Disclaimer: Insert standard disclaimer here.

As a meaty fist rocketed toward the ten-year-old Shinji's face, he tried to relax his muscles while one particular thought ran through his mind.

If they're going to bully me like this, the least they could do is change their routine every so often.

Four boys, the the leader of whom was a year older than him, had made a hobby of beating the crap out of one Shinji Ikari on his way home from school.

It wasn't a secret that Shinji hadn't any parents. It was also public knowledge that his aunt and uncle had died in a flood not so long ago.

In other words, Shinji pretty much lived by himself. And by the bullies' logic; if nobody cared to look after him, then he was an acceptable punching bag.

They didn't want his money, though they sometimes took it anyway.

Shinji didn't bother getting up from his current position, a couple of feet from where he'd been standing previously.

The boy who had punched him mockingly asked, "Well, Ikari? If you're so smart, then why dontcha think yer way out of this one?"

Determined not to make a sound and to feign unconsciousness – he'd learned that they got bored more easily when he didn't express his pain – Shinji dryly thought, 'Because I'm too weak to fight back, and my uncle told me that I mustn't run away from my problems, even if they hurt. Yeah, it's kind of painful, but since I don't matter to anyone, trying to get help would only inconvenience them.'

Shinji really couldn't help that he got better grades than most of his class. For some reason, he still insisted on the pointless hope that if he did well enough, his father would at the very least acknowledge him.

It was for the same reason that he didn't change his route 'home.' Evidently, he was either too stupid or too stubborn to give up.

Realizing that they couldn't get a response out of someone who couldn't talk, however, the bullies got bored and left after a round of kicking him in the stomach, one of them remarking that, "Jeez, he just gets even wussier every single time."

"Yeah, I know, that's the only thing he's good for."

With that, the quartet erupted into uproarious laughter, which faded as they gained distance.

A few minutes later, just as Shinji was about to get up and continue on with his empty life, a voice said, "I hope you realize you don't really have to let those guys walk all over you like this."

Confused, Shinji opened his eyes and observed a white-haired boy, maybe a year older than he was. Momentarily stunned by the older boy's dull scarlet eyes, Shinji hesitated a moment before accepting the older boy's hand and getting helped to his feet. "Thanks, er…"

"Ah, sorry about that; forgot to introduce myself. My name is Kaworu Nagisa. I transferred in a week ago to the same school, although I'm a year older than you."

Once Shinji could stand, Kaworu smoothly transitioned his grasp into a brief handshake, polite smile never leaving his face.

Hesitating a few seconds before realizing that he also needed to introduce himself, Shinji eventually replied, "I'm Shinji Ikari…"

Then, almost too quickly for Shinji to react, Kaworu asked, "Now that that's taken care of, do you need to see a doctor?"

Confused, Shinji sputtered for a second, before collecting his senses and replying in the negative. "Nagisa-san –"

"Please, call me Kaworu. I don't really care about what honorific you choose."

Trying to get himself back on track, Shinji continued, "Okay then, Kaworu-san… I'm not that hurt, and it's not that I'm ungrateful for your help… But, why are you going out of your way to be concerned about me?"

Kaworu thought for a minute, before replying, "Hrm... Those other guys were beating on you, and I don't imagine that you deserve it. I have a natural instinct to help other people when they're in pain… And besides, you look like you could use a friend."

Quite surprised, Shinji eventually sighed and said, "You shouldn't bother yourself, Kaworu-san. I'm weak, cowardly… useless. Who on earth would want a friend like me?"

Within half a second, Kaworu replied, "Weak? Hardly. I saw those guys beating up on you, and you didn't even flinch or cry out in pain. That takes a lot of inner strength; strength of will. In short, Shinji, you're not weak. It's only natural for human beings to be afraid of pain, but you were willing to face that pain and get past it almost without incident. That takes a lot of courage. Therefore, you are not a coward. Besides, everyone has a purpose in life, you just have to find it. No one is useless. Surely you must have some sort of special talent, a something you're good at that a lot of other people arent'?"

Shinji's first thought of a skill he had was getting beaten up quickly, but figured that either it wouldn't count or that Kaworu would go on a brief lecture again. So, as Shinji was wont to do while deep in thought, he contemplated his navel. And, after a few moments of said contemplation, spoke up, "Well, I can play the cello…"

Light in his eyes, Kaworu practically leapt up as he replied, "A-ha! You can play the cello, and I'd wager you're fairly good at it, too. Can I play the cello? No, of course I can't, I'm nearly tone deaf. See, Shinji? You can do something that I can't, and what's more, it's a skill I admire. So to speed things up a bit, what I'm trying to say is…."

Suddenly in Shinji's face and poking him in the chest to punctuate every word, Kaworu said, "YOU, ARE A COOL KID! Your most terrible flaw is that you haven't much self-esteem. If you could be confident in yourself, why, I bet you'd have a moderate-sized fan club!"

Reeling at the shock of being called 'cool', and raising an eyebrow in his incredulity, Shinji asked, "Oh really?"

Kaworu replied, "Have I lied to you yet? Of course not, I just met you five minutes ago, but everything I've said so far at least SOUNDS reasonably plausible, doesn't it? Search your feelings, Shinji! You know it to be true! Tell you what, I'll make a little bet with you. Tomorrow, during free time at school, approach some kids you want to play with, and without stuttering, ask to join them. If they reject you after that, then I'll make it up to you however you wish, no questions asked."

After a moment or two, Shinji decided to give it a try, his brain telling him that he would be ignored and/or rejected as always, and that having a butler would be rather nice.

The next day, after lunch, Shinji approached a group of kids playing kickball, and asked, "Hey, um, well… would you mind if I join in?"

The various children remained silent for a couple of seconds, and just as Shinji was about to turn and leave, a brown-haired girl replied, "Sure thing, Ikari-kun! We thought about inviting you to play with us loads of times before, but you always looked like you wanted to be by yourself! We're short a member, so you can join my team! My name's Noriko Takaya! These are my friends – Kaname-chan, Suzaku-san, and Mahiro-chan!"

The three children in question – a calm girl with long blue hair, a somewhat stoic red-haired boy, and a ditzy orange-haired girl – all smiled and welcomed the awe-struck Shinji into their fold.

And as it soon became Shinji's turn to kick, tears of joy fell from his eyes as he truly smiled for the first time in years, and as the red rubber ball came rolling at him, the young boy remembered all of the times that his sadness and timidity had trapped him in isolation, and imagined all of that loneliness inside the ball, and he sent that son of a bitch flying with every ounce of strength he could muster, and lo, it bounced off a tree and hit the concrete playground and somehow found the leader of the kids who bullied him yesterday and smashed that arrogant little prick right in the face and knocked him out.