While the hull of AAA Wunder was nearly two kilometers in length, the actual liveable space inside it did not offer much room for its crew to truly stretch, train, or otherwise move around. Outpost Zion, on the other hand, had a full-sized gymnasium for the purposes of training and recreation. There were several indoor athletic courts that could be reconfigured to play soccer, basketball, racquetball, and rugby, as well as a decently sized swimming pool. There was also a martial arts dojo, complete with floor mats, training dummies, pads and other sparring equipment. There were other areas of the base where the crew regularly trained with military hardware for more intense combat scenarios, but the gymnasium was specifically designed to allow the soldiers to stretch their legs and blow off steam.
Some more than others.
Mari offered an impressed whistle from the bleachers as she watched Asuka, dressed in a WILLE issued tank top and athletic shorts, hurl an unfortunate and similarly attired Shinji over her shoulder and onto the floor mat with a dull, audible thud.
"Oof!" he grunted in pain as he made contact with the floor, before wincing up at the redheaded Eva pilot, a pitiful look in his eyes. "Ow…"
Asuka glared down at him with her good eye.
"Come on, Shinji!" she complained. "It's like you're not even trying here!"
The boy closed his eyes, trying to catch his breath, before slowly, achingly getting back to his feet.
"I thought this was supposed to be training," Shinji grumbled, wrinkling his nose. "Why does it feel like all you're doing is beating me up?"
Asuka rolled her eyes and shook her head. "You're gonna need to toughen up a bit if you get into another scrap like what happened the other night."
Shinji hung his head, a guilty expression on his face. As far as he knew, no one else knew about what happened when those two boys had cornered him in the hallway, at least as far as Asuka's part went. He had a sneaking suspicion about Mari - that girl had a way of finding things out that simply boggled his mind - but Shinji himself, per Asuka's instructions, had not so much as told a soul about how she had saved him that night. Not even Lieutenant Suzuhara, who made a habit of bringing the topic up time and time again, even over a month after the fact.
Asuka saw his withered expression and seemed to decide to take pity on him.
"Alright, come on," she said, ushering him forward. "Let's try a basic stance again…"
Shinji followed her lead and stood next to her on the mat, widening his stance to match hers as best as he could. Asuka's fighting style was an unpredictable and ferocious mix of Judo, Tae-kwon-do, kick-boxing, and a healthy dose of good old fashioned street-fighting. The combination made Asuka a fearsome fighter indeed, and Shinji would not give himself ten seconds were he to truly find himself on the wrong end of her wrath.
"Don't lean forward so much," she barked at him. "You make your head into a target."
Shinji leaned back and he felt himself coloring under Asuka's intense scrutiny. As easy as she made it look, she was still sweating from the workout, and the skin around her neck and exposed midriff was glistening under the ceiling lights overhead.
"Widen your stance," she ordered as she circled him. "Imagine you're sitting on a horse."
Shinji tried to obey, but the position was uncomfortable to his untrained legs, and his body had already received a good deal of punishment that morning.
Asuka groaned. "I suppose that will have to do. Now, watch what I do here…"
Shinji's eyes widened as she approached him, slowly grabbing him by the wrist in a demonstrative fashion. As much as he objected to being manhandled like this, Asuka's intensity was hard to deny.
"First, you push your attacker off balance," she said, before planting her foot outside of his own, so that her leg crossed over his. "You can accomplish this by a number of ways, but I find the best way is like this. Then, you position yourself like a roadblock in front of them…"
She tugged his arm, twisting to face away from him, and he felt himself stumbling forward as she pulled, tripping over her foot where she had planted it, and bumping into her awkwardly, and not for the first time that morning did he notice how tightly her black athletic shorts clung to her backside.
"Uhh…" he muttered, face reddening, growing more and more uncomfortable from the proximity. His own close-fitting gym shorts were doing him no good in these conditions, and he was becoming increasingly terrified that she would notice.
"Keep your feet planted firmly…" Asuka said before jutting her hips back into his, pulling his arm forward over her shoulder, making it impossible not to bump into her backside. "Then as they tumble forward, you…"
She suddenly stiffened, before whirling on him, an outraged look in her eyes.
"What the-?" she shouted. "Are you…!?"
Shinji's beet red face told her all she needed to know, and she pushed him away with lightning speed, sending him sprawling on his back.
"You fucking pervert!" she blared, face red and enraged. "Is that seriously all you can think about in this situation!?"
Shinji didn't even register the sound of Mari cackling like a hyena from the bleachers. He just sat where he had fallen, head lowered, arms crossed over the shameful bulge in his shorts.
"I'm sorry, alright!?" he blared, still blushing. "I can't exactly help it, you know!"
Asuka glared down her nose at the boy.
"Do you have even the slightest control over your impulses!?" she asked in exasperation. "Come on, Shinji! You're a soldier now! You're supposed to at least try to overcome your body's limitations, you idiot!"
Shinji knew he was pouting like a child now, but he didn't care.
"I said I was sorry!" he grumbled. "And you're not exactly making it easy here!"
"Easy!?" Asuka's eyebrows flared. "I'm sorry, but do you honestly expect me to go easy on you after all this time!?"
Shinji just glared, looking away. He knew he'd said the wrong thing.
"You may think you've seen some shit, Shinji," Asuka glared at him with her good eye. "But you've had it a lot easier than most of us here on this ship! You've been hibernating through this entire war! The rest of us? We've been living it!"
Shinji couldn't meet her gaze, even as she stood right over him.
"Do you think any of us have had it easy!?" she demanded. "Do you think any of my training was easy? Do you think fighting this war day after day has been easy?"
She leaned down at him and jutted her thumb at her eye-patch.
"Do you think surviving this was easy!?"
Shinji withered under her gaze, his guilt flaring up once again, both for Third Impact, and for failing to save her from the 9th Angel. He wasn't sure if she was aware of it, but the eye-patch she was pointing to had started glowing an intense and angry blue.
The glow did not last long, however, and soon, Asuka simply let out a breath, letting the rage within her simmer down.
"Alright, look," she said, sounding more tired than she had let on. "Take five and catch your breath. Go and get a drink or something. And for God's sake, try to cool off, will you?"
Shinji blushed at the insinuation, and looked down as Asuka stepped away.
"Get your head in the game, Shinji…" she grumbled, irately. "You can't afford to be a brat anymore."
Asuka grabbed a water bottle and climbed back up on the bleachers, next to Mari, who, for her part, was scarcely able to contain her mirth.
Withered, forlorn and defeated, Shinji got to his feet and made his way towards the door.
Night was falling around Outpost Zion as the AAA Wunder sat on its dry dock just off to the side. The base now had three AT fields protecting it, two of which were artificially generated, the outermost one projecting from a series of cores stripped from the Eva Series that had fallen outside the facility. Each could be used to project a field individually, but in order to create one large enough to encompass the entire facility, three had to be networked in sequence. Now the base could repel an attack of up to three Eva units at a time. Unfortunately, such strikes had exceeded that number consistently since Shinji had been anointed a member of WILLE.
Shinji was lying on his back on the top deck of the Wunder, staring up at the stars. The darkening sky did little to hide the streak of LCL across the moon. If anything, the stark contrast made the grim sight more pronounced.
He shivered and crossed his arms over his body. Despite the world's unseasonal heat, the Siberian winds blew cold in the darkness of night, the parched earth unable to retain its daytime heat.
"I thought I might find you up here," a familiar voice said.
Shinji sighed. Second Lieutenant Suzuhara always seem to track him down when he wanted to be left alone.
"Guess I need to find a better hiding place…" Shinji muttered in irritated sarcasm.
Sakura pouted as she held her hair in place from the gusting wind. She was still halfway inside the top hatch, standing on the ladder rungs below.
"Shinji, it's freezing up here," she commented. "Why don't you come inside?"
Shinji wrinkled his nose and looked away, remaining stubbornly in place.
Sakura sighed and finally climbed all the way out of the hatch and sat down beside him, clasping her arms around her knees.
"You know Shikinami's just a hard hitter, right?" she said, out of hand. "When she sets her mind to something, she gives it her all. And when something gets in her way, she butts heads with it until it gives. That's how she survives. Heck, it's how she thrives. She got to be our best pilot that way."
Shinji said nothing for a while, before shivering again.
"I can't do what she does, Sakura," he grumbled. "I'm just not cut out to be a soldier."
"Not every soldier is like Shikinami, you know?" she pointed out. "I mean, I'm certainly not. I struggle, I get frustrated, I walk away and think about something else, and then I come back and I still struggle, and a lot of times, I don't get anything done."
Shinji didn't respond, so Sakura kept going.
"Sometimes I feel like a square peg being shoved into a round hole," she sighed. "Sometimes I ask myself what I'm even doing here. When I was a kid, I wanted to be a teacher when I grew up. Or maybe be a professional soccer player. Or a musician. Being a soldier would have been the absolute last thing on my list if I had even thought about it enough to consider it."
Sakura's eyes fell, and Shinji had the presence of mind to realize how difficult this conversation was becoming for her.
"We don't usually get to choose what's required of us, Shinji," she said forlornly. "We have our dreams and aspirations, and then we have the cards our life has dealt us, and more often then not, the two just don't line up. WILLE needed scientists and medical technicians, and I happened to have good marks in biology and chemistry. And it came with the added bonus of getting military training, wearing a uniform and having to carry a firearm. It wasn't what I wanted to do with my life, but it's the hand I was dealt, and I've been struggling with it ever since. That's just the world we live in."
She placed a hand on Shinji's shoulder, smiling down at him.
There were tears in her eyes.
"You happen to be able to connect with Unit 01 and the Wunder, even if it has to be done while paired with Ayanami," she said softly. "You may not enjoy doing it. It may involve getting trained in other areas that you're not naturally suited for. But that's the hand you've been dealt, Shinji. WILLE needs you to be a soldier."
Shinji was staring up at her now, barely noticing the cold. The look on her face was so hopeful, and so sad, that he couldn't stay angry anymore.
He slowly sat up, and stared forlornly off into the distance. Somewhere out there, another swarm of Eva Series was en route. Maybe to hit one of their outposts around the globe, maybe to hit them here. Rei's predictions had become more and more vague as time had passed, but one thing had always been certain: they were not out of this yet.
"So how am I supposed to become the soldier that WILLE needs me to be?" Shinji asked, feebly.
Sakura shook her head. "I don't have all the answers, Shinji."
Shinji blinked. "Well, how do you do it?"
"I don't," Sakura admitted. "I fail all the time, Shinji. Most of the time, I'm never the soldier that WILLE needs me to be."
She let out a sigh.
"I'm just the best soldier I can be."
"What if my best isn't good enough?" Shinji asked.
"Your best has gotten us this far," Sakura said. "I think it can get us a little farther."
"Asuka doesn't seem to think so."
"Shikinami is as hard on you as she is on herself," Sakura shrugged. "She doesn't know how else to be."
Shinji didn't respond, and there was a moment of silence, before Sakura shivered again from the cold and reached into her pocket.
"Maybe you just need something to take your mind off things," she said, pulling out a small, silver device. "Here."
Shinji blinked as she held the device out to him.
It was an old mp3 player.
"I know you've lost your old SDAT player, so…" she said, looking slightly embarrassed.
"Is this yours?" he asked, taking it from her and turning it over in his hands.
Sakura winked. "Thought it was about time you joined the twenty-first century."
Shinji's expression fell. "Sakura…I can't take this from you!"
"It's a gift, Shinji," Sakura crossed her arms. "And it's mine to give."
Shinji stared hard at the device, not knowing how to feel about it. Grateful for the thought, rejection at the idea of taking what wasn't his, dismay at the idea of truly leaving his old SDAT behind.
"It's mostly old pop and alternative rock tunes," Sakura admitted, shyly. "But there's some classical towards the end. Dr. Akagi said that you liked classical."
"Sakura, I…" Shinji mumbled, not knowing what else to say. "Th-thank you."
"You're welcome," Sakura said, smiling sweetly.
Shinji looked over his acquisition with newly kindled interest, placing one of the ear-bug's into one ear.
"How far back was the classical?" he asked, thumbing through the tracks.
"Around track twenty-five or twenty-six," Sakura said with a knowing smile. "You can't miss it."
The next morning, Asuka and Mari were right back in the gymnasium. They didn't have sync training until later that morning, but they were both taking the opportunity to limber up before the day began, as they usually did. After several laps around the track, the two girls sat down by the bleachers to cool off.
"You think he'll show up?" Asuka asked, distractedly, drinking from her water bottle.
She had specifically told Shinji to meet them there that morning, but it had been fifteen minutes already, and there was still no sign of him. Asuka was beginning to think she had finally scared him off.
"Would you blame him if he didn't?" Mari asked, just as nonchalant. "You did kind of chew him out yesterday."
"He was being a pervert!" Asuka exclaimed.
"He was being a guy!" Mari guffawed, "Come on, Princess, your gym clothes leave very little to the imagination."
Asuka glanced down at what she was wearing. While it wasn't really exactly revealing, she supposed it was certainly rather skintight, and did little to disguise her curvaceous figure.
"Our plug suits are just as bad," she protested. "He should be used to skintight clothing by now!"
"But when you're in your plug suit, you're not wrestling him to the ground," Mari smirked. "How's he supposed to react with you shoving your ass into his pelvic bone like that?"
Asuka's face reddened. "I was demonstrating a Judo throw!"
"Oh come on," Mari laughed. "That was a total setup for an outcome like that, and you know it!"
Asuka crossed her arms, looking away haughtily. "He should have been just a little bit more resilient than that."
Mari rolled her eyes. "Princess, I'm saying this with all possible respect and concern as your friend, but do you ever wonder if maybe you have some slightly unrealistic expectations from people? Particularly the Puppy-Boy?"
Asuka threw the other girl a confused look. "Is it unrealistic to expect a little decency from the brat?"
"It's unrealistic to punish him every time he fails to meet your standards," Mari sighed. "He's only human, you know? He's not perfect like you."
Asuka didn't rise to the bait. "I'm not expecting him to be perfect, but I am expecting him to at least try!"
"But that's what you're not seeing, Princess," Mari rolled her eyes. "He is trying. He's just getting such a late start compared to the rest of us that his level of effort doesn't look all that impressive to you."
Asuka crossed her arms. "If that's the best he can offer, then he's already lost. He's never going to succeed if he can't even think about succeeding."
"He wasn't trained to think like that," Mari sighed, exasperated. "If you could just try to see things from his perspective-"
"This conversation is over," Asuka turned away stubbornly.
"Just hear me out," Mari held her hands up. "I don't think it's unreasonable to assume that Shinji learns differently than you. So if you expect to train him, you're going to have to come down to his level. You're going to have to step out of your comfort zone a little."
"Hmph!" Asuka snorted. "I don't see why I should. I'm already doing him a favor."
"You're doing us all a favor by making one of our key players into a better soldier," Mari pointed out. "That alone should be justification enough."
Asuka rolled her eyes and shook her head, but otherwise didn't bother with a response.
Mari cracked a smile. "Unless…you're saying you're not up for it."
Asuka's eyes flew open.
"Okay, that is cheating, and you know it!" she said in frustration.
Mari smirked. She knew she had already won her over.
Asuka gritted her teeth, furrowing her brow in tension, before finally releasing a defeated breath.
"Alright!" she exhaled. "Fine! What did you have in mind?"
Shinji did eventually make it to the gymnasium that morning. He had not planned on coming back, but Sakura had come knocking at the door to his small bunk, and had refused to leave until he consented to give Asuka's combat training one more try. Finally surrendering, Shinji hauled himself out of his bed to pull his gym clothes on and follow Sakura bitterly down the corridors lining the inner rim of militarized zone of Outpost Zion.
When he neared the door to the sparring dojo, however, he was surprised to hear music coming from inside.
Curiously, he stepped inside, where he found Asuka wearing a pair of sweatpants and stretching her arms and legs on the floor mat. Mari was sitting on the front row of the bleachers, next to an honest to goodness boom-box that someone living in the lower reaches of Outpost Zion must have donated sometime in the past fourteen years. And being pumped out of the two tinny-sounding speakers was an upbeat pop song that was way too cheerful and energetic for six thirty in the morning, Shinji thought.
"What…" Shinji squinted, as if not quite comprehending. "What is all this?"
"This…" Asuka cracked a sardonic smile, "Is your new training regimen."
Shinji just blinked in confusion. "Huh?"
"See, Four-Eyes had this crazy idea that maybe you'd learn better if you had something familiar to focus on," Asuka said, rolling her eyes. "Something to help provide some structure or something. So she thought maybe if we train with music, you could better follow my lead."
Shinji was still staring aghast, unable to think of a response, when the song on the boombox ended and rolled over to the next song. The next track that began to play was a piano concerto. It was fast paced and energetic, and Shinji recognized it immediately.
It was the same piece that he had been listening to all night on his new mp3 player.
"What…?" he stammered in confusion, feeling a sense of deja-vu creep over him, and he failed to see Mari and Sakura exchanging a surreptitious wink.
"What's it going to be, Shinji?" Asuka asked, hands on her hips, looking somewhat doubtful. "Are you up for this or not?"
Shinji swallowed and glanced back at the redhead. From her expression, Shinji could tell this would be the last olive branch she would be extending to him. If he did not at least try, he could tell she would simply give up on him.
He couldn't keep letting her down anymore.
"Alright," he said with a nod. "I'm ready."
To be continued…