The Third Child cringed at the sheer volume of the question, wishing that he had been able to plug his ears and keep the strident screech away. His hands were far too busy to do something like that, though, trying to both calm down and covertly push away the angry Pilot with a vice grip on the neck of his shirt.
“Because it wouldn’t have solved anything, probably.” Asuka tried to support him from the side, even if Shinji couldn’t help but notice that his self-appointed assistant wasn’t rushing to his help like she usually did. Perhaps she wasn’t in complete agreement with his actions, either.
“You stay out of this! I want to hear the reason coming out of his mouth!”
“I-It’s as she said. I... don’t like what Makinami did, either, whatever it is, but those people were carrying guns,” Shinji did as requested, fighting back his urge to swallow when Ace’s blue eyes went back to fixating on him. Her hold on the immediate area around his neck didn’t tighten, however, so the Third Child took that as a vague invitation to continue. “Besides, there’s also the problem that we don’t know what’s going on, so... I think we should hear her side of the story, first?”
“Sure. But why not listen to her explanations after I’d punched the stupid glasses off her stupid face?!” Ace demanded, her irritation growing ever worse when Shinji’s look turned doubtful. “What? You got something to say?!"
“C-Calm down, Ace. You weren’t going to punch her.”
“O-Oh yeah?! And why’s that, you smartass? You didn’t look half as sure when you grabbed my arm before!”
“Well, yeah, but... that’s exactly it,” the Third Child elaborated, as carefully as if he were talking to a hungry lion. “We both know that you could have sent me flying across the room if you had really wanted to.”
Ace blinked in contemplation before one of her eyebrows rose above the other, not taking long to realise that the boy had a point. Without a vote that he could influence, there was close to nothing that Shinji could do to stop any of her own initiatives.
‘Which means that I basically exposed myself, didn’t I?’ the redhead thought with a frown, letting go of Shinji’s shirt. Ace then turned around and scurried off to the front of the bridge, mumbling to herself about ‘stupid Third Children that thought they knew her so well’ as she stared at the data on display with rapt attention. Arms crossed and a childish scowl on her face, the Pilot would occasionally throw a covert glance back at Shinji and get caught every time, her comically overblown anger getting worse and worse each time.
The Third Child couldn’t help a small smile at the sight. For all of her bravado, Ace truly was a caring girl.
‘If only these cute moments weren’t overshadowed by her temper...’ the Third Child then thought with a sigh.
“Well, well, that wasn’t half bad. I might have to start calling you ‘Fix-It Shinji’ or something along those lines,” Asuka praised him from the side, a bright smile paired to her sing-song voice. “‘For when you need a problem to just go away!’”
“Haha... I think you’re giving me far too much credit.”
“I don’t think so, you handled that beautifully.” Asuka’s assurances were brief before her tone turned meaningful. “Unless you believe that you’re to blame in any way, shape or form for what happened with Mari?”
Shinji’s smile became hollow, the young man’s eyes turning to look at the same reports that Ace was scanning. Even if the speed at which they scrolled past made it so that he could not tell the specifics of most of them, the negative trend was both obvious and very worrying.
“...I did push for Asuka to become friendly with her. In a way, this whole situation is my-”
“Stop that thought. What you did was perfectly natural and exactly the thing that Asuka needed at the time,” Asuka cut him off, gentle but firm. “Mari just blindsided all of us, no one could have seen that coming. If anything, she should be to blame for taking advantage of your kindness.”
“...I guess,” Shinji admitted, sounding like he didn’t fully believe his own words.
“Don’t guess, be damn sure of it. Buuut I bet there’s something else on your mind, too.”
“Yeah. I’m also worried about Ayanami.”
This time, it was his assistant who couldn’t help herself from flinching.
“...Right, me too,” Asuka replied, all cheer gone from her voice. “I don’t know what that Angel was doing to her, but it sounded horrible. And her EVA...”
The redhead trailed off, both because she didn’t want to finish her sentence and the sound of approaching stomps had caught her attention.
“Hey, what are you two looking all down for?” Ace demanded, hands on her hips. “The First will be fine! She looks frail, but she has survived a lot of stuff already, hasn’t she? Besides, there’s no way one of my Valkyries is biting the dust that easily!”
A sigh escaped Asuka. The girl’s eyes then shifted to the side and noticed that, despite Ace’s best intentions, Shinji wasn’t feeling particularly encouraged, either.
“You could learn how to use a bit of tact every so often, you know?”
“But nothing’s going to happen to her! I’m sure of it! Why waste time worrying about the First when we could be thinking about how to kick that Angel’s ass, instead? I want my revenge, dammit!” A sudden alarm tone brought Ace’s attention to back to the main screen, the Pilot quickly producing a tablet-like device out of thin air. “Oh, wonder what’s... Oh, come on!”
“Something wrong?” Shinji inquired.
“Many somethings! Argh, when it rains it pours!” the redhead grumbled, stomping towards her workstation. “I’ll see you two later.”
“Yeah, there are a lot of problems right now, which means that I’ve got a lot of problems right now,” Ace responded, grabbing a few assorted tools from her work area before she noticed Shinji’s curious stare. The Pilot elaborated with a sigh: “Most of the rifts that we patched up immediately after you... vanished, have opened up again. I can’t leave them like that, so I’m going to be plenty busy until we need to sortie again.” The redhead brought a hand up to her head in frustration. “Argh! They’re going to be a pain to fix even with the cynical moron doing rounds, too!”
“Anything I can help with?”
Ace paused, judging Asuka’s unexpected proposal with cynical eyes. It was clear by the Pilot’s face alone and their previous history what she thought of the idea but, eventually, Ace motioned forward with her hand, her mouth set in a serious line.
“...Well, beggars can’t be choosers, I guess. Come with me, but don’t you leave my sight.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Asuka acknowledged, deadpan. “Your massive amounts of trust are humbling.”
“Zip it, brat,” the Pilot shot back. She then pointed an accusing finger back at Shinji. “And you, make yourself useful and talk to us. See if you can bring this whole crisis down a notch.”
“Eh... okay? I don’t mind, but...” the Third Child half-agreed, in a mousy tone that implied he very much did mind. “I’m... not sure Asuka wants to talk with me, right now. She was pretty angry, remember?”
Ace paused in her preparations and turned back around to face Shinji, eyes narrowed into slits. A dangerous smile then appeared on her face, prompting the Third Child to swallow heavily. He already knew where this was going.
Slowly, Ace stepped forward. Quickly, Shinji stepped back.
“You bet she was pissed. But, you know what? I am sure that she will absolutely, definitely and without a doubt not want to speak to the only remaining pillar of stability she has at the moment.” In the blink of an eye, Ace was right in front of the Third Child, re-grabbing him by the neck of his shirt and shaking him like a rag doll. “ARE YOU STUPID OR WHAT?!”
“Good answer! Now grow that spine of yours and start encouraging!” Ace demanded, turning Shinji towards the front of the bridge and strengthening his resolve with a swift and loving kick to the rear. “And look a little bit more confident, for God’s sake! There’s no way she’ll believe you if you don’t believe in what you’re saying!”
“No buts! Ayanami will be fine. You’ve known her the longest so just... believe in her!”
“Wow, I never thought I’d hear you saying the word ‘believe’ this many times in quick succession.”
“I said zip it, brat!” Ace swiftly bit out at her other’s cheery quip, before she threw the toolbox in her direction, Asuka barely managing to catch the projectile while keeping her balance. Whatever objections Shinji’s assistant could have had were then promptly squashed by the grumpy Pilot grabbing her by the arm and forcefully dragging her away. “We’re going, Third! Hold the fort until we return.”
“Eep!” Asuka barely had the time to turn around and wave goodbye with her free appendage, her voice quickly fading away from the bridge. “Y-You can do it, Shinji! Just remember, think before you taaaaaalk!”
“Easy for you to say,” Shinji half-complained with a deep sigh when the voice was no longer audible. Still, he knew that, in a way, Ace was right. He had promised to help Asuka in her times of need and nothing would come out of running away from the inevitable, anyway.
With a slow and thoughtful gait, Shinji walked back to his terminal and sat down in his chair. He stared at the mess of reports on the main screen, continuing to scroll past far too quickly for his eyes to truly follow, and propped his elbows on top of the desk, his hands joining together in front of his face. For a few minutes, and as he tried to control the anxiousness that threatened to take over, Shinji thought hard about what his choice of words should be...
...But, as usual, his contemplations were rewarded with no actual ideas about how to deal with a dangerously irritable Asuka Langley-Sohryu.
“...Well, here goes nothing,” the Third Child ultimately decided, running against every warning that his mind was throwing at him. The young man relaxed in his seat, prodded for the now familiar connection, and put on the bravest face he could muster. “A-Asuka?”