Shinji sat down at his computer and checked his e-mail. He had a message from Touji indicating his friend was psyched about starting up school the following day, and another from Misato with a link to a strange video on a media site involving an anime character making strange noises. It was a shot sequence, looped for over an hour. He frowned in annoyance and deleted it.
His cell phone rang. When he answered his guardian greeted him. "Hiya Shinji," she said, her voice somewhat subdued.
"Why do you keep sending me junk e-mail?" he asked.
"Whaaat?" she complained. "I'll have you know that's some of the finest entertainment on the internet!"
"You have strange taste," he observed.
"Says the kid who plays Bach, eh?" He could hear the smirk in her voice.
"That's . . . that's different!" he protested.
"Heh." Her tone shifted. "Listen Shinji, I've got some bad news."
"What do you mean?" he asked.
"I just heard from Asuka's therapist, Dr. Kotetsu," she said. "He says she started a fight at the facility and checked herself out."
"A fight?" Shinji asked. "Why would she do that?"
"I'm not sure," she replied. "I don't have all the details, and Dr. Kotetsu is being pretty tight-lipped about it. But what's important is the fact that we don't know where she is, and that it sounds like she's very upset."
"Is she alright?" His voice had gone up an octave.
"I don't know, Shinji," she replied. "But if you see her I want you to let me know right away, okay?"
"Sure," he said.
"And be careful," she went on. "She hasn't exactly been communicative lately, so I have no idea what's going through her head right now. You haven't heard from her, have you?"
"Of course not," he spat bitterly. "I write her every week, and can count her replies on one hand."
"I know," she said, sympathetic. "Just remember, Asuka's not exactly shy. If she didn't want to hear from you she'd tell you to quit bothering her."
"That's what you always say," he muttered.
"Because it's true!" The cheer in her voice almost sounded genuine. "But anyway," she went on, "I gotta get to work on finding her. Let me know if you hear anything."
"I will." Shinji hung up, then got ready to face the day.
Asuka knocked on his door about a half hour after Misato's call. Shinji answered, and found her dressed in proffessional attire: a blouse, skirt, and jacket. She had circles under her eyes and seemed somewhat harried, but nonetheless gave him a weak smile when she saw him. "Hey, stupid Shinji," she said. "Mind if I come in?"
Shinji just stared, eyes wide. "Uh, s-sure, Asuka. Please come in."
"Thanks," she said.
Shinji pulled out his phone. "I need to call Misato," he said. "She's looking for you." He started to dial, but she lay her hand over his to stop him.
"Don't," she asked. "This is our business, not hers."
Shinji looked at her, confused. Her tone was very strange. "O-okay, I guess."
She smiled at him. "Let's sit down somewhere."
"S-sure." Shinji led them to his living room, where they sat near the wall.
"What's this about, Asuka? Misato said something about a fight. And why did you leave the hospital? Wasn't it your idea to go there?"
Her face darkened, but she closed her eyes and calmed herself. "That doesn't matter. Don't worry about it."
He nodded. "Well then . . . what did you want to talk about?"
She leaned against the wall, thinking. "There were a lot of things you did before Third Impact that pissed me off. And some of them were really, really bad. You know what I'm talking about." She gave him a pointed stare, and he squirmed. "I hated you for what you did to me then, and I never forgave you for it. And I don't think I ever will."
She was silent for a bit, and her brow furrowed, as though she was trying to remember what came next.
"But after Third Impact, when we were alone, things changed." She rubbed the scar on her wrist absently. "You were paying attention then, and you were trying to help me, and you didn't give up. Even if it was just because of guilt or whatever, you still helped me out. And that was a good thing. Do you get that? It's important that you understand that."
He nodded. "Okay, I guess."
She leaned forward, her expression severe. "No, not 'I guess'. Do you get it or not?"
He held his hands up defensively. "I get it. It . . . it was a good thing."
She backed off. "That's right. And I'm grateful for that." She sounded very tired.
"Okay." Shinji shifted uncomfortably.
"Also, Nagisa was right. You're a good person, and you deserve to live a happy life. What happened after, with Third Impact -- that was Nerv. It was all about them and their shitty goals, all of it. None of it was your fault. I really, really want you to understand that."
Shinji was reeling now. "Asuka, this is . . . this isn't like you. What's going on? Why are you saying all of this?"
"Don't worry about it. I just wanted to make sure you understood all of that." She stood up. "Look, I gotta get going." She headed for the door. Halfway there, she turned around. "Oh, one more thing: I don't hate you anymore. I just . . . I didn't understand you, and didn't know how to deal with you." She gave him another weak smile. "Maybe in another life, one without Nerv, we could have been friends. Imagine that, huh?"
"Asuka, I don't --" he began.
"It's fine, Shinji. Take care of yourself, okay?" She headed for the door.
Shinji followed after her, starting to panic. "Asuka," he said.
She turned, irritated. "What?"
He licked his lips, mind racing. What should he say? "I really wish we could have been friends. More than anything."
She stared at him. For a moment her lip quivered, before her composure broke completely. She closed her eyes, then opened them and sucked in a deep, centering breath. "Sorry, Shin," she said. Her voice was barely above a whisper. "It's not getting any better. Night after night after night, the same thing. I can't take it anymore. I just can't."
Shinji was frantic now. "We should talk to Misato. I'm sure she'll be able to help --"
She gave him a small smile, shook her head, then coughed. "Can I get a glass of orange juice?" she asked. "I'm really thirsty for some reason."
"Huh? Sure." He headed into the kitchen, desperately trying to think of something he could say to stop her. He was reaching for the orange juice when he realized his mistake. He headed back toward the front door . . .
. . . but of course she was long gone.
"Do we have any GPS information on her?" Misato asked.
"No ma'am," Hyuga replied. "She shut her phone off before she left and we found the secondary tracker in a garbage bin outside the train station."
"God damn it. That girl is far too clever for her own good." Misato sighed, rubbing her forehead wearily. "Alright, finding her is top priority. Get all available personnel involved in the search. She's a red-headed American in Japan, she can't be that hard to find."
Misato's phone rang. When she answered she heard a frantic voice on the other end. "Whoa, Shinji, slow down! I can't make out what you're saying!" She listended for a bit. "What? Why didn't you call me?" She frowned. "No, that's not your fault. She can be very persuasive like that." She sighed. "Don't worry, Shinji. We'll find her. Just sit tight and leave it to us, okay? Yes, I'm sure she's fine. We'll do our best, I promise." She nodded. "Okay, bye."
She hung up. "Shit."
She was trying to calm a frantic Shinji when she got the call. "Shinji, I promise we'll find her, alright? Calm down!"
"But she was acting really strange, Misato! She was telling me I was a good person, and that Third Impact wasn't my fault, and that she was grateful for what I did for her . . . she was being nice, Misato! It just isn't like her."
Misato smirked. "All of those things are true, you know."
He frowned at her. "That's not the point."
"I know, I know. Trust me, Shinji, I have all of my people working on it. We'll find her."
That's when her phone rang. She picked up, talked for a few seconds, hung up. She flashed Shinji a weak smile. "She turned on her phone, Shinji. We've got her."
Asuka's cell phone signal led Misato to a dumpy hotel in a bad part of town. It didn't take long to find the girl's room. She knocked on the door, once, twice, three times. No answer. She tried the handle and it opened. Asuka was there, naked, sitting with her back to the wall, her head resting on folded arms. Misato entered, clearing the room and the adjoining bathroom. There was a razor blade on the desk by the door, which she pocketed immediately, and she found the girl's clothes in the latter room, neatly folded.
She knelt by the naked girl before her. "Asuka?" she asked.
Asuka raised her head. Her eyes were dull and listless, full of pain and misery. She met Misato's gaze, but didn't say anything.
"Are you alright?" she asked.
Asuka shook her head slowly, then leaned back against the wall. She closed her eyes again.
Misato looked in the closet for a blanket and wrapped it around the girl. "I'm going to take you out of here, alright? We'll go to my place for now. We can sort everything out in the morning."
Asuka nodded and stood. As she did, Misato caught sight of bruises on the girl's breast and thigh, as well as one knee. She opened her mouth to ask about them, then thought better of it. Asuka headed into the bathroom to change. When she was finished Misato wrapped an arm around the girl's shoulders and walked her back to her car. They didn't speak on the ride back to the apartment complex.
When they knocked on his door Shinji opened it almost immediately. "Asuka!" he said, panic and relief evident in his voice. She didn't reply. He frowned, thinking. "Are you hungry? It's pretty late, but I can make some soup or something really quick if you like."
"That's a good idea, Shinji," Misato said. She turned to Asuka. "When did you last eat anything, anyway?"
Asuka thought for a moment, then said, "I don't remember. A couple of days ago, I think."
Shinji and Misato shared a look, then quickly ushered Asuka into the kitchen. Shinji began making some udon noodles and threw a mix of leftover chicken, rice, and onions into the microwave to heat. Misato and Asuka sat at the table, the latter laying her head on her arms.
"This will be ready in a few minutes, Asuka," Shinji said. "Then you can head over to Misato's place and --"
"I'm staying here tonight," the girl said, interrupting him.
Misato gave Shinji a look. "Um, Asuka, I'm not sure that's such a hot idea."
"I don't care," she said flatly.
"Well . . . " She looked at Shinji. "Is that alright with you?"
He nodded. "Sure."
"Don't worry," Asuka spat. "I won't break your precious Shinji or anything."
"That's not my concern, Asuka," Misato said, taken aback.
"Well, if that's the way you feel," Misato replied, her tone subdued. "I guess I'll head home, then. Take good care of her, Shinji."
"I will," the boy said.
Misato cast one more look at the girl in front of her, then took her leave.
Once she'd left Shinji said "That wasn't very nice, Asuka."
Asuka shrugged wearily. "I don't care."
"You should care. She was really worried about you."
She sat up, rubbing her face with her hands. "Yeah, right. She only cares about the fact that I caused her a bunch of trouble."
He frowned. "That's really not true, Asuka."
He didn't press the point, instead opting to finish making the meal in silence. He scooped the noodles onto a plate and added the chicken mix when it was finished heating, then placed the dish in front of Asuka. "Thanks for the food," she said. She took a bite, realized she was terribly hungry, and started eating ravenously. "This is good," she said.
He gave her a weak smile. "Thanks."
She didn't say anything more, opting instead to focus on the meal in front of her.
"Asuka, are you awake?" They were in Shinji's room, her in his futon and him on a tatami mat.
She nodded. "Yeah."
"Can I ask you something?"
She made an irritated noise. "I told you I didn't want to talk about it."
"Not that. Something else."
"What is it?" she asked. She sounded irritated.
"Why did you go to Kyoto?" She didn't respond. "Sorry, I guess I shouldn't have--"
"To get away from you," she said.
"Huh?" he asked, startled.
"I went to get away from you," she repeated.
"Oh," he said, hurt. "I see."
"No, you don't see. I didn't go because I hated you, I just . . . " she sighed.
"it's okay," he said, "you don't have to explain."
"Shut up for a minute. Look, after Third Impact . . . you reminded me of everything terrible that happened to me. None of it was your fault, but I still remembered it every time I looked at you. And I hated that. And then I started taking it out on you, becoming a completely irrational bitch about it, and I hated that too. I hated the person I was becoming, and I wanted it to stop. So I left."
"Did it help?" he asked.
She frowned. "It seemed to, at first. But I was all alone. The doctors didn't understand anything, and the patients were even worse. I couldn't relate to any of them. And that gave me time to think about it, and it just got worse and worse and worse."
"But then why come back?" he asked. "I mean, if I was the reason you left--"
"I wasn't gonna be here for long, Shinji," she said wryly.
"I know that," he said. "It's just that . . . I mean, I don't know what to do. I want to help you, but if I'm just going to upset you and cause problems --"
"You think too much," she said with a smirk.
He blinked. "What? I thought I was stupid."
"You are stupid," she said sagely. "You're stupid and you think too much."
"That doesn't make any sense," he protested.
She laughed. "See? What did I just say?"
He groaned, and she laughed again.
"Did you really mean it when you said you wanted to be my friend?" she asked.
He nodded. "Of course."
"That'd be nice. We should give that a try sometime." She yawned sleepily.
He nodded. "Sure."
"Maybe someday . . . " she said, and drifted off to sleep.
Next: Shinji and Touji, Asuka and Hikari, and playing the cello. Not sure which it will be; one, two, or all, who knows? Also: Asuka's career plans, and the aftermath of that night in the very first segment. But those are a ways off.