Sokila frowned, a look of intense concentration on her face.

She scribbled on the wall; she drew a silver-haired chibi hugging a box.

She scribbled on the floor; she drew the four occupants of Room 23 bowing before a box.

She scribbled on the base of the stage; a silver-haired chibi sat inside a box. There was a thought bubble that read, 'I must BECOME the box.'

Finally, after minutes of stern gazes, she finally gave up.

"What the heck is boxing?!"

The faint haze of blue began to brighten-

xxxx

/Saturday: July 18, 2015/

/Courtyards, Hakone Academy/

Shinji Ikari couldn't help but feel a strange air about his fellow students as he walked through the greenery of the Academy's picturesque courtyard. Sipping from a cup of canned coffee, he sensed a certain...distance. Not that he normally tried to walk closer to other people he didn't know on purpose...but there was something different, about today.

He couldn't quite place it.

"Ikari-san?"

Shinji looked to his left, where Mayumi Yamagishi intentionally walked up towards him. "Hello Yamagishi-san...did you do all right, during the new moon?"

The bookish girl (almost quite literally) blinked. "...yes? I mean, I'm right here, aren't I?"

Shinji flushed. "Er, I know you made it out alive, I mean..." Inhale. Exhale. "I mean...there were a bunch of shelters that had Acolyte attacks..."

Mayumi blinked (almost confused?) before shyly adding, "I...wasn't at a shelter. I normally stay at my parents' house during the new moon. It's always been...peaceful. And quiet."

"Oh. Well...good." The scenes he had witnessed of Acolyte rampages (those that he could stomach, that is) were unpleasant enough. To think of anyone he knew experiencing them in person was...unthinkable.

Mayumi glanced around, noticing the same thing he did. Maybe. "...hmm."

"Yamagishi-san?"

"Oh...nothing. Just...thinking."

Shinji looked around once more, trying to shake the strange unease in his gut. To his right, he saw Kensuke, Toji, and Kaworu talking amongst themselves. Not immediately next to him, but within several feet: close enough that if they wanted to talk to him, they could. Their relative proximity made everyone else stand out by comparison.

The Beast laughed.

"They stand out?"

It overshadowed him, looming large.

"Don't you have it reversed? Is it not you that stands out?"

Everything else was but as a plain to the sole titan that was the Beast.

"A monolith; an icon; a singular monument to the bloody price of existing for yet another day."

It leaned down — shrinking — until its (her?) face was in his.

She smiled brightly. "They would prefer not to think of that cost." Her smile began to bleed. "They will begin to hate you for it."

Shinji took another nervous sip of his coffee, somewhat mollified by the fact that at least four other human beings didn't seem to treat him like the plague.

(Surely he was overthinking it. Surely.)

(Who are you kidding, it Ikari? You know better than that.)

xxxx

As cleaning time concluded a quarter before two, Shinji Ikari had come to the conclusion that his classmates were treating him differently.

No one came out and confronted him about anything, but there was still a definite reticence on the part of his peers. The teachers, mercifully, had been very professional.

As such, Shinji's mood was merely somewhat pensive has he joined up with Kaworu Nagisa in the hallways, letting his enigmatic roommate lead the way. "So...I hear you have a tournament coming up?"

"Ah, so you've been paying attention?" remarked Kaworu. Various classmates seemed to subconsciously move out of their way, keeping at least ten feet away as much as they possibly could. "Indeed; it is a rather significant one as well. Given the various athletes that will be competing during the Summer Olympics this year, it was deemed an ideal opportunity for amateur athletes of various ages to compete before the Rookie King Tournament this winter. It also gives a lot of gyms the opportunity to scout prospective fighters."

"I see," replied Shinji, not exactly knowing what the 'Rooking King Tournament' was. "So...why are you meeting today?"

"Pardon?"

"I thought all Clubs held off on activities during the week before finals."

"Indeed."

"...then-?"

"The captain of our team is holding a volunteer session during our normal Saturday time. Given the proximity to the upcoming tournament, he deemed it prudent to get as much additional practice in as possible for those who needed it."

"Ah."

The two continued walking in somewhat amicable silence to the Junior High Branch's gymnasium, Shinji dutifully following his roommate towards a particular side room. The gym rang out with the sounds of other students working out (something, anything to distract themselves from upcoming finals), which soon was replaced by the sound of muffled fists hitting a punching bag. There were a few others in there; of particular note were two older students. One (obviously older than everyone else here) was applying compression bandages to a second-year student's fists; the other was wearing out the punching bag with a blistering array of combinations, much to the discomfort of the first-year holding the bag. The former glanced their way, deep eyes narrowing once they fell upon Shinji. "Who's the new kid, Nagisa?" His voice was just the right side of hoarse: enough so that he sounded intimidating, but not enough to come across as ill.

"My roommate," Nagisa answered. "I invited him to attend one of our practices."

The older boy (almost a young man, really) huffed, walking towards them with purpose and a clipboard in hand. His long and shaggy brown hair was kept in a loose ponytail; up close, Shinji could see that his eyes were colored steel (a very appropriate color), and that he actually had a fair amount of stubble for a student. "Name's Shinjiro Aragaki. First-year from the High School Branch, serving as the health advisor for the Junior High Boxing Club. Also, I'm doing it for credit."

Shinji blinked. "That's...nice?"

"I've found that young punks tend to be more pliable to my requests if they know my academic performance could be negatively impacted by them ignoring me," he bluntly said, flipping over to one template of many. Clicking a pen, he handed it over. "Read and sign it."

"What is it?" asked Shinji with a blink; by now, Kaworu had walked into a nearby stall to change into his boxing clothes.

"Health waiver. Long story short: any dumbass stuff you do is on your head. You want more free reign to do dumbass stuff, you'll have to actually join. Not that you look like you've got the build for it," he murmured, critically analyzing his limbs. "Pretty short for a second-year Junior High student...then again, I remember how crappy your diets tend to be at that age."

Honestly, for all that Shinji should have felt offended or put off by how this stranger was insulting him, he was more grateful for the fact that Aragaki was treating him like a normal human being, as compared to the silent separation imparted upon him by the rest of the student body. (And wasn't that a sad commentary?) "Uh...I'll keep that in mind, senpai...?"

Aragaki huffed. "Good." Glancing over his shoulder, he shouted, "Akihiko! One of your clubmates brought a visitor!"

The boy who had been punching the bag slowly turned; his hair was a lighter shade of gray (perhaps silver?) than Kaworu's, but shorter. Wearing only red boxing shorts and similarly-colored boxing shoes, the student (definitely older than Shinji, not as old as Aragaki...maybe a Junior High third-year?) looked at him with a small yet confident grin. "So you're one of my kouhai's roommates, huh? I'm Akihiko Sanada, Captain of the Junior High Boxing Club." He held out a fist, blinking when he realized it was still covered by a glove. "I'd shake your hand, but gloves make that a bit difficult."

Shinji Ikari looked down at Sanada's outstretched hand...er, fist. "...would you accept a fistbump?"

"Careful," cautioned the third-year Junior High student, "depending on the time and place, some boxers would consider that a signal to fight."

Shinji nodded. "Good...to know..." He nervously looked around, at the few students stretching or practicing; ever since the club captain had come over, they all (save for Aragaki-senpai) had distanced themselves, trying not to look in their direction. "...sorry, but is there somewhere I can sit? I'm...just here to watch-"

"You seem kind of scrawny," bluntly said Sanada without a hint of mean spirit.

"Oh, here we go..." muttered Aragaki.

Shinji blinked at the comment. "Eh?"

"Just speaking my mind. You're not what I expected." The taller boy eyed him keenly, eyebrows furrowing with concentration. "Rumors have a way of travelling quickly in this school. Even though I've never met you in person, there are others who are already talking about you in hushed tones...but the rumors don't really match the reality."

Shinji didn't know whether to wilt or stare with confusion. He settled for tilting his head. "...what's the reality?" he hesitatingly asked.

"Not sure. I think I'd have a better idea if you actually sparred with someone..."

Before Sanada could say another word, Aragaki audibly facepalmed. "I'm going to turn away before you infect me with any more stupid..." Turning towards Shinji, he muttered, "just sign the health waiver, kid."

The high school student's tone didn't brook any argument, which was why Shinji obediently signed the health waiver. The gruff health advisor took it back, glaring at Sanada all the while. "I'm going to grab Miki from the library; I have a feeling something idiotic's going to happen, and she's the only other one who can reliably defuse it."

For the first time, Sanada actually looked irritated. "Hey, my sister's studying for finals now, don't bug her!"

"Honestly, you should be studying too."

"You're just trying to make the moves on her."

"Little late to warn me on that front," muttered Aragaki, already walking away.

"What was that?!" growled Sanada. "GET BACK HERE SHINJI!"

Shinji impulsively yelped at the sound of his name being shouted. "I'm sorry I'm sorry-!"

"Oh, not you," said the boxing captain, giving an apologetic smile. "It's...a nickname. He's always had a talent for getting under my skin, so it's habit by now."

"...I...see..."

The sound of a stall opening up caught their attention. "Getting into another tussle with our health advisor, Akihiko-kun?" said Kaworu in his own inimitable fashion, now wearing white boxing shorts, dark boxing shoes, and even darker boxing gloves. Without a shirt on, his lean yet toned physique was on full display. "You know that Shinjiro-kun is simply looking out for our best interests."

"Yeah, as far as we're concerned, but fraternizing with the club's manager is a bit much," griped the captain.

"Wasn't it her decision to assist with the club, though? It's not as though they perform lewd and carnal actions while you're around," he said with an easy grin.

Shinji boggled at those words, because what. "And what do you mean by that, exactly?" asked Sanada with far less stereotypical 'righteous sibling' anger than Shinji had expected.

Kaworu's answer explained why Akihiko wasn't that concerned. "Like holding hands, or exchanging boxed lunches." Kaworu bore a befuddled expression, even as he stretched his limbs. "Which is odd, because my studies of human anatomy have led me to believe that 'lewd' actions should be far cruder and more base...but I overhear girls gossip about students holding hands all the time, so what do I know?" He blinked, as if hit by a sudden epiphany. "...is it possible that the student body is comprised entirely of prudes?"

"That's a possibility," admitted Sanada, already turning back towards Shinji. "Anyhow...about that spar."

And that was how Shinji found himself in the middle of the room's boxing ring, still in his school uniform, yet now sporting green practice gloves, headgear, and a mouthguard (and he had been assured by the captain that all common gear were cleaned and disinfected after every use...which admittedly wasn't often, because apparently all of the members of the club had their own gear, but still). Why did I agree to this, Shinji wondered to himself.

(Alas, he hadn't had enough determination to say 'no' to Captain Sanada, who had gained too much momentum to be stopped by mere stuttering!)

Then he gazed at the opposite side of the ring, where Kaworu Nagisa stood with a cherubic expression. "...are we actually about to do this?"

"I have invited Toji-kun, Kensuke-kun, and Kenji-kun here before," casually answered his roommate. "There were a couple of times where they 'snapped and totally wailed' on each other, as Kensuke-kun put it. Boys working out frustrations with a child's fists, alas." Flexing his neck, the boy calmly added, "you seem to carry quite a bit of frustration within you, Shinji-kun...perhaps a rousing fisting could take care of that?"

One of the other club members impulsively yelled, "we've been over this, THAT'S NOT THE WORD YOU USE!"

"But it covers all situations!" protested Nagisa-kun. "After all, 'punch' is a kind of drink, and I use my fists whether it's a jab, a straight, a lunge, or a hook!" He huffed with an almost condescending air. "Honestly, for such prudes, the students of this school can be awfully vulgar-minded."

The student looked like he was about to have an aneurysm. "Oh don't pull that again-!"

He was decisively silenced by Sanada's gloved fist lightly popping him on the top of the head. "That's just the way he is." He leaned in, eyeing the combats with a keen eye. "Now...let's see your form."

Shinji sighed, looking wearily in Kaworu's direction. (He didn't yet know if it was a good thing or bad thing that he already become inured to the enigmatic boy's proverbial stream of seemingly innocent innuendo.) "...do I really have to do this?"

"Compared to the fights you're normally involved in...would this not be something simpler?"

...that's a fair point, Shinji mentally admitted. (Besides, we have practice gear on! That helps, right?) "Should you put on a helmet?"

"I have no need for one."

"...are you sure?"

"Yes. I'll even let you throw the first punch."

"...okay." That seemed a rather...odd concession. (Then again, this was a sport that lived and died by how well people could punch each other.)

"Okay you two; touch gloves and get started!" yelled Sanada.

Shinji followed Kaworu's lead, walking towards the center of the ring. His roommate held up his right hand, as if expecting a fistbump. This time, Shinji lightly tapped it, immediately stepping back and raising his hands to about chin level. Kaworu looked far more refined, keeping his right hand up close to his head and keeping his left arm at around his torso. "Give me your best shot, Shinji-kun~"

"...okay then!" Inhaling (letting memories of his more physically gifted Personas filter through, of cartoony punches thrown by Jack Frost, of Andras striking out with long limbs; of his Evangelion tearing through Ghosts with deathly hands; those memories had some measure of concrete effect, somehow, some way), Shinji stepped forward.

The Beast grinned with anticipation.

He aimed at Kaworu's chest with a right straight-

The Beast scowled. "A foolish choice."

A sudden burst of force brushed against the side of his face, and he thought no more.

xxxx

Akihiko Sanada winced as Shinji Ikari's punch — rather sloppily delivered, all things considered —was seamlessly countered by a right hook from Nagisa. The boy's gloved fist clipped Ikari across the chin...and that was enough to send him out cold to the canvas.

Kaworu Nagisa blinked, looking down at the unconscious boy. "Oops."

...really glad Shinji made the kid sign that health waiver, idly thought Akihiko as he stepped into the ring.

xxxx

When Shinji Ikari finally returned to consciousness, it was to a light flashing in his eyes. He impulsively winced.

"Pupils are constricting, good," grumbled Shinjiro Aragaki, holding a pen light in his right hand. Hovering beside him was a pretty girl with long hair colored the same shade of silver as Akihiko Sanada's, albeit with hazel brown eyes instead of Sanada's gray. "What's your name?"

"Shinji Ikari," he impulsively said.

"Who am I?"

"Shinjiro...Aragaki...?" What was with all the questions?

"How many fingers am I holding up?" asked the girl.

"...three?"

Aragaki nodded. "Okay. Why were you here in the Boxing Club?"

"...I was...invited...and then...I was told...to spar...with Nagisa-kun?" What had happened?

"Well, as far as concussions go, yours was apparently pretty minor. Small mercies," said Aragaki with a huff. "Still going to send you to the nurse's office."

At those words, the girl — he could now see that she was wearing the Junior High uniform of Hakone Academy — stood up, gesturing angrily towards someone he couldn't see. "Darn it Aki you idiot! What have I said about having newcomers spar?!" How odd that even her angry shouting sounded pretty.

"Come on Miki, he signed the health waiver-"

"But nothing, buster! And against Nagisa of all people? Were you trying to get him killed?!"

"...thought he could handle it," said Sanada with an almost embarrassed air.

"It's NAGISA."

Shinji slowly rose (and wow he had a horrible headache), helped up by Aragaki. "...did...did I get...knocked out?" he asked as the high school student slowly began removing his practice gear.

"Only for about five minutes." He looked across the corner of the ring, where Kaworu Nagisa stood with a smile akin to that of a cat that caught the canary. "I believe everyone is surprised that you went down in one punch."

"...huh?"

"Reflex, I'm afraid. My apologies, Shinji-kun." His roommate hopped out of the ring, heading towards the changing stalls.

Looking slowly towards Sanada, the Boxing Club captain looked somewhat contrite. "Would've thought that the way the Evangelions were being talked about that you were some proverbial monster in human flesh..."

The Beast cackled.

"Oh, he has NO idea how monstrous we truly are."

"...so I kind of thought you'd be able to take a punch, at least."

Sanada's logic prompted the silver-haired girl to yell, "what kind of logic is that?! Shinjiro may be tougher than you, but that doesn't make him a better boxer!"

"Come on sis-"

"Don't you 'sis' me!" interrupted Miki (who was apparently also a Sanada, too?).

Sighing, Captain Sanada looked sternly in Shinji's direction. "Look...I know this didn't turn out the way we thought it would. But I gotta say, for someone who's apparently got the power to save the world from Angel Syndrome, I figured you would have been tougher. And anyone in your position's gotta be tough!" With a confident smile, the older boy added, "consider this an open invitation to come back to the Boxing Club whenever you want. I'll make sure you've got enough vigor to fight on no matter what!"

"...okay?" Shinji couldn't help but wonder why he had suddenly opted for a recruitment pitch.

Aragaki groaned. "Only you would think to try and recruit a newbie after they actually suffered a concussion. Idiot."

Sanada growled. "Who are you calling an idiot? I'm not the one trying to put the moves on my sister when finals are coming up!"

Miki audibly facepalmed. "Oh my gods Aki, can we not drag my love life into this?!"

"So it IS true!"

As brother and sister begun a sudden tiff in the middle of the room (which none of the other students seemed surprised by), Kaworu Nagisa — now back in his school uniform — slid back towards Shinji and Aragaki. "Ah, another spat between our captain and the club manager, hmm?"

"What else is new?" grumbled Shinjiro.

"How about this, Shinjiro-kun: I can accompany Shinji-kun to the nurse's office. That way, you can defuse Akihiko-kun and Miki-chan's sibling feud before things get hot and bothered?"

"It's 'heat up', not get 'get hot and bothered'. Two different euphemisms," muttered Aragaki, apparently inured to Kaworu's mannerisms. He promptly wrote a brief note on his clipboard — detailing his preliminary diagnosis of Shinji's concussion — and handed it to Nagsia. "Give it to the on-duty nurse. Might as well make their job easier."

And that was how Shinji ended up walking down the school halls towards the nurse's office, arm wrapped around Kaworu's shoulders for support. "...I'm still not sure what happened..."

"It is a curious thing, Shinji-kun," answered Kaworu. "The sudden rumors swirling around you are a source of terror for many. I'm not surprised the captain thought you would be a proverbial beast in human skin...even compared to one as gifted as I, it would seem." He chuckled. "Imagine their shock to find out you have a glass chin, so to speak." Still, his enigmatic smile remained. "And yet it has the effect of lessening their fear of you, of making you seem...human. As I said...curious, isn't it?"

"...I guess," he relented, not exactly having gleaned that much from their interactions. (Of course, that probably had more to do with the fact he had been insensate for several minutes, and thus unable to glean much of anything.) "...you're strong, Nagisa-kun...I don't think I even felt it..."

"My choice of the Boxing Club does seem odd to those who know me, true...and yet it is the one I chose. It is a place where I can find a sense of relief, even if I have yet to find a proper challenge. It is...a pleasant distraction."

"A distraction from what...?"

"From what indeed," he answered. "Perhaps you will find out more in the future, Shinji-kun..."

"...maybe I will," he muttered. He said no more, because the headache made talking a literal pain.

xxxx

Little did Shinji Ikari know, but the metaphysical bond between the two...increased. Advanced. Grew. There were many metaphorical ways to envision it; personally, Kaworu Nagisa preferred a door with ten deadbolt locks on it. As of a few moments ago, only one had been unlocked.

Now, there were two.

Inwardly, Kaworu Nagisa smiled with a mix of grim joy and honest anticipation.

xxxx

"Seriously, what part about mandatory bedrest did you not understand?"

Shinji Ikari resisted the urge to wilt at Misato Katsuragi's rebuke. (It's not like he had asked to get a concussion! After all, there were few things less appealing than being told to go through a ring-shaped scanner...only to then have to go through a slightly different ring-shaped scanner.)

"Well, boys will be boys," remarked Dr. Sayoko Uehara with a knowing grin. "Besides, he was immediately taken to the office of the school nurse, who immediately called us and arranged for his delivery. All's well that ends well."

"But who decides to go boxing when they were told to go on BEDREST?" she reiterated.

"This boy, apparently," answered the dark-haired doctor. "Well, your CT scan and MRI showed no evidence of any physical injury, which isn't going to do anything for the headache you're probably feeling...but at least it's just a matter of R&R."

Misato huffed. "A single punch to the head's a bit much to do two whole brain scans for, ain't it?"

Dr. Uehara shot the young woman a stern glare. "When it comes to the health of the young man who kept our city from turning into an Atlanta or a Sydney, this is small potatoes."

"Point taken," admitted Misato, glancing towards the window facing to the east. Although other buildings still towered above their floor, the dead husk of Ramiel could still be seen over the evening skyline; even now, demolition crews were working 24/7 to dismantle the Angel's corpse.

Dr. Uehara shot Shinji a knowing smile. "You behave now, Ikari-kun; Takemi-san will be on-call if you need anything tonight. We'll do another checkup tomorrow morning, and hopefully you'll be discharged into Dr. Akagi's tender mercies."

...oh yeah, I was supposed to visit Dr. Akagi on Sunday. This was rapidly shaping up to be a very unappealing weekend.

As Dr. Uehara dimmed the lights on the way out (and that made his brain feel like screaming THANK YOU), Misato took a seat by the window, flicking on a tiny lampstand. It was a strange inversion, to consider the light shrouding Misato amidst the darkness of the room. "...never thought you'd be one to try out boxing."

"Well...I was kind of...invited...?" he said slowly, trying not to speak too quickly.

His Other quietly cradled his head.

"Be still."

The Beast, paradoxically, gently brushed his hair.

"After all, we can't let a mind with so much hate go to waste~"

"I bet," grumbled Misato.

"...but I did...?"

"...you really have a hard time saying 'no' to other people, don't you?" she asked, as though struck by a sudden epiphany. "Can't imagine why you'd put up with all of this bullcrap, otherwise. With the power you hold, it feels kind of bizarre that a single punch would be enough to knock you out."

Shinji grimaced, because he still couldn't remember the moment that he had been knocked out by Nagisa. Having had enough of his 'power' being the topic of discussion, he brought up a different tangent. "Is...Kirishima-san okay...?"

"Yeah, she's fine. Had to call in another favor for someone to watch her while I'm out."

xxxx

At Misato Katsuragi's apartment, Ryuji Sakamoto shuffled a deck of cards while Toji Suzuhara handed out slices of freshly-delivered pizza. "So kids, you ever played poker before?"

"...can't say that I have," admitted Mana Kirishima.

"Then it's a good time to learn while I'm playing chaperone!"

Kensuke Aida shot Sakamoto a wary look. "So...why'd you invite me and Toji to come along, exactly?"

The older man shrugged. "If it's that time of year, I figured you've probably got finals around the corner. Best time to take a break, in my opinion."

"...some would say it's actually the worst time," Aida said, dryer than a stale potato chip.

"Eh, burnout's burnout no matter what age you are. Might as well wait until you get some hair on your chest before actively trying to seek it out."

The bespectacled boy sighed. "We're not gonna do any bets, are we? I'm...kind of rusty on counting cards."

"First of all, that's for blackjack, not poker," retorted Sakamoto. "Second, try not to use terms you don't know the meaning of unless you can't help it: makes you seem like less of an idiot. Take it from someone who learned the hard way. Third, why would I do any gambling with a bunch of kids? Gotta be a good role model and all." Shuffling the cards even more, he then added, "though, if you still wanna gamble with me by the time you're adults, I'll have no issues clearing out your wallets. That'll be me teaching you an entirely different lesson then."

"And what lesson would that be, sensei?" asked Toji.

"A fool and his money are soon parted," Sakamoto answered with a put-upon air of sageliness.

"...then why teach us how to play cards, then?" asked Mana. "It would only make it harder for you to win our money if we actually do end up gambling."

"It's gotta be sporting, you know? Otherwise, it'll be just bullying, and I don't play that game." He slapped the cards down. "Okay little guy, you're the first dealer. We're going with Texas Hold 'Em."

"Wark," quacked Pen-Pen — sipping from a martini of all things — as he began shuffling out cards.

"...are we really playing with a penguin?" asked Toji through a mouthful of pizza.

"Eh, why not?" answered Ryuji as he swept up his two cards. "He seemed smart enough last time we met."

"Wark."

"My thoughts exactly, bird-man."

The three teenagers looked quizzically at the man and the bird before turning towards their cards, as if subconsciously accepting 'well, this is going to be a thing now.'

xxxx

"...she's...tough though..."

"True, but I have to be responsible." She managed to sound both genuine and irritable about that word. "Didn't exactly think I'd be dealing with a teenager living in my house at this stage in my life. Would've thought that wouldn't have been until my late 30's or early 40's."

Shinji frowned as Misato made mention of her third and fourth (hypothetical) decades of life; it brought to mind a particular question that he hadn't really had cause to ask before. Before he could think about it even further, he blurted out, "how...how old are you, Misato-san...?"

The woman blinked. "...you know the stereotype about not asking a lady her age?"

"...that's...a thing...?" But why?

Misato actually chortled. "Boy, your guardian must have kept you pretty deprived to not even let you know that one."

"Hey...he taught me some things," he said, feeling defensive of his old sensei.

"But did they stick?"

(His sensei sighed. "Boy, sometimes I get the feeling that none of this is sticking...oh well. The girls in your age group are relatively simple, all things considered. Now, if you're still around when you hit high school, you'd better start paying attention.")

"...sometimes...?"

The woman sighed, leaning back into the cushions of her chair. Glancing out the window, her side profile — half her face cast in shadow, her eyes uncharacteristically stoic — conveyed the image of an old and lonely woman rather than a vibrant and fun-loving warrior. "...I guess it just really hit me, how old I've gotten. How time's flown. I've achieved some things...but others...just haven't happened, yet. Don't know if they ever will." The silence loomed like a heavy raincloud, marred only by the tinny rumble of an air conditioning vent. "...though, come to think of it, I did promise to talk to you after the new moon, right?"

"...about...?"

"About what led me to my current stage in life. How I dealt with my problems. Not that I've got all of them squared away, and it seems more are on the horizon...but given the crap you've already been through, you've at least earned this much, I think." Leaning back, Misato purposefully gazed upward at the ceiling, staring at nothing in particular. "My mother died, during Second Impact."

Shinji went still, not expecting Misato start off with something like that.

"She lived in old Tokyo. I was just a kid of two divorced parents, growing up in the 90s, being a bit of a delinquent, getting into fights at school, being a 'bad bitch'. Fairly typical stuff, in those days; one of my old therapists called it a 'cry for attention'. Personally...I think I was just angry, and that was the most convenient way I had to work it all out. Would visit my dad in Fujioka on the weekends, while mom had me for the weekdays. All told, they went out of their way not to talk to each other, so I just stewed in my own little head...was headed for an unpleasant place, in retrospect." The woman paused, briefly muttering under her breath about wanting a beer. "...I was still thirteen — hell, younger than you are now — when Second Impact occurred. It was Wednesday, September the 13th...all of a sudden, during lunch, a lot of people started going crazy. Berserk." She loosed a stuttering breath, as one standing in the midst of the cold, trying to stay warm...but to no avail. "Ichimura suddenly began throttling his girlfriend; Ayako gouged out someone's eyes; one of my posse, Shura, actually bit someone's neck so hard that she tore out an artery. To my little mind...it was a vision straight out of Hell. So...I ran."

Shinji Ikari couldn't fathom the utter terror that Misato must have felt.

"The scenes were everywhere. It was like...one out of every ten people had suddenly gone crazy. In a city the size of Tokyo, that's a lot of crazy. All I cared about was getting home...but when I got to our apartment, it already looked like a warzone. Walls had been torn down all over; doors had been broken off of their hinges; broken windows were everywhere, some tinged with the blood of people that had been thrown through them. Small mercies, that the cause had already moved on elsewhere...because when I got to our place, I found my mom, lying in front of a shattered wall leading into our neighbor's place. My guess was that he was one of those who became an Acolyte...not that I knew that word at the time. Guess it was bad luck that mom had called in sick that day from work...can only imagine the shock when our neighbor barrelled through the wall. He liked to play shogi." Out of an old habit, Misato curled her right leg up, locking her hands around her ankle. Hugging her own thigh as though it were a stuffed animal, she added, "even now, I can still see it. Like a photo. How her left arm had been torn off, left to bleed out in the corner of the living room; how her face was caved in. How her teeth pointed in different directions...the wrong directions."

Shinji purposefully looked away, unwilling to see such a look of old pain on Misato's face. It didn't fit: that air of defeat, of someone who had long ago accepted that such horror would always be a part of them. "...I'm sorry."

The woman bitterly chuckled. "Don't be. You had nothing to do with it. I...can't say exactly how long I stood there, just staring at my mom's dead body. All I know was that it was early afternoon when I made it back to my place...and it was dark when I got dragged out by my father." She gazed forlornly towards the sky outside, an odd little smirk on her face. "To this day, I have no idea how in God's name he made it into Tokyo with all of that bedlam...but he did."

"...he made it all the way from Fujioka during Second Impact?" asked Shinji, trying to think about the rough distance in his head. "That's...over a hundred kilometers, isn't it?"

"Like I said, I've got no idea how. My guess is that he pulled some favors with the military; he was employed by the Japan Metaphysical Research Agency, but had spent a lot of time networking within the Defense Ministry for the sake of his work...but all that matters is that he got me out of Tokyo, right as the JSDF got the authority to break out heavy ordnance." She paused, glancing towards the window, at the city lights.

The Beast smiled knowingly.

"I wonder if she is envisioning a city in flames?"

"...well...I'm glad your father was able to save you."

"You'd think, wouldn't you?" she said, a wry and self-deprecating smile coming to her face. "When I finally snapped to it, I was back in Fujioka, and my father was asking how I felt. Want to know what I told him?" For some reason, the way she phrased it, with such foreboding...he felt a brief impulse to say 'no'. He nodded nonetheless. "I told him...'took you long enough, didn't it? Was work too important to get away from to save mom?'" Shinji paled, mouth hanging low with horror. Misato huffed with amusement. "Yeah, talk about being ungrateful, right? Years of bitterness weren't going to go away just because of a tragedy; I wanted him to hurt...I didn't know how to deal with the pain of losing mom, so I took it out on someone I hated. Or thought I hated, at least. It would take a while before I learned what real hatred felt like."

"...that's..."

"I know, kind of heavy, ain't it? That's people for you: everyone has things they're ashamed of, that they're not proud of...mistakes they wish they hadn't made...but if they do it right, those will help them become better."

"...so...good things can come from the bad?"

"Absolutely," she answered, bearing a more optimistic smile, one that was familiar. "I have to believe that, or else this world would feel too shitty otherwise. Apologies for the swear." She briefly chuckled. "Sometimes I forget that I'm supposed to be a parental model for kids, now...but that's just one more thing I have to keep working at until I get better."

"...so...what next...?"

Misato paused, thinking quietly. Finally, she answered by rising out of her chair. "Mind if I take a rain check and continue some other time?"

"Oh," Shinji said with a blink, because of course Misato would want to take a break from recalling her traumatic past. "Sure...thank you for sharing it, Misato-san." He lightly bowed as best as he could, wincing as the bobbing motion of his head made him feel woozy. (Man, concussions just SUCK. Toji would have been proud of such blunt verbiage.)

"If you learn at least one thing from my story, Shinji-kun, let it be this: life's too short to waste on being bitter. Even if it feels good at the time." She clicked the nearby lampstand off, casting the room in darkness; the only lights were the pale radiance coming from the hallway outside the room, and the flickering ambience of Tokyo-3's skyline. "Sleep well, kid." And thus she departed, leaving Shinji by himself.

...well. That was something. Sighing, he leaned back, gazing at the ceiling which was at once familiar (because it was so common in these skyscraper environments) and unfamiliar (because he was now used to waking up to the sight of a bunk bed's top half hovering overhead).

His Other stood upon a lonely mountain.

"The suffering of others is never easy to bear."

Walking to an impossible orchard, he gazed down at a seedling.

"And yet the empathy born from it...can bear great fruit."

I wonder...how she managed to grow past it...?

A story for another time, probably.

xxxx

Meanwhile, just outside Shinji's room, Misato leaned against the wall, staring at nothing in particular.

That particular 'nothing' was the illusionary image of a massive swordswoman, staring at her from behind a white mask bearing a blue cross. It was a nifty cognitive sleight of hand, so to speak: some called it a form of meditation, but she had never been fond of that terminology. After all, meditation (in her mind) was all about silence, quiet, achieving inner peace and tranquility, and all that jazz; sometimes, there was nothing tranquil about conversing with Tokoyo, who was as much of a believer in the School of Hard Knocks as she was (for obvious reasons).

Her Other sighed.

"You are being rather morose."

...it's been awhile since I thought that deeply about the bad old days.

Her Other snorted.

"And you would complain? Sometimes, it is a good thing to revisit your old circumstances, to think about how far you've come."

Keeping me humble, eh?

"Not at all. After all, the growth you needed to endure, to move beyond those days...gave rise to me."

True, Misato admitted to herself. The wretched way she had treated her father in the immediate years after Second Impact...they were practically a prerequisite for the jarring shock that his death had been. That, and much more, had led to who she was now, as horrible as that was to consider...and, despite all the crap she had to deal with in her current state of life, she actually liked who she was now: a work-in-progress.

Her Other laughed.

"And aren't we all?"

Aren't we all, she echoed with a smile, for I am thou...

"...and thou art I."

Satisfied, Misato calmly stepped away from the wall. Tokoyo — no longer present in her mind's eye — faded into the recesses of her cognition, allowing Misato to think about more pressing things: like how Mana-chan was doing. I hope things are going well...

xxxxx

/Meanwhile, back at Misato's Apartment/

Ryuji, Toji, Kensuke, and even Pen-Pen stared with utter shock at the lone female. "You've gotta be cheating!" yelled Suzuhara.

Mana frowned, staring down at the hand she had played. "Don't insult me."

"...do you realize the sheer improbability of getting a royal flush?" asked Aida.

"No. Should I?"

Ryuji simply leaned back in his chair, shaking his head as he chewed on his slice of pizza. "Sheesh, I'm so glad we're not doing bets...you're pretty lucky at this game, kiddo."

"...hmm. I've never been called lucky before," admitted the child soldier. "I would much rather prefer I be lucky at something worthwhile."

"...wark," sighed Pen-Pen.

"Yeah, talk about a mood-killer," admitted Ryuji as he gathered the cards up. "Welp, my deal again!"

xxxx

...eh, I'm sure they're fine, Misato assured herself.

xxxx

END OF 7/18/2015

xxxx

Author's Note: Darn it, Ryuji keeps invading my scenes! (Oh well, there are worse things in life.)

Death Social Link is now at Rank 2 (fitting that Kaworu of all people is the only one who can actually 'observe' the change of rank), and Sun Social Link is now at Rank 4!

The interesting thing with timelines is that some things...repeat. This is like the ninth time that Akihiko's been involved with boxing (at least as far as Minato Arisato is aware). Mercifully, the "protein junkie" bit is...a less common variable.

Anyhow, I'ma wet your whistle for next chapter...because next time, WE GET ANOTHER OUTING WITH SOKILA.

/yay