Author's Note: Okay, brand spanking new chapter here! (What the hell does "brand spanking new" mean anyway?) I'm not completely happy with this chapter. I'm afraid it might be too slow and quiet. But I can't decide. And I enjoyed trying to reason out some of Misato's character in this chapter. Granted, I didn't get very far in the attempt, but I enjoyed the attempt. The next chapter will be another dream chapter. And then after that I'm gonna start working with the NGE series timeline as I move into episode 17: The 4th Child. Oh yeah, I hadn't told you guys yet. I finally decided that this starts right after episode 16: Sickness Unto Death, And… A couple days after Shinji was stuck in his Eva and trapped inside the 2th Angel for sixteen hours.

Well, I'm working on something else at the same time as this, so it might be awhile before Chapter 4 comes out. Thanks for your patience in getting this one out. And I hope you enjoy this. As always, reviews are desperately desired and needed. Bye.

Oh yeah… I DON'T OWN NGE!

The Way It Should Have Been

Chapter Three: Dealing (Or Not)

She walked into the command center feeling worn and weary. Her dark eyes were dull and her long dark hair fell limp around her face. The black shirt beneath her red leather jacket was wrinkled and untucked. She shuffled listlessly as she walked, as if she had not the energy to pick up her feet. All three of the lieutenants she commanded watched her walk in silently, but she completely ignored the worried glances they sent her and eachother. Barely managing a polite nod to Fuyutsuki, she flopped into her chair and started flipping through the morning reports.

Scanning the results of the last few synchronization tests, she saw how poorly Shinji had been doing since the incident two days ago. Before the incident, he'd been doing better than Asuka. Now his numbers were dropping again. Obviously, he was still feeling off-center and uncertain. Maybe she should talk to him after he got in from school, she thought. Then she remembered who she'd been dreaming about yesterday, and changed her mind. Maybe she could ask Ritsu to talk to him for her. In the meantime, however, he needed more practice.

"Maya, when Shinji comes in after school, set him up for some simulation practice with Unit 01. And after a few rounds of practice, we'll do another synch test. Alright?"

"Yes ma'am," Maya nodded. Fuyutsuki looked up from his own reports to give Misato a curious look, but didn't say anything. After a moment of peering at her, he shrugged and went back to reading the papers in his hand.

Misato asked, practically begged, Makoto to fetch her a very large cup of coffee as she looked down at the status reports for the morning systems check of the Magi. Makoto nodded without saying a word, and left the command center do as she'd asked. When the words of the page started to blur, Misato shook her head to clear it, not that that ever really helped much. She hadn't slept much, and what little sleep she'd had wasn't restful at all. The fear of falling asleep and being plagued by yet another dream about Shinji had frightened her so badly, that she finally had to drink herself into a mindless stupor in order to sleep at all. And then she'd awoken several times in order to crawl to the bathroom and throw up. Even now, she had a splitting headache.

Makoto returned a moment later with a very large cup of steaming black coffee. "Thank you," she muttered to the lieutenant, "you're a god." And she closed her eyes to savor the strong, bitter, wide-awake taste of the coffee, so she did not see Makoto's small blush. But when she opened her eyes again, she saw that Makoto had not returned to his station, and he was watching her quietly. She gave him a look, and this time she did see the pale blush that spread across his face.

"Sorry," he said softly. "I was just wondering if there was something wrong. You seem upset about something. I thought maybe I could help."

Misato blinked at him. Was she that transparent? Well, apparently. With a sigh, and a small smile that did not reach her eyes, she told him: "It's nothing. I'm fine. Really. But thanks for worrying." The man looked as if he wanted to say something more, but finally he nodded, turned smartly on his heel, and returned to his post.

Quiet filled the command center, and for a moment Misato thought she might actually get some peace for a little while. And then Ritsuko walked in. "Misato!" she called out, her voice tinged with just the slightest touch of urgency.

"What?" Misato asked, trying not to wince at Ritsuko's sharp call.

"The UN Committee tells me you still won't let them question Shinji about the incident with the 12th angel. Why not? You know they need to assess the damage. Make sure the angel didn't try to brainwash him or anything while he was out of contact for those sixteen hours."

Misato sighed. She was not up to fighting with Ritsuko about this. "Ritsu…" she began quietly, hoping to appease the woman. But one look at Ritsu's implacable face told her that would not work. Seemed, she'd have to fight whether she was up to it or not. "I said no," Misato said firmly. "Have you seen his synch rates since the incident? They're abysmally low. He's obviously still feeling uncertain, scared. His mind his fragile, and he had one hell of an ordeal being stuck in his Eva for so long. He's not ready. You know as well as I do how harsh and cruel those people can be. They don't care about consequences, or the people they deal with, as long as they get results. They'd rip him apart."

"Misato…" Ritsuko started.

"No."

Ritsuko sighed and stuffed her hands in the pockets of her large, white lab coat. "You know, they're starting to doubt your objectivity and clear-headedness. You shouldn't give them any more reason to doubt you."

Misato rubbed her temples with the tips of her fingers, and fought a sudden wave of weariness. But said with firm resolve: "I don't care." Ritsu made a small choking noise low in her throat. Misato opened her eyes and peered at her friend. The woman looked anxious and irritated, and it was obvious she was trying to think of a way to convince Misato to change her mind. There was more to this than wanting to know if the Angel had contacted Shinji. "What are you hiding from me?" Misato asked.

Ritsuko blinked in shock. "What? Nothing. Why would you think I'm hiding anything? Don't turn into a paranoid conspiracy theorist like Kaji. Okay? It's not healthy." With that Ritsuko, turned around and walked out.

Misato did not see Ritsu again until late in the afternoon, when Shinji, Rei, and Asuka had arrived from school. Shinji was going through simulations, Rei was doing more synch tests, and Asuka was busy trying (and failing, Misato might add) to flirt with Kaji. Ritsuko walked up behind Misato as the dark-haired woman ran through some more system checks on the Magi. This had become a thrice-daily ritual since the incident with the 9th angel.

"I see you have Shinji working more than the others," Ritsuko said without making her presence known first. Misato jumped and whirled around to face the blonde.

"Yeah," she said finally. "I'm hoping some simulations will get the fear out of his system so his synch rate will be better. Like it was before the 12th angel."

Ritsu nodded. "Ah yes, the 12th angel… The child really was being very foolish when he tried to take the thing on by himself."

"He's not a child," Misato whispered, before she even knew what she was saying.

Ritsuko peered at her, confused. "Of course he's a child. He's certainly not a man."

Misato glared at Ritsuko angrily, though she didn't even know where the anger had come from. "Could a child do any of things he's done?" Misato asked pointedly. "Could a child fight for the lives of all these people, every day, despite all his fear and pain, like Shinji does? Could a child feel so much fear and yet keep coming back to do what he knows he must? Could a child pilot that damn monster every day and not go insane?"

Ritsuko stared at her and Misato sighed.

"None of them are children, Ritsu. But Shinji's even less a child than the girls. Asuka's too childishly arrogant and competitive to be logical or rational or intelligence. She should fear the angels a lot more than she does. And Rei doesn't seem to even understand fear, or any emotion. For her it is not a matter of duty or courage, it is a matter of complete passivity. But Shinji… He is terrified. Any man would be when faced with monsters out of nightmare, and death, and the fact that the fate of the world rests on his shoulders. Courage isn't the absence of fear, it is doing what you must even despite your terror. He is scared every day, but he does what he must anyway. If that doesn't make him a man, than I don't know what else possibly could."

Ritsuko stared at her with wide eyes as the Major fell silent. Misato had no idea where that had come from. The rant had come out of nowhere, but now that she had said it, and thought about it, she knew she was right. Facing death every day made Shinji more of a man than most men she knew. Becausem despite all his shy stuttering and passive apologies and fear in battle, he had more maturity than almost anyone else she knew.

"Misato… Are you alright?" Ritsuko asked, obviously deciding to chalk Misato's outburst to sickness or something.

"Yeah. Just tired or something. Sorry…" she muttered.

Ritsuko peered at her sharply. "Is something bothering you? Did Kaji do something stupid?"

"Kaji?" Misato repeated dumbly.

"Yeah, Kaji, you know… Big, dumb, scruffy, shameless flirt…" Ritsu listed off with an amused smile.

Heh. Misato hadn't thought about Kaji in days. Thinking about him now… Yeah, she supposed her perpetual annoyance and unfathomable obsession with the man might have had something to do with her mood. But not much. After all, it hadn't been Kaji she was living with in her dreams. She shook her head.

"No, no. Kaji hasn't done anything. I haven't even seen him all day." Maya called to her suddenly, to tell her she had a phone call, and Misato said to Ritsu apologetically: "Sorry, gotta take this. I'll talk to you later. Alright?"

Ritsuko nodded and said, "See you later." And the blonde walked out.

Apparently, Misato should have knocked on wood when she said she hadn't seen Kaji all day; apparently God or Fate or whatever was listening to her with a sadistic smile. She ran into Kaji at the soda machines not even ten minutes after Ritsuko had left. He was sliding a couple coins into the soda machine as she walked in and she was about to simply turn around and walk away before he noticed her presence. But Kaji looked up right at that moment and called to her. Though she was very hard-pressed to make herself care, she knew it would be rude of her to simply walk out now. So she turned back around and gave him a small smile.

"Good afternoon, Kaji," she said.

"How are you this fine day, Misato?" Kaji asked as he received his soda and opened it with a quiet pop. He walked toward her and she took his place in front of the soda machine.

"Just fine. And you?"

"Wonderful."

He peered at her and his brows furrowed for a moment. "You alright?" he asked.

She glared at him. Everyone kept asking her that today. "I'm fine," she said shortly.

He nodded with a smile and leaned toward her, putting an arm on her shoulder companionably. When she tried to shrug him off, he simply wrapped his arm around her arm and smiled brightly. "So," he said cheerfully, "I found this great little bar in the city. I think we should check it out tonight. What d'ya say?"

Misato glanced at him. The offer was strangely tempting. She was sick of drinking alone. However, she knew all too well that Kaji was not the type to be trusted, and she definitely shouldn't let herself get too friendly with him again. Then again, there were times late at night when she really missed him. But on the other hand, getting drunk and kissing him once was more than enough. The last thing she needed to do was get into another tangled, unhealthy relationship with him again. All these thoughts raced through her brain in quick succession, until finally, she forced herself to decline.

"No, I don't think so, Kaji," she said, then she added: "but thanks anyway. Maybe some other time," to soften the sharp tone she started with.

Kaji leaned into her more and slid his hand in a slow caress up her arm, gave her a charming smile, and whispered: "You sure… We could have a few laughs, just like old times." He pressed the button on the soda machine for her, and they both listened to the can fall into the tray, but neither moved to pick it up. Kaji's face came closer and closer to Misato's, and she felt her heart racing in her chest. What the hell…? her brain whispered. She could never understand why she still reacted to him so much, after all this time.

"Kaji…" she whispered, though she had no idea what she would say next.

Then all words left her when Kaji very, very gently brushed his lips against hers. She gasped and every nerve in her body went into overload. She felt her arms slowly rise to circle around his neck, but at the last moment she managed to stop herself. Taking a deep breath, she braced both her hands against his chest and pushed him away, though she tried not to be rough about it.

"Kaji…" she whispered again. "I don't want the old times." And it was only half a lie, instead of a whole one. He stared at her, and she could tell that he was trying and failing to find something to say. Silently, she leaned down and snatched her can of soda from the machine. Then she walked away without looking back at him. She was afraid that if she glanced back, she'd find herself changing her mind quicker than she could blink. The impulse was impossible to fight, to try was to lose, so she simply denied it battle.

"Misato?" Asuka called as she poked Misato's arm for the third time. Misato was staring at the can of beer in her hand and hadn't moved in about fifteen minutes. She hadn't even bothered to eat her dinner, which was very unusual. Finally, Misato looked up at Asuka's prodding. "You alright?" the red-head asked.

Misato scowled. She was starting to get sick of that question. All day everyone at work had been asking her the same thing. "I'm fine," she said in a voice that was just on the edges of polite. Asuka shrugged and went to her room.

Shinji, who had been flipping channels on the television, looked up at the exchange and gave Misato a puzzled look. Misato glanced at him, felt herself beginning to flush, and quickly looked away. But she knew she wasn't acting like herself, and she needed to remedy that. She flashed Shinji a bright smile, gulped down her beer, and slammed the empty can on to the table. With a loud "oh yeah!" she smiled again at Shinji and offered him a beer.

As usual, he refused. But it was a routine for her to offer him one by now. For a moment, she thought she had averted any questions, but apparently, there was still something in her expression that screamed: "I'm fucked up!" because Shinji once again gave her a worried look.

"Are you really alright, Misato?" he asked. Misato blinked at him. A few months ago he would never have been perceptive enough to tell something was wrong, and even if he had he'd never have had the guts to mention it.

"Of course. I'm fine. Wonderful. Marvellous. Perfect. Couldn't be better!" She burst into hardy laughter, but it sounded strange and unfamiliar in her ears, and she was certain Shinji knew she was faking.

He peered at her and cocked his head to the side, a little like a confused puppy. It was really very cute…

I so did not just think that! Misato's brain screamed furiously.

Before her subconscious had a chance to argue, Shinji said, "Misato… if there's something bothering you, you can talk to me, you know. I always end up dumping my problems on you. I'd be more than willing to listen to you if you need to talk." Again Misato blinked at him. Was this seriously Shinji?

Embarrassed for several reasons, she started to turn a little red around her ears and neck, she could feel the heat in her face that warned of a full-blown blush. "I'm fine," she snapped, trying to avoid further interrogation.

"You're sure?"

"Damn it! How many times must people ask me that today? Yes! I'm fine! Yes! I'm sure! Leave me the fuck alone!" She had no idea where the outburst had come from. Anger and frustration and embarrassment and exhaustion had just simmered and melted into a one strange all-encompassing emotion, which had then bubbled up and exploded in Shinji's face.

As Misato struggled to calm her breathing and unclench her fists, Shinji gaped at her, stunned and hurt. "I'm sorry," he whispered in a voice that was almost a whimper. "I'm sorry," he said again. His trademark response to anything and everything. "I didn't mean to make you angry," he mumbled.

Suddenly, his constant apologies really irritated her. Sounding amazingly like Asuka, Misato burst into another fit of shouting. "And stop apologizing all the damn time! Who said it was your fault I'm angry? Who said you had anything to do with my bad mood? You've got nothing to do with it!"

And of course, Shinji's only possible response was: "I'm sorry."

"God!" Misato screamed, throwing her hands in the air in a fit of frustration and anger. She'd had enough of this. She couldn't face Shinji. For some strange reason, he was just pissing her off tonight. With a final grunt of annoyance, she stalked off to her bedroom and slammed the door. Throwing herself onto her bed, she closed her eyes and tried not to think about anything. She could hear Asuka emerge from her room and ask Shinji what the hell had happened.

"Nothing. She's just in a bad mood, I think," Shinji said quietly.

"I wonder what set her off," Asuka mused.

Misato could picture Shinji's narrow shoulders lift in a little shrug as he said: "I don't know. Maybe Kaji did something to piss her off."

Misato scowled and opened her eyes to stare at the ceiling. Why did everyone think that her world revolved around Kaji? She had a wide range of emotions that did not stem from her relationship with Kaji – granted she didn't show most of them most of the time, but people should still realize that.

Sighing, she turned on her side. What the hell was wrong with her anyway? Nothing made any sense anymore. Ritsuko was hiding something from her. She was practically challenging Nerv's authority by denying them access to Shinji. Her feelings for Kaji were a jumbled mess of desire, fury, and irritation. And she was having dreams about Shinji. What the fuck was going on? Why was this happening to her? Groaning angrily and squirming on her bed, Misato muttered: "Why is this happening to me?"

And then she froze. It all started two days ago, when Shinji had nearly died trapped within the twelfth angel. For sixteen hours she had been tortured by not knowing whether he was alive or not. Knowing that Ritsuko was willing to let him die. Knowing there wasn't a damn thing she could do. Knowing that she would be completely devastated if he died in that Eva. And when he emerged traumatized but alive and whole, she could do nothing but cry and thank every god that existed that he was there in her arms. She should have been furious; she should have reprimanded him; she was too thankful he was alive to be angry.

It was all Shinji's fault. He was there. Being so sweet and scared and vulnerable and passive and eager to please and desperate for love. So like she was when her father died. And for some reason the sympathy she felt for him, the care and worry she reserved for him, had transformed into that crazy, ridiculous, impossible dream. It was all his fault. No one could blame her for these dreams. No one could call her pathetic or a pervert or a cradle-robber because she didn't choose this. He was making her have these dreams. It was all Shinji's fault.

Her eyes drifted close and she let out a long soft breath. Well, that was one way of dealing with it, said her more rational (and rather sarcastic) inner voice, blame anyone but yourself. But she couldn't think about that right now. And as she stumbled clumsily into sleep, her last coherent thought was: damn, I need a drink.