Mari watched Shinji with a sympathetic expression on her face as he sat with his head hung next to her hospital bed. She said nothing as she watched him. Usually, she would be all mouth, but she could tell he needed some time to process all this. Her neck brace itched, but she ignored it. When he was ready to speak again, he would. She could tell that Shinji had been hurt by her revelation, and since she had come clean with Asuka, she figured she may as well set things to rights with Shinji as well.
Finally, he spoke.
"So how much of it was a lie?" he asked, stoically.
Mari smiled earnestly. "Not all that much, really. I do feel indebted to Miss Ayanami for saving my life. And I do feel as though you and her got the short end of the stick here. But neither of those things would be enough to make me go disobeying orders."
She offered a helpless shrug.
"As harsh as it sounds, Puppy-Boy, this is war," she said, expression resigned. "People get hurt. On both sides. We do what we need to do to keep moving."
Shinji shook his head, his expression still bitter.
"So, you were just…acting like you cared?"
"I do care, Shinji," she assured him, sympathetically. "But I care about my comrades too! I care about humanity, and ending this war. And if that means thumbing my nose at the Captain, taking the fall for the Doctor's imposition, or appeasing a boy who's been broken by that war and trying to make him into a better soldier…then is it really so wrong of me to bat my eyelashes and say a few kind words?"
Shinji exhaled, still not meeting her gaze. "It is if you don't really mean it."
Mari took a breath.
"I believe in what I'm fighting for, Puppy-Boy, that much you can be sure of," she said simply. "And from what I've seen, so do you. The Captain may not agree, but Dr. Akagi thinks that you're the key to putting an end to this war. And so do I. That's why I followed her lead. Our beliefs just happen to include you and Rei being treated with a little more dignity. That may not be our primary cause, but that doesn't mean it's not something we want for you."
Mari stuck out her tongue.
"And if I came off as a little too flirtatious, that's just how I am," she waved her knuckles in a cat-like gesture. "Nya!"
Shinji shook his head. "Trust me, I wasn't getting my hopes up."
Mari pursed her lips at that.
"You seem to have eyes for the Princess though," she looked at him inquisitively. "And you clearly care about Miss Ayanami."
Shinji just shrugged. There was really no point in denying it.
"So I'm wondering…" Mari mused, playfully. "This all supposedly started because you felt like you had to save someone. But if it came down to it, and you could only save one of them…who would you choose?"
Shinji was thinking now. He had stopped his agitated fidgeting, but he hadn't lifted his head yet.
"Probably Ayanami," he said weakly. "Asuka's strong enough to take care of herself. And she wouldn't forgive me for stepping in like that."
Mari appeared troubled by that.
"She's not as strong as she pretends to be, you know?"
Shinji shook his head.
"She would still never accept my help," he said simply. "She's too proud. And she doesn't trust me anymore. Not that I blame her."
Mari tisked lightly. "Oh, Puppy-Boy…you really don't know anything, do you?"
Shinji looked up at her, red-faced from dried tears. "I know that she doesn't believe in me anymore. No one on this ship does."
Mari shook her head, placing a hand on her chest. "The Doctor believes in you! I believe in you!"
"Maybe so…" Shinji allowed. "But only because you don't have a choice."
Mari pouted cutely. "Shinji…"
"Don't lie to me," he grumbled. "The only reason you went against the Captain's orders was because you knew that she didn't believe in me, right?"
Mari sighed. "Well, yeah…but more importantly, we knew that her beliefs might get you killed or captured again, or otherwise shatter your faith in us. We need you to believe in us as much as we believe in you, Puppy-Boy."
"Why?" Shinji shook his head, not understanding. "Why do you think I can do anything to help? You know what I've done! You know what I'm responsible for! I've failed the entire planet! No one on this ship even wants me here!"
"What people think about your past crimes doesn't change what you can do in the present," Mari shook her head. "We've seen just what you can do when you're pushed. We've seen what a force for humanity you can be. And like it or not, we believe that humanity needs you."
She crossed her arms.
"But we're just soldiers. What we believe doesn't matter. It's what the Captain believes that really matters. What she believe affects all of WILLE. And that's why we had to circumvent her will. She wouldn't see the truth on her own - she had to be shown."
"At least, that's what the Doctor thinks. Personally, I think the Captain is too set in her ways. Too much has happened these past fourteen years, and she's taken it far too hard to ever be swayed."
Shinji gritted his teeth. "I don't believe you…"
Mari's expression softened. "I'm sorry, Puppy-Boy. I really am. But as long as Captain Katsuragi is in charge, then you'll always be a prisoner here, in spirit if not in name."
Shinji shook his head. He didn't believe it. He couldn't believe that Misato would never, ever change her mind about him. Because if Misato, the woman who had taken him into her home, couldn't forgive him, then how could he expect anyone else to?
That was when Dr. Akagi's voice sounded over the base loudspeakers, echoing down the halls for all to hear.
"Attention all WILLE personnel…" her amplified voice gently resonated. "Attention all WILLE personnel…this is Vice Commander Ritsuko Akagi."
Shinji blinked in surprise. This was the first time he heard Ritsuko use her full title before.
"Effective immediately, Colonel Misato Katsuragi has resigned her command of WILLE. I repeat: Colonel Katsuragi…"
Time seemed to stop.
"What…?" Shinji breathed in disbelief, the droning of Ritsuko's voice fading into obscurity.
Misato? Resigned? That didn't make any sense! Why would she resign!? It was impossible! The Misato that he knew would never do that! She was stronger than that! She was too stubborn for that!
"…I would like a status update from each division by the end of the day," Ritsuko finished. "Thank you for your time."
Shinji was still reeling. No, this was all wrong! Misato wasn't supposed to resign! They needed her! It didn't matter that she had treated him unfairly, he still trusted her! And he didn't trust anyone else to do the job that she could!
Then a fearful thought overtook him.
Had this all happened because of him?
"Hmm…" Mari mused at the news. "Wasn't expecting that, but…well, this makes things real simple. Now all we have to do is get our Eva back up to operational readiness and…"
She trailed off as Shinji suddenly got to his feet, making for the door.
"Hey, where are you going?" she asked, completely thrown off.
"I'm going to talk to the Captain," Shinji said without stopping. "Something's not right."
Mari jumped out of bed, fumbling with the velcro ties to her neck brace, before yanking it off her shoulders and throwing it to the bed, following after him.
"Shinji, what are you doing?" she demanded in an exasperated tone. "This is exactly what we need! With the Captain stepping down, you'll be free to-"
"Free to what?" Shinji interrupted, stepping out the door, with Mari hot on his heels in her hospital gown. "Free to follow somebody else to my doom? I may not like the way everyone here treats me Makinami, but at least I know I can trust the person in charge."
He threw Mari a sour look.
"You, I'm not so sure about…"
Mari withered under the look. "I already said I was sorry!"
"Whatever," Shinji shook his head. "I got to go…"
"The Captain won't listen to anything you have to say, Puppy-Boy!" Mari protested.
Shinji didn't even slow down.
"You may have given up on the Captain," he muttered grimly. "She may have even given up on herself. Hell, she's long since given up on me…"
He turned his head to peer back at her over his shoulder.
"But I refuse to give up on her," he said resolutely. "I'm going."
Asuka stood over Dr. Akagi, who looked more haggard than ever as she sat in a swivel chair at her desk, scribbling some notes on a clipboard, a spent cigarette hanging from her lips. Her cheeks were gaunt, her face unmade, and her age was starting to show. A mound of cigarette butts spilled over the ashtray, the ceramic barely visible underneath. No less than a dozen different computer monitors fed out data at an accelerated rate all around her, the tables surrounding her lab littered with paper.
"I didn't want this, you know," Ritsuko muttered aloud.
Asuka crossed her arms.
"Could have fooled me," she glared disapprovingly. "This all played out a little too well for you."
Ritsuko paused what she was doing and looked up at the pilot in utter stupefaction.
"Asuka…" she said evenly. "Our JA platoons have been reduced by half, and the Wunder is short its minimum requirement of pilots by half as well."
She pointed her finger in the general direction of the coastline.
"We can't repel another attack like that," she said simply. "Which means that my top priority right now is getting Unit 08+02 up and running."
Asuka raised an incredulous eyebrow. "02+08? Really?"
"Never mind the God damned designation, Asuka!" Ritsuko blared, getting more flustered. "We are practically stitching this Eva together with shoestring at this point! Our capital ship has suddenly decided it has an appetite for S2 devices, Rei is metamorphosing like a chrysalis, and I can't be in three places at once! Maya's overseeing the disassembly of the captured Eva Series, my engineers are stumped over what to do about the Wunder, and I've got Second Lieutenant Suzuhara doing Rei's blood work for crying out loud! I don't think she even knows what her blood is!"
Ritsuko fixed Asuka with a bloodshot stare that was verging on panic.
"Do you honestly think I have time to run our entire operation on top of all this!?"
Asuka held her hands up. "Alright, alright, I get your point already! So you're not, like, spying for NERV or something?"
Ritsuko stared at her in disbelief. "No! If I wanted to sabotage WILLE, I could have easily managed it a dozen of times over by now! I'd be off, enjoying my impending doom with a stiff drink and a long nap! WILLE is barely holding together as it is! It will take a lot more effort to keep it together than it will to drive it apart! And with Misato resigning, that's just going to create more tension and decrease morale! I needed Misato at the head of all this, not crawling back into a bottle! This is an utter disaster!"
Asuka crossed her arms, still suspicious. "So you mean to tell me that you did all this just to convince the Captain that Shinji isn't the world's biggest idiot?"
"I don't care if he has an IQ of negative two, Asuka," Ritsuko muttered, refocusing her attention on her work. "We can use him. Matter of fact, we have to use him. Without him, our chances of success start banking on miracles! And by alienating him like we've been doing, we are shooting ourselves in the foot! But Misato can't see that! All she sees is the boy who caused Third Impact!"
"Now why would she get hung up on a thing like that?" Asuka grunted sarcastically. "Oh, maybe because he did cause Third Impact?"
"Yes, he did, Asuka!" Ritsuko said, her patience wearing thin. "Third Impact happened! It was terrible! A lot of people died! But it happened! It's in the past! And after fourteen years of this, we might actually be able to do something about it now! But onlyif we set aside our anger and work with the boy who happened to bring it about."
"And that doesn't strike you as completely asinine?" Asuka demanded. "The brat nearly brought about a Fourth Impact within a week of waking him up! Give him half a chance, and he'll do it again! Fool me twice, shame on me! He can't be trusted!"
"He only did so after NERV got their hands on him!" Ritsuko assured her. "Just because NERV excels at indoctrination doesn't mean we shouldn't try to sway him to our cause! With the right training, the right guidance, and a firm hand, he might be able to finally put an end to all this! Who else would want to put this behind them more than the one who inadvertently caused it in the first place? Who else but Shinji?"
"I still don't trust him," Asuka said adamantly.
"I'm not asking you to, Asuka," Ritsuko said. "I'm asking that you trust me. Are you so dead-set in your anger towards Shinji that you would be willing to lose our only chance at rebuilding this world out of hand, simply on a matter of principle?"
Asuka had to hesitate at that. Ritsuko made a valid point. If - and that was a very, very big if - Shinji could be controlled, then it made no sense not to use him if he was truly that valuable to the mission. She was skeptical about his actual value, but the Doctor had steered them true before, and if she thought he was truly that important, then who was Asuka to argue? It was the feasibility of this plan, however, that Asuka was hung up on.
Seeing her Captain as she'd been wasn't making her any more optimistic.
"What's so special about him, anyway?" Asuka demanded. "Why do we need him?"
"Because we need a dual entry system to get into Terminal Dogma," Ritsuko explained. "And he and Rei can synchronize like they were born for it."
For some reason, that thought raised the hackles on the back of Asuka's neck.
"What about me and Four-Eyes?" she demanded.
"Have you seen your sync scores with her?" Ritsuko demanded. "They're barely high enough to get the Eva past the activation border. You and Mari have been at each others' throats since this all started. You two need to bury the hatchet and soon if you ever plan to be useful in the future. Right now, Shinji and Rei represent our only chance at beating NERV."
Asuka threw up her arms in exasperation. "Fine, then! So talk to the Captain, see if you can get her to reconsider."
"I've been talking with her Asuka," Ritsuko said in frustration. "But she doesn't want to talk to me - I'm half the reason she resigned."
Asuka rolled her eyes. "Go figure. And who's the other half?"
Ritsuko looked past Asuka as a familiar figure hurried through her door.
"Doctor!" Shinji blurted, causing Asuka to turn towards him. "Where's the Captain? I need to talk to her!"
"She's…in her private quarters on the top floor," Ritsuko responded simply.
Shinji hung his head, out of breath. He looked like he had been all over the compound looking for her.
Asuka raised an eyebrow in Shinji's direction. "Shinji, do you honestly expect that she's going to want to talk to you of all people?"
"I have to talk to her, Asuka!" he said in a determined voice. "None of this feels right without the Captain leading us. She belongs at the head of WILLE. Without her, we've already lost."
Asuka bit her tongue. She did not want to admit it out loud, but on this point at least, she and Shinji were agreed.
"That might actually be just what she needs," Ritsuko nodded, approvingly. "She and Shinji have some unresolved issues to work out, and addressing them in private might help clear her head. Asuka, would you show him to the Captain's quarters?"
"Are you sure that's a good idea?" Asuka asked, honestly worried.
"Probably not," Ritusko admitted. "But we're not really swimming in options right now."
"Fine, but why do I have to take him?" Asuka complained, sounding like she just got stuck with doing the dishes.
"So I can actually get back to work?" Ritsuko raised an eyebrow.
Asuka took the hint and threw her arms up. "Alright, alright…"
Turning to the door, she waved for Shinji to follow her, her voice an impatient tone.
"Come on, let's go."
Asuka knocked tentatively on Misato's door.
"Colonel," she called out. "May I come in?"
There was a pause, before the door slid open, revealing a very tired looking Misato. She was still wearing her black tank top and pants, her hair was a mess, her eyes were bloodshot, and her breath smelled of whiskey from here. Her boots sitting by the door, a single lamp providing minimal illumination, casting the stateroom in a dim, evening glow.
"What do you need, Asuka?" she asked impatiently.
Asuka let out a sigh and gestured to her right, speaking in a tone that suggested she didn't even believe the words coming out of her own mouth.
"There's…someone you need to see…"
Shinji stepped into view, a nervous smile on his face as he inclined his head.
Misato's eyebrows knit as her eyes fell on the boy.
"Shinji…" she breathed in disgust, saying his name like a curse word.
She wrinkled her nose and turned away.
"You're the last person I want to see right now."
Misato slammed the palm of her hand into her door control panel. But before the door could slide shut however, Shinji stuck his hand out and caught the door before it could seal. A single red light along the door frame beeped in distress as the door's safety triggered, and it slid back open, letting Shinji hurry inside before Asuka could even think to stop him.
"Shinji!" she blared in surprise. She had honestly not expected such a ballsy move out of him.
"Wait, Captain!" he begged insistently as he followed the woman across the tatami mat. "Please, listen to me!"
Misato had already started walking back towards the sleeping area, and didn't bother turning to address him.
"No," she said simply, standing in front of the sliding bedroom door. "I don't want to hear it. Get out of my quarters. That's an order."
Asuka hurried inside after him, holding back her reproach purely for the sake of not further agitating her Captain.
"You heard her, Shinji…" she said, expectantly.
"Wait!" Shinji said firmly, standing his ground. "Captain, what's gotten into you!? How could you just give up like this!? This isn't like you!"
Asuka took him by the arm, not wanting to let him piss the Captain off any further.
"Shinji, come on!"
Still not bothering to turn and face him, Misato slid the door to her sleeping area open.
"Maybe you don't know me as well as you think you do, Shinji," she said dismissively, stepping into the other room. "Asuka, get him out of my sight!"
Asuka pulled his arm back towards the entrance.
"Shinji, you have been dismissed!" Asuka said definitively, as if that should have been enough to convince anyone to leave.
Shinji struggled against Asuka's grip, taking slow, determined steps back towards the now closed bedroom door.
"I don't care!" he shouted, trying to wrestle free of Asuka's grip. "I want the old Misato back!"
"God damn it, Shinji!" Asuka growled, grabbing him by both arms. "If I have to drag you out of here-!"
"Hold on!" Misato called out from behind the door, before sliding it open again, giving Shinji a cold, hard stare, and speaking in a threatening tone. "I didn't quite catch that, Shinji. Would you mind repeating yourself?"
Asuka let go of the boy, who pulled free of her grip and stood up straight again, facing Misato as she stepped out of her bedchamber to stand in front of him. The austerity of the Japanese stateroom around them made for a bizarre setting, the surrounding mantras on the wall foretelling of the battle on the verge of erupting between the two of them.
"You've done nothing but push me away since I got here, Captain," Shinji said, his face full of stubborn zeal. "But you also agreed to let me pilot again! Even after everything I did, you still chose to believe in me! The old Misato is still in there, Captain! I know she is!"
Asuka, for her part, wasn't exactly sure what he was getting at.
Misato, on the other hand, just glared.
"You piloting has nothing to do with my wishes, Shinji," she glared darkly. "That was a decision that was forced upon me. Don't mistake it for forgiveness."
Shinji looked fearfully at her. The animosity in her voice was unmistakeable. It was decorum and nothing else keeping her form lashing out at him right then.
Still, he knew if he didn't reach out to her now, he'd never get the opportunity to again.
"You could have had me killed at any time!" he said, swallowing hard as he stuck his neck, displaying his choker. "Back when Ayanami brought me to NERV. And after Asuka brought me back. You could have ended my life with the push of a button. But you haven't. Why?"
Misato gave him a look that suggested that any mercy she extended to him was on borrowed time.
"I'm only going to say this one more time, Shinji," she muttered, her eyes hidden behind her hair. "Do not make the mistake of expecting forgiveness. The Misato that you remember is long since dead. Buried in the ashes of Tokyo-3."
She took a step closer to him, fists clenched.
"You made sure of that fourteen years ago."
Shinji hung his head, looking like he was suddenly on the verge of tears.
"I don't know what you want me to say, Captain," he muttered, shaking his head sadly, his fists clenched. "Is there nothing I can do to convince you that I didn't want this? I'm still coming to terms with everything that's happened!"
He looked back at her, his gaze full of sorrow and hurt.
"I didn't want this hell any more than you did!" he cried. "I've lost my world too, Misato!"
Misato's eyes suddenly dilated as she inhaled sharply through her nostrils.
That had been the last straw.
The back of Misato's fist came up to strike Shinji on the side of the head with an audible impact, sending him tumbling clear across the room.
"Ugh!" he grunted, landing hard on the tatami.
"Don't you dare!" Misato yelled, furiously.
"Colonel!" Asuka shouted in alarm, taking a single step forward, but not knowing who to help.
"Don't you dare presume to have any notion of what I've been through!" Misato continued, standing over Shinji's prone, writhing form. "You don't have one fucking clue what it's been like for me! You haven't experienced a fraction of hell yet, Shinji!"
She reached down and grabbed him by the collar, lifting him partially off the ground to look him in the eye.
"You have no idea what loss is!" she raged at him.
Misato had the look of a madwoman, her breathing coming out in hard, ragged breaths, her whole face contorted into an enraged snarl. When Shinji had seen her for the first time after fourteen years, the difference in her demeanor had been striking. She had reminded him of a tiger, who wanted desperately to lunge after a tender piece of meat, and was only looking for the right moment to attack.
That moment had finally arrived.
As for Asuka, all she could do was stare in disbelief at what she was seeing. On the one hand, she agreed with everything Misato was saying. But on the other, if she didn't step in soon, she had a sinking feeling that Misato just might kill him. Had that been why the Doctor had sent her up with Shinji? To keep the violence from escalating to that point?
Then Shinji wiped the trickle of blood from the split in his lip that had reopened, and began to speak again in a tiny voice.
"Everyone…" he muttered slowly through clenched teeth, his eyes still closed, sounding somewhat dazed. "Everyone…I have ever known…has either died…or turned their back on me…"
His hands came up to form a tight grip around Misato's wrists as they held him, his eyes finally meeting hers.
"Even you!" he cried. "The one person who used to always have my back!"
Misato stood up, letting him fall back on his elbows, still staring up at her with that same, hurt expression.
"So don't tell me I don't know about loss, Misato!" he shouted, tears streaming down his face. "Because I've lost everything I've ever known! You know that perfectly well!"
Misato stared at him like he was some kind of demon, taking a step back, before turning away, teeth clenched.
"Do you honestly expect to retain my trust after what you did?" she muttered in a low voice. "God damn it…Shinji, just what do you expect me to do?"
She returned his gaze, her own pain showing through it.
"To tell you that everything will be alright now?" she asked, incredulously. "This isn't some fairy tale where everything can be fixed with an apology!"
Shinji slowly got to his feet, keeping his gaze on Misato as she broke down into tears.
"Do you even realize how hard it is not to HATE YOU!?" she screamed, reaching up to grab Shinji by the shoulders, leaning her face down to peer at him with tear-soaked eyes. "Do you have ANY IDEA WHAT YOU PUT ME THROUGH!?"
Asuka was watching all of this unfold in astonishment. She had never seen the Captain bear her soul to anyone like this. Not in a long time.
"Do you know how many times I've had to relive that nightmare!?" Misato demanded, still crying. "Can you even imagine what it's like to see your entire world coming down around you every time you so much as close your eyes!?"
Misato was gasping for breath now, her age and exhaustion suddenly apparent as she trembled, her body still shaking with unbridled emotion.
"How could you, Shinji?" Misato wept. "How could you do this to me? How could you put me through this nightmare and then come back after fourteen years and expect me to forgive you?"
Shinji was quivering in her arms, his breathing coming in small, trembling sobs.
"Before I met you, Misato…" he breathed. "I didn't have anything worth living for."
He looked up to stare at her with a look of sincerity on his face.
"Before I met you, I wouldn't have even cared if the world had ended," he cried, sadly, echoing Ritsuko's words without realizing it. "But then you took me in! You gave me a home! A family!"
Misato's arms fell to her sides, her gaze still fixated on his. Unbidden, images of a forgotten life spun through her head.
"After you did, only then was I even able to make a single friend in this world!" he shouted, desperately. "But it all started because of you, Misato! Don't you understand? You're the one who showed me that the world was worth fighting for!"
Misato slumped to one side as if she found it difficult to keep standing. She didn't want to remember him for who he was. The memories of their time together were just too painful!
"But if even you can't believe in this world anymore…" Shinji sniffed, his face completely soaked with tears. "Then how the hell am I supposed to!?"
Misato sank to her knees, supporting herself on the table, a blank expression on her face. Her head was spinning, and she didn't know why.
"I know an apology isn't going to cut it!" Shinji lowered his eyes, fists clenched. "I know I've made a mess of everything!"
He dropped to his hands and knees to meet Misato's absent gaze once more.
"But I'm trying to fix it, Misato!" he said, pleadingly. "I have to fix it! There's nothing else left for me to do!"
He reached forward to take her hand in his. He encountered no resistance.
"But I can't fix it without you, Misato!" he sobbed, peering up at her with hope in his eyes. "I can't trust myself to do the right thing anymore! Not without someone there to guide me! Don't you understand? I need you."
Misato slumped forward where she sat, a blank expression on her face, her breathing almost inaudible now. Shinji wasn't sure what he expected by pouring his heart out like that, but he hadn't expected a reaction like this. Confused by her appearance, he waited several moments more for a response, when Asuka suddenly came forward and knelt on one knee besides her.
"Captain…?" she placed a gentle hand on her shoulder.
Misato didn't respond.
"Captain?" Asuka said a little louder, shaking her gently, feeling absolutely no resistance in the woman's shoulders.
Shinji watched, perplexed as Asuka's pushed him aside to examine her, leaning in to peer into Misato's eyes, waving her hand in front of her face and eventually snapping her fingers, trying to get a response.
Finally she felt for a pulse.
Her one eye widened, and her hand went for her radio.
"This is Shikinami!" she blared, urgently. "I need a medical team up in the Captain's quarters, now!"
Only then did Shinji think to feel fear.
"Misato…?" he breathed, falling back into old habits as he crawled closer to her. "Misato!?"
Asuka did not even acknowledge the boy. She went to work, laying Misato onto her back, checking for other vital signs as best as she could. Shinji heard her muttering something into her radio about an abnormally low pulse, clammy skin and pupil dilation, as Shinji went over to kneel beside her, gazing fearfully down at her prone, unmoving body.
What had he done?
A/N: Final dialogue inspired by The Last of Us.Stay tuned.