He doesn’t remember the first time anymore, can’t recall what it was that drew him to Kaworu in the first place. He’s not sure if he fell in love with Kaworu the first time or the fifth, only knows with certainty that Kaworu’s smile stays the same, each time unassuming and open and with just a hint of a strain betraying how troubled he really is. And no matter how many times he’s seen it, Shinji is still caught off guard every time and can only return it with a small, shy smile of his own.
(One time, Kaworu teaches him how to play piano. Shinji’s fingers trip over the keys, but he stumbles through Ode to Joy under Kaworu’s instruction, and practices until they can play together like they’ve done it all their lives.
Kaworu is so proud of them and the music they make together, it makes Shinji’s heart ache. There’s always a few inches of space between them on the piano bench, but he feels closer to Kaworu in that loop than most of the others, even the ones where he dared to kiss Kaworu, just to see how their lips fit together.
It’s hard to say goodbye that time, but it’s even harder the next time, when Kaworu smiles brilliantly at him—Shinji’s heart stops—and asks where he learned to play piano so well and Shinji can’t tell him, you taught me.)
Shinji suspects that he would have given up a long time ago, if Kaworu wasn’t so—well, Kaworu. There’s an earnestness about him that never fades, that always makes Shinji lose his breath and think, this time, for sure, I’ll bring you peace.
(One time, Shinji tries to keep his distance, do everything from the shadows.
It doesn’t work. He gets too close. Again.)
It’s just—Kaworu is so gentle, and so kind, and he doesn’t deserve the shit situation he’s been saddled with. None of them do, really, but it’s been a long time since Shinji has tried to help any of the others. And maybe he’s reached the point of obsession now, but all that Shinji thinks, all that matters, is that he has to get Kaworu out, no matter what.
(One time, he sets forth a plan that will take fourteen years. He’s so sure it’ll work…but he is wrong, so wrong, and the last thing he sees before the DSS choker around his neck detonates is Kaworu’s stricken face.)
There’s a singularity of purpose that drives him, that sends him to Kaworu again and again, each time a bit more desperate than the last.
(One time, Kaworu remembers. Not fully, but enough. There’s a glint in his eyes when they first meet, one that Shinji can’t decipher, and he says, before Shinji can introduce himself, “Shinji.”
Shinji drops his outstretched hand, stares, stunned, as silence stretches out between them, over the days and months and sometimes years that Shinji has relived.
Kaworu reaches out and takes Shinji’s hand in his own, and the contact sends an electric jolt through Shinji’s body.
“Kaworu,” he stutters out, and Kaworu tangles their fingers together.
“Sometimes I think I’m going crazy,” he says, and his voice is calm.
Shinji tightens his grip on Kaworu.
Kaworu says, “I see you in my dreams.”
Gasps, a sharp little intake of breath.
“I see how hard you’ve fought for me.”
Bites his lower lip to keep it from wobbling.
The sobs wrench their way out of Shinji and he is powerless to stop them. “Don’t thank me,” he says. His knees feel weak. “I haven’t saved you yet.”
There’s a tug that Shinji feels within him as much as he feels it externally when Kaworu hugs him.
He thinks sometimes that he can see Kaworu’s soul, and it’s always warm and bright and inviting.
Shinji’s soul is old and worn and tired, so tired, but Kaworu’s always coils around it, teasing it until it rises up to meet it, finding within itself a spark of light.
This time, Kaworu’s soul drapes itself over Shinji’s, like a blanket.
“You’ve done enough,” Kaworu says, voice soft and close to his ear. “It’s okay. You don’t have to suffer anymore.”
And, oh, how Shinji wants to believe him.
He clenches his fist in the back of Kaworu’s shirt and just leans into him. “I’m—supposed to be—protecting you,” he gasps out, hot tears sliding down his cheeks, and Kaworu shushes him, nuzzles his face against Shinji’s neck.
That day is like a blessing, and that night Kaworu kisses him, sure and sweet, and hugs his waist as he sleeps, and Shinji thinks, this time, it has to be this time.
It’s Kaworu’s soft voice, reassuring him it’s okay, it’s okay, right before everything goes to shit, that haunts him more than anything.)
He has to save Kaworu.
(The next time, it’s too painful, a Kaworu that’s kind to him but doesn’t remember him, and Shinji wonders why he ever thought himself lucky, that last go around.)
He has to.
(One time, he’s too reckless, and he feels the echoes of his mistakes resonating in the next two loops.)
He crafts meticulous plans. He trusts his gut. None of it is enough.
(One time, Shinji says fuck everything and doesn’t even try to save the world. He spends as much time as he can with Kaworu, just enjoying his company and waiting until everything inevitably crumbles. Some days, he can almost pretend that he’s just a normal person, that he’s not repeating the same months over and over again, and he finds himself falling in love with Kaworu all over again.
But he thinks in the back of his mind that he should be doing something, and when he realizes just how close he’s come to giving up, he’s shaken.)
He doesn’t count each redo anymore, because he already hates himself enough. He doesn’t need to make it worse for himself by putting a number on his failures, because, really, who else could fail so horribly, so many times?
He’s certain that if their positions were switched, Kaworu would have saved him by now.
That’s assuming he would even care to save a fuck-up like him, anyway.
He’d like to believe so, even if he sometimes doubts. Kaworu has a steadfast sort of faith in Shinji. No matter how many times they’re introduced and reintroduced, that faith surfaces, asking Shinji to believe. And, however briefly, Shinji does believe. In himself, and in them. They could be amazing. If only he wouldn’t keep failing.
(One time, they run away together, but only for a day. The sun is warmer that day than Shinji remembers it ever being, and it’s pleasant.
Usually they confess things to each other late into the night, with darkness between them, but out here under the sun and blue sky with only a picnic between them, things feel different. Shinji feels lighter, freer. Maybe that’s why it’s so easy to pull Kaworu in and roll until he’s on his back, their bodies pressed close together, and kiss him deep and slow.
It’s only for that day, anyway. Shinji never expected to have more. But then, he’s come to never expect much at all when it comes to the good things.)
Shinji loathes himself. Truly.
(One time, Shinji asks Kaworu to kill him.
He thinks, with some twisted reasoning that he can’t parse next time, that maybe it’s better this way, having Kaworu end him.
But Kaworu is so distraught and Shinji can’t even keep his composure to tell him it’s alright, this had to happen, he’ll do better next time.
He never asks Kaworu to kill him again.)
He’ll keep trying, though. As many times as it takes.
—they fall asleep beneath the stars.
“I love you,” Shinji blurts out. “I really think I was born to meet you, and you were meant to save me from—me. And I’m sorry I haven’t been able to bring you peace yet, but I’m trying. I’m trying.” He sits up and curls in on himself, hugging his knees to his chest. “I’m sorry,” he mumbles.
Kaworu doesn’t respond but, of course, Shinji made sure he was asleep.)
Because Kaworu deserves more than Shinji can give him, but damned if he doesn’t try.
(One time—it hasn’t happened yet, but one time—Shinji will succeed. And Kaworu will smile unfettered and Shinji’s days will pass linearly, forever.
It just hasn’t happened yet.)