shinji looked up at the ceiling to flee from her inquisitive gaze. Why couldn't Misato hurry with the second movie? Spit it out, coward. Don't you dare run away from her.

"Not really. Rei's doing great, all things considered. I just… I've been thinking," he started. "Ever since that… interview… came out, I've been hearing people say things. Very mean things about… us. About y-."

The phone started ringing at that precise moment, cutting him off.

"Shin-chan, can you get that, please? I've been waiting on a call from work!"

"Uh, sure!" Giving Asuka an apologetic glance and resisting the urge to curse out loud, he rose from the couch. "I'll be right back."

He felt Asuka's steady gaze follow him through the living room, devoid of any anger or disgust. At times when they spoke, the memories of their months alone resurfaced and he would flinch away out of instinct. Her eyes would widen, filled with hurt and what he recognized as guilt, yet she would not look away.

"Hello, Katuragi residence," Shinji muttered, distracted. At long last he had found the courage to address what was bothering him. Misato's work schedule could wait. "I'll pass you over to Miss Misato right aw-"

"I-Ikari? Is that you?"

Shinji's brow furrowed in surprise. "Hayase? Uhm, hello."

"Hi!" the girl replied. Strange, very few people had their home number, and a schoolmate so casually greeting him was certainly not one of them. "Sorry to bother you so late, I got this number from Rei and I… uhh… I…"

"Yes?" said another voice, clearly older. "Get on with it, young lady."

"Huh?" He stared at the phone with renewed shock, and a sinking feeling in his gut. "What… who's that?"

"That's my mom. Uhm, okay… listen. I was really hoping to get you on the first call, God this is awkward. You see, the thing is that the girls and I… I really didn't know what I was talking about yesterday. What I said was wrong. And it was… it was really mean."

Heart thundering in his ears, Shinji turned to look over at his roommates, who were already engaged in another discussion on which movie to watch next. He fiercely gripped the phone and felt his nostrils flare in anger.

"What do you mean?" he asked with as level a tone as possible and dared another sideway glance at the living room. "What happened?"

"W-Well, see… d-didn't you hear? The class rep took us to the principal and everything."

The day before, Asuka and Hikari had chosen to eat alone. The phone cracked lightly under his grip. "I see," he ground out. "I haven't heard anything about it. Can you please tell me what happened?"

Arguing from the other side of the line. A male voice demanded the girl continue whatever confession she was supposed to carry out. The sound of chains rattling came from deep within his mind when the girl began shakily retelling her former statements. Whatever pleasant mood his calm Saturday had provided melted away with each word his classmate said."

It was only after Asuka called him back to the couch that he remembered they were supposed to be watching another movie.

"…but we were only kidding, you see! I didn't mean anything by it!"

"You didn't mean anything by calling my girlfriend a horrible monster. A criminal guilty of months of abuse who should be in chains or a strait jacket," he muttered into the phone, forcing his body to unwind. "I'm sorry you and your friends were inconvenienced. Thank you for calling, I'll extend your apology to my girlfriend. Please send my regards to your parents."

The world around him was reduced to an ominous white noise as his feet carried Shinji back to the couch. Had his last sentence sounded like a threat of sorts? Was the girl calling only due to fear of consequences? Why had Asuka told him nothing of the situation, and how blind had he been lately?

Another hour drifted away with the sound of explosions, terrible dialogue and screams mingling with Asuka's commentary on how boring this other movie was. Reality felt intangible; he responded to questions robotically and barely understood what was said. Something crawled and bit from the pit of his stomach, making the scars on his hands and chest burn.

Memories intermingled with the action scenes in a bizarre collage. The many times she screamed, when she hit him, when she came to his bed at night, broken and afraid came alive as the main characters argued with each other on screen. What right did the foolish classmate have to insult Asuka like that? Whatever had happened was their business, and theirs alone.

When he next came to, the credits were already rolling. Both Misato and Asuka had fallen asleep at some point, with the former stretching all over her chair, and the latter trapping his arm in a fierce grip and collapsing on him.

Shinji gently untangled himself from the embrace, turned off the TV and lights, guided their exhausted guardian to their bed, and carried Asuka back their room. She wasted no time in ensnaring him onto the mattress and relaxing completely the moment her hand lay on his chest.

"…that movie was dumb," she managed in between yawns.

He smiled a bit despite the rabid thoughts swimming in his head. "Yeah, lots of booms and screams. It was so boring you fell asleep."

"You're just that great a pillow." Asuka growled, took a hold of his head and planted a sloppy kiss on his lips.

"Glad to be of service," he growled back once they separated and settled in bed.

As usual, her scent and body warmth instantly defused the brewing rage in his chest. She tapped on his sternum thrice, then pinched his skin when he offered no response.

"Ow."

"Idiot." Her finger traced the largest scar around his ribcage. "You're gonna finish that question you were asking earlier?"

And you thought you were getting away with it for another day, he thought dispassionately. "Uh… it's kind of late, you know. We can talk about it tomorrow."

"Whatever you say," Asuka commented amiably. "Hey, it's been a few days since either of us had a bad dream, isn't that crazy? I'd almost forgotten what it was like to not wake up screaming every morning."

More than a week had gone by without him twitching or screaming into consciousness. He slept long, and if allowed, well into the early hours of noon, as though his body was cashing in every hour of rest it was owed. His nightmares were few and far between, with the monster his subconscious had created mostly absent.

"I know, right?" He brought her closer and grasped her hand with his, careful not to upset the healing blisters. "Never took you for a morning person."

"Mornings are nice and quiet. Besides, someone's gotta take care of that mutt of yours, otherwise he'll be leaving nice little presents on Misato's new carpet."

"Sorry."

"Ugh, stop apologizing and get some sleep." Asuka placed a quick, fervent kiss on his cheek "Shinji," she said, voice growing infinitely quieter and more somber. "You know, right?"

"The feeling's mutual."

"Of course." His fingertips grazed the edges of her obliques, settling in between two of the many entry wounds the lances left behind. "And you know, as well. That I… lo-."

"Damn right," she interrupted, stifling a yawn. "It's you and me, idiot. And maybe your little sister." He nudged her side. "And the drunk with her stupid penguin." Another nudge. "Kaji as well." Shinji pinched the skin around her belly. "Fine, the mutt too, geez."

"Broken, sensitive, and simply different from before," he recited. "But stronger, because it's already been hurt, and managed to get better."

"Scar tissue," Asuka murmured, failing into a deep slumber.

Perhaps it was all in his head, perhaps it was better to let everything be. The classmate's squeaky voice, ridden with false guilt and forced politeness resonated within his thoughts. He remembered the neighbors' remarks, the way they had stared at him like children caught doing mischief after realizing it was him taking Kitsune on a walk, and not Asuka. He felt observed, intruded upon, pitied. Old wounds stung, burned and ached well into midnight.

"You're mine," Asuka pleaded in his memory, eyes filled with hate, love and longing. "You're mine, and you won't hurt me."

For the first time in over a month, sleep refused to claim him. The girl's words brought upon horrid visions of Unit 02, eviscerated and torn to pieces, of a red waste, the stench of blood and the feeling of his skin burning. Cheap broth mingled with salt and sand in his mouth, knuckles smashed against his face. Useless, worthless.

"-said that she was a… uhm, a bitch. But I mean, come on! We're taught to uphold all these moral values, and then she gets to step on every one of them and live a norm-ow! I'm sorry, mom! But it's the truth! You saw what that nurse said; Soryu hospitalized him! Because he wanted to hold her!"

They spewed nonsense and never stopped to think how she had been torn apart, or how her very purpose had been ripped away. Watching her be butchered alive was not enough, they now judged how she had managed to survive afterwards. People who had been only too happy to hold her up as a glorious survivor now turned their backs, choosing to glorify his cowardice instead.

Shinji's hand clenched and unclenched, eyes fixed on the circular mark his teeth has left behind. He stared at it until Asuka stirred. The birds started singing, so the girl kissed his cheek in the early hours of the morning and left to walk the dog. He pretended to sleep until the apartment door closed, then forced his tired limbs upwards.

"Idiot," he spat out with disdain. God, he still made himself sick. "Spineless idiot."

Strained muscled and a headache assaulted him in seconds. He walked over to the window, rubbed at his eyes and tried to stop thinking about the classmate's words. Locating the mane of golden-crimson tresses was easier than usual. It had snowed the night before, painting the city with a fresh, inviting radiance where the girl's hair glistened like a jewel.

No running away, Shinji. Despite having slept nothing the night before, he felt full of nervous energy. If you don't try, you can't fail. But if you don't try, nothing changes.


"Fifteen pounds under his ideal weight. Broken ribs, broken arm, broken finger. Lacerations. Burns."

The dog threw snow on her coat as he dashed after the branch with a happy bark, tail wagging behind him. The scratches on his hind legs came into view.

"Permanent disfigurement," said Asuka, turning to ensure she was still alone in the yard. "Wounds that threatened his heart, his internal organs, his ability to breathe and walk."

The mix-breed retrieved the correct stick for once. She threw it further away with a grunt, turning to stare at the band-aid on her fingers. She would have cut off any questions regarding them before. Now she longed for the moment when Shinji asked.

"Even if it's just to blow him off," she admitted with a smirk. The dog returned with a new, larger branch. Asuka scratched it on the back of its ear, near the largest scar.

"I don't need anyone."

Kitsune barked at her face, as though disagreeing with the statement.

"I don't need anything. Not a mother, not a friend or a guardian. I can live for myself. I'll never cry." The branch flew away and sank in the snow, but the dog stayed put. "Telling myself those lies over and over, even after the end of the world… eventually led me to almost killing your master."

A branch cracked behind her, turning the dog's curious gaze from her to the newcomer. Ugh, this Okada is getting a little too chum-

"And then you ran to the phone," Shinji added. Her eyes widened. "You helped through every step of my recovery. Saved my life, pretty much."

"W-What the hell are you doing here, idiot?" She glared daggers into him. "And you only needed medical attention because I caused your injuries."

Shinji pointed to her arm. "And I caused those injuries. Left you alone after that Angel violated your mind." He gave a dry chuckle, breath coming out in large clouds. "We can go back and forth all day like this. We've done it before, you know."

Asuka rolled her eyes and threw yet another branch. Kitsune chose to stay beside Shinji instead of chasing after it. "Ugh, I know. Stupid mutt. So, what's up?"

Trying to stretch out her good fortune as far as possible was only expected, therefore she did not blame Shinji at all for not speaking with her before.

"Your hands," Shinji uttered. "Those blisters. T-The things that have been happening at school."

She crossed her arms and looked away. "What about them?"

"I can't help if you don't let me, Asuka," Shinji replied with a more serious tone. "Why haven't you said anything?"

"Said anything about what?" Relentless, she fought against being deprived of her small paradise. Asuka's hand shot up to the necklace. "Some airhead idiot girls talking at lunch? Who cares about any of that?"

"It's… dumb, I know," Shinji elaborated, scratching behind Kitsune's ear. "But I think I care about it. And I think you do, as well. It's getting a little out of hand."

Not to me, it isn't. At least they're nice enough to whisper most of the time. Her heart danced upon seeing him, unbeknownst to Shinji. She pouted and focused her attention on the old, ragged tree, letting annoyance hide away the relief.

"So what? People will talk, it's what they do. What about it is so import-"

"Not too long ago, and for many years in your life," Shinji gently interrupted, and closed the distance between them. "Unit 02 and being recognized as the top pilot were the only things you cared about. What people thought of you. Being special, being needed, all of these things."

"So you're saying I'm not special without my Unit 02?" she snapped without realizing. Her voice thundered in the early morning hours. "That I'm just a waste of space, an abusive little monster who only knows how to brutalize people? That the only reason I'm not behind bars is because I was an Eva pilot? Is that what you're saying?"

Shinji stood before her with a sad smile and placed a hand on her shoulder. "No. That's what you're saying. And I think the reason you'd ever tolerate anybody speaking about you in such a way is that… you believe those words to be true."

"There's nothing to believe," she retorted sourly, eyes glued on the damaged tree bark. "They're not lying, none of them are. What's the point in getting angry?"

"I'm getting angry." Shinji's hands gripped her own and squeezed the healed blisters. "I can't stand people speaking about you like that."

"It was that stupid little Hayase, wasn't it?" She tried to deviate, to stall, and closed her hands into fists. "Tsk. Told Hikari the bimbo wasn't worth the trouble."

Laying a hand on top of her knuckles, Shinji finally caught her eyes with his. "Please stop saying that," he said, and tentatively embraced her. "Hikari is intervening because you won't. And because she's your friend, she cares about you just like I care about you."

"People used to badmouth you all the time, Shinji." She tried to disentangle from the hug, to no avail.

"Yeah, and you hit them with a bat if they did so," Shinji replied with ease. "I just want a bat of my own, or a metal pipe. Maybe a taser."

Shinji's cunning response made her teeth grind. She shook her head in derision. "As if you'd walk up to somebody and hit them with a bat, or tase them until they piss themselves," she mildly argued. "Nice try, though. At best you'd walk up to them and politely ask them to stop."

"Does that mean I can? Because I'd like to."

"You'll just get yourself into ugly situations that can escalate into fights. Let it be, idiot."

"Fine. Still, that's not what... that's not the reason this whole thing makes me angry."

"Enlighten me, then." Asuka's arms snaked around Shinji's neck. "What's making the big bad Third Child, crusher of Angels and Demons, angry? You better not start another Armageddon over some tasteless jokes at our expense, you hear?"

They shared a brief laugh, one which overjoyed their canine companion, then fell back into silence. Just let it rest, Shinji. It's not a part of who we are anymore, and that's okay.

"I-I'll try not to," he agreed, clearing his throat. "Why do you say they're telling the truth?"

Ouch. She almost recoiled. Way to aim, Third. Jeez.

"Because they are. I did all the things that they say I did, the good and the bad. They're just focusing on the bad right now."

"You don't deserve those insults."

Anger finally bristled hot and rancid enough in her chest to step away from Shinji. "Oh, and you did? Did you deserve the things I did?"

She watched Shinji recoil and hated herself for it. "T-That's different."

"How?" she shot back, pushing her hands into her pockets. Her voice became quiet and bitter. "Is it okay for people to talk shit about you being a coward, or the sole reason the world ended? Was I punishing you on behalf of mankind for Third Impact? How is it any different?"

No response came.

Asuka nodded to the snow. "For the longest time, neither of us thought we deserved to live. Now we're living, Shinji. Living. You still believe in your heart that you deserved the things I did, the things I said. The moment you stop doing that, I'll stop thinking I deserve those comments from the public. How's that?"

"Can't I just be angry at strangers being rude to my girlfriend?" he demanded, clearly frustrated.

Heat rose up to her face. "T-That's not the point, idiot!"

Shinji's own features twisted with anger. He turned to ensure they were still alone in the clearing. "How can you believe you deserve to be called a monster? I'll never be okay with that."

"Right back at you, Shinji. We're not monsters. But we have done monstrous things, and we're trying to atone for them," she replied a determined smirk. "No pathetic gossip whispered between schoolgirls or pedestrians too afraid to look me in the eye will take away my victory."

"So you want me to do nothing? Is that it?"

"Yes."

Her lips curved into a confident smile. Where once crippling doubt and uncertainty had plagued her, now lay a strong, unshakable foundation sturdier than Unit 02. She was Asuka, and Asuka was no monster anymore. "Don't waste your energy on them. Use it on making us hot cocoa on Sunday mornings like this one, instead."

"Asuka, what are y-"

"It's a cheap price to pay for this great life we have, idiot," she elaborated, eyes softening. "What I've done will never be okay. Never. But somehow, we were given this chance." She pointed at the dog, motioned at their apartment building, and grasped at her necklace. "Even if I don't deserve it."

"What you don't deserve is the treatment they're giving you!" Shinji bit back at last. She found it endearing, the way he was quiet even when angry. "Just a few months ago everybody was hailing you as a hero, and now they suddenly change their tune? What right do they even have to meddle?"

"You're going in circles, Baka. They have no right to meddle, but they will anyway." She nudged Shinji's shoulder. "All we can control is how much we let it affect us. We already chose to be together, to be this." She offered a light punch to his arm next. "No matter what."

"If you're so okay with this, then what's up with the blisters?" Shinji asked instead, not relenting.

"What, I can't get upset when someone badmouths my boyfriend?"

Shinji's face reddened with anger. "You're not making any sense!" he exclaimed. "I'm not going to stand for this!"

Her temper flared alongside his. "So, what are you gonna do? Climb in your Eva and trample on civilians who annoy you? Or maybe strangle them one all at once while the world ends?"

Kitsune started whimpering and placed himself between them. Her anger quenched and smoldered back into cinders. Keh, stupid mutt. I know you're trying to help, but it's pointless.

"We're not Eva pilots anymore, Shinji," she concluded, feeling whatever wall had risen between them the night before become much higher and thicker. "We're just… us. Isn't that enough?"

The silence was constricting, choking. She felt something crack but not fully break within when Shinji started walking away.

"I think… I might need some time alone," said Shinji. "A lot of what's been happening doesn't sit well with me. I don't understand why you didn't tell me about what happened in school, and… and I don't want to hurt anybody with my bad mood right now. Some of the things I've been hearing, they brought back memories. Thoughts, emotions. Things I need to figure out."

Memories of what I did to you, you mean. And now I'm not letting you defend my honor, like that guy from the movie. I'm probably the worst damn girlfriend in the world.

"That's okay," Asuka took a deep, calming breath of crisp morning air. "I could use some time alone with the drunk, anyway." Pain tugged at her chest, pressing like a needle in her ribcage. "Today's visitation day at the prison. Your sister will probably be there."

"Yeah," Shinji's hand clenched and unclenched. He turned back to the city. She realized how he was dressed, with a small bag on his shoulder. "I think I'll pay Ritsuko a visit, maybe walk a little."

"Tell the Blonde Bitch I said hi."

She was rewarded with a forced smile and a nod. "Tell Misato not to worry, please."

"Sure thing." Running towards her unsuspecting boyfriend, Asuka jumped on his back and gave him a fierce hug. "Take care of yourself. And try not to do anything stupid."

"I will," Shinji's arms came to rest on her own. "Thank you."

"Idiot."

Her hand rose to grasp the back of Shinji's shirt once they separated, and he began rummaging through the backpack. An abrupt wave of uncertainty assaulted her senses. "You're… coming back, right?"

A warm thermos was pushed into her hands as a response. Shinji gave her a sad smile and pointed at the necklace.

"What does my heart tell you?"

He faded away into the crowd of people hurrying to their jobs, temples, or wherever they went on a Sunday morning. Kitsune licked away at her knuckles as he sniffed the container and sat next to her, tail wagging. She came to, opened the lid, and was immediately assaulted by the scent of hot chocolate.

"He's such an idiot."

To Be Continued…


First of all, a great round of applause and a hug to my brothers MisterHalt and Su-Exodus for revising this! Love you, you magnifiscent bastards!

AN: Cliff! I'm working in part 2 and will surely have it up in ten days or so, this won't another year long hiatus, no worries. So… what do you think? I wanted to give out an idea of how life now for the kids after ST, just paint a picture of sorts, hopefully not a shitty one. As always, changes may occur as the chapter is revised and feedback is received, but the overall product will remain as is.

This was originally supposed to come out on my birthday, then on skyfox's and Erik's birthday, but stuff happened. Broke my arm, surgery, dog died, marriage. You know, life. Any and every type of feedback, comment or thought is more than welcome! I'd love for this thing to be good, and of course this right now feels incomplete without the second half. Just bear with me for a lil and I'll deliver!

My final notes (rant) will be enclosed with the next chapter, along with possibly exiting news about a new story dedicated to snips of the ST cast as years go by. For now, I'd like to thank you so very much for taking the time to read this! I'd love to know your thoughts of this small teaser! Please remember to stay healthy and eat your veggies! Feel free to review on your way out!

PEACE.