And so Leothric came into a well-lit chamber, where Queens and Princes were banqueting together, all at a great table; and thousands of candles were glowing all about, and their light shone in the wine that the Princes drank and on the huge gold candelabra, and the royal faces were irradiant with the glow, and the white table-cloth and the silver plates and the jewels in the hair of the Queens, each jewel having a historian all to itself, who wrote no other chronicles all his days.

- Expert from The Fortress Unvanquishable Save for Sacnoth

July 17th, 2016

Voices outside the tank were distorted by thick glass walls and orange fluid, leaving Ayanami Rei undisturbed as she bobbed lightly within the neutral suspension. Her lungs easily drew the oxygenated LCL in, long accustomed to the extra effort. She was nude save for the small socket in her arm, though what modesty she had grown to feel necessary was preserved by her now far-longer hair. It was a clinical sort of nakedness, and one she only recently began to relate with vulnerability.

Half-obscured by shadow and fluid distortion, Ikari Gendo stared at her with an unreadable look.

Still deafened from the outside world, Rei continued to muse. She was still as a grave in most respects, but her eyes wandered up to the upper reaches of the Memory Transfer Machine. Some part magnetic imaging and part psychic resonance, the curling assemblage of pipes resembled the gryi and sulci of a human brain. Its form had no bearing on its function, and the machine's ability to record was more a product of her own unique metaphysical anatomy. Asuka would have called it pointlessly symbolic and the mark of a vain egoist.

Asuka and Misato had been gone for two days.

The Commander turned to face the darkness, and a cherry red coal flared in response. The hand that held the cigarette cut through the air and left a burning orange line in its wake. "-en do I get my- -boratories back?"

Gendo's eyes narrowed imperceptibly. "The situation is in hand Akagi."

More angry orange-spot-slashing. "...ituation is untenable, Commander"

"I will resolve the matter in due time, Doctor."

The use of titles seemed to mark the end of the discussion. Lights within the cavernous chamber shifted, and Akagi Ritsuko stepped forward. She glanced at Gendo for a moment and pressed her lips into a thin line before looking Rei in the eye. "As you can see we have refit the transfer system now for independent and semi-autonomous operation."

Whisper-quiet, Rei spoke softly and let her eyes drift closed. "I understand. Thank you, Akagi-sensei."

"Rei." Gendo's voice was low and quiet, but it still filled the space. He nodded to Ritsuko then the banks of new devices, expanding and enhancing the transfer system. "Your purpose remains."

Taking one more step closer, Ritsuko bristled minutely. "Sir... her purpose in the scenario is essentially suic-"

"Her loyalty is absolute." Gendo cut the scientist off with a curt wave of an arm. "There is no issue."

Ritsuko swallowed her response, and Rei found the subtle shifts of emotion fascinating. The blonde looked as if she had swallowed something truly sour. "...Sir."

The pilot, Commander and scientist all fell silent at that. Ritsuko stamped out her spent cigarette and returned to the transfer console while Gendo resumed his vigil, watching Rei. Long minutes passed, and Ritsuko returned with three key cards with dangling lanyards.

"Only the three of us have access to this chamber," she explained. Ritsuko set one card aside for Rei as the Commander silently pocketed his copy. "One mandatory scan per month, alongside your pilot physical. This card will let you initiate an automatic transfer session." She gave Rei a wan smile, and the bags under eyes stood out even more. "You can come in and take as many memory saves as you like."

Turning and looking between both Child and the Commander, Ritsuko continued. "All Unit Zero entry plugs have been upgraded with emergency memory recovery as well. I don't think you'd ever want to use it, but it's there if you need it, Rei."

Rei took in a shallow breath and nodded. She couldn't reach out to touch it, but the card... It represented something. A quality of life that she was just beginning to fully understand. Her own control, perhaps, or maybe volition. The Commander turned and made for the door, already sure his presence was no longer required. Rei watched the door close behind him.

The teenager and adult looked at each other, then at nothing at all for a long while. Focusing back on the card, Rei glanced between it and where the Commander had been. Limited control, but control nonetheless. Meanwhile, Ritsuko sighed and pulled the lanyard over her head before moving back towards the console. She pressed a key and terminated the session.

As the LCL drained out of the tube, despite everything else going on, Rei smiled.

Tokyo-3 stood isolated from both Japan and the rest of the world, serving as a nearly self-contained system and largely detached from Japan itself. Crouched in the defensible pocket formed by hills on three sides, the low-slung industrial and armor buildings of the lakeside city was the ideal battleground. Scarred twice over by Angel attacks, the city had rebuilt. Modularity and prefabrication had eased the process, alongside vast subterranean systems. New buildings and roads stretched out over earthen gashes and flooded craters, leaving ragged edges and miss-matched streets throughout.

Life went on in the fortress city, where the hottest days of the year caught and reflected off of every chrome and mirror-polished surface. Invisible towers of hot rippling air surged up into the sky and beat at any aircraft who dared fly over the city proper. Electric cars ran across too-wide boulevards and over striped hazard bands, which in turn doubled as pedestrian crosswalks. Civilian foot-traffic was a misnomer, as all who lived and worked in Tokyo-3 were in some way part of NERV, part of the war effort.

Every morning, great streams of people and product flowed into massive bunker-entrances. carried by equally huge trucks and flanked by armed guards, the industrial, economic, and intellectual might of Tokyo-3 all vanished underground.

Shigeru Aoba ran a hand through his still-growing hair and sighed. His fingers caught on the thin surgical scar that cut at an angle, leaving a long bald furrow. The technician let his hand fall to the side and continued on his way through the Geofront catacombs. Hyuuga had taken over for Major Katsuragi in the wake of her departure. Any other week, Aoba would have run the other man ragged for how hard he mooned over their superior officer.

Instead, the Geofront itself seemed to have come under siege.

The sandy-haired man sighed once more and looked to his thick tablet interface. Its screen flashed green and filled with a list of alerts and events, marked by blank spaces and voids empty of information. Whole sections of MAGI conduit and connections had been re-routed for two-score projects or more, and there wasn't one he could name. No reports or requests had been filed, thus leaving no paper trail. Proof of something came in the form of mysterious data storage and the increasingly frequent prototype. Doctor Akagi had them all stacked up in her main lab, and Aoba had seen her eying them fitfully at them more than once.

Back in the present Aoba shared some of her trepidation, sighing as he stared at the traitorous absence of data. Do I try reporting this, or do I act like I'm at lunch right now and hope some other poor bastard catches hell for the past two days of dead-air...?

The decision came fairly easily, despite how it set his empty stomach twisting. Tapping the touchscreen, Aoba walked along the corridor just like he had any other day, fulfilling his normal duties as a lieutenant in NERV's employ. He made a turn left aiming for a shortcut, but stopped in the face of the blocked hallway. Welded shut. Right, he had to go the long way.

It felt longer, lifetimes even. Being closed off. He dragged a long-fingered hand down his face, pulling on thin stubble and stretching his cheeks away down from his eyes. He let go and everything snapped back into place, staring at the blocked door.

On the other side of the wall, lights flickered and died.

Unnecessary spaces did not need upkeep, as that was an inefficient use of resources. Instead, whole hallways had been stripped of their sturdy panels, wiring and insulation. Other passages had been blocked with undulating coils of cable and sheathed conduit, and only strange symbols painted in human blood saw fit to keep the temperatures fit for mankind.

Men and women trudged through those tangled passageways at all hours. They had lost all sense of time- their watches and cellular phones confiscated and cannibalized in favor of progress. Heirlooms, like an ancient pocket watch dating from the Meiji Restoration had been rendered down unto raw silver for purposes unknown.

We can do better was the only explanation offered.

Staff bathrooms meant for brief intermittent use had been converted to pressure-scrub showers. When set properly, a fully clothed man could go from filthy to clean in an uncomfortable twenty seconds. If set improperly, one such station could go through dirt, fabric, skin, subcutaneous tissue and possibly bone. None had dared adjust the temperature after that warning, and the thirty scientists and technicians endured the icy misery.

Meals were relentlessly scheduled, left not to habit but an almost all-seeing eye, who knew their bodies better than they did. Dense sustenance bars had been baked automatically, run by ramshackle contraptions made of vending machines and repurposed microwaves. Their taste had been a concession to simple human fallibility; food would have done them no good if they had not been able to stomach it.

Sleep was a mysterious thing, forgotten in the repeated application of medical thaumaturgy. The new science of pressure points worked, despite more than a century of contrary evidence. Those who graduated from the higher education in late seventies and early eighties were no strangers to all-nighters. The sad fact was, as a loose collection of seniors and the middle-aged, many of them had not felt this healthy in years, if not decades. There was no mistaking the steady, inevitable grind for the weariness and decrepitudes of age. What they were experiencing was every way they could experience it, as any less could compromise yet more progress.

An indeterminate volume of the Geofront now sat apart from the rest, blocked at all access by solid steel barriers welded seamlessly from floor to ceiling. And every single line of fused metal ended with the same thing.

A fingerprint.

Inside the cordoned off section, three floors and approximately twenty rooms had been converted into rapid research and prototyping engines. Salvaged tools and new devices constructed by his hand hung from the ceiling or spread out across the half-dozen work tables. Bent over those stations for hours at a time, every scientist and engineer felt Ikari's mark on the process.

Every man and woman had been placed where they would do the most good, that their specialties would compliment their assigned task and maximize synergy with their neighbors. One man leaned over a computer terminal, dutifully punching in code. Others turned to calculators and chemical formula, rubbing at three days of stubble. They were not chained to their desks, but they stayed in those seats just the same.

At the far end of the primary research chamber, there was a secure sliding door. It had once been a clean room for electronics assembly, now it served as a private laboratory. A sudden surge of intent swept across the research floor, and each scientist stiffened in their seats. Persistent, almost intangible pressure hit their skin, like the almost physical feeling of walking into warmer air.

That sudden awareness gave way to panic as sweat broke out across nearly every brow and under each collar. Those who had been between desks for one reason or another scrambled, hurried but deliberate. Inefficiency was unacceptable, but the consequences for mistakes... The unspoken consensus was unanimous. Papers were shuffled and consoles strained to keep up with the furious inputs.

The light from within came first, cast out in thin lines at the seams and edges. Bright enough that it flooded every nook and cranny between the door and its floor and ceiling tracks. White-gold filled the space as the door whipped open, and everyone blinked behind welding masks and opaque tinted goggles.

It was difficult to describe tangible brilliance. Ikari Shinji filled the doorway, so much so that the structure itself seemed too small to hold him.

Their project leader stepped out into the room without pause and took one look across the room, head swiveling left to right with his gold brand shining like a searchlight. Muscles shifted under a threadbare shirt, and everyone present knew what strength he could bring to bear. They had watched him rip down walls. Somehow vacant and intent, he turned his attention from the room itself to everyone in it.

Behind their masks and visors, sweat beaded down their skulls.

He pointed at a handful of them, already having made it halfway across the room. "You, and your teams. Follow me and report."

So indicated, the scientists and engineers leapt to their feet and clustered around him. They did their best to clamp down on the fear and unease, but none could keep their voice fully level. If he noticed, there was no outward sign. Project summaries filled the air as the growing entourage of beleaguered innovators followed his command. Synthetic muscle both cloned and constructed, improvements to MAGI interface, and plans regarding the manufacture and distribution of the enhanced MRI system.

Three days of full-burn effort had resulted in progress more along the lines of years. Maybe not revolutions, but instead vast leaps forward nonetheless. Still, they lacked his inherent advantages, the almost tangible brilliance on demand. The reports from every angle were riddled with questions and challenges they could not do- not in the hours Ikari had demanded.

So the boy-leader cocked his head to the side, then the other, visibly mulling over each obstacle as he marched through the isolated Geofront chambers. His shining aura glowed almost constantly, flaring brighter and showing all the edges of its more iconic elements. Brief glimpses of wire-mesh arms and hands threaded between equally ornate mandala traceries. Answers flowed from his lips almost non-stop.

Desktop prototyping and computers of the previous room gave way to manufacturing floor and assembly, where unlucky NERV staff had been scooped up in the siege. Those men and women in the orange coveralls and tan uniforms worked with larger tools and bigger projects, overseeing the assembly of the things the Shinji and his specialists had designed.

Strung-together MAGI terminals connected intangibly with the rest of the Geofront. His entourage followed and those already present dared not stand at his presence. He did not tolerate distraction. Efficiency was earned with brute-force calculation and growing experience. Hours had been stretched, and the lack of sleep broke what grasp of time remained. Ikari Shinji had made himself the center of their world in three days. He had secured them against exhaustion and sickness, and demanded that they work his pace.

At the end of his circuit, Shinji stopped and turned to his collection of employees and conscripts. The gold disc on his brow flared brighter, and he turned awfully focused eyes on each of them. He spoke softly, and those nearly forty years his senior were again reminded that for all of Shinji's height, bulk and sheer presence, his voice hadn't changed.

"It's time for dinner."

He couldn't actually multitask. At least not any further than an athlete or martial artist could, trusting their physical training to share the load of doing, leaving room for thinking. Shinji stared out past his plate at his employees and direct subordinates. His mind churned away at complex problems that most people would struggle with, even with a calculator or computer. Balancing the dietary requirements of over thirty people was again, not a matter of dividing his attention. Linear progression of thought and logic chewed through the complex organic chemistry and metabolic science.

That he did so in a matter of minutes was what made people think he could multitask.

Not that he had much care for what other people thought right then. That was part of the problem; he thought too much about the wrong things. None of that led to progress. Behind in his office were the plans for MRI cable bundle manufacturing and eventual implementation across Tokyo-3. At the head of the long cafeteria table, Shinji watched the rows of scientists, engineers and common NERV employees. They ate quickly and spoke little, as he'd already implemented a strict schedule for meals. What whispered complaints reached his ears were shushed by their neighbors, urging everyone to just keep their heads down. Distractions everywhere.

As for dinner, that was a special event. NERV kitchens were surprisingly well stocked, and the bulk foodstuffs gave him a great deal of room to stretch out. The lavish meals also served as a nightly incentive. Disposable chopsticks and the ubiquitous spork scraped against the plastic trays heaped high with fresh breads, expertly prepared rice and preserved staple meats. Face thick with three days worth of stubble, Professor Kurosawa ate with big bites, but Shinji could read his face, read that something was bothering him. The boy made a note to watch the man in the future.

The schedules aimed for the best use of everyone's time according to his plotting. Shinji frowned while leaning back in his chair. The seat creaked ominously. There were so many things that needed to be done. Engineers worked on the material sciences, refining the composite research he had started. Neurologists and programmers were grappling with the symbolic language he had developed for the MAGI, dusting that off and seeing if it could be of use. Shinji had anticipated a degree of hand-holding, but between extensive and irrational preconceptions, they needed almost constant oversight. Distractions!

Mental distractions Shinji could handle. Problems based in the theoretical and procedural. Physical ones on the other hand were annoying; they wasted everyone's time. Looking up and down the table, Shinji focused back in on Kurosawa. He knew that the professor was not alone in his thoughts. Others were more obvious about their states of mind. Haggard, drawn faces with sullen looks. They stared at their plates and ate, and the food tasted good, but they all knew its source. Shinji wasn't overly worried- Progress was wearing away at the last of their resolve.

Not completely, however

"Ikari-sama..." One of his underlings whispered. Every utensil froze mid-motion and conversation slid to a halt. The woman broke into his train of thought, speaking softly. Her clothes were rumpled and hair unkempt, and it stubbornly refused to go grey. She swallowed thickly and licked her lips. Shinji knew the question before she asked it. "You told me three days ago when this started, that you could treat my..." - .

Shinji nodded, but did not spare the time to smile. Shinchiro Ami- forty-seven, mother of two, Doctorate of Computer Scientist and expert programmer, carpal tunnel treated by prescription NSAID, kidneys suffer congenital -

Waving at his glowing forehead, he looked her in the eye past the smoked glass visor gave her the same answer he had given to over a dozen others. "Discomfort is not mortality, you are still productive."

He made a note of her desolate look and frowned. "My time and resources haven't permitted me yet, but your conditions do not interfere with your productivity. I will treat you fully when we are finished, not before."

Doctor Shinchiro nodded woodenly before hunching back down in her seat. Shinji tilted his head to one side, then the other. The rest of his forces were sharing similar expressions. What little morale present was draining rapidly. A brief mental cost-benefit analysis lead him to consider a stopgap measure. Alongside that thought, he couldn't help but wonder just when they'd stop being so stubborn about things.

The boy suppressed the sigh and stood up, walking around the table towards the woman. Shinchiro wilted further, but her legs locked tight against the bench. Shinji had already anticipated the fear response, but a smile no matter how sincere would have failed utterly. Actions were his only recourse. With one hand on her head, Shinji pressed a point above her right eyebrow and laid his thumb against her left-hand temple. Shinchiro sucked in a quick breath and her eyes went wide, but Shinji ignored it, focused on the procedure and its execution.

Reflexology and traditional ritualistic medicine had been debunked for decades. Now though, Shinji had developed pressure point techniques that gave concrete results. With his other hand, he let fingertips trace over the important loci and intersections of the scientist's vital systems. It was more difficult without appropriate tools, but he invoked the thamaturgic sequence without issue. Shinchiro slumped in her seat and for the moment, she would not suffer the internal pangs. He may not have had the metaphysical resources to heal her and maintain his required levels of productivity, but Shinji knew he needed to maintain efficiency at all costs.

They had a lot of time to make up for, after all.

With the basic pressure point treatment done, Shinji stepped back from Shinchiro as she slumped back into her seat and giggled quietly in relief. A whole host of her physical inconveniences had for all intents and purposes gone silent, after all.

Now though, Shinji couldn't fully restrain the exasperation. "Doctor, You have lived with your condition longer than I have been alive. I made certain we had sufficient supplies on hand to meet your needs. You were more than able treat yourself."

Shinji's then focused his stare down like a fine-beam laser, looking every one of the his employees dead in the eye. "Regardless of how effective they are, my abilities are not free."

Having made that declaration, Shinji turned away from Shinchiro's place at the table and made for his seat. Just as he was about to sit down, another professor stood up. "Ah, Ikari?"

The boy felt himself freeze, and almost completely without thought turned to face the man. The professor -Tsukasa Hirano, masters degree in material sciences. Instigator. Healthy. Wears contact lenses. Moustache. - wilted slightly when Shinji's eyes met his. "...Sama?"

Hirano made a remarkable effort of composing himself before speaking again. He licked his lips and glanced at his neighboring scientists, and all eyes were on him for good or ill. "Ah, Sir. I understand our work here is important, and I wouldn't want to compromise that but-"

Whatever pitch he had prepared fell flat in the air between academic leader and gifted teenager. Hirano stuttered, swallowing thickly while Shinji just watched with a somehow even more impassive expression. "My family hasn't heard from me in three days, and I'm sure there's quite a few people here who'd like to call out past the barricades..."

Hirano trailed off, and almost despite themselves, a dozen or so nearby heads nodded. The comisseration spread out in a ripple of bobbing heads, and all eyes turned to the head of the table. Shinji was quiet for a long, increasingly tense moment. A bead of sweat built up on Hirano's brow and tracked down the side of his face before curving across hard cheekbones.

The Division head stared right at the man and said one word: "No."

The engineer blanched, almost as if he realized what was coming next. Shinji let more of his frustration leak out, but it had the effect of deadening his voice. He spoke in clear, uncompromising tones. "Doctor Tsukasa, you are dissenting."

Shuddering, the middle-aged man blanched, and broke out in full nervous sweats. Shinji pointed at the door and his face could have passed for a granite statue. "You either work or you don't. There is no in between. Report to the holding cells, Doctor Tsukasa."

Nearly thirty pairs of eyes switched between the now whimpering man and Shinji's own implacable stare. He matched their looks of fear and growing panic with one of unambiguous certainty. "Your health and continued productivity is my concern."

Shinji sat down and prepared to finish his dinner. "Your comfort is not."

It started with a whiteboard.

After dinner, Shinji retreated to his ad-hoc office. The once clean room had been quickly converted to suit his needs. As with the rest of his Geofront, he had spent that first day securing the entrances and exits, welding doors into place and ripping down walls as raw material for other barricades. In so doing he finalized yet another technique that made the deconstruction all the more efficient.

It still bothered him that he had only successfully secured a comparative handful of useful workers. The whiteboard dominating one wall was already filled corner to corner with diagrams and calculations. Shinji himself ignored the utilitarian chair for the moment. Standing upright allowed him easy access to everything he would need, and if he had to walk elsewhere, there was no interstitial step of 'getting out of his seat'. He nodded once, satisfied with his own reasoning.

That being said he still had to maintain a certain state of non-activity for several hours of the day. The inherent thaumaturgical potential in blood and sublimating the offerings could have supplemented his reserves, but the logistics behind maintaining healthy blood volume amongst his workforce rendered the idea useless. Still he rewrote that proposal and shortened it. When Shinji pulled the marker away from the glossy surface, something odd struck him.

He had switched from Japanese to the strange block-character ideogram locked in his memory. Despite being more complex than the most complicated kanji, it felt... natural, logical. A more efficient means to convey the ideas he was struggling to articulate, and freed him from needing to translate between his mind and his hand at the board for the benefit of some other, unseen observer.

He tapped the marker against the board, musing while his body and soul rested. No excuse to be completely restful, even if by being restful he was renewing his lifebreath.

Flipping through sheaves of papers themselves thick with notes, Shinji mulled over more of his future projects. One stack happened to be the diagrams for the A-MRI assembly. The 'A' standing for Advanced, at the moment. He was sure someone else could think of a trendier name. The digital clock on his desk read ten at night. Not important at the time.

More plans and proposals took up the next hour, and he filled the whiteboard with even more cramped notation and schematics. There was potential in the MAGI, untapped by far. That thought lead him to another, looking inward to the mind itself. His helmet, the disguise NERV created for his public relations persona had used the same synchronization technology as the Evangelions. As long as the functions were kept simple, or borrowed the brain's own physical hardware for interpretation...

By that point he had discarded the board entirely and moved onto the wall itself, trusting his growing skill to protect against error. Direct neural interface wasn't exactly accurate. It was more potential of a more direct user interface... Shinji wondered then how the mind and soul interacted at that stage. Shrugging he let that thought go; there was far too much already on his plate, and a great deal of it came down to lack of manpower.

The answer came without asking, that was how obvious it was. He'd have to get more people then.

People... Shinji mulled that word over, the very concept of manpower even as he rubbed at his chin. Still no sign of beard but he was due for another surge of hormones any day now. People thundered around in his mind for a few more minutes. People were power, they were means, extensions of his will. People under his command were force multipliers, resources.

Resources he could use.

Shinji turned then back to the wall and started to draw. He ignored his original plans and the previous implementations. He wouldn't need a factory or assembly structure for the A-MRI. Progress demanded the best and he was tired of letting things get in his way. The MAGI were sufficient, and vastly underutilized anyway. Marker in hand, Shinji all but attacked the wall, scribbling away. A finely detailed symbol appeared beneath his hand, and it's concept-meaning spoke to him as vitalexpressor. He would need to develop the actual ritual, but the initial draft looked promising.

The gleaming disc on his brow flared out then as he urged a small amount of power into his efforts. It was a minor setback as far as relaxing and restoring his strength, but he considered the sudden burst of inspiration worth following. Blood was power, and a power-harnessing/storage array... He could convert that inherent potential into something his machine could use perhaps, disconnect it from city power...

Yes, his mind hummed. Run it off the patients themselves.

It was genius! A mechanical-thaumaturgical method to collect a blood offering and transcribe the appropriate ritual inside the A-MRI itself. Automation was going to be a concern- there had to be a trained operator there at all times, as he could not fully grasp how to remove the vital will component to thaumaturgy. That problem lead him to the solution though, the synchronization technology! Ignore the fallible distance between the hands and mind that guided them. A doctor could perform surgery with a perfectly dextrous set of robotic arms- or even run multiple limbs with sufficient practice!

The wall started to fill in with more black scribbles as the marker squeaked along the surface. It was definitely going to be a MAGI-only project however. There was no way 'off the shelf' components could handle the neural interface, or the A-MRI even with it's compressed data. Shinji started to sketch out the computer-triumvirate's basic architecture while he thought.

One mind of three parts. Woman, Mother, Scientist. Naoko Akagi was brilliant but limited. Shinji looked at the three squares he had drawn on the wall, marked with Melchior, Casper, and Balthazar. They too lacked that will, that sense of direction and purpose which pushed thaumaturgy out of pointless mysticism and into objective reality... Shinji stepped back from the wall and wondered. Where would he get that will, and... what would it look like?

It looked like pain incarnate. Not that something that would inflict pain, but something that suffered instead. She wandered around the lab, her chestnut skin reflecting against the crystal prisms as she observing her lowest circle acolytes. The protective etchings were in place and freshly consecrated, and the halycon-plating was secure. Zenith they called her, teacher, leader, priest-king. Her students and peers hung on her every word.

Bowed by age he did not show, a young man hovered nearby. "Our ambassadors within the Prisonshell are being inundated with summons and requests for clarification. Your work is brilliant, but two thousand refraction experiments at a time?"

"I need a sufficiently large sample size," she answered, and one gold-painted brow arched high. "All of my great works are strictly above-board, and have been for two millenia."

"Your paperwork is in order, true." The man nodded to the nearest research station, where a man in wet silk robes raised his arms high. The skein of the world split and unfolded. Twisted lifebreath was pulled through the gap with a squealing cry. Focused through the crystals, the being could at one point have been considered attractive. Sensual even. Now it was a twitching mass of inverted organs and spongy cartilage and bones.

"If they exist to suffer, then they will suffer for me." The priest-king frowned at the contained mess before allowing her eyes to slide sideways. "So what is the problem?"

Tired eyes looked back at her. "The problem is that They noticed."

Shinji blinked once and stared at the half-filled wall. He glanced at the clock and realized twenty minutes had passed. He wondered then, shaking the marker still in hand. His last completed thought had been 'where to find will'. That had been strange. Interesting, but strange. Refraction had been the running theme. Refraction of wills, refraction of self, reinterpretation? He hummed thoughtfully and stepped forward to write once more. While his mind worked his fingers listed out the assets. Himself, personnel, the MAGI... The Evangelions themselves. He tapped his marker on that last entry- it was on the tip of his tongue.

Gold flared out bright enough to dry the ink staining the wall and render it dull and flaking. Readable, but aged by relentless sunlight. The Evangelions in their own way possessed will- in the same way that the AT field was intrinsic to them and humanity. But the AT field itself was not will. Connected to it, maybe, but separated enough that they were perhaps rooted in a deeper underlying structure. Not that he cared overmuch about that structure- Shinji needed a different sort of will, something he could use.

'Evangelion' had been written in English, and he tapped his marker at the end of the last vertical slash on the 'n'. He looked at that word for a long moment before very deliberately reaching out with his other hand. His fingers swiped at the cracking ink, half-erasing the word. Beneath his glowing brand, Shinji's brows slanted down, and a strange smile tugged at his lips. Ritsuko just happened to have a ready source of will handy, deep within the Geofront. It wouldn't take much to convince her to hand it over.

Still, he would also need the MAGI as the refractor- pushing his potential solution through the system, wondering what would come out the other end. Something useful, he was sure. Shinji snapped the cap back onto the marker with a thin click and turned for the door. There was a lot to be done, and he needed to retask his team. Maybe even call out for more supplies and manpower. So many things to do... But Shinji was alright with that. He was making progress. As he left the office, only the closing door saw what he wrote on the wall.


Inside the Commander's office embedded within the Geofront ceiling, the two most powerful men in Japan watched the slowly twisting hologram. The pair were drawn, haggard, though only the older of the two showed any sign of it. Fuyutsuki Kozou dragged a hand down his face and felt the wrinkles not so much spring up as ooze back into place over his bones. Two half-full mugs of thaumaturgically brewed and filtered coffee sat nearby, while a percolator hummed in the office shadows.

Crisis management was an inevitably twenty-four hour affair.

Up the corner of the holographic diagram, Ikari Gendo watched the combat event timer tick upward. The same bit of code had been often used for marking the duration of an Angel engagement. Here it tracked the isolation and mad dash of effort the Third Child had undertaken. Just starting four days now. The habitable Geofront itself was an air-filled dome, while the vast majority of research and manufacturing were under ground within the cavernous space. A hexagonal structure descended into the ground beneath Central Dogma's mismatched pyramids, and it was there that most of NERV's research and development happened.

Fuyutsuki slumped into a nearby chair and groaned, massaging his eyes. "Your son continues to make even less sense. Abrupt disruptions in personality are... nothing like this!" The old man huffed, and Gendo could tell it was more out of compassion than any rational sort of indignation. A desire to help the boy. The professor continued, rasping past his hands. "Considering our sample size it's not wise to make assumptions, but his behavior is so consistently inconsistent."

Within the map itself, blobs of angry red bled out into the space, marking an insignificant fraction of the facility as 'damaged'. Gendo's hands and beard kept his thin scowl well hidden. In another section of the holographic display, a muted recording of the one message out of the quarantine zone played, and the engineer screamed silently into the camera pickup. The Third was becoming disruptive- complicating matters beyond even the scenario's planned use on him. With the increasingly comprehensive self-imposed isolation, the boy had whittled the Commander's own options down to almost nothing.

Still, there were patterns to exploited, just as Fuyutsuki noted. Gendo examined the isolated section once more. "The boy is following medical quarantine procedures over sound military doctrine."

"I loaned the boy my copies of The Thirty-Six Stratagems and The Art of War, but as it is, your son's interest was largely academic." The older man grunted, and Gendo heard the creak of stiff joints. "Though I'm sure he only read them because he was bored. That was back before the Major mandated rest periods."

"A quarantine is just a siege in reverse. He will be asking for raw materials today most likely."

Fuyutsuki couldn't help pointing out Shinji's more recent developments, and his knack for repurposing materials. "Even setting aside his mania, Shinji is meticulous and showed an eye for efficiency. I wouldn't be surprised if he stretched all his resources to their limit."

Shifting slightly, Gendo considered the merit of asking an open question, and deemed it worthwhile. "Have we gleaned any new data regarding his personal limits?"

"Akagi was reaching some interesting conclusions with her energy container." Fuyutsuki shook his head then and continued uninterrupted. Gendo listened, intently.

During those months when the boy forced himself to defy human limits, he ran into his own altered ones. Limited access to food or water had not impaired him, but forgoing sleep had resulted in a steady buildup of stress. More importantly, Shinji's exotic reserves had replenished at an agonizingly slow pace. That in itself was interesting and in some ways heartening, Gendo drew the correct implications. His frown deepened.

While they lacked particulars, NERV's various observers had gathered enough data to verify several previous conclusions: Metaphysically speaking, Shinji himself could not be permanently run down. Fuyutsuki had already anticipated the next question, and the Commander felt his stomach churn. "Upon demonstrating his repair technique, Shinji was able to restore something to working condition even after most of it's mass had been lost to combustion."

The professor gave the younger man a wry look. "He restored a burnt letter to full legibility, blatantly violating conservation of mass and energy."

Project E and the Human Instrumentality Project had inured Gendo to a great deal of existential trauma. He did not shiver at the implication or feel as awed as Fuyutsuki sounded. Instead Gendo suppressed a sigh and turned his to thinking the matter through. Something would be done, that much was obvious. What however, would have to be reasoned, well-thought out, and with a goal in mind...

Gendo eased up out of his seat and straightened his coat. "The boy is not yet a Von-Neumann device. Even if evidence suggests he can reach that point, he is still just a boy, and easily managed."

Eyes wide, Fuyutsuki sat up straighter and stared at Gendo in askance. "Need I remind you what happened to those criminals during his first manic state?"

Hands in his pockets, Gendo smirked knowingly. "You assume I plan to confront him directly. A show of force is a child's gesture." He spoke over his shoulder even as he made for the exit, and heard Fuyutsuki just as the door slid closed.

"At this point, Ikari, I don't know what to believe."

Six prototypes filled her desk, along with attached data storage for their blueprints and manufacturing technology. Safe in one of her numerous labs, Ritsuko sucked down hard on her latest cigarette. She looked them over one by one, and a leaden weight built up on her shoulders. One of the items happened to be a hand-held MRI scanner, no better than modern examples save for its much more portable form factor. Fifteen years ago the idea would have earned Shinji a Nobel prize. Today it was a castoff of his manic phase.

Exhaling softly, Ritsuko pressed her lips together and felt the too-dry lipstick crack under the pressure. The prototypes continued to mock her with their presence. Next to the scanner-MRI, a more generalized neural interface helmet had been opened up for examination. On the panel interior, someone had written a message:

Help us.

Seeing as they had access to machine tools and the like, Ritsuko was fairly certain the author wrote it in human blood to emphasize their point. She sighed again, shaking her cigarette free of ash. Without putting the mangled carcinogen down, she reached for the nearby bottle of antacids and chewed through two tablets. Four more remained in the bottle. Leaning back in her chair, Ritsuko felt her spine pop back into alignment.

"Are you concerned?"

The scientist snapped forward, nearly catapulting her glasses clean off her face. Lenses askew, she turned to Rei. The girl had held vigil alongside the scientist for hours at a time, ghosting away for who knew what. She repeated the question when Ritsuko blinked. "Are you concerned? For Ikari-kun?"

Swallowing thickly, Ritsuko sucked down another lungful of smoke and mulled over her answer. The answer came out in a low mumble. "He concerns me."

Turning back to her desk and MAGI console, she listlessly stabbed at the keys, reviewing the latest on system security. No changes. "I know what he can do." A new report appeared on screen and she took a moment to fix her glasses. "I helped talk him down after the last event like this, but we never thought there would be a second. Just one episode and his brain reverts back to it's normal plasticity."

Rei went silent at that, and Ritsuko took a moment to glance sidelong at the girl. The teenager stared at her lap and folded hands, while her bangs hung down and masked her face. The longer hair suited her somehow, it helped change the shape of her face and push Rei away from Yui. There were other changes too- A Misato diet was by far objectively better than what she ate before.

The past four days had taken their toll on both of them however. Ritsuko stamped out the cigarette and sucked on her teeth. She might have been too blunt. "The last time this happened, we got to him with Section Two and tranquilizers... Right now we just have to wait and see what happens."

Silence stretched on between them for a while, and Rei's legs kicked idly in the darkened lab. Ritsuko moved to light another cigarette, but stopped when Rei looked up. She spoke softly, as usual, but even the scientist could hear the thin, wavering uncertainty. "He swore, Akagi-Sensei, to do no harm..."

The statement hung in the air for a moment, and then the door to Ritsuko's lab slid open. Ikari Gendo stood framed by the far brighter corridor lights. Ritsuko squinted past her glasses, stiffening slightly in her seat. "C-Commander."

He moved inside, not even bothering to sit. The scientist saw him look at Rei for less than a second before refocusing on her. "Report, doctor."

Ritsuko put out her most recent cigarette and sighed, heading over to the desk full of plans and prototypes. "Minimal change. New devices appear fairly regularly. Seeing as he has about forty or fifty of our best minds in there with him..." She waved at the row of inventions- the first one was the portable MRI. "It's like watching someone's neurochemistry changing under the influence of a hallucinogen. Every one after the first is just that bit more absurd..."

She trailed off, sucking on her teeth once more. Among the examples were more material-science experiments. A gel-form of that composite material he had developed that could be sprayed onto a surface to strengthen it akin to bronzing. He had sent a video demonstration along with the test sample, where he coated his own arm with the compound. Shinji was the only person strong enough to still be able to flex his fingers, despite being bound in something equivalent to a few millimeters of steel.

The last one however was... She shrugged helplessly. "That one is another infusion pump prototype, like what he made for Ayanami."

Moving over, Ritsuko waved her hand at the device. It sat on the desk as an almost seamless mass of shatterproof glass and medical plastic, there were almost no indications of much of anything. What little surface detail there was had been taken up by slots for pre-fabricated reservoirs and the requisite surgical tubing. A fantastically dense holographic display appeared over the device as Ritsuko neared it. Shinji had added features and functions at will and almost compulsively. Filling the air with unlabeled buttons and data, Ritsuko had needed the hundred-page manual to even begin to make sense of the interface.

She watched out the corner of her eye as Gendo looked the device over. Between the glasses, darkness and beard, he was unreadable as always.

At her console, the screen crackled and dissolved into static. Ritsuko blinked once and bit her lip. She saw the white noise reflect off Gendo's glasses, and Rei perked up from her place in the back shadows. Another screen monitor on the wall lost the signal, and the blonde wondered just what else could go wrong.

Then Shinji appeared on the wall, compromising every screen in the lab.

Bent over a desk and keyboard with the gold disc over his head, he seemed to look past the screen. He tapped some keys and several monitors shifted, wiping his image away and leaving charts and graphs in their place. "Ah, Doctor. Glad that I caught you. We're behind schedule."

Acid roiled in her stomach, and the scientist blanched. Her eyes cut to the computer and Ritsuko felt her stomach drop down around her ankles, and the blood continued to drain out of her face. The boy had breached her security. Gendo's nearby presence was less than comforting.

Shinji barely even seemed to notice her though, or anyone else in the room. He was focused more on another screen, even as his hands did something just off camera. "We're coming up on our first production milestone, Doctor. For maximum market saturation for the structural gel and bio-electrical implants we need to start seeding our contracts to bait the hook. You have those contracts ready, yes? It's been a full day now, that's more than enough time."

There was an overpowering desire to move, to reach over to her console and enter the commands to banish the Third from her screens. Ritsuko though was caught between the four days of increasing tension and the sudden disconnect. Of how rational Shinji sounded... despite the impossible demands. The requests had never made it to anyone's desk, let alone hers, and had been destroyed in transit by her own hand.

He punched a few more keys, squinting at something off camera. "Ritsuko? I've been more than patient here, you could at least answer me."

The red lights of active security cameras stood out in the darker corners of the ceiling, and servos whined faintly. "I have spent far too long compromising this terminal- Set the MAGI to open access across the Geofront. I don't want to have to automate this access method if I need to." Shinji had not even bothered to look up as his own camera before he continued, almost resigned. "Automatic processes can rapidly become destructive."

He tilted his head slightly. "Doctor? Akagi Ritsuko- Have you been following my instructions? Have you secured the contracts and manufacturing details? The prototypes must be mass produced and in the hands of humanity at large right now."

The scientist could only blink, and Shinji didn't even wait for an answer. "Unacceptable. I'll see to it myself- Commander. It's been a long time."

The boy finally looked up at the monitor, and Ritsuko wondered if she was going to have an arena-side seat for a conflict almost a decade in the making. Shinji was nearly half a kilometer away in an isolated section of the Geofront, and the unease worrying at her was tangible. Rei sidled up next to her, close enough that Ritsuko felt the heat of the girl's hand near her own, but not yet touching.

Gendo grunted. "Shinji."

"Good-" the pilot nodded once. "I'm short on time. All of my requests for resources have apparently failed. As division leader I invoke my authority. Where are my supplies?"

"Authority which does not supersede my own." Gendo stood up straighter, hands in his pockets and far more composed than Ritsuko believed possible. "Explain yourself, Third Child."

The pilot, the Exalt watched from the highest vantage point, and for some unspoken reason, Ritsuko found herself looking up at the screen set the furthest up on the wall. Rei and Gendo had done so as well, despite Shinji's face appearing across six or more screens. Her eyes slid left to right, and her mouth went dry. Two of them!

Shinji's eyebrows slanted down, and his eyes hardened slightly. "Explanations aren't important- I have objectives that must be met." Some of the screens changed to show lists of materials and items. Foodstuffs, medicine, tools and equipment. "Are these items on the way or are they not?"

The commander's unflinching response soothed Ritsuko, and she was sure that the tension building up in the lab was all in her head. "No. First, I require a manifest of existing employees and their current well-being."

If the question shocked Shinji however, Ritsuko only saw the barest hint. He shook his head, and his eyes narrowed slightly. "This isn't a hostage situation."

Rei moved again, but Ritsuko was only able to pay half attention. She watched the sparring match between father and son, and could not help but note something was wrong. Wrong with Shinji, his means and methods. The reason was on the tip of her tongue, but she followed the pair as they tested each other with demand and counter response. Gendo was unreadable as always, but she knew plans and contingencies were forming even before as he answered.

"I never said it was, but it can be if you want your resources to remain steady."

Shinji was quiet for a long moment before hitting another key. One of the larger screens changed to a list of names. "Blood sugar, daily calorie intake, kidney and other functions. Professors Mizushima and Tsukino are classified as 'dissenting residents' and have been afforded living space in the containment area until project completion."

The officer, scientist and pilot all seemed to share the pause as Shinji took a breath. Gendo had just begun to nod.

"Dr. Nakahara, slight myopia, high cholesterol, weak liver and the beginnings of lung cancer from smoking. Dr. Akiyama, defect in left ear with deafness, recent hip replacement, arthritis."

Gendo nodded then, otherwise stone-faced as he cleared his throat. "You've made your point. The safety and well-being of your dependents remains your responsibility. As for the other matter-"

"C-Commander?!" Ritsuko felt her lungs freeze. She hadn't intended to speak up, wasn't even sure why the thought came up. But once she started speaking she couldn't quite stop. "The safety of Geofront is everyone's concern, including Ikari-kun's! This situation cannot be-"

Shinji cut her off mid-word. "Doctor, unfortunately you are not in a position to solve my problem. I will call on you later when your field is needed."

Rocking back on her mental heels, Ritsuko almost missed Gendo's odd look. There was no chance of missing Rei's hand slip into her own. Her skin crawled, but heat seeped up her arm all the same. Barely a few seconds after the interruption, Gendo nodded back to his son, frowning slightly. "Your requests are denied. End this foolish endeavor."

The boy frowned himself, already turning away to some other task. "Well. Then you're of no use to me."

Shinji vanished, and the screens went black.

An hour after the confrontation in the laboratory, Rei sat at the edge one of NERV's sprawling indoor pools. She wasn't swimming, but her bare legs dangled in the water all the same. The ripples played around her calves, and she mused upon the fluid dynamics. She couldn't have calculated formula in her head, but she knew the math in broad terms. Rei wondered then if Asuka could have done it.

Her second and third friends ever had been gone for four days. The Commander and even Ikari-kun had apparently been the reason why Asuka had left so abruptly. They had angered her somehow, to the point that she had been almost spitting fire. The metaphor made her smile despite herself, and Rei had to admit, Asuka would have approved of fire-breathing as an ability.

Misato meanwhile had been a surprisingly stabilizing presence in their lives. Dependable for being so faultlessly casual and irreverent. Now they were both gone, and Rei had no idea what to do about the one friend she had in Tokyo-3.

Fear was the wrong term- apprehension maybe. An unsettling sense of wrongness. Shinji had been driven, but painfully terse and blunt. It had been a familiar behavior, one she had known for her whole life, and not one she had ever expected from Shinji. Growth was inevitable, but the Third... Rei didn't shudder, but she felt something icy and cold run up her spine.

She realized then, that she liked that there was only one Commander Ikari. Judging by the curt dismissal and exit barely an hour prior, apparently so did he.

Better to say that she appreciated the Commander, in a way she felt few others could fully understand. Her circumstances were unique however, and the more and more she observed, the more she began to form new opinions. Sitting up, she kicked the water from her feet and started to walk around the pool edge. The problem hung in her mind while she moved. Shinji was isolated- had isolated himself. Asuka, despite not being his friend, would have done something like blow the wall down and shout the boy into submission. Rei thought about it for a moment and noted that Asuka might have helped cause the problem...

Akagi-sensei had been fairly clear, cause or not, it was most likely condition unique to Shinji's status as an Exalt. Making one full lap, Rei decided that if she used any of Asuka's methods, they would need tailoring. Misato on the other hand came in at odd angles. She upset the status-quo and stalked around the problem like a big cat, building elaborate tricks out of honest affection and double-entendre. The Major saved true hostility and savagery for her enemies.

That left Rei herself, stopping just ahead of the doors leading out and deeper into the Geofront. Shinji was alone, surrounded almost entirely by negative influences. Even himself. Especially himself.

Rei turned for the doors and stepped into her shoes, already contemplating how to break through the quarantine.

Five thousand seats filled the auditorium, and each had been filled with an eager, attentive student. For a moment she wondered if the her Awe-Inspiring-Technique had been too much, but she discarded the thought as soon as it fully formed. She lifted her arms for attention, sunlight catching her accessories with a sparkle, and five thousand breaths rose in collective gasp to fall silent like a wave. The great secrets of the world were hers to impart upon the next generation.

His eyes refocused abruptly, fast enough that he felt his irises contract. Concepts and plans boiled in the back of his brain as he blinked away the fugue. It hadn't hurt, exactly, but the isolated office looked darker regardless. Scanning for a bare surface to record his fleeting understanding, he instead saw a pair of patient, red eyes. Rei, of course. She must have been standing there for some time. The corner vent cover swung by one screw behind her head.

No matter- now he had an audience.

Wiping a wall clean with one hand and readying a fresh marker in the other, Shinji lectured. "It's that language locked in my head. I can see it, read it, but I can't say it. The concepts are there!"

He scribbled a new symbol, barely conscious of Rei watching from under his arm. A compact ideogram built out of marker strokes appeared beneath his hand, but he drew it oversized, big enough to cover a foot square section of the white surface. The calligraphy was immaculate, drawn out of some place that went beyond mere memory or instinct. Like the word had been left behind for him to bring out at that moment.

Three interlocking symbols made it up, and Shinji spoke as he finalized each line. "It's a vital component for advanced alchemical reactions, this concept here. I know the literal meaning of its parts, but the whole escapes me!"

Another section of old notes gave way to more drawings. A triangle first, then a group of curving lines that cupped each other. A tapered square ended these sequence as a sentence-phrase made of symbols. "Down-Fire-Stone. That's what these things mean."

He tapped the triangle. Against all conventional wisdom the narrow point was facing up, toward the ceiling. "I know this means down... but..." Shinji trailed off, mumbling faintly. Sketching out another icon nearby, he frowned. "These both mean down... But they're different."

"Differing perspectives?" Rei cocked her head to the side, and Shinji felt something akin to the overwhelming urge to hug her take over. A few seconds later, a significantly more rumpled Rei dropped back to the floor and Shinji snapped his fingers, grinning savagely. "Yes. Perspectives are key!"

The triangle-that-meant-down, he tapped that one first. "Down... Down from Above. Looking down and then 'down' from birds eye view? That makes sense in context of the other matching symbols." He drew three more triangles surrounding the first, all of their points facing inward and their widest edges on the outside.

"Up, down, left and right." Shinji breathed the words out and felt the rightness. The translation was still off, but he felt closer than he had in months. The other symbol for down was different. That one was 'Down in relation to me. Down There- Down the Hole. It was an adjective. A new nugget of understanding, and with it, progress.

But still, down-fire-stone. The concept vexed him. The thaumaturgical formula was for the refinement of base matter, and all that implied. It went past 'eerily similar' and moved right into 'convergent principles'. Conversion of lead to gold, which the formula stated was possible if difficult, had also been the driving goal of actual alchemy in Earth's history.

Shinji looked up at the wall and the mark on his brow flared up for a moment. He'd been carefully hoarding his reserves, keeping himself from draining too much. "Fire... Fire as a symbol. Heat maybe? A heated stone..." The actual pictograph itself was of a snarling skeletal face, bestial and wild with a burning crest. Not a lion's mane, but more feathers or the frill of lizards. Salamander perhaps.

He shook his head and scratched out some of the drawings and remade them. The symbol for fire and stone had been merged, like before with the completed concept-phrase. "A fiery stone? Beast of fire trapped in stone..." He squinted at the pictograph-creature, the way it seemed to hiss and spit for freedom. Anger, hunger, adrenaline, heat, warmth, life, and a thousand other words tumbled around as he tried to put them in working order.

Muttering under his breath had made another symbol pop into his mind. Rushing. A similar beast, with long lines representing muscle and leaping strides. Freedom, a freed monster. A fast fire. Pumping limbs. A fast fire boxed in by jagged lines. Not clouds but caves... Fast fire of the caves, rushed towards escape. Boiling with life and heat, a running fire of the underground... Hot blood of the earth!

Shinji stepped back from the wall and smiled, and a great sense of accomplishment welled up inside him. Rei crept up on one side. "You understand it?"

"Only when you have been speaking," she whispered. Odd, maybe she had a sore throat- no, a cursory examination just revealed overproduction of adrenaline and other fight-or-flight secretions. She was still the stunted-tree Rei he'd known for more than a year now. Glancing back at the wall, Shinji re-read the sentence. Down-blood-of-the-earth-stone... No he needed stone not blood of the earth!

Sighing roughly, he rewrote the symbol for stone again, but this time added a new line over the top of it almost as an afterthought. All together it looked like a box with the top line pinched in, and another line right above like a halo. The stroke itself was a jagged, ugly thing, lacking any artistry and looking like a child's first attempt at Hiragana.

"That... That's the symbol for pure stone. No, not pure, noble stone." He looked at the first fire-stone glyph, of the snarling lizard-skull face contained inside the box of stone. The extra line was easy enough to add. "Down-While-Looking-From-Above-Noble-Fire-Stone..."

Looking over at Rei, he shook his head. "I don't suppose that means anything to you?"

Rei just shook her head as well. Shinji sighed again and settled down into his chair, but his hands fell on the keyboard and he started typing. On his desk, a cage of white lab mice roused at the sound of the keys. Noses and paws picked through the bars with expectant stares, punctuated by squeaking.

More unwanted distractions, a routine which he warded off with a shake of his head. "No, no I'm alright."

"...I did not ask how you were, Ikari-kun."

Shinji blinked once, still typing. Rei was staring at him, unblinking and visibly concerned. She was emoting much more openly these days, and much easier to read. Refreshingly so. The mice squeaked again and he laughed lightly. Focusing back on Rei he shrugged.

"Sorry, I've just been hurting for some decent conversation, I started talking to them." He waved to the cage. "Turns out they talk back? Far less frustrating to deal with than scientists. They don't demand answers, only food and company. I give them both, and they will die for my goals. A good working relationship. Efficient."

Rei just nodded once, seeming to take that at face value. Good, means he didn't have to waste time on unnecessary explanations. A few more minutes and he'd be done updating his progress on language decoding and further thaumaturgical study. He looked up at the clock, eager to save power. Two hours to his next project review.

Thinking about his schedule reminded him of how often people were interested in delays. Suspicion built up in the back of his mind, and Shinji's eyes narrowed.

His hands hesitated at the keyboard for a moment before resuming, but harsher, more purposeful. With the rush of discovery finally cooling, he filled in the blanks with a steady surge of realization. Rei was here. His new audience was more than just a receptacle for his ideas, she had found her own way in.

Shinji's voice stayed as low as his eyes, never leaving the screen. "My father sent you, I guess. Wanting a firsthand account of everything here. We're useless to each other."

He distantly heard the stutter pump of a blood-pressure spike, and zeroed in on it. "All of this scares you, doesn't it? Me progressing is frightening or something. 'Shinji has to spin his wheels' for everyone to feel normal. You want me back out there again, don't you. Where I can be monitored safely."

Rei just shook her head, and her eyes hardened. Not against him, he noted, but more just out of an increasing sense of conviction. "No, Ikari-kun. I just do not want you to be alone."

Hours passed. Shinji had allowed Rei to remain, under the condition that she do nothing to disrupt his progress. In his increasingly focused state, the single thing he did not block from her was the opened vent. It was a chance for escape that she silently refused. The girl shadowed him where able, observing and listening by turns. She had been denied freedom to go where she wanted within his domain, or to see the other personnel. Her presence would have encouraged 'dissension' which Shinji desired least. She watched him drift between fugue and long, rambling rants. Sometimes they were directed toward her, sometimes towards the mice on his paper-strewn desk... and sometimes towards people who did not exist.

Every distant comment or hyperactive shift in tone helped build a stronger, more complete and unsettling image of the present Shinji in Rei's mind.

With Ritsuko and the rest of NERV outside the barricade, a lack of information gave way to full paranoia. More prototypes appeared almost without cause in Ritsuko's now-abandoned lab, and its screens remained active, where insistent progress reports were pushed out and went no further. The scientist herself had rounded up a team of her own technicians and crew, taking axes to the fiber-optic cables surrounding the quarantined Geofront. Bit by bit they cut the connection between Shinji and the MAGI, and shut down wireless access across the Geofront. Even so, with his limited resources and worrisome grasp of instantaneous mass creation, the head of Project E feared Shinji would soon build his own MAGI.

His division had all the brains he needed.

Inside the domain of Ikari Shinji, scientists and engineers worked to exhaustion and past it, driven by twisted morale. Left with nothing but the project, over the course of hours each began to equate their happiness with progress. Every success that kept Ikari satisfied in his ivory tower office was welcomed and praised, anything to keep the boy from stalking between workstations with a critical eye. His approval became their paramount concern, as it fluctuated so harshly with the research quota.

Night came and went under Tokyo-3. Shifts changed and NERV slept, some less than others. unseen by anyone, the siege clock in the Commander's office ticked over to the sixth day.

Ritsuko coughed wetly and glared at the full ashtray... and the old mug of coffee that had also overflowed with cigarette butts. Maintaining successful stress-management practices seemed to be a failing throughout NERV. Leaning back in her chair inside a distant, secondary lab, free of baleful prototypes, Ritsuko held the stretch until her back popped audibly.

Not that there was anyone else to hear- she had the space to herself. Maya had been tasked with purging Shinji's influence from the protected MAGI. He may have been brilliant, but the boy lacked Maya's experience. Turning back to her desk, Ritsuko curled forward and sighed. Sleep hadn't come easy, but the pressure point vitalizing technique still worked in a pinch.

She felt her nose scrunch up at that, and Ritsuko wondered just when she had begun to accept Shinji's little revolutions as a fact of life. Thaumaturgical coffee and fatigue-banishing reflexology were such small, human things, it was easy to forget how much he had changed things. A kid's answer to problems, but their impact had been unmistakable. Now she and the rest of NERV had to contend with the fact that Shinji might not always work for NERV, or with.

A stack of papers thick with annotations and sticky notes stood nearby. Rolling over, she skimmed the first sheet and let it drop with disgust. Psychological reports from Section Two analysts and NERV's own medical staff. Useful to someone, she supposed, but not her. Neurology needed things like brain scans and the like for proper diagnosis. But if she could not attack the human side of the problem, then she'd focus on the strange side.

Sliding back, Ritsuko reached out for the one container of Shinji's power. Secured in a nearby locker were a set of prototypes she had made- third generation soul-pattern cameras. Studying the Angel Computer had been just what she needed to advance the new technology. Sliding the cover open, Ritsuko revealed the single incandescent flake of power and lit up the darkened lab.

The science itself came easily to her. Observe, record, repeat. Even a year after Shinji had Exalted, Ritsuko was still only comfortable in gathering data. Idle speculation aside, she had not bothered to develop any sort of universal hypothesis. She set the cameras up and took her photos. She captured a control image of her arm, much like a dozen others she had taken over the past few months.

Sending the information into deeper parts of the MAGI, Ritsuko waited for the results. She eyed the candle-bright quantum of power and hummed. "Maybe you can tell us what's going on with Shinji..."

With almost no demands on its time or resources, the supercomputers returned with the false color image files. Hitting a few keys, Ritsuko pushed them to the monitors that took up one wall. The problems with the rest of the Geofront seemed distant, in the face of exploring the unknown. Squinting, she re-ordered the images, comparing each of them one by one.

The first generation cameras could have only seen the soul as not really any sort of visual information. They weren't grabbing reflected particles off of spiritual matter, or at least that was what she had thought. From the first images she had discovered the two-soul structure of mankind, along with Shinji's own third part. The second iteration had provided more resolution, able to glean more information which in turn allowed her to assign more meaning to what she had found. Those refinements had also enabled the improved blood-wave pattern detectors, which themselves could track Shinji's presence and activity throughout Tokyo-3. His 'Pattern Green'.

Now though she stared at the latest set of photos, taken less than five minutes ago, and wondered if she had somehow made a mistake. Writing a quick script, Ritsuko ordered the MAGI to pick and plot densities of the green pattern from the images. On each screen, the false colors intensified, like a thermographic camera, and information unfolded in scrolling boxes around hotspots and cold zones.

The MAGI extrapolated without further command, reaching into archives for similar data. A graph appeared, dated March 2015. From those first days and the most basic of soul sensory technology, the computers assigned the value of 'baseline one'.

Ritsuko stared at the latest images, and their average rating of five. "...Why is there more pattern green here?"

Every picture showed an increase in green pattern saturation across the whole viewing angle. Impossibly so. Taking a steadying breath, Ritsuko reminded herself that one data point does not constitute a result. Tamping down her thoughts, the obvious answer was soon taken care of, by closing the power container and leaving the room dark. Process of elimination had seen her through many issue with Project E, and it would see her though this.

Another set of photos followed the first, and then another from the lab down the hall. A stack of evidence quietly grew as she worked, the methodological, almost ritualistic process giving her something to focus on besides the potential implications of what her discovery might mean. Finally, with larger sample size in hand, she pressed the compile key, leaving all her hopes to the rigors of calculation. She had done all she could. Leaning against a bare bit of laboratory wall, Ritsuko sighed and pat down her coat and skirt for another pack of cigarettes. Empty, of course.

The updated set of photos came in not long later, and Ritsuko felt her cheeks go pale and cold. "No change in levels from all samples. Removing the source of pattern green did not result in perceptible change."

She even looked at the second photo of her arm, and the levels were again identical, and more importantly, higher than one year ago.

Twenty minutes of searching lead to Ritsuko finding no cigarettes and far too much coffee. Half the evening shift were running on the drink, and she honestly did not want to be one of them, not right then. She did however find Rei in one of the hallways. The girl was more than a bit dusty, smudged with dirt and oil across her whole body, coughing into her hand. The scientist took a moment to eye the girl, looking for signs of lost cohesion or worse. The infusion pump hanging from the pilot's side was working apparently, and the stabilizing LCL solution still worked. Small favors for her, apparently.

She watched the girl finish coughing and start to dust off her skirt. Rei was usually less concerned about such things, and often more deferent. When was the last time Rei hadn't acknowledged a superior's presence...?

Ritsuko's hand started to tingle, and she thought back to the previous day. "Ayanami. Why did you grab my hand?"

The girl looked up, not fast enough to be surprised, but alert and intent. "You were hyperventilating. I considered it a reasonable gesture of support."

Had she been hyperventilating? Ritsuko honestly couldn't remember considering Gendo's presence as well as Shinji's trampling through her best security. She could have handled mortal terror, rationalized it as an outmoded fight or flight response. That option hadn't been available though. Rei however proved to be a present and far more soluble concern. Ritsuko tried to keep her face and voice neutral.

Her expression must have shown regardless, because Rei cocked her head to one side before speaking. "Is something wrong, Akagi-sensei?"

Ritsuko wiped a hand down her face absentmindedly, mirroring some of the smudges on the girl's face. That hand, she noted inwardly. "I'm... afraid I might be more magic than previously thought."

Saying it out loud seemed to break something open, and half the compartments Ritsuko shoved her thoughts and feelings into started to spill out.

I am not up to the task of running herd on this kind of bullshit. The thought shot through her mind and stuck, and Ritsuko half-felt the almost vindictive smile take over her face. She was venting now, thank you very much. That's why Misato was here, to manage personnel and related affairs. Stalking around the hallway, she started to pace, more march and throw her arms up along with the unvoiced rant. No more closed gestures and aloofness- she was a woman and she could breath fire with the best of them.

And she was a scientist! Her job was to make the results happen. She did not write either of her doctorate theses on reality-warping teenage superhumans. Rei was still standing pat even as Ritsuko stomped in loose circles. The taller woman cast a shadow that shifted with her proximity to lights and wall, and her breathing grew more and more ragged while her lips moved silently.

Finally she came to a stop facing a wall and let her forehead thump solidly against it. A thousand problems- Shinji, NERV, Angels and Evangelions...

"...And now my only confidant... Ritsuko turned her head and shot the girl a dark look. "is Yui."

Then Ritsuko blinked once and realized what she had just said. Rei stared at her, the girls own eyes slightly widened and focused. For her- Ritsuko supposed- that was just about as close to outright, wild-eyed shock. The silence stretched out between them for another long moment, and Ritsuko felt the blood and adrenaline drain out of her body and into somewhere near her feet. It left her limbs cold and leaden.

Rei just raised her hand to lips and coughed lightly. "I am not competing with you, not as Ayanami Rei or Ikari Yui. Not at all."

Still close enough to the wall, Ritsuko let her head thump against the cool surface once more. "What."

"Whom you engage in romantic or sexual intercourse with is none of my business. Truly." Rei's expression had barely changed, but she spoke clearly. The surreality of the statement did nothing to help the scientist's calm.

Staring past her hair, Ritsuko sighed, physically and emotionally drained. "You're not supposed to know that. Any of that, least of all that."

The girl just shrugged in response, eerily like Misato's casualness and Asuka's egocentric disdain. "I am not supposed to know many things. It has been tiresome."

A handful of previous inconsistencies suddenly started to make sense, now that Ritsuko thought about it. She stared at the pilot, wondering what sort of personality let themselves just walk towards certain death without flinching.

Cocking her head to the opposite side, Rei's eyebrows slanted down slightly. Not an angry look, but an intent one. "As a scientist, you as well should know that attempting to understand is purposeless without the knowledge of why it needs to be understood."

Ritsuko pulled back from the wall and looked at her arm, thinking back to the higher pattern saturation and not knowing. "Yeah. Yeah, I do."

That was it then. Ritsuko looked over at the girl and felt her anger melt away. Actually taking a moment to really see, Ritsuko was finally able to put a cause to her sudden fits of compassion. Rei was still a child, and now the scientist saw that. Ritsuko felt her stomach churn and bile made the back of her throat burn, but she forced it back. She thought back and wondered, just when had it started. When had Rei stopped being predictable.

The doll-like girl had shed her programming a long time ago, it seemed, and only now was it becoming obvious. The pilot had broken free of the data plot and easy categorization and had become a person. Sighing, Ritsuko stood up straighter and locked eyes with the First Child. There were wheels turning behind those large red eyes now, that much was clear. Thoughts and ideas that Ritsuko had no basis for guessing. The girl's neutral, indifferent attitude had become a disguise around NERV, and Rei had taken it off long enough to give Ritsuko a look past. At the moment, the scientist was too tired to analyze away a plainly open expression of empathy.

"I'm sorry, Ayanami-kun." The honorific was sincere that time, instead of habitual politeness.

Still alone in the hallway, the pair stood quietly. In some ways Ritsuko felt lighter, like a handful of burdens had fallen off her shoulders. New weights had piled on right after, but it was different. And maybe, just maybe, she had a chance to shed those too.

From her own patch of floor, Rei looked up at the older woman. Dust had settled in clumps throughout the girl's blue hair. "Akagi-sensei... How do you encourage someone to listen to you? Especially when they aren't..."

Ritsuko just slumped against the nearest bit of wall, sliding down til her knees and ankles locked. Gendo never listened, Fuyutsuki humored her, and her mother barely gave her the time of day. A lifetime of interaction came down to a few thin connections and an apartment full of cats. The last decent conversation she'd had among peers instead of hierarchy had been nearly ten years ago, back in college...

Tilting her head, Ritsuko gave Rei a wan grin. "The secret to getting someone to listen to you, is to listen to them. To express interest in what they like and not drag the conversation towards you. For Ryoji Kaji it was girls. Misato liked cars..." For Shinji though, or Gendo... She left the specifics unsaid.

"...Sometimes you have to do something more difficult. Challenge a belief or ideal- do something big enough so they'd stop and pay attention." Her tone went rueful then, and she looked up to the ceiling. "I suppose all of us need a bit of a... shock to the system, every once in a while."

Facing Rei one last time, Ritsuko gave her an intent look. "To get someone out of an unhealthy cycle, you need to break the conditions that enable it."

Nutrient stores were sufficient, schedule changes were happening on time with minimal fuss, and every hand had the right tool for the job. Ikari Shinji walked through his fabrication halls and breathed deep, content with his progress. New and better MAGI modules were being assembled by the hour, and almost ready for their use as computational refractors for their prisoner elsewhere in the Geofront.

Brahmin of Lifebreath-circuit technology worked hand in hand with sorcerer-engineer, bent over gleaming desks of gold-banded oak and mahogany. Rune-scrived harnessing crystal were buoyed aloft by immaculate aerial conveyance paths, safely ensconced in protective wards against all impurities. She considered the hurdle of acquiring the last vital component.

The Creatormented would buck their chains at her audacity, and raise their muted voices to cleave starlight in their fruitless rage. Even only as mere remnants, this could still sear the souls of mortalkind, stripping back the layers like blackened and curling paper until only a husk remained. She was no mortal, however, and had wrapped her soul in unbreakable sapphire long ago.

Nevertheless, braving the prisonshell gates openly was a fool's errand. The captured Angelic intelligence was secured deep within Central Dogma, beneath hundreds of meters of rock, earth and metal. Wandering around his secure zone, Shinji considered the floor, and the logistics of simply building a secure tunnel towards his objective. His was the constant of destruction, no obstacle could stand in his way.

Certain that his forces could continue the assembly without further oversight, Shinji headed for his secure office. His mice were making good progress on basic addition and subtraction, and they deserved a reward.

The door opened without a sound, and every surface threw up a dazzlingly reflected wash of sunlight from on high. Open walls lead to balconies and blue skies, while Halycon dripped from every surface. Self-wetting silks clung to her body and eagerly drank in the enchanted breeze. The best way to beat the deep south-western heat, she considered. Bound attendants flocked to her every need as she queried the cogitation arrays for status of her great works. The Four Hundred Parables of Lifebreath spread like wildfire across the world- such was the sign of progress.

Rei had been waiting, it seemed, freshly smudged with dust and grime from the vents. "Good, you're here. Perhaps you can help me!"

Shinji nudged chair and desk out of the way with his feet, easily moving the furniture to the walls with heavy moves. The mice in the tank squeaked, thrilled and frightened by turns, and he quieted them with a terse apology. Clear space made, he started tapping his heel into the floor, gauging the industrial tile and construction of the floor.

"I need to go down- to get out of here." The grin worked its way across his face and he had no reason to hide it. "Do you know what's beneath this chamber? I don't need to know but-"

Shinji had closed his eyes on that last word, and that was the only reason he felt the surge of fast-moving air before impact. It'd been so long, months since he'd felt anything like that. Pain radiated out from his cheek in a hot, prickling wave. Liquid nitrogen on his arms had barely blistered, and he fought through multiple gunshot wounds.

With his eyes open, he watched Rei let her arm fall to the side. The blue-haired girl stood there in mussed and soiled clothes, and for the first time Shinji could see sorrow on her face. Which was right to feel, because she'd just slapped him. Shinji took a reeling step back, off balance more by the absurdity than any sort of damage or inner-ear malfunction. Rei had slapped him. Right in the face.

The anger was slow but inevitable. While it built up, Shinji mouthed the obvious question. "W-Why?!"

Rei stood tall, all four feet six inches of her, unflinching. "This is not the path to progress. NERV does not need two Commander Ikaris."

She locked eyes with him and set her jaw. Every shift in her expression was small, and for most people it would have barely registered as emoting, but he could read her like a book. Frustration- with herself. Apprehension, resolution. She sucked in a quick breath, and her eyes shone bright under her hair. "For years I had not cared, except to die and live and die again."

He mouthed the words like they was a strange foreign thing. Maybe it was- he hadn't made progress with care and affection, ever. Rei continued speaking, and her brows angled down more and more.

"I still feel things though, Ikari-kun. Especially now. " She pressed a hand up to her chest and gripped her shirt. "I care about you- but I only have the basic terms to express it."

Shinji shook off the initial confusion, surging forward in a rush of wrath and sheer bodily mass. One hand grabbed the girl by the front of her shirt, lifting her up and letting her toes dangle. "You care?! You slap me, and more importantly waste my time because you care?!"

Hanging by the breaking stitches of her shirt, Rei lifted both her hands to rest on his forearm, and looked Shinji dead in the eye once more. "I care, because I can see you hurt. Yourself and others. I care, because I am your friend, Ikari-kun, and I cannot allow you to hurt like this anymore."

With that last declaration, Rei shut her eyes and waited.

There was an unexpected emptiness, and for the first time in ten-score years her attention faltered. Breath catching in her throat, she twisted to face the cloudless southern sky... and squinted into the glare. Accusingly she stared harder into the fiery light, though it stung her eyes in ways it had not for an Age or longer. She was undeserving.

Blinking rapidly, Shinji took a step back and let the girl go. She landed with hardly any sound. The boy looked over his office, the desk full of diagrams and the walls covered with a mad hash of notes and brainstormed ideas. Behind him the door to the rest of the lab stood closed, but he could still see past it. His vision blurred as unshed tears welled.

A wave of something built up in his stomach, hard and nauseatingly awful enough to bring him to his knees. Still staring at the door, he realized it was shame. "I've done everything wrong."

That morning's half-digested nutrient bar came up with a vengeance, and Shinji doubled over. Wiping the bile from his mouth he looked up at Rei, sobbing silently. Rising to his feet, he stepped forward and brought one bare foot down. With his stance set he faced the wall and flexed that inner reserve and expressed the old techniques.

The wall gave way in one blow. A wide and ragged hole appeared beneath his fist, and fresh Geofront air swept into the once-sealed office. The sudden gust tossed papers and whipped at their clothes. Rei's ponytail snapped under the strain and let her hair fall loose around her shoulders. Shinji lashed out again, kicking and punching down the wall between him and the rest of the world.

Breathing heavily and with his gold brand glowing freely, Shinji stood in the dust of his work. One whole wall and the former door to the rest of his lab had been destroyed. Past the wreckage he saw his employees, men and women he had worked with for months before, and then into the ground for the last week. He saw them as they were- haggard, sick. A half-dozen different strains of cold or flu ran through the populace- sicknesses he had refused to treat. The nausea returned in earnest.

"All of you- I'm sor-" He buckled over and heaved, sick again. Looking up Shinji threw out his arm toward the gaping tear. "You're free to go. Go!"

Slowly, the scientists and engineers stood up from their desks on shaky legs, rubbing their throats and eyes. The hallway lights were bright, and hadn't been corroded over with constant corona exposure. They stepped gingerly past Shinji, helping each other past the rubble and into the light. It didn't take long for black suited Section Two agents to swarm the breach, or for Free-Geofront personnel and medics to pile in behind.

Rei knelt down next to him and pushed her small hand into his much larger one. He glanced over and her and blinked, still crying. She just squeezed his hand, nodding once. "Let's go home, Ikari-kun."

Two days passed over Tokyo-3.

Sunlight at the height of summer baked the streets and the glass surfaces scattered the heat down and out. Great bands of rippling air spiraled up into the sky, carrying the last bits of spring pollen. Those who lived and worked within the surface towers and densely packed industrial blocks went about their business as usual.

To the vast majority of the fortress-city, the trials underground had remained unnoticed, and only the thinnest rumors made it to the surface. A hundred families seethed quietly, or let themselves feel freedom after the long week in the Geofront.

Down in the streets at dusk, men and women in slick suits and fantastic gowns stuck to the shadows and thin alleys. Tradecraft was paramount, and the coveted multiple-fake out and the equally long con were in full effect. Block by block the agents and infiltrators made their way deeper into the city. They savored the irony of breaching a fortress through the weakest link, its people. Some were glamorous, others nondescript and easily unseen. A lamentable few stood out as burakumin, and were actively ignored even in the most modern city in Japan.

Surrounded on three sides by mountains, proper night came quickly in Tokyo-3. Ashinoko's shores lit up orange and blue as the sun set, and the temperature dropped slowly. Nights downtown were muggy. Overhead and out on the street, gaudy neon signs marked clubs and upscale restaurants, catering to the military-industrial interests of Tokyo-3. Past the flashing lights and bright civilian foot traffic, hulking bouncers stood guard over shadow-filled open doorways.

The rich and the powerful enjoyed the greatest distractions- secret casinos held under the nose of the most powerful man in Japan. They however were a petty lot, and their wealth and prestige only amounted to so much. True power in Tokyo-3 was information. It was the home of the thief and operator. They drank in the ambiance and dined on the potential for intrigue. This was life, they thought, of knowing things they weren't supposed to. Knowledge moved between hands, stuff of pure value.

There was much to know, and even more to prepare for.

In ones and pairs, they walked in to one such casino like they owned the place, because they would soon enough. Planning was a mere formality, but formality was something the hierarchy had grown something of an affection for. So they donned their new skins, new lives and embraced that affection for the time being. Attendants appeared out of shadow and through low palls of smoke, hanging off of every word and shoulder, or safely in laps where appropriate.

Speaking with languages not meant for the listening, and paying with money not their own, the infiltrators grinned.

Hot July sun beat down on the back of his neck, and for once, Shinji enjoyed the sensation. Walking through the gates of Tokyo-3 Municipal High, he wondered when he'd last felt proper daylight. His skin hadn't lost any color at least, what with spending months underground. Everything looked so bright after all that time. Bright and new. Heading to familiar territory had seemed like a good idea, to ease into some old routines and maybe make new ones. The school had opened for lunch when he arrived, easily waved through as alumni and on his pilot status. There had really been no problem with him being on campus.

The stares though, he wasn't so sure about.

Looking at it rationally it wasn't so surprising- he had tested out of junior high and high school outright, and had earned more than enough credits via correspondence to qualify for a degree. All of which lead to him having stopped going to school... Shinji stopped for a moment near a bench and thought about it. One minute. Two... and he realized he couldn't even remember the last time he'd been on the grounds. Or even above ground.

And that lead to the almost deafening silence of the student body. More than three dozen teenagers and more than a few faculty all kept an interested eye on him. Shinji wilted slightly, hunching down by half inches. Funnily enough, once he'd fallen into an apparently familiar pattern, the scrutiny all but vanished. The dense crowd chest-high teenagers that filled the courtyard all seemed to scatter like fog at noon.

Shinji straightened and scratched his head at that, bemused. "Huh."

Ambling further into the school grounds, Shinji made his way past the main buildings, waving tentatively to a few people here and there. Most of them he'd spoken to once or twice in passing. Others he'd met after his first... episode, or the terrorist attack. Finding himself in the cafeteria, he nodded to Kensuke. The devout student of military history was still swamped by girls and comfortably riding on the fame he'd earned six months ago.

Crossing through a familiar hallway, he caught the hints of old damage. Things NERV and the city council hadn't smoothed over. No bullet holes or anything like that, though. More things like peculiar scratches along the walls, or a ceiling beam that wasn't quite true. Rounding a corner, he almost ran into a shide. The folded paper charm had been strung up to the ceiling, and Shinji was the only one tall enough to have ever been at risk of hitting it. Blinking once, he bat at it with one hand, bemused. Someone followed Shinto practices it seemed.

The bell for the next class rang and almost immediately, every hall was full of teenagers. Still bemused, Shinji watched as they rushed to and fro, easily weaving around while he stood beneath the bit of traditional papercraft. In some ways it felt distant, being so tall and broad around everyone. Distant in other ways too. As the last few students slid back into their classrooms, Shinji hummed to himself and headed outside toward the athletic field. There were far more traumatic ways to get used to life than a campus tour.

Crossing onto the field, Shinji saw the track team running a lap on the far side with Toji among the leading handful of runners. The grass had been freshly cut, and the rubber-surfaced track smelled faintly of old sunbaked tires. Snorting faintly, he hunkered down to take a closer look, mulling over the material properties. It felt good to let his mind actually wander, instead of just compulsively clamp down on idea after idea.

A shout from somewhere in the center field made him look up though, and he saw a cluster of other students stand up in arms. Some girls had been waiting in line for the pole vault it seemed when someone on the track team had started heckling them. Ears perked, he caught something about an 'old married couple' ... Hikari's iconic pigtails were hard to miss in the crowd of incensed girls, and whatever else the guys had said must have hit her real close to home. Toji ducked in on himself while and started to run harder, even as the class representative started in on the rest of the runners she could catch, already worked up enough to peel paint from the walls.

Watching all of that, Shinji found himself frowning, realizing that he had no idea what to think about it all. While it wasn't right to just shrug, it was all he could do right then. A few seconds later Shinji found himself staring up at the clear blue sky, blinking away dust and grit, with his clothes and face stamped by cleats. Rolling to one side, he watched a horde of teens in protective gear and round wire-faced helmets run away, laughing along the track en-masse.

The track team rounded the turn and breezed past him while Toji came to a stop, braced on his hands and knees and huffing. Shinji sat up then and scratched his head, and a bit of rubber and grassy turf dropped off his cheek. "I thought swimming, track and basketball were our big sports clubs?"

Still panting, Toji just shrugged. "Nobody tells me anythin'."

It was novel, taking time out for herself.

Smeared with grease and dressed down in her rattiest clothes, Rei poured more and more of herself into her hobby. Raising a restored part to her face, she blew off the dust, smiling softly. Late-afternoon sunlight filtered through the high windows cut into the garage walls, scattering through the moving clouds of fine grit. She smiled through sudden brightness. Setting the part aside, the girl wiped a hand across her brow before leaning back, stretching languidly. Her infusion pump and harness cuddled up against her side as she moved, but it never once caught or tugged.

Feeling her spine pop and the tension drain out of her back, Rei could say she believed without a doubt that skipping school was the best thing she could have done.

Weeks prior, Shinji had turned his attention to the space, tearing down most of everything and building it up anew. Her car and Misato's Renault sat in pride of place, where hydraulic lifts could push them up for maintenance or anything their owners wanted. Rei found herself smiling wider as she took in wall after wall of tools, from hand-made wrench sets all the way up to a small if fully functional machine shop. Shinji had promised her- if there was a part that could not be bought, their garage could make it, and if that garage could not, he could.

Sitting up and slapping the dust and grit off her legs, the girl stepped around the workbench, throwing her boot-clad feet around. Laughing silently, she walked around the garage and her car, adding in lazy twirls and spins. She held a hand to her chest, and wondered if the tight-but-light feeling was what Misato meant by having a song in your heart.

Coming to a stop near a concrete pillar, Rei found herself eye-level with a decade-old fireman's calendar. A joke on Misato's part, she was sure. July's winsome smile was just one among a dozen other calendars, race-queen magazine centerfolds and automotive posters hanging from every free surface. They were dog-eared at the corners and crinkled in places, but somehow, the wear and tear made them all look more real to her. Spinning one more time, Rei took in the garage and found herself smiling even wider. Her hand came down to the grease-stained hem of her tank top and the ragged gap she'd earned while digging around her car's empty engine bay.

She was starting to fray too. The thought pleased her in a way she couldn't quite name.

Peeling her gloves off, she stuffed them in her back pocket and turned, only to bump face-first into a warm wall of human. Stepping back and rubbing her nose, she looked up past Shinji's collarbone. The boy had barely moved at impact.

Rei's smile shifted then to something smaller, but no less meaningful. "How are you, Ikari-kun?"

"Fine. So..." He trailed off and offered her a shy grin of his own. He looked less haunted, willing to make eye contact and keep it. A good sign, she believed. The boy scratched the back of his head and glanced around. "You about ready for dinner? I think I'm about ready to make dinner."

The smile came back in full force, and she nodded. She wondered if it were possible to feel her own eyes shining. "Dinner sounds great."

Dinner preparations were uneventful. Rei had ducked off to take a shower, leaving him with more than enough time to really put some effort in lambent sunfire, one hand worked on a vegetarian stir-fry with eggs and tofu. Conventionally speaking the combination wasn't exactly something one would find out in the world, but Rei needed the protein, among other things. Moving between skillets and pots, Shinji paid every dish the exact amount of attention it deserved.

Fully engaged in that moment, Shinji found himself falling into a state of almost total awareness. Counting the bubbles from the sauces as they simmered proved to be a perfect timer and gauge of temperature all in one. The kitchen smells and sounds told him everything he needed to know- the meal cooked itself, and only needed him as an impartial observer.

In some ways though it was a retreat, an hour where he could turn his mind away from everything and instead focus on nothing, and hopefully leave whatever had scared him behind. Today though there was something different.

Fresh from the shower and thankfully dressed, Rei had stepped in and pulled her still-damp hair up into the standard tail. The tiny girl leaned around with equally small motions. Reserved was the best word that Shinji could think of. Still, he found himself smiling at the interest. "It'll be ready in a few minutes."

She smiled at that and nodded, not quite skipping over to set the table. Not that she really knew how to skip, however. Pilot training and years of swimming counted for a lot of grace though. When she was finished, he turned off the burners faster than one could blink and moved to serve. An hour of miraculous effort lead to a near-banquet for two, spread out across the kitchen table.

They ate quickly and silently, and Rei smiled wider after every bite. Weeks before, Misato had gone on at length that the meals he'd made were too good to delay with small talk. Shinji had to admit he enjoyed the smiles and praise more than the food itself, though. Servings for three men ended up on his plate along with pan-seared beef. Rei may have been vegetarian, but he liked well-prepared meat as much as Misato. The girl across the table never made anything of it. Taking another bite, Shinji settled into his chair, suddenly realizing it was the first time he'd had a full stomach in weeks. He chewed slowly, eager to savor the feeling.

Picking now at the last bits and with no food to distract them, the silence started to wear. Shinji coughed lightly. "So... "

Looking up, Rei let out an almost imperceptible burp, and a hand shot up to her mouth. He blinked once and smiled despite himself, and was sure neither of them could say where she picked up the gesture. A bit of red built up on her cheeks and vanished just as quickly. "...So."

The moment stretched between them, drawing tight enough until Shinji snapped, snickering low to start and building to a full, watery laugh. It proved to be contagious, and Rei's shoulders shook silently. When the giggles died down, she licked her lips and spoke. "How do you feel, Ikari-kun?"

"Okay... And not." He pushed what little remained on his plate around fitfully. "Just... wanting to put some distance between me and... Me."

Sighing, he shook his head. "That's not right... I need to get away from being... that, but I was that." He exhaled again, this time more harshly. Like the last episode, the whole thing had felt amazing, and he'd explained that to Rei and his friends months ago during the terrorist attack. "Going to out into the city helped, but I can't just avoid everything either."

"It often wears on a human to leave things unresolved." Rei spoke softly, and Shinji looked up. Sometimes she said things like that, falling into an odd turn of phrase... He put it aside for the moment, accepting that Rei was Rei. She took a tiny, artful sip of her tea, looking all the world like an ancient feudal empress, tank-top and short-shorts notwithstanding.

She set her drink down and locked eyes with him. "There is not much you can do about it at the moment, and little point in over-thinking the matter."

Her eyes cut up to the wall clock next to the chore calendar. Five after eight. Something of a late dinner, he supposed. Looking back at Rei, he did kind of wonder just where she was going with that. The answer came rather quickly. "Right now, I think sleep seems to be the best course of action."

Blood drained out of his face, and suddenly all the good food in his stomach felt like a leaden weight. "I... Don't think that's a good idea..."

He trailed off, watching her step away from the table and move to clean up. Rei didn't give him a chance to join in or even put a word in edgewise. He hunched over in his chair, more than a little worried while the other teen bustled about the kitchen. There wasn't any need to go to that much effort for him... "Listen, I still have the night terrors and I can go a couple more days without sleep. You don't need to-"

Rei just breezed by, utterly ignoring him as she ducked into the bedroom hallway. She came back a moment later with a rolled up futon mattress and bedding tucked under her arms. "I am not Misato-san, but I am a perfectly effective companion." Shinji felt his jaw unhinge, and Rei turned to look over her shoulder. "Come. Asuka-chan has taught me the art of pillow-fortress construction."

At that declaration, Shinji heard his own train of thought skip tracks, and hot blood rushed back up into his cheeks. Still, he made an admirable effort of keeping his cool despite the non-sequitur. "I still don't think it's a good idea... I mean... "

He trailed off helplessly, but still managed to make his reluctance abundantly clear. Rei just cocked her head, and her stare went flat, and her voice leveled out to its patented deadpan. "Do you expect or intend to ravish me?"

Train of thought fully derailed, Shinji blinked over and over while he tried to process whatever the hell that was. When finally got back into the present moment, he saw that in the living room, Rei was more than halfway done building an actual pillow fort. Glancing up at the clock, he realized ten minutes had passed. The tiny smile on her face turned out to be the last straw.

Sagging down in the dining room chair, he shot his roommate a dark look. "Misato has been a terrible influence on you."

Rei's answering smile was outright beatific. "As has Asuka-chan and yourself, Shinji-kun. I consider myself all the better for knowing each of you."

Right then, Shinji felt like someone had taken a baseball bat in hand and knocked knocked his heart clean through his ribs. For all the intensity though, he could only call it good. Misato in her own way had made her approval clear, lots of gestures of affection, but to hear someone just say it... Something in his chest uncoiled and let go.

Still, another something stuck in his head. He looked at the half-built thing, openly hesitant. "I... think I'm a bit big for this"

Pulling away from the fort, Rei stood tall and gave him a no-nonsense look. "I am more than certain we can make a fortress suitable for two." She stepped around the couch to grab him by the wrist and tug him out of his seat.

Joining her wasn't much of an issue, seeing she needed to take two steps for every one of his. Leaving him standing and bemused before the defensive bedding wall, Rei pressed a pillow and bed sheet into his hands and pointed. Bemused and put to work, he hummed. "I mean more... I've never done this sort of stuff. It's kid stuff."

Between Rei's direction and a bit of his own Exalted ingenuity, they ended up with a sprawling tent-like affair strung between the couch and two spare chairs. She ducked back into the kitchen for a moment and came back with two bowls of chocolate ice cream, slathered in chocolate sauce.

Handing him one, Rei cocked her head to the side. She crawled through the open tent flap and onto her half of the futon, or what half was visible under the pile of cushions. Cradling her own bowl with painfully exaggerated care and sitting in the shadows, her eyes stood out as red points. "You did not do 'kid stuff', back where you lived before?"

When was the last time I did anything like this? Movie Night? That was June of last year or something, and nothing before. Easing under the front flap with bowl in hand, he flopped back on a pile of cushions under the stretched sheet canopy. "Not really..."

Just as he sat down, Rei made a rough show of a shrug. "Asuka-chan is the extent of my experience in these matters."

About six or so compelling thoughts all crashed into each other right then and Shinji cut them all off at the root as fast as he could. Coughing, he fumbled and tried not to lose the syrup-covered spoon in the nest of cushions.

Swallowing and blushing red hot, Shinji felt his voice creak ominously as he tried to change the subject. "I miss Misato."

"As do I." She took moment to address her neglected treat before continuing. "I am curious. How does she help you sleep?"

Clamping a hand against his face, Shinji sputtered, but smiled past his fingers. "That's a... good question. Sometimes I wonder."

Rei stretched out on her stomach, cushioning her head on top of her folded arms. She looked up at him and blinked once, openly curious. Rubbing the back of his neck, Shinji mulled it over. "She helps me stay sane around here." He waved at the apartment. "Misato's why I can come back here and feel good. She's why this place is home."

He shrugged, but more out of a sense of what-was-would-be. "I guess she just gives me something else to focus on instead of the nightmares."

The clock ticked aware in the dining room. Even through the walls and past the hills, the two teenagers heard the all-clear sirens and the low rumble of Tokyo-3 shifting between modes. It was a familiar sound for both of them. Shinji himself had lived in the city for more than a year now, and so far protected it three times in open combat. Misato was always the one in the lead though, more than anyone...

Having said one thing made saying the next thing easier, and the thoughts started to bubble up. They dodged his complexes, and Shinji found himself smiling ruefully. "She drives me crazy though too. Misato I mean."

Coughing, he rubbed his nose to hide the blush. Rei just watched, intent but without a hint of judgement. That was probably the only reason he could even speak. "I've thought about her, you know." He waved a hand to complete the thought. Shaking his head, he let out a short, wry laugh. "She taunts me, of course. It's har-difficult, sometimes. I can't not notice her. Or other girls."

Rei propped herself up and nodded. "I am still missing something when contemplating attraction, but I do understand." She cocked her head to the side, and again the flat tone was deployed to full effect. "Misato-san does however have an undeniable presence. And figure."

Dragging a hand down his face and groaning, Shinji rolled back into his pile of cushions and laughed against his palm. "S-Someone must have owed her in a past life, because she doesn't look that good because of her diet."

Tilting her head in the other direction, Rei's tone lightened. She spoke softly, but it managed to carry a kind of reassurance. "Do you feel better for having admitted that?"

Looking over at Rei, he easily picked her out despite the shadows. She looked up at him, and he could see a bit of curiosity mixed with something else- triumph, perhaps. He thought it over for a long moment, then nodded. "Yeah. Yeah, I do."

Another weight dropped away at that, and he sucked in a low, calming breath. Between Rei's encouraging presence and the sudden relief, there was more than enough momentum to help pull his thoughts out. He sat up in a rush and Rei dropped back onto her side of the futon, bouncing lightly.

"You're really pretty, Rei." Leaning forward, he waved his hands largely at nothing.

Tongue-tied, he struggled to find the words he needed. He wanted to tell her how happy he was to get everything off his chest, to thank her for not being terrified when he waved his arms. Inadvertently putting himself on the spot, the groans and embarrassment had been taken over by terror that froze his gut solid when he realized just how much he was letting go. He glanced over at Rei, hoping to gauge her reaction. She just stared right back, not unkindly but intent.

Suddenly cold and shivering, the unwinding tension almost seemed to double back in on itself, clamping down in new ways. Shinji found that he couldn't stop though, once he started. For all the near-crippling intensity, it was a good feeling, trying to find the right thing to get what he meant across.

She needed to know, and he needed to say it, because it was true. "You're exotic, gorgeous even! I can say that, I'm able to, because you're a girl, but I don't see you as so uh... overwhelmingly attractive?"

A second after he finished speaking, he cringed. Shinji screwed his eyes shut and dared not to look, but his mouth started running again. Shinji grabbed himself by the metaphorical neck and squeezed, hard. Not that it helped.

His voice went higher and faster with every word, fumbling for the right explanation. "I mean, Misato wishes her legs could look as good in those shorts! Uh... or Ayumi's for that matter- she's the girl I'm dating!"

Rei was silent even as he dug himself in deeper. Under the fortress canopy and having turned all the lights off in the apartment, there was hardly any chance for her to see how far the blush went down his neck. "I mean that anyone would be lucky! To date you, or something!"

Spent, he flopped back and laid his arms across his eyes, painfully aware it did little to hide the way his face burned. "This isn't helping at all, I'm going to shut up."

"I understand." The blue-haired girl offered him a tiny, reassuring smile. "When you say things like that, I believe I can look ahead in my life without fear."

Hearing that, Shinji felt the mortification drain out along with the tension all throughout his back and shoulders. He let out a long ragged breath he hadn't remembered holding, and the back of his throat loosened up considerably. She caught his relieved look and smiled wider.

"I do agree with you regarding Saneda-san." her smile shifted to an almost impish grin, tracing lightly in the air with her spoon. "She shares with Misato-san something of a provocative presence. Could this be your 'Type'?"

Feeling his jaw unhinge, Shinji tracked the girl with his eyes as she finished off her melted bowl of ice cream. Twice- no three times now- that had to be deliberate. He'd been asked that very same question more than once, and he fell back on his tried and true response- blush more. Rei didn't seem to notice though, which certainly made calming down a lot easier.

"I am still practicing humor. I don't mean to overwhelm you either." Having scraped it clean, Rei set her bowl aside and sat on folded legs with her hands in her lap. "Even though she was the one to explain it to me, I believe Asuka-chan's view on certain matters were... unrealistic. We are not consigned to attraction or acting upon it, just because we're of the opposite sex. I wasn't offended by anything you said."

A new wave of heat flared up the back of his neck, but the soaring feeling did a great job of balancing it out. Another part of him was honestly surprised, caught up in how open the other girl was, and somewhat envious. Rei rarely spoke, but when she did, she said things outright.

Bringing his knees and tucking them under his chin, Shinji draped his arms around his shins and sighed. The German pilot bothered him, enough that she might have even been the first person he'd gone off at. Frustration aside, he was glad she got off easy. "You bring up Sorhyu a lot."

Rei just nodded, pulling a pillow up into her lap and hugging it to her chest. It was an awkward movement, unrehearsed. "She is my friend, and I owe much of my current understanding to her, biases aside."

"And I don't understand her at all. Being nice to her didn't work, and shouting her down sure as hell didn't." Massaging his eyes with the heels of his hands, Shinji let out another long, suffering sigh. "I just don't know what to do."

The girl mirrored his own posture, but kept the pillow wedged between her chest and thighs. Crossing her arms over her knees, she laid her head on one forearm. "I don't think you try enough, Ikari-kun."

"That's just it, trying is scary!" He rolled up, wide eyed and piqued. "Ayumi does help. I'm glad that she pushes me, to go for more or whatever... but I can't afford to push myself. I can't do anything, because if I do I know there's almost no way for anyone to stop me!"

Rei was quiet for a long moment, and out the corner of his eye, he saw her watching him. Study was more like it. Her eyes remained the brightest points in the room. A year ago that much attention would have driven him up a wall, second-guessing every thought. He was right though- there was only one person who could stop him once he got going, and it sure as hell wasn't him. A tiny hand found one of his and tugged it out from around his legs, forcing him to look up at Rei as she inched a bit closer. His fingers burned under the contact, but for once, he didn't immediately want to pull away.

He was coming to realize that when it mattered, Rei didn't do ambiguous.

Giving his hand a reassuring squeeze, she tugged his attention back up to her face. "I believe you are underestimating those around you, and their resilience. More importantly, I believe you are underestimating yourself and your strength."

The earnest tone dropped away for her original deadpan one more time. "I would also say we have taken the same correspondence courses on basic psychology; Failure, Ikari-kun, is the best teacher... and very little you can do would make people stop giving you a chance to succeed."

Huddled up in the fortress, Shinji sat there for a long quiet moment. The clock in the dining room seemed to tick louder as the apartment and neighborhood noises died down. The smallest trickle of his inner reserve told him the exact time; half-past midnight. Putting the sound out of his mind, he focused inward and started counting breaths- his and Rei's. He felt his heart slow as the time stretched out, falling into a two-step beat as he matched his rhythm to hers. There wasn't any why other than to do it, and it calmed him down with the simplicity.

Opening his eyes, Shinji looked to his left. Rei had kept her hand wrapped around his, leaving their arms stretched out between them. The compact black infusor clung to her bicep, and the bag of yellow medicine hung from her shoulder. The question came surprisingly easy. "How is the pump working out?"

Rei looked up and gave him a half-smile. "I do appreciate being able to sleep on my side once more."

Pushing a free hand through his hair. Morose and more than a little resigned, Shinji let out a ragged sigh. "I still want to just, magic it all away."

She frowned at that and opened her mouth to answer, but Shinji stopped her with a wan grin. He was always more confident when it came to medical matters, it seemed. "I know, I understand."

Mulling it over, he did wonder. Something she'd told him months ago popped back into his mind, juxtaposed against her own fits of grace and awkwardness. "You told me once you were made unfinished, right?"

Rei nodded once, and her eyes were wide and focused. Staying silent for a few seconds, Shinji looked at her sidelong, wry and feeling more than a bit foolish. Still, he couldn't quite shake the thought. "We're related, aren't we?"

Collapsing in on herself all at once, Rei's eyes dulled, and suddenly Shinji could only see the girl he'd met the day he'd come to Tokyo-3. The normally pale girl had gone well past ashen, losing what little color remained.

Despite all the internal alarms telling him not to, Shinji shifted around and locked eyes with Rei. Smiling a wider and pouring whatever assurances he could for her benefit, Shinji waved at his face when she finally focused on him. "I can't read genetics with my techniques, but we have the same jaw." He let out a short laugh. "I know I didn't get mine from my father."

She looked away and tried to pull her hand back, but this time his fingers tightened around hers, and it was on him to deliver the comfort. Rei kept her eyes away from him though, focused on a bit of futon near her knee. "...Are you upset?"

Rei looked up on that last word. The fear was muted, like the girl wasn't sure how to show it, and realizing that gave Shinji all the confidence he needed. Shaking his head, Shinji gave her hand another reaffirming squeeze. "Not really. Its nice to not be... alone, for once. Only Child."

Letting out a long breath, Rei picked up the animation she'd let go and shook her head. "You were never alone, Ikari-kun. We are the three Children of NERV."

Shinji found himself nodding at that, for once not apathetic regarding the title. "I suppose that is one way to look at it, sure."

In the silence that followed, the ticking clock took over as the dominant sound in the apartment, and Shinji was satisfied to let it all rest for now. Rei apparently had the same idea. As far as he was concerned, all the ups and downs of the past few hours had left him wired higher than being under fire. Meanwhile, Rei had let go of his hand, pulling up cushions and blankets for a moment before unholstering her infusor and setting it up for the night.

Falling back into his much larger pile of pillows, he laid down on his back and pulled up a cover. The canopy above had grown even darker, and it locked in the drowsy mid-summer heat. A tiny hand reached out and took his wrist once more, and after a bit of shuffling, Rei curled up atop his and with a pillow under the both of them. Cupping her neck and feeling her pulse in his palm, he started to count the beats without thinking. Staring up at nothing, he was only dimly aware of his eyes drifting closed.

The following day, Shinji headed up to the rooftop lab. It hadn't changed much since he'd been there last. A bit of garbage Kensuke hadn't picked up, and Deja had continued to add some more homey touches to her customary spot. He hadn't seen the agent for a while though, but Section Two's presence was unmistakable.

Looking out across the rooftop though, Shinji realized there was potential. Maybe not for a lab- it was probably a better idea to move everything into the garage, or even further underground. Consolidate everything, and maybe get Kensuke Geofront clearance. More than a handful of new thaumaturgical formula rattled around in his head, and he needed to get them written down at some point.

He could handle that later though. Right now all Shinji could feel was a great desire to do something amazing.

Breaking down the sheds and prefabricated structures, the boy started piling the pieces up and hauling what he could down into storage. There wasn't a lot he could do to accelerate the process yet, save for skipping the stairs in both directions. Eventually, he had the apartment roof stripped down to its normal surface. Sitting down on one of the remaining patio chairs, he let out a pleased sigh. Reaching for the notebook on the nearby table and ready and eager to start planning, Shinji looked out across the cleared space and the neighborhood beyond. Tapping the pencil to paper, he wondered just what he could do...

A few hours later with the sun high in the sky and steadily heading for the horizon, Shinji smiled faintly as he heard footsteps coming up the stairs. Rising up out of the stairwell and dressed for the season with a sports bag slung over her shoulder was Saneda Ayumi.

The brown-haired girl gave him a jaunty wave and grinned, looking out across the apartment complex. "What is it with you and rooftops."

Standing and stretching, Shinji closed his notebook and moved over, more than a little happy to see his girlfriend, and he thought back to their first date. "At least I didn't jump you up here."

A gust of wind seemed to punctuate the statement. "I didn't mean it like that."

Closing in enough to reach, Ayumi grinned and poked his chest. Her eyes crinkled and she grinning broadly, utterly unrepentant. "Oh I don't know. I think I could stand to hear a bit more."

Grinning despite himself, Shinji coughed into his hand as the red built up in his cheeks. A hand shot out to take her bag while the other waved at a canvas-stretched chair. Bouncing lightly and falling artlessly into the seat, Ayumi to his eyes radiated cuteness. Blushing, Shinji rubbed the back of his head and sat down as well."I'm glad you got my page."

"I wasn't really expecting one, its been a while." She cocked her head to the side and her brow furrowed. "Did lunch not go so well?"

Holding back the grimace, Shinji looked off to the side and waved it off for the most part. It was a small complaint as far as most things went, but...

"You ever get a bad order at a restaurant?" He glanced sidelong at her, and Ayumi just nodded, curious. He let out a short, wry laugh. "Just about every order out is like that for me. I can taste the flaws."

Saying it outright like that made Shinji take a mental step back, even as Ayumi winced. "You didn't call me over here to talk about food, did you."

There was a forced casualness there that flattened out her words into a statement of fact, and even Shinji could recognize it. He found his thoughts circling back onto the March before last, when he'd taken the second breath. More than a year of being Exalted. Staring at his hands, he curled his fingers, wondering openly. Tilting his head up, he caught Ayumi's concerned look. He waved it off, asking for a moment. That she gave it to him without a word was enough to let him relax and really think.

Still feeling oddly free from yesterday, Shinji decided to just say it outright and rip it off like a bandage. Thinking about it though, he forgot the last time he'd needed a bandage. Shaking his head, he sighed and let his head fall into his hands. "I had a second episode. A different one."

Ayumi's face managed to go pale and turn red at the same time, leaving her cheeks splotchy. She sucked in a quick breath and kept her voice level. "Different how?"

Gallows humor seemed to like the best place to start. "I think I turned into a fascist dictator, or my father. I'm not sure which is worse."

His girlfriend winced regardless, but she reached out and took his hand anyway. Any other time, Shinji knew he wouldn't have said anything. He knew he'd have just found something else fill his mind with. Ayumi tightened her hold on him and looked him in the eye. She nodded once, and Shinji took a deep breath. Bit by bit, Shinji pulled out the siege and picked it apart one event at a time. It was too big to hold in.

When he was finished, Ayumi let out a watery laugh. "Well... I'm glad you didn't hurt anyone. I think that means a lot more than you might think."

"I held people hostage with their own organs." The deadpan delivery seemed oddly natural to him right then. "Short of killing people I'm not sure how I could do much worse."

Scrubbing his hands through his hair, Shinji let out another ragged breath. "I don't think I told you about my first one, but both of times I snapped..." His hands fell into his lap. "Being like that felt good. The first time I got tranquilized like a day after it started, but this last one was nearly a week long."

She coaxed him gently. "Good, as in...?"

To that Shinji could only shrug, painfully aware that he'd only heard these kinds of things. His chair creaked as he moved. "Good, like stretching after a long car ride? Or screaming your head off at whoever got in your way. Good like, doing what you're thinking instead of just thinking it."

He waved at the rooftop and the ten story neighborhood skyline. "Part of that is why I'm out here. Akagi-sensei - and NERV - both told me to keep out of the Geofront for a few days. Give me a chance to settle down."

Ayumi worried at her lower lip, trembling faintly in her own seat. She picked a bit at the weather-beaten chair arms. "And... how do you feel right now?"

"Honestly?" The word itself felt new and strange. Not because he lied or anything, but... when had he ever talked? "Good. Better than I had expected. It was cathartic, I guess."

Admitting that sent a wave of nausea up through his body to settle on his face. "What I did was horrible, but while I was doing it, it was all so logical, rational even."

"That's not even the worse part." He let his head fall into his hands again, morose. "I'm wasn't even sure I was me half the time."

Considering how often he'd seen it last week, fear was an easy expression to read. Ayumi's apprehension had faded though, and somehow Shinji felt better as he realized that. She was still curious though, leaning forward with a questioning look. "What do you mean?"

Again, shrugging seemed like the best opener. "I'm not even sure where to start. I saw things. Impossible things. I saw myself standing at the edge of an abyss that went down forever. Like, it was right there in it's name, it went down forever. And inside it were teeth and knives and it could have eaten whole worlds. It was all that, and I just had a sword."

He'd gone pale by then, hunched over and locking eyes with her. "I held the sword up and the abyss cowered before me."

"And that's just one of the simple things." Shinji huffed and rubbed his eyes. There was nothing easy to describe, words he couldn't think let alone pronounce, describing ideas and events that he had no way to understand.

Ayumi meanwhile moved out of her chair and gave him a nudge. It took him a second before he understood and leaned back. Smoothing her skirt out, the girl sat down in his lap and grabbed his arms, hooking them around her waist. The existential awfuls met up and dueled with his own lingering aversion towards physical contact. He wasn't in the mood to be touched, but for all of that he at least recognized she was being comforting. Tugging the girl in a bit closer, Ayumi met him halfway and tucked her head against his collarbone.

"There was another me." He mumbled toward her hair. "She was... more. More than I was. I'm just fifteen, and I got the impression she was over five thousand."

Another fact clicked into place and he shuddered. She was older than human history. There wasn't anything to say to that, and Shinji grappled with the sensation that his whole life might have been- what, a footnote compared to hers? He shook his head and focused on Ayumi's heartbeat. "I only saw a few snatches. Conversations in that woman's life, but they were..."

He trailed off for a moment, and Ayumi's hands linked in with his and squeezed. "She did incredible things. Fought wars, tortured and was tortured. Loved and lost. She lived somewhere that had trees so tall they held up the sky, and caves so deep they left the earth behind. It sounds poetic, but they were there."

Tears were forming now at the wonder of the half-understood memory, as well as failing to find the words to convey the serene and joyful era. "It was beautiful. And it was horrible."

Freeing a hand to wipe his eyes, Shinji leaned back into his chair, dimly aware that it creaked ominously along the way. Heart pounding in his chest, he felt something like exhilarated, or drained. That much life weighed on him, and left Shinji feeling raw right down to the bone. There was a temptation, to find the floodgates and throw them open. To know something, or be someone to know, instead of having to guess himself. The hazy images in the back of his mind pulled back into whatever vault they came from, and he let out a long sigh of relief. Something he'd have to settle another day.

He barely registered Ayumi's weight on his legs, but she was warm. And more importantly, real and in the present. For once he wanted to hug her, and did so without thinking. She twisted in response, bringing one hand up to turn his face towards her, interrupting his thousand-yard gaze with her own look of concern. After that kind of story, Shinji couldn't really blame her.

Pausing for a hesitant moment, Ayumi's expression softened, offering him a coy half-smile. "You know, most girls would kill to hear one word of poetry, but I think I've heard enough-"

Before Shinji had even realized Ayumi moved, she completed the turn atop his legs and kissed him. For a long, happy moment, Shinji put a halt to all extraneous thought.

Pulling back and draping her arms over his shoulders, the brown-haired girl smiled softly and made sure to catch his eye. "If you get your head in the clouds, remember I'm down here. Someone has to keep you grounded."

Holding a misgiving groan behind his teeth, Shinji's face soured. More at himself than anything. "That's... not exactly fair to you. I couldn't ask you, or anyone to keep tabs on me. I barely can, sometimes."

Leaning in a bit further forward, Ayumi touched her forehead to his and gave him a wry grin. "Probably not, and maybe this won't work forever, but its working right now"

Shinji considered that for a moment, more than a little aware that his lips still tingled and that hers were still really close. He nodded once and matched her smile with a shy one of his own. "For now is good."

A gust of wind picked up and blew over the apartment roof, flipping Shinji's notebook open and sending Ayumi cuddling in a bit closer. They were still tangled together with Ayumi not-quite straddling him and face to face. Smiling faintly and more than a little bemused, Shinji found himself enjoying the closeness for once. Really enjoying it, instead of constantly evaluating and second-guessing. It was like whole parts of his mind had decided to just take a vacation.

He liked the sensation.

Getting all of the poisonous thoughts out of his head had helped too, leaving him with a bit more clarity than normal. Picking Ayumi up by the hips and glibly ignoring her squeak, he moved her around til her back was pressed against his chest once more. Leaning in and wrapping his arms around her middle, he hummed. "I really do like you, Ayumi-chan. You... you matter to me. I don't say stuff like that enough."

She just gave him a questioning look, swinging her legs around to sit astride his thighs and make sure he saw her pout. He just let out a bitter laugh, one that sounded less and less sad as it went on. "I mean it. Like..." He fumbled for a topic, laughing a bit at himself along the way. "I like your legs."

Ayumi blinked once and her face went beetroot, going so hot her hair might have begun to frizz out. She was smiling though, with teeth and cheeks. "R-Really? They're not too skinny?"

Glad he hadn't fumbled too badly, Shinji shook his head at her question. "No way, they look nice- you look nice." He hugged her from behind. "You take good care of yourself."

A sparkling smile was his answer to that. Shinji let out another short laugh. "I like that you push me to do things."

Ayumi's grin did a fair job of heating his cheeks up. Rocking back, she bumped her shoulder into his chest and bounced back, while he barely moved. "Well you are so very pushable, after all."

The silence was surprisingly comfortable after that. Easy going. Looking up at the sky, Shinji watched a few wispy clouds drift along. Reaching around his girlfriend and clapping, Shinji rubbed his hands together, grinning.

"You know what I want to do?" She gave him an odd look and shook her head, not understanding. Shinji found himself smiling wider. "I want to make out with my girlfriend."

Dumbstruck, Ayumi blinked rapidly before her own grin matched his watt for watt. "That is an interesting proposal. I also note that it's a sunny day, and that we happen to be on a private rooftop."

She leaned in to give him a quick kiss. "You might be interested to know that I'm wearing a swimsuit under my outfit. Shall I change?"

Hearing that, Shinji smiled, realizing he had about half as many reservations about the concept than usual.

Her swimwear turned out to be rather modest, for a bikini.

It had taken a bit of doing, but Ritsuko had managed to create a sort of telepresence across three continents.

A complicated tangle of couriers and conference calls had let her isolate as many variables as possible for the upcoming experiment. Clocking in at close to fifty-seven hours awake, she had demanded Maya supply thaumaturgical assistance and coffee as needed. The scientist needed a clear head for what was coming. It had stopped being a scientific curiosity, or a new field of study she could use to step out of her mother's shadow.

It had become personal. She was a part of the experiment now, and every action she took with her miraculous arm was another reminder of that. Ikari Shinji was the only Pattern Green on record, the only one they had been able to glean a sizable amount of data form. Data which, by any stretch of the scientific method, was absurd and terrifying to see projected on such a massive scale as this. Two psychotic episodes were coincidence. A rogue third, which could easily come from somewhere new and unexpected, was her responsibility to contemplate.

Browbeating various professors across the world, Ritsuko had found as many campuses that studied Metaphysical Biology as she could and sent them the abbreviated plans for her most recent iteration of soul camera. She was bending her mandate as head of Project E, and there was a chance the technology might make its way to the Committee, if it hadn't already. The risk seemed worth it to her though. Plus, they'd still need to upgrade the satellite sensor system, or rely on ground based detectors.

Sitting in one of her dark labs before a bank of monitors, Ritsuko laced her fingers together and cracked her knuckles. Live voice communication would have distracted her, but she spoke out her commands anyway, even as her hands flew over the keyboard. A screen lit up and had already begun gathering data.

"Kyoto-2 University is online..." More screens started flickering on as graduate students high on caffeine and stranger substances worked alongside their teachers to patch in.

NERV Oh-Three, Massachusetts Institute of Technology... Online.

NERV Oh-Four, Nevada... Online.

University of India... Online.

Kyoto-2 University... Online.

NERV Oh-Six, Bethany... Online.

The list grew longer until all twenty four physical screens were lit up and streaming. Racing the MAGI to complete her program before it could write it for her, Ritsuko compiled the tool and set it to work. Turning in her seat, her glasses caught the light. A holographic array warmed up and threw a hazy web of light into the air. An image of the planet Earth resolved. The continents as recognizable as ever, save for new, ragged fifteen-year-old coastlines. A wire grid wound around the projection as the globe surface rippled to reveal topology and elevation.

Standing with her hands in her labcoat pockets, Ritsuko waited for the MAGI to cook the data and give her a result. A red pip appeared over Japan, and Tokyo-3. Kyoto-2 was next. Then two more, six, fifteen, and finally all twenty four sensor locations.

Ritsuko found herself mumbling the program schedule, even as it worked in the background. "Graphing the primary events..."

The holographic Earth dimmed and shrank slightly while it rotated to bring the island chain of Japan into view. A green smear appeared over Tokyo-3 and cut off abruptly at the city limits. The ground-based sensors throughout the only had so much range. The dot lacked gradation, but she knew her city was thick with hot zones. For the moment, she hoped to keep the search simple for now.

She eyed her home nation and bit her lip. This was the deciding moment- the next observation sites were several hundred kilometers from Tokyo-3. "Expanding sample size to Kyoto-2 University and Sendai research team."

Another green smear appeared on the map. The crew at Sendai reported nothing on their end. Chewing on the inside of her cheek, Ritsuko slid back into her chair and pulled a remote console into her lap. Typing furiously, she added in new search parameters, running down hunches while the base analysis continued. Weather data ranging from hurricane tracking to pollen forecasts appeared across the holographic globe, and none of them passed over Tokyo-3 or Kyoto-2 with any semblance of pattern.

She waited then, and her mouth compressed down to a thin line. Feeling the empty space between her lips, Ritsuko really could have used a cigarette right then. More and more of her data points resolved upon the map, leaving twenty two empty spaces and two terrifyingly green ones. "So, it is spreading."

Filtering the data and focusing on those two confirmed zones, Ritsuko ordered the display to render the green pattern intensity. A heat map appeared over Tokyo-3, much like the one she'd shown Misato and the Second Child a few weeks ago. Writing out another quick script, she plotted the course of the Pacific Fleet across the holographic planet. It was on its way to Vladivostok, if all things had gone to plan. Frowning, Ritsuko put her friend out of mind and focused on the data.

As before, Tokyo-3 was a dense cluster of high intensity readings, and now she tracked a steadily increasing background level- a pervasive field. The data was live, so she was able to watch the edges of each saturated region shift and move slightly. The densest points were the Geofront... nearly all of it, and a tiny Old-Hakone neighborhood just over the hills. Misato's apartment. At least those were expected.

Kyoto-2 though, it's levels and events were much lower. Almost reassuringly so. Standing, Ritsuko leaned into the globe and commanded it to shift, zooming in on the university campus where the sensors had been. "How did you end up all the way over there..."

Another hunch brought her back to the remote console, digging up an old wargame scenario Misato had cooked up. An Angel-derived biowarfare attack, like a super plague. Years ago, the raven-haired woman asked Ritsuko to model it wtih the MAGI. Back then it had seemed like a good test of the Triumverate's powers. Now she tasked it to track the spread of Pattern Green. Plugging in the variables, she set it to run ten thousand times.

The hologram flickered faster and faster as it iterated, burning through permutations. Ritsuko watched the green try and spread from her city out into the rest of Japan, and the display threw up potential transmission vectors faster than she could track. By the end of it, the MAGI could only predict worldwide saturation in less than two percent of the results, and partial saturation in another seven.

They returned another, uncomfortable result, and Ritsuko read it out loud while she examined the program. "Insufficient data to generate predictive model."

Stepping away from that dead end, Ritsuko reverted the globe to the view of Japan. She eyed the zone covering the fortress city, and the shifting movements throughout. Focused on one particular intense point, a new idea grabbed hold. Pulling out the materials didn't take long, and she settled in and started scratching out the ritualized calculations. Doing it longhand was necessary for the thaumaturgical principles to take hold...

Finishing with a flourish and enduring a creeping a sort of mental exhaustion, Ritsuko held up her results. Now for the next step. "Assuming this is invoking the same Pattern Green..." She glanced over at the map and completed the second ritual with another intangible surge of effort.

One of the Geofront hotspots jumped up a fraction of a fraction of a percent.


Ritsuko stared at the completed calculation for a moment, and her heart pounded hard and fast against her rib cage. She changed the resolution on the Toyko-3 overlap, digging for every bit of information she could over her densest cluster of samples. The MAGI worked with her commands, exaggerating the pings and fluctuations into a bouncing point graph. Several thousand pings registered every second across the city. Her fingers flew across the keyboard as she reorganized the maps and data, trying to plot some kind of recognizable pattern.

She got one. A new map of the city appeared complete with roads and buildings, registering the nearly uncountable tiny spikes as Green events ticked over and over. She ordered the MAGI to filter for density and ran searches for those hot spots within the hotspots. "Colleges and Schools, funeral homes, hospitals, and temple grounds."

Staring first at the readings, then at the predictive ritual pages still in hand, she groaned at the otherwise empty lab. "Thaumaturgy is a pattern green event. Thaumaturgy has spread outside of Tokyo-3."

Slumping back in her chair, Ritsuko sighed and pulled off her glasses. There were readings in Kyoto as well, which meant that Thaumaturgy had shown up there too. Or something. The holographic earth had returned to its original state, showing the twenty one red pips and three greens.

India's Herman Institute of Science confirmed a pattern event. Thaumaturgy might have crossed the Sea of Japan and the Indian Ocean.

More data flowed in from the Indian team, and Ritsuko massaged her eyes with her fingertips. She still hadn't gotten to why she even set up the teams in the first place either. Reaching out to enter in the last command, she held her face in her hands and watched the hologram through splayed fingers.

The three bright glowing green marks sat there, happily confirming active Pattern activity. Then another twelve points tinted to a darker, muted green. Background levels were increasing across the Asian continents. Ritsuko stared at the readings.

It probably wasn't all going end up being thaumaturgy.

Walking through the city and toward Ayumi's apartment, Shinji spun a flower from his terrace garden between his fingers, careful not to bruise the stem. Watching the petals move, he couldn't help but grin- the train ride into the city proper had been interesting. Morning rush hour had packed the train car up tight with bodies wall to wall. It had been a challenge keeping the flower safe through all of that.

Clumping up among a dozen or so other pedestrians at crosswalks and stoplight, Shinji towered the crowd by at least a head, if not two. As far as awkward things went, it was one of the few he'd at least gotten used to. A tiny hand shot up out of the group across the street, and when the crowd parted, Shinji smiled as Ayumi waved. The walk signal blinked cheerfully and the two pedestrian masses charged out into the street while the cars waited their turn.

Shinji outpaced the rest of the surface and civilian workforce and nudged the flower into Ayumi's hand. "Walk you to school?"

Threading a hand through the crook of his arm, Ayumi grinned. "Sounds like a plan!"

As far as Tokyo-3 Municipal High was concerned, the novelty of his presence hadn't worn off. All throughout the exterior grounds and inner halls, teenagers kept up silent stares as he approached and broke into whispered conversation when he passed. Ayumi gave his hand a squeeze and bumped her head into his arm. With fifteen or so minutes til first bell and class, they ended up claiming a patch of wall to themselves. Standing comfortably close, Shinji just let the minutes tick on by with his hand wrapped around hers.

Bit by bit the throngs of students thinned out as they made for their various classes. Just as the last few stragglers vanished through doorways and around corners, Ayumi hooked an arm around the back of his neck and moved in for a quick kiss before the bell. A delicate cough stopped them both mid-motion. A part of Shinji, a relatively new and inexperienced part, fumed at the interruption.

Dropping back down and bouncing with her toes, Ayumi's voice dried up audibly. "Nanba-san. Can we help you?"

The apparently named Nanba-san blinked once. She had been looking up at his face, craning her neck more and more to even meet his eyes. Snapping her eyes back down to Ayumi, the brown-eyed girl let out a short squeak. Shinji kept his mouth shut, but looked the girl over all the same. She was sweating a bit, and breathing a bit faster than was strictly normal. Pretty, just like almost every girl in the city as far as he could say, and black hair like the vast majority of people in the school. There weren't teenagers in Tokyo-3 to justify having separate buildings for junior and senior high.

Putting a hand on Ayumi's shoulder, he took a moment for a deeper diagnosis on the new girl. "A-Are you alright, miss?"

Age seventeen, Healthy, no sign of trauma or infection. Elevated heart-rate, perspiration; social anxiety response within normal parameters.

"Saneda-san, I-Ikari-sempai I mean-" The new girl squeaked and cut herself at the waist and her voice shook. "I-Ikari-sama. I... Normally I wouldn't ask directly but I have a problem that involves you and I'm sorry for interrupting but-"

It all came out in a rush, and Shinji had not even been given enough information to get on-track, let alone get lost. Confusion aside he tried to place a face to that name- there weren't any other Nanbas in the school. She was three years older than him though, so they only would have met up during lunches or in the halls. K-something...

Scratching his head, Shinji tossed Ayumi an apologetic look before looking back up at Nanba. "Ah... I'm sorry but, Nanba Ki... No, Ko-?"

"Nanba Kasumi, Ikari-sama. It's alright, we haven't exactly met." She bowed again, smiling weakly.

Shinji felt a shiver run in and settle on his neck. "So... what can I do for you?"

The first bell rang, and Ayumi scowled at the timing. She shot a glance at the other girl and pouted a bit harder. Shinji only caught the edge of her expression, but he was pretty sure that wasn't exactly jealously...

Meanwhile, Nanba-san nodded sharply and sucked in a quick, calming breath. She let it out slowly and sounded much more composed. "Sorry, I'll keep it brief. I'm the president of the Shinto Cultural Club here at school, and we've restored a shrine outside the city. Someone's been coming by every week and vandalizing it. Destroying the grounds, spilling pigs' blood everywhere. We're losing members and it's not like we have funding..."

Shinji felt his eyebrows shoot up toward his hairline. "A-And what would you like me to do? I mean...?"

Nanba looked up and up at his face again, giving him a sad little smile. "I was there, Ikari-sama. When you fought the kidnappers. I saw what you did."

Oh. Oh.

The older girl picked at her uniform sleeve and looked to the side, suddenly hesitant. The calm she'd had just moments ago burned up, and Shinji watched as her cheeks turned red. "It's a silly thing, I admit, but we converted the shrine to respect Amaterasu... and maybe you could check it out? If for no other reason than... to score points... with your patron?"

The silence that followed was tangible, and the second bell rang. Nanba picked up her wits in a rush and dashed off, apologizing profusely as she ran. Shinji turned to his girlfriend with an almost mechanical ratcheting, feeling his neck grind and creak like a rusty hinge. Ayumi fidgeted in place, ignoring the bell and turning increasingly crimson as he stared, unblinking. Finally, Shinji's jaw dropped open, working soundlessly up and down.


Ayumi drew out her response, hemming and hawing. "Iiiiiit got started right after the terrorists and all that? You did kind of throw a giant tower of sunlight about three miles into the air?"

Hot blood thundered through in his veins, and Shinji felt a muscle in his cheek start to twitch. With laughter or frustration, he wasn't sure which. "S-so, I apparently have a following, and people don't tell me?"

His girlfriend cringed so hard her eyes closed. "Devoted fans. We... thought you knew?"

Shinji slumped against the wall behind him, letting the back of his head hit and bounce back. He barely even felt the impact. Dragging both hands down his face, he blew out a sputtering breath past his fingers. At the end, he glanced at his girlfriend. "Well, I may as well check it out... Though what was that face about before?"

She purpled furiously at that, but smiled and smacked him on the arm. "Okay so it was kinda silly of me- just forget it okay?"

Laughing for once without something else getting in the way, Shinji nodded, even as he kept his guard up for a second swing. "Okay, Okay. I'll walk you to your class then."

Taking her hand in his, Shinji ambled along, and neither of them were overly concerned about being on time. It was difficult to be late twice over. Rounding the corner, Shinji let out a little snort and shook his head. "I'm not sure how I'm going to break it to them."

Ayumi cocked her head to the side, suddenly curious. "Break what to them?"

Glancing down once more, Shinji gave her a wry grin. "That I think Amaterasu might dress like a third century Roman god."

Catching up with his friends between classes had been an interesting experience. Kensuke was popular, Toji was driven. When he had first stopped by class 2-A, Rei stepped primly out into the hall and with an almost mechanical precision, wrapped her arms around him. Looking down at the mass of blue hair under his chin, Shinji could only guess she really liked that morning's breakfast, and her packed lunch.

Picking up Ayumi from her classroom, the growing circle of friends and pilots made their way to the cafeteria. Standing head and shoulders above them, Shinji still smiled as the conversation wove around him. Ducking through an open set of double doors and into the common dining space, students at a good half the tables stopped talking and eating. Shinji sighed and felt his shoulders drop a half inch. More staring. At least he was getting used to it now. Ayumi snuck a warm hand around his and squeezed.

After finding an empty table, Kensuke and Ayumi ducked off to buy lunch while Rei and Toji both hauled out their packed meals. Settling down into a chair himself, Shinji frowned at the creaking plastic. Focusing a bit, he willed out some of his reserve, leaving it more than strong enough. Waving aside shared food from Rei and Toji, Shinji just leaned back and waited for the rest of his friends.

Caught looking out at the other students, Shinji didn't quite see Ayumi in time. Nor could he have guessed she planned on using him as a seat. Suddenly occupied with a giggling sixteen year old girl in his lap, Shinji was glad he'd reinforced the chair.

Kensuke slid into a seat right after and laughed, pushing his hair up out of his eyes. He'd started slicking it back for some reason. Girls, most likely. The unrepentant geek toasted Shinji with a carton of milk. "Glad you're out and about Shinji. We haven't seen you for a few months."

Pressing a hand against his nose, Shinji tried to mask his face and keep his voice level. It was nothing Kensuke had done... He wondered if all the school meals smelled so disgusting. Shinji let out a short cough past his palm. "Y-Yeah. I... made some bad time management decisions. Let's leave it at that."

Toji paused from inhaling the meal Hikari gave him to fill Shinji in on some of what had happened over the past few months. The short of it though was 'not a whole lot'. Fuyutsuki Kozo was a far more effective and interesting teacher, especially considering he was somehow a clandestine celebrity.

Waving a pair of chopsticks at Kensuke, Toji smirked. "They had to station a Section Two suit outside the Professor's office, so 'Suke wouldn't accost him or anythin'."

As one, those who had been present for the awkward moment burst out laughing, and Shinji found himself joining in more easily than he'd ever thought possible. Kensuke scowled and shook his fist. "That only happened once!"

Ten or so minutes later, the doors on the far end of the cafeteria burst open, and Shinji caught Kensuke muttering the odd phrase 'Hurricane Horaki alert'. Why became clear a second later when Hikari charged in, haloed by the open door and bright noonday sun. Masked in shadows, the girl's eyes stood out brighter than hot coals. Scanning left and right, her eyes settled on Toji, sitting between Rei and Shinji.

Her eyes narrowed.

While the others had to squint against the glare, Shinji watched, utterly mystified. Her cheeks were deep red, and vein on her forehead bulged in time with her heartbeat. Hikari was on the warpath. Still in his lap, Ayumi pressed her back hard against Shinji's chest and her hands clamped around his wrist like they were lifelines. Feeling her fingernails dig in, Shinji couldn't help but think that maybe they were.

For a split second, the face of terror blanked when Hikari locked eyes on him and the girl in his lap. The break in her fury vanished as fast as it appeared, leaving Shinji even more confused. Hikari's eyes started to mist up, even though the rest of her face was unreadable as marble. She stalked forward and glared, daring students four years her senior to move or squeak in her presence.

Hikari stopped right at their table, well within arms reach of Toji. Again the frightening look seemed to shift to something morose when she looked at Shinji and his girlfriend.

"Ikari-kun," She gave a short bow to the pair. He could hear the concern in her voice. "I'm glad you're up and around."

While he nodded dumbly, Hikari whirled on Toji, throwing her arms wide and clenching her fists. Unshed tears started to build up in the corners of her eyes. "You on the other hand have some explaining to do!"


She glared at Toji, planting her hands on her hips. The tears started to fall. "It's not okay! I shouldn't have to make a spectacle like this just to be seen with you!"

Toji meanwhile stumbled, falling over his words and making a complete hash of the Japanese language. "Can, we somewhere else can handle this please?"

By some unspoken cue, Rei and Kensuke picked up their lunches and escaped, leaving Toji to his fate. Hikari's wet eyes snapped to everyone at the table even as they left, and again they settled on Shinji and Ayumi. The scowl flickered and gave way to anguish, leaving Hikari to screw her eyes shut and get angry all over again. Shinji found himself wrapping his arms around Ayumi's middle while his mind worked hard to keep up. Even as his girlfriend shivered in his lap, Shinji began to realize he had a ringside seat for the archetypical teen drama moment.

"Why? Why can't you just talk to me without some kind of condition attached?" The wrath turned to a choked sob in less than a second. "I don't understand what's wrong. I thought-"

She cut herself off at the last minute, and the whole cafeteria continued to stare openly and unapologetically. Shinji looked between the pair, concentrating hard as he tried to think of... something, anything. His girlfriend still held on tight, but he was pretty sure it was out of fear for Toji and Hikari, than anything gaping crowds of students started to wear on him too, and Shinji felt something inside start to strain.

"Um... what did I do?" Toji stared at her dumbly, concern mixing with confusion across his face.

"Nothing!" Hikari cut off any further questions with a slash of one knife hand. Her eyes flashed red hot, and fresh tears started to roll down her cheeks. "Nothing with me! You go out of your way to hang out with everyone but me!"

Twice as confused but clearly underwhelmed by the explanation, Toji stood and found his tongue to stammer out a complete sentence. "But, I see you every day though, Hikari-chan. I'm... not sure what else-"

Planting her head roughly into his chest, Hikari squeezed her eyes shut and folded her arms up between them defensively. "Suzuhara Toji, I want to be seen with you."

Toji's mouth worked up and down, until finally he got back into the right mental gear. "I... I didn't kn- I mean, I couldn't te-" He kept cutting himself off and shaking his head, letting his hands fall around her waist before she drew back with a lurch.

"Don't! Stop making excuses if you don't want me around!" Hikari stared him in the eye indignantly, tears flowing freely now. But by this time Toji had enough time to take stock of the situation, and clearly was not enjoying the attention being drawn to the pair.

He leaned in with a hushed whisper, irritation building. "What do you want me to do then?"

The reply came quickly and with a pronounced stomp. "Not force me do this, you insensitive moron!"

"That's enough."

He hadn't said it loudly. No real need for that. Him interrupting was sufficient. Easing Ayumi out of his lap, Shinji stood up and tugged the table out of his way. The whole cafeteria fell dead silent, and Hikari and Toji turned as one to stare at him. Up at him. It was so simple, and his friends were better than this. They had all the pieces right in front of them the whole time, and neither of them deserved all the hurt.

"Both of you, calm down. Toji," The quiet cafeteria followed his eyes as he looked down towards the boy. Somehow, he managed not to tower even at his full height. "She feels neglected and hurt when you don't think about your relationship as strongly as she does. Hikari needs proof you consider her feelings."

Turning, Shinji locked eyes with the girl, the room shifting as one as Hikari let out a tiny sniff. "Hikari, you need to tell Toji what you are feeling, because he can't guess. Not because he wants to hurt you, but because you know your needs better than he can."

Sneaking a glance at their opposite, Shinji watched as his fellow teenagers accepted the truth as self-evident. He smiled faintly and leaned down as not to be so imposing. "You're both good friends, to me and each other. This doesn't need to go on, does it?"

They shook their heads, agreeing with every move they made. Rising smoothly, Shinji nodded. "Take the rest of the day off- head to the park. I'll handle things here."

Nodding, Hikari and Toji picked up their things, shivering and sniffling. The cafeteria crowd parted silently before them as they made their way out. Drifting into Toji's arm, Hikari leaned against the boy, and he reflexively swung a hand up to the small of her back. He mumbled faintly, red-faced but earnest and openly apologetic, and as they walked through the door, Hikari murmured back.

Smiling wider, Shinji nodded to himself, and Ayumi wrapped her hand around his and gave it a tight, pleased squeeze. Rei and Kensuke crept up a few seconds later, somehow basking in the defused crisis. Glancing back up at the door his friends left through, Shinji couldn't help but think something was off. The crowds of students still lingered in the cafeteria, staring openly at him or the empty doorway.

Blinking, Shinji coughed into his hand. "Uh... Lunch is almost over, right?"

As one, the student body turned back to their food and ate. Hurriedly.

Rei sidled up next to him and cocked her head to the side, chewing on the last bite of her meal. She looked up at his eyes for a long moment, swallowing before speaking. "Is something wrong, Ikari-kun?"

Glancing between his girlfriend, fellow pilot, and thaumaturge, Shinji felt a shrug coming on. He gave them a helpless, increasingly uneasy grin. "I... have no idea how I managed that."

The next day, Shinji found himself sitting atop a machinist's stool with an automotive manual in hand. He'd understood it utterly on the first try, but he'd been leafing through it for most of the afternoon. Mostly so he didn't stare at the hundreds of posters all over the garage wall. Some of were pre-Impact vintage and most likely worth a fortune to some collector, others were outright sexy.

Misato was a terrible influence on everyone.

Meanwhile, only Rei's legs from the knees out were visible. The rest of her was underneath her car on a mechanic's creeper- the rolling bed used to crawl under cars. He'd built it himself and knew how comfortable it was. That was the reason they'd been at work for nearly three hours. It wasn't that he was bored really, but as it stood, his mind started to wander. Maybe he could make a cushion with weight-activated thaumaturgical pressure point massage...

He thought about it a bit longer and blushed. Misato was still a terrible influence on everyone. Especially him. Even a thousand miles away.

Focusing back on the manual, Shinji sighed and leafed through it again. "Who wrote this thing?"

He directed that down to Rei, still under the car. "Nissan. Wrench please."

After asking what size she wanted, Shinji pulled the the tool out and held it down for her waiting hand. "Well, I'm seeing like six dozen things they could have done better- I mean, if you want I coud-"

Shinji heard the wrench drop lightly on the concrete floor. Rei's empty hand eased out from under the car. "Brake line please."

Wincing, he moved to find the part. "I could really help though! I just need to..."

Rei shifted her legs and dragged herself wholly out from under her car, smeared with grease and grime. Leveling a completely flat, uncompromisingly serious face at him, she held out her hand. "Brake line. Please."

Shinji wilted and handed her the part. He realized just then that his stool was not out of range, and by extension, neither was he. Between the meals he'd made for her and how much time she'd spent in the pool... Well, Shinji was pretty sure she couldn't hurt him.

His seat on the other hand was fair game. "Of course, Ayanami-sama. I'll be good."

Taking the cable in hand, Rei's lips quirked up as she rolled back under her car. Shinji let out the breath he had been holding and leafed through the manual again.

Working on half a dozen projects around the apartment complex, Shinji spent the following days going over the fight between Hikari and Toji in his mind. Laying a thousand bricks in the afternoon, he'd asked himself just what had happened. During dinner one night, he'd considered the how and why. Each time, the answers came just as easily as they had before; he knew what was going on.

It was a familiar certainty. One he'd felt for almost a year and a half now. Exalted. The word felt bigger and heavier in his mind the more he thought about it. Concerns started to hang around him, and the weight was tangible. The last time he'd felt as certain was two weeks ago in the Geofront. Shinji had cut that thought off when it happened, and if it hadn't been for Rei and Ayumi, he probably wouldn't have taken the time to really examine it.

Rei had made sure that home was home, that he had a place to go where he didn't have to think every second of the day. Ayumi meanwhile had kept things simple, being clear as to what she wanted or needed. They had given him the space he needed to find clarity- he was not the same person he'd been two weeks ago, and creating certainty of action or thought didn't doom him to repetition.

All of that looking inward lead to Shinji standing outside a dilapidated Shinto shrine, one train ride and longish walk away from the fortress city borders. Rei stood next to him, a bit dusty from the pre-impact road. They'd both agreed that taking a look wouldn't hurt, and it gave Shinji something to focus on while continued to look inward.

Walking up the uneven path to the shrine itself, Shinji took a moment to examine the structure. He ran a hand down a beam of stained and weathered wood and felt the grain tug at his fingertips. Turning to Rei, he shrugged and knocked on the pillar.

She just nodded once and reached into her school bag. "I will compose a list of materials."

Content to be silent, Shinji slowly made his way around the main building, taking in its foundation, down to the soil it had been set into. Eroded due to Impact tidal waves and later poor drainage, after they started reinforcing the Geofront. Trees, planted in a ring or square all around would probably help shore that up. Letting conscious thought drift to other things, Shinji again thought back to Hikari and Toji.

They were doing well, of course. Better than well. He'd hardly seen them apart for the past few days either, talking animatedly or sharing silence. There was still some awkwardness, but it was fading fast. Again Shinji wondered as to the how he knew it, understood what to say so simply as to achieve his end. Absently shifting into a mental stance, Shinji traced the weather-beaten temple walls. Something rang true in his mind as he considered the structure and his friends.

Shinji had simply taken a deep breath and understood. And in understanding he had willed to happen, just as easy as breathing.

The clarity was sudden, and he looked back further. He couldn't think of the last time he'd really struggled to wield his power, or to do anything really. He had to learn still, but even now, he could almost look off into the distance and see potential for growth. The martial arts had been the first of it, the most obvious to build any sort of cultural connection. But the more Shinji thought about it, the more it made sense. He had gained something, a truer understanding with everything he did.

Cooking, Medicine, even talking to or with his friends- Shinji realized he was learning with every action.

Exhaling, Shinji reached out and touched the temple once more. Now it was easy. He ran his hands over a structural pillar that had sagged under the weight of the roof and age. It jumped into rightness, snapping back whole and clean as if it had been freshly cut and stained. It even smelled new. Bit by bit he wandered around the structure, tugging and straightening. Clay roof tiles rippled and clicked back together, and gaping cracks sealed up without a trace.

Rei had pulled out a notebook and had been writing the whole time. She stopped, and the sudden silence, the lack of pencil scratching on paper, was jarring.

Letting his hand fall to the side, Shinji blinked and glanced at his friend. He was about to ask what was wrong when he looked over her shoulder. "...Oh."

Nanba Kasumi and her Shinto Culture club stood at the edge of the tall grass that surrounded the shrine grounds, staring openly.

In a familiar black space, five men appeared in holographic telepresence. SEELE council members 02 through 06 were cast false light, and it made their features look wan and sickly. Safe in his darkened study, SEELE 01; Kihl Lorenz was the only man physically present.

The chairmen of the committee looked out to his peers and frowned. "Where is France?"

SEELE 03: Britian coughed into a thin hand. "He has abstained from this meeting. He left me a message stating that he was 'pursuing a separate option.' France assured me that all funding conditions and procedures remained in place."

Kihl couldn't slump in his wheelchair. His spine had long since become a solid assemblage of artificial vertebrae. "Then this is an acceptable deviance. We cannot afford to show weakness however. Ikari remains a small thorn lodged in our hearts."

To one side, a tall blonde man appeared rendered as green, the very picture of North American ancestry in the minds of most people. Which was to say actually of British colonial descent. "We remain concerned. Ikari's movements are increasingly bold. The situation changes faster than even the Scrolls predict."

"The scrolls do not predict. They are conditions to be reached for and signs to be interpreted." SEELE 04 snapped. "As stated by Ikari Yui's research, that we follow to this day."

"Dogma is not science, or enlightenment."

Raising a withered hand, Kihl cut in. "Councilors. Enough please. If you will look to your terminals, I have forwarded the results from our latest infiltrators."

As one the most powerful men across ten countries turned aside, half-vanishing from their holograms as they moved out of camera view. Kihl simply had his files interlaced with the vision granted by his visor. The old man waited while his compatriots scanned the reports. The dialogue shifted as they read, trading facts and observations with six voices and one shared goal. Lacking one of their number disrupted the harmony, but only slightly.

"Ikari has ceased Dawkins filtering?"

"More likely changed the parameters. Our agents have managed to place themselves. There have been extensive readiness drills and upgrades to various aspects of the fortress city." A sneering voice spoke out, it did not matter who, the blame was certain among them all equally. "Katsuragi's work, most likely."

It continued, and they all sat straighter for the naming of the trump card. "The progress on our hunter-killer?"

"Moderate," was the urbane reply, like the question answered itself in the asking, but was explained further for the slow of mind. "The loss of Unit 02 would be lamentable, but if our projections are correct, we could catch them in the Gulf of Mexico- salvaging the Evangelion in those conditions would be simple."

"NERV's commercial plans have taken root throughout the Asian and African continents. Ikari has turned our trap halfway against us." The last sentence was wry, laughing at no one and everyone present at once.

"Reports are inconsistent as to scientific and technological advancement." Frustration filled the space as a hand cut through the air, disappearing abruptly when it again crossed outside the lens's view. "NERV is promoting full cellular regeneration and offering it at significant markdown. Immigration is up."

A mirthless smile shined out in the darkness. "Hence our agents slipping past interdiction. Has Gendo moved the active scroll condition?"

"Negative. He approved the A-17, but our Inspector would not be as so foolish as to bring the sample and risk endangering either the Second or Katsuragi."

The discussion continued on for twenty minutes more, until Kihl let out a processed sigh. The other members fell silent and waited. "Our information comes to us too slow. I will make way to Tokyo-3 and see to matters myself. Objections?"

The question was less to find dissent, and more to discern who would contribute. Insight was valued at the table, as was unity. The blue-tinted Russian councilor cleared his throat. "None, but I suggest resolving the matter of the fleet. It would be a sufficiently public setback for NERV."

One by one the other councilors nodded, before all looking at Kihl for the final decision. "Very well."

"Release the Mass Production Evangelion."

Earlier that evening, Shinji had made his way down to the garage to tell Rei dinner was ready. He'd found the girl in her car, half leaning out of the driver side door and staring at the uncovered engine as she turned the key. The machine rumbled to life, loud enough to shake the dust in the air and even make him take a step back.

Rei had looked up at him then with wide shining eyes, and her voice was halting. "It purrs. Like a kitten."

That had been an hour ago, and Rei had convinced Deja with surprising efficiency to act as her teacher while taking the Skyline out for its first drive. "You don't need so much weight on the gas. Just a light touch."

The blue haired girl nodded, and Shinji could hear her easing up on the appropriate pedal. The engine quieted down in response. Rolling over the undulating roads outside the city, the car passed by swaying tall grasses as the sky turned orange. The taller teenager found himself squirming a bit in the seat. Rei had been eager to get out and driving- no time to install new interior or finish the bodywork. The car itself ran like a dream, however.

As for where they were going, Rei and Shinji had both convinced the Section 2 agent to accompany them to the shrine for another night staking the place pilot security force was going to be following them anyway, after all, and there was no real pressing need for secrecy. At least not for protecting the Children.

That, and Deja by herself would also be much more approachable than an entire fleet of men and women in black suits, hawk-like eyes aside.

Which meant that Rei was getting more experience behind the wheel, and in her car. Sitting in the back passenger seat, Shinji could see the edge of Rei's blinding smile.

The shrine stood just as it had the previous day, and the day before that. Shinji and Rei had been coming by for a bit more than week now, and usually staying well past midnight. He'd circle the grounds and inspect the structure, making sure it hadn't been tampered with. Landscaping had been a great way to pass the rest of the time time. Rei would bring her homework, and Shinji always offered to help. Which was to say she shot him a look when he tried to answer the questions for her.

It had taken a few days for the culture club to thaw around him too. Especially after he'd wandered into the shrine interior and found the a particular addition to the altar. He recognized the dedications to Amaterasu of course... but a copy of his old school ID photo had been... embarrassing to say the least.

Rei had leaned in around his arm and hummed. "That is a terrible picture."

But after that, Kasumi and the rest of the club members had taken his presence with something other than skittish reverence. Deja, the picture of professional sloth, had pulled a lawn chair from the trunk of Rei's car and lazed about into the cooling evening, arms tucked behind her head. Same old Deja. Kensuke had mentioned that modelling gig went well for her, though.

Cutting grass with his bare hands was oddly relaxing, cleaving down the stalks and drying them in the same instant, and on the swing back weaving them into thin mats. Purely as a theoretical exercise, considering he didn't have the required materials for fully realized tatami. Rei joined him at the edge of the cut grasses, looking out towards the fortress city. She pressed a cold can of juice into his hand.

Shinji took it with a small smile. The sun was setting off in the distance, sinking past the low western hills. "You think anything's going to happen?"

"Something always happens, Ikari-kun."

"You could call me Shinji now, you know?" He glanced down at her, grinning a bit wider as he took a sip. Tart grape and a bit over processed, but it was still cold.

Rei's answering smile was smaller than the manic glee she'd shown behind the wheel. "Thank you, Shinji-kun." She looked up at the darkening sky. "What time is it?"

Not bothering with his watch, Shinji called on his power, humming. "About seven twenty or so. I'll go get the cooler and start on some sandwiches."

Lying on the front platform of the shrine with his legs dangling over the stairs, Shinji stared up at the night sky and counted the stars. Wind tugged at his hair and the cut grass all around, sending it all waving faintly. Deja and Rei had both curled up for the night on chair and in a sleeping bag, respectively. The cicada were out in force, calling for mates across the shrine grounds and out even into the city itself. Those who lived in Tokyo-3 had gotten used to it.

A new sound cut through the insect noise. Shinji sat up and waited, suddenly focused. Lit by stars and a half-moon, he had no trouble seeing for a hundred feet or more. It was a car- and there was little point driving at night on the shrine road. A mile after the shrine, the road ended. It had been destroyed during Second Impact. Hands draped across his knees, Shinji's feet started to bounce. The new car had stopped, and the boy heard a car door slam. Rustling grass to one side caught Shinji's eye, and then he realized Deja's chair was empty. Well, she probably had a better idea how to handle things that he did.

Didn't mean he wasn't going to try.

A man stomped through the newly cleared path over hand-crafted paving stones, swinging a jerry can of gasoline around while he snarled at the shrine grounds. Shinji watched him approach and narrowed his eyes, taking the man's measure. Evidence of poor nutrition, lack of personal hygiene. Signs of depression. Well, The man didn't look depressed right then. Wide-bodied and stocky, he was a real working figure, middle-aged and growing out instead of up. His eyes were clear though, and burning angry.

Finally approaching close enough, the disheveled man finally noticed Shinji and raised the hand holding the can, growling. "Who the hell are you?

Still sitting down, Shinji just shrugged and offered his open hands as an explanation. "I'm not sure that really matters right now. I'd like to know what you're doing here though, and planning with that."

Dropping the can at his feet, the man snarled. "None of your-"

The man's eyes went wide, standing out with realization. One hand reached over his shoulder for a dark shape strapped to his back, while the other pointed. "Y-You're that Ikari."

Shinji stood up easily, ducking out from under the shrine's slanted roof before he clipped it. Stepping forward he nodded once, frowning. "Yeah, I am."

"You hurt my daughter!"

He'd seen the baseball bat coming tens of seconds away, even just by getting a feel for the man's mental state. The swing was wild and over the shoulder, driven by adrenaline and enough rage to ruin just about anyone's day. Shinji stepped to the left and brought his arm up, palm out and waiting. The bat slammed into his waiting hand, and it hit hard enough to blow his hair aside. Purple with rage, the man wrenched down on the weapon, trying to jerk it free.

Shinji just squeezed his fist and shattered the bat down to the handle. On the other end of the strike, the vandal shivered, outstretched arms trembling as it held on to the remaining chunk of wood. The teenager looked the man in the eye and sighed.

Again the problem was simple, and he knew what he had to do. "I can't say I'm sorry, because that's not what you want and that's not what you're here for."

Shaking his hands free of splinters and dropping them to the side, Shinji sighed and stared the shorter man down. He was wide open. "Take your shot."

Fear gave way to disbelief, and then to more rage. The man tossed away the bat and settled on bare fists and boot-clad feet. Screaming, the father poured out months of frustration and pain out on the pilot's body. Shinji stood, barely wincing as fists mashed into his jaw and nose. Blows rained down on his chest and shoulders, and when the man saw he wasn't doing damage, he picked up loose rocks and used them instead.

Shinji's white shirt was stained with dirt and blood from shallow scrapes, scratches he could feel but hardly notice. With every swing the man screamed. His daughter had come out of Shinji's first episode back at the school. She had seen Shinji do things that terrified her, both for how much he could have done and how little she'd resisted. He was a father who'd sworn he'd protect his daughter, who'd gone out to slay a monster and found a bunch of kids fixing a shrine. The terror had propagated, up into the family, into an awful lingering wound that Shinji himself had already punished himself for, without even knowing.

But the man sobbing at his knees hadn't known either. Wiping the blood from his split lip and blowing his nose, Shinji sighed again. "If that's all you have, then this is where it stops."

Kneeling, the man looked up, his own hands were bloody and ragged from the improvised weapons. Shinji hunkered down himself and took the man's hands in his own. Surface level lacerations, an easy fix. He smoothed the cuts with his thumbs and willed the blood to clot. Drained as he was, any resistance was token at best.

"If you have to be angry at me, then do it. I can take it. But you won't come back here." Jerking his head over his shoulder at the restored shrine, Shinji tugged the man to his feet. "Because I'm watching the place now."

Staring at his hands, the man still bawled. He looked up at Shinji, then at the can of gasoline he'd planned on using. Back inside the shrine, a slash of blue and a glowing red eye appeared out from behind a pillar, and Rei blinked, wondering aloud what the noise was. Wild-eyed and panicking, the man twisted and scrambled away from the question and witnesses. He dashed into the grass and made for the road, skipping the cleared paths entirely. Shinji watched and listened as he heard the engine catch and rumble out into the night, far and away from the shrine. Rei crept out from the thickly shadowed shrine interior.

A few seconds later, Deja stalked out of the tall grass, pistol in hand and dreadlocks askew. She holstered the weapon and huffed. "The Vandal?"

Shinji nodded, looking off toward the city before turning back to the shrine. Rei wrapped a hand around his and squeezed. "What is the matter, Shinji-kun?"

It took a few minutes for him to really answer. Bits of it had been floating around for the past few days, weeks really, but now it looked clearer than ever. He'd done so much over the past months, over his entire time as a pilot, an Exalt. He thought back to Toji and his sister, or to Ritsuko and her arm. The terrorists and his nightmares. His episodes above and below ground, and dealing with Asuka and Rei or Misato. There was good and bad in all of that, he had been good and bad through all of that...

"I think," He began, staring at the shrine and what it represented, then glancing down at the forgotten can of gas. "That I need to think about what I do more."

A week passed since Shinji had defended the shrine. He'd been away from NERV and the Geofront for a little over three weeks. He sat in the passenger side of Rei's ever-improving project car, counting the amber lights as they blurred by overhead. Settling into the freshly installed racing leather seats, he glanced to the side and smiled. Rei had a deft touch behind the wheel, as sure as any martial arts master. Deja had signed off on Rei's learner's permit days before and waived the hour requirement. The blue-haired girl had passed her road test with a perfect score.

The Geofront access tunnel seemed shorter than he remembered.

Both teens were silent as they made their way through the cavernous parking lot and past the various security checkpoints. They swiped their cards at the main gate and strode in, equally sure of themselves. Shinji took a deep calming breath as he watched the gate rattle open. NERV had been a distant sore point for him the past few weeks. Shinji had teased at the problem in fits and starts, coming to a fair number of conclusions and discarding more than a few.

Glancing to the side, he was glad to know Rei was heading in with him. Oddly enough, she was dressed for the pool- sandals, a swimsuit and a pair of sweatpants. A necklace with a thick keycard dangled around her neck. The duffel bag slung over her shoulder probably held a change of clothes. Nothing wrong with that, he figured. Looking ahead, Shinji picked up the pace. The weeks away had been good for him. They'd given him some much needed clarity, alongside his own increasing certainty.

He had a good idea where to start now.

Rei waved as she took a right at one of the uncountable crossways that cut throughout Central Dogma. She headed for an express elevator down, and Shinji wondered why. Maybe an underground pool perhaps. Well, Rei could take care of herself, and she'd meet back up with him outside.

Heading deeper into the Geofront, Shinji started to come upon familiar ground. Walls and floors he had pulled up with his bare fingers, and doors he'd welded shut. They'd been cut or blown open with normal tools, leaving ragged edges and gaping holes leading into his quarantine zone. He stepped over the line and into the place he'd done so much, most of it horrifying. He didn't have to be that, to make those demands of people or himself. Rows of abandoned desks and ramshackle MAGI terminals filled one chamber, while tools and the remains of half-completed prototypes dominated the other.

Taking in the damage, Shinji realized he could have easily fixed it. He spun in place and nodded, absolutely certain he could restore every broken part and panel. At the same time, he had a plan and was going to stick to it. Just being there though, in that room, was helping. Rei had told him to confront the problem in small parts, and so he did. Shinji looked around one final time and considered himself done with this small chunk of his rampage.

At the far end of the quarantine zone was his office, and the hole he'd blown out to free himself and his team. The floor, desk and every loose paper had been bleached to near ruin. He stared at the bare walls, exposed down to the insulation and cabling, wondering where the actual wall panels had gone. The notes he'd scrawled all over had been insightful but... No. Coming back to NERV and immediately wanting to pick that research up would not have been a good idea.

Stepping out of the zone, Shinji sighed and made his way further into the Geofront research complex. As he went, he started to see more NERV technicians and employees. Some gave him a wide berth, or up and about-faced down the nearest clear hallway. Shinji had expected that, and had done his best to prepare, but seeing it happen still made the guilt flare up. He beat the ill feeling back with certainty of purpose. Other encounters were neutral, or even nice. Overall NERV seemed to be split between those who feared him, and those who'd been worried.

Ritsuko had been one of the latter, but even he could see the fear. Shinji had run into the division leader, and they squared off on either end of the hall. Hands stuffed into her pockets, the blonde scientist took a long serious look at the pilot, the Exalt. Shinji met the stare as best he could. Ritsuko had only caught the edges of his rampage, and she deserved better than a shameful flinch. The moment stretched out while Ritsuko took her reading.

Finally, she gave him a sharp nod and waved for him to follow. Shinji wasn't overly concerned by her silence, he could understand the need for uncomplicated things. Leading him through the various corridors, Ritsuko pointed him towards one of the dozens of laboratories honeycombed throughout the Geofront. The 'safest' of his prototypes had been left there, most of them from before his episode. Good, what he wanted was probably nearby.

Instead of picking around the haphazard piles of crates and project results, Shinji started to push them around. Ritsuko watched from the doorway, silhouetted by the hallway lights as he worked. Paths and channels between shelves formed as he worked, and bit by bit Shinji pulled out his objective. Along the way he heard a faint squeaking. Off on one shelf with a fresh bottle of water, dish of food and changed lining were his lab rats. Five pairs of red eyes gleamed in the darkness.

Grinning faintly, Shinji nodded and scooped the cage up under one arm. Power flowed through his soul a bare thought. "Hey guys. How are you?"

The rats squealed happily, and Shinji smiled wider. He felt Ritsuko's eyes on him even as he continued to explore, pulling out familiar gloves and greaves along with a thick armored body suit. He'd have to make some adjustments though.

"I'm going to fix this, you know." The white-furred shapes hushed, listening intently. "I'm not ready to tackle this whole thing yet, but I'm not going to run away from it. I just needed that time away. Not unsurprising really."

He set the cage down and reached into a cabinet for an awkward, relentlessly military shape. Cradling the Specialist's helmet under one arm, he gave the rats a wry grin. Shinji was certain Ritsuko could hear him too. "I think I need a bit more time to figure things out, but I'm not going to ignore what went on here either. I think I can handle it better now. Not just say that I can."

A trickle of power called down the time from his internal clock, and he let out a bemused snort. He'd been wandering NERV for close to three hours. Pulling the rest of his marketing disguise into his arms, Shinji turned and made for the doorway, still occupied by one scientist.

Halfway through the first step though, he stopped, and turned back to the rats. "You know, there's someone you all might be happy to see again."

The sun was setting by the time Shinji made it out of the Geofront. Rei had paged him along the way, telling him to meet her outside by one of the train stations. He'd found her right where she said, leaning against the hood of her Skyline and still a bit damp, smelling slightly of chlorine. Shinji smiled at that, glad that she managed to go swimming after all.

To the east, the towers of the fortress city cast the setting sun back across the land, painting everything in shades of orange. Tossing the suit into the trunk, he kept the rats and their cage in hand. He offered them to Rei without a word. She held the cage up to eye level, and the rats inside met her gaze with five of their own. Raising an eyebrow quizzically towards Shinji, he could only meet her with a half-hearted shrug before ducking into the opened door. Apparently satisfied by that, Rei merely nodded once and set the cage down, a chorus of squeaks emerging as it was slid between the new seats.

She turned the engine over while Shinji eased in on the passenger side. Rei looked up while he sat down, head cocked to the side. "I will have to consider names for them."