+++++ Tokyo-3 High School, formerly known as Hakone Technical Institute, Tokyo-3, Japan.

Shinji sat in a room that he rarely ever even passed by during the school day. Surrounded by empty seats, and with an unfamiliar cello balanced between his feet, he began to play a mournful dirge. The school's music room, intended for those high schoolers that had plans to continue the study of music beyond the hobbyist level provided by most primary education institutions, was acoustically vibrant. As he played, he could appreciate the engineering that had been engaged in to produce such a quality aural dynamic. The song carried throughout the room, unimpeded, uninterrupted, filling him with a rare moment of peace during a life that wasn't meant to possess such a treat.

With his eyes shut, he could almost imagine that he was where he most desired to be: nowhere. Surrounded by nothingness, an empty sea with only the songs in his mind to break up the void. It wasn't that he longed for death, he was rather interested in living through this nightmare thank you very much, it was the lack of solitude that had begun to wear on him. When he was in the apartment Misato allowed him to live in, there was always noise. Asuka's stereo, Asuka playing video games, Asuka listening to foreign television broadcasts with the volume too high, Asuka complaining about the food, the temperature, the shopping. If he were to be honest with himself, really he just wanted Asuka to tone it down a notch or twenty. Misato and he had a dynamic that had been building comfortably before the Red Devil arrived, the harbinger of a tidal wave of exasperating contradictions.

Was Misato perfect? Of course not. She was a slob, she always teased him, she didn't respect personal boundaries or space, and her cooking was best described as an abomination unto nature. But…she never showed those sides to anyone she didn't like. She certainly hadn't been around often enough to show that side of her personality to Asuka. As soon as the German-American-Japanese pilot showed up, it seemed that Misato was always required at NERV for one thing or another. At first, he suspected that with Kaji around, the two having a history together it seemed, that she was simply spending time with an old flame and possibly rekindling something. That was soon ruled out when Misato not only laughed off his attempts to woo her with flowers, but filed a workplace grievance against him to boot. The scruffy UN Special Agent had apparently been lucky to get off with a public apology and a lost paycheck.

There was a sync test scheduled for later in the evening, which would be the first time he'd actually see the other woman that ostensibly lived with him in three days. Part of his heart was hoping that he'd do well, so that she'd be happy. When she was happy, the world seemed a little better somehow. The darker, and larger, part of his heart knew that if he did well Asuka would find a way to twist it into something terrible. Nothing he did would ever be good enough for her, he understood that. And so, he played. He played, and he tried to forget where he was for an hour. Time, as is its wont, passed far faster than he desired and as the last strains of a beautiful death played on in lingering echoes…he heard applause.

"That's really wonderful, Shinji-san!" Standing just inside the doorway, clapping still, was his Class Representative, Hikari Horaki. "I didn't know you played an instrument."

Social anxiety smashed into Shinji like the Amano Line, and the seemingly confident and capable Pilot of Unit-01, who seconds before had the physical poise of a man who'd fought titanic invaders from beyond the stars, now crumpled in on himself as he realized that he hadn't been alone. That he had been being judged by…by a lady. "S-Sorry." Ah yes, he moaned in his mind, the good old standby default. Apologize for existing. Great job, Shinji.

"No, no," a broad smile still on her face, the freckle-faced beauty came closer to try and buttress the confidence she'd seen him exuding when she walked past the room and saw he'd been playing, "please! You should absolutely share your talents with the school. Why didn't you mention that you played the cello?"

"I-I…uhm, I d-didn't…." I didn't want to have everyone staring at me while I played. I didn't want them to think I was trying to be better than anyone.

A soft, and understanding, smile blossomed on her face, "I think I understand. New student, transferred here after the year had already started, the pilot of that Purple Guardian, a good cook, and a talented cellist? You're a naturally understated person, and this would just reek of showing off in your mind." With her hands clasped before her belly, her head tilted and her shoulder-length twin tails danced with the motion, "I'm not upset at you for using this space, Shinji-san…but I am curious about why you're here. You normally flee the building, like everyone else."

Because she was in a foul mood all day, and I wanted a little peace. "I…uhm, I-I…. I didn't…."

Understanding became regret, "Ah." Purposefully taking a seat that left an open chair between them, the Class Rep came to the fore over the budding adult, "I feel like I should apologize to you, for not realizing sooner exactly how…challenging it has been for you to live with Asuka-san." With immaculate poise, she radiated a mixture of soothing calm and heartfelt penitence, "Considering the two stooges that…well, I'd call them your friends if they didn't constantly take advantage of your anxieties, I was far too willing to listen to her when she said that you were a 'pervert'. I'm sure you've noticed that I've been keeping a close eye on you, Suzuhara-san, and Aida-san."

Haltingly, he nodded. A girl was speaking to him. Not only was she speaking, but she was apologizing! He had absolutely no idea what to do, or what to say, and so he kept his mouth shut and his eyes focused on a non-offensive point on the floor.

"Well, I'm pleased to report that you're nothing of the sort, though I think you knew that already." Sighing with regret, she continued, "I'd like to think I'm a reasonable judge of character, and after a few months of watching you…what I see is someone who is not engaging with the world out of fear, anxiety, and stasis. You dutifully make Asuka's lunches, which she never thanks you for. You do the household's laundry, which she never thanks you for and believes you to be doing perverted things with. You don't proactively engage with the two students who've adopted you into their…schemes." The thoughtful frown of concentration she held carried with it hidden knowledge. "Really, I think the problem is you're lacking for positive interactions with other humans." Tilting her body so that she entered his field of view, she kept her expression free from anything that might startle or threaten him, "I need to go shopping for some groceries. Would you mind coming with me? I don't often have the chance to talk to anyone else who's into cooking, and this is a perfect chance for me to get to know you better."

Alarm klaxons sounded in his mind, Asuka would absolutely lose her mind if she heard I went anywhere with a woman, let alone her friend. The worry transferred easily to his face, professional poker never being in his future, and he clutched the instrument tighter.

"I'll even walk back to your apartment with you, if you'd like." Far more adept at navigating social situations, and with a pair of months worth of observation, she knew what had prompted the fear. "I'd like to have a quick chat with Asuka, anyway. Her test scores are abysmal, and she's not doing the homework. If she's not helping around the house, then something else has to be stopping her from giving the appropriate effort. I'll tell her, myself, that I asked you to come out with me on a shopping trip. If she wants to blame you for it, I promise you she won't enjoy the response it provokes." Standing up and stepping back to give him enough distance to self-soothe, she smiled with a hint of playful wickedness, "I dislike liars. She has lied to me about a young man who has struggled with learning how to adapt to a new environment. If she doesn't straighten up, then it's my job to guide her back to the true path."

He watched her for a long moment, his face showing the process his mind was undertaking. She had asked him, which meant that there was a social obligation to give an answer. He wanted to get some things from the market anyway, because the apartment was running low on things worth calling 'food'. If Asuka found out…. No, she said that she would explain. She was his Class Representative, and someone that Touji Suzuhara had a passing fancy for. It clearly couldn't be a 'date' or anything silly like that. "O-ok." Slowly standing up himself, he moved to put the equipment away properly. "I-I should m-make sure you're s-safe."

Her smile turned as bright as her name as she watched him treat school property with care, knowing that he would treat her the same way. "That is very gentlemanly of you, Shinji-san. I'm certain there's no place safer than with one of the pilots who've saved all of us."

+++++ Old Hakone Street Market, Tokyo-3, Japan.

The walk to the market had been something of an eye-opening experience for the staid conscript. His Class Rep, typically a woman he associated with authority and firm discipline, was seemingly something of a soft-hearted, charitable soul. She had managed the bulk of the talking, this much was true. However, unlike Asuka, she wasn't talking to herself in his presence. Hikari had an unnatural gift that allowed her to understand much of what he was thinking, or meant, when he used the few words he could summon in front of another human being. She'd pace through a topic, asking him probing questions, and then expound on things that clearly interested him.

By the time they reached the first of the vendors, he was responding in whole sentences, but not as animatedly as she likely would have hoped. "I p-prefer to use th-the whole stalk, myself." The latest part of the conversation revolved around the topic of mixing together fried rice, and those things that were a part of the preparation. "I-I, uhm, well I d-don't like wasting food. T-too many people s-starving."

"I wish I could get my younger sister to listen," Hikari agreed morosely. "Is it a little bitter? Yes. But the bitterness carries a lot of the nutrition! We're lucky to get what we do, with only my father's paycheck to count on. Forcing me to make a separate batch for her just makes me waste time I could be doing other things."

He hadn't known that she was struggling financially. She wasn't slovenly, rather the opposite in fact. She always seemed clean, healthy, and dressed perfectly. He couldn't remember her meals, though. Scanning back through his memories, he didn't recall her ever eating in the classroom those times that the rain washed out the quad. "I-is money a problem?" Holding the door open for her, letting the smell of the produce available wash over him, he began to grow concern that this trip would be a problem for her.

"It's a problem for everyone, isn't it?" Her shrug and smile, an attempt at sharing her empathy and appreciation for his holding the door, was followed by a sudden shift towards irritation.

Taken aback by the drastic change, Shinji engaged in his traditional response to any conflict and shoved his hands in his pockets and kept his head down as he tried to walk behind and to the side where he wouldn't be seen as attempting to appear an equal to the person he was with. When she stopped, he stopped. When she then took a step backwards, he matched and almost bumped into an endcap.

"Shinji?" Leaning into his line of sight again, she balanced concern with confidence, "I don't care if he sees you walking with me."

He? He honestly hadn't considered that another person might have caused her temperament to change, and when he popped upright and looked around for the identity of the 'he' in question, he finally caught sight of Touji being dragged around the store by his father. The elder Suzuhara speaking in a low, firm, voice regarding some manner of grievances he had with his eldest child.

"Ah," patting his back, Hikari nodded when the pieces clicked together. "You didn't see him. You thought I was upset with you, that makes sense." Gesturing towards one of the hand baskets, she placed a smile back on her face and tilted her head at a cute angle, "Would you mind carrying the basket? I'd like to compare selections with you, and that's hard to do picking up and putting down the basket all over the place."

"S-sure," her 'request' in his mind was an 'order'. Complying rapidly, he stood awkwardly with the basket cradled before him like a shield against the outer world. "N-no problem."

Her smile never wavered, never drooped, as she calmly took his hands and adjusted everything so that he was holding the basket more naturally, "Shinji…I'd appreciate it if you'd relax some. I promise, I'm not going to blow up if we have a misunderstanding. I'm not going to yell at you, make fun of you, or belittle you. I am going to have a chat with Soryu-san about treating you with greater respect. If I had to guess, Katsuragi-san isn't around very often, because of her job."

When she started back in motion, he cautiously followed at her side. "Y-yeah. I haven't s-seen her in three days." His voice brightened some, "Though, t-tonight…I-I have a s-sync test. Sh-she should be there."

"That's great," pleased that he was showing signs of life, Hikari encouraged him further. "Would you mind taking her a note from me? I'd really like to talk to her but getting in contact with her seems more or less impossible."

Panic, his constant companion, swelled in his throat as he choked out, "A n-n-note?"

Lifting up two different packages of tofu, her demeanor remained placid. "Yes, I'd like to have a talk with her about me tutoring you. Which of these do you think is better? This one," she waggled a brightly colored package, "is just a little less dense than this one," she waggled the other, "but is two hundred Yen more. It's possible that it's 'better', less fillers or preservatives, but I'm always wary of brand name recognition being the only factor I decide by."

She…wants to tutor me?! He was frozen in place, trying to process what on Earth had happened that suddenly his Class Rep was bulldozing her way into his life. Autonomic processes took over, to encourage survival of the Shinji, and he gestured to the denser brick of tofu. His voice had the same 'mechanical' quality as his motions, overriding his natural stammer, "The process they use to make that prevents it from becoming too astringent when you combine it with other flavors."

Her smile turned slightly sad, though understanding remained in her eyes, "Shinji, we have six months before graduation. Six months before all of us have to find our way through a far more adult world. Six months, for me to maybe find out if I wasted a few months of time I could have used to get to know a talented, caring, man. We might never 'hit it off'. We might 'hit it off' really well. I can't find out if you're constantly abused by Asuka and isolating yourself because you think that her behavior is indicative of everyone else on the planet."

His confusion reached a critical mass. The reactions and sub-reactions collapsed the entire system in on itself as Shinji's head tilted to the side and he blinked owlishly at her, "I…don't understand."

"Don't worry," taking his word for the tofu and putting that selection in the basket, she used the same motion to take his arm in hers and drag him towards the next aisle, "you will."

+++++ Katsuragi/Soryu apartment, Tokyo-3, Japan.

Shinji poured himself into making dinner. What was currently happening on the other side of the apartment was a matter that he had been expressly told by his new friend did not concern him immediately. That it would concern him eventually was very much rolling through his mind. He'd been positioned with military precision. Hikari had her forces in place, her fallback positions mapped out, her cones of fire set and stable, and when he walked right into the kill box, she had obliterated him with ruthless efficiency. She was now a part of his life, like it or not.

"You can yell all you want, Asuka," Hikari's voice, unlike his flatmate's, was serene and level, "I will continue reporting your grades to Katsuragi-san. I will be coming over more often to support Shinji-kun as he learns. You will not be welcome over at my house if you continue to act like this towards my friend." When sputtering was all that was managed in retort, she concluded with, "He will be serving dinner shortly, I understand you both have a sync test tonight. You are welcome to come out and eat with us, but I will be watching very closely, and you will not mistreat him again. I was mistaken during your dance training, he wasn't the problem."

He knew, in his heart he knew, that nobody talked to Asuka like that without serious repercussions. His beautiful, mercurial, intelligent, vindictive, flatmate was never one to take a challenge lying down. He had given his word, that he would stand in the kitchen and prepare a meal. That he would let her handle the confrontation with someone she had considered a friend, and had allowed to do terrible things. That he wouldn't get involved. He was, at his heart, a man of his word. He didn't give it very often, but when he said he would do something, he did it.

None of that, of course, explained why he was suddenly standing between two women. Why he had a blackening right eye from Asuka's left cross. Why he wasn't freaking out mentally about keeping both ladies apart with muscles they couldn't believe he had. Why Asuka was at once appalled and growing angrier. Or why, as was inevitable, Misato was suddenly standing before him with death in her eyes.

"I'm going to ask this question in a calm tone, precisely once." The lavender-haired Tactical Commander of NERV's Tokyo-3 Branch looked between both young women, her eyes going directly past Shinji each time she switched her target. "Who hit him?"

This was his fault. It had to be his fault. If he hadn't said 'Yes' to Hikari, she wouldn't have been here, Asuka wouldn't have been angered, and he wouldn't have caught a haymaker that everyone was shocked he'd shrugged off. He had to…he had to protect his…. He had to protect everyone. "It's m-my fault, M-Misato." That he'd not used an honorific was, itself, enough to cause his eldest flatmate to pause and consider him cautiously. "I-I…I interfered i-in an argument. H-Hikari-san told me t-to stay in th-the kitchen."

"I see." The statement, a placeholder more than a declarative, held the room in check for a moment while she saw through his obvious attempts at deflecting blame. "Asuka, go to your room."

This, of course, set the redheaded teen off anew, "I am-"

"Going to get your ass beat three ways from July if you aren't in your room in the next ten seconds," Misato stated calmly. "You have a bruise developing on your fist, she doesn't. Get to your room, or I'm throwing you in there."

With an inarticulate garble of likely curses, in a wide variety of languages, Asuka stormed off towards her room and slammed the door with enough force to send it sliding back along the rail for several centimeters. During that time, Shinji carefully dropped the hand holding Hikari down to his front, and lowered his head to stare at the floor in shame.

"I apologize, Katsuragi-san," Hikari spoke before he could find his tongue again. "I had hoped that by coming over and explaining to Soryu-san that I was opposed to her continued abuses towards Shinji-kun that she and I could find a way to come to an understanding without coming to blows. It was not my intent to disturb your home."

Blowing out a heavy sigh of frustration, Misato scratched the side of her head and disagreed, "No…no this is mostly my fault." Sniffing, she looked over towards the kitchen, "Smells good. Why don't we have some dinner while Miss Pissybritches calms her not-quite B-Cups some." Patting Hikari on the shoulder, she tipped her head towards the table, "C'mon and have a seat. I'm getting the feeling you've got eyes on my man, and that maybe you can do a better job of telling me the whole truth while Shinji serves us some of his fantastic home cooking."

+++++ NERV, GeoFront, Research Labs, Japan.

"Really? Wow." Maya Ibuki had listened to Misato as she recounted the tale of the wounded warrior floating in LCL. Something of a romantic, she found it absolutely adorable that he'd put himself in harm's way to protect a young woman that apparently was interested in getting to know him better. In her opinion, few deserved happiness more than the constantly downtrodden Shinji. "So, she admitted she was pursuing him?"

"Said she was seeing how compatible they are. This, of course, after she praises him for spending his own money helping her buy groceries for her family," Misato shrugged as she rocked her hand side to side in reply. "I give four-to-one odds that she's going to come around tomorrow afternoon. If that happens, I'll put…five to three that she's going to ask him to go somewhere this weekend."

Ritsuko Akagi, wondering how Section Two had allowed Hikari Horaki up into the apartment at all considering Gendo's dislike of anything influencing Shinji for the better, couldn't resist the chance to play the foil. "Ten thousand Yen says she doesn't."

"Senpai!" Maya was shocked that the woman could be so callous as to bet money on misfortune.

Misato was well aware of Ritsuko's penchant for stirring the pot in her own way, and side-eyed her on-again off-again friend, "Something you want to share with the rest of the class?" Turning her head to view the faux-blonde better, she scanned the numbers on the two tanks containing Rei and Shinji. "Hey!" Spying her chance to increase the odds of something good happening for her ward, she tapped the microphone's button to speak directly to him, "Shinji, great job! You're up to the top score now!"

What she had hoped, that by not only praising him but indicating that he'd improved a great deal, was that she would earn a smile that she'd seen on his face more often of late. He had been slowly coming out of his shell, just this evening he'd actually let a girl drag him out shopping after all. What she received, was a muted nod and another downcast, hangdog, expression.

His choice of words said so much, with so little, "Asuka's going to really hate me, now."

Just like a chemical undergoing change, his catalyst set off three quite different reactions. Ritsuko pondered just exactly how broken down her lover's son actually was. Maya, instead, changed from sappy romantic wistfulness to adorably upset protector. Misato, already not inclined to tolerate Asuka's presence any longer in her apartment, began plotting the moves necessary to put her into the barracks. She'd clearly been neglecting her wards, and it was just as obvious which one needed to be somewhere else so that Shinji wasn't hurt any more than he already was.

+++++ Katsuragi/Ikari apartment, Tokyo-3, Japan.

The following morning had continued Shinji's recent trend of having his life upended. The previous night had concluded with Section Two marching Asuka out of the house. Misato had called Hikari after Shinji's statement following the sync test, and received an unvarnished report of everything the freckle-faced Class Rep had witnessed over the months. Armed with that, she'd ordered that they be separated to 'encourage Pilot Soryu to regain the expected discipline of an Eva Pilot'. While promising Shinji that the redhead wouldn't be jailed or harmed, she told him that their interactions were going to be limited now. Asuka clearly wasn't taking advantage of her schooling to learn Japanese, so she would have a private tutor. Gendo Ikari, in both his capacity as Commander of NERV's Tokyo-3 branch and father of Shinji, was not truly worried and didn't intervene. Asuka was only tangentially necessary, her main purpose to be cannon fodder. Kozo Fuyutsuki, far more sympathetic to Shinji's repeated traumas, encouraged both Gendo's inaction and Misato's action. He did not dare openly support Hikari, but that also didn't prevent him from surreptitiously supporting the young woman's intent.

When Shinji woke up, after a fitful night of sleep where he wound himself up anxiously over how he'd managed to screw everything up, he was greeted as he emerged from his closet-slash-bedroom with neat and orderly stacks of boxes dominating the main room. All of Asuka's belongings had been packed, by Misato, so that he could reclaim the room she informed him he never should have left. After a heartfelt talk, where she asked him for his support and promised that she would do everything she could to actually be there for him, they were interrupted by the doorbell ringing.

Waiting, while Misato smiled contentedly and moved to open the door, was Hikari. That had been when Shinji realized why Misato insisted he make two meals for school, and promptly blushed five shades of crimson. He'd stood there, tongue-tied, as Misato asked Hikari if she would kindly come by again after school to help him improve his grades. She assured the Class Rep that the boxes would be gone by then, and they'd have the apartment to themselves to 'study'. He could feel the air quotes she'd placed around the word, and felt as if he would burst into flames from embarrassment. Finally making it out the door to move towards school, after asking Hikari if she would like to take one of the lunches he'd made in, his new friend kindly ignored his emotional fluctuations while secretly regarding them as both adorable and charming. Which, per his luck, was when the next shoe dropped directly on his throat.

His cellphone sounded with the tone he dreaded. He paused and looked down at the text on the screen. Then turned around and saw regret and apology written all over Misato's face. Another Angel had arrived. To his surprise, a pair of female Section Two agents showed up and promised they would make certain that Hikari would be safely transported to the shelter where her family was located. Somehow, in the course of his saying goodbye, he'd had another off-speed pitch tossed his way and the freckle-faced beauty gave him a soft kiss and a whispered desire for his safe return.

It broke Misato's heart, but she dragged the pilot off right after they separated. There was no time for romance. Several opportunities for traffic tickets later, she had him at the lockers and stopped the mad dash towards combat for a moment so that she could try to keep her own promises, "I swear, you beat this thing and I will help you plan a date that'll knock that girl's socks clean off." With her hands on his arms, and her eyes locked on his, she radiated the confidence she needed him to have. "She seems like a good woman, Shinji. Work with me, I'll work with you. Ok?"

In his mind, the morning was already a blur. Without proper sleep, without a chance to eat, his head wasn't clear enough for him to start to process everything that had just been thrown at him. Once more, and with the best of intentions, his life had begun to crumble around him. All he could do was nod numbly. If Misato thought it was a good idea, she was probably right. All he ever did was the wrong things.

+++++ Outskirts of Tokyo-3, Japan.

Shinji, inside of Unit-01, stood with his back pressed against an abandoned office building. He'd been placed at the fore, with Asuka serving as fire support and Rei serving as sniper. He understood why, even if it wasn't spelled out for everyone. Asuka was furious, and she'd been grumbling all throughout the briefing about 'Stupid, Invincible, Shinji'. If she'd taken the fore, she might have stumbled into something and been killed. Rei, with her much lower score, couldn't react as quickly as either he or Asuka. That meant it was his job to risk the most danger, his job to protect everyone. My job to protect Hikari. Blinking at the sudden thought, he almost didn't catch his Commander.

Misato was unamused, though her tone was even, "Asuka, I didn't ask you to take the scenic route, why aren't you in position?"

Asuka's retort was scathing, "Because not all of us can be as strong, and brave, and wonderful as-"

Rei interrupted the momentum of the diatribe with her typical understatement, "It is moving."

Everything slowed down in Shinji's mind as he rounded the building to get his eyes on the target. The floating zebra ball was on a direct course for Unit-02. On the left-most monitor of his cockpit, he could see Asuka's power umbilical was stuck on a building. At the supposed Angel's speed, she wouldn't be able to move out of the way. She also couldn't bring her rifle to bear on the target owing to several buildings obscuring her line-of-sight. Rei herself didn't have a shot, as her angle had been obscured by Unit-02. If she fired, she risked the shot hitting Asuka. While the after-action report would read that his actions were taken to defend his comrades and ensure that neither of them were harmed, the reality was Shinji just wanted a chance to show Asuka that he didn't hate her.

"Engaging," he barked, dispensing a trio of rounds towards the central mass of the Angel.

As the first projectile reached the boundary of the sphere, the 'Angel' disappeared. Everyone had little time to wonder where it might have gone, as Maya announced over the radio, "The pattern's blue! The Twelfth Angel is confirmed!"

The Angel, which would eventually be declared 'Leliel', was now a gaping void directly beneath Shinji, the diameter of which was spreading out towards the other Evas. Unit-02 was faster to react than Unit-00, and instead of moving to assist the now stuck and sinking Unit-01, clambered up a nearby building to try and outdistance the enemy. Buildings, trees, streetlights, and Evas, everything around Shinji was sinking into an umbral shadow.

Emptying his pallet rifle into the area before him, he tossed that aside and pulled out the new sidearm they'd asked him to try. When that too ran dry, panic began to set in. "Uh…I'm…I'm stuck. M-Misato, I can't get free." It was now up to his knees. "I…I need help!"

It was almost impossible for anyone to process what they were seeing. A large, blackened, circle was swallowing everything with mass around it. Bullets hadn't even bounced off of an A.T. Field. There was literally nothing they could throw at the Angel that would do harm to it. Misato wracked her brain for a solution, "Makoto-kun, retract Shinji's umbilical, let's give him a boost. Asuka, Rei, grab onto the cable and try and help pull him free!"

There was nothing for him to grab onto, and his balance was becoming harder to maintain as his center of gravity was shifted by the slow-motion…death. I…I don't want to die. I…I want to…. Remembering, suddenly, the desire he had as he played the cello for an unexpected audience of one, the wish he had to be alone in the vast nothingness, the humor of the situation struck him a glancing blow. He could feel the cord being hauled on. He could feel his teammates giving their best, feel them losing ground rapidly. I'm not going to make it home. Calm, terrifying and cold, washed away the anxiety, the anger, and the panic. "Get them clear, Misato." If he was going to die, he was not going to kill anyone else. Someone had to survive, to fight the Angels…to protect Hikari. Looking over into the camera that showed him the woman who'd only yesterday realized what she was to him, he smiled sadly. "Ejecting umbilical."

"Shinji, no!" Misato's cry went unheeded, and as soon as the cord anchoring her young ward landed in the shadow, both Units -00 and -02 fell backwards with nothing to pull against. The rapidly moving winch hauled both Evas back several hundred meters before they were able to regain their footing. She saw at that point, Unit-01's fingers go into the shadow, "Science, I need a solution. We can't just let him-"

"It's a Sea of Dirac." Bafflement dominated Ritsuko's face. "He's sinking into a physical impossib…. Improbability." She turned to look up to the Throne of God, and shook her head, "We don't have anything strong enough to counter the kind of force that can produce. We need to focus on destroying it, Unit-01 is-"

The loud crack of Misato's hand as it impacted Ritsuko's cheek was carried clearly to Shinji over the radio. His heart hurt, knowing that it was only at the end that he realized how much his Tactical Commander actually cared for him. Why her opinion meant more than the others. Why her praise meant more. "Misato," his voice cut through the silence that had followed, "I'm sorry. Asuka, Ayanami-san…you too. I'm…I'm sorry." He was up to his chest now; he knew his time was short. "Please…uhm…please tell Hikari that I enjoyed…I enjoyed our date." Taking a deep breath, he saw the void overtaking the shoulders of his Eva. "Father…." This was his last chance. His last chance to say anything to the man. "I'm sorry I failed."

Unit-01's head rapidly dropped beneath the surface of the Angel. The last words of Shinji Ikari, Angelslayer, were the same as most of his other words in life. An apology to those he left behind. With nothing left to steal from those who would always honor the fallen hero, the Twelfth Angel vanished without a trace.

+++++ Combat Bridge, NERV Tokyo-3, Japan.

Misato was fit to chew steel and spit nails. "What do you mean gone?!" The enemy had stolen her…had stolen her Shinji, and it had the unmitigated gall to simply vanish?

Maya was trying to make sense of the situation, and could only report what the systems were relaying to her. "I…I mean gone. No more Pattern Blue. The local network, the extended network, even the satellites. Nothing!"

"Keep looking." She would find it. She would find it, and she would kill it. "Rei, Asuka…." She needed to position them so that they wouldn't get trapped just like…. "Refit for long-range engagements. Go to the points Aoba-kun will send you. Climb up, keep an eye out."

Rei's voice carried both confusion and sorrow, "Understood." The bluenette had been saved, more than once, by Shinji Ikari. She had saved, more than once, Shinji Ikari. She knew she was replaceable. He…he could not be replaced.

"What do you mean refit?" Asuka was just as devastated, but far too imbalanced chemically to begin to process what she'd just lost. "You saw what our weapons did to that thing! We don't have anything capable of…of killing a damn shadow!"

As she was about to retort, Misato heard a comment from the Throne.

"This was not foreseen."

Turning slowly, she glared up at the man who'd ignored the son he was responsible for. That glare was cut off quickly by the fact that Commander Ikari had his omnipresent tinted glasses off, and was looking about as lost as she felt in her heart. Swallowing her words, she looked down and shook her head, He misses him too. He's just…like every other man on the planet. Doesn't know his emotions from his asshole. She needed to determine what his priorities were, "Sir? What are our orders?"

It was Kozo who responded, the supposed man in charge walking away from the bridge. "Bring the pilots back, manage any repairs to the Evas that are necessary. We will maintain an alert status for another six hours, if there is no sign of the enemy we will discuss further action at that time."

"Yes sir." There really was nothing else to do for the moment. Angels never just vanished. They came, they postured, they attacked. Eating an Eva and disappearing was well outside of the expected playbook. "You heard the man, ladies. Bring them back to the barn. Makoto-kun, I want the Engineers to prioritize the batteries." If they had to drop their umbilical to avoid being pulled down into it, they needed to be in top shape.

Once again, Ritsuko Akagi felt slighted. She knew the truth. She knew that Gendo had looked lost because his precious wife was now gone forever. He didn't care about his son. He certainly didn't care about her. With the truth spelled out so plainly, she spread some of her poisonous hatred to other easy targets, "I guess I win the bet." Even she was surprised when she was suddenly staring down the barrel of a forty-five-caliber pistol.

"You are going to do everything humanly possible to find a way to bring him back. I don't care what deals with what devils you have to make. Angels don't just disappear. Use whatever rotten gray matter that terrible bleach job hasn't ruined, and get it done. Because the other possibility is he doesn't come back, and then you won't be nearly as pretty after I'm done with you." Misato's hand didn't tremble, didn't waver, as she stared down a woman she never really knew. "You weren't thinking about saving him. You were just thinking about destroying the Angel. You don't care about the pilots. So stay away from them."

Maya, in a bout of bravery that she didn't know she possessed, grabbed Ritsuko's arm and pulled her towards the labs. "Come on, Senpai. I'm sure we can think of something. We can't just leave Shinji-kun to die. We're not monsters."

Holstering her sidearm, Misato narrowed her eyes and growled beneath her breath, "One of you isn't."

+++++ NERV Tokyo-3, Japan.

Rei wasn't entirely certain why she reported to her Tactical Commander instead of her overall Commander. There was something…wrong. It was the kind of wrong that twisted her insides violently. Sagging against the doorframe that led into Misato's office, she clawed at the button to open the portal. Succeeding on the fifth try, she was unable to remain upright any longer and collapsed into the room in agony.

The combat-tested violet-haired warrior sprang up from her desk and ran over. "Ayanami! What happened?" Rolling the stricken bluenette so that she could support her, she saw a gaunt shell of what once was a young woman. It was as if she'd aged a hundred years in a single moment. Scooping her off the floor, Misato ran towards the hospital wing. "No. No, no, no. I'm not losing you too." Using her heel to kick the button for the elevator, she kept trying to rouse the fading Pilot, "C'mon Rei-chan, stay with me. I need your help; we need to bring Shinji-kun back!"

"Can…." Trying to moisten her mouth, Rei croaked out, "Replace. Me."

"No," when the car arrived, she bulled over two people too slow to move out of her way and jammed the button combination to make an emergency trip to the hospital wing, "no, sweetie, we can't replace you! You need…to…." She was holding a corpse. Looking down into dead, empty, eyes, Misato began to cry. "Why?" So many questions swirled around her head, none with good answers.

She carried the young woman, still in her plugsuit, towards her original destination. Even if she couldn't be healed, she could at least be given dignity in death. A dark mood worked its way into her mind as she went to pass Ritsuko's office, once again thrown off its tracks by Maya's appearance. The mousey technician was at first running out of the room, and nearly stumbled as she paused at the sight of Misato carrying a shriveled corpse wearing what she knew to be the plugsuit of Rei. Her mouth worked silently, her eyes moving from the terrible sight to Misato's own chocolate orbs, before she was able to utter, "We…we need to leave. Now."

Misato was stunned. She'd never once heard Maya so much as sound cross with anyone, the tone of urgency, the note of command, was well beyond what she'd expected of the woman, "I have to-"

She cut in quickly, "Our lives are in danger. What you and I know will get us killed. Please, Misato-san, trust me."

+++++ NERV Tokyo-3, Japan.

Asuka was alone in the lockers. She'd washed, repeatedly, until every last speck of the foul, blood scented, LCL was off of her. Until all she smelled was the perfumed bath products. Until she no longer tasted his death. He'd never noticed. Never saw past the bluster and the chaos. She'd screamed out to him for help. She'd…she'd begged him to notice that she was suffering. She'd given him her first kiss, spent more time around him than anyone else. He'd never noticed. The water stopped as she twisted the handle violently, "And now he's gone."

Some pains are meant to be kept inside. Too private, too harsh to share with the world at large. Some pains can be shared. Expressed to others that can help you carry the burden, that can suffer alongside you in the hopes that you'll one day give them the same assistance when they need it. This pain? This pain needed to be inflicted. This wasn't private. This wasn't shared. This was personal.

Storming over to her bag and pulling out her phone, she called the person she wanted to speak to the least and the most at the same time. The phone rang twice, and her target's voice answered with nervous anticipation. Instead of gifting the traitor with solace, Asuka chose to gift her pain. "Shinji's dead. Just thought you might like to know your little distraction yesterday got him killed. Good job." Hanging up the phone, she stared at it for a second, then launched it against a wall. Leaving the wreckage of her life behind, the woman who was unaware she was the lone remaining pilot on Earth stormed off to find a place to hurt someone else.

+++++ Katsuragi apartment, Tokyo-3, Japan.

Misato found another slow-moving tragedy waiting for her at the door to her apartment. Easing her pistol back into its holster, as she'd taken it out to protect Maya as the technician carried Rei's corpse up from her car, she prepared to catch the freckle-faced beauty as the young girl ran over in tears. Rubbing her back, she tried to balance empathy with haste. What she'd learned in the car ride over wasn't what she'd describe as 'good'. She felt Hikari jerk when she spied Rei's body, and shifted 'comforting' to the side and moved 'urgent' up the priority chain. "Inside. Come on, I'll tell you what I can."

Hurrying everyone in herself, Maya had the door closed and Rei laid out on the sofa before she turned and hauled Hikari into a caring embrace, "I'm so, so sorry Horaki-chan. Shinji's last words were a request that we tell you he enjoyed his date with you." Meeting Misato's eyes as the Tactical Commander moved to her bedroom to begin packing, she saw a tacit agreement that history could be revised just a touch to place the young woman as the final statement.

Hikari, still crying but numbing rapidly, managed to whisper in a voice hoarse from crying, "I…I got him killed…."

"No!" Maya was aghast, "No, no, you most certainly did not! Why would you think that?"

Wobbling between sobbing and morose, the Class Representative provided the details of her 'date' with Shinji. How she'd, just the day before, upended his life. How she'd intended it all to help him, but how it all had to have distracted him at the worst possible time. How Asuka was right, and that she'd damned everyone because she had wanted to offer the poor, suffering, Shinji a chance at whatever happiness she could provide him.

Maya's stock skyrocketed in Misato's mind, the entire story quite audible from where she was stuffing as much ammunition as she could into a backpack. The young technician's voice was clear, calm, and collected as she responded, "No. Pilot Soryu is one hundred percent incorrect. If anyone is to blame for creating a distraction, it is her. She was abusing him. She took the swing at you that blackened his eye. She was out of position, out of sorts, and of no help during the attack. You were reaching out to someone who desperately needed a friend, if nothing else. You were reaching out because you saw a chance to care and you took it. You can't blame yourself, Hikari. I'm sure, in time, you'll begin to understand why."

Hauling out Pen-Pen's long-distance travelling container, the violet-haired leader added her own words of support, "Shinji really was very happy that you'd reached out, Hikari-chan. When he and I were talking this morning, I saw all the signs of a young man who was smitten with someone." Urging her penguin into the box, she prepared herself to be 'the bad guy', "But right now…you need to get home. Whatever you saw here tonight, forget it. Whenever someone asks you when you last saw me? It was this morning. You never saw Maya. You never saw…that," she gestured towards one of the many corpses of Rei Ayanami. "You-"

The door exploded inwards, several heavily armed and armored people rushing in with automatic weapons and securing the room. Fortunately, none of them shot at Misato as she moved quickly to stand between Maya, Hikari, and what she presumed was Section Two's black ops group. A tense moment hung in the air, every weapon other than the one in her hand and the one in the hands of the supposed 'leader' of the insertion team aimed at her.

Slowly reaching up, the person in charge raised the blackened visor of his helmet, revealing Ryoji Kaji. "I'd appreciate it if you'd put away your dick, Misa-chan. We'll let you keep it, but we need you to show the first step of a good faith conversation."

Misato's aim switched towards the man that had abandoned her, the man that she believed she had honestly loved, "I am not letting you take them prisoner, Ryoji."

Another individual lowered their rifle, and took off their helmet. Beneath was, instead of the slender man that Misato had believed them to be, a red-haired woman of clear Scandinavian descent. "We'd actually like to do something of the opposite, Major Katsuragi. Please," she motioned for the pistol to be lowered, "I understand that Special Agent Kaji is a lot of an asshole, but right now we need his testimony in addition to yours. You, and Lieutenant Ibuki, are the only reliable witnesses to what we believe are crimes against not only humanity, but nature itself."

"You seem to have me at a disadvantage," Misato's eyes flicked to the rank emblem adorning the woman's chest, "Captain."

"Idunn Haraldson." Her smile was calm, her tone soothing. "We've been watching for some time, Major. We haven't had enough evidence to strike, considering what we're going up against. Shinji Ikari's loss is both lamentable, and unforgivable, please understand that what we're trying to do is make that loss mean something. We have evidence now that could take down the people who have been attempting to control both humanity's future and the Angels themselves. But your testimony would all but guarantee our victory. Please…nobody wants this to turn violent."

"Misato-san," Maya had Hikari in her arms, and was turned so that her body was between the shivering youth and the weapons, "I think Kaji-san was the mole that our division's been chasing. He's been trying to access secure files, the ones that contained what I told you about in the car."

"That was me," the suave rogue nodded. "I've been working with the UNIGC, playing both SEELE and Gendo Ikari off of each other. It hasn't been easy, and I'm pretty sure I was close to being caught by Lieutenant Ibuki more than once. I swear, Misa-chan…on my sister's life."

Misato's elbows drooped; her eyes closed as she took a deep breath. "Fine." Holstering her sidearm again, she took the hint.

Idunn began issuing commands, sending her people around to secure what was needed from the apartment for transportation. Her unit moved with confident ease, leaving as little trace of their presence as was possible. Faster than Misato herself could have managed, anything that would suffice as evidence, or help her survive, was packed into duffle bags and readied to go. At that point, the tall redhead looked meaningfully at Hikari, then back to Kaji.

Approaching Maya, who had been speaking quietly and soothingly to the young woman, Kaji readied himself to do what was necessary. "Horaki-chan, I'm deeply sorry we had to meet this way. I was…well, I hope that Shinji-kun considered me a friend. He didn't have many positive male influences in his life, and I tried to be one where I was allowed. I'm truly sorry that Soryu-san said what she did to you." He recognized Maya's eyebrows knitting together, and nodded, "We've had all of the pilot's communications bugged. When I heard what Asuka said, I damn near blew this operation to tear into her. She's my failure, Ibuki-kun, and I'm apologizing on her behalf."

"He…he's dead." Hikari looked around the apartment, the motion and bustle, "What…what do I do?"

"You'll come with us," he decided to be direct. Thinking that, perhaps, she would allow him to steer her to safety without having to risk another emotional flare up. "We'll keep you safe, we'll keep you with Maya-kun and Misa-chan. You won't be alone, and you won't be in trouble."

Hikari shook her head, "I…I can't, my sisters, my father!"

He balanced kindness with firmness, "Will be killed if you go back. You have seen not only us, but the remains of poor Ayanami-chan. What you know is too dangerous for them to allow you to live. If you come with us, we'll do what we can to protect your family. We'll work with your father's associates in the Shirakami to keep them safe. Ultimately, if you go back, you're all dead. If you come with us, they might die. I'm sorry to put it so bluntly, I truly am, but we need you to cooperate with us. Please."

A smaller agent had drifted closer, intending to lend a hand in moving what she recognized to be a young woman that was well past her depth. Lifting off her own helmet, she added her own pressure, "We're incredibly good at what we do, Miss. Your little sister and older sister will each be given a team to keep watch on them." Her blonde hair and easy-going smile softened the blow, "It really is for the best."

"Nicki-kun is one of the best agents I've worked with," Kaji emphasized. "She's great with kids, I'm sure she'll put your sisters at ease."

Sheltered in Maya's arms, despite the older woman being smaller than she herself, Hikari realized that the 'adult world' she had been telling Shinji about had arrived. She couldn't be a child, not anymore. "I…I understand."

"Great," Nicki took up position on the other side of Maya, and bolstered Hikari as well, "I hear the VTOL approaching. Let's get you on board, with Lieutenant Ibuki. I've got some paper and a pen, I'll help you write out a note that doesn't risk anything but lets your family know you're safe, ok?"

"That's a great idea," Maya's schoolwork in psychology suddenly became both useful and practical. "It doesn't have to be 'goodbye', I'm sure we'll eventually be able to reunite you all. But I know my mom and dad would worry if I disappeared and didn't write them a note."

Misato finished packing those things of Shinji's she had wanted to keep as memories of a precious few months of his time in her world. Walking over to where Idunn and Kaji were speaking in hushed tones, she tipped her head towards where Hikari was being maneuvered out of the apartment, "She's coming with?"

"The other option was I kill her," Kaji shrugged. When Misato hit him with a hard glare, he raised an eyebrow, "Would you rather I left her to what Section Two would do? A quick death would have been a kindness, Misa-chan. You know we're playing in the big leagues, little fish like her get run over without a second thought. We'll keep her family as safe as we can, but she's far safer with us."

Idunn once more attempted to play peacekeeper, "We didn't anticipate her presence, ma'am. I promise you, as I know Kaji can be hard to trust, we will do everything we can to help her. My boss, General Benoit, has a soft spot for good kids. The quick pre-brief I received on Hikari Horaki indicates she would have been a great match for your ward. Again, my condolences." Gesturing towards the door, she urged everyone to move, "Ok, folks. Raffle and Vidar can't keep the plane in the AO for long. Let's get everything on board and get off the 'X'."

+++++ Author's Notes:

What you have just read is likely to be the only inclusion of these characters in the story of any substance. This story is intended to focus on, as you'll read in the next chapter, Shinji as he journeys to a much different world operating under a much different set of rules. Where, like any traveler to a virgin shore, he brings with him terrible things that can be the undoing of those native to the 'unexplored land'.

If you're here for Shinji x Asuka or Shinji x Rei, they're only going to be referenced, and never participants in the plot. The reason I'm not putting this in a crossover category is that I am uprooting the canon of the other major players in the world he lands in entirely. Thematically, this story is going to be Neon Gen in a not purely science world. The only thing borrowed from the other part is characterizations and motivations. Shinji's arrival changes most everything else.

I wrote this prelude chapter (it's going to be labelled chapter one because I am not coming up with however many chapter titles) to wrap up most of the questions about what happened to the other NGE characters after he gets isekai'd. If Shinji finds out anything from where he lands, that's what the audience will discover as well. For those of you who have read YA(N)C, I hope you enjoyed the cameos. For everyone, welcome to a different story.