Heart Catcher

Disclaimer: I do not own Evangelion.

Pre-note: This is manga continuity. Yeah, yeah, I know. Give it a chance.


Today was the day. The day she finally crushed her opponent and claimed victory over its immovable arrogance.

Asuka stared down the UFO catcher outside the video game arcade, gleaming in the afternoon sunlight. How much time and money had she sunk into this vile hell machine? How much of her pride had been squandered on its silently mocking façade?

Since she arrived in Tokyo-3 her schedule filled up faster than she anticipated. Between Eva tests, friends, keeping tabs on Mr. Kaji and suffering in that remedial school she was forced to attend her free time was less for recreation and more for recuperation.

But behind all of her other responsibilities was the hidden shame of her arrival in Japan: failing to win what she wanted, and then getting demeaned by Shinji and his idiot friends, and then being dragged into a street brawl with a pack of monkeys. The fight was a bother, the objectification was nauseating, but losing the doll she set her sights on was unforgivable.

Hello again, you bastard, Asuka thought, approaching the UFO catcher. It's been a while, but today you will lose.

She made a predatory circle around the machine, sweeping her eyes over the assortment of plushies sequestered behind its glass walls, searching out her prey. She paused and made another circle. Then one more. She clenched her fists.

"… Damn it!" Asuka yelled, kicking the machine. "Where is it?"

Several patrons around her decided on a hasty retreat. Asuka placed her hands on the glass, peering inside to locate her prize. She already claimed it; no one else was allowed to win it before her.

"Hey, you!" she shouted at the pale, skinny arcade clerk, who was doing his best not to notice the loud foreign girl abusing his UFO catcher. "When's the next shipment for this piece of crap coming in?"

"U-Um, well, we don't usually order new supplies until we're running low on what we have, so—"

Asuka was already back at the machine, shoving a coin into its slot. "Then I'll just win everything in here so you have to reorder. Which is ridiculous. I'm the customer. I'm always right."

She clutched the crane joystick, carefully lined it up with a grinning blue kitten, and smashed her fist on the release button. The claw plunged down and hooked the kitten around its neck, pulled it up, and neatly deposited it in the prize receptacle.

"One down," Asuka muttered, tossing the doll into a nearby garbage can.

Soon it was home to a menagerie of colorful animals. Asuka fed a steady stream of coins into the machine, keeping the crane in continual motion, selecting targets and sending them into her waiting clutches.

She clinically examined her latest victory. "A lion doll with a coat and testicles. What is wrong with this country?" She added it to the collection in the trash can.

A small gathering of children had positioned themselves behind the tall foreign girl tossing prizes into the garbage. They cheered as she won again and threw a purple whale over her shoulder into their waiting hands.

"Get that one next," one boy said, pointing out a silver eagle.

"Shut up," Asuka said.

The afternoon faded under the steady whir of the machine and the impressed applause of children. Asuka was just starting to worry about her increasingly light purse when the clerk edged up behind her. He looked pallid and nervous in the glass' reflection.

"Um, Miss?" he tried, holding up a tentative hand.

"What?" Asuka snapped, not bothering to look away from the mission.

"Um, well, we're about to close, and—"

"Already?" She glanced up at the late evening sky. "What kind of lame place closes this early?"

"It's store policy, so, ah—"

"God, fine. I swear, it's like no one wants me to be happy." She withered the clerk with a single glare as she stepped away from the game. The children around her groaned in disappointment and wandered away.

"We open tomorrow at eight, so—"

"As if I didn't know that!" Asuka interrupted. "And tomorrow's a school day! Are you advocating truancy to shore up your bottom line?"

"O-Of course not!" the clerk said, waving thin arms in front of him. "You should definitely go to school!"

"Oh, so now you don't want my business? I probably paid your entire month's salary today, you ingrate."

The man was near tears. "I didn't mean that either. I just…" He took a breath and bowed. "Thank you for your patronage. Please return at your earliest convenience, Miss."

Asuka issued a dismissive hum. "You really need to work on your customer relations." She looked over the remaining toys scattered around the garbage bin. "And clean this place up. It's a pigsty."

She stalked off under the darkening sky, the streetlamps flickering to life as she moved. The shopping arcade's traffic was dying off as students and teens returned home for the night. Asuka weaved through them without conscious effort.

One more week, she told herself.

Her hand flexed, remembering the crane's twitchy joystick, the worn release button, the mechanical whirs and clicks that became a mocking soundtrack to her endeavors. The dirty, reflective glass shield superimposing her strained, concentrated face with a rolling landscape of prizes she did not want.

Asuka frowned as faceless crowds parted around her and the night deepened above her.

One more week.


"Rise! Bow! Dismissed!"

Hikari concluded the day's classes. Asuka collapsed on her desk, bowing her head into her crossed arms under the weight of underserved suffering. The universe seemed to delight in thwarting her desires at every turn. Yet another ordeal appeared to test her ability and resolve. And financial liquidity.

I will beat that damn game, she thought. I will claim what is mine.

"Asuka?" Hikari inquired, coming up beside her desk. "You okay?"

Asuka grumbled something.

"Cheer up! Um, you have a special day next week, you know."

She propped her chin up with one hand. "Hmm. Oh, right. My birthday. Yippee."

"Geez. You look so depressed. Oh! Do you hate your birthday, too? My sister Kodama always goes on and on every year about getting older and—"

"It's not that. My birthday is nothing but a day people rightfully give tribute to me."

"Is it something else? You've been kind of glum for days."

"Even my natural radiance can dim on occasion." Asuka sat back and crossed her arms. I swore I'd beat that game by my birthday. I know it was an arbitrary deadline, but I never thought I'd fail. She frowned. I haven't failed. It's because of that dumb clerk and that dumb shop and that dumb machine. It's like the entire world is against me.

Hikari gave her a smile of uncomfortable commiseration. "So, do you have any plans for your birthday?"

She rose from her desk and started out of the class. "Misato was keen on me inviting people over for a lame party. Mostly because it saves her the trouble of making an actual effort. If this was stupid Shinji's birthday I bet she'd rent out NERV for him."

Hikari glanced behind her. "Oh, um, I forgot something I need to do for the teacher. I'll be right back. Uh, you can go on ahead. It'll only take a minute."

Asuka shrugged. "Whatever."

She left and took up a post by the door, leaning against the wall. Moral support, or at least an attentive grievance sponge, was less a luxury and more a necessity. Asuka couldn't complain like this to anyone else; Misato was emotionally incompetent, her time with Kaji was too important to weigh it down with negativity, and Shinji was nothing but a convenient outlet for the many frustrations in her life, including Shinji.

She reached into her satchel and weighed her purse by hand. She considered sneaking into Shinji's room again and helping herself to some of his funds. He certainly wasn't using his money for anything important. Just look at his wardrobe and personal possessions. The boy was as parsimonious as a monk and twice as dull.


Asuka turned an idle ear towards the classroom. Hikari was addressing Shinji, her Class Rep voice at about half power, meaning she was politely ordering him to do something outside the scope of school.

"… You do know Asuka's birthday is next week, right?" she was saying. "You do live with her and work with her."

"Poor bastard," Toji muttered in sympathy.

"Real unlucky," Kensuke grumbled.

"Yeah…" Shinji answered Hikari, ignoring his friends.

"So you have to get her something really great for her birthday. You have no excuse not to. Now, I already have some ideas for you, so all you have to do is go get one, okay?"

"Actually, ah, I already got her something awhile ago."

There was a moment of impressed silence from Hikari and disgusted quiet from his friends. Asuka fought down a gratified spark of surprise.

"Well… well, that's great," Hikari said cautiously, but not without commendation. "I'm glad to hear it. Um, what did you get her?"

"Yeah," Toji demanded. "I'd like to know, too. What's up with you going out of your way this early for her? Or at all?"

"It's not a big deal," he answered, waving off any significance. "I mean, like Horaki said, I work with her and live with her, so I just wanted to be prepared."


"Good work, Ikari." Hikari sounded genuinely pleased.

"Should I get her something, too?" Kensuke wondered aloud.

Only if I want some kindling, Asuka thought. She took off down the hall to wait for Hikari and cover eavesdropping, trying not to wonder what Shinji got for her. Good for him, being proactive for once. It better be something awesome.

She smiled as she walked. She forgot what she was so upset about before.


The crane jolted out of stasis, repositioning itself with expert precision. The claw plunged into the sea of dolls, flimsy metal prongs closing in around a bulbous head. The claw drew back, straining against the weight, then pulled free, triggering a seismic rearrangement of toys and animals. The award floated above the heap of shoddily made, poorly designed flotsam and dropped peacefully into the prize receptacle.

Asuka reached in, felt the soft, squishy plush of triumph and withdrew the tiny smiling monkey doll. She hefted it in her hands, tossed it lightly, inspected its form. She tucked it under an arm, leaned forward against the UFO catcher and grinned.

"Suck it."

She returned home with a bounce in her step.

Shinji was in the kitchen, working on something for dinner that smelled like delight. She entered, humming to herself, dragging her feet.

"Hey," she said.

"Hey," he said back. He didn't turn around, focused on the meal.

Asuka frowned. She cleared her throat without need. "When are we eating?"

"Uh, maybe in a half hour or so. Why? Do you need something?" He glanced at her and saw her swinging her school satchel on her arm. Tied to the strap was the monkey doll. "Where'd you get that?"

"Oh, this little thing?" Asuka sighed with practiced modesty. She shook her satchel to make the doll dance. "I just stopped by an arcade today and won it at a UFO catcher. No big deal." No need to let him know the many angry days or thousands of yen she spent to capture it.

"Oh." Shinji turned back to the counter. "I hate those games."

"You would. They take skill."

"… Couldn't you just buy something better in a real store?"

Asuka sent him a flippant laugh. "Exactly what I'd expect you to say. I wouldn't expect you to understand."

Shinji returned an irritated grunt. "If there isn't anything else, can I get back to work?" He sounded like cooking for her was the worst torture man ever devised. The Soryu Kitchen Inquisition.

"So sorry," she spat at him. "I hope you can somehow forgive me for daring to speak to you, Lord Ikari. I always forget how far beneath you I am."

"Look, I just… I want to finish this, alright? What is your problem?"

"You are." She walked out of the kitchen towards her room. "You and your amazing ability to spoil everything around you."

He didn't respond.

Asuka slid her door shut as hard as Japanese construction allowed. She sat on her bed, eyeing the doll tied to her school satchel. She worked it free, holding it up before her. Empty bead eyes stared back.

She tossed the doll on the bed and lay down, turning away from it. It was just like Shinji to ruin a good mood.

"Stupid Shinji."


It was Saturday after school. Asuka submitted to Misato's insistence on a party, trying to force a measure of social good cheer to sustain her school identity. Although she knew everyone invited, and expected their respect and admiration, socializing extensively with her peers always left her feeling less grown-up. Listening to them prattle on about boys and clothes and school and family was beneath her true interests and proved exhausting for any prolonged period of time.

But appearances were paramount and keeping good relations with the commoners facilitated her school existence. As the only popular and attractive pilot it was up to her to maintain NERV's public image, too. Dour Shinji and the dreary First clearly were not up to the task, to say nothing of NERV's PR department. It was like none of them even cared.

Misato was working late and Shinji opted for the relative sanctuary of Kensuke's house instead of weathering the storm of teenage girls soon to rage through the apartment, so Asuka had it to herself. That did not absolve Shinji of his domestic responsibilities, though.

"The food's in the fridge, dishes are on the table," he told her, heading to the door. "If you need anything else I left the numbers of the takeout places on the counter. Have a good time."

He sounded sulky and put out. Which was normal for him but today was Asuka's birthday and she refused to let his unlikable demeanor contaminate her celebration. It was like it killed him to be happy for anyone else. The preparations he cobbled together were half-hearted and he hadn't even wished her a happy birthday. She always had to drag him kicking and screaming into any basic encounter with real people.

I swear, she thought, he'll only be happy when everyone else on earth is dead.

Asuka trailed him to the door, clearing her throat as he slipped his shoes on. He ignored her. She pinched the back of his collar, holding him in place.

He slumped. "What is it now?"

"Aren't you forgetting something?" He turned to stare blankly at her and she sighed. "My present? It is my birthday, genius. You did remember to get me something, didn't you?"

"Oh." He shook out of private contemplation. "Oh, right. Yeah, I, uh, I did get you something." He reached into his pocket.

Something that small? Asuka thought. Maybe jewelry? She knew he had terrible taste but at least he was trying for a decent gift. And it was probably better than Kaji's absence and no gift.

Shinji took out his wallet and pulled out a few thousand yen. "Here you go."

She stared at his extended hand filled with crumpled bills. She searched his eyes to see if this was a joke.

"This is a joke, right?"

"Um… no?"

"This is a joke, right?"

"What?" Shinji asked, getting red and angry. "You wanted your present and I gave it to you. Don't complain about it." He huffed. "It's the thought that counts."

"What thought?" Asuka demanded. "You didn't get me anything and throw a wad of cash at me, like I can be bought off? What kind of girl do you think I am?"

"A pretty ungrateful one. I did give you a present. Happy birthday, jerk."

Asuka blushed in fury. She grabbed the money and threw it back in his face. The bills fluttered to the floor. Shinji shook in anger.

"Get out" she growled. "Just go. I don't want to look at you. Thanks for nothing, idiot."

"Fine!" Shinji exploded. "Don't expect anything from me next year!" He stormed out without looking back.

"Like I'd want anything from you!" she yelled after him.

The front door hissed shut. Asuka spun on her heel and turned back to the kitchen. She saw the party supplies laid out carefully and had a sudden, vicious desire to sweep it all off the table. Shinji already ruined the party for her.

She looked down the front hall, and the rumpled gathering of money littering the floor. She turned away.



Shinji's eyes flickered open.

The light in his room was on. He sourly rubbed his eyes, wanting nothing but to go back to sleep. He got in late, making sure Asuka's party was over before returning home. She was barricaded in her room and he managed to slip into his own before alerting her. He hoped. She hadn't emerged when Misato got off work either and he figured he was safe to live until dawn.

He grabbed a handful of cover and turned towards the wall, too tired to turn the light off or wonder why it was on to begin with. He screwed his eyes shut.

"You're a heavier sleeper than I expected."

Panic tore his eyelids open. Shinji's head spun and he found Asuka sitting on his desk, arms and legs crossed, glowering down at him like a disapproving god.

"Get up," she ordered in a whisper. "We need to talk."

Shinji stared at her. "Asuka!" He scrambled awake, pushing back against the wall and bringing his covers up for protection. "What are you doing in my room?"

"Shut up!" she hissed at him. "Be quiet. I already told you: We need to talk. Now move it." He didn't move it and Asuka's face turned ill with a grimace. "Why are you hiding? You don't sleep in the buff, do you?"

"O-Of course not!" He pulled the covers back, displaying his loose T-shirt and shorts.

"You're presentable enough. I guess. Now get out of bed and march your behind to the living room. Like I said, we need to talk."

Shinji realized this was yet another battle he would not win. He sighed and climbed out of bed. He could only imagine what she'd do to him if he had the audacity to invade her room while she was sleeping and demand a midnight audience. All he saw was blood and lost teeth and shattered limbs. He shivered as he left his room. Asuka loomed behind him, leading him to verbal execution on their cheap couch.

"That's far enough," she told him. She swept past him and sat in the middle of the couch, sparing no room. She sized him up with a critical eye.

"… You're not going to let me sit down?"


"And this can't wait until morning?"

"No. Now, what do you have to say for yourself?"

Shinji, too tired to be annoyed, slouched into the appropriate lack of self-worth to apologize for his inexcusable display of backbone that afternoon. He took a breath.

"I heard you the other day," Asuka impatiently cut him off. "When Hikari talked to you. You told her you already got me a present for my birthday. And yet today you hurl a few bills at me and call it a gift. So." She carefully uncrossed then recrossed her legs. "Either you lied to my best friend or you lied to me. Choose wisely."

"Um…" He cleared his throat and worked hard at sounding nonchalant. "I didn't lie to either of you. Money can be a gift. It's the gift that keeps on giving."

Asuka cracked her knuckles. Shinji wilted further. Fatigued dread triumphed.

"Alright," he exhaled in a puff. "I did get you something."

"Well?" she demanded when he didn't move or speak. "Go get it!"

"… Fine. Hold on."

He disappeared into his room. She heard him rummaging in his closet. He came back holding a small wrapped box and shoved it at her, keeping his eyes from hers.


Asuka snatched it away, peering at him with disdainful gratitude. She tore the paper off, flinging the shredded remains beside her. She opened the box.

"Happy birthday," Shinji mumbled.

Asuka lifted the UFO catcher monkey doll from the box like it was a delicate flower. She looked up at him for an explanation.

"That day we met you at the arcade, I saw you were trying to get that doll, so…" He blushed. He was still looking away. "I don't know. I thought you wanted it."

Between the glorious display of her underwear and the brutal thrashing she delivered to that gang of apes Asuka was surprised he remembered anything about that day clearly. A little detail like the doll should have been lost under the dazzling magnificence of meeting her. She hated the warm feeling that crept through her knowing he held on to such a memory.

"I'm not going to thank you," she huffed. "I didn't need help winning it, obviously. I deserved to get it myself. I mean, do you have any clue how much money I blew clearing out that machine so they'd restock it?"

"You said it was no big deal that you won it!" Shinji shot back. "And like I didn't waste my money and time? I hate UFO catchers!"

"Only because you must be crappy at them!" She peered at him. "So why all the theatrics? Why didn't you just give it to me before?"

"I…" He gestured helplessly to summon the right words. "I don't know. You looked really happy when you came home with the doll and I suddenly felt stupid for wasting so much time on something you already had and I thought you'd be upset with another one. Like, you'd think I got it just because I saw the one you had."

"You're an idiot."

"I know." He slumped. "Are we done? Or can I at least sleep a few more hours before you yell at me again?"

Asuka bit her tongue. He looked embarrassed and hurt. Something like pity gleefully tickled her and she hated it. Knowing Shinji actually selected a proper gift when everyone else, even Hikari, offered the expected store-bought trinkets and trivialities worked through a few layers of defense to sneak past the motivation to punish him fully. She gave up a sharp sigh.

"This doesn't let you off the hook for lying to me, you know," she told him, observing his weary face. "You are now indebted to me. You have to make me a special breakfast tomorrow morning. Not your usual boring fare. I want eggs. And bacon. And sausage. And waffles. And a fruit salad. If you manage to at least meet my expectations, I'll consider forgiving you."

Shinji groaned. "I'll have to run to the mart before I begin."

"Good thing it's Sunday, then. You'll have a little extra time since I'll sleep in."

"Lucky me." He saw her readying a new strike on his self-esteem and cut in. "I'll do it. Okay?" Her eyes still glinted castigation. "I… I'm sorry. This is my fault and I'm an idiot. I'm sorry."

She remembered how brusque he was when she showed him the doll she won, spoiling his little plan. He probably thought he was so clever getting it for her, and then lying about it. Such a headache over his insecurity. If he just had the guts to tell the truth in the beginning none of this would have had to occur. He wouldn't have to apologize and Asuka wouldn't have to think about forgiving him.

"You still have to make me breakfast."

"I know."

He sounded tired but sincere. Drained and pitiful, but he was at least trying to take responsibility.

Asuka forcibly uncrossed her arms and sighed out a degree of combative frustration. She looked away from him, scooting over and brushing the wrapping paper to the floor, opening up the couch.

"Room for one more?" she posed to him.

Shinji stared at her like she just asked for a breakfast of grilled Pen Pen instead. He wasn't as tired anymore and felt himself nod slowly.


He sat. They stared ahead, side-by-side. Shinji drummed on his bare knees. Asuka idly made the monkey clap its hands. She mumbled something.


"I said…" She sighed through her nose. "I said it might not be horrible having two of these." She turned the doll over in her hands. She still didn't look at him.

"Oh. Good. I'm glad."

"I'm surprised you remembered I was trying to win this."

"It wasn't that long ago," he said.

"I know that. But there were better things to look at."

Shinji furrowed his brow and gazed at the ceiling for answers. Asuka sighed again.

"So you really weren't looking like those other two," she muttered. She slouched, pushing her feet out. She held the doll on her stomach. "I don't like my birthday," she admitted in a small voice.

"What? After all the fuss you made?"

"Shut up."

She sounded offended and he frowned.

They were silent. Shinji watched the doll tilt back and forth on her stomach.

"Why don't you like your birthday?" he asked quietly.

She didn't answer for a time. "It's artificial," she finally told him. "People smile at me, and pay attention, and give me stuff but it isn't because I did anything. It's like they think me surviving another year is a miracle that needs celebration. Like they're stunned I can take care of myself."

Shinji watched the doll. "Should I not have… Ah, sorry for getting you something?"

She hid the staid smile that tugged on her lips. "Idiot."


Asuka took a deep breath. "I wanted the doll because it was something I could get myself without anyone's help. It wouldn't be something someone gave to me." She gripped it in her hands, sliding her thumbs up to cover its eyes. "It's like piloting. Sure, someone else made my Unit-02, but I'm its pilot because I worked hard and won it. It's an accomplishment no one can take from me. Don't you dare say this sounds silly."

"I won't." He weighed his thoughts. "So you're okay with me getting that doll for you?"

She laughed without noise. "Idiot. Don't you know you're supposed to spoil a girl sometimes?"

Shinji looked upset and confused.


The apartment was silent. Outside, from the balcony window, the city lights hovered on night-black buildings beneath a shining full moon. They sat together in the dark.

"So," he asked, turning to her with a careful smile, "how was your birthday this year?"

She smiled back. It was easier than she anticipated.

"Getting better."


Misato stumbled out of her room, clipping her shoulder on the doorframe. She swore through a thick morass of morning breath and continued to the kitchen. The clatter of dishware from the room was a thunderous storm of knives and forks and pointy things pushing her back to the safe, quiet shelter of her bed.

No, she thought. There is beer in the kitchen. Hence, I must go there.

The situation tactically assessed, she trudged forward into the kitchen. And abruptly came to a dead stop at the entrance.

She stared at the surreal, slightly nightmarish scene. As expected, Shinji was posted at the stove, tending several sizzling pans, but beside him at the counter was Asuka wearing an apron, cutting fruit.

Misato rubbed her eyes. She rapid-shutter blinked and refocused. Both of her wards were still in the kitchen working shoulder-to-shoulder on a meal together.

"You know," Shinji was saying to her, "this is technically the birthday breakfast you requested. You really shouldn't be helping."

Asuka scoffed. "Like I'd trust you to get it right without my supervision. This isn't your usual remedial soup and stir-fry, Third."

His voice was still dry, but lacked its familiar, subtly passive-aggressive annoyance. Her words were sharp but her tone was absent of any real malice. They were both smiling. Misato rubbed her eyes again.

"I do have cookbooks. And I do have some experience. I'm not a helpless babe in the kitchen."

"Please. Any competence is relative. And I want this to my exact specifications. Otherwise you'd just ruin what was left of my birthday."

They both still smiled.

They worked in silence and Misato watched them from the entrance of the kitchen, feeling an unprepared warm swell of pride. She wished she didn't have a hangover.

Asuka finished cutting the fruit and took a quick peek at Shinji. He was absorbed with the stove. She turned away.

"Thanks," she said softly without looking at him.

He turned to her, puzzled. "I thought you said you weren't going to say thanks."

Asuka smiled to herself.




Author notes: The alternate title for this was When Tsuns Collide!

Welcome to amateur hour! Admittedly, this is far from the best thing I've ever written, but it was an unrelenting brain worm burrowing through my head for months. I had to get it out. So, anyways. That's it. Just a little, predictable, fluffy attempt at my dirty, secret vice: Waff. Well, that's almost it.

OMAKE of Darkness… Because that's what you expect from me, right?

Shinji's eyes flickered open.

He was on the ground, his face pressed against cool tile. His vision slowly defogged and he found himself in the kitchen.

He groaned. Every part of him felt heavy and immense. He tried to sit up and failed. He tried to prop himself up on his arms and after three attempts discovered them bound securely behind his back. The slug his tongue transformed into refused to let him speak.

Something unnatural caught the periphery of his vision and he struggled to pitch his head up, earning a severe wave of dizziness for the effort. Sunspots danced before his eyes.

His vision cleared and Shinji tried to cry out in horror. Misato lay sprawled on the kitchen floor, her neck slashed open. Deep red blood was splashed over the tile. Her lifeless eyes stared back at him.

He panicked. He looked wildly around the room, ignoring how his head swam. Something unnatural caught his distorted attention and he focused, waiting for his sight to coalesce. Three nooses swung in a row from the ceiling.

A pair of bare feet entered his vision. He recognized the sparkly red toenail polish.

"Asuka?" he slurred. He strained to look up. She was towering above him, wearing nothing but a flowing hospital gown.

"Yes, she's right here," Asuka said, showing off the monkey doll he won from the UFO catcher. "Say hi, Asuka." She held the doll over her mouth and spoke in a higher voice. "Hi, Shinji. Thank you for rescuing me." She lowered it from her face. "Oh, how sweet! I think she likes you, Shinji."

"I don't like stupid Shinji!" the doll voice squeaked.

"Now, now. Don't be rude. It's okay to like him. You don't have to lie about it and be mean to him so no one finds out. How ridiculous."

Asuka twirled on her heel, holding the doll by the hands. "Little Asuka is so happy to be free now. I knew I had to rescue her. Every day she kept calling to me for help. I thought I was the only one who could save her, since I was the only one who could hear her. But I was mistaken." She glanced over her shoulder. "It was terribly sweet of you to save her for me. I know Asuka truly appreciates it."

Shinji limply struggled against his ropes.

"D-Don't say that!" doll Asuka said. "I told you I don't like him or anything!"

"Shut your mouth!" Asuka screamed at the doll, bringing it a hair from her snarling mouth. She breathed raggedly for a moment then recovered. "Asuka appreciates it, because now her greatest, bestest wish can finally be granted. She gets to die with her mama! She couldn't die by herself, oh no," she explained. "That would be crazy." Her face twitched at the word, then recovered with a brilliant smile. "It would be too lonely. She needs company."

She hopped up on a chair and grabbed one of the free nooses. She strung it around the doll's neck. It hung in the air, smiling obliviously.

"Now just hold on, Asuka dear," she said, beaming at her handiwork. "Mama will be with you in a moment." She dropped to the floor, slipping a bit on the blood.

"Ms. Misato," Shinji whimpered. Tears trickled down his face.

"Yeah," Asuka said breezily, wiping her foot on a clean section of tile. "She came home early and found me with the rope, and you all tied up and knocked unconscious… Boy, what a sight that must have been!"

She hauled him up to his feet and nearly lost him. His legs felt like warm rubber. She guided him past the blood to the chair, one arm around his waist, the other holding his chest as she balanced his sluggish body against her side.

"I think I can see why she might like you," Asuka told him quietly, peeking down to find his eyes. "You are terribly cute. And you even smell good. Oh, I was so glad she was thinking about settling down with a nice boy like you."

Shinji watched numbly as Asuka dragged him to the chair, sat him down on it, then climbed up to pull him to his feet beside her.

"Oh, God," he whispered.

"You don't have to cry," she told him, tenderly wiping his cheeks dry with her palms. "This is a happy day!"

"Asuka, s-stop," he slurred.

"She can't hear you right now, remember?" She nodded to the hanging doll. "But you'll be able to talk to her soon." Asuka struggled to position him on the chair. "Whew! You're a bit heavier than you look."

She let him fall against her, reaching around him to find the second noose. She pulled it over his head and down to his neck gently, almost lovingly. A quick tug made it garrote-tight and she hopped off the chair. Shinji struggled on his tiptoes to keep from choking. Asuka tested her foot against the chair, judging how hard to kick.

"Pl-Please," he managed to cough out.

"Room for one more, Shinji."

She stared into his eyes and smiled as she took the chair from under him with a sweep of her foot.