Shinji had always been kind of quiet. Not in a shy or awkward way - he had just kept himself to himself. Made him hard to read sometimes, but Akihiko remembered liking the mystery a little bit - it beat the constant chatter of most other people, even if a certain few could make their endless chattering rather endearing and cheerful.
He had liked the quiet once. In recent times, despite the relative silence, Shinji's presence carried a weight that filled the room, made the air tense and claustrophobic. He smelt like back alleys, like smoke and sweat, the peculiar dirt of city streets at night. Akihiko wasn't sure when he'd last had a bath or shower, didn't want to ask why he'd had neither. Still, he was entitled to a few faults and obsessions; it wasn't as if Akihiko had been flawless himself.
Two weeks of sharing the dormitory and Akihiko had started to think that certain aspects of their past were altogether gone, when Shinji proved him wrong by storming into his bedroom, yanking back the covers, and getting under the sheets with him. Not for sex, not even to jerk off, just for company. It had hurt, and in a strange way, being unable to say anything, though his own silence was justified when he went to open his mouth and Shinji snapped, "Shut the fuck up".
Despite the awkwardness, being held, leaning into another person's body heat felt good; he slept through his alarm and opted to give the rest of the day a miss after a brief glance at his clock showed his schedule had been screwed over anyway. Shinji had always been a little more manageable after a long sleep, too dozy in the morning to think about the subjects that made him sullen, and Akihiko had been only too happy to extend that moment by keeping Shinji quiet with long, lazy kisses and a hand down his pyjama pants.
It wasn't perfect, far from it, but it was something; proof the parts of their past that had been good weren't wholly buried.
Days passed and Akihiko thought that was the end of it when Shinji made another visit, returning from Tartarus late and coming in to see him.
Akihiko hadn't stayed with them, exhausted after too many bruises - where Minato found the energy to stay out all night he had no idea, and felt somewhat jealous - and was faintly surprised to have Shinji slipping under his bedsheets again. "Mm," sounded quietly on the end of a sigh, and without being asked, Shinji explained this with "You haven't showered."
"That's a good thing?" Akihiko replied, stiffening in more ways than one when Shinji licked at the nape of his neck. He didn't get much of an answer, just the sound of a deep inhale and Shinji's nose pressed into his hair, and that was enough to figure things out. Funny, he'd thought sleeping in sweat was gross, and wouldn't be doing it if he'd had any energy whatsoever.
He was too tired to get much of an erection himself, but didn't exactly mind helping out a friend in need.
Shinji seemed to have worked out that Akihiko wasn't going to pester for answers about this late night bed-hopping deal because he was much quicker to visit after that, even if there was one awkward moment when Ken saw Shinji coming in and a quick excuse about some minor injury or another had to be invented. It made it all the more strange when Shinji wasn't visiting, and after three days of an empty bed when he'd become quite used to company, Akihiko found himself walking along to Shinji's room and inviting himself in. The decor had hardly changed, drawing more attention to the presence in the bed, tightly curled up as if he were trying to fold in on himself. 'Are you okay?' would have been a stupid question, and Shinji hated stupid questions.
"Is that catching?" Akihiko asked, and when he received no response, took that as an excuse to lock the door and get under the sheets. Shinji flinched away at first, though Akihiko had that figured as a not entirely selfish gesture given Shinji's skin was ice-cold.
"What the hell are you doing?" Shinji asked, uncurling a little as Akihiko braved the cold to press his chest to Shinji's back and wrap both arms around his waist.
"Keeping you warm," Akihiko replied, figuring it for a reasonably honest enough answer and trying not to think about how Shinji had got so cold in a relatively warm room or why it was making him curl up like that.
Cue awkward silence, although the longer it went on the less awkward it felt, and he couldn't help feeling his own breath steadying as Shinji relaxed in his arms. He could resist the urge to assault his friend's masculinity with a kiss on the head but still found a slightly out of place familial instinct as he held on, an urge to protect.
Shinji had decided some time ago to give up on protecting; Akihiko had made it his obsession.
"Is that better?" Akihiko asked after a few moments' thought. He never did catch a response.
Some weeks later, too few by far, Akihiko woke in the middle of the night and rolled over instinctively to let Shinji find room. Half asleep as he was, he couldn't help wondering what was making Shinji take so long, and it was some time before he realised why.
The initial thought after biting his pillow to make sure he didn't sob was to go into Shinji's room, get under the quilts and look for any stray hair, breathe in the smell, but he couldn't do that. He was too tired to move, he had to remember what the others would think, had to be strong.
He was so damn tired of being strong.
Even so Akihiko forced himself to sleep, waited for morning before heading to Shinji's room. It was going to throw his day out of order and set back his training, but he needed this.
Paradoxically, the room seemed bigger but felt more claustrophobic as Akihiko crossed to the bed and sat down. He'd thought about jerking off to relax, or upending the room, or cleaning away any evidence Shinji had ever been there, but in the daylight those ideas seemed too dramatic somehow. Whatever he wanted, acting histrionic wasn't likely to help.
Curling up on the bedsheets, Akihiko thought about when he'd found Shinji similarly curled, thought about how ill he must have been. He couldn't be hurting anymore, now; had to have left that pain behind in the physical world. Akihiko would have gladly taken the pain on himself if it guaranteed Shinji's health after death.
Certain weaknesses had to be allowed nonetheless, and Akihiko pulled one of the pillows to his chest, fisting his hands in the material and letting himself cry at the fact it wasn't Shinji, could never be him, barely smelt like him anymore. He had the right to cry, and hate, and hold on after something had gone. He had the right. He was human. He was strong and tried to be strong for others too, but that didn't change the fact he was human.
So were Junpei and Minato, Mitsuru and Yukari... they were human too, regardless of their abilities. Shinji had been the same.
Akihiko hadn't needed an answer. He knew holding Shinji had helped him, somehow.
Just a pity that Shinji's pillow couldn't return the favour.