A/N: We all saw something like this coming.

When She Smiles

Chapter 5

Some things just aren't easy to do. She stalled as long as she could. Lord knows she tried to resolve the problem another way. If there was another way, any other way, Misato would have found it, because that's what people do when they're determined... when they're desperate. She gave much thought to the issue. Considered all the possible consequences. There was no way it would end well. There was no good way to break the news. She had considered never telling him, but that would only backfire on her later. Asuka called him almost nightly since the hospital granted her phone privileges. He would grow suspicious in a couple of days.

Still, Misato waited as long as she could. A full day passed before before she sat Shinji down in the living room and asked him to talk. She tried to be gentle and comforting and that put him on edge. The soft tone of her voice and the way she continued to stare at him, gauging his reaction. She hadn't said a word and he was already in distress.

"Shinji... I..."

Misato stopped and took two long yet shallow breaths. There was something awful in Shinji's face. It reminded her of the time she told Kaji she was transferring to work in another city and that he shouldn't try to follow. He knew what was coming before she'd spoken. Known it and dreaded it it. And Misato had to say it anyways. It's an awful feeling...

"Asuka's gone missing."

...to deliberately break someone's heart.

"Wha... you... no... no..."

Shinji faltered in his speech, but Misato pressed forward with her explanation. The faster he accepted it, the easier it would be.

"She's been gone for a few hours now."

A day and a half... 37 hours since the nurse found her room empty. And I didn't tell you because I thought we could find her without you. But we can't. And I will die before you find out how long I waited to tell you because I am a coward who has no shame. I have tried to feel bad about this and many other things, but I've only failed. As long as you're okay I can continue to live this way. I can continue to pretend that I didn't spend the last 2 years of my life contributing to an organization which had no problem driving the two of you to insanity. I can pretend that your eyes aren't filled with resentment and distrust every time I see your face. I can pretend that these feelings, even if they did exist, are unfounded. That I am not a person worthy of resentment. And I can live with you near me and pretend that you're with me and that we're all on the edge of happiness, not despair. And if you ruin that for me tonight... I don't know what I'll do...

"Where is she?"

"We don't know Shinji, that's why-"

"Where's Asuka!"

"Calm down."

In an instant he was up on his feet.

"I've got to find her, I've got to..."

He headed for the door.

"Wait," said Misato and surprisingly he did stop. "I have people looking for her already. If you go out there all you're going to do is complicate things."

"But she's... she's out there and... by herself. And anything could happen to her and she told me not to come, but why did I listen! God, I gotta find her she's lost out there."

Misato moved to where he stood and placed a hand on Shinji's shoulder. He looked at her as if she were insane.

"You can't help her that way," said Misato quietly. There was just enough metal in her voice to reinforce the statement as fact, not opinion. "If you know of any places she might have gone, anybody she'd want to go see, please tell me and we can get someone to-"

Shinji shrugged her hand away and quickly made for the door.

"Wait," said Misato. He did not heed her. He scrambled to put his shoes on. It was a messy, hasty affair.

"This doesn't make any sense. There's nothing you can do for her right now. Just... trust me okay?"

Shinji didn't say a word. He opened the door and walked into the hallway without closing it. Misato stood in the doorway behind him.

"Dammit Shinji! What are you going to do? Where are you going to find her? We have enough people out there looking for her already, but now we'll have to have people looking for you too! Is that what you want? You're only hurting our chances. They were damn slim to begin with and you're killing them now. You idiot! You bastard!" Misato's voice suddenly grew weaker. "Get back in here. Don't leave..."

But Shinji was around the corner and he didn't even look back. Probably didn't hear a word she said. And so what? Screw him. Let him leave. They always leave and she's better off without them because when you're by yourself they can't leave you anymore. And all he ever did was hurt her and take from her... but you took from him too... and if he's gone will there ever be another one willing to stay? Probably not. Not for Misato because... all my friends are dead. But screw the whole lot of them. She didn't need them but- I hate being alone- and he's all she had.

All I have...

Her coat and shoes were on. She hastily grabbed her car keys in hand. Swiftly she walked down the hall, took the steps two at a time, and nearly ran into the parking garage. She pressed a button on the key chain and the car unlocked. In the door, start the engine, put it in gear and drive.

It was a long street. He either went left, or he went right, but he couldn't have gotten too far on foot. She turned right, driving several miles over the speed limit. Carefully, she scanned both sides of the street. 5 minutes in and still no sign of him. She pulled into a drive way and turned around. Driving faster to make up for lost time, she found him walking in the same direction. She slowed the car to match his pace and rolled down the window. His head was panning the horizon for any sign of Asuka. He was calling out her name.

"Get in the car Shinji."

"Asuka! Come on Asuka!"

"It's a big city. She won't hear you."


"Please get in the car."

"Asuka, where are you!"

"If you get in the car we can look together. It'd be a lot faster that way."

He looked at her for a second as if truly considering the offer. Misato was surprised, as it was an idea that just randomly sprang into her head. But in a moment, Shinji looked away from her and continued his search.

"Asuka!" Yelled Shinji, cupping his hands around his mouth.

"This is pointless," said Misato. "I'm leaving."

But she didn't leave. Didn't make the slightest move to do so. The car continued to move at the same steady pace as Shinji.

"What good will screaming out her name do if she doesn't want to be found? She'll hear you calling and run the other way."

Shinji continued to walk, but for a while he was silent. Misato thought she had won a minor victory before he began to yell out the girl's name again.

"Do you even want to find her?" she asked. "If you really did you wouldn't be-"

"Shut up!" said Shinji. This was the first and only time he'd ever spoken to her this way. Misato recoiled as if slapped.

"You don't even like Asuka! You wouldn't tell me anything about what was happening or how she was doing! You don't care about anything I ever told you about her. You just wanted me there for yourself. You never cared about her and you never cared about me. So just leave me the hell alone!"

Misato stopped driving and Shinji continued to walk. She watched as he got further and further ahead. She tried to think of the ignorance of children, how they say one thing one day and the opposite the next. But Shinji wasn't just a kid anymore. He meant what he said. He was going to walk away, and he wasn't coming back.

She could make a few calls and have him detained. She still had enough lingering influence over certain former Section 2 members to do that. But if he honestly felt that way, what difference would it make? It'd be just as useless as what he was doing now. So instead she watched him leave with tears glistening in her eyes.

When Kodama still lived at home, Hikari always placed three sets of dishes at the dinner table. At first she didn't even realize she was doing it. She would sit across from Kodama and they would make light conversation which always lapsed into silence. Hikari would barely take note of her sister's occasional glances towards the empty place setting. Sometimes she would look in that direction as well, but she saw nothing odd about the situation. It was only when Kodama politely pointed out that there were only two of them eating, that Hikari recognized the error of setting a place for Nozomi. She remembered feeling embarrassed about it and blushing heavily.

Hikari recognized that Nozomi most likely wouldn't be coming back. It happened to a lot of little kids after the impact. Some psychologist said that it had something to do with the minds of young children being too fragile and uncertain to manifest themselves physically, but that explanation didn't account for the few children who did manage to make it out of the sea. In some cases children as young as toddlers have returned.

Once Hikari recognized her mistake, she did nothing to remedy it. She tried a few nights eating without the extra dishes serving as a place holder, but somehow that felt alien and strange. It was as if she had given up on Nozomi, which in some ways she had. People were coming back less and less frequently as the years drug on. Hikari no longer waited up at night to hear news that her little sister had come home. Yet despite Kodama's obvious discomfort and her own fading optimism, she continued to set a place for the girl. When Kodama left to attend Tokyo-2 University, Hikari cut back to two dinner plates.

In some ways Hikari missed Kodama just as much as she did Nozomi, but overall it was a good thing that she decided to move out. Kodama always had her sights set on bigger and better things, even if she didn't always know what those things were. Hikari could tell that a part of her despised their broken little home in the same way that she hated Nozomi and their father for leaving it. Kodama was glad to be gone and Hikari tried to be happy for her. At least she sent money home monthly and never failed to make it back for the holidays.

For the most part, Hikari didn't mind living alone. In some ways it was a welcome change to her life at school which consisted mostly of concerns for other people. She overwhelmed herself with her own conviction. She wanted so many good things for so many people that it hurt sometimes. It seemed as if everyone was in pain. Hikari felt that pain acutely. She strained herself to find new ways to help the people around her. And while she took great joy in doing the little bit she could to ameliorate the situation, it never felt like enough. When at home those pressures diminished. Within the privacy of these familiar four walls she was finally able to take care of herself. Tonight was no different.

After school Hikari began her familiar routine. She went to her room and changed out of her school uniform. Despite being the only resident of the home she still slept in the room she once shared with Kodama as if the ghost of her father scared her away from the master bedroom. After dressing in a pair of shorts and a loose fitting t-shirt she made her way into the kitchen and put on a pot of tea. Occasionally she liked to try different flavors, but peach would always be her favorite. When the tea was ready she poured herself a cup and brought it into the living room on a tray. Hikari settled into her favorite chair and turned on the TV. She quickly turned the channel when she noticed the evening news was on. The sad stories sometimes made her cry. She flipped through channels aimlessly until she stumbled upon an old sitcom that had been in syndication before either impact affected the world.

The show was called Rolling With the Family. It was an old American sitcom that had been poorly dubbed into Japanese. The star of the show was a sarcastic middle aged matriarch who was in charge of her quirky and colorful family. She made all the decisions in the house while giving the appearance of submitting to her loving, yet stubborn husband. The children were often disobedient, but never subordinate and it was clear that everybody loved each other. Things went wrong in their little world, but in a half an hour the problems always repaired themselves. It was perfect. Hikari had just begun to lose herself in the light instrumentals of the title sequence when she heard a knock on her door. She jumped in surprise.

"I'm coming," she called, but the frantic knocking continued.

Hikari wasn't particularly afraid of crime, having lived in the better areas of Tokyo-3 most of her life, but her father had instilled several safety habits in her that would not leave. She peered through the peep hole briefly before unlocking the door and opening it. Shinji stared at her with a startled expression, as if he hadn't expected to be let in. He was sweating profusely like he'd been running for miles. His eyelids were half closed despite his eyebrows being raised to their highest height. Hikari let out a gasp of surprised.

"Shinji what's wrong?" she asked.

"Have you seen her?" asked Shinji, his voice strained with anticipation. "Is she here?"

Hikari felt even more alarmed.

"Who are you talking about?"

Shinji didn't answer her. Instead he hung his head and shamefully began to cry. For a moment Hikari stared at him as he tried to hide his weeping by burying his face in the crook of his arm. Before long she regained her bearings, grabbed him by the shoulder and gently lead him through the doorway. She quietly closed and locked the door behind her before guiding the weeping young man through the hallway and into the kitchen. Hikari sat him down at the table and pulled up another seat as close as possible. She placed an arm around his shoulder and took one of his hands into her own. She gave his hand a squeeze and said as firmly as she could, "Everything will be okay."

Hikari wondered if those words were true as Shinji continued to cry. The intensity of his sobbing decreased, but it was several minutes before the tears completely ceased to flow. Hikari firmly held his hand and avoided looking into his face as he composed himself. Her father had taught her that it was important to maintain dignity in vulnerable states. It was a lesson all his children were forced to learn after their mother's death. When Shinji's breathing evened out Hikari looked up into his tear streaked face and asked him "Are you okay now?"

Shinji shook his head. "I-I'm sorry," he said and nothing more.

"It's alright," said Hikari. The two of them were silent for several seconds. "Let me take you to the bathroom so you can get cleaned up."

Shinji shook his head in protest and mumbled something about needing to go. Hikari said nothing and lead him down the hallway by hand. She stopped briefly to grab a rag and a towel from a nearby closet. When they reached the bathroom Hikari filled the sink with hot water and handed Shinji the rag.

"I'll just wait outside," she said quietly. She closed the door behind her as she left the bathroom and leaned against the opposite wall. Her breathing was deep and deliberate as the minutes ticked by and she wondered why something always went wrong with everyone. Still she knew that Shinji would be okay because she was there to take care of him. She too would be fine because she had someone to take care of.

When Shinji exited the bathroom Hikari dispelled any visable signs of doubt and doned a mask of calm sympathy. Shinji's eyes were still red, but his face looked a lot cleaner. Though clearly anxious, he no longer seemed wild. Hikari was glad she allowed him to compose himself. He was now ready for civilized conversation.

"Thank you," he said awkwardly, not meeting her eyes. "I really... I have to go now."

His hands were shaking at his sides as he spoke. Hikari took one of them into her own and led him to the kitchen. Despite his earlier statement, he sat when she pulled out a chair for him. Hikari watched his face closely as she pulled another tea cup from the cupboard and poured him a serving. With a shaking hand Shinji grabbed the cup and drank. Hikari felt a wave of pitty overtake her. No one should be so docile.

"Shinji, What's wrong?"

For a second it seemed as if he'd start to cry again. But then his lips formed into a familiar self-depreciating smile. "I looked everywhere," he said blandly. "Everywhere I could think of and she's not there."

"Who are you looking for?" Hikari asked. "Ms. Katsuragi?"

"No," said Shinji shaking his head emphatically. "Asuka."

Hikari could not stop the gasp that escaped her lips. She raised a hand to her mouth and reeled in shock.

"But Asuka's in the hospital. Where would she go?"

"I don't know..." said Shinji pitifully.

"But why would she leave?" asked Hikari hurriedly as if each word could not wait for the other to leave her mouth. "You said she was getting better..."

"They said she was... but she's gone now." Shinji lowered his head into his hands. "And everything she said... I should have known this would happen!"

"It's not your fault," said Hikari patting him lightly on the shoulder. But she stopped as an awful thought occurred to her. Her eyes widened in renewed fear. "Oh my god Shinji, what if she has another seizure?"

Shinji stared at her as if she'd just suggested that Asuka would grow a tail. Hikari felt as if something broke inside her. Asuka wasn't just going to suddenly be okay one day, Her father and Nozomi were as good as dead, and Kodama could barely stand to be around her because of how much she reminded her of their mutual losses. She couldn't help Shinji feel better about anything because she couldn't do anything to change the world. She couldn't stop a seizure, she couldn't stop another impact from coming out of the blue, and she couldn't stop death.

Hikari looked up at Shinji through clouded eyes as he patted her awkwardly on the back. A strange role reversal had occurred. Hikari was the sad and inconsolable one and Shinji was her comforter. Only... he was awful at it. Hikari began to sob harder. This was wrong.

"She'll be okay," said Shinji, but he sounded uncertain and scared. "She won't have any seizures."

"How do you know?" she asked. "Anything could happen..."

"She can't have seizures," said Shinji suddenly sounding more resolute. "She's never had a seizure before. So don't cry..."

Hikari managed to bring herself under some semblance of control. Shinji's words had done little to console her. She was now fully and utterly confused.

"What do you mean she's never had a seizure?"

When it became apparent that he wouldn't answer, Hikari looked up from the table and into the face of a liar. Shinji looked like a mouse trapped in a corner. He quickly turned from her gaze.

"I... I just didn't want to be sad."

"Shinji?" Hikari asked. "What are you trying to say?"

"I'm sorry," said Shinji staring into his dark tea. "It's just... I feel bad. I feel bad almost all the time. But when I talked to you... I don't know... I felt a little bit better."

"So was any of it true?" Hikari was shocked by the edge in her own voice, but she only felt angrier when Shinji apologized again. For a while there was silence. Hikari couldn't wrap her mind around the situation properly. Shinji had lied to her and betrayed her trust just to make himself feel better. She understood that. But he completely disregarded her feelings. And now when things were really bad he had the nerve to come to her house and ask her for help?

"I'm awful..." said Shinji with all the self-pity in the world. Hikari clenched her hands into fists. How dare he play the victim? For the first time since the impact Hikari felt the desire to do physical harm to someone, but she hated feeling this way. She hated being angry because anger accomplished nothing. And she hated being depressed because that didn't solve anything either. But there was Shinji with his sloppy posture and shadowy eyelids practically begging her to feel sorry for him and show compassion, forcing his problems onto her. But this time she just couldn't give a damn for his sad little sob story. She didn't have to take this.

"Get out of my house," she said, her voice shaking with every word.

Shinji stared at her in shocked disbelief.

"Get out!" she yelled and he hastily pulled away from her apologizing profusely. He sounded quite pathetic in his need for her forgiveness, but as far as she was concerned Shinji didn't exist anymore.

Hikari saw the kitchen table with the two table settings. She heard footsteps growing fainter and fainter. The door opened and closed audibly and Hikari felt her rapid breathing began to slow. She took a sip of her tea, but instantly regretted it. She was in no mood for it now. Some of it's contents spilled on the table as she set the cup down harder than she intended. She hastily set the cup in the sink and cleaned up the minor mess she had made.

"I lost control," she said to no one in particular as she wiped the table with a rag. She liked to talk to herself sometimes. It was the easiest way to sort out her thoughts when alone. "What Shinji did was wrong... but I shouldn't have lost control."

Hikari felt a little uneasy. She wished that maybe she had given Shinji a better chance to explain. She wouldn't have forgiven him, not so quickly anyways, but perhaps she could have found out more about what was really wrong with Asuka. Maybe she could have helped.

"Water under the bridge," said Hikari. But she laughed at herself because she knew it wasn't true. Her left hand was still balled into a fist. She finally released it.

Hikari suddenly felt extremely tired and very much alone. She headed into the living room and decided to call her sister. She pulled the curtains back slightly with one hand and used the other hand to dial as she looked out the window. It wasn't that she really expected to see anyone out there. She didn't expect Shinji to hang around after that confrontation and it wasn't as if she'd somehow stumble upon Asuka. The phone rang insistently in her ears until…

"Hi, this is Kodama. I'm not in right now but leave me a message and I'll get back to you. Ciao!"

Hikari hung up the phone with a sigh. Her arms wrapped around herself in a hug. It wasn't comforting, but it was a little bit better. Things would be bad for a little while, but they'd been worse before. Hikari would make it through this night and anything else that came along with it. After all, she couldn't take care of other people if she didn't know how to take care of herself.

After the impact the future of NERV was uncertain. Publicly they were classified as a federally funded biological research facility. Their goal had always been to progressively increase technology to further the function and survival of mankind. Many things had changed since the third impact occurred, but that was one thing that the survivors of the company felt should not.

The Japanese government (when there were enough people back to warrant a Japanese government) were surprisingly lenient with pardons and reparations. After the conclusion of a year long investigation almost everyone within the company were cleared of the charges of treason and genocide. Those who did not receive pardon had not returned from the sea of souls, for the most part. The core of the company was not held responsible for the sins of its head. They were given a clean slate to start anew.

About a year and a half after she returned from the sea, Misato and all the other high ranking officials from NERV branches across the world held a lengthy meeting to decide the fate of the company. After days of deliberation and debate, key decisions were made. The branches would split off from each other. Each branch would undergo a name change and sign a non-competition agreement among all the other branches. Any scientific discoveries found in one branch would be made available to the others within 2 years of discovery.

Some branches continued to focus on weaponry and defensive technology. Others, like the American branch, chose to research new energy sources. Particularly the potential use of the S2 engine in a commercial power grid. NERV Japan, always having specialized in biomimetics, renamed itself Gherin Technologies and focused its energy toward the production and sales of high-function synthetic body parts.

Gherin Technologies utilized the data recorded from project EVA to create living prosthetic body parts in order to aid those who have been injured and lost limbs. How this process worked was always somewhat of a mystery to Misato, who had almost no biological background whatsoever, unless you counted that sprint anatomy course she took with Kaji in college (but the university refused to give them credit for that). From what she could gather an arm or a leg was grown from some cell somehow and hooked up to the patient some way. From there some kind of synchronization process took place which somehow allowed the patient to move the limb to some degree. It was a very scientific process that was far from perfect.

So far there had been no success with replacing complicated sensory organs such as the eyes or eardrums. The synchronization ratio is just too low. 100 percent synchronization had never been achieved with any transplant. 89 percent was the highest synchronization ratio achieved so far. The 10 year old girl who managed it said it was almost exactly like having her old arm back. She was quite happy. Cute kid too. So even if Misato didn't understand exactly what it was her people did to make it all work, she was glad to help them do it.

As directer of Gherin Technologies, Misato had few duties that directly corresponded with the work done there. Her main responsibilities involved lots of paperwork, most of which consisted of requests for government funding. When she wasn't formally begging the Japanese government for spare scraps of cash, she was informally begging them for it during the various unscheduled inspections and progress assessments. Her only other duty was to hire staff.

Misato tried her best to secure jobs for as many former NERV employees as she could but it was impossible to keep everyone. A private research company had little use for its own secret service, but she did manage to line up security jobs for the more distinguished Section 2 members. Still, not everyone who worked for NERV wanted their old jobs back. Maya, who was perhaps the most brilliant biotechnologist left in the company after Ritsuko's death, respectfully declined the position for head of research. No thank you, she said. She had seen enough to last a lifetime. Misato heard from Aoba that she went back to college to study clinical medicine, which he claimed was a complete waste of her talents. Misato was saddened by the loss because neither he nor Makoto were really fit to fill her shoes. Still she didn't really blame Maya. A former member of the German branch of NERV took the job instead. He was the quiet nerdy type of man that was completely dedicated to his work. While Misato was used to that type of person, he had none of the redeeming qualities held by someone like Ritsuko. That is to say, he had no discernible personality. But at least he was good at what he did.

Everyone was good at what they did, really. It was why Misato liked being at work. Errors were rare and usually fixable. There was almost always something that she could do. When she was there, she felt useful. She'd spent the last 5 hours catching up on her paper work and she was finally finished. Now she was observing Makoto at work.

Standing behind him at his desk she placed a hand on his shoulder and asked, "How is it coming along?" She felt it was her duty to establish a friendly and encouraging work environment. She could not understand Gendo's way of running things. There was no reason to instill fear when you already had your colleagues respect.

Makoto adjusted his glasses and glanced at her briefly from behind them before returning his eyes to the data sheets he was looking over. "It's going fine. Just finishing up some statistical odds and ends."

"Oh?" asked Misato giving his shoulder a light squeeze. They'd always gotten along rather well. "Sounds pretty boring and tedious to me."

Makoto chuckled. "I'd be lying if I said it was interesting. Just averages and standard deviations. Nothing for the Chief Director to worry about."

Misato felt herself smiling despite being unamused. She knew that this was supposed to be typical office banter. The type of comment one throws out purely for the purpose of being forgotten. But something about his words irked her. She absentmindedly forgot to move her hand.

"I'll be done pretty soon," said Makoto after a moment. "I just have to enter the data into the computer is all. You can leave if you want to."

If Misato had found his words annoying before, they now felt alien and unnerving. Most likely he was trying to save her the boredom of watching over him, but it was as if she was being dismissed. She made no move to leave. She didn't even move her hand from his shoulder. She was the boss. It was her job to be there. There was no reason for her to leave. And even if there was, what would she leave to?

"I don't mind staying a little longer," she said placing her other hand on his other shoulder. She felt Makoto tense and reminded herself how well the two of them got along. "What are you doing after work?" she asked. The words felt strange coming out of her mouth. She almost wanted to take them back.

Makoto laughed. Nervously. It was an odd sound.

"I'm just going home, Ms. Katsuragi. It's already pretty late." His speech was oddly formal.

"Are you sure you don't want to do something else?" asked Misato and she was really beginning to hate her own word choice. It wasn't supposed to sound so forward. She needed to amend herself. "Like grabbing some drinks?" she asked and then regretted that too. She didn't want to drink alcohol because if she started she wasn't sure that she could stop. But maybe if she asked Makoto nicely, he'd stop her from drinking too much before anything bad happened. Maybe she'd listen to him too, because they always got along pretty well. She began to massage his shoulders. I wonder how well we'll get along tonight - but that thought didn't even feel remotely right.

"I wish I could but," said Makoto chuckling oddly again, "but I have to get home." Was this funny to him? It wasn't remotely funny to her.

"Can't you be home a little later tonight?" Misato asked in a low pleading tone. It disgusted her what she was doing with her voice. She shouldn't have to beg this way to hang out with... a friend? A fellow worker?... it didn't really matter. He was Makoto. It shouldn't have been so difficult.

"Sorry Ms. Katsuragi but I should really get back." he said. "My girlfriend will worry."

"Oh," said Misato. She withdrew her hands slowly, but maintained her distance behind him. "Okay... I don't see why..." But she cut herself off. She was going to say, I don't see why you can't call her and let her know you're hanging out with an old friend, but luckily she stopped herself. She couldn't beg him to have drinks with her, because they weren't old friends. They got along well at work because they barely had to get along at all. He might have had a crush on her years ago, but now they hardly saw each other in a social capacity. He was her employee and nothing more. So Misato stood in silence as Makoto began to type again.

This was pathetic. She was pathetic because this was how she needed to behave. Tears began to well up in her eyes and she blinked them away. She wouldn't cry there leaning so close to her subordinate because she was the boss. There at Gherin she was strong and unwavering. She did her job, she did it well, and nothing outside of that reality existed.

Minutes passed and the sound of typing ceased. Makoto was looking up at her but she refused to look at him. She continued to stare at his screen.

"You look tired Misato," he said tentatively. "Why don't you go home? There's nothing to do here tonight."

Misato stared at Makoto's computer monitor and ignored the moisture rolling down her cheeks. She breathed deeply for several long moments until her body was under control. In the calmest tone she could muster she said, "I do not want to go home right now, Mr. Hyuga." Now she was the formal one.

"Okay," he said quietly. For a moment he sat there looking at her. Then he turned around in his chair and opened a new window on his computer.

"I... I just realized something."

"What's that?" asked Misato.

"They're going to be testing the new heart synchronization process tomorrow and I still have some data to analyze from the tests they did last week." Makoto looked up at her and smiled weakly. "I guess this is going to be a long night for me..."

Misato felt the tension ease, if only a little bit.

"I guess so, Makoto," she said. But she really meant thank you.

Shinji sat with his forehead pressed against the glass. His eyes were glistening. He hadn't been crying but he felt like he could. It felt like he should be. He told himself that he was looking for Asuka, but his heart wasn't in it anymore. Somewhere along the line his brain caught up to his body and he finally realized that Misato was right. He would not find Asuka if she didn't want to be found. He was just wasting his time.

So then why was he out here riding the Tokyo loop line, eyes widening in anticipation at any small glimpse of red, only to be disappointed every single time? Did he know it was stupid? Yes. Did he want to be stupid? No. Was he that desperate? Yes. And did it even matter? That one he didn't have the answer to. But there were more unanswerable questions where that came from.

Asuka could be dead. She could be somewhere cold and dark lying down on the ground dead. Someone slit her throat. She fell from a two story building. She drowned in someone's swimming pool. It's all possible. Maybe she's dead.

Some pervert could be with her right now. He grabs her arm. She screams for him to stop, but he doesn't. She screams out his name. Shinji, she yells. Calls out for him to help her. But he's not there. And the man continues. He rips her shirt. He knocks her to the ground. She yells and she yells but no one comes. His hands are all over her and - stop - he's taking off her clothes as she struggles to hit him and tries to get him off but - stop! - she can't do a thing and then he brings out a knife and tells her that if she doesn't stop moving he'll give her a new breathing hole and - stop it!... seriously that's enough... - and finish what he started afterward and...

God what would I do if she's dead?

Shinji didn't know if he could live without her. Somehow he had managed to place all his hopes and dreams into one single person and now that person was being taken away. The prospect left him surprisingly numb. If Asuka was dead would he die too? And more importantly, when did he become so weak and dependent?

It went back to the beach where he found her and his hands were fast around her neck. I don't want to think about that - but he wasn't in his right mind and he didn't know what he was doing but she touched him and he stopped. She said she felt sick. Did he make her sick? He didn't know. But that's where it started. On the beach.

It was just the two of them, for much too long. And it was a full day before they were in a good enough state of mind to start looking for food. They wandered into the city where there were plenty of canned goods, and they stayed there for a while. Until he got scared. Scared of all the nobodies who weren't around anywhere. The city was too quiet, too big, and too empty.

So they started living on the beach and taking their food to go. Their lives consisted merely of food and each other. There was nothing else. Just Shinji and Asuka and nothing else but Shinji and Asuka and nothing else but... Somehow even though she was there it felt as if she really wasn't.

Asuka talked to him sometimes. Always at night. She told him that she was confused. That she didn't understand a lot of things, but there was one thing she did understand: She didn't want to die. She ate the canned foods and she drank the bottled water and slept under the tents because she wanted to live. But there was nothing else that she wanted to do. Could the purpose of her life simply be mere existence? Was that enough?

She used to have goals, she told him. (He pretended not to hear her because the one time he did respond back to her she stopped talking and she didn't say anything again for a while.) But she told him later that she didn't like her goals anymore. In fact, she hated them. Hated everything about them. Her goals where shallow and weak. She was shallow and weak. And the worst part was she couldn't tell anybody. She couldn't even tell Shinji, who she was currently telling, because in the morning they'd both pretend like it never happened. But it was a good thing that he never said anything back to her and that they pretended that it never happened because if he ever mentioned any of this aloud she would kill him. ha ha. And then she'd kill herself. From the embarrassment. It's a joke. It's okay to laugh. But Shinji never did.

She told him once that she used to be so serious but she didn't even know why she was serious. Why did she wear her pride like armor? Why did she let every little chip in her pride hurt her? Why didn't she just learn to take it? Other people took it without a problem. People she looked down on. People she despised. They took the pain and the injustice and carried it with them like a backpack. But she couldn't have that. She wasn't as strong as them. She couldn't carry the load and she damned well couldn't share it. But now... now she doesn't know. Maybe she could have carried a little more than she did. Maybe she could have carried just as much as everyone else. Only she never tried.

One time she laid down very close to him. And she put her mouth right by his ear. And she said, "If you tell me you love me, I'll give you anything you want. I will never leave you. And I will love you forever."

Shinji didn't say a word. He didn't say a single word and it's all my fault because she needed him to say something and he didn't say a word. And when she realized that he would say nothing she laughed. ha ha. Just a joke, Shinji, just a joke. But she slept there like that, very close to him and he was glad she didn't move away.

In the morning Shinji said, "I love you." Asuka laughed and said, "Whatever." Shinji felt really really stupid. And then he felt really really mad. But after that he didn't know what to think because he knew if he'd said it just hours earlier it still would have been a complete lie, but it would have meant something completely real. But maybe in the morning light it was easier to see his words for what they really were at the time: a sham.

He found the doll a few days later. It was lying on the ground in the middle of the street. He didn't know why, but he picked it up.

"What's that?" she asked. He told her it was a doll. It was a hand stitched doll wearing a blue dress with red yarn hair. It was all my fault.

Shinji told her, "It looks like you."

Asuka reluctantly agreed. He took the doll with them back to camp. Set it down next to him. And Asuka looked over at the doll with the strangest expression on her face. She began to talk to him as she looked at the doll. It was the first time she'd said more than a few sentences during the day.

"I used to hate dolls. Because they did anything you wanted them to do. They'd die if you wanted them to and they wouldn't even care. So I tried my hardest not to be a doll. I didn't listen to anyone I didn't want to. I didn't compromise for anything at all. But now..." she laughed bitterly. "I can't even get myself to do the things that I want to do. I think it would be easier to be a doll." she said.

And Shinji vehemently said, "No! It's not better to be a doll!" He slapped her and told her to never think that way again. That she had so much to live for. That all she had to do was try her hardest to be the type of person she wanted to be and then she'd be it. "I believe in you," he told her. And she came to her senses and realized her worth in this life.

Ha ha. That didn't happen. Just kidding. He said nothing. Asuka took the doll from beside Shinji and placed it next to herself. She patted the doll on the head and said. "Isn't that right, Little Asuka?"

Shinji saw it happening but made no effort to stop it. The changes were so slow and natural that he felt no reason to object. Asuka couldn't talk to Shinji during the day, but Little Asuka could. Never directly, of course. She served as a medium between them.

If Shinji asked, "Are you hungry?" Asuka would say, "Little Asuka and I are starving." If Shinji asked "How are you feeling?" Asuka would say that she was okay. At least she wasn't stuffed with cotton. It was a joke. They both enjoyed it. Shinji called her Little Asuka too.

But somewhere along the line the doll stopped being Little Asuka. The doll just became Asuka. Asuka the doll and Asuka the girl where inseparable.

"Asuka and I are going to use the bathroom. Asuka and I want to build a fire tonight. Me and Asuka are tired, Shinji, lets go to sleep." And even this seemed natural. Just the simple joke extended. Nothing strange there at all because when Asuka was with Asuka, Shinji could be with both of them in ways he never could before.

For instance, one evening when Asuka was doing Asuka's hair, she allowed Shinji to stroke her hair at the same time. She asked him to do it actually. She didn't mind him being close to her at all anymore. Asuka touched him more. She talked to him more. She was kind to him as well. Praised him when he did things right, and reproached Asuka when she tried to make fun of him.

And that's where it started. That's where he really fell in love with her. Because she was nice to him. And she defended him from herself. And that meant the world to him because there was no one else to do it. They were so very much alone.

Until Misato came back. And with Misato came reality. The realization of what the girl he'd lived with so long had become. In his heart he knew that there was something wrong with the Asuka he'd grown to love, but he was too deluded to do anything about it. He tried to explain to Misato that it wasn't as big of an issue as it seemed. But even he couldn't argue with reason after Misato took the doll away that one night.

The screaming. The yelling. She had even tried to hit Misato before Shinji found the doll and brought it back to the girl. With Asuka back in her hands, the girl became quiet again. Kind, sweet, and docile. She told Misato that what she'd done was an awful thing to do, but she apologized for trying to hit her. Exhausted, the girl slept like a baby that night. Shinji cried himself to sleep. Misato rubbed his back.

But there's no use going into all that. No point in talking about when other people came back or the day that Asuka was officially committed to the mental hospital.

It started back then, his dependence on the girl, but it was still happening now. And if she died, would he die too?

No. No. No.

He wouldn't die. Because there were still people left for him. He could never do to others what Asuka had done to him. Not anymore. He'd caused them all enough pain already. He didn't have the heart to cause them more.

He'd alienated Toji with his selfishness. Toji had lost just as much and all he wanted was someone to share with. Shinji had denied him that for no good reason. On a whim. He'd lied to Hikari. Hurt her in order to help himself. The sick pleasure he gained from dreaming of a better Asuka with her had been as cruel as snatching candy from a baby. And Misato...

Yes he had said horrible things to Misato, but there was still a part of him that believed they were true. Maybe Misato didn't care for Asuka. Maybe her motives for sticking by Shinji weren't entirely selfless. But that didn't change the fact that she was always there. No matter how depressed Shinji was or how much brooding he did, she always tried to be there for him... until he started pushing her away. The undercurrent of anger he harbored toward his guardian slowly lead her to take longer shifts at work and stay out later at night. But what reason did he have to be angry? No mater what her methods or motives, all she'd ever done was try to help.

Shinji abruptly laughed out loud drawing a look from the bus driver in the rear view mirror. But he didn't care. He just realized that he'd spent the last few years of his life doing nothing but moping around and being a jerk.

I am an awful awful person and I don't deserve to die yet.

Shinji pulled the yellow cord that signaled the driver to stop. His feet seemed to move on their own accord as they lead him off the bus. He found himself standing on the sidewalk. Without thinking he felt himself turn and head towards home.

It was dark out and windy. Shinji felt the cold on his forearms. Each step felt surreal. Asuka was gone. It didn't matter if she was dead or living because he would never see her again. As stupid as it sounded, a crazy girl was his only reason for living. But even though she was gone, he didn't deserve to die. It was funny. He was a person for whom death was too good. Instead he would live each and every day of his life hoping only to make amends.

Hikari might never forgive him. But that didn't matter. He would still give her the chance. He would apologize weakly without giving any explanations. If she wanted him to explain himself she'd ask him. He didn't want to make her forgive him. He just wanted her to have the opportunity.

He would stick by Toji and Kensuke until it became clear that they wanted him gone. That was important. He would pretend to enjoy himself in their company and never let his problems distract him again. He didn't care if they knew he was faking. It only mattered that they saw him trying. They wouldn't want any sort of formal apology. They would either take note of his change in attitude or they wouldn't. But what to do about Misato?

Walking on feet that didn't seem to move, he saw himself reach the door of their apartment. It felt like it had taken no time at all to arrive there. He found that mildly surprising. Staring at the door, he thought about his previous question. What about Misato? She may not be the worlds most perfect guardian, but she didn't deserve to be talked to that way. But what to do about it?

How do you make up with someone who's help you've needlessly shunned and who's motives you've heavily doubted? Do you bow your head and ask for forgiveness? Sure. Why not? He needed to open the door and tell her he was home and hope for the best. It was strange how hours before he was only concerned with how much he'd been wronged, and now all he wanted was to be forgiven.

One deep breath and open the door.

"I'm home," said Shinji. Several seconds passed. Silence answered back. Oh well...

Maybe he should give her a call. Truth be told, he didn't want to bother her at work, but he felt like a new person now. This quest for self-improvement couldn't wait. If he hesitated he would lose his will. So Shinji took a seat on the couch and pulled out his cell phone. After scrolling through his remarkably short contacts list he found her number and pushed the button labeled "send".

"Hello?" said Misato. Shinji was taken slightly off guard. Her tone was harder than he expected. He hadn't planned on talking to 'Work Misato'.

"Misato?" he asked timidly, as if there could be any doubt as to who he was speaking with.

"What Shinji?" she asked, just as hard as before. Shinji realized that this wasn't merely a business voice. Misato was clearly mad. She'd never sounded so... distant. At least not with him. It scared him. He wanted to hang up the phone then and there, but something stopped him from doing so. He had to remind himself that he was doing this for her, not himself.

"... I'm sorry."

There was a long pause before Misato said, "Okay."

"I said some things I shouldn't have and I didn't mean them... well..."

"I know Shinji. I know." Suddenly Misato's voice became a lot softer. She sounded quite was another brief pause. "Are you alright Shinji?"

"Yeah, I guess..."


Shinji shook his head, though there was no one there to see it. "I will be," he said. He honestly meant it too. "Are you coming home tonight?"

"...I... there's a lot of work to do here... some things I need to finish up..."

"I understand," said Shinji. He hadn't meant to sound so disappointed.

"But... I'll try to get out early. Actually... you know what Shinji... I'll be there as soon as I can. Just give me an hour okay? It shouldn't even take that long."


"And don't go off by yourself, alright?"

"I won't," said Shinji.

"I mean it," Misato insisted. "Wait up for me."

"I will."

"And Shinji..."


"I love you."

Shinji's mind momentarily tripped over those words. Misato hung up before he even had a chance to register them. When his brain caught up to his ears he was left with a strangely warm feeling in his chest. Misato had lied to him many times in the past. On this one point, he definitely believed her.

Slowly but surely the hot feeling in his chest dissipated. A cold numbness settled in. Things were finally beginning to make sense. Misato would come home quickly and when she did he would finally let her take care of him. She would talk to him and ask him how he was feeling and he'd tell her honestly whenever he could. He would focus particularly on the anger and abandonment he felt toward Asuka, because that's what he knew Misato would be most interested in hearing. He would lie to help things along, if the need arose. She would be sympathetic. She'd try to keep the focus squarely on him. They would sit on the couch and she'd wrap a comforting arm around him, just like she used to. Perhaps this would turn into a full embrace. It had happened before. Such things were embarrassing and comforting at the same time. Shinji couldn't claim to love or hate that level of contact with her. Most likely things wouldn't go beyond that. She had kissed him only once since the impact and that had been short and chase. An impulse riding on the wings of a whim. It meant little. A few times they had slept together there on the couch in an awkward heap. He figured that this would be one of those nights. And in the morning they could live again.

All he had to do was hold out for an hour or so, then everything would be fine.

Easier said than done. The apartment was quiet and the thoughts he didn't want to have were eating him alive. Asuka is a crazy bitch. She's probably dead and... Misato loved him, but she didn't say how like a son? Like a brother? like a lover? and Hikari could hate him for the rest of his life but it wouldn't make her feel any better. Happiness is hard to find. Maybe it too, like Asuka, doesn't want to be found. But the pressure... the pent up death was screaming in the back of his mind, knocking on his door like the friends he never had, "could Shinji please come out to play?" No. I don't want to ride your broken roller coaster. One big hill that goes down and never comes up again. but all he needed to do was wait an hour and... if he loved Asuka so much then why did he hate her right now?

The cello.

The cello could save him. When he played the cello he was lost to the world. Lost to himself. He could be gone without being hurt. A vacation. All he needed was a bow and that finely crafted piece of wood and strings. That were in his room... god no... in his room... where the nothingness lives.

But it was okay. He promised Misato he would wait for her and that's what he would do. New Shinji keeps his promises. He lives for others, not himself. Shinji would open the door to his room, grab his cello, and head back to the living room. Then he would play for an hour, Misato would show up, and everything would be okay.

So why can't I open the door?

If he never opened the door, he would never see the nothingness. But if he didn't open the door he would never have his cello and the death trapped in the back of his mind would devour him whole. It's worth it right? No. No it's not. It's a funny question to ask. Is death better than nothing? If it's so funny though, then why am I crying? Kids do things like this. They stand at doors and cry because they don't want to go in them. But New Shinji wasn't a kid. No. He would open the door and face the nothing and grab the cello to fill the void. Easy. It is a simple thing to enter a room and grab a cello.

Then what's taking so long?

It is a simple thing.

Then why don't you do it?

Shinji wiped away the tears from his eyes, taking several long moments to bring his breathing under control. He was calm and collected. He had promised Misato. He would not go into his room and lock the door. Hand on the handle. Turn and push.


Shinji's clothes were everywhere. The covers and sheets from his bed were lying in a pile on the floor. The mattress was overturned. His trash can had been emptied. All the drawers of his dresser were removed. His cello smashed open. Broken on the ground. The neck severed from the body. Wooden splinters littered the carpet. Amazing. He couldn't have done a better job himself. His room had become a hailstorm of chaos. There was Asuka with a cross around her neck, kneeling at it's center.

"Oh, Hi Shinji," Asuka said casually while staring at Shinji's shoes. Her face was streaked with tears. Her hair was unkempt and disheveled. Her clothes were dirty and wrinkled. She wore the same thing she had worn the last time he'd visited her - black slacks and a white blouse - yet somehow they seemed dingy and old.

Shinji couldn't help it. He completely froze.

"Sorry about the mess," said Asuka as if talking about the weather. "I was looking for... something."

Shinji took a big breath. All he could say was, "Asuka."

"Yes," said Asuka. "She's much harder to find than I anticipated. And I looked very thoroughly too." Asuka let out a small tired laugh. "At first I was sure that the doctors had her. They were so certain that they could help me find what I was looking for. How could I be blamed for believing them? My friend, Takashi, you never met him, he showed me how to walk through their walls. And I told you a long time ago, that I already knew were to look. But when I looked through Dr. Komatsu's office, imagine my surprise Shinji. She wasn't there."

Shinji just stared on in disbelief.

"That's when I realized that the doctors didn't have her. No one did. You know Asuka, Shinji. She'd never let anyone own her like that. Even if she is a doll. So I thought to myself, 'where would she go?'" This question was posed almost as if she expected Shinji to answer it. "So of course I stopped by the Horaki's. But there wasn't anyone there. The whole house was empty. Not a piece of furniture in the place. Did you know that Hikari moved Shinji? She never even told me. I suppose I should be offended, but I can't say I blame her. We always were such a bother to her."

"I'm sorry," said Shinji though he wasn't exactly sure why. Maybe if he'd passed on Hikari's frequent words of kindness he could have saved her a trip, but that didn't make his apology any less ridiculous. Hadn't he been mad at her no more than 5 minutes ago?

"Don't be." People were always saying that to him. "It's not your fault really. I'm sure you would have told me if you'd known."

Shinji's face soured.

"So I walked around the city for a while. I went to all of Asuka's favorite stores and hang outs. I saw a classmate of ours at one of them. I don't think we were very good friends because she didn't seem particularly glad to see me. But I didn't see Asuka anywhere. She wasn't out and about as I figured she would be."

Asuka finally looked at Shinji. Her eyes were red tired. Her mouth was twisted downward into the slightest of frowns.

"For a while I gave up hope. I must have looked silly wandering aimlessly around the city. But then I remembered this place, Shinji. I thought... I just knew she'd be here. Because of you. She always seemed to like you so much, so I just knew she had to be here with you. And I thought that maybe that was for the best. Maybe you could take care of her like you once said you would. It sounded perfect actually. I really did hope I'd find her here with you."

Asuka's frown deepened.

"I looked everywhere, Shinji. I even looked in the places where I knew she couldn't be." Shinji's eyes glanced back at his broken cello. "But she's not here. And I thought 'if she really cared about him so much, she would be here wouldn't she'. But she's isn't here. And I don't think she's ever coming back."

Tears began to well in Asuka's eyes.

"The truth is... she doesn't care about you at all Shinji. She doesn't want to be owned by you anymore than she wants to be owned by the doctors. She's a selfish little girl who only looks out for herself. But the irony is that she doesn't even like herself! She's rude, she's mean, and she's unkind. And she would throw any one of us under a bus to get what she wants. But she doesn't even know what she wants! And the things that she thinks she wants... she's too afraid to get them."

Asuka's face contorted in fury as she spoke.

"She's a weak, cowardly, disgusting bitch! I hate her!" Asuka yelled. But her next words came out in a breathless whisper.

"Why do I have to be her?" she asked. Her hands rose to her face and she began to openly weep.

Her great gasping sobs moved Shinji into action. He knelt down in front of her, put both arms around her and said, "I love you."

Asuka tried her hardest to blink away her tears. Between rasping sobs she managed to ask, "Why?"

"I don't know," said Shinji.

Asuka cried harder.

Later that evening Misato came home and found the two of them kneeling in their quiet embrace. She stared at them for one full minute before closing the door to Shinji's room. She spent the night sleeping with her back pressed against the door.

In the morning all three of them drove Asuka back to the hospital. They parted with a series of brief and somber goodbyes. Shinji promised to visit her as soon as he could. For this, Asuka was grateful.

The doctors were initially at a loss concerning the girl. Not all of the progress she made during her stay had been superficial, but they were forced to re-evaluate the motives behind everything she had ever said. The privileges she'd gained within the hospital were once again restricted and for a time she was monitored closely. Much time passed before Dr. Komatsu felt she could be trusted again. Two weeks passed before she was allowed to have visitors. Shinji did his best to visit her every day he could. Even Misato made an appearance there periodically. five and a half months passed before she was finally released.

She never found Asuka. At least not the Asuka she used to be. For that she was glad. What she did find was something much harder to define. Though the doctors did their best, she never became magically whole. She didn't even know what being whole meant. She was just a fragile girl searching for comfort and direction. She would spend her whole life coming to terms with that.

Asuka's adjustment to regular life was slow and incomplete. Living with Misato again presented it's challenges. Harsh words aren't easily taken back. Especially when they contain a measure of truth. But all parties managed to stay civil. They were able to keep peace by maintaining emotional distance.

Hikari was genuinely glad to have Asuka back, though like all friendships affected by the impact, things just weren't the same. The opposing forces of discomfort and familiarity reached equilibrium for the two of them. They began to hang out regularly and Hikari reacquired her role as Asuka's one and only female friend. Somewhere along the line, she found it in her heart to forgive Shinji for misleading her, though they were never close again. that was probably for the best. It would have made Asuka jealous anyways.

Shinji tried to be a good person when he could. His past life had been convenient. He had placed his hopes in Asuka, put the blame on Misato, and taken comfort in Hikari. But he could no longer live that way. His conscious wouldn't let him. Instead he tried to care of his friends. He did nice things for Misato when he could. He realized that whatever he felt for Asuka, it didn't have to eclipse everything in his life. Putting all his hopes and dreams onto one person wasn't fair. It wasn't healthy, kind, or safe. And in the end, he never did figure out whether he would have been better off without her in his life. But he did realize one thing. Whether it be right or wrong, whether he loved it or hated it, he would always live or die by Asuka's smile.

AN: It's been a long time coming. This story has finally come to a close. I'd like to thank my The Mustachioed Cat for beta reading this last chapter. It flows that much better because of him. I'd also like to thank Eric Blair who previously pre-read for me as his input lead toward the writing of some of the scenes I liked the most. Go read their stuff. Also I'd like to thank everyone who reviewed and/or read this. Especially Azure Lily whose review inspired me to continue beyond the first chapter.

All in all I still don't know if I should have continued this or not, but I'm more or less satisfied with the way things went. I'm sure some of you will be unsatisfied with the ending, especially after the high note that chapter 4 ended on. Can't please everyone. Feel free to let me know how you feel about it. I always look forward to constructive criticism. And hey, I never turn down words of praise either.

And thus ends my Oscar acceptance speech. As always, thanks for reading.