+++++ 14th Angel + 0 (0)

Shinji stood in the dying light of the latest in a long line of worst days of his life, observing the Fourteenth Angel roaring in rage at the ineffective attacks of Units -00 and -02. "Why are you here, Kaji-San?" The refined octuple agent was, at the moment, watering a sizable patch of watermelons. Compared to the dead and dying grass surrounding them on the hillock, the lush green fruits and thick vines showed signs of immaculate care.

"Well, since my moonlighting came out into the open, I'm not welcome on the combat roster." The agent smiled up at Shinji, "So, here I am, watering the plants." He hummed tunelessly as he dutifully dampened each inch of the loose soil.

"At a time like this?" Shinji kept his gaze across the horizon, the Angel laying waste to everything around it.

"It's because it's a time like this," Kaji smiled in understanding. "Between Katsuragi's breasts is nice too, but in the end, I want to be here when I die."

Shinji frowned at Kaji, then across the way at the fight. Sure, they weren't doing great, but Asuka was going to win. They always won, he just got in the way. "Die?"

"That's right," the suave rogue nodded solemnly. "It's said that if an Angel makes contact with Adam, who lies below here, humanity will be eradicated in the Third Impact. The only thing that can stop it is the one thing with power equal to an Angel's, the Evangelion." Kaji gestured out to where Unit-00 was making a desperation charge, "Shinji, the only thing I can do is stand here and water. But you, you have something that you can do. That only you can do. Nobody is forcing you. Think for yourself, and make the decision by yourself. Think about what you ought to do now. You know," a violent explosion rocked them both, "so you don't have any regrets."

The Fourteenth Angel roared, just as Shinji looked over. "No regrets," the Third Child muttered aloud. Clenching his fists, Shinji took off at a dead run towards the emergency access passage that would lead to the Evangelion hanger bay.

Watching the young man run to the fate he had steered him towards, Kaji set the watering can down and sat heavily on the ground. With his knees bent, and the back of his pants soaking in the water from the ground, the spy frowned with self-loathing. "I hope you don't have any regrets, Shinji-Kun. Because I just gained another ten or so." Pulling out a cigarette, he sighed, "I'm scum."

+++++ 14th Angel + 0 (0)

"I guess this is it," Misato whispered as the titanic invader climbed down the shaft towards the bridge. "All of it was for nothing." Sliding her beret off her head, she let it drop from nerveless fingers to the ground below.

"Shinji!" Maya cried out, pointing at the camera feed of the Eva gantries.

"Hey!" Shinji cried, waving his arms, "Get me into Unit-01!"

"You are no longer an employee of NERV," Gendo's cold voice reverberated through the intercom. "Why should I allow you access to our resources?" Light reflected from his orange-colored lenses, removing the last vestiges of humanity from NERV's Commander.

"Because…Because I'm the pilot of Unit-01!" Shinji slammed his fist against his heart, stepping forward defiantly, "Because my duty is to defeat the Angels!" The challenge hung in the air, everyone waiting to see if Gendo Ikari, stone cold asshole, would let the world burn before allowing his son another chance at success. Misato gripped the cross around her neck, praying fervently for a miracle thaw in the man.

A single nod set a flurry of activity into motion. "Get the entry plug ready! Science, prepare the LCL injection," Misato's laser focus returned to the fight. They weren't out of it yet, apparently. "Tactical, how long before we have company?"

+++++ 14th Angel + 0 (0)

Shinji felt the rushed nature of the A-Ten connection. Awareness of Unit-01 spread throughout his body rapidly, a feeling similar to being rushed awake by an unexpected crash in the room as he slept. Gripping the control yokes, he felt the magnetic locks restraining his chariot release, and he dashed forward.

The Angel had arrived at the command level. Its odd folding arm pulled back, a strike to obliterate the commanders of the pests that dared oppose its might. The next instant, an enormous purple fist blasted through the wall separating the deck from the Eva gantries, crushing the Angel's odd mask to the side and sending the metallic blade off wildly.

Unit-01 gripped the Angel with enraged strength, slamming the upper section face-first against the wall atop one of the magnetically-charged rail lifts, "Misato!"

The Tactical Commander understood instantly, "Launch!"

Shinji felt the inertial gravities driving his lungs down through his stomach, but anger, adrenaline, and a renewed sense of purpose gave him the strength to roar his defiance into Zeruel's ear as he ground its face against the wall on the ride up. When the lift reached its apex, it threw the beast uncontrolled through the ruins of a nearby building, and Shinji landed atop it and began to pummel his foe.

Desperate to defend itself, the Angel struck weakly with one of its folding arms. Unit-01 caught the appendage, its projected A. T. Field strengthened enormously due to Shinji's unyielding wrath as well as his determination to protect everyone, sending ribbons of metallic-looking flesh spraying in streamers behind its fist. "You won't," he hammered at the core, "hurt my friends," the core began to crack, "anymo-"


The cockpit went dark, the lukewarm yellow emergency lighting turning on around him, "No." He tugged at the control yoke, "No! Not now!" Bracing with his foot against the center console, Shinji roared in frustrated anger as he pulled against the grips, "Moooooooooooooooooooooooove!"

Something inside of Shinji Ikari fractured. Instantly he saw millions of shadow versions of himself, some curled in a ball crying, others tearing their hair out after finally losing the last tenuous hold on their sanity, yet more simply sitting in weary resignation. Some younger than him, some older. Each acting just slightly differently as they reacted to the situation before him. His eyes narrowed, taking in details that became more disturbing as he looked at them longer. The lights on his console weren't moving. The sinus wave that indicated his heartbeat had frozen. Just as he went to reach out to try touching one of the shadows, everything around him came into sudden sharp relief, "Hello, Shinji." A soft, unfamiliar, voice echoed through his mind, "You, my pet, are not like these others."

"Who…what are you?" Looking around him, trying to place the voice's source, "Answer me!" No regrets. He was not going to allow himself to fail now, he had to save his friends!

"Why Shinji, you're all snug inside of me and yet you ask what I am?" Laughter, the rending of steel, carried around him, "I am the Beast. I am the End. I am Evangelion." The monitor directly in front of him sprang to life, the connections severed, and he could see out into the world once more but feel none of it. "You intrigue me, Shinji Ikari Two Six Five Eight Zero Zero Three Seven Four. You are unlike any of the others I have connected with." Zeruel was frozen in place, held back by a distinctly human-looking Evangelion-sized arm, "Would you give anything to win?"

"I won't lose," Shinji growled, "not now. Not now that I understand what it means to be a pilot! If I knew then…if I knew then I never would have run away!" His heart seized, a tearing sensation emanating from his chest out to his limbs, echoing back and forth faster and faster. His vision began to narrow, and suddenly his hands began to fade from sight, "Wh-what i…?"

"I'm giving you what you've asked for, Shinji." The voice turned hungry, "I'm giving you a chance to win."

He tried and failed to scream as he disappeared, the last vision he was able to grasp as he melted into nothingness was the grim visage of Zeruel glaring at him in indescribable hatred.

+++++ 3rd Angel + 0 : Friday (1)

"Due to the state of emergency," Shinji jumped back from the phone as if it were a live taipan. He was at one of the few remaining pay phones in Tokyo-3. The receiver swung limply on its cord as he stared down in shock and confusion. Turning quickly in different directions, he tried to rationalize where he was with what he had been doing. He was not inside Unit-01, he was standing near the intersection he met Misato at, for the first time. His clothes…the clothes he had been wearing the day he…the day he arrived in Tokyo-3. He swiveled, noticing his luggage, and began to rummage for his belongings. Everything was in its place, the things he had lost when Asuka threw her tantrum in his room, the S-Dat player, everything. The same hot, oppressive, air. "Did I…did I travel back through time?" The overbearing sun failed to warm the chill that gripped his body, "That's…that's impossible. Hallucination?"

A screech of tires brought his attention up to a sky-blue Renault Alpine, swerving to a stop less than a meter away. "Sorry I'm late! Get in!" The door thrust open, and inside sat Misato Katsuragi. The same Misato Katsuragi that was back on the command deck. She wore the same clothes, the same sunglasses, held the same pose.

"Mis-," Shinji decided to play it safe, "Miss Katsuragi?"

"Miss?" Misato laughed, "Get in, and call me Misato."

Shinji scrambled into the car; If he were actually here, if this wasn't just a fever-dream brought on by whatever that weird voice was…the Third Angel. The pair were quickly racing down the road, Misato's combat-honed driving skills on full display. Raking through his memories for anything he could use to validate that he had indeed somehow gone back to the beginning, "An N2 mine!"

"What?" Misato looked to the side, noticed the bomber on approach, "Oh hell no!" Slamming on the brakes in the center of a tunnel, she mentally counted down. "The approach vector, they'd be dropping…now," she ticked off the seconds on her finger, as she reached three she dove over and hauled Shinji into a protective embrace. When the explosion forced a gale of air through the passage they had taken shelter in, she grit her teeth hoping that the damage wouldn't be too bad. "Thanks, Shinji." She gave him that heart-stopping smile, "Didn't think you were a military buff." Dropping the car back into gear, she left segments of her tires behind as she flew through the now rubble-strewn streets of Tokyo-3.

"I…studied the N2 mine," Shinji stammered, "for a history project." I'm back in time! I'm actually here! Catching sight of Misato eyeing him oddly, he smacked himself a couple of times for show, "Sorry, that was an enormous explosion. Studying it doesn't come close to actually experiencing it."

Misato's face softened, "Quite the greeting to receive on your first day in a new city, yeah?" She blew out an explosive breath, "I know you're not used to combat, Shinji. Nothing in your experience would have prepared you for that, so don't worry. It's ok to be nervous, the first time." Shinji's blush set her off on a gale of laughter, "In combat, you bad boy."

"Of course, Misato-San," Shinji looked down at his hands. I'm the only one who remembers. I've got to be. If Unit-01 sent me back, nobody else was close. Maybe…maybe Asuka or Rei? I'll have to feel it out. But what about everyone else? Did they…die? Cease to exist? Special relativity was not a concept Shinji Ikari could be accused of familiarity with, as even basic Newtonian physics still troubled him.

The two passed the rest of the ride in silence. Misato becoming worried that Shinji may have been slightly traumatized by the brush with the non-nuclear bomb, and Shinji trying to puzzle through the few means he had available to prove he had actually gone back in time without coming across as completely insane. Once the violet-haired beauty had the car parked, she paused before getting out, "Shinji," he startled, looking around and realizing where he was, "I want you to know that what we're doing here…at NERV, it's really important. Mankind is in trouble, that bomb was dropped on something that's trying to kill everyone. Just…keep an open mind, ok?" Shinji nodded, not trusting himself to say anything without giving up everything, and the pair exited the vehicle to begin the longer-than-necessary trek to the gantries.

+++++ 3rd Angel + 0 : Friday (1)

Whereas the first time, Shinji had been going through mental preparations to meet his father again, he spent the entire second trip following a very lost, though unwilling to admit as much, Misato staring blankly out into space. He was going to fight the Third Angel again. He was going to fight them all again. Each blow, each painful experience, each…another chance. His brows knit together as he realized suddenly that he wasn't going to be dealing with anything he hadn't already done.

"Shinji!" He startled again, Misato drawing his attention to her, "This is Doctor Ritsuko Akagi." They had come to a halt before the elevator, with the doctor once again stepping out and intimidating Misato into stammering through an apology. Only this time, when she tired to introduce Shinji, he was staring off into space.

"I'm sorry," he spat out reflexively, bowing in apology.

"We're late," the bottle-blonde rolled her eyes. "Follow me."

The elevator ride up to the Eva hanger was filled with banter as Ritsuko coolly dissected Misato's excuses for becoming lost in the GeoFront. Shinji returned to his own thoughts, the case for success climbing as rapidly as the lift they rode, far above the self-doubt that typically plagued him. He could win. Not just win, he could defeat the Third Angel handily. His fists began to clench and unclench rhythmically, his body spooling up for the forthcoming fight.

Walking out onto the catwalks, which felt empty without Units -00 and -02 alongside his -01, the young pilot focused his eyes on the purple and green giant. He was dimly aware of a few comments, when Ritsuko spoke, "This is the Ultimate All-Purpose Humanoid Decisive Battle Weapon developed by humanity. The artificial human, Evangelion. That is Eva-01. Its construction carried out in complete secrecy, it is our — humanity's — final trump."

"And I'm the pilot," he murmured.

"Hello, Shinji," his father's voice sounded from behind him. His father. The man who ordered him to murder his classmate. The man who wanted nothing to do with him, until he had a use for him.

"Father," Shinji looked up, his mouth compressed into a hard line.

"You have been chosen to be the pilot of Evangelion Unit-01," there was an odd note in his father's voice. Was he caught off-balance?

"Is that all you have to say, father? No word for thirteen years, then a simple 'Come'? No, 'Hello, Shinji, I hope you've been doing well'." The Third Child turned away, "You're nothing if not consistent." He pointed at Unit-01, looking at Misato, "Let's get this over with. The longer we wait, the more people are going to get hurt out there."

Misato nodded, "Good priorities." She turned to Ritsuko, "Let's get our boy in the fight. Shinji, Doctor Akagi will explain with the Engineers how to get inside Unit-01. I'm going up to the command deck, I'm the Tactical Commander, that means that from the start to the finish of the operation you do as I say, when I say, got it?"

"Understood." Shinji bowed to the warrior, "I am in your care, Commander."

"Get out there and give 'em hell, Pilot," Misato bowed in return.

+++++ 3rd Angel + 0 : Friday (1)

Shinji sat inside the entry plug, waiting for the LCL injection that had once again not been mentioned to him. "Hello?" His voice a mere whisper, hoping that something inside of the purple colossus would help him understand if he was just dreaming as he lay dying beneath the Fourteenth Angel's assault.

"I read you, Shinji," Maya's image popped up on-screen. "I know, it's a little overwhelming, but you'll get the hang of it." She smiled, trying to exude calm, "Now the hard part. We're about to inject something called LCL into the plug. It's a liquid you can breathe, so stay calm, take deep breaths, and you'll be just fine."

"R-right," Shinji's embarrassment at being caught talking to himself instead giving the impression that he was nervous about sucking a liquid into his lungs. Two jets of the LCL blasted into the chamber, and instinct kicked in. He set his head back against the rest and closed his eyes as the vile substance reached his chin. Taking one last, deep, breath he blew all of the oxygen in his lungs out and inhaled deeply of the semi-liquid. Swallowing his disgust, which never became easier, he opened his eyes and looked at Maya's, giving a thumb's up.

"Good man," Misato's picture popped up alongside Maya's. "Ok, Science, let's get this rolling faster."

"Ok, Shinji-Kun," Maya's eyes were gentle, soft, he had never noticed that before, "we're going to be synchronizing you with the Evangelion. I need you to sit back, relax yourself, and blank your mind out as best as you can. Just let yourself float."

The procedure, which had seemed alien to him so long ago, was now second nature. The trick, of course, wasn't to focus on nothingness. Instead, he focused on the Eva itself. The way it moved, the way it became an extension of his consciousness. As his mind floated free, he felt for the voice that had spoken to him just hours ago.

"Senpai," Maya's voice was muted as she turned away from her microphone, "look at this score! He's hard-lined the pre-A-Ten limit."

"I see it," Ritsuko muttered. "I don't believe it, but I see it." Then, louder, "Run diagnostic pro-"

"Belay that," Gendo called from his perch. A smile hidden behind his clasped hands, "Begin the A-Ten connection procedure."

Shinji felt the connection clank into place, the warm-ups over, and when he opened his eyes he could see the world around him. The catwalks, the cranes, the flow of engineers finishing up the last-minute checks on the equipment that would send him rocketing skyward to fight a monster with a monster. "Nothing," he muttered. No voice, no odd presence.

"You're doing great, Shinji-Kun," Maya chirped enthusiastically. "Connection at eighty-two point six percent and stable," she turned to Misato, "Science is go."

"All right," Misato slapped her hand down, "Evangelion Unit-01 Launch!"

The pressure at the base of his gut…thrilled him. He was here. This wasn't a dream, it couldn't be. Not anymore. What kind of dream contains the sensation of your stomach being crushed under several times Earth's normal gravity? When the ride ended, and he was tossed briefly upward in his seat, he saw the monster that had haunted his dreams for so long. His first failure.

Standing with a hunched appearance, long green limbs dangling limply, Sachiel seemed to contemplate Unit-01. The Angel's huge bone-plate shoulder pads combined with odd spikes along its shoulders gave it an almost sports-like appearance. All of this was peripheral, however, to what Shinji knew was the piece of real import. Brazenly displayed for anyone to target was the red central core. A darkly glowing orb of life that allowed the Angels to move, without which they were just so much biomass.

Misato's voice intruded on his reverie, "Just try taking a step, Shinji."

Instinctively reacting to his Commander, he stepped forward. It wasn't the awkward, fumbling step he had taken the first time. No, this was a confident stride, a practiced motion performed thousands of times, honed by repetition after repetition, and aided by a growing desire to rectify a horrifying black mark on his record. "That red orb," Shinji had the beginnings of a plan, "what is it?"

"Unknown," Misato frowned thoughtfully. Her pilot was taking to controlling the giant mecha like a professional, "Shinji, attached to your shoulder is a bladed weapon, we call it a progressive knife, or prog-knife for short. I want you to pull it out and take a practice swing while the Angel's giving us time."

His shoulder pylon opened, and Shinji retrieved the knife, again based purely on instinct and repetition holding it in the ready position. "It's moving," he uttered.

"Ok, get ready to defend yourself," Misato switched her view to an overhead shot, trying to get a good grasp of his options for evasion, if needed. "Have you ever been in a fight, Shinji?"

"Once or twice," Shinji's face broke into an eager grin, "someone tried to take something incredibly precious away from me. When I stood between them and it, they attacked." Sachiel thrust its arm forward, attempting to grab the face of Unit-01. This time, however, Shinji knew exactly what it would do, and dropped his knife low. Grasping the hilt with both hands he lunged and shoved it with all of his might into the glowing red sphere that dominated the Angel's midsection. His A. T. Field was active, this time. His A. T. Field was dominant this time.

The knife roared to life, vibrating its way through the exposed core of the Third Angel as easily as an electric carving knife through moist turkey meat. Enormous cracks spider-webbed through the surface, Sachiel twitching violently as they did. The Angel's response to losing was, again, an attempt at creating a Pyrrhic Victory. It wrapped its limbs around the victorious purple behemoth and swelled.

Misato, who had been caught off guard by the quick thinking of her fourteen-year-old pilot, shouted, "It's gonna self-destruct!"

Gritting his teeth at the effort, Shinji braced his A. T. Field. He wasn't going to wake up in a hospital bed. He wasn't going to collapse like a child. He wasn't going to let himself run away. He had won, this time. He was going to walk off the field of battle, victorious. He was going to walk out of the Eva. He was not going to be a burden anymore!

The world became a sea of flames around him. The cross-shaped explosion rocketing skyward and shattering windows for kilometers. The pain was exquisite, a living thing eating away at his body. Heat, stabbing, cutting, a million different sensations crawled across his body as Shinji screamed his defiance. Five long seconds he stood in a gout of flame, visible from space. The sixth second came, and Unit-01 slumped forward, taking a knee as Shinji breathed heavily in the now-painfully warm LCL, "I did it." He looked out at the city, "I won!"

The Command center broke out into cheers, the declaration of victory by the teenaged Pilot unleashing a communal sense of accomplishment. The Angels had returned, and with the help of an unlikely pilot, they won the right to see tomorrow. "Shinji," Misato called over the noise, "Shinji, come in."

"I'm…I'm here," Unit-01 staggered back upright.

She sighed in relief, "Are you all right? Can you walk back to the lift?"

"Y-yeah," Shinji nodded. "Just…give me a second. It feels like I was standing in an oven." He slowly unclenched his hands, wincing as he felt his clothing move along his flesh. It was like the encounter at Mount Asama all over again, only this time there was no comforting hot springs waiting for him.

"Captain, I leave the clean up to you," Gendo stood from his perch on the command deck and walked away conferring with his second in command.

Misato watched the man walk away with a sense of worry.

+++++ 3rd Angel + 0 : Friday (1)

Shinji sat wearing a dressing gown in the private medical office of Doctor Ritsuko Akagi with a growing sense of anxiety. After dismissing his complaints about residual pain, she began an extensive series of tests. The purpose of these tests, of course, was being kept from him. By the second hour of sitting still, he decided it was past time to speak up, "Doctor," he waited for a response. "Doctor?"

"Hmm?" Two sets of diverging bar charts shuffled on the screen before the distracted scientist.

"I hate to disturb you, Doctor, but I'm starting to feel hungry," his stomach's rumbling added its opinion to the discussion.

Ritsuko sat up and blinked, "Oh. I…I'm sorry, I forgot you were still here Shinji-Kun." With a sigh, she looked at the time, "It's late, do you need someone to…you don't have a place to stay." The distractions of the physical realm seemed to collide in her consciousness all at once, and she winced, "Well. That's unfortunate, isn't it."

"I'm sorry," best to stick with the classics. "Is there…maybe a cafeteria that's open? I think I have some money left from my trip here." He frowned, "Except…my bag is with Misato-San."

"Well, this is my fault." Ritsuko stood up, "I'll get you some surgical scrubs, and we'll go get some food." She smiled, maybe this would earn her some points with Gendo. Yes, this would do nicely. "How does that sound, Shinji-Kun?"

"I still don't have any money," he shrugged. "It's ok, I can wait."

"No, no," the bottle blonde tossed him a pair of blue scrubs, "I insist. I'll pay, since this is clearly my error." His smile of gratitude hit her like a freight train. Rooted in place as he slid off the examination bed, she watched as he ducked behind the curtains to change into the first clean clothes of his new life. That smile was so innocent, full of nothing but earnest gratitude. How long had it been since anyone looked at her like that?

"Well," Shinji stepped back around the curtain, a lop-sided grin on his face, "do I look ready for surgery?"

Ritsuko walked over, and gripped his shoulder, gesturing towards the door, "So, Doctor Ikari, you have some interest in medicine?" The door slid open, and with Ritsuko leading the way, the pair walked down the lonely, quiet, hall. "Maybe a career once you're done saving the world?"

"Oh," the Third Child blushed, "I think I'd have to have a better grasp of physics and chemistry than I do in order to properly become a doctor, wouldn't I?" Looking down at where he was walking, he frowned, "I…had someone try to explain thermal expansion, they used the human body, or parts of it, as an example. I understood the concept, kind of."

"I see," the bottle blonde nodded. "Well, the basics of thermal expansion are fairly rudimentary. Cold objects compress as the atoms that compose them become less active, and warm objects expand as the atoms become excited." She gestured, "Some objects, like that door, don't experience a great deal of thermal expansion without an extreme change of temperature. The reason for that is the bonds between atoms are strong. But in objects that are filled with a gas, like a balloon or a football, thermal expansion becomes an issue. If you don't account for it, you can ruin many experiments. When objects with strong molecular bonds do experience contraction or expansion, it's typically accompanied by a violent change in their physical cohesion."

The pair turned into the cafeteria, and Shinji nodded slowly, "So…that's why I was kind of confused. I was applying it to my desk." He sighed, "I'm an idiot."

"No!" Ritsuko laughed, "Actually, what you were doing makes perfect sense, from a learning standpoint. You were attempting to apply a concept to something you had immediately at hand."

He smiled again, grateful that she made it seem less idiotic than it sounded to him. This time, he saw the look on her face as he showed his gratitude, "Doctor?" His smile dropped, "Is something wrong?"

"Shinji-Kun," she paused. A million thoughts flew through her head, competing desires, contrasted flaws, fears and concerns. She stepped forward, extending her hand in the more Western style, "Please, call me Ritsuko."

"R-Ritsuko-San," Shinji fought against the instinct to bow, instead awkwardly extending his hand to shake hers. "Sorry, I…I think I hide behind formality. I didn't mean to offend you."

"No," Ritsuko shook her head, clasping his hand in both of hers, "I'm sorry. I get the feeling that life has given you lots of reasons to do so. And just as many to hide your smile." She twitched, "I mean intelligence." Spinning away, walking towards the short-order line, "I think I'd like to spend time with you Shinji-Kun. With the proper tutoring, you could become someone truly special."

"Tutoring?" Shinji blinked, "You mean…?" He caught up with her, as Ritsuko ordered them both sizable meals. Walking apace, he accepted the glass she offered and went to pour himself tea.

"I mean you are the product of two extremely capable people. Yui Ikari was, without question, one of the brightest scientists the world has ever seen. Her theories in metaphysical biology, combined with her work in bioengineering and biochemistry, put her up with the all-time greats." Ritsuko nodded, "And yes, that is jealousy you hear in my voice. I'm still trying to piece together, from the notes she and my mother left behind, how to improve the Evangelion you piloted."

"I'm sure you can do it, Ritsuko-San," Shinji's eyes were alight with confidence in the woman he knew as intensely focused and creatively intelligent. He turned his head, facing the cook, "I doubt my father would bother retaining anyone that he had no use for. And he's always only had uses for people with talent."

The comment, boldly stated and clearly deeply held as true, added fuel to the fire blazing in the doctor's mind. "You really don't like your father, do you Shinji-Kun?"

Shinji's frown showed through for a second, then he shook his head. Choosing to allow the motion to speak for him, rather than risk revealing more than he ought to about where he had been and what he had seen. Things were already a little different, but controllably so. If Gendo found out about his coming back through time, things may…take a turn for the worse.

"I guess that's only natural," Ritsuko guided him towards a nearby table, each carrying their tray of food. "I didn't get along with my mother, either. She chose a career that required her to be away all the time. While she accomplished many great things in her life, one of them wasn't attending any of the ceremonies where I received awards."

Shinji nodded, tucking into his meal, "I'm sorry to hear that, Ritsuko-San." He blew a bit to cool the fish down, "I'm sure you worked harder than I ever have to get where you are, and that you should be recognized." His mental sigh increased with his frustration, she couldn't know about the feats she managed to accomplish with the Angels. She hasn't done anything yet. "Do you really think you have the time to waste working with me?" Shinji swallowed, and smiled self-deprecatingly, "The people I…studied with, they always called me Stupid Shinji."

"Are you willing to apply yourself?" Ritsuko dissected her food, choosing elegance over speed. "I don't mind if you don't understand, what will bother me will be you not trying with everything you have." Rolling her chopsticks in one hand, she tapped the table with her other, "Like I said, Yui Ikari was brilliant. You may just have a variance in learning style that prevents you from succeeding in a traditional environment. I can't imagine a product of Yui and Gendo would be 'Stupid'."

"I'll give you my full effort, Ritsuko-San." Shinji nodded firmly, maybe this could be a better life. His mouth grew back into the smile he found becoming more and more comfortable, "Maybe, someday, I could help you with something in return."

That smile. Again, that damn smile. It wasn't mocking, it wasn't demeaning, it wasn't even filled with the signals that would indicate a lie. Ritsuko wanted to die of pleasure, someone was actually looking at her like she mattered. Like what she was, who she was mattered! Just as she went to ask him about his living arrangements, perhaps she could arrange an apartment near hers to allow for easier meeting times, Misato appeared in typical Typhoon Katsuragi fashion.

"There you are!" Misato dropped down onto the bench, knocking Ritsuko aside slightly and stealing a few choice morsels, "I've been looking all over for you." She waved at where she had dropped Shinji's bags, "We need to get going soon, you have school in the morning and I still have to show you around my apartment." Turning her energy on Ritsuko, "Thanks for making sure he got something to eat, Rits. He is cleared to be released, right? I mean, no defects? I'll be taking care of him, so I need to know if something is wrong."

Shinji watched, with a strange detached calm, as Ritsuko's face underwent a series of dramatic emotional shifts. It was like watching a Noh performer work with omote, the carved wooden masks used to represent changes in character or mood. "Ritsuko-San?" He smiled as control reasserted itself, with a somewhat humorous snap, and the bottle-blonde unleashed Hell upon the unprepared Captain.

"What did you say?!" Ritsuko bodily turned on the smaller woman, her knees knocking the bombshell back.

"Like I said, I'll take care of Shinji. I've already got permission from the brass." She rolled her eyes sarcastically, "And don't worry, it's not like I'm going to 'put the moves' on him."

"OF COURSE YOU'RE NOT! What the hell are you thinking?" Ritsuko slapped the table, nearly causing a mess that Shinji averted with quick hands. "You're always like this. Honestly."

"She never could take a joke," Misato stage-whispered to Shinji. Elbowing her one-time friend, Misato grinned, "What, were you planning on having him move in with you?"

"It's academic now, Misato." Ritsuko sighed, "You've already received permission from his father, and you know as well as I do that he doesn't like to be asked the same question twice."

Shinji had a look of acceptance on his face that froze both women, "I didn't expect to be living off of the base. My father called me here, I doubt he intended to do much more than throw me in a closet and pull me out when I was needed for whatever it was he had planned. This is better than any number of alternatives I had imagined." He took several more bites of fish, chewing in silence.

"Well," Misato slapped the table, "I'm looking forward to having a new roomie."

"Then you won't mind hosting my tutoring sessions," Ritsuko asserted calmly.

"Tutoring sessions?" Misato blinked, turning to Shinji, "You're having troubles in school?"

"I was being taught off-curriculum," Shinji recalled. "My sensei gave me private instruction, he hadn't gotten around to the sciences. I'm doing fine in literature, and English. My math grades are passing."

"He has potential, Katsuragi," it was now the third in command speaking. "To be honest, on the days when I'm not available, I had intended to ask Maya Ibuki to lend him a hand. What kind of service would we be doing to humanity if our savior couldn't pass the University Exams? Your apartment is big enough to host a tutor, and I'm offering my services as a friend," she turned to Shinji, who smiled at the vote of confidence. She shrugged, "And, if it doesn't work out with you living with Misato, we can always find another arrangement."

"Doesn't…Hey, I'll have you know I'm a fun girl to live with," Misato protested. "You'll see Shinji." Memories of housework, of horrifying culinary disasterpieces, of laundry and Yebisu and loud movies at bedtime all raced through Shinji's mind. Unfortunately, they also raced across Shinji's face. "All right, Ritsuko, you've scared him! Come on, Shinji. Let's get going. I'm not going to let Miss Prissy Britches scare you off the roomie life before you've had a chance to experience it."

Shinji was hurried away from the table, his bags shoved into his hands. Twisting his head around, he called back over his shoulder, "Thank you for the meal, Ritsuko-San!"

+++++ 3rd Angel + 0 : Friday (1)

The light pollution of Tokyo-3 remained unchanged. The clock read 2311, but Shinji could see no shadows looming along the highway. "I'm surprised I was able to be enrolled so quickly," Misato's commentary on his new school reminded him that he had only been in the city for less than a day. "I would have thought the bureaucracy alone would have forced me to wait at least a few days."

"Well, when I call people they listen." Misato tossed a grin over to Shinji, "Tomorrow's a half day, owing to the Angel attack, so you'll get a little more sleep than usual. Oh!" She waved at the glove compartment, "I got you one of the company issued smartphones, you'll need to keep it charged and on you at all times. If an Angel attacks, that will be how we contact you at school. Buuut," she tapped the wheel, "if you make any friends you can give them the number. Just don't talk to them about NERV operations, ok? Almost all of what we do is classified to protect everyone, understand?"

"Yes, Misato-San," Shinji frowned at the phone in his hand. He never got calls on his old one, the few people that did call used the landline number the school had. Ninety-nine percent of the time the calls were for Asuka.

Misato ventured, "Not many friends, eh?" She lifted a corner of her mouth, "I had a hard time too, when I was younger." Pulling into her parking spot at the sedate speed of forty kilometers an hour, she patted Shinji's leg, "Give people a chance, Shinji. You've got guts, I saw that plain as day in the battle. I'm sure if you reach out a little, someone will reach the other half of the way." The walk up to the apartment was slow, Misato chatting away about the potentials of having a good circle of friends. He wanted to get some sleep, some time to himself, but he also couldn't exactly rush ahead and give up the game. When they reached the door, Misato turned grandly and swiped her card for the door to open, "Starting today, this is your home. So you can take advantage of everything here."

"Sorry for disturbing you," Shinji bowed politely.

"No, no no," Misato waved her hands. "This is your home now, Shinji."

He looked at the ghost of his old home, the past colliding with what for him was the present, and Misato the future, "I…I'm home." It was harder than he thought it would be to get out.

"That's right," Misato shoved him through the door, barely letting him kick his shoes off before pushing him into the main room. "That's the kitchen," with a vague gesture past the pile of laundry, landslide of Yebisu cans, and two bags full of garbage, "that's my room." With a wink, she rolled her hand, "Past my domain is the bathroom. Try to keep the peeping to a minimum."

"I-I don't peep!" Shinji blushed, looking down, "That's…that'd be perverted." Asuka's wailing cry echoed through his mind, and he reflexively looked around for the slap or strike with a hairbrush.

"Huh," the Captain frowned, "maybe you should have gone with Ritsuko. The two of you could have no sense of humor together."

"S-sorry," Shinji bowed again. "I'll, uh, just go to my room." Instinctively walking to the closet he had been demoted to when Asuka stormed the apartment, he opened it to a face full of dusty cleaning equipment. Coughing as the dust blossomed out into the area around him, he waved with one hand and pushed his bags aside with the other to spare them the coating. "It's…it's ok, I'll get it clean. Uh, tomorrow." Sliding the door shut he wiped his face free of the larger bits.

"Shinji," Misato tilted her head quizzically, "the spare bedroom's right there," she pointed to the quite obviously larger side room. "That's the closet."

His jaw set, and for a second, he thought he could manage to not lose it. His knees buckled, and he dropped like a sack to the floor, tears quietly streaming down his cheeks. It was too much. The memories overwhelmed him, the kindness Misato had been trying to show him despite her own pains, the way she was pushing him to exit his self-defined cage of loneliness. The feeling of inferiority every time Asuka berated him. And now, the victory over the Third Angel. Walking away from the fight triumphant. Coming back through time! "It's…it's ok." He struggled to stop his voice from cracking.

Misato stood frozen. A boy, on the verge of manhood, was kneeling like a broken child, crying on her floor. He…boys didn't show emotions like this. This wasn't the powerful-seeming young man from before, how did she react? Should she hug him? Console him? Would he even want that?

Before she could break free from paralysis, Shinji wiped his eyes and stood. "I'll crash on the couch, tonight. Tomorrow, after school, I'll clean up the closet, then start on the rest of the house." Moving his bags next to the second-hand couch, he pulled out his S-Dat player and placed the buds in his ears. Laying, with his face turned to the back of the couch, he closed his eyes and let everything just roll over him. He could rely on apathy for another night. It wouldn't hurt.

The entire process was over before Misato could recover from the second shock. What kind of abusive madhouse did you come from, Shinji? Mama Bear kicked in, and moving quietly into the spare room, she pulled the blanket free from the futon. When she returned to the couch, Shinji had curled into a tight ball, his eyes firmly shut with tears leaking freely. Letting the blanket float gently down over him, she squeezed his shoulder and turned the lights out. If he wanted privacy while he recovered, then privacy she would give him.

+++++ 3rd Angel + 1 : Saturday (2)

When Shinji awoke, to the gentle nudging of a curious Pen-Pen, the sun was just about to grace the horizon. "Hey, Pen-Pen." Shinji smiled fondly at the warm-water fowl, "I bet you're kind of hungry, aren't you?"

The penguin turned its beak towards the kitchen, a calculating look in its eyes. Perhaps this strange human understands…. Turning back with an eager nod, he was surprised when Shinji scratched his underbeak.

"Let's go fix that," Shinji sat up, stretching. "I don't remember where Misato has your food, yet, but I'll see about buying you some smoked sardines today. What do you think?" An eager nod and a happy waddle to the kitchen preceded Shinji, "Good. That's good." With a wark, not loud enough to wake Misato, Pen-Pen showed Shinji where he could find the dehydrated fish. Shinji picked out one of the packs and set some water to boiling. "I bet she set those up there because you were overeating, didn't she?" The penguin rolled its head, not wanting to lie to the nice stranger, but also not wanting to admit to overindulgence. "That's ok, we'll watch each other's backs, won't we?" Another eager nod, followed up with scratches under the beak. "Who needs other friends," Shinji sat on the ground, Pen-Pen eagerly climbing into his lap for more affection, "I've got good friends right here."

Unknown to Shinji, Misato had sat up all night doing research on his past. When she heard stirring, her intent was to catch Pen-Pen before he startled Shinji. Instead, she was leaving bloody marks on her finger to stop from squee-ing with girlish glee at the young man's gentle nature. If he was a year older…or, if she were to wait a year or so. Her door closed, and she decided he could skip school today if he needed to. She could sleep, content that her bird had managed what she couldn't figure out herself how to do.

Shinji delicately set aside the bird just as the pot showed its first signs of boiling. Pouring the fish in, he began to make a small meal for himself from the few things he could find that wouldn't immediately disgust him. A breakfast of rice crackers ensued, with a small side of seaweed soaked in the leftover water from Pen-Pen's meal. Seating himself back on the floor, Shinji enjoyed his meal in the fine company of his feathered roommate, "I can do this. Can't I, Pen-Pen?"

Working a chunk of delicious fishiness down his throat, Pen-Pen turned to consider the stranger. A short series of warks, the hope that better days were ahead for the kind man, and a few nods sufficed to express what he wanted.

"You're right," Shinji sighed, smiling sadly. "I need to have confidence in myself." Swallowing the last of his cracker, he stood, "Enjoy your meal. I'm going to go take a bath. I need to get ready for school."

Drawing a shallow bath, a habit formed by living with two women who demanded the entire building's supply of hot water be reserved for them, Shinji set out his clothes and looked for any suitable toiletries he could use. "I'm going to have to go shopping," he looked down to his phone, "I wonder when I'll get my service card."

It was a vanilla and lavender combination, but it worked well enough to get him clean. He used his finger and Misato's aggressively minty toothpaste to brush his teeth, and soon was ready for the day. He had an hour to walk to school, and he had his satchel empty. A day without food wouldn't kill him, and if nothing else would allow him to simply hide in the classroom while everyone else ran off to escape it.

Writing a brief note, and leaving it where it would be easily found, he tapped his shoes on and stepped out for the day. When he made the bottom landing, he looked around for his Section Two escort. Spotting the front bumper of the tell-tale black car, Shinji nodded to himself, "At least that's not gone anywhere." With that resolved, he stepped out into the first day of his old life.