The walls had started coming down faster than anyone anticipated. Chemical fires threw hot gasses up into the drop ceiling, softening metal and burning through wood and insulation. Smoke flooded the space, billowing out in thick oily plumes from every window and widening crack in the three story warehouse. Half a dozen workers coughed and screamed in the darkness, blocked in by fallen debris or dissolving floors.

Bloodied and wheezing, Tetsuo crawled on his hands and knees while he hacked out dust and toxic grit. He kept one shoulder against the wall to keep his bearings. The paint around him started to peel and crack from the heat- staying wasn't going to be a good idea. Smoke and tears wreaked havoc on his vision. Everything was a hazy black shape or a hot orange blur. Some small part of him wondered how he could have gotten lost in a place he'd worked for six years.

Above, the ceiling cracked. A widening tear sagged down, showing jagged wood and linoleum teeth. The smoke and heat shot up into the upper space, leaving the second floor hallway cool for a heavenly few seconds. Tetsuo stared at the impending collapse, suddenly too tired to do anything. Some sound outside drew Tetsuo's attention, a muted shout over the sirens. The actual glass in all the windows had shattered early on in the fire- had it been ten minutes, more? Tetsuo couldn't be sure. All he saw through the smoke was a black shape framed by the fortress city outside.

The window frame exploded inward, carpeting the work floor with bits metal. The smoke billowed around a new, hulking shape. Glowing orange and yellow lines traced up its limbs, crawling up the back of an almost faceless helmet. All of that had taken maybe ten heartbeats, and the collapsing ceiling above groaned once more. The man-shape moved, crossing the space and drawing the smoke into the wake of his passing. Sliding to a halt next to the fallen worker, he shoved both gloved hands into the wall.

Nearly a thousand pounds of debris gave way, falling down and crashing upon the armored man's arms and back. It piled up high across his shoulders.

The armored head tilted down to face the worker, and a blue crystal eye-slit seemed to look through his skin. A low computerized voice hissed reassuringly. "You're fine-"

Tetsuo was too shocked to answer. Shrugging against the pile, his savior pushed and flung it all away. Free and moving, the grey suit was streaked with grime and dust. Pulling his hands out of the wall, the hero grabbed Tetsuo by the collar and lifted. "Hang on and you'll live, sorry this is going to be somewhat bumpy!"

Hauled bodily through the smoke and fire, Tetsuo couldn't answer other than to scream. Together they charged across the burning building. The helmeted head swiveled left and right, and Tetsuo could hear digital mumbling through the mouthpiece. "Nothing load bearing around..."

Running straight at an office wall, the man lashed out with one hand and shattered it utterly. The whole office exploded into fragments. Kicking desk and filing cabinet away, the pair jumped through a fire, sailing twenty feet or more before coming to a ragged halt. Slamming bodily into still-forming bruises, a new wave of pain washed over Tetsuo's side. The ache shocked him back into full escape mode. Even that couldn't stop him from seeing one of his coworkers buried under the rubble though. Mai's little arm peeked out from under another collapsed ceiling.

Tetsuo tried to call out, but the masked man was already moving. Heaving aside chunks of building like they were garden stones, he dug past the ruin and pulled the coughing woman from the collapse. Tucking her under one arm and grabbing Tetsuo in the other, the hero twisted smartly on one heel. "Hold on- we're gonna jump!"


Dashing back through the cleared space and the open second floor window, Tetsuo's eyes watered. The speed stung his face, but he was moving too fast to feel the heat from the growing fire. Outside he could see slashes of silver from the fortress building across the street, and the flickering light of sirens. Faster than he could think, the trio crossed the distance and were airborne.

For a long moment, Tetsuo wondered if he was flying.

Then gravity took hold. Falling in a smooth arc, the armored man reached for the street with both legs and landed. The impact shook every bone in Tetsuo's body, but the pain was welcome, the clean air was sweet and he coughed hard to get the smoke out of his lungs. Paramedics with blankets and masks were already there, pulling him away.

Another voice shouted out, one of authority. "Specialist! Three more-bottom floor!"

The Specialist offered a faceless salute and charged back into the fire. Tetsuo watched past the oxygen mask and rush of bodies; paramedics, firemen and police. The street across from the warehouse was a riot of hazard colors and waving arms. Radios crackled from every side, relaying orders all across the city block. On the other side of the street, the warehouse burned.

A groan of distressed metal and the hiss of burning chemicals lashed out from the top floor, loud enough to send everyone outside scrambling for cover. A paramedic hauled Tetsuo into the ambulance and pulled the door back like a shield. They could still see the building through that tiny square window, and both men watched the topmost floor give way. It smashed and collapsed into the floor below, sending a concussive burst of flame and noise flaring out in a blooming mushroom cloud. The fireball ignited the tower of smoke for a roaring split second, before burning way.

Debris pelted the crowd under the first burst, sending anyone without armor screaming away. Bits of building pelted the ambulance across one side, denting the metal walls. A spiderweb of cracks appeared across the window. Tetsuo reeled, and outside he heard someone shout.

"Second floor is going down!"

Shivering and well past actually feeling terror, Tetsuo leaned out around the door. The second floor was going down, sagging like the top floor had, only worse. What glass hadn't already been blown out by heat or their vanished rescuer shattered explosively. The rain of shards spread out in a fan ahead of the building facade, gleaming in the light of the fire and the noonday sun. Finally, Tetsuo saw the firemen armed with hoses trying to control the blaze, spraying down the neighboring buildings while hazmat trucks joined the fray.

The second floor finally collapsed with another echoing boom, a handful of heartbeats after the first. Charging through the door-less front entrance, one more lucky soul managed to escape the flame. The building itself was a lost cause and even Tetsuo could see it. Now they just waited. What remained of the building began to creak and groan. Tetsuo's hands clamped down tight on the ambulance door, squinting past the stinging chemical haze. He found himself slipping out of the ambulance and back into the crowd, pushing closer to the fire.

A dark shape in the rolling clouds of smoke charged forward toward the light. The Specialist skid to a halt right at the doorway, waving back into the building. The last two workers rushed through the heat and grit, running along the main entrance hall Tetsuo himself had walked for years. The flames built up behind them, hotter and hotter. A final round of explosions rang out, shredding one corner of the structure and throwing the Specialist into the opposite door frame. The crowd outside ducked for cover once more, dashing back behind cars and barricades.

The armored man slumped down for a moment, and the whole warehouse began to shift and scream. Twenty feet away from the entrance, the last two survivors dashed with everything they had, but the ceiling and all the debris piled on it fell too fast. Tetsuo couldn't look away, not at the last moments of men he'd known for years. Snapping upright, the Specialist charged out of the door frame and through the suddenly absent wall. Skidding to a halt beneath the ruined corner, he threw his hands up. Nearly half a building slammed into his open palms, and yet it held. With the way clear, the armored man turned and shouted for the survivors to run.

Behind them all, the back of the warehouse started to collapse completely, falling apart like a sandcastle set against waves. Tetsuo's coworkers picked themselves up and ran, limbs bloody and wild-eyed but alive. Vaulting debris and dodging the surging fires, they blew past the Specialist's sides. The armored man stepped forward right as they cleared, and the warehouse fell apart behind him.

The Specialist stood across the street from the crowd of civilians and rescuers, armor, abraded and streaked with grime. Tetsuo watched and listened, as the last sounds of that moment were the lingering fires and the muted wail of sirens.

Then, as if by some unspoken cue, camera flashes filled the air.

There was a new altar to the gods of telecommunications in Misato's apartment, and only the expansive renovations allowed it to stand without dwarfing the normally tiny living room space. A sudden burst of color and sound cut through the apartment. PenPen stared unblinkingly at the television screen while one extended claw pressed down on the channel button.

"-Unprecedented Aurorae continue to spread out across the skies of northern and Central Japan. Meteorologists say that it's yet another sign of our changed times after Second Impact, as the magnetic poles of the Earth continue to shift to this da-

The image scattered for a split second, and resolved mid-stream into an opening monologue. "-Last time on Tokyo Love Story, Hideki and Anko reunite after a year of separation- lost to each other after the destruction of Old Toky-"

Rerun, PenPen noted. Another channel change showed stargazers all over the northern hemisphere looking to the sky as unprecedented meteor showers shot across Earth's atmosphere. Pretty enough, the penguin supposed. The talking heads were going on about losing satellite coverage though. Good thing Tokyo-3 was hard-wired as often as possible.

"And now in local news- continuing our top story from yesterday, the Specialist continues his one-man campaign against workplace hazards and the perils of the blue collar environment here in Tokyo-3. We have footage of his latest daring rescue, braving deadly chemical fires!"

The man of the hour himself appeared not moments later, idly munching on some hand-dipped caramel apples. Even PenPen enjoyed his roommate's supernal genius at the culinary arts.

Shinji stared at the screen for a moment, chewing fitfully. "... Why aren't they asking why the building even burned down, or looking for more buildings at risk? Ignoring that makes no sense whatsoever."

"Television's worthless. This is why I read the paper." Shutting off the television and PenPen just gave the boy a fowl shrug from his perfectly molded indentation in the couch.

Looking over his shoulder, the hot-springs penguin stared at Shinji's rising eyebrows. "What? You talk to the rats and I surprise you with my eloquence?"

Ritsuko sighed and shoved her hands into her labcoat pockets, fussing with her cigarettes and lighter but not taking them out. It had been close to a month since Shinji's episode. She and Fuyutsuki picked fitfully through the wreckage of the quarantined zone, wondering what each station and remnant had meant. The forensic reports had given them the clinical, objective details.

Nudging a smashed terminal with one toe, Ritsuko gave into the temptation and pulled out a cigarette. "Katsuragi's been gone for more than a month now."

The old man hummed softly. He looked better at least, having caught up on sleep since the most recent crisis. Teaching had done wonders for him too, and Ritsuko could hear the smile in his voice, no matter the topic. "Her A-17 combat order had a provision for extended deployment; the Commander and I are not particularly worried."

Lighting her cigarette, Ritsuko gave the commander a noncommittal shrug. She was worried, thank you very much. Misato was the one who ran herd on the absurd pilot personalities. Rei had become much easier to deal with over the past few weeks though. Stepping lightly, she meandered around the abandoned workstations and benches.

It had taken a lot of effort on her part to make sure everyone had remained calm. Weeks of meetings, one-on-ones and a whole host of favors being traded in the upper echelons of NERV research and development. Most of the scientists and engineers that Shinji had kidnapped were livid, and Ritsuko knew better than most how justified they felt. The scientist felt like she owed something though, and had to pay it back somehow.

She owed Rei, for maintaining her faith in Shinji despite his madness, and in Ritsuko herself. It had taken Ritsuko a few days, but she had realized after the fact that Rei had shamed her. Not even intentionally, either! The thought had boggled the scientist for hours afterwards. That night, she'd sat in the darkness of her apartment with only cats for company, thinking hard.

That was then however, and both her own sudden insight on herself and Shinji's manic episode were far enough behind her that Ritsuko had stopped counting days to the second since it ended. The other scientists hadn't yet, but Ritsuko was going to do her level best to give Shinji time to fix his mistakes.

Moving forward into the once-clean room Shinji had used as an office, the Sub-Commander and head of Project E took in the bare, stripped down walls. They'd removed the bleached but legible panels hours after Shinji had fled the Geofront and locked them up tight.

"Thaumaturgy aside, I can't tell where Shinji ends and his Exaltation begins." Ritsuko took a drag of her cigarette and gave Fuyutsuki a wry, fox-like grin. "Tell me, professor, does the blood run true? He is the child of two geniuses."

Fuyutsuki let out a short laugh, shuffling through some papers that hadn't been cleared off the desk. They were nearly black with scribbled notes. "Melodrama doesn't suit you, doctor."

Ritsuko smiled a bit wider and sent a meaningful look over the older man's shoulder, through of the hole Shinji had punched in the wall weeks previously. He followed her gaze outside and winced. The NERV logo stood out bright red on the silvery-grey wall.





It was a sunny day in Tokyo-3. The city blocks were high and full, while the solar collection towers turned to catch light and pump it down into the Geofront. Students and citizens milled around the high school, content to stick to their routines.

Crossing the student parking lot, Shinji stopped and frowned at the pair of teens fussing over their car. It had been stuck halfway into the parking space with a flat rear tire. The broken car jack only complicated the problem. One of the teens caught his eye and waved him over.

Both of them seniors, they looked up at him and let out a short laugh. "Think you could help us, Ikari-kun?"

Shinji shrugged and gave them an honest grin. He was always probably going to be more than a little humble. "Sure."

The two older teens stepped back while Shinji hunkered down next to the rear bumper bumper. He could have fixed it all outright, but that would've been obvious. Reaching to grab the car's frame, Shinji eased up and lifted. People always told stories about mothers heaving cars off their children. Shinji could do that whenever he pleased. The driver fished out his keys and hopped in to steer while his friend laughed, tossing out thanks left and right. Rolling the car into place, the two teens sagged in relief, glad they wouldn't cause a further scene.

Watching the pair lock up the car and walk off, Shinji had realized that he still really did not fully get people.

Or, it was more that he vastly underestimated entirely benign human nature. Admiring eyes from every corner followed him as he wandered through the halls of Tokyo-3 Municipal High. Teenagers of all years grinned as he passed, waving lightly or calling out his name, and Shinji smiled back. It'd been going on for more than two weeks now, since his intervention at the shrine. That was the root of it all really, that shrine and the shinto club.

He hadn't said not to tell anyone or say anything, so naturally, Nanba-san and her friends told everyone and everything. In the school, at least.

It wasn't bad attention though, if he were completely honest with himself. Just more than he'd ever dealt with. Tokyo-3 though was known for its loyalty- the people who lived and worked in the fortress-city were dedicated to each other. They all pulled together whenever possible, and that same esprit de corps trickled all the way down to the school and students within. No one spoke of it off-campus, and that secret was shared by the students and teachers. All of which lead to him being declared silently and unanimously 'Ikari Shinji: Campus Hero."

Ayumi told him it sounded like a tokusatsu character, and he agreed... on the condition that she never make that pose again.

Lazily making his way through the grounds, familiar faces jumped out in Shinji's memory as they passed by in the halls. Some he'd tutored- and the girls he'd started to recognize as having tried to flirt with him. Kensuke had to give him a little tutorial after the fact though. A while later he'd thought back to some of the things Misato had said and done around him. The blood rushed to his face and stayed there for hours.

Skipping the halls of student lockers, Shinji headed for faculty territory- the thin offices and relentlessly efficient office spaces and furniture. Errands, always errands. He'd helped others in different ways. Solving a small problem, lending his presence to one thing or another. Every so often a big thing came up, a school crisis, like last week someone had suffered a severe allergy attack, and his rescue inhaler had failed. Shinji had been there, and a bit of magic-assisted encouragement kept the teen breathing long enough for the nurse to arrive. That, thankfully, was the most exciting thing he'd been involved with.

A quick check found the papers Fuyutsuki-sensei had asked for, and with those tucked under his arm, Shinji leaned out of the office. His pager let out a harsh buzz. Shinji's heart sped up just a bit and grinned at the display. Ayumi wanted to meet for lunch. Walking a bit faster, he made his way to Classroom 2-A and dropped the files off, waving at Toji and Hikari while they laughed over their shared lunch.

Heading outside and stretching under the noonday sun, Shinji sighed and looked out over Tokyo-3. He'd helped out with the burning warehouse three days ago, and he could spare a few hours for his rooftop project. Kensuke and Toji had been big helps getting his half of the parking garage fit for thaumaturgical research, too.

As for his afternoon, Shinji scanned the skyline with a hum, content to listen to the bustle of distant traffic without a single siren to disturb his thoughts. That was getting rarer these days too, though mostly his own doing. Right after he started going out as the Specialist, he had patched in his suit's anemic, almost-an-afterthought helmet computer into the MAGI so he could listen in on the city's emergency service. Why bother patrolling when he could let the supercomputers could do it with several thousand traffic cameras?

Heading over to the trees and benches that he and Ayumi had claimed as 'theirs', Shinji mulled over the why of it all. A teetering stack of burdens had piled up on him, and it was Rei of all people who had put him on his path. Avoid stagnation, she had said, followed by give yourself time to assess the situation. It'd been good advice. The Geofront stretched out far beneath his feet, nearly a kilometer under rock, soil and armor, and Shinji knew he'd have to deal with it eventually. How was the tough part.

In the meantime, he refused to stand idle. Every day he felt like he learned something, got closer to some sort of answer. Maybe not the exact one he was looking for, but in some strange way, each separate bit of enlightenment seemed to make the weight of his problems that much lighter. Rounding a tree and spotting Ayumi in her summer uniform, Shinji grinned inwardly. She was doing a good job of making his problems feel lighter too.

Then two dozen students mobbed them both all at once.

Shinji blinked dumbly once and twice while his fellow teenagers competed for his attention. He should have been used to it by now, seeing as it'd been happening for weeks. Some called out just to say hello or for simple favors. The athletes in the cluster of bodies tossed out invitations to pick-up games or outright joining their respective clubs. The requests grew faster and more muddled the longer Shinji took to answer, as was the usual pattern. He looked to his girlfriend and shrugged helplessly, while she scowled petulantly.

He took the hint and brought a hand to his lips, whistling. When they all looked up at him, Shinji stepped forward and glowered. "Hey! You all should know the routine by now- form a line!"

Chagrined, the teens did as he said while Ayumi took her place. It'd happened often enough now that they'd worked out a system. The stories Nanba-san and her club told had included his miracle-working, so by now the whole school knew something. More than enough to make requests. Some got priorities, others got polite turn-downs. Ayumi was in the lead vetting each aspirant.

"A run in your stockings?" Ayumi scowled at the senior. "That's girlfriend privilege only, thank you very much!"

Repairs were the easiest to rebuff seeing as most of the time people wanted to merely save money instead of replacing it. Shinji made an exception for sentimental objects though. Tasks like that rarely ate up more than an hour of his time anyway.

Healing though was more serious. Shinji frowned while Ayumi wrote down the details of the latest request. In some roundabout way, the student body had found out about Shinji's involvement in NERV's medical advances, but thankfully no one knew his exact role. He was more than happy to play the studious intern and act like an 'in', getting people onto the waiting list for Geofront treatment. Ayumi met his eye and nodded solemnly, pocketing the note.

One by one the pair worked through the thinning crowd, rapidly eating up their time at lunch together. Shinji frowned as Ayumi sorted the notes into neat stacks and pressed them into his hands. He'd have to make it up to her somehow. At the back of the line someone jumped and waved, calling out Shinji's name. Ayumi scowled as the boy shoved to the front, until she recognized who it was.

"Aida-kun?" Her scowl stayed fixed in place, but it softened slightly. Shinji laughed lightly and wrapped his arm around his girlfriend's shoulders while Kensuke grinned, pushing up his glasses.

Turning to the crowd, Shinji coughed. "Sorry everyone, but you'll have to come back tomorrow."

With thirty minutes left to their lunch period, Shinji gave one of his first friends an apologetic look. "Kensuke, could you make this quick...?"

Ayumi followed that request up with a pouting glare of her own, and Kensuke laughed, raising his hands. "Easy! I'm not asking him to do my homework or anything." He reached into his back pocket and pulled out a half-rolled spiral notebook, handing it to Shinji. "This is everything Akagi-sensei wanted about the thaumaturgy going on throughout the city."

Shinji blinked as he flipped through the pages, one-handed. It was the first he'd heard of any investigation... "In the city? We haven't taught anyone else outside of NERV."

"That's just it," Kensuke shrugged. "According to NERV's sensors, a bunch of thaumaturgical reactions are going on all kinds of places where people gather. She made me a handheld scanner for that part."

Pointing to a particular entry in the book, Kensuke continued. "I was looking at a restaurant that day and it took me two hours before I figured it out; the scanner pinged whenever the kitchen staff washed their hands."

Ayumi looked between the two boys, eyebrows rising high and meeting in the middle, obviously lost. Wincing, Shinji made another note to explain thaumaturgy to her at some point, along with making up the other mistakes he'd made. Each missed cue had become increasingly obvious over the past few weeks.

Stuffing the notebook into his own pocket, Shinji nodded. "Thanks, Kensuke. I'll make sure this gets to Akagi-sensei. In the meantime though, I'd like to spend the rest of lunch with my girlfriend, okay?"

Ayumi beamed.

As far as Shinji could tell, fear of heights was closely related to how good your balance was. The particular trick to it, the form he had shaped his soul into, was effortlessly simple. Like a refinement of all the effort that went into learning how to walk, the most basic understanding just sort of leapt from out of his mind and into being months ago.

Stepping lightly along the half-inch skyscraper ledge, Shinji happily ignored the vertigo that would have sent a veteran climber scrambling for solid ground. Fifteen stories up and wrapped in in twenty pounds of armor, holographic projectors and disguise kit, Shinji smiled behind his mask and walked along a surface no wider than his own palm without fear. He could balance on his hands at the top of the tallest tower in the city at high wind. Even if he did all that while standing on one finger, he'd never stumble.

Easing around the narrow ledges across the building facade as if it were a sidewalk, Shinji grinned wider still.

As for why he was on the building, there was no particular reason other than that he loved the view. The afternoon cityscape stretched out above and below, and he sucked in another deep breath through the helmet's filters. All was quiet so far in Tokyo-3, and he'd head back home before dinner. Superheroes according to Kensuke hung out for all hours of the night, no matter how safe their city was. Shinji snorted, painfully aware of how little time there was in a day to do anything. He'd already burnt himself out once trying.

Making a full circuit of the building exterior, Shinji rubbed the chin of his helmet, contemplative. If he were honest with himself, he was better able to recognize the problems he'd had last time, and had already hit on a few solutions. For the moment though he was more than happy to focus on his current problems, though. Leaning back against a modern, nearly featureless building cornice, Shinji synced with his helmet computer and queried the MAGI.

A rush of traffic camera images and automated reports scrolled through his helmet. He didn't have the same direct mental or visual feed compared to Sorhyu's patch, but the helmet screens were more than enough. Unfortunately he didn't have speed-reading magic- yet. Scrolling through the list of events, Shinji let out a contented sigh. No major disasters, it seemed. Standing, he stretched and smiled a bit wider still. He'd get home with enough time to make dinner and work on his rooftop project.

Something red flashed, and he focused in on the alert with a thin frown. Spoke too soon, apparently. "Evacuation shelter breach?"

Double-checking the address of the shelter, he nodded and banished the MAGI alert, giving him back vision of the outside world. Focusing his will again, Shinji settled into another internal stance and eyed the building across the street. Misato had once joked about him being found in a spaceship as a baby. He hadn't understood the reference then. Digging his toes into the building ledge, Shinji pushed.

He couldn't leap tall buildings yet, but he was more than able to leap between them.

Vans. Why did the bad guys always use vans?

Watching them load boxes full of canned food and foil-sealed medical supplies, Shinji let out a wry snort. That's why, of course. He didn't need to spend a lot of time wondering as to the rest of their motivations, per se. That was for the police to handle, such as they were. The shelter itself was a squat, rhomboid extrusion of concrete that claimed one corner of a fortress city block. They tended to share space with the extensive storm drains and ventilation that honeycombed the city foundations.

Standing tall, the Specialist leapt off the warehouse rooftop. The sky was shifting to orange, pink and dark blue as the sun sank toward the horizon. Landing in the shadows, Shinji reached inward for that stance of inevitable victory. The orange and yellow lines that traced his suit lit up alongside less easily explained sunfire whorls and the tangible promise of overwhelming impact.

Counting the two drivers, that'd be about six people. They all were wearing simple allergy masks and dark sunglasses- considering Shinji knew first hand how much camera coverage the MAGI had, it was pretty obvious precaution.

Hardly a problem if he could scare them into surrendering. "Hey!"

As one they all turned, some dropping their cargo at the sound of his modulated voice. Whirling on each other, they cursed and spat, kicking up dust at their feet. Shinji heard it all- plans to break for it, whispers about the Specialist- here? And so on. Fanning out, they abandoned the contraband while their apparent leader walked forward. Shinji found himself looking down at the smaller man.

He reached into his back pocket and pulled out a thick wad of cash, fanning it out and letting Shinji see the value. The... Shinji wasn't sure what to call him- head thief? The head thief bowed faintly, cash still in hand. "I'll gladly pay if you'll let everyone here walk."

"You're bribing me." Shinji blinked, unapologetically incredulous. "You're actually trying to bribe me. Who does that?"

. "Lots of people. I thought you were a publicity stunt anyway." Smiling behind his mask and glasses, the head thief just shrugged. The expression didn't reach his eyes. "Listen, the stuff in there is worth a lot to a lot of people- there hasn't been an Angel attack in what, a year? Nobody's gonna miss it."

Shinji stood his physical ground, but inwardly he was laughing. "You're monologuing. Better, you're trying to make this all sound moral." He let out a short, audible laugh at that, wondering why the man was even trying. "I don't believe it."

Waving at the shelter, Shinji laughed a little harder. "First, because you're trying to bribe me. You can throw that-" he pointed at the wad of cash- "and not notice it after two vans full of-"

The sudden impact of steel on composite ceramic made a strange sort of metallic, ring-bang noise. So that was why he tried monologuing. Shinji found himself bending forward at the shoulders slightly, pushed over only a little by the steel pipe that had been slammed into the back of his head. Slowly, Shinji turned into the weapon, letting it scrape along his helmet while focusing on the attacker with thin crystal eyes.

Ten long seconds passed while Shinji stared at the little man holding the pipe. The head thief shrugged, as if to say 'what can you do' and waved his crew forward, picking up weapons as they went. Whirling chains, brass knuckles. Firearms were rare in Tokyo-3. Small favors, Shinji supposed. Counting again, Shinji frowned- five guys this time. He'd gotten sloppy allowing the pipe to hit in the first place, but at least his helmet did its job. Where was the sixth man though...

Best to focus on the immediate problem- he wasn't leaving and they weren't going to let him stay standing if they wanted to finish their heist. The situation had already escalated. Shinji flexed his fingers and curled his hands into ready fists, checking each thug as they approached. There was a bit of apprehension in the back of his mind, knowing exactly how deadly he was... but at the same time he knew now better than ever how to control it. His promised victory meant they'd need hospitals, not life support.

One by one the five remaining thieves circled around, testing the air with their weapons. It was surprisingly easy to read their intentions- none of them were trained combatants. Each man all but shouted their plan of attack with every step, and their blatant fear.

The leader seemed to notice that though, even as he pulled out a taser. "He's a NERV showpiece-" An arc of electricity snapped between the two prongs. "We're only human. He can only do so much!"

Well, that may have been true... A chain whipped out and threatened to catch him across the head. Arms up, Shinji did the sensible thing and ducked. The length of metal sailed around in a wide arc forcing the others to scramble aside as well. The hesitation was enough though. On some unspoken cue three of the thieves charged forward, slapping aside his arms with swinging pipes and wild punches. Two clamped around one of his arms each while the third barreled into his midsection. Shinji found himself airborne for a fleeting second as the three man tackle gained momentum and lost it just as quickly.

As one the pile of bodies slammed hard into the street, and Shinji's helmet cracked against the pavement, again. Sorhyu had tried something like this months ago... but Sorhyu was actually good. Getting his feet under his body, Shinji tensed and stood up, ignoring the weight of three men bearing down on him. With glasses and masks knocked askew, Shinji could see the fear surge back once more. Swinging his arms up then down, Shinji dropped two of them on the street, hard enough to stun and bruise. The man around his waist shoved back, scrambling away while the leader charged in with his taser.

Shinji let it discharge against his armor, utterly ignored.

Winding his arm around the leader's outstretched limb, Shinji twisted at the hips and pulled, forcing the man to slam hard into his chest and bounce back out. Bones cracked audibly and the man stumbled back, clutching his chest. Cracked ribs- Shinji noted with some small degree of relief, and nothing worse. Three down, two or so to go. Sensing something behind, Shinji shifted. The sound of moving air and rattling metal was enough to inform him of the incoming chain.

This time he caught it with one raised forearm, yanking the chain away and breaking the man's fingers with the same action. Striding forward Shinji whipped out with one back fist toward the man's thigh, hitting a nerve and bruising the man's leg down to the bone. No way for him to run. Four of six, fifteen seconds all told. He turned to take care of the last two when something bright overloaded his helmet's light intensification.

Ninety kilometers per hour netted out to about 25 meters per second, which was a bit less than triple his overland running speed. That an overloaded civilian van could go that fast was more surprising, which why he only had time to turn and face the impact. Shinji found himself bent at the waist and pinned against the protruding hood of the vehicle, heaving for breath. It's high beam headlights bracketed his legs, and Shinji felt his armored toes scrape against the pavement and clip the curb. Behind him, the light reflected back on the windshield and the approaching hardened shelter wall.

Together, van and Exalt punched through the reinforced structure, tearing a gaping hole in the structure. A sudden hardening of his internal arete protected him from the worst of it. Shrugging off the broken concrete and drywall, Shinji shook his head and wrenched his helmet back into place. The van's abused engine groaned and clicked behind the front grill and crumpled hood. They hit me with a van. He looked up at the panicked driver, who was wrenching at the gear shift and mashing the pedals. The deployed airbag wasn't making it any easier on him.

Slamming his open palms onto the van hood, Shinji laughed. "You hit me with a van!"

Lifting his arms once more, he brought his fists down on the thin metal and the engine beneath it, utterly destroying both with a double-handed smash. The ruined van sagged forward, having completely lost its front axle. Bracing one leg against the firewall, Shinji shoved, and the van skid across the sidewalk for half a dozen meters. Stalking forward the pilot huffed, counting now five of six thieves handled.

The last man stood in the center of the street- the very first man who'd hit him with the pipe. Shinji just turned and stared. A second later, the thief dropped the weapon and lost control of his bladder. Six of six. Shinji sighed and clapped his hands, knocking free the concrete dust... Blinking behind his mask, he turned back to the shelter. Ambling over, he tapped one ragged edge of the hole with his gloved knuckles, and the hardened anti-Angel defensive bunker material cracked.

Shinji found himself frowning. "...That's just not right."

Car noises from down the street grew closer. The little fight had finally gotten the attention of Tokyo-3 law enforcement- and the news crews. Shinji ignored it for the moment, focusing on the shelter walls. He tapped into his reserve again, effortlessly understanding both the material and what went into its formulation. He stared at the concrete dust in his hands for a long, disbelieving moment.

Then a camera nearly knocked his head off. He jerked out of the way at the last second, only to find a microphone shoved in front of his face a second later. There was only one news station in Tokyo-3, but there were three cameras and reporters jockeying for position. Shinji found himself backing up against the shelter wall as they closed in.

A photogenic brunette had the lead, sidling up next to him and standing in frame. She barely came up to his bicep, and her arm was almost at full extension, holding the microphone. "Specialist-san! Can we get a comment on your recent good samaritan works?"

"Uh..." The voice masking still worked, processing until he sounded like nothing in particular. "There's not much to say..."

"I'm sure the viewers at home are happy to know you're on the case- was today's crisis another daring rescue, like last week's fire?" The smarm and compliments were coming faster now, and Shinji could tell her teeth were orthodontically perfect. Bleached to a pearly shine too.

He shook his head and sighed, waving at the six would-be thieves and the one ruined van. Shinji shrugged. "N-No. Some people broke into the shelter."

The newsies made a point of not turning to the sight. Instead they focused in closer on him, and Shinji could hear the whine of zoom lenses locking around his head. The lead reporter beamed prettily, blatantly ignoring what he'd just said. "Specialist-san, the inquiring minds of Tokyo-3 want to know, just who is under that mask? Our phones have been ringing off the hook about it for weeks now!"

Shinji shrugged. Not like he was ever going to say either way. The shrill wail of police sirens cut across the city block, and the first hints of flashing strobes played over the buildings. He turned back to the shelter and touched the wall again. It crumbled.

On a whim he glanced back over his shoulder. "Listen, this doesn't bother you? There's a giant hole in an Angel shelter..."

He trailed off when the pairs of cameramen and reporters all blanched, seemingly in sync. The 'live feed' lights dimmed a beat later. Shinji cocked his head to the side and broke off another chunk of concrete- there wasn't even any rebar reinforcement. "I'm not enhancing myself here. It's really that- are you- hey?"

The last word was plaintive and a bit incredulous. The news crews had already made it halfway back to their vans, arguing all the way as the police vehicles rolled to smooth stops. The reporters hissed at each other, bemoaning the fact that they wouldn't get a better take due to the noise, and would have to settle for post-production at the studio.

Shinji let his hand fall to the side and huffed. Looking up at the late afternoon sky, he cocked his head.

Well, at least he'd get home in time to work on his project like he wanted.

Jogging away from the shelter, Shinji rounded a building corner and leaned into an alleyway. His dust-streaked armor vanished in a brief flare of sunfire, leaving him in his normal slacks and shirt. Twisting around to get his bearings, he caught a flash of blue out the corner of his eye. Rei stood at the curb next to her still unpainted car. The girl herself was still in her school uniform, a bit at odds with the machine she'd put so much effort into.

Still, Shinji smiled broadly. "Rei-chan"

"Shinji-kun," keys in hand, she waved at her car. "Shall we go?"

Nodding, Shinji moved for the passenger door when he stopped mid-step. "Ah... How'd you know where I was?"

Rei just smiled as she twirled the keys on her finger. "I asked the MAGI, same as you do."

Shaking his head and laughing, Shinji slid into the car. He wasn't going to complain about a ride home.

The apartment door slid shut with a well-oiled whisper. Ayumi and Rei were on their way to the mall- something about a 'girls day to make Misato jealous'. Shinji smiled at the memory, and of the look on their faces when he hugged them both. It was finally his turn to make his girlfriend blush. Of course, their having gone out left him all by himself for the day. No school, no roommate, friends or girlfriend. And not one bit of going out and saving the day.

Spinning around in the living room, Shinji took in the space. It had been weeks since he'd taken stock of Misato's apartment.

Early afternoon sunlight spilled in through the angled floor-to-ceiling windows, bathing the main space and kitchen in warm golden tones. The pillow fortress from weeks ago had expanded, taking up half the living room with bedding and towers of cushions. There had been two smaller penthouse suites above their unit, but Shinji had removed those long ago, clearing the space for stairways and currently unused lofts.

The furniture throughout was hand-crafted hardwood sanded to flawless perfection, stained, sealed and finally thaumaturgically strengthened. Coordinating all the spaces had been a challenge, as had meshing the old with the new. The gleaming steel appliances filling his kitchen were no longer factory standard. He could afford to metaphorically splurge on good design.

All of which lead to Shinji realizing he had nothing to do.

Slumping down on the couch, he grinned wryly, comfortably alone. It was more he had a great many projects, but most of them were in various stages of stop and go. His rooftop project needed rocks delivered from various quarries, as well as the steel, concrete and assorted tons of raw material. He fortunately wouldn't need a crane to do any of it, but... Well, as far as the apartment was concerned, as far as Tokyo-3 was concerned, circumstances had conspired to give Shinji a day off. Still on the couch, he thought back to his kitchen.

After about thirty seconds, he cocked his head to the side and stared at nothing in particular. "...Can I make something unhealthy so well as to make it healthy?"

Shinji mulled over the question for a while longer, and the gold disc flared out on his brow. "...No, deep fried anything is still deep fried anything."

His stomach rumbled, and Shinji stared down at his traitorous midsection, snorting. "Aaaannnd now I'm in the mood for tempura."

After his late lunch, Shinji whiled away the time with cleaning the kitchen and catching up on some lingering chores. One of which included repairing his Specialist-suit. He pulled it out from... wherever it stayed when he sent it away, falling in a heap next to him. He ran his hands over the seams and panels, cleaning away the soot and grime from several weeks worth of general heroics. All told, doing all of that had taken maybe an hour out of his day, leaving Shinji with even less to do until Rei and Ayumi got home.

But then PenPen waddled out of his fridge and offered to teach the boy how to play poker.

There was something very wrong with the world when a bird could beat a human at a card game.

After having fleeced him of all his cash on hand, PenPen headed into the bathroom, eager to try out Shinji's renovations. That left the teen to his own devices again, and the girls still weren't due back for hours. Wandering around the apartment, Shinji found himself back at square one with nothing to do. Leaning against the hallway wall, he wondered what the hell he did with his time the year before last? Eyes falling on the door to his room and what was inside, he nodded. Music, lots and lots of music. Easing in through the too-small doorway, Shinji took a moment to really look at his room.

Four bare white walls, a ceiling and a carpeted floor, with the only real architectural flourish being the patio doors that lead out onto the expanded deck. Those had been there when he moved in, too. Here Shinji felt like he filled the space more than anywhere else in the city. The walls seemed almost painfully sterile; the longer he stared at them the more his eyes stung.

There was a little desk and chair sized for a normal adult that he hadn't bothered replacing. Not that he'd ever needed to sit down and do homework, even for the correspondence courses. His closet door was open, and a long row of identical school uniforms hung inside. It was the exact thing he was wearing at that moment, down to the belt and slacks. The only bit of furniture in his room made to fit him was his bed, something Misato insisted on buying after he finally stopped growing. That was before he had spread out into all kinds of carpentry thought...

The only two bits of life in the whole room was a cello, and his SDAT player.

He hadn't touched the music player in over a year simply because he was busy. He used to need it to fall asleep, drowning out the noise of the city those first few nights he'd been in Tokyo-3. The cello though, that was tougher. He ran a finger over the top scroll just above the pegbox. He hadn't practiced in so long, and after he Exalted, Shinji realized he was afraid of breaking one of the last links to his mother. Aside from a hint of brown hair and Ayanami's jaw, he had no memory of the woman.

He sighed and looked at the room once more. Blank, empty and almost completely devoid of life. It was so blatant as to be ignored, simply because he spent almost no time there.

Scooping up his SDAT, Shinji found himself laughing. It welled up inside him, low and slow at first, before building into an almost hysterical fit. The sound echoed off the bare walls, and the glass patio doors seemed to shake in their seating. He stared at the music player and the mix tape he'd long since committed to memory. Every whole and sour note he knew by heart even before coming to Tokyo-3. In the little clear plastic screen, he saw a feral grin spread across his lips.

Raising that hand high, Shinji threw the gadget down and watched it shatter into a hundred pieces. The digital tape exploded in a fluttering spray of gleaming black ribbon. Feeling power flow into his limbs, Shinji laughed even harder. He picked his bed up and broke it over his knee, ripping the frame in half and knocking down the wall leading out into the hallway with the tossed remains. His fingers rent through the mattress like it wasn't even there.

Bare hands punched the patio glass and came away unscathed, but the doors themselves dissolved impressively, throwing a glittering wave of pulverized grains out onto the apartment deck itself. Cooling air flooded his room and tugged at the clothes still in his closet. He shredded those next, laughing as the white fabric turned gray in the growing clouds of dust.

Wild-eyed and laughing mad, Shinji tore down the ceiling and dug into the lofts he'd built before. Then the walls of his own room. When all was said and done he stood in the settling dust with nothing else upright and whole except for the cello. Powdered drywall caked the glossy wood finish. Snatching it up by the neck with one hand, the strings groaned painfully. He'd lost the bow around here somewhere, but no matter.

Bringing every bit of might he could to bear, in his legs and hips, all the way through his arms and into the instrument itself, Shinji manic grin stretched wider, and he laughed at the insanity of it all. So much effort for everyone... and none for him.

He brought the cello down on the floor and destroyed them both utterly.

Caked with dust, insulation and shattered drywall, Shinji slumped in the ruins of his room and the apartment below it. His mother's cello sat under his thigh, little more than a shattered wreck. What was left of his SDAT hung from a bit of ruined flooring. His two most favored possessions. Only possessions, really. He took it all in with an oddly calm expression, laughing lightly.

Lacing his fingers together, Shinji cracked his knuckles and willed more power into his hands. Today he'd fix it all.

Tomorrow, he'd make it better.

To most of the world, even to most of NERV, the Geofront was little more than an engineering marvel. In truth, merely a fraction of the Geofront had been seen or claimed by human hands. Ages ago, an impossible sphere had been carved into the earth and filled with soil not indigenous to the Island of Japan. Thirteen point seven-five kilometers in diameter, it was a sign of Mankind's diminished place in the grand scheme of the universe.

Kozo Fuyutsuki found it oddly reassuring, the certainties involved.

Sitting at the bench built into the elevator, Fuyutsuki took as much weight off his tired bones as he could. The trip down into the under levels of NERV was long enough to read the morning paper, if he had thought to bring one. Meanwhile, Gendo slouched impressively, with his hands stuffed into his pockets. The elevator wheel ticked along and strobes flashed out every few seconds. Colors changed as they crossed further boundaries in the armor and structure beneath them.

Between the Evangelion Graveyard and the real Terminal Dogma was another level. If Akagi's Angel computer had proven inert- little more than a corpse, it would have gone in that interstitial space. As it stood though, it was much safer to keep the captured entity 'upstairs'.

The old man shed the burden of being second in command with an almost physical shiver. Staring at the back of Ikari's head for a long, deliberating moment, Fuyutsuki came to a decision. Straightening out his uniform cuffs, he pulled on the metaphorical mantle of academia and authority in his chosen field, as was right and proper.


Gendo's spine locked up. An irate professor's voice was not something a student forgot; Gendo knew it and the old man banked on that. "Fuyutsuki."

It was easy to hear the care that went into controlling one's voice after years of practice. The past few weeks had rattled the man, Fuyutsuki noted. Gendo had turned sidelong, just enough to look at the Professor out the corner of his eye. The honorific had been on the Commander's lips before he clamped down on the reflex. The beard obscured all.

Fuyutsuki scowled darkly and fixed his former student with a baleful look. "I did not like having to lie to Akagi about Katsuragi."

Whatever had knocked Gendo off balance was quickly boxed up and discarded. All the well-worn masks settled into place before Fuyutsuki's eyes with practiced ease. Hands still in his pockets, the younger man gave every impression of business as usual. "A necessary fiction."

Unperturbed by implied demand to drop the subject, Fuyutsuki pressed on. He needed more information, and Gendo's nearly absolute authority over the MAGI left him with only the normal means. "Have they continued communicating since the attacks?"

Gendo just completed his turn and faced Fuyutsuki completely before answering. "The reports have started coming in by the day- in addition to whatever filters through the various UN channels. Our Inspector helped and hindered us with his message in a bottle."

The old man conceded the point. "Most governments have an inkling of their connection to the Committee, so it stands to reason that some house cleaning is in order."

When a reply wasn't forthcoming, Fuyutsuki prodded. "Our response?"

"Measured." The statement was absolute, and Fuyutsuki knew it would would be done once they returned to the surface. "We will out a few of their men and leave them in the cold, while drawing others closer. By this point, the old men should expect any outgoing communications to be sanitized."

Fuyutsuki made a point of not allowing his expression to change, or his voice to waver. "What of Katsuragi and the fleet? Unit 02 is a significant investment, as is the Second Child."

Gendo let out a dismissive breath. "Sorhyu's girl is a crutch, ensuring we reach the critical stages. Irrelevant in the grand scheme of things, considering the girl has rendered herself invalid as well. She was never intended to be much of anything."

Frowning, the old man knew better than to suggest that was a dangerous assumption, believing she'd remain that way.

Settling back against the wall and wishing his legs weren't feeling like so much painful lead, Fuyutsuki took a moment to ponder the matter further. SEELE and by extension the Human Instrumentality Committee were... enduring, if nothing else. Plots and grand conspiracies rarely lasted longer than the lifetime of their leaders for a reason. Kaji's message had lit a fire under the United Nations, and suddenly NERV was no longer the budgetary whipping post. Over the past few weeks there had been vast infusions of cash via second and third parties, taking advantage of the looser restrictions on private industry.

Not to say they were back up to their previous levels, but long-deactivated sections of Central Dogma were gradually being brought back online. Akagi meanwhile had been splitting her time between the Pattern Green research and biotechnology, but NERV was actually on the road to deploying workable prototypes for refinement and sale. A six month turnaround was unheard of in the technology sector, military research or no.

The idea of technology and research brought Fuyutsuki out of his reverie and back focusing on Gendo. At the same time, the elevator jerked to a halt. There had not been any maintenance teams down this far in decades.

Easing upright, Fuyutsuki did his best to prevent the wince from showing outright. Looking Gendo right in the eye, the old professor scowled again. "Your communications blackout was ill-timed, Ikari."

Gendo waved it off even as he admitted as such. "An unfortunate coincidence. I had expected to observe the boy while he was isolated from his support network. Katsuragi's influence is tangible even now."

Fuyutsuki felt his own eyes light up at that, crinkling at the corners. Considering how laconic was he was normally, Gendo had been rattled by his son's episode, for a given value of rattled. "And again, I say the blackout was ill-timed."

"A setback," Gendo made another concession. Two in less than five minutes- Fuyutsuki was now more certain than ever that something was up. "But an enlightening one. The boy's strength of will can fail him. I know more now than I did before. Victory in all things professor, even defeat."

Raising a hand to push his glasses back into place, Gendo terminated the topic. "Assets were not in place to take action or tranquilize the boy- something we shall correct of course."

"Of course. Section Two has already been re-tasked and equipped." A bit of wan humor crept into Fuyutsuki's voice, and he smiled prickilishly. "You could have gassed the quarantine zone."

Making their way out of the elevator and through the intervening layers of Terminal Dogma, Gendo let out a contemptuous snort. "The boy was serving as a lightning rod. There was no reason to overplay my hand or sacrifice goodwill amongst NERV."

Fuyutsuki frowned at that declaration but said nothing- for the moment. He fell into step behind Gendo, forcing himself to keep a hand near the frost covered chain railing. Every footstep on the gantry railing echoed throughout the cavernous space. The sound bounced off the ceiling and back down, through the thin clouds of vapor that hung in the stale, rotten air. What little light there was in the space came from below, and the dim orange tanks that stretched out for hundreds of yards in every direction. Coughing, the old man pulled out handkerchief and held it to his nose.

Long-dead and dry blood reeked like little else.

Together they walked further toward a vault hanging from the ceiling itself. Somewhere relatively far above them was the Memory Transfer facility, but they were heading somewhere not even Akagi had been. Reaching the single nondescript door, Gendo pulled out a mundane key and cycled the lock. The hanging bunker had much more effective security installed elsewhere.

Inside, long-disused lights guttered to life, but they did little more than make the shadows seem even darker. The bunker itself was just one room, and in the center was a dust covered table. Gendo strode forward purposefully, already moving to wipe away the years of settled air. Fuyutsuki himself had only seen this room once before, and could recognize his own footprints in the floor.

Gendo's prints had crossed over his several more times over the years.

After a few more minutes dusting, the thin stacks of paper were brought out into the light. A handful of painstakingly etched handwritten notes, alongside photographs of alien symbols and their age-old translations. Gendo all but whipped one page at his second in command and demanded him to take it. Fuyutsuki sucked in air past his teeth and held in for a long moment.

They were Ikari Yui's notes, and her original translations of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Fuyutsuki let out the breath he'd been holding. Gendo ignored him, pouring over his own sheaf of papers. Yui's tight, efficient handwriting crowded every margin, shifting into normal Japanese, English, then various middle-eastern languages Fuyutsuki didn't recognize. Those notes were translated again in different colors, and the ink had not aged well over the years.

The text itself had not changed. The exacting parameters for Yui's scenario were laid out in scrupulous detail. Their memories however no longer matched. Holding the pages in his hand, Fuyutsuki could fight the cognitive dissonance of knowing his recollection was faulty. Inconsistent, and pervasive. Together the two commanders of NERV reconciled themselves with the reality.

They came to the same conclusion within seconds of each other, and Fuyutsuki voiced it. "ADAM was never transported as the original sequence intended. Could it still refer to the Second and Unit 02?"

Gendo let out a frustrated grunt. "Our memory of 'Red' remains. The event has not yet passed."

Fuyutsuki sighed, wishing there was a chair nearby. He waved his arm gently, careful not to crinkle the fragile pages in hand. "Then where is the sample? Does SEELE still have it?"

The Commander still juggled the changing circumstances like the grand schemer he'd proven himself to be. "Our Inspector did not arrive with it as expected, but in light of the Dawkins Protocol and NERV's shift towards corporate backing, the Committee's human response to the situation is understandable."

"But the Sixth Angel attacking as it did required ADAM to be in transit." Fuyutsuki raised the pages again, the very ones that described his point. "Yui sculpted the events as to close off certain paths to the rest of them."

Both men lapsed into a long silence, and one of the overhead lights flickered as it neared the end of its functional life. Gendo looked up, intent and speculative. "So we could assume that the many-fold agent could be lying. Not unexpected."

The implicit connection was obvious to the older man, and Fuyutsuki nodded slowly. "Assume that Kaji still has the sample then, and for some reason took it back with him on the Pacific Fleet?"

Gendo snorted contemptuously. "The man is foolish and his goals are blatant, but he is not actually a fool. Nor would the Committee send him without acknowledging his place in seeing the plan through."

"As per the original plan yes, which was about a year behind schedule, I should point out." Setting the papers down, Fuyutsuki sorted them into a neat stack while Gendo watched. He looked up at the younger when he continued. "ADAM must be in transit by this point and Sorhyu must be the one to kill it, if all the other pieces fell where they were intended."

Scowling, Gendo shook his head with a derisive grunt. "No, if she were actually "Red", then the girl would have performed acceptably and we would already be moving on to the next event in sequence. Instead her growth is unpredictable. Katsuragi's reports say as much, brief as they are."

Fuyutsuki was stone-faced and silent while Gendo continued. "Unscheduled activations, unforeseen adaptations- the girl will become an increasing complication moving forward."

Once more the silence stretched out between them, and Fuyutsuki felt the muscles in his neck lock down tight. Outwardly he refused to let his jaw tense or fold his hands up into fists. He'd been willing to make a great many compromises over the past fifteen years... Letting the tension drain out, Fuyutsuki fixed his former student with a patient stare.

"Unfortunately," he began. "We're losing sight of a more pressing and immediate issue. Your son is already a complication moving forward, now and in the present, instead of two months from now."

Moving around the table Fuyutsuki turned to Gendo. He kept his voice was low and polite, but a thunderous weight crept in behind it. "The Second Child's psychological state makes her much easier to control, but Shinji remains a completely unpredicted variable in context of the scrolls. Say what you will about having learned something, but we know more about the First Ancestral Race than we do Shinji's Exaltation!"

Gendo was silent for several minutes, and Fuyutsuki felt his jaw tense. The younger man ran a hand along the table as he started to pace, unusually animated. His former student never mumbled, never let anything show on his face even at the most tense. The shadows in the bunker seemed to cling to Gendo's uniform jacket and pants as he rounded the table.

Passing under a guttering light fixture, Gendo's glasses reflected solid amber. "First time, happenstance. The second, coincidence. The third, by design."

The non sequitur threw him, but Fuyutsuki still recognized the reference. The context remained elusive. "I thought the phrase was ''enemy action'."

With a smirk tugging at Gendo's mouth, he shook his head. "The boy would have to be aware of the game before he could even declare himself a player, let alone as an enemy."

Memory of the shelter nagged at him, like the bit of concrete that had lodged in his shoe. Jogging down the street and into a nearby alley, Shinji resisted the urge to stomp and obliterate the offending shard- along with whatever else was under his foot at the time. Instead he clung to the shadows and pulled his street clothes out of wherever they had gone. The armor vanished in the same action, and Shinji wiped a thankfully clean arm over his brow.

Sometimes it seemed like every other day in Tokyo-3 lead to some kind of industrial disaster.

Looking left and right down the alleyway for potential witnesses and finding it clear, he released the tiny measure of power that held his gear apart from the world. It spilled out onto the ground alongside him, an empty pile of plugsuit memory material, mesh harness and armor plates. Shinji sighed and hunkered down, already channeling more power to his hands.

Scuffs, scrapes and frayed edges all made themselves whole under his touch. Broken through the sole of the military-issue boot soul was the ragged hunk of concrete- and the bit of rebar that'd made it even more awkward to run. Shinji ripped it out and tossed the chunk aside, repairing the hole with his other hand. Shaking the dust free, he held the Specialist suit up and saw that it was good as new.

He was glad he couldn't chafe either, breaking the suit in every few days would have been torture.

Storing it again, Shinji yawned and stretched, heading for a particular maintenance grate halfway into the alley. It'd take him into the fortress city substructure and access paths, meandering around buildings until he could pop out elsewhere, well away from his latest bit of heroism. Easing the grate back down overhead, he didn't even bother with turning on the lights, his night vision was still near perfect, and the thin bit of sunlight that spilled through the honeycomb of access points lit his way more than enough.

But being under the city reminded him of the shelter again. Shinji shuffled along the cramped gantry dodging hanging pipes and conduit, grumbling. It wasn't just that shelter either- almost all of the ones he checked were just as poorly made. Men with pickaxes could break down the walls, let alone Evangelion weapons or stranger Angel attacks. Realizing that had made him turn to the rest of the city. Huge chunks of the above ground infrastructure were... inadequate.

Ducking under another low-hanging, rust-covered support, Shinji found himself frowning harder. It hadn't taken him long to understand at least part of what was going on. Inadequate was inadequate. The news crew from the other day tied into it too, somehow, though Shinji wasn't exactly sure as to the connection. They didn't act anything like the news programs he'd seen back in up north.

Stepping out of the maintenance way and back out into the light, Shinji sighed. It all added up in a half-understood mess of data, and being honest with himself, he had no idea where to go from there.

Traffic was light on the surface streets, and sidewalks were thick with shoppers and people walking home or waiting for the trains. The sun was just about to cross over into afternoon proper, and school was just about to end for the day. Shinji's fingers drummed absently against his thighs as he looked over the crowds. There were other things to do for the rest of the day, after all. He caught sight of some payphones and strolled over, ducking into the canopy for privacy if nothing else.

Pulling his pager out and sliding the keypad out, he thumbed a quick message, feeling sweat prickle out all over his palms. Dinner tonight, at seven?

Ayumi's response came back a minute later. Sure! Somewhere downtown- The message cut off and a new one appeared right after it, and Shinji felt his mouth pull back in a grin. Shit sorry forgot you hate city food... uh...?

Still smiling he typed back, but the prickly-cold sweats were reinforced by a sudden addition of butterflies in his stomach. I was thinking my place... Is that OK?

The reply was near-instantaneous. Definitely! See you at seven!

Shinji glanced upwards and the butterflies ignited, heat rushing all the way up to his face. He was going to need a grocery stop, and quickly.

Shinji had learned the lesson of delegation, and wasn't planning on forgetting it any time soon.

A handful of phone calls later saw everything fall into place. Groceries in hand, he passed by pallets of raw materials stacked up outside the apartment door- everything else already inside he could reuse. Lists tumbled through his mind while he stowed the perishables, greeted PenPen and took stock of his assets.

With a bit more than three hours to kill, Shinji stood in the kitchen and looked out upon Misato's living room. He clapped his hands and sunfire flared out along his forearms. The apartment wouldn't know what hit it. His kitchen- remodeled again- now had a hardwood center island with it's own sink. The stoves, gas ranges and other appliances had been ripped apart and rebuilt to his specifications.

The clock ticked on as Shinji worked, tearing out whole sections of wall, ceiling and floor. He made way for new ideas- stairways down into what had been the apartment one floor below. The apartment above became a new hanging loft as he tore down and built back up according to his vision. Only the common wall between Misato's apartment and Sorhyu's remained untouched, and his plans accounted for it. He'd ask the girl what she wanted when she got back and no sooner.

Rei appeared midway through, examining the revised spaces with unblinking red eyes. She nodded once and claimed one of the loft rooms as her own, gradually moving her meager possessions from one space to the other. The last to go was her cage of five rescued lab rats, Un, Deux, Trios, Quatre, and Cinq. Shinji smiled at that, taking a short break from the mound of debris around his wrists. Even at this distance he could hear the rodents chattering amongst themselves at Rei's cooing rapport, bright and enthusiastic about the new titles.

Exhaling, Shinji looked out on his work and called it good. He and his clothes were covered in grime. With an hour to spare, Shinji made his way to the bathroom, remodeled that and subsequently showered. Careful rationing of his inner reserve left him glowing firmly by the end of his construction binge, but not so much as to bleach the world.

But even with all that, he was running just a bit late. The doorbell rang just as Shinji was spreading out the ingredients for dinner. He all but glided through his new spacious kitchen and tapped the door open. Shinji felt a dumb, liquid grin spread across his face when he looked down and saw his girlfriend. She'd dressed up.

Ayumi matched his smile with one of her own, but her eyes widened when she looked past his arm and into the apartment itself. Her mouth worked and she made a funny, strangled sound before finding an actual word. "...I was here a week ago and-"

She just looked up at him, bewildered. "What did you do?"

Grinning faintly, Shinji rubbed the back of his neck and tugged her inside. "I uh, had some time to myself before you showed up. I've realized that I like to keep busy."

The girl just nodded and took her seat at the new dining room table, in the equally new dining room. Rei sat next to her, dressed down in the customary tank-top and shorts like she always did after school. "Saneda-san."

Something wasn't quite tracking. The boy blinked while juggling jars of hand-ground spices. Rei. At the table. Waiting for dinner. Shinji leaned back and rammed his head into the nearest cabinet.

Shinji watched his girlfriend glance to her right and mumble out a toneless. "Hello, Ayanami-chan."

Another surge of sunfire flowed down Shinji's arms, and the disc on his brow flared into warm view. "Ah... Rei I'm sorry- I forgot to tell you."

The blue-haired girl blinked once, flicking red eyes between Shinji and Ayumi before giving the pair a firm, understanding nod. "Right. I shall leave you two alone."

Red spread out across Ayumi's cheeks as she stared the other girl down, and Shinji's face was going beetroot just as fast. Rei eased away from the table with a lithe hop and jump, and the awkward moment stretched as she hummed along to some unheard tune. An almost tangible force of comedic timing made the couple lock eyes and start to sweat. Rei somehow dragged their embarrassment out like a cat with a ball of yarn, spreading it in tangles across the table.

She took in the tableau with a look that Shinji began to understand as deliberative intent, and only the tiniest quirk at the corners of her lips hinted at the smirk. She paused at the door to say something, but decided against it at the last minute. A few moments later, Shinji and Ayumi were alone in the apartment. Groping for a topic, Ayumi cast around the apartment, looking for anything to drag them both out of the awkwardness. Her eyes fell on the towering array food waiting to be prepared.

"So!" She chirped, clapping her hands and forcing her voice high and light- doing her level best to push the red-hot mortification out of her cheeks. "What's for dinner?"

The ingredients for the main course of ginger pork were spread out along the new kitchen island- freshly cleaned and sterilized with thaumaturgical warding. Shinji couldn't stop from grinning at the thought of a self-cleaning kitchen. Gold fire crawled down his arms as he reached for the uncut meat. Shinji's hands did not so much blur as flicker between knob, spice and tap. Pans were filled with precise amounts of oil and he diced ginger root under his fingers.

Ayumi sidled up next to him, heedless of her sky blue sundress tying an apron around her middle and smiling. "Don't mind me, I just wouldn't feel right not helping."

Shinji blinked, but nodded nonetheless. He carefully coaxed the gas range to the optimal temperature, directing the heat through the oil and meat in just the right ways as to cook them to his exacting standards.

Meanwhile Ayumi chopped the greens and unground spices, humming faintly. "So... how exactly does all this work? The magic stuff."

A half-dozen previously given explanations tumbled through his mind, called out of memory. His most recent one had been with Sorhyu over soul muscles. Shaking his head, Shinji just gave her a shy little smile. "It's... not easy to explain. I'm still working on it."

"That's alright, but I'm still curious." She grinned charmingly and moved the diced greens aside for him to add in.

"Well..." Shinji bit his lip and thought about it for a moment, reminded that his concentration was still focused on his primary technique of the moment. "Almost everything I do, they're all techniques. Stances I can take."

He picked up a clove of garlic and crushed it in hand. The outer husk burned away while the rest fell into a waiting skillet, perfectly separated. "The one I'm using now..." Shinji exhaled softly and urged the heat higher with a deft tap of the gas. "I could make all of this with my bare hands, my palms are pans. My breathing and the space between my arms is an oven..."

Shinji felt Ayumi's eyes lock on his hands as he moved through the technique. "I have another one that's simpler, but I'm not using it right now. I open a sort of floodgate inside myself and suddenly everything makes sense. Like I'm pouring raw genius out into whatever I'm doing."

Pulling one skillet off the range and moving a pot with the sauce into place, Shinji just shrugged. "Most of my techniques are all very transitory and focused. Lots of short bursts and stuff... Some I can use at the same time, but I have to take each stance separately."

Ayumi blinked, and her jaw worked up and down for a moment. She was about to say something when her nostrils flared and her face scrunched up adorably, suddenly hit by a wave of flavor. "Wh-wait a second, I thought you were behind schedule?"

Laughing, Shinji nudged her out of the way with one hip and pulled the pans and pots off the stove before heading to the dining room to serve. "I was! I wanted this all to be ready by the time you entered the parking lot!"

Swallowing a mouthful of expertly seared pork, Ayumi reached up and held a hand to her mouth, desperate to keep from losing a morsel that hung off her lips. She slurped it up with a laugh while Shinji dug into his own plate. "You mean they're all learned skills?"

Across the dinner table, Shinji did his level best not to laugh, watching his girlfriend try to sample everything and leave nothing to waste. He didn't blame her either. "So far yeah. I mean I have a few random things..." He waved his chopsticks at his head, and the gold disc burned out to full brightness once more. "I can make this thing show up whenever I want, and it's got three or so levels. Low, 'personal lantern', and 'visible for kilometers."

Reloading her plate with seconds, Ayumi cocked her head to the side."You mean the big towering mandala-thing we all saw at the end of the terrorist attack?"

"Yeah." Shinji nodded. A beat later his shoulders started shaking as he remembered. "Back during some of the first round testing in the Geofront, Ritsuko was pulling her hair out because they were seeing the top edges of my corona downtown. It was reaching up through a kilometer of rock and armor like it wasn't there."

The conversation shifted then, and Shinji recognized the look that spread across her face as Ayumi's curious expression, number three. "What's the Geofront like? My family just runs a little grocery store so we've never seen it."

It wasn't her fault, but Shinji suddenly felt the good mood drain out of him. His hands fell toward the table at the same rate, thumping softly against the edges while his chopsticks clinked faintly against the dishes. The Geofront... He'd been putting it off for way too long. Months. Ayumi shifted in her seat, forcing Shinji to realize he'd let his eyes fall down.

"Ahh..." He shook his head and put on a respectable smile, waving it off. "The Geofront is... really big."

He shot his girlfriend a warning look when her face pinched up, holding back the obvious burst of laughter. Ayumi's mirth was infectious though, and Shinji found the earlier reminder fading away in the face of an opportunity. A syrup-coated cherry for desert waited by his hand, and he glanced at it meaningfully. The dark-haired girl stopped for a moment, shaking her head while pulling out her defenses.

Shinji's hand drifted closer to the cherry while Ayumi shook her head harder. "No. No no no no- don't you dare, you worked so hard on all of these! You made more than we could eat tonight!"

He just grinned at her and nodded.

Flicking out with his finger, Shinji sent the sugar-coated bit of fruit sailing across the table before it landed on Ayumi's plate. She shrieked, laughing hard and holding holding her hands up as it skittered around her leftovers. Lighting-quick, she snatched up a bit of cooling pork and flung it back to slap wetly against Shinji's nose. The thin hunk of meat slid off his face and landed on his plate, and a long, tense silence stretched between them.

Five seconds later, the battle commenced.

Sticky rice was quickly improvised into poor ranged fodder, while the heavier chunks of left over meat were quickly divided before being hurled back and forth. Red smears drew jagged lines across their arms, cheeks and chests, or clung to fabric in wet, sugary blotches. The steamed vegetables were Ayumi's arsenal of choice, having eaten hardly any of them. Shinji hadn't minded the uneven distribution either- they bounced off his skin and he didn't even blink.

Eventually the war ended, having spread out of dining room and into nearby rooms. The kitchen walls were decorated with sauce-craters and the dripping scars of desert. A few errant throws made their way into the rest of the apartment. Shinji and Ayumi stood across from each other at armistice, all the dishes scraped clean between them. They'd taken to eating the ammunition as to win the war of attrition.

Ayumi, breathing heavily, flicked her tongue to lick a bit of cherry that clung to her lip. "I-I think... This is the part where we make out."

While not winded, Shinji's heart was beating just as hard, red faced. He stared across the long hardwood table and nodded slowly. "Y-yeah. I think so too."

They were quiet for another long moment, before Ayumi hiked herself forward on the table by her hands. Her toes hung half a foot the floor and she stretched, but even with Shinji leaning forward, they couldn't quite reach. She felt back to the ground with a bounce and pout. "Your table is too long!"

The tension that Shinji was able to recognize as resoundingly hormonal snapped with an audible twang, and he felt a prickling cold sensation crawl down his neck. Ayumi's own face cooled down as well, and a second later, they both burst out laughing. Even with her blue sundress smeared with the remains of dinner, Ayumi looked amazingly cute.

Once the awkward spell had been broken, the pair started pulling up dishes and whisking them off to the sink. They worked in silence, and Ayumi put herself close enough that Shinji could brush by her if he wanted. Tonight he did, catching her with his hand on some turns or when they reached over for a brush or faucet tap. Towels and wet washcloths were pressed into each others hands, and Ayumi made a point to help whip the mess from Shinji's arms and face herself. Red-faced, Shinji got the clear hint and returned the favor.

Even so, there was a lot of mess to clean up. Glancing at the clock, Shinji winced when he realized it was just after nine. "I... don't think I can jump you home in an hour. Especially looking like that."

Ayumi nodded and tugged at the front of her dress, blanching visibly. "Yeah... "

Picking at his own shirt, Shinji considered his options even as he willed a bit of power to his hands. The stains all along his shirtsleeves vanished under his fingertips, and the interlocking threads straightened out as if freshly spun and woven. He glanced up and realized Ayumi had been staring as he cleaned his clothes with his bare hands.

Saving time on the wash wasn't going to magically get her home any faster though... Shinji shrugged and waved at the apartment. "If you take off your clothes, maybe you could stay here? I'm sure Rei wouldn't mind you borrowing something and there's more than enough room and-"

Red flooded into Ayumi's cheeks, and Shinji immediately realized where her mind was going and what he had just said.

Backpedaling both around the table and in his mind, he frantically waved his glowing hands while Ayumi gave him an interesting, if visibly shy look. Swaying side to side, she drawled. "Thaaaaat's a bit forward, Shinji-kun."

Clarifications and apologies crowded up in his throat and made his eyes bulge, even as the skin of his face and neck prickled hotly. Ayumi laughed despite herself even as she twisted in place, only a little mortified compared ot his very mortified. Her first giggle was all they both needed to punch a hole in the tension though, and it drained out in fits and starts.

Shinji sighed and ran a hand through his sticky hair, keeping his eyes down toward the floor. He still snuck glances up through, watching Ayumi's sandaled feet, or her hands tugging playfully down at the hem of her dress. "I uh... I didn't mean it like that. I mean, I said what I meant to but."

Giggling again, Ayumi waved it off. "I understand." She let out a gusty sigh and leaned against the edge of the table, biting her lip. "Iiiiiii- better call my folks, no matter what."

Tiny, poorly made phone speakers were murder on sensitive ears. Shinji winced as the voice on the other end of the line rose sharply. In the background of the call, another speaker laughed raucously- Ayumi's mother and grandmother respectively. Waiting outside the bathroom with a basket full of towels and one of Misato's spare robes- the longest one he could find. Leaning against the hallway wall, Shinji let out a sputtering sigh. Ayumi continued to wheedle and bargain with her parents.

Shifting awkwardly, he let out a muted, sputtering sigh. It wasn't like he wanted to listen. It was just har-difficult not to. Otherwise, Shinji found his thoughts wandering... and that was not good.

"M-Mom! It's not like that!" Shinji heard the rustle of cloth over skin and hair, and the click of the phone being juggled between hands. "It's too late for us to go home and I don't want to make dad come and pick me up- No! No don't you dare mother! I'm almost seventeen and we've talked abou- condoms have nothing to do with this!"

Shinji turned red, cringed and heard this girlfriend huff into the phone. Ayumi had lungs, it seemed. So did the rest of her family. A bare arm shot out of the halfway open door with a bunched-up wad of blue sundress. Shinji caught it without much effort and passed the basket back in the same motion, keeping his eyes firmly locked on the opposite wall. No more bad karma. None.

Of course, he didn't feel right just leaving Ayumi to fight that particular battle alone either. He knocked on the wall. "If it helps, you can tell them there's ten or so Section-2 Agents around me at all times. Is that enough of an escort?"

Ayumi was silent for a long moment, and Shinji couldn't see her, but he imagined her decisive nod as she relayed what he just said. Her mother and grandmother replied, and Ayumi's voice dropped into the low, piqued tones of teenager. "-I am going to spend the night in my boyfriends apartment in a separate room. I will see you tomorrow morning and then you will ground me, and I will sleep the sweet sleep of the just because we were perfectly responsible."

With that, she hung up and stalked out of the bathroom. Shinji stood up in an instant with her blue dress still in hand. "I-Is everything alright?"

She waved it off, folding her arms over her chest. She was almost drowning in the robe. "Fine, fine. My folks worry. I never spent the night with my first boyfriend, but he and I lasted like, two months."

Running a hand through her hair, Ayumi winced as her fingers caught on some sticky clump of sugar. "Suddenly the robe makes sense- may I use the bath...?"

Shinji could tell she was trying to keep her voice light and casual, but they both turned a bit red at the implication. Still, he nodded. "Just keep all the settings low, I just put it in this afternoon and I haven't tested it all yet."

She just smiled at that and leaned in to press into his chest with her forehead. Twisting, she swept back into the bathroom and closed the door, mumbling. "'This afternoon, he says. The tub's bigger than my bed and he installed it an hour or something..."

As it turned out, no matter how hard he tried, Shinji couldn't 'repair' his hair to cleanliness, or get the sticky syrup out. Instead he took a shower right after Ayumi, but he'd already been experimenting with thaumaturgical insulation and the Japan-standard in-line water heater. They both enjoyed long, luxurious and separate showers. Shinji had to keep reminding himself of that fact.

Now they lounged in the living room, sprawled out a nest of cushions and blankets that paled in comparison to Rei's pillow fortress. Shinji considered it a fair attempt. Spread out perpendicular to each other, Ayumi's head used Shinji's side as a pillow, and she yawned into one hand. Her blue sundress wasn't well suited for sleeping, so Shinji had stepped in and whipped up a set of thin cotton shorts and a matching t-shirt.

And, in true Ayumi fashion, she was tackling their latest bit of awkwardness head on. "It's fucking unfair, you know?"

Coughing, Shinji laughed and stammered into his hand, trying not move. She also had to use that word too, of course. Regardless, he held still more out of concern where her head was than anything else. "W-what?"

Rolling over on her stomach, she crawled up and over his body on hands and knees so she could look him in the eye. Shinji blinked at her impish wink. "Us. Sex. Teenagers."

She flopped bodily across his midsection, and Shinji felt the familiar prickling-heat and pleasantly uncomfortable sense being close to someone. "I mean, everyone says we're all sexed up and stuff, but doesn't that just create an unrealistic expectation?"

Shinji blinked at that and nodded, and for once was actually able to think about the question instead of focus on finding a deep dark hole to dive into. "I... that does make a lot of sense actually. Hormones aren't imaginary, but it is overplayed... Unless you're Toji."

"Suzuhara is known for being a bit coarse, but nobody at school ever thinks he's a bad guy." Ayumi's nose crinkled cutely. "Just, overly guy-ish."

"Yeah..." Shinji let out a short, low laugh while Ayumi shifted.

She moved around to curl up against his side and settled into the crook of his arm. They spent a few moments getting settled, finding the best, or least awkward, placement for hands and arms.

When she was finally in position, she pressed her forehead against his chest. "Is this alright? I mean...?" Ayumi found a free hand and gave it a squeeze, trying to emphasize the question.

Feeling the muscles in his throat bunch up for a moment, Shinji willed the gut reaction down and nodded. "This is fine... just, not use to closeness still. Not for anyone's lack of trying."

Ayumi burrowed into his side a bit more. Shinji could only see the top of her head and the damp brown hair spread out over his chest, but he felt her smile into his chest. "I'm still sorry for being too touchy-feely before you were ready."

"Thanks." Letting out a low laugh, Shinji squeezed her hand back and sighed. "These days I don't get why it's a big deal though. I've slept with girls often enough for it to not really be... a thing?"

A half-second after he finished his sentence, Ayumi went rigid, harder than structural steel. Her fingers dug into his shirt and scraped harmlessly against his skin, but he felt it all the same. Meanwhile his own heart jackhammered in his chest, painfully aware of what he just said and what it sounded like. Ayumi squirmed and pushed up so she could look him in the eye, and he was already dreading the incoming look of betrayal.

"I didn't mean it like that!"

The snarl and rant never came- or at least Shinji only caught the unspoken edges of it. Anger in her eyes gave way to indignation and the jealous glare he'd started to recognize more and more. Despite all that, Ayumi's lips quirked madly trying to fight off a smile. Instead Ayumi's brows slanted and she swung one leg over his midsection, framing his body with her knees and calves while her eyes gleamed with a playful, scolding scowl.

Looking down at him, she reached over and flicked chin with finger. "Yeah I know, but-"

Now Shinji blinked, having watched his girlfriend cut herself off mid-sentence. She bounced on her bent knees, eyes wide and fighting off laughter that still managed to sneak out past her lips.

"Oh my god." Now Ayumi's brown eyes gleamed, and she shot upright as far as she could go, p vibrating with mirth. "It's true. It really is true. You totally have a harem!"

Shinji felt his jaw unhinge, and blood rushed into his neck and cheeks. Now he was imagining it. "I-I do not!"

Ayumi wasn't buying it, giggling helplessly and bouncing up and down. Her stomach and shoulders shook hard enough to make her hair bob and wave. She half-pounded on his chest and pushed him down so he was stretched out flat long the floor. "You do! You totally do!"

The back of his head flattened a pillow on impact while he squirmed, and his hands reflexively snapped up to catch her wrists. "I have trouble sleeping. And nightmares! Misato helped me- and-and Rei! But Rei might be my half-sister?"

"Oh that's even worse." Locking her fingers with his, Ayumi laughed and fixed him with the smuggest smirk she could. "Your life is a dating sim!"

There was no coherent response to that. Shinji found himself sputtering, gaping like a fish while Ayumi cheerfully continued to tug at his arms. Sparks in the back of his mind ignited and guttered out a dozen times over, and for all that mental effort, all he could do was get out an eloquent 'buh'. Ayumi howled in response, still straddling him and all too happy to play with his hands and arms.

Something inside him came loose at that moment. It was the same sort of feeling when he started the food fight, that spontaneity, and the willingness to follow through. Laughing so hard that her eyes were closed, Ayumi had no idea what was coming. A quick jerk of his hips and a technique he'd used maybe twice outside of training was more than enough to toss the girl off to the side. Less than a second later, their positions were reversed.

He didn't even feel guilty about it.

Lying on her back with her hands pinned against the floor and hips flanked by his knees, Ayumi stopped laughing. She sucked in lungfuls of air, but kept her eyes locked on Shinji's. A fairly expansive part of Shinji's mind was more than pleased to note how red she was getting. Turnabout really was fair play, it seemed. They stayed like that for what felt like several minutes. Shinji watched Ayumi's throat move as she worked her jaw.

Finally, she licked her lips. "Shinji-kun, can I ask you a question?"

Shinji's thumbs traced around the insides of her wrists, driven by a hopelessly underdeveloped instinct. Her pulse was high. "Sure."

Shifting slightly, Ayumi gave him a solemn, serious look. The sleepy, flirtatious tone had fallen completely away. She worried at her lip before letting her thoughts out. "You ever think we should?"

His whole body froze. "W-what?"

"That we could just do it. Get it all over with. This... " She shrugged as best as she could, smiling faintly and giving a meaningful glance at their situation. "Stuff."

"... I'm not sure that's the best way to think about... it. " Leaning back, Shinji's fingers wrapped around Ayumi's hands and pulled her upright so they were both standing on their knees. Her legs were still trapped between his though, but not quite as much.

She didn't respond, so Shinji charged ahead. The words were coming easier, and his thoughts weren't quite so loud and awkward. "You were right earlier about expectations too. I don't like to think of this, or that, as an obligation we have to fill."

Looking away from him, Ayumi's cheeks puffed up before letting out a gusty sigh. "Right..."

A beat later, her somber look melted away and her more earnest, casual smile took its place. Unlacing her fingers from his, Ayumi pressed her hands flat on his chest and leaned in to look up at him, eyes gleaming. "Pretty hard to think otherwise sitting halfway under a Greek god, though."

Fresh redness surged up into his cheeks, but Shinji could at least quip back. "N-No! only half! I think, if that."

Still standing on their knees, they settled into a a more comfortable silence. Ayumi's fingertips moved up in short circles around his chest, leaving warm trails on his shirt. Signals were still a new concept, but he got that one loud and clear. Her hips were right there too, so his hands settled where the'd do the most good. Ayumi gave him a pleased grin and cuddled in a bit closer.

"As for the other stuff..." Shinji kept his face turned into her hair, mostly so he didn't have to think about his expression. "Things have been pretty heavy recently, I'm... not really sure I could handle it. It'd be a mess."

Smiling into his chest, Ayumi twisted around until he could see her face, radiating coyness. "Ain't that always the way with greek gods, destroyed by a beautiful woman~"

Prickling cold broke out across his forehead and the back of his neck, even as Shinji mustered up an actual honest grin. He squeezed her middle with both hands, lips quirking wider. "... I hope you're not volunteering."

"Why not? Is there a line somewhere?"

The cold vanished in the face of an incandescent blush that was almost bright enough to read by.

Rei coming back inside at nearly eleven at night was enough to break the spell. She had taken one look at the pair and simply cocked her head to the side, staring. The couple had shot away from each other like they'd been burnt, but found themselves breaking down laughing a half-second later. Rei offered her own tiny smile and headed toward her new room, leaving Shinji and Ayumi to the end of their night.

Shinji wasn't quite ready to sleep yet though, and pulling an all-nighter was looking like the best option for everyone. He waved off Ayumi's concern, pointing at his forehead along the way.

There was one thing that still nagged at him though. He leaned against the opposite wall from the de facto guest bedroom, sighing softly "So... the Geofront."

"I didn't forget," Shinji's face slackened noticeably in distant contemplation, like he'd done on the rooftop not weeks ago. "But I did have to think. About me, everyone involved with me." Ayumi quietly nodded, slowly seeing what he was getting at. "You remember the... episode I mentioned, though?"

Standing in the guest room doorway with her arms wrapped around her middle, Ayumi held still and stayed silent, letting him set the pace. Shinji ran a hand through his hair and sighed. "It's a people problem. I... don't know how to handle it. To fix it. Sorry isn't good enough"

Ayumi's expression shifted. Her eyebrows rose high in the middle and the curve of her lip was equal parts sorrow and sympathy. "Well... you're right. Saying you're sorry won't work... A few years ago I got in a fight with a friend and no matter how hard I shouted, 'sorry' wasn't what either of us needed."

The girl turned and played with the door. Shinji glanced between her hand on the frame and her face as she continued her story. "What I learned was that you can't force sorry. You can't show them your apology... but you can let them see it."

The Geofront. One of the high-speed railways flung a line of train cars down the track at a bit less than two hundred kilometers an hour. Gravity did most of the work on the hanging lines, drawing the cars down into the interior and towards Central Dogma.

Inside one car with a backpack slung over his shoulder, Shinji sighed and let his head fall against train window. There wasn't anyone else in the car, and glass was pleasantly cool against his forehead. Rei had dropped him off one of the main access points, mostly because August had been hot, and September was somehow hotter. He'd been spending more time outdoors too, working on the apartment roof. Glancing down at his bare arms, Shinji felt his lips quirk to the side. He'd gotten a tan.

Looking back out the window and onto the evergreen Geofront forest, he wondered if Misato and Sorhyu were enjoying the Pacific. Or the Atlantic, he wasn't entirely sure where either of them were, but everybody knew worldwide communications were iffy at best, even fifteen years after Impact. His own skin stubbornly refused to burn, but he knew for a fact Misato would have jumped at the chance to 'bake' on her floating private island.

He figured it was mixed blessing that Operations Director had total control over the fleet, otherwise Misato would have been the biggest risk to battle-readiness from casual distraction alone. Then again, knowing Misato as he did, Shinji could imagine her directing those maneuvers from a deck-side chair.

Thinking about it further, Shinji figured it wouldn't hurt to come up with some kind of sunburn cream. He knew enough about genetic disposition- Sorhyu would probably come home looking like a boiled lobster. Misato though... Shinji watched his reflection turn a bit red. Misato would jump at the chance to tease him, too.

Still, something to work on when he got home. For now he had an errand to run and a favor to ask.

Ritsuko's expression was a study in dryness. Shinji couldn't help but think that it suited her, like there was a rightness to her being so inherently deadpan. "You want me to what?"

"Design me a better suit. Materials, hardware." He reached into his pocket and pulled out a folded page that was nearly black with notes and suggestions."You're the only one I know of who could even attempt it."

She held the suit between her hands and gave him an odd look. "You could easily make a better version yourself, right?"

"That's true, but this might be a better use of our time?" Leaning against a nearby lab console, Shinji shrugged. "I want to put some hours in at the Geofront clinic, among other things."

The stare she gave him in response said to him in big bold letters that Ritsuko wanted more of an explanation. Neither of them were in a particular rush, though, so the silence stretched out almost comfortably. For once the lab Ritsuko had claimed that day was brightly lit and not littered with overflowing ashtrays and turgid cups of coffee. It wasn't her favorite lab though, Shinji recognized that one as having cat statues perched at her preferred station. Ritsuko wasn't acting as... icy as she had been the last time he'd really talked with her- around her.

Still, explanations. He gave her a wry grin and waved an arm. "My technique only goes so far. I could make breadboard circuitry by hand without a soldering iron, but not a microprocessor. My hands can't double as a chemical etching process."

Ritsuko just nodded at that, laying the suit on a nearby table without taking her eyes off his. "Hours at the clinic?"

A wan smile was her answer. Shinji spread his arms out, palms open. "Better than a lot of other things I could be doing."

Huffing, the blonde woman folded her arms over her chest and stalked toward him. Her lab coat flared out behind her like a proper cape, and her steps ate up the short distance. "You have no idea."

She stopped just short of him, chin jut out and tilted up like he wasn't towering over her. Shinji had to admit it made him happier than any amount of tact- Ritsuko wasn't afraid of him. Or at least she wasn't letting it show on her face.

"I." The word came out hard and even, not quite a snarl but halfway there. "-Have an extremely clear idea of other things you could be doing, or were planning to do."

Shinji didn't give ground, but the definitely felt the urge to. His breathing went shallow, mostly so he didn't make matters worse by snorting in her face. The absurdity of the thought helped the tension drain out of him too.

Ritsuko though still held that calmly intent tone. She plucked the page of notes from his hand, tight enough to crinkle it between her fingers but only just slightly. "Do you remember what you were planning during your episode?"

"More than I'd like to." Shinji stared past her shoulder. "Been trying to focus on positive projects."

Taking a step back, Ritsuko's scowl etched itself deeper into her face. It was a look he could only call bitter medicine. "Well you need to know. The baroque resonance imagers- powered by blood no less. Shared-brain interface. You were working off of poor foundational neurochemistry there, so anyone you would have tried to hook up..."

She didn't need to go further on that point. Ritsuko started ticking more projects off on her fingers Blatant human rights violations, abusive behavior, the list went on. Each point hit Shinji like a gunshot, and while he didn't flinch, he felt the impacts all the same. They dug in and almost seemed to make his heart heavy, but at the same time, he didn't bow. For once, Shinji felt strong enough to bear the guilt.

Ritsuko however saved the best for last. "Somehow you were both rational and irrational at the same time, because that is the only way I could accept you thinking that filtering an Angelic Intelligence through the MAGI was a good idea!"

She punctuated her statement with a hand slashing through the air, the same one that held his suit plans. The paper folded around her fingers and crinkled audibly under the sudden acceleration. Shinji let out a shaky sigh, but kept his eyes focused on her brown ones.

The thunder in her voice finally fell away, and Ritsuko stepped back in closer. Her tone shifted to something more like concerned peer, and her expression softened. "Ikari-kun, I need you to give me a reason for you to stay here, to use my labs and work in the Geofront."

Still keeping his eyes locked on hers, Shinji took a steadying breath and gave Ritsuko a firm nod. Outwardly decisive, his own thoughts couldn't help but marvel at the fact that he was being decisive. That the roar of maybe-might-be-shouldn't wasn't drowning him out from the inside. Moving over to a console, he stopped just before hitting the access MAGI command, and his hands hovered over the keys. Looking back at the woman, he waited for her permission.

Ritsuko studied him for a long moment, and she wasn't wearing her glasses, so Shinji couldn't see his own face reflected back. Finally, she stuffed her hands in her coat pockets and nodded.

Tapping in the sequence, Shinji turned back to the screen, pulling up designs and correcting a few lingering issues. "I went back to where I was before the episode, not so much starting over but..."

He pushed the diagrams and implementation plan onto a larger monitor. "We've got everything we need- the compression algorithms, manufacturing techniques-"

Waving at the screen, he pointed at a schematic. Mock blue-pencil lines laid out the tools needed to make the tools he'd set out to do months ago. Ritsuko stepped up closer, squinting at the screen. She bit the tip of her thumb, and her eyes flicked over every line and figure. Shinji started to sweat while she poured over the display. Her eyes tightened again, and almost by reflex, Shinji made a casual diagnosis.

High stress factors, ongoing conditions. Hormones regulated due to birth control, nicotine addiction. Myopia.

There wasn't a lot he could do about most of those, and Ritsuko's business was her business... He willingly let that thought grind to a halt and focused on the one thing he had an idea about. Ritsuko meanwhile finished reading, and gave him a smile that reminded him she belonged on a magazine cover right next to Misato. The tight knots of guilt at his stomach and tension in his neck eased almost simultaneously, and it took everything Shinji had not to visibly sag in front of the woman like he had been holding his breath for hours.

"I think this will do, Ikari-kun." She reached for a nearby chair and settled in and kicking off into a light spin.

Ritsuko wasn't at all old, but watching her grin, seeing the tension drain out of her, Shinji couldn't help but think that the age dropped off her face. The subsequent thought came naturally. Note to self- give people positive tangible results.

Finding his own seat, Shinji took a moment to bask in the relief of a project done- his first project done. He looked at a calendar hanging off one wall- August was almost over, and he'd started on the MRI idea back in... April? He wasn't sure anymore, but the worst part of the project was over with. Manufacturing details, materials- all those things were easy. He'd supplied the necessary genius to create, and now other geniuses would implement. The knot of stress in his neck had been there for so long, he forgotten what it felt like not having it.

Ritsuko reached out with one foot against the floor, braking her spin and facing Shinji once more. "We're not fully out of the hole yet, Ikari-kun." She gave him a wan, understanding look. "You're a division-leader without a division again, and I had to spend almost every bit of my professional credibility to keep your former employees..."

She trailed off, unsure as how to continue. Sighing, she looked down at her knee. "There's no nice way to put it, a good third of NERV's brightest minds fear you, for good reason. I've also put my head on the metaphorical chopping block, if anything like this happens again."

Shinji's hands balled up to fists against his pant legs, but he forced them to relax and smoothed out the wrinkled fabric. There wasn't any grand declaration or foolproof plan, either. He'd learned that with Sorhyu and Rei, and Ayumi confirmed it. Fear and the results of his actions weren't problems he could solve, not directly at least.

Finally though, Shinji looked up and nodded. "I understand."

Ritsuko glanced at him sidelong for a moment before nodding herself. She turned to her console and got to work, finally pulling out the notes Shinji had made for his new suit. The quiet stretched out between them, and again Shinji felt a sort of comfort settle around him. There had been some kind of awkwardness whenever Ritsuko was around, like what was their role or relationship- what decorum applied. He'd lacked the words for it, to define or acknowledge whatever the problem was.

Shinji mulled it over a few moments, taking his own console and updating a few files while he was there. Along the way he came to the fairly simple conclusion that they were associates. Maybe not friends, but mentor and student at times, or esteemed coworkers with overlapping fields and insights. Shinji found that he liked the definition.

Checking his work and saving the file, Shinji still had one thing he wanted to ask before heading out. "Akagi-sensei?"

She blinked once and turned to look at him, waiting. Shinji let out an embarrassed little laugh before waving at his forehead, then tapping the side of his eyes. "I could fix your nearsightedness, if you want. You wouldn't need to wear glasses anymore."

Ritsuko's eyes shot wide open, and her pupils shrank to pinpricks while one hand reached for the glasses hanging from her breast pocket. Not a reaction he'd expected in the least. The scientist shook her head, snorting, but not unkindly.

"I could have gotten laser eye surgery years ago, Ikari-kun." The question he wanted to ask must have been plain on his face, because she answered it right away. "I haven't, because I don't want to look like my mother."

"You could always get cosmetic lenses." Shinji couldn't help the thin teasing note in his voice. Misato and Rei were rubbing off on him it seemed.

Leaning back in her chair, Ritsuko nodded. "That's true. I'll think on it Ikari-kun. Thanks for the offer."

Shinji could accept that, standing smoothly and powering down his borrowed console. He glanced around the quiet lab and smiled; for an errand, it was incredibly productive. He said his goodbyes and made for the door, ready to spend the rest of his day in the NERV infirmary. A final niggling question stopped him at the door with one hand on the frame.

He looked over his shoulder past the crook of his arm at Ritsuko, unabashedly curious. "I never asked before, but... why are you letting me try again? I already made a mess of things around here."

"Call it returning a favor." She turned away from the console and the bare-bones sketch she'd made of his new suit. Ritsuko reached into her pockets and pulled out her cigarettes and lighter, giving him a dry, amused look. Flicking the lighter open with her right arm, Ritsuko smirked past the first puff. "Figured I'd give you a hand."

Four days passed since Shinji had dropped off the suit with Ritsuko, and he'd spent most of his daylight hours in the Geofront infirmary. It had been scaled up over the months, out of sight and out of mind. Now it was almost a fully realized hospital, with treatment wings and surgical theaters he'd designed almost a whole year previously. Shinji had spun up so many idle projects even before being given a division, and people around him were still implementing his half-formed ideas. Some of the senior staff had already developed new thaumaturgical techniques based on his initial pressure point massage.

Peeling off his latest set of sterilized gloves, Shinji sighed and leaned against a nearby wall, alone in the hallway. The only thing the hospital lacked were patients, which proved to be a mixed blessing. Most of the city made due with surface level hospitals and clinics that were just shy of the Geofront's cutting edge. The reason being that unsecured personnel couldn't be allowed past the armor layer or anywhere near Central Dogma. Obnoxious, as far as problems went, but not one he couldn't solve.

Time and distance had given him perspective, too. It had been difficult at first, getting back into a Geofront routine. He'd spent his first day wound up tight, dreading any contact with his former team. What he'd do, say. Throwing himself on the ground and begging forgiveness sounded like a good idea, but both Ayumi and Rei's advice had made it clear- beating himself up about it, even for their benefit, wasn't going to fix the problem.

So Shinji cracked his knuckles and got back to doing something productive- like healing people. Construction had only slowed during the budget cuts of the previous year, and a trickle of injuries made it in every week. Once the first corporate and government research grants came through, burns and breaks from the constant activity in the city and under it kept the medical professionals of Tokyo-3 busy. Even as he worked though, Shinji wondered; what were they doing, considering the state of things topside...

Stretching, Shinji hummed and let his post-shift break wash over him. It took week-long fugues of work without rest to even make him notice aches and pains, but none of his senses had ever dulled when it came to relief and relaxation. Lacking a clock in the hallway, he channeled a bit of power through his soul and marked the sun in the sky; four-thirty. Might be late starting dinner if he didn't catch the right train...

"Pilot Ikari, Sub-Commander Fuyutsuki would like to see you in Cafeteria Seven-B. Pilot Ikari..." Over base intercom, the bridge officer repeated her message two more times while Shinji stared up at the ceiling.

It was looking he wasn't going to be home in time to make dinner.

Central Dogma was to most people the interlocking positive and negative pyramids that were centered in the cavernous space. They weren't wrong, but appearances were misleading. There was a lot more to the Geofront interior. Outbuildings were hidden under thin tree cover, like the original Proving Grounds Ritsuko had created shortly after Shinji Exalted. Using the surface paths to Dogma, Shinji passed by those same structures- mothballed again after Sorhyu left along with Misato.

Cafeteria Seven-B was like a dozen other repeated 'chunks' of interior space throughout Central Dogma. The Prinbow box had been constructed as an outbuilding using the same interior templates as the rest of the research facility, and Shinji had claimed the kitchen in that building during the MAGI crisis. Memories of those days came rushing back, simply because he walked into the cafeteria and saw the same coffee machines he'd rebuilt for the technical staff. Or at least, they looked the same...

"Ah, Ikari-kun! Please, have a seat." Raising a steaming mug of the same cold-and-pressure filtered brew Shinji had pioneered, Fuyutsuki-sensei sat at an otherwise vacant table with a tray of food and a smile.

Shinji hesitated, caught between smelling the food on Fuyutsuki's tray and smelling the food.

The old teacher must have noticed his expression. "I'm sure the cooks wouldn't mind bringing a tray out for you, Ikari-kun."

"It's... not that sir." Shinji couldn't help but fidget. "I... well, regular food doesn't sit well with me anymore."

"I beg your pardon?"

Jaw working left and right, Shinji tried to think about how to explain what he felt. Shinji shrugged, not trusting the words available to him. "I haven't eaten anything better than my own work for almost a year."

Fuyutsuki set his coffee down, then his fork with a hunk of meat still on the end. He frowned, giving Shinji a strange, calculating look. Finally he spoke, humming softly. "I see... Well then Ikari-kun, I'm sure the cooks won't mind you joining them for a bit."

Letting out a breath he hadn't realized he was holding, Shinji sagged in place just a bit and grinned. "Would you like to join me in the kitchen then? I don't think you've seen this particular trick."

Standing up from his half-eaten dinner, the old man smoothed out his NERV uniform jacket and grinned. "I'd be delighted, Ikari-kun."

NERV staff were by definition locked by nondisclosure and confidentiality agreements, so Shinji didn't hesitate at all when he stepped into the kitchen with Fuyutsuki right on his heels. The older man was one of the few people even close to Shinji's own height, and he found himself nearly a head taller than the Sub-Commander. Sunfire wreathed his arms while he snatched ingredients out of the various cupboards and refrigerators, already turning the restaurant-style burners up. He had more than enough ingredients, and three meals weren't that much harder than two.

Fuyutsuki watched, utterly intent. His eyes tracked every move Shinji made, the flick of his fingers as they somehow flash-heated cuts of meat, or mixing dough with his bare glowing hands. The bread baked on its own, completely bypassing the oven and in a fraction of the time. The old man watched, and for once, Shinji saw someone who didn't gape, deny or otherwise disbelieve what they were seeing. Even Ritsuko suffered that moment of 'this does not belong in a rational world'. The Sub-Commander though, he just observed, and accepted it as self-evident.

He must have noticed Shinji's own curiosity, too. "When you have lived as long as I have, Ikari-kun, you grow to accept what most folk deem 'impossible' is merely an admission of ignorance. Sometimes we have not seen all there is yet to observe in this world."

Scooping up the tofu dish and soup into takeout containers, Shinji waved over one of the kitchen staff while scribbling out some reheating instructions. "Listen, could you get someone to take this to Major Katsuragi's apartment?"

The man blinked and glanced between Shinji and the Sub-Commander for a moment, before giving a faint nod. Rei's meal vanished into a heated caterer's bag and was on it's way, while Shinji finished up his own dinner and the replacement for Fuyutsuki-sensei's less-than-stellar supper.

When they were finally seated, Fuyutsuki breathed deep, and his eyes were wide. He shot a look at the remains of his previous meal. "...I can understand your predicament now, Ikari-kun."

Shinji could only shrug, half a mouthful suspended by a fork as he spoke. "I suppose it can't be helped. I'm... only human, after all."

The older man merely nodded, thankfully not questioning further whether Shinji had intended to apologize himself, or towards the chefs he had upstaged. "Indeed."

After negotiating the sudden interruption that was dinner, Fuyutsuki finally laid out the reason for calling Shinji to Central Dogma. He pulled out a folded travel chess board- the same one he and Shinji had played on almost two years ago.

"I had enjoyed the few games we played," The old man gave Shinji a grandfatherly smile. "Considering all that's been going on above and below ground, I thought now was a good time to take a personal look."

Nobody liked being put on the spot, and Shinji knew he wasn't an exception. He couldn't help the cringe, even as his hands hovered over the nearest pawn. "I... yes sir."

Fuyutsuki waved down his concerns with a dismissive hand. "It's been weeks since your episode, Ikari-kun. You're stable now and not in trouble- you punished yourself more than enough."

"I should have been disciplined though, or something..."

"Perhaps," Fuyutsuki allowed. "But the time for that has passed, psychologically speaking. In any event, you are stable now, and of sound mind."

Before Shinji could argue that point, the old man moved a knight into position, taking a pawn that had wandered too far out. Shinji frowned and looked at his board state, picking another pawn and pushing it forward. Move and counter move, until Shinji had freed his power pieces and lost half his pawns charging into the center. As a strategy it was simple, straightforward, and reasonably effective. Fuyutsuki's forces meanwhile danced away, almost always moving out of threat even before Shinji's pieces had gotten into position.

"Another thing to remember is that punishment is contextual..." Fuyutsuki swept aside the remaining pawns in a handful of moves. "Mania, violent or otherwise, leads to a medical response, not a disciplinary one. We don't punish the paranoid schizophrenic when he forgets his medicine. Further, when he maintains his medication, he is perfectly productive."

Shinji nodded slowly, sliding a bishop across to put pressure on the opposing king. "So... You're saying that..." He let his hand slide back off the table and onto his lap. "I don't know what you're saying."

"I am saying that there are things we do not know, and for the time being, NERV as a whole is considering your situation akin to a man needing a treatment that doesn't yet exist." Fuyutsuki smiled again, paternal and understanding.

Losing his bishop on one turn to Fuyutsuki's rook, and then his queen to the old man's remaining knight, Shinji stared at his board and sighed. He tipped his king over and conceded defeat.

"Your tactics were unrelenting, Ikari-kun, but unsophisticated." The old man tapped the checkered surface with one gnarled finger. "In Chess, predictability is a weapon both sides must wield."

Shinji gave the man as slow, absent nod while he mulled that over. It wasn't like he had any idea how to hide his intentions. Shinji hadn't ever tried to pull one over on his aunt and uncle, or anyone else he knew. He hadn't ever tried to push boundaries when he was younger, to try and fail and adapt. Now he was playing catch up with all those toddler tricks and techniques...

Resetting the pieces with the ease of long practice, Fuyutsuki gave Shinji a new grandfather-grin. "Another game, Ikari-kun?"

Feeling one side of his mouth tug back into a half-frown, Shinji nodded and reached for a pawn and made his first move. He wasn't a child or an adult, but he was a Solar. There was a rightness to his strategy, even without an active investment on his part. It was understandable.

"Back to what were discussing before..." Fuyutsuki moved his knight across the board, smiling faintly. "We have the reports of course, but what do you think of your sync scores?"

"They're... synching." Shinji wasn't sure how else to put it. Most of his attention was on other matters while he mirrored Fuyutsuki's knight. "I can make the Eva move and that's about it."

"I mean, the scores and tests?" He just gave the older man a helpless shrug. "For almost a year, all we did were tests, and they took up eight hours of NERV's day- I don't see the need to dwell on them overmuch."

Fuyutsuki's eyes crinkled mirthfully, almost abashed. "Yes well... They were one of the few things that remained within our budget."

The game went on from that point, and the sound of wooden figurines sliding along stone was loud in the otherwise empty cafeteria. Shinji lost two more games before winning a third, after Fuyutsuki miscalculated on a risky gamble he'd wanted to use as an object lesson. The old man admitted with no shame that he'd always be a teacher, first and foremost.

With the pieces reset once more, Shinji stared at the board with his chin propped up against with his thumbs, and his fingers laced tightly together. "Fuyutsuki-sensei, can I ask you a question?"

Sipping his coffee, Fuyutsuki could only raise an eyebrow. "Of course Ikari-kun, feel free."

"Do you know that most of the above-ground shelters aren't much stronger than cardboard?"

Fuyutsuki's hand froze above his right-hand bishop. Slowly, he pulled back and let his hands fall into his lap, sagging down on the bench seat. "Distribution of NERV's budget is a closely guarded secret... And sometimes the impetuousness of youth surprises everyone."

Shinji nodded, playing with a stainless steel fork. He'd mangled and bent it into a dozen shapes over the various matches with just his own strength. "I wasn't punished on grounds of a temporarily unsound mind... I still have my authority as a division leader."

There was a long, deliberative silence. "...That is correct, Ikari-kun. You still only answer to the Commander."

"Then I'll answer him when the time comes." Shinji stood up and gave the older man a polite bow, thanking him for the game. "In the meantime I'm going to take care of things above ground."

Instead of having anything resembling dinner, Ritsuko stared across the ten-yard span of empty glass floor between herself and the obsidian black desk. "Commander."

"Doctor Akagi." Gendo leaned forward with his elbows on his desk, as was his habit. "Is there a problem?"

The bottle-blonde felt her eyes narrow behind her glasses. There had been certain... questions. "Not a problem, per se. It's been nearly three months to the day since Major Katsuragi headed out to sea, and we've not heard any word from her or the fleet itself."

"NERV remains outside the good graces of the United Nations, despite any primacy the A-17 order gives us." Gendo barely moved while he spoke. "Until an Angel blood-pattern is detected, the Major and Second Child are passengers."

She frowned, chewing her lip. "And as passengers, they probably do not have the same communication privileges as officers and crew, officially or otherwise."

The reply was all the more effective for its brevity. "A reasonable assumption."

It made an ugly sort of sense, the kind that didn't make her feel better, but sank into the cracks of her rational mind and stopped it from complaining. Ritsuko felt her weight shift back on to her heels, and the self-analyzing part of her mind called it resignation. She didn't like the path her own brain was taking her. Caught in that moment of introspection, she was only dimly aware of Gendo's stare and mausoleum silence. The seconds passed slowly.

"As it stands, our forces are depleted." Gendo's expression was unreadable as always. "Expedite the transfer of Evangelion units 03 and 04."

Ritsuko bristled without thinking, and worked suppressed the wince when her heel clicked loudly against the glass beneath her feet. "Sir, I don't think that's at all feasible. Our corporate grants are not even a tenth of what we had beforehand."

"By the time you reach your lab, an updated statement on our budget will be on your desk." His voice was even without being flat. "You will see there is more than enough to support additional Evangelions."

Chewing on her lip, Ritsuko tried to process that statement. NERV had consumed the rough equivalent of three small nations worth of money and raw materials. Governments, Misato had once joked, would go bankrupt paying for an Evangelion. Doubly so if money at that level behaved intuitively, compared to the economies of civilizations. Three Evangelions even on standby were a constant drain with maintenance alone, to say nothing of testing or the all-to-necessary training deployments.

Throwing out estimates in her mind of what she'd find after heading back to Dogma, Ritsuko crunched the math and came to the same conclusion. Cost for new facilities, storage, upkeep and necessary expansion... There was no plausible way the Commander had enough money on the wire to pay for five Evangelions.

Gendo tore through her introspection and whatever polite mask she could have maintained. "If the costs are still too high to continue supporting Project E, perhaps we should begin making cuts elsewhere."

Her stomach flopped uneasily and churned against her diaphragm, while ice water flooded Ritsuko's skin. The cold gave way to a hot flush. The warning was unmistakable. "Y-Yes sir. Commander."

"Excellent. Dismissed, Doctor Akagi."

Spinning on one heel, Ritsuko made for the exit as fast as decorum would allow. Her legs started pumping hard the second the door closed behind her. Charging toward a waiting elevator, she thanked whatever vagaries of scheduling kept the hallways and cars clear so late at night. Inside the cool safety of the elevator, Ritsuko mashed the button and waited.

The numbers wouldn't stop tumbling through her head, like a puzzle she couldn't put down. Brainteasers and the like were very much catnip to her, and in some ways it proved to be a vital survival skill. However, no matter which way she tried to juggle it, she couldn't keep Project E in the black with five active Evangelions.

Four though... We could handle four.

Unwanted implications mixed with the steady downward motion unpleasantly enough she found herself fumbling for a calming cigarette or antacid tablet, and came up with neither. When the elevator doors opened at last and emptied out onto one of the Geofront rail stations, Ritsuko simply found the nearest trash can and threw up. Wiping her arm with one sleeve, she tried to latch on to the hopeful alternative.

Maybe they'd finally mothball the test or prototype.

Her stomach rebelled again. Probably not.

Shinji stared at the phone and frowned. "That's... not right."

As for why it wasn't right, that took some review. He'd started the day refreshed, ready to tackle the problem of Tokyo-3's slipshod infrastructure. To do that he'd needed to get something of an overview. His initial approach had been simple, too. Climb the tallest tower in Tokyo-3 and look down. That and a map had been enough to establish a baseline, to figure out where the shelters and fortress structures spread. The edges of the city were flanked by the squat, non-retracting industrial blocks, the same ones he'd been stopping fires at every other week.

Looking out for landmarks, he'd placed the high school, both of the city's shopping centers, and the street where he and Ayumi had their late-night noodle date. Misato's apartment, his apartment too really, was past the hills to the west and well outside the defensible city structure, but was still 'over' the outermost curve of the Geofront. There weren't any shelters out that far though, so he'd been able to keep his 'work' separate from his personal projects. Small favors, he supposed. Shinji had taken notes, made the measurements and run whatever numbers he could think of, regarding the fortress structure. As far as the shelters were concerned, there were more than enough places for people to go, but none of them were worth the time it took to build them, let alone evacuate.

Armed with the map and the beginnings of a plan, Shinji had spent the rest of the weekend filling in the blanks as best he could. To do that, he had gone back down to the Geofront and Central Dogma. Walking the halls and checking in with the clinic, he split his time between the other handful of projects still on his plate. It was comfortable that way, letting his mind just work on something in the background. There was a lot he just didn't get, mostly in the human side of the 'how and why'. Fuyutsuki-sensei knew, and his father definitely knew. The physical side of the how though he could handle on his own, to a point. Tokyo-3 as a research facility belonged to Ritsuko and the rest of NERV, but as a fortress, it belonged to the Operations Director.

Which led Shinji to trying to make sense of Misato's offices back home and in the Geofront, backtracking across the whole city twice over. She had a year of backlogged paperwork from the government and the UN, and what he skimmed basically came down to 'fight cleaner battles!'.

Considering he was at least nominally a pilot, Shinji had scowled at the documents and muttered "Why don't you fight then?"

Having claimed a replacement Geofront office for himself, Shinji pulled in everything he'd learned and collected so far. But even with all that, the papers and files didn't shed much light on what Misato did with Tokyo-3. She had almost zero footprint in the MAGI, barely accessing it or dedicating mainframe time to her own projects. It took him a bit to realize that Misato usually asked Ritsuko to write out her ideas and requests in a way the computers could understand. He had left a message with the scientist, but she hadn't gotten back to him yet either.

Even asking Misato's direct subordinate didn't help that much. Lieutenant Hyuga had just shrugged and pointed out that he was more a communications officer, coordinating amongst several hundred distinct armory units and JSSDF support. He'd been able to fill in a few blanks regardless, but Shinji hadn't been able to see any grand unifying plan for the fortress city, short of stripping out all of the conventional arms in exchange for more proven positron weaponry.

While he worked, Shinji did wonder if Misato knew about the shelters, or about how the 'homey' parts of the city were a thin skin hiding its other role. He couldn't say either side was more important, though. The people who lived and worked needed to be protected, but at the same time NERV needed to be ready and able to fight the Angels and defend the Geofront. After digging through a damages-expense report, Shinji had found himself frowning. If Misato hadn't known about the shelters or anything, then it said a lot to him about how far ingrained it all went. Or, if she had known, then she was doing a good enough job that she apparently assumed it wouldn't have been an issue?

Misato went on a lot of faith sometimes, but she backed it up with a certainty of will.

In any event, Shinji didn't know what to do about the shelters or the city itself. He had ideas, good ones! But he needed confirmation. The fact that he missed Misato was more than enough reason for him to try and call her halfway across the world.

So he dialed the number Misato had given NERV before she and Asuka left. Military communications still relied on a hierarchy of people, so it should have connected him to some sort of central dispatch office across the planet. Instead of a soldier though, Shinji got what amounted to an error code. After he listened to the bleating series of tones, he frowned. Signal had been fine last he checked, but he tried again both inside the Geofront and out. Then he tried his pager, Ayumi's, and called Rei back at the apartment- all good. The other pilot had even volunteered to try calling Misato from the landline. A few minutes later, she'd sent word back that she got the same off-key error.

After promising to make it up to Rei with a late night dinner, Shinji headed back into Central Dogma and the office he'd claimed for the day. Once there, he hooked up the landline phone and punched in the number, waiting for the MAGI to handshake with the overburdened satellite network and who-knew how many communication relays and a dozen other switches between him and the United Nations Pacific Fleet.

Same tones, same error.

Again, staring at the receiver and having spent nearly two hours trying to figure out why, Shinji couldn't help but scowl. "That's... not right."

It wasn't his phone, or the landline. Digging into a phone book, he called the JSSDF liaison to the UN, skipping most of NERV's own communication network simply because that organization came before NERV in the directory.

The phone rang twice before a secretary picked it up. "General Kirishima's office-" Shinji opened his mouth, but the man on the other end kept talking. "I'm sorry, but the General is just about to leave, would you like to leave a message?"

Shinji glanced at the desk clock and winced, eight o'clock; no wonder he was leaving. Something inside him ticked over, a lever in his soul he'd rarely used or understood, but achingly similar to other techniques. He spoke quickly, earnest and efficiently. "This is Director Ikari of NERV, if the General has a moment I would like to speak to him."

The man on the other end was silent for a long, painful moment. Shinji felt his face fall and shoulders slump bit by bit as the seconds ticked away. Finally though, the secretary came back. "One moment please while I transfer you."

Tones and the brief crackle of a signal switching from one line to another was all the warning Shinji had before he heard a new voice. "General Kirishima speaking- I thought you were a Commander, Ikari."

Wincing into the receiver, Shinji let out a quiet cough. "General sir, This is Ikari Shinji. Director of the Special Projects division here in NERV." He fumbled for a moment, adding "I suppose I'm one of the Pilots too."

Kirishima was silent on the other for what felt like hours, and it took several beats for Shinji to realize what sounds he heard were muffled laughter. Decorum reasserted itself quickly though, and the general came back all business. "Very well then, Director Ikari, do you have identification by chance?"

Is this a prank call was left unsaid.

Dragging a hand down his face, Shinji let out a silent groan. He'd again forgotten that he still sounded like a fifteen year old, even on the phone. Clearing his throat, he made a fair attempt at adding years to his voice, trying to add some tenor to his alto. It worked out better than he expected... And by Kirishima's amused hum, not as well as he would have liked.

Prank or not, Shinji figured the joke was on him.

As for identification; he hadn't ever used it, but Shinji did have authority to requisition troops and material from the JSSDF, just like Misato had as Operations Director. He pulled out his card and read off the six-block code and waited for Kirishima to check it on his end. There was another long pause, until the older man came back, sounding a little more serious and much more interested.

"You have my attention now, Director, what can I do for you?"

Shinji slumped into the seat and let out a sigh, careful not to blow into the receiver. "Thank you General, for taking the time out for me. I've been trying to contact the Pacific Fleet for the past few hours, and I've gotten nothing but an error code for my troubles." He ran through what he'd already learned and laid out his request. "If you could try calling the fleet yourself, and give me the number of someone I could contact in the UN Navy?"

Kirishima made a sound that Shinji couldn't quite place, somewhere between thinly veiled disgust and suspicion. He was fairly sure it wasn't directed at himself though. The general punched in the direct like as Shinji read it off to him, and they both waited. He came back a second later. "Error code, just like you said."

Now it was Shinji's turn to scowl into the phone, brow furrowing. "Thank you again, General, you have no idea how much this has helped me."

"Not a problem, Director, as for the UN contact..." He rattled off a few names and numbers, forcing Shinji to scramble for pen and paper. "While you're working on that, I think I'll wake some people up on my end, and make some more calls."

After the general hung up, Shinji stood up and put the handset back down on its cradle. He'd have to hurry if he wanted to get back in time to make Rei that dinner. Flexing his soul once more, Shinji banished his fatigue.

Dinner aside, he was going to spend all night working on this if he had to.

After three days of work, Shinji was no closer to having gotten a hold Misato or anyone at sea in the Pacific Fleet. It was becoming increasingly clear that something was wrong, and he had exhausted all of the obvious paths to solving the problem, save one.

Akagi Ritsuko had been a ghost for those three days.

He had only found her by sheer luck one afternoon, blundering by a cafeteria stocked with his pressure-brewed thaumaturgy coffee. She was haggard- her lab coat rumpled and stained with more coffee and thin smears of cigarette ash. When she turned to face him in the doorway, he saw ten-pound bags under her eyes. It was obvious, but his mind repeated what his eyes were telling him. That is not right. He had seen her tired, overworked, and at wits end, but never that much. There was no hint of her normal razor-edged composure.

"Akagi-senei," Shinji blinked, moving in and past the tables without stopping. He found himself scowling, more out of his own medical compassion than anything. What he lacked in social grace, Shinji had grown in bedside manner

Tugging the coffee gently out of her fingers with one hand, he hit pressure points up her arm with the other. Ending with a firm pinch at the place where neck became shoulder, Shinji watched the physical signs of fatigue bled away under the thaumaturgical shorthand. Her body refreshed itself, but she was going to need something solid in her stomach before long.

Fortunately, they were in a cafeteria. He ducked into the kitchen and Ritsuko followed him with her eyes as he raided the fridge. He sat down with a plate full of sandwiches, enough to feed six people. "Akagi-sensei, you should know better..."

Ritsuko sucked on her teeth, and her nostrils flared- the sandwiches were toasted, and that made the scent all but omnipresent. She reached for one, and the tall glass of water Shinji had brought as well. "It's fine, Ikari-kun. I'm fine."

She chewed, and Shinji watched, picking a sandwich himself and waiting. Reaching into her coat pocket, Ritsuko dug out a pack of cigarettes. She gave it a fitful rattle and found it empty. The blonde glared at it, crumpling it in her fist and tossing it over her shoulder. Swallowing, the scientist licked her lips.

Her eyes were still slightly wide and wild, looking all the world like she'd been running from a monster for days. "Just fine. I am merely trying to reapportion two new Evangelion cages, following up on maintenance for the proto and test types. Nothing major."

The words all came out in a rush, and Shinji just stopped with his sandwich halfway to his open mouth. He was about to ask the obvious question when another voice broke in. "Why would we need new Evangelions. We have Asuka-chan."

Shinji and Ritsuko both turned them to finally see Rei. The girl stood next to their table, still damp from swimming and clad in a pair of sweatpants over her swimsuit. She shrugged one shoulder, resettling her infusion pump under her arm. She met Shinji's eyes, then Ritsuko's, blinking once. "I overheard you talking, after checking your recent labs. I didn't find either of you, so."

That was another sign something was up. The labs sprinkled throughout the Geofront were Ritsuko's domain and home away from home. Catching her outside of one... Shinji didn't say anything yet, and Ritsuko stared at her half-eaten sandwich.

Rei didn't take the silence though. "I say again, why do we need more Evangelions?"

"Sorhyu's worth three of us when she's sitting in the pilot seat." Shinji may not have liked her much a few months ago, but the redhead had beaten grudging respect into him with sheer force of personality. It was tough to ignore that.

Somehow being caught between the level stare of two teenagers was enough to make Ritsuko collapse in on herself. Shinji had always seen Ritsuko as this presence, someone who stood above him despite being a foot shorter and half his weight. Watching her across the table, she looked tiny- still Ritsuko, and Shinji knew better than to underestimate her. Everyone had bad days, or weeks... but something still nagged at him.

"That's... above our pay grade. This is a war." The scientist offered a helpless shrug. "We need them because we're NERV. Orders."

Standing up hard enough to break the bench away from the floor, Shinji pulled away, leaving Rei and Ritsuko blinking red and green eyes respectively. he turned on one heel and made for the door, muttering all the while. The solution was so obvious in hindsight- the past three days had been at best a learning experience, a useful one! But unnecessary nonetheless.

Rei blinked, and a bead of water dripped off her chin to splash loudly on the cafeteria floor. The answer didn't sit well with Shinji either. He felt his insides coil up and chill. Everything Ritsuko hadn't said set him on edge, and a piece of a puzzle tipped off the stack and landed just shy of being in place. Staring down at his empty plate, Shinji felt his jaw tense. It was a problem to solve, a trick or riddle, and he was good at solving problems.

He was also tired of solving problems.

Ritsuko and Rei scrambled after him on sandal and low-slung heels respectively. They cleared the door and followed him into the corridor, not quite jogging to keep up.

"Ikari-" The older woman reached out to grab his wrist, aiming to pull him to a halt. "What are you doing?!"

Passing by checkpoint and research facility, Shinji glanced left and right, mapping out the supercomputer network that wound through the walls of Dogma and the underground dome. He barely felt Ritsuko squirm, sitting on his forearm like a bench seat. She'd wrapped an arm around his head and neck, holding on for dear life.

Then, he finally heard her shouting over the spinning engine in his mind. Her fingers dug into his hair and pulled at his scalp. "Ikari Shinji- put me down!"

He did, right next to Rei. Ritsuko bounced on her heels and toes, and the other pilot threw an arm around her middle to steady the woman. Shinji had ended up carrying and leading them to one of the many thousands of elevators sprinkled throughout the complex. Glancing between Rei and Ritsuko, he nodded. "I need you two to be ready for when I get back. I'll need your help later."

Ritsuko leaned on Rei and pushed a hand through her windblown hair. "A-and where are you going, what do you need our help with?"

"Still thinking on that..." Shinji stared past the closed doors, humming. "...Of course the MAGI wouldn't work."

Rei cocked her head to the side, just a bit winded. "Why would the MAGI not work?"

Because," Shinji gave the girl a dark grin. "We need some better channels of communication."

The space gave him room to pace. It was nice to be somewhere he didn't feel misshapen or grotesquely huge. Ritsuko had given him the half-answers he'd needed to finally figure out where he'd been going wrong. Fighting the MAGI had been a futile effort, simply because there were parts that he could not access. Oh, if he'd dug down into the physical hardware he could have accomplished something, but that would have taken time he didn't have. Striding around the open space, he glanced back at the entrance, and the door he peeled out of its frame. When he dug his fingers into the metal, he couldn't help but think about maintaining his own open door policy.

Shinji shook his head- it wasn't that he lacked the time, it was that he wanted to spend it on other things. On projects and people who mattered. "So, here is the situation as I see it; You almost certainly know about the fortress city and the shelters, the same as I do now."

The lack of response and ongoing silence didn't bother him. His shoes made hardly any noise when they hit the polished black floor, and the rest of the room was dark, like most of the labs in Dogma and the Geofront at large. What little light there was barely reached the walls, and the furthest spaces were nearly black save for thin bands of light; hidden consoles or decorations, Shinji couldn't say.

"Of course, I was missing a whole bunch of important stuff." He moved up closer to the black desk, almost looming over it. "Necessary background information, logistics. I mean it was all Operations, not Special Projects- and I couldn't just call Misato and ask."

Shinji let his fingers curl and uncurl, winding open to drum the air. His breath and blood felt hot in his lungs and skin, riding the fight half the survival imperative. A half-dozen flavors of anger simmered just under the surface, and for once Shinji found himself nursing it. A bit of indignation, some self-recrimination, and a healthy amount of pure frustration.

"The shelters- I could understand the need for it, the false reassurances. I don't like it, but I understand it."

Shinji felt his voice thicken, and the muscles in his neck were standing out tense like the rest of him. Perfectly tailored clothes couldn't hide the fact that he'd been trained into a soldier's shape, and this time he banked on it. It was all a matter of spectacle, presence. "I don't see anything wrong with NERV's stated purpose either; it's meant to develop, repair and deploy Evangelions against Angels, no more, no less."

He stepped on a glass panel, and the floor beneath him changed tint. The smoky black gave way to UV-filtered green and blue, like looking at a sunny park through a pair of dark sunglasses. "I didn't like what I was seeing. I was going out and doing things though, getting ready to fix it. Deep down though I was just going to do just enough, and ignore the rest. Not the work, but the implications- the how and why behind it all."

Big speeches weren't his thing, but they came easily at that moment, and Shinji felt his internal reserve sing, eager to be unleashed. "I would have let it lie, and pat myself on the back thinking I'd done a good thing."

"Instead though, thanks to you." He finally looked over at the man sitting behind the desk. "You gave me a wake up call."

Striding forward, the cavernous office seemed to squeeze and shift, and what space between Shinji and the desk vanished, compressed into non-existence. A list of a thousand motions unfurled in perfect clarity, and Shinji found his perception slowed to account for each one. A flare of sunlight filled the space, flooding the office and soaking into every polished surface while Shinji himself shined gold. Cloth, paint and enamel smoked and curled under the sudden onslaught.

His arm and leading leg came up, the former stopped high over the desk to harness potential energy, and the latter slammed into the floor for support. Shinji felt his clothes ripple and snap against air and acceleration, drawn tight against his limbs as he brought his open palm down.

And stopped, a half-inch away from the desktop itself.

Drawing back, Shinji opened his hand and grabbed the bleached desk, pulling it aside like it weighed nothing. He learned forward with his sunfire brand standing out on his forehead, staring at his own reflection in orange lenses. The glasses cracked under the pressure wave, and Shinji watched one visible pupil contract as he growled. "You got my family involved."

With the desk out of the way, Shinji stared down at the Commander of NERV and made his point. The only obstacles that stood between the commander and himself were the ones he permitted. The older man sat in his chair with a hand on each knee, apparently unperturbed. Gendo's silence was a weapon, and Shinji recognized it for what it was.

He stepped away from the sun-scorched desk and the cracked floor. He stared back at Gendo, looking for something. What exactly, Shinji couldn't say. The man just tilted his head in response, and his broken glasses turned opaque in the face of Shinji's fading corona. Impassive and inscrutable as always. Shinji let out a little snort, unimpressed. He turned for the exit and stopped at the door, wrenching it back into place as an afterthought. Restored, as if it had never been broken. That done, he looked over his shoulder.

"Things are going to start changing around here, father." He reached out to hit the door control, and his thin frown hardened. "Starting with me."

Gendo sat alone in his disrupted office. It was only then that Gendo allowed himself to relax. A bead of sweat dripped down his brow.