Shinji had taken to having his meals in the off-hours ever since the incident in the hallway. The nutrient paste dispensary was automated, so the ship's crew was pretty much allowed to eat anytime they wanted. Taking precautions to avoid the crew as much as possible, Shinji was taking his dinner close to midnight most nights. Though, to be fair, ever since he had donned the arm-band, he noticed very few open acts of aggression from the general crew. He still got a lot of cold shoulders and the occasional sour look, but everyone knew that the Captain had sworn him in. This meant that any mistreatment would result in disciplinary measures from her. And Misato's punishments tended to have much more permanent ramifications than even Asuka's, so people mostly left him alone.
Which was just the way he wanted it.
He hadn't seen a lot of Rei ever since the battle. Ritsuko and Misato had been picking her brain almost non-stop since her latest development, and while the two of them had a regular amount of time to themselves during the Wunder's training exercises and patrol routes, those had become largely silent as of late. They were not technically private in there, so he had not been comfortable discussing anything with an audience. And as soon as they were over, Ritsuko tended to whisk Rei off to the briefing room to once again resume their dialogue, leaving Shinji to his own devices.
If he was perfectly honest with himself, however, he would not have known what to say to her even if they had the time to spare. Things had become increasingly awkward between them ever since that incident in the entry plug before the last battle. He hadn't been sure what to think about that. He was sure Misato had seen them, but so far she hadn't said anything about it. It made tiptoeing around the Captain's gaze all the more uncomfortable.
Also noticeably absent of late were Asuka and Mari. When the two of them weren't strategizing with Maya on future JA deployment, they were running sync tests for Unit 08+02's dual entry system. While he was not particularly eager to see Mari again after her subterfuge, he would have liked to have gotten a chance to talk to Asuka at least, now that he was a full member. He hadn't seen more than the occasional passing glance in the hallway as she made her way to her next destination. He hoped she wasn't quite so angry with him anymore, but his hopes were not high.
The only person who he saw on a regular basis anymore, besides his Captain and the Doctor, was second Lieutenant Suzuhara, who still felt guilty about the incident in the hallway that she had neglected to prevent, and had taken it upon herself to keep on eye on him whenever possible.
"I'm telling you, it's fine," Shinji assured her from across the table in the mess hall as he prodded the gelatinous blob that was supposed to taste like chicken on his tray. The two of them had this conversation about once a day now, but Sakura simply did not seem capable of forgiving herself.
Sakura pouted, unconvinced, as she always did. The mess hall was vacant but for the two of them, so they were speaking much more openly than they otherwise would have been.
"Shinji, I deliberately stopped Ayanami from following you!" she argued. "If I hadn't stopped her, she'd have been there with you!"
"That's a good thing," he replied. "You probably saved her from getting hurt too."
"And if she had been there, those punks might have thought twice about attacking you!"
Shinji absently tongued the dark split in his lower lip that still hadn't quite healed, and never fully would.
"I can take responsibility for my own actions, Sakura," Shinji said resolutely. "I was reckless, and I paid the price. None of that is your fault."
"Nevertheless," she argued, "I was lapse in my duty, and I will take it upon myself to make it up to you."
Shinji just sighed. He had yet to win this argument, and he doubted now would be any different.
He tensed as he heard the sound of voices out in the hallway - thus far, he had managed to avoid running into any of the crew during his meals - but relaxed a little when he saw Asuka and Mari making their way to the mess hall.
As he wondered idly what they were doing here at such a late hour, Sakura perked up and waved to the two pilots.
"Captain Shikinami! Makinami!" she called out. "What are you two doing here so late?"
Asuka's back stiffened after seeing Shinji seated at one of the tables, though whether it was from irritation or some other emotion, he couldn't be sure.
Mari simply waved back enthusiastically.
"Hi, Suzuhara!" she beamed. "Just stopping by for a midnight snack."
"Well, why don't you come sit with us?" Sakura offered.
Shinji and Asuka both flinched at that.
"Thanks!" Mari answered before either could protest. "We'll be right there."
Shinji watched as, whispering to each other, the two of them immediately went to the dessert dispenser, which seeped out a creamy, white, frosty substance onto their trays that was supposed to taste like vanilla ice cream. Having tried it on occasion, Shinji's generous assessment was that it tasted more like a milk flavored snow-cone. Both girls loaded up their trays, grabbed their spoons, and sat down next to Sakura, across from Shinji.
Both of them were wearing plug suits, Shinji noticed. Asuka also had her hat and jacket over her plug suit. They must have been testing well into the night. Dr. Akagi had been training the two of them really hard lately. Something having to do with Rei's prediction of the next NERV attack, he gathered.
"Well, I suppose there's no helping it," Asuka sighed in resignation, clearly still somewhat off-put by their company.
Mari smirked. "Don't be like that, Princess! The more the merrier, right?"
Asuka grumbled and stuck a spoonful of imitation ice cream in her mouth, mumbling incoherently.
"So, um…" Shinji asked, meekly. "How did the activation tests go?"
He knew the answer of course, but he didn't know how else to make conversation at that moment.
"Went off without a hitch, of course," Asuka said dismissively. "I should expect nothing else! WILLE now has a functioning Eva again. Well, half of one anyway."
Mari puffed out her chest, still clearly excited at the prospect of getting to pilot an Eva again. "What are you talking about, Princess? Unit 08+02 is going to be twice as good as either of its predecessors!"
"Yeah right," Asuka rolled her eyes. "Unit 08 is barely half the mech that Unit 02 was."
"You're joking, right?" Mari shot back humorously. "Unit 02 was already missing an arm and half its face, that was before the merging!"
Asuka's face reddened as she looked away. "Sh-shut up!"
Mari just snickered in amusement, before her eyes widened as something over Shinji's shoulder piqued her interest.
"Well, well," she smiled mischievously. "Don't look now, but it appears we have even more company."
Shinji looked over his shoulder and saw another figure standing just inside the mess hall by the doorway. She had on her WILLE uniform, as well as a DSS choker. It seemed that she too bore the responsibility of the world around her neck.
"Rei!" Shinji blurted, completely taken aback.
Asuka raised an eyebrow.
"Since when do you call her 'Rei?'" she asked.
Shinji blushed. "Oh, um…I uh…"
Rei saved him the embarrassment by speaking up.
"I was wondering if I might join you," she asked, demurely. "If that would not be too inconvenient. It is my understanding that dining with others can be a pleasant experience, after all."
Sakura beamed at that. "Of course, Ayanami! Come on over!"
Mari raised her spoon towards the blue haired girl, mouth full of imitation ice cream. "Yay, now it's a real party!"
Asuka rolled her eyes. "Fine, sure, whatever."
As Rei sat next to Shinji, who tried his hardest not to make eye contact with her. As different as she was from her previous self, he still felt himself drawn to the same qualities she had always had. But Fuyutsuki's words still echoed in the back of his mind, and he found himself paralyzed by the conflict.
Asuka observed his behavior with veiled interest, but was apparently not subtle enough to avoid being noticed by Mari.
"Aww, you pretend to be such a hard-ass, but really you're just a big ol' softie, Princess!" Mari laughed, throwing her arm around the redhead.
"Am not!" Asuka complained, leaning away, face reddening.
"Sure you are!" Mari said
She threw Shinji a wink, before snatching Asuka's hat from her head.
"You should have heard how happy she was when you found this hat for her, Puppy-Boy!"
Asuka's eyes widened as she made a grab for it.
"Hey!" she blurted in a panic. "Give me that! I told you not to tell anyone about that!"
Mari shied away as Asuka came at her, delighting in her game of keep-away like a playful animal.
Sakura frowned. "Come on, Makinami, don't be mean."
"Nah-ah-ah!" she teased. "Not until she tells Shinji where it came from!"
"Damn it, Four-Eyes!" Asuka cried, sounding more distressed than she should have been about a simple accessory. "Give it back!"
"Makinami," Shinji said in a low, cautioning voice, looking right at her.
Mari blinked at the sound of his voice and sobered a little at the look he gave her. Wordlessly, she surrendering her prize.
Asuka snatched the hat back, clutching it possessively, throwing Shinji a fleeting but sincere look of gratitude.
Shinji could not help but be confused by Asuka's behavior. There was obviously a story behind that hat, but it was just as obvious that she wasn't willing to share it just yet. And Shinji was not one to overstep his boundaries.
"Really, Makinami," Shinji sighed, softly. "Do you have to be such an instigator?"
Mari stuck out her tongue and pawed the air. "Nya!"
Before anyone else could venture a comment, Sakura suddenly shot to her feet.
"Captain on deck!" she cried, standing upright and rigid.
The rest of the crew wheeled around to see Captain Katsuragi making her way into the mess hall.
"Should have known it was you guys making all that noise," Misato grumbled, sleepily, wearing her usual ensemble, minus the red hat and coat. "What's all the commotion about?"
"Pilots Shikinami and Makinami were having another spat," Rei spoke up before anyone else could think of a proper response. "We are sorry to have disturbed you, Captain."
Misato shrugged. "It's not a problem. Just killing time anyway."
She made her way towards the group, observing them curiously.
"Would you mind if I sat down?"
Sakura tensed, concern evident in her voice. "Oh, Captain, you shouldn't feel obligated to babysit."
"Relax," Misato offered a sardonic expression. "The Captain just wants to enjoy some downtime with her crew. I'm allowed, right?"
Of course, no one would outright refuse her request, so she sat down in the last free seat beside Rei.
"We were just having a debate about which one was the better Eva," Shinji offered, trying to steer the conversation back towards something less touchy, for Asuka's sake. "Unit 02 or Unit 08."
Asuka, seeming to read his mind, leaped at the chance to change the subject back to a safer topic. "It's not even a contest! Unit 02 trumps every other model in its generation!"
Mari crossed her arms. "It was long since out-dated by the time Unit 08 came around. Unit 08's the more advanced model by far!"
Misato mused, pensively. "Unit 08's frame is more durable, but Unit 02 has the higher output, so personally, I'd put them about neck and neck."
Asuka and Mari listened intently to the Captain's assessment, before throwing each other a competitive smirk.
"Of course, Unit 02 has never been running at optimal capacity since the 10th Angel…" she thought idly out loud. "What with its arm and all."
Asuka grimaced at that, as Mari grinned in triumph.
"I'm just glad we have a functioning Eva again," Sakura sighed in relief. "Another attack like that last one, and our JA units wouldn't have been able to compensate."
Misato nodded, crossing her arms. "We would have found a way."
She threw Shinji a knowing glance.
"We always seem to manage," she sighed, somberly. "Somehow."
Shinji tried to smile back at her, but couldn't maintain eye contact. Her stare was just too familiar, even though he knew it wasn't coming from the same place.
Nothing would ever be the same between the two of them again, he knew. Misato was right. Some crimes went beyond redemption. Some hurts just ran too deep for forgiveness. But at least now, she didn't hate him, or if she did, it wasn't openly. At least now, they could move on. And that was enough for now.
"Pretty soon, we won't need the Pipsqueak or Lobotomy Girl in a fight!" Asuka declared, confidently. "Our Evas gonna wipe the floor with anything NERV can throw at us!"
"Pipsqueak!?" Shinji demanded, flabbergasted.
"I beg your pardon, Captain Shikinami," Rei interjected. "But I believe my present I.Q. puts me well above the intelligence of the average lobotomy patient."
"Could have fooled me," Asuka retorted. "And if you're not a pipsqueak, Shinji, than what are you?"
"He's a Puppy-Boy, that's what he is!" Mari declared, teasingly.
"Why can't you just call me 'Shinji?'" he asked.
"Too boring," Asuka stuck her tongue out. "Besides, you're still way too green to get anything cool sounding. How about 'Runt?'"
"That's even worse!" Shinji complained.
"Don't be mean, Shikinami!" Sakura chimed in. "Shinji deserves a better nickname than that. What's wrong with 'Puppy-Boy?'"
"Way too cute and cuddly," Asuka said, rolling her eyes dismissively. "Four-Eyes has some weird tastes in nicknames if you ask me."
"I like 'Shinji,'" Rei said simply. "It is who he is, after all."
Shinji just pouted. "Don't I get a say in this?"
Misato let out a sigh as she shook her head in amusement, watching the pilots continue to bicker.
Mari laced her fingers behind her head and leaned back in her chair as Asuka continued to argue with Shinji, a contented smile on her face as she hummed quietly to herself.
"…and we'll all feel gay when Johnny comes marching home~…"
A/N: Work's been picking up, so I'm a little behind with planning the next part. Hopefully I'll begin posting new chapters before the end of September, but it will depend on my schedule. In the meantime, I hope you enjoyed this little interlude.